Brood Parasites

Chapter One

 

An anatomy of Dunholm.

From above the city bubbles from the water in uneven islets. Not a single pace of land is unused. Even its slab-sided shorelines grow many-storeyed buildings like fungus clinging to a fallen log, sprouting at the necessary inclines before angling to the vertical, growing upwards over the water and buildings lower on the slope. The islands reach to one another, fingering out across the channels with wharfs and gangling piers, leapfrogging the spans on striding bridges of wrought iron.

Where land was not artificially made the channels are clogged with boats. Tiny things, puttering with their hand-fed engines giving way to the immense whalers, tugging in fresh off the Eastern, fog horns blaring their supremacy.

There is no apparent rhyme nor reason to its make up; there is water and there is the land – one feeds the other. Dunholm is a city of docks, down by the water and up in the air. The Tower pins Dunholm through its centre, extending industry skywards, with ships made lighter than air riding the continental trade winds probing for a berth along its length.

From the air-ships’ vantage one islet would look much like another. Some with smaller buildings. Some cleaner, but by no measure worth noting.

That night fog clung to the earth. If one of the air-ship captains were inclined to look down it would appear as if the water had risen, swallowing half the land until only the taller islands poked through, floating on a silvery cloud too clean to be the vast Evenflow Channel which cut the city in two.

The fog was high enough it almost hid one particular islet completely. Squatter than most, dirtier than some, this island crowded with the sort of spacious buildings which waited for the ocean-going vessels arriving from the colonies and the wide, open wharfs they demanded.

Jonathon Wrathchild waited on that island, long after the last worker had finished. He stood in the lea of one of the massive warehouses and tried very hard not to think of food.

He had not filled his stomach since that morning, and the fog made him think of one thing.

Pea soup.

His gut rumbled.

“Can’t you keep quiet? You’ll bring the fucking Watch down on us,” said Clark in a half hiss. Wrathchild said nothing. Clark wasn’t worried about anyone hearing them. He was just worried.

The Batavian should have been there three hours before. Late enough to take advantage of the darkness, early enough to lose themselves in the bustle of Dunholm’s streets. And while they still had darkness, the streets had long since begun to empty. A draught cart among a dozen is nothing special. A lone draught cart sweating its way up the steep inclines from the waterfronts at midnight attracts notice.

“Where the fuck is he?” said Clark. The little man stood further forward than Wrathchild, out of the warehouse’s shadow and towards the dock, as if he could coax the continental smuggler into arriving. He paced side to side and huffed steam from the bare patch of skin between his hat and collar.

Wrathchild leaned against the wall and relaxed. His office was a public house in Dunholm’s western islands. He took his meetings at a cubicle at its back. That was where the chain of events began that would lead him to that dock; a request for help, as sometimes it was, from a man of standing within His Majesty’s government. And as was the custom of such men, the request came from the gentleman’s footman not the gentlemen himself. These were stressful times for everyone, and a knight of the Kingdoms could do without having to answer embarrassing questions.

When an only son is lost it is a tragedy for the family. But when the family is one of standing and could be further harmed by the information of where and how the son chose to lose himself, the gentlemen was loath to take his predicament to the magistrate or the watch and make the case public record.

People in such circumstances often came to his door, camouflaged by tobacco smoke and noise at the back of the sitting room within the Grapes of Bacchus, and the name Jonathon Wrathchild now carried the weight of expectation; someone who went where the authorities would not and returned with what they could not.

This particular occurrence was an instance that did not stretch him, only taking the few days due to waiting on darkness before speaking to people who avoided the usual working hours. People who led him to Charlie Clark and his fledgling smuggling enterprise, who in turn would unwittingly lead him to his quarry on that dank evening on Dog’s Bend Island.

Only the gentleman’s son and his new employer were late, something Wrathchild’s information on the Batavian suggested was against character.

And unless Clark was full of shit, what was being bought tonight was more than the bolts of silk or casks of brandy usually trying to avoid the King’s levy. It wouldn’t surprise Wrathchild if the smuggler and the young lord had come to a terminal end at the hands of one of Dunholm’s gangs.

He sincerely hoped that was not the case. He had rent to pay, and more debts than someone really should.

There was a splash out in the darkness, lost among the fog, coming downstream of the Southborne. The river’s potent flow bit into the waters linking the city into two seas, cutting salt water with fresh and forcing currents to compete against each other until only experienced pilots could navigate with any confidence between the innumerable docks. If you heard an oar on a night like this, it was there only because it had to be.

The sound was distorted by the thick fog and could have come from any type of vessel with any type of men. But Clark jumped.

“Ho!” he called. The cry flattened in the damp air before it could travel, but from out on the river someone replied with, “Hallo!”

The answer was accompanied by the rhythmic splashing of oars. Clark almost ran over the pier, his previous caution forgotten. As he reached the pier’s end a rope sailed out from the fog bank. Clark made a grab for it, missed, and had to pick it up from his feet, fumbling it over the mooring post. Wrathchild could not help but notice how the self-proclaimed smuggler in fine items bungled a simple lighterman’s hitch.

Behind Clark the mist darkened, by degrees coalescing into the shape of a man standing ably atop the forecastle of a three-oared rowboat, holding the rope’s other end and guiding the sloop silently alongside the dock.

“You’re late,” said Clark before the boat stopped. “You’re lucky we haven’t been seen.”

The man with the rope dropped it and stepped lightly only the dock. “Luck is a man’s creation.” He looked down at Clark. “Often.” He spoke Mearcish in the way most Batavians Wrathchild had met; precise with a light brogue. With one hand casually on his hip he surveyed the dock, looking over the top of Clark’s hat before his eyes landed on Wrathchild, still leaning against the wall. “You did not say you would have company.” His tone was light but his eyes remained on Wrathchild.

“It’s an important shipment. And you didn’t say you’d have help, either.”

The boat had spun its length against the jetty and from its stern stepped a youth. Thin stubble patched his chin and expensive clothes, gone to ruin through unexpected hard work, hung limply from his frame. William Chester Blake, son of Sir Edmund Chester Blake, and Wrathchild’s purpose that night.

The boy leant on a post as he moored the boat, uncertain on his feet after spending time on the water, but Wrathchild had only a moment to inspect his prey before his attention was drawn to a third figure still on the boat, sitting at the mid oar column. Only his bald head and rounded shoulders were visible above the jetty’s lip. The figure rose, and despite standing in the bilges of the craft, stood a full shoulder taller than the Batavian. Stepping over the gunwale the man likewise scanned his surroundings, eyes also landing on Wrathchild, but instead of a questioning look he fixed on him a malignant glare and flexed his huge hands.

“It is a dark night. And as you observed, this is an important shipment,” said the Batavian, dismissing Wrathchild and turning his attention to Clark. “Now, I assume you have the payment?”

“Of course I’ve got it.” He looked over his shoulder at the yard’s entrance, and back to the smuggler. “Come on, let’s see them.”

“Very well,” said the Batavian, waving a lazy hand. The giant nodded in silence, but kept his gaze on Wrathchild a moment more before turning to the boat. Squatting on his haunches he gripped a crate two feet at either side by four tall, and straightened up. As the crate left the boat its waterline rose several inches.

Wrathchild played his role and walked to the back of the cart and unhooked the tailgate, making a show of preparing for loading while the big man put the crate down beside the Batavian.

Clark made a move forward and the Batavian checked him by laying a hand on the crate’s top. “Ah, ah my good man. First my remuneration if you would be so kind.”

Clark muttered an indefinable curse under his breath but undid the top buttons on his overcoat, pulled out a purse and dropped it on the crate.

The Batavian opened the purse using thumbs and forefingers to delicately pull apart the drawstring, careful to limit contact between his skin and the cloth, but did not hesitate when open to reach inside and pull out a half-crown piece. The metal reflected what light reached them from the gas lamps around the yard, sending muted yellow specks to dance across the Batavian’s face as he turned it slowly.

Satisfied with the look of the coin the Batavian placed it between his teeth and bit down before dropping it back into the purse. “Very good, mister Clark. However I am afraid to inform you that my supplier has decided the value of his goods is far beyond that which you previously agreed. I have, much to my own detriment, managed to convince him that our professional history should allow you a considerable discount. He will allow you to purchase them for double the original price.”

Clark was taken by surprise by the double cross Wrathchild had fully expected. “Double?” he nearly choked the word. “You can take a step off this pier if you think I’ll fucking pay that.” He snatched the purse back.

The Batavian sighed as if nothing in the world could bore him more, and waved his hand again. The big man pulled a crowbar from his belt and stepped forward. Clark backed up holding the pouch to his chest in both hands.

But the crowbar wasn’t meant for him. The big man thrust it beneath the crate’s lid and pulled. Nails creaked weakly in protest, and dropping the bar he opened the crate towards Clark.

The contents were below the crate’s lip and denied from Wrathchild’s view, but the glow emanating from within infused the mist-heavy air with a glow which swung from dark green to burnished gold.

Clark gave an inward gasp and reached out. As he neared the light changed, and instead of undulating settled on burned orange and the pulsation grew in intensity, the brightening bringing forth a feint hum.

The Batavian grabbed Clark’s hand just before his fingers reached the box and shook his head. “I would not do that if I were you. Not unless you have the skill to control them.”

Clark looked from the Batavian back down into the crate and after a pause he nodded and pulled back his hand. The big man lowered the lid, pressing down and forcing the nails back into place without the need of a hammer. The Batavian simply said, “So?”

“Sodding crook,” said Clark. But he dropped the purse back onto the crate, reached inside his coat and pulled out another. The Batavian smiled a quick, friendly smile, taking the purse from Clark’s unresisting hand and picking up the first. “You made a wise choice, mister Clark.”

Wrathchild made his decision then. He’d been waiting for an opportunity for the Blake boy to give any hint he was there under duress, and an opportunity to snatch and carry the boy away as rescuer with a grateful subject. But there was no such sign. The boy was there by choice, and the deal was quickly reaching its conclusion. Once the goods were loaded the smuggler and the boy would make a swift escape along the Southborne and out onto any of dozens of channels hidden by the fog and night.

He waited until the large man picked up the crate and held it to the open wagon. He stepped passed Clark and the Batavian to stand before the boy. “Master William Blake?”

The Batavian turned in mild interest and the big man stopped in the process of loading. The confrontation had taken the boy off guard and he took an involuntary step back, but nodded his head. “I’m here on behalf of Sir Edmund Blake. I’m taking you home, lad.”

The Batavian turned back to Clark, “What is this? You seek to take advantage of my trusting nature, perhaps?”

Clark was also taken aback. His agitation showed as he hopped from one foot to another. “Albert, what are you talking about?”

Wrathchild ignored the pseudonym. “You people can keep your shipment and your money. I’m here for the boy, nothing else.” He kept his eyes on Blake who did not know whether to run or stay.

The Batavian sighed. “I think not, mister Albert. I have come to enjoy master Blake’s company and he still has a debt to work off to me, and unfortunately you have seen my face. Hugo,” he gestured to the large man and stepped aside.

A man less experienced in violence would have shouted and charge. The big man just dropped the crate and turned in Wrathchild’s direction. The crate hit the cobblestones corner first, briefly bending its shape as gravity forced the wood against itself before splitting at the joints. At the first crack an visible wave of energy pulsed in all directions, a tide of force made visible as the air bent at its leading edge. It met Clark and the smuggler was thrown from his feet to land heavily on his behind. It reached the wagon, which skidded on the damp cobbles. And it met Hugo, who just strode on, oblivious to the force which flowed over

Wrathchild ignored the mini nova and it spent its strength before it reached him. Instead his attention was firmly on the advancing form of Hugo. The man was huge, easily over halfway between six and seven foot, and the way he ignored the energy which forced a several hundred pound wagon to grind against its axle suggested a weight which owed more to muscle than fat.

Wrathchild interposed himself between Blake and Hugo. He didn’t think the boy would try to help him fight but it would not do to risk his pay day. “I don’t have a quarrel with you, friend. Let me by and I won’t hurt you.”

If Hugo understood or even heard he gave no indication. He passed a hand-cart and reached out, gripping and twisting the long yoke in one motion. The wood splintered without resistance and he suddenly had a four foot club.

The inches-thick pole broke too easily for simple muscle and sinew, and Wrathchild recognised something more than was visible was at work in the big man, but he had come prepared.

“Hugo, this is your last warning,” he said.

Hugo did not stop and when he was four feet away he planted one foot forward and raised the club high above Wrathchild’s head.

“I warned you,” said Wrathchild to himself. He stepped forward placing himself in Hugo’s swinging arc, and the large man widened his eyes in surprise. Before Hugo could take advantage Wrathchild raised both hands. He pushed his right onto Hugo’s chest, pressing against the thin fabric of the man’s shirt, expelling the musk of sweat and sea salt from the short sleeves. The second brushed the handle of the knife strapped to his ribs, but kept going to his own chest. Through his shirt he felt for the carved bone charm, found the outline, and gripped.

The circuit complete.

He closed his eyes and concentrated. This was the part he didn’t like. With reluctance, Wrathchild said the word he had been taught and the breath was sucked from his mouth.

Incandescence flared underneath his right hand, and a tiny ball of light sparked into life. Its growth pushed against Hugo’s chest and its rapid expansion forced the large man back, throwing him vertically and crushing his rib cage with the sudden force. Wrathchild’s feet remained motionless on the cobbles. The abrupt expanse of matter threw out a wave of sound as the air made way for the space it had been violently expelled from, but apart from the of passing wind there was no noise until Hugo’s limp body landed on the stones seven feet away.

Wrathchild opened his eyes and looked behind, and gave a silent prayer of thanks to see the boy was rooted to the spot, breathing hard at the unexpected violence and staring at Hugo’s still body. Using faith drained Wrathchild in a way only hard sleep could replenish and he did not relish the idea of chasing the younger man through Dunholm’s nighttime streets.

He turned back to the final two potential hurdles to their escape.

Clark was still on the floor. He had scrambled to the crate and was hugging it as a child may hold a large toy, using the wood as cover for any further violence.

But the Batavian was nowhere to be seen. The mooring ropes hung limp against their posts, severed cleanly. The boat was gone.

No matter. He had what he came for. May God help Clark if the gangs find out whatever it was that was worth that much money.

He turned to Blake. “Come on.”

Blake, still staring at Hugo, blinked at his name and looked at Wrathchild. When he spoke he managed some measure of defiance. “I am not going back to my father.”

Wrathchild did not have the energy to even raise a sigh. “Don’t make me say it again.”

The boy held his composure for a moment longer before his shoulders slumped. He stepped slowly towards the yard gate and Wrathchild fell in behind.

They passed Clark. The smuggler edged around the crate in small, terrified movements, trying to keep the wooden box between him and Wrathchild. The fear in the man’s eyes evoked a small sense of pity. What Clark had done was illegal, a certain hanging if the watch caught him, but Wrathchild recognised a timid man trying to better himself in an unjust world. An attempt he just ruined.

“I’d find a buyer for whatever those are, and quick if I were you. The gangs don’t like it when someone steps in on their business,” he said.

Clarke just stared at Wrathchild as if seeing him for the first time, his small eyes followed the pair as they walked through the dark dock yard.

When they were nearly at the gate Blake stopped. Wrathchild tensed, ready to chase, but the young man didn’t run. Instead he turned and tried to walk back.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Do you know how much those would sell for?”

“No,” said Wrathchild. He couldn’t summon the energy to ask what ‘those’ were.

“I do.” He tried to push on, and Wrathchild stopped him with a hand to his chest.

Blake looked up to Wrathchild’s face. Perhaps he sought some pity there. Whatever he did find made him think twice, and he turned back.

“They could make someone like you rich,” he said with some petulance.

Someone like you, Wrathchild thought.

“I’ve got too much to live for,” he said, and gave Blake a shove toward the gate.

Chapter Two

The clock’s tick filled the room. It had been insubstantial when they arrived, but now expanded to fit the silence between the two men facing each other across the table.

Benjamin Sandon watched Captain Partridge. The look was returned, and the guardsman drummed his fingers on the teak tabletop without shifting his eyes. Sandon recognised the gesture for what it was and resisted the urge to look down at the man’s hand.

It was a unfamiliar sensation for Sandon, a man lucky enough to have found at least one redeeming feature in every person he met, that within a minute of meeting the Captain of the Royal Guard he knew he had made the acquaintance of someone whom he would enjoy loathing. He assumed Partridge shared the feeling, and this staring match was nothing more than a chance to gain a small victory.

The clock ticked on.

Sandon became aware of another sound. Sleet spattered the windows with sharp insistence. He told himself he knew what he would see outside; the same weather he walked through from the carriage into the parliament’s Clockhouse building, the dull roof scape of Dunholm, edges highlighted with rain, and an expanse of slate-grey cloud spreading out in every direction as if God himself was pressing down on the Kingdom.

The clock tocked.

He felt a blink creep from behind his eyes and suppressed the urge.

The clock ticked. The fingers drummed. The sleet hit the windows. The clock. The sleet. The fingers. Partridge’s eyes. The clock, the lock…

The lock sounded and the door handle twisted. Before he could stop himself his eyes shifted to the door, moving back too late but in time to see the quick smile on Partridge’s lips.

The Guard Captain stood, Sandon a beat after, and turned to the door.

Lord Downing walked in, his red face and heavy breath perfectly in tune with his short, round stature. He sweated from beneath a powdered wig thirty years out of fashion but seemed too distracted to notice. Behind him followed a pale young man carrying a stack of folders half the length of his torso and bound in red tape. Behind came a slab of a man, perhaps as old as Lord Downing but one who had not allowed age to interfere with a body which filled his military brocade jacket to every corner.

The last man immediately noted the two men already in the room, saving most of his attention of Partridge, but Lord Downing made it to the head of the long table, dropping the single file he carried before he noticed Sandon and Partridge.

“Ah, gentlemen, good.” He opened the file and began flicking through the pages. “Only two of you, still?” he said without looking up.

“I did not know there would be anyone else, your Lordship,” said Sandon.

“Yes, yes, apologies and so forth,” said Downing with a wave. “All this is happening much too quickly for my taste. But still, yes, introductions.” He looked at the man who came in with him and with a tilt of his eyebrows indicated Sandon and Partridge, “General, meet Mister Benjamin Sandon and perhaps you already know Captain Partridge. Benjamin, Captain, this is Field General Salter, Commander of His Majesty’s earth-bound armies.”

“We’ve met,” said General Salter to the room but not looking from Partridge. Only Downing seemed oblivious to the animosity.

Sandon let the moment drag until it became clear he would not be addressed, then held out his hand. “An honour, General.”

Salter turned to Sandon and took his hand after flicking a look back at Partridge. “An honour returned, mister Sandon.” The handshake rattled Sandon’s elbow.

“If it is not too bold of me, General, I am humbled to be in the presence of such a hero of the King. I grew up reading of your victories in the newsheets, and never thought one day I would be in the presence of such a person as yourself. Surely there are few men who had done as you have in the name of so many.”

“Well perhaps if I were you mister Sandon I would hold onto that thought until my colleague arrives” There was a look in the man’s eye and a slight raise to the edges of his moustache. Sandon wondered at what he could mean when the door opened again. In walked a man whose likeness was known to every man, woman and child in the Kingdom, especially among young boys whose thoughts of war and adventure intermingled until they were interchangeable.

Admiral Iain Kulpatrick, Sea Lord to the Kingdom of the Isles and Lord Protector of the King and his family, was insultingly normal to look upon in person, but the room shrank before him and his reputation as if making way for history.

He took in the room, offering short nods to Salter and Partridge, and also to Sandon who felt his throat go dry. The Admiral wore a plain uniform, black instead of the usual Navy yellow and wore no medals nor sign of rank.

He reached an empty chair before Lord Downing realised he had even arrived. “Admiral, welcome. Thank you for making the time, I appreciate how busy you are.”

“How busy we all are, Lord Downing,” Kulpatrick said in a gentle voice.

“Absolutely. Well, with that in mind perhaps we should begin. Jeremy, give us the room, please.”

The young man placed the pile of folders on the table and left without a word while Downing waved everyone to sit. “I’ll be as brief as possible, gentlemen. This could not have come at a worse time, not at a worse time at all. I am as unprepared for this role as you are for having someone new in it. Wherever Lord Godalming has gone I hope he is safe, obviously, but it has left the Ministry of the Interior in utter chaos.”

“Netal, probably,” said Partridge, pushing himself comfortably into his seat. “That’s where his mistress was from.”

“An honourable man does not leave his duty for a mistress,” said Salter. He did not turn to Partridge as he spoke. Partridge shrugged as if it were no matter.

“Either way,” said Downing, wedging his words between the two men, “I need to fully understand our situation. Especially now. So, please, as if I were a layman from the street, tell me everything. “He pulled a long rolled cloth from beneath the ribbon holding the stack of files together and unrolled it across the table until a map of Europa lay between them all. It was designed with politics rather than geography in mind, and an effort had been made when it was drawn to use the colours of each nation to shade in the areas of their rule without having to search between every town name and river valley. A hopeful thought on the part of the cartographer. Since then the borders between countries had been scrubbed and shaded in an effort to keep up with the

constant movement of national boundaries. Dates had been scrawled in ink and then crossed out as territory was gained and lost until the separations looked like mountainous areas across the map, raising from the fabric and giving a third dimension to the image.

And then there was the contentious issue of the colour of the country crouched in the map’s centre. It seemed as if the rich blue had been scrubbed pale to represent the loss of its royal house. Or perhaps it had just faded, and it was only that the map had outlived one of the ancient families of Europa.

Or another of them, Sandon thought. He looked over other, smaller territories radiating outward from the faded blue. If it were truly representative they would also had their royal colours erased and replaced with the same powder blue of their new neighbour. Perhaps the clerks did not think to do that. Or perhaps they could not keep up with the armies marching across old frontiers.

Kulpatrick leaned forward and with an index finger began tracing over the map. “We know of three separate Gallian armies marching northwest and west. We initially hoped they would have stopped at Batavia to take the natural harbours there, but that was back when credence to their call for a crusade of republics was little in evidence. Since then Lower Elgae and the principalities of Freudenst and Minnedesnt have fallen. Another has surrounded Mittlerberg, this is in spite of the Burgomaster of Mittlerberg buying peace with two Earthmovers last year. We can only assume Mittlerberg will fall, and that will mark the last of the Prutenian city states. Of the other we are not certain where it is. It turned inland away from the Girding Sea and we could not track it.”

Downing rested his chin on steepled fingers and stared at the map as Kulpatrick spoke. “I see. And what of the Inner Sea?”

Kulpatrick leant further over to the map’s centre. “A little better news. We still have control of the water, but friendly ports in the north are becoming hard to find. Most of the Gallian forces moved east, but some are gathering in their south near the Tillian Gap, and the ports along the Iepus coast are becoming less willing to allow our ships to the dock for fear of Gallian reprisal, should their armies move on them.”

“Will they?” said Downing.

“Almost certainly.” Kulpatrick leant back. “If they have proved anything in this war of theirs it is that they will not stand their largest neighbour to remain a monarchy.”

“Pardon my ignorance, but I do not understand, if they have three armies large enough to move with impunity across the north, how can they have enough men left to move on the south?” Sandon said.

“The Gallians have armies like nothing that have been put into the field before, mister Sandon,” said General Salter, makingmister sound like a rank. “Their cause attracts the common man. There is not a peasant in all of the mainland that has not been mistreated at some point by their landowners or cheated by the Church. Gallia promise freedom from bonds to the land, the chance to earn their own money, and not least of all, revenge. They may not put the largest armies ever into the field, but each man there is there willingly, and they have something to fight for. I would put any Isles man against one of theirs any day and would expect us to win. But after that Gallian falls there is another behind him, and another behind that one. With every city that falls to them their numbers swell, not shrink as they have done in every campaign in the past. The poor flock to them, and most professional soldier can see how it would go and will swap sides.”

The way Salter said it, the earnest words in such a big man, made it seem immediate and threatening, and a world away from the ‘trouble on the continent’ parlour talk he grew up hearing.

His natural curiosity won over the embarrassment of ignorance and he carried on, “Then if they are so formidable why have they not attacked the Isles? While we may not be as large a country as Iepus surely we represent the larger threat?”

Salter raised an eyebrow at Lord Downing.

“He is to be my secretary, General, and Benjamin is intelligent and a quick study. Please treat him as you would me.”

“Very well,” he said and turned back to Sandon. “The main reason is the sea. The Wash has some very strong currents and it takes a ship captain with a lifetime of experience to know and read its tides. I doubt there are enough such captains in Gallia to bring across an invasion force, let alone enough willing to take the commission. Secondly, we rule those waves, and all from the Isles to the ice sheets in the north and the south all the way to Brunab and across the Eastern to the provinces. Gallia has almost always satisfied itself with its land based conquests in Europa, leaving the sailors of the Isles to ply the seas and increase their skill and pass those skills onto the next generation.”

Sandon heard the tone in Salter’s words which left something unsaid. “But you do not believe that state of affairs will continue?”

Salter once more looked at Downing. “I would ask that myself if Benjamin hadn’t.”

“No, my Lord, I don’t think they will.”

Captain Partridge scoffed and Salter’s expression darkened, but Admiral Kulpatrick spoke first. “The Gallish have already moved down the eastern Argan Neck. The free cities there have fallen without any fight to talk of, and most offered berth to our navy. Not any more. The third army I mentioned has me concerned. It could have moved anywhere. The greatest concern I have is that they begin to encircle the Middle Sea. The Sea is huge, and the loss of even a few ports makes it harder at each step to cover entire sections. And already the Gallish have put vessels into the waters off the Argan. They’re testing their skill, and while I agree with the General’s assessment that any Islesman could match a Gallian skill for skill and then a great deal more, they have the numbers, and if they continue this way they will soon have the resources to throw vessel after vessel into the water until they learn how to stop sinking.”

Sandon looked down at the map and at the sea soaking up its centre. The lands around represented the offspring of the oldest civilisations. The poets in Gyptus were composing plays which would still be studied for their meanings two thousand years later. They were warm, wet, productive and, most importantly, settled. They produced the goods and the commodities both needed and sought in north and east Europa.

And then of course, there was the Cradle.

“If it is the brief situation you want, my Lord, then stretched is how I would put it,” Kulpatrick continued. “They are taking up an increasing amount of waterfront, and their incursions onto into the sea are growing proportionally. It would be foolhardy in the extreme to allow them to move without at least monitoring them, but it we are just one nation, and as friendly ports dry up, so do the merchants based in them.”

“I see,” said Downing. He looked at the map before saying, “And what word from the Cradle?”

“Nothing, as you might expect,” said Salter. “His Omnipotence does not side with single nations, and all that.”

“But what of the third army?” said Sandon. His eyes had traced the movements Kulpatrick and Salter had listed on the map, and in mind’s eye drew a direct line across it. “Could they be moving towards the Cradle?”

Partridge scoffed again, and this time Salter seemed to agree.

“No country would move on the Cradle, lad,” said Salter. “Every other country in Europa would turn on them, and that’s before the priests unleash their own forces. No lad, the Church is safe, don’t worry about that.”

Embarrassed, Sandon stopped speaking.

“And that’s how we sit at the moment?” said Downing.

“In broad strokes my Lord, yes,” said Salter. “I have left a more detailed report in writing with your office, and another copy with the Admiral. I’m sure Iain will find nothing is amiss.” Kulpatrick nodded in agreement.

“Very well. What are the immediate threats?”

Kulpatrick said, “To the Isles? Nothing immediate. The Gallish are doing what any prudent enemy would and are keeping our navy busy on spot and chase games without actually engaging us. There are always minor insurrections and attacks from locals in the colonies and Brunab, but that is not worth noting here.”

“Good, good. Well gentlemen, I want you to know I shall always be available if anything occurs where the Lord Chancellor or His Majesty should be made aware of. You’re not the type of men who would think twice to do anything necessary I know, but I like to make things clear.”

“I appreciate the clarity my Lord, so in that spirit what is he doing here?” said Salter, and pointed at Partridge.

The Captain of the Royal Guard had spread out comfortably in the chair until he filled it. One side of his mouth rose in a half smile.

“Captain Partridge has been charged with my well-being for the foreseeable future.”

Sandon looked around at Partridge. While clearly fit and healthy, the man looked no older than himself. The stark whites and blues of the Royal Guard uniform added an air of authority, but his face was as fresh and un-scarred as Sandon’s own. More than that, with minimal words Partridge had proved himself to have the petulant character of a child in an adult’s body, an aspect strengthened with the way he smiled at the looks on Salter and Kulpatrick’s faces at Lord Downing’s news.

Partridge turned the smile in Sandon as if to share the good news with him or just spread his conceit.

“Are you in any danger?” said Sandon.

Downing answered that with another wave. “I’m fine. I’m sure wherever he is, Lord Godalming is healthy and well.”

“But we don’t know,” said Sandon, turning the statement into a question.

“No, we don’t,” conceded Downing. “He would not be the first minister to abscond from his duties nor I daresay will he be the last. But on the chance it is something more malign the Lord Chancellor saw fit to ask his Majesty to extend the Captain’s responsibility to include myself for the time being.”

“Nothing untoward shall happen to you while I draw breath, my Lord,” said Partridge, inclining his head in a shallow bow.

“I’m sure,” said Downing. He began to shuffle papers into short piles. “Now I know how busy we all are, I believe that concludes everything for now. Thank you for your time gentlemen, that will be all. Do forgive me if I don’t see you out.”

Kulpatrick and Salter stood and offered a salute before leaving together. Their voices intermingled in the beginning of a conversation before the door closed behind them. Captain Partridge took a little more time, checking his sabre and pistol before giving his own, less formal salute, and leaving.

When the door had closed Sandon began to push himself up also.

“Stay there for a moment would you, Benjamin?” Downing’s voice was softer than before, and exhaustion could be heard behind the words.

Sandon settled himself back down and waited for Downing to speak. The new Minister for the Interior finished moving around the papers before him and cast his eyes over them without looking. He held the position for a moment before taking off his spectacles and rubbing his eyes.

“Aunt Emma won’t be pleased if she hears how much you’ve been working,” he said.

“Aunt Emma is never pleased,” said Downing. He sighed, put the paper down and fell into a thought that had nothing to do with his paperwork.

Sandon saw how his uncle had aged in the weeks since the letter arrived at his estate. Never the healthiest of men, Geoffrey Downing’s usual ruddiness had given way to a clammy cream which dominated all his face except for beneath his eyes. Sandon hoped he would be able to alleviate some of the stress he was obviously feeling.

“Do you believe there’s any real danger? I mean, Captain Partridge does not seem the, well…”

“Capable sort?” said Downing with smile.

“I was going to say military.”

“I understand your concern, but the Lord Chancellor was most adamant on the point. And the Captain guards his Majesty, and I cannot imagine the position going to someone who only looks dashing beneath a plumed helmet.”

“If you’re satisfied, my Lord.”

Downing smiled again. “Please lad, not that when we’re alone. I’m satisfied that the Chancellor is satisfied. I have not had much chance to think on it at the moment.” He looked about the papers around him and the map spread across the table and said as much to himself as to Sandon, “So much to do, so much to know.”

“The General and the Admiral seemed confident,” he said.

“Benjamin, Benjamin. I sometimes forget your mother never allowed you into the military.” Sandon closed his mouth and forced down the warmth he felt reddening his cheeks. “Something you should know about old warhorses like Admiral Kulpatrick and General Salter is that they do not think down the same lines as you or I. There is a war coming, Benjamin. Undoubtedly. All that is keeping us from speaking Gallish is they have yet to figure a way over the Wash. And men like Salter and Kulpatrick, they look forward to them trying.”

Chapter Three

There was a loud crack, as of a weight dropping on a chair, followed by protesting creaks, as if that chair were forced to bear weight against its design. When the creaks reached a pitch suggesting they would turn from wooden groans into cracking splinters, they stopped. Two thumps of heavy leather banging on more wood followed.

Wrathchild looked up from his newspaper to see James Fowler at the table. Chair tilted back at a dangerous angle, heels perched on the table edge, hands clasped across concave stomach. His stubbled face radiated a look of pleased superiority.

“So I hear you had a to do with his lordship last night,” said Fowler.

“Not especially.” Wrathchild looked back down at his paper.

After returning the Blake boy to his home that morning Lord Blake’s footman had congratulated Wrathchild on his skill and asked him to leave. When asked about the payment the footman assured him the money would be forwarded.

Wrathchild had opinions of the upper classes’ promises when it came to money, and left the house with his payment, bruised knuckles and the oath of Sir Blake that his actions would earn him no more business from himself nor any of his acquaintances.

“Anyway, on to matters of more import,” said Fowler, punctuating the change in subject with a slap on the table, “How well did my little trick do?”

Wrathchild curled down the top of the newspaper, just enough look into Fowler’s eyes.

Fowler smiled in his thin way. “Not bad, eh? I told you it would work.”

Wrathchild put the paper on the table. “No. It did not work. I asked for something that would stop someone, knock them out at most, disable them, put them to sleep. Your little trick did not do that.”

“I’m sorry, I may have miscalculated a little. Next time I’ll make sure they go into a deep sleep.”

“You put them into a sleep they’ll never wake up from. Not unless he can breathe through a crushed chest.” He gazed levelly at Fowler.

“Oh,” Fowler eventually said, breaking his stare to look into space for a moment more. “But he was disabled, yes?”

Wrathchild picked up the paper again.

“Next time you’re going to have to be more specific, old chap. And I don’t know what you’re complaining about, one more body in the rivers. Unless it’s a blue blood the Watch couldn’t give a tinier shit. Is there anything to show it was you?”

“It’s not the,” Wrathchild began but stopped, allowing the paper to drop an inch and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again he said, “No.”

“Well there you go then, don’t know what you’re complaining about. Do you still have the charm on you?”

“Somewhere, do you really need it now?”

Fowler’s attention was already elsewhere in the large and still mostly empty saloon. The taproom of the Grapes of Bacchus, gloomy at the best of times, was inversely dim to the mid morning light out in the street. Autumn had given up early this year and sleet pelted the filthy streets, but the sun had not caught up and still shone without realising winter had already arrived. This far down in the warren of western Dunholm the light was a weak thing, made anaemic by the dirty windows along one wall of the pub. The effect was to highlight the dark places in the room; the pooled shadows of the booth, the thick varnish of the bar, the chips and dents along the tables.

Even so, people still drank. Worries and thirst do not sleep, and it looked like the few men who held their cups definitely did not either.

Wrathchild returned his attention to the newspaper. He caught himself scanning the tightly printed columns again, hunting for he did not know what.

If you have the power to control them.

The Batavian’s words would not let him go, and his mind had been falling back to them when he left it to wander.

On a whim he’d bought a news sheet on his way to the Grapes, partly to see if the nagging was a kind of prescience, partly to hope it would stop the words bothering him.

If you have the power to control them.

What had Charlie Clark brought to Dunholm?

The Batavian’s words held more weight than he would expect if the man was talking about bolts of untaxed silk. It came across as a warning, and self preservation would not allow Wrathchild to ignore it.

“Penny for them.”

Wrathchild blinked and his eyes unfocused from the print. Fowler had gotten bored and turned back.

“It’s nothing,” he said, and tried to go back to the paper.

“Speaking of, where’s my cut?”

Wrathchild sighed and gave up on the paper. “It’s going towards what you owe me. Rent’s due and I’d rather not sleep on the streets.”

Fowler’s chirpy face fell. “That’s hardly fair, Jon. A man’s got to eat.”

“You’ll eat, don’t worry about that.”

“I mean, I spend most of the day looking over my shoulder for the Collar. I ain’t even got time to set up a stall these days By the time its up I need to run. I don’t have enough time to sell any charms or turn any tricks. You know how hungry that makes a man?”

“I said you’ll eat.”

Fowler fell back into his seat and huffed, “Bollocks” beneath his breath.

Wrathchild went back to the newspaper and had just found the spot where he was reading before when Fowler spoke again.

“And I’ll need something lining my stomach if we’re going to do this job tonight.”

He was about to tell Fowler that of course he’ll eat if he’d just shut up for a while when he realised what he’d heard. “What job?”

“The one for Tall Paul. Tonight,” he added when Wrathchild didn’t answer. Slowly Fowler’s grin faded. “I may have forgotten to tell you about a job.”

Wrathchild dropped the newspaper and drew a hand down his face.

“Look, I know what you’re thinking,” said Fowler, taking his boots from the table and leaning forward. He carried on talking but Wrathchild wasn’t listening. They had a longstanding agreement that it would be him who found them work. Fowler’s talents did not stretch to identifying which jobs they should and should not take. And besides that, Wrathchild was exhausted. Last night had been their first pay that month. He hadn’t eaten properly in a day and using Fowler’s little trickhad drained him in a way he could not describe. Using magic. It felt like it sucked on his soul, leaving him diminished in a way which could never be replenished.

He needed rest.

“God damn it.” He dropped his fist on the table. Not with a great deal of force, but enough that Fowler jumped and stopped talking. A few of the other drinkers in the tap room looked over, saw who made the unexpected noise, then looked away. Wrathchild took a deep, controlling breath, and said, “When?”

Fowler’s grin returned. “An hour after sunset. You’ll see, money in the bag, old chap. Money in the bag.”

Chapter Four

 

Sandon had been in Dunholm little more than a week. Walking from his door was still an assault on his senses. There was so much movement. So many people, carriages and trams. Men set up stalls from little more than a box on stilted legs anywhere on a street or pavement, calling out wares from yesterday’s bread rolls, to eels in vinegar to the opportunity to try one’s chances against a deck of cards. And the tumult was not constrained to the ground. The skies rang with shouts of air captains, jockeying for a berth at the Tower and throwing insults at smaller vessels that risked the higher chimneys of Dunholm to undercut them and dock first.

In truth he thought at first it would be too much for him, although in the week it had become tolerable and he was less likely now to stumble in front of a tram while his attention was caught elsewhere. He wondered if he was becoming used to the overflow of stimulation or his senses had numbed in self defence.

However, his route today was different. Previous days he would hail a cab close to his door and be driven through the choked streets to the Clockhouse and the parliamentary buildings. Today he had walked across the street and down some of the steps away from the islet’s top level. He ignored the feeling of apprehension at the unfamiliar walkway. The buildings on either side were tall and close enough the sky was a grey slit high above his head, and men and women brushed against him in the narrow space. He was concerned of becoming lost. The notion would have been laughable in Dunholm, where if you wanted a dock you just followed a street down, but today of all days he could not be late.

His route took him down until he found a serviceable jetty with two water cabs, their tiny coal engines idling. He took one, and it chugged him out into open water and out into the channels.

From the water Dunholm was different. Less impersonal, less ugly. Around him the islands and bays rose steeply from the water, making a frame of the sky between their shapes and the crowd of air vessels. It was an impression that only lasted so long as he did not look around him. Other vessels, skiffs and larger tugs coming in off the wider channels crowded the waves. And the water was filthy. Black, filmy and clogged with flotsam which banged constantly against the cab’s hull

The pilot aimed the boat on oblivious to the arrhythmic thumping against the small boat, one hand on the tiller, the other holding a short cigarette between thumb and forefinger. When he sucked on it it gave off a smoke which conspired to be fouler than what came out of the tiny boiler beside him. The man had a look of serenity as he drew on the cigarette, not even paying mind to the bulk hauler he guided past, vast enough it threatened to suck the tiny boat into its wake.

The pilot owned a calm sense of self Sandon found fascinating. Doubly so given the destination he’d given the man.

The Palantine. Home to the King of the Isles.

Just giving the man the destination sent a rush of warmth over his skin. But the pilot had accepted it with a nod and indicated where Sandon should sit. He wondered if he should stay long enough in the capital he would begin to think of visits to the centre of the empire such a mundanity.

“First time you bin to the palace, young sir?”

Sandon realised he’d been staring. “That’s right.”

The pilot nodded as if confirming something he already knew. He put the cigarette to his lips, drew on it, and used the glowing end to point ahead. “You may want to keep your eyes for’ard then.”

Sandon turned. Ahead the water was relatively clear. The waterway was emptying out into a wide channel, perhaps two hundred yards across. Sandon’s judgement at distances across the shifting surface was unreliable, but he suspected that would make it the Evenflow, and that would mean…

The boat rocked as the current from the larger channel gripped it and tried to pull against its direction. The pilot fed more power through the tiny engine, but Sandon heard none of it. His eyes were entirely on the the image ahead of him.

The Palantine.

In the stories his governess read him as a child its walls were white as marble and shone with reflected light from the Evenflow.

It did not shine. It was not white. It may have been, long ago, before those stories were written.

Instead of giving off light it drank it in, casting a shadow around it which looked cold even from hundreds of yards out. What the fortified palace of the Isles was was huge on a scale which his upbringing on sodden lowlands did not equip him with a point of reference for.

He knew it was built on its own island, the first settlement of Dunholm and what would become the Kingdom of the the Isles, but the sheer walls he faced dropped straight into the waves, disappearing into the channel. It looked as if the fortress was not constructed so much as forced from the water in some geological upthrust.

He shivered.

“Takes everyone like that the first time,” said the pilot. He took another drag. “Which gate you want, young sir?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Probably the Knighten Gate then.”

He pulled the boat slightly to port. Closer, Sandon saw the base of the walls were laced with jetties and gates into the fortress. Most were small, little more than doors built for one man, but some were of a grander scale. A warship, not the largest he’d seen in the city’s waterways but still a vessel loaded with cannon and men, lay at one; chain links of men handling bound supplies on board, the ship nearly camouflaged against the immense brickwork behind it, lost in the size of the wall.

One gate grew amid the rest until Sandon saw it was relieved in crafted stonework and flanked by two men in white and blue. Neither moved as the cab pulled alongside the jetty, but he did not doubt he was the centre of their attention as he paid his fare.

The pilot took off and Sandon turned. Against the wall the jetty felt dizzyingly thin. On either side of him the wall disappeared around its circumference, only water lapping at the stone gave the sense of size.

For all the world it felt to Sandon as if he were standing alone on the edge of a cliff. He may have well have been for all the guards had moved. He wondered at the protocol, and the thought of them of them snapping up their sabres if he knocked on the gate rooted him still.

He was about to ask one of them what he should do when the gate creaked and a man with wisps of grey hair clinging to the side of his face looked out.

“Master Sandon?”

“Mister,” he said. “Yes.”

“Mister then, as you will. Follow me.”

And then the face was gone, leaving the gate ajar. Sandon followed, unable not to look at the guards as he walked between them. Inside the man was already walking up a flight of stone steps, and Sandon had to rush to catch up.

“You’re late,” the man said. The rest of him looked as old his face, but that did not seem to stop him climbing the stairs at a pace which left Sandon breathing hard.

“The appointment was,” he began.

“The appointment is when everyone has arrived. The Lord Chancellor and Minister are already here.”

The stairs wrapped around on themselves, curling upwards with only a thin glassless window at each flight to light the way. The man walked on up along the dead centre of the step along a discernible groove in the stones without once looking up.

“Have they… have they been waiting long?” he said between breaths.

The man huffed but did not answer. After what felt like hundreds of feet the stairs emptied to a landing and another door. The man stopped, stood a little straighter and rapped the wood with his knuckles before opening it. The hall it lead into drew what little breath was left from Sandon’s chest. To this moment the only other structure he could compare it to was the one he now stood in. The ceiling scraped fifty feet, and pillars like oak trunks spread out at regular intervals to hold it up. Not ten yards from the door two men stood together interrupted in conversation, a distance in even the largest homes would usually put them in a different room, but in that hall they seemed huddled against the edge as if in fear of of the space behind them.

The old man came to a halt, stamped one foot and bowed. “My lords, master Sandon has finally arrived.”

Sandon ignored the slight to his title. It would not do to be seen arguing in front of the two men, not when the one speaking t his uncle was Sir Christopher Rife, The Lord Chancellor or His Majesty’s government.

Downing waved him over. “Benjamin. Perhaps I should have told you to come earlier, I do apologise, you have not met the Lord Chancellor yet have you?”

“I have not had the pleasure,” he said, and offered the Chancellor the bow he had been taught before leaving home; bend above the chest only, tilt the head slightly to the left, never let your eyes leave the bow’s recipient. “A pleasure, Lord Chancellor.”

Rife was a man of equal years to Sandon’s uncle, although with a compact frame which suggested self-denial over exercise, and an un-amused look which did not alter at the greeting. “Sandon,” was his reply before he turned back to Downing. “We can go.”

“Ahem.”

The old man was still in the same position, had bent, holding the bow with obvious difficulty. “Will there be anything else, my lords?”

Rife gave Downing an impatient look, and left.

“No, no. It’s quite all right you can go,” said Downing, and indicated for Sandon to follow him after Rife. “Old Percival. A bit abrupt. I bet he gave you some lip on the way up.”

“He did. I would have expected more from a footman.”

Downing laughed like he needed to. “He’s not a footman, lad. He’s a page.”

Sandon looked back at the bent form shuffling back to the door. “Page? But they’re…”

“Boys? That’s how they start, but it’s a position for life should the boy not move on, and I think old Percival found his niche. Been here through four monarchs, apparently. Gets a bit cantankerous if people don’t follow the protocols. Even His Majesty indulges him.”

“Geoffrey.” The Chancellor’s words weren’t snapped, but they were sharp enough to catch in the vast space and echo between the columns.

They moved on through the forest of pillars. Sandon realised he had not appreciated the space of the hall. It must have taken up most of the surface area the Palantine was built upon. In the distance to either side he could see walls blurred by dust hanging in the air.

They neared a door on the far wall. Large enough for a carriage to fit through, but comically small for the room it fed from. Two more guards stood to either side, and above it was the white and blue lion rampant of the royal house.

“How is His Majesty today?” said Downing.

“I haven’t seen him yet,” said Rife. “But yesterday he was agitated. That never bodes well.”

“Right. Benjamin, stay quiet unless spoken to directly, but remember everything. I’ll want notes written up afterwards.”

“My lord,” said Sandon, and dry swallowed as the guards moved as their group of three neared, and opened the double door for them.

It opened to a room that, after the vast emptiness of the hall, looked cosy. There was still to Sandon’s eye too much bare stone across the floor and walls. An impressive effort had been made to cover as much as possible in rugs hangings and tapestries depicting hunt scenes across dark green forests with rangy hounds chasing majestic a courser, but it was impossible to hide that this room was part of a fortress.

Furniture, expensive and clearly old made good use of the floor space. In their centre was a writing desk, and behind it sat a man.

The first impression Sandon had of His Majesty King George, Eighth of that name, Lord Protector of the Kingdom of the Isles was that he was not a notable man. Not physically. His coat and breaches were cut to suit his medium build perfectly, but not ostentatious in the way of the current trend. He wore a grey wig of the overly large kind only slightly out of the current trend trend, hiding what common tongue claimed was baldness, and his face was kind, if inattentive in a slack way. He looked up at the door as it opened, elbows on the desk’s lacquered top, sheafs of paper arrayed before him.

But the impression Sandon received of the King, his King, was swamped by the presence of the man who stood behind him. It was not merely his physical presence, although Sandon guessed he would have been bigger than General Salter, or the cream and robes starched into flat sheets with a burgundy trim. Nor was it the tall hat which coned to a point with a pierced hood hiding the wearer’s face.

It was what was behind that hood.

Sandon could almost hear the force of personality contained within. From within the eye slits he could feel the wearer’s eyes upon him, and he felt so momentarily uncomfortable to be sick.

“Your Majesty,” said Rife in a pleased tone which bore no relation to the one just used on Sandon. The Chancellor bowed deeply as he spoke, “And a fine morning morning it is, too. I’m sure you recall Lord Downing?”

The King looked at Downing and blinked. “Of course I do my Lord. Geoffrey, isn’t it?”

“Your Majesty honours me,” said Downing with his own bow. “And may I present my secretary, mister Benjamin Sandon. He is my nephew, and eager to be of service to the Empire.”

There was a pause. Sandon’s attention had been fixed on the large figure in cream robes, but belatedly realised something was expected of him. He bowed quickly.

“Of course. Thank you for coming at short notice, my Lords. Time it would seem is moving too quickly,” said the King.

“That it is, You Majesty, that it is,” said Rife. Before he moved further into the room he turned to the other figure who had yet to move since they entered. “Lord Reclaimer. Good morning.”

The figure did not respond at first and Rife made no move in return. After a few seconds the head tilted forward slightly, accepting the greeting. Rife returned it and stepped forward.

“I apologise for the reason we must meet, your Majesty. I understand your relationship with Lord Godalming was close. He will be missed.”

“Yes,” said the King. He bit something back before continuing, “There is no need to apologise, it is not your fault. Miles was always impetuous.”

“I am afraid I must bear some responsibility. Lord Godalming was eager to leave, but it was I who suggested the mission. I thought perhaps this College of the Gallish would listen to diplomacy. I regret to say I was wrong, and Lord Godalming has paid that price.”

“You cannot parley with a godless people.”

There was no doubt where the voice came from, and everyone turned to the figure in cream except for the King who remained with elbows on the table.

“Their senses are fogged by thoughts on their own gain.”

“As you said previously, Lord Reclaimer,” said Rife.

Downing cleared his throat. “Sirs, your Majesty, I must beg ignorance of what you speak. I’m afraid there was nothing in Lord Godalming’s files which tells me about…”

“Miles?” The King looked up from the table and looked at Downing through suddenly rheumy eyes. “Miles Godalming? Where is he? Is he here? My lords have told me awful lies about him. Where is he?”

Sandon could hardly believe in the difference in the King’s speech. Before it may not have been as full bodied as the Lord Reclaimer’s, but it was firm. Now, it was weak. Bleating.

The King blinked and looked between Downing and Rife. “Is he here?” They looked at the Lord Reclaimer. The priest laid a hand on the King’s shoulder and said words in a language which set the hairs across Sandon’s neck on end.

Actus, carinet domini. Actus Carinet domin.” The King’s eyelids fluttered, fell and he went slack in the chair, breathing steadily.

Rife looked at the Lord Reclaimer and pursed his lips. The Lord Reclaimer removed his hand from the King and seemed to silently return the Chancellor’s look.

Rife broke first and turned to Downing. “I’m afraid we have not been entirely honest with you, Geoffrey. Lord Godalming did not simply disappear. We have not had diplomatic relations with Gallia since the revolution. When their mobs stormed the palaces they also took the ambassadors for all other nations, and, well, they were.” He paused. “I am not sure how I could put this.”

“They were used as examples.”

All eyes turned on Sandon at his words, and he instantly regretted it as the Lord Reclaimer turned his hood on him also.

Rife looked an unspoken question to Downing. “It’s perfectly all right. I trust Benjamin.”

“Mister Sandon is correct,” said the Lord Reclaimer. “The Gallish demonstrated a blood lust my brethren had kept suppressed for centuries.”

“I already knew this,” said Downing. His eyes kept looking down at the slumbering King. “It was not uncommon knowledge.”

“I should think not. Such news spreads. What did not however was how we attempted to contact the group of men and women were elected to form a government in their king’s stead. Their armies swelled after the revolution, driven by their leader’s rhetoric and the promise of riches abroad, until hundreds of thousands marched under their banners. They defeated us at every stage in those early battles. There were small victories here and there, but they were minor things, little more useful than shoring morale. By the time it became obvious a league of nations to combat the Gallish revolution became an necessity it was too late. Those countries bordering Gallia had been overrun and their own monarchies deposed, and the others were too frightened to face them, and hoped to buy them off.”

“Mittlerberg and their Earthmovers,” said Downing. Rife nodded.

“The continent had been lost to them. The madness coursing through the whole country had been underestimated. They do not care for trade, or conquest. They tear down houses which have ruled for generations, for a thousand years, and just to see them fall.”

“They are children,” said the Lord Reclaimer, “Who have lost the guidance of their parent. Only those nations who have stayed strong to the word of the Niz’harene have remained.”

There was a pause, expectant from the Reclaimer, unwilling from Rife and Downing, until Rife said, “May His essence remain.”

“May He remain,” said the Reclaimer.

“That does not answer what happened to Lord Godalming,” said Downing.

“His Grace Lord Godalming took the ultimate sacrifice,” said the Reclaimer. “His Majesty decided we needed communication with the College in Gallia. It was a dangerous undertaking, but he carried it out with no fear of his own safety.”

“Indeed. However, he left on a seventy-sixer from the Palantine docks with signed treaties of truce from His Majesty and promissory notes to honour the money stored within the Templar Banks in Dunholm under their king’s name to be transfered to their own funds if they would treat with us in good faith. That was a month ago, and the final time we saw him.” Rife went quiet.

“Then there is a chance he is still alive, Lord Chancellor. “The distance to Redonesse is not great, but in war lines of communication, even to the Gallish capital, may be broken. It may be his mission is still being undertaken.” Sandon spoke and believed he managed to keep the worry from his voice.

It was the Reclaimer who spoke. “We received his head in a sack yesterday. He is with God now.”

“I see,” said Downing in a monotone. “Was there any indication how, or even if it was the Gallish?”

“It was. It arrived wrapped in the Kingdom flag.”

“Ah.” Downing went quiet. His eyes fell and cast about.

“May I ask why his mission was made secret, Lord Chancellor?” said Sandon, hoping his question did not come too quick to be obviously masking his uncle’s fear.

“Exactly for this eventuality,” said Rife. “The Gallish have turned barbarian. It was not unexpected they would ignore simple common sense.”

“They have no need to observe the niceties, Lord Chancellor, and you know it,” said the Reclaimer. “Their armies swell with the dispossessed of Gallia and the machines of Prutenia. And they have tapped the arts my brethren have kept under control for centuries. Borders do not stop them. Mountain ranges have failed to contain them, and only the sea has held their attention from these shores. And that will not last.”

It felt to Sandon as if that had been the unwelcome obvious. The voicing of it dropped silence on the room. They stood around the King, still slumbering peacefully in his chair, as if it were normal as day to pretend the man in the centre was asleep.

“I did not want him to go,” said Rife. It took a moment for Sandon to realise this was directed at the Reclaimer. “Counselled against it.”

“The decision was his, and his sacrifice will be noted.”

The King shook then. A spasm which sent his head rocking over his shoulder. The motion split his lips to allow out a thin stream of saliva to rope down to his jacket, and a low moan bordering on a cry. The Lord Reclaimer rested his hand once more on the King’s shoulder until he fell silent, and said, “His Majesty speaks, and agrees Lord Godalming’s actions were necessary.”

Rife pursed his lips.

“Then what is to be done?” said Downing, raising his eyes. “If the threat is so dire, why am I here now?”

Rife continued to look at the Lord Reclaimer for a few more moments before turning to Downing. “The Gallish will not sit idly. They have regressed to savagery, but that does not make them stupid. We represent the greatest threat to their new republics, and they shall have already made moves against us. That is simply common sense. We have our own methods of finding these threats, but in the meantime peace must be maintained in the Isles, and specifically Dunholm if we are to succeed. Especially now.” His eyes drifted to the King.

Downing looked between Rife and the Reclaimer, conviction slowly overcoming fear on his face.

“Of course, my Lords.”

“None of us can fail in these undertakings,” said the Lord Reclaimer in a voice that brooked no alternative. “None of us.”

****

The ride back from the Palantine was less invigorating than that morning. Sandon and Downing shared a boat. Sandon looked upon the banked shores of Dunholm differently than that morning. More carefully. More suspicious.

All the while his uncle spoke. Observations and orders rolled from his tongue of what his office would have to do; information they would need, dispositions of the garrison commanders around the city, troop placements and numbers, the state of Dunholm’s prisons and how they could empty up space in an eventuality they may be needed. All he could think of on how he could begin to protect the city from a threat whose nature he could not guess, and timing he could only suspect.

Sandon wrote them all down without engaging his mind. He could not take his attention from the houses and windows as they passed. They looked washed out and watchful.

That afternoon was spent enacting those orders from his uncle. Sandon filled out requisition sheets, messages and telegrams. Requests for meetings from officers in Dunholm’s standing forces, from other ministers within the government. Runners came and went in a steady stream from his office door. The door through to his uncle’s office was only slightly less busy, swinging open and closed as another senior civil servant passed through, and after a firm handshake from the new Minister for the Interior the door would close and go ominously quiet. All the while Sandon sat outside, scribbling across sheets and ringing the bell for another message boy.

All the while Sandon’s mind raced.

The Gallish.

Lord Godalming.

The Gallish.

The warning. A need to secure Dunholm.

The Gallish were coming.

Sandon was an educated man; he knew the men and women of Gallia were flesh and blood like him. Only a stretch of water separated the countries. He never paid mind the caricatures in the news sheets showing them to be the slant-shouldered, mouth breathing demi-beasts the politicians would like you to believe.

But now, that’s all he could think of.

Another note. Another request. Dip the pen and keep writing.

Of course he had known of the revolution. That was not something which could ever have been kept secret. The largest country in Europa rising up, trying their king like a common man. The execution.

He had been younger when the armies of the the King, his own King, had sailed across the Wash to join in the league of nations to put down the new Gallish republic after it swallowed the first few countries along its borders. It had all been exciting. He and his friends would grab the sheets as they came out in the evening, gather at the local inn to read over the victories the armies of the Isles would win for king and country. The stories of the heroics of his countrymen.

Those stories never came.

No stories ever came.

After a while it was as if it never happened. No mentioned was ever made of it. But then again, the recruiting parties which had made their way through the countryside, stopping at every town and village, they still came. But none of the young men who went with them ever returned.

And now, the Gallish were coming. They were coming here.

When the Lord Reclaimer had voiced the situation, to Sandon it sounded like a proclamation. Like it was the end of all things.

Another requisition order. Another letter of introduction. Dip the pen. More writing. Concentrate.

The clock struck ten without seeming to count the time in between. Sandon looked up at it, momentarily unsure if it meant morning or night. The burning in his eyes gave him the answer.

Downing came out of his office, shaking the hand of another minister Sandon could remember greeting on his way in, thanking him for his time. When the minister left his uncle looked over the piles of paper across Sandon’s desk with clear sympathy. Sandon heard himself being told to go home as if the words arrived through a thick blanket.

The carriage ride home was as muted as his mind.

The Gallish.

The Gallish were coming.

And he was part of the defence.

God help them all.

He found himself standing before his front door, the excitement present when he left it that morning entirely absent. The windows on either side glowed with the warm light of welcoming candles so at odds with his mood they angered him.

He tried to bring his foot to the first step. When he entered the house he knew his world could be changed forever. And not just his own. He did not know if he could do that. Would a few more minutes of false security really matter?

Sandon was self aware enough to know his limitations. He was not a strong man, and had been tacitly glad when his mother put her foot down about not sending him to the military. But here he was now, aiding the government and the crown in what they were certain would be a last line of defence against a nation which had swept all other armies from its path across the continent, and all he could think of was how he would feel so much safer inside his home.

He laughed at that, surprised at how shrill it sounded in his ears. Hysterical even? No, he gave himself some credit. But a term rose in his memory; gallows humour. Yes. Oddly appropriate.

He closed his eyes and inhaled, willing courage to fill him with the air.

When he opened his eyes he felt as terrified as when he closed them.

He shook his head, unlocked his front door and stepped in. The skin on his face blanched at the warm air after the cold of early winter. The house filled with insultingly mundane sounds. Feet on floor boards, the sounds of cutlery on crockery reached out from the kitchen.

“Benjamin.”

Sandon started. Arabella sat in the reception room, an open book on her lap. The impression given was that she had been there some time waiting for him.

He discarded the thought. Arabella was the most honest, uncomplicated person he knew, he refused to believe she would be in any way duplicitous.

He hoped his smile did not seem forced. “I’m sorry I’m late. Uncle… the Minister was very busy. So much to do to acquaint himself with all the other ministers and civil servants.”

“It’s quite all right.” Her smile was not as full as he would expect. Sandon knew he should be able to read it. That was surely a basic need of a fiancé, and then he cursed himself. She had been worried about her father, and he had been too caught up in his own move to Dunholm and adjusting to live in a city and a job of importance.

She stood and in reflex he stepped away. He was afraid she would feel the trembling which still shook his hands. But of course, she could not know that. She just knew her fiancé had recoiled at her possible touch. Another look crossed her face Sandon knew he should be able to read, and then it went back to a neutral expression which he could all too easily understand; an attempt to disguise the hurt.

“I’ll let Mildred know you’re home for dinner.” She pointedly didn’t move, leaving Sandon to simply nod and climb the stairs.

In his chamber he sat on his bed, laid his head in hands, and began to shake with powerful weeping.

Chapter Five

 

“Look, I know what you’re thinking, but you have to look on this as a good thing.” Fowler was facing Wrathchild, carefully out of reach. Behind and above him the Tower lanced upwards. It disappeared into the sky, burning the clouds dark red from gas lamps warning airships of its immense black body camouflaged against the night.

Wrathchild looked up at it now, feeling his anger grow as he took in each yard. “I know what I’m thinking. But I don’t know if you were when you took the job.”

“We’re desperate, what can I say. I like food. I’d like to see more of it.”

“We’re not that bloody desperate. Bleeding Nazzer, you took a fucking job in the Tower! Name three other places with more soldiers in it than this.”

“Look, it’s going to be easy, Tall Paul-“

“Tall Paul can take a step off the bastard.”

“Tall Paul,” Fowler carried on, “Said it’s an easy job. In, out. No need for tricks or nothing, just some rope work.”

Wrathchild finally took his eyes off the black iron monolith and looked about. No streets near the Tower ever truly slept. It was the lifeblood of Dunholm, worth as much to the city than of all its miles of waterfront combined, and that life spilled out onto the streets around the base in the form of sailors and ship crews looking to offload their pay. Fowler’s meeting place had them on a street which contained nothing more than the pungent smell of old urine. And anyway, they were here now and it wasn’t as if he had anything more worthwhile to do.

He sighed and tried to massage the exhaustion from his eyes. Fowler took the gesture as assent. His grin returned in full force and he said, “Money in the bag, old chap. Money in the bag,” and clapped Wrathchild on the shoulder.

A stuttered series of heavy iron clanks came from the wall, and what a moment before was a shadowed and abandoned shop-front clanked aside to revealed an elevator car filled with muted lantern light and three men with the rangy, windburnt faces of airshipmen.

The two groups eyed each other for a heartbeat then one of the men stepped out of the elevator with open arms.

“James, Jonathon. For a while I suspected you wouldn’t be here,” said Tall Paul.

Paul was, of course, five foot flat. He was already an airship captain and sometime smuggler when Wrathchild arrived in Dunholm. How someone of such stature could have reached a position where he could command a sailor twice his weight was told by his reputation for shrewd deal making and a quick-tempered ruthlessness. The same characteristics which had seen his operation grow from one ship to a small fleet.

Wrathchild didn’t like Tall Paul. He didn’t like most people he had cause to work with, but Paul made him itch. Payment from Paul was always late, and the man was short on details for his work. The kind of little details which could get someone who wasn’t cautious killed.

Paul shook Fowler’s hand patted him on the arm while Fowler gave Wrathchild a quick look which said see, nothing to worry about. Wrathchild ignore it, checked his knife was in its habitual place, and stepped by Paul into the elevator.

“What’s the job,” he said.

Paul followed him into the car. “No time for pleasantries, Jonathon? That’s one think I like about you, you’re straight to business. I can respect that.” He made a winding motion and one of the sailors closed the door. With a metallic groan the cage shook and Wrathchild’s stomach sank as they began to move upwards.

“What I’ve got gentlemen is a bit of a bind. Nothing which will stretch two talented boys such as yourself, like, but something I need a hand with. There’s a ship on the dock above us which has some lovely bolts of wool. Nice stuff. Like velvet it is, goes for a premium to the right tailor. Anyway, the long and short is they has it and I want it. I want you two to sneak yourselves on board and go get it for me. Easy as.”

“Why us,” said Wrathchild. “Looks like you’ve got some capable looking people. Why do you need anyone else?” He looked one of the sailors up and down. The man’s arms were ropey and bare despite the cold.

“Quick on the uptake as usual,” said Paul. “The Tower authority already has our berth booked in for another ship waiting out yonder. They’ll be waiting to dock in an hour, which means me and all my crew needs to be signed off on the dock half an hour before so nothing underhanded can happen.” Paul grinned like a child. “But you’re not on that list though, eh?”

Wrathchild didn’t say anything. The way he put it it was nice and straightforward, nothing he had not done before. All that was needed was some length of decent rope and head for heights.

At that last thought the elevator broke from the solid housing of the Tower’s base, into the powered iron chutes leading up the main body and they were hit by a blast of frigid air. Below them an uneven tapestry of orange lights mapped out Dunholm’s streets. The black overlay were the channels slicing between the islands, void of light but for the odd concentration of a ship feeling its way out to sea.

The sight spread out and its borders grew as the cage rattled on up, the passing support struts a menacing thrum as they passed at impressive speed.

When Wrathchild spoke next he had to shout to be heard above the suddenly free mechanical noise and wind whistling between tons of iron.

“Where’s the lines?”

One of the sailors and the man shrugged off a shoulder bag and handed it over. Inside were two long coils of rope.

The cacophony’s tempo shifted and they were doused in light as the elevator passed the Tower’s first active deck. They rose up above the floor. Across it men moved stacks of crates with hydraulic wheeled ramps. Over the Tower’s edge thick lines looped out into air, disappearing into the dark to anchor cargo airships Before Wrathchild could fully take the scene in they had disappeared up into the ceiling, rising up to the next level. Dock after dock passed, unidentifiably uniform.

“What elevator is this?” shouted Wrathchild.

“One of the service elevators. It’s for Authority officials who don’t want to wait for the goods lift. When you’re done it’ll take you straight down to where we met you.”

Wrathchild nodded. That was forward thinking usually absent from Tall Paul.

One of Paul’s men grabbed lever beside the door and slowly pulled it down. The elevator’s pace began to slow, the struts outside the cage sped by with less haste and Wrathchild’s stomach felt less filled with iron balls. Beside the door a needle on a circular dial matched the cage’s decreased speed.

“Nearly at our stop, lads,” said Paul. “The ship you want is called the Panno Bianch. She’s the only vessel on the deck above ours. She’s moored directly over us, so you can lower the goods straight down, I’ll have a few hands atop the bladder ready.”

The cage rattled to a stop and with the heave of another lever one of the sailors opened the doors onto a deck packed to bursting with stacked pallets and hardwood boxes.

“Good luck,” said Paul, and would have stepped from the cage if Wrathchild’s hand had not fallen on his shoulder.

The two sailors tensed but made no move when Wrathchild only said, “Payment?”

Paul smiled in a way Wrathchild was swiftly beginning to find annoying. “When you get back down, lad. I’ll be waiting.” He pulled Wrathchild’s hand free and stepped off the elevator. Within a heartbeat the three of them were lost amid the cargo.

“Bloody Nazzer, Jon, you trying to piss off our employer?” said Fowler. The way he said it made Wrathchild think he’d been holding his breath.

“He’s not our employer,” he said. “Not until he pays us.” He pulled the door closed and hauled on the lever beside the floor dial. Slowly the cage began to inch upwards with an iron groan.

He had been up the Tower before. Of course he had. Anyone in his line of work had to. But he didn’t think he had ever been this high up it before.

The Tower tapered as it rose, each successive level becoming smaller and smaller. On the lower decks, a mere hundred feet from Fenitch’s ground, three clippers could be moored abreast on each of the tower’s four sides. But on this level the deck was only fifty feet across and the amount of cargo stacked across the deck was sparse.

Wrathchild pulled Fowler by the coat from the elevator and behind a ladened trolley before anyone could see them. Fowler was smart enough not to complain and nodded when Wrathchild put a finger to his lips. He looked around carefully, and when he saw no one had seen them scanned the deck.

He first looked for the Panno Bianch. The ship was moored off the opposite edge, tethered securely against the gusting winds. His brow furrowed when he saw theBianch’s hull. It was decorated in cream and burgundy, the shapes losing definition in the ship’s constant raise and fall just out of reach from the Tower’s light. This was not a cargo carrier. He looked about the deck and realised the deckhands all wore an actual uniform, not the hard-wearing muted browns which marked out those who worked with heavy loading.

That was when he realised just how far up the Tower they were. Paul must have pulled some expensive strings to be berthed this high, just below the deck reserved for the peerage and royalty. He wondered how much Paul would be making from the deal and if Fowler should have bargained for more.

“We going or what?” Fowler whispered.

He nodded, and motioned for Fowler to follow.

Sparse though the cover may be, the deckhands were inattentive, concentrating on their jobs. This high up they would not have to worry about petty theft or urchins clambering up the sides on bets looking for some easy pilfering. It was just a matter of waiting for some heads to turn and they were over the side, climbing hand over hand up one of the thick mooring lines, leaving the solid floor of the Tower behind.

This was where they were earning their night’s pay. This was why not everyone could work the Tower.

Wind buffeted Wrathchild. He and the mooring line swung a foot to one side and back again, undulating under uneven blasts. There was nothing between him and the ground but hundreds of yards of frigid air, and the only thing keeping them apart was one slip of a hand.

He forced the thought away. He was too good at this. His hands would not slip; but the enticement of letting go may grip his mind, and he was too much of a coward to risk that.

“Get a move on, Jon!” Fowler was right behind him, his cheeks already raw from the wind.

Wrathchild carried on.

As the gradient narrowed their motion went from hanging to holding the line against their bodies until they were vertical against the Bianch’s hull. There Wrathchild paused for a moment, listening for the sound of footsteps amid the wind whistling between rigging. When he could hear none he hauled himself over the side.

He lowered his feet onto the deck with practised silence. The line had brought them aft and the raised deck have him a wide view across the ship. No one was this far from midships, the crew all gathered around the gangplank, carrying easily held loads on board, which was just as well as Fowler fell onto the deck with a thud and an exhausted wheeze.

Wrathchild said nothing, allowing his friend to catch his breath with a weak cough. His eyes were on the crew. They wore a uniform in the same burgundy and cream of the ship’s hull. There was something about it which nagged at him, but no matter how hard he stared could not put his finger on what.

“You,” Fowler began then wheezed and tried again, “You ready?”

Wrathchild nodded without taking his eyes from the crew and waved Fowler to follow.

They walked slowly down the gangway. No rushing, not here. People looked towards movement where there should be none. At the door to below decks Fowler reached for the handle and Wrathchild grabbed his coat and pulled him against the wall as the door opened. It swung out towards them, stopping an inch from Fowler’s nose as it met Wrathchild’s boot.

A crewman walked out, weighed down by a rundlet barrel. He hooked his heel around the door and kicked it shut without looking. Wrathchild helped the door close with his hand and held his breath as the crewman walked away without realising they were there.

“Bloody hell,” breathed Fowler.

Wrathchild said nothing. The crewman wore the same uniform colours as the rest, and more than that; he was clean shaven. No sailor would expose their cheeks to the trade winds Unless they had to. Unless they wore a uniform the punishment for breaking was worse than frostbite.

The uneasy feeling already making itself comfortable in his gut hardened.

“You can let go now,” said Fowler.

“Sorry,” he whispered. Fowler had missed the footsteps Wrathchild picked up straight away. Or was he just more alert than usual? The answer to that was perhaps in the tight grip he unconsciously held Fowler in. He released his hold and gently pushed Fowler to go first.

Wooden groans filled the ship as the Bianch pulled against her tethers. But no sound of people.

Once again the hairs on the back of his neck raised.

No vessel should be this quiet. Even when she was moored and between loads there would be crew on every deck, scrubbing floors, taking stock of stores, general maintenance of a thousand different varieties a ship needed just to stay afloat.

He held up one hand to halt Fowler while he listened. Beyond the sighs of the ship’s timbers he could not hear anything.

“What is it?” Fowler whispered.

And then it hit him, and all the heat left his body.

“We’re leaving,” he said.

“What? Why?” Fowler looked down the corridor. No sounds of people came, only the rhythmic pulling of the Bianch against its tethers.

Wrathchild didn’t waste time with an answer and turned to go. Fowler stood in his way. He held his ground despite having to look up to Wrathchild’s face. “Hold on, Jon, we’re almost there. In, get the wool, out and down. Can’t be more than fifty yards of walking involved.”

“We aren’t going to get fifty yards if we stay,” he said. The words came in a hiss, turned angry from a latent sense of self preservation. All the signs had been clamouring for his attention since they had left the elevator, but he’d been too intent on duplicity from Tall Paul to look beyond that. It was all there; the Panno Bianch being the only ship on the deck, the uniformed and presentable crew. The God-damned livery spewed across the ship. It was all there for him and he missed what it all could mean.

He was no coward, but he was scared. Any sane man caught where he should not be would, and his reaction was to get angry. “This is a fucking Collars’ ship.”

Fowler didn’t react at first, but then he blinked and even in the muted lamp light of the ship’s interior Wrathchild could see him pale.

Good, he thought. At least now he could get them off the ship without too much complaining. Fowler knew what the Church would do to a magician. As for himself, it would be none too pleasant. A summary execution if he was lucky.

Fowler blinked again and looked away into space. He nodded a little shakily and turned himself to go back through the door.

Again, Wrathchild heard the footsteps before Fowler, this time coming from the outside deck towards the door. He grabbed Fowler and pulled him back and through another doorway to their right. Fowler held on to enough sense not to complain this time, leaving Wrathchild’s other hand free to push the door shut.

To Wrathchild’s horror the door did not fully close. It swung to, and then rolled back and inch, giving he and Fowler a view of the doorway to the top deck as the handle turned, the door opened, and two priests walked in.

Fowler pushed into him as he tried to get away, but Wrathchild held firm. He did not know what was behind him. Looking might brush his coat against a wall or knock a broom over. Plus he could not take his eyes from the priests.

The churchmen talked. Under their cream hoods it was hard to tell which spoke, and impossible to understand what it was they said. They did not speak in Mearcish, but the heavily tilted language of the Cradle.

In his mind Wrathchild cursed Tall Paul with words he would never use aloud. The man sent him and Fowler to rob a ship from the Cradle. They may as well be trying to burgle the King for the danger they had walked into.

Wrathchild did not allow himself to relax even as they walked away, their backs disappearing from the narrow view the doorway allowed until the corridors ate their words.

When he could hear them no more Wrathchild counted to ten, then breathed out, and Fowler released a breath at the same time.

“The bastard,” Fowler whispered. “The utter, God damn, pig sucking bastard.”

Wrathchild didn’t argue, but curses could wait until Paul was in arms’ reach. “Come on,” he said, and moved for the door.

“Wait,” said Fowler, “Not that way.”

Wrathchild turned on him and with muted menace whispered, “I said we are leaving.”

“Yes, but, not that way. That way.” Fowler pointed behind them. A ladderway fell down further into the ship. The deck below was only partially lit. “There might be more of them on deck. Lets look for a porthole, yeah? May even be we could find the cargo down there and finish this job.” His grin returned.

“I’m not working for a man I plan on killing.”

“Just think, Jon, be smart about this. Paul’s going to pay us, right? And there’s only two of us. Against his whole crew?”

“I said I’m going to kill him.” Wrathchild’s teeth ground out the words. He kept his temper in check, but only just. “If it’s all I can do I’ll show him over the side of his own ship.”

Fowler made calming gestures with his hands and said, “Yeah, yeah, but first let us get paid, right? Then, I dunno, maybe you’ll feel different? I mean,” he said quickly. “Maybe you’ll think it’s best to wait to kill him when he gets back and he’s not surrounded by a whole bloody bunch of armed sailors.”

Wrathchild forced a deep breath. Fowler was right. Always his control, always his conscience. He said nothing and Fowler relaxed.

They ladder dropped onto the deck below, and from there a door, locked with a chain as thick as Wrathchild’s wrist. He waited as Fowler pulled one of his little tricks from his pockets and began the meticulous process of burning through the links.

While Fowler worked, he listened. As if the Watch weren’t bad enough, they had to look out for the Church now. The Collars made Wrathchild’s spine go cold. It was their hoods. It was too easy to imagine away the person inside, fill their robes with some sort of divine force of malice. For all they claimed to uphold the word and teachings of the Niz’harene he’d never once seen them help a soul. The priests that walked the streets of western Dunholm only did so in twos and threes, and too often they would return to their churches with anyone unfortunate enough to catch their attention.

No one would face them. No one was that foolhardy. Even anyone suicidal would look the other way. Even those who wished for death would prefer a clean one to the stories which came back from their inquisitorial ways.

He looked back to Fowler, who bent over the chain with diligent silence. Wrathchild was surprised Fowler was so calm. If they were caught it would be him, not Wrathchild, who would be the Collar’s prize. The old rumour was the priests could smell out a magic user. The more lyrical of the tales gave flavour to the details; it was always a burnt copper smell they gave off, or hot ash. Wrathchild had never really believed them; there were too many people like Fowler across Dunholm, and the two Collars above had walked within feet of them without even a sniff. But even if he didn’t believe that he would be a fool to cross them. They had power, in the municipal sense and otherwise, and if they could drag someone off the street in daylight two robbers found on board their ship not be noted anywhere.

“There, done.” Fowler slowly drew one index finger across a chain link. Where skin met iron the metal glowed and popped, melting apart. The link split and Fowler shook his hand and blew across the fingertip. At his feet were a white feather, a match and what looked like and tiny finger bone. He pushed them aside with this boot and pulled the chain free.

“What about them,” Wrathchild pointed at the objects on the floor.

“Useless now. Don’t worry, I have more up my sleeves.” Fowler pushed the door open and looked through. “Ah, what did I say, old chap? In and out.”

Inside was the cargo hold. Chests, boxes and barrels lashed to the deck and walls, loose goods held in webbing, hanging from the ceiling and rocking gently with theBianch’s roll.

“Stick with me old boy and you’ll go far,” said Fowler. He walked off looking left, right and behind every box, searching for the wool.

Wrathchild began to follow him, until his eyes fell on a chest beside the door. It was reinforced, iron rivets bolting the sections together in defence against saws, and another heavy chain crossed tightly over the lid. He ran his hand over it. Not a pay chest, not down here. That would be in the captain’s quarters, more secure and secret than this one. But even so, whatever was worth securing was almost certainly worth stealing.

“There, easy as pie,” Fowler’s voice came from further inside the hold, followed by the sound of dragging.

Wrathchild looked back down at the chest and took his hand away.

But whatever it was it was not worth his life.

Fowler came backwards from amongst the stacks, hauling a bale of wool across the floor in stuttering steps.

“No, it’s all right Jon, I have this,” he said between heaves.

“Good. Then you can have it all the way across here.” Wrathchild walked by him towards a loading hatch.

Fowler watched him pass, looked between where Wrathchild started and where he now stood and shook his head. “Of course. Too bloody easy,” he said, and began pulling the bale the other way.

Wrathchild hauled the hatch inwards. He was nearly taken from his feet when a gust of wind forced its way through the suddenly open port and the hold filled with dust kicked up from the deck’s floor. He leaned out, and the wind pulled his hair urgently. They were beneath the gangplanks leading from the Tower to the ship, the hull’s curve hid them from the activity on deck, but it would only be a matter from time before someone saw the loading port yawning open or heard the wind tearing through the hold. Below, an inflated bladder swung and bobbed, its movement accented by a counter rhythm in its own localised eddy. That would be the Courtly Catherine, Tall Paul’s ship. Across the bladder’s back a walkway of slatted wood was roped in place. A sailor was tying himself to a tag line and another was climbing up the rigging from the ship beneath.

“Ready?” He had to shout to be heard over the wind. Fowler had knotted the line over the bundle three times, and was now tying the other end around the mast base in the hold’s centre.

“Nearly there old boy. You just keep enjoying yourself walking around and opening doors.” When he finished the last curl in the bell ringer’s hitch, he and Wrathchild put their shoulders to the bale and pushed it to the hatch’s edge. Below the two sailors stood on the ship’s bladder, looking up and waiting for their cargo.

He turned to Fowler. “Ready?”

“Like we did last spring? Too easy.”

Wrathchild looped the rope around the mast and held tight while Fowler nudged the bale to the hatch’s edge, and with only a cursory glance at Wrathchild, kicked it out.

The rope snapped taut and bit into Wrathchild’s hands. Even prepared it brought tears to his eyes, but the rope did not move. Fowler stepped in front of him and took up the rope and together they began feeding out the line.

Wrathchild counted under his breath. The Catherine was fifty feet below, with one foot paid out for every hand over hand. At the count of forty five he called to stop and moved backwards, rope still in hand, until he could lean out over the hatch.

He’d judged the distance right, and the bale was at a height now where the sailors could grab it with their hands.

Only that would have been a very foolish thing to attempt.

The bale swung like God’s own pendulum. The Panno Bianch’s roll had begun what the wind had finished, and now the hard-packed wool swung at the sailors like they were skittles.

As he watched the bale rolled towards them at what must have been a tremendous speed. One sailor throw himself down as it passed over his head.

“We might have a problem,” he shouted.

“I already knew that!”

Something in Fowler’s tone made Wrathchild turn. Fowler was looking down the hold from where they’d come from, at two men in the cream and burgundy of theBianch’s sailors.

By the looks on their faces it seemed they were as surprised as Fowler and Wrathchild, but that would only last a moment.

“Hold on,” shouted Wrathchild, and let go of the rope.

Fowler grunted as the load tried to pull his arms from their sockets, but managed to hold his ground.

Wrathchild was already running. If the sailors raised the alarm he was as good as dead, which was better than what would be in store for Fowler.

The sailors had not come below decks looking for trouble. One held a small barrel under each arm, the other a bundle of rolled containers across his chest. The one with the barrels was closest, so that was who Wrathchild hit first. He slammed into the man, throwing his weight straight into his chest and driving him into the wall. Nothing fancy, just get the man down.

The plan worked. The meaty pressure of the body on Wrathchild’s shoulder translated into a a punishing jolt as the sailor’s back impacted the wall.

Unfortunately the now slack sailor pulled him down, giving his friend time to drop the rolls in his arms and turn for the door.

Wrathchild lunged, reaching for the escaping sailor’s leg and managed to snag the uniform’s hem. The man stumbled and fell on one knee, shouting in pain a word of the Cradle. Wrathchild pulled, holding the sailor in place while he tried to untangle himself from the first man. If he hadn’t been trying to do two things he might have noticed the second sailor kick out and moved before his heel connected with his cheek.

Despite the foppish uniform the sailor kept with his profession’s habit of wearing no shoes, and the kick merely hurt like blazes rather than break anything. Wrathchild took the blow and pulled hard. The sailor lost traction and fell to all fours as he was dragged backwards. He tried another kick and Wrathchild, ready this time, let go of the clothes, wrapped the arm around the man’s leg and pushed forward into his own fall.

The drop pushed the sailor’s knee painfully into the deck, pinning him down. Before he could recover Wrathchild rolled over until their backs were touching and looped his other arm around the man’s neck

The binding complete, he constricted his arms.

The move was a classic in the wrestling rings, and one Wrathchild had seen used time and again to put an opponent quickly to sleep. The man flapped like a fish against the hold, offering choked noises from his compressed windpipe. Wrathchild tightened his grip. The man’s kicking swiftly subsided, and then stopped. Wrathchild counted to three heavy breaths, and let go. The sailor flopped limp to the deck.

Wrathchild paused to take a breath when he was kicked hard in the chest.

The other sailor had not been as dazed as Wrathchild thought, and his ribs now paid the price. His deep inhalation turned into an air-sucking wheeze.

The sailor showed some sense and jumped over Wrathchild and broke for the door, more interested in raising the alarm than petty revenge. Wrathchild rolled onto his side, ignored the flash of pain from his ribs, and made ready to jump after him when someone shouted, “Jon!”

Fowler had fallen to the floor, still holding the rope but having to brace his legs against the mast to hold the wool’s weight. Even from where he lay Wrathchild could see Fowler’s thin arms shaking at the strain.

The sailor fled through the door and was already raising the alarm.

“Well…. Shit.”

“Jon!” shouted Fowler again. Panic edged his voice.

“Hold on.” He slammed the door shut and wedged one of the broken chain links between it and the frame, ramming it home with the underside of a small barrel. Then he ran to Fowler.

“No, please, when you’re ready. I could do this all day.”

“Not the time for sarcasm, we don’t have long.”

He took the rope and together they circled it around the mast and tied it to a support beam.

Looking around, he took in the hold. He had jammed the only door, and within minutes there would be armed guards on the other side, and if they brought those priests with them the door would not be a barrier for long.

“Do you have anything we can use?” he asked Fowler.

“You mean something which would fly us gently from this death barge safely to the ground? Exactly how much do you think I can do, Jon?”

“What did I say about jokes?” He spat the words but it was only a reflex. His mind ran while his eyes worked over everything in the hold, looking for something, anything which would allow them to escape.

But what would there be? Against an entire crew of armed sailors, God alone knew how many priests, and the only way off the ship guarded by them or a swifter, more terminal route straight down. Even the rope they climbed up on was on the upper deck.

His mind stopped, and his eyes fell on the ground just as the door shook under a furious banging. Hot words could be heard on the other side.

“Come on!” he pulled Fowler towards the open hatch.

“What the f- Are you serious?” Fowler struggled, but Wrathchild had the size advantage and the little magician came along against his will.

Below, Tall Paul’s sailors still had not caught the wool. At the end of fifty feet of rope the bale had gathered more momentum. The sailors had found some long-poled billhooks. As the bale past they swung the hooks, catching the edge and stealing some force from the swing and waiting for its return to rob some more.

Wrathchild judged at that rate it might take them more than a few tries to actually stop the bale.

Behind them the door shook again.

Still, he thought, it was not like he had a better option.

“Down,” he said.

Fowler looked at him without comprehension. “What?”

“Down. There.” He nodded at the rope holding the swinging bale to the Panno Bianch.

Fowler shook his head. “Oh now I know you’re joking.”

Wrathchild laid his arm across Fowler’s shoulders and in a voice as calm as he could muster said, “You know as well as I what those priests will do to you given half a chance. I’ll be lucky. They’ll just kill me. So no, I’m afraid I’m not joking, James. Which is why I’m very sorry for this.” He gripped Fowler’s shoulders and kicked his feet from under him.

For a brief moment Fowler’s legs hung out over nothing, then he fell. Wrathchild still held him by the shoulders and aided his fall so his chest landed on the deck over the rope.

“Climb,” he shouted, “Now!”

Behind him the door splintered as something hard and sharp bit through the wood. Fowler’s eyes darted between Wrathchild’s own the door, and without another word he grabbed the rope and shimmied backwards and over the edge.

Behind Wrathchild the door exploded.

It took him a moment to realise what had actually happened. The door was there, then it was not. Now its powdered remains dusted the air in dirty clouds.

Despite himself he turned, his usual keen sense of self-preservation overcome by sheer awe.

In the cloud’s centre a shape formed, growing firmer until a priest walked into the hold. It could have been one of the priests who walked within feet of him just minutes before. The hood and robe robbed all the Collars of individuality. Only his eyes could be seen, and they fell of Wrathchild with a calm he found worrying. They moved from his face to where he held his ribs.

“My son, you are hurt. Please let me help with your wounds.” He spoke with the flowing cadence of no one from the Isles had, both fatherly and assured, and Wrathchild felt a nod coming as the sense of the words hit him.

He was hurt. Why shouldn’t he rest a while?

“I only want to help, my son. Please.” Behind the priest the sailors of the Bianchefiled into the hold, they held blankets and bandages.

Of course they only wanted to help. He was a priest, he did God’s work. All Wrathchild had to do was lay down and they would help with the hurt, the hurt in his ankle. The hurt which was spreading up his leg in hot, hot waves….

“Goddammit!” He kicked out his leg, shaking it furiously. By his feet Fowler rested his elbows on the hold floor, one hand gripping the rope, the other pulling back the sharpened bone charm he’d just jabbed into Wrathchild’s leg.

“Come on!” he shouted, and dropped once more through the hatch.

Wrathchild turned. The priest was advancing on him slowly, arms held palm out, unaware his spell was broken. Behind him the crew followed with knives and cutlasses.

The priest paused, the hood cocked to one side as he sensed something was wrong. “My son?” he said.

Wrathchild knew the danger he was in, not only if he were caught, but also of the figure walking towards him with arms outstretched. Without risking a word he turned and stepped out over the void.

Nye!” the priest yelled, a word Wrathchild did not know, but carrying a meaning he could not mistake. It was spoken in anger, and one of the priest’s arms flung forward as he shouted. Wrathchild had his back to the Collar and was already falling so did not see the movement completed, but did feel the air distend as something tore closely over his head.

And then he was out of the Panno Bianche, out of the hold and surrounded by nothing but air.

And the rope.

He flailed out, hooked it with one arm and constricted his body around it. The friction as he halted his fall burned where the rope slid across his neck and jaw, but his fall stopped. He looked down. Below him Fowler half slid, half clambered. The wool bail still swung across Tall Paul’s ship, but not to the wild degree of before. The two crewmen stood apart, bill hooks held ready, waiting for its next pass.

Then he looked up.

Above him, too closely above him, the open hatch into the Bianche’s hull yawed open, and the priest looked down at him.

Wrathchild froze. It was an inaction borne of fear, inbred from the knowledge of what that man could do to him with impunity, and what he was capable of with the power of a god behind his fingertips. Wrathchild swallowed and waited to see what he would do. Surely he would not risk his power with the ship directly below. If he missed, or even if he didn’t and whatever god-power the church gave him would just rupture everything around him, taking Wrathchild, the wool and theCourtly Catherine with him to tumble down into Dunholm. Hundreds would die. Surely he would not risk such a thing.

But then, there were the stories…

The priest held the look a moment longer, then turned away, disappearing back into the ship. Just beneath the wind’s howl Wrathchild heard the priest’s voice. He was yelling something to the crew, and Wrathchild realised that no, he would not kill hundreds just to get Wrathchild.

He didn’t have to.

Wrathchild scrambled down after Fowler, risking and receiving rope burns across his palms and thighs. Blistered skin was preferable to the alternative.

“Go! Go!” he yelled but the wind snatched at his words. His feet reached Fowler’s head as Fowler’s own touch the bail.

Now there was nowhere to go.

His stomach lurched with unaccustomed movement as the bail reached the limit of its swing. What from above looked like an arc of a few feet now seemed a yawning chasm between them and Tall Paul’s ship. The two crewmen stood ready, but their eyes had widened at Fowler and Wrathchild’s unexpected descent.

The bale’s swing reached its zenith, came to a gentle stop, and began its swing back.

The momentum built quickly, until the wind screeching in Wrathchild’s ears drowned out the natural gusts, and he wondered just how much the bale weighed now with him and Fowler adding their own mass to it.

They swung at the two sailors at the speed of a galloping horse. At the last moment they stepped apart. The bail swung between them with an audible whoosh, and Wrathchild felt a jarring tug as their billhooks dug into the wool. The sailors took some of the momentum but not enough, and Wrathchild and Fowler flew on, back out over the air.

As he began to slow at the swing’s far arc Wrathchild felt something beneath his palms. The rope was vibrating like a plucked string. His eyes followed the line up, back to where it emerged from the Panno Bianche. The priest was back at the hatch, looking down at them and the bail, while behind him shadows swung and chopped at something in rhythm with the chords of the rope.

“We’re going to have to jump!”

“What, now?” shouted Fowler.

“Over the ship. Get ready.”

The bale began its back swing once more and the ship approached all too quickly. Wrathchild chose a spot on the bladder’s surface with plenty of rigging to grab hold of, and refused to take his eyes from it. As he approached in his mind he saw the hold in the Bianche, and her sailors hacking away at the rope he held on to the other end of.

As they neared the Catherine he felt the bale drop. His heart stopped, but the drop was only an inch. And then they were over the bladder. Fowler had already thrown himself clear, and as Wrathchild let go the bale dropped.

He hit the wooden walking slats with his shoulder, momentarily bouncing clear before he grabbed the netted rigging and pulled himself tight down. Behind him the bale also fell. It struck the bladder with enough force to make him bounce again. The sailors had their billhooks in it, fighting to stop its fall. One of them stumbled, but was saved for sliding over the edge by this tag line, and together they managed to halt its slide over the edge.

“James?” he shouted.

“Here,” came a reply from over the bladder’s horizon. “Just.”

He relaxed and rested his head on the leather balloon. He’d survived. Survived something he didn’t even know would be dangerous.

Something told him it was not quite over yet, and slowly he looked up to theBianche.

The priest was still there, looking directly down at him. He could feel the malignant intent emanating from the Collar, and imagined his face, his clothes, every discernible feature from his was being remembered and stored away. It made him want to be somewhere else.

He stood. Fowler struggled up the bladder from the other side. Wrathchild was helping him up when one of the sailors said, “You coming with us, mate? Paul didn’t say we’d have extra hands.”

“What?”

“We’re leaving. Gotta head off before the words gets out.”

The anger for Tall Paul ignited again and he set off down the bladder, over the rope ladder to the ship below, Fowler close behind. What he found was a ship quickly preparing to cast off. Crew ran from station to station, cargo was being stowed, and in the middle of it all was Tall Paul.

Wrathchild made directly for him. Fowler called, “Jon, no!” Paul heard, turned, and his face paled as he saw Wrathchild bare down on him.

He was so surprised at Wrathchild being on his ship he had nothing to say, even as Wrathchild wrapped his shirtfront around his first and hauled him up to eye height.

Tall Paul was a coward and a swindler. Wrathchild knew that. Most of the people he worked with were, and he accepted the fact as he bore any other distasteful hardship in life. But this particular coward had nearly gotten him and killed and tried to welch on a payment in one go.

Paul’s eyes were wide, and in a voice only they could hear Wrathchild said, “I am going to kill you.”

“Jon!” Fowler’s hands grabbed his arms as it reached for the knife beneath his coat. He could have shaken the smaller man free easily, but the act made him aware of his surroundings. Around the crew had stopped their preparations and were watching him, and all of them were armed.

But the anger had taken root and would not leave. There would be no back down here, but he ground his teeth together and extended enough control to loosen the grip on his knife. His eyes remained on Paul’s own throughout, and the muscles working on Wrathchild’s jaw as he struggled to stop himself perforating the little man was taken the wrong way. However, if anything Paul’s eyes widened.

Paul raised his hands and with an unsteady voice said, “It’s all right, it’s all right lads. Put ’em down, Jon here wouldn’t do anything silly, eh Jon? We’re all friends here. We work together, yeah? Business partners.”

Fowler stepped beside them. “Right, business partners. So where’s our cut?”

Tall Paul’s eyes flicked from Fowler to Wrathchild. Sweat began to stain his shirt where Wrathchild’s knuckles dug into his chest.

There wasn’t any money, Wrathchild knew. It was a stitch up from the beginning; cast him and Fowler onto a Collar ship and hope. A chance at some easy profit. Take off and leave them to take the fall with the Church or the Watch. Either would ultimately end the same way.

“Cut, right. Well, I haven’t got it yet, have I? I need to sell the stuff first.”

“We’ll take an advance,” said Wrathchild.

“I don’t know long I’ll be out on the continent, though. It’s war out there. Could be a while.”

Wrathchild strengthened his grip, tightened Paul’s shirt collar and sending a flash of crimson across his face.

“Tell you what, tell you what,” he said quickly, “How’s about this. A favour, eh? I owe you lads. I have half a dozen ships, you can ask any of the captains a favour while I’m gone, how’s that? Gotta be worth at least twenty crowns on its own, that.”

Wrathchild’s hand gripped harder around his knife. Then relaxed. That was a handsome offer. Being owed a favour by the owner of a business was no small thing. When that favour stretched to chartering one of their air vessels…

He let go of the knife and took his hand from his coat. Paul sagged with visible relief.

“So, we square?”

“That’s not a bad advance, thanks Paul,” put in Fowler before Wrathchild could say anything. Paul paled again, and before he could say anything Fowler continued, “We’ll be in touch about the rest when you get back.”

“Captain, the authority’s calling for us to disembark!” One of Paul’s sailors was on the aftcastle, pointing. Beside each berth on the Tower was a series of flags, attached to cables within the structure’s housing. The flags operated as a signalling system as ships did at sea, only here they gave clearance to dock and disembark. The flags beside their berth raised and lowered a triangular lurid orange, an indication to leave and leave now; the next ship was incoming, and God help any ship which interrupted the flow of docking levies form the authority.

“Time to go,” said Fowler. He deftly untangled Paul from Wrathchild’s grip and smoothed out his shirt. “We’ll be seeing you when you get back. Don’t worry about getting us word,” he patted Paul’s cheek. “We’ll find out.”

Wrathchild followed after giving Paul a final look. He had to hand it to Fowler. The man knew how to control a situation with words. It was a skill Wrathchild never tried to cultivate. He was no good at it.

They made it off the gangplank just as Paul’s sailors pulled it from the Tower. Soundlessly the ship unfurled its guidance sails and pulled away from its berth to be steadily swallowed by the night, leaving only the ripples of calls for rigging and stowage.

They travelled back down the Tower without a word. They had worked together for too long for them to be necessary, and they knew they needed to be gone quickly. The priests from the Collars ship would not sit and let burglars escape so easily. But Dunholm was a big place, and all they needed to do was get out into it.

The elevator clanked from the frigid air into the lower casements, and Fowler finally relaxed. “See? What did I tell you?”

“It wasn’t exactly just in and out.”

“Well, I’ll grant you that,” Fowler said with a shrug and sniff. “But still, we’re here and the job’s done.”

“And yet we’re no richer.”

Fowler opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and closed it once more.

The elevator came to a loud halt and the door opened. Wrathchild stepped out and said, “But next time wait for me to negotiate the jobs.”

When Fowler didn’t answer he looked over his shoulder. Fowler stood still in the car, looking out at a spot to Wrathchild’s side. Instinct belatedly cut in and his hands were moving for his knife when a hand fell on his shoulder and something cold and hard was pushed against the base of his skull. His hands stopped their movement and he let them hang loose and obviously empty at his side.

The pressure on the back of head remained, but a man walked into his view. He wore the dirty grey tabard of the Dunholm Watch. It was perhaps not chosen for hiding in shadows but it did that well. So well Wrathchild had not noticed the man, his colleague behind him still holding his shoulder, or the three other officers who chose that moment to make their presence known.

They stepped around him with the superior air of men who have a numerical and legislative advantage. Wrathchild and Fowler were in trouble, and everyone there knew it.

“Good evening.” Wrathchild flashed a quick smile at the officer in front of him.

“Jonathon Wrathchild?” said the officer.

He considered lying, just for form’s sake, but knew that would only lead to a quick and hard beating while they made him admit he was who they clearly already knew he was.

He nodded. “That’s right.”

“You’re wanted at Stanchion.”

He made light of looking around at each watchman in turn before turning back an innocently asking, “Now?”

The officer crossed his arms and rested his weight on one leg.

“All right,” Wrathchild said. “I’ll come easily.”

“Oh, it’ll be easy,” said the officer.

The pressure on his skull was released and whoever held his shoulder increased the grip exactly as Wrathchild himself would have done had he wanted to hit someone very hard across the head. And then everything went black.

Chapter Six

 

Gulls called overhead. Their cries were incessant, and in the crisp morning carried further than the narrow tidal flat where the Brackwater met the Evenflow at Foulby Island.

Gatha didn’t have to ignore them. It would be like ignoring the sound of one’s own breathing. The calls fit so perfectly into the background that only their absence would cause her to take notice. That morning there was nothing to compete for her attention as she forced her way through the tidal flat.

Her skirts were lifted up, tied to her thighs, keeping her hem free of muck and giving her more freedom to move around the mud bank. She trod with experience, her feet sinking barely passed her ankles.

The mud larks fanned out behind her, tacitly following her path around the silt bank, but each sinking to their knees or further. Their hands darted out and back, pecking at the mud like the gulls their presence displaced into the sky. They came back with tiny objects covered in cloying muck, were shook, inspected, and mostly thrown back. Rarely there would be a flash of yellow or silver and the urchins would drop the treasure into a pocket and the process would begin again.

Gatha’s hands did not dart out and back constantly. When she reached out it was always deliberate, and what she picked up would be carefully cleaned of mud with a nearby pool of water or a cloth for that purpose, and mostly what she picked up would be dropped into her own pockets, though never did they shine or sparkle.

“Mistress Gatha!”

One of the younger urchins, a girl of around seven called Clara, was hopping through the mud towards her, holding her hand above her head as if it might be claimed by the river. Gatha straightened with a cracking of joints and wiped her hands on her skirt.

“Yes, child?”

The girl reached Gatha with a red-cheeked pant. “Found this, mistress. Is it one of the things you want?” She held out her hand with a nugget of hardened silt as careful as if she’d found royal jewels.

Gatha took it. Something cream showed beneath the muck, worn smooth by time and the rivers’ flow. The outer shell still held its form and the honeycombe inside was intact. So, not old enough. Perhaps.

She closed her hands and held them to her forehead. Images of second hand vitality flashed across her mind; of dashes low to the cobbles and chases across roofs and over gutters. She let the thread go before she could see the image of the cat’s death and the headache such images brought on.

The bone was not old, but it had some power. Her eyes creased at Clara and the little girl beamed. “Thank you, child. This will do.” She turned the bone between her fingers and regarded the girl. This was the second time this week the child had found something Gatha could use. “How did you find it?”

“It was just there,” she said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “I was walking, looking, and found it.”

“Why were you looking where you found it?”

A shrug. “I was just looking, mistress. And there it was.”

“Well, that was a stroke of luck.” She leaned down and lowered her voice, “In return, five yards behind the boy with the blue cap is purse lost by a young gentleman last week. There’ll be a few coins inside.”

The girl accepted the knowledge solemnly and hopped off through the mud to find her prize. Gatha watched her go. Twice in one week could be coincidence, or it could be something else. She determined to keep an eye on the girl. If she did have any power Gatha would show her how to hide it before the Church could get wind of her.

She slipped the cat bone into her pouch. Ground, it would help ease a fever or tooth ache. It would bring a few pennies. That would do. And then she went back to her search.

The Evenflow’s tide was said to be unpredictable. And she supposed it was, if viewed from the short term. Watched for long enough and a string could be seen across the myriad of islands, and mud banks would be bared across the shore for a few hours before slipping beneath the water for years, or decades longer. That was why the Evenflow was her chosen haunt. It had time to collect what she wanted. Bones of cats, pigs or people; they were good enough. But she hunted the bones of things larger and more ancient. Things old long before the first brick was laid on the first island.

She felt such a thing now. It was close, on this bank. It had lain dormant for a stretch of time so long she had no term to put to it. And she had a scant few hours to find it before the tide changed and the channel rose up once again and the bank be lost for another decade.

While that was an annoyance, she would be able to wait until it rose again. By then perhaps the flow of the water would have brought the bone further to the surface and make it easier to harvest. But she would prefer to have it now.

She bent down and moved on. The power was being elusive and hard to source. She swore she could feel it move beneath the surface. She placed her hand on a pool so gently it barely caused a ripple, and closed her eyes.

No. It wasn’t flowing or moving. She couldn’t find it because it was everywhere. So large she simply could not point and say, “There it is”. That would be like pointing to a rock and saying, “That is the island”.

Excitement filled her. What she could learn from this being which once roamed these shores before there were people to exist give it a name. The feeling a life so big made her giddy. But she would have to work fast. If it truly was this large she would need all the urchins across the bank to help dig it out, dividing it up and watching it while she found a rag and bone merchant willing to rent his cart.

“Mistress! Mistress Gatha!”

She nearly fell into the puddle and turned expecting to see a crowd of children in circle, pointing at a bone as tall as a man growing from the mud.

They all stood in a group, but there was no bone. They all looked down at something just over the edge of the mud banks’ rise. None of them were moved or showed any sign of telling her what they’d found. With a grunt she turned to wade her way over to the group. She made the trip worth it, keeping her senses open to the force below her. The sensation of size insinuated into her mind, never leaving as she waddled. It could be the bone was as long as the mud bank and had been waiting for someone like her; patient, and perfectly preserved in river silt; for generations…. For thousands of years. For longer? Gatha thought that perhaps if the bone proved to be too large she would have to only take half for today, and pack it with clay and river mud and rebury it for next time.

It had waited and age. What were another few years?

Her planning petered out as she reached the group. Whatever had caused them to call her still held their attention so completely none had turned at her approach. They all stood there, looking down into the water.

“What is it, children. We do not have all morning, certainly not today.”

One of the children turned to her then. It was Clara. Gatha was not surprised it would be the young girl who would take the lead, but the look on her face made Gatha pause; it was a look of experience which should never be seen on the face of someone so young. All too often present on the urchins who ran as mud larks, but this one went one step beyond.

Clara took a step backwards, revealing something in the water gently nudging the mud bank as it bobbed with the channel’s flow.

It was a body. Gatha knew this mainly due to the clothes it wore. The trail of buttons down the torso told her it was face up, but what came from the neckline was not something she would ever describe as being part of a human being. It had to have been a face once. Or a whole one. Now one side was a ground pulp of bone and exposed gristle washed milk white by the river, the delineation between the devastated and merely lifeless flesh was almost symmetrical down the face’s centre, leaving the image of a half-full face to ghost in her mind’s eye. The one detail she retained was that the wounds, however gruesome, were virgin. Whatever caused them had left its mark and since then nothing else had added to the damage; no flies, and no pecking gulls. That was the only detail she saw as that was when she had to turn away and gag or risk vomiting over the child in front of her.

It wasn’t the sight which made her choke. She’d seen bodies in more parts than this one, and freshly made. Rather, it was what had done it, not what it had done. A mark had been left on the body, a stink which she could not smell with her nose. It upset her centre and made her want to be sick as if her body was reacting and wanting to purge the evil it sensed.

Evil. That’s what the odourless smell was.

“Mistress?”

Clara stood beside her, looking concerned, and a little pale.

Gatha spat. “You feel it too, child?”

Clara didn’t answer immediately. She thought quietly with her face giving away nothing of what went on behind it, then said, “I don’t know what it is. I just don’t want to look at that body.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” said Gatha. “I told you to be wary of things washed up on the channel. They can carry things other than we can see. Things that can make a child mighty sick.”

“No, it’s not that, it’s…” Carla ran through her limited vocabulary, searching for the right word. “It… upsets me. But not like that.”

Gatha nodded. She understood too well.

She screwed her eyes shut and counted out three deep breath to force the nausea from her chest. When she opened her eyes again she felt much better.

The children still crowded the shore. One of them had found a stick and was prodding the body ungently, as if they were trying to see if it was truly dead.

Gatha caught glimpses of it between them, trying hard not to focus too much lest the sickness hit her again.

Whatever poor soul it had once been it was beyond any help she could give now, even had she been inclined. She hesitated to imagine how terrified and violent its final moments must have been. More terrifying was what could have done that and left its mark so completely. It could not be human. And it must be in Dunholm.

The thought panicked her.

“Stop that!” she snapped with such vehemence the boy with the stick stopped his prodding and they all looked at her.

“We’re just making sure, mistress,” said the boy. “It wouldn’t do to have him waking up when we’re half way through his pockets.”

“No! No picking, not this one.” He voice was so adamant not a single objection was raised. But she would not risk the chance that whatever had done this had not finished with the man. It may come looking for him, and she wanted nothing of the body around her.

“Get rid of it,” she said. “Push out into the channel. When it’s far enough out throw stones at it to make it go further.”

“Why?”

“Do as I say!”

A few of the children jumped, but they all went and found sticks and rotted planks and began pushing the body away from the bank. Hopefully the tide would catch it and pull it further along the shore, and if there was any luck, perhaps all the way to the Bitten Sea.

She turned and looked up at the face of Foulby. The sun, low in the season’s advance, had swung behind the island’s height, making the sky behind it seem unnaturally bright and pushing the island into the shadows, deepening the dark places until anyone or anything could have been within them and she would not know. The crust of red brick buildings stared down at her and she could not suppress the shiver that rose up her spine.

She did not stay to watch. She made her way across the bank slowly being reclaimed by the channel, and back onto the shore, never once thinking about the treasure which had occupied her world just minutes before.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

“We need to know where we stand,” his uncle had said. “If we don’t know what we have at home how could we hope to defend ourselves?”

Sandon read between the words. The new Minister of the Interior had been tasked with preparing the defence of Dunholm, and as someone who had no experience with military matters he recognised he needed enough information to ask the questions of the people who did without losing the respect of his new office. And because of that it couldn’t be the Minister himself who found out the basic information and risked sounding like an idiot, so it was up to Sandon to expose his own inexperience in lieu of the Minister’s.

Sandon welcomed the chance at deep embarrassment. It took his mind from the looming war. And how he was treating Arabella. It might be she was already beginning to think he was not a real man, so what were a few other men thinking the same?

The most logical person to speak to would have been General Salter. But the General was a perceptive man, and would likely has seen directly through the questions and whom Sandon was asking for. Also, and Sandon tried to tell himself this was the secondary reason, the General intimidated him. So in inspiration driven by desperation he decided to begin not with the city’s military defence, but the civil.

His first stop at was Justice Cornice Talisker. Justice Talisker was well known, his notoriety gained not through great military victories in the Isles’ name – his reputation had come through time’s inertia. The Justice had been at head of Dunholm’s judiciary for forty years, and Sandon felt every minute of that service as he waited in the Justice’s office. The room was filled with nick-nacks and ornaments from across the empire; effigies carved from dark red wood, the spiralled tusk of some beast from the far west, and the floor was taken up by once-thick rugs, worn to thread across favoured routes. The room had the feeling of a grotto, but with a view through the windows of the Evenflow’s silvery surface the white crenellations of the Palantine peaking above the city’s roof line.

The Justice greeted Sandon from a wheelchair and when Sandon had asked to whom he might speak in order to begin to understand what the Minister could summon to defend the city Justice Talisker responded with a slew of chewed Mearcish which dropped off as the Justice’s head bobbed down until his chin rested on chest and he began to snore gently. Sandon stood attentive for some heartbeats afterwards, unsure if the Justice would jerk awake with a snort and continue, until he felt embarrassingly caught in the moment. Justice Talisker’s secretary saved his dignity by saying the Justice had told him he could speak to Sheriff Coniston at the guard house on Stanchion Island.

She didn’t offer to expand on the translation, but she did helpfully write the name and address down and show him out with a smile.

Sandon decided to walk. From memory Stanchion was only two islands away, and if he used the high bridges between he wouldn’t have to climb any steep streets.

He had also decided he needed some time to think about Arabella. It was the least a man could do in his situation, and if he was to call himself one he should begin to act like it.

She had not spoken about it the night before, but she was worried about her father. She had been saying he had been acting out of character for, what, a week now? Sandon had not un-subconsciously ignored her worries. Christopher Beaumont was another man he could not measure himself against. He was a storm of a man, with a personality which outstripped his short, portly form. Whenever Sandon had exchanged words with his father-in-law-to-be he was left feeling as if he were being spoken down to, regardless of the extra six inches of height he had. It was for that reason he had not asked him permission for Arabella’s hand.

That, and he suspected her father may have said no.

Thankfully Christopher Beaumont had not brought the matter up since the proposal, but he had caught the looks he had given Sandon and could read what they meant.

But he could not avoid the man forever. Christopher Beaumont also worked in the government, and it would only be a matter of time before Lord Downing would need to speak with him.

The thought cheered Sandon up unexpectedly. He would need to speak to Arabella’s father soon enough. The matter was out of his hands. There was nothing he could do about it, so he should stop worrying.

The realisation lightened his spirit and he picked up his pace, and realised he was crossing the bridge to Stanchion. It had to be Stanchion; the grey stone fortress rearing over the houses and tenements leading onto the main thoroughfare could only be the guardhouse. It was too large and too old to have been built with a municipal watch house in mind. The dirty stone blocks were laid on top of each other to stop armies, not bands of criminals or angry mobs of citizenry. It looked as if it bore the same provenance as the Palantine; the keep of a once fortified island. He was beginning to be able to imagine Dunholm as it had once been, long ago, before all the islands dotting the channel all came under the name of one city, before even the Kingdom of the Isles was more than a future possibility. One island would be chosen as the primary by the ruler of the time and a fortress built upon it, ignoring that other rulers had done the same on other islands – time and circumstances change. And as the Kingdom became a reality and grew out beyond the banks of the Evenflow and the Palantine was chosen as the last royal residence, the kingly history of these other fortresses would have been forgotten, their stones dismantled for building materials over centuries, their old lands used for much needed living areas.

Or appropriated and put to other uses. Like Stanchion guardhouse.

“Dust, my friend?”

While Sandon paused to take in the monstrous building a man in a dirty coat and an even dirtier look at had taken an interest from the street corner.

“I’m sorry?” he said.

“Dust,” the man repeated. He reached into his coat and pulled out a small bag. He opened it with practised movements, opening it up to show the ash-grey powder within.

Sandon knew about dust. As sheltered as his life was he’d heard of the soporific brought from the west as trade with Brunab grew, but he had never seen any. He almost recoiled. The stories which reached to the Berthwilds told of people dependant on the drug until they were mindless. It was only his curiosity which stopped him walking away.

The man took Sandon’s hesitation for indecision and stepped forward, holding the bag out. “New to the city, friend? Nothing will open your mind to the possibilities in Dunholm like a good sniff. Only tuppence for newcomer.”

“No,” said Sandon, coming to his senses. “No. Thank you.” He stepped back without looking, half stumbled over the curb and almost fell as he turned away. As he walked towards the guard house he saw men in the dirty tabards of the Watch entering the leaving the large doors in twos and threes to see to the business of enforcing the King’s law. He looked over his shoulder. The man had gone, but the corner was clearly visible from the Guardhouse. What gall would be needed to so fragrantly break the law within its sight?

He wondered what that could mean as he mounted the steps into the entrance hallway, asked a Watch officer for Sheriff Coniston, and began his waiting. The hall was high and wide with the intrusive cold which never truly left buildings with thick stone walls. Designed as the last line of defence for a fortress which was not longer there, the room now served as a way point for heading out on patrol and the people of southern Dunholm to come and ask for help or demand justice for thefts, assaults or perceived slights. The flow of people into and from the room did not slow. It was constant and full, and more than once the entrance clogged with the amount of people wanting to come in and go out through a doorway designed to allow through a cavalry charge.

“Mister Sandon.”

A man had approached without Sandon noticing. He was older, perhaps as old as his uncle, although with the same hard bearing he’d seen in General Salter and Admiral Kulpatrick. He wore no indication of office or rank, but the way the Watch officers made room around him was all the sign Sandon needed.

“Sheriff Coniston?”

He nodded. His eyes were on sheets of paper in his hand and with a flick of his head he told Sandon to follow without once visually acknowledging his presence.

“I’m told Justice Talisker sent you,” he said as he moved into a smaller hallway through a side door, never looking up from the papers, reliant on the officers moving about to make way for him.

“Well he gave me your name on my request. I’m here on behalf of Lord Downing, the new Minister for the Interior.”

Finally the Sheriff looked up at Sandon, although only briefly. “Oh yes?”

Coniston set a fast pace to his walk, and Sandon found himself constantly stepping aside as Watch officers came in the other direction or from side doors, sometimes pulling along men and women in shackles who did their level best to be a burden to the officers. Coniston walked on never altering his course or pace.

“The Minister is still learning his new role, and would like to know how the city Watch could be able to help in the event of extreme circumstances.”

“Mister Sandon, this week alone we have narrowly avoided three riots, one from the north shore docking guild workers, and two around grain warehouses because of the price of grain. And because of those the grain guild are threatening not to bring any more grain within the city if we cannot guarantee their property. I’m sure you can appreciate exactly what that would do the price of bread, which caused the riots in the first. Now, what circumstances does the Minister believe could be more extreme?”

Sandon felt his ears go red and was glad the Sheriff was ahead of him and could not see.

“His Lordship, that is to say, the Minister…” Sandon stumbled over each word before his mouth gummed up with words he could not organise.

The Sheriff stopped and turned to him, which was exactly what Sandon did not want. The man could not help but see what Sandon always felt he was; a boy masquerading as man. He felt his ears burn.

“Would the Minister,” the Sheriff said, “Be wanting a general idea of how many officers we have and their displacement across the city?”

Sandon took the lifeline with a gasp. “Yes, that is precisely what he wants.”

Coniston looked about to answer but instead sighed. Sandon realised he hadn’t appreciated how tired the man looked. The standoff with Gallia had been ongoing for years, stretching into his adolescence since before he began to think himself an adult, and he considered that if the current tensions were a symptom of the almost-war the Isles was on that Sheriff Coniston must have been tired for a long time.

“Jensen.”

A man walking down the corridor away from them turned at the Sheriff’s call. Like Coniston he did not wear a Watch tabard, but clothes much like Sandon would expect to see of men around the parliament. Coniston waved him over and Sandon received the impression of a scowl. It wasn’t Jensen’s face, which was carefully neutral, it was the whole perception of the man; the set of his shoulders, his walk. Everything about him spoke of impatient contempt. If Captain Partridge grew up and lost what little regard he had for authority this would be how he would walk, thought Sandon.

“Mister Sandon, this is Inspector Padget Jensen, “said Coniston. “Jensen, mister Sandon is from the Ministry. He needs some information and I’m giving him you. You’re to get him whatever he needs.”

Jensen gave Sandon a look which held nothing back from the regard he obviously held Sandon in, to Coniston he said, “Sheriff, I’m very busy. I was just on my way-“

“That was not a request, Inspector,” said Coniston, and he left without a word more.

Jensen looked back to Sandon, who to his mild surprise held the gaze. Jensen nodded down the corridor and began walking. “What is it you need?” Jensen said with more than a little bitterness.

“I need a map of the city with the position of each guardhouse. Against those I need to know how many officers are stationed at each,” he said, thinking about what Coniston had just suggested and deciding it was a good place to start.

“That kind of thing is included in the Sheriff’s yearly reports. You could get that from there.” Jensen waved at two Watchmen leaning against the wall, apparently waiting for him. They were the kind of thick-necked bullish look Sandon would have thought the Watch would be acting against, not with. They fell in behind Jensen and at a clinking Sandon saw one wore a hoop of long iron keys on his belt. He thought it best not to wonder too hard at where they might be going.

“Things change over time, Inspector. I need to know what you have now, not twelve months ago.”

You need to know?” Jensen said, finally looking at him. “You’re a Minister now are you?”

The barbed words knotted in Sandon’s chest, but instead of letting them sink and drag his resolve down with them Sandon held on, letting them fuel his determination. “For this purpose you can treat me as one, Inspector. I speak with the voice of the Minister of the Interior and carry his authority with me. Now, is this something you can do or do I have to ask Sheriff Coniston for someone else?”

Jensen stopped and looked at him. Sandon could feel himself being re-evaluated and held his head firm.

“All right,” Jensen said. “I’ll get that for you. But why now? You know something I don’t?”

“I suspect the amount of things I know that you don’t, Inspector, is considerable.”

Chapter Eight

 

Wrathchild was shunted into consciousness by the pain slowly colonising his neck. As he realised he was awake he thought it was unfair that that pain was overcome by a stronger, more resonant thumping from behind his right ear.

This was not the first time he had woken from a concussion, and knew from past experience to screw his eyes shut and open them only a fraction at first. He was relieved and grateful that wherever he was it was not bright enough to send another, light-borne headache through his skull.

He opened his eyes further. He was in some kind of stone room. On one wall the role of stone slabs was filled by heavy iron bars. A flickering light from somewhere outside played across the bars showing rust bubbling along the iron joints, and that where they sunk into the floor, the surface of which were flat stone flags, was washed clean.

That last observation did not sit well.

He was in a straight-backed chair of unyielding wood. Deposited ungently if the aches on his elbows told the truth, and left to loll until the cold seeped into his skin and his neck bent enough to wake him up.

He straightened himself out, and swore as his neck cracked.

Not the most comfortable of cells, he thought. Although at least he had a chair.

Beyond the bars moisture dripped and he could hear sobbing from somewhere distant. Or perhaps it was just the rushing of water through pipes.

With nothing better to do he made himself as comfortable as he could and ran over the reasons of why he might be there.

It was the Watch who had him, not the Church, that much was obvious through simple deduction; he was still alive. But that meant it could not have been anything to do with Tall Paul’s job. The Collars did not tend to involve the Watch unless they had to. Watchmen were known as vicious thugs, and reviled for it. A Watchmen walking into a pub alone and demanding information was likely to be found floating face down in the nearest channel the next day.

But not the agent of a Priest. They may not find anyone who would talk, but few people were suicidal enough to kill a churchman.

So no, not the Tower job.

That meant Charlie Clark. It had to be him. Maybe not for the smuggling. The penalties for trying to avoid import taxes was a quick mass trial with anyone else caught that week, and a short walk out to the Stanchion gibbet to swing by the neck out over the water. Not even deportation and slavery in the colonies for smugglers, not in the city of docks where taxation was its lifeblood, and God help any man, woman or child found interrupting its flow.

So that left the matter of Hugo, and the overlarge body he left behind.

Wrathchild went over the encounter with the Batavian’s bodyguard, forcing his mind to slow so he could question every detail.

His physical contact with the man had been brief, and he hadn’t left anything which could lead back to him. Even in the unlikely event Clark hadn’t pushed the body into the water at the first opportunity.

There was the cart, purchased as part of his role as Clark’s hireling. But that was bought through a third party who did not know either the name or face of Jonathon Wrathchild, and even then from a yokel just arrived to the city.

That left Clark himself.

Fuck.

“I should have killed the little bastard when I had the chance.”

The full bodied sound of iron on iron from elsewhere gave away a lock, a heavy one, being opened, followed by a door and the sound of feet on stone. Outside the bars the ambient light increased until two men appeared holding smoking torches and one with an impressively large hoop holding a multitude of iron keys. He unlocked the door and they walked in, followed by a shorter man in a long coat. The coat was the same grey as the watch, but where all their tabards displayed the cartography of Dunholm’s streets done in mud, shit and blood, this coat was clean and neat, and its hem pulled up short enough to stop it soaking up those same collections.

Wrathchild recognised the coat before the man. That was its main purpose, to distinguish a physically undistinguished man. A man shorter than most with a puffy face and a struggling moustache, and voice loaded with enough vile indignation to last a lifetime.

Wrathchild fixed his attention on this man, the only one in the room worth worrying about, and forced a light tone. “Inspector Jensen, nice to see you. There seems to have been some kind of misunderstanding, I’m glad you’re here to clear it up.”

Jensen stopped three yards short and looked Wrathchild up and down. He indicated with his head to one of the guards. The guard stepped forward, and with speed which took him by surprised, stamped hard on Wrathchild’s knee.

Wrathchild cried and bent forward, sucking in mouthfuls of air.

“Oh, I’m sorry Wrathchild, I didn’t realise you were awake,” said Jensen. He began slowly pacing, making a show of looking at the leaking walls.

Wrathchild squeezed his eyes to block off the tears, but between gritted teeth managed, “And a good morning to you, Inspector.”

“Good? It’s about as far from fucking good as it could possibly get.”

“The pressures of public service, eh.” His knee reduced to a throb, enough so he could straighten up a little in the chair. He forced himself to take a relaxed posture. If they were going to hurt him there was nothing he could do, and he be damned before they saw him frightened.

Jensen stopped pacing to glare at him. Wrathchild held the stare, counting to five before Jensen turned to the guard. “Where’s the other one?”

Another door opened and closed somewhere outside the cell. This time accompanied by the indignant shouts and complaints that could be no one else.

Fowler appeared at the door, half falling, half pushed. Another guard followed, picked him from the floor and threw him bodily into the cell to land on knees and elbows.

“God damn you, you son of a bastard! You shall pay for that, whoreson! Do you know how I am?” His defiant speech continued through pushing himself to his hands when his eyes met the hem of Jensen’s coat. He stopped then and coat up, all the way to Jensen’s unsmiling face.

“Oh, I know who you are, Fowler.”

Still on his knees, Fowler smiled. “Inspector. What an unexpected pleasure.”

Jensen didn’t answer, again just raising his eyebrows at the nearest guard. Fowler got off lightly, just being dragged by the collar and dumped on the floor next to Wrathchild.

Jenson looked over Wrathchild. “You looked tired. Late night?”

“You know me, Inspector, in bed before dark ready for the early morning service.”

“That’s very good of you. Which church?”

“Saint Hild’s on Penny Row.”

“Saint Hild’s? My, my, you do get around. Last time it was All Saints.”

“I like to spread my patronage.”

“Does your patronage take you to any of the chapels around Dog Bend?”

“He doesn’t have to, Inspector. I do those,” said Fowler.

Jensen shot Fowler a look. “If I wanted shite I would talk to the arsehole.” He leant in and slowly enunciated, “Shut. It.” Wrathchild was pleased when Fowler closed his mouth.

“The Dogs, Inspector? Haven’t been there in a while.”

Jensen seemed to think on that, turning the claim over in his mouth, sucking on his teeth. “Well now, that is strange. Very strange, indeed. You see, I’ve spoken to someone, said they saw someone who looks very like you in the presence of a young man.”

Wrathchild allowed the unsaid accusation to hang in the air, silence his answer. Jensen began tapping out the expanding time with the toe of his shoe while Wrathchild stared at him. In his turn, the Inspector held the look, inviting him to fill the silence.

“Where were you the night before last?”

“The Grapes,” Wrathchild said without hesitation. “And no young boys, Inspector, you know I’m not like that. Am I to guess there was some kind of altercation on Dog Bend, Inspector?” The tendons in Jensen’s neck stood out, and Wrathchild guessed he’d pushed too far and began preparing himself for the beating he was about to receive.

Jensen straightened up and moved back a step. “All right.”

The words caught him off guard and he blinked, breaking the staring match. Jensen’s moustache twitched up slightly at one corner and he leaned forward. “I said ‘all right’.”

“That’s… very good of you Inspector,” was all he could think to say. He had too many conversations like these with Jensen and they had all followed a similar pattern; Jensen would come storming in, sure of Wrathchild’s guilt, barrage him with questions and come up against a brick wall as Wrathchild responded assertively and intelligently. Jensen didn’t like people he thought below him being assertive, and Wrathchild suspected he just distrusted intelligence on reflex, and this unexpected deviation from the usual script caught him off balance.

“It’s nice of you to say that, Wrathchild, but I’m afraid it’s not very good of me. It’s not very good of me at all. The thing is, we’re up to our neck in shit at the moment. In case you and your mates haven’t noticed, His Majesty’s got a bit on his plate over the Wash, and that means things is a bit tight for all of us. Not much a simple inspector can do, o’course, but we must all do our part for King and country. But not you and yours, oh no. The low lifes, the scum and all the shit pickers are still up to your old tricks. And now not only do we have you to deal with, but the mister and missus on the street who are driven a bit, shall we say off the rails, without having a proper bite to eat for a few days.” As he spoke on his voice became lower, replacing the mock jovial note with a quiet menace. He leant in until his breath washed across Wrathchild’s face. “So, here is was I’m going to do. I’m deputising you.”

“What?” said Wrathchild, not sure he’d heard correctly.

Jensen’s smile widened, shaping his moustache into a pleased arc. “As of this moment you are a sworn member of His Majesty’s Watch in Dunholm.”

Wrathchild did not know what to think. He’d never heard such a thing, although the way Jensen was enjoying himself made Wrathchild think there could be nothing good in it for him.

“I didn’t swear to anything,” he said.

Jensen straightened up. “Simmons, what did you just see?”

“Just saw you swear in this gentleman, Inspector,” the nearest watchman said.

“Good lad,” said Jensen.

“He didn’t swear to anything,” said Fowler on Wrathchild’s behalf.

“And whose going to believe fortune teller thief over a Watchman of good standing?” said Jensen.

“I haven’t stole anything,” said Fowler.

“You have done exactly what I say you have. Now sit down and shut up or you will be amazed at what I can say has happened.”

Fowler held Jensen’s stare a few seconds longer, then settled himself down on the floor.

Jensen began his pacing again, walking around Wrathchild and Fowler like a successful predator. When he spoke it was as if he was addressing a class. “Here’s the thing, these are special times. Things are changing on the continent. Have been for a while, but men who know more than me are saying it’s now that everything is coming to a head. This is the… what was that word, Simmons?”

“Crux, Inspector.”

“That’s right. This is the crux. And things could go either way, they say. Me? I dunno. I’m just a simple copper.” His pacing brought him before Wrathchild. He bent toward Wrathchild and lowered his voice, filling the short space between their faces with sibilant menace. “But special times means special powers, and I’ve been given mine, oh yes. The power to draft my own officers if I needs to. So now I got you; you and your filthy little friend here. And I’ll get my use or pleasure out of you.”

He smiled, straightened up, and his voice became was as it was before. “Now, what you may be asking yourself is what does this mean? Well I’ll tell you. It means I am now your boss. I get to give you orders and you gets to carry them out. Don’t, and that’s a disciplinary. And that means whatever I want it to.”

And there was Jensen’s game, plain to see. Wrathchild and Jensen did not like each other. Wrathchild wouldn’t call it hate, because hate suggests a certain attraction. Jensen hated criminals. He hunted them took a pure sort of pleasure from seeing them swing over the water. But he wanted them too. They gave him purpose. They gave him power.

But Wrathchild did not fit into Jensen’s world. His actions would be enough to see him hang, if Jensen could prove them. But Wrathchild was self-aware to know he was smarter than the average mugger who walked the streets, enough to make sure he would never be caught. Nor was he big enough time for Jensen to call on a detachment of soldiers from the nearest barracks and drag him away under the pretence of the security of the city.

No, Wrathchild was a cut on Jensen’s world that just would not heal, and it would seem with the sudden pressure the war had brought the Inspector had had enough and seen a way out.

Fuck.

“And your first job, Deputy Wrathchild, is to find me the person who made a right royal mess of a certain docks the night before last on Dog Bend Island. I won’t bother with the address, I think we both know you’re aware of what I’m talking about.”

“This is bollocks, and you know it,” said Wrathchild. “You can’t order me to do anything. You have no authority.”

Jensen did a passable act of looking nonplussed. “I think you’ll find I just did. I have witnesses who saw me swear you in.”

“Then where’s his pay?” said Fowler.

Jensen looked down at Fowler and Wrathchild expected another nod to the guard and a kick in the stomach for Fowler. Instead Jensen reached into his coat and pulled out a dull shilling. He smiled at his own humour, and flicked it into Wrathchild’s lap. “Your friend’s right. Here’s two weeks in advance. Now, I want a criminal. Alive for preference, then it’s easier to know if you’re bullshitting me.”

Wrathchild went to speak up, what exactly, he was not sure. Some half-thought out protest probably. He was saved having to find out by Jensen cutting him off. When the Inspector spoke again it was with a quiet menace meant solely for Wrathchild.

“Oh, you’ll find me someone. Either way, I’ll have a body. Yours would do just fine.” The smile he gave as he pulled back and turned from the cell was cold. “You’d be amazed at the sentences from dereliction of duty, Wrathchild.”

****

“What was all that about?” said Fowler?

They had been pushed out of a door and onto what Wrathchild realised was Stanchion. The Tower dominated the sky’s northern aspect, glinting dully in the struggling sun.

“You must have pissed him off something good and proper, Jon,” Fowler said when he didn’t answer. Wrathchild was looking at the shilling in his hand. It felt colder and heavier than it should have.

“I don’t know,” he said, and dropped the coin in his pocket. He felt it strike the pocket’s bottom. “Maybe he’s telling the truth. It has been a bit lean lately.”

“That’s as may be, but that was a dirty trick.”

“A trick that worked.” He started walking, partly to get out of the Watchhouse’s shadow and into the sun, partly just to walk. He thought more clearly with his legs in motion.

Fowler didn’t follow straight away. Instead he stared at Wrathchild’s back as he walked off before rushing to catch up. “Bleeding Nazzer, you’re not going to actually do this. Are you?”

Wrathchild didn’t hear, in his mind he was back on the docks with Clark. Some minor property damage and nothing stolen. Well, nothing from the dock, anyway.

“I said, you’re not actually going to play along with Jensen are you, Jon?”

“Ssh, I’m thinking,” he said, and Fowler fell into silence beside him.

Perhaps it was the deal itself. But then if Jensen’s knowledge went that far why would he want himself doing the Watch’s dirty work. So then, perhaps Jensen was telling the truth? This was just the straw that broke the donkey’s back. That would seem the most obvious conclusion, but Wrathchild had a distrust of the obvious.

“The Inspector didn’t say anything about a body. Maybe it did learn to breathe again,” said Fowler, falling into Wrathchild’s mental step.

Wrathchild shook his head. “He didn’t say anything about finding a body.”

“Well there you go, then. Got up and walk away.”

“More likely resting on the bottom of the Southborne, with something heavy tied to his ankles.”

“You friend mister…?”

“Clark. Probably.”

“I thought you said he was stupid. Thicker than pig shit were your words if I recall.”

Wrathchild nodded, and shouldered his way between two groups of men. The sun had broken through and more people were risking the weather, despite the few heavy clouds still lingering in the sky.

“He is. But he’s also a coward, and they have a developed sense of self-preservation. I’m sure he wanted to get as far away from there as fast as he could, but he’d be too scared of bringing the watch down on him. Or more likely the other gangs. Who runs there, the Dressers?”

“Yes. That would be a quick way to end you career, being caught by …” Fowler’s words were eaten by a hacking cough, stopping him in his tacks and bending him almost double, one hand on his stomach the other balled in front of his mouth as his chest distended at each bark. Each cough was followed by three or four more before he had to force in air or feint, this done by a struggling wheeze before another bout of hacking. The fit lasted no more than thirty seconds, Fowler remaining bent almost double for a few moments afterwards, catching his breath, waiting for another series of coughs.

Wrathchild waited and thought. Regardless of why Jensen wanted the person responsible for the previous night, Wrathchild would still have to find Clark, and if he was running as scared as he thought the fat little man would he would be hell itself to find.

For the little credit Wrathchild gave him, Clark had been circumspect in his dealings throughout the operation, never meeting Wrathchild in a place which could be linked to him, given away by his ability to seemingly get lost in a single saloon tap room. He had left Wrathchild with no way to contact him, and Wrathchild had let that go because, well, he knew he would never want anything to do with the man again.

Or thought he had.

Going to the dock would not be an option. No doubt nothing from the night would still be there.

He thought, tried to focus on any clue he might have seen, something that would give Clark away.

Nothing stood out. He ran through the actions, from the waiting at a coaching inn just outside the city, taking his time driving the cart in, waiting for the nightly fog to descend. The arriving at the dock, checking for any late workers, the waiting, the Batavian’s arrival, Clark’s outburst at being charged double, his….

Clark was forced to pay twice. The single bag looked to hold more money that Wrathchild could ever hope to earn in his lifetime. And he had it ready.

When Fowler finished coughing he held his pose for a few seconds. When he seemed satisfied no more were forthcoming he stood upright and used the back of one fingerless glove to the spittle from his mouth.

“How would you like to go for a walk?” Wrathchild said.

Fowler was still breathing hard, each intake of air audible through a constricted throat, as he inspected the saliva on the back his hand. “Yes, all right,” he said, then looked towards Wrathchild’s pocket. “You sure you don’t want to start spending that first?”

“Maybe later,” he said, and pushed his way through the thickening crowd.

Chapter Nine

 

The clouds tenaciously reclaimed the sky until the light washed out to a simple thin illumination, taking with it any warmth the sun may have brought. Still, the crowds remained in the street, braving the chance of sleet rather than stay inside. Be-shawled women with net bags of turnips; men on breaks from lifting and carrying; children de-sexed by grime shot between legs, risking a kicking, inadvertent or otherwise.

Wrathchild walked down the street’s centre, avoiding the hawkers and salesmen and risking the carts which ruled the thoroughfare. At cross junctions a tram may thunder past in a shaking of rivets and smoke, rushing from one affluent island to another. At least the drivers had the good graces to hammer their bells before someone poor could get caught beneath the wheels.

Nearing the middle of the road his horizons broadened with Dunholm’s roof line. Above and beyond the close four-storied roofs ten thousand chimneys added their smoke to the thick clouds hovering seemingly feet above the steep slate roofs, dull from moss promoted by the healthy sleet.

Fowler broke into another series of coughs, less severe than before but with a grating quality which sounded painful. “So, where are we going?” he said.

Wrathchild didn’t answer straight away. He understood Fowler’s caution at playing Jensen’s game. If he treated this sham of a deputisation seriously he would be on the back foot later if he failed to deliver. But there was something in the way the Inspector threw down the demand. Wrathchild had never been dragged from the streets before. The Watch had always been harsh, often creatively so, but pulling people into the slam with no evidence or accusation was something which had never happened.

Frankly, Wrathchild believed the threat, and knew at the back of his mind if he did nothing he’d be swinging over water within the week.

That meant he needed someone to throw Jensen, if only for a while. And the quickest way out meant he needed Charlie Clark.

He felt a little guilty. Clark was a hopeful nobody, a harmless bottom feeder who he had already stepped on once. Wrathchild did hold some values, and one was a firm sense of basic fairness. Life had dealt Clark a handful of twos and Wrathchild had done nothing but use him as a stepping stone. And now he was thinking of handing him over for crime which would most likely see him hanged, or at best exiled to the Southern colonies to work hard labour in jungle hell until he dropped.

Still, rather Clark than him.

“We’re going to see a man about a loan,” he said.

“Dverger?”‘ said Fowler. It was almost a spit.

Wrathchild would normally concede the point. The thought of paying a visit to the dvergish quarter of Korringham did not fill him with joy either. Most things were for sale with the people who lived there, which would mean with persistence and the right coin in the correct palm he may be able to find who would loan a small time smuggler an amount of money more usually associated with the larger merchant houses.

But he couldn’t be bothered arguing with Fowler, and he set of without a backwards look. Fowler followed, wise enough to keep any complaints to himself.

The crowds slackened as they neared Korringham. Korringham was one of the larger islands in the South of what was considered the city of Dunholm. The area had a well-earned reputation for prideful squalor and streets which were less cluttered than much of the city. The less someone owns the less they have to throw out. If it had a pervasive language, Wrathchild did not know what it was. He could walked from one shore to the other never once hear someone speak Mearcish, and if they did it was in a thick accent which shredded the vowels and skipped consonants. Korringham was a magnet to the displaced peoples of Europa. They came to the Isles from the mainland seeking refuge and gravitated to the cheapest housing they could find.

Korringham.

The burg had already been populated by another refugee people fleeing from the north. As they moved in with their own people and language and smell, the men and women of the Isles moved out. This suited the dverger, who were rarely seen out, which seeded rumours and sick tales on top of the inbred racial dislike of a people so obviously different.

Wrathchild didn’t care. He disliked most people, and the dverger’s hold on Korringham kept the Church and their Collars out, which meant Fowler was happier too. He just liked to complain.

They walked over a bridge so old Wrathchild didn’t know if it had name, and took the steep streets up the rise of Korringham island, aiming for Trapbone Street. Despite the rise in elevation the air seemed to dim and become more close, an effect not helped by the narrowing streets and lean to’s of the gabled roofs.

The cobbles gave way to steps worn smooth and slimmed down until only two men could walk abreast. At the top of one rise the way split. An iron plated sign above head height proclaimed beneath years of crusted rust that to the left was Trapbone Street. Someone had drawn a stick of chalk across that and underneath was scrawled Street of Lenders. Wrathchild took the turn and stood on a wider thoroughfare, level and open and almost empty.

An old woman, her back bent almost vertical, hobbled towards them. Two holy men in the black sash and waxed beards of some western religious sect talked together by a unwashed haberdasher’s front. As he and Fowler passed their phlegmy language dropped to horse whispers as if the words could be stolen from them.

Empty shop fronts interspersed with nameless alleys and doors lined the street’s length, although none demonstrated their wares through the grubby windows and there were no signs Wrathchild could read above the doors.

Despite the lack of signs he slipped into one roofed alley. The walls within were bare red brick, damp seeping through the mortar, a breeding ground of the kind of lichens which thrived in perpetual dim. Uneven brickwork was broken on one side by a single low wooden door, swollen with age, that he thumped with the underside of his fist.

They waited, alone but for the drip-drip of moisture and a lonely call of a mother for a child somewhere out among the lanes. He was about to hit the door again when the sound of wood against wood heralded the opening of a peep hole.

“Ken?” someone unseen said. The voice was like the word; short, brusque, rough, as if it was said against its will.

“I’m here to see Ishmael.”

“Ishmael no here,” said the voice, and the hole snapped shut. Or would have if Wrathchild had not hooked his fingers around the slide.

“Tell him it’s Wrathchild,” he said. The reply was a tugging on the hatch. He let it drop on the third attempt and it closed with a clack.

“Nice,” said Fowler. “You didn’t say we were going to see friends of yours.”

Wrathchild did not reply, instead he listened. He had been here twice before, once to meet with Ishmael and once to receive payment for the outcome of the first meeting. But knowing the reputation these people had with money he was unsure how well he would be received on this occasion. He was half expecting he hear the slamming of a door elsewhere and the sound of running shoes.

Fowler secured the grey scarf around his neck and stuffed his gloved hands into his pockets before breathing out opened-mouthed into the air, watching his shallow breath steam. His faced changed to one of surprise and he looked down at his pocket. His hand pulled on something as he tried to extract it with one hand until it finally came free. To Wrathchild he had just pulled a large lump of coke from his pocket. The discovery seemed to please Fowler. “What do we have here,” he said.

Fowler closed his eyes and raised his face upwards while his free hand came down on top of the coal. He muttered some words which weren’t Mearcish. At the end of his sentence Fowler paused before a grin spread across his face.

“Mmmmmh, that’s nice,” he whispered. From in-between his fingers came a wisp of steam, his face descending into the ecstasy of warmth.

“Enough of that, boy,” snapped a voice and Fowler dropped the coal. The lump pulsated a dirty red as it hit the floor, breaking into two pieces each illuminating their own path.

“We’ll have none of that here. We don’t need to give the Church an excuse to come calling,” said the voice from behind the door.

Wrathchild could hear the rumble of bolts being drawn back before the door creaked open. The owner of the voice stayed behind the door as it swung inwards, opening to a low room illuminated by the gloom in the alley. Wrathchild stepped through, ducking to allow his head under the jam.

“Well, you coming in or not?” said the voice. Fowler remained where he dropped his coal.

“It’s all right,” Wrathchild said. “I’ve been here before.”

Fowler still hesitated, trying to perceive what awaited him in the building.

“Last chance, boy,” said the voice, and Fowler made his mind and stepped in.

The door swung shut, slamming with a definite click as a lock latched into place.

“Now, what do you want,” said the voice.

They were in near-dark. The only illumination from a narrow and steep wooden stairs behind the door, the light seeping through intended for another room. In the dark the off rhythm of someone who had trouble walking moved towards the stairs.

“Thank you for seeing me again, Ishmael,” Wrathchild said.

That was greeted with a derisive snort from around waist height. Wrathchild could just make out the figure as it mounted the stairs, one step at a time, good left foot followed by palsied right.

Following, he whispered to Fowler, “Don’t you trust me?”

“A man can’t be betrayed by those he doesn’t trust,” Fowler said.

The steps emptied into a room with the characteristic low ceiling Wrathchild had come to associate with the dverger, forcing him to duck or brush his head across the rafters. It was as it had been the last time; a single desk in the centre, papers stacked a foot high across most of its surface, surrounded by more stacks mouldering on the floor and those by shelves against the walls; built floor to ceiling and all stuffed with books and papers, all, no doubt, listing the debts of thousands across Dunholm, and probably what had been done to collect them. Opposite the desk was a single bench against the wall, low enough for a schoolroom. All that built to the stature of the incumbent.

The lone lamp on the desk burned blue-green, giving off economical light and allowing its owner to make their slow hobble to its chair.

Wrathchild no longer found the dverger’s look odd. The arcing nose and the narrow ears could be recognisably human, where it not for their dimensions. He had had enough dealings with them to think of Ishmael as him rather than it.

Ishmael pulled himself into his chair with a little difficulty. “So,” he said, “What do you want?”

Wrathchild sat on the bench. The low set seat bringing his head level to Ishmael’s, and placing his knees at chest height. Fowler sat beside him, keeping quiet for once.

“I would like some information,” he said. In response the money lender grasped his hands on his desk top and waited, slowly running one dry index finger over the wrinkled skin. “In regards to Charlie Clark,” he went on. Ishmael continued to stare.

Patience was a virtue to Wrathchild, and one he thanked the stars for. But Ishmael could also be patient, and if he were honest his head still thumped with the beating he’d received and that wore on his will.

“I know you know him,” he tried.

“You are wrong,” said Ishmael

“I am wrong in the same way you are not here?”

Ishmael rolled his head to one side to concede the point. “I know the name. Why?”

“He owes me money,” Wrathchild lied. “And he recently borrowed quite a lot. That doesn’t sound to me the act of someone who isn’t making some, if you know what I mean.”

Ishmael nodded that he did indeed understand what he meant. “If you want your money back, mister Wrathchild, why don’t you simply go and retrieve it? You are the capable sort.”

“There I am afraid you have the advantage of me. He has disappeared and I don’t know where he lives.” Wrathchild left the request open.

The money lender’s answer was to bring his clasped hands to his face, steepling his index fingers just below his nose, a calculating look entering his eyes.

He replied unhurriedly, “But even if I did know where he lived, you know I could not simply give you his address, mister Wrathchild. That would be a betrayal of trust.”

“Only if he were a customer of yours.”

“Perhaps.” Ishmael continued to stare, his eyes telling Wrathchild he was mulling over the possible ways he could turn the meeting profitable. Wrathchild took the opportunity.

“And if he is not a customer of yours, then he would be of someone else’s. If something untoward were happen to mister Clark how would your competition go about recouping his money?”

Ishmael’s bushy right eyebrow arched. Dunholm was a rich city. An increase of wealth, ironically enough, meant an increase in demand for credit. The profit in disadvantaging a rival, especially if one could not be connected to it, was an opportunity to be taken.

Ishmael considered the prospect for a few seconds, leaving Wrathchild and Fowler sitting on the low bench, hands resting on their knees, breathing in air musty with damp paper. Eventually Ishmael said, “And what are you planning of doing with mister Clark?”

“I just want to ask him a few questions.”

Ishmael appeared to take the answer at face value or didn’t care at any lie. The money lender pushed his chair away from the desk, jumping the few inches between his feet and floor, and limped to a group of papers piled against one wall.

To Wrathchild there must be thousands of stacks around the room, tied together with brown string, all unmarked to his eye. Ishmael went straight for one specific pile, his fingers darting between one bound package then another, prising them up to be inspected one after another.

“I remember your mister Clark,” he said, dismissing another tied bundle of papers. “Although I have not had dealings with him for some time.”

“When?” said Wrathchild.

Ishmael stopped in his searching to look into space. “Five months,” he said, eyes going back to the papers. “Before that I would see him regularly. Always small amounts he would be wanting. Nothing he could not pay back in a short period of time, and always nervous at payment time. I am no fool, I know what he was using the loans for. Word gets to me the kind of people he had established himself among, so I was not surprised when he no longer needed my services. Wheedled his way into business with a regular supplier, I was told.”

His fingers found a tied pile and pulled it out for closer inspection, before being discarded and pushed back among the rest.

“Although he has come across my notice in the past fortnight.”

Wrathchild leaned forward. It had been a little over one week since Clark hired him.

Ishmael pulled another, larger bundle from the pile and hobbled back to the desk.

“One of my, colleagues, as you may put it, contacted me. Mister Clark required a large amount of money in a very short time and had approached him. He could not furnish the request and so was asking for a prop loan, borrowing money from other lenders to cover the advance.”

He dropped the bundle on the desk, causing a light cloud of dust to rise around the impact.

“I do not give out prop loans. As you so astutely point out, why should I help a competitor? However, the amount was enough to rouse my interest. The financier was looking for enough money that could buy him a house, and that was merely from me. I do not know how many others he approached.”

He untied the string, opened the wrapping, and leafed through the papers, a black tongue wetting his index finger every half dozen pages. He paused at one sheet, pulling it free from the rest and placing it on top of the pile, resting his hand on it as he did so.

“Did the lender tell you what the money was for,” asked Wrathchild.

“Mister Wrathchild, I would expect someone like yourself would know we never ask what the loan is for, nor would we expect an answer. No, I did not. Although the other lender did convey to me that mister Clark was unusually excited, even considering the vast amount he required. He kept insisting the lender would see his money back within the fortnight, and afterwards he would never need his services again. Apparently he was adamant on that point.”

He had pulled a clean sheet of paper and ink pot to him and copied the information in quick, scratchy rhythms. When he finished he paused to look

Wrathchild in the eye, silent for a moment, letting his eyes finalise his decision. “If I give you this, mister Wrathchild, do I have your word that my involvement in this matter shall never be known?”

“I will swear on whatever god you have.”

A smile which had nothing to do with laughter crossed Ishmael’s face. “I very much doubt that, mister Wrathchild.”

****

Fowler trotted to keep up with Wrathchild as he left the narrow alley, the address from Ishmael carefully folded within his greatcoat.

“For God’s sake, Jon, you know I don’t like dverger,” said Fowler.

“You don’t like anyone.”

“It’s hard to like people when they know how much you’re worth to the Collars down to the penny. It’s only because of you I’m still around.”

Wrathchild said nothing to that. The Church had put a standing bounty on the heads of magicians, live or dead, for years. Fowler’s profession was no secret among the tightly knit people who lived on the western shores of Dunholm. But even so, times were hard. Times were always hard. And once in a while Wrathchild saw a calculating look cross someone’s face as Fowler passed by.

When the bounty had been introduced there was a rush of informants looking to make a few pennies or just settle scores. Old women on their own had been given up en masse for those who truly believed in the stories infecting the streets, freeing up rooms for anyone living on the street who moved fast enough. Wrathchild had thought the initial rush would convince the Bishops that magic was not as prevalent as they thought. Surely no one actually rounded up had been an actual magic user, not like Fowler.

If his friendship with Fowler had taught him anything, it was that magic was more subtle and more complex than he could ever understand. Magic was primal. Woven into the earth with its making, present in all living things. That was why Fowler needed something from an animal to work it. Or coal, for a reason Wrathchild could not understand.

It was nothing like the church would have the people believe, that it was the residue of the Niz’harene left in the world. But that was why they claimed magic as their dominion, and its un-chartered use was punishable by… whatever they did to a magician after they had taken them from the streets.

He headed to the middle of the empty street, looking around and pulled the paper from his pocket and read it.

“Shit,” he said.

“What?” said Fowler.

Wrathchild handed him the paper. Fowler moved his lips as his eyes ran over the words. “Isn’t this?” he began.

Wrathchild nodded.

Fowler refolded the paper. “Well, I don’t think we’ll be going there.”

Clark had given Ishmael his address on St. Hanging. In a city built upon both the tax of trade and avoidance of it, the Saints was a name that cut straight through anyone who ever came into contact with Dunholm’s underside as the place to go if you ever needed anything bringing into the city without attracting the notice of His Majesty’s duty agents. St. Hanging was hive, a warren of slender buildings pressed up so far against each other only people and hand carts could work through the thin lanes. It sat on one of the city’s few lowlands, and channels crosshatched and bisected it until it had more water front than the rest of Dunholm combined. The channels were often thin things, sometimes wide enough to leap across, sometimes wade through, but it was an incautious watchman who tried the latter without the firm knowledge of each the denizens of the Saints had for each.

To Wrathchild it looked like the little smuggler thought it made him someone of note in the trade if he had that place down as his address.

However, it was also a place Jonathon Wrathchild’s face was well known and not well liked. The boss the Scuttlers gang had made it known Wrathchild’s presence along the south side of the channels would result in a situation pleasing to the boss and not particularly so to Wrathchild.

Fowler kept a wary eye on Wrathchild. “We’re not going in there, are we, Jon?”

“No. No, we’re not.” He held out his hand for the paper. “I am.”

“You can’t be serious?” Fowler said, holding onto the address.

Wrathchild plucked it from his finger. “Perfectly.”

“Come on. You’re seen down there you’re not coming back.”

“IfI’m seen. And if I don’t throw Jensen a bone I won’t be coming back the other way either.”

“I still think you’re giving too much credence to Jensen,” said Fowler.

He didn’t answer, just read the address again. He would go. What option did he have? But first, he needed to calm his mind.

Chapter Ten

 

Wrathchild floated above dark fields. The landscape showed as a lighter black against the background, etching contours onto the night. The horizon in three directions lit up and was for the slightest second painted red and blue. A sharp crack punctuated the flash, it came with a latent bass that gave away the light noise was in fact a deep thunder of physical force unleashed miles away. The distant explosions were answered by more with the off-rhythm of dozens of shells and cannon balls thudding into a large area.

Below him three people struggled through thigh-deep mud in what were originally the red coats of the Isles’ army. Each of them trying to keep their muskets above the cloying mud threatening at each step to pull them down head first. The flashing sky allowed the leader to see the way and he indicated towards the edge of the swamp, changing direction as he pointed.

Wrathchild knew who each of these people were. He had lived this moment more than God ought to rightfully allow, but here he was again, floating down to take his place along the three.

The second man in line was Corporal Philip Pierce. On this day Wrathchild knew the Corporal was twenty three years old, came from West Allerton and had never been to outside the Isles before this war began. He was also a spectacular card player, something the other soldiers learned quickly.

The man leading them was Captain Jonathon Wrathchild.

He looked into the face of his earlier self, finding it hard to believe he was ever so young. His eyes were lined with the mud of fighting through a swamp after an equally tiring march, but there was also the hard edge of determination. The responsibility of the lives of those unseen who followed across his shoulders.

He avoided the face of the last man. He knew who it was. Looking again would not change that. The boy had been born in the same Elmet town as him seventeen years before. He could say that with the solid certainty of someone who had been there. He floated up away from the group, from himself, from Corporal Pierce, and from Simon Wrathchild, his younger brother.

The three men in the swamp struggled against the mud. Wrathchild remembered with clarity pulling his leg up through the mire, thigh muscles burning as he tried to angle his toes to stop the mud from claiming the boot from his foot, and all this done in painful slow motion less an unintentional noise call attention to their presence. His younger self finally reached firmer ground and turned to say something into the ear of Corporal Pierce. The words were lost under the blanket of the distant explosions and time, but he remembered them with cruel ease; Everything looks clear, go fetch the men.

Pierce tracked back, fading from vision as he reached the limit of Wrathchild’s memory as the echo of his younger self lead Simon on.

The crest they struggled toward was not more than fifty yards away, but Wrathchild remembered those last few yards to be more energy sapping than the whole mile before. The mud became shallower, but the increased ground level forced him to squat further, forcing his thighs through a steeper angle.

The mud gave way to firm, grassless ground and began to rise as they reached a bare hawthorn bush. The two men pushed themselves onto their stomachs and crawled up the short embankment.

From Wrathchild’s floating view he could see across the lip of the swamp where he and his brother crawled and across the churned field between them and the Gallian tents, not one hundred yards away. He knew his younger self was surveying the enemy camp, thankful the blue shirts of the Revolutionary army were facing north, watching the Isles’ barrage and wondering what it portended for them, while here and there white gowns could be glimpsed as nurses shuffled between the enemy tents. By now his younger self would be planning and counting; the artillery was on the far side of the camp with…. fifty…. one hundred…. two, no three hundred….and ninety or so tents. So, roughly three thousand soldiers. Those were the exact words running his head, and he knew what would come next. He did not want to hear it, but he had no choice. It was his duty. His fault, therefore his duty.

He allowed his incorporeal body to float down until he lay next to the two men. The elder Wrathchild’s face showed concentration and calculation, the younger’s was hurt and uncomprehending.

“Why couldn’t I go back for everyone? I was closer than Phil,” said his brother.

The worst physical pain was like the passing of a shadow compared to hearing that voice.

His brother and younger self began to lose clarity. The outline of their clothes and faces steadily blurred, along with those of the ridge they laid on. The dead hawthorn bush and the tents of the Gallish camp began to fade into black, and then Wrathchild was floating upwards, not in control of his destination nor in his own body. His eyes rolled backwards, forcing his lids closed while he ears rang with the final words of his brother.I was closer than Phil… closer than Phil… Closer… I was closer…Mister Wrathchild? Mister Wrathchild?

The unwelcome voice called to him through the sky, pulling him from the old battlefield, and through the low hanging clouds back to the present. The pungent tang of incense replaced the earthy smells of mud and gunpowder.

“Mister Wrathchild?” There was no problem recognising the skipped consonants in Yunil’s attempt at Mearcish.

He opened his eyes. The middle-aged woman stood inside the curtain to the room, dressed in her usual red robe, hands clasped in earnest helpfulness. “Mister Wrathchild, I’m very sorry. There is a lady here to see you.” Her face, her whole pose, registered regret at bothering him in such an impolite way.

He told her it was all right and to show the lady in. When Yunil left he tried to push himself up from the thick cushions, but the narcotic fog in his head was still too thick and he sank back into their comfortable embrace. His thoughts clouded, and it was hard to think who it would be who might want to see him. Especially here. He knew no women, not on a personal level.

So, business then.

There were several locales he made it known he would frequent; the ones he knew had an easy way out of the back and whose proprietors he trusted. It just made new business easier to find him.

His disposition to frequent the dust houses on the southern banks where the Backster and Harrow rivers forked was not one of those places, however. Finding him would not be a great ordeal, but to actually make their way into the tight dens of the Harrow Downs made this woman confident or desperate.

His head became clearer and he felt capable enough to push himself to a sitting position. At least he’d felt flushed enough after his payment from Blake to pay for a private chamber rather than take his drug in the common room, although even now the sparse room was not ideal for a business meeting. Little more than a ten by ten foot cell, brick walls inadequately covered by deep red hangings of the Brunabi style. The air hung thick with cloying sweetness of his hookah, making even the opposite wall hazy.

The drape across the door was snatched back and in walked a woman Wrathchild had never seen before. By her dress she didn’t fit into the landscape of Harrow Downs. Too self consciously fashionable, too clean. Although she did enter with the high-headedness which spoke of the self-confidence or pre-emptive aggression at a world likely to betray her.

She gave the room her attention before turning it on him.

“I hope, mister Wrathchild, that this scene here is not an indication of how you work when engaged by a client.”

She spoke in the tones of someone tutored from the core or north of Dunholm, and directly enough he though his first impression of her might prove to be the correct one.

His instinct was to stand and greet her, as one would a potential employer and source of the next month’s rent, but he still did not trust his legs to hold him. Instead he remained in the reclining position on the floor, draping his arm across the raised knee of his right leg, an attempt at nonchalance and a hope that his apparent refusal to stand wasn’t taken as a slight.

“I am afraid miss that you must take me as you see me.” He offered her the other pile of cushions with on open palm.

She looked around the room for a second time, her expression not changing. “I will stand if you do not mind.”

He did mind. It meant he should stand himself. “As you wish, miss…?”

“Beaumont.”

“Do you have a first name, miss Beaumont?”

“Yes.”

He waited for a moment before saying, “Very well miss Beaumont. How may I be of service to you?”

“You have me at a disadvantage, mister Wrathchild. I do not know how someone would usually engage someone in your profession.” She paused. Wrathchild was used to conversation openings like this. Nervous. Evading. To the point but short on detail. He had long ago come to the realisation that his profession meant he was providing a service, and as such he should make it as easy as possible on the people who would pay him.

“My services are engaged, miss Beaumont, when someone has a problem I can fix that they would prefer to be kept as quiet as possible.” He allowed the words to sink in. “As such I would need to know the nature of the problem. I appreciate this could be embarrassing, or even difficult to explain, but be assured nothing you tell me will go any further.”

Her attention fell from the room and its contents and onto him then. She looked at him with sharp eyes. “‘I want you to know mister Wrathchild that I would usually never to speak to someone like you.”

He’d heard the words enough times not to be offended. They were not usually said in malice. More of a way for someone from miss Beaumont’s position to convince themselves that yes, they really where there, and yes, they were taking a step they hoped they would never have to.

“I appreciate how some people feel about coming south of the Evenflow to meet with someone of my profession.”

“You misunderstand. My family has always dealt with our problems privately. They are, after all, family matters, however…” She stopped, and her façade cracked for an instant which would be missed if it was not looked for. Before Wrathchild’s eyes miss Beaumont broke and was reborn into the same woman who entered the room.

“If I may?” he said. She nodded. “May I presume that a member of your family has recently either begun to take interest in strange pastimes or organisations, taken a similar interest in narcotics-” he pointedly ignored his surroundings, “-or is simply missing from their usual places of residence?” The list summed the most usual cases.

She shook her head. “No, my father. He has, well, he has developed some eccentricities. You could call them quirks of character, but they are outside of who he is that I do not believe they come wholly from his own volition.”

“Men change,” he said and she shot him such a look of hot anger that he stopped speaking.

“I know my own father, mister Wrathchild.”

“Of course, miss Beaumont, please I did not mean to interrupt.”

She gathered he thoughts before continuing. “This past fortnight he has become… odd. He forgets things. Not just little things, such as where he keeps his spectacles or maid names, but where his acquaintances live. I have heard him quietly asking the servant’s questions such as which was his bedroom, and once I walked into parlour room and he gave a look of complete incomprehension. It was as if he had forgotten who I was. He just looked at me, waiting to be introduced.”

“Are you sure that you have come to the right person? It sounds as if you may better spend your time talking to a doctor.”

“Would you assume that I would be here if I believed my father suffered from nothing more than a shortness of memory?”

Never presume before you’ve been paid, he reminded himself. “I apologise.”

“It is not just his apparent loss of memory. He has also been keeping hours very out of his character. He is the kind of man who is early to bed and early to rise, however he has taken to leaving the house in the early evening and remaining gone until the small hours, and travelling to wherever he goes without his coach. At first I assumed this to be a part of his memory loss, however he has since been made to acknowledge his carriage and still leaves on foot, alone.”

He leaned back among the cushions and began to entertain a suspicion. “Could you say whether or not it was before or after his sudden night time sojourns that your father’s memory seemed to recede?”

She was silent for a moment before answering. “I have thought about this several times since I knew something must be done before he comes to some kind of accident, and the answer is; I don’t know. Father was always someone who was fully in control of his faculties, very independent, and also very busy. I did not see enough of him to judge just which came first.”

“Perhaps a sibling, or your mother would be able to answer that question?”

“No,” she said. “I am an only child and my mother died when I was young.”

And then he realised why she was there, as uncomfortable as she was. A single daughter’s worry for her father could be as strong as a motherly bond. “And what would you have me do, miss Beaumont? Your father is a grown man. He may choose how he spends his time by himself.”

“I would like you to follow him and see where he goes and what he does. Of course he is his own man, but his work has meant everything to him since my mother died, and with the way things are on the continent right now and our Gallish name, I fear for anything he might do which might tinge his honour in public.”

She went quiet and looked at him. The pitch had been made, and he was to decide if he would accept the commission.

Following a doddering old man about the city for a few days, almost certainly to a whorehouse where he found a new lease of life. Easy, safe money.

And on the other hand; Jensen.

Fuck him and fuck his scheming little arse.

He was about to say no. There were plenty of other men like him about Dunholm who would take this job. And what were a few guineas compared to keeping himself from the rope?

He opened to mouth to say ‘no’ and saw the look in her eyes.

“I charge twelve pence a day, plus any expenses. And I’ll expect payment before I give you the news, just in case you don’t like it.”

“I am ready to hear anything you find, mister Wrathchild.” She straightened her back as she spoke, losing the look she had a moment before and reasserting the poise she entered with. She pulled out a folded slip of paper and two sixpence coins from her purse. “You first day in advance. And this is my address, my father’s place of work and his usual routine.” She looked at the field of cushions between herself and Wrathchild and settled on placing them on a table by the entrance. “Good day, mister Wrathchild. Please only make contact when you have something to tell me.”

“Wait, miss Beaumont. Might I have you first name.”

She looked him up and down before replaying. “That is on the note.”

“I thought it would be, but it seems impolite of us to have a contract when I don’t know your full name.”

She thought for a moment. “Arabella. My name is Arabella Beaumont.”

Something struck Wrathchild then. Some sharp note in his memory which called for his attention. “Arabella…”

“Beaumont,” she said. “My father is Christopher Beaumont. His Majesty’s Minister of Presence.”

She left, leaving Wrathchild staring into space and very much sober.

“Oh, shit.”

****

Arabella Beaumont let the low door close behind her and took a deep lungful of air. That the stink coming of the wetlands that passed for the Harrow Downs’ dock front was welcome gave her pause to wonder what she’d been inhaling in the stinking dust pit. She felt soiled, inside and out.

She nearly stepped into a filthy water pooling outside the doorstep, only side stepping at the last moment, saving the hem of her dress at the expense of her dignity. She uttered an un-ladylike curse and righted herself, pulling her coat straight and brushing a few tendrils of freed hair from her face and behind her ears. When she felt the embarrassment ebb away she looked up, daring anyone to look back.

But no one was.

The street flowed with people, but none looked at her. They moved around her like a stone in a stream, studiously not looking in anyone’s direction.

Strangely that made her feel more embarrassed and she turned, joining the traffic, putting as much distance between her and that building as quickly as possible.

She walked on, a head and shoulders above the rest of the grey crowd marking her out for anyone who would care to notice. Such an individual did, their eyes following her as she walked towards home.

Chapter Eleven

 

It was the cracking that killed Charlie Clark. The pine wood of the tea chest, the chest he had hauled from the docks, warped from too many times drying after soaking with sea spray, broke under his hammer as he nailed it shut for the, what? Fourth time?

He cursed. What else had gone wrong?

He walked around, inspecting it from all sides. When the Batavian’s servant or whatever the hell he was dropped it he’d done the box no favours. Now the chest was a demonstration in Clark’s fifth rate carpentry skills. Mismatched nails jutted from odd angles, hammered into submission from a borrowed mallet. And there, about a sixth of the way up one edge, two panes of wood had separated.

He cursed again and bent to inspect it.

Yes, definitely split. He couldn’t move the box again, even he could see the whole thing would fall apart if he tried. His skill with wood was limited, but he was bright enough to see any more nails crammed into the frame would destroy the already weakened corner.

He scratched the thinning hair under his hat.

Since the night he’d come into possession of them, he’d already sold a few of the things to some of his contacts. His intended customer – the foreigner who had approached him to act as a middleman with the Batavian – would not be happy. But he had gotten these hadn’t he? So they’d be fine with waiting another month or so until he could get more. There’s still plenty here. It’s not like they’re trying to start a war.

If he could find another supplier.

He shook his head before the thought could take root.Positive, Charles, stay positive. This is your ticket into the money, mate. Just stay positive.

Bloody Albert. He’d be lucky if he could even find the Batavian now, let alone convince him to do business again. The first thing he would do when this job was finished was find out who this Albert was and make his life miserable and short. With enough money you could do anything.

But was in the future, he had more pressing problems in front of him.

He only had one more meeting he’d set up for himself tonight, then he had to deliver what was left to the buyer. So the box didn’t have to last forever, just stay in one piece for one more day. Maybe he could hammer a few nails on the inside? Just to hold it together for a while.

Muttering at the extra work he sifted through his bag until he found the crowbar and used it pry the lid from the chest.

As each time before, the contents, carefully wrapped in shredded paper and wool, emanated a faint multi-coloured glow into the small room.

He cast a distrusting look at the window. He was seven floors up and the attic window was above all others on the neighbouring buildings. No, the glow wouldn’t bring inquisitive eyes to this empty loft room.

He transferred the contents to the bare floor as gently as he could. The Batavian had been right; he did not have the power to control them. Furthermore he did not wish to become their first victim, as indeed he would be if he weren’t careful. He’d read nothing in the papers yet, so he supposed that would be the case, but the people who’d bought them so far hadn’t done so to hang them on their mantles.

He dragged the now empty chest toward the window which let in a steeply angled shaft of clean moonlight. The extra illumination showed the corner bracket had snapped under the many abuses the chest had taken in the past few days, and light could be clearly seen through the gap that would need mending.

And there was something else.

He leaned in.

On the other side of the ruined pane and below the splintered wood was something dark. When he stood back to look from the outside a trick of angles and depths also revealed itself.

He looked inside again, and then out and once more in. Using his arm as measurement, made sure the distance from the floorboards to the lip of the chest was longer than the inside base of the chest to the top. Much longer. He wondered how he hadn’t noticed before.

The already splintered planks made no resistance to the crowbar, and the side panel of the chest came away, revealing two rectangles of black wood packed beneath a false bottom.

They were wedged in firmly, snug beneath the false bottom, and padded in all sides by packed wool.

His first thought was how much trouble he was going to get in. His buyer clearly wanted whatever these things were otherwise he would not have had a supplier ready and insisted Clark didn’t inspect the goods.

But no; that was not the way someone who worked at Clark’s new level thought. No, what he had here was leverage. They wanted these more than what they hid them under, otherwise why would they be hidden and him not told? And if they wanted these then they would pay for them, just like he had to pay the Batavian.

He ran his fingertips over one, pulling back at the unexpected sensation which ran up his hand.

Hot?

He touched it again with more care. No, not hot; warm. Pleasantly so in the chill of the unheated room.

His finger outlined the box, gingerly working it from its tight home until he could pull it free.

Holding it up to the moonlight it was not black but a dark shade of brown or purple wood that seemed darker, to suck in the light. It was a tall rectangle, equal on each side, and to move it made shadows play across each panel. There were patterns etched into it, too shallow to see themselves, but the shifting shadows made forms walk, crawl or fly across the wood depending on their shape. He twisted it, trying to make out the different figures. There was a man. Or a woman. And that, was that a horse? Or a dog? And that was a, what? It looked like a man with, what wasthat?

A floorboard’s creak made him jump and he turned immediately towards the door.

No one came, and no other sounds could be heard either. Not even through the window. Perhaps the city, like him, was holding its breath?

There was another creak. But now he was paying attention he could tell it came from this room. From beneath the chest.

He placed the strange box on the floor with the care such an investment deserved and, as he got down to his knees there was another creak under the chest, definitely not caused by his movements. Inside were another three boxes and he smiled. How much money would that be? Only time would tell.

The chest jumped. Actually jumped from the floor nearly an inch before thumping back down, making the dirt on the floorboards bounce.

He tumbled back, falling onto his backside and scrabbling away, stopping only when he came up against the wall.

He stared at the box, panting, waiting for it to move again. His eyes fell on the cargo he’d placed on the floor and summoned enough courage to lean over and grab one before retaking his position against the wall. With the thing pointed trembling at the box he felt a little safer.

He waited, not sure if he would rather the box moved again and force his decision to run from the room, or for it to remain still, leaving him in terrified doubt if whatever caused it to jump would do so again.

Nothing happened. He thought about leaving, abandoning the box and what was in it to whoever was unlucky enough to find it. Perhaps even set fire to the building. It would not be the first time.

He shook his head. No. That’s what the old Charlie would do. Run, take the safest, least rewarding course. No, he would find out exactly what was happening and turn it to his profit. That’s what business men did.

He inched back to the chest, the one hand holding the thing from the shipment pointed forward the whole way. The journey was made without any more movement from the chest, justifying his decision.

When he was close enough and nothing happened he looked down at the hidden compartment. He could not see anything that was not there before, and more importantly nothing moved.

Feeling a little braver, he pulled out the second box, again using his fingertips to gently slide it out. When it was free and in his hands something shifted. Some unseen weight moved inside the box counter to his own. Liquid? he thought, standing to hold it to the window. Perhaps it was filled with some kind of wine from those heathen lands.

He twisted it in the light, looking for an opening or cork. If it was worth smuggling it was almost certainly worth tasting.

Along one edge, he could see a split in the wood running top to bottom. He peered in, and seeing nothing, held it to his ear and shook. There was

definitely something inside, but it wasn’t sloshing.

He held the crack again to his eye. It was the last thing he saw.

Behind the crack something shifted.

The box exploded outwards like a charge was placed inside. Thin slivers of age-hardened wood pierced Charlie Clark’s face and eyeballs in their hundreds, driving deep into tissue and nerves.

Instinct took over and he screamed before he realised he was blind, but even that did not last long before his voice was smothered.

Chapter Twelve

 

Sandon was being stared down. It was not often a situation he found himself in in what passed for polite society, where animosity was shielded behind a half smile and a weak handshake.

But here, in the yard of the King’s Arms inn south of Fenitch, he could not even look directly at the group of hungry-looking men clustered on the street corner.

They had been staring since he arrived. His carriage had drawn enough attention without the need for his jacket and clean boots to mark him as an outsider. He practically shone in the muddy brown coaching yard, and before his feet left the carriage’s running board he could feel the animosity directed his way.

At first he tried to return their gaze, but rather than turn away embarrassed having been caught out, they carried on looking.

“Sir?”

He turned, pleased to have some excuse to occupy his attention.

He faced a mountain of a man in a well turned out uniform, bright red and reeking of soap. The man offered a salute which Sandon returned in a nod.

“Sergeant Handley, sir. Major Travers told us to expect you.”

“Very good, Sergeant. Is the Major here?”

“Yes sir, this way.” Handley marched off towards the yard entrance. The space was wide and open, hemmed in on all sides by an eight foot wall in the manner of coaching inns the length of the Isles. Today, however, it was a marshaling yard, a recruitment drive for His Majesty’s army. But while men pressed through the entrance, spilling in their numbers onto the street beyond the gate, the tables where the recruiters sat were conspicuously quiet, filled only by literate corporals and stacks of unsigned contracts.

“Productive day, Sergeant?”

“Better than expected, sir.” Handley’s eyes never wavered from ahead.

Around them Handley’s fellow Sergeants strode from one huddle of men to another. Their voices boomed with good nature. Big hands were slapped on backs. They all wore the dress uniform of their regiments, brightly laundered and straight edged, and to a man were all over six foot and built like brick privies. To be expected. Show the uninitiated what you could be in the army; get away from all this.

Yes, thought Sandon, if the anaemic looking boys in the crowd tried their hardest and impressed the right officers, they too could be recruiting sergeants. He wondered what percentage of the army’s food allocation was given to making these sergeants looks as healthy as they did.

Sergeant Handley came to a halt and ripped off another salute. “Major Travers, sir! Mister Sandon here to see you.”

Handley stepped smartly aside, presenting his commanding officer. The difference between the two men could not be more pronounced. Where Handley was solid with barely an ounce of unnecessary fat, Major Travers was short and round. His moon shaped face was flushed despite the chill and Sandon had to make an effort not to stare at the folds spilling over the Major’s collar.

“Ah, mister Sandon. I wondered when you would arrive.” The Major’s hands finished wiping a white handkerchief across his spectacles and he offered his hand.

“Major. Thank you for allowing me to come along,” said Sandon.

“Oh. Not at all, not at all. You do us an honour, yes you do.” The Major gave his glasses another wipe and perched them on his snub nose. “Godawful weather is it not? Could I interest you in tea?”

“No, thank you. I’d actually like to just see where you’ve got to today.”

Travers, already on his way toward the inn, stopped at Sandon’s words. He thought the man sighed before turning back.

“Of course you do, of course you do.” He moved back into the yard and Sandon joined him walking between the milling groups of men with the sergeant chaperons.

“As you can see there’s no lack of interest in the boys seeing the sergeants.” The Major waved at one group. “It’s the fighting spirit of the Isles, mister Sandon. Can’t be beaten, no it cannot.”

Sandon said nothing. He looked at the groups in the yard. They all gathered around the braziers, as close as possible to them as the sergeants talked. Warming with the army’s coal.

“Quite a turn out, eh? What would you say, Sergeant?”

“Lots of people coming through the gate, sir.'”

Sandon noted the neutral answer. “Very impressive, Major. How many men have you signed up this morning?”

“Not as many as we’d like, that’s for certain, but we’ll get there.”

“How many, Major?”

Travers removed and looked over his spectacles again before answering. “Fourteen.”

Sandon had recognised the disinterest in the men around the yard and the stacks of unsigned contracts on the corporals’ tables, but that the number was so slow still shocked him.

“Fourteen?” he said.

Travers nodded.

“Beg pardon, but it’s twelve, sir,” said Handley.

Travers pinched the bridge of his nose. “What happened, Sergeant?”

“Two legged it after the introductory meal, sir. Caught Johnson off guard.”

“I see, I see. Well, see that Corporal Johnson is reprimanded.”

“Already done sir. Cleaning out the shitter for a month, sir.”

“Well, quite.” Travers turned back and met Sandon’s gaze. “Twelve, mister Sandon.”

Sandon saw in Travers a man resigned when he gave the news.

Twelve. Even he knew it was low. No, there was no avoiding the reality of it; it was painfully low. Barely enough to patch up one company and it probably meant Travers had more men to guard the new recruits than recruits themselves. Sandon felt guilty he was glad this was not his problem. He nodded, keeping his expression impartial.

“Is this usual?” he asked.

“For this year it is.”

Numbers rolled his mind, culled from the reports he’d absorbed for his uncle; population shifts across the land masses of the Isles, crop yields, past and projected and the associations between the two.

“I would have thought with the grain shortage men and boys would lining around the streets for a job that offered regular meals?”

Travers sighed. “You would by sensible to expect so, but we’re dealing with people, not common sense. And un-educated people at that. Don’t know what’s good for them. Oh dear…” Sandon followed Travers’ eyes where a sergeant herded a group of young men towards the table. The sergeant stopped to coax one of the group along and it looked like the others, sensing desperation, were having second thoughts.

“If you’ll excuse me?” Travers bustled off towards the group.

Sandon waited until he was out of earshot before speaking to Handley. “Sergeant, why are the numbers so low?”

“Not my place to say, sir. I’m just a sergeant.”

“I may not have the experience of the Major, but I know a few things about the place of a sergeant, and that’s right in the thick of it. Feel free to tell me everything.”

Handley looked from Sandon to the distant Travers before making up his mind.

“It’s not the Major’s fault, sir.”

“I didn’t say it was.”

“No sir, but,” he paused. “How far will these words go, sir?”

“Just between us, Sergeant.”

Handley thought, and appeared to take Sandon at his word. “Colonel Canter wouldn’t think as you do, sir. It won’t go well for the Major if we don’t get more lads signing up. Takes it very personally does Colonel Canter.”

Canter. Sandon had seen the name across more than a few manifests across his desk the previous day. The Colonel seemed to be everywhere across the armed forces in Dunholm, and Sandon had already marked him down as a man to speak to.

But tellingly, Handley spoke ill of an officer. If a sergeant spoke badly of an officer so far removed, Colonel Canter’s reputation must have been particularly bad for it to reach this end of the command chain.

“And why are the sign ups so low?”

“Couple o’ reasons, sir. Two main ones. First off there’s too many lads come back from the continent who won’t be running or clapping ever again. Little hard to tell everyone here it’s all milk and honey in the army when each man here knows another two who’ve come back with those stories to tell.”

“And the second?”

Handley rubbed his chin and looked around. He judged the nearest men to be too close and took a few steps away. “It’s Colonel Canter, sir.”

“How so, Sergeant?”

Handley began walking. “Look, sir, it ain’t my place to talk out of line.”

“You have my word nothing you say will go any further.” Handley nodded but still held his tongue until they walked into more open ground.

“Colonel Canter’s been getting us more food than we’re allotted. You know? I mean, we weren’t exactly starving, but we could have done with more and the lads would never say not to more food, but it’s where he’s been getting it from. Straight from the docks. Sea and air. He’s had men at each of them making sure nothing gets by he doesn’t get some of.”

Sandon was pleased how well he thought he hid is surprise. An enlisted man would hang for such behaviour.

“And then there’s the beatings, sir.”

“The disciplinings?”

“No sir, of civilians. Colonel Canter doesn’t allow any gatherings in the city, not big ones anyway, and he has them broken up pretty smartly.”

“And by broken up you mean?”

“With the lads,” he said, nodding his head to the soldiers around the yard. “It doesn’t go down well, but orders is orders. And then he has us try to get the same people he had us hitting with our muskets one day to sign up the next, and gets pissed off when they don’t.”

Sandon suddenly understood the glares he attracted when he arrived. He looked over his shoulder towards the men he saw on the way in, but the corner was empty.

“And how long has this state of affairs being carrying on, Sergeant?” Sandon scanned the yard looking for the group. He hadn’t seen them go and at some base level that concerned him.

“Started last year, sir, after the first harvest failed. Word coming down was it were because of the war. Had to keep the city ticking over and all that. But the war ain’t been on, not with any any of our lads involved anyway, and that’s been noticed. None’ve the lads are happy, and definitely none of the people in the city, but like I said, orders is orders.”

“I see Sergeant. Thank you for your honesty.” Sandon spoke to Handley, but his eyes were on the crowd. Where had those men gone?

“I mean, it’s like what we’re told it’s like in Gallia, sir,” carried on Handley as his tongue loosened. “All the people controlled by the army. Next thing you know they’re going to be asking why’s we’re fighting at all.”

That was when the first missile was thrown.

A bottle sailed with innocent grace over the yard wall. If Sandon had not been looking around he would have missed it as it was not announced with any shout or cry.

It arced over the heads of the men and shattered on the cobbles three feet from Sandon, lightly spattering his boots with glass and liquid. Anyone who had ever walked by an inn late at night would recognise the ammonia smell.

Handley’s actions were immediate.

“Piss bottle!” The shout from the Sergeant’s huge lungs dominated the yard and everyone, soldier and civilian, turned to look as more bottles like the first flew over the wall.

Sandon ran from the wall not waiting to count them, but the smashes that followed were like a glass rain. A dozen must have fallen harmlessly onto the yard floor but the yard was too packed the missiles too many and Sandon heard shouts of alarm and pain as men where hit.

Handley followed and together they nearly ran into Major Travers.

“Got a situation, sir,” said Handley, coming to attention.

“I can see that,” said Travers. He looked around the Sergeant and across the yard. “Any shots?”

“No, sir.”

Travers nodded. “Very well. Deal with it as you will, Sergeant. mister Sandon, if you would like to take some shelter?” He indicated the inn.

“No thank you, Major. I’d like to see your men in action.”

“As you will,” said Travers and offered a quick salute before making his way to the inn with as much dignity as his speed would allow.

“All right, you lot, get it together!” bellowed Handley. The soldiers around the yard responded, all running towards him. He turned to one of the Corporals manning a recruiting table. “What you waiting for, Sims? Go get the muskets.” When the Corporal scuttled off he turned to Sandon. “You sure you want to stick around, sir? Don’t want you catching a brick in the eye or anything.”

“No, Sergeant I think I’ll stay.” Sandon watched the practiced way the Corporal returned, his arms looped around half a dozen muskets and the way the other soldiers began arming themselves. “Something like this happened before?”

“Only nearly at every bloody drive. Hutchy, you little sod, that flint better be new! Like I said before sir, no love lost between us and the city folk.”

For the first time Sandon heard the noise coming over the wall. Dozens of voices raised as one as more missiles, less bottles now but more stones and small rocks, came sailing over the yard in blind fire.

Sandon did not know what to make of it. The disorder, the throwing, it came without warning. It reminded him of the sudden violence he’d seen between men in inns who worked all day long and had spent an equally long evening drinking just as hard. A disagreement, a small unpaid debt, anything left to fester long enough and animosity would boil just below the surface, ready to explode at the slightest provocation. That’s what he thought he was seeing now, only on the scale of a city.

Handley had organised the men into two tidy rows before the gate and was shouting orders at them from one end of the line. “All right, you know the drill, and wheel left, that’s your other hand, Hutchy! Any man who fires his weapon without my order will get five hundred lashes, you can count on that. Now, march!”

Sandon fell in behind the men as they emerged from the yard. Three, maybe four dozen men and boys gathered at the outside of the yard wall. Most held rocks and all yelled obscenities and threats at the soldiers as they spun smarty around without breaking their line.

Just as if, Sandon realised, they were on a battlefield.

“Unit, halt!” Even above the shouting of the crowd Handley’s voice was thunderously audible.

Sandon’s eyes widened. Surely he wasn’t going to?

“Present!”

The men unshouldered their weapons.

The crowd reacted badly at the movement.

“Bastards!” Some cried. “You fucking thieves!”

“Arms!”

At Handley’s orders the muskets were levelled.

Sandon could not let this happen. “Sergeant!” But his voice was feeble compared, losing all its power before reaching Handley. “Sergeant!”

“Aim!”

Rocks and stones were thrown, and Sandon ran, hoping to reach Handley before he could give the final order.

The stones stopped. One man in at the back of the crowd broke from the rest, running away down the street. And then another. And then like a tide the crowd turned, leaving the street empty but for the soldiers and the dropped missiles before them.

Sandon stopped, relief flooding his body, overwhelming the sense of foolishness at running for no reason.

Handley turned to him. “Works every time, sir,” he said through a grin.

Sandon watched the crowd as it died away, melting into the street. The last figure he followed darted between two building. He could not have been more than twelve years old.

“And if it hadn’t worked, Sergeant?”

“Well. Then you pray that Colonel Canter isn’t here, sir.”

Chapter Thirteen

 

The Royal Artillery building had in theory been open for over a year. Sandon knew this because its completion was reported in all news sheets across the Isles. The papers in the Berthwilds had found enough espousing to fill a week’s worth of front pages, and some of those facts had stuck in his mind.

The Artillery would combine the Isle’s largest barracks with its school of engineers. Together they would create the greatest siege engines and cannon their imagination could muster. Its parade ground was the biggest open space in Dunholm, and the reporter listed with concerning detail exactly how many tenement buildings had been demolished to clear space for it. The article missed where all those who had lived there were moved to, but it did outline how long it had taken to grind up the buildings so battalions of soldiers could march across smooth gravel.

It would not contain the largest indoor space in Europa; that record was held by the Gallish capital Redonesse, although that was only noted in passing. But the Range Hall would allow apprentice cannon-smiths to practice indoors while Priests of the Ormorod would bless entire gun lines at once in the name of the Niz’harene. Prototype weapons were also hinted at being tested there, the roof and walls protecting the surrounding home from possible backfires.

The opening had been a Royal affair, with passage over water guaranteed to any friendly national representatives who would risk cross the continent and the war it seethed with. It promised an hastening to the end of hostilities with Gallia, and a guarantee to the Isles’ security.

Which was why when Sandon stood before the building in person, its bulk receding to left and right like a window-ridden fortress wall, he could not help but focus on the scaffolding. Wooden struts cross-hatched the face like cobwebs, embarrassing him with how safe he felt reading those words a year before.

The four o’clock bells were chiming as he scraped the parade ground mud from his boots, grateful the copper boot cleaner was one of the Artillery’s completed aspects. He inspected the rest of his boots and wondered if he should have gone home to clean up a little more before seeking out Colonel Canter. At least then he would have been able to see Arabella also.

The thought made him pause. No, he would not see her until her had done something worthwhile, something that would make him feel worthy of her.

He checked the underside of his boots. Not as clean as he would like, but then again he had already begun to question how anyone in that filthy city could keep anything clean for any amount of time. With one last wipe he turned and strode into the building.

His request into the government stacks had brought back the most pertinent facts about the Colonel; Colonel Malachi Canter, Knight Commander of the Order of Esau. Purchased his rank of Major through the usual channels after a decade as Captain, and was offered field promotion in the Isles’ armies rout from northern Gallia, after the disastrous invasion and attempted support of the since-extinct Gallish royal family. Canter’s division was commanded by a Colonel Maduke, who was killed by Gallish outriders harrying the Islesmen to the Wash. Canter, Maduke’s aide, took control and saw the rest of the force to the coast, and stayed ashore to oversee the last defences as the troops were ferried across the sea. He boarded the final boat to the leave the continent, and then only when the monstrous Gallish Earthmover could be seen breaking the horizon. Canter was welcomed back to the Isles as a hero.

The account read like something from a book of tales for small boys, full of details of each skirmish, how each attacks was countered by Canter’s almost supernatural talent to prediction, and his tireless front line command approach. Alone he accounted for more than twenty Gallish deaths.

But what stuck out was the lack on information on Canter since.

In theory Captain Partridge was in charge of His Majesty’s safety, being the head of the Royal Guard. But however well trained and drilled the guard were they would be useless if they turned around and found a foreign army camped at Dunholm’s metaphorical walls. That was where the King’s Seventh Regiment came in, headed by Colonel Canter. A much more useful force than a few soldiers in shiny breastplates.

Sandon could imagine such a force being given some leeway in how it ran, but the almost total absence of official records in the parliamentary stacks was troubling in itself, before being combined with Sergeant Handley’s misgivings.

He turned a corner and looked down a corridor which much have ran the length of the Artillery’s main building. Its distant end seemed to shrink to a pinprick at his vision’s edge. At one-yard spaces there were windows and doors, leap-frogging each other as they diminished in apparent size. Frosted glass let in light, but no sound could be heard from inside or out of the building.

His footsteps echoed as he walked, and for a moment he began to step softer, before he demanded himself to stop being silly. There was nothing to worry about in an empty building. And this building would not be empty. The doors on either side started out by showing nothing but halos of muted light through glass, but after a while the office titles and names were stencilled across them in neat, black brush strokes.

Logistics: Beasts and Soldiery

Munition Procurement.

The offices of Captain J. Burnside & Captain S. Kurklund.

He passed a dozen such offices with no sign of sound of movement from within.

Ancillary Subcontracts.

Ballistic Education Funding.

The Office of Major M. Spink.

Ecumenical Education.

And finally, The Office of Colonel M. Canter.

He paused, straightened his jacket, and knocked. A precise voice called, “Enter.”

The reception room was barely large enough to hold the small desk and the the lieutenant behind it. The officer sat bent over, index finger holding down a form, his other hand poised with a quill. “Yes?” he said, not moving his finger from the paper.

“I’m here to see Colonel Canter.”

“The Colonel is busy this afternoon.” The Lieutenant said, and looked back down. “Perhaps you could come back tomorrow.”

Sandon was astonished by what happened next. He stepped forward without apparent forethought, took hold of the paper and pulled it from beneath the man’s finger.

The gesture caught the lieutenant by just as much surprise, and his eyes followed the paper while his finger still pointed to the same spot on the desktop.

“Thank you for your opinion, Lieutenant, but now is fine,” said Sandon, holding the shaking from his voice. The lieutenant kept looking at him, mouth open until Sandon said “Well?”

The lieutenant stood with a look which would have forced Sandon’s eyes to turn had he not been ready to strike something. He looked with guilty satisfaction when he saw the quill crushed in the officer’s hand as he entered the office behind him.

Sandon took a deep breath and counted to five. He could barely believe what he had just done. An energy coursed through his arms he was not familiarly with, not entirely certain he welcomed the feeling it brought.

The door opened with the lieutenant holding it to one side. “The Colonel will see you now,” he said in an even tone.

The Colonel will see you now what?” boomed a voice from beyond the door, loud enough the lieutenant flinched.

“The Colonel will see you now, sir.”

Sandon drop the paper letting it flutter to the desk in oscillating waves. The words flour acquisitions jumped out from the title as he turned, prompting a mental note to look into what permissions he needed to read the Colonel’s past paper work.

Pulling his jacket straight he gave the Lieutenant a sidelong glance as he walked by, any hint of arrogance now missing from the man’s face, and walked into the office.

This room was more to his expectations. An expansive desk commanded the centre over a thick burgundy rug. On the wall to his right the islands of Dunholm had been mapped on the wall. Not hung on cloth, actually painted onto the plasterwork, stretching uninterrupted from one wall to the other. It made use of the entire space. The crisscrossing lane ways were filled with cursive script, and Sandon guessed the colonel had the entire city represented in minute detail.

And behind the desk sat Colonel Canter. He looked big, perhaps as large a frame as Sergeant Handley, solid but rounded by age, along with a chest and stomach that gave away a lifelong rich diet put to good use.

Canter was in his chair, one elbow rested on its arm, holding his chin and inspecting a sheaf of paper in the other. Only his eyes registered Sandon’s entrance.

“And you would be?” Under the gaze Sandon felt all the anger which filled his chest moments before abandon him.

“Benjamin Sandon, Colonel. Thank you for seeing me.”

Canter continued to look him over. Sandon realised he’d straightened his back. Finally Canter made a hmph noise and returned his attention to the paper. “And who is Benjamin Sandon?”

“I’m the secretary to Lord Downing, the Minister of the Interior, Colonel. I apologise for barging in here. I did try to make an appointment.”

“I get many requests for appointments, mister Sandon. They are denied for good reason.” He stopped and looked back at Sandon. “Interior? Finally replace Godalming did they?” He made another dismissive noise. “I told them it was suicide.”

“His Lordship received the impression Lord Goldalming’s, mission was the subject some debate.”

“It could be put that way. And why is Benjamin Sandon here speaking to me now and not the Minister?”

Sandon did not respond immediately. He allowed the time for the colonel to invite him to sit. The time remained unfilled and Canter did not so much as blink, and when Sandon spoke the words arrived much too quickly. “As you can appreciate, Colonel, his Lordship is new to the role and is spending much of his time simply coming to terms with the scope of the position. These are important times for the Isles, and he would be remiss in not giving his duties the attention they demand.”

“The times are always important, mister Sandon, even if most people are not aware of it. But that does not explain why I am speaking to a secretary right now. Does the Minister not deem Dunholm’s defence important enough to attend himself?”

“No sir. And the last thing he would want would be for you to believe he is slighting you, but is diary is does not allow for a single minute at the moment.”

Canter just looked at him. A simple look. There was no discernible change in the colonel’s features, no narrowing of the eyes or tensing jaw. Nothing so obvious as Sandon could have explained it, but then and there he felt as if he had been pinned to the door, and there was very little he would have given to be on the other side of it, had he dared to leave.

“I have,” said Canter, “To this date been insulted by four burghers, two dukes, five generals and one emperor. And believe me, mister Sandon, each one of them swore as if trained in it as an art. So I am touched at your concern. I do not feel slighted, but my opinion of the new Minister of the Interior could only worsen with some very real work from you. So before you have the chance to do just that why don’t you tell me what you want?”

Sandon had to work his jaw to produce enough spit to speak. “His Lordship requ- would like to have a report. On the city’s defences. Positions, troop numbers, and the like. As well as for the surrounding counties.”

He stopped, but Canter continued to just look. Sandon began to panic. Had he forgotten something? It felt as if he were being tested, and if he could not think what that could be.

“Very well.” Canter’s response was abruptly welcome. “My office will send it this evening.”

“Thank you, Colonel.”

“Your thanks are not required, mister Sandon. Is there anything else?” His eyes were already back on the paper in his hand.

Sandon ground his teeth and tried to recapture the blood-pumping indignation he’d felt at the secretary. “Actually, Colonel, there is,”

“And what is that?” said Canter without shifting his attention.

“His Lordship has become aware of rumours, of some of the garrisons in the city acquiring more supplies than warranted. Flour, meal, eggs and the such. And that this is happening to an extent which effects the flow of food to the general population.”

That caught the Colonel’s attention. “Rumours? Rumours are for fishwives and farmers, mister Sandon. Men deal in facts and numbers. Are you suggesting something more here?”

Yes, he thought. “No,” he said.

“That’s what I thought,” Canter said in a way which made Sandon feel he’d disappointed the Colonel somehow. “In this specific case however, fact and rumour agree. Yes, I make sure my men are well fed and looked after.”

“Colonel, that is,” Sandon searched for the word.

Within my remit, is I believe what you should say. My duty is to keep the peace within Dunholm, and I do that.” He thought for a moment before adding, “If his Lordship is not too busy tomorrow morning perhaps he would like to see what I mean. Six a.m., Suggate Barracks. Feel free to come along, mister Sandon. It will be an education to the reality of city life.”

Chapter Fourteen

 

A half-hearted rain fell from a sky the grey of pig iron. A handful of drops landed with a pop on the paper in Wrathchild’s hand, livening the ink to bleed into the grubby fibre.

He checked it against the number beside the door in front of him.

11 Gorten Street, the Isle of Saint Hanging.

Definitely the place.

He stepped back and took in the building as a whole. Or perhaps that should be hole. Even in the most rundown of Dunholm’s boroughs Clark had managed to find the most decrepit building the area had to offer. And even then the room at the top of – he counted – seven floors. The man could teach Ishmael a thing or two about being miserly.

He banged on the door. Ancient flakes of blue paint came flying away with his coat sleeve. He tried to ignore this new sign of dilapidation. He may have to be rough with Clark and he didn’t want his heart softening with any pity.

He banged again and was rewarded with the sound of shuffling from the other side of the door. It took its time, as if whoever caused it was coming from a long way off, and he waited patiently as locks were slid free.

“Yes! What is it?”

The door had barely moved, but now he looked the thinnest sliver of black showed between the door and frame. The voice came through the gap at his waist height. “Well?” it demanded.

He looked around, making sure no one was near before leaning in. “I’m looking for Charlie Clark.”

“Why? What’d ‘e do?”

“Nothing, love. I’m just looking for him.”

“Don’t you love me.” The words came with matured bitterness.

He stepped back a pace, palms raised. “Sorry. I just worked for him. I came to collect my pay.”

“Pay? Pay? If he has any cash up there it’s mine first.”

“What do you mean?”

“The little porker ain’t paid his rent in two months. Any money up there’s mine. Law says so.”

“I don’t think the law-“

“Yes it does!”

Wrathchild looked around again. The rain had thinned the street out as people stayed indoors. There were a few around making their way, heads down and shoulders hunched against the weather. No one had paid him any attention yet, but that could only be a matter of time, and from there to the ears of the Scuttlers would not take much longer. He needed to get off the street.

He leaned towards the voice. “Would I be right in thinking you haven’t seen mister Clark in a while?”

“Heh, you’re a smart one,” a pause and a spit, “I can see why ‘e ‘ired you. No, I ain’t seen him for more ‘n two weeks.”

“Two weeks, and you still haven’t pawned his stuff?”

He was answered with silence, then, “I can’t get up the bloody stairs, can I.”

“Then why don’t I go and have a look?” said Wrathchild in the most trustworthy voice he could muster. “I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll split anything I find up there equally. We can get the rest from Clark when he turns up.”

“How does I know you’ll tell me the truth when you comes down?”

“It’s either that or you wait till he turns up. Could be another two weeks. Could be never.”

There was another pause, then the door swung closed. He was about to bang on it again when he heard the clack of deadlocks and the door opened again, fully this time. The frame was low, its upper board level with Wrathchild’s eyes, so he was already looking down and so didn’t have to look around for the voice’s source. The shortest women he had ever seen stared fiercely up at him from under a faded shawl. He thought of Ishmael but shook his head. Her features were puffed and worn, but entirely human.

She shuffled back and nodded her head inwards, not taking her eyes from him. He stepped through. Other than the grey light from outside he couldn’t see any illumination.

“How much does he owe you?” she said.

“Two guineas. For fetching and carrying.”

“Hmph. A lot for just fetching and carrying.” She eyed him up and down.

“And for not talking about it.”

She made another ‘hmph’ noise then waddled passed him and pointed into the dark corridor. “Stairs at the end. Go all the way to the top. I’ll be waiting for ye, and afore you thinks about it, there ain’t no other door out.”

Which was something he was not inclined to believe, but he kept his mouth shut and walked in the pointed direction, stooping to what he hoped was a height to avoid the unseen ceiling. His boot found the first step as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. The stairs were what he expected; all damp-warped steps and bare clay walls, their uniformity broken only by dark flowerings of leaking rainwater.

The stairs terminated on a short landing lit by a skylight. Decades of grime filtered daylight into a wan grey and he could just make out a door at the end. No sound came from the other side, but that did not mean anything. He walked as carefully as his size allowed on the thin landing and pressed his ear against the door. There was something there, some kind of constant noise he could quite make out. And then he heard a horse’s whinny.

On instinct he barged his shoulder against the wood. A horse could mean escape, and he was not about to let Clark get away because he suddenly developed the instincts his chosen profession demanded.

The door swung free, nearly sending him sprawling on the floor. He looked about and the bare room looked back with nothing to return his gaze but an extinct hearth and one open window.

He ran to it with a curse that died on his lips. Leaning out his head was seven stories above the street where a dog and bone cart clattered by. No window pane or ledge, just a straight drop to ground level. No one had made their escape through here, it had been open when Clark left. To make sure he looked around; nothing but bare brick. A weak-looking gutter was above but nothing that could hold the weight of someone like Clark, even if he could get himself up there.

Satisfied his quarry had not just escaped he turned back to the room and drew another blank.

The room was bare. Other than the door he came through and the window there was just a hearth with a simple, unpainted mantle. The remains of a fire lay across the grate with a layer of dust across the cinders.

No bed, not a stick of furniture. This was not lodgings, this was a room for business. Wrathchild gave Clark a little more credit. He hadn’t given his real address to Ishmael, or probably anyone else he dealt with. If things turned sour and they came looking for him all they would find was this tiny, cheap room.

Well done, Charlie, well done.

Of course that meant he himself had just sunk further into the shit. The trail ended here, unless he somehow managed to run into Clark by chance. In a city this big? No, he didn’t think so.

He turned to leave and nearly tripped. The toe of his boot had caught in a groove, half an inch deep and scored into the grain of the floorboard. Squatting down to take a close look he was not surprised he missed it before. The gouge was new; fibres of torn wood still hung ragged to the edges, but the wood was so old and varnished so many times its inside showed the same deep brown colour as the out.

There were other, similar scratches now he looked, all following the same arc. He followed them, tracing the ruts with his finger until they stopped beneath the window. He turned around, keeping low so the light outside came from behind. Now he could see the scratches lead to the door and out onto the landing. He went to follow the marks but something caught his eye, something glistening in the opposite direction from the scratches. It was gone when he turned, lost amid the dark mass of the floor. All he could say for certain was that there was something there a moment before.

He stood up and there it was again. He lowered himself down until whatever it was flashed once more in his vision, and then he stopped.

There, away from the arc of the scratches, something reflected light back at him.

Carefully, keeping his head steady, he approached the spot. He moved a little too far to his right and the thing was lost in his vision, melding perfectly into the floor until he shifted his head back and the light was just right. When he was close enough the reflection revealed itself, slightly darker than the wood and slick enough to reflect light.

Peering closer it seemed safe enough and he dabbed a fingertip lightly on the surface. He was only a little surprised when his fingers came back dirty. He rubbed them together and rusty stain spread between them. He sniffed but no coppery tang filled the air. The blood was too old for that.

He stood and interposed the stain between him and the window. Now the light shone directly down he could see more slicks, all he had seen was the largest of maybe a dozen splashes, none larger than the palm of his hand.

His mind made the connection between the blood and the drag marks. Someone had been struck here, and something heavy with hard edges had been dragged from there and out of the room.

The room did not look multipurpose, so he assumed Clark shared it with no one, which narrowed down where the blood had come from. It looked like the Batavian was right to question whether Clark had the power to control whatever he bought, or at least the muscle to keep hold of them.

Poor Charlie, another small time smuggler played with the big boys and lost.

The absurdity of feeling regret for a man he was prepared to throw to Jensen struck Wrathchild and he almost laughed. Number one, old man he thought, if you don‘t look after yourself you’re no good to anyone.

Clark was most probably dead and now he was at a loss on finding anyone he could hand over to the Watch. There was the Batavian, obviously. But he knew the smuggler’s type; too clever by half and careful with it. He doubted there would be a way he could find the man, even if he were still in Dunholm.

And of course there was the Blake boy. But the idea of hauling an aristo’s son to Stanchion was so absurd to be not worth considering.

An unfamiliar feeling of hopelessness threatened to rise. No, he would work a way out of this. He still had a few days, and in the meantime he had miss Beaumont’s case to look into.

He went to leave, then stopped and after a brief thought closed the window against the rain, then walked from the room closing the door behind him.

****

It was the final cobble. The crate had been hauled over hundreds through drizzle and then rain, and now a complete downpour. It did not have to to be this particular stone, but it may have well have been against the inevitability. The crate fell over the irregular cobble, crashed against another, and a rain-twisted plank cracked. Instantly the crate became harder to grip.

The snarl which escaped its curled back lips was distressingly thin.

Its new body was a disappointment. It had realised straight away it did not like where it was. The air was cold even in the clothes it acquired, and the insipid rain found its way into every orifice, feeling like a cold slime in its creases. The light was weak, seeming not to last a whole day, and the people it saw were pale, ugly and lacked even the most basic sense of courtesy.

And then there was the voice.

The voice had called it almost as soon as it escaped the cocoon. No, probably immediately. The moment it felt air on its skin. It was just too intent on the fat man to notice. Once the man was gone and it realised it was now the man, it heard the voice. In its head now and calling, pulling it in a way which could not be disobeyed.

Without words it was goaded on, insisted upon to bring the broken crate and everything within it.

If it had the capacity it may have wondered why the crate it dragged held more of it. Others like it. Along with some objects of power it longed to drink on; long, thin stick things which thrummed deliciously. It may have wondered what the voice would want with it, and with the crate.

Indefinite images flashed through its mind. Not a memory, not really. That term cannot be applied to experiences accumulated over centuries. But a record of the moment before its imprisonment. It fought against those who bound it, and it felt satisfaction at one of them breaking at the flick of its tail. A tail it did not now have.

It would have wondered why, after the energy and time that went into its prison, it had been released.

Because it had been woken for a reason.

If it had the cunning or the patience it would have wondered why. Instead it was angry. A bubbling hatred that could only be stoked by centuries.

It edged around a building’s corner, slowed not by the weight of the crate’s burden than by the difficulty of not breaking it any further. The voice sang on in its mind and he knew it was not the crate it wanted, but what was inside.

Instinct drove it to avoid the busier lane ways of this strange place. So many people! So much sport. But why here, when it was so cold and bleak it could not understand. Perhaps later, when this task was done, it would be released to have its fun.

With a lurch that could almost be called gladness it realised it had neared its destination. The voice sang clear in its mind, uncluttered by distance.

It looked around and up. Sandwiched in either side by vast, flat walls seeming to hold up the grey sky as it shook more rain down.

The voice was close. Very close.

It heard a click and it spun low, arms outstretched and fingers hooked, hissing a warning with a throat designed for other sounds.

A rectangular patch of one wall, wet as the brickwork around it, opened making a pure black rectangle to the merely dark bricks. And in it stood the voice, fat like the man it now was, but not weak. The man regarded it for what it was, unafraid with an emotion it recognised and could understand; with pride.

The man smiled. “Finally, he said.

Chapter Fifteen

 

From the corner Wrathchild had a view across to Christopher Beaumont’s front door, interrupted only by the horse drawn carriages rocking down the cobbled road. The morning had seen him walking this same street, chatting amiably with the coal merchants as they made deliveries door to door, their steam carriages adding to the already foggy morning. As far as the people who lived here would be concerned he was simply a member of their operations. From his experience, the haves tended to think the have-nots looked similar enough that it worked in his favour.

It was nearly nine by the church bells before the minister emerged from his home and began to walk towards The Clockhouse and parliament.

From his first steps Beaumont marked himself out as a man not in control of his faculties to the same extent most people were.

It was not physical. He descended the steps from his front door without issue, and walked without aid of the cane he carried. It was how he walked. It was slight, almost imperceptible. To anyone not paying attention it would have been a man taking in his surroundings. But to Wrathchild it carried all the characteristics of a feral dog on unfamiliar ground. His head seemed to swing from left to right, eyes always on the move, taking in everything, categorising; friend, foe; predator, prey.

He’d seen enough of that in the army, and seeing it now in a man old enough to begin to think of retirement was, while not disconcerting, notable.

When Beaumont passed a old woman selling flowers against a bare patch of wall the woman offered a daisy to him. It was nothing, an offer to treat for a small decoration for a gentleman’s lapel. But the way Beaumont reacted, spinning on his heels, crouching almost as if he were ready to spring for the woman had Wrathchild ready to race to her defence.

Whatever caused Beaumont’s almost attack, the old man stopped, straightened and scowled before walking on without sharing a word. The woman was still visibly shaking as Wrathchild passed her, keeping Beaumont at a slightly longer pace in front of him.

And so went the whole walk. From Chapel Wood, over the Martyr Bridge, and across Thousand Arms Island and its multitude of churches. Beaumont seemed to treat every person he passed with deep suspicion. When the pavement passed a church his path seemed to swerve towards the curb, but Beaumont would go to even greater lengths to step from the pavement and onto the cobbled streets with their multitudinous foot and cart traffic and thunderous trams, even stepping between couples talking pressed together.

Eventually the minister passed over Seolh Bridge and onto Assembly. Gone were the the average citizens of Dunholm, replaced by the members of the commoner’s parliament and the better-to-do businessmen who serviced them on.

Wrathchild now felt as out of place as he looked. His long greatcoat was torn and dusty, too ostentatious and warm for him to blend in with the few labourers carrying the reams of papers and packed papers into the officers and boutiques. He was forced to let Beaumont slip further away, so missed what passed between the minister and parliamentary porter when Beaumont tried to enter the Clockhouse by the servant’s entrance.

The man who stopped him wore the back waistcoat and white shirtsleeves of a Clockhouse porter, his sleeves rolled back to the muscled wrists of a man in his profession, but he seemed to have problems guiding the minister to the front entrance with a polite hand in Beaumont’s lower back. Perhaps a light touch in respect of the elder gentleman’s seniority, thought Wrathchild.

At the main entrance saved for peers Beaumont left the porter behind without a word of thanks, which, to Wrathchild, proved nothing he did not already know about the monied class. The porter watched until the minister was through the main door and into the arms of the Clockhouse before turning back to his work, shaking his head at the befuddlement of the people who were in charge of the Kingdoms’ fate.

Wrathchild waited to see if Beaumont would reappear. After a few minutes, when it became obvious that he would not and Wrathchild had attracted notice from a tailor through the bubbled glass of his shop front, he moved on to blend into the background for the rest of the day.

Chapter Sixteen

Gatha’s mind clouded with thoughts on the dead body, and that almost killed her. She was certain of it.

She had left the mudlarks on the bank of the Evenflow, trusting them to lose the body into the channel without worry they would complete the task. She held no authority over them, but they knew and trusted her. It was a symbiotic relationship; they would help her look for those odd little nick-nacks she always wanted – lumps of coal, wood from the hearts of old trees, bones. And they would be her eyes and ears around the islands on the northern banks. In return she would show them where the choicest pickings were on the rivers; where the mud banks would appear when no one else could guess.

And none of the older children, or gangs from the far west which looked out for fair-skinned young children – the kind who fetched a nice price on the of the Inner Seas – would touch them. The mudlarks never asked how Gatha did that, but neither would she tell them if they had.

No, they would have taken care of the body without touching it, she was sure of that.

What was gnawing at her was the nature of the creature which had killed the man, for creature it had to be. She had thought on little else since she had looked over that bloodless face and the first wave of nausea swept over her. In all her life she had never met a person who held the sheer depth of malice that stank from the body. It was a loathing so complete it would swallow a normal person whole.

She had heard of men – it was always men – on the far west who were so powerful as to live for times much longer than they were meant for this earth; extending their existence through an unwholesome mixture of dark appeasements and the absorption of living fluids.

She had always treated those stories with suspicion.

It was possible, she could say that with certainty, but Gatha was too practical to believe such individuals would countenanced to remain in an age when Kings could call on armies from across their realms to destroy anyone who dared hold as much power as they.

That was just common sense.

But as sensible as she knew it to be, such beings had at least once existed, and she could imagine they were capable of accumulating the amount of hate she felt radiating from the mauled corpse. For while a human body could be made to exist longer than it naturally should, the mind needed other fuel to keep it going. And despite what poets would have everyone believe it is hate, not love, which is the stronger emotion.

But no such individual had come to Dunholm. She would have known. Those beings of legend saw themselves as above what was defined as human. They lived in princedoms and existed at least partly for the adoration they extracted from the people who lived under their diktat. One would not simply slip into Dunholm unannounced. Their arrival would be like that of a visiting monarch. The rock-hard regard in themselves would demand nothing less.

But she also believed they were not able to travel far from their homeland. For reasons she did not know, but suspected from what she herself was; power came from the land, from the creatures which had grown and died from where they themselves had grown. One did not simply leave and expect the spirit of the new place to sustain you with no obligation. Their movement to another country would likely result in their deaths; untimely perhaps, but only in its tardiness.

So no, not one of them. And while that acceptance brought some initial comfort, it soon disappeared beneath the question then what?

Something else.

Something she had no knowledge of.

Something which could slip into Dunholm without notice.

Something which could frighten her.

It had been a long time since Gatha had felt fear. She had forgotten how it tightened her chest and tried to redirect her thoughts down specific paths.

She had to work against that instinct and keep moving, keep thinking, stay with her routine and plan. She had her hideaways if she ever needed them; bolt holes, refuges in case the Church took an interested in her and the like. She was not concerned at all this talk of war or a Gallish invasion. Armies came and armies went. No regime lasted forever, and no new ruler having to deal with insurgency and armed partisans ever bothered with harmless old ladies. But what she felt emanating from that body in the channel… that was not an invading army.

She was almost sure that whatever it was, it was not in Dunholm for her. She had not known the man in the river, and she kept her head down and profile low as ever. But almost sure was not the same as certain. She might need more than a hideaway. Running away was not always an option, and she could not leave city. Partly for the same reasons those unholy princes from the far west couldn’t leave their little princedoms, partly because crowds gave her own kid of camouflage.

So she had followed her routine. Is that was or stay in the hovel she currently called home, and stew in her own fear. At least this way she was able to keep her eyes and ears open. If somehow this creature was after her she would not give away that she even knew of its existence. And while her body went through the motions, her mind could think.

Through the night she whittled the heartstrings of saplings into charms the shape of foxes and deer; ground bones into powder, dividing the purer powder from that which would go into pastes and potions; looped twine through feathers and around the leaves of the few father-oaks still growing on Dunholm’s isles. She crafted these items into the forms of charms, and then unlocked the power within them.

In the morning she left her hovel and went out into the city. There were times and places she knew would make better business; in spring good luck charms were always in demand by the larger docks as sailors and their women sought something which would see their men reach the colonies safely. On a winter evening the fishermen coming off the Bitten would always be ready for chilblain salves, or drinks which could warm them after day on white-capped waves the way rum never could.

That morning there was no such demand anywhere. She was too late to catch the fishing fleets, and the early winter kept most people indoors. So she moved towards where Dunholm was always busy.

The clouds gathered as if to mock Gatha’s mood. The heavy cover diffused the light but did not threaten rain, so she was comfortable finding a stretch of bare wall on Chapel Wood and she laid out her blankets and charms.

Business was slow. That did not bother her. She needed to eat very little, and the exercise was mostly about keeping her out in the open where she could see and hear while being as invisible as if she’d enchanted herself so. But she engaged in what was expected, holding out a pleading hand to passing gentlemen asking for a coin, haggling half-heartedly over a brooch.

She did not usually worry about the Watch moving her on. There was no profit in them bothering an itinerant old woman selling odds and ends, and if they were ever lazy enough to try a small application of her will would have them seeing the folly of their actions and moving on themselves to find easier people to bully. But that morning there were none on the streets. No Watchmen at all.

In her agitated state she latched onto the observation and began wearing it down to what it could mean. Could the Watch be aware of what creature had moved into Dunholm? Had there been more killings such as the one she’d seen evidence of the day before? Could it be they were all preparing themselves for the defence of Dunholm when the vast Gallish armies finally washed up on the Isles’ shores? Or perhaps it could be on that particular morning there were just no Watchmen on Chapel Wood and she was jumping at monsters which weren’t there.

That was what went through her mind as a gentleman walked past and her hands moved with mindless automation, holding out a simple daisy as a hopeful saleswoman would, and looked into the eyes of a dead man.

The corpse from the Evenflow looked down at her. Gone were the ragged cuts across its face and the empty, staring eyes. Now its face flushed with life beneath the skin, and its eyes were filled with a kind for vitality which she would never call human.

For the briefest moment the walking corpse held her gaze, and Gatha felt all warmth drain from her body. She knew with a certainty she could never describe that the thing masquerading as a man was the same creature which had killed and so indelibly left its mark on the body in the river.

But more than that; the creature knew it was looking at someone else who was more than they pretended to be.

Gatha’s guard had been down, her mind elsewhere, and now she was caught in the glare of a predator she knew there was little defence against.

The gaze held for what felt like too long. Gatha was partially aware of the clouds rolling behind the man-creature’s head, of the sound of a tram thundering on a neighbouring island, and the cry of gulls.  But for that private moment they rooted each other in their shared secret.

Then the moment broke and the creature spun toward her. It drew its arms back and in her periphery she thought its fingers grew as it crouched to leap.

Gatha had more than a few ways of defending herself. All secreted across her body for swift access and created to give her the greatest chance of surviving any unexpected encounter. But she knew they would do little but slow this creature down. Instead she shrank back and raised her hand across her face for all the good that would do. She heard the beginnings of a shriek and realised without the freedom of embarrassment that it was her own. She had fallen into what she had promised herself she never would; given in to the petrifying fear of death that had been the end of all her peers.

Then the man-creature paused, straightened itself, and carried on with its walk as if she did not exist. She watched it go, arm still held across her face, until the thing’s back was lost behind a tall man in a greatcoat who hurried behind it.

She realised she was shaking. A natural reaction she thought had long since left her, and she almost laughed, at the futility of her trembling arm and at what had to have been her closest brush with death in decades. The residual fear stopped the laugh before it could take hold.

But then she realised there was no residual fear. She was as calm as she ever was. To convince herself she wasn’t just in shock she brought her hand level in front of her face.

As still as a rock.

She looked down the street where the creature had gone.

“It was a projection,” she said to herself. It exuded the stink of fear like some kind of miasma. Perhaps a weapon in its arsenal to snare prey. A normal person would feel confused and off balance, but someone like her – someone in tune with the world and the magic entwined within it – was rendered helpless.

She let the implications play out in her mind, and steadily fear was replaced by anger.

No. Not here. This was her home. She could not run away and she would not hide. She did not know what this creature was nor why it was in Dunholm, but she would make certain it would leave or die.

Gatha stood and the crushed flower fell from her hand to the cold pavement.

 

Chapter 17

 

The Clockhouse was what people not from Dunholm knew of the city. It was the the third characteristic they could name even if they had never come within a hundred miles of the outer boroughs, after the Tower and the Palantine. In a city of pretentious and aspirational architecture the building itself did little to set itself apart, aside from taking up one full half of the Isle of Assembly – becoming almost a burgh in itself – it was simply just another building with too many windows and too few doors.

That was until one looked up at the Clockhouse tower.

Against the vast height of the Tower, the Clockhouse barely rated, a mere one hundred and fifty yards tall. When it had been built it boasted four massive clock faces, one one each of the belfry’s facing, each fifteen yards across. At the time they were Europa’s wonder. That was eight decades ago. And since then one clock face had been added for each major city to come under the protection of the Empire of the Isles. Sized in proportion to the represented city’s importance to the empire, none nearly as grand as the four main faces to grace the tower’s original facade, but when those other faces numbered in the hundreds, it mattered little if the largest was only a yard across.

Each of these new time pieces were wound to show the present time in the city it represented, adding a hour here, taking away two there. Thirty and fifteen minutes showed for those odd, mosquito-ridden jungle islands which haunted the southern oceans and boasted a governor born within the Isles. Every quarter of an hour the square before the Clockhouse would resound with hundreds of chimes. Which was nothing when, at every hour, the majority of the tower’s clocks would chime in a cacophony with a force bordering on the physical, topped off the with original time piece at the tower’s apex, chiming late like the old man it was and putting a thankful end to the din with a single, thunder-like peel.

Wrathchild suffered five of these audible eruptions in his wait for Beaumont to re-emerge. Buying first his breakfast, then lunch from mobile chestnut stalls. He thought on Beaumont’s condition as he moved from one waiting spot to another, avoiding staying in one position long enough to draw attention. If what miss Beaumont said was correct, her father went from his normal self to this confused, overly aggressive memory leak within a few days. Maybe less. Wrathchild would admit he had little in the way of real knowledge in such matters, but even he knew while the mind could slip in old age it was a process of months and years. Perhaps there was something more in miss Beaumont’s hiring him than simply the concern of a daughter.

“My son.”

Wrathchild hid the tensing of his shoulders. The greeting had come from behind, but the tone was as characteristic as the words; soft with an underlying steel, both a welcome and a warning. He turned to see the Collar behind him.

The priest stood with hands tucked into the sleeves of his cream robes, his hood showing nothing but his eyes regarding Wrathchild to the exclusion of all else.

Wrathchild’s first thought was to wonder if this was the same priest from the Panno Bianche. That one had not spoken with a Mearcish accent. This one did. Although accents alone meant little. His experience than the Collars told him that if this was the same priest, and he recognised Wrathchild, either his death would have arrived without him noticing or he would already have been dragged off behind a mob of Watchmen.

“Father,” he said, and let his head drop in a slight bow.

“A fine day.”

“That it is,” Wrathchild said, ignoring the clouds.

“Perhaps the last of the year, do you think?” The Collar walked to Wrathchild’s side almost amiably and looked out into the square. “One could almost say the last day of the year without rain was too precious to waste on errands. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Wrathchild kept his mouth shut.

“And what are your errands today, my son,” he said as if Wrathchild had responded.

Perhaps the priest was just making conversation, or perhaps this was something more. The Collars were everywhere. Always hunting, always taking. They had an unhealthy relationship with the Crown, and powers which were confusing, although certainly real.

The priest turned to Wrathchild, expecting an answer. The slits in his hood did not give away any expression.

“I’m just waiting for someone, father.” He held out the paper bag of chestnuts, its opening steaming into the afternoon’s chill.

The Collar ignored the bag and kept his eyes level on Wrathchild’s. “It’s turning cold. Why not wait inside?”

“You know how it is, father,” he said, and pulled on his coat’s hem. “I make places look untidy.”

The eyes in the slits creased in a smile. The priest came and stood beside him, looking out across the small park which took up most of the Clockhouse’s square. “They do like people to know their places.”

“Not my place to say so, father.” He saw the Collar’s eyes smile again.

“Very good. Although I think you’re being out here proves my point. Such a step backwards though, don’t you think?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“Perhaps you would not. But in my experience there are so much more effective ways of letting a man know his place in this world.” He looked back to Wrathchild, an invitation to share in what he considered a joke.

Wrathchild searched his mind for anything he’d learnt from scripture which would make the priest satisfied that he was nothing but an errand worker and send him on his way, perhaps a line which said something a man’s duty in life. With the priest beside him he would be all but invisible to everyone else. No one wanted the undue attention of a priest. But it was the warding of attention like having a wolf at a campfire; it kept other people away, but put him in another kind of danger.

“It does a man good to know his limits, father.”

The priest considered the comment and apparently found it reasonable.

Then he stopped. The Collar’s head raised a little and Wrathchild could swear he heard the man inhale, a deep sniff to draw air through his cloth hood. Air, or smell.

Wrathchild tensed. How long had it been since his time with Clark on the docks, when he’d had his hands on Fowler’s amulet? Surely the magic’s reek would have left him.

Surely.

The priest sniffed again.

And in reflex Wrathchild coughed and closed his bag of chestnuts by clapping his hands together, expelling all the steam and odour of roasted nuts in a single, musky cloud directly into the priest’s face.

“Beg pardon, father” he said, and coughed again into his fist as the priest blink and sneezed. “Bugger of a cough, won’t leave me along. Begging my language.”

Christopher Beaumont took that moment to step from the Clockhouse’s doors. He descended the short flight of stairs to street level and turned immediately left toward the Seolh Bridge.

The priest was still bent and coughing. Wrathchild pushed the bag of nuts into his hand and patted him on the shoulder, ignoring the break in decorum. “Sorry, father, but my appointment’s here. Help yourself to a nut, they’re good for your chest.” And with another pat he was off after Beaumont before the Collar could say a word.

****

The afternoon was overcast as always, but not oppressively so. The sun behind the clouds burned bright enough to allow half formed shadows to follow the people along the street, making their way home in the afternoon before the early winter night set in.

Wrathchild held the news sheet above his head, folded four times and rolled so tight its pages would not ruffle. Just as the gentlemen liked them, the boy told him.

“Troops in Prutenia. Read all about it, afternoon edition,” he yelled. Rather weakly. He was not used to drawing attention to himself, and his voice was already horse from the unaccustomed use.

Under a carriage gateway across the street the paper boy laughed into his hand. He had already made the trip across the pavements twice to offer advice on how Wrathchild may better make a show of actually selling the papers. Generous, considering Wrathchild had already given him enough money to cover the sale of all newsheets in exchange for taking his spot at the corner.

The street grew increasingly dim. The clouds had won this day’s battle with the sun, darkening the city hours before sunset, and the lace window blinds of the Beaumont residence twitched when the inner curtains were closed. The advancing afternoon meant he would soon have to find another reason to be there.

The glossy shine of the remaining daylight shifted on the Beaumont’s front door as it opened and there was Christopher Beaumont again. He let the door close behind as he breathed in the chill air, the same deep resenting frown from the morning still etching his face

Wrathchild waved the boy over, ruffled his hair and handed over the remaining newspapers before falling in behind Beaumont.

Despite the acidic look on his face the minister acted almost normally compared to that morning. He set off with a purpose, eyes ahead, head unmoving, oblivious to all around him. Twice he was almost run down by carriages when he crossed their path, but on neither occasion did he stop or even acknowledge his brush with death, the shouted curses which followed his back or the panicked whinny of the horses as they fought against their bridles.

From his home he took a southward walk, heading east and south, the route suggesting he was aiming for for the bridge taking him toward the Evenflow, and soon enough the wide channel wove into sight, rolling lazy and black in the starless night. The lamp lighters were out in force, on the river’s banks, doing their best to fight off the dark, their long, lit poles punching into one dark lamp head after another.

Wrathchild guessed where they would end up before they arrived. Bailey. Moody Lane. Foulby. The chain of islands marking Beaumont’s route held an inevitability Wrathchild could read well before the destination came into view.

Dog’s Bend Island.

They were drawing close to the same docks he waited upon with Charlie Clark over a week before.

They entered the island as the working day ended for the hands and apprentices across the waterfront and docks. The tide of greasy jackets, flat caps and the offensive smell of gutted fish rolled with them, threatening at each step to hide Beaumont’s trail. The flow of people ebbed at times, allowing Wrathchild to keep his quarry in sight, and before he knew it Beaumont reached the gateway to the dockyard where Wrathchild had killed Hugo.

Beaumont kept on walking, his head not once looking into the yard.

Wrathchild felt oddly relieved. The possibility this case and his work for Clark were linked could have made things complicated. But where ever Beaumont was heading it was close. Dog’s Bend faced onto the Evenflow, and Beaumont was walking directly to that waterfront.

The minister walked on another two streets before he broke his step and he unexpectedly turned to scan the street behind. Wrathchild had allowed a generous space between them, and as Beaumont turned a group of dockworkers caught up behind him. He slowed his pace, waved to them and said “See you tomorrow, Ted,” as he stepped down a side street.

“Who?” one of them said, but to Wrathchild’s relief did not stop.

He waited with his back against the cold red bricks of the corner building, counting with a forced slowness under his breath. At five he edged around the corner.

The three men he spoke to were still walking. They passed Beaumont and the minister watched them go by without hiding his attention.

The men carried on, paying the minister no heed. When they were a good twenty yards away Beaumont cast one more look in his direction. Wrathchild ducked back and risked another glance when no sound heralded his discovery.

Beaumont had stepped away from the street and Wrathchild had to lean further to keep him in sight. The minister stood in front of a warehouse. He brought his cane up and hit it hard three times against the wooden wagon entrance and waited.

The seconds drew out, and then a wave of light spread across Beaumont, spilling over him and onto the cobbles. Not saying a word he stepped over the threshold and out of sight before the door closed.

Wrathchild came from behind the corner. He walked past the warehouse without stopping, only his eyes turning toward the building in case the person who answered the door would also the kind of person who looked out from windows. But there were no windows, only one large gate for allowing entrance to wagons, the edges of which were outlined with a faint glow from inside. Set in one side of the gate was a smaller door for people.

No signs of ownership were evident on the building. Above the main gateway there may once have been a painted sign of a company, faded now or removed. Wrathchild thought he could possibly the crossed yellow keys of Brunabi Concerns, but that would not signify anything. The Concern, with their nation-sized purses, bought and sold property as and when they needed and he doubted it was still in their possession. If it were the emblem would still be blazoned in the most obvious position.

Of course it was entirely possible that Beaumont owned the warehouse himself. He was a government minister. The ownership of a warehouse would no be beyond him.

But if that was the case, why the secrecy?

The first through that sprung to mind was that he would find a brothel within. A little out of the way, but perhaps this was an attempt at discretion on the owner’s part. That could possibly account for the sudden change in behaviour, a vigour suddenly discovered after years of widowerhood.

But something at the back of his mind told him not to trust his first impression, and Wrathchild listened to his instincts. They had saved his life more than once.

The building rose over him, the guttering lost in the now night’s darkness. The lamp lighters’ work not as evident here as other islands. The building’s corner stood at a junction of the main street and an access lane leading down its side, angling toward the river.

Seeing no other entrances he made his way towards the building’s rear.

It ended at a low wall, beyond which the pitch blackness filled with hundreds of yards of unseen water as the Evenflow sluiced by. The back of the warehouse was ringed by an eight foot fence, the smell of damp wood and mouldering paper became more apparent the closer he got.

The fence’s boards had been nailed together once upon a time, but entropy and the river air had had their way. Through the gaps he could see the deep yellow of lamp light fall across a yard of discarded tea boxes and packing paper, and hear the sound of movement and distant voices.

Angles distorted the words, but Wrathchild recognised one as Beaumont’s, the other was also somehow familiar. The suspicion he’d heard it before gnawed his ears, but without individual words identifying the owner proved impossible.

Grasping the sides of one board, he twisted and pulled, careful to avoid any noise. It came away without a sound, and he left the length of wood hanging next his new entrance and bent his shoulders through the gap.

The yard proved to be a loading dock, standing on its own private stretch of river bank. Opposite were the wide open gates into the warehouse proper. From his angle he couldn’t see anything of the interior, but wooden packing pallets, stacked head-high along the rear wall, gave him a hidden corridor to the entrance.

He slipped between the pallets and the wall and edged closer, the words from within coming clearer as he neared.

“…the food. There were small fish. They don’t even bother to remove the bones. And they clean away the salt. I can’t remember the last time I tasted salt,” said one voice, the monotone making it Beaumont’s.

“I don’t care if you ate a child.” That was the second voice. “Just tell me about Downing.”

The shallow angle did not allow Wrathchild a view into the building. He crept as near to the entrance as he dare, remaining out of the lantern light.

“And they drink some kind of goat piss they called wine. They didn’t even understand when I told them to get me some rakija.”

“What. About. Downing?” The second voice enunciated each word as if speaking to a child.

“Geoffrey Downing,” Beaumont again, this said in an eve more bitter tone than before, “Will be making an inspection of his business interests tomorrow.”

“You’re sure?” said the second voice. There was a flowing cadence that said Gallish to Wrathchild in very certain terms.

The scraping of wood against stone echoed through the gateway in juddering bursts, each burst punctuated with heavy breathing.

“He told me himself,” said Beaumont, “When we were drinking the goat piss.”

Another grunt and scrape.

“Excellent,” said the second voice. “Help him with that.” And then the sound of damp wood groaning nails being prized with a crowbar or hammer.

Surely Beaumont could not be taking part in a burglary?

Wrathchild pushed his back against the wall. and edged toward the gateway. His face was a few inches from the opening when he stopped and risked a swift glance. His look gave him a cursory layout of the loading dock, and the backs of three men. The one on the left was Beaumont, his plum coloured coat too distinctive to mistake, the other had an equally thick coat of cheaper appearance. Both men were bent over a packing crate, their arms within, holding or working something out. And then there was a third man. Wrathchild’s eyes gravitated towards his round back. The man was fat. Very fat. Ham-like shoulders strained beneath a coat finer than Beaumont’s. Lamps lining the wall reflected greasily from thick wavy hair and he stood apart from the other two.

He could have been any number of men Wrathchild saw on the streets each day, but a sense of the familiar prompted from hearing the voice told Wrathchild he should know this man. A name and place teased at his mind like a cut, remaining just out of mental reach. But he stayed with his back to Wrathchild, whatever was inside the crate held his attention completely.

Across from Wrathchild wooden boxes were stacked in neat rows; a much better position to see from.

Without waiting Wrathchild ran as quietly as he could in a half squat, keeping his head below the loading dock lip. When he was nearly at the far side he placed his left hand on the dock and half pulled, half jumped into the bay. He judged correctly and was behind the crates with no sound to indicate being heard.

He inched around the boxes, keeping them between himself and the men, and found it allowed him to walk between them and the wall.

“When would his lordship be doing this?’ said the Gallish voice.

“In the morning. He says.” The two sentences separated with a grunt.

There were more scraping pushes. Then the foreigner spoke again.

“All right, it’s out. Where is his office?”

There was no spoken answer, only receding footsteps. Wrathchild risked a look and saw Beaumont climbing steps against the far wall, followed by the two strangers. The second man held something to his chest, unseen to Wrathchild, but the angle of his elbows, held out to be almost perpendicular to his chest, suggested to him it was something fragile or very heavy.

They topped the stairs and disappeared from view among offices overlooking the storeroom floor.

He took his chance and broke from cover, keeping quiet as he walked to where the three men stood a moment before.

In the bay’s centre was a lone tea crate, its lid had been prized off and lay on the floor. The crate itself had no signs or writing on the outside suggesting what it contained, and inside was empty of everything but packing material. But he did not think there would be many cargoes that would warrant such careful packing as he saw here.

The inside of the box was lined in torn paper, shredded to thin strips, spilling out over the open lid. Wraps of silk formed an inner layer within the paper, subtle purples and dark reds, wrapped carefully and deep, evenly around an empty hole within the centre. Instinctively he padded his hand around the cloth and was surprised when he felt latent warmth radiating from inside.

The thump of a door closing from upstairs told him his time in the open had ended. He moved back towards the boxes against the wall. He would have to wait until the men left to see what they had deposited in this Downing gentleman’s office, but that was just a matter of patience.

Then he saw the bowler hat hanging on the edge of the crates he had hidden behind. It occurred to him that he had seen that hat before just as a door ahead of him clicked as someone took the handle on the other side. He stood in the centre of a pool of lamp light; there was nowhere for him to hide without making a lot of noise. Instead he froze; hoping however was on the other side of that door would change their mind and go back.

The door swung open and its frame was filled by Charlie Clark.

Clark’s appearance was the last thing Wrathchild expected, and he could not help himself. “Charlie?”

Clark looked up, apparently as surprised as Wrathchild. “Who’re you?”

Wrathchild had spent the best part of fortnight with Clark, ending with what was possibly the most memorable experience to happen to the man’s boring life. There was every reason for Clark to recognise him. But at that moment the lack of recollection was of no concern; Wrathchild had been seen, but by only one person of the four, and probably the slowest.

The surprised pause was enough for Wrathchild.

He darted right, dodging behind the stacked crates, and made for the gateway to the dock.

The crate wall behind him exploded in a spray of splinters. Before Wrathchild could wonder what it was he was struck in the back and his feet left contact with the floor.

As the breath was forced from his lungs and he realised he was going to fly through the open gate onto the cobbles outside. He retained enough sense to bring his hands up before he hit the ground. He landed, managing a half roll. Lengths of broken wood fell around him, almost raining in their quantity.

He nearly fell getting to his feet and he realised his left hand wasn’t obeying his mind.

He tried flexing it, and it did move. Just. So not broken, but the wrist was already swelling. He wouldn’t be making his escape so quickly now, but another thought forced itself into his mind; what just hit him?

Charlie Clark picked himself off the yard floor, swatting at the hundreds of tiny wooden splinters decorating the front of his coat.

The first impression Wrathchild had was that Clark had come through the crates and hit him hard enough to throw them both through the open gate. He dismissed the impossible thought.

Clark finished trying to clean his clothes and turned to Wrathchild. “I said who’re you?”

“Charlie, it’s me, Albert. I came here like you told me after the Dogs last week, remember?” said Wrathchild, trying the memory card and holding his arms open.

“Don’t know. An Albert,” Clark said. His voice was different. Firmer, but disjointed like he didn’t know what order the words went. He began to walk towards Wrathchild with a purpose.

“Yes you do,” Wrathchild tried. “But it looks like I made a mistake, I’ll just leave.”

“Can’t leave,” said Clark.

Wrathchild circled towards the yard corner where he broke the fence. But rather than mirror his circling like Wrathchild anticipated Clark just kept coming.

“Look Charlie, I don’t want to hurt you, but I’m leaving now.’

The expression on Clark’s face didn’t change, he just kept on coming. He stepped closer and Wrathchild closed the gap quickly, taking himself within Clark’s grabbing distance and brought his right fist in an undercut.

The punch didn’t land.

In a move he didn’t see Clark held Wrathchild’s fist in his own, just in front of his face.

He may not have seen that move but he saw the next. Clark’s own right hand came around.

Years of fights made Wrathchild instinctively turn his head with the incoming blow, robbing it of some of the power. The punch caught him flat against the left jaw, grinding his lower teeth against the upper and for the second time in a minute Wrathchild lost contact with the ground.

He didn’t have to wait as long for this landing, but it wasn’t any less painful. Wrathchild realised he was closer to the river wall than he thought as the right side of his face met it on the way down. The impact made his thoughts run together. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and think. There was no way he could win this fight. Somehow Clark had him so obviously beaten it was down to a choice of stay or run.

Clark saved him the decision by hauling him up by the collar until they were face to face.

Wrathchild’s greater height meant his boot toes dragged along the ground, but the sudden shift made his head swim alarmingly, putting a halt to any chance of him standing.

Then three things happened, the first of which made Wrathchild appreciate how close the second brought him to being in serious trouble.

An odour as strong but much more rank than smelling salts brought him to full consciousness. It took until Clark’s next breath to realise it came from the man’s mouth; an almost visible cloud of the stench of rotting meat Wrathchild would more associate with a feral dog than a person.

Then he saw Clark’s eyeballs. Round, surrounded by white, but with vertically torn pupils.

Clark hefted him up a little further with one fist while he pulled the other back.

Beaumont and the foreigner appeared at the open warehouse gates, pausing after a dead run. Wrathchild was still groggy and couldn’t make out the features of the second man, but saw in one hand he held an object, stick thin and pointed at Wrathchild. He held out his other hand towards Clark.

“Wait, what did he-.”

And then the punch landed.

Without his feet on the floor Wrathchild couldn’t do anything to lessen the blow. The fist landed snugly in the cradle of his nose and cheek.

Merciful numbness took over almost immediately. Wrathchild’s vision went red, sending the image of the warehouse into a hundred shades of wine as it arced away.

In his numb mind’s eye he saw his body perform a beautiful if unintended backwards flip, the reality of his flailing limbs not registering as he tumbled like a flung doll.

Wrathchild waited for the painful thump of his head striking cobbles, hoping for unconsciousness. But the fall seemed to take longer than expected and he wondered if he had already landed and was swimming now in blissful oblivion when his head went ice cold and he tried to inhale water.

Basic instinct took over. Wrathchild’s body forgot its hurts for a moment and his arms swayed down, forcing his head upwards.

Clark must have hit him hard enough to clear the yard and the dock and land straight in the river without a breath of air to sustain him. He pushed again. The inertia of the lung’s demands forced his mouth open. He pushed again, trying to break the surface before he lost the race. Too late, his mouth opened, and he gulped down air.

Blinking the greasy water from my eyes he saw Clark, Beaumont and the third man silhouetted against the lit gateway of the warehouse, watching as his bobbing head was taken by the currents.

It occurred to Wrathchild he was alive. Aching and bleeding, but alive. Despite needing the energy to keep afloat he felt like laughing, laughing for the joy of a close brush with death, and waving goodbye to the receding figures on the dock. But then it was always wise to find out what kind of person a man is before you taunt him.