Salt water slaps my face and wakes me with a jolt of alarm. Since I fell asleep, cloud has darkened the sky, and the sea has become dangerously choppy. The ice cliff, no longer a distant white line across the northern horizon, seems to loom over me. I have come too far north! If I stay this close to the continental ice shelf, I am exposed to danger from ice calving, and from hungry polar bears; moreover, I will miss my destination if I continue at this latitude. I did not intend to sleep so long, but I was utterly exhausted: the last storm passed by just a day ago. Now, I must steer my boat further south and west, away from the ice and the coming storm.
As I struggle to turn the boat around, I sadly reflect on my lot. My loved ones are gone and I am the lone survivor of my line, so why should I care for my own safety? There is just one answer: the dream of setting things right keeps me going, keeps me striving in the face of tiredness and sorrow; perhaps also the chance to purge the guilt of my failure to protect dear Silquooay.
And why do I feel guilt? Because I should have worked harder to gain the knowledge and wisdom that would have enabled me to protect my loved ones. Had I taken more care, treated the evidence more seriously, and investigated it more diligently, I might have uncovered the Chainers’ plot before it was too late. I was too happy with my lot; and I thought little about the small signs of the Chainers' treacherous intentions, signs which now seem obvious to me. Perhaps I could have thwarted the Massacre by secreting my own spies in and around Kanand Castle, albeit against orders. I will always ponder these matters; I will never be free of the guilt of failure. All I can do now is dedicate my life to fighting the evil that has infected my country, or die trying. Whatever may yet happen in my life, I swear by the Great Plan that I will remain true to this quest, and accept any hardship in its cause.
Forty-two lonely days at sea without sight of land! It is just as well that some of those who pursued me from Kanand Castle had the misfortune to catch up with me; I stole their tents and their clothes. The clothes have kept out the bitter cold of the northern wind and ice, and the canvass has provided my boat with sails — that is, until the most recent storm tore the sails to shreds and then ripped them from the mast.
Sailing southward into warmer waters would have been less challenging, but I would have needed to take a lot of drinking water with me, and I would have risked meeting other Kraran sea traffic. News of my voyage would reach the Chainers, and a fleet would have been sent to capture me. My northern course has provided ice for drinking water, and Kraran vessels rarely, if ever, come this far north. The most daring fisherfolk might venture here, but no-one else. Most commercial and naval shipping use the better-known winds and currents to seek the warmer and more populous regions of the world.
Yes, I have survived this far on melted ice, but my mouth and throat are parched again; I last saw ice two days ago. As for food, my stores ran out two weeks ago, and I have caught but two small fish since then. So, with neither fresh water nor food, I must reach land soon. Yesterday, I saw a gull flying low above the western horizon, so I am hopeful that dry land lies nearby. In the meantime, the cloud cover has broken up and the sun has lightened my mood. Were it not for thirst, I would feel better than I have felt since the Massacre.
The crest of a breaking wave sweeps past, lifting the boat and carrying it forward. As the crest moves away and the boat slows, I become suddenly alert to the significance of what has just happened. I wait impatiently for the faint eastern glow to stretch across the sky; then I watch in awe as the morning sun unfolds a land of wooded hills and tall mountains under a cloudless sky. The hills around the bay (it now almost encircles me) are gloriously red with autumn leaves set in the white of recent snowfall; the icy mountain peaks are blushing with the slightest tinge of pink in answer to the morning light. This must be Arctequa; it is my first sight of that famous continent.
At last, despite all the difficulties and uncertainties, I have arrived! It was not inevitable: without an astrolabe to measure the positions of the celestial bodies, I was unable to properly monitor my progress at sea. I simply headed west, using the rising and setting of the sun and the moon as my only guides. I hoped to reach the eastern coast of Arctequa sooner or later — a voyage of about five hundred leagues if taken without deviation — but I had little knowledge of the prevailing winds and currents, of how they might speed or slow my progress, or carry me off course. In any event, the voyage was lonely, bitterly cold, and often wild. So wild that I twice lost both sails to the wind: first, just ten days into the voyage; although I then had enough spare canvas to make replacements. My knowledge of navigation and seamanship is founded on the classroom education given to those expected to take the highest offices in the kingdom: a useful beginning, but no substitute for practical experience. Oh, how I thirst for more knowledge, the deep understanding that comes from combining intense study with rigorous experimentation and experience. I shall need such knowledge, and the wisdom that comes with it, in the trials to come.
I am sure that this is the north of Arctequa, but I must know my location more precisely if I am to plan the next stage of my journey. I see huge, white mountains ahead of me; they can only belong to the Arctequa Backbone, the mountain range that runs the length of the continent and divides it into eastern and western halves. The fact that these high mountains are so close to the coast suggests that I have arrived very nearly at their northern extremity: nowhere else do mountains as tall as four thousand fathomes reach so near to the sea. So, I still have a long way to go before I reach the city I seek.
Wrenching my mind away from the beauty of the mountains, I now see a sandy shore just two stadia away [400 paces]. A small village stands there, just above the beach. Nestled between two hills at the very head of the bay, this village is well sheltered from the open sea. Six men have set out from the beach in a vessel not much larger than my own boat. They look cautious — curious, I should say — but not hostile. When they come alongside, they speak to me in the language known the world over as Common Maritime, though their accent is strange and their grammar unusual. They offer me water, so I know that I have been met by true mariners, as noble as any aristocrat (and more noble than most).
Eventually, the man who appears to be the leader asks me, "Where from you come?" He is short and stout, like his fellows, and reminds me of a similar people who inhabit the icy regions north of Krar.
"South," I say. "You know Fork River?" I do not want to tell any strangers that I am from Krar, just in case the news is unwittingly passed on to my enemies. Nor do I wish to lie to these people. I watch the man carefully and I am sure that he has noticed the evasion in my answer. Thankfully, however, he seems not to be offended.
"Wherever come, you come very far," he says, "Good at sea, like us Norhurians!" he smiles and slaps me on the shoulder. "I not hear this Fork River; nobody here go far south. Now you come to our village as welcome guest!"
The water is choppy this morning; the current is with me but opposed by a stiff southwesterly breeze. I stay a mile or more out to sea; so I have enough room to tack into the wind without risking unfamiliar shallows.
For nearly six months, I have worked my way down the coast, never staying more than one month in any one place, yet learning and teaching all the way. I found help and friendship everywhere among the simple fisherfolk and villagers (I avoided towns), teaching some of them techniques of metalwork handed down to me from my forefathers, and learning many everyday skills of daily survival from them. I have even acquired a basic competence in several regional languages, and more than once have I been tempted by an offer of a permanent place within the life of a village. I always moved on, unwilling to forsake my quest, but I have become more aware than ever that the finest characteristics of humanity are more likely to be found in humble people than in those who hoard wealth and power. Silky always said as much; whilst she lacked neither wealth nor power (nor was she shy in her dealings with others), she treated people of every rank with the same respect and generosity, and even those who knew not her identity or rank came to revere her for her own qualities.
The sand dunes are coming to an end, and a great rocky outcrop has come into view. I now know that my destination is near. I steer the boat closer to shore.
I have never travelled here before, but I feel that I know something of this place. My former office, as a quaestor, required me to study the people, history, and geography of every region of the kingdom, as well as those of our allies and major trading partners. High on the list of these studies was Port Cankrar, the principal overseas colony of my people.
Port Cankrar started as a small trading post, but has grown into one of the largest cities in the continent: reputedly second only to Belspire, the former capital of the kings of Arctequa, and now the capital of an important principality.
The main port stretches for about three leagues between the two arms of the Stron River. The northern arm, known as Stronnor River (shortened from 'Stron North'), and the southern arm, known as Strossar River ('Stron South'), together with the eastern coast of the Fork River Estuary, form the boundaries of the triangular island upon which the city of Port Cankrar is built. Although only part of the island has been developed, the Stronnor and Strossar Rivers — both deep enough for the passage of warships — provide defensive barriers which invite the eventual development of the whole area that lies between them.
Fork River, which gives its name also to the estuary, is as mighty as the River Krar that flows through my capital and hometown, Krarisca. For hundreds of miles north of Port Cankrar the river is more than a mile wide; moreover, it is navigable for large ships almost as far as Fork Pass in the Arctequa Backbone, hundreds of leagues away. The estuary itself is more than eight leagues in length and ranges from three to five miles in width. Without doubt, Fork River Estuary is the best harbour in Eastern Arctequa.
The rocky outcrop I am approaching is called Fort Island. Indeed, a massive fortress looms there, much of it carved from the native rock; it is the southern-most castle of the colony's defensive matrix. Fort Island is joined to the eastern side of the estuary's mouth by a narrow bridge which is set high above a treacherous reef, so I will sail around it on the seaward side. The steep profile of the island and its dark fortress contrasts with the low limestone ridges and sand dunes across the bridge, but is in keeping with the terrain on the western side of the estuary; it is as though the estuary has divided Fort Island from its natural geological home among the western cliffs.
Opposite Fort Island is the larger and taller (but uninhabited) Highside Island. This is overlooked by yet higher cliffs which border the western side of the estuary and river for many miles inland. Those (mostly inaccessible) cliffs provide homes for a vast population of sea birds, including many rare and exotic species (as well as some very common ones, such as the ubiquitous herring gull).
Further into the estuary two long islands, called (in Common Maritime) Wedge Island and Strip Island, are also tall and craggy, like outposts of the mainland cliffs on their western sides. Unfortunately, these islands give shelter to pirates who sneak into the estuary at night and attack unsuspecting merchant craft during the early hours. Such attacks, once common, are rare these days and do not pose a serious threat to the city's prosperity. As annoying as piracy is to the merchants, it troubles the government no more than landward crime; in a city of this size, crime and corruption, both petty and organized, grow shoulder to shoulder with lawful business.
Indeed, Port Cankrar is now so populous and powerful that no force within many hundred leagues, state or pirate, could pose a significant threat to it, nor does such a threat presently exist in any part of the continent. During my lifetime and that of my father, peace and prosperity have reigned throughout Arctequa as in Krar. International relationships have been excellent, and there has been little need of forts for defensive purposes. But I wonder how the Massacre of the Nobles and the overthrow of the Kraran constitution will change that. I fear that the prospects for continued peace are much poorer now that the Order of Chains has gained such terrible influence over government.
During my travel from the north, I have heard no rumour of the Order of Chains asserting its influence in Port Cankrar (as it did in Krarisca immediately after the Massacre). However, more than a year has passed since the coup, so I need to be on my guard. The rumour put about after I fled Kanand Castle was that I had perished, but I have no doubt that the Chainers have continued to search for me, albeit secretly. They will go on pursuing me until they are sure that I no longer pose a threat to them or to their plans. I can only hope that their plans have been delayed by the demise of the elder Prokkanix.
The fort is now towering over me, or so it feels.
Thanks to the new mast and sails given me by the hospitable Norhurians, I sail smoothly around Fort Island and into Fork River Estuary. Whatever dangers await me here, I must admit that the prospect of spending an extended period of time on dry land greatly appeals to me; I have had too much to do with the sea lately.
I do not fear being seen by the lookouts in the fort; the waters here are too busy with merchant ships coming and going, a number of pleasure craft, and a fleet of fishing vessels. Besides, the heavy beard I have grown over the last year, and my fisherfolk clothes — the ceremonial uniform I was wearing at Kanand Castle is carefully bundled into a bag at my feet — will make it impossible for anybody to recognize me from as far away as the fort. Nonetheless, I will have to pass four more forts on the way to Port Cankrar, so I head down the middle of the estuary toward Strip Island, keeping about a half-league from the eastern shore. The western side of the estuary is where the river current is very strong and dominates the tide, except only in the severest storm surge, so ships use that side to head out to sea; the river current on the eastern side is weak and is often dominated by the inward tide, so that is where ships come in to port. However, I want to stay away from all the traffic until I can merge with it unnoticed, and the best way to do this is to stay in the middle.
At last, I have reached the northern end of Strip Island. This craggy outcrop is one league long, and a tenth of that wide, like a toothed blade thrusting up from the water. Although strategically located in the middle of the estuary, it is so rugged that building on it has always been considered impractical. Its ruggedness also makes scaling its steep cliffs a very challenging venture and it would not serve me very well to try to scale it now, because I already have an adequate view of the port from sea level; besides, I would disturb hundreds of birds nesting there, many of them with fledglings to defend.
Even from this small boat I can see the whole frontage of Port Cankrar — I understand why pirate raiders come here to keep watch for prey. I see where the Strossar River reaches the estuary at the southern corner of the city, about two miles north-west of where I have anchored under Strip Island's rocky cliff. Further north, about two leagues away, I can see the towers of Colonial Palace. The central tower, called the 'Hub' by locals, shines white in the late morning sun, its top easily clearing the western cliffs to afford distant views in that direction (so an observer in the crest of the Hub has unrestricted, all-round views). The eight spurs of this massive building each indicate a different cardinal or ordinal point of the compass, and is topped by a tower almost as high as the Hub, albeit with less girth. Inside the base of Colonial Palace is a huge hall featuring successive ranks of blue and white pillars which, thanks to the mirrored walls, give the appearance of marching on endlessly in all directions. This 'Great Hall' or, as some call it, 'Endless Hall' was designed that way for artistic reasons rather than for practical ones, but it has served very well over the years to promote the city's reputation as a great political and trading centre.
Further north, ten miles away, the Stronnor River borders the northern edge of the city. There too, Plug Island marks where Fork River flows into the estuary. Plug Island diverts most of the river’s power along the western cliffs and leaves a protected anchorage for the city on the eastern side. However, few mariners need anchor for long these days; berths are aplenty at the city’s extensive docks and marinas. The ease with which maritime traffic can reach Port Cankrar in the (usually) calm waters along the eastern side of the estuary, and then depart on the swift current along the western side, was the main reason this location was chosen as our principal trading post in Arctequa. The great size of the harbour was not so important until the trading post grew into a city.
The port is busy; hundreds of ships of varying sizes are berthed there, or are on the point of departure or arrival. Most are showing the ensign of Port Cankrar or other maritime countries in the eastern part of the continent, but there are some from further afield.
One ship that attracts my attention is a very large four-master flying the ensign of a western land called Dabbin; two slightly smaller Dabbinan ships are alongside it. Berthed nearby are five barques from Belspire, which is located on a major navigable river in the west. Another large ship is from Proequa, a trading nation well known to us in Krar. And there are ships from other, less prominent, nations in the west. However, there is something strange going on here: all of these western ships are sleek warships rather than bulbous merchantmen. The presence of so many foreign warships at one time is highly unusual. There is no suggestion of warfare, so there must be some kind of diplomatic affair beyond the normal business conducted by resident ambassadors. Have Sakscren and the Chainers already taken control here? What are they telling the people of Arctequa about the Massacre, or about their purported abolition of the Kraran constitution? Lies, probably! As heavy as my heart is for my own loss, and however much I yearn to find a place where I can forget the politics of the world, I itch to find out what is happening here. Moreover, it is my duty to thwart the evil of those responsible for the Massacre; corruption grows like a fungus, branching out and erupting in unexpected places, establishing itself everywhere.
As I sail nearer Colonial Palace, I still have little fear of being recognized or apprehended. Not yet! There is much traffic on the water here, and everyone is concentrating on avoiding collision; the skippers are not interested in a lone sailor who stays well out of their way. Nobody will be expecting my arrival after so long. I believe that the Chainers would have searched for me here many months ago, because they would have expected me to arrive (if at all) by ship or trawler directly from Krar, and they would not believe it possible for me, an inlander, to cross the Great Sea alone. Experienced fishing crews sometimes make the crossing, but I have never heard about anyone attempting it alone. Even if the Chainers guess that I am still alive, they can not search for me everywhere and forever; and they will not involve too many outsiders in the search, lest my escape become public knowledge and give hope to those who wish to reinstate the Constitution. Such hope is futile at present: the few survivors with the standing and ability to organize an uprising will have fled Krar as I have done. However, Sakscren and the Chainers will nonetheless fear an uprising, as do all usurpers.
My own fear is that I am powerless to bring about change, and irrelevant to the events of the world; an outsider able only to observe, as if through a windowpane of impenetrable glass, the descent of humanity into a new Dark Age of deceit and tyranny.
About one mile south of Colonial Palace, I follow a group of fishing boats into a small marina and tie my boat to a cleat on one of the lowest jetties there. There are just four other boats tied up to this jetty, none of them much larger than my own. Good! My boat will not seem out of place, and not many people will pass by. This marina seems to be in the process of redevelopment and some of the jetties are still under construction; this might explain why it is not as busy as others along the coast. Several people are working on the jetty next to this; they should be busy there for a few more days and will not have any reason to come here, or so I hope. With luck, I can leave the boat for a few days without interference while I investigate, and make my plans.
With my boat now as secure as I could hope, I must devise a viable strategy. For example, where should I go, and how will I get there? In this I am aided by the studies of my early years. I recall that four major highways fan out from Colonial Palace: Middle Highway, consisting of three parallel roads going eastward through a large plaza called City Square; Northeastern Highway and Southeastern Highway, each going in the direction indicated by its name; and the Promenade along the waterfront, to service the docks and marinas. I decide that I should first go to City Square.
My face lowered as if preoccupied, I walk slowly and purposefully along the jetty, climb about three fathomes of ladders to the Promenade (to avoid the longer walk on the loading ramps), and start to weave my way through the crowd. The small kit bag slung over my shoulder contains my ceremonial uniform and medallion of office; all of this is wrapped in old rags to look like soiled clothes. Although it is risky for me to carry these items around the city, linked as they are to a grand vizier wanted (dead) by the new regime, I would rather have them with me than risk them being found, and the alarm being raised, without my knowledge. Everything else in my boat suggests the presence of a lone fisherman of no consequence to the authorities.
As soon as I plunge into the crowd, heavy hands clasp my shoulders. I spin around in alarm to face an evil-looking man who is scowling at me. He is nearly as tall as I am, but he is lean, and a cutlass is barely concealed in a long bag hung over his shoulder. I stare back at the man, but restrain myself from reacting to his assault.
"Pardon me, Friend!" the man says gruffly, and he averts his eyes from mine. "I nearly stumbled into you."
At first, the man's apology surprises me. Then it occurs to me that he does not fear me at all; rather, he is anxious to avoid drawing attention to himself. So, I am not the only person in town hoping for anonymity. I let the pirate (for pirate I am sure he is) go his way. A good many other people on the Promenade are probably up to no good, and yet they are all petty criminals by comparison with the Chainers.
Within seconds, I almost trip over a small child who is being chased through the crowd by his mother. Maybe I have lost the knack I once had of moving through the hustle and bustle of a city; although I do not recall the waterfront places of Krarisca ever being as busy and chaotic as this place. Nevertheless, I soon become more adept at anticipating the swirl of the crowd around me, and I start to properly observe my surroundings.
I know that City Square is midway between Colonial Palace and the Embassy Palace where foreign diplomats reside and maintain their offices. It would be easy enough to march up the Promenade toward Colonial Palace and then turn right into Middle Highway, which would take me to City Square in the most straightforward manner. However, it is wiser to use the backstreets where a confrontation with city guards is less likely. Now I regret not having studied Port Cankrar's labyrinthine lanes and alleys in more detail when I had the chance (though it never seemed necessary to pay them much heed), so I must learn the hard way! I resolve, in future, to observe every detail of all I study, for one never knows when that detail will become vitally important.
I head for the nearest side road, and hope that I will come to Middle Highway, sooner or later, if I can wend my way northward and a little eastward. I take a good look along the Promenade before I leave it. I see that the flagships from Dabbin, Belspire, and Proequa are berthed side-by-side, half-way along to Colonial Palace. The three nations have long been in alliance with each other, so their association here does not surprise me. However, further toward the palace, five warships are flying the royal Kraran ensign rather than that of the local governor, and this alarms me.
I recognize these royal ships. Their home port is below Great Falls on the River Krar. They must have been sent here on a mission, and I do not doubt that they have brought senior Chainers with them to oversee that mission. King Caroc is confined to his sickbed, unaware of what is being done in his name. His drug-crazed son and regent, Paadoc, allows all his powers to be exercised by Sakscren who, in turn, relies on the Order of Chains in all matters. Certainly the presence of the royal squadron augurs danger for me, but it also foreshadows danger for the free nations of Arctequa; I am sure that the Chainers see the subjugation of Krar as just the beginning of their quest to increase their power and wealth through manipulation and deception.
The backstreets give me a fascinating introduction to the life of Port Cankrar, all the more because the course I take zigzags from one alley to another; thrice I have to turn back from dead-ends. The busiest part of the city is within a few streets of the Promenade, where shops, eating houses, and markets hum with the sounds of diverse activities and people: merchants and sailors from the world over, enjoying life ashore or buying supplies; local warehousemen and traders haggling or moving goods around; craftsmen applying their skills; entertainers of all styles, performing alone or in troupes; and every kind of personal service provider, from manicurists to physicians, and from porters to prostitutes. It takes me longer than I expected, but I arrive eventually at the edge of what must surely be City Square.
At first, I am surprised to see that the square is not as busy as I had expected it to be. However, on reflection, it makes sense, and it might well work to my advantage. This place was never intended to be the centre of everyday city life. Except for small ceremonial gatherings (the great fields and arenas of the Games campus outside the city are available for very large gatherings), City Square is where government clerks meet for lunch, or where diplomats come when Embassy Palace gets on their nerves, or where tourists seek respite from the constant buzz of activity nearer the docks. My interest in City Square is this: diplomats travel through it on their way between Embassy Palace, where they have their offices, and Colonial Palace, where international negotiations take place. I want to know what those negotiations are about, and who is involved in them. Where better to start my observations than in City Square?
Since leaving my boat, I have been watching for any unusual street patrols, or signs of heightened alertness on the part of city guards (as the civil police are called here). However, apart from a company of soldiers posted around the various entrances to Colonial Palace — entirely expected, given the talks going on inside — I have seen few guards or soldiers in the streets, and all of those have been either guarding important public buildings or sorting out traffic congestion at busy intersections. There has been no sign of anything abnormal, no sign of any systematic search being carried out; so I relax a little. I decide to start my vigil in City Square tomorrow; so I spend the rest of the afternoon walking up and down the three parallel roads of Middle Highway, between the two palaces, without getting too close to the guarded entrances. On my way, I observe and memorize all I can, especially the features of the two palaces and the great Cankrar Library. Over the coming weeks, I hope to spend many hours in the library improving my knowledge of the world beyond Krar. I also note that the head office of Arctequa Gems and Jewellery is just off City Square; I bought Silquooay her engagement ring at the company's branch shop in Krarisca (the ring was of gold and set with a flawless emerald-green garnet, a gem highly prized in Krar).
Colonial Palace, with its unique design of nine stalagmite-like towers, is as great as any single building in Krarisca, and more spectacular. Embassy Palace, on the other hand, although a grand building in its own right, is rather plain and blocky on the outside. It is two hundred paces square and fifty fathomes high. However, inside Embassy Palace, on the second level, there is a garden courtyard overlooked by all the higher levels. The central road of Middle Highway passes beneath the courtyard as if through a tunnel, albeit a well-lighted tunnel with many windows to the garden above. Diplomats from our major trading partners occupy their respective sections of the building, and there are spare office suites available for less regular partners according to their importance to the city at any given time. I already know these things from my work as a quaestor; there is no need for me to enter the building at this stage.
Between the two palaces, rows of smaller yet still grand buildings line the three parallel roads. Some contain a mixture of shops, residences and eating houses, especially around City Square, while others appear to contain government offices. The largest of these buildings is the Cankrar Library which takes up both city blocks on the western side of City Square, the two halves being linked by an enclosed bridge five fathomes above the central road. I ache to visit the library now, but my concern for the diplomatic talks must take priority.
It is already getting dark. The sun set behind the western cliffs some time ago, and the square has been in shadow. I have been observing the people around me, whilst trying not to draw attention to myself. Most of them are just passing through, coming and going about their business, but many work here or have come to meet, to eat, or just to sit on the low walls that contain the raised flower beds in each of the four quarters of the square. The shopkeepers and traders, looking after their customers and guarding their wares, are too busy to watch strangers like me, but there are numerous acrobats, poets, singers, and musicians in the square who seem more alert to the presence of newcomers.
The regular spacing between the performers in the square suggests that they have allocated positions for which they own or rent a licence; the same kind of arrangement applied in the cities at home. Moreover, with the talks going on at Colonial Palace, some of the performers are likely to be professional spies, or casual informants willing to accept money from one of the embassies. My department hired such people in Krarisca on occasion, and would certainly have tracked the movements of foreign diplomats under similar circumstances as these. Where better to maintain a permanent watch than here in City Square between the two palaces? So, I decide that I, too, shall adopt the guise of a street performer to blend in while I keep watch. The other spies here might be suspicious of me, but they will surely not suspect me of being someone of importance to the regime, least of all the exiled Grand Vizier!
Where can I find a franchise-holder who might rent me a suitable position? I risk walking through the square one more time, and I see an opportunity: a musician has just left her position; another takes her place and pays money to a prosperous-looking man. I think I have found the owner of a franchise!
The music starts as morning sunlight kisses the Hub's apex high above the rooftops. I slept against the retaining wall of the raised flower-bed in the south-eastern corner of the square, using my kitbag to cushion my head from the stone-hard ground. Many of the pavement bricks have a glassy texture, as though they might be windows into a dark netherworld below. The height of the wall is less than a quarter of a fathome, but high enough to shelter me from the chill breeze that sweeps across the pavement at night, and to reduce the risk of careless pedestrians tripping over me.
Few customers have yet arrived this morning, but City Square is far from empty. Many other performers have slept here overnight, as I did — it seems that the only way to deter squatters is to maintain physical occupation of one's position. Some of the others nearby have squinted at me with curiosity, as they might well do because I am new. For my part, I pay more attention to the few who have studiously avoided looking at me; those ones might be spies, or they might fear that I am a spy. When people fear you, their behaviour can become unpredictable, and therefore dangerous; so I am wary of the fearful ones as well as the fearsome ones.
Half an hour has passed since the music started, and the square is now quickly filling with newcomers, both workers and customers; so I begin to play the old lyre that I also hired from the enterprising franchise owner. Better for me to play music than to sing or recite poetry: few would recognize me by my present appearance, but visitors from Krarisca might recognize the voice of one who, as quaestor, often made official announcements in the public squares of their city.
Already, a few people have stopped momentarily to listen to my indifferent music before dropping a coin at my feet, and a few others have dropped a coin for me without either stopping or looking — I must seem to them pathetic, with my dishevelled hair and beard, and wearing stained fisherman's clothes in this spotless city centre. However, one passer-by, I remember, made a point of taking a good look at me: soon after I started playing, a very pretty young woman stopped to watch me. No more than twenty years of age, she was fit, exuding the athleticism of an acrobat, and somewhat taller than average for a woman of these times (my estimate is four or five fingers short of a fathome). However, what immediately drew my attention to her in the midst of the crowd was the liveliness of her eyes, which sparkled as though a torch danced to a merry tune across those pools of pale honey, at once both demanding and seductive. As I returned her gaze, the girl smiled and pouted slightly. At that moment, a party of burly men walked between us; by the time the men had passed, she had disappeared into the crowd. Did the girl with the coruscating eyes recognize me? I think not. Perhaps she saw through me in another way: not to who I am, but to the fact that I am not who I seem to be.
Midday, and there is no sign of a foreign delegation. There is only the everyday hum and babble of civilians in a city square. This is disappointing; I wonder if I am wasting my time here. I am already very tired; more than a year without an instrument to play and I am reduced in both skill and stamina. And I am hungry — frustration, gnawing my nerves, is consuming my energy. Having eaten just one apple since leaving my boat yesterday, I would dearly like to buy a pie from one of the food stalls set up on the near side of the square; the aroma of fresh food cooking is making my mouth water. I have enough small change from my passing audience to buy food without having to resort to the gold coins hidden in my belt, but I can not afford to risk losing this position; trying to oust a squatter would attract as much attention as being seen handling gold (which is more valuable today than at any time in the past). So, I must stay where I am, tired and hungry.
A juggler nearby has paused to take some refreshments from his bag — neither of us has an audience at the moment. Though I have no refreshments, I stop to rest all the same. I rebuke myself for failing to properly plan ahead; I should have bought plenty of food and drink in one of the out-of-the-way side streets near the docks, before I hired this position. I must train my mind to think ahead with greater diligence in all matters. For all the rigour of my training for a role in public service, I always had the support of established systems, procedures, precedents, and (most of all) wise and knowledgeable people willing to give me advice. Now I have lost that support, and I need to become self-sufficient; I must perfect my memory and my methods, or I will not survive to complete my quest.
The afternoon has passed uneventfully and my permit to remain here will soon expire. Try as I might to lose myself in the music, sad thoughts of the past keep returning to me, and the emptiness of the future is like a heavy weight pressing down on my chest and shoulders. I ask myself again: am I wasting my time here? I could pay for another day or two, but to what end? And yet, how else can I discover what is being planned by the usurpers (and they are usurpers, for, although they act in the name of the king, they have unlawfully seized the commonwealth by overthrowing the ancient and sacred Constitution)? The straight streets and robustly-guarded grand buildings of the inner city provide little opportunity for me to access the negotiations without exposing my identity, so I am left to hope that watching from here will eventually reveal something of interest.
Even as I see my franchise-owner coming toward me, smiling in expectation of another day's rent, there is a commotion on the other side of the square. Where the road enters the square between the two halves of the library, pedestrians are making way for somebody. I see two riders rein in their horses and move aside as four black stallions haul a chariot into view. Not a war chariot. It is ornately decorated in the colours of the Duchy of Dabbin: blue and gold.
One man stands in the chariot. He is about my own age and height, somewhat darker than I, but clean shaven and clearly one accustomed to cutting a proud figure in front of many followers. I would say that he is a military commander rather than a diplomat, although he is smiling broadly and occasionally waving to people in a slightly foppish manner, which is more the manner of a political leader than a military one. If he is here for the talks, I guess he must be a member of the Dabbinan ruling family. They are called Fandabbin: ‘fan’ means 'leading family' in Tan-Chay-Enn, the ancient language of Dabbin, just as ‘can’ means 'leading family' in the language of Krar.
After returning the lyre to its disappointed owner, I work my way around the flowerbed and through the gathering crowd, hoping to get a closer look at the charioteer as he passes by. This Dabbinan must surely be involved in the talks. It will be better for me to follow him than to wait until another lead comes to light.
The streets are quickly filling; for many people it is the end of their working day, and now there are too many of them surging around me to let me keep pace with the chariot. Never mind! The man in the chariot is clearly heading for Embassy Palace, and I soon catch a glimpse of him as he disappears into the shadow of its western arch, two hundred or so paces ahead. I can not safely loiter in the street for long, so I am hoping that the Dabbinan will not wish to spend the whole night inside — it may be called a palace, but I have heard that the upper offices are rather drab and austere workplaces. I am gambling that he will seek convivial company and entertainment in the city as the weather is warm, calm, and inviting. Those happy days may be lost to me forever, but my friends and I would have gone out on such a night as this. In recent years Silky and I could often be found with our colleagues — a few of them from the Akrinan embassy in Krarisca where Silky worked with her brother Elkooay — in some salubrious eating house away from our official refectories. All I can do now is to settle down somewhere nearby and wait. I find a shadowed place by the side of some steps, out of the way of passing pedestrians. I sit as though I were resting for a while after a hard day; I try to look preoccupied so as not to be taken for a beggar and moved on by the city guards.
My vigil is rewarded when the man I seek appears beneath a street light. In fact, I hear him before I see him. His voice is loud and proud, albeit affecting elegance rather than command, and fits well the way he waved to the crowds earlier today. Whether or not he deliberately seeks to underplay his power, I see a man filled with confidence, and I can tell from his build and the way he moves that he is a dangerous warrior, probably a veteran of battle with the pirate fleets that encroach upon the vast archipelago off the coast of his homeland. Now he is with a group of companions: five men and one woman.
The woman is none other than the one I noticed watching me in City Square this morning, the girl with the coruscating eyes. I do not think that she has seen me here yet, but having her cross my path again, and in the company of the man for whom I have been waiting, might be more than mere coincidence.
As I sit in the shadow of the steps across the street, motionless so as not to attract attention, I hear the girl call the charioteer 'Kascan', and he calls her 'Selnipa'. That is enough for me to make a good guess: Kascan Fandabbin is the Duke of Dabbin's son and heir, and Selnipa Bel is the daughter of the Prince of Belspire. A year or so before my exile, it was reported that Kascan had married, and I believe that he now has a baby son called Joldor; if Kascan is here to represent his father in the talks, it is unlikely (for security reasons) that he would have brought his wife and infant with him. Of course, Kascan will be here for formal and ceremonial purposes (Dabbin's professional diplomats will do most of the talking), so he will have a lot of free time to enjoy the entertainments of the city. As for Selnipa, she has no formal office of state, so it is likely that she has come to assist her brother Arnata who is the heir to the prince's throne.
Kascan’s younger companions all seem to have the ease and confidence of his equals, so I guess that they are aristocrats from other parts of Arctequa, countries in close alliance with Dabbin. This is speculation, but I base it on my experience as one who has worked in high government and associated with people of every rank, whether they were born to it or earned it through meritorious achievement (or, indeed, acquired it by connivance).
The companions start to walk casually toward the northern side of Middle Highway. They are speaking more quietly now, in Common Maritime (albeit in their unfamiliar western accents), and I do not hear the name of their destination. They do not follow the well-lighted highway, but enter a narrow side-alley and disappear from my view. Now I must hurry so as not to lose them! I spring to my feet and follow as quickly as I think prudent, hoping that this will not arouse the suspicion of the guards near the palace arch. As I reach the alley, I chance looking back. One guard seems to be watching me, but he is not making any move to follow me or to call his colleagues; I can’t afford to be held up and questioned at this critical time. I press on into the alley. As soon as I can no longer be seen from the highway, I walk faster, but I soon have to slow down again when the way becomes busy with pedestrians.
The alley is not as dark, nor as narrow, as it appeared to be from the highway. Beyond the grand edifice on each side of the entrance, it is lined with well-constructed buildings, and I am reminded that this is still part of the inner city, carefully planned and built by the great masters of yesteryear. There are some shops and various other kinds of business at ground level and possibly also on higher levels. However, most of the sounds coming from above are suggestive of people relaxing at home: clattering kitchen utensils, amateur musicians and singers practising their hobby, children playing (and being told off), and the occasional robust argument between spouses.
A few hundred paces into the alley, I come to a well-attended eating house. Patrons are going in, and some are already coming out, but Kascan and his companions are nowhere to be seen. I continue down the alley, passing several more eating houses and two busy taverns, but none of them seems to have attracted Kascan and his friends.
An hour has passed since I entered the alley and there has been no sign or sound of Kascan. I have almost given up hope of finding him. The alley has turned this way and that, and I no longer know exactly where I am. At some point I left the inner city, the old town, and must now be deep into the middle city; there was no dramatic change to show where one ended and the other started, but the buildings are now of less pristine construction and no longer consistently of stone or brick.
I stop by an open window to rest and collect my thoughts. The alley is not so busy here: just two people have passed me in the last minute. Apart from the muffled sound of voices and music drifting down from the upper floors of buildings that I have already passed, this area is very quiet. The only light is coming from the street lamps placed every fifty paces or so, and to some extent from the faint city-glow above. I can pause here in the shadow without drawing attention to myself.
I hear footsteps approaching quickly, and low, urgent voices. Several people are hurrying toward me. By the sound of them, they are not innocent shoppers or partygoers.
“Not far now before the fun starts,” one man says in a half-whisper.
“The order is to kill them all and get away quickly,” another growls.
“What do we do if we can’t get them all?” the first man replies.
“We’ll see. The priority is to get the tall dark one. He’s the Dabbinan leader. I don't know the details, but I overheard someone say that his navy was the big threat. But that’s not our concern, and you'll forget all about it if you value your life. Our job's to kill, and to make it look like robbery or revenge, not politics. Nothing can lead back to our paymaster!”
“But we are robbers; it's what we do."
“That's the point, Stupid! We’re being paid very handsomely for this, so shut up and do what you’re told.”
The room behind me is dark; I hope that means it is empty. I dive through the open window, just as the first man comes into view under a street lamp. Relieved to find nothing more than smooth timber floorboards beneath me, I roll back to the window and peer out from the shadows. I have no weapon and no time to find one, so I want to evade conflict until I know where I can find Kascan. It is just as well! After a few moments I see the shadowy figures of seven burly thugs pass the window, all no doubt armed with brutal weapons of murder. I am glad that none of them noticed me jump through the window, because I must now follow them unobserved until I can warn Kascan and his friends. That thugs have been paid by someone to assassinate visiting dignitaries from friendly countries is alarming enough! More alarming is that the paymaster needs to conceal his motive! This reeks of the Order of Chains. Have things changed so much in the kingdom that deliberate acts of war are now being contemplated?
I ponder my dilemma. Following the thugs should bring me to Kascan, and I am grateful for that, but how am I going to warn him before it is too late?
Five heartbeats after the last thug passes the window, I hear the swish of a match being lit. I spin around, but I am momentarily blinded by the bright light of a large lantern; there is nothing I can do but shield my eyes and wait for my pupils to adjust.
When my vision returns, I see a short, stout man sitting up on a bench at the other side of the room, just ten paces away. Dishevelled blankets suggest that he has been sleeping there. He seems more alarmed to see me than I am to see him.
“There is nothing here of value to you,” he whispers hoarsely, seemingly unable to find his full voice. “I am only here to count the stock of kitchenware I sell, but no money is kept here overnight.”
He thinks that I am a thief.
“I work for the government,” I say, which is true as far as I know; I am not aware of ever having been dismissed from office as a quaestor. But the man does not seem to be relieved by my announcement. Perhaps he is worried that I am here to assess his taxes.
“I am pursuing a criminal gang and had to take refuge here because they are heavily armed. Do you have a weapon I can take to defend myself?”
Clearly relieved not to be the target of my quest, he nods furiously and beckons me to follow him. There is not far to go. The next room is a storeroom filled with kitchen utensils from which I grab a sturdy broom handle; it is nearly a fathome long and very suitable for use as a walking staff or as a weapon. I also take an iron baton attached to a leather lanyard. Perhaps the baton was used as a rolling pin, or to crack nuts or tenderize meat, but a quarter-fathom length of iron, two fingers in diameter, will be a useful tool of attack or defence. It is not too heavy for an experienced swordsman to wield, yet heavy enough to inflict terminal injury should that become necessary. I wind the lanyard around my belt sufficiently to hold the baton by my side, ready to hand.
I give the man the money I earned today as a musician in City Square, more than enough to cover the price of the goods. I thank him and depart, this time via the front door. The kitchenware seller is happy now, but the thugs are out of sight.
Hurrying back along the alley for what seems like an age, I risk drawing attention to myself, but there are only a few pedestrians to see me, until I spot the thugs about a hundred paces ahead. They slow down, so I follow suit. They are approaching one of the better-lighted areas where the sounds of music and merriment can be heard coming from the floors above. These buildings were quieter when I passed them earlier this evening, and I assumed that they were all residences. It now appears that some of them may be hotels with eating houses or taverns on their higher levels.
A plan has not yet unfolded in my mind, although I must clearly get past the thugs somehow if I am to warn Kascan before they reach him.
I use the long broom handle as a lever, in the manner of vaulting, to move along at greater speed without the telltale sound of my boots slapping on the pavement.
The other people in the alley seem to sense danger (I hope from the thugs and not from me) and start to melt away. I move through the shadows on the right while the thugs gather at the door of a brick building on the left side of the alley, not far ahead now. It is a hotel with rooms for travellers and an eating house on the top level.
The hotel faces west, and there is a narrow side-alley dividing it from the building on its southern side; on my (northern) side, the hotel abuts a somewhat larger building named, according to the lamp-lit sign above its entrance, 'Subway Fort', a curious name for what seems to be no more than a large tenement building.
An old man enters Subway Fort. After checking that none of the thugs is looking my way, I quickly cross the alley and follow the old man inside before the door closes. There is certainly no indication that the building is a fort; it seems to have many apartments on each floor, all accessed from a common staircase that goes all the way to the top.
Running up the stairs and through a narrow doorway, I find myself in the midst of a lush garden. No one else is here. It is dark, except for the city-glow reflected in the clouds that appeared since nightfall. I can hear merriment in the hotel next door, but the sound is dampened by the vegetation growing all around me. I make my way toward the sound.
Once I am through a forest of tall, potted plants, I reach a waist-high balustrade at the edge of the roof, and I can see across many rooftops because this building is taller than its neighbours. The alley below is quiet now; I see nobody there. Looking south, I see lights shining through the upper windows of Embassy Palace, about a mile away. More impressive by far is the sight of Colonial Palace, its towers like spouts of sparkling red light, and their peaks like nine white comets frozen in space.
It is fortunate that I chose to enter this building, because the dining hall atop the hotel opens onto a terrace which is now immediately below me. A well-trained young man might drop down the three fathomes to the terrace without breaking any bones. It is a challenge, but it is probably what I should now try to do.
The terrace is well lit and full of people enjoying their food, drink, and companionship. Minstrels move from table to table, playing instruments of many shapes and sizes. For a moment I pause to think of those happy days when I too lived such a life. Then I force my mind away from the sadness of my loss, and I focus on the job in hand. I do not see Kascan or any of his companions, but they might be inside where similar merriment is taking place.
My guess is proved correct when I hear Kascan's distinctive voice rise above the others, followed by raucous laughter. Happily, the thugs have not yet struck, so I might yet arrive in time.
Over the last six months I have recovered from the loss of weight, strength, and agility that I suffered on my long journey to Arctequa, so I feel that I can risk dropping down to the terrace without sustaining serious injury (and I am accustomed to painful bruises which this drop will undoubtedly afford me). I move to the back corner of the garden, above a private space created by the shadow of a supported vine growing from a large pot. A young couple sit there by themselves at a small table, engrossed in their food and conversation — maybe they are lovers, or perhaps just lovers of privacy. A few other couples are seated at similarly sheltered tables around the outer edges of the terrace, but most patrons enjoy the brightly-lit tables nearer the door to the dining hall inside.
I drop my bag, staff, and baton over the balustrade. I immediately follow, almost rolling into the couple’s table as I try to counter the impact of my fall. They stare at me, speechless.
“It’s a fine evening, is it not,” I say, smiling at them.
I am grateful that neither screams; I expect that they have seen many examples of odd people and odder behaviour in this port city. When I strap the baton to my belt and take up the bag and broom handle, as if to leave, they nod warily and return somewhat nervously to their conversation, seemingly in an unspoken pact not to annoy a madman by talking about him in his presence.
Heading for the dining hall entrance, I walk across the terrace as calmly as my stretched nerves allow. Thanks to the shadow of the vine, only the young couple saw the manner of my arrival; and thanks to the late hour and merriment, my strange appearance in this crowd of well-dressed patrons and busy waiters has drawn little attention. That is, until a formidably-built waitress with a scowling face asks me if I want a table, this in such a manner as to suggest that my purpose is more likely one of begging or stealing. I smile and point to the door leading inside.
"I meet friends," I say. The waitress pauses for a moment, her scowl becoming deeper than I thought possible. Then her scowl evaporates as she seems to come to a decision. She shrugs and bustles off, nose up, no doubt reckoning that my true purpose need not concern her. I hurry away too; I do not want to invite more encounters.
The dining hall is much the same size and shape as the terrace. The hall's arched ceiling and flat walls are decorated with painted scenes of exotic dishes and related plants and fish. The terrace outside takes up the northern third of the hotel's top floor, and this hall takes up the middle third. I guess that the remaining third contains the kitchen and service area; I can see waiters coming and going via a broad doorway across the hall.
Now I see Kascan and his six companions! They are on my right, half-way along the room, at a table against a large window with a stunning view of Colonial Palace. I do not see the thugs; I am momentarily perplexed because they have had plenty of time to get up here by now.
When I need to predict someone's behaviour, I try to think from his point of view, not as I would think in his position, but as he actually thinks. In short, I must become him. Of course, this requires me to know a lot about him. I do not know much about these thugs; yet I can safely assume that their leader is very skilled and experienced (it is unlikely that he would be paid to carry out a political assassination if he were not), and I can also assume that he has a track record of success in his chosen occupation, which means that he is likely to be very cunning. So, in my mind, I become the thugs’ leader, and realize that he has come here earlier to study the terrain. So what did he see?
My first observation is that every waiter wears a chemise inscribed ‘Palace View All-Day Buttery’; otherwise, they are of every age and gender with little to distinguish them from the patrons. It would be easy to approach a diner by posing as a waiter. I also observe that access to the dining hall from below is via the flight of stairs to my left, near the doorway to the terrace. However, the host and his employees are unlikely to bring heavy supplies up those stairs, and then all the way across the hall, with so many tables and chairs in the way; so, there will be a separate service stairway leading into the kitchen area. Furthermore, the thug's leader will have studied this building, as I did, from the roof garden of Subway Fort next door. I saw that getting onto the hotel's slate roof so as to swing down through a window is impracticable; and, as for the other entry points, seven men jumping down to the terrace, as I did, or climbing the patrons’ stairway, would cause a great commotion and give Kascan too much warning. Therefore, I deduce that the kitchen is the best starting point for a surprise attack on Kascan while he is dining, especially if the assailants are dressed as waiters. Besides, none of the legitimate waiters look as if they are warrior types able to offer effective resistance to the thugs.
Trusting that nobody here will recognize me — I daresay that Kascan has chosen this place because its patrons are locals or visiting merchants, not Kraran officials or embassy staff — I move purposefully through the room toward the kitchen, keeping my eyes and ears alert to any evidence of the thugs' presence. I saw the leader clearly under the street lighting in the alley and will recognize him, but I did not get a clear view of the others’ faces, so I must watch for what I remember of their shapes, sizes, and deportments, and for their interaction with the leader and each other.
In my anxiety and haste, I have forgotten how strange I must look here, wearing dirty fisherman’s clothes, and carrying a long staff and kit bag (let alone the iron baton hanging from my belt).
“The dining hall is full, Sir.” The gruff voice comes from behind me. “However, we still have seats available on the terrace."
It is an elderly waiter with a bald head and neatly trimmed white beard, and I note that he is tall enough to look me in the face without raising his head or eyes, but he has never been a warrior. His face shows deep suspicion, no doubt due to my dirty appearance.
“My wife is heavy with child and has become exhausted climbing the stairs,” I lie, and hope that my hastily improvised story does not sound as corny to the waiter as it sounds to me as I say it. “Can you come downstairs with me and guide us to a table while I help her up?” Then I whisper, “I can pay well.”
The waiter's scowl falls from his face like autumn leaves in a strong breeze. He looks around him to see if any of his colleagues are watching. Whether it is his need of money or his compassion for my situation, or perhaps a bit of both, he has made a favourable decision.
“I’m not supposed to leave this floor while I’m on duty, unless told to. But you are clearly a hard working man like me...” he trails off, and I try to look grateful rather than triumphant, and to share his empathy rather than expose my guilt at deceiving him.
Almost without pause for reflection, I act as soon as we are on the stairs and out of sight. Here is a man who has agreed to help me rather than throw me out for my unsuitable attire. The Great Plan, the ethical doctrine to which I am bound, requires of me justice and compassion, and yet the urgency of my mission requires ruthlessness. I need this man’s chemise and I have no time to bargain; the thugs could strike Kascan at any moment.
Using the wooden broomstick rather than the iron baton, I strike the man with just enough force to render him unconscious for a few minutes. As a practitioner of the martial sciences and arts I have some skill in such matters, although there is always a risk of serious injury. I check that he is on his side and breathing properly, I put on his waiter's chemise, and I close his hand over a large gold coin from my belt. The gold is worth more than he would be paid for many weeks’ work, and the bump on his head will, I hope, give him an excuse for leaving work early this evening. Perhaps I could have negotiated with him, but it would have taken valuable time; every second counts.
As soon as I drop my bag and broomstick by the wall at the top of the stairs (they are hardly the apparatus of a waiter), I see the thugs’ leader coming out of the kitchen. He is dressed as a waiter, as I expected, and he is scanning the room for his quarry. He is clearly unfamiliar with Kascan’s voice or he would look straight across to where the Dabbinan is loudly holding forth about a battle with pirates.
Unlike the surly group of waiters behind him — I suppose that they are his comrades — the leader is smiling broadly, as though pleasing the patrons is his sole wish. At last, he sees Kascan. Still smiling, the leader turns and nods to his men.
I snatch up a large, red napkin from a nearby table. I fold the napkin over my left arm to hide the baton held beneath in my right hand. I then march quickly toward Kascan’s table as though I have been called to take an order for food or wine. The thugs are setting off in different directions, no doubt to avoid drawing attention to the fact that they have a single destination and one foul purpose.
One of the thugs, ahead of the others, reaches the table as I do. I drop the red napkin and stoop as if to retrieve it; this puts me in the position I want to adopt, and hides me from general view. The first thug, a short, pale, thickset man with a red scar running from his mouth to his right ear, thrusts a long dagger at Kascan’s back. But the weapon never strikes home; I punch forcefully upward, and the thug crumples in pain as my baton grinds into his groin and expunges all other thoughts from his mind. As the man falls, I twist to avoid his flailing dagger and then take the opportunity to bring my baton sharply down across his head. That should keep him out of the play for a while longer.
“Be on your guard!” I whisper in Kascan's ear as he starts to swing around to see what the commotion is about. His companions in the seats opposite are already rising to their feet.
This is not the same for me as my ordeal at Kanand Castle, when my senses were shrill with fear for my loved ones. Then, I went straight into the 'battle trance', which makes the passing of time seem slower. However, I don’t have any connection with Kascan or his friends, except that they might be able to help my quest. I am not even in any direct personal danger at this point; the thugs’ leader has seen his man go down, but he could not have seen that I caused it. Nonetheless, I must enter the battle trance if I am to fight effectively, so I will it upon myself. I think of Silky, and of my family, and of the people of Krar who have been betrayed, and I think of the evil that has been done against them all and which still persists and festers. My anger peaks, even as my purpose hardens to a sharp edge. It is then that the trance comes upon me like a fast-rising tide in an ocean of energy. What happens in the next few seconds is a whirlwind of chaos interspersed with order. Every event and movement is given space in my mind; I witness every detail.
Seeing his man collapse, the leader guesses that Kascan is now alert to the plot, so he decides that the time for stealth is over. He calls out harshly to his men who immediately produce their weapons and rush toward Kascan’s table. The Dabbinan and his friends have no weapons other than their small eating knives. It is common for establishments like this one to require patrons to leave their weapons at the door; the thugs must have had inside help to have brought their weapons in here without skirmish and alarm.
Kascan and his five younger friends all act together with admirable speed, as though they have trained together. They lift the table and hold it as a shield. The older man, clearly not a warrior, backs away a little.
“Branken and Selnipa, to the wings!” Kascan cries.
Kascan's cousin (there is a certain family resemblance) takes position to the right of the table, the girl to the left (her honey eyes still remarkable for their sparkle). Using the table as their pivot, while the others hold it steady, Branken and Selnipa kick their legs high into the air, aiming at the heads of the two closest assailants. Their heels drive into the two faces with a sickening thud, and withdraw before the thugs' hacking blades can cut down at them. Branken and Selnipa then swing back behind the table to help their comrades use it as a battering ram, which they proceed to do by ramming it at the four thugs still standing.
Meanwhile, noticing that the three downed thugs are stirring, I move around them like a groundsman collecting litter, and club each of them with my baton. It is possible that they will not recover; I have no time to consider measuring the force I use, for I have just seen something that greatly alarms me.
People around us are screaming, falling over chairs, and stumbling toward the exits. Others remain rigid in their chairs, hoping that the fight will not come to them. Already, two other tables have been shoved aside by the turmoil.
Kascan’s group have only their fists, feet, and table for weapons, but wield them so deftly that the remaining four armed thugs are unable to get close enough to inflict injury. Branken and Selnipa stay at the sides, while Kascan and the other young men hold the table. I hear Kascan call the others by their names: Arnata, Pontan, and Deltan. The first is Selnipa’s older brother, heir to the principality of Belspire, and the other two are the sons of the Duke of Proequa. The older man — Kascan calls him Quassilo — now takes a fallen club and attacks the thugs from the side, as well he might, as I now recall reading that Quassilo is the vice-president of the fiercely independent Republic of Quolow, a city state in the west of this continent.
But my alarm comes from having just seen a face that I know I should recognize. Why? It is not the face of someone I know, and yet it has left a lasting impression on me. It is one of a group of faces burnt into my mind. As the memory crystallizes, the man looks across at me. His jaw drops in a silent cry as he recognizes me!
Of course he does, and now I remember him! He was one of the Chainers who advanced against me that deadly day, the day of the Massacre, before I slew Prokkanix and escaped from Kanand Castle. He was one of many then, but he appears to be by himself today, a Chainer spy disguised as a visiting merchant. I have little doubt that he is here to supervise the murder of Kascan. It also explains how the thugs were able to bring their weapons into this building; that required preparation, including the kinds of threat and inducement by which the Order of Chains has increased its influence wherever it has established itself.
The Chainer must not be allowed to report my presence in Port Cankrar! Nor must he be permitted to reveal my association, however slight, with Kascan or any other potential ally. The Order of Chains will stop at nothing to silence anyone who might learn the truth of the Massacre of the Nobles; they would send an army of assassins, not merely one small band of thugs.
As I charge toward the Chainer, the thug leader turns to attack me, thrusting his saw-edged blade at my face. It catches my arm and draws blood as I twist away from it. I have no time to measure my response, so I crush his skull with a brutal blow from my baton.
Meanwhile, the Chainer quickly retreats. I guess that his orders are to report to his superiors if he encounters unexpected enemies, and not to engage in a battle he might lose; as I am the greatest enemy of all, he must report back at all costs. The Chainers are not willing risk-takers; they prefer the odds to be stacked in their favour before they strike. If they know where I am, they will send an army of spies and murderers against me, and set careful traps. They will not risk everything by allowing one low-level agent to take impromptu action without proper support.
The Chainer bounds toward the kitchen. He scrambles across tables, kicks over chairs, shoves people out of the way, and even steps on a few patrons who have tripped and fallen to the floor. He even climbs over the press of people blocking the doorway. I follow in similar fashion.
“Can we help you, Friend?” Kascan calls, his voice booming across the hall. I am grateful that it is already clear to him that I am his ally in all this tumult.
“Please secure my kit bag; it's by the stairs,” I call, turning my head toward Kascan as far as I can without losing sight of the Chainer. The bag contains my ceremonial uniform and my medallion of office, both damning evidence and useful articles for propaganda in the hands of Sakscren’s supporters, and it seems that her chief cabal of supporters, the Order of Chains, is already establishing itself in Port Cankrar.
Somewhere, a clock tolls midnight.
Now the kitchen is also crowded with panicky and confused patrons and staff, so it takes me a few moments to spot the Chainer as he pushes his way toward a passage and into darkness. He must be heading for the service staircase. I follow, desperate to prevent his escape.
I am having difficulty catching up; there are too many people blocking my way. For some reason they are no longer trying to escape this way, but are pressing back toward the dining hall. My heart pounding with anxiety, I push through them with rude vigour, my hurried apologies small compensation for the bruises I inflict on the hapless souls in my path. If the Chainer escapes before I get to him, or tells a colleague about me, my cause will be set back to the brink of failure, and Kascan will be in far greater danger once the Chainers redouble their efforts against him. I can not afford to be gentle with those in my way.
Down the passage I go and into a wider space which, I guess, is the pantry where food is stored before being taken to the kitchen for preparation. The room is dark, except for a faint glow in two small windows set high in the western wall. I feel strangely comforted by that light. It is the city-glow, and it reminds me of my home town, Krarisca, alive with activity both day and night.
My eyes not yet adjusted to the dark, I stop to listen. Someone must have shut off the pantry lanterns very recently; the room would need to be well lit for the business of the evening. Perhaps it was the dark that discouraged people from escaping this way, and sent them flying back to the dining hall, but I fear that it was more than the dark.
At first, I think that nobody else is in the room. Then my foot connects with something soft and heavy on the floor; I know a dead body when I kick one! I reach down; the death was very recent, and I can tell that it was mercilessly brutal. As I force revulsion away, my instinct tells me that the perpetrator of this murder is still very near. The distant noise of mayhem in the kitchen and dining hall fades from my mind; all my senses focus on the immediate danger.
Can it be that the Chainer has made a fatal mistake? Instead of fleeing to report me to his superiors, does he seek greater glory by staying here to slay me himself? Even as I dismiss this thought (it would be too good to be true), I sense the attack coming. There are two of them, both large and heavy, probably trained warriors, hired for the night rather than Chainers themselves — the Order of Chains is too exclusive (and too careful) to extend its membership widely. My hopes are dashed, not because I fear fighting them (my training enables me to overcome the battle-fear), but because these two will delay me while my quarry escapes.
Like a bat flying through the night, a deeper shadow comes at me from my right, but I have no room to drop to the ground to avoid the blow. The room is full of benches and storage cabinets: a tall cabinet completely blocks me on the left, and there are lower ones seemingly everywhere else.
To block the blow, I thrust my baton upward with all the force I can muster.
Just in time! The sword must be wielded with both hands because it cracks my iron baton in two. Although the stroke is deflected, my arm rings with jarring pain.
I hear the end of the baton clatter on the floor, and a dull thud as my attacker’s damaged blade smacks into the heavy cabinet to my left. I have a moment or two before the first attacker recovers his stance, but the second attacker is also close. Where is he?
A sudden flash of light blinds me for a moment, but not before I take in the position of both of my attackers: the first is two paces away to my right, now drawing a new blade from his belt; the second has sneaked between two cabinets on my left (I had mistakenly thought of them as a single unit) and is already upon me. I sigh with resignation as I see his sword thrusting at me. My right arm is still ringing, so I desperately punch my left hand at his eyes. He recoils for a moment, which gives me time to roll head-first into the only available space, a narrow passage between benches. In two seconds, however, both men are almost upon me again.
As I look up at my opponents, I see the reason for the sudden light in the room. Kascan and his young companions have arrived, all now carrying weapons taken from the thugs. At the same time, the Chainer's bodyguards also become aware of the newcomers and pause, undecided. I think they are wondering whether they still have time to kill me and then escape.
I have no time to discuss my predicament with Kascan, so I use my opponents' moment of indecision to scramble toward the further exit. I give a quick salute to Kascan as I leap to my feet and press through the doorway, hoping that he understands the urgency. I am heartened to see him return the signal, more so when he calls for Selnipa to go with me; I never underestimate the value of help. As Kascan and his fellows confront the bodyguards, Selnipa vaults high over my opponents' heads and follows me through the door to the service stairway.
For all that has happened, it is still less than thirty seconds since the Chainer went this way. He can not have gone far.
"We meet again, Musician! What now?" Selnipa whispers urgently to me as we run to the stairs. I guess that she wants to know what, who and why. She saw me run after the Chainer in the dining hall, but she would not know why, who else might be involved, or what to expect.
"The man I chased from the hall is an enemy of all the nations of Arctequa. He came to oversee your friend's murder. He must not be allowed to report back to his masters." I don't know what news of events in Krar might have reached Selnipa and her friends, but she nods, so I suppose my short explanation satisfies her for the time being.
Ahead of us there is a broad, circular staircase around a narrow, central well. Light seeps up from the lower levels.
"I'll start from the ground," Selnipa says, and leaps over the banister into the stair well. She proceeds to drop down, breaking her fall at each level by grabbing the banister with one hand. She reaches the bottom in a few seconds, landing with the suppleness of a cat. I doubt that I could have done the same at her age, and I am certainly not going to try now. I use the banister, and occasionally the balusters, as handgrips to help me swing down ten steps at a time. When I reach the first level above ground, I stop and listen. This floor is well lit, but I can not see anybody else here. However, I hear voices below; Selnipa has found someone and is asking a question.
"Not for half an hour," replies a woman with a local accent. Then, after a pause, "Are you talking about those strangers the doorman took up? I wondered why he was letting them in. I didn't like the look of them, but he said it was alright."
I now guess the identity of the dead body I found in the pantry. The Chainer probably paid the doorman half the bribe earlier in the day, and the thugs paid the rest. I'll wager that my two attackers took the money back after they had relieved the doorman of his head, an outcome that the Chainer would have authorized. Musing on the careful planning typical of Chainer ventures leads me to another realization: the Chainer would have secured a room on the first floor, so he could escape through a window to the street if anything went wrong with his plan.
"Selnipa!" I call, and she appears at the bottom of the stairs. "From a window to the street!" I say. She understands and runs outside, while I take a passage parallel to the front of the building. Ten paces in, the passage is already dark, very little light reaching this far from the stair well. However, the darkness helps because, for a moment, I see a glow at the bottom of only one of the doors on the street side, and then the glow cuts out.
I burst through the door, just in time to see the silhouette of a man's head outside the window. Then the head drops out of sight. A taut rope is drawn around the leg of a heavy table in the middle of the room, with both ends going out through the window. The man no doubt expects to retrieve the rope when he reaches the ground. Not if I can stop it! Before the man can pull the rope down, I grab both lengths where they bend over the window sill. He looks up in alarm when he realizes that his rope is caught. This is indeed the Chainer I seek! He sees me and curses as I climb out through the window, using his rope for my descent.
The Chainer takes off along the alley. He heads northward, which surprises me because I expected him to head southward to Middle Highway on his way to Colonial Palace. Now, where is Selnipa? She should be here by now.
When I reach the ground, I am very relieved to see Selnipa run up from the side alley on the south side of the hotel.
"He had another bodyguard," she says breathlessly. "Soldier. Big fellow! Came down first. Charged me. I had to retreat down there." She points back to the side alley and then cuts her hand sharply across her throat. I do not enquire how she bested the man. Seeing her at ease, one would think that an average soldier could brush her aside with one empty hand; yet seeing her move with purpose is to know that she would be a formidable foe for any warrior.
"There he is!" I cry, and point at the Chainer as he turns aside for the front door of Subway Fort. I wonder if he is going to try to get back to the hotel from the roof garden.
The Chainer leaves the door ajar, so we push our way in after him. We are just a few seconds behind him and yet he is now nowhere to be seen. I listen for footsteps. The stairs are in front of us and there are passages to left and right, but I hear nothing; the residents are probably all asleep by now. The lobby is well lit, as are the passages and the stairway; yet there is neither sight nor sound of the Chainer, nor can I smell anything in the air to suggest that anyone has passed this way in the last few minutes.
"How could he disappear so quickly?" Selnipa whispers.
For a moment, I have no answer for her. I try to think through what has happened. The Chainer and his team must have surveyed the whole area thoroughly in the hours since they first learned where Kascan was taking his friends for dinner. They would have studied the city plans, and walked through any of the surrounding buildings that might hide avenues of escape for either Kascan or themselves. Given all that, the Chainer has come here, so he must know some means of escape through this building.
Selnipa starts toward the stairs ahead of us; she stops when I tap her shoulder.
"Not that way!" I say. "Too easy for him to be trapped or delayed up there. There must be another way."
When we entered the building, we passed through a short passage before coming to the lobby and stair well, as though the outer wall of the building were four paces thick. It would be very unusual for a building of this design to have such thick walls, especially with so many small windows on every upper floor, so I reason that there could be a hidden space between the lobby and the outer wall. I look at the front door, still wide open and flat against the wall of the entrance passage. Sure enough, it all but conceals another door, a narrow one that must surely lead to some kind of space behind it. I have seen doors like this before; they often lead to a broom closet, sometimes to a basement. It seems to me that this is the most likely way in which the Chainer could hide so quickly, and he would not have gone in there unless he already knew of a safe exit.
"This way!" I say, pointing to the closet door. Selnipa responds by producing a bow from over her shoulder — a weapon she no doubt found in the hotel doorman's office, left there by some dining patron. I no longer have a weapon, so she hands me the serrated blade she took from one of the thugs. She then fits an arrow to her bow, while I wrench the closet door open.
Light streams into the room, and we see that it does indeed contain a variety of brooms, mops, and buckets. I crouch down and squeeze through the narrow opening, while Selnipa aims her arrow over my head. There is enough light from the lobby for me to see that the space is just two paces wide and five paces long. At the other end, there is a narrow door which appears to have been forced open; a broken lock has been thrown to one side. The door is ajar, so I cautiously draw it fully open.
"There are stairs here; they might lead to a basement." I whisper this over my shoulder; though I doubt that the Chainer has stopped long enough to hear me — he will be making his escape as quickly as he can, to inform his superiors that I am in the city.
"Stay well behind me, Selnipa" I blurt out, unnecessarily. "Sorry!" I add quickly, hoping that I did not offend her by sounding too patronizing. She will be well aware that her bow is best used from a distance, and that we should not stay so close as to risk being run through by a single spear or crossbow bolt.
"You can be the bait, then, and you'll need a light," she says, with a barely suppressed laugh, retaliation for my patronizing comment. I should have thought of the light myself! It brings home to me that my preoccupation with the danger posed by the Chainer has blunted my wits. I take a deep, mind-restoring breath; notice the faint smell of rotting vegetation mixed with something else vaguely unpleasant, and wait until Selnipa brings me a lantern from the lobby. It is sensible that I be the one to carry it; Selnipa will then have both hands free for archery whilst remaining almost invisible in the shadows behind me.
The Chainer is unlikely to be waiting for us; yet we proceed down the narrow stairway with great caution. I lead, and Selnipa stays three paces behind. The brick walls on either side are rough and slightly damp. About three fathomes down, the stairway opens out into a small room with brick walls, stone floor, and a ceiling of rough timber beams. About five paces square, this room is what the residents probably call their basement (at least, those of them who know of its existence). It is not an inviting place, and I doubt that many residents would want to store things here at the bottom of such a dismal staircase. My first impression is confirmed when I see that the walls are lined with broken furniture, nothing useful. On my left, bricks have been removed to reveal a dark exit; the dust disturbed by jetsam shoved aside to make way for this opening suggests that the work was carried out very recently. It seems that the Chainer has made more preparations than just study the city plans and reconnoitre the area. I credit the thoroughness of the Order of Chains, and I will never underestimate their capacity for diligence in the pursuit of their evil aims.
Selnipa sees the exit almost as I do, and we immediately take one side each. I break a small length of wood from a wrecked chair near me, set it alight with the lantern flame, and throw it through the opening. Before the flame sputters out, it reveals another staircase, similar to the last, but shorter. Two fathomes down, we come to a more-or-less level passage or tunnel. The walls are no longer lined with brick but with heavy timber beams, and the floor seems to be bedrock. The smell of rotting vegetation is now unmistakable, and I notice that other smell as well.
I have read about the subterranean byways of Port Cankrar, but I never thought that I would need a detailed knowledge of them. Before the city was established, much of the land between the Stronnor and Strossar rivers had been subject to regular floods; storms would sweep in from the sea at spring tide, and flood waters would pour down Stron River in the winter. Consequently, the land was pock-marked with pools and criss-crossed by waterways; most of this, however, was altered and built over as the city expanded, so whatever remains of it today is hidden from all except those few who have good reason to come down here.
For the sake of caution, we have so far moved more slowly than we could have. The Chainer, however, will go as quickly as he can, and he knows his path well enough. Moreover, if he is confident that we are now unlikely to catch up with him, he will not delay his mission in order to ambush us. So, I need to change my strategy, and I need Selnipa's help to do so. It is time for me to tell her something of what this is all about.
"Thank you for your trust in me, Princess Selnipa of Belspire, even when you do not know who I am..." I begin as we hurry along this dank, tunnel-like passage.
"You saved us in the dining hall," she replies, "and I do know who you are, Prince Praalis of Krar! Deltan guessed your identity after you came to our table. He was sent here nearly a year ago to monitor news from Krar, after we heard that almost the entire Council of Nobles had been wiped out when a remote castle burnt down in the far north. Deltan has made himself an expert on all matters concerning Krar. He says that you officially died with all the others at the castle, but that conflicting rumours have raised doubts in some quarters. He has told us many things about Krar since we arrived in this city a month ago."
Relieved that my explanation need not start from the very beginning, I muse aloud, "Having been here nearly a year, Deltan will know about these subterranean passages." Foreign embassies make it their business to study the local highways and byways; these passages are hidden and little known to the general public, but they have never been secret.
"I guess so," she replies.
"Was his mission here secret?" I ask. The answer is important for the train of my thought.
"Not at all, he is well-known within Embassy Palace."
"That's good. Our Chainer might have come recently to Port Cankrar, but he will have fully researched his task, so he will know that Deltan is also familiar with these tunnels. That gives us a chance."
"You mean he won't take the shortest route, or the nearest exit, because he thinks Deltan might be waiting for him? It's very unlikely, but I see what you mean: the Chainer will take evasive measures anyway, to reduce his risk of failure, because it's so very important for him to tell on you. He'll stay down here longer than he should, and that gives us a chance to catch him."
"Exactly! I wish Krar had advisers as astute as you are." The compliment is sincere. I am impressed by Selnipa's perception, and I am grateful to have someone of her calibre to help me. As it happens, Krar did have astute advisers, until they were murdered by Chainers.
"I'm almost a Master Mariner; just one more year to go," she declares with a soft laugh, to cover her obvious pride with a little humility. And proud she deserves to be! The skills required of a Master Mariner in these times are of the highest order.
"That explains it," I laugh. "But now we must run! I'll be the noisy bait, as you put it, while you follow in the dark with your bow ready and arrow fitted."
We set off running down the passage. On high alert, concerned more about running into some solid barrier or obstacle than into the Chainer, I try to control the noise made by my boots on the ground; I do not want to give the Chainer too much warning of my approach, just enough to unnerve him, not enough for him to devise a sound plan of attack. Selnipa is wearing the soft slippers she chose for a peaceful dinner party, and which now prove ideal for stealth; they are barely audible, even to my keen ears.
The passage suddenly opens into a dark, breezy space, and the rocky floor gives way to timber beams. My lantern light does not penetrate the dark far enough for me to see more than a few paces, but the sound of running water below tells me that I am passing over a watercourse, or perhaps a sewer (the smell of rotting vegetation is tinged with something more noisome). The bridge ends after five or six paces, and I plunge back into the enclosed passage. After two more bridged gaps, the passage reaches a T-junction. Now I must choose: left or right.
Selnipa comes up from behind and whispers, "He is probably heading for the Kraran flagship berthed near Colonial Palace. Deltan says that the chief envoy from Krar, a prince called Cargenin, uses the flagship for his base; the city governor refused to let Cargenin set up in Colonial Palace."
It makes sense that the Chainer will try to report to the top man so he can get the maximum credit for himself rather than have it stolen by someone in between. A year ago, Cargenin was a minor court official in Sakscren's service; he was an obedient lackey, but not a very able one. The promotion of such a man to the rank of prince is unseemly in the wake of the Massacre of the Nobles when highly respected princes and princesses were murdered; by tradition, the elevation of a lay citizen to the rank of prince or princess requires the overwhelming support of all the people, such as might be given to someone who saves the kingdom from a disaster. However, the pompous Cargenin will have been sent here as useful idiot to front for the senior Chainer aboard his flagship, most likely a Master of the Order. However, I do take some comfort from the governor's reluctance to entertain this interference from Krar; it will inhibit the Chainers' plans for Kascan (and me). The governor is well-liked by the people here, so it will be difficult for the Order of Chains to move against him. He is very old and has wisdom to match, certainly enough to suspect and avoid an assassination attempt; so the Chainers might have to bide their time and wait for nature to take its course (while I hope that the man lives many more years!).
"In that case," I say to Selnipa, "his quickest route is southward, along the left passage, which would take him to the vicinity of City Square. He should be able to exit there and run down to the flagship. The tunnel on our right heads the wrong way, and could go all the way to the Stronnor River."
"It's conceivable that our quarry has gone north anyway, to confuse pursuers and avoid ambush," she reminds me.
I agree with her. However, if we are wrong, I will lose all chance of stopping the man. It comes down to a simple, age-old tactic: I must think like my opponent.
"It's a mighty risk, but we should take the longer route," I say, "and we must run faster to catch him. But, if I charge forward at full speed, I'll be vulnerable to anyone lying in wait. So, can you keep pace with me and still, if need be, let loose an arrow fast and deadly accurate?"
"Of course," she says confidently. She is fifteen years younger than I, and more athletic than I have ever been, so I do not doubt her. As for me, I have recovered my fitness and I am well-trained for fighting (albeit with just a few skirmishes on our eastern border by way of real battle experience), but I have no special talent for running. Nevertheless, I am confident that I can outpace this Chainer and force him to confront me; provided, of course, that he went north, not south.
I see Selnipa produce a small flask and sprinkle some fluid from it on the wall, just a pace beyond the right-hand turn.
"Scent," she explains. "Didn't you see me splashing it near each doorway we passed? One of the others will follow us and will sniff for this scent; it's very distinctive and stays around for a day or two." Then she laughed, "It's not the sort of scent a woman would normally use; more of a stink really. It's for making a trail; it's not for attracting men or impressing other women! Only my closest allies know about it."
Now I understand the curious odour that I smelt earlier, distinct from the recognizable smell of the rotting vegetation to be found down in these hidden places.
I set off without further delay, at a brisker pace than before, almost a sprint. I hear only the very faintest sound of Selnipa's footfalls behind me, but it is enough to confirm that she is having no trouble keeping pace.
After a few minutes, I come to another bridge; this time, it spans a gap of twenty paces, so I stop to make sure that the Chainer could not have turned aside here. The gurgling of water below suggests a significant watercourse flowing in the direction of the estuary. Selnipa stops, too, about fifteen paces behind me; although I only know this by the glint on an arrowhead. She is probably adopting a shooting stance, down on one knee, given the height of the gleaming metal above the floor.
Holding the lantern out from the bridge very carefully (there is no balustrade or railing); I see that a nimble person could drop down from the bridge to a very narrow ledge on each side of the watercourse, but it would be very slow and dangerous going from there. Our man is in a hurry, so I reckon that he has chosen to stay in the main passage, hoping that any pursuers will take the quickest and most obvious path to Colonial Palace. This pause has delayed us by half a minute, so I push forward again. But I soon come to an abrupt halt. The wall on my left suddenly terminates, and I enter a large, rectangular room, with no other way out than the passage by which I entered. If I were to panic, this would be the right time, for it throws all my assumptions and tactics into disarray.
"It seems I made the wrong decision," I lament to Selnipa as she comes to the room's entrance. "We must go back and try to salvage what we can of this operation. The Order of Chains will soon hear about my presence in the city, and will focus all their resources against us all. I am sorry that I have put you and your friends in even greater danger than before."
"Don't be silly," she says, "we might already be dead were it not for your intervention. Anyway, why would the city fathers build a dead-end passage to an empty room like this? It doesn't make sense! Even if it was meant to be some kind of burial chamber, why then is the only entrance at the south-east corner rather than in the middle?" Then, as if to remind me of my own vow of diligence and perseverance, she takes the lantern from me and goes to the middle of the room. She slowly turns around, heedless of the shallow puddle soaking her slippers, and inspects the walls in the lantern's light. Then she goes to the wall in the north-eastern corner, opposite our entrance passage and starts to prod the wall with an arrow. This, at least, brings me back to my senses.
"Of course!" I cry, slapping my forehead. It was all in the answer to an examination question I encountered years ago. "This room is a junction room. Such rooms serve a number of purposes: to store equipment, readily accessible to any part of a network of passages; to provide solid support, where overhead constructions might otherwise be too heavy for the passages beneath them; or to provide safe areas for subterranean workers in case of fire, flood, or earthquake. The entrances and exits of junction rooms would often be fitted with gates for isolating flooding or fire, or to assist in the event of enemy attack."
"Ah, so I'm right to think there must be other exits!" Selnipa says triumphantly.
I check the opening that we came through; sure enough, there is a fitting in the floor to which a vertical spindle might once have been fitted. My guess is that this entrance was also once blocked by a door, disguised as a part of the room's wall, which could be revolved around the spindle. The prospect of finding other doors in the room is heartening, but it does not allay all my fears; it does not answer the question of which one the Chainer took.
"Our entrance is at the east end of the south wall of the room, so let's try the west end first," I suggest. "Junction rooms are usually symmetrical."
"As easy as that!" Selnipa remarks when, with a twist of her arrowhead, she levers open a section of wall; it comes out on one side and goes in on the other, moving around a central axis. Behind the revolving wall we see another passage, almost identical to the one by which we entered the room.
If suitably locked or barred, this door would surely be strong enough to withstand fire, flood, or assault long enough for anyone in the room to escape down one of the other passages, but it is so finely balanced on its central spindle that Selnipa opens it without much difficulty. She then turns toward me and frowns.
"There must be other doors," she says with concern, "and we don't know which he took." This is true, and it has worried me until now, but no longer!
"Not to worry!" I say triumphantly, at last feeling that my presence of mind (about which I had formerly been far too proud) has returned. "Look at your feet, and then look at those footprints down there!"
The lantern light, cast across the passage entrance, shows me that this is the passage taken by the Chainer. Selnipa immediately sees what I mean. Her slippers have left damp footprints just inside the passage, where the floor had been much drier than in the room. The Chainer must also have walked through the puddle in the room because his wet boot marks can be seen further down the passage, as far as the lantern light reaches.
Now Selnipa and I find ourselves running back the way we came, albeit in another passage. However, I sense that we are heading slightly west of south, and therefore veering toward the estuary harbour.
When, by my reckoning, we have passed Subway Fort, our narrow passage suddenly ends, and we enter a much wider and higher space where our path meets and follows a strong, dark stream on our left. The stream is so close that I need to take care not to slip down the bank and fall in.
There is a faint light coming from above, so I shut the lantern. Then, as my eyes adjust, I see that we have entered what was once a gully, now built over. The gully's slopes are mostly hidden by the exposed foundations of stone buildings, but can still be made out in the places where roads or alleys would be at the street level above me. The stream itself is no more than ten paces across, with its banks taking up another three paces on either side. The path on this side runs at the top of the bank, right up against the foundation walls. The high arch over all of this probably supports an important road, albeit not one of the highways.
Without slowing my pace, I look for any entrances that might have been used by the Chainer to escape to the street above. I see none. The stone walls all seem to be for structural support alone, not for access. The planners clearly thought that city life should not extend to the dingy places below street level. The risk of flooding down here is enough to explain their thinking, and to explain why the exposed foundations are reminiscent of sea walls.
Five minutes later, the light improves a little and I see that the gully is coming to an end, and running into a broader space. Selnipa has noticed this too, and she is moving up from behind. Once we left the tunnel, she was no longer so well-hidden in the dark, so she stayed about twenty paces behind me — the gaps between the buildings are ideal hiding places for an ambush, so it was better for her to stay back. However, now she will need to be much closer in order to give me cover when I venture out of this gully and into whatever lies ahead.
Soon, the sides of the gully give way to what seems like a dell or small box valley. It is almost surrounded by the foundations of great buildings, but the central area contains a reservoir which must be more than two hundred paces square. The reservoir is fed by the stream beside me, and by a stream flowing into it from another gully on its eastern side. It is immediately obvious to me where I am: right underneath City Square! When I spent the night before last sleeping fitfully above, I had no idea that anything other than solid earth was below me. I am now relieved to see that the roof is soundly supported by rib vaulting between strong pillars in many rows and columns, each pillar arching over into its eight immediate neighbours. Some of the roof material is translucent, so the street lighting in the square above provides a subdued ambiance down here.
The path now follows the edge of the reservoir almost all the way around, but the bridge that once crossed the stream here has been washed away, leaving only footings and a few broken timbers on either side. This is a welcome sight for me because the Chainer had just one way to go, to the right (which would also take him closer to Cargenin's flagship).
I am now little more than one hundred paces away from the great library of Port Cankrar. The dark wall I see in the shadows, behind the pillars on the western side of the reservoir, must be the library's foundations. No, it will be more than mere foundation! The library will have vast storage rooms in its basement. Is it possible that it will also have an exit there, to facilitate the rescue of irreplaceable books and scrolls in the event of fire? My heart leaps at the thought of going in there and immersing myself in the learning of thousands of years; but I also have an uncanny feeling that the library is now the Chainer's chosen means of escape.
My train of thought is cut short by a cry of pain, and it comes from the direction of the library. I look around for Selnipa, to beckon her, and find that she has already caught up with me.
"It's a man's voice," she says. "Your Chainer?"
"Or his doing," I reply, and we both sprint forward.
The library does have a subterranean entrance facing the reservoir; a single door two fathomes above the path, it is reached by a flight of stone steps running up the side of the basement wall. The Chainer is standing at the top of the steps. He retreats inside and pushes the door, but something is preventing it from closing. Then, the Chainer sees me, abandons his effort to close the door, and moves out of sight. Desperate to catch the man, I run up the stairs three at a time, but I have to stop quickly. I stifle a curse when I realize that I have lost the chance to catch the Chainer, for a very old man lies in the doorway, badly wounded and distressed. I must help this man, and no concern of my own can justify leaving him here unaided.
"I'll follow the Chainer," Selnipa says. "You stay here, if you must!"
I am grateful that she understands my dilemma. Besides, she has the bow and the arrows, the only means we have of stopping the Chainer now, so it makes sense that she be the one to carry on the chase.
When Selnipa has dodged past me and gone inside, I kneel down to check the old man's injuries. He looks up at me with strangely clear eyes, though he looks older than anyone else I have ever seen.
"My hip is badly broken, and I no longer have the stamina to recover from that," he says. "I do not have much time left." His voice is shaky, but he seems completely resigned to his fate.
"Surely I can take you to a healer, old man," I say, feeling already that I have somehow failed him by not having adequate healing skills of my own.
"No, Praalis Cankrar! I am a doctor of medicine, 142 years old, and I do not fear death. You must listen to me, for I have important things to tell you!"
I am taken aback by the mention of my name. How could he know?
"Did the man who was here just now tell you my name?" I ask.
"No, the Chainer attacked me as I was trying to shut him out." The old man winced with pain and sucked in one long, hissing breath before continuing. "I have been waiting for you! I must say things to you, and then you must go after your quarry. He can not go up to the street through the library; I have locked the doors to the inner basement from which the upper levels can be reached. He will have to go around the outer passage, and then out the door on the other side. From there his most likely course is north. He must go nearly as far as the fort where the River Stronnor meets the estuary. Only then can he climb up to the docks. You have time to catch him. Now listen!
"You will not understand all I now tell you, but you must memorize it and search for the truth. You must seek the legacy of the Visitors, those who came to our planet and instructed our Illumen of ancient times! Learn the truth about the Communicors and their Geodes, works of the Visitors! Rediscover the mystery of the Separation, the power discovered by our own ancestors, and then lost! Seek knowledge in the great libraries of Arctequa! Will you do this?"
"I will. I swear to it," I say solemnly. I feel a thrill of recognition as my own vague quest is given direction by this old man. "But, who are you, and can you tell me more? Communicors? Geodes? Separation? What is the Separation, and what is the mystery of it that we lost?"
He tells me his name, which sounds to me like 'Why-koo-kay-tee', but it is not from any language that I know of. Then he says, "The smallest particles of matter contain opposite forces which are usually in equilibrium, or very close to it. However, when a certain characteristic of these particles changes the direction or shape of its existence, it causes the universe (or frame of reference, if you like) in which the forces exist to divide between two separate universes which then drift apart for a tiny period of time. This is the Separation! Once a Separation has occurred, like the string of a lyre being struck (but in a very different way), the two universes resonate together, and generate powerful waves of energy. The secret of the Separation is that a single human can, by mind control alone, cause the necessary change of shape within the atomic constituents of his body and of nearby matter so as to allow its frame of reference to split in two and drift apart. He can then harness the power of the Separation to great effect. The power must only be used for good, and for the advancement of civilization. Perhaps my granddaughter..." The old man trails off and I do not hear the name clearly, but it could have been 'Zee-tay'.
Before I am able to ask for elaboration or explanation, he smiles, and exhales, never to speak again. But I will remember him and what he told me, and I know that his voice will guide me through many long and lonely days and years ahead.
I draw the man's frail body inside, and I gently lay him there; I will return as soon as I can to make sure that he is treated with respect. Then, I turn and run along the passage on my right, following the Chainer and Selnipa. It is not long before I reach the other door. This exit is arranged in the same way as the first, with steps descending two fathomes to a path, except there is no reservoir here, just a passage from left to right, like a roofed canyon between bare stone walls.
Which way did the Chainer go? Thanks to the many translucent roof stones, which admit a little of the city's street lighting, I can see a hundred paces or more in both directions, but there is no sign of the Chainer or Selnipa. Then, I notice that strange smell: Selnipa's tracking scent! The odour is strongest near the wall a few paces north of the bottom of the stairs. The old man was right: the Chainer is heading toward the Stronnor River, and Selnipa is after him. I run as I have never run before.
The passage veers a little this way and that, but the skylights remain; so I guess that one of the city's longer streets lies above.
Twenty-five minutes after leaving the library, when I reckon that the Stronnor River must now be close by, the skylights come to an end and the passage plunges into a dark tunnel. I adopt a more cautious pace, keeping my left hand on the wall, and holding my right hand out in front, in case I run into something. Just as well! When the wall on my left suddenly gives way to emptiness, I have just enough time to turn my shoulder before I crash into another wall; I avoid the serious head injury that I might so easily have sustained, but the painful bruise on my shoulder will take a long time to clear. Feeling around, I find that the tunnel has made a sharp left turn; rough brickwork on the right suggests that this was once a T-junction, but not in recent times. The Chainer could only have taken the left turn.
The tunnel is now surely heading for the estuary, and I sense that it is also descending. As my eyes become more accustomed to the dark, I see a faint light ahead: the end of the tunnel, I hope. The ugly blade that Selnipa gave me is still in my belt — lucky that my belt is reinforced with copper thread, or the saw-edge would have cut through it by now. I adjust the position of the blade until I am satisfied that I can draw it out quickly should I need to defend myself. Then I advance again, hoping that Selnipa is still somewhere ahead of me and has not come to any mischief.
Just about two minutes of this and the source of the glow becomes obvious: the tunnel does come to an end. I step out into a large chamber — far too quickly! There is a step down, and I misjudge it. I stumble, twisting a knee in the process. I break my fall with my forearms, but my forehead carries forward and splashes in icy water — better than on the stony floor, but a shock nonetheless.
I find myself in another reservoir chamber. This one is narrower than the one under City Square — perhaps sixty paces against two hundred — but it is longer, stretching into the unseen distance both left and right. There is a narrow ledge between wall and water on both sides, but there seems to be no way across, other than by immersing oneself in water so cold as to threaten the life of the strongest swimmer. The chamber is lit by many tiny windows in the vaulted ceiling, some five fathomes above me. The roof is supported by rows of dark pillars, much thicker and more widely spaced than the pillars supporting City Square. The water is dark, and its depth unknowable. Or is it?
I think back to my studies and recall that, many centuries ago, the docks of Port Cankrar were extended into the estuary until the depth was sufficient to berth the largest ships. The concrete ledge on which I now stand, and the wall behind me, have been superimposed on the original estuary bank; the nearby estuary water has been covered and contained by this reservoir. The northernmost docks and the promenade in front of the city are above me (the height of the roof here suggests that the docks above are intended for ships of the largest size, although there will be ramps projecting from the outer wall to facilitate the loading and unloading of smaller vessels).
But where is the Chainer? I do not see a bridge across the reservoir, nor any stairs or ladders. Unless he has the speed of a hare, I should have caught up with him by now; yet I see no sign of him. And where is Selnipa? My heart sinks.
I spin around when I hear a faint sound, but very close. I see Selnipa against the wall, twenty paces south of the tunnel exit. She is standing up slowly; she must have been lying in the shadow there, and that is why I did not see her before. I am about to speak when she silences me with a hiss.
Almost too fast for my eyes to see it, Selnipa raises her bow and shoots an arrow out into the reservoir. Two beats later, I hear a sharp intake of breath from somewhere out there. Selnipa already has another arrow fitted and shoots that too, followed as quickly by a third.
I hear a scream, and then a loud splash. Following the sound, I see a commotion in the water on the other side of the reservoir. Someone is in the water, splashing violently.
"Quick!" Selnipa urges me. "We must get to him before he climbs out."
My eyes have still not entirely readjusted after the dark of the tunnel; I struggle to see the Chainer in the shadow across the water. However, I think I understand what has just happened. Selnipa crept out of the tunnel on her stomach, to let her own eyes adjust before her presence became obvious to the Chainer. Then, when the Chainer heard me rush in, he turned suddenly. Seeing that movement, Selnipa had her target.
When Selnipa removes her slippers and steps out into the reservoir, I see how the Chainer got across the icy water. At first, Selnipa appears to walk on the water, but then I notice that the rippling surface around her feet is barely more than a film of water covering a dark and very narrow bridge supported by submerged pontoons.
I follow Selnipa across the bridge as carefully as I would walk on a plank from the roof of one building to that of another. By the time we reach the other side, all we can see of the man is one flailing arm, perhaps trying to grasp some imaginary support, so I grab that arm and pull. Selnipa is soon able to take the man's other arm and we drag him out of the water and onto the bridge. There is no doubt that this is the same man that I saw at Kanand Castle last year, and again last night at the hotel's dining hall; this is not some innocent bystander we have attacked by mistake. However, finding him in such distress brings me no sense of victory. While I do feel relief that the Order of Chains will not now hear about me from him, he is still a human being. This pathetic and misdirected man, evil though his intention has been, might have loved ones and personal aspirations, some of which might be harmless enough.
The water is so cold that the Chainer could not possibly have survived in it for more than another minute. He is shivering violently, and gasping for breath as though his lungs are unable to take in enough. He has an arrowhead embedded in his forearm and, more seriously, his calf is transfixed by a complete arrow, but there is no indication that his wounds are likely to be terminal. As we lay him on the ground, he looks up at me with horror written in his face.
"Praalis!" he wheezes, as if it were an accusation.
"I am Praalis, Grand Vizier of Krar, as my forefathers were, and as my descendants will be," I announce formally. I must have heard my father say it on some occasion, and it seems to be an appropriate response in this case, a kind of affirmation of victory, however tenuous the reality of it might seem to me at the moment. However, the Chainer's face contorts in agony, and his body jolts as though struck by lightning.
"Death seizure!" I say to Selnipa. "I guess it was the freezing water, especially after all that running. He did not seem to be very fit to begin with. Some Chainers take an active role in the physical side of murder and mayhem, especially if they have a military background, but most are plotters, manipulators and moneymen who prefer to use others to do their dirty work for them." I am glad these words cause Selnipa to relax a little, as intended. She may have killed before in the heat of battle, but I can see that bringing a fleeing man down with an arrow does not sit well with her.
"What do you want to do now?" she asks. "Kascan and Arnata will be getting their ships ready to sail. Quassilo's ships will sail with them because the Quolowans also go home via Port Fandabbin. Pontan might take the Proequan squadron with them; although he is in a much stronger position to remain. Proequa and Port Cankrar are big trading partners, so the city governor will resist any action taken against Proequans. Will you come with me to Belspire?"
"I would love to come with you," I say, "but my mission will keep me here for a long while. I must also recover my uniform and regalia; they are in the bag I left at the hotel."
She looks disappointed, but says, "Quassilo went to collect your bag. Let Kascan take it to Port Fandabbin and keep it there for you; our Silver Castle is the best defended place in the world." Then she smiles and says, "It will give you good reason to come our way again."
"I would like nothing better than to see you all again one day," I say, "but I have a long journey ahead of me, and much work to do on the way. It is possible that we might not meet again."
Selnipa looks rueful for a while. Then she bends down and rolls the Chainer's lifeless body back into the icy water. She looks up at me with glistening eyes.
"Then we have no time to lose," she says and comes toward me.
I wake to find that the incandescent glow of street lanterns above the high windows has been replaced by the unmistakable ambience of morning sunlight. Selnipa is already up and fully dressed again. I too dress in a hurry, but I let the thugs' blade sink beneath the dark waters of the reservoir; I do not wish to attract attention by going about armed during daytime.
Soon after I have dressed, Deltan appears at the tunnel entrance on the other side of the reservoir. He is carrying my kit bag. Selnipa shows him the way across the water and introduces him to me.
"Branken came with me, through Subway Fort and on to the library basement," Deltan says. "When I found your tracking scent pointing this way, we agreed that he would return to the fleet and bring a Dabbinan boat up here to pick us up."
I explain what happened to the old man at the library. Deltan agrees to see that appropriate arrangements are made in accordance with the local customs. Selnipa and I then follow Deltan for a few hundred paces north, along the side of the reservoir, where we find a ladder fixed to the outer wall. We climb it until we reach a trap door into a service building on the docks. We then climb down from the main dock to a lower wharf, not far from the mouth of the Stronnor River, where we find a Dabbinan dragon boat waiting for us. Selnipa introduces me to Branken who commands the boat. A league southward, I see a fleet of fifty ships, large and small, gathered together: the entire western diplomatic fleet. The ships have already set sail and are ready to move out into the swift current on the western side of the estuary; they wait only for Branken and his crew to come aboard with Selnipa. Deltan goes ashore near Colonial Palace; he will remain with the permanent Proequan diplomatic mission in Port Cankrar.
Upon parting, Deltan gives me a copper ring and says, "Should you need to speak to me, Lord Praalis, send this ring to me at Embassy Palace. It is specially marked so that I will know it comes from you. I will then look for you in the city library. We can speak together there as though we are two book-lovers who meet by chance. Meanwhile, my own spies can ensure that our meeting will not be observed by the wrong people."
I agree with Deltan's caution: nothing in writing; not meeting openly. If Chainers see me with him, they will take an immediate interest in me, and that will soon lead to my identification.
Branken and Selnipa spend some time saying farewell to Deltan; they will not see him again for a long time, perhaps years. Then Branken and his crew take the time to drop me off within a short distance of my small boat. Before going ashore, I ask them to give my kit bag to Kascan for safekeeping, and I promise to make my way to Belspire and Port Fandabbin as soon as my mission allows. Selnipa wipes a tear from her cheek, but she says only that she is glad that we met and shared an adventure together. I feel sorry to part from her. Her vitality has instilled me with new energy, just as the old man of the library instilled me with clear purpose.
It is probably safe now for me to go directly to my boat; onlookers would only think that I am surplus crew left ashore. Nevertheless, I cross the promenade to a place where I can merge in with other folk going about their business while I watch the figures of Branken and Selnipa dwindle into the distance as they make their way back to their fleet. Will I see them again? I will certainly try, and I know that I must go to Belspire library. But first I must study what the library has to offer in this city, and discover whatever arcane knowledge there may be that can help me in my quest to restore justice to my country.
[End of Chronicle 1.]