User:Claude LeChat/Kingdom of the Fire River
Author: Claude LeChat
Kingdom of the Fire River
Aric shivered and couldn't seem to stop, the flimsy uniform of a city guard unable to protect him from the cold wind that blew down the mountainside, turning the otherwise warm night into a first breath of the coming autumn. He stomped ill-fitting boots on the pavement, in a vain attempt to warm himself as he patrolled the lower promenade. Above him, terrace after terrace rose like rapids in a river of stone, proud palaces reduced to ghostly shadows at that dark hour. Aric could swear nights were getting darker by the season, despite the lamps perched on every street corner, whose incessant humming drowned any other noise except for the gurgling of falling water that powered them. He clutched the repeating crossbow more tightly, not feeling any safer despite the deadly weapon in his hands. One can hardly shoot an enemy not seen or heard. He'd been told stories about the things prowling that unfamiliar city after sunset, a city not his own. Conscripts never got to serve anywhere near where they lived. Not without rich parents to pull strings, and then their sons and daughters were more likely to be exempted entirely. The law, after all, applies equally to all citizens: one only needs to pay the usual bribe.
A distant rumble drew his gaze in the opposite direction. Far on the horizon, across moonlit plains, a new geyser of fire had sprung forth, joining several others. Glowing rivulets flowed down slopes too far to distinguish, weaving a tapestry of flaming death, and he could swear those sights grew closer by the day. New caravans would soon arrive from the east, carrying more people with strange clothes and strange languages. It was all too easy to blame them for the growing hardships, rather than the clouds of ash and smoke that preceded them. Aric couldn't remember the last time he'd seen more than a handful of stars at once, and crops were worse than in any written record. His twentieth birthday had been gloomy, not that he felt like celebrating in the garrison, with bullish squad mates and icky food. How was he even expected to steady a crossbow on a nearly empty stomach, it was better not to ask his officers. They seemed to think it was a great honor to fight for the country. Perhaps because of all the military supplies they carted away to their own families, out the back door and under wraps.
Somewhere above, a bell rang twice, waking Aric from his reverie. Where was that ass of a sergeant anyway? He'd gone to relieve himself, defying regulations, and hadn't come back yet. Aric marched back along his route, scanning the darkness carefully. No lights shone in the windows so close to the gates: less wealthy denizens had to settle for candles and oil lamps, which weren't to be wasted. The waning crescent overhead was enough to see by if anything tried to move in the open, but narrow staircases winding their way among pine trees were another story.
Aric didn't really expect any trouble. Thieves avoided tangling with the guard as a general rule, while any enemy resourceful enough to climb over the ramparts undetected would have bigger fish to fry. And the refugees huddling in tents outside the gates were probably no more dishonest on average than any local, malicious rumors aside. He could still be punished if anyone who didn't belong slipped past him. So he made a point of walking noisily, even rattling a few doors he knew didn't close well. It all failed to elicit reactions, and by now he was nearing the end of his patrol area. There. Someone was waiting for him, standing immobile against a tall fence. Someone too short and slim to be the sergeant. Two someones. No, three, with silvery hair and pale skin, as he couldn't help but notice as they stepped out of hiding to surround him. But... Night People were a fairy tale! The kind you tell young children to scare them straight.
These here didn't seem to know they were supposed to stay in a story.
It was all Aric could do not to panic. His training had been little more than empty ritual. Oh, he was a decent shot at the range, but that was in broad daylight, with all the targets neatly aligned in front of him. Not dancing around with deceiving motions, as if to spin a web out of the breeze itself.
He managed to loose one bolt before agile, sneaky arms grabbed him from behind, and a smell like ten thousand different spices at once assaulted his nostrils. The bolt even struck true.
Aric slept, and dreamed of a long tunnel. A strong air current from behind held him aloft, arms outstretched. His feet only touched the ground now and then, yet he made quick progress. Openings flashed by on either side, curious faces peeking out, but he couldn't stop to look more closely. Water dripped from above, running in cold streaks down his face. It pooled on the uneven ground, making him slip yet not fall. Tattered shadows danced madly in his peripheral vision, making it hard to tell shapes and sizes. Past a richly carved and painted archway, the air grew warmer, while a steady heartbeat not of his own became noticeable.
It hadn't been a dream.
He was lying on a soft, smooth floor at the intersection of three or four corridors. A column in the middle was styled to resemble a tree holding the ceiling up with its branches. In the distance, giant wheels turned in a bluish, intermittent glare. His head pounded, only it didn't come from inside his head. Sitting up was a chore.
Heavy curtains on the wall were pulled open, revealing a niche with carpeted insides. A lamp hung from the ceiling above a chest whose flat top held a tray with a tea set. In the far corner, a pile of cushions was currently occupied by a fat orange cat snoozing without a care. But most fascinating was the man who waited silently, lost in thought. Long gray hair with a silvery sheen that couldn't be natural framed a pale face with eyes big and dark. His bare chest was lean, with well-toned muscles; below the waist, tightly wrapped leggings the color of summer night still had pine needles caught in the seams. Only when he moved did Aric notice the bandage soaked in blood on the man's left arm.
"That was a good shot," stated the latter. He winced. "What's your name?"
"A... Aric. Aric Padari," the young soldier heard his own voice answering.
"Odd choice for a heir of House Taodar."
"What?" Aric was vaguely aware that it wasn't a good time for polite conversation. More like running away screaming. But his body wouldn't listen.
The man leaned forward. "House Taodar? Only the third down from the royal family? I was assured you were of their line."
An image flashed before Aric's eyes. The red-haired soldier from fifth company, where the girls were. Even more of a fish out of water than he was. Only there because her noble father apparently believed hardships built character or some such.
"You leave Tani alone!" he shouted hoarsely, lunging forward. Two other Night People were by his side in an instant, short curved daggers at either hand. Aric's traitorous limbs seized up before the weapons were needed. "She's out of your reach anyway. Transferred. They swapped us around at the last moment."
His three captors exchanged meaningful looks. "So much for counting on that bribe-guzzler to deliver what we paid for. Where is he, anyway?"
"The sergeant? ... You mean him, too? ..." The fog on Aric's brain was clearing up by the minute. "Who are you? Where are we? What's going on here?"
The man laughed. "You are brave, young Aric! Most of your fellow Day People would say ignorance is bliss. Mark my words, we shall meet again. But for now you must return to your own world. The night isn't young anymore."
"Is it wise to let him go, Meister?" asked one of the others.
"Oh, I should hope we can take a chance now and then. Besides," the man added, staring down Aric, "he is known to us now."
Aric staggered under the implications. Not so much the barely veiled threat as all he had learned in those few moments. His thoughts were spinning furiously. Loud buzzing filled his ears, dark clouds covered his field of view, and his knees buckled. For some reason he didn't hit the floor. The smell from earlier returned, only this time it brought no dreams to speak of.
He woke up as the distant bell rang thrice, cold and sore under the open sky. Still nothing stirred on the promenade, and the crossbow was by his side again, the bolt he'd fired stuck in a nearby tree. For some reason, the front of his shirt reeked of spirits. He found the discarded flask a few paces away.
It was all he could do to stumble the rest of the way to the guard booth and sound the alarm.
Punishment was to be expected after such a watch, though in the end it wasn't much different from normal army life: a day of carrying logs to be made into firewood for the still-distant winter; a night of running up and down a muddy slope with an angry officer barking random orders. Then he was taken off guard duty in favor of rolling barrels and stacking bags at the food store. If rations got any worse, he couldn't tell. Most curious was how interested the captain of the guard was to hear his story, after the manner everyone insisted Aric had been drunk out of his mind and imagining it all.
The sergeant never turned up again, either. The family he had in town had vacated their rented rooms, and the landlord wasn't in the business of asking questions. A replacement was hired soon enough, then it was back to the old routine. Or was it? Aric soon found that he could no longer unsee the little things he used to dismiss as quirks: a grotto behind a decorative fountain, protected by a locked grate, that from outside just seemed to go on and on; an imposing villa at the end of a side street, as well maintained as it was unused; the clock tower in the central square, whose doors were all shuttered, yet the century-old mechanism ticked away.
Change marked the streets as well. People from the east were everywhere, with their big hats and heavy coats. Their blond hair and blue eyes made Aric even more aware of his own dark complexion than he usually was, this far from his native seaside town in the south. It took an effort to remember that any stares were more likely to be directed at his shiny helmet and shooter. At least they were issued with studded vests for daytime patrol in the crowds, but the short swords they were supposed to carry were in equally short supply.
People still appeared to find the Guard intimidating enough. Aric could only hope they didn't realize how afraid he was that anyone in the crowd might have a knife. Even though now he knew first hand what his own bolts could do.
One evening after curfew they were ordered out of the barracks again and marched quietly to the food stores, following steep side streets by torchlight. There were big jars of a shape the young soldier had never seen before. A man not in uniform had them load a storeroom's worth of them onto carts that they strained to pull along meandering roads, out a side gate and up to what looked like a mine entrance. Aric doubted he could have found the place again the next day. Only after unloading were they allowed to rest for a brief while. Then each of them had to pick up a jar and head down the tunnel.
It wasn't a mine. Maybe it had been once.
Cold air blew on their backs, all but pushing them forward. Water trickled down the walls in places; it had an oily sheen wherever torches reflected on a puddle. Ghostly faces watched them pass from side openings, the glint of short curved blades ever present. Beyond an ornate arch, they were met by the sound of ten thousand angry bees, but it was just a lamp like those in the city above, brightening a kind of antechamber. Only then could Aric see that the jars they carried were translucent, full of exotic fruit along with more troubling shapes. The smaller ones contained viscous fluids that clung to the insides of the glass in strange patterns.
Ahead of him, another soldier wobbled. The boy's knees buckled, and he almost dropped his load, but managed to set it down gently before collapsing against a column, red-faced and breathing heavily. Then the new sergeant was towering over him.
"Be careful, you clumsy peasant! This ain't no bale of hay!" He calmed down somewhat seeing all was in order. "Tired already? Look at him, half your size and hasn't even broken a sweat."
The sergeant's chin was pointing at Aric, who very much wanted to vanish into a side tunnel at the moment. But that's where Night People were now coming from, wearing leather aprons and unsettling eyepieces.
"Pull any more crap and I leave without you," added the officer. "Goes for all of you if you flap your pie holes about what you saw."
The red-faced boy was upright in the blink of an eye, hoisting up his load. They didn't have much farther to go. On the way out, Aric fancied he could see a bare-chested man with a bandaged arm watching him from behind a curtain, but the troop trundled onward too quickly.
It was Aric's final day in the city.
The news had come soon after their nocturnal incursion. They were all being dispatched as the escort of a caravan bound for the capital, to be replaced by new recruits. That brought relief, but also sadness. He'd grown fond of the tall buildings with stone walls of many colors, grand entrances flanked by statues, and bridges that swung back and forth, set into motion by the very water flowing beneath them. The young soldier hadn't seen enough, and now was never going to have another chance.
And what a day! For once, the sun was shining, chasing haze from the air. Birds were chirping, the air was abuzz with insects, while the smell of pine needles was overpowering. Deep below his feet, storm sewers howled with overflow from a recent rain, the first in too many months. That wasn't normal, locals had assured him: food had to be brought into the city from longer distances with each passing season, and their valuable exports could only stretch so far in compensation.
Looking back, he could see it easily: the hungry, begging for scraps in the market; the homeless, taking shelter in crumbling ruins while lofty halls stood empty; the work gangs, marching every morning into mills from which clouds of noxious dust billowed out, in the clacking and clattering of waterwheels, to come out only at sundown if at all. There didn't seem to be any prisons; there never seemed to be any bodies, either.
None of that could stop people from marking the first day of autumn. Aric watched the procession advancing towards him, larger by the moment as residents came out of their houses to join the clergy. They walked by in pious silence, led by stern-looking women in plain white robes, only muttering short prayers as they bowed, hands joined, on their way past a wellspring covered in moss. It wasn't at all like back home, where a flower-laden priestess and her youthful acolytes led a cheerful parade, blessing every household along the way with song and dance.
Aric grew bored as the last stragglers moved past his designated position and on to the next stairs of note. They had a long ascent to the Lord Mayor's palace at the top if they were to pass by each of the seven temples. He turned to look downwards, past the promenade, at the distant ramparts and the sea of tents beyond. Metallic reflections caught his eye: the clockwork ballistae perched atop of the gate towers pivoted back and forth, their deadly load held in place by long brass tubes. It made no sense. Tani had explained to him how stockpiling alchemical fire was more dangerous for its wielders than any possible enemy. And what enemy did they have? Surely the kingdom's only neighbors to the east were too busy escaping fiery doom to consider conquest.
The promenade he presently overlooked was filling with those cityfolk who would rather party than make offerings to greet the new season. Aric looked left and right to where his squad mates were supposed to be posted... and couldn't see them. He proceeded slowly towards the bend in the street that would bring him to the next terrace down. There! A flash of color in the corner of his eye. A... fat orange cat? He took several steps in pursuit of the familiar-looking creature before catching himself. Quite a few in fact.
A thunderclap from behind threw him to the ground, ears ringing. Soon it was raining cobblestones, and he crawled desperately on knees and elbows in search of shelter. The pavement tilted and went out from under him. Aric slid down into darkness, a fall that didn't seem to have an end.
It was dark, and everything hurt. He tried to get up. The sharp rocks supporting his body rattled, but stayed put. As his eyes began to adjust, it became apparent that the terrible din which made it so hard to think was caused by water rushing out of broken pipes, only to disappear into the depths off the edges of light. Wait, what? A look up revealed a ragged hole far above. He squinted at the brilliant rays pouring from it, obscured now and then by human shapes. Were they shouting? Aric couldn't quite hear, and his own voice came out squeaky. Trying to climb the incline only resulted in other rocks tumbling down. Maybe if a rope were to be lowered, but instead, whoever was up there left altogether after a while.
He waited until the hunger and chilly air started gnawing at him. Outside, the sun moved in the sky. Once or twice he heard what might have been the call of bells. Nothing else happened. It wasn't until he got up to leave that he saw a hand poking out from a pile of heavier boulders. The hand was limp, and getting cold.
Light reflecting off the furious water shimmered on the rock face across the torrent, underscoring row after row of doorways and windows shrouded in eternal night. Maybe that's where the boatman would take Aric if he failed to get out alive, otherwise there was no obvious way to reach them. In the other direction, a ledge not much higher up from his spot led to what looked like stairs.
A cautious ascent that left him sweaty and trembling put Aric within an arm's length of his objective. His next step found no purchase; stiff fingers couldn't latch onto an edge. The young soldier tumbled deeper down, accompanied by a few small rocks and many deafening echoes.
There wasn't a spot on his battered flesh that wasn't sore now. At least he was on solid ground for a change. It was pitch black too, but by now he knew what kind of monsters lurked in those sunless reaches. Better to die seeing a human face.
That thought spurred him into action. Probing around with touch and hearing uncovered a narrow passage with smooth walls. He followed it eagerly; the sound of water gradually fell behind, leaving only his pounding heart and ragged breath. Aric almost failed to notice when light returned, pale and feeble. How disappointing to finally see the tiny bright point at the top of a vertical shaft not much wider than his head.
His attention was drawn by a soft whine. A child lay in a heap on the mucky floor, among bits of garbage, sobbing tiredly. A child of the Night People. He sat down nearby, without a word. After some time, the little girl clambered into his arms and nestled there. He stroked her silvery hair absently. They were in a brick tube, large enough for him to stand with arms wide open. Pipes opened in the walls at various heights. By far the largest was the one he'd come through, but others may have been able to fit them.
"Hey," he said. "I'm Aric. What's your name?"
The girl sniffled. "Oloni."
"That's nice. It suits you. Listen, Oloni, which way did you come?"
She looked around and shrugged. He squeezed her shoulders. Other minutes passed. Squeaky sounds repeated insistently, as diminutive shapes skittered from hole to hole. They turned out to favor a wider crawlspace he'd taken for a shadow.
"Let's follow the rats," Aric suggested. Oloni nodded.
The already scarce light faded fast as they went deeper. The girl deftly avoided every obstacle regardless as they padded along on all fours. Aric had been falling behind for a while when she simply stopped.
"What is it?" he whispered. Instead of answering, she took his hand and guided him.
The way ahead was barred by fallen boulders. Rats may have been able to sneak between them, but not anything bigger. Aric leaned against the obstruction, groaning. It wasn't long before Oloni cuddled with him again.
Much later, they could hear stone scraping on stone. Then again, closer. It was coming from behind the barrier.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Hello!"
The next thing he did was cover his ears. When the echoes died down, Oloni tsked and rummaged on the ground. A hesitant series of clicks and taps told Aric she was banging rocks together.
To his surprise, a sure hand answered in the same fashion from afar. Clearly it was a code of some sort. A brief back-and-forth, then the scraping resumed. It was coming closer with agonizing slowness, but come it did, until a shower of pebbles let him know someone had broken through.
"There you are." a voice stated matter-of-factly. Aric tried in vain to locate its source.
"What's the matter?" asked another voice. "Oh... right."
With a hiss, a faint reddish glow came into being, and quickly grew to comfortable levels: a swirling globe of liquid light encased in an intricate brass frame. It illuminated a hand and face caked in dust, reaching towards them from behind a broken slab of stone.
"Mommy!" chirped Oloni, and slithered through to the other side. Aric followed slowly.
Past the dismantled obstruction, the ceiling rose gradually, until they could walk upright again. New light came from ahead, then they emerged into a corridor with soft, smooth floor and rounded edges. A pair of heavy blocks pivoted silently, hiding the opening they'd come through so well that Aric doubted his ability to find it later.
His rescuers were two of the same Night People who had abducted him the other week. It dawned on him at last that they had been women all along.
"Thank you," said the one holding little Oloni in her arms.
The other one examined her dirty, sweaty tunic with a frown. In one smooth move, she took it off. The breast-band underneath didn't look much better.
"Undress yourself," she told Aric.
The woman wrinkled her nose. "You need a bath. We both do. Don't worry, there are partitions."
He woke up much later, lying on soft cushions, a warm vibrating lump pressed against his side. Aric opened his eyes. The now-familiar cat blinked slowly at him. He cautiously tried to pet the animal. Timid fingers were met with a wet nose.
"His name is Kraft. Seems to like you already."
The man Aric had talked to on his first night underground sat cross-legged on the thick carpet, watching steam form odd shapes as it came out of a teapot. He was wearing see-through robes that couldn't hide the scar on his arm where the bandage had been.
"I... I think he saved my life up there," Aric stammered. "Sounds crazy, but..."
"Cats work in mysterious ways," the man agreed. "How do you feel?"
"What's it to you?" Aric didn't quite succeed in sounding defiant. He sat up. With the curtains closed, the niche sought to wrap him in a velvety, colorful embrace. A mixture of smells taunted his nose. Bite-size rolls on a tray caught his eye, making his stomach gurgle.
"Thought so. Dig in," said the host, setting the example. Aric warily picked up the second fork. Before he knew it, the tray was empty.
"Thank you, er, Meister? What should I call you?"
The man pondered. "Oh, I collected a few names over the years. Drian of Ibra. Engi the Clockmaker. Or as of late just Kissa." He poured tea in two cups.
"Mine is a nickname that stuck," said Aric. "Because I'm prickly, my folks say."
Kissa sipped from his drink quickly, failing to conceal an amused smile. "Well, you can certainly sting."
The young soldier sputtered and squirmed.
"Aw, come on. I'm not angry with you. That whole night was a mess. You ought to have been forewarned, so as to put up a mock fight. Or rather your friend."
"Oh... What did you want with Tani anyway?"
"To hand over a message for her father."
Aric took a sip from his own cup. Then another. Its bitter fragrance filled his mouth, bringing with it the warmth of a summer day in the forest.
"You must be someone important, Meister Kissa. Do Night People rule the city?"
"No, the Burgmeisters rule. We *run* the burg for them. There's a difference."
"I don't understand."
"Come, I'll show you. Evening approaches fast by now. We have work to do."
At first Aric stopped every few steps to pull at his undergarments. His embarrassment soon faded: he was still overdressed compared to his host, who led the way self-assuredly. The whole place was more like one big dwelling, he noticed in passing. A dozen Night People often shared one tunnel closed at both ends with curtains. From somewhere came the staccato of looms, muffled by layers of air and fabric. At various intervals, slits in the walls admitted oblique rays, just when they seemed about to plunge into complete darkness. Fresh cracks extended from plenty of them.
Past one last bend in the corridor, a doorway led to the base of a shaft that climbed sideways through solid rock. Wooden rails affixed to the floor supported a small cart connected to long ropes that vanished into the distance, moved by man-sized wheels half buried in the floor through a system of pulleys. Part of the mechanism spun idly, waiting. Aric recoiled in horror.
Kissa regarded him impenetrably. "Would you rather take the stairs? It's a long way to the top."
Later, Aric wouldn't remember how he got in the cart, but only a nightmare punctuated by eerie visions flying by as they passed rounded openings: parts of an aqueduct; waterwheels and screws; pipes and valves; then more giant clockwork. It all ended in a kind of wide cave with numerous columns scattered throughout. Guards greeted them in front of a sculpted door.
"Now you know why we would rather do our work in hiding. Most people fear the sight of that which sets their world into motion. Like children staring at an ugly insect."
"I'm no child," Aric protested weakly.
"No, you are not. Avert your eyes," added Kissa. He put on a complicated eyepiece before crossing the threshold.
The room beyond was so bright it hurt. As his eyes adjusted, Aric could make out a waist-high basin, full of crystal-clear water, in the middle of a dome supported by arches. There was so much marble! Faceted globes in the ceiling shone like the sun, focusing beams of light onto the basin. He moved to see better, and his jaw dropped.
It was like looking out of the ornamental fountain in the central square at an angle. Blurry people stood or walked past, when they didn't reach straight into the image, distorting it, only to withdraw with cupped hands. Fragments of distant conversations could be made out if one listened carefully. The long shadow of the clock tower cleaved the image in two, pointing at a plume of smoke that still rose in the distance. Aric needed a moment to figure out where it came from.
"Is that the old arsenal?"
"Indeed. We are in luck. If it was the new one, there wouldn't be much of a burg left to work with."
"But... what caused it?"
"We have no idea yet. Our spies on the surface are mum, and the Burgmeisters are yet to summon us."
Aric frowned. "Can't we go up there and see for ourselves?"
"Not before night falls. We cannot stand daylight. And it's hard to learn much when most surface dwellers are asleep. Even if we could readily reveal our presence."
"I can do both."
Kissa turned to face him. The eyepiece made him look like the face of some mechanical spider god. "Will you help us, after everything we've done to you?"
The young soldier clearly hadn't considered the question. He nodded, first haltingly, then with more determination. The answer surprised him: an extended hand. They grasped each other's arms firmly.
The night air was pleasantly warm for once, or at any rate Aric's borrowed clothes did a better job of keeping him that way. The fires had died down at last, allowing smoke to scatter. It could have been an ordinary patrol but for the company he kept at the time. He was of average height among his own, yet still taller than most Night People, including the three walking with him right now. They snuck along trails that snaked down the mountain, to emerge among the poorer dwellings on the edge of town, and from there onto the lower terrace.
Half the promenade didn't exist anymore, and the other half was set up with tents. Not as they were made in the kingdom, but the foreign kind taking up much of the hills in front of the gates. The moans and cries they could hear from inside left little doubt as to their use. Tired nurses came out now and then for a sip of water and a breath of fresh air. Now Aric understood the point of his companions' disguises: with silky shirts and their hair wrapped in embroidered scarves, they could just pass for easterners in the light of torches. The wondrous lamps, pride of the city, were also out near the ruined area. Thankfully, the tunnels of the Night People were buried deeper this close to the ramparts, so damage had been limited underground. As for Aric, he at least looked like a proper royal subject, so it befell him to do most of the talking.
That was the scary part of the plan.
In the end, it wasn't so hard. Turned out that most locals couldn't tell one foreigner from another, and the other way around. They took turns picking out those injured who had been overlooked in the chaos. Tongues untied once pain faded away with the help of alchemical concoctions only nobility had access to otherwise. And not because Night People lacked the means to make more.
What they learned wasn't very useful. It had been an accident. No, sabotage. There were foreign spies in the city. No, royal spies. An invasion was brewing, unless it was civil war. Blame sat with all those newcomers who kept talking in their own language, when it wasn't Night People out to get everyone.
The latter seemed nonplussed. It was fine, they said. Those more in the know would help them sift through the rumors. One has to know what the talk of the street is to carry out convincing conversation. Aric supposed they knew best.
Guards stumbled upon them on the return trip.
The young soldier should have guessed they would double shifts after an incident like that, not to mention all the late activity. Hindsight wasn't much use however as they retreated along back alleys, awakened dogs joining the chorus of shouts chasing them. He was probably thought dead, his inner voice said, or else a deserter. Either way, there was no going back. He couldn't even tell if he knew any of the pursuers. Or whether that would have been better or worse.
A woman getting water from a well screamed and ran away, dropping her bucket. The Night People had shed their disguises. In the confusion, a tiny garden gate opened, admitting the four of them. Aric never got to thank the miller before they were ushered through a skillfully concealed passage under the stopped machinery, and into the safety of tunnels.
Aric's tunic was never going to look the same again, with all the new seams and patches. It was all for the best, he pondered, leaning closer to the nearby lamp to thread the needle. He wasn't a soldier anymore.
"Oh no," he muttered, "how am I ever going to get home now?"
Two paces away, Oloni abandoned her toys and crawled over to cuddle with him. The girl's mother and her companion looked up from their place near a firepit that burned with no flame or smoke. Only steam rose from the pot suspended above it, quickly drawn away by a hole in the ceiling. Their names were Cetri and Fanti; that was all the young man had learned so far.
"You could stay," Kissa said mildly. He put down a piece of slate covered in numbers and fiddled with fist-sized jars, sprinkling spices into the boiling pot. "Our numbers are dwindling as it is."
Aric surveyed the far side of the room, taken up by other Night People. New faces. Not even those he'd been outside with earlier. A couple returned his gaze. Most kept their eyes on the items they held. A musical instrument. A codex. A blueprint. Age didn't show on papery skin and silver hair, but it did on their hands. So much unlike his own.
"But I'm not even... I mean..."
"We weren't always like this either, Aric." Kissa poured the creamy contents of the pot into a bowl and gave it to him. "I was born on the banks of the Denere. Used to have curly black hair like yours."
"Do you ever miss it? Living in the sun and all?"
Kissa looked very sad all of a sudden. "Every single night. But you can miss something a lot and yet not want it back."
The young man opened his mouth to say something, then changed his mind and focused on the bowl. It was still too hot.
"Anyway," resumed his host, "what did you find out? I want your version too."
So Aric recounted the night's events for him, as best as he remembered. Kissa listened intently, nodding now and then.
"Sounds like we missed all the fun." He looked at the two women. "Had to go and wake the captain of the guard personally."
"You know the captain of the guard?"
"Scary lady, isn't she?" Kissa winked at him, grinning playfully, then became serious once more. "But make no mistake, she's fair and just. Loyal to the burg above all."
"How else? She takes orders from the City Lords, er, Burgmeisters."
"Eh... lately I think they're only loyal to their own interests anymore."
"Oh." Aric drank from the bowl. The soup was smooth as silk, and delightfully filling. "So what did she have to say?"
"Very little, I'm afraid. She's being kept in the dark. But with the arsenal going up in flames, there seems to be a traitor within the Guard."
"Not those we're paying ourselves, either," added Fanti. Cetri smirked.
Aric drank more soup, deep in thought. "But a traitor sold to whom?"
"That's what we'd like to find out," Kissa spoke anew. "If the burg is in danger, we're in danger."
"Maybe I can find out more in broad daylight?" The young man seemed surprised that the bowl was nearly empty.
"You've risked enough tonight."
Aric didn't say anything. He returned the empty dish, and picked up his tunic again, to examine it in the reddish lamplight. It looked silly with all those colorful patches, but that was as good as he could make it.
"Good work," Fanti praised him. "Where did you learn the trade?"
"At home. Mother is a seamstress."
"Planning to follow in her footsteps?"
"Oh no. That's a woman's job. Father threatens to kick me out of the house as it is. Says I'm just another mouth to feed."
"I didn't know there was such a thing as a woman's job," Fanti quipped. "Where do you draw the line?"
The young man got all tongue-tied.
"Well," said Kissa after a while, "I'd better go inspect the works. Thanks for letting me use your stuff, Cetri."
"Always welcome," she replied, returning her own bowl to the growing pile.
"Can I come with you, Meister?" Aric asked.
"By all means."
Not far out of the room, past a couple of bends in the twisty tunnels, narrow stairs wound their way through the rock like a corkscrew. Instead of going down to more private quarters, Kissa turned upwards. Sounds of activity soon grew louder, puffs of dust and smoke escaping from doorways now and then. Behind them were workshops of various kinds. Aric's newly repaired tunic soon acquired the gleam of mica dust, and a clasp made of a broken cogwheel, as his host talked to the workers and introduced him. There was even an alchemic laboratory at one point, the room's contorted shape mirrored in the glassware strewn on tables. On the way back, he spotted on the shelves of a storeroom large jars with shapes he'd seen only once before. Kissa patted him on the shoulder, but said nothing.
"Where am I going to sleep?" asked the young man once they were back in Kissa's niche. "Can't keep using your bed."
"Why not?" deadpanned his host. "Do you mind sharing?"
Aric felt his ears turn hot. "I grew up with two brothers, two sisters and one large bed. But we were kids."
"Suit yourself." Kissa shrugged and proceeded to take off his shirt, getting his long hair tangled in it, and snaking about in an attempt to get it free.
The guest watched for a good minute or more, fascinated. "Well?"
"Oh!" The host reached past him, coming very close in the tight space, and raised the corner of a carpet from the wall. Beyond was another, smaller niche, just the right size for Aric to sleep in it, and suitably appointed.
"This was meant for a live-in servant," explained Kissa, "but I have very little use for such, and a good pair of hands is better employed elsewhere these days."
He moved back to his corner and unscrewed the lid from a small jar, from which he took a fragrant balm to rub on his scar.
"Need any help?"
"I can reach my new wound. Not so much the old one." He showed a red line dug into the flesh across his shoulder blades. "Work accident. I usually have to ask one of the girls."
Aric made a skeptical face, but accepted the jar, and did his best to spread its contents on the bigger scar.
"You have gentle hands," remarked Kissa.
"T-thank you, Meister."
Out in the corridor, Kraft was coming from somewhere, licking his chops. He looked rounder than usual. The host pulled the curtains closed all the way, and dimmed the lamp.
The distant streams of lava looked subdued in the sunlight, as if sleeping off recent exertions. The old arsenal's ruins were at last no longer burning, and the smaller fires in its vicinity had been put out as well. Only the tents on the promenade remained, grimy and sagging. That, and the gaping hole in the terrace above them.
Aric stayed well away from either. Hair wrapped in a headscarf after the style of sailors in his nation, he looked very much the stranger. One might have wondered what a young seaman from the south was doing so far from the wide open waters, but it did reduce the chances of being recognized. Locals weren't in the habit of scrutinizing visitors too closely, be they merchants or migrants. Mistrust them, yes. City guards of course were another story, but the young man knew all too well how to avoid them.
Not so much the royal army.
What were they even doing in town? They must have arrived during the morning, and in greater numbers than the Guard had ever been able to muster during the months Aric had been there. Walking the streets in groups of three, armed with cuirass and halberd, their mere presence split the crowd and shushed conversations. For once however, Aric's dark skin, the butt of so many jokes, made him all but invisible.
On a whim, he headed to the food market. If it was anything like home, people would want to replenish their supplies following the other day's feast, however rudely it had been interrupted. That was hardly the case. The young man was yet to see the enclosure so empty and quiet, even this close to noon. After strolling around the place a couple of times, he figured out what was missing: people from the east, with their vigorous shouts and wide gestures. The few Aric was able to spot avoided looking up, and all but gave away their wares. His meager purse proved sufficient for a double handful of dried fruit with a name that twisted his tongue even more than the tart flavor. He hated to think the orchard it came from could now be lying under a layer of ash.
The young man hungered for gossip more than food though, so he soon drifted upwards to where most of the smithies could be found. Outsiders seldom found their way into guilds, so artisans only faced competition from the large mills, of which they complained loudly over the din of hammers. Aric had not much coin or interest for baubles; it was a keen ear that caught him the rumor he was chasing.
No such thing was needed to hear the cries of children separated from their parents once he reached the mill quarter. Built almost on top of each other up the riverbank opposite the city, they were a foreboding sight at the best of times. Let alone with endless lines of refugees marched inside like cattle, families broken up at the swing of a halberd.
Aric's mind was numb. The child in him wanted to know why, but as the question spun idly in his mind, the adult soon came up with a better one: where were all the local workers?
It was the former soldier in him who found an answer. How right he was only became apparent as he drew near the barracks.
The royal army was there to recruit. And they didn't much care whether people were willing.
He had to get out of there before someone noticed him staring and offered a tour of the garrison. One that could take years. The young man forced himself not to run as he retraced his steps. Retreat to a safe distance, take a detour and climb as far as the central square. It sounded like a plan, in any event.
Too bad he had neglected to keep an eye out for the regular patrols. It only took one. With a pair of crossbows pointed at him from up close, it wasn't the time to test the aiming skills of his former comrades in arms. Fortunately, they weren't inclined to shoot on sight either. Even if a couple of them thought he was literally back from the dead, as he learned once they took him in. To the others, he served a story about wandering the literal underside of the city, dodging the big bad Night People, until a way out of the depths presented itself. It didn't really hold water, as the sergeant made clear while roughing him up. At best that gave them a pretext not to have him beheaded as a deserter. Not yet, at any rate.
Turned out, the captain of the guard wanted to interrogate him in person. Again.
The bell in the clock tower rang once as Aric was being walked past. Hollow, somehow. He could never unlearn that the ample carved doors were fake, and the tower had no floors, but only a ladder climbing from the movement below street level to the dials on top.
Where they were going was another story. The captain wasn't in her office near the barracks that day, but the other one, in the Hall of Justice. Aric had been there too, a couple of times, escorting commoners to a trial. As accused, of course. Inspiring words adorned the marble-plated walls, or so they had sounded with Tani reading them to him. Now he could scarcely recall half a sentence.
They climbed so many flights of stairs, Aric lost count. Each new floor was less populated than those below, until silence became ominous in the dirty sunlight filtered through the windows.
It was an office as stern as its occupant, with plain white walls, a rarity in that place, and hardly any furniture spared for comfort. She shooed the guards out; they were only too happy to leave the sight of their leader. The woman waved him in, and he obeyed, eyes darting from her broad face to the helmet on the desk and the short sword hanging from the back of her chair. The latter creaked as they sat opposite from each other. She knew what Aric had been up to, and made that very clear while pouring him a drink. The young man was now an insider. Mostly, she wanted to know all there was about the Clockmaker of the Underground, the famed mastermind of the Night People.
Aric blanked out. Slowly, he realized she meant Kissa. And the first thing that came to mind was the man's soft, warm hand on his naked shoulder as he whispered that it was mid-morning in the surface world already.
Oh, he found plenty of details to recount in the end. Hopefully none of them were too sensitive. The captain even cracked a smile at his candid account of life down there. At long last, she declared herself satisfied, and strode out, leaving him to wait in the office with a strong warning for company.
He was too afraid to get up for a while. Then as the clock rang four times and no more sounds came from the hallway, the woman's words started replaying in his mind. Don't try jumping out the window, she'd said, and indeed the narrow opening was too high up a sheer wall, as it became obvious when he leaned out. Even if he could somehow reach the ground in one piece, patrolling guards couldn't fail to spot him.
What else, then? There's no other door out of the room, she had added, as if it wasn't obvious. Unless... he inspected the furniture more closely. The bookshelves, in particular, carried detailed wood carvings in the local tradition. Lost among them was a symbol he'd only seen placed above doorways in the underground.
Sure enough, it concealed a spring-loaded lever that in turn opened a secret passage. Aric never looked back.
"So war is brewing on the northern border. How convenient for the royal court."
"I don't understand, Meister."
"Think, Aric. We were expecting a company of your replacements. Instead, we got a battalion of regular troops. Who somehow knew their assistance was needed and came prepared."
"Maybe they crossed paths with a courier along the way," offered Fanti.
"Perhaps. That leaves the old arsenal being blown sky-high just the day before. As if someone wanted them to find the burg weakened."
"Now you're being theatrical," she said gently.
"Am I? Why would they place the burg under martial law, so far from the front lines of a war that hasn't yet started?"
Aric couldn't read Kissa's expression through the mechanical eyepiece. Daylight was more subdued than last time in the room with the viewing pool, yet Night People still needed protection. Across from the young man, Cetri was sharpening her dagger. He focused on the shimmering image between them, an inverted skyline now dominated by glinting polearms. The woman put her weapon away and drew its pair.
"They'll be coming," she said.
"And break the pact we have with the Day People?" asked Fanti.
"A pact they wouldn't know or care about," Kissa pointed out. "The Burgmeisters themselves need to be reminded time and again."
"How would they know about us... you... in the first place?" inquired Aric.
Kissa sighed. "Our existence is an open secret, at least in the right circles."
"Oh." The young man let his shoulders slump. "Oh."
The attack came two days later, at sunset. Three companies of the royal infantry burst in through the upper tunnels and went straight for the council chamber where Aric and Kissa explained their findings again to a trio of elders. The Night People on watch were not equipped to deal with such a foe; they were swiftly pushed back. The ornate doors burst open, pushed by an officer who clearly did not expect to find so many people awake and ready for him. That's when the metal orbs on either side lit up, flooding the corridor with a web of lightning. The intruders cried out in pain and anguish; those who yet could backpedaled hastily in the sudden darkness, only to run into reinforcements which kept coming from behind. Greenish fire streaked out of side tunnels, burning through steel as if it wasn't there. A flurry of short blades followed, that polearms couldn't easily turn to face in the confined quarters. Few ever found the exit again.
But Aric heard most of the story later. At the time he was more concerned with the half-dozen of so soldiers who had made it into the room despite everything. In the flickering light of their torches, Night People were like ghosts swooping down on them from impossible angles.
They were, however, quite mortal after all. Back against a wall, a borrowed blade held painfully in clenched hands, the young man watched in horror as bodies collapsed on both sides. One did so right next to him: a lithe form with flowing white hair. A shadow loomed huge over the both of them, arms raised high, ready to deal the fatal blow.
Aric's brain stopped working. He lunged clumsily, like he didn't think he would ever have to for real, and felt his weapon slide under armor with a sickening lurch. A long moment passed, then his opponent crumpled to the ground, leaving him disarmed. But it didn't matter anymore: he was the last one standing.
"Are you all right?" he asked hysterically, kneeling besides the fallen shape. "What do I do?"
"I'm unharmed," he heard Kissa answer, like from very far away. "Get someone to turn the lights back on. I know who the traitor is."
The city was ablaze with the flames of revolt.
Crowds only grew thicker on their way up the terraces, torches multiplying by the minute, a grim reflection of the procession a few days prior. Burning wreckage floated down the river in their wake: those merchants who willingly worked with the big mills or the royal army had been given a rude awakening. People had struggled hard for their privileges; not even the monarch could take them back without a fight. The city's new peacekeepers regrouped again and again, and still couldn't stem the tide. Guards stood aside, caught between their duty to the people and allegiance to the kingdom.
And what a show it was. Many who joined the revolt wore bleached wigs and painted their skin white. It made them more visible in the dark, but that too was a statement. They'd drink from flasks and spit on the ground, req liquid trickling down their chins. They'd split and rejoin, flowing around choke points like water. Hiding behind each other. Uncountable. Unstoppable.
It all suited the real Night People just fine.
Aric thought it was insanely dangerous for Kissa to expose himself like that, doubly so after the recent events, but here he was with his two faithful bodyguards. After all, the young man hadn't stayed behind either. And the trio he'd been with on the night after the disaster was also there.
Besides, the crowds were a good couple of terraces away from the palaces of minor City Lords. Had the latter known who was really coming, maybe they'd have hired more private guards for the night. Then again, mused the former soldier, Lord Buiba always skimped on those, instead choosing to request official protection for free.
His armed servants never knew what hit them.
The interior of the building was just as cluttered with mismatched decorations as the exterior, and its owner just as bloated as Aric remembered. He was equal parts defiant and terrified once awakened, all too happy to rat out his fellow City Lords. They had been working on a bid to break with the kingdom and become a free city, the man explained. And it wasn't loyalty to the royal court that had driven him to betray the attempt. Quite simply, having to pay customs would have put a dent in his lucrative commerce with the capital. It made him resentful enough that Night People got the first pick of exotic wares from the east, to use in their secretive works.
What Aric couldn't understand was why so many people had had to die. It wasn't as if they wanted to leave the kingdom. That much he knew from months of overheard conversations. And then, what were they going to do, kill a lord? Kidnap him? The man sneered as he asked them that exact question.
It was the woman who entered the door, having to bend down to do so, who gave the answer. She'd heard enough, having arrived soon after the Night People. And the captain of the guard would be listened to at the trial.
That was a thing even a lord could be afraid of.
Outside, the rebellious crowds were coming ever closer, bloody clashes with the soldiers facing them about to turn into an all-out battle. The woman let one of her lieutenants take in the traitor. It was time to take sides. And her oath was to the city first.
But Aric and his companions had already melted into the shadows by then. It was a relief, yet the young man couldn't help but wonder if that was going to be his life going forward. Skulking. Hiding. Plotting.
He didn't envy Kissa one bit. And why was he thinking of Tani out of the blue?
The question troubled him all the way back to the tunnels.
The Lord Mayor finally made a proclamation the next day towards noon. It was unfortunate, he stated, that the city's loyalty to the kingdom had been put into doubt, but trampling its charter the way royal troops had done could not be disregarded. They were to leave the citizenry alone and depart as soon as it could be arranged. Their commander protested that a small army needed time to move out, but did pull his soldiers into their temporary quarters. Many of the new recruits returned to their families; others came of their own will to fill some of the gaps. A couple of days later, after giving no sign of actually preparing, they lifted camp and filed out the gates in mere hours. Spies could only assume a courier from the capital had brought news of the war.
To top it all, the man Aric had stabbed was alive, and could even receive a visit now, the surgeon said. That was a relief. He prepared at length for the meeting. Kissa had offered to go in his stead. It took Aric a lot of strength to say no.
He steeled himself again before passing through the curtain. Dressed in the revealing robes Night People favored at home, face covered by a veil like they favored when going on the surface, Aric could be anyone. That suited him fine. Being himself anymore just felt wrong as of late.
The captive was tall and well fed, not much older than Aric. The uniform folded next to his bedding belonged to an army lieutenant. He squinted at the visitor in the dim lamplight, trying to raise his head.
"Who are you?"
Aric pointed at the man's bandages. "I'm the one who gave you that." The hoarse whisper sounded strange to his own ears.
"Have you come to gloat?"
"I've come to..." Why had he come, anyway? "Your unit has left. Thought you might want to know."
"Oh." The captive nodded weakly. "Just send the ransom letter to Ostan, head of House Camorein, in Ibra. I'm Prais, the third son."
"Thank you." Prais relaxed visibly. "May I inquire about the fate of my men?"
"Anyone who didn't run is dead. We gave them the proper rites."
"All of them?!" The man jerked upright, only to groan in pain and lie back down. Aric ran to his side, propping him with another pillow or two.
"I'm afraid so. Night People don't take it well when their home is invaded." Aric didn't have the heart to tell the young officer how survivors had asked their captors for asylum.
Prais laughed bitterly. "Disowned, defeated and disgraced."
"But alive. Please don't throw that away."
That earned Aric a long, thoughtful look. "May I know your name?"
"Call me... Amnul. Amnul of the Black Lakes." It hurt to say the words.
The young officer's gaze descended to the blade adorning Aric's naked waist. "Fitting."
It was much later when Cetri found Aric in a training room, lunging and slashing at a pair of dummies.
"Not like that", she said, walking over. The young man let her press against his body from behind, guiding his limbs into the proper stance. Soon they were moving together, weaving the deadly dance he'd only witnessed twice. More time passed before they slumped against a wall, unable to lift their arms.
"Who am I fooling?" he asked, on the verge of crying. "I can't do this. I don't belong here."
She smiled sadly. "Neither do we."
"But you're good at it! You were guarding the door that evening. How many have you..." He trailed off.
"I'm a mother," Cetri pointed out.
He didn't know what to say, so just sat there with her, listening to the heartbeat of distant machines.
Days went by. Counted by astronomical clocks, they turned into rather abstract notions. Aric forced himself to visit the viewing room every day before work. It was harder every time. Kissa assured him it was too early to feel the lack of sunlight. That helped little. There was no need for the young man to work, either, Kissa also said. Aric had done much for the undercity already. And there were new arrivals to shoulder the burden.
That was what bothered Aric the most.
Even Kissa had taken to wearing a dagger at all times, supposedly to follow upper city fashion. It looked out of place in the common room, as Fanti sat with Oloni, practicing letters with chalk and slate. Aric watched with interest: the little girl was in fact learning faster than him. From across the idle firepit, Cetri made a sign of encouragement.
They all looked up when someone else came in: a red-haired boy, even younger than Aric, wearing the remains of a uniform, the same way he had at first. The boy was balancing a large tray with a couple of pitchers and half a dozen cups. He carefully set it down by the firepit and made five drinks that sizzled colorfully before offering them around. Then he stared in puzzlement at the remaining cup and made to leave.
The boy hadn't looked up once in all this time. Aric knew fear when he saw it.
"Sit and drink with us," the young man said, tugging at the boy's sleeve. The latter resisted weakly at first, then yielded. Aric emptied the pitchers in the sixth cup. "What's your name?"
"Ceral, sir." The boy accepted his cup meekly, and sipped. His eyes went wide.
"You don't need to call me sir. I'm Aric. Where are you from, Ceral?"
"Nevera." That didn't need any explanation. It was the second-largest city after the capital, and arguably richer.
Aric nodded. "How long did you have left?"
"They were going to discharge me next month, but then the war happened. I... couldn't take it anymore." He gulped more of his drink.
"War may yet reach us," Aric noted. "In fact it already has."
"I'll take my chances." Ceral emptied his cup. "Better get back to work. Thank you, s... Aric."
He picked up the tray and retreated with a bow. Nobody else had said a word. They reminded Aric of gawkers watching caged animals at the menagerie.
The ransom came through during the next day. The alchemical prowess of Night People was such that Prais could already walk, if slowly and half-carried. Aric rejected the suggestion that one of the spies they paid on the surface could make the trip. He wore his headscarf in a different style, face half covered, and a new cloak he'd sewn from the frayed end of a fabric roll. Even so, it was too dangerous for him to go anywhere close to the busier parts of town. The meeting was set near a side gate, from where he could easily get back to the mine entrance he had used once before.
Even from a bad angle, it was hard to miss how much the sea of tents beyond the ramparts had thinned out. The city was no longer seen as a safe haven. But where else could they go? Aric was tempted to simply join a caravan and find out. Assuming there was going to be another one.
Because the army was going to be back for sure. The former soldier and the wounded officer could agree on that much.
In the mean time, the city continued to change.
The City Guard had always been short-staffed at best. With a whole company's worth of soldiers leaving while their replacements never arrived, the desperate and the malicious were getting bolder. Soon, mercenaries could be seen patrolling the streets. And mercenaries had to be paid proper wages. New street vendors popped up everywhere, crowding out formerly peaceful public spaces. The populace wasn't getting any richer, and it showed in the thinning foot traffic. Hard to believe the city collected much tax money from that.
At least it gave the immigrants and the marginal more places to hang out. And that meant Aric could be out and about a little more, though he still couldn't brave the more important locations. Central square was best seen from below, in the optical pool.
Instead, he learned to appreciate the surrounding forest.
It was quiet among the trees at dawn, safe for the distant call of some bird that hadn't flown south yet. Even the wind died down beneath verdant crowns, leaving only the sun as it rose over a distant mountaintop, as if it was the source of all that lava. He'd sit there facing east, soaking up the light. Eyes closed, it was easy to imagine himself back home. He tried taking Ceral with him a few times, but the boy wasn't allowed out of the tunnels. Not yet.
Aric wasn't all alone up there however. For one thing, he'd made friends with the millers who were hiding a way into the undercity inside their home. It was a married couple, aging folk who gently lamented the way bigger mills upstream poisoned the river. Sleep didn't come so easily in their old age, and so it happened that they could entertain guests of the night. The young man didn't look any deeper. He found it hard enough not to cry when they, too, asked him to stay.
"Do you like that boy?"
"What do you mean, Meister?" Aric looked up from the pieces of fabric strewn across his work table and turned down the lamp somewhat, to make the unexpected visitor more comfortable. He would have loved to have a lightning lantern, but those were luxuries even for Night People. And it wasn't as if his work felt especially valuable, even though he'd been assured of the contrary. Those who worked hard to keep the city's machinery working appreciated having someone to take care of everything else for them.
"Come on. I couldn't possibly miss the way you look at Ceral. All the time you spend with him. It's made you so much happier as of late."
The young man felt his ear grow hot. "Not in that way! He's almost my age. We share songs and stories. Besides, there's... Never mind."
"If you say so." Kissa looked relieved and disappointed at the same time. "Still, if you'd rather bunk with him instead..."
"I'll think about it," Aric said quickly. He sighed. "Meister... I've been asking around in case there's a caravan going south."
"Any luck so far?"
"You... you don't mind?"
Kissa walked in and sat on a spare chair. "You'll be missed if you go. That doesn't mean we'll try to stop you."
"Can I take Ceral with me?"
"Ask him, not me." Kissa laughed at the young man's surprised expression. "They asked for asylum, remember? Ceral didn't even hurt anyone."
Aric scooped him up in a big hug. "Thank you! Er, I mean."
"You're welcome." Kissa's voice hadn't sounded so sad in a long time.
The young man didn't always go to the training room after work, but whenever he did, Ceral was there to cheer him on. Sometimes Cetri, too, when she wasn't busy with other duties, or for that matter the little one. They'd take turns shooting hand crossbows at painted targets; the boy wasn't permitted to touch a weapon. Aric had a knack for it, unlike with bladework, and soon started winning the informal contests.
"You don't have to, you know," she told him one time.
"They'll be back." He was starting to like the way she talked.
"Plenty of fighters down here," insisted Cetri.
He pointed at the ceiling. "And up there?"
She gave him a serious look. "You're leaving, then?"
"Don't you start now!" He pushed past her to hang up the weapon on its rack. When he returned, there were tears in his eyes. "I can't stay like this. Torn between two worlds. I have to choose."
The woman nodded slowly. "Oloni will miss you."
"I'll miss her too." He looked at Ceral, who stood by the doorway, wringing his hands.
"But you have family." Cetri followed his gaze. "And you?"
"My freedom is forfeit, ma'am," stammered Ceral. "Home is too far, anyway."
She pressed on. "What if you could go free?" They hadn't told him yet.
The boy turned towards Aric instead. "I'd go with you. Anywhere."
Meanwhile they only moved as far as the tunnel where Cetri and Fanti dwelled. The carpets on the walls were threadbare; plain curtains hung three arm's lengths apart, separating the living spaces. One of them had been freed recently, though Aric never learned the fate of the previous occupants. To reach their own partition, one had to walk the narrow pathway left along the far wall, while avoiding to look sideways. Thankfully he and Ceral only had to pass by the two women that way. There was another couple, man and woman, beyond the next curtain, and more people occupied the deeper half, but hardly any children apart from Oloni.
It was just like the long house Aric's family owned. Only the walls were even thinner. To his surprise, the usually meek Ceral actually complained.
"My room at home was smaller than this," the boy said, "but at least it had a door."
There was no way to keep their beddings separate, either, not if they wanted to also have room for a few belongings. Both were surprised at how comfortable they felt with each other. When bath time came, Ceral insisted to wash Aric's back.
That felt amazing, if not so much deserved.
It was hard to say who gained the most from the move. Maybe Oloni, who was delighted to have new neighbors willing to play with her. The women, too, didn't exactly mind having someone to leave the little girl with when they went on guard duty or a raid at bad times. And the young men had someone to help them forget their troubles for a while now and then.
Only Kissa had grown more distant, showing up less often in the common room, looking tired and preoccupied when he did, usually briefly.
"It's not your fault," Fanti told them at one point. "The Burgmeisters' plot wasn't derailed for long. He has many strings to pull."
"But... What's it to you either way?" asked Aric.
Her expression darkened. "This ambition of theirs can only bring the city to ruin. Day People can simply move someplace else. But we... alone we die off."
"Don't they also need you?"
"Only while there's a city to keep running."
"Is it even wise to question the decisions of those in high stations like that?" interjected Ceral.
"Perhaps if we were alone in this." Kissa had entered without a sound. "But people of even higher station are concerned. The hard part has been conveying messages. And now with the war it's even harder."
"We can deliver a letter for you when we go." Aric said quickly, ignoring Ceral's puzzled look.
Kissa shook his head. "You don't want to be caught with it. And you'd be going the wrong way in the first place. But we can talk when you find a caravan."
That only took a few more days after all.
Aric woke up in the sound of looms. One couldn't sleep in while living in the tunnels. He'd dreamed of securing passage with a south-bound caravan. No, wait, it hadn't been a dream. That had actually happened in early morning. He wanted to shake Ceral awake and tell him right away, but he was already alone. The boy must have been on kitchen duty that evening. The women weren't in the neighboring partition either. The young man barely took the time to put on his pants before rushing outside. As he feared, Kissa wasn't in his niche either. On a whim, he took the cable car all the way up, for all it still gave him a shiver down the spine. The guards waved him into the viewing room with little ceremony. He didn't need to see the faces of those gathered to know something was horribly amiss.
Cetri only looked up long enough to recognize him and shuffle over. Aric leaned over the pool and couldn't believe his eyes.
A frenzy of flags fluttered furiously in front of the ramparts, and the great ballistae took turns shooting arcs of purple fire towards them. The young man gasped: those were coats of arms from the kingdom! Across the room from him, Kissa adjusted his eyepiece; as that didn't seem to help, he proceeded to turn various brass wheels set in the walls. The image in the pool tilted and refocused somewhat, enough to reveal that the engines of death were firing over the royal army, at different, distant banners coming through the hills. It didn't seem to slow them down much at all.
Poor Kraft followed them all the way to the tunnel mouth, meowling pathetically as if he wasn't going to ever see them again. Ceral was this close to turning back on the spot. It took them both strength to go ahead. In the daylight, Aric couldn't fail to notice the shiny streaks in the boy's hair, or how his blue eyes had acquired new depths. The changes were still reversible at this point, according to Kissa. Hopefully the man was right. It wasn't as if people got to escape the underground for good all that often.
The air was hazier than it had been in a while. No wonder the optical pool hadn't been much help. From up close, the naked eye could at least spot the royal troops massing in front of the gates, and for some reason failing to come in. City guards and mercenaries alike were gathered behind the ramparts, instead of up there preparing to meet the siege head-on. As the two young men walked to the ragged end of the promenade, and down from there, unnoticed in the flurry of preparations taking place around them, it became apparent that the two sides were facing off, one trying to get the gates open, the other to keep them closed. The shouting match was audible by now, but it seemed to have no winner.
Until, that is, the captain of the guard herself marched in, splitting the crowd like the prow of a warship through foamy seas.
The mercenary leader shrank from her presence. Soon, the racket of chains winding on capstans announced the opening of gates, and the kingdom's troops started pouring in: battered, bloodied, but still majestic. Just in time, too. Overhead, the ballistae were slowing down, now shooting ordinary spears more often than not.
Only now could Aric tell that many of the arriving soldiers did not, in fact, carry the royal banner. Their coat of arms looked strangely familiar, but he couldn't quite place them at the moment. It was a question for another time anyway. People rushed to help riders dismount, while officers of the guard directed them to take defensive positions. Food, water and bandages would have to be distributed while waiting for combat.
Amidst the frantic activity, hardly anyone noticed a group of mercenaries converging on the captain of the guard, whom they set about to disarm and lead away at sword point, under the direction of a thin old man with a scowl frozen on his face. Hardly anyone except for Aric, but neither him nor Ceral could do much about it. Everyone was too busy to help even if explaining the situation wouldn't have taken much too long. They at least tried to follow from a distance, in the hope of figuring out where she was being taken. And that was when they got caught. Again. Someone must have spread Aric's description around.
It wasn't even someone in uniform this time, he noted bitterly. Most likely one of those the city employed for dirty jobs. A couple of accomplices held Ceral at bay, while the brute dragged Aric away with muscular arms, waving a short blade dangerously close to his face. He scanned the crowd in desperation, but anyone who wasn't terribly busy conspicuously pretended to be.
A crossbow twanged. Aric's would-be captor was left staring at his sword arm, now pinned to a nearby pole. The young man only knew one person who could shoot like that.
It was Tani, all right, who was opening her visor right now, several paces away. And if that was Tani, the colors she was wearing could only be those of House Taodar. Which in turn meant the man dismounting behind her must have been...
Aric fell to his knees, head bowed, Ceral following suit out of habit. It was Lord Taodar himself who helped them up.
Now that was someone to whom they could explain the treachery they'd just witnessed. But by then the mercenaries were long gone. Or were they? By chance, Ceral's keen eye spotted one of them mingling with the throng of people who still found things to do near the gate. They dove into the crowd like a whirlwind. With a wicked curved dagger against her throat, the woman was quick to spill what they needed to know.
Tani's father lent his own crossbow to the young man before going to oversee the defense efforts, and she led her own bodyguards in pursuit of Aric, who strode purposefully towards the stairs and one end of the promenade. There sat the guardhouse where he'd spent so many hours after patrol. Only now it swarmed with grim, burly fighters kitted in mismatched gear. Those were people who saw combat often, and didn't give much thought to blood or life.
Repeating crossbows could shoot a dozen bolts a minute if you didn't care much about aiming. They didn't even hold that many at once. Nor did they need to. In good hands, such a weapon became a veritable instrument of terror. A squad of determined warriors assaulted the small building, plowing through its occupiers. The captain herself didn't waste any time, proceeding to crack heads the moment she realized rescue was on the way.
Only when the coast was clear did they have time to survey the ramparts. It was immediately apparent that the battle wasn't going well for the city's valiant defenders, new and old alike. They ached to go down there. They knew better than to think their small band would make much of a difference.
In the dwindling daylight, Aric led them to the mouth of the nearest tunnel. They didn't have to march in very far before encountering a war party of the Night People. Their spies on the surface must have been doing their job for once. The young man readily accepted a quiver of alchemic bolts for his shooter, and a hardened leather apron with glowing symbols carved into it. Not exactly a fitted breastplate, but it would do.
Enemies were intruding upon the city. They were about to face its vengeful ghosts.
The underground council chamber was never going to be the same again. The massive furniture remained ever so creaky. The floor, marked with soot and darker stains no amount of scrubbing could fully remove. Of the three elders, Aric remarked, one was now crippled, and he could swear another was new. It was hard to tell: they kept their faces covered even at home. Doubly so with guests around, however important and trusted.
Across the table from them sat Lord Taodar, looking tired, but strong and proud. Next to him, Tani, all quiet and serious, her round face contrasting with her father's weathered traits. For once, Kissa looked every bit the mysterious mastermind, able to vanish into shadows at any moment and strike from hiding. Only the captain of the guard seemed out of place, overwhelmed and intimidated. So did Ceral for that matter, even as the two couldn't be more different in appearance.
"I was worried when my daughter returned to me without the expected message, Meister." Taodar spoke calmly, but firmly. "Imagine my surprise when a letter arrived with the seal of a minor house in Ibra. An old connection?"
Kissa smiled. "A new one, in fact. Thanks to Aric here. A strange story, for another time."
"Speaking of which." Taodar nodded his head in Aric's direction. "I owe you thanks for being a friend to Tani. She had to pass for an ordinary conscript, so we couldn't ask for special treatment. My mistake was failing to anticipate the hardships endured by commoners in the military."
The young warrior nodded his head timidly.
"Forgive me," Ceral ventured, "but how did you know to come with an army? And how was the enemy able to venture so deep into our lands?"
Taodar tapped his fingers together, pondering the answer. "In their wisdom, our royal highness determined that the city would be able to withstand a siege should the enemy outmaneuver the bulk of our armies while we were out there striking at their centers of power. Fortunately I have eyes and ears everywhere, and swift riders."
At long last, the captain leaned forward, clearing her throat. "So what happens now? I'm relieved of my duty, and technically still under arrest."
Tani smiled. "Oh, I do believe the Lord Mayor has come to understand how much he still needs the rest of the kingdom. Besides, it was mostly the Chief Justice who had it in for you. And she's now... permanently indisposed."
The middle elder raised a hand. "You serve the city just like we do, Captain. And we'll always need friends among the Day People. May we ask for a favor in this regard, Mylord?" The other two nodded their support, expressions impenetrable behind fabric masks.
"By all means," Taodar said gracefully.
"Then let us rest and rejoice. Last night was a long one."
The common rooms could not contain all the people, so the celebration spilled out into the corridors. Oloni and Kraft kept chasing each other around the captain. Somehow they both ended up in the big woman's lap, to her surprise and awkwardness. In Kissa's niche, he and Taodar exchanged books; the former got one of recipes, exquisitely typeset and bound. He wanted to go try one right away, but every nearby firepit was in use. Somewhere, Fanti gushed over Tani's fine rapier. And all over the place there was music, hot drinks, soft cushions, games... Only the looms were silent for once.
In a corner, Ceral and Aric leaned against each other.
"Is it real?" asked the boy. "Are we really going away from here?"
Aric smiled. "Hard to believe, isn't it? I keep fearing something else will happen at the last moment."
"Shush. You'll worry yourself sick. Tell me, what is your home like?"
"It's quiet and verdant. Wheat fields as far as the eye can see. Blue waves to one side, golden the other way. Sometimes there are terrible storms, but it's all the more sunny afterwards."
Ceral closed his eyes, trying to imagine the scene. "I've seen the ocean a few times, going with dad on business. Always angry. Roiling. The color of steel. Makes you want to huddle in a tavern and not come out."
"Back home, old sailors say water is water. The winds blowing over it make all the difference. Just like with people."
"Have you ever been at sea, Aric?"
The young warrior shook his head. "It takes hardy men at the best of times."
"You're hardy!" Ceral protested. "One would be a fool not to see it."
"Then I must be one. All my strength as of late has come from you."
"And mine from you. Perhaps that is the secret."
Around them, the party was winding down. Aric nodded. "Let's go get some sleep. The wagons won't wait."
A warm, purry lump of fluff came to settle between them later during the night, but the two were sound asleep by then.
Aric shivered and couldn't seem to stop, his cloak and tunic no match for the chill of a late autumn morning. He stomped lovingly mended boots on the packed earth, in a vain attempt to warm himself as he waited for the caravan to get moving. Above him, the first rays of the sun bathed terrace after terrace, bouncing off a myriad windows, like jewels slowly spun in the lavish light. As it swept over marble statues and brass ornaments, the city gradually woke up with the rhythm of hammers and the cries of peddlers, that rolled down the hills like spring water: repairing the broken walls was going to take a long time. Closer to them, people wrapped in rags, with their faces covered, were picking the recent battlefield clean, in-between erecting pyres for the dead. In the distance, a growing rumble signaled the big mills coming to life one by one, until they drowned out even the chatter of birds.
At his side, Ceral rather opted to focus on the preparations going on around them. Laden mules having their packs balanced; horses snorting and pounding the ground as they were being hitched to wagons. A red-faced lad chasing a chicken that had somehow escaped her bonds and now seemed intent on taking her chances with the local birds of prey instead. Concerned mothers trying to herd little children who might as well have been cats.
One girl in particular drew his attention, about the same age and build as Oloni, hair so blond it could pass for white, skin as pale as his own. They were both going to have a hard time in the south. At least the coming winter would hopefully give them leisure to acclimate. He listened curiously to her unfamiliar language, resolving to ask Aric for lessons. Few others on the caravan had bothered to learn even the basics, despite having been in this place for longer.
The sun was all the way above the horizon by the time everything was in order. The shouted report traveled mouth to ear from all the way in the rear to the distant first wagons. Whips cracked, animals strained, and in the creaking of wheels the entire convoy lurched into motion, snaking down the road. Much too soon, the city hid from view behind a bend. Only the remote rivers of fire remained. By noon they should be out of the hills and turn right, away from the dust and smoke. Away from worries.
Ceral looked behind just as Aric was hurrying to catch up. One look in each other's eyes, and they knew everything would be all right forever more. They went on shoulder to shoulder, feeling unstoppable.
They had already proven themselves. It was time to go home.