Authors: Ian Irvine
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy fiction, #Fantasy, #Science Fiction & Fantasy
‘Can’t reach it,’ she muttered.
‘See that long spear of glass, there? Reach under and hook it through the strap of the pack and drag it out.’
‘It’ll cut me.’
‘Wrap your shirt around your hand or something. Don’t you have any initiative?’
It was the wrong thing to say. Ullii simply closed her eyes and scrunched herself up in the corner.
She blocked him out.
He was quiet for a while, and then he said, ‘If I die, you’ll be all alone up here.’
‘I can climb out.’
‘Down to Ghorr and the scrutators?’
She scrunched herself up into a tighter ball. ‘You can’t help me, Nish.’
‘I wasn’t planning to. Ullii, I’ve been a fool. I treated you badly, and hurt you terribly. I’ve done stupid things and I’m sorry for them …’
‘Yes?’ she said when he did not go on. She liked hearing him talk like that.
‘I have to do something good to make up for it …’
She didn’t reply at once. Ullii was no fool – he was trying to lead her somewhere and she didn’t want to follow. But neither did she want to be alone again.
‘You’ve done wrong too, Ullii. You betrayed your friends. You’ve condemned Flydd and Irisis, and everyone else in Fiz Gorgo.’
‘It wasn’t my fault. Ghorr made me do it.’
‘No, Ullii. You chose to help Ghorr.’
‘He forced me.’
‘You didn’t have to find this place. You could have told him that you couldn’t see anyone in your lattice.’
‘He was too strong. He was going to hurt me!’
‘You could have resisted.’
‘He threatened me with Scrutator Fusshte. He’s the most evil scrutator of all, Nish.’
‘You could have resisted even Fusshte,’ Nish said inexorably. ‘You could have pretended that you’d lost the lattice. They wouldn’t have known any different.’
‘It was as if Fusshte was looking at me though my clothes; even through my skin.’
‘I’m sure that was horrible, but you betrayed your friends and now they’re all going to be put to death in the most awful way. Once the scrutators have killed them, the last hope of the world will be gone. We’ll lose the war and the lyrinx will eat us all, even you, Ullii. And it’ll all be your fault.’
‘No,’ she said in an almost inaudible squeak. ‘No, no, no!’
‘Yes,’ Nish said.
Ullii couldn’t make herself any smaller or any more insignificant. She couldn’t close down her senses to keep him at bay and she couldn’t escape. She had no choice but to take in what he was saying, though she knew he was manipulating her.
betrayed her friends and, for the first time, Ullii had to face up to it. She’d known it all along, but had put it out of mind – even those awful sounds as the guards on the wall had been slain without warning.
And how many people were yet to die? Dozens stood in the yard, waiting in the freezing cold for their doom. She looked out the embrasure. The vast rope-and-canvas platform would soon be finished. Two prisoners were being hauled up in a rope net, their arms and legs dangling out through the mesh.
She heard a faint, mournful wail – a young woman’s cry of soul-rending anguish. It wasn’t Irisis, for she would never have given way like that. Was it little Inouye? Was she wailing because she would never see her babies again, or because she knew that even they would suffer for the crime she’d been accused of?
Nish stood up, still holding his thumb over the gash, and looked over her shoulder. ‘It’s nearly midday. The trials will begin as soon as the last prisoners are lifted up to the amphitheatre, and Ghorr will want it well over before dark. He won’t dare stay here after the sun goes down. Air-dreadnoughts are too vulnerable to flying lyrinx.’
His nearness made her uncomfortable, though the scent of him had always calmed her. Ullii tried to rouse her previous fury by thinking about all the things Nish had done to her, but at the look in his eyes, so familiar, so guilty, so vulnerable, she could not. Violence was simply not in her nature. What would be the point, anyway? Myllii and Yllii couldn’t be brought back and the sooner she joined them the better. ‘What do you want from me, Nish?’
‘I want you to help me. We’ve got to try and save them.’
‘They have hundreds of guards,’ she said dully. ‘And dozens of mancers watching over them. I can’t do anything and neither can you.’
‘We have to try.’
‘I’m too scared.’
‘I’m scared too. But look – we’ve both done wrong, Ullii, and this is the only way we can make up for it. We have to atone for what we’ve done.’
he operation on his forearm was more painful than it should have been, because Ullii couldn’t bear to look at the gash and insisted on sewing him up with her eyes closed. Each time the bloody needle, trailing its red threads, came at him he flinched and Ullii jumped, then forced it through his skin and flesh as if to cause the maximum of discomfort. Nish gritted his teeth and restrained himself from crying out, though it wasn’t possible to remain silent when she roughly pulled the sides of the gash together and tied the threads.
‘Thank you,’ he said once it had been done and bound with the tail of a spare shirt from her pack. ‘Now we’d better find a way out of here.’
Nish knew it was hopeless. Ullii was too timid; if he’d had his choice of all the co-conspirators in the world, he couldn’t have found someone with less initiative.
He looked out the window and blanched. How had she climbed the tower without ropes or irons? It was beyond him and that wasn’t cowardice. Nish simply didn’t have the skills to climb down that sheer face. If he tried, he’d certainly fall to his death.
The rubble blocking the stair was still too hot to approach. The rods that supported and tensioned the roof were immovable; he’d tried them earlier.
‘Ullii, you’ll have to climb down and find some rope. I can’t get out any other way.’
‘Rope?’ she said, as if she’d never heard of such a thing. ‘I don’t know where there’s any rope.’
He thought for a moment. ‘Do you know where the front door of Fiz Gorgo is?’
‘Yes. I went through it with Ghorr.’
‘If you can climb down –’
‘Of course I can climb down,’ she said, tossing her head.
‘Then go out into the yard. It’s empty now, but be careful. Ghorr might have guards posted. Around to the left, near the wall, there’s a little stone shed that Inouye uses – she’s the air-floater pilot. The innocent one whose little children are going to be murdered,’ he said deliberately. ‘The door won’t be locked, and you’ll find coils of rope in there. Can you bring one back? And make sure it’s long enough …’ He gauged the distance down to the roof. ‘You’ll need about eight or nine spans. Do you know how much a span is?’
She gave him one of her famous looks and climbed out the embrasure on the side away from the yard. Nish watched her go down, amazed at how easy she made it look, and even more amazed that such a timid person could do it at all. But then, Ullii could be surprisingly competent when she had no choice in the matter.
He glanced up. The amphitheatre looked almost complete now. The ropers, who earlier had been swarming like sailors in the rigging of a merchant vessel, were gone apart from a few above a tower on the other side of Fiz Gorgo, who were tensioning lines with a complicated array of pulleys. He couldn’t see what was going on above the deck.
Nish looked further up, to the nearest of the air-dreadnoughts, but immediately jerked his head below the sill of the embrasure. For a moment he’d thought the grey robed mancer had been staring straight at him. He took another peep. The brass spyglass was not pointed his way at all, but at the horned tower to his left. It had also been struck by that initial blast, but whatever the strange energies or magics inside, they had not been completely liberated. The tower was sagging more than this one and glowing redly three floors below the roof. Bladder-like extrusions of molten material were being forced out of the slit embrasures. One burst, filling the air with shards of brown glass which set instantly, glittering in a momentary ray of sunlight, before tinkling to the paving stones of the yard.
The tower slowly tilted as if the stone were made of toffee. One of the horns fell off and plunged through the roof, smashing its thick slabs to fragments. For a few seconds it looked as though the tower would go the same way but it subsided suddenly, twisting like a length of barley sugar, and landed in the yard with a crash that shook the whole of Fiz Gorgo. Residual magics fumed and flickered, then went out.
Nish’s tower shuddered and leaned a little further from the vertical. Ants swarmed in the pit of his stomach, but the tower stabilised. Cries came from the amphitheatre and a wave churned across the canvas, snapping several of the guy ropes. A roper, caught by a lashing end, fell backwards from his perch, plunging head down and arms spread, to his death. Nish lost sight of the man as he passed behind the roof on the other side of the building.
His tower gave another, smaller shudder and rock spalled off the walls. It couldn’t last long. Nish scanned the air-dreadnought, keeping his head below the embrasure. The mancer was watching the drama on the amphitheatre. Nish prayed that he hadn’t seen Ullii climbing down, or she’d have walked into a trap. He couldn’t see her in the yard.
Nish’s thoughts went to his friends. The trials would soon be getting underway and they wouldn’t take over-long. Long enough for the theatre and the lavish spectacle, and long enough for the artists, recorders and tale-tellers to get each victim’s story down, but not long enough for anyone to receive a fair trial. The scrutators did not believe in fair trials.
Come on, Ullii. What’s keeping you? Ghorr might have tried Irisis first, for she’d once discovered a secret that threatened every mancer, and the chief scrutator didn’t want it to get out. If the punishment was carried out after each trial they might be readying her now. Before she was tortured and slain, Irisis would be stripped naked and exposed to the icy wind and the leers of the witnesses. The artists and tale-tellers would be ordered to capture every detail of her magnificent body before the punishment, and afterwards. In this prudish world the human form was rarely depicted unclothed, but where criminals were concerned nothing was left to the prurient imagination. If such a beauty could be brought low, it could happen to anyone, and few people would fail to take the lesson.
And then, the flaying knives … Nish ground his fists into his eyes but couldn’t keep the hideous images at bay. How could they do that to anyone, much less to Irisis?
There was still no sign of Ullii. He paced back and forth in the narrow space between the glass spears. It was as confining as any dungeon cell, though at least the floor was cooling down.
Nish stepped onto a chunk of stone, which ground underfoot. He picked it up and, without thinking, hurled it into the network of glass blades, bringing down a good half of them. It made a colossal racket but he felt better for it. It was good to smash something, and it gave him more space to move in.
The drizzle began to turn to cold rain which would make Ullii’s climb even slower. But it might speed up the trial; the scrutators liked their comforts.
Across he went, and back, having to tread carefully on the tilted slabs, then around the glass-clotted hole in the centre that was still too hot to approach. Nish kept going until, suddenly, his knees gave out. He’d been too anxious to eat dinner last night, and there had been nothing since. He was ravenous, and so very tired. He found a relatively cool perch by the cracked embrasure and squatted down with his back against the wall. Resting his cheek on his arms, he tried to think of a way out.
Nish was continuing to run outlandish schemes through his mind, like a schoolboy daydreaming about being a hero, when a shrill cry rang out. He got up and twisted his head out the embrasure. He saw nothing but the sixteen air-dreadnoughts hanging in the air above the canvas amphitheatre.
He looked down. No sign of Ullii either. She must have been taken, in which case his hopes were gone. He was trapped until the tower eventually collapsed and took him with it.
There was no point waiting tamely for his death. Weaving across to the other side, he climbed into the narrow embrasure and crouched there, looking down. Was there a chance, if he jumped? He didn’t think so. The roof had only a gentle slope below him and, though the slabs were thick, they were also old. Even from here he could see that they were cracked and pieces had flaked off. He wouldn’t slide – the slab would crumble under the impact and he’d go right through.
Nish crouched, then stood up straight. He chose his point, bent his knees and prepared to spring. He straightened up again.
‘What are you doing, Nish?’
He turned hastily, slipped and had to clutch at the edge. Nish’s knees were shaking as he stepped down. He felt a fool. Ullii had a coil of rope looped over her shoulder.
‘What took you so long?’ Nish snapped. He couldn’t help it, but he regretted the outburst at once.
In the olden days Ullii would have curled up and gone into one of her states, and he would have got nothing out of her for hours. Something had changed. She simply said, ‘The shed was locked. I had to search Fiz Gorgo.’