The War of Undoing – free sample

First edition, free sample, HTML version
Copyright 2015 Alex Perry
All rights reserved
Cover and map artwork by Loricha Honer and Gavin Laing

TWOUmap

~ Prologue ~

In the cemetery on Mistle Hill, in the city of Eldermoon in the country of Vumarule, on a still Summer’s night in the 77th year of the Age of Enlightenment, Zaspar Rendel died.

Death gave him more time to think than he had expected. As the dagger twisted deeper into his heart, the cloaked figures and silhouetted tombstones melted and left him in a world of memories.

The first was of Kyland soldiers forcing their way into his house in Dawnsgrove. He woke up to the sight of lanterns shining in his face and swords glinting beside them. When their bearers saw he was just a child, they left him with a single guard and moved on to his papa’s room, knocking things to the floor with an awful clattering in the dark. He heard Papa’s voice, shouting out then silenced. A lower voice spoke, and Papa replied in strained tones that suggested a sword pressed to his neck.

Barely breathing, young Zaspar slid from beneath his blanket and crept out of bed, but the guard saw and strode forward.

‘Don’t fret,’ said the human, lifting the boy back into bed. ‘Your father’s done something bad. We’ve come to tell him not to do it again. You understand?’

Zaspar did not. ‘Papa’s not bad.’

‘Good people can do bad things,’ said the human boredly, ruffling his hair with a calloused hand.

When the soldiers left, Zaspar lay alone in his room. He could not hear any sound from his papa’s room, and was too afraid to go in there, so he simply lay between the cold sheets and let his eyes creep around the walls.

That was when something that had not happened happened.

He saw a girl sitting cross-legged on the floor in the corner. She looked perhaps thirteen, with black hair that tumbled untidily about her cheeks. Like him, she was a vuma. She watched Zaspar with green eyes that could have hypnotised a blind man.

‘Don’t mind me,’ said the girl. ‘I’m not really here.’

He recognised her from somewhere, but had no time to recall where before his memory lunged forward, taking him to a quite different place and time. The room seemed to stretch; the floorboards bent and saplings twisted up through the cracks, growing into great trees in seconds. Zaspar hurtled from his bed, and when he hit the ground he was running.

He was eight years old. The sudden jump from several years in the past made it apparent how much flatter his stomach had become, and how much weaker his body, despite the growth of years; he could only run because he had so little weight to carry. He put his hands to his stomach in confusion before he remembered the chase.

Mysana was only a few yards ahead. Their feet pounded faster and faster on the dirt, until at last she leapt onto a broad tree trunk and began to climb, her claws digging like ice axes into the bark. Zaspar leapt up after her and dug his claws into the back of her dress; she yelped and they tumbled to the ground. She scowled and he laughed as they both got to their feet.

‘Not fair,’ she told him. ‘You didn’t give me a chance.’

Their game over, they wandered idly through the trees. The woods hid many twisting trails, but Mysana seemed to know every one of them, at least within a mile or two of Dawnsgrove. Zaspar never dared come out here without her.

‘Do you want to see a spell?’ she said, as they came to where a shaft of sunlight pierced through the leaves. ‘My big brother taught me one.’

Zaspar stopped and turned to her in amazement. She had just said a dangerous word. But they were some distance beyond the hill at the edge of town where the windmills stood, and no one was around to hear.

‘Are you allowed?’ he breathed.

‘No.’ Grinning, she pulled a spiny leaf from a tree, and held it up in the shaft of light. She murmured a few secret words and the leaf shrivelled into a black skeleton of itself.

‘It’s a banned spell,’ she said, handing what remained of the leaf to Zaspar, who took it gingerly. ‘Even adults aren’t allowed to do it. My brother says if you get good enough, you can do the same thing to a person.’

Zaspar shuddered.

‘And that’s why vumas are better than humans,’ Mysana continued. ‘Because they can tell us not to do things like that, but we’ll always be able to. Because of miracas.’

This was another dangerous word. Zaspar’s heart raced. He looked at the blackened leaf and felt sick, but strangely happy too. He crumbled it between his fingers and let it dance away.

‘You won’t tell anyone about that, will you?’ said Mysana, and she stepped up to Zaspar and pressed her lips against his clumsily, copying adults, not quite sure of what she was doing. ‘Our secret,’ she said, and turned and ran away. He hesitated a moment before following.

As they ran, Zaspar caught sight of the girl who wasn’t really there; she was lounging in a nearby tree, her head turned towards him, staring with those startling green eyes. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could get a word out, time rushed forward again. The gnarled old tree twisted into the gnarled old face of his papa, and the damp forest smells faded into the background, overpowered by another childhood smell, just as familiar.

He was twelve, and glaring at his papa across a kitchen table laid with a meagre dinner. The girl with green eyes took a seat close by, but her presence seemed unimportant compared to this conversation with Papa, a bony man with wisps of grey hair perched atop a forehead deeply furrowed.

‘But they couldn’t stop us,’ Zaspar said firmly.

‘The humans are tougher than you think.’

‘And what about the vumas? Do you even know, Papa, what we could do if we let ourselves?’

‘I know, son. And I know what happens when we try. Have you forgotten what happened when you were little?’

He had not forgotten. Some years past, he knew now, Papa and the other farmers of Dawnsgrove had experimented with spells to make their crops grow faster, bigger and through the harshest of Winters. Somehow one of the Kyland army patrols had found out about this and reported it as a violation of the Otherworldly Sustenance Act of 30 AE. Homes had been raided, and not all the farmers had been treated as kindly as his papa. Some had been taken to the human capital of Merry Mourning where, Mysana said, there was a giant prison into which troublesome vumas were thrown to be forgotten about. Now when patrols came through Dawnsgrove, they checked all the crops to be sure they were shrivelling and dying as nature intended. The town had never been hungrier.

‘I’m not talking about crop spells, Papa. I’m talking about bigger things.’

Mr Rendel narrowed his bloodshot eyes. ‘Who’ve you been speaking to?’

Zaspar shifted his bare feet under the table. ‘No one.’

Only the girl who was steadily becoming the centre of his world. When they could get time off from working the fields, they spent most of their time wandering the woods together. Now, instead of playing chase, they practised spells. Well, Mysana practised; Zaspar was still struggling to get started. Often he just sat and watched her as she bent branches and levitated pine cones and zapped bolts of electricity at rabbits and birds. Sometimes he daydreamed about her kissing him again. So far she had not, though she spent more time with him than with any other boy. Other boys had eyes for her, but she had shared her secret only with him, and this bound them together.

‘I know I told you you can’t trust humans, but you can’t trust vumas either,’ said Papa. ‘There’s some want to fight for a cause, and some that just want to fight.’

‘They say there’s a war coming. We may all have to fight soon. Shouldn’t we be learning?’

‘They’ve been saying that for years.’

‘Wouldn’t it be a good thing? Look at us, we’re sitting on power the humans can only dream of, but we bow to their authority, stay where they put us, eat carrot and mushroom soup for every meal. They force us to live like them, only worse because they’re scared of what we could do if we thought we had the right to more. Why don’t we do something?’

‘If you want to go and start a war, the door’s right there,’ said Papa.

Zaspar did not move, just stared at the old man with the coldness of a child not yet willing to accept an unwelcome piece of wisdom. His papa began eating, bringing their conversation to a close. Zaspar did not touch his food.

The girl who wasn’t really there leaned over to him. ‘Scuse me. If you’re not having any.’ She took a crust of bread, dipped it in his soup, munched and swallowed. Then she lowered her voice and spoke to Zaspar in a whisper. ‘That was portentous, wasn’t it?’

Despite the years that had passed since their last meeting, the girl still looked thirteen. And despite her impossible presence, he couldn’t help feeling she looked more solid than anyone else he had seen lately, and also oddly familiar.

His surroundings blurred again. Mushrooms hopped out of his soup and arranged themselves on logs as the forest sprouted up around him.

It was the Summer of his fifteenth year. The sunset coloured the world a deep orange; the forest rustled with a warm breeze. Zaspar was walking with Mysana, who held a flame in her hand to light their path. They were talking of running away together –

‘– to Eldermoon,’ she said. ‘They have schools of magic there, I’m sure they’ll be able to teach you better than I can. They say they only teach legal spells, but that can’t be true. So few spells are legal now, and no human patrols have been there in years. They dare not.’

Mysana often spoke of Eldermoon. Her brother had journeyed there some years past, and though she had not heard from him since, she interpreted his silence as an invitation rather than a warning. She had been planning her departure for a full season, stockpiling what little food she had to spare and plotting the safest route to the great city. Zaspar contributed to her cache of food, but left the planning up to her. Secretly he rejoiced at the thought of travelling with her into strange lands, but this feeling felt too big to share.

‘When can we go?’ he asked, trying to sound more curious than eager.

Sparks shot from her hand as she whirled round to face him, struck by a sudden thought. ‘We could go tomorrow.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘We need to pack our bags, and say our goodbyes to anyone we can trust. Not your papa.’

A faint thud sounded from somewhere not far off. The girl who wasn’t really there stepped out from behind a tree, listening intently.

‘I know you heard that,’ she told Zaspar. ‘I did, after all. But you ignored it, didn’t you? You were too entranced by her. She was your downfall.’

Mysana, who seemed to know better than Zaspar that the girl was not there, continued. ‘We’ll set off at noon. That way they won’t notice we’re missing until the work day ends, and we’ll be miles away.’

‘Miles away,’ murmured Zaspar, intoxicated by the thought.

There came another sound, closer this time, a cracking sound like somebody stepping on a branch. The girl who wasn’t there looked from Mysana to Zaspar in disbelief.

‘Is no one else hearing this? You’re just going to stand there staring at each other with that flame in your hand? Well, no wonder your story goes bad — I’ve no sympathy for either of you.’

In a sudden flurry of activity, branches parted all around them. Swords burst through, followed by human soldiers in scarlet and silver army uniforms. Mysana threw her flame to the ground and Zaspar stamped it out, but too late to keep it from being seen. Probably it would have made no difference anyway.

Two soldiers seized Zaspar from behind, and another made a grab for Mysana, who dodged out of her grasp and ran for deeper cover.

One of the soldiers twisted Zaspar’s arm behind him, making him cry out. They may have meant this as a warning to Mysana to surrender, but it had the opposite effect. She turned, saw him in pain and without thinking began firing lightning at the soldiers. The forest flashed white and black as Mysana’s spell whirled through the trees, frying leaves and blackening bark. Soldiers dived out of the way; Zaspar’s captors pulled him into a thicket and threw him to the ground. He spat out a mouthful of dirt and glanced frantically around for the girl he loved. Instead he saw the girl who wasn’t there, standing in the midst of the flashing forest, unfazed by the lightning crackling around her.

‘She’s good, isn’t she?’ the girl called. ‘I can see why you liked her.’

Zaspar’s eyes found Mysana at the same moment as a soldier’s sword. He tried to yell her name as she fell in a spray of blood, but thick fingers clamped around his mouth. The lightning stopped; the forest went dark. His eyes stung so much he could not see a thing, but he heard the rattle of the soldiers’ chainmail as they moved in on the fallen girl.

‘Did you kill her?’

‘No, just knocked her out. She’s bleeding, but nothing serious.’

‘Should we kill her now? She’s just a kid, doubt she’ll know much.’

‘Better not. You never know who knows what in this bloody place. Besides, if she’s a kid she won’t cause us trouble.’

‘Yeah, if you don’t count lightning as trouble.’

Someone pulled Zaspar to his feet and shoved him forward, presenting him for examination.

‘Should we take the boy?’

‘No, he’s useless. Can’t do spells, apparently. He didn’t even try to resist.’

His eyes were recovering; ahead he saw Mysana being hoisted onto a man’s shoulder. Zaspar felt his muscles tense, preparing to unleash a fury of unpractised magic or, failing that, to charge forward and beat the man into submission, but before he could do anything, another soldier took hold of his neck and breathed thick hot air into his face.

‘Don’t follow us, squirt.’

His head slammed against a tree. His knees gave way and he fell unconscious in the leaves.

When he awoke, the soldiers had gone, taking Mysana with them. He scrabbled around, pulled aside bushes, ran back and forth looking for some trace of her, even a footprint trail to follow. He found nothing.

They must be going to Merry Mourning. If he could catch up with them before they got there! … then what? They had overpowered Mysana, and she was a talented spellweaver. No, he would have to bide his time, make the journey to Merry Mourning by himself and …

A sick feeling spread through him as he remembered what he’d heard about the huge dungeons under the human capital. They would take her there, and she would be locked away where he could never get at her, where he could never see her face again. She was his world, and without her, he had no power or knowledge that would allow him to get into the city. His Mysana would suffer at the hands of the humans and there was nothing, nothing at all he could do to save her. He slumped on the ground, pressed his face to the carpet of earthy leaves, and fell into a state of unthinking despair.

This mood carried him to his next memory. The ground hardened under his face, squashing his nose, and the murmur of leaves became the murmur of drunken people. When he could bear to, he raised his head.

He was sitting alone at a table in the Sorcerer’s Rest, the inn where his papa had taken him since his childhood. Mr Rendel was dead now – Zaspar had found him unmoving in his bed three days past, claimed in the night by what could have been a creeping illness, hunger or sheer exhaustion. Earlier today he had been buried in the graveyard just off the road out of town, beside his wife. Zaspar’s evening had been spent trying to forget everything.

Evidently it had not worked.

The inn was noisy, brightly lit and filled with the bitter smell of beer; as a child Zaspar had imagined himself to get drunk just by breathing the air. Three old men sat nearby, their drinks in their laps to make room for a card game that sprawled across their table. The girl who wasn’t there perched on a barrel by the bar, drinking something she probably wasn’t old enough for. And at the table opposite Zaspar, a party of Kyland army soldiers, clearly the Rest’s drunkest customers that night, laughed and swore. He eyed them with hatred. Redbloods, come to poke around and ask questions and beat vumas for looking at them the wrong way.

‘All right, Zaspar?’ said Alyce, the pretty barmaid.

Zaspar looked at her through what felt like layers of film. ‘Can I have another one?’

‘You poor dear,’ she cooed, smiling as she took his glass. ‘Of course. Let’s not worry about your papa’s tab till later.’

She squeezed his shoulder and proceeded to the bar to fill his glass, but as she passed the table of human soldiers, one of them leaned back on his chair and slapped her hard on the bottom. The whole table cackled, and even Alyce laughed and wagged a finger at the guilty party.

Before he knew what he was doing, Zaspar was on his feet and stumbling towards their table.

The fight that followed was fragmented, as his memories jumped and flickered around him. He saw the soldiers standing up, drawing weapons. He kicked at the table. Drinks splashed over. Arms grabbed at him. He screamed something obscene. He aimed a punch, got one in. Aimed another, missed. Fell over. Was picked up. Crashed through another table, felt it splinter in two beneath him, wooden spikes piercing his back. Rolled along the floor, kicked over a chair. Felt weight pressing down on him, kicks to his stomach.

Blacked out.

When consciousness crept back to him it brought with it a pounding headache and the dull pain of bruises all down his body. The instinctual knowledge that he was in his own bed did little to ease his discomfort.

He groaned and rolled over. A large man sat on a stool by his bedside – not a Kyland soldier but a vuma. He looked to be in his fifties, and had violet scars from his chin to his forehead and a gleam in the darkness of his eyes. By the light of a candle floating by his shoulder he was reading a book, something about the construction of the human city of Merry Mourning. Zaspar got the feeling the man knew he had woken, but he did not look up from his book until he reached a convenient stopping point. Then silently he put the book aside, lifted the candle out of the air, placed it back in its holder by the bedside, and looked at Zaspar.

‘I saw your fight with the soldiers,’ growled the man. ‘I say “fight”. It was more a series of kicks to your face and limbs.’

Zaspar tried to object, but his words came out as pained burbles.

‘You’re lucky the Rest was busy. If there were fewer eyes around, they might have done a lot worse.’

‘My head.’

‘Shut up. It’s all superficial. The worst of the pain is from the drink. You’ve been hitting it hard since your father’s death, haven’t you?’

‘My father’s … oww.’

‘All right, hold still. We can’t talk with you in this condition.’

The man stood, focused for a moment, then put his palm to the flame of the candle. It flickered and waned as he drew on its power. When nothing remained but smoke, he put his hand to Zaspar’s forehead. Zaspar felt a flash of searing hot pain, which surged through his body like the lash of a whip before vanishing as suddenly as it had come. His headache was gone, leaving just the pain of his bruises and the disquieting sensation that his internal organs were sizzling.

‘A crude hangover cure I cooked up in my time as the servant of a wealthy human family,’ said the man, dusting his hands as he settled back onto the stool.

Through the curtains and the trees, dawn was breaking. Before long, Zaspar’s head began to clear, and he sat up. The visitor introduced himself as Brother Ustyn, a member of the Brotherhood of Lightning.

‘The Brotherhood of Lightning!’ said Zaspar, recalling the name. Mysana had spoken of it sometimes, though he had only a hazy idea of what it was. Some vuman rebel organisation from long ago. ‘It still exists?’

‘It has been reformed. Only in Eldermoon, though. Too many army patrols in other towns. But we know there are people all across Vumarule who support our cause.’

‘What is your cause?’

‘To raise a vuman army against the Kyland Ninety. To claim Vumarule once and for all as our land. To topple the human laws that keep us weak and powerless, and to expel all humans from our borders forever. That is our cause. From your actions in the Sorcerer’s Rest, I assume you share some of our interests?’

Zaspar scowled. ‘You don’t hate humans the way I do. You said you used to be a servant to them. And you’re reading a book by one.’

‘This? This contains vital strategic information on the layout of the human capital. It may have been written by a human, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful to us. My time as a servant was also invaluable in teaching me the ways of humans. You must know your enemy, boy. If the Brotherhood is going to take you, you are going to have to learn to be a little more patient, a little more open-minded. Do you understand, Zaspar?’

Zaspar lowered his eyes. ‘Yes,’ he mumbled.

‘Will you join us?’

He thought for a moment. ‘As long as the Brotherhood is serious. As long as we’re going to take back what is ours.’

‘We will,’ said Ustyn.

Again Zaspar’s memory advanced; the room changed. The ceiling slid away to reveal an evening sky dotted with stars. The walls folded back to let in a soft breeze. The candle by the bedside stretched upwards and became an iron street lamp, casting a nauseous yellow-green light over a winding city street. Zaspar was in Eldermoon, in the twentieth and final year of his life.

The girl who wasn’t really there circled him, gazing at the city in twilight. ‘Here we are,’ she said. ‘It’s closing in on you now. Can you feel it?’

Out from the shadows stepped a young woman with a pointy nose and inky black hair that seemed to blend straight into her Brotherhood cloak. It was Violette. Along with Howell, she had been one of his closest friends and training partners since his induction into the Brotherhood of Lightning.

‘There you are,’ she said, greeting him with a smile. ‘We can go down now. Howell is already inside with the prisoner.’

Zaspar followed her down one of the tunnels that led into the dungeons of Eldermoon. Behind them, the girl who wasn’t there hurried to keep up on her shorter legs.

‘I’ve never been in this position before,’ he said, heart pounding in his chest as the darkness grew thicker around them. ‘They’ve always been taller than me, and they’ve always had swords, and I haven’t seen one since I started training.’

‘Nor have I,’ said Violette. ‘How do you think it will feel?’

‘I can’t imagine I’ll feel sorry for him,’ said Zaspar, prompting Violette to laugh her high-pitched, unstable laugh.

They reached the bottom end of the tunnel and were nodded through a heavy iron door by two Brotherhood guards. The door closed behind them with a resounding clang. On this side, only a single lantern hanging by the door provided light; anyone with permission to venture deeper would by definition have the ability to weave a simple light spell. The air felt musty. Garbled noises – perhaps screams, perhaps the roaring of terrible machinery – echoed from the labyrinth of passageways that surrounded them.

‘They said it was left here,’ said Violette, and abruptly took his hand. Zaspar conjured a light with his other and they started down one of the passageways.

After a few minutes of walking they found Howell waiting by a door – a young man with a chiselled jaw and flowing dark hair, but rarely a smile. ‘He’s in here,’ he said, and they entered.

Shackled to a stone chair built into the centre of the chamber facing away from the door sat a human wearing only ragged trousers. Zaspar could hear his low, growling breaths.

‘The Brotherhood found him and three others in the Dynian hills,’ said Howell. ‘It looked as though they were trying to find a way into Eldermoon through the dungeons.’

‘Well,’ said Violette, addressing the human with a sardonic smile. ‘You made it into the dungeons, didn’t you?’

The human lifted his head and grinned back at her from a bloodied face. ‘This is only phase one of my plan, darling, don’t you worry. This is all going exactly as intended. Better, as I didn’t realise I would have such pretty torturers. Especially you, dear,’ he added, winking at Howell.

‘Quiet,’ said Howell, wrinkling his nose in disgust. ‘These two are here to learn. You need only concern yourself with me. Now, where did we get to last time?’

‘I think I was telling you all the Ninety’s plans,’ said the human.

‘So you were,’ said Howell. ‘Why don’t we pick up from there?’

‘My pleasure, sweet cheeks,’ said the human. ‘Basically their plan is to turn Vumarule into a gigantic sheep farm. Sheep in Eldermoon. Thousands of sheep in Durroc. The forest of Hob? You guessed it — full of sheep. Rookery Lake will be a sheep dip and Mistle Hill a nursery for lambs.’

‘Fascinating,’ said Howell. He moved to a table that stood against the wall just out of the human’s sight and perused the vicious selection of items there. ‘And what do they plan to do with all these sheep?’ Ever so delicately, he picked up a vial of scarlet liquid from its place in a wooden rack and walked with it to the other end of the table, where a candle burned.

‘They don’t tell me everything. But –’ the human lowered his voice conspiratorially – ‘but I heard rumours they’re going to cross-breed them with faeries so they can grow wings and fly to the milk moon.’

‘Some prisoners will give false information,’ Howell explained to Zaspar and Violette. ‘You have to learn to spot it. You must also learn to spot when they think they’re being amusing.’ He reached out and held the vial over the candle’s flame. The human half-stifled a cry of pain, and with increasing difficulty kept it stifled as the flame lapped at the bottom of the vial. Sweat began to bead on his neck and forehead.

‘Blood is a powerful tool,’ said Howell. ‘Even once it leaves a person’s body, you can use it to hurt that person. Even kill. Some people will tell you it’s the crudest sort of magic there is, but contritionists know it’s not to be sniffed at.’

He held the vial of blood over the flame a little longer. A growl rose in the throat of the human; he trembled violently against his shackles. Howell waited a few seconds more before pulling the vial away.

‘You call that torture?’ the human gasped, his whole torso drenched in sweat. ‘Pathetic. In Merry Mourning we know how to treat prisoners.’

‘And how is that?’ said Howell.

‘Oh, I can’t tell you. You might end up in our dungeons some day, and I’d hate to spoil the surprise.’

‘Tell me,’ said Zaspar.

Everyone stared at him: Howell, Violette, the girl who wasn’t really there and the trembling human prisoner. Zaspar did not often speak, and he was not used to so many eyes upon him.

‘Why, Zaspar?’ asked Violette anxiously, grasping his arm.

He ignored her. ‘Tell me.’

The human studied his face long and hard before replying.

‘We make sure they scream from dawn till dusk, though of course they never see the passing of the days. Their reality is simply an endless, unmeasurable stream of agony. When they’re near breaking point we put them in stone cells too small to stand in. Sometimes we leave them in there for days, without food, without water, without light, without sound, without company. Living death, we call it. No one is the same afterwards. Now, the luckiest ones, their bodies have mercy and shut down at some point.’ His eyes did not leave Zaspar’s face. ‘Many people aren’t so lucky. Some people last years. Especially the young ones.’ He paused a moment, then spoke as quickly and decisively as rolling a die. ‘Especially girls.’

In a second, Zaspar’s hand was on the table, grasping for any implement. He found something sharp – didn’t matter what it was – and lunged at the human, stabbing and slashing in breathless fury. He felt arms grasping at his, heard Howell screaming ‘Don’t! It’s what he wants!’ but it did not matter. Nothing mattered except to tear and hurt and gouge and rip and kill and eventually the only sound Zaspar could hear was the sound of his own heart thundering in his ears, until even that subsided, leaving a faint, steady whine, and the human was dead. Zaspar fell backwards against the wall, blood running down his cloak, the sharp implement clattering from his hand.

From this point, his memories jumped and flashed around him almost too fast to comprehend: his friends lifting him up from the floor, telling him it was all right, that the Brotherhood would have mercy; the human’s body being unclamped from the chair and taken away; Brother Ustyn’s reprimand, stern but not as stern as he had expected; then the visit in the night, the ‘invitation’ to witness a summoning, the slow realisation as they dragged him across the cemetery that he was to be the sacrifice.

They took him to the peak of Mistle Hill, where a high stone structure stood; it was little more than a circular roof held up by pillars, but through the fog of night it loomed like a towering monster come to feast on the dead. He was placed within a pattern of overlapping runes carved into the floor. Several Brothers of Lightning surrounded him. Half a dozen more formed a larger outer circle, and it was this group that began the singing. Not so much music as noise echoed from the roof; each Brother and Sister wailed at a slightly different pitch, creating a cacophony that vibrated the night air like a piano string. At last, Brother Ustyn strode before Zaspar, regarding him coldly.

‘I had hopes for you, Brother Zaspar,’ he said. ‘Not high hopes, but hopes nonetheless. I told you you would have to be patient if you were to be in the Brotherhood, but it was not to be. Still, we honour you with one last opportunity to help the vuman cause. Sister Pria.’

An old Sister of Lightning came to his side holding a dagger. Ustyn took it wordlessly and examined its subtle curve. The strange singing seemed to be rising in pitch. Zaspar knew he had little time left.

‘Please,’ he said, ‘I have to ask something, before –’ he swallowed, cutting himself off.

‘Make it quick,’ said Ustyn, polishing the dagger on a fold of his cloak.

‘Will the Brotherhood take back the vuman prisoners from Merry Mourning?’

‘That is part of our plan.’

‘And my death will help somehow? Please, if I know my blood will buy my friend Mysana’s freedom, I might die happy. Tell me, what is it you are summoning?’

‘A bloodbird.’

‘A bloodbird.’ He had heard of bloodbirds – the Brotherhood had summoned them before. ‘And who is its message for?’

‘If you must know, it is for three humans in Mlarwell.’

Zaspar gritted his teeth. ‘What humans?’

‘You won’t have heard of them. Some children who may be useful, that’s all.’

His blood boiled. ‘This is intolerable,’ he spat. ‘What does the Brotherhood want with human children? How can they be important to the cause?’

Ustyn considered this, and shrugged. ‘They’re not. Not necessarily.’ He gripped the dagger and aimed it towards Zaspar’s heart. ‘But they’re more important than you.’

As Zaspar’s memories caught up to his present, the world inside his mind exploded and, in the cemetery on Mistle Hill, in the city of Eldermoon in the country of Vumarule, on a still Summer’s night in the 77th year of the Age of Enlightenment, Zaspar Rendel died. Ustyn twisted the dagger in his chest, keeping the corpse upright. He nodded to old Sister Pria, who came forward, her hands cupped in front of her.

‘Come forth, bloodbird of the Under,’ she said.

A small bird hopped from Zaspar’s chest into her hands. Ustyn withdrew the dagger and let the lifeless body fall. The bird chirped as the blood that soaked its feathers dripped onto the old woman’s hands and to the stone floor below. Sister Pria lifted it before her face, holding its gaze as another Brother tied the wooden message tube to its leg.

‘Fly now, and let nothing in this world stop you,’ she said, and thrust it skyward. Without hesitation it fluttered from her hands, ascended into the sky and disappeared from sight.

The ritual over, the cloaked figures filed out of the structure and away across the cemetery. They would leave Zaspar’s body there. Dawn was nearly upon Eldermoon, so it would not be long before the gravediggers came by to take care of it. That was one advantage of performing such rituals in the middle of a cemetery: it made cleaning up a great deal easier.

Grave beetles were already congregating around Zaspar’s corpse, but they scattered at the approach of the one person who had not yet left. A small foot kicked Zaspar gently, turning him onto his back so he stared up at the stone roof high above, and beyond it, the first golden threads of dawn.

The thirteen-year-old girl with the green eyes looked at his blank face for a moment in silence. Then she murmured, ‘No more stories there,’ turned, and began walking home.

Part One

Departure From Tarot

 

Vumas at the West Gate

~ as told by Ellstone Raining ~

‘Return a book late to the People’s Library in Tarot and you will lose your shoes.’

That is a saying I just made up. I’m told it isn’t a very good saying, but it is accurate, and that is the important thing. They really do take your shoes if you return a book late, and keep them for as long as you kept the book past the date stamped in red ink inside its cover.

I saw it happen once, when I was little and sitting at one of the tiny reading tables crammed in amongst the groaning bookshelves. A man who clearly thought he was above the law strode up to the desk and presented Miss McKilver with a book that was two weeks overdue. He quickly learned that in Tarot no man is above being made to remove his shoes at dagger-point by an elderly librarian.

That was when I decided that my cosy little library, though tucked away in the rooftops, was not as safe a place as I had thought. My place of refuge became the books themselves.

Over nearly six years I checked out every book in the following sections: history, geography, biography, politics, culture, language, science, philosophy and nature. If you ask Miss McKilver, she’ll tell you all about the young boy with the perpetual frown and the scruffy hair: how he was so good and polite and strange; how he came in every week from when he was first brought to the library at the age of six and checked out The Eager Schoolboy’s Introduction to Kyland History, to when at age twelve he abruptly disappeared, taking with him three rather expensive books. She will then ask you if you know where I am. If this ever does happen, please say you do not.

Of course, it is possible that Miss McKilver will discover this book, and it will lead her, and her dagger, straight to me. However, I would like to make it clear right now that my disappearance, and that of the books, was in no way my fault. It was my sister’s fault. Her name is Tay. It was also Tay’s idea for us to write this book, so if anyone deserves to have her shoes confiscated for a very long time, it is her, not me.

I don’t know what to write now, to be honest. Tay gave me a mountain of paper and an inkwell and a pen and told me to begin at the beginning, but because my mind works in quite a different way from hers, I am not sure where or when the beginning happened.

Let me try the first day of Summer, in the 77th year of the Age of Enlightenment. It was a rainy day in Tarot, which is a longer way of saying it was a day in Tarot. I was checking out three books: A Political History of Cinderhold, A Series of Maps Documenting the Routes to be Taken by Ships in Kyland in the Year 77 AE, and Polly Peril Runs Away to Join the Circus. Polly Peril was for Tay; A Series of Maps was for a plan I was developing which will be revealed shortly; and A Political History of Cinderhold was actually a new edition of a book I had read before, but I was having to resort to desperate measures as I was running out of history to read. I was going to have to make do until more of it happened, which fortunately it was about to.

The door jingled as I stepped out of the library. Rain fell silently over the misty skyline of grey tenements and factory chimneys, but my mind was occupied with its plan, my coat still heavy with water from my journey there, and my feet snug and dry within unconfiscated shoes, so the cold did not bother me too much. The narrow flight of steps led me down to a dirty alley off Westroad Crescent, which I left as quickly as possible in favour of following the western town wall. In Tarot it is best to stay where the guards can see you.

To my left, beyond a high wooden fence, I could hear the rumbles and clanks of the station yard, where the new railroad to Redwater was being constructed one iron piece at a time. Smoke billowed up over the fence, colouring the Tarot smog a shade blacker than usual. Nearby, an enterprising soul had opened the ‘Greater Mlarwell Railroad Potato Stand’, and was selling burnt potatoes with various fillings to station workers and passers-by. On my right, one of the town gates looked out on the surrounding lowlands. A man in the blue and black uniform of the Mlarwell guards sat on the wall above the gate, resting his boots on the battlements with a rifle propped in his lap, looking suspiciously asleep. The portcullis was up, and two more guards stood on either side idly swinging swords, talking to a party of hunters returning from the wilds.

As I passed the gate, I saw something ahead that made me clutch my books protectively to my chest: a group of half a dozen children splashing down the street. These were, I judged, normal children. The type of children who seemed to spend their days patrolling the streets, looking for fights and alcohol and other things they weren’t supposed to have. The type of children who would have gone to Beggar’s Square to torment the helpless criminals in the pillories, before such unenlightened forms of punishment were banned.

They laughed as I approached. I resolved to ignore them and focus all my attention on the spine of A Political History of Cinderhold. This plan failed when I became so troubled by a wrinkle I noticed in the leather where the gold C met the gold i that I momentarily forgot how to walk. I crashed to the ground, landing hard on the wet cobbles, my arms flailing as the books spilled from them. Polly Peril fell open and landed paper-side down in the shallows of the street.

With haste I pulled the books back into my arms and stood up, but I could see I was too late to save Polly Peril, whose centre pages clung together as though traumatised by the experience. I surveyed the damage unhappily, realising I did not know the penalty for destroying library books. Perhaps my shoes would be torn apart or burned. Tay would not be pleased if that happened. Nor would I, but that was a secondary concern.

The children, having realised I had the potential to keep them amused for a while, crowded around me, laughing and blocking my escape. I was turning around, searching for a gap in their ranks while trying to conceal the title of Polly Peril, when a tall boy who seemed to be the leader of the group stepped forward.

‘Where are you going with those books?’ he demanded.

‘Home,’ I said.

‘Where did you get them from?’

‘I borrowed them.’

‘Where did you borrow them from?’

I hesitated. Not many people knew about the People’s Library, and I liked it that way.

‘You stole them,’ the boy decided, shaking his head in disgust. I noticed he had a hard, flat, featureless face, as though someone had drawn eyes, a nose and a mouth onto the blade of a shovel.

‘I borrowed them,’ I said again. ‘I don’t steal things.’

‘I bet he does,’ said one of the girls, scanning me with bored blue eyes. ‘He looks poor. Look at his shoes.’

I looked at my shoes. They were made of rough grey leather and barely kept out the rainwater. My pride in them not being confiscated melted away.

‘And his clothes,’ continued the girl, who I decided looked a bit like a seagull. ‘They’re so tatty. It looks like he bought them at Pinkmeadow market.’

‘He probably did,’ said the shovel boy. ‘That’s where all the criminals go.’

‘My sister bought me them,’ I said. My shirt, trousers and coat had been secondhand; they were faded shades of brown and blue, permanently creased, and rather too big for me, but I didn’t tend to notice these flaws until other children were laughing at them.

‘Your sister?’ piped up the youngest girl, who was about eight and had a squashy face like a turnip. ‘Why not your parents? Are you an orphan or something?’

‘No, I just don’t have parents.’

‘Did they abandon you?’ the turnip girl persisted. ‘Did they give you to the drowners? Did they leave you under a bridge in a cardboard box?’

‘No parents,’ grinned the shovel boy, as though he had been handed a wonderful gift. ‘That must be why you’ve turned to crime.’

I tried to stand up straight. In my desperation I found myself trying to think what Tay would say to them. ‘Actually we get on quite well without parents. We can look after ourselves. We don’t need anyone else. My sister says the only reason she would ever want to meet our parents is to give her anger more of a shape.’

‘Your sister sounds weird,’ said the turnip girl. I nodded. At least we could agree on something.

‘So it’s just you and your sister and no money,’ recapitulated the shovel boy. ‘No wonder you like to hide in books. I almost feel bad about taking them from you.’

‘I have a brother too,’ I said, but no one was listening. The boy wrenched the books from my arms and peered at them. I dreaded the inevitable question.

‘What’s Polly Peril Runs Away to Join the Circus?’

I could hear the giggles, and felt my face glowing. ‘It’s for my sister. It’s an adventure story. It’s really stupid. It’s part of a series. My sister likes them. I don’t like them. I like books like that other one, A Political History of Cinderhold.’

‘What’s that one about?’ asked a girl who had not spoken yet. If her face resembled anything it was a pear, but she had soft black hair and she seemed less cruel than the others.

‘It’s sort of a political history that’s about Cinderhold,’ I mumbled.

‘What’s Cinderhold?’ asked the girl.

‘It’s a town in Julium.’

‘What happened there?’

‘Lots of things.’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know,’ I lied, because I was impatient to get home and dry out the books by the fire. ‘That’s why I borrowed that book. Can I have it back now? It has the library stamp in the front, look. That proves I didn’t steal it.’

They knew I had not stolen the books, of course. But the shovel boy had not finished with me yet. ‘We’ll see about that when I hand these over to my father. Oh, I’m sorry. Do you know what a father is? It’s a person who stops you from turning out like … well, like you. Mine’s in the guards, you see, so he knows how to deal with your sort. But he’s a busy man, and sometimes he can’t give criminals the attention they deserve.’ He looked round at the other children, and they traded wicked grins. ‘I think we need to teach this thief a lesson ourselves.’

I heard the crack of knuckles behind me, and remembered the broad-shouldered boy who had been silently scowling through the entire encounter. As he and the shovel boy closed in on me with violence in their eyes, I heard a boom of thunder. This was not in itself unusual in Tarot, but it was accompanied by a shrill scream and the sound of running feet. Several of the children whirled round to face the town gate twenty yards away. I took the opportunity to slip out from their midst, but lingered to see what was going on.

There was the sound of a winch spinning wildly then a clang: the gate’s portcullis had fallen shut. Two guards who had been walking down the street away from the gate bolted back towards it, but found the portcullis blocking their way. One guard drew her sword while the other yelled at something out of sight beyond the town wall. I only caught the word ‘Reinforcements!’ A line of hunters and tradesmen that had been forming at the gate scattered and ran off in what looked like randomly chosen directions.

‘What d’you suppose is going on?’ breathed the turnip girl.

‘Something’s attacking,’ said the shovel boy, with an air of casual disinterest. ‘It happens sometimes. Starving beasts or overconfident bandits come to the town gates to try their luck. The guards will deal with it.’

‘I hope it’s a marnagore,’ said the turnip girl. ‘They’re my favourite.’

‘What are they?’ asked someone, their identity lost in the confusion.

‘They’re like big tigers, but they have two tails and these big curvy teeth that almost drag on the ground when they walk. They hunt at night, and their fur is pitch black, so the only way you know you’re being hunted is when you see their eyes, glowing pure white in the darkness.’

‘You don’t get them in this part of the world,’ I said helpfully.

‘They don’t eat flesh,’ the girl continued. ‘It’s the bone marrow they want. They tear off your limbs and gnaw the bones apart until they can suck out the marrow from inside.’

‘That’s not true,’ I said.

The girl glared at me. ‘What do you know?’

‘Quite a lot,’ I said.

Thunder boomed again. This time we saw a fierce light that glowed and flickered for a moment, illuminating the street by the gate and the frightened faces of the guards standing there. A moment later, several more guards appeared, running, and converged on the gate. A particularly burly one noticed me and the children and advanced on us, sword sheathed and arms spread wide.

‘You kids need to go home,’ he announced, sweat trickling down his nose. ‘It’s not safe to be around here.’

‘Really?’ said the turnip girl excitedly, and ducked under his outstretched arm. He turned to catch her, but this just allowed the rest of the children to run past him too, and join the guards gazing out the gate at the spectacle beyond.

I followed more cautiously. Two guards were attempting to turn the winch that would raise the portcullis, but it appeared to be stuck fast. I craned to see over the heads of the other children and immediately knew why.

Framed in the arch of the west gate, through the metal grid of the portcullis and against the grey glow of the sky, two figures stood. One of these figures, a guard in the same blue and black uniform as the others, was slumped on his knees, gasping as though struggling for breath. The other was bony and tall, and wore a smart brown suit over a violet waistcoat. His lips moved at a rapid pace; his left hand pointed towards the portcullis and his right clutched with vicious claws at the air before the guard. Sunlight glinted off his mad eyes as they darted back and forth; he bared his teeth menacingly under a squint nose. His skin was not the usual rained-on Mlarwell pale – it was similar, but with an unmistakable purple tint.

‘Who’s he?’ the turnip girl breathed.

‘He’s a vuma,’ I murmured.

And a powerful one. He was double-weaving: one spell to stop the portcullis from opening, another to grip the kneeling guard by the neck.

‘By the Arch,’ whispered the burly guard behind me.

‘Remember this image,’ said the vuma, addressing the guards beyond the gate. ‘Remember it when your government tells you that humans and vumas can co-exist, that we are allies. Remember it when your children, all tucked up in bed and frightened, gaze into your eyes and ask you if you can save them from us. And when you are preparing for battle, and you feel the misplaced assurance that despite all our power, you are our equals, remember … what’s your name?’ the vuma asked softly, leaning towards the guard kneeling before him.

‘Wick,’ the guard choked.

‘Wick? I had hoped for a more impressive name to end on. Pity.’ The vuma straightened, dropped his hands to his sides and raised his voice. ‘Remember Wick.’

Thunder boomed as the world turned white. Wick had leapt to his feet and drawn his sword, but now the vuma had both hands before him, concentrating all his power into one spell. The air around him rippled as miracas rushed in, and a stream of ice-white lightning crashed from the vuma’s hands into the guard’s sword. Wick twitched as though trying to shake a thousand gnawing beetles from his flesh, but seemed unable to drop the weapon.

Then the spell broke and he fell, crumpling to the ground like something that had never been alive to begin with.

The vuma lowered his arms. One of the guards started screaming; two more rushed again to raise the portcullis. Above, the guard on the wall must have decided to risk his own life by firing at the vuma, for there was the click and boom of a rifle, but the vuma spread his fingers and vanished, and the bullet buried itself in the wet ground where he had stood.

A teleportation spell, I thought through the haze in my brain. He could be anywhere.

Shortly, the gate was open and the guards stood on the other side, crowded around their fallen colleague, searching in vain for signs of life. The children, meanwhile, had forgotten about me; most of them stared open-mouthed out the gate, while the seagull girl cried onto the shovel boy’s shoulder.

‘It’s all right,’ he said, his eyes wide with fear. ‘I’m here.’

‘That was great!’ exclaimed the turnip girl, bouncing around and flapping her hands as if trying to take off. ‘Did you see how the guard’s uniform started smoking when the lightning went into his sword?’

‘Look,’ whispered the pear girl, pointing.

I followed her finger out the gate to something I had not noticed: the body of a vuman woman, sprawled awkwardly in the mud. She had red hair coming loose from a bun and wore the dress of a normal, moderately wealthy Tarot woman, but she was bleeding purple blood into the grass. I heard two guards talking about her, and kept my ear trained on them.

‘She’s definitely dead?’

‘You know, you can never be sure. They can do spells to make them look like they are, but then some poor bloke in the mortuary gets the fright of his life – which doesn’t last much longer, needless to say. Best keep this one under supervision a while.’

From the corner of my eye I saw one of the guards glance in my direction. ‘What should we say to the children?’

‘I don’t know. Give them the line from the Ninety about the vumas being our friends and allies. If there is going to be a war, we don’t want them sparking it by spreading rumours.’

I felt a sudden shudder, and forced myself to move. I found my library books lying in a puddle in the gutter; the shovel boy must have dropped them during the vuma’s attack. Their pages would be permanently stuck together if I did not dry them soon, so I gathered them in my arms and set off towards home.

I did not feel scared, but my inability to walk in a straight line suggested that maybe I was. Behind me, a friendly guard was explaining to the children that everything was okay, while the turnip girl gave her an account of exactly what they had seen, complete with gestures and sounds. The cobbles under my feet seemed to spin. It was happening then. The vumas were attacking. To anyone who understood the implications, this was a terrifying prospect. And I understood as well as anyone.

If the human world goes to war with the vuman world, I thought, it’s entirely possible we will lose. Then the human race will fall; all the virtues we stand for will be lost forever, and the only choice left to us will be whether to become slaves or corpses.

It was enough to put me in quite a bad mood for the rest of the day.

Tarot Bank

~ as told by Tay Raining ~

On my right hand, between the thumb and the main finger, I have a birthmark in the shape of a question mark.

Okay, you have to squint a bit. And it doesn’t have the dot underneath, so it could be a hook or a wonky number 7, but it means something. I’ve always known it means something. It has to.

I decided this at about the same time I decided I hated Tarot. That was when I was very young. Still, I don’t know why I put hate in the past tense. I hate Tarot to this day. I hate it more than I can tell you.

But let me try.

I hate the way it’s not safe to walk down certain streets, even at midday. I hate the constant, spirit-sapping rain, the sky that’s just one shade of grey as far as the eye can see. I hate the vast featureless moors that surround the town, with their patches of thick mud waiting to swallow the unwary. I hate the labyrinths of cramped rooms where people are expected to live. I hate the way people in suits look at beggars almost suspiciously, as though the beggars are the ones secretly running the town and their lack of shoes is just a cunning disguise. And I hate the shadowy figures in the upper windows, looking down on everything, pushing papers and destroying lives.

It took me a while to work out what all this adds up to, because when you’re in the middle of something you can’t see the whole picture. But as my hunt for a decent job took me to all the squalid, miserable corners of Tarot, it began to dawn on me: Tarot is not really a town. It’s a prison. The sky is a stone ceiling dripping cold water. The poor are the prisoners, thrown in there to work until we die. The wealthy – landlords and bankers and factory owners – are our wardens. They’re not there to look after us – their only job is to make sure we never get out. But in some sense even they are prisoners – why else would they be here? The people who really run this place are somewhere very much further away.

Some people are born into the prison and never even see the outside world. I had seen it, of course, but long ago, before I was a year old, so no memories of it remained. Still, I dreamed about it sometimes: how the sun might feel undimmed by smog, how all the colours would shed their layers of grey and shine like jewels, the feeling of soft green land under my feet stretching out to form a vista that swept off into infinity. Then I would wake up in the too-dark-to-see, stretch both my arms out past my sleeping brothers, and touch the two opposite walls of our room with my fingertips. That’s how I knew I was home. In my cell, where I belonged.

I don’t know why all this bothers me more than it seems to bother Ellstone and Miller. For some reason they’ve never quite hated Tarot as much as I do. Ellstone seems happy so long as he has a book on rocks, or insects, or the history of some distant corner of the Sphere, to hide in. And Miller … well, he just doesn’t notice much.

Didn’t notice much, I mean. I keep forgetting things are different now.

*

It began, as so many great stories do, with throwing a romance novel at the head of an old man. The book bounced off — thud! — spun through the air and knocked a pretty blue vase from the top of a bookcase — crash!

‘I’ll pay you double,’ the man protested, rising from his armchair.

‘You can’t afford double, matey,’ I said, backing away. As a comeback it didn’t make a lot of sense, but the old man wasn’t listening anyway.

‘What’s the problem?’ he asked, crossing the exquisitely furnished study towards me. ‘You agreed to read me this book. I thought an open-minded girl like you would be willing to do anything for a bit of extra pay.’

‘I didn’t know the book was about that,’ I said. ‘I’d never heard of Secret Sins of a Serving Girl before today.’

‘I have a whole library of books like it,’ said the man, trying to nuzzle my hair. ‘Plays, too. Are you sure you won’t stay and act some of them out with me?’

‘I’m fairly sure I’d rather wear hedgehog-skin drawers,’ I said, and left the room. I poked my head back in to add, ‘Inside out,’ and then I was out of there.

The plump maid at the bottom of the stairs gave me a sympathetic look as I passed; I wondered how much extra the man paid her.

Outside, it was raining. Well, of course it was.

So my job reading to the old man had lasted a grand total of forty-five minutes – a new record low! I had been finding it harder and harder to keep jobs since leaving my longest term of employment as a barmaid at the Hog and Kitten. Sometimes I got sacked, sometimes I quit, sometimes I realised I was about to be sacked and quit before it could happen as a matter of personal pride. Either I was becoming more impatient or Tarot more despicable. Perhaps both. I glared at the people I passed. The rich exploited the poor and the poor just went along with it — but it was hard to blame them. Fear and hunger wrenched principles from your hands in Tarot. I wasn’t sure how I had clung to mine for so long, or how much longer I could keep hold of them. My stomach grumbled. For the past year we had barely scraped by on Miller’s meagre wage and what remained of –

I stopped dead in the middle of the road. Today was the 1st of Summer. How had I forgotten what that meant? I spun around to get my bearings, having been wandering aimlessly for several minutes, lost in my anger. The bank was only two blocks away! I glanced up at the clock tower over Beggar’s Square – the time was one minute before six o’clock. One minute before the bank closed.

At that moment I did something I often do: I asked myself what the hero in a story would do in this situation. The answer came back loud and clear: run.

I set off pelting down the street, dodging ladies in colourless dresses and gentlemen in business suits. Ahead, a coach rumbled towards me — I briefly considered running between the horses and trying to slide under it, but the boring part of my brain steered me to the side of the road instead. I leapt over a man passed out with a bottle in his hand, and dodged around a stall selling pies stuffed with slimy things. Past the coach, I ran across the street. My foot spludged into a fresh pile of horse manure. I swore and hopped the next few steps, trying to shake the worst of it off. My plan had been to turn left at the next street and loop round to the bank, but my eye fell upon an alley which looked as if it would lead me straight there. Plunging into the gloom I shoved a mugger aside impatiently and vaulted over a fence. I landed in a pile of rubbish from an overflowing dustbin, but scrambled to my feet and ran on. I smelled so awful that I almost made myself sick, but I was nearly there!

Emerging from the alley I saw the arches of the bank’s front entrance across the street. I took the steps three at a time and slammed all my weight against the door, which opened slowly as though reluctant to let such a smelly disgrace of a girl into the dignified establishment it was charged to protect. Inside, a stout man approached the door with a key. ‘Sorry love, we’re clo—’

‘No you’re not,’ I gasped cheerfully. ‘I got in.’

The Beggar’s Square clock faintly bonged the hour as I trailed horse manure across the carpet to the desks. The room was grand and tall, its ceiling an unnecessary distance above me. Electric lamps ornamented the walls all the way up, illuminating nothing but space. In Tarot, of course, space was expensive, so this was a deliberate show of wealth. Our room could have fit inside this room fifty times.

Only two clerks were still on duty. One of them, a posh man with a long nose, stared at me with lips pursed and eyes half closed, unwilling to take in the full disgusting sight. I recognised the other – a short fellow with tousled hair and sagging cheeks – so I headed for his desk.

‘Hello Mr Stafford!’

‘Tay Raining, isn’t it?’ said Mr Stafford, rising and wrinkling his nose. ‘Will you be terribly offended if I don’t shake your hand?’

‘Terribly offended. But I’ll get over it when you give me my money.’

He did not smile at this. I remembered him as an amiable man, but today his manner seemed almost grave. ‘You’d better come with me.’

He led me out of the tall room, into a series of finely carpeted corridors. I tried to break the uncomfortable silence as we hurried up a flight of stairs also lit by electric lamps.

‘I remember the first time I saw these, when I was little. It was so exciting I just kept pressing my hand against them, until my palm was red from the heat. Do you remember?’

I knew he remembered. I only remembered because he told me this story every year when I saw him, but today he just glanced back distractedly and said, ‘Yes, I remember. In here, please.’

We entered his office. It was cosy and warm. A well-tended fire crackled in the hearth, making the cold smog outside the window seem worlds away. We sat down in comfortable chairs on either side of an unnaturally shiny desk – I could smell the polish. Mr Stafford tucked a stray piece of paper under a glittering paperweight, then retrieved an envelope from a drawer.

‘I was expecting you,’ he said. ‘This letter arrived from the bank of Merry Mourning last week. It informs us of a decision on the part of your parents.’

‘Our parents? No, that can’t be right. They never have any contact with us.’

‘The letter is not from them. As I said, it is from the bank of Merry Mourning, sent on their behalf. Am I right in recalling that your parents pay a certain sum of money into your bank account on the first day of Summer every year?’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

‘And that is how you and your brothers sustain yourselves?’

‘No, we have jobs too. Well, Miller does, and I do on a good day. Our parents’ money on its own isn’t even enough to cover our room. And the room isn’t exactly … this place.’

‘Still, a generous arrangement. Keep that in mind when you read this.’ He held out the letter. I took it and unfolded it from its envelope.

‘It is the decision of the account holders,’ I read aloud, ‘that payments should no longer be made for the care of the Raining children. As of the date of this letter, no more money shall be sent and any requests to the contrary will be ignored. All records of the payments, including this letter, are to be destroyed. No further contact is to be made between the Rainings and their former benefactors. Sincerely, blah blah …’ I squinted at the letter in disbelief, finding one word stuck in my throat more than the others. ‘Benefactors?’

‘It means people who help others.’

‘I know what it means,’ I said, beginning to crumple the letter before remembering that to do so would be to obey one of its instructions. ‘But it doesn’t seem an appropriate word for our parents, Mr Stafford. Not at all.’

‘And why is that?’

Anger filled my empty stomach. ‘We were just babies, Mr Stafford. We were just babies when they sent us here, to the Home for Hopeless Children by the docks. One by one we were born, and each time they decided no, this one’s not good enough, take it away, put it somewhere we can forget about it. First Miller, then me, then Ellstone, all sent separately on cargo boats to Tarot. That’s what we were to them. Just things. They could have sent us somewhere else, anywhere else. They’re high up in the army, they could afford it. But no. Why should they have to provide for a few brats that popped out by mistake? No, it was Tarot for us – here or the bottom of a river, and for some cruel reason they chose Tarot.’

‘You seem to undervalue their generosity, Miss Raining,’ said Mr Stafford. ‘If, as you say, they are in the Kyland army –’

‘Don’t pretend you don’t know,’ I snapped. ‘I worked it out years ago.’

‘If they are in the army, your situation is hardly unique. Many soldiers give up their children to continue their service. You are lucky they have continued to provide for you until now.’

‘Lucky.’ I laughed bitterly, looking around at his office, at the brass fixtures and velvet curtains that had entranced me as a child. ‘And you would know. Tell me, why have they cancelled their payments? Did they want to experience the thrill of abandoning us all over again?’

‘The letter does not specify a reason, though I can hazard a guess if you wish.’

‘Go on.’

‘How old are you now?’

‘Fifteen.’

‘And your brothers?’

‘Miller’s sixteen, Ellstone turned twelve a few weeks ago.’

‘That’s it then.’ Mr Stafford leaned back in his chair. ‘They believe you to be old enough to manage your own finances.’

‘Manage our own finances?’ I screeched. I try not to screech if I can help it, but sometimes they just come out. I got my voice under control and said, ‘I know how to manage finances, Mr Stafford. You stick them in a sock under the bed, and take them out when you need to buy something with them. The thing is, we don’t have any finances to manage. That’s the problem.’

‘You’re exaggerating,’ said Mr Stafford, calmly. ‘You yourself are employed, of course?’

‘I was earlier today,’ I said, ‘for a few minutes. But that’s not the point.’

‘And your elder brother?’

‘Yes, he works at an enchant—’ I stopped, realising what I had nearly said.

‘An enchant?’

‘An inch antique shop. They sell antiques that are an inch long.’

‘Really? How peculiar.’

‘It’s a new thing.’

‘Apparently. Well, with your older brother selling inch-long antiques, and with your younger brother just turned twelve –’

‘That doesn’t mean much. He isn’t exactly like other twelve-year-olds.’

‘Regardless, he is permitted to apply for all sorts of jobs now. Is he good with numbers? If he apprenticed with an accountancy firm, who knows? He could be in my position some day.’

‘Wouldn’t it be more humane to just strangle him in his sleep?’

Mr Stafford smiled humourlessly. ‘No need for that, Miss Raining. But of course, apprenticeships are hard to come by without the right contacts. He could be a factory worker. That doesn’t pay well but it can lead to greater things. Mining is an option. The Berrybeck mine three miles out of town has an excellent safety record. Only one collapse in the last five years.’

‘It’s not an option,’ I said.

‘Why not? It’s your brother’s decision. In the eyes of the law he is a man.’

‘Then the law needs new spectacles. He’s not ready.’

‘How do you know if you don’t let him try?’

‘I know. Last year he was made an apprentice at a funeral parlour, just because he walked past it one day with the right sort of face. I didn’t want him to do it, but we needed the money. Anyway, after two days of it he stopped talking. Three days and he stopped eating. After four days I marched down there and shouted in his employer’s face until they let him go. He came out shaking and wouldn’t speak for another two days. That’s what Tarot does to him. I don’t want to think about how he would get if he went down a mine. He’s not ready.’

‘He’s going to have to grow up one day, Miss Raining,’ said Mr Stafford.

‘People don’t just grow up,’ I spat back. ‘Sometimes they need help to grow up, and no one’s ever given us any help. Don’t you dare try to lecture us now.’

‘Miss Raining, if you don’t appreciate the advice I am giving you – free of charge, I might add – and since you have no money to withdraw from your account, perhaps you should leave.’

‘Perhaps I should,’ I said, slamming the letter onto his desk as I stood up. ‘I’m sick of being patronised by people like you. You think you’re better than us just because you’re richer. But in Tarot all that means is you have no principles. You pretend to be doing good for the world, but all you do is push paper around and watch as all the good people starve. Your advice means nothing to me. So you can shove it.’

Mr Stafford did not rise, but studied me coldly from his chair. ‘I think it best that you do not return here, Miss Raining,’ he said at last. ‘With no more payments due, there is no need for you to have an account with us. So if you have any more questions for me, it may behoove you to ask them now.’

‘I don’t need hooves and I don’t need answers from you,’ I snapped, and opened the door. Then I glanced back at the desk, and hesitated. Just for a moment, my curiosity overcame my anger. ‘Why did they ask you to destroy the letter?’

Remembering, Mr Stafford picked up the letter and its envelope, turned to the fireplace over his shoulder and tossed both items into the flames. ‘Because it links them to you. They do not wish to be associated with you or your brothers, Miss Raining. Do not take offence at that. It does not mean they do not care for you. If, as you speculate, they are influential within the military, children could be considered a weakness, to be targeted by enemies of the Ninety.’ The letter was a curled fist of black now. ‘It is as much for your benefit as for theirs.’

The slam of his office door rang in my ears as I left the bank and stomped down the steps onto the street. The Tarot rain had an instant calming effect, the droplets of water clinging to my hair and extinguishing the burning in my skin.

But perhaps calming is not the word. Anger still burned on inside me, but the need to express it loudly to anyone who happened to be in my way fizzled out. It left me feeling hollow, helpless and stupid.

Why had I told Mr Stafford to shove it? The ones I should be angry with were our parents. If what I had heard about them being highly successful in the Kyland military was true, they could easily afford the pittance they paid us. Cancelling it had probably been a decision made in a moment and forgotten the next, and yet it was us, it was the Rainings, who would have to live with the consequences. It was the Rainings who would have to suffer through the long nights of hunger and cold ahead. And somewhere in the great marble halls of Merry Mourning, two anonymous faces would be toasting ‘to the Rainings’ independence’ with glasses of chilled mist spirits, before lustfully turning their attentions on each other, perhaps to spawn a few more unwanted children.

Not for the first time that day, I felt sick.

Something Big

~ as told by Miller Raining ~

From the office on the upper floor of Thistler’s Secondhand Goods, I scanned the street. A girl in a tight dress shivered on the corner – a regular denizen of the street, but one who paid no regard to me since it became clear that I wasn’t interested in her services. An old woman with more layers of clothing than teeth sat at a table outside the dingy tearoom – a fortune teller waiting for tourists to cross her palm with silver so she could read their destinies in the dregs at the bottom of their teacups. Two men lurked in an alley nearby, looking every bit like outlaws but not a bit like my mysterious follower. The tall man had vanished as inexplicably as he’d appeared.

For some weeks, you see, a tall man in a brown suit had been following me everywhere I went. When I left our room in the morning he was nowhere to be seen, but by the time I reached the end of our street, there he would be in the corner of my eye, a few dozen yards behind, as though he had been hiding somewhere close by, waiting for me to emerge. When I got to work he waited at the tearoom across the road, sometimes inside by the window, sometimes at one of the tables out on the street, always with a drink ordered in the morning and barely touched when I left work in the evening. Then he would follow me home. If ever I deviated from my normal routine – popped out to buy bread, visited a warehouse for work – he appeared again, following me silently, tracking my every movement.

But not today. Today, on the first day of Summer, he was gone. I sat down and drummed my pen on the oak desk before me. Everything was back to normal – or was it?

I couldn’t decide whether the man’s disappearance made me feel less anxious or more. At least while he was following me there was the option of confronting him and demanding that he explain himself, but now that chance was gone. What could he have wanted from me? Money? Information? Whatever he wanted, he had either given up or – and this was the thought that scared me the most – got it.

No use thinking about him any more. I pulled a box towards me and rummaged to find a distraction. Enchanted items could distract me from almost anything: anxiety, hunger and – probably too often – people.

My fingers closed on an object – cold, hard, round but slightly irregular – buried at the bottom of the box. Almost certain I had identified it already, I pulled it out and gazed at it. It was a rock of dreary grey, but inlaid in its side was a brilliant green gemstone that shone with power. I bounced the object cautiously in my palm. From the way it made no ripples in the air, I knew that it was a miracas chamber item, or a ‘hollow’ to those in the trade. The gemstone embedded in it had been hollowed out and filled with compressed miracas, granting the rock certain special properties as conferred by the enchanter. Recently I had seen many rocks exactly like this, almost certainly from a single source but now on their own individual adventures across Kyland, moving from dealer to dealer to someone’s head to dealer. Possibly this item had been used at least once already, but importantly it showed no signs of this. The green gemstone still shone enough that I could see my face in it, and from the swirls inside I could tell that plenty of miracas still remained.

To be certain I had identified the item correctly, I stood up and faced the side of the office we used for testing enchantments. The whole office was a mess, but the testing area was beyond that: it was a graveyard for broken items – items whose enchantments hadn’t worked and items whose enchantments had worked too well. Bits of shattered weaponry and broken unbreakables lay in heaps on the floor. The head of a formerly walking talking doll of the sort that rich people buy for their children glared at me malevolently from a corner.

In the centre of this destruction stood Cris, a mannequin who had been rescued from the dustbins outside Tarot’s most fashionable department store to help us test certain enchantments. I aimed a little off to the side of him, and threw the rock. It came to a halt a few inches out of my hand, and spun in the air, finding its target. As it spun, it made a sound like the slow boil of a kettle, building up into a high scream while pale blue smoke billowed from its surface. The next second, it became a blur which shot across the office, swung round in mid air and slammed into Cris’s faceless head, sending him rocking on his stand.

I waved away the trail of smoke as I went to retrieve the item. I was right: it was a homing stone. A simple item, but sometimes simple is best.

On the tag, I wrote ‘Hollow Homer, speed: fast’. Then I dropped it into my out-tray.

Identifying enchanted items – or ‘chants’, as they are commonly called by people familiar with them – is an interesting job, but it requires quite a bit of knowledge about science and, in particular, miracas. There used to be many more identifiers working in Thistler’s shop – some of them even did a bit of enchanting themselves — and they taught me all I know. The others moved away to far corners of the continent after chants were banned in 74 AE. Thistler told me he kept me on because I had the most natural talent of the bunch, but as Tay kindly pointed out it was more likely because my youth and lack of experience meant I was willing to accept the sort of pay cut that would have prompted all the others to leave in outrage.

The door swung open, and in came Thistler himself, now officially a vendor of quality secondhand goods, in reality continuing to deal in enchanted items as he always had. He staggered under the weight of another large box, which he dropped on my desk before dropping himself into an armchair.

‘Mornin’ Miller. That’s another box for you, mostly blooded I think. Get ’em both tagged and sorted by the end of the day if you can.’

‘Yes, sir.’

I sifted through the contents of the new box and pulled out a blue umbrella. The air around it shimmered as I scrutinised it excitedly.

‘I haven’t seen one of these in ages. Not much market for them in Tarot, I suppose.’

I opened the umbrella and held it at arm’s length. Raindrops began to fall from inside, lightly at first but getting steadily heavier.

‘Not too hot, not too cold,’ I said, testing the water. ‘A good enchanting job. Very refreshing for those hot Summer days. Now we just need to send it somewhere where they have those.’

‘Yes, good,’ murmured Thistler, not looking. ‘Put it away before that rug gets ruined.’

I closed the umbrella, set it down on my desk and smiled. ‘Come on, sir. The rug’s survived worse than that. Remember those fire-shooting cigars? One of these things would have been handy then.’

My employer did not reply, just stared out into the midday twilight with brooding eyes. He had these moods sometimes, so I left him to it.

I wrote the tag for the umbrella: ‘Blooded Rainbrella, good quality’. Chants that do not have miracas chambers are ‘blooded’: infused with small amounts of vuman blood, which draws in miracas from the surrounding air to activate the item’s enchantment. Blooded items had been gaining popularity since their invention, as they were generally cheaper to make and more reliable, and best of all they never ran out of miracas, so they lasted longer.

Thistler was pouring himself a drink now. I glanced at the clock. It was barely noon – early to be drinking, even for him. I became a little concerned.

‘Sir? Anything wrong?’

Thistler sighed. ‘Blooded items is where eighty percent of my profits come from. What would you say if I told you that by the end of this year, all of ’em could be worthless?’

‘I’d say you were off your rocker, sir. Blooded items are better than hollows in every way. Remember? We’ve been saying so for years. Why in the world should people stop buying them?’

He looked me straight in the eye, something he didn’t do too often. ‘Trust me on this one, Miller. Sure, it would have to be somethin’ big, but I got my sources in Merry Mourning, and somethin’ big might just be about to happen.’

I began to feel vaguely uneasy, as I always did when Thistler talked in riddles.

‘We’re not going to be raided, are we sir?’

‘No no, nothin’ like that. At least, I ain’t had any tip-offs lately. I wish it were that simple.’ He took a swig from his drink and wiped his mouth. After a moment he said, ‘On the plus side, I’m expecting hollows to increase dramatically in value before the year is out. But it’s an unpredictable business. Whether or not we’ll break even, I can’t rightly say.’

I tapped the new crate of blooded items thoughtfully. ‘We’d better get these tagged and sold quickly then.’

Thistler nodded. ‘You got good business sense, boy. I know you’ll go far in this trade some day. If it survives, of course,’ he added.

‘We could always start selling the secondhand trinkets downstairs, sir.’

Thistler laughed. ‘You serious? I found most of that junk diggin’ in dustbins, same way I met our friend Cris over there. Besides, when was the last time someone came in here lookin’ for secondhand stuff? Nah, the whole of Tarot knows what we’re about, at least unofficially. They just don’t bother us because what we’re doin’ is good for the economy, and they know it.’

Thistler paused to spit on his sleeve and rub some grime from the window pane. Then he said, ‘You realise this means … I might have to let you go before the end of the year, Miller?’

‘Oh.’ I had not realised, and the idea hit me like a Blooded Homer, speed: fast. Such a thing had never occurred to me before. I had difficulty conceiving of a life without this job. ‘Is it really that bad?’

‘Could be.’

‘Oh well.’

‘It’s not about making a profit, you understand. It’s because if these rumours are true, about … about what’s going to happen, what my sources tell me … you see, if that’s all true, the whole market’s gonna change. Snails know we’re barely surviving as –’

A noise interrupted him. The typewriter on the table against the wall had rumbled into motion: it clattered and pinged as someone far away typed out a message. I began to get up but Thistler waved me back to work and heaved himself to his feet. He stumped over to the typewriter and watched the message as it rolled out.

In the meantime, I analysed a few more items. Some of the usual favourites: daggers, helmets, amulets with various properties. A small clock with an extra hand whose purpose I could not discern, so I put it aside to examine more closely later. A golden candle whose flame consumed miracas rather than air, so it would continue to burn underwater. I was amusing myself by holding the rainbrella over this when Thistler shoved some pages from the typewriter in my face.

‘Read this!’ he hissed.

‘What is it, sir?’ I asked, reaching for the pages only to have them snatched away again.

Thistler scanned the pages as though not sure he had read them right the first time. ‘It’s an order for several hundred chants. Specifically, miracas chamber items. They want all sorts of things, mostly military in purpose. Have a look.’

I took the pages and read. ‘Sleeping bombs, firethrowers, invisibility necklaces, unbreakables … these things could overthrow the government! Are you sure it’s a good idea to sell them all to one client? And the order is from Eldermoon, too. That’s in Vumarule, isn’t it?’

‘The vumas ain’t all bad,’ said Thistler, good cheer returning to his face. ‘After all, if it weren’t for them, chants wouldn’t have been invented and we’d both be out of a job. Besides, it ain’t for us to decide, Miller. We provide a service. We are but the humble shopwatchers, and ours is not to judge the people who honour us with their custom.’

‘Sorry, sir,’ I said sheepishly. ‘You’re right. Ours isn’t to do that. It’s not ours at all, really. Here, this is on their list, isn’t it? A hundred homing stones – well, one’s a start.’

From my out-tray I picked up the one with the reflective green gemstone inside it. I could see my face as I handed the rock to Thistler.

‘Yes, this is good,’ he murmured. ‘This is good. I think … I think I’d better reply to this message right away. I’ll bet they’ve sent it to every supplier in Kyland.’

‘Sir,’ I said as he sat down at the typewriter and began hammering out a reply. ‘Can we get all this stuff? I mean, some of these things are quite rare these days, especially in miracas chamber form. No one uses hollows any more, sir. You know that.’

‘I do,’ he replied, ‘but you just leave that up to me. As I said, the balance is about to be tipped in favour of hollows, so I’ve already ordered a great number of ’em from various sources. No, don’t you worry about that. We’ll have enough.’

I turned back to the latest box and absorbed myself in identifying more items. It took me a moment to realise Thistler had paused in his typing and was staring at the wall, lost in thought.

‘Oh yes, Miller,’ he murmured, though he seemed to be saying it more to himself than to me. ‘Big things are about to happen, all right. I’m sure of it now.’

I didn’t know how to respond so I just kept working.

Kyland Today

~ as told by Tay Raining ~

The only good grown-up at the Home for Hopeless Children died when I was six years old. I have to mention her, though I don’t know if she’ll come up in this story again, so I’ll keep it brief.

Her name was Edie. She had bouncy, curly hair which I always thought of as the colour of cocoa. She was one of the few members of staff who actually bothered to learn all our names. She was also the one who taught me to read, and she was the one who first pointed out my birthmark, and told me it must mean I was special, though she didn’t tell me how she knew, or what could be special about me.

I never really thought about how old she was, but I suppose she probably wasn’t much older than I am now.

It was after she died that I began thinking more about my birthmark and what it might mean. For a long time it meant I would escape over the sea. When we still lived at the Home for Hopeless Children, I used to climb onto the north wall of Tarot and watch the ships rolling in and out, and I knew that some day I’d be on one of them, sailing out of this prison and off into the unknown like a character in an adventure story. The tiny mark on my hand whispered to me that I was special, that I did not belong there, that things had been different once and would be again.

But as I grew up, my birthmark became a source of frustration. It was like an egg which I had been protecting for years but which showed no signs of hatching – not the slightest crack in its pearly surface, nor the tiniest sound or movement from within. It taunted me with its silent persistence. Around the time I was cleaning toilets at the Hog and Kitten, I began to have some doubts about whether I was actually special, and soon I felt ashamed that I had ever elevated myself above those other poor people around me. For a while I did not look at my birthmark because instead of promise it gave me feelings of shame and betrayal.

But I could never bring myself to stop believing that it meant something. And early in the 77th year of the Age of Enlightenment, a woman in a dark dress began following me around.

She was short, had blood red hair tied in a bun, and walked with a grace that was out of the ordinary in Tarot. Thinking about her, I tingled. She reminded me of the hope I had felt as a child, that things would change soon.

This woman and I had an unspoken agreement, which was that I would not confront her about who she was, nor would she explain herself, but sooner or later all would be revealed, and she would turn out to be watching me due to a prophecy that said the girl with the question mark on her hand was the only one who could defeat some ancient demon in a sun-baked land far across the sea.

So, walking home from Tarot Bank on the first day of Summer, my mood did not improve when I noticed the woman was gone. I circled idly for a while, giving her the chance to show herself, but she did not. That was when I realised I had not seen her all day.

How could this happen? We had had an agreement. She couldn’t just abandon me without anything dramatic happening. It was flagrantly unfair. Gloom descended upon me and landed on my shoulder to pull happy thoughts out of my head through my ears. It found slim pickings.

My route home from Tarot Bank led me through Pinkmeadow, one of the more poisonous parts of town. In Pinkmeadow, children compared knives in the street and men eyed me suggestively. Even the cats seemed poised to prey on strangers; a bedraggled tabby followed me along the street at rooftop level, hissing whenever I looked up at it. Guards didn’t tend to come to Pinkmeadow unless its violence began spilling over into other parts of town. The best way to survive was to keep your head down and walk swiftly, or better yet avoid the area altogether. But I was too wrapped up in my thoughts to care about my personal safety, so I returned every menacing glare shot at me.

When I made it to the outskirts of Pinkmeadow I met someone else who seemed wrapped up in thoughts: Miller, fresh from a day of illegal identifying at Thistler’s Secondhand Goods.

‘I’ve got to tell you something,’ I said miserably, ‘but I’d better wait and tell Ellstone at the same time.’

‘Hm,’ said Miller. ‘Not bad news, is it?’

‘Might be.’

‘Oh dear.’ He twiddled his thumbs. ‘It’s just, I’ve got some news of my own. Sort of news.’

‘Yes?’

‘Now, I don’t want you to overreact to this, Tay, it’s probably not as bad as it –’

‘Get on with it, Miller.’

‘Okay. Um … the shop. I wouldn’t say it’s not doing well. But Thistler seems to think it may be in danger. Something about a big thing that’s going to happen soon. Might put us out of business.’

‘Big thing?’ I repeated. ‘Were those his exact words?’

‘I think he must have been talking about one of those market fluctuations. You know, the price of wheat goes up, the price of coal goes down, it’s like a see-saw. I don’t know how it works –’

‘Because it doesn’t work like that at all,’ I insisted. ‘All that stuff’s a load of rubbish. It’s what people like Thistler say to people like you when they think you might be thinking of quitting. Tell you your job’s in danger and you’re lucky to have it at all, then you’ll cling to it with all your strength and take cabbage as wages.’

Miller stared at me, unsure what to say. Then he settled for acting as though I hadn’t said anything. ‘Still, you can’t predict these things,’ he said, brightening. ‘Maybe it’ll turn out all right. We got one of our biggest ever orders today. Just a one-off, but it should tide us over for a while.’

‘Good,’ I said blankly.

On the corner of Cobweb Court lived one of Tarot’s newspaper stands, and as usual its occupant was yelling at everyone who passed by. ‘Getcher Kyland Today here! Stories from all over the world! What are those foreigners up to in Twycadin? Yes folks, it’s a city with walls as high as a stack a giraffes, but we have the exclusive story of one brave girl who’s been inside and lived to report back!’ In typical Tarot fashion, the man had a sword badly concealed behind a stack of papers.

‘I’ve never understood why they need swords,’ said Miller. ‘I mean, who’s going to steal a load of newspapers anyway?’

I stared at him. Presumably he knew, somewhere behind that charmingly clueless smile of his, that newspaper vendors, like vendors of most anything, usually received money in exchange for their wares and would need to store it somewhere on their person, but he hadn’t made the connection.

‘I don’t know,’ I said carefully. ‘Fish friers, I suppose.’

‘That must be it,’ he replied.

I felt something akin to admiration as we walked on. After all, Miller’s simple approach to life had seen him safely to the ripe old age of sixteen, which was certainly more than some achieved in Tarot, and he was the only Raining to have what had seemed, until today, a steady job. Perhaps there was some value in not getting too irked by the world.

‘Also in this edition, find out the truth about what’s going on in Vumarule, straight from the mouth of one of the Ninety! All this for only ten coppers!’

As we passed the stand, a girl of no more than ten, almost hidden beneath a huge coat, reached out, swiped a newspaper from the stand and ran off with it under her arm, splashing through the puddles towards a crowd of others. The vendor burst out of his stand, enraged.

‘Oi! What’re ya doing, missy? Get back here! Come back! I’ve got friends in high places, missy!’ He gave up his pursuit and put his fine bellow of a voice to use in yelling after her. ‘I know people who can find you, missy, and I ain’t talking about the guards! Just you wait! You’ll see! I know people!’

But the girl had vanished into the crowd of others, most of them my age or younger, and the whole group ran off in tight formation, round a corner and out of sight.

I laughed. ‘Must be a new recruit to the children of despair doing her initiation tests.’

‘The children of who?’ asked Miller as we walked on.

‘You don’t know who the children of despair are? How long have you lived here?’

‘Longer than you.’

‘They’re thieves. I’ve heard they have a hideout in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Pinkmeadow. Didn’t you know?’

Miller shook his head.

‘I used to want to join them,’ I continued. ‘I used to sit at home just thinking: I wish they would discover us, enroll us in their group, teach us how to steal and fight and control our own destinies. I read too many stories, don’t I?’

‘I was just about to say – where did you get that from?’

I had unfolded a copy of Kyland Today from under my arm and was scanning the front page.

‘It’s a newspaper. I took it from that man’s stand when he ran off.’

‘You mean you stole it?’

‘He deserves to have his papers stolen, making threats like that to a little girl. What are you looking at me like that for? You’ve no right to complain about people breaking the law.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘What do you do in that office all day? Glue bristles onto toothbrushes?’

‘That’s different. Selling chants doesn’t hurt anyone, Tay. There’s no reason it should be against the law.’

‘Agreed, and stealing from people who deserve it shouldn’t be against the law either. Look at the date on this thing! The 86th of Spring! It should be called Kyland A Few Days Ago or Kyland Some Time Last Week. Well, it’s printed in Merry Mourning, no wonder.’ I read the headlines. ‘Oh, what a surprise. They’re not going to hold the next Champions’ Tournament near Redwater after all. They’re holding it in Merry Mourning again. Listen: “A member of the Outer Circle remarked with a smile that there was concern over the notorious Mlarwell weather. The constant rain, he said, could not only hamper the enjoyment of spectators, but would likely extinguish the flames necessary for such crowd-pleasing events as the ring of fire and the blazing maze.” More like the Ninety don’t want to show their faces here because they’re scared we might start an uprising.’

‘Did you know they use chants for the Champions’ Tournament?’ said Miller, glad to find some familiar ground. ‘The ring of fire is enchanted to reduce the risk of the flames spreading. You see, it’s all right for the Ninety and all their friends to make use of new technology, they just don’t want normal people getting hold of it.’

‘That doesn’t surprise me at all,’ I said darkly. ‘More than likely it was people like our parents who made the decision to ban them. Don’t want people like us to have any power. If they could sew up our mouths so we couldn’t speak either –’

‘Don’t start that now,’ said Miller.

I glared at him. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means I’m on your side but you’re angrier and if you get started you’re going to take it all out on me. It wouldn’t be the first time.’

‘Sorry,’ I muttered, taking his point. Then I added defiantly, ‘But it’s not my fault if you never think anything about anything.’

Miller did not reply, which I took to mean he had taken my point as well.

Lamplighters patrolled the streets, carrying out their duties as silently as ghosts, their burning torches casting orange glows into the evening gloom. Before long we arrived at our street, a narrow lane snaking between tenements the colour of burnt porridge. Miller must have sensed that I was in an even worse mood than I was letting on, because we didn’t speak as we clattered up the iron stairway to our door.

A History Lesson

~ as told by Ellstone Raining ~

That evening I told Tay and Miller about the vumas at the west gate. If the vumas were attacking, the human world had to know, even if my human world consisted of only three people including myself. Besides, they needed something to take their minds off the news about our parents and the bank account, which Tay had explained in lavishly profane language the moment she and Miller got home.

For some reason the situation did not bother me as much as it seemed to bother them. I tended to get more annoyed by problems and injustices from history than by those in my own life. I could picture High Sorcerer Volis, the founder of the Brotherhood of Lightning who had died hundreds of years ago; I could see his flashing black eyes and pale violet complexion as though he were in the room with me, and I could feel genuine hatred of him, but somehow our parents’ actions did not anger me as they should. Perhaps Tay was hogging all the anger for herself.

My account of the vumas’ attack at least shifted her attention for a while.

‘He killed a guard,’ she said, horrified. ‘That’s awful.’

‘What I don’t understand is what they were doing at that gate,’ I said. ‘It doesn’t make any sense. If they wanted to send a message to the human world, why come to the west gate of Tarot? It’s not exactly the centre of the Ninety’s operations.’

‘Maybe it wasn’t an attack,’ said Tay. ‘Maybe the guards attacked them first.’

‘What?’ I should have known Tay would try to twist the events to fit her version of reality. ‘That doesn’t make sense.’

‘You said the vuman woman was already dead by the time you saw the man threatening the guards. Maybe that’s what set him off. The guards caught them and they fought back and the guards killed her. That’s why he snapped. She was his friend.’

‘But what were they doing in Tarot in the first place? We don’t have vumas living here. We never have.’

‘They can live undercover,’ said Miller. ‘They have spells to change their appearance so they look human. You know, adjust their skin pigment a little, change the shape of their claws so they’re more like – hold on!’ He sat bolt upright. ‘What did you say the male vuma was wearing?’

‘A brown suit. It was a bit too small for him. And a purple waistcoat, fastened with silver buttons. And black shoes with slightly pointy toes.’

‘Did he have sort of a squint nose like this?’ Miller twisted his own nose.

‘Almost exactly like that.’

Tay shot Miller a suspicious look. ‘Do you two know each other?’

‘Oh,’ said Miller. ‘I was being followed to work every day by a man with a nose like that. Didn’t want to say anything, you might have … made a scene.’

Tay chewed her lip. ‘You were being followed?’

‘Anyway, he’s gone now,’ Miller continued, not wanting to be berated for keeping such an exciting secret. ‘Sounds like he blew his cover and the guards found him.’

‘The same thing was happening to me,’ Tay admitted. ‘This woman in a dark dress kept following me wherever I went. She’s gone today too.’

‘The vuman woman the guards killed?’ suggested Miller.

Tay nodded grimly. ‘Sounds like it. That’s so horrible. Why would they throw two vumas out of town? It’s not a crime to be a vuma, surely?’

‘It’s a crime for them to disguise themselves as humans,’ I told her, fighting to keep the nervous tremor out of my voice. ‘But I don’t understand! Why were you two being followed by vumas? What could they want from either of you?’

They exchanged blank glances.

‘I don’t know!’ said Miller, rather more indignant than seemed necessary. ‘I’m nothing to do with the vumas! Never had any contact with them.’

It seemed impossible to unravel the mystery any further at that point. Instead, we fell silent for a long time, all three thinking our own thoughts. Even Miller looked to be mulling something over. After a while I fell half asleep in my chair, as I often did to avoid having to go to bed – or shelf, as Tay called it. The room was tiny, and divided into three basic areas: the shelf at the far end where we slept crammed together in discomfort, the kitchen with a small coal stove opposite a window looking out onto the rooftops, and the area we sat in now, our knees all meeting in the middle. If we needed to use the toilet, we had to go outside to an unappealing little room off the iron staircase. We tried not to go there unless absolutely necessary; it was always full of spiders and flies and sometimes full of much worse things.

Hours may have passed, and minutes certainly had, before through my sleep I heard Miller get up and open the door. This was followed by the sound of Tay stirring in her chair.

‘Miller, where are you going?’

‘We need money, Tay. I’m going to do some overtime at the shop.’

‘No, you’re not! You worked late last night. You need rest.’

‘I’m fine! I can take the overtime money from the secret compartment in Thistler’s desk. He won’t mind. Got quite a lot of work to do at the moment, as it happens.’ He stifled a yawn.

‘No Miller, I won’t let you. You won’t get to work tomorrow at all at this rate.’

‘I don’t want you to starve! I don’t want me to starve either, come to think of it.’

I heard Tay pull him back into his chair. ‘We’re not going to starve. We’ve got enough food to last us the rest of the week if we’re careful.’

‘And after that? How are we going to pay the rent next week?’

‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Something will come along.’ Her voice faded into thoughtful silence. Then she said, ‘Did you say there’s a secret compartment in Thistler’s desk?’

‘Yes. Well, he thinks it’s secret.’

‘And it’s full of money.’

‘Yeah. I came across it by accident one day when I was testing an IRV … an infiltration ray viewscope … you know, one of those see-through-things telescopes.’

‘How much?’

‘Fifty gold or so, why? Oh Tay, you’re not thinking of stealing it?’

‘I’m thinking of you stealing it. Does that count?’ She caught his eye. ‘What? I’m sure he’s stolen from plenty of people in his time, and worse. Plus he can afford it.’

‘I told you, he could be in danger of going out of business.’

‘So he says.’

‘He’s been kind to me,’ Miller muttered.

‘Okay, okay. That’s out then,’ said Tay, exasperated. ‘Just let us know when the two of you are getting married, so we can all move into his house made of gold.’

There was stress in her voice, which made me uncomfortable. I opened my eyes. Tay was lying back in her chair, eyes closed. She might have been asleep, but she was mouthing words: what can we do, what can we do, what the – I ignored the next word – can we do?

I felt a curious pain in my stomach – something more than the usual hunger. I shifted in my chair but the pain didn’t go away. It was strange to see my sister like this. She wasn’t the sort of person who gave up. She wasn’t the sort of person who liked to admit that, when you took away all the shouting and the little acts of rebellion, she was basically helpless. She wouldn’t thank me for thinking this, but maybe reality was finally catching up with her.

I felt a sudden need to protect her from it.

Maybe it was time. I had been thinking about my plan for so long that it had started to seem like mere fantasy, but I knew it could be more than that. I only had to suggest it.

I leaned over and took down one of my library books from above the stove: A Series of Maps Documenting the Routes to be Taken by Ships in Kyland in the Year 77 AE. The cover still felt damp, but there was no permanent damage. I opened the volume and searched for the page I wanted. It was titled ‘Sea of Becoming, Merry Mourning (Zoreyi), Redwater, Tarot, Hollince, Qualmgate’. A map of our section of west Kyland sprawled across the paper. It was dominated by the mass of the Sea of Becoming in the middle, but the land around it was thick with mountains, green with forests, laced with rivers and scrawled with place names of various sizes, ranging from the first two huge letters of ‘Deurof’ disappearing off the right hand side, to the minuscule and almost illegible dots that formed the words ‘Old Mills’ on the moors west of Tarot. A red dotted line curled from Tarot to Merry Mourning via the sea and then the River Surrund – a common route for ships. Other colours of dotted line marked out other nearby routes, but it was this red one that interested me.

‘You read the strangest things,’ said Miller, who had been studying the book cover.

‘It’s just my way of getting through the day,’ I mumbled, and moved my finger down to the timetable. Under the heading of ‘Tarot to Merry Mourning’ were printed dozens of dates, times and ship names. As I already knew, ships carried passengers to and from Merry Mourning frequently – once a week at least. But seeing it there in print gave me more confidence.

‘What’s he reading now?’ asked Tay, opening her eyes.

‘Nothing,’ I lied, hiding the book under my chair. The problem was Tay. I had to get her on my side. I had to make her understand. ‘Let me tell you a story,’ I began. It was a silly thing to say, but it got my sister’s attention as I had hoped it would.

‘I thought you didn’t like stories,’ she said, yawning.

‘Not a made-up story. A true story.’

‘Really true? Or history book true?’

‘Look, history books are … okay, this one’s really true, Tay. Everyone knows it is. All the books agree. At least, they agree on the main points.’

I took a deep breath and tried to arrange all the facts in my head. Miller and Tay watched me indulgently; it had been a while since I had given them a proper history lesson.

‘It started thousands of years ago, long before we had a proper government like the Ninety. Back then we just had a lot of kings all over the place. They fought with each other almost all the time. And one of them, in the city of Merry Mourning – which was called Zoreyi then – heard word of some strange power hidden deep within the Irnaya mountain range.’

‘Ooooh,’ said Tay. Then, ‘Sorry.’

I continued, treating this interruption with the contempt it deserved. ‘His name was King Engis. One of his subjects returned to the city with descriptions of unholy visions he and his fellows had seen while in Irnaya on a mining expedition. The king led himself to believe that the powers there could change his people’s fate, and as it turned out he was right. But he didn’t realise the sacrifice they would have to make.’

‘Why are we talking about this?’ asked Miller, thoroughly confused.

‘You’ll see,’ I said. ‘King Engis was greedy and superstitious, and grew more obsessed with the power the longer he went without it. Eventually he gathered a group of his most trusted soldiers along with the greatest scientific and religious minds Zoreyi had to offer. Together they set off to Irnaya on a mission that would claim all their lives. Once they had ventured deep inside the network of caves and tunnels there, a rockfall sealed them in. They never found a way out.’

I stopped.

‘Good story,’ said Tay. ‘So they all died. The end.’

‘No,’ I insisted. ‘It wasn’t the end, Tay. In history, someone’s death is rarely the end of their story. The point is, they had successors.’

‘What, the ones who hadn’t gone on the expedition?’

‘No. Well, yes – some of them were distant ancestors of the people who live in Merry Mourning today – but there were others as well. For while no sunlight intruded very far into Irnaya, things were growing down there in the darkest depths of the caves – plants that were new to the eyes of humans, whole forests of them. These plants didn’t need light to grow. They needed miracas.’

‘Miracas?’ Tay repeated.

‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Because, as Miller knows, Irnaya is –’

‘A magic trap,’ said Miller dutifully.

‘Explain,’ demanded Tay.

Miller sighed; he never liked trying to explain isolated bits of science to people who only pretended to understand. ‘Magic traps are places that miracas can get into but can’t get out of. You know how miracas is constantly entering our world through Snails’ Arch, but it usually fades before it gets too densely concentrated? Well, in the caves of Irnaya it doesn’t fade — it just keeps building up and building up until anyone who goes in there has it coming out of their ears.’

‘And that triggers some strange events,’ I continued. ‘In a magic trap, even humans can weave spells, because the miracas doesn’t have to be drawn in by their blood as it is with vumas. It just has nowhere else to go but inside them. The problem is, humans don’t know what to do with it. They usually end up weaving all sorts of spells without meaning to. One theory is that that was what caused the rockfall that sealed King Engis and his men in. Either way, it was not a comfortable place to be, even for the king’s top soldiers and thinkers, especially since they kept waking up with necks like giraffes or green glowing toenails. No one knew about miracas then, so they just thought the place was haunted by mischievous spirits.’

‘Not realising they were the mischievous spirits,’ added Tay.

‘Right,’ I went on, a little annoyed. ‘It was a hard life for them in Irnaya. All they had to eat were some strange plants that fed on miracas, and some even stranger slimy things that fed on the plants. But it was enough for them to survive, and they survived long enough to have children.’

‘I suppose they had to do something to pass the time.’

‘I’m trying to tell a story here!’ I said, feeling cross. ‘Please stop interrupting me!’

I glared at them. Tay stuck her tongue out, and Miller shrugged as if to disclaim responsibility for her. I continued, trying to make my voice too important to interrupt.

‘Eventually, those children had children of their own. With every generation that passed, the people learned more about how to control the spells they were weaving, and always they passed that knowledge on. The whole thing lasted hundreds of years. In the world outside Irnaya’s walls, wars raged, leaders were overthrown, and life went on as normal. The only ones who remembered the expedition to Irnaya were the historians at Zoreyi library, who thought of it as one of the great mysteries of Kyland.’

I paused. Did Tay’s silence mean she was listening to my story? Perhaps it would persuade her that I knew more than she gave me credit for. Perhaps it would change her perspective on a few things. The next part, in particular, I found very significant.

‘Meanwhile, the people sealed in Irnaya grew cruel. Cruelty was necessary to survival down in the caves, especially when the plants and the slimy things began to die out. Tribes formed and wiped out other tribes to take their food. Only the most ruthless survived. But other things were happening too, brought about by the high concentration of miracas. People changed colour. Each new child born was slightly more purple, and their blood acquired a peculiar shimmer that suggested it had some effect on the air around it. It took them a while to work out that this new purple blood attracted miracas like metal to a magnet.’

‘I think I can see where this is going now,’ said Tay. Miller nodded.

‘Good. There followed a long struggle to understand the powers that miracas granted, and more than that to master them. Gradually the more adept spellweavers wiped out the less. At one point, one particularly powerful tribe wiped out all the others – they called themselves the Hob, and they developed sharp claws on the ends of their fingers for climbing, and their eyes changed to let them see better in the dark of the caves. But the Hob became so big that they split into multiple tribes, and the fighting began anew.

‘The tribes’ captivity in Irnaya came to an end hundreds of years later – in the first year of what we now call the Age of War – when the outside world was little more than a myth passed down through the generations. One of the braver men went on a sort of spiritual pilgrimage, venturing far from the ring of settlements his ancestors had established, and disappeared. In fact he had taken a wrong turn, and after days of wandering he stumbled upon a tunnel that led to the outside world.’

‘The light must have been blinding,’ said Tay.

I continued. ‘Once he’d realised that the caves of Irnaya amounted to only a tiny part of a huge world, the man went back to show his people the way out. So thousands of these people all trekked out of Irnaya and made their way to the city of Zoreyi. And they tried to conquer it. They actually tried to conquer it, just like that. It’s mad, isn’t it? They’d only just seen the sun for the first time, and suddenly they were trying to take over the greatest city on the Sphere. Those people were the first of the vumas.’

‘I guessed,’ said Tay proudly.

‘As it turned out, they didn’t manage to conquer Zoreyi. In fact a battle was already raging there, but both sides of it joined together to fight off the vumas. That was basically how the Kyland army formed. One moment the Zoreyans and the Mlarwell rebels were slicing each other’s legs off and using them to beat each other over the head, and the next they were screaming and hugging their enemies in terror at this strange new power. But they still won. The battle was long and devastating, but the human army prevailed.’

Tay frowned. ‘So what happened to the vumas then?’

‘Oh, some of them claimed they didn’t want to fight, but only after their side had been decisively defeated. The humans agreed, after long negotiations, that the so-called peaceful vumas should be allowed to settle in Qualmel, a sparsely populated country in the northwest of the continent – the country we now call Vumarule. It’s widely recognised as the biggest mistake the Kyland Ninety ever made.’

‘Recognised by the history books,’ said Tay coldly.

‘Yes. What is your problem with history, Tay? It’s the truth. It’s what really happened.’

‘According to the people who write it.’

‘And who writes all those nonsense novels you’re always reading?’

‘There’s more truth in those than in all the crap that happens in the real world,’ snapped Tay. ‘Stories make sense. There’s justice in them. There’s none in real life.’

‘Why did you tell us that story?’ Miller asked, clearly trying to derail this familiar argument before it got going.

‘I was trying to show you,’ I said, ‘how dangerous the vumas are. It’s in their nature. Even all these centuries later, they still have all the characteristics they developed down in those caves. They still have the sharp fingers for clambering up cave walls, and they still eat slimy things like insects. They eat insects. Can you imagine that?’

‘Better than not eating anything,’ said Tay.

I ignored her. ‘Of course, the worst of it is they’ve been attacking us on and off for hundreds of years, and the Ninety have barely held them at bay. Now it looks as if they’re attacking again.’

‘And what does that have to do with us?’ demanded Tay.

‘What does that have to do with us?’ I spluttered. ‘What do you – did you actually read further than the front page of this?’ I held up the copy of Kyland Today Tay had acquired earlier. ‘On page five there’s a piece by one of the Ninety appealing for new recruits to the army. Not just soldiers, either. They’re looking for servants, healers, cooks, enchantment experts, all sorts of people.’

‘So?’

‘So we could get a ship there, to Merry Mourning.’

It was out now. My grand plan, condensed into a few unimpressive words. Hanging in the air of our room before the sceptical faces of Tay and Miller, it seemed such a small idea, so obvious and so impractical. I rushed to justify it.

‘Merry Mourning is a fabulous city. Everyone says so. It’s got huge marble buildings with green courtyards in between, and wooded parks that stretch for miles with the river running through them, and great music halls and libraries.’ (‘Aha!’ said Miller and Tay together.) ‘It’s always sunny and the river is full of boats and there are skyships sailing to places all over Kyland. They say the Halls of the Ninety themselves are breathtaking – they’re so big it takes an hour to walk from one end of them to the other, and the army dormitories have windows that look out over half the city.’

‘So I’ve heard,’ said Miller. ‘From –’

‘You’ve always wanted adventure, Tay,’ I interrupted.

‘Yes, but –’

‘Then what better opportunity is there to get away from here? We’d be doing our part to hold back the tide of evil. We’d be given comfortable beds and enough to eat. We could all take jobs that suit us. You could learn to fight, and Miller could be an enchantment expert –’

‘And what would you do, Elly?’ asked Tay. ‘I don’t expect they need someone to sit around reading history books all day.’

‘I could fight,’ I mumbled. ‘They just lowered the joining age to twelve.’ But in truth I had never quite decided where I would fit in this plan.

Tay laughed. ‘And how do you think you’d cope with army life?’

Miller interrupted. ‘Hold on, let’s go back to me being an enchantment expert. Have you thought this through? I mean, do you remember who works in Merry Mourning?’

My plan was falling apart. I had hoped Miller wouldn’t make the connection, but there were some connections he could make instantly.

‘He’s not that bad,’ I began.

‘He’s not that bad,’ scoffed Miller. ‘He is that bad. I can’t work for Alto Bracken. He’d be standing over me constantly, correcting everything I did. “You should look at the chronomirror first, then you can identify some other items while you’re measuring the echo delay.” That’s actually what he said to me once when he came to visit the shop. Can you believe that? As if you can do anything in the few seconds most chronomirrors give you.’

‘Yes, okay,’ I said. ‘But –’

‘And just before he left to go back to Merry Mourning, to his big fancy enchantment laboratory of magic and wonder, do you know what he said? He said “You’ve got quite the talent for identifying, Miller”. I wanted to punch him in the face. He said it like he was in a position to judge me, because of course he’s a professional, and I’m just a stupid amateur.’

‘And it would be dangerous,’ said Tay, trying to put a stop to Miller’s rantings, ‘for us to join the army.’

I stared at her in sheer disbelief. ‘Dangerous? I thought that was what you wanted! You said danger and adventure were inseparable.’

She shook her head. ‘What I want is to make up my own mind. I won’t have it made up for me, and I won’t be a slave to the Ninety. It has to be the right kind of danger.’

I felt dejected. ‘What kind of danger is more right than fighting against evil?’

‘You don’t understand, Elly,’ said Tay sadly. ‘When you told that story I could see the fire in your eyes, but I couldn’t feel it myself. What reason do we have to think the vumas are evil? It’s never as simple as that.’

‘But the Ninety –’

‘What have the Ninety ever done for us? I’m sorry, but we’re not going. It’s not what I want, it’s not what Miller wants, and I’m quite sure it’s not what you want either.’

Her scornful eyes forced mine to the floor in shame.

‘Do you know what else he said?’ continued Miller, treating the pause as a window of opportunity. ‘This is a good one. Listen. He said, “Hollow unbreakables are often just as effective as blooded unbreakables”! Ridiculous! As if the benefits of an even distribution of miracas are trivial. Next time he comes here, I’m going to challenge him on that.’

Miller too fell silent when he realised neither of us knew or cared what he was talking about. Under my chair, I kicked the ship routes book further out of sight. I felt horribly embarrassed. My plan was a failure, and had been from its conception. What had made me think Tay or Miller would be swayed, or that I was fit for the army? How could I hope to be useful in a war when I couldn’t even face a group of laughing children? Tarot began to look more and more like the place we would stay for the rest of our lives, and my dream of one day having access to the greatest library on the Sphere, and of being free forever from the taunts of Tarot’s children, slipped ever further away.

*

Later that night as we lay on our shelf-like bed, I whispered, ‘I’m sorry.’

Tay rolled over and blinked sleepily in the faint lamplight that seeped through the window. She put her arms around me.

‘It’s okay,’ she whispered. ‘You’re right. We have to get out of here. But joining the army isn’t the way.’

‘I’m hungry.’

‘I know. Me too. But it’ll be better in the morning.’

The Bloodbird’s Letter

~ as told by Tay Raining ~

It was a day of rejection, a day when my usual stinging retorts came too slowly to my lips, and I found myself shouting them at slammed doors. Not one but two potential employers spat at me, which is rarely a good sign. The woman at the laundry pulled at my hair, told me it was tangled like a whore’s, and said she could recommend me a street corner, but I would never work for her. As if in league with her, two men propositioned me on the street, the second one so persistent that I had to alter my route and walk past the guardhouse on Bunting Lane. When the guards outside just laughed at the man’s clumsy but increasingly forceful attempts to buy me, I ran until I lost him, and stood gasping in the street, angrily telling myself to get my breath back.

After that I knew I was in too bitter a mood to have any success searching for work, so instead I found myself wandering the streets in search of dropped coins. But I was looking for a miracle. In Tarot any coin would be snatched up almost instantly by street children, and I wouldn’t have the strength to fight them for it. I had not eaten since yesterday morning – my stomach felt hollow and my limbs ached from the effort of walking. A hunched old woman told me in a croak that I looked as though I would be dead before her, then cackled triumphantly as she shuffled away.

I headed back to our room earlier than usual, disheartened and exhausted, but with something nagging at my mind. I can’t quite explain it, but I had the peculiar feeling that something was closing in on us. Whether that something was destiny, a trap or both, it was too early to say, but it could hardly be worse than starvation or the poorhouse, which would be the only choices left to us if things did not change soon.

*

Just after seven o’clock on the fifth day of Summer, I stood gazing out our window at the sunset, clutching a scrap of bread and trying to resist shoving it all in my mouth at once. In this town all sunset meant – except that you should get indoors quickly before someone knifed you in the face – was that the dim daylight grew dimmer and streaks of orange and pink clouded the fog in the eastern sky. Nevertheless, it was one of the only pretty sights to be seen in Tarot, so I watched it and thought of all the places far away where other people might be watching the sunset – or watching it rise, or looking at the stars. At that moment, I would have taken any of those places over where I was.

That was when I saw the thing.

At first it looked like a leaf floating in an updraft, but it caught my eye and I watched as it drew closer, its features beginning to emerge from the fog: small fluttering wings like a butterfly’s, a sharp black beak. Its colour stood out against the grey: a deep, blood red, an odd colour for a bird. Unlike the other birds over Tarot, this little red one did not circle or swoop for food, but flew straight, skirting over the rooftops without taking its beady eyes off its destination: our window.

Maybe it had known I would be standing there at that time. Maybe I had known, somewhere in me, that it was coming. But whatever peaceful sense of wonder I felt at seeing the bird appear shattered into sharp pieces when it hurtled towards the window –

‘Holy piss!’

and landed, with a click of tiny claws, on top of the stove.

‘What’s going on?’ asked Ellstone, poking his nose out from some supremely boring book about Kyland history.

Not taking my eyes off the bird, I reached out to check the window. My fingers, like my eyes, found it closed and unbroken. The bird had passed right through the glass pane as if it were air. It pecked at the stove with its black beak, dripping a dark substance from its plumage.

‘Hello,’ I said. ‘You’re an ugly bundle of feathers, aren’t you? Do you want a bit of bread crust?’

I held some out to it, but it did not seem interested. It simply tilted its head curiously.

‘Oh, I expect you’ve already eaten. People don’t like to feed other people, but they’re always willing to feed a bird, aren’t they? Even if they don’t, you can fly through glass. Yeah, you’ve got this whole eating thing sewn up. In fact, maybe you can bring us back some goodies from other people’s kitchens some time. I like grapberry pie and coral fizz, for the record.’

Its eyes bored into me, unfeeling as lumps of coal. I shifted uncomfortably.

‘Speaking of food, I bet you’d taste pretty good to an empty stomach. You should fly away before I get any ideas.’

My merciful hand thumped the stove top, hoping the bird would take the hint and fly back through the window pane before my joke became a reality, but it just hopped to the side and kept staring.

Ellstone was beside me now, peering at the creature. ‘Did you let it in?’

‘No, it found its own way. Through the glass.’

‘Oh. That’s a bit weird.’

‘Really? Any more helpful insights?’

Ellstone examined the bird for a few seconds, then his eyes widened and he stumbled backwards.

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I think I know what it is,’ he said, almost whispering. ‘Look at it. Look closer.’

I lowered myself so my eyes were level with the bird, and noticed a thin wooden tube tied to one of its stalk-like legs.

‘It’s a carrier bird!’ I said. ‘It has a message.’

‘Yes, but it’s not just any carrier bird. What do you think it’s covered in?’

For the first time I paid attention to the dark substance dripping from the bird onto the stove. It was deep red, almost black, the same deep red almost black that saturated the bird’s feathers. My stomach turned.

‘Take the message off its leg,’ hissed Ellstone, who seemed frozen with fear. ‘It won’t leave until we take it.’

The bird watched me as with shaking fingers I gripped its leg and fumbled to untie the message tube. As the tube clattered to the floor, a deafening bang shook the room. In a wave of burning light the bird vanished, replaced by a column of black smoke and a truly disturbing odour.

‘What the hell just happened?’ I shouted, as if knowing what the creature was made Ellstone responsible for its actions.

Ellstone did not reply – he had leapt onto the bed, and stood covering his ears and muttering to himself. I turned back to the stove and examined the bloodstains where the bird had been, now joined by a streak of scorched black. The stove had not been lit all day, but it felt hot to the touch.

‘What happened, Ellstone?’ I asked, grabbing my brother and trying to pull his hands from his ears. ‘What was that thing?’

‘The message,’ he mumbled. ‘The message.’

I remembered, and retrieved the message tube from the floor.

‘Don’t open it here!’ Ellstone protested, agitation breaking him out of his trance. ‘It could be cursed, and I’m probably within the curse radius!’

‘Good. I’ll get less on me.’

Ellstone watched me through his fingers as I pulled a roll of paper from the tube. It was beautifully brown, crinkled and weathered, just like the ones people send in adventure stories. Large, curly letters in shiny black ink covered the paper, but I could only squint bewildered at the words they formed.

Clan Raining/

Epa jol eret makas venus Epa osa lar epaest Misiv specivis un telekin Vos/ kosuvos lemer mut Epa pesos Requo tremen ul vosest Dedula/ Cetro os un tet Mana ul Popula idus lok jol eret perces extras domest Pana minus/ Designa osa lonin latis ont hipte Doma procis vusos rikos tet Cea com Epa kosus Et/ Et os respus Epa wil lat solit mut redoma Designa osa haldis prevus Redome spiron/ govos geos tet pristin Porcin Gelmeer un Qualmgate com havus com visus/ api helvos/ Epa desima vosest Arit.

I slumped into my chair in disappointment, clutching the letter. ‘I can’t read it! It’s in another language! Epa jol eret makas –’

‘We cannot explain,’ translated Ellstone.

I stared at him. ‘You know it.’

‘That’s ancient Gardurian,’ he said, looking at me weirdly. ‘Everyone knows it, don’t they?’

‘No, only people with no lives. Here!’ I shoved the letter towards him; he flinched away from it. ‘It’s not going to hurt you. But I might if you don’t stop being a baby and tell me what it says.’

Gingerly he took the letter. His lips moved as he translated the words in his head, and his eyes widened as they scanned further down the paper.

‘No,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘It has to be a joke. Only it can’t be. Only it has to be.’

‘Just tell me what it says, will you?’

‘I can only do a rough translation.’

‘That’s fine! Tell me!’

Ellstone looked apologetic as he read, haltingly. ‘Raining family, We cannot explain who we are or our exact purpose in contacting you. Know only that we have great need of your abilities. Power is in the hands of foolish individuals who cannot see beyond their own petty lives. Plans are being made which, should they go ahead, will endanger the world as we know it. It is up to us to make certain that these plans are stopped before this occurs. Be at the Perfect Pitcher Alehouse in Qualmgate as soon as humanly possible. Please come. We need your help.’

He looked up at me anxiously.

I started. ‘There’s no signature?’

‘No.’

‘Nothing on the other side? Invisible ink?’

‘I can’t see any.’

‘Must be working then. Give it here.’

I lit a candle and held the letter as close to it as I dared, tilting it this way and that. Nothing more presented itself.

‘It’s mad,’ said Ellstone finally.

‘Of course it is!’ I said, waving the letter at him. ‘It was delivered by an exploding bird! It’s all brown and crinkly and torn around the edges! What did you expect?’

‘We can’t go.’

‘Hold on a minute. Where’s Qualmgate?’

‘Across the sea. In Vumarule. We can’t go.’

‘Vumarule!’ Excitement rushed through me. ‘Let’s go to Vumarule!’

‘No,’ said Ellstone, looking at me with his serious eyes. He didn’t know I was serious too.

‘Why not?’

‘Do you want me to make a list of why not? We don’t even know who sent it, but they sound like raving lunatics. Honestly! “Endanger the world as we know it” indeed! “Great need of your abilities” – my foot!’

‘Don’t tell me you think we should ignore it,’ I said warningly.

‘Don’t tell me you think we should do what it says!’ rallied Ellstone. ‘It doesn’t make any sense, Tay! What abilities do we have that they would need? And who are they? And why didn’t they just send the letter through the postal service? Stamps aren’t that expensive! And – and why is it all brown and crinkly like you said? And why did they write it in Gardurian instead of Alvari? I’m not the only one who can understand it, it’s not exactly an uncrackable code, anyone can read it if they have some time and coffee and a reference book in front of them!’

‘Don’t you want to find out the answers to all those questions?’

‘Yes, but not if it means walking into a trap! What else could this be?’

‘Stop being so negative,’ I said. Then, as an added insult, ‘You know what your problem is? You’ve got no sense of adventure.’

‘I don’t want a sense of adventure.’

‘That’s one of the symptoms of not having one. Come on, this is the only ray of light we have. We’re going to die here, Elly, we’re going to die in this pissing town if we don’t get out soon.’

‘I can’t believe this!’ said Ellstone crossly. ‘I had a plan. We could have gone to Merry Mourning, we could have joined the army. It wasn’t a perfect idea, but it made more sense than going along with this ridiculous game. That’s all it is, Tay, a game! And probably a dangerous one.’

‘You don’t know what it is,’ I snapped. ‘But whoever wrote this has some sense. “Power is in the hands of foolish individuals” – I’ve always known that. All my life, but I never thought we could do anything about it. Not until now.’

We glared at each other, breathless from trying to get our arguments out. That was when the door rattled open and Miller stepped in from the cold grey outside.

‘You’ll never believe what happened at work today,’ he began, then saw our expressions. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked, shaking off his coat and sitting down.

Ellstone and I exchanged glances, then joined him. I filled him in on the insane events of the last ten minutes. When I got to the end, Miller continued to stare at me in amazement.

‘So … any thoughts?’ I asked.

Miller took a deep breath. ‘The bird thing was probably summoned from another world by vumas.’

Ellstone looked miserable. ‘Why do I always have to be right?’

I blinked. ‘Summoned?’

‘Yes.’

‘From another world?’

‘Mmm.’

‘By vumas.’

‘Probably.’

‘Summoned how, exactly?’

‘If I remember right, the normal procedure is for eleven vumas to form a circle and chant some ancient –’

‘Let me stop you there. Eleven vumas?’

‘Normally,’ said Miller. ‘Any prime number is good, but eleven is standard for most summonings.’

‘And why would they want to summon that bird thing?’

‘A bloodbird. Amazing creatures. People have tried to replicate them with enchantments, but nothing has come close so far. They can carry a message anywhere you tell them – to tiny shacks on mountaintops, to people trapped miles underground – and nothing in this world can stop them. They’re the most reliable way to send a message with no chance of interception. Not that they’re used much, of course, because …’ He hesitated.

‘Because?’ I prompted.

Ellstone cut in. ‘Because in order to summon a bloodbird, you have to kill someone.’

Miller nodded.

The air in the room seemed to grow thin at that moment. My head spun. Somewhere, probably far away, eleven vumas had gathered just to send us this message. And to make sure no one could possibly intercept it, they had ended a life. We, the Rainings, forgotten by the world, were worth killing for. As horrified as I felt, it was hard not to see this as some sort of chilling compliment. Whatever the point of the message, we could at the very least be sure that it was not a joke.

‘That’s why those vumas were spying on us!’ I burst out. ‘Trying to work out if we were the ones they were looking for!’

‘What do you mean “the ones they were looking for”?’ demanded Ellstone. ‘There’s nothing special about us.’

‘The vumas seem to disagree! And I bet they know better than we do. Chosen ones never know they’re chosen from the start. They have to be protected.’

‘From what?’

‘From the truth! If they knew the truth about themselves, they would be in grave danger all their lives! Don’t you read anything, Elly?’

He scowled. ‘None of the sort of nonsense you’re talking about. What truth could there be about us? Do you really think there’s a prophecy that says three poor children from Tarot will save the world? Do we have any dark secrets in our past? Miller, do you have a fiery and fractured soul tormented by inner demons?’

‘Not so I’ve noticed,’ Miller admitted.

‘Well, maybe they just want me,’ I said. ‘The letter doesn’t say which of us has the abilities they so greatly need. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m the one with the question mark on my hand.’

‘Oh for – not the question mark again,’ Ellstone whined. ‘It doesn’t even really look like a question mark! It’s just a bendy blob! It’s more like a banana!’

‘You have to squint.’ I thrust my hand at his face. He pushed it away.

‘I don’t want to squint. I want to see the world as it is.’

‘Fine then.’ I squared my shoulders defiantly. ‘If neither of you are willing, I’ll go on my own.’

Ellstone started. ‘Tay, you can’t!’

‘Come with me, then.’

‘Tay, it’s obviously a trap. Only vumas can summon bloodbirds – they’re dangerous, remember? Weren’t you listening to my story? Even in peace time, estimates say they kill one of us every day. And people are saying there’s a war coming.’

Something about what he said irritated me. ‘They kill one of us every day? Which one? You, me or Miller?’ I glanced around the room. ‘Nope, we’re all still alive.’

‘You know what I mean, Tay. Please don’t act stupid.’

‘Then please don’t talk rubbish, Elly. Do you think for one second that the sort of humans you’re talking about would ever admit to belonging to the same species as us?’

‘You haven’t a clue, have you? The Ninety saved us from the vumas so many times in the Age of War, and you claim that all they care about is themselves!’

‘Because that’s who they saved,’ I said. ‘Themselves. Look around. Do you think it would matter to them if the whole of Tarot was destroyed by a vuman attack? No. They don’t care that it’s destroying itself, so what’s the difference? They would use it as an excuse to go and slice up a few more vumas, but they wouldn’t have any real complaints about it, except that their supply of cheap labour would dry up. Humans don’t look after each other. They look after themselves. And the only “us” that exists is the three of us. Understand?’

‘Do you know how many wars the vumas have started, Tay? Eleven. In four centuries! And that’s not counting all those vuman rebels always attacking Merry Mourning.’

‘I can see how they feel!’ I yelled. ‘They’re descended from the people of Merry Mourning, aren’t they? Well, so am I, and I hate them as well. They’ve done nothing but keep us imprisoned here all our lives, and it’s about time we did something about it! And you thought we should go and join with them? You’re an idiot, Ellstone Raining, a real idiot.’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ shouted Ellstone, on his feet now. ‘The vumas are the evil ones!’

‘Let’s find out then, shall we?’ I yelled, and grabbed the book of ship times from under Ellstone’s chair where it lay. He followed my thought process and lunged to seize the book from me, but ended up on the floor. I found the page I wanted and whipped my finger down it, moving my lips. Then I slammed the book and threw it down.

‘There’s a ship to Qualmgate at half past eight,’ I said. ‘We don’t have much time.’

‘You can’t be serious!’ said Ellstone as I picked up my coat.

‘I told you, you don’t have to come with me,’ I said, ‘but I’m going.’

I slung my coat about my shoulders, strode to the door, flung it open and marched out onto the iron staircase, knowing that Ellstone would follow. I was being stubborn, awkward and unreasonable, but so was my brother, and I could not stay in our tiny, airless room any longer if there was even a chance of getting out of Tarot that night.

Ellstone cascaded down the stairs after me. ‘You can’t do this!’ he screamed, grabbing my arm. ‘You’re making a terrible mistake!’

I fought to ignore him, shaking him free as I reached street level. Black shapes blurred past me as I walked. The high walls of smoke-belching factories and smoke-blackened tenements loomed over the street. The rain fell heavier than normal, drumming a rhythmless beat on every surface, turning to mist as it hit the ground, covering the street in a swirling haze.

Could we have powers which we didn’t know about? Had the vumas seen them in us as they followed us around over the past weeks, watching our every move, our every action? Had they seen my hatred for my parents, for Merry Mourning, for human society as it stood? And had they added all this up and realised that we would help them – that I would help them, at least? It seemed that way. There could be no other explanation for the letter. I sped up, looking only at the cobbles before me, turning corners, putting one foot in front of the other. It was happening, we were getting out of here. I felt as though a part of me was already on that ship, making ready to sail away from Tarot — now I had to catch up or it would leave me for good and I would never again have the willpower to follow it.

As I approached the docks I felt Ellstone tugging at my arm again.

‘We shouldn’t be here, Tay,’ he said unhappily.

He was right. The docks were a particularly savage part of Tarot. From where we stood I could see at least three shadowy figures who had probably come here to prey on disoriented foreigners alighting from ships, but would settle for malnourished local children. I put my arm around Ellstone and led him away from these figures, under a dubious shelter where a lantern stood atop a stack of forgotten crates. Even over the rain I could hear the lapping of the sea. It smelled like salt, smog and rotten fish; perhaps this last smell came from the crates.

I examined Ellstone in our little pool of light. I could tell he was crying, though the rain on his face hid most of his tears. It was Tarot that had done this, turned my little brother into a nervous wreck who couldn’t hope to look after himself, who fled from real life and hid in books, who put on a learned face during the daytime and cried through the night. It hurt my heart to see him cry at something I had done, but there was no way to help him without hurting him a little bit along the way. All I could do was hold him tight until he stopped trembling.

‘It’s all right,’ I said, fixing his rainswept hair. ‘You’ll be all right. I won’t let you out of my sight, I promise. And if anything bad happens, we’ll turn back. But we have to go. This could be our only chance to get out of Tarot. And we have to get out of here. You know that.’

‘You’re serious, aren’t you?’ said Ellstone quietly, as if he didn’t expect me to take any notice anyway. He was right on both counts.

‘Did Miller follow us?’ I asked, whirling around to look for him in the hazy waterfalls that surrounded the shelter. ‘Of course he didn’t. Well, let’s find the ship we want, then we can go back for him. Is there anything else you need to bring? Gods, you’re not even wearing your coat.’

I removed mine and put it around him. Water saturated even the inside, so the transaction probably made us both colder, but he thanked me in a tiny voice.

A figure stepped into the shelter beside us – when it shrugged off the layer of rain that clung to it, I beheld the features of a tough old dockhand with a white moustache. He lit a pipe and frowned at us.

‘You kids shouldn’t be here.’

‘We’re waiting for a ship,’ I said.

‘What ship?’

‘The one at half past eight. To Qualmgate.’

‘To Qualmgate?’ For a moment I expected the man to launch into a tirade against the vumas, but instead his face softened. ‘It’s beautiful over there in the Summer. Beautiful. The sea cliffs, and the forests, and the rushing rivers. There’s nothing like them in Mlarwell, nothing like them anywhere else in the wide wide world … but you’ll see.’

I nudged Ellstone and smiled encouragingly. He looked almost reassured.

The old man continued. ‘Mind you, if it all goes bad while you’re over there, I’d get the hell out. Run for the hills. Somewhere they won’t find you. They’ll use their tracking spells, of course. Oh, there’s no hiding from them really.’ He smiled. ‘But have a lovely time. Try their moonwhisky, there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the wide wide world.’

Ellstone’s hand gripped mine like a vice. I glared at the man. ‘Where’s our ship?’

‘That’ll be the Lady Carthine.’ The man pointed into the darkness, to a crooked mass heaving and creaking on the waves. It looked as though it may only be staying afloat by happy chance.

‘It’s perfect,’ I said sincerely.

‘It’s not safe here. You should get aboard and into your cabin before you get robbed.’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘We don’t have much –’

The word ‘money’ melted on my lips like a grapberry. The single most important object in Tarot, and I had forgotten all about it. The thing on which every hope, every ambition, every dream turned, and we had none. Oh, you could try all you liked. You could spend every waking moment trying – trying to protect the people you loved, trying to make the world, or at least your little corner of it, a better place. But without money, what could you do? Nothing. That had always been the way. How had I forgotten it now?

With the few pitiful coins from under our bed, we could do nothing. We could not hope to get anywhere in a foreign land. We could not even board a ship.

The old man finished his smoke, muttered something and wandered off, leaving us alone in the cold. After that we must have stood for ten minutes in silence, as all my helplessness flooded back.

‘Tay,’ said Ellstone, frightened. ‘Tay, please don’t cry. I don’t know what to do when you cry.’

Fate was not closing in on us. Fate’s no good if it’s on the other side of an uncrossable ocean. If this were fate, wouldn’t it give us the means to reach it? But perhaps fate was not interested in us after all. Perhaps it was just passing and felt like having a joke at our expense, toying with us one final time before tossing us back into Tarot, to sink at last in the sea of human suffering, to surrender to the poorhouse and the life of slavery that awaited us there, to lose ourselves and each other for good.

The Jewelled Money Box

~ as told by Miller Raining ~

Even before I learned about the bloodbird, it had been an odd day.

It began with thinking about Alto Bracken. His smug, unshaven face swam before my eyes as I left for work and clattered down the iron staircase to the street.

I first met Alto shortly after I started working for Thistler. He dropped in at the office one day, introducing himself as one of the most senior scientists from the Halls of the Ninety and claiming to be interested in seeing how a small enchantment business like ours operated. He was in his early twenties, though his lack of social skills and sardonic way of speaking made him seem younger. Instantly I felt like at least his equal, though clearly he never saw it that way.

For some reason he took a particular interest in me, perhaps thinking I saw him as a wise mentor rather than an annoying show-off. He even asked to meet my family, which he did, though Tay and Ellstone took very little notice of him. That was, until he happened to mention that he was our cousin, at which point Tay began badgering him for information about our parents. Alto was evasive, but she did find out that they were enlisted in the military, and that Alto’s mother was the genius sister of our own.

From that point on, Alto came to Tarot roughly once a year to check in on the chants trade, and always insisted on visiting us while he was in town. These visits tended to be awkward; Tay did most of the talking while I glowered at Alto and Ellstone sat in silence with a book. When he left, Alto would always say ‘And maybe I’ll see you in Merry Mourning some time, Miller!’ That was what I hated most about him, I decided; he saw me as constantly struggling to get where he was, rather than simply following a different path.

By the time I arrived at Thistler’s Secondhand Goods, my brain was boiling despite the icy morning fog. The bell above the door jingled cheerfully as I let myself in. I turned the sign round to say ‘OPEN’ and clumped through the darkened shop interior that served as the false front for our business. The room was full of secondhand goods which I had never so much as glanced at, but now that Thistler had told me, I noticed they did indeed show signs of having been rescued from dustbins. The shelves were arrayed with dented candlesticks, moth-eaten clothes, battered books and splintered furniture. The sour smell that had baffled me since the false front was set up finally made sense.

A sound behind me broke my reverie. The bell jingled again as someone else stepped into the shop. I turned around, and froze.

‘I wonder,’ said the vuma, ‘if you can help me.’

His skin was the same Mlarwell pale as mine, just as it had been every time he followed me, but his suit and squint nose perfectly matched Ellstone’s description of the vuma who had killed a guard at the west gate. I guessed that the reversion of his skin colour back to its natural vuman tones had been down to a lapse in concentration; now, however, he was in control again, and staring at me.

Not quite processing what he had said, I asked, ‘Can I help you?’

‘I hope so, I hope so,’ he said. ‘I require a certain service, and I hope you’ll be able to provide it.’

My brain, meanwhile, helpfully presented me with several interesting facts: this man could weave spells, he could shoot bolts of lightning out of his fingertips, he had a violent grudge against humans, he had killed at least one, and now he stood before me – he had singled me out for something, but what, what?

‘What?’ I asked.

‘Would it be possible,’ he said slowly, ‘for me to pawn an item of mine that is of some value, and then to return at a later date and retrieve it for a somewhat higher sum?’

I blinked, caught off guard. I don’t know what I had expected him to request, but it was nothing this mundane. Plus I had not the faintest idea how this part of the shop was supposed to work. As far as I knew he was the first customer ever to want to use it. But I decided it would be best to give the lightning-shooting madman what he wanted and worry about procedure later.

‘Yes, yes, that sounds possible. I mean yes,’ I said. ‘We do do that, I think. I mean, I’m sure we do. Let’s see what it is then … sir. If you don’t mind.’

‘Excellent,’ said the vuma, and produced a small paper package. He laid it on the dusty shop counter and began to unwrap it. ‘I hope you will keep it safe for me. I could not bear to lose it.’

My gaze fell on the glittering item before me. I could not tell exactly what its purpose was, as I could not see past the extravagant decoration that covered it: rubies, rivoras, kingstones, emeralds, sapphires, kerralds – almost every kind of precious stone I had ever seen, and I had seen many in my days as an identifier. This vuma was clearly wealthy; perhaps he owned a successful magic mill, one of the places that made the chants we sold. Who else could afford a jewel-encrusted … a gem-adorned … whatever-it-was?

‘It’s nice,’ I said blankly.

‘It is more than nice,’ corrected the vuma.

‘It … must be expensive.’

This comment seemed to please him more. ‘It is a money box,’ he said, obviously recognising the uncertainty in my voice. ‘I’ve had it since I was a child. I am sad to be parting with it in such an undignified way, but I must do so. In a few days a large amount of money will come into my possession, but I need a small deposit now in order to facilitate that. How much will you give me for it?’

What should I say? One gold? A hundred? A thousand? We didn’t have a thousand. I wasn’t even sure we kept any money in this part of the shop. I sidled over to the rusting till and popped it open, trying to look as though I was mulling over the vuma’s question. A small heap of coins shone dully up at me. I added them up under my breath.

‘Four gold,’ I murmured, thinking I would have to go upstairs and raid Thistler’s secret drawer.

‘Four gold?’ said the vuma, his eyes shining.

‘No, I meant –’

‘That would be acceptable, I suppose. As I said, I don’t require much, and the less I take the less interest I will have to pay later, correct?’

‘I … maybe.’

The vuma held out a bony hand and I dropped the selection of coins into it. Just as I thought it may be safe to breathe again, he grasped my hand and grinned at me.

‘Remember though: I shall be coming back to collect the money box in a few days. Keep it safe for me, will you? But it is quite empty, so you need not concern yourself with the security of what is inside.’

I hoped he could not feel my thundering pulse. ‘Fine, fine,’ I said. ‘Glad to do business with you, Mr …?’

‘My name is Tane Ealorman. And it was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr Raining.’

Fear closed around me like a fist as he turned to leave. Mr Raining. Had he deliberately revealed that he knew my name, or had this been a mistake? Would he turn back to me any second, drawling ‘Damn, now I’m going to have to kill you’? No. He merely slipped out the door with a merry jingle and disappeared into the rain. Only then did my heart begin the gradual process of slowing to its normal speed.

I sat down on one of the musty old chairs and tried to get my thoughts in order. I pulled the jewelled money box towards me and ran my fingers along its edges. Some of the gems felt rough and sharp and dug into my fingertips. A coin-sized slot on the top revealed only darkness. Carefully I lifted the box to feel its weight, and something rattled inside. I set the box down, located a tiny key protruding from the front, turned it with a click, and slowly opened the lid.

Inside, gold coins glinted up at me, fourteen or fifteen of them, catching the dim light from the window and transforming it into a white that dazzled me.

I closed the lid and gazed around the shop to check that my eyes still worked. At that moment, the door jingled again, causing me to leap from my chair. Thistler peered at me through the gloom.

‘Mornin’ Miller,’ he said in his well-rehearsed way, though with a hint of confusion. ‘What are you doing down here?’

I picked up the money box and edged to the side of the room, where I hid it behind a toy bear leaking stuffing onto a shelf. ‘Just … trying to clean up this part of the shop, sir.’

‘Well, don’t go spendin’ too long cleanin’. Remember we got that shipment of chamber items to Eldermoon to deal with. That’s our priority.’

‘Yes, sir. I’ll get right to it. Just have to … fix this bear’s coat, sir. It’s a bit scruffy, isn’t it? Might be putting off potential customers, sir.’

‘Right you are,’ said Thistler, and wandered off to the stairs looking bewildered.

The moment he was out of sight I stopped adjusting the bear’s coat and took out the money box again, placing it on the counter. I opened it. The gold coins still lay inside, glinting almost mischievously as if they knew they shouldn’t be there. ‘It is quite empty,’ the vuma had said, ‘so you need not concern yourself with the security of what is inside.’ What did that mean? That he had forgotten about this little stash of gold? Surely not. Was I being tested? Or were his words an invitation, and these coins an offering of some kind?

Whatever the explanation, we needed money. This looked like more than the amount our parents used to give us every year. And it belonged to a murderer, an immeasurably wealthy murderer at that, a person in no dire need of this measurable sum. If he had forgotten he had this money, where was the harm in taking it? And if he was offering it to me, who was I to refuse?

Perhaps to some people this would have been more of a dilemma. But time was passing, bringing brighter daylight spilling in through the windows, and the creaks of Thistler pacing the office above were growing more impatient. So I poured the gold coins from the jewelled money box onto the desk, shovelled them into my coat pocket, and replaced the box on the shelf behind the stuffed bear. Then I went upstairs and absorbed myself in identifying, until my pocketful of gold coins and my encounter with Mr Ealorman were completely forgotten.

*

Now, walking down the rain-drenched street towards the docks, I reached into my coat pocket and felt the cold hard gold against my fingertips. I did not know quite what I planned to do when I reached the docks, but I assumed my brain had a plan it hadn’t seen fit to tell me yet.

None of the day’s events felt real, but I had to deal with them all the same. So, after a bit of bewildered sitting around, I had decided I should probably go after my siblings. Tay had threatened to go off on wild adventures before, and usually she returned in time for tea, muttering excuses. But looking back on this evening’s conversation, there had been something in her voice beyond the usual petulance. Perhaps it was desperation. Perhaps this time I ought to be worried.

The maze-like terraces of Tarot terminated in a cluster of lively establishments that catered to visitors looking for warm food, warm beds and warm bodies. Passing these, I came to the docks, where the sea met the sky in a haze of salty smog. Sailors shouted in coarse Tindertongue between heaving decks and creaking jetties. I kept my head down.

I found Tay and Ellstone huddled under a shelter with a stack of crates. (I briefly wondered whether these contained any cargo being smuggled to or from Thistler’s shop.) Tay stood blinking out at some imagined world beyond the sea fog, while Ellstone kept his eyes on the more immediate dangers of Tarot. He caught sight of me first, and tugged at her arm. She started when she saw me, and wiped the rain from her eyes. It was only when I joined them under the shelter that I realised how utterly soaked I was, from hair to shoes.

‘If you’re really going,’ I said, reaching for Tay’s hand, ‘you’ll need this more than I will.’

I dropped the money into her palm. She gasped, and took a step back, so stunned by the sight that she almost dropped the coins onto the splintered wooden boards under our feet, from where they would very likely have rolled through the cracks and washed away.

‘Where did you get it?’ was all she could find to say.

‘It was in a money box someone pawned at the shop. He’s rich, and he’s not a very nice person. Didn’t you say that makes it all right to steal?’

She nodded blankly and held one of the gold coins close to her eye. Pressed into its face were the pillars of the Halls of the Ninety in Merry Mourning. Even this was not enough to make Tay hurl it into the sea.

‘I brought your coat too,’ I said to Ellstone, ‘and the bloodbird’s letter. I couldn’t think of anything else you would need. Nothing that we have, anyway. You can always buy supplies in Qualmgate, I suppose.’

Tay put on Ellstone’s coat for the sake of symmetry. Then she finally took in what I had said, and glared at me. ‘What do you mean “you”? You’re coming with us.’

I smiled and shook my head. ‘You two layabouts may not have jobs, but I do. What if it turns out to be a trick, or just a dead end? Someone’ll have to keep earning money to pay the rent on our room. Who else is going to?’

‘But you can’t – you’re not happy here, are you?’

‘I’m happy enough.’

She crossed her arms. ‘No, Miller, we are absolutely not leaving you behind, and that’s final.’

My smile wavered a little. She thought she believed what she was saying, but I was not so sure. In all her schemes to get us out of Tarot, I had been mentioned, yes – but as an afterthought, a piece that didn’t quite fit, just as I didn’t fit in Ellstone’s plan to go to Merry Mourning. This was not my adventure to embark upon. I was an identifier, and that was all.

‘It’s not as if we’re saying goodbye,’ I said. ‘Whatever this letter’s about, it can’t keep us apart for long. Either it’s nothing, and you’ll come back home, or it’s something, and I can come and join you.’

‘But we’ll miss you,’ said Tay.

‘You can send me letters.’

‘Of course we will!’ my sister blurted out. ‘Of course! We’ll send you letters every day! We’ll summon bloodbirds if we have to –’

‘Please don’t,’ I cut in.

‘– and we’ll tell you everything that’s going on, and if it turns out that it’s safe, and if … if we find somewhere we can stay somehow – for good, I mean – we’ll send you a message and you can quit your job and join us.’

‘And you can do the same if you get captured by vumas and need rescuing,’ I said, only half my smile left.

‘That won’t happen,’ said Tay, waving her hand dismissively. Ellstone glared at her. ‘All right then,’ she said, prodding him. ‘In that case, you come up with a code word. Something we can put in a letter to Miller if we need him to ride into Qualmgate on a white horse and save us.’

Ellstone’s eyebrows wrinkled. ‘What sort of code word?’

‘A word that looks harmless, but one that we won’t put in by mistake.’

My little brother chewed this over for a moment, frowning with intense thought. Then he said, ‘Hippopotamus.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It’s a big grey mammal that they have in Akra.’

‘Great,’ said Tay. ‘Miller, if you get a letter with the word “hippopotamus” in it, you’ll know we need help. But we won’t!’

‘We’ll see about that,’ said Ellstone quietly.

I smiled. He at least was going to be all right. Or as all right as he ever was.

‘Shall we go and look at the ship?’ suggested Tay, and we left the shelter and hurried along a rattling jetty to where a ramshackle ship was moored. Painted letters spelling the name ‘LADY CARTHINE’ lurched back and forth in the darkness as the tide passed beneath its hull. The ship’s crew were making ready to sail by doing all sorts of things I didn’t fully understand, involving thick, coarse ropes, swivelling wooden beams and the folds of the sails. There seemed to be very few other passengers, but a small group chatted under an umbrella on the deck. From their fine clothing, I guessed they were visitors from some more prosperous locale. Tay made sure to stick her tongue out at them as she handed some gold coins to the ship’s purser, but they had already averted their eyes from the three scruffy scrawny urchins on the gangplank. The purser told Tay and Ellstone the ship was already late in departing, and that they had best hurry aboard if they didn’t want to be left behind.

And so we said our goodbyes, which were not as painful as they could have been because we knew whatever happened we would not be apart for long. Nevertheless, Tay hugged me, and we shared a look which she probably intended to communicate more than it actually did. Even Ellstone consented to a quick, anxious hug. Then that was out of the way, and Tay looked to the sea.

‘Look!’ she said. ‘You can see the sky is clearer over that way.’

‘Can you?’ said Ellstone, squinting sceptically into the fog.

‘Of course it is. The sun always shines in Qualmgate.’

‘How do you know? You never read anything about other places.’

‘I know,’ she said, with complete conviction, ‘because it’s somewhere that isn’t here.’

Two sailors with thick salt and pepper beards came by to take up the gangplank, forcing us to choose our sides. Tay pulled Ellstone onto the ship before he could protest any further, and I stood back on the jetty as the plank was lifted away.

So, that was that. Perhaps in that moment everything that followed was decided. That was how my siblings ended up travelling to Vumarule when most sensible humans were fleeing from it. That was how they ended up at the heart of the danger when war finally broke out. And that was how I ended up staying behind.

When the ship finally began to move, I walked alongside as far as I could. It heaved its way past the jetty towards the swirls of evening fog that hung over the sea.

‘We’ll send you a letter as soon as we’re there!’ Tay promised, leaning so far over the side I thought she was about to topple out. ‘Make sure you’re all ready to leave! And don’t let Thistler overwork you in the meantime! And remember to lock the door when you go to bed! And don’t light matches when you’re in the toilet!’

‘I don’t know about this,’ said Ellstone from somewhere behind her.

‘Too late now!’ she called over her shoulder. Turning back to me, she smiled sadly and pressed her hands to her lips. I had reached the end of the jetty, but the Lady Carthine kept on moving.

‘Miller,’ she said.

‘Tay,’ I said.

There should have been something more, but there wasn’t – it wasn’t coming. The distance between us grew and grew, until my sister and brother were little more than ghostly images, becoming ever ghostlier as the ship bore them off into the fog.

The last I heard of them was Ellstone saying, ‘Oh crap! I forgot to return my library books.’

Note

Thank you for reading this free sample of The War of Undoing by Alex Perry! That was only a small portion of the whole book. If you’d like to read on, you can buy the full thing now at Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes & Noble or the iTunes store – or you can learn more about it over on the My Books page.

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