THE KINGDOM WAITS
Spangles of light dusted the air, like a cloud of pallid butterflies. Silver goblet in hand, Savin stepped through them and with a gesture of his other hand drew the Veil closed behind him, as if drawing a curtain across a window overlooking a sunlit terrace garden. A tingling as his fingertips touched the edges together, a shiver over his skin, and the weave was restored as if it had never been disturbed.
A useful trick, that one. It allowed him to move freely in places where it was unwise to attract too much attention and it impressed the gullible. As the fairground shills and bunco-men knew, sometimes a little showmanship was worth more than gold.
One by one, the spangles faded into the gloom around him and he frowned. The tower room in Renngald’s castle should not have been dark, nor chill enough to make his breath steam, even after the late-summer heat of Mesarild. He rarely felt the cold, though he’d had to learn the trick of ignoring it rather than being born to it like his hosts, but the damp that came with it in these far-northern climes was ruinous for a library so he’d left a fire burning. Now the fire was dead, and there was no sign of the servant girl he’d left to tend it.
Where was the useless creature? He sent a thought questing through the castle’s bedchambers and sculleries and found her at last in the foetid warmth of the sty, bent over a hurdle with her eyes shut and her skirts around her waist as a lank-haired lad ploughed her for all he was worth.
He clicked his tongue irritably. Gold certainly hadn’t been enough there. She’d have to be replaced. Acquiring his books had cost him too much time and trouble to let them be ruined by mildew because some dull-witted slattern was less interested in minding her duties to him than in being stuffed by the pig-boy until she squealed.
A snap of his fingers called flames to the logs in the wide hearth. Another thought lit the wall-lamps, pushing the shadows back into the corners. Despite the lustrously polished Tylan cabinetry and thick Arkadian carpets, there was no disguising that this was a room in a fortress. Granite corbels peeked between the fine wall-hangings, and no amount of swagged and draped velvet could pretend that the windows were anything more than arrow-loops. Not quite the exotic wood screens and perfumed silks of his rooms in Aqqad, but it was a comfortable enough place to work – if only he didn’t have to travel quite so far in search of a decent bottle of wine.
He lifted the goblet and swirled its contents around, inhaling the bouquet. Tylan lowland red, dark and rich as blood. Not an outstanding year, but quite good – certainly far better than anything his hosts could offer: mead, or that thin, bitter beer they made here, good only for sour stomachs and dull heads. His lips twisted in distaste. This far north, good wine was one of the civilised comforts he missed the most.
A change in the texture of the quiet alerted him that he was no longer alone. The clicks and rustles from the fireplace were muted by a sudden, expectant stillness, yawning like a grave waiting to be filled.
Goblet halfway to his lips, he turned. The sight-glass stood in the middle of the table, covered by a velvet cloth. It was impossible for a mere object to stare, but somehow it did, pulling at his attention, reeling away and yet looming closer as if he was looking down at it from the top of a monstrously high cliff.
He took a mouthful of wine, then flipped away the cloth. The glass was no larger than one a lady might have on her dressing table, if she did not mind the disturbingly figured silver frame that appeared to shift under one’s gaze, writhing around and through rather more dimensions than the usual three. Within the frame was darkness, void and absolute. It had no surface to reflect light or colour, and yet it seethed.
We have been waiting, breathed a voice as cold and prickly as hoar frost. You have found it?
Another delay. The darkness shifted again, like ripples in ink. Our master grows impatient.
For a creature outside time, their master appeared to feel the passing of it most keenly. ‘The Guardian has a new apprentice.’
‘Perhaps.’ He sipped his wine. ‘And perhaps not.’
You told us the Guardians are a spent candle, of no consequence.
‘I may have been…’ he hated the taste of the admission ‘… too hasty.’
Silence. Then: This apprentice concerns you.
‘He wouldn’t let me read him,’ Savin said, ‘and I like to know what I’m dealing with. I don’t much care for surprises.’ Swirling the last of the Tylan red around the goblet once more, he frowned into its ruby depths. Alderan on the move again. The old meddler was planning something, without a doubt, but what? That was the puzzle, and puzzles had to be solved.
The apprentice was forewarned.
That was unlikely. It was not the old man’s way to give answers to questions before they were asked, and sometimes not even then. Besides, he couldn’t have known that his latest pet would come under scrutiny quite so quickly. What was he up to?
‘There was no reason for him to be prepared for our meeting. It was pure chance – I happened to be in Mesarild and sensed the Guardian weaving something. I wanted to know what it was.’
The old man was usually more careful with his colours, so Savin had cut short his visit to the wine merchant and followed them to an unremarkable house by the tailors’ guildhall, then to an inn in the old city, and what he’d found there had been … intriguing.
Chance so often governed the lives of men. The turn of a card, the face of a coin, and empires fell. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. Now that was an appropriate image.
Something amuses you.
‘I’m curious about this one. He was wary. All he would say of himself was that he had escaped some entanglement with the Church, and his left hand was bandaged. Unless I’m much mistaken, he knows what he is.’ Dressed like a ragged little nobody, but with the manner and bearing of a man who lowered his eyes to no one. Whoever he was, he was someone to watch.
A threat, then.
‘More likely just another piece of the puzzle. The Guardian wouldn’t come this far from the Isles simply to wet-nurse a minor talent – he was in Mesarild for a reason.’ A germ of an idea began to form. Perhaps the talent was the reason … Even more intriguing.
The idea grew, took shape. Anything special was precious, and anything precious was a point of vulnerability. A weakness. Weaknesses could be exploited. Like shucking an oyster, it was all about knowing where to insert the knife.
You should have brought him to us. Let him answer our questions.
‘Your questions tend to be the sort from which there is no coming back, except as food for the pigs,’ he said sharply, irked by the interruption. ‘I may yet have a use for him.’ A way to get behind those bloody wards, for a start.
Prevarication. In the sight-glass, the darkness seethed. We made a bargain with you. We taught you what you wished to learn. We expected progress.
‘I have made progress. I am close to finding what you seek.’
The twisting of the silver frame grew more frenzied, the ever-changing shapes still more unsettling. Amongst them, fangs glinted and jaws snapped.
Make more. Be closer. Our master’s patience is not without its limits.
Savin tossed the last of the wine into his throat and swallowed it down. ‘I have not forgotten the terms of our agreement.’
Good. If you had, the consequences would have been … unpleasant. The blackness in the glass trembled, no longer void now but choked, crammed with shadows that coiled in endless, restless motion, sullen as a stormy sky. Be swift, human. The Kingdom waits.
Copyright © 2012 by Elspeth Cooper