The mountain wore a mirrored mask. Ice sheathed the sheer face rising above both a steep river valley and the melancholy man in the red coat below. That ice reflected a pale sun that blazed light without heat. The glacier shimmered against a sky like glass, so limpid and still that it seemed each of the encircling peaks held its breaths against some whispered promise.
The ice-gilt mountains were themselves reflected, and bent toward a vanishing point in the polished egg-shape of another mirrored mask, this one much smaller. This mirror made up the face—the entire head—of a brass man who toiled mechanically up the slope of the notch below and between the snow-bright peaks. A wrap of cowl had fallen back from his featureless metal skull. His heavy hands gleamed as if they wore brass gauntlets. His brass feet were strapped into iron-thorned crampons without benefit of boots.
He climbed without urgency.
The crampon spikes bit into the ice of a river made into stone by the cold. A hawser thick as a woman’s wrist draped over the brass man’s shoulder. It stretched behind him on a weighty arc, reaching back to the curved prow of a strange ship: square-rigged, boasting a lofty reptilian figurehead gallantly painted in red and gold—but resting on two curved, ice-encased runners that bore it over the surface of the stone-hard river as if glass slid oiled on glass. A pilot stood on the little platform at the back of the bowsprit, peering up at the slopes above through a glass. Though it was early in the winter for avalanches, it was never too early for care.
Behind that ship was another, its dragon head limned in azure with copper gilt, drawn by four of the shaggy nimble oxen common to the region, as well as seven people with their own iron cleats strapped over their fleece-and-fur-lined boots. Behind that was a third, in shades of orange and crimson, likewise being dragged by its erstwhile passengers and a pair of the hairy yaks. And at the back of the line was the fourth and final ice-ship, painted wood mimicking carven jade and beryl, with its complement of laborers and cattle, and behind that walked several people considered unsuited to heavy hauling by dint of size, rank, age, status as paying customers, or infirmity.
The man in the red coat followed them all. He was last in line because he chose to be last in line. And because he was watching behind and below, as befitted a caravan guard—which was what he was. At least, it was what he was today, though the caution of the guardian was not the only anxiety gnawing in his breast.
He was a Dead Man, or he had been, and he wore the name of his former profession still. He and the other walkers stayed to the edge of the river for two reasons. First, they did not have cleats—those were reserved for the people hauling the becalmed ice-ships—and so they sensibly kept to the rougher ice and better traction along the bank. Second, the four ice-ships dragged and groaned in their heavy traces.
The pilots made a profession of bringing people safely through the mountains called the Steles of the Sky, it was true. And it was true also that it was mere superstition to cling to the riverbanks, when if by some mishap the ice-ships were to break loose they were unlikely to meekly follow the course of the river back down again.
Even knowing this, the Dead Man still edged off to the left whenever he could. It made him feel a tiny bit safer, even if they were walking from a place where he had never belonged to another one where he expected to feel restless and alone once more.
He had learned young that it was fruitless to worry about things he could not control. And there was very little here that he could have any effect on, but he could not seem to find his calm, or—as his long-lost beloved Zillah would have said with a smile, his resigned soldier’s center—and let events take what course they would.
It wasn’t the caravan duty that still had him so agitated, when they had left Asmaracanda months before, and unless you counted the Lizard-Folk brigands and the wildfire in the grasslands, those months had been mostly uneventful. No, what he was worrying about—still—was that it had been months.
He and the Gage carried a message, and that duty was the real motivation for their travel. Because they had been entrusted with it by the so-called Eyeless One: the most powerful Wizard in the world’s greatest city, which was the teeming market center called Messaline.
The mere existence of that message, and his charge to deliver it, left the Dead Man jittering. Wizards generally had terrible, selfish reasons for what they did, but the Eyeless One was different. This duty came from a being who had preserved Messaline in its time against plague and invasion. And while the Dead Man had no idea what catastrophe might result from a failure, he was confident that it would be far worse than a mere destroyed caravan and a few dozen souls perished in the snow.
As if to give the lie to his thoughts, the wreckage of other caravans were heaped here and there, abandoned under a halfhearted cover of drifted snow, providing no additional reassurance. Since breaking camp that morning, the caravan had passed at least a half-dozen shattered wagons and staved ice-ships, eyeless and picked-over as scavenged carcasses. In summer, there was the danger of avalanche. In winter, there was … well, there was the winter.
Like the brass-fitted Gage at the top of the column, the Dead Man had no public name in particular. Unlike the Gage, he hadn’t neglected his cowl, and wore a veil drawn up to conceal (and warm) his face, leaving revealed only a set of eyes that few dared meet. He wore the red, felted, skirted coat that marked him as a Dead Man, one of the elite royal guards of a caliphate that no longer exactly existed. He had not set the livery of his fallen empire aside, even though it was tattered, much-patched, and faded to a turmeric color in places, and though he wore another and bulkier overcoat on top. And although there were, per se, no Dead Men anymore. Not the proper sort, with capital letters, in any case, though the Dead Man assumed that the other, improper sort would always be leaving the world.
He was cold in the felted coat, despite the layers of other garments beneath and over it. And he was anxious to the bone. Anxious because the caravan was a fortnight behind schedule. Anxious because he had promised someone to complete a task he was given to understand was critical, and critically timed. And that anxiety, that need to be moving, would not leave him alone.
He knew it helped nothing when he invented scenarios of disaster and cast himself, his partner, and their cargo of dire importance in the leading roles. When he wrote tragedies that began with the loss of a note and ended with the loss of a kingdom. And yet, the worm of urgency gnawed behind his breastbone anyway, spoiling his frozen and dried and rewarmed-with-boiled-tea dinners, making even exhausted sleep ragged. If he didn’t know better, if he didn’t trust the Eyeless One nearly as he trusted his own Scholar-God, he’d swear he had been cast under a geis.
Every inevitable and perfectly routine delay along the way—storms, and illness, and difficulties in obtaining supplies—added to his burden of anxiety. He wanted the job done, his boots off, and a well-earned cup of wine. And yet there were still the mountains to get past, and beyond them a half-dozen warring princedoms.
And yet, this mail must go through.
He sweated from the steepness of the pass, and feared the sweat freezing in his clothing. He was lean as sinew, and that was part of his misery of chill. The mountains were another element: it was colder here than he had ever known it could be, and even the yak-felt stuffing his boots and his heavy mittens could not keep him from feeling it, though the good clothes kept his fingers and toes from freezing solid.
The Dead Man acknowledged that these factors had some bearing on the shiver in his aching joints and rising up his spine. But as he scanned the sky above and the slopes to either side, he could not help but slide a mittened hand under the flap of his overcoat and touch the hilt of his curved sword. This chill he felt was no mere artifact of the mountain winter, but something inner, and he knew that because it was also no novelty. He’d felt the like before, and knew it for a premonition.
His lips moved in silent prayer to the Scholar-God: Count on Your beaded necklaces blessings and forgivenesses for this unfortunate one, Most Holy. Dip Your sacred nibs in ink of jewel colors and scribe in the book of Luck good fortune for this unworthy. Then he wondered what she could do for him, so far from his home and her power, here under the strange sky of strange gods whose names he did not know.
The Dead Man paused for a moment, huffing as he watched the caravan creep incrementally away. Far ahead, the Gage trudged up, implacably. Technically, they were guards—well, they’d signed on as guards because they were traveling to the Lotus Kingdoms with that private message anyway, and they might as well get paid twice for the same trip if they were going—and not draft animals, but the Dead Man had never known the Gage to turn down any task that needed doing.
Copyright © 2017 by Sarah Wishnevsky Lynch