Whomsoever holds the greatest number of shades shall rule this kingdom.
Decree of Emperor Phaera of the Arc, 916 years ago
When a welcome to a city comes in the form of being chased through its streets by a bloodthirsty mob, you might assume you’ve done something wrong. Perhaps you’re a murderer. A heretic. Maybe you’re plagued, or owe silver to men who don’t know the meaning of scruples.
I was no murderer. I was a thief, of course, but not a taker of lives. Religion had died in my country long ago just as it had in this one. I carried no disease, and my accounts were in scant but decent order. There could be only one reason I was somebody’s quarry that night, I decided, between frantic looks over my shoulder, breath slobbering out over my lapels like a hound’s. I had simply set foot on the wrong dock at the wrong time of night in a city where laws are laughed at and crime is king.
Innocence doesn’t lend any more speed to legs than guilt.
Two hours earlier
‘Come on, come on, come on…’
Burglaries are tense activities, made up of many heart-racing, sweat-inducing and lip-pursing stages. From the picking of the front gate to the dashing back through it, arms bulging with swag, it takes years of practice to not crumble under the pressure. It’s what separates the dabblers from the daring, the lost causes from the true locksmiths.
I happened to belong to the latter camp.
And yet, even the most seasoned locksmith can have a bad day. Sometimes the stress gets to a man, tightening him in areas where he doesn’t want to be tightened. Then he thinks of the sand running through the hourglass, and he tenses all the more.
‘Fucking come on!’ I strained again.
Me. The best locksmith and thief in all the Reaches, clamming up like a freshpick. My only solace was that it wasn’t my prized fingers that were failing me, just my unwilling arsehole. Tension is never useful when you need to take a shit in some imbecile’s lockbox.
‘Damn it!’ I readjusted myself to see if a higher angle would help, and strained again.
I was rewarded with a precursory fart. I hunkered down and felt my bowels give way. I heard the splatter against the papyrus below, shook myself free, and used the nearby velvet cloth to wipe myself before shimmying up my trews.
Sparing a moment to assess my leavings before I slammed the lockbox shut, I couldn’t help but wince. The documents were official business of some kind, judging from their wilted gold trims and grand swirls. They had all been thoroughly and gruesomely defaced. Possibly a bit extreme, I thought, but in my defence, the ship’s cook had been producing a lot of salt-meat stews in recent days. Besides, the old hag who owned the chest had treated me like some Skol peasant for the entire voyage. It was her own fault for not having anything of worth to steal.
I shrugged as I fastened my belt. It would be a good surprise when she arrived at her destination; hopefully some sort of public family proceedings.
With two of my slender picks and a series of sharp movements, I relocked the box. I broke the rest of my tools into their respective pieces and slid them into the hidden pockets in the hem of my coat. I spared one to jimmy the door to lock when closed. That way I wouldn’t have to bumble about in the corridor like a novice.
The door produced a pleasant click behind me and I adopted a nonchalant amble. I could have split my face with a grin when I saw my victim’s fur-trimmed boots and velvet coat descending the stairs. I paused at their foot, my joy condensed into a polite smile. She snorted at me as always, and tilted her head away as if I reeked of farm work. Her lanky, leather-bound guard followed a step behind, giving me his usual blank but discouraging stare.
‘Madam.’ I met her grey-blue Skol eyes. Her lip wrinkled.
‘You again. Lurking as always, I see.’ She made her distaste clear with a swish of her coat, striking me in the chest. The guard pushed me back, and I found myself immensely pleased I’d finally found some lockpicking to do whilst aboard, even if it had taken three long weeks. I flicked the collars of my coat upright with a crack, and ascended to the top deck with a spring in my step.
The air had grown dastardly hot since passing through the Scatter Isles, and I went to the bulwark to replace the sweat on my forehead with cooler sea-spray. Whilst I lounged over the rail of the ship, listening to the seagulls mewing overhead and the waves slapping against the bow, I stared at the city that occupied half the horizon: my long-awaited destination. The City of Countless Souls.
Over the great stretch of seawater, Araxes had the look of a vast colony of sea urchins left to dry in the desert heat. To say the city was humongous was a dire understatement. Smoke-bound dockyards and piers stretched along the coastline for miles upon miles. Behind the sprawling warehouses, spires and pyramids reached up high, myriad and needle-pointed, all save for one bulging tower, poised like a column holding up the sky. Streaks of orange cloud stretched across its summit. Even from the sea I had to crane my neck to take it in.
The Cloudpiercer must have been half a mile thick at the base, and more than twice that high. The long tale of its construction was told by the bands of colour in its stone. Decade upon decade reached into the sky, tapering to a sharp point that shone like a diamond. At its very tip lived the emperor of the Arc, hidden away in an armoured Sanctuary – a smart decision when you rule an empire where everybody wants to kill you.
Word had it that if the Cloudpiercer ever fell, the heavens would fall with it. I’d scoffed at that when I first heard it, over a pint in some tavern, and I scoffed at it now. The tower was gigantic, true, but the Arctians were famed for having egos as bloated as their coin-purses, and I had no intention of feeding either on my first visit to Araxes.
The sun balanced on the ship’s railing, and that meant we were running late. As I had strongly suspected since the moment I’d stepped aboard this cursed vessel, the captain had turned out to be a liar. I’d paid him an extra pair of silvers to set us in port during the daylight, as had many other passengers, no doubt. And yet, despite his repeated assurances, it appeared we would be landing past dusk. I should have paid him two pairs, or taken another ship west. One with a better name than The Pickled Kipper.
I cast a glance at the captain. He hadn’t moved many degrees from horizontal for most of the day. He sprawled beside his wheel, yawning and flicking the rope tied about his big toe that held the spokes in place. I was not a violent man, and infinitely patient – in my line of work, patience pays – but at that moment I found myself aching to throw the fat fuck overboard. There was a reason Araxes had another name: the City of Countless Doors. In a city where you can kill a man, claim his ghost and everything he owns, or sell him for a profit, murder tends to flourish. Araxes’ streets were dangerous after dark, patrolled not by lawmen or soldiers, but gangs and what the Arctians affectionately called soulstealers. It wasn’t that they had no laws; just that with a city so huge, it was impossible to enforce them. I felt the sweat drip from my finger tip. For years, I had avoided working in the Arc, given their thirst for murder and their cutthroat politics. As the saying goes in the underworld of the Reaches: an Arctian would rather pay with steel than silver.
As the sun dipped into the Troublesome Sea, the sky to my left bruised to purple. The mouth of the port began to sparkle with ships’ lights, and then the city followed suit with myriad oil-lamps. By the time the ship nosed into the busy waters, the adobe and sandstone of the buildings glowed almost as brightly as it had in the daylight. I wondered, somewhat aghast, at the number of whales that must have been speared each year to feed the city’s thirst for oil. We had crossed wakes with a pair of whalers not three days out from Krass, and I scowled now as I had at them.
I paced impatiently between the masts as a boatful of armoured port guards came aboard from a skiff to conduct their checks of the passengers. Their questions were standard. My answers, as always, were lies. In my line of work it pays never to tell the same lie twice, even to a stranger. I’d always had a wonderful knack with fiction. In another life, perhaps I would have told my lies on papyrus, and sold scrolls by the thousand. But that was some other Caltro Basalt, and I was currently concerned with keeping this Caltro incognito.
The only truth I told them was my last name, and that my business lay within the Cloudpiercer. They snorted in disbelief until I showed them the papyrus summons that had appeared on my doorstep almost two months ago. I had almost tripped over the damn thing in my hungover exit from my pitiful excuse for lodgings. The document held only a smattering of words, written in green ink:
Your presence is requested at the Cloudpiercer concerning matters of employment. Present this seal for admittance.
I had recognised neither the black wax seal of daggers and desert roses, nor the name ‘Etane’, but it was official and intriguing enough to lure me to the mighty Araxes despite the city’s blatant risks. I have done business with and robbed from some powerful names in my time, but none quite so prestigious as to call the Cloudpiercer home. Like a vulture drawn to a fresh carcass, I had sold my room and everything in it, bought a new coat, and boarded the cheapest ship to Araxes. It had absolutely nothing to do with the fact I hadn’t been offered a job in months, and my coffers held more dust than they did silver. It was nothing to do with my desperate state of affairs whatsoever, and I had repeated that to myself for most of the journey.
The papyrus seemed official enough for the port guards, too, and they moved on to the next passenger. After half an hour of procedural horseshit, which I spent tapping my feet and eyeing the sinking sun, the ship was finally given permission to enter the port. Once the guards had disembarked, the rotund captain roused himself to steer the ship to an empty berth, somewhere amongst the press of vessels from every corner of the map. Several passengers cheered. The rest remained quietly uneasy, too busy clenching jaws, fists, buttocks, or if they were like me, all three.
Every moment the ship spent inching towards its quay, my eyes roved the dockside and the honeycomb alleys leading into the city. A few scores of ghosts glowed faintly here and there, working away. No signs of any living besides some bored overseers. Despite the clap of waves and the hum of distant industry, there were no screams. No baying gangs. No fact to the ghastly rumours I’d been told of Araxes. In truth, the only thing that concerned me was the overwhelming stink of fish and tar. My nervous heart calmed a fraction.
The other passengers gathered behind me. Some had loud complaints of their own for our captain, but he shrugged them off and occupied himself with his steering. Many didn’t seem bothered, since they had bodyguards and soldiers arranged around them. The rest were too foreign, too naive, or too stupid to be paying much attention. The traders of the group were busy swapping stiff sheets of papyrus, and the Krassmen – my own countrymen – were too drunk for anything beyond standing still and trying not to vomit as the ship waddled up to the quay. Swarthy, stocky with muscle, they sweated in their furs and cackled in my harsh tongue. I wasn’t sure whether they didn’t know or didn’t care about the fabled dangers of Araxes after dark. Perhaps it was the latter. Unlike me, they were big men, broad in the shoulder and thick in the arm. If I were to be honest, the only place I’m thick is the waist. I wondered if I could stick with them for safety, but a scowl from one of them told me I was not as much a countryman as I had assumed.
I caught the eye of the old Skol hag one last time. Her scowl was no deeper than usual, her eyes no more disdainful, and so I wagered she had yet to open her lockbox. If I wasn’t deceived by the crowd, her guard appeared to be clutching it to his chest. For the first time, that bland, ivory face of his was wrinkled. I would have laughed had it not been for the ship knocking against the quay, and the dark, silent mouths of the streets beyond it.
I took another look at the purple sky and the faint remnants of sunset, and spat at my feet. ‘Fuck this.’
As the sailors herded the stragglers towards the bulwark, I found a gap towards the mast and hopped up the greasy stairs to the aftcastle. The captain was still sloped in his chair. At the sight of me, he issued a half-arsed, half-mumbled order to show he was busy.
‘Tie off! Ingrates! What is it, passenger? I’m very busy.’
‘You promised a daylight arrival, sir. It is clearly nighttime. I wish to stay aboard for the night and disembark in the morning. You know as well as I do how dangerous this city can be after dusk. Otherwise I wouldn’t have paid the extra silvers.’
That got him vertical. He waved his flabby arms in an effort to shoo me down the stairs. ‘Impossible, just like I told the others. The Kipper’s being cleaned and loaded for a dawn sailing. Tide waits for no—’ His bluster was interrupted by a yawn. ‘You get the idea.’
An unsettling holler came from somewhere deep in the dockyards, and I set my feet against the man. We stood belly to belly for a moment, mine happily outmatched. I heard a few encouraging murmurs from the spread of passengers below us.
‘Another silver for your smallest cabin. I’ll be off before sunrise.’
He had the gall to push me. If not for the handrail, Araxes would have claimed me before I’d even touched its boardwalk. ‘You heard me. No! Farn, get this passenger off my ship.’
A gruff sailor took up the job. ‘Aye.’
Hands of calloused leather saw me back to the waiting crowd. ‘Two silvers!’ I yelled, but to no avail.
At the scrape of the gangplank, I was away, barging others aside so that I could be second off the blasted ship. In dangerous situations, it’s always wise to let somebody else go first. That way you can scarper while they’re busy screaming and dying.
It was working well until the line of passengers dispersed like smoke in a gale. I was left standing with three clueless traders, facing an empty canyon of a street that led vaguely south.
‘After you.’ I said, smiling and gesturing.
‘To lodgehouse?’ one said, in broken Commontongue. His accent was thick, of the Scatter Isles.
‘Of course.’ The odds were high that a lodgehouse lay somewhere in that direction. All things lie in all directions, if you’re committed to walking far enough.
‘Thanken,’ chorused the three. Clutching their scroll-bags and coattails to their round stomachs, they led the way. I followed a few steps behind, using them like canaries in a mine to test the way, pointing and smiling whenever they turned around.
Sandstone warehouses, factories and granaries hemmed us in on either side, reaching high into the dark purple sky. The heat had not faded with the sun, as it did in Krass, and between the buildings it was muggy. Smoke was thick in the air, still creeping from the tall factory chimneys above. Foreign smells wafted in waves as we passed doorway after doorway, and with them came the various noises of toil. It seemed the working day was not over, at least not for the dead. Between slits in the stone walls, I glimpsed crowds of ghosts beavering away at mills or forges or various clockwork machines.
When I wasn’t peering warily into the shadows, I kept my eyes on the glimmer of the Cloudpiercer, using it as a sailor uses the Undying Stars to navigate. I was eager to know the measure of my new employer Etane.
Despite a few ghosts that came ambling past with handcarts or lugging sacks, no others crossed our path. I was about to exhale for the first time since leaving the ship when a yell came ricocheting down the street and turned my blood to ice.
‘Get ready!’ it ordered me, though for what I had no idea. I assumed it would be something painful.
The traders stalled, swapping quizzical looks. I was already backing away, searching for nooks, crannies or any other apertures that would hide me. My heart was trying to punch its way through my ribcage. The rumours were true after all.
The sound of boots on sand was all I needed to hurtle back the way we’d come. I decided I would blabber something about forgotten luggage and hide on the Pickled Kipper until dawn. I’d give that oafish captain however many silvers he wanted. Being penniless was better than being murdered.
I made it around one corner before a door flew open and a pale-skinned man brandishing a curved blade jumped out to block my path.
Now, I am not a fighter. My hands are trained for more delicate work. But when death comes knocking, like most I’ll do anything to frustrate its call, even if it involves tackling a gap-toothed bandit to the ground and kicking him in the face before his eyes can stop rolling around.
I was halfway back to the quay when his comrades took up the chase. I looked over my shoulder and saw a monster of a woman leading a bedraggled band clad in mismatched black armour. Half a dozen, I counted, and four more heading me off at the next crossroads. As I was forced to change direction, I threw a longing glance at the sliver of ship I could see between the buildings. Despite my shouts, nobody came to my aid. I would have bet a tooth the captain was horizontal once more, yawning as he counted his fee for putting in late, the fucking blaggard. He must have been in on it. Him and the port guards, no doubt.
Curses streamed from my mouth as I fled down a side street, men baying like hounds at my coattails.
Soulstealers. That was the only explanation. I longed to have stayed at home in Taymar, where most people stuck to chasing you for your coin-purse, not your soul. I cursed myself for not using Etane’s invitation as tinder.
‘Fuck it!’ The infernal sand tricked my feet, sent me stumbling. Something swished behind me, far too close. I thanked the dead gods I had a penchant for tight and tidy laces. I’ve known far too many locksmiths who have been caught by the guards because of something so petty as a shoelace.
Only ghosts witnessed my harassment. They hugged the walls, daubing the sandstone a faint blue. Even fainter were their looks of pity. Even if they’d had the inclination, there was no help they could have offered. I found myself cursing the weak creatures in desperation. I looked up at the hazy swathe of black above me, bereft of all but the brightest stars. No gods to help me either. I was alone, and that is a deep and ancient fear to all.
I am not an athletic man. In fact, my build is that of a man whose only exercise comes from raising a pint glass to his lips. However, through terror alone, I managed to outpace most of my attackers. Only one stuck with me.
I swerved between a stack of crates, forcing the chaser to go around where I dashed ahead. An alley yawned and I threw myself into it. I fumbled into the dark before my eyes adjusted to the shadows. My breath came in panicked gulps. All I could hear was the panting of the man behind me and my heart vying with my heels to see which could pound faster.
Using the confusing nature of the streets, I weaved between the alleyways and the boardwalk, knitting an overlapping path for my would-be murderer. And yet every turn I thundered down, every zig I zagged, he clung on. His animal snorting stayed just a spear’s reach behind me. With each violent swerve, the more my chest began to burn. Every breath felt shallower than the one before it.
A courtyard sprawled between crooked old buildings, tarred black and dead of light. I ran for a street sprouting from its far side. At the last moment, I veered left for another, smaller street. I heard the crash and curse of a body against brick.
I skidded down another alley, thinking myself clever until I found it blocked by a wall of crab pots. I let loose a whimper as I collided headlong with them and fell to the sand. It was barely moments before I heard feet behind me once more.
The knife punctured me before I found my feet, cutting short my desperate cry. The steel came in through my back, to the left of my spine, and out through my belly. My shirt pulled around its point like a circus tent. I stared down at it, swaying on one knee and a hand, wondering why in dead gods’ names I hadn’t gotten a different ship.
The knife was dragged from me, and the pain came, blossoming like smoke over a Scatter Isle volcano. It crippled me, and I would have fallen had it not been for the iron arms that grasped me.
My head was yanked skyward. The steel raked across my throat, merciless. My chest and lap became wet and warm. Every time I tried to breathe, I drowned.
The arms released me, and I fell onto my back. A bloody-faced man stared back at me, standing against a backdrop of stars. He spat on me and bit his lip in a sneer.
I couldn’t think of a more distasteful person to spend my last moments with, and yet here I was: the life eking out of me by the jugful, and my gurning murderer looming over me like a wood troll. There was blood at the corners of his mouth and nose. His dark hair hung in lank, greasy strands, making shadows of his lumpy face. I should have kicked him harder when I had the chance. I could have taken a different ship. I should have stayed at home. That was all I had for comfort: should haves and could haves.
My fight was with the darkness now, and with his patience, which it turned out was thin. He was soon on his knees, knife at work once again. He cut me four more holes before my blood ran out and my body gave in. The shadows came swooping, and all I could do was scream silently at the injustice, the outrage and the hopelessness.