The candle on Chapton’s desk had burned out hours ago, but Strix had no problem with the dark. And tonight, he was ready to review the last pending bill: a foot-high stack of wax tablets on the dry subject of olive harvesting.
Vinnie wriggled again in his chains. “You can un-tie me now. I’m not mad any more.”
Wildflower waited. The mad side of Vinnie had only tried this trick once, but it was better to be sure.
“No, it’s really gone this time. I’m safe as long as Dawnbreaker’s in that scabbard. It told me so just now.”
Talking to his sword might not be the best proof of sanity — but it had warned Wildflower earlier. And he hadn’t tried to attack anyone in the last six seconds, at least.
Wildflower started unclipping the chains.
He’d nearly missed it. Hidden under the “Quintennial recalibration of allocations” section, in the middle of a list of definitions:
Sixthly, one-tenth share of the olive harvest shall be due to the House of Procrusta, in coin or kind.
He’d struck out the clause, and wrote a stern letter to Draca Procrusta. That was all he could do now. None of the humans would be up to work on this until dawn.
It was a shame he didn’t get to keep proper Strix hours more often, but only so much could change at once.
Jethan wasn’t comfortable in here. The sandstone vault overhead might only have been a few feet thick, but it felt like miles over their head.
Carriera, by contrast, was in her element. She’d been eying the opposite door as soon as they got down here.
The moment Vinnie retrieved his sword from the door, she started running her hands over the door-jamb. “_C’est difficle, this door.”
Jethan rolled their eyes. “Have you tried the handle?”
“But of course! See!” Carriera grabbed the knob again, and twisted one way, then the other. The latch clicked. She swung the door open, and disappeared into the cut-slate passage on the other side.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know where he’s gone.” Narsifiette rubbed sleep out of her eyes. “He just ran off, and insisted he was too dangerous for me to follow him. I spent the rest of the evening doing weapon drills.”
Where was everyone when you needed them?
The next room of Wildflower’s house was full of Vinnie’s gang members, curled up on bed-rolls and couches.
One sleeper groaned, untangled themselves from a double-bass, and came to the door. “What do you need at this time of night, High Magistrate?”
“Do you know where Vinnie’s gone?”
The human’s face brightened. “Is that all? He just went and broke into the house next door.”
Sure enough, PAN’s door had been smashed in. Someone had scribbled a note on it in charcoal: “Gone for a drive. Back in 4 hours.”
“Thank you. I can find him from here.” A thought struck Chapton as he climbed through the hole in the door. “Narsifiette?”
“If PAN comes back, put them up in Wildflower’s house until we get back. Tell her this one is sealed as evidence or something. And make sure you hide anything … incriminating.”
The double-bass player’s face fell. Narsifiette sighed nodded with resignation. “Just get him back safely.”
A moment after Carreira set off, Jethan was after her. Wildflower followed at full super speed.
In his armour, it took Vinnie several minutes to catch up. By the time he reached them, the passage walls had changed from abstract bas-reliefs to smooth stone, then smooth to rough-cut chisel marks.
And was it sloping up?
Vinnie reached for his waterskin, then realised he hadn’t carried one since reaching the city. Only one thing for it. He drew out his drinking horn, and poured a puddle of ale on the floor. It flowed back the way he’d came. Uphill it was, then.
This passage still felt longer and narrower than necessary, but Vinnie’s measurement helped a little. And the environment was already hinting at life: a dusting of mud in the floor, mist in the air.
The mist grew thicker as they walked up. Eventually, even Jethan could only hear the water dripping down the walls. Then the calls of water-birds joined them.
Vinnie looked up, then poked vainly overhead with his scabbard. “I’ve gotta see if there’s still a ceiling here.” He shot straight up into the mist, with Chapton close behind.
Jethan put on their own wings, and flew after them. The sheet of mist hid the nearest terrain, but the mountains did look familiar. Almost like those around Kathrakopolis, but the city would have had towers rising higher than this.
A gout of Wildflower’s flame cut the mist below them. “Now I can see!”
Now all of them could see a path down to marshy water. There were hyacinths in the distance, and below them scorched reeds and a burning boat and jetty.
Jethan dove into the water and splashed as much as they could into the boat. Vinnie joined them and began to put out the jetty. The fires were out in a few seconds.
But by then, boat was a blackened mess above the waterline. And something large was moving under the water.
The creature drifted close to them, and raised a beak-like head. “Welcome, visitors.” Its voice was full of bubbles. “I am Cortana. It’s so rare to see another soul here; Her Ladyship will be surprised to hear of this.”
“Would her name be Katherine?”
“That is Her Ladyship.”
“May we see her?”
The voice bubbled again. “I’m not sure. I’d be happy to talk to you.”
Jethan cleared their throat. “Is this the Katherine on whose body Kathrakopolis was built?”
More bubbles. “You had better speak to Her Ladyship. This way.” The creature submerged again, and glided out into the marsh.
“Hop in the boat that you burned, Wildflower, and see if it still works.”
Despite Chapton’s sharp tone, but the boat really was the best option. Vinnie and Chapton were ready to fly out over the water. Jethan swam like a fish. If they didn’t use the boat, the only other option was borrowing a ride on Vinnie’s horse d’Ouvres.
They tip-toed over the scorched boards of the jetty, and lowered themself gently into the boat. Water sloshed at the holes burned in the sides.
Wildflower swallowed, set the oars into the locks, and tried to figure out how to row. Facing forwards, they went backwards. Facing backwards, they went forwards. One momment, the oars slid out of their slots, they next, they were jammed in burnt gouges.
Finally, they settled into a rhythm of smooth moments. Wildflower rowed for three minutes, looked up, and realised they were moving in circles.
After that, they let Jethan and Vinnie push.
The crab-turtle-thing, Cortana, led them to a rocky island rising out of the marsh. No, not an island — a tower of moss-covered grey stones.
A short pier, or perhaps a balcony, stuck out from the side of the tower at water level. A doorway with a white curtain led into the structure.
Vinnie and Jethan pushed the boat up to the stone railing so Wildflower could get out. As Vinnie finished tying up the boat — he’d wrapped the rope several times around it, just to be sure — a woman in white silk pushed through the curtain.
Vinnie flew over the railing, joined the others on the balcony, and bowed. “I’m Vinnie.”
The woman nodded an acknowledgement. “Now I know all of your names. I am Katharine. Just let me get some furniture, so we can all sit down.”
She ducked back inside the curtain, and returned with a table and several neat, white chairs.
When everyone was seated, she turned towards Vinnie. “Might I ask how you came to carry Dawnbreaker?”
The sword’s eye blinked open at its name. Doesn’t she know?
“You gave it to me.”
Lady Katherine’s eyes widened. “I have never seen you before. I live here alone, weaving my tapestries.”
Chapton rocked back on his feet, spreading his wings slightly. “Have you heard of Kathrakopolis?”
“I don’t know that name.”
Vinnie fell silent, thinking.
In a lull in the conversation, the lady leaned over to look at Wildflower’s crochet. “Here, hold it this way. Don’t pull it quite so tight.”
The new grip did seem to help Wildflower keep tension. Wildflower finished a few more rows, and when they looked up, Vinnie was talking again.
“What do you know about the Once and Future King?”
“Let me see.” Katharine leaned back, and folded her hands. “He reigned long ago, in a time of great conflict. Two forces tried to tear the world apart, but he faced them and prevailed. Since then, he sleeps, until the day the world needs his aid again.”
“Why isn’t he coming back, then? The world needs saving right now.” Chapton furled his wings with a snap.
Something splashed, and Wildflower turned around. Cortana was rising out of the water behind them. “It might not be your necessity the King is awaiting. He will rise only for the saving of the world, not some lesser threat.”
“Is this the same person as the Red King?”
Cortana and Lady Katherine exchanged a look over Wildflower’s shoulder, then the Lady shook her head. “That’s another name I’ve never heard before.”
Vinnie and Jethan seemed to have run out of questions, so Chapton added one of his own.
“Where are we? What is this place, anyway?”
Cortana’s head rose from the water again. “The castle of the Geardagum, at the centre of the world. When the gods sewed the surface of the earth together, this is where the seams met.”
Vinnie rubbed his chin. “Would one of these gods be Ienna?”
Lady Katherine smiled. “That’s my name: Katherine Ienna, of the Isle. Why do you ask?”
“Where we come from, there are twelve gods — well, maybe thirteen — who don’t exactly agree on how the world should turn out. They’ve been threatenin’ to destroy the city, and put everyone in danger. Not you of course, my lady, but you take my meaning.”
Wildflower nodded. “That fits what we heard from Gat.”
“Gat?” Lady Katherine’s teaspoon clattered to the stones. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper. “Cortana, you know the story of my fate.”
This time, Cortana rose out of the water with barely a splash. “Yes, my lady. It begins thus:”
Long, long ago, a daughter was born to one of the Thirteen Great Houses. As was the custom in those days, kin of every house, Great and Lesser, came to honour the birth. This particular house was well-loved, but rarely blessed with children, so the Houses offered many gifts.
The ceremony began with the First House, least of the Great, blessing the child with health and long life. Then, lesser and greater houses came forward, each with their blessing in turn: wisdom, prosperity, humility, grace. Blessing, after blessing, after blessing; never had so many houses wished to bless a single child.
When the last house, the Thirteenth, finally came forward to grant their blessing, there was a long silence. For one child with so many blessings, there seemed to be nothing left to give.
At last, they spoke. “I grant you the one thing you do not yet have. Your death.”
Chapton spun back to Katherine, shocked.
She set her teaspoon gently back on the table. Her face was as white as her robes, but she spoke more smoothly now. “It is not my time quite yet. When I heard that name, I knew my death was ready. When it reaches me, I — but until then — She swallowed, and looked down.
Jethan spoke slowly. “Gat said Ienna made a great sacrifice. That you saved many.”
There were tears in Katherine’s eyes when she looked up. “That may be it. Maybe that is what it means, to own my own death. I cannot choose not to die, but perhaps I can choose how and when.” She swallowed. “Perhaps I have spent too long cloistered in this swamp. I will need time to think, but before you go, did you have any other questions?”
“Do you know the name ‘Esdore’?”
“Not well, I’m afraid. It is a popular name in the Deep Ocean, but I’ve heard of no-one of note who uses it”
Wildflower made another few crochet stitches. “What about the rest of your house? Are they still around?”
“I’m the only one of my house, for now.” The lady’s eyes widened. “I suppose I need to think about finding someone to pass it on to.”
“Thank you.” Wildflower made a few more stitches. The fish was nearly finished, but a long piece of wool still ran off to the ball in their hammerspace.
The others were asking more questions, but Carriera had to be still out there in the swamp. That, Wildflower could fix. They teleported to a small muddy islet rising out of the swamp, and held up the fish.
“Carriera, I bet you can’t steal this!”
Lady Katherine shook her head. “I’m afraid not. The houses separated after that, to each go their own way for an Aeon. It has been only an Eon since, so they must still be far apart. Far away in the sky.”
“So who can I ask?” Vinnie slapped the table. “I’m tired of sitting around waiting for somebody to act first.”
“I wish I could tell you. I’m sorry.”
The lady looked up at Jethan? “What I said earlier, about the city of Kathrakopolis, and you sleeping beneath it? It sounds a lot like what you told us about the Once and Future King.”
She nodded. “I met the King, Alelin, once.But perhaps his role has somehow passed to me.”
As Jethan took that in, they noticed Sylvanus climbing onto their lap, clamouring for attention. Something about an appointment?
Of course! “We have to go very soon. I’ve got a meeting to keep back in Kathrakopolis.”
Vinnie stood up immediately. “It was good to meet you, Lady Katherine Ienna. I suspect we’ll meet again before too long.”
He seemed like he might say something else, but then Wildflower appeared with a bunch of flowers and started apologising for bringing down the lady’s doom.
While Vinnie tried to untie the ropes cocooning the boat, Jethan began to swim back.
This time, they dived deep. As they’d suspected, the bottom of the swamp was coated with rusting metal: swords, knives, axes and blades of every description.
Most of them were coated in algae and the rust of centuries, but Jethan noticed one still-bright dagger. They dove closer and picked it up.
That left a dark gap in the green algae. As Jethan swam back up, they noticed another gap in the pile of swords atop a tower. Of course Carriera had been down here.
Somehow, as they walked back through the mist towards the tunnel, Carriera was with them again. Wildflower checked the crochet fish they were still holding.
She’d replaced it with a real fish.
They checked behind them. The mists had cleared, of course, and left a blank stone dead end where they had to have entered a passage. But Carriera was still there, with the rest of the group around her.
No obvious sign of a fish, not that that meant much.
Carriera had focussed on stealing the fish from Wildflower. Not for more than a moment, but it was enough of a distraction for Jethan.
They reached into the hammerspace around her hair, and snatched out a small metal object.
Carriera checked the sword hilt sticking out of her pack a few steps later, but she didn’t think to check anything else.
It had been a long night. Vinnie paused in the atrium to rub his eyes, then opened the inner door.
A wave of song assaulted his ears. “— and we shall chain the capéd few, within this green and pleasant land.”
PAN lowered their hands, and all Vinnie’s followers fell silent.
The next morning, Wildlflower started untangling their crochet. Somehow Carriera had managed to leave the unused wool behind. Even the crochet hook was still in their hammerspace, tangled up with a piece of woven silk.
There were words embroidered on it:
Good fortune and my blessing to you all
Katherine Ienna, of the Lake
Chapton had slept well. He was already smiling on the way to his office, and seeing a petitioner in a sharp suit of his style — rather than the usual toga — could only improve the day.
When he landed, though, she moved between him and the door.
“Chapton the Strix?” She didn’t wait for a reply. “I am PAN’s sophist, and I need to speak to you about the behaviour of your police.”