It's rather long. It's REALLY rough, but I've already apologized for that a couple of times, so I won't tax you with more browbeating. There is a section about a third of the way through where I basically drop kick the plot in, and I'm quite aware that it wallows like a hog in plotmuck, but I think I'll have to get farther along before I come back and tuck the edges in there.
Still not sure about Caliban. (Yes, one of my favorite masculine names, obviously.) Possessed, agoraphobic, killed the proverbial busload of nuns, and I'm still mostly getting surly rather than tormented. Possibly I am simply much more comfortable with surly. Surly I understand.
Anyway, all those glaring flaws aside, the suicide mission and three of our four dramatis personae are dragged on stage by the end, so that's something.
Also, I'm pretty sure I went to high school with Brenner.
The warden grunted. Slate flapped a hand at the man irritably, face buried in the damp handkerchief.
Eight priestesses and two guards. Would you do that if the bars weren’t there?
“Wait—“ she said, as it finally dawned on her. Possibly the sneezing had knocked some stray memory loose. “Possessed? Eight priestesses?” She turned to look at the warder, who nodded glumly. “Lord Caliban?”
It had been a nine-day wonder through the capitol—the madness of Lord Caliban, the Dreaming God’s knight-champion, paladin and demonslayer, who had been taken by a demon himself and run mad, killing half the priestesses in his god’s temple in one single bloody morning.
She stared at him.
He inclined his head. “Sir Caliban, actually. They stripped me of my title, although they were forced to leave me the knighthood. At your service, I’m sure.”
“I thought they’d hung you!”
This was perhaps not the most tactful thing that Slate had ever said. Judging by the angle of his eyebrows, it was not the most tactful thing he’d ever heard, either.
He rose to his feet. He moved well enough, for a tall man in a box barely six paces wide. He lacked Brenner’s dangerous grace, but knights were in a different line of work than assassins, at least technically.
Same line of work, different approach, I suppose.
“Indeed,” said Sir Caliban. “It was judged that since I was possessed, I was not exactly responsible for my actions, and so I was given…mercy.” He sketched the lines of the small cell with one hand.
“Did they exorcise your demon?”
“The demon is dead.”
“But if you were possessed, why did they lock you up at all?”
He exhaled, a sound a little short of a sigh, but rather longer than a snort. “Must I go into it?”
“Do you have anything else to do today?”
“Fair enough.” He gave her a small, mocking salute, perhaps in acknowledgement. “Well. Questions of guilt have always been difficult with demons. It was determined that a soul such as mine must have been guilty of…something…to allow the demon entrance. And so…” Again, that quick sketching gesture, marking the boundaries of a severely limited world.
“Were you guilty?”
His eyes glittered, but he didn’t say anything. Slate hadn’t really expected an answer.
She leaned against the bars, moving more slowly. The warder started to say something, and she waved him off.
Moving equally slowly, like two strange cats meeting in an alley, Caliban approached the bars.
“You’re not from the temple, and for a gawker, you’re singularly ill-informed. And you’re standing much too close to the bars for anyone with sense.”
If he expected her to recoil in horror, he was disappointed. He stopped a foot or two away. Slate was fairly sure that he could get an arm through the bars and around her throat if he chose, and equally sure that she could get out of the way if he tried, as long as the warden didn’t do anything stupid, like rush to her defense.
She wondered, briefly, if she’d even try to get out of the way. He’d have to make it a quick death, he’ll hardly have time for a long one…
He looked down at her hands, which were wrapped around two of the iron bars, and very deliberately set his on the bars to either side.
Her hands were small and scarred and nimble, index fingers darkened with ink and spattered with the pale marks of engraver’s acid. The fingernails were somewhat chewed—a vile habit, but she didn’t expect to live with it much longer. She folded her thumb over them.
His hands were broad and also scarred, pale cuts forming a raised and random pattern across the backs. Slate knew defensive cuts when she saw them, and recognized the tell-tale pink ridges of rope burns across his wrists. The sleeves of the prisoner’s tunic were too short for him, and when she followed his wrists upward, she could see the hump of muscle across each forearm, enlarged almost to the point of deformity.
Swordsman, then. God’s teeth and toenails, I believe it actually is Lord Caliban.
She could smell unwashed flesh and old straw and rankness, but over that, pungently, was the scent of rosemary.
Great. I’m paying attention. Now what? Do I offer him the job, or am I supposed to stay as far away from him as possible?
As usual, her erratic gift offered no advice.
Slate squared her shoulders and met the man’s eyes. They were dark and brown and held hers levelly. One eyebrow had an ironic tilt, but behind his eyes, she could feel despair.
There were a great many things she had prepared to say—vague explanations, stripped of any facts that could be dangerous, mentions of the Dowager’s name, promises of amnesty in the unlikely event any of them survived. She considered and rejected all of them.
“Would you like to go on a suicide mission?” she asked instead.
He smiled. It was the first genuine smile she’d seen all day.
“I would be honored,” he said.
The warden was not thrilled by the notion of letting a mass-murderer go, particularly not a famous one. Slate wasn’t sure if he really was making money by occasionally taking visitors to gawk at the famed murderer, or if he actually expected Sir Caliban to fall on her like a starving wolf the minute he was out of the cell.
He hadn’t looked much like a wolf when the warden had herded her back to the guard room. The way he’d looked down the hallway after them, face schooled to immobility, had reminded her more of a dog in a pet shop.
Let’s not get sappy. Your puppy made chew toys out’ve ten people.
“I don’t like this, missy,” said the warden. He leaned forward in his chair, his fingers splayed over her documents.
Slate wondered if going from ma’am to missy was a bad sign. Probably. “Look, I have signed orders from the Dowager giving me the authority to take any of the prisoners I feel will be useful. I have the authority to do this.”
Please, god, I hope I have the authority to do this.
The Dowager Queen’s exact words, delivered with an aristocratically wrinkled nose, had been “Take anyone from the prisons you feel will be useful. They may have a pardon, in the event any of them survive.” And then she’d gestured with a hand full of rings, and Slate had been hustled out of the audience chamber, feeling like a mule had kicked her in the gut.
Clear enough. Still, Slate had a feeling that “anyone” probably hadn’t included Sir Caliban. Perhaps the Dowager had forgotten he was down here.
Still, the rosemary had been unmistakable.
Unless it was trying to warn me of danger, and he really is going to kill me as soon as he gets out of the cell.
Oh well, now or later, it’s all the same…
“Find him some clothes,” said Slate, after the warden had puzzled over her papers long enough. “I’m in a hurry.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some nice murderers instead?” he asked plaintively.
“Quite sure, thanks.”
“We’ve got some likely lads being transferred in for assault next shift—“
“Just the knight.”
“That one—ma’am—you gotta understand, he’s bad crazy. Demon crazy. It’s not just like he hit somebody a little too hard on accident kind of murder—he carved up those women like chickens. And he says things at night that aren’t canny.”
Back to ma’am again. I must be winning.
“Then you’ll be glad not to have to listen to him any more.” Slate reached over and plucked her papers off the table.
I suppose we’ll have to get him a sword.
Well, that’s a quick death, too, if he’s any good.
The warden gave her a last look of entreaty. “Ma’am—“
“The Dowager is not to be kept waiting,” she snapped, and turned her back on him.
She heard the chair push back, and the sound of grumbling. A door opened, and closed. Slate exhaled.
Now let’s hope he’s getting clothes and not the Captain of the Guard.
The Captain would back her. Probably. He’d been pleasant enough to her before, if not to Brenner.
The warden’s spare keys were on his desk. Slate put out a hand, thought better of it, and then picked them up anyway. She pushed the door open and walked down the hallway.
Caliban was still standing by the bars. He did not look surprised to see her—it had only been ten minutes, after all, and he could undoubtedly hear the arguing from the guard room—but his eyebrows shot up when he saw the keys.
Slate bit her lip, looked at him, had second thoughts, shot them down, and put the key in the lock.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked. His voice was still light and dry, not as deep as she’d expect from a man his size.
“Nope.” She turned the key, hearing the clunk, and pulled it out again.
They both looked at the cell door for a moment.
What—does he need me to invite him over the threshold like an unquiet ghost? Should I back up? Is he afraid I’ll bite?
He reached out a hand and pushed the door, very lightly. It swung open with a long creak of metal that seemed to hang almost visibly in the air.
Slate had made peace with her god several times over in the last few days, but she commended her soul to heaven again just in case.
A tremor went through Caliban, barely there, probably not visible to anyone without as fine an eye for details as Slate’s. She looked away, because unlike Brenner, she had never much liked the sight of pain.
Caliban took several steps, and then a final one over the threshold. He swallowed, and seemed briefly at a loss for something to say.
Slate nodded at nothing in particular. It had been four or five months since Lord Caliban had enjoyed his notoriety as a murderer through the capitol. She didn’t know how long trials for this sort of thing took, but he must have spent at least a season in that cell.
“Well,” he said, rubbing his palms down his thighs. “I suppose I should ask what you want of me, madam.”
“You should probably have asked that first,” said Slate. I wonder where madam rates compared to ma’am and missy. Hmm. “But there’s little enough I can tell you before certain—assurances.”
He raised his eyes from the floor to her face. “Will you require me to swear an oath, then?”
It startled a laugh out of her. God, he really is a knight. Brenner will have a litter of kittens.
“I suppose the oath of a killer of nuns and novices isn’t worth much,” he said, eyes hooded.
“Nobody’s oath is worth much,” Slate said. “It’s nothing personal.” She waved a hand. “Anyway it’s a suicide mission. You—and I, and a…coupla other people…will be going somewhere, and doing…err…something. Which is probably impossible, and we’ll likely all die.”
He gazed at her levelly. She had no idea what he was thinking.
She wracked her brain for some detail she could give, something he could mull over, without giving enough information to be dangerous if he turned her down and gossiped to one of the wardens. “We’re going to Anuket City,” she said finally. That seemed innocuous enough—there were plenty of opportunities to do something suicidal in the city-state of Anuket City, and the fact that the Dowager’s kingdom was at war with them was about as far from a state secret as one could get.
“Ah.” Caliban leaned against the stone wall at the end of the hallway.
Slate stared at her feet and wiggled her toes. Caliban’s feet were bare. She hoped the warden would bring sandals.
It was stupid staring at her feet. There was a murderer an armslength away. One of his arms, not one of hers, which wasn’t much of an improvement.
Strangling wasn’t as quick a death as she’d like, but it still only took a few minutes. I’ll probably thrash rather embarrassingly. Still, could be worse. I do hope he doesn’t try to bludgeon me to death.
“The Dowager knows something about the Clockwork Boys,” said Caliban.
Slate threw her hands in the air, turning away. “God’s teeth! Why do we even bother with secrecy, if men in goddamn solitary confinement can figure that out!?”
Her voice rang down the corridor and woke irritated echoes from the stones.
Damn. I should have kept my mouth shut. I forgot he was a knight—he might even have encountered the Clockwork Boys at some point. I suppose it doesn’t take a genius to put “Anuket City” and “Dowager” and “suicide” all together.
“Answer the question,” he said, directly behind her.
“You didn’t ask one,” she snapped, turning around.
He was closer than she’d expected. He loomed quite effectively in the narrow corridor, particularly since he had nearly a foot of height on her. He reached out and caught her arm in his scarred fingers.
She considered flinching and didn’t. A snapped neck would probably be the best to hope for, but I suppose beggars can’t be choosers. I wonder if he takes requests?
“She knows something,” the former knight said again. “Doesn’t she?”
“Not nearly enough,” she said frankly, and met his eyes. “Not how they’re made, or where they come from. That’s half our job. The other half is to try and stop them.”
“That is a suicide mission,” he said.
“Mmm, quite.” She dropped her gaze to his hand, and he released her, looking oddly embarrassed. Was he trying to scare me? Poor man. “Did you think I was exaggerating?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Assuming you live through it, there’s a full pardon offered. I don’t know if that would include reinstating your title or not.”
“We won’t live through it.”
“No, I shouldn’t expect we will.”
“And what—“ he began, but the door at the end of the hall banged open, and the warden gasped.
“You shouldn’t have let him out, ma’am!” He hurried down the hall and shouldered past Slate to stand between them, bristling like a paunchy bulldog.
“Why not? You were going to.” Slate reached out and plucked the folded clothes from his arms. She shook them out. Tunic and trousers, neither of them new, but clean enough and neatly patched. “Hmm. It’ll do, I suppose, and—yes, excellent, sandals.” She passed them both to Caliban.
There was a brief, awkward silence.
“Come on,” said Slate irritably. “Our inevitable deaths aren’t going to happen by themselves.”
Caliban rolled his eyes up at the ceiling.
Damn, he’s having second thoughts. But he guessed too much, and I told him too much, I can’t let him stay here. Damn.
“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts—“ she began.
It was the warden who touched her shoulder and said “Should leave a man privacy to change, missy.”
“Oh. Oh. Right. I’ll…err…be in the guard room.”
She and the warden retired to the central room. Slate returned his keys. He glared. She pretended not to notice.
The silence got uncomfortable, and the muffled sounds of prisoners talking and moving around in the other rooms didn’t much help. Slate dug for another handkerchief, didn’t fine one, and tried to locate an unobtrusive patch of sleeve.
The warden cleared his throat. “It’s not too late to put him—“
The door opened, and Caliban came through. He looked considerably better in the clean clothes, which were too large rather than too small. He was still dirty and bedraggled and his beard was truly unfortunate, but now he only looked very bad instead of like death warmed over.
A decent bath and a shave, and we might aspire to “human.” Or, err, demon. Something.
He can’t still be possessed. They wouldn’t put him in a regular prison if he had a demon in him. He’d be so loaded down with spells and irons that he couldn’t sneeze without banishing himself.
Well, assuming he was even possessed in the first place. He might just be mad, after all.
He seems sane enough at the moment, except for the twitchiness. ‘Course, if I was in a cell for a season, I’d likely be twitchy myself.
Slate was probably the only one who noticed the way Caliban paused before stepping through the doorway, as if he still could not quite believe that there were such things as open doors before him.
“Right!” said Slate brightly, turning to the warden. “I assume you have something for me to sign?”
“What? Err…yes…” The warden rummaged through a stack of papers on his desk, then in a desk drawer. Slate read a few, upside down, and picked one out.
“Oh, yes, err…”
She signed it with a flourish. Paperwork, at least, Slate understood. “And a copy for me, and one for you, and…excellent!” She folded hers up, saluted with the corner, and strolled out of the guard room.
Her heart was pounding. It usually pounded when she offered people documents, but generally that was because she had forged them and was waiting to get caught. It was interesting that being on the correct side of legality didn’t help much.
The door led to a hallway, which led to another hallway, and a flight of stairs with a pair of guards. The knight fell into step behind her, a pace back and to her left, a practiced distance. He’s probably been an honor guard more times than I can count. Slate’s lips twitched.
What the guards might have thought of the small, colorless woman and her grim escort was anyone’s guess. She wondered if they even recognized that he was a famous mass murderer. Guards tended to rotate out a lot—prison duty was a punishment, not a prime duty—and many of them might not even recognize him on this side of the bars.
Of course, anyone with an ounce of sense out to recognize that a grimy man, in clean clothes, that paced like a bodyguard was not the normal run of events. But that was bureaucracy for you—get past the first layer of guards, present official looking paperwork, and nobody asked questions. They swept by the guards unchallenged, and Slate felt a small bubble of triumph, or possibly hysteria.
There were more corridors, and more halls, and more guards. None of them challenged her, even when they left the prison and entered a corridor more suited to a palace.
“This really is foolishness,” said Caliban in an undertone behind her. “The warden should have given you guards—something. Letting a woman walk out of here with a mass murderer—I’d have his job if he were serving under me.”
He sounded genuinely outraged. Slate had to laugh.
“Relax, mister murderer, you’re not getting off that lightly.”
She turned her head as she spoke, in time to catch his grimace.
“Sorry. Sir Murderer, should I say?”
“Whatever you like, madam,” he said, not meeting her eyes.
Still raw. Interesting. Not surprising, but the way he speaks, you’d think he’d hide it better. Ah, well—
“Here we are.” She turned down another, narrow hallway, and knocked on a door at the bottom of a shallow step. Caliban stood behind her, feet apart, his hands folded behind him.
Good lord, is that parade rest? I think it is.
Brenner is going to have a field day.
She knocked on the door again, a bit louder.
“Enter,” said a voice from inside.
The room was small and cluttered and full of papers. The Captain of the Guard, a iron-haired, iron-eyed man, looked up when she entered.
“I beg your—oh, it’s you. Do you have a report, Mistress Slate?”
“Sir. Uh.” What was the proper form for this sort of report?
To hell with it, I’m a civilian, even if they’ve drafted me into this lunacy. They can bloody well deal with it. “I—err—found one.”
The Captain nodded. “Very well, then.”
Caliban hung back at the doorway for just a moment, then stepped into the room as if hesitantly as if it were cold water.
“A pleasure to see you as well, Captain,” said Caliban, inclining his head. One hand went to his side, as if to touch a non-existent swordhilt, then dropped.
Slate was pretty sure that no one in the room missed that. She waited for the captain to turn to her and demand an explanation, or demand that Caliban be sent back to his cell or—well, something.
After a minute, while the two men continued to stare at each other like two tigers in a very small cage, Slate stopped holding her breath.
Can’t they yell at each other or have a manly hug or something and get it over with?
She read some of the papers upside down on the Captain’s desk while she waited. Most of them had to do with duty rosters. There was an interesting one about a sweep of the gutterside slums. Apparently unlicensed prostitution was up. She hadn’t known that.
“My god, Caliban, you look like hell.”
Slate glanced up, and saw the Captain staring at the former knight with an expression less horror than chagrin.
Hmm, they really do know each other. I suppose there’s no reason a Captain of the Guard wouldn’t know a famous temple knight. Maybe they worked together doing…knight…stuff…
“I’ve been possessed, arrested, exorcised, and locked in a cell for four months. There’s a dead demon rotting somewhere in the back of my soul. What do you expect?”
Slate went back to reading. It looked like the Stone Bitches were about to get arrested. That was a shame, really, they’d hired her a time or two to produce false bills of sale. Decent people. Understood craftsmanship.
Hmm, I wonder what a rotting demon’s like. Maybe he smells it the way I smell rosemary.
God, that’d be awful. Poor bastard.
“Ah. Yes.” The Captain actually seemed to be at a bit of a loss. He glanced over at Slate, cleared his throat, and gathered up his papers. “I didn’t expect—are you sure you want—?”
“Yes,” said Slate.
“Yes,” said Caliban.
There was a brief awkward silence. Slate wondered which one of them he’d actually been talking to. Somehow she didn’t think it had been her. Deprived of other people’s mail to read, she studied her feet again.
“Well.” The Captain ran a hand through his hair. “You realize, Lord—Sir Caliban, you would be answering to Mistress Slate here. She is nominally in charge of your mission, by the Dowager’s order. You’d—ah—support and render aid. And so forth.”
Caliban made a small, ironic bow in her direction. “Madam.”
Slate glanced at the Captain, wondering if he’d hoped that would be a deal breaker. Apparently it wasn’t. The Captain sighed.
“Sit down. I’ll call for the—ah—hell.”
With this fragmentary statement, the Captain swept out of the room. Caliban looked after him. Slate wondered if he’d noticed himself flinching back from the man’s movement.
“Hmm,” the former paladin said.
“If you make a run for it, you could probably get out of the palace,” Slate said, by way of conversation. “I don’t know if you can kill the front guards barehanded, but it’s probably worth a shot. I’d leave the city right away, mind you.”
He looked at her, his eyes widening.
“Just a thought.” She sat down on the edge of the desk and began reading the warrants for the Stone Bitches again.
“You’re a very odd woman,” he said.
“You don’t know the half of it.”
The door opened again. The Captain ushered a heavyset man through. He was bald, with the variegated pattern of shine indicating that he was probably shaving his head to avoid showing how badly his hair was thinning. He had thick fingers, wrapped around the handle of a large leather case.
“Sit,” the Captain ordered Caliban. And “Stop reading my mail.”
Caliban quirked an ironic eyebrow and sat. The bald man knelt next to the chair and rolled up the sleeve of the knight’s tunic. Slate stopped reading the mail, put one heel up on the desk and hugged her knee to her chest.
The bald man opened his case and took out a set of needles and a jar of black ink. A wave of rosemary welled up and smacked Slate across the nose.
Gods, I go months without this happening, and now this. Damnit, Grandma, if they hadn’t burned you at the stake I’d light you myself.
“I’m getting a tattoo,” said Caliban evenly. “Why?”
The Captain pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. “Let me start at the beginning. You know that we’re losing the war with Anuket City, I assume?”
Caliban smiled sourly. “They weren’t admitting that when I got locked up, but most of us suspected.”
“We’re still not admitting it, but yes, we are. The problem is the Anuket troops—the Clockwork Boys, as they call ‘em. As fast as the army cuts them down—which frankly isn’t very fast—more show up. They’re not human. We don’t know how to stop them except sheer brute dismemberment.”
Slate could feel her eyes watering. She snuffled grimly.
“Here.” The Captain dug through papers and came up with a hunk of debris. It looked like a cross between the inside of a clock and a piece of driftwood. Tiny gears and cogwheels encrusted the sides like barnacles.
The knight took the object and turned it over in his fingers. “What is this?”
“Part of a Clockwork Boy. It used to move, but we boiled it for a few hours and it finally stopped.”
“Are these made of bone?”
“We don’t know. The alchemists are still fighting over it. Half of them think it’s organic, and the other half think someone carved each little piece. They use a lot of words that I don’t think even they understand.”
“Hmm.” Caliban handed the piece back and wiped his hand on his pant leg.
“Anyway.” The Captain set it down on his desk. “They’ve got to be making them somewhere—or building them, or breeding them, or summoning them, or the Dreaming God knows what.”
Caliban might have said something, but the tattoo artist sank a needle into his bicep and he winced.
“Anyway. Your—ah—group will be traveling to Anuket City to attempt to infiltrate and learn how this is happening, and if possible, stop it.”
“Snrrrgghghk…” Slate pinched the bridge of her nose and tilted her head back miserably.
“You don’t have spies there already?” asked Caliban.
The Captain shook his head. “None of them have been able to turn up anything. All the ones who’ve tried wind up going missing.” He reached into a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, which he dropped in Slate’s lap without comment. “Our spies in Anuket had been largely diplomatic corps, frankly—they’re supposed to watch the politics, not break in and steal state secrets. So we’re trying a more brute force solution.”
The bald man’s fingers moved with surprising deftness over the pale skin of Caliban’s upper arm, leaving dark lines behind. Slate retired to a corner and blew her nose.
“And that’s all you know?”
“That’s all we know. A scholar will be accompanying you, who’s made a study of demonic machinery—it’s possible that his expertise may help.”
“You can’t expect this to work,” said Caliban, shifting in his seat. The bald man made a wordless, irritable noise, like a man with a restless horse. Caliban settled.
“Not really. You’ll note we’re using prisoners, not soldiers, and not just for deniability. The Dowager's grasping at straws, if you ask me. But if you live through it, there’s a full pardon.” The Captain sounded unconvinced.
“What’s to keep me from leaving the lady here and simply riding off?”
“Well, your word would be nice,” said the Captain. (Slate snorted.) “But failing that, the thing on your arm should do it.”
“What?” Caliban looked down at his arm.
Crudely rendered in black ink, a small toothy creature was portrayed with its teeth sunk into the flesh of the man’s arm. As art went, it was barely above a child’s drawing, but there was a primitive, scowling menace to it.
“What’s that supposed to be?”
“I haven’t any idea.” The Captain sighed. “But if you betray us, the tattoo will eat you.”
Caliban stared at him, then laughed. “You’re kidding. You can’t possibly be serious.”
“And they called me mad?”
He stood up.
“I wouldn’t—“ Slate began.
Caliban yelped and slapped at his shoulder, like a man stung by a biting insect. His hand came away bloody, and not just from the freshly inked tattoo. Red beaded under the black ink teeth.
“Gods—hells—it bit me!”
“They do that,” said Slate tiredly. “I saw one eat a man once. He tried to cut his arm off, and it showed up on the stump a few days later. Don’t ask me to explain how it works.”
Caliban opened his mouth and said something, in a guttural sing-song, that sounded like “Ngha! Ngha’ha, ha, kalikalikaliha!”
There was a brief, appalled silence.
“Ooookaaay…” said Slate, and sneezed explosively.
Shit. He is mad. Shit. The rosemary was trying to warn me off. Shit.
Maybe Brenner can kill him and dump him in an alley.
“Good god, you weren’t kidding about the demon, were you?” said the Captain.
The bald man laughed, revealing a stump of a missing tongue. Slate looked away, grimacing.
“That’s enough, Boran,” said the Captain sharply. “Leave us.”
Boran packed his case away and waved his fingers at Caliban and Slate, eyes twinkling. Neither of them returned his wave. He left, humming to himself.
Slate wondered vaguely where they’d found him. Minor wonderworkers were a dime a dozen, often with very specific talents, but what kind of bizarre turns did a life had to take before you discovered that your personal gift from the universe was making carnivorous tattoos?
Caliban sat down again, clearing his throat and glaring daggers at the Captain. When he spoke, he seemed to test the words first to make sure they were coming out correctly. “I can’t believe you’d do this to me. Particularly after I saved your—”
“Yes, well. Times change. People change.”
Somebody’s pretty self-righteous for a nun-killer. This may be a long trip.
“I’m sending you off to die, anyway,” said the Captain, not meeting his eyes. “Do the job, and you’ll be dead long before the tattoo gets any ideas—and if you do live, we’ll take it off you.”
Caliban turned his head a little, eyes closing. Slate watched him fight himself visibly under control.
“You sure this is the only one you want?” asked the Captain asked her. “The Dowager said the prisons were opened, god help us all.”
Slate shrugged. “If you thought numbers would help, you’d send the army. He’ll do. I hope.”
The knight opened his eyes and looked at them levelly. “My word would have been enough,” he said.
The Captain shrugged. “Then you’ve got nothing to worry about.” And when Caliban simply gazed at him, “Look, I don’t like this either. That man makes my skin crawl. But the Clockwork Boys have to be stopped, and soon. We just don’t have the men to hold them off forever. If this works—well, the gods can call me to account for it on the other side.”
Caliban transferred his gaze to Slate. Slate met it evenly.
“That’s why you told me to run for it,” he said.
The Captain’s eyes clicked from one to the other, but he didn’t say anything.
“Why are you doing this?”
Slate pushed one of her sleeves up to the shoulder. Her own tattoo looked larger, perhaps because she was so much smaller. Jagged black teeth formed a semicircle halfway around the arm, and the skin under them had the mottled look of an old bruise.
When the tongueless wonderworker had given her the tattoo, three days ago, the smell of rosemary had been so overpowering that the Captain had had to hold her arm steady while she sneezed and jerked. It had been humiliating. Her nose had bled by the end of it, and her head had felt as if it were packed to the seams with wool.
The Captain had been apologetic. She’d ruined two of his handkerchiefs. Whatever he thought of himself, it did not involve holding down twitching women while tongueless wonderworkers etched curses into their flesh. Even if they were criminals.
“When is the scholar due to arrive?” Slate asked.
“He is supposed to arrive tomorrow or the next day. We expected you to leave in three days—are you sure you won’t stay at the palace?”
“No need, is there?” Slate smiled, because otherwise she thought she might cry. She slid off the desk. “Three days, then. You know where to find us.”
She led the way out the door, with the knight walking a single pace behind her.
The street out of the keep led down a cobbled way, into a broad square, full of merchant stalls and food carts and jostling people.
They got about half a block down, nearly to the edge of the market, and Caliban had to stop.
It was too much. There were too many people, too many colors, moving too quickly. The sky was too large. He felt dizzy, as if he might fall upward into it.
He tried to keep up with the woman—Slate—but his head spun and he staggered. She was moving too quickly, her small form outpacing him as he shied like a nervous horse at the loud voices and flapping cloth.
“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice high and hoarse. “I—wait—please—“
She turned, startled, and he put his hands over his face to block out the world.
“Hey now—hey—“ Her voice was sympathetic but wary, as if she wasn’t sure whether to console him or slap him. “Hey, now, you knew it was a suicide mission, don’t go to pieces on me, the tattoo won’t eat you as long as you’re trying—“
“It’s not that,“ he said. “It’s the sky. There’s too much of it.”
Now that’s a sensible thing to say. Perhaps you really are mad.
Her fingers touched his sleeve, then she curled her hand around his arm and tugged him forward. “It’s okay. Keep your eyes closed, here—come on—just through here—“
He followed, keeping one hand over his eyes. The sounds of the city were still overwhelming, but they ran together into a muted roar, and he could ignore it.
To think that a season ago, he’d walked or ridden through these streets without thinking them strange at all. He’d moved like a fish through a darting, multicolored sea.
“Come on—step down—you’re doin’ good—“
Such a great champion you are, now, being led blind by a woman half your size. Demons must tremble…
His own particular demon muttered down in the dark, ragged ends of syllables with no earthly meaning. Death hadn’t silenced it completely. It was a more familiar sound than the city, now, but not a comfortable one.
“Here. It’s an alley—this is the best I can do—“
He cracked his fingers cautiously, and saw stone between them. It was indeed an alley, the corners thick with trash, the walls close and comforting. The sky was a narrow crack of blue overhead. A shudder of relief wracked him.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t expect—this is foolish of me—“
“It’s really not that uncommon,” she said. She was still holding his arm, and patted him absently, as if he really were a skittish horse. “A lot of people get out and get a touch of agoraphobia at first. It’ll pass off in a day or two. I shouldn’t have taken you straight into the marketplace, I wasn’t thinking.”
“You sound as if you’ve known a number of prisoners,” he said dryly.
She released his arm and retreated the few feet to the other side of the alley, leaning against the wall near the mouth. He tried to look out into the market again, found it a dizzying whirl, and looked away.
He looked at Slate instead. She was a small-boned woman, her eyes grey and smoky, like flawed quartz. She had dark brown hair in a thick braid down her back, and a narrow face with high cheekbones. She scowled out at the marketplace as if it had personally offended her.
Caliban was vaguely aware that he would not have looked twice at her in the days when he was a god’s champion. Beautiful women had been strewn in his path like rose petals.
And that morning, after you were done with the sword, they were strewn in your path again. Although not many roses are that exact shade of red, and they were not so beautiful any more.
Shut up. You’re out of the cell. Quit wallowing.
He squelched that thought. Whether it was the demon’s muttering corpse or his own overexcited conscience, he still wasn’t sure, but it did not good either way.
It was embarrassing that he’d spoke with the demon voice in the Captain’s office. He hadn’t meant to. It must have been the tattoo, or the tattoo artist. Magic made the corpse stir, as if something were walking past it and kicking up the flies. It took them awhile to buzz and settle down again.
Such a lovely metaphor.
The tattoo itched. He wanted to scratch it, but he was afraid it might scratch him back.
My mind hasn’t been my own, and now my flesh isn’t either. At least they’re a matched set.
Slate was peering out the mouth of the alley, chewing on her lower lip. Her eyebrows were pulled down. She was not a beautiful woman, he was forced to admit, but she had a mobile, expressive face. That was what had struck him, even in the cell, the way each thought passed visibly across her face, like the shadow of clouds moving over a hillside.
Once she’d stopped sneezing, anyway.
Or perhaps she was a perfectly ordinary woman, and he was merely maundering because she was the first one he’d seen in a season. What a thing to wreak on a man--the sky too large, all movements too fast, and all women interesting.
He risked another glance at the whirl of activity outside the alley. His stomach churned a bit, but it wasn’t quite as dizzying.
“If I called us a carriage,” said Slate thoughtfully, “can you make it to the street? It’s—oh, half a block, I’d say.”
“I think I can make it,” he said, although his stomach knotted at the thought.
The sky, the sky, I’ll fall into the sky…
She gave him a concerned look. “I could blindfold you if you like.”
Caliban had little enough pride left, but the thought at first horrified, then amused him. What a pair they’d make—a short little criminal leading a blind, shambling wreck of paladin. The Dreaming God wasn’t known for his sense of humor, but sometimes you had to wonder.
“As entertaining as that would be for the locals, no. I can make it. Just…don’t walk too fast.”
She nodded, and stepped out of the alley.
They went at a walk. Caliban fastened his eyes on her back. She was wearing a completely unmemorable skirt and tunic, in dull red-brown. The seam was starting to come loose on the left shoulder. If he lost sight of her, he was going to have a hell of a time finding her again.
On the other hand, she was visiting a prison, not going dancing. Probably an intelligent choice.
I wonder what she did to earn a death sentence?
The thought was startling. He glanced aside, caught a glimpse of the market swirling around him, and bore it for as long as he could before returning his gaze to Slate’s back. She turned to glance at him, and he gave her a nod. She nodded in return and plunged forward.
They didn’t give death sentences for most crimes. The Dowager preferred money and hard labor, in that order, and dead men are notorious bad at either.
He doubted she was a murderer. Her stained, elegant hands looked like a scribe, or an alchemist. A thief, possibly, which conjured up all sorts of images of daring, midnight burglaries and escapes across the rooftops.
Caliban almost snorted at the thought. Did anyone really do that? Pickpocketing, perhaps, banditry certainly, but genteel thievery seemed more like a romantic fiction than an actual profession.
Would they really sentence you to death for it?
A spy? A traitor? Would they send a traitor out on a job like this?
Would they put her in charge?
The cursed tattoo throbbed on his shoulder, and he grimaced. It was, he had to admit, an excellent piece of insurance.
They passed a fishmonger’s stall, and a man carrying several wrapped, dripping packages turned and ran into his shoulder. Caliban staggered back, more from the unexpected contact than the force.
“Hey, watch where you’re going! Are you drunk?”
“No, I—sorry—“ He plunged after Slate, suddenly terrified of losing her in this jumble. She was an unlikely safety, and yet without her—would the tattoo begin chewing at his arm? Would he fall into the sky?
The man cursed after him, brandishing his fish. Slate glanced back, saw Caliban following, and nodded.
She stopped at last on the edge of the street, waving for a cab. Caliban put a hand over his face again. He was horrified to discover that he was on the edge of tears.
It was too much all at once. The sky, the tattoo, freedom, a suicide mission—too much. He’d spent four months in a cell, of changeless days and changeless walls, of praying for something, anything, to happen.
And now it had. He did not know if he was grateful, but he knew he was overwhelmed.
Has the god answered my prayers, or is this another punishment for my sins?
There was a rattle of wheels, and Slate’s hand on his arm again. “Come on, the carriage is here.”
He climbed into it obediently, and sagged back against the wooden seat when the door closed. The inside was a safely bounded world, the proper size. The knot in his stomach loosened.
“Seven Crows,” Slate told the driver, leaning out the window.
“That’s two blocks from here,” the driver said, disgusted. “You could walk it faster than I can drive you.”
“Just do it,” said Slate. “My friend’s sick.”
“Drunk, more like…” muttered the driver, but he snapped the reins and called “Heeee-yup!” to the horses. They plodded off. The wheels creaked.
“I’m sorry,” said Caliban again, resting his hands on his knees. “You must be regretting your choice.”
She smiled briefly and patted his knee. “No. This’ll pass in a day or two, and you’ll be fine. Or at least no worse off than any of the rest of us. Or you'll kill us all. Either way, really.” She leaned back and closed her eyes. Her face, when there was nothing passing across it, looked tired.
And that was another odd thing. She touched him without fear, but he hadn’t seen any interest in her eyes. Caliban wasn’t used to that. Women usually noticed him. Even priestesses. Sometimes especially priestesses. He was the god’s own champion, a great demonslayer, and by all accounts, a very handsome man.
Is she a woman for other women, then? He hadn’t gotten that impression.
Caliban looked down at his hands, at the dirty fingernails and grime between them, and almost snorted at his own arrogance.
You haven’t bathed, or shaved, in a season. A woman hardly has to prefer her own sex not to find you attractive. You’re not exactly the elite Knight-Champion of the Dreaming God any more, if you haven’t noticed.
Just as well, anyway. The last eight women you met didn’t fare all that well.
The carriage rumbled to a halt. “Just a little farther,” said Slate, apologetically.
The last leg of the journey, he barely saw at all. There was an inn, a blur of empty tables, a flight of blessedly enclosed stairs. Slate opened the door to a suite, and ushered him inside.
“He’s a knight?”
The man who spoke was a wiry, compact fellow with heavy eyebrows and shoulder length brown hair. He had been slouched at ease with his booted feet over the arm of a chair.
He had not actually been flipping a knife, because hardly anyone ever really does that, but he did look as if he’d been thinking about it. A pile of cigarette ends in the ashtray showed what he’d been doing instead.
When Slate informed him of their new acquaintance’s identity, he sat bolt upright and stared. “Have you lost your mind? The pick of the Dowager’s prisons—the finest cutthroats and criminals in the kingdom—and you bring us a knight?”
“They’re not the finest,” she said dryly, “or they wouldn’t have gotten caught. Yes, I picked him. His name is Sir Caliban. Caliban, this is Brenner. He’s an assassin.”
He could be at that, Caliban decided, looking Brenner over. The man moved as nimbly as a cat, with more strength than grace, and yet, despite pacing wildly back and forth across the room (as he leapt up and began to do) his feet made no sound. He wore dusty brown clothing, and his boots were very fine.
It was funny, in a way, that a man who could forget how huge the world was could still recognize good boots.
The inn was not so good as the boots, but it could still have been a lot worse—a suite of rooms, one large window, chairs and a fireplace in the sitting room. Someone was paying rather a lot of money for it. The fireplace had a low, smoldering fire in it, and Caliban stumbled to it, feeling the warmth on the backs of his legs. He had not warmed himself at a fire in a long time.
“Good god, a knight! Why not bring some watchmen along too?”
“They had some,” said Slate. “I didn’t much care for their looks.”
“Yes, but—gods! I thought you were going to get us a half-dozen thugs, some muscle for the trip, not a knight.” Brenner stopped in front of Caliban, raking his eyes up and down. His eyebrows moved like angry caterpillars.
A season or a lifetime ago, Caliban would have drawn his sword and shown the man muscle. He might be an assassin, but few assassins were terribly good at resisting a straight assault. The way this one moved said that he was probably a more than competent knife fighter—he had that unconscious tendency to present only a profile to the enemy—but a sword gave you a good bit of advantage in reach (although not as much as one might think.)
A straightforward attack, then, right down the middle, butchery rather than swordplay. It would have the advantage of surprise. If the man got a knife out, he could adjust tactics accordingly.
He did none of these things. He had not held a sword for months. He could not even think of a response to the man’s words, and Caliban’s wits were generally the last thing to desert him. Possibly they’d fallen into the sky.
Ngha, ngha, hggahn kalikalikali… muttered the demon.
His hands were shaking. Caliban put them behind him. He looked up and met Brenner’s eyes, which were blue, with pale rings around the pupil, and knew the man had seen his trembling.
Of course. Assassins were an observant lot, or they didn’t last very long. Little things like trip wires and the changing of the guard could really put a damper on one’s career.
“He’s a complete wreck,” said Brenner, displaying his grasp of the obvious. The caterpillars slammed together over his nose.
“Shut up, Brenner,” said Slate tiredly. “And sit down, too. The poor man’s been in a cell for months, he’s hardly at his best. You know how people get when they’ve been in for too long. Some rest and decent food and he’ll be fine.”
“I just don’t see why,” said Brenner. “Do you have some kind of armor fetish you never mentioned before?”
A whining assassin. Caliban had seen everything now.
“I had a feeling, okay?”
He turned away from his quarry and toward Slate. Caliban felt a shameful flush of relief that the man was leaving him alone, and an immediate twinge. The assassin looked half again as large as Slate, and he descended on her like a stooping hawk.
Caliban took a step forward, despite himself. He had thought that he had slaughtered chivalry on that red morning four months ago, but perhaps there was a little left after all.
Slate, however, seemed unimpressed. She waved Brenner off with a backhanded gesture, a slap at the air, and stalked over to the room’s narrow window. “Relax, Brenner.”
“Tell me why!”
“I told you! I had a feeling!”
“If you think I’m traipsing over half the countryside with a bloody knight-errant based on some kind of—of women’s intuition—“
She growled, turned around, and planted a hand in the middle of the assassin’s chest, and pushed. He fell back a step, probably out of courtesy. “A feeling, you idiot!”
Brenner opened his mouth, shut it again, and said, in a rather different tone, “Oh.”
“Like that one time—“
“With the sneezing—“
He folded his arms and leaned against the wall, looking deflated. “You should’ve said.”
“I thought I did!”
There was some shared knowledge here lost on Caliban. He found that he didn’t care. The world was starting to spin again. He looked around for another chair, found one in front of the fire, and sat down. The world slowed, jerking rather than spinning. He put his face in his hands.
“All right,” said Brenner, behind him, “if that’s the way it is. I still think—well, never mind.”
“I’m not a knight-errant,” someone said. Caliban realized after a moment that it had been him. He dropped his hands.
“What?” Brenner turned around.
“I’m not a knight-errant. Errants are questing knights. I don’t. Didn’t.” He cleared his throat.
Brenner’s eyebrows didn’t know whether to pull down in a scowl or go up in astonishment. The caterpillars did a complicated jig across his forehead instead.
“I was a paladin, actually. A holy champion of the Dreaming God. I killed demons. No questing.” It sounded strange to say it. He had kept vigils in white marble halls, his nostrils full of the scent of incense and holiness. It was a long way from this small, cramped room over an inn, and the only thing he could smell were cheap candles and his own odor.
He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s a minor theological difference, I grant you.”
The assassin stared at him mutely, then swung around and stared at Slate, who spread her hands helplessly.
There was a silence, except for the rustling of cloth as the other two shifted their feet. Then a loud bark of male laughter rang by his ear.
“Good lord,” said Brenner. “You’re kidding. Is this Lord Caliban?”
“Yes,” said Slate wearily.
“The one who—“
“All those priestesses—“
Brenner grinned hugely. He had excellent teeth. “I take back everything I said, Slate, darlin’.”
“Shut up, Brenner,” said Slate, a well-polished phrase if Caliban had ever heard one.
“Lord Caliban! Ha! You’ve got quite a set, girl. I always said.” A heavy hand fell on Caliban’s shoulder. The knight controlled a flinch.
“Sir Caliban, actually,” he said. And when Brenner whooped again, “Or just Caliban.”
“You planning on killing our Slate some night on the road, Sir Caliban?”
The knight smiled sourly. “Not if you’re closer.”
This was apparently the right response. Brenner slapped him on the back and went back to his chair. “Excellent! At least we’ll all go to hell in good company.”
Caliban traded a brief, ironic glance with Slate. The question of why she was the one in charge of their little jaunt into death’s jaws had been abundantly answered.
She turned toward the door. “You can use my room. I’ll have them draw you a bath.”
“What did she do?” asked Caliban, when the door had closed behind her.
“Do?” Brenner slung his legs over the arm of the chair again.
“You know. What crime…?” His hand moved toward the tattoo on his arm.
“Oh!” Brenner grinned again. “She works in documents, our Slate.”
“Making them, taking them…She steals paperwork, and changes it.”
Caliban frowned. “Is there money in that?”
Brenner laughed, apparently at his ignorance. “A lot more than in jewels and murder, my good knight.” He leaned forward. “Say you’re a merchant with a rival, and you get wind that he’s about to get audited. You hire our dear Slate, and she goes in, takes their account books, makes some numbers dance up and down, puts them back, and presto! Your rival’s dragged up before the courts, you pay Slate a sizeable amount of money, and no one ever knows.”
“There’s a lot of that?”
Brenner shrugged. “There’s enough. Thieves with cutthroat accounting skills aren’t exactly common. Me, I just cut throats and skip the accounting bit.”
“How nice for you.”
“She steals other things, too. Land deeds, proofs of annulment—very popular with the nobility—quite a busy girl, our Slate. Seen her walk past jewelry boxes, straight for the filing cabinet every time. Quite a set, and I don’t say that lightly.” He grinned. “’Course you know that. Ha! Sent her to get some dumb muscle, and she comes back with Lord Caliban, the mass murderer.”
I don’t think I like this man very much.
I don’t think he’s half so dumb as he pretends to be, either.
There was no question why Brenner was along, at least—Caliban would bet diamonds to road apples that there was a crude tattoo on the man’s shoulder with its teeth sunk into his flesh.
“Why didn’t they hang you, anyway?” the assassin asked, dropping into the chair opposite him. The caterpillars spasmed.
“I was possessed.”
“Sure you were.”
What Caliban might have said to this—and he had no idea himself—was cut off by the door opening. Slate emerged, balancing a bundle of papers sheet topped with an inkwell. She jerked her head toward one of the adjoining doors. “Bath’s ready. Brenner, make yourself useful and go find the man some decent clothes and a sword.”
Brenner executed a mocking salute and slithered out the door.
“I don’t like him,” said Caliban.
“Who does?” asked Slate.