Ventus – Day 17 of 135


Armiger’s eyes had dried out, but he could see. His ears had withered in his skull, but he could hear the sough of wind across the top of the shaft as he neared it. Stars glowed above the lip of the pit.

He had already forgotten the humans. A deep passion they would not have understood moved him now. He climbed swiftly, as if chasing something, but what he pursued was his own meaning.


Choltas had heard the footsteps of the devil fade away. He knew it would be back unless he stayed very still. This was the thing’s home; it would never venture out into the world above. So though he couldn’t hear it, he knew it was there. If he stayed completely still, wrapped around himself in this corner in total darkness, it might not find him. But if he so much as sneezed, he knew it would be on him instantly.

Even now it might be creeping up on him silently. He wrapped more tightly around himself, and tried not to breathe.

Time passed, but Choltas did not move. When thirst began to torture him, he stayed still. He wet himself and shat in his pants quietly. And eventually, delirium overcame him; he heard his mother’s voice, saw drifting pictures of his home.

He kept his arms around his knees, and his face buried there against his own flesh. And he breathed weaker and weaker, aware at last only of the murmur of his own heart and the torment of cold and thirst, overridden by a fear he could no longer identify.

Stay still, stay still.

Its hand hangs above me.


Jordan became aware that the jolting of the cart they rode had stopped. He blinked and looked up. He didn’t remember much of the past day; all he could see was the startled face of that man in the tomb, as an arm that seemed to be Jordan’s own pushed the spike through his throat. And then the ticking footsteps to the stone shaft, and up and out into bright starlight.

Armiger was walking in the world again. Jordan could hear the creaking of his dry joints, as if the dreams had begun to infect his waking life. If he closed his eyes, he could even see the afterimage of some other place, a field or clearing. Armiger’s steps fell like the beat of a metronome, far past human confidence. Steady and fast, day and night, he was going somewhere.

He hadn’t told Lady May much. She knew Armiger was out and moving, and that he still seemed to be dead. In the dream Jordan had looked down at himself, and awkwardly buttoned up his jacket to cover the hole in his chest. The skin of his fingers was taut and black, but in the last day it had turned an awful yellow, and become more flexible.

A horrible thought had come to Jordan this morning. Surely Armiger could see what Jordan saw; wouldn’t he know that Calandria May was after him by now? He had asked Calandria, and she had said, “The changes I made to your implants are supposed to prevent him from receiving you.” All Jordan heard of that was the phrase supposed to.

He was sure Armiger was coming after them. If Armiger had power over life and death, how was Lady May going to destroy him? She seemed gay and unhurried. The only reassurance he had was the memory of her apparent invulnerability during the fight with the mechal butler at the manse.

He was numb by now from fear and horror, so he said nothing. He’d only spoken once or twice, when Lady May pressed him for details of the countryside Armiger moved through, and when he had asked her, “Are you like him?”

“No,” she had answered vehemently. “I am flesh and blood like you.” She took his palm and put it her cheek. “I’ve sold nothing of my self to gain the powers I have. Remember that.” She smiled in her quietly confident way.

Now she was smiling in that same way, looking at the stone posts of a large gate they had come to. The road ran on, but the track through those gates was well-rutted, as if from much recent traffic. This belied the impression given by the dead ivy thronging over the posts and the verdigrised metal gates, which seemed frozen open.

“Where are we?” he asked weakly.

Her arm encircled to hug him quickly. “Refuge,” she said. “We’ll meet Axel here. Then we’ll decide how to eliminate Armiger.”

She flicked the reins, and the horse obediently turned through the gates. They’d bought this cart and the horse in a village yesterday. Lady May had paid the startled ostler well for it, foregoing the usual haggle over price and quality. Although she treated the horse well, Jordan had the feeling she took her ownership of it lightly, and would cheerfully abandon it and the cart the moment she ceased to need it. Jordan would have to work two years at Castor’s to afford such a beast.

They passed down an avenue of trees. Gaps to the right showed well-tended grounds, much more extensive than Castor’s. At first no one was visible, then Jordan spotted three children in bright clothing running across a lawn. The path wound down, and Jordan revived a little at the sight of warm shafts of sunlight piercing the green canopies, one lighting a stone trough by the road carved with well-worn images of the Diadem Swans.

Two giant oaks signalled the end of the grove. In the bright sunlight beyond, Jordan could see green grass and the beige stone of some vast mansion in the far background. But nearer, a few yards past the oaks, a table had been planted on the lawn. A clean white cloth draped it, held down by bowls of fruit and meat, plates and cups and tankards. Three people dressed in white livery stood by, gathering up platefuls of food. Now he could hear a continuous murmur of voices, laughter and the thud of hooves, coming through the remaining screen of trees.

As they passed beneath the twin oaks, two attendants appeared from behind them. They bowed, and one took the bridle of the horse.

Jordan barely noticed them. He was staring at the beautiful lawns, where a party was taking place.

Tall beribboned poles had been planted in the ground at wide intervals. At least six tables were scattered around the field, each piled high with food. Servants ran back and forth between knots of people–and the people, when Jordan turned his gaze on them, were amazing. They were brown-skinned, white-skinned, dressed in bright colors, or sombre black, or barely dressed at all. Sunlight flashed off jewels at the throat of a laughing woman. Nearby, a man with iron-grey hair patted his hands on his velvet trousers, and tried again to mount a pair of stilts held for him by two long-faced jugglers. A small knot of red-skinned men were having an archery competition, their target a melon on top of one of the poles.

Calandria May looked puzzled. “What’s the occasion?” she asked the servant leading their horse.

He looked back, arched his eyebrow, and said, “Aren’t you family?”

She hesitated almost imperceptibly. “Guests,” she said. “Of Inspector Boros. Our arrangement was made some weeks ago, but we were delayed, I fear. It seems we’ve arrived at an unfortunate moment.”

The servant smiled arrogantly. “We have plenty of room.” He gestured to the manor.

This place put Castor’s to shame. Massive fluted pillars framed the entranceway, iron lamps perched upon their capitals. They did not hold up a roof, but were open to the sky. The building’s facade was of tan stone, filled with windows, each framed by pillars. Statues posed on the rooftop corners, and more stood in niches in the walls. Three storeys were indicated by the windows, and by the width of the place it must sprawl around a central courtyard large enough to hold Castor’s mansion.

Behind the profusion of chimneys on the roof, a bleak grey fortress tower rose incongruously. Its sides did not curve smoothly, but in juts and acute angles; it seemed to have been built of stone triangles. Black stains like tear tracks wove down its sides.

As the cart passed near a group of revellers, a tall woman in severe black and scarlet excused herself and walked over. The servant stopped them as she approached, and Lady May hopped down from the cart and curtsied to her.

“Good grief, are you a boy or a woman?” laughed the lady in a deep voice; Calandria was still dressed in buckskins. The lady made a fluttering gesture with her hand near her breast. Silver chain in her hair glinted as she cocked her head. “And which side of the family are you from?”

Lady May curtsied again. “Neither side, I fear, Madam. I am Lady Calandria May, and this is my charge, Jordan Mason.” Jordan started at the sound of his own name. He stood awkwardly and bowed. “I wrote asking for the hospitality of the house some weeks ago, and received it,” Lady May went on. “If we have come at the wrong time, please let us know.”

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