Prologue: The Keeper’s Prophecy
“You do realise all this is complete nonsense, don’t you?”
Allandra smiled fondly at him. “Zak, you are such a cynic. The words are there, all I do is… select some of them that appear to make sense.”
From his chair beside the window, he grunted noncommittally. He enjoyed watching her dress – the closely-fitting bodice and trousers, then the long sharian wrapped loosely around and tied at one hip, accentuating her still-slim body. Her hair was left loose to tumble down her back. Later, her maids would dress her more formally for her public appearances and add a little paint to her face, but for their morning fruit she wore the simplest of outfits, like a girl, the only jewellery the crystal cube on its chain about her neck.
“There. I am ready.”
He rose and rapped on the door. Unseen hands opened both doors wide for them, and Allandra strode through, across the outer room and onto the wide balcony. He followed more slowly, admiring the slight sway of her hips. Three pregnancies had left her a little more rounded, but she was tall enough to carry it well.
As soon as they sat down at the table, servants appeared with platters of fruit, chilled from the cellar, cool drinks and rounds of bread. The balcony basked in early morning light, although the black stone of the Keeper’s Tower made it seem almost as dark and gloomy as a cave. Beyond the balustrade, the golden walls and roofs of Mesanthia glowed in the sunshine, its thousands of windows shimmering like diamonds. Later it would be too hot even for the spitting lizards, but for now the air was pleasantly cool, the night chill not yet dissipated.
“I wish you would reconsider these prophecies,” Zak said.
She sighed, but he knew she was not displeased with him. Like all the Protectors, he shared a mental connection with her, but although she could always see into his mind, hers was closed to him unless she permitted it. However, there were certain advantages to being the Keeper’s lover as well as her First Protector, and sharing her bed was not the only one. When she was alone with him, and mellow after a night of passion, she would allow him fully into her mind and her heart, almost as if they were one person. Allandra might be the ruler of a great city, but she was also a woman.
“I have heard it all before,” she said, shaking her head but smiling just the same, her mind a ripple of amusement. “I know the arguments – the prophecies are a distraction, people say, they are nothing but superstition, they are meaningless.”
“That is all true,” he said. “The worst part is the unpredictability of it. Do I have to remind you of the goats?”
She laughed, not at all embarrassed. A prophecy involving goats’ entrails had resulted in the slaughter of half the goats in the city, and a desperate shortage of milk and cheese. “I know, I know. Sometimes the words are taken in unexpected ways, but working out the meaning keeps the population amused.”
He shook his head. “You treat them lightly, but they could be a danger to us. What if the next one is taken to mean that Mesanthia should have a King instead of a Keeper? Or that we should declare war on Caxangur? Already there are factions trying to make use of them, twisting the words to their own purposes.”
He saw the spike of fear in her mind, but she answered calmly. “The prophecies cannot be twisted.”
“Allandra, I fear for you if you continue on this path. The Empire—”
“Will not return in our lifetimes, Zak.”
“Yet you have already prophesied it!” he said.
“I was asked when the Empire would return, and how did the Spirit answer?”
“‘Mesanthia will again be the centre of a great empire when the sky burns, when dragons eat their young and when a man walks up the walls of the Academia.’”
“Exactly. Dragons eating their young? Walking up walls?” She laughed. “Not in our lifetimes, my love.”
“But it stirs up discontent,” he muttered, although he already knew the argument was lost.
“Zak…” She reached across the table to take his hand, and now her mind was filled with affection. “You know the benefit of the prophecies as well as I do – they keep the Tre’annatha occupied. Nothing else has kept them quiet, but every darkmoon they rush away and begin a new research program to interpret the Spirit’s words. It’s wonderful. I could no more give up the prophecies than I could give up you.”
And she smiled at him with such love that he hadn’t the heart to persist. He didn’t like it, but she was the Keeper, after all, the absolute ruler of Mesanthia and all its dominions.
“You worry too much,” she said. “Relax, the prophecies are harmless entertainment.”
The audience chamber was full, of course. It always was, on prophecy day. Time was, no one came to the Keeper’s Tower at darkmoon, for it was an inauspicious day for spiritual guidance. A day or two later would be a good time to seek a reading for a beginning – a new business venture, or a marriage. A day or two earlier, it might be advice on concluding a deal. But the darkest day of the month, with neither waxing nor waning moon visible, was believed to be risky for all enterprises.
Except for prophecies, apparently.
As the Keeper’s procession entered from the ante-chamber, Zak followed two paces behind Allandra. He was the only Protector in attendance today, but then he liked to have her to himself. His gaze roved over the crowds as they bowed low. Merchants, academics, the wealthy, the idly curious – all those who could convince the stewards they had a legitimate interest, or could buy their way in. Mostly Akk’ashara, with the same darkly burnished skin as the Keeper and Zak himself, mingling with a scattering of the former slaves, the Dresshtian, with their pale skin and hair of every colour.
And just a few Tre’annatha, making the insolent half-bow they still preferred. They were tucked unobtrusively into corners, but still conspicuous by their softly curling brown hair and the shape of their eyes, so alike that Zak could rarely tell one from another. One he knew well, however, always recognisable from his clothes. He wore the same leather coat, boots and hat as every other of his race, but his were dyed a deep red, the colour of dried blood. Mikko was his public name, for the Tre’annatha rarely revealed their real names to outsiders. Mikko the Executioner. Mikko the Assassin. Mikko the Murderer. So people called him, and for all Zak knew, it might even be true, for how the Tre’annatha punished their own people was a matter for them. Whatever the truth of it, he was feared and disliked by Mesanthians of all races, and a man doesn’t acquire such a reputation accidentally.
Allandra swept onto the dais at the far end of the chamber and took her seat, regal in her formally draped sharian and artfully entwined silk headscarves, the Keeper’s Box sparkling on its silver chain about her neck. Zak, in his mail, one hand on the hilt of his sword, took his position beside her chair. The guards, stewards and lawyers arranged themselves according to rank on the steps of the dais.
The Chief Steward banged his staff three times on the ground. “Pray silence for Her Reverence, the Keeper of the Spirit of Mesanthia,” he intoned, although no one had dared to speak. “Who petitions the Spirit this day?”
A small man took a step forward from the crowd, an Akk’ashara and also a craftsman, Zak judged from his garments. Behind him, a cluster of fellow craftspeople, all in their best attire, faces shining with anticipation. The craftsman licked his lips, watching the Keeper fearfully, his hat clutched in his hands.
The Chief Steward frowned, and waved the man forward.
Then Zak recognised him, and a frisson of concern flickered through him. This man and his friends were committed believers in the restoration of the Empire, as Zak himself had been, once. Now he saw the value of a Keeper instead of an Empress, but there were plenty of Akk’ashara who yearned for the old days of glory, and had not yet given up hope of re-establishing the Akk’asharan Empire.
Allandra smiled and leaned forward in the massive carved chair. “Please… come a little nearer.” Someone gave the man a shove in the small of his back and he involuntarily took several steps nearer the dais. “And a little more, so you won’t have to shout.” Another smile, and he visibly relaxed and inched nearer. “What’s your name?”
Her easy use of the lower-class way of talking reassured him. “Dran.” His voice was barely above a whisper. He tried again. “I am Dran Bennashie, Gracious Lady.” One of his friends hissed at him. “Um, Most Revered One. Of the… of the Empress Shoimandria’s Own Guild of Bakers, Pastry Makers and Dough Mixers. I… I seek… a reading from the Spirit.”
“I know of your Guild, Master Bennashie,” Allandra said gravely. “And of your patroness, who was one of the greatest Empresses of the Expansion Era.”
Dran’s face lit up. “She was, Revered One, she was. A very great Empress, who was responsible for much of the early success of the Great and Glorious Empire of the All-Powerful Akk’asharan People, may its wonders never be forgotten.”
Zak watched Allandra out of the corner of his eye, but she gave no reaction to this inflammatory statement. Despite the widespread support for a return to the days of Empire, it was not politic to express it quite so openly. There was a rumble of surprise around the chamber, quashed by the thump of the Chief Steward’s spear on the marble floor. The Tre’annatha looked on impassively.
“Is your petition a plea or a question, Master Dran?”
“A question. Um, Most Revered One.”
“Very well. You may ask your question.”
Dran licked his lips again, and shuffled his feet. Then he cleared his throat. No one spoke, but one or two in the audience shifted restlessly. He cleared his throat again.
“Most Revered One,” he began, hesitantly and then with more confidence, the carefully memorised words coming more easily to him. “I am chosen by the Empress Shoimandria’s Own Guild of Bakers, Pastry Makers and Dough Mixers to ask the Spirit of Mesanthia the following question: where may be found the man who walks up walls?”
Zak sighed. Now they were asking questions about the previous prophecies, and always there was this interest in the Empire. It was worrying.
A buzz of excitement broke out in the chamber, as always at any mention of the Empire. The Akk’ashara were elated, for if there were to be another Empire, they would be the rulers. The Dresshtians were apprehensive, for perhaps they would be returned to slavery.
And the Tre’annatha? There was, as always, calculation in their faces. Some of them whispered together, but Mikko’s eyes were fixed on Allandra. It was hard to tell what he was thinking, but Zak imagined the first objective would be to find a way to turn this to his people’s advantage. Zak had always suspected that the Tre’annatha ambition was to rule the whole world, but not the traditional way, by war and conquest and domination. Theirs were the stealthy, underhand methods, insinuating themselves into every country, every kingdom, every region, every city and eating away from the inside until it fell into their hands. A nasty, sneaking sort of people.
But all such thoughts were premature, for there was, as yet, no answer to the question. Perhaps the Spirit would say something sensible for once: ‘No one can walk up walls.’ Or even, ‘Go away, and do something useful instead of bothering me with silly questions.’ More likely it would return an answer even sillier than the question: ‘In the entrails of a giant moundrat caught in the stomach of a dragon.’ Or perhaps Allandra would refuse it…
“I accept this petition,” Allandra said crisply, her mind calm. “I shall consult the Spirit for guidance in this matter.”
She rose from her chair, as the assembled crowd dropped into their deep bows. All but the Tre’annatha, their bows no more than a slight bending at the waist, the eyes not even lowered. So arrogant, so insolent to the supreme ruler of Mesanthia.
Allandra descended from the dais, Zak following two paces behind, and turned to the wall behind the dais, where the wooden doors to the Keeper’s Room were opened for them by the doorkeepers. They swept through and the doors closed behind them with a snick. Silence fell. And not just silence. For the first time that day, Zak couldn’t see into Allandra’s mind. He was a separate person again, himself alone.
Visually, the Keeper’s Room was unimpressive. It was a perfect circle, with white-painted walls, the floor and flat ceiling of polished, unadorned black marble. Two pairs of doors faced each other, one to the audience chamber and the public rooms beyond, the other the only access to the Keeper’s private quarters. In the centre, a black marble pillar reached to chest height, with a small indentation in the flat plane of its top. Not an imposing space, on the surface.
But here in this small, plain room resided the power of the Keeper, and of Mesanthia. The Akk’asharan Empire had risen because of it, and could rise again if ever the Keeper willed it. The weight of it pressed down on Zak, as it always did, as if he were beneath a great mountain, the rock crushing him so that he could barely breathe. Everywhere else in the Keeper’s Tower felt ordinary, the rooms just rooms, the staircases nothing but a means of ascent or descent. But this room was heavy with ancient mysteries. With magic.
Yet Allandra seemed energised by it, lighter in spirit than anywhere else. A ripple of laughter escaped her, as she detached the box from its chain around her neck. Such a tiny thing, a crystal cube no wider than a thumbnail. She shook it, laughed again, and set the crystal into the indentation on the top of the pillar. The room darkened momentarily, then light flowed into every part of it. The white walls around them were filled with scraps of writing, all at odd angles, in a score of different scripts and who knew how many languages.
Zak never understood how Allandra could make anything of the muddle of words. He had tried to make sense of it sometimes – piecing together snippets from one place with another – but he had never found anything that had a sensible meaning. Yet she would flit from place to place, her head bent at odd angles sometimes to read the words, occasionally running her fingers over sections, and never seemed at a loss. Usually it wasn’t long before she smiled, collected the crystal cube, and said, “That’s it. I’m ready.” He had no idea how she did it. He was not much of a believer in gods or spirits or magical powers, but even his cynical mind could see something unusual at work here.
Today it seemed a long time before she was done, and the tiniest frown creased that otherwise perfect forehead.
“A problem?” he said.
“No, no. It’s just – bizarre, that’s all. Sometimes the Spirit is very difficult to understand.”
“It wouldn’t be much of a spirit if its actions were transparent, would it?”
She laughed at that, as she fastened the crystal back onto its chain. “True enough. Right, let’s go.”
Zak rapped on the doors, which opened at once. A buzz of conversation in the audience chamber died away to expectant silence as Allandra resumed her place on the dais and sat again. Zak took his place beside her chair, quickly scanning the room with an expert eye, but all seemed to be just as they had left it. Allandra’s mind was open to him again, and now he became aware of a strong current of confusion in her. That was not a good sign. Whatever had the Spirit said?
“Please step forward, Master Dran. I have put your question to the Spirit and the Spirit has answered. Will you hear the answer?”
“Oh, yes please! Um, Most Revered One. I mean, Most Revered.”
Amusement rippled through Allandra’s mind. “I answer to either title, Master.” Then her mind shifted back to confusion. “Hear, then, the guidance of the Spirit of Mesanthia. A free man shapes wood with his hands; fire to live, fire to change, fire to die; a spear of great power is in the eye.”
There was a long silence, as the audience considered the ominous words.
‘A spear of great power is in the eye?” Zak thought to Allandra.
Her eyes flicked towards him with just a twitch of the lips. She said nothing, but in her mind he detected the mental equivalent of a shrug.
The wharf was a mess of discarded crates, loops of frayed rope and escaped vegetables. A pair of goats bleated mournfully as they were led away by a barefoot child of no more than six or seven. Two sullen-looking men unloaded bales from a wagon, barely looking up from their work as the barge Blue Chimney manoeuvred to its berth. In front of a line of huts which served as receiving posts for merchant houses and barge companies, a rotting sign bore the faded words ‘Krandetha Yatta’.
“Odd name. I wonder what it means,” Findo said.
“No idea,” Tinya said cheerfully. “All th’strands round abouts have funny names, from th’old days, ’spect.”
She leapt nimbly ashore and began tying the barge to the cleats, deftly wrapping the ropes back and forth.
Kennet hoisted Findo’s bag onto one shoulder and jumped ashore. Kicking aside a yellowed cabbage, he cleared a space to deposit the bag. He looked disdainfully around the tatty wharf. “This place don’t look so great. Ye sure ye won’t stay with us a bit longer, Fin?”
Findo looked at the barger sorrowfully. “Findo. Names are important.”
Kennet just grinned at him. The two men were much of an age, but not much else about them was alike. Kennet owned his own barge and his own woman, his business on the canals was thriving, and in a year or two he’d have enough saved for a second barge and a second woman, and perhaps a cottage for Tinya to start producing babies. Findo, on the other hand, had nothing but a few tools, a small bag of coins and some spare shirts. And a prophecy, he reminded himself. The Keeper had given him a prophecy of his own, along with a new set of clothes and one hundred silvers. For some reason Findo valued the prophecy more highly than the silvers.
Findo stepped onto the wharf, and picked up his bag. “Thank you for your hospitality,” he said to Tinya.
“Well, ye earned ye’s keep and a bit more besides,” she said. “No need to thank us fer that. Good luck, Findo. We come this way regular, like, back and for’ard t’Caxangur, so we’ll see ye again, ’spect.”
“Maybe,” he said.
“We’re here for a couple o’ hours, if ye changes ye’s mind ‘bout stayin’,” Kennet added, with another grin.
Findo smiled at the man’s persistence, but didn’t answer. With a wave of farewell, he set off past the two unloaders, now lounging beside their empty wagon chewing some leaf. Everyone along the canals seemed to chew something, so they all had teeth stained green or red or black.
The landward side of the wharf was lined with solid wooden warehouses, in need of a coat of paint but otherwise in good shape. Beyond that lay a higgledy-piggledy array of cottages for the canal workers. Perhaps cottages was too grand a term for them, since they displayed a fine disregard for conventional building materials. One wall of brick or painted clay or just heaped earth was joined by two others made of whatever the builder had to hand – rough-cut logs, heaped stone, broken packing cases or lines of thin sticks woven into some semblance of a flat surface. The roof and final wall were skins. A few structures were perfectly round, made entirely of skins stretched over poles. Findo had seen worse, so he walked past them without interest, keeping to the paved road that connected the wharf to the town.
Beyond the crowded cottages he found himself in a broad square, although it wasn’t quite regular enough to qualify for the term. A clump of dusty trees in the centre provided shade for groups of elders gossiping and playing noisy games with stones. Around the perimeter were stone-built offices for the strand council and several barge companies, a number of shops and, clustered on the far side, the usual set of facilities for the benefit of locals and travellers alike – inn, cook house, tavern, bath house and comfort house.
Findo walked around the edge of the square. Passers-by nodded to him politely and then moved on without interest. Strangers were not an unusual sight anywhere on the canal system. The inn was shuttered, but the door stood wide open, and a curtain of small bells on strings jangled as he pushed through it. The lobby was stiflingly hot, even at this hour of the morning.
He waited, his fingers running up and down the door-frame.
A small woman, round as a dumpling, emerged from some inner fastness, brushing flour from her hands. “Help ye?”
“I’d like a room, please.”
“Quarter for a night, in th’hand.” She was already reaching for the book and a writing stick lying on a shelf beside the door, not much interested. She was not yet forty, he estimated, but sour-faced, as if constantly disappointed with life.
“I’ll be staying for a moon.”
She paused, then turned and looked at him fully. “A moon?”
“Five coppers, then. In th’hand.”
He reached for the purse tucked for safety inside his trousers, counting five coppers into her hand. She bit them all, then grunted. “Fine. Name.”
She laboriously wrote it in the book. “Where ye from?”
That earned him another long look before she turned back to the book and scratched away again. “There. Make ye’s mark, just here.”
“I can write my name.” He corrected her spelling, then signed beside his name.
“Ye’s a long way from home.”
“Not so far. Two days, maybe three. As the dragon flies.”
She looked sideways at him, as if she thought he was teasing her, but perhaps decided not to contest the point. “Ye can have one o’th’top rooms, if ye’s staying so long. Blue door. Number fourteen, if ye can read. Tavern’s best avoided tomorrow and the next day. Barge train’s in. Tell Willow at th’cook house ye’s here for th’moon, she’ll give ye a rate. If ye go to th’comfort house, ask fer Lily. Very young. Pretty, too. She be m’daughter. Tell her Oakleaf sent ye, she’ll give ye a rate too.”
Oakleaf. Willow. Lily. Curious names.
“Welcome to Krandetha Yatta, Master Gask.”
“Odd name for a town. I daresay it has some local meaning.”
She shrugged. “Who knows? Not me. Mebbe the Stewards know. Ye gotta lock for ye’s box?”
He nodded, hoisted his bag to his shoulder and headed for the stairs. His fingers brushed the rail as he ascended each flight. Number fourteen was not large, and was hot and stuffy. He raised the shutter of the only window to admit a little air, but there was no breeze to freshen the room. At least it was clean, or cleaner than many inn rooms, anyway. A low pallet with a lumpy mattress was the only furniture. A shelf across one corner provided a seat, and there was a cracked bowl and ewer on another shelf for washing. He touched each shelf in turn, then the window frame and the pallet. Nothing interesting there.
The box looked solidly made, and was firmly screwed to the floor. The wood was foreign, perhaps from the western canals. Smooth, the lengths well-fitted, the handle on the lid polished with use. Contented, he decided. Even so, he checked it over thoroughly for hidden flaps or loose boards before he deposited his bag inside and padlocked it shut. He’d learnt the hard way that not all innkeepers were honest.
Downstairs, he made his way next door to the cook house. The law in the eastern canals insisted that inns, eating and bath houses, taverns and brothels should be separate establishments, but they were often owned by the same family, and, as here, arranged in a small group around a courtyard for the convenience of patrons moving from one to another.
The cook house was deserted, for most workers took a parcel of food from home for their noon meal rather than pay good coin for it. A man chopping vegetables in the kitchen willingly brought him soup, however, and bread still warm from the oven. Findo took them outside, to sit at one of the many tables filling the courtyard. Local wood, he decided, stroking the top of it. The legs were rough, not well made. In a corner of the courtyard, three or four chairs were stacked, sporting missing or broken legs.
While he was eating, a woman emerged from the cook house of much his own age, her headscarf denoting her a married woman with children.
“Hello, stranger. I’m Willow,” she said, pulling up a stool to sit beside him.
“Findo Gask at your service.”
An eyebrow lifted. “At my service? How nice! Ye’ve business in town, maybe?”
She had the slurred vowels of the eastern canals, but with a more educated tone. At once he was wary, his senses attuned to the voices of authority. Probably she was someone important around here. Married to the owner of this little clutch of establishments, perhaps, or the owner herself, if such things were allowed here.
“Visiting?” He shook his head. “Staying long?”
Both eyebrows lifted at that. Was it so odd for anyone to stay so long? “Exactly a moon? Or round about a moon?”
“Exactly a moon. I’ll move on next darkmoon.”
She watched him in silence as he drained the last drops from the soup bowl, and mopped out the bowl with bread. “Well, Findo Gask, ye’s welcome to Krandetha Yatta. If ye want all ye’s meals here, come and see me this evening, and I’ll fix ye a rate, if ye pay beforehand.”
“Aye.” She made to leave, so he said, “I could look at those chairs while I’m here. Might be able to mend them.”
He fetched his tools and set to work on one of the chairs that had a leg loose. It would have been the work of a moment to glue it back into place, but that was not his way. He carefully ran his hands over every part, feeling the wood, the joints, the way it was made. It had not come far, he decided. Not immediately local, but from only a few marks away, and made with skill but not much interest. An apprentice, perhaps. Definitely not the work of a master.
He tightened and smoothed and glued, then set that one aside and started on another. Gradually the afternoon wore away. Willow brought him a mug of something hot, which he sipped once or twice and then forgot about. Only when the last chair was fixed did he stop, stretch, look around him.
Several of the other tables were occupied now, a meaty aroma emanating from bowls and platters, a low buzz of conversation running around the courtyard. Beside him, Willow sat, a smile on her face.
“Ye plan to work all night?” she said. “That’s some fierce concentration on ye.”
He shook his head. “No hour bells here. No idea of time.”
“Hmm.” She looked sideways at him. “Ye’s accent is eastern. Ye from Graendar, maybe?”
Her face twisted. “City of fountains. The glorious heart of the Empire.” She spat with force, the spittle fizzing on the hot ground.
“No Empire now,” he said.
“They’ve got their water back, though. Give them time, and they’ll be all over us again.”
He shook his head firmly. “New Keeper’s different.”
Willow’s eyes narrowed. “Different? How is she different from any of them? And why do you stand up for her? The Akk’ashara have done nothing for your kind. You’d still be slaves if they had their way. There are still slaves there, everyone knows that. You owe them nothing, you Dresshtians.”
Dresshtian? He supposed he was, now. Akk’ashara, Tre’annatha, Dresshtian. Two ruling classes and… the rest, the motley collection of former slaves. But he couldn’t allow any disparagement of the new Keeper.
“She’s different,” he said again, but cautiously, aware that Willow’s accent had lost the local patina and become far more educated. “She’s freeing all the bonded servants.”
“Bonded servants – pah! Slaves, that’s all they are.”
“Some are. Keeper’s freeing them.”
“So she says. She’ll do this, she’ll do that, but it’s all talk. She just wants to be Empress. She’ll never free any slaves.”
“Freed me,” he said quietly.
The bath house was much like any other bath house in the northern plains. Separate pools for men and women, a private tub for anyone wanting to hide away, laundry tubs round the back. Findo always bathed in the open pool with everyone else. It was what he was used to, and the further he travelled from Mesanthia the less anyone recognised the slave tattoo on his ankle for what it was.
Not that it was called that openly, for no one in Mesanthia talked of slavery, naturally. Slavery had been abolished hundreds of years ago, so of course there were no slaves any more. There was only bonded servitude, with time limits and a multitude of legal protections, where servants were paid a bond fee by their bond-holder, and could buy back their freedom at any time. Entirely voluntary, with the exception of criminals, forced into it as punishment for crimes, and what was wrong with that? And if sometimes a bonded servant lost the money from the bond, or gave it to kin and couldn’t pay for their freedom – well, that was unfortunate, but nothing could be done about it.
In practice, any number of traders brought captives to the city and sold them there in secret underground markets, keeping the bond money for themselves. How could such a captive ever earn the money to buy his freedom? It was impossible. Findo had resigned himself to a lifetime of slavery until the new Keeper had changed everything. No one, she decreed, should ever stay in bonded servitude for more than thirty years. Findo had served the full thirty years, so he was one of the first to be freed. Now he had a time-served tattoo above the slave tattoo. And a prophecy, the prophecy that kept him wandering.
After bathing, he went back to the cook house to eat, arranging his rate with Willow.
“Ye look better with the dust washed off ye,” she said, eyeing him with clear interest. “Never’ve guessed ye’s hair was so yellow. Don’t see that colour often. So. If ye’s staying, ye want more things to fix?” she said. “I’ve a door won’t shut properly.”
“Aye, I’ll look at it.”
“How much ye want for it?”
“For you, nothing. You gave me a rate. Anyone else, a copper or two. If that’s allowed here.”
“Surely. A man doing a job of work can charge for his time and his skill. I’ll tell folk ye’ll fix broken chairs and such like for them. Ye can work here, if ye want. Maybe they’ll want a meal while they wait for ye to work ye’s magic, or maybe I’ll find more chairs and doors for ye to mend for me.”
His room at the top of the inn was still hot, but less stuffy now. He undressed in the dark, recited his growing collection of prayers and then lay down on the low pallet and waited for sleep. It was, as always, a long time coming. His mind wandered back over the day, his parting from Tinya and Kennet, his meetings with Oakleaf and Willow. Had he done everything he should have done? Had he said all the correct gratitudes and courtesies? He thought he had. He began making a mental list of everything he must do tomorrow. Day two was an important one, with much to be remembered, much to be—
The slightest scrabbling noise alerted him. Something outside the window, by the sound of it. There it was again. A mouse, perhaps? Too loud for an insect, unless it was enormous.
Silently, he rolled out of bed and stood in one fluid movement, then moved towards the window. As he did so, a face appeared in it, not two paces from him. A mischievous face, a child, perhaps, its wide grin turning instantly to surprise when it saw Findo so close.
The face shot downwards, out of sight. Findo crossed the gap to the window in a heartbeat and peered out and down. Nothing visible, but then it was darkmoon and no lamps were lit nearby. The darkness below his window was impenetrable. He watched until his eyes lost focus, but saw nothing move, heard no sound.
He turned away, convinced he must have imagined it all. He was on the fourth floor, after all, the walls covered in vertical planks with no handholds and no trees or vines nearby. No child, however agile, could have climbed so high. It was just his mind playing tricks on him while he was in that peculiar state halfway between awake and asleep. No, it was impossible.
Even so, he closed the shutter before he went back to bed.
Within three days, Findo had fallen into a routine. Straight after his first prayers, he would go round to the cook house for his morning meal – fish, usually. The canal folk loved their fish. Then he would work at whatever broken things were brought to him. Sometimes he would be asked to go to a house to fix a door or window or shelf. At noon, a bowl of soup with bread, then he would walk about the town exploring, watching the townsfolk go about their business. Back to the bath house, then supper, then bed.
He’d hoped to add to his list of prayers, but his enquiries regarding gods and religious practices bore little fruit. Canalside folk were not much given to belief in the supernatural, and apart from tossing a small coin or a piece of meat into the water for good luck, they thought little about the Greater Power guiding their lives.
“I’d like to go to a temple,” he’d said to Willow one evening when she brought his supper.
“We only have a couple, one down by the western wharf to the Sun God and a small one by the Yander bridge – not even sure what that’s to. We’re not much bothered about that sort of thing here. A few folk have shrines set up in the fields, or outside their houses, but it’s not common. Which god do you follow then, Findo?”
“All of them.”
She laughed, but then said, “Oh, you’re serious? So… let’s see, you’re from Mesanthia, so that’s the One, right? And maybe the Goddess? What else?”
“Sun and Moon Gods, all the sprites, the Three, the Four, the Seven, the Nine, the Demon King, the—”
“The Demon King! What’s that?”
“From the desert people. I only know one prayer, though. The Fire Lord, the Ruler of Light and Darkness, the Secret God – I have some prayer beads for that one.” He pulled a length of blue beads from under his shirt. “Then there’s the Dragon God or Wind God – reports differ – the Spirit of Mesanthia, and the Spirit of us all.”
“You can’t believe in all those!”
“Every one has many followers. Can’t all be mistaken.” He bent his head to his bowl. He’d seen such incredulity many times now, and he’d grown used to it. His last owner had listened to his arguments gravely, and debated the case with academic precision, but the ordinary people he met simply laughed at him.
Willow didn’t laugh. She pondered the point thoughtfully. “Some of them are contradictory,” she said at last. “The Sun God and the Moon Gods – well, maybe they work in harmony. But the One and the Three – they can’t both be right.”
“The names are irrelevant,” Findo said seriously. “How people interpret their gods – that doesn’t matter. All the petty rules – wear this, tattoo that, make offerings, go to temple daily – none of that matters. All the different gods are just manifestations of a Greater Power that we mortals are too simple to understand fully. But it’s guiding our steps just the same. All we have to do is acknowledge the various facets, and pray to them, and one or other of them will be there to lead us in the right way when we need them.”
“That’s what you do – acknowledge them? Pray to them?”
“Yes. Wherever I go, I visit the temples and collect the local prayers.”
“And does it work?” she said, but not in a jeering way. She seemed genuinely interested.
“It does,” he said. “The Greater Power has guided my steps ever since I was set free in Mesanthia. It has brought me here, after all.”
She looked around at the nondescript buildings and the shabby clothes that most of her customers wore, and smiled. “Your Greater Power took you away from the wonders of Mesanthia and brought you here? But why?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“But you believe there’s some purpose to it?”
“Always a purpose. Everything is for a purpose.”
“Oh, Findo, I don’t know what Mesanthia is like – maybe the exalted folk there have some purpose to their lives – but here, it’s about survival. Work hard, save something for the bad times, help anyone with less than you, don’t get so drunk you fall into the canal. If you have the time and the energy, enjoy yourself a little bit. That’s all there is.”
He shook his head. “Always a purpose. Don’t always know what it is, but there’s always a purpose.”
“Well, good luck with that, Findo Gask. May the Greater Power guide your steps until you find your purpose.”
Every ten days there was a big market in the town. The night before the market, the barge train arrived, a long line of vessels tying up five deep at the town’s three wharves, the bargers flooding to the bath houses, taverns and comfort houses. The morning after the market, they were gone at first light. For the whole of the day in between, a field on the outskirts of town became a thriving village of stalls and roving sellers. Findo missed the first one, being too new to pick up the talk amongst Willow’s patrons, but when the next market came around, he’d got his bearings and was there by mid-morning, as soon as his work for the day was finished.
He’d been to enough markets in his year on the canals to be cautious. He took very little money with him, the purse tucked inside his trousers and tied round one leg tight enough that he’d notice any thievery. He stowed a knife in one boot, just in case. Then he walked through the town to the field. He bought a pasty from the first tray that passed him by, then a mug of ale to wash it down. Thus fortified, he wandered around the stalls and carts and blankets on the ground that marked the pitches for the poorest sellers.
Findo wasn’t very interested in the goods on offer. He’d never owned much besides his tools and a few clothes, and wanted nothing more. The cheap trinkets and toys and badly-made candlesticks held no attraction for him. It was people who interested him, the myriad faces of humanity working, playing and making mischief. They fascinated him, the canal folk. For thirty years, his whole world had been peopled by Mesanthians in their pale silks and linens, with their languid movements and graceful gestures, their dignified way of life. And their cleanliness – from the highest to the lowest, Mesanthians bathed every day, and often twice a day or more. Here all was rush and bustle and confusion, and endless dirt. Canal folk seldom bathed, resenting even the small coin asked for the bath house. A man might only go there before visiting the comfort house, when a bath beforehand was compulsory and included in the price. A dip in the canal once or twice each moon was thought to be enough, and hot water was kept for the laundry. Findo was used to the constant smell by now, but he never ceased to notice it.
He stopped for a while to watch a puppet show. These were common everywhere, the performances a mixture of stirring stories from history and news from far-flung places. Whether it was the troubles in the Karningplain, floods in Caxangur, a new leader in Graendar or more earthquakes in the Sky Mountains, the little dolls would report it faithfully. Although sometimes Findo wondered just how accurate they were – dragons sighted off the coast near Drakk’alona? His second owner had been certain that all the dragons were gone, quite extinct.
The puppet show ended with a funny scene that had the crowd roaring with laughter. As they began to disperse, Findo turned away, his mind still full of dragons, and nearly bumped into a boy turning towards him. The boy was almost as tall as he was, his expression dominated by a wide smile from the puppets’ joking, a mischievous grin that was so familiar. The last time he had seen that face, it had been peering through his fourth-floor window. Their eyes met for a heartbeat… two… three. The grin slowly faded. Then his nocturnal visitor turned and ran.
Findo gave chase, but the boy disappeared so quickly that it was futile. Findo stopped, puzzled. How could anyone run so fast? One moment he was there, the next he just seemed to vanish into the distance. The rest of the day was spent prowling around the market, looking at every passing face, but he saw no further sign of the boy. He’d disappeared without a trace.
“Ye’ll stay a bit longer, won’t ye?” Oakleaf asked Findo one day as he was leaving the inn. “Ye’s making some money here, and ye’s no trouble. Folk likes ye well enough. So ye’ll stay?”
“No. Come darkmoon, I’ll look for a barge to take me on. I can work for my passage.”
“Where will ye go?”
“Wherever the barge takes me.”
Oakleaf sighed. “Ye’s an odd sort of man, Findo Gask. Don’t ye want t’settle down?”
“Aye. In time. When the Greater Power deems it proper.”
“Ye and ye’s Greater Power. Ye could always make ye’s own mind up. That’s what normal folk does.”
“Aye, so they do. And I leave it to the Greater Power. When it’s time for me to settle, there’ll be a sign.”
“And how will ye recognise the sign for what it is? I mean, are ye going to see a fallen leaf and say: there’s my sign?”
He smiled at that. “I know what the sign will be. The Keeper told me.”
She shrugged, and let him go. He was used to the incredulity. No one outside Mesanthia fully appreciated the Keeper’s powers, or how the Spirit of Mesanthia directed her. Her prophecies seemed cryptic sometimes, but they were always meaningful. And his own prophecy was not cryptic at all, it was very clear. He would know the sign when it was presented to him.
And so he did.
Three days before darkmoon, when Findo had already begun watching the wharves to see what likely barges might be in, Willow brought him his noon soup, and then sat down beside him. That wasn’t a surprise. She liked to talk to him, to prod his ideas, as she called it, finding out what he knew and how he thought. Today she looked conscious, her fingers pleating and releasing a corner of her apron, over and over.
When he’d finished eating, she said, “The Stewards would like to talk to you.”
That was a worrying development. The Stewards kept order in the town, locking up miscreants, vagrants and troublemakers. If he were to be locked away at darkmoon—
“Don’t look so anxious,” she said, with a half smile. “You’ve not done anything wrong. Just a talk, that’s all.”
“I’ll come whenever you want me.”
“This afternoon, then. If you can spare the time.” A real smile that time. Everyone knew he spent his afternoons wandering about the town, doing nothing in particular. “When Trellander gets in.”
“The blue and white one, I know it. I’ll be there.” He still found it odd that the town measured the hours by the ferries from neighbouring strands. In the morning, Low Whittle, Hash Corning, Brish, Yander. Noon was the big boat from Caxangur. Then Lissona, Timmeran, Trellander, Shallow End and Marshtop.
Findo had never been into the strand council building before. It occupied one entire side of the town’s main square, a solid edifice of grey stone, squat and plain. On the ground floor, barge and merchant offices jostled with small shops selling meat-sticks, pastries and minty tennel, the favoured drink here, but wide stairs led up to the strand council’s offices. It occupied the whole top floor without any division into rooms, and the glass windows stood wide open all round. Half a score of children pulled ropes to move fans in the ceiling and stir the sultry air a little.
Bored scribes looked up from their papers at his arrival, but he had no need to address them, for Willow was waiting to lead him to a far corner of the room, where a round table was surrounded by eight chairs.
“Sit,” she said, sitting in one of the chairs and waving him to another. “The others will be here soon.”
Findo sat, automatically running his hands over the wood of the table.
“Professional interest?” she said. “What do you make of it?”
“The wood comes from the hills beyond Hurk Hranda,” he said. “The stain and polish… not immediately local, but not too far away. North of here, I’d say. Nicely made. The legs were made by a journeyman, but this top is the work of a master.”
Her eyes widened a little, but she made no comment.
He couldn’t explain the rest of it – the wood’s resentment at the constant heat, the way it whimpered in pain, calling out to him for help. Plainer woods, those furnishing the inn and cook house, had long since drifted into a grumbling sort of somnolence through years of abuse, but this one was newer, still aware. “Drying out too much, though,” he said. “Needs a bowl of water nearby. Too nice a piece to be left in this hot atmosphere.”
She tilted her head to one side, looking at him assessingly. “The canal and the autumn rains not enough, then?”
He listened to the table again, his hands stroking the polished surface. “Afternoon heat’s the worst. Overnight, there’s enough moisture in the air from the canal and the dewfall, but when it’s this hot…”
“Right. Back in a moment.” She went off down the room, and came back with a large jug of water. “Where’s the best place for it?”
He wasn’t sure whether she accepted his word without question, or was merely humouring him, but whatever it was, the table almost purred with pleasure. “That’s better,” Findo said.
The other Stewards arrived in ones and twos, six more. He knew Oakleaf and the woman who ran the bath house, but the others were new to him. All women. That was a surprise. Mesanthia was ruled by a woman, but the Keeper was surrounded by the men of her Protectors and Guard, and the Middle and Lower Council were made up of men and women equally. So it was in many places, and some were ruled by men only, such as the warlike Hrandish. An all-female leadership was unusual, but he didn’t ask why although he was curious to know. It wasn’t his way to ask questions.
They were polite, even friendly. They wrote nothing down, simply tossing questions at him, first one Steward, then another, in a casual manner, as if they had just that moment thought of them. He was wary, though. He knew from their educated accents that they were no simple canalside folk.
The first questions they asked were easy ones – his name, his age, where he came from.
“And your position in Mesanthia?” one asked.
“I don’t understand the question.” He guessed what they wanted, but he was not about to give them even the smallest drop of information unless they asked for it explicitly.
“Your status. Rank.”
“Free citizen,” he said with pride.
One or two smiled and nodded approvingly. “For how long?” Willow said.
“One year and one moon. Before that I was a bonded servant.”
“You have the proof of that, I take it?” someone said. “Papers and so on.”
“Tattoo on my ankle. I can show you if you want to see it.”
They did, poring over the two marks and nodding knowledgeably, although he doubted they had ever seen such things before. Then they wanted to know every detail of his journey from Mesanthia. He told them, for they were in authority here and thirty years of slavery had made him incapable of refusing. He detailed every barge, every small strand, every settlement he had passed through. Again they nodded, recognising the names. Still they took no notes, but he guessed the details were not important.
“Not Graendar? Not Caxangur?”
“And you truly were set free from Mesanthia? You aren’t an escapee?”
They leaned back in their chairs, nodded, exchanging glances, as if he had passed some unseen test.
“We have to be sure, you see,” Willow said. “If you had escaped… but even so, Mesanthia does not usually concern itself with such trivia. But Caxangur – that’s a different matter. So much as sign your name with the wrong colour of ink, and they would pursue you to the ends of the earth. A very law-abiding people, and desperately persistent, the Caxanguri. But it appears that you truly are a free man, Findo Gask. Therefore we have a proposition for you. We should like you to settle here, as a woodworker. As you have seen, we have need of someone of your skills. Should you like that?”
“Thank you, but no.”
That brought frowns, and a quick exchange of glances. “Why ever not?” Willow said.
“I have to move on. That’s my destiny. Every darkmoon, I must journey onwards.”
“Maybe this is your purpose, Findo,” she said. “Maybe the Greater Power brought you to Krandetha Yatta for just this purpose. We lose our only woodworker, and not a moon later, you turn up. Doesn’t that seem like the hand of your Greater Power?”
“No,” he said, then, feeling that was too abrupt, added, “I have to follow the prophecy I was given.”
Willow made an impatient noise. “Prophecy! Such nonsense!”
He was about to protest, but Oakleaf waved a placating hand. “He needs a sign, is all. Something t’tell him it be time t’settle.”
“A sign,” Willow said, with a sigh. “Most people would be happy to receive such an offer, but not you, apparently. What sign are you looking for?”
He shrugged. Naturally he couldn’t tell them that.
Willow clucked in annoyance. “Well, here’s a sign that it’s time for you to settle, Findo. We’re offering you a place to ply your trade, with our approval and plenty of customers. What better sign could there be?”
He almost stopped breathing. “A place,” he said, his voice no more than a whisper. “If you mean a house…”
“You could call it that,” she said. “Yes, a house for you, Findo, a workshop and everything you need. What do you say?”
Findo smiled. “Yes. Yes, please.”