It was dark when the carriage rolled through the southern gates of Mayfaire. Darker still when it crossed the Salt Bridge and made for the River Wall. The guards paid it little attention. They watched as it battered its way beneath the torches on the bridge, and they nodded to the hunched driver as he passed. The gesture was not returned. The driver’s head drifted and bobbed with the swaying carriage, but he made no movement otherwise.
The carriage held a single passenger, and she watched the guards through the lattice behind the driver’s shoulder. The vastness of her face filled the void. She saw the guards and the sleeping city beyond them and licked her lips. “Lovely,” she whispered. “Lovely, lovely…”
A street dog shivered as she spoke. It ran to the lower markets and hid itself between two carriage stalls and cried out in the night.
Naked and skeletal, Adrian Redwyn could barely stand. His breaths were ragged, and he winced with the passing of each one. He hugged a makeshift crutch, some rotten board he found in the Abandoned District. It smelled of wet earth and rot and his fingers slid into it like clay. The robe from the clinic was discarded somewhere in the darkness. The priest had insisted upon his nakedness, and Adrian was too weak to argue. He had let the robe fall from his body and stepped into the circle of torches that the priest had prepared.
Firelight danced across the ground beneath Adrian’s feet. The floor was dry earth, packed so hard it looked polished. The room beyond was derelict and cavernous. Shadows played in the darkness. Angular shapes heaped atop one another and collapsed in great piles at the far edges. They caught in the edges of the light, broken and strange, as unknown to Adrian as the room they occupied. It could have been an old stable. It smelled of horses, of old wet hay and Adrian strained to think of entering the room, but the memory was distant and then it was gone entirely. The world was like that now, hazy and dreamlike. Empty.
There was blood on his leg, an old dried smear, though he couldn’t remember where it came from. It was on his arm as well. There was some vague feeling of having fallen. Some feeling of loss. He shook his head. He began to shiver. Damn, but the air was cold. He had been wearing a robe, but it was gone, and he couldn’t remember it leaving him. It had just been draped over his shoulders and now he was naked and cold and that robe was somewhere out in the darkness beyond the torches. Somewhere now in the dark. And he was alone. Always so alone and he closed his eyes, and her face was there and smiling. Always her face. A trick of the light, some fragment half forgotten. Oh, mournful spirit. He couldn’t remember her name. It was lost to him, fallen into some crack or fissure and his mind was all cracks and fissures now. All open wounds where her fingers could creep in. “All the way in,” he muttered. “Through the bones.”
“Hush,” the priest said from behind him. He was pacing beyond the burning circle.
The priest. Adrian forgot about the priest. Memories of the man came creeping back. His panic when he saw Adrian, his desperation at the sight of him. He said that he was not fit for the audience he was about to receive. Told him that she would kill them both. Adrian coughed and his mouth filled with blood and phlegm. He leaned and spat.
The priest cried out. He scrambled for the clinic robe, used it to wipe up the mess, then threw it back into the shadows. He scolded Adrian, then began to walk the outer edge of the circle with his head shaking. He recited a prayer under his breath, though Adrian couldn’t understand the words. Just more holy nonsense, ravings of the mad. The priest completed one circuit then set fire to a bronze censer and hefted it into the air. His prayers became louder, and the room filled with incense as he walked the burning perimeter again and again.
The incense was thick and sweet and it fought its way through Adrian’s mind and troubled him. It held some threat of betrayal. They would smell it in his hair and on his skin. Only the faith used incense. Only the faith, and the Guard would smell it on him. The thought vanished as fast as formed. Others thoughts rushed to replace it. Thoughts of betrayal. Of emptiness. A delirium of fears. They invaded him, and his vision spun and awoke the pain in his body and he lost his grip on the rotted crutch and fell to the ground.
He heard the clatter of the bronze censer. It sounded far away, muffled.
“Get up!” the priest urged from outside the burning ring. He dropped level with Adrian. His eyes were wild. “Get up damn you! You cannot falter in front of her. She will not tolerate it.”
Adrian growled. The disease had gnawed him to bones, but a trace of the old fire was still alive in him. New visions clouded his mind. Visions of the priest, and blood. He grinned at them, and grinned at the terrified face in front of him. He coughed and pushed himself up. Droplets of blood fell from his chin, and he smeared them carelessly across the ground with his foot. He stood and took a breath. The air felt thick in his lungs. It sent a stab of pain through his back, though he didn’t allow it to show. He spat again, this time towards the priest.
“What do I need you for?” Adrian asked, his voice barely above a whisper. “What purpose do you serve? I can take my offer to her.”
“Offer?” the priest cried. “You think she is coming to hear an offer? You have nothing to offer her. Nothing to say to her. She only wants to see you.”
“Have you met her before?”
“Of course not. Of course I haven’t. Very few people have ever stood in the presence of one of the Ascended. Prudence is a favored child of Vellah. She is holy.”
“And she can give me what I want?”
The priest watched him for a long moment. “You are damned,” he said at last. “Do not speak to her. Do not look at her unless she asks it.”
Adrian’s stomach twisted again. His head began to throb. He watched the smoke billow out of the fallen censer. He counted the torches along the burning circle. Anything to keep from the pain. He looked up to the night sky to count the stars, but saw only the black ceiling above him.
A rumbling carried through the room and the priest moaned. “The crutch!” he cried. “Give it to me. The circle must only hold you. Nothing else. She’s only here to see you. Now kneel. Kneel, and keep your eyes down. Do not speak. Do you hear me? Do not speak.” His voice broke with these last words and he scrambled away from the room.
Adrian listened to the priest’s footsteps as they vanished into the night. He bent down to kneel, but collapsed again when he came near the floor. He pushed himself up as the sounds from outside grew louder. He closed his eyes.
The rumbling resolved into the hollow clamor of hooves on stone and the deep grinding of carriage wheels. The sounds grew until they were just beyond the edge of the circle. And then they stopped. And the world was silent save the breath of the horses. He pressed his eyes shut. He kept his head lowered. And he waited.
Something shifted inside the carriage. Then creaking wood and groaning metal, then footsteps. Deep, loud footsteps. His eyes were open, though he didn’t remember opening them. He stared at the ground. The footsteps grew louder, then a delicate sound of metal, like tiny bells with no resonance, gentle as rain. A shadow crawled along the ground. Adrian kept his eyes lowered and the shadow grew until it was all he could see.
And then she spoke, and her voice was deep and smiling, almost songlike. “There you are,” she said. “My traitor… my lovely betrayer. There you are.”
She reached her hands towards Adrian’s face. They were long and grub white, and large enough to wrap around his skull. Delicate fingers rolled from the palms, and he shuddered as they touched him. They were soft and warm. They crawled up his neck and caressed his face.
“First Lieutenant of the Guard,” she said with trace of mockery. “Heir apparent. A trusted and ferocious man. But just look at you. Look how you rot inside this husk.” She pulled at his skin, stretching it lightly, feeling it between her slender fingers. “Look how you fall apart… and soon you will be nothing but a corpse, forgotten and swallowed by the veil. Is that your fate, little one?”
Adrian tried to shake his head, but the loving hands held him like a vice.
“Look at me.”
The words caused Adrian to spasm. They poured cold over his body. The nausea returned, along with the pain. It was amplified in terror, and tore at his stomach. He fought against it. He caught his breath. And very slowly, he brought his gaze up.
The face of Prudence the Ascended filled his vision. She was so close to him. Close enough to bite. The flamelight played across her flawless skin, her midnight hair. Her face was drawn long like a wolf’s, and smiling.
“Am I not beautiful? Are God’s gifts not wonderful?” She loosened her grip.
Adrian nodded. Tears filled his eyes. Prudence’s smile grew wider. It curled beyond the edges of her face.
“You seek God’s gifts as well,” she said. “You, a heretic, seek the love of the Spire, the love of God. You bargain for it. You think it is something to be bought.” She paused, watching him for a long moment. She looked his face up and down. “It cannot be bought. Not for any price. Not by anyone. Do you understand?”
Another nod and Prudence brushed one of her nails against his cheek. Blood welled from the cut and warmed his face. Prudence pulled him closer and smelled it.
“No,” she said. “You don’t understand at all. How could you with that foulness in your veins?” She wiped the blood against his cheek. “But you will. If your words are true. Now speak to me, my pet. Speak to me in the flesh and not through the ether. Spectral minds can be deceptive. They can be ghostly and thin. I need to hear you and see you. Now, tell me who you are.”
He took a shuddering breath. “Adrian Cellus Redwyn,” he said. “First Lieutenant of the City Guard.”
His mouth felt full of dust. “And… son of the Avarine.”
Prudence hissed at the last word. Her grip tightened and her eyes rolled white. Her smile twisted, the lips pulling back to red gums and the glistening teeth, so many teeth, all began to lengthen. Redwyn soiled himself as her face changed. “A tragic word,” she moaned. Her voice had lost its hint of song. It was now at the verge of a howl and a chorus of other voices seemed to join hers and they spoke all at once. “The life it carries, the things it means. It is painful, painful.” She brought herself still closer to Adrian’s face and he could see some awful depth in her eyes and his mind was filled with gnawing insects. “Your words found me all the way in the Pale City. They were frightening to hear. Frightening to share. Your words angered the Angel Vellah. They sent my Lord to fits.”
She held one of her fingers out and its nail began to grow. It was nearly transparent, glasslike, and as long as a knife. She traced its tip along the contours of Adrian’s eye socket.
“God’s love is not a prize, little betrayer. Like my trust, it must be earned. There are costs. There is a price for everything, especially devotion. Do you understand?”
The tears in Adrian’s eyes caused his vision to blur. The image of Prudence, her spider stare, was softened beneath them, and he was thankful. He nodded.
“Look at me, Adrian Redwyn, my little traitor. Look at me, and speak again. Tell me only truth. The words that found their way to me, and then to our sacred Angel… words of rebellion, of heresy… are they true?”
He blinked and the tears washed from his eyes and Prudence wiped them from his face. She had calmed once again. Her eyes had clouded back to their calm dark. Her teeth had receded. The tiny hooks in her hair caught the torchlight and glittered like gems. She smiled, and in the smile Adrian Redwyn saw that she was indeed beautiful. So very, very beautiful and in her beauty he saw life and salvation.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Yes. It’s all true. Every word.”
The carriage lurched back across the Salt Bridge as the night began to fade. It disappeared into the cresting dawn, and the days and months disappeared after it.
The heat of the high summer began to depart, and the first autumn winds chilled the nights. The early harvest came to the southern farms, and the city of Mayfaire began to prepare itself for the far distant winter. And far to the east, in the barren Holy Lands, the Pale City began to stir.