From the furthest branches of a great oak Emine watched the activity in the Barracks courtyard. It was made small by the distance, the men and women hurrying along in miniature, the wagons like toys. The full expanse of the courtyard yard a tiny, dusty stage on which some harried drama was unfolding. She heard the muted orders called through the distance, punctuated a single time by her father’s voice, rising deep and commanding across the yard, strong enough to send chills down her back. That bellowing voice so disconnected from the father she knew, and she wondered, not for the first time, if there were two Cosmin Aurels in Mayfaire. One loving and quiet, a soft spoken man who still called her “Emmy” when all others had ceased, who insisted on meeting her friends and eyed her with suspicion if any happened to be boys. The father she knew. But the other… he was frightening and mysterious, a man existing beyond her world. Unsmiling and purposeful, a man that people bowed to. The bearer of some grave weight she couldn’t understand.
“Have you seen enough?” a voice called from the ground.
Emine looked down between the branches to where her twin brother sat. His skinny legs were laid out on the grass, the left one forever turned. In his lap was a thick, yellowed book which he flipped through delicately with his right hand while keeping the left, so clumsy and of little use, hidden beneath the leather binding. A stonewood cane leaned on the tree beside him.
“Keep your voice down,” Emine hissed as she descended the tree.
Elias shrugged. A warm breeze flitted through the copse of trees and ruffled the pages and he cursed at it and closed the book until it subsided.
Emine dropped to the ground beside Elias, followed by a rain of leaves and tree bark. Elias brushed them from his legs.
“You’re not exactly quiet yourself,” Elias said.
“Shaking a few branches isn’t the same as shouting.”
“You’re right,” Elias said. “It’s worse. Lots of people shout, you know. But can you think of an animal that would shake an entire damn tree. So which of us is drawing the most attention?”
Emine didn’t answer. She sat in the grass beside her brother and looked at him with familiar frustration. Elias smiled back at her and stuck out his tongue. “You’re too old to be climbing trees, you know.”
“I was watching the Barracks..”
“You’re too old to be playing spy as well.”
“I’m not playing anything,” Emine said. “Something is going on. They’re unloading a bunch of merchant wagons.”
“What were they carrying?”
“Tons of stuff. One was full of barrels.”
“Big barrels or small?”
“Were they marked?”
“Yeah some had red tops.”
Elias thought for a moment. “Lamp oil,” he said. “That’s strange.”
“Why is that strange?”
Elias kept his eyes on his book. “Who needs lamp oil during the Days? No one is lighting anything. It just seems strange. Did you see any larger casks? Ones with black tops?”
“Yeah I think so. What’s in those?”
“You’re not much of a spy, you know that?”
“What’s in the other casks Elias?”
“Pitch. It’s what they use for torches. That’s just as strange as the lamp oil.”
Emine nodded. She looked in the direction of the Barracks though all she faced was a stone wall. The sun filtered through the trees and danced across her face. Elias plucked a leaf from her hair then threw it at her. “I knew something was happening,” she said, batting the leaf away. “Dad’s been acting so strange. I knew we’d see something.”
“You saw a bunch of wagons carrying supplies.”
“Oil and pitch though? You said it yourself, that’s strange.”
“What about the other wagons? How many were there?”
“Lots. A dozen at least, but it looked like more were waiting on the road.”
“And were they all carrying incendiaries?”
“Things that burn.”
“No,” Emine said. “Only one. The rest were carrying pretty boring stuff. Lots of grain and food…”
“So dad is supplying the Barracks with provisions,” Elias said. “Nothing more.”
“But they waited for the faithful to get to the Colosseum before they started moving the wagons. Why would they do that?”
Elias turned back to his book. “Because if they moved them any earlier the Vacant would have been out prowling around,” he said. “Who knows what those things would do.”
“Yeah, but the wagons all started moved when the Colosseum bell stopped ringing. They were waiting for it.”
“So what if they were?”
“So they didn’t want the Faith to see what they were doing. They’re planning something.”
“Did you see dad?”
“Yeah, he was talking to Adrian.”
Elias wrinkled his nose. “The Miraculous,” he sneered. “Do you still think he’s handsome now that he’s missing an eye.”
“Quite,” Emine said. “I think he looks distinguished.”
“I think he looks like a villain.”
“You’ve never liked him.”
“I’ve never had any reason to.”
Emine left the conversation alone. She stood and brushed the dirt from her pants. She kicked Elias. “Get up,” she said.
Elias closed the book. “Where are we going?”
“Somewhere else. Now get up.” She reached down and Elias offered her the book, followed by his arm. She took both and helped him to his feet. He staggered slightly and leaned against her for a moment then bent down for his cane. Emine put the book in her backpack. “You want any water?” she asked.
“You feel like more walking?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“I mean, really… how do you feel?”
“I’m fine,” Elias said. “Stop asking.”
Emine led them gently through the copse of trees. She turned back often to check on Elias and broke low branches so they wouldn’t whip through the air behind her as she passed. Elias stumbled twice and waved Emine off when she moved to help him. He swore at the uneven ground and tested it with his cane before each step.
They soon emerged onto the barren width of the Circle Road. The marble walls of the Magister’s Palace rose high in all directions before them, but neither spared it more than a passing glance. Elias stopped at the edge of the road to brush himself off, sighing as he did so. Emine ignored him. She looked down both directions of the road before turning right.
“Where are we going?” Elias asked.
Emine shrugged. “North, I guess.”
“Can’t we go around the Palace?”
“We could,” Emine said. “But do you really want to walk that far? Come on, it’ll be fine.”
Elias hesitated a moment before following his sister down the center of the Circle Road. Emine stopped to let him catch up, then kept her steps small to stay beside him. “It’s so strange to see the roads empty,” she said. “It’s so quiet too…”
“I like it.” Elias said. “The whole city seems quiet. It’s nice.”
“It’s quiet because everyone is terrified,” Emine said. “You saw what the Vacant did next door.”
“I’m not saying I like the Vacant. I just enjoy the peace.” He made a short sweeping motion with his cane across the road. “Just look at this,” he said. “There’s no one else around. It’s nice.”
“You just don’t like other people,” Emine said.
“I like some people. Most of them are idiots.”
The road curved, and brought the golden gates of the palace into view. A pair of guards stood sentry at the gate, proud and stoic in their high-crested helms, polished spears shining in the afternoon light, radiating menace. Their heads slowly turning as they watched the twins pass, dark eyes staring from the slits in their helms. Elias dropped his head and stared at the road. He took his cane from the road and held it causally, more like an ornament than a tool, and tried as best he could to stifle his limp. He tucked his left hand into his coat and passed the gates in silence.
A low murmuring sounded from the pair of guards behind them, followed by stifled laughter. Emine bristled. She hoped for a moment that Elias hadn’t heard them, but knew he had.
“Assholes,” Elias said under his breath, and when the road turned from the sight of the guards he allowed his weight to fall back on his cane and took his hand from his coat. His pace slowed again.
“You don’t know what they were laughing at,” Emine said.
“Of course I do. You saw how they were staring at me. I told you I didn’t want to go this way.”
“They stare at everyone. It’s their job.”
“Yeah, but you know what they’re thinking when they look at me. I fucking hate it.”
Emine watched the road for a long time, then shook her head. “I know what they were laughing at,” she said.
“Yeah, I do too,” Elias said.
“Not you, Elias. It isn’t always about you. I heard what they said, you didn’t.”
“And what did they say?”
“Well… the one said ‘I’m a fucking idiot.’ and then the other said ‘Yeah, me too.’”
Elias couldn’t help but grin. “You’re so stupid,” he said. “That isn’t even funny. If you’re going to lie you may as well make it funny.”
“It’s no lie,” Emine said. “That’s what I heard.”
“How about this,” Elias said. “The one says ‘I slept with your mother last night,” and the other says ‘but… that’s impossible! My mother’s been dead for years.’ and then the first guy says, and he looks the guy right in the eyes, ‘Well then… that explains the chill.’”
“Elias that’s disgusting,” Emine said laughing. “It’s not even original.”
“It is so. I just made it up.”
“You absolutely didn’t.”
“I absolutely did.”
“Well either way it’s completely gross.”
“Don’t blame me, blame the guard! Those guys are sick. They’re necrophiliacs.”
They followed the Circle Road northwest, beyond the sprawling grounds and sheer walls of the Palace. The buildings on either side of the road became opulent and stately as they went. Buildings of governance, of law. Robed men and women standing in small groups beneath the shade of columned porticos as pages and messengers scurried among them, weaving and landing among the groups before fluttering off again like flies at a banquet. Emine and Elias watched the activity as they passed, but none in the yard returned more than a hurried glance.
Another row of trees marked the edges of the Judicium, and the deep plaza at its side led to the high pillars of the Forum where hundreds more of the robed figures were gathered. There was little order to their number, though several voices rose above the crowd and seemed to be guiding some sort of debate. One voice roared above all the others, and the twins stopped for a moment to watch at the great form of Magister Albed Hollis, resplendent in his green robes, heavy arms flailing and pointing in fearless accusation at those surrounding him, his voice crying loud and sure. The face gone all red with shouting, the heavy jowls wet with spittle. Gold rings catching in the sun and shining on each of his fingers.
The road opened up as they turned east. Carriages greeted them at the edges of Highton, and the large, stately buildings of the High Circle were replaced by tall and narrow row houses that crowded in tight along road. Shops occupied the lower level of most of the houses, and sparse crowds of people meandered along them. The businesses were nearly all shuttered. Few people spoke.
“Where are we going, anyway?” Elias asked.
“I don’t know,” Emine said. “Maybe the east wall? We could maybe get up to the ramparts, depending who’s on duty.”
“Why do you want to go up to the wall?”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“I guess not. Everything is closed. We might as well just waste our time on the wall.”
“The Colosseum is open,” Emine said. “You could go and pray.”
They reached the plaza that sprawled before the main entrance to the Colosseum. The crowds along the road kept their distance from the cut stones of the plaza, which sat empty in its enormity, like a desert planted in the middle of the city. Emine stopped for a moment to stare across it to the crumbling shape of the Colosseum and the raised arm of the statue of Vellah cresting the high edge and reaching into the heavens. Voices, strained and screaming, drifted in a great muted chorus from the building and echoed dim and violent across the plaza. Grey, stalking shapes of the Vacant patrolled the Colosseum gates, only darkness beneath their hoods. One of them stopped and it’s cowled head snapped in the direction of the twins and Emine shuddered and clutched Elias’s arm. He turned to see the Vacant far off across the plaza. If it frightened him he made no sign of it. “Come on,” he said and led them away from its distant gaze.
They stopped beyond sight of the Colosseum. A low wall curved into the shade of a row house and they sat on it and watched the meager crowds passing on the East Road. Emine looked in the direction of the Colosseum then turned back to stare at the ground, her dark hair falling unkempt over her face. A small beetle crawled into her view and she spat towards it for no reason, missing it by a large degree and hitting her shoe instead.
“Gross,” Elias said.
Elias ran the end of his cane along the road and drew little shapes in the sand and dirt that gathered in the creases of the paving stones. Emine wiped the end of her shoe on the inside of her back of her pant leg. “Do you think it’s like this in other places?” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, all of this. The faithful and Vacant and everything… the Census… is it like this everywhere?”
“I think it’s worse,” Elias said. “The other cities are all closer to the Spire, I think. Orthos, Innsmos, Aurton… and if they’re closer they’re probably a lot worse off. I don’t really know.”
“What about the west?”
“What about it?”
“They’re used to be cities there.”
“Not anymore,” Elias said “They’re all gone. You’ve seen the Barrens.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Why are you asking?”
“It’s all just so awful,” Emine said.
Elias was silent for a long time. Another beetle came crawling along the ground and he sat the end of his cane in front of it and let it crawl up towards his hand. He watched it for a moment, then let it crawl off into the bushes on the other side of the wall. “We’re lucky,” he said at last. “You know that?”
“The Census only takes kids, and we aren’t kids. And they probably wouldn’t take us even if we were. They usually only take them from the Reaches. From the families of the faithful.”
“How many do they take?” Emine asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s strange, don’t you think? That no one will talk about it? Not even mom and dad. It’s like they thought it wasn’t going to happen or something. And now that it’s here they’re completely silent. People are coming to steal kids away and they won’t even talk to us about it.”
“They usually only take kids from the Reaches. I told you that.”
“Well, it really isn’t our problem then. It doesn’t really affect us.”
“But we live here too,” Emine said. “It affects the entire city.”
“It doesn’t though. We just have to suffer through the Days and avoid the Vacant. The rest is just a bunch of ceremonies for the faithful. We just have to ignore it until they leave.”
“But they leave with children,” Emine said. “They steal kids from Mayfaire.”
“No,” Elias said. “Not from Mayfaire. From the Reaches. It’s different… It’s not like they are going to break into the house and take us away. It doesn’t happen like that.”
“I hope not.”
“I’ll fight them off for you.” Elias said with a grin. “I’ll make sure they won’t take you to the Wastes.”
“Like I need your help.”
“Who else?” Elias said as he brandished his cane like a sword. “You think you’re Avaryne will save you?”
“Avarine,” Emine said. It rhymes with ‘mean.’”
“Yeah well, Avaryne, Averine… either way its a fairy tale.”
“You don’t know everything,” Emine said.
“And you don’t know anything.”
“This from someone who never leaves the house.”
“I’m out here now, aren’t I?”
“You are,” Emine said. “And aren’t you glad?” She gestured at the empty streets, the shuttered businesses, and towards the ruins of the Colosseum. “Isn’t it lovely?”
“The River’s Jewel!” Elias said. “I had no idea all the joy I’ve been missing.”
They hopped from the wall and walked around the edges of the East Road. They passed along the narrow roads that separated the eastern districts and stepped past the cold forges of north Riverside. At noon they stopped at a stall above the Southern Market to purchase some dried fruit and salted meat. They looked longingly at the bakeries with their drawn windows and empty ovens.
Emine kept a close eye on Elias as they went, always watching for the telltale signs of pain that he had learned to so deftly hide from the world. The slower pace, the frequent stops to look at something that he feigned interest in, the silence. He was squinting into the distance now, watching the slowly growing shape of the East Gate. He leaned hard against his cane.
“You still want to go to the wall,” Emine asked.
“Yeah, why not?”
“It’s a long climb to the top.”
“I’m fine, Emine. Stop asking.”
The sun peaked in the midday sky and their shadows disappeared beneath them as they made their way down the wide channel of the East Road. Crowds meandered along the sidewalks, but with no shops to welcome them they simply walked without purpose as if in some daze, aimless, but preferring the sunny street to their own dark homes. They mostly walked in small groups or pairs. A beggar sat in a doorway, but made no attempt at alms. He simply watched the world pass him. A skinny dog loped down the road beside Elias and kept pace with him for a time before turning down a shadowed alley. Emine watched it go. She whistled after it, but it disappeared from sight without turning its head.
The East Gate continued to grow at the road’s end, and soon the twins found themselves nearing its base, the city wall stretching huge and endless to either side. A guard stood sentry at the foot of the gate, and the twins made their way across the Perimeter Road and approached him.
“Masters Aurel,” the guard said to Emine with a small bow. He turned to Elias and bowed a second time. “What brings you to the Gate?”
“Boredom,” Emine said.
“Ha! Ain’t it so. Nothing to do but wait during the Days, and waiting is bad for the spirit.” He gestured to the looming gate, and shook his head. “But I’m afraid you’ve come to the wrong place to heal your boredom. Yonder gate is closed and she won’t open until the damned Congregation comes.”
Emine stared up at the immense set of stonewood doors behind the guard. They crested higher than the city wall, and were set into a stone gatehouse nearly as vast in proportion as the old Tower Scholam.
“We’d like to get up to the wall,” Elias said.
“Oh?” the guard said. “Well, I suppose that could be arranged.” He looked Elias over and frowned. “It’s quite a climb, young master.”
“He’ll be fine,” Emine said.
The guard shrugged. “Of course, of course. I meant no offense.”
“It’s ok,” Elias said. His hand was once again hidden inside his coat.
“I’ll not stand in the way of the Commander’s own. Head on up, see the sights, and by the heavens don’t slip or do anything stupid. There’s patrols there who may come, but they’ll recognize you and leave you be.”
“Thanks,” Elias said, walking past the guard.
“My regards to your father,” the man said before turning back to watch the roads.
The stairs that emerged from the side of the gatehouse were steep, and Elias took them slowly. Emine stayed behind him, ready to stop him if he should slip. She carried his cane, and watched as he used his good hand to support himself on the ledges before bringing his feet to each step one at a time.
The New Forest was settling into the the golden light of afternoon by the time they reached the top of the wall. Emine looked at it with concern, calculating the time they would need to get back home before the curfew. Elias, breathless, was trying a large arched door that rested at the side of the gatehouse.
“What are you doing?” Emine asked.
“We’ve come this far,” he said between deep breaths. “Might as well go all the way.”
Emine smiled and looked up to the very top of East Gate. “You want to go to the Magister’s platform?”
“I would if the door weren’t locked.”
“Did you try knocking?”
Elias laughed. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he said. “You think that overweight hound is up there now?” He banged on the door. “Hey! Magister Hollis! Open up you big bastard!” He thought for a moment. “I’ve got a roast duck for you!” He cried. “Sweets as well… a whole sack full!” He pressed his ear to the door, and waited. Emine giggled and Elias held a hand up, gesturing for silence. He turned to Emine, his face serious. “I lied about the duck and the sweets,” he whispered. “So he’s going to be pretty mad when he comes waddling down here.”
“Here,” Emine said as she handed back the cane. “You might need this.”
Elias took the cane and held it once again like a sword, his curled left hand high in the air and his legs apart in riposte. “Best to stay behind me,” he said. “He’s likely strong as a bear when he’s hungry.”
Without warning a cry from somewhere along the wall. A piercing shout, followed by calls from the gatehouse. The twins spun to watch as a small group of City Guard gathered at the edge of one of the guardhouses. Others were calling out and running along the wall to where the twins stood.
“We didn’t do anything…” Elias said.
“It’s not us,” Emine said as the guards approached. They were scrambling along the walkway with their eyes locked to the road outside of the city wall. Emine and Elias stepped from the doorway and leaned into the crook of an embrasure to stare out towards the New Forest and the road that split through it. A shape ambled down from the forest, solitary and lurching.
“Drop the bridge!” one of the guards cried to the gatehouse as she neared the twins. “Drop the bridge!”
Her cry was answered immediately. Sounds of heavy chains, the groaning of old metal gears. Emine and Elias pressed themselves against the edge of the wall as the drawbridge lowered, colliding with the far bank of the city trench with a thunderous boom. A deep rattling of chains sounded from the gatehouse, then a grinding of metal on stone.
“They’re raising the portcullis,” Elias said. “They’re opening the gate…”
The shouting guard reached the twins, but paid them no attention. She was fixated solely on the approaching figure. Two more guards came behind her, but instead of stopping they rushed down the stairs to the foot of the gate.
“What is it?” Elias asked the woman.
“A horse, young master,” she said without taking her eyes from the road.
“Oh no,” Emine said. “Oh heaven…”
The creature limped through the shadows of the forest road and came fully into view. It was riderless, its saddle ripped loose, drawn by its own weight to hang at the horse’s side which shined crimson with blood. A cluster of arrows, quill-like and shaking with each limping step, sprouted from the horse’s flanks.
The ground beneath them began to shudder as the doors of East Gate opened. Voices cried out, guards ran through the opening gates and flooded into the gatehouse tunnel, and the woman beside Emine stood and watched. She waited in silence, her eyes never leaving the foot of the gates far below. A guard emerged back out of the gates. He let out a sharp whistle, then made a series of hand gestures directed at the woman. She watched them, nodded, then gestured back to the man, an open palm she turned into a fist. He nodded and ran back through the gate.
The woman saw the shock on the twins faces. “It’s belongs to the Sovern,” she said. “It’s a scout’s horse.” She watched as a group of guards ran across the bridge to meet the failing animal. One grabbed its reins while the other ran to the wounds and both were red with blood in a matter of moments. “It’s bad news,” the guard said. “You need to get home.”