The twins turned from the East Gate and headed for home, passing only inches away from Isaac as they did so, neither sparing him a glance. Elias limped slow down the road, Emine matched his pace. They spoke in low whispers to one another and stole glances over their shoulders toward the Gate and the crowd that formed there. Concern and fear marked their faces though Emine made more of an effort to conceal it than her brother. They passed Isaac and their evening shadows stretching long and thin as they following them down the road.
A slender woman, smelling of blooming flowers and ash, came to stand beside Isaac. She made no sound as she approached. She stared after the twins with dark, humorless eyes.
“Hello Sasha,” Isaac said.
Sasha nodded. “You saw the horse,” she said.
“The Guard will try and get it to the Barracks.”
“Yes they will.”
“Cosmin will not want it walking through the city.”
“No he won’t.”
“I trust you know what to do.”
Isaac said nothing. He hesitated, let out a breath, then nodded.
“It’s just an animal Isaac, it does not deserve your pity.”
Isaac turned towards the East Gate. He held his hand to shield the sun from his eyes and watched the crowd of City Guard that gathered around the horse. Their faces grim. The horse shook its head and floundered, then righted itself. “It found its way home,” Isaac said. “After all that. Alone out there and bleeding… Imagine that. How scared it must have been. And to run through the Barrens alone…”
“It’s only a horse.”
In the distance the horse struggled against one of the Guard. It thrashed against its reins and bucked as high as its wounded flank would allow. The movement seemed to cause it greater pain and it pulled itself up and Isaac saw the whites of its terrified eyes, huge and rolling. “I know,” Isaac said.
“How many of the Vacant did you kill the other night to save Cosmin?”
“Did that trouble you?”
“Then neither should this. Only another animal. Now take care of it.”
Isaac turned back to watch Elias. The boy was stopped in the street, leaning on his cane, and pretending to examine a shop sign. Emine waited patiently at his side. “Elias is tired,” Isaac said. “And very likely in pain. He’s been walking all day.”
“He’ll be fine, Sasha said. “I’ll see them both home. Now take care of the damn horse.”
Sasha did not wait for a reply. She brought her hood down then set out along the street in hidden pursuit of the twins, just one more figure in the dwindling streets, though Isaac could have spotted her in a crowd of thousands. He didn’t know anyone who moved quite like Sasha Lon, the strange fluid gait, somehow both graceful and serpentine.
When Isaac approached the City Guard they had only just settled the horse into a stilted walk. They coaxed it gently from the gate and led it down the East Road. Crescents of blood marked the stones as it went, little half moons of crimson. The saddle too was marked with blood, as was the guard who carried it. The guard with the horse’s reins spoke to the animal as he went.
Isaac stood in the center of the road and watched them near. They regarded him curiously, this unassuming man with a tattered cloak draped over his shoulders. One called for him to step aside and when he didnt the whole group stopped. Isaac waited a moment, took a deep breath, then stepped forward.
“What’s this?” the man holding the reins said.
“I’ll take him,” Isaac said.
“I’ll take him.”
“Oh you will?” the man laughed. “Like hell. This here is a Sovern horse. It goes to the Barracks.”
“No it doesn’t. I’ll take him.”
“You don’t seem to be understanding me,” the man said. “This is Guard business. Now move along before I drop you to the damn ground.”
Isaac kept his eyes on the road. He took another breath.
“Let him have the horse Errol,” a voice said, its tone raised in alarm. “For fuck’s sake give him the reins.”
The guard looked at Isaac as if for the first time. The hair fallen over his childish face, the bright eyes, the scars and the wrapped armor, the blades shining in the shadows beneath his open cloak. The guard faltered. He handed the reins of the horse to Isaac without hesitating then bowed his head to the ground. “Terribly sorry, sir,” he said. “Terribly sorry. I didn’t recognize you is all. The horse is yours.”
Isaac said nothing. He took the reins and guided the horse back down the road and passed beneath the East Gate. He crossed the drawbridge, then followed the road to the edge of the New Forest. He spoke to the horse the whole time and stopped once when it faltered as if it could walk no further. He waited for it, brushed its tangled mane, then led it once more into the forest.
When he returned to the city he returned alone, his eyes red and ringed with tears.
The amber light of dusk fell over Mayfaire and the world beyond and Isaac watched it deepen and change from the Tower of the Sun. He sat perched on the tower’s edge, just beyond the pillard walls of the guard post that occupied the crown. He held his knees to his chest and relished the cool evening wind as it rolled over his body. To his left he could see down to the wide Magister’s Platform that occupied the roof of the East Gate. To his right the perimeter wall stretched toward the distant southern edge of the city, ending out of sight at the edge of the cliffs and the river that surged far, far below. Before Isaac were the low fields of Mayfaire, and beyond the fields rose the great wild of the New Forest, its lush green rolling over the horizon and seemingly covering all the visible world and Isaac allowed himself to pretend for a moment that indeed it did cover the entirety of the world. That there were no Barrens, no Wastes, no Pale City… no horrors in the night. No Spire. There was only a sea of lush green with Mayfaire resting at its gentle heart.
He thought of the horse. The dead and headless body he did not have the strength or time to bury. The eyes blank in judgement and he reflected within them. He the executioner. Killer now of the innocent, the wayward, and the scared.
He opened his hand and looked at the arrowhead he had pulled from the horse. The twisted steel formed in a triple blade so the flesh could not be sewn back together. A menacing thing, vile and bloodstained. He needed to show it to Cosmin, but he wanted to throw it from the edge of the Tower and watch it disappear into the trench far below. He wanted it gone from the world. The poor horse. The wretched thing. Staring with those eyes.
A howling now in the distance, the sun setting. An evening chorus of birds and insects beyond the city wall. Silhouettes of bats above the treeline, the circling of swifts and whip-poor-wills. The western horizon fading and the city in shadow. No fires, no lights. A darkening in the eastern sky, first cobalt then to utter dark and darkness is all that Isaac sees and all that he can think of. There is but a single flame burning in shadows of the city, burning in the depths of the Colosseum, but its light is not safe or sane. It is a poison, and the huddled shapes around it are poisoned and they wear the skin of men but they are not men and their veins too are filled of poison and the light to which they pray is no light at all but a beacon in the dark for something even darker and it’s inside of them and it’s inside of me…
Isaac closed his fist around the arrowhead. He winced at the pain. He felt the blood running between his fingers, his own blood now mixed with that of the horse. He stood. A damp wind came from the east, smelling of earth and autumn, and he breathed deep of it and closed his eyes.
He sat for a long time. Long enough for the night to cool and for the stars to emerge and color the sky.
The city, ghostly blue in the moonlight, lay before him. To his back the dark and distant canopy of the New Forest rippled in the breeze. The winds carried the solemn sounds of the night, the dim, eerie call of a screech owl somewhere in the south, the warm rolling sounds of crickets in the fields below. Then something else… something rhythmic, growing louder. The hard sounds of boots on stone…
Isaac jumped up without a sound and slid into the tower guardpost. He cocked his head towards the opening of the spiral staircase in the center of the floor. He listened. The sound grew louder. Thudding now and scraping. A wailing joined the footfall, dry and mournful, then turned into the low growl of the Vacant.
Isaac drew his sword.
The growling stopped.
“Put your cock away,” a dusky voice whispered from below. “I know it’s out.”
Isaac looked at his sword. He smiled to himself, then sheathed it.
A grinning face appeared from the void of the stairwell. Moonlight fell over the dark hair and wolfish eyes.
“Hello Dace,” Isaac said.
“Dace? That scoundrel?” She hopped up the last few steps, and stepped onto the platform, her dark robes flowing after her along with the pungent, sweet smell of alethia. She bowed low to the ground, arms out like a marionette. When she returned to standing her eyes were bright, her face mocking serious. She whispered. “Your old friend Dace is nowhere to be found, dear Isaac. She’s long gone. Tonight you have been visited by a ghost.”
“Indeed! A spirit of the old city. A joyful wraith that brings fire, and music, and everything else we’ve been denied. I even have a few lovely ladies in tow.” Her smile grew and she called down the stairs. “What say you, fair ladies? Ready to forget the Days?” She held her hand to her ear and waited for a reply. When none came she turned back to Isaac. “They’re quite shy, these girls. They’ve had enough of this darkness and so have I, damn it. I say we build a roaring fire in this dismal tower and dance with these beautiful women.” She craned her neck back to the stairs. “Hurry it up, ladies! We haven’t got all night.”
The void of the stairwell replied with silence.
“They must have gotten lost,” Isaac said with a grin.
“Aye, must have.” Dace said. She made a show of patting her jacket and pants, then frowned. “And wouldn’t you know it! l’ve forgotten my flintspark as well. Isn’t that just the way of things? Now here we are in the darkness with no women, and no fire… I suppose the next thing you’ll tell me you don’t play an instrument.”
Dace groaned. Isaac watched her, the smile not leaving his face. “What are you doing up here?” he asked.
“Bringing a little joy to your night. I thought that was clear.”
Isaac said nothing. He waited.
Dace winked at him, though some of the mirth left her face. “I heard about the horse,” she said at last.
Isaac nodded. “You have good ears,” he said.
“I do. And lots of them. All over the city.”
“What did you hear?”
“That a wounded Sovern scout horse came to the gate. And that you took care of it.”
“Did they use my name, your hundred ears?”
“I don’t think many people know your name, Isaac. You aren’t a very social person.”
“What did they call me then?”
“What does it matter?”
“I’ve heard the names they have for me,” Isaac said, his voice gone soft. “I can’t say I care for any of them.”
“Oh I don’t know, I’ve heard a few good ones. I rather like ‘Nighthawk,’ don’t you? It has a bit of menace to it, some poetry.”
“Most of them call me a freak.”
Dace hesitated. “They don’t understand you,” she said at last.
Dace grinned. “Of course not,” she said. “But I like you, and that’s enough. I knew how you would react to that unpleasantness. You have an strange conscience for someone so… talented. You know that?”
“It didn’t deserve to die,” Isaac said, his voice soft and almost lost in the wind. “Animals never do. Not ever. It was alone and it was scared.”
“Tell me about it.”
“It was a scout horse,” Isaac said. “A camargue, dapple grey with a white mane. A beautiful horse…” He wiped his eyes. “It was struck seven times along its flank. Deep wounds.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the arrowhead which he handed to Dace. She turned it in the moonlight. “The Congregation does not have archers,” Isaac said. “They never do.”
“Then who fired this arrow?”
“I don’t know. The shots were clustered, fired together as if from a rank.”
Dace threw the arrowhead to the ground as if it burned her hand. Isaac fetched it and tucked it back into his pocket. “I don’t even want to think about what that means,” Dace said. “Does Cosmin know all of this?”
“He does. Sasha will have told him by now.”
“She was here?”
“So why didn’t she go and kill the damn horse?”
“A group of City Guard were clustered around it. She would not have wanted to get near them. She doesn’t like people.”
“She’s a viper,” Dace said in disgust.
“We are very much alike, Sasha and I.”
“You are nothing alike, Isaac. Sasha is cold blooded. She has no friends.”
“Neither do I.”
“And what about me?”
Isaac turned his head to the ground, embarrassed. He said nothing.
Dace broke the silence. “It’s a good thing you were here,” she said. “What you had to do was awful, but if you hadn’t been here they would have taken that horse through the city. It would have been chaos.”
“It was only by chance. I was keeping an eye on Elias. His sister brought him to the wall. They were watching out to the forest when the horse came.”
Dace considered this. “Does Elias know about you yet?” she asked. “Does Emine know about Sasha? Do my sweet niece and nephew have any idea that you two are watching over them?”
Isaac shook his head. “We’re very careful.”
“I’m sure you are. Cosmin is a strange man, isn’t he? He has reasons for everything, but I can’t figure any of them out.”
“He doesn’t want the twins to feel different. He doesn’t want them to know that they could be in danger.”
“He’s the one who put them in danger in the first place.”
“I suppose he doesn’t want them to know that either,” Isaac said. He stepped to the edge of the tower and rested his elbows on the ledge. The city was spread out beneath him. “He has his reasons.”
“You follow him too blindly, you know.”
“I owe everything I have to him. My very soul.”
“Well I think you give him too much. When do you find time for yourself, you dull son of a bitch?”
Isaac smiled. “When I’m alone,” he said. “In a secluded tower, on a peaceful night’s watch.”
“Ha! Well I’m happy to interrupt it. It’s too damn peaceful if you ask me. You need some company.”
Dace walked beside Isaac and together they watched out over the veiled city. A shambling pack of Vacant slipped from an alley along the East Road then disappeared somewhere into the dark. Dace spat towards them, then reached into her overcoat to pull out a metal flask. She waved it in front of Isaac, uncorked it, then took a long pull before offering it.
Isaac refused the drink with a wave of his hand. “You’re taking a risk having that during the Days,” he said. “If one of the Vacant gets a whiff they’ll have you flensed.”
Dace wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. “I’d talk my way out of it,” she said.
“I doubt that.”
“It’s all nonsense, isn’t it? Illogical. They call strong drink a sin, and tell us that god calls it evil. But if it’s on our island isn’t it from god to begin with? Why would he hate us for drinking his own creation?”
“Not he,” Isaac corrected. “It. The Spire isn’t a man. And they don’t believe It made the world. That’s from the old faiths.”
“Old faiths, new faiths. It’s all garbage. The old ones were fairy tales, and the new ones are the dreams of monsters. I just want the Days to pass.”
“We all do.”
“How long has it been now? Four nights?”
“Four nights without fire, or music, or a damn drink at the tavern…”
“Three more to go.”
“Aye,” Dace said as she stared towards the hulking shadow of the Colosseum. “Then we have those beasts to entertain. And other, nastier things if that arrow tells us anything.” She walked away from the city view and crossed the small platform to face out into the eastern wilderness. Isaac followed, and together they watched the dark lands. The wind danced over the forest and caressed its leaves. The moonlight reflected from them as they twisted and spun and the forest appeared to glisten in the darkness.
“Are you worried?” Isaac asked.
“The Congregation. They’re coming early… they’ve never been early before. And the horse…”
Dace brushed the idea aside with a wave of her hand. “I see no reason to worry,” she said. “Mayfaire is important to the Pale City. I don’t know the last time you ventured down to the docks, but the merchant barges are alway running down the river. Almost day and night. Salt from the mines of Selvid, lumber from the forests, spices from the plateau, wheat and grain from the southern farms… all sorts of shit, and all the time. The Pale City would likely starve without Mayfaire.”
“But the horse…”
“Who knows? Maybe they want to show some force. Maybe they want to intimidate us. Maybe Hollis has been lazier than usual, and the shipments have been getting lighter.” She took another drink. “I’m not worried about the Pale City. If anything I’m worried about Cosmin. You know he came to me the night Redwyn almost died. He gave me a pretty hefty target.”
“Hollis,” Isaac said.
“You knew about that?”
“Cosmin needs him gone.”
“So why didn’t he go to you?”
“You know why. He doesn’t want him dead.”
Dace nodded. “Well, I told him that it would likely come to that. The Magister will not leave his seat without a fight. It will get ugly. You have to find an angle to use, some weakness to grab hold of.”
“And what would that be in Hollis?”
“Hollis is easy,” Dace said. “His son is his weakness. Or the memory of his son, at least. It’s the only soft part of his old foul heart. Any mention of Marcus and the Magister folds up like a doll. I don’t know how to exploit that yet, but I’ll figure it out.”
“That’s very cruel, Dace.”
“Yes well… life is cruel sometimes Isaac. You of all people should know that.”
“Yes, but we don’t have to be.”
Dace thought for a moment. She sighed and looked at Isaac. He was staring far off into the distance, his eyes glazed, his black armor catching no reflection from the moon. “You sweet thing,” she said at last. “You know it’s too late for thoughts like that.”
“I’ve never been cruel.”
“That would be a matter of perspective, don’t you think?”
“No,” Isaac said. “There is no cruelty in death.”
“There is if you don’t welcome it.” Dace said as she uncorked the stinking flask of Alethia once more and tipped it back. She wiggled the flask in front of Isaac, and was surprised when he took it. “Careful with that now,” she said. “You think the faith is dangerous…”
Isaac took a small sip and regretted it immediately. He broke into a fit of coughs that brought the foul drink burning up into his throat and nose. He retched, and Dace doubled over in laughter. “It isn’t for everyone,” she said.
“It isn’t for anyone,” Isaac said in between coughs. “Good god, did you fill your flask with torch oil?”
“No, but there may be some in there. I won’t tell.”
“Better off not knowing,” Isaac said as he filled his mouth with water from his canteen. He swished the liquid and spit it out over the side of the tower and stayed there for a moment to catch his breath. He looked out over the moonlit fields, the dark void of the forest.
“I can get you your own flask if you’d like,” Dace said. “You can clean your blades with it in between sips.”
Isaac didn’t hear the words. He was focussed on something deep in the forest, a faint flickering. A dimness barely registered, like a dusty star that fades when seen. “There’s a light out there,” he said at last, the words nearly a whisper.
Dace followed his gaze. She stared for a long moment, before bursting out in laughter. She slapped Isaac on the shoulder. “I think that liquor got a hold of you quick!” she cried. “It’s got you seeing things.”
“Quiet,” Isaac hushed. “Far at the edge of the forest, look. It’s getting brighter.”
Dace’s next words caught in her throat. The light had grown from a faintness to a small patch of glowing woods. It was nearly lost at the horizon, but as the two watched it grew ever so brighter. And larger.
“Merchants maybe?” Dace asked. “A caravan returning from the Pale City…”
The light coalesced into a burning line, snaking its way through the distant forest, growing longer.
“They’re here,” Isaac said. “The devils are here.”
He stormed over to the northern edge of the tower and called down from its heights. “The Congregation!” he shouted down to the guards posted along the wall. “The Congregation comes!”
Voices rose from the gatehouse. Figures ran to the edges of the wall. They stopped for a moment, then cried out in alarm. A shouting came from further down the wall followed by the bellow of a deep and solemn horn. The sound blared across the quiet night, and was answered by another horn and together they filled the air with their cry, and soon were answered from deep within the city as a thunderous toll rang out from the heights of the Colosseum. The horns fell silent, drowned out by the deep and mournful tolling of the bell.
“Look how many…” Dace whispered.
Isaac was silent. He watched the growing line of fire in the forest as it illuminated the curves of the Eastern Road, growing longer and longer as it reached out for the city walls. “That isn’t the Congregation,” he said at last. “It’s a damn army.”
“Cosmin is prepared for this,” Dace said, raising her voice to be heard over the violent clamor of the bell. “He’s been stockpiling the Barracks since the torch arrived. As much grain as he can get. Carriages too. I think he’s planning to get the Avarine out of the city.”
Isaac was shocked by Dace’s boldness. “Yes,” he said. “He is.”
Together they watched the growing serpent of fire as it crawled down the forest road. It grew closer, a sharp and vibrant river of light, explosive inside of the vast darkness of the forest that contained it. The bell roared in the night, and crying voices could be heard calling out between its outbursts. The Guard were swarming along the city wall, pressing themselves along the ramparts to see what was marching towards their city. The burning light resolved itself as it reached the edge of the treeline and the first of the torchbearers emerged. Flickering orange light danced across their gleaming silver armor.
“Soldiers,” Dace said. “I didn’t think Vellah had soldiers.”
“Then what the hell are those?”
“The Veng,” Isaac said.
Isaac only shook his head. He stared at the shining soldiers as they marched from the canopy of the forest and out onto the open plains before Mayfaire. He spun and quickly dropped down the first steps of the staircase. “Go and tell Cosmin,” he said. “Do it right now.”
“Where are you going?”
“The Avarine will need to get to the Barracks. Now is the only time. It’s what Cosmin wants.”
Dace nodded. She turned once more to the east and to the burning line of soldiers. They came two abreast down the forest road, each one holding a torch above their heads, the light somehow violent and shocking in the night. Her eyes hurt to watch it. She couldn’t move. She watched as the first of the soldiers reached the deep chasm that surrounded Mayfaire, the entire line halted as he did so. They all stood for a long moment, then in perfect unison the lines split down the center as the Veng marched to either side of the wide road then turned as one to face the city. There they stood motionless and silent while the great bells rang and rang through the stirring city.
Dace was frozen, rapt in bleak wonder of the burning path with its light so shocking and bright it reached her in the heights of the tower with strength enough to cast her shadow in broken lines across the stone ceiling above her. A burning light that stretched through the far forest where it lit the trees from within, dull but ferocious, like molten iron seething just beneath a layer of ash, a terrible serpent of flames that pressed past the horizon seemingly without end. The bells echoed in her ears, her hands trembled, and in despair she forced herself away from the tower’s edge and dropped into the stairwell and ran.