Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2010.
By Ian Irvine
Greave was sliding between the thighs of his
god’s forthcoming month-bride, exulting at the conquest, when an
icy finger went where no finger had gone before and a wintry voice
said, Have you heard the one about
the definition of savoir-faire?
Greave had often told the joke, smugly implying
that he was that very master. An inveterate seducer, he prided
himself on his self-possession, but it eluded him now. The irony
Go on, then.
Complete the deed.
Not for anything could Greave continue, and
now he felt the young woman grow cool beneath him. Then cold. Then
freezing; the god had frozen her solid.
Her fate will
be echoed by every woman you touch, said his god, K’nacka, until
you have paid for your crime and redeemed yourself. To ensure
you do, I hold hostage your little sister, the one person you
care about more than yourself.
‘What must I do?’ said Greave, fighting to
remain calm despite the absurdity of his position. He glanced over
his shoulder. The god had the form of a round-bellied man, a plump,
jolly little fellow, save for the agate in his eyes.
In the High
Temple, on the Altar of the Seven Gods, there is a Graven Casket.
Spikes closed around Greave’s fluttering heart.
‘The most precious treasure of the temple. You want me to steal
No mortal may
approach the casket and live. However, there is one tiny instant
of time when this spell fades and a man at the end of his rope
may draw near. The day after tomorrow, at precisely the fifth
hour after midday, you will open the casket and take out what
‘The casket is sealed,’ said Greave. ‘It can
only be opened, and then but once, by the touch of a god –’
The touch of
a god – but not a god,
K’nacka corrected. He tossed down a pair of small bones held
together by a silver wire. These
come from the little finger of a dead god. Touch the casket with
a god-bone, it will spring open, and you may safely remove the
K’nacka vanished, leaving Greave frozen in
place and knowing that the task was a trap. He had to do it, but
he was not going to survive, and neither was his little sister.
Novice Astatine was lying awake, scratching
some itchy specks on her stomach, when Abbess Hildy slipped into
‘The gods are weakening,’ intoned Hildy, ‘while
the power of the dark princes swells. Our lost souls wail so loudly
that I sometimes recognise their voices – and they all lived good lives.’
Astatine shuddered. The abbess’s ecstatic visions
were always disturbing, but this was the worst yet.
‘The more sainted they were in life, the louder
they shriek,’ Hildy said. ‘Something is dreadfully wrong with the
Ice was advancing from all sides on the island
of Hightspall, the last surviving outpost of the empire, , but
that was not what Hildy was talking about. ‘What did you see this
time?’ whispered Astatine.
‘The wicked Margrave Greave is planning to
open the Graven Casket. You must stop him.’
‘Me?’ Astatine choked.
‘You will journey to the High Temple and prevent
this dreadful insult to the gods. Our beloved K’nacka must be weeping
at the insult.’
‘But I’ve taken binding vows,’ said Astatine,
wringing her fingers under the covers. ‘The corruption inside me
must be cleansed.’
‘You take too much upon yourself,’ Hildy snapped.
‘Your sins are insignificant.’
Astatine bowed her head. The abbess was wise,
while she was a foolish, worthless novice. ‘Abbess, I’ve left the
wicked world for good; I can’t go back.’
‘You feel that the world abandoned you,’ said
Hildy, ‘so you seek to escape it, and yourself, in closeted obedience.’
Astatine bit the tip of her tongue to prevent
an angry retort. The other novices called her ‘the mouse’ because
she was so timid; they did not realise that she was constantly
suppressing the urge to bite. ‘I merely serve my god’s will.’
‘I see a wilful arrogance in your subservience,’
said Hildy. ‘You seize on every duty, no matter how painful or
demeaning, and never rest until it is done to perfection. You take
pride in your suffering.’
‘I offer it to my god. I merely serve my god –’
‘You seek to eliminate your self, because the
world is so painful to you that you can only think of escaping
‘I don’t belong there,’ Astatine said plaintively.
‘Even here, I feel as though I’m living in the wrong body. The
sickness I carry inside me has infected all Hightspall.’
Hildy slapped her face. ‘Curb your presumptuous
Astatine clutched the abbess’s wrist. ‘Tell
me that our land is not sick and the common folk despairing. Tell
me that the nobility aren’t wasting their lives in debauchery because
they no longer have hope. Tell me that our gods are strong, and
After a long pause, Hildy said gently, ‘I cannot
tell you any of those things. Hightspall is sick,
the people despairing, our gods dwindling – but it has nothing
to do with you.’
‘Please, Abbess. If I go outside, I will surely
break my vows.’
‘Your first vow, and the greatest, is obedience,’
said Hildy inexorably.
Astatine lowered her eyes. ‘And I obey. But –’
‘The vision I saw may also have gone to the
Carnal Cardinal, Fistus.’
‘He is a holy man of god,’ said Astatine. ‘He
will protect the Graven Casket.’
‘If the casket is opened, our beloved K’nacka
will be in peril; he may fall.’
whispered Astatine. ‘But the gods are almighty and everlasting.’
‘Then fly! Stop this obscenity before it is
‘Hildy … The Margrave Greave is a powerful
man, a warrior who has never lost a fight. How can I stop him?’
The abbess thought for a while, then said,
‘At the fifth hour after midday, on the day after tomorrow, you
must duel with him and win.’
‘He would kill me at the first blow.’
The abbess’s eyes rested on Astatine’s creamy,
almost unblemished skin, her curvaceous form outlined against the
bed bindings designed to prevent sins of the night. ‘You will duel
him with your weapons, not his.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Surely you can’t be that unworldly …’
A flush crept up Astatine’s throat and blossomed
into crimson. ‘But my second vow –’
‘Your vow of obedience comes first. If it is
the only way to stop this dreadful sacrilege, you will break your
‘But … if I were unchaste, how could I come
‘Break that vow and you cannot come back.’
‘And if I refuse?’
‘Those who will not obey have no place here.’
‘I’m doomed, either way.’
‘You will be serving your god; what more can
Astatine was silent.
‘Swear that you will stop the margrave,’ said
‘I’ll try to
‘Swear that you will stop him, no matter what.’
The task was impossible, but Astatine had no
choice. ‘I swear that I will stop him. I will serve my god, no
matter what it costs me. My life has no other worth.’
‘Take this gown, and go at once,’ said the
After Astatine had ridden out on one of the
abbey’s mules, Hildy said, ‘and I pray you do break your vows for,
devout though you are, you do carry corruption with you. You never
belonged in this House of God.’
Roget came back from the bar with a flagon
and poured a hefty slug into a glass. ‘Get this down, before you
Greave clutched his groin, wincing.
‘What’s the matter?’
Roget chuckled. ‘Even for you, that’s a new
Greave’s chattering teeth broke a wedge of
glass from the rim. He spat it out, gulped the liquor and wiped
his bloody mouth. ‘More!’
Roget cantilevered a wire-thin eyebrow but
poured another large measure. After drinking it from the whole
side of the glass, Greave’s eyes met his friend’s.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again.’
‘Take your time. Was it Satima?’
Greave nodded stiffly.
‘I warned you,’ said Roget. ‘What insane folly
sent you after a god’s month-bride? And K’nacka is the most jealous
of all the gods. But that’s why you seduced her, isn’t it?’
Greave did not reply.
‘You’ve had the most beautiful women in the
land yet you’re never satisfied. I hate to say this, but it’s time
you settled down.’
‘What for? The ice advances across land and
sea. Soon it will crush Hightspall out of existence.’
‘Not in our lifetime.’
‘And our gods are declining; they’ve abandoned
‘Don’t speak heresy,’ said Roget, uneasily.
‘Greave, you live for pleasure, but do you ever find it?’
‘Life is empty,’ Greave muttered. ‘The harder
I go after anything, the quicker it turns into a mirage.’
‘Like I say –’
‘All I have left is the hunt. I can’t give
‘And every time you take greater risks.’
‘I only feel alive when I risk everything.
The pursuit is bliss, the act anti-climactic; the hangover, worse
each time. I’m like a reluctant drunk – remorseful in the
morning but back in the bar every night.’ Greave picked up the
flagon of raw spirits and, his teeth chattering on the neck, drained
‘Hey!’ cried Roget. ‘That’s enough liquor to
kill a stallion.’
‘Yet I’m stone-sober,’ said Greave. ‘And freezing
Now Roget was shivering. ‘What did the month-bride
do to you?’
‘The moment I mounted her, she went cold.’
‘Probably afraid, poor girl. I hope you took
pity and sent her –’
K’nacka froze her solid under me.’
Roget gaped. ‘He appeared in
Greave dabbed at his bleeding lip. ‘And then –’
‘No, you’ve gone too far this time,’ Roget
‘The moment you seduced the month-bride of
a god, you doomed her.’
‘The wench is dead; what does it matter?’ Greave
Roget shoved his chair back and stood up. ‘You
were always reckless and self-centred, but you used to care, deep
down. Who will you destroy next?’ he said disgustedly. ‘My sister? My
A deep, inner pain jagged through Greave; he
clutched at his friend’s coat. ‘Don’t go, please. I – I’m
Roget sat down. ‘You must be, to admit to it.
Is there more?’
‘Her fate will
be echoed by every woman you touch, K’nacka said. On the
way here, I glanced at a pretty girl in the street – just
for a second, I swear – and frost all over her clothes.
If I lust after a woman, any woman, she’ll be frozen to death.
And there’s worse.’ He told Roget the rest.
Roget paled, glancing over his shoulder. ‘The
Graven Casket! Greave, I’m not a devout man; my sins are as numberless
as the souls screaming in Perdition. But this is too much.’
‘What can I do?’ said Greave. ‘A god has ordered
me to open the casket –’
‘Which is sealed until the End of Days.’
‘Maybe these are the End of Days.’
‘He’s a trickster. It’s a trap.’
‘I know, but if I don’t do it, my little sister
dies. Roget, help me! There has to be a way out.’
‘You think you can outwit a god? You’re far
gone, my friend. I suggest you make amends for your wicked life,
then prepare to meet your fate.’