THE TAINTED REALM TRILOGY
BOOK 1. VENGEANCE
Copyright © Ian Irvine, 2011.
'Matriarch Ady, can I check the Solaces for you?' said Wil, staring at the locked basalt door behind her. 'Can I, please?'
Ady frowned at the quivering, cross-eyed youth, then laid her scribing tool beside the partly engraved sheet of spelter and flexed her aching fingers. 'The Solaces are for the matriarchs' eyes only. Go and polish the clangours.'
Wil, who was neither handsome nor clever, knew that Ady only kept him around because he worked hard. And because, years ago, he had revealed a gift for shillilar, morrow-sight. Having been robbed of their past, the matriarchs used even their weakest tools to protect Cython's future.
Though Wil was so lowly that he might never earn a tattoo, he desperately wanted to be special, to matter. But he had another reason for wanting to look at the Solaces, one he dared not mention to anyone. A later shillilar had told him that there was something wrong, something the matriarchs weren't telling them. Perhaps – heretical thought – something they didn't know.
'You can see your face in the clangours,' he said, inflating his hollow chest. 'I've also fed the fireflies and cleaned out the effluxor sump. Please can I check the Solaces?'
Ady studied her swollen knuckles, but did not reply.
'Why are the secret books called Solaces, anyway?' said Wil.
'Because they comfort us in our bitter exile.'
'I heard they order the matriarchs about like naughty children.'
Ady slapped him, though not as hard as he deserved. 'How dare you question the Solaces, idiot youth?'
Being used to blows, Wil merely rubbed his pockmarked cheek. 'If you'd just let me peek …'
'We only check for new pages once a month.'
'But it's been a month, look, look.' A shiny globule of quicksilver, freshly fallen from the coiled condenser of the wall clock, was rolling down its inclined planes towards today's brazen bucket. 'Today's the ninth. You always check the Solaces on the ninth.'
'I dare say I'll get around to it.'
'How can you bear to wait?' he said, jumping up and down.
'At my age, the only thing that excites me is soaking my aching feet. Besides, it's three years since the last new page appeared.'
'The next page could come today. It might be there already.'
Though Wil's eyes made reading a struggle, he loved books with a passion that shook his bones. The mere shapes of the letters sent him into ecstasies, but, ah! What stories the letters made. He had no words to express how he felt about the stories.
Wil did not own any book, not even the meanest little volume, and he longed to, desperately. Books were truth. Their stories were the world. And the Solaces were perfect books – the very soul of Cython, the matriarchs said. He ached to read one so badly that his whole body trembled and the breath clotted in his throat.
'I don't think any more pages are coming, lad.' Ady pressed her fingertips against the blue triangle tattooed on her brow. 'I doubt the thirteenth book will ever be finished.'
'Then it can't hurt if I look, can it?' he cried, sensing victory.
'I – I suppose not.'
Ady rose painfully, selected three chymical phials from a rack and shook them. In the first, watery fluid took on a subtle jade glow. The contents of the second thickened and bubbled like black porridge and the third crystallised to a network of needles that radiated pinpricks of sulphur-yellow light.
A spiral on the basalt door was dotted with phial-sized holes. Ady inserted the light keys into the day's pattern and waited for it to recognise the colours. The lock sighed; the door opened into the Chamber of the Solaces.
'Touch nothing,' she said to the gaping youth, and returned to her engraving.
Unlike every other part of Cython, this chamber was uncarved, unpainted stone. It was a small, cubic room, unfurnished save for a white quartzite table with a closed book on its far end and, on the wall to Wil's right, a four-shelf bookcase etched out of solid rock. The third and fourth shelves were empty.
Tears formed as he gazed upon the mysterious books he had only ever glimpsed through the doorway. After much practice he could now read a page or two of a storybook before the pain in his eyes became blinding, but only the secret books could take him where he wanted to go – to a world and a life not walled-in in every direction.
'Who is the Scribe, Ady?'
Wil worshipped the unknown Scribe for the elegance of his calligraphy and his mastery of book making, but most of all for the stories he had given Cython. They were the purest truth of all.
He often asked that question but Ady never answered. Maybe she didn't know, and it worried him, because Wil feared the Scribe was in danger. If I could save him, he thought, I'd be the greatest hero of all.
He smiled at that. Wil knew he was utterly insignificant.
The top shelf contained five ancient Solaces, all with worn brown covers, and each bore the main title, The Songs of Survival. These books, vital though they had once been, were of least interest to Wil, since the last had been completed one thousand, three hundred and seventy-seven years ago. Their stories had ended long before. It was the future that called to him, the unfinished stories.
On the second shelf stood the thick volumes entitled The Lore of Prosperity. There were nine of these and the last five formed a set called Industry. On Delven had covers of pale mica with topazes embedded down the spine, On Metallix was written in white-hot letters on sheets of beaten silver. Wil could not tell what On Smything, On Spagyric or On Catalyz were made from, for his eyes were aching now, his sight blurring.
He covered his eyes for a moment. Nine books. Why were there nine books on the second shelf? The ninth, unfinished book, On Catalyz, should lie on the table, open at the last new page.
His heart bruised itself on his breastbone as he counted them again. Five books, plus nine. Could On Catalyz be finished? If it was, this was amazing news, and he would be the one to tell it. He would be really special then. Yes, the last book on the shelf definitely said, On Catalyz.
Then what was the book on the table?
A new book?
The first new book in three hundred and twelve years?
Magery was anathema to his people and Wil had never asked how the pages came to write themselves, nor how each new book could appear in a locked room in Cython, deep underground. Since magery had been forbidden to all save their long-lost kings, the self-writing pages were proof of instruction from a higher power. The Solaces were Cython's comfort in their agonising exile, the only evidence that they still mattered.
We are not alone.
The cover of the new book was the dark, scaly grey of freshly cast iron. It was a thin volume, no more than thirty sheet-iron pages. He could not read the crimson, deeply etched title from this angle, though it was too long to be The Lore of Prosperity.
Wil choked and had to bend double, panting. Not just a new book, but the first of the third shelf, and no one else in Cython had seen it. His eyes were flooding, his heart pounding, his mouth full of saliva.
He swallowed painfully. Even from here, the book had a peculiar smell, oily-sweet then bitter underneath, yet strangely appealing. He took a deep sniff. The inside of his nose burned, his head spun and he felt an instant's bliss, then tendrils webbed across his inner eye. He shook his head, they disappeared and he sniffed again, wanting that bliss to take him away from his life of drudgery. But he wanted the iron book more. What story did it tell? Could it be the Scribe's own?
He turned to call Ady, then hesitated. She would shoo him off and the three matriarchs would closet themselves with the new book for weeks. Afterwards they would meet with the leaders of the four levels of Cython, the master chymister, the heads of the other guilds and the overseer of the Pale slaves. Then the new book would be locked away and Wil would go back to scraping muck out of the effluxors for the rest of his life.
But the second shillilar said the Scribe was in danger; Wil had to read his story. He glanced through the doorway. Ady's old head was bent over her engraving but she would soon remember and order him back to work.
Shaking all over, Wil took a step towards the marble table, and the ache in his eyes came howling back. He closed his worst eye, the left, and when the throbbing eased he took another step. For the only time in his life, he did feel special. He slid a foot forwards, then another. Each movement sent a spear through his temples but he would have endured a lifetime of pain for one page of the story.
Finally he was standing over the book. From straight on, the etched writing was thickly crimson and ebbed in and out of focus. He sounded out the letters of the title.
The Consolation of Vengeance.
'Vengeance?' Wil breathed. But whose? The Scribe's?
Even a nobody like himself could tell that this book was going to turn their world upside-down. The other Solaces set out stories about living underground: growing crops and farming fish, healing, teaching, mining, smything, chymie, arts and crafts, order and disorder, defence. They described an existence that allowed no dissent and had scarcely changed in centuries.
But their enemy did not live underground – they occupied the Cythonians' ancestral land of Cythe, which they called Hightspall. To exact vengeance, Cython's armies would have to venture up to the surface, and even an awkward, cross-eyed youth could dream of marching with them.
Wil knew not to touch the Solaces. He had been warned a hundred times, but, oh, the temptation to be first was irresistible. The book was perfection itself; he could have contemplated it for hours. He bent over it, pressing his lips to the cover. The iron was only blood-warm, yet his tears fizzed and steamed as they fell on the rough metal. He wanted to bawl. Wanted to slip the book inside his shirt, hug it to his skin and never let it go.
He shook off the fantasy. He was lowly Wil the Sump and he only had a minute. His trembling hand took hold of the cover. It was heavy, and as he heaved it open it shed scabrous grey flakes onto the white table.
The writing on the iron pages was the same sluggishly oozing crimson as on the cover, but his straining eye could not bring it into focus. Was it protected, like the other Solaces, against unauthorised use? On Metallix had to be heated to the right temperature before it could be read, while each completed chapter of On Catalyz required the light of a different chymical flame.
A mud-brain like himself would never decipher the protection. Frustrated, Wil flapped the front cover and a jagged edge tore his forefinger.
'Ow!' He shook his hand.
Half a dozen spots of blood spattered across the first page, where they set like flakes of rust. Then, as he stared, the glyphs snapped into words he could read. Such perfect calligraphy! It was the greatest book of all. Wil read the first page and his eyes did not hurt at all. He turned the page, flicked blood onto the book and read on.
'I can see.' His voice soared out of his small, skinny body, to freedom. 'I can see.'
Ady let out a hoarse cry. 'Wil, get out of there.'
He heard her shuffling across to the basalt door but Wil did not move. Though the crimson letters brightened until they hurt his eyes, he had to keep reading. 'Ady, it's a new book.'
'What does it say?' she panted from the doorway.
'We're leaving Cython.' He put his nose on the page, inhaling the tantalising odour he could not get enough of. It was ecstasy. He turned the page. The rest of the book was blank, yet that did not matter – in his inner eye the future was unrolling all by itself. 'It's a new story,' Wil whispered. 'The story of tomorrow.'
'Are you in shillilar?' Her voice was desperate with longing. 'Where are the Solaces taking us? Are we finally going home?'
'We're going –' In an instant the world turned crimson. 'It's the one!' Will gasped, horror overwhelming him. 'Stop her.'
Ady stumbled across and took him by the arm. 'What are you seeing? Is it about me?'
Wil let out a cracked laugh. 'She's changing the story – bringing the Scribe to the brink –'
'Who are you seeing?' cried Ady. 'Speak, lad!'
How could the one change the story written by the Scribe Wil worshipped? Surely she couldn't, unless … unless the Scribe was fallible. No! That could not be. But if the one was going to challenge him, she must have free will. It was a shocking, heretical thought. Could the one be as worthy as the Scribe? Ah, what a story their contest would make. And the story was everything – he had to see how it ended.
Ady struck him so hard that his head went sideways. 'Answer me!'
'It's … it's the one.'
'Don't talk nonsense, boy. What one?'
'A Pale slave, but –'
'A slave is changing our future?' Ady choked. 'Who?'
'A girl.' Wil tore his gaze away from the book for a second and gasped, 'Away in the future. She's still a child.'
'What's her name?'
'I … don't know.'
Wild-eyed and frantic, Ady shook him. 'When does this happen?'
'Not for years and years.'
'When, boy? How long have we got to find her?'
Wil turned back to the last written page, tore open his finger on the rough edge and dribbled blood across the page. The story was terrible but he had to know who won. 'Until … until she comes of age –'
'What are we to do?' said Ady, and he heard her hobbling around the table. 'We don't know how to contact the Scribe. We must obey The Consolation of Vengeance.'
The letters brightened until his eyes began to sting, to steam. Wil began to scream, but even as his vision blurred and his eyes bubbled and boiled into jelly that oozed out of his sockets, he could not tear his gaze away. He had longed to be special, and now he was.
She tottered back to him, wiped his face, and he heard her weeping. 'Why didn't you listen to me?'
He took another sniff and the pain was gone. 'Stupid old woman,' sneered Wil. 'Wil can see so much more clearly now. Wil free!'
'Wil, what does she look like?'
'She Pale. She the one.'
'Tell me!' she cried, shaking him. 'How am I to find this slave child among eighty-five thousand Pale – and see her dead.'
Whenever Mama wasn't watching, the huge man that Tali called Tinyhead poked his white tongue out at her. Black spots on it were like crawling blowflies and Tali had to turn away before she sicked up her breakfast.
She did not like Tinyhead, but he was helping them to escape. In a thousand years, no Pale had ever escaped from Cython, and Mama had tears in her eyes whenever she talked about going home. Not wanting to upset her again, Tali clutched Mama's hand and kept her worries to herself.
The further Tinyhead led them, the more alarming the tunnel art became, as if warning: try to escape and you'll die. For an hour of their journey the walls they passed were carved into the skeletons of burnt trees surrounded by ash like black snow. Then they walked along a dried-up river with water buffalo trapped in grey mud. Finally, as the passage became an endless desert where spiny lizards picked salt crystals off sharp rocks, Tinyhead heaved open a stone door and stood to one side so they could go through.
They had crossed into another world, one that was cold and dank and slimy underfoot, a vast oval cellar where mist hung in the stagnant air. It looked like the inside of a mouldy old skull and the stink of poisoned, decaying rats made Tali gag.
'Here you are.' Tinyhead flopped out his tongue. 'All your troubles are over, Pale.'
Mama whirled, reaching up to him, but he slammed the door in her face. She let out a whimper.
'You're hurting my hand, Mama,' said Tali.
Her mama crouched in front of Tali, holding her so tightly that she could hardly breathe. Mama's blue eyes were wet, and Tali hated to see her so sad.
'We're betrayed, little one. We're never going home.'
'Why not?' said Tali, looking around in confusion. Why had Tinyhead shut them in? Why hadn't she told Mama her worries? Was this her fault?
A familiar face carved into the stone high on the wall made her shiver. It was Lyf, the enemy's last and wickedest king, who had died long ago. She had often seen the tattooed Cythonians kneeling before his image.
To her left, a series of dusty stone bins ran along the wall, partly concealed by tiers of barrels. On the right, hundreds of wooden crates were stacked nearly to the ceiling. In the centre, twenty yards away, stood a stained black bench. The floor was damp and littered with pieces of fallen stone.
Something rustled, far across the cellar. Mama looked around frantically. 'Over here,' she said, hauling Tali to the crates. 'Squeeze into the middle where you can't be seen.'
Tali clung to her. 'I don't like this place, Mama.'
'Me either. And yet, I feel close to our ancestors here. In, hurry.'
Tali was a good little girl, so she bit her lip and edged into one of the gaps between the rotting crates. The floor was so slimy that her bare feet kept slipping.
'Don't cry. I know how brave you are.' Her mama kissed her brow. 'Tali,' she choked, 'if I don't come back, Little Nan will give you your papa's letter when you come of age.'
'Mama?' Why would she say such a thing? Of course she would come back.
'Shh!' Mama took Tali's hands in her own and drew a ragged breath. 'Our family has a terrible enemy –'
The dead rat smell thickened and grew fouler. 'Who, Mama?'
'I don't know. He's never seen, never heard, but he flutters in my nightmares like a foul wrythen –'
'You're scaring me, Mama!'
'When you're older, you've got to find your gift and master it. It's the only way to beat him.'
Tali shivered. In Cython, magery was forbidden. Magery meant death. Children were beaten just for whispering the word.
At a hollow click from the far side of the cellar, Mama jumped.
'But Mama,' said Tali, lowering her voice, 'if our masters catch any slave using … magery, they kill them.'
'Even innocent little children,' said Mama, hugging her desperately. 'You must be very careful.'
Tali's voice rose. 'Then how am I supposed to find my magery?'
Mama clapped a hand over Tali's mouth. 'I don't know, child. Don't tell anyone about your gift. Trust no one.'
Tali pulled away. 'Is Tinyhead the enemy?' She took hold of a splintered length of wood, wanting to jam it through his disgusting tongue.
'Shh! You know what happens when you get angry.'
'I'm already angry, and I'm going –'
'Forget him. He's nothing.'
'When I find my gift, his head will be nothing. I'll blast it right off.'
'Tali, never say such things! You must lower your eyes and say, "Yes, Master"'
'I won't!' Tali said furiously. 'I hate our masters and one day I'm going to escape.'
'Yes, one day,' said Mama, dully. 'But for now, promise you'll be a good little slave.'
Mama stroked Tali's golden hair. 'You may think whatever fierce thoughts you like, little one, for one day you will be the noble Lady Tali vi Torgrist, but in Cython you must always act the obedient slave.'
It frightened Tali to hear her mama say such things. 'All right,' she muttered. She had a bad temper, and knew it, but for Mama's sake she would try. 'I promise.'
Her mother looked dubious. 'I'll put a little glamour on you. It'll hide you, as long as they don't look directly at you. Hold still.'
She put her hands on Tali's cheeks, whispered a word she could not make out, then drew her hands down Tali's sides, all the way to her feet. Tali's skin tingled and when she looked down, her body had blurred into the shadows. Magery! She ached for it. Feared it, too.
Something made an ugly scraping sound, closer this time, and her scalp felt as though grubs were creeping across it.
'Stay here,' Mama said softly. 'Don't look.'
'Mama, what was that noise?'
'I don't know.' Mama's teeth chattered. 'But whatever happens, even if your gift comes, don't use it here.'
Mama darted away, her pale blonde hair flying. Her bare feet skidded on the flagstones as she passed an ugly tapestry of three jackals fighting over the guts of a nobleman, recovered, then zigzagged between the barrels and the stone bins. She was a beautiful little bird, leading a snake away from her nest.
But as she passed between a pair of stone raptors with flesh-tearing beaks, two masked figures came after her. Tali clutched at a crate, her fingers sinking into the powdery wood.
'Mama, look out!' she whispered, for the masks had fanged teeth and awful, angry eyes. 'Don't let them catch you.'
Then Mama slipped and twisted her ankle, and the moment they caught her Tali knew they were going to do something terrible.
'No!' she whimpered. 'Mama, get away!'
The big man caught Mama's arms and held her while his accomplice, a bony woman, punched her in the mouth.
'Treacherous Pale scum!' the woman hissed.
Mama sagged, staring at them like a mouse trapped by two cats, and Tali's front teeth began to throb. Stop it, stop it! Mama, use your gift on them.
They dragged her to the black bench and heaved her onto it. The woman forced an oily green lump into Mama's mouth, then passed a stubby crystal back and forth over her head until the end glowed blue, scattering brilliant rays across the cellar. Mama moaned and her toes curled.
As the blue crystal glowed more brightly, pain stabbed around the whorled scar on Tali's left shoulder, her slave mark, and cold spread through her like venom. She shuddered and remembered to cover her eyes.
Born to slavery in underground Cython, she had learned life's lesson in her stone cradle – obey, or suffer. But the people who held her mama weren't tattooed like Cythonians, and they were too big to be Pale slaves. Who were they?
Something made an ugly grinding sound. Mama shrieked.
'Careful,' the man cried. 'He won't pay if –'
'It's stuck,' said the woman, and the grinding grew louder.
What were they doing to Mama?
'It's got to be taken while she's alive,' said the man.
'Do you think I don't know that?'
Tali peeped between her fingers and nearly screamed. Mama's arms and legs were thrashing, green foam was oozing from her nose and a strand of hair dripped blood. Mama! Tali could not breathe; for a moment she could hardly see.
'I can't hold her.' The man's voice was hoarse, his eyes darting.
'Nor me if you don't!'
The woman was pressing a metal rod against the top of Mama's head, twisting and shoving as if trying to force it in. Through the mouth of the mask her grey teeth were bared. She was grunting and her hands were red.
Why were they talking like that? Why were they hurting Mama? Tali's breath came in painful gasps and her stomach was full of fishhooks. She had to help Mama. But Mama had told her not to move. Only magery could save Mama now, but she had told Tali not to use it here. Yet if she didn't, Mama was going to die. But Tali had promised …
No! She had to break that promise, and if she got into trouble she would take her punishment. Tali had used magery once before, when she was little. She had been really angry about something and her gift had burst forth out of nowhere. She tried to summon it now but it shrank from her mother's warnings, Always hide your gift! Never use it or they'll find out and kill you.
She tried and tried, but it would not come. Tali was desperate now. She had to save Mama. The glamour would hide her, wouldn't it? She crept out, picked up a piece of stone, took aim at the woman's head and hurled it with all the fury her small body could muster. And missed her.
'Ow!' cried the man, clapping a hand to the back of his head. 'What was that?'
Tali eased backwards to the crates, praying the glamour would hold. She felt with her foot for a bigger stone.
The woman gave a last twist of her length of metal, withdrew it and flicked a white disc, trailing a clump of bloody hair, to the floor. Was that a piece of Mama's head? Tali was reaching for a fist-sized chunk of rock when the woman opened a pair of golden tongs behind Mama's head, pushed in and yanked. Tali heard an awful, squelchy pop. Mama's arms and legs jerked, then hung limp.
'You've ended her,' the man said hoarsely, shying away.
'Who cares about a filthy Pale?' said the woman, holding up the steaming tongs. 'I got it in time.'
Tali's head spun and her eyes flooded. But for the crates she would have fallen down. Though she was only eight, she had seen all too many dead slaves. Why was this happening? Was it her fault? She should have run and led them away; she should have done something, anything. Had the evil woman killed Mama? No, she couldn't be dead.
'Mama, Mama!' she whimpered, hurting all over.
The man gasped, 'Did you hear a cry?'
You stupid fool, thought Tali. Now they'll kill you too.
'Are you useless?' sneered the woman.
The man drew a long knife and waved it at her.
She laughed in his face. 'Find the brat and finish it.'
The man took a lantern in his free hand and crept towards the stacked crates.
The woman put on a long glove that shone like woven green-metal – Tali sensed the whisper of magery coming from it – and removed something round from the tongs. It looked like a black marble. She stripped off the glove so it turned inside out, trapping the black object inside.
Now – horrible, horrible! – she opened a vein in Mama's neck and filled the glove with dribbling blood, then tied a knot in the long wrist and thrust the glove down her front. Tali made out a crimson glow there, shining through the glove, but it went out. She checked on the man, who was at the other end of the stacks, slowly moving her way.
On the far wall of the cellar, the carved face of Lyf shifted. Yellow moved in its stone eyes and a foggy hand reached towards the woman, stretching and stretching as if to pluck out the glove. It was more magery, but whose?
There came a purple flash from behind a pile of barrels, a zzzt like a spell going off and the hand recoiled, then faded out. The woman froze, staring at the stone face, then laughed and picked up the gory tongs.
'Oh!' she whispered. 'Oh, yes!' and licked them clean.
Tali saw her muddy eyes roll up until the whites were showing through the holes in the mask. Tali wanted to punch her nose flat. After checking that the man wasn't looking, the woman filled a square, green-metal tin with Mama's blood, twisted on a brass cap and licked her bony fingers.
Tali's eyes burned and her nose was running. She wiped it on the back of her hand, fighting the urge to scream. If she made a sound, the man would cut her open like Mama. But she was much more scared of the evil woman with the crab-leg fingers and those awful eyes. She pressed a finger to the slave mark on her left shoulder, for luck. Touching it always made her feel better.
The man was tall, with a round, jiggling belly like a pudding basin. He was outside her hiding place now and she caught a glimpse of the gleaming knife blade, as long as her arm. Tali recoiled and felt a shocking pain as a nail in one of the crates pierced her hip to the bone. Tears stung her eyes yet she dared not move. If she made a sound he would stab that knife right through her.
The man was panting and the spirits on his breath made her head spin. His hand shook as he raised the lantern, then lowered it. Silence fell, apart from a sickening drip-dripping from the black bench.
After Papa's terrible death, Mama had taught Tali how to hide. 'A slave must be invisible,' she had said. 'Never be noticed and you'll be safe.'
No slave was ever safe, but Tali was the best of the slave kids at hiding. She traced the loops and whorls of her slave mark with a fingertip, trying to find comfort there, but nothing could comfort her now. Mama couldn't be dead. It wasn't possible, yet she was gone.
He waited, as if he knew she was there. What if he pulled the crates away? She had to do something. She felt among the broken wood on the floor for the sharpest length, a piece as long as her forearm. If he came at her, she would shove it into his fat belly and run.
Her arm was trembling so much she could hardly hold the weapon. Then, to her shame, Tali realised that wee was running down her legs. She clamped her thighs together and, to distract herself, began to count her heartbeats, which were so loud that surely he could hear them. After another twenty beats, the man grunted and moved on. She kept still.
He sprang back, hacking at the crates with his knife and roaring, 'Haaaaaa! Got you.'
Tali's heart leapt up her throat and the nail ground into her hipbone. She was almost screaming from the pain but she did not move. She was going to win this contest, for Mama.
With savage hacks of the knife, the man began to tear down the crates to her left, smash, crash. He was going to find her. How could she stop him? She eased off the nail, took hold of the lowest crate and heaved. It did not budge; the weight of all the crates above it was too great.
More crates crashed down. It would not be long now. She could not go further backwards; the gap was too narrow. And she dared not wait. Once he saw her, he would jam the knife through her guts.
Tali crouched, took hold of the lowest crate and heaved, using her legs this time. Even little girl slaves were strong, and she forced upwards, slowly straightening her legs, until her back ached and her knees trembled. But she wasn't going to give in, ever.
The moving crates scraped and squealed. He swung around, trying to work out where the sound had come from. She gave an almighty heave, the ten-high stack swayed, then with a roar the lot came down on him.
Tali scurried sideways into a new gap and hid in the darkness. The man groaned. The woman appeared, taking her time, and heaved the crates aside. The man's face was covered in blood. Ha! thought Tali. Take that! But it could never make up for what they had done to Mama.
'What happened?' he moaned.
'Stop whining,' said the woman disgustedly. 'You pulled them down on yourself. Did you find anything?'
Fifty heartbeats passed, then the man lurched away. 'Must have been rats. Come on. I need another drink.'
'I'll pour it down your throat until you choke.'
Tali pressed a fingertip against the nail wound, trying to heal it the way Nurse Bet had taught her, but the hole went too deep. The beads of blood on her fingers were as bright as jewels, as bright as Mama's blood. Mama! Her eyes flooded.
The woman pulled on a dangling rope and, with a screech, an iron staircase corkscrewed down. Tali felt sure the point at the bottom was going to twist right through Mama, but it brushed by her tiny waist before grounding on the black bench. The man shot up the steps, a rat running away from a ferret. The staircase was a coiled spring quivering under his weight.
But then – then the woman picked up the tin of blood, climbed onto the bench and stepped onto Mama's chest as though she was rubbish. One of Mama's ribs snapped like the wishbone of a poulter and a scorching fury surged through Tali, an urge to smash the woman down. She fought it; Mama had told her to not make a sound.
The woman rocked back and forth as she scanned the cellar, crack-crack, standing on Tali's beautiful mama as if she were a piece of firewood, then followed the man.
Once they were gone, Tali darted across and touched the crimson beads on her fingers to her mama's head, as if her own blood could heal her. There was blood everywhere, but none left in Mama. Taking hold of her hand, Tali squeezed it tightly, trying to will Mama back to life, but the spirit had left her forever.
She had taught Tali not to fight back, to always bow her head and say, 'Yes, Master,' and it had killed her. Tali wasn't going to make that mistake. Mama said it was wrong to hate people, but Tali's rage had red-hot teeth and talons as sharp as spikes. How dare they treat her beautiful mama that way?
'When I'm grown up I'll find them out,' she whispered, hand upon her mother's heart. 'Once I get my gift I'll hunt them down and make you pay.'
Someone took a heavy breath, close by. The murderers! Coming back to kill her! Tali scuttled into the shadows between two of the stone bins, grabbed a grey stick protruding from its broken top and prepared to defend herself.
But it was a handsome, black-haired boy, a few years older than herself, who stumbled out from behind a heap of empty barrels. He wasn't a slave, though, nor a tattooed Cythonian. He must have been rich, for he wore a plum-coloured velvet coat with gold buttons, an emerald kilt and shoes with shiny buckles. His face was white, his eyes a rich, purply brown, his yellow vest was covered in vomit and his teeth were chattering.
That wasn't the only odd thing about him. The faintest misty aura, pale pink as the gills of a mushroom, clung to his head and hands. The aura of magery – though not his. Tali could tell that he had no more gift than a log.
The boy reached out towards Mama then drew back sharply, staring at his hands. Tali's hair stood up. His hands were covered in blood, yet he hadn't touched Mama.
He doubled over, sicked onto his shoes and let out the moan of an animal in pain. Tali must have made a sound for his head shot around and he stared at her, then bolted up the stair, yanking on the rope as he went. The iron stair howled as it rose with him out of sight.
Tali could hold back no longer. 'I'm going to get you!' she screeched, brandishing the stick. A trapdoor clanged shut and the greenish light began to fade.
What if Tinyhead was waiting outside? Tali shivered. What if he came after her? No, he had betrayed Mama and he had to pay. Rage swelled until her heart felt as if it was going to explode, then she pointed the stick at the stone door, willing Tinyhead's head to burst like a melon. With a sudden gush, the pressure was gone and her rage as well.
She was holding the stick so tightly that her knuckles hurt, and for the first time Tali saw it clearly. It wasn't a stick, it was a human thigh bone. There was nothing horrible about it, though. Oddly, it felt like a friend.
Tali put it back where she had found it. Now so exhausted that she could barely stand up, she stumbled to the door, trying not to think about the man with the knife or the woman and her golden tongs, trying to wipe out the memories forever. When she slipped into the painted tunnel that led back to Cython, there was no sign of Tinyhead.
Learn to lower your eyes and say, 'Yes, Master'.
'All right!' Tali said savagely. 'But once I come of age, once I find my gift, look out!'
How could she find her gift when she couldn't trust anyone? How could she beat her enemy when no one knew who he was? Blinded by scalding tears, she crept home to Cython, and slavery.
At least she would be safe there.
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