If you enjoy reading this novel for free, please consider buying the hilariously overpriced hardcopy! You can get it from any reputable online bookstore, or order it from your local bookseller; the ISBN is 1847288650.]
In the middle of Hasher Street, just past noon, four large boys were beating a small one. The good citizens of the town of Burn River walked by on either side; this was no more remarkable than a cat worrying a bird's corpse. It was the nature of boys; it was the nature of the world.
The leader of the four was big for his twelve years, blond, red-faced with the heat of the Iavaian sun. He huffed and sweated as he kicked.
"You think you're better than us? Do you?"
The boy on the ground made a small sound. He was thin and brown, dressed only in a pair of ragged trousers. His black hair was matted. He curled protectively around his fingers and face, waiting for it to be over.
"Do you?" the leader demanded, and put the boot in again.
A harder kick. "Speak Eskaran, damn you! You're in the Commonwealth now. This is our country. It's our job to civilize you filthy people. You oughta be grateful. Are you grateful? Are you?"
"Inai... aman ka'ashai..."
"Shit," said another of the boys. "He don't even know what we're saying."
"Then I'll teach 'im." The leader kicked a few more times. When his cronies failed to join in, however, he grew embarassed and stopped. He spit on the native boy's bruised and dirty back. "Stupid cow. It's our country now. You better learn that." He scuffed some dirt at his victim. Then he shoved his hands in his pockets and whirled away. "I'm bored. Let's go back of Maley's and see if we can kype some oranges."
His cronies concurred, with varying levels of relief. They were new to the South, and not yet accustomed to casual cruelty. They would learn soon enough, though. You couldn't be too easy on these natives. Had to pound 'em down when they got too proud. Even the Church said so. They were devil-worshipers and savages, and it was a righteous man's duty to civilize them. He'd been doing that boy a favor, really. His friends would understand that before too long.
Meanwhile, the blond boy showed them that there was plenty of fun to be had here, if you were Eskaran. He showed them that you could do just about anything you wanted. Flip up darkie girls' skirts, and their mothers would just catch up the girls and look around with wide eyes, they wouldn't even yell. Steal from farmers' stalls right in front of them -- what were they going to do? The whole province was a free lunch for a white boy with some time to kill. They strutted and crowed, and the day passed in a fevered spin of power.
The new boys had to go home at suppertime. Their folks were still trying to keep to Northern customs. The blond boy sneered at them for obeying these rules, and then wandered on alone.
He had no fixed idea of what to do -- there was no need. He'd find something. Maybe one of those native girls, those brown girls in white dresses whose mothers had learned better than to object to what a white man wanted from them. Lately he'd been having new ideas about what he could do to those girls, to make their eyes go big, make them whimper like puppies. He strolled through the emptying streets, meandering toward the native quarter. What if he went in one of their houses? What could they do to him? He could take anything, or smash everything. He wandered along the riverfront, roads pounded stone-hard by ore wagons, thick with the smell of the smelteries, empty now after the end of the work day.
Not quite empty. A small, dark form darted into the road in front of him, appearing from a loading alley -- the boy he'd beaten before.
He chuckled. He'd wanted to scare a girl, but this would work too.
"Hey! You! You looking for another beating?"
He expected the kid to jump and run, like he had earlier that day. But the kid didn't run. He grinned. He shifted from one foot to the other as if excited.
"Yes, please," the kid said clearly.
"You slimy little -- you speak Eskaran?" The blond boy lengthened his steps, still thinking the native would break and flee. Any second. But he didn't, and the northerner stopped when he loomed over the smaller child. The native was still grinning. His thin, sharp-chinned face was decorated with old bruises, bruises far deeper than any he'd gotten today. His eyes were huge, and mad, and green, though all natives had black eyes this boy's were green like river mud. There was no fear in them. Apparently more threats were needed. "You uppity little shit. Didn't your mama teach you not to sass your betters?"
"My mama's dead. You got any money?"
"Bet she was a hoor."
"Yes," said the native boy, and his grin widened. "I'm a whore now too. You got any money?"
With an exclamation of disgust, the blond boy stepped back. "You filthy --"
The native's grin, impossibly, widened even further. He was showing every one of his sharp, crooked teeth, all the way to the gums.
"I asked you," he ground through those teeth, "do you have any goddamn money!"
With the last word he lashed out his small fist, and where he struck, a pain blossomed that was enough to freeze the blond boy in panicked stillness, with half a breath in his lungs, afraid even to scream lest it make the pain worse. He looked down in dawning horror to see blood running off the native boy's knuckles in a thin stream. He whimpered.
"No," he whispered as the knife pulled out -- and out -- had all of that been inside him? "You can't. You can't."
"I did," said the native. His fist flashed again, and everything stopped.
* * *
Kieran Trevarde looked down at the body in the road, and felt nothing. Not even satisfaction. Not even relief. He hadn't planned anything like this. He hadn't planned anything else either. He knew he ought to be sorry, but couldn't remember what it felt like. It would be only fair to cry for the dead boy, but he couldn't.
Used to be, he cried over stupid things, like a stomachache, or a toy his mama wouldn't buy him. Then his mama's pimp Barton had said Kieran had to earn his keep, and Kieran had cried at the look on Mama's face, and again for fear and pain during the rape, and with shame after, as he'd given Mama the money. He'd been crying the whole time Mama and Barton fought; and after Barton kicked her, while her stomach swelled up and turned shiny and bruised, they'd wept together until she fell into silence, away from him, alone. After Mama had stopped crying, he'd stopped being able to.
He threw his head back, swallowed a breath, choking back a swell of nausea.
Then he bent to empty his victim's pockets.
He had just turned nine years old.--==*==--
"Relax, son," Kinter chuckled. "I think you and I could help each other. I hear you've done a fair bit of the permanent, considering your age. That true?"
Nearly sixteen now, tall for his age but twig-thin, Kieran Trevarde didn't relax. He didn't know how. He stood straight with his hands at his sides, and looked at the leader of the White Rose gang with eyes like a coyote's. "Yeah," he said.
"So how come you're selling ass, boy? Don't you know you can make better money with me?"
Kieran shrugged. "Here I am."
The gang leader, Kinter, laughed at him. It was a pleased laugh. "Shrike tells me you have some kinda magic."
"He thinks so." Another shug.
"How'd you get it past Survey?"
"Late bloomer, I guess."
"How 'bout you show me this magic."
"Don't know how."
The pleased look went from Kinter's face.
"Not sure it's not just luck," Kieran clarified. "I wish for someone to die, and he does. Takes a while, sometimes."
"Six months, once. Another time it was the next day. I can use a knife, though."
Kinter frowned, then waved a hand dismissively. "We'll see, I guess. You're hired. I'll pay you twenty a week, and you can stay at the Tall House. Don't bother the girls."
The boy stared for a moment more, then gave a curt nod. His leaving was an insectile sort of operation, maneuvering arms and legs too long and thin for grace in a strangely graceful manner. Shrike had told Kinter that the boy had grown at least six inches during his year in Tiyamo, despite scanty prison food and constant abuse; durable. And he was pretty, would be gorgeous if given a chance to fill out.
Watching him go, Shrike echoed Kinter's thought, loud enough for the boy to hear: "If I'm wrong about the magic -- I'd guess a face like that is worth at least ten-five a trick."
Early the next morning, Shrike died of a sudden apoplexy while in the bath. Kinter noticed the strange smile on the new hand's face, and ordered the boy's pay raised. He sent old man Beatty to instruct the boy in various types of combat. He also let fall the word that he'd like the boy introduced to the pleasures of the poppy. It looked like the kid was a real thing. Kinter was the only opium bootlegger in history to have a ghoul-witch on the payroll. He wasn't about to let Kieran get away.--==*==--
Just when it couldn't hurt any more, the pain got worse. It was amazing, really amazing, and funny in a stupid way. Black things crawled around the edges of the room, everything smelled of shit, the ceiling was getting lower, and still it kept hurting even more. Kieran could see his abdomen rippling with the cramps. Just cramps, he told himself, I am not host to giant parasites... But as soon as he'd thought it, he knew there really were worms in there. Great toothy worms, eating his guts, and only one medicine would drive them out.
"Please! Just a little, just to tide me over, be logical -- God! Why are you doing this to me? Do you hate me so much?"
"I'm doing it 'cause I like you, actually," said a voice with a laugh in it, while a cool cloth stroked Kieran's cheeks. "And for the zillionth time, you told me you wanted to kick. You said not to give you any no matter what you said. I ain't got none, anyway." A face loomed, an ordinary face, tanned sand-colored, haloed by dirty blond curls, with blue eyes that seemed to dance and spin with the humming of Kieran's nerves. The blue-eyed boy gave him a smile full of sad humor, which transformed his ordinary face into something remarkable.
But Kieran was past taking comfort from that. "Why? It hurts --"
"You don't care why right now. Let's talk about sumpin else, okay?"
Kieran subsided, panting. Wondering if he'd chosen right, this first time in years he'd made a choice. He'd defied Kinter because of that smile. Kicking his tar habit was imperative, because until he did he would be Kinter's slave, and if he remained Kinter's slave he would eventually do as Kinter ordered, and kill this boy.
"It's for you," Kieran said hoarsely. "Shan, I'm doing this for you."
The cloth paused on his forehead. "No you ain't. You're doing it for you. But I'm glad if it'll keep you from drawing down on me again. For a minute there I thought it was all up."
"No. I'll never hurt you. I swear, Shan."
"I don't believe you," Shan said lightly, and dropped a kiss on Kieran's sweating forehead, and for a moment doubt vanished. Then the cramps started again.--==*==--
"Whoo-ee! Will you lookit all that money!" Shan sat on the edge of their bed, chin in hand, staring at the pile of bank notes on the floor. They'd just knocked over the payroll shipment to the Dogtooth Mine. "Who'da thought it? Did you? I sure didn't."
"You didn't?" Kieran, crosslegged beside the pile, looked up from cleaning his gun. "Forty workers times eight weeks times fifteen signets a man. Should be exactly four hundred eighty thrones there. Count it if you want, but the math's not hard."
"For you, maybe." Shan was sullen for a moment, but he never could stay mad. He grinned again the next moment. "I knew teaming up with you was a good idea. You're so damn smart, Kai. I done made more money with you --"
"That's not why you took me on, though," said Kieran wickedly. He tossed the revolver aside and siezed Shan's wrist.
There was a brief tug-of-war to determine whether they'd end up on the bed or the floor. Grinning, Kieran gave in and let himself be pulled up. Smothered Shan's laughter with his mouth, surrendered to the defiant purity of plain desire. For someone who'd spent half his childhood as a whore, he'd been remarkably ignorant about sex when Shan had taken him in. He'd thought all he had to do was show up. He'd certainly never made love, never mulitiplied pleasure by trading it back and forth, until Shan had taught him. Even after months of Shan's tutelage, he was rarely the one to start anything. This time, he thought maybe he was finally starting to trust his lover. He hoped so; Shan deserved that.
Later, when they lay sweaty and content together, Shan asked, "What are you gonna do with your half?"
"Dunno. What're you?"
"Well, the shotgun rider kilt my horse. Gotta get another one. And then... Dunno. Maybe I'll buy you a diamond earring."
Kieran laughed. "Don't buy me presents. I've got my own cut."
"Well, what're you gonna do?"
"Waste it." Then an idea came to him. "I know. Remember how when we were at Dindy's that one time, he had this engraving behind the counter? That new gun, that you could order custom?"
"Yeah. You gonna get one of those?"
"It takes nine bullets, Shan. Ten if you carry one in the chamber. Self-cocking, and it has separate magazines like a Lockeart. I could do some real wrecking with that."
Shan raised himself on one elbow to look down into Kieran's face. "You like wrecking way too much. One of these days, babe, you're gonna wreck the world."
"Not the part you're standing on," Kieran said, but for once Shan didn't smile.--==*==--
The cops had stopped firing. Into the silence came the sound of wind, and the small clicks of Shan reloading.
"I'm just about spent," Shan muttered. He snapped the cylinder into place and looked ruefully at the handful of bullets he had left. Then he raised his eyes to meet Kieran's. "How you doing for reloads?"
"Two. More than you. They gotta be running low too, though."
Shan risked a glance around the edge of the bit of broken wall they cowered behind. A bullet whined overhead as he pulled quickly back. His look was bleak. "Guess why they shut up."
"Yep. Reinforcements. And... uh..." He lowered his eyes. "I saw a white coat."
"Shit," Kieran repeated, with more feeling. "It figures they'd call in the Watch. I'm a rogue Talent, after all."
"Think you can take him?"
They looked at each other for a time. Kieran saw his own understanding mirrored in the sky-blue of Shan's stare. This was it. Well, they were highway robbers; they'd never expected to live forever. If it wasn't the cops, it would've been Kinter's gang, out to prove that nobody was allowed to quit. So he'd die before he turned twenty; he'd never figured to live even this long. When Shan siezed him by his shirt front and kissed him hard, he knew what it meant.
"I love you," he said, and realized it was a lie.
"Cover me," Shan replied, and shifted his weight.
It all seemed to have been planned in advance -- Kieran knew exactly what would happen in the fraction of a second before it did, and knew as well that his part in it was also ordained.
Shan sprang to his feet in a movement meant to propel him in a long, diving leap from their small bit of cover toward the right, where he might be able to see past the wagons that sheltered the police. Kieran jumped up too, reaching for a handful of Shan's jacket to pull him back into cover. And then came the wet smack of a bullet hitting flesh, and the side of Shan's head dissolved in brilliant scarlet.
For the rest of his life, Kieran would remember how the blood glittered in the sun. It hypnotized him as he shouted, as he curled around Shan's wretched empty house with its flopping limbs. Shan's blood coming down more slowly than his body, pebbling in the dust; blood and brains and bone. Running down the side of Kieran's face, mingling with his own blood where shards of shattered skull had laid open his brow and cheek.
It was intolerable. He'd thought that the world was harsh because it was indifferent, but in that moment he realized that the world was deliberately cruel. Let it win; let it have him. Kieran didn't care. He didn't want to play this stupid game anymore.
And then there came up inside him someone who did.
Kieran felt himself begin to stand; then he was pushed back from his senses so that everything went pale. Gratefully, he let go of himself as the bullets began to sing in earnest. He was going to die now.
When, some vague eternity later, the fog cleared and dropped him into a body bound with cold-iron chains and tortured by a Healer's efforts to keep it alive, his groan was one of despair. It was followed in the next bubbling breath by a screech of rage.
Someone said, "How 'bout you heal 'im up, and we'll shoot 'im again."
Nearer: "You've done your job. Now it's out of your hands."
Outraged: "That fucking savage took out five of my men! He deserves --"
"We have a use for his kind. That's all you need to know."
Kieran willed them all to die, but his will was caught in some sticky nowhere and lost; his insults and threats were ignored. His screams of pain and outrage likewise. At last, when he'd stopped bleeding from the lungs and they'd loaded him on a wagon, he fell silent.
He began to smile. He knew his teeth were red.
Someone in a sand-colored police uniform clouted him on the ear. "What are you so happy about, you murdering freak?"
Kieran spit blood before answering. "Now that Shan's dead," he said, "I've got no reason to be nice anymore."
They hit him again, but he could see them trying to figure out how he could be any worse than he'd been before, and he went on smiling.--==*==--
In the bare desert a hundred miles northeast of Trestre rose an immense table mountain of banded golden stone. It stood more than twice as tall as any other land form in the area, nearly circular in shape, too steep to climb. Its distinctive form and size had earned it a place in the mythology of the natives. They believed it had once been the castle of a god. It was riddled with tunnels, but they claimed not to have done the digging, nor did they know who had. They called it Iaka'anta, and would not approach it.
The Eskarans called it Churchrock, and they had made it into a laboratory and a prison.
Staffed and maintained by the elite government mages of the White Watch, the Churchrock facility provided an excellent place to study magical Talents and the people who posessed them. Its natural properties made it easy to set up and maintain a ward to keep the prisoners from using their magic. Though far from water sources, it was situated on a flat plain not far from a major rail line; the ancient tunnels simplified building and provided some inherent shielding.
Most important -- at least to Watch Director Thelyan -- was the fact that it had once belonged to the devil-god Ka'an, and no longer did.
Thelyan did not, of course, inhabit it. He only rarely visited it; twice yearly for routine inspection, and occasionally to satisfy his curiosity about the progress of some experiment, or to view an interesting subject. He had left standing orders that he was to be notified if the facility recieved a threnodist, stormcaller, or oneiromancer who fit certain criteria, but as these were rare Talents and his criteria rather strict, such a case occurred only once in a long time. Even more rarely -- only once before in this incarnation -- he came to visit a subject who'd been held here far longer than any of the researchers knew. Iaka'anta's best qualification for being made into a prison, when he had ordered the Churchrock facility built, was that it had been one already for centuries.
In the bowels of the mountain was a door that looked as if it might lead to a storeroom, uninteresting, distinguishable from all the other doors in the place only by the fact that it could not be opened. Hardly anyone could even see it. Now Thelyan put his hand to the latch and watched with satisfaction as the shape of the locking spell rearranged itself to accomodate him. He opened it and slipped through, letting it lock itself behind him.
Beyond, a stair led up. He had carved this stair into the stone with his own magic, alone, long before his chosen people officially occupied this territory. There was no source of light. Thelyan didn't need one. He could see the stone around him with senses far finer than sight. The only other individual in the world who posessed these senses, at least to such a degree, awaited him at the top of the stair.
Climbing the long spiral high into the mountain, he reached another door, this one of thick copper. This one had greater protections on it. He could not simply slip through, but had to provide a key, an intricate idea-form that completed the waiting spell. Any magic directed against the door itself would simply ground in the copper. Only this particular password would trigger the lock, which was a masterpiece of spellcrafting. Thelyan believed that not even the one beyond the door could have set a spell in grounded metal. He built his structure of thought and fitted it into the pattern, and the door swung open with a screech of metal.
He made a light, a tiny whorl of a sigil which lifted free of his fingers to float above him, hissing faintly and emitting a blue-white glow. This revealed an ovoid room, just large enough to contain the null sphere that held the prisoner, while giving Thelyan room to stand and observe it.
The null sphere was an invention he hadn't shared with anyone. It was the only structure strong enough to contain one of his own kind. A lacy cradle of brittle iron clasped what looked like a giant drop of mercury, twelve feet in diameter. Seals were fixed at each intersection of the iron straps, each made of a different material: jade, wood, granite, ice. As he inspected it for signs of wear or damage, the mirrored sphere rippled from time to time. It was not mercury; it was a thought-thin but absolute divide between inside and outside, which not even light could cross. Once he'd satisfied himself that the device was in good working order, he touched two of the runes, releasing them, so that light and sound could pass through.
Now a shape was visible, hanging motionless in the middle of the sphere. A naked human form, curled fetal and inert. In appearance, it was a boy of fifteen years, chalk-pale, shrouded and tangled in hair the color of cherry wood. The boy's fingernails were ten-inch corkscrews. Thelyan had stopped him from aging, but could not remove him completely from time. Even though he was never fed or given water, he somehow managed to obtain substance from somewhere. Thelyan had never been able to induce him to part with the secret of how it was done. It was in hope of obtaining such secrets that Thelyan kept him embodied and imprisoned, rather than absorbing him. Sometimes, more often as he descended further into madness, the creature could be tricked or bullied into parting with useful information.
"Chaiel." Thelyan's voice disappeared into the tiny space, barely sounding in his own ears. "Chaiel. Wake. Chaiel. I wish to speak with you."
This went on for some time. After many more repetitions of his name, the boy in the sphere at last responded. Sluggishly, he opened his eyes and turned them on Thelyan, iron gray and perfectly insane, as round and unthinking as a lizard's.
"Chaiel. Speak, so I know you can hear me."
"Speak so I know you can hear me," the boy echoed. His voice was dull.
"Answer, so I know you understand me."
After staring at Thelyan for a minute or two, the boy gave a flat imitation of a giggle, without changing the blankness of his face. "No. I don't like you."
"Of course you don't. However, I suspect you're bored. I have a puzzle for you to play with."
That had the usual effect: the boy straightened with a sudden knifing motion, twisting in the air to face Thelyan, suddenly eager. "Give it!"
"My precognitors have recently begun to see a major change affecting me. The lesser Talents put faces on this change, telling me they foresee a war, or bad weather, or a rebellion. Those I rely on, though, tell me they can't understand what it is they're seeing. They say that changes emanate from a blank place, or from a thing so alien they can't describe it. Several have gone catatonic. You may not be able to see the future, Chaiel, but you know all the past. I wonder if you can figure out what they're seeing."
Chaiel began to laugh. Thelyan waited patiently for him to finish. Eventually, the boy said brightly, "That's easy. They see your death and they're afraid to tell you."
"Unlikely. There's no force on earth that could kill me."
"Perhaps. If you weren't in the null sphere. But you are in the sphere, Chaiel, and you won't get out."
That might have been a mistake. It sent the boy into a convulsion of babbling and weeping that lasted nearly half an hour. Thrashing like an overturned insect, he strained to reach the sphere's surface. He knew he could not, but tried anyway. Clawing at his face with his helical fingernails, Chaiel drew bleeding scratches down his cheeks and brow as the nails broke off. Once they were no longer part of him, they fell clicking to the floor beneath the sphere, to join a litter of similar scraps there. He watched their fall with an expression of anguished longing.
When Chaiel had calmed somewhat, Thelyan rephrased his question. "What sort of thing would appear to a Precognitor as a blank space radiating change, or as a thing too alien to describe?"
"One of us," Chaiel answered promptly.
"There are no more of us."
"You didn't eat us all. Some of us you lost."
"Who?" Thelyan knew the answer, but there was a chance of some new information.
"Incarnated. Powerless. She was never a threat."
"Also lost in incarnation."
"How can you be so sure? We all start incarnated. Maybe he's getting his power back, did you think of that? Maybe he fell into his Burn and sucked it up." Chaiel made a rude slurping noise. "Like a fly on an eyeball. And he's going to come for you and twist you around until you're inside out and you have to look at yourself and see that there's nothing in there!" This was followed by another spate of giggling.
"I would have sensed such an event. In any case, I doubt a personality as fractured as his has survived repeated incarnation."
"Because he's full of smaller gods?" More giggling. "That's unstable? You're a menagerie. You should be in here. You could keep yourself company. You'd never be lonely." An abrupt shift to anguish. "I wish I had another of me! Oh, Thelyan, let me out, I promise I'll be good!"
Thelyan ignored this. "What is it my Precognitors are sensing, Chaiel?"
"Lemon drops. Penwipers. Go to hell."
"If you don't tell me, I'll leave, and I won't talk to you anymore."
"Good." Sulking, Chaiel curled up again, and put his arms over his head.
"As you wish." Thelyan reached for a seal.
"Wait! I can tell you something else important!"
"Medur is male this time!"
Thelyan shook his head at this useless information. It wasn't important, and Chaiel knew it wasn't important. He was just wasting time. Thelyan touched the seal that controlled the passage of light; he heard the beginning of Chaiel's wail just before he stopped sound as well.
The weakest of his enemies, Medur was no threat to him, and he'd made no effort to seek her out. If she could have been controlled, her abilities in the realms of agriculture and the cementing of community ties might have been useful, but she was irrational. She would lack the strength of personality to emerge as herself; she'd remain encysted within the mortal body's mind, dormant. He'd had his chance to swallow her, centuries ago, but had chosen instead to scatter her power and kill her body rather than poison himself with her sentimental weakness. The only possible threat was Ka'an, and that devil-being could be dangerous only because his Burn had not dissipated as the others had. Even so, the evil one would have to emerge and subdue his mortal vessel's mind, a difficult enough task even for Thelyan, who retained all his power from life to life.
No, the source of change couldn't be another immortal. It must be something else, some complex system or train of events that a mere human mind couldn't grasp. Thelyan would meet the threat and deal with it when it occurred.
He locked the door behind him, thinking that it would probably be decades before he opened it again.
The sound of the train was hypnotic. It dulled his mind and made his limbs feel heavy. It made it easier to pretend he wasn't here, and none of this was happening.
It was, after all, patently ridiculous that he, Ashleigh Trine, minor rebel and utter clueless nobody, could ever be treated like this. Like a dangerous criminal, a rogue Talent, too nasty to hang. It had to be some kind of stupid dream. A very long stupid dream, a prank that had gone about three months too far. Any minute now one of those Watchmen in the white coats would come in and announce that it had all been very funny and now he could go home, and they hoped he'd learned his lesson about gossiping behind the government's back. He was a good sport. He could take a joke.
They'd taken his chains off at a whistle stop somewhere in West Mauraine. He'd been allowed to use the station lavatory, but not to buy a candied apple from the vendor on the platform. Not that he had any money. Or bootlaces, pen, pocketknife, etcetera; he supposed they'd take his clothes when he got to prison. Thinking about this made him increasingly fond of the yellow shirt and brown corduroy bags he'd been arrested in. He'd been wearing them for months now, while awaiting trial, and they'd been a bit ratty to begin with, so there wasn't much left of them. But now they were just about all that remained of the world he belonged in. His clothes, and his glasses -- If they were going take my glasses they would have done it already, wouldn't they?
Ashleigh leaned against the swaying wall of the prison car, peering out the tiny slatted window, picking at the scabs the cold-iron manacles had left on his wrists. There was desert outside. It had been interesting to see how the slushy end-of-winter snow of Eskard had given up on the way west. Not gradually as he'd imagined, but all at once, so that he would have missed it if he'd had anything better to do. For instance, a bloody crayon to write with -- how could you kill yourself with a pen, and ought he to be worried that they'd thought he'd want to?
He was going to be eaten alive in prison. He'd realized that shortly after the shock of not being executed had worn off. He was pale, skinny, freckled, redheaded, and myopic; he was certain to learn new definitions of pain, fear, and degradation. There was nothing he could do to stop it. He could only try to distract himself from worrying.
A sort of shack thing flashed by, and he saw a farmhouse farther off, skimming along between the stationary mountains and the speeding scrub. A plume of smoke rose from an intermediately distant valley beyond the farm, growing closer as acres of dry plow-furrows slipped by. Ashleigh could discern a sharp new smell under the reek of the engine and the desert's alien scent. Something chemical. A city; or at least a giant refinery. He'd heard that most of the iron and coal and so forth for the Commonwealth's military machine was produced out here. He scrubbed ar his glasses with a filthy shirttail and peered hard at the plume of pollution as it grew closer. He sincerely hoped this wasn't his destination.
When the train stopped at a roofless platform surrounded by grayish adobe shacks, his heart sank. He told himself they were just taking on fuel and water, but it had only been four hours since the last stop. Then one of his white-uniformed guards came and banged on the compartment's iron door to get his attention, and he knew: he was being sent to wheeze out his last months in slavery at some asbestos mine or something. He wondered whether, if he made a break for it, they'd just shoot him.
"Back on the bench, Trine," the guard said. "Hands on your head."
Ashleigh did as he was told. The man came in with his gun trained, as if his slight, bespectacled prisoner might perform some amazing feat of derring-do and wrest the weapon from him. He was followed by another, who carried the hated manacles.
"Oh, no," Ashleigh groaned. "Do we have to?"
Ignoring him, the man fastened the chains on Ashleigh's wrists. As he stepped away, he said, "You better keep that big mouth of yours shut from now on. We're taking on a couple of real baddies. They won't be nice to you like we are."
"If I'm not a real baddie," Ashleigh muttered, "why am I here?" Naturally he got no reply. The Watchmen just slammed the door, leaving him to scratch his wrists and remind himself that none of this was actually happening.
The engine sat on the tracks, humming to itself, for a long time. His watch was another of those things he didn't have, but it was long enough for the sun to get behind a ridge of furrowed hills a couple miles west of the train. The desert, which had been all rust and mustard before, went suddenly purple. The warmth of the day was instantly gone. Some kind of demented dog started howling somewhere nearby.
A clang of footsteps on the metal connector-thing outside his moveable cell made his heart jump with apprehension. The 'real baddies' coming aboard, no doubt. A Watchman stepped in first, establishing a field of fire throughout the tiny room. Then a big, saggy pig of a clearly nasty man, who glared at Ashleigh with a sort of hateful avarice, obviously hoping he'd get a chance to do some violence as soon as the guards were out of his hair. He had to be threatened before he'd take his seat against the opposite wall.
Ashleigh was watching pig-man as carefully as someone allergic to wasps watches a buzzing blot on the windowpane, so he was turned away from the door, but he heard a third set of footsteps enter. Then an amazing voice spoke -- a young baritone, sandy and smooth at once, with a strong Iavaian drawl, lazy as a wolf gnawing a bone.
"No, I wanna sit over there," the voice said. "I don't wanna sit by Burdock, I been sitting by him for fuckin' weeks, it's real stale."
There was a sound Ashleigh had learned to recognize, the thud of a rifle butt into someone's kidneys. The inevitable grunt followed, and then something that sounded suspiciously like a fragment of a laugh. Ashleigh ripped his gaze from the evil stare of the man across from him, to watch as the possessor of this razor-blades-in-the-candy voice was shoved into the car.
This was the tallest human being Ashleigh had ever seen, and the most beautiful, and the most frightening. His hands were chained at his belt. As a sour-faced Watchman fastened the back of that belt to a ring behind the bench, the tall boy gave Ashleigh a cool half-smile and a small nod. Ashleigh tried to nod back like a normal person, while reaction ran through him from eyes to loins like boiling honey.
The Iavaian could not have been much older than Ashleigh's eighteen years, might even have been younger, but he looked as if he'd been through several wars and was eager for another one. He had the angular features typical of his race, the brown skin and black hair, but his eyes were a dusty, yellowed green, like the sky before a bad storm. Pale scars streaked his face: divided one of his sharply angled brows, nicked the bridge of his nose, drew dashes along one cheekbone. His hair was matted into waist-length ropes. What shredded clothing was left on him was so caked with mud and dust and what looked like dried blood that it was impossible to tell what color it had been. Beneath the dirt, his arms were scrawled with more scars and spiky red-and-black tattoos. His long legs made the low bench awkward for him, and he had to sit sideways to keep his elbows out of pig-man's way. His skinned-knuckled hands were huge. He was lean and menacing as a wild dog, and no matter how he hunched on the bench his presence crowded the jail car until it was hard to breathe in there.
The car gave a lurch, and the engine's vibration changed pitch. The guards had left long ago, but Ashleigh, busy staring, hadn't noticed. Even the movement of the train only registered peripherally. The Iavaian stared back patiently while Ashleigh gawked at his face, his corded forearms, his long throat, his many scars...
"You done yet?"
Ashleigh felt his face go hot, and jerked his gaze away. "Sorry," he muttered.
"Not much else to look at," the Iavaian said forgivingly. "I mean, there's the floor, and Burdock's ugly mug."
"Hey." Pig-man spoke for the first time, in a high, nasal voice that didn't fit his exterior and perhaps explained his attitude. "I about had it with you, boy."
The scarred boy grinned at pig-man, teeth crooked but perfectly white. "You think you're pretty?"
"Shut up. I don't gotta take shit from you no more." He turned his scowl on Ashleigh. "Quit staring, you pansy."
"You calling me a liar? You saying I lied?"
"No, of course --"
"Then quit fucking staring."
"I -- dear god, I'm back in grammar school."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Pig-man, Burdock, stood up. Ashleigh tried hard not to cringe back against the wall. He was wondering, despairingly, whether there was any incentive for a man already on his way to prison not to beat him to death right there in the jail car, when Burdock took one step and went sprawling on the floor.
The Iavaian reeled in a mile-long leg and smiled. "Means grow up," he clarified.
Burdock began to get up, turning, clearly about to launch in the Iavaian's direction. He never made it past the first half-syllable of his retort. The Iavaian kicked him under the chin, hard enough to snap his head back and send him over to smack the back of his skull against Ashleigh's bench with a sickening thump.
Ashleigh edged away from the man's still bulk, and back from the Iavaian who'd downed him while still chained to the far wall. A small bubble of blood appeared at the corner of Burdock's mouth and commenced growing and popping with every rattling breath.
"Quit cringing. I ain't gonna hurt you. Just saved your ass, didn't I?"
"Yes... thank you."
"You should probably kill him. I would, if I wasn't locked down." He sounded as if he meant it.
Ashleigh looked to him in horror. "Kill him?"
"If where they're taking us is anything like normal prison, he'll kill you later if you don't get rid of him now."
"I can't do that!"
"Sure you can. Step on his neck. Easy."
"That's not what I mean."
"Oh. Scruples." The Iavaian shrugged. "Probably want to get rid of those pretty quick here."
Ashleigh decided not to ask, after all, what the boy's name was, or why he was chained to the bench. Carefully training his eyes on the small square of window that glowed above the other's head, he made himself very still.
This isn't happening, he told himself. It isn't real. I'm not here.
"Trine. Wake up, boy. What the hell did you do?"
Ashleigh pried his eyes open, wincing in the glare of a Watchman's hissing gas lantern. Sleeping with his head against the compartment's vibrating wall had given him a headache. The wall wasn't vibrating now, though. They'd shut the engine off. They had arrived.
All at once, he came awake and sat up, half panicked and none too coherent.
"Whoa," said a guard in a different uniform, a tan one. "Easy, kid. Man asked you a question." With a jerk of his head he indicated the slumped form of Burdock, still blowing bubbles.
Across the car, the Iavaian chuckled. "That Trine, he's a madman. I'm scared."
"Shut it, freak," the Watchman spat.
Ashleigh opened his mouth to explain, but the Iavaian was looking at him, expectant, scar-bisected eyebrow slightly raised, and he changed his mind. "He had some kind of fit," he said instead. "He was banging around, and then he fell down."
"Huh." This news seemed to surprise no one. "All right. Come on out, kid. Watch the step there."
Feeling a thousand years old, Ashleigh climbed out into the desert night.
It felt like a dream, because it was too real. He was raw, a bunch of naked nerves and infant emotion. The chill breeze with its freight of unfamiliar smells overwhelmed him. The sounds of strange insects hurt him.
They had stopped at a platform of bare concrete, roofed with corrugated steel. It was lit with a painful profusion of lamps. There were no walls. Two white-uniformed sentries watched the distance, too disciplined even to move their eyes. Ashleigh was marched down a set of steps and onto a gravel road, which led toward a small constellation of lamps. Overhead, the stars were huge. There were too many of them. He felt as if he might fall into them. Between the stars and the lamps there was a huge square blackness where something blotted out the sky.
At first he thought it was a building. A few steps later, he realized he'd misjudged the scale by several orders of magnitude. It was a mountain. A flat-topped mountain that could have swallowed his home town of Ladygate with room to spare for a couple of suburbs if you stacked them. Stopped at a gate in a wire fence, half-hearing his guards exchanging formalities with the heavily-armed men inside, he saw his new home and wanted to cry. It was built into the base of the mountain. It had no windows at all.
They were let through the gate. Ashleigh took a last look at the stars, said goodbye to fresh air, and walked into prison.
There was a series of checkpoints with metal gates, and then a bare white room where he was made to sit on a bench. There his escort left him.
"Bye," Ashleigh said forlornly.
One of them turned at the door. "Keep your head down and your mouth shut and you'll be all right," he advised. He didn't sound as if he believed it.
This room couldn't be his cell, because it had doors at either end. He wasn't waiting long before the second door opened, and a man in a tan uniform motioned for him to come through. In the room beyond was a man with a clipboard, and neither instruction man nor clipboard man were armed. There were, however, a couple of slots up near the ceiling. Maybe the guns were behind them. Besides the men, this room had another bench, a couple of big bins, an alcove with a drain in the floor, and a long row of shelves of folded blue-gray clothing.
"Hands," said the first guard. Ashleigh offered them, and his manacles were taken off and tossed in a bin. "Clothes." Shivering naked, he said farewell as his friendly clothes went into another bin. "Put your glasses on the bench. You can get them later. Step into the shower."
Squinting now as well as shivering, he went into the alcove, the floor of which was slimy with what he hoped was soap. Suddenly he was deluged with freezing water. His startled squawk made the guards laugh. Probably the high point of their day, he thought sourly, dumping cold water on people.
"There's a cake of soap behind you. Make sure you work it thoroughly into your scalp and all body hair."
The soap was a poisonous yellow and smelled like tar. He supposed it killed lice. He also guessed that there was no point explaining that he'd never had lice in his life, so he rubbed the nasty stuff into his scalp and armpits and groin, wincing as the skin began to itch.
"Good. Now make sure you rinse off all of it."
Another icy deluge was enough to rinse everything but his hair; the thick curls trapped the soap, and his scalp still itched. Was, in fact, beginning to sting. "May I have a little more water?" he begged. "Please?"
The guards looked at each other and shrugged. Clipboard man pulled a little handle -- which he must have been doing before -- and Ashleigh was allowed to finish rinsing his hair.
While Ashleigh dripped and shivered, instruction man produced a tape measure. "Stand there. Arms and legs apart."
Ashleigh tried a joke, to see what would happen. "A summer ensemble in fawn linen, if you please, and none of those garish brass buttons this time."
This got a wry quirk from clipboard man, who spoke for the first time: "Sure, we've never heard that one before." Then he commenced writing as instruction man called out Ashleigh's measurements. He was far more thorough than Ashleigh thought necessary, considering that the clothing he could see in the shelves was rather formless. It was as if he actually were being fitted for a suit. They even measured his neck and wrists, the length of his hands and the circumference of his head.
"Um. Excuse me," he said when they were finally done. "Why all the measuring?"
"This is a research facility," clipboard answered. "We study you fellows here."
"Talents." Instruction man handed Ashleigh a stack of blue cotton cloth, with his glasses perched on top. "Through there." On cue, another door opened.
A long series of rooms ensued. Ashleigh was weighed, prodded, gagged with a stick, had his kidneys and throat and testicles kneaded, his eyes and ears peered into, was stared at through colored lenses and exposed to magnets. Bizarre though it all was, after a while he found himself losing interest. He was tired. He was hungry and cold. He wanted to put his ugly new clothes on and go to sleep in a nice, safe cell.
At last he got his wish. The series of humiliations came to an end and he was allowed to dress -- drawstring pants and a sort of peasant blouse which, despite the measuring, didn't fit at all well -- and to put his glasses on. He'd had them off so long that resuming them made his head hurt.
A final clipboard man checked the spelling of his name, then called some armed men to take him into a maze of stairs and tunnels carved out of honey-colored stone. At last, past yet another metal gate, they came out into a cavernous space that echoed with snoring and smelled like despair. Yellowish lamps provided just enough illumination for Ashleigh to see a broad central corridor lined with metal gates, and steps leading up to a second tier of gates set back from the first. Each gate on the ground floor revealed a cell with two sleeping occupants; the ones on the upper right level seemed mostly vacant.
"I'm going to hate it here," he mumbled.
"Trine. 2-E. Up the stairs, kid."
Dragging himself up the steps, he was let into a cell that was, blessedly, empty.
"Home sweet home," the guard told him, and the gate clanged shut.
Too tired to even pace out the size of his cell, Ashleigh picked the left-hand bunk, wrapped himself in its scratchy but mercifully clean blanket, and went to sleep.
A clang of metal woke him. He fumbled for his glasses, dizzy with fatigue. Morning already? It was still dark, but maybe it was always dark here.
No, the air was still full of snoring. The guard was talking to someone right outside Ashleigh's cell. "I heard about you, you son of a bitch. You just give me an excuse to shoot you."
The gravel-and-honey voice from the train replied. "Those that ask don't get. All right if I sleep now?"
The cell door opened; a dark form came in; the bars clanged shut. Ashleigh found his specs and rammed them onto his face, bringing the spidery shape of his cellmate into focus. The Iavaian bounced on the edge of his bunk a few times, making it creak, then sprawled out on it. His feet hung off the end. He rolled his head toward Ashleigh to show him a glint of teeth.
"Trine," he said. "How about that. We're alphabet buddies." He flopped out a long arm, and after an awkward hesitation Ashleigh understood and mirrored the gesture. The Iavaian's hand engulfed his. "Trevarde. Kieran Trevarde."
Trevarde continued to hold his hand. "You seem like a smart kid. You smart?"
"I guess so."
"So you recognize I could squash you like a bug, right?"
Ashleigh didn't like where this was going. "I can see that."
"All right. You don't give me any attitude, Ash, we'll get along just fine." Trevarde finally let go. He put his arms behind his head and closed his eyes, apparently at ease.
Burrowing back into his blanket, Ashleigh considered this new development. On the whole, he concluded, it was disastrous. Trevarde was apparently extremely dangerous, from the way the guards behaved. Ashleigh was inclined to agree with them. And Trevarde's undeniable charisma added an extra danger, for he was sure that if the tall Iavaian guessed that Ashleigh was attracted to him, an ass-kicking would be a best-case scenario.
The advice everyone kept giving him was right. Head down, mouth shut. Just keep repeating: This isn't happening. This isn't happening.