Cold fire the spiritwalk.., p.9
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       Cold Fire (The Spiritwalker Trilogy), p.9

           Kate Elliott
 

  From far above, linked as by an intangible chain threaded through the earth, cold magic—Andevai’s storm—flared down the length of my sword. The hilt flowered; I twisted it free, and thrust the slim blade down that yawning gullet.

  Combustion died. The creature sagged on a final stuttering tock tunk tick.

  My heart lurched as if under a pounding of fierce hail, and my gaze hazed as a pulse not my own roared in my ears: “Catherine! ”

  I was hallucinating Andevai’s voice. I sheathed my sword, grabbed both bags, and ran blindly after the others. My head was reeling and I am sure I could not have told anyone my name or indeed anything except that I was not giving up the bags, not even to death.

  “Cat! This way!”

  I followed Bee’s voice past a series of curtains whose fabric slithered like woven metal. As the last one slipped down my back, my leading boot stubbed a step.

  “Now we owe you a debt for saving us,” said a goblin, hidden behind the last baffle. “Your price is paid.” I could not tell if it was grateful or disappointed.

  “I’ll take them up from here,” said the headmaster’s assistant. “You’d best scatter before your lords come looking for the trouble we’ve caused.”

  I heard the rustle of the baffles as the goblins slipped back into their underworld so quickly I didn’t have a chance to thank them or ask them a question or even to think. Startled by the sound of footfalls, I set down the bags and drew my sword. A young man with a long black braid dangling over his shoulder like a rope took the bags from beside me. After a moment, I realized it was Rory, and there was light enough for me to see. They were already climbing. I followed.

  Up! The steps went on forever. My air came in bursts. Did I hear ticking? What if there were other creatures stalking after us? What was that thing?

  The headmaster’s assistant glanced back.

  “Your sword is glowing,” he said in a low voice.

  The light came from my blade. Its harsh glow revealed him clearly. He hadn’t the creamy-white complexion of the northern Celts, although he was very pale. He had broad Avar cheekbones and the epicanthic fold at the eyes commonly seen among people who lived in the vast lands east of the Pale. It was his white hair that was most startling. It had been cut in an awkward approximation of the short local Celtic style, swept back over his ears. His fashionable indigo dash jacket was too strong a hue for him. The backs of his bare hands bore tattoos, like faded blue ink, of a curling design that might have been vines, or serpents. It reminded me of the old Roman saying: Beware the serpent in the east.

  “Bee does stink of dragons,” said Rory, pausing on the steps, “and so does he. It wasn’t a good idea to come with him.”

  “I do not stink,” said Bee, “and you will apologize at once to Maester Napata. It’s very rude to tell people they stink.”

  “Even if they do?”

  “He’s sorry for being rude, and I’m sorry he was rude to you,” she said as she halted two steps below the headmaster’s assistant. He had the expression of a man used to hearing people whispering about his looks, and not in the way Andevai was likely accustomed to admiring sidelong glances directed his way.

  “If you are sorry, that is enough.” Having made this bold statement, he hastened up the stairs as if his own courage were about to bite him.

  “Really, this isn’t the time for you two to fight so childishly,” I said as I climbed past them. Rory looked offended and Bee surprisingly chastened. “Maester Napata, what was that thing? What kind of agreement do you have with these goblins? How do you know about these tunnels?”

  “I am not the one who can answer your questions,” he said. “The men in the clockmaker’s shop will not have much trouble tracing us if they wish to alert the militia. Hurry.”

  We climbed with my sword as our candle, but the gleam on its blade faded as a pallor of natural light seeped in from an unknown source, turning darkness to gloom. We emerged into a musty vaulted chamber.

  “Just give me a moment to catch my breath.” I leaned against the stone wall, coughing.

  Rory set down a bag and put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “I smell bones and ashes.”

  “We’re in a tomb,” said Bee, looking around.

  Alcoves sheltered votive statues, dusty jars sealed with painted lids, and hammered metal plaques recording names and clans. Two stelae guarded the space. One was cracked through and listing. The second was carved on one side with the sigil of Tanit—a triangle capped by a small circle and straight arms—and on the other with a bull, a lion, and a crescent moon sheltering a sun.

  I ran a hand down the length of my now ordinary black cane. “What was that thing?”

  Bee glanced nervously toward the darkness that hid the stairs, but we heard no ticking. “It looked like someone built a clockwork automaton in the shape of a troll’s skeleton, powered by steam. Do you suppose goblins really are that ingenious?”

  “I killed its combustion with my sword just as it was about to breathe scalding steam over me,” I whispered. “I shouldn’t have been able to do that. It felt like I pulled Andevai’s cold magic through the blade.”

  Bee frowned as she touched my cheek with the back of a hand. “I hope you don’t expect me to explain what just happened. I must say, dearest, our lives were a great deal quieter before that awful night when my parents handed you over to Four Moons House.”

  Maester Napata beckoned. “Maestressas. This way. Please to hurry.”

  He led us up steps. The air grew wintry as we breached the surface through a marble tombhouse. We staggered blinking into what seemed a fierce brightness of day. Overhead, the sky was rent with blue. The storm had passed on, although cold soaked through our coats. Hailstones littered the ground. The city’s growl rose from beyond high walls.

  Rory looked around with a bemused expression. “So many little stone houses. What people live here?”

  “Only the dead,” said Bee.

  “Do dead people live? I thought if they were dead, they did not live. It’s very confusing.”

  “It’s the tophet,” I said. The walls had been reinforced with a spiked chain along the top to keep out vandals, treasure-seekers, and mischief-makers.

  “What is a tophet?” asked Rory.

  “Every Kena’ani child who died untimely in the first eighteen hundred years of the Kena’ani settlement in Adurnam was interred in this cemetery,” I explained.

  “The remains of infants were placed here in dedication to the gods.” Bee sank onto a moss-covered stone bench as if exhausted. “But it was closed when my papa was a child, forty years ago. There were riots in the city after rumors spread that the Phoenicians were sacrificing children on Hallows’ Night and mixing their blood with wine and bread to keep away the Wild Hunt. Here in the tophet.” She sighed. “Just give me a moment. My legs are shaking.”

  “I don’t think blood and wine would taste well together,” said Rory. “Why drink that?”

  “It wasn’t true, you imbecile,” she snapped. “It was a pernicious lie!”

  A gust of wind stirred my hair, like an unwanted premonition. “Bee, why did you notice the sign on that clockmaker’s shop?”

  “The clock-faced owl? I saw it in a dream. I sketched it. When I saw it today, I knew we had to go there.” Her gaze, on me, looked so weary and worn that I wanted to tell her it would be all right, but I knew such words would be a lie. When I did not reply, she shook her head as if shaking off her fears and offered a teasing smile. “By the way, Cat, I saw a man’s face in the Fiddler’s Stone.”

  “Who?” I demanded, remembering the woman who had told us girls went there to see the faces of their future husbands in the stone.

  “Knives,” she said cryptically, mouth creasing down as if she was herself not sure.

  Footsteps crunched on gravel. I should have heard sooner. A figure appeared where the gravel path hooked around a gaudy monument which was crested by a weathered representation of the lashing, intertwined sea
monsters known as the Taninim.

  “So here they are, the Hassi Barahal cousins.” Leaning on a cane and accompanied by his assistant, the revered headmaster of the academy Bee and I had attended regarded us with an expression whose depths I could not fathom. Even though I knew he had sent his assistant to find us, I stared at his regal features, seamed face, and silver hair as surprised as if I had been cast adrift on a wave-tossed sea to confront the toothy maw of a sea wolf.

  With a snarl of rage, Rory dropped the bags. In a blur of gold too bright to be fully seen, he melted from man into huge, deadly saber-toothed cat, and sprang at the headmaster.

  8

  I threw myself into Rory’s line of attack.

  Even as I was twisting, bracing myself to slam into him, the air distorted. An undulation of intense heat sucked the cold as into a vast shimmering furnace. A scaly beast gleaming of polished copper shuddered across the sky: eyes like burning emeralds, claws the length of my arms, wings that spanned the tophet wall to wall. Its jaw gaped to swallow him and us and all the city and then the world and finally all of existence.

  I smashed into the cat’s massive fore-flank. I did not stop Rory, but we were both carried far enough sideways that he landed out of reach of the headmaster with me draped over his rippling shoulders. I leaped back and whacked him on the neck with my cane.

  “Stop! Rory! Stop!”

  The big cat cringed and dropped to a crouch. Its pelt shone with a pulse of light, and smeared into a black-haired young man.

  “Let go of me!” cried Bee in a tone I recognized as exasperated rather than alarmed.

  Stepping between Rory and the headmaster, I turned. The headmaster’s assistant had a hand on her arm, and was in the act of pulling her out of the way. He released her at once.

  The headmaster looked as he had always looked: He was a tall, elderly black man of noble Kushite ancestry, a princely scholar of the most cultured and civilized of peoples, a man who was always calm. Why had I never noticed the fulgent green glamour of his eyes?

  “Who are you?” Bee demanded.

  Remnants of clothes hung like rags on Rory’s body. Even half naked, he appeared predatory. “I have to kill him, Cat. Surely you understand!”

  “I’m beginning to think I understand much less than I ever thought I did!” I cried.

  “And that wasn’t much,” muttered Bee, as if she could not help herself.

  Had the light changed? The headmaster’s eyes were a pleasant, ordinary brown, not green at all. “Begging your pardon, Maester,” I said politely, “but if I am not mistaken, something rather strange just happened.”

  “Indeed it did,” he agreed with the careworn smile of a man who has seen everything and has yet to be surprised. “Your young companion turned into a rather large cat and then back into a man. Certainly an unexpected occurrence. He must be cold. May I offer my coat?”

  “No!” snarled Rory. I pressed the cane across his chest to check him.

  “Kemal,” said the headmaster to his assistant. “If you will.”

  The assistant took off his coat and gloves. Bee brought them to Rory.

  I said, “Put them on.”

  He obeyed, although by the curl of his lip I could tell he was affronted.

  “Why do you think you have to kill him, Rory?” I asked, digging for patience.

  His tone suggested he was completely disgusted with my callous disregard for his needs. “He’s one of the enemy!”

  I could tell from Bee’s busy, bitten expression that she was thinking as wildly and desperately as a runaway coach careens over rugged ground.

  “Are you a cold mage, Maester?” she asked. “Perhaps an un-Housed cold mage, making your own way in the world? Hiding your power?”

  “I am no cold mage. But I invite you to return to the academy, where I will serve hot tea and we may conduct this conversation in decent warmth.”

  Bee delivered her reply with queenly obstinacy. “I mean no offense, Maester, but the last time I took refuge with you, you handed me over to Legate Amadou Barry. I became little better than a prisoner in his exalted house, and I must say—” Her cheeks flamed, and she thought twice about what she must say.

  He nodded. “You have my deepest apologies, Maestressa. I was mistaken in believing the Barry house was a suitable refuge for you. The offer of a cup of hot tea comes without price. On my honor as a Napata, I will not reveal your presence in the academy to anyone. No one will know except me, and my servants, who are bound to me.”

  “I have to kill him,” said Rory. “Let me go, Cat.”

  “No.” I kept the cane pressed to his torso, its hidden cold steel a leash on his straining form. “Maester, will you explain to us what we just saw? If that was not magic, then I surely have no idea what to call it. My cousin and I have had enough of being lied to, betrayed, and kept in ignorance.”

  His grave smile made me ashamed of the impetuosity of my speech, and I lowered my gaze so as not to seem to be staring directly at him in a disrespectful way. “These are hard matters, Maestressa, as you correctly comprehend. Did the head of the poet Bran Cof speak to you two months ago?”

  Tell no one. I bit my lip. Bee fisted her hands.

  “By your expressions, Maestressas, I will take that for a yes. A pity I was not informed at the time. Although I suppose when two young women are waiting in my office, perhaps with a purloined book in their keeping, they may prefer to keep silence rather than be subjected to questions. Might we go? My old bones feel the cold deeply. I note also your companion has bare feet now that his shoes have torn off.”

  Rory said, as if he had decided he would have more success with being reasonable, “Just let me kill him, Cat. It will only take a moment.” He tensed, readying to spring.

  A tongue of fire licked the wintry cold. The air pulled at me as if I were being drawn into the maw of a fiery furnace. Green flickered in the headmaster’s eyes, but his expression remained impassive as he examined Rory as if seeking beneath the skin to the cat beneath. I had a heart-squeezingly strong premonition—nothing magical about it—that our young, healthy, strong Roderic and the old, frail, fragile-looking headmaster were not remotely evenly matched. With the cane, I pushed Rory behind me. He was trembling, although I could not have said whether with anger, fear, or sheer shaking eagerness to pounce.

  Bee’s delicate little hand caught hold of my wrist, tightening as I imagined the coils of a snake might crush the ribs of a larger animal. “Cat, we have to hear what the head of the poet Bran Cof has to say.”

  “Ah! Ow! Yes! You go ahead. I’ll come after with Rory.”

  She released my wrist and swept a courtesy to the headmaster as I tried to shake the pain out of my wrist while still holding Rory in check.

  “Maester,” she said, “we will accompany you out of respect for your age and lineage. But it is likely the Roman legate and his minions are already on their way to the academy.”

  “Then there is no time to waste, Maestressa. I give you my word I will not be party to your being taken prisoner by Romans, mage Houses, or princes.”

  “Very well.” She nodded at me before accompanying them down the path.

  A cold breeze chased up from the east, the last breath of the hailstorm Andevai had called to quell the crowds. It was better than muskets and swords as a weapon against people out on the streets, forcing them to flee inside. But the weakest and most desperate huddling in alleys or unheated hovels would expire in the deadly cold. Yet winter killed the weak anyway, didn’t it?

  I cautiously drew back my cane. “Rory, explain yourself.”

  “I have to kill him.”

  “Those seem to be the only words you know any more. How can that respected and honored old man be ‘the enemy’?”

  “He’s not a man! That body is just the clothes he’s wearing.”

  I sat down hard on the bench, my heart knocking about my chest as if it had come loose from its moorings: wings, claws, heat. I covered my face with my gloved hands
, and realized how horribly cold my flesh had become. “What do you think he is?” I said through my fingers.

  “I don’t think. I know. He’s a serpent. A dragon.” He paced around the bench. “These stupid words you use aren’t the right ones! He is one of the enemy who encircles the world and traps us. You’ve seen what happens when the dreams of the mothers of his kind catch us unawares. Where I live it’s not like it is here in the Deathlands, where their dreams don’t reach. You can walk abroad day and night without fear of being caught and changed. They have always been and always will be the enemy.”

  “Rory, sit down, your pacing is making me dizzy.” But it was his words that made my head reel. “How can he be a dragon?”

  “He’ll eat me first. He’s much bigger and stronger. But I have to try.” If he’d had a tail, he would have lashed it. “Because he must want to eat you, too.”

  “I have attended the academy for over three years. He could have eaten me at any time. Why wait until now, when he couldn’t have expected to see me again?”

  “Dragons are cunning and patient and never strike until you least expect it.”

  “I least expected it all these years. He’s no threat to us.”

  “You just can’t see it! I can’t let you go to his lair.”

  “This is not your decision!” Watching his bare feet tread the freezing ground made me wince. My lips were so stiff I could scarcely form words. I had to move, or I would die, too. I leaped up and grabbed his arm. “You’ll die of cold if you don’t get shoes and clothes! I couldn’t bear to lose you. But I have to go to the academy to hear the message.”

  “Maybe he won’t eat Bee,” he admitted sullenly. “She does stink of dragons, like they licked her when she was sleeping and she just doesn’t know. I didn’t say anything about it, because she’s right, it is rude to say so, and I could tell neither of you knew or suspected.”

  I embraced him, petting his arms and back until he relaxed a tiny bit. “Rory, how about this? You will go right now to the Old Temple District, to the inn called the Buffalo and Lion.”

 
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