Read Worldsoul Online

Authors: Liz Williams

Tags: #fantasy

Worldsoul (7 page)

“What,” she said aloud, “Are you?”

She had consulted grimoires, sought answers in encyclopedias, and done a series of magical tests, but there had been nothing in the tomes to suggest what her assailant might be, and the spells had only shown her glimpses: a wild, bleak land, swirling snow, endless cold. Not the sort of country in which she felt at home. Had that been why it had attacked her? she wondered whimsically. Sensing an opposite: a person of warmth, fire, sun? Surely this was due to more than geography. Shadow, over years as an alchemist, had learned not to discount apparent synchronicities. Her visit to the Shah at noon; the attack, at close to midnight. Was the Shah trying an unusual means of persuasion? If so, it had failed. Shadow did not respond graciously to threats.

She walked across to the open window and took a breath of desert air, hot and clean, to wipe away the sense of foulness. Odd, how something so cold could yet be putrid. When she turned back to the table, the hand had moved.

“Aha,” Shadow said, tilting her head to one side.

She walked across to the door and drew it shut, then watched through a crack. Sure enough, the hand—she did not think that it possessed intelligence, animate though it might be—scuttled along the surface of the table, leaving a greasy trail of ichor in its wake. Once at the table’s edge, it seemed to be uncertain as to how to get down. It faltered, hesitated, tapped a finger much as Shadow herself had just done. Then, disappointingly, all the life seemed to ebb out of it and it slumped down in a tangle of fingers, unmoving. Shadow was reminded of chickens whose heads had been cut off. Tutting, she went back into the lab and found a small lead box. She picked up the stiffening hand with a pair of tongs and dropped it into the box, then sealed it with a soldering iron and put a binding of spells around it. Magic sizzled and hissed as she did so, flickering indigo-blue about the box, and when she had finished, the box was barely visible, contained in a cloud of magic. That, Shadow thought before she went to bed, would have to do.

• Ten •

When Mercy woke up, the
ka
was crouched on her chest, breathing out. She felt filled with sudden life, a glittering sense of well-being.

“Perra?”

“I breathe for you,” the
ka
said.

“Well, thank you.” Perra jumped down, but Mercy barely noticed: the
ka
was as light as air, weighing far less than a cat. It sat, a small sphinx, on the carpet by the bed and gazed up at her with lambent eyes. “Where am I?” Mercy asked. She blinked. The room was panelled in a faint willow-green. A lamp stood by her bed.

“You’re in hospital, dear.” A nurse appeared, with a white starched cap. “You had an accident.”

“Yes, I remember.” Her head hurt. “My colleague—Nerren?”

“She’s in the next ward. She’s fine. So are you. We’re discharging you both as soon as I get the all-clear from the doctors.”

“All right,” Mercy said, relieved. It struck her as particularly ironic that she should have survived the morning’s encounter in Section C with the thing from the ice, only to be nearly flattened by a falling flower. “Was anyone else hurt?”

“Yes, and one death.” The nurse checked her blood pressure.

“Damn it. Who
are
these people? Who’s
sending
these things?”

“If we knew that, dear,” the nurse remarked, “We could do something about it.”

And yet no one seemed to know, despite all the resources of Worldsoul. The Library had set a team on it, the Court had done so as well, and so had a myriad other organisations. The flower attacks had begun not long after the Skein had left: was this some natural phenomenon that the Skein had kept at bay, or was it part of the same thing that had led to the disappearance of the Skein themselves? No one knew. But they were devastating. Mercy felt lucky to be alive.

“I have given you a life,” the
ka
said, in its reedy, whispering voice.

“Thank you!” Mercy raised herself up on an elbow and peered down at it. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It’s a spare. I have seven left.”

They had been granted nine originally, Mercy knew. Like cats. She did not like to ask the ancestral spirit how the eighth had been lost. Not given to either of her mothers, evidently: the heritage was wrong. The
ka
must have come from her father’s line, and who he had been, Greya—her mother—had never told.

“I’ll see you shortly,” the nurse said, giving the
ka
a disapproving glance, and bustled out before Mercy could ask her why they had given her a private room. Perhaps Nerren had pulled strings? The Library was still rich. But Nerren had no private room. She was in a ward.

Mercy lay back and after a moment saw the
ka
jump onto the windowsill. Perra gave a twist, and was gone out into the twilight. Mercy thought she might have dozed after that, because when she woke again, it was dark outside and a man was standing over her.

“Miss Fane?” He passed a hand across her eyes and there was a moment where her vision blurred. Then it cleared again. “How are you feeling?”

“A bit dizzy, actually.”

“You had a nasty bang on the head.”

He was dark-haired, pale-faced, ascetic. He wore a ruffed black suit, of expensive cut, a crisp white shirt, round spectacles. This must be the doctor, she thought, and wondered why there was such a sense of familiarity about him. Perhaps he was a frequenter of the Library: it had an extensive medical section.

“I’ve come to give you a final check-up,” the man said. “I am Doctor Roke.”

“Thanks,” Mercy said. “I don’t feel too bad.”

“A few last checks,” Roke said, soothingly. She found that she was lulled by his voice:
Everything,
it suggested,
will be all right.
“After all, we still don’t really understand what effects these flower attacks can produce. We need to be sure. I just need to take a quick blood test—” and before Mercy could open her mouth, she felt a needle at her arm and the doctor was holding up a phial of crimson fluid. “There we are. All done. We’ll let you know if there are any significant results.”

Then he was gone, leaving Mercy feeling safe. Ten minutes after that, the door opened again and the nurse reappeared with a small, stout man. “This is Dr Marlain. He’s going to give you a final check-up before we discharge you.”

“You’re very thorough,” Mercy said. “I’ve already had one of those. Dr Roke did a blood test?”

The nurse and Marlain exchanged startled glances. “Who?”

“A Dr Roke? Tall, dark? Nice manner. Very urbane.”

“There’s no one called Roke on the register,” Marlain said, blankly.

“Ah.” She digested this. So someone now unknown had come into her room and, entirely trusting, Mercy had let him take her blood. For what? And from the looks on their faces, they thought she had made it up. “Maybe I was dreaming,” Mercy said, dismayed.

They let her out anyway. Nerren was waiting in the lobby, bandaged and bruised.

“We’ve been told to take tomorrow off,” Nerren said, rising stiffly from her seat. “You didn’t have any appointments anyway.”

“I’m going to need it,” Mercy replied. “Did you? Appointments, I mean.”

“Some northern grad student, but I can put her off.” They began to walk slowly towards the doors.

Then Mercy remembered. “Oh, hell. The Citadel inspection.”

“You know what?” Nerren said. “Benjaya Vrone can handle it. He’s always bitching that I don’t give him enough responsibility, but I prefer to ask McLaren—he’s just good at dealing with crises. Let Ben handle the inspection and if there is a problem, we’ll just have to deal with it later. Having narrowly escaped being blown up, a bunch of civil servants suddenly seems less intimidating.” She pushed open the heavy doors and they stepped out into the warm embrace of the night.

“Agreed,” Mercy said.

They exchanged weary goodbyes.

Mercy walked stiffly through the darkness to a rickshaw row, and took an uncomfortably jolting ride home.

The blizzard had died out over the pass, but in her dream, Mercy knew that winter was coming. She took the clantrack south, heading down through the silent, snow-weighted pines and into the valley. It stretched, both shallow and wide, for three miles until the estuary, which in summer was a place of leaping salmon and flickering eels, white with water-fowl, but which now creaked and groaned with the cascade of ice floes from the further sea. Mercy was heading for the river and for the traps. She ran quickly, running on back-jointed feet across the hard ground, her pack bouncing against her shoulder blades. High above, a pair of ravens bobbed and wheeled, game playing in the first of the snows.

There was a build-up of cloud on the horizon, golden-grey turrets towering into the sky. More snow before nightfall. She reached the river, and stepped carefully down the icy tumble of soil that had become its bank. The ice was not yet thick and she could see the slow seep of water underneath it. The ice was glassy: it was like a dim mirror and she could see the faint outline of her head—the long muzzle, the golden eyes. In her dream, this did not seem at all strange to her; she had always been like this. She looked like the rest of the clan, although darker of fur than most.

The first trap was close to the bank. A small stick protruded above the ice, marking its location. Mercy took the axe and broke the ice, shattering it star-shaped around the marker. Beneath, under the frigid water, something writhed in the snare. She reached down, took hold of the string, and pulled it up, expecting a fish.

It wasn’t a fish. It was a small, man-like figure, dark, with twig-like limbs. It should have been drowned but it hissed and spat in the snare, twisting round to snap at her hand. Its face was like her own: her human face, not the wolf-face she now wore. Mercy dropped it in the snow in a spatter of blood and, to her great relief, woke up.

Daylight was flooding through the window, along with the scent of jasmine. Mercy took a deep breath and sat up. The headache had receded to a dull afterburn and her first thought was that she had overslept and was late for work. Then she remembered: day off, because of the accident. But a day off was the one thing she could not afford to take right now.

Objectively, she knew the house was warm, but Mercy felt cold. She wrapped the robe more closely, flung a wrap around herself and went downstairs. She could not stop thinking about the woman-thing at the Library. It had made more of an impact on her than being caught in the flower blast. For a moment, whirling around, thinking the thing was actually in the room. But it was only the steam from the kettle, rising up. She was starting to become annoyed with herself.
Let’s think about what’s real.
She heaped green tea into a frog-shaped pot and stood staring at the familiar walls of the kitchen while she waited for it to brew. The walls, painted yellow. The polished boards of the floor, with a speckle of white by the stove where, long ago, her mother Sho had spilled hot oil while trying to make pancakes. Sho, always taking risks, always getting things wrong, but somehow it had never seemed to matter. So different from her other mother, Greya: the cautious, sensible suffocating one, the mother who had wanted Mercy, the single chick, to do something sensible in turn, something safe.

Mercy had never been able to blame her for this. Greya was from the Northern Quarter, after all, and something had frozen inside her, causing icicles in the heart. Greya’s mother had been from one of the wolfclans, or so Sho had whispered to Mercy as a child; Mercy had never known whether or not this was really true, although Greya’s eyes, in certain lights, gleamed gold. And there had just been that dream . . . But Greya herself—no wolfcub. Whatever fire and spit she’d owned had been burned out of her on the journey south, made her dry as a winter leaf, careful as a cat on ice.

Yet Greya had been the one to go, when the first word of the
Barquess
had come, asking for volunteers. Mercy had resented that, after all the slammed doors and hisses over her dangerous choice of career at the end of her teens. Greya had not stayed to see her try to survive in the now-Skeinless Library, as though she’d just hung around long enough to really piss Mercy off by doing something completely unpredictable.

Sho had gone after her, of course. No change there. She’d bequeathed the house to Mercy, which had been both reassuring and not: Mercy wouldn’t lose the family home, but it didn’t say much for the chances of either Sho or Greya returning. She’d asked the
ka
about the fate of the
Barquess,
but the
ka
had been unable to tell her, said that no oracle could, said it was “fuzzy.” Oh, well. Mercy was used to that.

She sipped her tea, now brewed and sour. It suited Mercy’s mood. Something was loose in the city, something for which Mercy felt responsible. If the Library had seen fit to give her a day off, it therefore made sense to Mercy to see if she could find it.

“Perra!”

The
ka
leaped lightly onto the kitchen table. Its feet made shadowy golden traces, like pollen.

“I think,” Mercy said, “that I’m going to need your help.”

The docks were a hubbub. The Golden Island steamer could not get into harbour, having to wait at anchor in the waters beyond. Mercy could see the passengers milling on the deck, gesturing, but they were too far away for her to hear what they were saying. She doubted it was polite. The harbour itself was thronged with fishing boats, private yachts, a junk from the far side of the Eastern Quarter, and the air smelled of salt and smoke and fish. Mercy and Perra walked to the far end of the harbour, where a thistle-head of bridges indicated the start of the West-East Canal. Here, the gates were being opened. She could hear the creak and tear of the winch and knew that a ferry was waiting, riding up in the womb of the lock, and Mercy’s spirits rose with it. Soon, the boathouse came into view and then the ferry itself. A small crowd was already present, bags and children clutched in eager arms, to take passage to the Eastern Quarter. The
ka
plucked at her boot with a claw.

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