There were twenty vaults along the Avenue of the Esteemed Dead. At either end stood pikemen hired by the Exequial Guild to keep away graverobbers. Under the wide-brimmed helmets their faces were sweat streaked and morose. Only the eyes were animated, darting, luminous with wild emotion in those expressionless faces, like someone staring through eyeslits in a painting. These men, known as Interficers, were recruited directly from the Tower of Jalef where the city's lunatics were kept. Their madness was a better deterrent to grave robbers than any judicial punishment would have been. There were tales of tomb guards devouring prisoners or bricking them up alive in narrow cervices. No graverobber ever came to trial.
In the course of his life Azimbo Canitis had made a small fortune. Unfortunately he had also spent it, frittered away on gambling and gifts for a dozen girls who all looked the same. But it wasn't so bad. Azimbo was never short of company. He could live on his reputation. There were always people eager to hear his tales. He never needed to buy supper or a tankard of ale. Beyond that, there wasn't much of value that money could buy - or so Azimbo told himself.
Here were two more now. They pushed under the sacking covering the doorway and for a moment the pipe smoke and hubbub of the taproom entered Azimbo's snug.
"Master Canitis?" ventured one. Azimbo sized them up at a glance. Youthful and wide-eyed; raw recruits. The blue doublets with the badge of the hawk and dolphin in gold marked them out as city militia. The shortswords with blade-catching prongs at the hilt meant that they'd just come off duty. Eventually, if they lived long enough, they'd learn that The Singing Fish wasn't a place to stop for a casual drink on the way home to a better part of town.
Azimbo gave them an ironic salute. An age ago, he'd been a militiaman too. He moved the bench opposite out with his foot. "Set yourselves down there, my lads, and set that mug of ale down here, and you can tell me what I can do for you."
They sat down hesitantly, just boys really. "We heard you used to be a tomb robber," said the taller of them. His eyes were half hidden under an unruly shock of curls.
"Come to arrest me, eh?" said Azimbo.
The youth took him seriously. "Oh no, no, sir..."
The other butted in. He had a clever cavalier look about him. But not as clever as he fancied himself. "What my friend means is, we were hoping you could tell us what it was like. How did you get by the Interficers?"
"You couldn't always. Once I had to kill a couple." Azimbo basked in the look of respect that appeared in the eyes of the two young men. "Oh, they weren't the worst of it. Got any pipeweed?"
The taller youth jumped up, almost banging his head on the low beam. "I can get you some, sir."
"Nah, what I've got'll do fine. Sit down, then, and I'll tell you a tale to think about on dark nights." Azimbo leaned back against the wall and folded his arms. The ale could wait a while. He enjoyed reminiscing. "It was the last time I went to the
. There was me, Beergut Barino and Eresh the Whisper, though neither of them'll mean much to you. Old City
"There were a few spots of rain as we set out and barely a grumble of thunder over the hills, but it was cutting up pretty rough by the time we got across. The weather wasn't a problem, it was on our side. The Interficers couldn't see our boat in the rain."
"What about patrols on the bank?"
"You're getting ahead of things, lad, and in any case there aren't any patrols. You don't suppose the Interficers stay in the place after dark? They get the job by being crazy, not stupid. Once it's nighttime they keep to the river and once you've made the run across it's not them you've got to worry about. Anyway, we put in at a quay with a kind of cloister round three sides. I saw then that Eresh was going to be a problem. He'd taken a dose of some stuff he'd got off a trader from upcoast and he was starting to lose it. If not for the rain I'd have gone straight back, but it was coming down too heavy by now. The only thing for it was to do a night's work and get going as soon as it let up.
"We came out of the cloister passage and something scuttled off. It was big and it went on all fours. That was a bad moment as you can guess, lads, but it was just a leper. I remember that leper's face to this day because he had a big mad grin like nothing I can describe. I guess he knew what it was like to be turning into a monster.
"Well, we headed across a square that I used to call Bone Yard because of another time. The rain was driving in our faces and the trees were shaking about like crazy women. There was a sheet of lightning right overhead - it was just like the day came back for an instant - and we saw these three big statues made of green stone. They weren't human statues. Something else. They were facing out towards the river. Eresh chuckled to himself and told us they were Vaals, but I still don't know what that means. A mystery for you lads to clear up one day, hmm?"
"Vaals..." said one of the youths seriously.
"Something like that. Anyway, there's a fountain in that square with a sculpture in the middle. What a sculpture! She could stir your loins even in as desolate and blood-freezing a spot as that. Chizzi, we used to call her, like in that old song:
"Chizzi'll be waiting, boys,
'till you come back to dock;
drop your anchor there, my boys,
and give 'er - "
"I'll get some more ale!" cried the curly-haired youth, jumping up suddenly. This time he did bang his head. He went out to the taproom with his hand pressed to his head, but it didn't hide the blush that had shot up into his face at Azimbo's ribald song.
Azimbo roared with laughter, and his big stomach was still quaking when the youth came back sheepishly with a second foaming flagon of ale. "Where was I?" he said as he poured himself a mug. "Ah, that statue in the fountain. She had limbs that went on and on, reaching up to the sky..." He grinned at the embarrassed youth and decided to spare him. "The fountain itself was full of muck and slime, but to Eresh in his addled state it must have looked like sweet water. He leaned over and suddenly he was staring into the water with eyes as wide as a doxy's legs. His mouth was open like he was trying to scream except nothing came out. Then he was off and running. He went into a low building with narrow windows and we decided not to follow. You get a feel for certain places and this was one of them.
"There's a building with tall towers on the side of the square. I think it was a temple in the old days. Me and Beergut waited under the colonnade in front watching the rain. There were swarms of gnats and kissgiss and a whole lot of fat brown snails like oak apples. Eresh didn't come back. After a bit the wind turned and started throwing the rain in on us so we decided to go inside for a look. There was a smell from an old drifter who'd crawled in there and died. There were more of those snails all over the body. We got a couple of lilac opals out of a face carved in the wall and Beergut didn't see me pocket a string of prayer beads that I later got twenty Argurs for.
"The storm was over, the clouds breaking up. You could see the stars like little bits of glass and the wet paving just gleamed. We decided to head back before the moon got too high, though with the Interficers it's often hide-and-seek out and a straight race coming back. Anyway, then Beergut grabbed my arm all of a sudden - like that - and he pointed up to the parapet of the nearest building. You know what? Eresh the Whisper was dancing and leaping about up there like a bloke that's backed the winning chariot on Foundation Day. But then it was like he just froze, his arms dropped and his head went back and he came tumbling down. Crunch. A body makes a hell of a crack from that height."
"Was he dead?" asked the youth with the mop of hair.
"Dead? Of course he was dead! His head had come open like a melon and a dog would've turned its nose up at what was left in his brain-pan."
"What did you do?" said the other youth and, to show he wasn't as naive as his friend, he added, "You couldn't get the body back."
"Nah. Who'd have wanted it anyway? We left his cash - well, most of it - in case he needed it in the afterlife, but we did take a ruby scarf-pin and this silver ring I'm wearing.
"You think that's it? Well, lads, you don't know anything about the
in that case. It never is easy, and always in a way you didn't expect. When we got back to the quay, there was Eresh sitting in the boat with his head in one piece and a strange thoughtful smile on his lips. We just stood there, Beergut and me, and he kept on looking back at us without a word. Eventually Beergut took me aside and he said, 'Whatever we thought we saw we can't have seen, right?' 'Right,' I said. 'And we don't want to stop here until the Interficers have got their boats out.' 'That's true too,' I said. Old City
"'So come on,' says he and we got into the boat. By this time I guess we'd both decided it must have been somebody else we saw fall off the roof. I'd seen enough weird things over there in my time.
"The storm had passed over and the sky was like black glass. Beergut kept an eye out for patrol boats while I rowed. We were past midstream and in the clear when I saw Beergut tense up. Something behind me. So I looked over my shoulder and there was Eresh getting slowly to his feet, just as slowly as a curl of smoke rising from this pipe, and without rocking the boat even a bit. I reached for him in case that stuff had got him so stoned that he was going to take a dip. But then..." Azimbo shook his head.
The young militiamen waited as long as their impatience allowed. "Then?"
"You know what it's like when you wake up in the middle of a dream? There can be a face in front of you and it just sort of sloughs away. Suddenly it wasn't Eresh anymore. It wasn't anything natural. It was like a shadow standing up in the prow of the boat. Beergut was one of those people who get real angry when they're afraid. He pushed past me and went for it with his sword. I started trying to get one of the oars loose so I could shove the thing overboard. The tricky part for us was that we had to keep low so as not to upset the boat, whereas whatever it was really didn't seem to have any more weight than a shadow. Beergut yelped as it snatched at him. It had sliced off a couple of his fingers somehow, though I didn't see a knife. Beergut fell back into me and I got knocked over. I was lying in the bottom of the boat and I saw Beergut lift his sword high over his head, screaming all the time. He was going to cut that thing in two if he could.
"But he never got the chance. It was a clear sky like I said, so I don't see how it could've been lightning - but what else? There was a hot blinding light and the boat flew apart like a giant had gone - " He banged his fist on the table. "Next thing, I was gulping water and when I got to the surface there was nothing left to see. I swam back to shore and got back, as I've told you, with a bit of treasure but minus my eyebrows and two old friends. And that, my fine lads, was the last time I went to the
." Old City
"Until tonight," said a voice from the doorway.
The newcomers had entered without any of them noticing. One was a rose-tinted Ancient, long and insubstantial within a sheath of silken robes. Wisps of lank hair hid his pale heavy lidded eyes. The other was a lean young woman whose high leather boots and close-fitting brocade jacket suited her tomboyish figure. The brooch at her throat, her one item of jewellery, bore the crest of one of the first families.
The two militiamen shot to their feet, torn between distaste for the Ancient and deference to the lady. Deference won out. They attempted a gallant bow in unison. "Ma'am," said the tall youth with old fashioned courtesy, "you would do us an honour to join this gathering."
"Leave us, please," she said. "We have business with this man."
The militiamen nodded. "Of course." They snatched up their swords and helmets, almost falling over themselves in their haste to comply.
When they were alone in the snug, the Ancient came forward, bowing under the low rafters. Azimbo scrutinized him in the smoky light. "Chendu. I never thought to see you back in Deliverance."
"This is Mistress Seraphine," said Chendu. "We need to go over the river, Azimbo."
"My lady, will you sit?"
Nephithia glanced at the beer-stained bench, planted a boot on it and rested her arms on her knee. She nodded for Azimbo to sit back down. "Did you hear what he said? We need to cross to the
. Tonight." Old City
Azimbo gave an uncomfortable laugh. "You don't want to put too much store by those tales I tell, my lady. That's just a way for a fellow to scrape a living."
"Azimbo has acquired the virtue of modesty since last we met," said Chendu to Nephithia. "The truth is he was the best ever to ply the trade of tomb robber. He is wily and he has luck on his side too, as the story we just heard attests. Most importantly, he knows his way around the canals where we'll hope to lose the Interficers.
"That's a good combination of skills. How about it, Azimbo?"
"You want me to come along? No! I'm retired. I don't need it."
A bag of coins smacked onto the table. Azimbo stared at it keenly like a cat discovering a sleeping mouse. There was an unmistakable heaviness in the sound it had made...
"Yes," said Chendu, "it's gold."
"But," began Azimbo, then his mouth went dry. His instinct was always to haggle, but they were already offering more money than he would ever have dared to ask for. More than he had seen in five years.
He snatched the purse, drained his beer and got up. "Let's go," he said.
They stepped out of The Singing Fish. The day had gone and the sky was like old silver. A few high thin clouds caught the last rays, becoming plumes of black smoke limned with fire. Those thin rails of light only served to quicken the retreating sun, leaving the deep streets draped in dusk.
Half a dozen men emerged from nowhere. "You got a pretty package there, Azimbo," said one.
"Yeah, and the purse too," snorted another.
The first man moved a little nearer and stood in a loose cocksure stance. "Hand it over, old man." He had a thin bullying voice, the kind that sniggers at another's misfortune. The details of his face were lost in shadow, but they could see the yellow gleam of teeth and the iron bar in his hands.
"Can we cut the pasty, Frovel?" asked another of the gang eagerly. "I want to see what color blood he's got."
There was a frozen moment as both groups confronted each other in silence. Then a massive figure detached himself from the shadows around the side of the tavern and lumbered into view. His face looked like a crag with a patch of grey moss growing on top of it. In his hands he swung a spiked mace. It looked as if he would need no effort to push a man's face through into the back of his skull.
"You better keep out of this, pal," said Frovel.
"Get back to the gutter, you rodents," said Taltivin.
He had the kind of voice that didn't give a second warning. Frovel took a step back before he could stop himself. That made him feel humiliated and angry. He had his reputation to think of. "Deshok and Holmar, both of you - "
Nephithia drew her sword. She put her hand on Azimbo's shoulder and moved him aside. Frovel gave a high titter of laughter. "You let girls do your fighting for you these days, Azimbo?"
"Think about this," said Nephithia. "Before you bring us down, at least three of you will be dead."
Frovel couldn't understand what there was about the lean young woman that made him feel afraid. He hated her for her aristocratic self-assurance and for her lack of fear. "You won't be dying, bitch, not till you're begging for it."
"That really is no way to speak to a lady."
Frovel turned his head towards the young man at the entrance to the alley. "Scutri's balls!" he screamed. "Is there anyone in this whole pissing city that doesn't want to muscle in?"
The two militiamen chose that moment to step out of the tavern. With their smart uniforms and their helmets tucked under their arms they looked like two cavalry captains on parade. The shorter of the two, obviously not as sharp as he liked to think, said in a bemused voice, "What's going on?"
It was enough for Frovel and his gang. They beat a hasty retreat along the alley and ducked through a hole in a fence.
"A timely intervention," said Nephithia with a smile, not to the militiamen but to the man at the entrance of the alley.
"If you're planning that boat trip," replied Kethar, "I think I'd better come along."