The Order of the Scales – Taster

The blood-mage Kithyr slipped out of the Glass Cathedral and hurried across open ground to the Speaker’s Tower. Speaker Zafir and her lover Jehal were gone to war. Tomorrow the battle would rage. That was what he had foreseen. That was what the blood-pool had told him.

None of that mattered. What mattered was today. Tonight. His heart was beating fast. A part of him was afraid that he would be caught. Another part urged him onward.

Night-time shadows filled the Speaker’s Yard. Men with lanterns walked the walls, but the walls were wide and far away and their eyes looked ever outward. Two men of the Adamantine Guard stood at the doors of the Speaker’s Tower, but if anyone looked closely, they might have seen that something wasn’t quite right. Even though the guards stood with their eyes staring open into the darkness, they were fast asleep. Kithyr had done that to them before he left the shelter of the Glass Cathedral, the black misshapen lump of stone that rose behind him They were only ornamental anyway, those guards. He stepped past and forced the huge doors behind them open, just wide enough to slip inside. He closed them again and then stood in the pitch darkness and waited to catch his breath. His heart was pounding even faster now.

He moved quietly, each step taken with care. If he was caught now, inside the tower, the Adamantine Men would kill him. He had enough magic to deal with them in twos and threes, but once the alarm was raised, they would come in tens and twenties. If they saw him, they’d catch him. If they caught him then they’d find out what he was. If they found out what he was, they’d kill him. They’d do it quickly too, no waiting for King Jehal or the speaker to come back from their war.

They’d find out what was waiting for him in Furymouth.

At the end of the Chamber of Audience, a huge open staircase rose towards the higher levels of the tower. Kithyr crept behind it to where a second staircase, hidden behind the first, sank into the vaults below. The blood-mage paused as he approached it and closed his eyes. He reached out his senses, searching for any guards that might be waiting for him, listening for their heartbeats, sniffing for the smell of their sweat. With the doors closed, with the speaker away and no torches lit, the huge emptiness of the Chamber of Audience was almost black. Moonlight filtered in though the high windows to cast dim and eerie shadows, and that was all.

The vault was empty too. Four legions of the Guard had marched to war. With the speaker away, the rest were far more concerned about being attacked from the air by dragons than they were about nasty people like Kithyr sneaking around in the palace at night.

He started down the stairs. They weren’t a secret, merely hidden and not very well known. At the bottom were a few small rooms. The place was a sanctuary, a place for the speaker to hide away, where he or she could mysteriously vanish for a few moments and then appear again. If Zafir had been here, there would always be soldiers at the bottom of these stairs. But she wasn’t, and so the rooms were empty.

Almost empty. At the bottom, certain he was alone, the magician lit a candle. An entire wall of the first room was covered by bottles of wine racked on top of each other. Several cloaks and robes hung on another, each one meant for a different ceremony and with a different meaning. Unlike the bottles, they were covered in dust. Zafir hadn’t worn any of them since she’d come to the throne. Kithyr spared them a glance then ignored them and moved on to the second little room. This was where the guards should have been. This was what he’d come for. There were weapons here. Ornamental, ceremonial and deadly real. Vishmir’s war-axe. If you looked hard enough you could still find flecks of blood, or so they said. The scorpion bolt that killed Prince Lai. Half a dozen other swords and knives that had killed or been carried by speakers over the ages. Kithyr wasn’t interested in any of those; he barely even noticed them. What he wanted was hanging on the wall at the far end. Kithyr snuffed out the candle. He didn’t need it now. The spear glowed with a very faint light that pushed away the utter darkness that filled the rest of the room.

The Adamantine Spear. The Speaker’s Spear. The Spear of the Earth. As old as the world.

He stood in front of it, hardly daring to touch it. No one knew where it had come from. The dragon-priests said that the power of the dragons was bound into it. The alchemists claimed the Order had forged it. Others believed it had been made to tame dragons. All lies. Like the blood-mages, the spear came from a time before there were priests, before there were alchemists, before there were dragons even. The Silver King, the Isul Aieha, had brought it into the realms, but the spear was older than that, older than anything.

For a moment Kithyr couldn’t move his hands. They simply refused. The spear was a glittering silver, glowing with a soft inner glory. The blood-mages had stories of other things crafted from silver. No, not stories, stories was wrong. Maybe legends. Myths. Yes, myths, that was it. Sorcerers forged of silver who had had the power to change the world on a whim; not just the one who’d come to the realms all those centuries ago, but hundreds, thousands who had once been. The spear came from that time. It had their power and more. In those myths, almost lost now, it could raise volcanoes from the ground, had once shattered the very earth. Trapped within lay something immeasurably potent, or so Kithyr had come to believe. And now that he was standing before it, he was paralysed, as though the slightest touch of it would burn him to ash. Stupid, since every speaker since Narammed had touched it and none of them had been burned to ash.

None of them had been blood-mages, though. None of them had had the old power coursing through their veins.

In an instant of will, he closed his eyes and reached out with both hands to take the spear. His fingers brushed the cold metal of the shaft. He didn’t burn to ash. Apart from the chill of the metal, he didn’t feel anything at all. After all the anticipation, he felt almost . . . disappointed. There should have been something, shouldn’t there? Or were all the old stories just that? Was it just a spear and nothing more?

He took the spear off the wall. Still not a flicker.

Perhaps that was for the best. Maybe it had had power once, but maybe that was long ago. Maybe the years had sucked it dry. Nothing lasted for ever, after all. If the spear was dead, he’d still done his part of the bargain. Or maybe it wasn’t the real spear at all. There had always been other stories. How the Silver King had taken the real spear away with him to his tomb. To the Black Mausoleum, if such a place even existed. Or maybe Vishmir . . .

No, that couldn’t be right, could it? He’d know, wouldn’t he?

The doubt nagged at him, tugging the corners of his mind. He brushed his fingers over the head of the spear. The tip was as sharp as a needle. Two flat-bladed edges ran down the shaft, as long as Kithyr’s forearm. They were like razors. Kithyr ran a fingertip along one. He felt it cut him, felt the blood dribble out of him onto the spear. Instinct made his mind reach into the blood, and through the blood into the spear . . .

Kithyr staggered and gasped and almost dropped it. The snuffed-out candle fell to the floor. The light in the spear died, plunging him into darkness absolute. He hardly noticed. There was no mistake. The spear had a power to it all right. Something hard and bright and unbelievably immense, buried deep within it, so deep that Kithyr wasn’t sure that anyone would ever get it out. Something that would surely consume whoever woke it. He was like a moth, drawn to the light of a lantern and suddenly gifted with a full understanding of the fire that lay at its heart. Fire and moths. He shivered and sucked his finger until it stopped bleeding. Cursed. That’s what it was. That or it was the most powerful thing in the world.

Fire and moths. He could feel his hunger for it even so. Raw unthinking craving.

Quickly, before he could change his mind, he wrapped the spear in a blanket of black silk, smothering his hunger as he smothered the silver. He climbed softly back up the stairs and reached out his senses into the Speaker’s Tower. The Chamber of Audience was still empty. The guards standing outside were still asleep. He slipped between them and pulled the darkness of the night around him like a cloak, hugging it to his chest. A faint light seemed to creep out of the spear again, out of its silk wrapping as if it knew his purpose and was trying to betray him. He felt his heart beating as he ran. He was exposed. A hundred guards walked the walls around him, above him, looking down on him. They must see me. They must . . .

They didn’t. He slipped from the Speaker’s Yard into the Fountain Court and then into the Gateyard. He stopped by the stables there to catch his breath, to tell himself his fear was foolish. The guards on the walls wouldn’t see him. Their eyes were cast towards the City of Dragons and the black mass of the Purple Spur beyond, looking for dragons. On a night like this they’d be pressed to see even one of those. I’m afraid of my own fear, jumping at shadows . . . That wasn’t right. He was a blood-mage. He had the power to literally rip men apart, to turn them inside out. He could barely even remember the last time he’d been afraid.

Was it the spear?

No. Whatever was inside it had been asleep for a long time and slumbered still. Awake, an edge of fear was the least it would bring. He waited until his breathing eased. His heart still pounded, but that was good. That meant blood flowing fast, that his power was at its strongest. In the stables he had a horse already saddled. He mounted and crossed the Gateyard. People would see him now, or if they didn’t, they would hear him. That was to be expected. Under his skin, blood shifted, sculpted, arranged his features in subtle new ways. When he reached the gates, the Adamantine Men were already coming out of their guardhouse. They shone lanterns in his face and peered at him.

‘Who’s there?’

Kithyr threw back his hood. The face they saw now was that of alchemist Grand Master Jeiros. A fitting disguise, Kithyr thought. One that amused him, alchemists and blood-mages viewing each other as they did.

‘Grand Master.’ The soldiers bowed. They looked a little confused.

‘The gate, if you please,’ mumbled Kithyr. His face was that of the alchemist, but his voice was his own. He was counting on the soldiers not knowing the difference.

‘We are at war. The gates are closed at night,’ said one of the soldiers. Presumably he was the one in charge. Kithyr pulled a flask out of his cloak and held it out to the man.

‘Cold night eh?’ he muttered.

The man looked askance at the flask. Then he shrugged, accepted it and took a swig. ‘Still can’t open the gates at night. Night Watchman’s orders for as long as the speaker’s away.’ The soldier wiped his lips on his sleeve and handed back the flask. Kithyr waited a few seconds. The liquid in the flask was mostly brandy, as strong and as vicious a spirit as he could find. What wasn’t spirit was blood. His blood. He waited and then he felt the connection form, felt himself reaching inside the soldier.

‘I am Jeiros,’ he said softly. Who he sounded like didn’t matter any more. ‘Even now, I may pass. That is my authority.’

The soldier nodded. ‘Very well. Open the gate.’

His men looked confused and didn’t move. ‘Sir?’

‘Come on, lads! This isn’t just anyone. This is the grand master himself, and that makes him the man who gives the orders around here until the speaker returns. So if he wants to go out moonlighting into the city in the middle of the night, who are we to stop him?’ The soldier leered. Annoying.

‘I have business of the realms, man. If I wanted whores I’d have them sent.’ There’s no love lost between the Adamantine Men and the alchemists either, he reminded himself. Tolerate it. We’ll soon be gone.

The gates started to open. Kithyr feigned patience. One of the guards was missing. The soldier hadn’t gone back into the gatehouse either. A silver to a copper he’d gone to wake up the Night Watchman. Kithyr offered his flask around to the other soldiers while he waited. A few of them took it, which would help if it came to a fight. Others looked at him with a deep suspicion and shook their heads. As soon as the gate was open enough, Kithyr kicked his horse into a canter. He was out of the palace in a flash, on his way down the hill to the City of Dragons. He didn’t linger. The Night Watchman had a suspicious, devious and thorough sort of mind and wasn’t the sort to let little things slide. He’d come down to the gate. It was entirely possible that he’d go and bang on the grand master alchemist’s door even in the middle of the night just to make sure he was really gone. Kithyr might have hours or days or he might have a mere handful of minutes before his deception was unmasked. Once that happened, they’d know him for what he was. There was only one way for even a grand master alchemist to be in two places at once. The cry would rise up. Blood mage! And the hunt would begin.

He had long enough, though. Long enough to get from the palace to the City of Dragons. Long enough to leave his horse in the stables of an inn. Long enough to hide the spear under the straw, change into some clothes that were hidden in the saddlebags of the next horse along and walk a street or two to the house of a wealthy grain merchant. Long enough to knock on the servants’ entrance and be let inside by a man he’d enslaved months ago. Half the merchant’s house was under his power now. The other half had no idea who or what he was. He was just another assayer, a man who occasionally weighed out their grain and checked their measures.

‘Master weigher.’ A man stirred from where he’d been dozing by the kitchen fire. This one didn’t move and bow like the servant, and his eyes cut the gloom like knives.

‘Master Picker,’ murmured Kithyr. ‘It’s done. Go, if you want to see it.’

The Picker grumbled something and unfolded himself from his chair. He went outside without another word. In the morning Kithyr would find the spear again. He would take it, wrapped in its silk, and in King Jehal’s city he would hand it over for what the Picker and the Taiytakei had promised him they would bring. The power of the Silver King himself. For the spear, they said, that power could be his. Years of planning. Years of learning. Years of preparation, and only one last chasm to cross.

Between here and Furymouth, there was the small matter of a dragon-war in the way.