Chapter one and all header information is here
Someone was hammering at the door, striking it with slow, harsh thuds: one, two, three… and the slave counted them, counted them the way he counted the chimes, but he backed away, too, edging slowly across the cavernous hall.
A harsh voice shouted something. What was it saying?
Ten, he counted. Eleven. The knocking changed rhythm, becoming more urgent. Slate was cold beneath his feet.
Probably a trader, he told himself, or someone trying to engage McKay's services. Smiling, bland faces. Soft words and flattery. People who looked mild and respectable, but who kept a slave chained up at home, and wore a terrifying face beneath that outward mask.
You're afraid, he told himself, and of course he was, because only a fool wasn't afraid of dreadful things.
There was a break in the knocking. The slave stopped his retreat, one hand rising jerkily to his chest. He could feel his heartbeat racing there.
Probably just a trader, he thought again, and if he didn't go out, then he would never be free of the barrens. If he didn't go out, then he would become his own jailer. How his masters would laugh if they found out that they had created someone who didn't know how to be free, even when freedom was offered to him. Stupid, he thought of his fear. Stupid. He'd never cowered beneath the whip, and had never screamed. He had never let them own every part of him.
The knocking started again, harsher this time, more like hammering. He gasped, and then there was a wall behind him, and he couldn't retreat any further.
But self-preservation isn't stupid, he thought, and there was an echo of McKay in that internal voice. It isn't stupid to want to keep yourself safe.
The knocking became heavy and metallic, and the door started trembling.
The slave ran.
"What…?" Rodney's mouth was suddenly dry. "What's happening?"
The servant looked at the door, and bit his lip, his hands clasping and unclasping at his side. Not just a servant, Rodney realised – not just a menial who reported to Cowen – but a man, who was afraid. "I'll check," the servant said.
The screaming grew louder, then was cut off abruptly. Firearms sounded, and people were shouting. The door was thick, though, lined with ancient quickened bronze. Sound was deadened.
"Yes." Rodney swallowed. "You do that."
The relic room was dark, lit only by a slant of sunlight from a small barred window, high on the wall. A few of the relics were emitting a faint glow of their own, speaking to Rodney of strong but long-neglected alchemy. Most were covered with white cloth and sacking. The Genii were not a people who prized the past. They took trophies from conquered civilisations and dumped them here to rot, surrounded by the relics of their own past. There were hundreds of the things, all piled together with no evidence of any organisation, but one of them, if the books and the reports were right, was the object Rodney had undertaken this whole charade to obtain.
"Go," he snapped, as the servant faltered at the door. "I'll… er… get to work."
The servant opened the door a crack, then gasped and rushed out. The door swung shut behind him, but not all the way. The shouting was louder with the door open, but the implications of what had happened were louder still; they had to be. The servant had gone. No-one was watching Rodney. For the first time since he had been invited into the palace, he was unwatched. He had to start searching now.
A firearm sounded, horribly close. Rodney scurried behind a draped suit of antique armour, and crouched down, trembling.
A bread knife and a carving knife. The slave pulled out drawers and scattered things from shelves, then ran to other rooms, holding the knives together in one hand, in case the other rooms held things that could be better used a weapon. Knives worked well in close quarters, but he wanted something with a longer reach. No, he wanted a firearm, but he had never seen any evidence that McKay possessed one.
The hammering grew louder. He came to a halt in the middle of the receiving room, watching by a dozen mirrors. The drapes were open, and he saw the street outside, with steam and smoke rising up beyond the towers.
He heard the door splintering. Too little cover here, he thought, and too open to the street. He ran back to the small store room, the room that was his refuge, the room that gave him a glimpse of the star in the evening. With a knife in each hand, he waited.
With a crash, the door gave way, and the slave could hear the familiar clicking of military boots on a hard slate floor.
It meant guards. It meant pain.
It meant Kolya.
Light flowed into the room as someone pushed the door open.
Rodney kept very still, his shoulders hunched and his head bowed, his hand pressed to his mouth. His lips moved rapidly, soundlessly whispering meaningless words: a plea for help, but who was going to help him?
"I thought the alchemist came in here," someone said. "Adept McKay." The title was sneered. "Thinks he's so much better than us and doesn't care who knows it."
"You know what the general thinks about alchemy." The second voice seemed nearer, or perhaps it was just louder. "Come on. There's more important things to do than worry about a jumped-up conjurer."
The door began to edge shut, the darkness spreading. Rodney let out a slow, shuddering breath.
"Look at this stuff!" the first voice exclaimed, and Rodney gasped – surely they must have heard the gasp! "What a load of useless trash. We should burn it."
No, Rodney thought. No, please, no. He would show himself, laugh, and the whole thing would be revealed to be just a silly misunderstanding. They
were servants coming to take him to dinner. The gunshots and the shouting were only a drill. Everything was still going according to plan.
"Wait until we're ordered to," said the other man.
The door closed properly this time, the key turning in the lock. Rodney blinked as his eyes slowly became accustomed to the gloom. What was happening? But he knew what was happening. Kolya was staging his coup, and he, Rodney McKay, the most skilled alchemist of his day, was caught up in it.
And there was nothing he could do but roll up his sleeves and get to work, because he was close, so close, even as he teetered on the edge of losing everything.
"There's no-one here," the slave heard someone say, as he stood behind the half-open door.
"He's here," said a lower voice. "Hiding under the bed, probably. Slaves are spineless creatures, you know."
"Or chained to it." The first soldier laughed. "You know what they say about foreigners."
The slave tightened his grip on the carving knife, and concentrated on keeping his breathing steady. The clicking of boots on the floor was Kolya approaching him as he hung from chains. It was favoured officers allowed in to watch. It was knotted whips and a knife.
"Come out, come out," they called. "Come out, slave. Obey me!"
Not Kolya, but the same tone of voice, snapping an order. You had to obey commands. Fighting them only brought more pain. You obeyed, but you kept the most important part of yourself locked away inside, and you didn't let them make you scream.
"Come out, come out," they said, closer now, closer.
The slave looked down at the carving knife, watching it glint in the light from the window. Right from the start, McKay had let him had access to the kitchen knives. Right… from… the… start.
"Come out!" they commanded, in a voice that no-one born in the barrens could ever disobey.
The slave his lip. He could feel his shoulders trembling; see the knife blades quivering in his hands, gripped in his white knuckles. One set of footsteps was going away, heading towards McKay's workroom. The other was getting closer and closer…
You'll never escape, the slave told himself. Surrender now; it might make them hurt you less. Submit. Choose the time that it happens. Stay in control of yourself. Stay in control.
He heard a fist thud against the workroom's metal door. "This one's locked," the first soldier said. "I bet the alchemist has locked him in here."
The nearer feet stopped, and then began to walk away.
Surrender, the slave thought. No, hide. He looked down at the knives. He thought of Kolya and a whole lifetime of pain. He thought of McKay, who had unlocked the door, waved his hand, and told him to do whatever he liked.
No, he thought. No.
He was through the door in a heartbeat, driving the knife into the soldier's back. But the soldier turned at the last minute, the knife only scraping a line across his shoulders, and there was another soldier, a third one, with soft shoes that made no sound.
Something struck the slave hard across the back of the head, and then--
Was that smoke? Rodney clambered over the relics until he reached the door, and spread his fingers on the old bronze. Is that smoke? he wondered, but the patterns were ancient and tired, and the bronze spoke only of endless years of watching over forgotten relics.
Rodney wrinkled his nose. He was sure it was smoke. They were going to trap him here and smoke him out. They were going to roast him along with the object he was searching for. They were going to…
No, he thought, maybe not smoke. Maybe it was just his imagination. He scraped both hands down his robe, smearing sweat and dust. He couldn't hear any noises from outside the door. Whatever bad things were happening had gone away and were happening somewhere else. He was still alone, still unwatched, and safely out of the way of men who liked to wave blades and firearms around.
He clambered back to the centre of the room and resumed his search. There were stone tablets carved with words in languages he could not understand. There were antique weapons, some of them quickened and some of them base. There was armour and caskets and the fading banners of conquered peoples. There were statues, perhaps of gods and spirits that the Genii no longer believed in, but the largest statue seemed to show a captured sorcerer bound in chains, his hand outstretched as he prepared to unleash fiery vengeance on his captors. "Which isn't Genii work," Rodney muttered, "that's for sure."
The light changed slowly outside, heading through afternoon into evening. Rodney's stomach rumbled, and he realised that he hadn't eaten all day. His hands were growing clumsy with the cold, too, so he pulled a simple fixing out of his pocket and set to work on a bronze statue of a primitive king, making it radiate heat.
What would it look like, the thing he was looking for? The scholars, for all their much-vaunted knowledge, had coughed and fidgeted and tried to change the subject, before admitting that they didn't really know. Probably small, probably decorated with stars, and probably made of silver – "which doesn't really narrow it down much, does it," Rodney muttered now, "since the Genii are addicted to the stuff."
He had to try each and every item – and was that fire, glowing there in the distance, giving the evening a tinge of orange? He rubbed his eyes, and carried on.
He found a sword, still sharp enough to cut his finger. As he sucked the blood away, he rummaged through a pile of decaying fabric with his other hand.
And it was there that he found the object that he had given up a whole year for.
The slave awoke to find himself bound. His head throbbed horribly, and he could feel the familiar stiffness of dried blood at the back of his head. When he moved, pain stabbed through his skull, like a clamp around his brow. He pressed his lips together, though, and made no sound.
He rolled onto his side. His hands were bound in front of him with ropes, and his body told him that he had been thrown down heavily, perhaps from the height of one or two steps; it was a pattern of pain that he recognised. He hadn't been beaten, though. Beyond the injury at the back of his head, nobody had drawn blood.
It would come, though. He was alone for now, but he knew this place.
They had brought him back to Kolya.
It was small – a cylinder no longer than his forearm, made of silver and decorated with constellations from the southern sky. The alchemy in the silver was weak with age, only dimly suggesting a keep out. There was no visible way in. To those without the alchemical gift, it would look like nothing more than a decorative baton, perhaps one that a military officer would carry.
Open, Rodney thought, tracing the patterns in a smear of fixing. The old power surged briefly, and melted before him. The cylinder opened in the middle, revealing a rolled-up scroll of paper, still looking as crisp and white as if it were new.
There was no time to read it. He had it now. His goal was achieved, and now nothing at all mattered except getting out of here, and heading back home as fast as he could.
They had locked the door, but locks were no barrier to an alchemist of Rodney's level of skill. When the door was unlocked, he opened it just a crack, but the door had been quickened to protect, not to tell a story. He opened it wider, peeking out as much as he dared.
There was no-one there. Thank the flame! Rodney sighed, and hurried out.
He almost tripped over the body; almost fell flat on his face in the pool of blood. He recovered his balance just in time, flailing his arms. "Shadow!" he gasped, tottering backwards. It was the servant. It was the servant he had sent out of the room. He had been cut down on the very doorstep, and had died there while Rodney…
A firearm sounded. Rodney snapped his head up, gasping. One hand flew to his mouth, and the other to his pocket, where the silver cylinder lay between phials of fixing. There were other patches of blood, too. Red footprints led to the door on the far side of the room, and there was a thick smear, as if somebody had been dragged.
"I've got to get out," he said. "I'm so close. Shadow, I'm so close." But the palace was large, lit with silver alchemy, with no place to hide. The main gates were well guarded, and… and if this really was a coup, then Kolya would want to secure the palace. There would be no way in and no way out. Rodney was trapped. Trapped.
He scurried back into the relic room, and fumbled the door shut, leaning on it with his forehead.
Time passed, and still no-one came to him. The slave counted the chimes, looked at all the familiar marks on the floor, and remembered. Whenever footsteps sounded from the floor above, he stiffened, waiting for the creak that the top step always made. Far away, too far away for him to hear the words, people were shouting.
It was worse, he thought, now that his mind was working properly. He knew exactly what was going to happen to him, his mind fizzing with the possibilities. Kolya had never wanted to hand him over. For Kolya to risk taking him back like this, Cowen must either have been overthrown, or have agreed to grant concessions to Kolya to keep him under his command. There was no getting out of this until Kolya grew tired of him and sold him on to someone worse.
There was no getting out of this.
All he knew was slavery and pain. The last seventeen days had been a respite, but now life was back on its normal course. It had been inevitable, really, just as the short winter days always yielded to night.
This was normal. He was normal. He had faced this all before.
And he would not scream.
Of course, Rodney thought, it was possible that no-one would bat an eyelid if he just tried to stroll right out of the palace. Killing visiting alchemists couldn't be top of the list of priorities when you were staging a palace coup. That would be things like killing the previous top man and getting rid of all his supporters. One little alchemist was a harmless irrelevance. They'd be too busy running around doing scary soldierly things to really notice him.
"But it isn't just one little alchemist," Rodney said. "It's… well, me." Kolya had never shown any sign of noticing him before, but now there was the business of the slave between them. Kolya had looked quite menacingly at Rodney several times. He was bound to have issued orders that Rodney should be killed on sight.
"I have to get out," he said. "I have to… Oh! The window!" The window was high and barred, but bars were no obstacle to an alchemist. Getting up there would be more of a challenge, but plenty of the relics were big and climbable on.
"Which is why," he gasped, some time later, as he struggled to drag a large crate towards the window, "people with my sort of skill… ought to have bodyguards and… strong soldiers to do… this sort of thing… for them. I guess this… this would be a… good use… for a… slave."
Even when the crate was in place, he still couldn't reach the window. He had to drag a small lumpy something up to the crate, and use it as a step to help him clamber up onto it. Then he had to tumble down again and grab yet another something to put on top, to give himself even more height. "And I never liked heights," he said, and the relic room looked very different from above, like a graveyard of dead, unwanted things. "My skills lie elsewhere. You can't be good at everything."
The bars parted at his touch, yielding to the patterns he traced on them with his fingers. Standing on tiptoe, he peered out, and, yes, the window appeared to be just large enough to let him through, if he wriggled. But, "Oh, Shadow!" he cursed, because of course the drop was just as far on the outside as it was on the inside, and there were no crates out there, and unlike certain showing-off enchanters, he couldn't fly.
I'm going to die, he thought. It was either falling to his doom, or getting hacked to pieces by Kolya's vengeful soldiers. Nobody at home would know that he'd actually achieved his task His body would lie here in the city of the Genii, and…
"Oh!" He snapped his fingers. "A rope." It worked in the stories, anyway, although Rodney had never climbed down a rope himself. How difficult could it be, though, if brainless soldierly types could do it?
He clambered down the pile of crates again, and snatched up a fading banner proclaiming the glories of a long-dead incarnation of the Genii state. It was harder to tear it into strips than he had expected it to be, and he had to use his teeth, and then he almost gagged, wondering what filthy hands had held the banner over the years. There's no time for this, he reminded himself. This was his heroic escape. This was the sort of colourful detail that would make his story timeless when he returned with his prize.
With the banner knotted into a rope, he struggled back up the pile of crates, where he coaxed one of the parted iron bars into a ring, then firmly knotted the rope to it. "Don't let the knot slip," he urged the iron, as he made the patterns for an enduring hold.
Then there was nothing left to do but squeeze through the window – "Ow!" he gasped, as stone scraped against his stomach, and phials of fixing shattered in his pocket – catch hold of the rope, and… Oh! He was coming through head first. How on earth was he supposed to grasp hold of the rope and climb down in a sensible, feet-first fashion? How was he supposed to turn round?
"The things I do," he gasped, "for duty." Well, for survival, too, of course, though it seemed more and more likely that his days were going to end here, in a splatter on a Genii lawn. But he hauled the rope through, and shook it out below it; he could see its bottom just brushing the grass. Then he reached as far down the rope as he could, and grabbed hold of it as tightly as he could.
"Oh, Shadow!" he breathed. "I'm going to die. I'm going to die." But he carried on moving, pushing himself through the window until his weight dragged him forward, and he was no longer able to support himself on the narrow windowsill.
And then he was falling.
The top step creaked. The slave stiffened, feeling his heart start to race. As long as you don't scream, he told himself. What was going to happen would happen, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. All he could control was the way he reacted to it.
The door opened. "Good evening," Kolya said, with a bright smile. "I have missed you."
Don't say anything, the slave thought, but already he could feel something inside him cracking. "That's funny," he heard his voice saying, "because I haven't missed you."
Kolya's smile vanished. "I find myself rather busy today." He drew a baton from his belt. "I have places I should be, but fortunately I also have trusted deputies. My position is secure. I can be spared for a while."
"You've launched a coup, then?" the slave asked.
"Silence!" Kolya smashed him across the shoulders with the baton. Pain exploded in the slave's head.
"Is Cowen dead?" the slave asked. The second blow sent him sprawling onto his back, and he tried to sit up, but his bound hands robbed him of leverage. Rolling onto his side, his face away from Kolya, he closed his eyes briefly against the pain.
"I lost men today." Kolya struck again, but the baton was nothing; the slave knew the touch of the baton, and knew that other weapons were far worse. "Good men. Dead because that fool Cowen had paid people to be loyal to him." He struck again, and then the slave heard the gentle whisper of a knife being drawn out of its sheath.
He shouldn't say it; he really shouldn't say it. The slave moistened his lips. "Hurting me won't bring them back."
"But it makes me feel better," Kolya hissed, his voice close, and the knife blade pressed to the slave's back.
There was silence for a while, only breathing. He didn't mean to say that, the slave thought. I pushed him, and it came out. I did that. That was me.
He had learnt to lie still and endure. Fighting only led to worse pain. He made no sound, and he let them do whatever they wanted to do. It was better that way. It was better.
"What about the alchemist?" he found himself asking. "What about Adept McKay?"
"Cowen did love his glittery things," Kolya sneered. "I have no use for alchemy. Apart from anything else, he's a foreigner."
The blade was still there on his back, its point beginning to dig into his flesh. The slave clenched his bound hands together. "Are you going to kill him?"
The knife withdrew. Kolya grabbed his shoulders, and dragged him around, and slammed his back against the floor. "You've changed." His voice was different from normal.
The slave shook his head. He was still a slave. He had been scared to go out. He wouldn't scream. Memories of past tortures still haunted him. No different; no different at all. He would never be different. He would always be what he was.
"Yes," Kolya hissed, and then his eyes narrowed, the light gleaming on his blade. "But I can change you back. I can make you what I need you to be."
"Oh, Shadow!" Rodney gasped, as his fall was arrested, his full weight dangling from his hands. His make-shift rope twisted in his awkwardly-positioned hands, and by the flame, he'd broken his wrist – no, he'd broken both wrists – and he had to climb down, but how, but how? He'd have to let go with one hand, and…
Oh! Legs! He was supposed to do something with his legs, wasn't he? He waved them madly, and managed to wrap them around the rope, so that he was almost sitting on one of the knots, and then – I'm going to die! I'm going to die! – he unclenched his right hand from the rope, snatched it down towards his chest, and grabbed the rope again, breathing in fast, sobbing gasps. He did the same with his left hand, and felt the rope pull sharply between his legs, the knot sliding upwards.
"I'm doing it," he gasped. "I'm really doing it."
He edged down a little further. But what if someone had seen him? What if someone was aiming a firearm at him even now? He twisted his head round, trying to peer into the dark garden. As he did so, he lost his grip. He flailed for the rope, and caught it briefly, the skin burning on his palm, then lost it completely.
He hit the ground hard.
"Shadow!" he moaned. Was he dead? Was anything broken? You could break your back with falls like that. He had to lie here. He couldn't move. He had to…
Someone shouted, not too far away.
Moaning, his breath catching in his throat, Rodney rolled onto his front. At least he could move, and when he stood up, both legs consented to hold him. He ached right through, though, and his back and his shoulders were throbbing, and there was a sharp pain where-- "The cylinder!" He patted his pocket, and it was still there, intact in a mass of broken glass and leaking fixing.
He had to get out of here. He had to get home. He started to run, heading for the shelter of the ruthlessly-pruned bushes. Shadows loomed on either side of him, and, "No!" he begged, "please, don't," before realising that it was just the shadow of a tree, not a man with a firearm coming to kill him.
Of course, he thought, he was still trapped in the palace grounds, and he still had exactly the same problem that he had faced in the palace: how to get out past the dozens of guards all armed to the teeth.
"I'm going to die," he panted, as he tripped over his own feet and fell onto his hands and knees, looking down at locked a metal grille. "Oh!" he gasped. "Yes! Of course!"
He grabbed hold of his robe and squeezed out a few drops of fixing, then gasped the words that made the lock part. The smell was foul on the other side of the grille, and Rodney turned his head away, sucking in a lungful of clean air, and then descended the narrow ladder.
He was in the sewers. To think that he was in the sewers! The things that he was enduring to carry out this mission! This was devotion above and beyond the call of duty. They'd have to take back everything they'd ever said about him now. They would have to admit that he, Rodney McKay, could do what nobody else could do…
His thoughts trailed away. "I hope I can," he whispered. He felt his way along the stinking tunnel by keeping a hand on the foul and slimy wall. His other hand he kept pressed to his mouth. Light was faint, slanting in from other grilles, and thank to flame for the Genii and their silver sparklies, because without them it would be pitch black.
He had to leave the city. He had to get out. Just go now and run… But, no, he had to go back to his lodgings first. He needed more fixings, and wanted to take at least some of his books. Food would be good for the journey, and there was no way on earth he was abandoning the slave with his Wraith-wrought collar.
I really am very scared, he thought, as he paused for breath for a moment, his head sagging. He hadn't really had time to realise it, too busy trying to stay alive.
Then on, on. When he was absolutely sure that he must have left the palace grounds, he stopped, frowned, and walked a hundred more paces, then a hundred more. Only then did he climb up and emerge into the city.
He was barely two hundred paces from his lodgings. The streets were quiet, with no sign of any additional military presence. Perhaps the disturbance was confined to the palace. Perhaps everything could go back to normal now – well, apart from the whole running for his life thing. Or perhaps just strolling. He'd taken a tiny little something that none of the Genii knew they had possessed. Nobody would have any particular cause to search for him. Nobody… Nobody…
His steps grew slower and slower. His hands rose to his chest, where his heart was suddenly beating very fast.
His front door was smashed in. Rodney stood frozen at the bottom of the steps, wanting to shrink away into the shadow, because what if the attackers were still there inside, still waiting for him? But they wouldn't be, would they? It wasn't much a trap to leave the place so openly broken. And what about the slave? What about…?
No, no, he needed his fixings. He needed food. He had to go in. His heart fluttering in his throat, he edged through the doorway. "Er…I can hurt you!" he shouted tentatively, remembering that Kolya had told the slave as much. "I can… er… zap you with my mighty power. But I won't," he added, "if you leave now."
He heard only silence. Reaching round the open door, he slapped at the wall several times until he found the light switch. Apart from the shattered door, nothing seemed disturbed, but when he edged forward, he saw drops of blood near the storeroom door, and a pair of discarded kitchen knives.
"Er…" It came out as little more than a croak. Rodney cleared his throat. "Uh, slave? Are you there?" But even as he spoke, his fingers found the talisman. Gripping it tightly, he whispered the words that would activate its power. Where is he? he thought, and he felt the warm tingle in his mind that told him the answer: on the far side of the city, in the west.
He had run away, or perhaps Kolya had taken him. And the city was dark and full of dangers, and what Rodney should be doing right now was getting as far away from it as possible. He had to give up the Wraith collar as lost, and take his prize back home, where he would bask in the warmth of his reward.
He had to leave now, no looking back.
Kolya's knife was stained with blood to the hilt.
"I really don't have time for this," Kolya said. "I have business to attend to." He grabbed the slave by the hair, his thumb brushing against the wound at the back of his head. "But, no, I think I can spare a little while longer."
Leaning in with his knife, he began again.
The slave stared straight ahead, and said nothing.
On to chapter five