Ventus – Day 92 of 135

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Lavin had given his instructions. There was nothing he could do now but trust Hesty and the other commanders. He hated to leave the siege in the middle, but he was doing the right thing. For the first time in months, he felt calm, in control of the situation.

“Where’s our grave robber?” He snapped his fingers impatiently.

“Here, lord.” Enneas jogged up. The man looked much better than he had a few days ago; his ruined back was covered in salves and bandages, then the protective casing of a breastplate. His broken arm was in a cast, and the bruises on his face were almost faded. He saluted with his free hand.

Lavin nodded to him. “We’re going in.”

They stood among the tumbled stones of the ruined temple a kilometer east of the summer palace. From here, a sand-drifted causeway led to a square gate tower that had once been the main entrance to the palace. The gates of that tower had long since been sealed with heavy stones, and the causeway was left to the mercies of the desert. What Enneas and a few others had known, however, was that other processional causeways built in the same era as this one all contained narrow passages deep inside the masonry. Lavin’s sappers had found the “spirit walk” right where Enneas had said it would be. They had penetrated all the way to the palace, and turned back only when they came to the labyrinth of the old catacombs. Enneas would be the guide through those; more than that, he was Lavin’s good-luck charm.

“You understand the plan,” Lavin said to Hesty as he followed Enneas into the dark square mouth that opened under a half-fallen wall of yellow stone. “The assault on the walls is a diversion, but it has to genuinely tie up their forces. We want to pull them out of the tower to the walls. My force will penetrate the tower and take the queen. When we signal by trumpet you will cease the assault.”

Hesty shook his head. “I understand that. What I don’t understand is why you have to be the one to go inside.”

“I’m the one who’s responsible. And I want to ensure the queen’s safety.”

“It’s dangerous, sir. If you die–”

“Then you continue the assault until we’ve taken the queen by other means. What I’m trying to do is end this by the cleanest possible means. It’s worth risking myself at this point.”

He stared Hesty down. Finally the man saluted. “All right.” Lavin ducked his head and entered the cool darkness of the tunnel. Enneas waited there with fifteen men, the elite of Lavin’s personal guard.

Four of the men had bugles; three had bull’s-eye lanterns. They were crowded into a little antechamber next to a narrow slot in the wall. Had he not known this was a tunnel, Lavin would have taken it for a chink between two of the causeway’s huge foundation stones.

“M’lord.” Enneas took one of the lanterns and, turning sideways, slid into the gap. Lavin watched him worm his way in, expecting to see him get stuck at any moment. He kept going, however, and after a moment Lavin reined in his own fear and followed.

Cold stone pressed against him from all sides. He had to turn his head and shuffle sideways, keeping an eye fixed on the wavering light of Enneas’ lantern. If that light were to vanish he might give in to fear here, though he never had on the field of battle.

He went a hundred meters like this, panic rising gradually as he came to understand just how far underground he was. Finally the passage opened up a bit, and he was able to crowd in next to Enneas, who had paused to wait for him.

“This is my domain,” said the old man. “The discarded trash of the noble lifestyle. Look.” He held up the lantern; the light glittered off metal near the floor.

“What’s this?”

“Offerings to the Winds of the earth,” said Enneas, his voice rich with contempt. The lantern light glittered off coins and some brass candlesticks that lay half-buried in the sand. “You see these words?” He indicated some lettering scratched into the walls. “It’s a letter from the foreman of the work gang here, to the Winds. Asking them to bless his family for the offerings.” He snorted. “I could live for six months off the coins here.”

Lavin admired his passion, but shook his head anyway. “For all you know, the Winds did bless his house. Come, we’ve no time to dawdle.”

Enneas went on, grumbling. Lavin’s men padded quietly behind as they wove through a low undulant tunnel with a sandy floor. The air was cold and dead, and it would have been silent except that faint drum-beat thuds sounded at irregular intervals. Steam cannon impact, he realized.

As they progressed, the intermittent thumps grew louder and louder, until with each one dust and grit shook loose from the low ceiling. Enneas glanced back several times, a worried look on his face. Lavin gestured for him to keep going.

After one particularly solid thump, a low sliding noise came from ahead of them. It went on for a few seconds. When silence fell again Lavin could hear Enneas swearing.

“What is it?”

“I don’t want to speculate. Come on.” They went forward faster now. The air was becoming thick with dust; Lavin could barely seen the glow of the lantern now. His fear of the confinement was gone now, replaced by a very real worry about the effect his bombardment was having on the tunnel.

Enneas cursed loudly. Lavin bumped against him; he had stopped.

The old grave robber waved the lantern, showing how the walls leaned in suddenly, and tumbled stone choked the remaining space between them.

Enneas looked over his shoulder; the faint light silhouetted him, so that he looked like a man-shaped hole amidst the amber angles of stone. “It’s a cave in,” he said. “We’re stuck.”

32

Jordan and Tamsin rose within a column of water, past strata of worn stone in all the colors of the rainbow. Light filtered down from somewhere far above, illuminating the glistening membrane of the bubble in which they travelled. Never in all his imaginative journeys had Jordan pictured such a place as this. Every now and then they passed giant slots in the walls of the shaft, in which he glimpsed galleries full of verdigrised machines. Then the thrumming of giant engines would make the membrane of their bubble shake and dance; ring-shaped standing waves would form in the meniscus and interfere, making little landscapes of jewellike diamonds in its resilient surface.

Tamsin had conquered her fear–in fact, she was now bolder than Jordan. She kept trying to climb the curving wall of the bubble to see some new wonder. She would slide back and bump him with elbow or knee.

Whenever they passed one of those titanic chambers, Jordan’s heart seemed to skip a beat. He sensed the forces gathered here, and felt awe. But he stared into the green depths and said to himself, this is our creation, and repeating it, felt the awe deepen and merge with a new emotion he couldn’t name.

It was like the first time his mother had let him hold the hand of a younger boy to lead him along the path from the village to Castor’s manor. He was entrusted with a responsibility, and felt humbly determined to carry it through.

The Winds were omnipotent. They were also lost and, he now believed, afraid. The assault of the Heaven hooks on the Boros manor now seemed to him an act of desperation on their part. They would never be so mindlessly destructive in the normal course of things.

He and Tamsin rose upon the palm of Mediation, until the light above became a wavering disk and the shaft opened out to all sides. They were in a lake or lagoon, still rising. Before he could say anything, they slid sideways, and the bubble collapsed just as they were about to reach the surface.

For a second all he felt was freezing cold. Jordan kicked out into a confusion of bubbles and white froth, and was on the edge of panic when he felt a surface below his feet. He let himself settle for a moment, then kicked up from it and drew a deep breath of air.

Tamsin was swimming vigorously for the nearby shore. Awkwardly he pushed himself to follow her. Coughing and shivering, he stumbled up a beach of white pebbles to collapse next to her. She was already on her feet, hands on her hips as she stared around them.

They were on the shore of a pond that nestled among golden dunes. There was a little grass next to the pond, but no trees or sign of human habitation. The dunes hid whatever else might be nearby.

“So,” said Tamsin. She was frowning. “Where are we, then?”

“I don’t know. Ka?”

“I am here,” said the little Wind, from somewhere in the vicinity of Jordan’s collar.

The slight breeze was cuttingly cold. He stood up, shuddering.

“Command some heat,” said Tamsin.

“In a minute.” He looked around, found the tallest dune, and headed in that direction.

They said nothing as they climbed the sliding side of the thing. It took longer than he expected, and by the time they reached the top they were both covered with sand that stuck to their wet clothes and skin like plaster.

“Damned desals,” muttered Tamsin. “They could at least have gotten us to shore.”

It was even colder up here in the breeze, but you could see forever. Jordan shielded his eyes from the watery sun and turned slowly.

“Oh.” He pointed. “We go that way.”

“How do you know–” She stopped when she saw where he was pointing.

At least twenty thin spires of smoke rose above an indistinct patch on the western horizon.

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