The Black Dream
Chapter One: 'Captive States'
In silence a young thunderhawk glided across the black surface of the canal, landing with a squeak from its pinned prey: a thick-bodied rat that had been squirming through the grasses by the water’s edge. At once, another thunderhawk cried out from the opposite side of the water, a harrowing screech joined again by a third bird nearby, so that their triumph rang out across the moonstruck rooftops of the city, drowning out even the gunfire of the endless siege.
Ash lifted his chin to the sudden hoots and howls that answered from the other side of the high wall he was facing, the animals of the menagerie provoked from their slumber by the sudden cries of the birds. His lips curled as a roar from a desert lion stilled them all, restoring silence again to the night. Nothing stirred save for the thunderhawk lifting off with its prey, and the soft tread of the night-sentry’s boots as he strolled along the gravel path following the canal.
Ash was well hidden here, deep within the shadows of a ruined and solitary archway by the edge of the water. He was sweating in this heat. It was like a Honshu high summer in the Sea of Wind and Grasses, those endless plains of his homeland where the tindergrass was so dry it exploded with each drop of sweat that touched it. At least the nights there had offered some relief, with the vast cloudless sky sucking the heat from the land. Here in Bar-Khos, the city’s million stones seemed to release the heat of the summer sun all night long.
He would be glad to be gone from here once the repairs to the skyship were completed, returned to the cooler climes of mountainous Cheem and the Rōshun order. Glad to be home.
In the muggy darkness of the archway, his new apprentice occupied himself by chewing the inside of his mouth, bored like most youths with the simple task of waiting. Ash could hear it, the soft rhythmic clacking of the boy’s teeth, a sound not dissimilar to the canal water dripping occasionally from their sodden clothes onto the stone flagging.
Click, click, click.
Ash blinked rapidly, suddenly caught in this moment which he felt he had lived through before.
There was a name in the old country for this kind of experience, way-wei, a vivid sense of having already lived the same moment, prompting nostalgia before it was even gone. With such a mood upon him, the old farlander studied the curly-haired, half-starved young man called Nico Calvone, eighteen years of age and primed with all the life still owed him – and wondered if he hadn’t made a mistake by taking him on as his first and only apprentice.
A few days ago, Ash had wakened alone in a Bar-Khos taverna from dreams of his past, of his life before the failed revolution. He had awoken to find himself not in his homeland after all but on the far side of the world, a dying exile blinded by tears and hearing movement next to his bed – this boy Nico stealing his purse – but thinking, for the briefest of moments, that it was his dead son instead.
His son Lin, who had fallen all those decades ago in battle right before Ash’s eyes – for all that Ash had promised to protect him.
Amazing, the power of memories, to make him feel pain after all this time, like an accusing finger stabbing at his chest.
Such times as those he would never wish to live through again. Yet somehow he had just made a promise to a different mother, Reese Calvone; having sworn to keep her son safe from harm. Safe – in this line of work!
What if it all ended in tragedy once more?
Ash swayed in the shadows of the archway, feeling the sudden pain in his chest pulsing up into his skull, where the vice that had been there all day tightened a little further. In the moonlight his vision dimmed for a few trembling heartbeats. The old farlander winced, chewing faster on the bitter dulce leaves bundled in his mouth for relief.
His head pains had been worsening for months now. Soon he would be cast blind from them, unable to see at all, and then death would take him swiftly, as it had taken his father and grandfather before him, in the same way.
Not long now.
Nico’s eyes were two lamps in the darkness. ‘What?’ the young man muttered through a yawn, and the luminescence of his stare caught Ash for a moment, startled him. He hadn’t realized he had spoken aloud.
Instead of answering the boy Ash straightened, blew these ghosts of his away with a silent exhalation.
He rocked his boots against the stone of the ground, rooting himself to the world again, to the heart of the moment and what needed to be done.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘Let us try this.’
Quickly, Ash stepped onto the gravel path and crossed to the shadows of the wall, where he pressed his back against the stone and looked back to see Nico standing out in plain sight, bent over something as he tried to scoop it up with awkward sleepiness. It was the heavy wool blanket he had been carrying.
‘Boy!’ Ash hissed at him sharply, chancing a glance along the path. The sentry was lost in the gloom.
Against his back, the wall was ten feet high and topped with broken shards of coloured glass that glinted from lights on the other side.
‘I still can’t see why you had to wake me in the middle of the night for all this,’ grumbled the boy, throwing the blanket over the top of it.
‘I told you. If you are to be Rōshun, and that remains to be seen, you must learn to perform your work when tired, exhausted even. Besides, we would not make it far with this in broad daylight. Now, give me your foot,’ he snapped, and cupped his hands into a stirrup. ‘You go first.’
Nico studied him with narrowed-eyed suspicion. On the other side of the wall the desert lion roared again into the darkness. Ash imagined he could see the process of the boy’s thoughts: the memory of the recent gaol he had been imprisoned in for his theft of Ash’s purse; the need to make a good impression here, on this man who had saved him from punishment in exchange for becoming his apprentice.
‘Consider it part of the lesson,’ Ash prompted.
‘A lesson in what, I’m starting to wonder?’
‘Consider it courage.’
A roll of the eyes, and then the boy placed one of his new boots into Ash’s hands, and in an instant had scrambled up over the wall. A fine climber, Ash noted.
Just as quickly he followed after him, ignoring his protesting joints and the hammering weight of his head. Ash saw colours dance when he landed on the other side. He gritted his teeth and crouched down next to Nico, where the blades of long grasses hid them from sight.
In the distance, he could hear the music of plucked strings and a woman or young boy singing. Ash parted the grasses to peer at the mansion up on the hill. The house was brilliantly lit up there, bordered by lawns struck by the light flooding from its interior. The odd scrap of laughter could be heard amongst the notes of music spilling from its open windows: people socializing on a patio, their shapes black against the open doorways. It was as though the siege of the city and the imperial army massed against them were only a distant dream.
‘Your father,’ enquired Ash of his apprentice, while he scanned for nearby guards. ‘You said he fought beneath the walls. What became of him?’
‘Dead, most likely.’
‘He went missing in battle?’
‘No,’ replied the boy’s quiet voice. ‘He ran off on us. Deserted everything.’
Ash thought of the visitors’ vault in the gaol again where he had met with the boy’s mother, Reese Calvone. The way she had dismissed her younger lover from the room. The emotional armour she had worn about herself.
‘Your mother. She still loves him.’
‘And hates him. Is this part of the lesson too?’
Anger in the boy’s voice. Clearly he was sensitive to questions about his family. It only made Ash want to enquire more, but instead he chewed the bitter dulce leaves for relief and stared out across the grounds beyond, staying his tongue.
Below the mansion and its lawns, a large expanse of hedges ran out towards the perimeter wall where they hid. Gravel pathways threaded between them, past cages covered by sheets of canvas from which the odd noise of a captive animal arose into the night; the grand menagerie of the Santobar family, one of the wealthiest Michinè bloodlines on the island of Khos.
‘Come,’ he said, and they rose to amble onto a path that led into the menagerie, their boots scrunching lightly on the gravel.
‘Loose coral,’ he noted aloud for Nico to see, ‘difficult to run in,’ but the boy was peering around him nervously instead, as though an ambush or trap awaited them.
‘I’d feel better if you’d brought that sword with you.’
‘I told you, we must not harm anyone tonight. If it comes to it, we will flee.’
‘At least with a sword you could wave it around a little, scare them with it.’
Ash had paused in front of a long cage not much higher than himself, fashioned by thin bars of tiq. Shapes could be seen moving inside the cage. Claws clacked on the floor. They crowded towards him, making soft snapping sounds with their beaks. Ash had never seen such animals before. Their bulbous heads swayed on impossibly long necks; their feathered bodies rested on bony stilts.
‘You watch too many Tales of the Fish in the street,’ he told his nervous apprentice. ‘A naked blade has a hunger for blood. It will seek it out or draw the blood to it. Either way,’ he stepped closer to the cage, reached out a hand as though to stroke one of the animals through the bars, ‘it is rarely only a threat.’
The nearest creature poked its head out through the bars, stretched its long neck in an attempt to reach his outstretched fingers. ‘Birds, would you believe. Here, try touching one. They are tame.’
Again that boyish suspicion. Still, Nico was game enough to reach out with a finger, and prod one of the feathered flank pressed against the bars.
In an instant a beak came flashing out at him, snapping loudly as he snatched back his hand.
Ash chuckled softly. Moved on.
There were more cages, many more. Some were silent in their darkness, no sign of what might be contained within them. In others, the animals came to the bars in open curiosity. Monkeys hooted and grinned with their lips peeled back from their gums. A beaked kerido hung from the bars of one cage, its eyes round and forlorn. Stinkrats scurried through the sawdust of another. The last cage at which he lingered held a black panther, prowling back and forth as though demented by its confines.
Frowning, Ash headed inwards. In the distance a lone guard patrolled the lawns around the mansion, but he spotted no one closer. Abruptly he stopped, raised a hand to stroke his stubby wedge of beard.
Somehow, he’d expected more of a challenge.
The old farlander cast his gaze around until it settled on a hut of small cages, where small colourful birds sat on perches within. They chirped and fluffed up their feathers at his approach.
‘What are you doing?’ Nico demanded as Ash opened up the cages one by one, the birds chirping wildly now. The boy hissed and crouched down on the path as animal sounds erupted all about them, making a drama of their presence there. Ash was too absorbed in the birds hopping from the open cages to answer him. Some tried their wings first while others launched themselves straight into the air.
A few lingered within the cages, chirping quietly, refusing to leave their captivity. It provoked Ash, those remaining birds fearful of their freedom. It spurred him further, so that he began to jog around the area, opening larger cages, even releasing the prowling panther so that it set off into the darkness with a growl.
‘Are you mad?’ Nico whispered, then jerked around as a wolf pattered past him, though the animal only gave him a cursory, canine glance, seemed to be smiling with its toothy open mouth. ‘They’ll know we’re here now!’
The young man’s breathing needed working on; his sense of stillness.
‘Calm yourself, boy. Focus on your breathing.’
Nico opened his mouth to protest but stopped, swung his head around in alarm.
Ash had already heard them though. Clawed feet racing along coral paths towards their location. Guard dogs perhaps, or worse.
‘Get behind me,’ he advised his stunned apprentice, and began the deep breathing exercise that would allow him to project his voice.
For a short time the sound of running feet disappeared – the animals loping over grass – then returned with a splash of gravel, nearer now, off to their left.
Ash swept around.
The first creature came into view with a speed and muscled grace that made his blood sing. A banthu – a larger, running cousin of the kerido, no doubt trained to strip the flesh from men. First one and then two, three, four of the animals sprinting towards them.
‘I knew you should have brought your sword!’
With his body telling him to run, the old farlander stepped forwards to meet the creatures head-on, throwing all his power into his voice as he did so.
‘Ssqhuon!’ he exclaimed as he raised his arms high. ‘Ssqhuon!’
He had only ever tried the trick with dogs – yet the animals faltered in mid-step, kicking coral up around them, and then they were drawing up in sudden confusion. ‘Ssqhuon!’ he tried once more, risking another step forwards with arms flung high, and they clacked their razor beaks and turned to flee, speeding back from where they had come.
‘I don’t believe it,’ said Nico with a gasp.
Calls now from the great house. Voices raised in enquiry.
We must be quick!
Ash scattered a pair of spotted cats with his stride, following the distinctive scent of tallow flowers in the air until he came at last to a darker area of ponds and marshy ground to the west of the menagerie.
‘Here. This must be it.’
Frogs croaked in the darkness as he stopped next to one of the pools covered by domes of wire mesh.
‘I doubt we have long,’ Nico said breathlessly, curious now.
‘Then pay attention.’
Opening the lock took a matter of moments with his picks. Inside the wire dome, Ash hunkered down on his belly and looked out across the dark water, his exhalations sending tiny shivers across the surface. He saw a brilliant white tendril as thin as a hair rise and float amongst the surface tension before disappearing again.
‘Fresh-water pelloma,’ he explained to the boy. ‘The estate sells their eggs to the local restaurants.’
‘We came here for eggs?’
‘Precious eggs, renowned for their benefits to health and spirit. They will make an excellent parting gift for your mother.’
Nico was down next to him, panting fast. ‘How do we get them?’
‘Put your hand in the water. You’ll feel them.’
The boy gave a long, studied gaze at the black surface; saw another swirl of a tendril in the centre of the pool. ‘Whatever that is, it looks dangerous.’
‘I can think of worse stings, but not many.’
‘Then you do it!’
‘I will, after you. Don’t worry. I know how to deal with it if you’re stung.’
They could both hear guards in the distance. A panther roared and a rifle shot fired out in response. Women screamed from the house.
Nico was ready to bolt for it, he saw. No good for the boy’s confidence if he did.
‘Consider it another part of the lesson.’
‘Of what, simple-mindedness?’
‘Call it trust.’
‘Admit it, you’re making this up as you go along.’
Too early to admit to such a truth yet. Ash grunted and lifted his hand towards the water, prepared to do it himself, but the boy stopped him, slipped his own hand into the pool with a gasp.
‘Feel around the edge until you come upon their bubble nest,’ Ash advised the young man as he groped frantically around the pool. ‘The eggs are the size of your fist.’
Ash followed the trembling of the water. If they were in luck then the pelloma in the pond would be in their usual sluggish night mode. If not though . . .
A ripple erupted in the centre of the pool. More tendrils broached the surface. Nico yanked his hand out with water and bubbles raining off it. He held aloft a small translucent egg in triumph.
‘Here,’ the boy exclaimed and tossed it into his hands. Ash gripped the slippery egg and returned the boy’s gaze, which glanced towards the sounds of approaching guards and then back again, as though he no longer cared about their danger. His blood was stirred. The spirit of the challenge was upon him.
He has heart, Ash thought with a surprising spark of pride, and realized then what the test had been tonight, and that Nico had just passed it; for heart, most of all, was the one thing Ash could not teach him.
Thrashing in the water now. Ash was glad the boy’s hand was out of it and that he’d been spared the pain and shock of a sting. Let him wait until later in his training for such lessons as those.
Nico’s teeth shone white in the darkness.