The moment the doors were closed, Annice dropped the smile and turned to Riodo and Hemalis. ‘What now?’ she mouthed. For the benefit of the door guards, she gave a few orders in Dorastin, loudly.
The four gathered close in the sumptuous sitting room and leaned together. ‘This place is a most comfortable prison, indeed,’ said Eramo, looking around and indicating the windows, which were barred with iron grates overgrown with ivy. ‘They do not suspect us, I think, but nor do they trust us.’
Hemalis winked. ‘It’s all right—we found a way to move about in case something like this happened.’ Leading them through the bedchamber to the privy, he expounded. ‘I know someone who knows someone who used to work in the palace. It seems the Lords of the City allowed themselves a rather unusual luxury.’
The privy seat itself seemed a plain enough wooden box, though polished to a shine. Riodo produced a crowbar, and began prying the wooden panels away from where they were nailed to short posts sunk into the floor. After a short amount of work, the whole seat was able to be lifted away from the hole it covered.
As he worked, Hemalis continued his explanation. ‘Below this humble necessity, there are tunnels large enough for a man to walk through. To keep the gentry from having to smell the noisome air of their own excrement, washermen go through every day and keep the tunnels clean. So, once we’ve lifted the seat away, we should see…’
Once Riodo and Eramo had lifted the seat away, they saw a hole too small for them to fit through.
‘Ah. Well, below that hole, we should find the tunnels. Can we get through?’
Riodo was already looking around the hole, and prodding with his crowbar. ‘It’s just brick, not stone, and it’s not thick.’ He scraped away at the mortar, and began slowly working several bricks loose.
‘Eramo, I think you should stay with Annice,’ said Hemalis.
‘And what makes you think I’m staying here?’ objected Annice.
‘You’re the one who didn’t want to go leaping rooftops or climbing walls with us,’ Riodo pointed out, ‘and this isn’t going to be any better. And you’re hardly dressed for it.’
‘I checked before we came—there’s enough good plain clothes amongst the rags in my luggage for me to change into. I am not staying here to be trapped when my “servants” are found roaming the palace, or while you make good your escape and leave us here.’
‘Fine. Get changed quickly.’ Riodo was halfway through widening the hole enough for them to drop down.
With Eramo’s assistance, Annice loosened her dress; then she shut the three men in the privy so she could change. They passed three uncomfortably confined minutes in a silence broken only by the muted scrapings and thumpings of Riodo’s work.
The door opened to admit Annice and a gust of fresh air. She was now dressed in plain grey woollens, indeed more nondescript than the clothes that the others wore. Thus prepared, and the hole now sufficiently widened, Riodo led the way down into the darkness.
There was a faint splash as he landed. ‘Pass me down the broken bricks,’ he whispered. Hemalis did so, and Riodo used them to construct a small step to ease the descent—and their later ascent, should they return this way.
Once all four were in the tunnel, they chose a direction, mostly at random, and set forth. Faint light filtered down from various privies here and there, and in that light the tunnel walls glistened. The intruders carefully avoided walking in the centre of the tunnel, where the main drainage channel lay.
‘Well, it smells better than most earth closets,’ said Riodo, ‘but it’s not exactly a field of flowers down here.’
‘What did you expect from Lord Turd?’ quipped Annice.
They came to a side tunnel and stopped. ‘It looks like this is an access door for the washermen.’ Gingerly, Riodo tried the doors, and frowned.
‘From the outside, yes. And I don’t want to try prying them open without knowing who might be in earshot.’
‘Let’s move on, then,’ said Hemalis. ‘Another one might be unlocked.’
They were in luck; further on, they came to a broad vertical shaft, no doubt servicing some upper level of the palace. Cleaning this shaft required a stair that wound its way up the side; halfway up this stair, another access door stood unlocked.
On the other side, they found themselves in a work and storage area for cleaners and servants of the palace. By good timing and a hint of luck, they avoided the few working in this area at this time of night, and emerged into a passage that led them to an open-air garden on this upper level. Chest-high hedges snaked around the garden beds in geometric patterns; in each corner, the hedges were higher, secluding a small area with benches, a fountain, and decorative statuary.
Above the roofline to the right of the door by which they had reached the garden, they could see a taller part of the palace—‘Turdualangulia’s private household,’ Hemalis informed them. They left the garden through the broad door on that side, dashed across a passageway and carefully opened another door, one that would bring them back outside. Beyond, they saw a parapet, with a narrow bridge passing between this building and the Lord’s residence. The bridge was guarded and the only other way across was several storeys below.
Fortunately, the pair of sentries on the bridge were paying scant attention to their immediate surroundings; they were watching the yard below, taking for granted that no-one could reach this height undetected. Riodo produced a vial from a pocket and soaked a couple of rags in the red liquid it contained. One rag in each hand, he chose his moment, slipped through the door, and stealthily dashed across the bridge towards the unguarded backs of the guards. Reaching up and around their faces, he clamped the cloths over their mouths.
They struggled for a few moments, seemingly unable to use their voices, and then were still. Riodo’s strong arms caught them and lowered them noiselessly to the stones. The others reached him, and Eramo considered the guards; then, waving his companions on ahead, he sat them upright, leaning on opposite sides of the bridge, laid their spears negligently across their laps, and fished out a bottle—they knew not from where—that he placed in the hand of one guard.
‘Against the possibility of them being found,’ he explained.
By comparison, entering the Lord’s house was trivial. An open window, a short flight of stairs, and they were in a gallery above a grand hall. In the middle of this hall stood a statue, carved of some grey stone with a faintly metallic sheen. It depicted a man of lordly aspect, nude but for his long flowing hair and beard, with one arm outstretched.
‘I know that statue,’ breathed Eramo. He clutched Annice’s elbow and pointed. ‘Mark the waving patterns in the hair, the way he stands upon his toes. It is Air, God of the Winds.’
‘And of Magic,’ said Hemalis.
‘Yes—did this selfsame statue not once stand within the Crystal Colosseum?’
Hemalis nodded. ‘Turdualangulia had it moved here no more than a month ago. It’s said it was out of spite—he was a mage’s aide in his youth, but he was unable to grasp magic and so could never himself become a mage. But until this, he had not antagonised the mages; the Colosseum was the only place in the city that remained sacrosanct.’
By this time they had reached the end of the gallery and descended to the floor. The doors were at the far end of the hall; Eramo frowned at the statue as they drew close to it.
‘Did his hand not once grasp a sceptre?’
The lordly statue of Air did indeed have its upraised hand curved as if clutching something. To one who did not know that the hand was meant to hold a sceptre, the statue looked like nothing so much as a man raising a toast with an invisible goblet.
Hemalis paused. ‘Yes… a sceptre, or a rod. It was the most remarkable thing: a different substance to the rest of the statue, dark blue, incredibly hard. Every novice at the Crystal Colosseum tried to scratch or mark it in some way, I think, but we never could.’
They continued on to the doors, and slowly pushed them ajar. ‘I don’t know if it means anything,’ Hemalis finished when they were sure no guards stood outside, ‘that Turdualangulia removed the rod, but he must have had some reason.’
‘A weapon?’ Annice suggested.
‘He doesn’t need it—has a better one,’ said Riodo.
The corridor they now walked down was lit solely by the starry night sky, which twinkled through windows set into the ceiling, far above. And so the four intruders quite quickly noticed, when the corridor intersected another, that there was a light under a door at the far left end, and only that door.
Every other chamber they had ventured to look into had been dark and uninteresting. A lit room suggested inhabitants, but it also promised some profit to this excursion. Barely breathing, they gathered outside the door. Riodo tried to peer under the door, then shrugged and turned the doorknob.
The room was unoccupied, but not empty. The candlelight that had spilled into the corridor illuminated the scene. ‘Great powers preserve us,’ Eramo muttered.
There, in the middle of the chamber, hovered a black cloud. It appeared amorphous at first, but as one stared at it, it seemed to take on shapes terrible to behold—a skull, a severed hand, a snake, a tormented face.
‘That,’ breathed Hemalis, ‘is the Omen of Blackness. By summoning the Omen, Turdualangulia gained the power to call up dark creatures to serve him.’
‘But did you not say he was no mage?’ asked Eramo.
‘He doesn’t need to be. Anyone can perform the Desecrated Summoning of the Omen of Blackness—if he can discover the ritual, and if he’s willing to pay the price.’
Riodo pulled the door closed. ‘We should go… someone might be along to replace the candles.’ It was plausible; the candles that adorned each wall had once been quite tall, judging by the wax that had pooled and solidified on the floor beneath each one, but they were now nearly burnt out. But all there felt the same desire to be far away from that fearsome shadow, and the same impulse to rationalise it as caution.
‘Can you do anything to get rid of… that?’ Annice asked Hemalis. He shook his head fearfully.
As they reached the intersection, the dread of the Omen had faded—but then there came a sound that chilled their blood again.
Somewhere off to their left, a door opened and voices reached them.
‘…start in this… tidy up and dust… morning, he’ll…’
The voices were women’s, but the sound of footsteps having a metallic clank suggested that they were not unescorted. The intruders bolted, back the way they came, away from the voices.
Too late. ‘Hey!’ came the shout from behind them.
They raced back to the great hall, past the statue of Air and up into the gallery. ‘Did they get much of a look?’ asked Riodo as they ran. ‘No? Back to the rooms then—here, cover your head.’ He removed his short coat and passed it to Annice, who covered her distinctive features with it as best she could.
Two guards burst into the hall before they cleared the gallery. Hemalis started to lag behind, but Riodo urged him on. They leapt out of the window to the parapet and ran back over the bridge, jumping over the still-unconscious guards; their pursuit came out of a door instead, shouting after them.
The commotion drew three more guards on the parapet. They tried to cut off the fugitives, but too slowly; before the guards reached them, they had run straight through the door opposite the bridge, and back into the garden.
Almost upon their heels, a guard entered the garden, nocked an arrow, and fired. The intruders ducked below the hedges and continued to move as fast as they could in a half-crouch. Not so hampered, the guards ran around the periphery of the garden and stood by each of the doors, calling to one another.
‘How many are there?’
‘I only saw four.’
‘No, there’s definitely more than four. You, go for help. Sing out if you see them, boys!’
They were cut off. A rush against any one of the guards would likely succeed, but then what? Apparently unrecognised and miscounted, they might return to their rooms and feign innocence—but not with guards close on their tail. Any other door might bring escape or capture amid unfamiliar passageways.
They had made their way to one of the private corner nooks, away from the servants’ door by which they had first come here. Riodo debated plans under his breath, seemingly to himself in spite of Eramo and Annice’s interjections. Hemalis leaned down over the fountain, seemingly to catch his breath—such a run, after tiring himself out earlier in the night with a spell, had left him winded. But in a brief lull, they noticed that he was muttering.
And then he stood, holding an irregular chunk of ice. He took this and sat it on a plinth, tilting the statue over to lean on the ice. Then, he bent double and walked away from the corner garden, waving to the others to follow.
He was noticeably more pale and sweaty, and more deprived of breath, as he explained his plan. ‘Ice will melt… statue, smash… draw them off.’ Urging them on, he led the way back towards the servants’ door.
The fifth guard returned with reinforcements. ‘Spread out!’ barked one. ‘Search in pairs.’
A minute passed in agonised waiting. Then, a loud crash came from behind them as the ice failed at last to hold up the statue. Suddenly every guard was shouting at once.
‘Surround them! Every side!’
‘Watch the doors!’
‘Everybody cut them off!’
For a terribly long moment, the guard at the servants’ door wavered, torn by conflicting shouts. Then, he left his post and ran to join the search. The intruders made good their escape—slipping hurriedly through the door, through the workrooms, and back into the sewage tunnels. Hearing no pursuit, they nonetheless ran, back to the hole with the brick step beneath it.
Hemalis climbed out first, then hunched over, trying to catch his breath. Riodo and Eramo emerged and pulled Annice up after them, and then replaced the privy seat as it had been before. Only close inspection would discern where it had been pried away from the posts; only by sticking one’s head down the hole could one see where the bricks had been broken up.
‘Quickly, Annice, back into your dress!’ urged Eramo.
‘Do I smell? Should I wash?’
‘No time!’ He grabbed a bottle of scented oil that had been placed so as to sweeten the air in the room, and flicked drops of it over her. Riodo brought her dress in from the bedchamber, and she pulled it over her head and her dull clothes.
Eramo smoothed down her skirts, and Annice fumbled with the laces on the back of the bodice, until Riodo took them from her. ‘Here, let me unlace you—argh—lace you up!’
As he deftly finished the task, she shot him an arch look. Then all four were pushing past one another out of the small room. Riodo and Hemalis took blankets and lay down on the sitting room floor, feigning sleep. Annice stood in the doorway of the bedchamber, Eramo at hand—not a moment too soon, as a key rattled in the door lock. Someone rapped thrice on the door, then entered.
‘Please do come,’ said Annice coldly.
The first man who had entered was dressed simply and not visibly armed, but four guards stood behind him. He sketched a bow while looking around the room. ‘We merely wished to know if there was anything my lady requires.’
‘No, I am well, I thank you. Unless, perhaps, you spare for me the help of a maid? I am not travel so wastefully as some, but I like womanly aid when stopped.’
‘But of course. We would be more than happy to provide my lady with a maid to watch over her.’ The man bowed, and Annice curtseyed. ‘I sincerely hope you will not be disturbed again this night,’ he said by way of farewell.
After the door closed, she turned to the others. ‘I’m going to have a bath—before my new maid arrives and gets close enough to see how I’m really dressed.’