|THE BLACK HAWKS
David Wragg (www.davewragg.com)
‘Kitchen’s closed.’ A hard-faced woman in a smock barred the doorway.
‘Closed? Nonsense, my jewel,’ Heali replied. ‘How could the kitchen be closed in a festival week? We’re but days from the feast!’
The woman’s eyes narrowed. She had a jaw like quarried stone and weathered hands to match. ‘Off-limits, then. Especially to you, Heali, and whoever’s riding your pocket today.’ She flicked a sneer at Chel, who was quite offended. ‘This is no time for your antics – we’ve got the Order of the Rose at our shoulders. Get your meat-fingers gone before the churchmen come looking at you too.’
The door slammed shut. Heali frowned at it, thick lips pursed. Chel frowned at Heali.
‘My apologies, Master Chel, thought I’d be able to lend a hand to a brother in need. Come up looking a right pillock, eh?’
Chel gave no answer. His head hurt, and his palms and shoulder ached. His hunger had become a hot blade in his gut. He rubbed one hand over his eyes and started walking back toward the courtyard. Sokol’s robes and the lowport beckoned, and he was in no fit state for it. ‘I need to be going—’
‘Heading out on an errand? Surely not on an empty stomach?’
Chel stopped in the courtyard archway, one foot in brilliant sunlight, squinting against the glare, already tired of the guardsman’s manner. ‘You’re in luck, my boy,’ Heali continued with a munificent smile, ‘because your friend Heali knows where to get the best breakfast in all Denirnas Port.’
‘You do?’ At that, Chel perked up.
‘Of course, my boy. Permit me to atone for my failing – I’ll take you myself.’
‘For the last time, Heali, stop calling me boy.’
‘I mean no disrespect, Master Chel. You’re still boyish from my end of the wick, that’s all.’ Heali raised a hand with a disarming grin. ‘Come, let’s take a wander. There’s a little fellow in the lowport, does the most arresting grilled things.’
Chel gave a sour glance back down the gloomy hallway to the closed kitchen door. ‘What do the Church care of festival preparations anyway?’ he said.
A voice like the earth moving rumbled in the darkness behind them. Chel hadn’t even realized there was a passageway there. ‘Because the festival of King’s Vintage is a lie, a sop to the masses to blot the vile truth from their eyes.’
He turned to find a gaunt figure looming over him, eyes mere hollows in the gloom, his dome of skull ringed by ragged grey locks. He carried a crate of earthenware oil lamps, clinking in time to his lurching steps. Heali sniffed. ‘Lengthened your chain for the festival, did they, Mad Mercunin?’
‘I know what they call me, Heali,’ the cadaverous giant replied. ‘Do you know what they call you?’
Heali laughed, but Chel detected an edge to it. ‘Go on, sod off, you walking corpse. Go whisper your secrets to the cliff ducks.’
Mercunin shuffled away into the gloom, the crate heavy in his arms. ‘Hey,’ Chel called, ‘what is the “vile truth”?’
The well-deep voice echoed from the stones as the porter slid into darkness. ‘That the king is dead, and we shall all of us burn.’
Heali snorted. ‘Take no heed of mad men, Master Chel,’ he said, then walked out into the bustle of the courtyard, nodding for Chel to follow. With a bemused sigh he did, the old porter’s words still rattling in his head.
‘Is this place far?’ Chel said as they wandered through the open palace gate, beneath the strutting statue of Grand Duke Reysel. A fresh streaking of bird shit adorned the statue; a pair of skivvies were doing their best to remove it. Duty guards nodded to Heali as they passed. ‘I need to be back by ten bells.’
‘And why’s that, Master Chel?’
‘Sokol will be expecting me to present him with his freshly arrived festival robes. Should have been here days ago, but you know what it’s like this time of year.’
‘I do indeed. Can’t spend days on the walls without learning the motion of the ocean, eh?’ Heali picked his way down the meandering ridge path, steering around the irregular mule traffic plodding uphill, festival loads stacked high.
Across the bay on the opposite ridge, the domes of the Academy glowed in the morning sun, safely nestled along the crest of the highport that towered over the harbour’s eastern flank. In the handful of weeks he’d been in Denirnas, Chel hadn’t made it as far as the highport, let alone the Academy. It looked pleasantly peaceful up there.
In the lowport, the summer’s-end sun was well up, as was the seething press of peddlers, pilgrims and panhandlers. Everywhere was noise and movement, heat and humanity, and Chel’s nausea came roaring back as he tried to follow Heali down the carved steps of the hill path into the town.
He kept one hand on his purse and the other on Heali’s shoulder, buffeted by human tides.
They skirted a grim-faced servant tasked with scrubbing the latest Rau Rel graffiti from a pale wall, the words ‘The Watcher sees all’ disappearing beneath his brush. One of the palace guards watched over him; he nodded to Heali and moved aside as they passed. Chel shook his head. The partisans’ graffiti would be back before they made it back to the palace. You couldn’t go twenty strides in the port without seeing ‘death to tyrants’ or some reference to ‘the Watcher’ scrawled across walls; the only thing that varied was the spelling.
‘Who keeps writing this stuff?’ Chel muttered to Heali. Heali didn’t respond.