‘This is not my home,’ Peer Nadawa whispered as she came awake. They were the words with which she had comforted herself on the afternoon she arrived in Skulk Canton, and now their recitation was a natural part of welcoming a new day. They had started as defiance but quickly became a mantra necessary for her survival. And they were never spoken lightly.
She opened her eyes to see what sort of day it would be. The ghourt lizard that lived in a crack between her bedroom wall and ceiling was scampering across the wall in a series of short sprints. It was gathering flies and spiders early today, and that meant it would likely rain before noon. Great. Another day spent harvesting stoneshrooms in the wet.
Peer watched the lizard for a while, preparing herself for the morning ritual of rising through the discomfort of old tortures. The lizard shifted so quickly that it seemed to slip from point to point without actually moving, and there were those who believed that ghourts really belonged in the Echoes below the city. Peer was not one of them. It was a foolish idea to believe that such simple creatures could become phantoms. And, besides, her parents had taught her stillness. Relaxed from sleep, she calmed her mind and watched each tiny movement of the lizard – its fluttering heartbeat, lifting toes, and the darting streak as it ran from one place to the next. She pitied the people who did not have the time to see such things, because she had long ago stopped pitying herself. She had all the time in the world.
She sighed and scratched an itch in her left armpit. The little lizard flitted back into its hole, startled at her sudden movement. Propping herself on her left elbow, she grimaced as she started to sit up.
They’d used air shards to penetrate her right arm to the bone. Sharper than any blade made of stone or metal, the shards could never be removed, and they were a constant reminder of her crime. They were set in her bone and cast in her flesh, and it took a while each morning to warm them until they became bearable. That’s all they ever were – bearable. Some nights, and on the very worst of days, she could picture the torturer’s grin as he slid them in and see the virtuous expression on the Hanharan priest’s face as he stood beyond the torture table, praying for salvation for her errant soul. Of the two, it was always that fucking priest she wanted to kill.
Grimacing, Peer sat up and started to gently massage her right arm. The pain from her left hip was flaring now, past the numbness of sleep. They hadn’t been so creative with that; the torturer had smashed it with a hammer when she refused to acknowledge Hanharan as the city’s firstborn. It was only thanks to Penler’s skill with medicines and the knife that she was able to walk at all.
She closed her eyes and went through the pain, as she had every morning for the past three years. Each morning was the same, and yet she had never grown to accept it. She fought against what they had done even though the evidence was here, in pain and broken bones. Penler had asked her many times why she still fought when there was no hope of return, and she had never been able to provide an answer. Truthfully, she did not know.
Gorham’s face flashed unbidden across her mind. Perhaps he was haunting her, though for all she knew, he was dead.
Gradually the pain lessened and she sat there for a while, as always, looking around the small room in the house she had been lucky enough to find. It had two floors, and she always slept on the top one. There was a ledge beyond the window that led to other rooftops if she needed to escape, a system of alarms and traps built into the single staircase – that had been Penler’s doing as well – and if she stretched and stood just right, she could see the desert from her window. Some nights, if she could not sleep, she spent a long time simply looking.
One of the downstairs rooms still contained several paintings of the family that had lived there before the salt plague a hundred years before. Peer had no idea what had happened to them other than they had died. Everyone in Skulk Canton had died, either from the plague or from the brutal purging that quickly followed, ordered by the Marcellans. But she liked keeping their images in the house. It had something to do with respect.
‘Time to leave,’ she muttered. ‘Important places to go, powerful people to see. Stoneshrooms to pick.’ She often spoke to herself when there was no one else to listen. In Skulk there were many who would understand, and probably many more who would consider her mad. There were also those who viewed her as fair game; Echo City’s criminals were a varied breed.
After washing in a bowl of cold water and eating a quick breakfast, she set about arming herself. A knife in her belt, three soft widowgas balls in her pocket, and the wide, short sword on view. She had never grown used to the sword, but Penler assured her that it would scare off any casual aggressors. Up to now, it had seemed to work.
He often chided her for living on her own. A woman on her own here in Skulk . . . he’d say, shaking his head, then pursing his lips because he knew exactly what she thought of such attitudes. Still, she knew that he had only her safety at heart. After berating him with a playful punch, she’d argue that most criminals here weren’t really criminals at all. They execute the really bad ones, she would say. Some always slip through, he’d counter. And so their little play went on.
Today, she and Penler were meeting for lunch down by the city wall. He said that he had something to tell her. As always for Penler, the mystery was the thrill.
When the sun was up and birdsong filled the air, and Peer was feeling sharper and brighter than usual, she often considered Skulk Canton as evidence of the basic goodness in people.
Since the devastating plague, it had become the place to which criminals and undesirables were banished by the ruling Marcellans. Murderers, rapists, and pedophiles were still crucified on the vast walls of the central Marcellan Canton, but lesser criminals – pickpockets, violent drunks, and political dissidents – now had a new place to be sent. The vast underground prisons in the Echoes below the city had been closed, because the abandoned Skulk was far easier and less dangerous to police. It was a city unto itself, and the criminals were left to make it their own.
Over the past few decades, they had done just that. It could hardly be called thriving – they still relied on regular food deliveries from Crescent Canton, and a new canal had been built from the Southern Reservoir in Course Canton to ration their water – but the majority of people in Skulk lived a reasonable life, and most contributed to making their community a bearable place to live.
Naturally, there were those who viewed it as their own private playground. Thieves ran rampant in certain areas; gangs formed, fought, and dispersed; and there were a dozen men and women that Peer could name who considered themselves rulers of Skulk. But as with elsewhere in Echo City, these gangs and gang leaders ruled only those who were at their own level. Violence was frequent but usually confined to rival factions.
Those who kept to themselves were mostly left alone.
Upon her arrival, Peer had been convinced that she would be raped and killed within days. Terribly injured, traumatized from the tortures she had endured and the fact that she was no longer considered an inhabitant of Echo City, she had scampered into a building close to the razed area of ground that marked Skulk’s northern boundary with the rest of the city, and there she had waited to die. She drifted in and out of consciousness. Time lost itself. Day and night seemed to juggle randomly with her senses. And one day after passing out, she woke up in Penler’s rooms.
He told her that three men had brought her to him and then left. He did not even know their names.
Walking along the street toward the stoneshroom fields where she spent most of her mornings, Peer tried to deny the sense of contentment that threatened. She’d been feeling it for a while, as it sought to put down roots in a place that she had never believed she could call home. There was so much she missed – her friends, her small canal-side home in Mino Mont Canton, and Gorham most of all – that it felt wrong to be happy here. She had been banished from the world she knew, escaping execution only because the Marcellans knew it would be dangerous should she become a martyr. In Skulk she could fade away. She was a prisoner who was growing to like her prison, an exiled victim of an insidious dictatorship who was forgetting the fire and rage that had fueled her past. Often she would strive to reignite that fire, but it never felt the same. Just let it come, Penler would say to her, referring to the gentle contentment and not the righteous passion she had once felt. She hated him and loved him for that, the infuriating old man. He was trying to save her, and she was determined to convince herself that she did not want to be saved.
This is not my home, she thought again as she walked through the narrow streets, but this morning Skulk Canton felt just fine.
She passed through a small square and saw familiar figures setting up stalls for breakfast. She bought a lemon pancake and had her mug filled with rich five-bean, and she dallied for a while, enjoying the sights and smells of cooking, the sound of bartering, and the good-natured air of the place.
‘You’ll be late!’ a big man called as he stirred soup in a huge pot.
‘The ’shrooms will wait, Maff,’ she said. ‘What’s cooking?’
He motioned her over, and Peer smiled as she negotiated her way through a throng of hungry people. Maff always enjoyed revealing the recipes to his top-secret brews.
‘Tell no one,’ he whispered as she drew close, his breath smelling of beer and pipe smoke, his big hand closing around her long, tied hair. ‘I had a consignment of dart root delivered yesterday. I’m mixing it with rockzard legs, some sweet potatoes from Course, and my own special ingredient.’ He tapped the side of her nose and glanced around, as if they were discussing a coup against the Marcellans themselves.
Peer raised an eyebrow, waiting for the great revelation.
‘Electric-eel hearts,’ he whispered into her ear, ‘Fresh. Still charged.’ She felt his bead-bedecked beard tickling her neck and pulled away, laughing softly. When she looked at him, Maff was nodding seriously, pearls of sweat standing out on his suntanned skin. He touched her nose again. ‘Tell no one.’
‘Your secret’s safe with me, Maff.’
‘So . . .?’ he asked, lifting a deep spoon of the soup toward a bowl.
Peer held up both hands. ‘I’d like to wake up in the morning.’
Maff shrugged and continued stirring the soup, and even as she bade him farewell, he called over a short, ratlike man. He whispered in the man’s ear, nodded down at the soup, and his secret was told again.
In her early days here, Peer would have wondered what crimes Maff had committed to deserve banishment. Such thoughts rarely crossed her mind anymore. She left the square and weaved her way through narrow streets, the buildings overhead seeming to lean in and almost touch. The sun shone, though she still thought it would likely rain that afternoon, and Skulk Canton was buzzing with life.
She passed a group of men and women lounging on the front steps of a large building. They wore knives and swords on show, and all bore identical scars on their left cheeks – the unmistakable arc of a rathawk’s wing. They observed her with lazy eyes and full purple lips, displaying the signs of subtle slash addiction, and one of them called to her softly. Laughter followed. She ignored the call and walked on, maintaining the same pace. She didn’t want them to think she was running because of them, but slowing could have been seen as a reaction to the voice. They were part of the Rage gang – slash dealers and sex vendors – and she had no wish to be involved with them in any way.
She soon reached the first of the stoneshroom fields. There were already dozens of people at work, scrambling across the spread of ruined buildings in their search for the prized fungi. Much of the wild plant growth had been cleared from the rubble, making the stoneshrooms easier to spot and giving them space in which to grow, and the ruins were stark and depressing in the morning sun. Some areas still bore the dark evidence of fire, even after so long, and to Peer the ruin seemed recent, not a hundred years old. She breathed in deeply, closed her eyes, smiled as she tried to drive down the dark thoughts that always haunted her, then went to work.
She knew most of the stoneshroom gatherers, and they were a friendly group to work with. They were all out for themselves – picking the ’shrooms was only the first part of the process, the next being their cleaning, preparation, and sale – but often, if a good spread was found, word would filter quietly to the several other harvesters in the vicinity. They were a prized plant because of their heavy meatiness, and they were one of the few foodstuffs harvested within Skulk Canton. If ever we claim independence, Penler had once quipped, we’ll all turn into stoneshrooms.
Peer worked hard, delving down into the spaces between collapsed walls, shifting small blocks aside where she could, and spending long moments of stillness sniffing for the fungi. Some hunters sang, and the song was taken up by others, but Peer remained silent today. She was looking forward to seeing Penler for lunch, and she hoped to have several ’shrooms prepared for him by then.
As noon approached, storm clouds drifted in over the city to the north. Peer derived some small satisfaction from knowing that it rained on the rest of Echo City before it rained on Skulk Canton. She made the most of the final touch of sunlight, then set off for the city walls.
Penler was sitting on a wooden bench looking out over the Markoshi Desert. Peer saw something symbolic in that. The bench must have been placed atop the wall by Watchers long ago, because the Marcellans and their Hanharan religion looked only inward, and Penler knew her Watcher history.
‘Penler,’ Peer said as she approached. The old man glanced up and smiled, wiping his lips. He nursed a bottle of Crescent wine in his lap, a good ruby red, and she smiled at his flagrant display of resourcefulness. Close though they had become, he had never told her how he still procured such produce from outside.
‘Peer, my dear,’ he said, shuffling along the bench. ‘Been keeping it warm for you.’
The first drops of rain spattered the stone paving around them as she sat down. Penler was wearing a heavy coat with a wide hood, and she pulled up her own hood. The sound of rain striking it made her feel isolated, even though she sat there with her friend.
‘I brought some stoneshrooms,’ she said, taking the folded cloth from her pocket. ‘Not the best of the crop today, but I arrived at the fields late.’
Penler nodded and ran his fingers across the proffered fungi. He moved his hand back and forth, then paused above one of the smaller, darker slices. He leaned in and sniffed, then grunted in satisfaction. He could always hone in on the best of everything.
‘I have some fresh bread,’ he said as he chewed, ‘and the wine is good.’
‘They’ll execute me for drinking it,’ Peer said, laughing and taking a swig from his bottle. He was right; it was excellent.
‘Even the Marcellans themselves won’t be drinking better wine today,’ Penler said, and beneath the humor lay the familiar seriousness. He’d been sent here many years before when he published a book exploring the Dragarians’ beliefs. The prosecuting Hanharan priests had claimed it was not the publication that marked him as a heretic but his sympathy for the Dragarians and their dead prophet – murdered by the Marcellans’ own Scarlet Blades, after all – that shone through his writing. Proud, stubborn, Penler had confirmed or denied nothing, and his future was set.
‘Fuck the Marcellans,’ she said, ‘and get that bread out.’
They ate in silence for a while, comfortable in each other’s company without feeling the need to fill it with noise. Peer looked out over the flat, featureless desert, watching the line of rain progressing outward as the clouds drifted overhead. Sands darkened, and before long the rain front had moved too far for her to see.
‘The weather knows no boundaries,’ she said, but Penler only laughed. ‘What?’
‘You,’ he said. ‘Still watching.’ ‘I was born a Watcher,’ she said. ‘It was in my heart, such belief. I can’t bear ignorance. I can’t understand people who don’t think such a thing.’
‘You don’t understand me?’ he asked, a tricksy question. She glanced sidelong at him, and he was staring at her with raised eyebrows and a curious smile on his lips. For an old man, his mind was agile. That’s why she liked his company so much.
‘You’re an explorer,’ she said. She’d told him that before, and it seemed to please him immensely. In Echo City – a place mostly known – true explorers had only their minds in which to travel. That, or down into the Echoes.
Penler smiled, but it did not quite touch his startling blue eyes.
‘My exploring days are long behind me,’ he said. ‘I’m getting old, and sometimes I wish I could . . .’ He trailed off and looked at the stoneshroom in the palm of his hand.
‘Wish you could what?’
But he shrugged and stared back out at the desert.
The rain fell around them, light but drenching, and soon they were huddled together, sharing warmth and closing in so they could hear each other speak. It was strange, sitting side by side talking, because their raised hoods meant that they could not see each other unless they turned. Peer spoke and, when Penler responded, it sounded like a disembodied voice. The Marcellans claimed that Hanharan spoke to them in their sleep. We’re ruled by ghosts, Peer thought, but that could not make her angry. She believed in a larger world beyond the deadly desert – never seen, never known – and what was that if not a ghost of possibility?
‘You said you have something to tell me,’ she said at last. She heard Penler sigh and take another drink of wine. The rain fell. The desert sands were dark and wet. She loved sitting here at the southern tip of Echo City with the whole world behind her.
‘Whispers,’ he said at last. ‘Peer, you know I have . . . ways and means.’
She turned to him, took the wine bottle, and lifted it in a casual salute. ‘Something about you, is how they say it. Dark arts. Bollocks, I say.’
‘Getting things is easy,’ he continued, ‘and the border is not solid. There’s money, and people will do a lot for that, whatever their declared allegiances. But I’ve never dealt in money.’
‘No. You deal in information.’ Peer sipped at the wine. It was almost gone, and she wanted them to relish the final drop.
‘Yes. Information. It comes, and it goes. Much of what comes is of no consequence or is likely false. Some of what I hear, I store.’ He tapped his head, gave her that lopsided grin once again. ‘And some of what I hear, on occasion . . . sometimes I try to forget.’
‘Now you’re worrying me.’ Penler pressed his lips together and turned away, and as he did so the rain caught his face and spilled like tears.
‘What is it?’ Peer asked, suddenly afraid.
‘Murmurs from the Garthans,’ he said.
‘The Garthans?’ Peer had never even seen one. They lived way down below the city, in some of the earliest Echoes that were supposedly tens of thousands of years old. Some said they were pale and blind and so far removed from surface dwellers that they were another species. Others claimed that they were cannibals, fondly feasting on offerings of human meat presented by those eager for their strange subterranean drugs. The only certainty was that they were no friends of top dwellers.
‘Rumors of something wrong,’ Penler said.
‘You’ve heard such things before. You’ve told me, there are always stories from the Garthans.’
‘Yes, that’s true. But this time they’re afraid.’
‘Afraid of what?’
‘I don’t know. But the Garthans are never afraid of anything.’
Peer waited. Penler felt the pressure of her stare and turned so that she could see his face, hidden within his coat’s wide hood. She was concerned for him, because his voice had sounded . . . different.
‘Why tell me?’ she asked.
‘Because you’re a Watcher.’
‘And what does that make you?’
Penler smiled then, but once again it did not touch his eyes. Raindrops struck his face again as he tilted his head back to laugh, but his effort to lighten the heavy mood felt strangely false. ‘I think that sometimes people need to build falsehoods for their own ends.’
Peer bristled. For such an intelligent man, Penler often displayed an ignorance that she found shocking. She’d tried to see through it many times, but his opinion was a solid front, and whatever lay behind wallowed in shadows that perhaps even he could not breach. Once, perhaps . . . years ago. But now he was growing old. Maybe the fire had gone from him.
‘That’s what the Marcellans call any beliefs they don’t agree with,’ she said coldly. ‘Falsehoods. They told me to deny my own false beliefs as they slid the air shards into my arm.’ She held her right biceps with her left hand, squeezing to feel a rush of warm pain. It always fueled her anger.
‘Peer,’ Penler said, and his voice carried such wisdom and age. ‘I know very well what they did to you. And you know me better than that.’
Do I? she thought. It had been only three years, though in truth it felt like more. In all that time, Penler had yet to betray his true beliefs, even to her. Sometimes she thought he was a secularist, sitting apart and observing while his friends expended time and effort on their own diverse philosophies. And other times, like now, she suspected that he might be a devout believer in something he craved to disbelieve. There were contradictions in Penler that scared her and an intelligence that she sometimes suspected would be the death of him. Even while he told her to be calm and accepting, he fought.
‘So the Garthans are afraid,’ she said, ‘and the rain still falls where no one can walk.’ She stared out across the desert from atop the city wall. A hundred years ago this would have been a place for market stalls and street entertainers, but now the wall’s wide top was simply another place to sit and wonder.
‘I have to go,’ Penler said. ‘Will you eat with me this evening?’
‘Are you cooking?’ Peer asked.
‘Hmm.’ She did not turn, even when she sensed him standing beside her. And she could not contain her smile. ‘Last time, you cooked that pie and I had the shits for a week.’
‘Bad pigeon,’ Penler said. He was already walking away. ‘I’ll see you before dusk. You can stay, if you like.’
‘I will,’ Peer said. It was not wise to walk Skulk’s streets after dark. She watched Penler leave, and as he reached the head of the stone staircase, he waved. She waved back. Through the heavy rain, she could not see his expression.
Chilled, she stood and walked to the parapet, chewing on the last of the stoneshroom as she went. She liked looking over the edge and down at the desert. Where she stood was civilization, order, comparative safety, and the whole world and history of Echo City. Down there, where the desert began, was the symbolic boundary of their world. People often walked the sands close to the city wall, of course. In places the wall had degraded and crumbled, and it was easy enough to work your way down to the desert, because where the wall was solid there were no doors or gates. There was no need. But those brave explorers never remained there for long; soon they were scampering back up the stone pile again, waving away the respectful cheers of their peers or the admiring glances of those they had set out to impress. The city drew them back.
The desert was death, and those who had ventured far out and returned had all died horribly. Some had time to reveal what they had seen – the Bonelands, the dead, those who had gone before them shriveling in the sun – but most died without saying anything, diseased flesh falling from their brittle bones and their insides turned to bloody paste, rotted by the desert’s toxicity. Gorham had once told Peer that he’d seen two people die this way, and he would never forget the terror in their eyes. The desert had always been this way, and such a terrible place attracted its myths and legends. There were the Dragarians, shut away and isolated in their canton for more than five hundred years now, who believed that their savior, Dragar, would emerge from the desert at the city’s final hour to lead them into their mysterious Honored Darkness. There was the Temple of the Seventy-seven Custodians, who claimed that the desert was home to six-legged gods that watched over Echo City. But the Markoshi Desert – commonly known as the Bonelands – was the end of the world. And there were the Watchers, her people. They believed that there was something beyond and that their future lay in countering the desert’s terrible effects.
She never grew bored of this. As the rain came down heavier, Peer leaned on the wall and watched.
At first, she thought it was a breeze blowing through the rain. The shadow shifted far out in the desert – a slightly more solid shape amid the unremitting downpour. She frowned and shielded her eyes, blinking away moisture. The day had grown dim, and the cold was making her hip ache.
The top of the wall remained deserted. Most people were sheltering from the rain or doing whatever it was they did to make their lives easier. Penler had probably reached the place he was happy enough to call home. Peer was alone . . . and the chill that hit her when she next saw the shifting shape made that loneliness even more intense.
There’s something out there, she thought, and the idea was shocking. Nothing lived in the desert, because it was a place of death. She strained to see farther, leaning on the parapet in a vain attempt to take her closer. Curtains of rain blew from east to west, wiping the movement from view, but between gusts the shape was always there. Something out there, and it’s coming this way.
She glanced frantically left and right. To her left, a tower protruded above the wall, but she knew that the staircase in there led only up, not down. She knew of a small breach to her right, maybe half a mile away, that had collapsed a hundred years before, during the purging of Skulk Canton. Many fires had been set back then, and it was said that a pile of thousands of bodies had been thrown from the wall and burned. The intensity of the flames had made the stonework brittle, bringing down a section of wall.
Peer ran. She paused every few heartbeats to glance out over the desert; the shape was definitely there, closing, resolving, and her heart started to pummel from more than exertion, because it looked like a person. The way it moved, the way it shifted behind the veils of rain, seeming to hunch over as if trying to protect its face from the unrelenting storm, gave it all the characteristics of a human being.
And then she saw something strange. The figure stopped, and perhaps it was the first time it had looked up in a long while, because it paused where it was and leaned back, looking at the great wall before it and the city beyond.
Even though it was impossible through the rain and over this distance, Peer felt that she met the person’s eyes.
She ran on, finding it difficult to tear her gaze away, and tripped and went down. Right arm, she thought, left hip, and she fell awkwardly so that she jarred both. She cried out, then looked around to see if anyone had heard her. In the street below, a couple of people dashed from one building to another, but they seemed unaware of her presence, and she was happy to leave them to themselves. Biting her lip, standing, she concentrated on the cool rain instead of the heat of her old injuries.
When she looked again, the figure had started running.
It was a man in a yellow robe.
And past the hushing rain, past her thundering heartbeat, she heard his scream.
Peer reached the breach in the wall and worked her way down the precarious slope. The rain made the tumbled blocks slippery, but that shouting still reverberated in her ears, driving her. She stumbled once or twice, jarring her right arm again, but then she reached the bottom.
She paused on the final block, feet a handbreadth above the ground. The desert is death. This was drummed into everyone in Echo City, from birth to the moment they died, and though she was exiled for sedition and still in possession of her own inquiring mind, it was difficult to deny such teaching. She stared at her heavy boots, then past them at the sodden ground. It was muddy. Sand flowed in rivulets, shallow puddles were forming, and for the thousandth time she wondered where the death dwelled. In the sand? In the air she was breathing even now? Many had written and spoken of the Bonelands, but none had derived a definitive answer.
And then she heard a shout, and, looking to her left, she saw a man kneeling in the mud at the base of the city wall.
She stepped down on to the sand and ran. She slowed only when she neared him, then paused a dozen steps away. He looked up, his eyes wide and fearful, his face gaunt, and he seemed as terrified as she was.
Who? she wanted to ask, but she could not form words. His clothes were of a style she had never seen before, his robe a dirty yellow. Over one shoulder he carried a bag, and strange things protruded from it. The rain ran from his white hair and down across his face. And then he opened his mouth.
‘Who . . .?’ Peer managed, because she felt it was import – ant to say something first.
‘You’re not her,’ the man said. Then he fell onto his face and, somewhere over the city, lightning thrashed.