Following The Mechanical comes the second novel in this thrilling and heartbreaking new series about one individual’s struggle for freedom – perfect for fans of Paolo Bacigalupi, Ann Leckie and Neal Stephenson. It is a series poised to catapult Ian Tregillis into the company of the most exceptionally talented, award-worthy authors of the science fiction and fantasy genre. George R. R. Martin called Ian Tregillis “a major new talent”.
As had become his custom in recent mornings, Hugo Longchamp, captain of the guard of Marseilles‑in‑the-West, climbed the tallest tower in New France to await the end of the world. Doom had proved slow to arrive. The captain was getting impatient.
Puffs of frozen breath limned his beard with silvery hoarfrost, aging him a year for every step he mounted. The ice beads dangling from his eyelashes lent a kaleidoscopic beauty to the play of torchlight on the slick snow-dusted ribbon of stairs. The winds had dropped with the temperature overnight. So, while Longchamp’s nose had frozen shut the moment he stepped outside, forcing him to breathe through his mouth like a leaky teakettle, at least he didn’t have to contend with breezes eddying around the tower to jiggle the stairs. Or was it too cold for the polymers to retain their elasticity? That was the province of chemists and technicians. Longchamp was neither. He was a soldier.
The twinkle of stars slowly dissolved into the steely gray of a predawn sky. A rosy band ascended from the horizon; it grew brighter, and the stars fainter, each time he completed a circuit of the helical stairwell. One celestial light did not twinkle; it glowed like a garnet suspended in the Belt of Venus. Mars.
He paused to admire the lights of Marseilles‑in‑the-West spread before him like votive candles in the narthex of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Jean-Baptiste. Torchlight dotted the boulevards of the city, hinted at the spindly spokes of avenues and wagon paths, shone from kitchen windows and bakeries, glinted from ice in the basins of dormant fountains, and sparkled on the shore of the Saint Lawrence. A boundary of hard shadow cleaved the tapestry of lights where the city met the seaway. The darkness stretched across the inky waters to envelop the border with Nieuw Nederland and the lands beyond. Where, even now, the enemy stirred.
An orange flare momentarily lit the sky over the river. Fire from a gas burner stoked the envelope of hot air holding a tethered observation balloon aloft. The flames illuminated the balloon’s bulb-shaped canopy like a paper lantern. A few moments later, another flare pierced the darkness a mile downriver from the first. Cold morning; the balloonists would burn through their fuel quickly. Longchamp imagined those mad bastards shivering under layers of fur and grateful for any chance to hold numb hands to the flames if even just for a moment.
He wasn’t alone in his early-morning vigil. In addition to the observation balloons and their airborne watchers, he knew that somewhere far below, wardens shivered in shoreline blinds, their dark-adapted eyes trained across the waters straining for any signs of a tulip incursion. Part of him expected that, any moment, the shriek of a warning whistle would pierce the darkness. A tight ache radiated from the spot between his shoulder blades. Though partly the symptom of a pointless effort to suppress his shivering, the ache had become his constant companion. Even in the warmest barracks his shoulders had taken to hunching in subconscious expectation. It took an effort of will, and a longtime campaigner’s discipline, to force himself to relax. Only a fool wasted energy on things he could not control.
The enemies would arrive according to their own schedule. No sooner, no later. Their return would be as the Lord’s return: like a thief in the night, the day and hour of their coming unknown to even the wisest of men.
Instantly regretting the thought, Longchamp crossed himself. Only an inherently evil impulse would drive a man to compare the risen Christ to the heretical Dutch and their sacrilegious contempt for the immortal soul. He wasn’t a saint. Just a recidivist sinner, like all men. He made a mental note to include this transgression in his weekly confession. Then he fingered the rosary beads looped around his belt and said a quick prayer to the Virgin, begging her to intercede on his behalf.
His knees creaked like a lych-gate in dire need of oiling when he gained his feet. They never used to do that. Perhaps the aging wasn’t entirely an illusion.
By the time he ascended another revolution of the cloistered spiral stairwell, the sky glow had brightened sufficiently for Longchamp to extinguish his torch. He shouldn’t have used it in the first place; soon the citadel would be under siege discipline, and then they’d all have to get reacquainted with working in the dark. But the stairs of the Porter’s Prayer could be treacherous at the best of times, not to mention when glazed with frost. He couldn’t serve the Throne and the Church with two shattered legs.
The stairs passed beneath the skeletal frame of an unfinished gantry and the tracks of a recently rebuilt funicular. Longchamp’s breath frosted the metal tracks as well as the dark insulation wrapped about the pipes that shunted water ballast between the upper and lower cars. He wondered, not for the first time, how they kept the ballast water from freezing. They had a thousand little tricks, the storied chemists of New France.
Tricks that had kept the tulips and their mechanical demons at bay for centuries. That alone was a miracle. But they couldn’t keep the upper hand forever. This was the most frightening thought of all, and one he tried to keep to himself: that the long tradition of French chemical innovation would falter, or hit a long plateau, and the precarious balance in their centuries-long arms race with the Dutch would irrevocably shift. One day soon the clockwork tide would once again crash against the outer keep of Marseilles‑in‑the-West; perhaps this would be the time it swept them away.
The final revolution afforded him a grand view of fallow farmland stretching to the west and north, bordered by leagues of winter-bare yellow birch. The Saint Lawrence flowed to the east and south of Mont Royal, upon whose slopes Marseille‑in‑the-West sprawled like a lazy cat. Standing atop the Spire always made Longchamp feel as though he could see clear across the world: across New France, across the ocean, all the way to Europe and Old France. Longchamp had never seen Paris, of course; he’d only heard family stories passed down from some great-umpty-great uncle who’d fought for Louis XIV before the Exile.
By now the predawn light was bright enough for him to see the sentries pacing the star-shaped perimeter of the Vauban fortifications hundreds of feet below. His soldiers, the distressingly few men and women who had survived the last siege and the later massacre inside the walls, paced the inner and outer keeps. They looked like a handful of peppercorns sprinkled across the icy perimeter of the Last Redoubt of the Exile King of France. They were too few, the perimeter too great. The forced conscriptions weren’t bringing in new bodies quickly enough. Longchamp made another mental note, this time to speak to the comte de Turenne, who carried the marshal general’s baton.
A renewed breeze fluttered Longchamp’s beard, drew tears from his eyes, snaked through buttonholes and seams. But the exertion of the climb had warmed him enough that the icy streamers didn’t stipple him with gooseflesh. And later, when he wore armor and fought for his life—and the lives of his people, and his king—he’d be too hot, too exhausted to feel cold. The cold would come after his frail human body had succumbed to the relentless advance of the ticktocking metal horde. He pulled a knit cap over his brow to cover his ears and wiped the wind-tears from his eyes. He squinted to the southeast.
Looking for the telltale glimmer of burnished metal. For the beginning of the war. And, if Longchamp were feeling particularly fatalistic, the beginning of the end.
End? Perhaps. But a long, slow one. And extremely hard-won. The tulips and their clockwork slaves would have to earn their victory.
Mingled scents wreathed his perch atop the Spire. A faint hint of muddiness from the river, woodsmoke from a hundred hearths, the humid weight of impending snowfall. The wind tickled his face not unlike the soft touch of a lady down near the docks with whom he had a passing familiarity. He wondered if he’d have time to see her again before the dying started. Not killing, he thought with a sigh; you can’t kill a clockwork. Only deactivate it. And pray to Jesus, and the Virgin, that another didn’t take its place. That the defenses outlasted the metal men.
They’d managed it the last time, though barely. But that was before some fool in New Amsterdam had destroyed the tulips’ brand-new Forge. The first ever built in the New World.
Nobody knew who had done it, but people on both sides of the border assumed French agents were behind the sabotage. Though why the king or pope would sanction such a blatantly suicidal act of war, nobody could say. The French consoled themselves with the belief that if the destruction of the Forge had been carried out by their own countrymen, it was surely at the behest of the semimythical Talleyrand. Clever, cunning, courageous Talleyrand: hero of dozens of folktales and twice as many songs. Voyageurs passed the miles of their endless treks belting out chansons de geste celebrating the exploits of New France’s trickster hero.
Talleyrand has a plan, the citizens of New France reassured one another.
Not the present Talleyrand, thought the captain. He couldn’t plan his way out of a garderobe without a map and two gallons of axle grease. They wouldn’t take such spurious comfort in the machinations of a mythical stranger if they’d actually met the inbred ass wart.
Longchamp knew no more than anybody else, but he would have sworn the destruction of the Forge sounded like the handiwork of an exiled and notoriously single-minded former vicomtesse of his acquaintance. A rather stubborn one with an infuriating penchant for overestimating her own cleverness. Whose hubris caused no end of trouble and worse for the people around her. What insanity had driven her to twist the tiger’s tail like that? What game had she in mind? Did she, in fact, have a plan?
But the speculation was pointless. The past was forever in the past. Longchamp could only look forward and prepare for what was to come.
The sun crested the horizon. Sunlight glinted on the jagged crust of ice hugging the riverbanks. Longchamp watched for the glint of newly risen sun to betray the movement of burnished clockworks across the border. When they came, they’d march straight to the shoreline, and into the water, and under it, and across the riverbed, and burst through the ice as they mounted the French side of the border. They would march and march until they reached the walls of Marseilles.
They would swarm across the Saint Lawrence to occupy and burn the villages and farmhouses along the seaway. They’d swarm through the fishing villages of Acadia, along the Atlantic coast. They’d spread like a disease through the Great Lakes. They’d spread north and taint the shores of Hudson Bay.
But not today. Not yet.
A riot of color greeted the risen sun. The plastic cloister bannisters blazed like braided chains of rubies. Nacreous lacquers in the massive chamber atop the Spire shone with a rainbow swirl of blues, greens, and yellows like a sheen of oil atop a rain puddle. Longchamp adjusted his cap, pulling it lower over his brow to shield his eyes from the glare. The tip of the Spire, where the funicular tracks ended, housed the chambers where the privy council met. And, above that, the king’s apartments.
Winter sunrises came and went without the tumult of birdsong that accompanied mornings other times of year. Most birds had flown south for the winter. No birdsong to serenade the sun; only the whisper of air, the hiss of frost under his boots, the scritch of scarf and beard. He peered over the railing to the wall of the outer keep far below, where a few dozen new conscripts shivered in the shadows. Their training unfolded with a curious silence, the shouts and crashes and curses dispersed by the chill winter air before they reached Longchamp’s ears. Even the unique—and uniquely dreaded—chug-chug-chug of the epoxy cannon compressors was inaudible at this distance. Wisps of vapor wafted from the pressure valves.
It was never a good day when they needed the cannon. Needing the cannon and having nobody to operate them would be catastrophic. Hence the new conscripts. For centuries, every able-bodied man in New France did three years’ service when he reached majority. But the king hadn’t won any hearts with his edict extending that to women and forcefully conscripting one in every five able-bodied citizens under the age of fifty. Thank the Lord he was smarter than his father, the previous Exile King of Fallen France.
The shivering conscripts circled around the cannon, their breaths forming a line of silvery pennants as the first rays of the rising sun swept down the Spire to graze the walls of the outer keep. Tough as meringue, these recruits. He’d consider it a blessing if even a quarter of the newcomers developed a crumb of usefulness. Merchants were the worst. Fishermen: Now those were folks who knew hard work and didn’t flinch from it. The coureurs de bois, too. The forest runners were tough as moose jerky, and no strangers to hardship. If anything, they reveled in it. He wished the king’s call to arms all Godspeed through the waterways and wilderness of New France, that it might reach the ears of every voyageur, coureur, and trapper in the realm. Some might ignore the call, or pretend they’d not heard it. But Longchamp knew these men; he’d been one of them, for a while. Few would want to return to civilization only to find their contracts nullified, the scrip crumpled in the brassy fist of a mechanical demon, their hard-earned money worth less than a mouthful of a Dutchman’s piss.
The low sun elicited no telltale glinting from the forests and fields on the south side of the Saint Lawrence. No omens. Well, then. It seemed Queen Margreet and her bootlicker colonial governor of Nieuw Nederland didn’t intend to murder the good men and women of New France quite yet. Longchamp could make use of the extra time by polishing a few turds.
He turned his back on the sun and started the long descent to the inner keep.
* * *
It took ten minutes to reach the base of the Spire. Another ten to navigate the maze of barricades and trenches before he could gain the top of the inner wall. A Clakker could leap over most obstacles; the trick was to slow them down enough to give the gunners a snowball’s chance in hell of spraying them down. Or to funnel them together so that they could be incapacitated most efficiently. Certain trenches and moats contained corrosives intended to destroy delicate mechanisms. Others brimmed with chemical reagents that needed just a dollop of catalyst to initiate the reaction that would solidify the moats in an instant, complete with Clakkers trapped inside like raisins in a Christmas cake. Longchamp fucking hated raisins.
Just like he hated the thought of the inner keep’s defenses ever seeing use. Because the war was already lost if the tulips’ mechanical servants made it this far. The obstacles and rearguard tactics could only slow their final advances, and maybe, just maybe, give the king enough time to escape. Though where he would go when the Dutch truly ruled the earth was an open question. Perhaps he’d go north and become king of the White Bears.
When he finally reached the outer wall, he sidled behind the cluster of new conscripts, taking care the crunch of frost beneath his boots didn’t signal his arrival. Even the civvies tended to shrink when they felt his eyes on them; they’d heard the stories, too. Sergeant Chrétien saw him lurking behind the group but continued to harangue the newcomers without acknowledging the captain. The newest conscripts shivered as though palsied, wiping their noses on their sleeves while they shuffled and muttered to themselves, hardly listening to anything the sergeant said. Half of them looked barely strong enough to raise a glass of wine much less a pick and sledge. Christ! Their forearms weren’t even the size of Longchamp’s wrists! What in the seven hells were they supposed to do with such a motley piss-poor group? Only two men in this group could be less than forty.
The captain wondered if they could slow the mechanical horde by tossing the bodies of the useless in their path. The image brought him a modicum of satisfaction, though he knew that even this tactic would be pointless. Military Clakkers were walking scythes who churned through men like razor-edged tornadoes. They left nothing but screams, limbs, viscera, and arterial spray in their wake. Mere meat and bone could never slow them.
Longchamp knew. He’d seen the ticktocks at work more than once. He’d seen friends fall to the snick and slash of alchemical blades. He’d seen the fountain in the inner keep run red in the aftermath of a single Clakker’s rampage. He shook his head. But no matter how he tried to free his head of memories and horrors, they clung like dusty cobwebs.
“All right,” said Chrétien. “Let’s see if you civvies have listened to a single thing I’ve said.” He selected three men at random. “You, you, and you. Congratulations, you’re now a gunnery team. Step to it!”
Two men shuffled forward with all the enthusiasm of a criminal gang going to the gallows. The third hung back, perhaps hoping the soldier had been pointing at somebody near him. The flecks of silver at his temples, the thick ruff of his coat, and the faint hint of nascent jowls made him a merchant or trader. Softened by success. Longchamp grabbed him by the fur-lined collar.
“I could swear the sergeant told you to move,” he said. “So I find myself wondering why you haven’t done so with alacrity. A fine gentleman like yourself would surely do so if he could. So what’s the problem, friend? Legs broken? Or perhaps an imp has nailed your feet to these stones?”
The merchant squirmed within the voluminous fur coat. He shot an alarmed glance at Longchamp. The captain didn’t loosen his grip.
“I notice also,” he continued, “that you seem to have lost your voice. And your eyes are bulging just a bit. Choking on your own fear, I’d wager. Well, not to worry. I’ve seen this, too. Happens on the battlefield from time to time. We’ll get you right in no time.” Longchamp clapped twice, calling for the attention he knew he already commanded. “Lucky us! This’ll give me a chance to teach proper emergency surgery techniques. Sergeant, hand me your knife. You and you,” he said, pointing at the two closest bystanders, “kneel on his arms and legs. And put your fucking weight into it. They flop around like a trout in a canoe once the knife goes in the gizzard.”
At this point Longchamp loosened his grip just enough for the lazy merchant to slip free. He scuttled over to join the other men at the epoxy cannon.
“Thank the Virgin!” said Longchamp, crossing himself. “She’s cured him! It’s a Goddamned miracle.” He clouted the nearest conscript on the back of the head. “Show some respect to the Holy Mother, you cretin. All you cretins.”
As one, the conscripts crossed themselves, good Catholics all.
Sergeant Chrétien made one man the spotter; he crouched inside a crenel, alongside the barrels. The other two, including Longchamp’s lazy merchant, manned the chemical compressor and the firing mechanism. Under the soldier’s direction the latter pair turned the crank that charged up the compressor. The measured chug-chug-chug of the hydraulics climbed a few registers and adopted the quickened tempo known to everybody who’d been through a siege: the dreaded rhythm of an epoxy gun fending off an attacker.
The sergeant mounted a battlement and waved a yellow flag half again his own height. The flagman at the edge of the forest returned the semaphore, and then another soldier bolted from the treeline. The newcomer dashed across the field, tracing zigzags and serpentines in the frost. Longchamp wondered which hapless conscript had drawn the short straw for this demonstration.
“Runners on the field!” cried the sergeant. “I say again we have INBOUND MECHANICALS!”
The spotter muttered a string of bearings. “North by northeast. No, wait, he’s turning east. I mean he’s running from the east. East by north . . . Wait, he’s turning again—”
“I can’t fucking hear you!” said Longchamp. “And it’ll never be quieter than this. When the walls are aswarm with clanking murderers, and every cannon in the keep is chugging along loud enough to wake the Devil after a six-bottle bender, you’d better be able to MAKE YOURSELF HEARD!”
Meanwhile, the hapless sprinter had covered a third of the distance to the wall. Far, far slower than a real mechanical. But far too fast for the novice gunners to handle gracefully.
“He’s getting closer!” cried the spotter. The onset of true panic improved the volume and urgency of his voice, but at the cost of his judgment. “Just fire! For God’s sake, fire!”
The second man flipped the levers that opened the breach chambers on the double-barreled cannon. A momentary glug interrupted the rhythm of the compressor as epoxy and fixative sloshed into place. He waited a moment until the breach attained the proper hydraulic pressure, then closed off the chamber again. This one, at least, had listened to the lecture and, miracle of miracles, learned something.
“He’s halfway here!” said the spotter.
Chrétien asked, “He? Who’s he? All I see is a murderous ticktock that’s about ten seconds from leaping on this wall, scuttling up like a spider, and killing us all.”
“Jesus Christ,” cried the spotter, now in the throes of true panic, “just fire!”
“You’re oversimplifying, Sergeant, and shame on you for it,” said Longchamp, picking his teeth with a fingernail. “It won’t kill us all at once. It’ll start with the gunners, you know. Cut them in half before moving on to us. So we’ll enjoy a few more seconds to make our peace with the Lord before that Clakker carves us up.”
The merchant, hunkered behind the bulk of the cannon, blindly swung the barrel back and forth. “I can’t see! Where is it?”
“Anywhere! Northeast! Everywhere!”
The merchant-gunner squeezed the double trigger with a grip that turned his knuckles whiter than freshly fallen snow. Twinned streams of blue and yellow water vomited from the cannon barrels, combining over the crenels to make a single stream the color of the first springtime fringe on the maple trees. The explosive release of pressure from the breach set the cannon to kicking like a mad stallion. The barrels snapped up, forcing the controls down with enough force to make the merchant yelp. He lost his grip. The breachman leaped aside. The cannon fired uselessly into the sky, then slewed back and forth to slam against the battlement hard enough to knock chips from the granite. Another wild swing caught the spotter by surprise. It connected with the characteristic celery-stalk crunch of broken bones that sent him sprawling along the wall. The sprinter reached the wall a few seconds later without a drop of green on him.
The sergeant rounded on the spectacularly unsuccessful gunnery team. Over the crying of the spotter, he yelled, “What the hell was that?”
A spot of motion over the seaway caught Longchamp’s eye: a fluttering blur of gray and white against a powder-blue sky. Soon it resolved into a pigeon. The messenger flew low over the town of Marseilles‑in‑the-West. It climbed as it passed over the walls of the keep, twice circling the Spire. The pigeon coops were situated about halfway up the tower.
So. News from downriver. Longchamp sighed. Maybe for once the news would be good. Perhaps the tulips had caught the saboteur and found no connection to New France, no reason to swarm across the border to avenge their damaged pride. That would certainly merit the use of pigeon post. Pigeons were faster and more secure than the network of creaky semaphore towers snaked across New France.
He snorted hard enough to clear his sinuses, then spat salty phlegm over the parapet. It would take a particularly callow fool to stake hopes on such fancies. Longchamp retied his scarf, stamped the creeping numbness from his feet, and headed back to the base of the Porter’s Prayer to begin the long ascent.
* * *
The news from downriver was not good. It was a shitstorm of the Old Testament variety.
Dozens of messenger pigeons occupied the rows of cages situated within the alcove stretching halfway around the Spire. The coops were louder than a whorehouse on payday, though not as enjoyable. Cleaner, too: every ounce of guano went to the chemists. An apprentice birdkeeper was seeing to that duty when Longchamp barged, panting and sweating, through the door from the Porter’s Prayer. The boy jumped; the tray he’d been sweeping hit the floor, the splash stippling his clothes with flecks of white and brown.
“Saw the news arrive,” Longchamp gasped. “Where’d the little fucker go?”
The boy pointed across the rows of coops toward the interior of the Spire. His hand, which still held the brush, shook. Longchamp shook his head and scowled, because it was friendlier than growling. It had been like that since the massacre in the inner keep when he’d deactivated a rampant military Clakker the old-fashioned way, using a hammer, pick, and his entire life’s quota of good luck. Now every stupid bastard on the street looked at him like he was some kind of hero, and not an extraordinarily fortunate son of a bitch who’d gritted his teeth and done his job fully expecting to get skewered like a hairy pig. Longchamp left the apprentice to his ill-advised hero worship and tromped through the aisles of cages.
“Over here, Captain.” He recognized the voice of the on‑duty birdkeeper; they’d attended school together. That had been before he was expelled, though not before they’d fumbled a bit behind the chapel, playing fisherman and fisherwife. Brigit Lafayette wore a matching blouse and skirt of marigold and midnight-blue satin under a rainproof cloak of otter fur. She looked like a clown. The years had been kinder to her face than her dress sense. She added, “You must be sleeping atop the Spire these days, if you’re seeing the pigeons almost before we do.”
He followed her voice to the workshop she shared with the other birdkeepers. Brigit held the cooing messenger in one hand, delicately peeling away the message capsule strapped to its leg with the other. She glanced at Longchamp while an apprentice—a different one, a girl spattered with less bird shit than the boy he’d startled—caged the bird.
“You’re not getting enough sleep,” she said. “Your eyes are bloodshot.” She dropped her head, focusing her attention on the desk. Her voice dropped close to a whisper when she asked, “When was your last decent meal? I mean a real meal, with real food, and dessert, and company with whom to share it?”
“Shit,” he said.
There was only one capsule, he realized. Bad sign. Economy preferred loading the feathered rats with as much information as they could carry. A single capsule usually pointed to urgent news. Urgent news rarely pointed to rainbows and blow jobs.
“It’s a wonder for the ages why you never married, Hugo Longchamp.” For some reason she spoke more stiffly than she had a moment ago. Brigit turned the capsule over in her hand. “No special markings. It isn’t coded.”
After checking that none of the apprentices lingered among the nearby cages, she offered the capsule to the captain. He’d convinced the marshal general to grant him authority to read all uncoded traffic as it arrived. It was one of his conditions for accepting the promotion to captain of the guard. He’d expected it to become an argument, but in truth the marshal seemed content to let Longchamp shoulder as much of the real work as he could.
He said, “You might as well read it with me. Good or bad, the news will be all over the place before the bells ring Sext at midday. Earlier, if the news is terrible.”
Brigit unfurled the scrap of paper, but couldn’t read it until she’d rummaged the desk for a magnifying glass. It depressed Longchamp no small amount to think that she and he were of the same age. His eyes were no younger than hers, and they’d seen more terrors. His stomach growled. He was hungry enough to eat one of the pigeons, feathers and all, he realized. In fact . . . what had Brigit been saying about a meal? Had she been—
She put a hand over her mouth and swallowed a sob. The curled scrap of paper fluttered to the bench as she crossed herself with a trembling hand. Longchamp retrieved it. She found her voice and used it to call for an apprentice.
Pope Clement strangled. No murderer in custody. Swiss Guard silent.
Longchamp crossed himself for the third time that morning. Then he looked at the sky. He couldn’t see the entity of his attention, but felt confident he’d be heard. If the Virgin wasn’t inclined to intercede on his behalf when his thought strayed the tiniest bit from the pious path, she could damn well listen while he expressed his feelings fully and honestly.
“Is this a fucking joke? Go ahead and take a crap in our porridge while you’re at it.”
A boy arrived just in time to hear Longchamp’s tirade. His face turned the color of a broken bone. Brigit pried Longchamp’s fingers open to pluck the crumpled message from his grip. She handed it to the boy. “Run this up to the Council Chambers. If there’s nobody to take it, get it to one of the king’s attendants.”
“No.” The lad looked ready to piss himself when Longchamp snatched the scrap of paper away from him. “That lot has a bad habit of blaming the messenger. You shouldn’t be the one to bring them this news, lad.”
Longchamp bundled up once more, not looking forward to ascending the Spire again. The wind had picked up; it whistled through the cages.
“Remember what I said.” Brigit’s hand brushed his elbow. “About sleeping, and eating. You’re not the young man you once were. You have to be careful. This place needs you.” Her gaze flicked to the message scrap and back. “More and more every day.”
He headed for the Porter’s Prayer. She trailed after him. “At least ride the funicular, Hugo.”
Shaking his head, he said, “My strength is my livelihood. I’m worthless without it. The day I can’t climb the Spire on my own is the day you should bury me.”
He emerged in the lee of the tower. The wind hit him in the face when he’d climbed a quarter circuit. It carried a faint dusting of ice that forced him to squint. Low, dark clouds scudded across the fields to the west of Île de Vilmenon. Longchamp launched into a jog that took the stairs two at a time. Soon he was sweating.
Unless he’d forgotten his history, the tulips hadn’t moved against the Vatican since the so‑called Migration of Cardinals long ago. Sure as deer fucked in the woods, this was retaliation for the Forge. That ice queen on the Brasswork Throne had a burr up her ass.
A patch of frost caught him unawares. He stumbled, fell. He slid outward and down, bumping down the stairs toward the blood-colored banister. He caught a slat and arrested his fall before he went corkscrewing all the way down to the inner keep. Snow flurries, the advance units of the coming storm, dusted him with a thin white coat as he climbed to his feet. He’d have bruises from knee to hip.
What a clusterfuck. Longchamp wondered what the former Talleyrand would have made of it.