Read an excerpt from the thrilling sequel to WOLFHOUND CENTURY by Peter Higgins.
In the debatable borderland between night and day, the city of Mirgorod softens. A greyness that is not yet dawn settles on rooftops and gathers in wide empty avenues and squares. Yellow lamp-lit windows grow bleak and drab. Things move in the city, but surreptitiously, in the margins, with a muted, echoless quietness of speech. Mud-footed night-shapes pad away down alleys. A boatman winces at the raw gunning of his barge engine. A waiter eases the iron shutters of the Restaurant Hotel Aikhenvald carefully open so they will not clatter.
Low on the city’s eastern horizon, a gap opens in the growing milky bruise of morning and a surprising sliver of sun, a solar squint, spills watery light. The River Mir that has flowed black through the night kindles suddenly to a wide and wind-scuffed green. An exhalation of water vapour, too thin to be called a mist, rises off the surface. The breath of the river quickens and stirs, and on its island between the Mir and the Yekaterina Canal, moored against the embankment of the Square of the Piteous Angel, the Lodka condenses out of the subsiding night, blacker and blacker against the green-tinged yellowing sky. Its cliff-dark walls seem to belly outwards like the sides of a momentous swollen vessel. The jumbled geometry of its roofscape is forested with a hundred flagpoles, and from every pole a red flag edged with black hangs at half mast, draped and inert. Banners hang limply from parapets and window ledges: repetitious, identical fabrics of blood and black, the officious, unwavering, requiring stare of collective mourning.
Within the walls of the Lodka, the unending work of the Vlast goes on. Its skeleton crew, the three thousand watchkeepers of the night – civil servants, diplomats, secret police – are completing their reports and tidying their desks. First light is falling grey through the grimed glass dome onto the still-empty galleries of the Central Registry, where the great wheel of the Gaukh Engine stands motionless but expectant. On hundreds of yards of unlit shelving, the incoming files–the accusations and denunciations, the surveillance records, the intercepted communications – await the archivists of the new day. The stone slabs of the execution yards are being scrubbed and scoured with ammonia, and in the basement mortuary the new arrivals’ slabbed cadavers seep and chill.
In the Square of the Piteous Angel the morning light loses its first bright softness and grows complacent, ordinary and cold. Along the embankment the whale-oil tapers, burning in pearl globes in the mouths of cast-iron leaping fish, are bleached almost invisible, though their subtle reek still fumes the dampness of the air. The iron fish have heavy heads and bulging eyes and scales thick-edged like fifty-kopek coins. Their lamps are overdue for dousing. The gulls have risen from their night-roosts: they wheel low in silence and turn west for the shore.
And on the edge of the widening clarity of the square’s early emptiness, the observer of the coming day stands alone, in the form of a man, tall and narrow-shouldered in a dark woollen suit and grey astrakhan hat. His name is Antoninu Florian. He takes from his pocket a pair of wire-framed spectacles, polishes with the end of his silk burgundy scarf the circular pieces of glass that are not lenses, and puts them on.
It is more than two hundred years since Antoninu Florian first watched a morning open across Mirgorod. Half as old as the city, he sees it for what it is. Its foundations are shallow. Through the soles of his shoes on the cobbles he feels the slow seep and settle of ancient mud, the deep residuum of the city-crusted delta of old Mir: the estu- arial mud on which the Lodka is beached.
The river’s breath touches Florian’s face, intimate and sharing. Cold moisture-nets gather around him: a sifting connectedness; gentle, subtle water-synapses alert with soft intelligence. Crowding presences move across the empty square and tall buildings not yet there cluster against the skyline. The translucence of a half-mile tower that is merely the plinth for the behemoth statue of a man. Antoninu Florian has seen these things before. He knows they are possible. He has returned to the city and found them waiting still.
But today is a different day. Florian tastes it on the breath of the river. It is the day he has come back for. The long equilibrium is shifting: flimsy tissue-layers are peeling away, the might-be making way for the true and the is. And in Florian’s hot belly there is a feeling of continuous inward empty falling, a slow stumble that never hits the floor: he recognises it as quiet, uneasy fear. The breath of the river brings him the scent of new things coming. It tugs at him. Urges him. Come, it says, come. Follow. The woman who matters is coming today.
Florian hesitates. What he fears is decision. Choices are approaching and he is unsure. He does not know what to do. Not yet.
The curiosity of a man’s gaze rakes the side of his face. A gendarme is watching him from the bridge on the other side of the square. Florian feels the involuntary needle-sharpening of teeth inside his mouth, the responsive ache of his jaw to lengthen, the muscles of neck and throat to bunch and bulk. His human form feels suddenly awkward, inadequate, a hobbling constraint. But he forces it back into place and turns, hands in pockets, narrow shoulders hunched against the cold he does not feel, walking away down Founder’s Prospect.
The gendarme does not follow.
In her office high in the Lodka, on the other side of the Square of the Piteous Angel, Commander Lavrentina Chazia, chief of the Mirgorod Secret Police, put down her pen and closed the file.
‘We are living in great days, Teslom,’ she said. ‘Critical times. History is taking shape. The future is being made, here and now, in Mirgorod. Do you feel this? Do you taste it in the air, as I do?’
The man across the desk from her said nothing. His head was slumped forward, his chin on his chest. He was breathing in shallow ragged breaths. His wrists were bound to the arms of his chair with leather straps. His legs, broken at the knees, were tied by the ankles. His dark blue suit jacket was unbuttoned, his soft white shirt open at the neck: blood had flowed from his nose, soaking the front of it. He was a small, neat man with rimless circular glasses and a flop of rich brown hair, glossy when he was taken, but matted now with sweat and drying blood. Not a physical man. Unused to enduring pain. Unused to endurance of any kind.
‘Of course you feel it too,’ Chazia continued. ‘You’re a learned fellow. You read. You watch. You study. You understand. The Novozhd is dead. Our beloved leader cruelly blown apart by an anarchist’s bomb. I was there, Teslom. I saw it. It was a terrible shock. We are all stricken with grief.’
The man in the chair groaned quietly. He raised his head to look at her. His eyes behind their lenses were wide and glassy.
‘I’ve told you,’ he said. ‘A hundred times . . . a thousand . . . I know nothing of this. Nothing. I . . . I am . . . a librarian. An archivist. I keep books. I am the curator of Lezarye. Only that. Nothing more.’
‘Of course. Of course. But the fact remains. The Novozhd is dead. So now there is a question.’
The man did not reply. He was staring desperately at the heavy black telephone on the desk, as if its sudden bell could ring salvation for him. Let him stare. Commander Chazia stood up and crossed to the window. Mirgorod spread away below her towards the horizon under the grey morning sky. The recent floods were subsiding, barges moving again on the river.
There had been rumours that when the recent storms were at their height sentient beasts made of rain had been seen in the city streets. Dogs and wolves of rain. Rain bears, walking. Militia patrols had been attacked. Gendarmes ripped to a bloody mess, their throats torn out by hard teeth of rain. And rusalkas had risen from the flooded canals and rivers. Lipless mouths, broad muscular backs and chalk-white flesh. With expressionless faces they reached up and pulled men down to drown in the muddied waters. The rumours were probably true. Chazia had made sure that the witnesses and the story-spreaders were quietly shot in the basement cells of the Lodka. It was good that people were afraid, so long as they feared her more.
She had left Teslom long enough. She turned from the window and walked round behind his chair. Rested her hand on his shoulder. Felt his muscles quiver at her gentle touch.
‘Who will rule, Teslom? Who will have power? Who will govern now that the Novozhd is dead? That’s the question here. And you can help me with that.’
‘Please …’ said Teslom. His voice was almost too quiet to hear. ‘Please—’
‘I just need your help, darling. Just a little. Then you can rest.’
‘I . . .’ He raised his head and tried to turn towards her. ‘I . . . I can’t . . .’
Chazia leaned closer to hear him.
‘Let’s go over it again. Tell me,’ she said. ‘Tell me about the
Pollandore.’ ‘The Pollandore … ? A story. Only a story. Not a real thing … not something that exists . . . I’ve told you—’
‘This is a feeble game, Teslom. I’m not looking for it. It isn’t lost. It’s here. It’s in this building. I have it.’
He jerked his head round. Stared at her.
‘Do you want to see it?’ said Chazia. ‘It would interest you. OK, let’s do that, shall we? Maybe later. When we can be friends again. But first—’
‘If you already have it, then . . .’
‘The future is coming, Teslom. But who will shape it? Tell me about the Pollandore.’
‘I will tell you nothing. You … you and all your … you … you can all fuck off. ’
Chazia unbuttoned her uniform tunic, took it off and hung it on the back of Teslom’s chair. He was staring at the telephone again.
‘Do you know me, Teslom?’ she said gently.
‘I think you do not. Not yet.’
She rolled the sleeves of her shirt above the elbow. The smooth dark stone-like patches on her hands were growing larger. Spreading up her arms. The skin at the edges was puckered, red and sore and angry. The itching was with her always.
‘Let’s come at this from a different direction,’ she said. ‘A visitor came to the House on the Purfas. An emissary from the eastern forest. A thing that was not human. An organic artefact of communication. You’re surprised that I know this? You shouldn’t be. Your staff were regular and thorough in their reports. But I’m curious. Tell me about this visitor.’
She was stroking him now. Standing behind him, she smoothed his matted brown hair. He jerked his head away.
‘No,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I choose death. I choose to die.’
‘That’s nothing, Teslom.’ She bent her head down close to his. She could smell the sourness of his fear. ‘Everyone dies,’ she breathed in his ear. ‘Just not you. Not yet.’
As she spoke she slid her stone-stained hand across his shoulder and down the side of his neck inside his bloodied shirt, feeling his smooth skin, his sternum, the start of his ribs. She felt the beating of his heart and rested her hand there. Closing her eyes and feeling with her mind for the place. She had done this before, but it was not easy. It needed concentration. She let her fingers rest a moment on the gap in his ribs over his heart. Teslom was still. Scarcely breathing. He could not have moved if he wanted to: with her other hand she was pressing against his back, using the angel-flesh in her fingers to probe his spinal cord, immobilising him.
She had found the place above his heart. She dug the tips of her fingers into the rib-gap, opening a way. It needed technique more than strength, the angel-substance in her hand did the work. Teslom’s quiet moan of horror was distracting, but she did it right. She reached inside and cupped his beating heart in her palm. And squeezed.
His eyes widened in panic. He could see her hand deep in his chest. He could see there was no blood. No wound. It was not possible. But it was in there.
‘Are you listening to me, Teslom?’
He was weak. Cold sweat on the dull white skin of his face, livid blotches over his cheekbones. Chazia released the pressure a little. Let his heart beat again.
‘Are you listening to me?’
He shifted his head almost imperceptibly to the left. An attempt at a nod.
‘Good. So. This strange living artefact, this marvellous emissary from the forest. Why did it come? What did it want? Did it concern the Pollandore?’
‘It … I can’t …’
Chazia adjusted her grip on his heart.
‘There,’ she said. ‘Is that better? Can you talk now?’
‘Yes. Yes. Oh please. Get it out. Get it out. Stop.’
‘So tell me.’
‘The messenger. From the forest.’
‘It . . . addressed the Inner Committee.’
‘And what did it say?’
‘It said . . . it said there was an angel.’
‘A living angel. It had fallen in the forest and it was trapped there. It was foul and doing great damage. Oh. Please. Don’t . . .’
Chazia waited. Give him time. Let him speak. Patience. But his head had sunk down again and there was a congested bubbling in his chest. Perhaps she had been too harsh. Overestimated his strength. The silence lengthened. She lessened the pressure on his heart but kept her hand in place. It was the horror of seeing it in there, as much as anything, that made them speak.
‘Teslom?’ she said at last. ‘Tell me more. The forest is afraid of this living angel? Afraid it will do terrible things?’
‘And so? This emissary. Why did the forest send it? Was it the Pollandore?’
‘Of course. Yes. Open the Pollandore, it said. Now. Now is the time. Before it’s too late.’
‘Too late? For what?’
‘The Pollandore is breaking. It is failing, or leaking, or waking, or . . . something. I don’t know. I didn’t understand. It wasn’t clear . . . I can’t … I need to stop now … rest … please … for fuck’s sake …’
He coughed sour-smelling fluid out of his mouth. Viscous spittle stained with flecks of red and pink. It spilled on her forearm. It was warm.
‘You’re doing fine, Teslom. Good. Very good. Soon it will be over. Just a few more questions. Then you can rest.’
He struggled for breath, trying to bring his hands up to push her off. But his hands were strapped to the chair.
Chazia sensed his strength giving out. He was on the edge of death. She tried to hold him there, but she didn’t have complete control. There was a margin of uncertainty. But they had come to the crisis. The brink of gold. Crouching down beside him, she rested her head on his shoulder, her cheek against his.
‘Just tell me, darling,’ she said quietly. ‘How was the Pollandore to be opened?’
‘There was a key.’ He was barely whispering. ‘The paluba – the mes- senger – it brought a key.’
‘What kind of key?’
‘I don’t know. I didn’t see it. I wasn’t there. I heard. Only heard. Not a key. Not exactly. Not like an iron thing for a lock. But a thing that opens. A recognition thing. An identifier. I don’t know. The paluba offered it to the Inner Committee. Oh shit. Stop. Please.’
‘And what did the Inner Committee do?’
‘They refused the message. They were afraid. What could they do? They didn’t have the Pollandore. They lost it. The useless fuckers lost it long ago. Please—’
‘So they sent it away. The paluba. They sent it away.’
‘What happened then? What did the paluba do? Where did it go? What happened to the key?’
He closed his eyes. His head sank forward again. She was losing him.
‘Your daughter, Teslom. You have a daughter. You should think of her.’
‘She is pregnant.’
‘No … not her … Leave her alone!’
‘If you fail me now, I will reach inside your daughter’s belly for her feeble little unborn child – it’s a girl, Teslom, a girl, she doesn’t know this but I do – and I will take its skull between my fingers . . . like this . . .’ She paused. ‘Are you listening to me?’
‘Do you know that I will do this? Do you know that I will?’
She squeezed his heart again, gently. He screamed.
‘It’s all right, darling,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘Nearly finished now. Think of your daughter, Teslom. Think of her child.’
‘Oh no,’ he gasped. ‘Oh no. No.’
‘Where is the key to the Pollandore? Tell me how to find it.’
‘I don’t know!’
‘Then who? Who knows?’
‘The woman,’ said Teslom, so quiet Chazia could hardly hear.
‘The woman,’ he said again.
‘Shaumian.’ ‘What? Say it again, darling. Say the name again.’ ‘Shaumian. The key. It would go to the Shaumian woman next. If not the Committee . . . then Shaumian. Shaumian! ’
Chazia felt her own heart beat with excitement. Shaumian. She knew the name. And it led to another question. The most important question of all.
‘No more. Please. I can’t—’
‘Just one more thing, sweetness, and then you can have some peace. There are two Shaumian women. Was it the mother? Or the daughter? Which one was it, darling? Which one?’
‘I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Either. What’s the difference? It makes no difference. It doesn’t—’
‘Yes, it matters. The mother is dead. The mother dead, the daughter not. That’s the difference, darling. Mother or daughter?’
Teslom choked and struggled for breath. He was mouthing silence like a fish drowning in air. Chazia waited. Everything depended on what he said next.
‘Mother or daughter?’ whispered Chazia gently. ‘Mother or daughter, darling?’
‘Daughter then.’ His voice was almost too quiet to hear. ‘Daughter. The key would be for the daughter.’
‘Maroussia Shaumian? Be sure now. Tell me again.’
‘Yes! For fuck’s sake. I’m telling you. That’s the name. Shaumian. Shaumian! Maroussia Shaumian!’
He was screaming. Chazia felt his heart clenching and twitching in her hand. Shoving the blood hard round his body. He was working his lungs fast and deep. Too fast. Too deep.
It didn’t matter. Not any more. She squeezed.
When she had killed him, she withdrew her hand from his chest, wiped it carefully on a clean part of his shirt and went back round to her side of the desk. Turned the knob on the intercom box. Pulled the microphone towards her mouth.
‘Yes, Commander.’ The voice crackled in the small speaker.
‘There is a mess in my office. Have it cleared away. And I need you to find someone for me. A woman. Shaumian. Maroussia Shaumian. There is a file. Find her for me now, Iliodor. Find her today and bring her to me.’