The earth below the city was riddled with caves – hundreds, perhaps thousands, of kilometres of them, worming their way deep into the bedrock – for ice had been mined from the depths for uncounted generations. No one could ever become familiar with more than the tiniest fraction of the bewildering network, but some fancied they knew it better than most; men and women with pale faces and hunched shoulders, to whom the surface was foreign territory. But none of them, living or dead, knew of this place. This was one of the oldest chambers, and the deepest, delved by the Ancestors centuries before the city above took shape. It was a high, domed cavern with smooth walls. Once, the space had been filled with the unknowable devices of the departed ancients but these had been removed long ago, reused and worn to scrap, recycled for parts and mysterious technology, incorporated into new devices entirely, which themselves were destroyed by generations of use, and so on and so on until anything that might have originated in this place was hopelessly scattered to every corner of the world. In place of the arcane machinery of the Ancestors was now a large round table carved from a single block of smooth, gleaming black stone, surrounded by chairs of the same make. The thin light in the room was provided by priceless electrical lamps built into the ceiling, powered by cunningly hidden circuits. The walls still bore the markings made by the Ancestors; writing in strange symbols and odd images of things that made no sense. Figures and glyphs, and the sigil that was found in many places held sacred by its lost makers – two circles, one red one blue, the colours now faded to pale shadows, etched so that they overlapped with the intersection shaded green. Much later, when the Ancestors were already nothing more than a memory, the walls received new embellishments of opulence appropriate to the chamber’s intended use. Columns of solid ice, pale and gleaming, subtly crystalline, had been built into the stone. To keep them intact, the air was cooled by a complex refrigeration system. Even so, they constantly sweated clear water and left tepid pools at their bases. It was necessary to shore them up after a time, packing more unprocessed ice into each column, smoothing it out with careful strokes. The slaves chosen to undertake this task were gagged so they wouldn’t be tempted to drink. Still more precious water was on display in the centre of the table, where a round bowl carved from the same black stone was filled to the brim and set to bubbling by a hidden mechanism so that the water constantly spilled over the sides and was channelled into a number of narrow grooves in the surface of the table. From here, the water flowed to the edges, equidistant between each pair of seats so as to divide the table into equal segments, and was left to trickle carelessly onto the dusty ground. Here, in this chill chamber, the masters of the city, the Water Barons, held their clandestine summits.
Lord Arilix entered by one of the chamber’s doors to find his contemporaries already waiting for him in their accustomed places. They were a motley band, as befit their disparate portfolios. Some were simply masters of business who had accumulated unfathomable wealth – or more likely owed their positions of privilege to shrewder antecedents – and these variously flaunted their assets or were conspicuously reserved. Several wore garments of Ancestor Cloth, the remarkable material of which only rare fragments remained. As a result they appeared oddly patchwork, but the provenance of the fabric was obvious enough that they might as well have been garbed in the latest fashions. Others wore ordinary clothes, but cut impeccably and worn with the kind of style and panache that only real money could buy. The rest were much stranger, none more so than Envoy It’kar, who regarded Arilix calmly as he took his seat, flanked by two of his sworn guards.
It’kar represented the interests of the icemen in the city. This was one of the few environments this far south in which he could sit comfortably without his equipment to sustain him. His skin was a waxy blue-white, completely devoid of hair, which would have been disturbing enough, but it was his eyes that always unnerved Arilix most of all. Where a normal person’s would have been white, his were blood-red, with a tiny black pupil as small as a pinprick. It was said the icemen saw in heat rather than light, and that the surface world was to them a jumble of vivid colour except in their own frozen territory. There, an invader could be sighted from kilometres away in even the heaviest blizzard; a blaze of red in the darkness. Or maybe those were just stories the icemen spread to make themselves seem even more terrifying.
They all watched him expectantly, and Arilix allowed himself to savour this moment of delicious triumph. Gagged slaves moved around the room, distributing drinks from trays, ignored by their masters. The silence stretched, but Arilix was determined not to be the first to crack. Finally, Lady Zanit leant forward and arched an inquisitive eyebrow. “Well?”
Arilix spread his hands across the cold table, smiling broadly. He looked around at each of his companions’ faces. Surely they knew by his demeanour that he had done all he’d promised. Even now, they would each be calculating, trying to determine where their advantage lay. Some would be pleased by the outcome, others troubled at what it might mean for the balance of power. Arilix had the measure of all of them save It’kar, who of course didn’t technically have any stake in anything that happened in the city above. “It is done,” he eventually said.
There were sighs of relief from some of the less subtle of the Barons, or those with an interest in appearing to be less politically adept than they actually were. Zanit’s expression didn’t change. “All of it?” she pressed.
“Yes.” He held up fingers, counting off. “The first assassin did his task. The second killed the first, and the third – who we made certain didn’t witness either of the first two killings – killed the second. The trail is colder than the Envoy’s flesh.”
A whisper of a smile might have passed across It’kar’s face, or maybe it was just his imagination. “You have proof?” Zanit pressed.
“The body was found by the city’s guards. I have the records from the morgue, if you wish to peruse them.” He snapped his fingers and one of his guards took a folder from within his jacket and passed it to him.
“That won’t be necessary,” said Lord Fetan with a wave of one chubby hand.
Zanit shot him a look, and Arilix thought she might have been about to disagree, but then she shrugged and sat back, wearing a seemingly satisfied smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “Then he’s dead. That’s the main thing.”
“Yes,” Arilix nodded. He felt his pulse quicken as he prepared to say the words. This was the moment all of them had waited for. Knowing that he would be the one to say it was almost orgasmic. “Carek is dead.”
The ripple of satisfaction that went around the table actually surprised him. It was the equivalent of raucous cheering from any other group of people. Basking in the adulation, he gestured for a slave to pour him a measure of blackfire, and tossed it back in one gulp, relishing the unique multi-faceted burn as it made its way down his gullet and into his stomach. This was a good moment.
There was one voice of dissent. Lady Brenet, who had been ancient enough when Arilix was a young man and now resembled a crumbling nub of desert stone, peered at Zanit and then around the table. Her eyes were milky white, but Arilix had always suspected this was a cosmetic affectation. “That,” she rasped, “is hardly the main thing.” Her unnerving gaze fell upon him and he couldn’t help flinching slightly. He hoped the others didn’t notice. “The artefact.”
“You think I’d come here without it?” Another gesture to a guard, who took out a small object and passed it reverently to Arilix. He brandished it smugly. “You see?”
“Are you certain it’s what we seek?” Lord Gotha asked, sounding almost hungry.
“You’ve activated it then?” Brenet said.
“It was on his person.”
Arilix felt his mood darken. “You know Carek is cunning and clever. I’m not going to put my servants at risk if that malcontent scum booby trapped his little device.”
Gotha rolled his eyes. “What’s the point of having servants if not to have them die in your place? Pass it here. I have no fear.”
“Feel free.” Arilix handed it back to his guard, who circled the table, passing it over to one of Gotha’s guards, who then conveyed it to his master. Gotha turned it over in his hands. “Careful,” Arilix smiled.
“What could be in this?” The object was just a tarnished metal rectangular frame with a few buttons and panels on it.
Brenet’s wizened face broke into a broad smile, and her blank eyes somehow managed to take on a predatory gleam. “A Baron who sat at this table long before you were born was undone by an explosive small enough to fit on the inside of an eyelid.”
Gotha visibly blanched. “An eyelid…?”
“Hm. Yes. Poor girl. The yield was very small, really, but the eye is such a delicate organ. She was never quite the same afterwards.”
“Perhaps…” he made to hand it off to his guard. The man looked terrified.
“There is no active device, explosive or otherwise, in that object.” It was It’kar who spoke, his voice like cracking ice, instantly cutting through the general hubbub. The Envoy’s pale fingers were clasped before him, and his unnerving stare was fixed on the artefact.
“No active device?” Zanit asked. “What does that mean?”
“It means he’s a liar,” Brenet cackled, “What is this really, Arilix?”
“He carried it. It matches the description. Give it to someone who knows how to use it, Gotha!”
They all knew who he meant. One member of the group had remained silent throughout, and along with It’kar alone, was not accompanied by any kind of retinue. She was a strange figure, dressed in clothes that were somewhere between practical overalls and robes of office. She wore a low hood, and what was visible of her face was painted strangely. “Guildmistress?” Brenet’s tone was oddly respectful as she addressed the cowled woman.
“Show me,” came a reply as flat and emotionless as cogwheels grinding. A hand was proffered. Arilix tried not to stare. Gotha passed the artefact over, and the Guildmistress took it. She turned it over in her hands, then held a finger over one of the panels. Withered white flesh peeled back to reveal a jagged tool in place of a nail and much of the bone, and she wielded it as precisely as she would a natural appendage. All watched in silence as she pried open the frame’s casing and examined its innards with a uniquely expert eye. Was it Arilix’s imagination, or did her pupils glitter like diamonds? Someone had told him once that crystals could be used to focus light and magnify objects viewed through them. What the Guild did to their bodies was a mystery, but they alone had mastery of Ancestor tech, and they guarded their knowledge jealously. “This will not function,” she pronounced after a few moments in the same mechanical tone.
“What?!” Arilix stood up from his chair and drove his fists into the table. The bowl in the centre wobbled slightly.
“The source has been removed.”
“Source? What source?”
She turned the artefact around as if he’d be able to make any sense at all of what he was seeing. She pointed with a spindly metal joint at a cavity in the frame. “Look here. This is a device for displaying images wrought in light, but it is a projection only. A source is required, to provide both power and data, or this is nothing but an empty frame.” She tossed it aside nonchalantly.
“Do you know who could have removed it?” Zanit asked the Guildmistress. She was starting to look smug. Arilix sat down, not bothering to conceal the black fury he felt. He pointed meaningfully at his glass and before the slave filling it had even moved away, he’d drained it dry.
“It would take someone with an understanding of this technology to do so,” she replied, “no one outside the Guild has such expertise.”
“Except Carek,” Brenet said.
“He was a tinkerer,” Gotha scoffed, “an enthusiastic amateur.”
“He was far more than that,” the old woman told him, “I knew him longer than any of you. If he had a mind to do so, there was nothing that man couldn’t discover. Remember, he unearthed the artefact in the first place. He may well have sabotaged it. Guildmistress: could he have removed the source and hidden it somewhere else.”
“Perhaps, but it would be impossible to find again.”
Arilix frowned. “Why?”
The Guildmistress turned, and he shuddered as her weirdly sparkling stare settled on him. “The source is not designed to be removed in this fashion. It resembles a bead of light, no larger than a grain of sand. It could be hidden almost anywhere. Lost almost anywhere.”
“But without the device itself,” It’kar observed, “the source is useless, is that so, Guildmistress?”
She nodded. “It is so, Envoy.”
“Then we need fear nothing,” Lord Elpar said with a wide smile, “they can’t carry out their absurd plan without their map, can they?”
“We made the mistake of underestimating Carek once,” Brenet reminded him, “we should not do the same for those who survive him. His band of dissidents lives on, and they will be even more determined to fulfil their aims now that their leader is dead.”
“Then we will root them out and kill them,” Gotha vowed as he clenched his fist.
“You must find the source.” It’kar’s words silenced them all again.
“Why?” Zerat asked him haughtily. “Our aim was to end this rebellion. What does the artefact matter?”
“It matters. It is the will of my people that it be found. It is why I am here.”
Arilix looked around the table. If that was the case, he was certain none of them had known about it. “Your masters want the artefact?”
“It should go to the Guild,” said the Guildmistress blankly.
“It must be repaired,” It’kar continued, “its value is incalculable.”
“Perhaps that is so,” Fetan said, “but you are a mere Envoy at our council, and you wield no power here.”
It’kar turned very slowly. His gaze fell upon Fetan and the Baron licked his lips nervously. The iceman reached into the channel of flowing water beside him and held his hand very still, blocking its progress. The channel began to overflow, but there was something odd about how the water moved. It seemed to thicken and slow, and Arilix perceived after a moment that ice crystals were beginning to form in its churning depths. There was something subtly unnatural about the way it coalesced and froze, turning from a cresting wake into heaped layers of pale ice. It’kar, still staring at Fetan, pulled his hand free. The barrier of ice remained, causing the water that still burbled from the bowl to spill across the table. Soon the ice began to fragment and melt under the pressure of the flow, and it was swept away. The point was made though. Ice: giver of life. Liquid water couldn’t exist on the surface; it would boil away in moments. The only way to sustain civilisation was by mining the ancient ice deposits buried deep underground, and there were few enough seams left that still yielded anything like their former bounty. That was why the icemen had come down from their distant realm. Once figures of legend, they were now a common sight in most cities, and they brought with them their inexhaustible supplies of ice to barter for strange things, certain technological artefacts amongst them. In the kingdom of the icemen, it was so cold that the land itself was covered in solid ice, for there were times when day never came and night lasted half a year. That mythical realm was beyond the great red desert though, unreachable by anyone save the savage marauders, who were little better than the ugly beasts they rode. It’kar, it was hardly necessary to remind them, had the power and influence to destroy any of them he chose. “You will find the source,” he repeated, now staring at each of them in turn. “This was no accident. Before he died, Carek hid the secret of his map. It must be uncovered. Is there any clue or hint of where it could have gone? Anyone he spoke to before his death?”
Arilix shifted in his seat and then cleared his throat. All eyes were on him again. “A prisoner was brought to the stockade,” he offered, “she was found with his corpse.”
“Who is she?” Zerat asked.
“No one. A marauder.”
“In the city?”
“A scavenger, most likely,” Gotha suggested, “carrion is all those barbarians know.” He snorted derisively.
Aralix shrugged. “She’s in a cell in the stockade if you want to question her.”
One of his guards leant close and whispered into his ear. “Actually, sir, I received a report just before we left…”
As the belated message was conveyed, Aralix’s face dropped and his eyes widened. He could feel his moment of glory slipping away.