Where magic is dark and gritty, characters troubled and twisted, and victory comes at a heavy price.
Deep under the City of Glass in the frozen southern land, an age-old machine called the Heart of the City radiates a power which locals call icefire. Most citizens are immune to it, but a few, always born with physical disabilities, can bend it to their will. For fifty years, the ruling Eagle Knights, who fly on the back of giant birds, have killed these Imperfects, fearing the return of the old royal family, who used icefire to cut out people’s hearts, turning them into ghostly servitors.
The old king’s grandson Tandor only sees the good things icefire brought: power and technology now forgotten while the people of the south live in dire poverty. He’s had enough of seeing his fellow kinsfolk slaughtered by ignorant Knights, of Imperfect babies being abandoned on the ice floes to be eaten by wild animals. His grandfather’s diary tells him how to increase the beat of the Heart the first step to making the land glorious once more. Arrogant as he is, he sets the machine in motion. All he needs is an army of Imperfect servitors to control the resulting power.
Isandor is Imperfect, an ex-Knight apprentice, betrayed by his best friend and running for his life.
The queen Jevaithi is Imperfect, living like a prisoner amidst leering Knights, surviving only because the common people would rebel if their beloved queen were harmed.
Both are young and desperate and should be grateful that Tandor wants to rescue them from their hopeless situations. Or so he thinks. The youngsters, however, have no inclination to become heartless ghosts, but while they defy Tandor, the Heart beats, and he alone cannot control its power.
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Somewhere not far from the edge of the plateau, where the goat-track snaked up the rock-strewn slope, the rain had turned to snow. Cocooned in his cloak, his view restricted to the swaying back of the camel, Tandor had failed to notice until a gust of wind pelted icicles into his face. He whipped off the hood and shook out his hair. The breeze, crackling with frost, smelled of his homeland. Oh, for a bath, to wash off the clinging dust and the stink of the prairie lands, of steam trains or the bane of his existence: this grumpy camel.
To his left, the escarpment descended into the land of Chevakia, its low hills and valleys bathed in murky twilight. To his right, the dying daylight touched the forbidding cliff face that formed the edge of the southern plateau, accessible only to those who knew the way.
Something flashed where the ragged rocks met the leaden sky. A tingle went up Tandor’s golden claw, pinching the skin where the metal rods met the stump of his arm.
He peered up, shielding his eyes against the snow. Golden threads of icefire betrayed the boy’s presence, flooding Tandor with feelings of relief, of urgency, of panic.
Wait, wait, Ruko, not so fast. Tell me what’s going on.
There was no answer, of course. Ruko conversed only in images, and Tandor needed to be close to the boy to catch those. But Ruko’s emotions had spoken clearly enough.
By the skylights, something had happened while he was away.
He flicked the reins to jolt the camel into a faster pace. The animal grumbled and tossed its head, but did as it was told.
Ruko waited at a rocky outcrop to the left of the path, seated cross-legged in the snow. An ethereal form, his skin blue-marbled, his brooding eyes black as a lowsun night. His chest shimmered where his heart should be. A lock of hair hung, dark and lanky, over his forehead; he shook it away in an impatient gesture.
Tandor slid off the camel’s back. He held out his two hands, one of flesh, the other a golden claw.
Ruko rose, towering at least a head over Tandor.
By the skylights, did that boy ever stop growing? While Tandor had been away, he had discarded his soft childish look for planes and angles.
Ruko put his hand in Tandor’s. The intense cold of it made Tandor gasp, but he steeled himself and sent a jolt of icefire into Ruko’s arm.
The image of the two hands, the live one and the blue one, faded for a scene of chaos. Huge birds with tan-coloured wings, white heads and yellow beaks swooped down on the village, carrying Eagle Knights in their traditional red tunics and short-hair cloaks, the swords on their belts clearly visible. They landed their birds in front of the guesthouse, jumped in the snow and ran to the houses, banged on doors, dragged out occupants. Adults, children.
‘What, Ruko? What happened?’
All those children Tandor had saved. He thought Bordertown was a safe haven, no longer frequented by merchants, no longer of interest to the Eagle Knights.
Images flowed through Tandor’s mind. Snow under his feet as Ruko ran from the village, screams from women, shouts from men. Trees flashing past. Crossbow bolts thunking into wood.
And later, the main square, empty, except for deep tracks in the snow and a single child’s mitten.
Ruko’s shoulders slumped. There was a brief glimpse of the red-cheeked face of a girl, smiling. Shame. And grief.
Tandor pushed Ruko’s chin up. ‘No, Ruko, it’s not your fault.’
If anything, it was Tandor’s. He had left the boy alone; he couldn’t have done otherwise. He had needed to travel to Chevakia, and Ruko couldn’t leave the southern land. Across the border, where there was no icefire, Ruko would simply cease to exist.
Ruko batted Tandor’s hand away.
‘Being angry with me doesn’t help. What can I do about it?’
Ruko’s fury burned inside him. His screams for his girl dragged away by a Knight. His pounding on the Knight’s back with insubstantial fists. Without the presence of the master, a servitor was little more than a ghost. Ruko reached for Tandor’s belt for the dagger and the Chevakian powder gun.
‘No–you’re not to kill anyone. Stay here. I’m going into town to see how many children they took.’
There had better be some left, or his plan was in tatters.
Tandor swung himself back in the saddle. ‘Behave yourself.’
In case the order wasn’t enough, he let icefire crackle from his clawed hand. Golden strands snaked around Ruko’s legs and then into the snow.
Ruko glowered at him.
‘Behave, and you will get your revenge, I promise.’
He flicked the reins and the camel turned towards the town. The southern plain spread before him, white, flat, the horizon bleeding into the grey sky. A gathering of low buildings lay in the snow like scattered fire-bricks. Smoke curled from the chimneys. Light radiated from the windows, golden rectangles that were the only spots of colour in the grey dusk, occasionally interrupted by the silhouette of a head: someone checking out this late visitor.
There was no sound except the squeak of the saddle and the croaking of the camel’s footsteps in the freshly-fallen snow. The soft blanket had long since erased the signs of the events Ruko had witnessed in the town streets. How long ago had that been? A few days, he guessed, no more. If only I’d come back earlier.
Stupid Chevakian trains, stupid Chevakian bureaucrats not allowing the camel on the train.
At a house with a deep front yard which held a shed, Tandor tapped the camel’s shoulder. The beast sank stiffly to its knees, uttering a protesting howl.
Tandor slid from the saddle and led the beast through a creaky gate, through the yard to the shed which stood slightly apart from the house. He pushed aside the bar across the doors, dislodging clumps of snow which rained over his glove and golden claw, and went inside.
The plainsman had kept his part of the bargain. The box in the corner contained straw and a bale of hay, albeit a very dusty one.
He tied up the camel and left it to attack the hay, and ploughed through knee-deep snow to the house, a sturdy construction of rough stone.
The top floor was dark, but warm light peeped around the frayed edges of a curtain in a ground floor window. He knocked. Locks rattled; the door creaked open.
It was the plainsman Ontane himself who stood there, unshaven, dressed in a loose woollen robe.
For a moment, he squinted into the dusk, but then he shrank back into the hall, pushing the door half-shut. ‘No, no. She isn’t here.’
Tandor stopped him slamming the door with his golden arm, the points of his pincer-claw cutting gouges in the wood. ‘Where is your daughter?’
‘Inside, but you can’t see–‘
‘I can’t see her? Is that what you’re saying? Fifteen years ago, I saved your daughter’s life, but I can’t see her?’
‘The man said–‘
‘The man? Most likely, he came from the City of Glass, didn’t he? Most likely, he rode an eagle, didn’t he? And most likely he told you to give up all your citizens with . . . defects.’ With each sentence, he thrust his golden claw closer to Ontane’s chest. ‘Imperfects. Like me. Huh? Is that what he said?’
Ontane licked his lips and straightened his back. ‘He said we be punished if the Knights found people like them. They got us all to come out of our houses and ransacked the place if they thought we’s hiding something. Then they lined up the children and took them all away.’
‘To the City of Glass?’ Please, let this not be true.
Ontane shrugged. ‘How do I know?’ ‘All of them?’
Tandor clenched his good hand into a fist. ‘Yes, except . . .’
‘Except what?’ Tandor almost screamed.
Ontane tried to retreat further, but already stood with his back against the wall. ‘No, no. I can’t tell you.’
‘Except the one who was born since the others left, is that what you were going to say? Except your daughter and her child?’ All those children he had saved over the last fifteen years. All gone?
‘Not born. Not yet. They said they wasn’t going to take my daughter in the condition she’s in.’
‘Let me see her.’
‘No!’ Ontane planted his hands at his sides.
‘Why not? Would I pay for your daughter’s food if I wanted to harm her child?’
‘You’ll do to the child what you did to that poor boy.’
Ruko. ‘That poor boy lived with an abusive family from which I saved him. That poor boy is only poor because you turned your backs on him.’
Ontane muttered, ‘Not a surprise, that is. He crackles with icefire, and the cold of him would freeze the kindest heart. Stupid as we be in your eyes, the villagers are not letting such in their houses as they do not understand. You know you can see through him? Here?’ He put his hand on the position of his heart.
Of course you could. Ruko was a servitor. He had given his heart in exchange for his missing foot, and in exchange for never having to eat or never to be cold again. Tandor took a deep breath to calm himself. ‘Have you spoken to him since?’ Ontane gave Tandor a what-do-you-take-me-for look. ‘I haven told you many times: he won’t harm you.’
‘So you say, so you say. But many of us can’t even see him, and to the rest of us he looks like a spirit.’
Unbelievable. The Imperfect children had lived here for as long as fifteen years; the villagers should be used to them.
‘I’ll be taking Ruko. There is no point in leaving him here any longer. I want my sled to be ready tomorrow morning with a bear and supplies.’
A look of business came to Ontane’s eyes. ‘Usual fee?’
Tandor nodded. ‘The usual fee.’ He let a silence lapse and added, ‘Can I see your daughter?’
Ontane opened his mouth, but Tandor said, ‘No look, no business.’
A silence, shifty eye movements, before Ontane said, ‘Jus’ a look then.’
Still eyeing Tandor suspiciously, he moved into the house.
Tandor followed him through the hall, where a flapping candle cast long shadows over unpainted walls and a threadbare carpet. They entered a dimly-lit room with a blazing fire in the hearth. In the chair against the far wall sat a girl, barely fifteen, propped up on pillows. Her face was pale and delicate, her hair dark but fine and straight. Her cheeks were red from the cold. A plain woollen dress stretched tightly over her extended belly.
Tandor breathed in deeply. The tingling of icefire snaked out from the child inside its mother’s womb: golden strands only he could see. Wild, untamed power. It called out to him, sang to him, like the voices of the mythical sirens said to be luring sailors on the iced sea. He was sure: the child would be Imperfect. His life’s work had finally brought success.
The girl’s eyes widened. ‘Da, what’s he doing here? Take him away!’
Her father pulled at Tandor’s cloak. ‘Now leave, you sorcerer. You’ve seen her.’
With regret, Tandor let go of that tingling and retreated into the hall. He forced his breath to calm. ‘See? I mean her no harm.’
Ontane said nothing; the suspicious look didn’t vanish from his face.
Tandor forced a smile. ‘I’ll let the child grow up with her, don’t worry.’ After all, it was only in adulthood that the child would be of use to him.
Ontane snorted. ‘Well, let’s just say I believe that when I see it.’
He accompanied Tandor through the hall back to the door. When he opened it, an icy breeze blew in a flurry of snowflakes.
Tandor stepped into the cold. With his good hand, he dug in his pocket and flicked Ontane a silvergull. The coin caught the light as it span through the air, before Ontane closed his fist around it. The language of money convinces you easily enough. ‘My sled, with a strong bear. Provisions for six days.’
Ontane nodded once and shut the door.
In total silence, Tandor strode through the village, trying to ignore heads vanishing behind curtains. All you shallow greedyguts. Took my money while it was available, but cared nothing for the lives of the children who lived with you? In all these fifteen years, nothing had changed. In fact, nothing had changed since his mother had fled the City of Glass.
Well, things were going to have to change now.
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