Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky – Extract

Seal of the Worm

One

It was cold down in the bowels of the earth. The darkness was not the same hindrance to her that it was to her companions, but the cold she could do nothing about.

Worse than that was the absence. Born Apt in Collegium, she had no precise words for it. Perhaps the Moths might have done before her ancestors had thrown them out. To a magician, every place had its own feel. There was some additional sense thus engaged that the Apt could never guess at, and that she herself was still learning how to use. Travelling from her home city to the halls beneath Khanaphes, from the great wild expanses of the Commonweal to the tortuous knots of the Mantis forest, all these places had touched her and informed her, even if she had not realized it. There had been a constant voice, and now it was gone – at best. At worst, when she strained that unnamed sense of hers to the utmost, she could hear something else.

A chanting, a susurration from the stone depths. The voice of the enemy. The voice of the Worm.

They were all in the realm of the Worm. In her rage, the Empress Seda had broken the Seal holding that common enemy in its prison domain for a thousand years. Che and her companions had been cast into that dark closed-off place.

It was still closed off, like a woodlouse clasped about itself, but uncurling now, slowly but surely. There would be cracks showing already, weak points that the Worm could pierce to cross, experimentally, into the wide world beyond. Che had thought to do the same, at first. So simple, to exercise her powers as a great magician in this magic-forged place, where surely power was concentrated and free for the taking. She would find out where the fractures were, and she would leave the Worm’s realm before its denizens ever realized new guests had arrived.

But that sense, that ability of hers, had fled. She could not breathe water. She could not walk through rock. The medium of this place was inimical to her powers. She, crowned by the Masters of Khanaphes as inheritrix of the ancient ways, had been cut off from her throne and from her inheritance. She was denied the Aptitude that was her birthright, and also the magic that was its replacement. Without those crutches, she fell.

Only one lifeline remained to her. She yet held on to one faint and tenuous connection back to the world, as if fate had considered her exile not cruel enough. Seda was still her sister, in some perverse, bitter way. They had been crowned at the same time. They were linked. Sometimes, unbidden, Che sensed her.

She knew, from this bond, that the doom that had befallen her and her fellows had not touched Seda. Seda was free, still out in the world.

Seda had won.

Faced with that realization, something had broken inside Che. She was aware that she had been down here now – if down was even a meaningful word for where she was – for some time, for days, tendays, months even. She was moved, goaded to her feet and forced onwards from place to place. The hands that shoved at her, that grabbed at her and pulled and would not let her just sit down and give up – they belonged to her friends. She remembered them, distantly. She had brought them to this fate, led them here to their banishment. She would not have blamed them if they abandoned her in the dark, just left her behind. Possibly she would have preferred that, but they would not let her be.

They brought her food. It was horrible, uncooked and slimy, breaking into brittle, dry pieces in her mouth. They would not leave her alone until she had eaten. They brought her metallictasting water.

Sometimes she was aware that they were hunted, and then they hustled her along from hiding place to hiding place. In the depths that she inhabited – her own personal prison – she could not raise sufficient curiosity to care who pursued them, or why. Let it be the Worm, was all she thought. Let it make an end of me. For surely that hideous, all-consuming monster of legend was more than equal to the task.

In those moments she listened too hard and heard that chanting, ranting echo of it, so distant and yet so potent and hateful, she knew it could do more than make an end of her: it could make an end of all the world. The Worm was a thing apart from Apt and Inapt, from mere kinden and kin. The Worm would devour the world, and Seda had given it the chance to do so.

*

After unknown ages, there was fire.

Che had lived with the cold and the dark – within and without – for so long that at first she did not understand what it was. The feel of warmth on her skin, the light – so brazen, such a lure to all the dangers of this place – it was like a distant beacon to her, calling her back from the lonely places where she had become lost.

She, who could see in darkness, only realized how blind she had become to her surroundings as she began to return to them. How long. . .? But she could not know. Some part of her, some internal regulator that marked the hours and days, had ceased to function once she was cast down here. The land of the Worm had no sunrise, no phases of the moon. Timeless, undying, it had lain here for an age beneath an unchanging stone sky. It was beyond the sun, therefore beyond time.

Her eyes were already open, but she opened them anyway, beginning to see rather than just stare vacantly.

She remembered her companions, her friends, fellow inmates of this final asylum. What could be worse than being a lone prisoner of this dungeon? Being responsible for the imprisonment of others. She found their faces as the fire lit them, one by one.

There was Tynisa, her sister in upbringing if not in blood, Weaponsmaster, Tisamon’s daughter. Tynisa, whose revenant father was now a slave to the Empress, bound by chains of magic. The girl had always run ahead through all the years of their shared childhood, with poor clumsy Che stumbling in her wake. So how did it come to this, that she has followed me even to this place? Che could feel all the sharp points of the Mantis breaking through Tynisa’s Spider-kinden facade, and all it told her was how fragile that combination really was.

Thalric next, her enemy, her captor, her victim.Thalric, whom she had wrested from the Empress, transformed from Imperial consort to renegade lover of one Cheerwell Maker, dysfunctional Beetle magician. How could he cope in the realm that she had come to? His limited ability to accept or understand magic must have broken him, surely . . .? And yet here he was, still sitting beside her. The hand that cradled hers was his. She knew its callouses and its lines, the touch that warmed her, the heat in it that could kill.

Further from her: Maure, the halfbreed magician from the Commonweal, no doubt fiercely wishing she had stayed there. She lacked Che’s power but far surpassed her in understanding. Seeing her, Che found hope: surely Maure could help her. The woman was a survivor. She must have some way of wriggling free from the bonds of this place.

And last of them: the unexpected, the unasked, the assassin. Esmail, his name was, and he had travelled in the Empress’s company. He had tried to kill Seda, and he had succeeded in putting an end to the ancient Moth magician, Argastos. That success and that failure together had led to him being by Che’s side when the Empress had unleashed her wrath. But he was a killer by blood and by training and by deed. He had surely earned his place in this realm of the damned.

Her hand clenched suddenly on Thalric’s and he started. She heard him speak her name, soft and almost in her ear, as though wanting to keep her only to himself.

The fire leapt in her eyes, dancing in unnatural hues of violet, blue, corpselight green. The colours glinted on the enclosing walls: a cave? Of course a cave, but she had a sense that they had previously been travelling through vast spaces, caverns whose ceilings were high beyond guessing. Her residual senses recalled waterfalls, lakes that were almost seas, the far constellations of distant cities.

There was a smell of food – of meat cooking – and abruptly Che felt hungrier than she had ever been. On cue, Thalric drew her hand towards a flat rock on which strips and shreds of something pallid and stringy were laid out.

It looked awful, but it was meat and it was hot, so she ate with vigour. Chewy but almost tasteless, it was not what she had been living on since . . . since whenever.

‘Someone tell me what’s going on,’ Che said at last. ‘What’s happened since we . . . Since whatever. I don’t care who, but someone tell me.’

‘Now there’s the Che we were looking for,’ Thalric remarked drily. ‘Always with the useless questions.’ His sardonic smile was leavened by something uncharacteristic, though: worry. Worry for her.

‘We’ve been on our own down here for a long time,’ Maure declared, her voice strung taut with fatigue and nerves. ‘We’ve been avoiding other people for most of the time. We . . . this place is huge, a whole world locked away. There are strange kinden here . . . we didn’t know, none of us, what they would do with us. So we’ve been living like vagrants for . . . time. A long time. We wanted just to strike out. I thought I could . . . find a way out.’ Her voice shook. ‘I can’t . . . I have nothing left of my skills. Thalric says they were never real, and I . . . sometimes I think he must be right. This place has killed them, eaten them. And out there, in the true dark, there are things . . . and so little food, so little of anything. And you . . . at first we thought you would come back to us and tell us a way out, but you just. . . there was nothing . . .’

‘I . . .’ Che’s mind thronged with excuses, mystical nonsense about seeking answers, fighting some higher battle. She knew, wretchedly, that they would probably believe her: even Maure, who should know better. The words were in her mouth but she swallowed them down. ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t . . . It was too much, and I couldn’t face it. I’m sorry.’ She took a deep breath. ‘But you . . . you’ve kept us together, all of us.You’ve found . . . something?’

‘People,’ said Esmail quietly. ‘We found the people who live here.’

‘We lived in the wilderness at the start,’ Maure explained. ‘But it’s hard out there. There’s just rock, darkness, mushrooms and lichen. When we couldn’t last any longer, when we were starving, we had to go to where the fires were. We’ve been chained to where the people are, since then, where the food is. But never meeting with them, hiding ourselves. Stealing. We’ve been living by stealing. Esmail, he crept in and took from them, their food, their water . . . It was the only way.’

‘But the Worm . . .’ Che whispered. This name – and it was not even that ancient enemy’s true name, just the Moths’ insult for them – had been unspeakable and erased from history, but here . . . what was there to lose in saying it? ‘You can’t just walk up to the Worm and steal from its table, surely?’

‘Slaves,’ from Esmail. ‘Those we saw, those we took such care to avoid, for fear of their terrible power . . . They’re only slaves of the Worm. We have seen the Worm since.’

Che took a deep breath, feeling that her hold on the here and now, rather than the dismal wastes within her, was suddenly failing. Too much, too soon, and yet she had to know. She had to understand. ‘What’s changed? The fire . . . the food . . .’

‘Someone found us,’ Maure told her.

‘He’d been spying on us for days,’ Thalric interjected, in what sounded like a jab at Esmail’s ability to remain unseen. ‘Messel is his name. He’s a . . . a renegade, of sorts, but there’s a place near here where he has kin. He won’t talk about it, but he’s not exactly an exile and he’s said he returns there sometimes. A slave village.’

Another deep breath. ‘You have a plan?’

‘We need to know where in the pits we are,’ Thalric explained. ‘Next, how to get out. This man, this Messel, he had a sort of a laugh when I first said that, but when he realized that we’d got in somehow, he shut up real fast. After that, when we asked him again about talking to more of his folk, he was a lot keener.’

‘Does your plan go any further than that?’ Che asked.

‘Why, yes, the plan is: find out how, get out, never mention this place again. Needs fleshing out a little, though. We need intelligence first,’ said Thalric, the former agent. ‘We’re in somewhere completely alien, but there are people here. That means common ground. That gives us something to work with.’

‘And the Worm?’ Che asked.

There was a long silence. Clearly nobody had any answers.

*

While the fire burned itself out, they rested. Thalric, Tynisa and Esmail slept, and Che guessed that they had been doing most of the work while she had been refusing to face reality. Now she took hold of herself, still ashamed of the way that she had just given in. So I have no Aptitude? It’s not as if anyone down here’s going to ask me to fix their gear train. So this place has no reserves of magic, somehow. Are the Worm Apt nowadays, then? Was there an underground revolution that drove it all out, or . . .? But it was as Thalric had said: they needed more information. If there were any people here who would not kill them on sight – or worse – then Che needed to speak to them.

Messel had led them to this cave, she was told, and it was deep and tortuous enough that the firelight would not show outside. While the others slept, Maure took Che to the mouth of it, a jagged slash of dark in a broken rockface, where some ancient upheaval had changed the contours of this buried place.

The terrain fell away from them in a tumbled field of jagged stone and shale, and Che’s Art let her see out across it, the great desolation of it: as inhospitable a landscape as she had ever seen.

‘How can anything live here?’ she asked hollowly.

‘There’s plenty.’ Maure’s voice still sounded shaky. ‘There’s stuff . . . lichen-looking stuff over a lot of the rocks, and wherever there’s water there are fungi. And things eat the fungi and the lichen, and other things eat them, just as you’d expect. Crickets – there are a lot of crickets. That’s what we just ate. Messel brought one down for us.’

The idea of eating cricket meat seemed such a normal and domestic thing that Che almost laughed.

Her Art had limits, but she strained her eyes, seeing something out there that looked more complex, more artificial. There was a chasm, and she thought there was a river, but beyond it, set into the rising cliffs of the far bank . . .

‘Is that a town?’

‘Cold Well,’ said a low, resonant voice, and they both started from a shrouded figure crouching motionless nearby, which even Che’s eyes had missed.

For a second Che was reaching for magic that remained stubbornly absent, seeking a defence, a weapon, but then Maure announced, ‘Messel.’

He was draped in cloth, cloaked with it, then a long, hooded tunic and trousers beneath, all cut into a heavy and unfamiliar style, the fabric woven from thick grey-mottled fibres. Seeking his face under the cowl, she tried to meet his eyes and failed.

His skin was dead white, save where it was thinnest – where the faint shadows of veins and bones showed through. He was small, surely no taller than she, and thin to the point of starvation. His face was taut over a skull whose contours she could trace, and his long, delicate hands were lessons in anatomy. He had no eyes at all, not even sockets, just a wrinkled expanse of translucent skin from hairline down to his beak of a nose.

‘Cold Well,’ he said again. ‘I was born there.’ The voice buzzed within his chest, sounding as though it was meant for a far larger man than this fragile creature.

‘A slave?’

‘There are only slaves and the Worm.’ A thoughtful pause. ‘And now you.’

‘Messel,’ Che spoke his name. He was not coming closer, crouched against the stone with that sightless visage cocked upwards, drawing in his understanding of the world through sound and smell and who knew what hidden Art besides. When she took a step towards him, he scuttled back exactly the same distance, his feet sure on the uneven rocks, silent in motion, then remaining still to the point of invisibility, no matter how good her eyes were.

‘Are you . . . the Worm?’ She had meant to say ‘of the Worm’ but the way the words came out seemed more fitting.

He shook his head, his blind attention plumbing unseen vistas. ‘Messel,’ he said in that rich voice. ‘Messel the hunted. Messel who would not work. Messel the kinless, the cursed.’

‘And you are of this Cold Well.’

‘Once.’

Che let her Art lapse, so that the darkness rushed back on her like a tide, obliterating all she saw of the land beyond. She had the measure of her own sight, though, and after a while her eyes adjusted, and she could see a faint suggestion of light from what Messel had just named Cold Well. Even the prisoners of this tomb felt the chill: there was a scatter of fire over there, though what it was they burned in this place she could not guess. She turned her face upwards and then clutched abruptly at Maure’s arm. ‘There are stars! The sky . . . we can just fly out?’

A long pause from the other two, and then Maure’s subdued response: ‘They’re not stars.’

‘They dwell above. Their lights lure the unwary who tread the air above us, insects, men too. All who are drawn to the lights are devoured,’ Messel intoned softly. ‘Those that tell the story that says we were not always here, that we came here from another place, a place of light – not my kinden, but I have heard the tale – they say that the ceiling-dwellers were placed there so that none could even search for a way back out. For me, I never believed in such things.’ And of course, whether he tilted his head towards the distant ceiling or towards the night sky itself, he would see no stars.

Che felt a hand clasp her arm, and then Maure was leaning into her, trembling slightly. ‘There are no dead here, Che,’ she whispered. ‘No loose spirits, no pieces of the slain. They all go. They all go to the Worm.’

Che shuddered, and for a long time she just sat there, a comforting arm about the halfbreed magician, staring up into that closed and hungry sky.

Two

‘It’s getting to the point where we’re either going to have to risk Imperial displeasure by kicking them out, or arrange for an accident,’ Totho commented.

‘You think our guests are outstaying their welcome?’ Drephos’s tone was dry, amused. ‘Unfortunately, the Empire remains a source of patronage, even if we are looking further afield for trading partners these days. If that means we must deal with Consortium spies pretending to be merchants, then so be it. Turning them away is not yet an option.’

Colonel-Auxillian Drephos, master artificer of the weapons trade, dwelt in no palace or great hall, nor even in a well-appointed townhouse such as the Solarnese might favour. His rooms were small, uncluttered and poorly lit. A moderately successful merchant’s factor would turn his nose up at them. He lived mostly in his workshops, though. He slept only a handful of hours a night, if that, and could see perfectly in the dark. It was a familiar occurrence for Totho to enter the workshops and find his master working through the small hours, surrounded by fragments of clockwork and oblivious to the passage of time.

Of course Totho worked at odd hours too, whenever inspiration struck. The only difference was that he had to bring a lamp with him.

‘Well, if we can’t officially show our displeasure, what if one of them got his prying hands caught? Poking around in someone else’s work can be a dangerous business if you don’t understand the principles involved.’

Around them, the machines stood silent, ready to stamp, press, mould and cut. Schematics for half a dozen inventions-in-progress were tacked up on boards all around them. Both of them had particular projects that they were devoting their time to, but the ideas would keep coming nonetheless, to be hastily scribed down for later use.

‘If it would make you happy,’ Drephos replied indulgently. ‘I admit, they have been growing somewhat insistent recently.’

The factories of the Iron Glove in Chasme lay just across the Exalsee from Solarno, seat of the nearest Imperial presence. That sea, and half of that city, was firmly in the hands of the Spiderlands Aristoi, and yet the Empire’s mercantile Consortium still paid its visits. The Glove had not been free of them for months now. Oh, they brought sacks of money, new commissions and orders, but they also had other agendas. At least half of those supposed diplomats and artificers and traders who walked in under the Black and Gold took considerable liberties with a guest’s access to the premises. They were hunting for secrets, and no doubt seized greedily on any scraps of thought that Totho and Drephos left lying around.

More recently, though – ever since the Glove’s two founding members had paid a visit to Capitas – they had been aware that the Consortium, and through it the Empire itself, had something specific in mind.

It did not exist, Drephos had assured them. The complex alchemical formula they asked after had been lost in the confusion of the last war’s end. Drephos himself had come out of that war as both a deserter and an invalid. Small surprise, then, if some of his secrets had fallen from the fingers of his broken metal hand, which Totho had since repaired.

And of course they then asked if he could recreate the substance, and he had confirmed he could not. The poison they called the Bee-killer had been the work of two protégés of his who had taken their own lives when it became evident what the Empire wanted their work for. Drephos himself was not a good enough chemical engineer to follow in their footsteps. He preferred working with metal, after all.

At which the Consortium men nodded and muttered and shrugged – and in their hearts they did not believe him.

The latest pack of them had been due to depart a few days ago, but had now stretched their welcome to breaking point, and every night one or other of them had been spotted creeping about the corridors of the workshop, hunting for the supposed secret. And it was certainly there, Totho knew full well. Of course Drephos had the formula for the Bee-killer, the city-devouring poison gas that Totho himself had unleashed on the Imperial garrison at Szar. After all, Drephos’s business – his obsession – was with tools of destruction. He had no other reason to exist.

And yet the Consortium asked and asked again, and Drephos put them off.

Totho remembered a conversation with his master, looking out over the city of Szar. It had been the night before the Beekiller – unnamed at that time – was to be unleashed on the rebels there: a grand statement of the Empire’s ruthless use of power, a lesson to all others who dared to rise up. Drephos had argued that the lethal gas was simply the continuation of war, inevitable and even desirable, the furtherance of his craft. Totho had been half convinced. Circumstances had forced his hand, though.They had fought, the two artificers, and Totho had won the fight but lost the argument. He had tested the weapon anyway, on the Wasps themselves. That final show of dedication to his trade, Totho suspected, had healed the rift between him and Drephos as if it had never been. The Colonel-Auxillian was a man to whom moral principles were a closed book, but that cut every way – it made no difference to him who the Bee-killer killed, so long as it worked.

Totho longed to ask him now: Why have you not given it to them? He had been ready to resist it, too, to try all those tools of persuasion that had failed to open Drephos’s heart or mind the first time.

Now he wondered if his arguments had somehow found a purchase on the man, after all, for the Bee-killer formula stayed locked away, and Drephos brushed the Consortium men off with lies.

Whenever they spoke to Imperial delegations, everyone cheerily agreed that the Empire needed them, and they needed the Empire, but Totho was wondering how much that held true nowadays. The Glove was expanding into other markets now that its reputation was established.The Empire’s own Engineers were growing pointedly envious that a pack of mercenaries was outmatching them in the eyes of their superiors. Closest to home, the Glove’s guests were becoming visibly frustrated at the denials and evasions, and of course there were plenty who remembered how Drephos had deserted the Empire in its time of need, subsequent pardon or not. It was not as if he did not have enemies.

Totho set to making plans, therefore. The matter in hand, of their unwelcome guests, was almost a pleasant diversion, practically an apprentice piece compared to his usual stock in trade. So it was that, a day later, one of the visiting Wasps was found – far beyond anywhere he had any right to be – caught in the jaws of a steam-press, the mangled pieces of his body imprinted with the hard lines of components as though he was posthumously confessing his spying.

The delegation left that day, uneasily accepting Drephos’s wry condolences, but inevitably they would be back.

*

The Solarno that the Imperial delegation returned to was a city under the hammer, day to day, and yet for all that its shadow spoiled the clear blue skies above, the blow refused to fall.

There were a thousand rumours. After half a tenday, Lieutenant Gannic had heard them all.

This was where the Empire and the Spiderlands had signed their great accord, their declaration of common interests. From Solarno’s gates a combined force had marched out in the direction of Collegium, snapping up every little prize on the way: Tark, Kes, Merro, Egel – Spider satrapies all. The Empire had grander plans: the Beetle city itself.

And they had taken it, Spiders and Wasps together; the great heart of the Lowlands had been stilled. And then, on the back of that victory and before the populace had even been decently pacified, the victors had fallen out. Nobody knew the details – there were a thousand rumours about that as well – but now there were Imperial forces along the Silk Road, and Seldis had fallen to the Black and Gold, and thousands of Spiderlands mercenaries and Satrapy soldiers were on the move.

Solarno sat, jewel of the Exalsee, with its northern districts patrolled by the servants of the Empress and its docklands held by the lackeys of the Aristoi, and a handful of streets in the middle that both sides conscientiously avoided. And . . . and what? And nothing.

*

In a gloomy backroom behind a machine shop in the lower reaches of the city was a one-eyed Fly-kinden who saw a great deal of what went on. She was a tough, leather-skinned woman with her greying hair cut short, whose past had seen her cross the Exalsee countless times on less than legitimate business, and who had made enough contacts and learned enough valuable secrets to set herself up as a freelance intelligencer.

Gannic sat opposite her on the floor in the Fly style, even though it turned him into a hulking bundle of jutting knees and elbows. He guessed she insisted on seeing her larger visitors like this because she herself could be up and away before they could lever themselves to their feet.

Won’t save her from stingshot, of course; but Gannic was a patient man, and he watched the diminutive woman sip her wine meditatively. Every so often her single eye flicked towards him, perhaps wondering who his paymasters were. There were so many to choose from these days.

‘I’ve done some digging for you,’ she remarked. ‘You ask some interesting questions, for a halfbreed just blown in out of the desert.’

‘Enquiring mind,’ Gannic told her. He was dressed like a tramp artificer, one of the many who trekked around the Exalsee whoring out their skills wherever the coin was. ‘What did you dig up?’

‘That a body went into the bay a tenday before you turned up. My friends in the business tell me the deceased looked a lot like your Wasp friend . . . and yes, there’s a strong suggestion that the corpse was collected from the governor’s townhouse, rather than someone stopping the man arriving there in the first place.’

Gannic nodded. ‘And the other business?’

‘And the other money?’

He regarded her for a moment, knowing that there was no trust in this espionage trade. She could be about to have him killed. She could not know that he was not going to try the same.

He opened a purse and counted out coins – a mix of Imperial and Helleren mint – and then a coil of the gold wire the Spiders tended to travel with. She let the money sit on the table between them, her eye assessing the value. It was more than they had agreed, but Gannic had studied Solarnese etiquette regarding this sort of deal. Holding back information was par for the course, unless the buyer showed good form by being generous.

‘The governor, Edvic, absolutely does not deal with the Spiderkinden,’ she told him, with a regretful show of spread hands. ‘After all, there’s a war on.’ But she was smiling, and he had paid over the odds, so he waited until she added, ‘But.’

‘But?’

‘But Edvic’s wife has a very busy life amongst Solarnese society. Her name is Merva, and she meets everyone. Many of those she meets frequent the lower streets, near the water.’ Meaning those parts controlled by the Spider-kinden.

‘Merva, you say?’

The Fly smiled. ‘No doubt the Wasps would be horrified at the notion, but elsewhere, where we women are more valued, they say she runs the city, and that her husband just sits back and lets her get on with it. Such wisdom is rare in a man.’

He nodded, and listened further as she gave him a concise list of people whom this Merva had spoken to, and the places she had visited. At the end, and again because he knew the etiquette, he slipped another couple of coins onto the table as he stood to leave.

She made a satisfied grunt. ‘Enjoy your stay in our city, foreigner. I apologize for the weather.’

Before leaving the machine shop, he considered that remark. Solarno at this time of year was famous for its clement climate. However, the unwary might find worse than rain dropping on them. The woman had probably set him up, and was now telling him that she’d done it – the curious honour of a Spiderlands information broker.

He broke away from the shop quickly, hearing the ambush start into motion. Instead of simply fleeing, he was turning to meet them, hands already out. He caught a glimpse of a couple of Solarnese dropping down from the rafters, and a Spiderkinden behind them, a lean, pale man with a rapier. The pair of thugs had cudgels only – so either they were amateurs or they wanted him alive.

Either way, Gannic had no intention of obliging them. In one hand he had a sleevebow, one of those little cut-down snapbows that were slowly becoming the agent’s favourite friend, and he discharged it straight into the chest of the nearest bruiser, stopping him in his tracks and dropping him. The other man went for him, but Gannic skipped back, seeing the Spider descend hurriedly to join the fun.

Gannic’s off hand spat golden fire, the Wasp’s Art, making them both duck back. For a moment he considered taking the fight to them, perhaps getting a few more questions in this night. As neither of them looked like a flier, trusting to his feet seemed the wiser move. Once he had got them to take cover, he was off and running, reloading the sleevebow as he went.

Gannic had come here for a very specific mission, so the current state of Solarno should only have been of incidental interest to him. The officer overseeing this operation had hinted at some fairly expansive fallback options, though, and to utilize them he needed to work out the true story. The situation here might serve him, if only he could master it.

Once he was sure he had thrown off any pursuers, he followed a roundabout and careful route back up to the Imperial half of the city, seeking out a Consortium factorum, where a man was waiting to hear his report. Despite the trappings, this operation was not being run by the Empire’s mercantile arm, and nor was it a job for their secret service, the Rekef – just as Gannic was a capable agent but also something more: a true specialist.

The officer he reported to was a small man with a little patch of beard on his chin in the Spider style. His name was Colonel Varsec, and he was either the rising star or the scapegoat for the Engineering Corps, depending on whether it was praise or blame that was going around. He had come close to execution more than once, Gannic knew. Perhaps this assignment would see both of them on the crossed pikes.

‘Let’s have it.’ Varsec was uncomfortable, unhappy with what they were trying to achieve here, and the range of means that had been given him.

Gannic made his report: the truth behind the impossible stalemate between Empire and those Spiderlands Aristoi who had inherited the Aldanrael conquests. ‘What nobody realizes back home, sir,’ he explained, ‘is just who the power ended up with when the Aldanrael went down – after the Second Army killed their woman in Collegium. There were all sorts of little families who hadn’t or couldn’t abandon the Aldanrael and, so far, us being here has stopped any of the big boys moving in. So you’ve got the Arkaetiens and the Melisandyr and the like, who were just hangers-on, and now they’re basically running things here in Solarno, and maybe Tark and Kes and points west too.’ ‘How are the Solarnese taking it?’ Varsec prompted him.

Gannic considered what he had seen: the locals going about their business cautiously, with that same hammer hanging impossibly above each of them. ‘Cautiously optimistic, I’d say,’ he conceded. ‘They know there’re wheels turning, and that something’s got to give, but this place is used to Spiders – meaning there’s always some bad news behind the scenes somewhere. They reckon it won’t necessarily touch them, if they keep their heads down and get on with it.’

He had been very carefully chosen for this assignment, had Gannic. He was an unusual man. He had slipped through the slums and the tavernas on both sides of the city, listening more than talking, overhearing more than being seen. So far he had not misstepped, as evidenced by his continued good health.

Lieutenant Gannic’s rank badge pinned his fortunes to those of the Engineering Corps, the coming power in the Empire, who were just as wary about competition as any Consortium magnate. He was no artillerist or automotive driver, though. He was a sneak for the artificing age. Saboteur was the official label, and there were few enough of them – men with a formidable understanding of artifice, an easy manner and a soft tread.

One other thing, of course, as his mirror reminded him every morning when he shaved: Wasp features in a darker, rounder face, the gift of his Beetle mother. Rough with the smooth, he thought, as he wielded the razor. He had the world’s two most Apt kinden as parents, and he made a natural agent, for everyone knew how much the Empire loathed halfbreeds. More than that, though, this job – this very particular job – recommended itself to a man of a certain heritage like himself.

‘Sir, did you get word back – from the top?’

Varsec’s expression was hooded. ‘Just two words: “Do it.”’

Gannic made an appreciative whistle. ‘You want me across the water, or . . .’

‘Not yet. Unless our target in Chasme is going to suffer a sudden change of heart, we need to have our backup plan ready to go. General Lien’s getting impatient. Enough eavesdropping and talking to sneaks. Time to act.’ Varsec looked anything but enthusiastic about that. This is going to end very badly, his expression said. ‘Just be careful not to end up like the last man.’

‘The last man’ had been a Captain Carven – not part of Varsec’s operation but a Rekef agent bringing orders from the Imperial governor here: Start the fires, drive the Spiders from Solarno. Varsec and Gannic had discussed those words in detail, and were unanimous in their opinion that they were stupid orders. There had been a great deal of pressure from conservatives in Capitas to strike at the Spider-kinden, though, and somehow nobody up there had considered that Solarno was rather closer to Spider reinforcements than it was to any aid the Empire could give it. Supposedly, this Captain Carven had never arrived. The Spiders had been playing espionage while the principal Wasp entertainment had been living in hill forts and stealing the neighbours’ women. Back home the conclusion had been swiftly reached that Carven had been done away with before ever getting in sight of the governor’s townhouse.

Except that, according to the Fly woman, his body had been dragged out of that same house and dumped in the bay, to be picked over by fish and water beetles and dragonfly nymphs.

Varsec had guessed that there was a good reason why Solarno had not been riven by civil war: it was not an Imperial city at all, no matter whose flag waved over the high ground. So was that the plan all along, he mused, or did Governor Edvic and his wife look at the odds and start a little dance of their own?

‘Personally, I’d rather do without the lot of them and leave the city to stew, sir,’ Gannic stated. It was unforgivably familiar before a superior officer, but he knew by now that Varsec didn’t care.

‘From everything you’ve learned, that doesn’t sound like an option,’ Varsec replied. ‘We’re going to have to get our hands dirty here in Solarno before we can move on.’

We – meaning me, Gannic realized. And nothing’s ever simple where Spiders are involved. At least by now he’d acquired a good idea of what the Spiders wanted here, too. The little families that had their hooks into this place wanted to keep what they had – which meant avoiding a fight with the Empire, and avoiding calling in the bigger Spider clans.

Between the governor’s wife and the local Aristoi, a rather remarkable piece of diplomacy had grown up, or that was what Varsec believed, and what Gannic’s investigations seemed to confirm.

‘Time to go pay a visit, then,’ he decided, and he would just have to do his best to avoid ending up like the late Captain Carven.


Excerpted from Seal of the Worm by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Copyright © 2014 by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
First published 2014 by Tor, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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