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Leo could always tell a spy by their smell.
The child walking beside him looked the part of the browbeaten lower-city waif, sure enough—he was small, rakelike, and his face and hair were streaked with soot and mud. His too-loose shirt and too-short pants were grimy with the ground-in filth of weeks spent sleeping outdoors and carried all the scents Leo would have expected from a gutter-rat; the tang of woodfire smoke, the deep onion-like character of ingrained sweat and night soil runoff and, of course, the overriding odour of dried blood. Those scents had filled the room where Leo first met the boy, and wafted over to him even as they prowled through the darkened streets of the industrial quarter, in the shadows beyond the unrelenting glare of the blood lamps that lined the city’s streets.
Yes, very convincing, Leo thought with an internal sigh. He fooled the leaders of the Pride Street cell with ease. But then, if they had any real experience with subterfuge, we wouldn’t have had whatever happened at Crow Street—and I wouldn’t need to go on these inspections.
The Crow Street cell had been a safehouse on the outskirts of the middle city; one where new recruits to Cassandra’s apostasy against the Academy had been housed and taught. One day it had been there, and the next—completely gone. The entire building had been flattened and burned in the night. They’d had no warning, no indication the cell had been exposed, and no prisoners had been taken. Somehow, the Academy had known—somehow, they must have got a spy in and out of there without Cassandra’s apostates ever knowing. And then they’d murdered everyone.
This spy hadn’t got past Leo. Or rather, he hadn’t got past the tiny glowing sigil hidden on Leo’s septum—inscribed by Cassandra’s own hand—which had caught, beneath the layers of carefully crafted stink, the unmistakable lingering hint of perfumed soap.
The kid might as well be wearing a hat with ‘citizen’ printed on it.
Leo had taken the child, hoping he’d simply come into contact with the fragrance while foraging through someone’s garbage, but when they walked straight by a pair of patrolling Forcers a few minutes after leaving the Pride Street safehouse, Leo’s fears were confirmed. No resident of the lower city, who had learned to hate and fear the tattooed guardsmen from birth, would have walked straight by without noticing them. This child had.
No, he wasn’t some orphan seeking vengeance on the Academy. They had sent him as a spy. Or an assassin. The very thought of it sickened Leo—the Chancellor had never used anyone this young before.
By the Mark, Leo prayed, Let him just be a spy.
‘Where are we going?’ the boy whispered in the dark. ‘Are we heading to the main base? Is it around here somewhere?’
Leo rolled his eyes in the darkness. It was one of the clumsiest attempts to get information he’d ever heard. And being as most of Cassandra’s rebels started out as labourers and minor tradesmen, he knew a lot of inexperienced spies.
‘We’re going to see Cassandra,’ he replied.
‘The Marred Queen? Then…’ the boy sucked in a sharp breath. ‘You are him, aren’t you? Leo Lovelorn? One of the first six?’
‘Aren’t six of us anymore.’
‘So it’s true. Those executions the other day—’
‘Were my friends,’ Leo interrupted before the conversation went on to shatter his already strained patience. Lovelorn, indeed.
In truth, he’d never known the baker or milliner who had been dragged through the streets and hung to drain against the Academy’s walls. But by failing to contradict the Chancellor’s claim they had been ringleaders of his movement, Leo and the rest of the apostates had, in effect, accepted them as martyrs to the cause.
Besides, Leo had argued, the needless cruelty of leaving their blood to spoil in the dirt would only inspire more people to rise up against the Academy, and their theocratic chokehold over the city.
Converts such as the young ‘rebel’ beside him, who hissed back to Leo with unexpected fervour. ‘We will avenge them.’
‘Yeah?’ Leo asked. ‘That’s what you’re here for is it, kid? Looking to strike back at somebody? Going to grab a quiver of exploding arrows and send one through the Academy’s window?’
‘You really have those!’ The small infiltrator couldn’t keep the excitement out of his voice. ‘She really can make the sigils that small?’
‘By the Mark, kid, what do you think this entire war’s about?’
Leo could see the defiant set to the boy’s shoulders even in the gloom. ‘I lost my father and my mother to the blood tax. I don’t need to know why we’re fighting, I just know that things need to change.’
That part may even be true, Leo thought with sadness. Orphans made great recruits for the Academy and apostates alike and if there was one thing Chancellor Roth and her cronies discouraged it was, bizarrely, critical thinking.
Leo sighed heavily and stopped for a moment to look down at the boy. ‘What’s your name, kid?’
‘Troy,’ the kid replied with a flicker of hesitation.
‘Well, Troy, if you want magic arrows or singing swords you better go somewhere else,’ Leo told him. ‘Our first rule is: we don’t enliven weapons. Cass invented her new sigils to make people’s lives better, not get them killed. Those are her words—and that makes them our creed, you got it?’
It was one oif the first things she’d said to him after stumbling into his workshop all those years ago, as he’d cleaned the blood and slivers of stained glass from her ruined face and hand. It always gave Leo hope to repeat them: a salve for his soul as he watched each day of the Academy’s war strip more and more away from the idealistic girl he held in that memory; the woman and ideals he’d chosen to dedicate his life to.
Troy’s tone was quizzical now. ‘But the Academy… I mean, the stories of—’
‘Anyone can tell stories, kid.’
‘I don’t understand. The Academy is. . . well, the Academy! How can you hope to win a war against them without using that kind of advantage?’
Leo stole a glance into the street beyond their alleyway and once satisfied of its desertion, nodded for Troy to follow as he strode across. They had reached their destination, an unremarkable brick-walled factory that rumbled with the barely-muted sounds of working machinery housed within. Leo led them towards a heavy-set iron door, nestled in a chink of the building where both the light spilling from the thick, lead-lined factory windows and the sigil-powered blood lamps failed to shine.
‘You want an advantage?’ he asked the boy as they walked. ‘How about a sigil to protect a blacksmith’s arms from the heat of the forge? How about a sigil to give a kid like you the strength to work the docks, or to make your skin as hard as stone in the lumberyard in case an axe goes awry? To float, or breathe water if you’re a sailor fallen overboard? Those are the advantages we offer. No scribes, no Academy, no indenturement. Sigils for the good of the common man. Mark it, do you know how many workers there are in this city? How many bloodletters, how many bleeders? We win the people, and there’ll be no war for us to fight.’
‘But the Academy has sigils for all those things, and more!’ Troy exclaimed as they reached the heavy door. ‘Do you really expect people to risk execution over indenturement, just for a sigil?’
Leo turned to face the boy as he pounded a fist on the door beside him. ‘A sigil? Who’s talking about getting a single sigil and locking yourself into that job for life? What if you wanted to change your mind? What if you wanted them all?’
The grinding of iron bolts screeched beside them and the heavy door swung open to reveal the silhouette of a hooded man so enormous he blocked almost all the light streaming from the open door.
‘Weren’t expecting you tonight,’ he rumbled in a deep baritone. ‘Everything okay?’
‘New guy, Bul. Bringing him to see Cass. She back yet?’
‘Mmm. Bad mood though.’ The figure shifted and allowed them to squeeze past, into a small alcove separating the street from the factory floor. ‘Found the kid of that baker what got strung up. Flamers got to her first, but.’
Leo cursed, both at the result of the search and at its timing. Not the best night to be relying on Cassandra’s pity, but they were here now. He would just have to make the best of it.
The heavy iron bolts of the door slammed back into place behind them as though driving the point home, and the doorkeeper turned to face them. He lowered his hood and Leo heard Troy gasp as the doorman’s face came into the light.
The entire front of the doorman’s head was tattooed in dark letters, a swirling script that ran across his forehead, cheekbones and meaty, beardless chin. The letters swirled to encircle the man’s lips, nostrils and eyes in a series of interlocking shen. But what had likely shocked the boy wasn’t the markings’ placement—sigils on the high canvasses were common enough throughout the city—but the script itself. Unlike the bulky, angular runes taught by the Academy, these letters flowed with a stunning elegance, lending the doorman’s face an almost haunting beauty that ran at odds with his otherwise unrefined demeanour.
‘Awright, let’s have a look at’cher, then,’ the big man said. He pulled a thin razor from a pocket on his belt and drew it across his forehead in one smooth, practiced motion, opening the scar line that ran just above his highest markings. Blood sprang from the wound and ran onto the waiting ink below.
The tattoos drank the blood greedily, drawing it through the intertwining design like oil through a wick. The sigils glowed as they enlivened, and the doorman blinked and snorted a few times in quick succession as their effects became active. He shook his head and worked his mouth, as though trying to clear something stuck in a back tooth. Once his face became fully lit, he turned his attention to the two visitors and leaned forward to scrutinise them in closer detail.
‘So, Leo… hmph. Same as always. Mate, you have got to change that underwear sometime.’
Bul guffawed as Leo offered him a tight smile. Bul had an… uncomplicated sense of humour.
‘Okay, and the kid… looks good, no hidden weapons or sigils under ya clothes. Can’t taste any trace poisons in the air. Smells… real good, too.’ He glanced at Leo, who gave a nod that would have been imperceptible if not for Bul’s enhanced sight.
‘Well, awright then. Seems to be in order, I guess.’ He straightened back to his full height and turned his face away from the light of the factory while he clapped a meaty hand over as much of his eyes, nose and mouth as he could. His other hand replaced the small blade he had used to enliven his sigils, and fished around in a second pocket before returning with a blood-streaked hanky.
‘She’s up on the mezzanine. Careful this time, Leo, you know she gets about her orders.’
‘Thanks, Bul. We won’t be long.’
The apostate doorman, whom Leo had called by the nickname of ‘Bulwark’ for so long he’d forgotten if the man had any other name, nodded and stepped back into the darkness of the alcove. He pulled a small stool from somewhere in the shadows and collapsed on it with a heavy thud. He would stay that way, Leo knew, until his bleeding finally staunched—which could take a while, as a wound feeding a sigil always flowed freely. He would have to cut the flow completely with that hanky before it would stop drawing, and his senses would return to a normal, bearable level.
‘That was… that was amazing!’ Troy gushed as Leo led him into the factory. ‘A Taster, Scenter, and Sighter all in one!’
Leo couldn’t help but smile, despite the nature of the child he was talking to. ‘Bulwark exemplifies everything that’s possible with Cassandra’s runes, kid. Few people are as committed to her cause as he.’
That was the truth. The Academy had their own guards with such abilities, sure, but to enhance even one of the senses would necessitate a full face of tattoos in the Academy’s ancient, outdated script. It would take three Academy guards to match Bul’s abilities—four, if he could ever convince Cass to complete the canvas by inscribing his ears as well.
Of course, this also meant certain death if Bulwark ever ventured in sight of the Academy’s militia. There was no way for him to hide the distinctive heretical script that covered his face. Bulwark had laughed when Cassandra cautioned him thus, prior to his first inscription. He had spent his life as a dock worker and therefore had no space on the lower canvases left to offer. His arms and back and legs were all latticed with the Academy’s own tattoos. He told her he was merely loaning her his freedom; on the day of the apostates’ victory he would walk enlivened down Main Avenue at midday and sample all the sights, sounds and smells of the upper city like no man had ever done before.
Cassandra had thanked him for his faith and inscribed him. And after he had left, she’d cried long into the night.
‘I thought your headquarters would be… quieter,’ Troy yelled as they squeezed between the press of mechanics and bleeders that kept the rattling machinery beside them running day and night. ‘Or at least more secure!’
‘Exactly why it’s here,’ Leo shouted back. Apart from the noise, the factory wasn’t as horrible a location as it appeared at first glance—Cassandra’s runes only required a fraction of the blood the Academy’s did to run the pistons in this place, and the men and women who worked as bleeders here did not have the normal haggard, gaunt look of their caste. No factory worker would betray the apostates to the Academy; Cassandra had literally saved their lives when she altered their machines, and the increased efficiency had driven profits beyond the owner’s wildest dreams.
As they reached the iron stairs that led to the mezzanine, and Cassandra’s office, Leo turned and looked at the boy he was about to condemn.
‘Listen, before we go up…’
Troy watched Leo with open, trusting eyes. The walk through the heat of the factory had brought a red flush to the kid’s cheeks and he looked exuberant, eager to meet the fabled leader of the apostates. But for what reason? To gather intelligence, or…
No, Leo thought. Roth wouldn’t have sent one so young as an assassin. Not knowing what we would do to anyone who harmed Cass. Not even she could be that cruel.
‘Listen,’ Leo repeated, ‘whatever you do, just don’t call her “Marred One”, “Marred Queen”, or anything like that—not if you want to walk out of there in one piece. Got it?’
Troy nodded, his lower lip trembling with either excitement or sudden terror.
They ascended, and Leo opened the door to the inner sanctum of the apostates.
The room less resembled the seat of a vicious terrorist network as it did the study of a rather fussy scholar. Books and half-filled notepads spilled across the tables and chests that cluttered the room, covering the chairs and floor in haphazard piles such that sitting or navigating a path through the mess would be an intellectual exercise all of its own. The main desk, a large and heavy oaken table set against the opposite wall, was covered in a large map of the runic networks of the city. Small flags jutted out of it at haphazard angles, indicating where the apostates had surreptitiously replaced sections of the Academy’s infrastructure with Cassandra’s own.
And everywhere, there were sigils.
They were scrawled across the manuscript pages strewn about the office. They glowed faintly below the wells of blood feeding the lamplight that illuminated the room. They were even scrawled on the walls themselves; the wooden beams and boards were all covered in the flowing letters of Cassandra’s script, dark and deadened.
And in the centre of it all, her back to them as she studied, auburn hair spilling across the back of her flowing robe—the same style worn by the Academy’s School of Philology, though stained a deep crimson in place of white—was Cassandra herself. From their angle, Leo could even see some of the dark runes flowing across her tattooed right palm as she leaned forward, tracing a line across the runic map with the point of her index finger.
‘Leo?’ she asked, her voice like a bag full of gravel. Somehow, she always knew when it was him.
‘Aye, mistress. And a… special friend.’
Her back visibly stiffened. ‘Another of your special friends, Leo?’ He could hear the weariness in her voice, along with an edge of warning. ‘And how old is this one?’
Cassandra straightened with a heavy sigh and turned to face them. Leo had grown used to the scars over the years—the price she had paid for her freedom—but heard the boy beside him whimper quietly at the sight.
‘Every day, the Academy sends more soldiers after us, makes more false arrests when they can’t find us, and executes more innocent people because they can’t get to us,’ Cassandra rasped, ‘and still you defy my orders and bring their spies into our very heart.’
Leo stole a sidelong glance at the boy. He had paled considerably, the ruddy excitement in his cheeks just moments ago now a distant memory.
‘Yes, I brought him here, to you. He was with Danque and Morley over on Pride Street. You know what would have happened if I’d told them who he was.’
‘They would have followed procedure, and sent him back to the Academy piece by bloodless piece.’ Her voice was cold.
‘Aye, but acting in your name, Cass. It’s one thing to ask a man do that to another grown man, someone who knew what they were doing when they chose to commit to the Academy. But Troy’s just a kid. I want you to look him in the eye and tell me—’
‘I already looked into the eyes of a child today, Leo!’ Cassandra thundered, slamming a fist behind her on to the table. ‘What they’d left for me to look into! You want to talk about choices? How about the Academy choosing to murder the mother of a six-year-old girl so they could pretend they’d found one of us? How about them choosing to come back and burn that girl alive because they were worried she might—might—convince someone her mother had nothing to do with us!’
‘You’re not responsible for the Academy’s choices any more, Cassandra,’ Leo said gently, laying a hand on Troy’s shoulder. ‘But you are responsible for this one. By the Mark, Cass, look at him! He’s terrified—he’s shaking. I don’t know what the Academy were expecting, what they were thinking when they chose to send him to us, but we’re not like them. You’re not like them. You’ve always been better than…’
Leo’s voice trailed off as a cold sheen passed over him and formed a knot of ice in the pit of his stomach. Troy’s shaking had got steadily worse while Leo had been talking; now the kid was practically convulsing. This was more than a child’s terror. Something was wrong.
He drew his gaze from Cassandra to the deathly white face of the small infiltrator beside him just in time to watch Troy open his mouth and send a fountain of bright red blood gushing down his chin.
Leo reacted, but Cassandra was quicker. She leaped across the room, vaulting over the disarray of notes to clamp her right hand over the boy’s mouth and staunch the flow of blood, then spat a vicious curse as she realised what she had done.
‘Cass! No!’ Leo cried, and reached to wrench her now-glowing hand away from the wound. Too late.
An overwhelming blast of force erupted from the freshly enlivened kinetic sigils on Cassandra’s palm. The power of the shockwave sent both Leo and Cassandra tumbling backwards, and flung the would-be assassin’s body away from them to slam into the wall beside the room’s entrance. It landed heavily on the floor, on its stomach with the open and ruined neck facing them. Isolated sigils flared on the walls around them as they drew from the spray that had once been the child’s skull, winking out moments later with a sense of grim finality.
‘Holy Words…’ Leo whispered, surveying the grisly scene from where he had landed. He looked beside him to Cassandra, then scrambled to her side, fighting to pull her hands away from her mouth where she had instinctively raised them in horror. He used his shirt to wipe off what residue of blood remained on her palm, but little was there—the sigil had drank quickly and greedily, and had not left enough to flare again.
‘I killed him.’ Cassandra’s voice was flat; broken.
‘It wasn’t your fault, Cass.’
‘He bit through his tongue. Stored the blood. He must have been storing it the whole time we were talking.’
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘I know.’ She tore her gaze away from the boy to look at Leo. Her eyes were like embers. ‘It’s yours.’
‘Listen Cass, I—’
She snatched her hand back from him, rubbing at her sigils—renewed as though they had been freshly inked—with her unadorned, scarred left hand. ‘He was storing the blood for something, Leo. But what…’ she trailed off as her eyes moved back to the body. Leo followed her gaze, and froze.
Troy’s remains were glowing.
Leo watched as the effervescent lines of enlivening sigils traced themselves across the corpse, the unmistakable letters of the Academy glowing through the thin cloth of the boy’s oversized shirt. Leo tracked the lines back to their source, a series of runes inscribed on the stump of the boy’s neck, designed to draw blood through to the rest of the pattern just as the runes on Bul’s forehead were. Those were the sigils Troy had been trying to enliven with his mouthful of blood. Those sigils, now lying against the pool of gore that oozed from his small body.
‘Lines of Light,’ Cassandra cursed as her eyes darted over the pattern, reading the sigils as they appeared. ‘Pyronics… without the containment runes… unstable… by the Mark, Leo, he’s covered with them…’
‘Impossible!’ Leo spat, frantic for an explanation. ‘He didn’t have a mark on him!’
Cassandra lurched to her feet as the air began to shimmer around the corpse, heating. She dragged Leo up by the collar and thrust him towards the back wall.
‘The table!’ she barked.
He grabbed one end of the heavy oak as she grabbed the other, and together they tipped the table to the floor with a resounding thud. Cassandra leaped behind the makeshift barricade.
‘It won’t be enough, Cass!’ Leo yelled as he joined her. ‘The strength of those—’
His breath caught as Cassandra grabbed his forearm and sliced it open with a small dagger produced from somewhere beneath her robes.
‘There!’ she ordered, pointing at one of the many markings that adorned the wall beside them, then turning back to face the underside of the table and slashing a deep gash into her own arm.
Always prepared, thought Leo as he hunkered beside her, behind the thick wood—already beginning to glow as Cassandra placed her forearm against it—and pressed his own wound against the wall opposite.
The sigil Cassandra had indicated, like the clumsier runes Leo had recognised on the boy’s neck, drew the blood out of his arm in a stream impossibly fast by comparison. Glowing whorls of light enveloped the room as a series of Cassandra’s letters came to life. He stared in giddy fascination as the rapid blood loss began to affect him. Next to Cassandra herself, he was probably the world’s most accomplished scholar of her script, and he could maybe recognise a tenth of what she had written here.
He barely noticed the explosion, when it came. His vision had begun to blacken, and his head swam like a drunkard’s as the sigils drew the lifeblood from his veins. He watched with detached admiration how the glowing words seemed to suck away the fire as it blossomed, their barricade and the walls of the room itself directing the force, heat and sound of the blast in every direction but theirs. A moment after the explosion began, it was finished. He removed his arm from the wall and sagged back against the table in exhaustion. Around them, the room’s glow began to fade now the flow of blood had stopped.
Cassandra rose to her feet and looked over to him.
‘How are you, old friend?’ she asked with genuine concern.
‘Alive. But Cass, how? He had no marks, no tattoos. We checked. Not even Bul…’
‘Invisible ink,’ Cassandra replied. She sounded wearier than he had ever heard her before. ‘Designed to fool even enhanced senses. We sometimes used it in departmental communiqués, when we were working on some research we didn’t want to risk getting poached by another school. I never thought they’d use it for marking people.’
‘It’s highly toxic. That kid would have been dead within days. He was never meant to survive, Leo, even if you didn’t get him to me.’ She climbed over the table on shaking legs, and collapsed onto one of the singed chairs, now free of the highly flammable books which had once cluttered it. ‘I guess now we know what happened to Crow Street.’
‘But he was only a child,’ Leo whispered.
‘Roth will do anything to win this war, Leo. You should have realised that by now.’ Cassandra sighed, rubbing at her temples. ‘Go find Bulwark, he mightn’t have heard the explosion over the sound of the machinery. Let him know what happened here. Tell him it’s not his fault, he could never have seen that ink. The kid would have got by any of us, even me.’
‘I’ll tell him.’ Leo hesitated, looking at the destruction around them. ‘What are you going to do now?’
Leo stood and staggered to the door, using the table and wall to support his weakened body. He shuffled through the piles of smoking ash that had once been the sum of Cassandra’s life’s work. Her writings, her runic theory; all gone.
There was nothing left of Troy’s body. A small mercy.
‘I’m so sorry, Cass,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry too, old friend.’
He began to ease himself down the stairs, when her voice stopped him.
‘Oh, and Leo? Find me some ink, would you?’
He looked back.
Cassandra sat amidst the charred ruination of her study, her small dagger unsheathed once more. But instead of using it to draw blood, he watched as she leaned over and retrieved a length of splintered chair. She set the blade against it.
And began to whittle an arrow shaft.
Thanks for reading! If you missed the prequel to this month’s story when it appeared on the site last year, you can read Applied Linguistics in the 2019 Terry Talks Fiction anthology, Tales of Sorcery and Silicone, available on Amazon or to read free through Kindle Unlimited.