Hishi’s claws ticked on the polished floor as she ran. The sound was barely audible, yet the teeming corridors emptied ahead of her. News had spread through the great city, out and down from the bloody throne room, that a new blend – an Excisor – had been dispatched to seek vengeance. Ten million people wondered who this Excisor was going to kill today. A very few knew, and prepared as best they could.

“Sure as The Scour hunts us all,” the old ones whispered as she passed, pointing superstitiously up through the ceiling towards the roiling leaden cloud that blanketed the world. “The bonehawks will feast today.”

The bonehawks feasted every day, Hishi’s glanded memory stacks told her: Portmanteau’s dead were rendered to remove every priceless, treacherous trace of metal, and the remains dropped through one of the mile-long vents in the bottom of the track as the gargantuan city rolled along its ancient course. Vast flocks of the vicious four-winged scavengers roosted on Portmanteau’s underbelly, swooping down on Funereal days to try and catch the cascade of meat before it reached the steppe far below, there to be fought over by far more deadly competitors.

Hishi cut off the information flood with a thought. She had an Instruction from the Eternal him/herself, and would carry it out in perfectly and literally, as demanded. For the briefest of moments, the little Excisor wondered how things might be were she not to do so, and felt the gland at the top of her neck pulse. The surge of shame and contrition was so great that her step faltered and she came to a halt in an arching bloodwood cathedral, saw a flutter of red robes as a group of Spirituals scuttled to get out of her sight-line, never pausing in their endless repetition of the Histories.

“Deadliness and obedience,” the Artificer who’d created Hishi had said paternally, not long after decanting. “You are my triumph. I took the best of the Assassin blend, added scar-cat senses and instincts, mixed in some peak-scaler, a touch of Human thinking, some Corrader-root contrariness, and a hundred other secret things. You are the epitome of single-minded loyalty. And,” the leathery Agnost-root blender had muttered to himself, heedless of Hishi’s keen hearing, “a thing of unsurpassed beauty and potential.”

“Show us how lethal you are, how loyal,” the masked, slumped figure on the throne had gasped, as Healing blend attendants had stanched the blood seeping through the priceless and ancient metal-ornamented robes. A wounded Courtier had handed The Eternal a long, thin bone pen, and a tiny scrap of parchment on a little tray made from priceless Original plastic. The nib had scratched steadily, ornately, and the Courtier had passed Hishi the completed Instruction. She had unfolded it, read it, carefully refolded the paper and placed it in a little pouch on her hip belt.

Hishi had bowed, turned and loped out of the blood-slicked throne room, as the healthy and walking wounded hurriedly cleared a path for her. She had glanced up once, through the grown crystal dome, past the mist-wreathed spires of this highest part of the city, at the Scour, where it roiled and seethed from horizon to horizon. Olders believed the turbulence moved with you as you walked, Hishi remembered. They believed it watched, and hungered. Hishi saw no such thing, but something deep in her gene memories made her relax a little more when she passed into the roofed corridors again.

Come to a halt in the vaulted church, Hishi replayed events so far, looking for unnoticed details that would aid her. “The past becomes the future,” a bone-blade instructor had told her one day, as they’d sat nursing wounds. When Hishi had glared at him, he’d sighed and added: “A small omission one moment is your death the next.”

She had not expected to be given an Instruction this day. She was barely out of the tank three months, summoned to an audience in the topmost levels of the city so the unquestioned ruler could give the seal of approval to his/her newest toy in front of fawning courtiers and cowed rivals. The new Artificer, whose blends were causing so much of a stir, had fussed round Hishi beforehand, measuring, assessing, murmuring: “You need to look your best, show them all!”

She had indeed shown them all her best: and her best was killing. No, excising. The difference was everything. Those who came before Hishi could kill. None could excise. She had showed them the difference.

“Assassins!” a towering gold-crested Courtier blend had shrieked as the group of hooded Maintainers had turned from their supposed duty repairing the floor of the coral floor, to pull stubby, fibrous, electromuscle thorn-throwers from their overalls. Thousands of tiny darts had sprayed the crystal-roofed room, cutting down Warriors alongside Clerks and Courtiers and a dozen more blends. They had killed. And the clumsy big Human-root Bodyguard blends had also killed, had swung bone swords with glacial speed, fired bulky living wood carbines, killed a hand of the attackers even as they were killed. They, and scores of glittering Courtiers, aloof foreign Ambassadors and liveried Servitors. But Hishi had excised.

The doomed Courtier had barely uttered the first syllable of its warning when Hishi’s world had slowed. People became vectors and possibilities, estimates and presumptions. Thousands of glittering arcs marked the paths of the toxin-laden thorns in the air. Speedy attackers moved as through amber sap, hardened Soldiers lumbered, 1,000-generation-bred Bodyguards fought with steady predictable tedium.

Not Hishi. She’d moved through the slow-moving tableau, dodging deadly thorns, kicked out sideways at an attacker as she ran, seen a bouquet of rusty blood bloom from its neck, raised a long muscled tight-furred arm and sent a score of splinters of bone from her forearm, tiny vanes guiding them to throats, eyes, weak spots, delivering poisons brewed in her glands. A giant Bodyguard had screamed slowly as an assassin’s stubby bone blade sliced through a gap in her overlapping chitin scale armor, had clubbed the smaller attacker down even as she fell.

Hishi saw everything, using eyes, ears, scent, bioelectric fields, vibration. She saw the dying attacker’s finger squeeze the triggering bud on the pistol, heard 24 tiny darts as they sped out, calculated that five would pose a threat to The Eternal – who had moved not one hair’s breadth since the warning scream – and had somersaulted over the stricken pair, taking a spread of darts to her back and shoulder. Her tightly packed layers of scar-cat fur and microfibers had stiffened and the darts had dug deep enough to hurt but not to deliver the poison on their pulsing tips.

Hishi had plotted a course towards the perfectly motionless figure on the throne. But not directly to it. She had discounted obvious threat and tactical considerations, leaving simple defensive reaction to the slow Guards. Hishi’s route across the throne room was designed to take her from one attacker to another, to remove them in the simplest, most economical manner possible, then move on to the next. She’d jumped, sliced through an assassin’s hood with a claw, felt warm blood that triggered the tiny poison cells in the needle-like tips to dispense targeted toxins. She’d sidestepped a knotted Reaver commander swinging a long diamond-edged blade like a scythe, trying to hold a clot of attackers back even as tiny darts sprang from his face and arms. A frantic Courtier, loyalty coming to the fore where martial skills were lacking, had grappled with a hooded assassin, taking multiple deep slashes to her arms and face. Hishi could have paused, saved her, but that would have cost her an early interception with another attacker who was more likely to reach The Eternal, so she had left the brave servant to die, then had struck her targeted attacker so hard she’d felt its chest cavity collapse, had ripped her hand on its shattered spinebone.

Another had stabbed at Hishi with a long glass blade. She’d taken the strike along her ribs in order to avoid losing momentum, nipped the off-balance attacker with a poison spur on her heel, spun onward. This was excising, she had thought triumphantly, danced on, slashed, leaped, kicked, eviscerated.

Suddenly, disappointingly, it had all been over.

Time had sped up again.

A score of attackers had lain dead, and twice as many court officials and guests. The last assassin, laid open from neck to waist by Hishi’s retractable claws, had lain bleeding, inches from the edge of The Eternal’s robe.

Hishi had felt her ruler’s shrouded eyes on her, smelled an unfamiliar musk under a camouflaging perfume, knew she was being studied by a great many senses. She scented blood, too, saw a thin bone handle protruding from the Eternal’s chest, heard the slow glutinous trickle of fluids onto the old metal-inset fabric. Hishi felt her gland pulse, thought she would die from shame and guilt. She hadn’t seen the knife in play, should have seen it, tracked it. She had gasped in near physical pain at her failure.

The mask had nodded infinitesimally, then a bloodied Soldier had wrenched the dying attacker back, exposed the face, and a chorus of hisses had come from those nearest. It was no Assassin blend, but a hard-edged, scale-skinned rangy blend like none Hishi had seen before. An Ambusher, her glands whispered, and Hishi remembered. The Ambusher blend had been a step too far, at least in Portmanteau and its client cities. They had proven useful in the endless skirmishes with the nomads the city encountered on its long loop through the lowland plains, but conventional wisdom had it that they had been given a little too much native DNA and not enough Original, and they were … unsettling to be around. Unsettling, Hishi thought. I know how that feels. Then the notion evaporated.

The Ambushers had all but vanished, employed now only by some of the more traditional sub-clans in Portmanteau.

This one suddenly stiffened and thrashed in a way it shouldn’t have from Hishi’s precision strike alone, its double-jointed sinewy limbs hitting the smooth floor so hard she heard them fracture. A suicide trigger, then. Much like her own, only hers was keyed to the displeasure of The Eternal. That last seemed unfair, Hishi thought, but the thought was snatched away before she could even consider it.

A spindly Reader was hurried forwards as Guards held the dying Ambusher down. Long fingers clasped the leathery skull. A moment later, the Ambusher lay still, and the Reader knelt and whispered something to The Eternal Courtier, who in turn leaned close to the wounded ruler and spoke. That was when The Eternal had actually spoken directly to Hishi, reproachfully telling her to prove her lethality. And she’d been handed the Instruction.

“The sponsor for this is Matriarch Eventide,” the paper had read. “Excise all responsible.”

Hishi, in the gloom of the cathedral, spotted an osmosis port set in the dark wooden wall. She was close to the edge of safe palace territory, and so touched her wrist to the little iris. She was recognized, and a moment later, a warm rush of nutrients and chemicals flowed into her veins, and a torrent of information into her glands and head. Some information seemed extraneous, some vital. She saw her route, already selected to take her through the most public of thoroughfares, the grandest of plazas. She frowned for a moment at the showiness and inefficiency of this, then obedience kicked in. All the new information would take a minute to permeate, infuse and be sorted, so she slowed her triple hearts and let her mind wander. She saw her reflection in the lustrous oiled wood, studied it critically. Small, by most standards, maybe half the height of a towering Soldier blend. A touch feline, she knew, if you took the tight-coiled scar-cat as your base assumption of feline appearance. The genes had been incorporated into previous blends, she remembered, but never with much success, as their implacable and frankly cruel instincts were too ingrained. A true memory, then: the Artificer studying Hishi fresh from the tank and muttering to himself. “Of all the creatures they made and left, of all the monsters and sports and tricks, the scar-cat was the most beautiful and least wise,” he’d whispered to no-one. “And you, my dear, you are the first to do it justice.”

Hishi had some of the scar-cat in her impenetrable dun fur, fast-twitch muscles, and ability to track multiple moving objects. And, for a reason that she knew to be vanity on the part of her maker, a fold to her ears that served no purpose save to mark her as a pet, a project. Hishi understood why she was what she was: a perfect instrument, designed for a role. But something about the knowledge that she had been molded for the esthetic pleasures of another, that was wrong. She felt a cold fury rise up at that, then other, saner, Original traits kicked in and reined the scar-cat heritage back, choked it. She saw in the dark mirror the first of a new blend, small, taut, gender-less. An angry thought emerged, was muffled as treacherous.

The tiny osmosis port closed, bringing Hishi back to the moment. Now, it was time to excise. She sped out of the cathedral, heard the Spirituals chanting, wondered if she would be included in their spoken histories of the city.

Two tiers below, Hishi passed out of the palace. The change was not noticeable to the casual eye, not even marked officially. But from here, though the orders of The Eternal were still sacrosanct, his/her will still law, she was in the city proper. And from this point on she would be mingling with teeming millions who cared less for their ruler than themselves, or their own clan leaders. She felt danger, opportunity and freedom. Hishi felt alive.

This close to the royal chambers and receptions, the corridors were wide and clean, decorated with rich coral mosaic and fringed with rare plants. House Eternal Courtiers huddled, watched by Guards, but not so closely they couldn’t conduct sensitive business with other city functionaries and visiting envoys. Hishi saw it all with her eyes, knew it all from an endless well of stored and inherited memories. She had only to wonder, and she knew. Knew too much, she suspected, blinking it to a halt so she could focus on the real, the present. And in that moment, she cursed internally. Ahead, a fork in the thoroughfare, the corridor to the left was still emptying, while the one to the right was crowded with people looking her way. Her designated route was to the left.

In the rarefied, scandal-filled tiers of the palace, especially following an assassination attempt on The Eternal, that was only to be expected. There were whispers, coded hand signals, pheromones, and a hundred other ways of passing information fast and unnoticed. But here, she should have been free to travel without anyone knowing. To perform her function. Instead, Hishi realized, she was expected. And that could only be intentional. A signal, and an entertainment for the colossal city this day. Hishi felt warring priorities: should she take the route given, presumably by the royal court, knowing it would be slower and offer less chance of success? Or should she Excise with the single-minded goal of fulfilling The Eternal’s Instruction? Hishi decided instantly: Excision was everything. She concentrated, pulled a complete map of Portmanteau from her glands, knew every inch of the thousands of miles of corridors, halls, shafts, drains, and highways.

Hishi ran the expected way for a short time, savoring the bubble of solitude that surrounded her, planning. At a narrow intersection of three corridors, she took the one that led up, and back into the palace proper, passing a pair of surprised Soldiers at rest, not pausing, but knowing they would raise some kind of alarm at her change of course.

The challenge was to leave the palace not just unseen, but with some clever misdirection. She sprinted through a small park roofed in cellulose, herds of wandering plants tracking her and instinctively moving in tandem, to the irritation of masked Gardener blends who were trying to trim tiny hard iridescent scales from their crowns.

Down, then, and to a slim grown bone arch whose span narrowed to at its arched peak. At this end, a hulking Guard, standing immobile in chitin plated armor, a serrated coral blade longer than Hishi resting point-first on the floor. At the other, the start of a route that pointed straight to the heart of the distant Caltrop tower.

Hishi could have run past, ducked, but she needed to make a statement, and so feigned a dodge and then, as the Guard lunged, she struck down with one claw, slicing between arm plates as the brute extended its reach. A tiny drop of paralyzing agent, hardly noticed, but staggering the Guard enough that Hishi had plenty of time to strike again, delivering another dose to a momentarily exposed neck. Then to the back of one leg. Again, and the Guard slumped, unconscious. But not for long.

Hishi leaped over the prone figure, ran, and halfway across, dropped off the edge of the unrailed arch, falling a tier to a ledge whose filigreed coral window overlooked a wide spiral stair that led down through the bowels of the city. She glimpsed, saw, heard, felt a dozen Secretaries there, conducting business. The ledge was narrow, crumbling, windblown. Hishi waited, unseen, patient.

This high up she had a clear view between two colossal towers, out across rooftops, out to the planet’s surface, the near-flat horizon. The memories formed.

Scour. They’d named the planet after the terror that blanketed it, those unwilling Originals. The spoken litanies preserved by the very Spirituals who chanted without pause somewhere behind Hishi said that the ships had crashed here, eaten and dissolved by the living clouds even as they landed. Everything metal, plastic, contrived, from the ships’ hulls to the tiny living machines in many of the Originals’ bodies, had been consumed, the remains abraded to bone dust by the swirling storm.

The few survivors, from the 20 remembered old species, had fled, shorn of every tool and device they relied on. There, in the vast plains, dodging the Scour storms that stooped from the sky and dug mile-wide scars from horizon to horizon, they met lethally designed flora and fauna. Vast herds of fast-moving plants with toxins in every leaf, ferocious armored herbivores, flitting razor-beaked flying things and tireless predators on, below, and through the churned soil. All of them living around, dodging, following after, and screaming defiance at the storms. All deadly to the naked arrivals.

Hishi saw a Scour storm moving parallel to the giant city, seemingly blind to its existence, digging a ragged deep trench as it spun, moving, the city whispered to her, away. Fifty miles out, a pair of storms danced around each other, all the while moving in loops towards the northern sea. Hishi’s eyes zoomed in, enhancing every detail.

A swarm of jagged little threshers let the wind pull them along in the backwash of the storm, where they tore chunks from creatures dazed from its passing. Preying on them, sucking the jagged omnivores up in wide grinding jaws, a group of reinworms. One of the 40-foot serpents was thrashing up a cloud of ichor and grit as a flock of trepaner birds swooped and plunged hollow sucking lances through its bulbous head. On the outskirts, rippers and spined seers, tearing at stragglers and each other, and following them all, a wide carpet of swaying ambulatory plants, elegant and three times as tall as Hishi, with a spread of pink motile light-gathering fronds on top, and a tangle of dragging roots festooned with paralysis-causing barbed hooks.

The deep wound in the ground would soon be smoothed by rain and wind, dappled with ponds, filled with fast-growing moss and opportunistic wind-blown prey and predators alike. All looking for food, and the tiny – and ever decreasing – amounts of metal left in the soil. The Originals, Hishi recalled, had not just relied on metal and artificial materials, they had contained it in abundance flowing through their blood, rich and versatile. The Scour had devoured them, replenished itself.

Hishi wondered about those memories. How could things so flimsy, so ill-suited to live, have survived here? She felt her Human and other Original genes, enjoyed their cunning and reasoning, but doubted the grandiose stories attributed to those beings, doubted even that there was anything above the Scour. How could there be?

The Secretaries moved on, a chattering gaggle. Hishi swung through the window, pushing the coral panel ahead, catching it before it fell, turning and placing it back where it had rested. She ran on, down, unrecognized.

While plugged into the osmosis port, she’d tasked her glands with sending new resources to the tiny distilleries in her hands, feet, glands and elbows, and already she felt hundreds of tiny lethal bone spikes sliding into queued muscle-fired channels powered by one-shot electro cells. Her retractable claws had added layers of extra ceramic to their outer edges, and the little toxin-bulbs around their bases were full. Hishi was not by personality or design prone to boasting, but she felt a certain pride in her abilities, and recognized that she was the pinnacle of the 1,000 generations of gene-tweaking that had followed the discovery of the first Cache. Well, she corrected, not the pinnacle: a pinnacle. It was just that some pinnacles were more fit to the task than others. A gland memory quickly interjected the cautionary tale of the recent Revenant blend attempted in House Astrogator’s secondary city. All accounts pointed to that reckless House’s attempts at a radical mix of Scholar, Hr’esche root, and the murderous Hook birds, plus some of the still-incompletely-understood strands from the Cache. The Astrogator Emperator had announced that a catastrophic failure in one of Dunedin’s axles had caused the small city to stall in the path of a Scour, but a handful of survivors plucked from the grit by House Hood Scavengers told a very different story, of sabotage by panicked Scientificers to try and eliminate the uncontrollable blend before it could take flight.

Hishi paused on the stair. No alarms, no footfalls that spoke of anything out of the ordinary, no wafting pheromone orders. She was free to carry out her duty.

Matriarch Eventide, then, of House Caltrop. Memories bloomed, and Hishi ran on. The old Matriarch would not submit to the Instruction, and Caltrop was a formidable clan. An assassination attempt, while not unheard-of in inner and inter-House politics, was significant, more so in that every House, faction, sub-clan and nomad group would be watching closely to see how The Eternal reacted. On Scour, hesitation meant weakness meant death. The Eternal could have sent a small army rampaging through Portmanteau, but that would have shown a lack of confidence, and over-reacting was another perceived sign of weakness. Also, damaging a city’s living structure was unacceptable. Hishi liked that her purpose was to make necessary things happen tidily.

She raced through rooms and chambers, across living stone, warm wood, engineered coral and cellulose, never slowing. She ran with no mind to misdirection; she simply took the fastest way down from the high tiers and inwards to the geographical center of the palace city. Word of her route would spread by mouth, bird, and chem-signal through the palace’s sap conduits. But the eventual target would be secret until there were no other possible options. And Hishi had a complex series of bluffs, turns, and evasions prepared.

The ornate tiers slowly gave way to more utilitarian corridors whose dead wood and stone walls dated them to before the pre-Cache explosion in organic building artifice. She slipped unnoticed through halls busy with shift change Administers, the multi-strand and root support cadres that kept House Eternal’s gargantuan palace city and its 23 subsidiary and client cities running smoothly. Hishi had been tanked with a complete if simplistic knowledge of the great Houses’ affairs, and knew that the cities’ survival depended upon a vastly complex system of manufacturing, cultivation, gathering and trading with friend and foe alike. At any given time, a capital city like Portmanteau would have scores of thousands of outriders – Herders, Merchants, Reavers, and Sifters and many more specialties – coming and going via hoists, scoops, drags and the giant access decks found on every hundredth core-stone Track tower.

She passed through the throngs like a wraith, stepping between the heartbeats, dancing through fleeting spaces. To Hishi it felt like an easy run through virtually motionless statues. To the bustling crowds of Administers, slow and deliberate of thought and action, it was as if an outside door had been left ajar and a tiny dusty vortex was whirling through their midst, brushing them no harder than a feather.

Some tiers beneath that, she cut through a broad wet chamber full of moonflowers, their waving pale stalks turning to follow the never-seen satellites claimed to be somewhere above The Scour. Cold, muted, blue light came from a million hair-wide pinprick optic veins that twisted and coiled into thick cables and finally emerged on a flat sky-facing terrace somewhere on the city’s skin. Hundreds of Botanicals in white woven coveralls bustled around in the soaking soil, tapping minuscule quantities of metal-rich sap from the root bulbs. They paid Hishi no mind as she raced along narrow raised boards crisscrossing the fields: like many specialties, every successive generation was tending towards more focus on their role, and less interest in society as a whole. Hishi had only a brief sliver of actual life experience to fall back on, but her gene memory told her that the tens of thousands of Botanicals had seldom set foot outside the lower mid-cavern levels these past few generations.

Hishi came to a cargo capillary, where stooped, burly simian/Scour-dragon-stock Workers were racking big seed-pod-shaped containers in front of a bio-valve that opened with a wet suck every few beats, then closed, sending the container down to the bowels of the city. She raised a hand, and the senior Worker dutifully trotted over, his eyes darting up and down Hishi, agitated, unsure but respectful. Good, Hishi thought. I’m faster than word of my description.

“Duty of The Eternal,” she said simply, and the sinewy Worker picked the most reasonable course of action.

“We are honored,” he said. “If you can delay by only enough heartbeats to allow this current load to descend, I can clear a pod for you. These are only for kindling seeds, and are volatile from seepage…”

Hishi sniffed, detected a faint, acrid scent, that triggered a new memory. Kindling seeds were collected by nomads and those cities whose tracks arched above the ember forest belt, or passed close by. The flammable, sticky liquid inside the seeds was a volatile and valuable trade commodity, especially when the great cities were in conjunction, and war loomed. And, Hishi knew, Portmanteau was about to converge with House Recurve. Recurve was arguably as powerful as House Eternal, and the last time their vast capital cities had passed at a distance of 40 miles, 100 years ago, casualties on both sides had been high. Very high. Rumor had it that that some facing towers had yet to regrow their full height, but Hishi considered that detail nothing more than an instructional tale for fresh tanklings.

The next convergence of the elevated tracks was this very month. And this time the channels would pass so close that the cities’ extremities would be within a hairs-breadth of each other – a ridiculously close 100 paces – for weeks. Yet another puzzle for Historians to study: some Tracks circled the world alone, others intersected and looped close to others, a few even circled on a huge closed perfect circle at one pole. In one place, a Track climbed above another, even, and then there was the Yard, where hundreds of the soaring stone channels met, meshed and joined. The Yard was where the course of a city might change, for the good of the ancient structure, and sometimes the ill of its inhabitants.

Portmanteau’s course took it close to other cities quite regularly. Most of those were now clients and satellites. But not Recurve. And few came as close as that behemoth. At such range, a war could reduce them both to three-mile-high ruins, thus the daily exchange of Envoys. But The Eternal was no fool, and House Eternal had not risen to the top of the heap through complacence. As diplomats rode out, so vast trade caravans kept pace below the city, delivering mountains of wartime supplies. The kindling seeds – alongside other nasty chemicals and surprises – were hoisted up to hidden arbalests and throwers, alongside great wound bows and grappling arms. Thousands of Warriors would wait, too, by drawbridges and hoists. The thought thrilled Hishi, and repelled her.

She snapped back to focus, cursing the unasked-for memories for distracting her, when an Assassin might have come on her unprepared. No, never unprepared. But marginally less prepared. And Hishi needed to succeed. The Worker was gesturing to an empty pod, and Hishi got in with a nod. He looked relieved that she was going.

The organic shell sealed with a snick, and a few moments later the translucent casing was dropped into the rhythmically contracting tube. Down, ever down.

Threshold was not for the claustrophobic. Here, the ancient, indestructible core-rock base of the city melded with the less enduring materials added over the eons. The Originals, wandering their murderous new world, had found some of the slow-moving structures to be no more than colossal platforms on slow-turning wheels. Others were motionless, stripped by The Scour after some accident or decision had caused them to stall. Still more had been on the move in various stages of completion.

In Portmanteau’s rare case, the city was apparently abandoned near-finished and intact, with living ironwood binding precision-cut stone blocks to form a mile-high fortress, complete with pinprick lights, power, irrigation systems, and still-living protein vats. More vitally, as with all the still-moving cities, enough of the billions of nutrient-fed bio-muscle pistons were functional enough to move turn the core-rock gears and drive shafts that kept the colossus moving.

The survivors, those few who the litanies said lived through the Wandering Time, had scaled a Track tower and moved in. Wary, depleted and grateful, they had vowed never to abandon their new haven.

The structure was now almost four times the initial height and double the width, a dazzling layered puzzle of wood, stone, bone, cell-glass, and coral, and a hundred combinations thereof. Hishi felt pride in the Original City, as such a trait, along with a tightly-linked loyalty to The Eternal, had been deemed useful.

And so as she brushed the last pod fibers from her fur and strode away from the sliced-open container on its landing pad, she was suitably impressed by the mile-wide chamber whose roof arched many hundreds of paces above gigantic stone and wood supporting pillars. Threshold was where the city met, people said. Incoming cargo and trade/war goods and parties were lifted in through massive portals, vast mountains of food and consumables came up and down for packing and distribution, and giant grown parts for the wheels and axles were hauled to access pits in the stone floor. Add to that innumerable shops, stalls, dens, pleasurariums and bio-pits, and teeming crowds, and you had Threshold in all its exciting, seedy, dangerous, opportunistic glory.

Hishi immediately liked it, in the way her scar-cat DNA liked the promise of a dusk hunt. She set off at an easy lope, aware that eyes might already be on her. Hishi took in a thousand scents, hundreds of distinct blends of what were once just those 20 Original races. Giant muscled Porters hauled bales of harvested pelt as big as Dust-Ox, tiny darting Messengers dashed past with secrets, Reavers strutted in long-legged packs, Artificers stood lost in calculation, Ambassadors moved arrogantly like plains-galleons, and visitors gawped at it all. Woven through this tapestry, assassins stalked, spies peered, plotters schemed, and poisoners waited.

Now, Hishi needed to be creative and fast. She knew Caltrop would be waiting: even if they were not aware of the discovery of their guilt, Mistress Eventide would have her people prepared. But if they even relaxed a little, that tipped the odds a fraction. Her presence here in Threshold was no secret, but her destination would still be a matter of debate.

The first attack came in open view of thousands of eager witnesses. A trio of dusty Nomads carrying heavy saddlebags were passing close by Hishi in the throng, when, as one, they shrugged off the bulging leather sacks and lunged at her, short glass blades in each hand. Hishi had no warning, but plenty of time to study her limited options. Nomads were a catch-all name for a whole subset of blends. All of which were designed for harsh conditions outside the cities. These were typical of the type: lean, fast and, Hishi realized as a dodged blade abruptly reversed course and slashed a shallow score across her ribs, double jointed. And, another surprise, possessed of accelerated reactions. That last, as a slash that should have raked out the close-set eyes of the lead attacker, only nicked the wide snout. Hishi had been taken by surprise, and felt humiliation and rage rise up. Her blood roared, glands surged and reduced the world slowed to a crawl, flooded her body with her own, vastly superior accelerants, and Hishi waited, motionless. The Nomads hesitated at that, exchanged the briefest, most fatal of puzzled glances, that allowed Hishi a space between heartbeats. She kicked out, felt tough exoskeleton snap under her heel, fired a brace of targeted darts from her backward-flung balancing arm. Nomads’ genes were hardwired to fear toxins, Hishi knew, through hundreds of generations of encounters with the worst that the planet could devise. So even though their rough hides and inbuilt immunity should have had them ignore the darts, they flinched back, attack arcs forgotten. And died gurgling as Hishi turned and leaped, claws bare.

The gathering crowd, well aware of who Hishi was by now, stamped in a thunderous approval. Not necessarily for The Eternal, she understood, but for the raw display. Something in Hishi responded, and an impulse rose, was followed. She bent to slash the nearest satchel, spilling out hundreds of glass beads, the heart of every one holding a tiny grain of reddish metal. Taking a double handful, Hishi threw them in the air, a glittering fountain. The scene turned into a mad scramble, and Hishi ran, unseen for the most part.

Hishi gazed at the three prone guards. Regrettable and messy, as they would be missed, and that would eliminate the element of surprise. But they’d blundered onto the scene when they were meant to be elsewhere. That was troubling. As was her very use of poison so early in her mission: Guards were a hard blend to render unconscious, and she’d been rushed into using a powerful and lethal toxin. They’d dropped the moment she’d raked all three across their vulnerable eye-slits on one motion.

Hishi had been careful, passing under Caltrop’s massive turret and heading for the fringes of sub-clan Flint territory. Even when she’d backtracked up the outside of a wind-scarred stone escarpment, she’d angled as if to sneak into the Stirrup embassy, only swinging across a half-mile-deep chasm at the last moment to steal through a narrow window into her real target. She was sure she’d not been tracked. And yet … she had been met at every step, fought, forced to Excise. No matter. She raced on, up a wide spiral staircase with indentations worn into the stone treads. Ahead, heavy footfalls coming down, a trace of musky sweat containing glanded accelerators: vulpine-blended Caltrop Warriors. Hishi flooded her body with the boosters she would need, snicked long curved claws from their sheaths and squeezed a range of toxins along tiny veins. She flicked a long arm and a hundred tiny guided seed slivers flew out, the native hunting plant-gene twist giving them a heat-seeking hunger. Time slowed, Hishi sped up.

Hishi looked down, a clear mile drop to the Track. She’d never been outside on the facing edge of the city before, never seen the Track through her own eyes, to form real memories. She had to wait out here for long enough that the Caltrop retainers would take the planted clues and assume she’d retreated after the barrack-room battle, to lick her wounds, and would set off in presumed pursuit to finish her. Hishi did need a moment, she admitted, for rents to knit, toxins to flush. She had excised 267 living things thus far, and it was becoming messy, brutal, not beautiful. She’d climbed out of a window, edged up the slick living rock wall and on to a tiny ledge, where she now clung, unseen, battered by the cold wind. Vertigo was not an issue, or fear: Hishi’s poise here no different than had she required to walk in a straight line through a genteel garden level. Only the outcome should she make a mistake would differ.

She looked down, ahead. Restorers were visible on the Track, making sure even tiny scrapes and gouges in the mile-wide core-stone channel were smoothed over, clearing any worrisome debris thrown onto the U-shaped canyon. Down in the raw deep wound off to the side were crews of Sifters, alert for any particles of metal not consumed by The Scour, but mostly seeking another Cache. There had only been two such stores found, Hishi knew, in many thousands of years; fragments of whatever civilization had created the great moving cities, then vanished. Each Cache had contained enough specialized knowledge to give the unwilling colonists previously unimaginable advances in genetics and bio technology.

Much further off, Hishi’s predator-spliced eyes could see a Scour moving slowly anti-spinward: churning up the Bone Wastes again. Somewhere in that vast dead expanse sat the shell of the great city the stunned first arrivals had named Necropolis. Hishi had tasted memories of recent travelers who’d seen the colossus, tilted and ruined at the shattered end of a Track, smoothed a little more by every passing Scour it could no longer outrun. Perhaps I can see that for myself some day, she thought, then unwillingly discarded the idea as counterproductive.

When finally she calculated it was safe to drop down and in again, Hishi was stiff with the cold, but alert, and driven by the need to move, to obey the Instruction. The wrecked room had been cleared of the bodies, but not the slick of blood, or the smell. She padded along the edge, and took a small door that led to an unassuming staircase.

Hishi’s focus was all on fighting, moving up. Her movements were more spare, to conserve energy and to allow a dozen gashes to heal. Her working memory contracted to snippets. Dropping from a vaulted ceiling onto the helmets of five surprised warriors, claws flashing. Slicing through a toughened cell-glass wall with de-bonding enzymes, through a tanking ward, cutting down a clan Warrior as she raised a razor-edged ceramic blade. A leap across a chasm, claws scrabbling for purchase, a swing into a waste shaft a spliced second before a Guard looked down. A tumbling, chaotic battle with a kilted, gnarled Forager, retired to court duty but still fast as a grit snake and too thick skinned for toxins, requiring a choke hold to make him gasp for air and allow a single drop of deadly oil to be forced in his mouth.

A cold pond room with a dozen lithe junior nobles of Aristocratic blend, a flurry of billowing scarp-scorpion silk robes and thrown crown thorns, falling like leaves in the Scour to Hishi’s leaping slashes and strikes. A long bloody score along her back, fast clotted and knitted. 502 excised. Killed, something in her head whispered, and was muffled.

No more stairs. This was the top of Caltrop territory. Hishi stepped over the body of a proud Bodyguard blend, almost sorry to have spattered that fine feathered crest with blood. At the same time, scornful that effort had been wasted on decoration, rather than efficiency. She strode through an old-fashioned grand observatory, the centerpiece of which was a dented, priceless alloy head-sized encased in amber, dead, useless. An Artificed Intelligence, she recalled, supposedly brought by the Originals, wrenched from one of the dissolving starships, the Caltrop, after it smashed on the great plain. Inside the sphere were useless fragments of carbon-cell brain. In as much as Hishi had any interest in ancient history, she wondered at the hopeless naivety of the stranded survivors, to preserve that, when they had had exactly no chance of ever leaving this world.

A rush of near-silent feet, the silken rustle of an Assassin’s strangling ropes and thin coated blades. Hishi ached, slowed time, and let the scar-cat loose.

“You are the new Excisor blend, I assume?”

Hishi nodded.

The old Human-root woman pursed pale lips, looked Hishi up and down. “Too much,” she said disapprovingly. “Before you do what you must, let us talk?”

Hishi felt no need to talk, but a small, subversive part of her wanted to listen. Eventide was old, near ancient, in fact, as close to an Original as had existed since the Caches were discovered. She had seen many generations come and go, must have traversed this world a hundred times over. Hishi sought completion, but also a reason, so she could best understand why she was here, dappled in the blood of hundreds of citizens. Her warring instincts found a truce in common sense: she would use the brief pause to flush some toxins from her blood, saturate her lungs with more air, isolate and eject a hundred slivers and ceramic fragments that had penetrated her body. Her toxin buds were dry, her thorn chambers empty, three claws snapped off, and she ached all over. An ear was ragged, too, which oddly irked Hishi more than the more serious injuries.

She heard a slow regular drip, noticed her own blood falling slowly to the bespattered coral floor. Five Ambushers lay dead around the old wooden chair, alongside a half dozen retainers who’d tried to impede her; a towering Human-elve Counsellor lay bubbling in her own blood. A dozen others poised to make a desperate rush. A fruitless rush. Maybe. She sensed every inch of the modest circular turret room, heard treads thundering up the single staircase, saw the locked hatch to the roof, felt a tiny movement of air through minuscule gaps in the big round window that overlooked the rooftops.

Hishi nodded, noting the beads of sweat on the withered clan ruler’s wrinkled face. Eventide was easily over 1,000 years old, one of the early beneficiaries of Cache-given advances that had slowed aging in those few ruling-class specialties deemed fit for the laborious and painful process of re-gening an adult. She was as pure a strain as Hishi had heard of, one of the relative ancients who’d come from basic alterations to make the feeble colonists tough enough to survive. Human look and build, aquatic scales for durability, largish cranium for intelligence, a scattering of strands from winged omnivores for speed and focus, Hishi thought. Definitely live birthed, too.

“Who are you?”

“I am an Excisor,” Hishi said, puzzled.

The ancient one scowled impatiently. “No, who are you? I hear you have a name.”

“Hishi,” she said simply.

“And you chose this name? Or was it that twisted Artificer who made you?”

“I chose.”

“Yet you have no siblings, no family, you are also, unless my senses fail me, obedience-bound and genderless. Why do you need a name?”

Hishi felt that sting, though she did not know why. “I will not always be genderless; only for the duration of my service,” she said, parroting the words the Artificer had use to her, no, about her, to Courtiers and Scientificers. “For clarity of focus and purpose, no distractions. When my service is done, I will choose to be ‘she’.”

A look of pity crossed Eventide’s face. “We’ve come to this,” she said softly. “Sending our children to kill for us. So,” Eventide said more gruffly, “that fool of a boy on the throne sent you to try and dispose of me. I knew he would, eventually. The weak ones always do. Did he say why?”

The Eternal was male? And young? Neither had even occurred to Hishi before. Which struck her as odd, also. Curiosity, she had, but not a full range of it. That bothered her, and then it didn’t. She almost killed the old woman there and then, loyalty and outrage lifting a hand to strike. But she held back, waiting for an admission of guilt that would end her task cleanly. Also, she was curious.

“Because you tried to kill hi…. The Eternal,” Hishi said. “I was Instructed to Excise all responsible.”

“Before you do your horrid duty, let me show you something,” the old matriarch said in a dry whisper. Hishi paused, clawed hand raised, time crippled to a crawl. Another drip of her own blood slowed in its passage to the bespattered coral floor.

The old lady fished carefully about her plain tunic, keeping lightly scaled hands where Hishi could see them, Hishi noted approvingly. Then Eventide held out a folded scrap of parchment. Hishi didn’t take her eyes off the woman, but took the paper between two claws and flicked it open. She glanced at it, fast. The familiar script read: “Assassinate person of Eternal. 7/10 Turn, this day.”

Hishi was confused, and in the dissected second her attention was elsewhere, the Matriarch lashed out with surprising speed, a hardened hand striking Hishi in the throat. The blow would have crushed her windpipe had the Excisor not thrown herself backwards as it landed, skidding across the blood-soaked coral-glass floor, gasping for air. The Matriarch’s Guards leaped forward to complete the kill, but Hishi used the slick floor’s lack of traction and slithered a body-length clear, vaulting to her feet to slash down on a mailed fist where the hand armor and forearm plates met, near-severing the appendage. A thrown bone blade penetrated Hishi’s tough layered fur at the shoulder, the point protruding out the back. Her glands shunted the pain away, closed off redundant arteries and in a smooth motion, Hishi gripped the blade in a hand and wrenched it out, continuing the sweep to send it through the eye-slit of the second Guard. She jumped backwards, a flip, landing in front of the defiant Matriarch, and lifted her good hand to strike.

The old woman’s face showed no fear. “The Instruction was real, lass. Do with that knowledge what you will.”

Hishi struck, tearing the woman’s throat open, using the last drops of every toxin she had to ensure no revival was possible. She turned, letting the light old body fall, and saw a wave of furious retainers and Gaurds rushing toward her. Without a thought, Hishi jumped back and through stained-amber window behind the Matriarch’s chair. A spray of darts and projectiles caught her as she tumbled, one ripping into the back of her head.

Hishi saw a bottomless chasm, and tried to right herself for a controlled fall. She struck a stone parapet, felt something break, then knew nothing more.

Fascinating, Hishi thought through a haze of pain so great that it almost was surreal enough to be able to pretend it was happening to someone else. Even while unconscious I tracked my own position. I did not know I could do that. She was lying on her back, so could see a tracery of glowing lines stretching up though blackness, like the webs rot-spiders drifted on ahead of a Scour storm. She tried to examine the data and immediately passed out. When she came to again, she was thinking a little more logically and directed her glands to numb the pain and give her stimulants. This was, to Hishi’s surprise, only partly effective. Tasks that would have taken a thought, were now beyond her.

She listened, unable to see a thing. Other senses, then. A low hum and constant slight vibration. A very slight breeze on the side of her face. She tried to move, couldn’t, and a rare panic took hold. Am I paralyzed? She howled, then, and felt the fur on her back tear out in clumps as she came free of the ground with a sticky ripping sound.

When Hishi came to again, still in pitch black, she moved carefully, found she had some control over limited gland function, and boosted her senses to ultra violet and thermal spectrums, with an active ping added. So, she was lying on core-stone, a curving platform fully 50 paces long that sloped down to left and right. Only a thick accumulation of sticky oil-saturated grit had prevented her from sliding off. Behind Hishi the core-stone wall was moving, smoothly and ceaselessly. Not just moving. Rotating. Hishi could sense heat from a small gap around the semicircular ledge she sat on. Not semicircular, she reasoned. Circular. And huge.

A distant part of her mind finally made sense of the data from her fall, matching course with maps. She’d descended a full, incredible, two miles and some. That she had survived at all was down to the ancient design of Caltrop’s fortress: the outer walls were grown and built to be too smooth for interlopers – internal or some of the more enterprising external predators – and like Portmanteau itself, widened as they descended. A full third of Hishi’s drop had been down a sloped section of city wall, then the architectural tricks to funnel wind and rain had played in her favor, treating the tiny, broken Excisor like a piece of storm-blown trash, funneling her down and away efficiently.

Hish had bounced from outcrops, slid down a vast fungus-choked air shaft, tumbled across a slope of Dayshade vines, ripped through a wide bio pipe and sluiced down an overflow drain on the resultant nutrient torrent. Ever downward, light and limp, bouncing. And breaking, healing, breaking again, partially healing again as she fell.

And now, Hishi realized with a shock, she was on one of the giant wheel hubs down in Axle. The undercity, off-limits to civilized people. The moving wall was a wheel, stretching up and away, and down to the Track. A few paces to either side and … Hishi shuddered. Wait: fear? Shock? These emotions should not have been available to an Excisor. She remembered a blow to the back of her head, ceramic slivers from Guards’ weapons slicing into her, and reached up with shaky hands. Instead of tight muscle and fur, a jagged sticky mess. She had some glanded abilities, still, but clearly there was serious damage. Also, surprisingly, clear thinking, no, not clear, just not limited. Hishi experimented, imagined The Eternal dying, felt a rush of agony so great she knew she would die too, were it true. So, the suicide gland was still there. But she knew, now, that her crushing loyalty was artificial, glanded, enforced, as was the idiotic idea of her life ending just because The Eternal’s did. The fool boy’s, she corrected, remembering Eventide’s words. Hishi healed fast, knew for sure that she would have a very brief time in which to act to keep her new-found clear-headedness. If she wanted to. Dared to.

Hishi decided, called up the stored plans of her own body and then, looked deep into the schematics for the complex and remarkable gland cluster. Dozens, scores of tiny individual glands and manufactories, all working together. But some wrecked now, and some a hindrance. Hishi took a deep ragged breath, not allowing her conscious mind to catch up, snicked out an undamaged razor-sharp claw and struck deep at the base of her skull. She screamed, then, and dug with brutal precision until the pain stole away her consciousness once more.

Hishi dragged herself up another rung. 3,086. She’d told herself she could climb no more of the narrow stone notches on the dangling stalactite ladder, at 2,000. And at 3,000 had thought she might throw herself backwards, off, down to the wheel again, this time to bounce and die. But she had an Instruction to finish. And the clarity to know how.

3,203: no more rungs. A lichen-covered corridor of wet core-stone, shuffling Axle inhabitants from no specialties Hishi recognized, and some her glanded memories had told her were long-since eradicated. Hands helping her, too weak to fight back, a nutrient tap, a cup. Blackness again.

Hishi came to slowly, tried to spring to her feet, managed only to roll over and vomit on herself in the dark. Her night vision flared too bright, showing a rough-hewn chamber with indistinct figures around her. Then it snapped off and the blackness was total, only to be replaced by an overlap of thermal map and motion vectors from the slow draught of warm stale air. She tried to shake her head, screamed in agony.

Strong hands gripped her head and a cup was held to her bruised lips.

“Don’t fight, lass,” a grating, slow voice urged. “Someone made a proper mess of the back of your head, near tore that abomination of a manufactory cluster out your head.”

“Me,” Hishi tried to say, “suicide gland. Take it out.” It came out as a whisper but whoever was holding the cup, seemed to understand.

“Thought as much. Well, we don’t have The Eternal’s Medicants here, lass, but we’ve some experience in removing the worst of the new tortures. Drink: this will hurt less if you do.”

Hishi didn’t drink, and as more hands held her, the pain in her head multiplied a thousand-fold. She thrashed and howled but forbade her thorns to fire or her claws to extrude. And in time she passed out.

“How long can they survive?” Hishi and the stooped old Healer called Chirur sat on the edge of Portmanteau’s blunt frontal slab, directly above the leading edge of one of the mountainous wheels. Its fellows stretched to both sides, across the width of the stone canyon of the Track. The noise – millions of tons of stone rolling over stone – was less brutal than Hishi had expected, due, Chirur had told her, to the incredible smoothness of the wheels and Track, even after these uncounted centuries. It vibrated every part of you, Hishi thought, reducing you to nothing. A stiff but pleasant wind blew in their faces, dispelling, for a moment, the ever-present Axle levels smell of grease and waste.

She didn’t have access to her gland memories any more: that pulsing black organ had been buried in an organic settling bed, Chirur said, to have it do some good at last.

“Why not just kill them?” she asked, as a group of figures far below and a little ahead were prodded off a wooden hoist onto the smooth stone track bottom.

“Where would be the lesson in that?” Chirur replied. “This way, anyone who cares to see The Eternal’s mercy for his opponents need only look down.”

Most of the 20 or so people were trotting away from the trundling mass of the city, slowly increasing the gap between themselves and the grinding wheels. A few were running towards the distant edges, and the cliffs rising there on both sides. A few simply sat down in the path of the relentless wheels.

“Can they escape?”

“The only escape is under the wheels, or if they’re still alive when we go over a vent and they fancy a drop all the way down to the monsters that shadow Portmanteau looking for scraps. And once in a while a hookbill will take one to lay its eggs in.”

Hishi shuddered. “How long?”

“How long can they walk without stopping? There are tales of victims – the fleeter, hardier blends – lasting five-days, 100-days, even more.”

Hishi perked up. The old exiled healer was fond of telling stories, and in the ten day since Hishi had arrived near death in Axle, he had proven a kind companion. And a vital one in the dark, unmapped, dangerous base levels of the city. Here, Hishi had learned, the detritus, the unwanted, the unsuitable, ended up. Both inorganic and organic. Discontinued blends, fugitives from Eternal justice, illegal immigrants to the city, and more. And, raining down on them, the byproducts of the capital city. Axle was where waste was processed, the endless gears and muscle engines located, the proceeds of illicit deals hidden, swapped, traded, along with lives.

“More?” she prodded gently.

“There are tales of lights, campfires glimpsed way ahead on the long straight sections of the Track, the flames carefully shielded from those gazing down from above, but sometimes visible from way down at our level. People say there are entire tribes living on the Track, who’ve perfected scavenging from the things that blow, fall, and are trapped in the Track.”

“Do you believe those tales?”

The old man smiled: “I believe a lot of things that are not true.”

Hishi leaned forward to see one of the people below as the vast turn of the wheel lost them to sight. She’d been shy of going too close to the mountainous stone rollers at first, haunted by a fragmented memory of waking, broken, on the curving axle. Now, she was confident, happy to hang over the drop by a hand to satisfy her curiosity.

Portmanteau trundled ceaselessly on dozens of rows of the polished stone cylinders, each row made up of 20 wide smooth solid wheels, separated from their fellows by a hand’s breadth.

Chirur hissed in concern and she smiled inwardly. Once the gland was removed and a ready supply of clean, if illicit nutrients had come her way, Hishi had healed fast. But not totally. She’d lost the tip of an ear, which now delighted her for the anguish it would have caused the Artificer, and had pale scars all over her body. She was close to her old speed and balance, though lacking some of the powerful aids the gland had given her. But though she was free of the compulsion to please, to die for, The Eternal, Hishi was still driven by duty.

“I need to go back,” she said bluntly.

Chirur was silent, and instead of answering, nodded out to the right into the foothills. “Recurve coming,” he said conversationally, as if discussing the weather. “Convergence in a three-day. Be busy upstairs, with all those Strategists and Soldiers and Diplomats running around.”

Hishi nodded. She zoomed in on the distant curve of another elevated Track as it looped round through the plain to run parallel to Portmanteau’s course, traced way back to a distant smudge on the horizon.

Chirur continued: “Not so many people know, the traffic that goes back and forth down these levels come a convergence. From the high and mighty doing secret deals, to people looking to start a new life…”

Hishi felt something new, something not hostile. The thought wasn’t banished, but neither did she know what to do with it. She touched the old healer softly on the shoulder with a furred hand, and padded away.

The stir was audible when Hishi limped in through the giant double doors of the High Reception. The room was truly grand, a billion shards of Scour-glass covering every span of wall, floor, and vaulted ceiling. Behind the high throne, a stained-crystal coral fan, colored and dyed to show a scene from the story of the Landing, Originals stumbling from a ruined warship even as The Scour’s tiny living machines ate it.

The Eternal was surrounded at a respectful distance by whip-smart Strategist blends, and a score of military specialties. At the back, the stooped Artificer who’d made her, and whose name she realized she had never heard. Watching her, expressionless.

The atmosphere was tense but not panicked. And Hishi knew from her lope up through the city that war was, thus far, at arm’s length.

The Eternal’s Secretary let the babble of voices rise, then snapped a long tendril and there was silence. Hishi knew her appearance broke a score of Court protocols. Bruised and scarred. More deeply than they knew.

She padded forwards, stopping three paces from the throne, noting the Guards, three from before, one new.

The Eternal’s ornate mask was fixed on her. The Secretary coughed, and spoke: “The Eternal wishes it to be known that we are pleased to see our loyal instrument returned alive …”

“They knew I was coming. It was a test,” Hishi said simply. She stared at the mask. There was an outraged pause, then the Secretary started to puff up to deliver a rebuke. A gloved hand was raised, silencing the courtier. It leaned close to The Eternal, and something passed between them. The courtier straightened and spoke: “Why do you say that?”

Hishi took a breath: this close, The Eternal’s presence was almost overpowering. Her conclusions came in a rush: “Because The Eternal didn’t move. Not a twitch. Not even to avoid harm. And because I would have seen the blade. And the blood, it smelled … wrong. Old. Not real.”

Everything stilled, quieted. Hishi could sense Bodyguards tense, Diplomats watch with feverish interest. She hadn’t mentioned Eventide’s note, sensed that The Eternal was waiting to find out if she knew. Hishi said nothing and there was a barely perceptible feeling of tension ebbing. The Eternal nodded to the Secretary, and something was whispered.

The Secretary stood tall, spoke loud and clear to the whole room: “A test of loyalty of a new blend, yes, and a lesson at the same time. Matriarch Eventide had questioned our rule, sowed dissent. An example had to be made, that just one loyal servant could excise even the most powerful sub-clan. The completion of the Instruction means…”

“Not completion,” Hishi said quietly, and there was a scandalized hush. She sensed a Guard move, a Human-root female.

“ ‘All responsible’ not Excised,” Hishi said. “Instruction wording very specific.”

She sensed The Eternal stir, felt the tissue around the empty suicide gland bud twitch, a knot of scar tissue in her head acknowledge the repeated signal, but no more happened. The Guard hesitated. The Eternal’s mask trembled. Time slowed down.

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