PROLOGUE

Shea Ashcroft stepped from a carriage into the low-lit cul-de-sac as a mongrel lifted its door knocker of a head from a garbage pile.

Dogs. They’d taken over the capital a week before. The wind dragged garlands of crushed glass and everyday commodities across the pavement, and the dogs picked out anything they could chew: meat from the decimated butcher’s shops, greens, someone’s shoes.

Those animals had guts. It was the humans who tended to stay indoors—half of them cursing the one person who’d had the chance to ‘stop the violence at its inception’. Him.

Three people at the royal court he’d previously considered friends had already advised him to issue an apology. He’d told them to go to hell.

The hound ran to the middle of the street. It barked and leaped in place, snapping its jaws at something it couldn’t quite reach.

“Atta boy,” Shea said. “Though that bone’s a bit too big for you.”

The ‘bone’ hung at the second-story height, the post of a gas lamp stretched like a strut between the opposing buildings, comically, inconceivably. There were reports of looters getting their hands, heaven knew how, on one or two Drakiri devices—tulips, his sister used to call them; his sister, when she was still alive—which reduced the weight of anything they touched to that of paper.

Apparently, once you were in possession of something like that, you tried to steal a street light—or had it been a refined vandalism, or a weird attempt at a joke? Shea’s gaze grazed the walls for signs of damage.

“Idiots playing with fire,” he said to the dog. “If only they risked their own lives alone.”

The dog barked and jumped again, heedless of the rubble beneath its feet.

Third door on the right, carved oak. Shea pushed on the doorknob and descended the steps into the basement vestibule.

The valet who took his coat said, “Thank you.”

He looked vaguely familiar. Square jaws, eyes sunken into crow’s feet.

“Do I know you?”

The man didn’t answer, but Shea’s memory did.

the crowd, a huge condensed mass of arms, legs, and throats, rolling toward him, and back, back, drive them back, the scent of blood, a lieutenant bending over the balustrade, twisting her body trying to peek into the russet sky—where’s the bloody airship?—then, the great elongated balloon sailing over the terracotta roof tiles.

Minister, we need your permission to gas the crowd. Snap out of it. Minister. Lord Ashcroft. Shea.

Hands had touched him, shaken him, poked him, but his vision shrank to a girl, pink dress, huge eyes taking in the world as though for the first time, the world in the airship’s shadow.

Fall back.

Minister?

Fall back

The man put his coat on a hanger.

“You were there,” Shea said. “In the crowd, next to the girl in pink.”

He nodded. “We’re all alive because of you, Minister.”

But half of the city lies destroyed—also because of me.

He wondered why his title still applied.

Past the inner door was a pocket-size theater, eight or nine rows, six of them empty. Still, a dozen faces—because entertainment had to continue even in times like these, and because, for tiny venues, this was the moment to shine.

All the big ones lay crippled.

Shea lowered himself next to a slender man in black gloves. “Weird place for a meeting. You wanted to see me, my lord?”

“Just Aidan, if you would, my lord. I know we haven’t interacted a lot, but I much prefer my own name.”

“Why the theater?”

“To make sure we could talk undeterred.”

“This week, the street would’ve sufficed,” Shea said.

“Yes, but it isn’t safe out there this week. I—”

Applause cut him short. The curtains parted, revealing the scenery: a starry expanse behind something dark and cylindrical. An actor in orange darted onto the stage, doubling up in a bow.

“Queen Daelyn built a tower, took gold from every man, breast milk from every mother…”

So it’s about the Owenbeg tower, Shea thought.

He’d seen the official daguerreotypes—a vast column, more of a growth than a human-made structure—but the details were always blurry and the inscriptions read more like statements. ‘Biggest building in history’—try imagining that.

Shea half-turned to Aidan. “Another play about the tower?”

“The construction effort isn’t going well. Something’s happened there. People pick up on rumors.”

Onstage, the orange man made a leap. “Queen Daelyn sent her servant—to oversee the deed…”

Another, in a silk jacket, appeared from behind the curtain’s crimson.

“…the servant wasn’t smart enough—and he got promptly killed,” the first one declared.

“I heard that rumor, too,” said Shea. “That Daelyn is sending someone from the court there. Poor fellow, whoever that will be.”

“Actually.” Aidan pointed his finger at the silk-jacketed guy. “Actually, that’s you out there, Shea. May I call you Shea?”

“What?”

The woman right in front of them turned her head. “Would you please keep your voices down?”

“What do you mean, it’s me?” Shea whispered.

“Nothing official yet,” Aidan said, “but I was told Daelyn would issue the decree tomorrow. You’re to give up your office and become her intendant in Owenbeg. You’ll be overseeing the tower’s construction.”

“What the hell?!” The woman turned again, and Shea said, “Sorry. What the hell, Aidan?”

“I told you—something’s happened there, and she needs—”

“I can defend my every action during the riots. And what’s an intendant, anyway?”

“The position is relatively new. Honestly, I wouldn’t consider this a punishment, rather an opportunity, and that’s why I wanted to talk to you—”

He went on, but Shea didn’t listen anymore. People onstage jumped, danced, sang in funny voices. Someone behind laughed in irregular intervals. The woman in the front row produced a hand fan.

At some point, he simply stood and made his way out.

“My lord!” Aidan called out, but he continued to the exit.

Outside, the hound had given up on things it couldn’t reach and gone back to rummaging through the waste heap.

It seemed like a dream—the slow ride from the city’s edge, unloading baggage that all looked the same. Climbing the pier on which the airship perched.

A lady with a southern accent she desperately tried to mask told Shea the first-class suite had been taken, but ‘their second class was just as good’. The door she led him to opened into a cabin which resembled a theater prop room, with a couch that stank of sweat, a table, and a vase of flowers overdue for a burial.

“Would you fancy a drink?” the southern lady asked.

He said, “I don’t really drink.”

“Tea, then?”

“Yes, please.”

She brought a lone porcelain cup together with a kettle, ice-cold. Shea had no idea if it was another affront or simple negligence—and, frankly, he didn’t care anymore.

As the airship slid into a farewell glide over the capital toward where the horizon squeezed the sun of its last drops, he sat and sipped the bland brew. Behind the window, the palace swam by, the Red Hill, the honeycombs of the guard towers’ lights. ‘Consider this an opportunity,’ Aidan had told him.

“I sure hope, Aidan,” Shea said now, “that you don’t mean suicide.”

His sister would’ve been proud of him, were she still alive: he could’ve refused the assignment, he could’ve begged. But there was something noble, romantic even, in accepting an unjust punishment. There, I made a decision. I would do it again. I bear the consequences.

If I am to ensure the tower gets built, he thought, it will be the swiftest and most efficient construction ever.

And I’ll find a way to return, to get back what they’ve taken from me.

He raised the cup in a mock salute as the palace swam out of view.

There goes my life at the capital, Lena, sis, my dear thing. After you passed away, I tried to let go, focus on my career—and look how well that came out.

Please forgive that I’ve stopped speaking to you. I guess the turning point for me was that reception, when someone asked me who you were, at which point I realized I was talking out loud. They thought I was bonkers, and of course it’s bonkers conversing with an imaginary dead person—but we’re all crazy in some way or another, aren’t we? The trick is figuring who’s at ‘some’ and who’s already at ‘another’.

I wish I had your strength, and I wish you were here now.

PART I. THE DUCHY
1

Shea awoke when the ship made a leap toward hell.

Under the daylight’s varnish, the cabin took a dive, jolted, plunged. Maybe we’re passing through a pocket of air, his brain whispered. Lie still for a minute, it will blow over.

He tore his hand from the mattress and raised it to his face: the pinky trembled lightly. The next jolt threw him off the couch, and somewhere in the gondola’s bowels, two dozen throats produced a collective sigh.

Shea was about to join them when a thought sent him into nervous laughter—a fall from grace. Perhaps a literal one this time.

Well, he refused to go out like that.

Still buttoning his shirt, he peeked into the corridor. To his right, the door to the luxury suite swung open, spewing a man in a smoking jacket who sized him up and, in a shrill voice, said, “Are we going to die?”

So, the southern lady didn’t lie—first class really was taken.

Shea squeezed himself past the guy. “Don’t stand here. Go back to your room and hold on to something.

Behind him, the shrill voice repeated, “Are we going to die?”

“If we are, I’ll let you know.”

The corridor widened into the dining lounge, pristine white, shards on the floor, cutlery quivering in unison with his own pounding on the bridge door.

“Skipper? What’s going on?”

After a good ten seconds, a muffled voice said, “Who is it?”

“Ashcroft.” A new dive slapped him against the wall.

The door half-opened, and an acned face appeared in the gap. “Minister?”

“A former one. Let me in.”

“Let him in, Jonah,” another voice said.

The control cabin was more like a slice of a lighthouse’s lantern room than a naval ship’s bridge; four would’ve been a crowd here.

The captain, wearing an olive dress coat of Owenbeg, their destination, stood at the helm—for Shea, he came across as a collection of unconnected details: a wide nape, a sideburn, a crease on the trousers—and the acned face, probably the first mate, clutched a second wheel.

“How may I help you, Minister?” said the captain without turning.

“By telling me what the hell’s going on.”

“First time in the duchy, I presume?”

“Me and a bunch of other folks, apparently. The passenger cabins are learning to sing opera right now.”

“It’s just turbulence.”

“I know turbulence.” The room made another dance move, and Shea grabbed an iron lever to steady himself.

“Please let go of that, Minister,” the acne boy said.

“I know turbulence. This feels like a drunken sailor party.”

“A bad day today, that’s what it is,” the captain said. “It’s the air. The air hits it, gets pushed in all directions, gains speed. Roughs us up.”

“The air hits what?”

“To starboard, Mr. Ashcroft.”

Still not turning, the captain waved his hand, and Shea looked. Gasped. Took a few uneven steps toward the windscreen.

Behind it, there was something vast, something dark, a stretch of an evening sky pasted onto midday. To say the tower was colossal was to compare a volcano to a matchstick: it was a mountain’s trunk, freed from the foothills, and the scattering of villages in its shadow could’ve been cardboard toys.

His responsibility? How could he do anything to it, ensure anything about it?

“Gosh,” Shea said, “what altitude are we at?”

“One thousand two hundred feet.”

“How high is the damn thing?”

“A thousand, give or take. And I hear they’re planning to put another thousand on top of it—but really, I should ask you that, no?”

“Pardon?”

“No fools here, Lord Ashcroft.”

At that moment, Shea saw himself from the outside: a noble, barging into the bridge, pushing aside a man who’d probably been saving for a year to book a ride in a luxury suite. The tone, the words. Skipper.

He stretched out his hand. “I don’t think we’ve been formally introduced, Captain.”

“Liam Salas. Welcome to the border, Minister.”

“I’m not a—”

“I wanted you to know—I’d actually planned to visit your cabin before you so gracefully waltzed in—I’m happy you’re here. It’s a difficult subject, of course, politically, but my son was among the protesters.”

The handshake lasted longer than custom demanded, which was helpful because, otherwise, the next plunge would’ve sent Shea to the floor.

“I did nothing a normal human being wouldn’t have done,” he said.

“You would be surprised.”

“One’s got to suffer from serious empathy issues to use gas on people.”

“And yet the queen gave the order, didn’t she?”

The mammoth structure outside grew closer, and Shea squinted. “What are those pink spangles? There, and there. What are those dots?”

“Oh, that. That’s the tech.”

“The tech?”

“Drakiri devices.”

Shea opened and closed his mouth, and the bridge squeezed around him while memory served up an image of a different room, gray walls, soot stains, chairs with twisted legs, the odor of something unknown, something foreign, and another scent that turned him inside out—of charred flesh. “This is insane. You’re using Drakiri technology to build that thing?”

“I’m just steering this airship. But yes, the builders use the tech.”

“Why wasn’t it in the reports?”

“How should I know? You must ask the duke—or Brielle.”

“Brielle?”

“The main engineer.”

“Why wasn’t it in the reports?” Shea whispered.

Lena, Lena, look at what they’ve done.

“I have nothing against Drakiri, or refugees in general,” the captain said. “Half the duchy still curses the day Daelyn’s father granted them a settlement with us, but I think it was about the only thing the old bastard did right.”

“Mr. Silas, believe me, I have nothing against Drakiri, either. But this…” Shea drummed his knuckle against the windshield. “How long have you been using the, the tech?”

Again, you must ask Miss Brielle.”

“Who the hell had the bright idea? … Drakiri stuff is a ticking bomb. I’m talking from experience.”

They both looked out the window, in silence, at the approaching giant.

The worst thing is, sis, I don’t always remember your face. Sometimes I see you in a dream, and when I wake up, the details dissolve, dissipate into what the daylight brings: the warmth and the glow and the dust. That’s what makes me, a grown-ass man, bawl—the fact you’re becoming a memory.

They told me it was all part of the ‘healing’, Lena. Can you believe that?

2

A yellow trail extended from the airship pier in a relatively straight line; not a proper road, more like a track plowed in the field by a huge finger. At the end, four carriages waited.

Shea let the luxury suite guy pick his horse first; the other passengers, in white and brown trousers and dresses, went on foot. Half must’ve spewed their guts an hour before, and faces wore a shade of pale, but the eyes glowed: look at it. Look.

The tower blocked the sun, throwing a mile-long blanket over the fields, the poplars, and the village cowering at the root of the hill on which the caterpillar of the castle slept. Ants cluttered across the tower’s vertical body, half of them suspended by threads at such height that Shea had to raise his chin. Construction workers. Some crawled in and out of the spots leaking pink glow.

The thin band at the horizon was the kingdom of Duma, with their perhaps less advanced, but plentiful, aircraft, and his imagination painted a different sky, crimson, ships raining down in fireballs, the tower’s artillery barking. No wonder Daelyn had invested so much into the construction—it was her legacy, the most radical defensive structure ever attempted by man.

His head swam.

In a dash of normalcy, a gaunt driver, leaning against the fence in a kind of transfixed state, stared at the people walking past.

“I’m here,” Shea said. “They didn’t, by any chance, send a welcoming cortege for me?”

The man shifted his eyes to him. “What?”

“Did they send a carriage for me from the castle?”

“If they did, they sure haven’t told me.”

They looked at each other.

“Well… Could you at least help me fetch my luggage?”

Even when the horse picked up a steady pace, the tower remained immobile, as though forming a whole with the salmon clouds, a painting on an enormous flat canvas.

In the distance, across the fields, a row of yellow lights floated like will-o’-the-wisps.

“I hope I’m not imagining things,” Shea said.

“Wives.” The driver clicked his tongue. “Fiancées. Lanterns for the foremen at the construction site who’re staying for the night.”

“Don’t they have lanterns inside?”

“It’s a tradition.”

In the short breath before sunset, the clouds at the horizon seemed to pick up the glow from the procession—and underneath, a new thing stirred in Shea. Perhaps there was a lantern for him, too. Perhaps something waited to happen behind the tower’s contours.

He grabbed that lifeline and tried to focus on the sensation. It’s not over. I’m not finished yet.

At the village’s outskirts, a boy and a girl, a pair of brown dashes for knees, ran in circles, slinging dust at each other.

“Look at him,” the driver said. “Look at that guy go.”

A man pulled an empty two-wheeled cart at the road’s opposite side. There was something about him, something unnatural, and a moment later Shea realized what: he was moving too fast, like a marathon runner but without any visible effort. No muscles bulging. He glided.

“A Drakiri fellow.” The driver spat, without malice, as if paying some weird tribute. “Can pull those things all day. Those aren’t real carriages, though.”

“Huh?”

“We call them drikshaws. No place for luggage.”

“I hate the idea, being carried by another human being,” Shea said. “Or a Drakiri, doesn’t matter. I can’t understand how anyone wouldn’t find it offensive.”

“Only don’t tell ‘em that, boss. Will smack you on the head with the whole cart. Strong, those fellows. ‘Lot stronger than you and me.”

“Yes, I’ve heard as much. Still, a job doesn’t become less degrading because it’s easier.”

“Few other jobs around here, boss. You can work the fields, but they don’t care for that.”

Eyes on the road, the Drakiri dashed past them.

“What about the tower?” Shea said. “I bet one of them could replace a couple human builders.”

“They don’t care for the tower either. Oi!” The driver smacked the horse on the rump. “They don’t care for the tower at all.”

“Why?”

The man shrugged.

They rode past the houses, blind lattice windows caked with dust, past a butcher with a beer belly and a dirty apron, dragging his feet as though time marched at a slower pace for him, kids tumbling around in the dirt, heaps of raked leaves.

Triangles of the wooden roofs didn’t touch the rising moon but hid the tower, and with it went Shea’s lifeline: he was at the border, in as deep a province as it got, on someone else’s land, without an office, a foreign graft on the local hierarchy. This intendancy system—had Daelyn created it just to give failures a home?

In a sense, he was back to when he’d left his family estate eight years ago.

The welcoming cortege waited for him at the castle gates: a gray-haired woman with a hawk nose. In the sunset, the wall behind her could’ve been made of sand.

“I’m Fiona, the majordomo,” she said—but when he extended his hand, didn’t change her pose, the sticks of arms crossed over stomach, fingers which would’ve made a musician proud had they not been mutilated by arthritis.

Shea chuckled. “The next fanfare I get will probably be at my funeral, right?”

She didn’t answer—just quietly paid the driver and led Shea through a side door next to the gates, up a set of stairs, down a narrow path between battlements.

Through the embrasures, the last of the day dissolved: molten sun dripped along the tower’s edge, a black furnace.

“We’re going into the oldest part of the castle, Kayleigh’s Wing,” Fiona said without turning or lowering her pace. “Kayleigh was the first duke’s daughter.”

“I must admit I’ve never been much of a history buff.”

“Your quarters will be in that wing. Don’t worry, we strive to keep everything in order.”

“Thank you.”

“The duke expects you in an hour,” she said.

“Nice joke.”

“Do I seem like a joking type to you, my lord?”

“He wants to see me at, what, ten?”

“At this castle, we work day and night.”

“Especially at night, apparently. I’ve just arrived, and it was a long trip—at the very least I’d need to take a bath…”

“And that’s why I said ‘in an hour’ and not ‘right now.’ “

Another set of stairs, this time leading downward to an oak door built to survive a battering ram.

The quarters looked posh at a first glance: living room the size of a country house, two couches under green velvet, an exit to a balcony, six gas lamps under the ceiling, all of them working; through an archway, a royal bed and a tapestry depicting a battle at the castle’s walls, likely caused by baron A seizing a cartload of sheepskin or something similarly important from baron B. An enamel bathtub, reasonably white.

On closer inspection, the floorboards grunted under Shea’s boots, the first wooden wall panel he touched rocked under his fingers, and moths had taken a good bite out of the couches’ velvet.

Fiona stood in the doorway, waiting for him to finish his survey.

In the bathroom, he twisted the hot water valve, but only a sound came out, a lone rustle trailing along the castle’s intestines.

“Where’s the hot water?”

“From nine till eleven in the morning,” Fiona said from the entrance. “This isn’t the capital, Lord Ashcroft.”

It was clear she’d rehearsed the line.

Hence the urgency, Shea thought. Drag out the new guy, tired, sweaty. Let him learn his place. Well, he could play this game, too.

He turned the second valve. The water was ice against his fingers.

“Tell the duke I’ll meet him in two hours, my lady. Please send someone to wake me in one.”

“The duke has—”

“I don’t care. I’ll meet him in two hours, or he’ll have to find something else to discuss with his people. I heard weather’s always a safe choice.” He glanced at his own reflection above the sink. “Make sure you rehearse this line, too.”

3

The duke didn’t receive him in the council chamber or the great hall or any other place normally reserved for official meetings. A servant led Shea back between the battlements and into the ‘new castle,’ diving into a labyrinth of narrow passages, a succession of U-turns whose main purpose was, most likely, to create an illusion of space.

No, the duke received him in a drawing room, which, of course, sent a message: Shea was a guest here, an important, but ultimately a passing one.

The windows were holes into the night, but the walls reflected warm yellow, as though life had dipped everything between them in amber to wait for Shea’s arrival.

It was a scene from a painting: a thin man in his sixties on a satin couch, already wearing a rehearsed sardonic smile on pursed lips; to his right, a group of five: four fellows—looking like someone had fashioned them from the same piece of wood—and one woman. They couldn’t have been waiting for him more than ten minutes, but because of the yellow glow and the affected poses, it seemed as though they’d been here forever.

“Welcome to Owenbeg, Ashcroft,” said the duke.

“My lord, the queen extends her—”

“Oh yes, how is the old fart Daelyn doing?” The man came alive, re-crossing his legs and leaning on his palm. “Dear all, did you know we had the same teacher of astronomy when we were kids? She was smarter than me, I’ll give her that—the only problem is, it’s not the stars she was chiefly interested in but the boys’—”

Shea blinked. “My lord, I’m not sure it’s appropriate, in the presence of a lady—”

“Yes, yes, let’s dispense with the pleasantries. Everyone, this is Shea Ashcroft, former Minister of Internal Affairs, former councilor to the queen, and, starting with today, an intendant in our humble domain. Whatever the hell that means. As for this lot…” He waved his hand theatrically. “This is Patrick, my military counselor, Cian, Counselor of Justice.” He recited the other first names, omitting the titles and surnames. “Miss Brielle is our chief engineer at the tower.”

A red-headed woman of thirty–thirty-five stood closest to the couch, perfect oval of an open face, somewhat heavy figure. The men kept their gaze on their master, actors waiting for a cue—she was the only one who looked Shea in the eye. Smiled.

“And this,” the duke said, “is Lena, my Counselor of Arts.”

For a moment, for Shea, the duke disappeared.

What are the odds?

Not just the name, but something in the profile, the posture…

Standing in the corner, looking out the blind window as though not a part of the reception—which was why he hadn’t noticed her before—Lena was half a head above everyone else save for him and the man whom the duke had designated as ‘Patrick’. She wore a long dress the color of her hair, a black wave rolling down her back, framing her face with its sculpture-precise features.

He’d never heard of an arts counselor, and, anyway, the duke didn’t have a reputation as a patron of arts; most probably, they shared a connection. Lovers, then, Shea thought.

“How about a drink?” the duke said.

“I don’t really drink, my lord.”

“Do I understand it correctly that your primary function as intendant would be sending reports to Daelyn?”

“Not quite, it’s—”

“How often?”

“Queen expects monthly communiques.”

“Marvelous.” A smile. “Marvelous. Let’s agree on a day, say, first Monday of the month—Fiona will visit you to provide you with notes on the construction effort.”

So that was how he wanted to play it. His majordomo as a censor, pristine reports stripped of all the details Daelyn ‘doesn’t need to know’, omissions legitimized by Shea’s own signature.

“Shall we take a step back, my lord?” he said. “Before we agree on any course, I want to fulfill my tourist’s duties.”

“Meaning?”

“I’d like to visit the tower.”

The smile widened, but the duke’s eyes were two ponds on a winter day.

And now for the real game.

“Why?” he said.

“I must assess the progress myself.”

“We’ll provide you with all the details.”

“Same as you did with the Drakiri tech?”

Lena, who, until then, had appeared lost in thought, turned her head exactly enough to meet Shea’s gaze. They held eye contact for a few seconds, and he continued, “The queen heard you’d met with problems.”

The duke’s face went red. “Fools’ lies, all of them.”

“My lord, if I may,” the chief engineer said. Brielle. “We’ve used the Drakiri devices to speed up the construction—”

The duke waved her off. “That’s what we did. Isn’t it what Daelyn wants?”

“I can’t speak for the queen, but I have a hunch she wants this venture to succeed, not for the tower to crack like an egg. Which will happen if you keep using the technology.” Shea turned to Brielle. “How soon may I visit the site, my lady?”

She opened her mouth, but the duke broke her off again.

“Do you have a background in construction?”

“No.”

“Exactly, because you’ve what, you’ve led a shoe factory? Before becoming a minister?”

“I’ve managed an upholstery workshop, my lord. It was a family enterprise. Fairly big, too—we supplied…”

“Big as my ass.” The duke slapped the arm of his chair. “I don’t care.”

He could afford profanity. He had at least twenty years of a head start in politics, and this was his turf.

Everybody in the room stared at Shea, including the tapestry griffins on the wall.

He could press them, push his status as the queen’s envoy—but wouldn’t that make the situation worse?

“Listen, I understand you feel I’m intruding upon your authority,” he said. “I’m only here to help. We want the same thing…”

“There.” The duke propelled himself from the couch. “There. You sit at the Red Hill and you think you know what it’s like out here. Let me tell you: you don’t. For Daelyn, the tower’s a vanity project.”

“No, it’s an anti-airship stronghold. Same for you, same for her.”

“All old Daelyn sees is a symbol of pride. We need the bloody thing if we’re to survive.”

“So it’s about survival now. I’m sorry, my lord, but the fact that you border Duma doesn’t make it—”

“Oh really?” The duke marched toward Shea, stopping halfway, at the invisible demarcation line where his posse’s space ended. “Have you seen their crown prince? The one who’s been running the country ever since his father had a stroke?”

“That’s pure warmongering and you know it. Even when I was a kid—someone has always been talking about Duma attacking us.”

“Go across the border.” The duke stabbed a finger at the black window. “I implore you. Visit Poltava. Their village, but half the people are ours, from before the boundary changed. Or rather, were ours. See what they’ve done to the place, see it for yourself.”

“Then there’s the question of the sabotage attempts,” Patrick, the military counselor, said in a suddenly clear, resolute baritone. “Who but the crown prince…”

The duke, who’d been shifting his weight from one foot to another, froze in mid-motion, and a new expression flickered in his eyes. Fear.

Shea took a step forward. “Sabotage attempts?”

“We don’t…” Patrick began.

“Shut up,” the duke said. “Just shut your mouth. Can you shut your mouth for me?”

“I’m looking forward to you providing all the details,” Shea said.

Brielle raised her chin. “My lord, I don’t think there’s any harm in showing the tower to Lord Ashcroft. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any harm in showing it to anyone.”

The duke gave the paper-white Patrick a long stare. Then he shifted his gaze to Brielle, probably considering whether he should continue the sparring match. “Do it, then,” he said and strode out of the drawing room.

Did I win this round, or was I considered too small a fish?

The woman in the black dress turned and crossed the room, too—no, she glided through it, sailed-dashed past the befuddled lords whom she didn’t grant a single word, disappeared behind the same door the duke had, and left Shea still trying to hold the gaze which wasn’t there anymore.

Lena, the duke’s lover, was a Drakiri.

What are the odds? To meet someone with your name here, the rarest imported name in the country.

There are other echoes. The way she holds her head, the pride. The eyes.

She probably sleeps with the duke, though, so we won’t interact much.

And anyway, Lena, I’ll never talk with anyone the way we talked.

4

Morning breathed the coming winter, thin mist that bleached the air, seeped through the embrasures, snaked around the bastions before finally dissolving into sediment on the balcony’s floor.

Past the battlements, the tower was over-sized theater scenery showing nothing of  yesterday’s promise, and the courtyard below him stood empty—as did the balconies to Shea’s left and right.

He listened: only a ‘caw’ came, which could’ve been someone trying to fix a cart’s wheel, but was more likely a crow clearing its throat. We work day and night, Fiona had said, yet the old wing didn’t simply suffer from drowsiness—it looked dead.

He went out into the corridor, crypt-quiet. With the tip of his boot, Shea pushed the closest door, and, to his surprise, it gave way, sweeping a view of a stripped stone cage with the skeleton of a couch. Second door, the same, but without the furniture. He went faster, knocking on some doors and throwing open the others.

By the time he reached the staircase, he was reasonably sure the only person alive in Kayleigh’s Wing was him.

At the same moment he put his foot onto the first step, a sound bled in from above, someone dragging their feet, someone heavy.

“Fiona?” he said and thought, Unless she’s gained a hundred pounds overnight, that’s not her.

After a hesitation, he pressed himself into the wall. In darkness, a huge figure, stubble on its bald head, shuffled by a few inches away, the scent of sweat mixing with something sweet—how Shea imagined a regurgitated honey mass would smell.

The figure submerged into the corridor’s shadows, surfacing each time it passed a gas lamp. And each time, Shea’s heart doubled its pace, playing drums on his ribcage by the time the stroll came to a stop at his quarters’ entrance.

The man pushed the doorknob with sudden gentleness, reminding him of a prize fighter people had taken him to see once, on a diplomatic mission. That one landed his final blows with the same restraint.

You do that when you know how easily you can break things.

Shea glanced at the gray light filtering from the staircase: from here, twenty seconds across the battlements, with good chances, too: he was much lighter than the man they’d sent to his quarters. Ten seconds up the stairs, a twenty-second sprint to the new castle. Half a minute.

He exhaled and tiptoed into the corridor. He would lock the guy in. Being able to snap someone’s neck didn’t help against locks, and Shea knew how talkative certain people got when kept in confined space.

At the doorstep, he grasped for the key that wasn’t there.

“Damn.”

The nightstand. He’d left the keys on the nightstand. He threw a last glance at the staircase, now a bleak spot at the end of a tunnel. Counted another ten seconds.

He pushed the door and stepped inside.

In the living room, curtains whispered and caressed the breeze; the bedroom stood deserted, too, but metal glittered at the table near the bed.

He was halfway there when the guy emerged from the bathroom. He looked down, lacing his breeches, the sweet now mixing with the reek of piss. A stupid thought occurred to Shea—is he here only to relieve himself?—when the man raised his gaze. Under his brows, two diamonds reflected void, but the hand, as though separate from the body, dashed behind the back to produce a knife half the forearm long.

When he swung, Shea leaned forward, caught the man’s wrist, and pulled the three-hundred pounds mass past him. He hoped to twist the arm and dislocate the shoulder, but the man simply stumbled. Shook him off. Did another swing, from the side, blindly, leaving a bloody trail in the right sleeve of Shea’s jacket.

Cursing, he dove behind the assailant’s back and threw all his weight into a single punch under the ribs.

And while the mountain of fat and muscles was catching its breath, Shea exercised the only option available to him—to run.

Into the corridor, toward the bleak light leaking from the top of the staircase.

The familiar sound of steps came from above.

Of course. It was logical—whoever wanted to kill him, if they weren’t completely stupid, would’ve taken care of the insurance. Two men going into an abandoned wing might’ve seemed suspicious, but send one in and then the second to finish the job.

“Fuck,” Shea said. “Fuck.”

Ignoring the pain, he rammed his shoulder into the nearest door—and immediately slammed it shut again, this time, from the inside.

He took a step back, folding his lips as though to whistle, letting the air seep out.

Two sets of footsteps cadenced toward each other, clack, clack against the stone. When they met, there was a moment of silence, followed by something heavy tumbling.

A contralto voice said, “Open the door, Mr. Ashcroft.”

He exhaled.

“Please, open the door.”

The bald man lay on the floor with his knees to his chest, one hand tucked under his belly as though in a fit of modesty. The stubble glistened, the gas lamp’s light wrapping silver around each hair. Next to him stood Lena, same long black dress as the day before, same wave cascading elaborately down the side of her face. Those fellows will smack you on the head with the whole cart, Shea remembered.

“Is he dead?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Thank you, my lady.”

“Don’t mention it.”

He stepped out into the corridor and probed the body with his boot. “This fellow would probably disagree—nothing to mention apart from you saving my life. My lady, please help me get him into this room.” It occurred to him—there must’ve been such brutes in that crowd of protesters, too, craving only blood, destruction… Oh dear, how can I even think that? He squeezed his forehead with his fingertips and the soft flesh of his palm. Those had been people, innocent people. “I need to question him.”

In one fluid motion, Lena knelt and pulled the man’s lower jaw. “Look.”

“No tongue!”

“Some things you learn from your neighbors. They do it in Duma.”

“We should deliver him to the authorities, then.”

She cocked her head. “You’re funny, you know that? Considering one of those authorities sent him to kill you.”

“You have any idea who?”

Lena shrugged and, with two fingers, threw back her hair. “Anyone could’ve. Patrick or someone else from the entourage, out of fear you would take their place. But the most obvious possibility is the duke himself, though he never mentioned anything to me.”

“You and the duke…” Shea swallowed the rest of the sentence. Why had he said that?

But she didn’t answer anyway.

“It seems I’m not going to win any popularity contests around here.”

“Thank your queen for putting you into this. I knew one of them would try to kill you right after the reception.”

“And you save every stranger that comes by.”

“Shouldn’t I?” A half-smile opened into weariness—with what? Her life? Her position? People around her? “Yesterday, you were concerned about Brielle using our technology.”

“You’re concerned, too, am I right? The fellow who drove me here told me no Drakiri would work at the construction site.”

“Have you heard of the Mimic Tower?”

“No.”

“You may find it useful to read up on Drakiri history. See you around, Mr. Ashcroft.”

She strode away, her gait refined, as though belonging to the life he’d left behind, with its gold, embers, halls, dresses; with its evenings on a terrace at the Red Hill overlooking rivers of light.

“See you around,” he said to her back.

5

The tower wasn’t what he’d expected.

Officially an anti-airship stronghold, Shea had already had a picture in his mind: of a disproportionate artillery dugout. The reality was nothing he’d ever seen before.

Entering it was entering a city—or rather, many cities. A spiral staircase, wide as a market square, snaked around the inner wall, leaving a vast nothingness in the middle, an abyss that sang with wind and made his head spin. This was a world painted by a lover of chiaroscuro, an addict to strong contrasts: shadows lay in pools of ink, and there were blinding patches of daylight—portals in the tower’s side the size of a house, ground-to-air cannons’ windows into the wild, one for every two or three of the staircase’s whirls.

It was next to those openings that people huddled, each portal its own town, each its own compact habitat: lamps, pulleys and carts, flickers of tinder, hammers banging, yells, laughter.

The tower took the length of the world—only it was an alien world, replicating itself over and over as it climbed to a distant, ghostly gap into the clouds. Or did he stare down a well? Shea’s head spun again as up and down flip-flopped like axes on a gyroscope.

This, this cosmos, his responsibility.

“Don’t look up,” Brielle said. “At least not for now. You’ll get used to it, Shea. Can I call you Shea?”

“Sure,” he said, trying to stop himself from retching.

“I’ll show you the fifth level today. That’s about three hundred feet above ground.”

“Gosh.”

“It’s nothing, little more than a third of the tower’s height.” A smile, a cocked eyebrow. “Current height, that is.”

“We’ll go on foot?”

“Oh, no. No.” She patted him on the back. “At least not all the way. You’ll see.”

She’s like a kid ready for a ride across the neighborhood, he thought.

Brielle was on the heavier side, and Shea expected her to pant as they ascended—but she navigated the stairs as though she were flying.

A group of people in aprons, rolled up papers under their arms, passed them by. The first ‘town’ smelled of roasted meat, and a wooden platform extended from the portal into the whitewashed outside, workers sitting on the edge, eating, drinking, talking loudly.

At the third ‘town’, he wondered if Brielle had taken him on an infinite journey, a pilgrimage that would end with them growing old and having children, but still climbing, still trying to reach some unknown destination.

“Here it is,” she said.

A contraption resembling a wooden cage hung at the abyss’ shore.

“I have a nagging feeling you want us to ride in this.”

“I hope you don’t suffer from vertigo.”

“No, but I do suffer from this stupid wish to live.”

“I’ll take good care of you. Oh, a drink might help—those guys back at the…”

“I don’t drink. Why not have this thing on the ground level?”

“So that people don’t get lazy.”

They stepped into the cage, and Brielle jerked a rope loop. From above, a faint echo came: a pulley squealing.

“How high up does this… ehm, lift go?” Shea said.

“All the way to level five. Two hundred feet.”

“I think I’ve just reconsidered.”

“Too late.” She winked at him as the wood under their boots started rocking and went into a gentle spin.

The swerving continued, every now and then changing direction while the cage crept up the tower. The wind, coming in through the portals, knocked them against the staircase like a patient visitor at the door.

“You can let go,” Brielle said.

At first, Shea didn’t understand her, but then, as though in an out-of-body dream, shifted his gaze to his left hand: it had one of the wooden bars in a death grip, soft flesh squeezed white.

“Come on!” She laughed, throwing up her arms, and he unclenched his fingers and thought, How beautiful people can be when they’re happy.

Sabotage attempts, he remembered. Who would want to destroy this, a wonder, a whole world of its own? His future depended on the tower being built, but now that concern faded, allowing something warm, something big to expand inside him.

I could be happy here, too, I simply need to find my way around all the assholes.

Maybe it was the brain releasing a rivulet of euphoria to help the body battle fear, but the same feeling flushed over him as on his ride to the castle, of a new thing about to be born.

“We’re sharing it now, aren’t we?” he said. Brielle shot a glance at him, and he added, “Don’t worry, it’s still your baby.”

“It’s not like that for me.” She shook her head. “I’m not as naïve as you might think. I know someone—you, maybe—will eventually take the place away from me. This is simply—my chance in life, to show what I’m capable of.” The smile was an abbreviation this time.

At this height, temperature dropped, and the tower started to breathe fresh moss.

“Honesty for honesty, Shea. Why are you here? Normally people want to go to the Red Hill and not vice versa. Was it by choice?”

“No,” he said. “No, I was shown the door.”

The lift squeezed through a rectangular hole, rising to the platform where three men stood waiting for them. Two panted next to a wheel hooked to the pulley, and the third one, in an apron, probably a foreman, stepped toward Brielle.

“Chief Engineer.”

She leaped onto the platform, and vertigo gripped Shea’s chest again: the lift rocked, and there was a band of nothing beyond its edge. He craned his neck and glanced down, into the spiral world.

Then he took a step forward.

Instead of another portal, the tower’s wall opposite resembled a huge toothless mouth into which scaffolds and step ladders poked like dental devices.

“The site of the latest sabotage attempt, as requested,” Brielle said. “Whoever they were, I have no idea how they smuggled in that much explosive.”

Shea raised his palm, blocking the light coming through the hole—and in his mind, he stumbled into a soot-stained room, coughing, yelling something, knees trembling. Lena, Lena, sister. What had he yelled back then? Every word was a reconstruction, a logical approximation.

He turned to Brielle. “Truth isn’t fully explosive, but it’s always flammable. You know who said that?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Who’s examined this place?”

“Patrick’s men.”

“And they told you it was an explosion?”

“Yes. Why?”

“Because it wasn’t.”

“It wasn’t an—explosion?”

“Look closely.”

She said, “I’ve seen it quite a few times already.”

“Look at the edges.”

“What about them?”

“See how they’re curved inward a bit?”

“I admit it does seem strange, but—”

“Almost as if something has sucked them in.”

Traces of happiness gone from her face, she studied—not the hole, Shea. “What do you mean?”

“I mean what I said—it wasn’t an explosion. It was an implosion.”

“How do you even create one?”

“Show me your Drakiri devices.”

“We’ll have to backtrack to the nearest portal.”

“Lead the way.”

She shrugged.

Two circles down the staircase, the purple haze of a swamp spilled out in front of the next ‘town’; knee-deep, a group of workers circled an egg-shaped thing rising to their waists, forty to fifty inches along the longer side. The Drakiri device shimmered as though dipped in some strange, otherworldly phosphorus.

“Here it is,” Brielle said curtly.

Is she nervous—or irritated at me? He cleared his throat. “So you gentlemen are using the stone tulips.”

The worker closest to him, a balding man with the eyes of a sad labrador, raised his gaze. “The tulips?”

Shea nodded toward the purple glow.

“It looks nothing like a tulip,” Brielle said.

“It does to me.”

“We’re using the anti-gravity properties to relieve stress in the parts of the structure,” Brielle said. “Allows us to build faster.”

“Show me how you handle it.”

The labrador guy cocked his head. “Well, one rotates the valve to make it hover and pulls the lever to stabilize it if—”

One? One who?”

“In our crew, it’s Michael who normally works with the thing. He’s currently two levels below, I can—”

“I want to see you do it.”

“I—”

“You have been trained on how to operate the devices, haven’t you?”

Brielle said, “All our crews have received proper instruction.”

“It’s simply that Michael has a bit more experience,” the labrador guy said.

“And what if he’s sick? And you can’t wait for him, you’re on a deadline? I want to see you do it.”

The man threw a glance at Brielle, and she nodded, slowly, as though underwater. On the defensive, Shea thought, am I threading too close to her turf?

“That is, if you don’t have any objections, my lady,” he said.

She simply nodded again.

Fists clenched, muscles arched under the linen shirt, the labrador guy approached Shea as though walking toward an executioner’s stump.

He remembered the girl from the crowd, the pink dress, and his heart squeezed—but it had to be done. He needed a test subject.

“Activate it, please.”

The other stared at the lever and the valve, visibly unsure.

“Don’t be afraid.”

“You need to—” Brielle began.

“Let him work.”

The man wiped his palms on his trousers, gripped the valve with both hands, flexed his fingers.

Metal creaked, and the tulip sang—a whistle at first, the voice gained force and deeper overtones. Shea frowned, trying to bury the memory of the gray walls, the soot stains, chairs with twisted legs. Not now, not now, damn it. The left end of the device lifted off the floor, and out of the corner of his eye he saw people taking a step back.

“Everything’s fine, continue.”

The worker stopped the rotation and grabbed the lever with one hand, the other still locked on the valve, knuckles white with tension.

Drops fell into the purple glow: sweat, but Shea wasn’t sure whose.

“I think I’ve stabilized it,” the trembling voice said.

The song evened out, became dull, turned into a hum.

“Isn’t it—” Brielle said from somewhere far away.

The device kept touching the floor on one end, a huge pen in an invisible hand.

“Continue.”

Thin fingers lay on the valve again: ten degrees, twenty, forty-five.

Full stop. The tulip started shaking.

“What do you do next?” Shea said.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s still on the ground.”

“I stabilize it.”

“You already did.”

“I turn the valve, then.” The eyes glanced at him, begging him: let me go.

“What are you waiting for?”

The worker flexed his fingers again and spread his feet apart as though trying to balance himself. This time, he went slower: three degrees, two, one.

Metal moaned, and Shea said, “That’s enough.”

The man dropped his arms, panting like a runner who’d crossed the finishing line. Shea untwisted the valve until it clicked, and the humming died. The tulip relaxed, the hanging end softly hitting the floor.

Trying to hide his own breathing, he turned to the others.

“Ten more degrees, and this thing would’ve imploded. I guess you’ve never seen it, which is good—but I can describe it to you. It sucks in everything in a fifty-foot radius. Everything. Wood, metal. Stone walls. People. Itself. Chews things up, leaves behind twisted remains.”

He glanced at the labrador guy and saw him, fully saw him this time, the trousers, baggy at the knees, naive eyes, a stubble of red hair. Sweat stains under the armpits, the evidence of the torture Shea had inflicted. I’m sorry, he wanted to say, but then thought, I can say sorry by making it right. Same as he’d done for the girl in the pink dress.

He turned to Brielle. “You and I need to talk to the duke.”

Your voice comes to me more often than your face does—and I’ve always thought I was a visual type. Sometimes I’m writing a letter and I hear a certain word or a phrase as you would’ve said it. Sometimes I say them that way myself.

6

He saw Lena again the next morning.

After a stroll through the village, it was like catching a glimpse of a different world: she stood in front of the castle’s gates, a sculpture caught in time, gaze somewhere in the distance, hands hidden in a muff.

“My lady,” he said, taking the last steps up the hill.

“Mr. Ashcroft.” She smiled—not particularly wide, but still a real smile.

“How are you enjoying the cold today?”

“It’ll get warmer.”

“I went to the tower yesterday, did you know that? And I remembered you’d mentioned—how did you call it? The Mimic?—I wanted to ask you about it.”

“The Mimic Tower. Do you really mean it, or is it just your way of making conversation?”

“I really mean it. I want to understand why your people won’t work at the construction site.”

“Better if I showed you.”

“I’m all for it.”

“Are you?” She studied him. “Ever been to a Drakiri settlement?”

“Not that I remember.”

“I’m going there right now—today’s the Equinox. A festival. I guess you could join me if you have time.”

Behind Shea, wheels whispered on the gravel.

“There’s my carriage, Mr. Ashcroft.”

He looked and said, “I know the fellow.”

Fifteen miles away from the castle, the settlement was a bright spot among the cookie-cutter villages and hillocks, small flames of kites fluttering third- and fourth-story high. Owenbeg houses were two stories at most, some of them practically grown into the ground; here, even the trees past the town’s walls looked taller, greener, crowns sprinkled with warm paper lanterns: moths ready to take off.

Lena got off the carriage and handed the driver the money. “We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

“Should I ask him if he would join us for the festival?” Shea said.

“Don’t tease people, Mr. Ashcroft.”

“I must admit I had another picture in my mind when I heard the word ‘settlement’.”

The pavement under his feet was clean, flat, as though smoothed by seawater.

She chuckled. “Makeshift tents and bonfires?”

“Something like that. This looks closer to the capital, only without certain elements.”

“Which ones?”

“You don’t have to lift the hem of your dress.”

From the cold autumn sunlight drowning the opposite end of the street, children came running at them, moving with double the speed normal kids would do.

“Sweets, sweets, beautiful lady, do you have sweets?”

“I guess you’ve forgotten them at home.” Shea laughed, trying to keep his balance amidst the incursion of small, strong bodies. “But they’re right, you look beautiful.”

“Beauty’s in the air, Mr. Ashcroft,” she said, tousling the hair of the boy closest to her.

And it was in the air, in an eagle circling the dark blue, in the bunting criss-crossed above the market square, in patterns of veins on the arms of the man who handed them jugs of grog.

“How much do we owe you?” Shea asked, but he shook his head.

“They know me here,” Lena said.

“So you’re some kind of celebrity?”

“Not me. My mother. She was a famous landscape painter.”

A couple passed them by, he in a green velvet jacket, she in a wine-red dress, kissing.

“I don’t drink, but I’ll have a taste in honor of—how do you call it? The Equinox?”

“Yes.”

“Do you yourself paint, if I may ask?”

She shrugged. “A bit.”

Shea leaned against a pole and took a sip. “Well, at least we invented sugar ahead of you.”

“Actually, we have better.” Lena said something in Drakiri, and the old man handed Shea a bowl with brown powder.

“Thought so.” He took another short sip. “Tastes good, too. What’s that contraption?” He pointed with his jug toward the center of the square.

“A roundabout.”

“A science thing?”

“You can’t be serious. You ride in it. It spins.”

“So you need a person on the outside to rotate it for you?”

“I guess you can run around it and then jump on.”

Shea studied her. “Let’s try it.”

“Mr. Ashcroft, it’s for kids.”

Perhaps it was the alcohol speaking, but he said, “I feel like a kid right now. This is a festival, isn’t it? Let’s go for it.”

“Go for it,” the man with the grog said.

For him, they probably were two children.

Lena shook her head. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

Simultaneously, they put their jugs on the wooden counter.

It was weird, running in a circle in front of a market square full of people, but as soon as he stepped on the roundabout, everything dissipated in the motion. He looked at Lena, her black wave of hair finally untethered, flowing in the air—the world spun and spun, and chickadees sang, and the light, breathing cold and fading yellow, played between the garlands.

When the grog stalls around them came to a standstill, someone cheered, and a few people clapped.

Lena did a neat bow and glanced at Shea. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“For making me feel…” She stepped back onto the pavement, swayed, and he caught her by the elbow. “You’re aware I’m only half Drakiri?”

“No.”

“Mother fell in love with a count. He died when I was four.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I hardly knew him.”

They crossed the square, navigating through couples and files of happy children, and dove under a clothing line beaded with oranges of paper lanterns.

“Where are we headed now?”

“You said you wanted to learn about the Mimic Tower.”

“I did.”

The side street ended at a four-story building, plain-looking with its brown walls and hollow eye sockets of windows.

She led him up the stairs into what looked like a regular apartment-house corridor he would’ve expected to see at the capital.

“Please give me a second.”

She knocked on a door: a woman opened with silver hair woven into two waist-long braids. They exchanged a few words in Drakiri, and the woman disappeared again, leaving the door ajar.

“Isn’t she going to ask us in?” Shea said.

“Drakiri don’t let strangers under their roof.”

The woman reappeared with a folio which she quietly handed to Lena.

At the corridor’s end, there was a window overlooking the back yard, and Lena laid the book on the sill. Through the glass, tree branches played with sunlight, sending golden bunnies on wild romps across the backs of her palms.

“Tamara is an archivist—Mother did some restoration work for her in the past. This tome is from two centuries ago, from when our people lived in Pangania.”

“I’m sorry,” Shea said.

“For what?”

“The genocide.”

“Well, we’re still alive. And you need to unlearn apologizing; won’t do you any favors in Owenbeg.”

She thumbed through the book until a picture came up, of a plain with a tower rising in the middle of it, going up to the page’s top.

Shea said, “Looks familiar.”

“It does, doesn’t it? We keep meticulous records. The edifice was three hundred feet in diameter, and we managed to reach one thousand one hundred feet in height before—”

She turned the page, and on the next picture, the tower wasn’t the only thing anymore.

From a mountain ridge on the far side of the plain, something stretched out, a column of fat ink, a black finger.

“You see,” Lena said, “we believe it was two things: the dimensions and the anti-gravity properties of the devices we used in construction.”

“What do you mean? What is this? Your people built a second tower?”

“The second tower built itself. Overnight. And then—”

She turned the page again.

“What are those sticks?”

“The picture’s scale doesn’t allow for much detail, Mr. Ashcroft. But it’s people. People burning.”

In Shea’s mind, the captain’s word echoed—a thousand, give or take, and they’re planning to put another thousand on top of it. Through the window, the backyard was a picture-perfect pastoral: a strip of grass in the tree’s shade, a bench the color of autumn leaves, a dog licking the cool off its paw—but this lazy afternoon tranquility somehow lent credence to the drawing in the book, as though the world had willfully taken on a peaceful face to conceal something horrifying.

“Now you know why you won’t find any Drakiri at the construction site,” Lena said.

“Why did you sell the duke your anti-gravity devices?”

“We didn’t sell anything.” She leaned toward him. “We gave them away, all that we had.”

“Because he’s threatened you—”

“No. Because we don’t want to pull drikshaws anymore. We want a ticket into your society.”

“What was inside that second tower? Why were the people burning?”

“It’s called the Mimic Tower, and it’s a door.”

“To where?”

“To hell, probably. Metaphorically speaking. See, Mr. Ashcroft, something came in through that door, but we have no idea what exactly. We know that both towers were destroyed; we can only speculate that the chief engineer thought on his feet and detonated ours. There’s the death toll. But as far as people go who actually participated in the nightmare… What we don’t have are any records of survivors.”

7

A wild vine wove its way in from the balcony, hugging the chipped bricks, trying to escape the cold and the light that turned life into a sketch on yellow paper. But wherever the beginning was, the end lay in a palm that promised something more sinister than a long winter sleep.

The duke looked like a patient gardener frozen in mid-motion.

“You wanted to see us, Ashcroft. I heard you had, what, an optimization suggestion?”

This, the shadows, the damp, the table with footprints of mugs on its surface and one leg slightly unstuck, bent at not-quite-a-cripple-yet angle, this was the council chamber. Patrick sat staring at the wall, as did the other guy—Cian?—while Brielle kept thumbing through a finger-thick stack of papers. She hadn’t raised her gaze when Shea entered the room.

Lena was absent—where was she? At the settlement? In her quarters, drawing? He realized he wanted her to be here.

Shea coughed. “The suggestion, my lord, is to remove all Drakiri tech from the tower.”

“Mr. Ashcroft, please…” Brielle finally glanced at him. “I think you’re overreacting.”

The duke squeezed his fist around the vine’s tail, but still didn’t move, eyes fixed on the leaves. “So you’re done with your tourist duties?”

“I am.”

“And you apparently think yourself smarter than all of us? You’ve been here five days, and gotten to the root of all our problems?”

Shea said, “It takes a look from the outside.”

“This is laughable, Ashcroft.”

“Is it? I’ve surveyed three different—what you’re calling ‘sabotage sites.’ At all three, the pattern of damage is consistent with what I call an ‘implosion.’ As opposed to ‘explosion.’ It also looks similar to what I’ve seen of other incidents with Drakiri devices.”

“Seen during what, your time as a minister?”

“Doesn’t matter. Yes. Think about your people, Duke, the workers.” In his mind’s eye he saw the girl in the pink dress. I’m like a cart on a track, he thought, I’ve got no choice. The only thing I can do is press forward. “What will happen is as follows: I will file a report to Daelyn. Maybe she’ll believe me straight away and you’ll receive your orders with the next courier. Maybe she’ll send someone else to verify. Maybe she will pay you a visit herself. And maybe she’ll consider replacing a disagreeable lord who’s put a project of astronomical cost at risk.”

“I respect Lord Ashcroft’s opinion,” Brielle said, “but the evidence is circumstantial.”

“It is not. It’s not even a theory. If you ever gamble, my lady, let’s play—I bet everything that there were no saboteurs, only your own workers meddling with tools they can’t begin to understand.”

“Enough.” A whoosh of air, and Patrick flattened his palm against the table. “Why are we discussing this? To me, it’s clear the saboteurs came from Duma. It is as you’ve said, my lord, he doesn’t have any expertise in—”

The duke swerved on his heels. “Says who, Patrick? Says a man who couldn’t perform a simple task?”

Either he thought himself very clever or didn’t even care to mask his words. Okay, it was the old bastard who ordered Patrick to kill me.

“Perhaps someone’s due for replacement,” the duke said.

The clumsy intervention, however, played in Shea’s favor. Brielle’s face went red; she looked at Patrick and bit on her lower lip; she probably didn’t know about the assassination attempt, but she understood that the duke was furious with his military counselor, which didn’t help her case.

And she stepped in.

“My lord. My lord, I’ve calculations right here. It’s perfectly safe—”

The duke shifted his gaze to her. “I only went along with your original proposal because you promised me it would double the construction speed.”

“I admit I was a bit too hopeful with—”

“A bit too hopeful, my ass!” He composed himself. “The speed actually went down because we have to install the bloody things, am I right? And now Ashcroft tells me your people can’t even handle them. That the tech endangers the construction effort. Is it true?”

“I’ve calculations…”

“No.” The duke leaned on the table and waved his finger in front of Brielle. “No. I don’t want your figures. Tell me if there’s a possibility of him being right.”

“I’ve calculations,” she whispered and looked at her hands. “I don’t know.”

The duke straightened and slapped his hips. “You lot are amazing. Do you realize how it will make me look once his report reaches Daelyn?”

Shea saw in the duke’s eyes that the matter was being decided. Brielle saw it as well and, with a jerk, stood.

“My lord, without the tech, we wouldn’t be able to build as fast, but we can pull a few tricks to achieve the same speed, yes, there are options if we reject the tech, but it will cost us, a lot—and time, yes, so the speed will again go down in the beginning, but then it will go up—I can run the cost calculations as well, or I’ll have someone do it, but please consider it will cost much more, and we will have to employ more people, approximately one new worker per each team. Please consider this, please consider the cost, my lord. We can train the workers more in using the tech. I’ve calculations right here.”

By the end of this near-incomprehensible tirade, everybody in the room had their gaze on her. It’s not about the building speed, Shea thought, she’s worried about something else.

A nagging feeling visited him, crept up his arms, squeezed his shoulders: that he’d missed something important.

Did I? What did I miss?

But the duke no longer had patience for fine details. Apparently, there was one thing he hated even more than intervention into his affairs: a display of weakness.

“Have the filth removed from my tower and destroy it—I want no ground left for any rumors. File your report, Ashcroft, and don’t forget to mention to the old ass Daelyn that we’ve cleaned our backyard.”

Do you remember us looking at starlight, dreaming of the future, thinking up our tomorrow lives? I go back to those moments—objective memory is still there—but I can’t summon the feeling. Something has broken in me, I think. Or maybe was broken. Maybe I broke it myself, to steady myself against disappointment. We go to great lengths to avoid pain, Lena, and we lose important things in the process.

Same as I continue to lose you.

8

A soldier awoke him to help him move his things.

The door to his new apartment stood ajar—he pushed it to find himself in much the same room as before, only bigger, with a fat wine cabinet under beveled glass hunkering against the wall and windows overlooking the council tower and a covered gallery leading to it. In the draught, curtains billowed like sails of a brig ready to depart—or enter the harbor.

“Come in, Lord Ashcroft, I’ve got a housewarming present for you here.”

“Brielle?”

She sat on the couch in the room’s darkest part, a bottle of wine in hand.

Shea said, “Well, it’s an unexpected—”

“Why? Why did you come? Why didn’t you just kill yourself when your queen took your office?”

“What?—You’re drunk…”

“I am.” She saluted him with the bottle, half-full. “What else should I be now? They’ve taken your life away, and you came and did the same to me. But, shh, listen…” She swung forward, legs crossed. “You didn’t only fuck me up, Ashcroft. You’re finished, too, do you understand? Because your mission here was what, to ensure the tower gets built? ‘Project of astronomical cost’ and all? Well, forget that now. We’re done, we’re both finished.”

What did I miss? Cold beaded his forehead. “What are you talking about?”

“I made a mistake, okay? I made a mistake in the calculations. With that foundation’s diameter, there’s no way we’ll reach two thousand feet—hell, we won’t be able to sustain the current height for more than three months. It will crumble, do you hear me, it will crumble.”

“Keep your voice down.”

On stiff legs, he strode to the door—the corridor stood empty—and closed it.

“What happened, Brielle?”

“I wanted this job so much.” She raised the back of her hand to her mouth. “I was on a deadline from the old bastard, and I didn’t double-check the calculations. I made a mistake!”

“Fucking keep your voice down. Please.”

“No, I want everyone to know. I’m tired of trying to cover it up. Let them all know! Patrick, Cian, Lena, Fiona, his whole damn posse. Let them know. Brielle, chief engineer, fucked up her calculations!”

The realization started creeping in. “Please, Brielle. Let’s talk. Is there something that can be done?”

“There’s nothing. He’s already ordered the devices to be decommissioned. That’s it.”

With the door closed, the curtains languished, placid for the first time. That’s it, the curtains said, that’s it, you’ve screwed it all up, and now you can forget about the Red Hill, too.

You’ve screwed it all up.

‘Queen Daelyn sent her servant—

To oversee the deed;

The servant wasn’t smart enough,

And he got promptly killed.’

He’d avoided the assassination attempt, narrowly, but the rhyme’s penultimate line had the right pitch.

The mongrel dog snapped its jaws in the air.

“I wanted it so badly.” Brielle lowered her head. “Never want anything badly, Ashcroft. I thought, maybe—maybe—it would even land me a job at the capital. At the Red Hill.”

Shea considered the room, the chipped bricks, the curtains, the bland finger of the council tower outside.

“I know how you feel.”

He wandered to the wine cabinet. Opened it. Took out two glasses.

“How about a drink?” he said.

Stay tuned for part II of Tower of Mud and Straw in October!

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