II. The Adversary

This is part 2 of Yaroslav Barsukov’s novella, Tower of Mud and Straw. Part 1 ran in September 2020. What has gone before:

Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s exiled to Owenbeg, a duchy bordering the kingdom of Duma, to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. Shea doesn’t want the task, but sees it as the only way to reclaim his life.

The duchy serves as a home to Drakiri, refugees of a technologically advanced human-like race.

Once in Owenbeg, Shea is shocked to learn the artisans are using the ‘tulips’—anti-gravity devices created by Drakiri, devices from a place in Shea’s memories he would rather erase. He considers the ‘tulips’ to be volatile and dangerous.

The duke of Owenbeg is none too happy about the arrival of an intendant from the capital and orders Patrick, his military counselor, to get rid of him. Shea is saved by the duke’s lover, Lena, who turns out to be half-Drakiri; Lena tells him that her race had once built a huge tower similar to the one in Owenbeg, which allowed a second edifice to manifest. Drakiri call the second tower the ‘Mimic Tower’ and believe it to be a portal into a different, frightening dimension. Back then, they managed to destroy their tower and prevent the nightmare from creeping into the world. Shea discounts Lena’s story as a children’s tale.

Shea has no real allies and only the memory of his dead sister to converse with. The duke’s people accidentally slip information that someone has tried to sabotage the construction site; however, after visiting the tower, Shea forms a theory that there were no saboteurs, only artisans meddling with the technology they couldn’t begin to understand. After a clash with the duke he manages to get the ‘tulips’, the anti-gravity devices, removed from the tower. He’s then visited by Brielle, the tower’s chief engineer, who reveals her secret: she’s made an error in the calculations. The tower’s foundation is too small to support its height, and the ‘tulips’ were the only thing holding the structure together. By insisting on having them removed, Shea has doomed the tower and lost any chance of getting back his life.

1

The hammer fell in an arrhythmic pulse, like an old man’s heart, skipping a punch each time the chisel it hit dropped another inch into the device. And each time, the sheath’s halves spread wider, the pink glow which seeped along the expanding crease thickened, and the man in the protective mask shrank back.

“It’s dangerous, you do realize that,” Shea said. “The thing could implode.”

Brielle stared, without blinking, in front of her. “Now I understand why you call them ‘tulips’. They blossom, don’t they?”

They blossom all right, he thought. They jump seasons while we remain here, in this autumn.

The wind rose and combed through the crown of the old overgrown oak, hurling a handful of leaves at the Drakiri devices arranged in rows at its foot. We, too, throw dirt on coffins—only ours don’t have pointed ends. The ‘tulips’ stood upright, taking aim at the sky. The man with the hammer and the chisel was human, but the two figures frozen beside him were Drakiri—Shea had learned to recognize them by now, the slightly elongated physique, the too-relaxed posture. None of them would work at the construction site, Lena had said—apparently, supervising the dismantling of the devices was a different thing.

A strange threesome—with many other such threesomes scattered across the field among the egg-shaped things.

“It’s like attending a mass funeral,” Shea said.

“Do you want to say a few words, then?”

“Bad time of the year to develop a sense of humor, Brielle. How much longer before it crumbles?” It, and what remains of my life.

The giant tower was an apparition now, pastel-gray and watery past the fields.

“What, you can’t count days anymore?” she asked. “I haven’t seen you in a while—when did you last leave your new quarters?”

Shea shrugged. “A week, maybe. I don’t know.” He glanced at her. “Wait a second—you’re judging me, aren’t you? As if you weren’t drinking yourself.”

“I drink just enough to keep my sanity.”

“Well, perhaps my sanity requires a higher dosage.”

The tulip let out a loud crack, making a flight of black birds disperse from the oak’s branches and the man with the hammer start back. The chisel remained lodged in the crease: a knife in a wound.

One of the Drakiri said something in a reassuring tone.

“Do you know what’s inside?” Brielle asked.

“No. Ten years ago, we had no method for disassembling them.”

“What did you do?”

“Buried them.” His thoughts darted to the room with soot stains, but this time didn’t stay there: he remembered the cellar underneath the rosewood trapdoor, the memory answering in dull tones as though someone had picked at a scab. He shook his head. “I don’t understand why they can’t have the Drakiri do the procedure.”

“That’s the crux of the joke: we have a lighter touch. I heard one of them say—”

“We were born to destroy these things.”

“—we were born to disassemble them.”

The sheath fell apart in eggshell pieces.

Inside, the tulip was almost empty. A thin stem stretched the whole height of the device, swelling with purple that squirmed like air in a heatwave, widening in the middle to form a…

“It’s a figure, isn’t it?” Shea said, or thought he had.

The contour of a leg, a hint at a hip, maybe an armless torso. Or maybe it was his imagination going wild. The Drakiri who’d spoken earlier produced something resembling a pair of pliers which he fastened, simultaneously, to both ends of the ‘silhouette.’ He held the pliers while the purple and the quivering died down, then, the stem at arm’s length, wandered off to the tree line, to a funeral pile of other thin, long things.

The man in the mask picked up the chisel and moved toward the next tulip.

“And that’s how the mundane trumps the beautiful,” Shea said. “Let’s go. Nothing more to see here.”

He turned when he heard a quiet, “I’ll fix the tower.”

“What? You said the foundation was too small.”

“It is. But I did some calculations yesterday—maybe, if we fortify the walls…”

“You don’t believe it yourself.”

“I’ll try fortifying the walls.”

“Brielle, listen to me.”

“What do you want me to do, Shea?” She leaned toward him, and, through clenched teeth, her breath came out in a miniature cloud. “Sit back and see it crumble? Not even attempt to save the work of my life?”

He took her by the arm. “Think of the builders’ safety.”

“They’re safe, trust me. The strain on structure won’t start taking its toll for two months.”

“Okay. Okay. Listen, Brielle, I give you—us—two months. Then we turn ourselves in to Queen Daelyn.”

He immediately regretted not having phrased it differently—Brielle’s anger dissipated the way air leaves a balloon, and, as with the tulip, what remained behind was a vulnerable stem.

“Please don’t tell anyone until then, Shea. Please. Don’t tell them… of the mistake I’ve made.”

It’s not your fault, he wanted to say, it was probably the time pressure, and nobody is infallible—but at that moment, Brielle chuckled.

“Look, the asshole’s coming.”

Through the rows of devices, a tall, hunched figure moved like a tired priest, fed up with performing the final rites.

“Did you know the duke has put him in charge of the disassembling? It’s like a penance for all that talk that amounted to nothing, about the saboteurs.”

Patrick, the duke’s military counselor, strolled toward them, beating the wet out of the flaps of his coat. He stopped in front of Brielle and glanced at her.

“Destroying the devices is a waste of time.” He smiled only with his lips. “A pure waste of time and money. Whatever he says, the damage to the tower was a result of sabotage.”

“Hey, I’m right here,” Shea said.

Patrick shifted his gaze to him, and his mouth opened and closed as though the body were looking for the best way to pour out contempt.

“There’s a special type of capital swine,” he said, “that comes to our lands and shits on them.”

“How did Shea shit on your land, Patrick?” Brielle sighed. “You’re not even originally from Owenbeg.”

“And you, you should know better, Brielle. Are you sleeping with him?”

“That’s enough,” Shea said. “Just because we’re standing here and talking, man and woman, you automatically presume that we share a bed?”

But Patrick didn’t accept the challenge; he simply shrugged, straightened his coat, walked past them.

Shea turned to look at him. “He sounds depressed more than anything. The duke’s displeased with him, right?”

Brielle nodded. “Some important task that Patrick has failed.”

The one where he had to dispose of me, probably.

“Besides,” she said, “he’s been promising to catch the Dumian saboteurs for months.”

“There are no saboteurs.”

Against the swollen gray sky, Patrick’s figure stuck out like a finger, and, with surprise, Shea realized he couldn’t bring himself to hate him.

Brielle sighed. “I still have my doubts—and, as you can see, Patrick does, too.”

How could he hate the bastard? Daelyn’s power eroded me, the duke’s—him. Patrick simply had less substance to begin with.

“I’m going,” Shea said. “If you wish, let’s meet at the tavern and discuss our situation.”

“Tomorrow?”

“No. The day after. I will be incapacitated tomorrow.”

In the new quarters he would no doubt have to vacate soon, Shea opened the wine cabinet and looked at the empty bottles. Tuesday, they were called, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Tuesday had been his first in years—he’d bought it himself, same as Wednesday; the rest had come in linen sacks a boy from the village carried.

With the Drakiri devices destroyed, the tower’s collapse became imminent, and it was time to send for stronger stuff.

2

She appeared at his doorstep clad in a gray hunting suit, and although the brandy’s kerosene aftertaste still corroded his mouth, he smiled.

Will you join me?

Sure, sure I will. It was okay. The room wasn’t spinning, so the alcohol the boy Daniel had brought must’ve been thinned with water.

It was only three miles later, halfway between the castle and the forested hillside, that Shea realized how wrong he’d been.

“Are you okay?” Lena’s voice came from somewhere to his right.

“Yes. I think so.”

His own words echoed as though emerging from the bottom of a huge metal bowl; the world around him, streaming past, adjusting itself to fit the curves and turns of the trail they followed.

“I thought you could use a distraction—Brielle said you haven’t left your quarters for a week.” Her voice wrapped around him like a scarf snatched and tossed by the wind. “We need to pick up speed. The deer is getting away.”

A wave of dizziness washed over Shea. I think I’m about to fall. He would fall, Brielle would fall, the tower would fall, his career would give its final death jerk.

The trees ahead parted—from between them, as if responding to his thoughts, the giant tower stared at him, bluish in the haze.

I hate you, he thought, I hate you, all the thousand feet of stone and metal, the artillery portals and the embers of the little worlds scattered across the spiral climb, how I hate it all now.

Lena stood in the stirrups. “There it is!”

Their prey darted into a clearing fifty feet ahead, a gray curve under a crown of bones.

For a moment, there were only the deer, the tower, and the beautiful woman, clinging to the horse’s neck, shouting something into the wind.

Then the deer vanished.

That’s it, they must’ve mixed something into that brandy.

The deer had disappeared like an object tumbling into the eye’s blind spot, never to emerge on the other side.

He realized he wasn’t imagining things when Lena’s horse went mad. It slipped into a wild, erratic dance, the bucks and rears of a rocking toy, shaking its head in a motion that made it appear as if it were wagging its own body.

Lena pulled on the reins.

She needs to dismount. Did he say it out loud? Lena, Lena, you need to

“Get off the horse!”

Of course she didn’t listen. She leaned back, pushing against the stirrups, stretching the reins, her horse’s mane a dark reflection of the wave of her own hair.

Shea kicked his mare into a gallop.

“Dismount!”

Still, she didn’t listen. And when he got close enough to grab her by the arm, shook him off.

“Get off of it!”

Drakiri strength doubly worked against her now: it allowed her to brush Shea off and stressed her horse even further—a product of generations of breeding, it must’ve preferred a lighter, human touch.

Shea’s belly spasmed, and he almost puked.

I need to do something, and fast.

Lena was at least twice as strong as him, true—but he weighed more.

He rammed his shoulder into hers, sending them both to the half-frozen autumn ground.

“Why did you do that?” She pushed him away, and he rolled off her and into the grass. “I would’ve gotten him under control. I would’ve calmed him.”

“Shhh,” he said, pointing to the horse, who dove under an elm’s branches and disappeared behind the trees.

“What?”

“I haven’t seen a purebred that spooked.”

His own mare grazed peacefully nearby.

“Never do that to me.” Lena slapped his arm. “Are you drunk?”

“It could’ve thrown you off and trampled on you. Or your foot could’ve slid through the stirrup, and it would’ve dragged you into the woods like a sack.”

After a series of long breaths, she said, “Where did the deer go? Did it run back into the trail?”

It vanished, he wanted to say—but now, with the brandy loosening its grip on him, he was no longer sure. He closed his eyes and tried to recall the scene, but the kerosene taste in his mouth kept getting in the way.

“I’m not certain, Lena.”

“You were behind me. If it returned to the trail, it should’ve passed you.”

He shook his head.

“So you are drunk—how much did you have? Wait, don’t tell me. I can’t believe I went hunting with you.” Staring at the sky, she drew in her knees, suddenly vulnerable. “I saw something. In a flash. Different colors.”

“What, rainbows?”

“No. Forget it. I think it was a hallucination—or something like that. I got distracted, and that’s when the deer ran away.”

Lena rolled onto her side and started to get up, only to fall back, this time on top of Shea.

“Damn it.” She laughed. “My hip hurts like hell, I must’ve pulled a muscle.”

“You’re the only woman I know,” he said, “who would find it funny.”

She smelled of bonfire and tasted of strawberries.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m sorry. I’ll never do that again.”

“I told you to never knock me off the horse. I didn’t tell you not to do what you were doing right now—rather, I posed a simple question.”

When their mouths separated again, he said, “You’re the most beautiful… anything I’ve seen in my life.”

“And you reek of brandy.”

And then all the other pieces of the puzzle faded—the deer, the tower, the vanishing—leaving only the wave of black hair, the eyes, the lips, and the body pressed against his.

3

They rode his mare back to the castle—she rode, Shea sitting behind—and slipped into his quarters the way a pair of kids slip out of the house to play a dangerous game.

The sex was violent. She didn’t let him kiss her anymore or even help her undress—they tore their clothes off like two fighters at separate corners of the ring, after which she pushed him on his back and thrust her hips into his.

It was a voyeuristic but at the same time strangely intimate experience—the sense of pleasure being done to his body, and yet he answered every push, their gazes locked. She closed her eyes only in the end, when something exploded in them both.

Later, lying on her side with her back to him, she said, “I’m not that way. I’m not that way, Shea.”

Euphoria sliding into an echo, he studied the sotto in sù ceiling, the badly painted plump angel extending an olive branch, in twilight, to a bewildered-looking hunter. He could’ve asked her to elaborate, but what good would it do? She wasn’t like that in the sense that sex with her was normally tender? Or she wasn’t likely to sleep with someone while being the lover of another?

He traced with his finger the curve of her hip, and bitterness rose in him—at her, at the duke, at himself: he thought how he envied that stupid angel, how he wished he could live in that painting, too, in the season of sunsets, forever postponing the minute the light would disappear.

She stood, picked up her pants, and peeked inside them. “I think I’ve got a dandelion in there somewhere.”

“You’ve got one in your hair, too. Let me help you.”

“Thanks, I can manage.”

She strolled to the wine cabinet; opened it. “You didn’t drink all those bottles alone, did you, Shea?”

There would have been something deeply wrong with lying to a woman he’d just slept with. “The boy Daniel has been supplying me.”

“Why?”

“Why what—why is he supplying me or why am I drinking alone?”

“Why are you drinking.”

Words pushed at his throat, and, unable to contain them, he rose on his elbow and said, “I’ve destroyed the tower, Lena. Well, not literally, but I helped ruin it. The queen sent me here to make sure it gets built, and I failed. Ruined myself in the process.”

Her face was an emotionless mask when she turned to him. “I beg your pardon?”

“The tower will crumble within two months.”

And then the mask melted, sunset reverted to dawn: she jumped onto the bed to squeeze him in an embrace. She didn’t hold back.

“You’re going… to crush… me.”

“Sorry.”

He sucked in air, her face coming into focus, reddened cheeks, a wide smile—and jealousy prickled him, the fact that, minutes after they’d had sex, something else was the source of that unfiltered joy.

“I had no idea you hated the tower that much.”

She squinted at him. “But I showed you the book. I thought that was the reason…”

“It was a very vivid tale, Lena, but no. I came here, I saw problems. I believed I could fix everything, like that.” He snapped his fingers. “I didn’t take time to truly understand what was happening.”

“You mistook me for someone else—I don’t read tales, Shea. Problems—I presume Brielle or one of her engineers made an error?”

“It’s not my place to tell you.”

Relief from admitting everything came and went, leaving in its wake the beginning of the end: until now, he realized, he’d allowed some vestigial hope to linger at the back of his mind. Perhaps he’d waited for a miracle to happen, or for Brielle to find a solution. Now, he’d cast his last stone into the pond and let it drown.

But was that the last stone? a voice whispered in his mind. Is there a solution, perhaps?

Lena’s smile shrank, but didn’t disappear. “I realize it’s hard for you, but I can’t help myself. I’m happy.”

She embraced him again, this time carefully, the way a mother would a child.

He patted her on the back. “I’m sorry that I can’t feel the same.”

She let him go, stood, and picked up her shirt. “What’ll happen to you?”

“Do you care?”

A pause, and then a plain, “Yes.”

“Daelyn will either imprison me or send me to my family estate. Permanently.”

“Then I’m sorry, too. But I want you to know you’ve done good. You may not believe in the Mimic Tower, but you must believe in something, no? There are many things in this world we can’t explain.”

Shea thought back to the deer and said, “For example?”

“Did I tell you why Drakiri won’t let strangers into their home?”

“Because most strangers are assholes?”

“Because we don’t know where our true home is.”

“Last time I checked your homeland was in Pangania—or do you mean it metaphorically?”

“Pangania was a waystation, nothing more.”

“So Owenbeg is your second asylum? Where are you from then, originally?”

“We have no records of where we really came from, only that we arrived from elsewhere, and letting a new person under your roof is seen, traditionally, like sharing this—a vulnerability.”

“You people possess too vivid a shared imagination.” When she placed her hand on the doorknob, he said, “I don’t want this to be the last time.”

“Then start by cleaning out your wine cabinet.” She took a step into the corridor and paused. “I’ll be leaving Owenbeg sometime in the future. You asked if I care? Here’s the real answer: you could join me—if your queen doesn’t put you under lock and key.”

He remembered the roundabout they’d ridden in the settlement, the world’s colors spinning around them, the birds, the smells of autumn.

“I think I’m falling in love with you.”

“Be careful, then,” she said and closed the door behind her.

Dear sis, my beautiful flower—I think I’ll stay quiet for a while. I want to be quiet. Too much has happened, and I don’t think I’ve got the strength to carry on even our imaginary conversations. Don’t be mad at me (I know you can’t, the dead are the only ones in this world who are at peace), and I swear I’ll talk to you again. I’ll become whole again.

Just not now.

4

Shea entered the tavern. Behind the counter, the barkeep poured the last drops of the summer into a beer jug—he must’ve intended to drink it himself, because the establishment stood otherwise empty save for Shea, a decrepit drunk whistling a snore on the bench next to the coat hanger, and Brielle.

She sat in the corner by a lattice window. The lozenges were red in the center, and the sun filtered through that spot, painting a warm shape on the back of her palms lying on the table. It occurred to Shea how bad it looked, the color of blood on her hands.

He lowered himself opposite. “How are you doing?”

Brielle kept silent.

“I would talk about the weather, but it’s agonizingly unremarkable today.”

“Cut it.” She squinted at him, and it was only then that Shea noticed she had no drink.

“What’s going on, Brielle?”

She smiled with only her lips. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“What about?”

“You promised me two months.”

The barkeep swung back his head and poured in the beer.

“I promised us two months.”

She leaned forward. “You slept with Lena yesterday.” Shit. “I noticed by accident,” she said. “I saw her exit your quarters.”

“Has anybody else seen her?”

“One witness isn’t enough for you? Do the math, Shea—what happens if I slip a word or two to the duke?”

As though having fulfilled his function, the barkeep lowered the jug on the counter. The drunk stopped snoring, and silence stretched across the hall, too thin, too ready to pop.

“What? Why would you do that? Brielle, what’s happening?” He reached for her hand, but she pulled it back.

And, as if to compensate for the loss of intimacy, she leaned forward even closer. “You’ve betrayed me, that’s what’s happening.”

“Betrayed you by what, by sleeping with Lena?” She had a romantic affection for him, it dawned on Shea, and cold beaded his forehead. How the hell hadn’t he noticed it before? Two sharing a secret, only able to confide in one another, a fertile ground for all kinds of feelings…

He cleared his throat. “Listen, I find you attractive, too… But, please don’t take it the wrong way, our meetings were only that, meetings—”

Brielle started back like a mechanical toy, studied him with wide-open eyes—and then burst into laughter. The drunk by the coat hanger jolted and sat straight.

“What on Earth are you on about, Shea? I couldn’t care less if you found me attractive.”

“But I thought you said—”

“I said you have a secret and I know it, just as you know mine. So if you’re planning to report everything—”

“Report? To whom?”

She raised her finger, and he looked where she pointed. Through the window, past the triangle rooftops, the castle hill was dark at the base and evening-gold at the top where the walls rose.

“Listen, I give up,” Shea said. “I give up. I don’t want to play this game anymore. Just say whatever you have to say.”

“Look at Kayleigh’s wing.”

Oh my, she’s right, she’s absolutely right. The abandoned wing should’ve been dead, but it wasn’t. Shea’s old balcony and his old windows—one of them stood open, and he thought he saw a movement behind it.

Brielle said, “Is he here to double-check or to arrest me?”

“He who?”

“You tell me. Another guy from the capital, judging by the accent. Did you tell him all about my mistake? How Brielle screwed up basic calculations?”

Why haven’t I seen him? he wanted to ask—but, of course, he already knew the answer. The person he’d seen the most of these days was the village boy with linen sacks full of booze.

“I bumped into him right after the decommissioning,” Brielle said. “He was talking to Patrick. Wears black gloves.”

…walking into a pocket-size theater, eight or nine rows, six of them empty, lowering himself next to a slender man in black gloves, and—’consider this an opportunity’…

“I haven’t reported anything to anyone, Brielle. But I may know the guy. I used to know him.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You shouldn’t. I realize how it looks—I wouldn’t believe myself, either.”

“If he isn’t here because of you, then why?”

“Of that, I’ve absolutely no idea.”

5

The picture carried an almost nostalgic air, the narrow path between the battlements a rivulet of stone flowing from the mass of the old castle. Almost. After all, they’d tried to kill him there, Patrick and the duke—but still, for Shea, the memory of seeing Kayleigh’s wing for the first time interlocked with the image of the tower, the feeling of anticipation, the first sign of promise since the moment he’d traded his career for the little pink dress in the airship’s shadow.

And now he’d done the same again: destroyed whatever he’d had left on principle.

He squinted: someone was there, at the far end of the path. In darkness, the figure was a writhing grub—he couldn’t even guess the height. He dove back under the archway and waited.

The figure assumed form and Patrick shot past him, eyes straight ahead.

What the hell is the duke’s military counselor doing in Kayleigh’s wing? Consorting with the new tenant?

He held still until the steps died down. Then he followed the narrow path.

The tower’s furnace through the embrasures, the staircase leading downward, the corridor with the gas lamps. He hesitated—after all, he had no plan for what would come next—and knocked on the door.

“Come in, Ashcroft,” said the familiar voice.

Shea pushed on the doorknob and entered his old room. “How did you know it was me?”

“Easy. You don’t knock the way the majordomo knocks—apart from her, two people have reasons to see me at this hour, and one of them just left.”

“Hello, Aidan.”

It was really him—he stood at the window, looking at something outside, thin, black-gloved fingers between the curtains that dripped evening onto the floor.

“Come in, come in, Shea. Great to see you. Have a drink—the carafe’s in the bedroom.”

He turned and smiled the way people smile who use courtesy as a tool—earnest at a first glance, but with a whiff of professionalism. Gray eyes scurried across Shea like two spiders, assessing. “Your timing’s impeccable—although I honestly can’t tell if it’s by design. Were you following Patrick?”

Shea kept silent. Slender, taller than average but not too tall, with pleasant features but not beautiful enough to stand out in the crowd, the only distinguishing thing about Aidan was his black gloves. He was someone you felt safe to confess to. Probably would’ve made a fine priest, too.

“Aren’t you going to have that drink?”

“I think I’ve had enough for today,” Shea said.

“Oh yes, I’ve heard, I’ve heard.”

“You’ve heard—have you been spying on me?”

The smile retracted halfway, vacating the eyes. “I really hope that’s a rhetorical question.

“This place,” he continued, “it’s beautiful, sure, but it lacks finesse. You can’t spy on people—you actually struggle to filter out all the irrelevant parts of their life stories. Why don’t you take a sit?”

“Why don’t you tell me what Patrick was doing here?”

“Telling me he was going to Duma.”

“To Duma—why?”

Aidan pursed his lips in an amused manner. “Because I sent him there?”

“Sent him?”

“Oh, easy. I told him the saboteurs he was looking for were holding a rendezvous in Poltava  an hour from now. You know, the village past the border.”

Of course. Patrick still believed Duma was behind those gaping mouths in the tower’s walls.

“It was poor sportsmanship. I didn’t even need to plant evidence. I just mentioned to him the saboteurs would be in Poltava, and he immediately took off.”

“What do you want with him?”

Aidan gave him a faraway look, like a chess player who doesn’t quite see his opponent because part of him is inside his next move. “We must get rid of him, I’m afraid.”

“Are you crazy? For heaven’s sake—what’s up with people today? I’m not killing anybody, Aidan.”

“Then Patrick will kill you.”

“He’s already tried, and I don’t think he would go for it again.”

“And that’s where you’re in error. I do know he’d paid someone to assassinate you—but that was a brute from the village, and now he’s hired a professional. He’s meeting him in two days to pay him off.”

“The duke—”

“This time, Patrick isn’t acting on the duke’s orders. He’s keen. He wants to make up for his mistake, and you’ve provided him with the perfect opportunity—I’ll bet good money the coroner’s report would say, ‘died in a state of severe inebriation from choking on his own vomit’.”

“I’m not going to kill him,” Shea said.

“Then you have two choices: die or leave Patrick to me.”

“Why are you doing this? I think you think you’re helping me—but why?”

Aidan lowered himself into a chair and, with a hint at a smile, nodded toward a couch. “Do take a sit.”

“Tell me.”

“Let’s make a deal, shall we? You ride with me to Poltava, I tell you why I’m here.”

“I am not going to kill Patrick.”

“Then, I guess we’ll see what happens when we get there.”

Shea sat. “What would happen is, there would be no blood. I’d reason with him. Convince him I’m no threat.”

Aidan studied him again. “Still an idealist. Perhaps it’s a weakness. Perhaps I’ve backed the wrong horse.”

“Backed the…?”

“I’ll explain in an hour, at Poltava.”

“Aren’t you afraid of causing a diplomatic incident?”

“It’s a puny border village. Worst case, we bump into a patrol—and remember, I speak the language, I know how they think.”

“That’s right—you’re Dumish, correct? You mask your accent so well, I forgot that.”

“Therein lies the difference between us,” Aidan said quietly. “After a decade at the Red Hill, I still don’t have the luxury of forgetting. But I digress. We’ll tell the sentries we were inebriated and took the wrong road. With you in your current state, we won’t even need to do a lot of convincing. I’m more concerned about the goons Patrick will bring with him.”

Now there are goons. But a voice inside reminded Shea that Aidan was right. The military counselor had tried to kill him. Why did I assume Patrick would simply accept his failure? Was it the same arrogance that drove me to convince the duke to get rid of the Drakiri devices?

The room submerged in silence while a thrush somewhere in the courtyard drummed out the minutes.

“Okay,” Shea said. “I’ll go. But remember: no blood.”

“Let’s hope Patrick agrees.”

At the stables, Aidan simply nodded to the keeper, a fellow with a beard that seemed to have picked up rust from the gate. “Hullo, James.”

The man produced a smile so wide one could count all his remaining teeth.

“Just how long have you been here?” Shea whispered.

“For a week,” Aidan said. “I found out you’d made friends, and had to work fast.”

He selected two horses, a chestnut mare and a beautiful pitch-black stallion.

“This one is the duke’s. The name’s Onyx. I’m quite fond of him.”

6

They followed a creek down the plain, meager hillside covered in bush’s bristle to their left, forest to the right. The water was glass, reflecting little but the clean cider sky and the cloud front to the west.

“It’s going to rain soon,” Shea said. “How do we evade the border sentries?”

“Our friend Patrick is a military counselor, he knows the patrol patterns. We just have to follow him.” A wave of the black glove, sweeping three smudged auburn spots at the horizon. Horses. “The difficulty, actually, lies in not being noticed by them—at least not until we’re deep enough into Duma territory.”

“Were you planning on killing him there?”

“Of course. Duma would dispose of the bodies to avoid a diplomatic incident. They’d cover it up for us, Shea.” He half-turned in the saddle and produced a smile. “I’m still planning it, you know.”

“No. I’ll talk to him.”

“That would be putting too much faith into your own persuasive abilities. See that you don’t learn it the hard way.”

The clouds blinked, grunted, prompting a neigh from Shea’s mare.

“Easy, girl,” He patted her on the neck.

The mare neighed again.

“Calm your animal down, Shea. You don’t want them to notice us.”

“Easy, girl, easy. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” Yet.

Shea clung to the black mane and shot a glance back: ten miles away now, against the first pale stars, the tower looked like its twin from Lena’s folio: no longer a part of the sky but an extension of the earth, as though something immense had tried to get free and pulled up the crust in the process.

He turned and concentrated on what lay ahead.

Aware now of his mare’s tendency to voice its discontent, they covered the last quarter mile to Poltava on foot.

First to emerge from the darkness was a rundown fence with three chestnut horses tied to it. Then came a dragon, and another one, and another, wooden figurines straddling the roofs’ ridges—or were those logs someone had pulled from a bonfire?

How had the duke put it? See what they’ve done to the place, see it for yourself. Above Shea’s head, thunder rolled like a roly-poly, left to right, right to left, and the rain started, abruptly and in full force, making the houses’ burns seem fresh.

For all the talk of Poltava, it was a tiny village, no more than fifty homes—and half of them were coal husks, death on one side of the main street, life on the other.

“Why on earth won’t they rebuild those?” Shea said.

“There’s a decree prohibiting that.”

“Why?”

“So that people will remember.”

“My knowledge of history is rusty, but wasn’t it Duma that massacred this place?”

Aidan sighed. “This depends on whose account you’re inclined to believe.”

“The duke thinks so.”

“Then it must be true, right? If the duke thinks so.”

On the live side, behind the rain torrents, fireflies of windows smoldered.

Shea said, “Where do you suppose Patrick went?”

“Look, Patrick does what Patrick does. He arrives. He intends to find the saboteurs, so what’s his best move? To interrogate some locals. They tell him, of course, that they haven’t heard of any secret congregation—which is the honest-to-goodness truth. But, knowing Patrick…”

“He would presume they’re sheltering the criminals.”

“And his next step…?”

“Obviously, to search the houses.”

“One, two, three, four.” Aidan waved his gloved index finger theatrically, and on the count of four, a door in the middle of the street flew open, letting warm light into the rain’s monochrome. Three men stepped outside.

Aidan brushed his wet hair from his forehead. “Patrick! Patrick!”

The tallest silhouette turned like a puppet in a shadow theatre.

“We’re here, Patrick.”

There was a moment of chaos, voices coughing and barking. Then the figures began toward them.

There it goes. Shea wiped the water from his face. He should’ve felt adrenaline, revenge’s foretaste—but it was all unclean, the lead-pregnant clouds, the half-burnt village, even ambushing the man who’d tried to kill him.

“Aidan!” Patrick called out from the rain. “What are you doing here?”

“What does it look like?”

Was he enjoying it?

The duke’s counselor stopped a few feet away, gray threads stitching the air and turning his face into a featureless mask. Another thing was tangible, though, and crude: the heavy crossbow the fellow to Patrick’s left held at the ready.

“Hello, Ashcroft.” The voice was featureless, too. “It looks like a setup to me.”

Aidan smiled. “We need to talk.”

“So, who has whom on the leash? Ashcroft you, or you Ashcroft? I should’ve known better than to trust a Dumian.”

Aidan’s smile morphed into a frown—but only for a second. “Nothing wrong with having regrets, Patrick.”

“I don’t have regrets—in case you haven’t noticed, there’s an arbalest pointed at your smug face.”

“For how long, is the question.”

Without saying a word, the man with the crossbow stepped through the rain, walked over an invisible line, and froze next to Aidan.

“Colm, what the hell are you doing?”

Aidan whistled. “Oh, the sweet power of gold.”

“You’re all dead—you too, Colm.” Despite his words, Patrick took a step back. “You’re still with me, Duane?”

The fellow he’d called Duane visibly hesitated, shifting his weight from one leg to another.

“Duane?”

At that moment, on an impulse, as though observing himself from the outside, Shea said, “Duane isn’t an idiot. He knows how unpleasant an injury—any injury—would make his way back to the border.”

Did I really say that?

“Duane!”

“Your choice, Duane,” Aidan said.

The man shrunk his head into his shoulders, lurched forward. Hurried past them. In a second, his stride went from andante to allegro: he broke into a run.

“Now we can talk odds.”

“What Ashcroft said about the injuries—the same applies to you. I don’t do surrender.”

The rain turned into a drizzle, as abruptly as it had started, revealing Patrick’s face, the face of a sad spaniel, the slightly hunched shoulders, bony legs. For the first time, Shea saw him, really saw him.

“I won’t hurt you, Patrick.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I’m not a threat. I’ve no idea why you haven’t understood it by now. If it’s your position at the duke’s court you fear for, don’t—I couldn’t care less.”

Patrick studied him and smiled with the corners of his mouth. “You know what I hate the most about you? Your self-righteousness. You capital types, you’re infallible, aren’t you?”

If only you knew, Shea thought, if only

“You do realize, Ashcroft, that you’ve said goodbye to your own honor? I want to hear you rationalize this from your moral high ground, luring a man into a trap, bribing his companions.”

Companion,” said Aidan. “I’ve only bribed Colm here.”

“I’m talking to the intendant guy. How do you rationalize that?”

“How do you rationalize trying to kill me?” Shea asked.

Something changed in Patrick: a wave traveled from his feet through his body, straightening the back, unfurling the shoulders, pushing forward the jaw. “Because you deserve it. You all do. Every single one of you at the Red Hill. You live off of us, and when you make a mistake—no, even when you disregard a direct order from a ruling monarch—you don’t really go away, do you? You get another assignment. You come to issue orders to us.”

“It’s your own choice to—” Aidan began.

“And you’re how old, Ashcroft—thirty-five?” Patrick squinted. “I’m almost fifty—I’ve served the duke for the most of my life. I make one mistake, one tiny mistake with you, and that’s it.”

“You’re talking about my life here,” Shea said.

One mistake. And he tells me he’s already preparing a replacement.”

The honeycombs of the palace towers, the guy in the orange jacket jumping around the theater stage. I understand the poor bastard. The man who tried to assassinate me, I know how he feels. “I didn’t choose to come. If I could unburden you—”

“Fuck off!” Patrick spat on the ground. “I didn’t get the second chance you got—and I haven’t even disobeyed the duke. You’re—”

“I’m sorry. Not about the things you’ve done, but about your situation.”

“—bastards. I would choke you all at the Red Hill if I could, even the children, even the children.”

He wasn’t lying, Shea thought, and it wasn’t a hyperbole. Patrick was too simple to put up a facade, and—this much had been clear from their first conversation during the ‘reception’, back then, in the yellow room—he possessed a large capacity for hatred. Who knows what his story was; abused as a child? his peers didn’t like him enough?—but there he stood, in his current state, hating himself and, by extension, the universe.

And sometimes, the universe obliged hate with a target.

“Hand me the crossbow,” Shea said to the guy—what was his name? Colm?

The black glove patted him on the shoulder. “Glad to see you’ve finally come to your senses.”

Shea raised the weapon and aimed it at Patrick’s face. “Walk.”

“What?”

“Walk. Turn around and walk. Down the street, to the end of it, out of my sight.”

Patrick pursed his lips. Took a few steps backward. Turned.

As he moved away—from them and from the border—the sky cleared up, the stars brighter and closer now. Under their light, the tall figure receded between the mangled houses and the whole ones. He glanced back only once, at the very end of the street, the hunched shoulders, the spaniel face, barely discernable now.

Then he disappeared into a foreign land.

“This was a mistake. You’re banking too much on patrols stumbling upon him,” Aidan said. “My decision to support you—”

“What the hell do you mean?” Shea hurled the crossbow into the mud. “What are you talking about? Tell me at last why you’re here.”

“Let Colm go.”

“I don’t care—he can go.”

Without a word, the man who’d betrayed Patrick turned and left.

“I’m here because you have the keys to my future.”

Shea chuckled. Somewhere in his belly, laughter uncurled, growing, working its way up. “What future? Look at me.”

“I’m looking. I—”

“Look at me!” He shook his hands, palms up. “What future? Where? I’ve been exiled. Reduced to nothing.”

“You still think of this as an exile? Did you not hear anything I said to you back then, at the theater?”

Consider this a wonderful opportunity—oh yes, what a mockery.”

“Mockery? Listen, Daelyn has sent three people to the provinces. The intendancy system is brand new. She wants to see which one of you can control the local lords better.”

The tingles crawled up to his throat, making Shea giggle.

Aidan scowled. “What’s wrong with you? Owenbeg’s the most important assignment of the three, for obvious reasons. The tower. Queen was impressed with your defiance, heaven knows why, when you spared those protesters. I guess the last time someone defied her was decades ago. Hey, are you listening? Do you understand what I’m saying to you? Daelyn is grooming her potential successors.”

Laughter bent Shea in two, his knees sinking into the brown mash.

“What in the… We don’t have time for this, Shea. I’m here to help you.”

He managed to slip a word between bursts: “Why?”

“Damn it, stand up. Because, to quote you from a minute ago—look at me. I’m Duma. I’ll always remain Duma. Remember what Patrick just said, that one should never trust a Dumian? Remember what you yourself said about my accent? I’m an émigré, and that’s my ceiling. But with you, I’ll rise. We’ll rise. We’ve taken care of Patrick. We’ll take care of the duke, if needed. We just need to get the bloody tower done.”

And then the dam broke, everything Shea had been trying to lock away burst free, poured out of him in a soup of sobs and laughter.

“Have you gone mad? Stand up!”

“I can’t.” Shea stared at his palms. “I can’t. I’ve destroyed it.”

There is a solution, a voice whispered in his mind. The solution came clearly. It lay in the part of his past he’d tried his best to bury, in the room with soot stains and in the abandoned cellar underneath the rosewood trapdoor. No, he thought, trying to block out the image.

“Destroyed what, damn it? Destroyed what?”

“The tower.” He raised his eyes at Aidan. “It was held together by the Drakiri devices. I had them taken out.”

“What? Hey, hey, listen to me. Shea? Listen to me! Whatever you’ve done to the tower, you need to put it back together, do you understand? Do you understand? Do you realize what depends on it?”

“I can’t. The duke destroyed the devices.”

But you know the solution, the voice whispered, and in his mind’s eye, the rosewood trapdoor opened and he stepped into the cellar filled with purple glow, filled with objects he thought of as ‘tulips’ because someone else, someone he used to know had called them that, in the cellar beneath the ruined workshop, beneath the room with soot stains.

No, he thought, no, I won’t return there, I won’t—but deep inside, a part of him that had been weighing the possibilities considered the scales.

And he knew in whose favor they were tipped.

7

The girl had opened the door for him, and the dance hall’s golden lights momentarily blinded him.

Shea didn’t know her name—she was, after all, just an attendant—but to him, she’d been all the gloss of the capital: blond hair coiled into an elaborate braid, kohl-lined almond eyes, naked forearms.

“First night at the Red Hill?” She gave him a perfect smile.

“Is it that obvious?” he said and added, clumsily, “It’s all I’ve ever dreamt of.”

“You’ll get used to it. Don’t worry—everyone does. You’ll be fine.”

He’d never learned her name, never seen her again—but that moment stayed with him when she’d patted him on the shoulder, nudging him into the hall, toward the golden lights, toward all the beautiful people swirling in a waltz.

At the rain-whipped street, on his knees, he remembered the kohl-lined eyes which looked at him, as if saying: you could have it all back. You could have it all, and more.

Stay tuned for part III of Tower of Mud and Straw in November!

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