The Empire of Ashes – Anthony Ryan

I awoke from another dream of Corrick, as is my wont most mornings in these troubled times. If, as the infrequent responses to my many letters to the Maritime Protectorate insist, Lieutenant Corrick Hilemore is most likely dead as opposed to merely missing, he appears to have left behind a very busy ghost. My humour is misplaced, I know. Cruel even. To myself if not the memory of the man I loved (still love, at least be honest with yourself, Lewella). But I find it preferable to the weeping and mewling expected of my sex. The dream was dif erent again. My erstwhile fiancé’s nightly visits are rich in variety if not clarity. I would dream of him before of course, especially during those long awful months of separation thanks to his slavish service to our corporate overlords. Even more so during the unjust Dalcian slaughter the Syndicate chooses to call an “emergency.” But those dreams were more like memories, my mind seeking his company in somnolence when it was denied me in the waking hours. Walks in the park, stolen hours of intimacy away from my parents’ ever-prying gaze, our many, many wonderful arguments. I used to cherish my dreams of him, but now I dread them, for I always find him in danger. This time he was somewhere cold and very far away. The images are always vague but his face remains clear, and just lately it is the face of a man troubled by a terrible weight of guilt.

Corrick is not a man given to excessive introspection but, despite his professional calling, he does have a greater capacity for feeling than many might imagine. There I go again, the present tense. But, like my misplaced humour, I find I can’t help it. In my soul, if not my mind, I know him to be alive . and somewhere very cold. I endured another breakfast with Mother and Father, he hiding behind his copy of the Intelligencer, as per usual, whilst she filled the silence with inane gossip. Just lately, as the news from home and abroad grows ever worse, I have noticed a certain desperation in her chatter. Her myriad tales of petty scandal, announced engagements and barbed comments regarding my own singular lack of prospects in that regard are spoken with a somewhat shrill note and an over-bright cast to her eyes. At times I think she is trying to weave some form of magic spell, as if this verbal frippery will banish the encroaching threat through dint of sheer, mundane normalcy. But the threat is real and shows no sign of abating.

“Feros Falls Silent” proclaims the Intelligencer in characteristically bald terms. As yet, however, the reason for the city’s silence remains unexplained, if much speculated upon. The interior pages relate more lurid details of the latest Corvantine Revolution, this one apparently successful. “Entire Corvus Aristocracy Slaughtered in a Single Night,” “Mock Trials See Hundreds Hanged,” “Self-Proclaimed Ruling Council Led by Notorious Criminal Dictatress,” and so on. Many of my Voterist friends insist these stories are lies concocted by the corporate-controlled press to stoke fear of just rebellion. Personally, I’m not so certain all these horrors are in fact imaginary. The Corvantine people suf ered centuries of cruel oppression at the hands of a hideous, blood-soaked Regnarchy. Is it so surprising they would act with a vengeful heart now? Other stories speak of riots in many North Mandinorian towns, an increased desertion rate amongst Protectorate soldiery, and, perhaps most worrying of all, a collapse in the corporate bond and share markets. I noticed Father’s hands take on a small tremor as he turned the page to this particular report causing me to ponder just how much of the family wealth he has invested in market speculation over the years. But of course, any question I might raise in regard to financial matters would be met with either cold indif erence or a suggestion that, if business interests me so much, I should give up my radical hobbies and find corporate employment.

So I said nothing, washed my toast and boiled egg down with a gulp of tea, kissed Mother on the cheek and set of for the of ices of the Voters Gazette. As has become somewhat routine the morning editorial meeting soon degenerated into a political discussion and thence a full-blown shouting match. Mr. Mantleprop, the photostatist, nearly came to blows with Mr. Mityard, the foreign af airs correspondent, over the latter’s “blatant bias in favour of vindictive beastliness” in his reporting on the Corvantine Revolution. Lately, in my capacity as acting editor-in-chief, I have been sorely tempted to simply dismiss every correspondent on the staf . Given that I write at least two-thirds of the words in every issue whilst my supposed subordinates spend their hours in fruitless argument, it would hardly be a greater burden to run the paper as a solo enterprise. It would also make for a much more peaceful working environment. But, as this periodical—being the of icial organ of the Voters Rights Alliance—was constituted as a cooperative rather than a private entity, I lack the power to dismiss anyone without a majority vote of the editorial board. I would normally have made ef orts to calm the atmosphere and force some semblance of order on the meeting, but today found myself too wearied by my troubled sleep.

So instead I took my note-pad and pen and set of for the dock-side district, leaving my colleagues to their strife. Any experienced correspondent will know that the docks are always a useful source of information, most particularly during troubled times. Sailors from all corners of the globe can be found in any dock-side tavern and they are ever a talkative breed, especially when encouraged by a young and not unattractive woman willing to spend a few scrip on a round of ale or two. Today, however, it transpired that such machinations would not be necessary, for I found the docks in a state of considerable excitement. Several weeks before, the so-called Blessed Demon had forsaken her reign of terror in the Marsh Wold to inflict fiery destruction on the dock-side district before mysteriously vanishing. The damage has been only partially repaired and many warehouses remain in a blackened and ruined state. However, Syndicate authorities were ef icient in restoring the cranes to the wharf and rebuilding the many wooden jetties which had been burned down to the water-line. I found the quayside a-throng with Protectorate soldiers and constabulary, several senior of icers amongst them. Beyond the broad waters of the harbour itself I could see smoke pluming from the great engines that operate the huge doors in the guard-wall. Usually, only one door is raised after the morning tide, but today all three doors were being drawn up at once.

Naturally, my questioning of the Protectorate of icers on the scene produced either a bland but polite “no comment” or a frosty suggestion that I seek grist for my “Voterist propaganda” elsewhere. Consequently, I was compelled to elicit information from a more willing source, albeit reluctantly. I found Sigmend Talwick midway along the wharf, his lanky, poorly tailored form perched on a crate as he scribbled in his note-pad. “Miss Tythencroft,” he said upon noting my approach. His broad smile would have been taken for warm and welcoming if not for the poorly concealed carnal interest he simultaneously displayed in surveying my person. “How are things at the Gazette? I hear your circulation is booming, almost breaking four figures last month.” “Five figures,” I lied, as I often do in Mr. Talwick’s presence and find it scarcely tweaks my conscience at all. “I must congratulate you on the Intelligencer’s latest issue,” I went on. “For a periodical given to vulgar and tasteless reporting, your paper truly outdid itself today.

Corvantine rebels are roasting and eating aristocratic babies, apparently.” He stif ened a little, his smile fading. “I am merely a correspondent, miss. Not the editor.” “Quite so, sir.” I turned and nodded at the rising harbour doors. “Might I enquire if any of your Protectorate friends have enlightened you as to the meaning of all this?” “No,” he replied, somewhat archly. “They haven’t, but one doesn’t raise all three doors for a single ship, does one?” “A fleet then. And not composed of enemies.” “So it seems.

But from where does it hail is the question. Care for a wager, Miss Tythencroft? My money’s on a flotilla of Dalcian mercenaries, hired by the Protectorate to augment the Northern Fleet.” “I leave the financial speculation to my father, sir. However, I doubt the Protectorate could find many Dalcians willing to take their scrip after the Emergency.” “Varestians then. In the pre-Colonial era they’d fight for anyone if the price was right.” Just then the harbour doors reached their full elevation, as signalled by the chorus of steam-whistles that sounded from the top of the wall. A short while later the dark, slow-moving shape of a vessel appeared in the central entry-point to Sanorah harbour. I immediately recognised it as a small steam-ferry, the type normally employed in carrying passengers around coastal regions. However, from its appearance it seemed to have been at sea for many days.

The vessel’s paint-work was besmirched with soot and her paddles were missing some blades, making only partial purchase on the water as she moved sluggishly to one of the near by jetties. Mr. Talwick and I quickly made our way to the jetty as lines were thrown between ship and shore. I could see a large crowd of people on the ferry’s fore-deck, mostly women and children and all possessed of the kind of greyfaced silence that comes from prolonged privation. As we drew nearer I could see many weeping, either in relief or sorrow. I couldn’t tell. “A fleet to be sure,” Talwick commented, jerking his chin at the opened portals through which several more similarly bedraggled vessels were making their way. “But composed of refugees, not mercenaries.” We were close enough to make out the lettering on the ferry’s hull: IRV Communicant—Rg’d Feros Harbour, 03/06/177. “Sailed all the way from the Tyrell Islands in a thirty-year-old coast runner,” Talwick said with a note of admiration.

A gangway had been manoeuvred into place and people were disembarking the ferry, most moving with a stooped, unsteady gait that bespoke near exhaustion. Some of the older passengers were being aided by their younger compatriots, and many were still weeping. As they began to congregate on the quayside my gaze was drawn to a particular figure who stood straighter than the rest. She was a tall woman of South Mandinorian colouring and, from the way the other refugees responded to her, seemed to enjoy some form of authority. “Joya,” she called to a slender girl who, along with a pale-skinned woman wearing oddly garish face-paint, was helping a man with bandaged eyes navigate his way down the gang-plank. “Bring him here. We need to keep all the patients together. Molly, when you’ve settled Mr. Adderman get y’self back aboard and retrieve all the medicines you can find. Ain’t rightly sure how generous our hosts are gonna be.

” “Good day, madam.” Talwick, always possessed of a keen eye for the best source of information, walked up and greeted the tall woman with a bow. “Sigmend Talwick, chief correspondent of the Sanorah Intelligencer. Might I enquire as to your name?” “Surely,” the woman replied, moving away. “It’s Mrs. Mind Your Own Seer-damn Business.” Talwick straightened with an aggrieved snif but, never one to be distracted in his quest for a story, immediately began questioning the other refugees. I, however, felt there was more to be had from Mrs. Mind Your Own Seer-damn Business, and pursued her through the crowd for several minutes until she consented to notice my presence. “You another correspondent?” she asked, glancing up from inspecting a wound on a child’s arm.

The infant seemed to have lost the energy to cry, merely sitting quietly in her mother’s lap and gazing at the stitched red-andblue mark in her flesh with wide, incurious eyes. “Of a sort,” I replied. “I represent the Voters Rights Alliance.” I looked around at the growing throng of beggared people, finding I had to cough away the sudden catch in my throat. “I assure you I only want to help.” “Good.” She tied a fresh bandage around the girl’s arm, then tweaked her small chin. The girl merely blinked and settled deeper into her mother’s arms. “These people need medical care,” the woman went on, rising and turning to me. “And those on the other ships will need places to live and food to eat.

Can your Alliance help with that?” “Yes,” I said, possessed of a sudden conviction. “I’ll return forthwith to our of ices and start organising a relief ef ort.” I extended my hand. “Miss Lewella Tythencroft.” “Mrs. Fredabel Torcreek.” We shook and a faint, grim smile played on her lips, presumably as she read the feelings evident in my features. “Guess this is a new sight for you, hun?” “Yes.” I coughed again, standing straighter. “Please, before I go.

You were at Feros, yes?” “That’s right. And it’s gone. Drake and Spoiled came out of the sea and sky and took it, doing a whole lotta killing in the process. Us former Carvenporters and a few others managed to get away, but we left a good many folks behind.” “I . have a friend,” I began, hating myself for the way my words stumbled from a faltering mouth. “My former fiancé in fact. A Lieutenant Hilemore. He’s been posted as missing presumed dead. I wondered .

” “Hilemore?” Mrs. Torcreek stared at me for a moment then let out a laugh. “Firstly, I believe it’s Captain Hilemore these days. And he ain’t dead, hun. Last I heard he’s very much alive, though he’s probably freezing his ass of alongside my kin just now.” CHAPTER 1 Clay It was like drinking liquid fire, the heart-blood sending a searing bolt of agony through him the instant it touched his tongue. Somehow he managed not to lose his grip on the vial, keeping it pressed against his lips until the entire contents had made a fiery progress from his throat to his gut. He convulsed as the pain blossomed, thrashing in the water as it grew, banishing all other sensation, turning his vision grey then black. He wondered if the pain would kill him before Last Look Jack could send a stream of flame down to boil him as he thrashed. Either way he knew with absolute certainty he had barely seconds to live.

Then it was gone. The pain vanished in an instant. Clay blinked and the black void filling his eyes cleared. He was still in the water, floating weightlessly below a shimmering surface. The water was cold but the chill was muted somehow, a distant thing beyond the confines of his body, a body he quickly realised had grown to huge proportions. The view ahead was a mélange of colour, cool azure shades shot through with smudges of orange and the occasional small flutters of deep red. They see heat rather than light, Ethelynne Drystone had said when she shared memories with him in the ruined amphitheatre. Once again, he was seeing the world through the eyes of a drake. He saw that these colours were not so vibrant as those captured by the doomed Black all those centuries ago, but any sense of limited vision was more than dispelled by the sound that filled his ears. It was a constant vibrating echo, varying in pitch from one second to the next.

It meant little to him but he could sense an understanding somewhere in his mind, an instinctive knowledge possessed by the one who had captured this memory. The conclusion was as inescapable as it was terrifying. I’m trancing with Last Look Jack. The view shifted as the soundscape changed, a sharp pealing cry cutting through the echo. The shimmering surface above blurred as Clay was propelled through the water, moving with a speed that was beyond any human engine. He could feel the great drake’s pulse quicken from a steady, ponderous thrum to a rapid drum-beat as the pealing cry came again. It was plainly a distress call, shot through with panic and terror. Clay could sense Jack’s increasing alarm as they raced through the water, the understanding afforded by the trance enabling him to recognise it as parental concern. Somewhere his child was suffering. Abruptly the distress call rose to a scream, piercing enough to send a shiver of pain through Clay’s mind, then it was gone, cut off in an instant.

Another sensation seeped through his consciousness as the scream faded, not a sound this time, a scent. It was a smell that would usually stir hunger in the belly of this monstrous predator, but now stirred only despair. Blood, but not prey to be hunted down or a drifting whale carcass to be scavenged. This was the blood of a Blue drake. Last Look Jack gave voice to a cry of his own then, a deep throaty roar of grief that seemed to shake the sea. His speed remained undiminished, however, his massive body coiling with furious energy to propel him on. The scent of blood grew more intense until Clay saw a dark billowing red fog ahead, cooling to pink as the warmth leeched into the water. Jack slowed as he neared the cloud, Clay making out a dark matrix amidst the billowing warmth, a net stretched tight around something large and limp. He could see the dark barbs of several harpoons jutting from the dead Blue, a juvenile judging by its size. Blood bloomed with fresh intensity as the net shifted and the body rolled in its snare as it was drawn up towards the surface.

Jack’s gaze followed the black lines of the hauling ropes, finding two long dark shapes interrupting the surface above. He knew these shapes, knew they brought danger and normally the sight of them would have caused him to dive for the security of the depths. But not today. He tore the net apart first, triangular, razor-like teeth tearing it to pieces, freeing the slaughtered juvenile inside. Jack paused to regard the slowly descending corpse, falling away into the cold black depths in a shroud of blood. A new memory filled Clay’s mind. A small Blue struggling free of her mother’s womb to coil against her father’s massive flanks as he curved his body around them both in a protective embrace, voicing a soft song to soothe her distress. The memory faded and Clay found Jack’s gaze had returned to the two dark shapes above. He roared again, his despair merging with rage. It was a rare emotion for a Blue, conserved for the mating season and defending territory from aggressive young males.

Now it bloomed to unprecedented heights, filling every fibre of Jack’s body. Clay felt something give in Jack’s mind, a jolting shock that banished his last vestiges of reason. The great Blue’s roar died. He had no need to voice his rage now. He was rage. The two dark shapes had begun to move, the water on either side of them frothing white and a rhythmic thrum sounding through the ocean. Clay saw soft yellow globes burning in the centre of each shape as the Blue-hunter’s engineers stoked them high. Unnerved by the sudden loss of their catch, these sailors had clearly opted not to linger. It wouldn’t save them. Jack made for the shape on the left, making a steady but unhurried approach from below.

Although the rage still boiled in his mind, his predatory instincts held true and he knew the wisdom of preserving his energy for the final rush. When he was some fifty yards from the spinning blades of the Blue-hunter’s starboard paddle, he struck. A single thrash of his massive tail shattered the paddleblades into splinters, causing the ship to veer off in a ragged circle, tilting from the force of Jack’s blow. Small, dark figures plunged into the water around him, sailors cast from the deck of the stricken vessel. Jack took his time, snapping each struggling figure in half and spitting out the remnants, finding he disliked the taste of these tiny monsters. Their blood was bitter and their flesh too full of bones. In any case, he was not here to feed. He thrashed his tail again, an explosive release of power that propelled him free of the sea. The ship passed beneath him as his massive body soared over it, sailors gaping up at him in terror then screaming as he opened his jaws wide and unleashed a torrent of fire. The flames swept the ship from stern to bow, incinerating men and fittings alike, flooding the holds and setting light to anything that would burn.

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