Those Below:The Empty Throne Book 2

By: Daniel Polansky

For Peter Backof, Michael Rubin and

Robert Mason Rickets III. Blessed to know you.





1


Two men came walking past first, porters or one-time porters, thick legs and bent backs and mean eyes. They spent a long moment silently scrutinising Seed and Dray and Quail. They didn’t make any threats, except in so far as their presence was a threat; their very existence was a threat.

Seed made sure to look straight back at them, without blinking or bowing his head. They were looking for moles, agents of the Those Above, and Seed was most certainly not that – just your average Fifth Rung slum kid, about at that age when it was time to get marked as a porter, or to get work on the plantations outside of the city. No different from ten thousand others on the lowest levels of the Roost, strutting about in worn pants during the late afternoon, faces dirty, looking to get forget-yourself drunk. He was big and he was tough, but there were plenty boys bigger and plenty men tougher; the Fifth Rung was the sort of place that bred rowdies and brutes and straight-up killers in great profusion. The only thing that made him noteworthy – and this might have been stretching the point – was his busted eye, the lid drooping, the iris lazy and unresponsive. He had never been a handsome man but there was a difference between being homely and being deformed, a difference he had had a long time to ponder in the two and a half years since a Barrow boy had beaten the scars into his face.

Dray and Quail couldn’t even claim that distinction, if being made ugly enough that you couldn’t get a woman to look at you without a couple of tertarum in your hand was a distinction. Seed did not think it was; in fact he thought it was quite the opposite. Seed thought what had been done to his face was the sort of thing worth holding a grudge about, and he thought also that there was no point in holding on to a grudge when you could even it up. This was the reason that he was standing against the wall of a run-down building a few minutes’ walk from the docks, getting eyeballed by a pair of Dead Pigeons.

One of the soldiers nodded, and then they both headed back upslope, and a moment later Thistle came strutting past, and whatever doubts Seed had about his errand were forgotten at the first sight of that arrogant smile, those eyes that were heavy and cold as a stone unearthed from the bottom of a riverbed. ‘Hello, brothers,’ he said. Seed couldn’t remember if he had ever heard him talk before; Seed didn’t think so. Seed didn’t like the fact that he liked his voice, which was deep and slow and seemed to emanate from somewhere far within his chest. ‘Walk with me.’

Thistle turned and headed east, headed east without looking back, and Seed hated him all over again, hated him as much for his arrogance as for what he had done to Seed’s eye.

Of course they’d been hearing rumours about the Five-Fingers for years – you could always find men foolish or mad enough to dream and even speak of retribution and rebellion and revolution, as you could find men foolish or mad enough to speak of climbing up the sky and casting the sun down to earth. The Fifth Rung had no shortage of inebriates and lunatics. But then, you couldn’t exactly call them madmen, not this last year, not with half the docks attending their secret rallies, not with all the whispers you heard of bulging coffers and gangs of well-trained hard boys. Rumours are like smoke of course, but still, you smell enough of it and you’d be wise to start looking for fire. And amidst the many other stories that spread swift across the lower Rungs, there was one of Pyre, the First of His Line, leader of the militant wing of the Five-Fingered.

Dead Pigeons they were called, after their preferred form of intimidation, birds left bleeding on the doorsteps of their opponents. To murder an avian was a capital offence in the Roost, as far as the authorities were concerned one more serious than theft or assault, worse than rape, worse even than carrying a weapon. A man mad enough to do that publicly was a man mad enough to do anything, and moreover a man who knew where you lived.

If this lesson went unheeded, they had other ways of making their point. A Cuckoo on the Fourth Rung renowned for a particularly severe brand of sadism was found butchered one morning in the whorehouse that he had frequented. A notoriously corrupt bureaucrat, famed even by the standards of his kind for avarice, cupidity and licentiousness, went missing on his way upslope one evening. He showed up two days later absent the small fingers on both of his hands and talking of nothing but redemption, of his own evils and what he would do to make up for them, talking of it loudly and frequently in the main thoroughfare running along the docks, having traded wealth and iniquity for the life of a penniless preacher. There were others – men disappeared into the sewers and men made silent from fear of such, and soon the Cuckoos, the Roost’s human guard, had come to speak quietly rather than with their characteristic belligerence, and would not go out in the evening except in the company of their fellows, eyes roaming and hands tight about their ferules.

It was to Pyre that this change was attributed, and the first bounty had gone out on his head a year past: five golden eagles, the Eternal currency, used only by those directly in their employ, the seneschals and high servants. Five golden eagles was more money than a man on the Fifth Rung would earn in a grim lifetime of labour, and though it doubled and then doubled and then doubled again, still it was not enough to bring word of Pyre’s location to the men who sought him harm. The Fifth did not give up its secrets so casually.

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