Up! The steps went on forever. My air came in bursts. Did I hear ticking? What if there were other creatures stalking after us? What was that thing?
The headmaster’s assistant glanced back.
“Your sword is glowing,” he said in a low voice.
The light came from my blade. Its harsh glow revealed him clearly. He hadn’t the creamy-white complexion of the northern Celts, although he was very pale. He had broad Avar cheekbones and the epicanthic fold at the eyes commonly seen among people who lived in the vast lands east of the Pale. It was his white hair that was most startling. It had been cut in an awkward approximation of the short local Celtic style, swept back over his ears. His fashionable indigo dash jacket was too strong a hue for him. The backs of his bare hands bore tattoos, like faded blue ink, of a curling design that might have been vines, or serpents. It reminded me of the old Roman saying: Beware the serpent in the east.
“Bee does stink of dragons,” said Rory, pausing on the steps, “and so does he. It wasn’t a good idea to come with him.”
“I do not stink,” said Bee, “and you will apologize at once to Maester Napata. It’s very rude to tell people they stink.”
“Even if they do?”
“He’s sorry for being rude, and I’m sorry he was rude to you,” she said as she halted two steps below the headmaster’s assistant. He had the expression of a man used to hearing people whispering about his looks, and not in the way Andevai was likely accustomed to admiring sidelong glances directed his way.
“If you are sorry, that is enough.” Having made this bold statement, he hastened up the stairs as if his own courage were about to bite him.
“Really, this isn’t the time for you two to fight so childishly,” I said as I climbed past them. Rory looked offended and Bee surprisingly chastened. “Maester Napata, what was that thing? What kind of agreement do you have with these goblins? How do you know about these tunnels?”
“I am not the one who can answer your questions,” he said. “The men in the clockmaker’s shop will not have much trouble tracing us if they wish to alert the militia. Hurry.”
We climbed with my sword as our candle, but the gleam on its blade faded as a pallor of natural light seeped in from an unknown source, turning darkness to gloom. We emerged into a musty vaulted chamber.
“Just give me a moment to catch my breath.” I leaned against the stone wall, coughing.
Rory set down a bag and put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “I smell bones and ashes.”
“We’re in a tomb,” said Bee, looking around.
Alcoves sheltered votive statues, dusty jars sealed with painted lids, and hammered metal plaques recording names and clans. Two stelae guarded the space. One was cracked through and listing. The second was carved on one side with the sigil of Tanit—a triangle capped by a small circle and straight arms—and on the other with a bull, a lion, and a crescent moon sheltering a sun.
I ran a hand down the length of my now ordinary black cane. “What was that thing?”
Bee glanced nervously toward the darkness that hid the stairs, but we heard no ticking. “It looked like someone built a clockwork automaton in the shape of a troll’s skeleton, powered by steam. Do you suppose goblins really are that ingenious?”
“I killed its combustion with my sword just as it was about to breathe scalding steam over me,” I whispered. “I shouldn’t have been able to do that. It felt like I pulled Andevai’s cold magic through the blade.”
Bee frowned as she touched my cheek with the back of a hand. “I hope you don’t expect me to explain what just happened. I must say, dearest, our lives were a great deal quieter before that awful night when my parents handed you over to Four Moons House.”
Maester Napata beckoned. “Maestressas. This way. Please to hurry.”
He led us up steps. The air grew wintry as we breached the surface through a marble tombhouse. We staggered blinking into what seemed a fierce brightness of day. Overhead, the sky was rent with blue. The storm had passed on, although cold soaked through our coats. Hailstones littered the ground. The city’s growl rose from beyond high walls.
Rory looked around with a bemused expression. “So many little stone houses. What people live here?”
“Only the dead,” said Bee.
“Do dead people live? I thought if they were dead, they did not live. It’s very confusing.”
“It’s the tophet,” I said. The walls had been reinforced with a spiked chain along the top to keep out vandals, treasure-seekers, and mischief-makers.