Lower City, Amin Duum
Muytil 2, 4765
Nastasia crossed into the gallery to join the other watchers and warriors preparing to leave. She’d kept her head down and protested that she’d need to stay with Nenja, to work, rather than head out into the city, but that kind of thing was never going to work on a Servant. Trying not to be too obvious, she collected her kit and stood on the edge of the group lapping up Arandes’ instructions. Glancing at their faces, she wondered how they could possibly be keen to go back out there into the world that destroyed Nenja.
“Joining us, Nastasia?” Arandes grinned over the heads of the others. Everybody turned to stare at her and she glared down at her feet. “Good. You’re with Zurov again. You work well together.”
Zurov’s reaction to this was inscrutable. He had his own medical kit on his back, pressing against a sword he’d strapped on with a bundle of knives. He was preparing for the worst.
“Now, you all know what you’re doing. If any of you get caught, we’ll do our best but you’re on your own. Assume you’re going to die. It’s probably simpler.” Arandes strapped on his own sword. “Way it works is like this. We’re going through the tunnels to the Tsendt Sadat. It’s one of the bigger ones, has its own guard section and Youth Movement depot. You might care to avoid them unless you want to explore how good you are at handling pain. Lana’s given us specific names. You get your list of names and you go to the houses listed. You don’t go wandering around and you don’t speak to people that aren’t the people you’re there to see. You don’t go into their homes. They come out to you.”
As Arandes spoke, a flood of protestations ran through Nastasia’s head. How were they supposed to even begin their work if they could barely see anything and couldn’t give their patients the most basic privacy.
“If you’ve got anything really serious that should come back here, you bring it to me first. I’ll tell you whether they get a ticket out of this place. Remember, you’re in the wild lands now. Tiom’s people don’t sleep. You don’t want to mess with them. You can’t trust anybody.”
Nastasia edged closer to Zurov. “How’re we even supposed to do our jobs?”
Zurov didn’t answer. He’d accepted a small slip of paper from Lana, who whipped between them with the grace of a dancer as she handed out her information. He studied for a minute, then tucked it away into his pocket. He looked up at Nastasia. “Get a cloak,” he said. “Get me something as well.”
Nastasia glanced at him in surprise. He nodded in the direction of one of the beams. Between the lamps lay a pile of rags. Some of the other watchers were already picking through them. She sighed and joined them, trying to find a pair of cloaks in reasonably good condition. The fabric was weak, rough and carried a strange smell in its fibres. She plucked one between forefinger and thumb and lifted it up, holding her head back out of the way of the smell.
The maid Lana stood opposite. “Those are worth three weeks’ wages down here,” she said. “Think about that.”
Nastasia flushed, and grabbed another cloak off the pile for Zurov, and scuttled away before she had to bear any more harsh looks from either Lana or Daira. If the smell bothered Zurov, he didn’t show it as he pulled the cloak over his uniform.
“Are we getting full kits to go out?” he asked, looking at Arandes.
“When we can find enough.” Arandes hadn’t bothered with a cloak. He was busy strapping more and more weapons onto his body. “We can’t buy in bulk. It’s too obvious.” He straightened, and grinned at Nastasia. “Now you get to see what it’s really like out there.”
Nastasia swallowed, and forced herself to smile back. Zurov tapped her on the shoulder and she quickly pulled on the cloak so it covered the medical kit on her back. Following him to the doors, she could see the faces of the other watchers in the gloom. How could they seem so calm. Her stomach turned over, nausea flicking acid into her throat as the warriors opened up and Zoriel nodded at them as they passed into the night and the other world of the fallen city state.
Arandes led them through the black. They felt their way along the tunnels, linked to each other by loosely linked fingers. Zurov put his hand back to Nastasia, and she hooked her fingertips into his, an electric thrill passing through her as their skin touched. She looked at him, his features a smudge in the dark from the last lamp light inside the infirmary. There was no sign that he’d felt anything. He tugged on her hand, and she followed obediently, stumbling through the black.
There were the sounds of boots on the stone floor, and the soft hiss of breathing. Within the confines of the city walls, it was warm, and in places, where the old sealant had not been replenished in the ceilings and walls, water seeped through, dripping in a constant symphony of tiny wet noises. Tsendt Sadat, one of the Lower City’s biggest complexes, stood next door to the infirmary that once would have served its population, and there was no need to step out onto the guarded city floor.
At the far end, guards had blocked off the entrance to the complex, hoisting everything from old furniture to the unfinished trunks of acacia trees into the gap. Arandes lit up a lamp and studied the structure as the warriors moved toward it, seeking the best way to bring it down. The remains of a body, strapped up against the tumble of chairs, tables, old medical equipment and gurneys from the infirmary, hung with its arms extended to the sides, its bones a warning to anybody who might come through.
“There’s a gap.” The warrior Irad grouched down in one corner. “They’ve left a hole.”
“Worrying.” Zurov stepped forward to examine it. There was a passageway dimly visible through the morass of legs, cushions and wheels. “That’s not been left for us.”
“Do we go around the back tunnels?” Daira asked. “Would be easier.”
“Not if we have to bring anybody back,” Arandes said. “I’ll stay by here. Let you guys know if there’s trouble.” He turned to face them all. “Remember what you’re here for. There’s maids on the other side who’ll help you get to the people you need to see. Get on with your job and then leave. If you need to bring somebody back, you need to speak to me first.”
Nastasia glanced at Arandes, then followed Zurov through and into the world of the Tiomke. The odour, that rank stench of stale air and bad plumbing was stronger here. Her mouth watered in the worst way. Ahead of her, Zurov hulked through the gloom as though he did this every day of his life. Perhaps that was he did do every day, before this. Never minding the discomfort, the little niggling pains, that seemed to be what made an irregular.
She was taking notes. It seemed like the best thing to do and it was keeping her mind off the prickling fear on the back of her mind, running up and down her spine, from overcoming her. Any minute now she was going to turn and run, not just back to the infirmary but through it and then down through the back tunnels and across the river to Bas Kishri. Wandering around the canyon in the dark at least offered them a view of the sky. Here the only light came from distant torches, bobbing up and down the balconies of the higher levels; they were sources of fear not comfort. They were held by guards.
On the other hand, there was the chance to work with Zurov. Of all the possible partners, he was the most comforting choice – apart from Arandes, of course. And Zurov, despite his laconic approach to communication, had enough experience of working in tough places to know what to do if anything went wrong.
She glanced across the atrium, trying to pick out other pairs in the dark, but there was nothing to be seen. Just more bobbing torches. The sight set her teeth on edge. She fixed her attention on Zurov, following him on up the stairs at the far end of the atrium. He slowed, attention focused on the bobbing lamp now at the far end of the first floor balcony. Dropping into a crouch, he stopped at the last stair and studied the guard’s movement for a few minutes. Nastasia copied, his hulk between her and any view of what was happening on the balcony. Acid flooded her mouth.
Zurov’s hand went up, and without looking around, he signalled to her to move forward. Nastasia followed again, her legs aching from that crouch. She needed to get back into shape. Stepping through a door after Zurov, she silently wished she didn’t keep making excuses to avoid training practice on her rest days when she was back in Rad Ruinn. Zurov flicked at a blanket that served as a door, and Nastasia dipped after him into the first house.
Ahead of her, Zurov halted and she almost ran into his back. Whispers echoed back to her, carrying on the still, thick air. Names were mentioned, and somebody, nothing more than a shadow ahead of them moving against a field of thicker darkness, loomed up and then withdrew. Nastasia heard nothing of the conversation beyond the suggestion of names, but none of the obvious phrases to do with illness she might stand a chance of recognising.
Light happened. Nothing more than a lamp being ignited in a dark room, and a dim lamp at that, but Nastasia squinted against the sudden illumination, turning away from it. As her pupils adjusted, she took in the state of the space around her. Once upon a time, it had been a typical Amnari dwelling, or at least the living room part of it. Somewhere beyond, now swathed in gloom, there would be bedrooms and private spaces for families who’d once have shared this space.
In the Tiomke world, every room was space for a multitude. Families piled in on each other, individuals renting space on the floor, or in the beds. If you could call them beds. Two mattresses had been set up on either side of the living room, one where the kitchen would once have been. Straw poked through the thin fabric. They were little more than shapeless sacks. The blankets were mouldy and flaked with filth. Faces, lean and tired, sweaty from the heat of unventilated caves, stared out at their visitors, their eyes shot through with fear. Some lay curled up, others stretched out. Some stood, or crouched on the floor. In the corner, slop buckets produced enough noxious odour for several rooms, not just one. The mattresses were the only furniture. Nothing else survived. In the centre of the room, the bare stone of the floor was piled with ash from a fire. A couple of patched pans sat in the remains. Nastasia had never seen, nor smelled, such enduring penury.
“Where do we start?”
Zurov was all business. As though this were a ward in a standard infirmary, and these patients from anywhere in Amnar. Anywhere else, that is. He dropped his medical kit onto the floor and stepped around, taking in the people around him, the humped forms gathered on the beds and the floor. Somewhere amongst them, a baby wailed, and Nastasia’s heart broke. This was going to be much, much harder than she ever imagined possible.