“What I’d like to know,” I said to God, “is how you couldn’t tell they were telling the truth. When they said they didn’t know how the dagger ended up in their possession, did you think they were lying?”
“It is… complicated,” said God. “Perhaps we should discuss this alone.” He shifted his gaze towards the Guildmaster who stood up (after a short struggle disentangling himself from his colleagues).
“However this situation came about,” said the Guildmaster, “the artifact we were presented with appears to be genuine. That is what you’re saying, God?”
“Lies can be tricky,” said God, “but the truth is the truth. No doubt.”
The Guildmaster seemed to accept this. He turned to Kizwat. “Young man, we owe you a silver hammer. Please accompany me back to the guild.”
Kizwat stood up, his eyes sparkling.
God also rose from his chair and made his way to the door, which he unlocked. As the blacksmiths filed out, the Guildmaster paused and turned back to me. “If you do manage to find the artifact, we would still like a chance to test it under the right conditions.”
“I have a pretty good idea who took it, but whether I’ll be able to get it back...”
The Guildmaster opened his mouth as if he was going to say something, but then shut it and gave me a nod. God followed them out, closed the door and locked it, leaving me alone.
“That was interesting, wasn’t it?” said Biadet.
I jumped out of my chair and somehow ended up standing behind it. Biadet was sitting in God’s chair.
“What the fuck, Biadet?” I went over to the door and tested it. Locked. “This is a locked room! How did you get into a locked room?”
“Perhaps,” said Biadet, “I was here all the time.”
That was actually quite plausible. Could God have been in cahoots with the sly minx all along? My instinct was to doubt it—he seemed a decent sort. But since when could I trust my instincts?
“You might as well have this back.” Biadet placed the missing spike on top of the desk.
There was the sound of lock in key, and the door opened. God returned. He saw Biadet in his seat but only raised an eyebrow. He locked the door.
“Miss Biadet. I take it you are the one responsible for recent strange events.”
“Responsible? No, I am not responsible,” said Biadet.
“Is she lying?” I asked God.
God shrugged. “This young woman is the only one my ability doesn’t work on. I have no idea why.”
“I told you there was one person,” said Biadet.
“You said it was him,” I said in rather a whiney voice, pointing at God.
“No, you said that.”
“But you agreed.”
“I don’t think so.”
I thought about it. “You nodded.”
Biadet nodded. “Nodding means different things in different cultures.”
“I’m pretty sure in this culture it means ‘yes’.”
“This isn’t my culture,” said Biadet.
My head was starting to hurt. “Fine. Whatever. Did you plant a dagger on one of my party?”
Biadet smiled. Or at least her lips stretched across her face. “I didn’t think they’d turn on each other so quickly. Very amusing.” She vacated God’s chair and walked over to him. “The barrier will be lifted. You can let them go.”
“But why, Biadet?” I asked. “Why did you do all this?”
“Just following orders.”
“And that’s a good reason to do terrible things to innocent people, is it?”
Biadet shrugged. “Isn’t it the only reason to do terrible things to innocent people? In any case, more terrible things are yet to come. It appears someone has informed the Carpenter’s Guild that the person responsible for the recent deaths of a number of their members is you. They are upset.”
I didn’t even need to ask who that someone was. “Are you trying to get me killed?”
Biadet ignored the question. “They are scouring the city for you. It won’t take long for them to learn where you are. But, if you can find your way to the Lord Administrator, you will have his protection.” She pointed at the ceiling. “Only eight floors.”
Did she expect me to fight my way out floor by floor? Of course she did.
“I’ll see myself out.” Biadet walked over to the door and opened it. She exited, pulling it shut behind her.
I got up and went to the door. I tried the handle. It was locked.
“Great. That’s just great. Did you know about this?”
God shook his head. “It is not the sort of thing I like to get involved with. Messy.”
I let go of the door handle. “I have some questions I’d like to ask you.”
“Certainly,” said God. “But why don’t we go see your friends first? I’ll be happy to answer your questions, if I can, on the way.”
He sidled past his desk to the door behind it, got out his jangling bunch of keys and chose the biggest one. He put it in the keyhole. He turned it with a loud click and then spun the large wheel in the middle of the door. He slowly pulled the heavy door open.
A warm blast of air hit me in the face.
“This way, if you please.”
On the other side of the door was a bridge lit by glowing stones set in the handrail. Either side of us hung a vast darkness. From beneath us rose an unexpected noise—I concentrated, trying to identify it—like far off thunder or a distant waterfall.
“It’s the Underland Sea,” said God. “Dargot depends on it for water and a number of other conveniences.” He locked up behind us and proceeded to walk across the bridge, the other end of which was not visible.
“How did you get your ability?” I asked God as I trotted along beside him. He moved fast for a heavy man. “Is it something to do with your pendant?”
“This?” He held up the crystal around his neck and laughed. “No, no. Let me see… How to explain.” He tapped the pendant against his lips. “There were only four of us in our year. Myself, Gerard, David and Bruno. All men, which was unusual. I was by far the most useless. Sad but true.” He paused as if caught up in a memory. “Everything terrified me. Confused me. Monsters everywhere!” He shuddered. “But it was Bruno who was the problem. Monsters were drawn to him, chased him wherever we went. They always targetted him first, for what reason, I cannot say.”
“Was he a good fighter?”
“No. Very much the opposite. Small, weak, but very bright. He had so many ideas how to change this world. Gunpowder, steam engines, even electricity. He knew the basics of all sorts of scientific ideas. He just needed time to bring this world into a new era.”
“I guess he didn’t make it.”
“He did not. David and Gerard abandoned us once they realised they’d be better off without two liabilities in tow. I can’t say I blame them, but they still managed to get themselves killed within a few days. And Bruno got eaten by a rogue ogre. This is all within the first week, you understand. I refused to leave Probet after that.”
I didn’t doubt his story. Most of the people transported to this world probably ended up the same way.
“I was sixteen, scared out of my mind, and a complete coward. The soldiers who had found us took pity on me and gave me a ride to Fengarad. There I met a man who changed my life. Saved it, really. He took me to one of the spires—you’ve seen the seven spires, yes?—and it was he who gave me this ability.”
“Who was the man?”
“Everyone calls him Uncle Peter. He is a visitor, too. American.”
I thought back to Laney mentioning an uncle who resided within the spires. Could it be the same person? “And how did he give you this power.”
“I don’t know for sure. He put me into a deep sleep, and when I awoke it was inside me. He sent me here to take over from the last Truth Teller, who had just passed, and I was only too happy to take the job.”
“Don’t you get bored down here all on your own?”
“Oh no. Never. Have you seen what’s waiting up there? Thank you, but no. No, no, no.”
A humid wind swept across the bridge. Where it came from this far beneath the surface was anyone’s guess. The background roar was even louder now. I peered over the side but couldn’t see anything. The sea below sent up spray to confirm it was there. It tickled my face. Fresh water, by the taste of it.
The bridge didn’t reach the opposite side (it wasn’t even clear if there was one), it ended at an island. Or rather, a pillar of rock with a large opening in it. A shimmering wall covered the entrance with streaks of golden light racing up and down it.
“Is that some kind of force field?” I asked.
“You could call it that. I am the only one authorised to take anything out of the Treasury. If someone else tries, that appears. No one, other than me, may leave while it is there.”
“So you can’t turn it on or off?”
“Not my department. Road Planning and Maintenance. They’re also responsible for bridges.”
“Then how will we—” Before I could finish speaking, the translucent wall flickered and faded.
We passed through the archway and entered a large room full of all sorts of items. Chairs, tables, paintings, crockery—they were probably all antiques worth a lot of money, but it had the appearance of a warehouse for a bric-a-brac store. The heaps of gold coins and jewels I’d expected were notable by their absence.
Stuff was piled up with no sense of order.
“How do you keep track of what belongs to who?”
“It’s all very carefully organised,” said God. I very much doubted it.
As we made our way through the mountains of junk, er, I mean valuables, I saw a familiar group of people lounging about. From what I could see, they had dragged together various bits of furniture and made a very comfortable little nest for themselves.
Sofas, chaise lounges, a dinner table with candelabra. While I’d been running around trying to save them from being stuck in some depraved hellhole, they’d passed the time with a little interior decorating.
“Colin!” called out Maurice.
The others all jumped up excitedly, except for Jenny, who had her head in her hands, and Flossie, who I couldn’t see.
“If I’d known you were trapped in such luxurious surroundings, I wouldn’t have bothered coming.”
“Luxurious?” said Claire. “We have one bathroom between five of us. It’s barbaric.”
There was the sound of a flush and a door at the back opened. Flossie stepped out. “Ah’d give it five minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” said God. “We don’t usually have this many guests.”
A few days ago we’d been shitting in the woods; now she wanted all mod-cons. Spoiled brats, that’s what they were.
“So,” I said. “No risk plan. How’d that turn out?” You might think this wasn’t the time for an ‘I told you so’ speech. You would be wrong.
“Oh, shut up,” said Claire. “It was all going fine until a certain somebody decided to go all klepto.” It was clear from the direction of her glare who she was referring to.
“I told you,” said Jenny, “it had nothing to do with me.” She sounded very tired. It seemed they’d been having this discussion for a while. I would describe the atmosphere as slightly frosty. Like Antarctica with fewer penguins.
“The dagger was in your belt!” Claire grabbed the sides of her head like she was trying to stop it exploding.
“Somebody put it there.”
“There was no one else here!”
Maurice and Dudley looked away awkwardly as the two girls faced-off. Flossie bounced up and down like she wanted to stop them but didn’t know how.
I understood it. Claire was scared and had no idea how to lead them out of a tricky situation, so lashing out made total sense. Plus, she had gone all in to prove me wrong, and the gamble had not paid off. Anger, frustration, embarrassment—all the fun stuff we insecure people enjoy so much—had overwhelmed her common sense and rational mind.
Probably even more difficult to control herself now that Captain Smugnstuff had arrived.
What an amateur. You don’t let those emotions out to draw even more attention to yourself. You eat your feelings and bury them in the pit of your stomach. Let them stew with your shame and self-loathing for a couple of decades until they’re nice and ripe. Then you can wear it like armour.
“Well, good news,” I said breezily. “I’ve arranged for your freedom.”
This got the response I expected. Smiles of relief and a general vibe of ‘Hooray, it all turned out for the best.’ I’d soon put a stop to that.
“As long as one of you confesses to taking the dagger.”
They all looked shocked. Then they all looked at Jenny.
Jenny scrunched up her fists by her side. “But I didn’t—”
“It’s the only way. If you admit it was you, everyone else can leave. You’ll have to take your chances with the Department for Road Maintenance and Planning once they come pick you up for trial. Or you can make everyone stay here and you can all rot together.”
Jenny looked at me, pale and uncertain, then at the others. It wasn’t hard to tell what they wanted her to do.
I was, of course, lying through my teeth—the barrier was already down and they could leave anytime they wanted—but I was curious to see what she’d choose.