'CALLUM! STOP DREAMING, you layabout! Get scrubbing that step - and I want to see the elbow grease flying!' It was a bellow rather than a shout, but it had a vicious crack in it.
Callum Crofting sighed, pushing his hair back from his forehead, and bent miserably over the front step again, mechanically pushing the stiff-bristled brush back and forth across its creamy marble surface. Mistress Dorthy, the housekeeper, remained in the doorway for a moment, frowning and pursing her lips, satisfying herself that the lowliest and idlest of her staff was conscientiously carrying out his appointed task. With a last 'And no slacking!' she went back into the house, a sudden breeze catching her apron and giving her the appearance of a lugger at low water, ungainly but purposeful.
The day was bright, but the sun hadn't been up long enough to heat the air: the Pangaturese Embassy faced North, and its tall facade kept the front steps shaded until mid-morning, even in Phamenoth. The coarse soap chafed his already-chapped hands, and at that moment Callum Crofting felt more remote than anyone on the Wheel: friendless, unloved, not one minute of the day to call his own. What had marked out his Script to follow such a depressing course? From penury, to wealth, to this oppressive servitude? He sighed again, his shoulders slumping, scrubbing away at the step in a rather desultory fashion.
'Callum! Look what I've brought you!' A cheerful voice broke into his reverie. It was Stella Grundy, one of the kitchen maids, who had come round the side of the Embassy carrying two large beakers of milk. She was a tall, open-faced girl, always ready with a cheery quip or comment whenever she saw Callum's face lengthen.
'Here - get this down you! Fresh from the cow, still warm, fancy that!' She plopped down on the step beside him, thrusting one of the beakers into his hand. 'What could be better - fresh air, fresh milk, fine company!'
Callum was slightly repelled by such optimism at such an early hour. 'You say that, but you haven't just had Dorthy shouting at you to clean the step.'
'Really, Callum, it wouldn't take five minutes if you set to it properly. You make life worse for yourself by being so... reluctant about things.'
Callum said nothing, prodding listlessly at his brick of soap while sipping at the offputtingly warm milk.
'Oh, I'm sorry, dear, I didn't mean to be tactless. I always forget that your stepfather sold you into this job. I'd probably be a bit peeved too! But really, you could make things easier for yourself, you could. Dorthy only picks on you because it's easy.'
'Look - who's that?' Callum shaded his eyes. A figure was approaching the Embassy along the Cantonment road, moving slowly from tree to tree as though wary of being seen.
'Isn't it Miss Mary?' Stella was on her feet. 'Whatever can she be doing, coming back at this time of the morning?'
Callum bent industriously over his scrubbing-brush as Mary Huggett, the Ambassador's eighteen-year-old second daughter, came up the street. He sneaked a quick look under his arm: she was distinctly dishevelled-looking, her hair all over the place, and her bodice largely unlaced. He heard her footsteps slow as she noticed him and Stella on the step: he moved to one side to allow her to pass by, and she quietly said 'Thank you, Callum' as she went into the Embassy.
The moment the door had closed, Stella was nudging Callum in the ribs. 'Did you see her face! She's been crying, if I'm any judge! My, if I was the Ambassador, I'd be wanting to know what she's getting up to, out at all hours, staying out the night! Still, you know what Pang girls are like...'
Callum interrupted fiercely. 'Just shut up, Stella, it's none of your business what Miss Mary does! Anyway, she's not like that.'
Stella snorted. 'And how would you know, Master Expert?'
'I just do, all right? She's kind, and sweet, and...' He broke off, pummelling the scrubbing-brush against the step.
After a brief, awkward silence, Stella gathered up the empty beakers. 'I'll be taking these back in, then.' Her manner towards Callum seemed to have cooled slightly.
THAT AFTERNOON CALLUM was sent on an errand, to collect a parcel of clothing that had been delivered for Ambassador Huggett to the Poste Restante. Why the Ambassador had to have his clothes sent out from Pangaturan, instead of buying good Galena tailoring, was a mystery, particularly as the Pang fashion looked decidedly dowdy and dated next to the peacock finery of your typical Galenan dandy. Still, every month new clothes arrived, and after they had served their purpose for a few months, many managed to filter their way down to the higher servants, which in turn precipitated a further trickle of even older and tattier garments to such as Callum himself. The boots he was wearing had probably been worn by the Ambassador some time in the distant past: they were serviceable enough, but so battered their original design could barely be discerned.
At least the chance to get out of the Embassy was a welcome one. Coming down into Galena, mingling with the crowds of the Empire's capital, reminded Callum painfully of his days of freedom back in Salemi, before his mother's death. How much there was to see and do here, and how restricted was his own sphere of activity!
The air down by the river was foul today, after three days of hot weather, and many people were wearing cloth masks over their noses and mouths to keep out the noxious vapours. The Poste Restante was one of Galena's older buildings, its facade barely visible beneath generations of slapped-on posters, detailing special freight rates, holidays on Palawan, dangerous criminals not to be approached by the public, notices of feast-day observations, and so on: whole firms of printers were probably kept in business generating these ugly things.
The package of clothing was wrapped up into a bale with canvas and jute cord, scratchy, unpleasant stuff. Callum dutifully signed for it and, hoisting it onto his back - it was almost as big as he, though fortunately rather light - set off back across the city. One day he'd be allowed a hand-cart!
There was a noise ahead: some sort of crowd seemed to have gathered in the Foyer, the ancient arcaded courtyard that fronted Galena's Auditorium. How annoying: he would have to shoulder through the mob to reach the Cantonment and the Pangaturese Embassy. A bonfire was lit and street musicians were fiddling and squeezing away with animation. A boy with a trundle-brazier was selling roasted chestnuts, and their sweet, charred smell filled his nostrils.
The occasion for this gathering was easy to see once Callum entered the Foyer. High up on the Auditorium's great balcony was the white-clad figure of Hierarch Grazio, flanked by Medarchs resplendent in their red theatricals. Grazio had a massive eagle-headed lectern in front of him, and was clutching its sides while leaning forward, appearing to scan the eager crowd as though expecting Pangaturan's Hierarch Prime himself to be lurking amongst them. As Callum attempted to force his way around the edge of the throng, the Hierarch cleared his throat impressively. At once a profound silence fell on the Foyer, broken only by the pop of chestnuts splitting unattended on their coals.
'Faithful of Galena - citizens of the Empire!' Hierarch Grazio had a deep, resonant voice, which swirled around the Foyer's steep sides like a tolling bell. 'Here we are gathered in strength, proud in our faith. Yet I tell you that we are weak - weak! A canker eats at our limbs!'
The crowd moaned as one. Callum felt himself almost caught in the compulsion the speaker exercised, shaking his head to clear it. 'Today, we hear - yes! - that the spawn of the Critic have bubbled forth once more. Where? In Swalehaven! Far to the north, yes, but part of the Empire nonetheless. What did the Hierarch find there, do you think? What worm had eaten at the heart of the Dramatic Way in Swalehaven? What fell beast had slouched its way over the snows to devour the Roles of the faithful?'
Silence. The audience shifted uneasily from foot to foot.
'Vile heresy, spread by who?'
A voice called out 'The filthy Pangs!' It was echoed, 'The Pangs!' 'Critic curse 'em!'
Grazio clutched the lectern again and bent even further forward. 'Aye, aye, aye. The Hierarch Prime - sunk in his lair in the foul pestilence of Rangar - has sent his venomous tendrils to touch the pure faith of the North. First Rast, now Swalehaven. Four Medarchs - four! - were found to be so sunk in the ways of evil that they were encouraging their Cast to Improvise!'
Another gasp of gleeful horror from the crowd.
'Well, sisters, brothers all, you all know what must be the fate of those who seek to deny the Lines, who seek to craft their own Plot!'
'Boil 'em!' came a voice from the crowd, near Callum. It was a fat, red-faced man, grinning widely. He was well dressed, and beside him a simpering woman clutched his sleeve and looked around proudly. Although there was no physical resemblance, something about him reminded Callum inexpressibly of his stepfather Jacob Tulley.
'What does the Saint say?' The Hierarch threw the book on the lectern - it was a copy of the Lines, of course - open with a flourish. He pointed to the page but did not lower his gaze to it, instead looking hungrily out over the crowd. As his eyes swept over Callum he almost flinched, such was their intensity. 'The parable of the cornfield, friends, the parable of the cornfield. We see that in the field, as well as the good corn, "some among them were there which fruited not, and gave forth all manner of rank weeds and insects." Monksilver speaks to us! And what was their fate? "The wise farmer cast the tares unto the fire, that they might not taint the crop"! Again, in the Third Epistle to Ribero: "some shall come to you as hearth-dogs, wearing a fair hame and telling sweet words - yet they shall be wolves to your lambs! Drive them forth with sticks and flame!"'
His voice sank to a rumble. 'Tonight in Rast the flames rise high and three sinners boil their evil away - and that is right and proper. But,' swelling and rising, 'where is the father of their evil, the fountainhead of their lies?'
Callum felt suddenly sick. He hastily pushed his way onwards through the crowd, who were crying out things like 'Burn Rangar down!', 'Boil the Hierarch Prime!', and 'Set Geraint on a spit!' Hierarch Grazio was nodding, smiling, and gently clapping his hands. As he passed the brazier the chestnut-boy thrust a packet of scorched nuts into his hand. 'Compliments o'the Hierarch, matey!' Printed on the paper bag was a curious device, a stylised Wheel wreathed in blue flames.
MUCH LATER, SWEATING under the blazing sun, Callum rested again at the turn of the Cantonment Road. He had had to put the bale of clothing down for a breather rather frequently: every hundred yards or so at first, now it was more like every twenty staggering paces. He had tried dragging it, but the rough cloth snagged on unevennesses in the roadbed, and it was clear such a method would rapidly spoil the garments within. Well, this was hard enough work, but at least while he was doing it he couldn't be ordered to anything worse.
He drew a deep breath, gathering his strength, and flipped the huge bale up onto his back for one last stagger up towards the embassy. He had miscalculated, though, and it went straight over his shoulder, catching his ear painfully and pulling him down in the dust on top of it. With a muffled pop the cord gave way, and Callum found himself lying dazed in the midst of a mound of eager-to-escape garments.
A passing carter laughed unkindly at his plight, flicking out with his whip to catch Callum behind the neck, and this further indignity served to galvanise him. He angrily crammed the clothes back into their canvas cover, straining on the loose ends of the cord until there was enough to tie off into a bow. Right then! He was going to get it home if it killed him. As he tensed to pick it up again, though, he noticed a small packet lying on the ground beside it. It was a leather pouch, such as might be used to transport documents, bound up with red ribbon and sealed with oodles of wax. He picked it up, curiously. It was addressed to a Captain Will Flint, her Imperial Majesty's Guard, the Exercise Barracks, Galena, in a firm, regular hand. It must have got somehow tucked into the wrapping of the Ambassador's package.
Callum scratched his head. What to do? Probably the responsible thing would be to take the package back to the Poste Restante, or failing that to hand it over to Mistress Dorthy to organise. But the sight of the name of the Exercise Barracks, where the Imperial Guard paraded their mounts, their plumes nodding bravely and their cuirasses gleaming, curvetting in the sun. Captain Will Flint - what might he be like? A romantic hero, noble of character, upright of morals, handsome and brave? Possible, but unlikely. More probably he was the son of some noble or other, who'd bought his commission. In either case, though, he was certainly the sort of man on whom Mary Huggett would bestow a great deal more attention than she did on the humble serving-boy.
Ixion's Wheel main page | Next turn