Tam was just getting to the good part when, behind him, Kaeta said, “Don’t move.”
His eyes unfocused from the page. “What?” he said cautiously.
“You’ve got something…”
“It looks like a bee.”
Something moved on his bare shoulder. Gentle insect feet. He could feel the brush of its fur, the weightless warmth of it.
“Maybe if I…” Kaeta flapped a timid swat of air at him.
“Don’t,” he said. “Let it be. It’s not doing any harm.”
He went back to his book and the blue ocean beyond, strangely pleased about the bee. The story began to gain momentum again, and when Kaeta said, “Ah, it’s gone,” he had to resurface into the physical world to understand what she meant. He hadn’t even felt it leave.
“I wouldn’t exactly call it a plague,” said Tam as the café boy put the glasses down on the table.
“It doesn’t matter what you’d call it,” replied Banur, nodding politely at the boy even as he sized up his cool glass of cider with dark-ringed, famished eyes. “It’s officially a plague.”
“There’s hardly been–cheers–hardly a noticeable increase in-”
“We’ve only caught the very edge of it,” said Banur, who’d obviously explained this many times. “The air pressure pulled it further inland than predicted. If you want to see it in all its glory, hop on the train to Lindolm.”
“Oh?” Tam sipped at his beer and licked the foam from his lips.
“Yes,” said Banur. “I haven’t seen it–they’ve cracked down on leafleters and postcard artists this time–but by all accounts the mountains have just made the whole city into a kind of…” He yawned and gestured vaguely with his long fingers. “Sorry. A kind of bowl.”
“A bowl… filled with bees?”
“That’s what they’re saying.”
Tam raised his eyebrows. “Well, that’s an image and a half.”
“At least it’s just bees,” said Tam hopefully. “They’re meant to be good, aren’t they? Good omens.”
Banur made a noncommittal sound.
“Not good?” ventured Tam.
“It’s not the bees part, it’s the plague part.” Banur drained half his glass in one. “It could be a plague of kittens and it would still be a problem.”
“All those little badly-socialised claws,” said Tam.
“Quite.” Banur’s smile was tired. “You know this, Tam. You weren’t that bad a student. It’s not the ‘of’. The imbalance is the problem. The, whatsit, the disharmony, if you like.” An ember of wickedness lit his face. “You know, the Ministry mooted changing the name once to avoid the confusion.”
Tam leaned in. “You know I love some Ministry gossip.”
“It was all before my time, so most of it’s been buried in shame, but someone came up with ‘muchness’.”
Tam snorted into his beer. “A muchness of frogs!”
“A muchness of boils, a muchness of twee, grisly death visited on all the second children… In the end they quietly killed the idea.”
“So we’re stuck with plagues then,” said Tam.
“Oh no,” said Tam. “Banur, no. Don’t make that face. When? What will it be this time?”
“We don’t know yet,” said Banur. “And you didn’t hear it from me.”
“Please let it be a plague of rolling stock. Just this once.”
“It’s in the hands of the powers.”
They nibbled on hot spiced nuts for a while in silence, Banur yawning from time to time. They’d come a long way from the ambitious boys studying for the government exams at these tables. Their companionable silence was unbreachable too, Tam barricaded behind his stacks of scrolls and numbers, and Banur all but hidden in the shadows of his Ministry’s secrets.
“So,” said Banur at last. “Rolling stock, is it?”
“Ah,” said Tam. He cleared his throat. “Well, there have been some issues.”
He took a deep draught of beer in the hopes that it would cool the embarrassment in his cheeks. Hours of overtime and drafting statements, massaging numbers and leaking ambiguous words to pamphleteers in pubs paled and shrank from government glamour into something small and grubby.
“What kind of issues?” asked Banur, relentless.
“Well, the, um, the comet shower the other month, sort of…”
“Ah, I remember reading something. It, what was it, disrupted the supply line?”
“You could say that,” said Tam unhappily, and indeed he had written the words himself. “One of our warehouses got flattened.”
Banur made a sympathetic face. “Oof.”
“All brand new rolling stock, built to spec. We were going to send Minister Paro out to sit in one, get some commemorative postcards drawn up.”
Tam sighed into his beer. “It was meant to make people forget how horribly over-budget the project is and get them excited for the new line.”
“Tam, stop. I’ll cry.”
“Yes, yes, very funny.”
“What’s funny about it?” protested Banur.
“I know the Transport Ministry is insignificant compared to Interpreting, but-”
Banur was fully indignant now. “Who said that? I never said that!”
“Well it is-”
“People need transport, and they want Ferthian Two.”
Banur held up two fingers to the café boy: same again. He directed a meaningful look at Tam. The café boy did his best but the corner of his mouth twitched in sympathy with Banur as he went to fetch the drinks. Banur loved making him look dramatic in front of the café boys.
Tam felt himself redden further. “Just, with everything at your place…”
“Screw my place,” said Banur. “I like hearing about your work. It’s nice to hear about something normal for once.” He leaned forward. “Have you decided what colour Ferthian Two will be on the maps yet?”
“Not yet.” Tam glanced up at Banur. “Look, all this plague stuff…”
“How… how bad is it going to get?”
Banur made that noncommittal sound again. “Oh, who knows?”
“You do,” said Tam flatly.
“And I’d rather not talk about it. Ah, good, here come the drinks. Now. Tell me about the logo designs. They’d better have vetoed Minister Marruth’s execrable idea with the ducks. I know Lady Brira will have had something to say about it, and I want to hear every mordant word of it.”
What little self-importance Tam generated in his café sessions with Banur evaporated in the baking heat of the meeting hall, listening to the ministers on the Ferthian Two committee drone on while he filled scroll after scroll with the minutes, recording for posterity every inane question, every tedious snipe. Scribbling away, the inked letters taking on the subtle texture of the stone table beneath the paper, he felt even less than the assistant to Minister Paro. He was a pair of ears and hands and a framework holding them together.
“I think I could use a break now, how about the rest of you?” said Lady Brira.
“I could have used a break for the last half hour, if I’m honest,” said Minister Marruth from the head of the table, and stood.
Tam wrote, Break in proceedings, and set his pen down, stretching out his fingers. The rest of the committee got up gratefully and swept or creaked their way out. Tam stayed where he was, enjoying the quiet.
White gauzy curtains blew in through the tall windows, sighing gusts of warm air. He couldn’t hear the sea but he imagined he could, that huge breathing sound.
He imagined no trains.
No sight or sound or smell of them. No glint of new-laid train tracks. No golem-dust or shrieks of charm-bent metal, or cracks in the wave-and-gull stamped paving tiles where the government-issue golems had glitched and dropped their loads. The mayor was going to let them get away with the recent damage to the Jasmine Quarter without paying damages, as long as Lady Brira kept sweet-talking her. Tam had no idea what promises had been made behind those closed doors, and Minister Paro had told him not to ask.
At least they’d be able to keep the golems on-site until the comet damage was cleaned up without anyone asking too many questions. If everything went well they could even win back some time and give the city a pleasant surprise, or a lessened disappointment.
Echoes of good-natured talk outside signalled the resumption of the meeting. The committee filed back in and took their seats, robes swishing, chains clanking, chairs scraping the floor to let others pass. Tam waited for them to settle. They got ruffled when he looked too ready, accused him of rushing them.
“Well,” said Minister Gatia. “Back to business. Scribe, read out the last few lines, would you?”
Tam glanced at Minister Marruth’s chair at the head of the table, which remained empty. “Shouldn’t we wait…?”
“What, for him? He’s not coming back.”
“He’s off to put in his notice.”
“You’d better note that down,” said Minister Paro.
Tam did so, dazed. Minister Marruth resigned his post during the break in proceedings.
“I knew he couldn’t hack it,” said Lady Brira. “All he wanted was an easy project that would do itself while he dozed his life away. Something to look good on his title petition.”
“You’d better not note that down,” added Minister Paro.
Tam set his pen down diplomatically.
“We only have one problem before we can get started again, then,” said Minister Gatia from the opposite end of the table. “Who’s project lead now?”
Tam picked his pen back up slowly, as though it was a weapon.
But the existing project hierarchy ultimately held, and the committee members smiled and laughed through their ambitions, eyes shining through their agendas, brushing away their motives in polite hand-gestures, after you. The room echoed with scraping chairs again as everyone moved one step up the ladder, and Tam frantically scrawled down the new committee list. He was barely done when the last chair screeched into place, and only the seat next to him was empty. The scroll was spattered with ink drops.
“Right,” said Minister Paro. “Now that Minister Gatia’s problem is solved, we’re left with an incomplete committee.”
Tam counted around the table with the rest of them. Eight committee members remained, one short of the legally and prophetically required nine.
Countess Cullyan stood up. “I can’t take any more of this. Meeting adjourned.”
“Meeting not adjourned,” said Minister Gatia sharply. “I’m head of the project now. I decide when we adjourn. There must be someone.”
“Of course there is,” said Minister Paro, and Tam was horrified to note that Minister Paro was looking right at him.
“Who’s the scribe going to know?” Countess Cullyan sat down in a huff, robes and dust billowing around her.
“He’s not just a hired scribe,” said Minister Paro, “he’s my assistant. How about it, Tammalin?”
“Fancy being part of the most cursed project since Regent Levenne’s Bridge to the Sky?” added Lady Brira.
“I mean,” said Tam, “well, um, if there’s, yes, all right, delighted, thank you.”
“Welcome on board,” said Minister Paro, with a smile that wasn’t reassuring in the least.
Kaeta scrambled over the rocks, and stood with her hair and dress blowing just right in the wind, more like a painting of a woman by the sea than the real thing. She shook her hair out of the way and turned to Tam.
“Stop thinking about work and get over here!”
Tam hadn’t really been thinking about work. He’d been thinking about how he felt about work now that his position had changed so drastically and with such little fanfare. He’d been examining and curating his feelings about it, trying to reproduce in manageable miniature the changed person he was. A full committee member. He’d read all of the pamphlets reporting Minister Marruth’s resignation avidly, feeling like part of real, recorded history, though no one had mentioned him.
Tam sighed and shouldered the picnic bag, clambering over the pebbles until he reached the bigger rocks jutting out to sea with their curved faces and secret footholds, hidden pools that never emptied. “The food will wait,” he replied, pulling himself over a narrow abyss with a glint of seawater running deep between the sculpted grey cliffs.
“It’s not the-! Tam, get here!” She crouched on her haunches over something.
The thing lay wedged between rocks far below them, and it stank. The waves bloated and fell around it, carrying grey-specked foam and shreds of putrid flesh back out to sea. Tentacles and appendages moved lazily in the pull.
Whales beached themselves semi-regularly on the beaches of Ferth, but no whale had ever looked or smelt like this. Omen, thought Tam.
“What is it?” he asked in fascinated horror.
“I was hoping you’d know,” said Kaeta.
“Why would I know?”
“Didn’t you do interpreting at school?” Kaeta covered her nose but didn’t move. Tam wished she would.
“I only just managed to scrape through the exams.”
“You’re always going to dinner with your old school friend in Interpreting.”
“He doesn’t talk work,” said Tam.
“Oh, of course not. Hush-hush. Sworn to secrecy.”
“No, he really doesn’t. It stresses him out.”
Kaeta picked up a stone and dropped it on the carcass, which yielded as though it was in danger of bursting outwards and collapsing in on its own rottenness at the same time.
“Please don’t do that,” said Tam against his nausea.
“Should we report this?”
“No,” said Tam firmly. “I don’t want to be one of those awful tragic victims in the pamphlets who’s discovered a bad omen. And I don’t want you to be one either. Not now.”
“Do you think it makes a difference whether they report it or not, if we found it?”
“I don’t care, let’s just keep it quiet.”
“So what do you talk about with your Interpreting friend?” asked Kaeta.
“He likes to hear about what I’m doing,” said Tam, feeling like an idiot.
Kaeta turned to smile at him and say silently, I love you, but please.
“He likes how mundane my life is,” said Tam through his teeth.
Kaeta looked back at the omen, satisfied with the answer.
Tam tried to stamp out the sparks of irritation flaring in his chest. There was nothing wrong with his mundane life. It was still a life.
“You should ask him about this,” said Kaeta.
“He won’t talk about it,” said Tam, “but I’ll ask.”
“You aren’t worried about it, are you?” asked Tam. He held the picnic bag closed in the hopes that the stench wouldn’t get into it.
“What, worried about a year of bad omens and no sign of it letting up?” Kaeta made a face, and Tam made one back. “The only thing I’m worried about right now is where to eat that won’t make me throw up.”
“Sack the picnic and go to Anngar’s Place instead?”
“I like the way you think.” Kaeta reached up and Tam took her arm, lifting her to her feet. “Am I too heavy for you yet?”
“Of course not.”
She gave the carcass one last look before they started the climb back down to the beach. “Awful to think how many of them there must be, just swimming around out there.”
“Do you think its family misses it?”
Later, over berries and sweet cream, Tam thought about the beast again. No scavenger had touched it. Even the deflating membranes over its eyes were unbroken.
Banur was stroking the petals of the flowers on the table when Tam stumbled into the cafe, late and out of breath.
“This must be how you feel every time we meet up,” said Banur. “I like it. Feels smug.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Tam. “I told them I had to meet someone, but things just kept coming up.”
“Don’t apologise,” said Banur. “You’ve been busy.”
Tam sat down, stuck his bag under the table. “Yeah…”
“What’s the Ferthian Two committee like? Everything you dreamed it would be?”
“Not a bit,” said Tam, waving the café boy over. “I’m just there to make up the numbers. Did you hear how it happened?”
“I put it together from the pamphlets.”
“You don’t read the transport pamphlets!”
“Where do you get these ideas about what I do and don’t do?”
“One sweet lemon, please,” said Tam to the café boy. “And make it a big one. A pitcher.”
“Why do you think I’m not interested in your job?” demanded Banur.
“I like trains!”
“No one likes trains,” said Tam.
“Maybe not people who’ve had their feelings on trains ruined by a committee of idiots,” said Banur. “I don’t know why it’s so hard for you to believe I’m so interested in historical improvements to our infrastructure, but anyway. I hear you were there when the thing washed up.”
Tam coughed to hide his surprise.
“Is that why you asked to meet?” Banur asked.
Tam wished he had a drink to fidget with. He stared at the flowers on the table instead. “How did you hear about it?” He hadn’t told anyone, much less reported it officially.
Banur watched him, relaxed but with something hard behind his eyes. “’Hear’ is probably the wrong word. There were… traces.”
“What do you mean, traces?”
They hadn’t left anything behind, not so much as a footprint. Of that he was sure.
“Don’t look like a mouse at the cat’s dinner party,” said Banur in that same light voice, the same steel behind his eyes. “I’m not going to turn you in. No one else knows it was you, just that someone found the omen before we got there.”
“So it was an omen.”
“Of course it was an omen.”
“Call it a feeling, or a sort of atmospheric imprint. I only knew it was you because I know you. And a good thing. The extra details changed the whole meaning. You should know better than that, Tam. Every circumstance is part of the whole.”
“I didn’t want Kaeta to be involved. Not now.”
“The powers don’t discriminate.”
Half a minute later the café boy appeared again to set down a pitcher of lemon water and a glass.
“No beer today?” asked Banur.
Tam shook his head. “Meeting this afternoon,” he replied, a little shaken by the conversation. “Can’t afford to doze off.”
“These traces,” said Tam, once the café boy was gone. “Are we cursed now? Is it, I don’t know, linked to us?”
“No,” said Banur. “Well- no. No.”
“Really convincing,” said Tam. The lemon water was sharp on his tongue. “Thanks.”
“Don’t get in a huff,” said Banur. “You’re the only normal thing left in the world. Don’t take that away from me.”
Tam glared. “I’m a person, Banur, not a charmed mirror to make you feel better!”
“I know that,” snapped Banur. “And believe me, you’d be thanking me if you- Shit.” He reached up just a split second too late to catch the blood that dropped from his nose right into his drink. It bloomed dark in the glass, tendrils turning slowly. The cider dimmed orange, sunset in a glass.
Tam passed over his napkin but Banur pulled a rust-spotted handkerchief from his coat. “I don’t want them charging me for the laundry,” he said, voice muffled against the linen.
“Shall I order you another drink?”
Banur laughed hollowly. “I’m not that precious.” His eyes flickered up to Tam. “Oh, close your mouth. It’s just spending too much time around all the prophecies that does it. Horrible energy in those cellars.” He sipped his cider and Tam tried not to look revolted. “So what did you want to talk about?”
“Kaeta was wondering if we should be worried,” Tam mumbled. His outburst felt in particularly bad taste. Banur had a stressful job. Tam couldn’t begrudge him his escape.
“About the thing?”
“No. I can emphatically say you shouldn’t worry.”
Tam might have believed him were it not for that cut-off “Well” stuck like a bone in his throat. He didn’t say there was nothing to worry about.
But wasn’t Minister Paro always telling him not to ask questions whose answers would upset him? So he nodded and said, “Thanks,” contritely, and when Banur asked if he was looking forward to being a father, he tried to answer like a normal person.
Tam recoiled from a sudden shower of chalky dust, but nothing came tumbling down to crash on his head. The golem turned around above him, releasing more powdery stone from its joints, its carved face almost insultingly calm.
“Are we sure we should be here?” he asked Minister Paro. “It seems a bit-”
“There’s no danger,” replied the minister, brushing golem-dust from his shoulders. “It’s only the little ones that glitch.”
“It only takes one of the big ones,” said Tam, holding his case of scrolls over his head just in case.
“Well,” said Minister Paro thoughtfully, “I suppose if you want to think of it that way.”
Tam resolved not to ask questions whose answers would upset him.
“How do you think it looks?” asked the minister. “Will we be able to keep the pamphleteering wolves from the door for another month?”
“I think so,” said Tam. “They’ve cleaned it up nicely. You can hardly see any comet damage at all.”
“Comet damage,” said Tam. “From the shower.”
Minister Paro frowned.
“The shower,” said Tam more loudly. “When the comets-”
“I know what a comet shower is. What are you talking about?”
“Well, the damage it did.” Tam forged bravely ahead on this increasingly unsteady ground. “That’s why we extended the schedule. I wrote a piece about it for the pamphlets…”
Minister Paro was shaking his head. “Tammalin, Tammalin. Rule number one: never believe your own lies.”
Tam knew enough not to let his disappointment show on his face. He tried very hard not to think about which his friends would think him when the truth inevitably came out: a liar or an idiot.
“Chin up,” said Minister Paro. “You’ll get the hang of it.”
Tam’s mind drifted as the inspection continued. He nodded and looked interested as the foreman in his dragonskin gloves and battered tortoiseshell hat explained their progress, but in his mind he was off in a parallel world where the Ferthian Two project had fallen to him and he was fixing things, untangling all of the contracts and promises, ushering in an age of transparency.
Someone pushed him hard and the image shattered. He looked around, bruised and confused, for the culprit, but the world was suddenly dark and everything was moving beneath the liquid blackness of the clouds. The ground shuddered insistently, shaking Tam as if to hurry him to the conclusion: earthquake.
Something shattered. Something groaned. Something crashed and screamed and roared and Tam was running, his mind full of Kaeta. On his feet one minute and diving forward the next, hitting the ground on his side and lunging onwards again. A golem wobbled and the crate in its hands surged and retreated coyly to equilibrium. As Tam fled the construction zone the crate tipped again and delicately passed the point of no return, showering bolts like silver rain that tinkled to earth before the crunch of wood and crash of golem.
Tam burned and panted, blinking in the blotted day, furiously trying to get his bearings.
Where was Kaeta? He should love her enough to know without looking, to feel her presence the way Banur had touched the ghost of Tam on the beach where the omen had been washed up. Banur would have been able to do it, and the thought maddened him because Banur was better than him at everything.
Home. Work. Temple. He didn’t know where to go.
He ran like a half-turned werewolf, on two legs, three, four, whatever he needed to keep him going. The ground stopped shaking but Tam swiped the sweat from his eyes and blew out hot clouds of air and kept on running.
The clouds had dissipated and the sun was shining once more when he finally made it home, bent nearly double, clutching the stitch in his side. He’d sweated away most of his urgency, panted out his jealousy. Now he was just annoyed and breathless, beginning to worry about all the time that had passed since he’d fled the building site without telling Minister Paro where he was going, or checking that Minister Paro hadn’t been crushed by falling construction materials. Maybe he should go back. He could excuse himself easily with shock, throw Kaeta’s pregnancy in for good measure.
“Tam, what the hell are you doing standing in the doorway?” yelled Kaeta from the street.
“Me?” he bellowed back at her. “What are you doing not being at bloody home?”
She threw herself at him and he caught her. She sent torrents of words over his neck and into his ear, muffled against him. “You weren’t at the office! They sent me on some wild goose chase to your cursed train line and everything’s ruined, Tam, it’s all rubble, and I helped them dig through it because I thought I’d find you, until your minister popped up and told me you’d gone haring off into town!”
“At least the minister’s okay,” mumbled Tam.
“I thought you were dead!” Kaeta screamed in his face.
“I thought you were dead!” Tam roared back. “I’m glad you aren’t!”
They clung to each other in a kind of angry relief, as though the other was the only stable thing in a spinning, shaking world. Tam knew it was an illusion. If the world really started shaking, he and Kaeta would go flying along with everything else.
The damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been, at least along Ferthian Two. By all accounts some of the more central city quarters had been flattened, but once the worst of the wreckage was cleared away the new-laid railway was just a little dented.
Tam held all of this optimism in his mind as he sat by Minister Paro on the long hard bench of the People’s Palace hearing chamber, waiting to be addressed. This was one of the extra duties his position as a fully-fledged committee member had foisted on him. That and another sudden departure.
Minister Paro had assured him he wouldn’t have to speak, but Tam had been burned before.
His guts writhed absentmindedly at the thought of everything he might be called on to say. One question about budget or timescale or paying the contractors on time and he would simply melt right through the cracks in the floor tiles.
He was far from the most nervous person in the room, though. The shadows on the other side of the chamber were alive with squirming commoners, granted an audience with the mayor. As if they had anything to be nervous about.
They all stood for the mayor’s entrance, flanked by her guards and advisors. She let them stand for a while before opening the hearing.
Lots of demands for explanations and reparations after the bad omens of late came from the commoners’ benches. Tam didn’t envy the mayor having to explain over and over that she couldn’t just ask the earth not to shake, the stars to form more pleasing shapes in the sky, the two-headed calves to do the decent thing and remain unborn.
“And how about the jewel in our crown?” she said at last, in a tone that homed right in on Tam’s chest. “What news of Ferthian Two?”
He got up with Minister Paro, bowed when Minister Paro bowed, and waited for the inevitable.
“Work is progressing as planned,” said Minister Paro.
“Good. Anything else to report?”
“Damage from the earthquake was minimal, and as soon as a new golem is provided we’ll be back to work.”
The mayor nodded. “We’ll discuss the financial details later. Get an appointment from one of my aides.”
“It shall be done,” said Minister Paro, and the mayor moved on to the next petitioner. “There we go,” he said, once they were sat down again. “Painless, eh? Just as I said.”
“She didn’t ask any questions,” said Tam out of the side of his mouth, pretending on his face that this was all as he had expected.
“She wouldn’t dare, with how much we pay her.”
All those mysterious holes in the budget, thought Tam glumly.
“Really, how long have you been my assistant for?”
“Sometimes I wonder myself,” said Tam, but the minister didn’t seem to have heard.
“Well, no point hanging around here any longer. Our job here is done. Shall we celebrate our hard work in the Back Office?”
“I think I’ll stay here,” said Tam.
“Suit yourself. I’ll be in my usual room if you change your mind.”
Tam nodded vaguely and Minister Paro shuffled out. Thoughts drifted through his mind and didn’t catch. He watched people stand up and sit down, heard their words, but it all flowed right through him as though he was a ghost.
Better than being in the Back Office, the government’s little pub, which was always filled with important people whose faces he recognised from pamphlets talking about secret things. He didn’t belong, and it didn’t help that they kept giving him their drinks orders and asking him where their coats were.
“The next speaker is from the Ministry of Interpreting,” said the mayor. “Hopefully we’ll get some answers about the omen and prophecy situation.”
Banur walked through the benches in his formal, smoke-coloured robes, and Tam’s empty mind blanked hard.
Banur blinked in surprise when he caught Tam’s eye. Tam was sure he himself was gawping. He only saw the lead in Banur’s hand and the goat that the lead was attached to when he was almost at the mayor’s dais. Maybe the Back Office would be a better idea after all, but before he could get up everyone around him had crystallised into position, leaning forward in anticipation of the reading.
Tam focused his eyes on one of the wall mosaics, a portrait of a long-dead mayor with a spaniel at her feet and a couple of dead pheasants hanging over her shoulder, and didn’t watch Banur introduce himself and take out his ritual blade with long-fingered grace.
He didn’t think about all the times Banur had done this before, instead focusing on the rather lovely shading in the mosaic. He studied the shadows falling over the mayor’s robes, the quality of light captured in coloured tiles, and ignored the goat’s short scream.
There was a thump and faint clatter of hooves, and then silence. The sounds of movement were brisk, unhurried, efficient.
Tam looked down very slightly between heads and shoulders, but the worst parts were all hidden by Banur, just a glimpse of pinkish gleam under Banur’s arm.
“And?” said the mayor.
“Not good,” said Banur. “See that?”
Tam stood slowly on his tiptoes.
“It’s going to get worse. That thing on the gallbladder says a lot worse.”
“You said last month-”
“That maybe we’d get a clearer picture this month,” said Banur firmly. “And we have, unfortunately, from the point of view that we’re illuminating a little more of the way ahead of us as we go.”
The spectators drew back, and a few began to whisper among themselves. The Ministry of Interpreting had a reputation.
The mayor herself looked nervous. “I have to ask,” she said. “If I may.”
Banur, wiping the gore off his silver blade, nodded.
So different, thought Tam, from when they were chatting in the café, but still Banur. Was he well-suited to the Ministry or had the Ministry shaped him to its needs?
“Everything that’s happened so far has been a sign.”
“We don’t know,” said Banur, the words polished bright and hard from overuse. “We only know aspects of what is to come. And we do not,” he added more loudly when the mayor tried to interrupt, “think it prudent to share our full interpretations at this time.”
“What comes after?”
“Have you not-?” Banur cut himself off and sighed. He looked around warily at all of the people there, with a sad, dry quirk of a smile at Tam, and said at last, “We can’t see an after. There’s nothing. An end, a beginning, we don’t know what it means. We don’t think it would be helpful to go into the particulars when so much remains unclear.” He looked at the mayor as if to intimidate the questions out of her. “May I?” he asked, the way he asked Tam if he could finish off the bread and honey at the café.
“Of course,” said the mayor. “Please. And thank you for sharing your knowledge with us.”
Banur grunted vaguely.
An ending, thought Tam, with nothing after. There was nothing unclear about that.
A curtain should have fallen. Everything should have stopped and given them all time to wrestle with the idea. But the ritual wasn’t over yet, there was plenty to clean up and very specific ways to do it. They were a captive audience, stunned and silent as Banur finished his butchering, cut something out, ate it, unfolded a black sheet and threw it over the carcass.
It was only Banur’s continued presence, looking out from the shadows of another world, that kept them all docile. This was the fallen curtain, the merciful black hush between the two halves: time and the end of time. Tam should have been thinking of a hundred things–-Kaeta? their child?–-but all he could think was that Banur had shown him up yet again, in telling frankly such an awful truth when Minister Paro couldn’t even admit the train would be late.
Tam’s hand twitched as the meeting droned on; he didn’t need to take the minutes now that another junior ministerial assistant had been hauled up to replace Countess Cullyan, who’d run off to one of her holiday homes in the mountains. Tam wasn’t sure why they’d gone for someone so inexperienced; they’d had plenty of opportunity to find someone more impressive.
Minister Gatia, holding on with both hands to the headship of the project, said something in a nodding tone of voice and Tam nodded obediently to show he was listening.
Maybe everyone else had better things to do now that the world was ending. It explained why no one had ever told Tam off for fleeing during the earthquake–-at least he’d come back.
“Right,” said Minister Gatia. “Let’s put it to a vote.”
Tam raised his hand for either yes or no, he wasn’t sure.
At least if they were working it wouldn’t be so bad, he thought. It would be something to concentrate on.
He felt like two people, or half a person. Everything was pointless because the world was ending and everything was vitally important because the world had to be right for the birth of their child, who wasn’t going to wait. Tam knew that the two things were incompatible, but he couldn’t get them in the same place to get a good look at them.
“Any objections?” said Minister Gatia.
Tam shook his head blankly with the others.
Tam had been avoiding Banur since the reading at the People’s Palace, but only physically. He spent a lot of his time talking to an imaginary Banur, blaming him for hiding such a catastrophe, arguing, begging him for more information or to admit that they were wrong. Demanding some kind of apology, some reparations for his child. Like the commoners at the People’s Palace.
Even his imaginary Banur rolled his eyes, sighed, said, “Really, Tam,” at all of his complaints, and eventually Tam stopped bothering. What could they have done differently if the world was so determined to end?
As for whether he would dare talk to the real Banur like this, Tam absolved himself of all responsibility by promising himself that although he wouldn’t invite Banur out for their normal drinks, he’d go if Banur invited him.
He heard nothing until, on one of his days off, Kaeta came running into the room he was painting.
“Interpreting’s gone,” she said.
Tam paused with the brush still pressed against the wall, taking in her panicked eyes, her wild panting. “Gone where?” he asked stupidly.
“Burned to the ground,” said Kaeta.
Another Tam woke up. “How?” he asked.
Kaeta shook her head. “I don’t- no one really knows. They said, something like lightning? I don’t know, something hit it and then it was just gone, just fire.”
Kaeta still shook her head, eyes dry but glazed. “Everyone. They were all inside.”
Paint was dripping down the wall in fat white stripes that Tam brushed neatly flat even as the other Tam said, “I need to see it.”
Kaeta nodded and made a quick, nervous move to go.
He put the brush down with unnatural calm.
Even from outside his house Tam could see a pillar of black smoke pointing straight up in the windless, cloudless sky. He’d always been terrible at interpreting signs, but there was something unwholesome about it.
Oh, very astute, Tammalin. What next, do you think it could signify some great imminent heat?
There was no sign of lightning and none of the unhealthy quality of light that had accompanied the comet showers. That was a sign in itself, surely, and he’d have to ask–but of course he couldn’t now.
Getting to the Ministry of Interpreting was harder than running the length of the city to Kaeta after the earthquake. There wasn’t the same urgency driving him on, no primal fear at his back. The pull of morbid curiosity was lesser, and the other Tam kept whispering, ”Let’s go back, we don’t have to see.”
Too late. There it was.
The tower of Interpreting was shaped in smoke now. Tam had to push his way through onlookers to see that the destruction, clearly delineated in straight lines of soot, took in the whole of the Interpreting grounds. Not a goat pasture or sheep pen remained. Not a smithy where the ceremonial blades were forged, or a temple where they were blessed. Every paving tile bearing the violet eye of Interpreting was gone, though the paving tiles bearing the Ferthian wave and gull showed only normal wear and tear; not even stained, not even cracked.
“I’m sorry,” said Kaeta, and Tam jumped, remembering she was there. “Your friend…”
“He was there,” said Tam. Interpreting all lived onsite, worked in the convenient energies created by the Ministry’s architecture and location, lived frugally off the governmental stipend. Where else would Banur have been? Tam hadn’t invited him out.
“I’m so sorry,” said Kaeta faintly, watching the smoke rise. It was so thick that Tam couldn’t even see if the Ministry was still burning.
He’d needed Banur to tutor him right up to the bare minimum marks to pass his bare minimum classes in Interpreting. He imagined too many possibilities, linking up this and that to create a plausible narrative, and then doing the same a dozen more times.
“Lovely stories,” Banur would say, exasperated, “but which is the right one?”
He never knew.
“That’s because you don’t understand anything. You pick up these fragments and go charging off to make it mean what you think it should mean, or what you want it to mean, or you think, oh, wouldn’t it be clever if it meant this?”
Tam did do that. He’d confessed to Banur once over too much beer that he did, and he didn’t appreciate having it thrown in his face like this.
“It’s a language, Tam, like any other. You have to let it tell you what it means without railroading it.”
He knew that. He just couldn’t understand it the way he could understand a language spoken and created by flesh and blood people. There were ways of telling what people meant, but you couldn’t do that with the powers.
“Well then, practise. Look at this again. What does the colour of the liver tell you? Try to focus on it in the context of the other details.”
“How long had you known him for?” asked Kaeta, making time and space whirl around Tam again.
He lurched over the tiles, and Kaeta’s arms were quickly around him.
“I’m sorry. Let’s go home. It was a bad idea to come out here.”
“You have to understand it,” Banur had said.
Tam didn’t understand any of this. It was meaningless, no signs to be read here at all. Just ordinary bones thrown haphazardly across the floor.
Tam picked his way through frogs on his way to the market square where he was supposed to meet Kaeta. A couple hopped aimlessly out of his way and over the jagged cracks in the tiles left by the earthquake, and at least they’d stopped raining, apart from the few which dropped from the stall awnings where they’d landed.
He’d have to come up with a way to clear the tracks of rains of frogs and fish for Ferthian Two. Something on the trains themselves, perhaps, to sweep them off and out of the way? Or could they charm the wheels? And that was only the solid objects–-there had been that awful crash in Lindolm caused by blood-slick rails–-
“Tam, over here!” Kaeta waved at him from a potter’s stall, putting down a vase.
Tam homed in on her, trying to avoid the frogs, both alive and squashed by feet and wheels. He didn’t want to slip. What a terrible, ignoble end that would be.
Kaeta gave him the basket when he reached her, already heavy with vegetables. “Here, don’t make your poor pregnant wife carry heavy things. Come on, we have to get going before everyone packs up.”
“Is your carpenter here?”
“Yep, already checked. I knew you’d be late” She glanced at him, and took his arm. “And no wonder, if you came at that pace. What’s wrong?”
Tam avoided another froggy splat, disturbing the flies that had already settled in for the feast. It always seemed strange that the frogs and fish from omen rains weren’t mystical beings or illusions, but alive, and when they died they left ordinary corpses that attracted flies and needed cleaning up. “I just don’t want to slip.”
Kaeta snorted. “Who slips on frogs?”
“Minister Gatia did,” Tam blurted, without even pausing to wonder whether it would be bad luck to tell Kaeta such things.
“Freak accident, they say,” said Tam. He himself wasn’t sure there were such things as accidents anymore.
“Is she-?” Kaeta began, but then she saw Tam shaking his head, and the look on his face. “How awful.”
Tam nodded. They’d said at the meeting that it had been sudden, and she probably hadn’t even known what was happening. Didn’t that make it worse, though? he thought. Dying wouldn’t be pleasant, but he thought it would at least be better to know.
Had Banur known? Had the signs warned them?
“There he is,” said Kaeta. “Come on.”
Tam followed her, nudging frogs out of the way with his toes. He let Kaeta haggle with the carpenter for the crib, let her joke with him about Tam’s woeful woodworking skills and give him all the specifications she’d worked out in another life, with another Tam.
She nudged him. “Money?”
“We have to pay, Tam,” said Kaeta. “He’s not going to make it for us out of the goodness of his heart.”
“Okay. Right. Sorry.” He fumbled in the basket, through roots and fruits, for the purse.
Kaeta paid the deposit, charming to the last, and they turned for home. “So what happens now?” she asked. “Without Minister Gatia, who’ll take over the project?”
“Not just her. Paro’s gone too.”
“Not anymore,” said Tam dully. “He ran off and won’t be coming back. They stripped him of his title today.”
“I’d never have thought him the type.”
“Neither did anyone else.”
“He seemed so nice,” said Kaeta. “All those times he had us over for tea. He was always great fun.”
“He was very good at being great fun,” said Tam.
“Then what happens with the committee? They were already having enough trouble replacing people.”
A frog dropped into the basket and Tam almost flung it away in a panic. Kaeta yelped with shock and then laughter, steadied him, held the basket’s contents safe. She picked up the little blue-green frog and threw it lightly into the gutter like an amphibious dove.
“Tam, you have to tell me what’s wrong,” she said, the ghost of a smile still on her face. “Is it the interpretation? The one about the end of everything?”
“Why would you say that?”
“People do sometimes come to the library and ask for things, you know. Nowadays usually prophecy theory and Cogen’s doomsday writings. It’s on a lot of people’s minds.”
“I was there,” said Tam. “I had to stand and look optimistic for a Ferthian Two report, and he came in, and…”
“My old school friend. He came in and they sort of winkled it out of him. He didn’t want to talk about it. He never wanted to talk about work.”
“I didn’t know it was your friend who made the interpretation,” said Kaeta gently. She took the basket from Tam’s arm and set it on the ground. “I’m sorry.”
Tam pulled her close to him, nose in her hair. “I don’t know what to do. I feel like I should be doing something, but every day I get up and go to work and it all just keeps on going.”
“It keeps on going whether we want it to or not, believe me. I know,” said Kaeta, patting her stomach.
“Oh, hell,” he said. “I suppose you do.”
The look she gave him.
“What was the exact prophecy?” she asked, graciously putting it aside. “What were the words? No one seems to know.”
Tam shrugged. “It wasn’t a formal prediction. The mayor prodded for details. He didn’t want to give them. Maybe this, maybe that. No real information one way or the other. He didn’t speak with the voice of the powers, just gave a kind of summary. Nothing that could be recorded in good faith.”
“I wonder why. Maybe they didn’t know.”
“He said the Ministry didn’t think it prudent to share it, so they must have known something.”
“Not prudent,” mused Kaeta. She was getting into the mystery of it, chewing it over. Tam wished she wouldn’t.
“And they were right, weren’t they?” he said. “Once the interpretation got out, even as vague as that…”
“…the tower was burned? Who made that connection?”
“No one,” said Tam, frustrated. “There’s no one left to make it, is there? But you have to admit, the way it looks…”
Banur always told him to read the signs instead of coming up with his own stories, but it was too late for all that now. This was the only interpretation he could think of, however he looked at it. Interpreting wasn’t supposed to tell them, and they had–-Banur had–-and they had been punished for it.
“I’ll have a look in the library tomorrow,” said Kaeta. “See if I can dig anything up.”
“Try not to dig too deep.”
“Of course, Tam.”
He didn’t believe her, but he appreciated her pretending. He prayed for dead ends and missing sources, misshelved scrolls and incorrect references. Anything to keep her away from the murderous truth. He imagined it as a core of light, blinding white, annihilating, consuming anyone who touched it. A ferocious purity.
“Let’s get home,” said Kaeta. “Put the tea on. I’m starving.”
“What does the committee think?” asked Lady Brira, the newest committee chair. More than half of the members now had been grabbed from the archives and coffee kettles and government exam halls, all wide-eyed and bemused. Tam felt like an old hand.
“With or without?”
Not quite the kind of old hand who could get away with openly falling asleep in the meeting hall, but surely that would come soon enough.
Lady Brira held a scroll flat on the table with carved jade weights. The two versions of the prospective logo for the Ferthian Two line stared up at the ceiling. “Well?”
Tam felt like he should probably say something, being such an old hand, but he just couldn’t bring himself to care. He sat placid as the others and eventually one of the newbies spoke up.
“I, er, think that the one with the outlines looks quite, erm, bold.”
Cautious nodding followed this statement.
Lady Brira studied the two logos again. “I see what you mean,” she said. “But the one without the outlines looks more dynamic to me. It gives an impression of speed. Don’t you think?”
“Oh, yeah, it does actually. I hadn’t thought of that.”
Lady Brira looked almost disappointed at the lack of argument. “Then we agree that both have their merits, but which is better?”
“If you like the one without the outline then that’s fine with me,” said the newbie, and the others gathered behind him with meek, submissive murmurs, adopting him as their leader.
Lady Brira looked ready to chew the table to splinters. “Yes, but what do you think?”
“I think they both have merits,” said the newbie.
Lady Brira took a deep breath, then rapped out, “Tammalin, you’re uncharacteristically quiet. What’s your opinion?”
Blinking away his shock, Tam glanced at the logos. They were both very nicely drawn. “I think it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I think we have more important things to be getting on with.”
“Of course we have more important things to do,” snapped Lady Brira. “But it has to be done, and the artist paid, so we will do it.”
She was right, and at least she sounded as resentful as he felt, so he said, “Without, then. It looks modern and dynamic, as you said, and uses less ink.”
“Objections?” Lady Brira asked the rest of the committee. No one spoke up, though the newbie looked disappointed to have chosen the wrong answer. “Good.” She slapped the tabletop. “Next is the station names.”
Tam closed his eyes. Most of the stations were little more than posts with hand-painted signs proclaiming the imminent arrival of a new train station. The paint was sun-faded and peeling, graffiti scrawled in the blank spaces, and even that overlaid with palimpsests of tags on tags. Naming these useless disconnected structures was a bigger waste of time than choosing the logo, and Banur wouldn’t even be at the café to tell all about it.
He would have enjoyed hearing about all this. A certain baron was offering money to the cause on the condition that he get a station named after him. The question was finding a station to bear his unpopular name where the locals wouldn’t revolt when they heard the news.
“Have we considered begging someone more popular for money instead?” asked Tam. “The Leviathan of Harske, perhaps?”
“That might be quite fun, actually,” said a junior assistant. “Naming a station after the Leviathan.”
“Well, I’m glad we’re all having fun,” said Lady Brira icily. “But if we could address the issue at hand before chasing squirrels then I’d be most grateful.”
“No one will be happy with a Baron Roulevant train station near them,” said Tam.
“I’m not asking anyone to be happy with it,” said Lady Brira. “I’m asking for us to please just choose one to bear the dubious honour so we can get on with what’s important.”
“Then it doesn’t make a difference,” said Tam. “We may as well roll the bones and ask them.”
“I’d be most obliged if you could fetch us a set, then,” said Lady Brira.
Gone too far, Tam, he thought, and sat speechless until it was clear she really meant him to leave. “Of course,” he said, the words sticking. Embarrassment coated him like needles. Every move he made was too loud and the new committee members all watched him open-mouthed. He pretended he was Banur and didn’t care.
Even the warm corridor felt refreshing after the meeting hall. Tam paused at one of the tall windows overlooking the city and gave himself a moment to look out over the sea. Did she really mean for him to get a set of bones? Or was she telling him to leave the meeting in disgrace?
It wasn’t that he didn’t like Lady Brira-–he thought she was doing grudgingly well with the mess she’d inherited, and really they were on the same side. But what a waste of time and effort, when they could be sorting out the disastrous failures to pay the steelworkers for the rails that had been damaged in the earthquake and which needed replacing. They’d have to halt the whole project and get the workers paid, he thought, and the longer they went without doing it, the more inevitable it became that they’d have to.
Think, then, he told himself. Where would be good to put the baron’s name?
When he went back into the meeting hall, calmer and ready to face the rest of the banalities they had to wade through before the real work began, he had a set of workable propositions.
Lady Brira glared at him when he entered.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I have some ideas about the station names, if it would be helpful.”
She let him squirm for a bit, but Tam didn’t squirm.
I came back¸he thought. Of all of them, I’m the only one who came back, and you know it.
“Sit,” said Lady Brira. “These ideas of yours had better be good.”
The higher above the city Tam got, the more he thought of Kaeta making her rounds in the great underground library complex, in the old fortress defences filled with slowly decaying scrolls and maps. Even the taller towers and spires rose from windblown craggy plains from up here, the rest of the city hidden completely, but she was there, tunnelling somewhere through the hills.
The sea looked blue as glass. Strange to see it from so far away, no waves visible or audible, like a flat, dead thing. He wanted to tell someone how strange it was, make them understand the difference between the sea from Ferth and the sea from everywhere else, how it still contained all of that movement and multitudes, filth and beauty, horror and mystery. He didn’t know what exactly he wanted to say, something about how perception didn’t affect reality, but not quite. It kept slipping away from him.
“What are we even supposed to be looking for?” asked Jensa, the head surveyor.
“We’re surveying for a line extension,” said Tam.
“I know that,” said Jensa, “but why?”
“Because Lady Brira wants me to stay away from her meetings for a while,” said Tam.
He was leaving most of the actual surveying to the experts. He was just there to give it a little governmental presence, and was determined to enjoy the experience. There was plenty to enjoy. The ache in his legs, the breezes scented with the summer flowers and sea. The view was good. He was left with his thoughts.
Grasshoppers creaked and shrilled from the grass and bushes. Butterflies shivered and blew away from his footsteps. He turned and looked at the foothills spread out below him, Ferth clinging to the cliff above the sea. All of the boats were so far away that they looked frozen in place. Frozen in time perhaps, and wasn’t that a nice thought?
A slim white split opened in the sea.
“Look at that,” he said.
A couple of the surveyors looked up from their conversation over the maps, and then went back to it.
The white line grew wider and longer, the sea before it almost taking on new hues, darkness and depth, as though that white foam gave it more texture. Even as he watched it grew, extending past a boat, which rose visibly and fell again.
“It’s moving,” he said in wonder.
“Minister, please,” said one of the surveyors, polite but exasperated, and Tam said, “I’m not a minister, actually,” and Jensa said, “Holy fucking hell, powers have mercy on us all.”
It took Tam a moment to process what had been said, and another to work out what he was looking at. The wave came closer, grew wider, like teeth bared. “What do we do?” he asked, and no one answered.
It took forever to approach, and the surveying team stopped being a surveying team and waited on the hill to see what they would become. No one spoke. They’d know by now, thought Tam. They’d be able to see it coming, the way Minister Gatia hadn’t. Was this really better?
He could see it gaining height now.
He hoped the ancient city defences would hold against the sea, the oldest of Ferth’s invaders. Stay put, Kaeta, he thought.
The wave moved smoothly, slowly, unstoppably. A shadow had begun to darken the lower buildings of Ferth.
Maybe this was it.
He didn’t know where the thought came from, but it took root. Maybe this was it. An ending, Banur had said. A beginning. Just outlast this and you’ll be free to begin again.
The towers dipped silently below the crest of the ground, offering no resistance to the wave.
It took days for the water to fully recede from the remains of Ferth. The old maps, all destroyed now anyway, were useless. There were no more streets, only the trails and tracks Tam himself had worn through building foundation and broken walls, where he’d managed to heave aside splinters of logs and pillars and chunks of marble with the mosaic still attached.
Tam went to work.
The towers and People’s Palace were gone, scoured from the face of the city, but he’d found a corner that was intact enough, salt-crusted and with all of the broken furniture pushed to the walls except for the parts he needed to prop up the table top. His work so far was still there, spread out on the gritty wood, and he shooed swallows off the windowsill and away from the stitched-together fragments of scavenged scrolls. Pens hadn’t been hard to find, but the ink had taken a huge search. It was precious. He had to be careful how he used it, and hadn’t even begun to think about how he’d replace it.
The scroll, held flat by shards of stone and mirror, showed sketches of train carriages and engines, and a map of the city not as it had been, but as it could be, with the Ferthian Two line mapped through it, elegant and efficient. The rebuilding would begin now. The ending. The beginning.
Somewhere they were digging through to the library archives in the hopes that the great gates had been shut in time. They might find Kaeta and the librarians there, living ancient underground lives while they awaited rescue.
The stars burned above him where the roof should have been. Tam watched them, filled his eyes with points of light while he stretched his cramped hands. It had been a long time since his scribing days, and he’d lost his stamina.
One star burned brighter than the others and began to drift. It moved slowly at first and then faster, leaving a fiery streak behind it. By the time it burned out, other stars were already growing and reddening in their turn, swelling like fiery berries.
Tam bent back to his paper and added another train station, the perfect distance from where his house would be when Ferth was rebuilt. When there were no more stars, he lit a lamp.
Danielle Jorgenson-Murray is a videogame translator from the North East of England, currently living in Frankfurt, Germany. Her short fiction can be found in the Cabinet of Heed and Dear Damsels, and she can usually be found wandering in urban wildernesses.