The moat was never-ending. Fifty stadia turned out to be a lot further than Sammy had imagined. She was about to go inside and climb under the bedcovers when a horizontal line of pale yellow lights appeared high in the fog, like a row of windows on the side of a passenger plane.
“Look!” She pointed them out to Mehrak. “Up there.”
“Muniment Rock,” Mehrak said. “And Honton Keep at the top.”
“What is a keep, anyway?”
“A stronghold. Or prison. This keep was a prison.”
“We’re going to a prison?”
“Former prison. The last hundred years or so, it’s been a city.” Mehrak’s eyes sparkled and a smile twitched on his lips. “You know, the Marzban have been around longer than the city. They were here when it was a maximum-security prison used to house the most evil and sadistic creatures ever to wander Perseopia. It’s funny” – Mehrak smiled wistfully – “at first the Marzban were here to keep anyone from escaping, and now their job is to stop anyone getting in.”
“Yeah, funny,” Sammy said. They were being led to a prison in the heart of a giant, rhino-patrolled wasteland? Nice.
“Where does everyone live if it used to be a prison? Don’t tell me we’re going to stay in a cell?” Liam, one of her dad’s football mates, had spent the night in a cell after assaulting a police officer. Her dad told her he’d been forced to go to the toilet in a bucket.
“Will I have to poo in a bucket?” she asked.
“Don’t be silly. Honton Keep is a massive city now. The people of Aratta needed somewhere safe to live when the skies clouded over, so they carved out the whole top layer of Muniment Rock. There are houses, streets, suburbs, even a palace up there.”
“Does that make Honton Keep the capital?”
“Well, no. New Ecbatana became capital. It’s much bigger and safer – kind of. Not that Honton Keep isn’t safe. It’s completely safe.”
“What about the crabman we just passed?”
“The karkadann probably dragged it into the Moat. It couldn’t have got that far in by itself. And we passed it ages ago. It was still a long way from reaching the Keep.”
A Marzban on his karkadann loomed out of the mist, travelling in the opposite direction. He saluted Narok but didn’t stop, and carried on past.
As they went on, other riders came and went, each one dipping their head or saluting Narok before dissolving back into the fog in their wake.
After a time, Hami returned to the balcony and took up a position at the railing. “We’re almost there,” he said. “You’ll be safe now.” He smiled at Sammy, but the gesture lacked honesty and it came across more like a constipated grimace. Who was he trying to convince with that? Now she found herself more worried than if he’d done and said nothing. Hami himself showed no relief that they were almost at the Keep. Which meant he either didn’t need the luxury of being safe, or that there were worse things to worry about.
Soon a network of campfires appeared ahead in the fog. A campsite of twenty to thirty animal-skin tents sat in between those fires, and behind the campsite loomed a wall of rock. A sheer cliff face stretching as far as the eye could see; left, right and straight up. At the base were three steel platforms connected to thick cables, which ran vertically up into the fog.
The entire area bustled with Marzban. It was the most people Sammy had seen since she’d arrived in Perseopia and she found it strangely stressful being thrown into such a busy environment after the quiet of the forest and Moat. She wasn’t sure why it affected her so. School was chaotic enough and she had gotten used to that, but there, no one ever paid attention to her. High up on the balcony, she was exposed, and she was drawing attention.
A unit of female Marzban eyed her as they jogged past and a separate group of men that had been circuit training stopped to watch. Even the guards cupping mugs by the fireside fell silent as the golden caravan pulled up and stopped.
Sammy shrank behind Mehrak. The Marzban were all looking at her. She was conspicuous, on display. Not how she imagined being a rock star on stage would be. Maybe it was something you got used to. She should start small, get a few people to notice her before expanding to crowds.
“Time to go,” Hami said. “Grab your things.”
“I don’t have any,” Sammy said as Hami disappeared into the tower.
Mehrak bent over the railing and pulled up the fog-lights. “I’ll pack you some stuff,” he said as he extinguished the lights and the balcony went black.
The camp was a dark place. The Marzban, no longer interested in Sammy, continued with their duties, carrying lanterns to cast out the dark, forcing shadows to slink away and pool around rocks and tents.
Sammy went after Hami. If she was going out into the giant rhino-infested fog, she wanted to be in the company of a badass celebrity warrior.
Narok was at the backdoor hatch to help Sammy down when she got there. His large karkadann wasn’t present, probably one of a group loitering outside camp, now barely more than silhouettes. Sammy glanced warily in their direction.
Hami stood a little way off, his back to them as he stared out into the fog. Narok cleared his throat tentatively. “Principal Hootan,” he said. “It’s truly an honour …”
Hami held up his hand to silence Narok as he coughed a thick, phlegmy cough. He cleared his throat, hacking up a lump of black sputum that he spat onto the ground. Then he turned to face the man.
Narok’s eyes widened as he stared at the phlegm. He gulped. “We don’t often get magi at the Keep,” he said. “At least, not many with your reputation.”
“I’m sure,” Hami said, wiping his mouth on his cuff.
Narok gestured for two other Marzban to come forward. Sammy hadn’t noticed them until then, but they’d clearly been waiting to be called over. The first of them was big – American wrestler big, with a puffed-up chest and cleft chin. He had arms like The Rock’s and a broad chest. “Leiss Rustam,” Narok said. “One of our finest fighters and the strongest man in the guard.”
Leiss bowed. “An honour,” he said. It came out as a nasally grunt, almost a single word, Anonor.
“And Borzin Vorna.” Narok gestured to the other man, a young, fresh-faced lad who was probably the same age as Hami, but seemed younger. He was shorter than Leiss, but still tall and athletically built. “Borzin is one of our new recruits, but a master swordsman and a natural with the karkadann.”
“Pleased to, er …” Borzin gulped. He kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “A real honour …” He reminded Sammy of an excited puppy. She reckoned if she threw a tennis ball over his head, he’d go running after it and return with it in his mouth.
Hami acknowledged the two men with a disinterested nod.
“I believe you know our First Chief General,” Narok said, leading Hami into the campsite.
Borzin and Leiss watched him go. “I can’t believe we just met Principal Hootan,” Borzin said, grabbing Leiss’s arm.
Leiss shook him off, but smiled. “Calm down, will you?”
Marzban were pointing and whispering as Hami moved further into the campsite. They fixed their belts, tightened their turbans and brushed themselves down. No one was interested in Sammy now, which was a relief but, simultaneously, a disappointment. She was from the frickin’ Mother World, baby! But then, they probably didn’t know that and maybe that was for the best.
An overweight Marzban officer covered in so much bling it would’ve made Mr T self-conscious came out of one of the tents to meet Hami. Sammy figured he must be the First Chief General. He put his arm around Hami’s shoulder and they began to talk.
As Sammy watched, two karkadann appeared behind her, and she jumped. The animals carried on past, led by a young guard.
Thankfully, no one had seen her tough girl façade slip. Her reputation was intact. She didn’t like the fog, though. And she hated the way massive rhinos could suddenly appear right behind you. But more than that, she hated the way everything in Perseopia scared her. She couldn’t go five minutes without something freaking her out. She tried to put it out of her mind. She wasn’t the sort of person that was easily spooked, but perhaps she had life too easy back in the Mother World. She shuffled closer to Louis.
Eggie’s back door crashed open and she jumped again.
Mehrak fell out of the backdoor hatch, followed by two leather cases, which landed on top of him. Sammy pinched her lips together, stifling the scream that threatened to escape. She wanted to be angry that his moment of clumsiness had rattled her, but she also didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. She took a deep breath and tried to remain calm.
“You just stand there and watch me struggle,” Mehrak said when he saw her.
“Okay,” Sammy replied.
Borzin and Leiss came to the rescue. They introduced themselves to Mehrak, collected the luggage and led him and Sammy into camp.
Louis bounded after them.
“Whoa!” Leiss shouted. He dropped the bags and raised his arms to halt the enthusiastic gastrosaur. “Stay! Stay boy!”
Borzin joined Leiss in trying to block Louis’s way.
“What’s going on?” Mehrak asked. “What are you doing?”
“He’s trying to follow us.”
“And? He wants to come too.”
“He can’t. He’ll crush the tents.”
Louis signed something to Mehrak.
“He’s scared,” Mehrak said. “He doesn’t want to be left alone.”
“I’m afraid he doesn’t have a choice. He won’t fit in the lift.”
“He’ll be fine here,” Hami said, striding over to meet them. “He’ll be well looked after.”
Louis bent his head down and Mehrak smoothed the scales on his cheek. Sammy felt she should probably stroke or pat him too, but wasn’t sure if she knew him well enough yet. And then the moment had gone, because Hami put his hand on her back and gave her a gentle shove towards the lifts.
“I’ll come back down to camp later,” Mehrak called back to Louis as he shuffled after Hami. “To check on you.” He smiled at Sammy but his eyes were sad and he kept turning back to look at Louis.
Louis lowered himself to the ground and his ears drooped. Golden Egg Cottage creaked in its harness as he hit the floor and came to rest listing to one side.
“I suppose we’ll need to find somewhere to stay,” Mehrak said with a sigh. Sammy couldn’t understand why he was so upset about leaving Louis. He never acted like Louis was his best mate or anything.
“You don’t need to,” Hami said. “You’re going to stay with me at the palace.”
“The Regent’s palace?” Mehrak said. “Says who?”
“You might want to square that with the Regent first.”
“He’ll agree with whatever I ask him.”
Mehrak raised his eyebrows at Sammy and whispered, “And if that doesn’t work out, that friend of mine should be able to put us up for a couple of nights.”
Narok jogged over. “Your visit hasn’t been made public at city level,” he said as he caught up. “So you shouldn’t get bothered.” He glanced casually at Sammy. “Sammy’s hair is like your boy’s,” he said to Borzin.
“I know,” Borzin said. “What are the chances?”
The lifts were rectangular, wire mesh platforms with waist-high railings, the corners of which were hooked to steel chains that ran up into the fog.
The gate creaked as Narok opened it and led everyone on.
“Hold on tight,” he said, slamming the gate after them and loudly clanging the hilt of his sword on the railing five times.
The platform wobbled off the ground, groaned and pulled away from the campsite.
Louis followed them with his ears as they accelerated up the cliff face. Moments later, he’d gone. The campfire lights remained longer, then, like Louis, disappeared too.
It was an odd sensation flying up through the fog, watching the cliff face dropping away alongside. Narok and the Marzban stared out into the fog, clearly having made the journey many times before. Mehrak was slumped over the railing, staring at the spot where Louis had disappeared. Hami was clutching the handrail with one hand and pinching the top of his nose with the other. His eyes were closed and his chest pumped as he controlled his breathing. He looked dreadful and heaved like he was trying not to be sick. Sammy wondered if she should say something to one of the others.
Hami turned in her direction then, his eyes staring past her, unfocused. Sweat pouring from his forehead. He came out of the trance and noticed Sammy watching him. He grimaced and there was black tar in his mouth.
Sammy broke his stare and looked down. She could feel his eyes on her, daring her to look up, but she didn’t. She couldn’t. Something was wrong with him, something that scared her.
She continued to watch the fog drop away through the mesh at her feet, until murmuring voices drifted down from above. They got louder as the lift went higher, then separated into individuals, talking, calling, laughing.
The platform emerged from the fog, pulling free from the grasping tendrils of vapour, which unfurled and drifted back into the abyss below.
They came to rest by a square opening about the diameter of a train tunnel. Identical openings on either side curved away around the rock face in both directions. The platform dangled above the fog, suspended by two steel arms drilled into the rock above. To Sammy, it gave the appearance of being in a lifeboat hanging off the side of an ocean liner while the sea-like fog lapped against the rock face below.
Through the window, a vast cavity had been excavated out of the mountain. It was crammed with crooked, grey, stone-block buildings, and oil-burning streetlights lined the smooth, carved streets.
Thick columns supported the roof above, and huddled between them were houses built from stone blocks. Other houses were carved into the columns themselves, with doorways at the bases and small windows at various levels all the way to the ceiling. Sammy counted five storeys from the base to the top.
Narok guided her off the platform and onto the window ledge. Stairs led down inside to the cave floor where men and women weaved in and out of each other, dressed in all the colours of jelly beans in a jelly bean jar. Women were dressed in long pleated skirts, cloaks, wraps and headscarves. The men, who were no less colourful, dressed in trousers with droplet-shaped legs, silk shirts, fitted waistcoats and headgear ranging from neat turbans to tall, pointed hats.
It was warm above the fog, similar in temperature to that of the Fungi Forest. Sammy was about to shed her fur coat when Hami took hold of her shoulder and clenched it. Not hurting, but tight enough that she could feel tension in his arm.
Mehrak remained on the platform, gazing down into the fog, and not paying attention to what Hami was doing. Louis could look after himself; Sammy … could do with some assistance.
“Hurry up, Mehrak,” Hami said. “You can check on him later.”
Mehrak dragged himself away from the railing. He hopped off the platform and scuffed his heels down the stairs.
A few of the Honton Keep residents watched them as they descended to street level, with most of them interested in Sammy. And then she realised; there were no other blondes. Everyone in the Keep had either deep brown or black hair. Narok had said something about hair colour. Mehrak too, when they’d first met. Perhaps fair hair was uncommon in Perseopia.
“The people just want to see what you look like,” Narok said as he led the group along the street. “We haven’t had many travellers since the increase in crabmen. Don’t worry. They won’t bother you.”
A group of kids giggled and pointed at Sammy as they walked, and some followed her a little way, but by the time they’d reached the end of the street, the kids had gone. Hami relaxed as they followed Narok further into the Keep and Sammy used the opportunity to slip out of his grip. She joined Mehrak at the back of the group. Hami’s eyes followed her, but she ignored him and smiled at Mehrak.
“I’ll go down to the camp with you later,” she said. “To see Louis.”
Mehrak smiled back, but his eyes remained sad.
Narok guided them through the meandering streets of the Keep, the houses slouching by the side of the road, crooked and slumped, the walkways lined with oil-burning lamp posts.
Further in, they entered a market square. It was packed with stalls selling an assortment of groceries and bright clothing, and the place heaved with activity.
The market seemed strangely familiar to Sammy, and it left her with a niggling sense of déjà vu.
Then a young turbaned boy barged past, almost knocking her flying, and the action brought her thoughts into focus. The arrangement of stalls here was similar to that of the Sheffield market.
Sammy stopped. Not just similar. The layout was exactly the same. She took a deep breath.
The area to her left would be the bottom of the market, so that meant – she turned to her right – beyond the closely packed stalls, in the direction she now faced, would be where Esther’s stall should be.
Neither Mehrak nor Hami had noticed her fall by the wayside. She’d lost the group, but that no longer mattered. She shouldered her way through the crowds towards the dark corner, her heart beatboxing in her chest. She had no idea what she’d find, but there was no question that she had to keep going.
She stumbled through a pair of hanging carpets. And stopped.
There stood the knick-knack stall, and behind it, Esther. Sammy stood, dumbstruck, as if her brain had rebooted to protect itself from crashing. She didn’t react, because the view before her made no sense.
Esther glanced up, but then carried on counting loose change.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
Sammy said nothing.
Esther repeated the question.
“What are you doing here?” Sammy asked.
“I work here.”
“How did you get here?” Sammy’s brain was catching up, big mental Tetris blocks falling into place. “What have you done to me?”
“I wasn’t aware I’d done anything.”
“You gave me that bracelet that made me come here.”
Esther frowned. “I don’t sell bracelets.”
“You’re lying! You gave me that bracelet. You were in Sheffield. Your name’s Esther …” Sammy stopped.
The name hit the old woman like a shotgun blast. She dropped the coins she was holding and wavered on the spot. For a moment she looked like she was about to faint, but she snapped out of it fast.
“How do you know that name? Who are you?” She lunged across the table and grabbed Sammy by the collar. “Tell me what you know!”
Sammy clutched the woman’s hand and tried to loosen the grip, but it was too tight.
“Get off me!” she shouted. “Let go!”
The old woman let go and Sammy fell to the floor.
Hami was there, and he had the woman by the throat. He calmly lifted her from the floor one-handed. In his other hand, the orb of his staff flickered.
The woman’s face was becoming red and a strained gargling bubbled up out of her throat. She grabbed at his wrist, but his grip held firm.
“What were you talking to this girl about?” he asked, his voice even and calm.
“N … noth …” She lashed out, kicking Hami in the leg, but he didn’t react.
“Nothing? Are you sure?” His face was passive, but his eyes were electric.
“P … please …” Esther’s eyes were wide, tears rolled down her cheeks.
“This young girl happens to be a friend of mine,” Hami said, through gritted teeth. “You should not be bothering her.”
Narok charged in through the carpets. “What’s going on?”
Mehrak was close behind. He came to a halt as he took in the scene playing out before him.
Hami dropped the woman. She landed hard, gasping for breath, and began to cry.
Everyone stared at the woman, then at Hami.
“Just a misunderstanding,” Hami said. He smiled, or as close to a smile as he could manage. “No big deal.”
Hami placed a hand on Sammy’s back and gave her a gentle nudge away from the stall.
Sammy checked back over her shoulder. Esther was still on the floor, weeping, as the red-purple beginnings of a bruise blossomed at her throat.