0: Premonitions

In the centre of the vast stage, in an ornate mother-of-pearl tub bobbing with pink and blue flower petals, Verdigris Dionysian was taking a bath. Gazing out across the empty auditorium, he could almost hear the crowd's rapturous applause as the greatest playwright in history soaped his armpits.

His reverie was interrupted by a polite cough and he turned to see his leading man, the infinitely versatile Lautrec, standing at his shoulder. Behind him, a pair of stage-hands supported an unconscious man, his blond head slumped forward onto his fine silk shirt.

"We can't seem to bring this one round by the usual methods, sir. I was wondering if we might avail ourselves of the restorative properties of your bathwater."

Verdigris' eyes twinkled. "My beautiful boy, you know I can refuse you nothing. Towel!"

Once the master of Dionysian's enormous bulk was being enfolded in perfumed fleeces by two appreciative young actresses, Lautrec gestured to the stage-hands, who hauled their burden to the tub and tipped him unceremoniously over the side.

Twenty seconds or so later a head exploded from the pungent water, gasping for air, wet hair clinging to delicately pointed ears.

"Hello there," intoned Verdigris. "I am the most talented person you will ever meet, and you can now say without fear of legal repercussion that you have shared a bath with me. A rare honour."

"Where am I?" spluttered the man, whose name was Meymian, in a distinctive lilting accent.

"You gatecrashed my party yesterday evening. It wasn't one of my better parties, it must be said – it was more or less dead by 11 a.m. – but you proved one of the livelier entertainments of the night. I hope you realise that the engagement between the Margrave of Sanserif and the Lady Sebastiane is off thanks to you?"

Meymian's brow furrowed. He remembered copious quantities of alcohol and waving his sword in the air and shouting something incredibly witty. "Er… is it now? I know I'm sometimes a little forward with the ladies…"

"A little forward? With the ladies? There's no need to hide your light under a bushel with me, you delightful man. You had your wicked way with the pair of them in the Imperial Box, in full view of everybody. I understand the Margrave is quite smitten. It was magisterial!"

Meymian blushed. A pale blue petal slid from the top of his head onto his shoulder.

"You're new to this city, aren't you?" continued Verdigris. "Wet behind the ears, one might almost say! And here am I accosting you dressed only in a towel. No wonder you're confused, when such an experience is normally reserved for hardened socialites. Still, I sense in you a kindred spirit, my lad. I'll go throw on a few old rags, you dry yourself off, and then I'll take you on a grand tour of Zehazel, tell you about everybody who's anybody at the moment. Won't that be fun?"

Verdigris had reappeared several hours later, in the broadest-brimmed hat Meymian had ever seen, a cloth-of-gold opera cape and a stole apparently made of an entire leopard. Now the pair stood in the shadow of the Imperial Palace, facing in the direction of Arbiter and the gleaming marble of the law-courts.

"The law is an ass, Meymian, and these are the people who talk out of it. If you don't want to go to jail, don't upset the Arbiters. Particularly not their top dog, Joseph Rawley. His wife was murdered, and the chief suspect was acquitted for lack of evidence, so as you can imagine he threw himself into his work with a vengeance after that. Not a man disposed towards mercy, I can tell you.

"Now, you see yonder edifice, the one they call the Old Spire? That has another name - the Witch's Tower, and not without reason. That's where Salomolas has her lair. If you see her you'll know it's her at once – she's got jet black skin, and hair that brings snakes to mind. Nice body, actually, but I get the impression that it's out of bounds. She's an accomplished sorceress, scrying magic and the like which comes in handy at court cases, but they say that's only the tip of the iceberg. Rumour has it that she experiments, on people, so whatever you do don't get yourself sentenced to death in this city. There are worse fates than the noose."

Verdigris shivered. "Just standing here makes me feel illicit. Let us proceed."

"Ah! The home of our glorious leader, the man who made having a lie-in respectable practice." Verdigris brandished his emerald-topped walking cane in the direction of the palace gates, where construction work appeared to be under way. "The people who maintain the palace are called the Gatekeeper, and their head is a venerable old blue-blooded lady called Krychael Aeraphis. Nothing too terrifying to look at, but don't let that deceive you, she's another one you don't want to get on the wrong side of. There was a big furore about forty years ago. Apparently the Lascari had managed to get one of their men inside the palace as an apprentice or somesuch. The last report the poor chap ever managed to send out said that he'd found a set of painted miniatures amongst Krychael's possessions, one of which bore a distinct resemblance to a Vervain noblewoman who'd disappeared some weeks earlier. The next time anyone saw the fellow, he was a statue adorning the fountain in the palace grounds. The Lascari kicked up a stink about it, but it would appear that tampering with the workings of the Imperial Palace means forfeiting your soul.

"So, look but don't touch is the order of the day. There's plenty to feast your eyes on. See the building work they're doing on the gate? Krychael commissioned that to allow the lesser members of her allegiance to show their skills. When it's finished the gates will grow gold, gems and silver within themselves and open at the touch of anyone deemed welcome by the Emperor. I assume that welcome won't extend to people with hammers and chisels.

"Krychael's been on an interior decorating kick for quite a while, actually. Early this year she had a pool built, containing twenty coloured liquids intermingling, but never dissolving in each other, over a complex structure of buildings and roads. It's engraved "To All Who Wish To Truly See Elsewhere". There was some dispute about whether it represents civic unity or inevitable separatism, since no-one could get Krychael to give a straight answer about what she meant by it. I just like it because it's great to watch after taking certain herbal medicines I know of. Come on."

After a short stroll, Verdigris stopped and pointed at a creeper-hung balcony spangled with bright tropical blooms high above. "That's part of the Emperor's throne room. It's a jungle inside there, if you stray from the path you practically have to hack your way back with a machete. Guarded by an interesting character, actually, who goes by the name of Seneschal. Looks like a perfectly normal attractive young redhead until you see her eyes. If you ever meet her you'll see what I mean. Anyway, given that she seems to have sole responsibility for protecting the Imperial personage I suspect she's not someone to tangle with either. The other person who spends a lot of time with the Emperor is Sophia, head of the Gethsemane allegiance, who's responsible for tending His Majesty's garden. But I'll tell you more about her when we get to the olive groves themselves."

Verdigris' course was now leading Meymian away from the Palace, through the domain of Bartholomew towards that of Sardanapalus. "Bartholomew. Dreadfully stuffy place for the most part, full of pallid swots who think you can learn the important things in life from books. As if! About the most exciting thing I can remember happening round here is the time the Stochasts and the Solipsists had a rumble, and even then the Solipsists refused to admit that it had happened! Oh, that house over there belongs to someone quite interesting – Phineas Epel, the scholar. He has an ongoing project to catalogue stories from other cultures that drift through Zehazel harbour, quite a mine of information if you like that sort of thing. He's often to be found at the Port of Call, a lovely public house which we must visit before the day is out. Ah, this way to Sardanapalus Market…"

The playwright seemed to become more animated as the austere facades of Bartholomew gave way to the pomp and splendour of Sardanapalus. "Over there lie the estates of Goldman, the prospector and explorer. Made a fortune from amethysts a while back, and got put in charge of the Merchant Adventurers' Guild. He's always on the lookout for opportunities to trade with other wheres. And this homestead belongs to Marco Quedici, though he never was quite the same after he came back from his adventures with the crew of the ship Skyurmolarnir. Those huge domes? Ah yes, they're the property of Frode Wellmeant, said to be the richest man in Zehazel – he's the political representative of the allegiance. We'll be passing Wellmeant's Emporium in the Market Square, you can have a look inside if you want, though the most interesting merchandise isn't on general display. You get a lot of mages calling by Wellmeant's, if you catch my drift. Actually, mentioning Wellmeant puts me in mind of a story I once heard which is too good not to repeat to you.

"On the other side of Sardanapalus from the Wellmeant estates are those of the Furiosi – you can just see some of their chateau's steeples, if you look. The Furiosi deal in military requisites and the like, do a lot of trade with Antioch and such. Anyway the two houses are longtime rivals, from an incident generations ago when the Furiosi paid for a consignment of valuable enchanted battle standards with a palliass of shoddy englamoured armour, which fell apart on close examination. Or at least that's how the Wellmeants tell the story, the Furiosi have the direction of the crookedness the other way around. Whatever the truth of it, the result is that whenever Wellmeant and Furioso meet much glaring, bickering and blustering occurs, and occasionally young bloods of the two families rough each other up if the opportunity presents itself in the dark streets of the city.

"Every other generation or so the inevitable happens, and young persons of the two great rival houses find themselves smitten with love for one another. Such a fate befell Frode when he was a mere lad, as he fell for the beautiful Orlandina of House Furioso. The only thing that unites the two houses is their abhorrence of any proposed match between their scions, and Orlandina was prudently walled up in a small tower on the corner of the house, with naught but a small hatch, through which food could be pushed in one direction, and a brimming chamberpot in the other. Frode's father meanwhile had sought the remedy of having a friendly mage, a regular customer, place a suitable enchantment on his son, such that he could only ever love a woman whose mother was the sun, whose father the moon; who had no head or arms; and brayed like an ass. Quite a curse, eh? I'm not sure what became of poor Orlandina, but presuming that Frode is still bound by the curse's terms I suspect not even wealth beyond the dreams of avarice can make up for… what am I talking about? Of course it can! I don't know what came over me."

By now they had reached Sardanapalus Market, and the din of money exchanging hands for every conceivable sort of merchandise threatened to drown out even Verdigris' sonorous tones. A Vermiform guard eyed the pair suspiciously as nearby a ragged hermit croakily proclaimed the virtues of his wares. "Alchemical balms, only tuppence a jar! You, madam, perhaps you are in need of this miraculous preparation to salve the pains of age and smooth out wrinkles. I myself would lie long dead in my grave if it had not been for its regular application. No sir, don't touch that – it is only for the use of a maiden young and fair, and I fear you would be most distressed by its effects upon your most private measurements…"

Impressed by the old charlatan's patter, Verdigris traded his loose change for a couple of jars. Meanwhile, Meymian's attention had been distracted by a scuffle which had broken out at a nearby antiques stall. Two Vermiform were administering a beating to a wild-eyed Tatterdemalion.

"Bastards! I was just admiring it! You'll be sorry when Midnight comes for you! Ow!"

"Midnight? That raving psychopath?" (fist to the cheekbone) "You'll be lucky. We're the only law there is around here and you" (knee in the stomach) "better not forget it…"

Verdigris rejoined his companion with a sigh. "I suspect we should make haste. These little confrontations sometimes spark off larger riots, and one's apparel is apt to be damaged. This way, I think."

Mordecai and Palatine were dismissed with a vague gesture in the north-westerly direction. "Nothing for you or me thataway, dear boy. Stray into the clutches of any of those maniacs and you will find yourself subjected to improving discipline, regular prayer and early morning wake-up calls until you die of misery. It wouldn't be so bad if they just kept themselves to themselves but those numbskull knights are always causing trouble. Their leader is Sir Guillome and I think I need only say that he and I have never seen eye to eye. No, in general the northern sectors of the city are to be avoided by those of sanity and taste.

"Though I do have quite a soft spot for one or two of the Caliban, come to think of it. Most of them are unbearable bores, even if they do know how to make an entrance. Fellow by the name of Li Tsao Tse Tung, for instance, had a conversation with him once. I tried to enumerate for him all the things I'd rather see naked than ambition, but I don't think he took it to heart…"

(In Caliban, Li Tsao entered the room by its only door. He was dressed in a cloak of dark red and black loosely-fitting trousers, his chest bare. The room was dark and completely unadorned, no windows, no lamp brackets, nothing, exactly as he had ordered his servants to prepare it. He motioned with his left hand and two of them hurried in – they knew that this was somehow important to their master and did not wish to anger him and face punishment. They placed the items next to the door and stood waiting for further instructions. Li Tsao waved them away and locked the door behind them. The feeling of anticipation had reached fever pitch and he could savour it no longer. He took off his cloak, folded it neatly and placed it on the floor next to the other items, which he now scanned to see if there was anything the servants had not brought. If they had left anything behind they would suffer for their carelessness – but he suppressed his rising anger and calmed himself as he saw that they had forgotten nothing.

Li Tsao picked up the first item, an earthenware jar that contained a paste deep red in colour, of a consistency similar to thick paint, or thin treacle. He opened the medium-sized oak box and took out a notebook and a brush. Opening the book he dipped the brush into the red mixture, and began to paint swirls and symbols across his chest and arms. These would keep his body and soul safe if anything went wrong during the ritual. He was certain he could control it, of course, but only a fool failed to take precautions. He spent the next hour attuning his mind and body to the symbols on his skin, then sat rocking and chanting quietly until the symbols glowed blue. He grunted, ignoring the pain as the symbols burnt his skin. Pain was good, pain meant you were still alive. He then took another pot out of the box and opened it: a white mixture of the same consistency as the first. Producing another brush and dipping it into the pot, Li Tsao began to draw symbols of weeping curves on the floor of the room while chanting to himself to keep his concentration. He had memorised the patterns that would aid him in focusing the power required but he had his notebook just in case. He moved carefully to avoid smudging the lines he had already drawn, then took the red and began to paint with that. The lines were sharper, more angular, violent even. He continued the pattern, then repeated it on the ceiling. In the centre there was a circle with a triangle drawn through it, the crucial feature, the conjunction of the concepts represented by the white and the red.

He moved to the next items: several candles which he placed at the intersections between the colours before lighting. He also lit some incense so the air became heavy with scent: not actually part of the ritual but it pleased him and helped him relax. Finally he was ready. He checked that the lines were not smudged or incorrectly drawn. Li Tsao composed himself and then began to chant, growing louder as he began to spin and dance building up his physical and mental momentum. he was not sure how much effort was required to make the spell work, but this would help him. He could have done this without the focussing of the chant or the dance but that would have made it so much harder, and in private there was nothing he had to prove.

After a while the a silent wind roared around the chamber. Li Tsao could feel it buffeting him although the candles still burnt true without even a flicker. The room was filled with a deep red glow as from the embers of a dying fire, which cast eerie shadows across the walls as he danced. Then there was a blast of white light and in the middle of the room something appeared in a sparkling blue and white light.

Li Tsao smiled. Showing teeth.)

"But yes, some of them are rather good company. Kali. Gorgeous creature, and she certainly knows how to dress. Very religious woman too, but not in any dreary evangelical way. And it doesn't distract from her being up for a good party, which is what matters as far as I'm concerned."

They had reached the outskirts of Gethsemane. "This is where I come when all those tiresome duties and responsibilities I have as head of an allegiance start piling up. I suppose this is where everyone comes. The olive trees, the sacred flame. And the healers of course. They've been headed by the same woman for the past 150 years, the ageless Sophia. A wonderful lady, the most soothing presence imaginable, the only person I've ever met who could calm me from the frenzies occasionally incumbent on my genius. It's a very sad thing, though – she left Zehazel for a decade or so once, to travel the mists. When she came back her body was broken and useless so that she could barely crawl, and the combined arts of all the Gethsemane could do nothing for her of all people. Anyway, she's the one who comes to tend the Emperor's flowers, as I was telling you.

"Another person you might want to look up if you're in the area is Val Tannen, the nicest chap you could possibly hope to come across. Tends a garden near the east wall, with pride of place given to his Crystal Beech tree. He brought a cutting with him from his old home as a memento. Not a very happy time for him – apparently his mentor went heal-crazy and started a plague which wiped out most of the people in his village. The stress of having to be nice to people all the time. I don't think I could handle it myself…

"There's usually a few Jugurtha barbarians somewhere around here at any given time, too – they have a very good relationship with the Gethsemane, exchange furs and gems for knowledge about how to tie their shoelaces or something. Can't think of any particularly notable names offhand – oh, maybe Hendrik. Your standard barbarian hero type, all brawny thews and flaring nostrils. He's gotten a bit of a reputation for himself. But enough of them, what men like ourselves need to sustain our parasitic existences are people of character and breeding. Onwards to Vervain!"

Strolling along the leafy avenues of the noble quarter, the occasional carriage rattling past, Verdigris was happily demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of the oldest bloodlines of Zehazel. "That mansion belongs to the Hathavines, who are related by blood to the Gatekeeper. And there reside the DuQuensays. Those buildings are the Chateaux Noire, home obviously to the de Chateaux Noire family, and on the other side of the lake all that greenery belongs to the de la Quintesses. The old man is a little over-fond of laudanum, but his son's a good sort, and you probably met him at my party in fact. As for the daughter, I weep for the cruelty of it. As a connoisseur of the feminine form I can assure you that she is a goddess in human guise, as an amateur theologian I would deduce that said divinity is the goddess of Crashing Boredom. Ah well."

(Half way through his fourth visit to the de la Quintesse household, Clarence de Chateaux Noire realised that it would be his last. Despite all his best efforts, he knew suddenly that his best efforts to fall in love with this famed beauty had been utterly futile.

The portraits brought it home to him. Around the walls of the great, ancient reception room Therese's ancestors smiled on him with her perfect face. The men's smiles were pale but complacent. The women's smiles were merely pale and receptive, as if they were waiting for the men to speak.

After placing the teapot back on its silver tray, Therese had settled back into her chair, one hand folded over the other, unknowingly aping the exact posture and expression of one of the dead beauties on the wall behind her. Clarence suddenly felt that he had been trading meaningless pleasantries with a thing of paint, an empty shell of enamel.

Perhaps, long since, the massive halls of the family estate, with their burden of two centuries' dust, debt and delusion, had crushed the life out of this young woman, leaving her lovely, lifeless and flat, like a pressed flower...

In her company, Clarence felt dejected, uncomfortable, and… well… bored.)

"But speaking of angels in human form, observe these ten-foot walls which we presently circumambulate. Beyond them is Castellarc House, the primary residence of Angello Castellan, head of the Vervain, and reputedly the most beautiful man alive." Verdigris stopped before Castellarc's lofty gate, on either side of which a winged humanoid figure stood, poised for flight. The one on the left held a sword aloft, but the other was manacled and bore a crown on thorns. "Power and responsibility, allegedly, though more likely vanity in my opinion, since the statues used to be griffons before "the Angel" decided they needed replacing." Verdigris seized hold of the great black-and-gold knocker and rapped three times.

"They do say that Angel is a man of vices, although it's never been proved, and many put it down to gossip and envy. He has been accused of satanism, paedophilia, vampirism, necrophilia and paranoid psychosis, so as you can imagine I have every admiration for him. Never trust the beautiful, my boy, the beautiful are capable of anything. Hmph. It would appear that Angel is not in, or else his capable butler Meschaur would have had that answered by now. Or perhaps he doesn't want to be disturbed. Let's move on."

Verdigris preferred not to linger in Melmoth, dismissing their kind in short order as "a bunch of arrivistes with smiles like crowbars", and muttering darkly about one Roscoe Davenport, who clearly epitomised the qualities of the allegiance as far as he was concerned. He perked up a little more once the neighbourhoods around him started to become seedier and more run-down, and informed Meymian that this was now the patch controlled by the organisation known as the Lascari.

A confident-looking man swaggered past on the other side of the road, smoking a cigarette, and Verdigris nudged Meymian. "That's Obel Kastan, works for the Lorenzi, who are currently the ascendant family in Lascari. No-one dares to cross Father Pactus Lorenzo, and with good reason, but the real rising stars of the underworld are his sons. The eldest is Nanik, who stands to inherit the family business, and he's very efficient I suppose; the third son is called Deinos and is a bit quiet and creepy, but that's probably from having grown up in the shadow of Pactus' second son Barlius. Now it's not often that I'm in any way extravagant or effusive, as I'm sure you've guessed, but Barlius Lorenzo is practically my favourite person in Zehazel. A genuinely, genuinely sweet man with a real sense of fun – his parties are second only to mine in the city, and I rejoiced when I heard he was going to be throwing another one soon. If I get the chance I'll have to introduce the pair of you, I'm sure you'd get along notoriously.

"Now over in that direction, yes, where you can see the cranes and windmills and… and… whatever that structure is, that little corner of the city is where the Daedalus congregate. Lovely little fellows, always building things and then building them again after the first ones explode. If you ever need any alchemical services, you could do worse than hunt down Samedi Trismegistus, who studied under the famed Metacelsus. I've been badgering him for some love-potions but he's always so infernally wrapped up in his work, it's like getting blood from a stone. He was quite the adventurer in his youth, too, when he and the Bartholomew astronomer Azimuth Mannich sailed on the Skyurmolarnir under Captain Leifsson, and later terrorising the Empire D'Orleande on the Man O' War Symbole Jaune.

"Then there's Suguwara Yumemitsu, but if you can't be bothered, he likes just being called Yume. Lives on the edge of Daedalus, near Melmoth and my own turf. He makes toys for children, and provides therapy for grown-ups who don't have time for toys any more. What you might call a good sort."

(At Jeremy Waspis' sixth birthday party, the bulky young man with soft dark eyes, delicate square glasses and braided hair unveils the entertainment he has been commissioned to provide. A glass bowl of water some six feet across has been installed in the room, and into this Yume lightly places a fist-sized ball of paper. The ball unfurls in a spiral pattern and out jumps a paper frog, landing in the water and kicking regularly away. Another follows, then another, all spreading out and filling the bowl. The central ball is now a lotus and lily pads are splitting off from it until they too are spread throughout the bowl. Then Yume leans forward with a taper, which lights the centre lotus with a bright red flame. At this, the frogs swim towards the lily pads and each finds one onto which it links. The lotus, with a pop, goes out, curls up tight and sinks. As it does so, the lily pads curl up, securing the frogs within, and also sink. There is much applause as the entertainment ends, and he smiles and gestures towards the bowl which magically is now completely empty.

A little later he has a chance to talk to Margaret Waspis, Jeremy's mother about bringing up her boy in this environment she considers so stifling; and suggests several ways she might find escape back to the days of her youth when she was free and not chained to an arranged society marriage to a dull merchant. Ten days later she will receive a package containing a small telescope which she uses to look at the hills she once knew and review the world from her tiny window.)

"Well, we've had quite an outing, haven't we?" enthused Verdigris as he came to a halt before the familiar fa´┐Żade of Theatre Dionysian. "I did promise you that I would take you to the Port of Call, and a Dionysian always makes good on his promises, but I suppose I should tell you a little about some of the areas you really want to avoid first.

"To the north of here, beyond Vermiform, and in the shadow of the Witch's Tower itself, is the great cemetery on the border between Antioch and Revenant. The joke runs that Antioch fills it up from one end and Revenant empties it on the other. I'm not so sure there isn't a grain of truth in that.

"The head of Antioch is Lord Albrecht Fleischer. He sleeps in his armour and bathes infrequently. The nicest thing I can think of to say about him is that he has a good relationship with his axe, Reeva – indeed, talks to it much as a jester talks to his stick-puppet – and a man who loves his axe can't be all bad, can he? I understand that he's pushing for legal reforms in Zehazel, since apparently he doesn't hold with new-fangled notions such as "due process", "innocent till proven guilty" and "trials". His men are just as bad – you should see how morose they are when there's no blood for them to spill, and how quickly they cheer up when they get a contract from the city to quell some barbarians or malcontents. I have to say they almost scare me, with those priests of the old war god Mhiriz always hanging around and whispering in their ears. They take the least opportunity to overstep the mark and drench the place in gore, but who'd dare to box their ears for it?

"As for the necromancers of Revenant, I don't inquire too closely about what they're up to in their dark little niches. What's for sure is that for the past five decades Master Kalgravex has held sway over them, and he's a man who could kill a party, even maybe one of my parties, just by coming within ten paces of it. I'm not sure whether I'm talking metaphorically or not there. Suffice to say that most people leave Revenant alone, and hope that for the most part Revenant leaves them alone. Still, at least they have a nice line in capes there.

"I haven't really told you much about Vermiform, have I, lad? I'm sure you can understand that I consider myself more on the side of disorder than of law, but nevertheless. The allegiance was formed some time back as an Arbiter-Vervain joint project, to crack down on people objecting to the status quo I'd imagine, and was much hated by the people until a Captain called Vermid was appointed. He was one of those incomprehensible idealists you sometimes get, and worked night and day to transform the watch into something designed to protect the interests of everybody, not just the rich. But then he died, and natural human behaviour reasserted itself. The current Captain is called Titus Ruen and he's stayed at the top for fifteen years now, which is no mean feat. A reasonable fellow, a bit of a politician but he's always been good to me. He has two deputies, his "Watch Leaders", the first of whom is in charge of the prisons, Sarcade Ferris, a seething hotbed of ambition if ever I saw one. Certain to be the next Captain, if you ask me. The other Watch Leader, Dominic Ellathal, runs the workhouses, and is a bit of a golden boy – took down a Sardanapalese conspiracy, led by one Swim Badbroth, to bribe and corrupt members of House Arbiter. It would seem that Ruen appointed him at least partly to slow Ferris down, though – those two are chalk and cheese.

"But enough of these people duller than ourselves. Next stop the Port of Call, where we will imbibe more alcohol than our livers can possibly expect, courtesy of the splendid Denning…"

Meymian remembered the harbour district well. As the first taste of Zehazel for travellers arriving Elsewhere, it never failed to leave an impression.

"Now," said Verdigris, "that distinguished-looking building there is where the Harbourmaster, Jeremiah Hansen resides. Very refined gentleman, one of the old school. Retired from captaincy after taking a nasty magical chest wound in some fight he refuses ever to talk about. If you ever get invited up to his quarters for a tot of rum or whatever, it's worth accepting – he has them styled after the captain's suite of a galleon, and they're absolutely littered with games of every imaginable sort. Chess boards, puzzle boxes, those little paper constructions you get your fingers trapped in, you name it. And I get the impression they're just some of the things he plays with."

At this point the pair were accosted by a man who might have been considered to present an odd appearance, in comparison to anyone but Verdigris. His dark, rough skin was offset by the copious flowing silks he wore, and he bore a jewel-encrusted sword which further added to the impression of a man of wealth. He spoke confidently, belying the slight look of puzzlement on his face.

"You sir, I don't know who you are, or quite what has happened here today, but perhaps you can help me. I am Kavan Hypher, Emissary to the Prince of the Sands. But it appears there are now certain impediments to the fulfilling of my duties."

"Fresh off a Gulliver boat and clueless as an honest Vermiform, you can spot them a mile off," commented Verdigris to Meymian quite loudly. "May I recommend that you accompany us to the Port of Call, my swarthy friend. Excess of drink is a great equaliser of wise men and fools."

Hypher was clearly unimpressed by this and gripped Verdigris firmly by the arm. "I must make my report to the Emperor. Something passing strange has occurred."

Verdigris shook himself angrily free of the hold. "Get away from me, molecule! If you wanted to be laughed out of the throne room you're three hundred years too late. Bah!"

The playwright strode on with Meymian in tow, leaving Hypher none the wiser behind them. Fortunately, the fabric of his sleeve was not visibly damaged, so his spirits were soon restored.

"There, up ahead, the sign. Do you recognise it?"

"Well… yes!" said Meymian, delighted. "It's that of the Cat and the Fiddle, my very own local drinking-house."

"As you get closer," Verdigris informed him, "you will see that you were mistaken, and that it does in fact belong to the Port of Call. But don't rush out to Daedalus to buy spectacles just yet. It happens to the best of us: I myself always see it as the largest tavern in the first City I lived in." His eyes misted over. "Ah, those days! I had to flee for my life, you know, put one too many noses out of joint. If you ever meet anyone who claims to be a follower of the abstract principle of Darkness, don't tell him where I live. Shall we enter?"

The inn was packed as ever. At one table, the recent immigrant Arech Malifex picked at a plate of food, his bright eyes taking in everything that went on around him. In the corner, a ruggedly handsome (if very damp) man in strange dark-lensed glasses and a floppy hat seemed more preoccupied with removing seaweed from the recesses of his heavy coat than drinking from the tankard before him.

At the bar, the imperturbable Denning was speaking to a broad-shouldered man in a leather jacket whose scarred olive-black face was framed with dreadlocked hair which hung to his waist. The man, whose name was Garath Chant, appeared to have got the information he needed, and moved to the corner where his wet drinking companion, William, was sitting.

"It appears from the barkeep's information that my immediate destination is the domain called Melmoth. Perhaps you would care to accompany me into the city as a fellow stranger in these parts."

"Oh yes, very much so," said William, taking up his umbrella and shaking it free of a tenacious crustacean. "Before it gets much darker. Though I probably won't accompany you all the way…"

"My usual cocktail, Denning," said Verdigris imperiously at the bar, "and get this young gentleman whatever he's having."

At another nearby table, two Gullivers were trading tales of their exploits. Colm O'Brien, captain of the Losing Streak, seeming to be gaining the upper hand in the wild exaggeration stakes, but Jack Meridew, well-known sea-faring doctor, was certainly holding his own despite his calmer demeanour.

"In that case, just take a look at this," exclaimed O'Brien, bringing a bundle out of his bag and unwrapping it to reveal an object resembling a cube with a corner missing. By twisting and turning parts of it in his hands, he created a cube with a completely different flaw, this time a conical indentation in the centre of one of its faces. "Have you ever seen anything which so fairly screamed powerful magical artefact? Once I've actually made it do something they'll be queueing up to buy it from me. And let me tell you about the army of eldritch things I had to carve my way through to get my hands on it, hundreds of them there were…"

"So," said Verdigris to Meymian at the bar, as Denning skilfully manipulated the cocktail shaker, "will you be staying in Elsewhere? We could do with a good man like you in Dionysian. With cheekbones like that you were made for the stage."

"Well…" Meymian pondered. "I don't know for sure. You know how it is, obligations back home and all of that. But you've been very hospitable indeed." He brightened. "Sometimes, I don't know quite how or why it happens, I get little glimpses of the future, they've never let me down so far. So the next time one of them comes to me, I'll be able to answer you for sure, won't I?"

"You do that," beamed Verdigris. "There's a place for you here. There's a place for everyone here, that's why I love it so much." He gripped the tumbler which contained his lethal looking cocktail. "A toast! Elsewhere!"

(That night, past midnight:

The Barabban ran along the rooftops, his cat's feet making no sound and his sleek feline form unnoticed by revellers in the streets below. He had first smelled his target three weeks ago, and he knew that tonight's mission was important. Indeed he needing little reminding, he could see from here all the reason he ever needed to pursue his night's work.

Tonight's mark was Hannis Sax, a merchant of some repute. His townhouse was well guarded and surrounded by a high wall, but it made little difference. With a few jumps the little car made its way from a tree to the wall to the ground and from there to the servants' entrance. Once inside the Barabban shook his fur off and stood in the familiar black garb of his kind. Quietly he lit a candle, its pungent aroma drifting through the house. In the hallway a maid caught a glimpse of him then fell faint as the smell of the candle reached her. The target was asleep on the second floor; there was no lock. Not that it mattered much.

Quietly and efficiently the Barabban closed the windows and placed a seal on the door: the wax smouldered slightly as it touched the intricately carved rosewood. From the bed he could make out a faint glowing light – he was only just in time. Calmly the assassin drew his sword and placed it over the man's stomach, then with a sharp motion drove it in. The man jerked upright, screaming in agony, but nobody heard him. The light around his head glowed brightly and the Barabban placed a crystal on the man's forehead. Slowly the light faded and the man fell silent, blood drenching the sheets. There was a quiet hissing sound as the seal on the door dissolved and then a quiet popping sound as air rushed to fill a previously occupied space where the assassin had recently stood.)

(Deep within the Imperial Palace, a junior member of the Gatekeeper fumbled with the key to the door to the room that contained Oracle. The moans from within were becoming louder, and it was with some relief that he finally caused the tumblers to click inside the rusty lock.

The succubus lay chained to the bed for her own protection – she could become violent in the throes of a vision. Blood dripped down her cheeks from the corners of her eyes. Staring through the Gatekeeper, she mouthed sibilant words: "Something has been borne into the city, a thing of great magical power, a key to unlocking the secrets of the mists. Some wish to destroy it, some wish to control it, some will learn of it and come seeking it. It contains the future, this I see and for this I weep."

Her head rolled backwards on her shoulders and eyelids closed in troubled sleep.)

A few hours before dawn found Verdigris hammering on the firmly bolted door of the Port of Call. "Jusht one more toasht… you can't… begrudge me jusht one more…" He staggered and clutched at the head of Meymian, sitting dazedly against the wall, for support.

Suddenly a third man dashed into view, his face white as a sheet. Seeing Verdigris, he rushed over. "Thank heavens! I thought… I thought I was alone at this hour. Out there, beyond the edge of the docks – I saw something moving, not a man, but a fearsome misshapen monster! I ran for my life! But now you're here" he glanced fearfully over his shoulder, "I mean, safety in numbers and everything."

Verdigris mustered as much gravity as possible in the circumstances. "You," he pronounced, repeatedly poking the man in the chest with one finger, "you are very, very drunk. I bid – I say I bid – you goodnight. Come, Meymian."

And with a groan and the occasional hiccup the two men staggered their way into Zehazel's new day.