Despite his crazed flight from sheriff’s custody, it became clear to Thijis relatively quickly that Helg had trouble walking. He shuffled and crept and loped like some kind of man-animal, a sullen wax puppet played out on tangled strings. The run through Kammerend to the basement where Thijis had found him must have nearly killed him. But then, another thing that was becoming increasingly clear about Keynish Helg was that he considered himself a man already dead.
Thijis guided him, supporting him with relative ease under one jaundiced arm, while Helg did the same in his own, halting way, pointing a crooked finger weakly whenever they came to a junction in the tunnels. The tunnels were pleasantly cool after the already oppressive heat and humidity of the late summer morning, which was making it substantially easier to ignore the growing confidence that he was making things much worse for himself.
He’d lowered the pistol quickly, reholstering it once he realized just how unnecessary it was. Helg had been beyond distraught and beyond functional communication, let alone violence. One good luck at his gummy eyes, the stale sweat leaving tracks through the weeks’ worth of grime on his sunken chest, the stringy silver hair framing his gaunt face, and Thijis had known this was a man on the edge of reason. A hairier edge even than that of the sauma addicts to which he and Krizner both had so often compared the doktor to, now that he saw him awake.
Helg was mumbling, his voice reedy but still confident in the way of University academics, an ongoing patter of sound that grew difficult to hear when he tucked his chin into his chest and sobbed. But Thijis made out “gone” and “close” and “Seffa”—there was that name again.
In hearing it something clicked and fell into place, two gears engaging each other for the first time in the overworked machine that was his mind, and suddenly the fog of mystery that had hung over this case began to clear for the first time. There was still much he did not know—most, if he was honest—but for the first time since walking into Helg’s lab he could see a way to approach the problem. Inroads burned through the fog of confusion, leading into dark tunnels of possibility.
He had to shake the man to get him to focus, to even fully realize he was there. Touch seemed to center him, bring him out of whatever depths he’d been lurking in, so Thijis kept a hand on one of his thin shoulders and sat down across from him, folding his legs so they could look each other in the eye.
“We don’t have much time,” he’d said. “I need you to talk to me now, tell me why you’re here. Here, in this basement. Where were you going?” He had a hunch, but only Helg could tell him whether he was on the right track. He didn’t have time for anything else. Krizner’s men would be here any minute—even they couldn’t fail to follow a trail of bloody footprints successfully—and when they arrived things would get a lot more complicated.
“Here,” Helg had said, rubbing his fingers together compulsively. “Here.”
“Yes, here, doktor,” said Thijis. “Where is here?”
“She isn’t,” he’d said. “Here is where she isn’t.”
Goddamn you, man. “Who?” asked Thijis, trying a different tack. “Seffa?”
Helg’s eyes flashed up to his, their gaze strong and blue despite their dry, bloody halo. “Seffa,” the old man repeated.
“Is she here?” asked Thijis. “Is that why you came here?”
“Not here,” murmured Helg, looking back down at his hands. “She’s gone.”
“Keynish,” Thijis said. “I can help you. I can help you find Seffa. But I need your help right now. Did you come to this cellar for a reason? Is there a way out?”
“A way out,” repeated Helg, and, after a moment, “yes. A way out.”
“Show me,” said Thijis. He’d hoped that had been what this was all about. The Undercity ran beneath all of Oridos, a seemingly endless labyrinth of subterranean tunnels and chambers constructed both intentionally and unintentionally through thousands of years of near-continuous occupation of the holy city. There were buildings all over the place that had bolt holes leading into it.
He was able to roust Helg from his despair long enough to lead him around the cellar in an awkward sort of tour. When they reached a narrow stone wall that looked older than the others Helg stopped suddenly and pointed. Thijis led him closer to it, and the doktor pawed at its surface, running his fingers along its edge until something clicked. Thijis couldn’t make out precisely what he’d tripped, but a hidden mechanism started grinding at a low register behind the wall, and a few long, anxious moments later, a section of the wall split with a crack and ground outwards a few inches.
Thijis hesitated a second, but the good doktor appeared to have come to the end of his immediate usefulness. Wrapping his fingers around the thick edge of the hidden door, he pulled until it budged far enough that he could put his full weight behind it. The mechanism didn’t appear to have stalled or broken, apparently having served its purpose by popping the door out of the wall. Behind the thick stone was an unwelcoming blackness.
Luckily, the basement was well provisioned. He managed to find an old lantern, its oil reservoir half full. Lighting it and holding it out into the dark opening, he could see what appeared to be a few steps leading down into a low tunnel. He nudged Helg ahead of him, hoping the old man didn’t kill himself but doubting he had the strength to close the door on his own. Scuffing at the floor before the doorway with his boot to get rid of any noticeable marks, he eased himself over the threshold, took hold of the large iron ring bolted to the back the section of wall, and pulled it shut. It clicked and ground into place with an air of finality. Thijis swallowed, hoping dearly that he hadn’t just done something incredibly stupid.
That had been over an hour ago. Thijis still wasn’t precisely sure what combination of factors had tipped his mind into the decision to flee with the doktor from Krizner’s—and, by extension, Tolvaj and Orban’s—men, but he’d made his play. Perhaps it was simple fear of leaving his fate in Krizner’s hands, or the knowledge that securing Helg brought him one step closer to solving Mother’s problem for her and thereby introducing himself to some much needed financial and physical protection. Perhaps it was just curiosity. Which makes you the cat, doesn’t it?
Helg seemed to be becoming more lucid the farther they went, but he still seemed on the verge of death.
“We need to get you somewhere safe,” Thijis explained, probably uselessly, to his new companion. “Somewhere you can lie low for a while.” Helg only mumbled something. Perhaps the biggest risk he was taking, at the moment, was letting this decrepit creature do the navigating.
The Undercity was vast, and dangerous, both for its sometimes rotten, often perilous infrastructure and the human contingent—if you could call them that—that spent the majority of their lives down here. Thijis’ experience with it was greater than most, but not in this part of the city, and not in any great detail. The layer cake of underground hiding holes that made it up was a warren for untouchables best contained, not pursued. When criminals fled into its depths, the standard procedure was to wait them out, and toast their demise if they didn’t come back.
They had spent most of their time since leaving the cellar descending, but at some point they started climbing again, reaching a juncture between their tunnel and whatever lay beyond it. The joining was barred with an ancient iron grate, locked only by an accumulation of rust around the hinges. Thijis managed it with some difficulty, twisting his back painfully in the process. They stepped out and found themselves in a small culvert that drained from a larger tunnel above. The smell alone told him where they were.
“The sewers,” Thijis said. “You’ve brought us to the bloody sewers.” He shouldn’t have been surprised—the sewer system made up a large part of the Undercity—but he’d be lying if he said that he had any desire to go traipsing around in shit. It felt like too much of the same. Helg said nothing in reply.
He pushed the doktor over the grimy lip at one end of the culvert, and a moment later they both emerged in a broad, bricked sewer line, a river of waste running sluggishly between two narrow brick walkways. The smell was appalling, a front of offensive gas that pushed at them like a force unto itself. Helg, if anything, seemed energized by it, and began scuttling off down the walkway without waiting to see if Thijis would follow.
“Here,” he said. “Here! This way.” He called it over his shoulder, the most emphatic thing he’d said since Thijis had found him. He seemed almost giddy. Thijis trailed him anxiously, not sure which scared him more: falling into the river of shit, or the idea of what fate Tolvaj had in store for him if they were caught.
Their sojourn in the sewers was mercifully short. Only minutes later, they reached an intersection, and Helg turned the corner and led him into what appeared to be a maintenance tunnel of some sort. It ran directly into the wall of the sewer, making it roughly parallel to the main tunnel they’d just turned out of. Twenty yards in, the tunnel was blocked by a plug of rubble from some old collapse. It had cracked the stone walls around them and created a mountain of granite and brick and dirt. One of those cracks was a fissure easily large enough to fit a grown man, which it now did: Helg led him directly inside of it.
Thijis found himself struggling to squeeze through an increasingly narrow space as he tried to keep up with the scrawnier Helg. The fissure was an irregular rift directly through the stone structure of the sewer tunnels and the earth and bedrock behind it. It varied in size inside. The walls of it were jagged, but slightly worn—as if generations of sneaking sewer rats, the human kind, had squeezed through its embrace. Just as he was becoming concerned that he’d be trapped in a rocky vise for the rest of his days, Helg popped out into open air, and Thijis followed.
It took him a moment to realize he no longer needed the lantern.
* * *
The space they found themselves in was a ruined tunnel of some sort, but constructed differently than the sewer network of Oridos. This was older, built of slabs of sandstone that looked as if they had originally joined to make a trapezoidal passageway through the bedrock. The original shape was only barely discernible: the tunnel was now a shifted mass of wild planes and angles that revealed earth and raw stone and even a few twisted roots.
The floor was a tumbled mess, the slabs meeting at every conceivable angle. The path was only navigable because the original tunnel had clearly been broad and high, leaving more than enough room for Helg and Thijis to scamper over the stones, and because of the soft yellow glow lighting their way.
The light source appeared to be some sort of lichen that clung to the walls and ceiling; it responded to the lantern light, too, its glow brightening when he brought the lantern close and remaining brighter for a few moments after he took it away. The result was that the lantern’s glow was reflected on the walls as they traveled the ruins of the ancient tunnel. The effect was both beautiful and eerie. Thijis had never heard of any such phenomenon before.
Helg led them down the passage to a collapsed junction and pointed at a hole in the wall slightly above shoulder height. He climbed through first, before Thijis could stop him, and disappeared. Irik was momentarily convinced he’d been tricked, that Helg was about to trigger some greater collapse and bring the whole ruin down on his head, when the doktor stuck his head back through the gap and beckoned to him. The uneven floor and wall of the tunnel made climbing into the broken hole easy. As he passed into the darkness, he saw that the tunnel continued past the ancient collapse, lighted by the glowing lichen and seemingly unexplored.
What ancient people had built this place? Why had he never even heard mention of such an obviously primeval ruin beneath the city? Oridos was indeed old, but this seemed older still. Thijis shook his head and filed it under the increasingly long list of things he didn’t understand. The history of this city was a massive blank space, an empty shelf. If he survived to retirement, maybe he’d write a book.
The hole turned out to be a breach leading into a newer, but still ancient crawlspace made of granite block, which in turn led downward at an easy grade. He thought they were heading roughly south, toward the Inner Sea, but he might easily have gotten turned around in the pathless depths. The crawlspace was wide enough to move easily but not high enough to walk in, so they were forced to go along at a bent shuffle.
“What was this? A breathing shaft of some kind?” Thijis asked. Helg did not respond, only beckoning again. Thijis grimaced and followed.
He must have been correct, because eventually the floor of the shaft dipped to form a shallow basin with a grate at its bottom before continuing on into the darkness. An air shaft.
Helg opened it easily. There was no rust on its hinges. Looking up at Thijis over the now gaping hole into a black space below, he beckoned again. It took a moment for Irik to figure out that he was asking for the lantern. Yes, Irik, give the crazed murderer your only light and let him leave you alone in the black beneath the city. He had a momentary vision of himself crawling lost below Oridos for the rest of his natural life. He’d gone this far, however, and it seemed best to go with that decision.
He handed Helg the lantern and watched as the scrawny doktor lowered it through the hole, looked around briefly, and then hopped through.
Thijis gripped the rim of the grate and looked downward to find Helg looking up at him, beckoning again. Yes, yes.
The drop was less than ten feet, but it hurt. Helg seemed to have made it without complaint. Thijis followed as the old man led the way through a small chamber adjoining a larger through a square archway.
They walked from darkness into sudden sunslight: a shaft of it pierced the next chamber, and Thijis could smell seawater and hear the cries of gulls. They were near the sea, then. Helg put the lantern down on an old table in the middle of the room. Thijis went to the source of the sunslight, a window-sized hole in the granite rimmed with the rusted nubs of long-corroded bars. Peeking his head out, he swallowed. They were a good hundred feet or more above surface of the Inner Sea; waves crashed softly against the base of the Wall below.
They were about halfway between sea and city, then, in some kind of cistern or outflow basin at the point of the Oridosi peninsula. What had happened to whatever waters or sewage that had once run out of this aperture he had no idea.
Realizing he’d put himself between a murderer and a long fall to his own death, Thijis turned in snap. But Helg was seated in a rickety wooden chair, watching. He still looked as if he weren’t quite sure where he was.
The table and chairs were odd enough in such a place, but when Thijis took back the lantern and inspected the chamber he found other remnants of habitation. An empty pitcher and two bowls sat on a small hutch in the corner, along with a number of clay jars of the kind one might find in a kitchen for the storage of dry goods. On the opposite wall a crudely constructed bookshelf held a small collection of old books, swollen with damp and smelling more than a bit of mold. On the top shelf he found a carved bone sculpture: a curvaceous oblong creature with a long ridged beak. A sunner, he thought, one of the whale-like animals that could be found in the shallows of the Inner Sea on warm summer days. They liked to sun themselves on the rocks. Its finned tail was snapped off, but someone had placed it carefully beside its body.
“Where are we, Helg?” he asked, shining the lantern at the doktor. Between the lantern’s beam and the sunslight, Helg looked washed out and barely alive.
“Here,” he croaked. “She was here. Now she’s gone.”
“What is it, man? Is your mind gone? Have you wiped it out entirely with that device of yours?”
Helg paused, apparently thinking about the question, before responding.
“No,” he said at last. “I do not think so.” His response was stilted and slow, but more coherent than anything Thijis had heard out of him so far. As if he was trying his hardest to be lucid. “I was under…I was too long…on the amber sea.”
Thijis had no idea what he meant by an amber sea, but now was not the time for detailed debriefings.
“They’re looking for us, Helg. You and me both.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Why?” Thijis laughed. “Because you’re a murderer, old man. Because you’ve got a wine cellar full of young bodies. And now I’ve made myself your accomplice.”
Helg’s bushy brows lowered in consternation, and for several long minutes he looked at his gnarled hands as if he were trying to find something. Or remember something, Thijis thought.
“Why did you do it? Why did you kill them?”
“I didn’t,” Helg said after a time. “I didn’t kill any—I didn’t kill them.” He looked up, and Thijis could see his bloodshot blue eyes clearly in the sun. “I changed them. I freed them. But I can’t find them either.” And then he was weeping again, holding his face in his hands.
“Fuck me,” said Thijis aloud. Fuck me, he thought to himself. In the state Helg had been in when he found him, the state he seemed to be returning to now, Thijis had been able to temporarily put aside the knowledge that he was dealing with a cold-eyed killer. The needs of the moment had required that the larger focus of the case be put aside; he’d thought it necessary to get Helg somewhere safe. Now, having put off the pursuit for a time, the truth of what the doktor was came crashing home. I’ve taken up with a madman.
He needed more time. He needed to get them both out of here, get Helg to the Margravine. Is that why you took him? To turn him over to Mother, in return for your fee? Why not give him to Tolvaj? Because, if he were honest, he knew that Margravine Hevrany was the lesser of two evils. Mother’s vengeance was swift and certain, but it was never without reason, never wasteful or capricious. But Tolvaj—he didn’t like that man. There was a coldness to him that was inhuman, the same coldness that radiated from Helg when he talked about…about changing people. There was a connection there, he thought. He knew it. He just had to suss it out.
“We can’t stay here long,” he said. “It’s not safe.” He couldn’t tell if Helg was listening to him or not.
“Helg,” he repeated. “Helg! Keynish!” The man looked up.
“Can you get us to Lewsberg Court without going aboveground?” Helg wiped his nose on his arm, thought for a moment, and nodded hesitantly.
“Then let’s go.”
* * *
A little over an hour later, Helg stepped beneath a shaft of weak daylight and pointed a curled index finger upward. A corroded iron ladder led up the wall of the sewer line to a heavy grate. Thijis climbed up and peered out. The grate was partially clogged with old leaves and grime, but he could see the corner of a stately home and the red crown of a bloodgood tree if he craned his neck from one corner. He tested the grate to make certain that he could budge it, found it heavy but maneuverable, and climbed back down.
“I think we’re on the northwest corner of the park,” said Thijis, seating himself across the tunnel from Helg. “The suns are setting. We’ll wait till dark.” Helg nodded silently as Thijis settled himself across the tunnel from him. The sewer they were sitting in wasn’t a main, but a smaller branch that seemed to be in disuse: the sloped floor was dry and littered with stones and the stains of ancient waste. The curved brick wall behind him was half-comfortable, he found, and with the sunslight streaming in through the old grate, they could have found a worse spot to wait it out.
Dear God, Thijis thought. Did I actually just admit to liking a sewer? The last couple of days had clearly done a number on his standards. Sighing, he brushed at his filthy dinner jacket, more than a little sorry at having to appear before the Margravine in such a state. The fine grosgrain was torn and hanging in one place, and the left arm of the jacket was blown out at the seam. So much for being a dashing man about town. He was feeling increasingly sorry for himself when he brushed his outer pocket and felt the soft lump inside. Smiling, he fished it out, silently thanking Krizner for being an easy mark. The cigarettes were bent and half-crushed, but smokable.
He had a moment of panic when he thought he might have no way to light them, but relaxed when he found Krizner’s lighter in the opposite pocket. He could have sworn he’d given it back to him—in fact, now that he thought of it, he distinctly remembered Krizner taking the lighter back to light his own cigarette in the precinct house. You’re getting sloppy, Thijis. He scratched his head and decided not to question his good luck.
He lit the fag, inhaled deeply, and blew the used smoke out into the shaft of sunslight, watching it billow and roll. Helg sat behind it, his skinny knees drawn up to his chest, eyes a thousand miles away. Next to the doktor, he supposed, he looked pretty good. Helg was still half-naked, his sallow skin even more damp and scummy after hours in the sewers. Well, if Mother wants a bow on him, she can damn well tie it on herself.
“You want one?” Thijis asked, proffering a bent smoke. Helg’s eyes focused slowly, and he thought for a long moment, then finally reached a hand out. Thijis scooted across the tunnel a bit and placed a cigarette carefully between his fingers. The man’s fingernails were long, yellow, and jagged. He waited a moment, then pushed the man’s hand back toward his mouth. Helg wrapped his wet lips around it and Thijis applied the lighter.
“I don’t get you, mate,” he said, lapsing into the lilting Forge dialect he’d perfected over the years. Forge-men had a wonderful gift for conveying a working-class incredulity that questioned the very existence of problems that didn’t involve metal or fire or union meetings. Wot’s got you then, mate? Wot’s in yer gob?
Thijis fingered the heavy key in his inside pocket, and after considering its shape for a moment, took it out. He watched Helg enjoy the first draw off his fag, then held it up to the light. The old man’s eyes did their lazy focus thing, then widened, and Thijis saw some of the fiery, manic energy return to his face.
“Mine,” said the doktor. “Mine!”
“Yes,” said Thijis, “it was. Among many other fine things, now forfeit to the sheriff for your crimes against bloody humanity.” He took another puff of his smoke and put the key back in his pocket. Helg seemed to be barely containing something: was it rage? Or something else? The hard lump of the revolver under his arm was reassuring. He didn’t want to have to shoot him, but there were things he needed to know, and Helg obviously wasn’t going to offer them up on his own.
He realized, feeling the coal of his cigarette start to burn close to his knuckles, that he was looking for a reason not to turn Helg over to the Margravine’s outfit. The realization was sudden and strong. Smoke caught in his throat and he coughed. He spat into the trough of the sewer.
He’d come down into the sewers with this man with full knowledge of his proclivities, hoping to find out something that would please the Margravine, and, ideally, Tolvaj both. A fool’s errand for a fool, maybe. He’d wanted to take control of the situation, and the only way to do that was to get Helg out of their reach. Do what people least expect and you shake things loose, sometimes. But the journey into the outskirts of the Undercity, as strange as it had been, hadn’t revealed much, beyond the fact that the old man had a history in the Oridosi underground. The doktor himself was still very much a mystery, though, and that bothered Thijis.
Helg was like an unshucked oyster, full of juicy meat if you know how to open him right. He’d known since the beginning that there was more to this case than met the eye—there always was, when someone like Tolvaj was involved—but he was surprised to discover that “more,” in this case, might really be more. Might really be something big. It might be that Keynish Helg wasn’t a murderer, but much more of a pawn in a much larger game than Thijis had initially assumed. He just needed to hear it from him.
“You don’t strike me as a kept man, Helg,” he said, finally. “What were you up to?” He hadn’t really thought the doktor would answer—had expected him not to, in fact. But Helg spoke.
“The elekstone,” he said. “They wanted to know about the elekstone.”
“That much is obvious. But that’s not what I asked.” Thijis leaned forward. “I asked, what were you up to? Because whatever it was, it didn’t look like what Tolvaj and Orban expected. Were you playing them?” He didn’t mention the Margravine. Helg didn’t know he knew she was involved, and it was best to hold some things in reserve, if only as a kind of control.
Helg looked up at him then, the cigarette hanging from his lip, and swallowed.
“They had so much of it,” he said thickly. “So much—rooms of it. Only way to find her.”
Thijis had grown familiar enough with the doktor’s halting, drugged speech patterns to know that he had to be patient if he wanted to learn anything useful. Finishing his cigarette, he lit another one from the coal and waited.
“Seffa,” Helg said, his hands on his hollow cheeks, the tears beginning to run again. “Seffa.”
“It’s another few hours to full dark. We’ve got time. Tell me a story, Keynish. Tell me about Seffa.”
His eyes on the creature before him, his lungs full of smoke, and his mind alive with possibility, Thijis listened to the story of Keynish Helg.