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The Jade Dragon

Chapter Text

Havnor City, the largest city in the world. A million people were crammed into its six square miles, they said, though barely half appeared on the Ministry’s books. A million people, men and women, dark and pock, young and old, all working and sleeping and eating and drinking and pissing and shitting and gambling and whoring and thinking and dreaming in this little strip between the hills and the bay. It made my head spin just thinking about them.

The great city looked better in the dark. The night swallowed the Poxtown sprawl that crept further and further round the bay each year like crotch rot. The generator chimneys just looked like another clutch of towers in silhouette, and with the canals all lit up like a rhinestone tiara, you scarcely missed the stars. Even darkness couldn’t do a lot for the QSU buildings down near the waterfront. They were among the ugliest in the city, and these days that was an achievement. They squatted among the tall old townhouses of Queen’s Square like a bull terrier at a greyhound race. I wondered just how hideous Lebannen the Great’s queen had been to inspire the design, but she must have been in the ground fifty years before they went up. The architect had probably never laid eyes on the woman.

Chief Sedge had stationed four CHOPs on the main entrance. ‘It’s a serious offence to  imitate a CHOP,’ went a young joker whose name I didn’t know. I handed him my dog-eared bit of paper and got a kick out of watching them all snap to attention.

‘Sorry, sir,’ said the guy with the mouth.

‘Can’t be too careful what with…’ began the sergeant, but I let him talk to thin air and headed straight for the night porter’s cubby-hole, tucked under the double sweep of the main stairs.

‘Morning, old man,’ I said, though his age was hard to pin down: he might have been in his fifth decade as easily as his seventh. Use-names slipped off the man like quicksilver, and most just called him Master Porter. He knew more about university security than the security chief and more about the students than the admissions tutor. Best of all, he brewed a coffee, thick as harbour sludge, that’d make a packet as a sleep suppressant on the black market. It took no great skill in scrying to see it’d be an age before I got to hit the sack.

‘Master Bittern,’ he replied, his face crinkling into the broad smile that seemed to crack his face like an egg. ‘Or rather Officer Bittern. I’d ask what brings you here so early, but you’ll be wanting to know all about the young prince.’

The CHOPs had been told to keep the thing under wraps but word was bound to leak out, and probably sooner rather than later. In any case the old man had an uncanny knack of knowing everything that was going on across the city. It was why I came to him. I didn’t bother denying it, just sat myself down on his desk, shrugged off my damp cloak and glanced across at the coffee pot.

He got the hint. ‘Been a long night, has it?’ He puttered about the tiny room, measuring coffee and water into the pot and then setting it on the stove. The sharp smell of the stuff soon joined the scent of Sunreturn garlands. ‘He’s a nice lad, is Anthar. A bit too serious, perhaps. Prone to enthusiasms. Hardworking. Quiet. Not like his classmates. Half of them could beat the college washerwomen in a chattering competition.’

‘Any friends?’

‘Not many. Difficult on both sides, if you think about it. Lads that age don’t want to stand out. He did go around with a lad by the name of Sheluah. Another quiet one. But I haven’t seen him for, oh, it’d be six weeks or more now.’

With a mouthful like that for a moniker the boy had to be a pock. ‘Probably ran out of money. Or went back home. What about Malachite?’

‘They seem friendly enough, you know what they say about harrows and herrings. But seniors don’t mix much with the first years.’ The coffee pot began to bubble. He reached over my head for a clean cup and tipped out the pine needles. ‘And of course Malachite doesn’t honour us with a great deal of his time, these days. His skills lie in areas the college doesn’t teach.’ That was one way of putting it: the polite way. ‘Whereas Anthar…’

‘Gifted, is he?’ QSU was supposed to be reserved for those with at least a bit of talent in one of the magical arts but, as Malachite proved, royal blood had its own magic.

‘They didn’t tell you?’ The old man poured out two little cups of the dark liquid and handed me one. ‘A strong gift. Too early to tell where his true strength will lie though.’

I wrapped both hands around the cup and inhaled one long breath before taking the first sip. The stuff was both like and unlike the root. Coffee comforted but there was no forgetfulness in its spell. It set the mind free to wheel and soar but in this world not some other one. It was warm where hazia carried the chill of the grave. I took another sip. So the young prince had the gift, I thought. It was rare in pocks but not unknown. ‘A king with the gift,’ I said. ‘That’d set the cat among the palace pigeons.’

I was still trying to get my head around just how far the feathers might fly as I climbed up to the prince’s dorm. And up was the word: the first years were housed in the attics, up four flights of stairs. The sun was poking her nose above the horizon and the view might have been picture perfect but for the dawn fog rolling in off the harbour. As it was it took a compass to confirm the windows looked out over the sea. The room was as far from his suite up the palace as Hur-at-Hur from Havnor but it proved almost as much of a bust. Standard issue furniture, bed neatly made, nothing but uniform clothes in the wardrobe, nothing but lint in the pockets, nothing but textbooks on the bookshelf, nothing but bookmarks between the leaves, nothing but yesterday’s Gazette in the bin. Nothing on the walls but plaster. Scarcely a quill out of place on the desk. The most interesting thing in the desk drawers was one of those ‘I climbed Mount Onn’ mugs they sold down the pier to tourists whose mountain experience was the sort you got from those telescopes on the terrace of the Mountain View tearooms back up on Palace Hill. It had a few map pins in the bottom and a portrait of his old man in copper. Unlike the dorm’s fifty previous occupants the prince hadn’t even bothered to carve his name into the desktop, unless he generally went by any of the fifty names schoolboys used for the kind of broad you bought by the quarter hour. He seemed to walk through the world like a ghost. And that was before he’d upped and disappeared.

I followed suit and headed away from the waterfront into the old town. The buildings got darker and more dilapidated with every block, faded paint giving way to fallen plaster, and the faces on the streets grew paler. I stopped off to get my sword out of hock. The guy behind the counter at the pawnshop was new. He made a fuss about changing my ivory piece until I waved my badge at him. His skin was like the underbelly of a mackerel, and he didn’t smell a whole lot sweeter. But he gave me an idea. I took a right and headed for a little bakery I knew on Half Moon Street. The baker’s wife had a sideline in doing portraits on the waterfront in summer, when the tourists were spawning. She’d knocked out a few missing person pictures for me in the past. And besides they made a mean fried egg in a bap.

I let Speedwell chunter on about how nice it was to see me carrying a sword again and how fine my shiny new badge looked and how thin I’d got and how their sandwiches would have me set to rights in no time, while her plump daughter put together my breakfast. Interrupting the woman only made her repeat herself. Luckily the daughter slapped a plate in front of me before Speedwell got stuck into her favourite subject of picking me out a nice girl to cuddle up to at nights. Some things were just too much on an empty stomach, and stone-cold sober to boot. She knew better than to talk while a customer was eating, so I snuck in ‘got a commission for you’ between bites. I wiped my greasy fingers on my cloak and fished out the miniature.

Speedwell hooked her eye-glasses over her nose and peered at the portrait. ‘But that’s Prince Hope,’ she said. ‘We’ve a dozen like it upstairs, if you want one. Ragwort’s got quite the collection, haven’t you, honey?’ Her daughter looked down at the floor. ‘Just run upstairs and…’ But the bell on the shop door tinkled and the girl skedaddled.

‘Can you do a picture of a boy with the prince’s features but skin and hair quite a bit paler?’ The porter had confirmed the princess’s description wasn’t just spite. ‘Anonymous street clothes, no identifying marks.’

‘Course I can, you know that. Have it done for you in a tick, soon as the early morning rush is over. But you mean some no-good white – saving your ears, Master Bittern – is going round impersonating our prince?’

‘Let’s just say we’re trying to find a pock who looks like this but paler,’ I said. ‘I’ve got to take a trip to HQ but I’ll pick it up on my way out.’