Home > The Dark Flight Down (Book of Dead Days #2)

The Dark Flight Down (Book of Dead Days #2)
Author: Marcus Sedgwick

Prologue

Midnight at the Imperial Court of Emperor Frederick III. The court has been emptied for the evening of its usual crowd of sycophants and entertainers, of its alchemists, astrologers, doctors, faith healers, druggists, noblemen, ne’er-do-wells, priests, actors and occultists.

The emperor sits on his throne, apparently alone, brooding. He lifts a pale hand, slowly, lazily.

“Maxim!” he calls, in his high, pathetic voice. “Dammit, Maxim, where are you?”

From the shadows behind the throne a tall, heavy figure emerges, swathed in a dark red robe that trails in the dust on the marble court floor. Maxim, the emperor’s right hand, his confidant and oracle.

“Sire?” Maxim says. He is tired, but careful to show no sign of this to Frederick. He runs a hand across the top of his shaven head.

“There you are!” Frederick declares, but without emotion. “There you are.”

“Sire,” Maxim says, ready to do the emperor’s bidding.

“Maxim, how many years have I left to live?”

Maxim hesitates briefly before answering, wondering how many times he has had this conversation with the emperor, and then, depressingly, he wonders how many more times he will have it.

“Sire, we have established beyond all possible doubt that you will live to a venerable age.”

He bows, to try to emphasize the significance of his words, hoping they will be sufficient to keep Frederick happy.

“Yes, yes,” says Frederick, far from happy. He lifts a long thin finger and scratches the side of his nose. Flakes of skin float into the gloom of the deserted court. “But how long? Exactly, would you say?”

Maxim sighs inwardly. It is not to be short, then.

“Ah!” he says brightly. “Well, our finest thinkers are convinced that you will live to be . . . a hundred!”

Frederick is silent for a while. Maxim begins to edge away.

“But what then?” Frederick cries suddenly.

Maxim hurries back to the foot of the throne.

“Well,” he says. “Well! We have every right, every reason, to suppose that you will live to be a hundred and twenty. There is no reason why not.”

“Ah. I see. One hundred. And twenty.”

“Sire,” says Maxim, wondering if he dare retire from the emperor’s presence.

“But! But what then? What then, Maxim? What. Then.”

Maxim is tired, and would very much like to be upstairs in his chambers, asleep, but he knows there is little chance of that now. Still he is careful to show no sign of his tiredness, his irritation.

“Sire, Your Excellency may then have the good grace to die.”

That should shut him up, Maxim thinks, bowing his large frame as low as he can manage without falling onto his nose.

“Die?” Frederick whines. “Die? And what then?”

Maxim jerks his head upright, now irritated beyond reason by the emperor’s voice.

“Well, sire,” he says slowly, gazing at the ceiling, “there’ll be . . . mourning. A period of great sorrow across the whole City. People will . . . stop to remember the great Frederick, and celebrate. They’ll make . . .”

Maxim hesitates, inspiration deserting him. He looks down, and finds the emperor scowling at him.

“They’ll make . . . ?”

“Yes, sire,” says Maxim. “They’ll make . . . boom boom.”

“Boom boom?” Frederick asks. “They’ll make boom boom? What in heaven’s name do you mean? A celebration? Fireworks? Is that it? Is that all I will have to show for my time?”

Maxim lifts his head to the emperor, opens his hands wide and, for once, is at a loss for words.

Frederick rises to his feet. Even standing, his short, skinny frame remains dwarfed by his towering throne.

He points at Maxim.

“They will not make ‘boom boom’ because I am not going to die! Not ever. I will be one hundred, and then another one after that, and then another after that. Do you see, Maxim? Do you? I am the last of the line, Maxim, you know that as well as any. I have no kith, Maxim, no kin, no offspring, nor progeny. If I die, the chain is broken. The end is reached. The empire will have no emperor. There is only one answer. I am not going to die! You, my loyal servant, will see to it. I am not to die, and you are going to make sure of it.”

Maxim hesitates. The old emperor is a fool. And he is a liar too. Some things cannot be forgotten, cannot be hidden as easily as Frederick would like, but Maxim doesn’t dare tell him that.

“But, sire, I—”

“No, it is no use. I have made up my mind. Either you find a way to make me immortal, or your own end will be swifter than you might believe. Now get out of my sight, and find someone to carry me up to bed. You have no idea how bad it is for me, sitting on this throne all day.”

“No, sire,” says Maxim, his hand already pulling a bell-rope.

“And don’t forget! Find a way to make me live forever. Or . . .”

And Maxim watches with a familiar prickle of horror as the feeble old emperor whisks a skinny finger across his own throat.

“Phht!”

The City

The Place of Obscured Memories

1

The City froze hard that winter, iron-cold and stone-still. When the snows came, they settled in to stay. It had started with snowstorms that seemed as if they were angry with something, as the wind whirled snowflakes down onto the City’s filthy streets and crumbling buildings. It had started in the last few days of the year as Boy and Willow had been swept along by the magician Valerian in his ultimately futile quest for survival.

Then, early on New Year’s Day, the fury abated, but still for day after day large fluffy flakes of pure whiteness drifted gently down, covering the muck and the mire, hiding the decay of the old City beneath a thick layer of pristine white youth.

The snow obliterated broken slates and chimney stacks, removed all traces of dilapidated walls and rotting windowsills and laid a clean and soft white carpet along every alley, street, avenue and parade, that was renewed every night.

It was as if the snow was trying to purify the squalid City, or at least hide its evil under a shroud of forgetting. Each night the old, horrible and grim was replaced by something new, young and beautiful.

But there was a price for this rebirth. It was cold, bitterly cold, and the City froze deep, and deathly still.

With it, something inside Boy froze too.

Too much had happened, too quickly.

Valerian. Boy couldn’t even begin to think, to understand, about Valerian. He could barely feel.

He struggled to order, let alone comprehend, the events of the Dead Days, at the end of the year that had just died, taking his master Valerian with it. And beyond Valerian’s death, there was what the scientist Kepler had said, right before the end. The thing that had tormented Boy’s brain ever since, the truth of which still lay obscured.

That Valerian was Boy’s father.

The new year that had just begun had hardly been a few hours old when Boy’s one comfort had been taken from him too.

Willow.

2

“Come, Boy. It’s time.”

Boy turned for a moment from the window where he had been watching the snow fall. He had been trying to watch every single snowflake’s path to earth, without knowing quite why he was doing it. He was almost obsessed. Every flake that fell hid the dark horror of the City a little more. Hid the horror, and dulled the memory. If it went on snowing, perhaps the horror would go too.

His attention drifted back to the snow.

“Boy!” said Kepler from the door. “It’s time to go.”

Boy turned to his new master again.

“Time for what?”

Kepler came into Boy’s bedroom. It was a small room, simply furnished with a bed, a chair and a washstand, but after the tiny space he had slept in at Valerian’s house, it was luxurious. Boy had not yet got used to it, and woke frequently through the night, feeling exposed, and vulnerable, as if death threatened. But maybe that had little to do with his new room.

Kepler joined him by the window, and put his skinny hand out to touch Boy’s shoulder, but Boy flinched and pulled away. A scowl crossed Kepler’s face as he drew back.

“For the funeral,” he snapped. “You do still want to go to the funeral?”

Dumbly Boy nodded.

“Is it the fifth already?” he asked, but Kepler ignored him.

“I’ll meet you in the hall in five minutes,” he said, and left.

Boy was already watching the snow.

The fifth of January. Korp’s funeral. Boy couldn’t believe five days had already passed since Valerian had died.

There should be a funeral for him too, thought Boy.

But then, there was nothing to bury.

Just twenty more flakes, Boy said to himself, then I’ll get ready. He watched the intricate dance that each flake made as it fell, trying to guess which way it would go, whether it would miss the top of the garden wall, or whether it would change direction at the last moment and make the foot of snow that capped the wall one flake thicker. After a while he began not merely to predict but to try to influence the journey of each flake, pushing with his mind into the frozen air outside his window, though he knew his imaginings were fanciful.

“Boy! It’s time to go.”

Boy dragged his gaze away from the window, grabbed his coat from back of the chair and ran to the door.

“I’m coming!” he called. He didn’t want to miss the funeral. It wasn’t so much that he wanted to bury Korp, the director of the theater where Valerian and Boy had performed. He had been murdered a few days before Valerian’s own demise. Boy had liked the fat old director well enough, and felt he should honor him by attending his funeral, but that was not really why he wanted to be there. He had spent enough time in graveyards recently to last a lifetime.

The real reason was Willow. Boy hoped she might be there too.

Five days had passed since he had seen her last, but those days had been a long clouded dream, in which he had struggled to control events and failed, unable to think or act clearly.

Kepler had sent her away.

Just a few hours after Valerian’s death, Kepler had returned to them where they were still cowering in the ruined shell of Valerian’s Tower room.

“Boy, you will work for me now,” he had said. “I have made preparations. Go to my house. Wait for me there. Willow, come with me, I need your help.”

But it had been a trick. He did not need Willow for anything other than to leave her somewhere and come back without her.

Boy had shouted at Kepler when he discovered what had happened. So timid and cowering around Valerian, Boy had found no trouble being angry with Kepler, no fear shouting at him.

“Bring her back!” he had screamed at his new master, who stood slowly shaking his head.

“You can’t do this to us! Willow’s all I’ve got now. Bring her back.”

Kepler continued to shake his head.

“Wrong, Boy,” he said. “You have me now. We will get to know each other better. I need you, and Valerian has seen you are not wholly uneducated.”

“Why do you need my help?”

Kepler hesitated. Boy didn’t like it.

“I need your help. You’ll help me with my plans. In time, we’ll come to like each other. That’s all you need to know for now.”

“I don’t . . . ,” Boy had said, “I just want Willow. Why can’t she live here too?”

“But don’t worry, she is safe enough,” Kepler went on. “She is working, so she will be able to look after herself. You need not think about her anymore.”

“Tell me where she is!” Boy demanded. “Let me go to her!”

Boy had shouted and screamed, but Kepler had withstood it all, and left Boy to his own devices in his new bedroom.

Since that outburst, Boy had spent his time looking out the window, brooding. Trying to make sense of things that had no sense. That Valerian might have been his father all the while, without his knowing. And Kepler. Why did he want to keep Willow from him? Why did he think he needed Boy’s help? Kepler was rich enough to employ a dozen assistants; why was Boy so special to him?

Answers refused to come, and as the days passed, Boy became hypnotized by the falling snow, which seemed to have no intention of stopping, ever.

Valerian had once told him that each snowflake was different from every other. Each with its own pattern, its own identity, and as they fell from the sky Boy discovered they each had their own behavior. No two fell in the same way. Every one was unique, just, thought Boy, like people. And when the snowflake landed in the wrong place, on a warm roof, or a pond, it vanished instantly, gone forever. Its unique nature lost. Boy’s thoughts turned again to Valerian, to Willow.

With a start he realized he couldn’t clearly recall her face, even though they had only been separated for a few days. He had to force a memory of her delicate features and long hair into his mind, and was only satisfied when he could see her clearly again.

Now he ran down the stairs of Kepler’s house and met his new master, who was waiting impatiently for him.

They set off into the City snowscape.

“Let’s get on with it,” Kepler said, irritably. “It’s another freezing day and I don’t want to waste it all perishing in some abysmal cemetery.”

Boy kept pace with Kepler, dodging the larger drifts caught by corners and crevices, but still having to wade knee deep through snow in places. With every footstep, Boy crushed the identity from a thousand snowflakes, but he felt no pain for them.

His mind was on two things: Willow, and why Kepler wanted to keep them apart.

Within hours of Valerian’s death Boy was under the control of Valerian’s supposed friend Kepler. In reality Boy had discovered him to be Valerian’s mortal enemy, to have contrived his death. It was a bitter history. At least to see Willow would remind him of sanity, of a kindness and care, even if she had no explanation for the madness of his world.

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