“It’s time to leave,” Gentle told Huzzah.
“Where are we going to go?”
“Back to find Pie ‘oh’ pah,” he replied. “While we still can.”
It had been apparent from the roof that there was no safe route back to the mystifs Kesparate. The various factions warring in the streets were moving unpredictably. A street that was empty one moment might be thronged the next, and rubble the moment after that. They would have to go on instinct and a prayer, taking as direct a path back to where they’d left Pie ‘oh’ pah as circumstance allowed. Dusk in this Dominion usually lasted the length of an English midwinter day—five or six hours—the tail of the comet keeping traces of light in the sky long after its fiery head had dropped beneath the horizon. But the smoke thickened as Gentle and Huzzah traveled, eclipsing the languid light and plunging the city into a filthy gloom. There were still the fires to compensate, of course, but between the conflagration, in streets where the lamps hadn’t been lit and the citizens had shuttered their windows and blocked their keyholes to keep any sign of occupation from showing, the darkness was almost impenetrable. In such thoroughfares Gentle hoisted Huzzah onto his shoulders, from which vantage point she was able to snatch sights to steer him by.
It was slow going, however, halting at each intersection to calculate the least dangerous route to follow, and taking refuge at the approach of both governmental and revolutionary troops. But for every soldier in this war there were half a dozen bystanders, people daring the tide of battle like beachcombers, retreating before each wave, only to return to their watching places when it receded: a sometimes lethal game. A similar dance was demanded of Gentle and Huzzah. Driven off course again and again, they were obliged to trust to instinct as to their direction, and inevitably instinct finally deserted them.
In an uncommon hush between clamors and bombardments, Gentle said, “Angel? I don’t know where we are any more.”
A comprehensive fusillade had brought down most of the Kesparate around them, and there were precious few places of refuge amid the rubble, but Huzzah insisted they find one: a call of nature that could be delayed no longer.
Gentle set her down, and she headed off for the dubious cover of a semidemolished house some yards up the street. He stood guard at the door, calling inside to her and telling her not to venture too far. He’d no sooner offered this warning than the appearance of a small band of armed men drove him back into the shadows of the doorway. But for their weapons, which had presumably been plucked from dead men, they looked ill suited to the role of revolutionaries. The eldest, a barrel of a man in late middle age, still wore the hat and tie he’d most likely gone to work in that morning, while two of his accomplices were barely older than Huzzah. Of the two remaining members, one was an Oethac woman, the other of the tribe to which the executioner in Vanaeph had belonged: a Nullianac, its head like hands joined in prayer.
Gentle glanced back into the darkness, hoping to hush Huzzah before she emerged, but there was no sign of her. He left the step and headed into the ruins. The floor was sticky underfoot, though he couldn’t see with what. He did see Huzzah, however, or her silhouette, as she rose from relieving herself. She saw him too and made a little noise of protest, which he hushed as loudly as he dared. A fresh bombardment close by brought shock waves and bursts of light, by which he glimpsed their refuge: a domestic interior, with a table set for the evening meal, and its cook dead beneath it, her blood the stickiness under his heel.
Beckoning Huzzah to him and holding her tight, he ventured back towards the door as a second bombardment began. It drove the looters to the step for cover, and the Oethac caught sight of Gentle before he could retreat into shadow. She let out a shout, and one of the youths fired into the darkness where Gentle and Huzzah had stood, the bullets spattering plaster and wood splinters in all directions. Backing away from the door through which their attackers were bound to come, Gentle ushered Huzzah into the darkest corner and drew a breath. He barely had time to do so before the trigger-happy youth was at the doorway, firing indiscriminately. Gentle unleashed a pneuma from the darkness, and it flew towards the door. He’d underestimated his strength. The gunman was obliterated in an instant, but the pneuma took the door frame and much of the wall to either side of it at the same time.