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The Kingdom Beyond the Waves

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      The Kingdom Beyond the Waves
Stephen Hunt

A fantastical version of Dickens, filled with perilous quests, dastardly deeds and deadly intrigue – perfect for all fans of Philip Pullman and Susanna ClarkeProfessor Amelia Harsh is obsessed with finding the lost civilisation of Camlantis, a legendary city from pre-history that is said to have conquered hunger, war and disease – tempering the race of man’s baser instincts by the creation of the perfect pacifist society. It is an obsession that is to cost her dearly. She returns home to Jackals from her latest archaeological misadventure to discover that the university council has finally stripped her of her position in retaliation for her heretical research.Without official funding, Amelia has no choice but to accept the offer of patronage from the man she blames for her father’s bankruptcy and suicide, the fiercely intelligent and incredibly wealthy Abraham Quest. He has an ancient crystal-book that suggests the Camlantean ruins are buried under one of the sea-like lakes that dot the murderous jungles of Liongeli.Amelia undertakes an expedition deep into the dark heart of the jungle, blackmailing her old friend Commodore Black into ferrying her along the huge river of the Shedarkshe on his ancient u-boat. With an untrustworthy crew of freed convicts, Quest’s force of female mercenaries on board and a lunatic steamman safari hunter acting as their guide, Amelia’s luck can hardly get any worse. But she's as yet unaware that her quest for the perfect society is about to bring her own world to the brink of destruction…

THE KINGDOM BEYOND THE WAVES

STEPHEN HUNT

Contents

Title Page (#u06311196-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter One (#u06311196-3FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Two (#u06311196-4FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Three (#u06311196-5FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Four (#u06311196-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Five (#u06311196-7FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Six (#u06311196-8FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Fourteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Fifteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Sixteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Seventeen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Eighteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Nineteen (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-One (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Two (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Three (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Four (#litres_trial_promo)Chapter Twenty-Five (#litres_trial_promo)Series Title (#litres_trial_promo)Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER ONE (#u06311196-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Amelia Harsh wiped the sweat from her hands across her leather trousers, then thrust her fingers up into Mombiko’s vice-tight grip. The ex-slave hauled her onto the ledge, the veins on his arms bulging as he lifted her up the final few feet to the summit. Bickering voices chased Amelia up the face of the blisteringly hot mountainside like the chattering of sand beetles.

‘You climb better than them, even with your poisoned arm,’ said Mombiko.

Amelia rubbed at the raw wound on her right shoulder – like her left, as large as that of a gorilla. Not due to the stinging scorpion that had crept into her tent two nights earlier, but the result of a worldsinger’s sorcery. Large sculpted biceps muscles that could rip a door apart or cave in the skull of a camel; a physique that was rendered near useless by that bloody insect’s barbed tail. The scorpion had to have stung her gun arm, too.

Mombiko passed the professor a blessedly cool canteen and she took a greedy swig of water before checking the progress of the Macanalie brothers. They were a minute away from the ledge, cursing each other and squabbling over the best footholds and grips to reach the summit.

‘The brothers got us through the Northern Desert,’ said Amelia. ‘There are not many uplanders who could have done that.’

‘You know where those three scum developed their knowledge of the sands, mma,’ said Mombiko, accusingly. ‘The brothers guide traders over the border in both directions – avoiding the kingdom’s revenue men to the north and the caliph’s tax collectors to the south.’

Amelia pointed to the sea of wind-scoured dunes stretched out beneath them. ‘It’s not much of a border. Besides, I know about their side-trade as well as you do, capturing escaped slaves who make it to the uplands and dragging them back for the caliph’s bounty on the slaves’ heads.’

‘They are not good men, professor.’

Amelia checked the sling of the rifle strapped to her back. ‘They were as good as we were going to get without the university’s help.’

Mombiko nodded and clipped the precious water canteen back onto his belt.

Damn the pedants on the High Table. A pocket airship could have crossed the desert in a day rather than the weeks of sun-scorched marching Amelia’s expedition had endured. But the college at Saint Vines did not want the technology of an airship falling into the caliph’s hands. And it was a fine excuse for the college authorities to drop another barrier in front of her studies, her obsession.

‘You wait here,’ Amelia said to Mombiko. ‘Help them up.’

‘If they try anything?’

She pointed to his pistol and the bandolier of crystal charges strapped over his white robes. ‘Why do you think I made sure we were climbing at the front? I wouldn’t trust a Macanalie to hold my guide rope.’

A sound like a crow screeched in the distance. Shielding her eyes, Amelia scanned the sky. Blue, cloudless. Clear of any telltale dots around the sun that would indicate the presence of the lizard-things that the caliph’s scouts flew. No match for an airship’s guns, but the unnatural creatures could fall upon the five of them easily enough; rip their spines out in a dive and carry their shredded remains back to one of Cassarabia’s military garrisons. Again, the screech. She saw a dark shape shuffling higher up the mountainside – a sand hawk – and relaxed. It was eying up one of the small salamanders on the dunes beneath them, no doubt.

Professor Harsh returned her attention to the wall on the ledge, following the trail of stone sigils worn away to near-indecipherability by Cassarabia’s sandstorms over the millennia. Mombiko’s contact had been right after all; a miracle the deserter from the caliph’s army had made it this far, had spotted the carving in the rocks below. Had possessed enough education to know what the carving might signify and the sand-craft to reach the uplands of Jackals and the safety of the clans. The path between the crags led to a wall of boulders with a circular stone slab embedded in it. A door! Shielded from the worst of the storm abrasions, the sigils on the portal had fared better than the worn iconography that had led her up here.

Amelia marvelled at the ancient calligraphy. So primitive, yet so beautiful. There were illustrations too, a swarm of brutal-looking vehicles ridden by fierce barbarians – horseless carriages, but not powered by the high-tension clockwork milled by her own nation of Jackals. Engines from a darker time.

Her revelry at the discovery was interrupted by the snarling voices behind her.

‘Is this it, then, lassie?’

Amelia looked at the three upland smugglers, practically drooling at the thought of the treasures they were imagining behind the door. ‘Roll the door back, but carefully,’ she ordered. Dipping into her backpack she pulled out five cotton masks with string ties. ‘Put these on before you go in.’

‘Are you daft, lassie?’ spat the oldest of the brothers. ‘There’s no sandstorm coming.’

‘These are not sand masks,’ Amelia said, tapping a thumb on the door. ‘You are standing outside the tomb of a powerful chieftain. He would have owned worldsingers as part of his slave-clan and would not have been above having them leave a sprinkling of curse-dust in his tomb to kill grave robbers, bandits and any of his rivals tempted to desecrate his grave.’ She slipped the mask over her mouth, the chemicals in the fabric filling her nose with a honey-sweet smell. ‘But you are free to go in without protection.’

The brothers each gave her a foul look, but pulled on the masks all the same, then got to work rolling the door back with all the vigour that only greed could generate. Mombiko drew out a gas spike and ignited the lantern. ‘I shall go first, mma.’

Amelia signalled her agreement. Mombiko had been raised in the great forests of the far south and possessed an uncanny sixth sense. Curse-dust aside, there should only be a single trap in this ancient tomb – the mausoleum’s creators were an unsubtle brutish people – but it was best to be sure.

The door rolled back. Mombiko held the gas spike in front of him, shadows dancing in the dark tunnel that lay revealed behind the stone slab. It was cool inside after the heat of the desert. Crude stone-hewn steps led downward, iron brackets in the wall where lanterns would once have hung.

‘Did you hear something?’ asked one of the brothers.

‘Put your gun down, you fool,’ said Amelia. ‘It’s just an echo. You fire your pistol in here and the ricochet of your ball will be what kills you.’

‘If there’s a treasure, there will be something to guard it,’ insisted one of the brothers. ‘A wee beastie.’

‘Nothing that could survive over two thousand years trapped down here without any food,’ said Amelia.

‘Holster your pistol,’ ordered the oldest brother, ‘the lass is right. Besides, it’s her laddie-boy that’s going in first, right?’

Followed by the cold echoes of their own steps, the five interlopers walked down the carved passage; at the bottom of the sloping cut was a foreboding stone door, a copper panel in a wall-niche by its side, the space filled with levers, nobs and handles.

‘I’ve got a casket of blow-barrel sap back with the camels,’ said one of the Macanalie brothers.

Amelia wiped the cobwebs off the copper panel. ‘You got enough to blow up all the treasure, clansman? Leave the archaeology to me.’

Amelia touched the levers, tracing the ancient script with her fingers. Like most of the Black-oil Horde’s legacy to history, their language was stolen, looted from one of the many nonnomadic nations the barbarians had over-run during their age. The script was a riddle – filled with jokes and black humour.

‘The wrong choice …’ whispered Mombiko behind her.

‘I know, I know,’ said Amelia, eyeing the impressions along the wall where the tomb builders had buried their compressed oil explosives. Surely the passage of time would have spoiled their potency? ‘Now, let’s see. In their legends the sun rises when the petrol-gods sleep, but sleeping is a play on words, so—’ she grabbed two levers, sliding one up while shoving another into a side channel and down, then clicked one of the nobs clockwise to face the symbol of the sun.

Ancient counter-weights shifted and the door drew upwards into the ceiling of the passage with a rack-rack-rack. Mombiko let out his breath.

The oldest of the smuggler brothers nodded in approval. ‘Clever lass. I knew there was a reason we brought you along.’

The professor flicked back her mane of dark hair. ‘I’m not paying you extra for your poor sense of humour, Macanalie. Let’s see what’s down here.’

They walked into the burial chamber. With its rough, jagged walls, it might almost have been mistaken for a natural cavern were it not for the statues holding up the vaulted roof – squat totem-poles of granite carved with smirking goblin faces. Mombiko’s gas spike was barely powerful enough to reveal the eight-wheeled carriage that rose on a dais in the centre of the chamber, spiral lines of gold rivets studding its armoured sides and exhaust stacks. The nearest of the smugglers gasped, scurrying over to the boat-sized machine to run his hand over the lance points protruding from the vehicle’s prow. They were silver-plated, but Amelia knew that reinforced steel would lie hidden beneath each deadly lance head.

‘It’s true, after all this time,’ said Amelia, as if she did not really believe it herself. ‘A war chief of the Black-oil Horde, perhaps even the great Diesela-Khan himself.’

‘This is a horseless carriage?’ asked one of the Macanalies. ‘I can’t see the clockwork. Where’s the clockwork?’

He was elbowed aside by his excited elder. ‘What matters that? It’s a wee fortune, man! Look at the gems on the thing – her hood here, is this beaten out of solid gold?’

‘Oil,’ said Amelia, distracted. ‘They burnt oil in their engines, they hadn’t mastered high-tension clockwork.’

‘Slipsharp oil?’ queried the smuggler. Surely there were not enough of the great beasts of the ocean swimming the world’s seas to bleed blubber to fuel such a beautiful, deadly vehicle?

‘Do you not know anything?’ said Mombiko, waving the gas spike over the massive engine at the carriage’s rear. ‘Black water from the ground. This beautiful thing would have drunk it like a horse.’

Amelia nodded. One of the many devices that stopped functioning many thousands of years ago if the ancient sagas were to be believed – overwhelmed by the power of the worldsong and the changing universe. Mombiko pointed to a silver sarcophagus in the middle of the wagon and Amelia climbed in, pulling out her knife to lever open the ancient wax-sealed coffin.

‘They must have taken the wagon to pieces outside,’ laughed the youngest brother. ‘Put it back together down here.’

‘Obviously,’ said Amelia, grunting as she pressed her knife under the coffin lid. Her shoulder burned with the effort. Damn that scorpion.

‘Oh, you’re a sly one, Professor Harsh,’ spat the eldest brother. ‘All your talk of science and the nobility of ancient history and all of the past’s lessons. All those fine-sounding lectures back in the desert. And here you are, scrabbling for jewels in some quality’s coffin. You almost had me believing you, lassie.’

She shot a glare at the smuggler, ignoring his taunts. She deserved it. Perhaps she was no better than these three gutter-scrapings of the kingdom’s border towns.

‘Her wheels weren’t built to run on sand,’ mused one of the Macanalies. He ran his hand covetously along the shining spikes of gold on the vehicle’s rim.

Amelia was nearly done, the last piece of wax seal giving way. It was a desecration really. No wonder the eight great universities had denied her tenure, kept her begging for expedition funds like a hound kept underneath the High Table. But there might be treasure inside. Her treasure.
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