An actual out-take this time, from the early chapters of Heavy Ice.
“Something’s wrong,” said Dante Isabel Malabranca.
“You’re telling me something’s wrong?” said his cousin and wife Lael Liang Malabranca, who was curled up in a love-seat under a big arched window, with her feet tucked underneath her long fur underskirt against the cold. “In case you’ve failed to notice, love-of-my-heart, all manner of things are wrong. My budget’s probably going to get voted down by the cabinet-tiavod, half the Spire thinks that the world’s about to end because of this wretched comet, and the Retort keeps giving me weird time-stamp errors when I try to access the template libraries.”
“It’s been doing that to me, too.” Dante frowned. “No, this was… Do you remember when Zax discovered that trick of skimming against the surface of the Retort and using it to relay messages?”
“I think that must have happened while I was fostering at Belyaevo.” Lael propped her portable screen against her knees and looked alertly at Dante over the top. “Why? Are you picking up Zax’s thoughts about… whatever goes on in Zax’s head? Because if you are, you should tell him to stop it. It’s rude.”
Dante frowned, trying to recall exactly what he’d experienced. The memories were already racing away from him like dreams on waking. All he could bring to the surface of his mind were a memory of a soft distorted voice counting downwards from a very large number, and a generalised prodding of haste.
“I’m certain it wasn’t Zax,” he said at last. “I haven’t even seen Zax in months. It almost felt as if the Retort itself was speaking to me. Sending some kind of distress call. And then when I tried to answer, it faded.”
“Well, that’s peculiar,” said Lael briskly. “I’ll take a look in the Retort and check.”
She slid both hands into the screen. Her facial muscles softened. Her eyes closed. She breathed in and out mindfully three times, and her consciousness was within the Retort, the great beating heart of the Spire.
The room fell silent, save for the distant whoosh of air-shafts and the crackle of the fire in the grate. Dante half-closed his eyes and watched the comforting fractal shapes of the candle-flames as they flickered in the mirror above the grate. He couldn’t remember when he and Lael had last had an evening to themselves. The room looked half-finished without a throng of courtiers and politicians standing about in it.
The room in question was known as the Prime’s Lesser Chamber, to differentiate it from the echoing Great Chamber two levels down and from the three throne-rooms which were all named after saints. The Lesser Chamber was pleasantly family-sized, with smooth massive beams of native yeketatia wood curving up to make a roof like the underbelly of an upturned boat. The windows were set deeply into a wall of rough sandstone which mimicked the colours and striations of the canyon-wall outside. A replica of Rodin’s Eve made out of black sapphire stood in one corner.
Dante had never paid much attention to religious instruction, and he couldn’t remember precisely who Eve was – one of the disciples of the Third Dispensation, he thought, or possibly that First Dispensation woman who killed an enemy Prime with a butter-knife – but looking at the statue of the woman who looked as if she was trying to shelter herself from a storm, he knew how she felt.
He’d never intended to be a Prime’s dutiful spouse. He’d intended to be a wastrel in the grand Malabranca tradition, and preferably to expire in his mid hundred-and-twenties whilst rolling around lasciviously on a mound of unpaid debts.
Instead, he’d got unpaid debts on a Spire-wide scale and the constant threat of a coup from one or more of his cousins. Probably the emergency was nowhere but in his own overstretched nerves. Dante thought about the delicate balance of honour and obligation that kept Lael in place, and hoped, not for the first time, that nothing in the way of a plague or a religious revival or a bank failing at one of the other Spires happened to shake its foundations.
Lael opened her eyes. “Just an error,” she said firmly. “There is no way that there is another Retort accelerating towards Aeyorn and demanding assistance with its landing. It’s the dratted time-stamps again. The Retort’s not content with failing to recognise its own templates, now it’s failing to recognise itself.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
Dante shrugged. “Given the choice between thinking I’m going mad and knowing that the world’s gone mad around me…”
Lael stretched, arching her back and interlocking her fingers. One of her long bare feet escaped from under the puddle of furs at the end of the love-seat. “You are the most selfish man I know.”
“You married me so that I could be selfish enough for both of us.” Dante slid out of his chair, snagged a cushion from one of the many scattered across the floor, and started massaging Lael’s newly exposed instep. Lael made a small liquid noise of contentment.
“Shaula wanted us to watch the comet with her this evening,” he reminded his wife, backing it up with the slow roll of his thumb over the ball of her foot that made all her muscles relax.
“If I have time,” said Lael, picking up her screen again. “I still have to look over the digest of the household accounts.”
“The household accounts will be there tomorrow shortday. Fuentes’ Comet won’t be back for a hundred and fifty-nine years.”
“The household may not be there tomorrow, if I don’t keep an eye on the budget.” Lael frowned at her calculations, then ran the flat of her hand decisively over the screen to erase them. “What the hell happened to our grandfather’s fortune?”
“Our uncle Nikephoros spent it.”
“Ah, yes, that would be it.” Lael’s fingers stirred the screen’s watery surface. “It takes some skill to waste that much scrip when you have unlimited access to a Retort.”
“Retorts need energy. Energy has its price. That reminds me.” Dante reached for his wife’s other foot. “Shaula also wanted to show you a man with a perpetual motion machine.”
“She has already done so.” Lael’s brows creased together over the elegant bridge of her nose. “What worries me is that for twenty seconds, it worked.”
“It must have been drawing energy from the Retort somehow.”
“Dante, he’d made it at home from wire and teaspoons.”
“There’s a lot you can do with teaspoons. For example, you seem to be wearing several in your hair.”
Lael put a hand to the intricate metal cage that held the dark coiled chignon of her hair. “There is not a Retort diving towards us, and it is most certainly not perturbing the nature of time and space as it does so,” she said as if her voice could make it so. “The whole idea is ridiculous. Go and help Shaula with her comet-watching, if you’re going.”
“She wanted you to come and see it too.”
Lael’s eyes drifted back to the screen. “Absolutely the last thing I want is to sit about in the cold waiting for an extra speckle to show up in the sky. My hip…”
“You’re supposed to exercise your hip.”
“It’s my contaminated hip, and I’ve been living with it longer than I’ve been married to you.” Lael’s hand moved across the glyphs, sifting them from one column to another. Her mouth moved too, first silently and then less so. Dante’s fingers rubbing the sole of her foot slowed and then stopped.
“You’re muttering to yourself,” he said, in tones of careful restraint.
“Sorry. I know it annoys you.”
“It annoys me when you don’t exercise your hip, too.”
“Don’t you even try that one on me.” Lael looked back at her screen. “Aunt Ruxandra wants her allowance paid in advance for the next quarter, to that quack of a numerologist of hers, which is an interesting problem considering that she’s already promised her allowance in advance to three of her creditors and a charitable foundation. She’s also asking for a cash advance to replace some things that were stolen by the Hawkwoods.”
“Talented bandits. They managed to steal a set of fur bed-hangings and an icon of the Miracle of the Flowers from her, and I know for a fact that she never in her life owned either.”
Lael’s screen chimed. It filled with message-glyphs rising to the surface like drowned flowers. She selected one differenced with the device of the Volkov Scorpion. “Oh dear. It’s Shaula. Inviting us to come and see the Fuentes Comet. She’s made personalised invitations.”
Dante looked up at her, with the imploring expression that had worked on any number of lovers and creditors but had never cut much ice with Lael. As he looked up into her face, he felt a stab like a painless headache. The soft metallic voice was back in his head. This time it sounded stretched, like a bad audio recording. It said something that carried the meaning of ‘request assistance’ and something else that might have been ‘atmosphere’ and was gone.
“Holy Counsellor, it does mean a lot to you, doesn’t it?” said Lael, plainly startled. “Oh, very well. I’ll go. An hour on a cold balcony won’t kill me. And if it does, at least I won’t have to deal with the rest of these accounts.” She shifted towards the edge of the love-seat, and grimaced. “Ow.”
“Ow?” said Dante, wholly distracted from the voice in his head.
“My hip’s locked up and taken one side of my back with it. If I’m going to see this comet, you’re going to have to move me.”
Lael lifted her arms; Dante picked her up with the ease of long practice, one arm sliding around her shoulderblades and the other under her knees. “You haven’t been using that foam thing you’re supposed to use for your hip at night, have you?” he said resignedly.
“If I’m competent to run the Spire, I’m competent to decide whether I want to use the foam thing for my hip, or whether I want to get a night’s uninterrupted sleep,” said Lael more sharply than usual.
Dante had had this argument before, and it never ended anywhere good. Carrying the warm weight of Lael in his arms, her head nestled against his collarbone, he crossed the broad room to the filigree arched doors that led to the balcony. He concentrated. He could feel the Retort, the spine and nervous system of the Spire, resting as close to his consciousness as Lael to his heart.
Malabranca, he thought. The Retort responded, opening to him like a pocket dimension unfolding from a square of paper. He brought the requisite command codes to the front of his mind and the door swung smoothly open. The Retort retreated like a well-trained servant.
The outside air was full of a sharp bright cold like starlight. The surface of Aeyorn was pitted with balconies like this one, and windows nestled in between the ribs of rock like fireflies. On this particular balcony, Dante’s niece Shaula Volkov was embroiled in some kind of scuffle with a telescope. Her white velvet sleeves were dirtied with oil to the elbow, and a pair of pliers nestled between the dark shell-curve of her ear and the sculpted puff of her hair.
Dante set Lael down on a wrought-iron stool by the stone balustrade. “Do you want the fur blanket to go round your knees?”
“I want my contaminated painkillers, but I can’t have one for another two hours.”
“Yes, but do you want the rug?”
Shaula turned to look at him with the patient scowl of a fourteen-year-old who had to put up with her elders’ dilatory habits. “She doesn’t need a blanket. She’s fine.”
Dante took off his own cloak, which was covered in bright ribbons and hand-crafted feathers, and tucked it around Lael’s shoulders. Lael gave a sharp intake of breath.
“Did I stick a pin in you?” Dante asked concernedly.
“I don’t puncture easily,” said Lael with her usual steely self-will. “Shaula – I don’t think that’s Fuentes’ Comet – ”
“Oh, what do you know about it? You couldn’t tell the Compass Star from a man up a ladder with a big lantern.”
“Don’t talk to your aunt that way – ” Dante began.
The sky exploded into light. Light washed from horizon to horizon, blotting together the stars into an improbable clear blue. With a rushing roar, the balcony shook. Dante felt his heart give a single tight thump. He dived forward through air turned thick as egg-whites. He grabbed Shaula round the waist and pulled her to safety, and then flung out an arm to protect Lael. From inside the Spire he could hear the sound of every alarm-bell ringing at once.
The Spire shook to a halt. One bell, closer than the rest, carried on making its idiot clamour until Dante felt his head would split open. When it finally stopped, the ringing in his head took over.
“Ow,” said Lael into the silence; and then, with restraint, “My contaminated hip.”
It was thirty hours until dawn, but the sky was still brighter than it should have been, a blanched oyster-shell grey behind what Dante took at first for clouds.
It wasn’t clouds. It was smoke. Smoke, hanging like a great spider-crab in the sky.
Image, Wikimedia Commons