Altair Malabranca was small, round, dark-haired and coming up on five years old. On the night he became a prince, he was standing on a cold balcony waiting for his mother’s epicon to finish adjusting the telescope so that they could carry on looking for meteor showers.
Altair had waited for longer than most five-year-olds could manage, but he didn’t think Innes Liang was ever going to fix the telescope, and boredom prickled him like too-new clothes. He wandered to the other side of the balcony and prodded a clump of lichen that was growing on the stone balustrade.
Innes looked round. An embroidered cloak belled out from the epicon’s narrow shoulders, and the wind ruffled its short-cropped blue hair. “Don’t go too far and don’t climb up on to the rail,” Innes said, with authority; and then, under its breath, “It’s going to be just like that contaminated electron microscope over again…”
Altair knew about the electron microscope. His uncle Dimche had said that there was no way the Retort could make one, the templates were corrupted; his mother said it could make one, and it turned out she was right, and uncle Dimche had looked as sick as mud.
“Are we waiting for Matah to make a telescope?” he asked apprehensively, clenching his hands together so that they found new cold places in his mittens.
Innes shook its head. “No, child-of-my-heart. It just needs adjusting.”
“Can Matah come and adjust it?”
“No, she’s working. And nor can your attah, before you ask, because he’s sleeping.”
There was a pause before Innes answered. “Not this time, milord Altair.”
“Can one of the other Makers?”
“They’re busy, milord Altair,” said Innes with finality, and reached for a different kind of wrench.
Altair liked wrenches, though not as much as pulleys, but he concluded sadly that Innes wasn’t in the sort of mood to welcome offers of help. It was a shame, because Altair liked helping Innes, but you couldn’t always do as you liked, as Altair’s matah was fond of saying when Altair wanted to make loud noises in her vicinity.
Altair made his best bow-and-reverence of acknowledgment, even though Innes wasn’t looking any more, and wandered further on around the broad curve of the stone balcony. An opportunistic knot of vinog was growing twined round one of the balustrade’s pillars. Altair pulled off one of the vinog podules and threw it away, as hard as he could.
It bounced down, a long way down, past a roof and some towers poking up out of the night-mist. The mist glowed milky blue-white. Altair had thought it might be magic, but his matah said it was a light-scattering effect from the Spire’s suncloth arrays.
The balcony curved round in the same way the tower did, and ended in the place where the tower joined on to the main keep. Altair reached out and touched the side of the keep with one plump respectful finger.
This was the outside of Aeyorn. It was a dizzying thought. Altair wasn’t sure that he absolutely believed Aeyorn had an outside, even though here he was touching it.
Everything that mattered was part of Aeyorn. There were places that weren’t Aeyorn, like Shainault where his cousins lived and the domes where the technicians worked and the place by the River where his matah had shown him the breathing-rocks that had sat there unchanged since forty million years before the Founders; but he thought they might all secretly be part of Aeyorn really.
Aeyorn belonged to Altair’s grandmatah Lella Placidia, because she was Malabranca Prime. Altair liked Lella Placidia, because she gave him liquorice lozenges, and because when she talked everyone watched her like lizards, all alert and twitchy.
There was a light in the sky. Altair watched it. It was brighter than the usual stars, and it was moving. Altair bounced up and down with frustration. It was the meteor swarm, at last, and he was going to miss it because the stupid telescope was on the wrong side of the tower, and in a minute he wouldn’t be able to see it at all.
Altair looked at the stone balustrade that ringed the balcony. He hesitated. Then he grabbed and heaved and scrambled himself up, the way that Innes and Attah and Matah and Altair’s own nurse-technician Kihazia all said he wasn’t to, so that he could look over the top.
The meteors were falling faster now, leaving trails behind them like a thumb dragged through water. Altair scuffled his feet into position in the place where there was room for them on the curvy ice-slippery stone. His lower lip protruded pinkly with the effort. The hood of his cloak slid off and flapped against his back. There was a moment of remaining warmth, and then his scalp felt like it was encased in a bright crackling layer of ice, harder and more piercing than the chill his face had been enduring all along.
Altair didn’t care. He stared out fiercely at the dark northern sky, filling himself with the immensity of horizon and stars. The meteors continued to travel through the sky. “Innes!” Altair shouted, worried that it would be gone before Innes could come and see it.
Altair’s balance shifted perilously forward. His mouth opened into a wet, silent O. His foot wobbled. He tried to fiddle it back into position, but his toes had gone numb and uncooperative with the cold.
Altair tried to hitch his arms further over the balustrade so that he could hold on with his elbows. It wasn’t a good idea. The towers and the mist tilted horribly underneath him, his stomach slopped to and fro like water in a balloon, and he had to scrabble to stay in place. Now his other foot only had a toe’s worth of purchase on the slippery stone.
Altair clung onto the rail and told himself bravely it would be all right, that he could just stay here until Innes came.
And then his left arm was too cold to hold on properly any more. Altair tilted forward. He was only holding on with one elbow and the very tip of one boot now. The elbow felt weak and wobbly, and he wasn’t sure if the boot had any toe in it. Blood was thudding in his head and trying to tip him over the edge and down into the mist, just like that podule of vinog.
The mist and the domes looked a very long way down. One of the domes had a sort of spike on the top. Altair could feel the wailing sort of crying that never made anything any better welling up helplessly around him, waiting for a chance to pour into him and take him over. He didn’t want to cry. He knew that if he cried he would fall. But the crying might be stronger than Altair was.
Altair’s toe slipped. He felt himself start to tip helplessly forward. The balance of his body swung and took Altair with it. The stone of the rail scraped horribly under his belly. He opened his mouth, but the cold got in and no sound got out.
And then a pair of firm hands settled themselves at the sides of his waist. He wasn’t tipping forward any more. Innes was lifting him down.
Altair twisted his body like a cat and buried his head convulsively in Innes’ shoulder. He gulped back the tears that were too stupid to know they weren’t needed any more. Everything was all right now and would be forever. Innes was here.
Innes settled Altair onto its hip and rested one hand between his small shoulderblades, not patting or stroking like Kihazia did, just giving comfort. “Didn’t I tell you not to go climbing up onto the balcony, milord Altair?” Innes said into Altair’s curly hair. “Only sorcerors can fly, and you’re not a sorceror yet.”
“I should think so.”
Altair cuddled up to Innes, making a place for his head between the muscle and bone of Innes’s shoulder and the small tautness of its breast. The place smelt of wool and leather and cold. Altair wanted to suck his thumb, but his nose was full of snot left over from not-crying, and if he plugged up his mouth as well he wouldn’t be able to breathe. He wiped his nose on the collar of Innes’ cloak, with a quick surreptitious swipe of his head like a cat marking its property.
He thought Innes hadn’t noticed; but he should have remembered that Innes noticed everything.
The epicon pried Altair off its hip and set him firmly down on his feet again. The cold flew in and attacked Altair’s face, making him pout. Innes leaned down and produced a handkerchief with a flourish from behind Altair’s ear. The pout went away, even though Altair had seen that trick hundreds of times before. He reached up for the handkerchief in case it had a vanilla-bean candy in it, but Innes had taken it away and was dabbing the snot off its collar.
“Ugh,” said Innes. “There is a reason why I’m never having one of you, child-of-my-heart, and it’s not just that I’m biologically incapable.”
“What’s biologically incapable?”
“Ask your matah. And now I’m asking you.” Innes flipped the exposed edge of Altair’s ear with one finger. It didn’t hurt, because his ear was too cold to feel anything at all. “What does this mean?”
Altair rubbed the small hoop in the top of his ear. “Sealed to the Descent of First Latinus Malabranca,” he muttered.
“Sealed to the Descent of First Latinus Malabranca. And what does that mean?”
“It means whoever I marry, I won’t go away from Aeyorn, I’ll stay here and my children will be Malabranca and in-the-line-of-succession,” Altair parroted smartly.
“God save me if I live to see your children.” Innes gave its collar a final fastidious flick. “So, what was worth you risking the future of Aeyorn to get a better look at?”
Altair scowled and drew irresolute shapes on the flagstones with the soft toe of his boot. “Meteors. They started and you hadn’t fixed the telescope.”
From within the Spire, the bells started ringing again. Altair could feel them as well as hear them, when he touched the round side of the tower, as if the tower itself were another bigger bell. Innes cocked its blue-haired head to one side and listened.
“What’s that for?” said Altair, interested. “My sister? She’s here? Matah said she’d be too small for me to play with.”
Innes reached down and swung Altair up onto its hip again, the way it always did when they needed to move faster than Altair’s self-involved toddle. “It – could be. I thought I knew all the bell-codes, but that one’s not familiar. Let’s go and see.”
Maybe it was going to be an adventure. Altair remembered the last time he and Innes had an adventure. They had been out buying rice-candies, and Innes had scooped him off his feet with one arm around his waist and catapulted them both up onto a balcony, just as the air behind them had exploded in heat that smelt like hot sugar and dust. After that there was a scrabble and a push and they were hiding behind a banner on the balcony, with Innes’ hand hot and tight and bizarrely reassuring over Altair’s mouth.
Then Innes had held Altair’s hand and smiled and bowed a lot and talked to the nice lady whose balcony it was, and they’d stayed with her for a while. Her name was nyonya Kartheiser-Yee and her apartment was full of things Altair thought beautiful, like a samovar with a picture of Altair’s grandmother enamelled on the side and a big embroidered picture of a pouncing tiger and some rainbows. Altair still wrote nyonya Kartheiser-Yee letters inviting her to his matah’s receptions, though she hadn’t come yet.
Maybe next time she would come. And maybe there would be another adventure now. Altair locked his arms obediently around Innes’ neck. He could easily see over the balustrade now. The landscape out to westward was pencil-scrape grey. The tops of the two nearest domes poked up through the mist, round and stately, like lighted bubbles.
Innes’ feet broke into a run.
Inside the Spire, Altair’s mother Tzenni Boccamera de Volkov was working late. Part of her consciousness was chasing down a persistent fault with the Spire’s quarantine blast-doors; part was replying to a long and abstruse message from a Maker at Prémontré, part was tinkering with the balance of the nutrients piped to her beloved hybrid roses, and part was sketching a design for sweeping changes to the Retort’s deep structure.
Other women, so she understood, were overwhelmed with a desire to clean and decorate at this stage of their pregnancies. In Tzenni, it came out as an urge to reorganise the Retort. Which was a good thing, as she really only took an interest in cleaning from the perspective of public health: and if she tried to redecorate, her husband’s manservant You Imbecile would look wounded at her.
A chime sounded in Tzenni’s ear. Tzenni pinpointed it as coming from the Inward City medical centre, and ignored it. It was probably just another automated warning about the dangers of spending too much time in the Retort whilst pregnant. As far as Tzenni was concerned, at this stage of her second pregnancy she was much more comfortable in the Retort than out of it.
The chime sounded again, insistently, and resolved itself into the worried Retort-signature of one of Tzenni’s husband’s relatives.
Tzenni pulled the various tendrils of her consciousness together and switched to the level of the Retort called the alternet. Every Retort had an alternet, and they were all different. At Lionvarre, where Tzenni was born, it had been a forest. At Shainault, where she had met the Retort-ghost of Façade Blue, the alternet had looked like ruins. Here at Aeyorn it was a black-walled maze.
“What is it, Celaeno?” she asked resignedly.
Lady Celaeno Malabranca shifted nervously from foot to foot. She was a gawky young woman with fashionable short dark hair peeking out from under a diaphanous shawl and strappy silver sandals on her feet. Or so she appeared in the Retort at least; outside it, she was probably wearing crumpled coveralls and her mother’s hand-me-down boots. What appeared within the Retort was not necessarily what pertained outside, as could be proven by Tzenni’s present relief from stretched ligaments and heartburn.
The section of wall beside Celaeno slid agitatedly in and out of existence, revealing a variety of possible pathways beyond. The only constant was the boiling purple sky. Every Maker exerted their own gravitational pull on the Retort and left unconscious changes behind them. Or sometimes conscious ones; filling the alternet with lewd constructs was a junior-Maker prank as ancient as pumping undesirable chemicals through the air ducts.
Tzenni reached out with her consciousness, and the alternet settled. Celaeno wrung her long pale ineffective hands. “Oh, Lady Tzenni, I didn’t want to worry you, but – ”
“I’m pregnant, not having a nervous breakdown,” said Tzenni in a way that she hoped was reassuring. “What is it?”
“It’s Malabranca Prime.”
Tzenni didn’t feel her heart thump, but she felt a pulse of information spike out of the medical monitor and into the corner of her vision, bringing with it a lot of bossy admonitions about transmission of cortisol through the placenta. Behind it, more messages were stacking up, asking for her attention.
“Oh, shut up,” she said to the monitor. “She’ll have to learn to cope with the rest of her family sooner or later.”
“The baby, Lady Tzenni?” said Celaeno, her large brown eyes wide open. “Oh dear, are you going into labour? It’s my fault, I should have made you sit down before I…”
Tzenni checked her hormone levels through the monitor. Much to her relief, they were all steady. “I’m already sitting down and I’m not going into labour. What’s happened with Malabranca Prime?”
“Julius was there at her bedside when it happened,” said Celaeno, who appeared to think that if she sprinkled enough statements around what had happened, the fact of the matter would emerge like a silhouette from under a stencil. “And my father would have been if it hadn’t been that Malabranca Prime had given orders to bar the door against him, and the physician said she didn’t suffer at all, and she was holding a miniature of Lady Imeni and looking at it right before the end. It was all so fast, Julius said, there wasn’t time to fetch you or Uncle Latinus – ”
The purple skies overhead broke open in a crack of black and silver thunder. It was unfair to blame Celaeno, Tzenni thought; this wasn’t any one Maker’s doing. This was the Retort itself mourning Lella Placidia Malabranca, who had been its master for eighty-six years.
“May the eternal Radiance of God shine on her, and the ships of the Great Absence carry her home,” Tzenni said. The old words held some comfort, even if and the ships of the Great Absence had long since been carried off for scrap and so, as far as Tzenni believed, had God. Celaeno nodded fervently. A mourning border appeared briefly on her shawl.
Tzenni let her consciousness spread out across the Retort. Nothing would have been left in disorder. Lella Placidia was far too meticulous for that. But still, there would be all the tiresome protocol of a change of Primes to go through, and all the messy human work of grieving.
The first thing Tzenni had to do was to tell her husband Latinus, on whom most of the grieving and the protocol would fall. “Go and tell You Imbecile to wake your uncle,” Tzenni said. “Tell him I’ll meet him at his mother’s… bedside.” Tzenni didn’t have any problem saying deathbed herself, but she didn’t think Celaeno could cope with hearing it. She was right; even bedside made Celaeno gather up her draperies in a knot at her chest and give a superstitious gasp.
Tzenni closed her eyes as she left the alternet. Her imagined-body shredded away. She could see the whole Retort spread out below her, a country of endless wonder.
Then she was back in the chair, blinking dry eyes, and facing only a night of endless cousins. She wanted nothing more than to go back.
The screen in front of her was full of scrolling glyphs. She sent a cluster of messages to the Makers on the grid, most of them to do with containment and cataloguing of Lella Placidia’s personal space within the Retort.
She hesitated, and then added a general directive to everyone to report anything out of the ordinary in the alternet. Strange things did happen some times when Makers died, and Lella Placidia had been more than a Maker. She had been a sorceror.
Tzenni slid ungracefully to her feet. What she supposed were her feet. She hadn’t caught sight of them in a while. She couldn’t remember exactly when her feet disappeared from view. It had been some time after the point when her life became punctuated by having to waddle to the facilities every few minutes because the child was figure-dancing on her bladder. She waddled there now.
The trip to the facilities accomplished, she returned to the Retort-station. As she was about to sit down, the floor shuddered under her. Tzenni grabbed for the chair, wondering whether loss of balance was one of those disadvantages of pregnancy that she’d somehow managed to avoid with Altair only to have it strike this time round. The child took advantage of the moment to kick her in the ribs, hard, as if she were diving into deep water.
Tzenni levered herself into the chair again. “If you assassinate me from in there, everyone will think you’re Innes’ daughter and there will be a scandal,” she told the unrepentant bump.
They had been considering various names for the bump; they’d chosen Berenike as a second name, after Tzenni’s grandmother, but whether she’d be Aelis Berenike or Lella Berenike or Zophia Berenike had been an open question. Now it was a closed one; the person who had already grown toenails and eyelashes inside Tzenni’s skin was Lella Berenike Malabranca.
As she decided that, there was a tap at the door.
Tzenni concentrated. Ever since she’d become pregnant, it had been easier than ever to feel the small double-bounce of force that was her will transmitting itself to the Retort and then being magnified out again into the world. It felt like flexing a very large invisible muscle somewhere behind her ear; and like all muscles, the more she flexed it, the easier it got. She wanted the door moved; something in her head performed all the necessary calculations, and the door opened.
With the door open, she could hear a bell ringing somewhere and pattering footsteps somewhere else. She was no longer hermetically sealed in the room with the Retort; she was part of the Spire again, in all its breathless life.
The man in the doorway bowed to her. “Very good, my lady,” he said. “If I may be permitted the liberty, I remember when you had trouble sliding a glass along a table.”
“Hello, You Imbecile,” said Tzenni. “Have you heard?”
You Imbecile nodded gravely. Tzenni realised that her husband’s manservant had, from somewhere, produced and donned a set of impeccable mourning livery. If there was one word to describe You Imbecile, it was prepared.
“My condolences, my lady, and those of the above-stairs staff. May the eternal Radiance of God shine on her, and the ships of the Great Absence carry her home.”
“And may God help those of us she’s left behind,” said Tzenni. “Has someone given orders about the bells, and the mourning-bands, and so on?”
“I’ve given orders for distribution of mourning-bands at Retort-stations throughout the Spire.” You Imbecile hesitated. You Imbecile had a exquisitely graded language of hesitations, and if it ever annoyed him that no one else spoke it as fluently as he did, he was too polite to mention it. “I understand that Lord Dimche wishes to talk to you concerning commemorative souvenirs.”
Tzenni’s heartburn twinged. She wasn’t sure whether it was the baby this time or the thought of her husband’s cousin Dimche. It was no wonder Lella Placidia had barred him from her bedside. “I suppose I’d better get along to the deathbed before he starts cutting up the sheets and selling them,” she said resignedly. “Give me a hand up out of this chair, You Imbecile. What was that shaking the floor just now?”
“I believe it’s a phenomenon that’s been noted before when a Prime dies.”
You Imbecile gave another precise bow and came into the room. The lights from the corridor and the screen rippled off the braided river of scars which covered half his face and most of one arm. You Imbecile had been caught in a fire at some point, and had emerged with a fixed unwillingness to talk about his earlier life which Tzenni and everyone else respected.
The child kicked. In the beginning the kicks had been impossible to tell from indigestion; then they had progressed to a sort of rubbery flutter, and now it was a bit like trying to convey a struggling Altair to the bath, only, of course, inverted. “Oh, wait your turn,” said Tzenni irritably to the bump. “There’s plenty of other people who want to annoy me besides you.”
You Imbecile knelt down and fixed a grave gaze on the bump. “Your father’s Malabranca Prime now and you’re a princess, my little lady, so you should behave like one,” he said.
Tzenni blinked at him. He looked up at her. One side of You Imbecile’s face was determinedly nondescript; the other was covered with runnels of scar tissue from the long-ago fire, and both were now looking slightly embarrassed.
“It’s good luck, my lady,” he said. “Like telling the bees.”
“We haven’t got any bees,” said Tzenni, taking his arm. “I use airborne nanes to pollinate the roses.”
“And have you considered telling those about the Prime’s demise, my lady?”
“They’re controlled from the Retort,” said Tzenni, making the door shut behind them with another twitch of an invisible muscle. “They already know.”
The warmth of Aeyorn made Altair feel colder at first, in his chilled cheeks and at the roots of his damp tousled hair. Then his ears and fingers grew painfully warm and tingled. The bells were still ringing, and that got mixed up with the tingling in Altair’s head, and he thought that if one went away the other would too. He grabbed a handful of Innes’ ear and short hair, and pulled urgently on it.
“Don’t do that, milord,” said Innes, firmly disentangling Altair’s hand. “Ask for what you want.”
Altair tried, but then the bells stopped anyway. He wondered whether he had done it. It was a strange, enchanting thought. When he grew up he would be a Maker like his matah and attah. Perhaps he was already a Maker in secret. He didn’t like that thought; he wanted it to go away, but it grew and grew inside his head, and made him want to sob again.
“Oh, Holy St. Rune,” said Innes. “Don’t cry, child-of-my-heart.”
Altair gave a large damp sniff instead. Innes set him down and looked at him. “If you don’t cry,” the epicon said, in the voice that grown-ups used to other grown-ups, “I’ll take you to the Grand Chowk tomorrow and buy you a toffee-hammer for breaking up fossils.”
Altair giggled, because the idea of a hammer made of toffee was funny.
“Good,” said Innes, putting out a hand out to him to be lifted up again. “Bribery and corruption. It never fails.”
“What’s bribery-and-corruption, Innes?”
“It’s part of my grand plan to convince your mother that I’m not a fit person to be put in charge of children,” said Innes, with a lightness in its voice that didn’t quite match the look on its face. “I have to say it hasn’t worked particularly well so far. Perhaps I should have blown up the telescope.”
Altair straddled his legs around Innes’ hip again and pressed his cheek against Innes’ shoulder. “How would you blow up a telescope, Innes?”
“Put your lips together, and – ” Innes stopped in mid-breath and ducked into an alcove. “Hush.”
Altair hushed. He knew that it was important to obey Innes at times like this. Doing what Innes said was important. Not just important like putting your toys away so as not to make trouble for the servants, or even important like not interrupting Matah when she was talking about dextrorotatory proteins, but important like not poking your fingers into fires or leaning out of high windows.
Innes pulled a curtain in front of them. Altair reached out to touch the curtain, liking the nubbly texture. Innes grabbed his hand back. Altair was about to dispute the matter when they heard footsteps on the stairs. Clattery footsteps, like the guard, or Altair’s attah in armour.
“Not here,” said a man with a gloomy growling voice. “They must have gone up to the other turret, sister.”
“The Great Absence take that contaminated epicon,” said a lady’s voice. She had a soft fluttery voice, though it sounded quite decided and angry right now. Altair thought he might know her, but more people recognised Altair than Altair recognised back, and that was just how it was. It was strange that someone who knew Altair should say something so nasty about Innes. Perhaps she meant a different epicon. “You’ll have to check. If I’m not at the deathbed I’ll be missed.”
“We should have been about this earlier,” said the man with the gloomy voice. Altair didn’t know whether he knew him, but he sounded like the sort of person who said no a lot and who tried to have long conversations with Altair’s matah when Altair wanted to do something else. “I did my part as soon as I had the news from Julius. Why didn’t you – ”
“If I’d left it any longer she’d have found out herself from the Retort. You know how she is, brother,” snapped the fluttery lady, sounding out of patience as well as out of breath.
“Don’t you speak ill of her. What we are doing, we do to save the Malabranca, not…”
“What we do, we do for the Order, now that Imeni’s Ban is lifted. Now hurry up.” The voices disappeared. The feet clattered onwards. Altair looked up at Innes’ face. It had gone all thin in the shadows, like a white knife-blade.
“We’re going to find your mother,” said Innes again. “Now.”
The antechamber to the Prime’s bedroom was full of the dead smell of Lella Placidia’s favourite incense. It was also full of cousins, courtiers, sundry hangers-on, and two medical orderlies packing away equipment onto a trolley.
Celaeno was visible near the doorway, looking out of breath and on the verge of tears. She was nervously patting the shoulder of one of Lella Placidia’s waiting-women. The waiting-woman was clasping one of Lella Placidia’s miniature greyhounds and sobbing into its coat, and didn’t seem to have noticed that Celaeno existed.
Tzenni thought practically that something would have to be done about finding a new home for the dogs. If she didn’t deal with it now, they’d end up being added to her own household and would just about have time to settle down and stop peeing on the carpet before the child arrived and disrupted their routine all over again.
She looked thoughtfully at Celaeno. Maybe she was the solution. One overbred shivering creature ought to have a fellow-feeling for another, and it would do Celaeno good to have something to take responsibility for. As for the waiting-woman, after a lifetime in the service of Lella Placidia she deserved a pension, and possibly an exorcist.
Celaeno dropped a nervous curtsey. The waiting-woman looked up at Tzenni with wide elderly kohl-rimmed eyes, said “Oh, my lady,” and then something indistinguishable about Altair, and burst into tears again.
You Imbecile passed Tzenni a handkerchief. Tzenni gave it to the waiting-woman. This seemed to be the right thing to do, as she clasped the handkerchief as if it were a holy relic and seemed to be taking some pleasure in showing it to the dog. You Imbecile clasped his hands in the small of his back and looked privately pleased. Tzenni didn’t see what happened after that, because she caught sight of her husband across the room.
The Malabranca were a tall race, and several of the younger cousins admired Latinus enough to dress like him; but even in a Malabranca crowd, Latinus was unmistakeable. Tzenni looked at the back of her husband’s broad shoulders and at the long silvered-dark streak of his hair tied back by its velvet ribbon, and felt a rush and flutter that was utterly distinct from the child’s gyrations.
Latinus was having an argument with his cousin Dimche. Or, at least, Dimche was arguing; Latinus was listening with every appearance of courtesy. As Tzenni approached them, Dimche came to the end of his rhetorical flight, of which Tzenni caught nothing but the word revolutionaries. Tzenni couldn’t think how revolutionaries came into it, and wondered whether Dimche wanted to invite them to the funeral.
“The Spire is not full of revolutionaries,” said Latinus in his beautiful deep-velvet voice. “Unless you are referring to the members of my tiavod who consider themselves my loyal opposition, and if so I find it somewhat unjust.”
“You must have your little joke, Malabranca Prime,” said Dimche. “The revolutionary threat is everywhere.”
Latinus looked round politely for it, and caught sight of Tzenni instead.
Tzenni had somehow expected him to look older than his fifty-four years. Instead, he looked younger, and more unprepared than she’d ever seen him. She went forward to him and put her arms up round his neck, leaning into the comfort of him and offering the somewhat awkward comfort of her. He contorted himself around the bump. Some of the younger and more impressionable cousins made sentimental noises.
With a sharp stab that wasn’t heartburn, she thought how spare his lean shoulders felt, how narrow his angular bones. Lella Placidia had gone, and now her share of mortality was distributed out amongst them all. Latinus had inherited more than his due.
“Good God, I’m tired,” he said softly into her ear.
“Shall I make all these cousins go away?” Tzenni offered. “I could pretend my waters had broken early.”
He sighed. “They have a right to mourn her too. Besides, they’d only hang around to make sure we weren’t introducing a strange baby into the Spire in a warming-pan.”
“Have they seen Lella Placidia’s warming-pan? The thing spent all its life in the dogs’ basket.”
Tzenni detached herself reluctantly. She found herself the recipient of an almost boneless bow from her husband’s cousin Dimche. Dimche was nearly sixty, but the years had dealt kindly with him. His looks had settled into a sort of vapid dignity, and at least all that bowing kept him supple. “Lady Tzenni. May I say what a comfort it is to the entire Spire at this time to see your bloom, nay, your stateliness…”
“I think you were talking about revolutionaries,” interrupted Latinus hastily.
“Indeed.” Dimche bowed again. “As I was saying to Malabranca Prime, we live in troubled times. Considine Prime is a reckless autocrat, Mukhtar Prime is an old man and his heir is the next thing to a drooling idiot, and as for that scandalous creature at Ailebroc…”
“That may all be very true,” said Latinus, “but none of them is Malabranca Prime. Or at least, if people consider that I am a scandalous creature, no one has told me so.”
Dimche puffed his chest out. “Indeed not, Malabranca Prime, but there is no decontamination that can stop ideas moving from Spire to Spire, and even members of Maker families are not immune.”
“To ideas? I should hope not.”
“To revolutionary tendencies, Malabranca Prime. If I might suggest, Malabranca Prime, your priority at present must be to safeguard the succession against revolutionary elements…”
Tzenni managed to repress the urge to lean down and ask her bump whether it was harbouring any revolutionary elements in there. She looked towards the closed door of Lella Placidia’s bedroom. “Shall we?”
Latinus offered her his arm; she took it, and they went together into the presence of death.
Inside the panelled room, the incense-smell was choking. Tzenni supposed that as deathbed smells went it could have been a lot worse, though the heat was probably speeding up the process of decomposition.
The bed was outrageously ornate, carved from the scrimshaw bones of some long-dead beast out of the iceworks. Its draperies stirred unceasingly in the brazier-heat, as if the beast’s hulking invisible ghost still prowled around the bed looking for a way out. Within the bed was an indistinct bulge, capped by a smear of thin black hair on a pillow. Latinus squeezed Tzenni’s hand, and went alone to kneel at the head of the bed.
Tzenni stood still and firmly ignored the pain in her back and the insistent nag of her bladder. All she could do was be here for Latinus, so that was what she was going to do. There was a push and a bustle as the cousins came into the room after them.
Tzenni looked round rather helplessly. From old Dimche to young Celaeno and her brother Gallus, via such luminaries of the in-between as Lorenzo and his shrill bore of a wife, they were now more her responsibility than ever, and she didn’t particularly want them.
Young Gallus came forward with a small gilt chair. Tzenni gave him a grateful smile and sat down on it. She couldn’t think why all the portraits of pregnant Malabranca, of which there were two on the walls of this room alone, showed their subjects standing with one hand in the small of their backs looking radiant.
“I know this isn’t the time or place,” said a rasping voice behind her, “but Aunt Lella always said I was to have that.”
“Oh, Mother – ” said Celaeno helplessly.
Tzenni looked round at Dimche’s first wife Sevena, an iron-grey matron who appeared, over the years, to have gradually leached all the calcium that was missing from her husband’s backbone and applied it to her own.
She tried to make out what Sevena was pointing at, but could only see three orphaned-looking trolleys full of medical equipment. The only reasons she could think of for Sevena to want anything from them were uniformly grim.
“I think those belong to the Inward City medical centre,” she said. “Would you tell them to come and take them away? I really don’t think the heat’s good for the equipment.”
“I mean that set of gilt chairs,” grated Sevena.
“Malabranca Prime always promised me those chairs,” said someone else. Another voice said something about a charitable foundation.
“Oh, but cousin – ” fluted Celaeno. Her voice reminded Tzenni of Lella Placidia’s late wife Imeni Malabranca, who smiled down from one of the portraits on the walls with an expression of elderly mischief.
There were far too many bodies in the room. The panelled ceiling swayed; Imeni Malabranca’s portrait seemed to wink. The incense made Tzenni feel as if she’d been drinking the vilely strong coffee Latinus preferred.
She looked around at the paintings, from the priceless Ikatilin Gentileschi portrait of Taissia Malabranca With A False-Tulip Tree At The Fiftieth Landfall Celebrations to the small framed silhouette of Lunaire Malabranca, who had died the day before her fourth birthday nearly a century before.
All the inheritance that belonged to the Prime would need to be catalogued. All the apparatus of Lella Placidia’s personal fortune would need to be dismantled and passed out among the cousins. All the bank accounts and the commonplace books and the maze of captious alterations that was Lella Placidia’s will would need to be examined.
Tzenni felt breathless. The child jabbed her in the intestines with something that was probably a heel.
“Lady Tzenni needs air,” said Gallus with sudden authority. “Everyone step back a little.”
“You’re not senior to me,” grumbled someone.
“That is very true, young man, you are not, and you should not be speaking to your elders so – ” began Dimche.
“At least Gallus never conspired to let the Mukhtars into the Spire through the back door,” said someone else spitefully.
“That is a gross misrepresentation of events,” said Dimche with well-practiced indignation. “The situation at Shainault seven years ago was one that required immediate and imaginative action…”
“Step back,” growled Gallus. “Lorenzo, help me with this.”
“Thank you, Gallus,” said Tzenni, looking up at him. He had a rather fierce iteration of the hawk-nosed Malabranca looks, with strong cheekbones and broad flat eyebrows that naturally settled somewhere between a frown and a snarl.
“It was nothing, Lady Tzenni,” he said earnestly. “I would do much more for you if I could.”
“Do you think you could find me a footstool without incurring the wrath of someone who thinks they’re due to inherit it?”
Gallus stared at her so intensely that she was sure she could hear his muscles creak. Tzenni wondered whether he had suddenly blossomed into a sorceror and was about to whisk the footstool into place from under the bed.
Latinus rose to his feet once more, took a step backwards, and managed to almost completely avoid a collision with the trolleys. Tzenni watched him with loving amusement. He was the most graceful man she knew, but he still had occasional fits of being fourteen years old about the knees and elbows. She wondered whether all men did.
“I would do anything for you, Lady Tzenni,” Gallus said ardently. “And for Malabranca Prime, of course. And Lord Malabranca.”
Altair. Tzenni’s breath caught in her throat. Altair was with Innes, she told herself, and Innes would keep him safe.
She looked around at the crowd of cousins, who were more or less indignantly penned up in the vicinity of the doorway. She didn’t think any of them were likely to throw Altair off a balcony. Then again, she hadn’t thought anyone was likely to set off a bomb in the Grand Chowk when Innes had taken Altair there to buy rice-candies, either. Despite the feverish heat of the room, she felt a shiver.
Latinus looked back at the collection of priceless enamelled pillboxes, stacked-up books, and small jars containing everything from rice-petal candy to spare spectacle lenses which rested on Lella Placidia’s bedside table. “Deal with that, will you, Julius? I can bear for them to see her, but not the things she left behind.”
“I have a right to that silver pillbox with the Malabranca Sword engraved on top, she had it from Jenna Malabranca and I’m Jenna’s oldest descendant living,” said one of the cousins, making Latinus’ face twitch.
Gallus looked slightly cross-eyed with devotion, and as if he was about to change his name to Julius on the spot. Tzenni wished Latinus would just wear his spectacles rather than keeping them in his pocket for the sake of vanity. “This isn’t Julius, it’s Gallus.”
Latinus looked gently bewildered, and put his spectacles on. “Gallus. I do apologise. Put those things away for safe-keeping. I expect they’ll be left to the waiting-women, but that can be dealt with later.”
“My honour, Malabranca Prime,” said Gallus with a very respectful glower.
Tzenni levered herself up out of the chair and took Latinus’ arm. She leaned on him as they made their way back out through the antechamber. It was, after all, his fault that she had to cope with loose ligaments that made her feet feel like flippers.
The cousins and servants made heart-and-brow and curtsied as they passed, so that it seemed to Tzenni that she walked down a flickering tunnel of flourished sleeves and dipping skirts.
Innes met them just outside the door, with Altair straddling its hip and looking aggravatingly perky. Tzenni felt paradoxically more tired and yet more capable, for being here with her family around her.
The funeral, the will-reading, the ceremony of Latinus’s coronation would undoubtedly bring their own troubles, and she wouldn’t have chosen to deal with any of it whilst eight months pregnant; but for the moment, she felt precariously at peace.
And then she saw the look on Innes’ face.
“I need to talk to you,” said Innes. “Not with these people listening in.”
The corridor cleared rapidly as they headed towards their apartments in the Inward City. Innes cocked its head, hearing footsteps before anyone else did. It handed Altair over to Latinus and drew its sword, putting itself between the footsteps and the Malabranca.
Tzenni let her muscles relax. She could feel one of the Retort’s relays pulsing near her in the walls. She felt its buzz in her head. She and the Retort were linked, even more intimately than she and the child below her heart, and she could feel its leashed power ready for her to turn against anyone who threatened her family. Everything in the universe was energy, she’d always told Altair. The trick was knowing how to use it.
She could feel Latinus doing similarly, and the twitch of his muscles that meant that his first reaction had been to reach for his sword. But there was Altair now, and whilst there probably were swordfighters out there who could kill their assailant without harm to the four-year-old on their hip, her husband wasn’t one of them, any more.
“Is it the lady come back?” demanded Altair.
“What lady?” said Tzenni. It was work, these days, to keep up with what went on in Altair’s head. She wished it wasn’t. Every time she left him with Kihazia, every time she took a couple of days to work on the Spire’s maintenance or her own research, she came back to find him babbling confidently about things she didn’t have a reference point for.
Innes looked over its shoulder at her. “I told you I needed to talk to you.”
The footsteps came round the corner. It was You Imbecile. Tzenni let the Retort go.
You Imbecile bowed. “My Prime. My lady.” He inclined the bow towards Altair. “My prince.”
“Oh, God, don’t,” said Latinus. “Not you as well. I keep thinking it’s all going to turn out to be a ridiculous mistake.”
“I’d have been here sooner, my Prime, but I had to deal with a pack of fools trying to steal the pall and the funeral luck-bells from the oratory,” said You Imbecile dourly. “Put your sword away, Innes Liang, you know I’m a better swordsman than you are.”
“Only in the somewhat narrow sense that you’re more of a man than I am, which I don’t suppose anyone’s going to quarrel with,” said Innes, leaning its shoulderblades against the wall and letting its long body slump from them.
“Don’t you two bicker with each other now,” said Tzenni. “Innes, what did you want to tell me?”
“The Order of the Neither have agents within the Spire. Calling themselves sister and brother, which might just be Order-talk.”
“And then again, might not,” said You Imbecile dourly.
Innes took up the story again. “One of them thought she’d be missed if she wasn’t at the deathbed. T’other said he was doing what he did to save the Malabranca. And I don’t know why they were looking for milord Altair, but I’ll bet they didn’t wish him any good.”
There was a long pause.
“Well,” Latinus said, his hand tightening around Altair’s back, “we knew they’d be back one day.”
Tzenni nodded. “We did.”
“You knew their voices, didn’t you,” said Tzenni, as Innes escorted her towards the medical centre for something that was either a checkup she’d forgotten about, or a complaint that one of the cousins had embezzled some medical equipment while making sure of the gilt chairs. “And you didn’t mention it in front of Latinus, because they’re some of his cousins.”
The lights in the corridor grew brighter as they approached the medical centre. Somewhere, a child was wailing. Innes drew circles on the rubbery white floor with the tip of one foot.
“I did recognise them,” the epicon admitted. “I don’t think milord Altair did.” Innes gave Tzenni a precis of what it had heard. She listened.
“I was thinking about Lella Placidia’s ornamental greyhounds,” said Tzenni after a pause. Inside her, the child rolled its skull to and fro restlessly as if trying to suck its thumb. “You can’t have a puppy yet,” she told her daughter. “If you wait a while, I expect You Imbecile will find one that he swears is abandoned and followed him home, and he can’t be expected to keep it so he makes a present of it to you.”
“We can’t control what follows us home,” said Innes, stalking along giving people blank-faced looks that dissuaded them from coming and giving Tzenni their condolences. “Some creatures, you feed them and keep them warm all their lives, and they still crap on your carpet.”
“Or try to bite your hand off,” said Tzenni.
“Not with me in the way,” said Innes. “And it’s not like we’re dealing with mastiffs, after all. Just – with Malabranca ornamental greyhounds.”
“They’re still hounds.”
“Only lapdog ones.” Innes dipped its knees to take some holy water from the stoup outside the medical facility, then offered some politely to Tzenni. She shook her head and reached for the hand sanitiser instead.
If she concentrated, she could feel the thrumming life of the Retort, suspended like a hologram around and within and through every part of the Spire. This was her place, and no one was going to take it from her.
She thought, with a squeamish pang of pity, about what it must be like to spend one’s entire life in the moral equivalent of that airless room where Lella Placidia had died, measuring out one’s worth in pillboxes and gilt chairs.
It didn’t excuse anything: she still couldn’t forgive the tired look on Latinus’ face, or the uncomprehending look on Altair’s. But it gave her a small, unwelcome window of understanding.
“Only lapdogs,” she agreed, leaning her head against Innes’ shoulder. “I was thinking of giving one of Lella Placidia’s dogs to Celaeno to care for.”
“But now you think you won’t, after all?”
Tzenni nodded. “But now I think I won’t, after all.” She tucked her hand into Innes’ arm.
“You wasted your time sanitising that if you’re just going to touch me with it,” Innes advised her kindly. “That sleeve’s had Altair wiping his nose on it all evening.”
“You didn’t think to give him a handkerchief?”
“I was trying to mend a telescope!”
They went together through the archway, and into the presence of life.
Copyright © 2011 Ankaret Wells