The Maker’s Mask is the first book of the Requite duology. It’s a science fiction romance featuring courtesans, programmers, revolutionaries, genderqueer bodyguards, technological tinkerers, swordfights, explosions, arguments, assassins and eels.
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Read an excerpt from the first chapter below:
2-2 Crystal, 432 S.F, Shainault
The first frosts of the year had just broken when Tzenni Boccamera arrived at the Spire of Shainault. There was a shabby trade town outside the gates; it looked as if it had only survived the winter without falling down because the frost stiffened the buildings enough to keep them vertical.
Tzenni’s grel made splattering noises of distaste with both sets of nostrils, and tried to scrape its saddle-bags off against the wall of a particularly tumbledown shack. The shack had a porch made of wine-coloured curtains at the front, giving the impression that it had rammed into the back of a bedstead and stuck. The burgundy cloth still held its stiff folds and repelled the mud, as only Maker-tech could.
“If Kapellan Prime wants to help these people,” Tzenni said to the grel, “he could think about making them plaz shelters, not handing out his old curtains as charity. And he could do something about the drainage, too. It’s a cholera epidemic waiting to happen.” The grel picked its clawed feet up disdainfully, but didn’t seem to have any further opinion on the matter.
Tzenni tugged the cowl of her robe forward. The less anyone saw of her face, the better. She hauled the grel grimly onward towards the gate, ignoring the offers of a bed for the longnight or a companion to share that bed or a ‘guide’ to Shainault. As if any of these people had a chance of entering the Spire.
Tzenni wasn’t sure what her own chances were, but she had to try. She tilted her head and looked upward at Shainault.
The dark walls were ribbed with watchtowers whose sharp incurved lines sliced at the sky. Thin windows glinted in the last of the light. The walls were clotted with ice. Tzenni wondered whether the ice ever fell down on the shanty-town and if so what they did about it. Probably it was a useful source of more or less uncontaminated water.
Above the gatehouse hung the pennants which showed the presence of Makers within the Spire. Four great swathes of Kapellan-blue cloth hung in the centre; that would be Kapellan Prime and his sons. A banner in Malabranca black and silver hung beside them. That was no surprise to Tzenni. Everyone knew the Kapellans and the Malabranca were allies, in the same way that everyone knew bad housekeeping was an ally with mould.
Another banner hung a little apart from the others. It was curiously mottled in brown and something greenish, and hanging against a particularly dirty patch of stone. Was that supposed to be the brown and gold of the Volkovs of Belyaevo, or the very similar bronze and brown of their cousins the Quinn-Laos of Tabia?
It was neither. Tzenni felt a shock like a fist connecting with the base of her throat, and told herself that she wasn’t going to have an anxiety attack. The pennant had originally been Boccamera green, and for the last three months people had been throwing mud at it. Actually, mud had probably been the pleasantest thing they had thrown.
Tzenni made herself breathe deeply. The pennant was a good sign, she told herself. Her sister Catha was still alive and in Shainault. Now all Tzenni had to do was get her out again.
The guards were looking at her curiously. It was too late to back out now. Tzenni gritted her teeth and marched up to the gate, dragging the reluctant grel in her wake.
The doors of the Spire were set deep in a square, solid half-octagon arch. Tzenni had a confused impression of twin guard-houses, of halberds and helmets and heavy boots. Refusing to be overwhelmed, she addressed the soldier who seemed to be in charge, a swaggering red-haired bruiser with a sleek smile.
“Venna jorna!” she said cheerfully. “Courier here, with the first post of the year! I hope you give me a better welcome than those bandits at Rivantia, all they had for me was a cup of cold noodles and a lot of trouble about Lady Essex Hawkwood not getting a packet of seeds she wanted from Civitavecchia.”
The red-haired man laughed. Tzenni fought a stab of panic. What had she said? Surely Essex Hawkwood hadn’t broken the habits of at least twenty years and got out of her four-poster bed to make the uncomfortable winter journey to Shainault?
She couldn’t have. All the pennants were dark Kapellan blue, not the paler slate-blue of the Hawkwoods. Tzenni breathed deeply and tried to ignore the panicky buzzing in her ears and listen to what the man was saying.
As it turned out, he wasn’t talking to her anyway. He was turning cheerfully to the other guards, and sharing the news. “You hear that? Road’s clear to Rivantia. Another couple of longdays, and we’ll be seeing the Hawkwood bride!”
“Who cares about the bride?” called a woman with a broken nose. “We’ll be seeing the dowry, and then we’ll all get paid!”
The red-haired man clapped a hand onto Tzenni’s shoulder. “God bless you and the news you bring, little nyonya-Courier. Show me your Courier’s seal and we’ll have you in the guardhouse with a good hot meal in front of you before you can recite the Prophet’s Creed.”
Tzenni reached behind her neck and unhooked the embroidered choker which she had sewn with pockets to hold her valuables. “My seal? Certainly. It’s…”
The choker felt disastrously light in her hands. Panic prickled in her fingers and toes. Her money, her precious materia, the dear-bought Couriers’ seal, and worst of all, the earring that marked her as a Maker… “It’s gone,” she said helplessly. “Someone’s stolen it…”
The man’s hand gripped down on her shoulder, pinching the bones. His sleek face grew a whole lot less jovial. “I should have know it was too early in the year for anyone to make it through from Rivantia.”
His words drew the other soldiers like buzzers to a corpse. Someone dragged the grel’s reins from Tzenni’s hand. Someone else pushed the hood of her cloak roughly back. It was all going wrong and she couldn’t think of a way to stop it.
“Va jemoy!” one of the soldiers swore in Yaziik. She scraped ungentle fingers through Tzenni’s curly brown hair, pushing it back behind her ear. “She’s had her ear pierced for a Maker earring!”
The red-haired guard grabbed Tzenni by the other shoulder and turned her to face him. He was tall enough and she was short enough that all she could see was the top of his breastplate, and above that, springy chest hair and pale unwashed skin. She realised with another small injection of panic that she didn’t, quite, believe this was happening. She had never been this physically close to a man who didn’t treat her with the utmost respect.
Tzenni felt like blurting out that they couldn’t do this to her, she was Lucastine Boccamera’s daughter. She shut her teeth against the words. Admitting she was a Boccamera, here outside the stronghold of the Boccamera’s enemies, would be a lot worse than admitting she wasn’t a Courier. The guard hauled her upwards. She could smell his sweat and breath. One of her boots stayed behind in the mud.
“What d’you mean by it, you conniving slut?” The guard shook her hard enough to blur her vision. She hoped it was just tears in her eyes and not, say, a detached retina. The damage patterns were different, but she couldn’t just at present remember anything approximating to the sunbursts filling her vision.
“If you kill me, you’ll never find out,” gasped Tzenni. It wasn’t much of a response, but it was the best she could think of. Her sister Catha would have kicked him in the… well, in the well-armoured parts, but Catha would have found a way to make it hurt by now. Their eldest sister Ligeia would never had let herself get into a situation like this to start with. But Ligeia wasn’t here. Ligeia and all her diplomatic skills were at Ailebroc of the Gentileschi getting the Boccamera an heir, and their mother Lucastine was dead, and there was no one to rescue Catha but Tzenni.
And right now, she wasn’t doing much of a job of it. “Skin like wet caramel, she’s got,” said another soldier in an objectionable purr. Someone else said something in Yaziik that Tzenni didn’t even understand, but she understood the gesture that went with it only too well.
“What do you imagine you are doing?” enquired another voice, with a crack like a whip put into the what. Tzenni thought vaguely that it sounded remarkably cultured for a gate-guard. The guards were silenced. Tzenni’s field of vision swung round as the red-haired man lifted her up. He gave her a contemptuous shake, as if she were a lizard he had found in a hydroponics lab.
She found herself looking up at a high open balcony of smooth black stone, where the blank wall began to flower into turrets and staircases. She could see nothing of the man who stood there but an arrogant stance swathed in a black cloak, a ripple of long hair, a white sliver of face. She could hear nothing of him but that voice.
The soldier yelled up something by way of explanation. The man above leaned his shoulders back a little. He folded his arms, capably managing a billowing expanse of sleeve. He had to be a Maker, Tzenni thought, even though it was impossible to see the tiny glint of an earring at that distance. No one else would dress like that. No one else would stand like that. “Tell her to open the gate,” said the man, sounding bored. “If she can’t, kill her. If she can, bring her to me.”
Tzenni was scared of heights. Not liking heights was a disadvantage in a Boccamera, since the source of their power was the Swarm, and the Swarm flew. It was also, evidently, a disadvantage in a prisoner of the Kapellans. Tzenni had no idea why they didn’t install lifts in their Spire like normal people. Her stomach heaved whenever she caught sight of the view down a stairwell.
She only got through the long tramp up the stairs of Shainault by the simple expedient of shutting her eyes to as much of it as she could. By the end of it her only comfort was that she’d left muddy sock-prints all over the Spire. It wasn’t much of a comfort, since she doubted Kapellan Prime did his own cleaning.
Tzenni tried to distract herself by trying to work out exactly how long it had been since Boccamera feet had last touched these stairs. The Boccamera must have come here as allies, or the mothers of sons marrying Kapellan daughters, before Cimmenze Boccamera and Jaross Kapellan had started the Feud. She imagined them dressed in the tailored, formally decorated coveralls whose templates the Retort preserved under incomprehensible names like ‘Undress Greys’. It was harder to imagine their faces. They kept ending up looking like Catha in her flying leathers.
Catha. She would find a way out of this, and a way to save Catha. She would. And she’d start the moment they got off the contaminated stairs.
Her ancestress Cimmenze hadn’t been scared of stairs. Or at least, not as far as Tzenni knew. Though it was odd that all the paintings of her showed her at the gates on vrykol-back, and not up with the Swarm. Perhaps she thought her allies might take to their heels if she wasn’t there to scare them into compliance.
The portraits of Cimmenze at Lionvarre showed a woman even smaller than Tzenni, with a prim face and the sort of smile that suggested she was ashamed of her teeth; but it was clear from the records that her contemporaries had believed that small plain woman absolutely capable of scaring the River at full tide into staying within its banks. Tzenni tried not to think about how unlike her ancestress she was. It was almost a relief when she stubbed her toe and had to open her eyes.
She was climbing a vast staircase bordered by alcoves containing painted statues of past Kapellans. They weren’t in good repair. That’s what you get for using oily paint on native wood without leaving it to dry out first, Tzenni thought severely. Her eye paused on one that didn’t seem to be peeling. It was further back in its alcove than the others; a slender carved figure with a cap pulled down over its forehead, setting the face deeper in shadow.
The statue’s fingers twitched. Tzenni’s heart bounced against her ribcage. Was it Catha? The height and build were right, and it was exactly the sort of thing Catha would do. Tzenni feigned a stumble, bumped into the soldier beside her and ended up very nearly turning her ankle. The soldier swore and looked down at her. “None of your tricks!”
“I’ve hurt my foot,” Tzenni improvised, sitting down on the cold stone stair and massaging her muddy ankle.
“If you can’t walk I’ll drag you all the way up to see Lord Malabranca.”
“Lord Malabranca?” said Tzenni blankly.
Now she felt sick as well as panicked. She remembered the black and silver banner. Centuries ago, Bela Malabranca had broken the rules of the Ordnance and betrayed the hospitality of the Mukhtars. Tzenni couldn’t recall the details, only a fascinated memory of horror that lived like a shiver on the skin.
The guard looked annoyed. Whatever unwholesome practices Lord Malabranca might dabble in, he had evidently been at Shainault long enough for the soldiery to get used to him. “Who were you expecting, Drazka Five Spires?” he said.
“I was expecting a Kapellan. Aren’t there any left?”
The other soldier turned back to see what the problem was. As she turned, she exposed her wide chainmail-clad back to the watcher in the alcove. Tzenni caught her breath.
An arm in grey velvet reached neatly out of the shadows and hooked itself round the guard’s throat, pressing flatly on her windpipe. Tzenni wasn’t sure whether she heard the meaty pop of a dagger stabbing into flesh, or whether it was all her squeamish imagination. The surviving guard clapped a hand to his sword.
A lithe figure stepped out of the alcove. It wasn’t Catha. It was someone taller and paler-skinned, with a long, humorous face framed by bright blue hair. The soldier beside Tzenni swore. The only word Tzenni understood was scrat.
Of course. Epicon was the polite word, scrat the rougher version, partaking partly of scorn and partly of envy. This person, whoever it was, was neither man nor woman but something of both. And definitely not Catha, not unless she’d been to Ailebroc and had a surprising amount of surgery.
The epicon let the soldier’s body fall. It raised a chitin-bladed sword in a fencer’s salute. It beckoned with the other hand. The gesture went with the upraised chin and the mad, cocky grin, the way a sword went with a scabbard.
Tzenni scrambled backwards up another step and tried to think what an unarmed Maker was supposed to do in this situation. She had a sharp vision of her childhood bodyguard Caitriesse saying matter-of-factly and then you die, now let’s go back to the beginning.
“I don’t know who you are, scrat,” the first guard began, “but…”
“Then you’re at a disadvantage, aren’t you? Don’t worry. I’m quite happy to kill people before being formally introduced.” The epicon moved so gracefully that Tzenni’s brain failed, at first, to understand how fast it was.
There was a brief, desperate clatter of steel; and then the tall figure in grey knelt to wipe the sword on the dirty skirts of the soldier’s coat. And, Tzenni was astonished to notice, to go through his pockets.
“You killed him!” she said.
“I killed the other one, too, and I didn’t see you being any help. See if she’s got some scrip, or a watch token.”
“What’s a watch token?”
The epicon fished a triangular piece of chitin out of one of the soldier’s inside pockets. “One of these. Means I can eat, and get my washing done. So can you. Come on.”
“You’re robbing the dead to pay for your washing?”
“It’s not like they need their washing done any more.” The epicon fished out a dirty handkerchief and made a skeeved face at it. “Not that it seems to have been much of a priority in any case.”
“You didn’t give him a chance to surrender!”
“What was I supposed to do with a prisoner? I expect I’ll have enough trouble with you.”
Tzenni was bereft of speech. The epicon made a sweeping bow, doffing its cap. “Innes Liang at your service. Originally of Ailebroc and then of Rivantia. These days, of nowhere in particular.”
That, at least, made sense; most epicons came from Ailebroc or Prémontré, but Tzenni had a vague idea there were some at Rivantia in the retinue of Lord Hawkwood’s consort, who was an epicon itself. “You’re with the Hawkwoods? What are you rescuing me for?”
“What makes you think I’m not kidnapping you?”
“Are you kidnapping me?” asked Tzenni, feeling outmanoeuvred.
“Someone will, if you carry on wandering about the back stairs of Shainault without any boots on, and it might as well be me as anyone else. Have you really hurt your foot?”
Innes knelt beside her and palpated her bare clammy ankle. Tzenni twitched her leg out of the epicon’s reach and grabbed the hilt of the fallen soldier’s sword. It was much heavier than she had expected.
Innes looked at it. “Good thought. We can sell that, too. Shame it’s not safe to stay here long enough to shuck them out of their chainmail. Lord Malabranca’s servant might come down here to see what the hold-up is, and I’m not tangling with him if I can help it.”
Tzenni’s stomach gave another convulsive heave. She weighed the unknown Lord Malabranca and his servant against the eyes she was looking into, and remembered that cold, beautiful voice from the battlements saying kill her.
Innes scrambled to its feet. “There’s a secret door in the alcove. Let’s go.”
“I could hit you with this sword,” said Tzenni distantly.
Innes looked her up and down, grinned, and shook its head. “You don’t look a bit like your sister.”
“You know about Catha?”
“You’re Ligeia, right?”
“I’m Tzenni, but…”
There were footsteps and shadows further up the stairs. Innes took Tzenni’s hand. The epicon’s touch was cool and impersonal, like putting one’s hand in water. “Not here. Come with me.”
Innes led Tzenni through a narrow, oily-smelling corridor and then along a stuffy curtained gallery. Draughts and shouts and cabbagey smells rose from below.
A door off the gallery led onto a much narrower staircase, one of the really old ones with a metal rail and handholds at odd angles on the walls. The sword grew heavier. Tzenni couldn’t imagine how Catha could haul one of these about all day. Perhaps a scabbard helped.
They were heading down into the heart of the Spire. The smell of boiled eels and dirty human skin gave way to that of unexplained machinery, and then to something worse. Tzenni’s nose twitched. “Why does this place smell of rots wash?” she asked in an out-of-breath voice.
Innes looked round in a swirl of embroidered leather coat-skirts. “Now that sounds like a drink you shouldn’t order if you want to keep your eyesight.”
“You know when interior walls go all speckled and spongy? That’s the rots,” explained Tzenni earnestly. ” I don’t know whether it’s Founders or native, but it’ll fix on anything that isn’t totally chemically inert. It’ll eat stone if you give it long enough.”
“It shouldn’t be here, and it shouldn’t be here now. You wash for rots in late summer. I think it eats the ice-algae out in the iceworks and that’s what causes the sexual bloom… why are you looking at me like you’re trying not to laugh?”
“It’s the way you say sexual bloom in exactly the same tone of voice as chemically inert,” explained the epicon helplessly. “Are you always like this?”
“Are you always killing people?”
“No, I generally only do that when someone pays me.” Innes knocked on the wall with its knuckles. “So the Spire’s falling to bits. The Kapellans haven’t got any money. If they had, they wouldn’t be selling their sons in marriage to the Hawkwoods. Do you think it’s going to fall to bits within the next hour?”
Tzenni peered at the walls. “It seems relatively structurally sound…”
“That’ll do me. Come on.”
“When are you going to tell me about Catha?”
“When I think it’s safe.” Innes hesitated, eyes narrowed. “When I think it’s safer. And now we’re going to take a shortcut through a bit of the Spire that really isn’t safe. Take your lead from me, and if we get separated…”
Tzenni looked doubtfully at the sword. Innes shook its head. “If we get separated, go up and when you find a Retort station, call Lord Malabranca.”
“I thought we were escaping from Lord Malabranca.”
“We are.” The epicon sighed. “Milady Boccamera, when it comes to a choice between someone who might kill you later and someone who will certainly kill you now, which would you pick?”
The smell of rots wash gave way to the sweet, iron-rich smell of the rots themselves. The corridors here were divided and subdivided, hung with curtains or blocked off into dwellings with anything that came to hand. Sometimes cloth was pinned up to cover the ceiling as well, where it had caved in. A shred of rotted cloth hanging from the ceiling tickled the back of Tzenni’s hand and nearly made her scream. She was only glad it hadn’t been the back of her neck.
Tzenni stuck close to Innes. The epicon wasn’t much of a protector, but it was all she had, and at least as a companion it was one step up from the grel.
She couldn’t help staring at the people around her. She knew there were poor areas in Lionvarre, but surely – surely there couldn’t be anything like this. People here didn’t walk, they scuttled. Or barged. Or made eye-flicker decisions from moment to moment, barging past a young woman whose narrow misshapen hips said rickets to Tzenni, scuttling out of the way of a well-fed man with a string of triangular coins braided into his thinning grey hair.
The man wasn’t doing anything more intimidating than standing in the pool of light shed by a pedlar’s lantern and taking his time over appraising a washy green chitin knife; but he didn’t look as if he belonged there. He looked as if he belonged somewhere worse.
Innes swore softly, touched Tzenni’s arm and pulled her out of the moth-shadow edges of the lantern’s light. “Holy St. Rune, I have no luck at all. What’s he doing here?”
“Who is he?”
“His name’s Sikander. He comes from Rivantia. Works for milord Aetius Hawkwood’s consort Zircon Grey.”
He looked like a bandit, Tzenni thought.
A gaggle of skinny children erupted from the far end of the corridor, chasing an even skinnier chicken. The pedlar prudently folded up a corner of worn pink velvet over his stock. The tallest of the children knocked a flailing elbow against the lantern. It swung crazily.
The circle of light caught another figure who had been previously been careful to stay out of it, lighting up clean ice-blond hair and a face all delicate sharpness of bone. Tzenni thought she’s beautiful and then he’s very handsome and then realised that it was another epicon.
Innes stepped backwards into the shadows. “We’ll go back round the other way.”
“Why? Who was that?”
“Zircon Grey.” Innes took another long disbelieving look, like a gambler who couldn’t believe how quickly their luck had turned to the bad.
Zircon Grey pushed back its hair. A curtain of thin silver-gilt braids lifted and fell, revealing the short, perfect hawk-curve of the epicon’s nose, the strong symmetry of cheekbone and jaw. It looked as out of place as an Ordainer dropped in the River-shallows, and very nearly as dangerous.
“What would Zircon Grey be doing here?” Tzenni panted. “Is it something to do with what you said about the Kapellans marrying into the Hawkwoods?”
“Maybe. Come on.”
Innes asked directions a couple of times. Once, they had to slide into a corner to avoid twenty marching soldiers, all of them in the same heavy chainmail and chitin and leather as the guards outside; once, a technician in livery scurried past them on a staircase. Other than that, there was no evidence that the Kapellans lived in the same world as these people at all. They might as well have decamped centuries ago to Belyaevo to live with their relations and left the Spire to rot.
Water came from buckets; light, when there was any light at all, from lanterns, and food from stalls which mostly seemed to be selling lizard, goat and mushrooms. Tzenni found herself wondering where they grew the mushrooms. She suspected they grew all on their own, wherever they found a patch of damp. Finally Innes took a sharp left turn into a blocked-off message bay.
Tzenni looked for a Retort-screen in the wall, but it had been ripped out years before. Innes muttered to itself, feeling the stonework with long clever fingers.
The lines of the stonework that looked like so much architectural clutter resolved themselves into a door. Innes tapped on it. The door opened into a world of brandy-coloured light and the firesmoke smell of Petaling tea.
“Follow me,” said Innes tensely. “And don’t talk.”
Tzenni followed the epicon. The stone door closed heavily behind them.
The room beyond was lit by an assortment of candles and lamps and a roaring open fire. One wall was entirely filled with an oversized portrait of a dark-skinned lady in a swirling skirt pinned over a set of very workaday coveralls, an unfamiliar cleared landscape behind her.
The other walls were upholstered in dirty red leather. Firescreens and hangings made alcoves for privacy, though Tzenni thought them more likely to encourage casual eavesdroppers than foil them.
Faces looked round from the tables; dark-skinned faces, pale faces, flat-nosed faces with the look of Petaling and Venexia about them, faces half-hidden by hoods or scarves, broken-nosed faces, painted faces, wary faces. Innes steered Tzenni to a seat near the fire.
At least I’m inside the Spire, she thought dizzily. And she had a sword. The sword wasn’t a lot of use to her, but if she could get it to Catha, then, maybe…
Innes Liang cupped one hand and wobbled it economically back and forth. “Drink?”
Before Tzenni could reply, a man approached them. He was dressed in black clothes that had once been respectable. “Well. Epicon Liang. I didn’t realise you’d taken to carrying merchandise,” he said with an unpleasant smile.
“I don’t know what’s caused your gums to get into that state, but if you’ve been taking mercury for your syphilis, you ought to stop it. It’s not doing you any good,” said Tzenni.
The man made a twisting shape with his fingers. Tzenni didn’t think it was one of the Couriers’ hand signs, though it looked a little like the one that meant radioactive. “I… I apologise for having troubled you, venna nyonya,” he muttered and scrambled away backwards.
Innes looked amusedly respectful. “Well, that worked. I doubt anyone else in here’s going to mistake you for a prostitute.”
“A radioactive one, apparently.”
“What? Oh, no, that means sorceror. Do you want a drink?” Innes waved a hand at the back of the room, where an ornamental cherry-pink and gilt samovar sulked like some exotic flower on a square tiled stove. A burly man was taking down a bottle from a dresser and wiping it solicitously with a cloth. He nodded to Innes, who nodded back.
Tzenni asked for tea and watched in fascination as the barkeep lifted and poured the enormous samovar. She had been trying to work out where the handle was. It turned out to be part of a gynaecological-looking series of gilt twiddles.
Innes returned with a hundred-year-old blueware teacup. Tzenni wrapped her hands about it gratefully. She felt suddenly exhausted, and fit to do nothing but sit here and stare into the fire and wait for life to make sense again.
After a few moments she recognised the smooth curvilinear shape of the fireback; she had seen it several hundred times whilst flicking through the baffling world of the Retort templates for the Founders’ vehicles. “That’s an external door-panel for an Achitophel class colonial utility vehicle,”
Innes considered this and evidently found it unanswerable. It lined up a row of bottles on the table, knocked the top off the first one and drank it straight. Innes gave a soft gasp like someone who had fallen, not entirely unexpectedly, into icy water, and drank the second bottle.
“Your liver’s going to end up in the same state as his gums,” said Tzenni dispassionately.
“I’ve had a shock. Zircon Grey’s not supposed to be here.”
Tzenni tipped her head to one side. “You’re right. She… it…”
“She, he, it, all of the above, and it always is above, that’s the only way Milady in Grey likes it.”
“She must have been here since autumn, if that’s her at all. The road’s not clear to Rivantia.”
“Unless somehow the Hawkwoods managed to push through the ice with a land-barge… No. I’d have heard.” Innes knocked the top off another bottle. “Dear God. I wonder… No, it can’t be.”
“You wonder what?”
“It isn’t safe to tell you.” Innes drank another bottle. It had an Adam’s apple, Tzenni noticed, but its throat and collarbone were more delicately feminine than Tzenni’s own. “If I hadn’t just seen those two, I’d have said I was sure your sister was still in the Spire. Now, I’m not sure.”
Tzenni contemplated having to chase off to another Spire after Catha. She wondered where she would get another grel. “Has anyone arrived from Ailebroc?”
“No one’s arrived from anywhere, until you came. Why?”
“If anyone could craft perfect doubles for Zircon Grey and her henchman, they could. Besides, Zircon Grey looks like a Gentileschi.”
“Or maybe it’s the Sheremetevs she looks like, I don’t know. She looks like somebody.”
“She is somebody,” said Innes darkly. “Huh. That’s all the world needs, two of Milord in Grey and two of Sikander. The best we could hope for is that they’d all get distracted by trying to assassinate each other.”
“Never mind the bandits, tell me about Catha.” Tzenni leaned forward. “Have you seen her?”
Innes nodded. “Two longdays ago. I didn’t see her to speak to, you understand. I’d let myself into a bookshop to make a message drop, and she turned up.”
Tzenni thought about the sort of circles Innes seemed to move in, and was mutely horrified. “She’s not much of a reader,” she said doubtfully.
“She was in a sun-cursed temper, I’ll tell you that for nothing.”
“Well, that sounds more like her,” said Tzenni. “If she was wandering in and out of bookshops, the Kapellans can’t have put her in a dungeon. Not one she couldn’t get out of, at any rate.”
Innes’ eyebrows rose like blue half-moons. “She make a habit of escaping dungeons?”
Tzenni made a small helpless gesture. “It’s Catha. I don’t know what she might do. Is she… Is she staying with the Kapellans, then, or has she taken sanctuary with… with the Courtesanat, or something?”
“First you expect to find her in a dungeon and then at the Courtesanat niece-house. Nice opinion you’ve got of your sister.” Innes leaned its narrow shoulders back against the upholstery and grinned. “I can tell you’re the older one already.”
“I’m not. Ligeia’s the eldest.” Tzenni drank the last of her tea, intrigued despite herself. “Why?”
“Back there on the staircase. She’d have blustered at me, or else tried to hit me with the sword.” Innes pushed one of the remaining bottles across the table. “You’ll want this.”
Tzenni didn’t take the bottle. She laid her hands flat on the table and looked at them instead. They looked small and dirty and cold. After a while, they stopped shaking. “Are you going to tell me you’ve killed my sister?” she said.
“Holy St. Rune, no.” Innes looked honestly taken aback. “No. She’s disappeared, and so has Kapellan Prime’s son Jahsvir.” It paused, evidently surprised at Tzenni’s lack of reaction, and went on. “The one who’s supposed to be marrying Sorszenna Hawkwood.”
Tzenni felt a rush of relief. It wasn’t good news, but it wasn’t the worst news possible, either. With the relief came a lot of questions. She asked the one that was nearest. “What’s any of that got to do with you?”
“Long story. Mostly to do with Jahsvir’s mothers and Zircon Grey. I…”
Innes paused. Everything about the epicon seemed to relax, from the eyelids hooding ash-grey eyes to the hand that flopped down carelessly close to the sword’s leather-wrapped hilt. “Slap my face.”
“Slap my face and storm out. I’ll follow you.”
The epicon’s grey eyes looked into hers. “You want to stay alive another shortday? Then trust me.”
Tzenni scrambled to her feet. Make this good, she told her numb body. It didn’t feel like cooperating. Tzenni tried, desperately, to remember the last time she had felt like slapping anyone’s face.
Eventually she remembered the useless girl, wished onto Tzenni’s section crew by an ambitious aunt, who had somehow managed to flood a hydroponics bay with various foul-smelling chlorates and then tried to cover it up by blaming someone else. She thought of the girl’s exasperatingly stupid face, closed her eyes and slapped Innes Liang. Her hand connected stingingly with skin.
“You are a disgrace. You don’t deserve to be called a technician. Your ancestors must be weeping for what happened to their chromosomes between the Founders and you. How dare you?” she finished loudly, belatedly remembering her line. She turned on her heel and stalked out.
Innes Liang laid its sword down flat on the table. The sword was probably the closest thing in the Spire that Innes had to a friend. Kinjal, the smith who wrought it had called it. Innes remembered its first sight of the kinjal as it lay on a piece of dirty velvet in front of the smith’s knees. It was among the very few entirely pleasant memories Innes had.
The Maker slammed the door behind her. Innes wondered vaguely what all that stuff she’d been saying about chrome was. Innes’ great-grandmother had frequently expressed the opinion that all Makers were mad and the ones who didn’t look mad were the worst. Innes wasn’t yet sure which category Lady Tzenni fell into.
Innes looked down at the smooth pommel of the kinjal, the graceful small hilt wrapped in blue-dyed leather, the short, leaf-shaped pale green chitin blade.
A shadow fell across the blade. The shadow had a string of coins braided into its hair.
“Hello, Sikander,” said Innes. “You’ve just chased off the first lead I’ve had in days.”
Sikander leaned over the table. He smelt of the perfumed oils he slicked back his braids with, and of fried meat. “Your part in this was supposed to be simple. Milady in Grey isn’t pleased.”
“It’s not my fault I had to improvise. If you just expected me to say ‘Well, look at that. The Kapellans cheated us on the deal. Must be because they think we’re all contaminated bandits’ and then sit by the fire keeping warm for the rest of the winter, you could have told me. I’d have lowered my rates.”
“As I recall, your rates consisted of being allowed to live.”
“All right, I won’t lower them. What was your point again?”
Sikander leaned closer. “You were supposed to pick up the cold-crystals from the boy and get back to Rivantia with them before the big cold set in. Instead, you hang around Shainault all winter and when we arrive you haven’t got the goods. Tell me again who cheated who?”
“I haven’t cheated you. Even if my tastes ran to hulking great cold-crystals set in a pattern three centuries out of date, which they don’t, who do you suppose I’d find in this Spire to fence them?”
“Anyone who doesn’t like us.”
Innes’ hand slid unhurriedly to the hilt of the kinjal. “No one likes you, Sikander. Even your mother wishes you’d wash more often.”
“My mother died when I was fourteen.”
“Extended labour, was it?” wondered Innes pleasantly.
“At least I wasn’t grown in a vat at Ailebroc.”
“D’you say things like that in Zircon Grey’s hearing?”
“Why don’t you ask him? He wants to see you.”
“He knows where to find me.”
“He sent me to find you.”
Innes leaned back and half-closed its eyes. “I might be paying you an undue compliment by supposing you’re bright enough to lie, Sikander, but I don’t believe you.”
Sikander reached into his coat. His hand emerged gripping an intricately carved ivory-pale cylinder. Innes’ eyes narrowed. “Oh, come on. An Ordainer? That’s Maker-tech. It’s no more use to you than it is to me.”
Sikander smiled. He had an old scar on his upper lip, so old that it only showed up at times like now, when it dragged his lip upwards to reveal his yellow teeth. “You been here so long you’ve forgotten who the Hawkwoods are? We stole a whole Retort. You think we can’t make Maker-tech a bit more… pliable?”
“I think no one’s managed it in four hundred years and if anyone could do it, it’d be the Malabranca, not you.”
Sikander’s hand clenched on the Ordainer. It made a coughing whirring noise. Innes was still only on the edge of believing. It had to be an elaborate bluff.
On the other hand, there was a dot of blue light at the business end of the Ordainer that really shouldn’t be there, unless Sikander had been a Maker all along, which was on the whole unlikely. Innes coolly plotted the relevant points on a three-dimensional grid in its head; the fireplace, the door, the back door, the angle of the tabletop to Sikander’s gut.
Yes. Innes kicked the table over and drove its edge into Sikander’s belly. Sikander took a heavy staggering step back. Innes jumped over the table and brought the kinjal slashing diagonally downwards. Sikander parried awkwardly with the Ordainer.
The bar erupted into panicked movement. Some people were shouting about rogue Makers. Others were gathering up any scrip that happened to be on the tables and looking away, their turned shoulders radiating not our business.
Innes tossed the kinjal into its other hand and dropped to one knee, slicing low at Sikander’s legs. The kinjal scraped through leather but failed to cut more than a glancing trail across flesh. Sikander raised the Ordainer. Innes swept it aside with the blade.
The Ordainer discharged into the fireplace, with a burst of light and an furious whining sound. The floor at Innes’ feet bloomed with heat.
Innes flung itself sideways and landed next to a table. Sikander was swearing. Innes hoped the contaminated thing had blown his hand off. In the meantime, the air was as hot as a brick-oven, and there was no sense in wasting cover. Innes rolled neatly under the table, among several pairs of indignant leather-booted legs.
“Give me the scrat or it’ll be the worse for you,” said Sikander grimly. The inhabitants of the table coughed and babbled something. It sounded to Innes depressingly like we’ll give you the scrat.
Innes poked experimentally at the painting on the wall with the hilt of the kinjal. The wall behind it was solid. Innes cursed.
Someone grabbed at Innes’ hair. It hurt out of all proportion, as pulled hair always did. Innes squirmed round towards the owner of the hand and poked him in the thigh with the hilt of the kinjal, hoping he was bright enough to work out that next time it could be the point. The hand let go.
Innes considered its options. They seemed to narrow down to a rather depressing choice between attacking Sikander’s ankles or attacking someone else’s ankles instead.
Or, then again, perhaps not. Innes rolled its shoulders forward and heaved the table upwards on its back. One of the people at the table squeezed out sideways; the other two pressed themselves back against the painted lady on the wall and indulged in remarks. Innes shoved the table backwards at them and faced Sikander through the smoke.
Sikander had a long serrated chitin knife in each hand. He advanced, burly and furious, making a green dance with the two blades that would have killed anyone fool enough to stand still and watch it. Innes Liang was a fool about many things, but not in a fight.
Innes lifted the kinjal to its lips and kissed it. The epicon felt the curious elation that always settled over it at the approach of certain danger; as if time were smoothing out all around it, like satin uncrumpling, making the world new.
The fight began.
Copyright © 2010 Ankaret Wells.