“This is staggeringly unfair,” Etoile had said when Marisa had been dismissed, and he was saying it again now as he grouched and groaned his way up the dawnward-side climb behind her. “In what kind of world does kinslaying and lawbreaking earn you a voyage halfway round the sky?”
“Under sentence of death.” Marisa’s heart wasn’t in it; her voice sounded flat and distant, as though someone else were speaking her thoughts on her behalf. “Or something very like it.”
“You should have asked if I could come with you.”
“Host beyond… can you show some sort of decency and not make this your problem? You have your own life to lead. You ought to be grateful for that instead of asking to fall down with me.”
They sloped upwards in silence, for a while, staying close; there was something of a crowd around them, pushing its way up and down the hill by shifts and degrees, dragging its luggage and its desires and its mementoes to and from the dockside. A goblin couple barked and clapped and rattled their trays in the mouth of the last alley – Needless Alley, a street winding almost straight down into Trader’s Eighth, a road to nowhere. The chatter in the air was a richer brew than elsewhere, half a dozen lingoes flung into the cauldron like a handful of spices waiting to be stirred into Oahu Facula proper.
Marisa’s curiosity flashed a weary ember as a knot of Menvran, a head taller than their surroundings, tramped down past them, shaved and scarred and rattling in hides and piercings, bending the crowd around them – in much the same way as the assassins did, through a sheer incongruity that had nothing to do with their size. Their ears were twisted, forced into points and loops with spacers, and as one of them leered without humour at a passer-by, Marisa saw the pointed teeth and withered gums flash.
“I just want to make sure you do come back,” Etoile said finally. “Your devotion isn’t going to help you investigate, you know. You’ll need to talk with people. Make an impression. Find things out. I can do that.”
Marisa smiled the ghost of a smile, at last, the corners of her mouth quirking. “Better. Still saying no. But I will try to come back safe, if this foreign matriarch wills it.”
“Good.” Etoile picked up the pace, settled his half of Marisa’s luggage across his shoulders more evenly, and broke into longer strides as they reached the lip of the caldera and looked out across the docks.
Their roots lay in the stone of the caldera itself, squared off and carved out oblongs. From those foundations sprang the cranes and gantries and ladders, sprawling up toward the flanks of the ships in dock or clutching at empty air, and the vast iron arches to which the ships were tethered when at rest, from which lines were cast across the decks to pin them down. Smaller boats, the ferries that bore passengers around the caldera, were forced to rely on head-sized rings knocked into the outer reaches of the docks, or into the uncut rock just beyond them. Most of the boats were in the air already, runes on their hulls flickering. They bobbed in the thicker, cloudier air beyond the caldera, sinking a little as passengers jumped in or out, then rising with their sails filled into the shifting grey beyond.
From the great ships themselves, bodies flowed up and down the dock towers. Winches creaked and heaved pallets of luggage aloft; ladders swayed as crew guided passengers up or down, hanging on wires from the hulls. All was dwarfed by the ships themselves, the curve of impossible metal and wood, the swell of beetle-back bulk bound down to the land, the looming weightless size of sails and rigging.
“That’s yours,” Etoile murmured, as Marisa sidestepped out of the crowd to take stock. “The Princess of Veles. The one with – “
“Shh, you. I’ve… never even thought about leaving, before. I don’t need you… flaunting.” Marisa took a deep breath and regretted it – the air was colder, despite the mass of people sweating and breathing before them, and it settled differently in her lungs. “I can manage from here.”
“Are you sure? At least let me bring this down to the dock…”
“I’m sure.” Marisa hoisted her pack down onto one shoulder, held out her arm for the other. “I’ll – I’ll miss you.”
“You’re human, after all.” Etoile smirked, his teeth bared for a few seconds more than proper. “Come back to us, won’t you?”
Marisa left him on the lip of the caldera, and with a pack on one shoulder and a long case in her hand, she moved down into the crowd. It shuffled, and shambled, and pressed; even the mask afforded her little space to herself, little freedom to move. One or two clumsy folk turned aside abruptly, pushing away from her; a swine-faced couple ushered their children away; a trio of troubadours bobbed their absurd hair in apparent salute. Did they think her one of their own?
There might be some merit in that, Marisa said to herself. Assassins were not famed travellers; they coiled like tapeworms into the society of their city, seldom venturing beyond its walls. It would be well for her to pass for a troubador – not that she could dance, or sing. Still, some manner of disguise or seeming would hardly go amiss. She mulled the notion over as the crowd pressed her nearer the ship and, as the mass of people came to their lurching, intermittent halt, she made her choice. With a deep breath, she set down her case, pulled off her hat and unfastened her mask, shaking her hair out to collar length. Her hands shook a little as she stowed the mask inside her shapeless, floppy traveller’s hat, and placed it carefully back on her head. Outside the house, unmasked, about to embark on a galleon to Veles and beyond – she was less the assassin than ever.
As if to drive the point home, someone shoved into the back of her, with a “move it, move it”. She snapped her head back, full of hauteur, and then realised; he wouldn’t be seeing a bone-white crescent of a face, but a girl; a snub-nosed, sallow-skinned girl who didn’t get enough sun. She sniffed, cast down her eyes, and mumbled an apology.
“So you should be. Standing around shaking like that. Anyone’d think you’d never seen a ship before.”
“Not to travel on,” Marisa started to say, but the fellow had moved on, and was busily haranguing a shorter, whiskery man who bustled after him with an air of distinct weariness about him. Marisa sighed, and pressed on, adjusting her hat and waiting.
One by one, passengers were guided onto ladders, luggage taken from them and loaded onto pallets. Sailors took money or letters, checked marques and chivived them along. When Marisa’s turn came she flushed and fumbled with her pack, fishing out the clay marque from the top, and the sailor – who looked somewhat the worse for wear, with red eyes and a scabby nose – clicked his tongue at her when she insisted on tying off her own bag.
“I’m sorry, I haven’t done this before and I – ”
“‘Cestors, girl, did I ask for your life story? Up you go.”
Marisa fought back the urge to hiss at him, and swatted his hand away as he guided her onto the ladder. “I can climb just fine, thank you,” she said with brittle politeness, and scrabbled up the ladder with accomplished ease.
The deck was scarcely any easier to move about on than the dock below had been. Everyone seemed to move with a certainty of purpose, to know that they were here and their work or their cabin or their effects were there and that everyone and everything else was either more or less important than them and either way was in their way. Marisa, having no particular purpose and no idea where her effects happened to be, was less important than everybody and seemed to be in everybody’s way.
Discomfited, she tried to find a spot out of the way somewhere, but everywhere seemed to be taken up by a barrel or a coil of rope that was wanted, or to lie on somebody’s route or other.
“I should have kept the mask,” she muttered to herself, as she sidestepped another pair of the crew, and fell into a kind of eddy in the movement of goods and persons. She was, she realised, following someone; a striking figure of a woman who was probably quite used to being followed. To describe her as ‘big’ or even ‘fat’ would be a wasted opportunity to say ‘majestic’ – she was light on her feet and precise in her movements, rather like a ship herself – she imposed on her surroundings and moved through them like a hull through water. She had a ruddy face, and a mountain of dark blonde hair in ringlets, and clever sapphire eyes set deep in her face. Everything about her seemed to creak with the effort of restraint; she wore armour, incomplete, a sort of half-hearted corset affair with greaves and gauntlets to match and a heavy cloak draped over the top. She bulged, disconcertingly, and gave the impression that if one strap or two should happen to snap, the great bulk of her would simply slide down like melting ice, redistributing itself in the space around her.
“Hello there, Roche!” she cried to one of the officers, a junior supervising the unloading of pallets. “Dropped anything yet?” Her voice was clear and strident, though not unpleasant – a voice to be heard across a battlefield, if she should happen to raise it.
“Not yet, your ladyship!” the officer called back. “Turn this lot out now,” he said in more muffled tones, turning to his crew. “Let’s not keep Lady Roilane waiting.”
Marisa gawped, realised that she was gawping, and shut her mouth again, tugging her hat down and feeling the corners of her mask dig into her scalp. She bared her teeth in a rictus grin, kept it plastered on her face as two of Roche’s crew hoisted up a mound of identical, patterned cases and lugged them off in the Lady Roilane’s wake. As she drifted into the front of the press and peered at the pallet for her case and pack, her voice seemed to speak without her command, and ask “Who was that lady, sir?”
“That? That was Toria Roilane, Knight-Palatine of the Church of Martyrs. Travels this run all the time. Mind your back – move along now, miss, if you’re that curious ask her yourself, she don’t bite.”
Accepting her luggage with an incoherent murmur, Marisa wandered along the very edge of the deck, setting down her burdens and looking into the press of bodies and faces yards below her. To all the world she might have looked like another traveller; another drab little soul off to seek her fortune on the Veles run, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of mother or father, brother or sister, sweetheart or bosom companion, looking out for a wave goodbye. Her mind raced. The prospect of discovery was not new to her – the house schooled its children well, and though it was customary for a quarry’s family to avenge the death, such vengeance usually fell on the hand that wielded the blade and not the blade itself; not on the assassins, but on the rival who had hired them. It was accepted that assassins would kill people; the business of commissioning them against one’s rivals was part and parcel of life in all the Faculae. Marisa did not fear that Toria Roilane would avenge her father; she feared that Toria Roilane was bound on the same course as her, in search of her father’s killer, or rather of the rival who had commissioned her father’s death.
Unthinkable that she did not know; a day and a half had passed since Marisa’s consecrated purpose had been deflected by the foreign assassin. Yet not so unthinkable; hadn’t Roilane said the elder Roilane daughter was estranged? If she knew, would she care? If she did not know, should she? Marisa could use this woman; set her on the trail and follow Toria to an explanation, and to her own doom at the hands of some other house’s matriarch. But no – Toria was a knight palatine, would never compromise her vows and vocation by association with a sacred murderer. But then – had Marisa not breached her own vows, removed her own mask, set aside the assassin for a time after her own failure?
Lost in a muddle and a maze of her mind’s making, Marisa almost missed the final cries and the whip-snap of the ropes’ withdrawal. The Princess swayed almost at once, like a dog let off the leash; she lurched, and slid down and forth and out onto the shivering clouds. A column of lights flickered and flashed on the main mast, and – escorted by four smaller boats with glowing sorcerous lights in tow – she slipped and settled into the clouds, and turned her prow away from Oahu Facula, sailing toward the sunrise.