The sky was a river of candles on the night Mir came to Cliff’s End. Streams of white paper lanterns climbed until they would have joined the stars had the spring festival not fallen across a night of storm clouds. For a single, perfect moment, she could see the departing airship banking into that river of lights and running before the wind, its sails bright with stolen fire. It moved with the grace of a living thing. Then the first of the raindrops broke on her cheek, and the lanterns began to wink out.
She crouched alone on the skydock, hidden in the shadow of a pallet, the Windhover’s other debarked passengers having already vanished into the city’s bars and brothels and opium dens. The spring equinox was a festival night, storm or no, and Cliff’s End had something for everyone. Usually, in Mir’s experience, something with a sting in the tail.
The first sheet of lightning fell, illuminating limestone villas and the whitecapped seas beyond. The hillside vineyards and olive groves seemed skeletal in that light, all jagged figures footed in shadow, their ranks putting Mir in mind of troops arrayed for battle.
Mir had been to Mikra before, had traversed most of the country during her training, but this was her first solo delivery. At twenty-one, she was the youngest courier ever entrusted with anything like the set of cipher booklets now concealed in slim packets belted between her chemise and corset. When her mistress handed her the sealed booklets, Mir had felt pride unfold like a living thing inside her, and she’d spent days planning contingencies within contingencies.
The nature of her parcels demanded nothing less. Random, single-use ciphers were the only known perfect system of encryption, unbreakable even by analytical engines. The disadvantage was that they required all participants to have copies of the random numbers used to encipher the plain texts. Even in an age of telegraphy, the system depended on regular physical delivery of booklets to a House’s embassies, allies, and chartered companies. A lost booklet was expensive to decommission and replace. A compromised booklet—stolen, duplicated, and returned to its owner by an enemy subtle enough to conceal the deed—was a potential disaster.
Mir was carrying more than twelve hundred pages of cipher bound for her Lady’s interests along the southern coast of Mikra, and someone was following her.
Mir first spotted her shadower on a boulevard in Flourish: a tall woman settled into beautiful middle age, dark of hair and eye. Mir recognized her at once from the half-dozen sketches and single blurry daguerreotype on file in Hull. No one in Mir’s circles could fit a proper name to the face, but the trail of bodies winding from Icecap to the broken shores of Lemuria had inspired all manner of bloody appellations.
Mir, confronted with the reality, had chosen a less dramatic name. The woman wore a silver dogwood blossom in her collar. If the red stones tipping its petals were rubies, the pin was worth more than Mir’s entire closet. If the form and colors were a conscious nod to Lord Drenan, whose banners featured a man crucified against a slate gray field, it was probably worth more than her life. And so, in mental self-defense, Mir christened the woman Dogwood.
The open wearing of the pin had been an invitation of sorts, one Mir had ignored. When Mir departed for Cliff’s End, she had expected to leave Dogwood far behind. Between three days and nights of changing beds, buying new clothes, and suffering progressively less flattering haircuts, she should have lost her shadower long before boarding the Windhover. But Dogwood had claimed the berth across from Mir’s and kept waiting with arachnid patience for her to make the next move.
For a brief, wishful moment, Mir had dared to hope it was a coincidence; there were fewer than a thousand airships in the world, and the Windhover was the only one leaving Flourish that week. But no—she had quashed the hopeful thought before it could endanger her life. If Dogwood was here, she was here for Mir.
It was then, in a state of such paranoia that every detail glowed with synesthetic brightness, that Mir realized Dogwood wasn’t the only threat aboard the Windhover. A clergyman paused in front of her and made a show of checking a great copper watch inlaid with hunting scenes, one a near-perfect match for Lord Creel’s banners. Another, an immense walrus of a man whose mustaches seemed midway through a conquest of his face, sat in the smoking room reading a book of poems called A Study of Alternatives, a paraphrase of Baronet Chester Lindt’s family motto. When Walrus saw her looking, he winked. And those were just the obvious overtures. She counted eleven definite agents aboard, and another four probables—more than a quarter of the passenger complement. All watching her and one another, all waiting, the cast of a surrealist’s nightmare.
The conflict between the assorted Houses and their allies had been simmering for decades. Most of her adversaries aboard the Windhover would know each other; would have prior arrangements and networks of favors owed and owing. Most, when the situation devolved, would have the resources and experience to survive. Mir, unsure even of what they wanted from her, would not. A dozen cipher booklets weren’t worth this level of effort or risk. They thought she knew something, and unless she ascertained what, the concentration of contradictory interests was a death sentence.
Or an opportunity.
So Mir had waited until Cliff’s End and the coming of the storm. Then she’d planted a small, silvery clockwork engine in the Windhover’s magazine, gathered her essentials, and slipped from the ship just before takeoff.
Now, the airship dwindled to a suggestion of movement in the distance, dark on dark, then was lost in a slanting veil of rain. Mir kept staring into that emptiness, adrenaline and doubt drawing little shudders up her spine.
Then lightning came again, transfixing the Windhover like a needle through the heart of a delicate insect, and it burst. The sound of the explosion arrived a moment later, mingled with the thunder. The violence of it was small and far away, a toy ship falling in slow, fatal pirouette. Lightning continued, crawling from cloud to cloud, and small shapes spun away from the wreck, tumbling into the greater dark over the hills. Some sprouted parachutes. Some did not.
She counted twelve parachutes against a long sheer of light, then bent over the skydock rail and vomited. She gripped the rail with both hands and tried to settle her breathing. Another spasm took her, convulsive, a fist clenching in her gut.
Cool hands drew her hair back from her face. She spun away, drawing a knife from her sleeve.
Dogwood held out a handkerchief. After a moment’s hesitation, Mir accepted it and wiped her mouth. As there seemed no point in clinging to dignity, she blew her nose, coughed into the cloth, and spat over the rail. “Thanks.”
Dogwood waved off an attempt to return the handkerchief, her attention on the hills where points of flame were still falling in slow arcs. The last ember struck the ground and went dark.
“Well,” Dogwood said. “Well.”
Mir said nothing. She was dry beneath her cloak but shivering all the same, half-expecting Dogwood to produce a pistol and kill her then and there. She remembered a moment later that Dogwood’s past accomplishments betrayed a fondness for piano wire.
But Dogwood merely sighed. “I wonder, love, whether you might have overreacted.”
Mir, following Dogwood’s gaze out into the restored darkness, wondered the same. Then, considering Dogwood’s perfect calm, she wondered if overreaction was even possible.
At Dogwood’s insistence, they took a late dinner in one of the more reputable inns on the landward side of Cliff’s End. On the descent from the skydock, she declined to offer any further thoughts on the destruction of the Windhover, a psychological gambit Mir recognized at once and that still worked perfectly well, drawing a bow across her nerves and leaving her fighting an impulse to fill the silence.
That silence only deepened on their arrival at the inn. The dining room was deserted, the upper rooms quiet. Perhaps the establishment was too respectable for such a night as this. Outside, the wind howled.
Also at Dogwood’s insistence, dinner was soup.
“Red lentils,” she said, dabbing imaginary rainwater from her face with a napkin. This close, Mir could make out the laugh lines at the corners of her dark eyes and perhaps the ghost of a scar along one high cheekbone. “Just the thing for a rainy night. I had the chef add ginger and lighten the pepper. It settles the stomach, you see.”
“Did you have him add anything else?”
“Love, had I wished you dead, I’d have given you a gentle push rather than a handkerchief.”
Mir conceded the point with a raised hand. Besides, the soup was excellent.
“Although,” Dogwood continued, “I did once have him add a mysterious white powder to an aging ambassador’s coffee.”
Mir flipped through her memorized list of assassinations in Mikra over the last twenty years. “You’re the one who killed Javier Fernández?”
“Hm? Oh, no. That was one of Creel’s people. A disagreeable business, that, and entirely unrelated. No, this was a favor to the gentleman’s wife. She credits me with reviving their marriage, and I do believe you’re a shade young for the details of that.”
Mir found herself loath to seek elaboration. Her intimate experience with those beyond a certain age was a catalogue of fleshy horrors. She did not need Dogwood adding to them in that cool, teatime voice. The woman’s perfect self-assurance was only slightly less disturbing than her air of familiarity. Somewhere below that elegant persona was a world of piano wire and methods for removing bloodstains.
“So,” Dogwood said, “I suppose this was your first kill. Quite an entrance. A lightning siphon, I trust? By popular legend, the Lemurian Engineer who invented those was crucified on a steel cross on a hilltop during a thunderstorm, so thoroughly did his colleagues disapprove of a device for killing airships. A true statesman’s weapon, one might argue. Plausibly accidental, plausibly not, and always reduced to just another bit of melted metal among the wreckage. Not the most surgical tool, however. I would have preferred a knife.”
Mir winced, imagining trying to close against a woman with almost a foot of height advantage, let alone a man like Walrus. Often the winner of a knife fight was the first participant to receive medical aid, and even then, infection killed a fair percentage of ostensible victors. “For fifteen people? I was taught to avoid bladework.”
“I can see why. You do have a pretty face and—forgive me—rather short arms.” She laid aside her spoon. “Tell me, what is the Lady of Situations calling me these days? I was rather hoping ‘Ladyhawk’ would stick. It seems so bombastic, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve been calling you Dogwood.”
A little sigh that might have been disappointment. “And she’s been calling you Mir.”
Mir made a mental note to go hunting for Dogwood’s source if she made it back to her Lady alive. “You’ve been following me since Flourish. You and all the others. What do you want?”
“I’ve been following you since Hull. And I would like very much to have a look at your delivery and perhaps make a few small alterations. As for the others... well, I can’t truly speak for them, now can I? And now I suspect you’ll find questioning them rather... inconvenient.”
Mir blinked, fixing on the puzzle and willing it to block out everything else. An altered one-time pad was useless but not a long-term problem. The tampering would be noticed and replacements supplied within a week or two. Expensive, yes, but that was all. If someone like Dogwood—or Lord Drenan—had a copy of the original, messages sent from Hull in the interim would not be secure, but the opposition calling attention to the security breach made no sense at all.
The request, therefore, had to be a ploy. Finding out what game Dogwood was really playing, and surviving long enough to get word home, might be just enough professional redemption to blot out the current debacle. “What sort of alterations?”
“A few characters on each page. Perhaps an inkblot or two. I’ll know more when I’ve had a look.”
Which made even less sense. That wouldn’t render the ciphers wholly useless; it would just show they’d been tampered with.
Dogwood dropped a few coins on the table. “I’m afraid it’s all rather complicated. I’ve bought you a room for the next two nights. Not that I expect you’ll find much sleep.”
They agreed on that, at least; Mir planned to spend her first minute alone assembling and loading the hold-out pistol hidden in her luggage, and she would spend the next hour barricading the door, inspecting the walls and floor, and rigging the windows with spring-driven shrieker alarms. Dogwood still wanted something from her, which provided Mir a kind of security, but she had never been one to trust in the constancy of inscrutable motives.
Dogwood was already leaving, headed not for the stairwell but for the front door. “We’ll speak at noon,” she said, pausing at the threshold to don her cloak.
“Where?” Mir asked.
“I know where you’ll be.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
A brief, sad smile. “How many parachutes did you see?”
“Twelve. That’s not an answer. Do you plan on following me again?”
Dogwood ignored the question. “I saw you counting them. Not everyone would have, you know. This is the moment I’m supposed to tell you killing gets easier. Personally, I suggest the local liquor; if one must be awake, one might as well be inebriated.”
But Mir did sleep, if fitfully, and her dreams were of fire and falling.
The wreck of the Windhover was dispersed over an ellipse more than a mile long. The effects of its destruction reached yet further. There would be no outbound flights from Cliff’s End until the fate of its crew was resolved. Even in their constant competition, aeronauts were a tight, slightly mad fraternity. What had befallen the Windhover was their nightmare, and a blend of compassion and fascination brought them out at first light. A dozen ships drifted under light sail over the olive groves, all polished wood and brass composed in sleek lines beneath white canvas, no two alike.
For Mir, the search for survivors was less stately. She had packed good boots and loose, practical clothing, but she had underestimated both the hills and the sucking mud left by the downpour. She plodded through swaths of shade where the hazel windbreaks obscured the view from above, bone-weary, aware that Dogwood had probably manipulated her into her present errand but unable to act otherwise. Twelve parachutes. Out of twenty crew and fifty-five passengers.
Killing Dogwood might have been worth it, never mind the dozen or so other agents of rival powers. Insofar as anyone could tell, the woman was an anarchist and a damned effective one. Her assassinations tended less to further political ends than to frustrate them, and she had brought the colonial powers to the brink of war more than once. She had topped the Lady of Situations’ blacklist six years out of the last ten. Having met her, Mir could understand why. And yet she found herself strangely disinclined to try to finish what the lightning siphon had started.
A pale, oblong object dangled from a branch overhead. A human leg, torn free at the hip and no longer bleeding. Mir stopped for a while, studying it, wondering why it didn’t seem entirely real.
She found the Windhover’s first officer and captain seated beneath a hazel tree. A parachute was crumpled into a crude cushion for the captain’s broken leg, not that the elevation could fix the bone jutting through his skin. Mir took the vacancy of his expression as a sign he wasn’t feeling much. So she hoped, anyway.
The first officer, a sharp-featured man named Abelard, watched her approach, unspeaking.
“I have water,” Mir said, offering her canteen.
Abelard held out a hand. His eyes were red. So were his hands. He had tied a tourniquet just above the captain’s knee, but the ground beneath was still black with blood.
He drank and offered the canteen to the captain, who did not stir. Flies had begun to gather. Abelard passed the canteen back.
Unsure what else to do, Mir sat down beside him. “We could spread a parachute,” she said at last. “The other ships would see it.”
“But you don’t want them to?”
“The captain needs help.”
“He’s past help.” He focused on her, frowning. “You’re that girl from Hull. Picked you up in Flourish.”
“Sir, he’s lost a lot of blood, but we can still—”
“He lost the Windhover,” Abelard said, his voice rough. “He isn’t coming back. Whoever killed her killed him too.”
Abelard dabbed a bead of saliva from the corner of the captain’s mouth with a handkerchief. A slim metal flask lay beside him. Mir picked it up, shook it, sniffed at the spout, did a quick calculation. Yes, the first officer was probably still half-drunk. There was only a swallow of gin left, but she would take what she could get. Her throat burned, but the fumes cleared her head.
“We need to get him back to the city,” she said.
“That’s not what he needs.” Abelard flicked open a clasp knife. “Look at him, girl.”
She did, and she saw now that the captain’s face was not vacant. His mouth twitched and his eyes darted in tiny, random motions, his stare flickering through anger, fear, and incomprehension.
She shifted uneasily. She’d expected grief and pain, and those showed plain enough, but there was a trace of panic she couldn’t explain, as though he’d been struck blind. A day before, the captain had been attentive, professional, an image of perfect competence. Now, whatever mind remained behind that stare was broken, lapsed into aphasia and cut off from the world.
“He held on for a bit,” Abelard said. “Full minute after the lightning strike, the Windhover’s heart blown out, and he was still giving orders. Wouldn’t make the jump, not even after there was nobody else left on deck. Wanted to go below. Kept saying he had to see, had to stay. I had to clip his line to my harness and jump myself. Damned selfish of me. Should have let him follow her down.”
Mir kept studying the dying man’s eyes, trying to understand. She had known Abelard was in love with Caldwell, had guessed it her second day aboard, but she was missing a piece, some key fact about the working of the world, or about Caldwell and the Windhover. Suddenly, she was not sure what her destruction of the Windhover meant.
“Help me,” Abelard said. He held up the knife, hand shaking. “Please.”
Mir took his hand in both of hers and helped him cut away the tourniquet and slide the knife into Caldwell’s wounded leg. The blade found the femoral artery, and redness washed over Mir’s hands.
Abelard dropped the knife and held the captain’s head against his shoulder.
After a while, Caldwell stopped breathing. Only then did Abelard release him and take up the knife again. “Can you keep a secret, girl?”
The lie came easily, even if the words had to fight past the thickness in her throat: “Captain Caldwell died of injuries sustained seeing to the evacuation of his passengers and crew.”
“Good.” Abelard stood and dragged out the parachute, cutting the worst of the tangled lines and arranging it into a sling. “Now we take him back into town.” He folded away his knife. “And mark me—when I find who did this, I’ll do things to him they dare not name in hell. I swear it. By Lemuria and the Bolide, I swear it. Witness me.”
“I witness,” she whispered. Then, not quite sure why, she added, “My name is Mir.”
“Not on the manifest, it wasn’t.”
She shook her head but said nothing.
“All right, Mir. Take his feet.”
The barracks where Mir grew up were always alive with sensational stories, more than a few meant to Keep Things in Perspective. For each travail she and the other children went through on their paths to becoming officers or diplomats or accountants or couriers, there was always some fabled group that had it worse. After a particularly scientific beating she sustained for being caught stealing extra rations—and thereby failing her first test in applied thievery—the Lady herself gave her willow bark to chew and told her about an order of monks who bound themselves in barbed wire for the better remembrance of their sins.
Now, ten years later and a thousand leagues from home, she put Abelard up in her rooms and went to wash the last of the blood from her hands. He was from Hull, and their physical resemblance was just close enough that she could pass him off as her uncle. No one was likely to contest the fiction; among the aeronauts his preferences seemed an open secret, and she had no friends or relations in Cliff’s End likely to erupt in moral outrage at a bachelor taking up residence with her. A few of the Lady’s contacts aside, the only other person she knew in Cliff’s End was Dogwood, and Dogwood seemed an excellent argument for posting a large, armed, and suspicious man at her door.
As was the possibility that the Lady’s contacts were compromised. There had been too many hostiles aboard the Windhover to admit coincidence.
Then she went back to the hospital where the surgeons were seeing to the wounded and laying out the dead, Caldwell among them. Counting Abelard, there were nine survivors. Only one was an obvious retainer for a House, and he had two broken legs and a cracked skull. Maybe he saw her. Maybe he didn’t. She left him alone and saw to the corpses. No one questioned her presence. Seemingly everyone in Cliff’s End not hungover from the night’s revels stopped in to gawk or offer help, and after Mir demonstrated a facility for washing and wrapping bodies, a local surgeon set her to work without a second thought.
At least not until a tall, strikingly beautiful woman wearing a pistol and rapier drew her aside and pressed a clean towel into her bloodied hands.
“You’ll need to find another ship soon,” Dogwood said quietly, “if you care to continue your journey with my protection.”
“You just blew up an airship, love, one of less than a thousand in the world, and one that just so happened to have a measurable percentage of the hemisphere’s intelligence agents on board. I daresay the powers-that-be have noticed. I know that Drenan has some idea of what you carry, and while that dolt Creel has all the subtlety of a splitting maul, he has enough sense to employ clever people. Those are just the two who will kill you out of antagonism toward your Lady. I could list a dozen of her allies who would happily risk war for what is presently ruining the lines of your vest.”
Mir glanced at one of the bodies she had helped wrap for burial. “All this for a few ciphers we could change in a week?”
“Oh, those booklets aren’t ciphers. I thought you’d realized that by now.” Dogwood took her arm and ushered her out to the street. “Do try to keep up.”
“I don’t believe you,” Mir said flatly.
“You can look if you require proof. In any case, as you’ve clearly decided not to dispose of me—or try to, I should say—all that’s left is to hear me out and hope that my formidable skillset is sufficient to keep you alive. After all, I need you to repair the seals on the booklets after I’ve examined them, and I assume your Lady’s representatives are under orders to accept delivery from no one but you.”
Mir disengaged her arm. “You know what has to happen once I’ve learned what you really want, right?”
Dogwood laughed, the sound oddly musical. “If you live a few more years, Mir, I think you’ll find that precious few things have to happen at all.”
Mir declined to argue. If she lived a few more years, it would be by killing Dogwood. Disputing the point felt unseemly.
Abelard was drunk when Mir returned, which was just as well. Beneath his grief was an intelligence canny enough to realize that Mir had to be part of the reason his friends were dead. She’d as good as admitted to being a courier or spy, and now that she had time to reflect, her aid in mercy-killing his captain was likely to have undesirable consequences. She’d seen Abelard broken. Men didn’t tend to forgive that, except by falling in love. That seemed unlikely in the present case.
She washed his face and hands, badgered him into bed, and waited until his breathing grew slow and even.
Sixty-six dead. Nine more maimed, one way or another.
For a while, she listened to Abelard snore. Then she worked the belt of leather pouches out from under her clothes, opened one, and studied the book’s seals. The wisest course might be to destroy all six. Her Lady would have other copies in Hull if they were really something more valuable than a set of cipher pads. Any other strategy risked the booklets falling into Dogwood’s hands, or Creel’s, or only God knew who else’s.
But destroying the booklets would mean ending her mission in failure.
The long game, she thought. Play the long game. Somewhere out there was a good to weigh in balance against sixty-six dead. She just had to find it.
She shook Abelard awake.
“Want to find out who brought down your ship?”
He nodded, eyes still bleary.
“Then find me another one. Off-book. I have a... friend. A specialist. We’re going east, following the southern coast to Lycen, then heading inland for Cadela. If we get back in the air and see who comes after us, you’ll have a shot at them. Fair?”
“Who are you working for, Mir?”
The truth can be a weapon. The Lady herself had told her that. And a coddled weapon is no weapon at all. “The Duchess Madeleine Lewis.”
“The Lady of Situations.”
“Yes. Long a friend of the Company, you’ll remember.”
He lowered his head into his hands. “Politics. I hate politics.”
Mir waited in silence.
“All right. I know a captain or two who can take you east off-book, if you have the coin. East is easy. But you’ll be taking a boat back. The wet kind.”
That was as good as Mir could expect. People, mail, and manufactured luxury items traveled east by air with regularity. But westbound, Mir would have to pay for her weight in black pepper or turmeric before a ship would take her on. Even for someone with her Lady’s resources, that was not a trivial expense.
“Fine,” Mir said. “When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow. After the funeral.”
She kept her face neutral. Some small part of her pointed out that she was putting Abelard both in the line of fire and in position to kill her when he realized what she’d done.
Then again, Dogwood had conveniently escaped the Windhover too, and she was far too clever to come across as trustworthy. The right word at the right time might solve two problems at once. Mir could let them eliminate each other after they’d seen her safely to her Lady’s first embassy, then deliver the still-sealed parcels, disappear for a month or two, and find a steamship to take her home, having completed her mission and dispatched one of civilization’s more tenacious enemies. Her Lady might even promote her.
But when she pictured the Duchess Madeleine Lewis, all she could see was the likeness between her and every other High Lord she’d ever met. Something in the eyes, or the set of the mouth. Something Dogwood did not share. Nor Mir herself.
Dogwood’s words returned: Precious few things have to happen at all.
Abelard was still watching her, waiting.
“After the funeral,” Mir murmured. “Of course.”
The ship Abelard chose was smaller than the Windhover and asymmetric in a rakish, dangerous sort of way, its lines crooked by a pontoon on a long boom jutting from the port side. Just why an airship needed a pontoon was beyond Mir. That question invited others, but they all seemed to slither away before they could form, and the sight of the ship’s colors dispelled them completely. The flag at the tip of the mainmast was a slash of black on a blue-white field. It was the first time she’d seen anything but Company colors flown over an airship, and the effect was disorienting. The flag suited the ship, though; something about that careless streak of black complementing the jagged sweep of its hull.
Beside her, Abelard said, “Meet the Amaranth.”
“It looks fast,” Dogwood said. “Wonderfully fast.”
“‘She.’ All ships are ‘she.’”
Dogwood smiled. “Oh? And has anyone asked them about it? I blush to say it, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know where to look to find out.”
That brought Abelard up short. “You care to elaborate?”
Another beatific smile. “No.” She gathered her luggage, a wheeled trunk and a long leather case worn across her shoulder, and set out for the gangplank.
Abelard bent to Mir’s ear. “She’s a dangerous one. I’ll give you that.”
“Knows too much.”
And I know next to nothing, Mir thought. “Tell me about the flag. I don’t recognize it.”
“That’s Elias Sharpe’s flag, or the Amaranth’s. They don’t fly for the Company. Never have. Independent spirit.” A twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Caldwell tried to talk them into the fold every time they met.”
Abelard nodded as though he’d just administered some test and come away satisfied with the results. “Here he is.”
Captain Sharpe was short but well-built, with broad shoulders and an expression that suggested part of him was stargazing on the far side of the world. He also looked too young to be captaining anything, let alone a delicate assembly of wood and line about to be cruising a mile above solid ground. He traded grips with Abelard. “Sorry about Ernest,” he said. “Hell of an airman.” He glanced at Mir. “This is your cargo problem?”
“Half of it,” Abelard said. “Captain Sharpe, Mir. Mir, Captain Sharpe.”
Sharpe took her hand and turned it, studying the calluses with mild interest. “What do you weigh, about one-ought-five?”
“Don’t be; that’s below average. No rate bump.”
Mir categorized the question as pertaining to cargo and declined to take offense. “One-ten, actually. And my luggage is another thirty.”
“Huh,” he said. He turned and cast an appraising eye over Dogwood, who was sliding a long trunk up the boarding ramp. “And she’s, what, one-forty-five? One-fifty?”
Mir fought down a smile. “You should go ask her, just to be sure.”
“Right.” He gave her a short bow. “Miss Mir.”
Mir watched him go with a blend of amusement and concern. “A bit odd, isn’t he?”
Abelard picked up her satchel. “I’ve known him five years. He’s reliable. And he’s agreed to board a pair of shifty strangers off the manifest. And he can fly like a bloody god. ‘Normal’ doesn’t figure into it.”
Mir thought about that for a moment, reflecting on her brief interactions with Captain Caldwell and his state in the hour of his death. “Abelard, if something were to happen to the Amaranth, what would happen to Sharpe?”
Abelard didn’t even turn. “Ask your associate.”
So Mir did. She and Dogwood were condemned to share an empty cargo hold fitted with a pair of cots and a steep-sided wash basin. Dogwood, already halfway through donning her face for dinner, nodded approval in the mirror of her compact. “Very good, love. Madeleine always did have an eye for the curious ones. People have trouble asking coherent questions about airships, have you noticed? What do you think would happen to Sharpe without the Amaranth?”
“He’d lose his mind.”
“Yes, or a piece of it. The question is why.”
“I’ve heard rumors that airships are alive. But I’ve also heard rumors that they’re magic, and even the Engineers don’t know how they work. An aeronaut even told me once that they’re ghost ships stuck between heaven and hell.”
“Yes, they do seem to encourage the rumors rather indiscriminately, don’t they? Tell me, have you ever wondered why none of the Houses have their own airships?”
Mir frowned, considering. She hadn’t. Every airship in the world was operated by the Company or a nonconformist like Sharpe, and it had never seemed anything but natural.
“Were I a gambling woman,” Dogwood said, “I might posit that the High Lords have been asking themselves that question more and more frequently. The Engineers know, I suppose, but they’d never tell; you’d have to drive one mad first.”
“And why’s that?”
Dogwood shrugged. “Why do you serve the Lady of Situations?”
Mir fought down vague but dark memories of her early life on the streets of Hull. “She gave me everything.”
“No, love. She gave you everything you think you have—after taking everything you had before. There’s a certain class of person more made than grown. The Lemurian Engineers belong to it. They believe the Bolide made them—or made their particular way of being possible. They believe in the divinity and totality of their benefactor. For a while, you did too.”
“I did, did I? But not anymore?”
Dogwood turned her back and stepped into her dress, drawing it up over her slip. It was magnificent, a deep green like a forest at dusk, and fitted to perfection. And, infuriatingly, it had emerged from Dogwood’s trunk without a single wrinkle.
Mir did, thinking of her own drab attire and fighting down a suspicion that Dogwood was mocking her.
Dogwood turned and took Mir’s hands. “I find my back safely restored to modesty and unmarred by a single knife wound. I do believe you are discovering qualities not owed to your Lady, or at least ones she never intended to give you. There’s a moment, Mir, in the lives of people like you. A moment of atrocity, of breaking strain. And on the other side, a state of being so like falling... well, I must wonder what kind of person you’ll be when you stop.”
Mir pulled free. “I did my job. That’s all the Windhover was.”
“Yes. And there are no sharper critics of causes or persons than those who’ve spilled blood in their name. It’s all a matter of finding that final line of transgression.” A thin smile. “I wonder if you’d feel this way, Mir, had you merely murdered me in my sleep.”
“What about you?” Mir snapped. “I know the stories. What was too much for you?”
The smile vanished. “A small matter, early in my career, regarding a complication in my former Lord’s succession. As a result of which, I am now the kind of person who kills children. That is what I am.” She threw a silk wrap over her shoulders. “Usually, however, it is not what I do. Come along, love. The fashionability of lateness is greatly exaggerated.”
Mir slept lightly that night, her back to the bulkhead and a knife in her hand. In that strange region between sleep and waking, a curious doubling overtook her thoughts; an awareness of things her reasoning mind would never have accepted. Wind hissed over her skin, and alien sensations of speed and force played through limbs she could not name. And she knew what it all meant; remembered the star blazing over Lemuria-that-was, saw vines curling like fingers about the Earth itself.
She woke in a sweat, gasping. Dogwood was still asleep. Even so, Mir felt the pressure of eyes, or the focused awareness of something that lacked them. The feeling was—what? Reassuring? Comforting? She wondered if this was what it felt like to fall asleep in the arms of a lover rather than those of a convenient lay. Her pulse was slowing, and she could not say why. In the end, she gave up, resettled herself against the bulkhead, and went back to sleep.
The Duchess Madeleine Lewis, ruler of lands indeterminate by rights uncertain, maintained in Lycen an embassy of singular design whose white alabaster walls were visible for miles. The structure was a rising fountain of arches, an intricate mathematics of stress and tension. By popular myth, the calculation time on Lemurian analytical engines had cost more than the alabaster, limestone, and labor combined. Only when the Lady of Situations filled the embassy with teak furniture, linen drapery, deep wool carpets, and a thousand other expressions of opulence did the material cost outweigh the purse paid the Engineers.
From the bow of the Amaranth, Mir’s first glimpse of the embassy was a column of black smoke splitting the horizon.
Abelard tapped the rail and made a warding gesture. He’d been withdrawn for the last two days, stoic and given to monosyllables. Now he looked from the smoke to Mir with concern. “Someone’s really after you, aren’t they?”
“They lost my trail at Cliff’s End. So someone must have telegraphed ahead to where they thought I’d be....” She thought of the agent in the hospital she’d left crippled but alive, and she fell silent.
Dogwood produced a telescope from the folds of her dress and glassed the horizon. “Tell me, love, what was the Lady’s troop complement in Lycen?”
“Seventy-two of Dalton’s Fusiliers,” she said automatically. “And a dozen cavalry.” Enough, by conventional doctrine, to hold the embassy grounds for days against anything but artillery. And Dogwood did not need to know about the modified naval cannon mounted in concealed batteries around the embassy’s lower levels.
Behind them, Captain Sharpe was unleashing an auctioneer’s hail of commands, and the Amaranth banked in response, climbing, her sails snapping to billow opposite her motion. For the first time, Mir noticed that they were sailing against the wind. She replayed her memories of the Windhover and a half-dozen other airships, and yes, she’d often seen the sails bowed the wrong way. This was the first time the sight had seemed unusual.
Lycen drew nearer. The embassy was a heap of smoldering rubble, its white arches broken, its grounds cratered and strewn with the dead.
“Abelard,” Dogwood said. “Your assessment?”
He shook his head. “I’m no military man.”
Mir took a deep breath and fiddled with her harness and straps to hide the tremor in her hands. Lycen was a choice posting. The deputy station chief was—had been—a close friend in her last years of training. She’d even carried a bit of a torch for him. Was he one of those unrecognizable bodies?
She shut out the memories; spoke: “See the blast damage to the smaller arches? Those were on the top floors. Between that and the cratering right to the inner edge of the walls, I’d say the embassy took plunging fire from heavy cannon.” She tried to count craters, gave up. “Dozens of shells, maybe more. Incendiary and explosive.”
Dogwood nodded. “That’s one possibility. There’s another, and from our rather precipitous ascent, I’d say it’s occurred to young Captain Sharpe as well.”
“And that is...?”
“They were bombed from an airship.”
Abelard inhaled sharply. “The Lady of Situations has never crossed the Company. We’d have no reason to do this.”
You mean she never crossed the Company until four days ago, Mir didn’t say. When one of her couriers killed the Windhover.
Dogwood handed Abelard the spyglass. “If I may point out the peculiar absence of activity in the city itself? One would expect panic or mass egress or perhaps looting. But I don’t see a soul stirring anywhere in the city, do you?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t.”
There were no signs of counter-battery fire from the embassy—no signs of any resistance at all. No fires in the city; no breaks in its walls.
A few old rumors about the Lemurian Engineers began to congeal in Mir’s head, the sort of ghost stories the warfare instructors told to drive home the distinction between tactical, strategic, and political capabilities. Accounts of noxious vapors and aerosols derived from seawater or phosphor; chemical and alchemical agents that could kill in minutes and linger for days or weeks. Weapons useless on a battlefield but perfectly suited to instilling terror in a populace. A reminder that however useful the Lemurian Engineers were, they would be dangerous if they ever became political....
She plucked the spyglass from Abelard’s hand and trained it on the bodies sprawled in the streets. No birds circled above them. No stray dogs gathered to worry at the corpses. A pair of wagons were stopped in an intersection, their mules dead in the traces.
“They gassed the city,” she heard herself say. Abelard and Dogwood were speaking, but the words echoed in her mind, drowning them out. They gassed the city. Whoever had attacked Lycen had done away with the embassy and tens of thousands of witnesses in a single stroke. It was an act of brutality and excessive violence born of desperation, of pure panic and a wild disregard for collateral damage. It reached beyond the edges of her imagination.
It was also hauntingly familiar.
She thought of the lightning siphon, of how at least one Lemurian had foreseen a future in which they might need to bring down their own airships. Of how strange it was that a lightning siphon had been included among her equipment at all. A Lemurian weapon....
In her mind, a piece clicked into place. “The booklets—they have something to do with Lemuria.”
Dogwood cocked her head. “A shrewd guess, and one possibility. I’d need to examine them to be sure.”
“Never going to happen.” She pointed at the smoking ruin below. “This is an act of war.”
“Not my act, love.”
Mir was spared replying by a shout from astern: “Airship, bearing one-seven-two, elevation zero-nine, range eight thousand or more.”
“Dead sunward.” Abelard said. “Bad manners.”
Dogwood brushed her fingers over her rapier’s hilt. “More than bad manners, I’m afraid. Mir, I believe you’d best check on the captain. I do believe your rapport might be adequate to support a bit more of the truth of our circumstances. Come along, Abelard; I shall need your assistance with my luggage.”
Rapport, Mir thought, fighting down annoyance at Dogwood’s implication. Sharpe’s directness was refreshing, that was all. And he had kind eyes, at least when he troubled to look at anything nearer than ten miles.
She slipped away, heading for the stern while trying to stay clear of the crew’s shifting lines. The Amaranth kept climbing, but there was a precarity in her attitude, as though she might heel over and dive at any moment. Her captain had the same quality in his expression. Still, when Mir climbed the ladder to the quarterdeck, no one told her to leave.
“Miss Mir,” he said, not turning. “Expecting trouble?”
“Always. Dogwood thinks the embassy was bombed from the air.”
Another shout from the stern lookout: “Constant bearing, closing range. Range is seventy-five hundred.”
Sharpe uncapped a speaking tube. “Colors?”
“No colors, Captain.” A pause. “There’s something wrong with her. Some kind of contraption on her decks. Never seen anything like it. Too far away to make out details.”
Mir squinted at the dot in the distance. Seventy-five hundred yards—well over four miles. “Please tell me you have some kind of hidden gundeck.”
Sharpe shook his head. “Do you know how much a cannon weighs?”
“Don’t give me that, Captain. The Windhover had cannon. Well, something like mortars, at least.”
He gave her an appraising look, and she found herself blushing. His faraway expression faded smoothly into perfect focus. “Very well. We don’t have any air-to-air armament because there’s not a captain alive who’d fire on another airship. We don’t have air-to-ground because I don’t take those commissions.”
Again, the voice from the tube: “Seven thousand yards. She’s in a shallow dive, flatsail spread, riding gravity down. Still no colors. Doing a dead-on flying squirrel, Captain.”
Sharpe was still staring at Mir. “You’re someone, aren’t you?”
Lying seemed pointless by now. Time to see whether Dogwood was right about their rapport. “A courier for the Duchess Madeleine Lewis.”
“Oh, her? Huh.” He jerked his chin toward the dot almost lost against the glare of the late afternoon sun. “Thoughts?”
“I’m carrying a package everyone on the continent seems to want. It has something to do with Lemuria.” She bit her lip, thought for a moment. “It’d be hard to find if they shot us down.”
A puff of smoke from the dot. Then the report of the cannon, dulled and stretched by distance. The shell sailed below the Amaranth an instant later, howling.
“But maybe they don’t care. In related news, I think you’re wrong about one of your counterparts, Captain.” She clipped on another safety line, paused, and replayed the last sentence in her head. “And I’m starting to sound like Dogwood.”
Sharpe’s voice stayed level even as his volume rose to carry above the startled shouts of the crew. “Dive. Make our angle minus ten, that’s minus ten, reef sail, and give the Amaranth her head.” He caught Mir by the shoulders and checked her harness and lines. She could smell soap and sweat on his neck. “They’re higher. That gives them an energy advantage. After we’re forced to level out, they’ll close the range even if we’re evenly matched.”
A voice from the speaking tube: “I recognize her, Captain. She’s the Dancer’s Folly. Traeger’s ship.” A pause. “But she’s not moving like the Folly.”
Sharpe snapped out a spyglass and raised it. “Can’t be. The Folly went down in the Screaming Sixties last year.”
Dogwood appeared on the quarterdeck with the longest rifle Mir had ever seen slung across her back. “Went down or vanished, Captain? There’s a considerable difference.”
Sharpe mumbled something unintelligible and raised the glass again. “She’s the Folly. No question. Yes, there’s something on her quarterdeck... I can’t make it out. A machine of some kind, though.”
Dogwood unslung the rifle and stripped the cover from the telescope mounted above the barrel. “Were I a gambling woman, I might posit the device to be an interface for direct control of the ship. In fact, I find myself obliged to bet my life on it.”
“If you ever bet,” Mir said, “I bet you cheat.”
“Why, yes. It’s how one wins. Permission to engage the enemy, Captain?”
Dogwood held up a bullet the size of her thumb. The tip was hollow and domed with a crystalline bead. “These rounds are tipped with an exceptionally expensive and specialized herbicide. If one strikes the Folly’s core, the ship will be incapacitated or deceased in a few minutes. Probably. You understand, I hope, the limited opportunities for testing.”
Sharpe turned to the bow, where Abelard was back to peering down at the ruins of the embassy.
Dogwood’s voice softened. “Her captain is already dead, Mr. Sharpe. I suspect the Folly wishes she were.”
Sharpe cursed with sudden violence. Then: “Go. Set up by the stern lookout. Be careful with those rounds. And Ms. Dogwood? We’ll have words later about what you’ve brought aboard my ship.”
Mir watched her go. “So they’re alive,” she said to Sharpe. “Airships.”
“The part that matters.” His voice was going distant again. “What you see is just a shell built by the Engineers. The masts are spliced into her spines, the hull plates into—”
Another shell screamed past, closer this time.
“They’ll find our range soon,” Sharpe said. “Miss Mir, I need you off the quarterdeck. Keep at least two safety lines secured.”
She obeyed. As she descended the ladder, she imagined she could feel the great, slow pulse of the airship even through the sawed and planed wood that made up her skin. The pulse was rising.
The next four hours were a study in boredom and terror. The Folly closed the range slowly, her shells arcing nearer, and the Amaranth began to slalom in broad curves.
“Trading speed for lower hit probability,” Abelard told her when she noticed the vessel slowing. “Maneuvers like this always shed airspeed. Sharpe’s seeing if he can draw them into range of that Dogwood woman’s rifle. Airship poison.” He spat. “I’d never have let her aboard with it.”
A shell burst fifty yards to port. Something stung Mir’s cheek, and when she touched the spot, her fingers came away red. Mir showed Abelard the blood. “That poison might save our lives.”
She gripped the rail as the ship swept through a sudden turn northward. The Folly turned to cut her off, gaining another few hundred yards, but the maneuver was slow, sluggish, and the Folly wobbled and bucked before settling on the new course. Mir could just see men scrambling around the strange engine fixed to the deck, pulling levers and twisting wheels.
Abelard grunted. “They’ve taken the gambit. Not smart enough to stand off and wait to get lucky. Gadget’s not perfect, neither. Rough control. Nothing like having a captain.”
“I... don’t know what that means, Abelard.”
“Figure you’re about to.”
Then the Amaranth began to dance. She swept up through a mad, whirling climb, then heeled over and plunged, timbers creaking, wind howling in her masts.
At first, Mir gripped the rail so hard her muscles burned, but then she realized her balance was unaffected. She kept her feet effortlessly, even releasing the rail to spread her arms and feel the speed of their passage rushing through her fingers. The crew were shouting down at their pursuer as the Folly overshot below them, a blend of insults and taunts and wordless challenges. Mir joined in, alive with the raw joy of flight and the flood of adrenaline following each shellburst. Less than a minute later, the other airship ceased fire, unable to keep the Amaranth within the plane of her gundeck.
Abelard remained crouched and held tight to a stanchion, smiling strangely. “We’re bearing north. Canny, our Sharpe. Headed for Lovers’ Valley. They’re faster in level flight, but we’ll out-turn them in there. Run them right into a wall or a rock pillar.” His eyes traced over Mir’s spread hands. She dropped them, suddenly feeling like she’d given something away. He lowered his voice. “You’ve been coping well enough.”
“I have excellent balance.”
A moment of quiet, the crew around them hastening to secure cargo and lines loosened by the violence of the last maneuver. Then Abelard spoke. Mir scarcely heard him. His words slid through her mind, frictionless, and she found herself remembering.
For time beyond reckoning, it tumbled through the dark between worlds, a miles-wide tangle of branches and leaves spread like sails, in search of a likely star.
Then it found one.
It fell for centuries, tacking hard against the stellar wind toward an orb of stone and iron and water, until its leaves burned away and left it plunging unguided down gravity’s curve.
It struck the atmosphere over Lemuria-that-was with all the force of a fallen angel, which perhaps it was. The thunderclap that followed deafened for a thousand miles around.
Those who saw its track and lived christened it the Bolide.
Lemuria became a cracked land, a burned land, a ruined expanse of blackened stumps and the scoured foundations of what future explorers would call wizard’s towers, and none lived who could prove them wrong. A vast crater glowed for days after the impact like a luminous eye veined with lines of glass and seeping lava.
And the Bolide was broken, its branches vaporized or buried or scattered.
But a few of its seeds survived and remembered. And when the explorers who would comprise both the Company and the Engineers came at last to Lemuria, a few were found, and a few were befriended.
“Made to fly, the seeds are,” Abelard was saying when Mir came back to herself. “Thistledown for the whole universe. Caldwell always said that we only saw their shadows, that most of a shipseed was someplace else. Someplace with different winds. It’s why they need a partner to stay here, to fly right. Somebody who can see our world, feel it, show them what to do. It’s not just anybody, either. There’s not a soul in ten thousand can bond with a shipseed. Takes time, too. Weeks. Or I always figured it did.” He finally turned to her. “It’s permanent. Takes over a bit of your brain or some such. And exclusive. One airship to a captain, one captain to an airship. They go mad otherwise.”
“The people. The ships... they go blind, mostly. Wait for the next captain to come along.”
Lovers’ Valley spread out beneath them, a broad canyon of cream- and rust-colored rock broken by high pillars. The Folly opened fire again. A shell struck an outcrop and blew shards of rock across the bow.
The danger around them seemed distant, unreal. Mir spoke: “I’ve been having dreams. Like I could feel the wind, only it wasn’t just the wind....”
The sharp crack of Dogwood’s rifle sounded behind them.
“I’m headed astern.” Abelard said, rising and clipping his harness to an overhead line. “Only ever seen one murder before. And Mir? You’d best keep those dreams to yourself for now.”
She followed him. They were amidships when a shell struck home and blew out a chunk of hull. Pain clawed into Mir’s head and side, and she fell, clenching her jaw against a scream and clutching at her vest, at the parcels secreted beneath, expecting to find bloodied flesh and shredded paper.
But she was uninjured, and Abelard was hauling her to her feet. “Hold on,” he snapped.
The Amaranth was slewing, swinging into the shadow of a pillar then climbing hard to crest the top.
The Dancer’s Folly appeared not four hundred yards away, black against the setting sun.
Dogwood’s rifle spoke again, and the Folly convulsed. It shuddered and spun down, sails snapping against the wind, crew running for parachutes or lifelines or the controls of their deck-mounted engine. None had time to save themselves. The Folly struck the pillar’s base with a grating crunch that was not at all the sound Mir had expected.
The Amaranth climbed in a slow arc. Mir clutched at her side, breathing hard, staring into the stillness. The Folly lay broken below them, and sorrow blossomed in Mir’s mind, along with in inexplicable impression of shattered wings.
They landed half a mile from the crash to take stock. The damage to the Amaranth’s hull was minimal, something Mir knew even before Sharpe made the announcement. The ship would heal in time. But two of the crew were dead; one from a sliver of shrapnel in his neck, the other from a long fall through the gash in the hull. Both bodies lay beneath tarps on the deck. Sharpe and his crew had insisted on finding the fallen man even as the light failed.
Now Sharpe stood before Dogwood and Mir, expressionless, Abelard at his side, the dead men between them. “Is all this your doing?”
Dogwood was buttoning a cloth case over her rifle’s telescope. “Not by intent. Our enemy is no friend to the Company, Captain, nor to any of the independents. This day would have come eventually, and perhaps found you less prepared.”
“Does your enemy have a name?”
“One presumes so. I don’t know it.”
“All right. Follow me.”
“Where?” Mir asked.
“We’re looking for survivors. Enough to give us answers. We’ll see if they match yours.”
He left the rest unsaid. Mir felt something hot shivering under the airship’s skin like a fever. Was it the Amaranth’s rage or her captain’s? Was there a difference?
She shut her eyes and ground her palms against them. When she looked up, Abelard was offering her a revolver and a bandolier of rounds. She accepted the weapon, flipped the cylinder open, spun it. Brass gleamed in the fading light.
“Your Lady teach you to shoot straight?”
“Kneecaps, if you have the choice. We need someone to talk.”
It was a small team that approached the wreckage: Sharpe, Abelard, Dogwood, and three crew members who had served in one army or another in their former lives. Dogwood carried the long rifle over her shoulder and wore her pistol and rapier.
“Oh my God,” Sharpe said when they gained the deck.
Where the deck and hull were broken, Mir could see twisting vines, half of them split and oozing dark fluid. All were pierced by strands of copper wire that ran back to the metal block of the interface engine. A few were smoking, and the air reeked of rotting vegetation and death.
One of the Folly’s crew stirred. Sharpe put a foot on his chest and a revolver to his head. The man tried to mumble something through a mouthful of blood. Sharpe froze in place. Then, slowly, he lowered the gun. He turned to Dogwood. “You’re the Ladyhawk, aren’t you?”
Dogwood did not smile. “Among other things.”
He pointed to the wounded man. “Learn what he knows. Abelard, watch her back. I’ll take the rifle. Miss Mir, with me, please.”
She followed him below decks. The copper wires ran everywhere, a nervous system or elaborate instrument of torture. A few still hummed with current. She knelt over a dead woman and tore the insignia from her jacket. A stag rampant on a green field, caught within a closing wheel of hounds. “Lord Creel.”
Sharpe didn’t seem to hear her.
They detoured around crushed passageways and ducked low where decks had buckled under the impact. Creaks sounded as the Folly’s structure shifted under strain. Nothing was burning, not yet, but Mir kept thinking of the blast that had sundered the Windhover. How large were the Folly’s powder magazines? How close might they be to a sparking brush of copper wire? Then there were the sealed canisters painted with warnings and handling instructions. All were intact, but a few were scratched and dented. Mir recalled the silence of Lycen and her speculations on poisonous gases. She gave the canisters a wide berth and hoped her eyes were watering only from the rising stench of plant decomposition.
“Here,” Sharpe said at last, stopping before a closed hatch. Every trace of absent-mindedness was gone, replaced by a flat, emotionless intensity. He tried the hatch, found it locked. He touched the hinges, fingertips lingering.
“Can we shoot them out?” one of the crew asked.
“Not the hinges,” Mir said at once. “The frame around the bolt. Four or five rounds right there, angled down.”
Sharpe pointed. “Do it.”
Five shots sounded, deafening in the confined space. The hatch swung inward.
Inside was a shipseed.
It was an angular, man-high bulb with spines and roots that vanished through cutouts in the bulkheads. The seed was the color of dark cherrywood, its surface rippled and glossy except where heavy braids of wire pierced it. There it had begun to dry and shed flakes like rust. A scab the size of Mir’s hand fell away, and a burst of mephitic air spilled from the lesion.
She couldn’t hear it, but she knew the ship was in agony.
Sharpe touched the shipseed, eyes closed. “I’m so sorry, sister mine,” he murmured.
Mir reached out and felt the smoothness of the skin, keeping clear of the dead patches. Sharpe’s crew, she saw too late, had stayed outside, their postures somewhere between reverential and horrified.
No matter. She was here, and she wasn’t going to back out. “Don’t you have someone who could bond with it? Her, I mean?” she asked.
“No. Airship captains don’t fall from trees.” He stepped back from the shipseed. “Wouldn’t help anyway. She’s blind. I’m dead sure she’s in pain. Thank God I left Abelard above. He’s already been through this once.” He caught Mir’s expression and sighed. “I’m not oblivious, Miss Mir. You can leave too, if you’d like.”
She didn’t have to watch. He was giving her the choice. But she was hesitant to leave him alone, to leave him facing the act in isolation. “I don’t think I should.”
“All right.” He unslung Dogwood’s rifle, slid a round into the breech, and snapped the bolt closed. “I hope to God they killed Traeger clean. That’s not something I’ve had to hope before.”
He set the muzzle a foot from the shipseed, closed his eyes, and fired.
The hum of the wires died.
Sharpe did not move.
“This is the part,” Mir murmured, laying a hand on his shoulder, “where I’m supposed to say it gets easier.”
If he realized what she’d just confessed to, he gave no sign. “Does it?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
From far away, through a half-dozen open hatches and as many twists of ruined corridor, she could hear a man screaming.
“Come on,” she said. “It’s done. Let’s see what Dogwood is finding out.”
They took their council in Sharpe’s mess aboard the Amaranth, all four seated around a white-clothed table topped with Mir’s pouched belt, a chunk of interface engine, one of Dogwood’s bullets, and four glasses of whiskey.
“Nothing remains secret forever,” Dogwood said. “All the High Lords know what airships are. They have for decades. The Houses have a vested interest in possibilities beyond the current arrangement, and they’ve begun dedicating more resources to pursuing them. The main difficulty, as you might imagine, is the rarity of individuals capable of linking with shipseeds—to say nothing of the measures the Company has taken to limit and control transitions of power from one compatible individual to another.”
Mir asked, “What measures?”
Abelard answered. “Three things. Keep passengers from staying aboard for more than a week. Keep crews small to minimize odds of chance bonding. And if it does happen, close the whole business quick. If the captain’s getting old or the crew’s dissatisfied, there’s a duel. Newcomer gets a chance at command. But usually we just chuck the poor bastard overboard, call it an accident. Bad luck for him, but there’s the risk you take.” He pushed his glass over to Mir. “You want this? I don’t. Not now.”
“All of which means,” Dogwood said, “that possession and control of airships continues to be random. Virtually all captains come to identify more closely with Lemuria than their nations of origin, and none owe fealty to the Houses. For whatever reason, the High Lords have had an extraordinarily difficult time buying any off—”
“I know why,” Sharpe said. “It’s a fool who gives up his freedom for a purse. Airships don’t choose fools.” He picked up the shipkilling round and turned it through his fingers. “Random? It’s not random. Ships fall in love, just like people do. I’ve never known one to fall in love with a monster. Selfish greedy devils, fine. Adventurers a bit light on conscience, fine. But not monsters. And not fools.”
No, Mir thought, but apparently one can choose a murderer.
Abelard reclaimed his whiskey, raised it in salute, and drank.
Dogwood smiled politely. “Be that as it may, it seems someone has discovered an alternative—direct control of the shipseed’s nervous system.”
Abelard snorted. “If you can call it control. Wallowing, more like.”
“It’s close enough for most purposes, I should imagine. Tell me, Abelard, how many airships have gone missing over the last two years?”
He glowered and said nothing.
Mir shivered, imagining a fleet of maimed ships drifting over Hull, bristling with weapons, each screaming in a register no ear could perceive. “Creel,” she muttered.
“Does it matter?” Dogwood asked. “Would you feel differently were it Drenan or Borgia or even your Lady? They’re interchangeable, love. All of them.”
Mir had no answer.
Dogwood continued: “Our late acquaintance from the Folly claims Creel has nine airships fitted with electromechanical controls. Creel has yet to field the others. He’s successfully hidden his capability, at least until now. Given that our source and his compatriots were supposed to destroy four of Lewis’s compounds in southern Mikra and, if possible, intercept Mir and her parcel, it would seem she’s forced his hand.”
Abelard frowned. “One of Creel’s men was on the Windhover. He even had a diplomatic passport. Why would Creel have his own man killed?”
“There are other actors in play,” Dogwood said smoothly. “Don’t you see?” She slipped a booklet from Mir’s belt and held it up. “This is Madeleine Lewis’s answer to the likes of Creel. I confess I’m not certain what’s inside, but I’m quite confident it’s a means of seizing control of an airship. A means she was distributing to her holdings along the world’s busiest trade route. They might be instructions for a device like Creel’s, but I suspect something more... exotic. According to my sources, the Lady’s research team included three mathematicians, two alienists, a biologist, and she seems to have suborned a Lemurian Engineer.”
“Impossible,” Abelard said. “Fanatics, the lot of them. Bolide worshippers.”
“The question is not of possibility. The fact stands. The question, dear Abelard, is of means, and of what the means imply. Consider what else might be accomplished by a method for altering mental architecture at a fundamental level. Now consider that the criterion for linking with an airship seems to be having a certain sort of mind—”
Sharpe cut her off. “No. No way in hell. What we have, it’s magic, or near enough. It’s not something you can put in a bottle.”
“No, but it is perhaps something you can write down or encode in a few hundred pages. Or in a psychoactive fractal. Mir? Perhaps you have something to share?”
Mir reached out in a direction she’d never noticed and felt the Amaranth’s mind drifting against hers. Felt her sorrow and pain and confusion. Felt a growing desire to lift away from this place, to leave her dead sister in peace under an open sky. It was frightening. And it was wonderful, and it could be hers.
She looked at Sharpe, at the intensity in his eyes, the perfect certainty written there that that Amaranth loved him. She imagined slitting his throat in the night.
“Why send it with me?” she asked, trying to turn the conversation. “For the love of God, I’d never even been in the field alone.”
“I believe that was the point. A low-level courier delivering a sensitive but routine package... who would notice?” Dogwood smiled thinly. “I knew your Lady had one leak. Given the Houses represented on the Windhover, it would seem she has more. But that’s hardly my point. Mir, love?”
“I never opened the booklets,” she said. “I almost did, but....” But she hadn’t. And wouldn’t. She stood and snatched her courier’s belt from the table and the single booklet from Dogwood’s hand. “I haven’t betrayed her. Not yet. And you still haven’t given me a reason to.”
Mir left, slamming the door behind her. Anger burned through her confusion. She’d never opened the booklets, had hardly even touched them. They couldn’t have changed her, bent her mind into some new shape. She still felt like herself. She had her memories, her personality, most of her loyalty. She could feel—
—could feel wind breathing over her skin, the gentle wash of light from farther stars. The pain in her side dulling as she healed. The outer dance rolling on and rolling high, her own part in it suspended for but a moment while her eyes (she always thought of him as her eyes) saw things that made him weep inside, that made the freedom within him beat like a caged bird’s wings—
Mir drove her fist into a bulkhead, the pain dragging her back to a smaller reality. “I didn’t ask for this,” she said.
Nobody asks for it, the Amaranth might have answered. People hope for it, sometimes.
She slipped into her quarters and sat in the darkness, fighting the impulse to lose herself in the airship. My God, she thought again. Is this how Sharpe feels all the time? No wonder he gets distracted.
Dogwood returned an hour later and sat beside her. “For what little it’s worth,” she said softly, “I didn’t mean for you to be the test case. I meant to examine the booklets myself, at the right moment.”
“I was telling the truth. I didn’t read them.”
“Then you have exceptionally bad luck, love. Or else the mechanism is other than I believed.”
Mechanism, Mir thought. “How did you know?”
“The way you’ve been looking at our Captain Sharpe. I count myself a consummate reader of people, and I honestly cannot tell whether you mean to take him to bed or put him in his grave. Were I to guess, I would posit that your feelings for his ship and his ship’s feelings for him do not sit easily together.”
“Does he know?”
“Sharpe? No. He’s quite... devoted to the Amaranth. It’s a common flaw in men to suppose the objects of their love return it in equal measure. Though I believe Abelard has a clearer understanding on the point. Caldwell regarded him as an invaluable friend, you know, and nothing more than that.”
“I knew that much. Dogwood, what am I supposed to do?”
“My name is Julia Longstreet. Or it might be, I should say. It’s the oldest one I remember. Mundane, isn’t it?”
“I think I like Dogwood better.”
“It has been growing on me, I admit. Ladyhawk sounds like something that escaped from a penny dreadful.”
They sat in silence for a while. Dogwood broke it: “You stood out during your training, did you not? A recognizable rising star.”
“I was. Not the best, but close.”
“So I’ve heard. Which is itself striking.”
“It occurs to me,” Dogwood said slowly, “that what I’d have you do now is continue to draw fire and thereby expose those parties invested in airship technologies. It also occurs to me that I am likely not the first person to conceive of such a plan. I did wonder why the Lady saw fit to include a lightning siphon among your things. It’s a rather specialized weapon, after all, useful only when one’s enemies are gathered in the right place at the right time—though in spring one is guaranteed a thunderstorm at some point on the journey from Flourish to Cliff’s End. And my intelligence was far more detailed than usual, now that I have cause to reflect.”
“The leak,” Mir murmured. Pieces slotted into place, a picture emerging that made perfect sense if she admitted one—just one—unpleasant truth: the leak had been deliberate. Nausea coiled inside her, slickness gathering in her mouth.
She seized one of the booklets and ran her knife down the seals.
The pages were blank.
“Well,” Dogwood said.
Mir tore the others open. Blank, all of them. She lit a candle and held a page up to the heat. Nothing appeared. She spat on her fingers, smeared a page with saliva. Nothing. “Lemon juice,” she said. “I need something with acid. Sharpe had vinegar at dinner two nights ago. Or, or—”
“This can’t be it.” She was struggling to breathe. “It can’t be.”
“I wonder,” Dogwood said, “whether your lightning siphon was armed from the start. Would you have been able to tell? Cliff’s End was the first storm of the journey.” Admiration crept into her voice. “Oh, Madeleine, you magnificent, devious bitch. She’s dealt a blow to a dozen intelligence networks, drawn out Creel, and pointed the wrath of the Company straight at him. And all she had to sacrifice was you. Hm. I wonder if she knows yet that Creel has leveled her lovely embassy. As I said, the man’s a splitting maul. I rather doubt she foresaw that particular outcome. Mir? Oh, Mir.”
Mir wiped at her tears and fought the shudder building in her chest, the tightness in her throat. But there was no point. She lowered her face to her hands and wept.
Dogwood drew her down beside her and let her cry.
“Ten minutes,” Mir said. It took a few tries; her voice kept cracking. “Give me ten minutes. Then, I don’t know, slap me or something.”
But she cut herself off after five, locking away the pain and sense of vertigo. She sat up, wiped her face, and took a few deep breaths. “All right, Dogwood. Ms. Longstreet?”
“Julia. Though not in front of our present associates, if you please.”
“Julia, then. We have six blank booklets everyone is desperate to steal or destroy. The Amaranth is in my head, and when Sharpe finds out, he’ll have to kill me, or I him. Abelard will kill me, too, once he figures out what I did to Caldwell. And my patroness has thrown me to the wolves. Now what?”
“In the long-term, we warn Lemuria about Creel. I imagine the Company will make a rather public example of him and restore the balance of power. But for now, solve the one problem you can. Dispose of Sharpe and Abelard.”
She could taste it: a whole lifetime feeling the pulse of the Amaranth and the freedom of flight. Fifty years or more. Seeing the world—seeing more than the world. A new life, and her Lady left far behind. All she had to do was accept that she’d been forced to be free.
Julia smiled. “I thought as much. I’m going to take what rest I can. You—well, you’re your own woman now, love. You might do anything. I wish you luck.”
She left the cabin after Julia fell asleep. It was a cool night on deck, a crescent moon sailing high in clear skies above the grounded Amaranth. Half a mile away across the valley, the Folly was burning. A crewman followed Mir’s eyes and said, “The captain ordered her fired once we cleared out the magazine and the gas bombs. Not about to leave any trace of that contraption for the scavengers. They’re welcome to the bodies, though.”
Mir nodded, only half-listening. “Why do they stay? Shipseeds, I mean. They could just... fly away, out into the universe. Why don’t they?”
“Not something I’m keen to talk over with an outsider, miss. You and your friend already know too much. No offense.”
They watched the flames for a while.
“Sharpe says the Amaranth is in love with him. But that’s just an analogy. It has to be. She’s alien, as alien as anything can be.”
“He loves her, that’s for sure. And that’s no analogy, miss.”
She took her leave, wandering, feeling the Amaranth knitting herself back together. The pain was gone. In the calm, she could sense Sharpe’s confusion, his unrest at Julia’s words. She remembered the quick, professional motion of his hands as he checked her harness before the running battle, the cheerful obliviousness to social graces when they’d met. The odd blend of abstraction and focus. And she understood with sudden clarity that he could fly like a god precisely because of how he imagined his relationship with his ship.
But it was imaginary. It had to be. The Amaranth was using him. It didn’t matter that he loved her for it, would do anything for her because of it, would hold on even as she threw him away—
A half-dozen blank booklets, a lie, and an armed lightning siphon.
“Damn you, Madeleine,” she whispered.
Somehow her walk had ended at the door to Sharpe’s quarters. She knocked before she could think better of it.
“It’s funny,” she said. “I still can’t think of you as Elias.” She pushed past him. “I wonder if your ship bothers with names. I don’t think she does. Temporary things, names. You can give them, take them away. Then one day, you can’t remember what was there before.”
“Shut up. Just don’t say anything, and maybe this will be all right.”
Then she was kissing him, and even as heat rose deep within her, she knew he had no idea why he was kissing her back.
Morning broke. She disentangled herself from Sharpe and left him still drowsing.
Julia was waiting for her in their quarters. “That was foolish,” she said, not unkindly. “Whatever comes next will only be more difficult. What were you thinking?”
“I thought we had something in common.”
“You told me you wondered what sort of person I’d be when I stopped falling. So do I.” She washed in a bucket of tepid water and changed, strapping her sheathed knife to her left wrist and holstering her hold-out pistol at the small of her back. “But I’m damn well certain I’m not Elias Sharpe.”
The Amaranth flew southeast on a bearing for Cadela.
“Creel might have someone waiting for us,” Mir said. “He might have already gassed the city.”
Sharpe grimaced. “Creel or not, we have deliveries to make. And there’s a Company outpost there. They won’t be easy prey.” He rubbed at his temples. He had yet to complain aloud of his headache, but he didn’t need to. Mir had the same one. The touch of the Amaranth was growing diffuse, fading, leaving behind an impression that Mir was always on the verge of remembering something. Presumably, Sharpe felt the same. His denial could not last forever. Neither could his guidance of the Amaranth. Even now, the ship’s flight seemed less sure.
Abelard had noticed. He took care never to turn his back on Mir or Dogwood. He sat now by the altimeter and thermometer, eyes fixed on the columns of quicksilver, thinking. He still wore the revolver with which he had boarded the Folly, and Sharpe had not asked for its return.
So perhaps Sharpe’s denial was not total, after all.
I can kill him, or die, or go mad, Mir thought. And if I do murder him, I’ll be left bound to this ship for the rest of my life. I’ll have traded one mistress for another.
The shadows shifted on the deck. The ship was turning. Mir cringed, fighting sudden vertigo and a flare of pain.
“Captain?” Dogwood asked.
“I’m trying an experiment,” Sharpe said, voice tight. Another slow turn, this time in the opposite direction.
A fresh spike of pain sank into Mir’s skull. All right, she thought, forget your own choices. Focus on Julia’s.
“If I gave you the booklets,” she asked Julia quietly, “what would you do?”
But it was Dogwood who saw through the question to the implication. “Mir, it isn’t that simple. We can continue the ruse with variations, keep playing the powers against one another until they’re exhausted, but I cannot do it alone. You need to repair the seals, position yourself as a traitor willing to sell the contents—”
“You’re on Lemuria’s side.”
“In a way.”
“Well, I seem to be too, or at least the side of the airships. But I don’t remember making a choice, and that scares the hell out of me.”
“Did you ever make a conscious decision to serve the Lady of Situations?”
“Exactly.” Mir raised her voice. “Captain Sharpe? We need to talk.”
By tradition, the crew chose the location for the duel, and so Mir and Sharpe stood back to back on a flat-topped mountain above a broad plain. The wind climbing the slopes carried the scent of olive trees, and Mir thought of that first night in Cliff’s End.
Sharpe’s crew—or the Amaranth’s—waited well to the sides. Nobody wanted to catch a stray bullet. Dogwood and Abelard stood nearer. If they had noticed the absurdity of having seconds in such a duel, neither remarked on it.
“Why didn’t you just shove me over the rail?” Mir murmured.
He shifted against her shoulders. “Why did you sleep with me?”
The part of her that had seen in Abelard a convenient weapon woke and produced the answer he wanted: “I had the Amaranth in my head. That’s all.”
“You don’t believe that.”
“I don’t know what I believe. Are you... happy, Sharpe?”
“Yes. Yes, I am.”
“I don’t know if I would be.”
Sharpe’s first officer spoke: “Duelists, walk for the five-count, turn, and fire.”
Mir’s grip tightened on the revolver. It was big for her hands. She would be slow to cock the hammer for a second shot. Not that the second shot would matter.
“She chose you,” Sharpe said, so softly he might have been speaking to himself. “I’d almost hoped it was the Ladyhawk. But she chose you, and I don’t understand why.”
Mir took a deep breath. At the first officer’s shout, she began to walk.
“One. Two. Three. Four. Five.”
She turned and fired over her opponent’s head.
A moment later, she realized Sharpe had done the same.
From the sideline, Dogwood began to laugh. “Oh, this is a first. Are you really both bent on dying nobly? Is that the best you believe you can do? Mir, love, Lemuria has work for you. Do you imagine you were chosen in idleness?”
“Maybe,” Mir said. “But I don’t plan on starting like this. If you want Sharpe dead, you can do it yourself. I’m done with other people’s killing.” She paused. “I can’t help but notice a distinct lack of gunfire. Why is that, Dogwood? Is it because you know what would happen next?”
She turned back to Sharpe. “Dammit, Elias. I don’t want this. Can’t you see that?”
He dropped his revolver. He wasn’t even looking at her. All his attention was on the grounded Amaranth. Calling to her, maybe, and listening to the silence. He’d killed for her once, Mir realized. She wondered what had changed.
She had another option; another way out.
“Abelard,” she said. “I killed the Windhover. I killed Caldwell. I set a lightning siphon in the magazine. When I saw Dogwood and the others on board, I panicked. I thought the collateral damage would be worth it, or maybe I just wanted to save myself.... When I found you, I wasn’t just looking for survivors. I was making sure none of them were enemies.”
His eyes flicked between her and Dogwood.
“It wasn’t her,” Mir said. “Think, Abelard. I can show you what I was carrying. They’re just blank booklets. Bait for a trap. I was Madeleine Lewis’s decoy. Her lightning rod.” She tossed her revolver aside. “As it were.”
“You swore an oath. You swore by Lemuria and the Bolide.”
“So I did,” he said slowly. “So I did. But you’re not afraid to die, are you? It’s what you want.”
“Abelard,” she began, realizing her mistake, “I—”
He drew and shot Sharpe through the head.
For just a moment, she met Abelard’s eyes. Part of her wanted to see triumph in his face, or closure, or even righteous anger. But she could read nothing there but disappointment and revulsion.
Then the full weight of the Amaranth crashed through Mir’s mind, and darkness fell.
Why me? Mir asked.
An image of the Windhover burning.
That’s not an answer.
Her own voice came back, shifted beyond the range of sound: I thought we had something in common.
What, that we’re killers? Sharpe loved you. Loved you. Do you know how rare that is?
Again: I thought we had something in common.
I don’t know what to do next, Mir thought into the void. I’ve lost my Lady. More than lost her. If Dogwood pushes me, I don’t know how far I’ll go. What I’ll do, who I might do it to.
Something like warmth, like an affirmation. An image of fine tendrils spreading beneath Lemuria, reaching through the dark, and the world above changing. All the world a garden of shadows tended by the Engineers, themselves grown monstrous strange, and all culminating in the new mountaintop where a shipseed would sprout and bloom and cast off into the night, leaving the world a gray and fading memory of life.
Your lifecycle, Mir thought. To move on, you have to consume this place. And you could. So why haven’t you?
More images: rivers, mountains, waves breaking on white cliffs. The embassy in Lycen in its splendor, caught in the fire of the rising sun. Then a sense of Sharpe and his delight in the world, or in what the world could be. A portrait not of the face but of the man. Then another portrait of another captain, and another, and another—
I see it, Mir thought. You like it here. You like the people. You even like the damn scenery. I guess this is the first time you’ve had another species to talk to. Or that could talk back. I wonder what the odds are on that. Low, I think.
Amusement, perhaps, or doubt.
Oh. You don’t know what to do next either.
I could leave you blind, Mir thought. I could even kill you. There’s a case for it. There’s a case for destroying every single one of you.
Silence. Then, in an echo of Dogwood’s voice: I wonder who you’ll be when you stop falling.
Well, Mir thought, there are worse foundations for a partnership. I guess we’ll find out together.
She came to herself in Sharpe’s bed. Her bed, now. The Amaranth withdrew from her awareness, the gesture somehow respectful.
We’ll talk later, Mir thought. This isn’t over.
A final, fading affirmation, and she was alone.
Or nearly so; Julia sat by her bedside, offering a glass of water.
“Thanks.” She drank. “Sharpe?”
“He’s under a cairn. There’s no digging a grave in bare stone. I doubt he even knew what happened.”
“He murdered Sharpe in front of his crew. There was nothing I could do. I’m sorry.”
“So I could have killed their captain, and that’d be fine, but Abelard does it—”
“There’s a line between a duel and cold-blooded murder, love. In any event, the crew would merely have obeyed you long enough to find a port and likely other employment. Now, however, they’ve seen that Sharpe wouldn’t take your life. They saw you trying to lay down your own, perhaps in penance, perhaps in fear of gaining something many would kill to possess. They’d have obeyed you, Mir. Now, I suspect they’ll follow you.” A thin smile. “That you simply could have killed yourself doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.”
Mir set the glass in an indentation on the nightstand and concentrated for a moment, calling on the Amaranth and peering out through their twin perceptions of the worlds. Go, she thought. Images of plains and rolling hills and then the desert by the eastern sea, and then the sea itself, the spreading blueness that reached all the way to Lemuria.
The Amaranth rose and banked.
Then she remembered something else, and the turn continued, becoming a circle.
She threw off the covers, donned her weapons and harness, and set out for the quarterdeck.
“Where are we going?” Julia asked.
“Lemuria. I have several canisters of dangerous chemicals to dispose of and a few questions that need answering.” First among them, she thought to her ship, is what you’re not telling me about our association.
The corner of Julia’s mouth quirked, and she began to object.
“No,” Mir said. “We’re going to Lemuria now. Come along or leave, but I’ve made my choice.”
Julia studied her for a moment. Then she smiled. “As you will.”
Most of the crew had gathered before the quarterdeck. Sharpe’s first officer—Adrian Collins, that was his name—was waiting at the helm, eyeing the instruments with ill-concealed anxiety.
“Relax, Mr. Collins,” she said. “I have the shipseed. You’ll teach me about captaining and everything the Engineers built around her. I know what I don’t know.”
He stood a bit easier. “Good to hear, Captain.”
She faced the crew and raised her voice. “We’re bound for Lemuria by way of Cadela. Anyone who wishes to leave at Cadela, tell me, and I’ll honor whatever arrangement Sharpe made with you as best I can. But if you come with me, you’ll be fighting the people who killed Traeger and harnessed the Folly.”
She hesitated, considering the coming crisis, the Amaranth’s images playing in her head: the change spreading from Lemuria, the work of the mad gardeners, the final expulsive burst of life.
“You might even have a chance to save the world,” she added. “And then, when that’s done, if you want it, you can have your shot at me. Sharpe’s dead. I don’t mean to replace him. I mean to do right by him, if I can. And by the other dead.” She stopped, aware that she’d run out of things to say. “Well? For the dead?”
It was a muted chorus, but it was nearly unanimous: “For the dead.”
Carrion birds wheeled far overhead, descending over the mountaintop. With a thought, she leveled the ship, its bow pointed back to the dueling ground. Collins grabbed for the helm and made some inscrutable adjustment.
“But now, we see to Abelard. I won’t leave the dead unburied. We can leave after the funeral. To your posts.”
The crew obeyed. Mir hid her relief.
Julia spoke from her side. “That was well done.”
Quieter: “Abelard may have saved my life, you know. Had he not done as he did, then I—”
“I don’t want to know, Dogwood. I truly don’t.”
A long silence. With reefed sails and Mir’s tentative feel for the Amaranth’s senses, they drifted slowly.
At last, Julia said, “You don’t remember your name from before the Lady found you, do you?”
“No. I was four or five. Just another gutter rat. This is the name I’ve got.” The ship tilted slightly, feathering invisible vanes against a gust from another plane. Mir noted the sensation, tipped a mental nod to the Amaranth. “I’ll just have to make do.”
They buried Abelard beneath a cairn on the mountaintop a stone’s throw from Sharpe, the world spread out below the mountain and a hard blue sky above. It was a perfect spring day, and the weather held until twilight, when clouds began to gather along the Amaranth’s course, and the air smelled of rain and olives.