Nell had little choice in the matter – one huge, hot hand closed around her wrist and dragged her out. Seized her under the shoulders like a child and set her on her feet. Her knees shook, barely supporting her as she stared up at the killer. Red and gold finery on a muscular, seven-foot frame. A sword on his hip. Golden eyes in a broad, angular face.
“You have me at a disadvantage, little one.” He said, as the corpse stared at them, accusing, cooling on the plush carpet.
“How did you find me?” She asked, thoughtless. One arch brow rose.
“I could smell your fear. There; an exchange. What is your name, little one?”
He nodded. “Of no House but yourself, I see. A thief and interloper. I am Olimak Malorn, Herald of Olimak.”
The hulking deva uncrossed his arms, one hand resting on the pommel of his sword in a gesture Nell read as old habit.
“You saved my life, albeit by mistake. For that you are owed my protection – but in coming here, you are a trespasser.” He tilted his head, the ghost of a smile on his lips. “You understand that I must take you to security.”
Nell stared up at him, saying nothing, thinking intensely. She glanced toward the heavy glass window on her left – leading to open air and the hamlet far below, and to the door on the right – beyond Malorn.
Nell had watched this man, this demigod, kill one of the people who had ruled her entire world from this kingdom above the clouds. Nell had dodged popping rivets and savage punches throughout her childhood.
Looking into those gold eyes, Nell held out her hands.
Malorn nodded. “I accept your surrender. There will be no need to restrain you. Come, let us get this done with.”
He lead her through monotonous steel corridors without a word, past men and women in a variety of clothes alien to Nell, going about tasks equally perplexing – like a rat in grubby denim, tinkering with arcane cables and tendrils behind one of the steel panels of the wall, an array of strange tools scattered on the floor beside them.
“How did I save you?”
“Every fear is different.”
Through a door that slid aside at his approach, Malorn brought her into a spacious chamber lined with low seats, and at the back was a wall-to-wall desk. Above the countertop was a row of bars, presumably to protect the clerk. Her uniform, though unarmoured, was similar to the guards Nell had seen at the base of the tower, and her expression went from bored to relieved at Malorn’s arrival.
The clerk spoke in a strange, musical language Nell didn’t recognize, smiling brightly at her captor..
“This one,” he replied in more familiar Tradestongue, setting one huge hand on Nell’s shoulder and pushing her forward. “Is a trespasser. She broke into a bedroom.”
The clerk raised a brow, peered at Nell, and frowned.
She spoke, this time in a more nasal accent, but still Nell didn’t understand.
“What is your name?” She tried a third time. Nell gave her name.
“Nell… who? Who are your parents?” The clerk didn’t wait for a reply, leaned back and sighed. “You’re from the base, aren’t you? This’ll be ugly.”
“What do you mean?” Said Nell,
The clerk didn’t reply, just pushed a button on the desk – among many others Nell could see – and spoke to the air in that nasal language which, to Nell, sounded arrogant.
Malon leaned towards her. “She is calling for your arrest. Be calm.” He said, as a uniformed woman came through a door on the right, holding light manacles in her hand.
Nell backed away, only to be stopped by Malorn’s hand on her shoulder.
“You said you’d protect me-”
“And I will. I also said you would answer for your crime.”
“You killed her!” Nell cried, struggling in his iron grasp.
The guard paused a foot away, looked to the clerk, and Nell assumed her words were a question. The two spoke quickly, and Malorn interjected. Nell gave up trying to break Malorn’s grip only to be snatched by the guard, and those manacles shut around her wrists.
She sagged. He’d lied. He wouldn’t protect her. She allowed herself to be lead from the room as Malorn spoke to her back. “There will be an inquiry. I will keep my word. Be patient.”
She saw no point in answering.
The guard didn’t treat her roughly, at least, searching her for weapons and taking her bag. Her manacles removed, Nell was left in a cell with a ceiling as high as Malorn was tall, and about as wide on all sides. There were benches on the left and right walls, and the front wall was composed of vertical bars. Smooth, plain metal on all sides. A tiny, grilled window was set high into the back wall, and a bundle of dark, stained rags was piled to a height of two feet beneath it.
Nell realized it was her cellmate when she saw the scaly tail curled around it, where the ankles must be hidden.
She sat, and refused to cry. Of course Malorn had lied; the cruel, inhuman thing, giving her hope only to take it away. Now she was going to die, she was sure; executed for trespassing in the halls of the Magi.
The rat against the wall stirred. His mouth opened in a wide yawn, showing long pink tongue and chipped, overlong teeth. Nell caught herself staring, and looked away.
“It’s not right,” she said. She heard the rat shuffling, perhaps to his feet, perhaps to sit more comfortably on the cold metal
“No,” he said, carefully. “Th’ can’t gif me wood. ‘S how I got out, las’ time.”
She turned to face him again, and grimaced at the little wounds around his gums, at a blackening tooth. He couldn’t even close his mouth all the way.
“But there are rats working here! How could they leave you to suffer?”
The old rat chuckled darkly, and Nell gripped the edge of the bench.
“Because I’ll get out again, otherwise, or take one of ‘em wif me. No mercy for pirates at Allbright.” He sniffed. “Miracle they ain’t executed me yet.”
He was a short rat, Nell noticed as he rose and patted his coat down, with graying fur, an empty gunbelt, and ragged duster. His feet were wrapped in discoloured cloth strips. Nell’s eye was drawn to the heavy, dull rings around his wrists, and slightly smaller ones piercing his ears. He offered a bow.
“Captain Wormsley the Plucker, at yer service.”
Nell inclined her head. “Nell.”
She frowned. “Just Nell.”
He chuckled again. “What’d you do, then?”
“I… sneaked in.”
“Burglar!” He said, with a pleased nod. “Ambitious, comin’ here. Did you get anything good?”
She didn’t hesitate; “Yes, some impressive rings, but they caught me.”
He sat opposite her, feet dangling, and blew air through his teeth.
“Hard luck. Woss the penalty at Allbright? In Silverlight they’ll cut yer hands off.”
She swallowed hard. “Death.”
His tail curled up over his head; a gesture like a raised brow.
“You sure? Inquisition comes down hard on punishments that harsh, that easy.”
“I… wouldn’t know. Why are you here?”
Wormsley grinned. “Mutiny, would you believe? Bastards were giving me away to the authorities here, but I negotiated a truce; I’ll sit trial and they get my crew. That traitor Harker had already shanked me mates, so there was no one I was sorry to lose. Stupid sheathes went out fighting knights.”
“And they decided to execute you at the trial?”
“They were going to, no matter what, which is why I tried to escape the first time. Made their minds up, did that. But I’m stuck rotting in here until they’re satisfied with some legal rubbish about me ship-”
He stopped and sat like a statue for a long moment, and as Nell opened her mouth he spoke.
“D’you want it?”
“What? Your ship? Why would you give it to me?”
“Because,” he said, “I don’t want the spirelings to have it. They’re sticklers for the law up here – if I sell it to you, they can’t confiscate it.”
“Do you think I have money?”
He waved a paw. “Swap me the cloak for it. I’ll throw in a dying wish, while I’m at it, if we can find a witness.”
He hopped from the bench and wrapped skinny fists around the bars, shouting “Hoi! We need a witness fer a deal!”
Wormsley snorted and sat back down. “If they take you in for questionin’, you tell ‘em.” He said, rummaging in his coat to extract a finger-marked leather case. He offered it to Nell.
“This is the writ of ownership. Gif me the cloak and it’s yours.”
If I live through this, she thought, a ship might leave me better off than a cloak.
Shortly after the exchange, the guard returned for Nell. Shackles back on, out to another small, brushed steel room. Nell wondered how no one was driven mad in these metallic tunnels, day in, day out, as she was sat in a low chair. Left shackled, this time.
At the opposite end of the table that took up most of the floor space were Malorn and two strangers – a tall, gaunt man with plates of armour on parts of his uniform, and a rat in a short blue dress.
“Nell,” the officer began, “my name is Lieutenant Carver, and this is Lady Tansy Allbright.”
The rat cut a brief curtsy, eyes on Malorn. Nell saw tiny sparks jumping between her twitching fingers.
Malorn’s expression was impassive, one hand behind his back, the other on his sword.
Carver opened a ledger on the table in front of him.
“You’re accused of trespassing on royal property, and unlawful entry to the Spire. We could fine you, but I doubt you could pay it. Traditionally that means a flogging-”
Nell clenched her teeth. Carver paused and sighed.
“-But that strikes me as a waste. So here’s what we’ll do; you give testimony about the fate of Liandra Allbright, and we’ll simply exile you from the Spire.”
“Are we to trust some baseborn thief?” Snapped the Lady Allbright, and Nell wondered how rats and humans could be of the same family. Were the Magi somehow perverse, too?
“She profits nothing by lying,” Malorn said, simply.
“Are you even listening to the terms?” Lady Allbright snarled.
“I am. She will not lie.”
“Because you’ll kill her.”
“Do not impugn my honour, Tansy Allbright. I owe her a debt.”
“Please, m’lord, m’lady,” Carver said, tired. “Let us hear the truth of the matter, hm? Tell us, Nell.”
Nell looked from the rat’s sparking fingers to Malorn’s golden eyes. Was he willing to die if she lied?
“I was hiding under the bed,” she began, but Allbright cut her off.
“…I was lost, and hid when I heard people coming. Liandra gave him a drink – I saw her pour something into it. Then he accused her of trying to poison him, and killed her.”
Tansy shrieked, arcs of electricity sparking from her body to the walls and floor around her.
“He’s a murderer! He murdered my cousin!”
Carver had hurled himself away from the rat; Malorn hadn’t moved.
“You shame the line of Allbright,” he said.
Tansy hissed and glared, while Carver got to his feet and interposed himself between them, speaking rapidly in the Spire language. She calmed, slowly, and said something in an undertone to Malorn. He simply nodded.
She stalked from the room.
“Can I go now?” Nell asked, shaking. “Please?”
Carver scribbled in his ledger.
“Yes, I think so.” He said, without looking up.
Malorn pointed. “What do you have there?”
“The writ for a ship?” She said, a touch uncertain.
Now Carver looked up. “Where’d you get that?”
Carver pinched the bridge of his nose and swore. Nell didn’t have to speak the language to take his meaning.
“And we need a witness,” she added.
“I will witness,” Malorn said. “As Herald there is none more suited here.”
“Witness for what?”
Carver swore again.
“Nell, of no House but her own, do you accept this token and task?” Malorn said, voice low.
“I accept,” she said, taking a beautiful silver pocketwatch from Wormsley.
“Thus are you bound; deliver this watch to Arling, son of Wormsley, on the island of Moonbend.”
On the other side of the bars, Wormsley nodded. “Good luck, pup.” He said. “And have a drink for me; the execution’ll be tomorrow.”
He watched Malorn and Nell go, and slumped back into the corner.
“Where now?” Malorn asked.
“Um. The dock, I suppose?”
“To find your ship. Good idea. You may convey me to Kaiden Spire.”
“I may?” She said, looking askance at him as they walked down the corridors without direction, until Malorn pointed the way.
“You may. What is the ship called?”
“I… don’t know.”
Malorn said nothing.
“Should we go back and ask Wormsley?”
“Check the writ.”
Malorn stood very still, and his head turned like a statue come to life.
“Give me the writ.”
She handed it over; he opened the case, unfurled a scroll of vellum.
Malorn nodded, grunting assent.
“What’s it called?”
“You will see.”
The airdock was a covered shelf protruding from the side of the Spire, airships docked at the furthest edge. The intervening space was packed with people; traders at rough wooden stalls, hawking strange wares in a profusion of tongues, guards given a wide berth as they patrolled, a huge wooly Troll ploughing through the crowd, carrying a massive crate in his thick arms. Airships of all kinds loomed over the crowd, from sleek enclosed vessels with huge engines to delicate, open models with wings folded along their sides. Scents of oil, rain, and roasting meat fill the air
Nell didn’t realize she’d stopped until Malorn nudged her forward.
“Be wary of pickpockets. I will guard the writ.”
He forced a path through the crowd, people turning to stare. Nell was invisible in his shadow.
Some threw themselves down in his presence, others cried out or cheered. Nell recognized a couple of prayers.
Malorn ignored them all, heading directly for a dark mast above the sleek canopies of the other ships.
He lead her to a black ship; long hull of dark wood, tall black masts, and sails of eerie white that flapped in the wind.
No, Nell realized. Against the wind, and with unnerving slowness.
Malorn clucked his tongue, disapproving.
Her eye roved down; the hull was decorated with skeletons of all peoples, all fighting or dancing. The figurehead was a human skeleton in a fine, red dress, outstretched hand holding a goblet. Purple gemstones glittered in the eyesockets. Nell wondered who had died to put it there. Or if she really wanted to know.
“Congratulations… Captain. This is The Celebrant – and she’s all yours.”