As they arrived back at the ship, they noticed a commotion ahead. A crowd seemed to have formed around the dock where the Triskelion was berthed. At first Arsha thought they wouldn’t even be able to make it to the ship, but Rachael took her hand and lead her through the crowd, slipping through gaps and shouldering people aside with a few mumbled apologies until they were through.
As they cleared the last of the crowd Arsha let out a horrified gasp. At the foot of the dock, where the Triskelion was berthed, were half a dozen men in long grey coats, rifles slung across their backs and swords hanging from their belts.
Up on the deck she saw Abasi and her father speaking to a lean and dark haired man, his coat jet black, trimmed with silver filigree. He was flanked by what she took be another four guards at first, until she saw their spindly bodies and blank faces, plates of creamy white porcelain set over skeletons of brass and steel. They stood perfectly still, perfectly straight, like statues.
“Who’s that guy?” Rachael whispered.
“He’s an inquisition agent,” Arsha said, wetting her lips nervously. “That’s what the coat means. Those guys are Guild soldiers. Greycoats.”
“You can tell all that from the coats?”
“Black for inquisition, grey for anyone else who’s officially working for the Guild.”
“Like a police uniform?” Rachael said.
Arsha nodded. The conversation seemed to be winding down between the three men. They shook hands, and the man in the black coat gave them a curt nod as he left. It was only when the inquisitor’s back was turned that she saw a flicker of anger in her father’s expression.
As the man walked away the mechanical figures sprang smoothly into life, forming up around the man in perfect formation.
“Those things are alive?” Rachael gasped.
“They’re automs,” Arsha replied. The inquisitor reached the foot of the ramp and the greycoats fell in line behind him as he marched towards the crowd. As the entourage approached a space immediately formed. Rachael pulled them back into the press of bodies as people jostled each other to move aside. Soon they were invisible behind the onlookers as the man and his soldiers passed them by. Even buried in the crowd, Arsha could hear the soft clicking of the autom’s feet against the cobblestones, the sound seeming to cut through everything.
“So, they’re like your bird then?” Rachael said, still staring in the direction of the passing entourage.
“Sort of. These ones are used as servants and stuff.”
“Is that bad?”
“Dad says people only use them as guards when they don’t trust real people to follow orders.”
“They’re not armed.”
“Well… They don’t really have to be. Automs that big can break a sword in one hand. Or, you know… Your arm.”
Then Arsha felt a movement in the crowd behind them, and turned to see Milima standing over them. Milima said nothing, but her eyes followed the procession as it disappeared into the streets of Westfall. When the inquisitor and his guards had vanished from view, Milima turned her eyes back to the girls. Arsha could already tell that her furious expression wasn’t solely directed at their visitor. Milima nodded towards the ship and gestured for the girls to head in.
Soon they were sitting around the table in the mess hall. Abasi and her father were at one end of the table with Rachael and Arsha sat across from them, whilst Milima stood in the doorway. On the table in front of where her father sat there was a letter with a wax seal, now broken.
“I suppose I expected as much,” her father said, looking at Rachael as he drummed his fingers on the table. With her arms folded in front of her, Rachael glared back defiantly.
“Milima must have scoured half of Westfall looking for you two,” he continued. “Ilona and Micah too… They were at the outskirts when they heard you were back. I suppose they’ll be with us soon. As he turned his eyes towards her Arsha could already feel his disapproval, and his disappointment.
“Good of you to make them do all the work,” Rachael snarled back at him, not backing down even a little.
“The ‘work’ Abasi and I were constrained by involved keeping a representative of the Inquisition from dragging you off in a pair of shackles. If you’re wondering why I was so adamant that you both stay on the ship, that would be one of the reasons why. I understand you have little reason to respect my instructions, but you might perhaps try to make it a little easier for me to keep you safe. And Arsha, I’m even more disappointed in you. I can’t imagine why I spent good money on a sending stone for you if you’re not going to answer it when I call.”
“Hey, leave her out of it,” Rachael interjected. “It was me that talked her into sneaking out.”
“And I agreed, so it’s still my fault. I’m really sorry Daddy,” Arsha said, a hollow sensation filling her stomach as she stared down at the tabletop.
Her father scowled.
“All right. We’ll talk about this later,” he said. Arsha gave a quiet nod. There was a loud ‘clang’ as Milima dropped a kettle onto the stove.
“So if that’s settled,” the woman said, “why don’t you tell us what our visitor wanted, Rishi?”
A scowl flickered across her father’s face, but only for an instant.
“Our ‘visitor’ was Sir Reuben Ben Mahir. He’s following up ‘certain lines of inquiry’ regarding the recent events in London, and wanted to ask a few questions,” he said, bitterly.
“So Manindra didn’t pay off the right people after all?” Milima said.
“I don’t know. Ben Mahir is an odd character. Something of a renegade from what I understand. I have a feeling he got hold of the official story and smelled a lie. Now he’s interested in our angle, and Manindra’s.”
“What if we just told him the truth?” Arsha said. “That it was all Lord Bhandari’s fault. That we were just trying to stop him.”
“No matter how noble our intentions may have been, Arsha, the fact is we still broke a lot of laws doing what we did. And, more troublingly, right now we are the only witnesses to what exactly Manindra was doing in London… Just as the Bhandari boys are the only witnesses to what we did. Reuben doesn’t seem to be much interested in whose side anyone was on… In fact I rather think he believes Manindra and I were working together on this.”
“Why would he think that? You hate Manindra,” Arsha said.
“Manindra and I have a history, yes. That’s rather the problem. All Reuben sees is two men with a past connection, now both complicit in the same crime. To anyone looking at this from the outside, it is the rather obvious assumption.”
“What I’d like to know is how Sir Ben Mahir even knew to find us here,” Milima said.
“Manindra told him,” her father said. “All Reuben would say was that Lord Bhandari ‘had word of our last known destination’. Presumably his boys sent a message from the Jyoti with our heading when we left London. It wouldn’t take much to infer that Westfall was the most likely stop-off.”
“Really? Manindra told him?” Milima asked, surprised. Her husband nodded gravely.
“Yes. Speaking to Lord Bhandari was, naturally, the young inquisitor’s first step in his investigation. Manindra was most cooperative. Fed the man a pack of lies and then sent him our way. He even asked young Sir Ben Mahir to pass this along.”
He picked up the letter from the table.
“He wished to inform me in person that he’s heard about the ‘unfortunate business’ I was recently involved in, and wishes to invite me to visit him on his estate, to see if there’s some way he can ‘assist’ in rectifying the situation.”
“Seven, he’s practically written your confession for you. Reuben’s read this, I suppose,” Milima said.
“As any good inquisitor would. He was nice enough to reseal it after he was done, of course. Manindra’s poisoning the well; strengthening the appearance of a connection between us so that I couldn’t even try to testify against him if I wanted to. At this point, if he goes down for this, Abasi and I go with him.”
“The gall of the man,” Abasi growled. His wife just shook her head.
“It’s all part of his long play. Mark my words. He’s keeping me from going to Reuben or anyone else in the Guild, at least until he can get whatever he’s after. That might involve Rachael, though at this point I’m not even sure if he still needs her. It definitely involves the Seed. That I’m certain of.”
“Certain? Rishi, you’re guessing at best. We have no idea what the old man’s real plan is,” Abasi said.
“True, it is mostly guesswork, though not without reason, and I certainly wouldn’t mind filling a few of the details,” her father replied. “Which is exactly why we’re going to accept Manindra’s invitation.”
This time, as looks of shock passed across every face in the room, Rachael pushed her chair back and leaped to her feet.
“Hold on. Are you telling me this is the guy who sent those bastards to hunt me down, and now you want to go and have a sodding dinner party with him? What the hell?” she yelled, slapping her hands down on the table. Arsha flinched at the sudden outburst.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I plan to do,” her father said. “The last thing Manindra expects is for me to take him up on this. And, right now, his home is just about the safest place we could be. Manindra is the most dangerous man I have ever known, but he is possessed of a twisted sense of honour. He would never allow any form of ‘unsavoury’ business to take place in his own home. He will extend us every courtesy for as long as we are under his roof, and in turn I might learn a little about what he’s really up to. If we’re going to stay ahead of this man, we’re going to have to take some risks. Believe me, I don’t relish the thought of going back to that place, but it’s our best plan right now.”
A shocked silence followed this announcement. Rachael stood in stunned silence, eyes wide, fists clenched at her side. Eventually Abasi cleared his throat.
“Rishi, I don’t suppose there is any chance we can dissuade you from this madness?”
Her father shook his head, determination etched on his face.
“I suppose I’d best set a course for Firecrest then,” Abasi said with a sigh.
Shaking her head, Milima got up and went to lift the squealing kettle from the stove.
As afternoon turned to evening, Ilona and Micah returned to the ship and another argument followed as they both tried to dissuade her father from accepting the councillor’s invitation. Abasi oversaw the loading of the last supplies and they finally cast off.
The days passed slowly. To Arsha’s surprise, Rachael began to pitch in on the chores, making light work of her punishment for sneaking out. In their free time, the girls retreated to Arsha’s room, or the loft over the cargo hold. Most of the time they spent chatting, meaningless small-talk punctuated by questions about their strangely divided worlds. Other times they simply sat together in silence, Rachael sketching whilst Arsha read.
After four days of this routine, Arsha found herself peering out of the porthole as the sun crested the horizon, looking out over a landscape she had never seen before.
Below the Triskelion forests of green rolled out in every direction, brackish marsh waters glistening from beneath the canopy. Rising up from this verdant landscape were vast mesas, sheer sided and flat topped. As she looked closer she began to spy clusters of buildings on each of the mesas they passed. Long and winding bridges connected them like islands. The bridges seemed almost impossibly thin, supported by needle fine spires that reached down into the marshes below. Soon she could make out larger towns and the smoke clouds that signalled steam trains passing along the bridges.
In the distance she spied their destination. Easily the largest of the plateaus, it stood at the centre of a criss-crossing web of bridges, all of them descending into the sprawling city that covered the mesa from edge to edge. Already she could feel the ship beginning to descend.
After a hurried shower Arsha came back to her room to pack her bag and almost bumped into Rachael as she stepped back out into the corridor. The girl had a bag slung across her shoulder. They gave each other a nervous look. Arsha was about to step into her room when she heard Rachael speak.
“So… I spoke to your dad…”
Arsha paused with her hand on the door, giving Rachael time to say whatever she was trying to say.
“Look, this… This adoption thing. I told him it was OK. I just thought you should know.”
Rachael paused for a moment, as if there was something more she meant to say.
“I’ll see you upstairs,” she said, eventually. The girl turned and walked away, quickly disappearing up the stairs.
By the time Arsha had packed and joined the others up above, Abasi was already bringing them alongside the pier. She found Rachael out on the deck, watching as the dock hands tied the ropes off, and the gangplank was drawn over. Rachael seemed even more closed off than usual. Arsha almost felt as if she had only imagined their brief conversation below the deck.
They made their way down from the docks and into the heart of the city. Clattering steam-wagons filled the roads, loaded with goods and passengers, belching out thick smoke that filled the air above them. A wide central boulevard lead them down towards the train station, where they were met by a serious looking gentlemen dressed in finely tailored layers of red and gold silks.
“Professor Chandra?” the man said, his tone sharp and precise.
“Yes, that’s me,” her father nodded. The man gave a half-bow.
“Your carriage is this way, sir.”
Judging by her father’s expression, Arsha suspected he wasn’t at all surprised, as the man lead them over a small footbridge towards a far platform where a single train car waited, hooked to a shining steel engine that was idling with a low hum. The car itself gleamed with gold leaf and red lacquer, the sides lined with tall windows. The man produced a key on a long silver chain and unlocked the door for them.
Inside was a long open space with a dining table in the centre and cluster of comfortable looking armchairs towards the front. Heading towards the very back of the carriage, Arsha and Rachael settled themselves on one of the long couches, where they had a clear view from the window. There was a heavy ‘thump’ as Micah dropped himself down onto the couch opposite them. Arsha just caught the look of disapproval from her father, and from Ilona, as Micah pulled his feet up, put his head back and closed his eyes. She wondered, silently, how he could be so relaxed, knowing where they were headed. She could sense Rachael’s nervousness as well, as the girl fiddled constantly with her backpack. The train began to shudder into motion and it wasn’t long before they were out of Firecrest, and there was only the vast expanse of the forests and marshlands beneath them.
Rachael’s eyes were fixed on the window, staring out into the distance. With little else to do, Arsha pulled a deck of cards from her bag and began to shuffle.
Arsha leaned over, trying to see what had caught Rachael’s attention. They were riding over a wide, flat plateau that seemed to be devoid of any habitation. Just endless open plains that stretched around the tracks on either side, a few herds of wild horses grazing here and there.
“Look at what?” she said.
“The horses, genius,” Rachael said, pointing. Near to the carriage, one of the herds was on the move, galloping at full speed, the wind flicking their manes back. Arsha made a face.
“You’re kidding me,” Rachael said, catching her expression. “How can you not like horses?”
“I just don’t.”
“But look at ’em. They’re flipping beautiful.”
“I dunno. Micah tried to teach me to ride one time, and it was awful. I fell off like a hundred times. And they’re big and grumpy and they smell awful.”
Rachael barely seemed to be listening any more. The girl had turned away from the window, her eyes fixed on the dozing figure on the couch opposite.
“Micah, you know to ride?”
Micah’s eyes flickered open.
“Hm? Oh, yeah. Sure I do.”
“Serious? How did you learn?”
Sitting up a little, Micah shrugged.
“Just something I learned as a kid. We had a bunch of horses on my family’s estate.”
Rachael almost seemed to recoil at the words, as if they had a foul taste.
“Estate? For real. Like, is your family loaded or something?”
“They’re pretty well off, yeah. Merchant banking mostly.”
Apparently deciding that she wasn’t interested in hearing any more, Rachael turned to look out the window again, her eyes fixed on the distant herd, white streaks moving across the green fields.
Soon they were out over the marshes again, and then they began to make out the mesa that they were travelling towards. Though smaller than Firecrest, it was still large, covered in fields and forests. Nearer to they could make out the walls of a sprawling complex that might have been one building or many. Below the light coloured walls of the estate, part of the cliff face seemed to have been gouged away and the space was occupied by a sprawl of buildings. She saw crowded rows of houses deeper in, ranging down to larger warehouses at the edge of the cliff where the railway seemed to meet some kind of station, a broad platform that jutted out from the cliff itself.
The train began to slow as they pulled in to the station. As the carriage came to a halt a pair of men in dark red uniforms approached.
“Come on, time to go,” Micah said. With their luggage in hand, they joined the others at the front of the train car, just as the door opened. They were the last out, and as they gathered on the simple wooden platform Arsha could already see her father talking with a pair of uniformed men. Further back, she could see a pair of steam carriages, like the ones that had filled the streets of Firecrest.
Arsha and Rachael found themselves in the second carriage, along with Micah and Ilona. Her father was joined by Abasi and Milima in the first carriage. Through the glass, she could make out some sort of discussion taking place.
The carriages rattled into life, and began rolling through the warehouses, past what appeared to be workshops and other kinds of industrial buildings.
“Fates, have they turned this whole place into some kind of factory?” Ilona muttered.
“Refinery, more like,” Micah said. “Saw some tracks carved into the cliff-face below. They’re probably carting stuff up from down there in the marshes. Firecrest makes a lot of its money from the metal deposits down there. But this operation all looks pretty new. Most of these buildings were thrown together fast, and not too long ago. Can’t really say why the Bhandaris would be so eager to set up their mining operation on their doorstep though.”
“Deranged paranoia? The delusions of an ageing control freak?” Ilona said, not hiding the bitterness in her tone.
“Maybe. From what I hear it’s the oldest son, Dayaram, that runs most of the family’s business matters these days. At least publicly. Who knows how much of that is just his dad giving the orders though.”
“How do you know so much about this?” Rachael said.
“I did mention the part where I’m from a merchant-banker family, right?” Micah laughed. “It was pretty much our job to know what everyone’s up to.”
The carriages began to follow a winding switchback road up the cutting, towards the high walls of the estate above. Below them the smoke and lights of the town began to look tiny. Eventually they crested the bluff and found themselves on a long, straight avenue lined with tall poplar trees.
The walls of the estate were grand and imposing, with a pair of wrought iron gates that were set into a broad archway. The gates swung open as they approached, and the carriages pulled to a halt in a wide open flagstone courtyard. Uniformed men opened the doors and gestured for them to step down. Long, covered passageways lead off in each direction, presumably connecting to other parts of the complex. At the centre of the courtyard stood a pool of crystal clear water, surrounding a plinth from which a marble statue looked down at them with a commanding gaze. The figure was ancient, the features worn away almost to nothing, but Arsha thought it looked vaguely feminine.
Approaching them was a tall, gaunt figure, dressed in a familiar looking coat of red and gold. Leather boots clicked against the hard flagstones as the man walked. At his waist hung a basket hilted blade in a ruby encrusted scabbard. The woman on his arm was almost as tall as he was, and she had a sharp, lean face, with piercing eyes, and hair that fell down over her shoulders in a wave of black curls. Her sari was all the colours of a flame, brilliant silk and satin of red, yellow and orange surrounding her like a halo of fire. Rubies glittered on the gold chain that ran from nose to ear.
“Professor Chandra. Captain Bira. Welcome to our home,” the man announced as they approached, his voice much softer than his appearance had lead Arsha to expect. Her father turned to face him with a cold expression.
“Dayaram,” he said, with the barest hint of a nod. “It’s been a while.”
The Stolen Child by Peter Brunton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.