The slender black skiff touched down lightly on the deck. They watched from the windows of the bridge as four guards disembarked and took up positions. Then Reuben climbed down, followed by the same collection of porcelain figures that she had seen following him in Westfall. His automs. She shuddered at the sight of the mask-like faces. The figures moved with a steady and unnatural grace.
Below, Rachael could hear the inner door open. The professor and the captain were there to greet Sir Ben Mahir, all polite deference and custom. Rachael wondered how they could stand it. The procession soon made its way below decks.
Not a lot was said on the bridge. People moved about, looking awkward and uncomfortable. Micah fiddled with some charts. Arsha sat to one side of the room, eyes downcast, looking nervous. After what seemed like an age, Reuben finally left, taking his dolls and his men with him. Not long afterwards, Abasi appeared on the stairway, regarding them all with a sour expression.
“We should head to down to the mess. Come on,” he said.
Rishi looked up from the head of the table as she came in. She was the last to arrive. Everyone else was either sat at the table, or, in Micah and Abasi’s case, leaning against the walls.
“Hiding,” Rachael said, with a shrug. “Like you asked him to. You want to try to find him, go ahead.”
The professor shook his head in dismay.
“Right. Wonderful. Well, if he’s listening, he’s listening,” he said, with obvious frustration.
“What’s all this about?” she said.
“Have a seat,” he replied, somewhat testily. His sour mood seemed to be reflected by the whole room. She stepped inside the doorway and leaned back against the frame with her arms crossed. The professor’s attention returned to those at the table around him.
“Abasi and I have been summoned to appear before an Inquisitorial hearing, to investigate our crossing of the veil and the events in London which followed.”
Around the room, a breath seemed to be let out. Not of relief, but a sense of something expected, and feared. Even Ilona’s eyes seemed downcast.
“Sir Reuben Ben Mahir is bringing this case on behalf of the Inquisition and the Chamber of Foresight. I am given to understand that Rakesh and Naveen Bhandari have likewise been called to give witness and stand against charges,” Rishi continued, his tone calmly matter of fact. It was only the tightness of his knuckles that revealed the tension in his body.
“Sir Ben Mahir wished to inform me of my rights, and demanded to know what my involvement was in this matter. Fortunately, I did not meet him empty handed. The documents I… borrowed… from Manindra’s estate will demonstrate that Lord Bhandari received communications from persons within the Chamber of Foresight before dispatching his sons to London. If we are very, very fortunate, we’ll get to watch Manindra’s allies throw him to the wolves, if only to keep themselves from getting dragged down with him. And if we’re even more fortunate, we’ll get out without any of it falling down on us.”
There was a palpable sense of relief around the room, but Rachael couldn’t help but notice the grimness of the professor’s expression. The tension had not left him.
“We are to make haste to the Citadel,” he continued. “The Dawning Light has been commanded to escort us there without delay. There will be no unplanned stops or deviations. Abasi will liaise with the captain of the Light to receive directions for our course. Upon arrival at the Citadel, the Triskelion will be grounded until further notice and Abasi and myself will be placed in voluntary custody for the duration of the hearing. They have called an emergency court, which should should begin session as soon as we arrive. If the winds favour us, the journey should be about five days.”
He stopped, and looked around the room.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
There was a long silence, before Micah raised his hand.
“Voluntary?” he said.
“Voluntary,” Abasi replied, “meaning ‘Or you’ll be in a whole lot more trouble if you don’t.’”
“Right. Got it,” Micah said, glumly.
After that, there were no more questions. Slowly, people began to file out of the room. There as a tense, nervous feeling in the air. She let most of them pass by, not meeting anyone’s eyes as she tailed the others out of the room.
Standing at the top of the stairs, she looked back, and saw that Arsha was still in the mess hall with her father. Through the narrow doorway she could make out the pair of them standing close together, and could just about overhear their conversation.
“Daddy, what’s going to happen to you?” Arsha said, her voice so quiet that Rachael barely heard it.
“I don’t know sweetheart,” he said. “But with any luck this will all blow over in a few days, OK?”
“And what if it doesn’t?”
He paused, unable to answer for a moment.
“We’ll figure it out.”
Arsha looked away. He reached out a hand to stroke her cheek, wiping away a dampness from around her eyes.
“We’re going to get through this sweetheart. I just need you to be strong, for a little while.”
Suddenly she threw her arms around him, and pressed her face into his chest.
“I don’t want to be strong. I want my daddy,” Arsha gasped, her voice muffled by his shirt. Rachael could hear her repeating the words like a charm.
He pulled her close, and for a moment neither of them moved. His face was buried in her hair, and Rachael thought he might have been saying something, but it was too quiet for anyone but Arsha to hear.
He straightened up, resting his hands on her shoulders.
“I have to go make some preparations. If you need me…”
Arsha nodded. Her eyes were wet with tears.
“I love you, and I’m proud of you,” he said, kissing her forehead. The girl nodded, and stepped away. Arsha’s eyes were lowered as she walked out of the room, as Rachael found herself awkwardly caught looking on. Arsha looked up as she passed Rachael on the stairs, with a sullen, hurt expression. She passed by without a word. Feeling as if she should apologise, or at least explain, Rachael followed just in time to hear Arsha’s door slam.
For a while she stood by Arsha’s room, hand half-raised to knock. Finally she gritted her teeth and rapped on the door.
“Go away,” came the muted reply.
She sighed and turned to leave, but she couldn’t seem to bring herself to walk away. She turned back and tried the handle. The door opened. Steeling herself, she stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.
Arsha was sat on her bed, legs tucked up in front of herself, face hidden by her folded arms. From her perch on the dresser, Penelope looked up and gave a shrill chirp.
“I told you to go away,” the girl mumbled.
“I know,” Rachael said, awkwardly. “But… I wanted to say that I’m sorry. For listening in there. And… You know. For everything.”
Arsha said nothing. Not even a sign of acknowledgement. Feeling deeply uncomfortable, but unable to bring herself to leave just yet, Rachael cleared a small space and sat down with her back against the door.
A long silence stretched between them, as Rachael waited for Arsha to make some sign of movement. After watching her for a while, Penelope fluttered down from the dresser and hopped across the floor towards her, her movements quick and cautious. Gently, Rachael reached out to brush the little bird’s feathers back.
“You should hate me,” Rachael said, at last. “All this… I’ve really mucked things up for you all.”
“It’s not… It’s not like that,” Arsha said, not looking up.
“It’s OK. I’d hate me,” she said, staring at her hands. Arsha lifted her head, enough to look her in the eyes. The girl looked furious.
“Why do you do that?” Arsha snapped. “Why do you always try to make everything about you?”
“I didn’t…” Rachael barely had time to begin before Arsha cut across her.
“Your fault, your problems, you that’s got it harder than anyone else,” she thundered.
“I was trying to apologise,” Rachael replied, sharply.
“Oh, good. You’re sorry. I’ll let everyone know, Rachael’s sorry, so it’s all OK now. No problems.”
As Arsha threw up her hands in a gesture of frustration, Rachael was already on her feet. She stormed out, Penelope’s angry screeching following her down the corridor.
She stalked back to her room and threw herself down on the bed. She heard a soft movement, somewhere down low, a scratching sound close to her feet. She lifted her head from the pillow in time to see the swirling smoke cloud reforming. Then Justin was sitting there at the foot of her bed. He reached out to take her hand.
“Where the hell did you get to?” she muttered angrily, pulling her hand away.
“Hiding. Watching,” he said.
“See anything good?”
“Saw you fight. It wasn’t fair, what she said to you. The things that you’ve been put through, because of them…”
“Yeah. But it weren’t fair what’s happening to her, either.”
He just shrugged, and let his hand rest on the back of her ankle. She rolled over, to look at him properly.
“Thanks,” she said, softly.
His only reply was to give her leg a gentle squeeze.
The sky was an ugly grey. The sun had not yet crested the horizon, but the first light was filtering through, giving shape to the patchy clouds. Rachael and Justin stood out on the deck, leaning against the railing. She had borrowed one of the heavy coats from inside, though she left the straps undone. He had his own long black coat on. Around them the high stone walls of the canyon rose up to meet a sky turning to first light. Craggy grey stone was split by long bundles of creepers that hung down into the emptiness below. Far below, the river was a dark streak through the canyon.
For a long time, they stood in silence, faces raised skyward, until a flicker of motion caught their eyes. Rachael drew a sharp breath as she caught first sight of the broad-winged silhouette wheeling in the sky.
The Rake was a slender thing, much more so than she had imagined. A kind of lizard with featherless, leathery wings and a long neck and tail, it seemed to twist and writhe, worming its way through the air. It really did look an awful lot like some kind of dragon.
There were others that she began to make out. A flock, she had been told. She could see them now, their weaving flights bringing them close before darting away. She saw a smaller one try to nip at another, like puppies at play. It was perhaps a trick of the perspective, but they seemed smaller than she had imagined.
Over a sullen and dismal dinner the night before, they had been warned about the flocks that had been sighted in the area. Abasi had shared the news with a despairing shake of his head, as if the whole thing was some kind of sick joke.
Flying low through the canyon, and slower than usual, they were safe enough. Abasi had wanted to halt until the flock passed, but they were told that Reuben’s people had insisted they keep moving. And yet, despite all the downcast faces, some tiny spark of excitement had flared inside of her.
A movement above the flock made her gasp in surprise. The rakes had seemed small, but now she saw why. A vast black silhouette passed over the rest of the flock, its wings vast enough to cover all of them if they would fly close enough together. One wing, she noticed, seemed to have a large hole in it.
She watched, enraptured as the mother played amongst its children for a while, seeming to gather them all in before turning on a wing to glide off into the distant sky, rays of sunlight momentarily glinting through the mother’s injured wing. The little ones followed in her wake, and soon Rachael lost sight of them in the light of the rising sun.
“I can’t stay,” Justin said.
Shocked, she turned to look him in the eyes, hoping for some sign that he was playing with her.
“Why? After all this time you spent looking for me…”
“This is just a cage, Rachael. What good’s it going to do if I’m just joining you inside the bars?” he said.
“You can’t just believe they might want to help us?”
“Maybe they do. But I don’t think they can. This professor, he seems to think he can keep you hidden away, or play some game with their courts, make everything OK with a few pieces of paper. You remember what those men did back in London. Rachael, these people don’t listen to pieces of paper. They have guns and bombs and absolutely no remorse. They are not going to behave because someone tells them to.”
She turned away for a moment, letting her eyes wander across the canyon walls that penned them in on both sides.
“So what, we just keep running?” she said.
“Eventually. I can’t take you with me,” he said, heavily. “I’m too weak now. But if I bide my time, if I wait for the right moment… It will be easier, if they can’t watch me. If I’m the one moving in the shadows. This place, where they’re taking us… There’s power there. I can feel it already, even this far away. So I’m leaving, but I’ll be watching. I promise you that. I won’t let any harm come to you. And when the time is right…”
She turned towards him, and saw the fire burning in him. The intensity of his conviction, as his eyes locked on hers.
“Justin, I really don’t think this is the right idea,” she said, shaking her head.
“I’m sorry,” he said, raising his shoulders in a helpless gesture. “I just don’t have a better one.”
“Please, don’t go.”
Her hands found his, fingers entangling as if she could pin him in place.
“This is the only way to get you out Rachael. It’s the only way to bring you home.”
He paused for a moment, his eyes studying her face.
“Stay strong, OK?” he said.
“Sure. Right. I’m good at that.” She said, biting off the words as if they had a foul taste.
He stepped in close and his lips were on hers, his fingers brushing her hair back. She wanted to seize that moment and hold it forever. But he let her go and stepped away. Smiling, self-assured once more, he sat back on the railing, spread his arms and threw himself over the edge.
Unable to help herself, she leaned over, just catching sight of the outstretched wings of the hawk as he swooped downward into the depths of the canyon.
A stack of crates collapsed with a satisfying crash, tumbling over one another and spilling across the floor of the hold. For a moment she stood and watched them settle, tension still singing through her body. Her foot hurt. The first few kicks had barely shifted the stack.
“Feel any better?” a voice said.
She wheeled around and saw Ilona standing in the doorway to the hold. The woman was wearing some kind of loose silk pyjamas.
“It’s fine,” she mumbled. “I’ll clear it up.”
Ilona shrugged as she stepped into the hold, letting the door swing closed behind her. She walked across to the far corner, under the loft, where she pulled aside a cloth covering. From a small pile of equipment the woman lifted up a heavy looking sack with a rope trailing from one end. She threw the rope over a hook that protruded from the underside of the loft space and began to pull. As the sack rose Rachael realised what it was. A punching bag. The sight of it brought back a strong memory of the smell of sweat and grime. The sound and the energy of the gym where her father had taken her sometimes.
Still not saying a word, Ilona began wrapping her hands. Then she produced a spare roll of cloth, which she tossed lightly in Rachael’s direction.
“For your hands,” Ilona said, flexing hers in demonstration.
Feeling somewhat unsure of what was happening, Rachael pulled off a couple of lengths of cloth and took a shot at trying to wrap her hands up as Ilona had done. It was difficult, working with just one hand, and the cloth wouldn’t seem to stay put no matter how she twisted and tied it.
“Here,” Ilona said, holding out an open palm. Frustrated, Rachael threw the strips of cloth at her.
“Hand,” Ilona said, almost as if she was commanding a dog. Seething, Rachael held hers out as instructed. Ilona began to weave the bindings deftly until they were fully secure.
“How does it feel?” The woman said. Rachael flexed her hands carefully, still not sure what they were doing.
“Good. Now, come here.”
Ilona went to stand at one side of the punching bag, bracing it. Rachael had seen how this was done. She stood across and raised her fists. She found herself wondering if there was a proper way to stand. Ilona said nothing. Not sure of what else to do, Rachael threw a punch. Then another. Soon they came thick and fast, the bag responding with a satisfying thunk as each of her blows connected. She punched and kicked until she felt ready to collapse from exhaustion. Finally, gasping for breath, she dropped to the floor of the hold.
Ilona crouched at her side.
Rachael shook her head.
“Not really,” she gasped.
“Good,” the woman said, with a fleeting smile. “I’d be disappointed if all this fuss was over something that could be solved by punching a sack a few times.”
Despite herself, Rachael felt a smile flicker across her own face. Ilona stood and held out a hand. Rachael took it, and was lifted to her feet.
“OK, take a break. You brace,” she said, nodding at the bag. Following the woman’s instructions, Rachael stood with her hands properly placed against the sackcloth. Standing across from her, Ilona settled down on the balls of her feet, hands raised in clenched fists. For just an instant the woman glanced up, as if to make sure she was paying attention. Then she fell into a series of strikes that flowed from one to the next with no apparent effort. Even with the weight of the bag, Rachael felt herself recoiling with each blow.
“I guess I was doing it all wrong,” she said, when the woman was done.
“Yes,” Ilona said, without elaboration. Rachael felt herself bristle a little. “Would you like to learn?” the woman continued.
“I… Yeah. I would,” she said, surprised.
“OK. Try setting your feet like this.”
Ilona demonstrated, and Rachael did her best to follow the woman’s movements. Slowly, Ilona began to draw deep breaths.
“Breath from the diaphram. That’s good. Shoulders back a little. Rest your weight forward, on the balls of your feet. Now bring your hands up. Fists lightly clenched, thumb on the outside. Like that.”
“Are you going to show me how to throw a punch or something?” Rachael said.
“No, I’m going to show you how to take one,” Ilona replied, with a flicker of a smile.
“Oh come on.”
“I’m serious,” Ilona said. “You’re small, so avoiding a blow is always going to be better than taking one, but you still need to know how. Being able to get away from a fight is much more important than winning one.”
“So, you wanna teach me how to fight by hitting me a bunch?”
“Don’t worry, you get to start. Hit me as hard as you can. In the face.”
For a moment, Rachael hesitated. Again, there was a flicker of a smile.
“Scared?” Ilona said.
Without even thinking about it, Rachael swung. Her fist connected with the woman’s jaw, but as Ilona rolled with the blow, there seemed to be little effect.
“Try it again,” Ilona said. Rachael did, with just as little effect.
“Where’d you learn all this stuff,” she said.
“Various teachers,” Ilona replied. “Anyone I could find.”
The woman stepped forward and began to adjust Rachael’s stance, light touches helping to shift her weight and position.
“Why?” Rachael said, as Ilona shifted her foot forward very slightly. As the woman straightened up, there was a coldness in her expression, even more so than usual.
“Because I was weak. And I didn’t want to be,” she said. “Now, watch what I do.”
The instructions continued in the same clear, clipped tones. Two hours later, muscles burning, hands aching, and her head swimming, Racahel collapsed against a heavy barrel. She could feel tiny bruises swelling up in a dozen places. Ilona had pulled her punches, but only a little.
“I think that’s enough for now,” Ilona said. The woman held out a flask and Rachael took it, greedily gulping the water down.
“That was brutal she gasped,” she gasped. “How do you even manage that?”
“Practice,” Ilona said.
“Right, practice. You just woke up one day and decided to be a total badass.”
The woman shrugged, and picked up a towel. Rachael looked down at her hands, her knuckles raw and stinging, even through the bindings.
“I wish I was strong like you,” she said, quietly. “No one ever gives you shit or nothing. All I do is run.”
Ilona watched her for a moment, with a thoughtful expression.
“I didn’t just wake up one day and decide,” she said. “Someone… Someone hurt me. I promised myself I would never let it happen again. I never choose to be the way I am, Rachael.”
Ilona paused, still watching her with a look of intense curiosity.
“But then, I suppose neither did you,” she said. Then, as if nothing had happened, she began to undo the wrappings on her hands. The look of curiosity was gone, replaced by the same vaguely disinterested expression she always wore.
“This time tomorrow?” Ilona said, without looking up. Her voice was so carefully devoid of emotion that they might has well have been talking about nothing more important than the weather. So Rachael just nodded. There seemed to be nothing else to say.
She found Arsha in the mess. Breakfast seemed to have come and gone. The girl was sitting with half a cinnamon roll on her plate and a full cup of tea by her hand. She seemed to have lost all interest in her food.
Rachael set herself down across the table. Arsha made no sign of having noticed her. Rachael waited patiently as Arsha drank her tea and picked at her half finished roll. Finally the girl emptied her cup and made to stand.
“Where are you going then?” Rachael said.
Arsha gave her a cold look.
“Why do you care?”
“Look,” Rachael said, tersely, “this is stupid. I’m stupid, you’re stupid, and this whole thing is stupid, so can we just stop it?”
Arsha said nothing, but she stayed seated.
“I don’t know how to stop being… Me,” Rachael continued. “I get that I’m pretty much the last person in the world anyone would want to hang around with, but right now, I figured you could do with a friend. And I figured I owe you that.”
For a while Arsha just stared down at her plate. The girl’s hands were clenched tight, knuckles pale.
“I know this really sucks for you,” Rachael said. “And I can’t change that, any more than I can do anything about where I am right now. But I wish I could, because you don’t deserve this. You’re probably the nicest person I’ve ever known in my life, and it’s not fair that you should have to deal with all this when you never did nothing to deserve it.”
She waited, her words exhausted, for some sign of response from Arsha. At first the girl said nothing, but slowly her hands unclenched. Then Rachael heard a strange sound, like rapid breathing, and the girl’s shoulders began to shake. It took a moment to realise that Arsha was crying. Tears rolled down the girls cheeks, splashing onto her plate.
Rachael’s throat felt dry. Her words were all gone. Slowly, she reached across the table and placed her hand over Arsha’s. Reflexively, the girl’s fingers closed around hers.
They sat that way for some time, until Arsha’s tears stopped and the girl wiped her eyes dry, sniffling quietly.
“I’m sorry. For being mad at you,” she said with an apologetic smile.
“I’m sorry for making you mad,” Rachael replied, returning the smile.
“Thank you,” Arsha whispered.
“Any time,” Rachael said.
Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.