A land strangled by its own death creates a ready-made berth for despair in its silence and its stiff clutch of ending, its stillness. The moon rises thin and sharp and looks on pitiless through thinner clouds to cast the streets in fey light and darkest shadow. The stones leak back none of the day’s heat. Their colorless faces lie rent with ruin. Fractures twine the foundation beneath the streets, mortar poured by the hands of the quick. Above, the dead rest, cosseted by yellowing silk and lace.
Amid the rigor there is a mongrel strain in the dead city, a wavering, dirty flame that flickers in perpetual dusk. The living blood sleeps in motley, heaped in parceled sets of organs and bone, the quartered damned that await no judgment but that eventual carrion end or embrace of the gentry. Slain and revived to become a vision of sewn lips and rotted deathwear.
In the night as the moon turns away and darker shadows still swallow iron and stone again to its maw and the warren of webbed dust settles like frost riming the brittle edges of arches like old bone, as silence rings and no bell tolls the hour, none walks here save a boy.
Past the high pale faces of carved estate, grotesques sneering from their peaks. Through a warren of corridors, down a path overhung with lurching, patchwork architecture, age-blacked and teetering, unkempt. Weeds push crooked from the join of cobblestones. Shapes slump in the alleys, but make no sound. Ahead, a bridge. A stretch of shambling ghetto and the stockyard of quick bred for slaughter. And beyond that hopeless, nightmarish purlieu, the city’s edge.
The grim perimeters of the dead pose nothing to youth indelibly alive. He breaches its labyrinth, breaks its prison of dust and leaves behind no trace but only leaves. He leaves.
The first time he ducks away from an attacker and hooks his knife in the man’s flesh and tears him open and stands triumphant and shaking in the carnage; the first time he closes his fingers around the hilt of his sword and feels as though a key slots its teeth into a lock and fills an empty place he did not know gaped within him; the first time he sees Armada, its mishmash skyline in silhouette, defiant and fierce and free along the vast edge of the sea. Here and here and here he feels an expansion of himself, a great unfurling of something that he cannot name, and he thinks only yes.
And the first time he registers Bellis Coldwine, unhappy and aloof and clutched with a clammy fear at the sight of him, and her slow, quiet ebb to cautious—and then less cautious—communion, he again thinks: yes.
The Covenant churned at the surface of the sea, the small ironclad steaming smoothly across the slate face of the Swollen Ocean. Its company of clippers shifted and rearranged as the smaller ships darted ahead and out of sight and returned, hours or a day later, sometimes under night’s cloak or with the late spring dawn. They were two days from the Basilisk Channel and its cup of fishing harbors and well-traveled trade route when Uther Doul went to Bellis.
She stood on deck in the sharp wind, her skirt tugged and gusted about. She did not look when he came to stand beside her, her hands folded atop the edge of the gunwale, and for a time, they stood in silence and watched the featureless sea.
“It won’t be long,” he said. After a moment, she raised her eyes toward the grey line of the horizon. As though there was something there to see. In bleak daylight, the rolling water seemed blurred, as though it wore strange, shifting contours like a mirage.
“Will it storm?” she asked evenly. She looked at him, her face closed off and cool.
He looked at the clouds clustered at the far edge of the sea. The whole of the sky was a pale, thin blue. One of the clippers of their escort cruised past, waves breaking at its bow in a full spray. He inclined his head. “No. Not before you reach Qé Banssa. But perhaps then.”
She pressed her lips together and turned back to the water. He watched her watch the sea. “I’m surprised Garwater can spare you,” she said.
“It can.” He leaned back against the rail. “I will see you home. You command that much.”
“Don’t mock me,” she said. Her voice was not sharp. “I’ve had many things on this journey, but none of them were control. You know that.” He did not answer, and she smiled a little: mirthless but without rancor.
After a long moment of silence, he said, “And what would you have done with control, Miss Coldwine?”
She barked a short laugh and looked away. “Oh, I don’t know.” She closed her eyes against the wind, and her loose hair whipped at her face. Grey threaded through the hair pulled tightly back at her temples. Her fingers tucked in, clenched into her palms.
“It’s all right,” she said suddenly, meeting his eyes. “I don’t resent it. I understand that it was necessary. I never could have...fixed things, alone.” She jerked her shoulders in a desultory little movement and looked as though she would say more, but did not. He looked at her and did not reply, and finally she exhaled and turned away and again they stood in silence.
(It was the saddest of refuges. Devoid of jettisoned, pithy words, no flotsam to salvage. Silence made an empty harbor like waiting arms, its rictus of cracked bone and peeled, leathered skin. And the still dust, and the cobwebs. He could not forget the crypt, that horrible welcome home.)
Doul found Bellis in her quarters the next evening, as he knew he would. She looked at him for a long moment, silent, and then stepped back from the threshold to allow him in. Moonlight slanted in the porthole, and a candle flickered next to her bed. A book, its place marked with a scrap of paper, laid on the covers. The room was small. It was furnished with only a bed and a side table, and Bellis would not sit, so neither did he. He gently set a bottle of wine on the table, and her eyes followed the movement.
“A peace offering, I suppose.” Her lips twisted as he produced two glasses.
“Merely an offering,” he said quietly. She accepted a glass from him and retreated to stand by the wall, but did not drink for a time. There was no fear in her posture, but a weary suspicion. “It’s not poisoned, Miss Coldwine,” he added, and she shook her head and took a grudging sip.
It was a Crobuzonian wine that he knew to be good. If she recognized it she gave no indication, but she clutched the glass with such care that he thought perhaps she did. He drank a little, leaning easily against the wall, and watched her. Finally, she drew breath and said, “Why did you come?”
“No.” She closed her eyes. It was tired, and the wavering candlelight cast ugly and stark shadows across her face. “Why did you come?”
He tilted his glass and peered at the rich glow of the wine. “Despite whatever you may think, you did a great number of things during your time at Armada. You saw a great and...terrible era in our history. I accord you that much.” She winced, and he continued smoothly, “And I was the one who captained the attack on the Terpsichoria.” He smiled. “It’s only fitting that I return you.”
“Fine, then.” She sipped at her wine and arched her eyebrows. “If it’s all so fitting. Why did you come tonight?”
“I’m interested in your earlier answer.” He emptied his glass and moved to put it on the table. “If you had control,” he said. “What would you do?”
“I suppose I would demand some honesty,” she said, after a long pause. She gave him an appraising look, her eyes gone narrow. She started forward and placed her empty glass next to his. “I would tear away some of the innumerable masks, even if they are necessary.” She stepped slowly behind and around him and back into his field of vision. Her arms were folded across her middle. “A great number of them are yours,” she said, her voice just barely edged with a mocking thoughtfulness. He did not reply, and she made a small movement forward and then tightened her fingers on her arm and drew back, her hard little humor dissipating.
“I wonder,” she murmured. “Did you tell me the truth, even once?” Her eyes went to his sword at his hip, and then back to his face.
“Truth takes many forms, Miss Coldwine.” She pressed her lips together and watched him. “Sometimes it is its own mask. I told you many things,” he said gently, and she shifted away from him again, back to the wall, and finally she broke eye contact. “And many of them were true.”
“You say very pretty things,” she said. She peered through the porthole, her shoulders stiff.
She glanced back at him, her eyes sharp, and then her brittle veneer faded. “No. Not particularly.” She shook her head, as though in faint disbelief or exasperation.
“You do have a measure of control,” he said. “Some power is in its realization. In its possibility.” He smiled, his hand brushing over the edge of his sword’s hilt.
Her lips twisted wryly. “Do I? I think I have very little to play as my strengths, now. If there was a place for it—a fight, a moment where I could have turned a tide....” She huffed out her breath. “It’s past. Now, more than ever.” She fixed her eyes on him and there again was her flinty edge. He rolled his shoulders in a faint half-shrug, and something between them shifted.
It could have been the plying effect of the wine, or a sort of weary daring or—oddest of all—the creeping influence of chance, this set engine of possibility to which both of them had been exposed. Whichever it was, there was that shift like the treacherous movement of the waves, and she stepped toward him again and searched his face; she held out her hands. “Give me your sword.” There was challenge in her voice and the barest uncertainty, but her hands were expectant and steady. Her wrists were thin and pale where her sleeves pulled away.
He blinked at her. An opening, like shy petals to the day or new wings and, there—yes. Slowly but without hesitation, he pulled his sword from its cradle at his belt and, holding the scabbard across its length, he laid it gently in her hands with immense ceremony. Her fingers closed around it as though she expected some great weight, and she glanced at his face and took a step back, holding the sword close. She took great care to place it on the floor behind her, lengthwise along the wall.
She straightened, her face cryptic. A pause, and then: “Take off your shirt,” she said quietly. Her arms were again folded across her middle, but now not out of bitterness or anxiety.
The air in the cabin was cool against his bare skin. He let the shirt drop to the floor, and his hands hung lax at his sides. For a time, neither of them moved, and then Bellis drew herself up, her eyes drifting down the lines of his body. He could see her reading him. She circled, her steps suddenly loud in the small room. She studied him, now and again peering closely at his skin. “You have scars,” she mused. “I wouldn’t have thought.”
“Only rumors credit me with immortality.”
“Even immortals bleed,” she replied, and her eyes sank to his throat, his chest. “What is that?” she asked, inclining her head.
He did not have to look: it was a line that traced the connection of his shoulder and arm, that jerked briefly over his chest and back to curl along his ribs. It was old and faint. “I lost a fight, when I was young. My opponent had a mind for trophies. It was an affectation I could not indulge him.”
She glanced at his face and continued her slow circuit. “And this?” There was the smallest hesitation, and then he felt the light graze of her fingernail along the edge of his shoulder blade, over an imperfection in the line of bone.
“A scabmettler’s blow, when I first learned their techniques. The bone healed, but not as it was.” Her fingernail lifted away and she stepped back into his line of vision.
“And this?” She reached across him and brushed her fingertip down the line of his arm. He offered his hand, and the metal buds embedded in his palm caught the light in a dull reflection. She touched her finger to the lower-most node pressed in the heel of his hand and looked at his face. “Was this a wound?” She was not coy.
“It bled,” he murmured, and her lips turned up at that small evasion. “But not for long.”
She gently put her fingers to each of the other cool pieces of metal as though they might crumble should she press too hard. She wet her lips and looked at him, now very close. “Is this a gift?” she said softly. “Is this your pity?”
“My pity has no place with you.” She took her fingers away from his palm. He left his hand offered to her as though in askance. “And it could be any number of things. Whatever you want.”
She lifted her chin. “I want you to tell me the truth. ” She hesitated. “Do you want to touch me, Uther?”
He smiled then, as she said his name, and he said nothing but inclined his head and gently pressed his lips to hers, without reaching out, without pressing himself against her. The kiss was chaste and close-lipped, and she did not close her eyes but instead watched him, careful. He pulled back, taken with an absurd, young uncertainty, and she wet her lips again and pulled herself up straight, ran her thumb along his jaw and said, “Fine. A gift, then.” She lifted her face and now she kissed him, harder and with firm authority. Her lips were chapped with salt and he could taste the fullness of the wine in her mouth. She clasped his wrists and directed his hands to rest on her waist. “Keep your damn pity,” she whispered against his lips.
Her fingers were cold against the bare skin of his back. She kissed him expertly and with purpose, and he let her and ran his fingertips along the seam of her dress. It was slow, and odd, that strange and treacherous-wave feeling still curling around and beneath them like some sort of inevitable descent. A sort of sinking. He spread his hands over her hips and felt the curve of bone. She pulled back and gave him a quick, fierce smile and pressed her hand to his chest, in the space below his collarbones. He sat on the bed, his fingers running down the cool folds of her long skirt and watched her as she unbuttoned her dress, the heavy dark fabric peeling away to reveal ivory-white skin and the tattered lace of her underclothes. He thought, erroneously, of the stifled air of his home and the burgeoning stillness, the smell of faint rot and layers of dust.
Bellis turned away from him and crouched over the bedside table. She shrugged away the sleeves of her dress and he caught an instant’s glimpse of her back: the savaged lines of new, shiny skin laced across her shoulders like a child’s ladder-sketch or the line of a corset. And then she blew the candle out and plunged the room into darkness silvered at the edges by the moon’s faint light.
They finished undressing in silence, and she caught his hands and slid into them, instructing him with a touch. Her hair now loose fell forward and lapped at his shoulders as she kissed him. They fit together and fucked, inexpert but not awkward, her fingernails drawing hard lines across his back as she moved, her breath against his cheek and his fingers gentle against the curve of her back and the ridges of her scars.
He felt the pliancy of relief move through her, which he expected, but he felt it also in himself, which he did not. He pressed his mouth to the line of her neck and felt her ice fall around him, jagged and piercing and surrendered. She whispered nothing, no word of thanks, and he was glad because he could not have replied.
She left, as they both knew she would.
The storm did not come. The sky was a pure china-blue, the sun still burning cold but with the faint promise of something else. In the distance was the hard ridge of land jutting from the sea. The wind scoured the ridges and swells of the waves.
Bellis did not wait. She emerged from her rooms in black, her lips painted dark. Doul watched her from his place on deck. Beside the Covenant a clipper waited, its deck shifting roughly in time. She drew herself up, the wind tugging wisps of her hair free from its stern pins. Her hands smoothed her skirt. Its hem was stiff with salt.
She looked at him, her face inscrutable, and then out to the sea, again to the horizon and what it brought. He offered her his hand as she started for the ladder slung over the Covenant’s deck. A second’s hesitation, and then she took it, her fingers clutching at his as she gathered her skirt and swung her leg over the rail.
He could have said Safe journey, Miss Coldwine, or Good luck, or even simply goodbye, but finally he said nothing and released her hand and stepped back, and Bellis Coldwine stepped off the Covenant’s deck and over the edge and she left.