Authors: Marianne de Pierres
Tags: #young adult fiction
‘Please.’ His insistence surprised her. Markes had never been so firm before. On Ixion, he’d been either dreaming about his music or too numbed by the pods and beads the Ripers gave them.
She dipped into her pocket and handed the bread over.
Markes held out his hand again, palm flat, thumb tucked down, as if feeding an animal.
The arm flashed out again, though less fiercely, deftly removing the food from his hand. An arm without a hand or finger, only squirrelling tentacles.
Footsteps outside. Loud. And then the chilling, hollow bark of a hound. Other hounds joined in a chorus that pierced Naif with terror.
‘Markes!’ Her chest tightened again. It was fear doing it. Fear of this place. Her home.
The boy’s face appeared in the gloom. ‘Come. Show you way.’
Neither of them moved.
The boy moved out of the shadow. His head and body were human but his arm and hand were . . .
He unfolded a tentacle to both of them. ‘Follow quick or hounds eat you.’
A warm, suckered digit wound around Naif’s wrist and pulled her towards the dark. She quelled her instinct to recoil and let it guide her. Anything . . .
was preferable to being taken by the wardens. She would
let that happen again.
The dark that enveloped them was only a couple of body lengths deep. She bumped against Markes and their hands briefly touched. Naif wanted to speak but the hounds were in their building now, scraping at the floor, their barking echoing all around.
The tentacle around Naif’s wrist tightened and she was propelled through a narrow opening in the wall so quickly that she banged her head and her hip on the rough edges of it.
Markes followed after her, giving an involuntary gasp of pain. He was much broader and taller than her and could barely fit.
When he’d squeezed through the gap, the tentacle unwound from her wrist and she heard a scuffling on the floor. Wood clunked softly against wood and left them in an even deeper darkness.
‘Hush!’ said the boy.
Naif felt his tentacle caress her again. This time, though, he was holding something as well. It was rough hessian and the smell from it was putrid, like something dead a few days. She tried to push him away but his tentacle was strong and persistent, not withdrawing until he’d wiped the cloth over her.
When he finished, she heard a rustling movement next to her and guessed the boy was doing the same thing to Markes.
‘Fish bag trick hounds. Wait now,’ the boy whispered when he finished.
The three sat motionless and listened as the hounds yelped their way up the stairs to the loft, growling and snuffling along the wall.
‘Bring the lamp,’ shouted a warden.
Footsteps on the stairs. Only two men this time, Naif thought. Where were the others?
‘Something’s been up here. Look at the marks in the dust,’ said one.
‘That’s from the hounds.’ The second warden had a calmer, less agitated voice.
‘No. These marks are too wide. Like bodies.’
‘You’re imagining things, brother.’
‘The airship brought trouble with it. And the trouble has been here. In this loft.’
‘If you’re right then I say the trouble has moved on and we keep looking. There’s nothing here now but dust.’ He pounded the wall with his fist, sending a vibration through the floor. ‘See.’
‘I tell you, brother,’ said the other one. ‘The hounds can sense something behind here. Feel the wall, it’s uneven.’
They seemed so close that Naif could smell the hounds’ musty scent. She feared they would burst through the old planks at any moment.
Perspiration chilled on her skin.
The wardens tapped their fists against the wood again. Naif pictured them kneeling in their long coats and heavy boots, puzzling.
The boy slid his arm right past Naif’s cheek and pressed the fish bag to the wall.
‘Put your nose here, Danno. Here’s what’s got the hounds excited. Something’s died here not long before.’
‘Surely smells of it, Lukas. Maybe you’re right. I’ve seen rats in the Old Harbour as big as the hounds themselves.’
‘All the more reason not to spend too long in the godforsaken place. Let’s search along the sea wall again.’
Their footsteps and the growling receded to the stairs, and then gradually faded altogether.
The boy lifted the loose board out. Daylight brightened the dark of their cubbyhole enough that Naif could see vague outlines of him and Markes.
Suddenly he burst into rattling laughter. ‘Big rats like hounds. Hah, hah.’
Naif wet her lips. ‘Why do you laugh?’
‘They see me. And mine. Think we big rats.’
There are more of . . . you?’
‘We are some. Lenoir says we must watch all-time. See you come. I follow.’
‘Lenoir?’ Naif gasped. As she spoke his name, a sharp, engulfing vision of the Riper’s dark hair and pale, beautiful face came to her. Her mouth went dry.
‘Follow now.’ The boy’s command dispelled her vision.
He squeezed out through the hole and scurried across the loft.
‘Naif.’ Markes tugged her arm. ‘Come on. Before we lose him.’
She crawled forward and turned herself sideways to fit through the gap. Markes followed her, legs first this time, twisting sideways to make his body as narrow as possible.
The boy was already climbing swiftly down the stairs. Naif concentrated on following him – not staring at his deformed hand or puzzling how Lenoir knew him.
Time enough for that. First they must get to Grave North and find out why Rollo had seen a Riper here in Grave. It held the key to everything. She knew it.
he boy led them outside and along the cobblestones to the edge of the warehouse. They could hear the hounds roaming the waterline to the north and fear wrapped itself tightly around Naif’s stomach. With every step she imagined a hand clamping down on her shoulder, or a whistle blowing. She pictured her father’s face if the wardens captured her –
‘Naif, what is it?’ Markes was next to her, whispering in her ear. ‘You’re standing still.’
She blinked. The boy had disappeared ahead, into a space between the buildings.
‘Shall we follow him or make our own way?’ Markes asked her.
‘I’m sorry. I’m . . . I’m . . .’
‘I’m scared too,’ he said simply. ‘Being back here. Ixion has changed us.’
‘The boy said Lenoir told him to watch. What does that mean?’
Markes shrugged. ‘I don’t know but out here we can be seen. We should follow him to cover at least.’
She nodded and forced her feet forward.
The narrow alley was long and encrusted with salt and soot. The boy waited for them atop a crate halfway along.
‘You slow. Is dangerous.’ His tentacles curled down, gripping the ends of the wood. As they watched he slid off the crate and nudged it away. Underneath was a grate, filthy with sludge. He plunged his tentacles into the gaps and pulled it aside. ‘There is drop.’
He nodded at Naif and Markes, indicating that they should go before him.
‘I’m taller. I’ll go first,’ said Markes. He lowered himself down slowly until he disappeared.
Naif peered in after him. She could just see his head and shoulders lit by some kind of glow.
‘I’ll catch you,’ he called up softly to her.
‘Hurry now,’ said the boy. ‘Hounds come.’
The baying sounded closer again. Naif sat down on the edge and twisted around, lowering herself into the hole. Markes caught her and helped her onto a ledge.
She stood still, panting, listening to the sound of water rushing past her. Droplets splashed onto her skin. The smell of saltwater overpowered all other scents.
‘I think we’re in a tidal drain. The water’s flowing straight out to the sea,’ said Markes.
The boy came next. With quick agile movements he slid the grate in place after him. He dropped down near them and took a lit torch from the wall above Markes’s head.
‘What’s your name?’ Naif didn’t want to go any further with him until he told them that at least.
The torchlight wavered as he started walking. ‘Liam.’
It seemed familiar but Naif knew no one by that name. ‘Where are you going, Liam?’
He walked on, along the narrow ledge beside the drain, leaving them no option but to follow him or be left in the wet, cold dark.
They hugged the drain wall, bending double in parts. Several times Liam got too far ahead of them and they called out, asking him to come back with the light.
‘You slow,’ he said.
‘It’s slippery,’ Markes replied.
Liam nodded as if he understood but his expression was unimpressed. He stayed aloof and impatient until they finally reached another grate. Light flooded down through this one, illuminating the water rushing past their feet.
The three of them were drenched with spray now, and Naif was shivering from the damp cold of the tunnel.
‘Up,’ said Liam.
He scaled the slippery wall using the suckers on his tentacle fingers for grip. Pressing his mouth against the grate, he called out words that Naif didn’t understand.
Soon after, the grate opened and a hand reached down.
Naif looked at Markes. ‘Where are we?’
‘West of the Old Harbour, I think.’
If Markes was right, the Seal compound – and her parents – were close.
The tightness in her chest returned. ‘I can’t breathe,’ she panted.
‘It’s the fear doing it,’ said Markes gently. ‘Slow your breath. No one knows there are people in these tunnels. We’ll be safe.’
Naif was soothed by his calm. On Ixion he hadn’t been like that. Or maybe the beads and the pods had robbed him of it. Whichever, she was grateful for it now. And grateful that he’d come. Without him, her courage may have deserted her on the beach.
Liam’s head and shoulders reappeared through the hole. He dangled his arm down. ‘Come.’
Markes lifted Naif so that she could grasp the boy’s tentacles. He curled them around her wrists and pulled her roughly to the surface. Markes followed, able to climb most of the way himself.
When he was safely through, Naif began to absorb the soft light, grey walls and the strong smell of fish. She saw old wooden racks and sagging shelves covered in a layer of salt and grime. Without having been in one before, she knew this was a place to dry fish and salt it down for storage.
In the Seal compound they ate fish every ninth day and on the tenth they fasted. Her brother Joel had hated Fastday. He always said that the Gods they gave thanks to had never done anything for him so why should he go hungry for them.
His blasphemy always made her nervous, as if the Grave Gods would hear and take retribution on him.
Perhaps they had.
As she looked around now, though, the shelves held only a handful of fish and a scattering of ragged clothes and other food scraps. One other item caught her eye: a square, dark object with knobs on the front and a broken dial. Naif had seen similar ones before in the Seal prayer rooms, and Joel had hidden a smaller version of the same in his bedroom under the floorboards. It was a radio. He’d listened for the
on it, and known which night the barge would come in.
The Ixion code was embedded into the song at a frequency that only the young people, with their sharper senses, could hear. So Naif had listened for it after Joel had gone, and been ready. Without Joel’s radio she would not have known.
Naif heard a movement and looked away from the radio. A group of strange young people shuffled into the room and stood in the circle of light streaming in from the high windows. Each one, like Liam, had some kind of deformity.
They stared at Markes and Naif with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. Liam stood next to a girl who looked quite normal, except for one of her hands, which was a slick, black colour and the scaly texture of a bleetle’s back. Markes seemed too shocked to speak, so Naif gathered her wits. ‘Thank you for helping us.’
The group exchanged glances but no one spoke.
She tried again. ‘Liam said that Lenoir brought you here.’
Frustration knotted in her chest and she tried to unwind it. It was harder to do that now that she was no longer totally governed by her Seal upbringing. Her emotions came more freely since her Enlightenment; Lenoir had healed her as she lay dying but his act had bonded them and more. The Seal within her had been buried that day and she’d emerged as another person, as if some gate inside her had opened that could never be closed again.
‘I am Glev. Tell me where you go?’ said the girl next to Liam suddenly.
‘Grave North,’ said Markes.
Naif gave Markes a warning glance but he deflected the answer to her. ‘I accompany my friend, Naif.’
Glev’s suspicious frown shifted to Naif.
‘Liam said that you are here because of Lenoir? Do you all know him?’ asked Naif.
Most of them nodded but Glev watched her intently.
‘Well, Lenoir and I are bonded. I seek information that will . . . help him. And others.’ Not the truth exactly, but not a lie either.
At any other time Glev’s incredulity might have been insulting, but Naif’s only concern was that the girl believed her.
‘I was injured and he saved my life. Now I seek to help him. There are things I must learn here. There is trouble on Ixion. Lenoir is in danger.’ If they thought she was here against Lenoir’s wishes then they may turn on her and Markes.
‘Tell us!’ demanded Liam.
They crowded closer, appearing eager for news of the island.
‘There’s a Riper called Brand who challenges Lenoir.’
‘The Scar Lady,’ said Glev, nodding as though she knew more than the rest.
‘Yes. Her and another we call Modai.’
Liam hissed. ‘Modai is the one who sent us to Danksoi.’
all of you?’
‘What happened? Why are you here?’ asked Naif.
Their expressions became guarded and no one answered her question.
Instead Glev pointed to Liam. ‘We help Lenoir. You take them through the wall.’
Liam gave a slight nod. ‘Eat first then we go.’
In one accord, the group sat down where they were, and Liam gestured for Naif and Markes to do the same.
It should have been a relief just to sit but the silent watchful glances kept Naif ill at ease. Markes’s pensive expression told her he felt the same. Even so, he seemed surer of himself since returning to Grave, imbued with a new sense of determination.
A thought struck Naif then. What if Markes had another reason for coming back here? Something he’d not shared with her? What if he didn’t really have a friend who could help them?
As she considered that idea, a slight girl emerged from one of the drying stalls. She carried a large wooden board dotted with an assortment of food. Like the rest of them she bore a deformity, but unlike the rest, hers was on her face. She had an extra set of eyes low down on her cheeks. They blinked and watered and the effect was so alien, so repulsive, that Naif bit her lip to stop from exclaiming.
The girl placed the board in the centre of their circle and retreated behind the stall immediately.
Naif stared at the mix of seaweed strips, dough balls and an unrecognisable cooked meat on the plank of wood. The shape of the meat suggested one of the small creatures that lived on the grains that spilled from the Grave storage silos.
That thought, and the sight of the disfigured girl, stalled Naif’s appetite.
Liam pushed the wooden tray towards her and she took just a piece of fleshy grey seaweed. Markes did the same.
The tray then went back to the middle and the rest of them fell upon the food, tearing the hot meat apart with their fingers and tentacles.
The girl with the extra eyes returned with a smaller tray that held a collection of odd-sized containers. Liquid spilled from them as she knelt down.
‘Neva!’ Glev snapped. ‘’Ware!’
The girl blinked nervously, her eyelids fluttering out of sync with each other. Naif tried not to stare but found it impossible to draw her eyes away.
Conscious of the strangers’ scrutiny, Neva spilled more drink as she placed the tray on the floor. Glev slapped her across the back of the head for her clumsiness. She yelped and ran back to the stall.
Naif’s heart contracted with pity for Neva, and anger at the way Glev treated her.
Markes sensed her reaction and put his hand on her knee in caution. With his other hand he reached out, took one of the containers, and offered it to her.