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Read a sample from REVENGER by Alastair Reynolds

"REVENGER is classic Reynolds-that is to say, top of the line science fiction, where characters are matched beautifully with ideas and have to find their place in a complex future. More!" --- Greg Bear

Chapter 1

Adrana had always hated Doctor Morcenx. He’d been the family physician since our parents landed on Mazarile, before we were born. He’d been there as Adrana and I grew up, and he’d been there when the plague took our mother. The plague was what turned my father against men like Captain Rackamore, because he reckoned they were meddling in things that were better off being locked up, but as far as I know no one ever proved the plague came out of a bauble.

None of that stopped him from being talked into a stupid investment in exactly the thing he disapproved of.

He was like that: easily persuaded against his own judgement. And it came to a head in the Hall of History one Forgeday evening in spring 1799. Father had gone to see what had come of his investment, and because he wanted to make a good showing among all the monied bigwigs in the Mazarile chamber of commerce, he’d brought both of us along for the evening. We were meant to be on our best behaviour. Prim and proper educated young ladies.

Adrana wasn’t having any of it.

‘Doctor Morcenx,’ called Father, noticing the family physician a few tables away. ‘Come and join us. It’s been too long since you’ve seen Adrana and Arafura. Look how much they’ve grown.’

Doctor Morcenx limped over. He was a pepperpot-shaped man who always wore black, and too many layers of it. ‘Always a pleasure, Mr Ness,’ he said, in his gruff, greasy voice, touching a hand to his forehead. Then he started humming a little tune. Doctor Morcenx was always humming little tunes, as if his own thoughts needed blacking out, the way one skull can smother the signal from another. ‘Your daughters are a credit to you,’ he said, buttering his words until they were soggy. ‘They must be a great consolation, given the disappointments of Captain Lar’s expedition. Your investment wasn’t too burdensome, I presume?’

‘We’ll weather it,’ Father said, putting a brave face on things.

‘You always do, Mister Ness, and it’s to your credit. As are your daughters. Fine specimens, both. It’s been my pleasure and my privilege to have seen them through their development.’ He carried on with the humming, and started digging his short, fat fingers into his pocket. ‘Would you like a …’

‘We’re a bit old for sweets now,’ Adrana said. ‘I’m eighteen and Fura’s not far off it.’

‘It’s all right,’ I said, allowing the doctor to take out his bag of sweets and pop a crystallised ginger into my palm.

‘I’ve been meaning to visit,’ Doctor Morcenx said to our father. ‘I wanted to talk to you about something that might be of interest… especially in Arafura’s case. These childhood years are so precious …’

‘She’s not a child,’ Adrana said. ‘And I know what you’ve got in mind. It’s that drug, isn’t it? The one that slows things down? Well, you can—’

‘There’s no need for that tone,’ Father said, cutting across her. ‘The doctor’s been very good to you and Fura, over the years.’

‘Oh yes,’ Adrana said. ‘And not that there’s ever been anything odd about him skulking around the house like he lives there. It’s no good now, Doctor Moonface.’ She had a way of slipping that out as if it was his actual name, so casually that sometimes you barely noticed it at all. ‘I’m old enough to know better, and Fura soon will be.’

‘Apologise to the doctor right now,’ Father said.

‘I won’t,’ Adrana answered. ‘You can’t make me, just as you can’t make me enjoy this stupid evening with the stupid captain and all your stupid friends, trying to pretend they haven’t blown half their fortunes.’

‘I can have Paladin take you home,’ Father said in a warning tone.

Our old red robot swivelled its glass dome of a head, trying to follow the conversation. Lights flashed on and off in the dome. Paladin often got confused when its name was mentioned, unless it was given simple, direct orders.

‘I’ll be in touch,’ Doctor Morcenx said, tucking his sweets back into his pocket.

‘I’m sorry for my daughter’s rudeness,’ Father said.

‘Think nothing of it, Mr Ness. The emotional lability of the young is nothing new to me.’

We watched him turn and waddle back to his table. He had a roll of flesh on the back of his neck like an inflated tube. He was still humming.

‘There was no call for that,’ Father said. ‘I’ve never been so—’

‘Humiliated?’ Adrana finished for him. ‘You know what the real humiliation is? Being a Ness, that’s what. Grovelling our way up the Mazarile social ladder, trying to pretend we’re something we’re not.’

In a way, I was glad when a drunkard started shouting obscenities from the audience. Up on the podium, Captain Malang Lar kept talking, and then someone from the chamber of commerce stood up and tried to shout down the drunk man, but by then it was too late. Constables in pillbox hats and flashing blue epaulettes came bursting through the audience from the back of the room and started wrestling the drunkard away from the proceedings. But he was determined to put up a fight, brawling with the constables and staggering into a table, sending it toppling.

Paladin swivelled around. ‘Disturbance detected,’ it kept saying. ‘Disturbance detected.’

Father started rolling up his sleeves. ‘I suppose I’d better …’ he was saying, making a show of letting everyone know he was at least considering getting involved, even though he was happier behind a desk than wrestling with drunks.

Then we both realised that Adrana had slipped away from the table.

‘Find her!’ Father snapped at Paladin.

The robot swivelled its head and rolled away from the table, picking a path through the brawl. Someone gave Paladin a kick, just for the fun of kicking a sentient machine. Paladin was used to that sort of thing. It wobbled a lot, but managed to stay upright.

‘It should have kept a better eye on her,’ Father said, fuming as he tugged his sleeves back down again.

‘Paladin can’t help it,’ I said. ‘It’s just an old robot trying its best. Look, I’ll go and see if I can find her. They were only letting people in through the north entrance, weren’t they?’

‘No,’ Father said, wiping a hand across a sweat-glistened brow. ‘They were using both entrances, and you can bet your sister’s headed for one of them.’

Paladin was still sweeping the room, its dome spinning around, lights flashing agitatedly behind the glass.

‘All right,’ I said. ‘You go back to the cloakroom, where we came in. I’ll go to the south entrance.’

‘Can I trust you to come back?’ Father asked.

‘Of course.’

I meant it, too. I had no intention of disobeying him. I wanted all of us to get back on the tram and ride along Jauncery Road to the house, away from the drunken chaos that had started out as a polite civic function. I wanted to be back in my room on the third floor, next to the parlour with all our books and maps and games.

‘Then be quick about it,’ Father said.

I left the table, skirting around the brawl – which was quietening down now, as more constables arrived – and began to make my way along the length of the Hall of History.

A clammy cold hand closed on my wrist.

‘That sister of yours is a disruptive influence. The sooner she’s out of your life, the better. Shall we look for her together?’

‘I’m all right, Doctor,’ I said, slipping from his grasp as if his fingers were coated in slime. ‘You keep a watch on this room. The robot’s trying to find her, but its vision system isn’t very effective.’

‘You’re a good girl, Arafura. At least one of you’s turning out the right way; a fitting memorial to your mother.’

‘Thank you, Doctor Moon… Morcenx.’ The insult had slipped out accidentally, almost as if Adrana was inside me, stirring up mischief. I flashed an awkward smile and broke away from him, knowing that with his limp he could never keep up with me. We had our best dresses and boots on, Adrana and I, but we could hitch up our hems and run in them if we needed to.

The Hall was much longer than it was wide. It needed to be, with so much history to cover. To begin with, before I knew what it was all about, I liked the fact that the Hall of History was pretty, with that long black wall running the height and length of the room, and the coloured bars that were lit up along its length, like irregularly spaced fence posts. It was easy to be impressed by the glowing colours and the writing in them. I was fixated on what was known.

It was years later before I stopped to think about the black intervals between the bars, and what they meant.

Soon I was at the south door. It was open and the warm evening was pushing in from outside. Constables were trying to impose order and stopping people from coming back in. A man was insisting that he needed to get back to the cloakroom where his wife was waiting, and an argument was brewing as they told him to go around the front of the building, which he felt was too much trouble.

A hand closed around mine.

I twisted it away, half expecting to see Doctor Morcenx again. But it was Adrana.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘Now we can have some fun.’

Adrana started dragging me to the door. ‘I’m supposed to take you back to Father,’ I said.

‘Oh, come on, Fura.’ Her eyes were wide with anticipation. I knew she’d had a glass of wine when we came in but there was nothing foggy or reddened about them. ‘We’re a stone’s throw from Neural Alley. I’ve got some quoins. Let’s go and live a little.’

‘I’m not interested in Neural Alley.’

‘How can you know, if you’ve never been there?’

‘And you have?’

But we were through the door now, into the evening, and there was no chance of the constables letting us back in through the south door. I glanced back in time to catch a glimpse of Paladin, still sweeping the room, working its way gradually to the open door.

‘C’mon,’ Adrana said. ‘They won’t blame you. I’m always the one setting a bad example, aren’t I?’

We went down the steps at the entrance, followed a line of lanterns through the museum gardens, then crossed the tram tracks at Jauncery Road. The Dragon Gate was a neon portal before us, with the narrow winding passage of Neural Alley extending beyond it, curling its way south in the general direction of Hadramaw Station. I stared a bit at the Dragon Gate, just as I always stared at flickerboxes and screens when I caught them in the public spaces. It was a burst of brightness and colour like nothing we had at home.

‘You weren’t very nice to Moonface,’ I said. Adrana had a hand around my sleeve and was dragging me towards the Dragon Gate.

‘And you have no idea what a creep he really is. I know what he wants to do to you. They’ve come up with this medicine now. It slows down biological growth, allows adults to stop their children from ever growing up.’

‘Why would anyone want that?’

She looked back at me with an exasperated expression. ‘You’re so naïve, Fura.’

‘And you’re only a bit older than me.’

We ducked through Dragon Gate, into the glow and swelter of Neural Alley. Adrana grinned back at me. ‘We’re in! Look at us, Fura – dressed up to the nines and out on the town! Here.’ And she dug out her purse and passed me a two-bar quoin. ‘That’s half of what I’ve got on me, so make it count.’

I stared down at the heavy metal disc of the quoin, not sure what to make of this gift. ‘Thanks,’ I said doubtfully. ‘But I’ve caught up with you, haven’t I? We should go back. You can still say you’ve seen Neural Alley.’

But Adrana was moving forward, confident as if she already knew the place.

‘Watch out for pickpockets and gropers now,’ Adrana said, as if my words counted for nothing. ‘We’ll go all the way along, then come out at Cat Gate.’

‘Then we go home?’

‘Of course.’ She grinned back at me. ‘Where else?’

A fortune teller studied a man’s palm. A barefoot girl with mad eyes and a glow coming from her skin begged on a corner. Two rheumy-eyed men slouched past wearing drab brown spacesuits – everything except the helmets, which they held under their arms. Behind the men came someone dressed as a Crawly, shuffling upright on too many limbs, wearing a sash in the colours of the Bank of Hadramaw, with a big goggle-eyed mask on their head. Then I saw that it was a real Crawly, not fancy dress, and the alien was with the men in spacesuits.

I stared and stared, until I caught my slack-jawed expression in the opposite window.

‘Yes, aliens,’ Adrana said, like it was old news. ‘They come here. It’s close enough to the dock that they can do business, especially those of them in the banking line. Speaking of aliens, aren’t these clothes beautiful?’

I tore myself away from the Crawly as it shuffled past, trying not to stare at the little whiskery appendages that came in and out of its proboscis. Adrana, unimpressed by the alien, was standing at a shopfront. Behind the glass were mannequins done up in glittery dresses and skirts made of tiny shimmering facets. ‘That’s Rattler skin,’ Adrana said. ‘They discard it. Used to discard it, anyway. Turns up in baubles, sometimes enough of it to make a dress out of. It’s illegal on some worlds – they don’t want to offend the Rattlers if they ever come back.’

‘I don’t think the Rattlers are coming back,’ I said, remembering the bar in the Hall of History. The Rattlers had come and gone during the Fourth Occupation, about nine million years ago, and nothing had been heard of them since.

‘Probably fake anyway,’ Adrana said, with a knowing sniff, as if she had plenty of experience in this area. ‘C’mon. Don’t want to dawdle, not when there’s so much to see. The next one’s a Limb Broker.’

‘A what?’

She raced ahead of me. ‘You’ll see.’

The window of the next shop was full of hands and arms and legs, stuck on velvet plinths or glass brackets or kept in bubbling vats. Some of them were alive and some of them were artificial, made of metal and motors and circuitry.

‘That’s horrible,’ I said, watching as a tin hand opened and closed its fist in slow motion, like it was catching an invisible ball.

‘You wouldn’t say that if you needed a hand. Out on the ships people are always having accidents. More so in the baubles, when doors close on them or something, and they can’t get out quickly enough. They can buy a new one here, if they need one – metal or flesh, doesn’t matter. They can fix them all on.’ Adrana eyed me with lingering disappointment. ‘Doesn’t take much to make you wilt.’

‘Why is it called a broker?’

‘Because that’s what it is. You can sell a limb here too, if you need some quoins in a hurry. Then buy it back at a loss, or let the shop take the profit from a sale.’ But then Adrana stiffened and planted her hand on my sleeve. ‘Paladin.’

‘What?’

‘I just saw Paladin, coming through Dragon Gate.’

‘All right,’ I said, with a shaming relief. ‘We’ve had our fun, haven’t we?’

‘We’ve barely started. Let’s go and hide in that stall. The robot’ll never look in there.’

It was a blue-and-white tent, squeezed between two built-up shopfronts. There was no writing or sign on the front, and only an open gash in the fabric serving as an entrance.

Adrana pushed me through, glancing over her shoulder as she did so.

‘Someone on your trail?’ asked a woman seated at the back of the tent.

‘Just a robot,’ I said.

Adrana lingered outside, then came through herself, drawing the gash tighter.

‘Oh, the pretty dark-haired one,’ the woman said. ‘The girl from the nice end of town. Thought you’d be back, sooner or later. And who’ve you brought with you?’

‘What?’ I asked, frowning.

The woman rose from her desk at the back of the tent, scuffing her chair back over the flagstones. All her shop contained were plain wooden shelves that had been pushed against the fabric and draped in the bright glow of healthy lightvine. The shelves were all full of bits of bone, all the bony colours you could think of – some bits as small as fingernails, others big enough to use as clubs.

Next to each bit of bone was a small card tag with a description and a price.

‘Your sister didn’t clue you in, then,’ said the woman. ‘Seeing as you clearly is sisters.’

‘How do you know each other?’

‘Because she’s been here before,’ said the woman. ‘Haven’t you, Adrana? A few weeks back, wasn’t it? And what’s your sister’s name, while we’re at it?’

‘This is Arafura,’ Adrana said levelly. ‘Fura. You should test her as well, Madame Granity.’

‘Test what?’ I asked.

‘Aptitudes,’ the woman said, sidling up and putting a finger under my chin. She elevated my face, peering into my eyes and frowning slightly as she did so. She had spectacles pinched onto her nose, huge circular ones with heavy brass frames, the lenses making her eyes swell up like a pair of worlds. She had a pinafore on over a gown, pockets stuffed with a glittery assortment of metallic devices. She had thimbles on all her fingers and thumbs, with fine wires running back up her sleeves. ‘The sort of aptitudes that interest the ships.’

Adrana risked a glance through the opening of the tent. ‘Paladin’s nearly here,’ she called. ‘It’s scanning the other booths.’

Madame Granity still had her finger under my chin. She stroked the other hand against the side of my face, up to the cheekbone, onto the temple. It wasn’t just the coldness of her thimbles I felt, or the sharpness of their tips.

Something else was coming through: a shivery tingle just beneath the skin.

‘If it’s loitering, it knows you’re near,’ Madame Granity said. ‘Do you want it to find you? Both of you?’

‘No, we don’t,’ Adrana said.

‘I’d like a say.’

‘You’ll get one. Look, we’ll give Paladin the slip for now. Then we’ll have some more fun and find our own way home. I’ll cover for you.’

‘You’d better come into the back,’ Madame Granity said. ‘The robot won’t follow you in there.’

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘Mr Quindar’ll see that it doesn’t.’

Behind the desk was a gap in the fabric, cinched loosely shut. Madame Granity undid it and led us through another partition. There was a big chair, with a padded back and a high headrest, tilted back on a sturdy-looking frame. A man was lying in the chair, a hat jammed low over his face, snoring, a newspaper spread across his chest. Madame Granity did up the cinch in the fabric then went over and gave the man a shove.

‘Eh, eh?’ the man said, dropping the newspaper.

‘Wake up and earn your commission. I’ve got the Ness sisters here and there’s a robot on its way to take them home.’

‘A robot?’

Adrana was lingering, one eye up to the gap in the fabric. ‘Yes, and it’s coming inside.’

I didn’t need to be able to see Paladin to hear the crunch of its wheels, the hum it put out, the buzzy whine as it moved its arms.

‘Get off the throne, Mr Quindar. And you,’ Madame Granity said, pointing to me, ‘you get on it. I know your sister’s got the gift, and it often runs in siblings, however I’d still like to see it for myself.’

‘What gift?’

‘Just get in the chair,’ Adrana said.

‘What do you want me to do about the robot?’ Mr Quindar asked, bending himself off the throne.

‘Stop it coming in here for starters,’ Madame Granity said.

Now that he wasn’t lying down, it was clear that the man was very tall and thin. He wore a long black coat, and the hem of it should have covered most of his legs, but they seemed to stick out more than was right, like black stilts. His feet didn’t quite seem to brush the ground, like a puppet that wasn’t being operated very well. He reached into the coat with his right hand and came out with a stubby black stick, gave it a flick, and it popped out to six times its original length.

‘“Stop it,” she says. Vidin’ll stop it. Stopping things is what Vidin does, most of the time.’

Without any great urgency, the man walked to the other side of the chamber, raised the stick, and began to smash it against the dividing curtain. After a few blows he stepped up his attack, reaching with his other hand to undo the cinch. The curtain dropped open, Paladin now fully exposed.

‘Come on. Show old Vidin what you’ve got, you wheely devil.’

The robot whirred forward, or tried to. Mr Quindar – if that was his name – blocked its approach with a boot, jamming it against one of the leading wheels, and carried on smashing the casing. Paladin tried to defend itself with its arms, but its deep programming stopped it doing anything that might hurt Mr Quindar back.

‘Go on,’ Adrana said, encouraging the assault. ‘Hit the dome. Smash the stupid thing to bits!’

‘No,’ I said, struck by some lingering affection for the machine. ‘It’s just doing its job.’

‘Just get on there, Fura,’ Adrana snapped back. ‘I’ve got the talent, the aptitude. I found out weeks ago. Don’t you want to know if you’ve got it as well?’

I hesitated, caught between curiosity and a sick horror at what was happening to the robot. But curiosity was the stronger of those two. I climbed on, thinking I’d regret whatever I was about to get myself into, and going ahead anyway, the way you do sometimes.

‘What do you mean, weeks?’

‘I sneaked out here on my own. That time I was supposed to go and get fitted for new boots. Well, I did that as well, but there was time to dodge down Neural Alley and I had to know. I’ve had an inkling, you see …’

There was a plate at the bottom of the throne where I placed my boots, padded rests at the side where I settled my arms, and the plump embrace of the headrest. The more I relaxed into it, the more it seemed to enclose my skull.

‘What inkling?’

‘That I might be able to read the bones.’

Madame Granity went to another device, some sort of apparatus hanging over the chair. It was like a lampshade, with a flexible neck. She stooped to touch some switches and the thing gave off a smell like burning toast.

Lights glimmered around the base of the shade and the object leaned in over me.

‘I have been charged with locating Arafura and Adrana Ness,’ Paladin’s voice boomed out. ‘If you have knowledge of their whereabouts, please inform me.’

‘The only thing I’m informin’ you,’ Mister Quindar said, ‘is that you’re getting’ your tin head stoved in if you come any further into this shop.’

‘Make him stop!’ I called.

‘Stay still,’ Adrana said. ‘It’s mapping your brain. Working out how likely you are to be able to mesh with a bone.’

‘Reading a bone is a skill,’ Madame Granity said, speaking calmly despite the commotion beyond the partition. ‘But it only works if your brain is still forming and breaking connections. Still learning how to be a brain, in other words. Children can do it, but they haven’t got the wits to work out what the bones are whispering to them, so they’re no use to a captain. Adults are no good, once their brains harden up. Teenage boys and girls work well. You can push it into your twenties, but it’s a downward slope.’ She made a ruminative sound. ‘This is very good. Very good.’

The scanner lowered itself as close to my head as it could reach. Again I felt that tingle, but this time it was coming from the machine, not Madame Granity’s thimbles. And it was beneath my scalp now, as if some small itchy thing were crawling around inside my skull.

‘Is she up to it?’ Adrana asked.

‘On the way,’ Madame Granity said. ‘Maybe not as sharp as you, but then she’s a little younger, isn’t she? You’ve both got the talent, and the fact that you come as a pair makes you very marketable.’

‘You are damaging me,’ Paladin said. ‘I must ask you to desist before I suffer irreparable damage.’

I twisted around, clanging the lampshade aside. Through the gap in the partition I saw Mr Quindar swinging the rod at Paladin, raising it high and bringing it down hard, the end of the rod gripped double-handed.

‘Desist,’ Paladin said, and some fault in its coordination made the rear wheel jam, as it was prone to, and now the robot could only spin around, no retreat possible even if the man had permitted it. But he had no intention of giving in now.

He tossed the rod aside, reached for one of the larger skulls on Madame Granity’s shelves, and began using it as a bludgeoning instrument, smashing it down hard on the dome.

‘Stop,’ I shouted. ‘Leave him alone!’

‘Him?’ Madame Granity asked, her eyes huge behind her spectacles. ‘It’s just a robot – one you were very keen to avoid only a while ago.’

Paladin was gyring around frantically. The arms flailed. They caught against the shelves, scattering bones. Vidin kept bludgeoning. He’d begun to crack the dome. Finally, and it was a kind of mercy, Paladin’s rear wheel jammed against the base of a shelf. The jolt made the whole robot keel over, clanging against the ground. The forward wheels kept turning for a few seconds and the spindly arms on Paladin’s side whacked against the stones.

The mechanisms inside the dome buzzed and clicked. Lights went out.

Paladin was still.

Vidin tossed aside the bone. He reached for the discarded rod, contracted it to its former length and tucked it back into his coat.

‘I hate robots. Smug machines living longer than the rest of us, acting like they own the place.’ He dusted his palms. ‘Did you get a read on the girl, Madame Gee?’

‘A partial, before you distracted her with all that clattering. She’s got potential, that’s plain. You think you can find employment for them?’

He scratched at his scalp. He had a very bald head, a lantern jaw, deeply sunken eyes, a pale scar running all the way from one eye to the edge of his mouth. ‘According to the newspaper I was so earnestly scrutinising before you disturbed me, Rack’s been docked at Hadramaw for a few days.’

‘Rack?’ I asked.

Mr Quindar pulled a chair from behind one of the shelves and eased his lengthy frame into it. The flaps of his coat hung down to either side, stiff and ragged like the drying wings of some enormous bird. ‘Rackamore, properly. Captain. Not the best of ’em, but not the worst you’ll meet, either. Word is Rack’s in the market for a new Sympathetic. That’s Bone Reader to you and me. He’d sign up one of you like that. Sign up two even quicker.’

‘Sign up for what?’ I asked.

‘Are you slow in the grey, girlie? For his crew. For his ship. For expeditions and so on. All above board. You sails out for an agreed term. Six months, maybe less. See some worlds. See some sights. I’ve seen a hundred worlds and that’s barely scratching what’s out there. More than just sphereworlds like this. Wheelworlds, spindleworlds, brittleworlds, laceworlds… more worlds than we’ve got names for ’em. You want to drink in some of that? Crack a bauble or two on the way, you’ll be golden.’ He cupped his fist, shook it as if it held a stack of quoins. ‘More than you’ll ever earn on this dungheap. Sign on a bit longer, you can retire on it.’

‘We couldn’t,’ I said.

‘Father’s almost beggared us,’ Adrana answered. ‘That’s why he got talked into that stupid investment, thinking it’d turn around our fortunes. Now we’re even worse off than we were before.’ She placed her hands on my shoulders, looking me square in the eye. ‘But we can change that. Go out, just for a while. A few months. Then come back home, and share what we’ve made with Father. Do something for him, for a change. Oh, he wouldn’t agree to it – I know that. But people don’t always know what’s good for them.’

‘Truer words,’ Mr Quindar said, ‘was never uttered.’

‘You know where to find Rack?’ Madame Granity asked him.

‘Near enough.’

‘Then take them there. They can still change their minds, can’t they? But you make sure Rack understands that he owes us both a finder’s fee, if they pass his tests.’

‘They will,’ Mr Quindar said. ‘Got a nose for these things, I ’ave. And these sisters ain’t slipping through my fingers.’

I stepped back into the front part of the tent, where Paladin remained on the floor, silent and still, its dome partly smashed. Adrana, Madame Granity and Mr Quindar followed me.

I knelt down by the ruined robot, gently touching the broken dome, then looked back at Quindar.

‘You didn’t need to smash it up like that.’

‘If he hadn’t,’ Madame Granity said, ‘the robot would be dragging you home by now.’

‘It wasn’t Paladin’s fault. It was just doing what it was told.’

‘That’s all it ever can do,’ Adrana said. ‘There’s nothing in that head except lists of instructions. We’re not like that, Fura. We’ve got something Paladin never had and never will have – free will. You go home now, it won’t be long before Father brings Moonface round. He’ll give you that medicine, the one that stops you growing older. And then you’ll never get this opportunity again, not for years and years. This is it, here and now. Our one and only chance to do something.’

I looked at my sister, then at Madame Granity, then at Vidin Quindar.

‘We just talk to Captain Rackamore,’ I said. ‘That’s all. And when he tells us we aren’t suitable, which he will, we come home and never say another word about any of this. Is that a deal?’

‘Deal,’ Adrana said.