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THE HERETIC LAND

Chapter 1

betrayals

After six days at sea, following a storm that almost swamped the ship, a waterspout that toyed with them for half a day, and an attack by sea scorps that left three crewmen swelling until their skin split and bones ruptured, it was the food that almost killed Bon Ugane.

‘I mean it,’ the woman said. He’d noticed her before, emerging from the second hold with other prisoners and walking the deck during exercise periods. He could hardly not notice her. But they had not spoken until now. ‘Don’t eat it. I’ve cooked flatfish all my life, and that one is diseased. The colour of the flesh, the texture . . .’ She shrugged.

‘There’ll be nothing else from them today,’ Bon said. His stomach was rumbling, and he’d already lost weight from hunger and sea sickness.

‘So go hungry.’

He looked down at the meagre meal their guards had presented him with, watched and listened to the other prisoners chomping down on their fish, lifted it close to his nose to take a sniff, then tipped it over the railing.

‘Here,’ the woman said. She held out her plate to him. She’d already eaten most of the good meat. ‘Go on.’

Bon scooped up the thin fins in one hand and stared at them. The woman paused in her chewing, offended. Bon smiled and ate, nodding his thanks as the stringy, spiky fins came apart in his mouth.

They’d been allowed up out of the holds to eat today. The sea rolled as waves clashed from two directions, colliding with thunderous impacts, flinging spray skyward to be caught by the easterly wind and blown stinging across the ship’s deck. Wave tops rolled white, and flying fish drifted through the spray as they hunted unsuspecting prey. The sky was a deep, threatening grey, and far to the west the clouds had burst, rain falling in silent sheets. They’d only seen one spineback today, and rumour had it the last reported sighting of a deep pirate was a hundred miles east of here. This was as calm and safe as the Forsaken Sea ever was, and the crew’s good cheer had filtered across to the usually gruff, hard guards.

The dozen guards leaned against the railing or strolled the deck in pairs, casual, chatting, weapons sheathed. They were recruited from the Steppe clans that lived across Alderia’s central regions, where the Harcrassyan Mountains and Chasm Cliffs ravaged the landscape and effectively divided the continent in two. The tallest, strongest people on Alderia – with stocky limbs for negotiating slopes, and vicious teeth for catching prey whilst clinging to rock faces – through the years those generations that left their challenging hunting heritage behind had naturally found their way into the military. Most worked for regional armies or the  prison ships, and those few that excelled might even find their way into the Spike, the Ald’s own expansive personal defence force. Bon had always found an irony in Alderia’s ruling elite requiring their own guard, when they professed to encourage freedom and peace for all.

‘What’s your name?’ he asked after he’d managed to swallow the remains of the fins.

‘Name?’ the woman asked. ‘Oh, so we’re straight onto the formalities. Name, where am I from, what did I do that put me on this ship? Life fucking story. But I left all that behind. We’re all heading for a new life.’

Perhaps she saw Bon’s face drop a little, because her rant faded almost as soon as it had begun.

‘My life’s been this shit for years,’ he said. He smiled, not to show that he was joking, but that he could live with it.

The woman smiled back. ‘Lucky you. Head start.’

‘And I know where you’re from,’ Bon said.

‘Is it so obvious?’ She held up one splayed hand, the thin webs between her long fingers almost transparent.

‘I thought your sort might just jump overboard and escape.’

She looked at him for some time, expressionless, eyes never leaving his face. He glanced away first, and when he looked back she was still staring.

‘My sort?’ she asked at last.

‘Amphys,’ Bon said.

‘Well, at least you use the polite name. Most just call us floaters.’ She glanced around at the other prisoners sat across the deck – one woman had tried standing when they’d first been brought up, and had been kicked back down by a guard – and she and Bon shared a silent moment. It was strange. He had not felt truly comfortable in a woman’s presence since his wife’s death, and now he was sitting with this amphy stranger and feeling more settled than he had since they’d left Alderia’s coast on their journey north towards banishment. Maybe it was her straightforward manner, her easy way of talking. Or perhaps it was the hint of  exoticism that all amphys held for him, and had done ever since his parents had first welcomed an amphy friend into their home thirty years before. Many people hated them because they were different, or more graceful than most, or often simply because hating came easy to some.

‘Lechmy Borle,’ she said, holding out her hand palm up. ‘Leki to my friends. Haven’t got many of those on board, that’s for sure.’

‘Bon Ugane,’ Bon said. He pressed his hand to hers, and they pushed against each other. It was a formal greeting, but their smiles diluted some of the formality.

‘I can’t just jump and swim,’ Leki said. ‘A distant cousin of mine was arrested and deported seven years ago. He jumped ship a day out and was never seen again.’

‘Maybe he swam along the coast, made a new life for himself?’

‘He’s dead. The bone sharks got him, or some other wildlife. Or the deep pirates. They come that far south, sometimes, if pickings are thin to the north. Or more likely he drowned.’

‘Drowned?’

‘We’re good swimmers,’ Leki said. ‘I can hold my breath for a lot longer than you. But we’re not fucking fish.’ Bon chuckled. It felt good, and he thought it was simply because he was talking to someone like a person for the first time in days. Other prisoners had engaged him in conversation, but it was always light, and rarely developed into anything more than cautious platitudes. The disgraced Fade priest in his hold seemed immune to anyone’s efforts to enter into conversation. Bon wondered what the priest had done to deserve this, and how he had offended Alderia’s official Fade religion. But when Bon had approached, he had not even lifted his eyes. The guards spoke sometimes. But even those who were more fair and reasonable would not grow familiar with the prisoners, because they knew what was to become of them.

‘They say it’s two more days to Skythe,’ Bon said. ‘And the worst of the storms are always closer to the Duntang Archipelago.’

‘Great. I think I’ve already vomited everything that’s not tied down.’

Leki laughed silently. He watched her as she glanced away, eyeing her up and down. The amphys had always fascinated him, and it went way beyond their webbed hands and feet, and their wider chests that contained the larger lungs. It was the less obvious differences that he found more compelling. They were all blue-eyed, a trait unique to them. They were usually taller than the northern Alderians, and though their limbs were streamlined, they were much stronger. They wore clothing only out of water, and they were always loose and flowing, their natural grace matching the swish of cloth. Their favoured material was sea-spider silk, shimmering with a rainbow of colours from the natural oils. Waterproof, strong and light, their clothing was one of the amphys’ main exports from Alderia’s three southern states.

Leki was dressed in a dirty, shapeless jacket and trousers, with a heavy belt and clumsily stitched leather boots. She’d probably lost her own clothes the moment she was arrested.

Bon was intrigued, but he had no wish to be pushy. If her story came naturally, he would be interested to hear. If not, it made little difference. He was simply grateful that she had spoken to him at all. It almost made him believe he had a future.

‘They’ll be putting put us back in the holds soon,’ Bon said. ‘Maybe we should try—’

‘Spineback,’ Leki said softly.

‘Where?’

‘About three miles to port.’

‘Must be big if you can see it that far out.’ He stretched up to see past Leki, out over the port railings and across the angry grey ocean. He spied nothing, and feared she was teasing. He didn’t know her.

Then one of the three lookouts up in the skynests sounded his horn twice, and the deck erupted into chaos. Crewmen dashed back and forth, and the guards started urging the prisoners back towards the two ladders leading down into the holds.

‘It is a big one,’ Leki said as she and Bon stood together. ‘But don’t worry.’

As they were parted and shoved towards different ladders, Bon turned to look past his fellow prisoners and their animated guards. He spotted the shimmer of weak sunlight on a spineback’s slick skin, and seeing the upright spikes along its back from this distance meant they must be taller than a man. The huge beast was cutting through the waves towards them, and occasionally it reared up, revealing a wide head and heavily toothed mouth. How can she tell me not to worry? he thought.

‘Get a shift on!’ a guard growled, and Bon obeyed. The fear was palpable – prisoners hurried, guards shouted, and the activity across and above the ship’s deck was frantic. Harpoon guns were uncovered, and heavy, glass-tipped harpoons were loaded, the guns’ steam mechanisms pumped and primed. Sails billowed, booms swung, rigging creaked and whipped as the ship turned to face the threat, offering a narrower target for the spineback to tear through. The crew started singing a strange song in their own seafaring language, a bastardisation of Alderian blended with the ancient languages found written in western coastal caves. The song beseeched Venthia, the Fade god of water, to help them. Bon did not believe in Alderia’s Fade religion and its seven deities, and yet he found great irony in this – the crew prayed to a god which even devout Faders contended had vanished from the Forsaken Sea at the time of the Skythian War six centuries before. Sending criminals across such godless waters was the Ald’s favourite way of getting rid of them.

Silent, resigned, Bon caught one last glimpse of Leki as she was ushered down into the second hold. She was not looking his way. That gave him a surprising stab of loss, and his heart was in confusion. On the ship until now, he had given no thought to his fate. Life for him was over.

The hold grating slammed shut, locking them inside. Excited, frightened chatter filled the shadows. The roar of the approaching giant sent shockwaves through the sea and against the prison ship’s hull. The Fade priest sat silent and motionless. And as he waited for the end, all Bon could think was, I want to see her again.

***

Bon’s hold was not completely dark. Many of the prisoners had brought candles, and the fifteen other deportees down there with him listened to the chaos with flickering flames reflected in their wide, frightened eyes.

Crewmen shouted, waves thudded into the ship as they swung booms and changed direction, harpoons hissed and whistled as they were fired, and three times something immense struck the vessel, impacts knocking Bon and the others down, wood creaking and metal bracings shrieking. The attack did not last for long, but Bon was far more afraid than he had expected. He was thinking of Leki in the neighbouring hold, and when after the second impact someone shouted that they’d been breached, he heard water hissing in and the cries of those drowning, and Bon dashed across to the separating wall. Banging on the wood, he shouted her name. Screamed it. It was only as an old man grabbed his arm to quieten him, and he pressed his ear to the wall, that he realised the hull had not been compromised at all.

Later, a guard opened the hatch and threw down several bags.

‘What happened?’ someone asked. ‘Did they kill the spineback?’

‘Kill it?’ the guard scoffed. He slammed the hatch, laughing, and the prisoners went about sharing out the food.

As Bon ate he looked around at the others. Before today he’d had little interest in them. But the closer they drew to the huge island of Skythe – a hundred miles from east to west, and its northern limits unknown – the more he began to wonder. Some would be political dissidents like him, banished by Alderia’s rulers, the Ald, for questioning their word and the tenets of their rule. Others could be religious exiles sent away for being too vocal in their own beliefs; some fringe religions were allowed, but if they actively challenged belief in the Fade they had gone too far. Perhaps there were murderers, rapists, or terrorists. He would not ask, and few people seemed willing to betray their crimes. They might all be classed as criminals by the Ald, but in many cases that would be all they had in common.

In one corner he saw several people praying to the seven Fade gods, changing position, prayers and tone for each deity. Bon felt what he always felt when confronted with such a scene – a faintly painful nostalgia for his childhood years when his parents had made him pray, and a vague sense of disgust. He knew things that, if proven, would expose the Fade for the lie it was. Many people knew. His crime was in believing them.

He glanced again at the Fade priest, hunkered beneath dark robes and staring down at the deck between his knees. The man was quite young, handsome, but his face was etched with bitterness. One side of it was bruised, his lips split and scabbed. He rested his hands on his bent knees, and the finger on his right hand that should have borne a priest’s Fade ring was missing. The stump was roughly bandaged. The wound was recent.

Bon crawled across closer to the priest. Even as he moved he berated himself, because he had no wish to become involved with anyone down here. Except Leki, he thought.

‘Fuck off,’ the priest said. Bon paused and sat back against a heavy timber brace.

‘Not a typical greeting from a priest,’ Bon said. He sighed and leaned his head back against the bracing. He could feel the impact of sea against hull transmitted through his skull, and each shiver or thud brought Skythe close.

‘I used to believe,’ Bon said, softly, quietly. The priest did not respond, and Bon felt that he was talking to himself. ‘It’s traditional. You’re brought up that way, and my parents never gave me any cause to doubt. Seven gods of the Fade, each of them watching over us, demanding prayer and fealty in return for wellbeing . . . it sounds so attractive. So comforting. I had no reason not to believe.’ He snorted. ‘How stupid. I’m so glad I saw the light.’

‘And in that light, darkness,’ the priest said. His voice was gravelly, older than his years.

‘No,’ Bon said. ‘Enlightenment.’

‘The Fade provides,’ the priest said, intoning a familiar prayer. ‘From before time, the Fade has watched the world for us, and now watches over us. All hail the seven gods.’ He lifted his hand and kissed the space between fingers where the missing digit had once resided, his eyes closed and his face almost serene.

‘But you’re here,’ Bon said.

‘You think because I’m a priest I must have been banished for betraying my faith. Which means you’re as much a fool as anyone else on this damned vessel.’

‘Then why are you—?’

‘Every moment, I pray to the Fade to send a deep pirate to take us down and consume us all,’ the priest said.

‘You must have done something terrible,’ Bon whispered, staring at the man’s mutilated hand.

‘Fuck off,’ the priest said again. ‘Take your heathen heart away from me.’

Bon wanted to protest, and argue, and tell the priest what a fool he must be for still believing in a religion that had done nothing to save him. But the priest closed his eyes and breathed in deeply, praying and finding comfort. Alone, Bon crawled away and sat in the shadows. He had only his own company for the rest of that night, and as usual he found it wanting.

They were not let out for another exercise session that evening. They could hear some pained crying from far away, and Bon guessed that some of the crew or guards had been injured in the spineback attack. It was said that the creatures were infected with poisonous, fist-sized parasites, which were known to infect some of those vessels they came into contact with. As darkness fell outside, occasional shouts, running footsteps, and the sound of crossbows firing seemed to bear out that tale.

Bon bedded down. All but one candle was blown out, and in the darkness he heard the sound of a couple rutting, and someone  else muttering insane words as the Forsaken Sea rocked them into sleep.

The silent priest was comforted by his gods.

***

Bon was already leaning on the starboard railing and silently observing the damage to the ship when Leki’s hold was opened the following morning. Crew members worked to fix several shattered lengths of the port railing, and two of the smallest sailors were being lowered down against the ship’s hull to effect repairs. There was hammering and shouting, but none of the singing of the previous afternoon. There were now six lookouts in the skynests, and two extra harpoons had been rigged alongside the four  already there.

The ship’s sails were full, and the rolling sea seemed for once to be accommodating their direction. North was grey and obscured by mist, and somewhere beyond that mist lay the forbidding island of Skythe.

The guards unbolted the second hold, and Leki was the fifth person out. She squinted against the dazzling light, looking around the ship until she saw Bon. Then she smiled.

At me, Bon thought as she walked slowly towards him. The prisoners already knew that sudden movements were ill-advised. Escape was impossible, and the guards might appear relaxed, but they were always ready for an attack.

‘I’m famished,’ he said.

‘Good. A woman in my hold has been stinking the place out all night. Bad flatfish. She might survive, but . . .’ Leki shrugged. It set her hair moving, and Bon found that he liked that. She rubbed her eyes and yawned, stretched, pulling her clothing tight across her wide shoulders.

‘I’ve heard about spinebacks, but never thought I’d see one. Never thought we’d be attacked by one.’

‘The Forsaken Sea is full of monsters,’ Leki said. ‘They made it that way.’ She leaned on the railing beside Bon looking out, and he turned so that they faced the same way.

‘You mean the Skythians?’ he asked softly. ‘Do you really believe they corrupted their own sea?’

‘Don’t you?’ Leki glanced sidelong at him, smiling. This was heretical talk.

‘It’s what we’re told,’ he said, uncertain how much he could trust her. It could be that, like the priest, she was a devout Fader, sent here for crimes completely different from his. Discussing his beliefs less than a day after meeting her might not be the best start to a friendship. Wearing his own beliefs on his sleeve, blasphemous and seditious as they were, might get him killed. And though there was a time when he would not have minded that, it was, ironically, since boarding this ship and meeting this woman that his mind had begun to change.

‘Whoever did it, it was a long time ago,’ she said, dismissing questions of gods and beliefs, tradition and society, with one wave of her webbed hand. ‘There are whirlpools that have lasted for centuries, mists that melt flesh from bone, flying fish with two mouths and no brains. The bone sharks are just that – sharks made of bone and cartilage – and they shouldn’t live and swim, but do. Knowing who did all that wouldn’t change the fact that this sea is corrupted. And Venthia hasn’t made it her home for centuries.’ She shrugged, smiled at him, then turned and walked across the deck towards where a breakfast of bread and smoked fish was being handed out.

She believes in Venthia? Bon wondered. But not only was he unsure, he also didn’t think it mattered. Many of his best friends had been devout, believing in things he found bemusing. While he had kept his own frowned-upon beliefs quiet, some of them had sensed his doubts, but their friendships had mostly remained. Mostly.

He followed her and they ate breakfast together. Though sentenced by their homeland to a life of banishment upon a dying island, for that short time they were content in each other’s company. The constant rolling sea had settled in Bon’s guts, and he was sure it would take many days of shore time for it to settle. But he was no longer throwing up everything he ate. He was already adapting to life beyond Alderia.

Bon and Leki found a spot by the railing where they sat and talked as other prisoners were allowed to stroll around the deck. They exercised their minds while others exercised their limbs and bodies, and when the time came for them to be locked up again, the guards did not seem to notice that they descended into the same hold.

There they sat, talking quietly in the subdued lighting, their voices a murmur against the constant pounding of waves against the hull, other prisoners’ talk and sometimes shouts, and the footsteps of their guards overhead. Destined to deportation, locked away, Bon thought it was some time since he had felt so free. He told Leki about his beautiful wife falling from a tower to her  death, and how her passing had seemed to darken his skies and blur his horizons. He told her about his son, Venden, and the boy’s fascination with Skythe – its history, the old war, and what had become of that once-proud island state afterwards – and how Bon’s own studies of Skythe had become an obsession following Venden’s death.

‘He was taken and murdered,’ Bon said.

‘The Ald deport, they don’t murder.’

‘I didn’t say it was the Ald.’ Bon sighed. He frequently relived his losses – staring into an unknown distance whilst awake, and trying to catch his falling wife and rescue his vanished son as he slept.

‘Then who?’ Leki asked.

‘Venden was a . . . genius, I suppose. Our only child. He developed very quickly, could read by the time he was four. My wife wanted to send him south to Lakeside for schooling, but I wanted him home with us, and he went to dayschool in Gakota. I walked him there every morning, and collected him every evening.’ Bon drifted for a while, remembering those walks out from their village of Sefton Breaks along the Ton River, Venden asking questions all the time and stopping to examine plants and insects, always delicate, careful not to hurt them. Then on the way home he would relate what he had learned that day, and it wasn’t long past his sixth birthday that he would start questioning some of the things he had been taught. Bon had been surprised at first, and then calmly approving. A priest came in today, Venden said once, skimming stones across the river. Bon had nodded, letting his son find his own time to continue. He said that there are gods in the water and the air, and in fire, and in rock and the mind. But . . . what about in my hair? And in river mud? And the clouds in the air, and a bird’s feathers? There can’t be a god in everything, can there, Daddy?

The seven gods of the Fade, Bon had replied, and fear drove a spike into him, because he was simply repeating all the things he had been taught. It was a painful sensation, answering his own unspoken doubt. Venden had stared at him expecting more, and Bon could identify that moment as when he knew that his son was different. He’ll find his own way, he thought. Whatever I tell him, whatever I say now or later, his mind is his own to make up. That had made him proud, and a little afraid.

‘He was marked for special schooling very early on, and at first I was resistant. I didn’t want to hold him back, but I was also . . . mistrustful of some of those wanting to school him. I know what sometimes happens to people like him, and I was afraid. Of course I was. I’m his father.’

‘What sometimes happens?’ Leki asked, and she sounded so innocent.

Bon looked at her in the faint light, but it was difficult to make out her expression. Besides, he did not know her at all, and doubted he could read her. ‘Have you never been to New Kotrugam?’

Leki laughed, and a few pale faces turned her way. There was not much laughter in the holds.

‘Only for my sentencing,’ she said. ‘And then I was blindfolded and carried inside a prison wagon. No windows, no air. I saw nothing but the inside of a prison and a courtroom.’

‘An amazing city,’ Bon said. ‘I’ll tell you all about it one day.’

‘No need,’ Leki said lightly. ‘It’s in the past now. So, what were you afraid of for Venden?’

‘I was afraid they’d send him down into the depths,’ Bon said. ‘You do know the story of why New Kotrugam is new?’

‘Of course. The fireball from the gods. Shore and Flaze combining to punish Kotrugam for its sins, wiping it from the world, seeding New Kotrugam as a perfected model of the old, tainted city.’

‘Yeah, the gods,’ Bon said. He watched Leki as he did so, but there was no reaction. ‘Something fell from the sky, from the space beyond the world, and wiped out the ancient city. You can see evidence all over. What do you think the city walls are? Why is New Kotrugam so much lower than the surrounding landscape?’

Leki only shrugged.

‘The city lies in an impact crater,’ Bon said, and verbalising the forbidden story gave him a thrill. He glanced at the priest across the hold, head bowed, apparently sleeping. Another man leaned close to listen, and Bon no longer cared. They were all criminals here. ‘The city walls are where the ground was rippled from the blast, rocks and dust and the smashed remains of Old Kotrugam thrown up and landing in concentric rings around the hole it made in the world. I’m certain that’s the truth, though it’s hidden. That’s what happened, though it denies the Fade. So people are scared of the truth.’

‘You’re talking very loudly,’ Leki said.

‘Does that scare you?’ Bon asked. He leaned in close enough to smell her for the first time.

‘Where were you afraid that they would send your son?’ she asked quietly.

‘Down. Beneath the city, into the catacombs. It’s said that whatever annihilated Old Kotrugam is buried down there still, and sometimes senior Fade priests choose an exceptional child from outlying communities to venture down and commune with it. The story they reveal is that they’re communicating with the gods. But they know.’

‘You’re suggesting that they lie,’ Leki said.

‘Of course they lie, about everything! Isn’t that why you’re here? Because you doubt the lie?’

Leki blinked slowly. ‘You feared for Venden,’ she prompted.

‘They send them down, and when these people finally surface again they’re dying, skin boiling, flesh melting. The priests write down all their mad ravings and translate them as messages from the Fade. And I thought . . . I thought Venden might be chosen.’

‘But he wasn’t,’ Leki said. ‘So what did happen to him?’

‘He was accepted into the Guild of Inventors,’ Bon said.

‘Even I’ve heard of them.’ Leki sounded impressed, but her voice remained uncertain, balanced. She already knew that this tale did not end well.

‘He was as pleased as me. He was still a child really, even at thirteen, because he spent more time inside his own head than outside with friends or girls. A tutor was assigned him, and once every moon this man made the trip from New Kotrugam to Venden’s school in Gakota. He set Venden tasks, which he completed easily. He asked him for research contemplations on some of the constructs and devices being investigated by the Guild, and more than once the tutor told me some of Venden’s ideas had been incorporated. But all the while, his true interest lay elsewhere. He didn’t want to invent, he wanted to investigate. And he did, every chance he had. Investigating Skythe, and the Skythian War, and he believed nothing he was being told.’

‘Strange, a boy so young interested in something so old.’

‘Perhaps,’ Bon said. He fell silent, closing his eyes and remembering one of the last times he’d set eyes on his son. Venden had been sitting at the table in their small kitchen, a construct in pieces before him. He was placing each piece precisely in size order, from the smallest washers, to gasp valves, to steam cells and stark gills, concentrating so hard that he had not noticed his father watching. And beside the deconstructed device – Bon never had known its intent, and had never seen it remade – was a single, old parchment, little wider than Venden’s hand. The designs were a mystery to Bon, but Venden moved his finger just above the parchment and whispered unknown words. He was not translating, but reading. Bon coughed. Venden stood and knocked the chair over, and snatched the parchment from the table. Even when he saw that it was his father, he hid the thing behind his back.

‘The Guild found out,’ Leki said.

‘The next day Venden walked to school on his own, without even saying goodbye. I’d missed those morning walks along the river with him, but he was growing older, and . . . and a boy and his father, they drift apart. You understand? Independence is a lonely thing.

‘I know from his few friends that he reached the school. And after that, I know nothing. Venden vanished. The school could tell me nothing, other than he’d been growing more distant and difficult to communicate with. His teacher told me she’d put that down to his Guild involvement.’

‘And the Guild?’

‘I wrote to them many times. No reply. I made three journeys to New Kotrugam to visit them. Each time it was the same – two days riding there, two days waiting in one of the Guild’s contact offices with no result, two days back. They never even  acknowledged to me that Venden had been one of their students. I was invisible to them.’ Bon shook his head and leaned back against the bulkhead.

‘You never found . . .?’

‘His body? No. But the Guild would have disposed of him well.’

‘And since then you’ve been following his research.’

‘I found a box in the wall of his room. It was filled with books, parchments, maps and testaments. And other things, dangerous and rare. There was even . . .’ He trailed off, shaking his head gently. The ship jarred as a heavy wave struck, and people around them cried out in fear. But this was only the sea.

‘You can trust me,’ Leki said.

‘Like I trusted my friends?’

‘You were betrayed?’

Bon nodded and sighed. ‘As a young man, I was a bookbinder, but I’ve been interested in history, too. Skythe’s especially. The histories we’re told, and those that others claim to be true. They fascinated me. And so following what Venden had been researching felt like the right thing to do. A way to honour him. Everything I did was dedicated to him, and I continued his notes from where he’d left them, transcribing accounts in the old Skythian tongue, analysing stolen secrets that smelled old but still persisted. I was never . . .’ He waved a hand dismissively. ‘Never quite as dedicated as him, perhaps. I would go through phases of study, and longer periods when the box was shut away again and I barely even existed.’ His voice had grown weak, swallowed by those dark, lethargic times.

‘And then?’

‘A stupid mistake. I left the box open and its contents spread to view. I received a visit from a volunteer for the local Fade church. I’d never seen her before; just bad luck. She was knocking on doors. Do you believe enough? Do you pay homage as you should?’ He trailed off again, anger stealing his voice.

‘She saw something she shouldn’t have.’

The story needed no ending, and Bon felt sick from the recollections. He wished the sea would whip into a storm and make him vomit. Wished the spineback would return and carve the ship in two, giving him a reason for his sadness, his hopelessness. They were familiar wishes. Often, he contemplated his own death with nothing but relief.

‘You’re not convinced he’s dead, are you?’ she asked.

‘Of course not,’ Bon whispered. ‘What sort of a father would I be if I just gave up?’

Leki placed her hand on his leg and squeezed, and her warmth was a shock to him. It was a tender contact, friendly, not sexual. He took great comfort from it.

‘So what about you?’ he asked.

Leki’s eyes glimmered in the candlelight. But she did not reply.

‘Leki?’

She leaned her head on his shoulder, hand still resting on his. Her warmth bled into him.

‘My story is complicated, and for another time,’ she said. ‘For now, we have a harsh night ahead of us.’

What do you mean? Bon thought, but he did not ask. He had no wish to discuss with her what harshness might come. Right then, he was living the closest thing to a calm, perfect moment that he had experienced for years.

He closed his eyes and relished the time.