Signa and Weiss eyed each other for a long moment. It was true that they were friends, and yet their friendship was long, whey-thin, founded more on drinking together than talking together. Here in the rustling silence of the marshes, with nothing to loosen their tongues, they stared at their hands or the mountains, trying to form words. Weiss spoke first.
“I’m glad you’ve chosen to come,” he said. The sincerity clung awkwardly to his shoulders, but he was glad. “If I could only paint with my words, as Mare did, even Aldous would’ve come.”
“Mare is the Thron?”
“Mare is the Thron. She was…” Weiss shook his head, and sighed. “I don’t know. I can understand far better than I can speak. She was right, like a straight street. The first person I think I have ever met who was neither mud-brown or cold grey.”
“Tell me, what did she say to you that was so moving?”
“She told me of Jesh, and Elionae, and gave me this book and this map.” From inside his vest, Weiss pulled out a little leather-bound volume. Books were scarce in Aiken, but a book as fine as this was even rarer. Illuminated in gold, frail with age, it was wonder enough just for the beauty of it, and Weiss already considered it as fine a treasure as he had ever owned. But the greatest wonder, the one that made Weiss hollow with awe, was the mark, stamped in the inside cover: the seal of Elionae, intricate and organic, almost as if it had grown there instead of been marked.
That was the first thing Weiss showed Signa, but as they walked deeper into the marshes, he showed him more, lit from within like a lantern. He showed him the map, the spires and gates of Elionae’s City, the mountain pass that lay on their horizon. He read passages from the Book: the Song of the Living, the measurements of the walls and gates of the golden city that gave a ring of truth to that faraway place, the prophecies of destruction on Aiken and on many other cities. Jesh’s Lore. The dawning of the world, and the dusking of it.
“There also you shall meet with thousands and ten thousands that have gone before you to that place. None of them are hurtful; all are loving and holy, and every one walking in the sight of Elionae, and standing in his presence by the Acceptance of Jesh, given freely to all truly willing to have it.” Weiss was still reading, rapt and alive, as they trekked, when he noticed very suddenly that it was getting hard to see. The sun at his back was low and red, and Signa lagged a few steps behind him.
“Might be time to make camp,” said Weiss. Signa merely grunted. Weiss peered back at his companion and realized something was amiss. “Signa?”
Signa made as if to wave him off, but Weiss hurried back to him. Signa’s face was sharp and pale, and his hands trembled.
“You’re ill, man,” said Weiss. “Here, let’s find a clearing and make camp.”
“I’m fine,” said Signa irritably. “It’s just your fool of a sister rushed me out of the house this morning with not a single packet on me.”
Weiss dropped his hands from where they hovered around Signa’s shoulders and said, “Oh. The hyssop.” He had known, idly, that Signa used hyssop-and-achanes; many of the dissenting did, or black drop, along with their drinking. It felt a faraway knowledge, now, vague and unimportant in the face of what lay ahead. But Signa evidently did not think it faraway or unimportant. He mistook Weiss’s sudden silence and stumbled forward again, casting over his shoulder,
“I know you always thought yourself such a pillar of virtue, using philosophizing in the place of a good tincture, but you needn’t bother looking down on me.”
The reeds closed behind him as Weiss stirred himself to answer, and for several minutes he could not catch up to Signa. He began to wonder if he had gone amiss. The sun had suffused into evening now, and it was hard to tell the path amid the reeds. At the same time he noticed the ground growing spongy, sucking at his feet. And then, suddenly, it was sucking at his knees, thick black mud with water pooling up around it. Weiss dragged forward to a hummock of grass and called out for Signa.
“Where are you?” came Signa’s voice, and Weiss tried to struggle towards it. He felt heavy as a stone; the Deedsweight lashed to his shoulders seemed a biting, pressing force shoving him down towards the mud. Once he fell, getting a mouthful of foul siltiness.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Weiss called, half to Signa and half to himself. “Ah, Signa, keep talking, let me find you!”
“Keep talking?” Signa’s voice was a snappish shriek. “Is this the bright happiness you promised me? Eli’s damnation, I can scarce walk straight!”
“It’s the withdrawal,” said Weiss, trying to call loudly and gently at once. “Think of everything I spoke of this afternoon.”
“Damn everything you spoke of this afternoon!” It seemed to Weiss that Signa’s voice was fading towards the west. “If I find my way out from this thrice-cursed muck, you may possess your brave country alone!”
“Signa!” called Weiss. “Signa!” But there was nothing more after that. Knee-deep in the mud, Weiss was forced to acknowledge himself alone.
It was late when Aldous emerged from the bath-houses down the street from her uncle’s, respectable once again with the wildness of the swamp scoured away and her damp hair combed back into a braid, but she did not want to go home. To go home would be to face the scandal of Weiss’s second night away from home, her uncle’s scolding, her aunt’s damp smiles. Anything would be better than facing damp smiles. So Aldous left the bath-houses and her heart was open like a raw wound.
If not home, where? The question had been dragging its feet through her mind for the last hour as she soaked in the warm water, combed the tangles from her hair, eyed the window as if it were an enemy. She had an idea, perhaps even a good one, but it harried her like a hound.
The Blind Eye. They might be able to bring Weiss back. Their mark was everywhere, sprouted up overnight like mushrooms when the news of the Thron camp arrived in the city. The Geridspolice were ruthless with Throns, scrupulously upholding the Queen’s word that no Thron should speak to a citizen of Aiken, on pain of death. But the Blind Eye were not satisfied with such devotion. They were hunting the Throns down, daring by their very name for the Geridspolice to do other than turn a blind eye. The Geridspolice would probably not stop them. Nobody liked a Thron.
Aldous had seen their symbol scrawled on the signalboard at the square: the white outline of a blank eye, slashed top to bottom with a stroke of white paint. Underneath, in a quick, careless hand, was an address, a house in the Racketeer’s Quarter. Aldous felt a little sick to her stomach when she found herself at the door of that house.
Aldous knew as soon as she entered the house that she should leave. A woman dressed in black was flinging knives with deafening precision at a crude human-shaped target with the word ‘Thron’ scrawled across the head.
But Aldous did not leave. Poison seemed a better alternative than suffocating inaction. The black-clad woman turned idle alcoholic eyes on Aldous she passed. Aldous glanced away very quickly, training her own paled eyes on the back of the slave who escorted her.
The slave led Aldous to a spacious common room that held an eclectic group of about forty people, some of them obviously in no better shape than Weiss or Signa, some of them as obviously very wealthy and undissenting. They stood in knots around the room, talking amongst themselves. A few turned and examined Aldous with the same detached precision that the black-clad woman had used. Aldous thought that poison was very hard to face. She shrank into herself and wanted to leave. Her body dilated. A sharp-bodied man- also dressed in black- climbed up onto a platform built on one end of the room. He seemed to look right through Aldous’s throat as he asked everyone to please sit down as the meeting was about to commence. Aldous took a seat in the back, removed from the crowd. Her breath came quickly from fear.
The meeting was not so different from the many political meetings Aldous was wont to attend. The owner of the home, a man called Slava, was calling for action against the Throns. People came to such meetings, she thought, to hear that other people thought as they did. Most of the audience was nodding and frowning righteously. But there was one there who was not. Seated behind Slava, in the shadows of the drapery, so still that for the first long while Aldous didn’t notice him there, was a man. He was big, broad of shoulder and well-muscled with a rough-shaven head, and he sat as if waiting for something momentous; his legs were firmly planted and his hands, with leonine grace, rested on his knees. These things Aldous noticed mutely, but what was chiefly important was that he was watching her. Watching her not idly or vacantly, but with a steady purpose. Whenever her eyes caught his, they seemed to change imperceptibly, as if asking her to acknowledge his staring. At length, she did, lifting her chin and holding his gaze for a few seconds that seemed to drag themselves achingly into minutes. He seemed satisfied and did not watch her any longer, but when Slava had finished his invective and the audience had broken back up into inflamed knots, she found he was at her side, and behind him the woman who had been throwing knives when Aldous entered.
Aldous left the house in a strange twist of thought. Memories stuck into her like pins: the pliant hatred on the tongue of the woman, Vana. The deadly simplicity of it all, how she had just stated as if it were nothing, “I need you to get my brother back from the marshes to the east. Alive, if possible.” The equal carelessness with which the two accepted the assignment along with her coin, and then pushed forward into talking of the Thron problem. The vivid roil of her breath and body at the man’s hand on her bare arm, when Aldous had made a motion of protest at some particularly vicious words from Vana. Cressus, his name was. It had been a long time since anyone had touched Aldous; longer still since it was a man. She could not even recollect the last time. Aldous was frightened; Aldous was tasting poison, but she could still feel the burning imprint of a man’s fingers on her skin, and Aldous was not lonely anymore.