Drinks are free tonight. We’ll more than make the cost back on the sale of Aptitude’s cooking. The girls upstairs are working overtime. Everyone is having a good time. When we finally hit midnight, the bar is so crowded our customers are spilling into the street outside.
A man from the landing fields called Per Olson wraps one arm around Lisa’s shoulders to cup her breast. From the way his kid grins as she slaps his hand away it’s not the first time that has happened.
I’m not sure what we’re all celebrating.
Being alive, probably. That’s what most parties are about.
The fireworks outside celebrate General Jaxx’s promotion to Duke of Farlight. He’s no fool. Down in Zabo Square whole cows turn on spits over fire pits dug into the flagstones. Up here, in the barrio, where the air is cleaner but water rare, we’re making do with goats.
The smoke from our fire is so greasy it sticks to my skin.
Aptitude barely notices.
She’s too busy being chilled about Vijay. He’s been up to Golden Memories three times since we landed and should be down in the square with his father. The first time was to see where we lived. No one has any doubts about why he came back a second and a third time. He’s glued to Aptitude’s side tighter than her shadow. Not quite touching, as she moves from spit to spit, pouring oil onto crisping meat and slashing great cuts in each goat.
I seem to be the only one aware how skilfully Aptitude handles her knife.
‘Lisa,’ I say.
Unwrapping herself from Olson, she winds her arms round my neck and tries to kiss me. ‘You’re no fun,’ she says, when my glance flicks to Aptitude, who’s watching from the corner of one eye.
‘Who taught her to use a blade?’
Lisa decides to tell the truth. That’s one reason I like her. Attention span of a goldfish and way too lazy to lie. ‘Me,’ she says. ‘Gave her the knife too. I mean, it’s not our fault if you fuck off for three months at a time and leave us to fend for ourselves.’
I scowl at Lisa.
She scowls straight back. ‘You should be pleased,’ she says. ‘A girl can’t be too careful these days.’
Leaving Aptitude and Lisa to their admirers, I go looking for Shil, and find Haze instead. He’s under a tree, playing with Aptitude’s cat, which is now nearly full grown and three times fatter than when I last saw it.
Haze scrambles to his feet.
Then looks embarrassed as he realizes he doesn’t have to do that any more. I should probably salute, but that would be too odd for both of us. So we shake hands instead.
I am surprised he’s here at all.
That doesn’t mean I don’t want him here.
He’s Aux; he will always be Aux, even when he is something else. All the same, I thought he’d have more important things to do. After all, Paper Osamu is giving a party to celebrate the general’s promotion.
‘Needed to say goodbye properly,’ he says.
It’s not hard to work out who he’s been saying goodbye to . . .
Rachel is drunk.
Given how she feels about Haze, that’s not surprising. Dropping to a crouch in front of her in the yard, I grip her shoulders. She shakes me off.
‘Haze asked me to go with him.’
‘What did you say?’
She glares at me, glares at the 8.59mm Z93z long-range rifle, with adjustable cheek piece, ?3-?12-?50 spotting scope and floating barrel, that rests on an oilcloth on the ground in front of her, and strips it into fifteen pieces with quiet fury.
‘This is my rifle,’ she says flatly. ‘There are many like it, but this one is mine. Without it I am nothing.’
Fifty-five seconds later, it is back in one piece.
Serves me right for asking.
I find Neen in the stockroom, killing a bottle of cane spirit as efficiently as he kills most things. A girl sits facing him on his lap, her legs wrapped around his waist and her dress tumbling either side of his knees. From the unfocused look on Iona’s face there is more going on under the surface than I want to know.
That’s also what Shil thinks.
‘Come on,’ I tell her. ‘He’s young.’
She nods, lips tight. So I take her outside and cut down a track to a ruined shack on the edge of a slope overlooking Farlight’s centre. It was a bar once, before a storm washed away its foundations and dumped most of its customers over the side.
‘Sit,’ I say.
Leaning against a dirt bank, we stare at the stars. I’ve forgotten how many there are. Pretty soon I’ll forget I ever knew. Until the next time the kyp ties me into the information storm slopping round this edge of the galaxy.
I’m drunk, but that’s fine. Shil’s drunk too. Pulling a bottle from my pocket, I fill two shot glasses and toast the new Duke of Farlight’s health. In the circumstances I’d be better off toasting my own.
‘What aren’t you telling me?’ she says.
‘Yeah, I know. What aren’t you telling me,
‘Things are going to change . . .’
There, I’ve said too much or not enough. Silence tells me she’s waiting to find out which. That’s one of the things about Shil. She knows how to keep quiet. ‘Our glorious leader, beloved and victorious, whose very sweat is perfume to his subjects . . .’
Shil thinks it’s a toast. She must do. She raises her glass.
We drink. I refill.
I look at her. Well, it’s more of a drunken squint.
‘Sven,’ says Shil. ‘
‘Anything I wanted.’
Somehow I end up telling her about Paradise and how I met Aptitude’s parents. Senator Debro Wildeside and Anton, ex-captain of the palace guard. We touch on my taking over the prison. Although I drop the body count a little.
‘This has to do with what you chose?’
‘Sven,’ says Shil. ‘You OK?’
‘Sure,’ I say. ‘I asked him for Anton and Debro’s freedom.’
‘Shit,’ she says. ‘Does Aptitude know?’
‘Not yet. It’s a surprise.’
‘So why aren’t you happy?’
I want to say happiness is overrated. My sister told me that. Sounds like something Debro would say as well. Only Shil is right. ‘Because Jaxx doesn’t know yet.’
And then I have to tell her about killing Aptitude’s husband, Senator Thomassi, and how I was meant to kill Aptitude and who gave the order . . . Shil’s looking at me as if I’m mad, and there are days I am, but this isn’t one of them.
‘The general’s going to be furious,’ she says.
That’s the least of it.
Jaxx will want me dead.
I don’t say that. I don’t need to. Shil’s smart. She’ll work it out. And there’s something else, to do with Farlight itself. Something that’s been nagging me from the moment I walked out of the cathedral after Jaxx was made duke.
‘Can’t you smell it?’ I say.
‘Smoke from barbecues,’ says Shil. ‘That’s what I can smell.’
Also dog shit, pollution, stale drains and static from the landing field. Yes, I’ve got those as well. A rocket breaks for the sky from the square below. We get coloured stars to hide the real ones. All of the scents we mention are out there. Plus smoke from the fireworks. But there’s something else. Something deeper.
‘Well?’ she demands.