Chapter Seven

If Harry Stave was a typical criminal, then Oliver couldn’t understand how the constabulary had not captured him years ago. Since fleeing from the police station at Hundred Locks, all they had done was enter the woods to the south of the town, go into the middle of a clearing, and peg out a strange yellow flag with a black circle in the centre.

‘Now what?’ Oliver asked, watching the drizzle falling from the sky soak the odd-looking flag.

‘We wait,’ said Harry Stave.

‘For what?’

‘For three hours, old stick.’ said Harry.

‘That’s not what I meant.’

‘I know.’

Oliver couldn’t goad any more out of him. So he shut up and waited. Someone must have discovered the bodies in the police station by now. The corpses at Seventy Star Hall on the other hand could take weeks to be found. Damson Griggs brought everything to the house; she would be noticed missing first by one of the nosy neighbours she was always complaining about. Or perhaps one of Uncle Titus’s businesses would send a runner to see what had happened to their reclusive owner.

Shortly after three hours had passed, a figure appeared on the other side of the clearing, shrouded by the curtain of rain — heavier now.

‘Who’s that?’ Oliver whispered.

‘If we’re lucky, our ticket out of here,’ said Harry.

‘Harry!’ the figure called.

Harry Stave stayed where he was, sheltered by the tree from the rain. ‘Monks! You’re not meant to be here. Where’s Landless?’

‘Reassigned,’ said Monks. ‘Who’s the boy?’

‘The whistler’s nephew. We need to extract, Monks. We’ve been rolled up here.’

Oliver was about to ask why his uncle was called the whistler, but Harry signalled him back.

‘Did you get to meet the walk-in, Harry?’

‘The walk-in didn’t show. That’s why I put up a signal. A rival crew arrived and nearly did for us. We’ve been bleeding rolled up, we need to get out now.’

‘That’s why I’m here, Harry. Come on.’

Stave shut his eyes, not moving. A shadow seemed to separate itself from the criminal, a spectral outline moving forward into the rain and across the clearing. To Oliver’s astonishment a similar figure misted out of his own skin, drifting after the Harry-ghost.

‹Quiet.› Harry cautioned the boy. ‹We’re masked now under the tree. He can’t see us here.›

In the centre of the clearing two thunder cracks exploded, a lick of flame splashing through the apparitions and off into the trees on the left.

‘Damn,’ said Harry. ‘A marksman. I do hate to be proved right.’

They were running back into the forest, the man Monks shouting something after them.

‘That was your friend?’ Oliver wheezed as they darted through the trees.

‘An associate,’ said Harry. ‘It was a bleeding set-up. My own people.’

Another crack sounded beside them. Whoever it was, they were shooting into the trees blind.

Oliver ducked under a fallen oak. ‘You don’t sound surprised.’

‘Let’s just say I had my suspicions.’

Oliver pointed to the north. ‘The town’s that way I think.’

‘Too well covered by now,’ said Harry, pushing Oliver on. ‘And besides, I never like to go into a place without knowing where the back door is.’

They followed the sodden forest trail to the west, doubling back and switching trails to throw off any pursuit. The breeze lent a cold edge to the run. Since he had found Damson Griggs on the floor of their kitchen, sprinting about Hundred Locks was all Oliver seemed to have done. The shots into the trees had stopped.

‘Not coming after us,’ panted Oliver.

‘Not their style, Oliver,’ Harry replied. ‘My associates like to keep to the shadows. The minimum of fuss. They were going after an easy kill, not a forced march through half the county’s forests.’

They slowed their dash as they began to come across tracks, leaves and twigs scattered across the ground. A horse trail. Oliver tried to locate the sun beyond the trees’ canopy. By its position they were into the late afternoon now. Then, against the fast-moving white clouds, he saw it. A black globe rising into the sky.

‘Look, Harry. I’ve never seen an airship like that.’

Harry stared upwards. ‘Bloody Monks. That was our ride out of here.’

‘But there’s no expansion engines on it.’

‘Don’t need them to go up and down, Oliver. Which is pretty much all it does.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I’ll explain later. For now, let’s concentrate on our journey out of here.’

Harry’s route led them to what Oliver at first took for a river; then he saw the towpath and realized it was the tail end of the Hundred Locks navigation. If they followed the canal path north they would eventually reach the hundred locks carved into the dike wall of the Toby Fall Rise.

‘Keep back under the trees for the moment,’ cautioned Harry. ‘We need to stay in the black. See the tunnel in the hill? We’ll head for there, keeping under the tree line at all times. The towpath goes into the tunnel. We’ll get into the channel behind that bush growing down there on the left.’

Harry’s precise instructions left Oliver puzzled. ‘You think someone might be watching for us?’

‘Trust me,’ said Harry. ‘Someone’s always watching. Come on.’

They hugged the forest until the mouth of the canal tunnel was upon them. The bush extended all the way up the hill and pushing past it, Oliver scraped his neck against the sharp twigs that grew between its small orange flowers. It was cool inside the tunnel. Damp too. Harry sat down in front of a navvy’s alcove and dangled his feet over the edge of the waterway.

Oliver joined him. ‘Now we wait?’

‘Clever lad. You’ll go far.’

After half an hour the tunnel mouth darkened as the first of three nearly identical narrowboats entered, a single paddle at the rear of each boat tossing water across the towpath.

‘When the middle boat passes,’ instructed Harry, ‘jump for the cabin.’

Oliver did as he was bid — the narrowness of the tunnel and the slowness of the canal craft making it easy to step through the cloud of smoke and onto the deck. There was a steam-wreathed figure at the back, hand on the tiller, and if the canal man was surprised at the sudden addition of two passengers, he did not show it.

Harry pushed Oliver through the door into a narrow room. It looked like the inside of the gypsy caravans that visited Hundred Locks during the Midwinter Festival. ‘Right. We stay here for the rest of the day — don’t even think about getting out of the cabin until tomorrow morning.’

Oliver felt a wave of exasperation rise in him towards his enigmatic saviour. ‘Why, Harry? You think that strange-looking aerostat is going to be floating around looking for us? That’s a pile of horse manure — what’s the chances of us being spotted at that distance?’

Harry sighed. ‘More than you’d credit, old stick. It’s not human eyes you need to worry about. There’s watchers up there with transaction engines to assist them; but they can only focus on a single place at a time, and we’ll be outside of their sweep area by tomorrow.’

Oliver sat down on a small three-legged stool. ‘Harry, that sounds like paranoia.’

‘It’s only paranoia if they’re not out to get you, lad. And judging by our reception back in the woods, they are.’

‘But who are they?’

Harry sighed again and pulled up a stool. ‘Both myself and my associates back in the woods are what are colloquially known as wolftakers.’

Oliver snorted in disbelief. ‘Wolftakers? So you’re a demon who’s come to-’

‘-snatch naughty children, Oliver? Every myth has its substance in reality. The tale’s just a twisted version of the truth.’

‘You’re an escaped convict, Harry. I saw the paper on you in the police station.’

‘That’s true enough,’ said Harry. ‘Although I would prefer to be known as a free-spirited entrepreneur who ran afoul of the navy’s taste for bureaucracy and regulations.’

‘So what’s this nonsense about wolftakers in the sky? Next you’ll be telling me you help Mother White Horse give gifts to the children every Midwinter.’

‘Wolftakers are human enough,’ said Harry. ‘Listen. When Isambard Kirkhill seized power in parliament’s name, he had only one fear left — and that was the throne. The navy and army wanted him to become king. Old Isambard had to fight them off with a sabre to stop them making him the new monarch. Then there were our own royalists in exile in Quatershift plotting a counter-revolution and restoration. Kirkhill knew that if the rule of parliament was to last, it would have to resist both the plots without and the ambitions of its own Guardians within the house.’

‘What does this have to do with a children’s tale?’ Oliver asked.

‘Everything,’ explained Harry. ‘Kirkhill established a court sinister as the last line of defence, a body that was to act as a supreme authority and ultimate guarantor of the rule of the people. But it was to be a court invisible. The House of Guardians knows the Court is there, but they know nothing of its location, its staff, its methods or its workings. If any First Guardian were to start looking at the throne restored with envious eyes, the existence of the Court would give them pause to think.’

‘But all the stories about demons?’

‘To those that wish ill to Jackals,’ said Harry, ‘we are demons. A conspiracy of Guardians is plotting a coup and one morning they wake up and their ringleader has disappeared — never seen again. A merchant starts taking Cassarabian gold to smuggle navy celgas across the border and his tent is found empty on the sands. The political police begin taking orders to stitch up the ballot, and one day the Police General’s river launch is found adrift empty on the Gambleflowers — no trace of the old sod. That sends a powerful message. We’re the ghosts in the machine, Oliver, keeping the game straight and hearts pure. The only thing they know about us is the name Kirkhill gave us — the Court of the Air; the highest bleeding court in the land.’

‘But the men who tried to kill us — who killed Uncle Titus?’

‘Your uncle was a whistler, Oliver. Part of the Court of the Air’s network of agents on the ground. He’d discovered something, something worth killing him for.’

‘Uncle Titus?’

‘He was one of the best. His people were all over: clipper crew, traders — Cassarabia, Quatershift, Concorzia, the Catosian League and the Holy Kikkosico Empire, every county in Jackals from Chiltonshire to Ferniethian.’

‘All this time,’ said Oliver. ‘He was never one for talking, but-’

‘Part of the job, Oliver. He was recruited by the same man who saved my neck from the drop outside Bonegate, the greatest wolftaker of them all — Titus’s brother.’

‘But that would mean-’

‘Your father, Oliver. He was the wolftaker who trained me in the craft. Took my not insubstantial talents and gave them a purpose beyond diverting navy biscuits to the merchants on Penny Street.’

‘If you work for this court,’ said Oliver, ‘why would they be trying to kill you?’

‘It’s the old quandary. Who watches the watchmen? I’ve been coming across little things for a couple of years now, signs that someone in the Court is playing both sides of the field. Your uncle suspected the same thing. When our extraction became an ambush just now, those suspicions became a reality.’

‘Extraction?’

‘Craft talk. Laying the flag is called putting up a signal. Calling down an aerosphere to lift us out and take us up.’

‘The Court lives on an aerostat?’

‘Not an airship, Oliver. We’ve got an entire city up there in the sky now. Higher than any RAN high-lifter can reach, just the skraypers for company.’

‘And now they’re trying to kill you?’

‘Only some of them. They must have spiked poor old Landless and got Monks onto the aerosphere roster in his place. Never did trust Monks; not enough of a thief for my taste. Who to trust now, Oliver? Always a tricky one in the great game at the best of times. Now, let me think. If they’re acting in the open then they must have declared me rogue. They couldn’t blow an extraction and hope to cover it up. That means regulator-level intervention. Circle, the rot in the Court goes a lot higher than I’d thought.’

‘And the phoney police in the station at Hundred Locks?’ said Oliver.

‘Someone’s dogs,’ said Harry. ‘But not the Court of the Air’s. We’ve got a military arm called the incrementals for the hard slap work. Proper killers. If they had come after us neither of us would be alive to be discussing it now. So, so, who to trust?’

‘Can I trust you, Harry?’

‘Trust him with your life but not your wallet.’ The voice sounded from the narrowboat’s doorway. The steam-shrouded steersman from earlier. Rising no higher than Oliver’s chest, his earless, whisker-bristled face buried beneath heavy rolls of leathery brown skin, the master of their canal boat was a grasper.

‘Armiral, you old rascal.’ Harry stood up to greet the grasper. ‘Room for a couple of stowaways?’

‘Is he a whistler?’ Oliver whispered to Harry.

‹Armiral? Circle no. He’s one of my murky acquaintances. Too valuable to waste on Court business. You might say I’ve been saving Armiral for a rainy day. You never know when you’re going to need to retire from the great game.›

‘We’re running for the Julking Way navigation,’ said the grasper. ‘Should reach the outskirts of Turnhouse by tomorrow. You’ll be letting me know where we’re heading after that?’

‘I expect so,’ said Harry.

The grasper looked like he was going to say something, then shook his head and went back outside.

‘It was stolen naval supplies that paid for the ChauntingLay,’ said Harry, winking at Oliver. ‘That’s the boat we’re sitting on. Of course, the payment was somewhat indirect.’

‘Someone’s got to move those biscuits around,’ said Oliver.

‘You’re a fast lad, Oliver Brooks, and no mistake. Your blood shows through, all right.’

‘Father. And all these years I thought he was in the same trade as Uncle Titus.’

‘He was,’ said Harry. ‘In a manner of speaking.’

‘Was he a good man?’ Oliver asked.

‘Good enough for the times we were dealt,’ said Harry. ‘I won’t lie to you Oliver. There was a brutal edge to Phileas Brooks. If he thought you were playing him false or were coming against him direct, he could be a ruthless sort. But he did alright by me, and there was none better among the wolftakers.’

‘The things he must have seen,’ said Oliver. ‘The things he must have done in the service of Jackals. Only to die in an aerostat accident. How utterly pointless.’

‘An accident? Perhaps,’ said Harry. ‘I always had my doubts about that.’

‘What? You don’t think-’

‘They’re just suspicions, Oliver. Your airship came down during the start of the not-so-glorious revolution of 1566, quickly followed by the Two-Year War with the Commonshare. The Court of the Air had its hands full making sure Benjamin Carl’s committeemen disappeared. Now my capacity in the navy may only have been in the Victualling Board, but I know enough about the job of an airmaster to understand that if you’ve got an expansion engine fire, you don’t plot a course that will take you anywhere near the feymist curtain.’

Oliver’s eyes were red. ‘And I was the only survivor.’

‘The only one that was ever found, old stick. The only one that was ever found. Unless you know different?’

‘Not that I remember, Harry.’

‘Let’s put your memory to the test,’ said Harry. ‘Titus never got around to telling me what he had discovered; he was waiting for someone from down south to turn up before letting me in on it. But instead we got those two phoney crushers from Ham Yard and the toppers at the hall. I’d say that whoever Titus was expecting to arrive was intercepted by the same crew that tried to do for us and most likely done away with. Any idea who your uncle’s visitor could have been?’

Oliver mulled the question over. ‘Uncle asked me to meet you at the aerostat field last week, but he didn’t mention anything about anybody else arriving. The next airship isn’t due at Hundred Locks for four days either.’

‘Let’s try something else,’ said Harry, pushing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. ‘It’s like when I talk with my voice inside your skull, except everything flows in the opposite direction. I might be able to pick up clues from your memories.’

‘More worldsinger tricks?’

‘Of a sort. Although the people that trained us aren’t in the order, which wouldn’t please the worldsingers one jot if they ever found out. One of the reasons they dislike the fey so much is they don’t like the bleeding competition.’

Harry placed his left palm in front of Oliver’s forehead and shut his eyes, straining to make contact with the boy’s thoughts. Oliver expected to feel something, a tingle, or a pressure, perhaps a headache, but there was nothing.

‘Now that’s a first,’ said Harry. ‘I can’t establish a lock with you. But you can hear my mind-echo, yes?’

‘Like you were talking an inch away from my ear, Harry.’

Oliver thought back to the inactive truth crystal at the police station. Something appeared to be protecting him from worldsinger probing. Was there already something fey, dangerous and defensive developing inside him like a tumour, ready to erupt and twist his body in terrible, unnatural ways? Perhaps old Pullinger had been right all along, Oliver would be better off with a torc around his neck and kept under close observation by the order.

‘Damn queer, Oliver. Well, there’s some that can resist a glamour; though you’re the first I’ve ever met in the flesh. We’ll just have to do this the old-fashioned way. Are there any visitors you can remember arriving for Titus in the last few months?’

‘A handful,’ said Oliver. ‘A skipper back from the Holy Kikkosico Empire. Runners from the crystalgrid station with tape. The head clerk from uncle’s Middlesteel counting house came at the start of the month as usual.’

‘Anybody uncommon?’

Oliver racked his brains. ‘Back in Barn-month we had an old grasper visit twice. Once at the start of the month, once at the end.’

‘Old?’ said Harry. ‘Older than Armiral here?’

‘The spine-hair on his face was white and his cheeks looked like a field of snow, except where he had this mark on his right cheek.’

‘A tattoo?’ asked Harry.

‘No. More like it had been branded there.’

‘Armiral.’ Harry called the grasper back into the narrowboat’s cabin. ‘Get a pencil for the boy. Oliver, draw for us the mark you saw.’

Oliver sketched out a circle with three slanting lines drawn through it.

‘What do you think?’ Harry asked the grasper boat master.

‘Celgas miner from Shadowclock.’

‘That’s what I thought too,’ said Harry.

Armiral leant against the open door to the deck and scratched his heavy-jowled face thoughtfully. ‘Each line represents a cave-in survived — few of our people reach three. The one who wore this will be senior, Harry. High warren.’

Oliver remembered the way the visiting grasper had scuttled inside Seventy Star Hall. Like he was glad to trade the space and sky outside for the confines of the hall. ‘Uncle Titus didn’t have any contracts with the celgas mines. Why would he be meeting a mining combination man?’

‘Nobody has contracts directly with Shadowclock, Oliver. The State Victualling Board handles it. The place is practically a closed city — only town with a military governor appointed by parliament instead of an elected mayor. There are plenty of people who’ve died for the riches under the mountains at Shadowclock. Smugglers, agents from every great power on the continent, gas runners. If Titus found some mischief going on at Shadowclock, then I don’t doubt there’s some rascals out there who would judge his murder and our deaths a cheap price to keep their transgressions secret.’

‘Does your business take you to Shadowclock, Harry?’ asked the grasper. ‘I can ferry you as far south as the navigation at Ewehead. After that you need special papers to use the mining waterways.’

‘I need to make a stop in Turnhouse on the way. When that’s done, if you can get us to the county boundary at Medfolk, I’ll take us the rest of the way to Shadowclock on foot.’

‘Harry,’ said the grasper, ‘do you really want to go to Shadowclock? The citadel to the north is the largest RAN fortress in Jackals — our old friends might recognize you. And if the navy don’t do for you, you’ve got the mining police, the regular army and a garrison of the Special Guard.’

‘Jackals knows how to protect its monopoly on celgas, Armiral. Even from me.’

‘So be it,’ say the grasper. ‘You really do like to live dangerously, Harry Stave.’

‘If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up too much space, old stick.’ Harry saw Oliver’s face. ‘Don’t worry, lad. After what we’ve been through, a trip to see the celgas mines is going to be a walk in the park.’

Monitor Eighty-one was not expecting to have her duty interrupted in the monitorarium, but she could tell by the way the other monitors had silently cleared a space for the newcomer — busy finding things to do at the far end of the gantry — that the interloper had rank.

‘Monitor Eighty-one?’

The monitor nodded. Something inside her, a prudent voice of caution, stopped Eighty-one from asking the newcomer why her skin-tight black leather airsuit was bereft of Court insignia, except for a thin yellow stripe running down each trouser leg.

‘I’m interested in your report from Lightshire, Eighty-one. The Hundred Locks incident.’

‘Passed to analyst level, now, ma’am,’ said the monitor.

‘Of course,’ said the visitor. ‘Nevertheless, I would value your raw impression of events.’

Eighty-one was about to reply when she saw the regulator nervously waiting by the entrance to the great monitorarium — a level green. And they only waited on one person. It was her. All the refectory gossip tided over Eighty-one.

She was a lover of Isambard Kirkhill. She was over six-hundred years old. She was a weather witch holding the Court of the Air fixed in the troposphere by the power of her mind alone. She was a leaaf addict. She was a failed revolutionary. She was a shape switcher, rogue fey escaped from Hawklam Asylum. She was … standing in front of her; and she was Lady Riddle. Advocate General. Head of the Court of the Air. There was no doubt about that.

‘Go on,’ said Lady Riddle.

‘It was the morning,’ said Eighty-one. ‘My normal surveillant was off-shift after his telescope had been withdrawn for maintenance.’

‘Is that usual?’ asked Lady Riddle. ‘To withdraw both a telescope and a surveillant midway through an observation?’

Eighty-one thought before answering, a bead of sweat tickling her eyebrow despite the cold in the massive monitorarium sphere. ‘It’s not against protocol, ma’am.’

‘No,’ agreed Lady Riddle. ‘Not against that. And what was the report of the reserve surveillant using the spare telescope from the floating pool?’

‘It appears our own wolftaker terminated the local whistler station, then attempted to murder the extraction team and seize their aerosphere. The wolftaker in question has now disappeared. Four surveillants are currently on a high-sweep of the Hundred Locks area.’

‘The wolftaker in question is Harry Stave,’ said Lady Riddle. ‘And good hunting to you because you’ll be on high-sweep for the rest of the year.’

‘Oh,’ said Eighty-one regretting the inanity even as it escaped her lips.

‘If you were to flag one element of the extraction, which one would it be?’

Eighty-one sweated under her grey greatcoat. Symbolic logic had been her weakest subject when she was being broken in. ‘That the usual pilot on the mission was switched to a different roster.’

‘Law of coincidence?’ asked Lady Riddle.

‘Patterns beat coincidences, ma’am.’

‘So they do,’ said Lady Riddle. ‘Most people would have said the most significant thing in that file was Harry Stave reverting to type.’

‘But I am relatively new to all this,’ said Eighty-one. ‘And perhaps a little slow.’

Lady Riddle’s dark southmoor eyes narrowed. ‘Far from it. Do me a small favour, my dear. When your colleagues ask what I was talking to you about, tell them it was about the Quatershift border observation.’

That was a small favour it would be dangerous to withhold. Eighty-one nodded, but Lady Riddle had already turned and was heading for the regulator-green by the monitorarium entrance. The game, as her old Court instructor used to say, was afoot, and the open space of the monitorarium felt even more frosty than usual.

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