Early on the morning of her seventieth birthday, Magden coiled the rope that moments before had tethered her canal boat to a mooring post, and said, to no-one, “How I ache!”
The plan of the day’s cruise was clear in her mind, and would start with a right turn at the junction that lay half a kilometre away. She always turned right there. Right, to the periphery; left, to Lock Rise, to the city, to people.
Having straightened her back with caution, she pressed the ignition switch with the thumb to which it was programmed to respond. The engine turned over, spluttered and died.
Magden, who had become a respected pilot on the latticework of waterways since her arrival in the low country many years ago, was not an accomplished engineer. A highly protected upbringing, combined with the pervasiveness of ultra-reliable technology, meant that she had developed no aptitude for mechanical problem-solving. Indeed, her mentor Frank used to laugh as she stared powerlessly at the boat’s innards. The engine, assembled from scratch by Frank and powered by polluting hydrocarbons filtered from the purple-black water through fine grilles set in the bow, should have run smoothly for another five centuries; to stop like this was… very unlikely She knew where the engine was (under the hatch by the tiller), and she knew what it looked like (a curved hunk of grey metal enlivened by rows of cooler fins), but she had no idea how to mend it. No matter; the canals teemed with experienced pilots who would be happy to assist her — for a fee. Magden tied the boat up again, stepped onto the roof with a hot drink, eyed the pink morning sky, and waited.
While she waited, she reflected on what the birthday meant to her. Very little, actually. The few friends she had on the canal were clueless. Magden, while unfailingly pleasant, considerate, and helpful to those in need, had maintained an opaque exterior. They did not know that on this day, every year, Magden grieved for her younger sister, Elizabeth, whose birthday had fallen just a day after hers. Elizabeth, with whom she had spent so many hours, rushing around the palace, hiding in niches and under chairs, playing games. Killed with all the others, but a death clothed in greater tragedy, somehow.
Images, painful remembrances, pushed themselves to the front of her mind. She knew there were holes. Trauma and grief do not melt over time; they leave vacuums.
Magden’s infancy and adolescence had been carefree. Her indulgent father — King Alexus II — had always had time for her. He prioritised her needs, allowed her to select her tutors, and watched her thrive with ill-concealed pride. And then… catastrophe. The Selanuks, a competing family who had amassed a great force beyond the border, had invaded. The coup was swiftly followed by her family’s enforced seclusion on a comma-shaped island in the middle of a lake.
Four months passed, during which the maturing Magden observed her father and came to recognise his weakness, his fixed state of denial. This was followed by the inevitable culmination; they were rounded up, they were lined up, and they were executed. The entire family, destroyed in minute. But Magden — known then as Duchess Falona Xenopi — slipped into a cousin’s shadow (she was not sure which) and etherealised herself, as she had been taught. Hovering unseen in the air, desperately negotiating the real-world influences on her shapeless form (it had been easier in the palace’s specially designed, electromagnetically neutral gymnasium), she watched uniformed chaperones directed by the traitor Rassamunden kick the bodies, turn them onto their backs, and walk away. Stupid men. They did not realise that she had escaped.
Then came the year of wandering, in the company of Frank Linacre, a man who had no interest in politics or palace intrigue. A second father in all but name, he taught her the ways of the water, trained her in navigation and showed her how to survive on the detritus. But after a happy year, when Magden/Falona was still only 24, Frank had been killed in a strike by airborne chaperones. They stormed up the estuary in triangular formation, fifty black crosses moving in rigid rows, a flying graveyard. The pilots, seated at the intersections of the crosses, controlled the holding-beams and granulators that were housed in the limbs.
Frank was crouched on a red buoy at the time, pulling in a pot of estuarine crayfish. He looked up in response to the strengthening hum that reverberated over the flat water. Frank represented no threat to the new regime, but the lead chaperone must have felt frustrated that the sortie from the capital had been uneventful — no enemies to kill in the coastal waters, no dissident camps that might be construed as political gatherings — so he, or she, had released a perpendicular salvo. Frank crumbled, and his fragments slipped into the purple water, the ripples refracting an oily green. There had been no time for him to grant her the boat, but Magden knew his wishes. The boat was her inheritance.
She lingered for weeks near the place of his murder. When she dipped a hand into the polluted water, she imagined that particles of him lay there, in her palm, able to feel her love and regret. She knew that it was possible to live in such a state… possible to re-form, to continue. Magden had done this on the day of the execution; she was one of the very few who could.
Two fathers. One weak, a victim of politics. The other strong, a victim of oppression. They occupied equal niches in her memory.
That had been forty-eight years ago, and Magden had led a quiet life since then. She caused no trouble, and had attracted no attention from the new (not so new, now) regime. Most days were quiet, like this one.
An hour later Simon Parsons, a metal dredger in his late sixties, appeared in the distance. He came from the direction of the great plateau. Magden waved, making it clear that she needed his help. He activated a winch to take his huge magnet up from the canal bed, so as to reduce the drag. What he did for a living was illegal, but he was always careful to hide under the drooping boughs of canal-side trees when he brought the magnet above the surface, turned off the current and picked off the ferrous treasures.
“What’s up, Mags?” Only a few metres separated them now.
“Engine failure. First ever.”
“Yes, yes, and you are very old. Must be a dammed good engine! I’ll take a look. Got tea?”
He prised up the hatch and stepped into the dark space of the hold. His flat-tipped, oil-blackened fingers moved confidently over the pads and switches. Digital readouts scrolled across the upper surface, casting a red glow on Simon’s cheek.
“What’s this?” he called up, as Magden stooped to deliver a steaming mug.
“What do you mean?”
“The engine, it’s giving you a message!”
“How is that possible?”
“The programming… a former owner…”
“It’s only had one owner. Frank. He built it.”
Simon nodded tactfully. Magden was peering in.
“Has it gone? What did it say?” she asked.
“It’s repeating. Look. Read it.”
+++ Everything was for a reason – – – go back to Lock Rise +++
Magden felt cold. Frank had not been like this. There had been no shadowed corners in his life. He’d been simple — no, not simple… pure.
Simon asked, quietly, “Will you go?”
“I haven’t been back there for years. I hate it. So dirty.” At no point during their friendship had she told Simon the truth of her background.
“Ah Magden, it’s better now. The water is blue, it’s changed…”
Simon stopped abruptly. He had heard the hum. Magden recognised it a moment later. A patrol. Simon leapt from the roof of Magden’s boat to his own, flicked a lever near the tiller and sank the magnet back into the water with a splash. Then he slowed down his movements, knowing that he could be observed despite the patrol’s estimated distance of five kilometres. He sat next to Magden on a steel storage box in the pilot’s well. Both stared nonchalantly over the water, trying to look relaxed. The hum became more insistent with the patrol’s approach, then sharpened in tone as the ships slowed before dropping to an altitude of a hundred metres, directly above the seated couple. A scout ship descended, its downward thruster whipping up the water and wetting their faces. The pilot did not notice the chain emerging from the water, or if he did, he did not understand its significance.
“Where is your marina?” boomed a speaker on the ship’s underside.
“Oxbow Town, that way!” shouted Simon. Not too respectful, not to humble. Innocent, like.
The only answer was a dip in the ship’s nose, before it accelerated away and covered them with spray. Magden’s eyes were wide and unblinking. Her hands held the boat’s railing so tightly they were completely white. She stared down into the water. Simon attempted to reassure her with soft words, but they did not get through. When she felt his rough palm on her cheek, a tentative gesture, she at last focused on him, and the tears began to spill.
“Do you want to tell me?” asked Simon.
She shook her head.
“Do you want me to take you? To Lock Rise.”
“No Simon. I’ll go alone.”
Lock Rise separated the central plateau from the low regions. The twenty-nine locks, tall, paired gates enclosing deep columns of water on which boats could rise and fall, allowed pilots to journey onto or away from the plateau. The work involved (opening the gates against fluid resistance, hand-winching the sluices, leaping back onto the roof of the boat after the lock had filled or emptied) tested all but the fittest. When Magden had last taken the flight (part of an ill-advised journey to meet a lover, twenty-five years ago) it had taken two days, and she was so exhausted she promised herself never to do it again. But now the Selanuks had mechanised the run, getting from base level to lock fifteen would only take a couple of hours.
The engine restarted without any further intervention. The message’s release had been sufficient to get it going again. The past and the present were connected, through Frank.
Straightforward Frank. What else had eluded her?
The day of the execution — three months after the Selanuk invasion and the deposed royal family’s exile to the island. Each member was brought out of the island house (a previous empress’s holiday retreat) onto a small, lush field some distance away. Their ages ranged from seven to eighty-four.
The head of the house, King Alexus II, led them out assertively, albeit under the gaze and the guns of the chaperones. He was dressed all in white — jacket, shirt, trousers, shoes, laces too. The air was warm. Foamy water lapped at the rocky shore, portions of which the family could see if they peered over the cliff edge. A launch bearing Selanuk colours drew up at the base of a long stairway cut into the cliff, and two of its crew tied ropes to a rusted, iron loops set into the concrete.
“Why have we been called out?” demanded Alexus II, staring at the most senior chaperone.
A hint of deference, even then.
Presently, a small group of officials appeared at the top of the steps and walked over the grass towards the King. Two ambassadors in dark blue robes, with five elite, face-guarded chaperones. Their guns were small, but the adults knew they were lethal.
“Who are you?” asked the King.
“Transition party,” replied the taller of the Ambassadors.
“Transition? Of what?”
“Leadership. Culture. Destiny.”
“You are already in charge. We are your prisoners. What more do you want?”
The second ambassador smiled and turned his head to one of the chaperones. He in turn signalled to his four colleagues.
“Symbolism. That is all.” It was not clear which of the two said it, but something in the sentence, an agreed code word, caused the chaperones to open fire. The screams did not leave the mouths of the victims.
Magden etherealised. It began in the extremities, and spread inward quickly. Her clothes dropped to the ground, and she saw an uncle roll, dead, onto them. In the brief phase of expansion, when she was everywhere and nowhere, she saw the scene from multiple angles. The faces of the people she loved. Her mother’s pale skin, habitually hidden from the sun to prolong the appearance of youth, divided now by rivulets of blood. There had been no time for shock to transform her expression. The lethal ray must have instantly severed something vital to life. Instead, the expression was… maternal. Her hand was still curled in the shape it had made while cupping the back of a young nephew’s head.
Magden looked elsewhere, across the field of carnage. Her father, still stern. Her old nanny, regarded as ‘family’, whose face portrayed the horror of complete understanding. (Perhaps she knew her imperial history.) And children. All still.
Now the phase of expansion reached an end, and Magden narrowed herself. Invisible still, she slipped over the edge of cliff at its nearest point, like slurry through a waste-weir in the agricultural zone.
Half way down the cliff, with space between her and the carnage above, the emotional impact nearly knocked her out of the state into which she had transformed herself. It took continued concentration to maintain a balance between separation of her elements, and complete, irreversible dispersal. She followed a slim line down to the level of the water and paused in flight, having glimpsed a shape in the shallow water near the cliff. A body? But lifeless, unmoving. They must have jumped to escape the bullets, or perhaps they were thrown back by the ballistic energy. Magden could not linger. She skimmed peripheral canals until sure of her bearings. Then, knowing which direction she must take (away, away from the centre), she followed the trade canals until nightfall. She kept her wide gaze forward, fearful of the dark surface below, fearful that the face of the body would rise, pale and familiar.
As the temperature dropped, she found an unoccupied boat and coalesced in the warmth of its cabin. There she sat on the upholstered, narrow bench. As she began to take in the details of decoration, the tattered books, the dented tech, a hand-painted picture, a light went on and the owner stood before her.
Simon had been right, and the water did begin to clear as Magden ascended Lock Rise to the plateau. The change was very noticeable at lock four, where the water that filled the column ran green rather than black gloss. As she approached lock fifteen, her nerves began to tingle. This was not how she remembered the Rise. When she had ascended it with Frank, the brick walls had dripped with dark green slime; now the brick work was clean. She waited for the sluice to open and for the water level to rise. Then she walked along her boat’s roof, scanning the lock sides. Over halfway up Lock Rise now, she expected a sign, a messenger. It was getting dark.
At lock 23 she felt the pressure of another’s eyes on her back. She turned quickly, strained to see through the gloaming. A tall man stood on the opposite side of the lock. His hair stood out against a line of dark trees behind, completely white. Long for a man, it turned outwards to rest on his wide, straight shoulders. The face, beneath a deeply ploughed brow, was that of a very, very old man. Yet his stature, his skeleton, was that of a man in healthy middle age. Magden recognised him instantly; it was Rassamunden.
He smiled as he spoke. “Falona Xenopi. I am truly pleased to see you. Welcome back.”
Life on the comma-shaped island had not been all bad. The children were schooled and had time to play. Their father studied and worked on his grand project, the development of a military city.
He was a natural soldier, although Magden remembered overhearing conversations between courtiers and civil servants in palace corridors suggesting that he was not an effective general. Nevertheless, his crown, which was hereditary, made him commander-in-chief.
His great military scheme was to establish a great community where soldiers could live with their families and beget more soldiers. Alexus II was not embarrassed about this ambition. The stability of his kingdom depended on a huge and well-motivated army. The first ancestor, plain Rebecca Cranzz, had established her realm on the back of a huge force that changed allegiance during a regional war. She became Sophus I, five-hundred years before Alexus II’s ascension. He swore to uphold Sophus’s philosophy of rule — maintain the army, honour the army, give the army whatever it wants.
He was happy, at his desk, the sun stretching across his papers and graphic screen as the hours passed. He would spend the morning there while the nannies took the children out to play on the island’s limited spaces, and while the older ones, like Duchess Falona Xenopi, attended the classroom. Then they would have a formal lunch together, before Alexus II returned to his project. The other adults smiled indulgently. They, his wife among them, knew the plans would come to nothing. He no longer had power. He lived a delusion.
In happier times, the traitor Rassamunden had entertained them in the palace. He was a musician and poet, elevated to the level of personal advisor by virtue of omnipresence and charisma. Tall and lean, with long hair that was greying at the temples, resulting in a streaked ponytail, his treachery was surprisingly simple in the end — the mere passing of a palm-code to the invading vanguard.
But looking back, there had been hints of disloyalty. In muttered asides, when supervising the children’s cultural studies, he would comment on the state of the land, the increasing pollution, the burden of taxes, or the short-sighted nature of universal militarisation. These criticisms were not applied to Alexus II’s rule, but to mistakes made by previous societies, or the direction of history. Yet Falona, always sensitive to undercurrents, caught flavours of deep dissatisfaction. Perhaps the king valued a critical voice at court — she hadn’t really known. But she was not surprised when, on the island jail, it was revealed that it was Rassamunden who had let the enemy in.
Her father sighed when told, as though he had been taken for a fool. He had, of course.
But wasn’t it Rassamunden, at her father’s urging, who had urged Falona to become adept at etherealisation? Hadn’t she been saved, ultimately, by his careful and insistent tutelage?
Very few were able to do it, though the genetic heritage of the royal line did mean that the Duchess was more likely, statistically, to have the capability than a common child. Even if the talent was there, history had shown that the transformation could be performed only once, perhaps twice, in a lifetime. Half of those who did it twice never reformed. Their elements were still in the atmosphere, or had recirculated into the food chain, or been precipitated onto the land and washed into the ocean.
Etherealisation was a possible, for some, but it was not a useful tool.
Neverthless, Falona took an interest. She read up on famous examples — the criminal libertine who slipped through hangman’s noose as it tightened; the child who escaped a land vehicle as it plunged into a chasm; the ninety-year old dowager who undertook interplanetary transfer, seeking immortality — but Falona’s comfortable life seemed unlikely to offer such romantic, or dangerous, circumstances.
Her two closest companions studied with her, similarly encouraged by Rassamunden. They were her seven-year old male cousin, Arthuran, and her twelve-year old sister, Elizabeth. . They could be annoying (especially the boy, plump, fair, overtly jealous at times of his position way down the line of succession), but they seemed to worship their older relative and followed her around. Elizabeth modelled herself on Falona; in dress, in manner. Arthuran emulated her attitude — cautious, observant, reserved. And like Falona, both the youngsters immersed themselves in tales of etherealisation. Their eyes grew wide and their imaginations whirred. They were a decade away from having the discipline to do it safely. Only Falona was close. And Rassamunden knew it. Hence, two days before he let the enemy in, his comment:
“Whatever happens to your family, Falona, remember everything you have learnt. Everything I have taught you.”
When it came to the execution, she did exactly that.
In a poorly serviced quarter of the capital, Rassamunden paused in front of an unmarked door, drew the tip of his index finger across it diagonally, and smiled at Magden as it opened with a brief squeak. He sprang up an unlit staircase and knocked at a door on the first floor. A warm-sounding hubbub of conversation and debate within subsided. The door moved an inch, a face flitted across the gap, then it swung fully open. Magden entered, and saw a large group of men and women seated on sofas, wooden chairs or cushions thrown onto the floor. Magden’s assessment was instant — revolutionaries. All the way down to the threadbare trousers, leather jerkins, and thin, untrusting faces. The group had a centre; a man in middle age, leaning forward, his hands frozen in mid-gesticulation. Magden recognised his fair hair and nervous eyes immediately; it was Arthuran.
His eyes flicked between the two of them. Three of the group leapt up with guns raised and aimed. Arthuran spread his arms assertively,
Magden had not flinched. Rassamunden, standing by her side, beamed, seemingly confident in the advantage he held.
“Arthuran. As promised, I bring you what you have always lacked. Family. Validation.”
“I asked you for nothing.”
“Come now. With the duchess by your side, you can make your move. The people will love it, to see you together again. It is too good a story.”
“Why do this? What do you expect? A baronetcy?”
“I need nothing. By bringing the Duchess to you, I go some way to righting a wrong. I cannot undo what I did of course, but I can—”
Arthuran caught the eye of a comrade and nodded in Rassamunden’s direction. The third man walked forward, gun in hand.
“No, Arthuran. You still need me.”
“Your father. If you are to avoid the mistakes of the past, you must understand your father better. You must learn the lessons he failed to learn. Only I can show you. Only I was there.”
Rassamunden and Magden sat on a bench in a small warehouse near a suburban marina. They could hear the shouts of tradesmen and merchants; the thunder of barrels being rolled across cobbles; the rumble of canal boat motors. The warehouse was locked. A little light came in through spaces between wooden planks that comprised the walls. Outside, two guards dressed to look like canal boat men leaned on the door frame, guns in their belts.
“We have time, before Arthuran returns. Will you talk to me? You must have questions.”
Magden had adapted to the disgust he engendered in her. The need to know supressed the desire to spit, to injure, or ignore.
“How are you… so well? You must be… eighty-nine, ninety…?”
“It’s the air! It’s the water! Everything is better now, Falona. You’ve seen it, haven’t you? You’ve tasted it.”
“At what price?!” She raised her voice.
“That is the calculation I made, when I let the Selanuks in. The price was your family. I loved you, Falona, I loved all the children, but I could see where your father’s policies were taking us. He had no thought for the price of his obsession with the military… his stupid army towns… industrialisation… the armaments. He refused to learn from history on this world or on others… the depletion, the pollution…”
“It was murder. We were children!”
“I was there! I watched. I refused to look away, so I know exactly what it was. I counted the bodies, I confirmed their identities. And I lied, to keep you and Arthuran safe. I paid off the chaperones. We rewrote history and kept it supressed to this day. The Selanuks believed you and Arthuran were killed too.”
“Where did he go?”
“He was playing dead. You were the only one who could not be found. And Elizabeth of course, for half an hour, before we found her in the lake.” Rassamunden shook his head sadly.
Magden was shaken by mention of her sister’s name. Rassamunden’s expression transformed to one of concern.
“You knew that, didn’t you Falona? That Elizabeth fell into the water.” The irony of him showing concern, pushed Magden into silence for a minute. Rassamunden looked away.
Madgen murmured, pushing images of her sister in the water away, “How could you let them in? How could you allow our family to be killed? The children. How could that ever be justifiable?”
“Look at us now. How much better things are. Under Alexus II there were forgotten towns, with forgotten people. He did nothing for the weak, for those whose genetic lines meant they could never make a contribution to his vision. He was interested only in borders, conquests, legacy.”
“He was a good father.”
“He was dutiful, I will grant you that, Falona. But a bad ruler. You know it.”
Magden had no argument. She did not have the strength to challenge this equivalence.
“You say this society is benign…”
“Largely. You cannot rule by kindness alone.”
“So why send airborne chaperones along the waterways, into the estuaries, to pick off innocent men?”
“Yes, like Frank.”
“Think about it, Falona. How did you find me? The message, in the engine. It was Frank. He was no innocent boatman. He was always a conspirator.”
“No. I found him. It was chance.”
“It wasn’t. Duchess, listen to me. Everything was for a reason.”
“Tell me. How was it not chance?”
“Because Frank… was a beacon. After the etherealisation, you were little more than an air-borne current, you were a thread of energy… the path you followed, over the water, was necessary… I know the science, trust me, more than anyone on this planet. I put Frank there to attract you, as a conductor… his boat, that engine, it was a great attractor. In your training, you hadn’t been exposed to electromagnetic sources. That was deliberate. I needed you to be influenced, in the etherealised state. By the time you got down to the canals you were in danger of disappearing forever, but he was waiting there for you, and your exhausted body, its particles, rushed to him. It wasn’t chance, Falona, it was physics. I’m sorry. You were never going anywhere else.”
“It doesn’t matter. It is the truth. Frank trapped you, he picked you out of the air like a fly. And he watched you, for me. He kept you safe. He was your personal guard. Sadly, I could not keep him safe. I am sorry for that. The chaperone squadrons have their own executive structure. The new king ordered that anyone connected with the old line was to be exterminated. A rumour came in through rural intelligence about Frank. Agents tracked him for weeks. I knew nothing of this. I am truly sorry. But you were kept safe. I got a message through to the squadron at the last minute. A great deal of money was required. But you were kept safe, and that at least was something.”
Magden’s anger was exhausted.
The warehouse door opened. Arthuran stood in the rectangle of sudden light.
“Come on. It’s time. Show me.”
Rassamunden nodded, and informed the guards of the location.
Magden, Arthuran, and Rassamunden stood in the high-ceilinged examination hall of the capital’s military college. On a dais, where invigilators were accustomed to stand and watch the students during the annual ranking tests, were several glass-topped display cabinets. Rassamunden opened one with a key, then propped the glass cover up with a stick on a hinge. There was a slight hiss as the environmental regulator adjusted.
He picked out book as wide as him arm, full of designs for defences and war machines.
“The most sensitive things are always hidden in plain sight.”
Beneath the book lay a small, slim folder. Protected from light, its temperature regulated, it looked new. Rassamunden looked up at the royal cousins.
“This is your father’s personal notebook. This is where he developed his ideas. Here, handle it. You won’t break it.”
Madgen put it down on another display cabinet, looked at each page. It was fifty-percent text and fifty-percent design. Arthuran looked over her shoulder.
A city, described in minute detail. A romantic’s idea of the ideal community, melded with the autocrat’s vision of the self-sustaining military machine. Each building had a label, every street a name. Into the city ran broad supply lines, and from it extended a network of links to the rest of the continent, up to the borders. Magden could place it. She knew where Alexus II had wanted it to be founded. The canals that she knew so well would have been buried beneath new infrastructure.
“Go on,” encouraged Rassamunden.
Ten pages in — Thoughts on the order of battle, underlined.
The front line, ranks of infantry. Behind them, large ordnance.
coordinated, large scale e.
de-e, behind their lines, then unleash.
“Yes, Falona. That was the idea. To train them all in etherealisation.”
“But how? You can’t train for that. You are born to it. Only the royal line.”
A report, pasted onto a page. Written by Alexus II’s chief medical officer.
… the genetic penetrance in A, FX, and E is sufficient to be passed to non-carriers…
… After four generations I estimate sufficient numbers to create the first regiment…
… Selection criteria should be based on physical attributes and family history…
… The proposed model pre-supposes multiple partners; this will be more straightforward in the case of the male A…
… A conditioning programme in the cases of FX and E will be presented at the next council meeting…
Magden felt sick. Her hand clawed at the page.
“Don’t tear it. It’s evidence.”
“Get me out of here.”
Arthuran eyes were wet, but his jaw was set in a line of pure anger.
To discover one’s father was a monster…
Everything that had gone before must be re-evaluated. Every kind touch or gentle word, however sincerely meant in the moment, becomes obscured by the realisation that a hard and ruthless heart lay behind them. The plans he’d had for them, the three who shown early signs of talent…
The nannies; how they must have watched them as infants, looking for signs. The teachers, the tutors, ordered to observe and report on behaviour that seemed to indicate the potential to master etherealisation. So that they, the three who were chosen, could be used… Magden could not bring herself to think it through.
Rassamunden watched her from across the room, a plain kitchen in a second, anonymous safe house. Guards rotated through the rooms. They addressed Magden politely, but were brusque with Rassamunden.
“Can you find it in yourself to understand what I did?” he asked.
“Don’t talk to me.”
“I must. Because we are at a turning point. Arthuran is initiating a counter-coup as we speak. There is a taste for change, and he may well succeed. Everyone is comfortable on the plateau, but those in the periphery are nervous, the borders are no longer secure. The voice of the hawks is getting louder, and being heard. The lower house is sympathetic to Arthuran’s movement. Everyone knows he has been waiting in the wings, but nobody has talked about it publicly. The palace will be overrun, the communications hubs will be controlled, the administrative towns will fall into line. He’s probably already in the throne room.”
“Why work to reinstate my family when you allowed its destruction? You are just bending in the political wind… again.”
“My only concern is the security of this kingdom.”
“Were you ever loyal to my father?”
“For many years. Then I recognised what he was planning, and helped to stop it. Now I recognise the passivity of the current regime, and I will help to overturn that. I am loyal to this continent. I am the constant.”
“You regard yourself too highly.”
“It’s immaterial. In the end I am irrelevant, but while I live I will steer things in the way I feel that serves this continent.”
“So what do you want of me? Where do I fit? Why did you find me, why lure me to Lock Rise?”
“Be yourself. That’s all.”
“But you said… Frank said… everything is for a reason. What is my reason?”
“You were always the favourite, Falona. You still are.”
Magden’s first aerial view of the capital was surprising. The impression she had developed, of black buildings that loomed in harsh silhouette, of imposing facades and fascist architecture, was blown away. There were parks, serpiginous low-rise accommodation blocks designed to encourage sharing of communal spaces, and trees, far more than she remembered as a child. Her view, from half a kilometre up in a commandeered transport, was interrupted by several columns of smoke, where fifth-columnists in fighters (the same black crosses that had stormed the estuary and killed Frank) had taken out strategic targets. There seemed to be no collateral damage.
Magden was accompanied by one of Arthuran’s lieutenants.
“Where are we landing?” she asked.
“Palace grounds. Arthuran would like to see you as soon as possible.”
“Is it over, the fight?”
“All over. There was no real fighting… only the royal family’s personal guard. But their hearts weren’t in it.”
Magden turned back to the window, felt the transport tip and slow.
“What will happen to them?”
“Exile. Nothing more.”
The palace was calm. Magden noticed upturned furniture and elongated scorch marks on the floors or walls. The King’s study was destroyed, but the bodies of the personal guard had been removed. There was no blood. Magden and the lieutenant walked through the palace and out the back, into the expanse of the formal gardens which were bisected by a long ceremonial canal. This was a new feature. The banks of the canal were of granite; all straight lines and sharp edges. Half way along, the height of the canal dropped ten metres, and this point was marked by a lock. Beyond the lock was a marina, large enough for fifty boats.
The lieutenant, a long-time supporter of Arthuran, anticipated Magden’s question.
“The Selanuks built this. Part of a democratisation strategy… to show they were connected, to the people. On ceremonial days, representatives came in from the towns on their canal boats, moored up and spent the night as guests of the royal family. The Selanuks are, or were, obsessed with honouring the old ways.”
Magden had spotted a man several hundred metres away, on the granite side path.
“Arthuran. He’s waiting for you.”
He greeted her with a cold smile. Metal edges on his soles rang on the canal’s granite border as he stepped forward.
“We have won, Falona..”
“You have the palace. You don’t have the continent.”
“One follows the other. So now… what room will you have? Your old one?”
Magden shrugged. She had no intention of living here.
“You know, Falona, I think you may be an imposter.”
“You are too calm. For someone who saw what you saw, did what you did.”
“What did I do?”
“Your ability to forget is astounding.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Elizabeth. Tell me the truth, and then I will know if you are who you say you are.”
Magden looked over his shoulder, to the middle distance. The thinking distance.
“Elizabeth fell into the sea. During the massacre. Rassamunden told me. It makes sense, I saw a body. I did not know it was her.”
“You couldn’t stop to check, you were in mid-flight. A convenient version, for you.”
Magden stared back at him blankly.
“That is not what happened, Falona. I saw! I etherealised, but I was no good at it, could only manage it for a fraction of a second. Then I collapsed back into form, into my own clothes, before they even fell to the ground, and came to lie near the edge of cliff. Rassamunden found me there, touched me with his foot, pronounced me dead… for reasons I still do not understand, But before he arrived, I saw everything. Elizabeth had etherealised first, she must have seen them charge up the guns. But she re-formed too soon, over the shallows at the base of the cliff, and she fell, naked, into the waves. She began to drown in the seconds before you etherealised. As you descended the cliff you left a shadow, or a ripple in the air, I saw it. You skirted the narrow beach, you flew over the water… and you stopped,… but you did nothing!” He was shouting now.
Magden looked down, at her feet, at the granite surfaces, at the water.
Yes, she had flown over Elizabeth’s body. Yes, she had stopped, re-formed, become tactile.
Yes, she had seen her sister. The shallow waves had refracted the afternoon sun to play unnatural colours over the contours of Elizabeth’s face. Her lips had already begun to swell in the brine. Her eyes, half-open, didn’t flinch as they should to the sting of it. Yet, there was life there. She was drowned, but not dead. Her lungs were full but her heart was not yet still. Falona could tell. The skin retained a rose hue; there was oxygen in her, enough, perhaps, for life. But Magden could not stop. She must continue, fleeing the chaperones, finding safety, in case she too de-etherealised and dropped into history’s lap as the rest of the family had done. She could not stop. So she etherealised again, and Elizabeth had rolled beneath the lake’s usually benign waves.
“You killed her, Falona, through your neglect. If she had survived, the three of us, together, might have gathered support, reversed the invasion. The nucleus of the family would have been enough. Even with you gone, one of us could have led the people. Together, as we became adults, we would have turned opinion, not straight away, perhaps, but a few years later. Where was your loyalty? Where was your desire to avenge? Where where you?”
Magden had no answer. Arthuran’s puce colour faded. He had composed himself.
“So. I say you are an imposter,” he spat.
“I cannot be both imposter and murderer, Art.”
Arthuran considered. The slim line of the ceremonial canal glowed orange in the low sun, like a crack in the planet that burned beneath. The lock began to empty. Madgen looked around sharply, but saw no one on the sluice handle. An accomplice, hidden at a lever. A dip appeared in the surface of the water, where a whirlpool had been created by the opening of the sluice in the lock gate.
“Imposter. That will do.”
“Do for what?”
“For the people. As an explanation… for my first summary judgement.”
“After you appeared at our door with Rassamunden, I needed to be sure that you had not established a following, built up a popular movement, despite the humble way in which you present yourself. But my network tells me that I need have no fear… you are truly unknown, living in isolation on that stinking, damp canal boat. Perhaps, once, there would have been a place for you by my side, but not now. Not now Falona. Now you are just a complication.”“
He pressed forward, in a rush now, pushing her against the sculptured, thigh-high railing. With the flat of his hands he pressed against her chest.
“Art! NO!” shouted Magden. But he was committed. Unable to resist him, Magden’s centre of gravity moved beyond the railing, her fall inevitable. She turned her head, saw the expanding ripples, and became nothing. She disappeared. Arthuran could not halt his own movement. His arms closed on nothing. His waist doubled over the railing, and he fell into the water. He had time to right himself, so that he could kick up and keep his head above the water, but the whirlpool caught him. His outstretched arms rotated like the hands of a crazy clock until the water level fell and his feet became trapped in the hidden sluice. Then it did not take long for the water to lap at his face and fill his mouth.
Magden waited in the foliage of tree, formless still. Her control was perfect. The lock emptied slowly, its drainage partially obstructed. A turncoat chaperone walked past on a routine circuit and noticed some clothing near the lock gate. He looked down closely, and the truth dawned. There were shouts, people running. Rassamunden arrived, his cloak flapping. The gruesome finding did not disturb him. He looked around, and cast a smile at his surroundings, aiming it everywhere, and placed an envelope on the ground. Then he walked away. If he had turned, he would have seen the envelope rise from the grass before being consumed in an unseen cloud.
Simon was preparing his breakfast. It was cold outside, autumn rolling into winter. On a matter of principle, Simon took his breakfast up onto the roof of the boat unless rain, wind, or sub-zero conditions made it unrealistic. With an exaggerated sigh, he settled into the canvas back of a fold-out chair, lifted a mug to his chin, and looked along the canal. Morning mist hugged the breadth of the water’s surface and enveloped the tow path. It would probably not clear until after lunch.
A figure emerged from the moist, milky air. Short. Thin. Elderly. Female. Simon waved. The woman waved back. Presently, she joined him on the boat.
“I missed you, Magden. Where’s your boat?”
“Just up the towpath. I fancied a walk.”
“You found whatever you were looking for?”
She nodded. Simon knew when to push and when to stand off.
“So everything is alright, then?”
“Yes. I think so.”
“Good. Come on, let’s get you inside. I’ve enough food here for two. Did you hear the news? New government. Just like that! Some old bureaucrat in charge. Didn’t see that coming.”
“I need to catch up. Thank-you Simon, I will have some food, if that’s OK.”
Uncharacteristically, she gave him a huge hug. While she held him, Simon asked, “What did you make of the capital, Magden?”
“Who says I went to the capital?”
“I don’t know… you…”
Magden held him, enjoying the musty warmth of his thick top, and wondered… does he know? Does he care where I come from?
Later, after dark, Magden opened the envelope under the yellow glow of the bulb in her cabin. It was addressed to her, and was in her father’s handwriting. The embossed lilac of the envelope itself had faded to almost white, but the folded letter within had held its colour. But the marks of the paper were uninterpretable. Grey dashes and flecks, grouped in clouds or arcs. If it was an old imperial code, it looked unbreakable, so formless was the data.
She held a hand over the paper and concentrated. Her palm and wrist began to etherealise. She controlled it, so that it did not creep up her arm. Looking through the place where her flesh had been, turning the invisible arm so that it refracted the marks in different planes and directions, she began to detect patterns. Words appeared, but they could only be read one at a time. With her other hand, the non-dominant one, she recorded them in the order they were revealed to her. An hour later she had organised them into a paragraph that made sense. Her understanding of her father set the tone, and of course she knew how it would start:
I anticipate your every feeling. I know your anger. That is the price I began to pay even before they took my life.
I know about Rassamunden. Every court has one. What will happen next week is inevitable, history tells us this. If not next week, next year. I cannot save the family.
But I can save you, my best, my brightest. I hope also that Art and El manage to escape. It was my ambition that each of you become skilled enough to fly away when the chaperones arrive. If the three of you survive, our family might come together again. I pray so.
I have made mistakes. I am not a poor leader, just a mediocre one. I did not ask for it.
I will entrust this letter to Rassamunden. If he gives it to you it means he knows that it is time for our family to return. He will help. Use his skill.
Nothing I say can save your memory of me. That is the price I pay.
Magden’s arm solidified. The words broke apart. She hid the letter behind a panel designed to foil searches by passing chaperones, and unfolded a navigation chart on the galley table. At dawn, when the sun began to burn the mist off the water, Magden’s boat was gone. The water was calm, the wake of her smooth, reliable engine had subsided. At the junction there were no clues as to which way she had gone; right, to the periphery, or left, towards Lock Rise, the city, and the destiny that she had evaded for half a century. It was impossible to tell.
A beautiful story that would make a magnificent novel.