Light from a high window
To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.—QUENTIN CRISP
At the corner of the window, a waxen spider spun.
Rien's trained eye noticed the spider, the way her spinning caught the light. But Rien did not move her rag to break the threads and sweep the cobweb down. She pressed to the wall between that window and the door and held her breath, praying like the spider that no eye would fall on her, as Lady Ariane Conn and her knights brought in the naked prisoner from Engine.
Rien knew the prisoner was of noble blood by her chains. They writhed at her wrists, quicksilver loops of nanotech. An ancient colony, costlier than rubies and more rare, but forestalling any untoward transformations.
Nobody would waste chains like that on a Mean when cheap extruded would serve. And then there was the way the prisoner bore herself, strong shameless steps that swept the nanotech across the floor behind like silken swags, and there was the buttermilk blue of her complexion.
The girl was tall, almost sexless in her slenderness and anything but sensual, though she was naked except for streaks of indigo blood, and dirt, and manacles. Her bony face was square, and tired sweat stuck her dirt-brown hair to her cheeks and shoulders. The only breadth on her, other than across the jaw and cheekbones, was in the wiry muscles of her shoulders and her chest. Even her bare feet were narrow and elegant.
Rien could not see the prisoner's hands through the twisting chains, but judged they must be the same. Furthermore, she was escorted in by a half-dozen of Ariane's knights, beam weapons slung across ablative armor carapaces, faces concealed under closed and tinted helms. The girl—no older than Rien, though far more imposing—was Family.
Rien drew back among the other upstairs maids, twisting her polishing cloth between her hands, but started when Head's hand fell on her. Rien craned her neck around, catching a comforting glimpse of Head's craggy profile, the long furrows beside hir nose, and whispered. "Will there be war?"
Head squeezed. The pain was a comfort. "When isn't there? Don't worry, girl. We're beneath soldiers. It never touches us."
Rien's mouth made an O. "Who's she then?"
Head's hand slid down Rien's sloping shoulder and brushed her elbow when it dropped. "That's Sir Perceval. They'll want her well fed once she's in her cell."
The chained girl's eyes swept the room like searchlights. Rien lowered her gaze when the stare seared over her.
Head cleared hir throat. "You can do it."
Care for the prisoner. Not a job for an upstairs maid. Not a job for a mere girl. "But—"
"Hush," said Head.
And Rien had run clear of words anyway. For when the girl knight, Sir Perceval, passed—back still straight as a dangled rope, chin lifted and eyes wide—Rien saw what she had not before.
From long gashes between her shoulder blades, two azure ropes of blood groped down her back, across her spine. They writhed when they touched each other, like columns of searching ants.
Fruitlessly. The wings they sought had been severed at the root. And if Rien were to judge by the Lord's daughter Ariane striding beside the captive, her unblade bumping her thigh, the maiming would be permanent.
That sword's name was Innocence, and it was very old.
Rien raised her hand to her mouth and bit at the skin across the bones as the mangled demon of Engine was led through the hall, down the stair, and away.
At first Perceval thought the tickle in the hollow of her collarbone was the links of a silver necklace she always wore, kinking where they draped over bone. Then, as she came awake, she remembered that she was a prisoner of the House of Rule, and they had taken her necklace along with her clothes, so it must be a trailing strand of hair.
But she turned her head, and nothing slid across her nape and shoulders. They'd shaved her head—one more humiliation, not remotely the worst.
Perceval's arms were chained over her head, and as her shifting weight fell against them, sensation briefly returned. The chains were not cold and hard, but had stretch and give, like oiled silk. Fighting them was like fighting the River, like a child wrestling adult power.
But she must fight anyway.
She bent her elbows, dragged at the bonds, tugged the sheets of nano that chained her feet to the floor. It hurt, though her weight was halved now, though her shoulders were shorn as naked as her scalp. Rule set the gravity high. Her muscles hardened reflexively, across her shoulders and her deep-keeled breast, and where translucent blood-warmed membrane should have cupped air, instead she felt the clean-cut rounds of bone twist in her new-scabbed wounds.
The tickle at her throat was a forlorn tendril of blood, still groping for the severed wing.
At least there was light here, light from a high window, falling warm and dusty across her scalp and shoulders. Perceval knew it was only to taunt, like the breeze that ghosted between the bars, but she found it a small mercy anyway. If she were to die, at least she would die in the sight of the suns, their strength soaking her bones.
She wrapped her fingers around the sheets of nano, straining to close numb hands, working her fists to move the blood inside. They came back to her in pins and needles, bursts of static along chastened nerves. The effort broke her scabs, and more blood ran from her wounds, dripped along her spine, outlined a buttock's curve. The blood was hotter than the sunlight.
She would not weep for her wings. She would not weep here at all. Not for anything.
She pulled at her chains again, and again, and only stopped when she heard the echo of a footstep on the star.
Rien came down spiraling polycarbonate steps, one elbow brushing the wall for balance as she steadied a tray on her hands. Sunlight falling through the stairs cast her shadow on the welded floor seven stories below. Her shoes tinkled on the high-impact plastic, the sound ringing back from roof and walls.
The prisoner would know that she was coming, which of course was the design.
At the bottom of the stair was an arched doorway into a short passage. There was no door, nor any need of one; no one who could escape nano chains would be forestalled by anything as fragile as a material barrier. Rien passed the locked and trapped controls and stepped through into the spacious, well-lit dungeon.
Perceval hung in her bonds like a marionette from a rack, head lolling and fingers limp. She did not stir when Rien entered, but Rien thought she saw the quick gleam of a flickering eye. "I've brought food," she said, and set the tray on a folding stand beside the door.
The food was quinoa porridge, steamed and sweetened with honey and soy milk, and a jug of peppermint tisane. Simple fare, but nourishing: the same breakfast Rien had partaken of, though colder now. Rien picked up the bowl, a transparent plastic spoon, and an absorbent shock-wove napkin and crossed the chamber to where the prisoner hung, silhouetted by falling light. "Lift up your head," Rien said, trying to sound stern. "I know that you're awake."
Fortunately, the bowl was durable. Because when the prisoner lifted up her head, blinked eyes the same color and transparency as the peppermint tea, and said, "Hello, Rien," Rien dropped it.
Dust closed his eyes and leaned back in a chair beside the conjured fire. Of course real fire was an impossibility here, a terror that would devour irreplaceable oxygen and fill airtight spaces with killing smoke, but the flicker and warmth and light of the programmed counterfeit would serve him, who was a counterfeit himself.
He put his feet up and listened to the downpour flooding the battlements. It rushed over polycarbonate-paned windows and poured out the rough-beaked snouts of precision-molded rain gutters, beaded on mossy outcrops, and thundered down the ragged shoulders of his house.
The sky creaked overhead. Somewhere deep in the bowels of the world, a conduit had broken. The unseasonable rain would continue until the world's blood healed the wound; Dust's anchore would be washed with water needed, no doubt, in far holdes and domaines. There was no sunlight in the core, except whatever reflected through the long-lensed and mirrored channels from the skin of the world, but there was water aplenty. Half the rivers in the world twisted across his sky.
He breathed the chill air, and smiled. The rain washing his house tickled his skin, the memory of a caress on skin that had not felt such a thing in centuries.
He had lost much of the world when he lost the rest of himself, but all that occurred here, he knew. He retained that, though he was not what he had been.
His ring caught on the placket as he tucked one hand into a white-and-silver brocaded waistcoat and felt for his watch. The chain fell cold and silver between his fingers, as if the rain ran through them, too.
When he raised it to his eye, he neither lifted his eyelid nor exposed the crystal. He did not need the watch, the glance, or the gesture. He knew the time; it ticked out within him with atomic regularity. But the ceremony pleased him nonetheless.
"Nearing midnight," he said to an empty chamber, voice ringing on stone walls and hushed by hand-knotted carpets. Dust sat upright, opening his eyes, tucking his watch away. White sleeves billowed as he stood and walked to the window, where a watery light struggled: the reflected suns' doomed but valiant attempt to shine through the sheeting water.
"All but midnight already," he said, and streaked the condensation on the plastic with a casual finger. The house rubbed into his caress. "And so much to be done."
With a magician's gesture, he plucked a glass of brandy from the air, swirling the liquor under his nose. It smelled sharply of real rain—as the rain could not—and chocolate, atomized molecules tickling his receptors, and he smiled when he tasted it.
He spoke to the rain as if through it the world could hear him, though he knew the world had gone deaf long before. But memory was what he had, memory and ritual, and a flair for the melodramatic honed through centuries of study.
"By the elements, by the ten directions. I have not forgotten. My name is Jacob Dust, and I have not forgotten."
Dust could see through the rain if he chose to, stretch out his senses to the skin of the world. He could attenuate himself, reach broad, grow into mist and brush as if with invisible fingertips the transparent skin of the world, reach out beyond it, into the cold empty darkness beyond, where the light of the stars and the temporary suns burned. He could stroke the vast cratered hide, its twisted sun-shades and solar panels, the old wounds and injuries that there simply were not resources to repair. He could reach out into many the holdes and anchores and domaines, into the chambers and vaults of the world. If he were not prevented, in places, he could have extended that reach into its long-cold engines and rent reactor cores, through the homes of Mean and noble alike, into the courts of Engine and Rule. But not all paths were open; some of them his brothers watched over jealously.
He could, however, stroke the cheek of an exiled prince, and of a princess who would be Captain, and of Perceval in her dungeon chains.
And only the angels would know.
But world was vast, and vastly broken, limping in its desolate orbit around these shipwreck stars. And Jacob Dust was not what he had been, when he and the world were whole. He could do these things, if he chose to. But the effort would exhaust him. And there were those to whom he could not risk being made vulnerable.
They know all, that dwell in the silent kitchens
In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.—JOHN 14:2, King James Bible
Some of the milk and porridge splashed out when Rien dropped the bowl. It spattered Perceval's ankle, and her chains writhed toward it, defensively. But once they tasted the spill, they withdrew again—Perceval could not help but think—nonplussed.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I did not mean to startle you. Was that for me, Rien?"
The girl stammered, staring. She was small, fine-boned, with delicate features and a wild froth of frizzy black hair chopped off shoulder-long and clipped back with jeweled plastic spiders that spun a transparent hairnet between them—something cheap and pretty.
She looked nothing like her mother, but then, who did?
"It is for you," she managed, bending down to pick up the bowl. It hadn't overturned.
She picked the spoon off the floor as well, and scrubbed it on the hem of her tan blouse. As if a little dirt from the dungeon floor could discomfit Perceval now.
When Rien looked up again, Perceval spread her hands, a gesture of helplessness. She could not feed herself bound up in chains, the strain like dripped fire down her neck and shoulders, a hurt even sharper than the missing wings. Ariane Conn, Perceval promised herself, feeling a little ridiculous. She could say the name a thousand times. It would not free her, nor put her in a place where she could fight Lady Ariane.
And in any case, Ariane was the eldest living and acknowledged daughter of Alasdair Conn, who had been Commodore since the death of the last Captain. Nearly five hundred years, nearly since the moving times. She was out of Perceval's league.
Except here unlooked-for was the child Rien, sent to serve Perceval in her captivity, apparently in all innocence. An Engineer's miracle. It might mean that even somewhere here in Rule there was a friend.
Perceval arched up on the balls of her feet to ease her arms and shoulders as Rien fussed with the spoon.
"I will feed you," Rien said, as if noticing Perceval's gesture. She dug the spoon through porridge and held it up so Perceval had only to push her chin forward to take it.
Of course the stuff might be drugged, but they had her in nanochains. If they wanted to poison her, or kill her, or interrogate her, there were easier means.
And Perceval had no doubt those means would be used.
Even such a small motion made her want to gasp in pain, though she schooled herself to let only a little air hiss from her nose. Rien noticed, however, and after Perceval had her mouthful, Rien walked around her to examine her back.
Excerpted from Dust by Elizabeth Bear. Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth Bear. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.