Getting themselves aboard the zeppelin was hazardous for the spies, not least because of the equipment they had to carry. Apart from the lodestone resonator, the most important items were a pair of insect larvae, and their food. When the adult insects emerged, they would be more like dragonflies than anything else, but they were not like any kind of dragonfly that the humans of Will’s world, or Lyra’s, would have seen before. They were very much larger, for one thing. The Gallivespians bred these creatures carefully, and each clan’s insects differed from the rest. The Chevalier Tialys’s clan bred powerful red-and-yellow-striped dragonflies with vigorous and brutal appetites, whereas the one the Lady Salmakia was nurturing would be a slender, fast-flying creature with an electric blue body and the power of glowing in the dark.
Every spy was equipped with a number of these larvae, which, by feeding them carefully regulated amounts of oil and honey, they could either keep in suspended animation or bring rapidly to adulthood. Tialys and Salmakia had thirty-six hours, depending on the winds, to hatch these larvae now—because that was about the time the flight would take, and they needed the insects to emerge before the zeppelins landed.
The Chevalier and his colleague found an overlooked space behind a bulkhead, and made themselves as safe as they could while the vessel was loaded and fueled; and then the engines began to roar, shaking the light structure from end to end as the ground crew cast off and the eight zeppelins rose into the night sky.
Their kind would have regarded the comparison as a mortal insult, but they were able to conceal themselves at least as well as rats. From their hiding place, the Gallivespians could overhear a good deal, and they kept in hourly touch with Lord Roke, who was aboard King Ogunwe’s gyropter.
But there was one thing they couldn’t learn any more about on the zeppelin, because the President never spoke of it: and that was the matter of the assassin, Father Gomez, who had been absolved already of the sin he was going to commit if the Consistorial Court failed in their mission. Father Gomez was somewhere else, and no one was tracking him at all.
There ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand.
• I KINGS •
“Yeah,” said the red-haired girl, in the garden of the deserted casino. “We seen her, me and Paolo both seen her. She come through here days ago.”
Father Gomez said, “And do you remember what she looked like?”
“She look hot,” said the little boy. “Sweaty in the face, all right.”
“How old did she seem to be?”
“About . . .” said the girl, considering, “I suppose maybe forty or fifty. We didn’t see her close. She could be thirty, maybe. But she was hot, like Paolo said, and she was carrying a big rucksack, much bigger than yours, this big . . .”
Paolo whispered something to her, screwing up his eyes to look at the priest as he did so. The sun was bright in his face.
“Yeah,” said the girl impatiently, “I know. The Specters,” she said to Father Gomez, “she wasn’ afraid of the Specters at all. She just walked through the city and never worried a bit. I ain’ never seen a grownup do that before, all right. She looked like she didn’ know about them, even. Same as you,” she added, looking at him with a challenge in her eyes.
“There’s a lot I don’t know,” said Father Gomez mildly.
The little boy plucked at her sleeve and whispered again.
“Paolo says,” she told the priest, “he thinks you’re going to get the knife back.”
Father Gomez felt his skin bristle. He remembered the testimony of Fra Pavel in the inquiry at the Consistorial Court: this must be the knife he meant.
“If I can,” he said, “I shall. The knife comes from here, does it?”
“From the Torre degli Angeli,” said the girl, pointing at the square stone tower over the red-brown rooftops. It shimmered in the midday glare. “And the boy who stole it, he kill our brother, Tullio. The Specters got him, all right. You want to kill that boy, that’s okay. And the girl—she was a liar, she was as bad as him.”
“There was a girl, too?” said the priest, trying not to seem too interested.
“Lying filth,” spat the red-haired child. “We nearly killed them both, but then there came some women, flying women—”
“Witches,” said Paolo.
“Witches, and we couldn’ fight them. They took them away, the girl and boy. We don’ know where they went. But the woman, she came later. We thought maybe she got some kind of knife, to keep the Specters away, all right. And maybe you have, too,” she added, lifting her chin to stare at him boldly.
“I have no knife,” said Father Gomez. “But I have a sacred task. Maybe that is protecting me against these—Specters.”
“Yeah,” said the girl, “maybe. Anyway, you want her, she went south, toward the mountains. We don’ know where. But you ask anyone, they know if she go past, because there ain’ no one like her in Ci’gazze, not before and not now. She be easy to find.”
“Thank you, Angelica,” said the priest. “Bless you, my children.”
He shouldered his pack, left the garden, and set off through the hot, silent streets, satisfied.
After three days in the company of the wheeled creatures, Mary Malone knew rather more about them, and they knew a great deal about her.
That first morning they carried her for an hour or so along the basalt highway to a settlement by a river, and the journey was uncomfortable; she had nothing to hold on to, and the creature’s back was hard. They sped along at a pace that frightened her, but the thunder of their wheels on the hard road and the beat of their scudding feet made her exhilarated enough to ignore the discomfort.
And in the course of the ride she became more aware of the creatures’ physiology. Like the grazers’ skeletons, theirs had a diamond-shaped frame, with a limb at each of the corners. Sometime in the distant past, a line of ancestral creatures must have developed this structure and found it worked, just as generations of long-ago crawling things in Mary’s world had developed the central spine.
The basalt highway led gradually downward, and after a while the slope increased, so the creatures could freewheel. They tucked their side legs up and steered by leaning to one side or the other, and hurtled along at a speed Mary found terrifying—though she had to admit that the creature she was riding never gave her the slightest feeling of danger. If only she’d had something to hold on to, she would have enjoyed it.
At the foot of the mile-long slope, there was a stand of the great trees, and nearby a river meandered on the level grassy ground. Some way off, Mary saw a gleam that looked like a wider expanse of water, but she didn’t spend long looking at that, because the creatures were making for a settlement on the riverbank, and she was burning with curiosity to see it.
There were twenty or thirty huts, roughly grouped in a circle, made of—she had to shade her eyes against the sun to see—wooden beams covered with a kind of wattle-and-daub mixture on the walls and thatch on the roofs. Other wheeled creatures were working: some repairing a roof, others hauling a net out of the river, others bringing brushwood for a fire.
So they had language, and they had fire, and they had society. And about then she found an adjustment being made in her mind, as the word creatures became the word people. These beings weren’t human, but they were people, she told herself; it’s not them, they’re us.
They were quite close now, and seeing what was coming, some of the villagers looked up and called to each other to look. The party from the road slowed to a halt, and Mary clambered stiffly down, knowing that she would ache later on.
“Thank you,” she said to her . . . her what? Her steed? Her cycle? Both ideas were absurdly wrong for the bright-eyed amiability that stood beside her. She settled for—friend.
He raised his trunk and imitated her words:
“Anku,” he said, and again they laughed, in high spirits.
She took her rucksack from the other creature (“Anku! Anku!”) and walked with them off the basalt and on to the hard-packed earth of the village.
And then her absorption truly began.
In the next few days she learned so much that she felt like a child again, bewildered by school. What was more, the wheeled people seemed to be just as wonderstruck by her. Her hands, to begin with. They couldn’t get enough of them: their delicate trunks felt over every joint, searching out thumbs, knuckles, and fingernails, flexing them gently, and they watched with amazement as she picked up her rucksack, conveyed food to her mouth, scratched, combed her hair, washed.