‘Just… thank you,’ Sarah said. They were well clear of Pelf’s house and the initial icy sting of the cold ground on their bare feet had numbed again now. They made good progress past the deserted and stripped houses and out across an open area of marshy ground.
‘Well, I wasn’t going to leave you again.’
‘I know. I didn’t mean to jump down your throat. It’s just… after Satyris, the idea of not being completely my own person terrifies me.’
‘You are your own person. But I still couldn’t leave you back there with Pelf, could I?’
‘That’s what I mean. Thank you. You’re not responsible for me.’
David walked a few more paces.
‘I am,’ he said quietly. ‘I mean, I should be, or could be… or something.’
‘You didn’t get us into this. No one’s blaming you.’
‘That’s not quite what I meant.’
‘Nothing. I guess you’re right. You’re not responsible for me either.’
‘No. But we’ll do the best we can.’
‘Like we used to.’
She smiled and took his hand for a moment, squeezed it tightly, then let go. ‘That was a long time ago.’ She did not look at him.
A few hundred yards further down the track a series of low buildings came into view.
‘I like Limivo,’ Sarah said, ‘but I don’t trust him. He could cause us trouble.’
‘You think we shouldn’t go back?’
‘It was what I was thinking, but now you’ve actually said it, no, we can’t do that. He wants to get out of here as much – well, almost as much – as we do. We can use that. But we’ve got to be ready to cut him loose as soon as he threatens our escape.’
At the border of Malverso’s part of Exdis were dozens of low walls, marking the positions of houses in the process of being built. David was struck by the quality of workmanship and the care that had been taken over their construction. Huge rocks, each beautifully cut and smoothed formed the foundation stones of the walls, and each plot was marked out to be precisely the same size as the next.
All along their approach to the centre were more houses under construction. More perfectly built walls stood tall and straight, hewn from fine pale grey rock. None had roofs, or any sign of ongoing work. There was just a constant programme of building work that marched along the road towards the centre of the township. New houses were being started while the half-built ones were abandoned to the elements.
They continued into the centre until they came to a large building, out of which poured a column of young men carrying spades, forks, pickaxes and masonry tools, all freshly painted and looking as if they had never seen active service. They waited until the workers had dispersed into the surrounding streets then approached the building.
‘This is the one,’ David said.
Above the door was a wooden sign, badly painted with the words ‘Baron Malverso’ above an armorial of crossed pick-axes and a wreath of laurel. Beneath the image were the words ‘humilis, pia, probus’.
David knocked at the door and waited. He tried the handle (which did nothing) then knocked again, more loudly, but there was still no reply. He was about to hammer one last time when a familiar sound began to drift along the street.
‘Listen!’ he whispered. The sound was getting closer. Sarah peered around the corner to see the black shape of a Cerberite moving towards them, followed at some distance by two others.
‘What do we do?’ she whispered.
‘We need to find a back way into here.’
They ran along the side wall of Malverso’s house, keeping flat against it and making as little sound as they could. A faint, low rattling wafted towards them from the front of the building. The first Cerberite voice was joined by another and the two fugitives stopped, trying to determine which way the drones were moving. The sinister mechanical conversation echoed down the silent streets.
The first machine appeared around the corner and began to move swiftly along the side of the building. Taking Sarah’s hand, David ran towards the back of the house just as the drone spotted them. It extended an arm, six fingers pointing directly at them, and let out a loud howl.
They found themselves behind a row of terraced houses that had been built along the back of Malverso’s headquarters. They ran as fast as they could along the row, looking for anywhere to get out of sight of the drones. With no other cover available, that meant getting into the block of houses, but most of the rear doors had been blocked up and the windows shuttered.
The first of the drones rounded the corner and moved swiftly towards them. Another came along the terrace from the other end. David slowed.
‘What do we do?’ Sarah said.
‘Nothing? Is this another of your ‘plans’?’
‘I don’t think they’re looking for us. Just wait.’
The first Cerberite came up to them and stopped. It rattled a command to the other, still some twenty yards or so behind them. It too stopped. There was no sign of the third.
The machine looked from Sarah to David, fixing him with its vacant gaze. It raised an arm and took hold of his shoulder.
‘Baron Malverso,’ David said.
The machine loosened its grip slightly.
‘We’re with Baron Malverso. We were late getting back.’
‘If you doubt it, take us to him. He will confirm our story.’
The Cerberite gave a low, croaking rattle and lowered its arm completely.
‘Come on,’ David said.
Stiffly David walked up the short path to the door at the rear of the nearest house. Sarah followed, but the Cerberites did not. They watched.
The door was closed. David tried the handle, but it just turned uselessly against the lock. He could probably have kicked it open, but he was terrified that any sudden movements, any sign of violence would rekindle the machines’ interest in them.
He shouldered the door gently.
‘David, they’re moving,’ Sarah whispered. David could hear the stealthy footsteps of the machine that had apprehended them. It was closing in again. He shoved against the door again, harder this time and felt it give a little.
‘On three, we charge the door. No second chance. OK?’ He felt Sarah nod (or at least, he hoped he did).
‘OK. One… two… three!’
They moved as one, hitting the door with slow, even pressure. Not enough to shatter it inwards, but enough to pop the lock off and for the door to swing open. They rushed inside and shut the door behind them. Outside the machines were still. David looked through a crack in the door and saw that the nearest Cerberite was watching. For several seconds their eyes seemd to meet then the machine turned and walked back down the path.
‘It’s gone,’ David said.
‘That was close,’ Sarah said. ‘Why do you think they didn’t attack us?’
‘They’ve not been told to. The machines out here are just tasked to round up stragglers. Remember, no one knows we’re here.’
‘But they must be reporting back to somewhere, and whatever orders they’re following right now will change once they know who we are.’
‘Then we’ll be careful.’
There was a sound outside the room. Someone coughed quietly, then the door burst open so hard it slammed into the wall behind it.
‘Ah-ha! Visitors!’ A little man, dressed in bright green robes, stood in the doorway.
‘We were just leaving,’ Sarah said.
‘So soon?’ the man replied. ‘But you are in the right place!’
‘Baron Malverso! And I am delighted to be the one to find you. Malverso will be so happy. Please, to come this way with me. Please, this way.’ He bowed slightly as he held the door open for them, then scampered around in front of them again to lead the way through a maze of passageways knocked through the houses.
‘Is Malverso here?’ Sarah asked.
‘Of course. He’s in the games room.’ He stopped suddenly, and turned a worried expression back at the visitors. ‘Don’t you to tell him I didn’t introduce myself to you. Must do it now, before it is becoming too late. I,’ he said proudly, ‘am Dicof Pidr.’ He held out his hand.
Sarah spluttered, barely stifling a laugh.
‘What sort of name is that?’
‘It’s not a name, stupid,’ the man said. ‘It’s my job. I am Deputy In Charge Of Finding People In Disused Rooms. Dicof Pidr. Now, if you don’t like it, I won’t find you.’
‘But you already have,’ Sarah said.
‘Then I unfind you. I do that too, you know. Baron Malverso is very pleased with how I unfind people.’
‘OK, I’m sorry. It’s very good of you to find us. Now, if we could just see Malverso?’
The man cocked his head to one side and examined his two guests with intense interest. He bit his lip, then a wide grin spread across his face.
‘Off we go then…’ He spun on his heels and set off again. The further they wound into the complex of passages, the more animated the man became, until, by the time they reached the battered wooden door of the Games Room, he was skipping along and waving his arms like windmills.
Dicof Pidr burst through the door without knocking and, without introduction or formality, he shouted at the top of his voice:
‘Found some!’ He waved furiously at David and Sarah to follow him into the room.
‘Well done!’ a voice replied. ‘Come in, don’t wait around in the doorway. Come in.’
They entered a large, ornately panelled room. In the centre of the room stood a long heavy table, at one end of which sat the man who had called them in.
‘Baron Malverso,’ Dicof Pidr told them, then shrugged his shoulders mischievously and skipped back out of the room with such joy that there were tears in his eyes.
They approached Malverso. Another figure sat cross-legged on the table with her back to them, bouncing a small ball noisily on the wooden surface. She looked around briefly to reveal bright eyes and a malevolent grin beneath gaudy red make-up. She returned to bouncing the ball without comment.
‘And you are?’ Malverso said. He sat on a roughly nailed-together chair, fashioned out of old crates and planks, but painted to suggest some kind of throne.
‘David,’ David said, ‘and Sarah.’
‘Splendid. What charmingly delightful names! And what can I do for you David-and-Sarah, then?’
‘We’ve come to ask you for a slave, if we may, sir,’ Sarah said. ‘A small one, quite light and agile would be perfect.’
‘Is that all? No problem. Now, won’t you play a hand of cards with me? Scattergood, the deck if you please.’
Scattergood, the woman who sat on Malverso’s table, jumped up and danced to a cupboard at the side of the room. Tiny bells attached to her ankles jangled noisily.
‘We don’t have time really….’
‘Then how can I give you a slave?’
‘You mean we’re playing cards for him? Sarah said.
‘What a splendid idea. If you win, you can have any slave you wish.’
‘And if I lose?’
‘Then I will kill you, and your friend can play. But we must be very quiet. There’s a game of chess over there.’ Malverso pointed a long stout stick at two men sitting at another table on the far side of the room. A heavy gold head on the stick glinted in the light of the dozen or so spluttering lamps mounted on brackets around the walls.
Scattergood cartwheeled back to the table and presented Malverso with a deck of tattered playing cards.
‘What shall we play, then?’ Malverso looked from David to Sarah, his eyes bright with expectation.
‘I don’t know any card games,’ Sarah said, ‘except maybe twenty-ones.’
‘A splendid choice. Quite my favourite. I was going to suggest it myself.’
Sarah sat on one of the chairs at the side of the table while Malverso dealt her two cards. Sarah picked them up and examined them as Malverso dealt two for himself.
‘What have you got?’ Malverso asked her.
‘An ace and a king,’ she said.
‘Bravo. We have a winner. Twenty-one with your first hand. Another game?’
Before Sarah could reply, he had snatched back the cards and shuffled them into the pack. He dealt two more cards for her, and two for himself. His eyebrows questioned her.
‘Twenty one again. Sorry.’
‘Marvellous. You win again. One more.’
He dealt again. This time he did not even look at his own cards.
‘Two aces,’ Sarah told him.
‘Two aces. That’s… twenty-two?’
‘Damn these cards.’ Malverso snatched them from her hand. ‘Twenty two? We can’t have that!’ He tore them up and flung the deck at Scattergood. As they tumbled across the floor, David could see that every card was either an ace or a king.
‘What’s the point of that?’ David said. ‘If the idea’s to get twenty one, you could hardly get anything else with that deck.’
‘Obviously!’ Malverso shouted. ‘How else would your friend have been able to win? Or would you rather see the poor girl sit there and lose? It doesn’t surprise me. That’s what’s wrong with Outlanders: everything’s about being better than someone else. Well, young man, we don’t have that here.’ His face suddenly brightened. ‘Now, what can I do for you?’
‘We really just want a servant, and then we will get out of your way.’
Malverso was about to say something, when they were interrupted by a voice from the other side of the room.
‘Check-mate.’ The voice was thin, sad, and barely audible even in the quiet room. Malverso stood, swelling himself up to his full four-foot-nothing height. He strode over to the two chess players.
‘What do you mean, ‘check-mate’?’ he hissed.
Both players looked sadly down at the board.
‘Queen’s Bishop, sir,’ said the man who appeared to be playing white, though with three kings still on the board it was impossible to be sure. ‘I didn’t notice in time.’
‘How dare you!’ Malverso roared. He raised his stick and swung its golden head at the player. There was a dull cracking sound as the man’s cheekbone splintered. ‘You never win. No one ever wins, you pathetic vermin.’ The man reeled from the blow, but sat as firmly as his swimming head would allow. ‘How do you think this poor man feels now you’ve beaten him? Do you think he feels good?’
Malverso once again raised his staff, this time landing a blow so vicious that the winning player crumpled onto the chess board. He turned to the loser and smiled a sickly smile.
‘There, there. Never mind. You’ve just got to keep practising. No one will win again, I promise.’ He leaned close to the terrified player and licked the side of his face. ‘Scattergood, make this man happy again, will you?’
Malverso returned to his throne and sat down heavily. David watched for a moment as the jester jumped onto the chess table and sat amongst the scattered pieces. Her brightly painted face leered at the losing player. David turned his attention back to Malverso just as Scattergood was pushing a bishop up her left nostril.
‘Now, where were we?’ Malverso said.
‘We just want a servant, if you don’t mind,’ Sarah told him.
‘Not a title? You could be ‘Sir Sarah’ if you want. And ‘Baron David of Bathroom’. I’m just sorry I can’t give you a bathroom to go with it, but we seem to have quite run out.’
‘No, really, just a small, light servant. It’s quite important,’ Sarah insisted.
‘Very well.’ He turned his attention to Scattergood, who was now standing on her head on the chessboard, a mixture of black and white pieces protruding from her mouth. ‘Is he happy yet?’
Scattergood spat out the chessmen. ‘Not quite,’ she said, poking the unfortunate player with her finger.
‘Give him a title then. How about ‘Deputy Winner’? That’ll cheer him up. Then go and get me a servant. Something small and light.’
‘Very good, your sir-ship.’ Scattergood leapt from the table and cartwheeled across the floor to the door. Malverso regarded his two visitors sadly.
‘Are you sure you only want a human?’
‘Yes, that’s all. It’s very generous of you, really.’
‘Very generous,’ Malverso beamed. ‘I like your style, Sir Sarah. Mmm, ‘very generous’ has a nice ring to it.’ He sat back, proudly muttering those two magic words to himself.
Several minutes later, Scattergood reappeared at the door, dragging a forlorn-looking boy with him. Malverso regarded the servant with little enthusiasm.
‘Come here, boy. My guests here, who, I might add, think I am ‘very generous’, want a new servant.’ The boy approached Malverso’s throne cautiously.
‘He’s fine. We’ll take him,’ Sarah said.
The Baron stared at the boy for a moment.
‘No, he won’t do at all. Far too… or not enough… something. You need something much superior. Scattergood, kill him.’
‘No,’ yelled Sarah, but in a flash the jester had pulled a long silver knife out from under her tunic. In a single fluid movement she flicked the blade across the young boy’s neck. The servant collapsed to the floor with blood pouring from his wound.
‘Now, you fool, get me a better one, or you’ll be next.’ Scattergood mimed running the reddened blade across her own throat, then with a hideous cackling laugh, skipped back out of the room.
A minute later another, almost identical, boy was dragged in.
‘He’s perfect,’ David said before there could be any discussion. ‘Thank you so much.’
‘You really think so? Well, that’s marvellous.’
They made for the door as quickly as they could with the boy running behind them.
‘Do come again,’ Malverso called after them. ‘One of my Navigational Officers will show you the way out.’
* * *
Although the boy never said a word, he seemed pathetically grateful to be out of Malverso’s house. He looked as if he had not seen the sky for a very long time, so rapt was his attention as he walked a few paces behind his two new owners, constantly gazing upwards. There was no need for chains or even guiding hands. The boy matched them step for step at a respectful distance as they walked quickly past the half-built houses and on towards Pelf.
‘David,’ Sarah said. She glanced back at the boy but his attention was entirely upwards.
‘What?’ David said.
‘Are we really going to do this?’
‘Do what?’ He looked at her with genuine bemusement.
‘That’s kind of what worries me: you don’t seem to even realise what we’re doing here. Someone died back there, and we’re about to trade this one for a pair of shoes!’
‘All right, two pairs. But we can’t do this. He’s human.’
David stopped. He waved the boy on ahead of them a little distance then leaned towards Sarah.
‘I don’t like this any more than you do, but what choice do we have?’ he said quietly. ‘Without shoes, we can’t go forward. I doubt we could even go back. If Fulgar, or the Cerberites, or anyone else who wants to get their hands on us picks up our trail, we’re dead. Get that? And Ronson’s machine can’t undo dead. So we’re not trading for shoes here at all; we’re trading for our lives.’
‘Even so nothing. It’s the only way.’
‘We might be able to cut a deal, get shoes somewhere else…’
‘There’s no time. We need to get moving. Anyway, you heard Fulgar: I need to survive.’
‘I know you do, we all do.’
‘No, there’s more to it than that.’ For a moment, David considered telling Sarah about the note he had found in Fulgar’s pocket, but he decided it would just beg more questions than it answered.
‘There’s something here,’ he went on, ‘some reason I’ve survived this long. I’m not about to throw away whatever tiny advantage we’ve got to save him.’
‘You mean our captive slave? The human being you’ve already reduced to a mere bargaining chip?’
‘Stop! It’s going to be done. If you can’t live with that, wait outside. I’ll bring you your shoes.’
‘David, what’s happened to you?’
‘You need to ask? This has happened to me! Dis! And unless we can get out of here, it’s going to keep happening until we run out of luck and end up like all the rest of them, or worse. You don’t need to be part of this, but I’m going back to Pelf.’
David strode off, taking the boy by the arm as he passed. He was shaking and dared not look back to see Sarah’s reaction. Whatever the reason, he did need to survive, even if that reason was only to prove to himself that he could.
When they entered Pelf’s house Limivo was still sitting on a box, dozing now. Pelf licked his eyes and turned them back to his visitors.
‘What have you broughtst me?’ he hissed, leaning his scaly head forward, his eyes wide with anticipation.
‘We brought you what you asked for,’ David told him. Pelf’s eyes swivelled around to rest on the cowering servant in the doorway. He licked his scaly lips and sniffed.
‘Don’t want it,’ he said. He shuffled over to David and Sarah and examined them instead. He peered intently at David, eyeing him in minute detail, but clearly finding nothing he liked. Without turning his head, he looked slyly at Sarah.
In an instant, a grey dead arm shot out and touched the side of her head.
Sarah shrieked as the cold flesh touched her. David was about to knock the hand away when he realised that rather than wanting to take Sarah as his new servant, his eyes had been drawn by something much smaller. The overgrown nails of the dead hand were fiddling with the butterfly clip in her hair.
‘He wants the clip,’ David said. Sarah drew back from Pelf and quickly undid the butterfly. She held it above her, just out of reach of Pelf’s clawing hand. The dead fingers clenched into fists and unclenched several times. Sarah eyed him defiantly.
‘Then we can have our shoes back?’ she asked.
‘I’ll consssider it. Let me sssee.’ Pelf’s tongue flicked out once more to clear his eyes. Sarah handed the hair clip to him. He held it up to the light, clearly pleased at its many colours, and the fineness of the butterfly. He jabbed the metal fastener into the side of the head that hung loosely below his own, and returned his gaze to Sarah.
‘Can we have our shoes now?’ she asked.
‘No. This is pretty, very pretty,’ he said as he stroked the hair-clip. ‘What else have you got that’s so… pretty?’
David stepped forward.
‘There’s nothing else. Look, you said we could have our stuff back if you got the butterfly.’
Pelf ignored him, casting his analytical eyes up and down Sarah again, searching out anything else to add to his collection.
‘I like that,’ he said, pointing at the belt buckle that peeped out from beneath the hem of her cardigan. ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a belt,’ she replied, lifting the cardigan to reveal the double-tiger buckle. ‘It’s a Gucci knock-off from the market.’
‘Gucci knock-off? I like the sound of that. It’s…oh, what’s the right word?’
‘Pretty?’ Sarah said. ‘Here, have it, but give us our shoes back!’ She undid the buckle (which very nearly parted company with the fake leather it was attached to) and slid the belt out of the loops of her jeans. She held it just out of reach. Pelf sniffed and regarded the bright black and white stripes of the tigers with nothing short of lust. Satisfied that he was on a winning streak, his eyes flicked back towards the door.
‘And the slave?’ he asked.
‘Yes, and him,’ David said ‘Come on!’
Pelf considered for a moment before shuffling awkwardly out of the room. He returned a moment later with a bundle of shoes, which he waved at them. Sarah snatched them before Pelf could change his mind, and threw David’s over to him. She threw the belt to Pelf, and hauled her boots back on before he could change his mind.
They turned to go, but Pelf’s sly voice called them back. He held the tigers up close to his mouth, sniffing them, nibbling on the leather to which they were still, just, attached. He looked David right in the eyes and grinned, exposing his pointed yellow teeth.
‘Can I have the ressst of it? I’ll make you a good trade. I have things, lotsss of things.’
‘The rest of what?’
‘That. The Outlander,’ he nibbled at the belt again, pointing one hand at Sarah. ‘She’s so pretty, so fresh. I’ll give you the slave for her.’
‘Forget it. She’s… not to be traded.’
Sarah slipped silently from the room with David close behind her. Limivo followed them, barely suppressing his laughter. A stifled cry came from behind them, followed by a dull thud.
‘Oooh, you’re ssso pretty!’ Limivo hissed, his face creased with laughter. Sarah blushed slightly and gave him a coy look. David looked back into Pelf’s house.
The servant they had delivered was now lying on the floor, though he still appeared to be breathing. The large grey corpse that had been Pelf’s previous host lay motionless a little way from it. Into the pool of light cast by the open door, he saw the yellow figure of Pelf crawl like a squat caterpillar from behind the shelter of his old servant. The head and shoulders were recognisably reptilian, but what trailed out behind it nearly made David choke. Long white tentacles slithered uselessly across the dusty floor like the limp roots of a plant. Pelf crawled onto the back of the prostrate boy and began to burrow these filaments onto his warm flesh.
David ran to catch up with others.