At the doorway to Signa’s apartments, Aldous hesitated. What she intended to do was not illegal or dissenting but nevertheless it was not Done. Not by the good families, the Queen’s people; not by Aldous. Still, the whispers that would go ‘round about her if it got out that she’d been travelling the city alone with a dissenting man would be easier to bear than the ones that would go ‘round if news got out that her brother was himself a dissenting, and banished from his aunt and uncle’s home. Signa was the nearest thing Weiss had to a friend, as far as Aldous knew, and odds were they had been drinking together last night. Aldous held her head a moment as if it might burst, and then rapped smartly on Signa’s door.
There was no answer, which of course she had expected, so she sharpened her tongue and her eyes and entered. Signa was sprawled snoring on a low sofa amid a squalid mess of bottles, rags, the burnt-clover smell of discarded packets of hyssop-and-achanes.
“Good morning, Signa.” Aldous didn’t raise her voice, yet her tone was pitched to shard through the tangle of the room and Signa’s ale-soaked head. He groaned and rolled over.
“If it’s still morning,” he mumbled, “then you aren’t welcome. Whoever you are.”
“I assure you this isn’t a pleasure call,” returned Aldous, her voice getting crisper by the word—she was enjoying this, rather, in a sort of ashen way. “I’m looking for my brother Weiss.”
“Jesh and Elio!” swore Signa. “It’s not my watch where he is,” and he rolled over to face away from Aldous.
“Have it your way,” Aldous murmured, and walking round the sofa, threw the shutters wide. Late morning sun flooded the room, striking Signa full in the face, and he swore again and rolled off the couch, thudding ungracefully to the floor.
“Damn you, woman, shut them and I’ll tell you anything you want to know!” he growled, one hand shielding his eyes.
“Better.” Aldous dimmed the room again and crouched sternly at Signa’s shoulder. “Tell me what you know about where my brother is.”
Signa was still muttering about how it wasn’t his watch where Weiss was when they made their way out the Peddler’s Gate—Aldous shot a look at the guards that dared them to question her—and onto the marshes in the direction of the reported Thron camp. Aldous, for her part, was too self-controlled to give voice to the steady stream of curses that was running through her head, but inside she was using every oath she knew. Throns! She couldn’t imagine a more scandalous choice for her scandal of a brother to throw at her. She held up her silvery skirts from the squelching mud that lined the highway out of the city.
“Do you mean to search the whole marsh?” said Signa after a time. “Weiss only said he were leaving; he never said where to.”
“I’ll find a Thron and make them tell me,” said Aldous imperiously. Signa scoffed but she ignored him. She was angry as a blood orange; she would find a Thron and make them tell her if her very head burst in the attempt.
As it turned out, they hadn’t to try very hard. The smoke of the Thron camp was still a smudge on the horizon when they noticed to the east of the highway the smoke from a single fire, and a path crushed through the reeds. Aldous raised an eyebrow at Signa and he nodded sullenly. The sun was only just beginning to dip into its afternoon descent when they reached the empty camp. There was a smouldering heap of ashes that had not long since been a fire, and beside them Weiss’s fingerless gloves lay neatly stacked, as if discarded on purpose. There were signs of two trails leaving the clearing; one ran southwest towards the Thron camp, and the other straight east, for the mountains.
“Why would he go east?” mused Aldous, looking from one trail to the other. Signa shrugged in the corner of her vision and she pounced on him with vexed satisfaction.
“There’s talk, that’s all,” said Signa. “If he’s talked to a Thron, it may be… There’s talk of a way through the mountains, a poor road, a dark road, the Throns be calling the ‘King’s Highway’.”
Aldous formed her mind quickly into a white still wall as she made the coronate sign, three fingers raised and pressed against her shoulder: Long live the Queen. King’s Highway! She almost spat.
Aldous was weary from this trek out into the marshes, used as she was to attending political meetings, sleeping late, the ordered, unhurried life of an undissenting. But anger and worry gave wings to her feet, and Signa’s complaints made her stalwart, and about three-quarters of an hour later, she saw Weiss ahead of them.
“Hi, Weiss!” she hailed him, refusing to give vent to the rather sharper words that had formed in her head at the sight of her brother’s reprobate enthusiasm wading through the marsh reeds.
He turned, mouth agape for a satisfactory moment, and then shook his head as if to clear it.
“Aldous, Signa? What are you doing here—and together, no less?”
“Signa has very kindly agreed,” said Aldous in a sweet hiss, “to help me find you and bring you back from whatever fever or madness has afflicted you.” She knew how he would answer, the pine-green scribble of his wilderness lapping on the disdainful shore of her uprightness, and she was surprised when he was instead simply grave and earnest.
“Aldous, I cannot. Aiken is behind me forever, sinking as it is into sulfur and broken stones. Come with me.” He turned also to Signa and said it again, a silver fish of strangeness: “Come with me!”
His very tone goaded Aldous into a contempt such as she had never felt before, even at the most disgraceful of his antics.
“Madness…” she said softly, a grey crystal catching the light and killing it. “Have you left no sense, man? To leave Aiken for some wild fear put into your mind by a wandering Thron? To invite us along with you, urging us to leave homes and safety and pleasures—and for what? To walk headlong into lonely, forbidden death with you? Oh, Weiss—“ she almost purred it—“Weiss, even you cannot be so very foolish as that!”
“It is not death to which I travel,” said Weiss, still maddeningly grave, “but life. Life such as I had never dared imagine before yesterday. Come with me, and prove my words.”
“What is it you expect to find on this thrice-cursed ‘King’s Highway’, that you will leave everything sane behind you for it?” said Aldous, drawing back from him a little.
“Peace and light and colour,” said Weiss. “A city unbound, unfading. Here; I was given a map—” but Aldous pushed his outstretched hand away from her as if it were a snake.
“Back with your map!” she scolded. “Tell me plain, will you come back with me today to Aiken, let me reason with our uncle and save yourself from disgrace?”
His set face was answer enough.
She waited, two heartbeats, three, four. No plan suggested itself to her. Certainly Signa could not have taken Weiss by force even if he were not suffering the effects of a night’s carousing, and Aldous had no words to give combat to that still certainty that seemed to have made a stranger of her brother.
“Come, then, Signa,” she said, turning her back on Weiss. “We will go back without him. He has been taken for a fool by a Thron’s fancy and thinks himself wiser in his own eyes than seven men that can render a reason.”
But Signa did not move.
“Brain-sick as the other,” she said at last, scornfully. “And why should I have expected better of one such as you?”
She walked home alone through the tunnel of reeds, and she did not cry, by Jesh and Elio! She did not cry. Her fierce shoulders and her furious head made a coronate sign of her body as she walked unhindered past the guards, who knew a Queen’s woman when they saw one, even were she walking muddied and hot in from the marshes with her hair a pale halo around her skull.