Philip Reeve

Predator's gold




Freya woke early and lay for a while in the dark, feeling her city shiver and sway beneath her as its powerful engines sent it skimming across the ice. Sleepily, she waited for her servants to come and help her out of bed. It took her a few moments to remember that they were all dead.

She threw off the covers, lit the argon lamps and waded through dusty mounds of cast-off clothes to her bathroom. For several weeks now she had been working up the courage to have a shower, but once again this morning the complicated controls in the shower-stall defeated her: she couldn’t make the water come hot. In the end she just filled the hand-basin as usual and splashed her face and neck. There was a sliver of soap left, and she rubbed some into her hair and plunged her head under the water. Her bath-servants would have used shampoo, lotions, salves, conditioners, all sorts of pleasant-smelling balms; but they were all dead, and the rack upon rack of bottles in the walk-in bathroom cabinet intimidated Freya. Faced with so much choice, she chose to use nothing.

At least she had worked out how to dress herself. She picked one of her crumpled gowns from the floor, laid it on the bed and burrowed into it from the bottom, struggling about inside until she got her arms and head out through the right holes. The long, fur-trimmed waistcoat which went over the gown was much easier to put on, but she had a lot of trouble with the buttons. Her handmaidens had always done up her buttons very quickly and easily, talking and laughing about the day ahead and never, ever getting a button through the wrong hole; but they were all dead.

Freya cursed and tugged and fumbled for fifteen minutes, then studied the results in her cobwebby mirror. Not bad, she thought, all things considered. Perhaps some jewellery would make it look better. But when she went to her jewellery room she found most of the good pieces gone. Things were always vanishing these days. Freya could not imagine where they went to. Anyway, she didn’t really need a tiara on her sticky, soap-washed hair, or a necklet of amber and gold around her grubby throat. Mama would not approve of her being seen without jewellery, of course, but Mama was dead too.

In the empty, silent corridors of her palace the dust lay thick as powder snow. She rang for a footman and stood staring out of a window while she waited for him to arrive. Outside, dim, arctic twilight shone grey on the frosted rooftops of her city. The floor trembled to the beat of cogs and pistons down in the engine district, but there was very little sense of movement, for this was the High Ice, north of north, and there were no passing landmarks, only a white plain, shining slightly with the reflection of the sky.

Her footman arrived, patting his powdered wig straight.

“Good morning, Smew,” she said.

“Good morning, Your Radiance.”

For a moment she was seized by an urge to ask Smew into her quarters and tell him to do something about all the dust, the fallen clothes, the lost jewellery; to make him show her how the shower worked. But he was a man, and it would be an unthinkable break with tradition for a man to enter the margravine’s private quarters. Instead she said what she said every morning: “You may escort me to the breakfast room, Smew.”

Riding with him in the lift to the lower floor, she imagined her city scuttling across the ice cap like a tiny black beetle creeping over a huge white plate. The question was, where was it going? That was what Smew wanted to know; you could see it in his face, in the way his gaze kept flicking inquisitively at her. The Steering Committee would want to know, too. Running this way and that from hungry predators was one thing, but the time had come for Freya to decide what her city’s future was to be. For thousands of years the people of Anchorage had looked to the House of Rasmussen to make such decisions. The Rasmussen women were special, after all. Had they not ruled Anchorage ever since the Sixty Minute War? Did not the Ice Gods speak to them in their dreams, telling them where the city should go if it were to find good trading partners and avoid trap-ice and predators?

But Freya was the last of her line, and the Ice Gods did not speak to her. Hardly anybody spoke to her now, and when they did it was only to enquire, in the politest possible way, when she would decide upon a course. Why ask me? she wanted to shout at them. I’m just a girl! I didn’t want to be Margravine! But there was no one else left for them to ask.

At least this morning Freya would have an answer for them. She just wasn’t sure that they would like it.

She ate breakfast alone, in a high-backed black chair at a long, black table. The clatter of her knife against her plate, her spoon in her teacup, seemed unbearably loud in the silence. From the shadowy walls, portraits of her divine ancestors gazed down at her, looking slightly impatient, as though they too were waiting for her to decide upon a destination.

“Don’t worry,” she told them. “I’ve made my mind up.”

When breakfast was finished her chamberlain came in.

“Good morning, Smew.”

“Good morning, Light of the Ice Fields. The Steering Committee awaits Your Radiance’s pleasure.”

Freya nodded, and the chamberlain swung open the breakfast-room doors to let the committee enter. There used to be twenty-three of them; now there were only Mr Scabious and Miss Pye.

Windolene Pye was a tall, plain, middle-aged lady with fair hair done up in a flat bun which made her look as if she were balancing a Danish pastry on her head. She had been the late chief navigator’s secretary, and seemed to understand his charts and tables well enough, but she was very nervous in the presence of her margravine and bobbed little curtsies every time Freya so much as sniffed.

Her colleague, Soren Scabious, was quite different. His family had been engine masters for nearly as long as the city had been mobile, and he was the nearest thing Freya had left to an equal. If things had been normal, she would have been getting married to his son Axel next summer; the margravine often took a man from the engine districts as her consort, to keep the city’s engineering-classes happy. But things were not normal, and Axel was dead. Freya secretly felt quite glad she would not be getting Scabious as a father-in-law; he was such a stern, sad, silent old man. His black mourning robes blended into the darkness of the breakfast room like camouflage, leaving the white death-mask of his face hanging disembodied in the shadows.

“Good day, Your Radiance,” he said, bowing stiffly, while Miss Pye curtsied and blushed and fluttered beside him.

“What is our position?” asked Freya.

“Oh, Your Radiance, we are almost two hundred miles north of the Tannhauser Mountains,” twittered Miss Pye. “We’re on sound sea-ice, and there has been no sighting of any other city.”

“The engine district awaits your instructions, Light of the Ice Fields,” said Scabious. “Do you wish to turn back east?”

“No!” Freya shivered, remembering how close they had come to being eaten in the past. If they went back east, or turned south to trade along the edges of the ice, the Huntsmen of Arkangel were sure to hear about it, and with only skeleton crews to man the engines Freya did not think her city could outrun the great predator again.

“Maybe we should bear west, Your Radiance?” Miss Pye suggested nervously. “A few small towns over- winter along the eastern edge of Greenland. We might manage a little trading.”

“No,” said Freya firmly.

“Then perhaps you have another destination in mind, Your Radiance?” wondered Scabious. “Have the Gods of the Ice spoken to you?”

Freya nodded solemnly. In fact, the idea was one she had been turning around in her mind for a month or more, and she did not think it had come from any god; it was just the only way she could see of keeping her city

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