Dawn broke over the farm. It was early and it was late, a crucial time in the lives of two young women.
Maljana yawned, kicking aside her covers as the first bars of light snuck in through the gap between curtains. The old oak panels were cold beneath her foot, the tawny skin of her right leg standing out against the cold steel of her left. The metal limb was no less responsive than its flesh counterpart as Maljana pushed herself to her feet, its wires and cords having been linked to her muscle and nerves for as long as she could recall. Both supported her slender frame with ease as she crossed the room, seeking an appropriate replacement for her bedclothes. She had only the attire stuffed hastily into her backpack, amounting to little more than a scruffy vest, tatty trousers and a pair of shoes as loved as they were worn.
Do I have enough for some replacements? Something a little tidier, perhaps? Maljana looked to the table where she had dumped her meagre collection of possessions, knowing full well what she would see there. Barely enough money to catch the train from nearby Dassin to Ferish beyond the cliffs. Had she been alone, it might have been a viable plan. As of a few days ago, she was no longer without company, for better or worse. Food it is, then. We hardly have much of that left, after all.
Her trousers buckled and hair braided, she did her best to ignore the tear running through the fabric over one knee. It had not been very long at all since she had possessed enough wealth to never have worried about such things. Now, she lodged in someone else's home, eating their food and sleeping in their bed whilst they were away. The less said about her unkempt clothing, the better. It would not be long before her prosthetics were in need of maintenance. She sighed, running a finger across the cold prosthetic. Mechanics were not hard to find. Trustworthy ones were substantially less common.
She bent and flexed the metal arm, clenching and unclenching a fist. Still as responsive as always, but how long would that last? She had grown accustomed to scuffles and scrapes in recent weeks, and even the strongest metals would suffer under the strain of constant damage. Temporarily losing the arm's functionality would not be so bad, but the leg . . . She shuddered at the thought. Never again would she be confined to a wheelchair, or be forced to hobble about on crutches. There had been enough of that in her childhood; the pointed fingers and mocking laughs of her peers were memories she could never escape. Emotional wounds ran deepest, her uncle had once told her. He had not been wrong.
Leaving the bedroom that did not belong to her and tossing aside a towel that was not hers, Maljana headed for the kitchen. Her stomach had been rumbling throughout the night, keeping her awake with its incessant demands for food. With their own supplies dwindling, eating had become a last resort, a temporary counter to a feral and painful hunger. To her relief, the farm had presented them with an opportunity to replenish their stock of food and water. The usual occupants had not left much other than tinned goods, but something was always better than nothing. Maljana would have preferred meals with a little more elegance to them, but she had learned the hard way that a starving woman should not be picky about the food she eats. She had endured the life of a starving adolescent once before, and it was a fate she would wish on no-one.
A conservative person might have described the downstairs kitchen as a spacious chamber. Maljana would have disagreed with them. Vast enough to a small home all on its own, there was sufficient room for half a dozen people to bustle about without ever coming close to touching. The cupboards and cabinets, if filled to capacity, could have fed a small family for months, if not a year or more. A modest selection of beans, peas and similar tinned goods remained, the more luxurious items having presumably been devoured before the family departed. Maljana intended to make good use of all they had left behind. She was not fond of theft, but it was a preferable course to the fate awaiting those deprived of food for too long.
By the time Maljana's companion shuffled into the room, she had already gained a functional understanding of the oven despite its unconventional design. She would hardly call herself ignorant, but some nations used symbols and letters that were completely incomprehensible. Vestralt was no exception, at least to someone of Maljana's heritage and upbringing.
“Good morning,” she said through her best smile, serving a bowl of tomato soup for herself. Soup without bread to dip was unthinkable, but their hasty departure from the city had left no time to stock up on basic supplies. “Did you sleep well?”
The woman frowned back at her with eyes as cold a green as Maljana had ever seen. Her emotional state was not unexpected, but nor was it appreciated. “As well as could be expected. When are we leaving?”
“Soon enough, Ysiel.” Talking to the younger woman was hard enough without enduring the unpleasant moods as well, but Maljana could hardly blame her. Framed for a crime she didn't commit – a truth few were willing to acknowledge – Ysiel's circumstances had only spiralled out of control from there. I wouldn't mind a little gratitude for my assistance. I doubt I'll see any of that for a while.
Terrible etiquette aside, Maljana tried not to bemoan her companion's behaviour. She herself had been no less obnoxious at the age of twenty years; the seven since had only served to enlighten her regarding prior misdeeds. Passing on lessons of wisdom had not worked as well as she'd hoped; Ysiel wanted nothing other than to return home, her supposed transgressions forgotten. There was no chance of that. One of them knew it, and the other would accept it in time.
“Here,” Maljana said, sliding a bowl of beans across the table. She hoped Ysiel would temper her reaction for a change. If the meal did not go down well, there was little better on the menu. “I don't intend to remain here long. We should head to Dassin first. I hope to find a mechanic there. These prosthetics of mine must take priority for the time being. If not that, we can at least assess our situation from what we see there.”
Ysiel turned up her nose at that, but ate without complaint. That, at least, was a victory. Stealing a glance through the curtains at her side, Maljana saw nothing but fields empty of crops and cattle. Wherever the owners had gone, they would not be returning for a while, and they had left behind no hands to maintain their crops. The specifics of their departure had been difficult to glean through eavesdropping; knowing they would not return in the next few days was sufficient enough.
Ysiel spoke between mouthfuls. “What are you looking for?”
“Company,” she replied. Pursuers were never far behind. Vestralt City was more dedicated to justice than anything else, to the point of blinding themselves. If only the company within these walls were a little more friendly.
It was hard to tell who would come for them first. Ysiel had been branded a criminal of the worst sort – the blame for several murders had been lain at her feet, not to mention fleeing her pursuers – and Maljana herself was only slightly better off. Unlike Ysiel, she could not claim innocence. Not truthfully. She had not expected the response to be so swift nor so aggressive. In the eyes of the law, she was no better than a murderer herself. Some people, she had decided, were not deserving of the treasures they possessed. Her own reasons for being in the capital would remain hidden from Ysiel, as they must. Maljana did not yet know how much she could trust the woman.
Sitting opposite her new companion, she decided that laboured conversation was preferable to silence. “Can you tell me the specifics of what happened that night?” It was a dangerous question; even idle chatter was enough to provoke the woman to anger. “I heard bits and pieces from the officers on the scene, but nothing of substance.”
Hardly an hour after making herself an enemy of the law, Maljana had met Ysiel. Not intentionally – she would never seek out strangers, let alone notorious ones – but through sheer chance. It had been Maljana's intimate knowledge of Vestralt City that had secured their freedom, an act she had yet to receive any gratitude for. It mattered, albeit little. More important was the sheer accomplishment of escaping the city undetected. Few had ever managed it, and Maljana was junior by at least a decade than the youngest to do so. There was something to be proud of in that, even if she was the only one to think so.
“There's nothing to tell,” Ysiel insisted. There was a chilly certainty to her when she spoke, the disposition of someone accustomed to getting their own way. “I did nothing wrong.”
It was not the first time she had made that assertion, and Maljana did not doubt her. “Indeed,” she said, the very face of patience. “But something must have transpired to make Vestralt's officers name you the perpetrator.”
Maljana had not seen the bodies, of which there were said to be two. Both men, by all accounts, and each a force of influence or authority in the city. They rarely travelled without the company of their private security, leaving very few opportunities for an attacker to strike. That the city's officials had pinned the crime on Ysiel was most concerning; something must have happened to link her to the victims at their time of death.
“Well?” she said, hoping her prodding did not provoke Ysiel's anger.
“It wasn't me,” she said sullenly, her tangles of hair swishing to and fro as she shook her head. “They were already dead when I found them. Rather, they had already been murdered. I don't know why the security on-site were so quick to suspect me. I had no weapons, no blood on me . . . The whole room was bloodied.”
“They weren't accompanied by guards?” The idea of any of Vestralt's elites travelling unprotected was beyond belief.
Ysiel stared at her as if Maljana was overlooking the most obvious point. “Of course not. Don't you know why they were there?”
Maljana met her gaze. “I wasn't in the city to ponder the lives of its upper classes.”
“Think about it,” she replied, pushing aside her bowl. “Why would any two people forgo their security to be alone together?”
That got it to click. “Ah. So it was an intimate encounter, then?”
“Exactly.” For once, Ysiel spoke without a hint of frustration or aggravation. “Or so the gossip says. Really, though, why else would they both send away their guards?”
Maljana shrugged. The workings of the big cities were foreign to her. What people got up to in their spare time, be it business of pleasure, was barely even a tertiary concern in her life. She could count her lifetime visits to Vestralt City on one hand, and she endeavoured to linger as little as possible. The entire populace had been in an uproar since the murders, but Maljana had had no clue who the victims were until Ysiel had explained them to her.
“One of them wasn't all that important. Not anyone worth killing. The bald one, however . . . You saw the pictures? He was the CEO of Ranger Tech, hence the chaos ensuing from his death.” Looking very proud of herself for possessing such information, Ysiel visibly relaxed. “His companion was an executive with Gladston Banking. Important, but not especially so.”
“Ranger? The company sponsoring AI development and integration?” Maljana said. Encountering an AI in the cities was nothing new, and life had been that way for many years. The move to weaponise them was a more recent development, and not one many approved of. “The CEO of that company would have had many enemies.”
“Right. This was clearly an assassination, albeit a late one.”
Maljana raised a curious eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“They finished their Vessel AI project last month,” Ysiel explained. “An Artificial Intelligence was successfully installed on a Class 3 warship. Anything less simply lacked the processing power to maintain the AI's systems.”
This, at least, was a topic Maljana knew well. “There aren't many Class 3s. Only five, if I remember right.”
“Four,” Ysiel corrected, quickly hiding her smug grin. “One was destroyed in battle. Its loss is what accelerated the Vessel programme.”
“This is interesting stuff,” Maljana said, “but not as interesting as how you came to know it all.”
The younger woman scowled, but for once there were no signs of an impending shouting match. Maljana had often wondered what Ysiel's role within Vestralt City was, and her nonchalant explanation of the murders had somewhat shortened the list of possibilities. Flexing her metallic fingers, Maljana decided that she was more wary than curious about any information that might irrevocably involve her in a mess that was not hers to clean. Despite all she had done, there was still a chance to safely and quietly extricate herself from Ysiel's predicament.
Whether she wanted to, or would, was a different matter.
“I worked as a journalist before . . .” She sighed, running a hand through her hair. “I didn't enjoy it. My last assignment was to investigate any possible unlawful dealings surrounding the Vessel project.”
“You were following the soon-to-be-deceased CEO, then?”
“I suppose you could call it that,” Ysiel said, almost pouting. “I heard tell of an off-the-books meeting between him and another official, so I tagged along to investigate. Turns out their interests were more romantic than business, and my mistake led me right to the scene of a murder.”
From what Maljana had heard of the newspapers and their ilk, a murder was no insignificant matter. She put that to Ysiel, adding, “If only you hadn't been framed from the crime. That could have been a career-making story. Two of Vestralt's elites murdered during, or because of, their romantic tangle.”
“No story is worth my freedom.” There was a steeliness to her words as hard as Maljana's prosthetics. “One day, perhaps, I'll be able to give my account. Forget what I told you earlier, those ramblings of mine. I would much rather simply avoid a prison cell for the time being.”
Maljana was well acquainted with that particular fear. Few as my reasons are for staying to help her any further, how can I simply walk away? Vestralt's justice is swift and merciless, especially for a killer.
They sat in silence, Ysiel contemplating her empty bowl whilst Maljana stared intently at the table. A decision had been made, surprisingly effortless despite all it entailed. To aid someone deemed a reprobate by Vestralt City was a crime almost as heinous as the one Ysiel had taken the blame for. That, Maljana supposed, was the very reason her conscience would not allow her to walk away. Even criminals rarely deserved the punishments handed out by the administration. She could not, would not, allow an innocent person to share in their fate.
Her grandmother would have called that an admirable act. Her mother would have agreed. Maljana was not so sure. Her own priorities were very much at the mercy of time; how long could she linger without jeopardising herself? There was also the matter of what she stood to gain from the arrangement. Even gratitude was uncertain where Ysiel was concerned, bad-tempered and obstinate as she was.
It was well beyond sunset when their circumstances saw any real change. The two had spoken sporadically throughout the day, neither touching upon the fact that they could not step outside the walls of the farmhouse. Ysiel softened as the hours passed them by, a change Maljana attributed to the reality of her daunting circumstances finally presenting itself. They did not speak as friends, but Maljana did not find herself talking to the brick wall that was a temperamental Ysiel. It was a start.
“What do we do next?” the supposed murderer asked in the evening, seated cross-legged in an armchair by the fireplace. It looked to be a most uncomfortable position, but the same could be said for Ysiel's plight. “Where can we go?”
Maljana had opted for the carpet as her cushion, positioning herself as close to the fire as possible. She would savour all the warmth she could before returning home. “Accepted my offer of help, then?” she said, expecting no answer. None came. “Away from Vestralt City, for a start. Far away.”
That would be no easy task. Vestralt was the beating heart of an entire continent, if only a small one. Regular reports were issued by the city and transmitted to every town and village under its jurisdiction, a fact she was quick to convey to Ysiel. “Those locations are numerous, as you will know better than I do,” Maljana went on. “If you remain within Vestralt's grasp, you will never be safe. You have to leave the country. Escaping the Hand of Retribution is your first and main aim. If you can do that, the rest will fall into place.”
“The Hand . . .” Ysiel shivered in her chair, far too warm for any cold to be responsible. “You spend your entire life hearing about them, seeing the reports of what they do, never once thinking that they would ever come for you.”
Maljana had never known that fear. Her home was far beyond Vestral's borders, a haven of decency and peace. They had no need there of glorified executioners. “Rumour has it that they're immortal, inhuman or both. Many people outside of this land do not even believe them to be real. Nor did I until a few nights ago.”
Ysiel's gasp was a drum beat in the silence of the room. “You saw them?”
“Two,” Maljana confirmed. “I've heard enough of the stories to know them when I see them.”
She heard Ysiel lean forward, the cushioned arms of the chair whispering beneath the weight of her arms. “Where was this? What were they doing?”
There was no sense in hiding the truth from her. “Looking for you, I thought,” she said, allowing the woman her startled expression without adding her own peering gaze to the mix. “Or, rather, searching for the person they believed responsible for the murders.”
Ysiel shifted from the seat to sit beside Maljana, her eyes wide. “I don't understand.” It was barely a whisper. More a gasp of words, by Maljana's estimation. “To see them involved in murder investigations is not uncommon, but so soon? Why would they be there, at the scene, when the victims' blood was not even cold?”
Maljana shrugged. Her mother had always traded her a cuff around the ear for every shrug, but some habits are too hard-wired into a person to remove. “My first reaction was surprise. I didn't expect them to exist. My second? To leave. I found you and I left. We left.”
“You should have told me.” There was nothing but worry driving her words. “If the Hand is involved, we need to leave. Soon. I want to clear my name – I must – but they will execute me the moment they see me. No questions will be asked. There is no mercy for fleeing murderers.”
And none for those aiding them, I imagine. Maljana kept the thought to herself. Ysiel had revealed a much friendlier and more likeable side of herself, and she did not want to chase it away by adding to her worries. As she watched the flames eat at the logs, all Maljana could see in her mind were the hooded figures advancing upon the murder scene, their sweeping robes and strange, metallic masks obscuring any hint of individuality. Clad all in black, of course. In this day and age, it is hard to believe that some nations still employ executioners like those.
Finding Ysiel had been the easy part. Anyone who had witnessed a crime but did not commit it themselves tended to wear a certain expression, a look caught somewhere between disdain and concern. Ysiel had leaned more towards the latter, and it had taken the arrival of an entire platoon of officers to convince her that Maljana was, in fact, an ally to be trusted. Escaping the city itself would have been impossible were it not for the citizens' notorious ignorance towards foreigners. Few wanted to look once, let alone a second time, at someone from another nation.
“We can leave in the morning, if you'd like,” she told Ysiel. “Bringing home any, er, company is strictly against protocol. In any other case, I'd be long gone already. I can't leave a person to their death.”
“And if I had done it?”
Maljana met her gaze. “If I knew the victims, you would have died by my hand. Otherwise, you'd be left to your fate. That is not the case, however, so it is not worth acknowledging.”
Ysiel sighed, her face creased by worry. “This is not a debt I will ever be able to repay. Even when I had stable employment, I was not a very affluent person.”
Maljana had to laugh at that. To think she wanted monetary compensation was absurd. “Just keep on living,” she said. “Don't let my efforts go to waste. That is repayment enough, Ysiel.”
“I will do just that.” She shuffled away, tucking herself neatly back into the armchair. “Morning, then. Where to?”
“Somewhere far.” Maljana had not quite decided yet. “But not too far. The border towns will be under the most scrutiny. One thing is certain: you should try to find some sleep tonight. I am accustomed to the wanderer's life. I doubt the same is true of you.”
She went without a fight, voicing no objections as she vacated her seat. Ysiel left the room with her shoulders slumped, walking with a peculiar lethargy that could only be brought on by a team effort from dejection and resignation. Maljana watched her go, not at all free of concern herself, but said nothing. She barely knew the woman, and there was only so far a newcomer could step into someone's life without tracking in mud as well. Sleep would be Ysiel's greatest ally that night.
Maljana tapped the rear of her metal hand, flipping a switch hidden under one of the many hidden panels. Without delay, there was a hiss followed by a crackle, then voices immediately began to spill into the room. The signal receiver had been added by a good friend of hers, a mechanic the likes of which would never be found within Vestralt's borders. Thank you, dear one. Without your invention, I never would have escaped the city. News reports were aired in quick succession, all about the murder and subsequent search. The governing bodies were offering a substantial reward for any information pertaining to the killer's whereabouts. Ah, so even the common people will have an eye out for us now. Fantastic.
Sleep took her eventually. When she awoke, the fire had burned itself out, its plentiful light replaced by the rising sun outside. The radio had continued playing during the night, and now a very eloquent woman was discussing at length the rising cost of food. Shutting it off, Maljana supposed that even Vestralt and its citizens had struggles of their own from time to time. She rose as gracefully as a groggy woman with replacement limbs could, always feeling in the morning a distinct phantom pain. The metal seemed to distance itself from the flesh during sleep; the two had never fully reconciled.
Ysiel could be heard upstairs, hopefully packing her few possessions back into her bag. Maljana would forage whatever she could from the kitchens and do the same. The more they lingered, the greater the risk to them.
Her stay in Vestralt was over. It was time to return home, and she was taking Ysiel with her.