It's a thing that I was, and still am to a certain extent, preoccupied by. It is one of those little lies that stories tend to tell that the bonds of experience formed in childhood will continue throughout life. I am very close to my sisters, and we are entwined by a common experience that binds us tight - and yet our lives and values are different, sometimes almost irreconcilably so. The Death of the Marzipan Princess was also about siblings, but it was about that period just before the alliance of childhood breaks up - when people realise that they have different objectives. This time I wanted to look at what it's like to be out in the world, pursuing your own path but knowing that there are people out there who you cannot ignore because they are a part of who you are, but who you would be very unlikely to meet socially.
That's a lot to try and write about though, and my inability to adequately articulate it just now is probably a good indication of my inability to articulate it over a 100,000 words. Bracketing the time during which I was writing this story, one of my sisters moved to the same city I live in, and then moved away again - kicking off a process of becoming friends as adults. This had an effect on the way I thought about being a sibling. This change I think accounts for at least some of my failure to finish the story - the further I got in the less clear I was about how I felt or what I wanted to write about. Each pass of the story was accompanied by a further nuance to my feelings, so that by the end I wasn't sure that I felt what I'd put in at the beginning.
Who would have thought that writing a novel would require you to sustain your way of thinking over the course of years, rather than change it and grow?
Nina was very tired. She couldn’t go on. This has been said before, but this time it was wrong somehow, to be breaking down this early. She didn’t even know what that meant, what was too early about now? Life seemed to have fragmented. There was nothing to hold on to and it seemed like this was natural, but that it should not be happening until later. She was too tired to understand, though. It felt like it was the end – she knew that it was the end – that there was nothing coming after this, but she could still see it stretch out endlessly before her. What she needed was a good fight.
There’s nothing like life-threatening violence to keep your wits about you, to keep you focused, to keep you going. Nina’s arms itched nastily as she thought about it, her sleeves were salty and clinging, and her hand felt the phantom comforting presence of her knife before she had even found the hilt. It was an automatic reaction.
This was why she hated sailing: the world ended less than thirty foot in any direction, considerably less for the most part. And what a shoddy, creaking man-made world it was, just planks of dead wood held together by pitch and rope. And beyond it, the sea. Which is to say, nothing: a pure blankness until the horizon.
At least at the coast she could turn her back on the grey expanse, but even that was disturbing enough. It made Nina want to claw at herself for confirmation, to hold her shoulders and trace the scar tissue there, to cross her arms in front of her chest and make a cage to stop her heart and lungs from bursting out and disappearing over the edge of the world. Right now she was adrift on the nothing, surrounded only by seagulls and albatross. She was at the mercy of the furious storms that periodically plucked sailors from their decks and threatened to tear hulls apart. She may have only been on a two day passage back to Teufelhaven and the mainland, but Nina had been on longer trips before. She knew exactly what the sea was capable of. She was watching it.
A shout from the crow’s nest made its way partly into her consciousness. ‘Black sails on the horizon, heading for us directly.’ Nina shrank against the balustrade when she heard this, making herself as unseen as she could in the sudden burst of activity that followed.
‘Can we outrun them?’ the captain bellowed He was a lean man with a rash of iron-grey stubble across his jaw. He wore an old imperial navy coat like it was a badge of honour and he had accepted Nina as a passenger without asking any questions.
‘They’re gaining quickly,’ the crow’s nest replied. ‘I don’t think that we’ll have a chance to evade, sir.’
‘What flag are they flying?’
The sailor atop the crows nest stayed silent. Nina stared purposefully into the water breaking against the ship’s bows, trying to discern some depth beyond the choppy grey of the surface. The captain shot her an inscrutable glance and then hauled himself up the steps and onto the poopdeck. He grabbed a telescope from his belt and as he looked out at the sea behind them a deep, quiet growl formed in the back of his throat. The ship was poised.
At last the captain allowed the telescope to drop to his side. He turned to face his crew, who stared expectantly up from the quarterdeck while Nina pressed herself further into the side-rail.
‘The time has come, at last,’ he announced solemnly. ‘We are pursued by the wrath of a tyrant.’ The captain shot Nina another unreadable look. ‘We must make our decisions now about that which is right and that which is wrong – and we shall be asked to live and to die by those words, by those things that we choose to believe in.
‘The decision may be taxing, but it should not be hard, and it will be binding. For it is the duty of men to follow their hearts and to do so without despair. The outcome is unknown, but the path is clear to the brave and when the darkness of tyranny threatens to overshadow, it is by the light of conviction that men can see the way of truth.’
Nina didn’t want to be here. She wasn’t sure why it was that she was here, or at least in this position. She had certainly had to kill Heidegger, of that she was sure. It had been planned, for a long time, and had been necessary by any standard one could place on the matter. He had had to die. It was a start at least.
It had been a crisp winter, following on from a dry, scorched autumn, and there had been a threat of starvation hanging heavy in the air across the entire plains – the entire world as she had known it. It was the kind of year that a baby might view itself as unfortunate to have been born into, except that most of the babies born into that year never made it to an age where they could have formed such a thought. It was a year of atrocities and a winter of stark decisions. It was the year that her sister’s daughter had been born.
There were many who starved. The previous years of bounty had taught people overconfidence and rampant breeding, had taught them that a full stomach was not a luxury but a right. This was a mistake, and the clan under the Wolfstar knew it better than any other. The Wolfstar, which ruled the east and the north of the sky, had spread them selves out amongst the plains and the forests of their land and had kept themselves moving as a counter to complacency. They had done well but it was to be expected, for they were a tough but noble people and the land had once been ruled, or so the stories go, by trolls and giants. They had a history of this kind of thing.
Of course, just because they had been careful was not to say that their neighbours had been so too, and in the winter, out come the wolves. Raids came from the north, from the foothills of the desert and the hard places where life had been making its slow, forced inroads over angry centuries. But where there are no towns there is no plunder and the Gothenwald barbarians and their unspeakable allies had to go ever further to get that which they desired, which is eventually what every mob desires. And so on.
That had been while Nina was away. She had been driven out on a personal quest, a wilderness urge that had gripped her unflinchingly, completely. She had left as quietly as she could, as unobtrusively as she was able to. She was searching for the place where the things that push you on are overwhelmed by the things which pull you back, for the distance beyond which one couldn’t go any further. She wished now that she had never gone, but deep down she knew that that had never been a real option, which just fed into the things that had made her go and made the guilt and the hatred stronger. She had returned just in time to find the devastation. In many ways that was her final answer.
The fletch ruptured the captains windpipe and emerged bloodily on the other side of his neck. He dropped. Nina was forced back to the present. In the stunned silence the sailor who had been in the crow’s nest jumped and flew, or rather flit, gracefully to the deck. The other merchantmen glowered at him. He in turn began to orate.
‘Why, men,’ he seethed with the anger of the just, ‘should we turn pirate against our own country on the words of this fool? Why,’ he railed, ‘should we turn traitor to a country that has done nothing wrong to us and our families? Why-’
‘Why did you do that?’ One of the sailors said, cutting off the assassin mid speech. ‘We were all ready to rush him before you went and did a thing like that. Could have had it the easy way, but no. We’ll have a whole lot of explaining to do now, when we could have probably just had a nice reward.’ The other sailors muttered in agreement and made noises to the effect that it was all spoiled now when it could have been fine. Shoulders were squared and wings bristled but no-one really wanted a fight, they just wanted the world to be a way that it couldn’t be anymore.
Nina weighed up her options. She wasn’t sure that the crew knew exactly why they were being pursued, and in fact she wasn’t even sure that she was the reason they were being pursued at all, but she didn’t want to take her chances. The words of the woman who had called herself Felicity came back to haunt her too. The captain had died for her, and more importantly had been prepared to die for her, and those things have a power that can’t be ignored. Whether you were looking for them or not.
But Nina was getting old, and with age came truculence and Nina was very good at ignoring things if she felt that she needed to. If the ship was going to turn on her it would do so both quickly and suddenly. Nina decided that innocence was the best way to play things. She jumped over the side of the boat and into the grey waters below.