Venus has become a world of Zeppelin cities where merchants fly carbon-fiber airships.
Whalers harpoon tin behemoths that rise from the murky depths.
And the only woman who can save it all from ruin is being hunted by a man willing to do anything to seize her father's empire.
Privilege is a double-edged sword. As a young noblewoman, Willamette Lolofi has an education and the freedom to indulge her curiosities. But the political marriage she faces won't let her stop the looming threat she has discovered.
Countless cities, towns, and estates ride the winds of The Drift, a hospitable layer in the Venusian atmosphere, but they will eventually fall to ruin. As the tin behemoths that lift precious minerals from the depths grow scarce, conflicts drive the Commonwealth ever faster toward collapse.
Willamette is determined to avoid that tragic fate. She manipulates her parents into arranging a marriage that just might let her take action … but then a bloody coup by Colonel Kofi upends everything. In order to consolidate power, Kofi must eliminate the only person alive who can claim the right to rule the Commonwealth.
If Willamette has any chance of saving millions of people in The Drift, she must rally a menagerie of misfits to accomplish the unthinkable.
"Rollicking high adventure in a scientifically plausible way! With Van Belle's sure hand on the tiller, the clouds of Venus are alive with excitement."– Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer Alternative
Officially, it was called the Lightcastle Yacht Club's Annual Cotillion. Everyone knew that, but that didn't stop people from calling it the regatta. In some ways that was fitting since it was the race that had turned the event into a holiday that was treasured by everyone in the Commonwealth. However, Willamette Lolofi also thought it was a shame that the nobles had all but abandoned the proper name of the social event that the yacht club held to celebrate that race. A cotillion was a formal dance characterized by complex but defined patterns of movement involving the frequent exchange of partners. Even though that meaning of the word had been all but lost to history, it was the perfect description of the social event.
For those with the status, legacy, or money it took to secure an invitation to celebrate the regatta on the yacht club grounds, the event truly was something of a cotillion. The glances, smiles, greetings, and conversations were all just steps through the choreography of the most complex and noble of dances. Every single one of the seemingly inconsequential interactions mattered. Who saw you? What did you show them? What did you let them see? Who heard you? What did you let them hear? A smile to one was a threat to another. A nod could seal a deal but add the slightest frown and it became a favor instead of an exchange. The regatta was the catalyst for all of the politics and most of the significant business transactions that would transpire over the coming year. Willamette's mother had been training her daughter in the artistry of that dance from birth, and it truly was an art. Detailed planning and preparation were essential, but the true soul of the cotillion was improvisation. The dance evolved with each step, and there were always surprises. Sometimes those surprises were huge, and when they were, they were usually timed to maximize their effect. A perfect example was her father's sudden and, for almost everyone in attendance, completely unexpected pronouncement.
"Niven?" Lady Susan Lister elbowed her bewildered son as she asked the gentle question. The woman was so excited that she looked like she was about to burst into girlish giggles.
"That's what you were doing all morning," Niven muttered to no one in particular. "Negotiating my betrothal … to Willamette Lolofi?"
"We were sorting the last few details, yes," Niven's father, Lord Simon Lister, said, grinning.
"Isn't it wonderful?" his mother asked, fidgeting.
"Are you two out of your bloody minds?" Niven all but shouted. Now it was his parents' turn to be stunned, and horrified.
"He means no disrespect!" Lady Susan blurted out, making a pleading gesture at Willamette's parents, Grand Lord Morden Lolofi and the Grand Lady Jillian Lolofi. "Please. Please forgive him. He truly means no disrespect."
Niven realized the enormity of his ill-considered reaction and his stunned surprise gave way to terror. The color drained from his face, his eyes went wide, and his jaw dropped.
Receiving no hint of forgiveness in the icy glares of the grand lord and lady who ruled the Commonwealth, Lady Susan made a pitiful whimpering noise before turning to Willamette. "Grand Lady Willamette, he truly means no offence. He is overwhelmed by the honor."
Niven turned to Willamette, the look of terror giving way to an apologetic look that seemed quite sincere. However, before he could find the words to begin apologizing, she took his attention as her cue. Giving him a slight, smirking smile, she removed her feathered cloak.
Despite the impossible complexity of the social and political ballet that was the Lightcastle Yacht Club's Annual Cotillion, the instant Willamette shed that ornate feathered monstrosity, her steps became simple, and by any civilized measure they were also quite crude. The dress she wore under the cloak was not a bejeweled concoction studded with glass and metal baubles. Nor was there anything about the dress that was meant to symbolize their family's cultural heritage or represent their social status. She was a Lolofi. That name alone was more than enough to elevate her above and beyond any need to assert her power, wealth, or status. Instead, Willamette's dress served one and only one purpose. It advertised the young woman who wore it.
The dress was technically modest. The sleeves stretched to her wrists, the neckline hugged the base of her throat, and the hem brushed the tops of her toes, but that technicality had been twisted inside out by Willamette's magnificent seamstress. Mattie was scarcely older than Willamette, but she was truly an artist, and the dress would surely stand as her first masterpiece. The soft golden-white color of the thin silky fabric brought out the hints of lighter brown in Willamette's hair, accentuated the dark brown of her eyes, and it somehow seemed to add a glow to the color of her skin. The truly remarkable aspect of the dress's design was the way Mattie had combined three slightly different shades of color in the cloth. Those shades had been fit together and layered to subtly enhance the way the dress accentuated the slight but clearly feminine curves of Willamette's petite body. And that was but one out of the thousands of tiny details that served to elevate the dress into the realms of true artistry.
By dramatically revealing the dress from under the cloak, Willamette was also trying to shed all of the distractions of politics and the trappings of nobility that forever threatened to smother her. That touch of performance was meant to leave no doubt that she was no longer a child. She was a woman, an object of desire.
No, correct that, she was Niven's object of desire.
The dress told everyone that it was safe for men, and perhaps a few women, to desire her. In the politics of the Commonwealth, that had its own value, and one thing that she would probably have to do was teach Niven how to use his possession of her as a weapon. She pushed that thought aside. Regardless of how important that might become, at that moment it was secondary. The primary purpose of her dress and this passage through the dance that was the cotillion was to arouse the male animal within her new fiancé. His desire for her as a woman had to be his first and most enduring impression of her, and she wanted it to be overwhelming. Thrusting his lust to possess her all the way down into his soul would make all the rest of what she needed to do so much easier.
It turned out to be quite fortunate that she wanted to overwhelm Niven with desire, because at that moment the animal appeal of woman to man was probably the only thing that could have possibly cut through the tumult she could see churning behind his bright blue eyes. She had no idea why her father had decided to publicly ambush him with the announcement of their betrothal, but he had, and the poor young man's composure was shattered. The reveal of the dress had been meant to stir that chaos further, and judging by the look on his face, it had succeeded admirably. He seemed to have been stripped of his ability to think.
Willamette turned and handed the voluminous feathered cloak to her little servant girl, Ida. Even that simple act was choreographed for maximum effect. Facing slightly away from Niven, she set her feet with one just forward of the other so the slight crouch as she handed the cloak to Ida would accentuate the curves of her buttocks and hip. She pulled her shoulders back, clenched her stomach, turned a little farther, and lifted her chin as she stood to leave no doubt that she was a lean, strong, and graceful woman. Improvising, she took a few extra seconds to unnecessarily remind Ida to take care with the cloak, stretching that pointless conversation to a count of twenty before she glanced back at Niven.
The glance was to ensure that she still had his attention, but she also used it to offer him a smile. It was just enough of a smile to offer forgiveness and an acceptance of the very male reactions she was working so ruthlessly to provoke, but she added a touch of wry resignation to it in order to push him away, ever so slightly. Sustaining the impression that social norms of decorum kept her unobtainable, even if only temporarily, was nearly as important as inviting him to desire her. There was no force in the universe that was more powerful than the craving for something that was withheld.
Willamette understood she had obsessively overthought everything about that moment, but she also knew that she could not risk settling for anything less. As ironic as it might be, provoking Niven's desire to possess her was the best opportunity she would ever have to take some control over her life. That offended her in countless ways, but it was the unpleasant reality for a woman of her station. As the husband of a Lolofi, Niven would be obligated to support her, and based upon her extensive investigation of the young man, she believed that he was more than smart enough to understand that following her lead was the best way to navigate the formidable challenges they would face, but what she needed was a partner. Enticing his lust may not have been the best way to achieve that end, but she was convinced it was a good place to start.
She clenched her buttocks slightly and shifted her weight onto her toes as she turned and walked away. That stroll toward the edge of the terrace was another passage through the dance that she had practiced, refined, and practiced again. Emphasizing the curve of her waist into her hip was critical. Throughout history and across every documented culture, in every serious discussion and artistic representation of feminine beauty, it was the transition from waist to hip that defined the desirable female body. It was so important that Willamette had not only instructed Mattie to design the entire dress around perfectly defining and accentuating that curve, she had made her seamstress sew her into the dress so the silky fabric would hug her belly and lower back perfectly but relax enough to slither over her hips rather than cling.
Raw, sexual attraction was all about the primal cues that evolution had honed over eons to help men identify a healthy and fertile mate. That made the walk critical. When the female body was set in motion, it was the buttocks that spoke to the deepest sexual instincts of men. They needed to be defined but not prominent, taut but not overly muscular. The movement of her hips as she walked was also where the man who Niven was, mattered. As the second son of an old but small estate, he had never enjoyed the luxury of being the heir to family titles or holdings. He was, first and foremost, a very young yet very successful businessman. He would have no use for a woman who was little more than an expensive trophy to decorate his arm at social events, and he was likely to prefer a partner over a plaything. She hoped that meant he would find the vitality indicated by the strength she demonstrated with her stride to be particularly appealing. Her hips needed to roll slightly, another indicator of sexual maturity and the ability to safely bear children, but she must not let her hips sway. Swaying hips looked unbalanced, weak, tired, worn. As she walked, she focused on her balance. Balance was another powerful signal. She wanted to glide, not stride. She wanted to make it seem as if her balance was so sublime that she had transcended the need to walk.
Willamette was so focused on channeling years of ballet into that moment of seduction that she almost stepped up to the railing at the edge of the yacht club's expansive terrace. Fortunately, she caught herself. She had never shaken the habit of leaning on things, and, right then, to fall prey to that habit would have destroyed all of her hard work.
With her last step she turned slightly to the side. It was just enough to bring the curve of her bust into her profile. Slight as that might be, it would offer Niven the complete feminine figure. She punctuated that final movement by tucking the heel of one foot against the arch of the other. That stance provided a stable base to ensure that she looked balanced, poised. It also brought her feet together in a way that would further emphasize the youthful, athletic, and sexually desirable curves of her waist, hips, buttocks, and legs.
Relaxing her shoulders without relaxing her posture, she pretended to watch the activity around the automation in the park below. She had no interest in the huge clockwork mechanism or the race that it was tracking. She simply wanted to reassure Niven that she would not be looking back toward him without ample warning. She wanted him to feel like he could stare at her for as long as he wished. She wanted to burn that image of her figure deep into his very concept of who she was.
"So, Niven, what do think of that?" she whispered.
"What do I think of what, my lady?" Niven asked from just a few paces behind her.
It took every iota of self-control that Willamette possessed to hide her surprise. He could not be that ignorant, could he?
"Niven," she scolded him. "What do you think you are doing? Approaching me before I offer a gesture of invitation is horribly improper. It suggests a degree of familiarity that might lead people to think that we are already … acquainted."
"Ah yes, acquainted." Niven nodded thoughtfully, and then shrugged. "Well, perhaps your father should have considered the barbaric ways of the lesser nobles before selling his precious little princess to my father."
"My father did not sell me," Willamette snapped, offended as much by the crassness of the comment as the implication. "We have been betrothed."
"Semantic quibbles." This time a tilt of the head and roll of the eyes accompanied his casual shrug. "A contract was negotiated, and now I appear to own a child bride."
"I am not a child!" Willamette stomped her foot. It felt petulant and childish, but at that moment, she could not help it. "I am a grown woman who …"
Niven gave her a smirk, mischief stirring behind his blue eyes.
"Who appears to have been betrothed to a man who enjoys teasing."
"Indeed, it appears so, Your Highness."
"Please do not call me that," she grumbled, her mind racing. The foolishness of his uninvited approach was not a disaster, but it was certainly not something that she had anticipated. "Even if the Commonwealth was a kingdom, and even if I was a princess in title, 'Your Highness' would be far too formal for a husband to call his wife."
"Then what? It's not as if Grand Lady Willamette is any less formal."
"Perhaps you could select a pet name for me." The suggestion was offhand, a spur-of-the-moment thought meant to buy her a few more seconds to think, but her instincts told her that it could also serve as a segue back into something more comfortable and predictable.
"You, want me, to choose a pet name, for you?" he asked, disbelieving.
"Yes." She lifted her chin and adopted what she hoped was a comically exaggerated regal tone. "I do believe that it is customary for a noble husband to choose a pet name that is technically affectionate but can be uttered with extreme contempt and loathing."
It took Niven a moment to realize that she was teasing him, but when he did, he laughed heartily. His smile was warm and genuine. She could work with that.
"Technically affectionate, contempt and loathing," he said, feigning intense contemplation. "That sounds like a challenge."
"Indeed, it is." She returned his smile. The warmth she felt in it was unbidden, surprising her. She added a hint of impish. "Consider it to be the first of many."
Contrary to the mythology that Morden Lolofi had so generously, if unwittingly, helped construct, Colonel Landon Kofi found no pleasure in cruelty. When employed properly, it had tremendous utility, but it was a means to an end. It was a political tool that was not all that different from bribery, flattery, or the manipulation of the law. Cruelty was cheap, its effect could be powerful to the point of overwhelming, and it was immediate, but it was also quite limited in its utility. The information that was extracted through pain could never be trusted, and even though torture could reshape someone's mind, the risk was tremendous. Cruelty could break a person, crush their ego, shatter their humanity, and sever all the threads that tied their heart to the world, and the person that was rebuilt from that rubble could be incredibly useful. However, no matter how completely subservient that reconstructed person might seem, the memory of cruelty endured for a lifetime. If you left even the tiniest kernel of their soul intact, what you had created was a pathologically obsessed enemy that lurked patiently in the darkest corner of their mind, seething, and growing as it waited to be unleashed.
The fear of cruelty was by far its most useful effect and that was why the mythology that had been largely created by Morden Lolofi's propaganda was such a valuable gift. The fear of cruelty could constrain people in subtle and sustainable ways, integrating the effort to avoid punishments into their habits. But even in that, the actual infliction of cruelty was a risky proposition. An occasional demonstration of suffering reminded people that they should fear punishment. That tended to enhance the way people policed their own actions. However, it was also a risk, because if someone was willing to publicly defy that threat, an uncontrollable cascade of defiance could be created.
The proper use of cruelty also took effort. If all you wanted to do was punish someone or eliminate a problem, simple and mercifully quick was usually the best choice. That was why cruelty was the last thing on Colonel Kofi's mind when he spotted Ida running wildly into the lavish betting parlor that had been set up in the yacht club's main ballroom. His only thought was to finish cleaning up the stupid little girl's mess as quietly and as efficiently as possible. However, as was often the case, reality was utterly indifferent to his wishes. It turned out that there was something very special about Ida.
Servants lived as shadows in the light of those who mattered, but Willamette's pet serving girl was a ghost. Ida wasn't just ignored or dismissed; it was almost as if the nobles were afraid to notice her. Running was usually the first of the natural but improper behaviors that had to be beaten out of a child servant, but everyone in the betting parlor turned a blind eye to the girl sprinting in from the terrace. When Ida crashed into a patron, careened into another, and grabbed the dress of a third as she fell, it caused the facade of obliviousness to waver ever so slightly, but no more than that. A flicker of noble rage flashed across the face of the woman who had suffered the indignity of a stumbling child's unprovoked assault on her bejeweled frock, but that reaction was quickly buried with a backhand across the face of her own serving girl.
Servants wearing Lolofi uniforms were always given a degree of extra tolerance but the reaction to Ida was nothing short of stunning. Kofi couldn't even begin to imagine what might be driving such a concerted and complete effort to pretend they didn't notice such extreme transgressions of decorum. He could, however, imagine a plethora of possible things that harnessing her invisibility would achieve.
Playing the staid servant who was attending to whatever errand had been thrown upon his shoulders, Kofi followed Ida. The proper, stately pace required for his act meant that he reached the door to the Lolofi suite well after it swung shut, which perturbed him. The hall was crowded and there was a slight worry that someone might notice that someone who was not in a Lolofi uniform had a key to their suite. However, as was usually the case, no one noticed the actions of the servant, not even the other servants.
He found Ida in Grand Lady Willamette's dressing room, exactly where he expected. She was still struggling to catch her breath. Between gasps, she was muttering in the way that children often do.
"Do your responsibility all proper first," she said as she carefully hung the feathered cloak. "You're supposed to not get noticed, and Mum always says that doing your job all proper is the best way to not get noticed."
Once Willamette's feathered cloak was hung and covered with its drape, Ida retrieved her lady's travelling cloak and, oddly, checked its pockets before holding it out, frowning and scolding it. "Oh, you are going to stain so easy." A long moment passed, almost as if she was listening to the cloak's reply before she nodded at it. "Yes, you are pretty, but that's the problem. That color will show everything. I should hang you back up."
Hanging the cloak back up, Ida scuttled over to Mattie's big seamstress's trunk, worked the latch, and grunted as she flipped the big heavy lid open. She jumped when it slammed against the floor, but then she returned to her conversation with the cloak. "Don't worry, it's just for a bit. I'll just have to do all those other things first and come back for you. And I should probably wash my hands then too. I have to remember to wash my hands after I do all those other things they're making me do."
Kofi timed his interruption and chose his words carefully, waiting until Ida had removed the first of the two trays of buttons, needles, threads, and such from the top of the trunk.
"You know there was a point where someone should have just told me you were stupid all the way down to those little bones of yours." Kofi's words startled Ida so much that she yelped, but like a good servant, she didn't spill the tray. "Honestly, Ida. Running into the clubhouse like that? How many times were you told to be discreet? They told you what discreet means, didn't they?"
"I wasn't supposed to get noticed, but I had to run," Ida said, panicked, stammering. "They're making me do way too many things all at once. And Lady Willamette would kick up a fuss if I was gone too long. And it was hard to find an excuse to come back here to do all the stuff, but I made it here, and I promise I'll hurry as fast as I can."
"Ida, it's too late for promises and hurrying."
"I know they said there'd be lots of packages for me to move, but maybe I can carry everything down to the basement in one trip."
Being careful not to spill any of the futzy little bits of sewing supplies, Ida set the tray on the floor and removed the second. She was so intent on taking care with the trays that she didn't notice what those trays had been hiding.
"Ida," Kofi said. "Don't scream."
"I said, 'Do, not, scream.'"
When she still didn't understand, he drew his big, black-bladed knife and pointed it at the trunk. It was a lousy knife. Laminated graphene didn't hold up, but it was the most intimidating thing that he could easily steal from the kitchen and, like cruelty, it was the appearance rather than the reality that mattered.
Nervously tearing her eyes away from the knife, Ida looked at what was in the trunk, and she almost screamed. She didn't. The volume of tears that erupted and rolled down her face seemed to be beyond the realms of physical possibility, and she collapsed like her bones had crumbled, but she didn't scream.
"Good girl, Ida," Kofi said, contemplating the implications of her reaction. "That's something, I guess."
Ida had known something would be hidden under the trays in Mattie's trunk, but she had been told it would be packages that she would need to carry down to the basement. The last thing she would have expected to find was the closest thing to a friend that she had ever known, bound and gagged, bleeding and struggling to breathe. And for her to be able to stifle the instinct to scream or cry out was impressive, especially for someone so young. Ida was at least two years younger than Kofi had expected.
Mattie had become a liability when she had decided to peek inside one of the packages that she had been coerced into smuggling into the yacht club. A quick flick of a knife across her throat was the obvious solution to that problem, but in the longer term, the things the seamstress knew about the Lolofis were far too valuable to throw away. So instead of killing her, Kofi had stuffed her in the trunk and shoved a small knife between her ribs, in her side, just under her arm. It was the perfect solution. Locking Mattie in the trunk eliminated any concern that she might do something stupid to upset his plans, and the knife set up two obvious possibilities going forward. If the day went as he expected, he could send a doctor for her. Then he'd have what the young woman knew, and the suffering would teach her an important lesson about obedience. And on the off chance that something went wrong, she'd almost certainly die before anyone found her and learned what she knew. What he saw in Ida, however, added an interesting variable to that equation.
"That's not what the stupid little serving girl was expecting to find in that trunk, is it?" Kofi asked Ida.
"The people who made me help … who made me help you, said the trunk would be full of lots and lots of packages for me to take down to the basement," Ida said, surprising Kofi with her realization that he was the one pulling the strings.
"And when were you supposed to take those packages down to the basement for me?" he asked.
"Before the choir finished singing," Ida said.
"Which was two hours ago."
"I couldn't find a good time," Ida protested. "They said to not make people notice me, and Lady Willamette notices if I wander off. She always notices when I wander off, and she makes a fuss, and yells, and everyone would notice that."
"That is a tragic story, and I feel bad for you, but I think the real problem here is that you don't seem to appreciate how important it was for you to do exactly what we told you to do and do it exactly how we told you to do it." Kofi gestured at the trunk with his knife. "Mattie didn't understand that either. She did something we told her not to do, but now she knows that there are always big consequences if you don't follow my instructions."
Kofi could see the light dawn in Ida's eyes. She had been scared, but now she was starting to understand just how much trouble she was in. The terror was raw, and she was just short of hysterical. Unable to decide if she should look at the knife shoved in her friend or the knife in Kofi's hand, her head whipped back and forth, but again, she managed to keep it all together.
"Please don't hurt me," Ida pleaded.
"Don't hurt you?" Kofi pretended he was puzzled by that and had to think about it before continuing. "Well, if you lift your chin and hold real still so I can get a nice clean cut on your throat, I can probably make it not hurt too much."
It took Ida a second to understand what he was saying. "You can't kill me. I was helping and trying. I really was."
He played with his knife, teasing her, waiting for the moment when the terror started to overwhelm her before he said, "Okay, the stupid little girl can have a second chance."
Ida sighed in relief and in that moment, she sold her soul to him.
"My people are stretched thinner than I expected, so I could have some use for a girl who can stand next to that Willamette bitch without being noticed too much," he said. "But if you disappoint me again, I won't be nice about killing you. I'll make you hurt so bad for so long that you'll beg me to cut your throat. You understand exactly what I mean when I say that?"
"Good girl. Now, the first thing you're going to do is reach down in that trunk and pull that knife out of your friend Mattie."
When Ida touched the knife, Mattie flinched, screamed into her gag, and kicked the side of the trunk. Ida yelped and jumped back.
"Go on. Grab hold of the handle and give it a good solid yank," Kofi said, acting as if it was a simple, everyday task. "Knives get kind of stuck when you leave them shoved between someone's ribs like that."
Ida reached in for the knife again and Mattie's eyes went wide. The seamstress shouted against her gag again, shaking her head with tiny, frantic shakes. Ida pulled her hand back. That was disappointing, but not unexpected. If Ida was as young as he suspected, she was at the in-between age where she was old enough to understand the consequences of her actions but too young to have all the compassion beaten out of her by the realities of her place in life.
"What did I say about disappointing me?" Kofi touched Ida's shoulder with the blade of his big black knife, making sure she could see the tip even as she kept her eyes fixed on Mattie.
"Too late to worry about my knife," he said, adding a bit of growl. "In fact, this knife isn't going to kill you, it's going to keep you alive." He traced her cheekbone with the tip of the blade. "You see, if you can't do what I need you to do, I'm going to take one of your fingers, and smash the end of it. I'm going crush the bone and everything and turn it into a bloody paste. Just that one finger and just that little bit of it. I'll leave it all smashed and ruined and let it just hurt, and hurt, and hurt for a day, and a night, and then maybe another day. And then, just when you think it can't possibly hurt any worse, I'll burn it a little, and stop, burn it a little, and stop, over and over and over. Can you imagine how much that will hurt?"
"No, you can't." He touched her ear with the knife. "No matter what you imagine, it will be far worse, and I'm going to make the hurting last for the rest of your life. After I'm done burning on that smashed bit of your finger, I'll let it sit for another day or two and let it start to rot, which hurts even worse than burning. That's when this knife is going to start keeping you alive. You see, I'll use this knife to cut off the smashed and burnt bit of your finger so it doesn't kill you with rot. Then I'll be nice to you for a day. I'll feed you a nice meal, and let you take a bath, and I'll let you sleep in a big comfortable bed, but that will only be because I want you to remember what it was like before I started hurting you. That will make it even worse when I smash the next part of that finger, then leave it, then burn it, then leave it, and then cut it off. And when that finger's gone, I'll move on to the next, and then the next. And when all your fingers are gone, I'll start on your toes. Then maybe your ears, and nose, and I've got something special I'll do with that middle part of your back that drives you mad when you can't reach an itch. Somewhere in there, I'll have to do your eyes. I'll save your eyes for when I think you've gotten used to me hurting you. Eyes are special and no matter how much I've already hurt you, just knowing I'm going to ruin your eyes will make you scream and cry and beg."
Ida was trembling so fiercely it looked like she was having a seizure.
"And just when you think you have nothing left, I'll start on your girl parts, but by then, they won't be girl parts anymore, will they? I'm going to take so long hurting the rest of you that you'll be grown up into a young woman by the time I start ruining those very, very tender parts of your body." He pushed the tip of the knife against a spot just in front of and above her temple, piercing the skin at the hairline. A tiny cut at that spot would be almost impossible for anyone to see, but it bled like mad, and he waited until he was sure she could feel the blood trickling down her cheek before he said, "Nothing but pain for the rest of a very long life. That is what you get if you don't do exactly what you are told to do and do it exactly like I tell you to do it. Got it?"
Ida nodded, cringing as the movement made the tip of his knife dig deeper into her head.
Kofi pointed into the trunk with his knife. "Then pull that damn knife out of Mattie!"
Gritting her teeth, Ida grabbed the knife that was stuck in the side of her friend's chest. It took two big tugs and some wiggling to get it out. Mattie screamed against the gag, kicking and sobbing, but Ida persisted until she finally pulled the knife free.
"Good," Kofi said. "Now put it back."
"Put it back?" Ida was confused.
"Yes, stab her, but not in the ribs, in the belly." Kofi spoke conversationally, using the shift in tone to keep the little girl off-balance. "That's a good first stabbing lesson. Unless you've got a lot of practice or are big and strong, you never stab people through the ribs. That's kind of what ribs are for, protecting you from stabbing. So, a beginner should always stab someone in the belly."
"I can't stab Mattie," Ida whispered.
"As far as the police will know, you already have." Kofi grinned wickedly as he closed the trap. "Mattie's blood is on your hands, and your dress, and your fingerprints are on that knife."
"But I didn't," Ida cried. "She's my friend and everyone knows I would never, ever hurt anyone."
"And that's another one of those tragic things," Kofi said. "But there's more than enough evidence here to convince everyone that you murdered Mattie. And she's pretty, and she's Lady Willamette's favorite, so that's the kind of murder where they don't just throw you into the Deep. I bet that Lolofi bitch makes them nail your hands to a cross and put you out on the dock, just like in the scary stories. Tell me you stupid little girl; do you want to find out what it feels like to have the acid out in the Drift burn on you until you die?"
Ida shook her head, sending tears and snot flying.
"So maybe you want to see if I can hurt you worse than that?" Kofi asked.
"It's not fair," Ida pleaded.
"No, it's not fair at all, but that doesn't change a damn thing. The only way you get yourself out of this alive and with all your parts still attached to your body is to do exactly what I tell you to, starting with you shoving that knife in Mattie's gut."
With a sudden spasm and a bit of a squeal, Ida all but dove into the trunk as she drove the knife into Mattie's side. It wasn't exactly in the belly, but it was halfway between the seamstress's ribs and hip.
"Good," Kofi said. "Now do it again."
Ida pulled out the knife and stabbed Mattie again.
With the third thrust, Ida broke, consumed by a flailing, slashing hysteria.
Kofi was disappointed about losing what Mattie knew, but having a serving girl who could behave oddly without attracting attention was priceless. Regardless of how effective Ida might be at carrying out any of the tasks he might give her, placing her next to Willamette and setting her loose at the right moment should constrain the possibilities for one of the minor but annoying variables that he still had to contend with.