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Archibald Lox and the Vote of Alignment

Darren Shan








  Archibald Lox, Volume One, Book Three of Three

  Table of Contents

  Title Page



















































  also by Darren Shan

  copyright page



  WE CROSS SWIFTLY THROUGH several zones, careful not to leave a trail, before making camp outside a town in a place far from Suanpan.

  Dermot and the others hold a short ceremony in memory of the eight thesps who were killed in the avalanche, but they don’t mourn the way people would in the Born. Life and death are different here. The Merged know for a fact that the souls of the slaughtered have moved on to another sphere, so the loss hasn’t caused them undue grief, and to my relief no one blames me for the role I played in the disaster.

  Inez is eager to travel on, but Dermot tells her they’ll need to stay here a while. They lost some of their key performers on the cliff, so they’ll have to rejig their repertoire. They act out scenes from various plays in their shows, and because of the losses they have to ditch some of those and come up with others to replace them. They also have to source outfits and props, since they left everything behind.

  Inez is frustrated, and we have a short chat about maybe splitting from the thesps and heading on by ourselves, but since I don’t know where we’re going, or why, it’s pretty much a one-sided conversation — I think she just needs to hear herself making her arguments out loud.

  In the end Inez decides that the benefits of staying with the thesps outweigh the inconvenience of the delay, and we quickly settle into the life of a traveling troupe of actors.

  I do away with my school uniform, in order to look like one of the team. Maiko kits me out in a brown, buttonless shirt, dark trousers and light brown shoes, a grey jumper with red flecks for if we wander into any cold zones, and two jackets, one thin and light, the other thick and furry.

  There are twenty-six surviving members of the company, and for the following week they’re crazy busy. While the actors rehearse furiously, the others explore the town and beyond, rustling up items that they can use in the show. Every day they come back with costumes, cutlery, furniture and more, which they store in hand-pulled caravans that they managed to locate on the second day.

  I’m still figuring out how trade works in the Merge. From what I’ve gathered there are no fixed rules, and it varies from zone to zone. For instance, if a zone doesn’t have a deviser who can make shoes, a good pair of boots might be worth more than a house.

  Cal, Inez and I chip in as best we can. Inez assists Maiko in making clothes and costumes, some for the actors, others for trade, while Cal and I head off with the bulk of the troupe each day to help cart back new items.

  I get paired with a guy called Kamran. He’s a few years older than me, and he rustles up unusual props for the plays, replicas of kettles, telephones, rugs, guns, swords. It’s tiring but fascinating work, and it allows me to observe a wide variety of Merged and learn fascinating nuggets about them.

  Every day is an education. I find out that the Merged can’t have babies — there’s no reproduction in this sphere. As Inez told me, nobody ages, so in theory you could live in the Merge until the end of time itself, but most move on (the term they favour for when they die) after a few decades or centuries.

  Injuries inflicted in the Born heal when people reform in the Merge. If one of your hands was chopped off in your old life, it’s restored. If you had a disease like Alzheimer’s, your brain is cleansed. But natural infirmities carry over, so if you were born without a leg, you won’t grow a new one.

  One of the biggest revelations comes when I comment on how good everyone’s English is. When Kamran stops laughing, he explains that people are speaking a mix of languages, from different time periods, and the Merge translates for us.

  I also learn that we’re bound for Cornan, which is the capital of Sapphire, and I finally get an inkling of what Inez’s mysterious mission might entail.

  Inez has refused to tell me anything about that. She says the less I know, the better it will be for both of us if I get captured. But I know it has something to do with a missing princess, and a sketch that the thesps are working on helps fill in a few of the blanks.

  I watch them rehearsing late one evening after I’ve got back from a foraging trip with Kamran. They perform a mix of sketches, some from the Born (weary students who think they’ll escape Shakespeare when they die are in for a shock!) but others that they’ve written themselves.

  Tonight’s piece is a satire about a missing princess, and I guess it must be the one at the heart of Inez’s plans. In the sketch, a detective is questioning Rubicons (another name for the SubMerged, since most of them live in the realm of Ruby), accusing them of abducting or killing the princess.

  I’m sitting close to a pair of thesps called Maria and Tino, and they start chatting about the scene.

  “They’re going to love this in Cornan,” Maria says.

  “I’m not so sure,” Tino says. “They might not want to be reminded about their troubles this close to the vote.”

  “Is the princess in the sketch a real person?” I ask.

  “It’s Princess Ghita,” Maria explains, “one of Sapphire’s royals.”

  “What happened to her?”

  “Ghita’s one of four Sapphirite royals,” Maria says. “There are two kings – Hugo and Farkas – and a queen.”

  “Pitina,” Tino growls.

  “Farkas and Pitina are allies of the SubMerged,” Maria says, “and they want to change the alignment of the realm.”

  “Alignment?” I echo.

  “Sapphire’s a Merged realm,” Tino explains, “but if there were more SubMerged than Merged royals, they could change the realm’s alignment, and then everyone in Sapphire would have to live by the laws of Ruby.”

  Maria nods glumly. “Any Family member can demand a vote of alignment. When that happens, all the realm’s royals gather – it has to be within a year – and decide whether to keep the current alignment or switch it. If most vote for change, everyone has to respect their wishes.”

  “Hang on,” I stop them. “There are nine members in a Family, right?”

  “At most,” Maria says. “Usually it’s less.”

  “And you’re saying that if a majority of those vote to become SubMerged, the whole realm has to change?”

Nobody can contest a royal decree,” Tino says morosely.

  “That’s crazy,” I protest. “Surely people can refuse to go along with them.”

  Maria shakes her head. “It doesn’t work that way.”

  “Why not?”

  “Devisers are compelled to do whatever a royal tells them,” Tino says, “and since they can do whatever they want with their realms, we have to follow their lead, or they’d wipe us out.”

  “So royals can force you to obey them?”

  “Pretty much,” Tino says.

  “But they don’t,” Maria smiles. “Most respect the wishes of their people.”

  “But not in Sapphire,” I note, and their faces cloud over.

  “The threat of change has been on the cards a long time,” Tino says. “Pitina sided with the SubMerged ages ago. Then Farkas went that way too.”

  “Do many royals change allegiance that way?” I ask.

  “Most don’t,” Tino says, “but there’s nothing to stop them doing so if they feel that SubMerged laws would work better for us. It’s like Born politicians who switch parties — unusual, but far from unheard of.”

  “And do any of the SubMerged royals swap sides?”

  Tino snorts. “There have been a rare few over the millennia, but the Rubicon royals assassinate those who, in their view, betray the cause, so, you know, if the stray royal or two has the occasional doubt, they tend to keep it to themselves.”

  “For a while it didn’t matter about Pitina and Farkas,” Maria says. “Hugo and Ghita stood firm, and there were two queens on their side. Then the queens died. One was old and her passing came as no surprise, but the other was young. It looked like an accident, but...”

  She shares a dark look with Tino.

  “You think she might have been killed?” I ask quietly.

  “There are rumours,” Maria says hesitantly.

  “Some call them facts,” Tino says heatedly.

  “Anyway,” Maria shrugs, “that left Hugo and Ghita. You need a majority to effect a change of alignment, so we still thought we were safe.”

  “Then Farkas called for a vote,” Tino says. “We were surprised but relaxed about it, until Ghita went missing.”

  “What do you think happened to her?” I whisper.

  “That’s what the sketch is about,” Maria says.

  “I know, but what do you think?”

  Maria sighs. “I think the SubMerged killed her.”

  “I don’t agree,” Tino says. “I think she’s gone into hiding and is hoping to turn up to cast her vote, but the odds are against her. I’ve heard tales that the SubMerged have sent killers like Orlan Stiletto and –”

  “Orlan Stiletto?” I cry.

  “You’ve heard of him?”

  I nod mutely.

  “According to the stories, Orlan and his kind are hunting high and low for her. If they catch her...” He draws a finger across his throat.

  “This princess,” I mutter. “Have you ever seen her?”

  “Not me,” Tino says.

  “Or me,” Maria adds. “She travels a lot.”

  “Can Family members be other things?” I ask. “Like, could one of them also be a locksmith or actor?”

  “Of course,” he says.

  I nod slowly, wondering if Princess Ghita might also be a camel?

  I ask around over the next few days, but nobody here has ever seen the princess and they don’t know much about her, except she’s Italian or Spanish, looks like a teenager, and has been in the Merge a few hundred years.

  Maybe I’m putting two and two together and getting five, but the killers were after Inez... her mission involves helping a princess cast her vote... she’s the right age and ethnicity. She told me she’d been killed in the Born, but maybe that was a smokescreen.

  The more I think about it, the more I convince myself that Inez must be the missing royal, but I know she’ll deny it if I ask her, so I keep my theories to myself and carry on with my chores.


  THE FOLLOWING WEEK, the thesps declare themselves ready for action, and we trek through a series of boreholes that eventually lead us to a hill overlooking the city of Cornan.

  It takes a while to cross, because there are so many of us, and we have to get the caravans through one at a time. Inez is worried that the borehole might be guarded, so she hangs back — if necessary, she, Cal and I will take a detour and find a more isolated entry point.

  To our relief, there are no guards, and Cal nips back to tell Inez that the way is clear. While I’m waiting for her, I step up next to Oleg, who’s studying the city through a pair of binoculars. He offers me the binoculars and I thank him.

  Cornan is a sprawling jungle set around a group of hills. Huge trees sprout from the ground, and with the aid of the binoculars I can tell that people live in them, as windows and doorways have been carved into the trunks.

  There are houses built into the tops of many trees, nestled among the branches. One, the largest and most elaborate, sits atop the tallest, thickest tree, which stands in the centre of the city like a beacon. I guess that’s the palace.

  Walkways have been built between trees at various levels, and I spot locals bustling along them. Rope ladders hang from the walkways, for people who want to get on or off along the way.

  Vines entwine the city and rise into a blue sky above. The vines twist round the walkways and trees, as well as the hills, and there are people using them as paths. In a few places I even spy small houses or shops built atop especially wide vines.

  It’s hard to make out the city floor, but I catch glimpses of buildings, roads, paths and parks, like you’d find in a normal metropolis. There are lots of tents too.

  “Why so many tents?” I ask Oleg as I return the binoculars.

  “For visitors like us,” he says.

  “Aren’t there hotels?”

  “Yes, but nowhere near enough to house the crowds that have come for the vote.”

  He wanders off and Inez takes his place beside me. It’s a very different Inez, and I still do a double take when I catch sight of her.

  One day, while the actors were rehearsing, Maiko took Inez to visit a remoulder. Remoulders are devisers who can change a person’s shape and appearance, by partially melting their skin and bones into a putty-like substance, then restyling it. They can tweak the colour of the hair and eyes too. Inez now has a shock of red, curly hair, thick red eyebrows and loads of freckles. Her skin is a few shades lighter and her eyes are blue. Her nose is wider and flatter, and her ears are a different shape. She’s also swapped her regular clothes for a long white dress and sandals.

  Inez catches me staring and tuts. “Stop doing that. The wrong people might notice you noticing me.”

  “Sorry,” I say, “but you’re so different.”

  “Well, you’d better get used to it, and quickly,” she says. “And don’t forget that my name is...?”

  I roll my eyes and mutter, “Mary Fitzpatrick.”

  “Very good,” she smiles.

  “I’m not dumb. I can remember your fake name.”

  “I know,” she says, “but the more you use it, the more naturally it will come to you. It’s easy to call out a person’s real name, for instance if you thought I was about to trip or be hit by something flying through the air.”

  “Don’t worry,” I sniff. “I won’t say a word if I see an accident coming.”

  Inez punches my arm.

  When we’ve all crossed, we wind our way down into Cornan. The city is packed with merry people, trading, pitching tents, performing, eating and drinking, or just strolling around.

  “How come everyone’s so happy?” I ask Inez as we traipse along in search of a place to park up.

  “It’s a joyous occasion,” she says. “People have come from all over the Merge. Old friends are meeting after maybe decades or centuries apart. There’s so much to see and do. Why wouldn’t they be happy?”

  “But the vote of alignment...”
r />   She makes one of her growling noises. “There’s a saying in the Merge — don’t let tomorrow’s sorrows sour today’s pleasures.”

  Dermot’s at the head of our small convoy, helping haul the lead caravan along, and he’s becoming increasingly frustrated. He’s been to Cornan several times, and played in different areas, but his favourite spots have all been taken.

  “I wish we could have come sooner,” he says to Maiko.

  “It will be fine,” she soothes him. “There are crowds everywhere. We’ll draw an audience no matter where we perform.”

  “I wish I had your faith,” Dermot sulks. “It won’t surprise me if we end up in a cave, performing to a handful of rats.”

  “I thought there were no animals in the Merge,” I whisper to Inez.

  “He doesn’t mean those sorts of rats,” Inez says, but before she can explain, a man with a face shaped like a crescent moon steps forward and halts us.

  “Thesps?” the man asks officiously.

  “Yes,” Dermot says.

  “Do you have a company name?”


  The man tuts. “You actors don’t make it easy for us, do you?”

  Before Dermot can reply, the man points down the road. “Take the third left, then the second right. Go over a hill and take the first left at the fourth junction. Follow the road round and you’ll find a patch with the code 173T. That’s your lot.”