A PLAGUE OF HOUSES

23

The city stinks of death. High summer has MallenIve by the throat and my apartments in the House Pelim holdings are stuffy and humid. We are miles from the Hob slums where a plague is currently raging, and still the air reeks of burned skin from the pyres.

Hardly an auspicious start to the season’s round of parties.

I slump in my rooms at the very top of the house, waiting for respite. Fine rivulets of sweat trickle down from my temples, and I pant while fluttering a small round paper hand-fan – MallenIve’s latest fashion – uselessly through the air. All it does is waft the heat around. At least the Houses only bother with their entertainment in the evening, after the thunderstorms have damped down the baked dust and washed away the stench of the day’s unfortunate corpses.

It’s not just the poor. Everything seems to be expiring. Just yesterday when I ventured out, desperate for some kind of contact that didn’t involve servants or the implacable mask of my husband, I saw one of the shaggy, goat-like nillies drop dead in its traces. The creature just crumpled in the middle of the street, between the shit and the pedestrians. Traffic in MallenIve is so slow and congested it took minutes before anyone but me realized it was dead.

That moment as it died and the golden eyes went dry was the first time since I came to this monstrosity of a city I felt a kinship with another living thing. It too had had enough of this stinking place.

So melodramatic, I’m sure Jannik with his penchant for awful poetry would approve. Somehow, I suspect I shall cling to life a little longer than the broken nilly. Our moment of mutual feeling only extended so far. There is no way for me to go back home, and I think I am long over the childish petulance of suicides. How grown up you are, Felicita. Even my inner voice manages to sneer at me. Almost eighteen and so very adult.

“Oh, hush,” I tell myself as I wipe a palm across my sweating brow. “I am allowed to wallow in my self-pity, at least until tea.”

My mother would have understood. She wouldn’t have approved, but she would have given me a little space to indulge in some of my teenage misery. Or perhaps I am remembering her too fondly. After all, there is distance between us greater than miles. She has absented herself as my mother and her letters to me are few and say little. All I really know is that my brother’s widow has moved into the family house. I wonder if Mother gave her my turret room so that the poor girl could pretend she was at least a little bit free.

Enough of this. I refuse to entertain these maudlin thoughts. I take a deep breath and push the image of my mother out of my mind.

A small, timid knock sounds at the door, and it’s the signal that the worst of the day is over. Tea is the precursor to the punctual afternoon storm. A slight Hob girl with her dark curly hair pulled back in a neat bun comes in. The starched whites of her sleeves almost glow against the yellow brown of her hands as she sets down a tray of tea, honey, and milk. The grassy smell of redbush fills the room.

“Thank you, Riona.” I drop the fan on my dressing table with a clatter. I like this girl; she’s soft and sweet, but underneath that she’s got spine. She knows her letters, a remarkable enough thing in a Hob straight from the vast township that encircles MallenIve. I’ve worked at her, winkling her slowly out of her shell like a little sea snail. When she first started working for me she’d stand mutely staring as I tried to ask her questions about her life and her family. Eventually she stopped giving me looks of blank astonishment, and these days she actually manages to roll her eyes at me and hum in exasperation when I am at my most annoying. None of the other staff have followed her lead. I suppose the MallenIve Hobs are as unused to a Lammer speaking to them as if they were people as the Pelimburg Hobs are.

I confess, a year ago, I would have given no more thought to her and her life than I would have given a pack animal. My time in the Whelk Street squat changed me more than I like to think about.

“Your brother?” I say as she pours the tea, “Have you any word?”

“He’s doing better, my lady. Thank you,” she whispers. Her older brother works the scriv mines out past the city. When the black lung hits, the miners with their ragged lungs are the first to fall. From what she’s told me, Riona has no other family besides him. We can do little enough. I have sent a physician – who was rather disgruntled at the task – to see to him, and have paid for medicines, but the black lung will take who she will. If he’s doing better, then that’s as the world has decided.

“That’s good news then,” I say brightly. Mentally I add another task to my daily list: have the kitchen staff make up a package for the boy: food and blankets, and lemons and honey for his throat. Mrs. Palmer will pull faces, I know, but for all her scowls and mutterings, she’ll wrap Riona’s brother enough to feed a Hob-pack.

“Yes, my lady.” Despite my attempt at friendship, the girl refuses to call me by anything else.

I sigh, and flick the handle of my fan so that it slides across my table. Small steps, Felicita. You cannot change a city in a day. Or a year.

“Will you be painting today, my lady?” Riona says as she stirs honey and milk into my tea.

“Please, Ree. I have asked so very many times.” I catch her free hand in mine and feel her muscles twitch at this unwelcome display of amity. “Felicita will do just fine.” After all, I threw away my pretence at ladyship when I ran away from home and dishonoured the Pelim name. It’s why I’m here in this stinking hole: to do my best to make up for all my flaws. I let her hand go with a sigh. “Not today, I think.” Another glance out the window confirms that the clouds are rolling in thick and heavy. And tonight’s engagement weighs on me as much as the clouds do. I’m in no mood to paint flowers.

A sudden thunder rolls through the house.

It’s not from the coming storm and there was no warning flash of light. It sounds like falling rocks and the walls and floor are shaking. Tea has spilled over my desk. My heart jumps in my chest like a landed fish. Earthquake. MallenIve has the worst luck of any city and if I stay here any longer I’m bound to be swallowed up and destroyed. “What was that?”

“It’s a mine, my lady.” Riona looks almost as if she is about to laugh. “One of the old scriv-tunnels must have collapsed.” She’s already wiping up the spilled tea and has set to pouring me another, completely unflustered.

“And where exactly are these tunnels collapsing?” I ask faintly.

She shrugs. “Under the city, I suppose. You shouldn’t worry, my lady, it doesn’t happen often. One time, a hole opened up right in the middle of a street, my brother says, but that was years back. So you mustn’t fuss yourself. Anyone born here is used to them.”

Plagues, collapsing streets, and high society parties.

I think I am ill-suited to this city.

A crack and flash herald another rumble, this one coming from the sky and quickly followed by the first spatter of rain. At least the house isn’t shaking any more. “I’ll need Cornelia to come up here, as soon as I’m done with tea.”

Riona nods and withdraws, and I am left alone with my porcelain and my fan. I pick it up again, not in the mood for the cloying heavy-milked drink.

After the punctual storm, I will have to bathe away the day’s sweat, be dressed up in another revolting MallenIve gown, put on my prettiest, most wide-eyed and imbecilic face, and go out to pour my share into the urn of social spite that oils the gears of MallenIve’s most powerful Houses. Usually I have to do it alone. My husband is not exactly welcome among the wealthy elite. They cannot wrap their minds around the concept that in Pelimburg, the vampires can be born into free Houses. In MallenIve, they are still nothing more than dogs, bought and sold on a whim.

“At least tonight will be a little different,” I say to the fan. My hand stills, and I turn my wrist so that the fan seems to be staring at me. It is white and blankly incredulous. It nods, and I talk to myself in a low cruel voice, as close as I can get to my dead brother’s. “You chose this,” the fan says, bobbing with each word. “I have no patience for whining little girls. And that, Felicita, is all you’ve ever been.” All you ever are, and ever will be, it doesn’t have to say.

My stomach cramps, and a dry needling pain flickers in the corner of my eyes.

“Shut up, Owen,” I say quietly, and I drop the fan onto the polished vanity counter, among the scattered bottles of perfumes and precious oils.

Another distant growl of thunder signals the change in the day. I press my fingers to my temples, trying to push away the ache that will come soon, the closer the evening draws. I have no idea what to expect from tonight’s invitation. It is from Guyin Harun, who has committed the singular sin of not marrying a suitable House woman and breeding suitable House heirs. His situation is similar to my own, and so fate has seen fit to push us together. In a way I would prefer to be on the safer ground of being shunned by the other High Houses of MallenIve. I have learned to deal with their particular patronizing brand of false sympathy. Rather that than have to face the mirror and see for myself what exactly Jannik and I are: a mismatched and untouchable pair of nothings.

* * *

The invitation flutters in my gloved hand as the carriage draws to a halt outside the white-faced house. I’ve managed to smooth away my earlier disquiet, pat it under layers of powder and paint, and lace it up into stays and boning and silks. Naturally, I have said nothing to Jannik. We have little enough to talk about at the best of times. The only things we have in common are deep and ugly, and too newly scabbed over. My betrayal of my family led to the deaths of so many, not least of them the lover Jannik and I shared.

That same lover used us and twisted us to his own ends and I should hate him. Only I can’t.

How much worse it must be for Jannik, who, I think, loved him. We never mention the name Dash, we do not talk about what led us here to MallenIve.

Instead, we prattle of slight inconsequential things, like invitations to parties.

“Rumour has it that the Guyin hasn’t been seen in years. Never leaves his home, never invites anyone in.” I tuck the card back into my purse, and force myself to act cheerful. Even if it is just more political machination, it’s still the first time both my husband and I have been invited anywhere together. All I can hope is that this particular evening doesn’t ruin my social standing in MallenIve. I’ve managed to claw a little bit of status back, and we need that if we are to survive here. “I sense a long night ahead of us. Gris alone knows if the man has even a modicum of social graces. Last time anyone saw him, he set his dogs on them.”

“Felicita, it’s one evening. I think you’ll live.” Jannik remains as expressionless as the waiting building. The last few months have made him less awkward, he seems to have grown into his beakish nose, and his dark hair hangs past his collar. While he will never be beautiful, there is something in the paleness of his skin and the deep blue emptiness of his eyes that constantly draws my attention back to him, though he never seems to notice my stares. Tonight we are forced to spend our time together. His mother made the arrangement for us and even at this great distance, my husband will not go against her wishes. Not again. Marrying me was a big enough rebellion for him.

“This is House Guyin?” I had expected something more imposing and ancient to match the legacy of the name; a dark glass tower and crows in lightning-blasted trees. Instead we are presented with a façade like a plaster skull posed in an apprentice’s still life. It shows nothing, no emotion or accusation or welcome. Even the ubiquitous dogleaf in their grey stone pots are limp, the buds still closed and anaemic. The knocker is a dull hint of brass against the un-oiled wood.

Jannik shifts, puts one hand against the leather seat, and prepares to stand. “Apparently so.”

My dress makes it near impossible to exit the carriage with any dignity, although I do a passable imitation. Jannik takes my hand and helps me down from the little step and the emerald taffety armour of the horrendous dress crunches. I have always been of the type that rather than being improved by ornamentation, is left looking shorter and rounder. MallenIve style does me no favours. “I feel like an enormous idiot.”

“Only you look rather like an enormous hand-bell.”

I glare at him. “It’s hardly my fault MallenIve pays so much attention to the idiocies of fashion.” It is a city founded on pretence and artifice. Unfortunately, as the public face of House Pelim, I must play by all the little rules the city dictates. And if I’m the acceptable mask that fronts House Pelim here, then Jannik is the mind behind it. I frown. Jannik, clever as he is, needs to stay hidden.

This is not a city that has any great love for the vampires. The only reason this invitation includes him is because House Guyin are the only other family who have allowed a marriage between a Lammer and a – bat. I shake the word from my head. I’m becoming too used to the casualness with which the people in MallenIve dismiss the vampires.

Jannik crooks his arm, waiting for me to join him. I welcome the flutter of his magic as I allow myself this little moment. We have never spoken of it, but it’s this that draws us together: his latent, unusable magic, and my fascination with it. Together we walk up to the bland door. A flicker of apprehension tumbles about in my stomach like a moth trapped in a closed room. I breathe deeply and ready myself. I can deal with one more condescending House heir, I really can. I have a life-time of experience.

A Hob-girl opens the door as we approach, curtseys hurriedly then leads us in to a formal sitting room. The furnishings are at odds with the more modern house; they are old, fine pieces, although much in need of some oil and attention. The furniture, at least, speaks of time and tradition and a hint of eccentricity.

Two men wait for us.

I’m overdressed. Jannik wears a Pelimburg suit – understated, black. He has not bothered with the parrot-brights the men in MallenIve have taken to. And neither, it seems, have our hosts. The Lord Guyin Apparent is coat-less, gloveless. His partner, standing behind him in the shadows, is also wearing black.

In my emerald flounces and frills, with my ridiculous layers of petticoats and my beading and gloves and hairpins, I am totally out of place. This is not my usual battlefield, and my armour is foreign.

“Welcome.” Lord Guyin steps forward. He’s of average height, with a lean jaw, and dark golden-brown hair that falls to his shoulders. There is something about him that demands recognition and obedience. Here is a man used to getting his own way, and for one awful moment I see in him the shade of my brother Owen. There are no ghosts here, I tell myself. There are no fingers to point at you. I swallow, and breathe deeply, trying to slow the sudden tempo of my heartbeat.

“I’m Harun,” he says. “The dandy over there is Isidro-”

“Watch it,” says the bat. The vampire.

“-and you must be the Lady Pelim Felicita,” Harun continues smoothly.

“A pleasure to finally meet you,” I say, picking my way through the social traps he’s laid. He will try and make me remember my fall from grace, without actually saying anything outright. It’s the way of Houses, after all, and I have been trained in it. But running to MallenIve has also given me a kind of freedom and sometimes I find it a better hand to play if I acknowledge my fall, rub it in their faces and see what they do then. I eye the room. No sign of any slavering hounds, at least. “Just Felicita will do.”

“Of course it will,” says Isidro. He stalks out from the shadows.

Next to me, I feel Jannik straighten. I can hardly blame him. Isidro is one of those rare creatures born to physical perfection. While he has the same ink hair and milk skin and indigo eyes of all of the vampires, he has none of Jannik’s hard lines and clumsy edges. He looks like a portrait in a book of romance poems; impossible, regal, and smugly aware of his unlikely beauty, his hair parted modishly to the side. If Isidro were a Lammer there would be paintings of him in the galleries and people would whisper his name in the dark. He would command a kind of minor celebrity for the simple accident of having been born. But he is not. MallenIve will never know this bauble.

Isidro smiles at me, and I clench my fingers. Here is someone not to trust. I have no faith in pretty things. That foolishness has long since been knocked out of me.

“And you,” he says, staring not at me, but at Jannik. “I suppose we should be honoured.” His smile is very cold, very practised. “Do you want me on one knee or both?”

“Leave it, Isidro.” Harun looks bored by our presence. “I believe there are drinks in the next room.”

The vampire goes silent, although he doesn’t stop staring at Jannik with a barely-concealed dislike. I’d go so far as to say that his glare borders on outright hatred. It is the only thing that mars his otherwise porcelain fragility and makes him seem real.

I tug Jannik closer to me. “My,” I skirt the word husband, “partner, Pelim Jannik.”

“Sandwalker,” says Isidro.

“Not any more.” Jannik spits the words out, flashing temper that is very unlike him. I have no explanation for his anger, except the cold thought that perhaps it isn’t anger, not really. It crosses my mind that this is some brittle flirtation begun right before Harun and myself, until I remember how the various vampire Houses interact. Perhaps there has been some squabble between Isidro’s House – whatever it may be – and House Sandwalker. Jannik’s magic is crawling up and down the walls and making my skin itch. Seems I’m hardly going to escape the tangled web of the vampire hierarchy here, even if I thought I would. We might be far from his mother’s presence but that doesn’t mean she can’t affect us.

Drinks are waiting for us in the next room and a serving Hob pours out glasses of white wine. The taste is crisp as biting into little sour apples. We all eye each other, hiding our awkwardness with hesitant sips.

“So, Felicita,” Harun says, “I must admit that when House Sandwalker requested that we entertain the two of you, I had no idea of what to expect.” He turns the stem of the glass carefully between his fingers. “I have very little interest in House affairs. I had to look you up.” This is a lie. He would have to be deaf, blind, and a fool to boot, to not know who I am. Of all the Houses of our people, my family is the oldest. And I have brought the name back a certain notoriety. The girl who ran away, tongues wag. The girl who killed her brother, they whisper when they think I cannot hear them.

I will not allow this man to get under my skin. Every movement he makes is a slap, and I can see my brother’s face with its look of shock and confusion and the little scratch under his eye – the boggert-mark I left on him that condemned him to death. The memory of Owen makes me want to vomit. Instead, I stare at Harun, forcing myself to see him as he is. I take his features apart one by one and build up a face that will override my memories.

“Read anything interesting?” I say.

He laughs. “Perhaps. A girl who rose from the dead hours after her only brother was taken by a sea-witch. You must agree it’s a tale that reeks of the fancies of crakes.”

Gris only knows what the poet caste have stirred up with their pretty little lies. Crakes – deluded madmen, all of them, and I refuse to read their verses and epics. Not least because they’re invariably dreadful. “I had nothing to do with my brother’s misfortune,” I say in clipped tones.

“No one said you did.”

I take a quick swallow of my wine and taste almonds and hay, the faintest sour sweetness of gooseberries. There are days when losing myself to an alcoholic stupor seems most appealing. I think this is going to be one of them. Already the wine seems warmer and less like acid eating into my throat.

“And now here you are.” Harun tilts his glass slightly to indicate Jannik at my side. “Both of you. Frankly, I’m surprised that you’re accepted in polite society.”

“He isn’t.” I have no time for House games, this fencing with words, so sharp and slender. “I am. I go where I choose. MallenIve princes are not my masters. Why should I fear them?” After all, I did not have to buy my partner, not like Harun. Jannik was born free. It did not take three pieces of silver to make him a person.

Harun glances across at Isidro, and smiles thinly. “That’s what you said I should have done – carried on as if you didn’t exist.”

“And I still think you’re a fool not to.” The vampire crosses his arms. The movement is graceful and controlled. “Better than both of us being holed up here.”

The two stare at each other, and I have the impression that this is an old war, fought now only in silences and remembered attacks. Harun jerks his hand, indicating an end to the private battle, just as a servant enters the room to announce dinner.

Thank Gris the meal is intended only for Harun and me. I confess I had worried rather that there would be a nilly at the table for blood-letting. I know what Jannik is, but that doesn’t mean I like to be reminded of it.

There’s nothing of the sort. The meal is bloodless. While we eat, the two vampires sip politely at their wine, and occasionally snipe at each other.

“You’ve heard that the Hob-plague has reached the outskirts of the city,” Harun says, as he slices into a fatty duck served in orange and fig. Either he really has no social graces whatsoever, or he thinks to show me up for a simpering milksop while he discusses death at the dinner table.

“The black lung,” I say. “I admit I did not realize it was such a problem here.” I smile at him. “My father died of it. Caught it off some Hob kitty-girl, I believe.” There. I can be crass too, you little bastard. I spear a morsel of duck and chew it, watching him.

“Fascinating,” Harun says.

Finally the servants clear the last of the dessert dishes. I will the evening to draw to an end; will the hands on the clocks to spin faster. My stomach is in knots and my fingers are beginning to tremble. Throughout the many courses, we have made small, meaningless talk about what I think of MallenIve, or about the weather, or what crops are doing well, or the new shade of silk this season. We have made pointed and vicious observations, but nothing that can be considered a real and honest conversation.

This dinner is not about wit or social niceties. It’s about the inescapable fact that in the whole of this vast ugly city there are exactly two marriages between vampires and Lammers. So, for this reason alone, we are meant to pretend friendship. Or approximate something like it. I think it’s what we expect of each other, but I do not see how it will work. Isidro is bitter, and he is cold and exact to Jannik, speaking to him only if he absolutely must. Harun is a typical House male, with all the thick-headed stubbornness that implies.

Jannik and I exchange many a wary and exasperated glance over the course of the meal. Finally, we make our escape, and flee into the sharpness of the winter night.

“What exactly,” I say to Jannik when we’re safely in the carriage on the route back to the Pelim apartments, “was that horrifying evening all about? And how do you know the – Isidro?”

He leans back. “I don’t.” The magic around him is thick, making the air almost unbreathable.

“Well, he certainly seemed to know you.”

“My family,” Jannik corrects. “He knows my family.”

“You told me something about your family once – about your grandmother?”

“Great-grandmother.”

I look up at him, I’ve been idly flicking at my hideous skirt, willing it to disappear, or become less . . . flouncy. “You’re awfully snippy this evening. Have I done something to you?”

“No.” Jannik has his third eyelids down, and he looks through me, past me. “You’ve done nothing.”

His mood is souring my already grim outlook on this forced friendship his mother wants us to cultivate. I don’t like games. I don’t like people who lie to me, who keep things hidden and expect me to accept manipulation as my due. With a snort, I pull my shawl close about my shoulders and stare out at the window instead.

Stupid Jannik. I don’t know what he wants of me.

(next)


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cat_hellisen

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