The season of summer is one for frivolity. The seriousness of the spring weddings is over, Longest Night celebrations are on their way and, for the moment, no one is thinking of the winter to come. It is the time when all the powerful families in the city gather, and under the pretence of having fun begin an earnest and vicious round of social destruction. The dance of the Houses is the adult equivalent of the children’s game of musical chairs. Last one left standing gets to go home the winner.
Business in MallenIve is done in ballrooms, at small parties, in panelled rooms over snifters of the scriv-rich vai. The magic taints our blood-streams, we drink it like watered-wine. The men gather and talk, propositions are casually thrown into the fray, and men nod, men ponder, men make decisions. In other rooms, the women gather and discuss children, or they gossip.
It’s surprising how much you can actually learn from the latter if you keep your mouth closed and your ears open. I know every man’s foible, every fall and moment of stupidity. Unfortunately, I can’t use it. When I try to engage the House Lords in conversation about business, they talk through me. They do not see me in my layers of silk and beads. Apparently the mere act of holding a paper hand-fan is enough to render one invisible.
But I can’t give up yet. I’m still new enough in MallenIve, still a curiosity, that I am invited to these House parties. As long as I have invitations I need to make the most of them before the last of their interest dries up and I am, like Harun, left to gather dust with my bat.
Tonight’s hosts are House Ives. It is a fairly intimate gathering, as these things go, but despite that, I have seen many of the most powerful people in MallenIve. The flame-red hair of the ruling House Mata lineage is probably the most conspicuous.
We women have gathered at the foot of a large staircase where the lady of House Ives has brought down her two daughters to greet the guests before being sent back to the nursery rooms. The older is perhaps ten, with a cool, bored look, and hair as fine and blonde as her mother’s. The smaller child is a dour little thing, furtive and sulky. I greet them as expected, annoyed already by the pretence as a gaggle of young married women coo over the girls.
They are just two more spoiled little doves, bargaining pieces. I was once the same. Even so, I can’t help the momentary pain that crosses my chest. Lady Ives has something I will never have in these two girls. I press one hand lightly against my skirt and pretend that I have never wanted children and that I do not care. After all, there’s no point in bringing more people into a world like ours, where their futures are laid out for them so neatly that one wrong step will damn them to misery.
“Makes you feel almost sorry for them,” a woman mutters behind me as the girls are led away.
I glance back. The woman is smiling. Her brunette hair is curled and pinned up so that her neck is left bare; her hazel eyes are almost amber in the fatcandle light. She has skin like fine parchment, and I can almost read the poetry waiting to be written there. My heart leaps. Nerves.
“The girls,” she says, and nods elegantly.
“I should feel sorry for them?” Careful now – this is the first time someone has spoken to me without sneering, without at least attempting to hide their desire to latch on to a new scandal.
The woman raises her small liqueur glass so the light catches it, sparking in the dark depths. “They’re never innocent. We’re never innocent,” she corrects. “Already they’re playing off each other, and trying to catch the eyes of those Mata brats.” Here she tips the glass just slightly in the direction of a group of slender, red-haired boys. “I’m Carien,” she says, “and you’re the girl who married a bat.”
I bristle at the double insult. She’s only a handful of years older than me, and Jannik is more than just an expletive. “Pelim Felicita,” I snap. I’m trawling my memory for the woman’s House. I’ve made the foolish error of memorizing the names of all the men, and not their wives’. My own fault then if I come out the worse from this encounter.
“Oh, I know your name.” She laughs and takes a sip of her drink, and shudders lightly. “Everyone does.” Carien must catch the anger that flashes through me. “Don’t take it that way.” She smiles behind her liqueur glass. “You’re the centre of all the talk, you know.”
Wonderful. I’m thrilled. And I’m an idiot.
Carien shakes her head, still laughing. “I do wish you could see the look on your face.”
“I’d rather not.”
“Come.” She holds out a gloved hand, unexpectedly. I stare at it. “Come on.” She wiggles her fingers in a strange melding of impatience and playfulness. “You should meet the others.”
Others? Now I’m intrigued. Perhaps my opening has finally come. This is the first time I have had a civil conversation with someone that lasted longer than five flicks of a nilly tail.
I don’t take her proffered hand, but I do follow her. She leads me to a small room, really more of a comforting little nook lined with leather books and warmly lit by fatcandles in coloured glass. Several small intricate glass sculptures, of the kind made by War-Singers with the talent for art and glass, are scattered about the room on low tables and shelves. They cast fantastical shapes of orange and green and blue across the spines of the books. Several women, most of them Carien’s age or a bit older, sit chattering softly. They look up when we enter. The rainbow lights dance across their faces.
“Oh, so you’ve caught her then?” says one, smiling with something that is not so much amusement as pleasure.
So I’ve walked right into the sphynx’s den, have I? Watch out, I am not unarmed. I still have my wit and my pride and my family name.
“Rescued her, actually.” Carien flops down inelegantly on one of the lush sofas that clutter the small room. “Mirian was busy showing off those spawn of hers.”
“Oh, Gris.” A woman with long fine features and long fine hair taps long fine fingers against her glass. “You know she only dragged them out because the Matas finally decided to accept an invitation. She’ll tie those girls to House Mata if it kills her.”
“Making up for her own failure,” says another. “Couldn’t catch herself a prince, so she baits the hook with her daughters.”
The women laugh together like all the bells in MallenIve striking midnight.
“And you.” The woman stops tapping her glass and turns her attention to me, her dark brown hair swinging across her face. “You should be grateful to us, you know.”
“Should I?” I say it coolly, gathering up my insecurities and snarling them tight and small.
“Oh yes.” She stands – a languid motion that fits her look. “I’m Destia, and you’ve met Carien. We’ve seen you trying to talk to our husbands.”
My cheeks heat, my breath sticks in my throat. This is mortifying. Here I thought I was going to begin making alliances, and instead they are putting me up on trial so they can mock me. “I believe I have spoken to some of them,” I say with a cool archness I do not feel.
“They won’t listen to you.” Destia smiles neatly. She has very small teeth.
“They will listen to us,” adds Carien. “We’ve been waiting for you to realize it.”
“Only you didn’t,” says another, honey blonde and dressed in scarlet.
“Carien took pity on you.”
“You should thank her.”
The air stinks of scriv. The drug is their key to their magic. They are wealthy, or they would not be so casual in its use. And they want me to know it. Perhaps there have been other rumours about me – ones that talk about how I have given up scriv, given up magic.
No one quite believes it, of course. What Lammer in their right mind would give up the only thing that truly sets them apart? It’s our very reason for being. And, if I am honest with myself, I feel its lack in my own life. Were I to start taking scriv again, I would once more be a War-singer and the highest of the magical castes, with complete control over the air. I could choke the breath right out of Carien’s lungs. She would see then I am not a little toy to be played with like a terrier does a rag-doll.
But those days are past. Power corrupts, it’s said, and I have felt that corruption chew its way through me. More than that, I have been on the receiving end of a War-singer’s magic, have been choked and belittled and discarded.
Carien’s amber eyes are on me, watching with a predatory intensity.
I hold my head very still, not wanting to seem cowed, but not wanting her to pounce either. “I’m disinclined to throw out my gratitude like grains in a hen coop.”
Instead of sputtering or demanding an apology, Carien shows me her long throat and crows. The noise is raucous and loudly out of place – a farmyard screech.
All I can do is stare. There is something very wild and unpolished beneath Carien’s House fashions and society strictures. Whatever I expected of her – this isn’t it. What kind of well-bred lady trained for House subservience and the shuffle of domesticity calls attention to herself like this? One who intrigues, who mirrors something in me that I have tried to cover like the mirror-silver in a death-house. I almost find myself stepping closer to her, as if she has wound a silk thread around us and has begun to spin us together.
After her outburst, Carien indicates that I sit down and, though I’m still crawling with misgivings, I do so. Next to me Destia smirks then sips at her drink.
When the rustling of silk, taffety, and lace has quieted, Carien crosses her hands over her knees and leans forward. “Tell us about the bat.” All the heads around me come closer, and I am reminded of jackals gathering about a wounded goat.
The bat. I keep my face still, and imagine the things that I could do to these little jackals if I were still a War-singer. I want to lash out, to tell them his name, and explain to them that he is not an animal. But I know from their looks and from their gleeful maliciousness that this would be sport. And, frankly, I need their husbands’ business partnerships – and for that I need them. What Jannik doesn’t know. . . . I shudder in revulsion at what I am about to do. “It’s a political marriage–”
Carien waves me silent. “Oh we don’t want to hear the Pelim House line. We can get that from the Courant.” She leans nearer still, close enough that I can see the lamplight shine yellowly off her teeth. “Do you touch it?”
“No.” At least that is not a lie. I have. I don’t. I want to. I will not. “No, I haven’t.” Then why have I never taken scriv again? It’s not like I have consummated my marriage. It’s not as if I could poison him with the touch of my scriv-infected skin.
My answer leaves her looking disappointed and she withdraws. “Really?” She eyes an area above my head, apparently bored with me now that I have failed to give her what she wants. “How dull. Don’t you ever get curious?”
“About what?” I ask without thinking.
I have Carien’s interest again. Her smile is infuriating, a smile that says I know something you don’t. “I’ve heard they’re magical.”
And here I thought everyone in MallenIve had relegated the bats to nothing more than people-shaped animals or sometimes, if they were lucky, to the status of kept-whores. “Have you now?” I try to take a deep breath, but the stench of scriv is so heavy I feel like all I’m breathing in is spoiled fruit instead of air. It’s been so long since I had any that I’ve realized how awful it actually smells. The women here are rotten with it.
Carien narrows her eyes. “There’s talk.” But it seems something in my tone has warned her off, because she sits back with a sudden easy grace and looks around. “Where’s that damn servant? Ives lets the Hobs get away with murder here.”
The honey-blonde laughs. “Hardly surprising, given his predilections.”
The women all smirk together.
I take their lapse of interest in me as an opportunity to gather myself. Scriv. So much of it in this room, and there is only one type of magic that calls for such quantities in these social situations. Readers. Damn it. All of them? I eye the group warily.
Carien’s moments of looking not-quite at me are explained. Now that I’m aware of it, I can see how their interactions with each other are careful, with a slick layer of surface agreement that indicates heavy emotional shielding.
There is no way to be truly hidden around them. If I’d been able to go on to University, I would have learned some shielding techniques – enough that I could at least misdirect – but even that is a trick that only a few really get the knack of.
This is why we War-Singers and Saints loathe the Readers so. There is no perfect way to hide the lies, the insecurities, and the complexities of engagement. The best I can do is focus on some very strong emotion, something so powerful it will blank out all others. Very few people have something big enough to work. Love certainly isn’t enough. However, I am lucky.
Lucky. If that’s what one wants to call it. My fingers twitch, and I force myself to remember the things I did.
Dash’s face as I cut him off in a nightmare world, willing him to die. The scratch on Owen’s cheek, sentencing him to death. I ran away from my family and my future, only to destroy it. Only to end up with a future that is hardly better than the one I tried to escape. And people died for my rebellion. Dash and Owen were merely the ones whose names I knew.
These things are me. This is my guilt. And, beyond that, I have the time I wasted in not killing my brother straight away, and the innocents who died because of that.
The guilt hits me solidly and the blackness fills my throat.
Across from me Destia shifts, turning a little to stare at me in confusion.
Carien narrows her eyes, smiles grimly, and taps her fingers along the wooden arm rest of her chair. We watch each other, waiting to see who will make the next move, and what it will be. She is like a little snake, ready to strike.
They’re interested in the bats, and that interests me. MallenIve society detests them as vermin. It’s not the done thing to show any fascination. I need to draw these women out a little and find out what they know. If it’s true that Carien and her cronies know that the ba– the vampires are magical, then how long before they have them condemned to death, or worse, used to replace scriv dust – their teeth and bones ground to powder and snorted from little glass spoons?
It must not happen. I pull my guilt around me, let it seethe. “How do you mean magical?” I affect my best tone of bumbling confusion. “I must confess that the idea strikes me as somewhat ludicrous, certainly I–” I pause, mouth still open then shut it with a decisive snap. I flush, intensify the guilt. There. Let them make of that what they want.
“Yes?” Carien waits.
Oh yes. Hook and line. I look down at my hands. My fingers are curled up around each other, clinging to secrets. “I, it’s . . . .” I look up and catch her amber gaze, “complicated.”
The women have drawn closer, hemming me in. Carien hisses a pleased little laugh. “Oh now,” she says. “We’re friends. Nothing you say here will spread to other ears. We keep so many secrets. We victims of marriages must, after all, stick together.”
The women smile and nod, heads wavering like rinkhalses. “Come on,” they say in soothing hisses.
“It’s like this,” I begin, and take a deep fluttering breath. In truth, this is harder to do than I expected, perhaps because in my lies there is an element of truth that I must face. “I have – have touched it,” I whisper.
“So?” Carien leans back and observes me amusement.
Irritation sparks. She’s not letting me reel her in. “Well,” I say, and raise my hands in a helpless gesture. “You know.”
She’s tapping again, her eyes hooded as she waits. “Know what?”
Damn. Damn it all. “Perhaps, there is something,” I say, and hope that I can come back from this without condemning Jannik.
The women are all silent, exchanging glances. I tamp down my frustration and think again about Dash and Owen and death. Guilt, guilt, guilt. It’s awful, and I hold on to it fast. The guilt works in my favour – let them believe I am so disgusted with myself for touching Jannik. And that thought leads on to others, to the night I spent sleeping next to him, and how I could feel the magic rippling between us, feather soft. It seems so long ago. Funny how a matter of months can stretch out to fill enough longing for a lifetime.
It’s the honey-blonde who breaks the silence. “It’s addictive.”
I raise my head. “Is it? I haven’t let myself. . . . ” The news they know this is unexpected. And opens up all kinds of horrendous possibilities. A House can buy a bat for three pieces of silver. A fair amount – not enough to cripple their finances, but certainly enough that it’s an investment that would require some thought. And the only possible use I could see the Houses having for the bats is to take their bones and teeth as some kind of scriv replacement, the same way we de-horn the unicorns. Except that these women are the wealthiest of the wealthy, and their veins are grey with scriv. They don’t need substitutes.
“Surely you should know better than us,” Carien says, her voice sweetened with sugar-cane. “There’s something in the skin, the oils of the body. Sudors.” She frowns. “It’s better – stronger – under emotional stress.”
And now I’m utterly lost. Here is something I truly did not know, though I concede it makes an awful kind of sense. “Perhaps I misunderstand,” I say slowly. “You think they . . . perspire magic?”
“So it seems. From what we’ve heard.”
This is ridiculous. How do the MallenIve Houses know more about the vampires than I do? “I am afraid I don’t really see how it’s possible.”
“Oh very possible,” says Carien. “And who’s to say there isn’t more to it, that the magic doesn’t run deeper?” She keeps her eyes on me as she says it, and I find myself drawn into the amber, caught like an insect.
“I – that seems-” Unlikely dies on my tongue. I force a laugh instead. “No, most definitely not. Is a sandwyrm magic? A riverdrake? Sometimes the things that sprang from magic are merely monsters and animals. The bats are just more human-shaped than others.” My stomach churns as I say this, but I know my mask is perfect. This is just another skill I learned from a childhood in House Pelim.
Carien glances about at the others. Destia raises one eyebrow, then seems to shrug in consent. The other three women bite their lips, look down, or nod immediately. Eventually they come to a private agreement.
“It’s been most rewarding talking to you.” Carien stands in dismissal. “I’ll speak to my husband on your behalf.”
My interview is at an end, and I have achieved something. Only, Gris be damned if I know what. Carien gives me a final, secret smile that just barely twitches the corners of her mouth, and a shudder runs through me, a thrill of something that could be desire or fear. Pretty things, I must remind myself as a I press one cold hand to my heated cheek. They are dangerous.
* * *
At our next dinner with Harun and Isidro we arrive to find a cadre of thin-lipped dour servants scraping the front walls clean with soap and rags. The smell of faeces is ripe, and despite the industry of the servants I can still read the word BATFUCKER written in grey milk-paint across the white wash.
“Lovely,” says Jannik, his voice dull. He makes no move to get out of the carriage, and I’m inclined to follow his lead and just have the coachman take us back home.
A servant is scraping away the B, and we watch it erode under his hands.
“This could be us one day,” Jannik says. “You do realize.”
“No.” I lift my chin, and gather my skirts. “It will not.”
“Oh really. You think there’s some way you can stop all their hatred, bleed it out of them with leeches?”
I can’t answer him. I stand on the wide stone paving, listening to the gentle snorting of the nillies in their traces, of the cluck and mutter of the servants as they wring out sudsy water and wash away the filth that MallenIve has thrown at the Guyin’s door. “I won’t allow it,” I say finally, and Jannik just laughs sadly at me.
“You’re not Mallen Gris,” he says. “People won’t follow your lead merely because you say so.”
“No.” We’re almost at the front doors, and the servants step out of our way. Their stares are angry, grudging. They hate us. They hate Isidro, and they will hate Jannik. “I’m not a mad man, and people won’t be using my name as a curse.”
Jannik glances at the servants, shrugs. “You might just be surprised one day,” he says as a serving girl leads us gracelessly inside.
But now the thought is in my head. How long before people attack us in the street, daub obscenities across our house, ostracise us from MallenIve society? I don’t want to become like the Guyins, but nor do I want to be caught up in the web of Readers and Saints and War-Singers who run the Houses. People like Carien who would gleefully skin my husband just to see if she could strip the magic right out of him. Magic she shouldn’t know about or be interested in.
Not everyone feels it, Jannik told me. And those who do, don’t mention it. Most people have to touch the vampires before they feel anything, and no one wants to admit that they have. It’s like taking out an advertisement in the Courant telling the world you enjoy molesting goats.
There is a kind of safety for the vampires in the city’s hatred of them. But I think that safety is growing thin and small and well-used. If the woman of the Houses are talking freely among themselves, then the word will spread soon enough, perhaps even to the ears of those with real power and a lust for magic. To the palace itself.
And perhaps it’s too early to begin worrying. I am grasping at nightmares and finding only mist.
Through dinner I find I cannot stop staring at Isidro’s skin, as if somehow, should I glare at him for long enough, all his mysteries will come seeping out. It’s easier to watch him than to do the same to my husband. Every time I look at Jannik, my eyes slide away, as if there is something there my brain refuses to acknowledge.
Perhaps it is simply that Isidro has an easier face upon which to look. He is startling, that is certain. I do not think I have ever seen someone as beautiful, and I, who only paint flowers and sticks, wish I had the talent to set him down in inks, and the courage to ask.
“Something terribly exciting about my face, Pelim?” he snaps.
“Not at all,” I say quietly. “Should there be?”
I have no idea why he hates us so much. Something about Jannik’s family, and the gulf between the two of them. Every time he looks at Jannik, his whole face twists, making it the closest it can get to ugly.
Rumour says the Lord Guyin bought Isidro from one of the three MallenIve rookeries. In Pelimburg there are no rookeries. All the vampires are members or servants of one of the free Houses. Here, things are more than a little different. The vampires are not free. They are born into the rookeries where they serve out their time as whores, or as night-soil collectors.
A rookery vampire does make a little coin off each transaction, and there’s the elusive goal of buying their own way free. But the truth of it is that they make so little their only true escape is to be bought as a servant and freed. If one is lucky enough to be bought out, Gris alone knows what their new owners want with them. I think of Carien’s face, in lamp-light. Her eagerness.
If I am correct, Jannik’s family, House Sandwalker, did buy some of MallenIve’s vampires for a while, sinking their fortune into buying the freedom of rookery whores. They would have brought their people down to Pelimburg, far from the memories of this awful city. It may be this is why Isidro hates Jannik so: because he had to buy his own mockery of freedom with his looks.
I glance at Harun, who is supping more on wine than on the roast trout and milk–and–lemon soup his kitchens have prepared for us. Again. The skin under his eyes is pouched and his hand tremors a little, sometimes. I wonder what he is trying to drown inside himself.
What is it that made Harun buy Isidro and keep him as a lover? For myself I saw no other way to escape my family while minimizing their disgrace than by entering this farcical marriage, and Jannik is at least from a powerful House. But what kind of man throws away his inheritance, his future, for some spoiled pretty thing?
For the shit on the walls and the hatred of everyone around him?
He is either a madman or an idiot. Certainly, he is a drunk.
“Felicita,” Jannik says, his voice very soft, “perhaps you could tell them of what you heard at House Ives.” I spoke of it only a little to Jannik, just told him that Carien has strange ideas about vampires. Uncomfortable ones. He seemed to brush my disquiet away by telling me that only certain people were sensitive to the vampire magic and could be affected by it.
Does that make me special, then? I’ve never seen myself as particularly sensitive, although my control over scriv-based magic is very fine.
I think Jannik is wrong. It has to do with physical and emotional connection and not on any inherent ability.
But that sounds too much like the fancies of women, pinning all the world on fate, and so I have said nothing. Because truly – should I say to him I think I can feel his magic because we’re meant to be together? What a stupid thing.
A stupid childish thing.
“The Houses,” I say, then find myself wondering how to put it.
Harun raises one eyebrow, drains his glass, and beckons for another bottle.
“Fascinating,” says Isidro.
I swallow, glance at him then continue. “Some of the women from the Houses seem to have this ridiculous notion that the vampires are magical. That their magic can be accessed, with the right . . . tools.”
“House women are idiots,” Harun says, and it takes all my self-control to not throw one of his own plates at his head.
Isidro stays quiet.
The rest of the mealtime conversation is stilted and uncertain, but after the desserts, Isidro walks outside to take fresh air and Jannik follows him. Through the long blue glass of the garden doors, I see them standing shoulder to shoulder, and they are talking.
I’m uncertain if I should join them. Something about their stance seems so oddly intimate, as if the rest of the world does not exist. I suppose I should be happy they are being brought together, even if it is by something as grotesque as Carien’s notions. Jannik could use a friend in this city.
Harun comes up quietly, and stops just behind me. I don’t turn back to look at him, just listen to him pouring himself another glass, the soft liquid slap as he drinks. He’s watching them, like I am.
“Looks like they’re finally getting on,” I say, and keep my voice light. “That’s good”
“Is it,” Harun says flatly.
I flush. He has merely echoed what I think, that I was happier when Jannik and Isidro had nothing in common, no little black ribbons to tie them to each other. “We all need friends,” I say. I still cannot bring myself to look back at Harun. I keep watching the two of them, though they have made no move and seem to be merely staring out over the garden, still talking. There is a space between them. “Someone who understands us.”
Jannik and Isidro, despite whatever differences they have, will always have more in common with each other than with either of us, I realize. We will never truly understand what it is to be them, to feel the needs they feel, the iron laws under which they live. The people will write on our walls – mine and Harun’s – but they will spit in Jannik’s and Isidro’s faces and pull the teeth from their skulls, strip their bones and leave their meat to rot on a rubbish heap.
That is the future that is waiting if people like Carien become too interested in them. Perhaps it would be easier just to run again, find some other place where we can go. And nothing will change. “Perhaps it is better for the two of them to have each other.”
“Do you always give up your partners so easily?” Harun says. “Or only when you realize how much effort they will cost you to keep?”
I swallow, stare, count the seconds out before Jannik turns away from Isidro, their conversation now over, and walks back up to the wide glass doors. And to me. “Effort?” I say. “Or silver?” Finally, I glance over my shoulder and meet Harun’s eyes. “I don’t need to keep mine on a leash, Guyin.”
My stomach hurts as I say it.
* * *
It is morning, and the dry, sage smell of dogleaf blows through the open windows, perfuming the Pelim apartments. Magic shifts through the breakfast room. It is calm, quiet as sunshine. I let the feel of it roll over my skin, and close my eyes, relax. This is Jannik’s attraction.
No. This is exactly the kind of thing Carien and her cronies meant. I may have shrugged off the yoke of scriv, but here I am replacing it with something else. And I don’t even mean to. I tighten my fingers around my cutlery and take a deep breath, open my eyes, and make myself watch him. He is a person; not a drug, not a collection of bones and skin to be ground to dust.
Jannik is sitting with his head bowed, the morning Courant spread out before him. No breakfast dishes clutter his side of the table. A lock of black hair slips forward, and he tucks it back behind an ear with an unconscious gesture. He’s frowning. Every morning we meet at breakfast. I eat. He reads. We pass the opening of the day in a companionable routine that to others, would look for all the world as natural and normal as any other marriage. It is also often the only time we see each other.
He starts talking. The words wash over me, his voice soft, with a hesitancy that means he’s reading something out to me. He always sounds nervous when he reads out loud, as if he fears he is saying everything wrong while a critical audience watches, mocking.
I try concentrate on what he’s saying instead of just letting the cadence of it flow around me like his magic.
There is a body. Hoblings found it while working the middens that surround MallenIve. The hands and feet were cut off, face neatly removed.
“Despite this, it was not hard to identify as a bat,” Jannik reads.
We are at the breakfast table, where I am now most decidedly not eating my toast and preserves. He rustles the Courant, and clears his throat.
Carien. Or one of her cronies. My throat closes up. They’ve done it already. Then logic takes over and I give myself all the reasons why this has nothing to do with the things Carien said to me. She’s not a butcher, just a girl who has the natural inclination of the weak to find power fascinating. She wanted to touch the skin, not peel it from their flesh.
I make myself hold my head still and pretend that today is normal, that nothing has changed. “A bat?” The question comes out in a cough, as if it has been years since I last used my voice. I find it hard to believe Jannik used the word.
“I was reading it as written, Felicita.”
“Did they say who?”
Jannik sets the paper down and glares at me. “What.”
“Not who – what. Or did you forget where you live?” Before I can answer, he carries on. “No, the reporters did not give a name. Frankly, the chances that the sharif will investigate this further are slim to none. It would make about as much sense to them as hunting down a Hobling who drowned a litter of unwanted kittens.” He’s so very angry. His fingers are trembling.
“What does it say?” I gesture for him to hand the paper over and he complies. Our fingers brush, and the feeling between us jolts me like a spark of static. I frown.
Jannik looks at his empty setting, sighs, then gets up. He paces the room while I read. There’s not much more here than what he told me. The article is a piece of filler, cropped down to fit between an advertisement for a new soap, and a listing of wherry arrival and departure times. It’s just a bat, mutilated so it could not be identified. No one has stepped forward to report a missing slave, and the rookeries have remained conspicuously silent.
When I’m finished, I fold the paper closed and hand it over to him. “We should speak to Harun.”
Jannik raises an eyebrow. “Why trouble him over one dead bat?” That word again, sharp and hateful. The way he says it makes me think he wants it to hurt me more than it does him. “Every time we talk to them, there are more eyes on us. Why ruin your precious face over one corpse.”
“One that we know of,” I say. “There might have been others.”
“There are other people more deserving of your misplaced guilt,” Jannik says. “A whole city is dying by degrees outside us, if you feel the urge to run off and save people. But perhaps plague-fields are not a grand enough setting for your dramas. Or perhaps,” and he stares at me levelly, “Hobs don’t count.”
“Of course they do!” I stand, and run my hands down my stomach as if that will settle my anger. Surprisingly, it helps. Just another little trick I have for showing the world nothing of what I truly think.
Jannik has finally hurt me, and he knows it. I will never forgive myself for all the Hobs who died because I took too long to make a decision, to find a bit of backbone. “However, don’t you think that something like this is perhaps important to those of us who have–” I stutter. “Ties?”
“Is it really?”
“This new-found temper doesn’t suit you,” I say through gritted teeth.
“And neither does this pretty little mask you’ve taken to wearing,” he snaps back at me. “All so perfect and . . . bloody Pelim.”
I draw myself up straighter; fix my spine like an iron spear. I’ve been wearing this bloody Pelim mask for him as much as myself, doesn’t he understand? If the Houses accept me, then eventually they will have to accept my choices. “And what am I supposed to do – is there some particular manner in which you’d like me to conduct myself?”
I frown. “Excuse me–”
“Felicita.” The fight has leached out of him and it seems to me he shrinks the smallest bit, and is left tired and ill. “You’re caught back up in it, in being a House piece. You’re back to that.”
It’s not true, I tell myself. Underneath everything, I am still me. Surely he must see that. “What of it?”
“I met a girl once.” He stares over my shoulder, into the past. “A girl who ran from things she hated, who worked in a tea-room just to grab at freedom. A girl who inspired me, because she fought for everything she was told she couldn’t have.” His gaze focuses again. “And now look what she’s become. People died for your freedom,” he says softly. “So you could become this? Is that all he was worth?”
I know better than to think Jannik is talking about my brother. He does not care for some spoiled House son. “Jannik,” I warn him, but my hands are shaking. Memories are spilling past the barriers I have built in my head; the coldness of Dash’s body between us as we waited with him for death, that last flutter-laugh when he knew it was over. I remember crying, even though I wanted to hate him.
This is about Dash. Beautiful and broken. Dead and buried. We both loved him in our ways, but I am certain he only loved one of us back.
The fire and anger dampen, and my shoulders slump. “Do you blame me for – for Dash?”
Jannik just stares, swallows, then finally, minutely, he shakes his head. When he looks at me, I wonder what he sees. I am just a girl who reads the same books as him, who grew up a game piece in my family’s plans, like he did. That is the shared history on which we shakily built this marriage.
He does not see a lover or a partner. That person is dead.
I feel crumpled and discarded. My heart is a dusty paper ball inside an empty urn. “Then what is this about?”
“I heard you call me a bat, just the other day.” His voice is very mild, as if we are discussing a change in the weather. “To one of the servants.”
“I did not.” But my assurance wavers in the last word. Oh Gris. Did I? I can’t even remember. My stomach tightens, and heat rushes my cheeks. I could have – Oh Gris I could have, and the worst of it is simply that I wouldn’t even have noticed if I had. This is the mould my family poured me into, the one I thought I’d broken out from.
“If it makes it any better I don’t think you meant any real insult by it.”
And how exactly does that make it better?
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. “There are things I need to deal with in the offices.”
After he’s left, I swallow thickly and go to pick up the folded newspaper. The story about the dead vampire is hidden in there; a little entertainment for the Lammers, now over. I open it again and read slowly, as if each word were part of some incantation that will lead me to the truth of my own heart. As if rereading it will give me the vampire’s name, their history, their loves and dreams. As if I will somehow give them back the humanity my own people stole.
A servant comes in to begin clearing away the breakfast dishes, and I wave him to me. “See to it that a card is taken to House Guyin, the younger one. I need to speak with him.”
The servant nods and leaves me alone.
The sunlight in the room is warmer now, but it doesn’t make the place feel less forlorn, less empty.