FIRE, ASH, SKIN

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15

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The carriage scrapes to a sudden halt, and a few moments later the coachman’s boots are rapping against the cobbles. The unis bleat nervously. The carriage shifts from side to side as the animals dance in their traces.What’s going on?” An autumnal smell of bonfires drifts from up ahead, though the season has not turned.

Jannik shakes his head.I’ve no more idea than you.

Ma’am.The door is opened and Master Sallow stares in, his dark brown face glistening with sweat. The night is unusually hot.

And bright.

What–I clamber down, my chest tight with fear.

Ash drifts down onto my shoulders, warm and powdery. The air is perfumed with wood fire. From what’s left of the Pelim apartments comes a resounding crack as a roof beam gives in and sends a shower of fairy sparks whirling into the night.

Some parts are still burning, and the Hobs and servants loyal to us are trying their best to douse the fires, while the streets fill with bystanders, their faces bathed in firelight, the heat beating them back. The water-filled buckets are making no difference to the blaze, apart from sending up plumes of black smoke.

No,says Jannik behind me.

I can say nothing. Instead I grip my skirts tight, tighter, until it feels like my sinews are going to snap through my skin. A rattling whistle sounds around me, and I can’t place where it’s coming from or what it is. I strain, trying to concentrate, as if the knowledge will somehow open up my reason, and I will be able to make sense of the ruin.

Felicita.Jannik drops a hand on my shoulder. His skin is so hot I’m certain he will blister me. I’m shaking.

No. I’m shivering. The sound of my teeth chattering against each other competes with the ragged whistle.

Felicita, stop. Stop it.He pulls me around, turns my head away from my burning home, and holds me tightly.

I’m so cold. The whistle changes to sobs. Jannik forces my stiff and uncooperative body back into the coach. Once I’m seated I shake my head, over and over. I try rise. I choke out the thing that I do not want to face.The staff.

Jannik does not answer me.

They will be fine, they must be fine. Think of something else. Anything else. “My stuff.I don’t even know whatpapers? Painted Botanicals? Old and unwanted furniture? Dresses? I hate all those dresses.

You hated your dresses.Jannik sounds like he’s talking at me from the far end of a tunnel.

How can I give a damn about some lost trifles when there are people that may have died?Find out if everyone is safe,I tell him. My legs do not want to walk, and I am certain that if I had to go and ask these questions myself, my voice would crumble like black charcoal in my mouth and all I would taste would be ash and bitterness.

I can’t go near the servants, I’m too scared. But as soon as Jannik has left me I get up from the carriage and fight my way to the mass of people, until I am surrounded by strangers, and I take my place in the bucket brigade. Men and women in uniform are distributing more buckets to speed the pace, and another group have unrolled the large sewn leather intestine that connects to the hand pumps and is used to spay down fires.

My head stays down and I work mechanically until my gloves are torn through and my hands are welted and blistered. I only raise my head once, when a team of fire-fighters brings down part of the building to stop the fire spreading to neighbouring grounds.

The blackened ribs of the house collapse in a shower of ash and sparks and choking smoke. The bucket brigade begins to disperse, now that the danger of their own homes catching fire has been averted. They’ve saved as much as they could, and it’s too late to do more.

The sun is rising, the air stinks of wet ash.

Half-asleep on my feet, I stack a bucket on the fire-fighter’s cart and stumble back toward the carriage. My dress is ruined, my hair stinks of smoke, and my hands ache. I must look like a mad woman wandering lost with my braids unpinned and standing about my stained face like serpents. There’s no-one by the carriage and I crawl inside.

I sit with my burning hands clenched together in my lap, staring at my thumbs while I wait. You will pay the families of the dead, Owen says. A silver or two will cover it. Stop talking,I whisper to the flame-bright morning.Stop talking.I cover my mouth with my hand, and rock ever so slightly, just the tiniest movement, in time with my breathing. It is all I can allow myself.

I force my head up when Jannik enters the carriage and frowns. “Felicita,” he says, so very softly and so very loudly. “I’ve been looking for you. Where have you-” He stops as he takes in my state. “You didn’t have to.”

He is in no better condition than I.

The servants,” I say, my voice cracking, my lungs full of ash. “Tell me.

There is one girl unaccounted for,he admits.A maid called Riona.

I press my knuckles against my teeth, tasting ash and salt, willing the pain to bring me some kind of forgiveness. I hope that she was out for the night, that somehow she has survived.

Jannik collapses next to me and says nothing. He smells of spicy sweat and that same repugnant greasy smoke that has enveloped the entire street. He smells like plague fires. Jannik is not the kind of person used to giving comfort, and I am not the kind of person used to taking it; after a moment he leaves again, and I hear him giving commands. Then he is back with me.

The carriage is pulling away from the ruin of our house, as if it were all some inconvenience we can simply leave behind. And we can, I suppose. That’s the freedom we have.

I’m sorry,he says.They’ve found her body.

And so it happens that another person has died because of my family. I choke. She will never again leave me sprigs of dogleaf, or make her pointed observations, or talk in her low, shy voice.Where are we going?Panic is rising in my voice. Is Jannik taking us to the docks, so we can board a wherry for Pelimburg and skulk back to beg our families for scraps of forgiveness?

I told the driver to take us to the offices.

Blankness fills my head. Offices?

Fingers touch my neck. No, not my neck. My necklace. Jannik brushes the locket straight then curls an arm over my shoulder, pulling me close to him.

The strange rigidity leaves me, and I am spineless and weak as a box jelly. I let him hold me. He rocks me, or maybe the carriage does. My eyes are dry and itchy but I don’t want to close them, scared it will hurt. Eventually my eyes start to water, the moisture streaming down my face. I’m not crying, I’m not.

Riona is a blackened skeleton. We will compensate her family, just like my brother did for the families of those that drowned in Pelim’s services. This is what we do.

* * *

Why is there a bed in the office?I ask Jannik. We’re in the heart of the central district of MallenIve, on a main thoroughfare that leads to the wherry docks. The offices are a narrow four-story building, although most of the space serves as spill-over for the warehouses. Not fish, thankfully. Jannik is diversifying Pelim’s interests.

Silk. Bales and bales of finest MallenIve silk in incandescent colours, heavy brocades thick with designs, hand-woven carpets that will trade in Pelimburg for minor House fortunes.

I reach out as if to touch a long roll that leans drunkenly against one corner. The rich golden silk reflects shadows and light, almost illuminating the dull corner it shares with other, lesser colours. “I didn’t know we traded in Mata gold. Only the Mata currently hold the rights to sell silk dyed in goatweed.

We don’t. Not officially.Jannik shrugs, and heaves another roll of deepest emerald silk off the long couch.And, this isn’t exactly the office, it’s a spare storeroom.

Why is there a bed in the storeroom?

I sleep here.

I stare.

Sometimes,he adds.Not all the time. Just when, I don’t know. When I have lots of paperwork.

My hand leaves the golden silk, finds its way back to clutching my skirt. I’ve stripped off my ruined gloves, but my hands still hurt. “Did you bring him here?

He says nothing as he rummages in a small locker for a plain sheet and a woollen blanket.No. There are plenty of empty rooms at the Guyin house.” He pauses, then without looking at me, says, “I’m afraid I don’t exactly have a gown to offer you.”

I want to tell him I’m sorry I asked, but I don’t. He flicks the woven material out, and the blanket settles airily over the wide couch. The blanket is goat wool, dyed a brownish red. Before I even touch it, I know it will feel softer than baby’s hair, baby’s breath.I don’t want to sleep.

No?Jannik’s finished making up the bed.I think it’s a little late for anything else.

I want to talk.

What you want, and what I want, are very different things right now. Talk to the silks, I’m going to sleep.

Howhow can you sleep now?I cannot shake Riona’s face from my memory. If I lie down, it will engulf me. I am exhausted, every bone filled with molten iron, but I am scared of the things I will dream.

Jannik turns. His face is drawn and sallow in the weak light spilling from the single fatcandle His eyes are hollowed, the sockets bruised and dark.Because it’s better than the alternative sitting up and wondering what will happen next because of me.

You?

What do you think this is about, Felicita? Do you think someone burned our apartments to the ground because you wore the wrong dress to the wrong party?He’s hoarse and shaking with barely controlled anger.

Ino.Of course this is about him. Or perhaps this is the dark future Guyin dreamed was coming.How do you know whoever did the house won’t just burn the offices tonight too?I ask bitterly.

Are you going to sleep in that?Jannik gestures at my dress.Because the bed is going to be uncomfortable enough, and I speak from experience.He loosens his filthy neck tie, unbuttons the collar.

I’ll keep watch,I say.

Jannik pauses with his hands on his shirt buttons.From the cellar?He stops, sighs, and rubs his hands through his hair, leaving it mussed.Sit down,he says.I’ll make tea.

I thought you wanted to sleep.

So did I.

* * *

It’s late afternoon when I wake, dizzy and lost and out-of-place. It takes me a few minutes to work out where I am. We’re curled together on a long low couch in a small room filled floor to ceiling with glittering silks. Jannik is wearing shirt and trousers, and I am in my long shift and drawers. Despite our relative state of dress, we are tangled close as lovers. Moving slowly and carefully, I ease my arm out from under him, and try shake feeling back into my blistered fingers. We’re both of us tacky with dried perspiration, and the summer sun has heated even this dank and airless room. A single small high window lets in a shaft of dull orange light, and this is our sole illumination.

Jannik mumbles as I sit, and he throws one arm over his face, frowning in his sleep.

On the floor sits a small basin filled with dirty water and rags, and two plain and serviceable tea bowls, their leaves tracing futures.

Fire. There was a fire, and Riona is gone. My home is gone.

The memory feels unreal, and for a moment I am not sure if it’s a dream, if I’m still dreaming, in fact. But the smell of burned flesh and charred wood wars with the must of silk. I raise my blistered hands and clench them, cracking the new scabs. The pain is all too real.

A rapping sounds from the door, and I lurch forward, pulling the goat wool blanket higher. Then I drop it annoyance.Jannik,I whisper, and jab his shoulder.You have guests.

He grunts, turns around and pulls the little fringed couch pillow over his head.

If you don’t get up and answer that door now,I say,I’ll do something terrible.

Like what,he mumbles from under the pillow.Talk me to death?

The person outside knocks again, harder this time.

Go away,Jannik says, although not very forcefully and he could just as well be talking to me as to the mysterious visitor. He makes no move to rise. The damn vampire is always sluggish during the day.

With a loud sigh, I throw the cover off, march over to the door and jerk it open.What?

The Hob looks startled, possibly at my state of undress, and the fact that I appear to have spent the night in the Pelim offices after rolling about in a cooking pit. As if I care what he thinks.

He raises an eyebrow and holds out a white envelope.Message for the boss,he says then squeezes his eyes briefly shut.Er, your ladyship?he says hopefully, feeling his way around the social niceties he thinks are expected of him.Only I mean, not for you, for the other bossthe vamp.

Oh give it here.I snap the letter away.

It’s important, like,adds the Hob.Messenger said.

And I’ll see he gets it.

It’s not like she has far to walk,says Jannik from the couch.

Oh, Gris.I slam the door in the Hob’s grinning face.You couldn’t have kept your mouth shut?

He’s sitting up now, feeling for his stockings and shoes under the couch.What for?he says.Ah, you beasts, wandering off in the night.Jannik glances up at me.Do you think you’ve offended his delicate sensibilities by spending a night with your husband?

In the office! On a couch!I wave the letter at him.And we’re not exactly–

What does the letter say?

I pause in my rant, and take a deep breath. Jannik’s name is on the front, written in a hand I don’t recognize. On the other side is a far more familiar seal. House Guyin.It’s for you.I throw the letter at him.From your friend. Obviously he didn’t get the same message from Harun that I did.

Jannik catches the letter, flips it over, and frowns at the hand-writing.Isidro.

My dress is hung over a stack of silks, and I rip it down and give it a quick, hard shake as if that will somehow restore it.Would you like some privacy while you read your poetry?I say acidly. I am so angry, but it’s not for this. This is just an easier target to fire my useless rage against.

He’s already torn the top of the envelope and withdrawn a single piece of paper. Jannik reads it, frowning, then holds it out to me.

I was never one for verse,I say.

And I know that, Felicita. Read the damn thing.

Isidro’s handwriting is a barely legible scrawl, the ink blotted and thick. The salutation includes my name. I glance up, and catch Jannik’s eyes. He nods at me to continue.

Why is Isidro begging us to come urgently to House Guyin?Something must have happened to Harun last night. A tremor flutters under my breastbone. Perhaps ours was not the only house targeted. And perhaps Guyin was not as lucky as we. That black future he saw looming in his dreams.You don’t think?

Get dressed,Jannik says.I’ll have a carriage prepared.

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