I‘m not planning on sitting around waiting for Harun to extend an invitation, however. There are other people to whom I can speak. The servants prepare a carriage for me – not the ostentatious drag, but a small chaise with the laughing dolphins of House Pelim only a faded marking on the doors, and pulled by a single roan nilly.
My family name hidden, I travel to the rookery on the Mata-side of the river – Glassclaw. MallenIve is home to three rookeries; the places where the bats – vampires work and live, and I suppose, occasionally die. Any vampires outside the rookeries need to have travel papers, or be House-owned. I will show Jannik that I am not afraid of what he is. That nothing about our marriage is convenient. I might not be Dash, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care for him.
He was hurt this morning. The lines of his turned-in anger were all over his face. Jannik is trapped in a city where he can do nothing, where he is nothing, and he is scared to fight against those strictures and find how small his cage really is. Perhaps he thinks he will end up like that corpse they pulled off the heap. I think I have become his captor, in his head. Just another master to another slave.
My gloved hands tighten together on my lap. I will find a way to build a bridge between us, even if it is a thin as spider silk. And I won’t let him be right about me.
While Jannik can do nothing about this death, I still can.
Glassclaw looms over the other buildings on the street. It is cold and dark, the windows shuttered. The bats – No, the vampires; wrays if they’re male, feyn if they’re female. I will remember this, I will not say that word again. The vampires here don’t look up as my carriage draws to a halt.
Perhaps they assume I am just another customer. The thought tightens my stomach, my fists, my throat.
The coachman open the door and holds out his hand for me. “My lady.”
I let him help me down.
“Are you certain–”
“Yes.” I am not, of course. “I shan’t be long. I have some small business to attend to.”
“In Glassclaw?” The coachman’s doubt makes his tongue loose. “My lady, if anyone should see you . . . .”
“A minute,” I say. “We will not be here long.” I make my way to the closed doors of the Glassclaw rookery, my hands sweaty in their thin gloves.
It is a tall building, narrow as a needle, and full of mirrored sky. There are windows everywhere but they show nothing of the interior. Shades and curtains of rose and grey are closed against the sun. Everything is very clean; even the pavements are swept smooth and the stones washed down. Here and there a drying puddle leaves a small dark lake. Despite this, the whole place gives off the empty air of a mausoleum.
A set of long, shallow steps rises to a small roofed alcove, and two doors made with tiny panes of glass of varying sizes mark the entrance. Some of the panes are big enough for me to fit my hand, others would barely take a thumb-print.
The glass mosaic shows my wavering reflection, and I pause, my breath shaky. On either side of me the street is quiet, but still I worry that someone of consequence will see me, that I will be judged. Only the desperate and the perverse visit the rookeries where the few MallenIve vampires work as whores. Certainly no high-bred lady would ever come here, would want to rut with one like a dog.
“Now,” I say to myself as I press my hand against the glass.
What am I going to find – men like Jannik, who keep everything hidden behind empty silences? Or like Isidro, whose silence is what makes their hatred plain? Will they be grovelling, thin, ill-used, and do I really want to see them?
I do not think so.
Inside is gloomy and unlit, a direct contrast to the glittering exterior. Despite the dust, the walls were once whitewashed and the plain wooden floors stripped down and bleached. Long, low couches of a dusky rose with ball and claw feet stand against the walls. The style has come and gone at least twice in the history of Oreyn and the few paintings are drab landscapes by nameless artists. The only light in the room comes from a lamp on a small reception counter on the far end. To the right, a flight of stairs rises into darkness.
The wray behind the desk eyes me nervously, and he keeps his head dipped so that his long hair falls over his eyes. In the gloom, the bone-white of his hands and face stand out like stars.
I muster up a brittle courage to hide my conflict. The rookeries are whore-houses, after all. This was a foolish idea. My heart stammers loud in my own ears, but even so I keep my head raised, and I take in the dust and the patina of neglect on the walls. The place smells like poverty – cheap soap and must and over it all, that neglected struggling reek of despair. I have been here, however briefly, and it hurts. Instead of letting myself sink into the misery of remembered hunger and cold and fear I cultivate my blank cold mask. My House face, full of nothingness and disgust. “Who’s in charge here?”
He looks down at his ledger.
“I hardly think you’re going to find the answer there,” I say to him. I shouldn’t be amused by his nervousness, but there’s no way I can explain to him that he has nothing at all to fear from me. I’m hardly here to buy myself an afternoon with a wray.
“Malik Glassclaw, but he’s not here now.”
I sigh. “And do you have any idea when he’ll return?”
The wray shakes his head, still not looking at me directly. He is cowed, thin and utterly unlike my Jannik, even though there is something about them that is similar; the narrow hands, the long patrician nose, the dark eyes. In Jannik, I have begin to see them as beautiful.
They just make this boy look crow-hungry.
Pity makes my heart feel soft and useless. “May I borrow your quill?”
He does not even attempt to say no; merely places his ink-pot closer to me, and offers me his ragged quill.
I jot down my name and business on my House card, and a request to see the Rookery head. “If you’d be so kind as to pass this on to him.” I add a handful of brass next to the card.
The vampire looks up properly for the first time, his eyes questioning.
“For the loan of your quill.” Everyone has pride, even when sometimes it doesn’t appear that way. “You’ve been most kind.”
Once I’m back in my little coach, I instruct the driver to take me across the river into the Ives’ side of the city – the less-fashionable side. There’s another rookery there. Hopefully I’ll have better luck with this one. We travel for almost an hour though the city traffic before we are anywhere close to the Splinterfist Rookery.
But it seems that this time I am to be rewarded for my persistence. Or stupidity, call it what you will. Their head is in, or so the wray at the desk assures me. The Splinterfist rookery must be in better standing; the boy is polite, but he doesn’t grovel and there is no fear when he looks at my face. Nothing, in fact. He is as efficiently unemotional as a well-trained servant.
He sends another skinny little wray off to inquire if the head will have time to see me now, and I stand in the foyer and wait. Splinterfist is cleaner than Glassclaw; the walls whiter, the wood scrubbed. It has that same tang of despair, but it hides it under lemon-water and whitewash. There are more fatcandle lamps lit, and they spill circles of butter-yellow at the feet of carved couches upholstered in a green dark as pine needles
The glass-paned doors crash open behind me, and the lamplight shivers.
A man in a muddied sleeveless topcoat comes in, his head lowered, and I start backward, turning my face away from him. He may wear no expensive tailored jacket, but it is immediately obvious that he is a House Lammer. There’s no disguising that air of wealth and pompous self-importance. He is long-limbed, and his sly face shows his alarm that I’m here, standing in the entrance hall and blushing red as a thief. When Owen told me that the vampires in MallenIve are whores until they can earn their way free, he seemed amused and disgusted in equal measure by the idea that they even had clients.
And here is one now.
I look away from the Lammer, back to the wray behind the desk. He flicks his third eyelids down, and walks past me to the customer.
There was a thankfully brief time when people thought I was one of the kitty-girls who work the streets of Pelimburg. People pretend you are not there. Their eyes slide past, because they do not like your reality intruding into their own.
The man is led away, upstairs. Does he come here often? I can’t help but wonder. Does he have a favourite – some vampire he likes best? My eyes ache with a curious dryness. Jannik could have been this, if he’d had the ill-luck to be born in this cesspit of a city.
“She’s ready to see you now,” the wray says after a whispered conversation with the returned vampire.
She? I don’t know quite what I was expecting; I had taken it into my head that all the vampires in MallenIve were male. I suppose I had just thought that with the feyn being so rare and supposedly precious to the bloodlines, they would have been brought through to Pelimburg by the three vampire Houses there. It seems not. The feyn are normally powerful, that much I do know, having had the misfortune to meet Jannik’s mother.
I follow the wray upstairs all the way to the very highest part of the building to where an odd squat little central tower forms an eyrie. I can feel nothing from behind the heavy red and polished wood of the door even though my head hurts just from the strain of expecting to be blown back by the power of an adult feyn.
The wray knocks rapidly then steps back and allows me to enter.
I square my shoulders and walk in, on edge. The woman waiting inside is striking in her beauty, if not in her power. The crash of needling iron pain that I was expecting is barely a flickering prickle against my face. Hardly noticeable unless one were looking for it. I frown, momentarily thrown.
She turns the perfect cameo of her head and looks at me with white blank eyes. “Welcome,” she says, though her tone is anything but welcoming. Her third eyelids flick back under heavy lids, and I am caught in her midnight gaze. “To what do I owe the honour, Pelim Felicita?”
So she knows me – has heard of me, and of Jannik. I suppose I should hardly be surprised. We will have been whispered of. Despite what Jannik is, we have not made any formal overtures to the rookeries. If we are to survive MallenIve politics, we must pretend to be separate from the rookery vampires. Their reputation must not be allowed to taint ours.
Jannik was right. I have become a House pawn. And even as I recognise the truth, I still look about me, wishing that a rabbit hole could appear and I could crawl away. What am I thinking – walking into a mess like this and destroying all I’ve worked toward?
Oh, Felicita, my dead brother’s voice sneers in my head. When do you ever think?
You don’t know me, I silence him. It’s true. Owen never took the time to find out the kind of person I was, what I wanted. So why am I allowing his memory to mock and mould me? Grow a Gris-damned spine, Felicita. Stop caring about the Houses, about the game, and the rules.
People have died. That’s what’s important here.
There is no point in hiding my intentions with this woman. She has the stony menace of someone who brooks no argument and who does not react kindly to insubordination. By MallenIve law, I stand far higher than this woman in her watchtower can ever hope to reach, and I use that as a crutch.
“You have the advantage,” I say. “I confess I do not exactly how to address you. My apologies in advance for any offence I may cause you in my ignorance.”
The slightest approximation of a smile twitches her mouth then is gone. “Well, you certainly know how to speak prettily, I’ll give you that. What is it you want?” She means to keep me off-balance and subtly refuses to give me her name. Too late now to ask the wray who led me here.
I plunge in, tired of fighting political battles. I get enough of that in the dinner chambers of MallenIve. “It’s about the body.”
She raises one eyebrow, and the perfect graceful sweep of it reminds me of someone – although who, I cannot quite place.
We wait out the silence, neither giving ground. Finally, I let her win. “The body the Hoblings found in the heaps. I’m quite certain that the news will have reached you by now.” I pause and smile thinly. “And if it hasn’t, then I am distressed to have to be the one to bring you such ill-tidings.”
“No ill-tidings,” she says. “It wasn’t one of mine.”
She turns her back on me and makes her way behind her impeccable desk to flip open a leather-bound ledger. “I can assure you–.” Her words are punctuated by the flick of heavy river-paper. “–that all of my people are present and accounted for. I always know where my own are.”
“So you have no idea who it might have been?” There’s one more rookery I could go to, but the Fallingmirror section is on the farthest outskirts of the city, and from what little I’ve understood of the trade, not worth the effort. They have only a handful of working wray.
She closes the book with a thud and stares at me. A faint frown puckers at her forehead, a neat little bird’s wing of uncertainty. “I didn’t say that.”
“Well, what exactly–”
She silences me by pushing a piece of paper across the table. Four names are written in a cramped, neat hand. The names of Lammer Houses of MallenIve, although the only one of any particular rank is Eline.
“What’s this?” I touch my index finger to one corner of the page, pinning the curling edge down.
“These are the names of Houses who have recently done business with me,” she replies. The implication is that they have not been her usual customers.
I think of the predatory way Carien talked about the bats, their skin and their magic. Cold prickles up my spine. “May I take this?”
“Thank you. I believe that concludes our business.”
Her thin lips are pressed even tighter together and she does nothing more than clip her head ever so slightly downward. I fold the paper over and over until it is in a neat small square. With this in hand, I turn my back on her raking stare, and make my way alone down to the now-empty foyer.
As I close the glass doors behind me and make my way to my waiting carriage, I am quite certain that the head of the Splinterfist rookery is watching me from her turret. Even though I have walked out of her domain with something, I do not think this has been any kind of victory.
Near my own coach stands a little pleasure carriage drawn by a small yellow grey nilly. The insignia on the coach door is a black silhouette of a bird on a daisy yellow background. The heavy beak is unmistakable. Rutherook, then. I tighten my hand about the piece of paper the head of Splinterfist gave me, and turn slowly to my own coach. The laughing silver dolphins barely stand out against the white wood, but if someone took the time to study my little coach it would be obvious which House it belongs to. I have no head for subterfuge, it seems. I shall have to train myself to be better at this game.
“Back home, my lady?” the coachman asks, and I start to nod.
“Oh – no wait!”
He pauses, about to close the door for me.
“Take me to the Pelim offices, rather,” I instruct.
The coachman is well trained and if he feels any confusion at my order, it does not show on his sallow face. He inclines his head. “Certainly.”
I settle into my seat, rather unsure myself as to what prompted me to change my mind, and why I would choose to go to Jannik’s domain. A part of me wants Jannik to know and to have some pride in me, I suppose. How ridiculous. It’s not as if our marriage is like that.
My face heats, and to make me think of something other than his expression when I bring him this news, I unfold the wad of paper. Four names. Eline, Rutherook, Karin, and Yew. I repeat them under my breath, until it feels to me that they are branded into my eyes.
* * *
The Pelim offices are in a set of sprawling warehouses near the Casabi. The docks are bustling with wherrymen and dock-workers and supervisors and carts and nillies and stray dogs and pickpockets and beggars; a riot of colour and stink. Tea-bells and shouts and the crack of sails and the thump of cargo. Some distance from the worst of the mob the roads branch out and narrow, leading to the storage district. The warehouses are jumbled together like a child’s abandoned collection of wooden blocks. Some tower high, others spread out, others seem to do both at the same time, with levels precariously balanced at odd angles. The Pelim warehouse is one of those, with small useless balconies jutting out on the highest floors. A worker leads me through the bizarre labyrinth until I find Jannik in a small study filled with ledgers and musty paperwork. He is dishevelled and sitting cross-legged on the floor before two vast piles of rotting yellowed papers.
“Enjoying yourself?” I say to him.
He looks up, eyes wide in a face streaked with grime. He manages to recover from his surprise at my presence with barely a blink. “I hate whoever last ran these offices. Six months and I’ve made barely a dent in the records. The ones that hadn’t been tossed in the river, that is.” He sets down the papers neatly, straightening the edges before he stands. “Can I help you with something?” he says, as if I am some client who has stumbled into a place they shouldn’t be.
“I paid a visit to the Splinterfist rookery,” I tell him.
“Ah.” His face is closed. “Why would you want to do that?”
“To find out what I could about the dead vampire.”
He fiddles with the books on his desk, setting them so that their spines are just so. On the top of the pile is a small volume bound in blue-dyed leather, the name picked out in gold lettering. The book is almost shiny in its newness. Traget’s Melancholy Raven.
“I thought you already had a half-dozen copies of that.” I point to the slim book of verse.
He shrugs, and runs his fingers on the soft edges, folding them in a little under the pressure. “I bought it as gift,” he mumbles.
A sharpness stabs through my stomach, and I wince. A gift. For someone with a beautiful cruel smile and lying eyes, I suppose. “Pity the poor fool who has to slog through that just because you think it’s a work of genius.” All that rot about crossing deserts and climbing mountains and slaying dragons for his one true love, when in truth Traget was an asthmatic university head who fell in love with a Minor House daughter and had to woo her with words not deeds.
“It is a work of genius.”
“Hmm.” If a collection of love-sick poetry makes one a genius, then I suppose Jannik is not wrong. I shake my head in pity for whoever Jannik has decided to gift with his affections. I don’t want to think about who it might be, all I know is that knowing this much is a slap. I blink rapidly. I’m always so blind, so stupid, always the last to realize what’s going on around me.
This is what happened before, with Dash and Jannik passing that damn Prines’ Mapping the Dream between them like it was a heart they had to share. They did more than that. Jannik had fed off him, was more than emotionally bound to him. He could track him through the city, could feel the flavour of Dash’s moods. I wonder what it is like to be so caught up with someone that you can taste the food they eat, dream their desires. I shiver. When Dash and I were together, could Jannik feel that – every sigh and whisper?
Did he know and hurt? Jannik felt Dash die. Jannik felt his pain and he lived through it anyway, but somehow I never considered it would be the same with pleasure. I was so caught up in my own misery for what I had lost, I tried not to consider everything I took from Jannik. Another thing my brother had the measure of – how selfish I am. That was the last time. I will never take from Jannik again. No matter what it is I want.
“Jannik?” I make myself say. “I just wanted to make sure you know that our agreement still holds.”
“Agreement?” He sounds genuinely confused.
How very awkward. “I did not mean for this marriage to tie you to a dry bed,” I say. Look at me, Owen. Look at me. I’m being so adult about it all. Aren’t you proud? The words spit in my head, but I know that outside I look calm, as if there is nothing I could care less about than Jannik’s little engagements. “You know you have my permission – my understanding – that you can go where you will and with who.”
“Ah. That agreement.” He stares at the leather-bound book.
“All I must ask is that you keep whatever relationships you have discreet. It cannot do to give the Houses ammunition to use against us, however slight it may seem.” I am such a hypocrite; when I have just visited vampire whorehouses, and all so that I could make him think I was better than he believed. That I could believe it too.
He laughs. “You don’t have to tell me this, Felicita. It doesn’t matter. I have a tendency to bestow my affections on those I cannot have and who don’t deserve it. It makes me the very epitome of discreet.” Jannik snaps his attention away from the much-maligned Traget. “So what did your jaunt into the rookeries reveal?”
So we’re not going to talk about this. I’m relieved. Or at least, I should be. “This.” I hand him the names.
“The rookery head implied that these are houses who have either recently bought vampires – paid the full silver – or made inquiries towards such an end. It may be somewhere to begin.” I think of the newspaper story, the dead body, faceless and mutilated. It could have been one of those names on the paper who bought him, broke him, and left him to rot. Even more than making Jannik proud of me, I find that I cannot get that image out of my head.
Sometimes the body has a face.
“Begin what, exactly?” Jannik holds the paper out, and passes it back to me as if it is something he finds repulsive.
“To find out what is happening, to bring that poor dead boy a little justice.”
I take a step back. His mood has changed direction and he is snapping at me like a cornered street cur. “Because he deserves at least that. And who else will speak for him, or others like him? They are, in their own way, our people.”
Sometimes that face is Jannik’s.
“No. Felicita, they are my people. It has nothing to do with you.”
The words are unexpected. I swallow, half expecting to taste blood as if I have been slapped through the face. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Just the morning-sourness of waking from ill-dreams. “I see.” I fold the paper again, tuck it into my purse. “I will speak with Harun then, perhaps he and Isidro will be more reasonable.” We’ve had a few stilted evenings with them – not enough to call them friends, perhaps, but enough that the first thin bridges are being built. At the very least, Isidro and Jannik are spending more time together in something resembling civil conversation. Although Gris knows what it is they talk about, they speak so softly.
“Isidro is nothing close to reasonable,” Jannik says. Then he sighs. “Fine. Give me a moment to get my coat and I’ll come with you.”