IN THE PALACE OF THE MATA

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7

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Carien rises from the pale green couch as we file into the visitor’s parlour.

An icy rage sweeps over me, and my heart beats faster and faster. The rage dies as suddenly as it rose, and in its place I feel a faint green shimmer of hope. I quell it. Don’t fall for her, for her false innocence.What are you doing here?I say.How dare you–

Harun raises his hands.Felicita, stop.

Carien looks at all of us, her face a blank House mask. Her eyes widen at Jannik’s appearance; the fading bruises, and the blood still welling from his wounds. She seems genuinely flustered.Oh -I – Oh my, what happened?

Jannik snarls, and says nothing.

I’m torn between wanting to believe her display of confusion, and my fierce knowledge that it’s her scheming that brought Jannik to Garret’s attention.

I thoughtmy husband said that you were called away with great urgencyand the next I heard your warehouses were empty.She flushes, embarrassed to be discussing our apparent poverty so openly.I asked after your new apartments, and went to go visit you, but the house stood unoccupiednot even a servant to answer the doors. I didn’t know what to think.

You play so prettily, Carien,I say.One could almost imagine you’d spent time among the street-mummers.

She stiffens, her gloved hands pressed against her thighs.Say what you mean, Pelim.

Why exactly are you here? Did you think to run back to your husband with proof of what happened to his prisoners?

Carien frowns.I have no idea what you’re talking about.She takes a small gasping breath, and searches through her beaded velvet purse.There, if you don’t mind.She withdraws a small paper packet and an ivory pipe. The smell of poisonink cuts sharply through the air. In a moment, she has filled the little bowl and lit it. She blows scented smoke out in a two curling plumes.What are you ranting about? You sound like a mad woman. Prisoners?

Jannik, Harun and I say nothing. I know I am not ready to trust her, and I sincerely doubt the others are any more likely to treat her as a friend.

We must leave,Harun says.If you would be so kind as to stay here until we return, then we will discuss what has happened.

I think not,Carien says.Tell me what is going on.

We hardly have time. I am beginning to think this is just another tactic of Eline’s mean to delay us, throw us off balance. I glance to Harun.

Surprisingly, it’s Jannik who breaks the stand-off.Does your husband own a vampire?

Carien takes a deep drag from her pipe.Not for years. He had one long before I married him, a child. It died of some fever. You know how weak these rookery things can be.

Or he killed it,says Harun.

Or it’s lying upstairs, trussed like a feast goose on Long Night.

Carien’s lips thin.And if he did?

Sit down,Harun says.Sit down, shut up, and smoke your Gris-damned ‘ink. Master Gillcrook?

My Lord?

Please make certain our guest has every comfort she needs, but do not allow her to leave.

Gillcrook’s expression changes not a jot. Jannik has a talent for hiring close-mouthed men.

You cannot do this, Guyin,Carien says, although she makes no move to leave.I’ll have you dragged out of your hermit’s hovel and into the Mata Court before you know what’s happened.

Oddly, I’m just on my way there now.He grins, flashing a little of the Harun mockery he had when I first met him.Relax. I’ll let you go soon enough. In the meantime, I invite you to make the acquaintance of my husband, Isidro.He gestures at the small glass doorway that leads off into a book-lined passage. Through the pale blue panes, I can see the shadow of Isidro. I have no idea how long he has been watching and listening.

Husband? I raise a questioning eyebrow, but Harun ignores it and takes my arm above the elbow.And now, we really must leave.He steers me out of the door, leaving a confused Jannik, a smoking, expressionless Carien, and the lurking Isidro to their conversation.

* * *

I have never been to the Mata Palace, and as I walk through the glass and bone gates I try not to look like some awe-struck plebeian straight from the Pelimburg docks. It’s harder than it sounds. The Mata Palace is a monstrosity, a towering cake of a building festooned with glass turrets and bridging cat walks. The vast air-monster called a blaas is rocking high above us. It looks like one of the floating men-of-war that wash up on Pelimburg’s beaches, only a thousand times bigger, and buoyed up by air rather than water.

What is it?I say in a low whisper.Does anyone know?

Harun shakes his head. “Rumour has it the previous Lord Mata found it on a sphynx hunting expedition in the desert. When he brought it back it was no bigger than a cat.He glances upward at the trailing poisonous ribbons of its tentacles.Just look at it. Gris knows when it’s going to stop growing.Indeed, the blaas is big enough that the Mata have used it as transport, buckling a wheel-less carriage beneath it between the stinging ribbons. It is similar in design to the silk hot air balloons the Mata had banned when they came into power.

The skies belong to their House now.

We follow a guide who leads us deep into the heart of the palace to an underground amphitheatre. Most of the seats are empty, typical of how we take out duties here. Harun hands the guide a small folded note and whispers some instruction. The guide nods then tucks the note away.

What was that?

A business proposition, Felicita.His tone is bored and annoyed.Do allow me to continue to run my affairs without your involvement.He can’t help his mood. I know because I feel the samescared and angry and helpless.

Eline Garret is already here. He smiles thinly at us as we enter, then turns his back as he discusses details with another House lord. His shining hair is almost white in the low-lit room, and I can’t help but watch him. Hatred crawls in my throat. I want him dead, I realize. I never even felt that for my brother. This is visceral. He hurt what is mine. He would have done worse. He will do worse.

I’d quite like to see his face smashed into a wall,I remark as we take our seats.

Several lords have stopped their murmuring to watch us. There are whispers of surprise, and some half-heard comments. Someone saysthe bat fuckersand I pretend not to have heard them.

Harun snorts.And you think I wouldn’t?

I want Eline to attack us. I want him to come crawling in the night and give me a reason to unleash Jannik’s magic and slam his inbred body against the walls of the house until every bone in his body is broken, I want to burn out his mind, and I want him to feel every second of it.

He’s turned me into a monster,I say faintly.

Or merely opened your eyes to the monster inside you?Harun’s not looking at me.

You think you know what I am,” I say.But there is more to me than those little glimpses you got in your Vision.

He remains close-lipped as the lords file in to the Council chambers.I know, Felicita.He stands, and all around us the lords take to their feet. The Mata must be approaching.Don’t always assume your friends are judging you, not when we have our own sins to deal with.

I’m stunned into silence. I gather my skirts and stand next to him, suddenly aware of how warm it is in this subterranean room.

A flash of red hair at the wide doors, and there comes the Mata prince himself. The man barely acknowledges the waiting lords, merely waving us to our seats. There is a rustle of silks and wools, the creaking of old bones. He says nothing, head bent over the paper on his dais. Eline’s proposal. Finally he looks up.

House Eline proposes we reclassify the vampires,he says. He seems no more interested in the affair than if it were a meeting to choose a wine for his dessert.Current status allows a vampire to be given his freedom by an owner, or to earn enough to buy himself a citizenship. Eline proposes that since before the opening of the Well, the histories show no mention of vampires, that allowing them the status of slaves assumes that they are people. The histories are proof enough that this is not so. They came into existence only after MallenIve was built. Therefore, Eline wishes that we change their current status to that of magical animals, and list them under controlled beasts.

Like the spyhnxes,I whisper to Harun.

He also proposes an area of land to be used as a reservation, with strictly controlled hunting seasons.

He can’t,I say wildly to Harun. Yew said something similar when I saw him with Carien, but I had assumed he was just trying to get a reaction from me. They can’t be serious. The vampires look like us.

They look like us.

How does any one of these men think they can simply hunt another man down like an animal? My stomach is aching, my mouth dry. This is worse even than I had supposed.

The Mata pauses in his reading to snort in dry humour. “A fair enough suggestion, although I would amend that any ‘proposed reservations’ would not be public property but fall under the jurisdiction of your ruling House.

There is murmuring among the lords, but no one seems alarmed or outraged by the suggestion.

A simple vote then.The Mata nods at his secretary.Those in favour?

All around us hands are raised, and a murmured chorus of ‘ayes’ rings in my ears.

And against?

In the silence that follows, I raise my hand. Next to me, Harun does the same.

Guyin. How good of you to deign to come to Lords’ Council. So, two votes against.The Mata sucks at the corner of one fingernail.

It needs to be unanimous, and even that pompous shit can’t change those laws,Harun whispers to me, his voice warm with relief.

Eline stands.With respect, my lord, I move that neither of those votes be counted.

And why is that?The Mata still seems bored by the whole proceeding.

House Pelim’s representative is a woman, with little understanding of politics, easily swayed by her superiors.

Agreed,says the Mata. He looks down at his secretary.Strike Pelim’s vote.

I go cold. My hand is still raised, wavering, and I feel like I cannot move it. I knew. Of course I knew. They have never respected me, or found me anything more than an amusing entertainment. All this time I have been a mouse, pretending to be a cat. So easily they bat me aside, and my true status is revealed.

With my insides filling up with stones, I lower my hand. Everything around me feels unreal, voices echoing. Harun’s vote is all we have left.

And the Guyin Harun is only the heir apparent. He cannot stand in for his father’s vote.

My father is too ill to travel,Harun says.And I vote on his behalf.

Then you carry his official seal?Eline says.

Harun is silent.

Fine, then I move that Guyin Harun’s vote has no weight.

The Mata frowns.Tricky. He is still the heir.

And are we to now let our children upstage us in the Council? Vote against us?Eline turns a calm face to Harun.I know which way the Lord Guyin himself would vote, as do we all. He would not be standing now.

The lords mutter in agreement. I grow colder, my hands numb, until it feels like the flesh is gone from my bones, and I am made only of air.

Calm yourself, Felicita,Harun says very softly, and covers one of my hands with his own. The warmth flows through my skin, keeping me from fainting.

Then it looks as if our vote is unanimous-” The Mata narrows his eyes. “Lord Ives, what is it?

I turn my head to see the head of House Ives standing, one hand raised.I vote against House Eline’s proposal.

The room is silent, then one of the older lords guffaws, amused only that House Eline has been made a fool of. The laughter provokes more, and Eline Garret’s pale skin goes an angry ugly red.

You knew,I say under my breath.How did you get him to do this?

By that greatest of political bonds. Bribery, and a mutual dislike of a common enemy.

I press my fingers to my lower lips.Dear Gris, how much do you owe him?

Harun snorts.Everything, it seems.

* * *

Don’t be so sure that this means we’ve won,Harun says to me on the way back.He could try and have the vote retaken, and I do not know how long I can keep Ives on my side. Gris knows what favours I will owe him after this. And Eline has family in many Houses, including Ives and Mata.

I know. You don’t need to lecture me on the damn Eline web of marriage.We watch the streets, not talking, until finally I gather enough of my courage to cross the bounds of propriety.The magic that II pulled out of Jannik–I stall, uncertain of how to broach this.

What about it?Harun is grim and angry.

You’ve never felt anything similar before?

He shakes his head.

I must be blunt.I fold my gloved hands over each other.How much do you feel through the bond?

Enough,says Harun.Emotionpleasure, pain, fear. What more do you expect me to feelsurely that’s enough?

And his magic?I look up, catch Harun’s scowl.Can you feel it in a room, tell it apart from Jannik’s, does it infect your mood, your thoughts?

Something of that. At certain times.

And do you know what it is he’s thinking, or is he like Jannikall his secrets locked up inside the that house-thing in his head?

I have no idea what you’re talking about,Harun says.

We’re going to need what weapons we have against Eline. We cannot rely on House Ives’ mercenary quarrels with them forever. And if using the vampire’s magic means doubling the bond, then I am afraid you are going to have to strengthen it.

First Jannik, and now you.Harun sighs.Ithere may have been something in our future,he says, just as we draw up on Ivy.We will need to master that magic.

So you will feed on him?

Yes, Felicita, not that it is any of your business, but I will do as Jannik has suggested.

It is my damn business.I step from the carriage.It became my business when I moved to this city and found myself thrown in with you for no other reason than who I married.I glare at him.I may not like you overly much, Harun, but I will fight for you and yours, and I expect an equal measure shown to me.

Is that not what I’m doing?He says it with a peculiar false mildness.You have asked me to put my faith in you, when all I have seen is that you are a woman prone to running from what she can’t face and letting herself be tangled into things she can’t understand, allowing the dictates of others to raise her hand against her family. I have seen all this, and yet you are the one who doesn’t like me?

I grit my teeth.It’s so easy to judge me on the snippets you have picked from a Vision, when I am the one who carries that whole tapestry?We are almost at his door and I have dropped my voice to a fierce whisper.So neither of us is perfect–

Exactly.Harun pushes open the door and we walk together down the passage to the guest parlour where Carien is perched on the edge of one floral sofa. Ah, I see you’ve deigned to wait.

Jannik is standing by the door, and he gives me an inquisitive look as I enter. I nod, letting him know that they are safe for now.

I had no choice. Your bats threatened me,Carien snaps.

Isidro is sitting in a red sphynx-leather chair, tapping his fingernails against the brass studs. He leans his head back as Carien talks, and half-smiles. He has probably enjoyed frightening her.

Harun raises one eyebrow and strips off his gloves and hands them to Master Gillcrook before going to stand behind Isidro’s seat. He touches the spreading bruise under Isidro’s eye briefly, then rests his hands on the vampire’s shoulders.It’s an excellent vintage, that one, don’t you think?He indicates the bottle that Master Gillcrook has decanted into a carafe and set down on the table next to Carien. Her wine glass has a faint youngberry black smear at the bottom

You can’t ply me with wine and think that will erase the fact that you have kept me as a prisoner–

I see no iron chains, no darkened cellars. No pretty iron collars.He turns to Master Gillcrook.If you would bring me our other guest.” He keeps his hands on Isidro, and it’s only now I realise that he is making a very pointed admission to everyone in the room. Harun is finally declaring exactly where he stands.

Carien goes pale, the light olive of her skin taking on a sickly sallow tinge.Your bats have been making wild accusations. Things they saidabout my husband, and implicating me in these same ridiculous–

Be quiet,I tell her.

I can feel Jannik’s slow-kindling rage, crackling dry in the room. His magic brushes against my skin, sparking along nerves. Without asking, I gently pull on it, a woman unwinding silk from a windle cocoon. I draw on those threads, imagining them as lines of fine fire, and ravel them up into me. I do this with a touch so light, so breathless, Jannik does not notice.

When I am armed again, I stopper Carien’s mouth with magic.

She chokes, her hands flying to her throat, fingers scrabbling and raking at her skin. I watch her in horrified detachment, feeling like I am seeing myself begging for air, a lifetime ago. I don’t even feel as if I am here, just disconnected and unreal and exhausted and scared.

What are you doing?Jannik asks softly, his voice kind, while at my feet Carien is clawing the ground, and her face turning whiter, lips blue-grey as the sea I miss so much.

I don’t know,I say.I wanted her to stop talking.

Let her go.

I release her, letting Jannik’s magic pull away from me. A solid ache hits me in my chest from the loss of power.

Carien is gasping, staring at me in wide-eyed terror from the floor, still on her hands and knees.What–She is hoarse, choking on her words. She kneels back and massages her throat.What are you?she says in a low cat’s hiss.

A War-Singer,I tell her.I believe the records show as much.

You had no scriv.

And you are mistaken.

The door opens and Master Gillcrook drags in our rescued vampire by the scruff of his shirt. Merril sees me and pulls back, half-snarling, trying to hide his fear.

Felicita,Jannik says.A word in private, if you’d be so kind.

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