“What are you trying to do?” Jannik says the moment we are alone in our suite of rooms.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Outside has gone dark with the afternoon thunderstorm. If Pelimburg was a city of impossible times, MallenIve in summer is a pocket-watch. By three the clouds begin to gather low and black, rumbling ominously to each other as they convene, and within the hour, they release their downpour on the sweating city. A fat blob of rain splatters on the glass. Four o’clock, then.
“This – hurting people, using them. It’s not like you.” He walks closer, and the room shifts around him, growing small and close. Trapping me. “First Merril, and now her.”
“I protected you,” I say. “Would you rather I stood back and watched you suffer?” I can hear the tears in my voice, that thick sound of a female weakness for which my brother always mocked me. I swallow over and over, willing myself back to a calm state – a vacant, logical state.
“I would rather you work with me, than use me like a replacement for scriv.” Jannik is behind me now. The heat of his body flows through the small space between us. It feels like someone is holding a brand to me.
Far away, lightning jags down on the edges of the city, and I count under my breath. It seems to take forever before the low thunder echoes. I press my hand on the glass, and watch the rain fall. “I’m not using you–” I take in a deep breath when he puts his hands on my shoulders and leans in close, so his breath is a hot whisper against my ear.
“Yes, you are. And I almost understand why.”
I let him turn me around. A slight frown just pinches his brow, and his third eyelids are half-closed across his eyes, like a sick cat.
“Oh really?” I try to sneer but I don’t even have the ability to do that. I feel broken inside, confused. What I did to Carien, I know it was wrong, so why am I not feeling any guilt? Perhaps I am more like my brother than I ever believed. Perhaps what I saw in him and hated was not a male thing, but something deeper, an inbred Pelim atrocity.
“I think,” and he says it slowly as if he himself is not totally sure, “that you are tired of being used, and you believe you’re going to save yourself from being the victim if you attack first.”
“No,” I say, because have I not thought these very things – that I refuse to let someone make me weak ever again – and I hate him for being right and for saying it. For making my thoughts real.
“It doesn’t work that way.”
“Don’t,” I say. “I’m not like that.”
“Fine.” He steps away from me, taking with him his heat and magic. “Then stop acting as if you are.”
He’s leaving, and I am not yet ready to face Carien. “Stop,” I say to him. He waits, one hand paused on the handle. “You’re right. I don’t want to be the victim.”
Jannik’s third eyelids slide completely over his eyes.
“And I won’t let myself be.” I take a step toward him. “But I also won’t let the people I care for be hurt, and if that means I need to arm myself, then I will.”
“So you plan to use me anyway?”
“No.” I close the space between us, coming closer to him, close enough that his magic flutters against me. “Not if you don’t want me to.” I press my palms to my cheeks and take a small gasping breath. When I drop them, I am ready to say what I need to tell him. “I can give you up.” My smile is small and tight. “I don’t want to, but I can, so that you can live.”
“What are you talking about – oh.”
“I will go back to scriv, and I will never touch you again, as long as it means you live.”
“You live as long as I live,” he says. “Your bargain isn’t about me–”
“Jannik.” I put my hands to his face; the skin is smooth and slightly rough at the same time, like untreated silk. His magic prickles under my nails. “I’m not trying to force a bargain.” I lean forward, and wonder if this kiss will be the last one we have.
If it is, if it must be so that this new-made bond can falter and die, then I want it to be a thing I can carry with me forever. Like the minute glass pendants the jewellers make in Pelimburg, that open at the imprint of a lover’s thumb to reveal the preserved eye of a nightfish, glowing softly. I will let the memory be my bit of light. I can’t walk away with nothing. I can’t.
But I will use scriv if I have to, to save him.
He stands still, letting my mouth touch his, but does nothing in response. I nip at his upper lip and pull back a little. I can taste the blood just under his skin, and I wonder how much worse it must be for him. “Please,” I whisper my breath to his.
His mouth opens and there, the slide of warmth and tongues and the slightest danger of sharpened teeth.
We stand like this for longer than we should. The storm turns the air black, approaching on prowling feet, spitting white fire through the rain. I undo buttons, undressing him with a feverish demand.
The rain hammers louder, slamming on slate and glass and we repeat it in flesh and friction. The room smells of the electric blue of magic, leather and musk, the sweetsour of sweat. I am drowning under the sensation of silk on my back, skin slicked against skin. Taste and texture. I stop kissing him for one moment, just long enough to catch my breath and press my forehead against his. “Wait,” I say, even though I am the one holding him closer to me, as if we could turn into one creature for just a moment and know each other’s thoughts and wants and truths. All the things we seem incapable of letting our tongues spill. “Show me.”
He lets me slip inside his head, thought to thought. I have never seen this house of his, only ever felt its walls. Whatever I expected, it wasn’t this.
Where my one little room is a memory of something real, this place where Jannik keeps his secrets is malleable, a strange world of sand, a golden labyrinth of twists and tunnels.
The walls shift to rearrange their shapes. A window falls, widens, and the spilled sand on the golden floor hisses into a lintel and a frieze of vines and wide-eyed little night-monkeys.
Jannik is standing before me, dressed in shirt and trousers, barefoot and calm, completely at ease for the first time. I am seeing him as he really is. “Come on.” He holds out his hand and I take it. The warmth seeps into me, making me real. The sand crunches between my toes and the thin shift I’m wearing flutters in the warm breeze.
There is light everywhere. I look up; the roof is arched and solid, but as we walk, more windows grow, letting in sunlight and air. Others close, mourning our passing. The hiss of sand is everywhere, and under it, the trickle of streams and the liquid trill of birds.
“Look,” Jannik says, and points to a wall that grows a vast window. We step through together into another room. Streams flow across the sandy floor, and on their banks grow vines and flowers.
“This isn’t a house,” I point out. “You said, ‘build a house in your head.’”
“It depends on your definition.” Jannik lets go of my hand and crouches at the bank of one of the streams. A sly bittern peers out at him. He grins back at me and lifts one hand. “There are walls, windows, a roof over your head.”
“Yes.” I turn about, taking in the vast central room. “There’s also not a stick of furniture. You made me hide my secrets in my chest of drawers.”
“I did nothing of the sort,” he says. “I just told you to hide them.”
The birds arc and wheel. A small gathering of green-headed parrots are chattering at me from a tree made of sand. A lone ivory-winged ibis eyes me with disdain.
“So where are yours hidden then?”
“Felicita. In your head, you don’t have to do anything as prosaic as set your secrets on paper and stuff them in a locked drawer. It’s your mind. You can do whatever you want.” He stands, folds his hands behind his back. “The birds.”
I look again, just as a flock of bumble-bee sized finches hums past me to land on Jannik’s shirt. The whir and whisper at him in their high bee voices. “Every bird is a secret – a thought?”
And now it makes sense, the sombre hulking pied-crows, the owls secretive in the whorls of the ceiling; the black gatherings of ravens – the dark thoughts, the happy ones, the scared and lonely, the night-time-never-spoken-aloud thoughts. I laugh. “So, show me something.”
“What do you want to see?”
I don’t know, and here, in this place where I am a guest, I don’t want to ask. “Whatever you want me to know.”
One of the little finches leaves Jannik’s collar and flies over to settle on my shoulder. It hop-walks along my shift, pin-sharp nails poking through the thin material. Its tiny heart is vibrating against my body – a thrumming that matches my own – and then the room is gone. The bird, Jannik, the heat. All obliterated.
I am standing in misty drizzle, breathing in salt-tinged air, looking at myself. A younger self, with my hair bound up and my dress damp despite the whalebone and oiled-silk umbrella I’m holding. The memory-me frowns, her face tight and wan as she pulls away from the crowd around her. The umbrella shivers, sending spray dancing in spirals as she folds it closed. And then she smiles, leans back against the wall of one of Pelimburg’s old buildings and she lifts her face to the clouds, and she doesn’t look like a spoiled House daughter but a girl in love with the rain.
The image of me greys, fades, and I am back in a golden room filled with heat and feathers.
Jannik is watching me, waiting. His hands are behind his back as if he doesn’t want me to see them. “So?” he says, but his voice is too controlled, too light.
“I know what they are, Fil.” He smiles awkwardly. It is the first time he has called me anything but Felicita, or the fake name I used when I ran away from home. Something so small and intimate, and it destroys my desperation to not rely on anyone but myself, as if doing that would make me as pathetic as my brother thought I was.
My fear of weakness falls away from me. It is a strange and innocent truth, that although I can do things alone – we all can – together we are stronger. “You’ll help me?” I ask him softly.
The little finch flies away from me to join the flock and I reach up just as it opens its wings, catch it as easily as a dandelion seed. The tiny creature goes still in my cupped hand and I think it into a new form. When I open my palm, the finch is blue, a strange dusky colour like the sea in the rain. I let it go and it flies back to its yellow-barred flock.
“And that?” Jannik says.
I shrug, and almost smile. “A thank you, of sorts.”
We say the things we can’t say with memories.
* * *
Carien is still here when we come back downstairs. Whatever was said in our absence, it has left her white-faced, her eyes glassy. She keeps twisting the woven silver at her throat, tangling her fingers in the fine chains.
I stand stiffly before her. Her fingers press against her neck as she goes still. My courage returns, and with it my knowledge that I must confront my own capacity for cruelty. “I apologize.” The words hang cold and stark in the room. “It was a vile action – an unworthy one. You did not deserve my anger.”
The room is silent with expectation and the vampires are watching her with a slit-eyed patience, like hunting animals.
She breathes in deeply through her nose then nods once, a curt little acceptance.
“It seems,” says Guyin slowly, almost as if he cannot believe it himself, “that the Lady Eline had no knowledge of her husband’s actions.”
She swallows and drops her fingers. “Please, just Carien.” Her eyes close slowly and deliberately. When she opens them again the amber is muted, a forest brown full of shadows. She’s in hiding. “The Lord Guyin – Harun–” She smiles thinly. “–told me that you have in your possession a bat that belonged to my husband. I would like to see it.”
* * *
Merril is barely fit to walk. Just watching him stumble forward, wincing with every step taken, makes the guilt in me fester. He hurt Jannik, that is true, but all I can see is a child destroyed by a man who truly believed him nothing more than an animal. He’s a wild thing – a feral dog, starved and kicked. He took his chance when he saw it. It could have been anyone of us he attacked. Jannik was simply the closest. I check my thoughts. Is House Eline’s prejudice tainting even me? He’s not a dog. But something will have to be done and for now, I have no idea. We can’t keep him caged up forever. “Merril?”
He looks up at my voice, lips pulled back from his teeth in a snarl. He lunges back as I reach out one hand to him.
“Felicita, what are you doing?” Jannik holds Merril still, keeping his grip tight on the boy’s bound arms.
Merril’s cheek is rough, slightly pocked and badly shaved. The hollows of his eyes are purple-black, the skin stretched too-tight over his bones. His broken nose is swollen and the bridge is skew, the bruise bloody. There are scrapes on his mouth where the flesh is raw. My fingers run lightly down his cheek, and I think of the child he must have been, bought and sold. This close I can hear the uncomfortable wheeze of his breath, smell the curious damp must, as if there is no way to scrub clean the taint of that cellar, and I realize what we have done to him. He is still a prisoner, but we have taken him away from his own version of safety. I can’t give him back, even if that’s what he wants.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him softly. And it’s for more than hurting him; it’s for being born one of them – a Lammer whose belief in my own superiority is so ingrained it never even occurred to me that others suffered merely so that I wouldn’t have to think. “I will make Eline pay for this.” I drop my hand.
He stares at me, eyes unguarded and dark.
Jannik looks at me over Merril’s shoulder and he smiles just slightly, enough to let me know he understands what I mean. Then, with a gentleness to match my own, he pushes Merril forward, nudging him into the room where Carien is waiting to see this relic of her husband’s perversities.
Her face doesn’t change when we enter. She looks Merril up and down, appraising him like a nilly at a market. Finally, satisfied, she takes out her small pipe and pinches poisonink into the bowl, and lights it with a match. She takes a long thoughtful drag on the pipe and hides herself in a cloud of iron-grey smoke before talking. “You belonged to my husband?”
Merril nods, and a small muscle in his cheek twitches, jumping under the discoloured skin.
“I see.” She blows more fumes around her, wrapping her indecision in the sharp smell of a high. I can almost see the questions she wants to ask him but cannot bring herself to say out loud – not here, not in front of us. None of us have had the cruelty to ask Merril how he has been used. I think we all already know. He is, after all, a rookery vampire. Perhaps that is another reason why Isidro hates and fears him so much. Merril is a reminder of his past, of what he has been and done. All the things he has tried to forget about himself. It’s harder to hate someone when you see through to their fears.
She sniffs, thoughtfully. “He likes to own things. It makes him happy. Did he make you sing for him, little lark?”
Merril bares his teeth.
There is an understanding between them. Harun looks out the window, preserving some kind of dignity. It’s easy for men to be weak and merciful when it suits them. The burden falls on me to stab the knife deep.
“So now, as awkward as this is, I must ask where you stand,” I say to Carien.
She draws her gaze away from Merril to stare at me with a mulish unblinking gaze. “With regards to?”
“This.” I sweep my hand across the room. “Us, and your husband. Are you for us, against us?”
Another deep drag on her pipe. Her teeth click against the ivory and the smoke pours from her mouth and nose. “I must admit that games have never taken my fancy. I always preferred to watch from the side lines.”
“This is not a game,” Harun says. “I’ve heard enough.”
“Is that so?” Carien lifts one arched brow. “And what then do you plan to do to me – am I to stay here a prisoner? I could have lied. But I offered you the truth. I am not interested in your bats, in who owns whom. Is that not enough for you?”
“You lie,” I tell her. I walk across the room, away from her and from Merril. Next to Jannik, I thread my arm through his. The warmth of his body through the wool of his jacket strengthens me. I have agreed to be cruel only for the sake of those I love. After this is done, I will scour out this beast from me, this part of my nature that wants to rise so easily, champing to destroy others under its sharp and pointed hooves. “You lie because I know the things you cannot ask Merril. I know you do not want to be tied to House Eline by the child you carry. If I were to offer you something that Eline cannot, would you choose a side then?”
Carien stoppers her pipe and sets it down on the table. Like a jackal surprised by a gardener in the early morning, she is a creature in a liminal time, out of place and wary but not yet afraid. “What,” she says after many minutes have slid by, “exactly can you offer me?”
I hold up my hand, fingers raised. “Two things.”
Carien waits with a curious stillness, watching me as if all her future rests on what I say next. Perhaps it does, more than even she realizes.
The thing I am about to offer her is immense and ugly, as only the greatest bribes can be. I lower my hand slowly to her belly, pointing. “I can rid you of that.” Next to me Jannik’s muscles tense under his coat. He stamps down quickly on his anger and shock, but I can feel it still, scraping at the inside of my head, sand on raw flesh.
“How?” she snaps, the eagerness in her rising.
“Yes, Felicita, how?” Jannik speaks between gritted teeth.
“With your help. With magic.” I keep my eyes open and my chin raised, because if I close them – if I let myself weaken even the slightest – I will fall. I can feel it already sweeping up in me. I thin my lips and manage something that is not a laugh, not quite. The cold beast, rising. “It can be done.” I am always so sure of the things I can do, because failure would leave me nowhere. I once held a storm of nightmares contained, I can scrape away this little gobbet.
“Interesting,” says Harun. “You consider your control so delicate.” He’s still looking out the window, keeping up his pretence that this conversation barely interests him.
“It will be.” Do not falter. “And I can offer you a death.”
“If I wanted my husband killed I think I would have done better than come to you.” She sneers.
“Not his.” I stare at her face, unblinking. “Yours.”
“My own?” Her expression has not altered; her wild eyes are the emotionless amber glass of a child’s doll.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“You’ve done this before?”
And I have, oh dear Gris, I have. “If you’ve no ties that bind you here, we can dispose of you. There can be an accident. We then set up a body to take your place, suitably disfigured, of course – fire would work well, especially if Eline chooses such a weapon against us; it would be easy to assume you no more than an unfortunate victim of some inter-House rivalry.”
Harun stops looking out the window. “A body?”
“We have an entire city of plague-corpses at our disposal,” I say. “No point in letting the dead go to waste.” The words come up choked and tight, though I’m aiming for a kind of grim humour.
“And I am to be an unlucky accident?” Carien laughs hard and bright. “How very fitting.”
“Just so. What is that you want, Carien – art, freedom? I can give you these things. In Pelimburg.”
“I have no desire to starve to death in some stinking Pelimburg hovel.”
“I would not allow that.” For the first time it feels that instead of sentencing her, I am offering her a choice better than the one I made. She will run, that much is true, but she can also shake off the mantle of her old name and re-invent herself. I would be able to convince Mother and Lenora to take in an artist. Mother especially would love to be seen as some kind of patron. “Who do you want to be?”
* * *
The night falls late, the sky rain-cleaned. We sit in silence. Harun has given us the use of a private set of rooms. Everything in the bed chamber is blue, and the candle holders are the only bright point. The furniture is dark, but comforting. The room has a serenity like the final moment of drowning.
It is only Jannik, me and Carien in the bedroom. It is so still that I can hear the rustling of silk as we breathe, our collected air mingles, and in a way the three of us are closer than any person can be. We are bound in guilt.
For those who haven’t had the foresight to take rake’s parsley, or have fallen to ill luck, there are places tucked deep into alleyways that will take care of those unwanted unborn children. Desperate Hobs and low-Lammers will go to them.
Some of them even live. It’s not a chance taken lightly. My faith in myself drops a notch, and I shore it up. “Jannik?”
“I do not want to do this,” he says, but the protest is tired. He will do it, because I have asked. We have. Some of Carien’s wild animal must have spoken to him. I wonder if Jannik saw the thing in her that I did – that Dash-like need to claw at the world and to have it take him on his terms only? Jannik was in love, once. He has always fallen for the wild creatures, the ones which refused to be tamed. If he’d met Carien on a rain-drenched street in Pelimburg – if she’d been the one standing there with her umbrella – would it have been her and not me that he married?
Or would the whole world have been different? Carien‘s a Reader. What use would she have been to Dash – he wouldn’t have bothered to snag her, to fall a little in love with her. He and Jannik might still be passing books of poetry back and forth, meeting in shadows and stolen moments.
Where would I have been?
“Carien,” I say and my voice ghosts about the room, trembling at the lit fatcandles, making the flames dance. “You’re certain you want us to do this?” All I can give her is this last moment to make sure the decision is hers and hers alone. I sit at the foot of the bed on which she’s lying, while Jannik – who seems desperate for a chance at flight – skulks by the locked door.
She raises her chin, not looking at either of us, staring instead at the stained geography of the ceiling. She drags her hands through her curls, freeing them. When she turns her head to us, her eyes glitter with the candle-light. “There is nothing I want more,” she says in a low cat’s hiss, as if she is about to start a fight, claws out.
There, it’s said, and now we must press on. I can do this. I have practised a little with Jannik in preparation, using his magic to move things, to test my control. It has been something like joy. And something like terror. To use his power my mind needs to be completely open. No secrets.
Just magic. There is a well of it within him, deep and dark and sweet.
“Drink,” I say and pour her a strong infusion of willow-bark. It will be little enough help. I’m loath to give her lady’s gown too – although it will help her sleep. I need her to be with me while we do this – at the slightest chance I am doing something wrong, she needs to be able to tell me.
Her fingers tremble against mine as she accepts the drink, but that is the only sign she gives. Her face is calm, her body limp with a resigned expectation – a strange lethargy that I put down to that moment when one realizes they have changed their future irrevocably.
I’ve been there – it’s like being drugged, shifted out of your body and mind, and walking alongside yourself, watching everything you do with curious detachment. “You need to tell me if you experience any pain worse than cramping.” I take the cup from her hands. She’s drained it.
“I understand. Must you repeat everything as if everyone around you had merely a child’s mind?”
I flush. “Lie back, close your eyes.” Carien does as she’s told and when she’s no longer looking at us, I turn to Jannik. “Please?”
He crosses the room to stand next to me, one hand resting on my shoulder. The weight of it comforts, but also leaves me with a flickering sense of unease. I feel pinned in place, committed now to what I have offered. When Jannik drops his mental guards I am unprepared for how much power he is offering. The hiss and slide of sand pours through the room, and I look down involuntarily, expecting the ground to be covered in beach-white sand, dry and unforgiving. There is nothing. Only the plush pile of a woollen carpet woven of Ives blue and Mata gold
“Let go,” says Jannik.
He’s right, I am still holding my house—my room – tightly locked up, like a music box holding childish secrets. I fling open the door of my mind and I am immediately caught in two worlds. Jannik’s labyrinthine mental house folds my room and my secrets into his. My childhood bed sinks into white sand, and the sea mews fly in through the open window. They bring the wind with them, and all the drawers of my bureau rattle open, sending paper whirling about the room. The breeze smells of heat and river water instead of the cold salt sea.
My secrets dance about the room, written in a black slanted hand that I have perfected to appear less childish than it used to. The papers fold themselves, take on new shapes, spread their sharp hard wings and fly out into the desert.
“Are you ready?”
I turn. Jannik, barefoot as he always appears here, is waiting for me, one hand held out. Faint after-images dance around him, snaking ghostly ribbons between us. I wonder if this is some outward sign of our bond, if these ribbons will grow deeper and darker the longer we are together. I take his hand and his magic surges through me, freely given, unbelievably powerful. I suck in a gasp of air and find myself back in the closed chambers of Carien’s room. The air is damper here, filled with our exhalations, with the humidity of MallenIve in summer.
When I was still a War-Singer, adept of scriv and air, I knew I was powerful, that with training I could have been as great as some of the famous generals of our House. But that – that was nothing. Jannik’s magic unleashed willingly into my control is immense, unbelievable. I am reminded of his mother, of the time we met and it seemed to me that her power could just about strip my skin from my flesh unless she kept it in constant check. Jannik has always been this powerful, and I never understood that. Perhaps the vampiric hierarchy is in place not because the females are the only powerful ones, but because only women have the ability to tap into that power.
I whirl his magic about myself, and it dances at my command, part of me, but not. A sentient thing, almost playful despite what it is about to do. With a quick inhalation to centre myself, I focus on my task. Carien is lying still. Her hands are palm up on the coverlet, relaxed. The room is sweaty with her trust. I close my eyes, and sink into the darkness inside my head. Everything goes silent around me. With one hand pressed against her stomach, I breathe slower, stiller, and the room changes.
Vampiric magic is not like scriv. It moves between skin and blood, it follows the shape of heartbeats, the chambers of the human temple. It fills them and walks between them.
This is not a simple matter of knowing the body like a chirurgeon, and slicing with a blade of sharpened air. It’s about something far stranger and harder to explain.
Heartbeats echo, loud as if I had my head underwater. Distant drums of the body. I sense my own, slow; Jannik’s in time, and deeper-pitched; the scatter-thump of Carien’s, and the smallest sound of all. So fast and bright.
I bring the magic neatly to rein and, with a tenderness I almost did not expect of myself, I end the child’s song. I want to ask it to forgive me, that I would have made it my own, if I’d known how. But there are no words in magic.
The first cramp hits me as I open my eyes. Carien is staring at me, her amber eyes bright as lamps. When she speaks it is with a happy ferocity. “It’s done?”
I grimace, pressing one hand to my stomach, and nod at Jannik to leave. I would speak with Carien. She has no need of further humiliation. He closes the door softly behind him, leaving us alone in a room already beginning to smell heavy with blood. “I will have servants bring you cloths and food and drink.” With my hand still hard against the pain in my belly I rise from the bed. “When you have recovered I will organize safe passage for you to Pelimburg.”
“And then what?” Her face has gone pale.
“There are people who will help me find you a place. I will set you up with a patron.”
“So I’m still to be beholden to someone else?”
“Only for a while. You are Iynast. Reinvented, I believe it will not be long before you have thrown the Pelimburg art world into chaos, and gathered many patrons to choose from. I think you will find yourself to be a flame, surrounded by little moths.”
She manages a weak and painful approximation of mirth. “And there I will burn all those who want me.”
“It’s your choice. I think there are better ones to make – to burn steady and long, rather than flare, consume and die out after too brief a moment.” The pain is damping and rising, and I wince as another surge passes through me. Perhaps using Jannik’s magic too often will have its toll on me the same way Harun suffered to take his scriv.
Carien narrows her eyes. Her dark hair is stuck to her waxy skin, the sweat on her temples golden dew in the candle light. “How many lives have you lived?” she asks me. “You’re still just a girl. You’re younger than me.”
“I know.” I smile sadly at her. “And today I feel it. I am overwhelmed.”
“You don’t look it.”
“I was trained to wear a mask, like all House girls.” My face relaxes. “You were never one, were you?”
She shakes her head. “Garret concocted some fancy tale about House Sidora, but I’m an accident. A throwback.”
“He hid your ancestry?” He would only have done that were she not from a House; Great, High, or Low. She is most certainly not a Hob. “A low-Lammer?”
“My mother was. My father.” She shrugs. “I’m no Mata.” She touches her dark-brown hair with the palm of one hand. “Whoever he was, he gave me something of his lineage, the ability to Read.”
“And Eline Garret created for you some suitable history that allowed him to marry you.” I gnaw at my lower lip. “Why did you say yes?”
She laughs. “Why did your bat say yes to you?”
The lance catches me. I withdraw from her room and beckon for servants to bring her necessities, to give her lady’s gown and let her sleep. I have other enemies to destroy.
Downstairs I am greeted by silence. Jannik must have already told them that it has been done, that I have successfully bound Carien to us and set her on her path against her husband. There is no sign of Merril. Undoubtedly he has been locked away out of sight, far from Isidro who, of us all, finds him most upsetting.
“Well,” says Harun. “It will not be long before Eline makes another move.”
Especially now that we have taken more than mere playthings away from him or humiliated him at Council. “Do we wait?” I ask as I walk to the table. Someone has bought more wine. Harun must have decided to refill his depleted stocks. At least he still appears to be sober and standing. I make no comment, instead taking the glass of apple-coloured wine left on the table for me. “Or do we use this to bring him to heel now?”
Isidro, always more familiar with the finer blades of cruelty, leans forward with a raptor’s delight. “I could grow to like you. If you keep up this act.”
On the couch, Jannik slumps further down. He has already tasted the way I think, and while I can feel his unhappiness, I can also feel his reluctant accord.
“You would do this how?” Harun asks.
“Isidro knows.” I nod at the vampire in acknowledgement of our unwanted mutual understanding, and offer him a defeated smile. Eline is going to play soft with us, and we don’t have the time or the resources to keep playing this shadow game.
For the moment we are strong, with magic Eline doesn’t know about. But we may not be able to keep this secret for long. We need to goad Eline into making a thoughtless, angry move, preferably one that exposes him. He’s a cold man, and he doesn’t love people, but he does love power and prestige. If something we do makes him lose face, he’ll react. If he attacks us publicly, we can retaliate. Publicly.
“We dangle Carien before Eline, and we tell him exactly what I have done to her, to his unborn heir.”
“And what good will that possibly do?” Harun says “You suggest that we poke a stick at a sleeping sphynx and hope to survive – idiocy!”
“A very sharp stick, Harun, one dipped in poison.”
“You wish to anger him.”
“I wish to make him so outraged he can barely think straight – I want him drawn here when we will it, and to be blinded in his fury. I want him dancing to the tune I choose. Not us to his. And when he makes his mistake, we will be ready to retaliate.”
And if that isn’t enough to force this game out of the private sphere, then I have my own plans, hidden in ways that even Jannik can’t find. I am, after all, a good student.
* * *
Harun can barely hold a pen without shaking, so the job falls to Jannik. He writes with an elegant, slanted hand, something I have always admired. It is a calligraphy that says more about him than his looks do. He signs the letter with slow deliberation; it’s obvious he is reluctant to set his name to it. “There.” He holds the top corner between finger and thumb, waiting for the ink to dry. “Hire a messenger. We don’t want one of Harun’s staff to suffer for this.”
“And so some unknown should instead?” I say.
Harun takes the letter from him. “We use one of the Mata Court messengers. Eline will never make a move openly against the prince.” He reads, a frown gathering deeper folds between his heavy eyebrows then nods sharply. “It will do.”
“I’m so glad you approve.” Jannik’s head is bowed, the heels of his hands against his temples, long fingers pushing his dark hair in a scraggled mess. “I have never felt so soiled.”
“Your wedding night must have been remarkably uneventful,” Isidro says from the armchair in which he’s sprawled.
Jannik lurches back in his seat, all his gloom obliterated. “Will you please just shut the fuck up?” he says in a low harsh voice.
Even Isidro seems caught by surprise, drawing up to himself like a prodded sea anemone. “It was a jest.”
“And I am very over your attempts at humour at my wife’s expense.”
“Yes.” Isidro stays withdrawn. He peers across at me, as if reappraising a doe at the nilly-markets, one that he previously passed over but now sees again in the light of other people’s interest. “So you are.”
“And I am tired of both of you.” Harun is looking frayed and belligerent. He is still not fully recovered from his seven-fold Reading, and the rather diminished supply of alcohol has kept him ragged and ill, prone to shaking fits and nightmares.
It’s also apparent from his tone that he has not forgotten what Isidro and Jannik have been to each other and that his forgiveness is not ready to be thrown down before either of them.
He seals the envelope and hands it back to Jannik to stamp closed with wax. The leaping dolphin crest of my House looks up at me from Jannik’s hands, their cetacean faces sly in their humour.
“There. Done.” Harun calls for a servant and explains what they are to do. “Now we wait.” He jerks the cork free from a new bottle of wine, pouring glasses for us all without asking. He spills only a little.
“Perhaps we should try and meet our foe in a state of sobriety?” I point out.
“Do whatever you like, Felicita. I am going to kill someone, and I’ll take what fortification I can, however I can.”
And there it is, the truth of what we are planning. Until this moment no one has put into words the finality of what we are proposing with this scheme. If it were reversed, Eline would think nothing of removing us. He has already made attempts on our lives, and people have suffered and died because of it. And yet, spoken now, with its hard cold edges, the words make it real, and I do not want to carry such a burden again. I am still bent-backed from my brother’s death. From Dash’s.
“I’m going to look in on Carien,” I murmur, not wanting to be here and reminded by the straight harsh lines of their faces that we plan to trap and murder our enemy in this spider’s web.
One of Harun’s new maids gathers extra tea from the kitchens, and more cloths. “I think a little food too, please.” I say. “Something simple – a meat broth and bread for dipping.” When we have everything we need, I ascend to Carien’s room, the maid trotting behind me with her tray of steaming bowls and pots.
I knock gently on the side of the door and receive no answer. Moving as softly and quietly as possible so as not to disturb her, I open the door.
Carien is peaceful in sleep, the waxy look she had earlier is gone. Her face is relaxed and the constant hard skewness of her mouth is slack. There is an infantile sweetness to her, one hand curled up and pressed against her parted lips. The ripe smell of blood permeates the room and I open the curtains a little so that I can force Harun’s unused windows open. The place needs airing. People kept like they are sick do not flourish.
The maid clears away the old things and sets out the new tray. The spiced meat broth coupled with the smell of tea and the rain-heavy air blowing in from the gardens helps lift the feeling of stagnant repression from the room. Even the light spreading through the windows is that eerie golden-grey that comes on the heels of some thunderstorms. A magical colour.
“Carien?” I say. “You should wake and eat a little.”
She is exhausted from what was done. I understand because I can feel it too. The aftermath of using Jannik’s magic has left me shaky. Even after a good meal, some rest and several cups of tea I have a washed-out feel like an old bed sheet worn gauzy in the centre. I sit on the edge of her bed and feel myself crumple inside. Carefully, I brush her dark curls back from her cheek where the sweat has dried them in place. Her skin is cold, or my hands are too hot. She doesn’t move.
A feeling like the unravelling of a favourite shawl starts inside me. There is a hole in the lacework that I do not want to acknowledge, that I hope I can disguise or mend. I hold my palm before her mouth and feel nothing.
“Rae!” The maid has only just left, she can’t have gone far. I stagger to the decorative cords and set the glass bells in the servant’s rooms chiming. I keep tugging at them as if they will anchor me and the sound will call her back from the dead.
There is something in me, a sound that makes no sound. A giant invisible beast that presses my ribs out, that shoves all my internal organs apart and still there is not enough room for it. It cannot make its way up my closed and narrow throat, it cannot scream, and so I am like this, my mouth wide open and soundless, rocking on the floor to dislodge the beast, when the servants come running into Carien’s chamber.
Hands haul me up, and voices call for Jannik, for shrouds, for water to clean away the traces of her death. I am embraced. I am led away. I am made to sit. I am made to drink.
Jannik says nothing. He holds my hands so that the tea does not spill. It tastes of bitter fire. The sound of sand fills my head, fills my little broken room and covers everything away.