PAPER MARRIAGES

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20

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Does this mean anything to you?I shove the paper into Harun’s face.

Felicita,Jannik murmurs,do give us a chance to actually get in the house.

He has a point. I draw my hand back and wait as Harun rather mockingly bows to welcome us into his ugly home.You’re playing at servants, are you?I ask him.

No.He shuts the door behind us, and the dreary red light of the sunset is replaced by choking gloom.We’re having troubles again.

Troubles?

The servants tend to make a mass exodus every few months, and then we have to hire new ones. The latest little drama happened just hours ago.” He says each word very carefully, as if he is explaining philosophy to an ignorant child, or trying to hide a slur.

Whatwhy would they do that?We follow Harun to the shabby lounge where he’s more recently taken to entertaining us.

Because of me.Isidro is sitting deep in a fat leather chair, scowling at the fireplace.

Overwhelmed by your charm, I assume?I say as I take my own seat on a beautiful small couch, its wooden legs carved like drake claws.

Jannik makes a coughing, choking sound, and sits next to me.

There is a dark patch on the carpet where another couch once stood. And on the wall, a series of squares where the wallpaper is unfaded. Harun must be selling off pieces of his remaining wealth. I heard a rumour that his father had finally cut him off completely unless he takes a wife, but here then is the proof. Perhaps poverty will force him back into eligible status. Gris knows how he’ll explain Isidro to any prospective father-in-law. Perhaps he means to hide the bauble in a basement, and hope everyone forgets he exists.

Since there are currently no servants left, Harun is pouring drinks, as casually and comfortably as if he were born to it. Since he was not, I assume that trouble with the servants is not exactly an uncommon thing in House Guyin. After we all have a glass of wine, Harun slumps back on one of the mismatched chairs, and doesn’t drink, though he hardly needs to.What’s this piece of paper you were trying to force down my throat?

It’s about the vampire.I set my glass down, and smooth open the crumpled list.

Harun glances at Isidro, who merely raises one shoulder in an indifferent shrug.

The dead one,I say.

What of it?” Harun makes no attempt to even look at the names on the creased paper. My courage deflates. Perhaps after all, Jannik is right, and this has nothing to do with me, or even Harun. The vampires do not want me to be their saviour. If anything, they would resent me barging in with my Pelim name, my wealth and my distance, assuming I could change things.

These are the names of Houses who may have recently bought vampires.I swallow, and glance up to catch Harun frowning, his knuckles pressed against his chin. “It might be that they know something of this vampire – who he was. I think we should speak with them.

No.

The answer is so abrupt I jerk back. With a snap of irritation at my own display of weakness, I stand and glower down at him.Why notyou think because you’re here with Isidro that the fate of others doesn’t concern you? That you deserve safety and they don’t?

It’s not like that,he says.You know nothing. You come blowing up from Pelimburg, thinking you can change the whole world just because it suits you–

You know nothing about me.

Felicita,Jannik reaches out a hand to calm me, and I shake him off. I am not some little girl to be mollified.

Isidro gets to his feet with a sweep of his immaculate coat.If I could have a word?he says mildly, his eyes focused on Jannik.

Confusion flits across Jannik’s face, and he drops his hand. He gives me a final glance, his third lids half-lowered in confusion.Certainly.House politeness apparently dictates our every move, no matter the circumstances. Perhaps Isidro has his own plans, ones with which he does not trust us Lammers.

The two vampires leave Harun and myself alone, and the room takes on a cloistered feel as the shadows leap higher, competing with the orange flames.

Harun goes over to a small drinks butler moulded completely of iridescent sapphire and malachite glass. Even the wheels and pins are glass. It is the work of a very fine master War-Singer and probably cost a fortune. I wonder how long it will be before it disappears to cover Harun’s debts.

Harun lifts a carafe of mintwhite and removes the faceted stopper, cutting the air with the sharp smell.Glass?he says, holding the cut-bottle up so it catches the firelight in streamers of gold and yellow.

My wine is finished, and Harun looks well the worse for a bottle or two already, but I’ll take my courage where I get it. Handing me drinks is not going to make me change my mind. Someone needs to do something for that dead vamp, and since no-one else seems to care, it will be me. I’ll make Harun agree. How, I don’t know, but there must be some way. “I suppose.”

He snorts.Don’t do me any favours.” He pours out two snifters, and walks over to me with one held out as a peace offering.

I take my glass rather ungraciously.

It’s more complicated than you realize,Harun says.

This is the sort of line I have heard all my life, when men have tried to tell me what I can or can’t do.So explain. I’m sure if I apply all my meagre womanly brain to the task and you use very small words I can at least get the gist of it.

Dear Gris.Harun swallows all his drink and splashes another into his glass, just about filling it.I feel sorrier for Jannik with every passing moment.

I narrow my eyes and tap the paper, drawing his attention back to my suggestion before he reaches the very limits of his sobriety. “These Houses know something. There must be a way to find out more about their comings and goings. It’s the party season, and invitations are winging about the city like swallows, we could–

You think we would be welcome in any of these Houses? That I would be?

I look at the names again. He has a point, it’s hardly as if I have had an invitation to visit any of these, and Harun is barely spoken of. When people do mention his name, it is with derisive laughter, scorn, disgust. “I don’t know much about the minor onesHouse Eline–

House Eline would just as soon piss on you and yours before they send an invitation,Harun says.And that wife of Garret’s is as evil a little cat as they come. If Carien wants you destroyed than you might as well burn your property, slit your throat and save her the trouble–

I beg your pardonCarien?

He pauses in his rant and glares at me.

Tall brunetteReader?

Yes. She’s known for her crowd of little sycophants who hang on her every word and action. She sets them on people like a hunting pack.

I’ve met her,I say sharply. A woman who was far too interested in vampires. She knew more than she should, for a House lady. Her interest is not passing or curious. She is a woman with plans. I knew she’d married into Eline, but with that House being what it is, it could have meant anything. I had no idea she was from the major branch. The day will come when every damn House left in the whole of Oreyn will be tied to them by blood.

I chew at my upper lip, catching the soft meat and biting hard. “We need an Invitation to House Eline.

Oh, indeed,says Harun.I’ll just send a servant off and set something up, shall I?He has the carafe in hand again, and he waves it about.

You,I turn on him,are still a spoiled little boy. House Guyin!I close my eyes and take a deep, dismissive breath.I should have known you would be.” He’s right though. No-one will invite him, nor respond to any invitations he sends. There’s the chance that Eline might respond to the name of Pelim – but that chance is too slight. One of the many reasons I haven’t hosted any season parties myself is because of just how great a risk I would be taking. Were I to be snubbed, whatever face I have left would be completely obliterated.

I think back to my conversation with Carien at the Ives’ party. She wanted something from me, that much was obvious. Information? I don’t think so. If anything, she seemed to know more than I did. I look behind me for some comfort, forgetting that Jannik has left with Isidro.

The couch where I was sitting is empty, and the only sign that Jannik was there is a single strand of coal-dark hair that clings to the seat back and catches the firelight.

I do, indeed, have something Eline Carien wants.

No.

Even I’m not that callous. But I can use her interest in him.There’s a way to get to them,I say slowly.

Harun frowns, waiting for me to continue.

We don’t need to go to House Eline,I say.All we need is to get her to come to us.

Us?

Me.I catch his gaze, hold it.She’s agreed to speak to her husband on my behalf. For business,I say to his confused expression. “There’s something she wants from me, and I think it would be understandable were I to finally open the Pelim House to an intimate gathering. Nothing formal. Nothing that can break me. If I can set the seeds of some kind of friendship, feed her the idea that she could have Jannik for a price, and then see grows from that . . . . “If we can get her to come without her little battalion, and meet her on familiar ground, I think she would be the key to House Eline.”

And you want me there?Harun keeps looking to the door, waiting perhaps for the vampires to return. They have been gone overly long. He flicks his gaze back at me.I’ll do you no good at some gathering of House fools.

“True.” I cannot include him in this, not if I want to pretend respectability. Harun’s pride combined with his unconventional marriageif that’s even what it is, there’s some confusion over whether he actually ever signed any papers has effectively ostracised him in all social circles. There are ways he could have worked around it, hidden Isidro away, and stayed in the market for a wife. He’s not one given to playing the games. Probably, he thinks he’s above them.No,I say.I think we can safely leave you out.

How considerate.Harun pours himself another drink. His hands are shaking.

I’ve noticed this weakness before. He drinks too much and too fast, but for the first time the tremble concerns me. He is a man in the prime of his life and instead of doing what my brother did; running his family holdings, spawning little heirs, he is drinking himself into a wreck in the middle of the day.

We do not know each other that well, and frankly, whatever ill-health Harun has brought upon himself, it’s not my place to ask after him.

Not my place. My brother might as well still be alive, as it seems I am constrained by him even from beyond the grave. I will never truly escape the shackles of my upbringing unless I break them open myself. The only way to do that is to do the things I have always been told not to do.

I have never seen Harun so obviously ill. It’s more than simply the loss of his servants. If something were to happen to him, and I had done nothing, the guilt would once again lie with me and my indecision. I step closer to Harun, and still his shaking wrist with my fingers.Are you–

Shock travels up my arm; a jolt of jealousy and confusion and pain. The tail-end of a nightmare. I pull my hand back, shaking my fingers. I have no idea what just happened, save that I caught some backlash of magic, almost like when I have accidentally touched Jannik. It is nothing to do with scriv.

This close to Harun I can smell sour sweat, sour wine, the sour metal of blood. I can see, just under his collar, the faded bruising around the ragged punctures at his throat. Isidro feeds off him. They are intimately connected.

The glass clatters against the wall as Harun jerks away. It falls to the carpeted floor and rolls over, spilling the last of his whitemint.What,he rasps,do you want, Felicita? Haven’t you and Jannik taken enough from me already?” The outburst seems to come from nowhere – Jannik and I have only seen them occasionally, and certainly taken nothing more than an unpleasant evening.

“I have no idea–”

“Perhaps, after all,” he slurs, “it would do you good to go out and buy a pretty little collar and leather leash for your partner. Then you’d have all that control you so desperately want, and cannot have.”

Nervous and confused, I step back from him.I wanted to find out if you were well. You seemed to be–I gesture to the drink soaking into the carpet then give it up with the realization that men never like having their weaknesses pointed out to them. He’s having some fit, and we are nothing more than scapegoats for his anger and inability. Jannik and I should leave now, before he becomes more than simply unreasonable. “Where have Jannik and Isidro gone?

He kneels to gather his empty glass and replaces it on the drinks butler. Every movement is precise and careful. The glass does not so much as make the tiniest clink of sound as he sets it down.Looking at etchings,he says.How in Gris’s name should I know?

Does the man think I am a foolthat I know absolutely nothing about how vampires and their partners work? I know what happened with Jannik and Dash. They did more than simply care for each other. Jannik could sense Dash’s moods, could even find him when we needed to. Could feel what he was feeling. Harun and Isidro have been together for so long I cannot believe they are not likewise bound up in all that blood. The stink of it is on them both. “Because you do.

Harun stares at me, dark blue eyes almost black in the firelight.

My marriage may be a paper one,I point out,but yours isn’t. You had nothing to run fromonly heir of House Guyinyou were more privileged, and more free than I could ever dream of being. So you didn’t run from anything.” Harun consummated this relationship because he was not afraid of the consequences. Or because he didn’t care. Or because he cared more about his own wants.

He swallows, and reaches back toward the glass. Then he pauses and looks down at his wayward hand as if it is not part of him at all. He lowers it without taking another drink. Even from where I stand I can see the tremble he is trying to control.Find them yourself.He sits down into a well-worn seat; the one Isidro had so recently vacated. Harun drops his head in his hands, and he is no longer facing my questions.Go on, then. I’m giving you the run of my house. You should feel honoured. Go sniff them out.

What are you not telling me?

I’m telling you everything I know,he says,about your paper marriage.and I can hear the sneer, though I cannot see it.

I am thoroughly confused. He has never before been a man so open in his emotions. And now he acts like a betrayed lover in a poem – full of rages and despairs. A thread of apprehension darts under my skin, and I feel as if I have been stitched too tightly into my own body. “Harun?”

There is no answer. He’s clamped his hands over his temples, head bowed, and he will not look to me.

I don’t know what possessed me to think I could turn to Harun for help when the man can’t even bring himself to give me a straight answer to a simple question.Fine,I say with a sigh.I’ll look.My skirts and petticoats rustle, and it is the sound of silk and my own faint breathing that fills the passage as I stalk from the room. The house is that quiet.

The intense stillness and the darkness and Harun’s distracted behaviour have all combined to fill me with trepidation. My breath is constricted, and I put it down to the gloom of the strange house. I am flitting at shadows.Jannik?

The house echoes his name back to me, dusting it with cobwebs.

Wherever they’ve gone, they can’t hear me. I tread upstairs, the stairs creaking underfoot. The house is so empty with the servants gone, and the wood groans in a way that reminds me of the old Whelk Street squat that I stayed in when I first ran from my House and my name. I fell in with Dash and his tea-shop revolutionaries and the sound of the rising wind. There are no sea storms here to tear Harun’s house from its foundations, but the eerie feeling of transience is the same. Dash and the others hide in the shadows, laughing at me.

Felicita,I say to myself.Control yourself.My voice is too loud, and the ghosts and the memories fade. No, the silence is just emptiness and the echoes of an empty house.

On the first landing, I set out to methodically tick off each room. I walk down the left passage first to check all rooms on one side then return, checking all rooms on the right, circling back to the staircase. Most of the doors don’t even budge. They are locked and the brass has gone black with neglect.

Finally, I find a door I can shove open. The room is dark and cramped, and the furniture is covered in dust cloths. There’s no one here, but I’m curious now. My eyes adjust to the shuttered darkness and the shrouded furniture takes on familiar shapes. A few low couches, and something draped in a sheet. Carefully, I lift the dust-grey sheet. An armonica. Loathsome instrument. The armonica is a mess, most of the bowls smashed. Now that I’m looking for them, I see shards, small and large on the floor. Obviously someone else shared my taste in music. I run one finger against the edge of one of the intact bowls. It trembles, and stays quiet. I flap the sheet back and exit the music room.

Of the few other unlocked doors, I find nothing of interest and no sign of Jannik and Isidro. The third landing is more rewarding: a master bedroom, a small room filled with clockwork, a second library. All the rooms are devoid of life. The fourth floor is completely locked. I can’t even get into the hallway. Just as I’m about to storm downstairs and berate Harun for playing games, the whispers start.

They are soft, fading in and out, just brushing the edges of my hearing. Two men speaking, I’m quite certain of it. The low sound of their voices comes from behind the locked door. I press my cheek against the heavy wood. It’s cold, leaving an ache in my teeth. The voices rise enough for me to hear the tone, although not the words. Someone laughs, but it is a sound quickly smothered. It’s not Jannik’s laughter. Though I suppose I’ve heard that little enough to judge. There is a certain brittleness, a shallow quality to the laughter that makes me think I’m hearing Isidro.Hello?

The voices still. Then, quite clearly:Did you hear that?Jannik.

I breathe deep, let it go. Of course it’s the two of them. Isidro laughing at something Jannik said, while the pretty, vapid thing led my husband about the recesses of the Guyin house. For what reason?

It’s me. Felicita,I add, feeling stupid the moment the clarification leaves my mouth. Jannik was making Isidro laugh, and I wonder what it was he said.

The baggage,says Isidro. I can hear them clearly nowthey’re close to the door. Before this they must have been talking in whispers.

Don’t call her that.

The fierce and faithless huntress, the witchbringer, the killer of brothers-

“You don’t understand her,” Jannik says, but his is a weak defence. Does he also think these things of me? Are these his words Isidro is repeating? A desperate crying anger surges up. I feel betrayed, irrationally hurt that Jannik didn’t say more to defend me.

I step back as a key grates in the lock. It rattles as Isidro laughs again, this time a malicious, bitter little sound. He swings the door open and flashes his fangs at me.Hello, we were just discussing all of your outstanding qualities.

I don’t bother to answer him. There is someone else I hate right now.

Jannik actually has the decency to flush and drop the third eyelids. His collar is unbuttoned, his neck tie gone.

You bastard,I say to him.

Technically,Isidro interjects,that would be me.

Don’t look at him, don’t give him the pleasure. I continue glaring at Jannik.

I told him nothing,he says, with a half-hearted shrug.He already knew.

Ahalready guessed.Isidro squeezes past him, and touches my collarbone lightly with his fingertips, like he’s contemplating shoving me down the stairs.Now I know.

Get away from me.” My voice is a low hiss.

Isidro mock bows, flourishing an emerald neck-tie, before he pushes past me and hops nimbly down the stairs.

I look back up at Jannik.

He fumbles with his collar before he realizes he has no neck tie to knot. He lowers his hands and hides them in his jacket pockets.He really did know, I just told him the details.

Are you an idiot?

Jannik frowns.

Before, everything anyone said was speculationnow you’ve handed House Guyin a sword to stick into our backs.

They won’t turn on you,he begins, staring past me, down the now-empty stairs.They’re like us; we’re their only friends in MallenIve.

They are nothing like us.And they are not our friends, I want to say, but the truth is they are the closest we’ve come to friendship in this blasted city.Don’t think you can trust them.I certainly don’t, not when it seems that Isidro has his manicured little claws in Jannik. No wonder Harun is a mess.

Why not?The question seems innocent, but for all his flaws, Jannik merely plays at being naive. It’s a careful disguise he wears, and he uses it because it saves him from looking too invested, or revealing too much about how he really feels. He’s not stupid.

Don’t pretend,I say to him.Circumstance isn’t a fertile ground for intimacy.You like him? I don’t ask. How – how could you like him? Isidro is all those things I have learned not to trust, a trapped and beautiful thing, one looking for someone to blame for their own inadequacies. They don’t understand love – only how to use other people to get what they think they want. Then again, that may be the very thing Jannik likes about him. Perhaps he believes he can save Isidro.

See, that’s where you’re wrong.” Jannik steps closer to me. “They are the ones who shouldn’t trust us.

Why’s that?” It’s ridiculous. I certainly have no plans to go and drag Harun further down into the mud. If anything, it’s we who could give them some glimmer of respectability.

He blinks.You really don’t know?

I shake my head. “Humour me, pretend I’m a fool.

Don’t make it too easy for me,Jannik says, but he’s smiling crookedly, and I sigh in exasperation.Because they managed without us. They were shunned and friendless.

Don’t make me pity them. That’s not going to work.

Of course it is. I know you.He edges down to the next step, so that we are separated from each other by only silk, and a spider’s thread of air.And now here we come, still fresh from Pelimburg, still interesting, still untainted, and we extend our hand.

I hold his gaze. My back aches; the shoulders stiff.

They have more to lose,he ends, with a small, lopsided shrug.

Isidro hates you,I say after a while. There, let him mull on that.

And you.

Maybe he just hates everyone.

Jannik eases past me, and takes a few more steps downward then he looks back up.We should go.

Flustered, I brush my hands down my skirts, feeling sweaty-palmed and ill, although I’ve no idea why.Yes. I expect Harun will be wondering why we’re taking so long–

No, I mean we should go from MallenIve.” There is such longing in his voice, running soft and slippery beneath it like kelp under the silk-tops of waves. It is the kind of longing that tangles in your legs and drowns you.

Back ho – back to Pelimburg? But whywe can’t.And damn him for making me want all over again. I miss the smell of sea air, the calling of the mews on the cliff-side.

This city is sick, and it infects everyone in it. We stay here and we become like them.

I could pretend I don’t know what he means but I’ve felt it too, the insidious way MallenIve breathes her disease into every living thing here. It’s so potent I can smell itlike scriv and rot citrus combined with the reek of the filthy refuse heaps growing at her borders. I brush off his distress, and bury my own.You’re being overly dramatic. Besides, we can’t go back.

He sighs.No. I suppose not.

We have sins to atone for.

“Harun isn’t going to help us,” I say, thinking of the names on my paper, useless now.

“Whatever made you think that he would?” Jannik closes his eyes and slumps back against the one solid wall of the staircase. “Forget about this, Felicita, please. It’s not something for you and I to get involved in.”

“Give me a reason why not.”

He cracks open one eye, and waits for me to work it out myself.

“I don’t care any more if we draw attention to our House, if these MallenIve idiots don’t invite us – me – to their stupid parties–”

“It’s not about that.”

“What then – are you scared of them?” As soon as the words have bolted out my mouth, so casual and yet so damning, I feel myself flush.

“Yes,” Jannik says. “Now, we really should leave.”

For a moment, I don’t follow him. The vampire they found was mutilated, tortured. I picture Jannik’s arms ending in stumps at the wrist and his skin flayed, leaving only the meat and white skull. His fear flickers against my face like the wing of a startled bird.


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