PIECES IN PLAY

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10

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Our coach rattles down the wide avenue that leads to House Eline’s manor. “I hate this.” Jannik is fiddling with his neck tie, re-knotting it over and over, though each time I can see no difference. There is a fine sheen of sweat at his temples.

My head hurts, panic that isn’t mine skitters under my skin. “Leave it,” I tell him. “You look fine.”

He lowers his eyelids and stares at me from under long dark eyelashes, his silence saying all the things he needs to. “I’m not particularly concerned about my appearance,” he says, finally.

“Then leave the Gris-damned neck-tie alone.”

The streets are empty. It is late morning, and all the early deliveries to the houses are done, the entire area has an air of solid stillness, like a fine old painting. The windows of the coach turn the outdoors hazy and unreal. The streets and buildings look like a rained-on ink drawing, features smudged, smears of people. It is already sweltering, and not yet midday.

The unis trot along, their eagerness to take us to our destination untouched by our trepidation. We come to the gravel pathway leading up to the monstrous glass-and-stone building with its turrets and spindle bridges and balconies. The glass flashes like pale green fire. A small coach is already standing there, but it bears no House insignia. A hired cab, then.

Master Sallow opens the coach door for us, but neither Jannik nor I move.

“You can’t smell the fires from here,” I say.

“The plague is done,” Master Sallow tells me. “The bodies are all burned and buried.”

The black lung has passed over MallenIve and left Riona’s brother alive, while she, once healthy and hale, is nothing more than ash. I bite at the soft inside of my lower lip, and make a sound that anyone else would mistake for an amused snort. It’s better than sitting here and crying.

“Come,” Jannik steps out from the carriage and holds his hand for me. “We shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Of course. Carien has her paints and her canvas ready; she thinks we’re coming for Jannik to spend a few days sitting for her.

How simple it would be, how much happier, if that were all we planned.

* * *

Carien is not alone in the house. She gestures to a wiry young man with an easy smile and a mildly curious expression, sitting on one of the leather couches. He has the air of a patron looking at some bizarre new species of creature in the Animal Gardens.

“Have you met Yew?” she says. The mystery of the other coach is solved.

Yew half-stands as we assemble in the small parlour off from the main entrance hall, the one filled with priceless glass sculptures.

“Yew Avin, Pelim Felicita,” Carien says.

This then is the face to the name. Yew has the same dangerous air to him as one of the glass-spiked Narlets that decorate the room. But while their menace is obvious, he hides his thorns under his eager expression. He reminds me of some of the Pelimburg crakes – the poet-caste who affect the vices of lords and princes on the their beggars’ budgets. There is even something of their style to him, all dark tones, silks and leathers.

“Ah, the elusive Felicita,” Avin says, holding his hand out for me, like he would were I an actual House Lord.

I take it cautiously, uncertain.

He’s not looking at me. Not really. His eyes keep flicking to the shadow behind my shoulder. “Forgive me. I’ve heard such fascinating things about you from Carien here.” He is far too casual, bandying our first names about as though we have known each other for years.

“Avin is a new breed of gentleman,” Carien says, amused and mocking. “At least, he likes to tell us that.”

“The world is changing, Carien, soon all your hopeless, stiff little formalities will be forgotten.”

“But not yet, I think,” I murmur, as I free myself from his grip. “I did not expect that you would have guests,” I say pointedly to Carien.

“I’m no guest.” Yew says. “I merely dropped by to leave some paperwork for Garret. Seems this proposal of his will be in Court soon.”

I keep myself from grimacing. “Ah, and I can assume you are one of his supporters?”

“Perhaps.” Yew unleashes his charm, his eyes soft, and his smile softer. It gives the lie to his hollow-cheeked predatory look. “Or perhaps not. Perhaps I would rather see the vampires on equal terms with the Lammers, like they are in Pelimburg.”

“I take it you have never been to Pelimburg then,” I dismiss his ignorance and hear Jannik half-snort in laughter behind me. “If you believe that.”

“So, tell me the reality then. Are all the things I have heard about free vampire Houses merely little sea-born lies? Sailors’ tales?” He waves a hand at Jannik. “You married. I do not think you could have done that here. House Mata barely tolerates Guyin keeping his little pet uncaged.”

I am moved to tell the truth. “The Lammers fear the vampires, they fear what their freedom would mean.”

Yew steps closer to me, and I can smell poisonink on his clothes, and the bittersweet of wood fires and windle silk. “I see no reason why we would ever fear them.”

“You fear their city. You fear them in numbers.” I know I should stop talking. The vampire city of Ur lies many hundreds of leagues in the distance, in the Wyvernsback mountains. No one I know has ever seen it. The city of the vampires is as shrouded in mystery and exaggeration as any myth.

Jannik coughs. This is where his family came from, and even he does not speak of it. My heart is beating too fast. I do not know the game Yew is playing, what he wants to hear from me.

“I am not scared of a city that may or may not exist,” Yew says. “But I wonder if there isn’t something to it. Fear, after all, is what drives our little MallenIve cogs. Fear and money and scriv.”

“I will pass your papers on to Garret,” Carien says, though Yew ignores her pointed signal for him to leave.

“Tell me,” Yew says as he steps back from me, broadening the distance between us, “do you not think the city will be safer if the bats are removed from the Lammer areas? And do you not think they will be happier if they were given the freedom of a reservation – a place where they can hunt and kill as their forefathers did? Surely you can see the benefits to Garret’s scheme – for all of us?”

I curl and uncurl my fingers, hidden behind the folds of my wide skirts. “I see nothing.”

“And here I thought that you were supposed to be that rare creature; a woman of vision.” He grins again, making a joke of his words. “And now, I really must leave you ladies to the things that fascinate you so. What is it today – gossip or culture?”

“Both.” Carien’s smile is brittle and annoyed.

“I’ve outstayed my welcome, from the looks of things.” He doesn’t seem the least perturbed by his own ill manners. He laughs at us, at how easily upset we are by his intrusion. “Tell Garret if there’s anything else he needs–”

“Yes,” says Carien. She is herding Yew toward the door.

He smiles at her manoeuvres, and lets himself be guided out. “It was a pleasure to have finally met you,” he says to me. “And you.” He gives Jannik a wide grin that is lazy and predatory, like a sphynx biding its time before it begins a hunt.

“Dreadful man,” Carien says, after the servants have taken him from her and led him out, and the clatter of the coach wheels against the gravel has faded. She, like Yew before her, is not looking at me.

Jannik stays very still, his head raised, and stares back. I can just see the faint white edges of his third eyelids, threatening to sweep across and blank all expression from his face, but he does not let it happen. He watches her undisguised, his night-sky eyes challenging her forest-green ones.

“I’m so glad you chose to come,” she says.

Jannik and I both smile – small secret smiles that are gone as soon as thought. “It was my pleasure,” he says.

I am about to take my leave of them both, when Carien stops me, resting one hand lightly against my wrist. “I received an invitation,” she says.

I raise one brow, waiting. My stomach is churning, I had not expected a meeting with Yew, and that on top of my plan to abandon Jannik to this house is making me ill. I press on hand lightly against my stomach, as if I could knead the bubble of anxiety away.

“I wondered if you knew anything about it.”

“What kind of invitation?” I pretend confusion so easily. Even were Carien higher than a Hob-kite, I do not think she would be able to unspin the truth. My lies have become part of me.

“From House Guyin, requesting that Garret and I join them at dinner.”

“How odd.” I frown. “I had heard nothing of this.”

“But you speak with them?” She presses on, her fingers clutching now, the little daggers of her nails tearing at me through her silk gloves. She talks of Harun and Isidro as if they were still together; perhaps she truly does not know anything of what has happened. I feel some of my confidence in this scheme falter. “You are the only ones who have.”

“Perhaps it is to do with Garret’s proposal,” I say.

Carien drops her hand, releasing me. “Ah. Guyin should know that there is nothing he can say that will bend my husband on this. He is adamant.”

I press my lips together, and breathe in once, sharply. “Guyin has more to lose. Desperate men can be persuasive.”

“Desperate men can be dangerous.”

“That too.” I step out of her reach. “Will you go, then?” I ask it lightly, as if it barely matters. “After all, they’re hardly acceptable table mates.”

Carien keeps her head still, looking through me, past my layers of lies. “It’s not up to me,” she says. “You know that.”

“Of course.” I dip my head. “Let me know when you’re done with him.” It is with a great strength of will I do not look to Jannik, wish him well, wish him goodbye.

On the way back to Harun, I stop at one of the few legal scriv merchants, and in that dusty place, sharp with the smell of magic, I buy myself a tiny pouch of scriven and pretend that little skip of my heart was fear and not want.

* * *

Eline’s answer is waiting in the silver letter tray at House Guyin by the time I return. I tap the wax seal with one finger, and wonder why Harun hasn’t bothered to open it.

“Do you want me to?” I ask.

“Stop that.” He whisks it from my hand. “I’m not afraid of it, Pelim.”

“Oh?” We are both afraid. We need Eline out of his home if Jannik is to have any chance of searching the house for Isidro.

Harun scowls back at me and snaps the wax. Red shards fall with a soft clatter, only noticeable because we are so quiet. The paper crackles.

“And?”

A grim smile pulls at the corners of Harun’s mouth. “Get ready,” he tells me. “We have Eline.”

* * *

“Stop pacing,” Harun says.

I pause and look out at the gardens. Master Gillcrook has found Harun a team of gardeners who have somehow managed to rake and clip the vast mess of the Guyin House wilderness into presentable shape. The moonlight falls cold and blue over the neat lawns. Stars glitter faintly. The nights are warming now and that fat oppressive heat is coming in from the deserts. Owls call to each other.

It’s not them I want to hear. I strain my inner ear for some small thing that will link me to Jannik, but he has shut himself off completely. He said our connection would be weak at best, but I didn’t expect him to be using all of his defences to keep me out, on top of the distance between us. “I hate waiting,” I say to my reflection in the tall dark glass of the doors.

“And you think I like it any better?” Harun says from behind me, where he has seemingly grafted himself into his chair. “And not even a teaspoon of wine left that isn’t earmarked for my bloody guests.”

“What would you do with that anyway?”

“Medicinal purposes.” He sighs and shifts, the material creaking. “I’m not as bad as Jannik paints me.”

“Really.”

“I threw away everything I had to be with him.”

“Everything?” I look over my shoulder at the newly cleaned room. It is filled with heirloom furniture, priceless glass and art. Fewer pieces than when we first met, to be sure. But still a fortune. “How you must have suffered.”

“Not this.” He waves at the room. “I will not be recognized as the heir.”

“They have no other sons,” I say. “They will recognize you, and you know it.” I swing my skirts round and face him. “Is that why you’ve made no official commitment? Because you hope to still gather some maiden from an eligible House and spawn little Guyins to fulfil your obligations?”

“And if I don’t – what then?” He bares his teeth. “My lineage ends. Two brothers, and not one of them made it past puberty. Is it my fault then that the yoke falls on my neck?”

“And is it Isidro’s?”

Harun’s mouth thins. “Don’t bring your Pelimburg morality in here. I know the worth of it.”

I stiffen, my palms gone damp and itchy. I have not forgotten what Harun said to me, after the fever of his scriv Vision.

“At least my brothers died of natural causes,” he says.

“As did mine.” My laughter is hollow in the darkened room. “A more natural death than you could ever imagine.”

“You sacrificed him.”

“To the sea,” I reply.

“A sea witch.”

“And what would you say the difference is?” I walk toward him, my silk skirts sighing and hushing as if they know what is to come. “There are things out there we do not understand – although we like to pretend to. Do you think our ancestors had the Hobs and beasts with wild magic killed merely because they were an inconvenience?”

“Explain.”

I sigh. “What are we but a false set of laws laid over a wild land? We hope to tame it, but what we can’t tame we destroy. The Lammers are not as important and powerful as we like to believe. There are other magics waiting to take our place.” I think of my recent conversation with Yew – it’s true, the Lammers fear. And what they fear, they destroy. It is our way.

“You sound like a tea shop revolutionary,” he says with a sneer.

“And maybe I am, or maybe I used to be, or maybe I was almost one.”

“You talk in riddles.”

“Better than talking in rhymes.” A sharp pain kicks across my breast, and I gasp.

“What is it?” Harun is on his feet, our sniping forgotten.

“I – I do not know.” Desperately, I reach out to the connection I’ve forged, and come up against nothing but swirling darkness. Bloody Jannik, he was supposed to let me know what was going on. The hurt intensifies, a jackal under my skin, scrabbling for freedom. “Gris damn him!”

Jannik’s hold on his house must slip because I am thrust from Harun’s now-immaculate rooms into a place that is dark and cold and deep. An underground room, the walls dank. I can smell the mustiness of mould and old urine and sweat. I can feel the flickering heat of iron. Something cries in the blackness, a sound like a feral cat screaming at a rival. Eline, says Jannik’s voice in my head, as clear as if he were right beside me. Underground, there’s a – cellar, Isidro – Then the scene is gone.

“Felicita.”

I am on my hands and knees, gasping. Harun has gone down on one knee to help me up. I let him take my hand.

“What did you see?”

“I’m not sure.” Certainly, whatever is happening now, Jannik is sitting for no portrait. Fear eclipses me, makes my breathing ragged. It is real. It is real. “He’s definitely underground–”

“Isidro?”

I shake my head. “It was too fast – a blur.” I take a deep breath and pull my hand out of his. “I’m fine, thank you.” But I’m not, not really. Ghost pains linger across my chest. The scratches of a wild animal. “I need to move.”

“You?”

I take the little pouch from my pocket and hold it out, and say nothing. He will understand why I didn’t tell him what I decided to do if anything should have happened to Jannik. Or he won’t. It’s not my problem. He has a dinner to attend, after all.

Harun half snarls at me. “Was this your damn plan? To go roaring into House Eline like a tornado? This isn’t Pelimburg, Felicita. You kill a single person in his household, you’ll be tried and executed.”

“So what exactly would you suggest?”

“I cancel this farce of a dinner, and we both go in to collect our property, and leave.”

“Ah, and Garret it going to hand them over when we ask, consider it all a huge misunderstanding? How fortunate for us he’s so reasonable.”

“I’ll think of something.” Harun shakes his head. He knows that they will never listen to him, that Garret will never even admit that he has Isidro. He will laugh off our accusations, calls us insane. Jannik and Isidro will turn up months from now, disfigured and dead.

“Trust me,” I tell Harun. And I need his trust to bolster my own. I need to believe that I can do this. Oh, I see this going very well, Owen says. At least this time you can’t destroy half a city and murder your own flesh and blood. I suppose it would have been foolish to expect that the voice in my head would have any faith in me. I almost laugh. And then I take that voice and I lock it away. In that safe space that Jannik taught me to make, in my memory of my room in the Pelimburg tower, I turn Owen’s words into a silver hairpin with a jewelled green leaf. All my memories from those last days in Pelimburg are centred on that hairpin, and I remember every coil and tarnished whorl. I can almost feel the weight of it.

Keep quiet, I say.

Owen is silent, silver.

In my mental room is a little jewellery box filled with childish hairpins I outgrew years ago, and the new hairpin joins them. I lock it with a glass key, then crush the key under my heel. Specks of powder-fine glass are ground into the carpet, and lost.

There. Jannik would be proud.

I’m proud.

I can do this.

“Harun,” I say, newly calm, with a force inside me hot and strong as iron. “I leave in a moment.” I gather my velvet night cloak from the stand.

“It’s a foolish idea.”

“I am not walking in there unarmed.” My voice is firm. “And if it makes you feel better, I promise that I will not use it unless I’m pushed into the very worst of circumstances.” I think. I’m sure. After all, I’ve managed to go this long without any. I tuck the pouch carefully into a pocket hidden deep in the many folds of my dress skirt, clasp it tightly, then make myself let go. “I’ll bring them back,” I promise him.

 

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