PITY’S SWORD

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8

(previous)

Another hour passes before Master Gillcrook sends us a messenger from the Guyin house. The Hob is crimson-faced and breathless when he arrives. I send for cider and bread for him while I read the note. It does not reveal much, merely that the meeting with Eline is over, and the house is safe to return to. I raise one eyebrow. For how long? Garret will have realized by now, surely. He will make a move soonopen or hidden.

We need to be prepared for either. I pull the bell to summon Master Twissel from his rooms. He arrives, smooth and unflustered even though it is the middle of the night.The servants need to be moved,I tell him. Even though we have just brought them all here and attempted to settle in. They’re going to be put out, but better that than caught in another fire.

All?

Yes. I’ll need Cornelia to stay with me, but the rest must effectively disappear.” Gris knows what lows Garret will stoop to in revenge.

Certainly, ma’am. Is there any place in particular which you have in mind that they should go to?

I shake my head.Scatter them, tell them to go home. Consider it a paid leave. As soon as I have arranged new permanent quarters they can return to work.If that time comes. I wish I knew what Garret will do once he finds that we have taken not only Isidro and Jannik, but his little lark too.You will also need to move all the warehouse stock into new premises, under a different name.

Jannik stares at meYou’re serious? That’s an immense undertaking.

“Eline will thrust the sword where it will cripple us. We need to stay ahead of them.I catch my lower lip in my teeth, biting into the inner flesh.They thought nothing of burning our home, what will stop them taking out the warehouses?

Jannik’s mouth thins but he inclines his head slightly. I’m right, and he is well aware of that.And where are we to go?

House Guyin.There will be safety in numbers, although I can tell from the quick look that passes between Jannik and Isidro that neither likes the idea. Perhaps we will be nothing more than mice crowded under a hay bale, and all Garret has to do is stamp on us to break our backs. I do not know where else we can go, and we need each other. We are all we have.

What of that?Isidro points at the Lark.It’s not coming with.

I’ll make certain you do not see it again, but ithemay have uses as leverage.

Isidro blinks.

Garret will want his toy back.

A distant smile passes over Isidro’s face and he stares at me with a new light in his eyes.I had no idea you were so callous.

Neither did I – I thought I was going to be a better person here; that running from Pelimburg would wipe clean all the marks on the slate of my life. But it seems the rock is scarred, and that I will merely add to the list of my crimes.Someone help me move him into the carriage,I say. I want this night to end. My head is a boiling mass of pain and I can see no moment of rest or respite.

* * *

House Guyin stands in watchful silence. All the servants have been warned to be alert, and we have decided to alternate a watch.

Harun has claimed the first shift. He’s had servants clear out rooms for us, and I am lying on the deep golden covers of a large fourposter bed. Cornelia has undressed me, and I’m in a clean nightgown, slightly rumpled from speedy packing. Jannik sits on the edge of the bed, his hand curled against his stomach.

I reach out to touch his knee.Do you want me to call for willow-bark and lady’s gown?

He shakes his head then reconsiders. “Just willow, I think. I want to be able to wake with a clear head.

Lady’s gown will help you sleep.

Then order it, Felicita. Do whatever you want.He is angry, not with me, but with himself, for reasons I cannot fathom.

The scriv has cleared from my body, leaving not even the faintest twinge of magic. My head aches and, deeper than that, is a painful clenching loss. I have given this up, for him.

And Jannik’s house of the imagination is already closing against me. I pull away from him with an effort, and ring for a servant.How did the portrait turn out?

I surprise a laugh from him.I didn’t even get a chance to sit.

So she’s part of it, then.

Jannik shakes his head.I don’t know. I was meant to start in the morning, when the light was good. I had a little wineand then.He turns one hand up, showing nothing.

You were drugged.

I assume as much. I woke groggy and in thatthat room.

It’s still possible that Carien had nothing to do with this. That Garret merely took the chance when he saw it and concocted some excuse for Jannik’s disappearance. And extremely unlikely. Damn. I had wanted to like her, I realize. Instead they thought so little of me and my husband that they were certain they could simply take Jannik from me and that I would be too scared and helpless to do anything. “Will you tell me what happened?

Jannik closes his eyes.What will it help you to know?

A soft sound of laughter comes from the floor.

I grit my teeth and lie back on the bed.

Did you really have to bring it here?Jannik says as the laughter grows louder, more manic.

Someone needs to keep an eye on him,I point out.

Why does it have to be us?

“You’d rather it was Isidro? The boy wouldn’t live through the night.” I roll over and lean my head over the edge of the bed. The Lark is strapped into a low bed, completely unable to move. He’s wide-eyed, laughing so that I can see the points of his fangs. All his teeth are broken, ragged, as if he has filed them like that. Or perhaps Garret has done this. I want to feel sorry for the boy, but he makes my skin crawl.Who are you?I say to him, very softly.

He stops laughing. The indigo eyes narrow.

You do understand.

Stop talking to it,Jannik grumbles from behind me. The door opens and one of Guyin’s household Hobs sets down a tray of tea. The sweet smell of honeybush is tainted with bitter willow. Jannik’s relief floods over me, just a momentary lapse, and I realize how much he must be hurting, and how hard he is working at keeping that hurt from me.

I shiver but keep watching the boy.I know you do,I say.Are you thirstydo you want tea?

Felicita,Jannik says.

But the boy nods. Ever so slightly. If I hadn’t been staring at him, waiting, I would have missed it.

Then tell me your name,I say. Tea trills against porcelain, and Jannik sighs after taking a sip.

The silence grows uncomfortable and the boy lies still, warily watching my face. His chest is softly rising and falling, the breathing growing slower, until finally he answers me.Merril.” His voice is nasal, the broken nose distorting the sound.

Next to me Jannik snorts.Good,I say, ignoring my husband’s anger.Merril, I’ll bring you tea.

You can’t bloody give it tea.

I can, and you’re going to help me.

Ah.

Jannik, please. I just need you to help him sit. I’ll hold the cup.I scramble back and press both my hands on his knees, and lean closer to his face. He’s so tired now I can feel it eating at me, ants around a cake. Heat thrums through my palms, and I move closer until my cheek skims against his. The stubble scrapes at me, comforting rather than painful. I touch my tongue to the curve of his ear and he shivers.Please?I whisper.

That’s cheating.

Not really.I want so badly to hold him close to me, but I can feel the wounds down his chest, growing deeper in my own skin. How do I tell him this?You need to sleep. So does he.

He puts his hands to my shoulders and gently moves me back so that he can stand. The tea pots are waiting, one of honeybush with willow, and a second smaller one holding an infusion of lady’s gown. I pour that into a cup. The brew will be strong and extremely bitter. I add two swirls of honey from the little jar then take the tea to Merril. I wonder if that’s his true name, or one that Garret gave him.

Here,I say, and nod at Jannik, who slips one arm under the bound boy’s back so that he can sit a little higher. I crouch to hold the tea to Merril’s mouth and he sips hesitantly. Jannik has his hand in Merril’s tangled hair, holding him still. His throat moves as he swallows, and I notice the bandage Sallow put on him is discolouring a little. I’ll need to look under it in the morning. I picture the maggots underneath, eating away at the dead skin, and almost vomit.

Now,I pull the bowl back a little, out of reach.Where are you from?

Garret,he snaps, in his growling, animal’s voice.

Before that.I let him take another sip. He frowns at the taste.

Glassclaw.

I let him finish his tea, and Jannik eases him down and ties the ropes that hold him back in place. We snuff the candles, and I lie in the dark as close to Jannik as he can bear. The second-hand pain I’ve been feeling is dulling now, and I grow drowsy from the lady’s gown in his tea.

You shouldn’t have asked his name,Jannik says, his voice thick.

I can barely manage to answer him. Sleep is tugging me down.Why’s that?

Because now he’s a person.

* * *

We sleep through morning in a sweaty, dream-shifting haze. I keep waking, hearing the crows in the gardens then waking again, hearing the crows in the gardens. It’s disorienting.

Breakfast tea is brought, and I groggily let myself be dragged to unwilling consciousness. Jannik is fast asleep next to me. I touch his cheek, now dark with a growing beard. Under the fine wire prickles, I can feel the walls of his house rebuilding. Or see them. It’s a strange feeling, half-imagination, half-submergence in an-almost reality. I can feel his thoughts eerie and alien, like listening to sand moving through the desert, a hiss that sets my teeth on edge.

I can hear you thinking,Jannik says from the pillow.I don’t sound like sand.

I draw my hand back, as if struck.How is it that you know the very words I think, but all I get is something that doesn’t even sound alive?

He sits up, his face twisting as he moves with careful slow stretches.I told you why. Work on your house.

You’re in pain, and I can barely feel it.

You can, actually. You just don’t realize it.

I sit up and glance over the edge of the bed. Merril is still sleeping, looking for all the world like something three days dead. I slip one leg out from the covers and poke him with my toe. He mumbles and turns his head slightly.What do you mean?

It’s why you’re so tired, you’re compensating for me.

Or it could be all that scriv I took.

And scriv normally left you feeling like you’d been dragged behind a wagon over the cobblestones of Pelimburg?

Damn Jannik for being right. I never truly considered just how much this bond could affect me. What might have happened if Jannik had not been kept alive? I know, I just don’t want to face it. There’s my problem.

Jannik slips one arm around my waist, pulling my body closer to his. His breath is warm and a little damp against my neck.Harun will call us if anything happens. Stay a little longer.

I hold his arm down with my own, hanging on to him, hanging on to me. There it is, thrumming under my lowest ribs, a gnawing pain. It’s his, not mine.Jannik?I twist in his arms to that I can face him.Do you?I don’t even have to say it, merely think of the night we bound ourselves together, and the feel of his teeth sliding into my flesh, painful, but a pain that left me delirious, wanting more.

His breathing changes, turns fast and shallow, and when he does bite down in the lowest part of my neck, instead of feeling my pain, he eclipses it with his own desire.

* * *

Harun meets me alone for breakfast. A very late breakfast. I am wearing a demure, high-buttoned dress of silvery-grey, and I note with sly amusement and a modicum of relief, that Harun keeps unconsciously pressing the tips of his fingers against his own collar.

Sleep well?he says to me as he butters toast. The smell of a full repast hangs in delicious savoury waves all around us.

My morning with Jannik has left me ravenous, and more than a little faint.

Sit down,he says.Eat.

I do as instructed, while ghost-like servants set plates and tea things before me.No one came in the night?

Not a mouse. Isidro sat watch with me. He’s asleep now.

My heart is beating faster.Iexpected–” I shake my head. It seems that somehow Isidro and Harun have mended their differences, and that Isidro has relinquished any claims he felt he had on Jannik. But it is all so easy and neat, and I know well that no matter how smoothly the surface may be embroidered, when it comes to emotions, underneath will be a snarl of knots and ragged stitches. We must pretend that it doesn’t exist so that we will not mar what we have. Better that we move on. There are other thoughts to occupy us. Whatever else happened last night, Harun did dine with Garret, and there are things we could learn from that. “How did your meeting with Eline go then?

He shrugs.It was almost pleasant. We pussy-footed around politics and money and didn’t so much as breathe a word about bats.

And Carien?I draw a pot of blackberry jam closer and slather my toast with the sweet dark mess.

She barely spoke. Seemed anxious to get back, but her husband was doing his best to ignore her. I think, if anything, she felt out of placewas expecting there to be female company, or at least, more guests than simply themselves.

It must have looked a little odd,I concede.

Something should have happened by now. I was sure Eline would make a move as soon as he discovered the vampires gone. It’s not as if he would have any doubt where to turn his attention.

Do you know what else looks a little odd?Harun leans back in his chair and steeples his index fingers.You bringing that half-wild thing into my house and keeping it in your bedroom.

I pause with my toast half-way to my mouth. Damn Harun, I think, and eat one corner, making him wait. When I’m done, I dust a few crumbs from my fingers. There’s a spot of black jam on the tablecloth; it seeps a bloody print around it.What has Isidro told you of it?

That it’s a cannibal, and quite possibly insane.

His name is Merril,I say.

Sweet Gris, have you gone and named it? This is not some replacement for a string of future miscarriages–

Before he can finish that sentence, I have my side dish in my hand, and without a moment’s pause for thought I hurl it at his head.

The plate shatters just left of his ear and Harun jerks so hard in his seat he almost topples. He recovers, eyes narrowed.Do refrain from smashing my crockery, Felicita. With the two of you as my guests, I shall soon have no tables, and then no porcelain.

I’m on my feet, my hands shaking. I can’t believe I just threw a plate at Harun’s fat head. Or rather, I can believe it.Don’t say such a thing again,I say, slowly, soft as a snake.And never, ever where Jannik can hear it.

Harun presses his lips together. His eyes are dark with exhaustion, and the tiredness does nothing to improve his temper.Fine,he snaps.Get rid of the boy.

I stare at him.I can’t,I say eventually.

It’s a liability.

It’s a person.

Fuck!He stands and slams his chair back into place, making the table shudder and the dishes rattle.Don’t remind me.

It’s easier, isn’t it?I say.If we just let ourselves forget.

If it harms anyone, Felicita, it’s dead. I’ll see to that myself.

I nod. How did I bring this unwanted burden on myself? And for what?

* * *

The next few days pass in breathless slow-motion while Harun, Jannik, Isidro and myself make plans. We draw up scenarios, think of everything Eline can throw at us, and how we will respond. We write lists. We argue. We wait for news of the Lord’s Council meeting. We retreat into worried silences.

House Eline makes no move against us, not openly, not in the shadows. Our emptied warehouses stay deserted and untouched, our rented apartments gather dust.

Isidro and Jannik seem recovered from their capture, although I do not see much of Isidro outside our meetings. When I do, he clings to Harun’s shadows, trailing him like a foundling.

Merril is passive and quiet, allowing me to change the dressings on his cleaned wound, while Jannik holds him by that mess of hair. The hair is problematiche won’t let me come near him with either a comb or a pair of scissors, screaming like a black-backed gull if I try approach armed with one or the other.

Neither of the other vampires trust him. Isidro will not stay in the same room as Merril, and sometimes I’m not surprised.

Merril has a way of staring unblinkingly at me, at Jannik, and then smiling slowly, as is he were listening to some private joke.

It’s more than a little unnerving.

It’s becoming harder and harder for me to find any empathy. And I hate myself for it. He’s been used in ways I cannot even imagine, and yet I have begun to fear him. I make myself treat him as best I can, but in truth, I want little to do with Garret’s Lark. We might have cleaned him up and dressed him, but underneath that we cannot change the rot. It’s too late, I find myself thinking. We should have left him.

And then I hate myself a little more.

We untie him once a day so that he can walk, and he pads around the room, barefoot and silent, while Jannik watches him warily.

Merril is sitting loose like this now, curled up on one of the dusky grey sofas that clutter the lounging area in our small wing. Unlike the other vampires, he seems to like more than merely blood and wine. He’s asked for fish, which he pulls apart delicately between his fingers, although I don’t see him eat much of it.

You like the taste?I ask him.

Merril shrugs and licks one finger thoughtfully. He has remained uncommunicative, although we now know he can understand every word we say.

A fist slams against our door, and Jannik, who is closest, opens it. From the thundering I had assumed that this was no servant. Harun is glowering at me, a letter crumpled in his hand. “The Council is meeting today. Eline’s pushed it forward.”

Damn. The first move made. We will both of us have to go. We can’t leave this to chance.

Harun will break his tradition of years and actually leave this prison he’s built for himself. To save Isidro. Now. If we leave to go to that vote, the house will stand unprotected,” he points out.

What does Harun expect us to do here that the vampires wouldn’t? I do not want to touch scriv again, and Harun is a Saint. Was he planning to fight off an attack with dreams of the future?

He’s playing a game with us,Harun says, and holds out the letter.

I smooth it open to see the leaf of Eline’s house symbol at the top. The note is short, merely informing Harun that he will be presenting his proposal before the Council today, as they discussed over dinner. As if nothing whatsoever has happened. “He wants us there.

Obviously.

We’re not children,Jannik says.And Eline will be at the Council too.

He’s not going to dirty his hands,Harun points out.He’ll have hired someone. All he needs is oil and a casual match. It doesn’t take magic to set a fire.

It takes magic to go from a flame to a furnace in a matter of minutes, especially in summer, with the rains,I say.

We all stare at one another. Jannik leaves his post with a sigh and goes to sit on one of the smaller couches, his head in his hands.

When do we need to be there?I hand Harun back his paper. He keeps looking at it, as if it will start spouting the answers to all his questions. Perhaps he is still trying to think of some way to do this and still stay safely here, far away from the Council of Lords who hate him and everything he stands for.

Soon.He frowns.We can’t run late. That bastard the Mata Blaine is still cock-strutting since his father’s death, trying to prove himself. He has a vicious temp–

The pain hits me in the back of my neck, needle teeth digging into the flesh, ragged nails scratching at my face. I shriek, and a dark boiling mass of magic engulfs me, sinks into me like a poison cloud. My organs are tearing out. This feels like Jannik’s magic, only instead of tearing uselessly at the walls and air, it is inside me like a living beast, and desperate for release.

The blackness surges back out of me and rips through the air, whirling me about in its wake. Whatever just poured through me, I have no more control over it than a sand-ghost. It slams into Merril, lifting him into the air and hammering him against the wall so hard I can hear bones crack.

Jannik is covered in blood, and utterly silent.

The magic dissipates as quickly as it appeared, and Merril’s body hits the ground with a thump.

What–says Harun then falls quiet.

Jannik and I are looking straight at each other and, for one fractured moment, I see both him the blood pouring from the bite on his neck and the long scratches down his face – and myselfpale with fright, untouched like a ghost image wavering over him. My eye is watering. I can still feel where one of Merril’s nails caught at the sensitive jelly of it.

My face goes gauzy, disappears and I see only Jannik.

Harun bellows for a servant to bring bandages and salt water to clean the wounds.

Are – youare you badly hurt?I don’t even know why I’m asking, I can still feel it.

What did you just do, Felicita?Jannik says, taking small even breaths between each word.

I have no ideatruly.But I think I do. That magic, that power that tore through me and unleashed my fear and anger on Merril. It was not an unfamiliar magicI am used to the touch of it on my skin, the energy of it changing the air of a room, infecting my mood.

You used me,Jannik says from between gritted teeth.Like a fucking spoon of powdered horn.

I did not. It was nothing like thatI had no intention of pulling Jannik’s magic from himindeed, I had no idea it was possible.I saved you,I say instead, and hammer the iron nails of my stupidity into his pride.

Servants enter the room; one with a basin of heated water, another carrying bandages. Jannik suffers them to wipe the blood away but won’t let them bind him. His anger and embarrassment cloud around him, so much so that is seems to me even the air in his corner of the room goes darker. But it is merely a trick of the light, the shadows stretching.

Well,says Harun, carefully not looking at Jannik. He walks over to the still body.At least you saved me the trouble of killing it.

Merril is dead. Hot tears gather in my eyes, threaten to go spilling over my face. I will not cry. He had been waiting, sly, waiting for a moment when we were not watching him. I hate him for attacking Jannik, for signing his own execution order. I hate him for what he made me do.

Just keep quiet, both of you,Jannik says, holding a wadded piece of raw silk to his neck.He’s faking.

Harun kicks the corpse, and Merril curls in on himself like a lizard in death throes.Not for long.

Wait,I say. Despite what just happened, I can’t bring myself to stand here and watch Harun kick the boy to death, or suffocate him with a pillow or whatever death he chooses for a punishment.

You must be joking,Harun practically spits at me.I warned you.

I can’t let you kill him, not even now.

Your damn female pity almost cost Jannik’s life, and if that doesn’t bother you, remember at least that his death is your own.

I stand straighter, hold my head higher.My damn female pity just gave us the sword to swing at Eline’s neck.

You can’t mean that,says Jannik.No.

What would you have me do? Go back to scriv, never touch you again? If I can – if you would just let me try this again – see if we can replicate it – then we will have a weapon.” And I know I could. It feels right, like my bones settling into place. The hollow places I used to fill with scriv are waiting. I know how to use magic, and I could use this.

I am not your hunting dog.

I sigh and press my hands to my head, trying to bring some semblance of calm back to me.Jannik, it is not always about the same thingcan’t you see this is something we can both use, we work together. We can refine it. If there’s a way for me to tap your magic then why should we waste that chance? The world has given us teeth, given us claws, don’t you see?

It’s Harun who speaks into the silence.Could we all do it, do you think?

I do not know.I don’t want to confess to him that I think it relies on the strength of the bond between partners, and that I have no idea exactly what has happened between him and Isidro.Perhaps, perhaps that is something you should look into.” After all, the more weapons we have, the better. A slow bubble of something giddy and wild rises in me. It’s not quite happiness, there’s something triumphant about it. Elation. I have never liked being powerless, and even now, with everything going wrong in every way possible, I am fiercely glad. If we have to go to our deaths, at least it won’t be cowering like the little mice I thought we were.

We will take as many of them with us as we can. The memory of Jannik’s magic ghosts through me, and I shiver in fearful delight.

Tie him up,Harun says, jerking his chin in Merril’s direction.You and I need to leave soon. We’ll deal with this when we come back–

Sir?A Hob girl is paused in the doorway, her hazel eyes wide.Master Gillcrook sent me, there’s a visitor for you downstairs. From House Eline.

Jannik pulls the cloth from his neck and looks at the crumpled crimson-stained silk.Shit.

How succinct.Harun marches to the doorway.Tell Master Gillcrook that I will be with my guest shortly.

She nods and goes off, leaving the three of us alone with Merril.

Well, it seems he’s simply decided to walk into my home,Harun says.No playing of games, no subterfuge.

How very unlike a Lammer.Jannik is edging toward Merril, who is now sobbing softly.Move, and I will be forced to hurt you,he says to the boy. He gathers the coiled ropes from the table and jerks Merril’s arms forward to bind his wrists. I must have really damaged him, because he does as he’s told, whimpering like a beaten dog.

When the boy vampire is firmly bound, Jannik stands, leaving him lying on the floor, his sides shaking.Well,Jannik says as he examines the blood on his hands.I’d like to speak to this guest of yours, myself.

We’re all going to confront him then. I feel security twisted with confusion. If Garret tries to hurt Jannik, I will be able to destroy him with magic. Even if he comes here to parley, perhaps I will tear him apart anyway, in payment for the things he’s done.

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