PRETTY COLLARS

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16

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Tell me about the wray your mother recovered.We’re walking up the wide steps to Harun’s door. The marble planters on either side have been left to dry in the sun, the plants desiccated and given over to weeds. At least this time there are no scrawled obscenities, no hurled excrement. “Not all of them were bought out from the rookeries, I take it?

Jannik pauses before the door, but doesn’t touch the brass knocker.She stopped all that when I was still very young. There’s little I remember.

Were they runaways?

Some of them, I suppose.

So what Houses did they run from?

He’s being purposefully sulky and unresponsive, as if I am somehow to blame for his infidelity and it’s beginning to wear on my nerves.

Mata,he says, finally.

I raise one brow.They kept their own–I’m about to say whores, before I remember that the Houses who like to keep vampires mostly use them as untouchablesthe servants who do the most revolting work.I see. Only them?

Eline.

Of course.

There were others, I can’t remember them all. I told you, I was young.

Rutherook? Yew? Karin?I name the Houses on the piece of paper I was given by the Splinterfist head. They’re minor Houses at best, and although she implied they’d bought wray from her, I find that hard to believe. Even a single vampire is an expensive thing to own. They wouldn’t be killing them as casually as if they were merely nillies.

I don’t remember!He pounds the brass knocker.

Nillies. The unicorns we’ve de-horned and made magicless. We use their horns as a replacement for scriv, we use it for the rush. My mind goes back to my first meeting with Carien, and her talk of sudors, of the magic inside vampires.

Who’s to say there isn’t more to it, that the magic doesn’t run deeper? That’s what she said, and since that night I’ve listened and read more, Jannik and I have discussed their business proposals and looked into their successes and losses. I know about House Eline’s rivalry with House Ives, and their failed attempt to breed horned unicorns.

It’s Garret, it must be. How much cheaper would it be if instead of having to buy wray from the rookeries, Garret could set up breeding programs like House Ives has done with the unicorns? It would take years to buy the right stock, but once he had enough of them, breeding magic lines to magic lines like Ives does with unicorns. If he could convince the Houses that the vampires could be another replacement for scriv, he’d have cornered a market.

But Garret would need females, and the vampire feyn are powerful and few. My mind rushes from one thought to the next, trying to find a true path.

The door flings open, and Isidro scowls down at us.Why are you here?

Could House Eline ever get hold of a feynbuy one from the rookeries?I ask in a breathless rush.More than one, manyand how much would they have to pay for them?

Both vampires look at me as if I had just vomited all over their starched shirts.Is she actually insane, or is she merely trying to insult us?Isidro says to Jannik.

But is it possible?” I hope desperately to be wrong, that I can simply abandon this line of thinking. It is too awful and ugly to be possible. “Please – I need to know.”

Isidro stares at me, his eyes narrowed.You’d best come inside.His reluctance is palpable.Stay out of Harun’s way,he adds to Jannik, who merely nods silently. “In here.

He seats us in the garden parlour. Sunlight falls through the long curtains that cover the glass doors leading out to the garden steps. I think of the last time I pushed open that doors and walked that dew-wet garden, all its twists and turns that led me only to a small play that I had no right to view.

Isidro is staring at Jannik, who is doing his best to study one knee of his black trousers. It hits me that I am standing here again as nothing more than an observer to their play. Only this time I am a known factor, and they have to pretend to be nothing to each other. It throws me from the desperate fear of my realization to an anger brittle with tears, then back again. I vacillate between the two extremes until I am sure that at any moment I am going to simply kneel on the floor and cover my head while I sob from the sheer overwhelming horribleness of it all. Probably, Isidro would find it amusing, so I stand very still and very solemn.

I suppose you want wine,Isidro snaps. He’s talking to me, though his gaze has not shifted.Don’t expect me to play servants to you like Harun does.

At the name, Jannik’s head dips. Just the smallest jerk. Good. Let him feel guilty.

I want nothing.I make the words come out calm and cool.

Isidro just snorts in humourless irritation. He leans back against a small table, his long fingers tapping against the brass edging.Tell me what nonsense you’ve come up with this time, Pelim.Finally, he has managed to tear his gaze away from Jannik, who is still doing his level best to pretend he is not in this house, and look at me directly.

You’re–I pause, uncertain. While it is the gossip that Isidro was a Splinterfist whore who somehow trapped the Lord Guyin Apparent, no one has ever actually come out and said this to either of their faces.

I’m?Isidro mocks back.

Acquainted with the rookeries.”

He stops tapping.Say what you mean to say.

If anyone here would know if a House had bought feyn, it would be you.

Feyn are not sold,” Isidro hisses at me. He turns to Jannik,Explain this to her. You seem to speak her particular language of ignorance.

“I’m not a fool,” I say to Isidro, “I realize what I’m saying, believe me, I’ve met Jannik’s mother, I know you all worship the bloody ground the feyn walk on.”

“With good reason,” Jannik mutters.

“Because she’s powerful. I get it. She’s also a sadistic bitch.”

Jannik swallows a nervous laugh, and jerks his head up. He looks from me to Isidro, half in panic. Then he sighs and drops his head into his hands. “Felicita’s right. And she wouldn’t be asking if she didn’t think it was important.

Look,I say.I’ve not yet met Glassclaw or Fallingmirror, but I have had the circumstance to meet with the head of the Splinterfist. What I want to know is would you trust any of them to not sell a feyn to a buyer, were the price right?

Riam Splinterfist would sell her own children if the price were right, twice if she could see a way to do it, so yes,Isidro says softly,I believe she would sell another feyn, if enough coin were offered. Why do you want to know this?

“Because I believe that as soon as he gets the Mata to change your status, Eline Garret would set up a breeding program using the feyn and as many wray as he could buy. He would mate them like animals. There would be an excess of wray born, and Gris alone knows how long he would let them live before slaughtering them for bones and teeth and whatever else he thinks will be useful.

I did not realize it was physically possible for vampires to look paler than they already are. Their needling game of abnegation and confrontation is forgotten.

I push on, needing to make certain that they see just how real this could be. “A whole unicorn horn fetches at least one silver, what then would the skull of a bat be worth?” I spit that word at them, reminding them that the rest of this city will not see them as anything more than monsters.

Jannik puts his hand on my arm, an absent-minded gesture. Heat rushes from his palm through my skin, and a shiver of magic flows with it.

I keep still as a lizard on a rock, hoping he does not notice what he’s done. This, this is what the Houses want, and Gris be damned but I want it too.

Could she – that’s – is it possible?” Jannik asks Isidro, who is looking more and more distressed. His fingers curl and uncurl, and a faint sheen of sweat dews his skin.

Before Isidro can answer, the door to the parlour slams open and Harun stalks into the room. He’s rumpled, his hair is unbrushed and he’s dirty. Even his coat is dull with neglect.You’re worried about something,he says, ignoring Jannik and myself as completely as if we were merely part of his undusted furniture.

It takes me a moment to realize what he means, until I remember Dash and Jannik, and the way they were on the verge of thinking each other’s thoughts; how Jannik could feel Dash’s terror, and his pain. The bond, of course. Jannik and Dash hadn’t even had a real bond, whereas Isidro and Harun have had years to grow this thing between them. I shudder delicately. Horrifying, the thought of being trapped feeling another person’s every mood. How do they lie, even gently and to save each other?

Perhaps.Isidro inclines his head.

Not perhaps. Do you think I couldn’t possibly feel this? It’s not as if I miss anything else.” Harun punctuates his final words with a passing glare at Jannik, who pulls his hand from my arm as if he’s been stung.

The connection of his magic breaks abruptly. Harun.” Jannik stands and takes several steps away from where I’m seated.We’re sorry to trouble you this evening, but if what Felicita is saying is true, then we may have a greater problem to face than we had originally feared–

You are far from welcome in my house,Harun says.

Jannik doesn’t respond.

Lady Pelim,Harun snaps.A word in private.” But he won’t even look at me, just stares at these two betrayers as if he’s daring them to do something right in front of him, and confirm what he already knows.

The two vampires exchange glances, and I sigh. I don’t need Harun’s anger on top of my own. Let the vampires do as they please. He should do what I do and learn to slip all his emotions under layers and layers of nothingness until they are barely there at all. Or perhaps that is a skill only women are taught. I stand, flicking my skirt as I do.If you must, sir.

Harun holds open the door and waits for me to exit before he follows. His presence behind is looming, foreboding and I feel like I’m being stalked by a feral dog that could turn on me at any moment. That cold dry snake is back in my belly, coiling and uncurling. I feel ill.

We make our way to the formal lounge at the very front of the house.I still have premonitions, you know,he says after a few minutes of uncomfortable silence. House Guyin was a House full of Saints, and their precious lost heir was one too. He shouldn’t still be.

Without scriv? I had no idea that was possible.

Harun snorts and goes to pour himself a drink.They’re not real futures,he says.Just bad dreams, warnings.

Were we to take every bad dream as a prophecy then what use would we have for Saints?I murmur.

He scowls.They’re about Isidro.

And because of this you need to talk privately with me? Surely I am the wrong person to be addressing with your fears?

And Jannik.He can barely say the name.

I draw myself straighter, keep my breathing even.

Something’s going to happen, because of themto them.He fists one hand in his curling hair.I don’t know.

“Isidro’s spoken to you about the Lord’s Council,” I say.

He nods.

“There’s your disaster. But it won’t happen, both our Houses will vote against the motion, and it will not be passed.” I bolster my uncertainty.

Harun keeps glaring at me. “Felicita. Who’s the representative of House Pelim in MallenIve?

Oh. It would be Jannik.

Who happens to be a fucking bat and therefore cannot vote in the Lord’s Council. Especially over a matter that would condemn him to the status of an animal. Againwho is House Pelim’s representative?

It seems the duty will fall to me.I have never taken part in MallenIve’s councilan assemblage of High Houses who decide the fate of the city’s people. In Pelimburg the oligarchy is effectively three Houses, but here in MallenIve, they follow House Mata’s lead, who is in turn tempered by his peers. A complicated system, and one prone to corruption.

And laziness. More than half the lords don’t bother to show for the councils, and when they do, they sleep or make mercenary deals through the proceedings.

“I will be there,” I say. “You can be certain of that. Nothing will happen to them.”

There’s more, of course. Harun forces his next words out, and even I can hear how they tear at his layers of House armour. “Good. Until – until then, you are to keep your – him – away from us – from Isidro.” As if that will somehow snap through the knots they’ve tied.

I stare at him, this spoiled House man who orders me around, who thinks to order my family around through me.Jannik is not mine to command,I tell him.Perhaps you have forgotten that.He is like the rest of them, always thinking that they own all women, and that we should run at their commands like well-trained pups. It’s time for us to leave. House Guyin may be our only friends in this stinking mess of a city, but they are not worth it. Right now I’m feeling less-than charitable to Jannik, but that doesn’t mean that it will be his fault if Guyin’s pathetic little outcast world comes crumbling down about his ears. “Perhaps it would be best if when next we have the misfortune to meet, you keep your vague accusations to yourself.

You’re an idiot,he snarls.I’m warning you too, unless you want your husband dead. Not, I suppose, that it matters much to you. It’s not just the council. Something is coming for us, for all of MallenIve, and we’re involved.

We?The idea is preposterous. Perhaps the taint of insanity in all the Saints has finally claimed Harun.

You and I, and the vampires.The brooding scowl of his switches to a flicker of worry.I don’t know; it’s to do with magic, and with us.” He’s barely making sense.

I back away from him, just the slightest, and rest one hand on the cold brass of the handle.We have no magic, Guyin. Lest you forget. We traded it for–Not for love, maybe for something else. I no longer know.Keep your dreams to yourself.” I glance through the long crack of the open door, ready to run from whatever nightmares he thinks to frighten me with. But we do have magic, I can’t help but think. We do. We are married to magic, like it or not.

All I’m telling you is that there is a black future coming for us, and I cannot see the shape of it.

So take scriv,I tell him before I close the door on his sweating face.

* * *

We need to leave,I say to Jannik. We still need to talk to Harun and Isidro about House Eline, but I am rattled by Harun’s mood, by the thing between Jannik and Isidro that I do not want to face whatever I tell myself. Let me get my thoughts back in order and I will approach them again. Despite Harun’s warning, I must come back and convince him to discuss this with me, and we will have to make plans. Either to leave, or to bring down House Eline before they can make their move. Before they can convince the other Houses to pass their new laws. Even if Harun hates us, he will have to work with us to keep his partner safe.

Jannik and Isidro are sitting next to each other, talking in stalled silences. Jannik manages to look a tired combination of guilty and resigned. He’s given up on whatever it is he wanted.If you say so,he says dully.What about–

Harun’s delusional.I spare Isidro a withering glance, but the bastard just grins back at me, as if he is completely devoid of any emotion. Something makes me pause thougha flicker of uncertainty in those indigo eyes, the faintest shiver as he keeps himself from sliding his third eyelids across. Perhaps he is not as unfeeling as I suspected, but, like me, has merely learned to always keep his mask in place, and to never show anyone what he’s truly thinking.

The idea that Isidro and I are alike in some way is disconcerting. I run from the idea, but when I speak, my voice is softer, gentler even – if one knew me well enough to pick up the change.Isidro, we’ll see ourselves out. I believe Harun needs you.

Isidro doesn’t answer, not at first, then he takes a sharp breath.Don’t tell me what I already know,he says, and before I can say anything back, he storms from the room, leaving Jannik and I alone together.

What if a sliver of truth lies under Harun’s madness? We already know this city is a canker that infects and destroys. Vampires are dead for no other reason than that they were vampires. I don’t need a drunken Saint to tell me Jannik isn’t safe in this city. But what if there’s more to it, a very personal danger? One that we could avoid, were we to know its form.

Eline Garret is just one man. One powerful man in a city maggoty with them. I can keep Jannik from him. There is still scriv, and unicorn horn is a poor substitute. Perhaps I am simply inventing problems and dangers where there are none.

There were other names on that list, not just Eline’s. My eyes begin to smart. What am I to doset a servant to dog Jannik’s heels and report on his every step so that I can rush in like a crow to gather him up if he’s ever caught? Jannik’s right about me sometimes. I don’t know what I want. I treat him like a wild thing on a leash.

I’m only doing it for his own good.

Your justification has always been amusing, Owen says. But now you’ve finally reached a level so pathetic even I can’t enjoy it any more.

I hate it when my dead brother is right about me.

Jannik and I go back to the carriage in silence, each of us knitted up in our own thick and gloomy thoughts. Inside the small compartment, the air is choked with thoughts of drowning. The space is too small between us, too small to hold all the things we refuse to say to each other.

Keep quiet, I say in my head, over and over. Keep quiet. I don’t even know if I’m talking to myself or my brother’s memory or just some implacable future I can’t escapea black monster waiting for me. All I know is I am sick of being trapped. I’ve spent most of my life lying to myself, wishing for something other than what I had. Why I could never just be happy with what I was given, I don’t understand. Perhaps I was spoiled so badly I will never come right again; all my fruits will be rotten, every word that drops from my tongue a poisoned leaf.

I don’t want Jannik, do I? So why am I jealous of the way he has allowed himself to be ensnared by Isidro? Does Jannik turn to him because I am too awful a person to even consider? What, after all, do I have to offer? I can draw a list of my flaws: I am cold, I am fickle, there is blood on my hands. I am a coward. How many people suffered and died because I didn’t choose to let myself die in my brother’s place? I can tell myself all the lies I wantabout how everything was Dash’s fault, and that he’s the one to blame. But he would never have had a War-Singer in his palm to do with what he wanted if I hadn’t run away. If I hadn’t thought myself in love with him.

What kind of desperate shallow little fool is so easy to manipulate?

My brother’s ghost laughs.

Keep quiet.

What right do I have to be angry if Jannik chooses to take his needs and affections elsewhere? After all, when we arrived in MallenIve I made it plain that Jannik and I would lead separate lives. He would have his space and I mine. We could do what we wanted provided we kept our affairs decorously under wraps. There could be no more hint of scandal associated with the Pelim name.

I assumed he took Hobs, and somehow that didn’t hurt.

So why this?

Perhaps I am scared of him falling in love.

We are halfway through the city now, and we have not spoken. The memory of Jannik and Isidro kissing under the pergola, wreathed in the shadows of vines, has snared itself in my head and I cannot shake it loose.Harun does not like you,I say. Keep quiet.

Jannik starts then flicks his fingers across the edges of the seat. He’s carefully keeping himself from looking directly at me, focusing rather on his faithless hands.So it seems.

It’s too late now. Speaking when I should have stayed silent is like tipping over a bottle of ink. There’s no way to mop up the spreading stain, to put the ink away and pretend no mess was made.Such a very personal dislike.

This makes him pause and glance up.What do you know?He isn’t angry or shocked. The resignation colours his voice ivory and grey like a calm sea in winter.

A little.A sharp pain passes through my chest, and I suck in a quick breath. I hadn’t expected to feel so much hurt.Enough.

He looks at me for a long time and for a change, his eyes are uncovered. It doesn’t feel naked or vulnerable, and I realize he’s finally learned to cut me off.I was discreet.

Here is the truth, admitted out loud and not just a whispering of offerings and promises overheard in the night. I’m falling down a vast emptiness, and all around me is darkness and a cold heat. I am swallowed by jealousy.He’s–The words seem to be impossible to find, and I talk slowly, softly. My voice is made faint by the distance between us. We are a hand-span apart. We are worlds away.

Keep quiet. Stop talking. “Married.

Jannik shrugs.So, apparently, are we.

But they’re different, I want to shout at him. They’re together, properly. Not like us. We have our own rooms, separate lives that intersect only at fixed points in the day. Did he want love so much that he would break others to take itis he like mecruel and heartless?

I can’t even ask Jannik why he chose the way he did. Isidro is beautiful and broken, trapped in that mausoleum of a house with the drunkard Harun as his only company. I picture again their hands on each other, their white skins in the darkness, hair brushing cheeks, painting shadows. My fingers clench in the folds of my dress. How far did it go?

Did you feed off him?Once the words are said, I can’t believe I asked it. Especially now that I understand the intimacy that repeated act implies. No wonder Harun appears to be going insaneif he feels each second-hand kiss, if he knows the taste of Jannik’s skin through a filtered desire.

Even Jannik looks pained.No. Of course not.

I don’t believe him. I want to believe him.You fed off me once.Off Dash too, although some last vestige of empathy makes me keep this weapon sheathed. Perhaps I can start a new list, one detailing my good points – “Not That Cruel” could be at the top of it.

The white eyelids slide across. Good. This is a Jannik I can deal with. Off-balance, confused. His voice betrays nothing more.So I did. Are you offering again?

Of course not!

He smiles.Then why bring it up?

Why indeed. His face is a pale curve in the interior gloom of the carriage, and I study him. Not as pretty as the damnable Isidro, but he has a charm that is his own. He takes a deep breath, and I think he is about to tell me something important. Something perhaps, that I do not want to hear. I want to stop him, and I hold up one hand. Keep quiet.

He leans forward; his own hand coming up as if to meet mine, and I still, my breathing rapid and nervous.It’s skew,he says.

What?

He gestures again.Your necklace. It’s crooked.

Oh.I drop my hand.

I can feel it now, how the weight of it is wrong and the pendant has worked to the left. Off-balance.Straighten it.

He blinks.

Heat surges under my skin, embarrassment and fear and longing and hatred. I don’t even know who it is I hate. Him? Isidro? Myself? My skin is sticky and prickly and now I want to vomit.

Jannik reaches out, and his fingers brush my throat as he sets the necklace straight. His magic flutters against my skin, trailing kisses.

Thank you,I say, when he pulls away from me.

He looks uncertain.You’re welcome.

The carriage swings around a hair-pin turn, and we are thrown a little in our seats.

Off-balance again.

This time the thought leaves me almost happy.

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