PROPOSALS

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18

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I‘m meeting Eline Garret in a set of comfortable offices on a tree-lined avenue on the Mallen side of the river. Everything about the area is lushly understated. The grandeur of the buildings is subtle, even the tree branches that meet overhead seem to have been pruned just so, to give them a look of effortless elegance.

A secretary leads me to a small waiting room lined with bookshelves and leaves me there to wait. A time piece ticks out the minutes, and I am brought a pot of tea to show me my place. Of course Garret will make me sit as long as possible. It’s traditional. All part of the bloodless war between the Houses.

Finally, the secretary beckons for me to follow him, and I am led through the wide hall ways, to a room with an empty desk set before vast floor to ceiling windows, the curtains swept back. The sun pours through the glass, silhouetting Garret in the centre. He keeps himself still for a moment, giving me ample opportunity to be awed by his presence, I suppose.

The room is heavy with scriv and I wonder what futures he was trying to predict, what paths he hopes to manipulate from this meeting. Saints leave nothing to chance.

I have to stand in one corner to be able to see him clearly against the glare. He’s a blond and neat man, with the fine features of his house. On the Eline women it makes them look fragile and small, on him it just looks foppish. Appearances are never to be trusted though, especially in Eline, with their Saints and their calculated coldness.

Pelim Felicita, I knew you’d come.Eline Garret greets me with almost suffocating warmth as he walks around from behind his desk. I manage not to roll my eyes. Oh he knew, did he? The man is a Saint, telling the futures with scriv, and like all those blessed with Sainthood, he is never able to let people go unreminded.

Perhaps he expects that I am so humbled by being allowed near him I will forget he sent me an invitation.

I take his outstretched hand. His grip is firm and hot, and he pumps my hand with a hearty viciousness before releasing me. He’s mocking my status as House head. Women don’t shake hands; women don’t attend business meetings with other House heads. My fingers feel like they’ve been crushed between two rocks but I pretend to feel nothing.

Well met, Eline Garret,I say, trying not to wince.And thank you for the invitation.

His upper lip twitches. Think nothing of it. Carien told me that you’d be worth the time, and I believe she was right.

I smile in cold politeness, and wait.

He eyes me slowly before he smiles back.I’m afraid I have never done this beforeconducted business with, well, with a woman. If I make some awful social gaffe I will expect your forgiveness.He’s trying to steer us into friendly waters, and I let myself be manoeuvred. There is still the prospect of doing what I can to raise my House, and to see what I can glean about the vampires.

I take my seat, and the glass of chilled wine he has brought for me, and I let my mask slip into blushing nervousness and idiot female trust. He laps up my gratefulness, my stammering admittance that I’m floundering in my new position.

Carien or one of her coterie would have seen through me in an instant. That is why Readers are always more dangerous than people realise. If Garret hadn’t underestimated me, he would have had a Reader here to watch me, to mark my weak spots.

He talks a lot, and I let him. The deals he’s offering are poor at best, but I nod and smile and exclaim my gratitude. Jannik will draw up counter-offers; I’m just the pretty face right now.

It takes vast reservoirs of self-control to not scoff openly at some of the things he suggests. Garret sees Pelim as a lame nilly – one they’re going to skin and quarter rather than help recover. Obviously, no one’s explained to House Eline exactly how dangerous we can be when pressed. Let him think what he wants. I’ll make sure my House comes out the betterthat’s after all, what House Pelim does. We rise from our battles, scarred and stronger.

Garret and I draw the meeting to a close, with promises of deals and mutual goals.I’m afraid that while I’d love to agree to everything that you’ve said,I say as I stand,I’ll have to get my husband’s signature for these.I tap at the binder on his desk.

For the first time in this meeting, Garret’s face betrays a flicker of irritation.I was led to believe you had autonomy.

Oh, oh I do, really. The bat merely has to make his mark.

Garret frowns. Whatever his Vision showed him about this meeting, it has betrayed him.

True pleasure lets my smile show more warmth than I’d previously allowed.It’s nothing,I assure him.He’ll sign where I point my finger.If I know Jannik, he’ll be reading through these and countering just about every point, shaking his head, and ranting about how people must think we’re idiots.

You’ve got him well trained, then.Garret winks at me.

Oh, definitely.

My wife finds them fascinating.

Really?

She’d love to meet it,he says.Perhaps you’d be willing to bring it out one day. A private dinner, nothing formal.

Oh.I take the binder and clutch it my chest in a perfect mimicry of indecision.II don’t know–

She did, after all, bully me into meeting with you. Think of it as reciprocation.

Well then,I say.I can hardly refuse.” There, we will be in the sphynx’s nest itself; at their own invitation. Surely if House Eline has anything to do with the deaths, they would not invite strangers into their home. Perhaps Carien and I may allow our awkward friendship to flourish. The smile I give him is the only sign of my victory.

* * *

Jannik is not happy. I almost expected him not to come tonight. We sit silently in the carriage as it clatters toward the Eline mansion. It’s close to the Mata palace, and like that quartzandglass monstrosity it is a layered fortress of glass turrets and spindle-thin walkways. The main trunk of the house is made from aventurine and it glitters grey and green. The glass towers are dark, almost black, although I can just make out the occasional smoky shape walking from place to place.

Serving Hobs take our coats and lead us to a room with cold, rough walls. The drabness makes an excellent foil for the many glass-work furnishings. Deep glittering colours twist and fold in on themselves; antiques by Defrin and Narlet are used here as casually as if they were the work of minor War-Singers. Narlet’s work has always left me uncomfortable, with its pointed spikes as wide a woman’s wrist. By all accounts he was a vicious man, and it shows in his work. They are like underwater forests of twisting blades.

They are also priceless.

Eline has money. I knew that, of course. Enough money to buy vampires and murder them for sport.

The servants bring us warmed wine flavoured with desert spices, then leave. Of Carien and Garret, our erstwhile hosts, there is no sign. The only other living thing in the room is a mountain mynah in a glass cage. The bird is as big as a rooster and watches us with its liquid black eyes. They are sometimes trained to talk, but this one says nothing.

Why exactly did you drag me out to this?Jannik sets down his wine glass on a blueandgreen table made to look like overlapping pieces of sky and sea. In the clear legs, tiny bubbled fossils are hidden; glass snails in cadmium coils, turquoise sanddragons, skeletal black leaves.

I don’t know if you should put your wine on that,I murmur, keeping my own glass clutched tight. I take a hesitant sip. It’s familiar, some Pelimburg vintage. It makes me think of my mother, and a sad clutching loss folds around my heart. I take a deeper drink to drown it.

You’re not answering the question.He stalks the room, pacing back and forth, stalling every now and again to squint at the details on some new piece.

You were invited.

How very unlikely,he snaps back.

I will not let him make me feel guilty. “House Eline are extending the hand of friendship. It would be churlish to refuse.

“And this has nothing to do with your-” He waves one hand vaguely.

I raise a brow. “My what?”

“Your thing, your whatever.”

“I have a great many things and whatevers,” I tell him, one corner of my mouth twitching. “Which one would this be?”

He pauses in his pacing to shoot me a particularly glaring scowl. “It’s very convenient that we receive an invitation now from one of the Houses on your little list. Stop scheming.”

“Me.” I widen my eyes. “Scheme? You wound me.”

“Or is this about the wife?” Jannik says.

“Perhaps,” I say, though I keep my tone guarded. Jannik is more perceptive than I would like. And he’s right. This is as much about her as it is about him. Carien is difficult for me to understand. There are moments when it feels like I could tell her everything; she is wild and unHouse-like, she is filled with a seething mockery of everyone’s status, including her own. And I don’t quite trust her. In that, I suppose, she is also like Dash.

Ah,says a man from the arched entranceway. Eline Garret.I’m so sorry to have kept you waiting.

It’s more probable that he kept us waiting on purpose, in order that we understood our place in this affair. After all, it seems to be Garret’s preferred tactic. He uses the same weapons and therein is his flaw.

I smile serenely.We hardly waited a moment,I say.And with such a fine collection to peruse, even a moment was too short a time.I take the smallest sip from my glass and watch Garret carefully.

He’s wearing Ives Blue and turquoise, and against them his pale hair looks almost silver and his eyes all the bluer.

Behind him Carien is standing like a scarlet shadow, her dress deeper than wine, her dark brown hair swept up. Ignore him,she says.It’s all part of the game.With that, she marches past her husband and takes my arm in hers.You look beautiful,she says. Before I can stutter a reply, she turns to Jannik, and smiles.And you, oh there has been so much talk of you.

Jannik takes a small step back. In his drab blacks and dark green neck tie, in his Pelimburg dullness, with his chalk skin and cave-black hair, he is a rumpled crow in a gathering of peacocks.

Did Felicita put my proposal to you? Her voice is light, bantering, but there’s a tightness around her eyes. They’re puffy, as if she has been crying. The powder she has used to cover her imperfections sits chalkily in the slight creases at the corners of her eyes.

Proposal?Jannik looks to me.Not that I’m aware of.

Really, Carien, allow our guests some reprieve from your idiotic hobbies.Garret smiles as he says this and Carien snaps back to heel.

We are offered more drinks and led to an intimate dining room. The food is excellent, and Jannik even does more than merely push his thin shavings of egret around his plate. Red egrets from the eastern parts of Oreyn – they must have been shipped here at great expense. People have tried to cultivate them here, but they stay sickly and die soon after, far from their tropical jungles.

There are other courses, each finer and more expensive than the last. No one mentions business or politics. Instead we stay on the safer ground of art and extravagance. There is a new opera that Garret wants to see, an artist he recommends for fine portraiture, an auction of glass-work from some minor House fallen on ill times, a play that has received glowing reviews. I might as well be reading the Courant, the talk is so banal.

And then Iynast. Garret dismisses his work with a sneer.Barbaric. The man can barely hold a brush,he says and stabs at his dessert.No better than the trite nonsense you manage to slap onto a canvas,he says, nodding at his wife.

She places her fork neatly down.You’ve been to the exhibition, then?

Hardly. I heard enough about it.

Ah.Carien glances at me. We’ve finished our meal. In a normal House this would be our cue to retire and leave the men to talk. I fumble with my napkin. Carien stands and walks away from the table.

I sit with Jannik and Garret, and the three of us stare uncertainly at one another.

Your wife needed your signature for some papers I had drawn up,Garret says.

A servant stealthily clears away the dishes, while another brings in a bottle of vai, and another of distilled wine. My cue to leave has long since passed. Am I supposed to now stay and watch over Jannik’s interaction with Garret as if he were a boy-child? If I stay, I humiliate him; if I leave, Gris knows what could happen.

The papers, yes.Jannik allows a serving Hob to pour him a snifter of the distilled wine.There are certain points we should discuss further.

I make my decision and exit as surreptitiously as I can. Jannik gives me a parting glance then continues talking to Garret. Their voices buzz into silence and I look for Carien.

She’s not in the ladies’ drawing room. A serving girl shows me the way to a glass balcony on the second level of the house. Carien is standing against the rails, her face to the night wind. Her hair has been pulled ragged by the breeze and flies about her head in a snaky confusion.You left them,she says.For a while there I thought you were going to hold his hand while Garret spoke with him.She laughs.Do you see him as a child? Or a trained beast?

Neither,I say, too quickly.

She doesn’t turn to look at me and the silence between us is torn at by the rising wind.

For all you know now, Garret could be slitting his throat.Her voice is thick with unhappy laughter.Or perhaps he will try to seduce it.

I swallow, waiting for her to face me.Is he likely to do either of those to a guest?I am trying desperately to keep my voice light, to treat her comments like a joke.Parties here must be extremely interesting.

Her one hand tightens on the smoky amber glass of the railing.I need a smoke.She releases the balcony rail and turns to me. In her other hand is a loosely-rolled ‘grit. Carien fumbles in a small beaded purse for matches and cups her hand carefully around her prize. The flame dances up, making her face glow. Then it’s snuffed.

She inhales.Gris.Her voice is thick.

The smell of poisonink, musty and so clearly remembered, drifts toward me.You’re not well,I say softly. It’s not a question. Her careful powder has been washed away by tears and her eyes are red-rimmed.

She laughs once, a quick bark of despair.Something like that.She takes a long drag of her ‘grit then lets the smoke curl around her face, hiding her.I’ve had some rather bad news.

I wait for her to talk. It’s a method that I learned from my brother; letting people fill the silences with their secrets.

I’m pregnant,she says, after the paper twist has burned down to her fingers and all that is left of her poisonink is ash blown on the wind.

What am I supposed to say to that? Why tell me, of all people, when she has her cabal of House friends to share this with? “Garret must be pleased.

She sniffs.I haven’t told him.Carien turns to look at me, and there it is again, that blazing fierceness in her eyes, like the amber is lit by suns inside her mind. That intensity. That anger.I don’t want it. I’m not like them.

Like the House ladies who do their duty and breed more children to build their lines stronger. At the end, she has discovered the things that bind her to her companions are not the ties she wants. I suppose she thinks we have more in common, because I did not do what was expected of me. But I am not her and the roads we walk are too different.

What can I say to her that others will not? The Hobs have herbs they take, but they are dangerous. Sometimes they kill the baby, to be sure. Other times the dam. And then there are those unlucky women who take them and carry a monster to term. Still, perhaps she will find the prospect of an open gate a comfort. I edge closer to her.There are infusions.

Hah!Her fingers clench closed and open again like the wings of butterflies.Tried them. They only work sometimes.” She must have been desperate.

A sudden want shivers through me. Her belly is still flat; the little life inside it nothing more than the smallest scrap of flesh. It could die now, tomorrow. It is already unwanted. And I wish there were a way for me to magic it some place safer. I stare at the flat panels of my dress, at my own stomach.

Ridiculous.

So what will you do now?I ask her softly.

She looks down over the edge of the balcony, to the gravel drive and the herbal borders.I don’t know.Her voice is so small and lost. I want her to be fierce again.

Come.I touch her shoulder and coax her closer to me. Nothing I can say now will take this away from her, and it would be callous to lie to her about how wonderful her life will be, how much she will love her unwanted child. “Let me speak to Jannik about sitting for you. I’m certain they are done talking now.

Carien nods, her face subdued. “What would you do, if it was you?”

“I–” Any answer I give her will hurt. “You know,” I say. “When last I didn’t want something I ran from it.” I do not smile. “In the end, I ran a small tight circle.” There, it is as much truth as I have ever given someone.

“Would you do it again?” She frowns at the little twist of paper between her fingers. The coal has burned out, dead.

I think of what would have happened if I’d stayed, if I’d done what I was told. My brother would be alive; I would be married into House Canroth and playing the dutiful wife. I would still live in my beautiful Pelimburg, by the endless sea. I would not have met Jannik, and tied myself to an empty marriage so I could save a little face. “Yes,” I say. “And again, and again.”

Saying it makes me realize how true it is. A guilty heat flares up in my chest. It makes me feel strangely angry. And relieved. At least I did the right thing, even if it seems horribly wrong. I did the right thing and I hurt so many people, but at least it was not for nothing. I might not be where I wanted to be, but at least I found a different future to the one I ran from. At least, at least, at least. These are the little things I will cling to.

I try picture myself in Pelimburg again, meek wife to Canroth Piers, doing my duty. No, thank you.

Carien stares at me, the cigarette dying in her fingers. “You should know,she says in a dull, flat tone,that Garret is taking a proposal before the Mata council this week.

A proposal?

To have the bats’ status revoked to that of lesser magical creatures.

I freeze.You’re quite certain?If that happens, and the Mata and the Council of Lords agree, Jannik will have no more rights than a sphynx or a unicorn. He will officially be an animal. I try swallow but my mouth has gone dry. The Houses organize great hunting parties to go into the desert after the sphynxes, they make coats from their fur and buttons from their teeth and they mount their heads on walls.

What then would they do to the vampires – use their skin to bind books, bead dresses with their sharp teeth? MallenIve is a barbarous city, the people here would find it amusing to make lyres from the vampires bones and string them with their dark hair.

My eyes start to burn, I always cry when I am frightened. “They can’t do that,I say.The freed Houses will fight it, surely.

Carien answers me with empty eyes, as if she has no idea what I’m talking about.It’s time we joined the men for drinks.She walks past me, her crimson dress a dull gleam against the dark glass.

* * *

We leave the Eline house quiet. Jannik is deep in thought.

Did he make the changes you wanted?I point to the leather case at his feet.

Hmm? Oh.He looks blankly at the case.Some of them.

Did he– did he say anything to you about a meeting with House Mata this week?

Jannik frowns.No. Why would he discuss his personal affairs with me?

Why indeed.Perhaps because they concern you.

And just how would a meeting between Mata and Eline have anything to do with me?

“Carien told me that House Eline are going to push for the vampires to have the same status as sphynxes.” I cannot bring myself to look at him as I say the words. He doesn’t respond, and finally I raise my head. “Jannik, did you hear me?”

He stares out the window in silence.

“They are going to take away what little you have left. And it won’t just be House Eline – House Mata will be sure to agree, and there will be others supporting the move. Jannik – they’re going to make you into an animal.”

And like that, with just those words, I see Jannik defeated. He slumps back and covers his face with his hands.Shit.The word is muffled. He drags his hands down his face and stares at me.You’re quite sure she wasn’t lying?

Of course I can’t be sure, but I think she was paying me for my little moment of honesty. I think it was a gesture of her friendship.I trust her word on this.

Shit.” He raps for the driver to stop.

The nillies clatter their hooves against the stones, and the carriage jerks and stills. A moment later, the door opens and the driver peers in.Sir?

Make a stop at House Guyin before seeing the lady home.”

When the door has closed again and we are wrapped in our privacy I manage to unclench my fingers and my jaw.Why?

House Guyin?He doesn’t look at me.I need to speak to Isidro.

The damnable Isidro, with his perfect face and otherworldly beauty.And what good will he do?I manage. “Will he gather all the whores of MallenIve to march on the Mata palace?

Jannik finally looks properly at me.Do you think this law will matter only to me? That I will be the only one affected by itthat you,and he spits the word at me,will be the only who hurts?”

I don’t–

Or rather, not hurtswhat was I thinking that your status will be ruined.

Shut up.

He stills, but his mouth is curled in a snarl.

You do not know me at all,I tell him. The carriage follows the curves of a sweeping road, takes another turn, and finally draws to a halt. Outside the thick glass I can make out the drab pale face of the Guyin buildings.You know nothing of what I think or feel.

The night air is sweltering, and it’s hard to breathe. I feel like I’m drowning.

Jannik steps down from the carriage.Because you do not let me. It’s not the hound’s place to know its master’s mind, only his laws.” He turns and walks away before I can think of a single thing to say back to him.

Inside I am breaking apart. If it’s true that Jannik does not know me, then the far greater truth is that I barely know the smallest thing about myself. I have been too long denying my wants.

We had a conversation once, both of us in his room, when we were just beginning our friendship. We were talking of children, and he laughed at me when I said I wanted a whole brood of them.Like a litter of dogs,he’d said. But he hadn’t been mocking me, I’d amused him.

Everything about him reminded me of what I had left behind, and I think I hated him a little for that. Hated that I had run and he hadn’t. I slept next to him that night and woke before he did, and I’d watched him. He was clever and he was a contradiction; well-bred and yet lower than dirt, but in sleep none of that mattered. I could look at him and see not a collection of my own prejudices but a boy with hair like spilled ink, a poet and a game piece.

I think I came to a realization that morning, but I didn’t want to face it then. How strange now to find myself in love with my husband. After everything we have been to each other, I did not think there was space in our hearts for this.

Perhaps I am ready to face it. And perhaps my courage has come too late.

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