The house on Ivy is still standing.
“Well that’s a good sign.” I look up at the wide, darkened windows. “I suppose.”
Jannik gives me a dubious glance before climbing the wide stairs and rapping the brass knocker several times. The thuds have barely died away when Isidro opens for us.
He looks dreadful – panicked and sweaty, and even his cold beauty can’t hold up under his obvious fear. While he’s not spent the night putting out the flames on his own home, he somehow manages to look worse than Jannik and I combined. His flawless mask finally crumbling.
“What’s going on?” Jannik asks as he pushes quickly inside. I follow on his heels.
Isidro closes the door on us and fumbles with the key, locking out the last of the afternoon sun. “Harun.” His voice is thick, raw.
Unwanted pity clouds me before I can shake it off. Whatever is going on, it doesn’t change the fact that Isidro is not someone I like. I breathe deeply, taste citrus in the back of my throat, and my heart hammers faster.
From the first sitting room comes a slurred bellow. “Isidro, who’ve you let in to the house? I told you I didn’t need a physician.”
Jannik and I exchange looks, and Jannik gnaws at his lower lip. He grabs Isidro’s arm and pulls him closer. “What,” he whispers again, “is going on?”
“Scriv,” I say.
Both of them freeze. Isidro swallows. “How–”
“The smell.” The house reeks of it, and it’s growing stronger as I stand here. It pulls at me, vile as it is, taunting me with the memory of what I could be. Why did I even stop – it’s not as if Jannik and I are physically close. I could take it again and it would do him no harm. I would be powerful. Dash is dead, and that day on the Casabi is just another horrible memory in a long string of horrible memories. Stop it, Felicita.
“Harun?” I call out. “Are you well?” Isidro dogs me as I make my way through to the sitting room. Might as well see what he can tell me. “I thought he no longer used-”
“He’s trying for a seven-fold reading,” Isidro interrupts.
No. Only an utter fool- I jerk still as I process this unlikely statement, then dash through to the room. The smell of citrus here is so strong it makes me dizzy, nauseated. Desperate. It shoves all thoughts of the dead out of my mind, fills me up with need instead.
On the tea-table is a beautiful formal scriv-silver – a mirror with markings for readings and equivalent dosage measurements. It’s empty but for a residue of powder so faint it does nothing more than haze the scriv-silver’s surface. “Seven?” I yell at Harun, who is lying on the floor, on his back, his arms stretched out and his knees drawn up. “Are you out of your pathetic little mind?” I think of the family histories I had to memorize as a child, and the names with the small black circle beneath them – dead from overdose.
“Done it before,” he slurs. His eyes are vacant; seeing a room, a time, that is not this one.
The other two have entered and they block the door, watching me as I crouch next to Harun’s prone figure. He’s breathing erratically, his chest jerking. His eyes have rolled up so that all I can see is the whites, and it is so eerily vampire-like it turns my stomach. “Harun?” I press my hand to his neck, feel the pulse thrumming like an insect’s wing.
He’s not answering me now – too far gone into whatever future he’s trying for. Gris-damn Saints and their delusions. He should have stuck with nightmares. A seven-fold reading can kill – no one risks it. Seven lines of scriv, each taken at a minute interval. Not only is it a costly endeavour, there’s also a chance that survivors could suffer mental and physical damage.
“This wasn’t what I meant, you fool,” I whisper to him. I told him to take scriv but I hardly thought that he would. It was a throw-away comment, meant to needle, not to stab. He could die. He will die, unless he is luckier than I have ever imagined. My throat fills with bile. This cannot be happening, not after the horror of last night. I am dressed in my own loss, and now this.
Gently, I shake at Harun’s shoulder, but there’s no response. “Isidro.” I force the name out, still not wanting to deal with his claim on Jannik. “He says he’s done this before?”
The vampire shakes his head. “He never told me anything about it.”
“Secrets all round, then?” I say archly. It’s the only way I can stop myself from collapsing, by resorting to these little farces and social games. “Help me move him.”
Jannik also comes forward, and together we manoeuvre Harun off the floor and onto the longest of the couches. Just as we set him down, Harun gasps, his eyes rolling back into place. He grabs at Isidro, catching his collar.
Isidro goes still, waiting.
We all do.
Harun’s eyes are wide black pits, staring into Isidro’s face.
We need to stay calm around him, I don’t want anything to trigger a fit. “What do you see?” I ask Harun quietly.
When he answers, his voice is soft. He sounds more like he’s mulling over some puzzle than actually answering my question. “A small room,” he says. “A tower room, eight-sided, with narrow windows. It’s empty except for a desk. On the desk is a leather-bound book, like a ledger. Instead of words, the book is filled with keys. A woman in red is dangling a baby – her own, I think – over the ledger, she’s holding it by one ankle and shaking it. With each shake, it spits copper coins over the pages and the room is beginning to fill with money-”
Isidro pulls out of his grasp, shaking. “Is there a way to break him out of it?”
“No. We wait, and we hope.”
“A war,” Harun says then shakes his head viciously. “No, no, no – jumped too far ahead. I’ve seen this. I want where it starts.”
“He’s not making any sense,” Isidro says.
“More fool you for expecting anything else from a Saint.”
“Send a message to a physician then.” He looks past me, at Jannik. “Please.”
I want to tell Isidro that a doctor will make no difference, but the words are jammed up so tight I can’t even swallow. Jannik touches my shoulder, urging me to follow him out.
As soon as we’re alone in the next room with the doors shut behind us, I turn on Jannik. “There’s no point.”
“Why didn’t you tell him that?”
“Do you think he wanted to hear it – Harun will live or he will die, and no practitioner of medical alchemy is going to change that.”
A shout interrupts our whispered argument. We turn as one, running back into the room.
Harun is standing, swaying drunkenly, his eyes filled with rage. Whatever he saw it didn’t bode well for Isidro, who is pressed against the wall, one hand at his cheek. A weal of blisters spreads across his skin. A single strike, and there was enough scriv in Harun’s veins that it could affect Isidro so badly.
The vampire’s breath is whistling and laboured. There is danger in this room. Not just the threat of Harun’s overdose, but that he could do real damage to Jannik too if he wanted to. If he saw something he didn’t like.
I drag Isidro away from the wall and shove him toward the door. “Get him out of here,” I say to Jannik. “Upstairs, see if you can find something to treat the blisters.”
“I’ll be fine. Oddly, I’m not allergic to scriv,” I say. Fear is making me acid. Get out of the room, I want to scream, but I don’t have to. Jannik understands.
When the two of them are gone, I close the door that leads to the rest of the house and make me way slowly toward Harun. He’s hanging onto the mantelpiece now, barely able to keep himself upright. “Lie down,” I tell him. “Or fall down, whatever suits you. One’s bound to be less painful.”
“And you care about my well-being?” He laughs hollowly.
I’ve never dealt with someone who has taken this much scriv before. My childhood best-friend was a Saint, but like all women, she was restricted in her consumption of the drug. But I have heard enough gossip to know that an overdose is ugly and painful and protracted. “Not particularly, but I’ve no desire to mop up the blood when you crack open your skull.” It will do no good to worry Harun unduly with my fears.
He lets go and crumples to his knees, then wavers there a moment before collapsing gracelessly.
I watch him for a while, but he shows no sign of moving. Not even to roll away from the mess of ash and soot from the dead hearth. “Harun?”
He says nothing, and I lift my skirts and step up alongside him before crouching. At least he’s still breathing. Carefully, I turn his head to the side. Harun’s eyes are wide-open, glazed and unfocused. I snap my fingers, and he blinks, the pupils going pin-point sharp.
“What?” he manages groggily.
“Still alive, and still capable of speech,” I say. “That’s almost more than you can ask for.”
“Where’s–” he stumbles over the words, like his tongue has forgotten how to shape the name he wants to say.
“Gone.” I feel a momentary burst of pity for the bedraggled and pathetic figure before me. “Jannik’s taken him somewhere.” Somewhere safe. Away from you. Away from both of us.
“Is this before the war,” Harun says. “Or after?” He struggles to sit, clutching painfully at my arm for support. “Am I now?”
“I suppose so.” He needs to relax or he’ll set off some kind of fit, burst his brain. “There’s no war.” Even just saying it out loud makes me shiver. I hate the idea that there’s one in our future. Possibly. If the path Harun’s seen is a true one. And from the amount of scriv he’s taken, it more than likely is. What kind of war will it be?
Before I can ask him, he lunges forward and makes a grab for my throat. “You’re a fool,” he says, just as I manage to dive out of his way. He catches the crook of my shoulder instead, and digs his fingers in deep, pinning me in place.
I hold myself absolutely still and swallow thickly. “Care to tell me why?” The ease with which I manage this is at odds with the thrumming of my heart, and he must know.
“They all die,” he tells me.
My breath stutters. “Jannik?”
But he doesn’t hear me. “It’s always the same, Felicita. Every time. I don’t know why you keep doing this, it just hurts him. And it hurts you.”
I relax in his grip. I do not think we are in this Now, but another. “And what is it I’ve done this time?” I whisper back.
“You’ll lose it, when we need you most.” He pinches harder, his thumb sliding up into the hollow of my throat and half-throttling me. “Don’t do this to yourself. I know you think you want children–”
Children. Oh sweet Gris, he’s talking about children. I wrench out of his grasp and crawl backward, away from him. “Shut up!”
He doesn’t listen. He keeps talking, telling me a future I don’t want to hear, of the deaths of children I have not yet borne. All I can do is escape, run away from his words. The door slams behind me, cutting off Harun’s ceaseless jabbering.
“And?” Isidro is standing in the shadows, pinched up tight around himself like he’s trying to make himself thinner, and his face is creased with pain. Jannik is holding him by one arm, just above the elbow. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be support or to hold him back. Isidro uncrosses his tightly folded arms. “What?”
“I–” I glance back at the solid blackwood door, then take a deep breath. “Don’t go in there. Not yet.”
“He’s going to live?”
I nod. Isidro needs to be distracted. I hate looking at him, but I can’t help the little spark of pity I feel when I see how the mark of the scriv has spread across his face like drops of blood. “Bring him some water, he’ll need plenty of it. And blankets. Seven-fold Visions can bring on fevers.” That’s not saying everything. I’ve never seen the aftermath of a seven-fold myself, but I have read enough accounts. They are part of our history, after all. My own line, while not noted for Saints, has had its share of precognisants. We’ve lost people.
Isidro jerks his arm free. He stares at me for a moment, and I cannot tell if this is confusion, hatred, anger, pain – what maelstrom of emotions he’s projecting at me. He shakes himself once and the third eyelids slide across, marble and wet, like the eyes of a crying statue. Then he’s gone. The echoes of his footfalls fade quickly.
“What are you not telling him?” Jannik keeps his voice low.
“Everything.” I sigh, and rub my hands over my face. “And nothing.” Isidro will feel his pain as he dies, I realize. Has probably been for some time. I could lie about Harun’s chances until I run out of breath and Isidro would still know. He will feel every damn thing, and when – no if – Harun dies, Isidro will feel that too, and I don’t know what that will do to a person. “Shit,” I say, so softly even Jannik frowns, uncertain that he heard me correctly.
“He’s–” He looks at the door.
“Alive, yes. Ranting. I’ve no idea how long this will go on for, but you’re to keep Isidro out of there. And the same goes for you.” It’s hardly going to make a huge difference, but somehow I imagine that distance will help. Fool that I am.
Jannik barely smiles, and his eyes are cold and angry. “Perhaps, Felicita, you should just buy me that damn collar.”
“Gris! I’m not – I’m not ordering you around. This is for your protection.”
But there is nothing in his voice that says he does. “Jannik?”
He waits, impassive.
I want to tell him to trust me, that after this I will speak properly with him and we’ll sort out everything between us. We’ll be adult. We’ll be careful with our hearts the way adults are supposed to be. We’ll stop breaking each other. “Just do as I ask.” I sigh. “Please?”
Jannik knows how to use the weapons at his disposal and he slides his silence between us. He doesn’t even look at me. We wait.
I’m absurdly grateful when Isidro returns with a jug of water and a rolled blanket. He gives them to Jannik, and I see the tremble he tries to hide, can smell the fever on him. Jannik hands the blanket and water on to me. So much dislike in one room. It’s claustrophobic.
The blanket is a deep burgundy wool and it carries the faint musk scent I associate with Harun. That’s good. Sometimes something familiar and comforting can serve as an anchor in a Vision. I nod at Jannik to open the door, and I prepare myself mentally for Harun’s raving.
The room is dark and silent.
Isidro steps forward, only to be hauled back by Jannik. “I want to see him,” Isidro says, and I can hear the hurt in his voice, so sharp and small like little splinters of blue and green glass. I have never heard this from Isidro before. I assumed too much about him, like I always do. One would think I’d have learned by now not to judge people on the little they allow me to see.
“I’ll make sure he . . . .” Survives? I can’t promise that much. “That he’s not in too much pain,” I finish lamely. And even then, if he dies in agony what remedies could I offer? A bit of lady’s gown in some tea is all I can think of. It’ll be better than nothing. At the very least it might calm him. And might help dull whatever it is Isidro experiences. “Jannik, take Isidro to the kitchens. Make lady’s gown – enough for several cups of tea.” If we can get some into Isidro, then just as good. Rather a catatonic vampire than one who will walk headlong into death because he thinks he’s in love.
Felicita, why must you believe so little of everyone? I brush my conscience aside and step into the shadowed room. The door clicks softly behind me, and the light from the outside is snuffed. I take a moment to let my eyes adjust to the darkness. The quietness is chilling. “Harun?” My voice is too high, nervous and wobbly. Damn, I’m scared, and I’m showing it. I tamp down my fear, press it deep as I look for him.
There he is: a grey shadow on the floor, lying near the embers of his dead fire. Slowly my vision clears and the edges of the furniture become crisp. “Harun?” I say again as I kneel beside him. I set the water jug down and lay my palm against his spine. There’s a slight movement under my hand. Still breathing. Barely. I sit back on my haunches and shake the blanket out, letting it fall over him softly. “Can you hear me?” I remember once, being hurt and scared, and how a girl with tangled carroty hair talked to me in a constant stream of friendly chatter. Meaningless nonsense, but reassuring. I do that now, telling him about the tea the others are making, about the weather, about how I miss the smell of the sea and the taste of salt in the air. Inconsequential things. I do not tell him about fires and corpses.
He wakes, groans. “Will – you – stop?”
“Back in the land of the living, are we?”
He tries to push himself up, and I need to help him sit. I do it without saying anything, trying to be as much a piece of the furniture as I can. House men will always remember when you have taken their pride.
“It was that, or stay down and listen to you chatter,” he says. “Death might have been better.”
“Here.” I pour water into his empty glass. “Drink this.”
He stares but doesn’t take it. “Trying to poison me now?”
“Why would I bother when you’re doing a perfectly good job of that on your own? Drink the Gris-damned water.” I shove the glass at his face.
He takes the glass and manages to spill half of the water down his shirt. The tremors have set in. The fever is starting.
I try stay light and unworried, but this, this is the part where people die. “Did you see what you wanted to?” I pour some water for myself, and it’s a balm to my parched throat. It helps to wash away the taste of ash.
He shakes his head. “Random nonsense.”
“So, completely worth it then?”
“Keep quiet,” he says from between chattering teeth.
A knock sounds at the door. Tea. I leave Harun shivering on the floor.
“How is he?” Isidro’s eyes are wide and dark with fear. The blisters on his cheek have spread. A fine rash goes all the way down to his jaw, down his neck. What does scriv-poisoning do to a vampire’s insides? And that on top of the secondary pain from this bond. “Awake.” I take the tea things from Jannik.
“What happens now?” Isidro asks.
I look past him, towards Jannik. “Now we wait.” Dear Gris, why would Harun do this – does he truly not know how far this bond between them goes, what it is capable of? Or does he simply not care if Isidro has to die? Perhaps he thinks it a suitable revenge for infidelity.
Jannik nods in understanding, and carefully pulls Isidro back from the frame so I can close the door.
I manage to get a few sips of lady’s gown into Harun before the fever takes complete hold. While he shivers and sweats and screams, I stoke the fire and pace the room. I read books in the darkness, unable to see the words. It gives me something to do. When he starts having fits I leave the room. Ultimately, I’ve always been a coward. He will die or he won’t. That’s what I keep telling myself.
Jannik and Isidro are nowhere to be seen. I walk up the stairs, past the room with its broken armonica, until I reach the door that was locked the last time. The door they stood behind and laughed, while Jannik let Isidro guess all my secrets. And in which of these rooms did they come together? They were lovers, I’m sure of that much at least. Perhaps the echoes of what they did are trapped in the walls. I press my hand against one, as if the house will tell me all it has seen. Nothing, of course.
I try the handle and it slides slowly downward. The hinges are well-oiled and the door swings open towards me, revealing a long passage.
Doorways spill the last red sunlight onto the satiny wood floor. The planks are polished gold. The vampires wouldn’t be up here. The last few doors are shut, the passage dimmer. Perhaps there, then.
The floorboards barely whisper beneath my soft tread. I try the closed door on my right first. It too is unlocked and opens easily. The room is dark, long curtains pulled shut against the late sun. Even so I can make out the shape on the long low couch under the window. Jannik. It’s too easy to pick him out in the darkness. I shouldn’t know him this well, shouldn’t know the sound of his breathing, the rhythm of his heartbeat.
I sink into plush carpet and the wool deadens the sound of my footsteps. I sneak up to Jannik and sit down beside him. He’s fast asleep. For some reason I feel like this is the only time I’m allowed to look at him. If he’s awake and I stare for a fraction too long, he chooses one of the three masks he uses around me: the white-eyed blank nothing, the mocking smile with its barest hint of fang, or the small hurt frown. That’s all I ever get.
And here he is unmasked, asleep. There’s an innocence that makes us drop our guard, the face of sleep. Perhaps even Mallen Gris himself looked guileless when he let himself dream.
A chink between the curtains allows a single faint beam to work its way through the heavy air. The light slants across Jannik’s pale cheek. His dark hair plays counterpoint to the cream and crimson. He flicks open one eye. Indigo; like a starless night, like the deepest seas. “How long have you been watching?”
“I wasn’t – I just got here.” I swallow. I’m supposed to be standing vigil over dying Harun, not watching Jannik like a voyeur. “Where’s Isidro?”
Jannik sits up and rubs at his eyes. “He was here.”
We both look around. The room is dusty with books and maps; even the small day bed half-hidden between some angled book cases has a mess of papers at the one end. But there’s definitely no Isidro.
“He was asleep. I gave him the tea, brought him here.” Jannik stands.
This room, then. My throat closes.
Jannik runs a hand through his hair and frowns. “He’s probably gone to see if you would let him near Harun yet.” But we both know this isn’t true.
“I would have seen him,” I whisper. We turn as one to the door. “You find him,” I say, “and I’ll go back to Harun.” But I stand there, rooted. Those children, those dead children that Harun saw in my future, were they dark-haired, were they pale and blue-eyed and strange? Is that why they died? I should ask him. If he lives.
* * *
Downstairs I find Harun out of the fever and the fits. He’s moved, curled himself up in his chair, his blanket that Isidro brought him wrapped around his shoulders. He’s still shivering, but just a little. It’s not the violent shaking of fever, and that candle-sick look has gone from his face. Good. I think of Isidro, and how perhaps that leash has finally been broken.
There’s a thick rancid smell of vomit in the air. Although I note he did at least make the effort to throw up in the fireplace. “Feeling better?” I ask. There are matches on the mantelpiece, and I take one to light the fatcandles in their glass prisons.
“Ow,” he says. “Too bright.”
I lower the flames, turning the knob down until the flame is barely more than a glow. “And?”
“And what, you meddlesome woman?”
“Did you see what you wanted?”
He shakes his head. “Not done yet.”
Panic kicks in my chest. “You will not take more scriv,” I say to him. “I will tie you up myself if I have to.”
Harun glances up at me through his sweat-soaked hair. “Right.” He coughs. “Don’t have to take more. Waiting for the last Vision.”
“Oh good.” I step back, putting as much distance as I can between us.
“Last one, always a true one.” He’s still coughing, choking the words out. He fumbles for a handkerchief and spits a wad of black mucous into it, looks at the mess and scowls. “I’ve fucked myself completely,” he says to himself.
“The children?” I say. I ask him now, or I ask him never.
He looks up from his wadded handkerchief and frowns. “What – oh.” He looks away from me with a shrug. “That’s just one path. It’s – there are others. You can choose anything.”
“Whose were they?”
I grit my teeth and speak slowly. “The father, I mean.”
“Does it matter?” He stands and sways unsteadily. “I told you, it’s not a true Vis– Oh sweet fucking Gris.” His eyes roll back into his head, strange and white. Before I can move forward to catch him, he tips sideways, his head connecting with the wooden armrest. The sound is loud and meatily solid. “Ah fuck,” he mumbles. “Gris damn.”
I manage to get him upright, but whatever bit of sanity he was hanging on to is gone now. There’s just the eerie rolled-back eyes, the growing swelling on his head, the odd wheezy breathing. This close, I can smell the black vomit on his breath; it’s rotten with clotted blood. He makes a sound I have only heard once before, when a dog was caught in a market wagon’s spoked wheel and dragged through the streets. It makes the flesh on my bones feel like it’s peeling back.
This is it, then. My throat closes up like a sea snail sealing its shell.
“Harun!” I kneel before him and slap at his face, praying that he comes back from whatever future he’s seeing, and that he comes back with most of his mind still in one piece. “You stupid, stupid, stupid idiot.” I’m punctuating the words with slaps and with sobs. My face is wet. I shouldn’t care. Harun has been no great friend to us. Isidro is as pretty and untrustworthy as any well-bred whore. But, as Jannik, has pointed out before, they are all we have.
I give Harun a final slap, so hard that my own bones feel broken. He stops screaming to drag in a ragged breath, and just as suddenly as he began, he falls silent. “Is it done then?” I ask him softly as I try and squeeze the pain out of my bruised hand. The blisters have broken again, weeping over my skin.
He stares around the familiar room, lost and vacant.
“Is it done?” This time I yell, and he seems to finally notice me.
“Where–” Harun shakes his head briskly like a wet dog, then stills and presses one hand to his bruised temple. “Ow. Where’s Isidro?”
“Out – outside.” It’s a version of truth.
“Why did you kill your brother when you could have killed yourself instead?”
No scriv-fuelled beating could have hurt me as hard, or come as more of a surprise. “I didn’t,” I say, almost without thinking. I have told myself this so many times. “I didn’t.”
He lurches to his feet and walks past me to open the door. “Isidro? You can come out of hiding now.” Harun yells it like he’s making a joke, but Isidro does not appear.
I stay on my knees and watch his face, looking for some sign that he will betray me.
Jannik is the one who comes to the door, and from the panic on his face I know what I had only feared before. Isidro has left.
“He’s going to die,” Harun says, and looks from my face to Jannik’s and back again.
“That’s a little dramatic,” Jannik begins but Harun cuts him short.
“Is it? Is it really? When your people are turning up on Lam-heaps with their faces cut off?” Harun sneers. “Do you know how much I’ve been offered for him in the past?”
He coughs another clump of rotted blood into his hand, and stares at it. “Anyway,” he says, dully, with no inflection to betray him. “I saw it.”
I freeze. Of course we don’t know how much people offer Harun for his partner. It’s not like we try to dig up each other’s secrets like earthworms in a compost heap. Was that all Harun’s final vision brought him – the news that Isidro would die? A waste of scriv if ever there was. We all die.
“He was frightened.” I say. I’m still on my knees. I shouldn’t be. “You frightened him.” I stand and shake out my skirts. “He probably went for a walk. On the grounds somewhere.”
Behind Harun, Jannik shakes his head. “I’ve looked.”
“Why would he leave?” And I want to ask if Harun’s hit him before, if this is not the first time that Isidro has had the marks of scriv-poisoning on him, but the words sit there, clinging to the tip of my tongue. Perhaps this is why Isidro fell so easily into an entanglement with someone he professes to dislike. I thought he wanted to make Harun jealous, but perhaps it wasn’t that at all. Then again, who am I to judge? I edge closer to Harun. “Where would he go?” I try instead. There’s a safer question with safer answers.
“Perhaps,” Jannik says softly, “he didn’t want to die because of you.”
“There was never any danger of that,” Harun says.
“The bond-” I begin. So it’s not strong enough to tie them both to death.
“And you are so certain of this that you took the risk, and didn’t ask him whether he wanted to share in your suffering?” Jannik moves closer, his eyes only on Harun, waiting for him to admit his failings.
Harun shrugs. “I had more important things to try and see.”
I shake my head at Jannik, willing him to drop the subject. Now is hardly the time. Isidro will have gone somewhere he feels safe, at least. That’s what people do. “Does he have friends, family?”
At the last word Harun pales. For a moment I think I’ve worried him then he doubles over and retches again. It’s a thin stream of black bile and swallowed blood. “Gris,” he says, and spits before wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. He straightens, and clutches the door-frame to stay upright. “Yes, yes. Family.” He lurches out of the room and we follow him to the entrance hall. “Damn,” Harun says. “He’s left his outdoor coat.”
I shrug. “It’s summer–”
“It has nothing to do with the weather.” Harun takes a long dark coat from the stand and throws it at my feet. “If he’s walking around without this he’s – he’s–”
Jannik kneels and fingers the collar of the coat. On one lapel there is the House symbol of Guyin. On the other is a small embroidered badge of an eagle in a ring of flames. “He’s breaking the law.” Jannik runs his thumb over the eagle. “Why didn’t you sign papers and make his freedom official?”
“Because this isn’t bloody Pelimburg. There are no free Houses here. You’re the only one who gets to walk about without your slavery written all over you. You should thank you lady for that much at least.”
“What is that?” I ask, pointing at the eagle badge. “It looks like Mallen’s old crest.”
“No, it isn’t.” Jannik stands and holds the coat over for Harun. “It’s the symbol for vampires.”
“So, it shows that he is owned by someone, gives him license to walk outside the rookeries,” Jannik says through gritted teeth. “Without it, Isidro runs the risk of being picked up as a runaway slave.”
I look at Jannik’s pale angry face, then across at Harun, ill and guilty. “You – he’s still a slave?” No one moves. It’s all the answer I need. “Maybe nothing will happen,” I say dully. “After all, Jannik doesn’t wear one and no-one has ever stopped him-”
“I travel in a coach with the Pelim arms,” Jannik says. “They don’t need to.”
So this is his freedom then. Tied to my name and my protection, and I wasn’t even aware of it. Sometimes I can be so wilfully blind. I stare again at the coat, at its damning crest. “Why would Isidro leave without this?”
Harun shrugs, but doesn’t look at me. “An oversight, I suppose, It’s not like he often has reason to leave the house. And he’s not at his best when he’s distraught.”
“Is he often distraught?”
Harun looks up. Bloodied black spittle is wiped about his mouth. “Don’t try condemn me without knowing anything, Pelim.”
“Point,” I say.
Harun is shivering, and though he tries to hide it, I can see he needs the wall as support. It’s the only reason he’s still standing.
“Do you want us to go look for him?” Harun is in no condition to go anywhere. “Do you know where he is?”
Harun frowns, and shakes his head. “Confusing. I can’t – can’t think straight. He’s not thinking straight.”
“Try. Harder,” I say.
“Splinterfist,” Harun says after the silence has stretched out long and thin. “Go there, and ask for him.”
“The rookery?” Jannik glances sidelong at Harun as if he can barely bring himself to actually look at the man without hitting him. “You’re certain?”
“I’ll help him to his room. You’ll be more welcome at the rookery than I was,” I say to Jannik. Then I think of Carien, and her serpent friends, and the vampires on the heaps. Our burnt-out home. “Wait. Don’t leave yet. Give me a moment.”
Jannik does so, calm and patient and curious. We’ve strengthened what little friendship there was left between us. After all, it was not so long ago that we were pressed together on his office bed, even if it was a chaste affair.
I help Harun up the stairs and set him in his bed, then come rushing down, half expecting Jannik to be long gone.
He’s not. “And?” Jannik is leaning against the wall, looking more like a blackguard than the head of a House. He’s till in his smoke-ruined clothes, as am I.
“We can’t go out looking like this,” I tell him.
“Now is hardly the time to start worrying about fashion,” he says. “My – friend-”
I stop him, holding up one hand. “Clothes. Harun will be bound to have something for us.”
“We?” Jannik manages a tired sneer.
I take his arm. “I didn’t want you to go alone.” As long as I can see him, I know he’s alive.
* * *
We’re dressed in clean, if somewhat dated, clothes, in the coach and on our way to the Splinterfist rookeries when I realize I never told Harun about the Pelim apartments. “The fire,” I say. “We need to warn Harun.”
Jannik shakes his head. He’s peering out the glass, watching the streets. “The thing they want from House Guyin is out wandering the streets. I don’t think we need to worry about anyone burning his home down now.” He glances at me. “But you know your friends better than I do.”
“We don’t know Eline did this,” I say.
“We don’t know they didn’t. And if it’s Isidro they want . . . .” Jannik still refuses to look at me.
“Why him?” I say, even though the answer is obvious. House Eline likes pretty things to call their own. Things no one else can afford. Priceless glass atrocities by Narlet, rare meats and wines from the eastern cities, a beautiful whore owned by a Great House.
Jannik’s mouth twists, but he does not answer.
* * *
The Splinterfist rookery is on the Ives’ side of the river, and it takes us more time to reach it than I would have liked. The streets are too crowded, and word of my destroyed home has spread. The Courant Hoblings are standing on the street corners selling evening papers that have flashes of my ruined house on the front page. There is a certain vicious joy to the news. They like it when we fall.
“We’ll need to invest in new property,” I say, as if this was any other day and I had not lost my home, and Harun his heart.
Jannik merely nods. “Or we could go back.”
Back. Back to Pelimburg and the sea and a world I understand at least a little. It’s tempting. I am tired of this vast city driven by factories and silk and fashion. This stupid cruel city with her shining bright teeth. Mother has taken Lenora and her daughter Allegria to her bosom in the manor; perhaps Jannik and I could re-occupy my brother’s old apartments. And every day could be a reminder of how I failed my family and brought shame to the Pelim name. Every new building rising from the rubble of the old would serve as an accusation of everything I destroyed because of Dash.
How could I go home and look out on Lambs’ Island and not think of boggerts and sea-witches and nightmares. “No,” I say. “We can’t.”
“Not -not yet.” I am not ready to face my ghosts. Gris knows if I ever will be.
Jannik sighs and shifts on his seat. “A new house then,” he says, and we focus on inane practicalities rather than think about where Isidro has gone and why. Even so, we both keep looking out the windows, hoping to catch a glimpse of that impossibly beautiful vampire.
“The servants will need to be compensated for any losses.”
Jannik nods in agreement. “I’ll have Master Twissel draw together a list.” With our head house servant in charge, rebuilding our life in new premises will not be a vast hardship. Until we are burned out of our nest again. Until others die for us.
“We’re here,” I say as we turn down Whitur Street. “Have you – have you been here before?”
“No,” he says, and snorts. “Why would I want to do that? Would you go to the animal gardens if they kept Lammers in cages?”
I clench my hands on my lap. “Would you rather wait in the carriage?”
“Yes,” he says, and stands to get out.
* * *
We are led upstairs to the eight-sided turret room belonging to the Splinterfist head. The room feels smaller this time, and that coolness is gone from her face. When first we met, I came here alone, looking for names. She gave them to me but they have brought nothing good.
Rutherook, Yew, Karin. Eline.
I think she never expected me to return, and certainly not with my husband. The look she gives Jannik is undisguised loathing. “And to what do I owe the honour this time, Pelim?” She spits the name at my feet.
“We’ve come looking for Isidro,” I say to her. “There’s been a misunderstanding and we’re led to believe that he–”
“Isidro?” She narrows her eyes thoughtfully. “He’s not here.” The Splinterfist head closes a vast ledger on the desk closed, and the whump of the pages makes dust sprinkle from the ceiling. “I’ve not spoken to him for years. You’ve come sniffing around the wrong sewer.” The gold vines on the wall paper glow around her, outlining her like one of the stylized paintings of the old Saints – Tille or Amata, not blonde Oreyn or fiery Helena.
“I–” I glance at Jannik, who is staring coolly at the head, his eyes uncovered. “Are you quite certain?”
Harun seemed convinced he’d come running back here. Family, he said. And he knew. He knew, even if he didn’t want to know.
The woman places her hands on her ledger, leans forward across the desk and there is a sudden awkward skittering of power in the air; armies of ants march up my arms. “My son is not welcome here, and he knows it. If you want to find him, I suggest your time would be better served in the bedrooms of Great Houses.” She draws back. “He seems to like to pretend their power will rub off onto his skin.”
Her son. I can see it now, the artful sweep of the eyebrows, the aquiline features. In her, Isidro’s prettiness is tempered by her sex, and she is merely attractive. “I see,” I say and let out a small confused breath that could almost be a nervous laugh were it louder. “I am sorry to have wasted your time.” We leave as hurriedly as we can.
“Did you know?” I say when we are safely back in our carriage.
Jannik shakes his head. “About that – how could I have?”
“And Harun, he must.” Of course he does. It’s why he sent us here in the first place. Why he couldn’t go himself. Sometimes the secrets we know make action impossible. I take in a deep breath and try focus on the task at hand. “So where to now – do you think she meant what she said–”
I am interrupted by a shout outside. We have not yet left, our driver was still clambering into place, and now we have been prevented from moving. Someone is clinging to the side of our carriage.
“What now?” I look outside the window at a bone-white face. It’s a wray, hardly old enough to have reached his teens.
Jannik is the one who opens the door to him, for it seems I’m frozen. “What is it?” asks Jannik, as the boy slips inside, furtive and cat-like. He brings the dark in with him, moonlight on his heels.
“You’re looking for Isidro?” He speaks quickly, but his voice is clear, and there is nothing nervous about him.
Jannik and I glance at each other then back to the wray, and we both nod.
“So what story did she tell you, then?”
“That he’s not there.” Jannik leans back a little, and spreads his arms along the back of the seat. It is a falsely comfortable gesture; I can feel his magic sparking along my arms, setting the fine hairs tingling. I wonder what it would be like to just give in and touch him, to let his magic flow right into me like a drug.
I stiffen. He’s a person and I will not use him.
The wray sneers at our idiocy. “She’d never tell you nothing if it didn’t suit her. He’s not there now, obviously. Not any more. But he was.”
“Was,” says Jannik flatly. He narrows his eyes, but I know he’s taking everything about this little wray in, from the neat creases in his trousers to the unusual grey of his eyes. “You’re very informative.”
The wray shrugs. “Could be more informative, if you like.”
“Ah,” says Jannik. He looks a mixture of amused and disgusted. “Name your price then, wray.”
“Jannik, really–” I say.
“Fifteen brass. And it’s Mal. My name, I mean.”
“Ten,” Jannik counters. “And no more than that.”
“Gris, is this really the time to be trying to haggle him down? Give him the damn money,” I yell.
Mal lifts an eyebrow. “Bossy lady you got there,” he says to Jannik, even as he’s taking the coins.
Jannik mutters something under his breath.
“Now.” I lean forward and catch Mal’s chin between my thumb and fingers and force him to look directly at me. “That’s three days’ wages where I come from–”
“Where you come from – you never worked a day in your life.”
“Are they always this bloody rude?” I look over the top of the wray’s head and to where Jannik is watching us like a spectator at a street-opera.
“How would I know? Probably not.”
Mal struggles out of my grip and slides over to the corner of the seat, rubbing at his chin. “What’s your problem? I was going to tell you.” He’s not the least bit cowed by us, or by his life. He has a cocksure arrogance to him that I take for a front. He’s little more than a child, and this is what happens to the wray here. They are bought and sold. They learn their own masks just like I learned mine.
You can’t save everyone. “All right.” I ease myself carefully closer to the door, blocking his way out. “Isidro was here, and now he isn’t. Where’s he gone to?”
Mal sniffs. “Why’d you want to know, anyway?”
“Sweet Gris.” I shake my head. “He is a – friend of ours, and we’re worried.”
“Is he happy?”
“What?” The question throws me. “How do you mean?”
The wray sighs and pulls his legs up tight to his chest. “He managed to snag himself a lord, and get himself bought out of this.” He waves one hand vaguely in the direction of the rookery outside. “But what’s the point? He’s still a slave.”
“He’s not–” Unable to lie, I look up to Jannik for support, who helps me not at all by looking away and out into the street instead. I curl my fingers into the folds of my skirts, and gather them forward, pushing the ridges of material together. “He was happy.” I don’t know if this is true, but I will suppose that they were happy enough before we came and upended their small world. “Life isn’t always a smooth glass sea,” I say finally. “And sometimes we’re not ready to face the storms. I think he saw something coming that he was scared of, and so he ran. Is that understandable?”
“You talk strange,” says Mal. “Can’t you just be plain and say, yes, he’s happy but he had a fight with his lord and now he’s in a snit?”
“Can’t you just be plain and bloody tell us where he’s gone?” Jannik says.
Mal looks over at Jannik and snorts. “She sold him again. I think he came back because he didn’t think she’d really do it to him twice. Not the brightest candle, that one. Pretty as a painting and about as much brains.”
He came back to her driven by whatever familial bonds he thought he still had. And she sold him. I don’t think it’s because he was stupid, I think it’s because he wanted to be wrong. He needed to be wrong.
Sold. The thought is enormous and disturbing. “Sold him to who?”
“The blond one from Eline.”
“Shit,” says Jannik. “Shit and fuck and Gris damn.”
Personally, I agree.