My head feels bludgeoned in, but I help Jannik with the moving arrangements as best I can. Not that we have anything left to move. Our other holdings are occupied, and neither are suitable. The Grove Estate is too far south, out of the city and in the orange country downriver, and the house on Chantery street far too small. Besides, Eline’s men will know if we return to either of those. Jannik has said he will find us a place, and I believe him. Somehow, he will cover our tracks.
I supervise from the heat of the offices, have clothes brought to me, new contracts written out for the servants. Master Twissel, Mrs. Winterborn, and Mrs. Palmer meet with me, and it’s with relief that I realize how much I can trust them, how much they will do for me. They are family, and we have all lost a home. Mrs. Winterborn’s narrow face is crumpled. She still has the ring of ivory house keys and she flicks them this way and that, the bright knocking sound sharp as a crack in a wall.
There is nothing left of Riona to send home, nothing left of her life and belongings. “We will provide for her brother,” I say. We can send her salary in as a kind of pension. Even my brother would have made sure that the family of the dead were paid off. It feels so cheap, so utterly useless in the face of what has happened. But I cannot bring her back to life. All I can offer is coin.
Mrs. Palmer sits with her hand over her mouth to keep her sobs quiet.
A constant stream of messengers and servants file in and out of the offices and my seal stamps page after page in an inky blur. It will take a lot of silk to pay for us to rebuild our life, our name. We work until my head feels ready to roll right from my shoulders, and I wouldn’t even care.
I hardly see Jannik, and when he returns that evening, I am only half-awake. The exhaustion has filled up the hollows of my bones, weighted me down and turned my mind to oily sludge.
“Come on, Felicita,” he says, and under the joking tone, the strain shows like support wires.
My head is pillowed on my arms, and I feel no urge to rise from the desk I’d fallen asleep at. “This is fine,” I mumble at him. “Between this and the couch, I think the desk might be the more comfortable.” The sour copper of blood tickles the back of my throat, and I cough.
He rests one hand against the back of my neck. “I see you made some progress with your wardrobe.”
“Hush, I’ve done more than find wash-water and pretty dresses.” I manage to lever my head up. The room is dark, lamps unlit.
“Our coach is waiting,” Jannik says.
* * *
I wake in an unfamiliar room with pale yellow bedding and walls of ivory. Despite the warm colour, the room feels unwelcoming and the smell of it is wrong. I catch a glimpse of my face in a mirrored wardrobe. “I need a bath. Dear Gris.” I must be particularly ripe by now. A hand basin in an office is no substitute. There are marks of dried blood on my pillow. I barely remember the journey here; it shifts, slippery and fractured.
“I’ve already had the servants arrange everything.”
I look up at Jannik. He’s dressed, neat and perfectly turned out. It’s like nothing happened at all to ruffle him. Maybe it didn’t.
“How are you so . . . .”
“So what?” He frowns. A knock sounds at the door. “Enter.”
The familiar face of my lady’s maid, Cornelia, appears. She’s wide-eyed, holding a tea tray in front of her and just the smell of it almost makes me cry from joy. Mrs. Winterborn must have made a speedy recovery, if the maids are already nervous as cats.
“So bloody chipper.” I am going to drink that entire pot dry and still ask for more, I can already tell.
Jannik laughs. “I’m not the one whose head got rearranged. I’ll see you at breakfast. We’ve nefarious deeds to discuss.”
After he’s gone I drink tea and listen to the household sounds of normality. Cornelia is arranging my bath and, presumably, new clothes for me. I have no idea what she’s found, as almost everything I had is currently drifting in the smoke over MallenIve.
My poor little Riona is dead because of me, I have no home, my marriage has been completely rearranged, and I am about to go into a sphynx’s nest armed only with my name, to save a man I hate. And yet I am oddly content. Languorous, even. I finish my tea and lie back, wondering what has become of my world.
After my bath, I find Cornelia has laid out a dark sage dress I last wore more than a year ago. It is distinctly Pelimburg in fashion, with a severity that is in stark contrast with the frivolous colours and patterns House Mata has made so fashionable here. There is glass beading, to be sure, but the designs are subtle, the beads merely a darker green than the dress.
I touch the silk, smooth it out. “Where did this come from?”
“Lord Pelim had your old wardrobe in storage, ma’am.”
Did he, indeed? I had thought these relics long since handed on. I smile thinly. It seems I am going to don Pelimburg armour when I face the MallenIve princes. How fitting.
* * *
“What are your plans?” I ask Jannik. We’re in the breakfast room, and the front door bell is ringing non-stop, as parcels and orders are delivered. Distantly, the sound of voices, the papery crumple as servants unwrap our replacements for our old life.
Even in this stranger’s apartments we will temporarily call our own, Jannik is engaged in reading the Courant. He seems unflappable. He sets the paper down. “Harun first.”
“Perhaps to see if he is still alive.” Jannik raises one eyebrow. “Or are you ready to abandon them now?”
“Go on.” If I have to deal with that bully of a House son, I will be well fed. Eggs and bacon and grilled tomatoes and salt-fish. I’m ravenous. The past few days have caught up with me. It all seems a nightmarish blur of fire and ash and blood. And skin, and sweetness. I smile, tight and small as a new secret, before I look up again.
“While I make arrangements there, I’ll need you to set up a meeting with Carien.” He frowns. “I’m not sure exactly what you’re planning to say to her when you offer me over.”
“Ah, I have thought on it,” I say. “She still wants to paint you, as far as I know.”
“Oh, that.” His shakes his head in bitter amusement. “It seems that I shall finally have my portrait done. You can put it up in the Pelimburg University along with the rest of your family’s. That should stir a fire under them.”
“My mother may well have an apoplexy.”
“She probably deserves to have one.”
We skirt around the edges of what we are planning, blunting the reality of it with banter. We say nothing about what we have done, and what we plan to do with it. Jannik’s insecurity and uncertainty tug at me, faintly, like a butterfly-fish pulling on a line, and I wonder what I am giving away to him. It’s not as if I am so sure of my own plans that Jannik could not sense the fear beneath my bravado.
Whatever he knows, he is polite enough not to tell me, and I begin to relax. We can do this. Together, we will find out what we need to bring Isidro back.
The curious tightening around my heart as I think of his name could be from either of us.
* * *
By the time we reach House Guyin, however, my nerves are back. The house is too cold and stark and forbidding to let me forget what we’re planning to do.
We find Harun drunk in the front lounge, stinking higher than a Lam heap out in the warren of the Hoblands.
“Dear Gris!” I pull all the curtains open and bright sunlight comes flooding in, illuminating the dust hanging in the air. The room is neglected and has a thick sour misery rubbed into the walls and the furniture. “Pull yourself together, Harun.”
Jannik hangs back, watching me rampage through Harun’s property.
“You’re an evil cow of a woman,” Harun slurs.
“It’s barely ten in the morning,” I snap back. “Is this how you plan to deal with what’s happened – by wallowing in your own filth and drinking like a bloated old rake?”
“I was trying to,” he points out. “And doing a damn fine job of it.”
“Give me that.” I snatch the half-empty wine bottle he’s holding, and tip the contents over his head. It’s only my apparently vast hidden wells of self-control that prevent me from sending the bottle after them.
“You – fuck – bloody woman.” He’s too inebriated to stand, so he rages at me from all fours, swaying like an old nilly in a knacker’s yard. It doesn’t have the effect he’d like. He clatters among the empty bottles, sending them rolling under the furniture and gathering trails of dust and Gris-knows what else.
“Oh yes, a bloody woman. How dare I come in to your house and point out to you what an enormous bullying idiot you are.” I set the empty bottle down on the table, and it clatters over and rolls off. I watch it. It’s not as if one more will make a difference to the state of the floor.
“Well thank you from saving me the trouble of saying it–”
Even Jannik starts.
“Now you listen to me, Guyin,” I hiss at him. “There are a thousand people out there who would work in your house, bat or not. People do not like to starve. So I can only assume that this prolonged staff problem is more down to the fact that you are a pathetic little spoiled House son who is throwing an extended tantrum because he didn’t get what he wanted, when he wanted, than in any shortage of willing labourers.”
“You know nothing of the circumstances–”
“I am not finished.” And Gris be damned, for once I will tell the truth to a House son and let hang the consequences. I’ve had enough of my own troubles and I’m too wrung out to drip pity over this idiot. Isidro is out there – anything could be happening to him – and instead of taking action, Harun will simply drown under what he thinks is inevitable. Saints. Saints and their bloody visions. I stamp one foot down, and Harun almost cringes before he recovers himself. “You will get over your snit, this instant. If you want us to help you, you will listen to what Jannik says, and when I return, I expect to find you in some semblance of order, approaching sober at the very least. I would ask that you are cleaned and dressed but I think I may be chasing fancies with such an unreasonable request. Now.” I crouch so that we are face to face. Even from here his breath is sour and foul. “Act like something resembling a man.” I stand. “Where is your House seal?”
“Your House seal? I assume you still have some accounts in good standing with the banking merchants – if so, find your seal and give it to Jannik that he might organize the basics that you are seemingly incapable of organizing for yourself.”
I’m fully expecting Harun to start shouting at me. I pause, half-breathless, ready to yell again, as he clambers to his feet.
“Must you be so damn shrill,” he mutters as he digs through his coat pockets. “Here.” He tosses a silver cylinder to me and I catch it easily. The top of the cylinder has the familiar goat-like face of the Guyin unicorn in profile, worked in black glass.
“Thank you.” I hand the seal to Jannik. As I’m about to leave the room, Harun calls me to stay.
“What is it?”
“And while I’m doing all this.” He pressed his fingers to his temple and grimaces. “Where will you be?”
“Thankfully, far from you.” I slam the door closed behind me and smile in grim satisfaction as the sound sets of another round of groaning and cursing.
A bubble is rising in my chest. I think I have waited all my life to yell at a House man.
* * *
Master Sallow looks dumbstruck when I ask him if he knows the way to a public house called The Greenfinch.
“Certainly, my lady.” He has managed to recover a little of his incredulity. First the Hoblands, and now some public house in a less-than-salubrious area – poor Master Sallow must be starting to wonder if I have lost my wits.
“Then you will take me there,” I say to him and smile. My moment of venting has left me feeling as if I could take on every damn person in MallenIve. I know where Carien likes to hide, pretending she is something more than a House brood-doe. She took me there with promises of an introduction to the artist Iynast. A promise she made good on, in her own confusing way.
I don’t remember the name of the street, but it was not far from the Greenfinch, and I will find my way on foot. I instruct Master Sallow to wait for me, and he nods.
The tea shop where she made her artistic confession is not hard to find. I push open the door and the little glass bells chime merrily as I enter. It’s nearing lunch time, and the shop is busier than before, all the tables taken by Hobs taking their brief respite from the day’s labour. They nurse porcelain bowls of tea and what appears to be the speciality, a bowl of unidentifiable greens and white porridge. A few are wealthier and have added a small fatty cut of meat to their dish. The smells of the boiled meat and strong tea and old sweat hang in the closed space. I scan the crowd of dark-haired Hobs, looking for a familiar face. Perhaps, after all, she does not frequent this place nearly as often as I had hoped. My thoughts were that it was a place where she felt safe, where she goes to ground.
As it turns out, I’m not wrong.
She’s at the small corner table, and now I see why she chose it last time. The angle of the door and the tables keeps the spot mostly hidden from the entrance. One has to know where to look.
I glide between the tables, and seat myself across from her.
She pulls her mouth in a sour moue of distaste.
“How fortuitous to meet you here,” I say. “I had rather hoped to catch you while you were still slumming.”
“Felicita,” she says. “What is it you want?”
Our earlier play of friendship is over, and I am surprised to find myself saddened. I wonder if she knows that my house was destroyed. She must. Does she know also whose hand struck the match?
“I seem to find myself somewhat inconvenienced in the realm of accommodation.”
“Oh.” She pales. “Your house. I had forgotten. I’m so sorry for your losses.” She even sounds genuine. Carien sighs. “I was shocked when I heard the news. I meant to write to you, but, I–” She looks around the room. “I had my own unexpected blows.”
I frown. The tea girl is hovering. “I’ll have redbush,” I say.
“’Ink,” Carien mumbles.
“Should you be–”
“Do not presume to tell me how I should conduct my life,” Carien says. “Fine, I’ll have the same.”
When the girl is out of earshot I lean forward over the table. “Are you well?” Her fingers are shaking and there are deep pouches under her eyes.
“A little nauseous, but that’s to be expected.” Her face crinkles, as if she is about to cry.
She looks this way and that. “I suspect, or rather, I – I do not know.” Loose strands of hair fall across her cheeks. Instead of her normal wild and earthy look, she now reminds me of a hunted animal.
I cover her hands with mine. “Hush,” I say softly. “Calm yourself. What is it you suspect?”
“It’s – that is.” She takes a rattling breath. “Garret has taken a new lover.”
That is an unexpected confession. And not one most wives would voice; it is merely something we pretend not to notice, unless the by-blows are thrust in our faces. Unless he has taken a mistress from another House. An unlikely and inelegant action.
“You know her?”
Carien scowls. “It is worse than that,” she hisses. “He has taken an animal for his pleasure. I find he has been spending his evenings at the–” She swallows, not bringing herself to say it.
But I already know. “The rookeries,” I say softly.
She goes paler still then nods almost imperceptibly. “I am revolted.”
I draw back a little, still keeping her hands in mine. “You once confessed to me that you found them fascinating, that they had magic that leaked from their skin.”
“So?” She pulls her hands free. “That doesn’t mean I would debase myself with one.”
Then what – would she have them killed instead and the bones ground into her meals? Eline has taken a rookery vampire, has he? It’s no longer guesswork. Harun said he’d been offered coin for Isidro before, the little vampire Mal confirmed it. Eline has Isidro, and it seems he doesn’t care who knows. He is growing arrogant, unconcerned. And that scares me. Do I still want Jannik in that house? Do I need him there?
“Did he buy it?” I ask, even though I know Carien will find the question insulting and presumptuous.
“No.” Carien’s white face twists. “Why would he do that? Why would he pay silver when he can hire the damn thing for brass?”
I shake my head, frowning. “I-I do not know.” It hardly seems like I should point out to her all the things he could do were he to own the vampire, instead of merely buying an hour in its company. Gris damn it all. I need to know where Isidro is. Surely Garret can’t be crass enough to keep him in their family home. Unless he truly doesn’t care if Carien knows what he does.
I still need to do this, whether I like it or not. And I really, really don’t like it. I lean back a little, and study her face, looking for some clue that she’s hiding something from me. For once, I wish I had the skill that Readers have to draw the truth out of people, to know exactly what they’re feeling. All I can see is anger, resentment, a bewildered misery. Now, Felicita. Ask now, before you weaken. “I suppose perhaps then that the proposal I wished to put before you should wait for a less uncomfortable time.”
“You wanted to do a painting.” It sounds so frivolous.
She sniffs. “And I still do. Art has no moral code. And if it does, it should be smashed.”
“So you would still like the bat to come sit for you?” There. It’s said. If she refuses, I’ll at least have tried, right? I’ll find some other way to winkle out Isidro’s position, find where Eline has hidden him.
Carien spreads her hands carefully on the table, examining her nails. “If you can spare the damn thing, this time.”
I do not allow my fear to rise. One sip of tea, to give me a moment to ready my voice. “I’ve had to downscale slightly in the last day. Were he to be set up in a room in your house, it would be something of a favour to me.”
“Where are you staying now?”
I explain that I am renting furnished apartments in the Grosner area, near the Mata Palace, and that my retinue of servants is currently on the somewhat smaller side. “I’ll be looking at new properties this week, and it would be better for me if I were not worrying about the bat.” How easily the words slip from my mouth. I am almost ashamed at my ability to play this part so well, so carelessly. A twinge. Mine. Or his, feeling my second-hand guilt.
“Doesn’t it have a job to do?”
I shrug. “As you say, it was merely an accountant. I can spare it for the immediate future.”
Carien smiles, and some of that hunted look fades from her skin. “I’ll have rooms prepared,” she says. “If you have him delivered to the house tomorrow afternoon, that should be perfect.” She locks her fingers together to hold her greed in, but it seeps through in her voice. “He’ll make a wonderful subject.”
“Your husband . . . .” I falter. “You’re certain that he would never bring one home from the rookeries?”
Carien’s mouth moves, just slightly, as if she is preparing to say something. An awkward moment fills up with her silence. When she speaks, she looks away, across the tea-house to where the urns are hissing loud enough to almost drown her voice. “I believe he had a house slave once, but that was long before we married.” She frowns. “I do not think he would repeat that.”
“How can you be so sure?” I say, turning my tea cup around in its saucer. “He wants the vamp- the bats’ status revoked – he wants to make animals of them. Perhaps the reason for his new proposal is simply that he wants no constraints on how many he owns, or what people would think of his actions?” The proposal is due to come before the House Council before the week is out. If it passes, all this will be for nothing. The law will change the rules of the game we are playing.
Carien’s eyes narrow. “You have very low thoughts.” She stands. “I must go.” Carien leaves without a goodbye, and after she has gone, I notice her tea is untouched.
Well, it was not perhaps quite the meeting I had planned, but I will have Jannik in her house by tomorrow, and he will be able to find where Eline Garret is keeping Isidro. Once he has given me a location, surely it will be nothing more than following Jannik’s directions and using my magic one last time before I give it up for good.
This new legal proposal of Eline’s concerning the vampire rights is another millstone we need to cut from our necks. Isidro was certain that it could not be passed, that my voice and Harun’s would be enough to stall the council in its vote. However, I need to go make sure that Guyin is sober enough to come out of his hermitage and take his seat in the Lord’s Council later this week. Whether or not Isidro is back, he needs to stand with me. We must make plans and I need to let Harun lead me in this, something I am loath to do. He’s not proved himself to be the most stable of allies, but he’s the only one I have and I am woefully ignorant as to how the MallenIve system works. I have never set foot in a Lord’s Council. It is not how we do things in Pelimburg.
* * *
The evening has fallen in silken drapes and the last of the sun has left the western horizon a smear of reds and deep pinks. Jannik and I are home. Or rather, in the thing that is pretending to be our home. He’s slumped in a long couch, legs stretched out. For the first time today, we are alone again. I curl next to him, revelling in this strange comfortable intimacy. With my knees and shins just touching his thigh, I can feel the welcoming slide of his magic between us. His tiredness is flickering in my head, his mental walls crumbling. “You should sleep.” I press a strand of sable hair back, tuck it behind his ear then let my fingers trail down his jaw.
Jannik sighs. “So should you.”
When I returned to gather Jannik and bring him home, I found the Guyin house in a flurry of wash cloths and pails and brooms, with Harun himself looking slightly stunned, if at least shaved and bathed and dressed in a clean suit. Jannik had found a portly but neat low-Lammer in his fifties to stand as head servant, and Master Gillcrook has the look of a man who would deal with House tempers with a genial firmness that would serve him well working for Harun.
“At least we’ve left Guyin in good hands,” I say. “Do you think we should have stayed there?” He’s not alone in the house, but I still feel a squirming pity for him. Jannik also had the entire contents of Harun’s wine cellar either sold or hauled off into storage. I can’t imagine Harun will take the news well when he discovers it.
“He would not have welcomed our continued intrusion.”
“I suppose not.” We’ve already involved ourselves too much in his affairs. A humiliation he may well never recover from. I run my fingers lightly down Jannik’s shirt, skating over the creases, and down along the black wool of his trousers.
When I reach his knee, he stops my hand with his own. “I believe you missed out on some of the more interesting details of last night,” Jannik says.
“That is true, and I believe someone promised me a review, of sorts.” I push away all the worries I have – of the Lord’s Council I have to go to, of Jannik’s impending meeting with House Eline, of what could be happening to Isidro right now – and concentrate on the feel of Jannik’s hand against mine.
“A review?” Jannik laughs, and reaches out to touch my cheek and turn my face to his. His mouth is warm, brushing kisses along my brow and cheek. He touches my mouth and I feel a jolt of darkness inside me, a hunger. This time he tastes of tooth powder and smells of leather and cut grass. There is no blood.
We spend our night awake, talking in whispers and sighs. We should sleep but neither of us wants to fall to dreams and darkness when we do not know what the morning will bring.