A new art exhibition has been announced in the late Courant. The black-and-white flash on the Amusements page does the pictures little justice. The headline calls the work that of a savage and naturally, I am intrigued.
I try to ignore the little article on the opposite page about the body they pulled from the Casabi. Another nameless bat. It chills me to read the words, knowing Jannik wants me do nothing. I force myself to pay attention to the vicious review instead. It has a certain incensed bluster that means it can only have been written by some House toady who feels his heroes have been mocked. The artist’s name is Iynast. Just that. I have no idea if it’s his true name, or the surname of some long-forgotten minor House.
Jannik has left for the offices already. Despite Carien’s promise – or threat – I have yet to try secure a commitment of any kind from House Eline, or be invited to meet with her husband. Jannik’s unwillingness for me to pursue the matter of the body – now bodies – stops me from extending my own small invitation. Just when I think I am finally ready to go ahead and do it anyway, I find another reason not to: I need to employ a better chef, I need to have the house redecorated, the timing isn’t quite right.
It’s not just Jannik’s fear that makes me cling to all these excuses. Carien fascinates me. I want to see more of her, to feel that strange thrill that comes from watching the way she walks, her coiled intensity, the flash of wildness in her amber eyes. But she is dangerous to me and mine, and I’m not quite ready to have a Reader invade my home.
How much of my past would she be able to winkle out of me, just by being in my rooms? Would she pull all the secrets out of my coiled heart and lay them like little twisted miscarriages on a platter before me?
My brother’s death was no unlucky accident and only two people alive know the circumstances. Dash, who was the only other one who knew what happened, is buried now. I don’t even know where. I think Jannik may, but even I am not so heartless as to ask. Owen himself is interred in the family mausoleum, next to my father. From my mother’s last letter it may not be long before Owen’s sickly daughter is placed there too. The disappointment in that letter announcing Allegria’s birth was palpable. With Owen dead, there is no male heir to my House. There is only me. The heiress presumptive. How that must gall my brother’s shade.
But Jannik has my name and were I to have a son . . . .
I laugh at my own idiocy. I am no flower, pollinated by the wind.
Come, Felicita, let us turn our attention to more practical things. Whether or not House Eline have anything to do with the dead vampires, it will not matter if I conduct business with them. Surely we are not pretending friendship if I invite Carien and her husband to my house, so that we can talk of the price of silks and scriv? Even so, I’m loath to allow Carien time to uncover all my secrets. I would have to be careful, perhaps take something to dull my emotions.
Riona comes into the room and begins to clear away the lunch dishes. She hesitates by me, fiddling with the cutlery, straightening things that do not need straightening.
I catch the troubled look that flutters across her face, the quick furrow before it is gone from her brow. “Is it your brother?”
She shakes her head. “No, my lady.” But she continues to stand, her fingers dancing nervously along the edge of a spoon handle .
I sigh. “What then?”
“I don’t mean to be forward,” she says. “But you don’t look well. Is there something I can bring you?”
“I’m tired,” I tell her, not certain how or what to explain. This thing with the Houses and the vampires is no concern of hers. What would she say if I were to explain? Perhaps she could be sympathetic, but how can I expect that from someone who looks at my troubles and compares them to her own, and can see only a vast gulf? I have money and privilege, what does it matter if others have more than me? I look away from her. We are not friends, and perhaps there is no way we ever can be. My time in Whelk Street taught me that much. Dash and his little gang never truly accepted me. He made me feel like I was a part of their group the better to use me, and the others knew it.
He was one person. I can’t spend my life trapped in ever-diminishing circles, repeating the same tired paths because I once made a bad decision. A child does that, refusing to grow and learn from their mistakes, and I am so certain these days that I have left my childishness behind. I suppose then this is the proof that I haven’t.
“Wait.” I reach one hand forward to touch her sleeve, to tell Riona all my fears, and hope that somehow this outpouring will fill the empty space between us.
Before I reach her, the pealing bells of the Seven Widows slam and clang through the air, always so unexpectedly deafening, and whatever I had planned to say is rolled flat under their noise. I look down at the paper, at the review. I drop my hand.
“Riona,” I say when the last chimes have faded. “It’s nothing. I just need a little fresh air. Have the grooms ready the chaise.” I will not sit in this house and rot, waiting for MallenIve to accept me. The heat is bearable; the winds are blowing the stench of funeral pyres out into the desert. There is an exhibition I would go see.
* * *
Iynast’s work is not on display at the MallenIve Gallery, but instead at a small house called the Sunstone. It’s far from grand. Low-Lammers are milling through the rooms, pointing and laughing at the paintings. They have a slapdash feel to them – broad brush strokes, bold black lines and vibrating colours. The themes are low-brow – serving Hobs doing dishes, or working in fields; studies of friends and acquaintances. No wonder the artistic elite of MallenIve loathe them. In our world only we are important, and our visages must be painted with restraint and lies.
I stop before a portrait of a kitty-girl. Her hair is dyed flame-red and she’s wearing only a thin shift rolled up to her thighs as she washes her feet in a small stone basin.
“Vulgar, don’t you think?” says a woman with a honey dark voice.
My heart lurches, a little rabbit in a noose. “I like it,” I say, pretending to examine it more intently to give myself time to act as if this meeting were as casual to me as it must be to her. “It’s real.”
The woman laughs. “So it is. I must admit to quite liking a bit of vulgarity myself.”
I turn to face Carien, my surprise at seeing her here tucked carefully away. Has she been thinking of me the way I have of her and so our thoughts are pulling us together? I imagine the roots of a smothering fig, spreading out and down around a blackbark until it dies. Which one of us has taken root in the other, I wonder. “Vulgarity?” I murmur.
“As long as it’s real.” She smiles. “There’s nothing as ugly as the mundane dressed up in finery it shouldn’t have.”
“And who decides what is mundane and what is fine?”
Carien claps her hands and laughs, clearly not caring that the low-Lammers around us are staring. “Who indeed, and what made you decide to come out here, down from your precious tower?”
I ignore the jibe. While it’s true I spend much of my time in the Pelim apartments, it’s hardly because I don’t want to mingle with people I think lower than myself. I don’t think so, anyway. “The review,” I say.
“Scathing, isn’t it?” Carien has a wicked smile, and there again is that wildness I recognize, that makes me want to reach out and touch her mouth, to feel how warm her breath would be against my cold fingertips. “Would you like to meet the artist?”
“You know him?” I raise one brow.
“Naturally.” Her smile grows wickeder and wilder – it is not done for House Lammers to count painters and crakes as friends and acquaintances. “I’ve heard you’re not a bad artist yourself.”
“I’m passable.” Painting is something I was taught to do regardless of skill or desire; all girls in the Houses have their artistic temperament encouraged. We are pretty things, destined to make pretty things. I am marginally competent. My real interest lies less with the art than with how I am able to use that art to record those things that interest me. “My paintings bring me more pleasure than they would others, I’m afraid.”
“Nonsense, I’m sure.” Carien takes my arm. “Come, perhaps our artist will deign to give you lessons.”
“I don’t think-”
“Oh hush,” she says, and pulls me along with her. “Live a little.”
And how long have I wanted to do just that – to forget about death and betrayal? And perhaps I was wrong about Carien. After all, House parties are hardly the place where you show others your true face. Guyin is bitter, and his view of all the other Houses is twisted by his self-imprisonment.
Carien sends my driver home while I stand there gaping. “Calm yourself,” she says. “I shan’t leave you stranded.”
I clamber as elegantly as I can into her coach, which is done in shades of russet and copper, with the windswept leaves that mark House Eline picked out in gold paint along the carriage doors. The two cantankerous unicorns pulling it are matched chestnuts, their single horns massive and gnarled, sweeping back over their high, rugged shoulders.
Carien doesn’t tell me where we’re going and I am not yet ready to ask. This close, inside the small carriage, I can smell the faint winter-pear and honey of her perfume. Underneath that is a wild note, like the mossy boles of forests. Jannik would be able to tell the different scents apart, could name them. Perhaps his own family made this one.
The one thing I don’t smell is scriv. She won’t be Reading me. I relax my back against the leather seat, secure that she will not be using the drug to pick her way through my emotions, to trick my secrets out of me by knowing when to say the right words. “You know his haunts?”
“Indeed. You could call me something of a patron of the arts.”
We turn into an area where I have never set foot. A white-washed pub called the Greenfinch stands on the corner of a long road of narrow houses huddled together, their grey stones overlapping, their tiles mingling. We pass the pub, into another street. This one is full of barrows and handcarts. It is too much like going back to Pelimburg’s Old Town; it reminds me of a past from which I have run. The coach clatters to a halt.
“We’ll have to walk the rest,” says Carien.
I follow her like a boggert in a dream. Here then is the hand offered for no reason other than the ones that are supposed to spur friendships. She is interested in me, we have the same lives, and under our silks and our masks and our marriages, the same vulgarity. I could tell myself some story that I am going with her because she’s a key to my mystery of the dead vampires, but it’s not true. For the first time in the months I have been in my chosen exile in MallenIve, I have seen the reflection of myself in someone else.
We leave the driver waiting and cross the cobbled street into a narrow alley way. The dream-like feeling ripples with shivery fish memories. It wasn’t so long ago that I worked in places like the ones we are passing. In Pelimburg I scrubbed my hands raw in a tea house called The Twice-Drowned Crake. The Crake was set against the warren of alleyways that make up Old Town, and the streets were crammed with shops and parlours and laundry houses and grimy narrow buildings where the girls wore hard dead faces. The boards were worn down by a thousand summers, by wind-flung sand. The heavy sea-smell of salt and kelp was tangled up in the nets and the masts, and there was no way to separate the city from the ocean. I breathe in deep, wishing for that taste of the crisp sea against my tongue, but all I get is MallenIve’s putrescent stench. The loss is so intense it pricks at my eyes. My breath comes sharp with regret. I had forgotten so much, and not wanted to allow myself to remember.
I miss the girl I was in Pelimburg. I miss Nala and Lils and Verrel and Esta. I miss Dash. How stupid and strange. I wasn’t really one of them, but at least I was never alone. How different it could have been if I’d been nothing more than just a girl – perhaps I could have scraped myself a shallow place in that world, and let Pelimburg’s doomed revolution roll over my head and pass.
“Does the air here not agree with you?” Carien snaps.
No. I suppose it does not. I smile thinly. “Should it?”
She snorts out a small un-ladylike laugh. “This way.”
The buildings are high overhead, and several arch above us, their balconies kiss-close. Very little sun manages to filter down and the cobbles are slick and mossy. There is a smell of drain water and earth and fungus. And tea.
“In here.” Carien pushes open a smoky glass door into a tiny tea shop. The place is warm, lit with fatcandle lanterns, and the greasy smoke competes with strong teas, the citrus oils and Pelimburg small-leaf tisanes. The place is half-full. The Hobs look at us then away; pretend they have never noticed our unwelcome presence. “Have you ever been in a Hob tea shop?”
“I–” I look around at the high tables; listen to the familiar hiss of the tea-urns, the distant clink of porcelain from the scullery, remember my own hands chapped and wrinkled by dishwater. “I’ve not yet had the pleasure.”
“Sit,” she says. “You’ll get used to it, soon enough.” She takes a seat at a small corner table wedged by a window made of little rounds of coloured glass.
I sit down smoothly opposite Carien, just as a low-Lammer girl in a bleached apron comes to take our order. Carien asks for sweet aloe and poisonink. I frown. ‘Ink is a poet’s drug, a madman’s. Not to say that I haven’t seen my share of it, but it’s not a vice the Houses normally bother with. Too mundane for them. It’s strictly the province of the lower castes.
“You won’t tell, will you?” She winks. “Garret thinks it awfully revolting and goes on about how it makes the Hobs even more useless than they already are, but I find I quite enjoy it.”
Why is she doing this – telling me her secrets as if we were friends? I don’t trust her and her hunger for the vampires. She’s still half-smiling at me, although one corner is faltering as she grows noticeably nervous. Perhaps, after all, she is just like me, a girl caught out of place. She’s married into House Eline, and they are a cold people. She’s a woman of woodlands and dapples and shadows, not icy glass.
I remove my gloves. The skin is white and soft; the evidence of my rebellion smoothed away with hand-creams and balms. “We all have our vices,” I say. “A redbush, with honey, please.”
The girl runs off with our order.
We wait her return in a flickering, uncomfortable silence. Around us the tea-shop murmurs and buzzes, but here it is as if we are trapped in a bubble of air under water. Carien watches me with her cat eyes, appraising me. I wonder what it is she sees.
“The artist,” I say, when our drinks are steaming before us.
“Oh, yes. Him.” Carien pouts. “He’s here.”
I look around the shop. There are the poet-caste – crakes – scrawling poems, a Hob or two taking lunch, and a few low-Lammer youths of no particular House. None of them look like my idea of an artist.
“In front of you.” Carien holds out her hands and waits.
Her palms smack against the red wood of the table and the cups skip in their saucers. “Me.”
“Surely you’re not serious?” But her small hands are elegant despite the stubby fingers. They dance when she talks; they can never be still and silent. I suppose those are the hands of someone who would paint. I ask the first thing that pops into my head. “Where did you find a kitty-girl to sit for you?”
Carien wrinkles her brow at my odd question then shakes her head. “Where does one usually find a kitty-girl?” she says, half laughing. “And besides I paid her well, better than she would have earned on her back.”
“You don’t approve.” She draws back a little. “I thought you would, and I rarely misjudge a person.”
“Misread,” I correct. “I’m not judging you. If anything, I’m intrigued.” Always a bad idea for me. “Does Garret know?”
“Oh, he knows I paint. It’s a suitable enough hobby.”
I want to go back to the Sunstone and look at her work again. She has a good eye: it captures more than merely form and composition. She catches people’s hearts and the truths that lie behind their masks. The things that make them people. My own talent is meagre – enough to let me record the things I want. I’ve long ago accepted that, but I find myself stabbed by a bitter, sputtering envy that I cannot do what she can.
You idiot, Felicita, what good would talent have done you?
“I confess I didn’t really bring you here to talk about my paintings,” she says, and takes a long slow sip of her tea. The smell of poisonink wafts toward me, stirring sticky-handed memories of the girl I used to be. Just over six months ago. More than a life time.
I’m seventeen now. A lady of my own House. Married. I carry all of Pelim’s heavy history on my back. It’s time to forget the childish wants of my past and focus on what I can do for my House. I have so much for which I must atone. And if that means cultivating Carien’s friendship, then surely that is no great hardship. “I see. What did you bring me here for then? To listen to the mutterings of crakes?” A childhood forced to learn Pelimburg’s histories in verse has rather turned me against poetry, I’m afraid.
Carien sets down her tea, clasps her fingers together and leans closer to me, conspiratorial. Dark brown curls have escaped their glittering hair pins and they cast winding shadows along her cream throat. “I want your bat.”
The Splinterfist head was right about House Eline’s involvement. I draw back from her, my upper lip twisting in a snarl of disgust.
“He’d make a beautiful subject,” she continues. “All that contrast.” Her fingers uncurl to dance patterns in the air.
I freeze, trying to understand what she has just said. I had visions of her peeling the skin from Jannik with a silver knife, and now it seems she wants nothing more than to pin an image of him up alongside her kitty-girls and serving Hobs. She wants to capture him in her savage colours. The sweat turning cold on my back leaves me feeling clammy and ill, and perhaps I have misunderstood everything. My thoughts crystallize. “Wait, you want to paint him?”
“Do you think he’d agree to sit?”
I’m about to tell her she’d do better to ask him herself, when I remember who I am supposed to be, and what has been said between us. The way she shivered when she talked of touching the vampires. Her interest in Jannik still disturbs me. Never trust them, Felicita. “I could tell him to do it, if I wished.”
“Ah,” says Carien, and she draws back with a viperous ease. “And what would make you wish such a thing?”
We are back to playing games. There are vampires dead on the rubbish heaps. We are not tea girls or artists or poets. We are House pieces on the game board. “I seek an audience – a business meeting – with your husband.”
“And in exchange you’ll bring me your bat?”
I shrug. “I’ll give you the opportunity to discuss the matter with him.”
Carien covers her scowl by taking another sip of her tea. “I thought you would make him agree to sit for me. Is it really so much to ask for the damn thing to sit still for a few hours?”
“He has better uses than as a model. I need him in the Pelimburg offices. If he feels he hasn’t the time to waste . . . .”
“Your glorified bookkeeper,” she says. “I don’t see how he’s any more important to you than one of the serving Hobs.”
“And indeed, he isn’t, but he is still mine.” I stand and take out my purse, scattering brass on the wood.
“You’re leaving,” she says flatly. She thinks she has me trapped here, coach-less.
“I am.” That wildness, that Dash-like thing that draws me to her, I must never forget that it is also dangerous. I have no desire to be caught again in the webs of someone else’s schemes.
She thinks I am a fool she can cow by taking away my security? I’m not some little girl lost who can’t so much as hire a public carriage. I walk out into the narrow alleyway. It’s dark now, an afternoon thunderstorm is gathering and the air is electric.
Somehow, I doubt I’ll hear from Carien again. And her interest in Jannik that so unnerved me – it was merely her desire for some new toy to occupy her time, a thing to paint and put on show. That’s all.
* * *
The next morning before breakfast I gather my sketchpad and inks, and make my way down to the gardens. Our odd meeting has inspired me to go back to my botanicals. Master Bermond, our head gardener, sees my approach, and has one of his staff bring my folding stool from the shed. He takes it from the boy with a flourish worthy of any gentleman, and waits for me with gruff indulgence.
“And which poor vegetable takes your fancy today?” He is not a man prone to smiles, but his good humour skates just under his voice. He finds my desire to paint and catalogue all the plants in the gardens a source of endless amusement.
I smile at him. “The purple bush – the one that’s just come into flower?” I point at the rambling shrub with the small compound leaves. Tiny butterfly-like flowers of a deep lilac are blooming between the bright green foliage. I see it everywhere around MallenIve, throwing vast sprays of flowers over the walls, or growing wild in the parks. It is not a plant familiar to me from Pelimburg.
“Sleepseed,” says Master Bermond. “Sometimes called pass-us-by.”
“And why is that?” I settle down on my stool, set my small easel out and prepare my inks.
“The Hobs say it wards off lightning.”
“Useful.” I draw a clean black line. With the first mark now made, my task is set. I concentrate on the bush, on the placement and size of the leaves, on the intricacies and individualities of the plant. “In a city like MallenIve, at least.” The summers here are punctuated with regular storms, brief and ferocious. Many of the houses have tall rods to charm the lightning away from their roofs. “If unlikely”
Master Bermond warms to his talk. At first, when I came out into the gardens to begin my new botanical, he found me an insufferable irritation, but soon discovered that I wanted to hear all he could tell me about the various plants. In our way, we have become friends, united in our desire for knowledge. Or rather; my desire for it, and his desire to share it.
I keep note of all he tells me and leave room next to my picture for his words. Later, I will go to the kitchens and ask Mrs. Palmer and her bevy of girls for the women’s knowledge, which is always different from men’s. Sometimes surprisingly so. Like Master Bermond was when I first had the temerity to enter their domain, the kitchen staff were wary and close-lipped. Now they share their secrets, and reward me for my interest with a mother’s wry amusement. As if I were a curious child, Mrs. Palmer hands me cups of strong tea and buttered griddle cakes topped with fig jam while I listen to the kitchen’s wisdom. Even the head housekeeper Mrs. Winterborn – a woman with a narrow, stern face who manages to frighten even me – sometimes peers in to add her own thoughts.
The sleepseed takes shape beneath my brush and a quiet calm envelops me. Master Bermond has told me all he knows and left me to paint. Even this early in the day the air is drowsy and fat with the drone of locusts and grasshoppers. The smell of mown grass and fresh-dug compost is faintly dusted with the scent of sage. There is no reek of plague; perhaps the fires are finally out.
The sun falls warm on my cheek despite my wide-brimmed hat, and the now-familiar bird song dances through the gardens. When I first arrived here it was the sound of the birds that made me realize how far I was from home. They didn’t sound right. Nothing made me more homesick than waking to their strange songs.
Here now in this summer garden, with only my brush and inks and the hovering bees for company, I am the closest to content I can allow myself. I will not think of Carien and the way she reminds me of something wild trapped in a small cage. Or of how pathetically eager I am to see in her someone like myself and to hope we could grow some friendship between us. To be the one who frees her, earns her gratitude, and perhaps her love. I shake my head. It seems I am eager to be a champion so people will love me. Am I really so lonely?
Or perhaps this is the way I think to salve all my guilt.
I look over my shoulder to Riona standing nervously behind me. She walks with a curious cat-like stealth as if she is scared to disturb anyone around her. She’s one of the few Hobs who came to us already able to read, and lately she’s been helping me give tutelage to those servants who want lessons. I like her. When she does speak, her humour is dry and pointed as a stick.
“Riona.” I stand, shaking out my skirts. “What is it?”
“A messenger came,” she says. “From House Eline.”
“And?” My palms are moist as I pack away my inks and brushes.
Riona takes my easel without being asked, careful not to mar the painting. “They left an invitation,” she says. “I thought you’d want to know straight away.”
“Indeed,” I say. “Indeed.” But instead of eagerness, a dull panic throbs in my chest. Something ill is going to come of this connection I am forging with House Eline.
* * *
I turn the little cream card over in my fingers, trying to think of some response to give. The messenger who left it is long gone, and still I have thought of nothing. The invitation is from Eline Garret; he would like to meet me. Here is my chance to make deals, to carve a foothold into MallenIve. And if there are secrets to be uncovered, how better to dig them out than by wearing the mask of friendship?
My brother would approve. I’ve become exactly the kind of society bitch the Houses love to breed.
Whatever my motives might be, Carien kept her word, so I suppose I’ll have to keep mine. I can imagine Jannik’s face when I put the idea to him that one of the House ladies wants to paint his portrait.
A glass bell rings for breakfast, breaking my contemplation, and I drop the card back onto the silver letter tray. I’ll deal with it once I’ve eaten. It’s too much for me to face on an empty stomach.
Jannik isn’t in the breakfast room when I enter. A servant pours tea, another brings in toast and preserves and salted herring. The smells of egg and mushrooms and tomato make the room feel oily. It’s not like Jannik to be absent. Normally he arrives before me and is already halfway through the Courant by the time I start eating.
I sit alone at the table, my heart tight. He’s not coming, and I make myself chew on toast and tomato. The texture of the egg turns my stomach, and I push it to one side with the rest of my uneaten food.
The Courant lies rolled neatly at Jannik’s place. Today’s paper is slim, uninteresting, and I flick through the goods trading section with dull interest. The silk crops are looking good. House Mata predicts bad flooding with the next summer rains, and the Casabi will break her embankments. Here’s a review of a new opera, a new play, a new gallery opening. An announcement of some House spawn, an engagement between two minor Houses. The dull minutiae of a dull city.
I care about none of this. My fingers still when I reach the final page, and my breath comes a little faster. On the back page there is a brief article – little more than a few lines. A vampire. Another one dead. The corpse was old, too rotted to identify.
Three dead now. Three of which we know. All in a matter of days.
Heart thrumming, I roll the paper tightly, and toss it back at Jannik’s place. He must be in the house somewhere.
The glass doors are cold against my palm as I push my way out of the clammy breakfast room. The fire was stoked too high, the reek of food too heavy. My stomach roils and churns, and as I leave, I find myself trying to gasp down the clean air as if it will somehow purify me.
Jannik’s side of the house is uncharted territory. When we came here we divided the apartments between us, marking out communal ground and private wings. Opening the door to his part of the house feels like trespassing even though the property is in my name.
He’s changed the décor. The silver and deep blues of my House colours are nowhere in evidence. Even though all the curtains are drawn, this side of the house feels lighter than mine. The drapes are pale, almost gossamer, and the old floorboards have been bleached. Something about the coldness, the lightness of it, reminds me of his mother’s home in Pelimburg. The white rooms have a certain stripped efficiency.
I find him in a study, reading, curled into an armchair that looks like it came from his old rooms, worn and shaped to him. One fist is knuckled against his temple, and his hair falls over his eyes. He is intensely engrossed in the slim blue volume. A cup of tea sits at his elbow.
“What happened to all the furniture?” I ask.
He starts at my voice and turns in his chair. “Never thought you’d come here.” A faint frown touches his forehead, and the third eyelids are half-drawn across his eyes.
“The furniture. It’s heirloom.”
“And safely stored away,” he says. “It made me feel like I didn’t belong here.” He turns back to his book, and raises his cup to blow across the tea. “To what do I owe the honour?”
“They found another body.”
Jannik sniffs, as if the tea tastes bad and sets the cup down on an occasional table. “I know.” He snaps the book closed with one hand.
“Don’t you care?”
“Of course I do – but what do you want us to do about it? You have a list of names, names that prove nothing. Are we supposed to go to the sharif now and demand that they arrest four Houses on nothing more than a slip of paper that some whore gave you?” His anger is tamped down but I can hear it just under the surface of his voice. It ripples the magic in the room and I rub my thumb across my opposite wrist to try still the itch.
We watch each other.
“I saw your invitation. Are you going to go?” he says, after seconds that feel like hours.
“Go – oh, to House Eline.” I look down at the full skirt of my dress. “I suppose. He wants to meet me at their offices.”
“Hmm. And this is all just about House Pelim business?”
I swallow. “Of course it is, you told me the deaths were none of my concern.”
“Since when have you ever listened to me?” The words are harsh, but the tone is defeated. “Not really much that you can dig up in his offices. If House Eline are buying and murdering vampires then I doubt they’re going to be doing it in full view of the staff.”
“No.” This third death must have goaded him. He knows he can do nothing in this city. I’m his only tool. And Harun, perhaps, if he ever agrees. I look up to catch Jannik frowning, his gaze focused on nothing. “But perhaps he will let something slip.”
“Well then, off you trot,” he says, “If nothing else, maybe this will be your catapult back into society.”
My stomach aches, he may as well have kicked me. But I am well-trained, and I keep my face as implacable as ever. “Don’t be a bastard about this, Jannik. I care about what’s happening with these vampires–”
The question hangs between us. “Because I do,” I mumble lamely. “Someone should.”
“Charity and compassion for those less fortunate were always the hallmarks of good breeding. Congratulations, I think perhaps you’ve almost clawed your way back up to being a lady.”
I grit my teeth, and breathe deeply through my nose, but it seems that finally I can’t control the anger rising in me. “Fuck you.”
I storm out, but not before Jannik gets in his final dig.
“Or perhaps not,” he calls out after me, and my cheeks heat as I march away from his cold, clean, emotionless side of the house.