THE HOUSE IMAGINARY

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The House Imaginary

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We end up on the storeroom couch, still fully clothed. We only kiss when the doors are closed. Perhaps, like me, he is still embarrassed by this sudden silent confession. Jannik presses me down onto the thick covers. His weight is comforting. He’s heavier than Dash was, a little taller, and he kisses differently. There’s something almost subversive about the way he kisses, something sly and sharp and fox-like that makes me feel like I am charged with static. I match my kisses to his, my breathing, then pause to gently take his lower lip between my teeth. This is me, saying mine.

I think he understands. Jannik pulls his head away and trails kisses down my throat, down to my chest. He frees my breasts from the low-cut bodice, flicking at my nipples with his tongue.

I shiver, arch my back. Something is off, leaving me feeling out of kilter. Taking a deep breath, I roll over to my side, pushing him with me. Still not right. Sit up.

He follows my command without arguing, and seems utterly unsurprised when I straddle him again. The feeling of rightness is back and we sit like this, tongues and fingers and lips touching. He opens his eyes when my one hand slides down to unbutton his trousers.

Still dressed, I lift myself over him.

His breathing is short, almost harsh.Like this?

I nod.

He slides in fast, both of us slick, his hips jerk once, and I want so much to just let myself go and be real and together. I have done this only with one other person before, but in my memories I squeezed it down to a meaningless dry nothing. With Dash, I was tying myself to him for safety. No matter what excuses I gave myself I knew that deep inside me I was using his bed sheets as ribbons to bind myself to the Whelk Street house. If I had him, I had a place to stay. I think I even convinced myself that I was in love.

I think I even convinced myself that he was in love.

Dry beach sand in my palms, pale and dead.

Jannik is fever-hot, pale as that sand but far more alive, filled with secrets. His hands are damp with heat, his fingers caging my cheeks, thumbs tracing under my eyes. His wool trousers are scratchy-rough against my thighs, a grounding counterpoint.

This is nothing like what came before, the way I want to remember it.

It’s different and maybe better, maybe sour-sweeter. I want to taste it slow, savour the plum-ripe moment. It’s the rightness of this finally happening and I want to cling that feeling, revel in it. I want to wrap it around me, fall into it, drown.

Instead, I make myself grip Jannik’s arms hard enough that I can feel the bones, and shake my head as I pull his hands down to his sides. He stops, his chest heaving, and I can feel his control as he shivers. Both of us still, our breathing the only thing that remains in time.

I mirror him, cupping his face in my hands and keeping his head in place. In the yellow fatcandle light his eyes are dark, the indigo almost black. I’ve never looked this closely into his eyes, at the tiny crystalline fractures, at the way they lighten toward the centre like ice around his dilated pupils. I kiss him once, very softly, and whisper.I’m going to save Isidro,I say.There’s a way.

He stays very still, waiting.

It takes all my hard cruelty to tell him how.I’m going to use you as bait.

Jannik blinks.

Don’t say anything, let me explain.My earlier conviction is gone. Like my desire, it’s faded.I need to get into House Eline, and what better way than to give you to them?

What better way indeed.” He shifts away from me, and we are no longer joined.

Jannik.My hands are still on his face, and the magic is thrumming against my palms, stronger than it was before. It feels like I’ve trapped a mouse.

He twists his head and shakes free of my grip.

My heart speeds up, and the heat rises in my cheeks.There’s a way for me to know where you are, at all times.Let me, let me, let me. Listen to me, to what I’m asking without asking.

No.The third eyelids snap closed, and I am left staring at the mucous-white skin, wet and raw.

Please listen–” My courage spikes, driving me to admit my reasonings. This is just a cover, I want to tell him. I’m really asking this for me, not for Isidro. But I don’t get the chance to explain myself, perhaps because I never wanted to. I let it slip away, and my regret is shot through with relief. Let him think me cold and hard, it’s safer that way.

There’s something wrong with you,Jannik says, very calmly, and still not looking at me.You trap us in this farce of a marriage so that you can escape Pelimburg, you tie me to your side, tell me my leash is as long I want, only it never is.

I’m sorry.

I stay at your side, and you kick me away,he continues as if my interruption did not exist,I stray, and you drag me back to heel. You pull me this way and that, and you use me, Felicita. But let’s get one thing settled between us now. I am not your fucking house dog.The third eyelids peel back, and I am left looking into indigo so deep it hides everything.

You’re not listening.

Neither are you.

Whatever remaining desire that was in my system is replaced by anger. Anger that is reflected a thousandfold in Jannik’s hunched shoulders. We sit side by side, curled in on ourselves. I would have thought that this was exactly what he wanted.Why are you turning this down now?

You have no idea what it is you’re suggesting. You’ve understood nothing I’ve ever said.

Everything you’ve told me has been evasive at best.I cross my arms over my front, and try press away the strange ache behind my breastbone.Weexchangeblood, and I know where you are, I can sense your physical condition. It will work in our favour, and we can use it to rescue Isidro. that what you want?

It’s also fucking permanent.

That, I hadn’t realized. Things Harun and Jannik said make more sense now, but I do not want to believe it. I cannot.It’swhatbut, Dash?I frown, hug myself tighter. Whatever bond was between them, it ended when he died, that much I know.

“We hadn’t.”

“Hadn’t what?”

“Hadn’t finished it.” He smiles emptily, and stares at the far wall. “The one thing I should really thank my mother for, I suppose. Making sure that I didn’t let myself get too attached to him. That I fed from others, and never completed the bond. I could feel a little of what he went through, you’re right, but he would not have felt the same.” The smile falters. “We would need more than that for you to be able to know where I am, to have any real clarity, don’t you see?”

“How much more?” Pain prickles my nerves. Jannik’s magic isn’t its usual feather-touch. It ant-marches across my skin, biting me.What are you doing?

Nothing,he mutters, and takes a deep breath; he’s not looking at my face, instead he’s focusing on the crimson silk of my dress, pushed up around my knees. The stinging magic fades, leaving me itchy and on edge.I don’t think you know what you’re asking,he says, finally.Come back here.

I let myself be guided into place again, straddling him. But it feels stupidly awkward now, like we’re trying to capture something we’ve already lost.So explain to me.

He’s quiet. Then I feel his fingers and thumbs on my bare knees, stroking tiny circles against the skin. I don’t stop him, but I relax a little, although I’m not sure why. The fatcandle sputters out, and we are left in a protective wrapping of shadows.

When he starts talking, his voice is very low, so soft I strain to hear him properly.A bond between bloodlines is more than a marriage contract. It’s a binding of lives. We will start off by knowing little things, like where the other is at any given moment, and slowly, that builds. We become aware of moods, of pains, and fears.He stops, laughs bitterly,Each other’s happiness.

It doesn’t sound as terrible as he seems to think it is. A little invasive.

And then you’ll realize you don’t know whose thoughts are whose. Only, by that time, you’re happy in your symbiosis; you can’t imagine a world, a life, without your partner. And then one day one of us will die.

I swallow around the sand in my throat.

Do you have any idea what happens when half of your mind dies?

You’re making this up,I say when I find my voice. Even though I knew, or had guessed to just how bad it could get.

He shakes his head.

I lean forward and rest my forehead against his, and step off a cliff higher than Pelim’s Leap.I don’t care,I whisper, and it is a confession so long in coming that it pinches my chest, a spasm of pain and fear and terrible longing. The truth hurts, I realize with a dispassionate clarity. Especially a truth I’ve tried to tear out of my heart every time I was reminded it was there. A truth I could never face, could only ever view side-long, briefly.

It’s Jannik’s magic that answers, it mirrors his fingers, stroking against me, rippling under the layers of petticoats and silks, touching my skin with the soothing coolness of a breeze in the middle of the summer heat waves.

I pull myself closer against him, letting my breast rest against his. His heart is beating fast. Like mine, but the fear is gone. His arms come up and wrap around me, holding me tight. I relax, and drop my head against his shoulder.

If you do this,he says, after we have sat like this for many minutes.I want you to tell me that you understand that there’s no going back from it.

Yes.

So say it,he says, his breath huffing against my hair, tickling my ear.

Pelim Jannik, I understand that if we do this, we will be permanently bound to each other emotionally and mentally, and that no amount of wishing will make it go away, no matter what I say. Is that good enough for you?

If?

When, obviously.I shift so that I can press my mouth against his neck, not-quite kissing his heated skin.Idiot,I mutter.

Fine. Guess that will do.Only he makes no move to start.

After a while, I bite gently against his neck then pull away so I can look at him properly.So why are we waiting?

I’m thinking.

Don’t hurt yourself.

He smiles thinly.I’m wondering how to do this. Every House vampire knows techniques to keep their minds mostly their own.

I lean back a little. He’s staring past my shoulder, but I don’t think he’s lying.You said it was inevitable.

It is, but it doesn’t have to be totally crippling.He snaps back from his pondering, and focuses on me.Or are you telling me you want my mind trampling all over yoursknowing your every secret fear and hope?

Not if you don’t have to.I wrinkle my nose.Not at all, if you know a trick to stop it.

It’s not a trick.

I wait. Then I jab him in the shoulder with my index finger.Jannik?

We build houses in our heads.

You what?

He sighs. His hands have migrated to my hips, and he’s drumming his fingers in thought. It’s not an unpleasant sensation. I shift against him, but he’s apparently distracted by his mind-houses.A house is a safe place. It has walls for defence, doors to let people in. A house has places to hide things.

Like thoughts?The idea is intriguing.

He nods.I’ve built up my house year by year, from when I was very young, and I had tutors who helped me. You, on the other hand, are going to start this now, and I’m not much of a tutor, I’m afraid.

But you’ll show me how.It’s not a question, but he answers anyway.

Of course.

Good then.The buttons that run down the front of my dress are more for decorative purposes than anything else; the whole thing is laced up at the back. It doesn’t stop them from working though. I fiddle the first three of the tiny cloth-covered buttons from their tight buttonholes, exposing skin.Don’t bite me where it will showI still need to act like nothing has changed when I march into House Eline demanding an audience.

Jannik starts laughing softly, and shakes his head.I don’t know why I’m surprised. It was always obvious that you weren’t going to do what anyone told you.He tugs a few more buttons free, and the front of my dress flaps open completely. He stares for a moment, one side of his mouth quirked in bemusement then he grips my hips, and coaxes me to my knees.

I do what he wants, my chest rapidly rising and falling.

He lowers his head, and bites deep into the side of my left breast. The pain is immense, and I stifle my shriek with one fist. My other hand grips his shoulder so tightly I know that I’m going to bruise him. The pain surges as he drinks, and I can feel the tickle against my cheeks as my tears run down my face. I don’t blink, don’t sob. My teeth grind deeper into the flesh of my fist. It hurt less on my wrist.

That time I got through it by breathing in colours; by imagining each breath long and slow and made of light. Now I don’t want to just be a person enduring pain. With a ragged gasp, I lower my fist, and unclench my grip on Jannik’s shoulder.

The burn on the side of my chest lessens, almost as though accepting it into me robs it of its power. The pain changes, disappears, and Jannik raises his head. My breast stings, and blood is running down my side, but it’s nothing.

Euphoria rushes through me, a taste of magic, music and addiction. This is him. This is what he really feels like. I shiver uncontrollably, and the rush sweeps though me, filling my head and veins. Any moment, I’m going to pass out. I laugh.

Something cool presses against my side, and Jannik’s voice buzzes around me.You’re all right?He sounds far away. Fingers snap right by my ear, and I’m back. The euphoria is still there, but it’s muted.

The room is draped in shadows made of violet and indigo, the scarlet of my dress glistens like new-spilled blood. The smell of silk is so thick I can taste it, like stuffing wool down my throat. In my ears, my heart beat is not a lone drum, but a symphony.I’m here,I say, and marvel at the way my voice plays in the air. Slowly, I pull myself together, and sink back down. He’s hard again.Beautiful,I say, then give my head a quick little shake, like I’m bothered by a sandfly.Your turn.

He doesn’t say anything, just stays still, looking at me.

The seconds flick faster, and a minute passes.

Are you–

Yes,he says.No.

Bitterness fills my mouth.Jannik.

This is because of what I said at House Guyin, isn’t it. You’re feeling guilty and so now you offer me this?

Stop being so, so . . . .

Right?

I thump him on his shoulder.No. Don’t go looking for reasons not to do this. I’m offering, so take it.

Since you put it so elegantly,he says,how can I resist?But he stays unmoving.This is a mistake.”

I shift above him, pressing myself down harder.Then let’s make a mistake.I lean forward to kiss him. He tastes of blood, sweetly metallic.It will hardly be our first.

He sighs and pulls one arm up to bite at his wrist. The action is the only clear thing in the room, all about us the shadows have made everything hazy and unreal. When he holds up his bleeding arm to me I’m almost confused by it. I have no idea what it is I’m doing. Perhaps this is some strange dream I’ve fallen into, brought on by fire and exhaustion. We’re in the office, we haven’t woken, Isidro is still with Harun, where he should be. Harun has had no Vision of our black and terrible future. Of the children I will not have.

My tongue flicks out, tastes the magic in Jannik’s blood. There’s a momentary nausea as I think of what it is I’m actually doing then that is squashed under a trampling of sensation. My head is filled.

Wait,says Jannik. His mouth is still set in a grim line as he watches me suck at the tender vein. The sound of his voice is in my head, pulling up walls and floor and a roof. It’s no place I recognize.

* * *

I‘m standing in a white room, returned to a more conventional state of dress in my crimson gown, the buttons done up, the silk glimmering. Jannik too is dressed and unrumpled. He’s opposite me, thoughtful, his eyes dark as he frowns.

Where are we?

Inside your head,he answers.

I take another brief look around me at the empty nothingness.I’m certain I’ve at least had a thought or two in my time. I’m not that vacuous.

He smiles with just one side of his mouth.Not like that. I mean I’ve made a space inside your head where you can build.

And how exactly am I supposed to do that?I squint.You made a space? You’re rearranging my head?

In a very small way.

Dimly, I’m aware of my real body, outside, all around me. Moving and sighing. I think I would rather be out there enjoying what’s going on than stuck in a bizarre architectural lesson.

Forget about that for now,Jannik says. He steps closer and clicks his fingers under my nose.You need to concentrate on this.

You’re reading my mind.

I did warn you, and since right now I’m inside your head there are no barriers. You have no defences, especially as the rest of you is otherwise engaged.He looks uncomfortable.

And you’re not?

I’m here and there.He grins at me.

You bastard. I’ll want a re-enactment.

I’m sure I’ll be able to oblige.

I sigh and push loose tendrils of hair back from my face.Fine, teach me.

A challenge.He’s secure here, playful, lightly mocking.

I’m in his territory even though the head space is mine. My mouth twists wryly at this, and I almost smile.

He steps closer and rests his hands on my shoulders.Well start with a single room. It has to be a place you felt safe where nothing bad could come for you.

That’s easy enough – my tower room at the old manor. I was the only one with the key to it, my mother’s kindest gift to me. The first thing that shimmers into existence is the bed with its old notched varnish, and the dark blue coverlet.It’s so real.I reach out and touch it. It’s solid. The wood is cool and hard, the coverlet soft, the wool of unicorn kids.

It is. It’s more real than the rest of the world.

If you start quoting bad verse at me I’m going back,I warn him.

“Barbarian,he says, laughing a little.It’s good, Felicita.He motions to my childhood bed.Really, a good start. Just keep remembering the room with that kind of attention to detail.

That’s it?I say as the rest of my bedroom unrolls around me. I laugh in delight as the rich patterns of my carpet crawl under my feet and the stone walls spring up, the roof beams shooting overhead.Ha!My entire room is there in an aching, very real way. It smells of home.It’s so easy.

No it’s not. You’re a natural magic-user. I should have known you’d take to this. You must miss this place,he says softly, then shakes his head.Not that easy. I’m going to go now. After I’ve left, think of something simple, the name of a favourite pet, and hide it here, then leave.

He flicks out, disappearing so quickly I am left with a cold stone in my throat. There is a flash of red like traces of ribbons, as if they bind him to me, then they too are gone. I do what he says, then let go of the vision of my bedroom.

I am back in the physical world and it’s like being smashed in the head with a hammer.

* * *

Blood is everywhere, bursting from my nose and dribbling out of my mouth in warm spurts. I try press my nose, my hands cupped over my face but the blood runs between my fingers. I’m swallowing blood, choking on it.

Shit.Jannik scrabbles over to find a length of silk and tugs it free before holding it up to my face. Hold on, it will pass.

He presses the cloth in place for me and eventually the dribble slows. Carefully I pull the silk away; it’s almost black, dripping over my skirts and Jannik’s shirt. There’s a pattern of spray across his face.

The room slants, slips away from me. I can feel myself falling but even though I command my arms to reach out to catch on to somethinganythingthey remain slack. No part of my body responds and I feel terror and then

nothing.

* * *

When I wake, I’m lying stretched out on the couch. The soft blanket is tucked under my chin, and my face feels clean, the blood wiped away.

The light in the room is dim. The fatcandle is sputtering, making shadows leap along the walls.

I blink.

So ask me a question,Jannik says from the other side of the room. I turn to his voice and a dull pain clamps my head.Don’t move, Felicita.He sounds weary.

What-I lick my lips, swallow. My throat is dry and I’m parched.What questionoh.I close my eyes; let the soothing dark caress the pain away.What was the name of my favourite pet?

I can feel him in my head, walking like a ghost between my memories. In my dream room, I strengthen the walls, hold them fast. It’s surprisingly tiring.

Eventually, I feel him retreat.No idea,he says.Well done.

I groan and shift my head slowly, inching my cheek toward the pillow until I can see him. He’s cloaked in the shadows, but the paleness of his skin stands out, cool as a Long Night candle.That’s it, then?

Hardly. It’s a start. You’ll work on building the rest of your house, though it’ll take years, and when you’re done, every thought and secret you want to keep your own will be inside and I’ll never be allowed in unless invited.

Years,I echo.That’s disheartening.

He shrugs.I warned you.

I sit up gingerly. Every part of my body has been bludgeoned into an aching pulp.How long have I been asleep?

About three hours. As soon as you’re ready to travel I’ve made arrangements for us to stay in rented apartments. It won’t be the luxury you’re accustomed to, but it’ll be better than this.

Jannik.I can feel now the dampness between my legs, can smell clearly the salty musk. Even if I barely remember it, it happened.I have slept on sacks in a house with no windows. I think I’ll survive a rented apartment.

He smiles at me.Of course you will.

And I will send a servant to buy me rake’s parsley. There’s no point living up to Harun’s Visions.

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