We wake alone. The house is standing expectant, waiting for Eline to strike. I think of the body cooling in the blue room and press my fist against my mouth until the urge to sob passes.
Another little game piece, fallen. We met at a party, and her first words to me were about the Ives’ girls who had just been brought into the House games of power and prestige. I couldn’t tell if she felt sorry for them or not. Certainly, she didn’t see them as innocents. But she never had their weapons, their training. And she lost because of that, and more importantly, because of me.
I let the tremors pass through me. She’s gone. She’s not going to paint raw and wild pictures, or smoke ‘ink in back street tea shops.
And with her, our leverage is gone. It was one thing to think of provoking Eline into an outright attack so that we could use his anger to our advantage, but it’s become too big now, too dangerous.
Carien is dead, murdered. I shouldn’t have made the offer at all.
I put my pride before her safety. “Jannik?”
He stirs next to me.
My head is clear, as if the sand of his mind has scoured away all the ugly things that were confusing me. It frees me, gives me purpose again.
“How are you feeling?” he asks.
It doesn’t matter. “We need to leave.”
Jannik sits up, rubbing at his eyes. “Do we now?” I think he has grown used to my changing moods, content to see where my heart is taking me now.
My stomach clenches, over and over, as if willing me to just give in a retch all over my bed.
I did this.
I did this.
What did I think I was going to do, in my pride, in my stupid belief in my power?
I can add another name to the list of the dead, to the people who are gone now because of my fucking pride.
None of this must show in my face, must flash through my thoughts. I take my failures, my aching need to cry, to beg forgiveness, and I shove it deep into my mind-room. More secrets to keep, but I need Jannik to believe in me. “We must go to Eline ourselves, minimize the damage.”
He is silent.
“Please.” I put one hand over his, and pull him to me with just a thought. I can feel how our bond is stronger; I already know that he will do this – that he agrees with me. I am already condemned by my actions; committing this murder within the safety of Harun and Isidro’s home, with their consent and help will only condemn them too.
When this is over, Carien, I will say my, “I’m sorries,” I will call your ghost and set it free. If I can. Already Harun’s servants will have covered all the mirrors so that the ghost will leave. I don’t even know if it’s true, but the Hobs believe it, and I have come to trust their superstitions. They’re no more ridiculous than mine, after all.
Jannik pulls his hand gently out from under mine and gets up. He chooses a jacket of dark blue, and begins to dress as if he is putting on the last of his armour.
I go to the dressing table, with its little collection of combs and bottles. The mirror is indeed covered; a long silky length of dark-green cloth has been draped over it. While Jannik knots his tie, I flip over my little hand-mirror and catch a glimpse of my face, drained and sickly. I slide the glass behind a collection of perfumes.
I start, and glance away from the flash of the silver, hoping that he hasn’t seen it. “Yes. More than certain.” I will play my final move, and if that fails, we can strike some kind of bargain with Eline; we will have to even if it bankrupts us. It’s what we should have done in the first place. After all, MallenIve runs on bribes and deals and schemes. And blackmail. I should have understood it from the very first, and if not, I should have realised when Harun paid House Ives in favours to change their vote.
There is no resolution in a never-ending war, and I already knew that.
* * *
Jannik and I walk hand in hand down the stairs and slip out of the front door with the ease and silence of ghosts. Of the ghost that should be leaving. Don’t hate me for this, Carien, I need you to understand how sorry I am. When I’ve said what I need to say, I’ll let you go.
It will be a while yet before the others know that we’re gone, and it is easy enough to hire a carriage once we are on the main thoroughfare closest to Harun’s street. The night has dropped heavily, an indigo veil spattered with faint city stars. The gas lamps that line the roads emit a sulphurous glow, and the waiting carriages have a sinister look, their nillies standing dejected in their traces. Jannik pays the nearest driver a handful of brass for his service.
We head toward the Mata side of the river. The few carriages that pass us are mostly unmarked, although here and there I see a House symbol painted on the sides. None of them are the windswept leaves of House Eline. My heart beats slower, as if each jolting step that draws us closer to Eline Garret is killing me, forcing me to shut down into nothingness.
The carriage leaves us on the broad, tree-lined avenue. Overhead the branches meet, and the darkness is filled with the rustling of the broad leaves. We walk the last few paces to the now-familiar front of the Eline mansion, with its ancient glass and stone overlaid with its nods to modernity. There are gas-lamps lit; new things. From inside the building it would be easy to see us. We are not approaching in secrecy and I need for Eline to understand that. I reach out to the brass knocker, and rap it with a solemn finality.
A servant wearing a neat brown uniform opens for us. He shows no surprise at the late hour visit, but allows us entry, leading us to the glass-lined room. The broken ornaments are gone and the dead mynah has not been replaced with a new caged bird. The spiked monstrosities of Narlet’s signature pieces are still there, however. How typical for them to have survived.
Two more servants enter at the ring of a bell. They do not offer us any hospitality, merely watch us nervously. The head servant disappears. We wait in silence. I don’t even need to talk – my mind is open to Jannik’s and his to mine. His thoughts flutter against the insides of my skull, black as night-ravens.
“Lord Eline will see you now.” The servant is back. He indicates for us to follow him, and we are taken to a small lounge, smoky with tobacco and ‘ink. Three men are there with Garret. I recognise Yew Avin. The other two must be Rutherook and Karin.
Eline is standing, smoking a long thin pipe of silver. At his thigh a little green-glass table holds a carafe of pearly liquid and several small liqueur glasses. “Lady Pelim,” he says. “How fortuitous your arrival is. My friends and I were just discussing your little note, and what exactly we would do about it.”
Jannik’s note; the one he wrote before Carien died, telling him of our little abortion. The one we planned to use to draw him out. Back when I thought I knew what I was doing.
The room is full of the smell of scriv. I eye the three men. Eline is a Saint, but the others – I confess I know nothing of them, except for Yew, leaning casually in the shadows, as if he were some student from the University in a public house. He grins lazily at me.
“And to what conclusion did you finally come?” I ask.
Eline laughs. “Please.” He waves at one of the leather couches. “Do take a seat, my dear.” Jannik might as well not exist.
“I prefer to stand,” I say back at him, my voice soft and mild. I keep close to Jannik, and it’s not just his presence that calms me, but the pulse of his magic.
“Suit yourself,” Eline says. “Allow me to introduce Rutherook.” He gestures to the long-limbed man sprawled on a leather coach; he has an ascetic’s face, and pointed jutting eyebrows that give him a look of sly surprise
“Karin.” A compact balding man with grey hair hanging over his little ears dips his chin like a little bird pecking at seeds. Something about the way his gaze slides this way and that makes me think he is most likely a Reader. He’ll be watching me for anything that will give me away. I bring myself into a state of calm, safe in the crumbling stone walls of my mental room.
It’s getting harder to not be scared. The last gambit is a weak one, and I know it. I have to stop myself from simply blurting out that Carien is dead, and accepting the bribes I will be expected to pay to stop Eline from involving the Mata. Carien was a piece of his property, and Eline will want recompense. He’ll want the Lark back at the very least. And if my last play fails, then I’m going to be left in a bad position.
If it comes to the worst, Eline will ask for the assurance of my support in some later deal, he’ll want a percentage of the Pelim holdings, he’ll want to cripple our business dealings in MallenIve. Gris alone knows what else. I’m prepared to give it to him, if Jannik and I can walk away from this, and if Isidro and Harun will be safe.
Finally, Eline inclines his head toward the youngest of the group, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed. Yew grins wider. “And this–” Eline says.
“We’ve met,” I snap.
“Then you must know how interested he is in what you own,” Eline continues smoothly, my interruption no more meaningful than a moth’s path across the night sky.
I smother the rising anger in me before it even has a chance to solidify. “Indeed.” I incline my head as if I am accepting some kind of compliment.
“Snow-pear?” Eline indicates the cut-glass carafe on the table near him. “Or would you decline that too?”
“I’m not here to drink your alcohol.”
“Of course not.” He pours himself a small glass, and sips at it, before taking clamping his mouth about the stem of his long silver pipe, and blowing a fog of scented smoke between us. “You’re here to do what exactly? I believe your little missive was designed to drag me out to the Guyin’s hovel.” His eyes glitter in the light of the fire-place. “So why then are you here?”
“I think, before we discuss anything, it would only be fair if you were to return my property. A show of good faith, if you will.”
I close my eyes briefly. “There’s – there’s been an accident, I’m afraid Carien passed away earlier this evening.” There. Passed away, such a lukewarm description. Magic scrapes at me as Jannik’s own anger turned inward. His control must have slipped.
Eline scowls. “An idiot,” he says. “Taking the chance on an abortion. It’s better this way.”
My breath catches in my throat. “Better-” And I can’t help but turn to catch a glimpse of Jannik. His face is set and impassive, but I know, this has made his mind up as much as it has my own.
“A miscarriage, a death,” Eline takes a sip of his drink and creases his brow, contemplating this new development. “It’s an acceptable ending, one that won’t raise any suspicions of foul play.”
“Leaves you open,” says Rutherook, from the couch. “I’ve three sisters.”
“Every minor House in MallenIve has a handful of unwed sisters, Drury,” Eline says, before inclining his head to me. “I never wanted her back, you imbecilic woman. I’m talking about the thing you stole from me. The Lark.”
Carien deserved a better ending than this. He couldn’t even be bothered to ask for her body back or to even pretend that she mattered. A game piece. That’s all she was, and Eline never saw her as anything else. I narrow my eyes. “All right, then. I’ll bring him back, but perhaps we could come to some kind of understanding first.”
Eline looks beyond me, to Rutherook. “An understanding? Talk, then.” The air ripples with the awkward feel of a lower-caste War-Singer testing his control. Rutherook is potentially lethal.
That leaves only Yew unaccounted for. He touches his fingers to the curls of brown hair that falls over his eyes. Mocking me.
“I will return your property, and say nothing more of the matter.” I damn Merril for the chance at saving other lives. “You bought him. He is yours to do with as you wish. In return, I ask that you refrain from any contact with the bats belonging to either the Lord Guyin or myself.”
“Of course, it is only a courtesy.”
“And that you do not buy, steal, or accept as a gift any other bats.”
“Really?” Eline’s smile is acid, wreathed in smoke. “Would you also assume to tell me how to run my House?”
“In exchange, we will not go to the sharif with our knowledge of your involvement in the murders of the bats found in the Lam-heaps and in the Casabi.”
We stare at each other.
“How gracious of you.” Eline turns from me to stopper his silver pipe and set it cross-wise on the glass table. It chinks softly, like a warning bell. “Although I must admit that your offer is one that amuses more than anything else. Do you honestly believe that the sharif care about a few bat corpses?”
I shake my head. “I do not, but I thought it only fair to offer you a reasonable compromise first.” Jannik’s magic is building up in the air, waiting for me to access it. It amazes me that I am the only one in this room who can feel it, scraping and sliding and angry. A caged beast, watching its executors and waiting for the chance to leap. “I confess I had hoped that you would acquiesce.” And I also hoped that he wouldn’t. If I am truthful with myself.
The room goes silent.
“I think,” drawls Eline, “that we should bring this farce to an end.”
Rutherook coughs loudly, and I start, shifting my attention to him just as Yew straightens from his slouch against the wall. It is my only warning before the pain hits me from an unexpected direction. I am pummelled, driven back against the wall by a force like a fist made of storm winds. The sound of shattering glass drowns my scream, and fire lances down my back. Yew must have driven me into one of the glass sculptures and slammed us together into the wall.
There is no smell of burning flesh, but I remember this pain from scalding my wrist once with boiling water when I was still living in the squat in Pelimburg. It is the same – magnified a thousand times, with bright hot points all over my back from which the burn spreads.
Then the pain is gone; replaced by an icy numbness. My head is too heavy to keep up and it is only a War-Singer’s art keeping me upright, pinned to the wall like a broken butterfly in a display.
“Was this truly necessary, Garret?” Yew drawls. “I thought you wanted them both alive. If she dies, you will have the sharif all over your House like white-ants. She’s not some bat you can discard.”
“She was dangerous. And unliked.”
I can’t see Eline, my head is held straight. The short Reader, Karin, and Yew, are the only ones in my line of sight. I have no idea what has happened to Jannik. The War-Singer moved before I had time to react.
It was Rutherook, I understand now, not Yew. He was feinting earlier, making me think he was no more than a bumbling apprentice.
“Don’t damage the bat, I want it,” Eline says. He’s walking across the room, but still not in view. Warm liquid is dampening my back against the wall, and I can smell blood, hot and coppery. My hands and feet are growing colder, my head heavier, but still I cannot move. There’s no feel of Jannik’s magic. Snuffed out. I don’t want to think what that means and I can’t even open my mouth to speak, to say some last word to Jannik, to tell him that I’m sorry, that it shouldn’t have happened like this. I try think it, hoping that it will wing its way from my house of the imagination to his, but there is no sound of sand, no whispering of birds.
The pressure is building against my face, keeping even my eyes open. They’re drying, an itching burn that is somehow worse than the numbness at my back.
“There’s a lot of blood,” Eline says. “Keep them from bleeding out.”
“I’m doing my best,” Rutherook grunts. “Yew could help, were he so inclined.”
“Could I,” drawls Yew, bantering as if we were all exchanging barbed pleasantries at a party.
Eline walks into view. He touches my face, carefully slapping one cheek to see if I will move. The pain is sharp, but distant. “Still there.” He glances across to where Rutherook must still be sprawled, like a spider watching an insect in his web. “You can keep her alive?”
“Of course.” Rutherook’s voice is deep. “The bat will be harder. I didn’t expect it to hit that damn Narlet. Bloody man always had a thing for sticking spikes on everything he made. Tore a hole right through him.”
Tore a hole right through him.
I step out of this reality, and into the crumbling house inside my mind. I do not want to hear them discuss how long my Jannik has to live. The pain drops away as if it never existed. I sit down on my childhood bed, and twist one arm behind my back to feel along my spine. There are no wounds. Why should there be? I stare at the stone walls, and watch the mortar sliding from the cracks. Outside there, back in Eline’s glass-covered room, I am dying.
Jannik may be dead already. I run my fingers along the coverlet. My face is wet. I’m powerless. I never could save the ones I loved. I wonder how long it will take me to die. Bonded, I should be able to feel his ending. But here in my room, I am safe from that, at least. Will I just stop breathing outside, and here in this too-small memory of my childhood, will everything go black? A quiet nothing of an end.
If this is how we will go, at least it will be us together. I bring down the walls of my room, let them fall. Let them go. There is pain. Voices buzz. I can’t feel my legs.
“There, she’s conscious again.”
I manage an agonizing sip of air and hang on to my calm. Not all this pain is mine. I pick between them. He has been pierced, I feel it now – a second-hand cramping in my stomach, like a reminder of what I did to Carien. He’s there, still alive, still magic. And if he is, I should be able to reach that and use it. So why then can I not?
It takes me a moment before I realize it’s because I’m bound in a way that is worse than iron or ropes. Jannik is doing this to me. Or rather, Jannik’s approaching death. The magic that should be at my command is cut away from me, and strive as I might, I can just barely feel it, like the edge of a feather against my face. Mentally, I grasp at that touch, try to pull it into me. Give me the slightest bit of power and I will tear these four into so many scraps of flesh that the sharif will not be able to piece the bodies together again.
There. Again. The feather touch. I cling. I will hold to this if it takes the very last of my breath from me. Before Jannik dies, before I do, Eline will know what a Pelim’s revenge feels like.
The feather slips away, fading.
No. I refuse. With all my will concentrated so that the sound of Eline’s and his cohorts fades, I follow that feather.
“Can she breathe?” Eline says.
“Barely,” Rutherook answers. “But if I give her any more leeway Gris knows what she’s–”
Light burns out my mind, blinding me, leaving me aching and hollow. I blink and try to shake the white glare out of my head. I can move. I’m on my hands and knees, glass crunching like grit into my palms. They’ve let me fall.
Why then can I hear nothing but the faint whisper rustle of sand grains tumbling over each other? I manage to open my eyes. There is a wide blue sky overhead. Empty of everything, no sun or clouds, but somehow light fills the space. Golden sand is all around me, stretching blankly for miles around. There is no house of sand, no rivers or singing birds. I stand, the grains falling from my dress in a soft shower. The dunes roll out endlessly on every side, their sides rippled like the ribs of half-buried mammoth creatures.
“Jannik?” The word is weak, dying. My voice cannot pierce this desolation. I turn around. Nothing. It doesn’t matter which way I walk, they all present the same nothingness.
A hot breeze sends more sand falling over the lips of the dunes, making the grains look like the spray of sea-waves. Something small and black drops before my bare feet. I crouch down to catch the tiny piece of fluff between my forefinger and thumb. It is soft, downy. A breast feather of some dark bird, a raven perhaps. Holding the feather tightly, I walk into the wind and let it sear the dried tear tracks from my face.
I walk for miles. My feet are burned raw by the sand, my skin peeling and red. Why is it that in Jannik’s world I am always relegated to this flimsiest of shifts, with no protection? Damn him. I shade my eyes and scan the rolling horizon. Still no sign of my husband. I grow tired, thirsty, and my shift is stuck damply to my body. I wonder how much time I have left.
Behind me my tracks zig–zag in a lonely meander. Tears rise again. “Jannik,” I say to the empty air. “I swear when I find you, I will bloody kill you.” My voice cracks on the last. I raise my hand, and let my cramped fingers part. The feather sticks to the pad of my index finger for just a moment, and then the wind takes it. “So much for you,” I say. The wind changes direction, and spits the feather against my face, where it catches against my cheek, stuck to the drying tears I have wasted.
I’m an idiot. This is a scene I should have remembered; I had to learn it by heart. And I know Jannik knows it, better even than I do. If he was going to cling to anything, it would be those small things that gave him comfort. My poet-mathematician.
This is Jannik’s world. “I hate that poem,” I say, and sit down cross-legged in the sand. “What do you want me to do – quote it at you?” It feels strangely soothing to talk to him like this, even if I don’t know if he can hear me. “So. Traget’s Melancholy Raven.” I pluck the feather off my cheek and stare at it, then shake my head in something that is caught between amusement, relief, and a kind of mild disgust. “Do you know how many times our House Crake had me memorize that rubbish?” I suck in a shivery breath.
The wind sighs against my cheek.
“‘It’s a cold wind that blows over The Lamb,’ Gris, really? All that melodrama over one girl who wouldn’t love him. And I can see why, because he was a whining pathetic little toad. I wouldn’t have had time for him.” My voice is steady, but the tears are running freely now. Who cares? I have no one left to hide myself from. I talk to the empty air, to the last of Jannik’s dying thoughts.
I push the feather against the golden sand, then press the back of one hand against my eyes, and sniff. “And of course he gets her anyway.”
The edges of the tiny black feather stir.
“You’re not like him, you know. I don’t think you’re pathetic. Or a toad,” I add for good measure. “However, you and I will both be very much closer to dead unless you pull yourself together and help me out.” I lower my voice. “Please, Jannik. I’ll get us out of this. I just need you to come back to me.”
With a soft shh; a ridge of sand rises around me, circling. It’s barely a wall, more like a child’s sand castle. The feather grows in solidity, becoming a small black stone, sharp as glass. I stand and step back as it grows. “And Traget only finally got Anna because she was a fool, and he wore her down with all his endless monologuing. You’ve at least spared me that, and I am only a fool sometimes.”
The stone shimmers then it is gone. In its place Jannik sits curled up, his arms crossed around his knees. He coughs into his fist, then smears his bloodied hand against the sand and winces. “Anna only agreed to marry Traget because she saw her finances failing and knew he was her best chance.”
“So romantic,” I say. “And that’s not why I married you.”
He squints. “What do Traget and Anna have to do with us?”
“I hate you,” I say as he grins at me. “Stand up and help me kill Eline.” I hold out my hand for him and he takes it hesitantly. His palm is sticky and hot.
He gets to his feet and stares at me, his expression almost quizzical. “We can stay here,” he says. “It’ll be . . . .”
Jannik shrugs. “We’ll live longer. Make time stretch.” He half-smiles. “We go back out there, and I know what’s waiting for us.” He has his left hand pressed against his stomach, where there is not even a memory of a wound. Jannik looks down at his hand, seems to laugh, and then looks back up at me. “What are you going to do?”
“Why can’t I use your magic out there?”
“Presumably because I’m not conscious.”
“And we change that how?”
“I – I can’t. I don’t know how.” He closes his eyes as if he is trying to sense something beyond his skin. When he opens them again to look at me I can already tell from the small weak smile that he gives that I’m not going to like what he has to say. “It’s just darkness outside me. I shouldn’t even be here now – talking to you.” He surveys the empty desert that is all that is left of his mental defences. “I didn’t even know it was possible for this to happen, and still live through it.”
I hold on to that. “It means something.” I crouch down to pick up a handful of sand, let it trickle through my fingers. The stream falls, time running out. And it occurs to me that there is nothing left here to keep Jannik anchored. That what he’s hanging on for is not a house of sand and secrets, but me. I’m the anchor. The wind whips my hem around my legs, tearing my hair loose and spitting hard sand against my face. It’s rising, a final scouring storm.
He looks at me in silence, the edges of his form already dissolving under the growing wind.
“Take my hand,” I say, and reach out for him. The fingers that close around mine are barely real. I can see my own skin though the ghosting memory. “Hold fast.”
The desert tears away from under us and we are falling though a dark so intense that for a moment I think we have died, and this is just the final, endless moment.
Then my back hits something and all my breath is knocked from my body. There is a solid weight next to me, and the darkness, the darkness. I open my eyes and stare at a ceiling I know from year after year of counting the cracks and water stains. I twist and hold Jannik tighter, all that’s left of his magic seeping into my pores, and breathe in the familiar smell of him, of leather and white soap, and fainter, blood and sweat, and fainter still, sea salt and dune grass. His breath hisses against my ear. I am about to break him. I can feel the bond between us, bright as ribbons. I wonder how much it will hurt. I have his magic, and I no longer need this bond.
It seems I will always be doing the exact thing I shouldn’t.
“Ready?” I don’t wait for an answer. The muscles in his arms tense, and I snap the ribbons, their ends reaching up for the stained ceiling as they fray. The bond between us breaks and it is worse than the pain outside. For a moment. Then it is gone and his body with it and there is only his magic, completely under my control.
I push back into consciousness, into my gasping body. Immediately the pain down my back returns, no longer distant. Or perhaps my sojourn through our minds has made the pain all the more real.
“–capable of.” Rutherook’s voice is strained. “Damn it all, I think the bat just died.”
“How annoying,” Eline says.
I open my eyes. Jannik’s magic is surging through me. I feel like I have too little skin to hold me together, that I’m bursting. I almost expect my body to split like an over-ripe fruit, spilling my insides out along with all this last gathering of power. I suppose it barely matters now.
Eline steps back from me, frowning. “This wasn’t what I envisioned. Ah well, I shall simply have to make do.” He shrugs. “It was the bat I wanted. You can let the girl die.”
Rutherook’s scriv-fuelled magic bites at my throat, cutting off all my air. I have seconds, minutes at most. I draw all the stolen power up in my core and stop fighting the urge to break beneath it. Giving in never felt so sweet. It will be my final act, to slip him from his leash. Peace consumes me. And I am left stripped of all of Jannik’s magic, released.
My eyes are still pinned open as power lashes out in whirlwind of invisible knives, tearing Eline’s surprised head straight from his neck and sending it hurtling across the room to land at Yew’s feet.
Yew blinks, then throws up a shield before it can do the same damage to him. Rutherook, preoccupied as he is with strangling me, is not as lucky. I feel his death, the way he splatters, chunks of flesh and bone spraying across the room. Karin explodes like a berry popped between finger and thumb. My hair is matted with his brains and blood, and I slide to the floor gasping, released from the magic at last. The storm rages all about me, tearing Eline and Rutherook and Karin into increasingly smaller pieces. Their blood paints the walls, drowns me under, and soaks into the carpet, turning the deep blue wool a sodden black. It batters uselessly against the scriv-shield Yew manages to keep up.
When the storm blows itself out, I crumple, and close my eyes. Let Yew kill me then, it is already past the hour of my ending.
“Interesting,” he says in the sudden silence. “Fascinating, even.”
I slip back into the dark and the memory of Jannik.