The Lark

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9

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Harun walks me to the small private coach I’ve hired and helps me in.Take them to your apartments, and I’ll send Master Gillcrook with news when it’s safe to move.” He is doing what I’m doing – talking as if the deed is done, that it is going to be as simple as walking into a garden and twisting a leaf from a branch.

My coachman already knows what we plan to do. We have had to bring a number of the servants into our confidence, but Sallow has proven himself a man of worth many times, with a closed mouth and sharp mind.

I don’t like that you’re putting yourself in danger, ma’am,” Sallow tells me when we draw up on a side street that leads to the close where House Eline’s manor commands the top of the circle.I could go for you–

And if you were caught, Master Sallow? What then? I can talk my way out of a misunderstanding. You would lose your hands sooner than the sharif could shout,Thief!’

And I have a plan. Now that I have the scriv in hand, that old need is rising in me. It would be so easy. Not to kill anyone but to hold the air silent. I could be a ghost in their house. There is a reason House Pelim is one of the four Great Houses. We are of the finest War-Singers in Oreyn, and even though I am untrained, I can do this little magic. I’ve done it before; only that time I was sneaking out of a house rather than into it.

I itch. I want the taste of scriv in the back of my throat, the subtle and vicious power that comes with it to flow through me.

The last time I took scriv, I betrayed an entire city.

If so, let this be the time I make up for it. Back then I could save no one, it seems, but me. This time will be different.

The knot in the black ribbon is tight. Cursing under my breath, I pick at it with my nails in the darkness before finally one edge of the ribbon works loose enough for me to pinch it between index and thumb fingernail. The pouch opens, spilling the sharp scent of scriv into the night air, perfuming it with the headiness of bitter-citrus groves.

A night bird screams and the sound is followed by the yowl of fighting cats. A dog launches into a volley of echoing barks, determined to drown out the sound of the cats. I pause, my hands shaking. It’s no guard dog from House Eline; I’m still too far from the Manor. I take a large pinch of scriv and inhale it like snuff, the way Hobs in the tea-shops take their ‘ink sometimes. It slams into the back of my head, tearing into my mind like a sea-storm through fishing boats. I gasp and grab onto the seat to steady myself. After a moment, I am almost used to the so-long-denied sensation. Working quickly, I tie the pouch closed, and with a deep breath to centre my magic, I wrap myself in silence and exit my coach.

There. And now to shift the way light refracts off me. It has been so long, So long, but I slip back into my magic with the ease of a fish returned to water.

Silenced, I am a thing of shadows. How many other War-Singers have done this in their time? No one mentions it, but I cannot have been the first to think to use my power for something so underhanded. It would make a House extremely rich, were they to know every secret of their enemies.

The front door of the manor house looms in the darkness, and I make my way up the low steps. No lights are lit in the front windows, and the servants are relaxing in this respite from their masters. The glass lock presents little problem. It takes a moment’s probing with the air at tiny cogs and and then the gears click and the door swings open silently in welcome.

I almost laugh. I forgot how easy everything is when I have scriv in me. It makes me feel invincible. The rooms and hallways are shadowed, and I can hear, just faintly, the sounds of talk in the kitchens and rooms below. There must be a stair leading downward. I follow the hum of conversations and find a small back stairwell, grimy and narrow, that leads to the servants’ areas. While I doubt that this is the stair Garret takes to his personal torture chamber, it will do.

The steps are worn in the centre, dipped like cupped palms. The boards creak, but the sound is kept in my little bubble of space. Even so I tread cautiously, always watching for the servants and holding my silence all around me. I pass the kitchen. It’s warmly lit. Servants are drinking tea and laughing and talking, playing at a mockery of their lord and lady, freed from the need to run at the beck and call of their masters for the next few hours.

They cannot see me. I am nothing more than a passing darkness.

The stairs go farther down, to the subbasements and the wine stores. With my chest thrumming from the scriv, I open door after door, leading through cold stores and pantries. Of the vampires, there is no sign. Nothing catches at my heart, pulling me where I need to go. It worries me. I know Jannik can keep himself locked up in this house-thing, but this feels blacker, colder and dead. Like someone scooped out a part of my brain, but I’m still walking around and talking, only vaguely aware that something is missing.

Damn it all, Jannik. Where are you?I whisper, pausing at the end of a room filled with musty crates covered with tarps. From the earthsharp smell, there must be potatoes under the coverings. I sit precariously on the corner of one of the crates and close my eyes. The little room that is my safe space inside my mind is still standing, but it’s of no use to me now. I want access to Jannik. I feel for him, breathe slower and slower, hoping that something will echo inside me.

Nothing.

And then a flicker, like a memory of my own heartbeat. He’s close.

I push myself up from the crate. My eyes are tight and watery.You’re not going to cry now,I You’re going to find him.How long before Harun’s dinner runs dry and his unwelcome guests depart? And surely Garret will realize it is no coincidence that he has been invited to the Guyin home only days after he has claimed ownership of Isidro.

I haven’t all night to sit here in the dark wishing for the door to show itself. The time has come for destruction. Grimly, I take another pinch of scriv. It’s more than enough to send my head spinning and I wince. It hurts to take this much, especially now that I’m unused to the drug. Gathering my silence, I spread my little bubble, pushing it wider and wider until it encompasses as much space as I can manage. I hope it will be enough. Unfortunately, I can do nothing to keep in all the noise of my next act. Here’s hoping the servants will think it nothing more than a collapsing mine tunnel. After all, my poor dead Riona didn’t so much as blink an eyelid when the ground shook beneath her feet.

With a fist of air harder than Mekekana iron, I slam a hole through the wall ahead of me. The room reverberates from the blow, shaking old dirt and cobwebs from the ceiling. It rains down, sliding over the bubble of my magic to patter in a circle of debris around where I stand.

The old plaster of the wall is cracked around the crumbled bricks. The dust clears to reveal a hole the size of my head. I rub the powder from my eyes and blink away itchy tears.Jannik?I say into the murkiness beyond the cellar wall.

I am answered by an ululating shriek, more terrifying than the occasional howling of the silver-backed jackals around Pelimburg. The sound tears into my eardrums, rises higher and higher before I think to snap my bubble of silence wider. Now the screaming is all around me, echoed and doubled.

I can only hope the servants didn’t hear it. My heart remembers to beat again. Jannik or Isidro in painand I need to stop it.

Alerion’s tits, can you get the fucking thing to shut up,Isidro hisses out of the darkness. He’s alive, then.

Whatwhat is it?The sound can’t be coming from Jannik; even Isidro is not that callous.

Garret calls it the Lark,Jannik says, and relief sweeps through me, leaving my legs trembling.Justjust make it stop.He sounds weary, his voice too husky.

I pull the gap wider, bricks tumbling down and shattering on the stone floor, until I have made a hole wide enough to crawl through. The darkness doesn’t reveal much. I am in a room that smells sickly sweet, of blood and pain, burned skin. Two shapes are slumped against the wall, their heads bowed and resting against each other. One raises its face to look at me.

Jannik!I am breathless. His name is lost under the screaming. I need to quiet whatever it is. I half-turn. It’s therenaked and crouched on all fours, eyes wide, mouth open as it screeches. An iron chain holds it straining in place as if it were a dragon dog trained to guard duty.

Just kill the fucking thing,Isidro shouts over the noise.

I can’t. It’s a vampire. A child vampire.

Instead I take another deep pinch of scriv, shore up my sound barrier, and use the surge of magic to pull the iron cuffs on the vampires apart as easily as if they were made of woven grass.

Hunger cramps through my stomach. I double over clutching myself, just as Isidro lurches past me and grabs the screaming vampire by the throat and smashes its head against the wall. The screaming cuts off with a sickening thunk.

What–Before I can move, Jannik is up and holding me tightly against him. I push him back.Don’tscriv.

I know.Reluctantly he steps back. His coat is gone and his white shirt is ripped in several places. I can smell the blood on him. And now with the iron goneI can feel thingshis hunger, his tiredness, his rising panic. His happiness that I’m here. Alive and well.

A solid thump comes from behind me and I turn to see Isidro kick the boy vampire again.It’s still alive.He kicks again and this time I hear a rib snap.

Stop it!I scream, and Isidro whirls around to face me, his eyes wide.

His shirt is gone, his trousers torn at the knees. He is barefoot. His perfect face is a mess of bruising, hair ragged and uncombed. Isidro looks like a wild thing caught in an iron-jawed trap.Kill it,he says to me, and takes a step back.Or I will. Go onsuffocate it or whatever you War-Singers like best.

I am not going to kill ithim. He’s a child.

Not really,Jannik says.He’s probably about fifteen.

I look again at the body. The boy is naked, thinner than a starving Hob, and as stunted. Its pale skin is unearthly, like a cave cricket.

Isidro’s right.Jannik sighs, and winces.It would be a kindness to put it out of its misery.

What?I look from one to the other, my ears ringing.I can’t believe I’m hearing thishe’s one of you and you want me to what – snap its neck as if it were a pigeon.

This thing is nothing like me,Isidro spits.

The air in the room is getting faint and hot, prickly and heavy with hunger. Jannik is holding himself away from me now and Isidro is so far gone he’s shivering.We need to get out of here,I say slowly. I am beginning to feel rather like a rabbit locked in kennel full of dragon dogs.I am not killing him.

You’re going to leave it here as a witness?Isidro stalks toward me and I can’t help but take a nervous step away from him.Are you insaneforget your sentimental–

No.I look around the room for something we can use to bind the child. There’s a tattered pile of rags in one corner that might be its nest.Jannik, tie him up, gag him, and then cover him as best you can.If I am going to be sneaking out of House Eline with two stolen vampires and a body, I suppose it will look only slightly less suspicious if the body isn’t naked.

You’re taking it with?Isidro is shrieking now.We don’t have time for this, Felicita. And since when have you had a sympathetic heart, or are you trying to make up for your brother–

Shut up!I yell. In the sudden startled silence I can hear Isidro wheezing, Jannik shuffling to his knees to bind the boy fast.One more word, Isidro, and I swear I will strangle you instead.

I need to get us out of herenot least of all before Garret and Carien return. There is also the more immediate problem of being locked in a room with two starving vampires.

There, on the far side of the room, a door. I breathe a small sigh of relief. At least I don’t have to smash a larger way out for the three of us. The lock clicks and tumbles open under my magic.Isidro,I say.Open the door.I need to keep him occupied.

Thankfully he does as I ask, and the door opens onto a short white passage leading to a small set of stairs. Jannik slings the unconscious body, wrapped now in discoloured rags, up onto his shoulder. The boy must weigh nothing more than a sack of feathers. We creep out, me in the lead, Jannik behind me and Isidro in the rear. Janniks terror is scraping all over me, and their combined hunger and pain is needling; pins poked through my organs and up out of my skin. I look down, half-expecting to see points of blood all over my arms.

Turn left,Jannik says, when we come to another set of passages.

I follow his directions, always keeping the magic ballooned around us and the air held still. It’s exhausting me and tight spots of pain are flaring at my temples. My mouth feels gritty, as if I have drunk red desert sand instead of water. I push open another set of doors, and see a familiar room shining darkly with glass. “Saints!someone shrieks and I lash out without thinking. There’s a vast tinkling crash and the sound of glass and metal and screaming intermingle. The harsh cry is cut short, and the last pieces of broken glass clatter into stillness.

Oh Gris,I say and clap my hand over my mouth. I’ve killed someonea servant. My eyes burn. I didn’t mean it.

Behind me, Isidro fumbles at the mantelpiece. The scrape of a match against stone grates in the shocked silence, and he lights a fatcandle lamp. The wick sputters, and the flame casts dancing orange light over the mess I have made of Garret’s antique displays.

My victim lies in the middle of the remains of its glass cage, neck twisted. Not a servant, at least. The mynah. Silver-grey feathers ripple in a slight breeze. The black eye in the scaly blue face mask is drying, losing the glisten. Slowly, I take my hand from my mouth and breathe out.We need to leave.The edges of my magic are faltering and just the thought of taking more scriv tears at the lining of my stomach, sharp as an ulcer. I can already taste blood in my mouth.Quickly.I step over the shards of glass and the dead bird. The door leading out is still unlocked and I open it onto warm night air perfumed with honeysuckle and pine resin. I wave my hand for the others to follow me, and lead them down the road as fast as I can, and down to the side street where Master Sallow is thankfully still waiting.

We tumble toward the safety of the carriage.Master Sallow,I glance at the vampires, at the hunger lighting their eyes.As fast as you can, sir.

He pulls the nervous unis in hand and touches his brow.

Where are we going?Isidro says once we are hidden inside the carriage. I pull the curtains closed. He’s shivering badly now, and he looks feverish and gaunt.

To our apartments.I glance at Jannik. I want so badly to reach out and take his hand in mine, to feel the warmth of his fingers as we intertwine. I can’t touch himnot until all this scriv is out of my system.Is he still alive?I gesture at the boy. Jannik has let him crumple to the floor. He presses his fingers to the boy’s throat, frowns, then nods.

I want to be far from this place before Garret comes back to discover the theft. We might have had a few more undiscovered momentsbut when he comes back to that mess of splintered glass and the broken-necked bird, there will be no doubt that someone has been in his territory and has stolen from him. He will find all his treasures gone, and he will know who took them.

The unicorns are at full gallop down the empty streets, and the carriage jolts and bounces, slamming the breath right out of me. The unconscious body slides across the floor and the head cracks against the wood of the seat. Isidro hisses in delight.

Who is he?I say to Jannik.

He’s breathing fast, holding himself tight as if all his organs are about to come spilling through his skin. I can taste his hunger, can smell the scriv in my own blood. Traces of fiery pain lash along my sides. Cuts. Or wounds from sharp nails.Whatwhat is this?But I don’t need to ask. Jannik’s control is slipping, the walls of his house slowly dissolving. I do not know if I can stand to feel all that he is suffering. Coward.

I glance down at the boy vampire. His nails are ragged and sharp like an animal’s.

He belongs to Garret,Jannik says, the words bitten out between small gasps.He’s had ithimfor years. We’re not certain how many.

Too long,says Isidro.The thing is mad. You can’t save it.

We’re all thrown across the carriage as the unicorns veer around a bend.

Fuck, fuck, fuck,Isidro says.It’s waking up.” He slams his foot down on the vampire’s face. There’s a crackle of bone and a wet meaty sound as the boy’s nose crumples.

Will you stop!I scream at him.We’re almost there, and then we can sort out what we’re going to do with himbut not if he’s in pieces by the time we get there.

One less problem to deal with,Isidro says.

You’re scared of him?I am incredulousHes barely more than a child.

I watched it chew on the hands of the last one of us who had the pleasure of being down there.Isidro’s still yelling at me, his voice hoarse and frightened.

What–I draw back and look down at the bloodied face.

Yes,Isidro says.Exactly.

The carriage is slowing, the unicorns cantering then jolting into a trot and finally the slow amble before we stop.We’re here.I breathe properly, finally freed from a little of my fear.

The door opens and Master Sallow’s broad face looks in on us.

Jannik,I say.You’ve bought nillies for blood-letting?It has only occurred to me now that if he hasn’t replaced the lost stock, I’ll have to pay a servant to stand in as food. And I do not want to do that. Were it not for the scriv in my blood I could offer myself to Jannik, but I would not have Isidro touch me either way.

There are,he says.

I tilt my face up and close my eyes briefly. That’s one good thing.Right.I take charge.You and Isidro do what you must. Master Sallow, if you could help me move this.I indicate the body.

Sallow raises his eyebrows but kneels down to grab the boy under his arms and haul him free.

I’d stay clear of the teeth, were I you.I follow him down and into the apartments.Take him up to the lavender suite.I instruct a serving maid to bring me a spare shirt and trousers from the servants’ uniforms, and another to arrange hot water and new clothes for Jannik and Isidro.

Sallow watches me as I carefully unravel the stinking filthy cloths from the boy’s body.The first sign that he moves,I say.Hit him.The boy is pinch-thin, but now that I’m looking properly at him under the lights of several fat-candles, I can see my earlier guess was wrong. He’s not really a child, perhaps a few years younger than me, emaciated, and every rib showing like a starving dog’s.

I send for another bowl of warmed water and set to washing the filth and blood away. His skin is bruised, slack, the dark hair a matted snarl. Around his neck is still a thin iron collar with tiny leaves stamped into it.We’ll need this off.

Master Sallow leaves to find our head gardener, Master Bermond, who comes with his hands bound in leather gloves and carrying a wicked-looking tool with pincer-blades. He snaps the iron collar with single powerful twist. The metal clatters on the floor, and Bermond leans forward to hold it up in his gloved hands.Nasty thing,he says.

You’ll need to dispose of that,I say.It must never be found.

As you say.

I shiver to look at the damage it’s done to the vampire’s throat. Years of burns on burns. The skin is rotted, filled with pus and charred flesh. I have no idea where to begin.

Maggots,says Bermond.

I beg your pardon?I look over at his dark face.How so?

They eat at the dead meat.He shrugs.Everyone learns it sooner or later.

Consider me instructedyou know how to do this?

He nods once.I’ve maggots for feeding the hens,he says.I can bring some.

I take another glance at the filthy wound.Good, yes. Please do.I’ll leave that for now and work on cleaning the rest of him. The fresh blood washes easily from his face, but his nose is a mess of tender bruising, swollen and disfigured. I do the best I can, and work his limp arms through the sleeves of the clean shirt, and his legs into the trousers. The nakedness does nothing for me; it is rather like putting the skin and fur back on a dead animala bizarre and hideous task.

When he’s dressed I rebind his wrists and ankles with the strong rope Bermond left for me.

Jannik enters the room just as I’m tying the final knot. He is still pale, as always, but without that sweaty, hungry look. His wounds are hidden. I stand, reach out and lay one hand softly against his chest, just lightly feeling the bandages beneath the silk. He winces.

Scriv?I draw back.I thought it would all be gone by now?Certainly, I can feel no trace of magic in my system; all that I’m left with is a pounding vicious headache behind my eyes, and a sour taste I cannot swallow away.

A little,he murmurs.You’ve cleaned him.

Except for the burn. Bermond is going to come deal with that – maggots – don’t ask, and the hair.I eye the mess.I think I’m just going to cut it all off.

He’s not a pet for you to groom,Jannik says.

I know that. All I gave him was a little decency.

Isidro slips through the doorway.I want to go home.” He is cleaned, dressed, his hair combed back into place. Even the bruises look better now that the cellar’s grime is washed away. Despite this, Isidro has lost something of himself. Whether he lost it in Eline’s house, or in Harun’s treatment of him, or his own mother’s betrayal, I don’t know.

“I can’t stay here,” he says.

It was a pleasure,I snap back at him.The next time you decide to run away and get yourself sold to a madman, I’ll leave you to rot.

He glares at me.I suppose I should thank you.

Oh sweet Gris, never mind.I raise my hands in exaggerated despair.

A groan sounds from the boy, and we all of us fall silent and stare at the shifting body. The cloth they gagged him with is lying next to his cheek. I wonder if I should have stuffed it back in his mouth. Too late now.

A pale tongue tip darts out of his mouth, licks at his dry lips. His eyelids flutter.

I’m not staying,says Isidro.Get me back to Harun.Panic colours. his voice.

Hush.Jannik catches his arm gently, but his gaze never leaves the boy lying at their feet. They both take a few paces back, leaving him a wide berth.

He wakes shrieking. Loud enough that all I want to do is press my hands over my ears and let Isidro lay into him again.Gris.We’ll need to knock him unconscious. Maybe Isidro was right and I should have just snuffed him out like a fatcandle

He falls silent as suddenly as he began, and curls up, bound wrists resting just below his knees. He flicks nervous glances back and forth at us, at the room, down at the clothes I’ve dressed him in. He scrapes his arms up and down against his legs.

Can you speak?Jannik asks him softly.

The only response he gives is a baring of teeth so feral that the boy might as well be a cur in the Lam heaps. He hisses, pulling himself smaller.

Have you a name?I say.

His eyes are indigo like Jannik’s but without a flicker of intelligence or comprehension. I might as well be trying to have a conversation with a rock. I try again, keeping my voice soft.Felicita,I say, and press one hand to my chest. I point at Jannik, name him.

Leave me out of this,snaps Isidro.

I shake my head and huff.Fine.I repeat our names, then point to the boy, and wait.

A knock at the door sets him off screeching again. Bermond the gardener enters carrying a small wooden pail and a handful of thin rolled bandages. He appears slightly alarmed, until he sees the boy.Eh,he says, looking at the figure writhing on the floor.Hold this.He passes the pail to Jannik who takes it, peers in, and then raises his eyebrows without comment.

Bermond snaps forward and grabs the boy by the nape then backhands him in a rushed blur. The boy’s head snaps forward and back, and he goes quiet.You hush now,Bermond informs him. The boy goes still, fingers curling. He seems almost content. Bermond works fast, setting thin bandages against the mess of the wound then waving his hand for Jannik to pass the maggots over.

The grubs are covered with another layer of bandage.There,says Bermond.You’ll want to keep an eye on that, you want them eating the dead bits, not fresh meat, if you get me.

A faint dizziness washes over me.That’s wonderful,I manage, even though I am now regretting my earlier decision to bring the thing with. We all know I have it in me to kill if necessary.

The Lark is a problem. And I don’t think I have the time to deal with one this complicated.

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