TWO CROWS

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17

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“My lady?” The coachman wants to close the door and take me back to my house and to a set of rooms where my loneliness will be thrown back in my face a thousand times over. Master Sallow’s face, so paternal in its worry, is set in lines. The darkness only makes them look deeper.

“No,” I put my hand to the door to stop him from closing it. “Wait.” Jannik has disappeared into the Guyin house and right now he is making plans without me. What will he and Isidro do? Will he turn back to his family and beg for their involvement? He will have to. If this law finds footing in MallenIve, it will surely filter downriver to Pelimburg.

I leap down from the carriage step. The night is still warm and scented with green leaves and damp earth. Morning cannot be far off. Above us the stars are growing dimmer and sliding down to meet the edge of the world. I should be heading to my empty bed, the covers turned down in readiness for me. The dawn could creep up on me while I lie on my back, watching the ceiling and wishing I knew what to do.

I make up my mind, and follow Jannik. My boot heels ring lightly against the steps, like small stone bell clappers. The sound is pitiful. With one hand on the knocker, I hesitate, then slide down to try the handle first.

The door is thankfully unlocked, for servants are still unwilling to work in the Guyin house. Isidro must have opened the door for Jannik and forgotten to latch it. I peer in. “Isidro? Harun?”

There is no answer, and no sign of either Jannik or Isidro. They must be here, though. I slip inside, and call for Harun again, but softly, as if I do not really want him to know I’m here. If he’s awake, he’ll be with them, and if he’s not, well, perhaps it’s better that way. Gris knows, by this time of the night he’s probably long since passed the borders of sobriety.

With care, I pick my way through the unlit rooms, until the dark settles and I can see better. The lack of servants has begun to tell. Dust clings to the furniture and the banisters, cobwebs already dulling the curls and points of the the gilded mirror frames, and the air has a neglected, musty, male smell. The rooms pulse with silence. My reflection peers hazily back at me from the large mirrors, and I am insubstantial as a boggert. Wherever Jannik is, it’s not on this floor.

There’s been no sign of Harun except for the collection of empty bottles and the half-finished glass on a small table in the smoking room. He’s most likely passed-out, and even I am not so crass as to go drag Harun from his bed. I’ll find Jannik quickly, and we’ll leave. I make my way to a large drawing room that leads out to the gardens. The potted plants are withering, dropping leaves at the feet of the emerald glass statues that guard the corners of the room.

The windows here reach up to the ceiling, and once they looked out on immaculate hedges and flowerbeds. Now the hundreds of small panes are murky and the golden curtains seem tarnished. A breeze flaps one of the dull curtains. This way, then. I stand hidden in the drapes and gently push the glass doors wider. The faint sound of voices comes to me; Jannik and Isidro. They’re not far away.

I skim the rambling garden. The place is overgrown and the bushes and flowers are ragged and gone to seed, the grass meadow-long and knotted with blackjacks and milkweeds.

Though I can hear them, I don’t see the two vampires anywhere. The garden is a maze of nooks and crannies, with one section leading haphazardly to another. I follow the voices, down the steps. Dew-wet grass drenches my boots, stockings and hem.

Creatures rustle in the hedges, warned of my approach by the swishing of my dress through the damp vegetation. Across from me a pergola of stone pillars and wooden beams stands neglected in one hidden corner; ivy runs wild over it, and the small pathway is treacherous with moss.

I pause and let the shadows envelop me. Jannik and Isidro are not far away, talking in furious whispers. They have not noticed that anyone has invaded their secret garden. They’re so intent on each other. If either one had to turn, they would look straight at me, but they do not, and once again I feel like I am not really a part of the world. Nothing but a dusty reflection.

“And what, exactly, would you like me to do about it?” Isidro drawls in his usual mocking tone. But it’s brittle and sharper than usual. The moonlight makes his pale skin look like the cloudy glass marbles that children play with; opalescent and unreal.

“Run to Pelimburg with me,” says Jannik. “Harun can stay here, he’ll be safe enough.” He leans closer, and his voice is harsh.

With him. With him alone. There is no place for me in the vampire’s plans. My heartbeat slows, and I wonder in a distant, curious way if this is how people truly die – slowly, so slowly that they do not realize it is happening. Perhaps I have stepped out of my own body and now I can observe this painstaking decay. I feel like one of the intricate clockwork toys of my childhood, run down and packed away in lamb’s wool.

“You expect me to leave him?” Isidro is backed against one of the pergola’s pillars. He looks like he’s trying to seem casual, careless, but instead he has the air of a trapped buck. It doesn’t suit him – fear. It’s the first time I’ve seen him look anything less than beautiful. That brings me back to myself. The key turns, the clockwork grinds. My heart begins again, keeping me alive.

Jannik takes a hold of the lapel of Isidro’s coat, clutching it tightly. He doesn’t look at Isidro’s face, but at his own hand. “What would it matter if you did?”

I have to strain to hear that.

Isidro hisses, a sound of physical pain. “And you? You will run back to your House and beg your mother’s protection? I don’t have that fucking luxury, Jannik. My family would only assume I got what I deserved. It would take more than this to make me go crawling back to them.”

“If we stay here, we’re as good as dead – the bodies, this new law–”

“Jannik.” Isidro takes Jannik’s hand in his and rips it from his lapel. “There is no ‘we’ in this. You are worrying over nothing. The ones who died were rookery trash, and this law Eline wants cannot be passed unless all the High Houses consent. I know of two at least that will not.” Isidro’s smile is an eerie mirthless baring of fangs that manages to not ruin his perfect features. “So what, exactly, are you running from?”

My husband does not move. He does not answer.

My heart is thudding so hard I am certain they must hear it. Perhaps their own symphony of heartbeats and hammering blood has drowned out mine.

“You want what you can’t have,” says Isidro. “And I assume that’s always been your problem. You think because you come from House Sandwalker you can buy whatever it is you decide has taken your fancy–”

“I’ve never thought that–”

“And,” Isidro continues smoothly, “now that you finally understand that you can never have what it is you want, instead of dealing with that reality you will act like the child you still are, and run from it. You don’t realize.” Isidro reaches out, touches Jannik’s chin and tips his head closer. “I am not going to replace anything.”

“Fine, then you replace nothing.” Jannik’s voice is even, not resigned or sad, just calm. “But it will still be better than what I have now.” He pauses to look at the ground, his mouth twisted in a thoughtful frown. When he looks up, he speaks softer than ever and I barely hear the next thing he says. “I’m not expecting you to leave him.”

“You should learn to expect nothing at all.”

“True.” Jannik seem incapable of raising his head. “But would you leave?”

Isidro laughs, a sharp-edged sound in the sweltering dark. “He hasn’t given me reason enough. Yet.”

“And has he given you reason enough to stay?” Jannik says it so archly that for a moment I can’t believe it is him speaking. There is a sea’s worth of bitterness under that question.

“For now,” Isidro answers after a long moment. “We are both kept on short leashes, it seems.” He laughs again in something that almost approaches amusement, were it not so loaded with regret.

“This should stop,” Jannik says, though he makes no move to draw away. If anything, it seems to me that their bodies are closer, drawing imperceptibly nearer to one another.

“Should it? Or is this what you want?” Isidro leans forward and presses his mouth against my husband’s.

I turn to sandstone, am worn down and destroyed before the kiss has ended.

“Does it matter?” Jannik says after he breaks away. His hands are curled in Isidro’s long dark hair as if he means to pin him there forever. He kisses Isidro back, soft and fast as a darting bird. “Harun knows.” He sounds almost sad. Is this what Jannik is like under his masks?

“Of course he does. He’s awake now, lying in the dark and hating you.”

Jannik laughs bitterly. “Not you?”

“Of course not. Never me. Harun knows exactly what I am. He’s told me so often enough.”

At least Jannik has the grace to look guilty. Harun and Isidro are bonded enough that they can feel each other’s pleasure. Each other’s hurt. How callous must Isidro be that he doesn’t care what Harun knows? And what makes someone that dead inside – even I have not managed to become so empty and careless.

I once thought the same of Jannik. Perhaps I have always been wrong about everything, like my brother insisted.

When they kiss again, I wish Isidro dead.

Keeping silent, I make my way back through the tangled garden, through the once-golden curtains and the labyrinth of the Guyin house, back to my waiting carriage. Let them do what they will. My marriage, after all, was never anything more than a set of signed papers and a shared territory.

“Home, my lady?”

“No.” I order Master Sallow to take me down to the edge of the city, to where the nearest of the Seven Widows stands sentry.

“It’s Hoblands there.”

“I’ve given you an order.”

He bows stiffly and a few minutes later, the carriage is off through the early morning darkness. I am running again, like I always have. Never safe or wanted in any one world, I seem to be doomed to race from one to the other, and never rest in either. I press my hands over the curve of my belly and let a fierce and useless want rush through me. If I had a child, I wouldn’t be lonely, and I would have a compass point around which I could revolve my life.

Jannik found my confession about children amusing rather than serious. That’s what happens when one is honest, I suppose. He never understood that I wanted to bury my loneliness.

As a child, I was so certain that my mother loved my brother more than me, but looking back she gave me as much freedom as was safe for her to give. She was as caught up in the rules of the Houses as I am, and even so, she gave me little spaces of safety. My mother gave me the turret room when I should have had a room in the family wings, close to her. She taught me to ride, was the first to teach me to close my eyes and see the shape of the air under scriv.

But my mother gave me hopes, and like any jail-keeper, she was also the one who had to take them away from me. I disappointed her. At least, so I’ve always thought. Perhaps her hatred for me was just love turned into jealousy that I tried to take more than my lot when she never did. She was scared I was going to ruin myself, and so she tried to close the door, too late.

I want to be the mother who gives my children hope, and doesn’t snatch it away because of fear. I want girls who will grow strong and clever and braver than I have ever been, boys who will carry the Pelim name back to its rightful heights. I want to be a better mother than my own.

All these selfish little desires threading together. Are they the same reasons my mother had Owen? Me? Did we each think to improve on the generation that came before us, or did we just want to be certain that someone somewhere loved and needed us? I sniff. My mother discovered soon enough that a son’s love is only for the length of a childhood. A daughter’s is forever. It may be snarled up with resentment, but it goes deeper. Daughters will always eventually understand the mothers they thought they hated.

Except I’ll never know that truth for myself, not really. There will be no daughters, no faithless sons. I bite at my top lip to stop it trembling. “Idiot,” I whisper to myself. “Idiot.” The word calms me. It sets me back in place.

The sky is pinking outside the carriage. We are near one of the seven bridges that span the Casabi; this one arcs through the grey light, the far end lost in the haze. The unicorns are tired and Sallow hesitates to take them farther. At least, that’s the excuse he gives me. I know he’s afraid of going into the Hoblands, where the filth piles high in stinking heaps and feral children are armed with knives and sharpened sticks. There’s no name I can say here that would grant me safe passage through their world.

I step from the carriage, uncertain of what it is I want – perhaps to throw myself into the Casabi like some grieving lover from children’s stories and let the waters carry me back to Pelimburg. I laugh at my own streak of melodrama. Gris knows I thought I was over that.

“Wait for me here,” I say, and Sallow looks pained, nervous, but he listens. We’ve turned down a cul-de-sac some streets away from the bridge. There are no houses here – just small shops and cafés catering to workers, a few narrow warehouses.

People will soon be arriving for work. Already I can hear the faint sound of morning traffic. If I wanted, I could walk away from this place and lose myself in the growing crowds and cross over the bridge.

The carriage falls away behind me as leave the road and clamber over a low stone wall that hasn’t been mended in years. As I draw closer to the river banks, the more it smells like an overflowing latrine. Drowning here wouldn’t be a particularly elegant end. The water stinks, the edges of it caught up in waste and clogged with litter and dead plants. Long reeds grow scraggle-headed on the banks, bowed over with the small woven balls of bird nests. The weaverbirds flitter between the reeds, shrilling at me to go away. There isn’t even a footpath here.

I could walk into the trash heaps and the plague bodies until I cough myself to death, just die in my traces like an animal. Die like my father did, of some disease he should never have caught.

There, Felicita, is that better?

The first rays of the rising sun scatter across the rippled surface of the river, almost blinding me. I shade my eyes with one hand. Marsh birds bark hidden in the reeds, and above me a long ribbon of ibises winds across the paling sky. The flock looks like a dragon curving its way toward the distant mountains.

My feet leave deep marks in the boggy ground. Poison-green grass sucks at my ankles as I draw closer to the river.

What is it I think to do here in this abandoned wasteland – cast myself into the water like one of the desperate and pathetic heroines of the epic poems I hate so much? Not even Jannik is worth that kind of ridiculous display. I pause, sinking a little, black mud oozing up over my pointed and embroidered boots. I’m ruining a perfectly good set of shoes over this.

Nearby, a crow caws harshly.

Felicita, pull yourself together. I lift my head and do just that. I don’t have time for my own drama. It’s wearying.

A black shape floats into view and descends, crackling the reeds. One of the pied crows that stalk MallenIve like tax-collector. It caws again, louder. A small flock of coots is flushed out, their wheezy barks indignant. Another crow circles above. Then another. They are not water fowl, these scavengers.

Something must have drowned here last night. Another plague death. With my sleeve held over my mouth and nose, I peer between the long golden reeds, expecting to see the corpse of a nilly, or one of the smaller goats the Hobs keep for meat and milk.

The stump of a wrist floats on the mud, surrounded by little skimming gnats. The arm is bloated and so white and spongy I cannot believe it once belonged to a person.

Without thinking I rush down the bank, my feet sinking deeper into the oozing black mud. I lose a shoe and kick the other one off into the rushes and the green pond weeds. From the carriage Sallow shouts my name. It’s a distant sound, a warning half-remembered from a dream.

The crows rise in a lazy circle at my intrusion and they drop black feathers over the white corpse. The vampire is long dead, his clothes sodden and torn away from his pale body. Across his skin is a fine blistering rash that I recognize as scriv-poisoning. Cuts run down his skinny chest, shallow and bloodless. His eyes are wide and the same startling indigo as Jannik’s. The white membrane of the third eyelid shows at the corner of his eyes, like a sick cat’s.

I hiccough, taste bile as I press my hand over my mouth. I swallow and swallow and swallow until I feel like I will be able to move without throwing up. My skin is clammy despite the growing heat of the morning.

How long did he take to die?

From the number of wounds and the way his ribs are ridges of bone pushing parchment skin in hills and valleys, I think it has been a slow process. I sink to my knees, black mire splashing across the emerald silk of my skirts. My hands are slicked in slippery black gloves. Even though I know he’s dead, I have to be sure. I reach out to brush at his face. His cheek is cold, the skin a strange texture. Distasteful. He was young. Younger than I am now, or stunted by starvation. No one has bothered to hide his identity. The body could hold secrets, some sign as to how he got here. He still has a face, after all.

I hear the low voice of Master Sallow swearing as he splashes through a particularly muddy piece of ground. “My lady,” he calls out. “ Are you there?”

The red blisters are in high contrast against the dead boy’s skin, but there are worse marks around his throat. I touch the burns with one finger and leave a stripe of black mud like a gash. These wounds are not from scriv. The burns are old, and new on top of old. This is a vampire who wore an iron collar, perhaps for years.

“Master Sallow,” I say as I stand. Mud glops off my dress, and all around me the putrid stench of the rotting weeds rises, warmed and wakened by the dawn sun. “Send for the sharif, if you will.”

* * *

Jannik has slipped away from me. He does not come home, and I am too scared to find out where he has gone. Instead of thinking about him and Isidro or waiting for news from the sharif about the vampire I found, I throw myself into making more sketches. I spend the full day in the sun, with sweat trickling down my back, and I paint until my fingers shake. There is a snake inside my chest, squirming and coiling. I feel that if I had to cough, I would spit up pieces of shed papery skin. I try concentrating on painting, and ignore the feeling. It’s impossible.

I need to do something. And whatever choice I take now will set me irrevocably on that road. If I go against Jannik, and carry on with the my search into the vampires’ deaths then I may just push Jannik so far away from me that there will be no way to draw him back.

I think of him kissing Isidro.

Or we could pack our bags now and return to Pelimburg. Gris knows what will be waiting for us there. Certainly, it will do us no good to go back to our families, reeking of failure.

I think of him kissing Isidro.

Making promises that Isidro won’t allow him to keep, and of all the broken pride they hold between them.

Not Pelimburg, then.

“Why do you make these?” Riona asks. She has come bearing a tray of iced lemon water and a tea-pot. Her tone is enough to let me know that she thinks me no great artist.

“Thank you.” I take the offered lemon water and drink deeply. I’ve been sitting here for so long letting myself thirst. Perhaps I’m trying to punish myself. I don’t even know what for. “Call it a bad habit,” I say, and set the glass back. She pours me tea. “I like to have all these things set down – I don’t know why. It makes me feel more secure to keep a record.”

“And flowers are safer than histories.”

The saucer trembles in my hands as I accept the full cup. ”Something like that.”

“It’s not always true, you know.” She frowns, and hides her hands behind her back. “If you don’t mind me speaking out of turn.”

“Not at all.” I have tried to encourage the Hobs here to relax around me, but my endeavours have proved fruitless. I am the lady, a Lammer who thinks herself greater than all others. And I can hardly tell them I have also washed dishes and slept shivering under thin blankets. My moment of deprivation hardly compares to their lives. It would be insulting to mention it.

“There’s a language that flowers speak.”

I frown. “How do you mean?”

“We use them as words, to say things to each other without saying anything at all.” She flushes a little. Perhaps this is a Hob-secret we Lammers were never meant to know.

The idea is fascinating. Anything to distract me from playing the kiss and the corpse over and over in my head, to remember the burn of iron around the throat of the dead vampire. “So each flower has a meaning?”

“Each plant and part can say different things. Like this.” Ree points to the bush I have been working on today. It’s a low-lying shrub with silvery spiked leaves and bright yellow flowers. I’ve seen the house maids use the flowers in dried arrangements, and they let off a strong spicy smell. “Dogleaf.”

I nod. The kitchen staff warmed my interest in this one – they say it keeps cats from bedrooms, something they believe in quite strongly as cats are known to steal dreams while you’re sleeping. Or so they tell me.

“The flowers speak of a keen interest. But the leaves alone show only curiosity.”

I reach out to feather some leaves between my fingers, and they leave their fragrant oil on my skin. “I see, so subtleties of meaning contained within the same plant?”

“Just so.” Ree might not be calling me by name, but she has forgotten to use my title, a small victory.

I look up at her. “Would you be willing to come sit with me when you have time – and tell me some more?”

She nods a little uncertainly as she kneels to take my tray. “Is there anything else I can bring you?”

“No, no. I’m fine.”

Ree curtseys and leaves me alone in the sweltering garden. The yellow flowers are bright, hard little heads. I pluck a stem free and set the buds in my hair. There, let the world know I have a keen interest. I smile to myself. Even if it is just in botany.

* * *

Two days pass before I see Jannik again. He’s sitting at the dining table as if he has never been away, flicking the pages of the evening Courant between his fingers.

“Welcome home.” The servants have set out slices of green summer melons and dusky grapes. I take one grape and crunch it, letting the tart juice fill my mouth. I have taken to wearing a sprig of dogleaf in my hair. Riona brought me this one with my morning tea, and it makes me smile to think of our conversation.

“How could you even tell I was away?” Jannik snaps. He frowns and sniffs the air. “What’s with your sudden interest in perfumery?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That.” Jannik points at the flowers in my hair. “It’s a fixative for perfume.” He retreats back behind his paper.

I touch the flowers self-consciously. “They – that’s not what they’re for.” The little buds seem to be a repository of facts and feelings. Perhaps this is what Riona meant about flowers being no safer than history. They are full of stories and layers, half-truths and folk-lore.

But there is something more important than this. I have been waiting to ask Jannik something, and now that he is here I do not know how to broach it. I let my hand fall to my lap. “What do you know of iron collars?”

Jannik peers at me over the top of his Courant, his brow lined with suspicion, but he doesn’t meet my eyes, focusing instead on the silver dolphin pendant at my neck. “I was joking about the hound comment the other night.”

“No, you weren’t.” I sigh. Even if I wanted Jannik tied to me, I made that admission to myself too late. I have already lost him. The knowledge doesn’t lessen the hurt, merely grinds salt into my raw flesh. “Do you know of any Houses who collar their vampires?”

“Some.” He lowers his paper. “There were servants in my mother’s home who had been–” He looks to the side, away from my face. “–recovered, who sported iron burns.”

Recovered. And just what does that mean – that House Sandwalker did more than buy wray from the rookeries and set them free from their lives as kept whores, but also stole them from Houses? I file the thought away. “You’ve heard about the latest body the sharif pulled from the river?”

Jannik nods, slowly.

“It had collar burns.”

“How do you know?” He is unmoving, unmoved, watching me.

“Does it matter?” I echo his words to Isidro. My mind is finally made up. I can’t please Jannik, or keep him. Not any more. Let Isidro have him, I have no claim. But I will not let more people die because of the laws and lies of MallenIve.

Determination swaps out all my brittle bones for cold stone. “We’re going to House Guyin,” I say, standing and leaving my untouched plates for the servants to clear away.

Jannik looks pained at the suggestion. “Without an invitation?”

“Death doesn’t wait for our bells to chime to hers.”

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