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The Mirador

CHAPTER TWO

MILDMAY

I thought we were going to make it out of court okay. Felix wasn't stopping to pick a fight with nobody, and nobody seemed minded to pick a fight with him. But just as we got to the door, one of the pages comes trotting up and squeaks, "Please, my lord, His Lordship wants you."

Although all the hocuses and flashies pretend like everybody's title means the same, there's only one "His Lordship" and that's Stephen Teverius. "Thank you," Felix said, and the two of us turned around and hiked all the way back down the Hall of the Chimeras to the dais, where Lord Stephen was waiting.

"My lord," Felix said and bowed, and I stood there and racked my brains trying to think of what he could've done this time to make Lord Stephen mad. It turned out, though, it wasn't nothing to do with Felix specially, just that somebody had to hold the baby--meaning the Bastion's messenger. He was what the Bastion called a caefidus, somebody who had sworn oaths to the Bastion but was annemer, not a hocus. Kind of like the obligation d'âme and kind of a shitty hole to be stuck in, if you ask me.

Felix had other things to do Lundy afternoon and started to say so, but Lord Stephen said, "Don't argue. Simon Barrister will talk to them for you. You're going to be nice to Messire Perrault this afternoon. Don't lose him."

Felix opened his mouth, shut it again, and said, "Yes, my lord."

Lord Stephen waved the messenger forward. He was a middle-aged Grasslander, dark and with lines on his face like he frowned a lot. Good hands. "Lord Felix has graciously agreed to put himself at your disposal this afternoon," the Lord Protector said. He watched the two of them shake hands like he wanted to be sure it happened, and then left.

Mr. Perrault said, "I hope I do not inconvenience you, Lord Felix."

"Not a bit," Felix said. "What would you like to do with the afternoon?"

Mr. Perrault looked a little sheepish, but he brought it out anyway. "I should very much like to walk around the Mirador with someone who knows it."

"Nothing could be better," Felix said. "Just a moment."

He flagged down a pageboy and dragged him aside. It wasn't a long message, whatever it was, because in less than a minute the boy went haring off and Felix came back. He picked up the conversation right where he'd left it. "Roaming around the Mirador is my favorite hobby. Anything of special interest?" He started toward the door, Aias Perrault keeping step and me a couple paces behind, just like always.

Mr. Perrault laughed a little. "Considering that I cannot find my way from my room to this hall without the guidance of an adolescent boy, I scarcely feel qualified to say."

"People say us and the Bastion are on the same plan," I said. Because they did.

Mr. Perrault looked at me funny, like he hadn't thought I knew how to talk, but he said, "I do not know. Certainly, if it is true, it is not helpful."

"The Mirador is strange," Felix said. "Wizards who've lived here for twenty years get lost occasionally. And although it and the Bastion might once have been twins, they are no longer. Let's start at the top." He'd led the way to one of the narrow, twisty staircases that went to the Crown of Nails, the Mirador's highest ring of battlements. Oh fuck me sideways, I thought. I hated those stairs.

At least it was a pretty day. I sat down in a patch of sun, and Felix pointed out interesting bits of Mélusine to Mr. Perrault: the two cathedrals to Phi-Kethetin, the one in Spicewell, and the big fucking brick one up in Dimcreed. Ver-Istenna's dome. The Vesper Manufactory. Bercromius Park, which the Bercromii were hanging onto like bear-baiting dogs. Last open land of more'n about a septad-acre in the whole city. You could get in for a decacentime on Cinquièmes, and a tour of the house was another septacentime. Only place in the city where the Sim looked like a river instead of just like death.

And then the other flashie houses in Roy-Verlant and Lighthill and Nill, and Mr. Perrault said, "A strange name for a city district. I understand the word means 'nothing.'"

Felix gave me an eyebrow.

"Nighthill," I said, "'cause it's on the west."

"My brother doesn't speak in riddles on purpose. The extended version would be that 'Nill' is a contraction of 'Nighthill' and the district was so named because it is, as you can see, on the west side of the Mirador."

"I see," said Mr. Perrault. "And which part of the city is it that you call the 'Lower City'--it is all lower than the Mirador, yes?"

"Um," said Felix. "That's not exactly what 'lower' means in this context, although"--and he waved an arm out vaguely south-east--"the ground does descend toward the St. Grandin Swamp as you go south. The Lower City is the oldest, poorest, and most crime-ridden quarter of Mélusine. I don't suggest going there without a, er, native guide."

"I have no intention of leaving the Mirador," Mr. Perrault said. He gave Felix a funny look. The pause was just long enough for me to know what he was going to ask next: "Is it true you yourself are from the Lower City?"

Felix had seen it coming, too. "Both of us are," he said, like it didn't cost him nothing to admit it. "Mildmay retains the native dialect."

Thank you so very fucking much, I thought.

"I meant no insult," Mr. Perrault said. I couldn't tell if he was talking to me or Felix. "As the child of sharecroppers, I have no high place from which to throw mud. I was merely curious."

"Curiosity is popularly agreed to have killed the cat," Felix said. I couldn't tell if it was a real warning, or if he was just fencing to see what Mr. Perrault would do.

What Mr. Perrault did was laugh. "Do you have any idea of the stories that are told about you in the Bastion?"

I don't think he could've shocked Felix more if he'd done it on purpose.

"Messire Gennadion made no secret of how he had contrived to break the Virtu," Mr. Perrault said, "and your Lord Protector has made no secret of how it was mended. Can you blame me for being curious?"

"How appalling," Felix said, and he sounded like he meant it. "I hope you don't believe everything Malkar said about me."

"I myself never met him--my duties keep me mostly away from the Bastion--but I know there is still debate over how much Messire Gennadion should have been listened to."

"The correct answer being: not at all. Malkar would never tell the truth if a plausible lie was available. I assure you, from fifteen years' experience of him, you should not believe anything for which he was your sole authority."

"Such as the idea that you are the linchpin of the Mirador's strength?"

"Me?" Felix burst out laughing. "Good gracious, no. I'm nothing more than a troublemaker. Ask Lord Stephen. Ask Lord Giancarlo."

"Messire Gennadion swore that your destruction would be the downfall of the Mirador."

"Did he?" Felix's mouth twisted. "I imagine he wanted to believe so, since it would provide a magnificent rationale for his desire to . . . destroy me. But it's certainly not true. Oh, I grant you that I'm the most powerful wizard in the Mirador, and I do sit on the Curia, but if I died tomorrow, the Mirador would go on without so much as a wobble. I'm afraid Malkar was merely telling you all what he wanted you to believe--an art he excelled at."

"But why did he want you dead?"

"I'm sure he hated me as much as I hated him. I'd given him reason."

"You are frank."

"About Malkar? I have no reason to be anything but. As I said, I hated him."

"And yet--"

"I know, I know!" Felix threw a hand up, like he was warding off a blow. "And yet I was his apprentice and his lover. If you had known him, Messire Perrault, you would understand that these were reasons to hate him."

"From what I know, I have never considered him anything other than reprehensible."

"I see. What you wanted to know was if I am like him. I am not."

Mr. Perrault actually went back a step, and I didn't blame him. Felix looked about ready to bite. I supposed I'd have to step in if things got really ugly, but I was hoping like fuck it didn't come to that. Because I didn't want no part of this conversation. Didn't want to think about Malkar Gennadion at all.

Or, to give him his real name, Brinvillier Strych.

Brinvillier Strych had been Mélusine's nightmare for a Great Septad, since he killed Lady Jane Teveria. By burning her to death in the middle of the Hall of the Chimeras. I'd heard they'd had to replace some of the mosaic, but I'd never yet been bored enough to see if I could spot the patch. The Mirador had caught Strych, and they said they'd killed him, but it didn't seem like that had worked so good. He'd got out somehow--or maybe he really had died and had found a way back--and gone north to the Norvenas, where he'd fucked up Mavortian von Heber's life. And when it'd been long enough, he came back. This time round, he called himself Malkar Gennadion, and he found Felix in a Pharaohlight brothel and bought him and trained him and got him into the Mirador.

And used him to break the Virtu.

Which Felix had fixed again, later, after we'd been all the way across Kekropia and back. And I figured Felix was right about Strych hating him, because that had drawn him back to Mélusine, so as to be able to lay a trap for Felix.

Only he caught me instead.

And what he did to me . . .

Well, look. There's this thing in the Arcane called the Iron Chapel and it's where you go for a meet if you want to absolutely guarantee that nobody's going to come across you by accident. Because people don't go there. Nobody knows anymore who it's a chapel to, although we all got our ideas. There's a grate in the middle of the floor, iron, probably older than most of Mélusine and rusting to pieces one flake at a time. People tell stories about what happens when the grate rusts through, and they ain't the sort of stories that end with hugs and kisses and happily-ever-after. But, I mean, since each bar is as thick around as my arm, it ain't nothing I'm ever going to have to worry about. Somebody built that fucker to last.

You don't touch the grate. But if you lay down on the floor and look through it, you can see this kind of crack in the stone. Not dressed. Nobody made it or meant for it to be there or nothing like that, and how far down it goes . . . well, your guess is as good as mine. If it wasn't for the grate, somebody would've found out by now, but I'll tell you right now they wouldn't be coming back to talk about it. The sewermen call it Mélusine's cunt, and there are days when I figure they ain't so far wrong. Because for sure if you try to fuck with Mélusine, you ain't getting your cock back.

And that's what the inside of my head was like, around where my memories of Strych should've been. I didn't know, and I didn't want to know, and I most especially didn't want to talk about it.

Lucky for me, Mr. Perrault backed right the fuck down. "I am sorry. I have been tactless."

"No, you have a right to wonder," Felix said. "I imagine I would wonder, too. But Malkar is not an edifying topic of conversation. Let's go in." He turned and started back down into the Mirador, and me and Mr. Perrault followed him.

#

MEHITABEL

Rehearsals weren't getting any better.

Jean-Soleil, our impresario and part-owner of the Empyrean, insisted on doing a modern comedy after Berinth the King. I had nothing against Trevisan's The Wrong Brother, but I wished Jean-Soleil wouldn't bother--as I wished every time we did a comedy. Performances went well enough, but comedy was the Cockatrice's forte, not ours, and I thought we looked as stupid trying to compete with them as they looked performing tragedies to try to compete with us. Madeleine Scott, she of the famously henna'd hair, was the only real tragedian they had, and she must have been nearly forty, for all that she tried to hide it.

And the Empyrean's company was not suited to comedy; the rehearsals brought out the worst in all of us.

Both Levry Tannenhouse and Bartholmew Hudson looked hung-over, and I wondered if Adolphus Jermyn at the Cockatrice had been throwing out lures to Bartholmew again--he was watching Jean-Soleil with the "give me one good reason" expression we'd all gotten so tired of. Drin Baillie was sulking--ostentatiously and with one eye on his audience, as always. He'd made a pass at me just before rehearsal started, although perhaps calling it a pass was being too kind. Drin believed himself another Seigneur Christophe, misled by the reactions of middle-aged burghers' wives and shopkeepers to his profile, and he did not seem to realize that both Corinna and I knew exactly what he meant when he leaned close and murmured that he'd been dreaming of our kisses.

I'd fended him off with an elbow and said, "Clarisse got tired of you and you don't have another girl lined up." And I'd laughed, hard and deliberately, at the look of wounded reproach he gave me. Nothing but brutality would discourage Drin, and I had great faith in his self-love; once he was satisfied that everyone had noticed how he was suffering, he'd bounce back.

Susan Dravanya, the Empyrean's first tragedienne and my personal bête noire, was sulking because she felt comedy was beneath her. Susan was extremely beautiful, pale-skinned, and she rimmed her pansy-brown eyes with kohl and put belladonna in them to make them lambent. She had a deep, throbbing, mellifluous voice, and when well-coached in a role like Pasiphaë, Berinth's mad queen, she could make an audience's hair stand on end. But she had no comic timing, and she was as stupid as an owl. Every break we took was filled with that deep, throbbing, mellifluous voice complaining like a spoiled child denied a sweet.

For my part, as I waited in the wings for my entrance cue, my mind was more on Vulpes than the play. And I hated him for it. I hated him for waking up the person I'd been, for resurrecting a past I'd thought safely buried and forgotten when I left the Empire behind me. I should have known better. Should have thought things through. But I'd let my wishing do my thinking, in my Aunt Charmian's phrase, and now I was paying the price, for Vulpes had started the game three moves ahead, and it would take a stroke of luck bordering on the miraculous for me to catch up to him.

I desperately wanted to upend the situation and rid myself of him. But I couldn't. Just couldn't. I didn't know what they'd do to Hallam--I'd always been agonizingly careful not to know. Used every shred of my acting ability to keep Louis from guessing I was discontent. When I ran, there was no warning, no clues before or after. And they hadn't caught me. So there'd been no point in hurting Hallam, and I knew Louis Goliath, the spider. He never did anything without an eye to its effect, never did anything petty or spiteful. It was one of the reasons he scared me to death.

But it was different now. The Bastion had no reason to trust me, and they knew it. Vulpes would have a way of communicating with Louis--wizards were clever about that sort of thing--and if I gave him any reason to be dissatisfied with me, Hallam was the one who'd suffer.

I remembered the last time I'd seen him, half a year before I ran. They'd cropped his hair, and for a moment all that registered was the staring bones of his skull, the great dark misery of his eyes. He was nothing but bone under lusterless skin, crippled, captive, chained by the spells of the Bastion like lead around his heart. He could never be freed, for even if the stress didn't kill him, those spells would, and I knew it would be a slow, suffocating death. Louis'd been very careful to explain it to me in the immediate aftermath of Hallam's capture.

Louis knew we'd been lovers; I could touch Hallam at least, trace the line of his cheekbone, give him a fragment of tenderness. But I was careful not to appear sympathetic, to say harshly, "God, Hallam, I told you not to run." And those dark eyes lowered, and he whispered, "I know. I'm sorry."

I hoped he'd understood later, when I'd run myself. Hoped wearily that he'd forgiven me.

Of course, I'd also hoped that my leaving the Bastion would be the end of it, and we could all see how well that had worked.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, half-listening to Bartholmew and Jean-Soleil shriek at each other like barrow-wives. It would be so easy, if only I didn't love Hallam. If I could say to Vulpes, "He's no concern of mine," and mean it. And I'd tried. I'd tried everything I knew to cut him out of my heart, to cauterize the raw bloody mess I'd let him make of me. And I couldn't. Couldn't get rid of the love. Or the guilt--for I should have stopped him from running, should have confessed my own plans, gotten him to wait, to be silent, to pretend acquiescence. But I'd protected myself, curled up in an armored ball like an armadillo, and he'd suffered for it. And the fact that I hated myself for it now meant absolutely nothing. Didn't change anything. Didn't redeem anything. It was just something else I had to live with as part of who I was.

And then Bartholmew started Act Two, and for a while I could be someone else.

#

MILDMAY

Felix dragged Mr. Perrault all over the Mirador that afternoon. I limped along behind, feeling like I'd felt when I was a kid, and Nikah and Leroy would let me tag along after them, so long as I didn't get in trouble and didn't bother them. And it was worth it, too. Every once in a while, Felix would throw a question back at me, but mostly he talked. That was typical.

Mr. Perrault said "yes," and "no," and "fascinating," and not much more, but I could see the way he was forgetting to be stiff and formal. The cult of Felix in action. Once, during the winter--after Felix'd started drinking too much--his friend Edgar St. Rose had bet him that he couldn't work that trick on one of the Tibernians, the guys that Lord Stephen had had to let in to get the Mirador repaired and now couldn't get shut of. Felix had done it in less than half an hour, and I don't think I'd ever hated him quite as much as I did that night, watching him melt that poor guy with a smile he didn't even mean.

It hadn't lasted, of course, but it had worked for that half hour, and Edgar'd had to pony up a septagorgon. And it was working now on Mr. Perrault. When Felix could be bothered to do it, it most always worked. I thought that was why he generally couldn't be bothered, 'cause it was too easy, and it bored him, and maybe because it made him feel like a whore again.

We went most everywhere in the dayside of the Mirador, but I noticed Felix was being careful about where we didn't go. We didn't go up under the roofs anywhere, and he kept out of the Tiamat and the Grosgrain, where they were still working on the damage from the fire. I didn't know if it was along of not wanting to show Mr. Perrault--and the Bastion behind him--just how slow repairs were going, or along of him feeling guilty. That fire had sort of been his fault. Or at least that was how some people saw it.

Now, most of those "some people" were Thaddeus de Lalage, and I didn't think Felix should give a rat's ass what Thaddeus thought. But Felix wasn't built that way. Him and Thaddeus had been friends once, and I didn't think it was that Felix wanted to be friends again--the things he said about Thaddeus weren't no nicer than the things Thaddeus said about him--but it was like he couldn't quit caring. Even when he knew it wasn't doing him no good.

I was just as glad not to have to smell like smoke the rest of the day. And also glad not to have to listen to Felix going off about the Tibernians and how they weren't helping at all, just hanging around like vultures waiting for us to die.

And that was the other reason--now I thought about it--Felix had taken that stupid bet. He really didn't like the Tibernians, most especially their hocus, and having them here itched at him almost as bad as it did at Lord Stephen.

So I figured he was probably being nice to Mr. Perrault on purpose, and I wasn't as surprised as I might've been when it turned out he'd put some thought into it. Along about sunset, Felix led Mr. Perrault to the Seraphine, where it turned out somebody'd put together a sort of little soirée. Hocuses, mostly the people Felix got along with--"friends" might be pitching it a little strong--plus a handful of Kekropians: Andromachy Sain, Elissa Bullen, Isaac Garamond, some others I didn't know. None of 'em with the Mirador's tattoos, and, I mean, nobody'd want to put Thaddeus in this kind of situation, but Felix liked Eric Ogygios, whose spine was all twisted from what his masters in the Bastion had done to him. He had a tongue on him like a cheese-grater, and he hadn't forgiven the Bastion nothing. Eric would've made poor Mr. Perrault's life a misery, and Felix must have been tempted to invite him. But he hadn't.

All the same, though, he wasn't doing the Bastion no favors. Thesee weren't people who were going to be sweet-talked into taking the offers of amnesty Mr. Perrault had brought. I'd seen Isaac Garamond all over Lord Giancarlo like a cheap coat, wanting to know how the oaths worked and what he'd have to do and when the Curia would be listening to petitions again. Which they weren't right now, along of the tantrum Felix had pitched over Gideon, but they couldn't hide from it forever.

And, you know, even the hocuses like Elissa Bullen who weren't all that excited about putting their souls in hock to the Mirador, even if the protection you got in return was the best to be had--Miss Bullen was talking about going further west and maybe settling in Vusantine, not about going back to Kekropia.

Gideon wasn't here--I mean, not that he would've come--and neither were Simon and Rinaldo. And I bet Felix had been tempted to invite them. They'd probably still be in the Bastion if I hadn't got dumped in their cell when Strych got tired of me.

I wished they were here, though. Because at least they didn't mind talking to me, and they didn't look at me like I was going to bite them or give them plague or something. And even more than wishing they were here, I wished I was there, that I could just disappear like a hocus in a story, go off to Simon and Rinaldo's suite and play Long Tiffany until Felix was done. Felix teased me sometimes by calling me a duenna, and truth to tell, that was pretty much how I felt, like some old maid chaperone along to keep everybody else from having a good time.

The hocuses were happy enough to ignore me, though. It was easier on them. People didn't go around using the obligation d'âme no more, and the whole Mirador was pretty spooked by the fact that Felix had. It was worst for the hocuses who were trying to be friends with him, because the only people in stories who did the obligation d'âme were the bad guys, like Porphyria Levant. I'd thought more than once that Felix would be pretty fucking convincing as the bad guy in a story, but the obligation d'âme didn't have nothing to do with that.

I picked out a chair and settled in to watch. Dominic Jocelyn had a crush on Felix the size of a buffalo, and was trying hard to be witty to impress him. Felix was being nice and not letting on that he knew, but him and Fleur were giving each other these looks behind Dominic's back. Elissa Bullen and Charles the Dragon were doing everything but standing on their heads to make Aias Perrault happy, and he was even letting them.

I watched, and they let me alone, until Isaac Garamond came over and said, "Messire Foxe, we had hoped you would join us."

For fuck's sake, I thought, why? Mr. Garamond was maybe a indiction or two younger than Felix, about my height, sleek and bright-eyed like an otter. He wasn't one of my favorite people, but I didn't have what you might call a reason for it. I said, "Thanks, Mr. Garamond, but I'm okay over here."

"It must be very dull," he said.

"I'm okay," I said, instead of either agreeing with him or lying.

He looked at me, one of those hard looks like a trepan, and said, "I feel certain, Messire Foxe, that you are a more interesting person than you choose to appear."

Oh powers, what does this prick want? I didn't know what to say to get rid of him without being rude, so I ended up not saying nothing at all.

He smiled and said, "As you wish." He went back to the hocuses. Whatever he said made them laugh.

#

MEHITABEL

After the curtain went down on Berinth the King, my dressing room collected the usual flock of courtiers and gentlemen--what Mildmay called "flashies." Also, "boy-toys."

I swatted that thought irritably aside and took stock of my admirers--not for their talents in bed or their scandal potential, but whether they might know something Vulpes would find "interesting."

Most of them deserved to be called boy-toys; they hardly had two thoughts in their heads to rub together, much less anything to say that anyone would find interesting. I was thinking that Ashley Demellius might be the best of a bad lot--he was a featherwit, but also a gossip--when the door opened and like the saturnine answer to my prayers, Antony Lemerius came in.

He didn't bother to hide his impatience with the young men blocking the door, and I carefully didn't smile at the haste with which they got out of his way. Antony wouldn't find it funny.

I shifted my weight, dropped my shoulders a little, became the Mehitabel Parr Antony would want. Antony, thank God, was bored by stupidity rather than threatened by intelligence; he'd been one of the first to transfer his favor from Susan to me. But his sense of his own dignity was smothering, like the air on a really humid day in the Grasslands, and if you didn't measure up, he'd have nothing to do with you. He was very like his father, whom he hated in the particularly venomous fashion reserved for those whose good graces we must cultivate. And his father, Philip Lemerius, was one of Lord Stephen's cronies. If there was anything stirring in the Mirador's inner circles, Antony would know about it.

And even if I didn't get a thing out of him, Vulpes couldn't accuse me of not having tried.

Set in the proper role like a custard in a form, I turned from my mirror, rationed out a smile of delight, and extended one hand toward Antony, letting my wrist carry the motion. "Lord Antony," I said, as he bowed over my hand, his lips brushing dryly against my skin. "I did not know you would be in attendance this evening." Carefully implied, that I would have dispensed with my untidy rabble of beaux if I had known.

"A last-minute impulse," Antony said, straightening but keeping his gaze on my face. "Rewarded sevenfold, if I may say so. You were magnificent."

"Thank you," I said. I didn't simper--Corinna did that, although I was trying to break her of the habit--but did lower my eyes briefly before meeting his again, as if I were modest enough to be a little flustered by the compliment. Susan always took praise, no matter how lavish, as no more than her due.

It took maybe a quarter hour to get the last and most ardent of my admirers to take himself off, but I was finally able to close my door with only Antony and myself on the right side of it. If it had been Peter, or Mildmay, I would have leaned dramatically against the door and said, in my best imitation of Susan, "At last, we are alone." As it was, I said merely, "Now we may be more comfortable," and crossed the room--a matter of five paces--to where he sat on the lumpy chaise longue.

I sat down beside him, slightly sideways, knees together, spine perfectly straight, letting the long skirts of my dress cascade and pool around me. I lowered my eyes, demure as an ingenue, and said, "What is your pleasure this evening, my lord?"

I held still when he brought his hand up to my chin, allowed him to tilt my head up. "You are my pleasure," he said, dark eyes burning, and leaned close to kiss me.

It isn't easy to participate in a passionate kiss when you want to giggle. But we could have come straight out of those luridly sentimental Ervenzian novels that Corinna devoured by the hundredweight: dialogue, stage business, and all. I quashed my sense of humor and indulged Antony in his desire to master me.

My sense of humor was controllable. What got away from me was the realization, as Antony's hands moved to grip my skull, that he was serving, in a horrible, only half-metaphorical way, as a proxy for Vulpes. It wasn't Antony who had made himself my master.

Antony pulled back. "Mehitabel?"

Oh God. He'd felt that sudden revulsion. I said, "I'm sorry. My head's a little sore. Aven's headdress is very uncomfortable." All of which was perfectly true, if not precisely germane.

His frown deepened. "I'm sorry. I had no intention of hurting you."

"I know," I said and softened my expression. "It's all right. Truly."

His face cleared, although he said, "I shouldn't have forgotten myself like that."

I remembered, with sudden and visceral vividness, a day in the summer when Felix had, for reasons best known to himself, let Mildmay off the leash. Mildmay had come to the Empyrean, sat quiet and good as gold watching our rehearsal, followed me, uncomplaining as ever, back to this dressing room when we were done. He'd listened as I raged about Susan and her vanity and her petty games and her monumental stupidity, and when I'd finally run down, like an overworked clock, he'd said, "You done?"

"Bored?" I'd said waspishly. "Yes, I suppose so."

"Hang on." He hadn't smiled, because he never did, but I'd seen the lightness in his eyes and trusted him.

He'd tipped the chair under the door handle, pointed me to this chaise longue, and proceeded to make love to me with his hands and mouth, and finally, when he had me so wild I was swearing at him in every language I knew, he fucked me, hard and deep, with all the power he usually kept carefully in check.

It wasn't until afterward that I realized I'd been screaming like a hunting cat and that everyone in the building must have known exactly what we'd been doing.

Corinna'd made Mildmay blush like a rose, leering at him in the stage-lobby, but he'd said as he was getting into the hansom I'd flagged for him, "I don't take it back." And for a man as shy and private as Mildmay, that was something remarkable.

He had made me forget myself. This genteel clinch was nothing. I murmured something vague and soothing, and encouraged Antony to try again. This time, I kept my mind on what I was doing, and predictably, after another round of restrained passion, he invited me back to the Mirador for the night--and to attend court with him in the morning.

I wondered, though I'd never ask, what Philip had done to annoy him this time.

I had no illusions about my place in Antony's life, no matter how courteously he might give me unnecessary help in rising from the chaise longue, how tenderly he might drape my wrap around my shoulders. I was a means to an end for him, just as much as he was for me. There was no doubt he enjoyed the sex, but what mattered to him was the next morning, when he could walk into the Hall of the Chimeras with me on his arm and see his father go dull crimson with rage. As it happened, Antony's priorities suited me just fine.

He'd clearly expected to get what he wanted, for he'd brought his carriage. His driver looked a little rumpled, and I suspected he'd taken advantage of Berinth the King, a notoriously long play, to find some company for the wait. I couldn't fault him--God knew there couldn't be anything much more boring than the life of a nobleman's coachman, being treated as an extension of the horses, three-quarters of the job comprised in waiting.

Antony, of course, would never descend to the crass vulgarity of necking in a carriage; we sat in constrained silence for several minutes before he said, "You're . . . friends with Mildmay Foxe, aren't you?"

His hesitation over the word "friends" told me that he knew exactly what Mildmay and I were to each other.

If I hadn't needed to stay on his good side, I would have said, Something like that, and let him twist. I said, "Yes."

Antony said, obviously choosing his words with great care, "It is said, in the Mirador, that Lord Felix and his brother burn offerings in the crypt of the Cordelii."

I'd expected that sentence to end rather differently from how it did, and there was a more than slight pause before I said, "To the best of my knowledge, that isn't true. I can't imagine Felix doing such a thing."

"Ah," said Antony, and in the darkness of the carriage, I couldn't tell whether it was disbelief or disappointment or something else entirely.

My curiosity got the better of me: "Why do you ask?"

The sound he made was as close as I'd ever heard him come to a nervous laugh. "I, ah . . . no reason, really."

It wasn't even worth calling that a lie. I waited, and he caved so fast I knew he wanted to tell me, even though it embarrassed him. "It was just that, if it was true, I was going to ask if you thought he'd be willing to show me the way."

"To the crypt of the Cordelii?"

"For my research," he said with prim stiffness, as if I'd accused him of necrophiliac urges.

"Of course," I said. Antony was a historian--he had studied in Vusantine as a young man and would probably have stayed among the scholars of the great and venerable Library of Arx if his father hadn't summoned him home. He was working on a history of the reign of Laurence Cordelius and spent most of his time in the Mirador's scattered and chaotic libraries.

"But if you think the story untrue . . ."

"I'm sure they don't burn offerings, but that doesn't necessarily mean Mildmay doesn't know where the crypt is. It can't do any harm to ask him."

"Would you?" he said, with a kind of eager gratitude I'd certainly never gotten from him in bed.

"Of course. I can ask him tomorrow."

"It's very kind of you."

"It's no trouble," I said. In fact, I was glad to have something neutral to talk about, considering the things we'd said to each other the last time we spoke. "What is it you're hoping to find?"

And the rest of the way to the Mirador, Antony was all too glad to tell me.

#

It was a good thing--I thought sometime later--that I didn't mind the color of Antony's bed canopy, because it was certainly all I got to look at. Not that he was an inconsiderate lover, but he knew where I belonged, and it was underneath him.

Afterward, though, he relaxed--as much as Antony ever did relax--and began to talk, like a boiling kettle venting steam. He hated the Mirador's politics, in the same way--and sometimes in the same breath--that he hated his father, but his hatred seemed to force him to watch, and the malevolent precision of his observations was always fascinating.

And tonight it was more than that: Stephen Teverius was contemplating marriage.

"You're joking," I said, even though I knew he wasn't.

"No," he said, but he wasn't offended. "His councillors have been encouraging him to remarry since--well, essentially since the moment Emily stopped breathing. But even Father had almost given up hope that he ever would."

"Do you think he means it?"

"That kind of fakery isn't in Stephen's nature. He means it--if they can ever find a young woman who meets their criteria."

"Criteria?"

"Extensive criteria," Antony said. "Listening to them discuss the matter, you would imagine they were buying Stephen a horse."

"Suddenly, I am very grateful to be beneath their notice."

"Yes, you are," he said grimly. "You are indeed."

#

MILDMAY

Near the septad-night, Fleur came over to me and said, "He's drunk, isn't he?"

"M'lady?" I said. I should have stood up, to be polite, but it just didn't seem worth my while.

"Your brother," she said. "He's drunk."

I looked at Felix. He was sprawled out in one of the chairs. Isaac Garamond was leaning on the left chair-arm, talking to him, but Felix was grinning up at Edgar like he'd won the moon in a raffle and had clearly just said something snarky beyond belief.

Yeah, if you knew what to look for, he was drunk.

I said, "So?"

"He never used to get drunk."

No, I thought, liquor looks pretty damn boring next to phoenix. But I just said, "People change, m'lady."

"I was wondering if there was a reason."

"Sorry?"

"A reason he's started drinking too much. Is there something wrong?"

Something wrong. Powers and saints. Did she want a fucking list? "Sorry," I said. "I don't know what you're talking about."

She stared at me. "You can't be that stupid."

Depends, sweetheart. How stupid do you think I am? I didn't say nothing.

"I want to help," she said, fierce but kind of whispering. "Surely you can understand that."

"Well, you can't," I said, too sharp and too ugly, but it was true. Maybe I was stupid, but I knew what Felix would do to me if I spilled my guts to Fleur, and I wasn't anywhere near stupid enough to let myself in for that. Not when it wouldn't do no good anyhow.

"Your jealousy isn't helping him, either."

Powers, I wanted to hit the silly bitch. But I couldn't, so I just kind of stared at her. Because, I mean, what the fuck do you say?

"I don't want to take him away from you," she said. "Can't you see that?"

I wished, mightily, for the roof to cave in and get me out of this. "Lady Fleur, I don't own him. You want to try and help, you go on ahead. Just don't come crying to me when--"

--he rips you a new asshole. Powers and saints, for a moment I thought I'd actually said that out loud. But I'd managed to get my fucking mouth shut in time. Small fucking favors.

Not that what I had said wasn't bad enough all on its own, and she was getting ready to pin my ears back for it when when a voice called, clear as a fucking bell, "Fleur, is my little brother annoying you?"

Felix was coming toward us. I knew that look in his eyes, and my heart and stomach all turned to mud.

"Of course not," Fleur said. She was a terrible liar.

"Perhaps I'd best take him home before he starts, then," Felix said. I'd've been happier if he'd just belted me one. He said good night all around, with one of his killer smiles, and walked out like he owned the world. I followed him.

He tore into me as soon as we were out of earshot, his voice low and mean. I didn't try to talk back. I couldn't beat him that way, and anything I said would just make it worse. I especially didn't say, though it lumped in my chest like a knot sealed with lead, that, just once, I wished he would take my side instead of theirs.

Gideon'd already gone to bed when we reached the suite. Felix ordered me off to bed like a thief-keeper would a stupid, useless kid, and I was glad to go. I fell asleep pretty quick--too tired to stay upset. Walking all over the Mirador'll do that for you.

And of course I dreamed about Ginevra. Again.

#

FELIX

The door closed behind Mildmay, and I let my breath out explosively. Alcohol wasn't enough tonight, and the black, mindless fury was building. I looked at the closed door of my bedroom. Gideon was probably awake; I could go in and pick a fight, but I knew how it would end, and Gideon did not deserve that.

Silently, carefully, I let myself out of the suite. I'd promised myself a year and a half ago that I wouldn't go near Gideon unless I could be gentle, and there was no gentleness in me tonight.

I went to the Arcane. The guards at the Mortisgate pretended they didn't see me; that was better for all concerned. The denizens of the Arcane also pretended they didn't see me, but that was common courtesy. Uncommon courtesy--I was not the only Cabaline who came to the Arcane, but I was the only one who ventured farther than the Gargoyle's Bride, the import shop where you could buy Myrian amber at half the price it cost in "respectable" shops.

And for most purposes, the Gargoyle's Bride was deep enough. But not for mine.

The Two-Headed Beast was not in the lowest reaches of the Arcane, but I could hear the Sim from its doorway, a dancing, rushing, roaring howl, just at the edge of perception. Once inside, the door shut behind me, the sound was gone, drowned beneath the noise of the Two-Headed Beast itself.

There were candles everywhere, in candelabra and wall sconces, on every table, anchored in their own wax on the shelf behind the bar, casting strange reflections in the wavery and fly-specked mirrors. Jean-Tristan was holding court in one corner, the candlelight kind alike to his aging beauty and paste jewels. Young martyrs knelt adoringly at his feet; Jean-Tristan might be nearly fifty, but he was still as terrifyingly compelling as a chimera. I felt the draw myself, but wrenched away.

I was not a martyr any longer.

Sylvienne and her girls were spread like orchids across the broad staircase that divided the room in two: black velvet and fake pearls and rice-powder pallor on the fair ones, while the dark girls had kohl on their eyelids, subtle rouge on cheekbones and temples so that they glowed like bronzes. Even if I had been janus, that sweet poison would not have been what I wanted.

Sylvienne gave me a wary nod as I passed, one tarquin to another, unspeaking.

The upper level of the Two-Headed Beast was darker, all nooks and crannies and curtained alcoves and oddly-shaped small rooms. The sweet smell of orange and clove incense was heavy in the air, not quite hiding the underlying musk of sweat and sex. I looked over the men leaning against the bar, sitting at the tables, in the mismatched chairs. There were women, too, hungrier than Sylvienne's flowers, feral, savage. It was hard to tell the predators from the prey; I supposed grimly that we were all predators, one way or another. And we were all prey.

There were signals, which I had learned in the Shining Tiger both to deploy and interpret. The boy sitting alone, skinny, ferret-faced, probably not more than nineteen: his hands were folded on the table in front of him, and he wore red at his throat--a tattered kerchief, badly dyed, but you did the best you could with what you had. I understood that, and did not hold it against him.

It was not done for a martyr to approach a tarquin, not unless the martyr knew and wanted what he would get if he did. I had seen one of Jean-Tristan's martyrs do it once, deliberately, after a quarrel. Jean-Tristan had slapped her to the floor, as fast and vicious as a striking snake. And then he had helped her up again, quite tenderly, and kissed her until her mouth was red with her own blood.

That dark, skinny boy was sitting still, not making eye-contact. Not merely curious, then, and not a thrill-seeker come slumming in the bear-pit. Some martyrs were excited by the waiting; from how very still he sat, I thought he might be one of them.

I crossed to the table, waited until he began to look up, then caught his chin with one finger and pushed his head up the rest of the way so that I could see his eyes: clear and bright, the pupils normal. Drugs were easily come by in the Two-Headed Beast, and I would not accept a martyr dosed on phoenix.

He held my gaze, though I could feel the tension in him, like a lute string, and when I released him, he looked down at once. He had lovely eyelids, smudged with kohl, and long veiling lashes.

I sat down across from him, placed my own hands flat, palms-down on the table. His breath hitched. I said, low and hard and fast, "I do not want to know your name, and you do not need to know mine. I will not kill you or cripple you. Do you require other assurances?"

His throat bobbed, and he said in a husky whisper, "No, m'lord." He might know my name anyway; it didn't matter as long as he never said it.

"Good," I said. He looked up, hopeful. And I smiled at him. "My pleasure tonight is the Red Room. This is your last chance to decline."

But he shook his head, and I saw the tremor go through him.

I tossed a demigorgon across the table. "Find out when it will be available."

He was quick in his obedience, eager to please, and I approved. I was in no mood for a fight, not when I wouldn't be able to trust myself to remember the limits I had promised. Not tonight.

Before I could stop myself, my fingers had gone to the little wash-leather bag in my inner pocket. It was stupid to keep carrying it about, even more stupid to be so deathly afraid of opening it. Its contents could not harm me; it was mere superstition that made me imagine Malkar's spirit might linger in the rubies he had worn all the years I had known him.

Until I killed him.

And it was not--unfortunately--that Malkar's spirit could not return. I was apostate from Cabaline orthodoxy in admitting the possibility, but I had seen the ghosts of the Mirador. I had laid the spirits orthodoxy claimed did not exist. When it had occurred to me, some months after we had returned to Mélusine from the Bastion, that Malkar might . . . might come back, I had wished I could dismiss the idea as nightmarish fancy. I had tried. But he had been a blood-wizard, worse than a necromancer, and I could not silence the voice in my head whispering that Brinvillier Strych had died, too, and that had not stopped him. And who might he have been before he was Brinvillier Strych? How old was he, when my magic set his heart alight in his body? How many times had he cheated death?

That he was physically dead, there was mercifully no doubt. I had taken the rubies from the still smoldering ashes of his body. But I did not know about his spirit, his essence . . . his miasma, for surely if ever a man had a miasma, a palpable cloud of cruelty and self-will wrapped about him, that man was Malkar Gennadion. And that was what I feared more than anything, that that miasma might endure past death. That he might find a way to parlay it again into agency, into control.

I had studied, piecemeal, clandestinely, not wanting to discuss my fears--not with Gideon, and certainly not with any of my Cabaline brethren, who would merely sneer at my overactive and heretical imagination. Gideon would not sneer, but if Malkar was a miasma, I did not want to make Gideon breathe it. He had suffered enough in my company.

So the process had been slow, frustrating and frightening, and even now that I thought I knew what I needed to do, I found myself hesitating, drawing back as if committing to the idea would somehow give Malkar's spirit the strength I feared it had. I did not admire myself for dithering, and it was that tension that was preying on me, shortening a temper that was never amiable in the first place, making me reckless, wantonly cruel, hateful even to myself.

And so I came to the Two-Headed Beast, in search of an outlet for all this fury.

My outlet came pattering back then. "The Red Room is free now, m'lord. If it pleases you . . ."

"Oh, it does," I said, and looked him over slowly, once, before I stood up.

I made him precede me down the narrow staircase to the Red Room, gratified by his nervous glances over his shoulder. On the landing, the intricately carved panels of the Red Room's door indecipherable in the low light, I caught him by his kerchief, pulled him to me. He choked a little, but did not struggle, and I kissed him as a reward, deep and hard, not loosening my grip. He responded eagerly, his mouth pliant and welcoming beneath mine. He tasted of gin and mint.

I raised my head after a time, said, "The key."

He fumbled for it, and if I had been another sort of man, I would have punished him for that, for the seconds it took him to press the key into my waiting hand. I merely kissed him again, bit his lower lip not quite hard enough to draw blood, and then released him completely, stepped around him, and unlocked the door.

My hand at the small of his back guided him into the Red Room. He stopped moving when my touch left him, and he stood perfectly still, save for a fine shiver, as I locked the door.

I left the key in the lock and walked round in front of him. "Undress."

He was quick but fumbling, and I did not bother to hide my amusement. When he stood naked, I reached out, brushed the silky skin of his pectoral, ran a slow caress down to his navel, feeling his stomach muscles twitch beneath the lightness of my touch.

He had scars, clean thin lines marking his shoulders, his thighs, crisscrossing his spine with a geometer's precision. To this ferret-faced boy, they were beauty; to tarquins such as myself, they were desire. The ruined skin of my back seemed to burn beneath my shirt, though that was mere morbid fancy. I traced one of the lines across the front of his left thigh, watched his sex jerk with his indrawn breath.

I moved away then, out of the boy's line of sight, to the long table that held the Red Room's selection of erotiques. Other rooms offered silk ribbons, peacock feathers, little jars of various unguents--the petty toys for those who wished to play at power, or those whose cruelties were subtle, serpentine. In the Red Room there were manacles, blindfolds, lengths of chain, hard gags, fine-bladed knives, choke collars, clamps both delicate and brutal, a seven-tailed cat lying curled in obscene splendor like a dragon sleeping among its hoard. The oil was unscented, glowing in a decanter once used for sherry. Next to it was a pitcher of water and a pile of cloths.

I made my choices, returned to the boy, restrained him.

At the Shining Tiger, Merle and Justin had held me down while a patron plied a riding crop. I couldn't remember his name, but I remembered the way the pain had burned in toward my bones. This martyr didn't make a sound for the cat cutting his shoulders, dancing on his inner thighs. It was the blindfold that undid him, making his breath catch in a whimper when I showed it to him.

I was intrigued, heat unfurling in the pit of my stomach, and I tied the blindfold around his head with exaggerated caution, not wanting his reaction to be muddied by the pull of so much as a single strand of hair.

It was worth it, for he could not quite keep himself from trying to wrench away, even though he knew as well as I did that it was useless. I pressed myself against him to feel the quivering he could not control, to let him feel my arousal. I guided him to the floor, positioning him the way I wanted him, supported on his chained forearms and on his knees. He panted, his breath rasping in his throat, his head turned as if he was trying to see me through the black padded silk of the blindfold, and pleaded breathlessly.

I pulled back. "What do you want?"

"M'lord?" Bewilderment.

"You keep saying 'please,'" I said patiently. "What is it that you want?"

"Oh--!" A sob, hastily bitten back.

He didn't know; lost in the darkness, clouded by pain and sexual heat--I doubted he would have been able to tell me his own name. But I asked again, "What do you want?"

"You!" The word burst out of him. "Please, m'lord, please, fuck me, touch me, anything, just please, please--"

"Your enthusiasm is very gratifying, however crudely expressed." I ran my hand over his flank, delighted by the way he leaned desperately into my touch. I unstoppered the oil and slicked my hands. There were certain kinds of pain I chose not to inflict.

I teased him for a time, making him work for what he wanted, making him sweat. The sweat would keep his whip-weals alive for him. When I was ready, both of us effortlessly slick with oil, I wrenched him onto his whip-marked back. He landed hard, his mouth open in a scream he had no breath to voice, and I entered him, not letting him arch off the floor, my fingers clawing into his buttocks, dragging them higher so that he had no choice but to take his weight on his shoulders.

He was fighting me, fighting his own body, and this was what I wanted, this panicked animal helpless strength, this hopeless struggle. I drove into him, snarling with effort, and he screamed like a lost soul, screamed and bucked and climaxed.

"Damn you," I said, although I did not know which of us I meant, and spent myself inside him in mingled pain and relief. I dragged myself away as soon as I could move, washed sketchily, and put my clothes on. Then I returned to the boy where he lay sprawled on the flagstones, removed manacles and blindfold, washed the mix of oil and sweat, semen and blood from his belly and back and thighs. I was careful, though not tender, checking to be sure I had not inflicted more damage than I had intended.

I helped him stand, helped him dress, asked because I had to, "Are you all right?"

His smile was sweet and wholehearted. "Ah, m'lord, any time you want me again, you just come find me."

I smiled back politely, but I wouldn't. I never did.

And we parted. I felt saturated in my own monstrosity, but the darkness, the fury, was draining out of me as I left the Two-Headed Beast, and I could have sobbed with gratitude. It was nearly four in the morning; I went straight to the St. Dismas Baths and scrubbed myself almost raw in the futile effort to wash the reek of the beast out of my soul.

But at least when I walked back through the Mortisgate, the boy's blood was not on me.

#

MILDMAY

I woke up feeling like I'd died in the night and been dug up by resurrectionists with filthy, pox-festered hands. When I went out into the sitting room, Felix was wearing his wet cat look, the one that meant Gideon had taken after him for something he didn't think was his fault. They went at it like firecrackers all through breakfast. I could tell by the glares they were giving each other, even though neither one was saying anything out loud. Finally, Felix burst out: "All right, damn it! Mildmay, you tell him. Was I flirting with Isaac Garamond last night?"

"Can't you leave me out of this?" I said.

"Tell him," Felix said.

"I didn't see you flirting," I said.

Gideon snorted. He didn't believe either one of us. He knew I'd lie for Felix.

"Gideon, I swear--" Felix started, but Gideon cut him off, and whatever he said was poison mean. It took a lot to make Felix flinch.

"We'd better go," I said. "It's getting late."

The look Gideon gave me was one I could read. It said, If he didn't do nothing wrong, why are you bailing him out? But Felix's face went absolutely sunlit, and he said, "You're right. Come on." He was out the door before he even finished talking.

I said, "He really wasn't." Gideon didn't look at me. I got up and followed Felix.

It had been a shitty start to the day, and things only went downhill from there. I really didn't think Felix had been flirting with Mr. Garamond the night before, didn't think he gave a rat's ass about Mr. Garamond, to tell the truth, but when Mr. Garamond found Felix after court, he sure was--Mr. Garamond, I mean. He was better at it than poor Dominic Jocelyn, too, and Felix was sore enough at Gideon to start flirting back. I wished Gideon had believed me while I was still telling the truth.

As for me, the day had turned to complete and utter shit the moment I spotted Mehitabel on Lord Antony Lemerius's arm. And then she caught my eye and gave me the little wave that meant she wanted to talk to me later. How many guys do you need on your string? I thought. And I knew damn well that if Felix let me, I'd go meet her just like she wanted. Watching Felix and Mr. Garamond, I didn't think I'd have any trouble getting permission.

#

MEHITABEL

I made Antony come with me to meet Mildmay. I wanted an audience, and Antony's scruples irritated me enough to drop character for a moment: "I assure you, he doesn't bite."

Antony bridled, but at least he quit arguing.

Mildmay and I had a system. The only thing he hated more than Felix teasing him was me telling Felix to shut up. So we didn't meet in their rooms, but in the Stoa St. Maximilian, where there were benches to sit on and almost never anyone around. The benches by the north doors were decorated with dragons. I sat on one; Antony, being keenly conscious of propriety, took the one opposite. I checked my watch. A quarter to seven. If Mildmay could come, he'd be along in the next half hour. And Felix might be frequently appalling, but he was almost never so petty as to refuse to let Mildmay go.

I looked at Antony, sitting poker-straight, his discomfort written plainly on his face, and said curiously, "If Mildmay distresses you so, why didn't you ask Felix?"

He gave me a look that was as much offended as anything else. "I am not on intimate terms with Lord Felix."

I heard Felix's breathless, mocking voice in my head: Darling, I wouldn't take you if you came free with a pound of sugar. Squelched it, said, "This is hardly an 'intimate' favor. And Felix would understand about your work."

"I want nothing to do with him," Antony said, and I didn't spoil the magnificence of his statement by pointing out that if that was the case, he was going entirely the wrong way about it. Instead, I asked, "Do his proclivities offend you so greatly?"

"Oh, it isn't that, although Father gets quite exercised about the degeneracy of the court. But the Lemerii do not consort with wizards."

"Oh," I said, brought up hard against the lunatic schisms of court society. "Of course."

Another awkward silence. I was about, in desperation, to start him talking about the Cordelii again, when I was saved by my other problem. Mildmay came through the door, with just enough hitch in his eyebrows to tell me he'd had another argument with Felix. The frown vanished from his face almost before I'd seen it, and he nodded at Antony, his compromise between the obligation d'âme and his own innate politeness. "Lord Antony," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Mildmay," I said; he gave me one of his indecipherable looks, green and sharp and waiting. "Lord Antony wants to examine the crypt of the Cordelii. We've heard that you know the way--will you show him?"

There was a pause; although Mildmay's face didn't change, I knew I'd startled him, and I was glad of it. Then he shrugged. "Yeah. Sure. When'd you like to go, m'lord?"

"Is now too soon?" Antony said.

"Nah. Suits me fine. Want to come, Mehitabel?"

"Are you kidding?" I said, getting up. "You'd have to beat me off with a stick."

#

MILDMAY

Nobody talked much on the way to the crypt, which was fine with me. Felix had picked a fight with Johannes Hilliard at the end of the committee meeting, because he knew Lord Johannes would give him what he wanted, and it was either his bad luck or just exactly what he had coming to him, depending on how you look at things, that Lord Giancarlo heard him. He had some things to say about it, too.

Felix didn't fight with Lord Giancarlo--he wasn't that stupid--so he stood and let Lord Giancarlo chew him out, and then Felix dragged me up to the Crown of Nails and chewed me out, and we ended up having a fight like we hadn't had in months. He'd finally yelled at me to get away from him and leave him alone. I hadn't waited for him to say it twice.

But there was this little voice in the back of my head saying, he's getting worse. I mean, he was a nasty-tempered prick at the best of times, but these days it seemed like he was going out of his way to find fights. And he was leaving the suite at night, and me and Gideon didn't have the least idea where he was going, although it wasn't hard to guess what he was doing when he got there. And there was the drinking.

He ain't drinking that much, I said to myself. I mean, he ain't getting smashed or nothing.

But that didn't even get a chance to make me feel better before I was thinking, Yeah, but he's getting drunk enough that people are noticing. People other'n me. People who've known him longer'n me, and they don't like it. They think it's weird.

And then I sighed because it didn't matter. Felix wasn't going to listen to me, and if he'd wanted to tell me what was wrong, he would have. And maybe the binding-by-forms could've helped--there were stories that sort of hinted it might--but that would mean giving it more of me, and I wasn't doing that.

Fuck this for the Emperor's snotrag, I said to myself. Think about something else, can't you? And that worked about as well as it ever does.

When we reached the top of the white marble staircase that me and Felix had found once, couple indictions back now, I guessed, I snagged one of the candles out of the nearest sconce. Mehitabel and Lord Antony followed suit. The door at the bottom of the stairs was still unlocked.

"How many people do you think know about this?" Lord Antony asked.

"Powers, I don't know," I said, and waved 'em ahead of me through the door. Old habits die hard. "I'd bet us and Felix are the first people been down here in at least a Great Septad. Prob'ly more like three."

"Amazing," Lord Antony said. He was trying to look everywhere at once. He started off down the first aisle. About halfway along, he dug a tablet and stylus out of his coat pocket and began scribbling, using one of the tombs as a table.

"He'll be off in his own world until we drag him out of here," Mehitabel said. "Are all of the Cordelii really in here?"

"Nah. Just the dynastic line."

"So what's the dynastic line?"

"The kings and their kids and their wives, and I think the grandsons." I remembered something else I thought Mehitabel would like--something that might keep her looking at me instead of her flashie. "And the kings' hearts are down in the Arcane."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Kings' hearts went to Cade-Cholera. They're down in the Arcane, in the Mausolée de Verre."

"You're putting me on."

"Nope."

It wasn't my kind of joke, and she knew it. "What a grisly custom."

"The Mirador had a lot of stuff like that before the Wizards' Coup."

"No, don't tell me. Not in here."

"'Fraid of haunts?"

She gave me a smile that was mostly teeth. "Morbidly imaginative. Shall we sightsee?"

"Sure, if you want," I said.

But she only stayed with me a moment before she went off reading plaques. I stopped walking and leaned on a tomb to watch her, the way she forgot to behave like a lady and her eyes got wide.

She came back to me. "Do you know who all these people are?"

"Most of 'em."

"Come tell me about this one. She looks interesting," she said and dragged me over to one of the wall plaques.

The plaque she pointed to didn't look no different from the others. Mehitabel read it out loud:

HERE LIES AMARYLLIS CORDELIA
17 PRAIRIAL 14.1.3 - 11 FLORÉAL 14.6.2
Her waking over,
may her sleep be dreamless.

"Who was she?"

"Fuck," I said. "I dunno. I mean, I know about one Amaryllis Cordelia, but she can't be here."

"Why not?"

"Not in the dynastic line, though that ain't from lack of trying."

"What do you mean? Who was she?"

"Let's sit down," I said and started toward the row of freestanding tombs behind us. "D'you mind?"

"All right," she said, and sat with me on the nearest tomb. "Now talk. Who was Amaryllis Cordelia?"

"Gloria Aestia with guts."

"Felix is right," Mehitabel said. "You do talk in riddles."

Powers, how many people was he saying that to? "Sorry," I said. "But it ain't a riddle. She was born into a cadet branch, and she wanted to be queen."

"She didn't make it, though."

"Nope. Bad timing."

She laughed.

"It's true," I said. "Too young to marry Laurence and too old to marry Charles. She got married off to an Emarthius before Charles was old enough to care about girls."

"So what makes her like Gloria Aestia?"

"She seduced them both."

"She what?"

“Her husband--poor bastard, I can't think of his name--got some political appointment when Laurence was in his seventh septad, and--"

"Don't give me that septad nonsense," she said.

{"Sorry. Laurence was older than forty-two and younger than, um, forty-nine. Charles was about sixteen, and the lady herself was, say, thirty."

"All right. I've got that now. Go on."

"She went after Laurence first, but he wouldn't do her no good. He'd had lovers since he hit his second septad, if you believe the stories, and he knew how to keep 'em where he wanted 'em. So she gave up on him and went after Charles."

"Well? What happened?"

"Ain't clear," I said. "Laurence died when Charles had two septads and four, um . . . eighteen. Maybe it was murder. Maybe Amaryllis Emarthia had a hand in it. Seems like Charles didn't, since they let him on the throne. But he hadn't reached his third septad yet, and everybody knew he was missing some of the top cards from his deck. Laurence had been careful about the way he set the regency up--and maybe that was Amaryllis's fault, too. So by the time Charles came of age, his advisors had most of the power, and that's where the Puppet Kings came from."

"What about Amaryllis?"

"Her and her husband got the boot--not officially because of Laurence being murdered, but you know how that is. I don't think they ever came back."

"But here she is," Mehitabel said.

"If that's her."

"We have a historian. Let's ask." She called down to the other end of the crypt, "Antony!"

"Mehitabel!" I said in a hiss.

"What? Afraid I'll wake someone?"

"You only think you're joking. And people didn't get buried down here along of being nice to widows and orphans, you know."

"Sorry. I think it was mostly bravado. This place gives me the horrors."

Lord Antony reached us. "You bellowed?" he said disapprovingly.

"Mildmay just told me a very interesting story about a woman named Amaryllis Cordelia who shouldn't be in here. Is that her plaque?" She pointed.

Lord Antony turned and read the plaque and said, "How very peculiar."

"Is it her?"

"The dates are right, and I've never come across another Amaryllis in that generation of Cordelii, but not only shouldn't Amaryllis Cordelia be here, she can't be. That is to say, she isn't."

"Pray continue," Mehitabel said and gave me a sidelong smile.

"My mother is an Emarthia, a very cadet branch, but she was a favorite of old Lord Rodney's. She spent several summers at Diggory Chase, and took me along two or three times. When I was twelve, I spent the summer doing rubbings in their graveyard--including one of the tombstone of Amaryllis Cordelia Emarthia."

We looked at each other.

"The inscription is the same," Lord Antony said. "I remember the motto. But someone here apparently didn't like thinking of her as an Emarthia."

"Charles?" I said.

"He was completely in thrall to her, true enough," Lord Antony said, "but I've never heard that he was particularly prone to melodramatic gestures."

"But why is she here?" Mehitabel said.

"That's just it," Lord Antony said. "She isn't here. She's buried beside her husband at Diggory Chase."

"Then what's this?" I said.

He started pacing up and down, scowl black as a thundercloud. "Someone has erected a plaque to the memory of Amaryllis Cordelia--"

"No, they haven't," Mehitabel said. "It doesn't say anything about her memory. It says, 'Here lies Amaryllis Cordelia.'"

"It's a copy of the Diggory Chase plaque," Lord Antony said.

"Why?" Mehitabel said. "Why would you copy an Emarthius plaque when you patently want to deny her connection to the Emarthii?"

Lord Antony opened his mouth to answer her and then closed it. Then he did it again, like a guy trying to force a rusted lock.

"Look, I know this is stupid," I said, "but what if it's the other way 'round?"

"Riddles, my darling," Mehitabel said.

"No, it ain't. What if the Emarthius plaque is the copy?"

"But that makes even less sense," Lord Antony said. "Why would the Cordelii put up a plaque for her before the Emarthii got one up, when she died at Diggory Chase?"

"Why would they put up a plaque for her at all?" Mehitabel said, and we ran aground again.

"Only people in this crypt," I said, "are kings, their wives, and their children."

"And grandsons," Lord Antony said.

"Yeah, them too. But Amaryllis Cordelia wasn't any of those things. Never mind who did it, why is she here?"

"Is it," Mehitabel began, then stopped herself. "No, that's hardly likely."

"What?" Lord Antony said.

"I was just wondering if being the mother of a king would be enough. Could she be the next king's mother?"

"Claudius," I said.

"No," Lord Antony said. "Claudius was born nearly a year after Amaryllis died, and I'm afraid there is no doubt he was the son of Jemima Cordelia. It's a good idea, though."

"So that ain't it," I said, "and since I always heard Charles was pretty stuck on Jemima--I mean, he wouldn't've gone around putting plaques up, if this lady died after he got married, right?"

"That's a solid piece of reasoning," Lord Antony said, "and besides, Amaryllis Cordelia has a perfectly legitimate and presumably tenanted grave somewhere else. It really is most peculiar."

We were silent for a minute. Mehitabel was hugging herself, and Lord Antony was looking around nervously. I felt it, too, that sense that somebody I couldn't see might be watching from the shadows. Our candles were burning low.

Then Mehitabel said briskly, "We can certainly ponder it elsewhere. Come on. I'm beginning to feel as if I'm overstaying my welcome." She led the way to the door. Me and Lord Antony were glad to follow her.

I stopped to drag the door closed, which took some doing. Lord Antony waited for me. I hadn't expected that from him. Looking at his face, sort of embarrassed and stubborn, I could see that he was trying to get past that we were both on Mehitabel's string, trying to be a decent person.

I found myself saying, "If you need to come back down here--I mean, if you want, m'lord, I'd be happy to, um, come with you."

"Thank you," Lord Antony said. "I appreciate that." We both knew what he was talking about, and it didn't have a thing in the world to do with the crypt of the Cordelii.

#

It was Huitième, and I couldn't quite tell if Mehitabel and Lord Antony had other plans. So I said good night and went back down to the Palace. The looks I got in the Arcane were nasty, and a couple people made hex signs when they thought I wasn't looking. That was almost funny. They were giving me lots of space. Elvire had probably put the word out that I claimed Vey Coruscant.

At the Palace, Tiny was watching a gal cheating two demibeaux at dice. She saw me and the dice fell out of her hand, laying there on the floor like tiny corpses. I recognized her. She'd been one of Elvire's girls four indictions back, but they must have figured she was better at sharping. I even remembered her name.

"Hey, Mirandy," I said.

Her face was suddenly all eyes. She said, "Hey," back, but I saw the way she covered her dice.

"I can't hex 'em, darlin'," I said. "That's my big brother."

"You again," Tiny said before she could figure out what to do with that. "She said if you had balls enough to come back, I should let you go on in." He stepped aside, and I made my own way to Elvire's office.

"Sit down," she said, and I sat and waited. She was quiet for a long time, just looking at me until my back started crawling, then said suddenly, "I'll give you one chance to forget the whole thing."

"Why?"

"All or nothing."

I thought about it, and thought hard. Because her making that offer said as how she didn't like what she found. And it said as how she thought she owed me one, and this was it. And that meant something. But it just didn't mean enough.

"If I didn't want to know, I wouldn't've asked," I said.

"St. Anarthe preserve you from your own stupidity then," she said. "The only person offering the information you want is Kolkhis of Britomart."

Keeper.

"The only person?"

"For what you can pay."

Fuck. "What does she want?"

Her smile was all knives.

"She wants to talk to you," said Elvire.


© Sarah Monette 2007     Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.