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The Mirador

CHAPTER THREE

MEHITABEL

My boarding house was called the Velvet Tears, and it catered mostly to working women who could claim respectability but weren't actually respectable. No manufactory girls here--we were actresses and modistes' assistants and probably, yes, at least a couple of the tenants sold more intimate skills, but they were quiet about it and didn't bring their work home.

When I got back--very late Mardy night or very early Mercredy morning--I found Corinna waiting for me on the front stairs, and my heart sank.

The Empyrean didn't perform two days in the ten of the decad, the Lower City's week. Cinquième was sacred to the five principal gods of the Marathine pantheon, and Huitième was sacred to Jean-Soleil, who went out to Sauvage to visit his wife and children. So I'd had no qualms about accepting Antony's invitation, assuming I could leave the Empyrean to its own devices.

But not only was Corinna waiting for me, she was also more than a little drunk. I turned from locking the front door behind me, and she said, "Tabby. Been waitin' for you."

Corinna was normally very conscientious about her elocution; that dark drawl was a bad sign. "I can see that," I said. "What's the matter?"

"What's the matter?" She laughed, and there was another bad sign, because it wasn't her well-schooled genteel chuckle, either, but a raucous bark. I shushed her hastily, for the last thing we needed was the landlady to descend in her wrath like Tammerlion Ferox.

"Come on," I said. "Upstairs." I chivvied her gently into her own room, shut the door gratefully behind me, and watched as Corinna subsided in a slithering rustle of taffeta and grosgrain onto her bed, itself a narrow oasis amidst the racks and piles of costumes which Corinna was repairing, remaking, and sometimes simply reinventing for the Empyrean. Some of them were part of the effects of the long-defunct Merveille Theater, which Jean-Soleil had bought at auction five years ago, and the rest were the spoils of Corinna's trawling among the secondhand clothes shops of the Engmond's Tor Cheaps. "Now cough it up, whatever it is."

"I went over to the Empyrean after dinner," she said, readily enough. "I'd left the mauve thread in Susan's dressing room when I was repairing Pasiphaë's funeral gown--you know."

"Yes," I said.

"And I found this." She fished a crumpled twist of paper out of her bodice and waved it at me.

"Which is . . . ?"

Another raucous bark of laughter. "Bartholmew's gone to the Cockatrice."

I stared at her a moment. "That can't be all."

"He talked Susan into going with him."

"He did what?"

"Susan's gone," Corinna said, half dolefully, half in unholy amusement. "Packed up her bags and left Jean-Soleil this little billet doux."

Susan was stupid and tiresome and as an actress was about as talented as a tent pole, but her beauty and her voice and even the cold refinement of her manners had made her a tremendous draw. If she'd appeared before me at that moment, I would cheerfully have throttled her.

And I didn't understand her. Susan had not liked me, rightly believing that I had designs on her status as lead tragedienne, but she had been sitting pretty here at the Empyrean--adulated and generously paid--and she had known it. What could have possessed her?

I asked Corinna, "So what did she say?"

"Shame, Tabby," she said, drawing herself up and scowling at me unconvincingly. "To ins . . . insin . . ."

"Insinuate."

"Yeah, that. That I'd read a letter addressed to Jean-Soleil."

"In Susan's handwriting. Of course you would. I'd do the same."

"Unladylike, the pair of us," Corinna said. "You want a drink?"

"No. And I don't think you need any more, either. Come on. Why is Susan leaving?"

"Well, to hear her tell it, Adolphus Jermyn's going to make her Queen of Tambrin."

I didn't recognize the allusion, and at the moment I didn't care. "But what about Madeleine Scott?"

"Becoming Mrs. Jermyn."

I honestly didn't think I'd heard her correctly. "Becoming Mrs. Jermyn?"

"Oh yes. So naturally, Jermyn's replacing her--can't have Mrs. Jermyn treading the boards, you know--and it sounds like he promised Susan the sun, and moon, and two or three stars for good measure. She says he's planning to revive Edith Pelpheria for her."

"Oh you have got to be joking!"

"Nope. 'S what Susan says." She considered a moment and added, "Silly bitch."

"We knew that already," I said, and we grinned at each other.

"But we're fucked, Tabby," Corinna said, suddenly and utterly serious. "I mean, what're we gonna do without Susan?"

"I don't know," I said.

The worst part was that Corinna wasn't wrong. The Empyrean's reputation was built on Susan. I didn't want to calculate what percentage of our take Susan was responsible for, but it was substantial, and with both her and Bartholmew gone, the troupe was crippled, cutting our income even further, possibly even to zero.

I knew how fast an acting troupe could go under. I knew what kind of mercy Jean-Soleil could expect from his creditors, too. What I didn't know was what I'd do if the Empyrean was forced to close. When I first came to Mélusine, I'd taken shameless advantage of Felix's generosity, made easier by the fact that he clearly thought nothing of it--merely looking at me blankly when I offered to reimburse him for the money drawn out of his stipend. Mildmay'd come to me later, and we'd settled accounts; he'd said with a kind of fond resignation that Felix had no better head for money than he did for cards.

But I couldn't do that again. Pride and conscience refused it, and I couldn't tie myself more closely to Mildmay, not when I had no intention of giving him what he . . . wanted? Needed? It was hard to tell with him; he said so little about himself, and watched everything with the same stone-faced glower. And asking merely made him withdraw further.

One thing I knew. I didn't love him.

Another thing I knew. He didn't love me. Not when he was still so haunted by Ginevra that he could call me by her name and never even notice.

A relationship between us was a disaster waiting to happen, and I thought we had enough disasters already. I knew I hadn't called him Hallam only because I had trained myself rigorously, viciously, never to say Hallam's name out loud. Never.

And so Felix--an unlikely refuge if ever there was one--was off-limits. I certainly couldn't go to the Cockatrice; the mere idea was enough to turn my stomach. And I was not going to become anyone's light of love, living a parasitical, precarious existence and having always to mind my tongue. My stint in Klepsydra had taught me I needed acting to stay sane, and needed the theater to stay a person instead of merely a façade, a mask.

I needed the Empyrean.

I shook my head, coming out of a most unprofitable reverie with a start. The doomsaying would keep. "Come on, now," I said to Corinna. "You're going to hate yourself in the morning, you know. Let me get your buttons undone, and you can go to sleep."

"But what are we gonna do?" she said, catching my wrist.

"We start by talking to Jean-Soleil," I said. "And we can't do that until tomorrow. Sleep, Corinna."

She was drunk enough to be amenable. I undid her buttons, helped her out of dress and petticoats while she murmured bits of Bysshe's address to sleep from Margot and Bysshe.

"I don't care what cards he's got in his hand," I said finally, extinguishing the lamp. "I wouldn't back Jermyn against Jean-Soleil if you offered me the best odds in the world."

"Hope you're right," she said, already three-quarters asleep, and I slipped out into the hall with a tremendous sense of relief.

And nearly walked straight into the massive and queenly form of our landlady.

"Everything quite all right, Miss Parr?" she said dryly.

"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Angharad."

"I trust Miss Colquitt's indisposition is a temporary one?"

Corinna, you owe me, I thought, and managed to turn gritted teeth into a passable smile. "Yes, thank you. She's better already."

"See that she doesn't relapse," Mrs. Angharad said and moved with icy grandeur toward the stairs.

I retreated to my own room and had rarely been more grateful to bolt its door behind me. I didn't need this. Not on top of everything else. "Nothing more tonight," I said fiercely under my breath, undoing my own buttons. "Not one more damn thing."

And it worked--if you don't count the uneasy dreams.

#

MILDMAY

So I didn't get much sleep that night. Too busy thinking about Keeper and just how much I didn't want to get in spitting distance of her.

I never have figured out a good way to explain Keeper--except to people who grew up kept-thieves, and they don't need the explaining in the first place. I still didn't know, all these indictions later, whether I hated her or loved her. But I for sure hated the way she was trying to run me.

I knew what I was to Keeper. I'd figured that out a long time ago. I was like one of them clockwork bears. You wound the bear up and put it on the floor and it walked forward, banging its sticks together. Me, you wound me up, pointed me in the right direction, and I killed people. Good old reliable clockwork.

Only my clockwork had got busted somewhere along the way. And I knew exactly how much use Keeper had for busted things. So if she was putting herself to any kind of trouble to get me down in Britomart again, it wasn't for old times' sake, or to see how I was doing, or--saints and powers forbid--to say she was sorry. It was because she wanted something. And I was pretty sure that whatever Keeper wanted, I didn't want to give it to her.

So think, Milly-Fox. Not that you're any good at it. Was there any other way I could get at the information I wanted? Anybody who might know, and would tell me if they did?

I went round with it in circles for a couple hours, and most of what I came up with wasn't good for nothing but making cats laugh. But I did think of one thing, and sure it was a long shot, but even in the morning when I looked at it again, it didn't seem like it was completely batfuck nuts to try.

Because Hugo Chandler was a musician in the Mirador now. I could get at him. And Hugo--stupid little rabbit that he was--had had a thing like a dying swan for Austin Lefevre, the poet Ginevra'd gone to when she'd dumped me. And, no, it didn't make me feel better that Austin'd died with her, too.

But he'd let Hugo hang around. I think he liked knowing Hugo'd slit his own wrists with a spoon if that was what Austin wanted. And so if there'd been somebody nosing around and asking questions, or if Ginevra'd said something stupid in company, odds were--maybe not great, but not bad either--that Hugo would've heard.

It was something to try. If it worked, it'd mean I could stay the fuck away from Keeper. And powers, that didn't seem too much to ask.

#

When I came out of my bedroom, Felix and Gideon were fighting again. They gave me the same look, like I was somebody they didn't know and didn't want to.

After a silence that lasted for septads, Felix said, "Good morning," like a slab of marble.

"I'll be in the hall," I said and ducked out. I couldn't have gotten away from Felix's voice in my bedroom--and if him and Gideon were really getting into it, he'd start yelling sooner or later--but from the hall I couldn't hear a thing. Couldn't've if I'd wanted to, which I didn't. I sat down against the wall and started reciting "Rowell's Stand" in my head. It passed the time.

I'd got to the middle of the thirteenth stanza, where Rowell's wife looks in her mirror and it turns pitch-black, when Lord Shannon Teverius came into view at the other end of the hall. I guess right then Rowell's wife and me probably felt pretty much the same.

I got up as fast as I could. Lord Shannon was nobody to fuck with, and what exactly his thing was about Felix I couldn't have told you. They'd been lovers, and Lord Shannon had dumped Felix when Felix was "not himself." That was how Felix always put it, like being absolutely batfuck nuts for more than an indiction was just one of those things that happens to everybody once in a while. And when Felix came back to the Mirador with his head put back together, he didn't want nothing more to do with Lord Shannon. Lord Shannon couldn't stand that. I'd seen the way he watched Felix when he thought nobody was paying attention, and it was the kind of look that makes your skin crawl. He looked a little crazy himself. He laid traps for Felix, too, cunning things that Felix waltzed right out of without even seeming to see. Sometimes you could almost hear Lord Shannon's teeth grinding.

He stopped when he reached me. I ain't molly, but I could see why Felix had fallen for him, and why the court molls would just about kill themselves to make him smile. He really was that good-looking. He took after his mother, Gloria Aestia, the Golden Bitch, and looking at him made you understand what had happened to Lord Gareth.

"I wish to speak to Lord Felix." His eyes were perfect Monspulchran blue, and they were staring through me like I wasn't there.

Powers, I thought. "He's, um, busy just now, m'lord, but--"

"Nonsense."

If I was really, really lucky, Felix might throw a fireball at me, and I'd get out of the rest of this freakshow. I opened the door.

Felix turned on me like he was glad to have somebody else to yell at. "WHAT?" Shit. Gideon had found the right place to push and the right words to push with.

"It's, um, Lord Shannon. He says he wants to talk to you."

"Now?"

"Yeah," I said and stepped to one side so he could see Lord Shannon behind me.

Felix said, "Damn," not quite under his breath. I'd turned to keep an eye on both of them, and I saw Lord Shannon twitch.

When he wanted to, Felix could do these lightning-fast changes that made me feel like a cat in a room full of people with heavy boots. He did one now, went from acid to honey in the blink of an eye. "Come in, please," he said, his voice low and pleasant. His smile wasn't one of his best, but it didn't look fake.

Me and Gideon both tried to bail right then. "Sit down, Gideon," Felix said, watching Lord Shannon. "Don't leave, Mildmay, but do close the door behind his lordship." I looked at Gideon. Gideon looked back at me. We did what Felix wanted. I stayed by the door and did the best imitation I could of the wall. Gideon picked a chair out of both Felix's and Lord Shannon's lines of sight and hunched down in it like he was hoping he would turn invisible. At least Lord Shannon didn't look happy about it neither.

"Now," Felix said, "what can I do for you, my lord?"

I knew Felix well enough to see the gloat behind his good manners, that nasty little light in his eyes that meant he'd got some poor bastard right where he wanted him. And that's when I got it. Lord Shannon hadn't wanted no witnesses, and Felix had seen it, and made sure we didn't leave.

There was a pause, the spine-crawling sort where you want to say anything just to make it quit. Then Felix said, in a horrible, purring voice, "I don't know about you, my lord, but I have to prepare for court, and I haven't a great deal of time at my disposal. So, please, tell me what it is you want." I hoped he didn't know how much he sounded like Brinvillier Strych.

"I would prefer to speak to you alone," Lord Shannon said finally, and I figured we could call it one-nothing Felix, for making him admit it.

"Well, you can't," Felix said, brisker but less dangerous. "So either say what you've come here to say, or leave."

Lord Shannon looked around, and I thought for a second he was going to bolt. He had that kind of expression on his face, and honestly, if he'd started for the door, I would've got the fuck out of his way and let Felix yell at me for it later. But he stood his ground and looked Felix in the eye and said, "Come back to me."

And powers and saints that just sat there for the longest time--felt like an indiction at least, maybe two--and then Felix laughed, not nicely, and said, "No."

"Why not? Is it because of him?"--with a wave at Gideon, who was trying to look even more invisible--"Or him?" And he jerked his chin at me.

I just about fucking swallowed my tongue. But Felix didn't even blink, although he went awful white. He said, "No. It's because of you."

They stared at each other. Right then, I don't think there was anybody else in the world for either of them. And the funny thing was, Felix didn't look mad. He just looked, I don't know, tired. And after a long, long, moment, just them staring at each other, Lord Shannon said, "I . . . I should go."

"Yes," Felix said. Not mean or nothing.

And Lord Shannon went. I got out of his way, and he didn't so much as glance at me. Small fucking favors.

And all the time Felix was getting ready for court--in a tearing hurry, of course, because he'd already been running late before Lord Shannon showed up--he kept saying, "I can't believe I said that." Sometimes he said it like it made him want to cry. Sometimes he said it like he was about to start laughing. Finally, when we'd actually gotten out and were on our way, I got fed up with it and said, "Then why the fuck did you?"

He stopped walking for a second. "Because it was true, I suppose," he said when he started again. "Shannon made his personal feelings quite clear in that ugly little hotel in Hermione. If he hadn't, I'd probably have gone crawling back to him like a dog. That's what he wants, you know," and he gave me a weird, sideways look that I wasn't sure I'd been meant to see and I didn't know what to do with anyway. "He doesn't want me back--he's got that new boy, whatever his name is--he wants me crawling around him the way the rest of them do."

"He don't like you, um, holding out," I said. The "new boy" was Lord Arden Anastasius, and I knew Felix knew perfectly well what his name was.

"Exactly. That's what's driving him mad." He sighed. "I hope he's not going to start spreading that incest rumor again."

I remembered something ... something Hugo'd said back before I'd walked into the beartrap called Brinvillier Strych. "The 'Lai of Mad Elinor,'" I said. "He was having everybody sing it."

Felix didn't say nothing for a moment, which was answer enough. "It ... it isn't aimed at you."

"Feel better if it was."

"Mildmay--"

"Oh, never mind," I said. "It don't matter."

He turned on me so suddenly that I went back a step. "Don't say that! They're petty-minded bigots, and there's not a thing in the world I can do about it, but it does matter."

"Oh, right," I said. "Like it matters that your friends hate me."

A second later, I was wishing I'd bitten my tongue through instead. Felix flinched back like I'd hit him and said, in a very small voice, "They don't hate you."

"Oh, powers," I said. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. I don't blame you, or nothing. I just get so damn tired."

"Gideon thinks," Felix said, "that you should blame me."

"Fuck, I can't help what Gideon thinks."

He laughed, but said, "What if Gideon's right?"

In pure desperation, I said, "We're gonna be late if'n we don't hurry."

He looked at me for a moment, and then let it go. "Come on, then. And the unadulterated 'if,' if you please."

#

MEHITABEL

Corinna was sallow and moaning softly to herself when I stuck my head around her door at nine. But she was up and dressed and applying kohl carefully to her eyelids; she'd do fine.

"You don't need to say it," she said without turning from her reflection.

"Yes, well, if you aren't careful, it's Mrs. Angharad who'll be saying it--to the accompaniment of an eviction notice, I suspect."

"Oh damn," Corinna said and grimaced, although I wasn't sure if it was at herself or me or the absent Mrs. Angharad.

"She's going to let it go this time. And next time, you get to deal with her yourself."

"Oh, Tabby. I am sorry." She turned and rose, a single graceful motion, and crossed the room to lay one small hand apologetically on my forearm. "I was just ... Do you really think Jean-Soleil will be able to find a way out?" At close range, that beseeching look was hellishly effective--and I still didn't know how she did it. Corinna was three years older than me and more than capable of looking after herself.

"Like I said, my money's on him. After all, he'll never let himself be beaten by--"

"Dolly Vermin," she finished with me, grinning. Jean-Soleil's contempt for the impresario of the Cockatrice was legendary.

"Can I have Susan's letter? I'm going to try to catch Jean-Soleil as soon as he gets back."

"Oh, of course! Now where . . . ?" She frowned around her room with its darkly gaudy fabric jungle, then knelt and sorted through yesterday's dress and petticoats as deftly as she had probably once picked the pockets of drunken or sleeping tricks. She emerged triumphant with Susan's battered letter, which I tucked into my own bodice.

"Do you want me to come with you?" she asked, although she was clearly hoping the answer would be no.

"No. Just be on time at noon, right?"

"You got it, lovey. Good luck."

I made one of her gargoyle faces back at her and left with her laughter--her well-bred gurgling chuckle.

The day was brisk but sunny--good weather for the end of Eré, and the five blocks to the Empyrean was a pleasant walk. The brothels, curtains drawn, were still sleeping. The people out on the streets of Pharaohlight at this hour were dairymen and coal carriers, scullery maids and apprentice boys running errands, a woman hawking sachets of dried lavender and sage.

I caught myself thinking--for the first time in years--Hallam would like this. It was true; Hallam had always loved going out into Lamia, talking to the traders--everyone from the merchants from Aigisthos to the peddlers with their cheap ribbons and packets of pins. Even inside the Bastion, he had always been talking to the maids, the cooks, the caefidi, wanting to know where they were from, why they'd come to the Bastion, whether they'd spoken Midlander or Kekropian at home, if they'd left family behind. I'd lied to him, of course, but it was how we'd become lovers, Hallam's hunger for knowledge, for connection, for touch, meeting my then quite desperate need for affection. He'd never backed away from my need; he'd given of himself as generously as rain gives itself to parched earth. Even when he'd realized I'd lied to him, as he inevitably had, he hadn't withdrawn from me, but had continued to love me and to share his own abundant warmth.

Stop it, I said to myself, as loud as a shout in the confines of my skull. I'd taught myself years ago not to think about Hallam. It would have killed me if I'd let it, so I'd shoved it all in a box. Closed it. Locked it. And made it stay locked.

I had done it, and I would be damned if I was going to do it all over again.

I breathed deeply, straightened my spine, cloaked myself in Mehitabel Parr the actress--not any of those other Mehitabel Parrs who might still dream of Hallam's gentle eyes--and went to meet Jean-Soleil.

I waited for Jean-Soleil on the sidewalk in front of the Empyrean. Although he walked out to Sauvage, Jean-Soleil hitched a ride back to Mélusine with his wife's brother, the mayor of Sauvage, who brought the village's trading goods to the Neuvième market in Gatehouse. Jean-Soleil always returned punctually at ten.

At five minutes of ten, Jean-Soleil's stocky figure came into view, swaggering up Paixe Street as if he owned all of it, and not just the forty-nine feet of sidewalk in front of the Empyrean. His stride faltered as he caught sight of me, and by the time he came up to me, his face was grim.

"I know you're not standing out here just because you couldn't wait to see me again--what is it?"

"Bartholmew and Susan," I said and stopped, hoping he could fill in the blanks for himself.

"Verb, please?"

"Have deserted to the Cockatrice."

"Both of them?"

"Here." I gave him Susan's letter. He raised an eyebrow over its crumpled and obviously already read condition, but opened it and scanned the contents.

I knew when he'd reached the part about Edith Pelpheria; he snorted and said, "I believe I'd pay to see the silly chit muff Edith." He thought a moment, and suddenly his face lit up like a hundred-candle chandelier. "Fancy a go at her, my Belle?"

"What if it's just a rumor?"

"Then we revive Edith Pelpheria with an actress up to its weight. No harm done."

"Yes!" I said, and he laughed. Then my common sense caught up with me, and I said, "We're still a second principal and an ingenue short."

"Don't worry about the second principal," he said over his shoulder, unlocking the theater doors.

"And the ingenue?"

"We hold an open audition. Do you know how many young women in this city are panting at a chance to join the Empyrean?"

"No," I said. He held the door for me and I stepped into the warm darkness of the lobby.

"Neither do I," Jean-Soleil said. "But we can find out."

#

By noon, when we gathered in the largest rehearsal room, everyone had heard the news. We were a solemn little group. I didn't know about Corinna, but I was thinking about those costumes in her room, made for actors who might not even have gotten the chance to wear them. Corinna had told me the story of the Merveille's ingenue, Argine Pettifer, who had thrown herself into the Sim a week after the theater closed. She was now said to haunt the tenement that had gone in after the building burned down in the fires three years ago.

Morbid and unedifying, I said to myself sternly. Besides which, the Empyrean isn't going to fold.

Jean-Soleil had assimilated the disaster and bounced back so quickly that I half guessed he had been expecting it. The open audition, as he said, was good publicity and easy to reshape as the Empyrean looking for fresh blood. "Not that anyone will entirely believe it, but if Edith comes off well--which it will--it will be clear that we are not pining for Madame Dravanya."

"No," I said, deliberately audible, and then did a double-take, as if I hadn't meant to say it. I felt the mood lighten, and Jean-Soleil gave me one of his twinkly little grins.

"The question is," he said, looking around the circle, "what are we to do in the meantime? I'm afraid The Wrong Brother is, er, right out."

We sat and thought. The six of us, with Bartholmew and Susan gone, were the core of the Empyrean troupe: Drin for the heroes and lovers, Jean-Soleil for kings and cuckolds and enraged fathers, me for heroines, Corinna for confidantes and nurses and mothers. Jabez Meridian, our principal comedian, played fools and clowns, and Levry Tannenhouse, a mild, cherubic little man with the shape and general demeanor of a small tame bear, seconded him when necessary and played servants and messengers when not.

"The Soldier of Ochimar," Drin suggested.

Jean-Soleil shook his head. "We're looking to replace the Trevisan, not Berinth the King. Comedy, Drin my boy. Something to make Edith look even more spectacular."

Drin made a face at him, and we all thought some more.

Then Jabez said, "The Misadventures of Mardette."

Corinna laughed--and it was the raucous bark from last night. "You must be out of your mind, Jabez. I'm too damn old."

"No, you ain't," Jabez said.

"What are we talking about?" I said.

Jean-Soleil was eyeing Corinna speculatively. "It's called a trouser-farce, Belle. They're an old Mélusinien tradition."

"That didn't exactly help," I said.

"Look," Corinna said, half exasperated, half amused. "You get a young, pretty, abundantly stacked girl, and you get her in trousers, and a shirt she can spend the play half falling out of, and then you put her in the stupidest, silliest plot you can think of, and pretend that nobody can tell she's a girl."

"Lots of molly jokes," Levry said.

"That's what I started out doing," Corinna said, "but I'm too old. I've hit my fifth septad, Jean-Soleil."

"Couldn't I do it?" I said. Not that I was all that much younger than Corinna, but I had not lived as hard as she had, and I could still pass for twenty-five.

They all looked shocked, and there was a confusing babble of negatives.

"It's not for serious actresses, lovey," Corinna said over the rest of them.

"No reputable tragedienne would dream of appearing in a trouser-farce," Jean-Soleil said. "You'll have to sit this one out, Belle."

"We're not going to do it?" Corinna said.

"Of course we are," Jean-Soleil said. "It just takes you and Jabez and Levry, and it's not like it needs complicated sets or anything."

"And it won't take us more'n a day to get up to speed, even with Levry learning his lines," Jabez said. "When's the last time we did Mardette?"

"'Bout a septad," Corinna said, and as if that harder laugh had brought it, the Mélusinien drawl was back in her voice. "But, yeah, I could still do her in my sleep. All right, damn you. But they're going to hiss me off the stage."

"No they won't," Jean-Soleil said. "Wait and see."

#

Drin had that look in his eye, the one that said he wanted to corner me, although whether it was to make a pass or just to whine I couldn't tell and didn't want to know. I went to ground in my dressing room and discovered I had escaped from wolves to be trampled by buffalo: Vulpes was waiting for me. I wished I could have pretended it was a surprise.

"Good afternoon, Cressida," he said.

"Lieutenant Vulpes," I said and dropped a curtsy. He was clearly wondering whether it was ironic or not, and that was fine with me.

I told him what I had learned from Peter and Antony. I hated being glad to please him, but there was no denying the rush of gratitude and relief when he nodded and said, "Very interesting. And yet--why is Lord Stephen's marriage of such concern? He has an heir." And when I didn't answer immediately, he frowned at me. "Doesn't he?"

"I . . . don't know."

"It is a simple yes or no question, maselle," he said crossly, and I thought, If you believe such a thing exists, you don't know a thing about Marathine politics.

I said, "As I understand it, Lord Shannon's position is ambiguous."

I was even more gratified by his obvious bafflement than I'd been by his approval. "He's not . . . that is, I understood that Lord Gareth had been married twice."

Prude, flinching from the word bastard. "Lord Shannon is perfectly legitimate," I said, "but his mother is the only annemer in the history of Mélusine to be burned for treason."

"Oh," said Vulpes.

"I don't understand the legalities of the situation--"

"Find out."

"Beg pardon?"

"I imagine you heard me perfectly well. And I'm sure you know who to ask. And how."

"Yes, of course," I said, and didn't let my voice twist. "But I thought you were interested in Gideon."

"You don't think this is an avenue worth pursuing?"

Insecurity is a terrible trait in a spy. "How should I know?" I said, and I did smirk at his suspicious glance.

"Find out about Shannon Teverius," he said through his teeth and flung himself out the door.

"Have a pleasant day, lieutenant," I said under my breath and prepared for my next move.

I was itchily aware that I had not treated Mildmay very well over the past few days. So tonight I really ought to go up to the Mirador and see Mildmay. And it would be easy to ask him about Lord Shannon, especially with the news of Lord Stephen's plans as an excuse. And I didn't have to worry that Mildmay might tell someone I'd been asking. He wouldn't.

I took a hansom to Chevalgate and tipped a page a demigorgon to find out where Mildmay was. It was the better part of an hour before the boy came panting back to report that Lord Felix Harrowgate was in a meeting of the Sponsors' Board and that the meeting should be done by four o'clock. I had him take me to Felix's suite to wait. Mildmay would just have to cope if Felix and I got into it.

Gideon was there, an ink-smear across his forehead and his fingers knotted in his hair, wrestling with another of his thorny theoretical problems. Despite the Mirador's refusal to admit him, he pursued his researches as fast as Felix brought him books from the Mirador's myriad libraries or the book shops which lined the side streets off the Road of Horn.

His delight at my arrival was patent; he shoved all his theorems and diagrams out of the way, and unearthed the wax tablet and stylus he used for conversations. What brings you here?

"Boredom," I said with a vast mock-sigh and entertained him with a scurrilous and vindictive version of Bartholmew and Susan's decampment, finishing by saying, "So, you see, I have nothing better to do for the next two days than bother my friends and interfere with their work."

The benefit is all ours, Gideon wrote. Are you waiting for Mildmay?

"Will I annoy you?"

Not if you will talk to me, he said with a wide-eyed ingenue's look.

"Yes, because obviously you're dying of boredom."

He grinned. No, but it does get a little lonely.

"With Felix gone all day, I imagine it must."

Even when he's here. He gave me a semi-defiant glower.

"Are you fighting again?"

When are we not? He shrugged, although it was an uncomfortable, twisted motion, as if he were trying to get out from under some invisible hand.

"Same old subject?"

It hardly matters. He would far rather fight with me than give me a single scrap of the truth.

"The truth about what?"

I don't know. He stared at the sentence for a moment, then changed the period into an exclamation mark. Something is eating at him, but he obfuscates it endlessly.

"Maybe he doesn't know himself?"

No, that's Mildmay.

He caught me off guard. I should have turned the conversation, but I said, "What do you mean?"

He raised his head and looked at me. The things he claims he doesn't remember.

"You think he's lying?"

No. I don't think it's that simple. But I think if someone pushed him-- But Felix won't, and I see you won't either.

I broke eye contact and didn't answer. After a moment, the stylus started scratching again. Felix thinks he has destroyed Mildmay.

"Felix is prone to melodramatic nonsense," I said, parrying desperately.

Is that what it is? Think of Mildmay as you first met him. Can you find that man in him now?

"You should have been a dissector for the Medical College in Aigisthos," I said, still trying to turn the conversation, although it was plainly too late.

Answer my question. It is important.

"Important to whom? I didn't think you cared."

His head jerked back a little. I consider him a friend. Don't you?

I couldn't find an answer fast enough.

Why are you so surprised? Do you really care so little about him?

"You know that's not true," I said, but it was a weak defense. I was trying to find something better when Felix and Mildmay walked in.

Gideon had the presence of mind to close the tablet and drop it back into his pocket. I got my expression clear before I turned, but the way Gideon looked at Felix was like a man staring into some deeply desired hell. Mildmay gave us one swift, unreadable, green glance. Felix said, "Mehitabel! What are you doing here?" with every evidence of surprise and genuine delight. But he was a good actor, and I wouldn't have liked to bet that he'd missed the signs.

Felix--tall, beautiful Felix, as molly as de Fidelio's dormouse--wasn't as difficult to read as Mildmay, but I'd found that his skew eyes made his face unpredictable. I even had a conceit, half fancy, half uneasiness, that his yellow eye and his blue eye governed different expressions.

I gave Felix and Mildmay the same version of events I had given Gideon, and when I had finished, Felix said, "Let me guess: this means you want to borrow Mildmay for the night?" The blue eye was gently teasing; the yellow eye had a spark of malice dancing in it.

"If it won't inconvenience your lordship too greatly," I said, giving him an ironic little curtsy--showing offense only made him worse.

"I think I can manage without him for tonight." Felix was looking at Gideon, but he turned his head to say to Mildmay, "Go on. Have fun."

Mildmay did that horrible thing he did sometimes to conversational gambits: let it drop to the floor and lie there twitching. After a very long pause, he said, "That an order?"

For a moment, I thought Felix was going to respond in kind, but then he quite visibly deflated and said, "No, only a wish. I'll see you tomorrow morning."

"Thank you," I said for both of us, and dragged Mildmay out the door.

#

FELIX

:I am impressed,: Gideon said sardonically. :You passed up an opportunity for a fight. Does this mean you won't argue with me tonight either?:

:Not if you keep that up,: I said, groping for the person I was supposed to be. :Arguing with Mildmay's no fun, anyway. No challenge.:

:Am I meant to be flattered?:

:Only if you want to be. Gideon--:

He waited, eyebrows raised.

:There's something wrong with him, isn't there?:

:Yes,: Gideon said gently. :But you know that.:

:Yes,: I said, abruptly too weary to deny it. :Malkar.:

Gideon said nothing; I turned away to stare blindly at the bookcases. "Damn him. Even dead . . ."

:It is often said in Kekropia, to comfort the newly bereaved, that the dead person is not truly dead until the last person who remembers them dies.:

"Oh." I pressed my fingers to my mouth to try to stem a tide of lunatic giggles. "What a . . . what a horrible thought." It was no use; the laughter would not be stopped, and it was nearly a full minute before I could calm myself again.

When I turned back to face him, Gideon said, at his driest, :It is not a theory I subscribe to,: and that nearly set me off again.

But there was a question I wanted to ask, a serious one. :What do you believe? About the fate of the dead?:

:You want to talk about theology,: he said slowly, clearly wondering if my interest was genuine.

"I want to talk about the dead. And why they . . . haunt us."

:Literally or figuratively?:

"Sorry?"

:You understood me. Do you want to talk about ghosts or do you want to talk about why Malkar Gennadion continues to plague your brother--and you--nearly two years after his death?:

Gideon's eyes were too damnably sharp. :I suppose I want to be certain they are not the same question.:

:Do you believe you are being haunted by the ghost of Malkar Gennadion?:

His tone was neutral, but the question still stung. "No, of course not!" I said, pacing across the room to stare into the fire.

Into the silence, Gideon said, :But you are afraid.:

"I've been afraid of Malkar half my life. It's a hard habit to break."

Gideon crossed the room to stand beside me. :Mildmay is not being haunted by any but the specters in his own mind. I know the signs of haunting.:

:But he doesn't remember what Malkar did to him. He says so.:

:And how much effort is it costing him to keep Malkar safely forgotten?:

I said nothing.

:Felix--: He touched my arm lightly, as if he was afraid I would only move away from him. :Have you talked to him? About Malkar?:

I didn't move away. I couldn't. I couldn't even raise my head. :I kept expecting him to shake it off. To be himself again. And when I realized that wasn't going to happen . . . I don't know what to say! I don't know how to reach him, or even if it's possible. Frankly, I don't know if I have any right to try.:

Because it was my fault. But Gideon didn't need me to tell him that.

He said, :You are the only one who does.: I started to protest, but he cut me off. :Because you are to blame--and because you are his brother. Because you were . . . what you were to Malkar Gennadion. You're the only person who can understand.:

:Simon--:

:Mildmay won't talk to him. Do you think Simon hasn't tried?:

"I know," I said, my voice barely more than a whisper. "But I'm afraid . . ."

Gideon waited.

"What if he won't talk to me?"

Gideon started laughing.

I wrenched away from him. He said, :You must be the only person in the Mirador who hasn't realized Mildmay would walk on knives for you.:

:Yes, but he'd find that much less unpleasant.: I took a deep breath, raked my fingers through my hair. :What do you want, Gideon? Shall I promise to try?:

I could feel his gaze on me, although I refused to look at him. :This is not about what I want, although I realize it would be much easier for you if it were.:

"Stop it," I said and was horrified to hear my voice shaking. "Just . . . stop."

He sighed and after a moment moved away from me, back to the table and its piles of books. :What would you prefer to discuss? The weather?:

I struck back viciously. :Why don't we talk about the Bastion?:

:And her refugees in the Mirador? Yes. Let's.:

:Do you think Gemma Parsifal's offer of amnesty is sincere?: I asked, before he could say anything about Isaac, and it stopped him.

:No,: he said bleakly. :The Bastion does not--cannot--forgive. It relies too greatly on loyalty.:

:So does the Mirador.: Anything to keep him away from the subject of Isaac Garamond and where I went when I left the suite at night.

:No, not . . . I misspoke. It isn't loyalty at stake. It's obedience. And if the disobedient are not punished, then how can the obedience of the rest be commanded?:

I shivered at his tone, dull, flat, as if he was too weary to be horrified at what he knew.

:Once you have run,: he said, grimly pursuing the question, :you cannot be welcomed back. There is no abasement great enough to erase your sin. I don't know if Gemma knows she's lying, but she's lying all the same.:

:Then why make the offer?:

:To get us back,: Gideon said and bared his teeth in something that was not a smile. :And to wring every last scrap of information about the Mirador out of us that they can.:

He cut off my protest before it was even fully formed. :Don't think anything has changed. Gemma is far more politically astute than old Jules Mercator, but that doesn't mean that if you scratch her, she'll bleed a different color.:

:You sound as if you speak from personal knowledge.:

:I do.: He gave me no chance to ask further, but said, :The Bastion wants to see the Cabalines fall. They want the Mirador for themselves. And Lord Stephen having been such a great disappointment to them after the disasters of Jane's and Gareth's reigns, they are becoming less and less choosy about the means they employ. I am only afraid that some of the younger wizards may be foolish enough to trust Gemma's pretty words.:

:You could speak to them.:

:What need? Thaddeus and Eric between them will say all that can be said.:

:I am given to understand that Thaddeus tore up his letter of amnesty on the spot and threatened to feed it to Aias Perrault.:

:That's Thaddeus,: Gideon agreed. :Subtlety is ever his watchword.:

:He's probably already urging Stephen to declare war.:

:Expel us all as spies. He'd love to ship me back to the Bastion in a box.:

:You're never going to tell me why he hates you, are you?:

:No,: Gideon said and smiled at me sweetly. :The same way you're never going to tell me anything except exactly what you want me to hear.:

:Gideon--:

:Don't start,: he said fiercely. He sat down, opened one of the books, and bent his head over it in a fashion clearly intended to rebuff conversation.

I stood and watched him for some time before I said quietly, "I'm going to bed." It took all my willpower not to allow my retreat to be a skulk or a scuttle.

It was much later when Gideon came to bed. Although I was awake, I said nothing, and although he knew I was awake, he did not try to touch me.

#

MEHITABEL

I'd never exactly given up my room in the Mirador; no one had asked me to--it wasn't as if they needed the space--and Mildmay and I found it very useful. Neither one of us had much privacy in the normal way of things.

I was very careful with him--there were too many things I didn't want his terrifyingly sharp eyes to see. He came willingly enough to bed, and once there it was easy. Easy because he made it easy. The gentle expertise of his hands made a lie of the sullen silence he gave to the world. He let me take what I needed--almost flinched away when I tried to give in return.

We'd done this little dance a thousand times, me persisting until all at once he yielded; tonight it irritated me. "What," I said, "you're the only man in Mélusine who doesn't like getting sucked off?"

"It ain't that," he said and added humbly, "'M sorry."

Perhaps I should have pursued it, but I didn't. I didn't want to talk. Not until afterward, when I could push the conversation where I needed it to go.

I lowered my head and got to work.

#

MILDMAY

After we'd fucked, when I was laying there feeling basically boneless, Mehitabel said, her own voice kind of dreamy, "I hear the Lord Protector is really going to get married again."

"About fucking time," I said.

"Why does it matter? Wouldn't Lord Shannon inherit anyway?"

"That's why it matters," I said, tracing the line of her back with one finger.

She rolled over to look at me. "You've lost me."

"Politics," I said.

"Yes, but this really bewilders me. I thought Shannon was a legitimate heir."

"Yeah."

She smiled suddenly. "You're teasing me, you devious little shit."

"Yeah," I said. She tried to tickle me, and we didn't talk for a while. But she came back to it: "Why would it be so awful if Lord Shannon became the Lord Protector?"

"He'd bitch it all to fuck," I said.

"Why? I know he's a fop, but--"

"Gloria Aestia. And he's molly. And . . . powers, I don't know." But I remembered the way he'd looked through me like I wasn't there. "He just ain't suited."

"You know," Mehitabel said, "I never have understood why Gloria Aestia is such a bugbear in this city. What did she do that was so terrible?"

"Treason ain't enough for you?"

"History--Marathine as much as anyone else's--is full of traitors. You've told me enough stories."

I couldn't argue with that. "Dunno if I can explain it."

"Oh, I have faith," and she could've meant it to be snarky, but it didn't sound like it.

"Okay. I'll give it a go. Gloria Aestia was Lord Gareth's second wife, right? And she was a lot younger than him. And, um, Lord Shannon was awful big for a septad-month baby."

"She trapped him into marriage. That's hardly unusual, either."

"Wait a minute. It gets better. See, it came out at the trial that she'd been Cotton Verlalius's lover a lot longer than she'd been Lord Gareth's."

"So Lord Shannon might not be a Teverius at all?"

"Oh, he's a Teverius all right. Legally, anyway. Lord Gareth made sure of that. But he might not be Lord Stephen's blood-kin any more than whatsisface Verlalius is. The one that moons around you all the time."

Which I shouldn't've said, but she let it slide. "You think the legal fiction wouldn't hold."

"No, but it ain't just that." I struggled with it a minute, and she let me. "Because he looks just like her, you know. And some people figure being molly ain't no better, morally speaking, than being a slut. And it ain't just that she cheated on Lord Gareth, neither. D'you know what it was she was aiming to do?"

Mehitabel shook her head.

"Her and Cotton Verlalius and their friends were going to get rid of Lord Gareth. She'd seen to it that Lord Gareth had named her regent--she could make him do damn near anything she wanted. And once she was regent, something was going to happen to Lord Stephen. And probably Lady Victoria, too."

"'Something'?"

"Sort of thing that mostly happens to inconvenient people. And then there Lord Shannon would be. Lord Protector with a good septad of his minority still to go."

"And his mother pulling strings. I see why you said Amaryllis Cordelia was like her."

"They would've understood each other. And it's worse'n that, even, her not being Marathine and all--"

"She had a Marathine name."

"She was Monspulchran. Like Simon. Monspulchra ain't far from here, but it's Tibernian. And she never shut up about how much better it was, neither. And at the trial, Cotton Verlalius spilled his guts and said as how she'd wanted to make Lord Shannon a king."

"And a king would be different from a lord protector how, exactly?"

"King ain't got the Cabinet and the Curia riding herd on him. It's what the Wizards' Coup was for."

"Ah," said Mehitabel. "All right. I can see that Lord Shannon's mother was a nasty piece of work. But do people really think that Lord Shannon would turn into her the instant he took the throne?"

"Well, yeah. Some people do. But it ain't really . . . I mean, the problem ain't what people think Lord Shannon would do. It's . . ." I really didn't know how to make her understand how bad it would be. "Well, he'd be a shitty Lord Protector anyway. And we'd be fucked."

"Countries have survived bad rulers before," she said.

"Not when they got Tibernia on one side and Kekropia on the other."

"You're allied with Tibernia."

"Yeah, we're allied with Tibernia, same way Lord Shannon's a Teverius. Everyone pretends real hard and it works okay. Mostly."

"What about the envoys?"

"They're new. Weren't no envoys before the Virtu got broke. See, the king is leaning on Lord Stephen to quit pretending and knuckle under for real, and it's only 'cause Lord Stephen's stubborn as a pig that he ain't caved yet. But Lord Shannon couldn't hold out against 'em."

"What would that mean?"

"Well, the Tibernians come in. They take the Protectorship apart, and if they're feeling really full of themselves, they take the whole Mirador apart with it. And then it's just Tibernia and Kekropia going head to head to see who's gonna get to be emperor."

"Emperor?"

"Fuck, yes. It's only the Mirador keeping Aeneas Antipater back. 'Cause the hocuses here, they don't want the king telling 'em what to do. They figure the Bastion's their problem. Bastion split off from the Mirador, you know, way back when, and the Mirador wants it back. Like a personal grudge. Do the hocuses out there feel the same way?"

"I beg your pardon?" She sounded startled, almost alarmed.

"Just wondering," I said.

"Oh. I'm sorry. I thought you said something else." She frowned a little. "I think some of them do feel that way, but for most of them it's just part of what they're supposed to do, like obeying orders. But I'm still confused."

"Get used to it," I said.

"But I thought the Mirador was doing what the king told them to."

"Darlin'," I said, "it ain't that simple. Why d'you think Felix spends half his mortal life in Curia meetings? It's all politics."

"Everything is," she said and kissed me.

#

MEHITABEL

The Mirador had more clocks in it than any place I'd ever seen. In the Bastion, there was only one clock, a monstrous giant called the Juggernaut, which could be heard everywhere, in every corridor, staircase, and closet. The Mirador had once had such a clock; its name had been Nemesis. It was said to have been haunted, Mildmay had told me, his eyes shining with delight in a good story, and by the reign of King Mark Ophidius, the bells had no longer marked the hours, but rang at odd times and in a jangling cacophony that was said to have driven several people mad, including the wife of Mark's heir. It had been disassembled and its bells melted down. After that, understandably, the Mirador wanted nothing more to do with what were called Titan Clocks, and instead it became infested with small clocks which struck the hours regularly and sweetly--though rarely in time with each other.

Mildmay had gotten--scavenged or stolen, I didn't know and didn't ask--a clock for the room we used, one with a cunning mechanism by which you could have a bell ring at a particular hour. When we spent the night together, he would set it to ring at six o'clock--what he called the first hour of the day--so that he could get back to Felix's suite before Felix was awake.

He woke immediately and completely with the shrill clamor of the clock; I lay lazily in bed and watched him dress, admiring the play of muscles in his back and buttocks--Felix might be breath-stealingly gorgeous, but Mildmay had his own beauty, though I didn't think he was aware of it.

He'd braided his hair and was tying it with a black ribbon I'd given him long ago when he asked, "You going to court?"

"I thought I would." It would keep me visible, and that was not a bad thing--especially since it would be goodness knew how long until I was back on stage again. And I had to keep moving, had to keep working, had to keep the present real so that the past did not paralyze me.

"Would you . . . I mean, could you do me a favor?"

The hesitancy with which he asked--as if he expected me to say no--hurt, and I said unguardedly, "Of course. What is it?"

Stupid to make a promise so blindly, but almost worth it for the way his expression lightened. "It's Gideon," he said, and I relaxed a little. "He don't leave Felix's rooms hardly ever, and him and Felix are fighting, and I thought if you didn't mind, he could maybe come along with you, and then--"

"You wouldn't have to worry about him," I finished. That was practically babbling, for Mildmay, and I'd understood him mostly from long practice and context.

"Yeah." And he was definitely blushing.

I forbore to tease him, remembering Gideon's far more eloquently expressed concern for Mildmay himself.

And Felix between them like the Uleander Tree in Edwin and Esterhin, beautiful and poisonous.

"I'd be glad to," I said, and I wasn't even lying.

#

MILDMAY

That morning, Lord Stephen read out this long thing that, stripped down of all the flourishes and pretty bits, was basically fair warning. He was looking for a wife, and anybody wanting to get a gal married off was going to have a chance to show her to him. I watched the way people reacted. I saw a lot of quick sidelong glances at Robert of Hermione, standing as usual just behind Lady Victoria. Robert himself was looking glassy and blank, trying to pretend like this wasn't a nasty kick in the balls for him.

See, the only reason Robert was anybody in the Mirador was him being the brother of Lord Stephen's first wife, Emily. Robert wasn't much of a hocus, and he was about as bright as ditchwater on a cloudy day--and a nasty-minded little shit to boot. Oh, and Felix hated him like there wasn't nobody else around who'd do it right. But Lord Stephen protected him--even seemed not to mind him, but maybe that was just good manners--because of Emily. But you couldn't imagine any second wife letting that go on.

It'd be nice, I thought, if Felix would keep his mouth shut for the next few days, and not give Robert a target. When Robert didn't like what Stephen was doing--and he hated most everything Stephen had settled with the envoys from Vusantine over the winter--he looked for ways to make other people's lives a misery. And him and Felix hated each other so fucking much, it was like being in the middle of a war.

Fuck me sideways 'til I cry, I thought, and wondered why it seemed like everything that happened these days was something that was going to make Felix's mood worse.

#

MEHITABEL

Gideon had been reluctant, but Mildmay's clumsy manipulation had worked; he was even more reluctant to admit to me that he didn't want to go. We watched together as first the courtiers came in, then Lord Stephen and his siblings entered through the door behind the dais. Lord Stephen took his seat in Lord Michael's Chair, as the throne of the Lord Protector was styled, and then the wizards filed in to perform the daily ritual of loyalty, swearing their oaths to Stephen and committing their magic to the Virtu, which shone like a blue-green star from its plinth. And Mildmay was just behind Felix like a shadow. His part in the ritual--by the Mirador's own laws--was to fail to participate in it. The obligation d'âme meant that his only allegiance was to Felix, making them a separate kingdom of two, with Felix as king and Mildmay as ministers, army, and populace all combined in one. A stormy little kingdom, I thought, with periodic flare-ups of civil war and a magnificently unstable government. And I was glad I wasn't a citizen of it.

I practiced being a swan-daughter, as I did whenever I attended court, tall and grave and distant, and Gideon stood sharp-eyed and aloof beside me. But interested. After court, after Lord Stephen had made the announcement of his plans to seek a bride, it was Gideon who noticed Antony heading toward us. A sharp nudge in my ribs and a nod in Antony's direction, and I could see the inquiry in his raised eyebrows: friend or foe?

"Lord Antony Lemerius," I said under my breath. "Harmless."

That got me a sardonic quirk of his mouth, and he moved back a little.

Antony didn't notice him. "Mehitabel," he said. "I was wondering if you would do me a favor."

Not again. I bit my lip against the impulse to laugh and said, "What is it?"

"I, er, I wish to return to the crypt of the Cordelii to test a theory, and I was wondering if you would ask Mr. Foxe if he . . ." He trailed off, looking at me hopefully.

I said, "I can show you the way."

And then I wondered what in the world had possessed me.

"Could you?" Antony said with unmistakable relief.

"I remember the route Mildmay took. When do you want to go?"

"Er, this evening? About nine?"

Not the ideal time for exploring a crypt, but in the great and windowless bulk of the Mirador, it hardly mattered.

"All right." And then a thought hit me, mingled charity and malice, and I said, "Gideon, do you want to come?"

Gideon blinked. He pulled his tablet and stylus out of his coat pocket and wrote in his neat, swift, highly Kekropian hand, Won't I be in the way?

"Not a bit," I said brightly, ignoring the appalled expression on Antony's face that said otherwise. "And if you're along we won't have to worry about the candles going out."

He made me a small, ironic bow.

"Good," I said and to Antony, briskly dismissive, "We'll meet you at nine in the Stoa St. Maximilian." Gideon was happily quick to pick up my cues, quicker than many actors I'd worked with, and we made our exit.

Back in Felix's suite, he was still eyeing me with puzzled speculation. "What?" I said.

He wrote, Why do you want me along?

"Can't I enjoy your company?"

It embarrassed him; he looked away for a moment, then wrote, I hope that you do. But that does not answer my question.

"Oh, God, Gideon, do you have to analyze everything to death? Look, that crypt isn't a very pleasant place, and Antony is, um, uninspiring company at the best of time."

His eyebrows went up; I said, "I know, I know--that being so, why did I offer?" I didn't know the answer to that myself, so I chose a reason I thought he'd accept: "I didn't want Mildmay to have to put up with Antony on top of everything else he has to put up with all the time. All right?"

He considered me a moment. It is not a crime to love someone.

That depends very much on whom you love. But I didn't say it.

#

MILDMAY

Today was Jeudy in the Mirador's reckoning, and Jeudy afternoons were when Felix locked himself in his workroom and did hocus stuff. Sometimes he told me to clear out. Sometimes he dragged me in with him, because he needed me for one reason or another, because of the obligation d'âme or just because he needed somebody to stand still at a particular spot on the floor. Every once in a while, he'd let me choose if I wanted to come with him or go off on my own. I always stayed with him. On Jeudy afternoons he was like a different person. He never said anything mean, and he'd talk to me sometimes the way he talked to his friends, like I was smart enough that it mattered to him that I understood him. I hoarded up those afternoons like a miser counting decagorgons. And it always seemed to make Felix happy, too.

This afternoon I was expecting him to run me off. But he stopped at the door and raised his eyebrows at me. "Do you want to come in?"

"Um. Sure. I mean, if you don't mind."

"If I minded, I would have told you to go away," he said. But there was no sting in it. He unlocked the door. "Come on."

We didn't talk much for an hour or so. He was tangled up in some crazy thing that had him crawling around on the floor with lots of string and chalk. And it seemed like he kept running into the east wall, like it wasn't where it was supposed to be. Finally, he sat back on his heels and said, "Damn. Damn, damn, damn."

"What's the matter?" I said.

"I must look mad," he said and got to his feet. "I'm trying to diagram a katharsis."

"A what?"

"It's an old Troian word," he said, coming back to the table with his pieces of string snarled across it. "Translations vary, but it means something between 'purification' and 'purgation.' Both of those seem suitable to me."

"What are you wanting to, um, purge?"

"Oh, this is just hypothetical."

I waited, not asking, So how come you keep on running into that wall? Felix hated silence.

"Do you always know when I'm lying?"

I shrugged a little.

There was another pause before he said in a low voice, not looking at me, "Malkar had a workroom down in the Warren. No one knew about it but me."

I only realized after I'd done it that I'd made the sign to ward off hexes.

"Exactly," Felix said. "I don't want anybody coming across it by accident and finding . . . well, finding what Malkar left there."

"Sacred fuck. And you were just planning to sneak off all by yourself in the middle of the night?"

"I can't . . ." His voice choked off, and it was a moment before he went on, "I don't want Gideon to see it, and I can't think of anyone else who wouldn't laugh at me. The Mirador doesn't believe in ghosts and miasmas."

"I ain't laughing," I said. "Can I help?"

The piece of chalk he was holding snapped in half, like I'd startled him.

"I mean," I said, and I could feel myself blushing, "I can't do magic or nothing, but I can hold a lamp, or something. Or just be there."

"Thank you," he said. "That would indeed be a great help. But we'll have to do it at midnight."

"That don't surprise me at all," I said.

He managed about half a grin and said, "Doesn't."

#

We played Long Tiffany badly, both of us with our minds mostly somewhere else, until the sixth hour of the night. Mehitabel and Gideon left at some point, and it was only after they'd gone that I realized I'd forgotten to find out where they were going. I was mostly just glad we wouldn't have to think up some fancy story for them. But finally Felix threw down his cards and said, "It's time." He called witchlight as we stepped out into the hall, the little green chrysanthemums circling his head like a crown.

"Could you change the color on them if you wanted to?" I said.

He gave me a puzzled look, but his chrysanthemums went yellow, then orange and red and purple and blue, and then back to green. "Most wizards develop, er, shortcuts for the spells they use most often," he said. The green chrysanthemums began to spin in big figure eights around us both. "Mine for this spell just happens to make them green. Why do you ask?"

"'Cause I'm piss-ignorant," I said and made him laugh. "Just wondered."

"No harm in that. I'd never even thought about it. Malkar's witchlights were always green, and I just never . . ." He snorted. "I'm not going to change them now."

"I like the green. Better than Simon's awful blue globes."

"I'll remember to tell him that. Malkar did globes, too. I learned chrysanthemums from Iosephinus Pompey. He died the year you killed Cerberus Cresset."

"Oh."

Something got into my voice that I hadn't meant to let him hear. He said, "I didn't mean that in a pointed way, it's just that I associate Iosephinus's death with the absolute gibbering panic that possessed the Mirador all autumn. He was very old, old enough to remember the end of Lord Malory's reign, and I think he'd just outlived any care he had for what people thought or what the political fashions were that season. He said I was the most promising wizard he'd seen since he was a young man and was learning from Rosindy Clerk, and that it would be criminally stupid not to teach me everything I could learn. I was at least smart enough to listen to him." He shook his head, maybe at the memory of Iosephinus Pompey or maybe at himself.

We were moving out of the everyday part of the Mirador, into the Warren between the Mirador and the Arcane. The bitter smell of the Sim began to crawl up around us. Felix was shivering a little, but his witchlights stayed calm.

Felix argued with the other hocuses--Rinaldo and Edgar and Charles the Dragon and Lunette--about the building of the Mirador. There weren't any records. They'd all been lost or destroyed or never written in the first place. Charles the Dragon insisted that the lowest level of the Arcane had to be the oldest part of it. Charles the Dragon was a great one for logic and being rational and shit, and I didn't much like him. Felix said the Warren was older. Lunette and Edgar agreed with him. Rinaldo said firmly that the mazes around the Iron Chapel were older than anything else in Mélusine, and I thought Rinaldo had the right of it.

But leaving that aside, I agreed with Felix--not that any of 'em ever asked me. The Warren was older than the Arcane. The passages were lower and narrower, and the stonework was weird. The stones lay in these thin, sort of wavery courses, and Felix called them alien. They weren't quarried from either Rosaura or Mutandis, the way the Mirador and the Arcane were. They were from some other quarry, one that had been used up or lost or something. The Warren felt old, old and twisted and mean. Mikkary fucking everywhere. I'd never liked it, and I liked it even less now.

Felix stopped in front of a low, ironbound door. It looked like all the other doors we'd passed. He touched it lightly, almost like he was afraid it would burn him. I heard the tumblers shift, and he pushed the door open.

For a moment, I thought he'd been turned to a pillar of salt, like the woman in the old story who looked at Cade-Cholera's face. Then he said, "Someone has been here."

Powers and saints, that can't be good. "I thought you said you--"

"I did say. I thought I was." He sent his witchlights through the door. They settled to roost like crows on the braziers that circled the room. "It appears that I was wrong."

He stepped into the room. My mind was full of all the places I'd rather've been, but I followed him.

It was an ugly room. You could feel the Sim in it, which ain't a compliment. The floor was Rosaura marble, and the bright, wet, blood-red of the mosaic pentagram was Stay Hengist's work for sure. Hengist had repaired the mosaics in the Hall of the Chimeras for Charles Cordelius, and he'd never told nobody how he got his colors. There were manacles bolted to the points of the pentagram, and I didn't want to ask what they'd been used for. Felix's witchlights weren't much use against the dark in this room, but I wasn't going to light the coal in the braziers or the candles in the sconces any more than he was.

"Powers," I said, mostly to prove that I hadn't been struck dumb. "I didn't think there were rooms like this outside of all them stories about evil hocuses."

Felix laughed, but not like anything was funny. "You have no idea of how pleased Malkar would be to hear you say that. He loved playing the part of the evil wizard when he could get away with it. He had a monster's vanity. A monster made of vanity." His voice had gone weird and dreamy, and his spooky eyes--even worse by witchlight--were wide and bright. I'd learned the signs. His attention was on his magic now, not on me or the room or even on himself.

If you were going to be a hocus, you had to be able to concentrate like you were made of stone. Simon had told me that once, though I couldn't remember what he'd been trying to explain. But I'd understood, because when Felix was doing magic, it was like he was somewhere else, where nothing--not thunderstorms or screaming fights or even the hullabaloo of a kitchen boy falling down the servants' stair with a tray of china--nothing could get to him. It made me understand why they might have started doing the obligation d'âme in the first place and why maybe it had been a good idea when they did. Because if you were going to get like that, you needed somebody guarding your back.

"Light your lantern," he said, and I did. When the nice, ordinary yellow flame caught and held, his green witchlights disappeared. The shadows in the room were immediately a septad-times worse. "I'll need you to follow me with the lantern," he said, fishing a piece of chalk out of his coat pocket. "Don't step on the chalk lines, and I'll draw you a circle of protection when I'm done." I couldn't tell if the circle of protection was just the next step or a reward to me for not smudging his lines.

I don't understand magic at all, but I could see that the pattern Felix chalked on the floor was the same one he'd been working on earlier--this time, the east wall was where he wanted it. I followed him and didn't step on his lines. He drew a quick circle across the doorway, surrounded by symbols. He'd told me once that the Mirador didn't believe in runes and diagrams. I thought anything that would help keep Brinvillier Strych away from me was a good idea.

Felix went back to the middle of the room, where his chalk and Strych's pentagram seemed to come together, and drew some more symbols. He took a little wash-leather bag out of his inside pocket and emptied it out onto his palm. Dull greasy little lumps of something-or-other, and he put two of 'em in each point of the pentagram, lining 'em up real careful, although I don't have the first idea with what. When he was done and standing in the middle of the pentagram again, he said, "Sit down if you like. This may take a while."

I sat, carefully, and put the lamp where I wouldn't be blocking it. Then I waited.

Nothing happened that I was fitted out to sense, though after a while I could see sweat on Felix's face. But he just stood there, not saying nothing, not doing nothing. I began to think I could see shadows gathering around him, like the darkness was actually getting heavy and would smother him if it got the chance.

All at once, suddenly enough that it scared me, he let out a shout and flung up his arms. Light, whiter and harder than anything I'd ever seen his magic do before, shot out from his fingertips to fill every corner and crack. There was a loud, sharp snap like a firecracker. When I looked, I saw that the manacles in the pentagram had all broken in half, right where he'd put those little greasy lumps. Every candle and piece of coal, even the candle in our lantern, burst into flames, burning so fast and hot that they went out again seconds later.

But there was nothing scary about the darkness they left, excepting of course where we were and what we were doing. I didn't hear nothing strange or feel like anything was reaching for me. And it was probably only a second or two before Felix's green witchlights woke up again. By their light, I saw that Felix's chalk lines had disappeared, and the mosaic glass of the pentagram was all dull and cracked, like it'd been in a fire.

Felix was swaying where he stood. I scrambled up and got to him just before he fell. I had his full weight for a second before he got his feet under him again. "Thanks," he said. "I've been facedown in this damn pentagram too many times already." We staggered together out the door, where he leaned against the wall while I fetched the lantern.

"Let me see that a moment," Felix said. I handed it over. He examined it from all sides, even touching the puddle of tallow with one finger. "That's odd," he said. "No magic is supposed to be able to cross that circle of protection--at least, according to the grimoire I found it in--but that spell certainly did."

"Did it work--your spell, I mean?"

"I think so," he said. "It's a nebulous sort of thing to try to do, but I am at least sure that Malkar's spirit--if there is anything left of it--can't use this room as a focus to . . . restructure itself."

"Restructure? You mean, like, come back? Could he have?"

"There are records of such things happening," he said, pushing himself slowly off the wall. We both waited for a moment, but his legs held him. "Oh damn. The rubies."

"The which?"

"Malkar's rubies. I can't leave them there."

He went back into the workroom, moving about as fast as a slow turtle, and picked up his little greasy lumps of something-or-other, two at a time. Strych's rubies. I swallowed hard, remembering like a fever-dream him kicking through Strych's ashes, picking them out.

"How long you been carrying them around?" I asked when he came back into the hall, the rubies already back in their little bag and it already back in his pocket.

He shrugged. "I won't have to any longer."

"What're you gonna do with 'em?"

He gave me a look, sidelong and very bright-eyed. "Oh I thought I'd give them to the necromancers down in Scaffelgreen. What do you think, dimwit?"

"Well, I dunno. Dunno what you're s'posed to do with something like that."

"There isn't exactly an established protocol," he said, real dry but not mean this time. "But I have some ideas."

I didn't want to know. Really didn't.

He closed and locked the door, muttering a word to it that I didn't catch. "That will be a surprise for whatever weasel has been sneaking down here." I didn't like the glint in his eye when he said it, but I didn't like the idea of somebody poking around in that room, neither.

We started back up the hall together. "Who d'you think it was?" I said.

"I don't know," he said, "and that worries me. Up until an hour ago, I would have said I was the only person in the Mirador Malkar trusted his hold on sufficiently to bring to that room."

"Could somebody've found it by accident?"

"Not a chance. The spell on that door was specially tailored. I got past it because I helped him cast it--anyone trying to pick it, whether magically or physically, wouldn't do anything but fuse the entire lock mechanism straight into the wall. No. Malkar trusted somebody enough either to teach them the spell ... or give them the key."

"Powers," I said.

"What really worries me, though," Felix said, "is if there's anything in the Mirador that Malkar told this weasel about, and didn't tell me."

I didn't have any kind of answer to that, but we walked a little closer together, like sheep who hear a wolf howling.

#

MEHITABEL

Dinner that evening was a peculiar meal. Felix and Mildmay were preoccupied with something which they weren't sharing. Sometimes you could feel the bonds between them, their blood-ties and the obligation d'âme, like a kind of wall--or the borders of a kingdom, as I'd thought that morning--and that was how it was tonight. Felix barely even seemed to notice when I remarked that Gideon and I had plans for the evening and would be out late; I saw Mildmay register the news, but he didn't so much as lift an eyebrow at me. I hadn't intended to keep it secret from him, exactly, but there seemed no point in discussing it when he and Felix were so clearly somewhere else. I could see in Gideon's face when we closed the door behind us at quarter of nine that he was as relieved as I was.

We met Antony in the Stoa St. Maximilian and made our way down through the shadowed and derelict halls of the Mirador. Despite my crack about Gideon's usefulness, Antony had brought a lamp, and I was glad of the homely light.

"So what is this theory you want to test?" I asked Antony.

"I did some checking. And reconfirmed everything I already knew, including the fact that Amaryllis Cordelia never returned to the Mirador after her husband lost his post. Not that she had much time to, since she died in childbirth two years later."

"What was his name?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"His name. Mildmay couldn't remember it."

"Wilfrid, if you truly want to know. Wilfrid Emarthius. But my point is that that tomb has to be a blind. It must be concealing something."

"Ah," I said warily, but Gideon interrupted with a touch at my sleeve. His witchlights illuminated his tablet very nicely: Who was Amaryllis Cordelia?

It was a fair question. It wasn't hard to get Antony started, either, and the rest of the way to the crypt, we regaled Gideon with the sordid history of Amaryllis Cordelia.

The door was still unlocked. Antony led the way directly to Amaryllis Cordelia's tomb. Gideon read the inscription and wrote thoughtfully, Is this a common sentiment for memorials?

Antony considered a moment, taking candles from the sack he had brought and lighting them to let their wax anchor them to the freestanding tombs nearest Amaryllis Cordelia's plaque. "I know of three or four variations on that same platitude. Why?"

Gideon shrugged, running his fingers over the deeply carved letters of her name, and then wrote, Only a folk belief common in the Grasslands, that ghosts are the dreams of the dead.

"You mean someone was trying to avert haunting?" I said.

Possibly. From what you said of her life, I can understand not wanting her ghost to walk.

"It's an interesting idea," Antony said, "but it hardly matters, because she isn't here."

"Do you think it's just a fake, then? Nothing but the slab?"

"I think it's a riddle," Antony said, and the unsettling light in his eyes wasn't all reflections from the candles.

Gideon and I exchanged an uneasy look. "What kind of riddle?"

"What better place to hide secrets than in a crypt?" Antony said, flourishing a crowbar he'd pulled out of his sack.

"Don't answer questions with questions, Antony," I said.

He glared at me. "You need not help if you don't want to, but kindly don't get in the way."

I promptly got in the way. "I want to think this through again."

"What is there to think through? An obviously, demonstrably false tomb--it's only logical to assume that it's a hiding place for something."

"But what in the world--"

That," said Antony, stepping around me, "is what I intend to find out."

The tombs of the Cordelii had been designed so that one could open them again without breaking anything, if one really wanted to. I wondered morbidly, watching with Gideon as Antony levered the stone out of the wall, if that had been in case they forgot and buried one of the kings with his heart still in his body. I hadn't meant to help--this felt wrong to me, and I was increasingly sure I wanted no part of it--but I ended up taking one end of the stone, just to keep it from smashing to bits on the floor. I figured we'd be putting it back in another couple minutes.

It was a thin stone, not as heavy as I'd expected; on the count of three, Antony and I pulled it free of the wall and laid it down.

Gideon screamed.

I had never heard him make a noise before, not once since Bernard Heber and Mildmay had hauled him out of the oubliette in Aiaia. At first, I didn't even connect the noise with Gideon, but looked frantically up at the tomb, assuming in some morbid madness that such an awful, senseless sound had to have come from there.

I might have screamed myself; later, I found my memory of the next few seconds vague, until I was standing, with Gideon and Antony, pressed back like cornered animals against the tomb of Geoffrey Cordelius, the same one Mildmay and I had sat on as he told me the story of Amaryllis Cordelia and her ambition.

There was a body in the wall niche, now slumped halfway out; Gideon later confessed that for a moment he had thought the body was a ghoul, like the ones that infested the swamps to the south of the city. It was richly clothed in a gown of what had once been velvet, black stitched with white seed pearls; its hair, long and colorless, was dressed under a cap of the same. The eyelids were open, the sockets clotted and staring. The hands had petrified into claws, and every time I tried to close my eyes that night, I saw them again.

"It wasn't a riddle," Antony said in a dull, dazed voice. "It was the literal truth."

"Is it her? I hate to ask, but, really, is it?"

"The ring she's wearing." Antony pointed with a none-too-steady finger. The ring, plainly visible on the corpse's dangling left hand, was a huge beryl signet. "It's the Emarthius unicorn holding a rose. That's her signet. It's her."

"God," I said.

We have to put her back, Gideon wrote, in straggling, wobbly letters completely unlike his normal handwriting.

Antony and I looked at him in horror.

We can't leave her like that.

"God," I said again, knowing he was right. "Who's going to touch her?"

We looked at each other. I had seen death before. But this thing which had once been Amaryllis Cordelia . . . I bit back the question rattling around my skull: do you suppose she died before or after they put that stone in place?

"I'll do it," Antony said. "It is, after all, my fault." Neither Gideon nor I was moved to protest. Antony carefully lifted the corpse back into its niche and laid it out flat; he put the dreadful claws together over its chest, the beryl signet uppermost, in a parody of peace.

I helped Antony guide the tombstone back into place. It was harder to lift than it'd been to let down; in the end Gideon had to help after all, bracing it as we lined it up with its tiny grooves. When it slotted back into place, it did so with a sudden thump of finality.

Antony blew out the candles, leaving them where they stood, as if Amaryllis Cordelia's tomb were a kind of shrine. As if the rumor he'd mentioned, about burning offerings in the crypt of the Cordelii, was starting, in a strange backward way, to come true. He collected the lamp, and we left; I looked back once, seeing the inscription stark with shadows. All things considered, I thought that was the kindest wish one could make for Amaryllis Cordelia, and I made it a prayer of my own as I closed the door of the crypt: God grant her sleep be dreamless.


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