The Virtu

Chapter One | plain-text
Chapter Two | plain-text
Chapter Three | plain-text

CHAPTER FOUR

FELIX

I got no sleep that night. Accepting that her secret had been discovered, Arakhne seemed almost frantic for a confidant, and although it was a role I knew myself to be temperamentally unsuited for, it was beyond the bounds of even my selfishness to refuse her.

She got herself cleaned up and then came and sat on one end of the lower bunk, while I sat on the other and her trousers were spread across the top bunk to dry, and told me her story.

Her house and the House Erekhthais had been at feud for fifty years. She was the last heir of the major line of the House Attalis, and therefore the last major impediment between the House Erekhthais and their goals: an end to the endless series of suit and counter-suit before the Aisxime--and the attendant, though disavowed, raids and assassinations--and the absorption of the House Attalis holdings into their assets. The claims of Arakhne's more distant cousins were in fact no better than the claim of Hesukhios of the House Erekhthais, whose grandmother had been a daughter of the House Attalis.

"But first," she said, "they need me either dead or married to an Erekhthaid. The Emperor and the Parliament cannot ignore my right."

Unfortunately, not yet being of age, she had no recourse to either action or protection in Troia without making herself dependent on one of the other houses, which would merely be trading one greedy predator for another and would not improve either her situation or her chances of living to reach her majority. She was fleeing to Kekropia to claim sanctuary of the Emperor Dionusios Griphos--here there was a long, involved digression about the part of Kekropia in Troian politics, from which I gathered mostly that the Kekropians were as much inclined to meddle in the affairs of their neighbors to the east as they were in those of their neighbors to the west. Arakhne had not liked the looks of the Penelope any better than Mildmay and I had; she had therefore decided to take passage on the White Otter and find some way north once she was on Kekropian soil.

"And, er, the disguise?" I asked.

"The House Attalis has no sons of my age remaining," she said with gruesome matter-of-factness. "And a boy traveling alone is much less likely to be bothered--or even noticed--than a girl. Assuming one's disguise holds." She glowered disgustedly into the middle distance.

"I won't betray your secret," I said, although I felt like the howlingest of hypocrites, considering how many secrets of my own I was so desperately concealing.

"Thank you," she said. "I confess, I have been growing increasingly nervous. I do not think your brother suspects, but it's hard to be sure without asking outright."

"Mildmay wouldn't betray you."

Her look was frankly skeptical.

"He wouldn't."

"Then he isn't the hired thug he looks, acts, and sounds like?" she said acidly.

"No. He is not."

"Well, you would know," she said, dismissing Mildmay completely, and went on to tell me in great detail about all the stratagems by which she had eluded her Erekhthaid pursuers.

I barely heard her. I had been viciously skewered, again, by the apparently irreconcilable difference between my perception of Mildmay and that of everyone else. In the Gardens, I had assumed the disjunct came from the celebrants' gross initial misapprehension that Mildmay had terrorized and brutalized me from one end of Kekropia to the other. But Arakhne had no such false information; she knew nothing of us except what she had seen over the past two and a half weeks.

Certainly it was evident from Mildmay's speech that he was uneducated; certainly the scar on his face gave him a forbidding aspect. But was it truly so difficult to look beyond that?

I thought of Mildmay standing alone and watching the waves, thought of him sitting silent and ignored at meals. Realized, my face heating even as I maintained the appearance of rapt interest in Arakhne's convoluted and breathless narrative, that my treatment of Mildmay since we had come on board the White Otter would not have given any observer the impression that I regarded him as other than a hired thug.

Malkar had placed stringent restrictions on my behavior, lest I disgrace him, but it was a new and appalling idea that my attitude toward another person could cause other people to disdain him.

My memory promptly offered up my own cruel laughter, making mock of one or another unfortunate who had incurred my displeasure. And the laughter of my friends, my coterie ... my clique.

I thought again, as I had thought before, that the world might well have been a better place if my mother had drowned me at birth.

"Felix?" said Arakhne. "Are you all right?"

"Just tired," I said. "It hasn't exactly been a restful night, you know."

She checked her pocket-watch and had the grace to look guilty. "It's almost dawn. I didn't mean ..."

"It's no matter. But I think I'll go out and watch the sunrise if you want the lower bunk for a while."

"You're very kind."

I smiled back at her and made my escape. It wasn't kindness; I just wanted to get away from her.

Outside the cabin, the world disappeared into fog, which was much more soothing than a clear view of the sea would have been. I went up on the cabin-deck, where I would not be in the sailors' way, and stared at the beautiful blank grayness and wondered what to do now.

I did not delude myself. I was not a kind person, and my instincts were always to wound. And the combination of Mildmay's stone face and the vulnerability he hid behind it would bring out--had already brought out--the worst in my nature.

Someday he will murder you, I said to myself, and you will deserve it.

MILDMAY

Florian Gauthy wouldn't fucking leave me alone.

Now, you'd think seeing Felix just about blow a gasket would be enough to warn a kid off--and if not, then for sure the chewing out I heard him getting from his mother. But Florian Gauthy was as stubborn as they come, and he kept on trotting along after me like a puppy dog. The crew thought it was the best joke they'd ever seen.

And I guess I can see how it would be funny if it didn't happen to be you. I mean, Florian was about as bourgeois as you can get, and I can't even pass for bourgeois. And I don't suppose I looked like I wanted him around. Which I didn't, but he didn't care about that neither.

And I couldn't seem to bring myself to tell him to fuck off. For one thing, I figured the only thing likely to piss Mrs. Gauthy off worse than having Florian hang around with me would be if I didn't let him. And aside from that, I was lonely. I couldn't really make friends with the crew--Felix had given me this snotty little speech a couple days out about "low company," and while I itched to ask him what he thought I was, that looked like being a pretty sure-fire way to get him to never talk to me again. And none of the passengers except Florian wanted to give me the time of day. Mr. Vilker wasn't mean about sharing the cabin or nothing, but we both knew I wasn't the guy he wanted in there. And Phaëthon had turned out to be Felix's new best friend. I couldn't keep myself from wondering if they were fucking.

Felix still wasn't talking to me, although in a different way now. Seemed like every time I turned around he was staring at me with this weird little frown on his face. I couldn't figure out what I'd done or if he was really even still mad at me, and since he wouldn't come near me, I couldn't ask.

And there was Florian Gauthy, asking questions, telling me about Klepsydra, looking for whales and seals and mermaids and Kethe knows what all, and after a couple days it just felt natural to talk to him, and a couple days after that I started telling him stories. Because it was better than answering questions about me.

Florian ate my stories up like they were candy. He didn't seem to know none of 'em, and when I asked, he said he'd read plenty of stories in books, but he'd never heard anybody tell a story before. I think it was about then that I quit caring what Mrs. Gauthy thought and just started telling Florian every story I could think of. 'Cause, I mean, I'm sure stories in books are okay, but they ain't real. Stories ain't real unless you hear 'em.

And Florian listened with his ears flapping. He always wanted to know where the stories were from and where I'd heard them and if I was telling 'em exactly like they'd been told to me. Which, of course, no, I wasn't, because you don't. I tried to explain it to him, how the story is what happens when you tell it for yourself, but I didn't say it very well, and I don't think he really understood me. But I told him stories I'd heard as a kid, stories I'd heard in the Arcane, in the Cheaps, stories Cardenio had told me that he'd heard from other cade-skiffs--and I hoped Cardenio was okay, and someday I'd be able to go and tell him that I'd told the story of Elisabeth Raphenia's wedding night on a ship on the far side of Kekropia and be able to see his eyes get big as bell wheels. I told Florian stories I'd heard in Kekropia, traveling east with my crazy brother--although I didn't tell him that part--and I told him stories I'd heard on the Morskaiakrov, because they were the ones that weren't mine yet.

I didn't particularly want to talk about the Morskaiakrov, but when Florian learned me and Felix had gotten to Troia on a Merrow ship, that turned into something else he wouldn't fucking leave alone.

"Were they pirates?" he said.

"Well, they were smugglers," I said doubtfully, because I wasn't quite sure what he meant--or thought he meant--by "pirates."

"Did the Imperial Armada chase you? Did you have to fight them off?"

"Fuck, no." He looked disappointed. "What, you think having these Armada guys show up would've been fun?"

His eyes brightened, and he started telling me about this book he'd read, where the hero was accused of something he hadn't done and had to run off with a pirate ship and have the sort of adventures that the smugglers I'd met would have gone clear to St. Millefleur out of their way so as not to get involved in. I didn't quite have the heart to say that to Florian, though--and even if I had, I don't think I could've fit it in, because he went straight from that into complaining about how boring living in Klepsydra was and how nothing ever happened and even if it did, his mother would make sure he never knew about it until it had been over for a month.

I guess people have to be stupid when they're his age. Kethe knows I was. So I didn't tell him I'd trade my life for his in a heartbeat, just listened, and when he'd worked some of the boil off, it turned out that what was really getting up his nose wasn't so much the not being a pirate as it was the fact that he was the youngest of six, and only the second boy, and his mother seemed to want him to keep him in cotton-wool until he was old and gray and toothless. Which I could at least see as being something you'd get sick of in a hurry. And what really pissed him off, as far as I could tell, was the way his brother and sisters got in on the act. His oldest sisters treated him like they were his mother, too, and the younger girls and his brother, Kechever, used him like a kind of screen. "They could get away with murder while Mother was scolding me," Florian said bitterly. "And the servants are just as bad as Mother. Even Ker Tantony won't let me--"

He stopped, gulped, and turned bright brick red. I remembered Tantony was the name of his tutor, and although this wasn't anything I specially wanted to get into, I said, "Even Mr. Tantony won't let you what?" because ... well, I guess, really, because it's what my friend Margot would have said.

"Nothing," Florian said. "He treats me like I'm an idiot, too."

Which I'd've bet my eyeballs wasn't what he'd been going to say. But it wasn't like I could say so or nothing, and it really wasn't like it was any of my business. So I kind of waited, long enough that he knew I hadn't quite bought it, then said "Uh-huh," and asked some stupid, easy question that would get us both off the hook. And Florian answered it and then asked me to tell another story I'd heard on the Morskaiakrov, and it was like we'd just thrown the whole thing overboard and let it sink.

Except of course for the part where I couldn't quite forget about it. I wondered if I should tell somebody, but figured that Mrs. Gauthy wouldn't believe me, and she wouldn't be grateful anyway, and if what Florian hated most in the world was people treating him like he was too little and too stupid to be trusted not to eat the soap, then he wasn't going to love me at all, neither, for pulling a stunt like that. And I didn't even pretend to myself that Felix would care.

So I put it out of my mind as best I could, and mostly just worried about Felix and Mr. Vilker and what I was going to do with myself now. My leg was better now, but I still limped, and that wasn't ever going to go all the way away. 'Cause it hadn't healed straight. I'd been trying and trying to pretend to myself that that wasn't what it was, that it was just the muscles weren't strong enough yet, but somewhere out in the middle of the ocean between Endumion and Klepsydra, I just gave up on lying about it. I could see it myself if I watched my feet, and I could feel it clearer and clearer because my leg muscles were getting stronger and so the thing that was fundamentally wrong was showing up better. It was like ... Kethe, I don't know what it was like, not so as to be able to describe it. But it was like at the mid-point of my thigh, someone had taken the bone and turned it like a fraction of a circle, barely even enough to notice, you'd think, to the left. And then strapped an iron bar or something along from my thigh to my heel, so it couldn't turn back the way it was supposed to and so that knee had to fight the rod to bend. It wasn't so much that it hurt as that it just wouldn't go.

So it worked okay for getting around on, but I couldn't trust it no more. I had to face it. I was a crip now, and crip cat-burglars--well, let's just say there's a reason you ain't never heard of one. But I didn't have the first fucking clue what I was going to do instead.

It got into my dreams, worse even than it had that first couple of decads in the Gardens. Keeper'd send me out after something, and I'd fall out a window or something stupid like that, and there I'd be in Ginevra's grave with her cold rotting arms around me and her voice in my ear all thick and slow, "Love me, Milly-Fox. Make me warm," and then I'd jolt awake and lay there, panting and sweating and scared to move, and listen to Mr. Vilker snore until dawn.

I was starting to almost look forward to us getting to Klepsydra, because probably nothing good was going to happen there--I mean, odds were seriously against it--but at least I could get off the White Otter and maybe leave these fucking dreams behind.

FELIX

The White Otter danced with the Kelephanian, making her way toward Klepsydra, and I caught myself again and again watching Mildmay, trying to make sense of who he was, trying to sort my idea of him out into order and coherence. Trying to find an understanding that would help me not to hurt him again.

I was hampered in my progress by two things. One was my own, irrational, insuperable desire for him, a lust like a slow-burning fuse which paid no attention to details such as our blood kinship or the fact that he was not inclined toward men or that I now apparently panicked at the approach of sexual intimacy. I wanted him--wanted the coarse fox-red hair he now braided back and tied with a scrap of indigo ribbon, wanted his body, his broad shoulders and stocky frame, lithe and muscular as an acrobat's. I wanted his deep, slurred, Lower City voice, wanted the growl that threaded through his words. I wanted his eyes, cold absinthe-green jade, wanted his face, those feral bones, that stone scar. I wanted to watch passion transform him from stone and jade to flesh and blood, wanted to know if he cried out when he came, and what he sounded like when he did.

But I could not have him, and the tension between that knowledge and the unabated wanting made it difficult to think, even more so as it intertwined with that ugly, failed encounter with Ingvard and made me uncertain of myself, of my own desires and longings, in a way that I had not been since I was eleven.

And as if that were not enough, I further found that my idea of Mildmay, my understanding of him, was at once as clear and sharp as a chirurgeon's knives, and clouded, obscure, impenetrable. I knew that I trusted him, but I did not know why. When I tried to understand it, my memory gave me only senseless flashes: him handing me a turnip that I did not want, him sitting under a street-lamp in a strange city, putting laces in a pair of shoes ... memories of Joline, who had died when I was eleven and whom I had loved like a sister--like this brother whom I had not then known I had.

It made no sense, and it frustrated me. I could deduce that these strange snippets of memory were from the year and more that I had lost to madness, and even that they were moments at which Mildmay had been kind, protective, loving. But I could not know that that was true. They might have been things I had imagined, or dreamed. They might have been things that in my madness I had completely misinterpreted.

I became irritable, snapped at Arakhne, argued with Leontes, avoided Ingvard's increasingly blatant attempts to get me alone. I knew that I needed to talk to Mildmay and I could not bring myself to do it. It seemed as if we had had this conversation too many times already. It would change nothing; it would not make me other than I was; it would not resolve this discord between us.

And then, five days out of Klepsydra (or so said Captain Yarth), I thought, Maybe I should tell him that. It was such a stupidly obvious idea that I burst out laughing even as I turned to look for Mildmay–and found myself face to face with Ingvard.

I fell back a pace, narrowly suppressing a yelp. But my alarm must have shown on my face, for he stepped back as well, raising his hands palms out; his smile was more than slightly sardonic, and it annoyed me.

"Ingvard," I said.

"You've been avoiding me."

"Gracious. I wonder why." I was as cold and supercilious as I could be and had the satisfaction of seeing Ingvard's face go blotchy red with annoyance.

"Felix, what happened?"

"Your advances were unwelcome," I said coldly. "I am surprised you need to ask."

His manner had lost its last trace of amusement, and I was savagely pleased. Whatever else he might do, he would not sneer at me.

He took a deep breath and said with obvious care, "You frightened me. I've been worried."

"That's very sweet of you, Ingvard." I smiled. "But unnecessary."

For a moment, it seemed as if he would make some rejoinder, then he let the breath out wordlessly. He gave me a long searching look, but I was proof against it.

"All right," he said. "I don't ... but it is no business of mine. I'm sorry to have bothered you." He turned and crossed the deck to where his employer was standing, trying to instruct Florian in the rudiments of navigation. I watched him until I was sure he was not going to change his mind and return, and then I started, again, to look for Mildmay. I needed to explain.

MILDMAY

So Florian's father had come and dragged him off, and I was just sitting in the sun, kind of half-dozing, when I heard somebody coming up the ladder. I opened my eyes, figuring that Florian must have got loose somehow, and found myself staring at Felix's trousers, with the tear in the leg I'd mended myself.

I kind of lurched, starting to get up, figuring he was pissed at me again, but he said, "No, don't," and sat down beside me.

I looked at him sideways, trying to figure out what was going on and if I was in trouble, and he was sitting, knees up and his arms resting on them, with his hands hanging down, right in the sun so the tattoos showed up like they were on fire. He wasn't looking at me. He was staring straight ahead, with this weird kind of little frown, not like he was angry, but like he was trying to remember something, or was thinking about something he didn't much like. I couldn't tell. So I sat and waited for him to cough it up.

And after a while he took a deep breath, still not looking at me, and said, "I need to explain something."

He stopped, like when a hand-wagon hits a step. I said, "Okay."

Another deep breath, and he was frowning off into space now, but if he was mad at me, he would've been looking at me, so I figured I was still okay. "I am not a nice person."

I could've said some seriously snarky things back to that, but I didn't. For one, I didn't want him pissed at me if he wasn't already, and besides, he was struggling with something, and he didn't need me getting in the way.

"These fights we have," he said, and stopped again.

"Yeah," I said. "I remember." Which was nastier maybe than it needed to be, but he was still fighting with whatever it was in his head and didn't pay no mind.

And then he just blurted it out. "They aren't going to stop. The fights. And they're going to be my fault. It's ... it's what I am."

He didn't say he was sorry, but Felix didn't say that, and the fact that he'd said anything was pretty much an apology all by itself. I didn't know what to say, though, because it's okay would have been a big fat hairy lie. Likewise I understand and everything else I could think of. And I didn't feel like lying was going to make this thing between us any better.

And he'd only stopped because he'd hit another step, not because he was waiting for me. "I've always been like this. It's not you." He turned then, and I couldn't help a tiny bit of a flinch, because his eyes were so spooky, and it was the first time in a couple decads that he'd looked at me straight on and like both of us were really there. "That's the important thing. It's not your fault. It's me. And I'd promise to change, except that it would be a lie."

"And that wouldn't help," I said, because it was what I'd just been thinking.

"No. It wouldn't. And I don't know that telling you this will help, either. But ... I had to try."

This time, he stopped because he was done. And I sat and thought it over, and for once he didn't try to rush me or get impatient or nothing. He just sat and watched me, his spooky skew-eyes burning out of his face, like we had all the time there ever was and this was the only thing that was ever going to matter.

And you know, I hated him for that. Just a little. I hated him for being able to turn that feeling on and off like a cistern tap. Because he was making me feel like I really mattered to him, but I knew he was right. A couple days, a couple hours, a septad-minute, and he'd be walking over me like I wasn't there again, or making some nasty, catty little joke about the way I talked. Like he'd said, it was what he was.

I was afraid to say any of that, though. Because I didn't think it would come out the way I wanted, and by the time I'd figured out how to say it, he'd most likely be bored. Or somebody would've come up to talk to him. Or something. So I just said, "It does help. A little."

He smiled. Not one of the dazzlers he used to get his own way. Just a smile, a little one, kind of crooked. And Kethe, it was like I'd never been mad at him at all.

#

Mr. Vilker was in a stew that night. I lay on my bunk and watched him pace around our tiny cabin. He had about two steps each way, and I thought of telling him to open the door, so he could at least get himself a sort of half-assed triangle, but I still didn't think he liked me much, and he probably wouldn't appreciate lip from me.

But it was seriously getting to the point where I wanted to hit him over the head just to get him to fucking stop, when he did stop, right in front of the bunk and staring at me, and said, "Is he really your brother?"

"Sorry?" I said.

"Is Felix Harrowgate really your brother?" he said, sort of through his teeth.

"Half-brother. Yeah."

And damned if he didn't start pacing again. But in about half a minute he stopped, dead-center and square-on to me again and said, "Were you raised together?"

"What?"

"Were you raised in the same household?"

"No."

He snorted, like I'd disappointed him somehow, and said, "Do you think he's mentally stable?"

"Do I what?"

"Your half-brother. Do you think he's sane?"

"Um. Dunno," I said. "D'you think he's crazy?"

"I don't know what to think." I remembered Felix saying this afternoon, It's what I am. Mr. Vilker took another two steps up, two steps back. "You know what he is, don't you?"

I could think of a bunch of things he might mean by that, most of them somewhere between lousy and the end of the world. "Um," I said.

"That he ... that his tastes aren't ..." Mr. Vilker was going a nice sort of cherry color.

"Oh. You mean he's a moll. Yeah, I know that."

"A what?"

Well, I didn't know no nice Kekropian words for it. "He fucks guys."

Mr. Vilker's eyes got big and round, and he went even redder. Nice manners, Milly-Fox. Very smooth. "Um," said Mr. Vilker, "yes." Another quick up and back, and he said, "Do you think he's sleeping with Phaëthon?"

Well, since I'd been wondering the same thing, it wasn't like I could say no, and have it sound like I meant it. "Dunno," is what I actually came up with. But that explained what Mr. Vilker was fretting about. Jealousy's jealousy, and if him and Felix had had some kind of scene, you couldn't really blame the guy--what with Felix latching onto Phaëthon all of two minutes later--not for the wondering and not for the part where he felt kind of shitty about it.

He was pacing again. I said, 'cause I couldn't quite tell, "D'you even like him?"

"I don't know. How can I, when every time I talk to him, it's as if I'm talking to a different person?"

"He don't like people knowing too much about his business," I said, which I figured was about as far as I could go without Felix hunting me down and skinning me with a dull knife. And then I said, "He ain't worth driving yourself nuts over."

Which Felix really would have skinned me if he'd heard me say it, but, I mean, it was the truth. It wasn't worth Mr. Vilker's time to get dragged into this.

"Is that your considered opinion?" he said, nasty and sharp.

"I'm just saying. It ain't worth it to you."

"You can't know that."

And powers I felt like I was the oldest thing in the world, like I'd been the first thing to come up out of the rocks and mud when Phi-Kethetin started singing fire. "You ain't gonna get what you want from him. Whatever it is." Because as far as I could tell, nobody got what they wanted from Felix unless it was exactly what he happened to want to give.

He gave me an ugly look. "What has he told you?"

"Fuck all. But I know him. You don't."

The look got uglier for a moment, and then he said, "I'm going to bed."

"Don't let me keep you up," I said, and we kind of snarled at each other, and then he climbed into the top bunk and snuffed the light.

Damn you, Felix, I said, but only to myself.

FELIX

In the dream, I am in a place I don't know--a cellar, a basement, something like that. Somewhere dark and dank and reeking of the Sim.

It is a maze as well as a basement, and I am lost in it. There's a staircase somewhere--there has to be--but I can't find it, can't find my way up out of the dark and the cold. I go on searching, hopelessly, because I know that no one will come to help me, that no one would care if I died down here, left my skeleton in the corner of one of the odd-shaped little rooms that smell so sweetly and foully of death.

And then, after a bitter eternity of groping in the dark, I see light ahead, the warm flickering of torch-light. I feel sure that it must be the staircase and run towards it.

But it is not the way out. It is the heart of the maze, the place where the monster lives. The monster is not there, but its scent is harsh in my nostrils, and I know it is nearby. It has left its own heart behind it, and I stand in the doorway, unable to move, staring at the monster's heart, which is a table. A wooden table. Fitted with straps, and I cannot keep myself from mapping where each one would go on my own body. Those around the ankles, that one across the hips, those at the wrists, that pinning the shoulders flat. The last strap, narrow and very short, would grip my neck tight enough to choke me. Standing there, my breath coming in harsh labored sounds like the cries of a hurt animal, I can feel it pressing against my jawbone, constricting my throat so that I can barely swallow.

I cannot look away. I want to turn, plunge back into the darkness, lose myself again. But I am rooted to the earth, turned to stone within my own skin. The monster will return soon and find me, strap me to the table which is its heart. It will not kill me. I know that. It will do something even more terrible.

Something touches my shoulder. I jerk around, making a strangled noise, one arm going up to ward the monster off--

#

And Arakhne's voice said in the darkness, "Felix? Are you all right?"

A dream, I thought, knotting my fingers in the coarse fabric of the mattress-cover. It was a dream. I could hear myself breathing, feel my chest heaving, as if I had been running for miles, as if I had been battling dragons and ogres. It was just a dream.

"I'm fine," I said. "Just a ... a bad dream."

"I thought you were dying."

I remembered that last moment of the dream, my arm going up, remembered a distinctly undreamlike sensation of it colliding with something. "Did I hurt you?"

"No. Just scared me. A little."

"For future reference, it's probably better not to wake people up by shaking them."

"Oh," she said, sullenly. I wasn't appreciating her selfless concern, and it irritated her.

Fortunately, I was still breathing so heavily that she couldn't have detected my sigh. I was looking forward with intense anticipation to docking in Klepsydra and being free of the galling necessity of sharing a tiny room with a spoiled and frightened teenage girl. I said, "You should probably try to get back to sleep."

"You're not going to have another fit, are you?"

She was angry still, but I detected real fear in her voice. I wondered, my skin prickling with humiliation, just what kind of noises I had been making. "No," I said. "I think I'll go out on deck for a while, clear my head."

"All right," she said, and I heard her climb back into her bunk.

We both slept fully clothed and did not discuss the reasons why. I got up, opened the door.

Arakhne said, "Felix?"

"Yes?"

"What were you dreaming about? It sounded terrible. And I thought switching cabins was going to help."

"Well, nothing helps with nightmares for long. Go to sleep."

I went out, gratefully closing the door behind me. I did not blame Arakhne for her limpet-like tendencies, but I found them profoundly wearying and even more profoundly aggravating. I couldn't turn around without falling over the silly child, and she stood too close to me, monopolized too much of the conversation, as if she were the one who knew my secrets instead of the other way around. I was not about to give her so much as an inch more leverage. I most certainly was not going to discuss my dreams with her.

I wished I could discuss the dream with someone, though. Other than Mildmay, that was, who would listen and then say, at most, Dunno what it means, but it sounds fucked up.

I was accustomed to nightmares, but I had never been so upset by one that had no people in it. Dreams about Malkar, Keeper, long dead though he was, Lorenzo, even Shannon: those I was accustomed to, if not enured to. When I woke in limp misery from one of those dreams, I knew what had happened. But this--the narrow subterranean passages, the torches, the table that was at once perfectly innocuous and entirely terrifying--I did not hold the key to this dream, and I did not know why it had such power over me.

And that frightened me more than anything else.

#

We docked in Klepsydra on a beautiful, shining morning. All of us were up on deck, staring eagerly at the fast approaching city. There would be a slight delay, Captain Yarth had told us, before we would be allowed to disembark, a matter of tariffs and inspections, agreements between the empires of Troia and Kekropia which I did not perfectly understand, nor cared to. It seemed to matter a great deal to Leontes Gauthy, though; he and Ingvard stood a little to one side, muttering together over inventories and invoices.

Theokrita and Florian and Arakhne and I stood together, Arakhne too close as usual. I was aware of Mildmay, standing alone, just within earshot. I admitted to myself with some surprise that I would rather have been standing with him, but Arakhne was so tense I could almost feel her vibrating, and I wanted at all costs and above all other desires to avoid giving her any opportunity to create a scene. She had told me the night before, in the tones of one trying hard to convince herself, that it was highly unlikely the House Erekhthais would have been able to notify their agents in Klepsydra to be on the watch for her.

"I thought you said you'd shaken them off," I'd said--unwisely, for I had noticed the way in which Arakhne's stories changed as she told them.

"Well, of course they'd know it would be very likely I'd make for Aigisthos," she said, and I made no rejoinder. But I wondered now just how much the House Erekhthais might know and just what kind of resources it had at its command.

The White Otter came gliding gracefully into the harbor of Klepsydra, which Florian informed me--loudly, and pointedly not looking at Mildmay--was named the Elphenore. Glancing past him to Theokrita's glowering face, I gathered that she had again forbidden him to "bother" my brother. This time, seeing how near our journey was to completion, her edict might hold. I considered telling her that if either of us were to corrupt Florian, it was much more likely to be me than Mildmay, but that was an idle fancy born of anger on Mildmay's behalf--anger and a reprehensibly wicked desire to see the look on Theokrita's face. I said nothing.

The ship docked; the captain sent a sailor trotting to the Customs office. We waited. Leontes and Ingvard continued to pore over their lists and ledgers. Florian pestered his mother and me indiscriminately with questions and speculations about the other ships in the harbor. Theokrita could have done herself a tremendous favor by letting Florian stand with Mildmay this last morning. But I didn't say that, either. Beside me, Arakhne scanned the wharves obsessively, but I doubted if she knew what she was looking for.

Captain Yarth paced the deck behind us, growling under his breath with increasing vehemence as half an hour became an hour became an hour and a quarter. Finally, the sailor reappeared; Captain Yarth strode to meet her as she came up the gangplank, and they plunged into a heated discussion, the sailor looking no less annoyed with the delay than the captain. Mildmay was standing near enough to hear them, and after a couple of minutes, he came limping along the deck and said, "Felix?"

I raised my eyebrows at him, and he jerked his head at the opposite railing. Both Theokrita and Arakhne looked as if they wanted to protest, and that was annoying enough that I didn't argue with Mildmay but followed him across to the other side of the ship.

"Well?" I said.

"Most of what held Vera up ain't no business of ours, but a guy stopped her on the way back wanting to know about all the Troian passengers."

I looked across at Arakhne before I could stop myself. She was watching me anxiously.

Mildmay said, "Oh. D'you think it's him they're after? I was figuring ..."

He had been exercising the caution of the fox he resembled, who walked into nothing without checking first to see if it was a trap. I said, "No. We may be pursued across Kekropia, but I hardly think our enemies would be waiting for us on the docks."

"Mostly, I just thought it was weird and you should know."

"Yes," I said. "Excuse me one moment." I crossed back to Arakhne and said, "We need to talk."

Spoiled she might be, but she wasn't stupid. There was no color in her face as she followed me into the cabin we had shared.

I told her what Mildmay had told me. Her yellow eyes were huge pale disks in her bone-white face. She whispered, "What shall I do?"

I did not know if it was cruelty or optimism that made me say, "You escaped them before."

"Not like this. Not ..." She caught at my sleeve; I held myself in and did not strike at her hand or shake her off. "Felix, help me, please. They'll kill me. It's not worth their while to take me back to Troia now. They'll kill me and that will be the end of the House Attalis as well as me. Please."

I cared not a scrap for the House Attalis, but if I had not been able to repulse Arakhne before this, I could not abandon her now, knowing that it would be to her death.

"Do they know you're disguised as a boy?"

"Yes," she said miserably. She had told me previously that they did not.

"Then I think I have an idea. But it will require telling my brother the truth."

"Him? Why?"

"Because there are three 'Troian' passengers," I said, "and I'm much too tall."

The idea had come into my head even as I was telling Mildmay that our enemies would not be waiting for us on the docks. It was a primitive ruse, but I could see no reason why it would not work.

"Oh," said Arakhne; it was almost a gasp. "Would he?"

"Let me get him in here. Unless you have a better idea?"

She hesitated a moment, clearly wishing she did, then said, "No. If you think he'll do it."

"He'll do it," I said.

I went back out and waved at Mildmay. He followed me into the cabin, where Arakhne was sitting on the bunk, twisting her fingers together nervously in her lap.

"Shall I tell him or will you?" I asked her.

She did not answer me immediately, and Mildmay said, "Tell me what?"

A nasty, fraught little silence. Arakhne opened her mouth, hesitated, and said, "I am Arakhne of the House Attalis."

"Not Phaëthon?"

"No. I was ... I was traveling disguised as a boy to escape my House's enemies. But their agents are--"

"Uh-huh." He turned to me. "And you knew about this?"

"Yes."

"How long?"

"Mildmay, it doesn't--"

"How fucking long?"

"A week and a half. About."

"And you're telling me now. Why?"

"You know why," I said, annoyed; it had, after all, been he who had told me about the man asking questions.

"Not what I meant." He shut his mouth like a trap and stared at me.

"What did you mean?"

The look he gave me was scathing. "What d'you want, Felix?"

It rattled me. Not just the look or the question--although those were bad enough--but the realization that he'd simply taken a short-cut through the conversation I'd anticipated having and reached the finish line ahead of me. I'd known he was much smarter than he seemed, but I hadn't appreciated before how quick he was, that his mind was not in any way hobbled by the scar that slowed and distorted his speech. It was so terribly easy to forget that.

I said, after a taken-aback pause, "We need to get Arakhne safely off this ship. A decoy."

"A decoy." He looked at Arakhne and back at me. "You want me to pretend to be her."

"Yes."

"So the goons after her will bash my head in instead?"

I flinched and despised myself for it. "They'll have no reason to harm you when they realize they've made a mistake."

"Uh-huh." But he looked at Arakhne again, and I supposed he could see as plainly as I could how frightened she was, for he said, "Okay. Assuming I can ditch the goons, where do I find you?"

Something in his voice, some note of weary familiarity, told me that he had done things like this before, that his career as a kept-thief had been more varied and dangerous than mine.

"We'll have to find a hotel," I said.

"Yeah. Bet Klepsydra's got a lot of 'em."

"Shut up," I said. I recognized that particular form of being absolutely unhelpful without actually starting an argument. Cabaline wizards excelled at its more subtle and sophisticated variants. "Both of you, stay here."

Theokrita was more than happy to recommend hotels, even after I curbed her enthusiasm by mentioning that distasteful word, "budget." Glancing over her shoulder, I noticed a man in Imperial uniform deep in discussion with Leontes and Ingvard, and surmised that that must be the Customs officer. His presence meant it probably would not be much longer before we were expected to disembark.

I extracted myself from what was promising to be an exhaustive review of every hotel in Klepsydra and returned to the cabin, where the silence was thick enough to cut.

"The Pig-whistle on Blue Lantern Street," I said to Mildmay, and repeated the directions Theokrita had given me. "Does that satisfy your lordship?"

"Okay," he said. "Let's get this the fuck over with."

MILDMAY

Powers, I was so fucking mad I could hardly see straight. I could have garotted Felix and never thought about it twice. I would have told him to go fuck himself, except that the person who'd really get fucked over if I did was the girl. And I hadn't liked her much when she was a guy, and I didn't like her no better now--her making sheep's eyes at Felix and him acting like he didn't notice--but it wasn't the sort of thing she ought to end up dead over, any more than Felix being a complete fucking prick was.

So I let her braid my hair the way she did hers, and we swapped coats, which wasn't comfortable for neither of us, but we could get by, and her and Felix went out so they could be sure they got off the ship as soon as they could. The goons might not be completely fooled, but they'd be inclined to wait instead of follow. And then I could make like I was sneaking off, and they'd be sure to come after me, and wouldn't that be fucking grand? Felix was awfully flip about it, but I was betting he didn't know hired goons the way I did. And if everything went right, he wouldn't have to.

You know, that made me mad, too, the way I'd catch myself trying to protect him, like he was still crazy and not to blame for the fucked up situation he'd landed us in. Well, landed me in.

"Fuck it," I said under my breath and tried to stop thinking.

After a while, I heard everybody clomping down the gangplank. I hoped Felix had got his damn rings back, because I had a feeling I knew who'd be sent after 'em if he'd forgot.

Climb the wall in front of you, Milly-Fox, I said to myself. I judged time the way I always had on a job, doing "Jeniard's Lover" in my head. Last time I'd done that, I'd been in Mélusine on a hotel roof in the rain, coming down with the Winter Fever, fixing to meet Mavortian von Heber for the first time. All I'd known about Felix Harrowgate was that he was the hocus who'd broken the Virtu. That life had sucked, but I wished I could get back to it and tell myself to tell Mavortian to fuck off. Because both my legs had worked right then, and I didn't have a prick of a hocus ordering me around like his own personal dog.

I finished up with "Jeniard's Lover" and went out on deck. There was nobody around--I mean, nobody I knew--and one look was enough to spot the fat Kekropian leaning against a warehouse and pretending like he wasn't watching the White Otter. At worst, if there'd been two guys set to watch, we'd split them up. But I was betting this guy was it for look-out, and Felix and Arakhne had got past him. There's a reason smart people don't hire goons.

If I'd actually wanted to get off the ship without being seen, I'd've gone over the side and swum for it. So I was just as glad that wasn't the point here, because I was pretty sure I'd be able to make it, but not, you know, completely convinced. Small favors--all I had to do was act like I thought I was being all sneaky, which was mostly wearing this big hat that Arakhne'd pulled out of her luggage. Stupid thing, and if that was the best she could do, it was no wonder there were goons waiting for her, but it was doing what I wanted just fine. Which was mainly getting in the way of the goon getting a good look at my face.

I saw the goon see me and pretended like I didn't. Felix and Arakhne were heading north for the Pig-whistle, so I headed straight west, inland, and the goon fell in behind me. My limp was little enough now that it didn't matter so much--and when I thought of all the work I'd put in, it made me want to sit down and laugh until I puked, that this was the good I got out of it. First major street I crossed, I looked around, and sure enough the goon had picked up some friends. Three or four of them, although it was hard to tell without turning around to count.

That was probably the lot, then, and now I had to figure out how I was going to get them to figure out I wasn't a stupid little Troian girl. What they did then was anybody's guess, but as long as they didn't catch on to the truth, it didn't much matter.

I wished--a lot--that I could have picked this whole stupid game up and dropped it down in Mélusine. Didn't even have to be the Lower City, although that would've been best. 'Cause I could guess about which way to go and which not in this city, but that's all I was doing. Guessing.

And, wouldn't you know it, I guessed wrong.

One of Keeper's friends used to say, If you're gonna fuck up, go ahead and fuck up big. Now Keeper didn't like that, along of how she thought you shouldn't be fucking up in the first place, but I'd always kind of liked it. So I guess I should've been glad to see myself taking Cleophée's advice, only of course there was the part where I ended up in deep shit.

I'd turned left down a perfectly ordinary-looking street, aiming to work a little farther from Felix and Arakhne before I did anything about making the goons lose interest. It was getting on toward the septad-day, and the crowd had been thinning out, so I didn't pay quite enough attention quite soon enough to the way there wasn't nobody on this piece of road except the goons and me.

And then I turned a corner and found out why. Fucking dead end was why, and the goons must've been laughing their asses off, 'cause I went to head back quick the other way, and there they were. All six of them.

I said, "Do y'all want something?"

The looks on their faces were almost worth it. They'd been following the red braids and the way I'd been acting like I thought I might be followed.

"You ain't a girl," one of them said, like I'd done it on purpose to insult him.

"Never said I was." I figured I'd better keep on like a cit. "Y'all looking for somebody?"

"Yeah," said the guy at the back. "Maybe you've seen her. Red-haired girl, about your height. Named Arakhne, although of course she might be calling herself something else."

He wasn't no dummy. He'd smelled the rat.

"Nope," I said. "Sorry. Stranger in town."

"Oh this girl ain't a local," the guy in the back said. The six of them were spreading out, boxing me in, and a good look at that guy, the one with the brains, sent my heart down into my stomach. He was broad as a fucking church door, and wasn't none of it fat. Fuck, I thought and took a careful step back.

"Fact is," Church Door went on, "we'd heard pretty reliable that she was on that ship you came off of, so I'm thinking maybe you can tell us where she is."

"Nope."

"Now is that 'cause you can't or 'cause you won't?"

"No girls on board. Nice middle-aged society lady, but I don't figure it's her you're after."

The goons were still closing in.

"How about boys?" said Church Door, and I wasn't fooling him one little bit.

"Fuck it," I said and got rid of that fucking hat.

Now six on one ain't good odds. Wouldn't've been good odds even if I hadn't been a crip, although at least then I'd've had the option to try and outrun them. Things were messy for a little while, but they ended up about like we'd all expected, with me on the ground and Church Door's boot on my neck. Now most of his goons were cussing and bleeding, and one of 'em was just starting to come 'round, but the meat of the situation was my neck and his boot, which was what my friend Zephyr would have called unambiguous.

"Let's take this somewhere private," Church Door said. "'Less you feel like just answering the question."

I didn't waste my breath on saying nothing. Church Door kicked me twice in the head and once more for luck, and while I didn't exactly miss nothing, it all got real uninteresting for a while. The goons hauled me up and dragged me after Church Door. I don't know quite where we went or how we got there, along of, like I said, being not interested at the time. When things cleared up, we were in a big, echoey, empty building, an abandoned warehouse or something. I was lucky--small fucking favors--that they hadn't really been ready for catching somebody other than that damn stupid girl. They didn't even have a chair to tie me to or anything, just dumped me on the floor. Not that it looked like Church Door needed a chair--or anything else. He looked like maybe he didn't need nothing more than his fingers to cause all the pain he wanted.

"It's a simple question, friend," he said. "Tell us where the girl is, and we'll let you go."

I kept my mouth shut and watched him circling in on me.

"You ain't Troian, no matter what color your hair is. She don't mean nothing to you."

Which was true, but also not the point. I kept on saying nothing, and he kept on circling. He was enjoying himself, and that was bad bad news. And I was still kind of a little off, so when he came in, I wasn't fast enough, and he got his hand knotted in my hair, right at the base of my skull. I wondered when the braids had come undone, and then Church Door got my attention by jerking my head back almost hard enough to break my neck.

"Whereas me," he said, "I could come to mean quite a lot to you." And he grinned.

I'd seen worse than him. I'd been in the Boneprince at night with Vey Coruscant. I'd done things myself--things I wasn't proud of, but they'd make this two-centime goon piss himself if he knew about them. Which, of course, he didn't, so they didn't hardly matter. It wasn't like he was going to sit still for me to tell him.

I kept my mouth shut and let him hit me. But he must have figured out somehow--felt it, smelled it, I don't know--that wasn't going to get him nowhere, because after he hit me once, he let go of me and stepped back.

"We could kill you, you know," he said.

I just watched him.

"You don't mean any more to us than that girl does to you." He stared at me a moment longer, then said, "Griff, hand me your knife."

Fuck him, he'd found my weak point. I could hear it in his voice. It's 'cause of the scar--I know it is and it don't help none. It's the thing I can't stand, the idea of somebody making my face worse. I was on my feet without even meaning to be, and Church Door was grinning again.

If I'd been tied up, I don't know what he might have got me to say. But he was a cocky bastard, and I was a crip about half his size, and I hadn't put on no particularly exciting show in the first go-round. And he didn't know how I'd got that fucking scar in the first place. He waved his goons back.

Now, my leg was singing Ervenzian opera, and my head felt like somebody'd replaced the bones with iron, and there were all kinds of bruises I was only starting to feel. But my body still remembered how knife fights worked, and Church Door didn't look like he was planning so much on fighting as just cutting. His fucking mistake.

I dodged his first swing at me, and that made the bastard laugh. Be laughing out the other side of your face in a minute, I thought, but I knew I had to end this quick, before he either got bored or realized he was outclassed and called his goons in again to hold me down.

So the next swing I dodged inside instead of out, jammed his wrist, got the knife, and drove it back between my own elbow and side and into his gut. I rolled myself clear because jumping would have been just begging for my leg to take me down. Up on my feet again, turned around, and Church Door was staring at me with this look on his face that said plain as daylight how that wasn't what was supposed to happen. Then his knees buckled and he pitched forward, driving the knife further into his belly with his own weight. If he wasn't dead now, he would be soon.

I looked around at the five goons. They were staring at me like a bunch of cows, but at least it didn't look like none of them were getting any bright ideas.

I said, slow and careful, "I ain't got no fight with the rest of y'all. 'Less you make me."

After a second, the one called Griff, the one who'd given Church Door his knife, shook his head.

"Good. And the law don't hear about the body, right?"

One of the others spat. "Law don't give a shit."

"Okay. Then I'm gonna leave and you ain't gonna follow me and we ain't ever gonna see each other again. Okay?"

This time they all nodded. I backed to the door, slow and careful, and they stood there and watched me go. Like cows.

I slammed the door shut behind me and set off north, wishing like fuck that I could run.

FELIX

The Pig-whistle had seen better days, but the rooms were large, clean, and comfortable. Their rates were reasonable, though sadly not reasonable enough that Mildmay and I could afford separate rooms. Arakhne's funds seemed to be plentiful; she bespoke a room for herself under the name Phaëthon Yarth and then followed me up to the room Mildmay and I would share.

I longed with all my heart to tell her to go away, longed to have the chance to do more than merely check that my rings were all in their case, all unharmed, but she was still wide-eyed and skittish, and it was clear I would have had to use force to get her on the other side of the door.

I took my shoes off and lay down. She perched on the chair by the window and kept an anxious watch on the street. She tried once or twice to engage me in conversation, but I pretended to be sleepy and she gave up, only sighing deeply from time to time to remind me of the burdens under which she labored.

Time crawled past. After an hour I couldn't maintain my pretense of sleepiness any longer and joined Arakhne at the window. She had the wit not to say anything, and we stared out at Blue Lantern Street in silence, watching for her hat or his red hair or just a man with Mildmay's slight awkwardness in his walk.

I wasn't sure exactly how long it was--eternities, eons, maybe half an hour--before he appeared, a slow, stumbling figure at the foot of the hill.

"Stay here," I snarled at Arakhne, cramming my shoes on, and bolted out of the room.

Up close, he looked dreadfully white. His eyes were strange, blurred, and the awkward, hobbled way he was moving, as if his torso were a solid block of wood without joints or hinges, suggested he was in a good deal of pain--more pain than I could expect him to admit to me.

"What happened?" I said, wanting to offer help but knowing I would be rebuffed.

He stopped, tilted his head back to look at me. "They thought they had a reason," he said and continued on his dogged way up the hill.

I simply stared after him for a moment, baffled, before I remembered saying, earlier in the day, They'll have no reason to harm you when they realize they've made a mistake.

"But what?" I said, catching up to him. "What reason could they have?"

The look he gave me was withering in its contempt, but he said only, "You better get that damn girl out of town tonight."

"You don't mean you--"

"I didn't tell 'em shit," he said, his voice flat with anger. "But they knew enough already that they'll find her. And they ain't gonna be happy when they do."

"Mildmay, what--"

We had reached the entryway of the Pig-whistle. He stopped and said in Marathine, fast and low and hard, "I just killed a guy, okay? And they ain't gonna give us trouble with the law, but we ain't friends, neither. That enough for you?"

I managed to keep from shrinking back from him or letting my shock show on my face, but I found myself entirely bereft of words.

He looked away first, rubbing one hand over his face. "Sorry," he said. "I just ... if they catch up to her, they will kill her."

It took me two tries to get my voice to work. "Then I guess ... I guess I'd better get her out of town."

#

I made Mildmay stay behind, made him lie down on the bed and promise to rest. I knew by the way his gaze followed me coldly around the room that this was not over, but he did not say anything in front of Arakhne and I was grateful for that.

Arakhne herself mercifully showed no disposition to argue. She was not thrown into any greater state of panic by the news Mildmay brought and did not evince any surprise. It did not make me like her better that, along with surprise, she also failed to show remorse or any particular concern for Mildmay's injuries--which he would not discuss and refused to let me examine. She still thought of him as a hired thug, and this was neither the time nor the place to make her see her error. I hoped someone else would teach her before that way of thinking got her killed.

I spun a quick story for the hotel clerk about messages waiting for my young friend upon his arrival in Klepsydra; the clerk was sympathetic and obliging and lavish with advice. I argued with Arakhne all the way to the stage-post at the northern edge of the city whether she would do better to hire a horse and start for Aigisthos on her own, or to wait for the first stagecoach, which left at dawn. She had taken Mildmay's story to heart; she refused to wait. I could have stopped her only by traveling with her. She was not a lost kitten, and my responsibility to Mildmay far outweighed my ridiculous and unfounded sense of responsibility to her.

She came out again. "Half an hour, they say."

"Good. Then I'd best be getting back."

"Felix ..."

I raised one eyebrow at her. She said, "You could come with me."

Perhaps if I hadn't just had that same discussion with myself, I might not have answered so quickly or with such finality. "No."

"No?" It was half a squawk, indignation and incredulity combined.

"No, I can't. I need to get back to my brother."

"Surely you needn't--"

"Yes, I do need. You judge too much by surfaces."

"Felix, please," and somehow she had caught hold of my lapels and was pressed up against me, staring imploringly into my face. "I can't live with the thought of never seeing you again."

"I beg your pardon?" I removed my coat from her clutch and stepped back. She followed, although she did not grab me again.

"I never imagined this is what love would feel like. I never knew ... I wasn't going to say anything, but I can't just walk away from you."

"Yes, you can," I said, wondering what it was that I was doing wrong that I kept attracting passion from persons I did not want, while the one person I did was never going to look at me twice. "Surfaces, Arakhne. I'm ganumedes and not interested."

The Troian word was better than the ugly Marathine "molly," and there was no doubt she understood me. Her face went blank, and she--finally, blessedly--took a step back. I was bitterly reminded of myself and Mildmay in the doorway of the Pig-whistle.

"Good-bye, Arakhne," I said. "Good luck." It seemed all too probable that she would need it.

#

Mildmay was waiting for me, sitting propped up against the headboard.

"Well?" he said.

"She's off. Not our concern."

"Good."

I sat down on the edge of the bed and took off my shoes. While I was safely not looking at him, I said, "How are you?"

I could hear the half-shrug in the way he said, "I'm okay."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Ain't like I never killed a guy before."

"How many--" I brought myself up short.

"Dunno, exactly." He knew what I'd been going to ask. He'd probably been waiting for me to ask that question for months. His voice was hard, careless. "First guy I killed for money, I had two septads and one."

I looked around; he was staring at the window curtains, but I thought they weren't what he was seeing. He said, "I was good at it."

There was silence for a moment, all sharp edges and hard enough to splinter bone. Then he said, "You want me to kill anybody for you again, you pay me first."

"I didn't want you to kill anybody."

"Yeah? And that's why you sent me out there like a Trials lamb?"

"I didn't know--"

"Would it've mattered if you had?" I wasn't sure which was more painful, the contempt in his voice, or the resignation.

"I don't know," I said after a moment, and was terrified by my own honesty. "I don't ... I've never ..."

"We don't all got to be murderers," he said, and if I'd hated his contempt, I hated his gentleness more.

"How badly are you hurt?" I said, forcing my voice to be cold and disinterested, like a stranger's.

"I'll live," he said, his voice flat again. It occurred to me that it said something very unpleasant about both of us that we saw concern and kindness as attacks.

I got up, paced over to the window, stood and looked out at the late afternoon traffic.

He burst out, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"What?" I turned back. His face was white and set.

"You knew she was a girl. Why didn't you tell me?"

"It needed to be kept secret."

"And you didn't trust me not to roll over on her?"

"That's not it at all. But Arakhne--"

"Did she ask you not to tell me?"

"Not in so many words, but--"

"You didn't trust me," he said, bleak as winter.

"That has nothing to do with it."

"Then what does? Why the fuck didn't you tell me?"

Because I was trying to avoid talking to you at all. "It just seemed simpler--"

"Simpler!"

"Look, this is no big deal."

"Easy for you to say. You got them all falling over each other to make you happy anyways."

Arakhne's pleading face was suddenly in front of me again, with Ingvard and Astyanax swiftly following. "Jealous, little brother?"

"You'd like it if I was."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I said, half angry, half afraid he'd realized the truth, realized that I desired him.

"You like jealousy. You like knowing people want you."

He wasn't talking about sex, and my heart slowed a little. "Is it not natural to want to be liked?"

"That ain't what you want. It's like you got to have everybody's heart, and if they don't give it, you rip it out and watch it bleed."

I flinched from his acuity, and made a desperate stab to regain the offensive: "Maybe I wouldn't have to take, if you'd give a little more. Give me some trust. It isn't as if--" I could not keep going against the look on his face. It was as if he had died and been petrified into marble.

There was a terrible, frozen silence. He grated out, more like a dog's snarl than a human voice, "Like you gave me the truth?" He stood up, found his shoes, put them on, and tied them, all in perfect, brutal silence. He started for the door.

"Where are you going?" I said, more shrilly than I would have liked.

He opened the door, stepped through, and only then glanced back at me. His eyes were green and cold and brilliant with murder. "Find a whore," he said and slammed the door shut.

MILDMAY

I didn't have no trouble at all finding a brothel. The night-clerk was more than happy to point the way. He had a couple recommendations, too, but those I didn't pay no mind to. The sort of brothel he'd say was a "nice time" was really just not what I was looking for. Also not the sort of place that'd take me.

But I guess every city has its Pharaohlight. Klepsydra's was a long, snaky street near the docks called Eleusis Row. The nice places were on the city-side, while the closer you got to the water, the lower and skankier the dives got. I wanted clean, cheap, and not too fussy, and I'd done enough work in Pharaohlight, both for Keeper and on my own, that I knew what to look for. I picked a house that had its front steps brick-batted and real curtains in the window, but hadn't seen a new coat of paint probably since I'd been born. The sign'd been touched up recently, though. It showed a smiling dog fucking a lady chimera, and I decided to take that as a good omen. They had a bouncer--another good sign--and he didn't like my face, but he let me by when I flashed a Kekropian imperial at him. Which was just as well, 'cause it was the only one I had.

Inside was about the same: old and shabby, but well-cared for. The madam reminded me of Elvire, who ran the Goosegirl's Palace in the Arcane, or what Elvire would have been if she hadn't had the brains she did. She was put a little off her stride by her first good look at my face, but she got herself back together like a champ and asked me my pleasure. Exactly like that, too: "What is your pleasure, sir?"

And that put me a little off, so I guess we were even. I said, "Um."

She gestured with her fan at the door on one side of the hall. "Ladies?" And at the other. "Or gentlemen?"

"Oh. Um. Ladies."

"After you, sir," she said.

There were four girls in the parlor--if that's the right word. Anyway, in the room. Two of 'em were septad-to-the-centime brunettes, one was a Norvenan-type blonde, and the fourth was a Troian gal looked more than a little like Felix. They sat up and acted interested when I came in, but it was a professional thing, and I didn't care.

The madam was looking kind of sideways at my face, and she said, "No blood-letting and no bruising."

"I ain't aiming to hurt nobody," I said. And I wasn't. I just wanted to get rid of it, the guy I'd killed, and the dreams I'd been having about Ginevra and Keeper, and the way I felt about Felix, where I just wanted to slam his head against the wall until it crunched.

The blonde had blue eyes, like Ginevra'd had. I said, "Her."

"Anna Sylvia," the madam said, like I cared what the whore's name was. The blonde stood up. She was a skinny little thing, not like Ginevra at all except in the eyes. That was okay. She and the madam gave each other a look, and then the whore said, "Sir? Will you come with me?"

"I hope so, darlin'," I said. She looked at me blankly, like she didn't get the joke--which was lame, I admit it. A crip joke. Like me. Or maybe she just didn't know what to do with it.

"Okay, then," I said. "Let's go."

She led me back into the hall and then up the stairs. The third door on the left was open, and we went in. Green wallpaper with an ivy pattern. Nice little oil lamp in brass filigree. Thing that wasn't a bed so much as a big sofa--daybeds, they call 'em. More flash-looking than a sagging old mattress, and don't encourage the tricks to stick around.

The blonde shut the door and said, not seductively or anything, just asking, "Tell me what you want."

I didn't laugh out loud, but it was a pretty near thing. What I wanted? I wasn't going to find that here, or anywhere I knew of to go looking. Death's one of them things where, once it's happened, you can't take it back or fix it. Less you're into necromancy, and even then I been told it ain't the same. Ain't nothing ever the same, after death's had a go at it.

So I told her what I'd come there for, which was what she was asking: "A hard fuck."

She nodded. Most whores I've known have been pretty much okay with the idea of just doing business like it's business. Saves them the bother of pretending it ain't. "How hard?"

"Your madam said no bruises."

"I don't bruise easy," she said and smiled at me.

Kethe, that just about undid me then and there. Little blonde whore smiles at me, and suddenly I felt like a vase somebody was trying to glue together, only I was more cracks than vase. And I think some of the pieces were just gone.

But I took a deep breath, let it out, said, "You don't have to kiss me."

"Okay," she said. "You don't have to say anything." And she came in close--first time she'd got herself within arm's reach of me--and started working on my shirt buttons. I don't know how she knew to say that, except that she was good at her job, and I figure she wasn't in that shabby, second-rate brothel for long after that. 'Least I hope she moved herself up the scale, because she was wasted where she was. She didn't even blink at the bruises.

Sex don't have to be about love. Most times in my experience it ain't. But it can be about all different kinds of need, and that little blonde girl knew that, and knew what I needed, and she let me slam her into that daybed until we were both panting like dogs and dripping with sweat. And things weren't no better, but at least I wasn't itching to get my fingers round Felix's throat no more. I don't know if she came or not. She didn't fake it for me, and I was glad of that.

And then we got up and put ourselves back together and I paid her and left. And things weren't better. Not one fucking bit.


Chapter One | plain-text
Chapter Two | plain-text
Chapter Three | plain-text


© Sarah Monette 2006     Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.