Authors: Tansy Rayner Roberts
For the Friends of the John Elliott Classics Museum, who were there at the beginning
elody couldn’t sleep in this city. The ancient, gothic weight of it pressed around her, through the walls of the rented room.
No one else had this problem. The other demmes were asleep on their makeshift cots, while the chaperones (including Velody’s Aunt Agnet) snored lightly from the larger beds. Every room in Aufleur was packed like this, so their landlady claimed. The apprentice fair drew in crowds from every town and village from coast to country, the dust from the railways still clinging to their clothes.
Velody missed home. She missed the warmth of her room above her papa’s bakery, and the familiar sleepy sounds of her sisters and brothers. Every street and canalway in Cheapside and the market district of Tierce was known and safe and hers. Aufleur was so much huger and darker and more foreign.
I can’t live here
, she thought desperately.
Not for seven years. This city will eat me alive
A mouse ran over her pillow.
Velody sat up in a rush, pushing off the thin blankets and scrambling out of her cot. One of the other demoiselles—
Rhian, she thought her name was—muttered and sighed at the noise, but quickly fell back to sleep.
There was no sign of the mouse, but Velody would now
than return to the cot. It was warm despite the darkness—Cerialis was the last month of summer. Wearing nothing but her cambric noxgown, Velody slipped to the window and let herself out onto the balcony.
The city was no less oppressive out here, but at least she could see the looming domes and towers instead of merely feeling them in her bones. Velody breathed in the calm air. Four hours until dawn? Six, at most. It wouldn’t do to have shadows under her eyes in the morning—what kind of mistress would take an apprentice who looked ill and shaky? Perhaps if she calmed herself out here a little longer, she would be able to sleep.
There was a soft sound beside her, and Velody turned to see a little brown mouse creep across the balcony. She was prepared for it this time and managed not to behave like a damsel in a musette melodrama.
A second mouse emerged from the shadows, and then a third. Velody was beginning to feel somewhat outnumbered, and her eyes were so fixed to the rodents that she almost missed the sight of a naked youth falling out of the sky.
He crashed, shoulders first, into the roof of the house across the street, shattering slate tiles. He rolled and dropped onto the cobbles below, bare limbs splayed in all directions. Incredibly, he was laughing, his head thrown back in hysterical giggles. He was long and lean and muscled, almost a man. He was also completely off his face.
The sky came alive with colour—iridescent green with the occasional splash of pink and gold. Velody had heard of such strange light effects, but never over a city. Colours rolled off the skin of the naked, laughing youth. He was beautiful, if utterly shameless.
Velody pressed herself against the window of the boarding
house, hoping he would not see her. Then again, she doubted he could see his hand in front of his face, the state he was in.
The sky flashed brighter than before, in colours that Velody couldn’t even name. Was this normal?
A second naked youth stepped out of the sky, and Velody lost her breath. Normal, it seemed, had been flung out with the scraps.
This young man was dark where the laughing boy was fair, and he walked down from the sky as if there were steps beneath his feet instead of empty air. He wore his nakedness like armour, and his skin had a lantern glow about it. And really, the fact that he could walk on air was far more important than the fact that he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on, but Velody couldn’t help blushing. When her mother had lectured her on the dangers a fourteen-year-old maiden might face in the big city, this wasn’t quite what she’d had in mind.
‘Garnet,’ said the dark-haired youth, his bare feet brushing the cobbles as he stood over the other. ‘Are you hurt?’
The fair boy, still sprawled in the street, whooped as if this were the funniest thing anyone had ever said to him.
‘Are you drunk?’ demanded his friend, crouching down to his level. ‘Are you
‘I might—might, I say—have had a tiny pinch of surrender in my flame-and-gin,’ said Garnet, enunciating carefully.
His friend smacked him. ‘You went into the sky with that shit in your blood? What were you thinking?’
‘Can’t all be perfect little saints and soldiers, Ash-my-love.’
‘Tasha’s going to kill you,’ Ash growled. ‘She’ll cut your frigging balls off.’
‘A fine nox’s work then.’ Garnet tipped his head back and stared up at the blazing sky. ‘Think the gin might be wearing off.’ He shivered a little.
Ash glared at him. ‘Where are your clothes?’
‘One of the roofs around here.’ Garnet waved an arm aimlessly, and stared at it as if it were fascinating. ‘I was sort of looking for them when I got sideswiped by that…that…was it a lightweb or a cluster?’
‘The things I do for you,’ said his friend and—this was the bit that had Velody pressing a fist to her mouth to stifle her gasp—his body exploded into a cloud of black shapes.
Not shapes. Cats. The cats separated and swarmed up the walls on both sides of the street. One came up to Velody’s balcony, and blinked with interest at the small horde of brown mice that had gathered there. She pressed herself further back against the wall, hoping not to be seen.
The cats returned to Garnet, several of them dragging items of clothing with them.
Garnet snatched the garments from them and pulled on a pair of trews. ‘Claw marks. Lovely.’
The cats came together and glowed briefly before reshaping into the tall, muscled and still very much naked figure of Ash. ‘Grateful as ever. Shoes?’
‘Didn’t bring any.’
‘Fine. Just stay out of the sky for the rest of the nox. Crawl home if you can—sleep in the gutter if you can’t, and I’ll come drag you home after.’
‘My motherfucking hero.’ Garnet shrugged into the shirt, but didn’t button it, staring instead at his hand. ‘How many arms did I start with?’
Ash groaned. ‘You’re too smashed to make it down to the undercity without killing yourself.’
‘’S a warm nox, I’ll manage.’ Garnet slumped back against the nearest house, almost comfortable.
‘Arse,’ said Ash. ‘Why do you do this to yourself?’
‘Know you’ll catch me when I fall,’ said Garnet with a yawn and a smirk.
‘Aye, and someday I won’t.’ Ash spun apart again into
his swarm of cats, and took off into the sky in a blur of paws and tails and raw power.
Velody breathed out and closed her eyes for a moment. Really, someone should have warned her that the city of Aufleur was rife with flying naked men who transformed into cats.
When she opened her eyes, the street was empty and Garnet was gone.
Velody pushed herself up onto her feet, wanting to escape back to the safe confines of the dormitory. Something grabbed her wrist, dragging her back against the railings of the balcony.
‘Little mouse,’ hissed a voice in her ear. ‘Did you enjoy the show?’
Fingers dug into her wrist. Garnet’s fingers. She gazed up into the strange, beautiful face of the youth who now stood on the outside of the balcony railings, his eyes blazing at her. What did he do—fly up here?
Oh, saints, he probably did
‘I have to go inside,’ she said in a small voice.
‘Not yet, little mouse. I want to talk to you.’
He slid a slender leg over the railings, jumping properly onto the balcony. It occurred to Velody that she should be very grateful he had put his clothes on first. Then he was grasping her other arm as well, holding her fast.
‘If I scream,’ she said, ‘the whole boarding house will come awake.’
‘Good luck with that,’ he drawled. ‘Daylighters sleep deeply in this city.’ He squeezed her wrists cruelly.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Mostly? I’m wondering what a little mouse like you is doing out on a fine nox like this.’
Garnet’s eyes were a little crazy and Velody wondered what sort of potion surrender was. It sounded like the kind of thing Sage, her eldest brother, had been into that first year after the dock accident.
‘You see me, yes?’ Garnet asked.
‘Of course I see you.’ She pulled, but he wouldn’t release her wrists.
‘And you see the sky?’
‘Hard to miss.’
‘What colour is it?’
She looked blankly at him. ‘What?’
‘What colour is the sky, little mouse?’
Velody looked up, just as veins of rose and lilac threaded across the clouds. ‘Pink…purple,’ she said. There were three flashes in quick succession, as bright emerald as the spun silk she had admired in a shop several days before she left Tierce. ‘Green.’
‘And my friend,’ Garnet said in a whisper, ‘what is his animal?’
‘Cat,’ she said.
He wetted his lips a little. ‘Poor mouse. Didn’t see this one coming, did you? You’re one of us. And it’s going to eat you alive.’
Velody was angry now. Close up, this boy wasn’t even as big as her brother Sage. Who did he think he was, trying to terrorise her like this? ‘And what are you?’ she flung at him. ‘Am I supposed to be afraid of you?’
Garnet laughed, and was lit up from behind by a sweep of bright white light in the sky. His hair was red-gold, not blond, and he had tiny freckles on his throat. ‘Small town demme,’ he said. ‘I know your type. Here for the apprentice fair, I suppose. You want to spend your days as a threadsmith, or a ribboner, or—’
‘A dressmaker,’ Velody said.
‘A dressmaker.’ His hands loosened their grip on her wrists, still encircling them lightly. ‘You can kiss that goodbye, my sweetling. You belong to the nox now. No apprenticeship for you, no shilleins to send home to your family, no warm husband and children in your future.’
To her horror, Velody saw her hands darken as soft brown fur tufted out from her fingers. Her ribs squeezed her, as if she was about to burst apart. ‘Stop it!’
‘That’s not me, little mouse,’ said Garnet. ‘It’s all you.’
She concentrated on her hands and the fur diminished until the skin was clear and moon-pale again. ‘Am I going to turn into…cats?’ she asked.
‘Not cats,’ as if she was stupid for suggesting it. His eyes brightened. ‘I can take it away. Take the curse from you right this minute. Leave you to your little daylight life, just as you want. You’ll never see me or my kind again. Never see the sky light up with colours.’
Somewhere along the way, Garnet had let go of Velody’s wrists. She rubbed them now. ‘What’s in it for you?’
‘Sharp. I’ll admit, it will do me no harm to hold your power under my skin.’ He stared seriously at her. ‘You don’t want this, mouseling. You don’t want the nox in your blood and your life. I’ve seen too many children burned by it.’
‘I’m not a child.’
‘Are you not?’ He seemed amused. ‘Don’t think I was ever as young as you.’
Velody’s mind was racing. She was scared of this strange youth and the things she had seen. She didn’t want any part of it.
A dressmaking apprenticeship, shilleins to send home…
that was what she wanted.
‘You’ll have to give it willingly,’ said Garnet. ‘There’s only one way I can take it by force, and I’m really not that much of a bastard.’ He eyed her body up and down, far too appreciatively.
‘What is it you are taking from me?’ Velody asked.
‘Animor,’ he said, and his mouth curved around the word like a lover’s lick. ‘You won’t feel its loss.’
She closed her eyes. ‘Take it then.’
Something warm brushed against her mouth and she realised too late that he was kissing her. She had never been kissed like this before. His mouth swamped her and his tongue flicked deep against hers.
For a moment, her chest felt itchy and strange, as if a creature was inside, scrabbling to get out. Every vein in her
body hummed. Something left her, and at the time it didn’t feel particularly important.
It was the best kiss of her life, and within an hour of returning to her little cot in the dormitory, Velody had entirely forgotten it.