Authors: Tansy Rayner Roberts
The Ducomte pulled off his boots and trousers without a hint of shame. Velody found herself looking away out of politeness.
He’s a trespasser
, she scolded herself.
You should take this opportunity to wallop him over the head with a firedog, not sit here blushing about his state of undress!
When he turned, clad entirely in black, the Ducomte was more poised and calm than before. ‘These clothes are powerful. I can taste him in every stitch.’
Velody gazed at the proud figure that he made, so different to the tortured, broken man on the Floralia pavilion. ‘I can’t tell you anything else. I don’t have the information you need.’
‘Do you not?’ The Ducomte padded barefoot towards her, ignoring the abandoned white boots that no longer matched his clothes.
, Velody thought, wondering how she could use that against him. She straightened her back as he approached her, refusing to huddle in the chair like a victim. ‘I want you to leave.’
He stood over her, his body tall and unyielding. ‘You haven’t yet told me what I want to know.’
‘I don’t know anything!’ she exploded. ‘None of this makes sense to me—it’s just words, half of them in the wrong order, the other half quite fanciful. I don’t know you and I don’t know any Kings and you’re
me so will you please leave me alone?’
The Ducomte fell to his knees so quickly that she thought he was suffering another attack, but he just knelt there, gazing up at her. From this angle, he was less threatening. Anguish crossed his face. ‘Am I already a monster?’ he asked her.
I think you might be, and I’m sorry for it
. ‘It’s not for me to say,’ said Velody. ‘I’m no expert on monsters.’
He knelt there silently for what seemed like a long time, staring into her eyes. ‘I don’t want to hurt people,’ he said finally, in a voice that suggested
but I will if I have to
Velody moistened her lips, speaking carefully. ‘So, don’t. Don’t hurt people.’
The Ducomte smiled a sad little smile. ‘You make it sound easy, little dressmaker.’
He talks like someone I once knew. Doesn’t he? Why can’t I remember?
‘It should be easy,’ Velody said, recovering some of her fire. ‘It shouldn’t be difficult to not cause pain.’
The Ducomte reached out and found her right hand, lacing their fingers together. Velody shivered at his touch, but he was no longer paying any attention to her, only to her hand. He looked at it in wonder, turning it over to examine her pin calluses and torn cuticles as if they were rare and precious gems.
Or something good he is about to eat
Velody stared at the creases around his eyes and on his brow, wondering whether he had been crazy all his life, or if this was a new development.
At the sudden rush of sympathy, she chided herself. The man was dangerous, to her and her friends. He didn’t need her to nursemaid him; he needed to be locked up somewhere with thick walls.
And stout bolts
, she thought suddenly, glancing back at the bolted front door and wondering again how he had found his way into the house. Had she left a window open somewhere upstairs? Rhian would never forgive her for such an oversight.
The Ducomte leaned forward, surprising her as he kissed her hand with his soft, warm mouth. ‘I like you.’
Oh, help. Not too much, I hope.
‘I wish I could make you stop lying to me.’ He looked up at her with those dark eyes and smiled a devastating smile. ‘I could eat out your throat and taste the truth in your blood. That might be nice.’
Velody thought her heart had stopped beating. The silence hummed in her ears and his face swam a little before hers.
Saints, he’s going to kill me and I’m going to let him.
Another male voice. One of his gang? Velody dared to turn her head and saw a short, sandy-haired man in the doorway to the kitchen. He had a craggy, good-humoured face. His clothes were charred and torn like they had seen a battle or three. His left hand curled up, so you could almost ignore the missing ring finger.
What battle? There have been no wars for generations.
The Ducomte hissed between his teeth at the interruption.
The newcomer shook his head with a grin. ‘Now is that a nice way to greet an old friend?’ he asked in a light Islandser brogue.
The Ducomte still gripped Velody’s fingers in his, but his eyes were on the Islandser. ‘Are you here for me, Macready, or the other King?’
‘If there’s another King in Aufleur, I know nothing of it,’ said Macready in that same untroubled tone. ‘You’re our one and only, so why do you not put the nice dressmaker down, man, and come away with us?’
They’re all crazy
, Velody thought desperately.
A gang of madmen.
The Ducomte was wary. ‘It’s a trick. Garnet’s last trick. He wouldn’t leave without setting a trap for me. She tastes of him.’
‘No trick, no trap,’ said another new voice, a female one. ‘Just sentinels serving their Creature King. As it should be, Ash, always.’
The demme came down the staircase as she spoke, with a young man at her side. They both wore brown cloaks.
‘How did you get up there?’ Velody demanded, finding a voice in her anger. Saints and angels, had they walked right past Rhian’s door?
The demme shrugged, her eyes on the Ducomte rather than Velody. ‘Crawl space in the roof. Same way our friend here came in, I expect.’
Velody turned horrified eyes on the Ducomte, somehow feeling betrayed. ‘You were upstairs?’ Furious, she shoved
at him, reclaiming her hand and knocking him off balance. He fell back, not moving or retaliating. ‘How dare you, all of you? Do you have any
what this will do to my friend?’
The Ducomte wasn’t even looking at Velody any more. His eyes were on the brown-cloaked woman as she approached him, her hands outstretched. ‘Kelpie,’ he breathed.
Beneath the brown cloak, the woman wore a shirt and breeches, her clothes torn and charred like Macready’s. She approached the Ducomte without hesitation. ‘We’re here for you now,’ she said in a soothing voice.
‘It’s all coming too fast,’ he said. ‘I’m trying to spot the plan, to find the pattern, to see what Garnet is doing to us all, but the pattern doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t make sense yet!’
‘We’ll help,’ said the woman—Kelpie. ‘We’ll help you find the pattern, Ash, but you have to rest now.’
‘Rest?’ he demanded, his voice rising again. ‘Do you think I can sleep with the scars in my head? They’re still here, you know.’ He tapped his skull menacingly. ‘I know there’s a pattern if I look hard enough. There’s a hidden King, and he can be the Power and Majesty if only
will tell me who he is. Where he is.’ He stabbed a finger in Velody’s direction.
Kelpie barely spared Velody another glance. ‘She’s not important, Ash. She has nothing to tell you. Garnet’s dead. There is no other King, there’s just you.’
‘No.’ Tears were running freely down his face now. He was so miserable that he was shaking with it, his body trembling wildly. ‘It can’t just be me. I can’t do it by myself. He’s my King. He can’t be gone.’
Velody felt her own eyes pricking with sympathy. The Ducomte was in such a torment of confusion and pain that it was hard not to feel sorry for him.
Kelpie tugged him to his feet. He towered over her, but clung to her small frame as if she was the only thing
keeping him upright. ‘Come to my nest,’ she said. ‘You can be safe and warm and have as much time as you want to figure out the pattern. I’ll look after you, heartling.’
The Ducomte stared across the room to Velody, his head tilted as if he couldn’t quite recognise her. ‘She doesn’t fit.’
‘Well, then,’ said Kelpie, ‘leave her alone. She’s nothing to do with us.’
She led Ashiol out to the kitchen. The young brown-cloaked man went with them, shooting an apologetic look in Velody’s direction. She stared after him, wondering if he had been the one on the roof above the parade.
Now only one of them remained, the Islandser called Macready. He grinned in a friendly manner at Velody. ‘Sorry you were troubled. No harm meant and all that.’
‘No harm?’ she said incredulously, thinking of Rhian upstairs, lost in her terrors.
‘He won’t be bothering you again,’ the man assured her, still smiling brightly. ‘We’ll see to that, don’t be worrying yourself about it.’
Velody advanced on him, forcing him back into the kitchen. ‘It can’t be healthy for him, the way you feed his delusions.’
A strange expression crossed Macready’s face. ‘Ah, well. We’ve been looking after him a long time, and we have our own way of doing things. He’s not usually this bad—it’s not been the best of days is all.’
‘Who are you people?’ she asked.
It was all very well to pass off Ashiol Xandelian as some kind of escaped lunatic, but she knew he was more than that—and more than the Ducomte d’Aufleur. She had seen scars pouring off his body with her own eyes. Unless she shared his delusion.
Am I mad too?
Macready’s smile twisted a little and he looked more genuinely sorry than before. ‘I hope you never have occasion to know more about us than you do now, lass. We’re not part of this pretty world of yours, with the festivals and ribbons and honey cakes.’
Did this grinning loon with his mad friend think her life was so frivolous and safe? Velody opened her mouth to scream abuse at him, but could honestly think of nothing to say.
‘I’d have someone look over that latch of yours,’ Macready said helpfully, backing towards the open kitchen door. ‘It’s a bit dodgy, easy to pick if you know what I mean. Won’t want intruders wandering in here after hours now.’
Velody picked up the nearest cooking pot and flung it at him with all her might. Macready jumped out of the way and fled. She shut the door after him with a bang, latching it firmly and then hitting the wooden frame with her open hands and then her fists. She wanted to scream.
How dare they, how dare they, how dare they?
Velody was so angry she couldn’t think for a minute or two. Finally, she took a shaky breath and headed for the stairs.
There was no response when she knocked on Rhian’s door. ‘Are you in there?’ She knocked again, and strained to hear inside. There was a soft sound, like whimpering. ‘Rhee,’ she called. ‘What did you hear?’
There was another small sound that might have been her friend weeping.
‘I’m sorry,’ Velody said helplessly through the thick door.
I didn’t let them in, it’s not my fault
welled up in her throat, but she didn’t dare say the words aloud. Would it be worse for Rhian to know that Velody had not been given a choice? That strangers had forced themselves inside her one safe place despite all their precautions?
‘They were harmless really, but they wouldn’t leave,’ she tried, only to hear Rhian cry harder, gasping for breath.
What else do I say? I’m sorry I can’t protect you from madmen and criminals?
There was a crash from below, and a small scream came from within Rhian’s room. Velody jumped, but guessed what it was at once.
‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘It’s Delphine coming home. I’ll bolt everything up now. It will be all right.’
, she thought as she fled back down to the kitchen.
I was more honest with the mad Ducomte.
Delphine was on the kitchen floor, having tripped on the fallen cooking pot and brought the kitchen table down with her. She was still laughing helplessly when Velody marched past her to slam the bolts on the kitchen door. High on something, no doubt.
‘Enjoy your evening?’ asked Velody in a hard voice.
Delphine’s giggles faded. She looked like an absurd child’s doll with smeared cosmetick on her face, her golden bob of hair sticking up in all directions. ‘Uh-oh,’ she said, her voice lowered to an exaggerated hush, ‘Velody’s in her mother hen mood. Bad demmes beware.’
Velody glared at her friend, righting the table before she lowered a hand to pull Delphine to her feet. ‘You’re a mess, and you stink of gin.’
The smell was actually ansouisette, the latest cocktail, a heady mix of aniseed and lemon liqueur. Gin was more insulting.
‘Cheap, like me,’ said Delphine. She was wearing one of the new dresses Velody had made her for the season—sage green linen hung with white fringe. Someone had spilt a drink—clear, thankfully—over the hem and the fringe was sticking out in clumps.
‘I don’t know why you bother to wear nice things,’ said Velody. ‘You always come home looking like trash.’
‘Sign of a good nox,’ hiccuped Delphine.
‘And how do you think Rhian feels about you running around the city with your skirt over your head, swapping drunken gropes with anyone who’ll buy you a glass?’
‘Rhian knows I’m a tramp. She doesn’t hold it against me. Unlike some people, I’m not aspiring to sainthood.’
Delphine turned on her heel, which broke. She stared down for a moment, as if trying to figure out why one
foot was suddenly lower than the other. Then, with great dignity, she started limping towards the staircase.
‘Even the Sweetheart Saints have a better social life than you, Velody,’ she threw over her shoulder. ‘And they only get laid once a year!’
Which was worse: letting Rhian down or taking it out on Delphine? Miserable at herself, Velody put the cooking pot away and quenched the last lantern, then padded through to the workroom and checked that the coals in the grate were dark enough to abandon for the nox. Upstairs, she slowed outside Rhian’s door but heard nothing from within.
When she opened the door to her own bedroom, she found it full of mice.
The rodents were everywhere, covering the floorboards and also her bed, dressing table and shelves. Every possible surface in the room was a mess of little brown furry crawling creatures. Absurdly, Velody wondered what had happened to the tomcat who had followed the Ducomte into the house. Couldn’t he have stuck around to do something useful?
She cleared her throat, which was hardly necessary since every one of the thousands of mice in her bedchamber was looking directly at her. Saints, but they had beady little eyes.
‘I’m going to get a broom,’ she said in a steady voice. ‘When I return, you are all going to be gone. Understand? Any of you left behind gets a face full of bristles.’