Authors: Tansy Rayner Roberts
Without waiting for them to respond—
with what, Velody, a formal speech?
—she spun around and went back downstairs. She took her time finding the broom. How long did it take to clear a room of several thousand mice? How many people in the world had ever in their lives needed to ask themselves such a question?
Finally, with the stout broom tucked under her arm, Velody stomped back up to her bedchamber. The mice were gone, which was both a surprise and a relief. She
swept her floor briskly, gathering the mouse pellets into a small pile that she put in the chamberpot to go outside with the refuse. She had to sweep more pellets from her shelves and table, and shake them from her bedding as well.
When that was done, she washed her hands thoroughly, changed her sheets, blankets, quilt and pillowcases, and finally undressed for the nox. She nestled down beneath the layers and layers of bedding, buried her face in the pillows and then screamed into their muffled depths for several minutes.
She felt better afterwards.
shiol woke up and the world was sane again. It was worth savouring—a mind that calmly dealt with one idea after another without jumbling them together in a mass of colour, noise and panic. And then there was the power—the taste of it, the glory and terror of animor in his skin, blood, brain.
I got it back, Garnet, you bastard. Took me forever but I got it back from you. I’m whole again, and I’m going to kick your arse all the way back to my mother’s estate. Just you wait…
Ashiol inhaled, recognising where he was by the scent. This was Kelpie’s nest—her crawl space, safest of safe houses. Without opening his eyes he rolled over, knowing which side she would be sleeping on, knowing the exact distance that would be between them on the firm, familiar mattress.
She was fully clothed, he noticed as his hand found her hip. Disappointing, but hardly a surprise. She didn’t trust him yet. He hardly trusted himself. What had happened yesterday? That question stirred up too many images—flashing memories of faces and axes and cats. The boundary between madness and the recollection of
madness was a narrow one. Ashiol groaned, and Kelpie woke up.
She moved slowly against his hand and snuggled back into him. ‘Good morning.’
Ashiol’s only response was a grunt. He was sorting through some of the more prominent memories from yesterday’s mess. Isangell’s face stood out from the chaos, pink and scared.
Of me. Scared of me, damn it all.
He had been so determined to do right by his cousin, and he had frigged it up in less than half a day.
He remembered another frightened face, a woman he didn’t know. Dark hair, pale skin, troubled grey eyes, beautiful hands torn to ribbons by a thousand tiny needles…The dressmaker. Ashiol’s eyes flew open. He stared at the low, lopsided ceiling as the memories swamped him.
‘What the hells did I do to her?’
‘Do you want a list?’ Kelpie asked dryly.
‘Not particularly. How much danger are we in? Does Garnet know I’m back in the game?’
Kelpie turned towards him, spiking her fingers through her hair. ‘What?’
‘Don’t mess me around, Kelps. Do we have enough sentinels on our side to get me out of the city before Garnet figures out I’ve got my animor back? If I can leave without facing him, I will.’
Though I could take him now, couldn’t I? Send him whimpering into exile, see how he likes it.
‘Garnet’s dead,’ she said in a clipped voice. ‘Remember?’
Ashiol’s ears hummed loudly as he processed the information. How had he forgotten something so important? ‘Did I kill him? Did I quench him? Is that how I got my powers back?’
The previous day and nox were a blur to him, wiped out by the shock and glory of tasting animor again. No, he hadn’t quenched Garnet. The animor surging through his veins was his own, no one else’s.
‘No one quenched him,’ Kelpie said in that stiff, impersonal voice she only used when she was really upset. ‘He skyfell, Ash. He’s gone, and he left nothing of himself for the rest of us.’
‘Typical,’ Ash said absently.
It hurt more than he had ever expected it to, knowing Garnet was dead. There was relief in there, an overwhelming surge of relief, but that only made it hurt all the harder.
He gave my animor back though. Why?
Kelpie continued to talk. ‘When he fell, it all came unwound. You got five years of animor in one hit, which goes some way to explaining yesterday’s madness—’
‘So who’s going to be Power and Majesty?’ Ashiol interrupted. ‘Who’s the strongest candidate to take Garnet’s place?’
Kelpie gave him the
I can’t believe you’re this stupid
look that reminded him painfully of another time, before anyone had ever bowed to him and called him a Creature King. ‘You are.’
The world crashed in on him again, a mess of images and ideas and animor and panic. He was vaguely aware of fighting, screaming and letting power tear out of his skin in a long fierce howl. When he came to himself again, Kelpie was kneeling on his chest with her arms tightly braced against his.
‘Sorry,’ he said, noting a new swelling along her jawline. ‘Did I do that?’
‘Hard to tell,’ she said, breathing hard. ‘It might count as self-inflicted. You weren’t ready to hear the truth.’
‘I’m not ready for any of this,’ Ashiol growled. ‘Get off me.’
Kelpie slid off his body and crouched near the foot of the mattress.
Ashiol sat up, stretching. ‘Takes a while to get used to. I haven’t tasted animor for so long, and suddenly I’m a Creature King again. Screws with the head.’
There was something else, another source of power. Ash looked down at himself and plucked at the half-finished black shirt he wore, then ran his hands down both thighs to touch the leather breeches. There was energy in every stitch and thread, particularly concentrated along the seams.
‘Where in the seven hells did I get these clothes?’
Kelpie snorted. ‘The dressmaker. Perhaps she was offended by that godawful Floralia suit the Duchessa made you wear. White never was your colour.’
Ashiol pressed his palms into the leather of his new breeches, trying to remember some of what he had said to that dressmaker. He couldn’t get past the thought that among the rantings and ravings had been the seed of something very, very important.
‘How many Lords at Court?’ he rapped out in his best businesslike voice.
‘Five,’ said Kelpie. ‘Priest, Livilla—’
‘No Kings other than Garnet?’ He cut her off deliberately, not really caring to know which of his old companions still played the game of the Creature Court. He knew the worst of it.
Garnet is dead and Livilla’s alive…
‘Just you now,’ said Kelpie.
There was trust in her eyes, and loyalty if he chose to see it. Ashiol deliberately shut that thought away. This was going to be hard enough.
‘Good,’ he said. There wasn’t enough room to stand up in the space, so he started crawling towards the trapdoor that led down and out. ‘Then there will be no one strong enough to stop me from leaving.’
‘Leaving the nest?’ she asked as Ashiol released the blood seal on the trapdoor and shoved it open, lowering his legs into the narrow exit.
‘Leaving Aufleur,’ he said, and jumped.
‘You can’t be serious,’ Kelpie yelled after him in the street.
It was early enough that there were few people around;
in another hour or two the streets would be flocking with daylight folk making the pilgrimage to the Sweetheart Saints, exchanging paper hearts and sugarplums as if their lives depended on it.
‘Watch me,’ said Ashiol.
His bare feet smacked against the rough cobbles.
Where the saints and devils did I leave my boots?
The cat in him was more than happy to walk barefoot, but the man had to be aware of loose stones and blisters. In the country, he could go barefoot all day if he avoided his mother’s disapproving stare; it was less than practical in the city.
‘I’m going to the Palazzo to apologise to Isangell,’ he said, ‘and then I’m out of here. This isn’t my city any more, and I’m damned if I’m going to play the big chief monster over all the little monsters.’
That struck a chord with him even as the words spilled out of his mouth. He had raved about being a monster last nox. He must have known then that Garnet was dead—at least, a part of him had known.
I bet I confused seven hells out of that little dressmaker.
They were in the Margarethe district, surrounded by peeling paint and falling-down shops. Ashiol headed north, using the pinnacle of the Church of the Lares to guide him through Giacosa and towards Via Ciceline. If he had to walk barefoot back to the Palazzo, he was damned if he wasn’t going to take the easiest route.
Kelpie kept up with him easily, her own sturdy boots keeping her feet protected. Ashiol tried not to resent her for it.
‘You can’t leave us,’ she said.
‘But we need you!’
‘You think I have an obligation to this city? To the
? They chewed me up and spat me out.’
Her face went savage at that. ‘Not fair. You know—’
‘Yeah, I know how it works. All Kings are equal, but the Power and Majesty is the most equal of them all.’ Ashiol’s
words were coming out in quick, sharp slaps as he walked along. ‘But I wasn’t a King in the end, was I? Those last few months I was a tortured pet.’ He glared at Kelpie. She was keeping pace with him but avoiding his gaze. ‘Do you have any idea of the pain and humiliation that bastard put me through?’
‘We saw,’ she said in a ragged voice. ‘We all saw.’
‘And felt sorry for me, no doubt. Perhaps even wept a tear or two in my name.’ He grabbed her arm, pulled her close to him. ‘After Garnet stripped my animor and threw me out that last time, I went to the Palazzo, but they couldn’t help me either. I was seriously crazy, not just Court crazy. After I tried to kill myself the second time, they sent me home, out of the city. It took me years to make it up to my family, to heal, but I damn well did. I only came back to this frigging place because of Isangell.’
Because my mother told me to face my fears
. ‘But it was a mistake, and I am out of here. Right now.’
Ashiol tried not to think of the Diamagne estate, of his mother and brothers and sister. The home that had kept him safe these last five years. It seemed wrong to think of them here in the city that had nearly destroyed him.
‘The daylight Duchessa?’ Kelpie said scornfully. ‘A pretty little noblette who thinks she has something to do with ensuring the safety of this city. What’s so special about her that you’d face the Lords and Court again to be near her?’
‘She needs me,’ said Ashiol. ‘She thought I could help her, that I would stand by her side and be the brave big brother she never had.’ His mouth twisted angrily. ‘I ignored her pleas for months because I was afraid of Garnet. I finally got up the courage to come back and be a part of her life, and look what I’ve done to her!’
‘A little public embarrassment, a ripped party dress. So what? It’s hardly important.’
‘If it isn’t, what is?’ Ashiol demanded. ‘If we’re not saving the city for the daylight folk, then what are we saving it for? Ourselves? This sorry, fucked-up mess of a
Creature Court?’ He released his hold on her and started walking again.
saving the city?’ Kelpie demanded, racing after him. ‘Aufleur will fall without a Creature King.’
‘So find one.’
‘There’s you, Ash, there’s only you!’
‘Then maybe the city should fall. A failed King is worse than no King at all, Kelpie. I’ll never be anything but a failed King to the Court. How can I command them when they remember the scars Garnet gave me, the whimpers and moans that came out of me when the lash fell and the claws tore and the knives bit?’
‘Not denying that.’
‘What are we going to do without you?’ It was a wail of desperation.
Never seen Kelpie humble before. Really doesn’t suit her.
‘Find the King that the little dressmaker is covering for,’ he said. ‘Find out why she’s lying and you’ve got your man.’
‘And if she’s not lying?’ Kelpie demanded.
Ashiol swayed. The lingering effects of being power-drunk on animor had blinded him to that one single, simple possibility. He staggered to the side of the street and sat on the pavement, his bare feet resting in the gutter. ‘My scars,’ he said softly. ‘Kelpie, did you ever see my scars?’
She made a disgusted noise. ‘Of course I saw them.’ She knelt at his side. ‘I’ve shared blood with you, Ash. The sentinels may not be of the Creature Court, but we’re not daylight folk either. I’ve seen your scars.’
‘So has she.’
‘At the parade, Kelpie. The dressmaker saw my scars when no one else did. She saw them as they ripped themselves off my face and body. She said so last nox. That makes her one of us.’
‘A sleeper.’ Kelpie’s voice was disbelieving, but she hesitated before she said the words.
‘What is she, mid-twenties?’ he guessed. ‘It’s not unknown. Priest was near thirty when it came to him.’
‘So he says anyway,’ said Kelpie.
Ashiol ran his fingers along the seams of his shirt, feeling the delicious tingle of power from the tiny, perfect stitches. ‘I was off my face with the animor last nox—I could have been in the same room as another Creature King and not known it. But women can’t be Kings. Damn it all!’ He exploded to his feet, mind speeding up. ‘How stupid am I? I should know by now that you can never trust the rules.’
‘What do you need?’ Kelpie asked.
‘Heliora.’ Ashiol turned to her, breathing fast.
Slow your thoughts, damn it, don’t lose it again. You need to be sane.
‘Tell me she’s still alive.’
‘I haven’t heard otherwise.’
‘Well then.’ The possibilities surged through Ashiol’s mind. If the dressmaker had made the clothes he now wore, had she also made Isangell’s dress? Saints, if that was possible, what else was?
‘Still the Basilica?’ he asked.
Ashiol said nothing more, saving his breath as he strode past the Church of the Lares and on into Via Ciceline. This was part of the affluent Centrini district and there were more people on the streets here, already tipsy with the wine offerings for the Sweetheart Saints. It was a bright new day, and shopfronts were unfurling their signs to welcome eager customers inside.
‘Do you have any money?’ Ashiol asked as they passed a stretch of quality cobblers.
‘Not enough to buy boots.’
No cabriolets were allowed in the city during the day. Ashiol could do nothing but offer silent thanks to the city planners two hundred years earlier. At least they had designed the main streets of Aufleur to run around the hills. He walked faster.
The streets were busier along Via Ciceline as the good citizens of Aufleur jostled each other to buy sweetheart tokens and religious offerings as well as their usual purchases. After his battered feet were trodden on for the third time by a little old dame with laden shopping baskets, Ashiol veered off into one of the side streets. These were only marginally better, but at least he was near the Gardens of Trajus Alysaundre now, with the possibility of walking on soft grass—assuming the raw skin of his soles didn’t find broken wine jugs and thorny rose garlands scattered across the lawns.