When we got back from the Warren, we found Gideon, Mehitabel, and Lord Antony huddled around our fireplace like kids who've been told too many stories about the Tallowman to be able to sleep. I think me and Felix felt about the same.
"What is this," Felix said, "a second Cabal?"
"Not exactly," Mehitabel said. "Oh, Felix, this is Antony Lemerius. Antony, Felix." But you could see she'd done it by reflex, like good manners were so ingrained she couldn't ever get quit of them. Her mind was really somewhere else. I didn't think I'd ever seen her look that spooked, not even in Aiaia. "We just . . ." She trailed off.
"We just found something," Lord Antony said, almost like he was apologizing.
Mehitabel gave a laugh that sounded as fake as a fourcentime piece and told us about their return trip to the crypt of the Cordelii.
"Sacred bleeding fuck," I said.
"Rather," Felix said. "Why would anyone do that?"
"More than that," Lord Antony said. "Who's buried at Diggory Chase?"
"And Gideon wants to know," Felix said, "why it is commonly believed that she was Amaryllis Cordelia."
"Why would any woman agree to that?" Mehitabel said.
The more you thought about it, the more it itched at you. I can't abide mysteries anyway. "And why would you have to?"
"It would appear," Lord Antony said, "and forgive me for thinking out loud, that it was vitally necessary to someone that Amaryllis Cordelia's death be made invisible. By the way, I think I know why she's in the Cordelius crypt--you were right, Mehitabel."
"I was?" Mehitabel said. "About what?"
"She was pregnant with Charles's child."
We sat there for a minute, blinking like owls.
"I admit I didn't examine the corpse closely enough to tell, but that dress she was wearing--I knew it was familiar."
"What was it?" Felix said.
"You know the state portrait of Queen Thamasin in the Judiciary?"
Felix, Mehitabel, and Gideon all looked blank. "Oh," I said. "Yeah. You mean the one, Pregnant in the Sixth Month with His Majesty's Heir?"
"That's it. We probably wouldn't have it if that first child had turned out to be a girl, but it was Matthias just as expected. The body was wearing an exact replica of that dress."
"Pregnant in the sixth month with his majesty's heir," Mehitabel said.
"It's exactly the sort of grandly greedy gesture Amaryllis would make," Lord Antony said. "I suspect her murderers appreciated the irony."
"They couldn't let the child be brought to term," Lord Antony said, "because the laws about minorities and regencies are entirely different if the ruler in question has an heir."
"But--" Mehitabel began.
"Remember that my 'they' are the men who created the Puppet Kings," Lord Antony said. "They wanted power, just as poor Amaryllis did. We know she wanted it badly enough to murder Laurence, and history shows us how much easier it is to murder by committee."
"How do we know she murdered Laurence?" Felix asked.
"Because she was pregnant," Lord Antony said.
"When Amaryllis Cordelia became pregnant with Charles's child," Lord Antony said, "there were several things she had to accomplish in order to parlay her child into power. After all, merely announcing that she was pregnant by someone other than her husband wouldn't get her very far."
"True," Felix said.
"What she really needed was to marry Charles. At the very least, if a king acknowledges an illegitimate child as his own, then that child can legally be entered into the succession."
"I sense a 'but' coming," Felix said, and I thought it figured that him and Lord Antony would be getting along like a house on fire. Mehitabel liked guys who were good with words, and Kethe knows Felix could keep himself entertained by talking for just hours on end. Door slammed in your face again, Milly-Fox? Keeper's voice said sweetly, and I wished my own stupid head would leave me the fuck alone.
"None of that applies to a king's heir," Lord Antony said. "The bastard son of a prince is just that: a bastard son. And her ideal option, to become Queen Amaryllis . . . Charles, as the king's heir, couldn't marry without the king's consent."
I said, because I couldn't stand not to, "And Laurence would never let him marry her."
"Exactly. Laurence set up the conditions of regency several months before his death, and he worked very hard to exclude the possibility of Amaryllis--or any woman--ruling through Charles. Most historians think he was too trusting of his advisors and simply failed to see what scope he was leaving them--but he knew his son, as well. I don't know. In any event, Amaryllis would never have been able to get the king's permission to divorce her husband--she'd have had to petition Laurence for that, too--and marry Charles. I'd never quite understood before why she couldn't just wait."
"Oh, I see," Mehitabel said. "Being pregnant, she had only a limited amount of time to get what she wanted."
"So, to her mind," Felix said, "Laurence had to go."
"Yes," Lord Antony said. "If Charles became king before her child was born, he could divorce her from Wilfrid and marry her himself. No problem in the world."
"So she had Laurence murdered," Mehitabel said.
"And then," Felix said. "Well, what did happen?"
"I'm still working on the chronology of events," said Lord Antony. "If she was really six months pregnant when she was murdered, something had obviously gone very awry with her plans."
"Something did go very awry with her plans," Mehitabel said. "She ended up dead."
"Yes, but I think that was only because she was finally getting what she wanted," Lord Antony said. "They'd have no reason to murder her if Charles wasn't showing signs of caving in."
"Or already had, Gideon says."
"That would do it," Lord Antony said. "If Charles had divorced her from Wilfrid, that would explain this bizarre need to pretend that she was still alive and still married."
"I'm not following," Mehitabel said.
"All right." Lord Antony sprang up and began to pace. "Imagine you're a councillor of King Charles. The only name I can remember right now is Gorboduc Briskett--so, imagine you're Gorboduc Briskett. King Laurence, whom you served faithfully for many years, is dead. His wastrel son has taken the throne and incidentally handed you an astonishing amount of power. You are, in a vulgar phrase, sitting pretty. I imagine you know, or strongly suspect, that Amaryllis Emarthia murdered King Laurence, but you aren't one to cry over spilt milk, and trying her for murder will make a filthy row. Then one day Charles says, 'Oh, by the by, I've divorced my cousin Amaryllis from her husband, and I think I'll marry her tomorrow--so our child will be legitimate, you understand. Wear your best for the wedding.' You, Gorboduc Briskett, are now in a terrible mess."
"How so?" Felix said.
Lord Antony wheeled around, his eyes lit up like chandeliers. "One. You cannot under any circumstances have Charles produce an heir now. You need the last three years of his minority to consolidate your power. I'll even grant that you may sincerely have the best interests of the kingdom somewhere in the general vicinity of what passes for your heart. Two. You know perfectly well that Laurence didn't want Amaryllis Emarthia anywhere near the seat of power, and I suspect you concur with your late sovereign's judgment. And furthermore--let's call it two-and-a-half--you remember your suspicions that she murdered Laurence, and for certain you don't want a regicide on the throne. Three. If Charles has already divorced her from Wilfrid, privately, then your chance of patching things over is gone. You know you won't be able to convince her to hush things up and raise Charles's bastard as an Emarthius. She's a strong-willed woman, and she knows what she wants. Where was I?"
"That was three," Felix said, dry as salt.
"Thank you. Four. If Amaryllis Emarthia is pregnant with Charles's child--or is patently willing to claim to the death that she is--then you cannot under any circumstances try her for Laurence's murder, which would otherwise be the ideal way to scotch this unpleasant marriage."
"Why not?" Mehitabel said.
"Two reasons. One is that everyone will believe the murder charges are trumped up to keep Amaryllis from marrying Charles. If you try her, and she's acquitted, she marries Charles, and you're out on your ear--or, more likely, executed yourself. The other reason is that, if you try her, it will come out that she's pregnant with Charles's child. Whether she's convicted or not, it is entirely illegal to kill a prince of the blood, i.e., any child of a king. And you can bet any sum of money you like that Amaryllis Cordelia's dying request would be that Charles recognize her child as his heir. Then, poof, Charles has an heir, and you're right back where you started: he's got the power and you're out on your ear."
"So," Felix said, "you have to erase Amaryllis Cordelia."
"Precisely. But you have to erase her without allowing her to disappear. If she simply vanishes--well, she was not an obscure figure at the courts of Laurence and Charles. People would wonder, and they'd pry, and they'd find out. If you simply smother her and try the normal trick of 'died of fever,' some clever-boots doctor is going to notice she was pregnant--it was so common for members of the house of Cordelius to die, er, unexpectedly that postmortem examinations were a normal part of the proceedings. And there must have been plenty of people around the Mirador who knew exactly what Amaryllis's relative relations were with her husband and her king."
"But," Mehitabel said, "if she was six months pregnant and wearing that dress--"
"We don't know that she was six months pregnant. I don't think she can have been. I'd be willing to bet it was more like three or maybe four. The dress was just a means of flaunting her victory." The light died out of his face. "I think they moved very fast. I think she was murdered the same day Charles divorced her from Wilfrid."
"And a new Amaryllis Cordelia took her place," Felix said.
"But who?" Mehitabel said. “And how? How could they carry it off?"
Lord Antony said, "I suspect that's why Wilfrid lost his government post and returned to Diggory Chase. He seems to have been a remarkably obliging man. Although I suppose he had little reason to mourn her."
"And Charles, who was going to marry her?"
"The kindest thing I've ever seen written about Charles--that wasn't intended for public consumption, of course--was that he was a pragmatist. Once Amaryllis was dead, and his potential heir with her, there was no profit for Charles in making a fuss. And he married Jemima well before Amaryllis's alleged death."
"A bribe," Mehitabel said.
"The councillors would have had it in their power to delay Charles's marriage until he turned twenty-one. All things considered, the fact that they didn't suggests that they had reached some kind of agreement with him."
"The whole thing hardly seems credible," Mehitabel said.
"I'm still working through it," Lord Antony said, sitting down again. "Plainly they did it, whether we believe it or not."
"Well, someone did it," Mehitabel said.
Lord Antony nodded. "But I still think it's Gorboduc Briskett."
I was late, but Thamuris greeted me without rancor or any sign of impatience. I told him a little bit about Amaryllis Cordelia, and he was fascinated, remarking wistfully that it was a pity there were no books of Marathine history in Troia.
"Most of it is just as unpleasant as that poor woman's fate, if not more so. I suppose it makes sense, really, that the Mirador has so many ghosts."
"Oh, it's heresy to admit it, although they'd probably just call me mad. Again."
"You've seen actual ghosts?" he persisted.
"Assuming they were more than elaborate hallucinations, yes. And I've seen ghouls. I was sane, then. Why? Does Troian thaumaturgy deny the agency of the dead as Cabaline thaumaturgy does?"
"Very much so."
"No wonder your ancestors are angry," he said somberly.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your ancestors. They cannot rest, and that's bad enough. But it's even worse to be denied."
"You realize I have no idea what you're talking about." It was not an admission I made easily, but I trusted Thamuris not to use it against me.
For his part, he seemed merely puzzled. "You do not venerate your ancestors? At all?"
"I don't know my ancestors," I said, but he waved it aside.
"Not ancestors of the blood. Ancestors of the spirit. Like your Cabal."
"I beg your pardon?" I said again, helplessly.
"Are they not . . . I thought they were your Tetrarchs."
"I thought your Tetrarchs were gods."
"Gods?" He was shocked enough that I realized the suggestion was blasphemous.
I said hastily, "I didn't know. No one ever said . . ."
"The Tetrarchs are the founders of the four covenants. Not gods."
We were both silent for a moment; I was afraid that anything I said would only make matters worse. But finally my curiosity, and the uneasy, never-absent wondering if my katharsis was truly enough to keep Malkar away, drove me to ask, "You don't have ghosts?"
"Only very rarely. If the thanatopsis isn't performed properly."
"The . . ." He grimaced, searching for words. "The ceremony. Would you say 'funeral'?"
"Not if it prevents ghosts. How does that work?"
"What do you mean, how does it work?"
"Well, I know how to lay a ghost, but how do you go about preventing one?"
"You start by honoring the dead," he snapped.
I was more than taken aback; I was shocked. "Thamuris? What did I say?"
"Nothing. You just . . . Do you approach everything as if it was a puzzle box?"
I considered the question. "Most things, I suppose. I wasn't trying to . . . I didn't mean to be callous."
"I know," he said, and managed a smile. "Discussing funerary rites just cuts a little close to the bone."
I was normally careful not to ask how he was, and his dream-avatar did not reflect his physical body unless he was truly ill. I said unhappily, "Are you, er, much worse these days?"
"No, it's not that. I'm doing rather well, really. All things considered. But . . . I can't ever forget it, either. And the celebrants at Hakko--I think they'd prefer it if I hurried up and finished dying."
"What they'd prefer is hardly relevant," I said and was rewarded with a better smile. "I didn't think you were still . . . that is . . ."
"They visit if their work happens to take them near the Gardens. They're very conscientious."
"Oh, are they?" I knew what that looked like.
"And they--" His face twisted, and emotion suddenly flared around him; we'd both learned to dampen the Khloïdanikos's more inconvenient effects, but his control had slipped. "They've started bringing their acolytes. I make a wonderful object lesson. And I can't very well protest, can I? I don't want anyone else killing themselves the way I--" He choked it off.
I gritted my teeth and patted his shoulder. And I resolved not to bring up the subject of ghosts again.
There was a Curia meeting after court. The Curia's the group of hocuses that tells the Lord Protector what to do. That ain't the right way to put it, of course, but it's enough to get by on. And don't ask me how they decide who gets to sit on the Curia and who don't. Felix was a member, even though I think about half the Curia would rather've taken him up to the battlements and pitched him over. So off we went, but Isaac Garamond caught us in the hall.
Shit, I thought, feeling sick for Gideon. I leaned against the wall to take some of the weight off my leg, and waited.
Mehitabel found me a couple minutes later. "Can you meet me tonight?" she said. "Usual place?"
When they left the suite, I'd seen Lord Antony put his arm around her. She hadn't shaken him off. I'd laid awake the rest of the night trying not to imagine what her and Lord Antony might be doing. I wondered what her voice sounded like when she talked to him, if she kissed him the same way she kissed me. I wondered what she said to him about me. Did she tell him I didn't mean anything to her, the same thing she'd said to me about him?
"I beg your pardon?"
She tried to laugh it off. "You have to ask?"
I wasn't laughing. "Yeah, I do. What do you want me for? You can have any man you want, and we both know it. So why the fuck d'you bother with me? Got a taste for freaks?"
"Mildmay, please. Don't--"
"Why not?" And then I said it. I'd been keeping the question back for months, not letting it out into the daylight, but there didn't seem no point no more. "How many other men are you fucking?”
"I don't see what business it is of yours."
I felt something tear loose inside me. I dragged her into a side-alcove and pinned her against the wall. "Answer me."
She gave me a glare fit to kill. She was going to tell me the truth, not because I'd frightened her, but because I'd made her mad. "Three or four. I don't keep count."
We'd both known that knowing would only make things worse. I let go of her and stepped back. She fussed with her sleeves, like that was what mattered. I said, "I think we better not see each other again."
Her head came up. She looked horrified. I suppose it might've been real. "What are you talking about? I've never made any secret--"
"I can't bear it no more," I said. "I don't mind the sleeping around so much, but I don't know who you are. I can't trust you, and there ain't no point if we don't trust each other. Good-bye, Mehitabel."
I couldn't look at her no more. I went back to Felix. Him and Mr. Garamond were standing, waiting, watching me.
"What's the matter, Messire Foxe?" Mr. Garamond said as I came up to them. "Crossed in love?"
Kethe. Does it show? "Nothing," I said. And I was glad I didn't have to try and smile at him.
"I'll see you later, Isaac," Felix said. "Come on, then, Mildmay, if you're done with your light of love."
I swallowed hard and went after him.
First things first, I scolded myself fiercely. You will not panic. But controlling my panic felt like trying to kill a fast-moving snake with a shovel. Mildmay had always seen me more clearly than I wanted, but I hadn't realized just how much he saw. I felt horribly naked now, knowing that all this time he'd been aware that I was acting, even if he didn't know exactly how to articulate his awareness.
It could be worse, I said to myself and then had to stop to think of a scenario to prove it. But it could have been worse. Mildmay could see I was acting, but even his eyes weren't sharp enough to see behind the façade. And he wouldn't push me. That was the part he hadn't said, although I could fill it in for myself: he had reached the point where he had either to demand the truth from me or to leave, and he had left. I wondered, a little bleakly, whether that was because he knew he couldn't make me tell him, or because he thought he could. Either way, he'd chosen to respect my boundaries and withdraw from the battle. I was grateful to him for that, as my instinctual panic began to ebb. Grateful that he was shy, taciturn. That coercion wasn't in his nature. That he didn't want to know.
If I was honest with myself--and I might as well be, since I certainly couldn't be honest with anybody else--I could admit that it hurt, too. Particularly my pride. I couldn't remember the last time I'd had a man walk out on me. And it would be stubborn, silent Mildmay who had the balls to do it.
I would miss him. I didn't love him--not the way he'd wanted me to--but he'd been a delight to listen to, once you got him started, and a virgin's wet dream in bed. And I'd become fond of him.
"Oh, God damn," I said and pinched the bridge of my nose.
"Are you all right?"
I nearly had a coronary on the spot, not just because I hadn't known anyone was there, but because I recognized the voice, and I didn't need to meet Lord Stephen Teverius's slate-gray eyes to place it, either.
I'd never been this close to Lord Stephen before; he wasn't the sort to flirt with actresses. His bulk was impressive--more muscle and bone than fat--but it was his gaze that went through me like a skewer and made me feel oddly breathless. Like a basilisk, I thought, too dazed at that moment to know whether it was a sensible comparison or not, and then pulled myself together by main force, faked a smile, dropped a curtsy, said, "I am fine, my lord, thank you."
"Did he hurt you?" Lord Stephen said, disregarding what I supposed had been a rather obvious lie.
"No, quite the reverse." And Mildmay had upset me, because it came out waspish. And it wasn't what I should have said, anyway. Well, precious little point in doing things by halves, as Gilbert says in Third Time's the Charm, between murdering his loathly wife and dispatching her aged and equally loathly mother. I let myself laugh, a little deeper and earthier than I usually considered prudent, and it paid off, for Lord Stephen said with a reluctant twinkle, "I suppose I was asking for that."
"I shouldn't conduct the messy termination of my love affairs in public," I said.
"Termination?" His eyebrows went up.
"Oh, very definitely."
"Ah." Something flared in his eyes before he banked it down again. "Then will you have dinner with me this evening?"
And no matter what turmoil I might be in, I'd be dead before I was stupid enough to turn him down.
No sooner was I out of sight of the Hall of the Chimeras' great bronze doors than Vulpes emerged from a cross-corridor, caught my elbow, and dragged me bodily into one of the little parlors this part of the Mirador was infested with.
"We must stop meeting like this," I murmured crossly, disengaging from him.
He ignored it. "What did you do to Messire Foxe? And what were you talking about with the Lord Protector?"
I hadn't seen him at all--but he was a wizard. And Eusebians had spells for that sort of thing.
"Lord Stephen invited me to dine with him tonight," I said, betting--correctly--that that would make Vulpes forget about Mildmay entirely. He thought of a great many things he wanted me to find out--more when I told him what I'd learned from Mildmay; I finally shut him up by asking if I should get pen and paper to make a list, and I escaped shortly thereafter.
I got back to the Velvet Tears as fast as I could, and there God smiled on me at last: Corinna was in her room, masking the moth-holes in a velvet suit-coat with embroidery of dragonflies. I halted in her doorway, breathing hard; she glanced up, then her eyes widened. "Powers, Tabby, what's got into you?"
"I have . . . a date this evening," I panted. "With . . . Lord Stephen."
She stared at me, her mouth dropping open. "You're kidding."
I shook my head helplessly.
"Powers and saints," she said, awed.
I finally had my breath back. "I need a dress."
"Oh, lovey, you sure do. Come here, and let's see what's what." And she carefully anchored her needle in the lapel of the suit-coat and stood up to throw open before me the treasures of the Empyrean and the Merveille.
I watched the things that happened in the Curia meeting that afternoon like I was planning a hit, studying everybody's faces and voices like if I understood them I could understand the world. Five minutes after we left the Lesser Coricopat, I couldn't remember a single damn thing anybody'd said.
"Are you all right?" Felix said as soon as we were clear of the hocuses.
"You don't want to talk about it, you mean."
"Well, I don't."
"Suit yourself," and we went off to the Fevrier Archive for what was left of the afternoon.
Whatever Felix was after, he didn't find it, and dinner that night was silent like falling down a well. Felix was staring off into space like he was waiting for some answer to come walking through the door. Gideon looked like the only reason he wasn't asking questions was being afraid Felix would answer him. I remembered that I still didn't know what Felix had been doing the night I showed Mehitabel and Lord Antony the crypt of the Cordelii--and was she with him now?--and I didn't blame Gideon for not really wanting to know. There's things you can't unknow once you've got a good look at them, and some of them are the kind of thing that kills love dead as stone.
When I asked, Felix let me go without so much as a raised eyebrow. He probably thought I was meeting Mehitabel, and I didn't tell him otherwise.
What I did, because I couldn't stand having nothing to think about but my own stupid self, was go hunt up Hugo Chandler.
I knew where Hugo lived. There was a whole gaggle of musicians living along a kind of half-floor called the Mesmerine. It was in one of the older sections of the Mirador, kind of rundown. Nobody else wanted to live there, so nobody minded if the musicians wanted to practice in the middle of the night.
I knocked on Hugo's door, and after a moment, he opened it.
"Hey, Hugo. Can I come in?"
He blinked at me. "Sure, I guess." He stood aside. I tried not to limp going past him, but I don't even know why I cared. It wasn't like he could tell Ginevra or nothing.
"S-sit down," Hugo said.
"I don't mean to make you nervous," I said. "I just wanted to ask you something."
"No, it's fine. Really. What did you want to ask?"
"Well, I was wondering." Powers, I couldn't think of a way to say it that didn't sound like the stupidest fucking thing in the world. I did sit down--he had a couple chairs, cheap knockoffs of Ervenzian vinework from St. Millefleur. Hugo didn't sit. "You know how when Ginevra died?"
Well, of course he did, Milly-Fox. Not the sort of thing he was going to forget any more than I was. But I couldn't bail now. "I figure it wouldn't've been worth Vey's while to go hunt her out. Not up in Nill where Austin was. So somebody must've told her."
"Yeah?" He was fidgeting around the room. I'd better make this quick, before I spooked him into a brain-strike or something.
"So I was wondering if you remember anybody asking questions. You know, like they were fishing. Or anybody new around. Or anything like that."
He was shaking his head almost before I'd got the words out. "Nothing like that. I'm sorry." And then he gave me this funny little sideways look through his eyelashes. "Why're you asking now? It's been--"
"A while," I said, because I didn't want either of us doing the math. "I know. I just . . ." I wasn't going to try to explain to Hugo about Mehitabel, and about what she'd said, and about how it'd kind of been like a kick in the head and made me start thinking again--after working so hard on not thinking for so long. "Well, it itches at me. That's all."
"Okay," Hugo said, like he wasn't sure it was.
"I'll clear off," I said and got up. "Thanks, Hugo."
"Good night, Mildmay," Hugo said, and I heard him bolt the door after he'd closed it.
"Boo," I said under my breath at the door and went off home.
Corinna's eye for fashion was second to none; I left the Velvet Tears that evening certain at least that I was as close to beautiful as I would ever get. She had chosen a severe dress in green-black silk and dressed my hair in the stark lines of the Amadée--both utterly inappropriate to an actress of known immorality and all the more satisfying for that.
The guards at Chevalgate had clearly been told to expect me, and there was a page waiting, a skinny brown child like a sparrow, to guide me to the Lord Protector's private apartments. I followed him through the Mirador as a swan-daughter, tall and grave and pale. Well, sallow, but it would have to do.
The page knocked at the door for me and did not bow himself away until it was answered, by a stout middle-aged man in livery. The butler, assuming the Lord Protector had such a thing.
He showed me into a small sitting room, less lavishly appointed than I had expected; the furniture was well cared for and clearly valuable, but not yet beyond the borders of "old" into "antique." Lord Stephen rose from the depths of a wingback chair to bow over my hand in a way that the court gallants would have considered hopelessly old-fashioned--a good match for his conservative tailoring and the soberly symmetrical curls of his powdered and pigtailed hair.
There was a portrait over the mantel, a slender bronze-skinned woman, very young, with large, dark eyes and smoky-black hair; she was wearing a pale blue dress that suited her far better than the massive crimson and gold court gown of the formal portrait. Gambling that Lord Stephen would be unimpressed by small talk, I asked, "Is that a portrait of your wife, my lord?"
He glanced up at it, as if it had become part of the furniture for him. "Yes. It was painted before our marriage."
Now there, I thought irritably, is a gnomic utterance. Was it a fact? A judgment? A regret? He seemed himself to feel that he hadn't quite said enough, for he added, "It's the only picture of her that does her justice." He paused, thinking, and added, "She was very pretty, but not . . . not robust."
"She couldn't stand up to yards of stiffened brocade," I suggested, and his dark, blocky face was transfigured by a sudden smile. All those soirées, all those mornings in court, and I'd never seen him smile before.
"That's a very good way of putting it. She was like a princess in a fairy tale, but not . . ."
"Did you love her?" I said, deliberately provocative. I wanted to know what I could get away with.
He didn't take offense, seeming to consider the question a perfectly reasonable one. "I don't know. I don't think so, really. I doted on her, and I enjoyed the role of protector--ha! Didn't mean the pun. Sorry. I love her memory, but I'm not sure I'd love her now." His mouth quirked. "Easy to love a memory."
I thought, without at all wanting to, of Mildmay and the torch he was still carrying for Ginevra, and I was grateful that the manservant--butler or whatever he was--reappeared just then to announce dinner. I accepted Lord Stephen's arm to proceed into the dining room. Swan-daughter.
Lord Stephen held the chair for me, which I found more disconcerting than anything else. Actresses didn't rate that sort of courtesy from lords, regardless of anyone's intentions toward anyone else. And I didn't know what his intentions were.
Two young men, also in livery, served the soup, and I decided the imaginary Vulpes breathing down my neck could just go twiddle his thumbs in the corner for a minute. I had my own priorities to deal with, and the first had to be getting a handle on what Lord Stephen wanted.
I tried a feint toward the theater, but realized, horrified, several minutes later, that he had me doing all the talking. That wouldn't do. Well, he seemed to favor plain-speaking. I'd have to try again. "It was very kind of you to invite me, my lord," I began, but he cut me off with another of his barking laughs.
"Nothing of the sort. I'm putting the wind up Philip and Vicky."
"I'm sorry, my lord?"
"Beg pardon," he said, waving a roll in a sort of negligent apology. "My sister Victoria and Philip Lemerius. I'm sure you know I'm supposed to be getting married again."
"Yes, my lord."
"Well then," he said.
"I'm sorry, I still don't--"
"No, it's my fault. Shannon and Vicky are always on at me about it. But this is simple enough, really. Vicky and Philip are driving themselves mad looking for eligible girls."
I dared a smile, a wicked twinkle. "So you're hoping to send them into an apoplexy by dining privately with an actress."
"And I wanted to talk to you."
For a moment, I'd thought I understood, but now he was talking a foreign language again. "To me?"
His eyes, gray and unfathomable and suddenly frightening, caught mine. "You seem interesting," he said, and then the footmen came in to clear away the first course, and I couldn't tell what he meant.
For someone who seemed so simple and direct, Lord Stephen was a nerve-wracking dinner partner. When the footmen had gone again, and I could ask, he pretended not to remember what he'd said, much less what he'd meant by it, and diverted the conversation into other channels: the theater again; my impressions of the court; what I, as a Kekropian, thought about the Bastion and its recent upheavals. I felt like I was walking on an imperfectly frozen pond, under whose thin skin of ice a hungry monster lurked. There was no way to tell from Lord Stephen's manner what he knew or guessed or thought about my connections either to Felix or to the Bastion, but I was morally certain he was fishing for information about one or the other.
It was only after the footmen had wafted in and out one last time, leaving us with two snifters of brandy and a plate of sticky macaroons that I suspected were meant to appeal to my plebeian tastes, that Lord Stephen said, "You're a patient woman, Madame Parr."
"My lord?" I said.
"Shall we take the gloves off?"
"As your lordship wishes." If he'd meant to catch me off guard, he shouldn't have given me a whole dinner to get used to his conversational style.
"You're not telling me everything," he said, contemplating his brandy. "And that's fine. No reason you should. But I asked you to dinner because I wanted to ask you about someone."
"About whom, my lord?"
"What about him?"
"Just tell me what you think of him."
"Beautiful as daylight and knows it. Vain, self-centered, hot-tempered, and a born troublemaker."
Lord Stephen said after a thoughtful pause, "You know, of course, how much I dislike him."
"It's hardly a secret."
"No." His gaze skewered me again. "I would rather you didn't tell me what you think I want to hear."
"I don't know what you want."
"I've gone about this all wrong," he said sadly. "Madame Parr, I'm not trying to pry anybody's secrets out of you. I just wanted the opinion of someone without quite so much . . . baggage."
"What makes you think I don't have baggage?"
"Well, you do, of course, but my impression was that it was more on the other side."
"It's not that simple."
"Nothing ever is." He contemplated the brandy in his glass. "He worries me, you know."
"Felix? But I thought you--"
I cut myself off, quite deliberately, as if I hadn't meant to be tactless. It made him laugh.
"Hated each other? We do. But--Malkar Gennadion brought him to the Mirador the same year I became Lord Protector. I suspect now that the timing was deliberate. Certainly, there are a number of questions someone should have been asking that never got asked."
"What do you mean?"
"Malkar Gennadion," Stephen said with a grimace of distaste. "Brinvillier Strych. If we'd just been paying attention, he wouldn't have been able to worm his way in, wouldn't have been able to get close enough to destroy the Virtu. And my sister wouldn't have had an affair with our grandmother's murderer."
"Um," I said, this time not faking uncertainty.
"Sorry," Stephen said. "It rankles."
"It must," I agreed cautiously.
"Wasn't my point." He took a swallow of brandy. "It's how Malkar always worked, you know, You started off on one thing, and somehow he'd get you going on something else. So you'd ask the question he wanted. And you wouldn't ask all the other questions. Like what he did to Felix."
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, lots of things," Stephen said grimly. "But does he ever talk about him? About Malkar?"
"No, of course not."
"Why 'of course'?"
"Felix values his privacy far too highly to talk about anything that serious."
"No, it's true," I said. "Of all the things you know about Felix, how many of them really matter? To him, I mean?"
Lord Stephen's expression grew blank and arrested. "Precious few," he said, more to himself than to me.
When his eyes came back to me, something in them had changed, and I knew that the audience, for lack of a better word, was over.
"It's been very kind of you, my lord," I said, rising. He accepted the cue with something suspiciously like a smile, and escorted me to the door, where his butler, alerted by something I had missed, was waiting.
"This was fun," Lord Stephen said as his butler opened the door. "Let's do it again sometime soon." When I looked up at him, I was more than a little alarmed to see that he wasn't being ironic. He meant it.
By the time I got back to the suite, it was all crashing down on me again. There was nobody in the sitting room. I shut the door of my bedroom behind me like it was a magic door in a story that you couldn't open without knowing the right word. I sat on my bed in the dark, staring at nothing, and just waited for time to pass. There wasn't nothing else I could do.
After a while, there was a knock at the door. Felix came in without waiting for an answer. He was wearing his favorite mouse-colored dressing gown and had his hair tied with a faded piece of green ribbon. His eyes were clear again. He was back from wherever his head had been during dinner. Fuck, I thought.
"Mildmay, are you--" He stopped, called witchlights. "Why are you sitting here in the dark? What's wrong?"
He sounded like he really cared. I turned away from him so he wouldn't see how close I was to crying. "Nothing," I said.
"Don't give me that. You were upset earlier, too. Is it something I did?"
I thought of all the times he'd upset me and known it and been glad of it. "No," I said. "It ain't you." I couldn't think of how to put it, so I had to fall back on the way people said things like this in stories. "I've left Mehitabel."
"Left?" he said. "Well, clearly you . . . wait. You mean left?"
I took a deep breath, like it would help somehow. "I told her I didn't want to see her again."
There was a long silence. I didn't look at him. Finally, he said, "Why?"
"I had to," I said. "Could you just leave me alone for a while?"
"If it's what you want," he said.
I couldn't bear crying in front of him. I just nodded.
"All right." He stopped in the doorway. "Would you . . . would you prefer to talk to Gideon?"
I was almost choking on the hard lump blocking my chest and throat. "No," I said. "Just leave me alone."
"All right," he said, his voice barely more than a whisper, and closed the door behind him.
And I sat there in the dark and rubbed the water out of my eyes as fast as it gathered and tried to figure out what was wrong with me anyway. I'd gone two indictions without asking Mehitabel how many other guys she had, so what the fuck had got into me that I went and asked her today?
I didn't know. That was the bitchkitty and the Queen of Swords. I didn't fucking know. Just that I hadn't been able to keep it down no more, and it wasn't even that I cared if she was sleeping with other guys--I ain't so stupid I think sex has to mean anything, and most times it don't--it was that she wouldn't even give me a straight answer. Because I knew how careful she ran her life. She knew exactly how many guys there were, and how often she'd fucked each one of 'em, and what she'd said to them when she did. And that didn't bother me, neither. What bothered me was, she didn't want me to know that. She didn't want me to know who she was. Not really. Not down where it counts.
And, I mean, I ain't keen on letting people know my private stuff, but I don't try to pretend to be anything I ain't. That was what it was, I figured. Not that she hid things, and not that she lied. But that she didn't trust me with herself.
I got my clothes off and lay down and wished I could fucking well stop crying. It was a good long while before I got to sleep, and when I did, I fell straight into this nightmare I'd been having on and off for, powers, I don't know, half an indiction at least. In the dream, I'm going again with Cardenio to see Ginevra's body in the morgue underneath the Fishmarket, the cade-skiffs' guildhall, except when we reach the table, her body's gone. I look at Cardenio and I see that he's dead, all blue and bloodless and horrible. He tells me that somebody whose name I can't quite hear has stolen Ginevra's body, and I have to get it back or they'll put me in her place. So I'm searching everywhere but I can't find her, and every time I look back, Master Auberon, Cardenio's master, is a little closer. He's dead, too, and he's holding a very sharp knife. And it was one of those dreams you get sometimes where you know you're dreaming and you can feel where the real world is, but like the old joke says, you can't get there from here. I didn't shake myself free of it until I was actually falling out of bed, a thing that hadn't happened to me since I'd reached my first septad. I sat there on the floor, my bad leg singing its old stupid song at me, and I laughed until I cried.
It was a long time before I could calm down, and that was kind of scary. I'm losing it, I thought. I'm really, really losing it, and I don't know what the fuck to do about it.
Pull yourself together, Milly-Fox, Keeper's voice said in my head, cold and hard, like she got when I was about to fuck up something stupid and simple. It worked like a slap. I knew it wasn't going to work for long--I didn't trust Keeper enough now for her voice to do much--but it lasted at least long enough for me to think, I need to get out of this fucking walk-in tomb.
I found my lucifers and lit one. The clock said it was the last hour of the night. Getting up now wouldn't be a sign of going crazy or nothing. I could go down to the public baths in the Warren--St. Dismas was their patron saint, so of course they were called the Dismal Baths--and maybe soak some of the jitters out. Felix wouldn't be getting up for another two hours. I had plenty of time to get back so he wouldn't know I'd gone. Felix didn't like me using the Dismal Baths, although he wouldn't ever say exactly why. But, then, he hated public baths just on principle because he was so uptight about the scars on his back.
The Dismal Baths were Lower City baths. I thought that was probably one of the reasons Felix didn't like them. They were right on the border between the Arcane and the Warren. The Mortisgate was actually the entrance to the baths from the Warren side, and the guards watched real close about who used the Mortisgate--it was a shitty way to try to sneak in or out of the Mirador. There were other, better ways, if you knew what you were doing. Lots of people came up from the Arcane to use the Dismal, but none of them were stupid enough to try waltzing out the Mortisgate--or, at least, not stupid enough to try twice.
I knew the guys on duty at the Mortisgate--I'd gotten to the point where I knew most of the Protectorate Guard. They didn't much like Felix, but they weren't stupid enough to fuck with him, and they didn't hold him against me. I don't think they liked any of the hocuses much, and they knew all about working for people 'cause you had to, not 'cause it was anything you wanted.
Winn and Josiah gave me a wave, and I waved back and kept moving. I didn't think I could talk to anybody like a normal person, not with that dream still banging around in my head.
At this time of day, it was no surprise to find the changing rooms full of whores. They all looked at me funny, but nobody said nothing. I wished I'd never let Mavortian talk me out of dyeing my hair.
But at least it was safe here. I didn't have to worry about people trying to pick fights or nothing. Nobody did that kind of thing in the Dismal Baths--or St. Veronique's Baths in Pharaohlight, or the Tunny Street Baths down in Gilgamesh. People wouldn't put up with it. I mean, not only do you not want to worry about being knifed just because you want to wash your hair, you particularly don't want somebody else getting knifed in the same water with you and your soap. Crime in the Lower City ain't exactly organized, but it's organized enough for that. Dunno what the flashies and the bourgeoisie do in their baths--the Caliphate Baths in Verdigris or the St. Nebular Baths in Shatterglass or any of the others--but people in the Lower City just use theirs for bathing in.
I paid a septad-centime for towels, and another three centimes for soap--you could fork over a half-gorgon and get the fancy soaps imported from the south, the ones that smelled like lavender or lemons or roses, but the common soap, the stuff people just called "pig," was good enough for me. I've never been real big on perfumes. Felix wasn't, either. I think perfumes brought back too many memories of Pharaohlight on him. He was such a dandy otherwise--and got such a kick out of twisting the flashies' tails--that I couldn't think of much else that would make sense of him not using ambergris or one of the other fancy flashie perfumes.
The calder at the Dismal Baths was a long, vaulted room with a walkway down the middle and the hot pools on both sides. There was a bench built into each wall. I found a place to put my towels and slid down into the water.
I scrubbed myself with the pig until my skin was red and I'd worn the cake down to a handful of slivers. Then I lay back in the water and floated for a while, but I get nervous when I can't see everybody in the room with me, and I stood up again before long. I climbed out and went to the froy. A two-second plunge was about all I could stand, but I came out with my head feeling a lot clearer and not so much like I was working on four hours of bad sleep. I went back, got my towels, and put myself together to face the day.
When I was coming back through the Mortisgate, Josiah said, "Hey, Mildmay!"
Sunrise, I thought. They were coming off shift. Winn would be going into the Arcane to find that whore he was crazy about. I stopped and waited for Josiah.
"Hey, Josiah," I said when he came up to me. "What's new?"
"Not much," he said. "How 'bout you?"
"You know," I said. "Same old."
He nodded and laughed. We started back up into the Mirador.
"I'm glad to be done for tonight," he said after a while. "It's getting weird."
"Oh, I dunno. Just weird. The news is getting out about the Bastion, and people are getting kind of twitchy."
"Nah, not scared so much. Just, like . . . twitchy."
"Don't blame 'em."
"Me neither, but it gets on your nerves after a while. You hear about Lord Thaddeus?"
"What about Lord Thaddeus?"
"He says it's all a trick," Josiah said, and I saw his sideways look at me, like he wanted to see if I would say so, too. "He says the Bastion don't want peace with us, they just want us to think they want peace with us, so we'll do something dumb and they can get in."
That sounded like something Thaddeus would say, all right. "I think Lord Thaddeus thinks too much," I said.
"Yeah, but do you think ... ?"
"I don't know what to think. But Lord Thaddeus ain't on the Curia."
"That's a fact." He gave me another sideways look. "What does Lord Felix think?"
"You know Felix ain't in no hurry to trust the Bastion," I said. We'd reached Ucopian's Cross by then--where Josiah had to head northeasterly to the guard barracks and I had to tack off northwest to get back to Felix's suite--standing under the dome painted with a fairly hardcore take on the martyrdom of St. Ucopian. Our voices were echoing up and around, and the shadows made Josiah's face look like a bad mask. I didn't like to think what they must've been doing to me.
"Yeah," he said, like he'd needed to hear me say that. "I know." There was a little pause, prickly with things we weren't saying. "Igny says the Tibernians are just about shitting bricks. In case Lord Stephen does start signing treaties and stuff."
"Worried he'll find a way to give 'em the boot."
"Yeah. Igny says that Mr. Clef has a tongue on him it's an honor to listen to. Him and that hocus going at it hammer and tongs, up one side and down the other."
"Hocus's a nasty piece of work."
I said it again.
"Yeah. Seems like he wants us to be all grateful and shit, and it sure is getting up his nose that we ain't. Igny says Mr. Clef says they got to find a way to make friends proper-like or Lord Stephen'll throw 'em over for the Kekropians."
"Powers. He ain't a gal looking for a dance partner."
Josiah laughed. "Well, he got people want to dance with him, that's for sure." We heard a clock strike, somewhere off in the dark, and he sighed. "Better be going."
"Yeah, me too. See you 'round."
"Later," he said and headed away at a brisk march, his chainmail jingling and his boot heels smacking sharply against the flagstones. He turned a corner and was gone, swallowed by the Mirador.
"Where have you been?" Felix said the instant the door opened.
It was a good half hour before he normally got up, and I was so startled I said, "How the fuck did you know I was gone?"
He shrugged, sort of embarrassed and sort of impatient, and said, "I woke up, and you weren't there. Where did you go?"
"Down to the Dismal."
"The . . ." He looked for a second like he'd swallowed a spider, but he recovered fast. "You know I don't like you going there."
"Yeah, you've said so often enough. But I didn't drown nobody or nothing."
"Anybody or anything," he said. "And I didn't imagine you had."
"Then what's the problem?"
"The Dismal Baths are not a nice place."
I couldn't help it. I burst out laughing. "What? You think I can't take care of myself?"
"Look, I don't like you going there, all right?"
"You gonna forbid me?"
"I will if I have to." He meant it. I could see that in the way his face reddened and he wouldn't quite meet my eyes. When he was bluffing, he'd look me straight in the eyes and not so much as turn a hair. He hated using the binding-by-forms like that. He said it made him feel sick. Which mostly was fine by me.
But this was just weird. "I don't see what you got against the Dismal."
"Do I have to give you reasons for everything I do?"
"But this ain't something you do. I ain't making you go down there, so what does it matter if I go every once in a while?"
"I don't want you to."
"Powers, I done figured that part out. I just don't understand why."
He caught my eyes. "Don't go down there. And don't argue about it." Commands, both of them. Whatever it was that had got him, it had him by the short hairs.
"You're the boss," I said, and I didn't care if I sounded sullen.
He looked at me for a moment, like there was something he wanted to say--but he never apologized for nothing. He went back into his and Gideon's bedroom to start getting ready for court.
And I stood there with that fucking dream still like wet shiny paint in my head, and I started to wonder if maybe I needed to go talk to Keeper after all.
© Sarah Monette 2007 Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.