if you need/want a plain-text version of this chapter, go here.
The nearest port was a little town called Endumion. We rode there with one of the Gardens' cooks, who was on his way to buy fresh fish.
Only Xanthippe had seen us off, very formal and gracious, with no opportunities for any unfortunate displays of personality. She had unexpectedly presented me with another gift, enough money (she said) to buy our passage to Kekropia and, if we were thrifty, engage a hotel room for a day or two until we could make unspecified "other arrangements."
I tried to refuse, but she would have none of it, and I would have admitted, if asked, that I did not try very hard. Neither Mildmay nor I had been particularly sanguine about what we might end up doing if we had to work our passage, and it was a tremendous relief to have that weight lifted from my shoulders.
So now we stood on the docks of Endumion and surveyed our options. They were two: the Penelope and the Asprophellos, the White Otter. Mildmay and I agreed with a glance that we did not want to buy passage on the Penelope if we could help it. Penelope was a name of ill omen in Mélusine, and the ship herself looked unclean, ill-cared for.
The White Otter appeared more promising. Mildmay called out a greeting, a slangy-sounding phrase of Troian he must have picked up on the Morskaiakrov. In response, a woman appeared at the top of the gangplank. She wore trousers and a halter-top, and her red hair hung down her back in a multitude of narrow braids. She and Mildmay plunged into an elliptical, intricate exchange, out of which I understood maybe one word in five. I stood and tried to look pleasantly nonthreatening, marveling inwardly at Mildmay's effortless grasp of gutter Troian. I was phenomenally stupid at languages and knew it, but I had somehow never expected my pathologically taciturn brother to be so comfortable in any language, much less a foreign one.
He turned to me and said in Marathine, "She wants to know if you're a hocus. And she's looking at your hands."
I looked at them myself, the garish tattoos, the gaudy rings. "Tell her the truth. It's not something I had any hope or intention of hiding."
"You'll be singing a different song once we get to Kekropia," he said. He and the sailor-woman exchanged another burst of Troian.
There was an intermission as she vanished to fetch someone--"the captain," Mildmay told me--and then an even more vigorous exchange between Mildmay and the captain, a weatherbeaten man of about Diokletian's age.
When he turned back to me, Mildmay said, "They're going to Klepsydra, and they got room for two more passengers."
Even for Mildmay, he looked notably less than thrilled. I said, "I can feel the 'but' coming. What is it?"
"They got whatchamacallit--things they want."
"Half the money up front."
"We sleep in separate cabins."
"Lest we plot a coup? How cautious of them. But if they have separate cabins, I don't object."
I could see him bracing himself. "You give your rings to the captain 'til we dock in Klepsydra and at the first sign of witchery they'll throw you overboard."
I swallowed the first several replies that came to mind.
"They seem honest," he said, watching my face sidelong. "The gal said as how the Penelope'd take us if you were a fire-breathing dragon, but she wouldn't lay odds on us reaching Kekropia alive. 'Sides, Penelope's heading for Aigisthos. Which we don't want."
"We don't?" I rather thought we would survive a journey in the Penelope, regardless of her crew's intentions.
"No. Gideon said--" He caught himself sharply, as if he was afraid that mention of the mysterious Gideon would offend or wound me.
"Go on," I said. "What did Gideon say?"
"There's Eusebians in Aigisthos. At the court. They'd recognize the tattoos."
"I wasn't planning on seeking an audience with the emperor."
"We can't risk it. And it ain't the way we want to go."
It took a moment for me to decipher that. "You want to go south? Are you mad or just suicidally stupid? We won't survive a week in the duchies!"
"We did fine on the way out," he said, and I hated the mulish set to his chin.
"This is neither the time nor the place to argue about it," I said through my teeth. "And I am not giving up my rings."
"It's not like they can steal 'em. Nowhere to fence 'em in the middle of the ocean."
I couldn't choke back a bark of laughter at this relentlessly pragmatic view of the problem. But still, "Do you understand what they're asking?"
He met my eyes. "Some guarantee that you won't hex them all into being your slaves."
"I would never--!"
"No, 'course not. But it's the kind of thing gets said about hocuses." He eyed me a moment. "They ain't being unreasonable, Felix."
"Aren't," I said like a curse.
He made no response, simply stood and waited, as patient as stone. As opaque as stone, too: I couldn't tell if he was expecting me to give in, or what he would do if I did not. I looked back at the Penelope and could not entirely repress a shiver at how low she rode in the water, how unsavory she looked. I thought about the weeks--four at least, Mildmay said and Xanthippe confirmed--we would be at sea. I thought about spending those weeks on a vessel that look untrustworthy in the bright sunshine and innocuous surroundings of the Endumion docks. I did not remember the sinking of the Morskaiakrov as anything more than a few flashes of pain and fear, but I knew that to avoid that nightmare, that death, was worth even the price the White Otter demanded.
"We will talk about crossing Kekropia later," I said, trying not to snarl, and waved Mildmay ahead of me up the plank.
At the top, the captain stood waiting. He was more than a little alarming at close range; his eyes, marked by crow's feet, were a strange, dark, smoky yellow, and the grim lines of his face suggested that he was no happier about having me on board than I was about being there.
"Rings," he said, his voice as dark and smoky as his eyes, and held out his hand.
I would not let him rush me. I set down my valise, opened it, and found the case that went with the rings. I took them off one by one, setting each in its precisely fitted velvet hollow. I closed the case and cast a small locking spell on it--nothing that would even inconvenience a wizard, but it would keep the annemer out--my words deliberately audible and clear. Then I handed the case to the captain, with a glare to match his own.
He put the case in his coat pocket and said, dour but not hostile, "Welcome aboard. I am Elektros Yarth."
"Felix Harrowgate," I said. "And my brother Mildmay ... Mildmay Foxe." Mildmay had told me of his soubriquet, Mildmay the Fox, which suited him so well it had proved useless for me even to attempt to disassociate my brother from the animal. It made an unexceptionable Marathine surname, a marker of respectability that I had a lowering presentiment we were going to need.
"The money?" said Elektros Yarth, disdaining to waste time on social niceties. I left him and Mildmay to their haggling and made my way to the far side of the boat to look at the sea. There was no sense in hiding from it, and I hoped that if I faced it now, perhaps my fear would not be so great, perhaps I would not become paralyzed by the sea as I had been paralyzed by the Sim as a child.
But a moment later, I had turned away, my heart pounding and my mouth gone dry, my body suddenly clammy with sweat. It was ... it was too much, that was all. Any attempt to stare down the Kelephanian Ocean was only going to result in an extremely public display of hysterics. I felt naked without my rings, and cold.
I did not know how long I stood there, staring desperately at the ship's rigging, tracing the ropes in their struggle for the sky, before Mildmay said, "You okay?" He was standing to my left, careful--as he was always careful--not to come up on my bad side. How exactly he had learned my blue eye was close to blind, I did not know; doubtless it was one of the many things I had betrayed of myself in my madness. He never mentioned it, never seemed to notice. Except that he always, always, approached me from the left.
I turned my head, as slow and stiff as a rusted clockwork gear. "Fine," I said.
"You look like shit."
"Thank you. I am fine. What word from our worthy captain?"
His eyes met mine a moment longer, absinthe-green and cold as jade; then he let it go and said, "Ship sails tomorrow at the septad-day. Captain says we can sleep on board tonight. I said yes."
"Did you now?"
He gave a half-shrug, barely enough to acknowledge the venom in my tone. "Money's tight." His eyes met mine again, and he said, "I ain't going back to the Gardens."
He meant it. I would have had to use magic on him to move him off the ship. "Am not," I said, "not ain't."
He continued to stare at me, levelly, not angry or upset, simply waiting for me either to capitulate or issue an ultimatum of my own.
"All right," I said. "Fine." Think of it as practice, I said to myself. I couldn't deny I was going to need it.
I could tell Felix was scared half out of his mind, but he seemed like he'd sooner kill himself than admit it, and I figured it'd be better all around if I just kept my mouth shut. 'Cause, I mean, there wasn't nothing we could do about it. If we wanted to get back to Mélusine--which we both did--we had to get on the other side of all this water somehow.
So I just said, like I couldn't see his face was the color of bone or nothing, "Captain says come meet the others."
"A delightful treat, to be sure," he said, mostly under his breath, and walked with me down to where the captain was standing with the rest of the passengers.
There were five of them. A middle-aged Kekropian couple and their kid, who was a couple indictions short of finishing his second septad. Another kid, a Troian, somewhere in the middle of his third septad, with a look on his face like he'd been born biting into a lemon. And another guy, a couple years older than Felix, Norvenan--you could tell by the blond--tall and heavy-set. He had sharp blue eyes and big, soft, ink-stained hands, so I wasn't surprised when he got introduced as the secretary of the middle-aged guy with the kid.
The middle-aged guy was named Leontes Gauthy. He was a merchant of some kind, trading between Troia and Kekropia, which looked like it was a pretty lucrative gig from the way him and his wife and the kid were dressed--and from the fact that apparently most of the White Otter's cargo belonged to him. The wife's name was Theokrita, and the kid was Florian. The secretary was named Ingvard Vilker, and he stood there with a super-polite look on his face while Mr. Gauthy was pronouncing it. Kekropian don't got the "v" and it was mostly coming out "w."
The Troian kid said his name was Phaëthon, and then he shut his mouth and looked even more lemony. I'd've laid odds he was running away from something, but it wasn't none of my business, and I figured anything I said to him, he'd just look all lemony at me, and I didn't need the grief.
The captain divvied up the cabins, glaring at me and Felix like he thought we were going to make a scene. Felix caught it and stood there looking as sweet and harmless and innocent as a kitten. The White Otter had three passenger cabins, one largish and two smallish. The largish one was going to the Gauthys, and the captain put me and the Troian kid in one of littler ones and Felix and Mr. Vilker in the other. The kid gave me a look like he could smell the dirt from where he was standing, but he swallowed whatever complaint he would've made. Felix and Mr. Vilker shook hands, and there was a kind of twinkle in Mr. Vilker's eyes that said he'd picked up on the joke, even if he didn't know what it was about Felix that had the captain's drawers in a knot. I breathed a little easier seeing that, because it meant maybe him and Felix wouldn't kill each other somewhere out in the middle of the ocean.
And right about then, I was figuring that was the best I could hope for.
I'd been worried about what might happen with a whole day to wait before we left. I kept having these like, I don't know, nightmares or something--except for being wide awake--of the celebrants all showing up on the dock and convincing Felix he really wanted to stay at the Gardens after all. Or, what was more likely, Felix having too long to think about all that damn water, and running back to the Gardens like a dog on the losing end of a nasty fight. And if that happened, I was fucked. So you can understand me being a little nervous, but Ingvard Vilker turned out to be the answer to my prayers. Him and Felix hadn't been talking but a couple minutes before they got onto the subject of Troian history, and a septad-minute after that Mr. Vilker had whipped out this book that was all dog-eared and scuffed and looked like it'd maybe fallen in the ocean a time or two, and it turned out to be a guidebook to Troia to tell you what all the places were you were supposed to see because something important had happened there or somebody important had been born there or died there or what have you. They had 'em for Mélusine, but the way I heard it, no two books ever agreed on what the important things were. And if they did, they'd have two completely different stories about why you were supposed to give a rat's ass. Which I wasn't going to. Not about anything in Troia.
But Felix and Mr. Vilker, they put their heads together and figured out there was some kind of ruined temple or something about an hour from Endumion. And then Mr. Vilker turned and did some smooth talking at Mr. Gauthy and convinced him it was educational, and so him and Felix should take Florian Gauthy to see it, and Mr. Gauthy should pay for the hired horses. Mrs. Gauthy was standing there giving Mr. Vilker the hairy eyeball, but Mr. Gauthy didn't notice her, and anyway Florian Gauthy looked like he was about to die of joy on the spot, so off they went.
They were at the top of the gangplank when Felix turned back and asked me, "Do you want to come?"
He raised his eyebrows, grinning a little. I didn't want to get into how I felt about Troia, so I said, "Don't need to see old bits of rock, thanks. Got those at home."
"Barbarian," he said cheerfully, and not mean at all, and followed Mr. Vilker and the kid back onto dry land. And I had to admire him. I mean, I knew how he felt about deep water, and I was watching him pretty close, and I still couldn't hardly tell how much of a relief it was to him to have solid ground under his feet.
Mr. Gauthy'd already gone off to do some more trading, being the kind of guy who breathed, slept, and ate his business. And the captain'd cleared out as soon as he'd done what he was obliged to and given our names to the other passengers. So that left me and Mrs. Gauthy and the Troian kid standing there giving each other nasty looks.
It took me a second to see the funny side of it, which I did at the same time I realized I didn't want to talk to either of them anyway, so I didn't need to stand here until they'd thought up a really good insult to be sure I didn't.
"See y'all 'round," I said and went back to where I'd found Felix all spooked out earlier. I hadn't been meaning to do much but look at the water for a while and see if it could clear out some of the pricker-bushes I was feeling about this whole damn thing--the day and the ship and the journey and what we were going to have to deal with once we made it to Kekropia and all the fucking rest of it. But there were a couple of sailors there, a guy about my age and a gal a little older, doing something with the ropes--which, from the two decads I'd spent on the Morskaiakrov I knew was pretty much a given--and after a little while I couldn't stand it no more and said, "Hey, can I ask y'all a question?"
The look they gave me said they'd been told not to sass the passengers, but that was all the slack I got.
You can't back down now, Milly-Fox. Cough it up. "I been wanting news about a ship called Morskaiakrov. Y'all know anything?"
The look they were giving me now was like I'd smacked 'em upside the head with a dead flounder apiece. After a moment, the gal got her shit together and said, "You ask after the Morskaiakrov?"
"You know Dmitri?"
"A little. Look, I just want to know if everybody got off okay."
The captain said behind me, "The crew of the Morskaiakrov came safe to land near Ikaros. They lost one man, I think, but the rest suffered no more than the broken limbs and coughs and chills that are to be expected. And it will be many years before Dmitri will be able to afford another ship."
I turned around careful, 'cause he wasn't sneaking up on me to kill me and I didn't want to do nothing embarrassing before we'd even left the dock. So I looked up at Captain Yarth and said, "Who died?"
He said, "I believe the name was Piotr."
"Oh." Not Ilia, then, or Vasili or Dmitri or even Yevgeni who'd been an asshole, but who I'd kind of liked for it. No, just Piotr, who'd been quiet and kept to himself and told a story I'd never heard before, about a witch named Lisaveta and why the combs she wore in her hair were made of human bone. Shit.
"Thanks," I said to the captain and, "Thanks," kind of more generally to the sailors, who were still staring at me like I'd fallen out of the sky and set the ship on fire. And then, 'cause I needed all at once to get away from people who were alive and hadn't died in that storm--or almost died, and I wasn't kidding myself about how close I'd come--I went back down to the main part of the ship and kept going, down the gangplank, back along the dock, and into the nearest alleyway, just to get out of sight of the White Otter. And then I just leaned against the wall and stared at the bricks of the wall opposite for a while.
Piotr was dead. Well, I could add him to the list. Zephyr and Ginevra and Margot's little Badgers and Griselda Kilkenny and Lucastus the Weaver and Bartimus Cawley and Cornell Teverius and Cerberus Cresset ... And Thamuris, because he'd probably be dead before we reached Klepsydra. And--fuck, there was no sense telling myself fairy tales--Gideon and Mavortian and Bernard. All those dead people and what the fuck was I doing still alive?
I didn't have an answer, and no matter how long I stared at them, the bricks couldn't give me one.
Ingvard hired a buggy and pair, and we rattled out of Endumion in fine style. I sat beside Ingvard and the boy took the rumble seat, leaning eagerly over our shoulders to ask question after question. It was a beautiful day, bright and clear. The Troian countryside was ripe with summer, and peaceful; the bad blood between the local houses of Attalis and Erekhthais, which I had heard about at exhaustive length from half the celebrants in the Gardens, had not extended its reach into the lives of the farmers and shepherds whom we spotted from time to time. Florian asked questions about crops and wool--a merchant's son to be sure, but one with a good head on his shoulders. Ingvard answered those questions easily; clearly he had his employer's business at his fingertips. I sat and looked at the bountiful drowsiness and felt myself expanding with delight. It was as if some dark weight had been lifted from my shoulders, leaden shackles struck off my wrists. We were halfway to Huakinthe before I put my finger on why, and then I wished I hadn't.
For an afternoon, I was free of Mildmay. Ingvard and Florian were cheerful, normal people, who did not know I had been mad, who had not been lamed and nearly killed on my account, who did not represent, simply by the way they talked, everything about my childhood I most desperately wished to forget. They were not silent, opaque, resentful, unhappy. They did not suffer from wounds I did not know how to heal. They did not set a fire raging in my blood that I could not acknowledge, much less surrender to. And I was so glad to be away from him, away from those cold absinthe eyes, that scarred stone face, that I felt like singing.
"Ker Harrowgate? Are you all right?" Ingvard Vilker's voice jerked me out of my reverie.
"Fine, thanks." I smiled at him. "And, please, call me Felix."
"Ingvard," he said in return, stressing the "v" with a quick mock-glare over his shoulder at Florian. "Not 'Ingward.'"
"I don't say it like that!" Florian protested.
"You can't blame me for being stupid when I was six. Besides, Father still says it wrong, and you don't nag him about it."
"That, dear boy, is because he pays me."
"Are you Norvenan by birth, or were you born in the empire?" I asked.
"Born and bred in Karolinsberg," Ingvard said. "I came south when I reached my majority to seek my fortune. And found it, I think."
"As my father's secretary?" Florian demanded.
"A fortune is what you make of it," Ingvard said. "Here, Florian. Read to us about Huakinthe."
"I promised your father this would be educational."
"Oh, all right," Florian said, not nearly as sulkily as he might have.
He read well for a boy his age, stumbling occasionally over unfamiliar words, but managing the sense of the passage as well as the sounds. Huakinthe, he told us, was a ruin from Troia's imperial past. It had been a major port in the trade between the empire and its daughter-colony. With the fall of the empire, Huakinthe itself had been abandoned, and when trade between Troia and Kekropia was reestablished, the more northerly port of Erigone had taken Huakinthe's place.
Florian broke off and said, "Why do you suppose they abandoned the city?"
"No trade means no jobs," Ingvard said.
"Oh. But ..."
"The fall of the Troian empire was ... ugly," I said, having to pause a moment to find an accurate but deecorously inexpressive word. "The city itself may have developed unpleasant associations or a reputation for bad luck."
"Oh," Florian said again, and I caught a glance of lively interest from Ingvard.
"I didn't know you were so interested in Troian history. He should talk to Ker Tantony, shouldn't he, Florian?"
"Ker Tantony?" I said.
"Florian's tutor. Jeremias Tantony. He's quite the amateur historian."
"Oh, Ker Tantony's all right," Florian said. "Ker Harrowgate, what did you mean, the fall of the empire was ugly?"
"Civil war is always ugly," I said. "If your tutor's a historian, he must have taught you that much. Towns were burned, innocent people killed. There were two years of famine and an outbreak of some sort of plague. I understand that the Euryganeics called it the end of the world. They might not have been far wrong."
There was an uncomfortable pause, and I realized I had let my fragmentary, nightmarish memories of Nera, another city lost in another empire's fall, color my tone too vividly. I was about to apologize when Ingvard said, mock-sternly, "Florian, you aren't done reading."
"Oh! Right." And Florian continued reading, tripping over his words at first, but gradually regaining his equilibrium.
The sights of interest in Huakinthe included the city wall, the palace of the Anthemais, the family who had ruled the city, and a temple. "It says it's the oldest known temple of ... I don't know this goddess's name."
"Let me see," I said, and Florian handed the book forward. I found the place at which he had stopped. "... the goddess Graia, an ancient and primitive goddess whose worship died out in most of Troia nearly five thousand years ago. Cities such as Huakinthe and Prokne, which felt themselves to be under her especial protection, continued to honor her, although the public rites had become solely symbolic by the time the city was abandoned."
"What sort of rites do you suppose they're talking about?" Ingvard said.
"Fertility, most likely," I said without thinking.
Florian said, puzzled, "But how can you have non-symbolic ... oh. Oh, disgusting."
Ingvard and I burst out laughing, and Ingvard turned the conversation to other matters until we reached Huakinthe. I had been skeptical of the guidebook's claim that the city wall of Huakinthe would be of interest. As a child in Simside, I had had my world bounded by the city wall of Mélusine to the south, just as it was bounded by the Sim to the west. During my tenure at the Mirador, I had frequently climbed to the highest ring of battlements, the Crown of Nails, and looked at the city, and from that vantage point I had come to have a more rational--though no less awed--understanding of the city walls. They were a mere seven hundred years old, but their height and mathematically exact lines and the beauty of the way the six gates and the river were accommodated ... I understood entirely the Ophidian king who had decreed that the boundary marked by those walls should be honored in perpetuity and that anyone caught damaging the walls would be found guilty of treason to the city of Mélusine--making it a crime in a class by itself. Despite the changes of dynasty and government in the intervening centuries, no one had ever rescinded or repudiated that particular law. Her walls were Mélusine's pride.
I expected to be entirely unimpressed by Huakinthe's walls, and indeed it was true that they did not even compare to Mélusine's. But then, Mélusine's walls did not compare to Huakinthe's, either.
There were only two isolated stretches of Huakinthe's walls still standing, one maybe twenty-five feet long and the other twice that, out in the middle of the pastureland like two monumental foreigners who had gotten lost on their way to the sea. Ingvard hobbled the horses, and he and Florian and I walked to the nearer and shorter of the two stretches of wall. The cows watched us go by with placid disinterest.
It was clear that the city wall had once been higher than these remnants, impossible to tell by how much. But the ragged progress of the top of the wall showed where stones had been taken away, or had fallen. It was still twenty feet tall at its highest point, a looming sadness. The most remarkable thing, though, was the size of the individual blocks. Ingvard made Florian lie down beside the wall because not one of the three of us could believe the evidence of our own eyes that the stones were longer than he was tall.
He scrambled up again, already asking, "How did they move the stones? Do you think they used magic?"
"Probably," Ingvard said as I hastily pretended to be too interested in the ferns growing from the cracks between the stones to have heard the question. I didn't know if Captain Yarth had told the other passengers I was a wizard, and I wasn't sure how they'd feel about it if they knew. I realized I'd been extraordinarily lucky thus far that Florian's roving curiosity had not prompted him to ask about my tattoos. Of course, by the same token, no one had recognized the tattoos for what they were--markers of my status as a sworn Cabaline, an enemy of the Bastion and the Empire--and I went cold as I realized that I was going to have to come up with some explanation for why I was neither Eusebian nor covenanted. I couldn't expect the captain and his crew to keep the matter a secret--at least, not without explaining to them why I wanted it kept secret, and no matter how stupidly blind I'd been, I wasn't stupid enough to think that that particular explanation wouldn't make everything several times worse.
I knelt down to hide my face as the answer occurred to me, because the grimace would certainly have alarmed Florian and Ingvard if they had seen it. Malkar had solved this problem for me almost fifteen years ago, when he invented a tale to confound the Mirador's curiosity. No one on the White Otter would know anything more about Caloxan wizards than I did. I bit the inside of my lower lip savagely to keep from erupting in hysterical giggles and stood up again. Ingvard and Florian had moved a little way further along the wall and were arguing vigorously about how heavy the stones might be. I joined them, and presently suggested that we continue on to the palace of the Anthemais. They concurred amiably and we returned to the buggy.
Ingvard's guidebook provided directions for finding the palace, which proved to be fortunate as the ruins were not visible from the road. The palace was nothing more than paving stones. I left Ingvard and Florian in earnest speculation about its original dimensions and layout, and made my way toward the stumps of columns like half-rotted teeth which marked the temple.
As the other ruins had been, this too was silent and deserted, just the double row of eroded columns and the moss-grown paving stones in-between. And, I discovered by painful experience, a thriving population of briar bushes. I disentangled myself from them at the cost of several raking scratches on my hands and wrists, and found myself standing in what was nearly the geometric center of the colonnade.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears; the air was heavy with smoke, with the stench of blood. Blackness, the lurid light of fire, voices screaming, sobbing, cursing.
The temple is Nera.
Before the thought was even clear in my head, I had bolted back out of the ruins, acquiring several more scratches and a torn trouser leg. And then I stood, my chest heaving like a bellows and my whole body damp and prickling with sweat, and thought, The temple is Nera? What in the world is that supposed to mean?
But there was no explanation, the panic gone as suddenly as it had come, taking the hallucinations with it--if "hallucinations" was the correct word. I had gathered from what Mildmay had said that there wasn't even as much left of Nera as there was of Huakinthe, so surely I could not have been reminded of Nera. But I could think of no theory that was not even less plausible.
Somehow, I was certain that the goddess worshipped here had not been interested in fertility.
I saw Ingvard and Florian approaching and called out to warn them of the briars before I started slowly and abstractedly back toward the buggy. The shadows were lengthening; we would need to leave soon, and besides, I did not want to be anywhere near the temple of Graia as it welcomed in the night.
Felix was in a mood by the time he got back to the White Otter. Florian Gauthy and Mr. Vilker were giving him these weird looks, like they couldn't tell if it was their fault or not, but he didn't even seem to notice. I kept my mouth shut and went to bed early.
Only, of course, that didn't get me out of trouble, because the Troian kid was already in the cabin we were sharing, and he looked mightily put out to see me.
I got as much right to be here as him, I told myself and said, "You okay with the top bunk?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You planning on keeping that stick up your ass all the way to Klepsydra?"
He went first white, then bright, blotchy red. Powers, Milly-Fox, why did anybody bother with teaching you to talk? "I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't've said that."
Phaëthon had turned away, and for a minute I thought I wasn't going to get no answer at all and wasn't that going to be a fun way to spend a month? Then he said, without turning around, "I will take the top bunk."
"Thanks." I sat down on the lower bunk and couldn't quite keep back a sigh of relief at getting my weight off my leg. But it was okay. I mean, it was sore, but nothing out of the ordinary. You're gonna be okay, I said to myself and almost believed it.
The kid didn't say nothing and I didn't say nothing, and after a while he climbed up to the top bunk, still wearing his shirt and trousers. Well, I'd pegged him for a flash kid, and if he was that kind of prude, I was probably right.
The lamp was up at his level, wired to the wall in this sort of cage arrangement. After he'd been up there a little while, he said, "Are you ... I should like to go to sleep now."
"Sure. I can take my shoes off in the dark just fine." There was stuff for my leg, stuff to keep the scarring from binding in like creepers smothering a tree, but I could do that some other time, sometime when I could get the cabin to myself for a septad-minute.
"Oh. Oh, yes, of course." And out went the light.
He didn't so much as move a muscle while I was unlacing my shoes and taking my trousers off--I mean, just because he was a prude, didn't mean I had to be uncomfortable. I lay down. The bunk was narrow and hard, but at least it wasn't too short for me the way it would be for Felix. And better this than that nice soft bed in the Gardens, regardless.
And then Phaëthon said, "Mildmay?"
"Nothing. I was just ... it's an odd name."
And Phaëthon ain't? I thought, but the kid hadn't meant anything nasty by it. It was even sort of, in a funny way, an apology, like Felix's apologies that weren't, and I figured whatever this kid's story was, he'd probably been having one fuck of a bad day, if not a whole bad decad. So I said, "Yeah. My mother had some weird ideas."
"Oh. Well, good night then, Mildmay."
"G'night," I said back, and if the kid said anything else, I was asleep before I heard it.
I dreamed about fucking.
Keeper first, the woman who'd raised me from my third indiction and started fucking me before I'd quite finished my second septad, and you'd think after three indictions, some of it would start to fade, but everything was clear and sharp, like it had only been this morning that I'd gotten up out of that bed for the last time. Her long white body, her little tits and narrow hips. Once when I'd had two septads and two, she'd waited until I was all the way inside her, then locked her legs around the backs of my thighs and said, "Imagine I'm a boy. Imagine you're fucking a boy, Milly-Fox," and then laughed when I tried to pull back and couldn't. Whenever I couldn't get hard, she'd tell me I was going molly, that pretty soon there wouldn't be nothing left for her to do but send me to one of the boy brothels in Pharaohlight. I never quite believed her--I mean, no madam in their right mind would take me, for one thing--but I knew she could do it if she wanted. I knew Keeper could do anything.
Keeper liked a lot of light when she fucked, so there were candles everywhere. I didn't dare close my eyes, even though I didn't want to look at her, because she was watching my face and I had to keep my guard up. She didn't like me to kiss her, because of the scar, and she wouldn't let me hide my face in her shoulder. "I want to see, Milly-Fox," she'd said once, yanking my head back by the hair hard enough to make my eyes water. So I had to keep my face from giving anything away, giving her anything she could use.
Her long fingernails were digging into my shoulders. Sometimes she left welts, and if the other kids saw them, they didn't say nothing. Her thighs were like a vise against my hips, and she was hot and tight and I knew she'd be pissed if I came too soon. If you were one of Keeper's kids, you learned to do things her way, and that didn't change just because she decided to fuck you.
"Talk to me, Milly-Fox," she said, one hand tracing up the back of my neck and grabbing my hair.
"Talk to me. Tell me how it feels."
"You know I don't--"
The hand in my hair tugged hard, just once, and then slid around to my face, running along the scar where I couldn't really feel it.
"You used to be such a chatterbox. I miss it. So talk to me."
"Keeper, please ..."
"Mildmay." She almost never used my real name, and it was always a bad sign when she did. She was watching my face now, greedy like a kid at a pantomime. I wanted this to stop. I wanted not to be touching her, not to be fucking her, not to be trapped in this thing with her like a fly in a spiderweb. But, you know, my hips were still moving, and my cock didn't care about my pride.
"I'm waiting," said Keeper.
I said, hoping she'd think I was gasping because of the sex, "Hot ... smooth ... tight ..."
"You can do better than that, darling." And she sounded so cool and amused, like she didn't even care about what we were doing.
I shut my eyes, because it didn't matter now anyway. And somewhere in my head, I was shouting at myself, This is a dream! You don't have to do this, you stupid fuck! You're dreaming, and it don't have to be Keeper!
I thought of Ginevra. Remembered her eyes and hair and skin, how different her body was from Keeper's, how it had felt fucking her on that old swaybacked bed in Midwinter--back before she'd dumped me, before she'd been murdered on the say-so of Vey Coruscant, the bloodwitch who ran Mélusine's Dassament district--and the dream stretched and pulled like taffy, and I was still in Keeper's bed with all them stupid candles, but it was Ginevra under me making those amazing throaty little noises, and the scent of her was like honey, and I could rest my head against the pillow and not think about nothing except her, about the softness of her skin and the pressure of her tits against my chest, how easy it was to fuck her and not worry about ... wetness and heat against my shoulder.
I jerked up. It was blood. Ginevra's throat was cut, and there was blood everywhere--blood in her hair, spreading across the sheets, blood running down her stomach and between her legs, oiling our fucking like some kind of terrible clockwork. And suddenly Ginevra's legs were clamped around mine, and when her eyes opened, they were full of blood, and she said, laughing, "Fuck me harder, Mildmay. I'm dead now, so I can't feel it unless you fuck ... me ... harder."
I wanted to scream, but I couldn't. And the blood made it so smooth, like flying, but there was no heat except the blood, because she was dead and I could smell the rot starting. I wanted to get away from her even more than I'd wanted to get away from Keeper, but I couldn't stop, slamming into her harder and harder and I could feel her body starting to fall apart under me, and she started laughing, and I still couldn't stop, and she brought her hands up and touched her cheeks, and then reached out with her bloody hands toward my face.
And I woke up. With everything throbbing. Cock, balls, head, every separate muscle in my back and neck. I was face-down on the mattress, and I knew if I moved, I'd either come or puke. Maybe both.
I didn't want to come from having a dream like that. Stupid, I know, but there it was. Plus there was the whole embarrassment part, and what kind of disgusting freak would Phaëthon think I was--
Oh, shit. Phaëthon. I kept perfectly still, praying I hadn't made enough noise to wake him up. I was dripping with sweat. The cabin felt like a potter's kiln, and the darkness was like this hot, wet blanket pressing me down.
I stayed like that for I don't know how long, my heart hammering in my chest like I'd run from Chalcedony Gate up to the Plaza del'Archimago. No sign that Phaëthon was awake and wondering what the fuck was wrong with me. And the crazy pain in my balls and cock settled back to just, you know, pain, and I could roll over and lay there and feel stupid and dirty and disgusting.
And there I lay 'til morning.
The White Otter sailed out of Endumion at noon. Ingvard, like the other passengers, was on deck, watching raptly as the distance widened between Troia and this, our small, floating world. He had not pressed me when I had said I preferred to stay in our cabin, but I knew he thought it odd.
He could think me as odd as he liked; he would think me odder still if I lost my self-control on the main deck of the White Otter. Better to stay below and pretend it was not happening, that safety was still almost within my reach. I lay on the top bunk and stared at the ceiling--if that was what one called it on a ship--trying very hard not to think of anything and succeeding only in thinking about the temple of Graia and the dim horror of Nera which I could not see clearly but which thronged my mind with shadows.
Mildmay had not, I suspected, told me quite everything about Nera. He had been nervous, disquieted, uncomfortable, and I knew him well enough to understand that those feelings would make him try to close down the discussion as quickly as he could. I did not think he had lied to me, but I thought he had probably edited the story considerably. It infuriated me that I could not draw on my own memories for corroboration, but all I could consciously remember of Nera was blood and smoke and the thick taste of terror.
The ship lurched beneath me; after a moment of incandescent panic, during which the ship lurched again in the identical fashion, I reasoned out that it was not a sign that we were sinking, merely that we had come out past the breakwater and were starting into the open sea. I had never heard a phrase in my life which I detested as much as I detested 'the open sea' at that moment. Would it have been so bad, a voice whispered treacherously in my mind, to have stayed in the Gardens? Astyanax was right, you know, you could have been perfectly happy there.
Mildmay, I thought, a little desperately. I couldn't have asked Mildmay to stay there. It would have killed him.
And, as if on cue, Mildmay said from the doorway, "Felix?"
Without the cane, he moved as silently as a cat--perhaps another reason he was determined to do without it--and he made me jump so that I nearly brained myself. "What?" I said, and my voice was sharp with startlement and guilt.
"Are you okay? Mr. Vilker said you--"
"And you were worried. How touching."
"I know you don't like deep water."
I wanted to scream at him, howl and curse and gibber. I said, "I'm fine. You don't need to worry about me."
"I won't then." And he left. I could have called him back, but I didn't. I did not want to.
Well, look, Milly-Fox, you did another stupid thing. Big fucking surprise.
I shouldn't've got mad at Felix, and I knew it before I'd gone a septad-foot. I knew what he was like. I knew how much he hated anybody knowing he wasn't perfect. I mean, I'd known he'd most likely be snippy when I'd gone down there. But it still pissed me off, and I thought as I was going back up on deck, Fuck him if he thinks I'm going to apologize for not doing nothing wrong. He wants to make up, he can come to me. And that was stupid, too.
'Cause Felix wasn't crazy now, and he didn't need me. I saw that as soon as he came up on deck, and there was Mr. Vilker and Mrs. Gauthy and Mr. Gauthy and Florian and Phaëthon all over him. His laugh carried across to where I was standing, and I thought, Fuck me sideways 'til I cry, and pretended I was staring at the ocean.
And I couldn't swallow my pride. I don't know if it was the dream or the news about the Morskaiakrov or what, but I'd think about crawling to Felix, begging him to be friends again, and then I'd remember to unclench my hands. I couldn't do it, no matter how miserable I got.
It probably would've looked funny to anybody who wasn't a part of it, 'cause day after day, there was that group of six people in their one particular place where Felix liked to hold court, and then there was me at the other end of the ship, staring out at the water. I was especially careful not to ask the sailors what they thought was going on, although I caught the way some of them looked at me, and I think they had a pretty good idea.
Meals were the worst. Meals were pure uncut Hell, and I was probably dropping weight again, and I didn't care. I hate having people look at me when I eat anyway, and then the conversation--powers and fucking saints. Felix and the Gauthys and Mr. Vilker and Captain Yarth would just go off on history and literature and all that other stuff, and Phaëthon and Florian would listen, and sometimes ask questions. And you could feel everybody focused on Felix, like they were all sunflowers and he was the sun. I swear it was like a cult, because I watched the captain, that first decad, go from giving Felix the seriously hairy eyeball to talking and laughing with him like he'd completely forgotten Felix was a hocus.
I tried a couple times to join in, when they were talking about stuff I knew, but nobody but Felix could understand what I said to start with, and then either Mr. Vilker proved me wrong or Felix made an answer that took me so far out of my depth I might as well have just jumped overboard and drowned for real. So I kept my mouth shut and tried not to care.
In our cabin, Phaëthon wasn't mean or nothing, but we didn't have a thing in the world to say to each other besides "good morning" and "good night." And although I didn't have no more dreams as bad as the one I'd had the first night on the White Otter, I wasn't sleeping well, and I kept dreaming about Ginevra. I felt like shit, and if Felix had been talking to me at all--besides correcting my grammar every fucking time I opened my mouth--I would have asked him to ward my dreams again, like he had back in the Gardens when he'd still liked me. But I couldn't ask that, either.
So that's how things stood. We were twelve days out, and I was standing at the stern, watching our wake, when Florian Gauthy came up beside me and said, "Why do you spend so much time looking at the ocean?"
I couldn't help my reflexive glance back, but his parents were laughing at something Felix had said and hadn't noticed Florian had gone. But that gave me time to kill my first answer, which was, 'Cause it beats the shit out of my other options. I just shrugged and said, "I like it."
"Oh," he said, like that wasn't the answer he wanted.
We stood there a while, me looking at the water and him looking at me, the water, then back at me again. I kept expecting one of his parents to come drag him away, but they didn't.
And finally Florian couldn't stand it no more and said, "How'd you get that scar on your face?"
Powers and saints, I thought. "A knife fight."
"Like a duel?" And he was all wide-eyed, like a little kid listening to a story.
"No, like a knife fight. I was about your age."
"Oh," he said, disappointed again. "Were your parents terribly cross?"
I really didn't mean to laugh, no matter what Felix said later. But I couldn't help it, and of course Florian wanted to know what was so funny, and I'm a shitty liar, so I told him the truth.
And then he wanted to know, if my parents weren't around, who looked after me, and I tried to explain about Keeper without actually explaining, if you follow me, but I'm no good at shit like that, and nobody, not even a kid like Florian, was going to believe I'd been to a flash boarding school like they got in Ferrau, and so somehow I ended up telling him all about being trained as a pickpocket. I didn't tell him none of the other things I'd been trained to do--I hadn't gone completely batfuck--but I told him way more than I should've. I don't know what the fuck got into me--maybe it was just that Florian was listening and interested and didn't mind at all that sometimes he had to ask me to repeat things--but I stood there on the deck of the White Otter and spilled my guts to Florian Gauthy the way I'd never done with anybody in my life.
And Florian drank it all in and wanted to know more about the Cheaps and the cade-skiffs and the Trials. I don't think he really believed most of the things I told him about the Arcane, but that was okay. Some of it I wouldn't have believed myself if I hadn't been there.
We were siting, leaning against the side of the ship, and I was telling him some of the tamer stories about Vey Coruscant, when Felix came up looking like the end of the world, and said, all polite and smooth and horrible, "Mildmay, could I talk to you for a moment, please?"
I think Florian caught the danger signals, because he stood up in a hurry and said, "I'd better be going. Thanks, Ker Foxe!" He bounded down the companionway, and I stood up. And when I was up, I looked at Felix, and he said in this low, controlled, fucking petrifying voice, "What were you telling him?"
"Dunno," I said. "Stories."
"You were telling him about Mélusine. Weren't you?"
"Um, yeah. So?"
"So?" He was still keeping his voice down, but I almost wished he'd shout. Because he was reminding me of a steam-boiler about to bust. I'd seen people after that happened once, down in Lyonesse, and I think that was the first time I'd really understood that things could have been a lot fucking worse than my stupid scar.
"Yeah. Why's it matter?"
"Why does it matter? We've been going around admitting we're brothers all over the place and now you're telling them you're from Mélusine and you want to know why it matters?"
"Yeah. More and more, actually."
He stared at me for a moment, then made a sort of growling noise and clenched his hands in his hair like he wanted to start ripping it out in handfuls. If there'd been anywhere I could've gone to get away from him, believe me, I'd already have been there. But, you know, I figured nothing he could pull could actually be worse than some of the stuff he'd done when he was crazy, and I'd come out the other side of that. And if he thought I was afraid of him, I'd really be fucked. So I just waited, and after a minute he fetched a deep breath and brought his hands down. And when he opened his eyes, I could see he was still royally pissed, but he didn't look like he was fixing to explode. At least not right away.
He said, real careful like he thought if he went any faster I wouldn't understand him, "The people on this ship know I'm a wizard, right?"
He stopped and raised his eyebrows at me, so I said, "Yeah."
"Eusebians don't have tattoos, right?"
"Nor do Troian wizards. Right?"
"So how am I supposed to explain being a wizard and yet not being of any of the ... acceptable schools?"
"No, I didn't think you did," he said, mean as a snake. "They may not recognize the tattoos, but they'll recognize the name of the Mirador. I have to be from somewhere else."
And he had lost me. "Huh?"
He rolled his eyes. "If they ask where I'm from or what school I practice, I can't tell them the truth, or they'll hand us straight over to the dragoons when we dock in Klepsydra."
"Yeah, I told you as much back in Endumion."
Me and my fucking mouth. You'd think me of all people could learn when to keep it shut, but I never do. I saw Felix's jaw clench and thought for a second he was going to turn me into a frog or hit me with a lightning bolt or something. He said through his teeth, "They already knew."
'Cause you were wearing them fucking rings, I thought, but this time I managed not to say it.
He gave me this look like somehow he'd heard me anyway and said, "Since I can't lie about being a wizard, I have to lie about where I'm from. And I can't do that if you're telling everybody on the ship heartwarming stories about growing up a gutter rat in Mélusine."
"Well, if you'd told me--"
"I didn't imagine I needed to. Clearly, I radically overestimated your intelligence, a mistake I won't be making again."
Septad and six nasty things I could've said, and I didn't say 'em. Didn't say nothing, actually, because I still wasn't going to crawl to Felix, and I figured that was about all he was going to want to hear from me. So I didn't say nothing and he didn't say nothing, and there were a couple sailors down on the main deck pretending like they weren't trying to get close enough to eavesdrop.
Felix looked away first, muttering, "I suppose it is unlikely that Florian will repeat your stories to his parents."
"Pretty safe bet he won't," I said, and it came out sharper than was maybe a good idea.
"So you're entrusting our safety to the discretion of a twelve-year-old boy? Brilliant."
"I'm just saying Florian ain't gonna do nothing to get himself in trouble. Which he would do."
He looked at me. I saw the spark in his eye and I knew what was coming. "Is not going to do anything, not ain't gonna do nothing." And, Kethe, his imitation of me was spot-fucking-on.
"Fuck you," I said and turned back to the sea. Yeah, since you ask, I'd rather've left, but for all that my leg was better, those damn stairs were still an ugly scene, and it would just give Felix a whole new crop of nasty things to say. Turned out to work the same anyway, because after a moment Felix left.
I stood there 'til the sun was almost down, saying a bunch of things to the water that I'd wanted to say to Felix. Ocean didn't care.
That I had not murdered my brother by the end of the second week of our voyage was something of a miracle. I could feel his sullen, silent presence everywhere I went, and the ostentatious way he refused to join the social circle of the passengers irritated me nearly to screaming point. And then from playing the solitary, brooding misanthrope to turn around and tell Florian Gauthy the one thing we most desperately needed our traveling companions not to know ... if I had murdered him, he would have deserved it.
I cursed Mildmay for being an idiot. I cursed Captain Yarth for separating Mildmay and me, meaning that we had no opportunities to speak together privately. Sometimes, for variety, I cursed the Mirador instead. Mercifully, Ingvard Vilker did not ask about the tattoos, anymore than he seemed to notice that he never saw me without my shirt. He displayed, in fact, a remarkable lack of curiosity, which I was both grateful for and a little unnerved by. Good manners, I said to myself. Just because yours are atrocious ... I relaxed and talked history and literature with Ingvard and listened to his stories of working in the Gauthy household.
Theokrita Gauthy, it seemed, was a domestic despot, ruling children and servants alike with an iron fist. The housemaids were apparently sacked on a regular basis and for the most minor transgressions. Ingvard and the other higher-class employees, the boys' tutor and the girls' governess, had at least a modicum of autonomy, though the tutor and governess were required to sleep in the house, within earshot of the children. "They never have a breath to call their own," Ingvard said.
"But your situation is different?" We were indulging in slow preparations for bed, dragging out the opportunity to talk without one or the other of the Gauthys hanging over our shoulders.
"I sleep out, thank you very much. And I have as little to do with the children as I can arrange."
"Wise," I said, laughing. "So you have lodgings of your own?"
"A very nice private flat. My salary is generous, and Keria Gauthy is not so concerned about my morals as long as I do not debauch anyone under her roof."
"Do you make a practice of debauchery?"
He gave me a sly, sidelong look and said, "I wouldn't call it 'debauchery,' no matter what Keria Gauthy thinks."
"Is she very straight-laced then?"
"She is not a tolerant woman. She believes piety lies in rectitude."
"Oh. One of those."
"Yes, exactly," Ingvard said with a grimace. "Fortunately, she is not observant."
"What about her husband?"
He snorted. "Ker Gauthy's energies belong to his business. In other matters, he lets his wife do his thinking."
"A bad habit," I said, moving past him toward the bunks.
At that moment, the White Otter pitched into a wave with unaccustomed vigor. I stumbled against Ingvard. He caught my upper arms--to steady me, I thought, but then he kissed me hard, almost violently, and I staggered back against the bunks. He followed eagerly, and I had to hold him off with both hands.
He caught my face between his palms and kissed me again, ruthlessly. I was taller, but he was heavier. "We both know what we want," he murmured as I half-sat, half-fell on the lower bunk, hitting my head painfully in the process. Ingvard was right there with me, still kissing my face and throat, his hands cradling my skull.
"Ingvard, wait!" I said, as breathless as a virgin. The scars on my back seemed to be burning; I could not bear the shame of having him discover them. And I did not like this feeling of being assaulted, overpowered. "Stop!"
He did, sat back, frowning. "What's wrong?"
"I didn't expect ..." I said feebly, and he hooted with laughter.
"Didn't expect? Are you asking me to believe you haven't been flirting outrageously for the past fortnight?"
I could feel myself blushing; worse, I could feel myself shaking. "No," I said, almost whispering. "But ..."
"But what? I'm sorry if I rushed you, but you also can't expect me to believe you're a virgin." He was leaning closer, and one hand was now on my thigh, hot as a branding iron through my trousers.
"No. I ..." I couldn't breathe, couldn't find my self-possession, my strength. "I can't do this," I said, the words coming out in a strangled whisper. I lurched to my feet, knocking his hands away, and fled from the cabin out into the moonless night.
I hid like a child, and when Ingvard opened the door and stood peering out, he could not see me. He called my name in a low voice, but was clearly loath to come after me, for which I did not blame him. Quite the contrary, I was grateful. I was shaking, my body awash with nauseating heat, and any attempt on my part to speak or move--anything--would result only in hysterical weeping. I stayed where I was, crouched in the shelter of a rain barrel, and presently Ingvard retreated and closed the door.
I knew there would be sailors about--one could not leave a sailing vessel unattended while all on board got a good night's sleep--but they did not seem to have noticed the melodrama being acted on their stage, and I hoped I had found a sufficiently out of the way niche that I would not be discovered at least until I had myself under somewhat better control.
To say that I did not understand what had happened would have been the grossest of understatements. I had never cared to be dominated--six years with Malkar would be enough to give anyone a distaste for that role--but I had never found it frightening, never been reduced to a state of panic merely by being kissed. I was still frightened now, but not by Ingvard; I was frightened by my reaction to him.
There had not been even a hint of this trouble with Astyanax. We had done a great deal more than merely kiss, and I had felt nothing but lazy pleasure. Of course, he had made no attempt to dominate me, or even take the initiative. But still, if I were going to be traumatized in the aftermath of what Malkar had done to me, I would have expected it to be triggered by nakedness, or the sight of another man's arousal. Not by something as trivial as a kiss.
Something must have happened to me. Something else. Something that caused this incalculable reaction to a man using his strength against me. I clenched my hands on my shins, pressing my forehead against my knees. Something had happened to me that I did not remember. The mere idea made me feel ill, furious ... helpless. I was shivering, but I could not go back to the cabin and could not think of anywhere else to go. The ship was too small a world; it was a miracle that I had found an unoccupied and unobserved corner to begin with. But I could not stay out here all night.
It took me some time to admit to myself that there was one place I could go that would be safe.
It was almost the septad-night. Me and Phaëthon were both lying in our bunks. I was awake, and I knew he was, too, because I could hear him turning over and thrashing around, trying to find some way to lie that was comfortable. My leg was aching--the weather'd been sharp today, and there was rain coming, and powers and saints but I hated the fact I could tell that. So he was restless and I was achy, and neither one of us looked like we were getting to sleep any time soon.
The knock on the door made us both start up like we'd been stabbed. I heard Phaëthon kind of squeak, and I was cursing myself for not having got a knife. But I went to the door--cabin that size, you don't need lights--and said, "Who's there?"
"It's me." Felix's voice. "I need to talk to you."
So I'm a dog, to be whistled up when you want me? But I didn't say it, no matter how loud I was thinking it, because he wouldn't be wandering around at this hour of the night just to yank my chain. And, even allowing for the whispering, his voice sounded funny--and not funny in a good way, neither.
"Gimme a second," I said.
He said something, but it wasn't loud enough to make out. Might've been "please," or "need," and I could feel the goose-flesh rising on my arms and bunching my shoulders up. Because it wasn't like him, and this was seeming worse and worse.
"What is it?" Phaëthon hissed while I was dragging on my trousers. "What's going on?"
"M'brother," I said. "It'll just take a minute. You okay?"
"Of course. Go ahead. Do you want the light?" He sounded worried, too. Of course, he liked Felix. They all did.
"Nah. It's okay. But thanks."
I opened the door and slipped out.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust, and I still couldn't see much of Felix. But I could see how wide his eyes were, and when he touched my arm, like he had to prove to himself I was really there, I could feel how cold his fingers were and how he was shaking. And I think it was right then that I forgot to be mad.
"Are you okay?" I said, even though I knew he wasn't. I'd learned all about giving Felix space, and besides I was trying hard to pretend that he didn't look like he'd spooked right the fuck out, gone back down that well where his crazies were.
"I'm all right," he said, but it was a creaky little whisper and he sounded like his head had gone bad again, like we were still in Kekropia, all alone out in the grass.
"What happened?" I said.
"N-nothing. It was nothing. But I need a ... a favor."
Oh fuck, sacred bleeding fuck, this was bad. For him to admit that he needed anything, especially that he needed anything from me--this was worse than bad. "Anything," I said, although that wasn't a smart thing to say to Felix and I knew it. "Just tell me what."
He made some movement--nothing I could make out clearly--and it was a moment before he said, in that same creaky little voice, "Trade cabins with me. Please."
"Sure. But why? Did Mr. Vilker do something to you?"
"No!" he said, so panicky that I knew the answer was "yes." "It wasn't his fault."
"What wasn't his fault?"
"Mildmay, please. Just ... please."
"Okay," I said. Whatever Mr. Vilker had or hadn't done, it didn't matter nearly as much as getting Felix calmed down and to where he was himself again. He might drive me absolutely screaming batfuck nuts, but I didn't want him back the way he was before. "We trade cabins, and you get some sleep, right?"
"I'll try. And--you mustn't say anything to him. You mustn't."
"I won't pick no fights," I said. Which wasn't what he'd said, but he didn't call me on it, just sort of nodded and said, "Thank you," and went into the cabin where Phaëthon was for sure wondering what the fuck was going on.
I wished I could have told him. But I didn't know either. I didn't think either me or Phaëthon was going to get answers from Felix, but I did wonder if maybe Mr. Vilker might cough up the problem. If it really wasn't his fault, he was probably about as confused as I was.
So I wasn't quite as slow getting over to the other cabin as I might have been. I mean, it wasn't nothing I was exactly looking forward to--I already knew Mr. Vilker didn't care for me, and whatever had gone down between him and Felix, it couldn't've been much fun. But I sincerely did want to find out what the fuck had happened, partly out of my own fucking curiosity, but more because I wanted in the worst way to know if this was going to be a one-time thing, or if the celebrants hadn't done quite as good a job on Felix as they all said they had. Because if this sort of thing was going to start happening regularly ... well, it was going to make getting back across Kekropia even more interesting, and I'd already thought it was looking way more interesting than it needed to be.
I knocked on the cabin door and heard Mr. Vilker say, "Felix? Is that you?" He sounded half-hopeful and half-worried, and I figured that at least Felix hadn't been lying when he'd said it hadn't been Mr. Vilker's fault. Because he sounded like somebody who'd bitten into a pear and found out it was a lemon and was now trying to figure out where the fuck he'd gone wrong, and that wasn't what he'd've sounded like if he'd meant any harm.
I opened the door and went in. "Nope," I said. "Me."
He was sitting on the bottom bunk, and he didn't look pleased to see me. "Where's Felix?" he said.
"In the other cabin. He asked me to swap."
"Did he? Sent you with his apologies?"
"Um, no. He just asked me to swap." Mr. Vilker was looking pretty much like a thunder-cloud, so I added cautiously, "He didn't tell me what happened."
"A gentleman," Mr. Vilker said like it was an insult.
"He seemed pretty shook up," I said, still cautious.
There was this pause where both of us were waiting for the other guy to say something. And then Mr. Vilker kind of laughed, and shook his head, and said, "Well, it's hardly the first time I've made a fool of myself. But I really did think ..." He looked at me, and I could see he was worried as well as pissed. "He wouldn't tell Ker Gauthy, would he?"
"No," I said, because no matter what had happened, of all the things Felix might do, telling anybody was about as likely as him sprouting wings and flying home. Less likely, even, because if he could sprout wings, I'd back him to do it.
"Oh! Then he is ..."
"Nothing." And I would've bet all the money me and Felix had that he'd been within an inch of asking me if Felix was molly.
I said, 'cause I figured Mr. Vilker deserved something, "He's got a thing about deep water. It makes him twitchy. And don't tell him I told you, or he'd most likely drop me over the side."
His laugh sounded better this time. "My mother was terrified of spiders. And she handled it not half so well as Ker Harrowgate."
"Yeah. It's rough on him."
"I can imagine."
Another gap, and I said, "I'm sorry, but I ain't gonna be able to reach the top bunk."
"What? Oh! Oh, of course. I beg your pardon. Did he roust you out of your own bed?"
He got up, eyeing me like now he was wondering if I was molly and likely to make a pass at him. Which even if I had been, I wasn't.
Mr. Vilker crawled up into the top bunk, and I lay down with a sigh. "You can put out the light whenever," I said.
"All right," he said, like it wasn't what he'd been expecting me to say. But fucked if I was going to give him anything more. Him and Felix could just work it the fuck out on their own.
He snuffed the lamp, and I lay there and prayed I didn't dream about Ginevra again.
Phaëthon kindled the light as I closed the door behind me.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," I said.
"Where's Mildmay?" the boy said, his eyes wide, as if I might have murdered my brother and thrown the body over the side. "Are you ... is he all right?"
And of course, being an idiot, I had not had sufficient foresight to think of a plausible story. Mildmay would not press me, but I could not expect such tact and gentleness from anyone else on the White Otter.
"Nightmare," I said. "Old superstition--if you change beds, the nightmare won't follow you. You know." That wasn't exactly how I'd been taught to banish nightmares as a child, but Phaëthon was looking skeptical enough without the more esoteric details.
"And you couldn't just change bunks with Vilker?"
Damn the boy for applying logic. "No," I said, now inventing frantically. "You have to change rooms. Crossing a boundary, closing gates, that sort of thing."
Phaëthon now looked merely as if he thought I was crazy, which was unpleasant but better than concerned curiosity.
I sat down on the lower bunk. I was still too jittery to sleep, but sitting or lying quietly in the dark sounded like gift enough.
"Well, since you've disturbed my sleep anyway," Phaëthon said, "I'm going to the latrine."
Prudish child, I thought, but I had no objection to his leaving the cabin. As far as I was concerned, the longer he was gone the better.
He climbed slowly down; as he put his hand on the door latch, I saw the stain on the seat of his trousers and said before I thought, "You're bleeding."
He whipped around, eyes wide and jaw slack with fear.
"Are you hurt?" I said. "Did someone ..." And then it occurred to me that one might have reasons other than prudery to eschew the use of a chamber pot. I looked again at the bone-structure of the face, the delicate bones of wrists and hands.
"What is your real name?" I said softly.
She raised her chin defiantly and said, "Arakhne of the House Attalis."
© Sarah Monette 2006 Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.