22nd of Scaral, 410 A.A.Undercity, Averalaan
Sor Na Shannen was incandescent with rage; had light been required for the kin to see, she would have nonetheless been visible in the night of the ruins, so potent was her fury. Stray strands of ebony hair flew, limned in blue and red.
“Sor Na Shannen.” It was Lord Isladar who spoke. Even Karathis was silent.
She wheeled, her hands now shaped in fists, the perfect length of her nails also glittering with traces of dark light. She waited for his anger, his accusation, or the cool tones of his mockery; failure, if it did not destroy, had other consequences. She was not of a mind to accept them with grace.
But he was Lord Isladar, the least predictable of the Kialli lords. “We have been prepared for discovery for some time. It has come later, rather than earlier.” He glanced at Lord Karathis, who nodded.
“Ariane has . . . disturbed the gate; she is now aware of what she faces. Whether or not she can intervene again remains to be seen—but it is my suspicion that she cannot.” He knelt; the marble into which she had driven her sword was cracked, and the crack ran the length of the polished stone from one side of the coliseum to the other. “We have failed in our attempt to take House Terafin, but it was never necessary; it would have been convenient, no more.”
“It would have given us the opportunity,” Karathis cut in, his voice rumbling and crackling, “to destroy the god-born in the heart of their own domain. With their destruction, the Empire would have been in chaos just as the Lord emerged.”
Isladar nodded; that had, indeed, been the plan. It was not, however, the first time a plan would be frustrated; nor was it likely to be the last. Individually, mortals were beneath notice. This was an acknowledged truth. But in the aggregate? They were powerful and capable. This second truth, however, was less acknowledged, and when it was, in however reluctant a way, it was qualified: The god-born were mortal, but they bore the blood of the gods.
“We will not now have that opportunity,” Isladar continued softly. “But it was never required.” He tendered the enraged demon a brief nod. “We have what we require, if we are careful, and if your servitors can be kept in check.
“We will begin, Karathis and I, to close the ways.”
“We will not now have Scarran,” she said, grudging the slower burn of her rage.
“We will. The damage done by the Winter Queen will require the whole of the darkest night to repair. Can you do it?” he asked. It was a challenge.
But it was, as well, a gift, and it mollified her. “Yes.”
“Then stay; we must go in haste. Tell us only what you know of the entrances that Ararath once used to wander these streets; it is there we will go first.”
“Does it matter? If they are found, we will merely add to the numbers of sacrifices required to dedicate the standing ground at the ceremony’s close.”
Isladar’s silence was not gratifying. But, inasmuch as a Kialli lord could be, he had been gracious. She waited. “It matters,” he finally said. “If, by unforeseen circumstance, one such mortal should escape, the Kings will know.”
“They will know now,” she snarled.
Isladar chuckled. “You have been decades in your dance among mortals of power,” he pointed out. “But you have not observed The Ten or their relationship with the Kings closely. I do not believe that it is so simple an affair as that. I believe that The Terafin will ask for—will indeed require—proof, before she approaches the Kings. Yes, if she chooses to do so without proof, they will hear her, and they will listen. But it might be politically costly for Terafin to do so.
“It is therefore urgent that we find, and seal off, all entrances that Ararath used before his death. Or,” he added, “all of the entrances gleaned from his thoughts before his death. They will be the most common, I think, and will also be the first searched.
“We must give them nothing.”
22nd of Scaral, 410 A.A.
Healerie, House Terafin, Averalaan Aramarelas
Arann woke in the late afternoon.
The slightly rounded ceiling of the healerie was the first thing he expected to see, and when he opened his eyes, it was there.
Although he’d never been in this room before, he knew it almost as well as he knew the den’s apartment. He knew where the beds were laid out; he knew, as well, what the cupboards, recessed along the far wall, contained. He knew the women—and men—who had learned their craft from Alowan. He knew that Alowan, almost revered in Terafin, had steadfastly refused to take the House Name, and he even knew why: A House Name was a political statement, a statement of allegiance. Alowan’s allegiance was to life, in all its forms, and more, to the preservation of life. Healer-born, and scarred by his talent—more than most—he had nonetheless chosen to serve. But service to The Terafin was not, in the end, service to the House. It was, in its entirety, service to the woman. Amarais Handernesse ATerafin.
Alowan had healed her, just as he had healed Arann. And he had left her, just as he had left Arann, bereft and on the shoals of life, as if life were an unexpected burden.
But she had borne it. She had accepted the gift, and in return, she had offered Alowan the healerie for as long as he was willing to stay within her walls. She had offered him the House Name, but she had never expected him to accept it. And he had not disappointed, in the end.
Arann knew Alowan’s life.
Alowan knew Arann’s.
He glanced down from the curve of a ceiling beyond which the sun shone cool in the coming Scaral evening. Finch was seated beside his bed, her face pale, her hair clean and bound above her face. She wasn’t Jay; tendrils didn’t escape to cover her eyes.
She wore a pale cream dress with a simple belt; he couldn’t see her feet, but it didn’t matter. He reached for her with his left hand, and she met him halfway with both of hers. He tried not to crush her fingers.
She tried not to notice when he failed.
She nodded. “Jay told me to tell you—” she hesitated. “There was trouble, in the House.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “A mage came. There was magic. And Jay says . . . something tried to kill The Terafin.”
She nodded. “It looked like Rath.” She glanced around the empty room. “I’m not supposed to upset you. Or talk much, really.”
He nodded. Waited. Neither of them had ever been big talkers, and it was always awkward when two quiet people had no loud buffers between them.
“We’re not sure what happened. Jay’s going to talk with The Terafin tonight.” Drawing a breath, she added, “The Terafin’s given us rooms here. Big rooms. And our own kitchen. And an old guy, Ellerson. I think he’s one of the servants.” She hesitated and then added, “But his only job right now is us.”
Arann nodded again.
“Jay will come later if Alowan lets her in.”
She hesitated and then asked, “Should I stay?”
He nodded again and closed his eyes. After a few minutes, he said, “I think this is a good place.”
He shook his head. “The Terafin.”
“What she wants isn’t that different from what Jay wants.”
“Jay wants to protect the rest of us.”
“She wants to protect the things she loves. Right now, that’s only us.” Arann opened his eyes. “But it won’t always be only us.” He glanced at the ceiling again, at the small cracks there. “Jay thinks she failed,” he said quietly. “Because of Lefty.”
Finch didn’t mention the others by name, but he felt the small accusation in her silence. “What do you think?”
Coming from Finch, the question surprised him enough that he pushed himself up the headboard into a seated position. He didn’t, however, let go of Finch’s hand, so the shift in position dragged her half out of her chair.
“I think she failed,” he said, after a long pause. “She failed Lefty.”
Before Finch could find words—and it was pretty clear she was searching for them—he added, “But it wasn’t her fault. All of us failed him. He’s gone,” he added.
She didn’t ask him how he knew. She knew where he had almost gone.
“I was so angry, Finch. I was so angry. At myself. At Jay. At everything.” He forced himself to release her hand, to lay his, white and trembling, against the coverlet across his lower body. “But we don’t fail if we don’t try. Jay will always try. She won’t always succeed.”
“It’s better to try. Because she won’t always fail, either.” He looked at Finch, then. Finch, who, like Arann, was still alive.
“Yes,” a new voice said, and Finch turned to see Alowan, standing in the arch that separated the arboretum from the beds. “She will not always fail.”
Arann tensed. He couldn’t help that. But he didn’t try to stand; he didn’t try to go to the old healer.
“Tell me about your Jay,” Alowan said quietly. His voice carried; there was nothing to break it. Even breath was almost silent in this place.
Finch glanced at Arann.
Arann said, “He knows what I know. He’s not asking me.”
Alowan grimaced slightly but nodded. “Tell me, Finch, about the first time you met Jay.”
Finch hesitated. But Alowan’s age and the peaceful wisdom he radiated couldn’t be reduced to simple threat; it couldn’t be ignored as distant authority. “Why?” she asked, at last.
“She reminds me of someone, I think. And I would like to know what you see in her.”
Finch spread her hands. “She’s Jay. She saved my life.”
“And you stayed with her?”
“I had nowhere else to go.” She hesitated again and then added, “But even if I had, I would have wanted to stay with her.”
“Because she’s Jay. She knows things. She believes in things. I think she wants to change the world. I know I can’t, not by myself—but if I stay with her, I might be able to help.”
“Does she know this?”
“I don’t know. It’s never seemed important to her. Why we stay, I mean. I don’t know if she really questions it.”
Alowan nodded, as if that answer satisfied him. “She doesn’t question it; she is young, and she is not yet what she will be. But it is there.”
It was dark, and the moon’s light filtered through the arboretum, silvering leaves and hanging plants, by the time Teller came to relieve Finch.
“Jay’s back,” he whispered. He glanced at Arann, who was sleeping.
“He sleeps a lot,” Finch told him, as she vacated her chair. “But so does Alowan.”
She nodded. “But . . . I like him.”
Teller smiled. He took Arann’s hand from hers and settled in. “Jay’ll come in the morning. She’s cleared the kitchen,” he added, with just the hint of a smile.
“How did Ellerson take it?”
“About as well as she expected.”
Finch’s grimace was delicate.
“Did she speak with The Terafin?”
Teller nodded. “The Terafin offered her two solarii a day.”
Finch couldn’t whistle, and she seldom regretted the lack. She did make the attempt, now, and it fell into a quiet huff of breath, as it always did. “For what?” She was wary, but she wasn’t entirely suspicious. Just a little. They would always have that “little” when dealing with the powerful.
“Work.” Teller hesitated. “We’re not entirely certain what she wants, but she said—” he glanced at Finch. “Maybe you should go back to the wing and let Jay explain.”
“She won’t say anything you don’t.” They both knew that Teller’s memory was better. He was, as far as they had one, a keeper of records, a minihistorian. It was Teller who transcribed Jay’s dreams.
“Jay says The Terafin wants proof that the undercity exists. She—The Terafin—sent people out to explore Rath’s place and the subbasement. They found nothing.”
Finch frowned. “In the basement?”
He nodded. “Nothing at all.”
“But we’ve used that entrance—”
“About a hundred times. They couldn’t find it.”
“Jay thinks it wasn’t there.”
“How could a hole that size just—just disappear?”
Teller shrugged. He reached over and touched Arann’s forehead with the back of his hand before nodding and returning to his chair. “Probably magic,” he told her, still gazing at Arann’s sleeping face. “We almost lost him.”
Finch touched his shoulder gently.
“We lost Duster.”
She had saved Finch’s life. Finch said nothing, waiting.
“Jay wants to find the body if she can.”
“Bury it. Have a funeral. She says we’ll never find the others.”
“Did she say when?”
Teller shook his head. “But she’s serious about the work for The Terafin. Because The Terafin promised two things in exchange for the work. The money.”
“We get to stay. Here, in the wing, while Jay works.”
“And when she’s done?”
“If she can prove her value to the House and to The Terafin, we—” He swallowed. “We get to stay.”
“She’ll offer Jay the House Name.”
Silence then. Of all the things they’d been foolish enough to hope for, to dream of, in the streets of the twenty-fifth, in an apartment that was smaller than their single rooms, becoming ATerafin wasn’t one of them. “Jay won’t look for Duster,” Finch said quietly.
Teller nodded. Even in the gentle dark, his face was expressionless. “She’s practical,” he said softly. “While there’s any chance that she can do this, that she can prove she’s useful, she’ll concentrate on that to the exclusion of almost everything else.”
“What does she want us to do?”
“She hasn’t said. Angel’s biting through walls,” he added, “because Jay’s going to be searching—on her own—with the mage. He asked to go, and she said no.”
“Did she take Carver?”
“She’s taking no one.”
“So . . . we’re supposed to sit around in our rooms and wait?”
“We’ve done worse.”
“I told Angel that.”
“He wasn’t impressed.”
“Not much.” Teller hesitated again and then added, “She’s lost too much. She can’t stop, and she can’t think about it. This is better, for her.”
Finch agreed. But the presence of a mage—a known mage—made her uneasy. “I’ll go back,” she told him and turned toward the arch.
“Talk to the others. Talk to Ellerson.”
“What should I—” she stopped. “I will. Watch Arann. He’s really, really lonely,” she added, searching for words and finding all of them inadequate.
“It’s the healing,” Teller replied softly.
She wanted to ask him how he knew. But she didn’t; he was Teller.
“Rath told me once.” He paused and then added, “Rath’s dead.”
So much death. So much death to bring them to the edge of House Terafin, upon the Isle.
She surprised herself when she spoke. “Let’s make it mean something.” Looking back, she saw that she had his attention. “The deaths,” she said. “Let’s make them count.”
“For anything, Teller. Duster died so the rest of us could live. Let’s make it count.”
“You sound like Jay.”
“There are worse things to sound like.” They both smiled, and she turned then and left the room, pausing for a moment to dip her fingers into ripples of moon-dappled water in the arboretum’s fountain.