P A T H E I M A T H O S
“The closest I've come to a bouncy castle, before this is... I'm not telling you now." Susan complained, lifting her head from William's arm and narrowing her stare at his smile. "It was a jungle gym...." His expression devolved into lazy-eyed confoundment. "A jungle gym, you know... those things kids play on in parks. I ended up with bruises on my bum and a cider hangover. If it’s going to be outdoors, it has to be something padded... or a golf course with that nice soft grass."
“Golf courses? Are you sure there’s no werewolf in your family?” he laughed, folding his arms behind his head against the silver floor. “You don’t want to believe I was a bouncy castle virgin because it disturbs your cozy vision of my omni... slut... tifer... my omnislutiferousness.”
“That’s not a word.”
“English isn’t my first language.” he sighed, his hand wandering to her breast. They lay together in the midst of the structure to which she had referred, unclothed but for the length of blue ikat he had worn into the garden, Susan's own garments draped from several of the inflatable turrets surrounding them. The midnight sky was lightly veiled by a haze swept up from the city, though the foremost stars retained their trenchant brilliance. She arranged lines of idle association between them, able to devise no novel constellations and touching fingers to her face in an inquiry into her own sense of pleasant dislocation. It was furnished by consumption of the dawamesk William had concocted in the kitchen and perfect secrecy from various fruits, pistachios and a dose of the hashish he obtained from nameless associates.
"I am completely shitfaced but I can't stop eating this stuff." she confessed as she leant over to suck one of the three remaining sweetmeats from the pallor of his stomach; rolling back, she reached out for the telephone lying in obscurity at the base of the wall and began reading through his numbers. “There’s three... four Pandoras in here. Who knows four Pandoras? Who’s Crazy Pandora? And Phaedra? I love that name.”
“Crazy Pandora's in Spain now, I think... Phaedra’s a sixty year old witch with gold bridgework and is more of a sabre-toothed tiger than a cougar, but I still would.”
“Who's Javier B?"
"Oh... just this guy..."
“Exactly how gay are you, William, because I don't fancy walking in one day and finding someone's shiny bollocks in mid bloody air." His disturbing laughter echoed through the trees around them as his head fell slackly sideways.
“I don’t know..." he sighed.
"Yes you do..."
"Oh cloudcheeks, please don't flimsy-scale me..."
She frowned, then laughed.
"I'm Kinsey scaling you."
"Whatever... it's just a little black line, and my scale needs more directions, poupée... dimensions..." he explained. His hand rose again and wandered over her face, tracing the shape of her brows. "It's not really a thing for me. I don't look at men and think, wow, that guy’s hotness is putting me off girls forever, and vice versa... that's crazy. And wasteful. I just can't get political about something as dumb and strange as sex.” Susan smiled at his sincerity. “If I get a choice, I suppose I do swim toward estrogen island rather than gonad inlet, but there are a few pillow-princess inches on my person that would find it hard to dire au revoir owner/operator blowjobs.” he laughed. “But je ne sais pas... if you’ve got your hand down my pants, all I'm really thinking is wow, you read my mind."
“Wow, you put some thought into that.”
“Genius is located on the slut chromosome. It’s science.”
“Nothing to do with how much time you spend with a bong thinking about sex, then.”
“Ever tried girls?”
“No..." Susan sighed. "I always think of lesbians as experts. I’m too lazy.”
“You’re sure? Phaedra loves a brunette with an accent and I don’t mind taking time out of my busy schedule to make sure you’re doing it right.”
“Thanks, but no.”
"Don't be backward about coming forward with nasty scenarios, cloudcheeks... your wish is my I thought you'd never ask." he smiled.
"I don't really have a secret thing..." Susan rolled her tongue behind the denial, fueling his suspicion.
"Well, you can cross semibestiality right off the to-do list."
She slapped his arm.
"Alright... I do sort of have a thing... about men. Watching guys going at it.”
"Mon dieu... so it was a lie about the bollocks in the air... in fact, nothing would please you more..." William declared, taking up his phone. “Anything for you, baby. Bear or twink?”
"No! I don’t mean now...”
“Mmm Javier... está muy bueno. I never have, but he’s got a great personality. And a monster cock. I'm just assuming you're a size queen...” he grinned with the phone to his ear. “Javier? Sup? I’ve got this freak here and she’s begging me to go gay for pay. Throwing Cs right at me while I’m talking to you.” William fended her gently with his arm. “I’ll deal you in for half if you can get here in twenty minutes. Yeah yeah yeah...” He looked back at her dubiously. “Well, she says she just wants to watch, but I can't guarantee she won't strap on and tap in...”
Susan seized and threw the telephone from the edge of the castle, rolling him over and spanking his rear while he lay with his face pressed to the vinyl, incapacitated with laughter.
“Your face...” he gasped as she perceived the ruse to which she had fallen victim.
“You are so fucking immature!”
"I know... je suis désolé.”
"Oh no..." she cried, pushing him over onto his back and discovering the remaining dawamesk flattened by his stomach to the floor of the castle; he caught her leg and dumped her onto her back though she thwarted the kiss he attempted by covering his mouth with both hands, shrieking as he pushed his tongue between her fingers. A pocket of sap smacked in the fire he had set in the midst of the magnolias, at which she started violently, then lapsed onto the vinyl with relief. “Every time I hear a noise I think it’s your brother about to take my head off with a shotgun.”
“Why? Has he said something?” he asked, settling alongside her with his ear to her navel, drawing the blue cloth over their legs.
“He doesn’t have to... he just looks at me, and I know he knows that I know. Not that I actually know anything about him... and I think I prefer it that way..."
“There's a lot I don't know either." William admitted. "I was at one end of the world and he was at the other a lot of the time... some of what I've heard is just third-hand backwash bullshit..." He remembered the dawamesk and peeled it off himself, sucking the sweetness from his fingers. "I could tell you the things I believe.”
A crane-feather moon formed the eye of a dark iron sky as Kala'amātya's feet were lowered onto black sand, beyond the reach of the hissing wash. The small, sun-browned men who had carried him over the breakers scanned the low dunes anxiously, their compatriots stumbling through the shallows with an oak trunk longer than any of them were tall. The Pusan pirates dumped the coffer onto the sand and waded back out to the small, fat-bellied ship that threatened to founder on the sloping shore with every slowly rolling wave. He dragged his belongings up the beach into the sea grass, his clothing whipped by the breeze as the boat’s bow lantern swung in the darkness, a perfunctory farewell. From the vessel the barren blue coast had seemed reassuringly desolate, the autumnal wind hissing across it in a foretaste of winter. He hauled the chest behind him, heading along a cleft in the sandy hills.
At the top of the dune a searing yellow light flared from all points without warning; he put out an arm to shield his eyes and beyond the glare glimpsed a multitude of faces, brandishing their fierce conical lanterns to maintain their bewildering effect. Neither his Mandarin nor far more partial Gangwon dialect placated them; weary, he offered no resistance, going down onto his knees and permitting them to bind his long arms to a cane and drive him before them while a portion of their number struggled with his trunk upon their shoulders.
He watched the ground change, the night-sky sand gaining a mantle of needles fallen from the black pines as they followed the bank of a meandering, sea-bound river, frogs chirping amid the water hyacinth. The party made its way into a village full of the whispered sounds of dusk, where simple thatch and cedar domiciles awaited them; the yoke was cut from his shoulders and he was ushered inside the most consequential building, a bare room walled by white paper laid over lattice, pale grass matting scuffing softly beneath his bare feet. The men around him resembled the tribesmen of his own homeland with their short stature and tea-skinned faces. He could make nothing of the admonition dealt to his captors by their master nor the address directed at himself, its clipped syllables aligned by percussive delivery into a demand, but he felt the man’s stare and in his apathy waited too long to lower his own toward the floor. The daimyo rose and commanded his retainers to seize the prisoner’s head, standing between them to peer down into Kala'amātya's eyes, moving to one side to admit more light from the lantern that was brought to bear.
It seemed he was not to be disposed of that night, shut up instead inside a grain store and placed under a heavy guard in the charge of a barefoot monk. The small man chanted in his robes of crocus gold outside the barricaded door, Kala'amātya sitting in the darkness of the empty granary and listening to its soporific cadence until the mist-draped dawn soaked through the cracks in the boards.
Having amassed his fierce, ornate company, the daimyo was assisted into his palanquin, his prisoner compelled to march, shoeless and shirtless, behind the swaying chair. Kala'amātya recalled little of that day, save for stares from peasants toiling over the rice harvest, the basket placed upon his head lest some impulsive ronin rob the daimyo of his chance to present the curious monster to his own master, and the impression of elegance and order that blended indistinguishably with his general memory of Edo. The spacious ways of beaten grey earth, like powdery repoussé under his naked feet, the hypnotic geomancy of its fitted timbers, storefronts mouthed with sliding panels, white script swooping across their inky noren under flaring roofs that seemed to relish their freedom from the ground; every novel element absorbed him. The lack of mounted wayfarers made for unbroken streams of human traffic though the procession that contained him commanded precedence, rendering the final leg of their journey a particularly conspicuous affair. Through the weave of his makeshift hood he glimpsed portions of the sprawling fortress into which they were admitted, via a paranoid array of gates and guarded stations, its turrets standing aloof on sloping, moated footings of titan bluestone. Its towering stories wore temple eaves over walls of eggshell white from which windows stared like small blind eyes, dolphin figures cast in gold squirming atop the gables in the midday sun like fettered chimera. Another storage chamber awaited him while the daimyo made the declarations of fealty that were the object of his journey; rats squabbled about his feet as he waited in the darkness, the nature of his fate, for once, as mysterious to himself as to those that partook of courtly ritual overhead.
Lamplight, and a startlingly occidental face greeted him upon his emancipation. The latter introduced himself, after some prompting from his unsmiling escorts, as a Dutchman, and made an uncertain offer of his services as a translator, switching to French when it became apparent that he was not understood. Kala'amātya said little in reply as they were led up narrow flights of stairs, along a corridor lined in precious woods stained oxblood red and into a hall of audience where fire-plumed jungle fowl, ivory-faced women and the twisted forms of forest trees stood in lacquered relief upon the walls. Like characters from tales suggested by the images, men sat in robes of sober blue and black and white, hair bound in knots upon their heads. They murmured their concern at the creature pushed onto his knees before their overlord, the figure occupying the midst of the scene to which all other forms were ornament.
The blonde Dutchman cleared his throat and whispered to Kala'amātya, though no one else could have understood his conclusions.
“The great man you see before you... he is Ieyasu Tokogawa... shogun, their sovereign... though he is but a warlord... little better than a pirate. Remain as you are, hold your tongue, save when addressed by Tokogawa. Nothing but the direst grief will come of disobedience.” His voice was hoarse and broken, befitting his balding velvet and filthy, partial linen and a person seemingly purveyed from some distant shipwreck, the stink of unfamiliar liquor soaking his skin and lank tow hair. Kala'amātya kept his head low as he replied.
“Why do they summon you to speak for me?”
“The weapons in your chest... some of them are alike to those of my countrymen...” He trailed off, lifting an eye as a question was directed to him by their lofty host. “Tokogawa asks what manner of beast you may be... it is thought you may be nio, on account of your golden eyes. This is fortunate..."
“Nio are the guardians of their heathen tabernacles... look to me, and show your assent...”
A ripple of controversy played over the courtiers’ faces. The shogun scowled, and put another query to the translator, keenly intent upon an answer. The Dutchman winced, and raised a hand to the side of his face.
“A misstep, perhaps... Tokogawa asks how it is that you are nio when it is obvious to all that you know nothing of your mother tongue.”
“What else might I be?” Kala'amātya hissed.
“I... I cannot think... perhaps, perhaps you are...” The shogun reiterated his demand. Beside them the samurai began to mutter in disgust as the interpreter trembled uncontrollably, performing gestures of appeasement and grinning like a frightened dog as he began a halting dissertation. Men fumbled beneath their pleated robes as he spoke, seeking amulets and protective talismans.
“What have you told them?” Kala'amātya demanded.
“All I can say is that you are some form of demon... I have done you a kindness... when they put you to death, they will not dare torment you.”
The shogun rose. He was a small, stout man in the latter portion of his years; deeply-scored creases marked a countenance remarkable only for the ineffable cynicism they conferred, a startling counterpoint to its broad, stolid planes and relating closely to the figures on the walls. One hand lay concealed in the breast of his robe while the Dutchman summoned enough composure to relate his observations.
“Though it seems we can learn little of your... your nature... it is apparent that you are a warrior... thus I will grant you the choice of hara kiri, in preference to the axe. If you are a demon, the evil luck that you have brought upon my house will be extinguished as your remains are... are burnt and... burnt and scattered. If you are some blameless spirit, you may... reclaim your honour, in death. Accept this weapon...” The samurai beside Kala'amātya climbed from his knees and handed him a short, curving sword in a plain sheath of sharkskin, stepping back to mark the prisoner he had armed. “This man... He will be your second. He will take your head, when you have made the necessary wound.” The Dutchman made a short sign with his trembling hands, grasping an imagined blade and directing it into his own stomach. Kala'amātya looked down at the weapon he had been allocated, momentarily contemplative.
Though it took him but a second to draw it from its housing, the samurai anticipated the gesture and his katana flashed as it sliced down over their heads; Kala'amātya caught the blade, its razor edge slicing his palm and skidding sideways over the glassy bone beneath. He tightened his grip and prised his opponent’s arm toward the ceiling before plunging his own weapon into the startled warrior’s chest, forcing his body into the wall behind him as he cut down through his ribcage. The blade in his fist pared flesh like nothing he had ever held. As he released its victim, he flipped the knife in his sound hand and stared down at its fluent silver arc, enthralled by its perfection and heedless of the furore he had inspired. The gutted man slid slowly to the floor with one leg folded beneath him, the other pushing up the matting with its heel, his blood as black and oily as the gleaming wood in the darkness of the chamber, spattering over his lips with the heaving of his lungs.
The shogun seemed to conclude his study of the stranger, disregarding his outraged retainers. In the far corner of the room the Dutchman crouched, sobbing in a fit of alcoholic incontinence; the regent looked to him and began to speak once more, attenuating his statement in recognition of the interpreter’s disintegrating faculties.
“Though... though I am shogun...” the man began, halting and tremulous. “The moon... it, the moon does not ask my leave to rise at night. Your blood does not run red, and thus you are... not a man, but who are we to judge that which the Kami place before us? You, you kill this man... that is regrettable... but if something is lost while the exceptional reveal their worth... we should not mourn their passing... overmuch.”
Kala'amātya placed the blade on the tatami at the shogun’s feet, and stood back, admiring his logic. He glanced sideways at his intermediary.
“You may tell this clever gnome that it would please me to serve him. Inform him that I am temperate, frugal, discreet, resourceful and expensive. Tell him that, as a man of experience, he will understand that my price is set not by my own hand, but by the others who will seek my services, should he decline my offer.”
The body of the dead samurai shivered fitfully against the foot of the wall. The Dutchman punctuated his translation with numerous apologies. The shogun nodded, indicating with a single syllable that the interview was over, and Kala'amātya accepted a robe from the bushi appointed to accompany him outside. The same moon that had painted the hateful ocean waves shone down upon the pebbled paths that led to his new quarters. He barely recognized his own shadow as it fell across them.
Between the austere rigors of his training at the Yagyu martial school and the nocturnal divertissements of Edo’s floating world, Kala'amātya moved as though wrapped in the folds of a dream, devoting himself to the pursuit of precision and extremity in the two environs and discovering that they were obliquely confederate. He eschewed the sparring staff, finding the struggle to evade the incisive attentions of the katana more profoundly instructive. His master at the Yagyu school smiled often, gratified by the speed with which his lessons were assimilated, though he would not speak with his strange pupil outside its walls despite the convenience of their respective dwellings. At night, sorrow stalked him, worsened by the spectral longing he still felt for those most complicit in effecting it, its black face buried not by chashitsu beauties but with the aid of the Yoshiwara's most recondite savants.
When no one would face him outside the compulsion of battle, he was sent to the valley of Sekigahara to assist in implementing his patron’s martial will. Back in the capital his accomplishments, bleached black and white in reportage, lodged like frozen stones inside the hearts of those that might have rejoiced in any other hero. On his return, Kala'amātya reviewed his instinctive distaste for armour, bound his long hair into the queue of his newly-awarded station and redoubled his reputation for saturnine eccentricity by commissioning a pair of long odachi in place of the suite of smaller swords that were expected of him. His choice was deemed an unseemly departure, though this disapprobation remained a private thing.
It was on an evening late in summer that Ieyasu Tokogawa resolved to embark upon an inspection of the barracks grouped around his palace. The prunus trees cast wide circles of deeper shade beneath the horned moon as he strolled through the grounds, accompanied by a pair of silent guards. With his pale coif, liver marked brow and plain grey robe he commanded little attention; the sound of the neatly-tended gravel beneath his feet was all the fanfare that his mood required.
The sight of the rectangular barracks had always pleased him. The shutters glowed from within the largest structure and the shogun abandoned his guards to listen for a while to the talk that issued from within the crowded mess. Its samurai debated a single and apparently implacable concern; Tokogawa announced himself before the sliding door and stepped inside, blinking in the lamplight as the men pressed their foreheads to the floor.
“What is this?” he demanded, taking a seat at the head of the narrow room, easing himself down onto the matting slowly. “Do not whisper behind your sleeves, like women.”
The eldest warrior inclined his head respectfully, eyes on the ground as he replied.
“We are made cowards by portent.”
“What portents are these? What was my victory at Osaka, if you do not call it providence?”
“What troubles us wore the mon of our great lord into that battle, while holding secrets in its heart, like a thief, using honour as a shield against honest gazes.” the general admitted. The samurai awaited his response in silence.
“Of whom do you speak?”
“The nameless one.” the elder replied, grim-faced. Tokogawa’s scowl deepened with his umbrage at the pusillanimous nature of the allusion. He squinted hard at their self-appointed representative, who had begun to regret his own outspoken impulse.
“You know that I have made this barbarian a general. Remember, how the road to Kyoto was lined with skulls from end to end... so many of them were taken by him alone that the captains could make no count of them. He came to me, his armour painted with the blood of my enemies, as though he had burst forth from the lakes of hell, his face and hands, all wet with this most precious colour. He kills, not for pleasure, not for the thought of land or great advancement, but for Tokogawa. In all of this, he paused only to clean his swords, and receive my orders.” The white-robed men listened without speaking. He continued, his gaze moving slowly over their faces. “It is said that a warrior must have ninjo, kindness... this is the feeling of our ancestors, and I cannot question their wisdom. But it is my thought that sympathy should rest with old women and monks, where it can do no harm. You fear this creature because he does not share your weakness. He is a stone, blind and deaf to mercy. This is what I would have on the side of Tokogawa.”
“Great father, it is well known that yōkai have such cunning in war. We have heard that it will accept no payment for its service. Our wives and daughters are corrupted, shamed and dishonoured by their weakness, in their curiosity... the monster spends more hours in idleness with them than with the sword. The creature debauches women of your own house! If these are not the ways of a devil, they are the acts of a ronin. We beg you to consider these things without anger.” the man insisted, belying the servility of his posture with his petition’s vehemence. “We ask only that you do not speak of our part in this to the nameless one. Its wrath may take a form that bests our swords, leaving us with nothing with which to defend your house.”
Tokogawa stood slowly. A speckled moth circled the lantern, ruining its wings against the paper.
“Better one demon general than a thousand cowards in my service. Men of honour have no insults for those they have not the heart to face.”
Marching stiffly along the narrow, dogwood-shaded way toward the quarter that housed his controversial prodigy, the old man muttered his impatience at his aging legs; no light shone from within the hut and he frowned about it in the shadow of the overhanging trees, marking its resident upon a stone bench beneath them. In his hand was a cake of smooth white limestone; he lifted it from the blade of the odachi and sheathed the frightening weapon in deference to his guest. A small idol of blackened bronze stood beside the door of the hut, long arms ending in clenched fists that lay by its sides; its face was not clearly apparent to the shogun as he stooped to peer at its features and he abandoned the attempt and snapped at the guards who lingered on the path. The creature’s black hair hung in a long braid past his shoulders, merging with the gloom behind a face as pale as the whetstone. He offered his visitor a ladle full of water from the stone bowl seated beside him, and the old man accepted.
“I will not trouble you with idle talk.” Tokogawa began.
“Candor does not offend me.” Kala'amātya replied.
“You accept no payment for your service. I ask why this is so.”
“I have few needs, and no desires beyond my private means. In future, I may avail myself of what is owed to me.” he said. “But not today.” The shogun frowned. "If you are troubled by granting a fair reward in respect to the tasks I have performed, dismiss me, and I will name my price. This matter is entirely in your own hands.”
“Were I to dismiss you, would you seek to serve another lord?”
“I would seek it at first light.”
The prospect of ordering his men against such a foe wrinkled the shogun’s pied brow. The creature’s patently inhuman features enraged him, but he maintained his composure, concealing his frustration.
“I do not wish to see you take another’s colours... I have come with a request. A task must be undertaken, and I am trusting it to you. Should you succeed, I will grant you a prosperous han, and you shall be a daimyo. In this place, you shall surely find shelter from that which troubles you... we are protected from the evil of other lands by the divine wind.”
The shogun’s personal guard lingered for a short while after the man himself had departed, ensuring that they had not been overheard. When they were gone, Kala'amātya stood and slid a hand into his robe, finding a secreted knife as something disturbed the flowering cornus beside his dwelling and moved along its walls toward him. Through the lace-thin branches came a girl in a trailing coat and furisode cut from dappled, rose-stained red, bound at her breast with a broad black obi. From her sleeve she drew a stem of lilies, their petals whiter than a winter sky, and handed it to him with a slow nod of her head, its formality melting into a wry smile. Her long coat whispered on the stones as she sat down in the darkness at his invitation, shadow shifting on her face. Their heads were filled with the flowers' honey-dripping scent.
“A year passed in Kyoto and no word to me. I believed myself out of favour.” he told her.
She smiled again, bringing her sleeve to her chin.
“Good works have occupied me.”
“I trust there have been young men grateful for your virtuous endeavours.”
“They have been very attentive. More so than you were.” she replied, dark eyes creeping past him along the path. “But there were spies in every garden and so I came home, only to find there are even more spies here.”
“What of the foxes in Kyoto?”
“They are most cunning... they have heard there is a strange yōkai in Edo, and...”
“Ponder what use might be made of such a demon?” he suggested knowingly. “The foxes of all lands are of one mind.”
“I am now but a month distant from becoming one myself.”
“Then they did instruct you well. Let us drink to that.”
They saluted the moon that swam in their little grey bowls, and drank to the fulfillment of her long-held, though clandestine, ambition. The girl found she no longer regretted the silence of her companion's features, whether affronted or amused, and found contentment in his equanimity.
“Are you still to be married in the spring?” he inquired.
“I do not look too far ahead. How is grandfather?”
“As ever. He has just gone from here.”
“Yes, I know. I fear that I must speak with him before long, though I am not so eager.”
She leant toward him, and drew one of the lilies to her face, breathing their perfume. He nodded out along the path.
“Let no one see you come to me or leave this way. The bushi talk of me as though I eat their dogs.” She leant on her hand and rose from the bench, smoothing down her robe. “Are you well, Suki?” he asked.
“Well enough.” she smiled.
She turned, and bowed her head, stepping back between the supple branches.
Kala'amātya reined his red horse to a halt and gazed back over his shoulder, counting those that trailed behind him. Two dozen guards, porters and attendants formed the thin procession, the company forced to assume the shape of the narrow trail, none of them spared a heavy burden of provisions, gifts and accouterment. A white palanquin formed the nucleus of the increasingly dispirited assembly, borne by stalwart men, their sodden grass cloaks no longer any use against the incessant rain. Though he was yet to glimpse its secluded passengers, he was not troubled by the circumstance, his task set, his reward negotiated in advance.
The day had barely hauled free of the dismal, unfledged light of dawn, though noon had come and gone, kept cool and dripping by a hidden sun. Rain had redoubled the weary porters’ burdens, the milky clay beneath their feet a greasy quagmire in which they slipped and stumbled, crying out and clasping one another against the prospect of a fall. Kala'amātya had passed through the belly of Guangxi once before, though on that occasion he had been unencumbered by a small army of inagile companions. The crowded, jewel-green mountains lost their heads in pewter clouds, looking as though they had been flung down from the sky and buried waist deep in the rock beneath. Misted gorges echoed with the roar of hidden torrents that wound between the cliffs; he frowned as the palanquin was set down, and one of its bearers shouldered his way toward him, water spilling from the wide brim of his hat.
“Lord... the lady asks that we rest now.” the bearer informed him, panting as he bowed his head. “She says she can go no further.”
“Tell her that she must.” he muttered, urging his mount onward. Another backward glance informed him that the troupe had settled on the track, adopting the stationary palanquin as a warrant for the unscheduled respite. The bearers crouched by the lip of the precipice, seeking the shelter of its eaves. Porters set down their chests and bundles and took out packages of sticky, leaf-wrapped rice, cramming the grain into their mouths while glancing anxiously toward him. He drew his staff of heavy ju wood from his horse’s harness and slid down from the saddle, striding back toward the delinquents.
A shudder rippled in the ground beneath him a moment before the advent of a deep, resounding crack that ripped through sodden earth and air. His eyes turned instinctively toward the sky but no bolt had crashed down from the dismal heavens; instead, the puggy trail bowed, sagged, and began to disintegrate, crumbling as the rock below sloughed away from the hillside into a sucking, grinding cataclysm. It drowned its victims’ cries as it bore them down the flank of the mountain, crushing them into the savage mass of trees and stone and earth that flowed like water into the mist, toward a unseen valley floor. Kala'amātya grasped the overhanging branches of a stunted tree, anticipating the imminent failure of his own footing, but was spared; the ground beneath him had broken with the massive wedge that had slid away, their violent dissociation shaping a concave face of clay and freshly-scoured limestone. No more screams drifted upward in the beating rain though he detected a low, keening whimper through the sound of it. Turning his head to assure himself that he was not mistaken, he sought its source below the edge of the surviving trail.
The white palanquin had become wedged on a tangle of broken trees. It lay on its side while a passenger begged for assistance from within. Wiping the rain from his face, Kala'amātya walked out along the remaining track and swung down onto the shorn stone of the cliff face, sliding on his haunches toward the pinioned vehicle until he attained its supporting ledge. A wrinkled matron’s face, flat-featured and high-browed, appeared from behind the chair’s spattered drapery; she exclaimed at his approach, praising the gods that had flung her entourage to their deaths for their judicious lenity while he lifted her from her frame and set her down onto the crumbling ledge beside him. The chair's remaining occupant, having lost her grasp upon the uppermost door, dropped down through the wooden framing toward the opposing one, now yawning out over the drop. Her bare feet had already passed through it into the empty air when his fist closed on the fabric of her robe and took her weight, slamming his arm against the cracking timber. He dragged her back up through the drapes onto the ledge.
Delivering them to the safety of the stable ground proved less difficult than he had imagined. The elderly matron, having no wish to join her ancestors, scrambled up onto the road with remarkable, almost pithecoid alacrity. The younger passenger climbed before him, independent of his aid; despite the station implied by the cargo that had attended her, she wore a plain, stone-white kimono of humble cloth and plicated amplitude. Her black hair hung in a tangle of broken combs beneath her hood. She sank to her knees on the edge of the trail and looking down, he saw the features of the girl who had brought the lilies to his barrack hut. The matron abandoned her own cursory toilet and scolded them.
“This is my mother’s sister.” Suki murmured. “She has no sight.” He took the cue from her formality and abjured mention of her name.
Shuffling toward him the older woman reached up with both hands and attempted a manual survey of his features, only to be thwarted by the great discrepancy in their statures. She scowled more deeply at this discovery and groped downward, following his arm to his hand where a count of his cool fingers caused her to fling it down and stumble backward in disgust.
“It is you, the kyuketsuki, the oni... you have tricked us into this misfortune and now you mean to devour us!” she exclaimed. The matron at once began to chant, crouching and devoting herself to pious defence against his peril. His horse returned, blowing snorting breaths at the small party of survivors.
“This creature has saved us both from falling." the girl advised. "He means no harm.”
“Because it has already satisfied itself in wickedness!”
“Stay here then, with the virtuous spirits of the wood.” she sighed.
Kala'amātya caught the loitering horse and beckoned to the pair; the old woman squinted obstinately as her niece explained his proposal, which she treated as an affront to the manners accrued in a lifetime of sheltered luxury, the pitch of her objections ascending as he lifted her into the saddle. The girl shook her head against the prospect on her own behalf, her insistence intensifying as he approached her. Catching her arm, he pushed his hand into the fold of her robe, setting it against her stomach; her gaze rose to his as he perceived the gravid proportions the fabric disguised, attained in the three months since their last encounter. The old woman pressed her dry, penurious lips together as her ward climbed slowly into the saddle before her.
“Does it please you, to have begotten evil on this girl?” the crone snapped. “No matter. She is made of wickedness, and if the paint were scrubbed from her face you would find the mark of it there, where she has devoted herself to witchcraft, to compound her crimes.”
“You are mistaken.” he told her. “I have no part in this.”
“Though they come from all around to eat the fruit, none will own that they have planted seed. Thus it was in my day, and so it is in hers. The palace guards have followed her to your house and back again, a dozen times!”
“Tokogawa himself has done the same.” Kala'amātya replied. The rationale enraged her.
“Tokogawa does not lie with demons when he is betrothed to a family beyond reproach... he has not disgraced himself with a dozen nameless lovers in Kyoto! Nor consorted with the tsukimono-suji, and consigned himself to hell.” Recovering, the old woman sought the composure she cherished most, speaking with the cool, serrated assurance of her station. “If you are not the sire of this accursed child, you are close enough to be so in the eyes of others, and that is the heart of all such matters.”
Kala'amātya did not reply, but murmured to their patient mount, leading them once more along the slippery track as it reached upward into dripping forest.
The evening padded in on tender feet, as still as the boles of the trees lining the path like the distorted figures of a lavender opium dream, the feeble sun setting behind them. The old woman marked Kala'amātya's figure as a tall blur against the darkening ground.
“Why did you travel to Honshu?” she demanded unexpectedly.
“It lies furthest distant from the kingdoms beyond Persia.” he admitted.
“Tokogawa tells the bushi that you were sent to serve him by the gods.”
“Tokogawa may be shogun, but in Edo, I bow only to sword smiths and oiran.”
The woman scoffed, then continued her interrogation over the shoulder of her ward.
“What great evil have you committed that you may not stay where you were made?”
“Many, countless evils. But I shun my brother and his wife... she is lost, he wanders with her, and I can not abide it.” he said, unable to think of any reason to conceal the nature of his misfortune.
“You abandon your brother? Where is your loyalty?”
He shook his head.
“I no longer ask this of myself. You speak of duty, and that is fear of sanction, and my elders in their wisdom ensured I could honour nothing of that nature.”
The crone murmured again at his apostasy.
"In asking nothing of yourself you will be answered in kind, and please them well who wish no more for you. What a wretched thing you are... even the mountain would not take you, and I do not wonder at it."
Nightfall found them at the winged gates of a temple. The low buildings beyond, of dark wood on a darker stone, lay deserted, their yard inundated by the rain, nodding stands of arrow bamboo hemming water in which their reflection was shattered by the horse's hooves. Beneath their eaves the dormitory halls held a deep rubiginous hue, the colour thickening the gloom. Lightning flashed against their backs, gleaming white along the polished walls as Kala'amātya followed them into shelter, his cold skin crawling in the still, charged air. He guessed that flood and landslides had kept the temple’s order from returning to their home and the rendezvous they had contracted with the shogun.
Peering fruitlessly into the darkness, the old woman flinched at the clapping of iron-shod hooves against the floorboards; ignoring her complaints, Kala'amātya removed his kit and saddle from the personable equine’s back and directed the animal toward the corner furthest from the door, where it nodded to sleep on three hooves. Heat from its damp flanks soon warmed the chamber and the matron quit her grumbling dissent, sitting with the girl, who had slumped against the wall beside the door. He arranged his blades and naginata on the boards and began to unlace his armour.
“I did not know who I brought to this place.” he confessed to the girl as she watched him.
“What does it matter now?” she murmured.
“Thus speaks the great favourite of a great man.” declared the matron. “Nor did you think of right and wrong before you were undone.”
“Tokogawa required that I take this chair into Cataya and leave it at this temple. This I have done.” The matron made no reply, kneeling by the wall, her white hair fraying from the side of her chignon and falling, unheeded, before her milky eyes. “It is my thought that he has charged you with further instruction, honourable mother.” Kala'amātya added. She maintained her obmutescence and he looked around at the sound of the girl’s breathing, her smooth face creasing with the effort of concealing the unwelcome rhythm that had obviously begun some time before. Wind slammed the unfastened door against its frame; the horse squealed, and the girl turned toward him when he knelt beside her.
“You will leave now!” the old woman exclaimed on perceiving her condition.
“You are blind.” he reminded her.
“You are a demon!” she retorted, stiffening as she raised her voice above the wind. The girl reached down through her robe, withdrawing a hand that brought with it the sharp, dusty smell of amniotic fluid, stained a deep tea-brown. She looked up at him.
“I know you can bring children forth..." she gasped. "You aided Umi, and Fumiko’s sister... this child does not fare well...” Again he lay his hand against her body, the infant's distress beating through its mother's flesh, a desperate petition.
“It does not.” he conceded.
Despite the dire interdicts of his own people, long association had drawn him into intimate familiarity with feminine ordeals, compelling him to deliver the diverse issue of bandit girls and seige-bound chatelaines into their uncertain tenures. The cascade of signs and processes and the timbre of the girl’s exhausted screams were by no means unfamiliar, though he rued their implications along with her aunt’s unrelenting pessimism. The infant would not emerge though the girl had striven on her haunches until her brown eyes rolled into her head and her sweat-slick arms slid through his hands as she slumped back in agony and despair. He eased her legs from beneath her through the thickening pool of blood into which she had collapsed, bundling her discarded robe under her head and draping her with his own. Her stomach was tight and coldly slippery beneath his hands, devoid of movement; the matron shuffled closer on her knees, repeated the inquiring gesture and sat back.
“Better that they both should perish. Misfortune will follow them always.” she assured him, her dry voice weighted with puissant finality. "Leave her to her fate." She pressed a narrow scroll on him; the cylinder was still faintly warm, drawn from somewhere in her robe, and inscribed with the shogun’s seal. He set the missive aside and returned to the half-insensate girl.
"Suki, if you do not labour now, I must use my knife to bring it forth, and that fails more often than it succeeds.” he advised, kneeling by her shoulder and ensuring that she understood. At her word he drew her back onto her haunches, taking her weight with both arms and legs as she set her back against him and closed her hands upon his wrists, her chaperone expressing in vehement terms the abdication of her familial commitments.
Thin, slip-textured silt welled between his fingers as he smoothed the surface of a small clay mound, kneeling in the mud alongside the temple gates. Birds performed a stilted aubade from the cover of the ginko boughs, as though they were yet to be convinced of the morning’s worth. Dawn pervaded the mist with the pallid ghosts of brighter colours and brought back rain to cloak the mountainside; it had soaked the torn silk of the little corpse’s shroud as it had lain beside the grave that he had fashioned for it. Kala'amātya knew only one rite germane to the inhumation of a stillborn and spoke the words of the forgotten language slowly. Summoning the impetus to return to the flooded courtyard, he stood waiting beneath the eaves while the water drained from his clothing and pooled around his feet.
The white silk mon of her grandsire’s house glowed against the black sleeve of the hitatare he had given the girl to wear. She lay awake beneath the saddle cloth, the older woman still sleeping with her back to them.
“I am happy she did not live.” she told him without looking up. “A girl is never welcome.”
“My mother would have given her two sons twice over for a daughter.” he replied. Kala'amātya sat against the wall beside her and brushed the yellow dust from his hands. “I have read the scroll. Tokogawa says that you are to be left in this place to serve the monks. Your aunt was to have returned to Honshu with your bearers, but it seems that she is destined to remain here with you. Your grandfather has abdicated in favour of your uncle... Hidetada has decreed that no foreigner may enter Honshu, so I am no more welcome than you.” Though she did not reply, the slow, pained sound of her breathing underscored sentiments born in loss, and prospects as colourless and unremitting as the day outside.
“You are the cause of this.” she murmured. "You are salted ground... a desolator, and I was warned of you."
He gazed at her unheeding form without replying, then left her side to take up his belongings before returning to the girl once more, sliding the odachi from his shoulders and laying them on the boards beside her. If her gaze perceived the curving weapons, their scabbards lavished with glowing, semiprecious colour in the cloisson feathers of fighting birds, hilts bound with dark shagreen, they did not move her.
“Stay here until you are well.” he told her, bending low so that his advice could remain confidential. “But do not live your life in this place. Go south, to court... the odachi will make a dowery, should you wish to find a husband, or go to the north, buy slaves and horses, and a good bow.” She withdrew beneath the striped cover, tears sliding over her pale face.
"Do not counsel me, yōkai." Suki replied, wiping at her eyes beneath the blanket.
The rain slowed as he rode out under the temple gates alone, starting along the narrow trail that led toward the dark heart of the mountains.
“He rode back through China, the Kyzylkum, Poland and then Germany with Paris in mind, but er... never made it that far. It happens to the best of us.” William concluded, glancing at Susan, who watched the fire. She reached across to partake of his cigarette.
“I told you not to let me smoke.” she scolded. "What happens to the best of you?"
“Girl trouble. Helaine de Marchand... countess, bas bleu... sociopath... hardcore witch queen with a thing for sullen white meat. You know how you run into those one or two people in your life, who you don’t need to explain anything to? They just dig you and all your evil ways, basically because they’re as fucked up as you are, if not more? And you just go at each other because you’ve both been so starved of any kind of affection or... er, comment dit-on cela en anglais? What’s that thing, when you sympathize with someone, but it doesn’t start with S?”
“Yeah... you know, when you finally strike some sort of empathy and you get sucked into one another's hideous shit and things just spiral horribly downward in an endless smoking tailspin...?”
Susan shook her head.
“Not really, no.”
“Well, Helaine was that, for Kala'amātya. He went from forty-below with teflon attachment issues, to total obsession with her. It did not end well.”
"Now your brother's really going to kill me." she observed.
"What he doesn't know you know can't hurt him."
"Until he knows." she murmured, lying back down. "I don't want to talk about that anyway." She inched over the gleaming silver compound and kissed the hollow where his neck began, already certain of its effect; she watched it cause him to draw breath as the sensation darkened the colour of his eyes.
"I probably should have asked you this before I slept with you, but... you can't actually do anything... strange, can you?"
"You mean do I have powers?"
"Not powers... I mean extra... different... abilities..."
"Just say powers."
"Shut up. I mean like... if you bit someone, hard, would it start to digest them? Can you burrow into the ground really quickly? If you fell out of a plane, would you actually die?" He shrugged. "If I cut your head off, would that be fatal?"
“Someone did cut my head off once. At the battle of… well, the fall of Bukhara, really. This fucking huge Iranian came along and whacked it right off. Whomp, phutt.” She flicked his ear in disgust but he refused to qualify the claim. "I only have ghetto powers, Christabel. All I can do is... see in the dark... remember account numbers... take a good beating... get it up forty eight times in twenty four hours, especially in winter. And hold my breath for an hour and twenty six minutes. I can't play the fucking harp or get away with cravats or envenom randoms."
"It feels more like two hours." Susan smiled, somewhat obliquely. He picked up her right leg, bending to grasp her thigh with his teeth and murmuring an ode to its tender qualities as he sucked the frail skin behind her knee while she writhed and exclaimed at the almost insupportable sensation. It was through the fingers she pressed to her eyes that she perceived the staring of a white face, painted by the glow of the flames and floating between enclosing fur and dark, abundant hair; Petrouchka's thirsting intent held Susan still, until she was reminded of the spectacle they offered and pulled the cloth beneath her arms. The vampyre's mouth opened in the dark shape of a smile as she walked around the flames, its colours gleaming in her gaze like two swamp fires.
“Darlink...” she told William. “I am thinking... you are still owing me five thousand American dollars.” He looked at her blankly. “I know. How I can forget such things?”
“I thought you gave that to me out of the kindness of your heart.”
"Pozhaljsta... there is no kindness in my heart.”
“Do you know how many arseholes I’m going to have to kick the shit out of to get that kind of money?” he sighed, watching the visitor lean her elbows against the floor span. “One.” he smiled to both womens' frowns, using the dawamesk plate to preserve his modesty while passing Susan her alienated clothing.
“Is good that you can laugh still under crushing weight of guilt.” Petrouchka remarked.
“You pull me out of an important meeting to tell me you're broke?”
“I don't like to have nothing, Sachiin... she know this name?" He nodded. "Good. I sell what things I have, but still, it run away like water. You don't think it will happen with you, but this Bailiss in Prague, he finish us, I tell you..." she asserted while he knotted the ikat at his waist and began to groan as though her familiar insistences would prove fatal; Petrouchka pressed on with her complaint, turning toward Susan. “And if he tell one thing to you, be sure to make him tell it all."
"About that..." he interjected. "I haven't actually told Kala'amātya that Christabel's in as yet, so zatk'nis when he's around."
Petrouchka inspected what remained of her pale fingernails.
“You talk to Auberjonois? He come here, soon.”
“He won’t.” he muttered. She glanced at Susan again; her warm, plush skin glowed in the firelight, replete with all the delectable qualities the vampyre cherished, the latter’s cheeks drawn in by the action of her tongue.
“You have met this wolf, Auberjonois? You must meet. If I could love, I would love wolf. They are so rough and dirty. Quelle sauvage." William glanced back at her with a private smile that matched her own, the vampyre expressing a purring little laugh at the intimate exchange. “And what have Sachiin told you? That he have these scar from falling on to rose bush?” she chuckled. “You know what he do for all this time? Fighting, for money... then waste money, whoring... then more fighting, to pay whore.” In cataloguing his depravity Petrouchka seemed to discover more of her regard for him, and turned a smile that might have been fond if it were not for the intolerable irony leant to it by the condition of her face. “Alas for old, old days. Gideon will come... we should see each other, while we are still here to see.”
“Yeah well, Rana’s here to see. And no, I don’t know how or why, so don’t ask... just watch your back.”
“No! Horrid woman! Suka! Stupid, crazy mule! Do you know the worst thing of these people? Is not what they do, but what they make us do. Think of your brother.” It was the fervid energy of the vampyre's denunciation that led William to study her more closely; satisfied of something, he interrupted, sliding down from the castle toward the fire.
“Who was it and where are they now?” he sighed, as though she had already confessed, using her language to keep the charge from Susan's ears. Petrouchka shrugged and touched her collar again, following suit.
“I think was criminal. Knocking on door, oh please, I must be using your telephone...” she related, pleased to have been of service to the household. “I put in Kala'amātya's car. No mess. Is good there, do you think?”
"Nyet." he muttered. Susan picked up the plate, frowning at their exclusive discourse while William dumped a bucket of water over the fire. "Do we, or do we not have a fucking security guard?"
"I don't see him." Petrouchka offered.
"Fall in, Belyaev. This fucking hole's not going to dig itself." he called over his shoulder, the dark cloth and the design upon his back muting his white shape into crypsis amid the gloom beneath the trees.
While William and his houseguest disappeared into the garage in pursuit of their secretive task, Susan took her plate into the kitchen, shouldering the door that opened into the darkness she expected and a figure she did not. It stood motionless in the midst of the chequered linoleum with its arms by its sides, face smeared to disquieting anonymity by the night-blind spot in her gaze. Slowly she reached back for the light switch, waving her hand at the unseen wall, then dropped the plate already half-forgotten in her grasp. Lilian's eyes flickered a deep, stained black in fractured inverse with the blinking florescence overhead; she did not flinch at the shards of porcelain that struck her bare feet, but stood at the heart of a shapeless volume that twisted and condensed around her, as though required by the light to return substance to her shape. The crash brought William and Petrouchka from the garage so expeditiously that it redoubled Susan's start, and she knelt quickly to collect the fragments from the floor, loath to look again at Lilian.
The vampyre paused as though struck by the same force. Susan glanced up from the creature's polished little shoes as she advanced slowly, naysaying uncertainty wrestling with some obscure and baffling delight that seemed to raise her almost from the ground. Her arms extended, then retracted to her breast, where they trembled and came together beneath her mouth.
“Non...” she breathed, still staring wildly, looking to William when he moved too late to warn her. “Helaine... ce n’est pas vrai! Where have you been?” Seizing the blonde woman's hands, the vampyre brought them to her dead cheeks and kissed them as though she were a lost sister. Lilian's gaze fell to the stranger's features, studying their bittersweet arrangement amid the smiling graveyard pallor.
“Je ne sais pas.” she murmured.
Pink-stained tears welled deeply in Petrouchka's eyes though Lilian's remained blankly pale and utterly remote. The sight of them seemed finally to overcome the vampyre, to refract the unguarded effusion and she stepped back, her lost hands like white stars as they reached to close her collar against her throat, then fled the room. William caught Susan's arm, retreating with her into the hallway.
"What's wrong with her?" she hissed, wide-eyed in the darkness. He lifted his hands to his head and leant against the wall, grasped by the same obscure distress.
"This cannot be happening..." He leant back on the panelling for a moment as though requiring support. "Christabel... you didn't see this, and don't say anything to Frost... go and find Belyaev..." She opened her mouth to object. "Do you want to go in there and talk to her?" he whispered, gesturing to the kitchen. The proposition dropped her hands from her hips and Susan set off quickly in pursuit of the less onerous task, leaving him to steel himself to face the other.
Lilian stood before the refrigerator, its interior light blurring her outline and conspiring with her indifference to his presence. He leant against the counter, waiting and watching her amid an almost pensive apprehension. When she looked to him it was as though in laconic reply, a glance offered over her shoulder that contained neither surprise nor reproach.
"Laissez-moi." she said briefly. He could not bring himself to do so and she looked at him again, and William granted her request rather than hear it repeated.
Like dead boughs thrust into the ground, the coppice wood had shed its green wreaths and given up its majesty, a blasted subject of winter under snow that lay glittering like milled salt. A pair of figures walked together through its midst; a fair woman in a hooded mantle of ticked white fur, tied over a dress of plain black wool, her companion's breeches and weary indigo tunic suited more to the desert than the snow, though heat and cold were alike to him in their irrelevance. Helaine regretted the shallow drag of her hem upon the perfect white despite their following a spoor that had churned it elsewhere to marbled, frozen sepia and laced it with the smell of stale clothes and sweating desperation. They proceeded at a pace befitting the course of their conversation rather than the urgency of any chase. In following behind, she tested him, altering her pace by subtle degrees and satisfying herself that he was attending to her as well as the notional purpose of their foray.
“You were sleeping when I awoke.” she observed, stepping over a fallen branch. “Your eyes were closed, at least. I wish I had known you long enough to tell if it is the season or my company that moves you to such a measure.”
“It is the season.” Kala'amātya replied. She had become accustomed to his use of abridgment against investigation, and was no longer discouraged by it.
“When I am weary of myself or my companions, I ride for the horizon.”
Helaine paused and lifted the mantle on her shoulders. Her breath became a pall of steam that curled back about the trim of her hood.
“Sage advice.” she admitted, watching him disguise his own bare footfalls in the confusion left by the harried beast, so that they were indistinguishable amid the riven mud. His black braid was knotted at his nape to keep it clear of the lunate wood and dappled horn slung across his shoulder; her speculation could not resolve it into any utile shape, though she had guessed its purpose. A long receptacle of leather, dyed deep green, hung from his hip, full of thick, dark-shafted arrows. “You have not yet told me anything of the East.” she reminded him. “A swineherd’s daughter knows more of Cathay than I.”
“What would you know?”
“What is the first difference that strikes you?”
Her companion devoted himself to the problem.
“That it surpasses the West, both in freedom and constraint.”
“And what else?”
“There is no shame accorded the flesh, nor to acts of desire... they are considered wholesome enough to attract official exhortation, a far greater deterrent than hellfire.”
“Why then do the merchants return with such prudish tales?”
“They confuse shame with discretion.” Over the bare heads of the trees a flight of fractious crows, black satin cyphers against the sky, croaked and clapped at one another as they passed by.
“I have heard that women are collected like tulips by princes and burghers alike... whoever can bear the cost of the venture.”
“It is common enough outside the Christian kingdoms.”
“I cannot imagine success in such an exploit.”
“The ancients remarked that you amass the haram you deserve. Anyone envying a house of fifty concubines need only return a day late and a gift short.”
They smiled to each other briefly, and she lifted her sleeve to her face, breathing warmth against it.
“And you have contrived this arrangement on your own behalf?”
“I attempted, and greatly desired, to live alone inside a town upon my exile, but was soon enough convinced that I had erred.” he replied. “What is a house without women, the women asked of me.”
“As well they might. These women... were they not slaves?"
"Where does one purchase the most beautiful girls?”
“Why do you ask?” His guard, lying latent, rose at her inquiries like the stiffly-drawn posture of some rankled beast rising from repose.
“Idleness...” she admitted.
“Byzantium, Cordoba, Tripoli. In these times, the bazar excels the suq.” Kala'amātya related.
Helaine's gaze departed him toward the most distant trees.
“Strange sport, to choose flesh from a yard amid cattle beasts." She slid her hands into her cloak. "It is no easy thing to live as a chattel."
“It is not my taste to lie with slaves.”
“You think yourself above such practices...”
The contention earned her the full measure of his stare.
“I was born the least of a race raised to serve another's will, and I do not flatter myself on that account. But I care not for whatever I might compel from someone to whom I am fearful or loathsome... and I am both, more often than not.”
Helaine perceived the offence she had given and regretted it.
“Thus I know you to be something other than a male of my own race, and far more than the stars of your birth.” she told him.
He was not sure how to receive the commendation amid the defence he had already ordered; his eyes found hers briefly before he returned them to the trail.
"Your friend does not believe it."
"Petrouchka regrets far more than my regard for you."
They walked on, climbing a slow rise over which the trail laboured visibly.
"What of your husband?" Kala'amātya asked.
"What of him?"
"He does not treat you kindly when he learns I am gone.”
His knowledge of this private trouble was greeted with a frown.
“Do not concern yourself with him. He has loathed the sight of me since finding the sign upon my face...” Helaine touched a hand to the black line on her forehead. “Though I own that his people did contract for me in ignorance of it. He does not lately brave the threshold.”
“I will dispatch him for you.”
She shook her head.
“It would please his family too well. It suits my purpose to have him drunk and foolish and fearful in town, where he can best be heeded.” The memory of her betrothal aroused unwelcome reminiscences, and she was glad of the hood that shaded her face. That she had not convinced him of the merit of her designs was declared by the set of his shoulders as he walked before her. “Men have taught me to cherish their dread over all other forms of their regard." she reminded him. "Even Petrouchka would allow that I had no great love of either sex, before your advent.” That he was again affected was a thing he struggled mutely to disguise, and they walked for some time in silence. "I can only wonder what you were seeking when you brought yourself to me."
“A wrathful, unquiet spirit.”
“Such is your curse.” she chuckled. “Do the unquiet spirits of your haram await you somewhere, lamenting the alluring horizon?”
“The women of my Bukhara house had their throats cut in my absence, and since then I have kept none who will suffer on my account.”
“I am sorry for them. But I treasured the notion that I had charmed you from the trees, when in fact you merely adjudged me sufficiently formidable and infamous...” she said with a smirk as she lifted her skirts to step across a fallen sapling. “You do woundeth vanity, Kala'amātya.”
They had followed the path of man and beast to the edge of the wood, where it crashed over the cusp of a tall bank sloping to the edge of a frozen river, the trees on its far side a dark redoubt against the sky. The ice-choked water had formed a blank and tacit plain footed with great swathes of windblown, frost-scoured floes. Her companion drew the length of wood over his shoulder, slid twisted rawhide from his belt and strung the span, transforming the nameless instrument into the recurved bow that he had carried since his service in the Eastern steppe. Thus configured, it was two thirds as tall as he; she reached out and took it from him, finding herself barely able to draw the stiff line between the two siyah, her fingers burning with the effort.
“Infamy is not the whole of my requirement.” he replied, belatedly.
"I would give much to know the rest of it."
"I cannot think why."
"Because I may call the dead from a fathom of earth, but after three seasons, and though you honour my bed, I awake to find you dreamless, I partake of food you will not taste, and I question devils on your account who shrug at my demands as though already beholden to you. I am not accustomed to elusion." She watched him select seven arrows and set them head-first into the snow, shaking her head at her own confoundment. "Do I please you, Kala'amātya? What would you have from me?"
He looked to her from inspecting the crane feather fletches, and spoke with oracular candour.
“You please me, and my tastes are simple. We are all Narcissus... in you, I find myself.”
She handed him the bow, her cold hand closing on his own; all the disparities between them, the colours, shapes and origins, could not belie his answer.
“I never thought to say this, in this flesh nor any other, but I would have you if it blackened the ground beneath me.” Helaine told him. "If not you, then no one."
He considered the elegance of her unpainted face, the echoing simplicity of the slender black insignia upon her forehead. Her lies were sweeter than her honesty, the latter like the taste of his own blood in his mouth, but infinitely dearer to him.
“Then it is well that we are suited.”
Where the frozen bank and ruined reed beds met the water, five fur-swathed figures were too engrossed in the speedy commission of their task to perceive their discovery. Having cut the muddy trail through the wood in driving the stolen cattle beast, they had slaughtered it where it had fallen, cast in the uncertain river ice, hacking at its steaming flesh with blood-slicked axes while its legs still kicked and stuttered. The poachers holed the carcass and dragged its entrails over the snow preparatory to their division, the colours matching the stench arising from them, swept back up the bank toward the trees. Two men began to quarter the hind legs with swords while another stuffed a sack with the rough, warm chunks of meat tossed back toward him, scolding the crows that had drifted down from the trees to stand behind them like an audience of minor devils.
“It would please me to see why you are so feared.” Helaine suggested.
“It is superstition.” he replied modestly. She smiled at the arrangement of his arrows, and drew the last two from the row, tucking them beneath her mantle. Turning from her, Kala'amātya plucked the first arrow from the snow and nocked it swiftly, adjudged the breeze and drew the rawhide to his jaw, a taut clap sounding as he released it, all the more sinister for its stiff attenuation. She raised a hand against the sky and followed its arc with her gaze, watching it bow its fatal head toward the ground. The impact was a thing she almost felt in her own flesh as it punched into the spine of the tallest poacher and dropped him face down into the bloodied snow, where he thrashed, his cries turning his companions toward him. One by one they arose from their crouches, frozen in place by the mysterious throes that had grasped their fellow; Kala'amātya sent an arrow into the neck of the youngest, a tall, blonde boy in a goatskin cloak, and another through the chest of his father, felling them beside the heifer.
“You will remain here into summer?” Helaine inquired, kicking the snow from her skirt. At the foot of the slope the fallen trio were abandoned by the remaining poachers, who sheathed their swords and began to surge through the drifts along the edge of the river, their deep blue cloaks flapping on their backs. A shaft drove through the thigh of the foremost, slowing him to a standstill in time to see his companion pierced at the hip, screaming shrilly and dragging the disabled leg in his desperation to escape the unseen archer.
“I am betrothed to the Duc d’Orleans from May. We are to chastise Huguenots for their unchristian conduct.”
“But I have fed you all this winter... surely I and not Gaston should have the benefit of that. I shall write to him and have you released from this odious duty. Were I less infamous, you might have something of a care for my welfare in your absence.” She handed back the superfluous arrows. “Your brother’s wife would murder me, given the chance.”
“Petrouchka Belyaev would hang and quarter me."
"Would you not feel the same?" she reminded him.
"I would... and therefore favour discretion. And I fear I would not survive my attempt to subject you to the auspices of a fond protector." Kala'amātya turned another of his rare smiles toward her, and she replied in kind. "Though after so long unlamented, it is a fine thing to be missed.” he confessed, manually directing her attention to the second brace of victims. “Militia scouts.”
“It seems I have fed them too.” Helaine observed, noting that while the first trio were tenant farmers, the other pair wore the winter garments issued by antagonistic magistrates. He slung his bow in favour of his shoto blades, each as long as his forearm and as bright as shards of mirror glass.
“How would you have them?”
She raised a hand and tapped her chin.
“Take a hand and an eye from each. I will call up the wolves... if either of them stumbles home they’ll have a tale to tell, if nothing else.”
Down by the river his living victims espied him as he descended the bank, and made a desperate change of course, scrabbling over the frozen reeds and out onto the ice, where they scurried and toppled over, driving the arrows into their flesh. Passing the dead lying in silent arrangement around the heifer, he paused to wrench the shafts from their stiffening flesh and replace them in his quiver.
In sleeping, William lay in infantile abandon, entirely unconscious of her scrutiny. He neither snored nor spoke nor shifted restlessly, sinking into sleep as quickly as he had settled with the intention. The early hour had breathed a chill into the house for the first time since her arrival and Susan pulled her cabled green cardigan over her arms at the end of the bed, rubbing at the tights on her legs. She smiled to herself as a large, thick-legged spider made its way down from the headboard and walked out over William's hip, pausing on that indeterminate region where his stomach departed his ribcage. A sudden and determined tread crossed the quilt under the pheasant that had roosted on the frame and the fowl snaked forward and snatched up the arachnid, clucking excitedly as it flapped down onto the floor with its prize. He murmured incomprehensibly and she frowned at his senseless profile.
"It's too early... come closer." he sighed. She shuffled around the bed toward him, swearing when he belied his sloth by throwing her down onto the mattress and leaping upon her with active predacity; she squirmed and complained under the dark blue sheets that settled over them. “I said you’re sexy when you’re cranky, in Urdu.”
“Teach me something.” Susan insisted while he used his teeth to loose the buttons of her cardigan.
"Mai urdu nahi bolti.”
“Mai... ur... just tell me what it means.”
“I do not speak Urdu.” he smiled. "French is so much easier... say défonce-moi, bête de la montagne... doucement... profondément..." She cackled as he shucked her tights down, planting her feet, hauling them up then breaking free and scrambling to the foot of the bed, only to be dragged back under the quilt, her shrieks obscuring the sound of the tread approaching the door. Neither of them were prepared for the force with which it flew open, admitting Edward in a black temper.
“Get up.” he snapped. “Into town. Now.”
“What the fuck?" William complained, throwing down the counterpane. “Do you think you can walk your crazy white arse out of here?”
“Just go, it looks important.” Susan insisted, brushing down her skirt.
"Is it?” he demanded of his brother. Edward’s mood required no elucidation, and William reached across her for his trousers.
Lilian met them in the hallway in the midst of tying back her hair, scowling beside the phone held to her ear by her shoulder as she followed them down the stairs.
“Stay here.” Edward told her. She hung up and stuffed the appliance into her bag.
“I swear Lamb if you say that one more time I'm going to fucking stab you. Stay here shit... some cocksucker smashed up the store and sprayed my fucking name in dayglo over everything. Meredith just reamed me like a Dutch bitch.” They waited behind Edward while he unlocked the door into the garage.
“I want pictures.” he told her. “Send them to my phone.”
“Why’re you here?” she demanded of William, dropping down into the passenger side; he glanced up from lighting a joint on the back seat.
“He’s second key on my deposit boxes.” Edward informed her. William leant forward, trading looks with her. “Someone hacked my operating accounts.” he hissed.
“No fucking way... what did they get?” Lilian exclaimed. She glanced back to William for an interpretation of his brother’s mute demeanour; the latter sat back and sucked in his bottom lip.
Susan stood before the coffee machine as the front door slammed. Lilian stalked into the kitchen, slumping down into a chair beside the window before acknowledging her presence with a glance. The silence between them, loaded from the outset, became as contentious as any ill-chosen words and Susan turned toward the sink, casting about for something to say.
“William called a while ago... something garbled, about banks...” she offered. The blonde woman struck a light, sat back and smoked half her cigarette before responding.
“I feel like... you're looking at me a certain way." she asserted, lowering her chin and devoting her gaze to the ash she tapped into the china bowl before her. Unsure how to reply, Susan chose not to, and her companion let the challenge slide. "La Rue hacked Lamb's account, ripped off all the dry-cleaned cash. Then someone busted into the boutique, smashed it up and sprayed how they’re gonna do me all over the whole fucking thing. Whatever kind of shit went down between Lamb and Opal's gotta be bad, because no one goes this fugazi over losing a single fucking client.” Lilian's stare became bitter. “But you wouldn’t know about that, right?”
“I really don't." Susan sighed, shrugging at the suspicion that settled on her skin like soap scum. "Did you have money in the shop?”
“No... but no day job, no visible means of support. No visible means and every douche with a badge is on you like a fucking carcinoma, so no trade. No trade, no fucking money.” She delved into her handbag and a bottle of pills bounced from it onto the table, rolling and dropping at Susan’s feet; the latter could not help but glance at the label upon retrieving them but the discovery recoiled on her, souring the coffee in her mouth.
“This is..." She looked up incredulously. "You can't just take these... they're dangerous..."
“Too late. Who was that bitch last night, the Russian freak?” Lilian asked the question without looking at her.
“She's... a friend of William’s... but... you can't...”
Frowning again as Susan's reply tailed off into an incredulous stare, the blonde woman turned toward the window and the low chug of the large vehicle outside, perceiving the white bulk of a removal truck backing up to the gates. She took out her phone while the occupants jumped down and came for the chain impeding them with an enormous pair of bolt cutters. Susan left her talking to Edward and went to the porch, standing with hands on hips while the intruders guided the truck along the drive. It pulled up halfway, its three large, unshaven attendants sporting wife-beater shirts and sagging track pants.
“This is private property..." she exclaimed, walking around to address the driver, who rolled himself a cigarette behind the wheel. "What the bloody hell's going on?"
“This’s called seizing goods to the value of this right here, according to that right there.” he informed her, handing over a writ. Lilian addressed him as she descended the steps.
“Put it back in gear you greasy fuck or I go get the ten gauge.” she warned, staring up into the cab. The men glanced at each other and began to chuckle, shaking their heads and lowering the cleated ramp toward the cobblestones, the chain stays rattling as they paid out. She disappeared into the house while Susan attempted to decipher the smeary documentation, reappearing with the weapon she’d described in both hands, smiling like a sadist at an invalid. The packers fell back onto the lawn on either side of her while the driver exclaimed profanely into his mirror, struggling with the gearstick as she raised the heavy barrels.
Edward left his sedan in the midst of the road and strode down the drive even as the truck listed heavily toward him, the driver loath to concede precious velocity. The sun emerged briefly from behind cloud as he came toward the house through the exhaust smoke, pausing to confiscate his shotgun from Lilian's grasp and shucking the cartridges into his pockets.
"Find somewhere else." he told Susan, leaving her halting explanation on the doorstep.
In the drawing room Lilian watched him stand in tensile preoccupation; he studied her closely before walking to the kitchen and returning with her handbag, pouring its contents onto the kilim and inspected three vials of medication.
“Clozapine...” he related coldly.
“The really fucking hilarious thing about that is that it’s not working." she assured him. "And you don't get to stand there and judge my ass... this is all down to you anyway.”
“What is it about me that drives you to antipsychotics?”
“Everything. It’s everything. I can’t fucking sleep, I can’t work, I can’t stop fucking myself in the head... my mother died in secure care... she was as crazy as the fucking day is long and I can’t go that way...” She took an involuntary breath and lowered her voice, speaking with a brittle, deliberate restraint echoed in the fists into which both hands retreated. “I am... I'm having delusional thoughts. They're about you.”
He stood looking back at her but said nothing as he set the bottle on the mantle. She pressed the tips of her fingers to the crease between her brows, keeping her eyes closed.
“Okay, so... Meredith fired my ass for that shit at the store, so now I’m going back to work.”
“You can't with things as they are.” he told her. Lilian found it hard to look at him, even when he turned slightly toward the doorway. “Are you expecting anyone?”
Another vehicle had taken advantage of the unsecured gates to ease down the drive in low gear, a dark sedan with the dull orange globe of a magnetic beacon seated behind the windscreen. Edward left her in the drawing room to intercept its passengers. They rose slowly on either side of the car; two detectives, one in a hooded jacket and T-shirt, the other in a tight black pullover that displayed the outline of the holster strapped to his chest, approached the door, their posture weighted with an uneasy mix of caution and swagger. He let his anger bleed out while they looked him over and made some decisions of their own.
“We’re looking for a Lilian Frost... she’s here, right?” the hooded jacket proposed, flashing his credentials. He was broadly, indelicately handsome, his deeply-creased brow marked by a hybrid state of expectation and suspicion, his tan the product of time spent on other people’s yachts. Lilian usurped Edward’s reply, walking out into the hall to investigate the visitation and they trailed her back into the drawing room. “You know Mr Lamb, we’d really prefer to conduct this interview in private, so if you wouldn’t mind stepping out...” the hooded jacket suggested smoothly. He extinguished their expectations by staring back at them as he crossed the room and stood before the French doors. They looked down over the contents of her handbag where they still littered the ground beside the hearth. “Lilian Natalia Frost...” he smirked in her direction. “It’s just a small matter today. I’m sure we can settle this without any unpleasantness.”
“What the fuck do you want?” she snapped.
“That would be the drop you failed to make at the precinct a few months back. We’re aware you just lost your position down at your little porn store, what with all the felonious activity that’s occurred there overnight... but we’re going to be needing the sum owed before we can think about tolerating your primary operation.”
“Who told you I was here?”
“A concerned member of the public provided us with your details.” The detective smoothed a palm over his exuberant, toast-brown cowlick. “Cash or bank cheque, or you can come downtown and make it right in person... I’m all set for option two, but Noah here’s queerer than a three buck note and wants a payday. Maybe we can uh, split the difference, if it’s all the same to you.”
Lilian picked a thread from her sleeve, shaking her head.
“I’m tapped out, so you crazy clowns can go right ahead and fuck yourselves.” she advised. Glancing to Edward, she directed a small, sarcastic gesture of encouragement at him. “Bent vice cops. Throw them a coin, they'll do a little dance. Hell...” she added, nodding at the black sweater. “Look at those dick-sucking lips. He’s probably gonna do one anyway.”
“Ms Frost, you ah... you need to dial back that attitude. You and this here've pissed some upstanding, deep-pocket types off hard and you’re not in a position to yank our dicks... we did you a favour coming down here and playing nice... we don’t have to play that way. I prefer not to myself. Now... we started out at twenty K, I know that, but what you just said reminded me that we got Christmas coming and mouths to feed, so now it’s thirty.” the hooded jacket warned her, standing restlessly and looking to his companion, then to Edward, who seemed to have begun to exert a gravitational effect on his attention.
“Is there something you'd like to say to me specifically?” Edward asked.
“Would it kill you to step in and cut a cheque? Best money you ever spent, I can guarantee it.”
Lilian smoothed her hand against the side of her neck, watching them discuss her position without interjecting.
“She doesn’t want to pay.” Edward replied.
“Maybe I didn’t explain this right. She pays, or she comes downtown and works off every fucking dime in the ladycage while we lose her paperwork.”
The errant detectives looked from Edward to Lilian in an effort to discover the source of the strange reciprocation that had begun to prevail, of unintelligible exchange as the pair ignored the ultimatum in favour of each other. Against the dark wall the pale woman evinced so little interest in them that her disregard became a provocation in itself, and the hooded jacket shook his head, tugging handcuffs from his trousers.
“You don’t think we’re stupid, do you, because I could easily get offended.”
She smiled, but not at him.
“I guess cock doesn't take the edge off for you like it does for me.”
He pulled up short of her.
“Uh oh... look what you just did.” Snatching her wrist he turned her around, shaking out the silver cuffs with a dramatic flourish. She stood still at first, then yanked free, and he caught her arm again and sank a short punch into the back of her floating ribs. Her arms fell as though cut from her body and her mouth clenched, biting down on the small sound that almost escaped her.
“Dale...” the other detective murmured. “Don’t fuck her up. This asshole’s going for his lawyer as soon as we’re in the car.” Neither man enjoyed the expression on her face when she lifted it and looked to her companion; Edward’s golden eyes remained on hers while her escort shoved her forward, yanking her elbows back toward him in an attempt to correct her course against the slow pace she insisted on, her cryptic smile appalling the man beside the door. “Dale...”
“Pitch a fucking cork in it, would you Noah? No one knows shit about this... it’s a free ride.” He dragged her closer to the door. “Get this crazy bitch in the car before her head starts spinning round.”
Lilian slumped onto the thick plastic coating the rear of the sedan while her custodians took their own seats before her. In the warm confines the mens' conflicting colognes fought the smell of exhaled smoke and resident, endocrine masculinity. She coughed once and tasted copper. Edward filled the doorway as he paused and glanced in both directions across the garden; from watching him intently, the second detective turned to his companion.
“Dale... key.” he urged, looking down at the strip of chrome lining the door glass beneath his elbow, suddenly cold enough to bleed through his woollen sleeve.
“Jesus, will you fucking learn to front sometime? I’m not peeling outta here because this freak follows me into the friggin lot. He’s pissed... his piece is going and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. I’d be pissed too.” the handsome man chuckled, turning with his arm over the back of his seat to smirk at Lilian while he fished the car key from his pocket. She sat with her cuffed hands at the small of her back, head laid against the rest and her gaze drifting to his own, growing slowly darker as though with cloud shadow as her lips parted. In doing so, he missed the sight of Edward’s face as the latter bent to stare in through the windscreen at them; as he turned back the detective found that he could neither instruct him to retreat, nor admonish the voice that slid over his shoulder. The keys in his fist became as cold as winter stone, sucking the heat from his hand.
“You can’t move.” she whispered, the sound of the breath drawn through her throat thickly loaded with impelling intonation. It bled into his skull and thickened his blood, backing it up behind the valves in his neck. The second detective glanced at his side window and snapped at his companion for the keys again. Though the latter heard him, he sat locked in immobility. Edward stepped back from the car door and Lilian curled against the seat, closing her eyes.
The window glass flew inward in a burst of icy fragments that struck both men and bounced back to land in her lap like uncut diamonds. The black pullover was sucked from his seat, his body scouring the glass that still sagged in the frame, dragged out into the open air, legs beating against the steering wheel. On the drive his hoarse cry was snapped short by the collapse of his face, his assailant crushing it into the cobblestones and cracking his neck into segments. Edward rose, crossing the windscreen like an eclipse toward the passenger side, terror tearing its occupant out of inertia and pushing his heavy, stubborn hands toward the shotgun between the front seats. The door beside him was wrenched open; in seizing and hauling him sideways Edward wrested the man’s grip from the weapon; his cry was punched into a higher key by his shoulders striking the grass, where he writhed like a fat snake as he was dragged from the drive by his ankle. While on his back he recalled the pistol secreted in his trousers, and with his stare still on his assailant he tore the gun free; Lilian flinched behind her window at the crack of the shot, watching Edward knock the weapon from his grasp, stamp his elbow to the ground and snap the detective's arm cleanly, leaving it to fall at a nauseous angle while he stoved a suite of prone ribs with the toe of his boot.
He took a moment to reach down and confiscate the keys from his victim’s belt before returning to the sedan. She knelt while he unlocked her cuffs, wiping her hair from her eyes as she climbed out and returned with him toward her tormentor, the man lying on the grass with his mouth moving to shape words that would not attend his summons. Bending slowly, Lilian retrieved the pistol from the ground and passed it to her companion, and Edward thanked her, trained it on the detective’s hip and pulled the trigger. They took an unhurried measure of his agony, but when the screams began to displease her, he aimed into the man's gaping face and fired again.
Black gloss walls contained and softly reflected the shapes and colours of the crowd moving between them, roaming columns of blue and luminous green turning the passing faces paler shades of the same. Lilian and Edward shared the ambient bass, the stygian frequency passing through her flesh into his own. She glanced up at the waitress delivering their drinks; she was blessed with a pliant, abstract loveliness that filled her rubber skin like something cast to fit its slickly gleaming limitations, her features wrapped in a studded mask from which two slender horns curved back over her brow. Around them in black demi-lune chairs sat the many faces of exclusive perversion, collared, shaven, dripping chains and other tokens of humiliation, or sitting, stiffly ornate, in figured, custom leather, some wearing homely heads over their fierce and intricate finery as though they were randomized amalgams. Civilian associates leant over their drinks in the anonymous attire required by the more quotidian segments of their neatly-partitioned lives.
Fatigue slowed Lilian’s arm when she lifted the bottle from the table, spilt liquor pooling around the foot of the glass from which she drank as though to slake a thirst. The alcohol did not immediately medicate the heavy disarticulation that had overtaken her, but burned on the way down; laughter from an adjacent chamber drew the eyes around them into its throbbing, red-flushed darkness. When she looked down she saw thin, dull lines of the same colours jammed under her fingernails. She tugged her dress shirt free from the waist of her skirt and felt for the bruise that had risen beneath it, pressing down into her ribs to feel an echo of the impact that had marked them. In recalling the assault she almost did not perceive the body that sat down on her right side, spreading arms across the seat behind her. The intruder was tall and powerfully made, his sharply-cut features punctuated with an array of stainless piercings, snakebites and labrets dressing his lips like drops of mercury. Edward knew him for the alujha assassin that he was, recalling his name and affiliations from those in which he maintained an interest.
“I know who you are, so... I’ll tell you this, as good manners.” the man began, his Berlin accent flattening his English. He paused to light himself a long cigar, looking back to Lilian with an undisguised and almost wistful appreciation. “There is one hundred U.S on the table for her. Opal La Rue, and Prague.”
One half of a song passed before Edward replied, having consulted his companion silently.
“I will ligate and section whoever takes the contract.”
The killer considered his response and nodded in wordless accord, looking up into the blue strobe passing overhead, then down to count the fingers around Edward’s glass.
“I'm thinking I don’t need this procedure. Good luck to you both.” He eased his large form from the chair, aware he had outstayed his welcome.
A line of narrow booths, like the domestic architecture of some giant communal insect formed one wall of the passage beyond the apparatus room, each outfitted with a padded black ottoman and a soundproof door. Lilian pushed the one behind her closed, excluding the murmuring traffic of the corridor and returning the booth to its seclusion. Over their heads a beaded lantern cast brazier red and violet blue in carnal semitones against their skin, the sombre points of colour swimming like cells in plasma, black lying like a wolf's mouth in the shadows to devour all remaining hues. Edward watched her sit down on the ottoman from the back wall. She leant forward to pull off her jacket and shirt, the sleeves of which were dressed with mouse-grey mud.
“You can’t go back to work.” he told her, unbuttoning his own shirt and wiping it from his arms, the skin from his wrists to his elbows streaked with a far darker colour where the fabric had dried against it.
“I can't not go back. I got notes all over town.” she replied, lifting the vodka bottle to her lips. Her fatalistic logic was at once familiar and exhausting.
“I will pay them out.”
A frown developed as she examined the statement.
“They didn’t get it all, did they?”
He shook his dark head slowly. The sight of his body dappled in sullen ordinal colours merged with the memory of its horrific aptitude, its effect on bone and flesh and glass, his great shape's containment of a void so easily mistaken for the strictures of inhibition. She lifted her hair from the back of her neck, looking from his stare toward the floor in an effort to arrest the adulterant influence of lust, fed by all that she had seen of him, black flames rolling away from their buried source. Her eyes rose to the cinder-coloured depression punched into the skin of his left flank.
“How can you stand there with a round in you, like someone cut you off a fucking cross?” she murmured, her grasp sliding on the bottle. “Same way you put two cops in a fucking hole like you were flushing goldfish, you... fucking psychopath.”she whispered, bringing a hand to her face as though the light damaged her eyes. “Think I can come to you for an allowance? You don’t have dependents. I’ll end up face down in the fucking woods like everyone else.” The blue light on his skin began to fail and lose itself until all around became cold-blooded red, their pale stares soaked through with it, their shapes drawn with strokes of that perfected darkness worn by long-expired stars. She rose and came to him, turning her hand against his wound as she opened her lips on his neck, exchanging the smell and taste of his skin for the heat of her own. “What I need to do is just... I just need to leave you alone.”
In doing so she took up her jacket and walked to the door, but he pushed it shut from behind her, shifting his weight to pin her with his shoulder and reaching down with both hands, fingers leaving white trails in her flesh where they dragged over the silk of her stockings toward the warm, bare skin where they concluded. She stood with her cheek to the wood while he kicked her feet apart and lifted her skirt, drawing her back against him with an arm pulled tight around her waist. His body beside her own and the proficiency of his hands together wrested her whispered permission, and she closed her eyes and caught the door frame, letting her weight drag through her arms. Her feet slid down into the toes of her shoes, heels lifted free by the first shock of pleasure as it struck her hard, sucking the tension from her legs.
“You can't fuck me and say nothing." she breathed.
“I kill people for money.” he told her, pushing one hand down the front of her skirt, the other reaching around between her breasts to grasp her shoulder so that she could evade nothing of what he did to her. "I enjoy it more than I should. There is something badly wrong with me." Her forehead slid against the door as she bowed her head and bared her teeth, rolling her hips to allow him the full measure of her body in which he moved with ruthless resolution. “I should walk into the sea, but the more I have of you, the more I need. Don't ask me to let you go. I have never known how." he promised, the words cool on the back of her neck, releasing his pinioning grip and turning her against him. He grasped the soft reverse of her thighs, sweeping her clear of the ground and setting her back against the door where she pushed out from it, meeting his mouth with her own and receiving him there as she did everywhere else, heels biting into the small of his back. Her hands still clutched the framing overhead but the crippling intensity of his method brought her so close that she lost her grip and writhed between him and the wood until constraint was torn away, ripping free like thorns through flesh.
Susan gripped the banister and peered down into the entrance hall, watching William admit himself quietly. He glanced up as she flew down the stairs toward him.
“Where have you been?” she whispered furiously. “Where's your brother? Is he here?” She kept hold of his arm and crept around him to listen at the door to the garage.
“He left me in a vault, and now his fucking phone’s off. Christabel, he’s not here... why? What’s going on?”
She did not seem to be able to accept his assurances, keeping her voice low as she beckoned him toward the stairs.
“Lilian came back from town and then these idiots arrived with a truck... I have no idea who they were... she went and got a gun and she would have used it on them if your brother hadn't come home...”
“Was she high?”
“I don’t know... yes, probably! I hid up here. I heard another car come up the drive, and then I heard a fucking gun go off..."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes! I was too scared to look... when I sneaked down finally, everyone was gone and there was nothing."
William stood for a moment at the base of the stairs and collected his thoughts.
“If anyone was dead we would have tripped over them by now. Frost’s probably with Ed, so she’ll be okay. In one sense.” he sighed, climbing past her while she stared at his phlegmatic response. In the bedroom he emptied his pockets onto the quilt, dumping a folded wad of documents and notes scrawled to himself, and slumped down in the chair to kick off his boots. Taking his phone from him, she found Edward’s number and stood chewing her lip with the appliance to her ear as she was advised of the latter’s unavailability.
"Lilian's not okay... she's taking clozapine." she confessed, handing back the appliance. He pressed two fingers to his forehead and swore down at his lap. “Petrouchka said to make you tell me everything.”
“Yeah well, that’s fine for her to say. Vampyres don’t have any fucking skeletons. The people I’m talking about have more closet space than a Narnian penthouse. Christabel..." he groaned. "I’ve just spent the day at five different fucking banks arguing with the world’s scariest nitpicker over which bits of our stash we should involuntarily liquidate, because he’s just had the money he earned as an international apocalypse ripped off by someone he already wants to force through a fucking shredder... please don't give me waterboarding eyes. You will not thank me for telling you.”
She watched him slide down further into his chair and push his feet along her legs, inviting her hands to them with restless movements of his toes. Pushing them aside, Susan rolled over onto the bed and settled with her back to him, taking the magazine from beside the lamp. William sat for as long as he was able without speaking.
“Lilian’s not crazy.” he confessed. “Sometimes clarity is not your friend.” Turning over, she saw that he sat on the verge of significant disclosure. "If I tell you where all this comes from, you have to tell me what to do.”
The faces of the multitude were like bobbing sea-ice over their dirty, cattle-coloured tunics and thick stitched furs. Sachiin scanned them all, standing at the end of the cordon that divided the flagged square while the guards grouped beneath their pointed helms lost patience with the restive mass, barking and striking at them with cudgels cut for the occasion. The sky threatened snow, casting a sickly, cinereous illumination that drew in black and white and the unclean colours of their union. He glanced toward his companion; Gideon Auberjonois seemed more rueful than he had expected, the greedy, agrestic gloating of the crowd that pressed them on three sides reviled by every facet of his person.
“Why did you not tell me before now?" he muttered, shrugging his greatcoat around himself against the cold. "With your brother, we might have taken her from here.”
“She made me swear that I would not.” Sachiin confessed, Gideon's gaze upbraiding his adherence to such onerous terms. Both creatures craned their necks to catch sight of Kala'amātya, some twenty metres distant along the way cleared by the guards. He stood immobile and impassive amid the contingent drafted from Gideon's own circle, the latter flexing their wary hands and murmuring to one another as they watched the crowd around them. Before them rose the dark frame of the gallows beside a massive stave of oak rearing over the assemblage like some hungry idol. A thick skirting of bundled osier had already been laid head-high about its footing, stacked and kindled with wreaths of straw figured into crosses by the busy hands of charwomen. Alongside the stake a ditch, large enough to accommodate a tall man, had been dug and filled to its lip with freezing, opaque water.
On a lofty dais the gross figure of a catholic bishop, swathed in the complex, burnished finery of his office, sat upon a cushioned throne listening to details related by a pair of dark-garbed drudenhaus attendants. In the robes commissioned for the great occasion, he resembled some couchant and sedentary magi; behind him sat Rana in her own gilt chair, a dress of brilliant golden velvet beneath her bright red mantle, a cup of wine standing in her grasp. To the rear of her vantage roosted the wealthy burgher clans and guild men who had campaigned so long for the offender’s apprehension, cloaks drawn up about themselves as they exchanged confidences behind gloved hands.
Without fanfare the gates were prised open to admit two mounted wardens in scarred cuirasses to the square. They forced the mob backward into two thick ranks while the horses’ smoking breath and the sharp, hollow clatter of their riders' plate echoed unchallenged by jeers or shrieking catcalls, the ploughmen and mill girls standing in a dour silence nursing the stones and clods of offal they had brought to fling at the enemy who had held them subject for so long. Behind the riders and before another company of guards, pikes held upright in a bristling surmount, three women walked in single file, chained hand and foot to one another and forced to match their pace to that of the checked and stamping horses. Sachiin closed his eyes at the sight of them, his distress shared by the creature alongside him who expressed his dismay in soft gallic vowels.
The first woman wore an overgown of ravaged hellebore purple that flapped against her shoulders in the wind. Helaine's pale head had been crudely shorn and left a blistered, harrowed waste; around her throat deep-bitten wounds echoed the battered colours of her mouth, the same damp welts encircling each branded arm. Filthy linen bound each hand, preventing the remains of her fingers from disgorging enough blood to subvert the purpose of her detention. In defiance of her circumstance she displayed neither hauteur nor desolation, but walked in the direct and unfeigned manner that had always been her wont, wrists chained at her waist. Behind her, the two apprentice girls Adelle and Agathé proved less resolute, weeping and stumbling, their distress rousing a more demonstrative response from the crowd, the braver amongst them hefting the stones meant for their mistress. The hurled debris soon added its dire colours to those already staining their bloodied shifts of white linen, a vestige of their former station. The rear guard abused Agathé as she faltered at the sight of the rearing stake and the crowd pressed home the advantage, enclosing the two girls with their spitting faces and jostling limbs.
Breaking with the onlookers Sachiin stepped out into the way and helped Agathé to her feet, only to be shoved back by the pike bearers. Moving quickly along the face of the crowd, he walked at the shoulder of the senior witch and addressed her as discreetly as the tumult would permit.
“I could not persuade him to leave.” he told her, keeping his head low. She glanced at him, one eye shot red by a blow that had blackened her brow as far as her hairline, but made no reply, and was forced onward by her jailers. Gideon caught him up; they went ahead of the captive party to take their places beside Kala'amātya.
Helaine suffered no visible struggle as the guards led her past, finding Sachiin's bright features against the brumous crowd before his brother's. The sight of Kala'amātya caused her to falter briefly before wresting back control, every moment she had suffered visited upon him in an agony that would have turned another from her. With no other opportunity remaining to him he was compelled to commit even the indelible horror of her wounds to memory, before the mounted guards swung down onto the cobbles to take her arms and march her before the dais, her two maids arraigned in like fashion behind her. All demonstration from the crowd ceased as the bishop rose with the help of two attendants who then crouched about his robes, busily composing them, and looked out across the square, to his cabal of clerical associates, and finally to the small party before him, his head haloed by the misted sun.
“In the name of Christ, we sit in judgement upon you, the Countess Helaine de Marchand and your various serving women beside, in the matter of the murder of your lawful husband, and charges of the most horrible maleficia, too numerous, and infamous, to utter in open company.” announced the enormous priest, his tiny, cupid-bow mouth moving in the great flat bulk of his face beneath bagged grey eyes. “The word of your two novices has been duly recorded, naming you as foremost amongst witches, and naming the acts by which you, Countess de Marchand, compelled them into your service so that they might do your bidding in all things and prosecute infamies in your stead. How do you speak to the charges laid this day against you?”
She stood between her guards, staring into the shadows beneath the dais. The crowd began to murmur and some demands for her confession were voiced from its more substantial quarters, those preserved by prudent distance from having to confront their great bête noire in person. Behind the bishop, Rana leant forward from her chair and came to the latter’s shoulder, laying a hand upon his arm as she confided something to his right jowl.
“It is a vulgar custom.” he announced to her suggestion. “But I shall permit it.” He issued some short order and watched, as the senior guard drew a bodkin from his belt; Sachiin caught Kala'amātya's arm as they took her head and sliced the skin between her eyes with the blade, treating Agathé and Adelle in the same way, though they seemed insensible, standing with the blood streaming down their faces. The crowd began to cheer, emboldened. The bishop called for a charger of blessed water, which he tossed down in the direction of the prisoners, splashing the cobbles and their bare feet. In her gleaming chair, Rana settled back to search out Kala'amātya's face.
“Before I name your sentence, I call on you to confess your crimes and prepare your soul for the judgement of your living saviour.” he informed her. Helaine looked for the first time to the prelate’s rose-flushed features; he read her mute refusal. “The fate of your corrupted sisters may move you better.” he predicted.
The weeping novices were dragged from behind her and hoisted over the faggots by a line of scowling pike-bearers, their chains drawn rattling round the great oak, three times about their bodies until they were imprisoned against it and each other. The girls began to petition the last of the guards who leapt down onto the flags, their sobbing entreaties rising into wailing as the flaming, tar-soaked torch was passed to the hooded executioner. The anonymous figure mumbled his half-articulate entreaty for the safety of his own emperiled soul, and without further ceremony touched the smoking flame to the foot of the pyre.
White smoke was whipped away from the girls by the same wind that fanned the flames until they flared up about their legs like licking tongues arising from a brittle phoenix nest. Their wailing rose into wild, avian screams as the fire climbed over the fuel toward their legs, the heat engulfing them in a shimmering silver column that ate the clothes from their bodies and began to consume their steaming, blistered flesh. The stench swept down over the crowd as though on blackened vans, the burning women thrashing in their chains until the bright veil of flame rose about their bloated shoulders and the crowd drew back, pressing sleeves and kerchiefs to their faces. With their remaining charge the horse guards retreated from the heat of the conflagration against the ranks of the onlookers, where a single voice in a low and vehement language scarcely earned a moment of their rapt attention. Standing out of sight behind her shoulder, Kala'amātya dragged from his empty chest, sending them as emissaries across the cold arm’s length between them.
“You know well... they care for your land and not your life... confess and I will buy you from them.” He reached out, unable to contain himself, and slid his hand beneath her arm. She looked down at its strange shape against the threadbare silk that clothed her side, remembering his knowledge of her flesh, the way in which his body was but a province of her own.
“I cannot live another hour in this skin." she told him softly. "Kala'amātya... we may fashion our own gods but we are subject to their judgement." His sorrow filled the last redoubt inside her heart and blurred the immolation as it spilled down her face from her lashes. "You are all that I have loved. Let me go, or I will never learn to leave you.”
Before him, the white breadth of her shoulders moved, and she lifted her head, looking up to burn her pale eyes upon the corpses chained against the sooty stake, bent double by the flames that had consumed and transmuted them so horribly, their blackened, oily skin and sinews contracting as they cooled, the fuming mound of charcoal and ashes beneath them doused by wardens. The womens' twisted forms appeared far more ominous and malefic than at any living moment, like something dragged smoking out of hell; the assembled clergy kept their linen to their faces and awaited a change of wind. When it came, the bishop heaved himself once more from his throne to deliver his final address.
“Helaine de Marchand... your estates, dwellings and title shall be forfeit to the church, with any coinage, relic or treasure in your name. I call upon you to repent your crimes before your fellow man, so that you may be freed of the corruption that binds you to the Adversary. What say you?” Her guards stepped back from her, as though their presence might impede her will. Helaine looked up at the dais, at Rana’s smile and then at the bishop, studying him for a term.
“I would say these few things. The first, to this distinguished company... without your greed and your abiding hatred of each other, I could not have prospered as I did. To the women, I say abasement is your desert for as long as you submit yourselves. To the men, I own I should have set more of your heads upon my gate. And to this church... you cannot cast me into the void... in death I will go where I please, as I have done in life, and I will die in any manner you devise before I kiss your book and live by your consent.” Helaine looked over the faces staring back at her. “I leave you in each others' hands.”
Gideon shook his head at Sachiin's side, smiling in spite of his regret.
“An we are to lose this woman, while your beloved lives.” he observed, looking across the clearing at Rana. “A bitter day.”
Beside the pit that lay between a score of lifted stones, two guards took up a lengthy wooden instrument, as long as a pike and forked at its end, fashioned from a bifurcated bough; another like it had been handed to them by the priests after it had received a hasty blessing. Helaine considered her dim reflection in the milky ditch, an image shattered as she stepped down and sank to her waist in its midst; the dark silk of her skirt billowed out around her, drinking in the water and falling with its weight. With her back to the crowd she lay down in the freezing pool, its depths biting hard as they soaked through her gown. The feeble sun was once more engulfed by clouds, their soft shapes floating on the surface of her gaze until she closed her eyes against the day and descended, leaving only ripples to meet and cross each other until waning into quiescence. In their nervous haste the men plunged their staffs into the pit, leaning heavily upon them. If she struggled there was no sign, though they were careful to keep their eyes from the water. Sachiin turned to find his brother had sunk to his knees as though run through by eviscerating iron, holding his dark head in his white hands.
“And like that, Kala'amātya was who he had been before we left the mountains, as though nothing good had ever happened, and I was not his brother. When he stood up, Rana saw him coming and climbed over her chair to get away. He went after her and didn’t stop.” William related. “He bought Helaine's body from the midden-keepers and carried her back to her house that night..." He saw her blind eyes as he closed his own, her stained, drowned shape in his brother's arms, the shadows of the branches sliding slowly across her dead face under an unfinished moon. "When we got there, the dralna were already going through her things, taking all her books away. It felt like I was burying him with her. We left for Paris, and he’s never been back. He won’t even fly over it.”
Nausea rolled over Susan and she sat up on the bed, pulling the quilt around herself.
“Why didn’t you do something?”
“She knew a long time before we did... months before the militia came, she made me promise if she was arrested I wouldn’t let him intervene, that it would play out in its own way. Helaine was not someone you went against... I don't know how to explain it... armies marched for weeks around her hood. You did not say no to her.” he sighed. “It was easier for her to go, because she knew he couldn't. All this time I’ve asked myself... what would have happened if I’d gone against her wishes? I couldn’t do it then, and I don’t know if I can now.”
She watched him stand up and reach into the chest at the end of the bed, its bronze handles chiming against the escutcheons as he removed something from it. Susan accepted the parcel he handed her almost warily, unravelling from yellowed linen a miniature portrait on a smooth-grained disc of ivory, full of deft and germane detail recorded by a faithful hand. At first its loveliness disarmed her and she enjoyed it, lifting it to the light to obtain a better view, but as the features spoke she let her hands fall into her lap, lips parted in an expression of abiding dread. Though the subject’s shoulders were robed in the porcelain-blue silk reserved for a woman of high station, her face was neither possessed of bland, titled conceit nor was it unfamiliar. Silver-blonde hair strayed from her simple crowning braid; the woman's pale stare caused Susan to lift a hand to her own cheek in a failed attempt to say her name.
“I couldn't see it until they were together.” said William quietly. “It's coming back to Frost in pieces, so she thinks she’s going crazy... it’s the way she knows him, but can’t help herself, just like Helaine. He can’t see it at all, or won’t... I don't know which it is."
“Petrouchka knew her...”
“I met Pet at Helaine’s place... they were tight, before my brother. She used to eat the pervs and freeloaders who overstayed at their house parties. The witches say birth cleans the slate... you’re not supposed to know the ones you’ve met before... it's like looking into the sun, but Pet was dead when they met... it must've bent the needle. She knew her straight away.”
Susan considered the perverse immortality of love and loss, how both might willfully persist, ignoring the petty order ruling union and division. She bowed her head beneath the quilt, drawing it into a cowl.
“Why?” she whispered.
“The dragon loves the pearl.” he sighed. "They can only see each other."
They sat together in the silence, both grateful for it.
“William... you have to tell her. If I was Lilian and I found out that you knew, I’d hate you.”
“I promised Helaine... you don’t fuck with the dralna, Christabel, christ... I don’t know if I can.”
“Then tell your brother.”
William lay down on the bed with his hands over his face.
The small glowing screen of his telephone flashed repeatedly, relating the pre-dawn hour and the caller's tenacity. William rose, taking care not to disturb his companion from the troubled sleep that had curled her legs and pushed her fists beneath her pillow. Out on the balcony he obliged his own need to escape the enclosure of the building, the feeling of its weight on the back of his neck and of not being able to see beyond walls. The darkness had brought the trees much closer to the house and turned the grass into a cordon against their vast, untended presence. He did not know how he had come to be staring at such wilderness from within a static pile, remembering its inverse, descrying the dusty stone and mud brick shapes crouched around good water from the shimmering wastes that were to him the essence and the locus of existence. Thoughts of Lilian and her predecessor merged, twisted into union by the wind that blew eternally against them; how he was to speak to her of Helaine bewildered him with its torturous complexity, and William let the prospect sink back into the deep corpus of matters he was able to ignore. The blinking telephone was more difficult to disregard. Bede's name flashed again, petitioning him mutely, while beneath him on the grass a figure stepped from the corner of the house with the poise of an actor intent upon an audience, walking to the edge of the stonework around the swimming pool. Rana looked up at him through the darkness with an expression that might have seemed exultant, if her face had not begun to wear the dissolution that was suffered by the rest of her. The dress she had lived in had fallen victim to the same attrition, torn around its hem where she had dragged it over walls and vegetation. In spite of it he thought there was something faintly luminous about her, though her image was deeply contaminated by the weight of his perceptions.
She walked back to the wall beneath the balcony and grasped the heavy copper piping, exerting all the strength and fidelity remaining to her to effect an ascent. William watched her obliquely as she rolled over the railing, sought to compose herself, then moved behind him, her gaze enjoying him without requiring consent; when she spoke, the sound rasped like metal over ice, an ugly, toneless babel.
"She... gone, before you know. I come for you. What..." She shook a hand at the door in her frustration, unable to birth the words. When he looked at her directly he found the impression he had gathered from a distance was correct; her fingers were stained a deep translucent blue beneath their skin, like dying flesh around a wound, the colour creeping in narrow strokes along her arms like the rills bleeding from her eyes, darkened to the chill hue of their blood. “Lost, without my hand..." she croaked.
"Avi'ashān?" he asked finally. She smirked in reply as she came around him to examine his expression, scouring it for cues that might betray him; he caught her arm and swung her back when she started for the French doors, stationing himself so that she could make no further attempt in their direction. The nature of the dissuasion seemed to astound her and Rana struggled once more for words, spitting them out piecemeal.
“She thinks you... strong... for you both?”
“No..." he admitted. "She thinks me weak, but doesn’t mind, and I don't mind, because I love her, tellement... beaucoup." Her lips slid back further over her disarrayed teeth. "I'd give everything you ever were for a single word from her, so go away. Sis’thle nya'n si el’yeh.” William recommended, heading back into the bedroom.
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