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.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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