Bryan ended up wrapping Iaondrin in his arms to try to comfort her much like they had done on their earlier trips. Despite the late night, he had them up by late morning to start resetting their sleeping patterns.
After they had eaten, he asked Iaondrin to start on her sketch of Veanna’s place while he went out to see Ginko the Sly about what he knew of the woman and her House.
The summer heat was somewhat less sweltering on the waterfront, especially in the morning, though Ginko has positioned his table outside the Broken Hagfish to take advantage of the shade offered by the overhead awning, and the taller building next door. Business had not yet started bustling for him, and he sat at his table alone, with a frosted ceramic pitcher containing some unknown cool drink and a bowl of fresh summer fruit – this time, the figs were a fresh and ripe golden yellow, and they were nestled among plump blackberries and raspberries.
Ginko gave him a doubtful sideways look as Vermillion took a seat. “I don’t know if I should even bother talking to you,” he said with a teasing hint of scolding. I have to hear all my news about you from other people?” He sighed, and turned one unused mug upright before pushing it across to Vermillion.
“News about me?” Vermillion was surprised at first, then thought again about who he had been dealing with lately and held up a hand. “What are they saying about me? You may not be able to believe it all.” He took the pitcher and sniffed at it before pouring himself a mug-full.
The tea was tart and sweet at the same time, kept chill by the pitcher itself – likely due to some ensorcelment upon the container. “I do understand you have busy.” Ginko, who had been sitting with his chair turned towards the street, looked left and then right. “So much trouble you caused in the Aihv’, and the High Council all a-flutter for the summer.” He smiled, and tipped his chair back to lean against the wall behind him. “Months it has been since you stopped by, I was beginning to think you moved in such lofty circles you had no more use for me.” He looked at Vermillion, still smiling. “At least you’re still alive.”
“For now,” Vermillion replied enigmatically. “And the High Council could stand some flutter. But now, I would like to ask you what you know about Josepha Veanna.”
Ginko hadn’t been expecting that question, and he reached for the fruitbowl as something to do while he thought about the name. “Malisis Shal, a Dominta with her own house,” he said with a puzzled note in his voice. “Supporting Priore,” he continued slowly, and frowned slightly as he tried to figure out what had motivated the question and where Vermillion would go next. “Though I hear Priore may be considering withdrawing from the race.”
“Any designs on the Seat herself? At any point that you know of?”
Ginko shook his head. “None that I am aware, though others closer to the horse-trading might know more.”
Vermillion nodded, sipped some more tea. “Did she play any part in the war with Seldez?”
The two front legs of Ginko’s chair hit the ground, and he swung it around to face the table directly. He folded his arms on the table and leaned in close, giving Vermillion a hard look. “The Seldez war now? Since when did you become interested in history?” He waved away
his own question with one hand. “She’s not one that stood out in any of my history lessons. The houses of Malisis were divided – those with heavy League investments were, for obvious reasons, for Darilei. Those without went either way. I could ask around, but it’s been a while since I’ve needed to ask questions about the war. It’s stale news, not something at the top of my thoughts.”
Vermillion nodded again, slowly this time. “No need. She seems to have been very careful. You’d probably have to dig more than would be good for my health. So what’s that about Priore withdrawing?”
Ginko seemed that he might pursue the reasons for Vermillion’s interests in Veanna, but he let the topic go for now. “You haven’t heard? Priore and his cohort are very traditional, very … shall we say, respectful … of the rights and privileges of the high Shal. And your lady, as recalcitrant as she may be, is unquestionably high Shal.” He fished a blackberry out of the bowl. “Eccentric, but then again that seems to be quite in keeping with her family. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it endears her to Priore and his ilk, but it doesn’t trouble them like the concept of Parlen Tavis, human merchant, joining his pal Oberuc on the Council.”
He looked at Vermillion assessingly before continuing. “Tradition would be to try to marry her, but rumor has it that Priore might simply throw his support behind her, if she’s inclined to have it. I’m surprised you haven’t heard already, given who your recent house-guests were.”
Vermillion smiled wryly. “We had other concerns this visit. Magic rather than politics.” Then he shrugged. “Anyway, Priore already proposed marriage, and supporting her if she said no, but my Lady doesn’t need his support to sit in her own Seat.”
Ginko’s unhappiness at being behind in the race for gossip was apparent on his face. “It helps if he tells his followers to sheathe their daggers.”
“Ahh, yes, keeping the Seat would be easier,” Vermillion allowed with a small smile. “But another question about Veanna, what kinds of resources does she have?” It would be good to know where her interests laid and how many people she had on her side.
“Monetary, personnel, or both?” He steepled his fingers and closed his eyes to think. “Not a large house in numbers, and therefore not a large staff to support it. Well off, but not outrageously so.” He opened his eyes again. “Do you need exact numbers?”
“No exact numbers, unless she has something unusual amongst her resources,” Vermillion answered. “You got any names of someone in Malisis who might have information on her?”
Ginko’s expression was a combination of relief at finally having real information to offer and frustration at having been caught unprepared. Clearly he was going to have to study up on the lesser Shal families, just in case Vermillion were to come back with questions about, say, someone’s third cousin’s parlor maid. “Sway Thalie,” he answered right away, with a snap of his fingers. “Two blocks east of the temple for Fulmineo, on Vicus Bastiani. Third building from the corner, top floor. She likes having easy access to the roof.”
“Thanks. You’ve been great, as always,” Vermillion rose, dropped a pouch in the bowl with the fruit and went back home to see how Iaondrin was doing.
Ginko clearly was not pleased with his own performance, but he did not offer to return any of the money from the pouch.
Iaondrin sat at the table with several pieces of parchment spread out, one of which was bore an obviously aborted attempt at sketching the outlines of Johanna’s manor house. The second attempt was going much better, with a wall sketched around the building and the beginnings of the layout of the ground floor. She had marked gates and doors and windows where she recalled them. “There are three floors,” she said when Bryan leaned over to look at her work. “Umm, and cellars. Oh, and outbuildings, but I haven’t gotten to those yet.”
“Looks good. We need to know where she did most of her magical work, and any room she didn’t let people into,” Bryan advised. “And where the guards were usually stationed and if they patrolled.” Placing a hand on her shoulder, he added, “But don’t worry if you can’t remember all of it. There are other sources of information.”
“She had her private labs on the third floor. In the northwest corner.” Iaondrin tapped the diagram of the first floor. “Her bedroom suite was on the second. I think there was a stair between them.” She chewed her bottom lip, thinking. “There weren’t really many guards. Someone at the front entrance,” another tap, “and maybe one or two who walked around. But there were alarms.”
“There are always alarms,” Bryan repeated his teachings absently. “Even when there aren’t alarms, there are always alarms.” He turned his head and pressed a soft kiss at the point where her neck met her shoulder.
Iaondrin frowned at the sketch, and bounced the pencil back and forth between her fingers, thinking. If she noticed Bryan’s kiss, she gave no sign. What if there had been some construction or renovation? What if, in the intervening years, Josepha had developed a previously unknown interest in keeping large and vicious guard dogs?
“Just draw what you remember, Iaondrin,” Bryan advised again. “Kaz and I will make sure we have the latest information before we give it a try.” He moved to one of the padded chairs, slipped off his boots and picked up the book he had been reading, Tales of Valor.
“Okay.” She bent back to work, sketching out more details for the first floor. When she felt relatively sure she had filled in as many walls and doors and windows as possible, she pulled the second sheet over it and, flipping back and forth, made sure she had the outer dimensions marked properly. Sweat from the summer heat dripped off her nose, and she wiped it away absent-mindedly. By the time she had achieved a reasonably satisfactory sketch of the third floor, shadows were falling outside and the cat was yowling in protest at the failure of a dead fish to appear on the back patio.
Iaondrin put the pencil down and sat back, stretching both arms overhead. She blinked, realizing for the first time how many hours had passed. She flexed the cramped fingers of her right hand. “I need a cushion for this chair,” she commented. Her shoulder hurt again, the usual distant ache more noticeable after she had sat bent over the sketches for so long.
“Or you could not spend hours sitting in it,” Bryan suggested with a small smile. “I really didn’t expect you to spend all day drawing it out.”
Iaondrin blinked at him. “You forget how literal minded I can be.” She stacked the pages together. “I will look at them again in the morning, to see if there’s anything else I can recall.” She looked towards the kitchen window. “I didn’t get anything to feed him tonight.” Her stomach grumbled. “Or us.”
“If I was that worried about it, I would have gone out myself. The cat can catch himself a mouse once in awhile, we can go out someplace.” It was hot anyway, no need to heat up the kitchen with a cook fire. So he took Iaondrin to try out the Crown and Anchor, which he found passable.
Back at the house, he said, “So, you’ve been surlier than usual the last couple weeks. Now that the Hunt is gone for a few months, do you feel like talking about it?” He had been willing to let her come to some sort of terms with setting down some roots, but maybe she’d like to talk about it, too.
“About my surliness?” A different person might have protested, or taken offense at the “more than usual” addition to his comment, but for Iaondrin it was simply an accurate observation of her typical state of affairs. And, perhaps, even a point of pride at times, when the uncontrollably sunny dispositions of some other people, like Janne So, deserved at least a little bit of scowling, if not outright mockery. Mockery was never Iaondrin’s strong suit, anyway; to do it properly required a sense of humor she knew she was sorely lacking.
“About setting down roots,” Bryan answered. “Was Morgan as uncomfortable when he first realized he wanted to stay with the Clun?”
Iaondrin frowned, sat down to unlace her boots and kicked them across the room. “You’d have to ask Marto or Parand.” She sat back and pulled one foot up to fuss with her sock. It gave her an excuse not to look at him. “He seems very easy-going, doesn’t he.” She picked at a loose thread, worrying it. “Very friendly, very out-going. Like he has one of those sunny dispositions I hate so.”
“I’ve only talked to him over the stones, and that only for the last three months,” Bryan shrugged. “He seems like that now. But that doesn’t tell me what he was like then.”
“Oh, he almost always has seemed like that, like he could be happy.” The frayed end of the thread came loose, and with another idle tug it began to unravel the edging of the sock. “I think that with Parand and Marto, it’s real. Like they made him more of what he seemed to be.”
Bryan mulled that over for a few moments. “So he is good at… not hiding, but holding back? what he is really feeling?” He smiled crookedly. “So does he think I’m a cad?”
One corner of her mouth twitched. “Maybe.” She pulled the sock off and threw it at her boots, knowing that with much more she would have ruined it beyond any possible repair. “He doesn’t actually make friends easily. In some ways, I guess, we’re a lot alike.”
“Which, despite your attempts to change the subject, brings us back to what you are going through,” Bryan prompted. He poured them both some Vanek red and sat near Iaondrin on the couch.
“You’re the one who brought up Morgan,” she pointed out testily, even though she knew he was right. “I feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. Like we’ve been given a chance to breathe, while everyone collects their thoughts and starts their scheming anew. And I don’t trust Ellinden So or Tallentire.”
“Well, I’m with you on Tallentire. But I think Ellinden So is quite worried about a Vershrikking being dumped on her doorstep. As far as that thing goes, we can work together.” Bryan left unsaid that he didn’t give a rat’s ass about whatever else Lady So might want him to do. “I just wanted your literal mind to know that it might be easier talking to me than obsessing over a cat.”
“I’m not obsessing over the cat.” It was a knee-jerk reaction, to contradict him, even though she went on to prove him right. “But what happens if he comes to rely on the fish, and forgets how to feed himself? What happens when the fish doesn’t show up?”
“He, and I assume it’s a he because I sure as hell ain’t gonna look, has been hunting for himself for awhile before you decided to feed him,” Bryan pointed out the obvious. “You’ll notice that he isn’t yowling for food now.” He paused, remembering something Manton had said. “Iaondrin,” he said softly, making her look at him, “he knows what he is getting into. He always has.”
Iaondrin gave him another sideways look, and then looked away. “*I* am supposed to be the cat,” she reminded him. “*You* are the fish. You’re the one who gets served up on a platter.”
“Oh, right. I’m going to blame a bump on the head for that mistake,” he offered. “But in that line of thinking, do you really think the fish isn’t going to show up when you, I mean the cat, needs me, er, it?”
“Well, the fish didn’t show up tonight, did it?” But she was just being contrary at that point. “It has nothing to do with what the fish wants or does not want to do. It’s what does the cat do, once it’s gotten used to having the fish, but finds itself … fish-less?” she ended weakly, not knowing quite how to phrase the point. “I don’t know how to hunt mice. I know how to be the mouse.” She wrinkled her nose, puzzling that one out. “Which makes no sense, if I’m supposed to be the cat.”
Bryan decided that he had had enough of using the cat and the fish to stand in for Iaondrin and himself. “I already told you I’m not going anywhere. Do you need me to say it more? Or is there something else I can do to show you?”
“There isn’t really anything you can do.” The whole cat-fish-mouse metaphor had gone seriously awry, and she wasn’t sorry to see Bryan toss it aside. “I go along for months, settling in. No hunt, no one trying to kill me – or, at the very least, not being aware if anyone is trying to. For all I know, you and Kaz and the others intercept assassins and horse-nappers on a daily basis, and packaging their heads up to send them back to their masters.”
She shifted, turning on the couch to face him. “And I can pretend, a lot of the time, that none of that other stuff is going on. But it’s really just a lull. I haven’t figured out yet how to … to stay balanced when the lull is over, with people coming into our house to remind me that Ellinden So and everybody else is still out there, just waiting. Eventually, I have to do something about the Seat, regardless of what happens with Josepha.”
“Well, I don’t know if it will help you, but I never forget about that other stuff. Sometimes it helps to break down what seems to be a big problem into smaller ones. Like, really, there are only two things to worry about with the Seat, either you take it or you don’t,” Bryan pointed out. “And since you don’t really care about the Seat itself, it’s really about how much it bothers you that someone else moves into the Keep.” He shrugged. “Either way, I would advise going through the Keep and taking whatever you want from it before telling anyone.”
Iaondrin really didn’t have anything to say in response to that, so she sat back, silent, chewing her lip while mulling it over. She didn’t relish the idea of going through the Keep again, walking over bones and blood-stains, gathering what remained of the dead only to inter them. But there would be things she would want, for sentimental reasons, or simply out of spite, to deny them to the usurper who would take over the Seat and the Keep and all its holdings. Until then, she would simply have to remain mute about her intentions, and try to dodge the question entirely — whether posed by any of the aspiring candidates, or by Ellinden So.
Bryan remained silent for a few moments while Iaondrin thought. “I just wanted to remind you that you’re not alone anymore. You don’t have to keep it all inside.”
“I want my parents’ wedding rings. And Roisin’s locket.” She blurted it out, and then stopped again for several long moments. “Morgan will probably want his parents’ rings, too. And…” This time, she stopped to draw a breath, and touched the loops in her left ear. “And these. From all of them.” It would be a grotesque task, she knew, and with that thought, she was angry. Angry that she had to play some twisted political game, just to be sure she had the opportunity to pick through her family’s remains for bits of metal.
“I’m sure there will be many things you haven’t given yourself leave to think about since you’ve been running,” Bryan pointed out. “Books, papers, artwork… too many things to try to come up with now. We’ll make sure no one can get in until you are done.” He slipped an arm around Iaondrin and gently pulled her closer. “As far as I’m concerned, the Keep and the lands may go to someone else, but everything inside is yours and Morgan’s. Hang the Council and anyone who tries to say different.”
She nodded agreement, lacking anything else to say. (The cat, outside, gave one more yowl of protest to momentarily fill in the silence.) “What do you expect to find? At Josepha’s? What kind of proof?” And what do you intend to do with it, if you find it? She left that last question unspoken, but he would know it was there.
“Expect? Don’t know. Hope? Some notes or something about the Vershrikking and how to call it. A letter or something from Ginevra or Locopo that mentions it.” Bryan shrugged. “Doubt there’d be a direct mention of destroying a House, but maybe…”
“I can’t see her making it that easy. If it is her.” She added the qualifier, but there was no conviction in it. It felt … right somehow. Iaondrin could only hope it wasn’t her long-standing dislike of the woman that made her so certain. “It would be stupid to put something like that in writing. She’s not stupid.”
“Yeah, so we need the research about calling the Vershrikking. That should be enough.” He sighed slowly. “After that? I’d like to make sure no one else can call this thing. Ever.”
Enough for what? Again, she did not ask it aloud. What, exactly, would they do if they could confirm Josepha’s responsibility? Iaondrin tried to picture how they might present it to … to whom? The High Council? No.
Bryan was silent for several moments. “As for what to do if we do find something? I don’t know. If there’s no real structure to the Politi, then I’m guessing there’s no way they handle something like this.”
It was a conundrum, but not one she could puzzle out now. First, he and Kaz had to skulk their way into Josepha’s house, engage in some filching, and then – if something were found – they could decide what to do. “I should check on Morgan. Find out if they had anything different last night.”
“Maybe we should ask him,” Bryan allowed. “He’s in the same place as you.”
“Kill her.” Morgan’s answer came without hesitation, and the flatness of his tone was obvious even through the stones. Flat, emotionless, as if he were talking about whether he thought it might rain that day. All animation was gone from his voice, all warmth. His account of the hunt’s appearance the night before – quick, unremarkable, as if he had been an afterthought for the Vershrikking this time, given only token attention by but a pair of hunters – had been more energetic. But when the discussion had turned to Josepha, he had first fallen silent, and then spoke only in clipped, cold tones.
“I am not against that,” Bryan replied. “But one of the things that drew me to your cousin was she, after everything, tries to do the right thing. Myself, I’d try to find a way to let the thing eat her.” He quickly sketched in what Safford had said.
“It might be easier just to slip a blade between her ribs,” Morgan answered drily, “rather than try to figure out how to manipulate it.” He paused a moment, and then continued, “Iaondrin, if she lives, you can be sure of one thing. Someone will want to know what she knows, so they can use it.”
“That sounds so reasonable,” Iaondrin murmured, uneasy. He had tried to make himself sound lighter, and she could imagine how he must look, in the tents among the Clunne, face schooled to show only the most rational and collected expression.
Vermillion found himself mostly agreeing with Morgan. The knowledge of how to call this abomination couldn’t be left around for someone else to figure out. But it wasn’t his family that had been wiped out. “I am your man, cara mia,” Bryan told Iaondrin softly.
The shortness of time – the unworking of the weave – was a convenient excuse for not being drawn into a further discussion with Morgan about the appropriate way to handle Josepha. Just thinking about it had set her shoulder to aching again, with a low chill spreading across her back. So she wished him good night, made arrangements to speak again the next evening, and then put the stone away. “So,” she said to Bryan, standing to finally undress for bed, “as I said. He usually seems so friendly.”
“Yes,” Bryan agreed noncommittally, looking up at her. “He is quite a bit more … practical than he lets on.”
“Yes. Practical.” She left her shirt where it fell, lifted her right arm to stretch it, and the muscles of her shoulder, as she walked to the bedroom. The scars, white against pale skin, stretched at the same time. The air of the house was slightly cooler now at night, but it was still summer, and she would sleep naked atop the sheets.
Bryan’s eyebrows rose slightly, and he felt a tug at the corner of his mouth. “Iaondrin,” he said as she started into the kitchen, getting her to stop and half-turn, “are you getting better at seducing me, or is this one of the times you do it by accident?”
“What? I’m just getting ready to go to bed.” She said it with a straight-face. “But if you’re so inclined,” she turned to continue to the bedroom, “you can start by giving me a shoulder massage.”
When Bryan entered the bedroom, now shirtless himself, he saw Iaondrin standing at the foot of the bed, uncertainty wrestling with desire in her. He smiled gently, stepping up behind her. “Another reason to talk to me,” he said softly near her ear as his fingers started sliding over her skin, “I missed you. I understood, but I missed you.”
She thought she was probably supposed to say something like I missed you, too. Yet that wasn’t quite true. To say that would have meant she felt the lack of closeness during those times when she drew into herself, into the silent focus and the anger. But she didn’t, she hadn’t even consciously registered her own single-mindedness. She distanced herself from him, but never felt that he had distanced himself from her. Still, with the hunt done, the touch of his hands on her bare skin was a welcome reminder that now she could focus on just this.
Bryan could feel the tension in her neck and shoulders, and how the muscles loosened under even his inexpert kneading. The tracks of the scars across her right shoulder were lines of chill under his finders, more noticeable in the humid summer, and when he pressed his lips against them he could almost feel the shimmer of cold. Iaondrin herself just sighed, so used to the constancy of it that it had faded behind the heat of his touch.
At first, she can hear nothing in the dream, except for the deep pulse of the mosaic echoing through the stone of the Keep. It is winter, the floor is cold under her bare feet, the air is cold around her, but neither as cold as the rip across her back. The hallway stretches out before her, with the mage-lights on either side at the far end falling dark, and then the pair closer. As the darkness moves closer, she can hear the growling, a low rumble rises into a screech -
Bryan awoke before Iaondrin, roused by her trembling. It didn’t help that the cat was noisy again; when he turned his head he could see its shadow through the thin drapes over the window perched on the sill outside. Even through the ironwork covering the window, he could see it was crouched, tail twitching slowly, and it growled as if it knew she was dreaming. Bryan placed one hand on her back to try to soothe her into a more restful sleep. The scars were lines of frost against his palm, so startling he almost jerked his hand away.
Outside, the cat hissed, and its growl began to rise in pitch.
Bryan frowned, tilted his head to the side, spent a moment trying to figure out what was going on, then decided he’d do better facing it with his pants on. “Iaondrin,” he said in a normal voice, trying to wake her without alarming her.
The tomcat’s shadow disappeared from the windowsill, with an escalating wail. Iaondrin rolled over onto her back and opened her eyes to look up at the ceiling. He could tell from her expression she was only half-awake, trying to sort out what was dream and what was not. The cat’s screech, angry, from the outer patio, penetrated the fog. “Damn it,” she groaned groggily, and swung her legs over the edge of the bed.
Bryan could see it at the same moment she realized it, how her right shoulder slumped and her right arm had gone numb. “It’s not finished yet,” she whispered. She pushed herself to her feet with a low curse.
To be continued.