Chapter Fifteen

Tied Hands, Torn Hearts

Marten had gone off to some meeting by the time Rena brought Vico his lunch. “There was an incident on Merrow Lane, illegal duel,” she said in response to his questioning look. “He had to go see about that.”

“He didn’t take you?” Vico said, frowning. 

“Micah went with him, and two others from his crew. It was just Miredes again.”

“Ah yes, Miredes,” Vico said, relaxing. The man was trouble, but more of the annoying variety. “Which settled foreign spies are ruining Caldona’s magic today? Not the Talese again, I hope.”

Rena clearly did not consider Vico to be entitled to security gossip. “Jayen said to meet him at the garage at six to pick up your bond sister from the clinic.” She recited this dutifully, with only a very mild disapproval instead of the clenched-jaw chill she’d leveled at him last time they’d run into each other. Vico wondered if she’d made up her own mind to be civil now, or just gotten a strongly worded lecture to inspire her to fake it.

“Thanks, Rena.” She made a dismissive gesture and left. Vico ate quickly at his desk, and spent much of the remainder of his work day on the phone. He had several appointments for the week that needed rescheduling, and some tedious paperwork that he did not want to take home with him. His fellow mediators and the secretaries began to filter back in, Rezatte being the last. She paused before sitting down at her desk, staring down at the file that had not been there before she left. She glanced at each one of her office mates in turn, her eyes finally settling on Vico. He raised his eyebrows questioningly at her attention, his face carefully blank, and went back to work. She kept trying to catch his eye whenever she had to walk past his desk, but he pretended not to notice.

He left the office a bit early, taking an opportunity to breeze out while Marten was busy with a phone call and Amelan was in the file room depositing her paperwork for the day. Rezatte came barreling after him a minute later as he ambled along the paths through the grounds to the garage. He had been expecting that, and paced himself so that she caught up with him well before he reached the garage. 

She smacked the file at him, eyes blazing. “What the hell is this, Rhaimes?”

He made a show of flipping through it. “Looks like the paperwork you got in trouble for losing this morning,” he said. He stopped in the section he had worked on, the sigil-marked corners of the papers in full view, and looked at her, one eyebrow raised slightly. She glanced around, the realization that they were completely alone dawning in her face. He had deliberately taken the longest way around so that there would be no one close enough to overhear them, and so that the trees that filled the spaces between the buildings would hide them from view. Her eyes dropped back to the papers and she finally noticed the sigils on the pages, written in his precise, eminently recognizable hand.

She took a step back, eyes narrowing warily. “What do you want?”

“Nothing, really. Call it a bit of fellow feeling for someone who’s been in that position before.” His tone was pointed; he remembered very well how no one had bothered to speak up for him the week before, when Marten was calling him every name in the book and implying that he was deliberately sabotaging an important affiliation. He couldn’t really blame her for that—he was a political landmine, even Jayen had paid a heavy price for keeping him near—but if she was inclined to feel even a little guilty about it, he was perfectly happy to use that to his advantage.

He held the file out to her. She took it back, still suspicious. “I know I filed these,” she said. 

“Yes, it’s funny how things that get filed properly sometimes end up missing whenever Marten has an axe to grind,” Vico said. He shrugged and turned to go. Glancing back, he could see Rezatte considering the words. 

She followed him to the garage at a slightly slower pace, but caught up again as they approached the building. It was busy, now that the regular office hours were over, the fleet cars lined up along the drive to ferry home those bonded who did not have vehicles of their own. Fortuitously, Jayen was already there, leaning against his car and watching the day’s exodus play out. One of the security cars was parked next to his, with Micah, and Ioenne Canto, another of the day crew, to accompany him. Seeing them, Rezatte stopped. “If this is some kind of trick trick,” she began, her voice low, her eyes flicking back to Vico.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. It’s really too bad, though, isn’t it? That we don’t have anyone to watch our backs, considering how close Marten is to our illustrious second.” That was a bit of a gambit, playing his hand so openly. Addison had a great deal of pull with the high tier and the older Malthusius, but Jayen was far more popular among the younger generations. Vico was hoping Rezatte’s age and her own limited mage status would make her more inclined to Jayen’s side. After spending his formative years dealing with the fallout of his weak spiritual magic, Jayen had a tendency to deal more fairly with those of lower mage levels than the rest of the high tier. 

As long as they were on his side, anyway. He still had the typically clan flaw of not caring enough about people who existed outside the sphere of his influence. As someone who had grown up outside the clan ethos, this bothered Vico more than he cared to admit; it was a topic he and Jayen had argued about frequently.

Vico left Rezatte standing on the path. All he could do now was hope she would not use what he had said to stab him in the back in an effort to get into Marten’s good graces. There was no way he’d last the week at his job if Marten thought he was maneuvering against him in earnest. There was Jayen’s offer to take him back into the security department as insurance, but that was a move he did not want to have to put into play. Not unless it was absolutely necessary. It was still too soon, for a lot of reasons, the most important of which being that if he wasn’t careful he would never get what he wanted.

Probably not going to anyway, he thought, running his fingers through his hair absently. But for the first time in a while he felt like he wanted to try.

“Problem?” Jayen asked, eyes trained on him as he approached.

Vico tucked his hands into his pockets. “Not at all,” he said pleasantly. Not yet, anyway. He nodded a greeting to Micah and Canto, who both climbed into the security car parked just behind Jayen’s. “They’re following again?” Vico asked as he got in Jayen’s car.

“I didn’t think Seya would like having them in the car with us,” Jayen said.

“That’s considerate.”

“I can be considerate,” Jayen said, throwing him a slight frown. 

Vico smiled to himself, looking out the window. The wards on the car had been upgraded since that morning; someone was paying attention to their job. “What happened with Miredes?” he asked.

“It’s his third offense against our affiliates, so I’ve launched an official investigation,” Jayen said. “Approved by the guard, but I had to have Micah argue with them for nearly an hour before they agreed. I offered Miredes a challenge, but he ignored it like the cowardly bastard he is.”

“I’m sure it wouldn’t have done any good to win against him anyway,” Vico said. “He’s never honored any of his other duel judgements. I heard from Cheritt at the Bretinne Co-op that he’s been linked to those magic purists who keep protesting the new developments.” 

“It’s looking that way,” Jayen said. He didn’t elaborate. The group in question had sprung up after the destructive rebound at the Vetiver place last year. It had not escaped Vico’s notice that they only targeted clan owned or affiliated developments. Probably the issue was too high profile to talk about to someone outside the department. What bothered Vico was not being left out of the loop, but fact that the Uprisers had started in a similar fashion thirty years before, needling at the clans with protests and attempts at legal action against those they did not agree with, petitioning for legislation to protect the old ways, spying on them, eventually resorting to sabotage and fear-mongering. Vico didn’t like it. It felt too much like history gearing up to repeat itself, if only on a small scale.

He filed those thoughts away well before they arrived at Halcyon Clinic. The security detail waited outside while the receptionist processed Seya’s discharge. Kaya went over instructions for her care, which were pretty much the same as Aren’s from that morning, but Vico listened patiently, sitting on the bed next to Seya. She was sunk into the drowsy lassitude of being on high level pain wards for several hours, but he could feel through the bond that she was glad of his presence.

“Let her sleep as much as she wants,” Kaya was saying. “She’ll probably be out of it for several days, but please do remember that lengthy exposure to high level pain wards can dull the appetite, so make sure she eats regularly.”

“I would have done that anyway,” Vico said. “She looks like a bloody war refugee.”

“She does have symptoms of long term, though low grade malnutrition,” Kaya said. 

Vico felt a twinge of guilt. Probably letting her fight with Jayen had just been a terrible idea all around. “Where’s Aren?”

“He’s in his office,” Kaya said with a touch of severity. “Where he will stay until Seya is gone. I will be in charge of her care until she is cleared enough of the curse to deal with people who are, perhaps, rather too confrontational.” She turned a pointed look at Jayen, where he stood in the doorway of the patient room, wearing an aggressive-looking scowl that Vico knew actually meant he was extremely uncomfortable and trying not to let it show.

“I’m not the one who slammed her into the wall,” Jayen said. 

“Aren tells me you two had a contentious relationship,” she said. “Considering her current state, and what Aren told me about her magic, she is at high risk of another rebound. Another one like today and she could die. Please keep that in mind.”

“She better not die, after all the trouble I went to helping keep her alive,” Jayen muttered.

“He won’t do anything to upset her,” Vico said. “He’s just chauffeuring.” He set a hand on Seya’s back and prodded her very gently. “Seya, we’re going home. You want to sit up?”

She made enough of an effort that he was able to get his arms around her and lever her upright and out to the car, where she curled up in a boneless puddle in the backseat. Vico sat with her while Jayen drove—very carefully this time. 

At the apartment, Micah got out to do a check of the surrounding area. Jayen tapped his fingers impatiently on the steering wheel until Micah returned. “You’re clear,” he said. 

Vico pulled Seya out. She was a slightly more awake than before, enough to narrow her eyes at Micah. “Callahan,” she muttered, drooping onto Vico’s shoulder. She was a little peeved at him for ratting her presence out to Corin, and with her defenses practically gone, everyone could feel it.

“Gods, she looks terrible,” Micah said.

“Well, she did almost die twice in the last twenty-four hours,” Vico said, steering her toward the building. “Jayen, come help me get her up the stairs.” 

Jayen grumbled only a little when he ended up wrangling her up the steps himself while Vico trotted ahead to unlock the door. Seya lifted her head and studied Jayen with a vaguely disapproving look.

“What?” he said testily. 

“It’s really not fair how you both got taller than me,” she grumbled. 

Jayen regarded her in disbelief. Vico laughed. “Bring her inside and put her on the couch,” he said. Jayen deposited her onto the couch, gently. She immediately slumped over on her uninjured side and curled into the corner, her eyes drooping shut. 

“Do you need anything else?” Jayen asked.

“Food would be good. I don’t have a damn thing left in the house.”

“I can pick you up some things—” Jayen began, and stopped when Vico fixed him with a severe look. “I can have Canto pick you up some things,” he amended. “Make a list for them.”

Vico went to fetch a pen and some paper, made a short list, which Jayen tucked into his pocket. Micah was waiting on the landing, impatient. “If you need anything, just ping me,” Jayen said. “I’m putting Canto out here tonight to keep an eye on this place, in case.”

“Thank you,” Vico said. 

“It’s nothing,” Jayen said, his voice going gruff. His footfalls were heavy on the metal stairs. 

Vico shut the door and let out a breath, resting his forehead against the wood while he put himself back to center. He’d spent more time with Jayen in the last twenty-four hours than he had in the last month, and it was harder than he anticipated to deal with the feelings it was bringing up. Somehow having him in his apartment, even if just a few minutes, made it seem even more cramped and lonely than before. 

But, he reminded himself, he wasn’t alone right now. Seya needed him. He went to sit beside her on the couch. She was asleep, her left arm curled protectively over her chest. He took her elbow, testing, and when she did not react, he carefully unfolded her arm and studied the grubbily gloved hand. With her defenses down so low, he could feel the warding coming off of it, and looking closer, he could see a pattern of scars emerging from beneath the fabric around her wrist. Though pattern wasn’t quite the right word. They looked like the ends of a written spell, etched white into the gold of her skin. He traced the rough lines, trying to frame them as pieces of charms or sigils that he could decipher. Through the bond, he could feel the faint edges of the shadow, as if it were seated in them, and opened his sense to it, questing for an answer. 

At that she came awake and jerked her hand away with a jolt of panic, clutching it to her chest, her eyes wide with shock, a sense of betrayal emanating through the bond. “Don’t—don’t,” she said, he words barely coherent. She sat up, sinking back down immediately.

“I’m sorry,” Vico said, terrified for a moment that he had accidentally sent her into another rebound, but she just curled further in on herself, withdrawing as far from their bond as she could and closing her eyes, her breathing harsh and uneven. “Seya?” He touched her arm again.

“Don’t,” she gasped. “Don’t do that. Don’t—pry into me like you’re owed an answer. I can’t—give you that.”

“I’m sorry, I just—” He took a deep breath, willed away the infectious sense of panic. “I want to help you. That’s all.”

“I know you do. It doesn’t make that right.” Her eyes opened, stark and glassy in her ashen face. “Don’t do that. Not you. If I—still mean anything to you.” Her voice shuddered and broke on a quiet sob.

“You know you do,” he said, stricken. “I’m sorry, I won’t. I just wanted to understand. I didn’t mean to—pry.” She was shaking like a leaf. He reached for her again, but she flinched away. He withdrew, folding his arms over his knees and watching her until she had calmed down, at a loss for what to do. The truth of the accusation hit him like a blow. He had presumed on their bond, selfishly, as if it were still the same as it had been before, instead of a fragile thing stolen in a moment of desperation, without formality or negotiation, or the boundaries that made sharing something that intimate bearable for someone with magic like hers. He should have known that. That was the way it had happened before, but they had been children then, with time and space to grow into it. He didn’t know what they had now. A week, maybe. If she thought she couldn’t trust him, maybe not even that. 

He hunched over, his fingers tangling through his hair. Always a mistake to feel hopeful about anything. By now he should have known better than that.

After a long moment, he felt her knee pressing into his back, and thought for a moment she was trying to eject him from the edge of the couch. “I’m sorry,” he said again, checking his shields, worried that he was reflecting his distress at her, but she had pushed herself upright with her good arm. She wrapped her arms around his waist, resting her head against the back of his shoulder. She wouldn’t tune back into the bond, but then she had never needed bonds to share feelings with anyone.

“Are you comforting me?” Vico asked softly, chagrined. He knew what it cost her to do that. It should have been the other way around.

“Don’t. Don’t be upset,” she mumbled. “It’s not you. I’m the one—” Who broke us, she didn’t say, but that was the feeling, regret and sorrow and under that, fear. Vico shifted, loosening her grip gently and pulling her to his side, putting everything away but the sincere wish for her to feel safe with him. He cradled her head against his shoulder until she fell back asleep, hoping, if cautiously, that maybe it wasn’t so much of a mistake to hope.

Zan came in from his last class of the day to an argument.

“All I’m saying is that you’re wasting your time worrying about her,” Aren was saying as he tossed his satchel onto the bench next to the door. “She’s been trouble from the moment she was born, Kaya. I ought to know, she was a fixture here from the time she was an infant. I’m not just repeating a bunch of old gossip. I had front row seats to the disaster that is Seya.”

She eyed him severely. “I still think you’re being too harsh. It’s unbecoming of a healer to speak that way to a patient, no matter what she may have done a decade ago.”

“Or yesterday, apparently!” Aren said, marching into the kitchen, arms flung out dramatically. Kaya followed him, rolling her eyes.

“How is she?” Zan asked.

“Oh, Zan, hello,” Kaya said. “I believe she will recover without further complications as long as she’s kept out of situations like this morning. That was quite the most vicious curse I’ve ever seen. Fortunately she seems like an extraordinarily resilient person. A trifle malnourished and aurically unbalanced, but those are things easily remedied by rest and proper care. I’m sure Vico will take good care of her. They seem very close.”

“Bond siblings,” Aren said. “Well, they were. I’m not sure now.”

“Malnourished.” Zan thought about the fleeting impression he’d had before she left Halcyon Monday night and regretting, again, that he had not tried to stop her leaving. 

Adiel looked up from the table, where he was studying for his upcoming mage certification exams. “Who are you guys taking about?”

“A patient,” Kaya said. “And yes, even yesterday, Aren. Is there something particularly objectionable about getting hurt while helping someone else? Aside from the inconvenience it caused to you, personally?”

“It’s not the fact that she was helping someone! It’s that she obviously hasn’t changed even a little. She wouldn’t even tell me where she’s been. Prison, probably. She has that Malthusius temper on her.”

“And that’s another thing,” Kaya said. “Who her parents are is hardly her fault. Twitting her about it when it’s clearly a sore point is just cruel.”

“I wasn’t twitting her, it just came out. I wasn’t thinking.” He had the grace to look embarrassed about it.

“Please think a little next time, then. And you are the last person who should be making remarks about the Malthusius temper,” said Kaya. “You certainly don’t keep yours to yourself when someone winds you up.”

“Is it true?” Zan asked. “I remember you saying she brought her trouble with the Malthusius here when Winter brought her to the school, but don’t recall hearing about that.”

“Everyone knows it’s true,” Aren said. “Maeryn caldi was involved with Corin Malthusius just before his mother was killed in a coup by the Sancerre. She vanished almost immediately afterward, and turned up a little less than a year later with an infant Seya. As if that wasn’t enough of a scandal, Corin’s second, Ian Tellurita, abandoned him and married her. It was a huge deal at the time, a defection right after he had assumed control of the clan bonds. It didn’t help that Seya was clearly not Ian’s daughter. He and Maeryn were both of old southern Caldi blood. Maeryn wasn’t the type to run away from a conflict though, so the two of them settled here right under Corin’s nose even though he was determined to make their life hell for it. Though Maeryn was very nearly as intimidating as Malthusius in her way. Everything was a battle of wills between those two, so it’s not a surprise that their daughter turned out as stubborn and volatile as both of them. She practically grew up at Halcyon, with her mother gone for her work as an itinerate priestess all the time, and her magic just as wild and unstable as her family situation, practically since she was born.”

“You said she was a prodigy?” Kaya said. “I’ll admit I’ve have never seen someone so young with that level of spiritual resonance.”

“That was the main reason Malthusius kept trying to bully Maeryn into giving him custody of Seya—and believe me, he tried everything: bribery, threats, blackmail. You know how people with very high levels have a kind of—draw when they open up?” The healers both glanced at Zan, who felt a flush creeping into his face. “Try to imagine that in a child with no way to contain it. She wasn’t allowed to go out by herself, because that magic of hers would have people following her around. I can’t even count the number of times Ian got arrested for busting heads over it. He took his duty as her protector very seriously. Then after Maeryn disappeared there was an incident with one of the Malthusius kids. Seya and Vico both ended up hurt, badly, and then Ian got himself killed. Seya was remanded to the school’s custody, which officially made her our problem. She disappeared a couple of years later, after her mother was killed by the Uprisers. I’d assumed Seya was dead all this time too. The war had just hit Starling, so everything was a mess.”

“That is absolutely horrifying,” Kaya said. “How could you even bring up such a fraught subject to someone who is recovering from a curse?”

“I’ll admit it wasn’t a shining example of professionalism, but you didn’t grow up with her. She’s always been one to throw herself into harm’s way. What was she doing here yesterday anyway?” Aren asked, turning to Zan. “You said she came to see Mother.”

“That was the night before, and I’m not sure. She left after I told her about your parents, then I saw her again in the market yesterday. There was an incident with a young girl who tried to steal my wallet, and Seya stepped in to keep her out of trouble.”

“Sounds like something she’d do,” Aren muttered. “Only Seya would throw herself in front of a curse for the brother she grew up fighting with constantly. She once got into trouble for fighting with him because he was picking on me. I think I was twelve at the time. She was ten. It was downright embarrassing.”

“So she’s always been like that,” Zan said. 

“Yeah, that was one thing I always liked about her when we were growing up,” Aren admitted grudgingly. “She really went off the rails after it got out about her mother being an Upriser though.”

“I think that’s understandable,” Kaya said.

“Sounds like something out of a dime novel,” Adiel said. “And you invited her to lunch!”

“You didn’t, Zan!” Aren said. “Gods, just stay out of her way. She’s going to be nothing but trouble the whole time she’s in Starling. I know you and your savior complex, wanting to help everyone who falls into your line of sight.”

Zan’s brow furrowed at that. “It’s literally my job, Aren. Halcyon exists to help people.”

“Yes, and I know why you take that duty so seriously, too. You’ll try to help her, and you’ll be hurt when you can’t. Like my parents were.”

Zan said, patiently, “I am not the same person I was when I came here five years ago. What happened in Castiverre—” He shook his head. “That was a long time ago. You can stop worrying about me. I doubt this is going to be an issue anyway. I can’t imagine she’ll want to come back here now.”