Chapter Fourteen

Tangled Threads

Hanna caught up to Vico on his way back upstairs, to give him the papers Corin had signed, two copies, one for him, and one for Marten. He read it over: formal permission to be out for no longer than three days, with a dispensation to work shorter hours for the remainder of the week if necessary, in deference to his responsibility to his bond-relation, and the bonus listed was generous enough to offset the cost of Seya’s treatment. He folded the pages into a neat square and tucked them into his shirt pocket.

The atmosphere in the office was tense when he arrived. There were only three mediators—four counting Marten, who headed the department, though in the near year Vico had worked there, he’d yet to see Marten do more than hand out orders and swoop in to take credit for things at the last minute. Amelan was the most senior of the group, having been there even longer than Marten, and Rezatte was the newest, having been transferred a few months ago. None of them had any particularly warm feelings toward Vico—Amelan and Marten were of an age to remember the enmity between Malthusius and Sancerre, and Amelan was often openly antagonistic toward him. Marten was a long-time ally of the Addisons. Rezatte was only a couple of years older than Vico, and Malthusius-born, but though her birth could have been considered good according to the clan hierarchy, she had low mage levels, so her status was not high enough to make her a threat. She did not much like him, but she was slightly more tolerable in that she regarded him with distance rather than hostility.

It was Rezatte who was getting thoroughly reamed by Marten, in full view of Amelan and the two secretaries when Vico came in. Apparently an important file regarding the new string of possible affiliations on Hirace Street had gone missing. It was a big deal, a street formerly affiliated with the Talbot, and since the dissolution of that clan, it had been taken over by a number of highly profitable Malachai and Thalassai trade interests, several of whom were being pursued by the Hemsley as well, which added an element of competition to the dealings.

Vico went to his desk, listening with one ear. By Marten’s excessive zeal in the dressing down, he suspected it was less a reprimand for a mistake than it was retaliation for the fact that Rezatte had reported him for not paying her the overtime she was owed for the last month. Vico had been on the receiving end of that often enough to feel a little sympathy for her, though her situation was not nearly as fraught as his own. It had become a monthly ritual for Vico to count up the hours he had actually worked and submit them to Addison with a complaint about his pay. The trouble with mediating was that very little of his workday was spent in office, so unless he wanted to drag out a half dozen witnesses every single time he got shorted, it was his word against Marten’s. Complaining did nothing to stop this, but it satisfied his sense of irony to have them on file. If they were on file—he wouldn’t put it past Addison to have thrown them out instead. 

Vico had so far refrained from attempting to settle the issue in a more concrete manner. That’s what they all wanted, an excuse to get rid of him, and pointing out flaws in the inner workings of the clan was the best and most obvious way to end up before the high tier so they could browbeat him with whatever paltry bullshit they had been collecting on him for the last year. Or the last eight years, probably. It was true he’d been thinking about leaving for a long time, but his pride rebelled at the idea of being driven out by petty machinations, or letting Jayen step in and fix his problems for him. In truth, Vico could have run circles around Marten, and probably should have been since he had landed himself here. He’d tried playing by the rules at first, in an attempt to prove he could be a proper member of Malthusius despite everything that had happened, but it had quickly become clear he wasn’t going to earn any kind of acknowledgment for his efforts. The pointlessness of it had sapped his will to try. It wasn’t like working security, where he could use his natural talents toward a purpose, even if that purpose had been mostly trailing along behind Jayen, trying to keep him in one piece and politically viable as heir. Not that Vico cared about the clan succession itself, but he’d felt, given the controversial nature of their relationship, that he ought to do what he could to keep it from completely destroying Jayen’s future. He worked better behind the scenes anyway. As aggravating as that fact was, Vico could admit it to himself. He had found himself disappointingly limited in the scope of what he could accomplish on his own. 

Plus, working every waking hour was the only thing he had to distract himself from ending up at the bottom of a bottle like his useless excuse for a father, so that’s what he’d been doing. 

He was done with that. Vico sat down at his desk and pulled out his planner. He flipped through to the current week, his attention on the argument across the room. Rezatte was insisting, still, that she had filed the papers in the appropriate cabinet. The doors to the all the file cabinets hung open, and there was considerable evidence that they’d been gone through with a fine tooth comb, obviously to no avail.

Vico considered the issue. Hirace Street was a diverse enough deal that they had all worked on it at one point or another over the last couple of weeks. He flipped backwards through his planner to the day he had compiled the data for the line adjustments the affiliation would require and touched a fingertip to the tiny sigil marked next to the entry. After his paperwork on the Bretinne case had vanished in just the same way several days before that, Vico had taken to tagging his publicly filed documents so he could tell what had happened to them if such a thing were to occur again. A ghost of a smile played over his lips. What he needed was someone to direct, and he suspected Marten’s current tantrum was setting up the perfect candidate for that.

Rezatte returned to her desk, red-faced with anger. Marten turned his attention to Vico. “Mr. Rhaimes. So good of you to join us today. I suppose you have a sterling excuse for flaking out on us yesterday without notice?”

“Family emergency,” Vico said, meeting his gaze coolly.

Marten regarded him with distaste. “Yes, I heard that traitor-spawned cast-off had returned. Pity she didn’t manage to get herself properly killed yesterday. Would have saved us a lot of trouble in the future.”

Vico managed to quell the impulse to get up and drag Marten’s smug face down to one of the circles in the training grounds behind the offices. Seya’s near death was not yet common knowledge; if Marten already knew about it, that pretty much confirmed his guess that Addison had played a part in spilling the news of the duel, and that he had to have known something of the the results. 

Vico returned a flinty smile. “Considering she took that hit protecting the clan’s future leader, you might want to rephrase that charming epithet. Wouldn’t want Corin hearing you speak like that about his daughter.” 

To his credit, Marten seemed to realize he had said something imprudent. To cover this, he said, in biting tones, “Corin has better sense than to trust Maeryn caldi’s child.” The title was spoken with scathing contempt. Of course as Corin’s contemporary, he had known Seya’s mother.

“That’s true. He does have better sense than to trust people who have agendas and loyalties that stray from his,” Vico agreed. Marten hesitated a moment, his lips parted in what may have been surprise at the barb, or just because Vico was talking back for once. He usually refrained from overt antagonisms at work, preferring to stay out of the spotlight whenever possible. There wasn’t going to be any helping that now, so Vico was determined to take it on his own terms. He got up and strode over to Marten’s desk to flip Corin’s note at him. 

Marten’s eyes narrowed as he studied the paper. He tossed it down on his desk. “I’ll expect you to keep working from home,” he said brusquely. “It’s a busy season, and this deal with Bretinne is too important to leave off.”

“If I have time,” Vico said and went back to his desk. He took his time with the tasks he needed to get done before office hours were over, and arranging things so that he could work from home if he had to. At noon he lingered behind while the rest of the office cleared out for lunch, and he was able to track down the missing file without much trouble. It had been misfiled, in a matter of speaking, in the bin in the storeroom with the backlog of recently completed cases that had already been transferred onto memory charms by the secretaries. Vico suspected that was where his own missing paperwork had ended up, shredded and fed to Malthusius’ fire elemental. 

He dropped the file onto Rezatte’s desk on his way back to his own. Lejan arrived shortly afterward, bringing a thick file, a set of rolled up blueprints in a carrying tube, and a set of memory charms with the spellwork for Bretinne’s upcoming auto-magic installations impressed into them. 

“Thanks,” Vico said, activating one of the charms and studying the complex diagram of spellwork it contained. 

“No problem. Let me know if you have any issues before the inspection. The case went to second crew, with Duvall, but I put myself down to be there, since I was the one to do the traces. Just in case.”

“I’m sure there won’t be any problems, but thank you, that will make things more pleasant for me.”

Lejan lingered, a hesitant look on his face. Vico smiled dryly and put the charms and paperwork away in his satchel. “I take it you’ve heard, then.”

“Actually, I’ve heard about four different versions of the story by now.”

“Do tell,” Vico said, reaching over and snagging Amelan’s chair for him to sit on. “I’m terribly curious as to what’s being circulated behind my back.”

Lejan sat, still uncertain. “This girl involved, she’s the bond sister you told me about. The one you got into so much trouble with when you were a kid. I recognized the name.”

Vico nodded. “Seya.”

“You never told me she was Corin’s daughter.”

“He doesn’t have any claim on her,” Vico said. “And she hates him. If I don’t lead with that when I talk about her, it’s because she deserves better than to be linked forever to someone who basically ruined her childhood. The bonded are…not encouraged to talk about her. It was a long time ago, and she’s a sore point for everyone, really.” He sighed. “Me included.” 

“Part of that long story?” Lejan said.

“You know it. So, what are they saying now?”

The official story was fairly accurate, and followed closely with what had been revealed during the debriefing: Jayen and his recently returned half-sister were engaged in a duel in a public circle, which was interrupted by an attack. She was injured. The intent of the attack was not yet known, but suspected to be an assassination attempt. 

No mention of how she had saved Jayen’s life at great risk to her own, or how Corin had assaulted her and caused the curse to rebound, Vico noted sourly. Not that Corin would have allowed that information to become common knowledge. Not without a reason, anyway. Saving it in case the high tier made some objection, probably.

“But there are people who don’t buy it,” Lejan said. “One of the stories going around says she attacked him, and he cursed her in retaliation.”

Vico rolled his eyes. “As if Jayen has enough spiritual magic to curse a houseplant to death. Someone’s clumsy attempt to make both of them look bad.”

“And then there was someone saying she challenged him deliberately to draw him out in the open.”

“Because he wasn’t doing a brilliant job wandering around in the open all on his own, apparently.” 

There was enough exasperation in Vico’s tone to make Lejan smile, but he sobered quickly as he went on. “There was also someone speculating on your involvement, too.”

“I’m sure. Was it Tor?”

“One of his friends. You’re not hiding up here from the rumors, are you?” Lejan asked.

“Not hiding so much as giving them a chance to get around.” 

Lejan gave him a puzzled look. “You were there, though.”

“No one’s going to take my word for it. It’s more useful to see what people are willing to believe, or at least what they find beneficial to themselves to spread around.”

“That’s—”

“Calculating?” 

“Fatalistic,” said Lejan. “But yes, that too.”

Vico shrugged. “Just playing to my strengths. I did try, you know. To adhere to all those unspoken Malthusius rules. Honor and what have you. Turns out that only works when everyone else is doing it too. I decided if I was only ever going to be that Sancerre bastard, I might as well turn it to my advantage. It was slightly more effective back when I had a large, angry heir to act as a shield, though.”

“I know you two had a rough time of it last year, but it doesn’t seem like he’d particularly mind taking up that role again,” Lejan said.

Vico looked away, his face shadowed with bitterness. “I am aware. Turns out it’s rather a belt to the pride to have to stand behind someone else all the time just to get by. But you didn’t come here to listen to me whine.”

“I did offer to lend an ear,” Lejan said, but he kindly changed the subject. “So, your bond sister is back. You must be happy about that, even after what happened.”

“I don’t know if happy is the right word.” Vico rested his chin on his hand and stared blankly into the middle distance. He was aware, on the far edge of his sense, of the warm little spark of the reestablished bond. “Hopeful, yes. Anxious, definitely. There’s a lot to unpack. She—” He closed his eyes, not wanting to talk about how she had left when he still didn’t understand why. “You remember what I told you about my father?”

“Yes?” Lejan said, puzzled by the abrupt switch of subject. Vico had told him about how he’d been adopted by Seya’s family at the age of seven after one of his father’s bouts of alcohol-fueled violence, but not the details, and not about how his bond with Seya had come about. 

“I was a month shy of my eighth birthday the first time he hit me,” Vico said. “Does it bother you to hear about this? You don’t have to. I just—don’t have anyone else I can talk to.”

“No, go on,” Lejan said. 

“He was never a gentle person by any metric, but that day—” He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and with it the memories Seya’s return had dredged up in him, things he’d been trying not to think about. “He had come over from Talesanne too late to have been an active part of the coup the Sancerre launched against the Malthusius, so he wasn’t arrested with the rest of them, but he was still on restriction because of the association. Forbidden to leave Starling, forced to work an assortment of shit jobs for the knights to get by. They used people on restriction like day labor in those days. My mother up and disappeared when I was two; no one ever figured out if she left him, or if he’d…done something to her. 

“I don’t remember much about her—she always seems to be crying when I think back. Apparently I looked just like her when I was a kid, and when I cried it always set him off. And I was a proper little crybaby. You can imagine, perhaps.” He’d cried on Lejan’s shoulder enough last summer. “He was already angry that day, tearing up the shitty little apartment we lived in, and when I started crying, he just—went off. I knew by then to stay out of his way when he got like that, but that day he was being so destructive I was too afraid to try. And then when I did, he…threw a table at me. One of the little ones by the couch. Caught me in the back of the head, slammed me into the door. I don’t remember getting outside, but next thing I knew, I was lying on the sidewalk in front of the apartment, and there was a little girl about my age with big grey eyes sitting next to me, talking to me in Caldi. I could only understand a few words. She was crying too, and I thought that was strange, because I didn’t have anyone who would have cried for me. I went out sometimes to play with the handful of other Talese kids in the neighborhood, because between us we could scrape together enough Talese and Caldi to understand each other, but I didn’t have any regular friends. Everyone was too scared of my father to get close to me.”

“No one did anything for you?” Lejan asked, horrified.

“It wasn’t like now. The knights were in charge then, and they belonged as much to the clans as they did to the royal bond. In Starling, they were completely in thrall to the Malthusius, and the Malthusius hated everything to do with the Sancerre. No one spared a thought for a kid stuck in the aftermath of their sundering. No one made sure I was enrolled in school, even though this was after the king passed the Public Education Decree. Before that, only clan-born and affiliated kids were guaranteed some level of schooling, and that was dependent on the resources of their clan.” He gave a bitter smile. “You know, my father got pressed into service building the elementary school here, but he never tried to enroll me either? I taught myself to read a little—the few Talese books and magazines he had around the house. He refused to learn to read Caldi. He loathed Caldona. There wasn’t a day that went by he didn’t curse the whole country that had him trapped.”

“Anyway, Seya found me. When we couldn’t talk to each other, she went away, and I thought I was going to be left there, maybe die there. But she came back a few minutes later with Ian, her stepfather, and he carried me back to their apartment, which was on the other side of the complex, and called a healer to look at me—Dalen Halcyon, who spoke enough Talese to make me understand that I didn’t have to go back home. He took me to Halcyon to look after me—I was dangerously concussed—but Seya got so upset when he started to leave that they had to let her stay with me overnight at the school. After that, we were always together. She basically adopted me. A grave-faced girl with an unexpected ferocious streak, and eyes too old for her face and wild, beautiful magic that was much too big for her tiny self.” He closed his eyes against the tears the memory brought to them. “Seven years old, and she picked up a broken thing like me and loved me for no other reason than she knew I needed it. Of course I adored her completely, I didn’t have any defense at all against that kind of affection. She was lonely too, isolated because of her family situation and because of her unpredictable magic, so I suppose it was only natural that we bonded. We hadn’t even been together a year when it happened.”

“So young!” said Lejan. “I didn’t know—how was that even possible? Had your magic even awakened yet? I thought twelve was the average here.”

“It woke then,” Vico said. “She did it. Or rather, her magic caused it to happen, it was hardly deliberate on her part. But you’re right, it shouldn’t have been possible, not with both of us so young. It turned into a huge scandal. Endless debates as to what should be done about us, whether or not we should be separated, whether it counted as a violation of the Bond Act, since we were only a few months apart in age. People talking about how her magic was unnatural and dangerous. And Corin was incensed. His was one of the loudest voices saying I should be sent away before the bond could formalize. But Maeryn had refused to list him as Seya’s father, and the law couldn’t force her to give him a claim, so he had no authority over the matter, thank the gods.”

“Is that normal in Caldona?” Lejan asked. “In Malacha, they’d have done a blood trace to confirm parentage. The law would have decided the case if custody was in dispute.”

“In Caldona, blood and bond are equal in the eyes of the law, so a mother-bond trumps a paternal claim made outside a marriage or partner-bonded relationship, and there was no child bargain between them either. He had no idea she had even been pregnant until she came back to Starling with Seya. And it’s illegal to do a blood trace on a minor without an officially-recognized parent or guardian’s permission, so without proof beforehand—well. It didn’t hurt that she was an utterly terrifying spiritualist mage. I’m not entirely certain as to why Maeryn bothered to come back here, when she had so many problems with Corin. I can’t say I’m sorry she did, though, because nearly every scrap of advantage I’ve gleaned from this life came about because of my bond with Seya. Excellent education at Halcyon, the emotional support of our bond, a pack of adopted guardians who were terrifying enough to keep my father away from me for the most part. A sanctuary at Halcyon when everything blew up…” 

“You got plenty of shit out of the deal too, as I recall,” Jayen said from the doorway.

Lejan started. Vico just tipped his head to give Jayen a pointed, sidelong glance. “That’s true. Being harassed and challenged every day by the clan kids who didn’t like us was kind of a pain.”

Jayen looked away first. He always hated being reminded of what a little bastard he’d been as a child.

“I did end up with a fair duelist ranking from all the practice you and your little clique gave me, so I suppose it wasn’t entirely a disadvantage. Did you need something, or did you just come to eavesdrop on our conversation?”

“Is it eavesdropping if you kept on talking even thought you knew perfectly well I was here?” Jayen asked. He crossed to Vico’s desk, with a disapproving scowl at Lejan. “Jacinth,” he said, the greeting none too friendly.

“I should probably go,” Lejan said. His tone made it more like a question. Vico shrugged. “Would you like me to bring you something from the commissary?”

“Yes, thank you. Anything is fine.”

“No,” Jayen countered. “He’s having lunch with me.”

“Am I?” Vico asked. “I don’t recall being consulted on the matter.” Jayen held up a file marked with the security logo. Vico sat up at that. “You know what, never mind, I’ll be fine, Lejan. You can go.” 

When Lejan was gone, Vico turned back to Jayen. “What is so all fired important that you have to butt into a private conversation, acting like a possessive ass?”

“People are talking like you were involved in the assassination attempt. We need to present a united front, nip this in the bud.”

As excuses to pester him went, it wasn’t the worst one he’d tried. It even suited Vico’s purposes, though he couldn’t come out and admit that. “They always talk about me. You of all people should know that by now, and hanging out in my vicinity isn’t going to stop that. Your father certainly isn’t going to assume any good of it. He practically accused me of seducing you to keep quiet about the whole mess this morning.”

Jayen snorted. “I wish.”

Vico shot him an exasperated look. “I guess I can let you bring me lunch, since you just chased off the only other person in the clan who’s willing to do me any favors.”

“Just take a damn break and come eat with us.”

“Who’s us?”

Jayen glanced back at the door. Rena was standing outside, arms crossed, a bored look on her face. “I know you’re the one who talked Micah into this bodyguard thing. It’s ridiculous to have someone following me around in the compound. There is no inside job, no traitor.”

“You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t share your biases on the matter. Is that the report you said you’d bring me?”

Jayen handed him the file. Vico skimmed through the pages. “You need this back?”

“Eventually.”

“I’ll look it over more thoroughly after I’m done with my work then.” He put it in his satchel with the Bretinne papers. “What did the healers say?”

“That I should have let Halcyon fix me up and to go take a nap.” 

“Which you did not, clearly.”

“I’ve got work to do.”

“Nothing about your eyes?”

“Why, is there something wrong with them?” He leaned over Vico, so they were looking each other in the eye, his hand braced on the back of the chair over Vico’s shoulder.

Vico met his gaze without batting so much as an eyelash. “They look all right from here,” he said. Storm gray and showing every damn thing he thought and felt, like usual. The fingertips that brushed against his ear did elicit a reaction—a barely perceptible intake of breath. Vico’s eyes flicked away briefly, but he held still as Jayen clipped the fire charm back on his earring. “You could have hung on to it a little longer. If you think you’ll need something with more power than the standard issue ones,” Vico said. 

“I’ll be fine,” Jayen said, settling his hand on the back of the chair again, slow and deliberate. 

Vico tipped his head back and regarded him with dry amusement. His earlier decision to act had struck a chord of optimism in him, and he was aware that it was a dangerous feeling to indulge. It was easy to forget, with this whisper of their old camaraderie and the spark of his reestablished bond with Seya warming the edge of his sense, that nothing had really changed. Seya still might not stay. His position in the clan had only been rendered more precarious than before. His relationship with Jayen, if it could still be referred to so charitably, still had no real future. Yet he still said, in a pleasantly needling tone, “Says the man who is currently ignoring a healer’s advice.” 

“Like you’ve never done that yourself. That time at the water plant?”

Vico quirked an eyebrow at him. “I wouldn’t normally go plunging into a fight with only an emergency block to hold my femoral artery closed. Is that your only example? I have about ten times more of you being more reckless with less cause.”

“You still did it.”

Vico lifted one hand in a careless shrug. “That was a few years ago, but I think I remember what I put down in my report. Should I recite it for you? As I recall, it was a life or death situation.”

“Or maybe my recklessness rubbed off on you.”

A hint of a smile pulled at Vico’s lips. “And here I thought I was supposed to be the corrosive influence.”

“It can work both ways. I think I’ve gotten a little sneakier.”

Vico did smile at that. “Sneaky like a train wreck.” It came out sounding too much like the endearment it was; Vico had a weakness for stupidly forthright people. “I thought you were bringing me food,” he said.

“Just have lunch with me,” Jayen said. 

“I’m working.” He indicated the piles of paperwork stacked neatly over his desk.

“You’re not working right now.”

“Because I’m being distracted by my very own personal disaster.” Another endearment, one he hadn’t used in years. Probably since Seya had left. He did not expect Jayen to remember, for his eyes to soften at the words Vico had spoken over a decade ago, words which had proven true, even if the disaster had lasted much longer than either of them had thought it could. Vico took advantage of how taken off guard he was by it to reach up and move Jayen’s hand so he could sit up and pull his chair back to his desk. As if he had meant to do that all along.

Jayen stepped back a pace, dropping his eyes. “You can be so damn cold,” he said, though he sounded more annoyed than hurt.

“Yes, I heard; Micah told me so earlier,” Vico said.

“Why would Micah say that?”

“Oh, you know. Sneaky bastard, twisting things around to suit myself.”

“Is that what you’re doing now?”

“Always,” Vico said lightly. 

Jayen leaned on the corner of his desk, one hand lifting to Vico’s chin, tipping his face up to look him in the eye again. “Is that a warning or a promise?” 

Which one do you want it to be? He definitely could not say that. “Marten’s coming back,” he said instead, as the sound of a brisk, familiar footfall clacking along the tiled hall outside became audible.

Jayen made a face and moved back to a discreet distance, schooling his expression back to its customary glower. Vico gave a slight, bitter smile. Jayen’s automatic response to the idea of getting caught being even remotely affectionate was a stark reminder of exactly how little future their relationship had always had. “Can’t get caught flirting in front of your fellow brass,” he said.

Jayen frowned at the sudden coolness of his tone. “If you came back to security, I can guarantee your superior wouldn’t object to that kind of behavior.” 

“I’m sure,” Vico said dryly. And he’d be able to protect Vico from the consequences of it, if only Vico would return to being the quiet shadow he’d become to survive his tenure as Malthusius bonded. It would have been so easy to say yes, if he didn’t know how it would eventually end: a messy breakdown, a moment of vulnerability for his enemies to use against him, another heartbreak. Vico wasn’t sure he could survive a second round of that game. 

Marten entered the room, stopping short on seeing Jayen, his face shuttering. “Marten,” Jayen said, and watched the man proceed to his desk. “You can get that paperwork back to me whenever,” he said to Vico before leaving the office.

Vico did not watch him go, not with Marten’s calculating eyes on him. He did not lift his hand to his jaw where Jayen had touched him either, or fling the contents of his desktop across the room in frustration at how much of an idiot he was being. He did not allow his face to reflect even the smallest hint of what he felt—anguish, uncertainty, annoyance—for doing the same damn thing Jayen had done. Hide all evidence of feelings to avoid having them used against him. 

He did toy absently with the fire charm, which was an old habit that would draw no particular attention. Shoved Amelan’s chair back in place before she returned. Reminded himself he was done being passive, put all the unproductive thoughts and feelings away, and focused on the work he had left.