Chapter Sixteen

Quiet Days and Unquiet Words

Due to the constant need for pain wards, Seya spent the next two days of her recovery in a haze, dozing on Vico’s couch and being ferried back and forth twice a day to be checked over by Kaya. Vico kept up a steady stream of reminisces and anecdotes whenever she was coherent enough to appreciate them. When she slept he sat nearby looking over the Bretinne spellwork in preparation for the inspection and managing what other work he could over the phone. 

By the third day the curse had abated enough for the healers to drop her down to a single, medium-level pain ward. She was feeling fairly lucid by the time they got back to Vico’s place, and actually hungry, which was a pleasant change from the ward-induced lethargy. Vico was so pleased he didn’t have to pester her to eat that he cooked for her even though it was several hours until lunch.

“Do you want some help?” she asked.

“I do not. Stop pacing and sit down. You’re still supposed to be resting.”

After three days of inactivity, she felt wobbly on her legs but far too restless to sit. She leaned on the dining table, watching him work. “When did you get so domestic? You always complained when Winter made us do chores at Halcyon.” 

“When I lived with Jayen, it became appalling clear that at least one of us should be able to manage basic household things when the housekeeper was away, and, well, Jayen is Jayen. Excellent at managing security matters and ordering people around and settling fights, and completely hopeless at anything even bordering on menial. At least I got something useful out of all the things Winter made us do when we were at Halcyon. And I discovered I like cooking. It’s relaxing.”

She glanced around the apartment. It was small and cheap, and because it was Vico’s, immaculately clean, but the thing that stood out to her the most was how bare it was. The furnishings were all nondescript, clearly second-hand, and it all felt utilitarian rather than homey and lived in, as if the time he spent in the place was incidental. There were no pictures on the walls. The only nonessential items were books, and most of those looked to be work-related research. She turned one over to study the title. It was in Talese, which she spoke well enough to get by, but the text was so dense and technical that all she could make out was that it was about automagic spellwork. She set the book aside. “How long have you lived here?”

“Not quite a year. It’s not much, I know. Never got into the habit of keeping a lot of stuff around. It’s easier that way.”

Her eyes fell to the bag containing all her worldly possessions, small enough to stuff out of the way under the end table in his living room. “I didn’t think you two would last that long.”

He stirred the vegetables in the frying pan and said nothing. She assumed that meant he was more upset about the dissolution of that relationship than he wanted to let on. The weight of everything they weren’t sharing was almost suffocating. 

“What happened?” she asked.

“Lots of things,” he said and changed the subject. She listened as he talked about the work he’d been doing, mediating for the Malthusius affiliates. His stories were full of energy thieves and territorial disputes and local purists who objected to the heavily industrialized magic of the new developments, with the occasional duel thrown in, though that wasn’t usually a duty that fell to mediators. Vico was good at spinning the details of a story to his own purposes, and even though she knew he was playing up this talent to distract her from the underlying unpleasantness of their current situation, the ploy still worked. She managed to relax a little while he talked.

He wouldn’t let her help clean the kitchen after they had eaten, either. “Is it really okay for you to be away from work this long?” she asked, as he stood at the sink in his tiny kitchen, elbow deep in soapy water. 

“It’s all good. I was due a vacation anyway.”

“Taking care of someone who got cursed is not a vacation.” His casual attitude toward looking after her was starting to annoy her, a feeling motivated in large part by guilt. She was making an effort not to think about the reason why. She was making an effort not to think about a lot of things. Fortunately she had a great deal of practice at it.

“I don’t mind. I think of it as catching up with my darling idiot bond sister.”

“Is that what we’re doing?” She had been expecting a deluge of questions from the moment she was coherent enough to answer them, but he had not asked even one. His reticence was all the proof she needed to understand that he was, underneath all that outward composure, still very upset.

“I figured you’ll tell me your half of the catching up when you’re ready,” he said.

“Optimistic of you,” she muttered.

He gave an exasperated sigh. “There is something I have to do for work today. I mentioned it yesterday, but you were still pretty out of it. An inspector from the city administration coming to that new factory I told you about, and I have to present the traces and give her a tour of the ‘works to ensure a tiresome number of legal papers get signed. It’s at one. I don’t like to leave you, but it’s a Talese concern, and I’m the one they’ve been dealing with all this time. We can’t afford to offend them, not with the current problems. Malthusius is on the hook for a lot of money on this deal.”

“What kind of problems are you talking about? Is it the dissonance in the magic around here, or this thing with Jayen?”

“My friend Lejan in L&R says his crew hasn’t been paying any particular attention to the magic outside ours, but he’s going to look into it for me. I did ask Jayen about that girl the other morning when he drove us to the clinic, but he’s been busy with the Miredes case himself. He told me he’d have his people keep an eye out for her.”

“Oh, that’s good. Thank you, I had kind of forgotten about that,” she said.

“I expected you had, after spending the last three days incapacitated. But the trouble I was referring to was with out affiliation with Bretinne. The people running the co-op have access to highly advanced automagic patents through family connections in Talesanne, and this affiliation would give Malthusius an in for licensing them here in Caldona. It’s a big deal for the clan, and the association would allow us access to the spellwork to revamp our other interests, and bring in more profitable affiliations.”

“Talese automagic?” Seya said. “Isn’t that stuff famous for its complex written spellwork?” Written magic had always been a weakness of hers. While she was an excellent mage, her talents lay in directed spellwork and having absurdly good spiritual sense. She just didn’t have the patience for the complicated written charms and sigils, not when directed magic came so easily to her. 

Written magic was a skill anyone could learn, regardless of their inherent mage levels, but it required a great deal of knowledge, much of which was still jealously guarded by clan interests through patents and education exclusive to the clan-born among their ranks. That was changing, slowly, with the advent of magic schools like Halcyon that had popped up in the wake of the Public Education Decree, but that was exactly the reason why such schools were often dealt with so harshly by the clans as well. Not every schoolmaster could be like Winter, a former dueling champion trained and educated by a powerful and highly political clan. “Doesn’t that sort of magic drive common people out of work? I was passing through Zinthia a few months ago, and the unaffiliated citizens were having a huge protest about it. Riots in the streets and clan enforcers breaking people’s windows, the guard arresting people left and right. It was chaos.”

Vico shrugged. “Malthusius can’t afford not to swing with the times. The old ways might employ more people, but with everyone moving over to automagic-run machinery, it wouldn’t be profitable enough in the long run to maintain the bonds or the business. We know all about the protests in other counties. Whatever you think about Malthusius, we do our due diligence.”

She gave him a flat-eyed stare. “Did you just party line me?”

“It’s a literal fact. Corin knows he has to obey the new laws if he wants to keep his bond and his properties and his money. We’ve already been having problems with the purists. There was a delegation trying to have the work on the building shut down until a thorough elemental mapping was done, and a lawsuit over patent issues. There were also a few attempts by other clans to use that and various other setbacks as a way to poach the affiliation out from under us.”

“Which clans? I know Hemsley’s still around. It sounds like something they’d do, but it’s been a while. I’m not exactly up on things around here.” 

“Alsanna took over Hemsley from her father a few years ago, staged a coup against him to prevent the sundering of the clan during the restructuring. They’ve run a fairly clean ship since then. From a legal standpoint, at any rate. Aside from them and us, there’s one other guy with a controlling stake, that Albrecht I told you about—though he has no legal clan status as yet due some difficulties right after the war—his original clan was sundered in Mardre. He was actually the first to try to poach Bretinne from us.”

“What about the rest?” She didn’t know why she was asking when she was planning to leave, but she didn’t like not knowing anything.

“There was another one, Adeline Vetiver, who bought out the Alsace just after the beginning of the restructuring, but she left Starling last year after some trouble—that place north of town, the one that’s tainting the resonances? It was hers. Negligence was the ruling. She forfeited a considerable chunk of her properties settling the damages, they were auctioned a few months ago, mostly to Albrecht, but we got that place. Our mages are working on cleaning it up, but it was left to founder so long while the legal battle was going on that it’s been slow work.”

Seya frowned. “Malthusius bought that wreck to clean it up?”

“For rather mercenary reasons, but yes. We have properties over in that area, it was screwing up our lines for months. There are a couple of other small fry types who can gum things up but aren’t big enough to cause serious trouble. Cerouse, they’re an offshoot of Talbot that broke away during the restructuring—amicably, from what I understand—they hold a couple of streets on the west side and the water elemental refinery on the other side of the river, and then there’s Senesca. You remember him.”

“Couldn’t have forgotten,” she muttered. August Senesca had not qualified as a bondmaster back when they were children, though his business was run on the same type of bond magic as a clan. A strong ambition to possess a controlling interest in Starling’s magic had led him to become one of the worst offenders, after Corin, for trying to court her magic to add to his bonds. 

“He’s been snatching up unaffiliated elemental lines since the restructuring unsettled everything, and now he has quite a little monopoly on the south side of town. Not controlling stakes though, thankfully. He’s still fucking scum.” He made a disgusted face. “There’s also Malcolm Weyland, a Telesanne national with a couple of business interests here and in Artrine. No stakes in the magic here—he doesn’t use bonds at all, strictly elementalist contract mages for high level specialty automagic. He’s a shifty bastard; I’ve had to deal with him before. He enjoys trying to lure our high elementalists out from under us. He originally offered to fund Bretinne before we went to them with the offer, but they don’t like him. They’re fairly…let’s say traditional, for Talese expats, and Weyland is a notorious hedonist. He owns property next to the Bretinne site, and he’s been in and out of Mediations and Legal on one dispute or another since we broke ground. I suspect he’s doing it to spite them. Or us, perhaps.”

“Does he have reason to?”

“Corin doesn’t like him either? General shit-stirring? Who knows. He’s a bit of a wild card. You’d hate him.”

“What about the assassination attempt? Has there been any headway on that?”

“Not that I’m aware. I spoke to Micah and Jayen, and the traces from the curse charms have been inconclusive.”

“No suspects?”

Vico’s expression went grim. “There are very few non-affiliated people in town who wouldn’t benefit from having Malthusius shaken up by the death of the heir. It would fuck up the bond something terrible, destroy morale, put a halt on all our business while the funeral rites were carried out. The internal conflicts it would spark concerning the succession would definitely break the clan apart.”

“They seriously have no leads?” she said, skeptical.

“I’m not inside enough to be looped into the official investigation,” Vico said. “I looked over the details and offered some insights is all. I don’t think Hemsley would risk such a drastic move, though. They’d lose everything if it came out, and that is a hell of a lot to lose. They have a quarter stake in Starling.”

Seya considered this. It seemed like too much of a coincidence that there was malicious dissonance going on at the same time the most powerful clan in Starling was under attack. “What about the guard? What are they doing about it? Shouldn’t they be coming around to question me?” she said. 

“They did come, but you were so out of it there was no point in having them talk to you. Even if you had been coherent, nothing you said under the influence of pain wards can be used as testimony anyway. I suspect Corin will buy them off to keep them out of the investigation.”

Seya made a face at the idea of being protected by Corin’s wealth, but she could hardly complain, even if the protection was incidental to not getting himself arrested for assaulting her into a rebound. She certainly didn’t want to talk to the guard. Thinking about that reminded her uncomfortably of her former notoriety around town. How big a deal was it going to be? A newsworthy event? Would Corin’s precautions extend to keeping her name out of the papers? She thought about asking, but she didn’t want to have to make up a reason why she was so anxious about it. There were four more days of her treatment left, but she didn’t think she could wait that long. Hopefully tomorrow she would feel stronger. She was already tired again. She went to the chair in the living room and curled up in a ball.

“I’ve arranged for Jayen to come keep an eye on you while I’m gone,” Vico said.

She sat back up, indignation flooding through her like adrenaline. “You have got to be kidding me! I don’t need watching, I feel fine.”

“Healer’s orders, you’re supposed to be under supervision. Lejan’s the only other person I’d trust with you, and he’s busy today.”

She vaguely recollected the name from Vico’s ramblings over the last two days. “Your friend from L&R? Is he that big Malachai guy who brought you groceries yesterday?” 

“I thought you were asleep when he came by.”

“I woke up while you were talking to him on the landing.”

“Ah. Yes, that was Lejan. I think you’d like him too, he’s a great guy. But it’s probably not a good idea to stick you with a stranger when your defenses are still this low. At least you can’t catch Jayen.” 

“Technically, I’ve already caught him.” She could still feel the faintest spark of the bond on the edge of her sense. It didn’t exactly make her happy, but she couldn’t bring herself to do anything to cut it off either.

“He’s not that susceptible. It’s just a blood bond.”

She made a face at him. “Don’t think for one second I can’t tell what you’re doing.”

“It’ll be easy to avoid playing into it then, won’t it?” His smile was all innocence.

Seya shot him a scowl. 

Jayen arrived while Vico was getting dressed to leave, his irritation filtering through their bond several minutes before he banged on the door. She opened it to find him scowling at Micah and Canto. “I said stay out here, so you’re going to stay out here! Who do you think you’re talking to, anyway?”

Micah gave a long-suffering sigh. “At least let us secure the premises first,” he said. 

“Vico, tell him you’ve secured the place,” Jayen said, as Vico came out of his bedroom.

“It’s as secure as I can make it,” Vico said, fastening the last few buttons on his shirt. “If you want I can key you to my wards for the afternoon.”

“That’s acceptable, I guess. We’ll be here on the landing if you need anything,” Micah said.

“I won’t need anything! Stay here, stay in the car, I don’t give a god’s damn.” Jayen brushed past Seya impatiently and flopped down on the couch.

“Nice to see you again too,” Seya said. “Is it really okay for the person who’s actually in danger to be babysitting me?”

“You shut up,” Jayen growled. “I’m not doing this for you, I’m doing it for Vico. I didn’t even want bodyguards, someone talked Micah into it against my wishes.” He shot Vico a look.

“Yeah, I imagine it’s annoying being followed around like a helpless infant day and night despite being perfectly capable of taking care of yourself,” Seya said. She was shooting Vico the same look.

“We get it already, you’re both brats,” Vico said, throwing his satchel over his shoulder.

“Your collar is crooked,” Jayen said, standing up to fix it for him. Vico sighed and removed Jayen’s hands from his collar with a pointed expression. “What?” Jayen demanded, crossing his arms with an impatient little huff. “It’s just friendly gesture. We are supposed to be friends, aren’t we?” 

Seya gave a little snort of laughter. 

“What?” Jayen bristled at her.

“Nothing,” she said. 

“Listen, thanks for doing this,” Vico said. “There are leftovers in the fridge if you get hungry. I’ll be back in a few hours, probably. I expect both of you to be alive, and my apartment in one piece when I get back. If you have to fight, please restrain yourselves to words, at least. And don’t bother the neighbors being too loud about it.” His eyes flicked to Jayen. “She’s still at risk of rebound, so you know.” 

“I’m not going to rebound her,” Jayen said testily.

“I sincerely hope not,” Vico said, his tone sharpening as he added, “You aren’t going to want to find out what would happen if you did.” This earned him a scowl from Micah, which he ignored. 

Jayen just rolled his eyes. “You’re not walking, are you?” he asked. “I sent out a recommendation that no one go out alone until we have this assassination thing settled.”

“Davin is driving me.”

“Davin Gates is an idiot,” said Jayen. “And he’s probably spying on you too, at least inadvertently. Take Micah, he’s got his head on straight.”

“I am aware that Davin has a big damn mouth. I was counting on it, as a matter of fact, but I will take Micah, since I needed to talk to him anyway.”

“It better not be about more damn bodyguards and security crap around my house.”

“You sure do worry a lot for someone so set against having his own bodyguards,” Vico said. 

Jayen scowled at him. “Whatever, just watch your back.” 

Micah, predictably, was not pleased, neither by the order, nor to be replaced by someone who had been drummed out of the security department for incompetence. He did not argue, however, and he and Vico left as soon as Davin arrived with the car.

“It was Addison who told Corin about the duel,” Micah said as he drove to Bretinne. “They’re practically feuding about it. It’s been tense around the compound the last couple days.”

“Shockingly enough,” Vico said.

“Addison foisted the blame onto the people he had looking into Seya’s reappearance, so they could both save face, but I don’t think anyone except the working bonded were fooled. There’s been a lot of talk, rehashing of old stories. Stuff about the fights the two of you used to get into with Jayen and the rest of us, some of them going around with wild exaggerations. You might want to watch your back. The fact that you haven’t been there the last couple days is not working in your favor.”

“Like being there would?” Vico said. “Can’t be helped. Tell me who’s saying what.”

It was going about the way he expected. Addison’s faction was hinting that his loyalties were divided. Marten was swearing up and down he was neglecting his work. The high tier was making noise about unsuitability. There were rumblings of dissent among the people loyal to Jayen, some of whom who considered him to be acting foolishly in associating openly with Vico and his half-sister. Corin was being closed mouthed about everything. Tor, who had been thrown under the bus by Addison after the details about his visit to Halcyon had gotten out, was being quiet for once, and that did surprise him. 

“Jayen gave him what for,” Micah said. “Had a go at Landen too, for not keeping him in hand, but it was all was behind closed doors. He can’t really afford to humiliate the head of the night crew and the youngest son of a member of the high tier just because they were making disparaging comments about you.”

“I thought Landen was on Jayen’s side. What was he saying?”

“It was more about Jayen than you, really. Told him he was being ‘blatantly led about the nose by that fucking Sancerre whore’.”

Vico ground his teeth. Of all the things he’d been called over the years, that was the one that bothered him the most. That any small success he might have managed was not a product of his own efforts, but handed to him because of his relationship with Jayen. 

“To be fair, with Seya’s mother being an Upriser and all, the fact that she’s in your house is only going to add to the negative perception. Given the history between Seya and Jayen, it’s the first thing people are going to think.”

“An ancient sibling rivalry is enough to override the fact that she saved his life?” 

Micah shrugged. “People believe what they want, and it doesn’t suit anyone’s purposes to think well of her, or of Corin’s old attachment to her either. He’s spent the last ten years burying all that to appease his high tier. Going to bat for her now isn’t going to do him any favors in that regard.”

It was true. Before the war, the bondmaster had absolute power over their clan, but with the new restrictions on bond magic and the reduced capacity of the Clan Council, they had only what power they could hold on to. A clan as large as Malthusius had to balance very carefully. In the current political climate, Malthusius could not afford to lose its bonded. The hit to the bond magic alone would be considerable, to say nothing of the financial costs if they bled out workers, or lost property and investments held by the higher level bonded. The loss of political influence and the expense of the cleanup after the war had done some damage to their finances, but though they had recovered without losing any of their stake in Starling’s magic, and had even managed to increase it in the interim, the current foray into automagic expansion was high in risk. 

And Seya’s continued presence was going to be divisive. Vico settled back in his seat, thinking, grimly, that from the business and political standpoint, it would be best if she did not stay. He wanted to reject that thought completely, but he was too much aware of how easy it would be for Jayen to lose everything he’d been working for if things went wrong. 

Of course, if he didn’t care about that one aspect he wouldn’t need to try to get her to stay in the first place. He could just go with her when she left. The prospect of choosing between the two of them did not fill him with enthusiasm. He went over everything again, filing the details away as he searched for the angle that would allow him to turn the situation into an advantage.