Chapter Twenty-one

Start of a Long Day

“Fire and water,” Vico said. “Please tell me this isn’t all from the Miredes investigation.”

Jayen looked up from the papers, pictures, and memory charms stacked high across his desk, surprised. It was coming on seven, and he had not expected Vico this early—hadn’t expected him to show up at all. “Just this half,” he said, gesturing to the right side of the piles. “The rest is Bretinne.” He had shifted all the unrelated reports over to Hanna’s desk for the time being. She wasn’t going to like that, but he didn’t care, not after the night he’d had. The investigation had dragged out all day and into the evening, and despite finding the wind charms, had turned up not a single, solid lead in either the traces or the physical evidence, and his father was determined to make that his fault.

“I might not have time to go over everything before the meeting,” Vico said, taking up the thick folio of pictures Jayen nudged in his direction. “It was moved up to nine instead of ten. I was on the phone with Cheritt for half an hour trying to placate her before I came here. I still have to go fetch them and outline our strategy beforehand.”

“It’s fine, just do what you can. It’s really not that much, I just haven’t finished compiling yesterday’s reports. You could come back after. If you don’t have other work, I mean.”

“If I’m still alive after,” Vico said with a grimace. He set to work, sorting through stacks of pictures Jayen’s crews had collected in the course of the investigation.

For a while the only sounds were the shuffle of paper and the scratch of Jayen’s pen. “You’re here early,” Vico said.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Jayen said. He had come in before dawn, not wanting to run into his father after the shouting match they’d had the night before. Jayen was willing to admit he might have overseen Bretinne’s security more thoroughly, but this blatant sabotage—this wasn’t how things were done. Clan on clan antagonism usually took the form of duel challenges, lawsuits, and, occasionally, outright harassment—but only of the bonded, and that was something Jayen tried to discourage for his people. Affiliates were off limits, and direct sabotage was practically unheard of. Even Jayen didn’t consider this a good excuse for his failure of oversight, but he didn’t have the patience to be shouted down for not anticipating something so completely out of the ordinary, especially when all the previous interference had been through lawful, if somewhat indirect methods. The argument had ended with Jayen storming out of the compound to go to his mother’s house for the night. He hadn’t stayed there since Vico had left him, and the memories that had stirred up had hardly improved his mood.

“Your eyes aren’t bothering you today?”

“They’re fine. I told you, it was just the heat and stress,” Jayen said without looking up. “If you’re going to worry that much you might as well come home, keep an eye on me personally.”

Vico slipped another picture into the discard pile. “I thought it got on your nerves when I worried over you.”

“It does. When has that ever stopped you?”

Vico shook his head. “Did you make that appointment yet?”

Jayen shot him an impatient look. “Hanna will arrange it when she gets in. You can nag her yourself, she’ll be here soon.”

“Don’t think I won’t,” Vico said mildly. They worked in silence for a few more minutes. Then: “I have a favor to ask.”

Jayen set his pen down. “Do you. And is this favor also something to do with Seya?”

“It is,” Vico said.

Jayen huffed under his breath. “Of course. What does she need now?”

“You remember that pickpocket she ran into at the market by the square?”

“I handed a picture of her out to all the teams,” Jayen said. “No one’s reported seeing her, though I haven’t had time to go over all of yesterday’s reports on anything but this Bretinne mess yet. I’ll have Hanna look when she gets in.”

“If you could bump the kid up to the priority list, that would be great.”

“I’m sorry, did you just ask me to make a priority case of some thieving brat? What is this about?”

“Seya thinks—” He paused as Jayen made an impatient sound. “She thinks something more is going on with the kid than just garden variety neglect. She ran into her again yesterday, and apparently it bothered her enough that she spent the whole morning and half the afternoon chasing around town trying to find her again.”

“Did she give you some kind of reason, or is this just her poking her nose into something she ought to leave alone?”

“She seemed really upset about it,” Vico said. “I practically had to blackmail her to keep her from tearing off again today to look by herself.”

“And she can’t do that because…?”

“Because she’s recovering from a curse that was meant for you and may be a target herself?”

Jayen’s lips thinned in annoyance as he thought about that. He felt like he had discharged any debt to her already by helping keep her from dying, but it might go a long way towards repairing his relationship with Vico if he cooperated. On the other hand, between the assassination attempt and the sabotage, and the dozen other things going on around their territory, his department was already stretched to its limit. There was also the bond, which had not faded out yet. He had yet to decide whether he should let it. It was so faint today he could barely feel it at all, so maybe it wasn’t even up to him. “Where’d she say she saw the kid?”

Vico gave him the street names and then went back to flipping through the pictures. Jayen watched him out of the corner of his eye as he rearranged the itinerary for the day to accommodate the request. The fire charm still glittered at his ear, and Jayen wondered, as he had for months, if he was wearing it out of sentiment, or simply as a means of self defense. His coppery hair caught the morning light streaming through the window, the normally tousled locks tamed into submission for once. His fingers twitched against the edges of the folio every time he had to make the effort to curb the habit of running them through it. Jayen had a fleeting urge to reach across the desk and muss it back into its usual artlessly ruffled state, to trace patterns in the pale freckles spangled lightly across his face, and down his neck—and arms and shoulders and back, though Jayen had to imagine those from memory, with Vico currently starched and polished and buttoned down into an impeccable semblance of professionalism in preparation for his meeting with the high tier. His expression was remote, his eyes moving over the pictures, swift and sharp and completely detached, like it didn’t mean anything to sit alone in an office with the man he’d walked out on nearly a year ago. Maybe it didn’t. Maybe his attention now was just a ploy to gain Jayen’s cooperation on Seya’s behalf. Or some roundabout form of punishment for his behavior last summer.

They had never discussed that last fight, nor the events that had followed, not even after the decision to try to be friends. Jayen had only agreed to that farce out of desperation. He didn’t want to be friends with Vico. He wanted to shove everything off the desk and drag Vico across it and kiss him until that blasted composure fell apart and he admitted he wanted Jayen the same way. He wanted it so much that for a moment he could barely breathe.

Vico’s voice broke through his reverie. “Did they end up uncovering anything in the traces after I left yesterday?”

“I was busy with the rest of the investigation. Micah’s supposed to go by L&R and collect the reports before he comes in,” Jayen said. “Should be soon.”

The night crew arrived first, two by two, loud and boisterous as they clocked out. Landen came by Jayen’s office to turn in his nightly reports. He was still smarting from his recent reprimand, and it lent the atmosphere a grim tension, which was not improved by the scornful look he leveled at Vico as he stalked out. After a few minutes the rest of the night crew filtered out as well, going home, or to breakfast at Dacie’s, and then Micah arrived, followed closely by Lejan.

Lejan paused in the doorway under Jayen’s glower. He held up a folder in one hand. “I was sent to bring you the report from L&R. Chief Madderly said you had requested copies asap.”

“Give it to Vico,” Jayen said shortly, and went back to his paperwork.

“Sure, boss,” Lejan said. He handed the folder to Vico. “I heard about your catch yesterday. Excellent eye. I think Madderly was impressed.”

“Are you sure you don’t mean she wants to dropkick me in front of a moving train for thoughtlessly showing her up?” Vico asked.

“No, I mean she was saying she needed more people like you in our department,” Lejan said.

“Ah, so it’ll be the rest of them wanting to dropkick me then. Thank you for the warning.”

“We’ll have you in L&R yet, just wait and see,” Lejan predicted cheerfully, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Jacinth, I’m sure you have better things to do than chat up people who are actually working,” Jayen said.

“Thank you, Lejan,” Vico said. “Have a good morning, and don’t mind the bear. He gets cranky when they don’t bring him his coffee on time.”

Lejan left, obviously trying not to smile. Jayen tossed Vico a scowl, which he ignored as he flipped open the report and skimmed through the first few pages, his previous detachment replaced by genuine interest. “Is that the reason you came here so early today?” Jayen demanded.

“Part of it. So?”

Jayen’s scowl deepened. “So I thought you came because I asked you to help with the investigation! But you’re just interested in that damn spellwork.”

Vico rolled his eyes. “I am helping.” He held up the charm with the traces that had been included with the report before setting it on one of the stacks of papers on Jayen’s desk and activating it. He isolated the diagram that illustrated the casting of the wind spell. “Do you have an image of the spellwork for the curse from the glass shards?”

“In my desk,” Jayen said. “Why?”

“L&R detected no significant resonances in the traces they analyzed,” Vico said. “But looking at the spellwork suggests that these two incidents are related.”

Jayen unlocked the drawer and got the charm out for him. Vico set it up next to the other one to compare the two pieces of spellwork up close. “Look here, at the wind directive in the spellwork. You can see the attracting subclause here. It’s a very efficient one for the space it’s contained in, and it’s sigil, not charm based. Suggests a higher level of experience in the handling of the elemental properties than average. It’s the same with the water directives on the attack portion of the curse. I thought it was odd before, because generally people use the charm versions—the natural variations in spiritual magic don’t lend themselves well to rote-style written casting unless there’s a seated source of the element to draw from, which makes these doubly strange, since they clearly aren’t drawing from anything more than ambient wind energy, but the fact that it is working so well still suggests a bond of some sort is in play. That’s part of the reason we can’t trace anything, because it’s basically impossible, and I would sell my left eye to know how they’re managing it. It makes no damn sense. There are some similarities to the way the spellwork is arranged as well,” he added. “Here, in the connections, mostly. And this is basically an identical subclause here.” He poked at the images, pointing out the near identical sections in the wind charm, the water charm and even the overall layout of the curse.

Jayen did not have much interest in written magic beyond the usual wards and household automagic, but even to his inexpert eye it looked suggestive. “So the assassination and the sabotage were done by the same people.”

“It certainly looks that way,” Vico said. “I thought it was a bit much for a coincidence already, but this almost proves it. It really is too bad they couldn’t detect any resonances.”

“I can get the water sigils, but it’s next to impossible to seat wind,” Micah said. “Too unruly, not enough power for the effort either.”

“I know, but it’s not literally impossible. And we even know someone who would have that kind of experience. Two someones, actually. Back in Mardre, the Albrecht were a shipping clan. Ran supply lines between Caldona, Thelassa and the Isles since the First Wave, even achieved a measure of fame for smuggling weaponry in and refugees out during the subsequent Waves. Air and sea lines both.”

“Wind and water,” Micah said, looking back at the trace images again. “Damn.”

Jayen slammed his fist down on the desk. “That son of a bitch,” he growled.

“It’s entirely circumstantial,” Vico reminded him. “And the Vetiver had a wind-seat in their bond when they commanded the Lyreani sect of the knights in the northwestern provinces. Though obviously they’re gone now. But Albrecht did take over nearly all their territory, if you recall.”

“Albrecht is seated in earth and metal here,” Jayen said. “That’s a little strange in and of itself, considering their background. I remember Dad saying their bond magic wasn’t balanced enough. If they’ve got a secret wind seat, or took one over from the Vetiver when they decamped, that would explain why they haven’t applied for an official clan designation in Starling. I know they’ve taken no new bonded either, possibly to keep oversight of the existing bond to a minimum.”

“They could have seated the wind after the initial inspection,” Micah said. “It’d be hard to hide, though.”

“It’s possible,” Vico said. “If it’s true, then Miredes is probably working for them in some capacity too. It’s hardly conclusive, but at least it gives us a solid starting point.” He looked down at the stack of pictures in his lap, moving the one on top to the discard pile. “Well hello,” he said, starting at the sight of the next one. He held it up for Jayen and Micah to see. It was a woman with the coloring and curly hair of a northerner, but what had caught his eye was the girl standing near her. She had the same complexion and the same curly hair, her features similar enough to the woman that they had to be related. She was the pickpocket Seya had seen in the market.

“There’s no name, just a date. Two weeks ago, about the time Miredes started bothering us again,” Vico observed. “Does the woman look familiar to either of you?”

“I don’t know her, but she was there at the protest yesterday, wasn’t she?” Micah said.

“Yes,” Vico said.

They went through the rest of the pictures, and found one of the woman with a stocky man, fair skinned, with short-cropped dark hair, also unnamed, but dated within the same two week period.

“It’s strange that no one knows them,” Micah said.

“They could be recent arrivals,” Vico said. “If it is Albrecht, he may have outside personnel working for him, possibly from his old affiliations back in Mardre, to keep attention off his bonded. We should keep an eye out, investigate any strangers seen associating with his clan or his local businesses and affiliates.”

“Yes. I want to know who these people are by the end of the day,” Jayen said. “Names, addresses, any affiliations, official or not. Have Hanna make copies of this. I want one in the hands of every team, all shifts.” He handed everything off to Micah to organize.

Vico glanced at the clock and gave a deep, resigned sigh as he stood. “I have to get going if I want to prepare for the meeting. If I get revoked for telling Cheritt to insist on some form of reparation, I just want to say it was nice working with you both,” he said, with a sardonic little bow. “Good day, gentlemen.”

“Don’t be dramatic,” Jayen said. “No one’s revoking you for doing your job.”

“Whatever you say, love,” Vico said over his shoulder, leaving Jayen staring after him in surprise at the endearment.

Three more days, Seya thought as she found herself at the window once again, searching for a small, furtive figure that wasn’t there.

Two and a half days, now—she had whiled the morning away, tense and restless, looking for something to do besides sit around worrying and imagining the worst. “What were you thinking, offering to help some damn brat kid when you can’t even help yourself?” she scolded herself out loud as she was cleaning the apartment. “Idiot.”

Unfortunately, there was not much in the way of cleaning or anything else to be done, and none of Vico’s books were able to hold her attention. By noon she was almost frantic with boredom and frustration. Vico had said he would not be able to come home for lunch, so she scarfed down a quick meal alone and debated again whether it was worth it to honor the promise he’d blackmailed out of her. She felt like he was worrying unreasonably. She was perfectly capable of looking after herself, cursed or not. But if the child did come and she wasn’t here…

Vico had tagged his wards, too, so even if she returned before he did, he would still know she had left, and she did not want to upset him again. Though upsetting him was inevitable in the long run, she supposed, staring out the window again.

Maybe when Vico made it home she could have him anchor her so she could range out with her sense and find the child that way. At this point she was sure she could do it without rebounding the fading remnants of the curse, but she wasn’t at all sure she was willing to risk accidentally formalizing the bond with that kind of intensively cooperative magic. Leaving so much of herself in Starling would surely lead DeGraffenreid here eventually, and there was no way she was going to be able to make herself sever that connection again. She’d been utterly desperate the first time, and she obviously hadn’t done it correctly, if enough threads of it had remained to reestablish the bond. She had probably learned enough since then to make a clean break this time, but that wouldn’t stop it from hurting. She couldn’t hurt Vico like that again.

She paced through the living room, making a path that took her past the window so she could keep an eye out. It wasn’t as if Vico would turn the girl away even if she left. She probably wouldn’t come anyway—but if she did come back and Seya wasn’t there would she still consent to be helped? Would it mean Corin would be the one to help her? Seya didn’t want that. She could accept the idea that Malthusius was a stabilizing force in Starling, if a flawed one; and not actually made of evil, as she had felt growing up, but that didn’t mean she wanted anything to do with Corin or his clan. She certainly didn’t want to leave a child in his debt.

The afternoon stretched on and on and on. When she couldn’t stand it anymore, she raided Vico’s grocery money, breached the wards on the back door as quietly as she could manage and went out through the courtyard gate behind the apartment complex. On the corner she paused briefly to make sure she had not alerted the Malthusius who was parked on the curb out front, and when there was no reaction, took herself around the block in a furious mixture of nerves and defiance. She paced around for a few minutes, decided she was no better off outside than in—where did she have to go?—and headed back, stopping in the corner grocery on the way to get ingredients for dinner. She was hoping but not expecting the gesture would pacify Vico’s inevitable objections to the excursion.

She was on her way back to the apartment when she saw one of the big, black Malthusius cars slipping around the corner. Assuming it was Vico’s ride, she picked up the pace, preparing herself for an angry reception—he had to be furious if he was shutting himself out of the bond so much that she hadn’t sensed him. She slipped in the back door, rehearsing her apology in her head, but was greeted only by the stillness of the empty apartment. She dropped the grocery bag on the table and crossed to the living room. Out the window she could see the car she had spotted parked next to the one on the curb, and two Malthusius were out on the sidewalk, talking. Jayen had assigned the two of them to keep an eye on Vico’s place. Rena Soledad she remembered from Jayen’s little clique when they were kids, and Vico had called the other one Canto, but they had not been introduced. Vico was nowhere to be seen. Rena gestured wildly in the direction of Vico’s apartment, and then she and Canto both started toward the steps.

They must have noticed she had left. With a sigh of resignation, she went to the front door to let them know she was back, but upon flinging it open, she was immediately overwhelmed by a sense of intense distress, because huddled in front of her on the landing was her mysterious pickpocket child.

Seya’s jaw went tight with fury at the sight of her. The left side of the girl’s face was swollen and purpling, and there was a long, bloody gash on her left arm. Someone had made an effort to tie what looked to be a pillowcase around the injury, but it was soaked through and starting to drip on the doormat.

“Gods, child, what happened?” Seya sank to her knees to get a closer look at the girl’s injuries.

“You happened!” the girl said, her voice rising hysterically. “They saw you took that coercion thing off!”

Seya flinched. “I’m sorry, I really am. I should have—” I should have gone after her yesterday. Idiot.

Rena and Canto came hurtling up the steps just then, and the girl gave a shriek of pure terror, clutching at Seya’s arm. “Don’t let them take me!” she cried.

Seya winced at the pain and fear coming through at the contact. She glared at the two Malthusius. “Do you do this to her?” she asked, not bothering to keep her anger from projecting out at them.

“No!” Rena said, lifting her hands placatingly and taking a step back down the stairs. “We were told to look for her today. She was hurt already when I found her. I tried to get her to come with me to a healer—”

“They’re trying to kidnap me!” the girl whimpered.

“They aren’t taking you anywhere,” Seya said. Rena and Canto exchanged a look. “You’re not.”

The girl gave a sob and sank against Seya weakly, shaking like a leaf. Seya helped her to her feet. “I’m taking her inside. No, you stay out here, she’s upset enough,” Seya snapped, when they made to follow her. Canto went back down the stairs, already connecting to the bond network to report the incident. Rena stayed in the door, watching like a hawk. “Close the damn door,” Seya said. Rena glared at her, but she did it.

Seya steered the girl to the table and sat her down. “Stay there a minute, I’m getting the first aid kit. We need to wrap your arm up properly, then I’m taking you to a healer.”

“I can’t go to a healer, they’ll ask too many questions!” the girl cried, and promptly burst into tears.

Seya put her hands over her face and took a deep breath. She’d never been good at dealing with injured people. You can handle this, it’s just a few bruises and a cut, she told herself. She went to the tiny utility room and dug out Vico’s first aid kit and some clean towels.

When she came back to the dining room, the girl was slumped in the chair, cradling her arm and sweeping wary eyes around the apartment. She glared at Seya suspiciously. “You didn’t say you were Malthusius,” she said.

“I’m not.”

“Liar! Those people outside are Malthusius, and they did what you said. This is a Malthusius place, too! Even the wards are their magic!”

“You can tell?” Seya asked, surprised. She studied the child’s magic in her sense. With the coercion gone, the dissonance had faded out and her energy had acquired a more natural rhythm, its glow a bit bright for her age, perhaps, leaning more toward spiritual magic than elemental, though she was young enough that it wasn’t a clear indication of her full talents; spiritual magic usually woke first.

A panicked look crossed over the girl’s face, and she ducked her head, mumbling, “I just thought they were, is all.”

She was obviously lying, but Seya couldn’t imagine why. She set her hand on the girl’s shoulder, ignoring the emotional deluge and focusing on her words, making sure the girl could feel the sincerity behind them. “This is my friend Vico’s place, and he is Malthusius, but I am not, and won’t be, ever. I am not trying to recruit you, or whatever other horrible thing you’re imagining, and if I thought they were trying to, I’d be the first to report them to the Bond Authority.”

The girl relaxed a little. Enough to stop glaring and bristling, anyway. Seya took her hand away. “Now I’m going to wrap up your arm and then I’m going to take you to a proper healer to get you fixed up. Lay it here so I can look at it.” She patted the towel.

The girl stretched her arm out to be inspected. Seya loosened the pillowcase and pulled it back to reveal a series of clean, razor-thin cuts. She unrolled another of the towels and poured a liberal amount of disinfectant over it, dabbing as gently as she could manage at the wounds, trying to touch the girl’s skin as little as possible. “What’s your name?”

“Nemone,” she mumbled.

Nemone winced aloud several times as Seya cleaned the cuts. Seya managed to keep from doing the same. They weren’t as deep as she had feared, and only one was bleeding significantly. Seya wrapped them all up until the blood stopped showing through the bandages. “Did your parents do this?” she asked, turning Nemone’s face up to examine the bruises.

Nemone jerked her head away. “My parents are dead.”

“Family? Legal guardians? Someone who picked you up off the street before?”

“Art—I mean, my cousin’s husband did it,” said Nemone.

“Your cousin is your legal guardian?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “I guess so.”

Seya had a strong suspicion there was nothing particularly legal about the arrangement. “And your cousin is okay with their husband hitting you and slicing up your arms?”

“He only hit me. I cut myself busting out the window to get away after Rhet—after my cousin locked me in my room.” Nemone looked down at her knees. “She yelled at him for hitting me that hard,” she added, as if feeling she needed to defend her cousin on principle at least. “He never hit me in the face before. Or this hard.”

Seya couldn’t breathe for the sudden, vivid memory of Vico, aged seven, curled up beside her with an ice pack that Ian had made for him pressed to the bruises on his face, crying with relief because he’d been told him he didn’t have to go back home. “But you came here anyway,” she said softly. “You’re a brave one, Nemone.”

Nemone started crying again. Seya passed her a clean towel to mop up her face, blinking back her own, much angrier tears as she went to make an ice pack. “Will you be okay to walk?” she asked as she gave it to the child.

“Walk where?” Nemone asked, pressing the ice pack to her cheek gingerly.

“To see the healer I was talking about. He works a few blocks away.” She glanced at the clock. “Actually, his clinic closes at seven. We won’t make it in time. We’ll just go to his house, it’s closer anyway.”

“Can’t you fix it?” Nemone asked. “You’re a professional spiritual mage, right? Art—I mean, my cousin’s husband said only a pro would have been able to see and remove that coercion thing. He was freaking out because he thought you were a priestess or something.”

“I’m not a priestess. I was a pinnacled mage at one point—sort of—but I can’t do healing magic,” Seya said.

Nemone looked up at her dubiously. “I thought you just needed spiritual magic for that.”

“No, it also requires extensive training in anatomy and medicinals, which is expensive and takes years to master, and I haven’t exactly been rolling in opportunities for that. Are you sure you can walk? I can ask one of the security people to drive us.”

“Ride in a Malthusius car?” Nemone squeaked. “No! No way! I can walk!”

“Okay, that’s fine, I wasn’t crazy about the idea myself,” Seya said, wondering why the child could possibly be so worried about the Malthusius. “You should know they’re probably going to follow us anyway. They’re here to keep an eye on me.”

“Why are they keeping an eye on you?”

“It’s complicated,” Seya said. “How long before someone misses you?”

“I don’t know,” Nemone said. “Arton works weird hours, and Rheta didn’t say where she was going before she left.” She flushed and ducked her head when she realized she’d given away their names. “Don’t tell anyone!”

“Who do I have to tell?” Seya asked, gesturing to the empty apartment around them. “Let’s go, though.” She got to her feet, but before she could get to the door, a burst of attack magic thundered outside, strong enough to shake the apartment wards. Seya staggered a bit at the sense of pressure against them. She shook it off and went to the window, heart pounding, and saw the two Malthusius engaged in a fight with a man she did not recognize.

Nemone came up behind her and gave a terrified gasp. “That’s Arton! He must have come after me!”

Following her blood traces, no doubt. Seya herded the child toward the back door. “The Malthusius will keep him busy. Quick, let’s go before the guard get summoned over the fight.” Nemone followed her out through the back door and out of the courtyard of the apartment complex, nervous energy vibrating in her aura. Seya paused before going out onto the street, just long enough to assure herself that Arton did not have allies lying in wait, and then she led Nemone away as quickly as she dared without risking attention or further injury to the girl.