Dear eldest brother,
This week has been dull, dark, dreary and besides which, entirely despondent, except for the trip to the Maynard mansion last Tuesday. I went with my dear friends and classmates, all of whom enjoyed gazing at the superior and illustrious portraits of Wild’s from days of yore. Nary a nostril hair, not a whiff of wrinkle or a smidge of sallowness, but of course, that’s what you get from Wild portraiture: miles and miles of endless perfection which I endured as long as possible then made my escape in an entirely seemly manner out of an unwatched side door (I would hate to give the impression of scaling a wall) out into the winter garden.
I liked the bare bones of it, like a corpse laid out to rest, peaceful, without expectations of perfectly clippered nostrils, I mean yews, the bits of green poking out weeds that will be yanked from the earth without hesitation, the only time when the earth is left alone, left to think, to be, to rest. The dead brittle grass scratched the back of my neck while I lay, staring at clouds the color of hesitation, birds making sounds, caw, or braw, or gecko echo mecho, the crows aching to pick a fight, or maybe that’s them being polite. The wind silvered the branches over one another, the motion softer than feathers, are there feathers so straight and spiny? Maybe trees grow backwards, starting with fluff and ending with quill. Why shouldn’t a bird be so, to enjoy its own down instead of spreading it around for everyone else? I should be more generous. If I were a bird I’d rip out all my feathers and stuff them in backwards. Of course then I couldn’t fly. I’d be relegated to my nest, consoling myself with the hideous sounds only the dead can bear without laughing.
Yours always in common paternity,
Your sisterP.S. Isn’t my handwriting beautiful? I’ve been practicing all winter.
The dinner club in the heart of London felt rich. The jazz music in the background, melancholy oboes and sincere trumpets, lulled me into relaxation against the black leather bench while I studied the black and silver reflective wallpaper seeing shapes and dreams that weren’t there. I leaned over the metal table, running my fingers around the lip of my glass, staring into the golden depths as though I could read my future in it.
The front door opened, spilling the sound of honking and laughter from the street while a slight draft crawled through the club, curling around my bare ankles. I didn’t need to look directly at the door to see who had entered from my position at a corner table, not when I could glance up at the reflection behind the bar and the man who polished glasses.
The large man with piercing blue eyes who had entered moved slowly, searching the room before settling on a tufted leather stool at the bar. I heard a clatter of silverware and a woman’s laugh from the dining room behind me that made the man look up with eyebrows lowered towards the sound while I forced my gaze on my hands until his attention returned to the bar and his own drink.
I forced my heart to steady and my breathing to remain even. I could show nothing until it was too late for him to recognize me. I took my time, sipping my drink delicately while I flexed my toes inside my heels. I kept my gaze on the vase holding orange poppies in front of me, the fractured glass reflecting the man’s back where he still sat, murmuring to the bartender every few minutes.
The door opened, the draft once again competing for my attention. I sat still, swirling my glass around while I watched the man turn to give a suspicious glare at the newcomer, then freeze and stare openly with a slack mouth at whoever had entered.
It was enough of a reaction that I had to glance up, to turn my head and see her at the same time she stepped past a tall, pale man and our eyes met.
I tried to sink into the floor, to deflect her gaze with indifference but it was too late. Camilla trilled her unnerving laugh that had always made me shudder when we were in school together, the laugh that rang as false as it did malicious. How quickly could I brush her off before I followed the man when he left, as he was certain to do if he recognized her—and how could he not? Camilla of the House of Carve looked even more stunning than I remembered with her thick golden hair accentuated by the gold of her slinky gown. The gleam of her smile matched her gown, the mirrors reflecting her perfection into infinity while she stalked towards me, holding out gloved hands with an expectant look on her face.
“Helen, is that really you?” She turned to put a hand on the chest of her companion—a pale man in a tuxedo who I hadn’t noticed but even now looked like nothing more than an accessory. “George, go get us drinks. I haven’t seen my dearest friend for ages.”
I rose as she turned to me with an expression of bliss on her face. I didn’t expect the embrace, not when Camilla hated sentiment of any kind, not when the last time I’d seen her had been years and years before when she’d left the appropriate ladies boarding school for our kind.
“Camilla,” I murmured through teeth that remained unclenched. I felt her bony chin dig into my shoulder and made myself smile at George while the man, the Hotblood I’d come across an ocean to find had already disappeared. He’d managed to vanish in the brief moment when he and his reflection had been hidden by George, the oversize accessory.
“You smell lovely,” Camilla said pulling away. “Not a bit of demon taint. It seems like everyone I see these days is involved in hunting demons.” She wrinkled her delicate nose before she put her smile back on. “What are you doing in London?” she asked still gripping my hands in hers. I glanced at the mirror beside me and forced my smile to shift from a grimace to delight. That image, the flash of golden Camilla beside my black hair, white-skinned self, wearing a simple black suit showed me at distinct disadvantage. I felt a surge of competitiveness that I’d nearly forgotten I’d had back in school. We had both been exceptional, perfect, but different as night and day, as I was daughter of a white House and she the daughter of a Red. I hadn’t seen anyone from a Red House since I’d started my medical training.
I laughed lightly while I squeezed her hands, but it sounded forced even to me. “I’m here to meet you, apparently.”
She laughed as though I’d said something genuinely hilarious, throwing her head back to expose the long column of throat that I had a sudden and irrational desire to tear out. I was running out of time. I shoved down my nausea brought on by frustration and forced myself to consider how I could use this twist of fate to my advantage.
“Hi, there,” George said, setting drinks on the table while he gave me a glance that became a stare. “I was beginning to wonder if all of Camilla’s friends were men.” He blended in the way I tried to blend, but men had it easier in public, looking like they belonged when women didn’t. I should have brought someone, my own accessory to use the way Camilla always had. It had seemed like such a straightforward mission: Find my oldest brother and bring him home. I hadn’t imagined that Hotbloods and Hunters would be so antagonistic towards me.
Camilla put her hand on his chest, once more capturing his attention. “Darling, George. I’m going to have dinner with my friend, to catch up. Be a dear and meet me later at the party.”
She threw herself elegantly in the chair across from me, ignoring the look of humiliated adoration that I’d always seen on the faces of boys who found her irresistible after she was finished with them. There hadn’t been many boys available at school, but she’d burned every single one of them. She took a swallow of her drink then swirled the contents of her glass around while she dissected every iota of my appearance as darling George wandered away.
“George seems very nice,” I murmured, setting my drink on the table, ready to wrap up the encounter.
“A girl of my station requires an escort.” She took a sip of her drink while she cocked her head at me, brown eyes sparkling with amusement. “You didn’t misplace yours, did you?” she asked with a faintly mocking smile. “That would be clumsy. Maybe I can find you a spare. There are certain to be countless Hotblood Hunters at the party, like the one at the bar when I came in, who could provide you with the desired muscle.”
I swallowed when I realized that she suspected that the Hotblood was linked to my visit.
“I’m not used to frequenting parties where Hotbloods socialize, as enlightening as such a thing would be. As for desiring Hotblood muscle, you’ve always been much more interested in exploring muscle than I was.” I forced myself to relax and not take her bait. I hadn’t come there to compete with Camilla in some power struggle boarding school reunion. “As charming as it’s been to see you again, I’m afraid I have an appointment that I have to keep.” My voice came out as indifferent as hers had been condescending as I moved to rise, letting a slight smile that may have been tinged with mockery play on my mouth.
She shrugged negligently as she rose with me. “I’d hoped you weren’t on a dull assignment, but if you must go, I’ll come with you. First I have to drop Jarvais’s letter off for him.” She pulled a slim envelope from her bag with an innocent smile that made my skin crawl, or maybe it was the fact that the envelope in her hands that she held so casually had made my heart pound and the room become unfocused as I lost sight of everything besides the white rectangle she held so casually. “What’s wrong Helen? You look a little ill.”
Her look of concern was much more convincing than it used to be, but she knew my stomach had twisted, had shown me the letter in order to get a reaction out of me. She was still the same.
“I believe I am, a bit,” I said sinking back down at the table fighting off nausea. I hadn’t felt so sick for a very long time. It was the worst timing considering how on guard I’d have to be to deal with someone like her, and in the wrong country. I had to say something, something clever to put her in her place but she kept waving the letter in in front of me.
“I’ll be back in a moment, then,” she said putting a claw-like hand on my shoulder. “While you rest and recover your strength after your exhausting trip. I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you.”
“Can’t you?” I murmured, but she had already left. I took four deep breaths then stood feeling lightheaded as I walked to the bar. I ran my fingers casually over the leather stood where the Hotblood Hunter had sat, feeling the heat still imbedded in the leather from the Hotblood’s body. The remains of his drink had already been taken away. I inhaled deeply while the bartender stared at me, like he was wondering if I was going to throw up. I smiled at him.
“My friend left before I got a chance to talk to him. Did he happen to tell you where he was going?” I let my eyes widen, looking as harmless as possible. The bartender shifted, wadding his towel tighter in his hands. He didn’t like talking about any of his customers. I might be a jealous wife, or jealous girlfriend, or who knew what else.
“Helen,” Camilla said from behind me. “If you wanted to know where he was going, you only had to ask me.”
I froze as she put her hand on my shoulder.
“I suppose he’ll be at the fantastic party you were telling me about.”
“Of course,” she said, trilling as I turned to stare at her. She wanted to take me somewhere, but why? What was in it for her, and what chance did I have that it would lead me to my brother? How much risk did it involve? She wasn’t the same girl whose actions led to broken bones and detention. The games she played now would be life and death. She met my look levelly, allowing me to check her eyes for any signs of lying.
“I suppose I have some time to spend with my oldest and dearest friend,” I said smiling at her. This was her territory. She would know the locations of local Hunters. One of them would have to tell me where I could find my brother.
I followed her. Knowing that my distaste for letting her lead the way was highly irrational didn’t keep me from wishing I could turn around and take the back exit instead.
“You should meet the rest of my family, you know, my brother.” Camilla threw the words at me over her shoulder while her hips swayed in the clinging gown. “Unfortunately, Jarvais spends all his time up at the House with his guests these days. There’s a girl that he’s Intending. She’s perfectly lovely.” The word perfect was accompanied by an icy tone that made my spine prickle.
I tried to focus on the other customers in the bar, the way that they watched us with uncomfortable fascination as we passed towards the door instead of the dizziness and nausea that once again swarmed over me. How long had it been since I’d gotten a letter from him? I gritted my teeth and began counting my breaths. I had no business allowing thoughts like that. That part of my life was gone permanently, swallowed by the agony of being runed, of having my soul stripped bare while I trained. I was a member of Slide, most prestigious White House on the American Continent. There was nothing else, even my medical schooling was to serve Slide. I was there for the sole purpose of bringing my brother back home, back into the House where he belonged, where we needed him. I had no business allowing weakness like emotional pain cripple me. It didn’t matter that Jarvais, Son of Carve had an Intended.
“She’s everything he’s ever wanted. Who knew he’d find true love in Romania. Such a backwards place, but apparently one shouldn’t judge because she truly is divine.”
I ignored the bait. “Where are we going?”
She glanced over her shoulder at me, showing her wide eyed innocence. “To the party of course, to find the Hotblood you’re looking for.”
“Why do you want to help me?”
She laughed, throwing her head back like she didn’t know how to do it without making it a performance that passersby stared at. “Helen, you’re too sweet. I don’t want to help you, I simply think it’s in everyone’s best interest if you complete your business as soon as possible. I’d hate for Jarvais to be embarrassed by an old romance when he’s finally found someone worthwhile.”
Could that possibly be her actual motive? I wasn’t sure if I should be more humiliated, but I was still fighting nausea. “I see. Thank you so much for you timely intervention.” She wouldn’t explain herself; I just had to trust her. At least I’d pretend to trust her as long as she didn’t try to lead me out of the neutral territories.
I took a deep breath of the damp air, trying to shake the residual sickness that the thought of Jarvais gave me.
“Tell me more about this party.”
She shrugged as she gave a sidelong glance and a coy smile at a man passing by who wore a tuxedo. He looked her over appreciatively, ignoring me. “It’s technically a Wild’s place, a cousin of mine, but he’s not really in the House so that makes him more fun. You’ll like him.” She cocked her head at me, her long blond hair cascading over her golden gown provocatively. “On second thought, maybe you won’t. Either way, you’ll see some Hotbloods. That much I can guarantee.”
I followed my old ‘friend’, letting gusts of night air swirl around me, spinning my hair around my face, lessening the nausea and helping me focus. I wasn’t technically there on House business, not when my father had made it clear that Saturn had made his choice that he was free to act as he wished. He’d refused Grim’s offer to find Saturn, so I hadn’t asked. I’d simply followed my one lead without telling anyone. I had to try to save my brother if I could, even if it was from himself.
Now I was in England, London, a place where I should be relatively safe from the machinations of the three competing Houses that dominated the city, but I was on my own without any actual experience, only training. It would be beyond stupid to be caught in Bliss, Harding, or Carve’s domain.
“Where is your cousin’s house?” I asked, walking briskly beside her beneath the streetlamps. I had greater chances getting lost and wandering into forbidden territory in the dark. She seemed to move languidly, her dress glistening in the reflected light of the golden street lamps, but there was nothing slow about her pace. Camilla tilted her head back and looked up at the sky, like she was going to swallow the night. I didn’t try to see the stars in the city.
“It’s in neutral territory,” she said to me, almost quietly. Her voice echoed strangely in the night while fog crept along the edges of the street, the fingers constantly trying to slip under my cuff or down my collar intrusively. I was tempted to raise a little wind to chase the fog away, but I settled for raising my lapels instead.
“That’s convenient,” I replied, not bothering to put any kind of inflection in my voice. I took a step too quickly and felt my heel catch nearly making me fall.
“Care-ful,” she sing-songed. “Cobblestones are so charming, don’t you think?”
I limped until my ankle straightened out. The pain, the burning took the edge off my anger giving me more focus, more perspective. I stopped walking. I’d been following a map in my head and was almost certain I knew where I was, but the streets were so twisting and narrow I couldn’t be precise—something that Camilla probably knew.
“Camilla,” I said, brushing my fingers against a brick wall, “I hate this. I haven’t seen you for so long, and now it’s almost like we’re strangers.” I swallowed any sarcasm that threatened to creep into my voice. “Let’s stop somewhere, a café or something and just talk.”
She shrugged easily as she continued walking then swung around a banister and up some steps to a yellow front door. The night was quiet, only mildly filled with ordinary evening city sounds of traffic and distant laughter. Behind the quiet Brownstone was a Hotblood party?
“What a great idea. We’ll have to meet tomorrow. Tonight,” she turned and gave me a smile I knew and feared. “Let’s find you a guy who can introduce you to a little more fun than you’re used to. I know that you’re not interested in the general men that are available to women of our social standing, but tonight, you can experiment with others.”
I climbed the stairs while I gave her my coolest smile. “It would be senseless to leave without saying hello.”
Camilla laughed—a trill that gave me chills. “It’ll be a party you’ll never forget.”