by GR "Maya" Cogman
I settled back into the cushions of the carriage, knowing that the tawdry gold satin of the lining contrasted poorly with the primrose muslin of my dress. Some part of me complained at that. Still, it had been optimal to rent a cheaper carriage while establishing our roles, in order to give the necessary impression of good family but elegant poverty. More efficient.
Merab glanced out of the window again. "I would rather have had this in the Marches, or better yet, in the Groves."
My curls stirred in a gust of air. "Presumably Maliseth knew what it was doing."
Merab grunted, and settled back in his seat. "And I wish this bloody carriage was better-sprung."
"You and I both." I held onto the door-handle as we went over a rough patch of cobbles to steady myself, and considered his earlier question. "Perhaps it is to give us an excuse to visit her host socially later, if necessary."
"Kyriotates." Merab suppressed what I knew would have been a groan.
"You're being prejudiced," I replied.
"I'm a Cherub, Caliah," he muttered, folding his arms. The satin of his waistcoat strained against the bulge of his stomach. "I'm allowed to be prejudiced. You're the one who has to be objective."
I had had this conversation with him so many times before. "I am objectively suggesting that you behave politely to our briefing officer, then."
He smiled, and his face lightened, rosy cheeks glowing. "Trust me."
I looked down at my gloved hands, and decided to change the subject. "It is astonishing how much room one can find to hide weapons in these gowns."
"Oh, good." He gave me an assessing glance. "I was afraid you might get into some trouble, given that you can't openly carry a sword in this society."
"You can," I corrected him.
"You're a woman this time." He shrugged. "Tell me, is it because of the..." He waved a hand vaguely.
I was quite aware of that line of meaning. It was astonishing how many angels who'd never tried female Vessels sidled around and attempted to get an answer. "I think it's pretty much equal for both the male and female, really. You could ask a Servitor of Creation."
He snorted. "Oh, them."
"They are," I said, keeping a straight face, "the experts in the field. You know what our training tells us. Always ask an expert."
He chuckled, jowls bouncing. His Vessel was almost a parody of the elderly country squire type, red cheeks, white hair, incipient paunch and merry laugh. Only his sharp eyes told differently, and perhaps only then to one who knew him as well as I did. "Next time I feel a burning thirst for information..."
I completed his comment before he could. "... I'll go and find a library." A memory prodded at me. "Did you find out anything at Yves' Library before we had to come down?"
Merab shook his head. "Nothing obviously relevant. A scattering of some murders in the poorer quarters, which the newspapers blew into a fine fanfare, but they didn't look more than the humans might manage for themselves. Still, perhaps that's our assignment."
I peered out of the window as the carriage drew to a stop. "Odd that our briefing officer's in the nicer part of London, then."
He rose, and pushed the door open, then offered me his arm to descend. I held my skirt up to stop it trailing on the steps. "Wait and see," he offered helpfully.
I restrained my comment, and walked across to take the large iron knocker in my hand, and rap on the door. It boomed, almost like some resonance. Merab was negotiating with the cabman behind me, arranging for him to wait for us.
The door shuddered open, and an elderly man peered out at me, shoulders craning forward and eyes sunken, but blue livery pristine. "Yes, miss?"
Merab stepped forward to my shoulder. "Colonel Emson and Miss Cecilia Emson, here to call upon Mrs Owenneth. I believe we're expected?" I could feel his cheerful anticipation behind me, shaded with the eternal wariness that was etched into him, the watching for harm to those whom he guarded.
The old man nodded, head juddering on his neck. "Yes, sir, the mistress is expecting you. Please do come in." He stepped back to wave us through, motions arthritic.
Merab closed the door behind us, and I looked down the corridor into the reception room. A cat lay beside a malachite carving on one of the tables, purring to itself and grooming its white fur. The house seemed to have been laid out in shades of white and pale blue, and the occasional malachite carvings that were displayed added an odd accent, sudden vivid splashes of darkness.
"Show them in, Matthews," called a thin voice from the reception room. "Then bring the tea and leave us to talk."
Matthews juddered into another nod, and led us down the corridor. Merab and I both slowed our step so as not to hurry him. I could hear my dress rustling quietly, but Merab's step behind me was silent. I made a mental note to speak with him later about it: he could not afford to appear too competent in this role.
A mirror at the other end reflected us as we approached. My hair was a chestnut cluster of curls, my dress a high-waisted primrose muslin, my hat and gloves and wrap all in a pale green that harmonised with the dress. Large eyes watched from a dainty face, dark grey and innocently questioning. It was sufficient.
The woman who had called out was sitting in a high-backed chair upholstered in blue brocade, beside a delicate table on which lay the day's papers. Her hair was white, wound back into a knot and pinned under a lace cap, and her dress was the dark grey of a widow in long-standing mourning: wrinkles seamed her face, framing pale brown eyes, and her hands were age-spotted. A walking-stick of ivory with a malachite handle was propped beside her chair. She gestured to two chairs near her. "My dear Colonel, my dear Cecilia. Forgive me for not rising. Please do take a seat. Tea, Matthews." Three cats lay scattered about the room, limp white self-absorbed purring lumps of fur.
Merab stepped across the room briskly, and bowed, taking her hand in his and raising it to his lips politely. "My dear Sarah. You are as charming as ever."
She chuckled dryly. "And you just as much the flatterer, Samuel. Do sit down, and your pretty niece too."
I made a small curtsey, then settled into a chair, arranging my skirts so as not to crumple them. Merab lowered himself into the other chair, and we all three made polite social chitchat until Matthews had brought the tea and left, closing the door behind him.
The woman's posture altered, something more alert coming into it. She folded her hands in her lap. "It's good that you could both come so quickly. Thank you for playing along in front of Matthews: he's very good at not noticing things, but life is so much easier when I don't have to possess him as well."
Merab nodded. "Our pleasure. So what's the situation?"
Her glance flicked between the two of us. The cats had sat up, and were watching us with the same cool stare. "How much have you two already been told? I don't want to repeat matters."
I folded my hands in my lap, just as hers were, in the hopes that the unconscious similarity of the gesture would reassure her. She was clearly nervous. "Only that there was some sort of problem involving the Marches, and a Servitor of Beleth, and that we were to make sure that our roles were as unshakeable as possible. Were you briefed on our names and abilities?"
She nodded. "Caliah, Elohite of Michael, and Merab, Cherub of Michael. I didn't want to have to call for War-support..."
I nodded. "But sometimes it's necessary. We do appreciate that you wouldn't have asked for help for anything less than important."
Merab was silent, letting me do the talking.
She nodded again, and one of the cats began to wash itself. "All right. The situation is that I've identified an Impudite of Nightmares, in a fairly public role. He's appearing as Justin Belmanoir, a duellist of," her mouth curled, "the most debauched sort. Society being what it is, he's moderately popular. No party is complete without him."
I glanced to Merab, who was looking disapproving, then back to Maliseth's human host again. "Has he identified you too?"
She hesitated. "I do not _think_ so, though I cannot be entirely sure. I think he does realise that a Servitor of Blandine has noted his presence, but hopefully he does not know more than that."
"So what is our task, exactly?" asked Merab. "Presumably he has been dragging people into nightmares, which is all well and bad, and precisely the sort of thing you'd expect from that type, but it sounds as though it's more a job for the Servitors of Dream than for us."
"It is his role in Society that is posing a problem." I traced concern in the lines of her body and in the shades of the Symphony about her, a shading of guilt and annoyance at her inability to deal with the matter. "My Lady wants him ruined in Society, and his Vessel killed, as well as him being dealt with in the Marches. He is far too popular and charming a figure at the moment. If he isn't taken down on _every_ front, the roots that he would leave will bear poisoned fruit."
Gaudy, but I could see her point. "Someone else might take his place, or he might actually influence polite Society as a whole? Is he that entrenched?"
"Unfortunately, yes." Her voice had a snap to it. "One really good case of what humans consider "beyond the pale" would finish him, but at the moment he can drink and whore and duel as much as he likes, and encourage others in the same behaviour, and then toy with their dreams by night."
My voice was neutral. "He sounds quite powerful."
One of the cats hissed. Maliseth sagged in her chair. "I am rather afraid that he is. That was why I called for help from War, rather than trying to deal with it myself. Charging in and getting killed profits nobody."
I nodded, letting my posture suggest encouragement and approval. "Perfectly sensible. This is our _job_, after all."
Her eyes lost a little of their guilt, and she nodded. "I have been given something for the two of you."
Merab perked up. He loved new toys. "Might I ask what?"
She reached under the litter of papers on the table, and brought out a small jewellery case. Opening it, she held it toward us. A thin chain of gold glittered against the dark velvet of the setting. "This will allow you to walk the dreams of another as though you were a Servitor of my Mistress."
I had been worrying about that. "Thank you very much indeed." I rose to take the case from her, and slip it into a pocket of my wrap. "It will be extremely useful."
"How can we meet Belmanoir?" asked Merab, as I resumed my seat.
She chuckled, her voice dry. "Attend a popular Society event. There are half a dozen parties in the next fortnight, or routs, or the Opera, or the like, and with Caliah posing as a young girl in her first Season, you have every excuse to be there. Anybody will be glad to point him out to you."
"Have you any other thoughts on the matter in general?" I asked.
She considered. "From his servant's behaviour, I would guess that the man was a mortal Hellsworn, and where there is one of those, there might be others. It would explain why there has been such little Symphonic disturbance, given his activies."
I nodded. "So warned. Anything else?"
A cat stretched. Maliseth said, "Well, I have heard that there is a Triad of Judgement in town, but that would hardly be relevant to you, would it?" There was a faint undertone of amusement to her voice.
Merab laughed. "If a Triad is the worst of our problems, then we'll be getting off easily."
She half smiled in return. One of the cats wandered over, and settled against the side of the chair. "One does hear these stories, about War and Judgement..."
I tilted an eyebrow. "Petty rivalries are for amateurs. We're professionals."
Merab settled back into his chair, wriggling to find a comfortable position against the overstuffed back. We had returned to the town house that we had rented for the Season. "So. Do you want to hang onto that thing or shall I? And how are we supposed to do this, anyhow?"
I weighed my desire to have him take a more active role and develop his skills in leadership, against his very evident wish not to do any such thing. "I will keep the Relic, for when it may be useful. As to how we are going to do this, the easiest way seems to be to catch him in some act which polite Society would _not_ forgive, then to kill him. Corporeally, at least. Blandine's Servitors can chase him in the Marches after that."
"So what wouldn't Society forgive?" Merab considered out loud. "Murder outside a duel? Public assault on a woman of good reputation? Treason? Bad taste?"
I watched the afternoon light drifting through the window, outlining every imperfection of the glass. "We can hardly engineer bad taste, and it would be very difficult to frame him convincingly for treason. The optimal course would be for him to be taken in some violent act before witnesses."
"Not killing one of our Vessels, though," Merab added hastily.
"Oh, no." I gave him a bland look. "That would hardly be the optimal course."
He gave me a look from under his eyebrows. "I don't want you putting yourself in any unreasonable danger."
Definitions are the soul of truth. "I will only take reasonable risks."
He hmphed, and sipped from his glass of sherry.
"Though," I added, "if we can lure him into some act against one of us, it would reduce the risk to humans nearby."
Merab rolled his eyes, and sighed. "Elohim."
"Reconnaisance first." My voice was brisk. "When we have a better idea of his manners and tendencies, we will be able to plan more effectively."
He leant forward, and flicked through the neatly sorted pile of invitations on the table. "Tonight's affair is supposed to be reasonably large. At the Winterton household. He'll be there if we're lucky."
"No challenging him to a duel on sight, now," I reminded him.
He attempted to look innocent. "Why, Caliah, the thought never crossed my mind. Or not more than a few dozen times."
I rose from my chair. "If I were Rigziel, I would be making you eat those words."
He smirked. "Instead of going upstairs to change into something pretty and pink. Don't worry, Caliah. As you said, we are professionals. I can wait. Just don't get yourself hurt and make me get angry.
I returned a smirk briefly. "Just don't lose all our funds if you get dragged into any games of picquet."
He flexed his fingers. "You wound me."
"I know you," I replied, and made my way towards the fate of a pretty pink dress.
The candles flickered prettily in their holders, and the dancing floor was a sea of colour. I had been parked among all the eligible young girls coming out that Season, and we were being watched over by eagle-eyed matrons who could have given Servitors of Dominic lessons in surveillance techniques. We were all in pale muslins, pink, blue, amber, cream, and white, and conversing in hushed whispers about important topics such as men, Society, men, families, and men.
Merab had vanished to hobnob with the older men, who were busy comparing wines, discussing the latest gossip, and gambling. He had looked quite splendid in white velvet coat and breeches, green waistcoat embroidered with silver, and cravat. I could taste his enjoyment in the situation. For a mild-mannered Cherub of War, he was a complete clotheshorse.
"Is he going to be here tonight?" one girl whispered, starry-eyed. Memory supplied a name: Anne Cunningham. She was an adequate blonde in puffy white muslin that had been cut a shade too tightly around the waist, with rosebuds in her hair. "I heard he came to all these parties."
Another girl clicked her tongue. She was older-looking, her black hair held back with amber-headed pins, and her violet muslin showing a touch of sophistication that suggested French work. "Of course he does, but you'd be an idiot to get any hopes up about him. He's absolutely out of the question."
Anne shrugged poutily. "I know he's got a bad reputation. They say he's got quite the fortune, though, and he _must_ be of good family to be accepted in Society."
"And, of course," I suggested delicately, "he's just waiting for the right woman?"
"Well, yes..." Anne broke off and glared at me, then moved pointedly away.
The other girl smiled, faintly. "I'm Arabella Donas. You would be..."
"Cecilia Emson," I replied. "Would that be Belmanoir you were talking about?"
"Who else?" Her emotions were as dry-tasting as her voice, salted with mockery. "He at least provides a subject for conversation, if nothing else of any worth. Anne is simply young. She will get over it."
"That's a relief." I glanced over at Anne, who was scrutinising the dancing and ignoring us. "Besides, I deduce an officious and protective mother."
"How do you deduce that?" Arabella was clearly prepared to be amused by me.
"Her dress is good quality, but cut too tightly. This argues someone who has the money to spend, but who wants her to make a better impression than she should normally." My voice became vaguely didactic. "The rosebuds in her hair are clearly not her choice, given how she keeps prodding at them, and are meant to make her look sweet and innocent. I deduce a mother with money who wants a good match and will not let her throw herself away on the latest rakehell."
Arabella giggled quietly. "Your shot, madam, is in the gold."
I smiled, briefly. "You, on the other hand, have a genuine gown in the French style, and," I tilted my head to get a better view, "hairpins from Africa, which makes me suspect a relative who travels."
She raised a hand to touch her hairstyle, automatically. "My brother. He was out there last year, and actually remembered me. I was astonished." We both shared a look of understanding on the fallibility of brothers. I wondered how much more information I could get from this girl: she was clearly well-informed, and had some sense.
"So," I asked vaguely, "is Belmanoir here? At least so that I know who to avoid."
She glanced across the floor. "Yes, there, he's just come in. He's the one with the outfit in black and purple - and _look_ at the amount of brandy he's taking. It's ridiculous. He never seems to get drunk."
"Does he gamble too?" I did my best to make my glance no more curious than the average girl, which fortunately did not require much subtlety. Everyone was watching him. "It would add to the mystique, I suppose."
Arabella's nose wrinkled. "I'm not sure what he _doesn't_ do, except remotely offer marriage. He duels, he drinks, he gambles, he takes drugs..."
"He caused the Flood?" I suggested.
"He hasn't been accused of that yet," she replied, "but it wouldn't take much doing."
I sat at the table in my room, my lacy wrapper tied neatly round me, and made notes as I waited for Merab to get back. Custom had obliged me to leave early, while he had stayed late to establish some contacts: I was using the time to summarise the gossip which I had picked up.
There was a knocking on the door, and I lifted my head, tasting the emotions. Merab, yes, and cheerful. "Come in," I called.
He entered, step heavy on the floorboards, and clicked his tongue. "Hard at work, after a night spent dancing with all the handsome young men while your poor uncle slaved away. Really, Caliah, I don't know where you get the energy. Are you half Ofanite or something?"
I waved a hand for him to sit down. "I have a fair amount of detail on Belmanoir's affairs. You?"
He grunted as he settled himself. "Enough. The older men mostly disapprove of him. A few have lost relatives in duels with him. I had the impression that they'd like a decent excuse to do something."
"Good." I made a note. "We can use that."
He nodded. "They'd be glad to be witnesses to something appalling, if we can find it."
I tilted my head, picking up on the sense of suppressed excitement from him. "What else is there?"
He rested his chin in my hands. "I would really like to actually surprise you with my news some day."
I nodded, mildly. "So what is it?"
He let the pretence of sulking fall away. "The newspapers are downplaying the murders. There have been six so far, all young women, all killed with a knife-thrust to the heart. The bodies have been found somewhat mangled after death, because they were thrown in the river or the like, but the doctor who I was speaking to gave his opinion that they had all been mutilated before death."
"Interesting." I considered the pen. "You think this is related?"
"It makes sense." He shrugged. "If the situation continues, it'll cause fear. And even if it's not a direct matter of Beleth's, then it might be Saminga or someone else allied with her. And again, even if it's just the humans themselves, they need to be stopped."
I nodded. "True. But Belmanoir is our primary assignment."
"I don't believe in coincidence," Merab muttered darkly.
"Very well." I made a note. "To be looked into. Now, I'm told that he's currently maintaining several mistresses - heaven only knows where he finds the time - as well as regularly throwing himself at the virtuous female population and then duelling with their brothers or other relatives. Does that fit your information?"
He nodded, and took one of the blank sheets of paper. "I think I have the names of the mistresses. I'll note them down, though I'm not sure how useful they'll be."
"Diversion, perhaps, or location." I considered. "Or taunting him, if necessary. They're all professional lightskirts, so we can't outrage Society that way. Any reports on how he is with gambling?"
Merab frowned. "Very lucky. One can guess why, too, the damned Leech. We probably can't try and prove he's cheating there, as he won't be cheating in any way that they would recognise."
"Swap the dice?" I suggested. "Or substitute in some marked cards while he's winning, and then cry foul?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure that I could carry it off without being caught, and he might well be able to pin it on somebody else. Uncertain."
I nodded. "We can't really manage anything with a duel. It's too bound up with honour-notions here, unless his target is somebody totally outmatched, and even then he would probably have the sense not to foul his own nest by killing the other."
Merab finished his list of names. "True. It wouldn't be sufficient." He frowned, the expression out of place on his cheerful face. "There's always the treason idea."
I tapped the pen thoughtfully against the table. "Too risky, and we would need a lot of groundwork to get any reliable evidence."
"Highway robbery?" he offered.
I shook my head. "Too romantic."
"It may have to be public assault, then." He clearly didn't like the idea, even without my having to taste his emotions. Understandable: he had attuned to me as a precaution when we took our Vessels, and didn't want to risk any injury to me. Our friendship was a different matter: we both understood the necessity for risk, in that, and accepted that the other had a right to put themselves in danger.
I watched the candles in the candlestick, considering the trails of wax that decorated the edges of the holders, the flickers in the brass, the blue-black heart of each flame. "Then again. Hm. I could arrange to be alone with him, then you come charging in with witnesses and I cry rape."
"Would that work?" he asked sceptically. "He'll deny it."
"I would tear my dress a little." I demonstrated the gesture in the air, something that would destroy my bodice. "Scream, weep, collapse in your arms."
"That might be more plausible." He thought about it. "He'll probably demand satisfaction from me if he's calling you a liar." His face brightened at the thought.
"He might win," I pointed out.
Merab made a scoffing gesture. "Even if he kills the Vessel, the rumour will still have gone through most of Society. We can take him out later secretly, in that case."
I hesitated. "Optimal, I think, for want of better. I suggest that we take a few days to establish his regular patterns and movements, and that we tell Maliseth about it, in case she needs to safeguard herself or take any action."
Merab nodded. "It sounds like our best option." The candle-flames flickered, and he watched me. "You aren't satisfied, are you." It wasn't a question.
I shook my head, slowly. "Too many holes, too many loose edges. Perhaps observation will allow us to tailor it better to him."
Merab reached across to set his notes on my pile. "Then let us see about arranging him a neatly-fitting winding sheet."
It was early afternoon, and I had at last five minutes to myself to sit down and write up the day's notes: what with the morning spent driving out with young men or meeting my new female friends, and a lunch with an elderly acquaintance of Merab's, I had been kept busy so far today. Merab was still out and about: something to do with pistol practice and gambling upon the same.
I found it fascinating to watch the unwinding strings of human motivation and desire move about me like some great wheel. Here a wish for me as a person, there one for me as a possession, there again one for me as a conquest, and every one of them a different concept of what I was. Not as angel, but as human. I wondered, as often before, how many of my fellow Servitors held concepts of what I was, and which of all the images I myself was closest to.
A faint scratching came from the door: I recognised the nervous fingernail-scraping of one of our more timid maids, and called out, "What is it, Sarah?"
There was a little gasp, then she replied, "There are three gentlemen downstairs, Miss Cecilia. They called to speak to your uncle, but they say they can speak to you. It's a religious gentleman and a couple of his friends."
I rose to my feet, turned to check in the mirror that my dress was neat and my cuffs not ink-stained, and walked across to open the door. "And who is this religious gentleman, Sarah?"
She bit her lip, and her hands fretted with her apron. "He's a Mister Domens from the university at Oxford, Miss Cecilia. He's a gentleman who clearly thinks a lot of himself, he is."
"And the other two?" I tasted her emotions as I spoke. Nervousness, uncertainty, a touch of genuine fear concerning at least one of the guests, but nothing too out of the ordinary. Probably no need to call Merab, then.
She hesitated. "I think one's his secretary, Miss Cecilia, and one's a student of his or a servant."
"Very well." I stepped past her to set my hand on the rail of the stairs going down. "If my uncle returns while they are still here, please inform him of matters."
She nodded, jerking her head, and her unstable bun of hair quivered on the verge of coming loose. I restrained the urge to make her sit down and fasten it securely, and made my way down the stairs to the reception room.
The tallest of the three men, and the one with clerical bands - Mr Domens, I assumed - was sitting hunched in a chair near the fireplace, his elbows resting on his knees as he gazed into the empty hearth, long-fingered hands knotting in his lap and his face a mask of shadows from the angle of the light. Near him stood a wider-shouldered man, cheeks youthfully beardless and glowing with rude health, his sleeves slightly short at the wrists, although the rest of his clothing fitted well enough. The third man stood near the other door to the room, a small writing-case tucked under one arm; he faced me with an utter calm that gave me a name to his nature, the same as my own.
The first man looked up, sharply, as the door shut behind me, and rose. "Miss Emson? I appreciate your coming down to see us so quickly."
I regarded him blandly, and inclined my head. The pulse of emotion around them confirmed my estimation: the thickset man ached with the need to protect, to safeguard the others, while the thin man was more edged, more precise, defined and eager with a need to save others from themselves and burning to tear away their heresy.
"I would not wish to give inconvenience to a Triad of Judgement on business," I replied.
The thickset man glanced to the windows and doors, then back to me again. Cherub, as I had thought. The other two took it more calmly, the presumptive Seraph settling back into his chair.
"Be seated," he said equably. "We may be a while."
I walked across to take the chair opposite from him, and noted in the corner of my vision the Elohite drifting round the room to get a better perspective on me. As I seated myself, and smoothed my skirts, I watched the Seraph. The others would take their cues from him.
He did not disappoint me. Leaning forward in a manner that I could only consider sinister, he fixed deep-set eyes on me, and murmured, "What do you think of the corporeal world, then, Servitor of Michael?"
"Fascinating," I replied. I considered the line of his nose, the curve of his jaw, the widow's peak of dark hair that jutted down his forehead, the eyebrows like lines of ink. "As I have a mission in this world, naturally I endeavour to preserve my role."
His eyebrows drew together above his nose. "And how much pleasure have you been taking in corporeal things, since you began this role?"
I smoothed the blue-striped satin of my gown again. "I have been reacting with as much pleasure as any young woman would, given my situation." Interesting, he hadn't tried the usual tack of suggesting we were glory-seeking warmongers out to make a mess of the Symphony and trample the roses. Perhaps my current Vessel had convinced him otherwise. "Might I ask your names?"
He gestured to the Cherub, then the Elohite, then to himself. "Gaston and Jada-dan. I myself am Eleazar." With an air of having disposed of frivolities, he fixed me with his eye again. "Tell me, how would you react if you had to leave this role behind tomorrow? Leave behind the silks and wine of human society and all the mortal friendships? We are very well aware of how you have been spending your time, indulging in dancing and flirtation." His voice suggested nameless obscenities.
I simply raised my own brows, allowing my face to express polite curiosity. "I would protest, as I have not yet finished my mission, which I was assigned to by War, at the request of Dream. Now, if Jada-dan has satisfied himself that I am not dissonant, will that be sufficient?"
Jada-dan inclined his head delicately in my direction. I took it as I was intended to, as acknowledgement of the calmness of my emotions and my understanding of the purpose of the question, and as rebuke at so speaking to the Seraph.
Eleazar's nose twitched: a human and oddly touching mannerism. "And your opinion of the Cherub of War with whom you are working? We will need to speak with him also."
Gaston was watching me and Eleazar alternately, back rigid and feet planted squarely. He made a very charming young man: perhaps that had partly been the reason for Sarah's confusion. I wondered if he had realised it himself yet.
I allowed my hands to remain still. "He is devoted to his task and to his Archangel. He wishes to accomplish our current mission, as do I." More words than I truly wanted, given the resonance of Seraphim, but necessary.
Eleazar frowned at me. "You care about him."
"We are angels," I said, my voice shifting to an inflectionless note. I was aware of Jada-dan's scrutiny on me. "Should I hate him?"
Gaston had an amiably focused and uncomprehending air about him. The Seraph would tell him what to do, and he would do it without any of that tiresome thinking.
Eleazar's frown deepened. "Such _affection_ is surely inappropriate for an Elohite."
I tasted his emotions. He did not entirely think that it was unreasonable, but he felt it his duty to provoke me, and to see what I might let slip, dissonance or otherwise.
Slowly, and with weight, I said, "Either of us would die or face the other's death to finish this matter. Taste my truth, Most Holy, and know it. Yet each of us would give their life to save the other. If this is not love, then what is it?"
"Necessity." Jada-dan's voice was smooth, like polished stone in the light-filled room, with all the dispassion of my Choir.
"Necessity is based upon love." My own reply was as gentle. "We serve through love, love of our Archangels and of God and of humanity. My affection for Merab will not affect my judgement, but equally I will know it as a part of what I am."
"Through self-knowledge, self-judgement," said Jada-dan. It had the air of formality to it.
Eleazar made a small noise in his throat, and I realised quite clearly that he and Merab shared views on the annoying nature of Elohim. I decided not to smile. I did not feel that it would have made the occasion any the easier.
"Merab will be returning here later today." I returned my attention to Eleazar. "We are likely to be here a few days yet, so if you come by again, you may well be able to speak with him."
Eleazar nodded, and I felt some signal being exchanged between the Triad, by motion or glance. The Seraph rose. "We will be returning, then. Journey in truth, Servitor of War."
I rose myself, and reached across to the bell-rope to summon a servant. "Travel in wisdom, Servitors of Judgement."
It was Sarah who came to show them out. I had been quite correct in my estimation: she was entertaining pleasant daydreams concerning Gaston, and he had absolutely no perception of the matter.
The night wind rustled between the houses, carrying the sound of music and rowdy cheering from the poorer part of London. I stood in the shadow of the wall, and glanced down the road to be sure that it was clear before I gestured Merab to my side: he moved quickly and silently, an ungainly but swift figure darting between shafts of lamplight from the houses above.
Maliseth's house was two away from us now. It had been my decision to return here, as her point of view - as a Servitor of Dream - would be useful in planning our trap for Belmanoir. Merab had preferred the ideas of communication through a Song of Tongues, or simply an open visit, but I pointed out that we had little time to spare during the social day, and that we could not risk being caught in any use of Essence by Belmanoir or other Infernals, if we wished to retain our advantage of secrecy. He had agreed with the latter.
I considered my own attitude as we waited in the shadow. Was there anything subjective in my plan to make our way secretly through the back streets, with me in a boy's clothing and cap? It was true that I enjoyed the freedom of movement, and the sense of challenge, but I decided that in the end it had been the optimal decision. We needed to speak to her, it must be secretly, and I could not have run across London in skirts.
Merab nodded to me, and I dodged down the street, stopping beneath one of the windows at the back of the house. This was the servants' entrance, the back step scrubbed to a desperate cleanliness, the windows neatly latched...
... except for the one over there which was hanging just barely open.
I knew Merab would be watching me. I flicked my hand towards the window, then towards myself, then held up five fingers to signal him to give me five minutes before he moved in. Clouds hung in waxy masses above, between the city and the clean sky, as I sidled along the wall to beneath the window. Yes, as I thought, a good leap would let me reach it.
Resonance hummed in me, and I attempted to perceive inside the house. Nothing, not even a cat's curious and self-indulgent emotions nearby. It might be simply that everyone within was out of my range, but a growing worry was rooted in me.
I leapt for the window, feet making only a small scuff against the cobbles, and caught the frame with my fingertips. The window itself opened easily as I tapped it, the silence suggesting that the hinges had been greased earlier. I flexed my arms, and hoisted myself up to peer over the edge and into the room.
A small room, with a thin-mattressed bed over to one side, the covers drawn over it and dusty from disuse. The door of the room stood slightly open, darkness beyond it.
I swung myself up and over, landing on the balls of my feet, and sniffed the air. It was tinged with the rich copper stink of blood.
Silence lay through the house, drifts of it ebbing around me as I extended perception and stood there unbreathing, a ghost upon the dusty floor.
Deeper in the house, something or someone moved.
I opened the door - the hinges had been greased here too, and it was noiseless - and stepped out into the hall. Other brass-handled doors opened along the hallway - presumably the rooms for other servants - and at the end lay a stairway curling upwards and downwards. The floor did not creak beneath me as I moved to the stairway, and went to my hands and knees at the corner, peering downwards.
There were no lights kindled, but shafts of moonlight or gaslight came slanting in through the windows to puddle against empty walls or floor. A faint scratching disturbed the silence, and I was still as I listened, extending myself. No, still too far away to be certain. My mental clock ticked away: three minutes till Merab would follow me.
I ghosted down the stairs, and round a corner that took me into the better part of the house. The white walls and ceiling seemed to glow, opalescent, in the pools of moonlight, and the dark streak of blood that ran down the wall was as vivid as the malachite ornaments had been. At the end of the streak, like a cruel exclamation point, lay the twisted body of a gutted cat, mouth still open in what would have been a cry of pain.
The scratching was closer. I gauged that the source was in the reception room, and stepped delicately over the rag of fur and meat that lay beside the wall, moving to beside the door where I could peer through the crack.
The room was sliced into bars of light and shadow, alternating across the floor from the tall windows that looked out onto the garden. The body of Maliseth's host was sprawled by the small table, her cane broken in her hand and the jade of the handle shattered in a little pool of iridescence. The woman's face was quiet, as though the soul had withdrawn before the body knew itself to be dead, and her shawl was still pulled round the shoulders of her nightdress, lending some softness to the angles of her fall. Another cat was mangled in the seat of her favourite chair, knife still pinning it to the cushions, and a third lay limply in the shadow of the door, one paw extended and the others curled beneath it, eyes closed and flanks motionless.
Four cats. Some memory stirred in me. Where was the fifth?
A man was kneeling by the woman's body, his face and shoulders in shadow: his head was bowed and his attention on her hand as he attempted to pry a dull gold ring over her swollen knuckles. He was unconscious of my presence as I let the door slide open and drifted into the room behind him, bringing the side of my hand down like a blade onto the back of his neck.
A muffled gasp, and he collapsed. I caught his shoulders before he could tumble and make a noise, easing him backwards to the ground and away from the woman's body. A shift of air brushed across my back, and I glanced round to see Merab entering the room, his step as silent as mine had been. A cold anger glittered behind his eyes as he glanced across the room, and he moved to grip the man's wrists tightly with one large hand, forcing them back behind his head. He mouthed to me, "Question him?"
I nodded, and slipped a knife from my sleeve, shifting my crouch to hold the point of the blade approximately an inch from his eye. Merab pinned the man thoroughly, and I waited for him to come round, studying his face as I did so. Dark hair, a neutral colour in the moonlight, heavy brows and nose, thick lips and a wide chin, clothing black and undistinguished. Nothing to make him different from any other man, or to mark him as Hellsworn, but then again, there never was.
It was five minutes before he stirred, eyes opening and mouth shutting with a click as he gazed straight into the blade of my knife.
"Don't try anything," I said, my voice a whisper, "or you're dead."
His eyes were wide with panic. I did not need to taste his emotions to know the fear in his guts. He twitched one leg slightly, and I saw the muscles in his arms cord as he tested Merab's grip. I waited patiently, and his lips set more firmly as he realised he could not break free.
"Now." I kept my voice a whisper. "Who are you and who sent you?"
He said, voice stony, "My name isn't your business. Let me go or you'll be in worse trouble than you can imagine."
"I can kill you." I kept my face impassive, and listened to the trickles of fear working through his mind, waiting for a fracture point. Merab was silent, his face showing a vague distaste, but out of our prisoner's field of vision.
He snorted, but quietly. "If you were going to do that, you'd have done it already. Let me go and I'll leave the rest of the loot in the house to you." Interesting: he made a good attempt, but he didn't have the argot of the usual burglar. His voice had more upper-class accents.
"Why should such a thing interest a servant of Hell?" I watched his eyes as I spoke, and knew at once that my shot had hit. He twitched violently, and Merab clamped down on his wrists till his knuckles showed white. Following the vein of panic I could feel, I continued, "You were not supposed to stay here. You have breached orders."
The veins in his throat stood out. "Bastard!" he spat, voice hoarse and ragged. "We weren't forbidden to take what we could get. We were allowed to, he didn't say we couldn't. You can't condemn me for that."
I kept my voice to a monotone, letting my face set into a frozen mask of judgement. "It is possible that your orders were misreported. If that is so, another must pay. Repeat them."
He was in such terror that it was pitiful: his group's fear of Hell must be very real, the greater folly to them in that they courted it. Pale moonlight brushed across his face. "We were to come here and make our way in through the back window. He said that a cat would come to investigate us, and that we were to catch it in the iron chain which he gave us..."
I shifted the knife so that it sparkled, deadly. "Describe the chain."
The gleams of light echoed in his pupils. "It was a couple of yards long. We were to wind it round the cat's neck and body. Jonathan did it. It went limp."
I exchanged a glance with Merab for a moment. Some sort of shackle to trap the Kyriotate, clearly. "Then what?"
"Then we were supposed to kill the old woman and all the other cats." His adam's apple jerked in his throat. "She was just sitting here when we came in, and she looked at us as if something was missing, as if we weren't really there. Verrio dealt with her. Then we left. They took the cat. We were told to bring the cat back."
"You stayed." My voice implied condemnation.
He tried to avoid my eyes, but his gaze returned, drawn back to the steel of the knife. "I wanted to make sure it was all finished." He could hear the flimsiness of his own words, and his face grew desperate as he looked for better. "I thought her ring might be important. Or her stick. I wanted to make sure that it was all dealt with..."
"Death?" murmured Merab, behind him. The man's face paled further, ghastly white.
"Tell me." I leant further in, and called on my resonance to hear his emotions absolutely and clearly. It was painful, but I had to know whether or not he was terrified enough to be totally truthful. "Where were you to meet, when this was done?"
"At the Black Church," he whispered. "The usual place. He'd be waiting."
"The Dark Man." Typical jargon, and useless, I thought. "Our Patron. He accepts the sacrifices..."
Merab's eyes met mine, and I read the message in them; those murdered girls, and Merab's own theory. "The sacrifices," I said, quietly. "When is the next sacrifice."
The man closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. "Within a few days. Our Patron was to tell us when we returned."
"Where is the Dark Church?" I let the knife drift half an inch closer to his eye. "Speak your faith and confess truly."
The stench of blood still hung in the air as the incense hangs in the Halls of Worship, but no benediction to us here. His words came slowly. "Off Aldermaston Byway, the second turning, and below the house on the corner with the boarded windows. We have a guard set."
"And where," I asked, "do you procure your sacrifices?" I could feel Merab's fury, the pulsing heartbeat of rage that left no mark on his face and showed no trace in his steady hands. I was not certain how much longer he could remain unmoved.
"We take them from the street," he said, voice growing a little calmer as his confidence began to build again. He was still alive, he reasoned, therefore he must have said the right thing. "We go out an hour before the time of meeting, at the second hour past midnight, and take a girl from the streets, some slattern. The Patron has said that they suffice..."
I glanced to Merab again. He shook his head to indicate that he couldn't think of anything else of relevance to ask. I nodded slightly in response, and his free hand took the pinioned man across the back of the head, smashing him back into unconsciousness again.
"What now?" Merab asked, letting the man's wrists fall free.
I considered. "Lay his head by the chair, as though he fell and hit it. Then we smash something, yell a lot, and get out through the window. It'll rouse the household, they'll find him and assume he fell while trying to escape. Mortal justice will hang him for the woman's death."
"Good." Merab's voice had a rumble to it, the anger that he so rarely showed. "Then we deal with Belmanoir. He has Maliseth, you think?"
"I am convinced of it," I said, as I adjusted the unconscious man's angle. "And, believe me, I think I know how we may deal with Belmanoir for good."
A moment later, there was noise: then the window stood empty, and we waited on the street below, hearing the cries of anger and sorrow, and seeing the lights kindle in the windows as the household woke to loss.
I watched my reflected hands in the mirror as I adjusted my hair, letting a few curls spill down and over my shoulders. The gown left my shoulders bare, and was a shade too daring for a young girl in her first Season, in shadings of deep blue: it was precisely what I wanted. I considered a touch of rouge.
"How much of a lightskirt do you want to seem?" grumbled Merab over my shoulder, as he took advantage of my mirror to rearrange his cravat for a sixth time, echoing my thoughts. "You're already going to have half the dowagers muttering behind their fans."
I knew perfectly well that he disliked the whole plan. "I need to seem attracted to him, and if I dressed as a complete innocent, it wouldn't have the same effect."
He stared at our paired faces in the mirror. "Will you be able to bring the questions round to the right area?"
I shrugged, putting down the hairbrush. "If I cannot, then we will have to try some other plan, or shadow him for the next few weeks."
"And what if he takes an interest in you tonight?" Merab prodded. "He _is_ known for taking an interest, after all."
"It will merely make your story for your friends all the more convincing." I picked up the strand of pearls from the dressing table, and settled it around my throat. "Your concern for your poor niece, who has fallen desperately in love - or so she believes - with that blackguard Belmanoir. Your fears that she might try running away to Gretna Green with him, or be entirely ruined. Your hopes that they will assist you, if necessary."
"I know, I know," he grumbled. I could feel the annoyance in him, as the urge to protect struggled with the necessity of our mission. "I am just of the _opinion_ that we could equally well complete our task by catching him with his coven trying to sacrifice any woman. It doesn't have to be you."
"Polite society," I replied, my voice dry. "Make it one of their own, and it will have all the impact that could be desired. Make it a tuppenny-whore, and it will be hushed up."
He frowned at the mirror. "Detestable," he eventually commented.
He took a deep, steadying breath. "And what about the Triad?"
"If they show up," I considered aloud, "we use them. The Seraph has a position as a churchman, which would be very useful as an unbiased witness. They can hardly refuse to help in a situation like this, and might be helpful if Belmanoir has resources that we do not know."
"And what if he has resources that we don't know about, and the Triad _don't_ show up?"
I considered my reflection in the mirror, pretty artifice that it was. "Then we manage."
Merab nodded, slowly. "And Maliseth?"
"He'd want to do something to it." I watched my eyes for signs of emotion that might prompt hasty action, but they were calm enough. "We watch for cats, and try and get it out."
Merab nodded again. "Are you ready? The carriage is waiting downstairs."
I rose, managing my skirts. "Certainly I am ready. As long as you do not feel the need to rearrange your cravat any the more..."
He chuckled, and held the door for me.
Arabella, at my side, whispered, "I thought you had more sense than this." Her tone had an edge of disappointment to it. She was gowned in a rich shade of amber tonight, one that matched her hairpins: we stood together, on the edge of a group of unattached girls. "Is this some kind of wager?"
I considered telling her so, to reassure her, but there was always the possibility that Belmanoir might then hear of it. I let my eyes widen a little, following the flamboyant figure in green and gold as he crossed the floor. "No, not at all. Arabella, I only want to dance with him once. I wouldn't do anything more than that." It was easy enough to show all the signs of acute embarassment. "And my uncle's off playing cards with his friends, so he won't know about it..."
She sighed. "So what do you want me to do?"
I lowered my voice conspiratorially. "He and that woman are coming over here. He'll fetch her drinks. If you'll just distract her for a moment - ask her about her dress, anything - then I can speak to him."
Her eyes narrowed. "And you _promise_ you'll be sensible about this?"
"Oh, very well." It was clear enough what her motivation was: she'd rather that I got into trouble with her present and able to do something about it than on some other occasion when she'd be totally ignorant of it. "Here they come now."
Belmanoir had a woman in vivid crimson on his arm, and she was laughing at some quip he made, turning her head so that her sweep of shadowy hair drifted round her face. Her dress was cut scandalously low, baring a pale expanse of bosom, and she postured so that he would get a better view of it as she giggled again.
Arabella muttered, beside me, "And you want me to talk to _her_."
"I do appreciate it," I murmured.
Belmanoir left the woman beside the stand of biscuits, and she turned her attention to them, reaching out with avid fingers, as he moved along the tables to where the servants waited with wine glasses.
Arabella took a deep breath, and moved across to engage the woman with some comment on her gloves. I set my course to intercept Belmanoir.
He was a tall man, with a lean build, well-muscled - his clothes made that evident enough. Dark green coat, waistcoat and breeches to match with a spangling of gold embroidery, and a cravat tied in the Waterfall style which I remembered Merab swearing at earlier. His shoes were immaculately polished, and his stockings looked to be the finest silk.
The quick assessment gave me the chance to practice the gesture of raising my eyes shyly from his shoes to his face as I approached him. He was balancing two glasses of wine in his hands now, long pale fingers curled round the bowls of the glasses. His brows rose slowly as he considered me, and he smiled delicately. Black hair was knotted back from his face in a half-casual, half elegant queue, framing a strong-boned nose and chin and vivid hazel eyes.
"My dear," he said, watching me in a manner that combined artistic brooding with predatory sexual appeal, "may I be of assistance to you?"
I swallowed a little, and let my eyes widen again. "Would you be the gentleman called Belmanoir, sir? I'm afraid that my uncle didn't want to introduce us..."
"Of course." He smiled again, friendly tiger to hapless deer. "I do have something of a reputation. Would you care for a glass of wine?"
I swallowed again, with the air of one treading on unfamiliar ground but determined not to show it, and offered my hand to take the glass of wine as gracefully as I could, the ruffles at my elbow trailing round in a sweep of lace. He let his fingers brush mine as he passed the glass to me, cool skin against chilled skin.
I raised the glass to my mouth, and took a sip, letting my eyes move from the clear liquid to his face again. "You are most kind, sir: I thank you."
"Perhaps you owe me something for it." I could feel his amusement at the idea prickling along my skin, the knowledge of his private game with words. "What would you say if I danced with you, little butterfly?"
My breath caught, and I let hopeful indecision show on my face. "I... I would say that I couldn't hope for a better partner, sir."
"Please." He reached out again to take the glass from my hand, and to set my fingers on his wrist as he turned us towards the dance floor. "Belmanoir, little butterfly. And what is your name?"
My dress rippled around my legs in waves of a deep peacock blue. "Cecilia, si- Belmanoir. Cecilia Emson." I watched my hand against his dark sleeve as he led me onto the floor, conscious of the need to project the human role. He could not be allowed to guess what I was, and he had to believe me foolishly enthralled by him. Shyness would appeal to him more than boldness.
He stepped closer to me, and brought his hand round to raise my chin, forcing me to meet his eyes. "Cecilia. It's a pretty name." I could feel his conscious projection of what I could only term attraction, the deliberate attempt to charm me - perhaps not quite as good as a Servitor of Lust, but quite tolerable. My breath caught again, and I let my lips part a little, as if imagining a kiss. He wouldn't do it, not here and not so publicly, but it would be the appropriate image.
His hand fell to my waist, and he began to turn me in the figures of the dance, a slow cotillion, with a perceptible withdrawal of attention. Deliberate, of course - I was supposed to feel it and to attempt to draw him back. Very well, I would play along.
I opened with a traditional sentence. "You dance very well."
"Of course." His voice was bored, and he watched the room over my shoulder.
I held my resonance around me, listening to the chiming of emotions in us both: his mingled swirl of greed and enjoyment was so close that I could have breathed it in, could have recognised it a hundred years later and a world apart. Other threads worked in it, anticipation, lust, spite, like the colours in embroidery, but a silk that would cut the fingers and sear to the bone, marked on the black velvet of his nature.
Carefully, I spoke again. "Are you going to be at this party long?" It was an innocuous enough question, but if I were lucky it should give me the answer I needed.
Cold malice pulsed in him like a swirl of flame. "No." He drawled the word, bringing his attention back to me. "No, Cecilia, I have business elsewhere." And vengeance, his thoughts whispered, and blood, and fear.
I bit my lip to control myself: I was too open, too naked to his emotions, and it was a combination of dizziness and horror as I danced, poised on the edge of them. It was going to be tonight, and Merab and I had less time than we had hoped. The music continued, and we seemed to be spiralling in to a dangerous centre, where we might meet too closely. I knew it was only his charm, only the body's needs, but I could feel the pull like an undertow, in to his darkness and danger, his knowledge.
He drew me a little closer to him, so that our bodies nearly touched, and we turned another angle in the dance. "Will you miss me, Cecilia? A single dance, but would you miss me if I wasn't here?"
This was an unwarranted complication, as I struggled for control of my own emotions, and at the same time found myself physically attracted. His fingers tightened round my hand, stroking a little, and I looked up into his eyes again. He was regarding me with an attitude of lazy superiority, mouth curved in a smile that promised darkness, that somehow suggested the knowledge of my body's desires.
"Of course I would miss you," I said, my voice thin even in my own ears. Shield, I thought to myself, shield, you have what you need to know. "I would miss you very much. You're so..."
"So?" he prompted, eyes holding mine as the figures of the dance drew to a conclusion.
"So handsome," I breathed, and let my body speak for me for a fraction of a second, my fingers tightening on his, cheeks flushing.
The music stopped, and he slowly released my waist, his fingers trailing as he did so. He retained his grip on my hand, and raised it to his lips as he bowed: I felt the warmth of breath, the faint movement of his lips against my palm, and blushed again, casting down my eyes.
"Perhaps I will dream of you, Cecilia," he murmured, pitched for my ears as he rose again. That sense of a private amusement hummed behind his words, and I knew it for what it was. "Would you dream of me?"
"I would..." I let my voice trail off, nervously. "Oh, I would..."
"Then you shall." His eyes lingered on me for a moment, before he turned to cut through the crowd. They fell back before him in a ripple of silks and velvets and muslins, shimmering colours dancing round a dark knife.
Merab. I had to find Merab.
Arabella was nearby, making small urgent gestures to catch my eye. "Well," she hissed as I moved across to her, "I hope that you are satisfied!"
"Oh, I am." I drew my composure round me like a cloak, and felt my cheeks cooling. "I won't try it again. And I didn't do anything stupid."
"I did." Her voice was dry. "I let you do it. Now just don't do it again, Cecilia, _please_?"
She really was a very sensible girl. "Trust me, Arabella," I said, and escaped.
I found Merab sitting in a darkened window-seat, with the Triad hovering about him. Better and better, I could brief them all at the same time. Their faces turned to me, four ovals of pallor in the darkness, as I came into the quiet room, my skirts rustling around me and my wrap thrown over my shoulders.
"Cecilia," Merab greeted me, careful to use the name of my Role until I made it clear that I was alone, before the Triad could say anything. "I've been briefing them."
"Good." My voice was crisp, and I was glad to have it so after my earlier soft mutterings. "I have confirmation that it is to be tonight. Gentlemen, can you assist us?"
Eleazar half rose from his seat. "We can do so, if you have a workable plan for dealing with this Impudite, and it will not conflict with our own business. As I do not think it will," and he cracked a shadow of a smile, "we will be glad to do so." He glanced at the others of his Triad, and they both nodded.
Great heavens, a cooperative Seraph of Judgement. Well, far be it from me to in any way cool his eagerness to help. I glanced to Merab, who spread his hands slightly. "I hadn't got to that yet."
I nodded, and moved across to seat myself in a chair near them. "We have three-quarters of an hour till midnight. From what the captured Hellsworn said, the meeting is at two hours past midnight, but they go out to collect some victim an hour before that. It should be possible to put myself in their way and make sure that I am the person they capture."
"Are you certain of that?" Jada-dan asked. "They may come across some other woman first."
"Not certain, no," I replied, "but I consider the odds good. If they have already had a number of murders in the area - as the newspapers report - then it will be harder for them to find an unaccompanied woman whom they can easily remove."
Eleazar nodded. "What happens when Belmanoir recognises you?"
That was the other weak point of the plan. "I believe that I can suggest I traced him there. This will make me too dangerous to him to be allowed to live, or to stay free. Either way, it should provide an effective enough scene when you gentlemen burst in."
Merab nodded. "I should have long enough to collect other witnesses. What time should we get there?"
Gaston was eager for the chase: his hands knotted around each other, and he nearly bounced in his chair. I suspected a lack of actual diabolical battle, and a certain boredom with the duties of Judgement. "At the hour of the meeting itself? Two hours past midnight?"
I shook my head. "Make it ten or fifteen minutes past that: we want to make sure that we take them in some compromising attitude."
Merab frowned at me, making his disapproval very clear.
Jada-dan glanced between us, then said, calmly, "It is optimal."
Eleazar nodded, after a moment. "It sounds as though it should work. If we need to communicate, then..."
I shook my head again, and Merab was shaking his too. He let me speak. "We cannot afford to use any Essence whatsoever until this is done, or hint in _any_ way to Belmanoir that there are other angels currently active here."
Eleazar looked a shade chagrined. "Your point is well taken. Very well. Would you permit Gaston to attune to you, so that he will be able to track you as well as Merab?"
The idea was logical. I nodded, and extended my hand to Gaston: he folded it between his large hands, and bowed his head for a moment, then nodded.
"What of Maliseth?" Eleazar asked.
"We think that Belmanoir probably holds it prisoner," Merab replied as I reclaimed my hand. "Given his Superior, he would not wish simply to kill it." There was disdain in his voice, and a controlled anger.
Jada-dan nodded. "Your conclusion is rational. You expect it to be on the premises?"
"Likely," I said. "Or kept prisoner by one of the Hellsworn." Did I feel guilty for not having protected it? We could not have kept a constant guard on its hosts, nor could we have known that Belmanoir was aware of its presence. Guilt was not relevant or accurate.
"We will look for it while we are there," said Eleazar. "After all, you two will be quite busy, given your roles in the little drama." His tone had a note of condescension to it, and something of dislike. The Seraphic hatred for lies must be bleeding through here, and understandably so.
"We are merely encouraging him to behave as he always would," I pointed out. "The fact that he is mistaken in his target is unimportant. He will be demonstrating his nature, as will his followers."
Eleazar finally nodded. "I have said that we will assist, in any case."
I rose to my feet. "I have to change, then, and be on my way. My appointment, after all, is before yours."
Merab's eyes followed me as I left, and I could feel his fierce protectiveness. It pained him to have to let me go into this danger, and it disturbed me to cause him that pain. Still, War never claimed to be an easy master, nor the Word a gentle one.
I rested my chin on my folded hands, and watched the street below. It had been moderately difficult climbing up on the roof without damaging my dress, but the end result was worth it: I had a good view of the streets below and surrounding the house where the Hellsworn held their meetings. Below me I could hear the whimpering of a child, the words, "mother," and, "cold," mixed into hopeless whisperings. Sound drifted down the street from the tavern at the far end, gaudy and noisy, the windows fuzzed with smoke and light. The air was delicate against my face, a reminder of the fragility of my Vessel and of Corporeal life.
I wondered if any other angels ever fully appreciated their Vessels until they came close to losing them. It's the risk that gives flavour to the existence, the breath of challenge and the threat of loss that makes one appreciate living. I could smell woodsmoke, tar, fresh brick. I was alive, and lying under the moon on a roof in London, waiting to be kidnapped for sacrifice. I was alive.
There was a creak from below, and a rectangle of lamplight opened onto the dark road, the shadow of a man falling across it. He glanced up and down the street, then stepped to flatten himself against the wall, letting five others out of the door. A couple had old sacks tossed across a shoulder, and a third had a lightweight coil of rope slung on his arm. Yes, this looked distinctly like the party in question. I attempted to extend my resonance towards them and get some confirmation, but they were a little too far away and the Symphony would not answer me.
The echo of the first man's voice hung in the air, the way that whispers do. "Okay, we cut down by the alley, try that way, then swing round, see if we can pick anybody up." The others nodded to him, their shadows vanishing as the door clicked shut and the gap of light closed like a mouth.
I considered giving them a while before I showed myself, so that they might have less time to worry about matters, but common sense mitigated against it. The longer they had, the better their chance of picking up some poor human and then ignoring me.
I slid round to the side of the roof, then hooked my hands over the lip of the tiles and the gutter, balancing myself: in a near-silent ripple of fabric, I swung my legs down till I hung in a billow of dark blue fabric from the edge of the building.
Two metres. Tolerable. I let go, and fell, rolling to break my fall. A couple of bruises, no more, and my dull grey cloak had taken the worst of the damage. I was still, waiting for some response to my landing, but there was nothing except the distant padding feet of the departing group.
After three minutes, I gathered up my skirts in my hands, and ran, aiming for a byway that should come out behind them. My feet were quieter than theirs on the cobbles, for I still wore my dancing slippers, frail soft creations that they were, and undeserving of this harsh treatment. Blue velvet was stained with ashes and mud as I sprinted along the road, until I turned the corner and paused, leaning against the wall as I assessed the situation. Yes, there they were ahead of me, glancing to left and right as they headed in a nasty little knot down the street.
I took a deep breath, so as to be panting suitably, then scampered across the road, cutting behind them and to their right. My pace was audible, and ahead of me they turned to catch sight of a female figure, on her own, darting across the road.
They gave chase without calling to each other, feet heavy on the stone, thumping an ancient rhythm into the night as they followed, one of blood and hunting. I cast a couple of agonised glances over my shoulder, and picked up my speed a little, though not enough: the forerunner took me by the shoulder, hand clamping down through the fabric of the cloak, and got his other hand across my mouth as I drew breath to shriek. He smelt of roast pork and cabbage and tobacco smoke, and his hand was coarse, the heavy knuckles prominent as he pulled me over against the wall. None of the windows above opened, and no lights showed from behind shutters or doors. Nobody in this part of town would care to notice the sound of running feet, or be likely to interfere.
I tried to scream again. It would be expected. The man pinioning me shifted his grasp from my shoulder to round my body, pinning my arms against my chest. I kicked at his shins in a ladylike manner, and attempted not to feel too smug as another of the men unrolled his sack and slung it over my head.
The sack stank of beer and old vomit, and fragments of hay tangled in my hair and insinuated themselves down my bodice. I managed to get out a half-shriek as my captor loosed his hold on me, the better to bundle me in hessian, but any noises I made were drowned out by the thick fabric. I could feel myself being bundled over somebody's shoulder, my head dangling down their back, and kicked again feebly as he began to move, a jouncing step that set my teeth jarring at each pace.
The street turns were as I had memorised them: two to the right, then one to the left. They must have been very confident to take a captive so close to their home base: either that, or lacking in a sense of strategy. Both were possibilities.
Through the sackcloth I heard a muffled knock, and then the burr of whispered words, not quite audible from where I was. Fragments of light, the gold of lanterns or candles, filtered through the sacks as my bearer took a couple of steps up, then began making his way down a staircase, each step down another jolt. The air felt damper here, and closer, and I could smell traces of incense through the overpowering aroma of beer and vomit and hay.
My bearer came to a level area, and took a few more steps before swinging me off his shoulder and dropping me to the ground. I had expected it, but gave a suitable gasp and whimper as I rolled, the sacks beginning to come loose.
"Get that thing off her," somebody said. A pair of hands took hold of the edge of the sacks and yanked, stripping them up and away to leave me sitting on the damp stone floor, blinking and tousled, my careful hairstyle all tangled with musty hay. My cloak was still clasped round me, but my skirts showed underneath it, spread out in a drift of blue silk. The room was medium large, some twenty yards across, and the stone walls were blotched with patches of mold and damp. A hanging concealed one end of the room, black canvas painted with moderately vile symbols, and a rough altar of limestone was set before it, stained brown at the centre.
Half a dozen men surrounded me, smirking as they watched my confusion. They didn't look like Hellsworn. How does one expect Hellsworn to _look_? They were humans, and that was all. No secret marks, no third nipple, no scars or blasphemous oddities or deformities, but only humans - and therefore able to dip themselves as deep in Hell as ever they might dream of.
"Thunder and damnation," swore a second man. "We've nabbed ourselves a high-priced bit of petticoat, boys. This wasn't the sort of thing that He had in mind."
I pushed my hair back from my face, and my lower lip trembled as I looked about me. "Please, gentlemen... I don't know who you are, or what this is, but my uncle will be expecting me..."
They ignored me. Another man shrugged. "She's alive, she's a woman, she'll do as well as anybody else. We dump her with the others in the river." There were assenting nods among the remainder.
I attempted to steer a middle line between half-witted idiocy and panic-stricken femininity. "My uncle's a rich man! I'm sure that he can manage a reward if you return me."
The men around me exchanged glances, and the one who had spoken earlier pursed his lips. "Perhaps we can come to some arrangement. If you will stay here, _madam_," and the contempt in his voice was palpable, "we will return shortly to discuss the matter. Carl," he jerked his head to another, burlier man, "fix her up to the wall."
The burly man stalked across, and grabbed my wrist, hauling me to my feet: his hand was large enough to entirely close around my narrow forearm. As I hung back nervously, he dragged me over to the wall, and bent to pick up an iron manacle from where it dangled, attached to the damp wall by a length of rusty chain.
"I don't... please..." I could feel their slow indulgence in what they believed to be my fear, a calm and deliberate pleasure that made me grit my teeth to hold back disgust. It suited the picture, the poor trembling girl clenching her jaw as she was manacled to the wall and left alone in the ruddy torchlight.
They went up the stairs, the last one closing the door behind him, then bolting it: I could hear the slide of metal against metal. A thin stench of old blood hung in the air, unobtrusive yet pervasive. I felt the heavy weight of metal around my wrist, and the chill in the cellar, both weights on me, but the greatest weight was the self-imposed shackle of my own will that held me there to play the human and to wait for the men to return with Belmanoir.
Footsteps echoed beyond the door, as somebody came down the stairs, boots rapping against the stone in a way that suggested expensive heels: there was a click as the bolt beyond was opened, grating in its catch, and the door swung open. Belmanoir stood there, poised in the darkness of the doorway like a glittering mannequin, the torchlight catching on the embroideries of his clothing and gloves, and striking tiny sparks in his eyes.
I had curled up against the wall, resting my chin on my knees, and wrapped my cloak around me again. The iron chain trailed back to the wall, the links rasping against each other whenever I shifted position. My hair fell in a tangled mass around my face, half hiding it until I turned to look to the doorway and let my eyes go wide in mingled shock and hope. "Belmanoir!"
He wandered across as though he were still inspecting the buffet at the party, peering down at me. "My dear Cecilia." His voice had an edge to it, smoothed down but still present beneath the words. "What on earth are you doing here?"
I pushed the hair back from my face with my free hand, scrambling to my feet, and moved towards him till the manacle around my wrist jerked me back. "I..." I blushed. "One of the other girls said that you'd once been round here, and, and I wanted to speak to you again, and..." I cut myself off, sharply, and spaced the next words out in an attempt at dignity. "I told uncle I was going home early, and went home, and then I climbed out of the window, and I thought that I would be able to find you." My voice died away, and I looked down at my ruined shoes and the mud-spattered hem of my dress.
"My very dear." He stepped into my lowered field of vision, and reached out to touch my chin, tilting it so that I must meet his eyes. His fingers were warm this time against my chilled flesh, but firm as a vice. I felt the prickle of suspicion around him as I reached out to taste his emotions, a considering possessiveness mingled with hunger and growing eagerness. It did not take any effort on my part to tremble as I met his gaze.
"Surely your uncle will be looking for you." His free hand moved round to touch the iron band that circled my wrist, curling round my forearm just above it. "I'll have to see that I restore you to him personally, so that he can thank me." Beneath the words I felt the emotions, edged and testing, probing for weaknesses in my story or my behaviour. His infernal charm danced in his eyes, a smiling and serpentine thing that urged me to wrap myself in his presence and never seek to leave it. "So who was it told you that I was here?"
I sniffed, a deliberately childlike and uncontrolled thing, as though trying to choke back tears. "But he doesn't know I'm here. Nobody knows that I'm here or that I was coming here. Oh, I was so stupid..." I blinked rapidly, forcing back tears.
It was impossible to hear the city clocks, here below ground and walled in. My sense of time told me that it was almost the hour of the sacrifice, but I could not be certain. It unsettled me.
"Who told you?" he prompted me again, fingers curling down my jawbone, tracing the side of my face. I could smell the orris-root that scented his clothing, and almost feel the heat of his body. Hunger, delicacy, pride, derision all mingled in my mouth like the ghost of ruined wine as he leaned towards me.
I wondered if I could have moved to escape, had I wanted to. "Vivianne," I said, numbly. The girl was safe enough; she had left for Sussex yesterday because her mother was ill. "Vivianne Salincourt. She said that someone had once seen you in this part of town. She said..." I let my voice trail off again, watching the lines of his face. It was an ivory mask in the light, carved with the finest of tools into an icon of a demon who cared nothing for any human being except as food or amusement or pet, that would inhale my fear just as eagerly as he would my passion, a being that thrived on nightmares.
He nodded, and traced his fingers round to my lips, letting them linger there a moment, a mimicry of when he had kissed my hand earlier. "Hush," he prompted me. "Be very quiet, now. It's almost over."
I nodded, and was silent. He released my forearm, letting it fall back, and stepped back from me, trailing his fingers down to my chin and then lifting them away casually. For a moment he watched me in the torchlight, studying me as I had studied him.
He turned towards the door, and raised his voice. "Enter! It is time for the ceremony to begin."
They came filing through the door, two by two, till an even dozen of them stood in the room, Belmanoir making the thirteenth. I shrank back against the wall, watching them. Rough black robes covered their ordinary clothes, the hoods thrown back on their shoulders to show their faces, those ordinary human faces. The last pair carried between them an iron cage that contained a bedraggled white cat, wound about with a dark iron chain that twisted round its body and fastened at its throat. The cat lay silent in the cage, curled up small, fur matted by dirt and blood.
"Behold." Belmanoir's voice was sardonic and empty. "Here stands the sacrifice: let her be offered up to Hell as ritual demands."
Ten minutes, I thought to myself, and gave a small choked scream, pressing back against the wall.
The men chanted as they filed through the room, invoking some names that I recognised - Beleth primarily, then Asmodeus, Kronos, Baal - and others which meant nothing to me, but which echoed in the room in long heavy rolls of sound. Two of them filed around the walls, throwing pinches of incense onto the torches, so that clouds of smoke spilled down the floor in cascades of slow oozing fog, smelling of spice and iron and urine.
Belmanoir moved across the room to stand behind the altar, and reached inside his coat, bringing out a rough dagger, dark as though it were forged from meteoric iron. He held it before his face.
"We worship," the men chanted, their voices hanging in the air.
Belmanoir should have been a tawdry figure there, against the black backdrop, spangled embroidery and dark knife. He should. "Who do you serve?", he asked, cadence pitched to carry and whisper in the room. The cage with the cat in it had been put down to one side, and it mewed helplessly, pawing at the bars of the cage as the smoke drifted round it.
"We serve the Princes of Hell," the men replied, folding their arms across their chests and lowering their eyes. Dedication and bitterness and hatred were folded within them, tempered and hammered into a vicious steel. And the greatest grief, the very greatest grief of all was what they might have been if something, anything, had been different: I could imagine that dedication in the service of Heaven, and it made me shiver to see the dark side of the mirror behind their eyes, and know the lies that filled their ears and blocked them.
Belmanoir looked to me. I could feel my breathing faster as his eyes raked across me, knowing and savouring my fear, trying to catch my gaze the better to enjoy it. Sadist, but then what did I expect from a Servitor of Beleth? He set the dagger down on the altar, then took three steps back, nodding to the man nearest to the altar on the left, who moved to take his place. This new celebrant was grey-haired, neatly groomed with a small well-brushed beard and thick eyebrows: his eyes glinted with a deep and hungry fire as he also looked towards me.
Of course, Belmanoir would let one of the Hellsworn make the sacrifice, and avoid the Symphonic disturbance. Very clever of him.
"Bring the sacrifice forward," the grey-haired man said, his tone rougher and lighter than Belmanoir's had been, less deep raw velvet and more rough pumice. The two men nearest me came across, one taking me by my free shoulder while the other drew a key from his sleeve and bent to release my wrist.
I screamed, naturally, at the top of my voice. Anyone might have. The shackle came free from round my wrist, leaving two rims of blood where it had bitten into my flesh, and I yanked at that arm before the man on that side could fully get a hold of it, flailing at him. On my other side, clearly experienced with this sort of situation, the other man caught my wrist as well, forcing it up behind my back in a half-nelson that wrenched at elbow and shoulder joints. I tried to rake the first man's face with my nails, but he managed to snag my wrist and brought it round behind me, pressing in close. I heard the silk of my skirt tear as one of them stepped on it, an incongruous noise against my shrieks and their hoarse breathing. A kind of perverse exultation filled them, a certainty that kept them warm and secure and that did not let them see me as human - only as this struggling, screaming thing that was about to be butchered and bleed its life away.
My cloak had come free during the struggle, and my screaming subsided to hoarse whimpers as they forced me up towards the altar, stumbling on my hem and in my ruined slippers as I tried to hold back.
Merab, I thought to myself, this would be an exceedingly good time for you to enter. Of course I trusted him - as I trusted myself - but I could not entirely suppress the edge of fear inside me. Perhaps it gave my performance a shade more reality, and perhaps I should have appreciated it for that, but my throat was tight and the sweat ran down my back as I watched the dark knife, the blood-stained altar, and the shadowy, gloating Impudite. Death of my Vessel, Trauma perhaps never to reawaken, a blankness from which I would never come back. I might not care then, would not know to care, but oh, the thought of it made me afraid.
I pulled at their grip artistically, and let them shove me up against the altar, felt the cold stone through the layers of my skirt against my legs, and looked into the eyes of the man with the knife. He knew himself set apart from the rest of humanity, and that washed like a wave over me: even set apart from these his companions. He was superior, perfect, on a level with the demons who assisted him. He would gain more power, and there would be no end, no Hell, no death.
"On the altar," he said, tracing his fingers along the length of the knife.
They shoved me on my front on the altar, and my cheek scratched against the coarse surface of the rock. I could smell the old blood that was crusted and dried there, sunk into the stone from who knew how many other sacrifices. As I kicked, they rolled me over, and another man grabbed at my ankles, pinning them against the stone. One slipper rocked off my foot, tumbling to the floor and out of my sight. My wrists were pinned hard enough that I could feel the thin bones there grating against the cold surface, one man at that end forcing them down while my other marcher stepped back.
"Please," I choked. My eyes were dry, and I could not summon tears, but I knew my face was white and terrified. I tilted my head back to try and better see the man who stood above me in the halo of smoky incense, face as composed as some saint.
He leaned forward, the knife in his hand, and set the point very delicately in the hollow of my throat, between the two knobs of my collarbone. He smiled, and I knew he could feel my frantic pulsebeat through the metal.
I opened my mouth again, and he shook his head very slightly.
Belmanoir's presence was still there, dark and delighted in the actions of these humans, precious pets, lovely pets, well-trained and dispensable pets who followed so neatly in the tracks that he had taught them, and that caused such fear entirely by themselves.
The grey-haired man trailed the knife slowly up the arch of my throat, along the line of my trachea, never quite breaking the skin. The metal did not warm, but was a constant cool thread of sensation. I tipped my head further back in an attempt to escape it, angle of vision shifting until I could barely see him, only feel the knife against my breathing and heartbeat. It came into my vision again, over the edge of my chin and up to press lightly against my lips, an icy kiss of metal.
The door slammed open, a cold gust of wind rushing before it to slash through the haze of smoke and drag at the robes of the men about me, breaking their pulse of tension and need. I rolled my eyes sideways, and saw Merab in the door, rage and horror implicit in his face and the lines of his body: others with him, Eleazar, four others that I did not recognise, and by the look of it some more men behind them.
I saw the grey-haired man's muscles clench, face, jaw, neck, hands, and as he began the action to bring the knife round and down, I screamed, "UNCLE!" and threw my full strength into a sideways roll: something in my right wrist gave, a bone coming loose, but my hands slipped free, and I half-tumbled off the edge of the altar as the knife came down with a dreadful cracking sound into the stone of the altar, skidding along it in a note that scraped at the ears like dissonance itself. The other man still had a grip on my ankles, and I lay twisted over the corner of the altar, skirt rucked up as I screamed, "Uncle!" again and again, trying to kick him free.
Belmanoir's emotions... oh, what a picture, what a gaping scar across the face of it. Sheer shock mingled with disbelief and growing anger, a dawning suspicion that this had been set up, and a desperation that blossomed as he tried to find some way out of the situation, and the number of people who had seen and recognised him. I could hear his name among the shouts of shock and fury as the newcomers came spilling into the room, in tones of disbelief. I kicked again at the man who was trying to hold my feet as though he thought that would actually achieve something now.
Merab came across the room like a raging lion, and I heard the meaty thwack of fist against flesh as the grip on my ankles came loose. I rolled, getting yet more dirt on my poor dress, and sat up, flinching back as I looked around the room. Belmanoir had stepped back against the wall and was attempting to convey an aura of somebody who had merely dropped by for coffee and was appalled to discover the true nature of the place. Several of the other men had made for the door to run, and were being held at bay by a military-looking gentleman with a neat pair of pistols, herded back into the room: a few others had tried to fight, and were struggling with some of the newcomers or lying on the floor and moaning. Gaston in particular was busy putting his boot into the ribs of the grey-haired man, the picture of righteous justice who has found a target and wishes to kick it while it is down.
Merab knelt down by me, taking me in his arms and drawing me to my feet. I wept dry, racking sobs against his velvet waistcoat, and whispered into it, "Thank you."
He patted me on the back. I could feel the genuine emotion beneath the obvious shock and comfort, the true affection. "It's all right," he murmured to me. "It's all right."
Belmanoir's voice cut through our closeness. "You mistake me, gentlemen." His tone was icy cold, and I could feel his gaze on me as I raised my head. "When I saw Miss Emson being carried in here, I followed in the hopes of..."
"He's lying!" I shrieked, half breaking free of Merab in a moderately convincing hysteria. "He was leading them!" Somewhere in a corner of my vision, I caught sight of Jada-dan quietly fiddling with the cage and chain that held the cat, and the animal pressing urgently against his hands. "He told me to come here and then they caught me and he came down here and asked me if anyone knew I was here and said he'd let me go and then they came in and he, he..." I dissolved into shaking again, and clung to Merab in a pitiful manner.
Belmanoir's eyes sharpened against me like a sword. He knew for certain now.
One of Merab's friends walked across to him, and I looked up through my tangled hair. He was a grizzled man, his military uniform starched and precise. "You'd better take your niece home, Colonel." His gaze on me was surprisingly gentle. "The poor girl needs some attention. Don't worry, we'll deal with matters here. I've sent Jacques for the Runners to have these .. people .. taken down to Bow Street." He looked to the black-robed men, then to Belmanoir, and his eyes grew far less kindly. "They'll be dealt with. Enough of us here to witness it: the girl won't be required to press charges herself."
I let my body calm, taking deep sobbing breaths of air as Merab patted me on the shoulder, leading me towards the door and away from the choking fumes that still hung in the air. The cat's cage stood empty now, and there was no sign of Jada-dan in the room. Eleazar exchanged a brief glance with me, then looked pointedly back at the robed man crumpled at his feet.
Belmanoir coughed. The sound carried. He said, as though to nobody in particular, "The girl in the amber dress. I remember her."
It had the tone of a challenge. I looked back, hiding the glance with a shuffle closer to Merab, and saw him smiling at me, eyes edged with a mocking humour and malice.
"What did you say?" asked the military man.
Belmanoir shrugged. "Nothing important."
I turned back to Merab, and he led me up the stairs, wrapping his cape round me, and out into the clean air.
"What did he mean?"Merab asked quietly. The coach rattled around us as we were carried back to our town house. I had pinned the mass of my hair back from my face with a couple of spare combs that Merab had produced from one pocket, muttering as he did something about how women with long hair were always at a disadvantage in this sort of situation. "Rather, who did he mean?"
I frowned at my wrist, which was still aching even after Merab had Sung healing upon it: not enough to be significant, merely a small and persistent aggravation. "He must have meant Arabella: she wore amber tonight, and helped by distracting his companion while I spoke to him."
"Why her, then?"
Logic suggested an answer. "She is the only human which he could easily pinpoint and knew me to have a connection with."
"So?" Merab prodded, in a tone which suggested that he had guessed the answer and did not like it at all.
"Her dreams." The conclusion was implicit. "He wishes me to meet him there, and will doubtless then attempt to do me harm."
Merab scowled at me. "It was bad enough when he didn't know who you were and you walked into his arms. You are not seriously planning to do so again now that he knows you're an angel, are you?"
"We must protect her," I pointed out. He slumped, clearly having expected me to say that. "She is human: our _task_ is to protect them."
"Your permanent death for her dream?" Merab shrugged. "It could be argued perfectly well that it's too high a price. _Michael_ might say that it's too high a price."
I watched him, and he wilted slowly under my gaze.
"Caliah," he said, finally, "don't."
"Where do you draw the line?" I asked. "She is human. She is our responsibility to protect. I involved her in this by having her act as distraction."
He snorted. "This isn't a question of pure ethics: it's a question of you walking into a baited trap, on his home ground. Strategy. Common bloody sense."
I smiled. "That is entirely accurate, Merab, and that is where I need your help."
The gold chain was a fragile thing, coiled about my fingers and between them. I looked up at Merab again from where I lay on the bed, and he nodded.
One of the maids scratched on the door again from the other side.
"What is it?" Merab called, his tone rough.
"The housekeeper is wondering if there will be anything else, sir," she replied, timidity shading her voice. "If Miss Cecilia would be wanting anything else."
I closed my eyes, and listened to Merab walk across to the door and open it. "Miss Cecilia is just slipping off to sleep now, Betty. Please thank Mrs Beatens for me, and for the soup she sent up. I'll be sitting with her a while longer, but hopefully we shouldn't have to call the doctor."
I lay there sweetly, hands folded and eyes closed, and felt her anxiety recede. "Oh, that is good news, sir. We were all so worried about the poor young lady."
Merab made shooing noises, and I heard her skirts rustling as she retreated, and the click of the door, then the sound of the bolt being shut.
I opened my eyes again. Merab lowered himself to sit on the chair by the bed, making a small muffled noise as he lowered himself to a comfortable position; it creaked under him.
"Quite at ease?" I asked, blandly.
He snorted, and reached across to pat my hand. "Go to sleep now, Cecilia dear. Your hard-working uncle will keep an eye on things, lacerated by your reasoning as he is."
I smiled, and closed my eyes.
The trick is something like a twist, something like a rotation, something like a movement for which there are no words in the corporeal lexicon. I knew the face that I sought, and she should be asleep by now, and her dreamscape could not be that far towards Beleth's Tower: if it were, I would not be able to reach it, and Belmanoir would know that. It would not suit his hopes if I failed to attend.
Arabella, I thought, sensible girl with amber in your hair, I hope that I have not caused your destruction. Light vortexed round me and I stepped into her dreamscape.
It was a corridor, dusty and unused, running to infinity before and behind me, with doors in the wooden walls to left and right. Somewhere in the distance ahead of me Arabella was running, playing with a hoop and rolling it along the floor, leaving a line-track beside her footmarks. She wore the amber dress that she had been in this evening, with her hair streaming loose down her back. I was still in human form, cast as my latest Vessel had been, and still in the ragged deep blue gown.
A wind picked up from nowhere, shrieking down the corridor and tugging at my skirts, plastering them round my legs. Belmanoir must have felt my entrance into the dream, and this was his first gambit. A stench came on the wind: the smell of the incense from earlier tonight, mingled with old clotted blood.
I stepped back against the wall, letting the rank gusts sweep past me. Further down the corridor, Arabella cried out like a child as her hoop was swept away and her gown tangled round her. Turning, I saw Belmanoir standing behind me, as far away as Arabella was on the other side. He was also in the semblance of his human vessel, but the rage that danced behind his eyes made a mockery of his face.
"Cecilia!" he called. "Come dance with me!"
The scene shifted, and the shrieking of the wind became the jerks of an orchestra's melody, but twisted as if reflected through a cracked mirror. The three of us stood in a ballroom which was floored with bone and walled with mirrors, with masked couples turning round us in a dance that did not stop. The dancers were clad in black and white, stalking in movements that were more hunt than waltz, the odour of rotting hidden beneath lavender and orris-root.
Arabella turned slowly, looking around her. The couples swirled round her in a pattern that slowly vortexed inwards, twisting in towards her.
Belmanoir was standing beside me now. He offered me his hand, the movement somehow knowing. "Will you dance with me as we head downwards, Cecilia? I underestimated you." His tongue flicked out over his lips. "There might even be a place for you, brave angel, foolish angel."
"I think not." I folded my hands before me, then spread them. Behind me, Arabella had begun to wail. "This is not, after all, a ball..."
I focused. We had all had training in how to do this, and I had even had some experience before. One starts with the small details, and works with what the dreamer herself would actually wish, then transmutes the scene as one would drop ink into water. It was harder than I had expected.
"... it is a picnic." We were standing outside, in woodland, and the corpse-dancers had become a group of young men and women clustered round a couple of tables on which was laid out a good assortment of food and drink. The sun shone above in a clear blue sky, and the grass beneath their feet was fresh and green. Arabella was staring at a pasty in her hand, with deep puzzlement.
Belmanoir smiled, jaggedly. "But it is coming on to rain." Darkness fell on us like a physical presence as clouds covered up the sun, suddenly swathing the sky in a shadowy, sagging mass. As the light faded from the picnic, so the revellers seemed to lose vitality, their motions slowing and speech ceasing.
Arabella looked across the glade at us. "Cecilia! What's _happening_?"
"Wind," I said, turning my back on him. It was a bleak north-easter, thrashing through the trees in fury, but it held life and change and courage in it. As it passed, the slow-moving figures of Arabella's dream began to gather themselves again, standing upright. Arabella had begun to fight her way through them towards us, towards me, her hair standing out behind her like a flag in the roaring air.
"Lightning!" Belmanoir called, voice carrying, and there was an vicious jeering edge to the word. Above us white light sheared through the masses of cloud, fracturing the world into flashes of light and darkness like jumbled pictures. Arabella screamed, falling to the ground and covering her head.
I dodged a streak of electricity that left a long burning scar in the turf, running towards Arabella through the screaming, scattering revellers. Focusing again - this was getting harder, not any easier - I pulled the wind into a heavier gale, tearing the leaves from the trees and tossing them into the air between us and Belmanoir.
Arabella clung onto me as I fell to my knees beside her, desperation in her eyes. "Cecilia, can we go? Can we go back to the corridor? I like the corridor, I don't like this, I don't like this at all..."
"You want the corridor." Belmanoir was standing above us, looking down at the pair of us with a building complacency in his eyes, that dark knowledge from before building, stronger, more personal. "Look, here's the corridor..."
We were in the corridor from before, doors hanging open in the walls like hungry mouths and dust hanging thickly in the air, the two of us still kneeling and Belmanoir standing above us.
"... why don't you try and run?"
The floor rippled beneath us, becoming as soft as mud, the planks reforming into a jelly-like mass that was cold and oozing beneath our fingers. Arabella had gone sheet white, and was just sitting there, pushing faintly at the stuff as she sank deeper into it.
I took a deep breath, shoved with all my strength, and had sound enough footing beneath me for a moment to haul her out, dripping with the muck, and keep her upright, my arm round her waist. She sagged against me, taking quick shallow breaths.
I said to her, my tone conversational, "Ridiculous, isn't it?"
Belmanoir frowned. Something of offended artistic pride came into his eyes, and he lifted his chin sharply. "Ridiculous? _Ridiculous_?"
"Ridiculous and trivial," I replied. I wondered where in the Marches Arabella's little dreamscape hung: we probably drifted on the darker side, set firm on course for Beleth's Tower. "Childish, unimaginative, puerile and tawdry."
Arabella blinked at me, then began to giggle, slightly hysterical but still giggling. "I want a better dress, Cecilia. I want a better quality nightmare. I want a nice hot bath..."
Belmanoir shrieked something infuriated in Helltongue, and flung up his hands, and the floor dissolved to dust beneath us: we were falling, tumbling through a mess of ash and cinders, towards a lake beneath that seethed with boiling blood. The heat beat against us like a conscious malice.
I kept my arm locked round Arabella's waist, and reached out a hand to catch the vine that was swinging loosely near us, converting our fall into a long arcing swing onto a granite ledge that was just wide enough for the two of us. She pressed her back against the wall, looking down at the lake of blood with huge eyes. At least she'd stopped screaming. What I was doing was a delaying tactic, and I was going to run out of strength well before Belmanoir did, here on his home ground in the Marches and in a dream. The question was whether it would last for long enough.
"You keep on changing it." Her tone was more stable. "You make it one thing, and then he makes it another. Can I do that too?" She still had the manner of a child who wanted to join in the game, but it was the right beginning.
"Naturally." Behind us, the cliff fractured, and the ledge began a slow tilt towards the seething blood beneath. "What would you like?"
She considered, as the plane of rock tilted further, and the heat below struck like a hammerblow again. "I think..."
Above us, Belmanoir was perched on a prominence of rock, hunched like a gargoyle, bloody lights on his face and hands.
"... I ..." Her voice trailed off. "I want..."
We were bouncing on a feather-bed, somewhere in an old house: a young woman's room, a fold of silk showing through the crack of a cupboard, the counterpane lacy and now mussed past redemption. Arabella was giggling as she bounced up and down. "I did it! I did it!"
I rolled to the side of the bed, and began to stand up, pushing my hair back off my face. "You did. You can change anything you like..."
The world snapped around us in a buzzing whirr of sound, and we were in a dark-walled chamber, the walls dank marble and hung with chains. Arabella gave an affronted squeak as she found herself bouncing on a rack that had very little spring to it. Belmanoir stood opposite her, running the cords of a scourge through his hands. Shadows moved behind him where his Impudite wings would be, and splashes of darkness marked his forehead where the human skin concealed horns. "And so can I." Chains lashed out from the wall behind me to snag around my throat and wrists, dragging me backwards. "Just watch and learn, angel. You should not have tried to fight me on my own ground." He let the strips of leather fall from his fingers. "Relax and enjoy it."
"I don't like this." Arabella's eyes burned as she swung herself off the rack, brushing the dust from her bodice with annoyed quick motions. "I want it back the way it was."
Belmanoir backhanded her across the face, knocking her sprawling on the floor in a billow of skirts. "Silence, bitch. I haven't forgotten that you were involved." The chains snapped back into the wall, holding me spreadeagled in a stereotypical - yet, it must be confessed, somewhat vulnerable - manner. He stalked towards me.
Arabella pushed herself off the ground with one hand. She was bleeding from the nose, and her face was full of a pure fury that might have given him pause if he had seen it.
Belmanoir halted in front of me. "Any last prayers? Requests? Do you want to start begging for mercy yet, or shall we leave it till later and try it in all the different keys of desperation?" He tilted his head. "You are about to be dragged off for eternal torture, and it starts right here, little Cecilia. When are you going to start being frightened?"
I smiled at him, letting my mouth curl slowly. "Do you think it is that easy? Do you think the fighting ever stops, or that I _have_ to surrender?" My voice was pitched to carry.
He just shrugged. "Whatever, dear. Your cant bores me. Shall we begin?"
"Begin with this, you gutter-sweeping," spat Arabella from behind him. The rack exploded, and the floor followed it, shattering outwards from the centre in a widening pattern of marble cracks. "I don't want you in my dream, I don't want you hurting Cecilia, and I _can_ change things, and I am ordering you _out_! Now!"
Belmanoir went sprawling, a flying spar of wood taking him in the small of the back, and I wrenched myself free from the tentacle-like chains that still clutched at me as the ceiling began to tear apart, light filtering down through the rents in long swords of radiance.
Arabella ran across towards me, reaching for my hands. "I did it! I got you loose..."
"Not," Belmanoir snarled, dark wings expanding from his back, "for long. You pick the wrong day to choose sides, little human. I think I will keep you for a personal toy when I am done with the angel. Who knows, you might even enjoy it." Pale horns were bitterly sharp at his temples, and his leathery wings moved behind him like animate shadows.
She turned to me, her clasp tight on my hands. "Are you an angel?"
"I am," I replied, and looked into her eyes. Yes, there it was, the absolute commitment to a fight which the Elohim of Michael can sense, the acceptance of the possibility of death and the will to stand to battle in spite of it.
"It makes no difference," jeered Belmanoir. Streaks of light splashed down around him in an insubstantial cage. "She has not my power."
"And yet I am here." I let the words hang in the air for a moment. "Would I have come if I had no hope of victory?"
He took a step forward, through the curtain of light. "My Princess is the downfall of all hopes, the mother of all fears."
Arabella said, carefully, as though not trusting her voice, "But these are my dreams." Her voice grew stronger. "And she came here for me." She raised her head to stare squarely at Belmanoir. "And if she has the courage to fight, then why can't I?" More fragments of ceiling began to shatter, light coming down into the room like a physical force. "Why can't I?" Her voice echoed in the room like a growing wind.
I smiled, and launched myself at Belmanoir with all the Essence that I had left in me: we collided with a thunder of glass bells, and the dreamscape came apart around us. We were tumbling in the Marches, he flailing his smooth wings in an attempt to get his balance, I myself concentrating on throttling him.
We rolled together in the grey sand, bubbles of dreamscapes rushing past us in a wind of jewels, and went bumping down a slope in a scuffling mess, first him atop, then me, then him again, then me, then him. His teeth showed as he slammed a punch into my torso, then tried to peel my hands off his neck. "Bitch! Stupid little Power!" He hadn't noticed where we are, he hadn't even thought to look. "My Princess will make me pay, but by Lucifer I'll take it out of your hide first..."
They came out of nowhere, dark-pinioned forms seeming to rise from the sand, trailed by a rather more conspicuous pale-winged panther. Two of them grabbed Belmanoir's arms, ripping him away from me and slamming him to the sand in a spill of grey dust, while a third put a food on his throat and squeezed. He made small choking sounds, lying there and struggling, eyes wide and suddenly terrified for himself. I did not have to taste his emotions to feel that.
Merab trotted up, and nuzzled against me as I pulled myself upright. "Are you all right?" he purred. "And the human? You were certainly _obvious_ enough..."
I nodded, and saluted the Malakim of Blandine, fist to chest. The fourth of them, who wasn't currently amusing himself with the choking Impudite, returned the courtesy.
"Yurieth," he introduced himself. "Thank you for the catch. We'll be taking him in for interrogation. Maliseth sent its regards, and will be by when it has recovered a bit."
"My pleasure," I replied. It had been, in a way: matters tied off neatly and competently. I stroked Merab's forehead. "And thank you for trusting me to handle my end of it."
He grunted, a shade embarassed, but it didn't stop him enjoying the caress. "Got to trust your colleagues, or where would we be? Plotting mutiny."
"Damn right," I agreed, and watched the dreamscapes spinning by, and listened to Belmanoir whimpering as he was dragged off towards Blandine's Tower.
Arabella stood with me on the pavement, tapping her parasol against the railings as our coachman finished the job of stowing our luggage. "I just wish that you could have stayed a little longer," she complained. "There really isn't any scandal in the way that your uncle seems to think."
I shrugged. "I'm afraid that he's really old-fashioned about things like that. I will be back if I can, I promise. I have come to think you a most sensible person."
Arabella laughed at that. "Oh, and I have thought as much of you, so that is perfect agreement!" She fell silent again, and I could sense that she was meditating words, afraid that she would be thought foolish or strange.
"What is it?" I asked, at what I took to be the right moment.
It was. She coloured slightly. "I never did tell you this, Cecilia, but the night that Belmanoir is said to have disappeared, I had the strangest dream. You were in it, too, and Belmanoir, that devil of a man, and we were all arguing about something."
I tilted my head. "Arguing?"
She gave me a demure look. "A heated argument. I do remember that at the end I rounded on the man, and ordered him out of the room."
"Ah, well then." I settled my gloves, as the coachman balanced the last box and roped it down in a hopeful manner. "A good outcome. You stood up for yourself and won the argument."
She nodded. Then, carefully, she asked, "Do you think that it means anything? Anything important, that is?"
I considered, thinking about her hope, and her courage, and the way that it had left us within Blandine's Marches so that Merab could track me and lead Blandine's Malakim there. Merab came out of the house, and waved to the pair of us, making his way down towards the coach. Slowly, I replied, "I suppose that it could mean that it is always important to fight for what you believe in. Even in dreams."
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