Not long after my release from the convalescent wing of St. Thecla’s Hospital, I received an invitation to join my brother Theodric for dinner. It would be inaccurate to say that this was the first contact I had from him since I went off to war in the uncanny lands to the north—certainly I had received encouraging letters from him and from my sister, and the sisters at St. Thecla’s assured me that both of them had been to visit me not long after the great retreat, though in my condition I could not have been expected to remember. This was some years back, of course, before some of the elements of our alliance with the Fair-in-Exile had become clear and while we in our border city were still hoping to return to normality. Dinner invitations were, I believed at the time, one way the Swift family tried for that return.
At the time of his invitation I was living off my veteran’s pay, which though adequate to keep body and soul together was by no means guaranteed to remain sufficient. I had fallen out of touch with what few division-mates had survived the war, and while I had hopes of employment, they were hopes only. In such a situation, a renewing of family ties seemed prudent. I sent my response by post, as Theo had never been fond of the mechanical sparrows that had been introduced into the city shortly before the war. The next day I packed a small kit and followed my letter on foot.
Theo lived on the edge of town, in one of the neighborhoods that had grown up quickly in the past decade. The houses stood close as soldiers, the style of doors and windows aping those of the more well-off neighborhoods on the other side of the river. None of those houses would have used such new glass, though, giving these houses a bright-eyed, over-earnest feel, and all of them were positioned so that they did not face the delicate spiraling towers of the Fair district, so that they could pretend to a vista of human lands alone. Having walked half a day from my flat in the river district, I felt distinctly out of place as I approached, and in all honesty I did not expect Theo’s welcome to change that.
The first indication I had that something was awry was that Helene, my sister-in-law, had gone to the country to assist my sister with the birth of her second child. Theo does not relegate all social duties to his wife (as that would draw her away from the love of financial minutiae that unites them), but to entertain without her seemed chancy. “Are you sure you don’t need a hand?” I asked, trailing after Theo as he returned from belowstairs with another list of changes to the menu.
“Quite sure.” He paused at the door to the game room, checked off a line on his list, and rounded the stairs. “Helene and I have hosted plenty of dinner parties. Would you even know what to do?”
“No,” I said cheerfully, following him upstairs. “But I remember Papa hosting plenty.”
“Watching through the railing does not count, Arthur.” He gestured to the third floor. “I’ve put you in the sunroom, which gets most of the street noise. Will you have trouble there?”
“I don’t believe so.” I had, after all, managed to sleep the past two nights running and so expected to be fine for a while longer barring surprises. I glanced up to see Theo regarding me with a flat mouth, eyes hidden behind his lenses. “What?”
“It’s nothing. Try not to wake anybody if you have an episode.”
I sighed, unwilling to explain that my own ‘episodes’ differed from those veterans whose wounds bled smoke or turned their flesh to plant matter or made them speak in tongues during moonlit hours (all of whom had shared my ward at St. Thecla’s). “Theo, if you don’t want me here—”
“I do.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, then took off his glasses. “Go downstairs, have a drink, meet the guests as they come in. I’ve got to check on the towels.”
I was very tempted to tease him about those towels, but teasing him had never worked when we were young and was unlikely to do so now. Instead I left him to his last-minute checks and descended to the game room. While I had some difficulty imagining Theo playing games that didn’t involve monetary policy, it was still a comfortable space with a chaise, chairs drawn up by the hearth (no fire was lit, as we were approaching midsummer), and even a baize-covered table. To my greater surprise, Theo had evidently developed an interest in mixed drinks, to judge by the small and elaborate bar tucked into the corner. I eyed the variegated bottles, considered when I had last had a drink and the context, and had water instead.
I was just laying out a solitaire game of Hangman’s Habit when a chime in the hall announced that the guests had begun to arrive. I peered out to see Theo’s maidservant taking a set of bags from a tall, commanding woman and her shorter, stooped companion. “Ah, Theo, there you—” she boomed, then stopped, peering back at me.
“Arthur Swift,” I said, extending my hand.
“Arthur! Of course! I was just thinking, there was no possible way that Theodric could have gained such, ah, breadth, not within the space of a fortnight. Georgina Brennec, of the North Mountain Brennecs.”
“Ah,” I said without comprehension. Georgina Brennec was tall for a woman, in her mid-forties by the look of her, her brilliant red hair bound up in a curiously out-of-fashion coronet. Her grip through dove-gray gloves was as firm as any colonel’s, and she had a very piercing look to her that indicated she had just calculated my net worth and filed it away for future reference.
Theo cleared his throat on the landing. “I’m afraid my brother is not up-to-date on business matters,” he said. “The Brennecs own a mining concern in the north mountains.”
Georgina laughed, the kind of booming laugh that alerts one that here is a person without a single regret, deserved or otherwise. “That’s a rather gentle way to put it.” Her companion finally claimed his odd, boxy case back from the bewildered maidservant and came to stand by Georgina’s side. “My brother, Quinn,” she said without looking. “He did insist on coming along. I expect he thinks he’ll get a commission out of it.”
“Georgie,” Quinn Brennec said but left the reproof at that. I could not immediately tell whether he was older or younger than his sister, as his red hair had thinned to a ginger fringe and a number of lines had dug themselves into his face. He gave an apologetic shrug and offered his hand. “Good to meet you, Arthur. You’re the younger brother, yes? Marched off to war and went a bit—”
Mercifully, he stopped there, before went a bit mad could be more than implied.
Georgina cleared her throat. “Your brother has been so kind offering the use of his home for this party. I’d have hosted it myself, but our house is rather far out in the country and, well, it does help to have a space for these preliminary negotiations.”
I shook my head. “I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
Theo descended to stand beside me, folding away his little checklist. “The Brennec Concern is hoping to open up a labor contract with some of the people new to our city,” he said. His delivery was oddly flat, as if he were reading it off the now-secreted checklist. “As negotiations are a bit fraught at the moment, I thought it might help if I could offer some neutral ground for the initial meeting.”
That did not sound in character for him at all, nor for the bank at which he was a junior partner. It also made me wonder why on earth Theo had invited me, since “not up-to-date” understated my business knowledge tenfold. But Georgina Brennec swept all disagreements aside—a familiar action for her, I thought. “A labor contract! Your brother is really too much, Arthur.”
The door chime startled my question away, and by the time I’d shaken off my first instinct to duck behind cover, the maidservant had opened the door, and I realized why it had surprised me so. The door had one of the mullioned-glass windows that were popular in my parents’ day, and so a new guest should have appeared as a shadow through the curtains. But the figure who stepped over the threshold was much shorter than the window would allow, about the height of a four-year-old child. She wore a neat, navy-blue suit far too formal for any child, and her skin was brick red, a few shades darker than Georgina’s hair. Clawed hands clasped the handles of a heavy carpetbag, and even the shape of the head was not quite right, being a bit flat on top and mostly bald save for wispy white hair in a fringe over the large, pointed ears. Even the wide eyes were a brilliant shade of gold, crinkled at the corners in amusement.
It was, in short, a kobold, one of the refugees cast out for choosing the wrong side in the recent war; that is to say, our side. I had been their guest briefly during the war but had seen few since leaving St. Thecla’s.
She bowed neatly, first to the maidservant, then to Georgina, Quinn, and Theo, in order. “Good evening, Miss Brennec, Mr. Brennec, Mr. Theodric Swift. I am Mieni, and I have been appointed by my kin and kind to open negotiations with you.”
“Good lord.” The words escaped me without thought. Both Theo and Quinn glanced at me, but I ignored them. “Mieni, is that really you?”
The perceptive kobold peered around the corner and, seeing me, grinned, exposing quite a lot of pointed teeth. “Nom de solelh! My good friend! My friend Mr. Swift! I did not expect to see you so soon!”
I set down my glass and crossed the hall to her, taking her hand in both of mine. “I haven’t seen you since before the retreat! You seemed so worried when I left – I’d guess you didn’t expect to see me at all.”
“Nonsense, nonsen! Here, I said to myself, here is a man who fights an Ursa Davala to a standstill—he will survive what is to come. Has he not told you of this?” she added, peering around me at Theo.
“No,” Theo said faintly. “No, he hasn’t.”
“It’s hardly important,” I said. “It’s so good to see you, Mieni. I’d heard that your village relocated, but I hadn’t quite made the connection—”
“You two know each other?” Quinn burst out.
Georgina shook her head. “Sorry, all, Quinn’s a bit slow on the uptake. Don’t expect much from your portrait if you do commission him, Theodric; you’ll have to tell him where to put every brushstroke.” She clapped her hands. “But let’s not stand here telling stories in the hall. Send up your bags, Madame Mieni, and let’s have a seat. And a drink, if Theo’s got one.”
He did indeed, and made a set of them to match, busying himself with shaker and strainer. I let Mieni tell the bare-bones version of how we’d met during the war (after the disastrous Battle of Cire, in which most of my division was scattered), while I found a seat by the hearth. Quinn, for his part, began unpacking the case that I only now recognized as an artist’s kit, complete with a small prepared canvas and paintbox. If he were truly angling for a commission, as his sister said, he was not taking any half measures.
“So when the children find Mr. Swift, of course they bring him to me, as I am—ah, the title does not translate. How did you phrase it, Mr. Swift? ‘The one to whom we bring the bodies.’ Not euphonious at all, and so much nuance lost, but it covers the reason.”
“In rough shape, was he?” Georgina chuckled and cast me a glance as much appraising as amused.
“Enough that the children were not sure whether to find me or a mètge, a physicker! I am afraid, Mr. Swift, that in the days before you regained consciousness I used you as a lesson. You were, after all, evidence of how close the war had come to our doorstep.”
“I’m just sorry to have brought it there,” I said. Theo was watching me with an expression I couldn’t quite place. Exasperation was his usual state with regard to my ill-considered decision to join the army, but something like disappointment ran through it now as well. I finished my water and turned away to see Quinn looking from one to the other of us with a knowing, rueful smile. He scratched absently at one of the reddened patches on his wrists.
Mieni waved away my regrets. “Blame rather the Usurper, who started that war, may her reign fall as cut grass. But, benanan falhida, without her war I and mine would not have come to this great City, and I and mine would not have found ourselves in such a position to contract with Miss Brennec!” She bowed, and Georgina merrily raised her glass.
I leaned forward, setting down my glass. “So what exactly is this contract—”
Another chime at the front door interrupted me, and Theo looked up, smiling. “Ah. That would be the final two to round out our table.”
Quinn glanced out the window and muttered a curse under his breath. Mieni’s eyes narrowed, and she rose from her seat as a tall, broad-shouldered man strode into the room. He was sandy-haired and practically glowing with health, enough to make even Theo seem small beside him despite their even height. The woman on his arm was much younger, perhaps just out of school, but she had a cool composure to match her short brown curls. That composure hardened, or crystallized, as her gaze lit on Georgina Brennec. “Hello all!” the man said. “Sorry to be late, but you know how these things—”
He saw Georgina, and an equally drastic change came over him—though in the opposite direction as his young lady. A wicked delight rose to his smile, and Georgina Brennec returned it like coals under the bellows.
Theo edged past them. “May I present Jeremiah and Anastasia Greene. Another drink, anyone?”
I have never been accused of being swift on the uptake, but it did not take the skills of a Helene to notice the shift in the air, particularly as Jeremiah Greene let go of his bride’s arm. “Georgie,” he purred. “I had no idea you’d be here! How are you, my dear?”
“Jeremy, dear.” She glided over to him and smirked as he kissed her hand. “And who is this again?”
“I think I’m missing something,” I murmured as Jeremiah made his hurried second introduction and Anastasia presented Georgina with a reserved smile.
“I think you can guess at it,” Mieni said.
Quinn murmured on the other side of me, “Georgie and Jeremy were a bit of an item off-and-on for several years. More on than off.”
I thought about asking when that had changed, but a second glance told me the answer: it hadn’t. Theo, meanwhile, seemed blindly happy that all his guests were finally present. “Well. Shall we go in?”
Dinner would probably have been delightful for the sort of person who enjoys the theatre, particularly the sort of rife-with-misunderstanding comedies that have always left me wincing. Theo, showing the same social acumen, had seated Jeremiah Greene and Georgina Brennec next to each other, with Anastasia across from her husband and unable to break into their conversation. Instead she had oblivious Theo on one side and morose Quinn on the other, and I am afraid that Quinn showed more interest in talking to me than to her. Mieni was across from me, next to her ostensible business partner Georgina, and to top it off Theo had failed to account for the difference in body size between human and koboldim. Mieni preserved as much of her dignity as possible when sitting on piled cushions, and halfway through the dinner she took advantage of a moment’s inattention to discard them and simply kneel on her chair like a child. Even if I had known what to do in this company, the combined awkwardness would have erased any social acumen.
As Theo’s butler Vickry removed the soup course, Mieni cleared her throat. “Your pardon for interrupting this dinner, Mr. Theodric Swift,” she called, though the only thing she’d interrupted was Jeremiah and Georgina’s flirtation, “but I have a gift to present, and it is a fair custom among us koboldim to share such gifts over food. May I use this time, then?”
“Certainly,” Theo said after a moment, seemingly taken aback. “Yes, of course, go ahead.”
Mieni took from her bag a small box, about the size of two thick books. “In honor of the offer of comity between the Brennec Consortium and the koboldim of Three Wells, a mark of our work.” The room seemed to quiet, as if we’d been moved underwater, and she opened the lid to display a ball of deep blue glass, luminous with reflected candle-light and etched with dizzying patterns.
Georgina laughed and clapped her hands. “Excellent! And certainly appropriate for our agreement! Almost makes me wish I had more of an appetite, since we’re meant to share this over dinner.”
“Yes, could you explain a little bit of this business, Miss Brennec?” Anastasia said it all sweetly, but only Jeremiah missed the slight stress on business.
Georgina nodded in assent. “Easily, my dear girl.” Anastasia’s eyes narrowed. “Look at your plate. What do you see?”
We all looked at the plates as Vickry set them down; Vickry, uneasy from the attention, retreated as soon as he’d set Mieni’s down. “Fish?” Jeremiah hazarded.
“Not the food, you old silly, the plate!”
I pushed aside greens to reveal dishes much like those my parents had had: white porcelain with a delicate blue pattern. “Smalt,” Quinn murmured beside me.
“Oh, pooh, Quinn. Just because you’ve heard this so often doesn’t mean you get to spoil it.” She grinned at my confused expression. “It’s really his own fault for tagging along to so many dinners lately. I just hope it’ll improve his commission rate.”
“I’m still in the dark, Georgie,” Jeremiah said, tapping his fork against his plate in a way that made Theo wince. “Isn’t smalt a kind of fish?”
“It’s a pigment,” Quinn said, not quite raising his voice over Georgina’s giggle. “Blue paint, for use in ceramics or oils. It’s made up of tiny pieces of blue glass. Sometimes called—” He paused, raised his head, and stared at Mieni. “Sometimes called cobalt blue.”
Mieni raised her water glass to him. “Indeed, the name is accurate. The trick of extracting it from the ore without poisoning oneself on the arsenical fumes—that was our trick to begin with, and one my kin taught yours long ago. And thus the glass was given our name. Miss Brennec and her consortium have asked my kin and kind if we would partner with them in both extending their mining and investigating new ways to extract our name-given element.”
“Good smalt is difficult to make, but it is in high demand,” Georgina said. “We haven’t come very far since your ancestors taught us, though. But I am hoping that with your help, we could expand the mining, set up new furnaces, make enough smalt to supply a legion of painters. Who knows, we might be able to set up a whole new blue glassworks, possibly using some of the skill that made such a—”
She touched the blue glass ball, and her next word was swallowed up, as if she had suddenly receded from us. I startled, dropping my fork, and even that clatter was muffled.
Georgina withdrew her hand, returning sound to us. “Good heavens,” Theo said.
Mieni cleared her throat again. “Your pardon, Miss Brennec, but the gift is not the glass itself. The gift is silence, kept in blue glass. See, when the ball is touched once, it dampens sound.” She lifted the ball from its cushioning, and again the air seemed to go heavy and distant, muffling all noise in the room. “Held thus free of its case,” she cupped it so that a single blue gleam showed, “the silence is directed.” She turned it slowly, and it was as if silence were a wave, crashing over me and passing on. “Held by two, or passed between, it may keep their speech silent to all others, or make all others’ speech silent to their ears. There are words telling other specific uses within the box; I leave their discovery to you.”
“Judas, that’s strange,” Quinn murmured.
Mieni held her hands over the cushion and let the ball drop. “—thus,” she finished. “We koboldim may only have small magics at our hands, and ones that take time to craft, but they are good and they are ours, and we guard them as we guard our more material skills. Though,” she added with a glance at me, “perhaps I should have chosen a different trade-gift.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was not fine. The magic was innocuous, yes, but the blur of sound and silence had shivered some memories to the forefront. I looked down to be sure my hands were where I thought, and the table still wood and immobile, and the floor still beneath me.
I was not very aware of the rest of the dinner, as my concentration had to be spent on not fleeing the table. I must have finished it with some semblance of courtesy and been escorted to the game room, since when I next noticed my surroundings, I was seated in one of the chairs by the cold hearth, and no one in the game room seemed to be wary of me. Though for two of the party, I doubt anything short of a frothing fit could have interrupted them. Jeremiah and Georgina had claimed the chaise, passing the glass ball between them so that the noise level in the room dropped and surged like waves, and every now and then they would cup it between their hands and exchange a few words in silence, then laugh together.
A sigh beside me alerted me that I was not the only one in the hearth-chairs; Quinn Brennec slouched in the other with a drink in hand, eyeing the two on the chaise. He gave me a grim half-smile. “Could be worse.”
I nodded, glancing over my shoulder. Mieni was inspecting the books on Theo’s shelves, while Theo was again at the drinks table, talking to Anastasia, who did not appear to be hearing a word. “Did I—did I say anything, just now?”
Quinn shook his head. “You’ve been looking a bit green all evening, though.”
“I don’t do well with magic.” Everyday stuff, like the sparrows that carried our messages, or the occasional brush with a draugar or the smokeweaving that had briefly been popular in my youth, that was not a problem. Other things, though, could set off unwelcome memories.
“I thought you were friends with the goblin there.”
“I am. But koboldim aren’t known for their magic.” Mieni’s ear flicked back toward me. “I’d rather not talk about it. I see you’re a painter—what are you working on?”
Quinn grimaced. “Nothing, apparently; not any more.”
He would have gone on, but Anastasia appeared at his shoulder. “Gentlemen,” she said, her voice a lovely low contralto. “Is the conversation over here any better than over there?”
I groaned. “Oh, Judas. Did Theo try to explain microfinance to you?”
Anastasia shook her head. Her gaze darted up to the chaise and back. Quinn followed the look. “That doesn’t bother you?”
“Should it?” She smiled, confident in a not-entirely-comforting way.
Quinn tried again. “I suppose you know that Georgie and your husband—er—”
“I know a lot of things, Mr. Brennec. I only choose to act on some of them. For example, I know that’s a wig,” she added in an undertone. Quinn chuckled. “To change the subject: Mr. Swift, I understand you too are looking for work.”
If I’d been drinking, I’d have choked on it. “I—no, I’m afraid not. Where did you—” I glanced over to where Theo was very carefully ignoring me. “Ah. Theo said something, did he? I’m afraid he’s mistaken.”
She raised one dark eyebrow. “Are you certain? He did give you a good recommendation, and as we’re expanding our export business, we do have need for a clerk. Two clerks, but as Miss Brennec has made some arrangements –” She nodded to Quinn, who raised his glass and grunted assent. “Well, we could use you, if your skills are as your brother says.”
“There’s no need.” The room stilled a moment, and I thought briefly that I’d spoken too loud, but it was just another effect of the blue glass as Jeremiah and Georgina passed it back and forth, giggling. “I’ve got that well in hand, though I appreciate the offer.”
Anastasia nodded. “Very well.” She returned to Theo, presumably to give him the news about his obstinate little brother.
Now it was my turn to sigh. Quinn chuckled. “I take it your brother also has ideas about how your career should go?” I nodded. “Georgie’s always had the better head for business; we both know it. I just wish she didn’t grudge me my art. I’m going to make a rotten clerk.”
“You’re the younger one?” He nodded. “I can’t fault Theo, really. After our father passed, he really believed he had responsibility for us, and he wanted to be sure we were raised right.”
“Sorry to hear that. How old were you?”
I picked up my water glass and found it empty. “Nineteen.”
“Ah.” He chuckled. “I think I see.”
“He means well.”
“God save us from those who mean well.” He levered himself out of the chair. “I’m going to need another drink, if I’m going to be starting my career a clerk in the morning. You?”
I closed my eyes, then opened them when the footstool dragged near. Mieni settled onto it. “Mr. Swift. I should offer apologies for bringing the ball.”
“I’ll be fine. It’s just memories. You know.”
“I do.” She tucked her feet up beneath her. “We had an easier passage through the mountains, I think, but even then it has been difficult for some of us. I am glad to see you, though, and to see that you are doing well.”
“And the same for you. I had heard you made it out, but I wasn’t in much condition to visit till recently.”
“Then visit you shall. Tuesday, I think, or perhaps Friday? I will make you a proper salad. Not to say that your brother does not keep a good table,” she added after a moment. “But I think greens were not his cook’s strong suit.”
I smiled. “It’s been a disappointing dinner all around, I think. Did you get a chance to negotiate with Miss Brennec?”
She shrugged. “I will in the morning, I hope. In truth, some of the elders have concerns about our role in her contract, and I had thought to find out more detail...ah, it can wait till after her amor is concluded. I think we will have much to discuss.”
I shook my head at that. “Judas, what a mess. It’s because Helene isn’t here; Theo wouldn’t know awkwardness if you pushed his nose into it. Not that I know much more, but, well.”
“Does he not?” Mieni asked thoughtfully. “Then he has a rare gift for creating it.”
“That’s Theo.” I hesitated. “He’s trying to get me a job with the Greene export business. I—already have one. I applied to the Quarter.”
Mieni blinked, then smiled, lips pulling back from her long teeth in delight. “That is wonderful, Mr. Swift! So you shall be an Inspector, one to whom they bring the bodies?”
“Only Patrol. I’m likely to get in; they need people, and I may get promoted eventually. Theo knows that,” I added, reluctantly.
The smile abated a little and a knowing nod accompanied it. “Ah. And still he seeks to divert you.”
“He means well,” I said for the second time.
“So do all siblings.” She turned her gaze again to the cold hearth, then rose to her feet. “Mr. Brennec! Is there a tonic perhaps at the bar?”
Quinn seemed startled to be addressed by a kobold but nodded to the bar. “You’d have to ask Theo. He seems to know his way around it.”
He turned just as Georgina rose from the chaise a little unsteadily, enough that Jeremiah caught her waist to help her. “I believe I’ll turn in. Mieni, can we continue our conversation in the morning?”
Though they had shared little conversation to continue, Mieni offered her a short bow. “Indeed we may, Miss Brennec.”
Georgina nodded to her and to Theo, then to Jeremiah (who winked at her in a way that made me embarrassed to even be in the same room), and headed upstairs. Theo held up a deck. “Who’s up for a hand of trionfi?”
Mieni grinned. “If you will explain the rules.” I covered my face with my hand to hide my reaction; Mieni had won most of my money and a good portion of imaginary money in games of trionfi while I recovered, and every time, she had protested she didn’t really know the rules. Still, if Theo was going to host such an awkward dinner, maybe he had this fleecing coming to him.
“I think we’re fine over here,” Quinn said, settling in. “Georgie’d probably blame it on my ‘artistic temperament,'” he added in an undertone. “Might as well use it while it’s still an excuse.”
I raised my empty glass in a futile toast, and he clinked his own against it. “I—have tried my hand at the occasional painting, now and then,” I offered, a bit shyly.
“Hm? What’s your preferred medium?”
I hesitated—I’d been allowed watercolors, at St. Thecla’s, and my best work hung in a sister’s cell there, but there is a shyness that affects amateurs when speaking with professionals. “Pen and ink, mostly. Nothing special.”
“Nothing special? And I suppose the goblin there really doesn’t know the rules of trionfi.” I shrugged to hide my pleasure at the compliment. “Don’t put yourself down. If we don’t claim our status as artists, who will? Myself, I work in oils mostly, though I start in pencil. Here.” He brought over his canvas and drew a few quick lines, catching Theo’s look of increasing consternation. I chuckled at the accuracy of the expression but felt considerably outclassed. “Not that it’s likely to make a difference, now,” he said, setting it back by the case of paints. “I suppose clerks have to learn to work with pencil in a different way. Still; leave it for the morn.”
We talked influences for a bit—Quinn had a liking for Turner’s work, while I was much more provincial and knew few artists from the world outside our City. Behind us, the card game slowly redistributed money (to Anastasia as well as Mieni) and broke up not long after. Quinn and I finished up around the same time, but I did not want to try the stairs, feeling a need to remain on solid ground a bit longer. “You sure you won’t go up?” he asked as he arranged bottles at the bar.
“I’ll be fine here for a bit. Just thinking.” I glanced at him as he moved to the door. “Oh, Judas. Don’t tell me Theo’s started stocking absinthe as well.”
“Hm?” He glanced down at the green drink in his hand and chuckled. “No, this is my private stash. Don’t tell Georgie—she teases me enough already.” I nodded and sank back into the chair.
I did not rest well. I do not know how prevalent this is among veterans, but when an unsettling thought has me, it is hard to withdraw from it. Every time I began to rise to take myself upstairs, I remembered the very ground shifting underfoot, solid stone rejecting our feet, trees weeping blood and recoiling from our touch, cut wood screaming as it was set alight. Even closing my eyes didn’t help me hide from a land far on the other side of the border, and when I edged into sleep I dreamed of glass. Blue glass breaking, blue glass imprisoning me, my old drawings growing blue glass eyes and vomiting green smoke...the images are lurid to the point of ridiculous, now that I come to write them, and yet at the time I took comfort that they were not as brilliant as reality had once been.
I woke expecting to hear the stones of the hearth shrieking, and it was not until the second shriek that I realized it was not my dream at all. I lurched out of the chair and stumbled into the hall and up the stairs in time to see the Greenes emerge from their room, just as puzzled as I. Quinn Brennec followed a moment later, and Theo peered down from the second landing. At the door of Georgina Brennec’s room, a maidservant was in hysterics.
Georgina Brennec lay on the floor, soiled bedclothes trailing back to the bed, the red wig knocked from its place on the bedside table. It had not been a quick or an easy death; she had vomited and voided herself, but even that had not been enough to purge her agony. She had been robbed not only of life but of dignity. “Judas,” Jeremiah whispered. “Is she—”
“Georgie?” Quinn said in a small voice behind me. We all moved aside to let him through, and he bent to touch her forehead. “Georgie,” he repeated softly, as if calling her to wake up.
“What is going—” Theo pushed through, stared, and recoiled. “No.” Mieni, two steps behind him, drew a long, hissing breath. “Everyone out,” Theo went on. “Out, now.”
Quinn didn’t pay any attention to him, instead taking the red wig from where it had fallen and draping it over his sister’s thinning hair. “There you go,” he said, and started to rise—stumbling, to be caught by the Greenes. His shoulders started to shake, and he put his hands over his face.
“Who has a sparrow?” I asked. No one responded, and I turned to face them. “Who has a sparrow? We need to send one to the Quarter right now—call for an Inspector. This is murder.”
“No!” Theo caught at my arm, eyes wild. “There’s no need for that,” he said more calmly. “If everyone would just step out for a moment—”
“Theo, what are you doing?” I whispered.
“The Quarter?” Jeremiah scoffed. “That corrupt bunch? They’re for someone stabbed in a tenement, not this.”
“They’re notably less corrupt these days,” Anastasia noted, distantly.
“Not my point, Stasia!” He pushed Quinn at her and hurried to the side of the body. “Why didn’t I hear anything? We were right next door—” He stopped, staring at the far wall. We all turned to see the blue glass ball, or what was left of it. Fragments glittered on the carpet among larger shards, their dizzying patterns now lost and mundane. He wheeled toward Mieni, who was now at the sideboard, inspecting a chocolate-stained china cup. “You! You miserable goblin! You killed her!”
“I have done no such thing, Mr. Greene,” Mieni said, turning the cup around.
“You as much as admitted it last night! Arsenical fumes, right—the things that your damn cobalt produces! You gave her that ball full of arsenic!”
Mieni turned to face him. “You have absolutely no basis for that accusation, Mr. Greene, and I would thank you to withdraw it. My sorrow that the gift of silence was thus misused to cover her death—look, even Miss Brennec realized it, though too late.” She pointed to Georgina’s outflung arm, and I realized that the line of it led to the shattered glass. Her last act before her death. Perhaps she had realized why no one heard her cries; perhaps her attempt to be heard was the final strength she had. “Did none of you hear anything last night?”
“I—no,” Jeremiah said. “I heard very little outside our room.” Anastasia shook her head, though not too soon to cover a quick smirk that she very quickly realized was out of place.
“You, Mr. Swift? You, Mr. Brennec?”
Quinn shook his head, still leaning on Anastasia and refusing to look at his sister’s body. “No,” Theo and I said simultaneously. “I was downstairs,” I added, as if my rumpled clothes were not their own explanation.
“Will you please all leave the room?” Theo repeated weakly.
Jeremiah cast him a scornful glance, then bent and gathered up Georgina in his arms, heedless of her condition. Mieni made a muffled sound of protest, but no more as he laid her down on the bed and drew the stained coverlet over her. “Come on, Quinn,” Anastasia said.
Theo started to follow them out, but I collared him at the door. “What on earth is wrong with you?” I demanded. “Send someone for the Quarter, now, or I’ll do it myself!”
“This isn’t how I meant it to go!” My shock must have shown, because he shook his head. “No—no, not that! I offered this dinner as a meeting place because one of the senior partners asked me to. He doesn’t want the Brennec contract to go through, so he asked me to sabotage it.”
“So you invited the Greenes,” I said slowly. “I thought that was tone-deaf, even for you.”
“Yes, but that—that was all! But I, I did mention it to Helene, and if the servants heard—if one of them decided to—” His gaze went to the sideboard and the cup that had held chocolate.
I let out a long, slow breath. “Are your servants really so loyal that they’d risk prison just to help your career?”
Theo blinked. “I don’t know.”
“Let us hope they are loyal to you, Mr. Theodric Swift.” Mieni joined us at the door. “They may yet exonerate you if they are. Tell them to cease all cleaning at once. Not a single dish may be rinsed.”
“I—you heard her,” he said to the maidservant, whose horror had turned to fascination as the drama unfolded. “Tell Vickry to hold everything as it is.”
“But there’s the breakfast waiting, and the rooms—”
“Everything. Unchanged.” Theo shook his head. “I hope you are right, Meeny.”
“Mieni,” she corrected, and as he turned away, beckoned to me. “Mr. Swift, please. I would have the advantage of your eyes.”
I followed her back into the room. Jeremiah Greene had pulled up a chair next to the bed and sat staring at Georgina’s face. “She looks older, like this,” he said as we joined him. “I never minded that she was older, but this—she really was starting to show her age, wasn’t she?”
Mieni did not answer, instead taking Georgina’s hand in her own and turning it over, inspecting the fingernails, which were warped and bitten to the quick. No wonder she had worn gloves. “I suppose so,” I said for lack of anything else.
“I was going to see her, last night. I would have joined her.” He gave a little shudder, again for uncertain reasons. “Do you—if I had, do you suppose she’d still be alive?”
“Perhaps,” Mieni said with I thought a startling lack of tact. “Why did you not do so?”
He turned red and looked away. “I was distracted.” I thought of Anastasia’s smirk and her lack of concern last night—the young wife believing she had nothing to fear and, in this case, proving right. Jeremiah looked up. “You don’t suppose Stasia—no, she was with me all night, she couldn’t—”
“I think you should go downstairs to your wife, Mr. Greene,” Mieni said. He nodded and rose. “And do not leave,” she added. “Do not leave, do not allow anyone to leave, do not even think to try leaving.”
He turned pale but nodded again. I waited till I heard his feet on the stairs before speaking. “That was a bit harsh, Mieni.”
She snorted. “His lover has had the bad taste to grow old, while he marries young. Should I be sympathetic, when had he not rekindled his amor with Miss Brennec perhaps I could have spoken with her. Perhaps I could have prevented this.” She sighed and lowered Georgina’s hand to the bed. “So much is all perhaps.”
“You don’t suppose Anastasia could have poisoned her? I don’t know how she could have done it, but if there’s anyone with cause—”
“She did not believe she had cause, Mr. Swift. I think I will let her opinion stand.” Mieni ran one clawed hand over Georgina’s face, smoothing away some of the contortions of death, and twisted two of her thinning hairs between her fingers. Age had not been kind to Georgina; her hair was not as thin as Mieni’s white tufts, but it was close. “Look, Mr. Swift. What do you see?”
I looked down at poor Georgina Brennec. “I see she died in pain.”
Mieni’s hand stilled, then withdrew. “Ah, Mr. Swift. You are a kind man. I think that, maybe, is why you have taken so long to recover. But set aside that kindness for now. See: she had been in pain for some time.”
She held up Georgina’s hand again, pointing to the warped fingernails. “This is not the first time she had been poisoned. Nor even the tenth, I think. But last night was not the result of slow poison finally taking effect. This was acute, a large dose.”
I glanced sidelong at her. “Who poisoned her, then?”
“That should be obvious, Mr. Swift. You do not observe? But knowing who does us no good without knowing how, or why now.”
I shook my head, feeling as I often did around Mieni that I was lost in a fog while she navigated ahead. “Perhaps there’s something present now that wasn’t before—the contract, maybe? The glass ball?”
“Perhaps.” She eyed the fragments. “I regret the gift more and more. If I had thought more, if I had considered, then perhaps...”
“The contract, then? Something about the contract?” I turned away, picked up her chocolate cup. It was one that had belonged to my parents, white with a lacy blue pattern of butterflies. “If it was so big a contract that Theo’s senior wanted him to stop it, it must have been important. He invited all of us here, after all.”
Mieni sniffed, unconvinced. “That is some of why now, I think—more cover, more who might have reason, more suspects to hide behind. But without a source of the poison that we could point to before a court, this is all so much smoke.”
I thought of the vomited green smoke in my nightmares and shivered, setting down the cup. “This whole thing—contracts, bankers, dinners—it seems just a lot of fuss over pigment.”
Mieni drew in her breath with a hiss. “Say that again, Mr. Swift!”
“Ah—a big contract, Theo’s senior partner, a lot of fuss over color?”
“Color! Sang, Mr. Swift, that is how! I am a fool for not looking more closely!”
We hurried down to the game room, Mieni two steps ahead of me. Theo was in the hall, explaining something to Vickry, but she pushed them both aside. Inside, the Greenes were on the chaise, Jeremiah clasping Anastasia’s hands and staring at her as if to read her thoughts, while Quinn had turned his back on this domestic scene to pack up his canvas. “Mr. Brennec!” she called. “You are not packing that up with so little done, are you?”
“Oh, go easy on him, you little ghoul!’ Jeremiah snapped.
“He doesn’t need to paint,” Anastasia said more evenly. “He’s got a job with us, a clerkship.”
“Offered last night? At his sister’s request?”
Anastasia nodded hesitantly. Quinn still stood with his back to us, one hand on his canvas.
“But Mr. Brennec, you work in oil paints, or so I understand from your conversation last night. Are your paints mixed, then?”
Quinn turned to us with a face like stone. Even Anastasia drew a sharp breath at the sight of his expression.
“Mr. Swift, his case,” Mieni said.
I stood before Quinn and bent to take the case from him. “Don’t,” he said softly. “From one artist to another. Don’t.”
I met his eyes. “She died in pain,” I said. I had seen enough of that already, and I had failed to stop it here too. I took the case from his hands.
I opened it to reveal several small pots of powder and a tin of linseed oil, unopened. One pot was nearly empty.
“In vert vertadier. Scheele’s Green, I believe that is called,” Mieni said. “Arsenical green. A dangerous pigment to work with. If we were to look in your room, would we find traces of this in a glass? One that you brought her before bed?” She ran a claw around the lid of Scheele’s Green. “How long have you been poisoning her, staying with her so you might be sure she never goes a day without your paints?”
The chime of the doorbell startled us all—all save Quinn, who it seemed would not be moved again. “I suggest, Mr. Theodric Swift, that you let the good Inspector in,” Mieni said. “I sent my own sparrow as soon as I heard the scream this morning. After all, in this your City, I am not the one to whom they bring the bodies.”
The City Inspector took our stories, took Quinn and his paintpots, and took away Georgina as well. He gave me a curious look and said he recognized my name from the applications but let it stand at that. When all was done, I stood in the game room where Quinn’s easel had been, watching the Greenes depart hand-in-hand.
Theo joined me at the window. “That was awful,” he said. “I can’t imagine why you want to be involved with that on a daily basis.”
I thought of my reasons, then decided not to list them, as Theo would doubtless find fault with each. “I think I figured out why you invited me,” I said instead.
There was a moment’s pause. “Oh?”
“You wanted this to be at least awkward and at best a catastrophe for the contract.” Which had been the case. “And you knew a kobold would be joining you. So you invited a veteran, and one you knew had been unstable in the past.”
Theo was silent.
I turned to face him, but he did not look at me. “Did you really think I’d have a, a break of some kind? That I’d lash out at Mieni because she reminded me of the war?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I thought—I don’t know.”
I was silent a moment. “My application to the Quarter stands, Theo. Thank you for inviting me.”
He let me go without speaking further. I see him now and then, still, but matters are unlikely to be the same between us again.
Mieni was outside as I left, turning one of the shards of blue glass between her claws. “You will be well, then, Mr. Swift?”
“Reasonably.” I thought of telling her Theo’s motives, but she probably could guess at them anyway. Brothers meant well, after all. “And you?”
She nodded. “I think so. I may ask the Quarter to be lenient, given that Mr. Brennec may have been poisoned in his own right.”
She held up the shard so that it caught the light, blue twinkling like a lost gem. “You saw the rashes on his hands, the hair he had lost. Arsenical green is not the only poisonous color. Cobalt blue can also poison, to the point of madness.” She smiled, but it was a sad one. “So it seems we koboldim have done our harm to the Brennecs twice over.”
I thought of Quinn’s thoughtless skill, of his sister’s contorted face. “I think,” I said finally, “that the poison had been laid long before any color came into it.”