Petra stood alone in the parlor. A row of shuttered windows lined the room and a scant light drifted through the vanes. It traced the long wicker couches and the planked floor beneath them. A fireplace was built into the center of the wall and the moonlight caught on the stones of its chimney and vanished into its hearth, the darkness of which hid a wrought iron rack and the doused remains of a woodfire. The room smelled of wet smoke and ashes and Petra stared at the cold remains of the fire for a long time. She tried to remember the last time they had all sat around it, but found that she couldn’t. She touched a hand to her face, then walked to the fireplace and ran her fingers along the stones of the chimney. One of the stones shifted loose and she slid it from the others and reached into the cavity where her fingers touched upon a small key. She pulled it from the hole and turned it in the moonlight for just a moment then slipped it into her pocket and replaced the stone.
A floorboard creaked behind her. She turned to see Emine on the second floor landing. The girl stood in a splash of moonlight from the open atrium window and appeared insignificant in the dark, fragile and wraithlike. She was dressed in a long white shirt with her skinny arms and legs poking from beneath it and seemed to Petra closer to some craned river bird than her daughter. Her hair was down and half fallen on her face. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
“How long have you been there?” Petra asked.
“I just came down.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m fucking freezing.”
Petra watched her daughter. The girl looked like a stranger in the dark and there was such distance between them and the distance did not narrow as Petra stepped closer. A rough wool blanket was draped along the back of one of the couches and Petra grabbed it as she passed. “You should be in bed.”
Emine came down the stairs. Petra draped the blanket over the girl’s shoulders and they stood facing one another with Petra raising her face slightly to look up to her daughter’s eyes. She reached out and folded back the edges of the blanket so the wool didn’t scratch against the girl’s neck. She brushed the hair from Emine’s face and set it behind her ear and maybe it was the frail light but she saw her husband’s features so plain on the girls face it shocked her. The dark and far-set eyes and the thick brows above them, the narrow nose. The girl had become beautiful, in a reluctant way, and Petra could see only Cosmin in her face. There was no shadow of herself to be found. Petra took her hand away and most of the hair fell back down.
“I can’t sleep.”
Petra nodded. “What about your brother?”
Emine shrugged. She stepped past her mother and to the parlour window beside the hearth. She pulled open the shutter, ever so slightly, and Petra came and stood beside her and together they watched the empty streets. The fog had come and gone.
“Did you see what they did to Mr Farrell’s across the street?”
“Well I can see his door,” Emine said and pointed. “Look at it. They must have broken in… I thought I heard someone screaming.”
“It’s quiet now.”
“They probably killed him.”
“They don’t just break in and kill people. You’ve heard too many stories.”
“But look at the door.”
“I see it. They may have smelled smoke, or seen some light. You don’t know.”
Emine said nothing.
“I’ll check in the morning,” Petra said. “I’m sure everything is fine. I don’t think Mr Farrell has even been home. I think he’s been gone.”
Emine nodded. Another sweep of her dark hair fell over her face and she guided it back behind her ear. She looked over to the door.
Petra hesitated. She followed her daughter’s eyes and saw the rack where Cosmin’s coat should have been. “He left.”
Emine turned to her mother. “He went outside?”
“It’s nothing to worry about, Emine.”
“Nothing to worry about?”
“He went to move the Guard from their patrols. His position protects him.”
“His position? You think they care about that? About his title?”
“Keep your voice down. Please. They enforce the faith, and your father enforces the law. He’ll be fine. They won’t touch him. They wouldn’t dare.”
Emine looked back out to the street and shook her head. “I hate them,” she said.
“So do I.”
“Why do we put up with them? With all of it?”
“You know why.”
“No I don’t. It’s awful. They’re awful.”
“It’s only for a week. One week, and then they go back to the Reaches.”
“It isn’t just the Vacant, or the Days… it’s everything. It’s all just so awful.”
You have no idea, Petra thought, but didn’t let the words leave her mouth. “Yes,” she said at last. “Yes, it is. All of it.”
“The City Guard could fight them…”
“Emine,” Petra hissed and pulled her daughter away from the open window. “You can’t talk like that. By heaven if someone heard you…”
“You know it too. You know how awful it is. So does dad. So does everyone. There aren’t that many of them. The Guard could get rid of them so fast. They could—”
“Emine the Faith is so much bigger than you realize. The Guard can’t do anything.”
“Maybe they can’t,” Emine said. “But others can. What about…” She hesitated. “What about the Avarine?” She said this last word timidly, in a whisper.
A chill ran down Petra’s spine. She froze. “What did you say?”
“The Avarine. They could do something. They aren’t afraid—”
“Where did you hear that word?” Petra’s voice was cold.
“Where did you hear it?” Her hands shot up and grabbed Emine by the arms. The blanket slid to the floor. She stepped close to her daughter, all delicateness was gone from her voice. She still spoke in a whisper, but it was urgent, sharp. “Was it spoken aloud? Someone you know said it? Tell me.”
“I… I don’t know. I…”
An old fear came to Emine’s face. The strange and beautiful woman in the moonlight had vanished and Emine was suddenly a little girl again, fragile in her mother’s presence. She was no longer sixteen, she was five, she was caught hitting her brother, or stealing candy. Confusion and tears welled in her eyes. She shrank away from her mother’s anger.
Petra watched the transformation and softened. “I’m sorry,” she said, and let go of the girl. Red marks washed away from Emine’s arms where her mother’s hands had squeezed. “You cannot say that word. Do you understand me? You cannot say it. The Days are dangerous. That word is very, very dangerous. You cannot say it.”
Emine nodded furiously and Petra brought her close. “I’m sorry,” she said again. “I’m so sorry. I’m just on edge, ok? Forget that word. You cannot say it.”
Petra tried to hold her daughter, but the girl’s arms stayed at her sides and she soon straightened and pushed her away. Emine wiped her eyes, said nothing, then turned and vanished up the stairs.
The door to the cellar was just beyond the kitchen, and Petra eased it open and reached into the darkness for the banister. There was hardly any light at all and she had to slide her hands searching down the wall. She guided herself down the narrow set of stairs, the air chilling as she went. She walked barefoot. She tested for each step, toes first, until she felt the cool earthen floor beneath her.
The cellar air was damp and heavy. Old earth, failing wood. It was the scent of a crypt, but Petra took a deep breath of it and was comforted. It reminded her of shelving preserves in the early autumn, of fetching garden tools in the spring, and she stood at the foot of the stairs for a long moment to breathe the air then sat down on the last step.
Two thin rows of barred lattice windows ran along the top edge of the ceiling to allow twin patches of the blue moonlight to fall on the cellar floor. The light was dim, but enough to see and she waited on the step for her heart to calm. She looked at the scattered memories that lay around her. A broken pile of flower pots. The peeling remains of a toy wagon. Then she looked to the shadowed rear of the cellar, to the places where the light never touched. She stood. She pressed out the wrinkles of her shirt. There were such terrible things yet to do. Gone was the old warm comfort, the autumn and the spring, and now the cellar was only a darkness to be passed on the way to darker places still.
The wine rack at the back of the cellar was tall and made of rusted ropes of iron and draped with an old threadbare rug. It was unremarkable. The mouldering remains of what could have once been a pair of wooden shelves sat beside the rack, and the corner they all piled against was lightless at any time of the day. Petra doubted if the kids had ever ventured far enough into the cellar to stumble upon it.
She found the far corners of the rack then braced herself and pulled and the greased wheels rolled easy and the rack pivoted from the wall. It made only a faint rolling sound as its weight shifted and Petra stepped behind it and stood at the door it concealed.
The lock made a gentle click when the key was turned. Another turn and she heard the faint sliding of metal. She pushed against the door and it slid open without issue and she stepped beyond its threshold and let it slide shut behind her.
The darkness beyond the door was so total and complete it felt as though it had form all its own. As if it wrapped itself around her, velvet and weightless, and held itself there like a phantom. Panic followed. Petra’s reached for the walls to but they were closer, much closer, than she expected and her knuckles scraped against them. The darkness was closer still. It was holding her, suffocating her, and she wished for only a flicker of light to chase it away but knew that even the smallest shine from the edge of the door could betray her, even here, so she urged the thought away and pressed her eyes tight against it. Colors blossomed and vanished beneath her eyelids. She pressed her fingers against them and rubbed and the colors exploded all at once and lingered long after she had opened her eyes once again. They dissolved slowly into some faint radiance in the distance and she held her breath and stared at it for a long time though she knew that in this hell there was no distance at all to stare into. No distance save down, but when she looked down she saw nothing at all.
“Stop it,” she whispered.
She reached out for the walls again and steadied herself. She caught her breath. She stepped forward with her hands running the walls until she touched upon the smooth stones of an archway. Her feet found the edge of a carved step and once found she found the next and the one after that. She followed the stairs as they spiraled down and down into the earth, each turning sharp to the left, until finally the ground was flat once again.
The air turned from musty to foul as she passed the threshold of the unseen room. There was the mineral reek of coal smoke, and the heavy scent of stale ash and cinder. Something putrid clung to the air as well, something distant and rotten that carried along with the smell of the smoke. Above all else was the iron tang of blood.
The candelabra was where she had left it, only a pace or two from the arch. She bumped into it with her arm then ran her hands up to the candles that crowned it. She reached into her pocket for a small flintspark and struck it against itself, sending a rain of sparks into the air. They were magnificent in the dark and hurt her eyes and were caught in a thousand reflections throughout the room then fell back to darkness. She struck it a second time and the oiled wick at the center caught.
The light grew with each candle. At first a dull glow, it soon became brilliant and cascading throughout the room. It cast along rows and rows of shelves with lines of glass. It spilled out over two desks at the rear wall, one covered in piles of papers and the other holding a series of jars filled with dark fluid and the preserved bodies of rats. A third desk in the corner was bare save a row of notebooks and an inkwell and a pen. In the center of the room was a pit of dead coals and above the coals hung a great round kettle with a globe of delicate glass suspended above it. The globe was stained red from the inside and a dozen or more filament tubes ran from its shimmering center and four of these tubes were still glistening with blood. They all ran into the arms of a lifeless young boy strapped to a table beside the coal pit.
Petra couldn’t take her eyes off of him.
He was so young. No older than five.
So, so young and Petra could not help but wonder what the twins had known at five. Only love and games and endless questions and tears and laughter and it had all been precious to her and now so long gone. She looked at the boy again. The lines of his ribs beneath the skin, the sunken cheeks. She remembered Elias at the same age. Then she remembered him at six, then at seven.
Tears filled Petra’s eyes and she made no effort to keep them away. They spilled down her cheeks and she couldn’t help but wonder, not for the first time, what the child’s name had been.
She walked over to him and brushed his dirty hair away from his face and frowned at a set of bruises on the boy’s nose and along the high edge of his cheek. She touched them lightly, inquisitively, not knowing how they formed or how she had not noticed them before. They were harrowing on the child’s face. Marks of an undeserved, abhorrent violence and when Petra finally realized their origin she buckled to the floor with grief.
She had given the boy the bruises herself. She did it when she suffocated him.
Her hand travelled uncompelled to her heart and she clutched at her chest and wept.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Heaven, I’m so sorry.”
There was nothing she could have done. She couldn’t complete her work without fire. It just didn’t work without the flames and the boy would have died painfully. She had gone too far with him and needed to finish, but she couldn’t do anything without fire. It was all she needed and it was all she couldn’t have.
And her thoughts turned to Osyth and then they turned to ice.
She stood and looked at the boy once more but she looked above the bruises and at the eyes instead. Those damn eyes that were still shining like dusty mirrors even after death. They caught in the candlelight like a dog prowling the dark edges of a fire.
She folded the lids down over them. Then she undid the straps and withdrew the tubes from his veins. She found a rag, wetted it with her tongue, and cleaned the lines of dirt and sweat from along the borders of the boy’s face. She tried to close his little jaw as well but it kept softly opening so she left it alone and he appeared to her as though he were singing, eyes closed and mournful.
The boy was so light, more like a bird than a child, and she lifted him from the table and set him down on the stone floor. An iron trapdoor was worked into the ground a short distance away and she pulled on its chain. The door rose, and a foul smell, heavy with rot, rose with it.
Petra was on her knees looking once again at the boy. His hair was sticking in clumps to the stones beneath his head. She wanted to say a few words, but nothing came. She opened her mouth once to speak, but her throat was locked as if it were threaded through a noose and she could do little but gape stupidly at the corpse. She settled on simply bending low to kiss him on the forehead a second time.
She slid the boy forwards until his feet dangled over the pit. The legs followed and soon she held him in a sitting position at the edge of the opening. She tried guiding him gently into the hole, but she lost her grip when his weight shifted and he fell without ceremony to the pile of bones and decay far below.
It was a pit of failure, of depthless tragedy, and she couldn’t allow herself to think of the others that the boy was joining. She couldn’t bear it.
She went to a large bucket near the pit and scooped out heaps of ash and quicklime into the opening. The powder was caustic, and she knew her hands would blister from touching it but didn’t care. She felt deserving of the pain.
She set off the chain and the door fell back over the pit. It clanged into its rut and the sound filled the chamber and echoed against the walls and then faded away. A funeral toll for the unloved. A passing bell, a death bell, lych and corpse bell all at once and as she rose to her feet she could see nothing in the world save the iron door and the abyss beyond it and a pitch-black part of her soul wanted only to open the door a final time so she could fall beneath it and lay surrendered there burning in the dark beside the boy and crowned atop the rest.
She stood without moving for a long time. So long that she didn’t notice when the first candle sank low in its brass cradle and went out. Nor did she notice the second. Eventually the smoke caught her attention and she looked at the light failing around her and turned to leave.
She wondered how much more blood would be on her hands before it was all over but she knew the answer before the thought was fully formed.
As much as it takes. All of it. Every drop.
It made her shiver, but she knew it was the truth.
She walked to the foot of the spiraling staircase and blew out the candles. She ran her fingers blind along the wall once again and started up to the cellar.