Black leaves drifted idly through the sepia liquid. Clare inhaled the familiar aroma with a soft sigh and tugged her plain shawl more tightly around her thin shoulders to ward off the constant cold, then opened the chart books old Teng Zu had turned her to studying in her spare hours. If she was to be a calendar-watcher worth the name, the ghost said, she had to know how to read it first.
A chill ran up her spine and she shivered. The corruption of the city's Essence was so profound that necrotic energy gnawed and bit at everything like mealworms. It made Clare cold and gave her a constant headache, and sometimes even difficult to breathe. Even using her Essence for the little things could be like pushing against an invisible wall. How long had it been since she'd even been warm? On nights like tonight - bundled in a heavy shawl and curled up in a plush chair by a roaring fire in Mother's bedchamber, a book in her hands and the only sound in the room the crackling of the burning tinder - it was difficult to stay awake. Her fatigue doubtlessly came from the stress of bearing too many secret burdens, as well. If she had learned naught else in the last six months, she knew that constant fear took a great deal out of a person.
She glanced over the arm of the comfortable chair at the large four-poster bed to her left. The drapes did not stir. Clare felt her pulse pick up a touch with apprehension, and biting her lip, she listened closely for any sound at all beneath the occasional snap of tree knots. After a moment, she heard the soft sigh of Sterre Windamier's breathing: a slow, regular sound. She exhaled the breath she didn't realize she'd been holding, crept to her mother's bedside and pulled up the small chair sitting there. It was the one Valerian probably used when he came to tend her. Her mother's black eyes, bright with fever, fluttered open.
"...Clare? Is that you, butterfly?"
"It is. I'm sorry, Mama. I didn't mean to wake you up." Clarity's hand reached for her mother's and gently covered the fingers. They were hot and dry and far too thin for her liking. "You need to eat more. I'll have the kitchen people see to it."
Weakly the woman shook her head. "There isn't enough to go around as it is."
"Then I'll tell them to give you my portion."
"You most certainly will not."
"Don't argue with me, Mama. You have to eat." She ran her fingers through her mother's hair, now dull and brittle and greying. Before she'd taken ill, Sterre had been a beauty to rival Queen Lilia. "Please."
"You'll insist if I don't," Sterre said, apparently giving up the argument, but Clare knew better: she simply didn't have the energy or the will to overrule her daughter.
Tears burned hidden behind her eyelids. "I'm sorry."
"You mean well," her mother whispered, "but I do wish you would let someone in need have that food."
She had nothing else to say - or rather, she couldn't speak - so she lay her head upon her mother's chest. Suddenly she felt small and vulnerable and five years old again, even if it wasn't true. A part of her yearned for those days again, when she was young and innocent and free of any cares. When her father still lived and her mother was envied for her beauty at court, and Clare herself spun about the beautiful streets with their wisteria trellises in her pure white dress and pretended she was some fantastic magical creature.
The bitter irony wasn't lost on her: Clare was a fantastic magical creature now. She was Anathema. And she couldn't even tell her mother. If there was a way she could feel more isolated and lonely, Clare wasn't sure what it would be.
Sensing her only child's distress (if not the reasons behind it), Sterre lifted one of those withered hands and ran her bony fingers through Clare's black hair like a comb, whispering the words of a song they both knew:
"Waves come in like the newborn day
We collide and fall, then it all goes away."
Through her tears, Clare took up the refrain in her own soft, slightly wavering soprano. She trailed off when she realized that she was the only one singing, and lifted her head. Her mother's hand wasn't moving, and her chest rose and fell, slow and soft and almost imperceptible. Sterre was asleep again, and because she didn't want to wake her again, Clare murmured the last line to herself.
Even the power of an Anathema was not enough to save the person who mattered most to her. Her nights had become interminable vigils, endless hours of waiting for the moment when that slow soft breathing became a rattle, a wheeze, and then stilled forever. The disease had systematically stripped Sterre of her beauty, then her dignity, and now, slowly and interminably, her will. It was not a matter of if, they both knew, but when. Clare swallowed and gently extricated herself from her mother's hands to move back to the chair by the fire.
She opened her book again, hoping to regain her calm. Immersing herself in early Shogunate history might at least take her mind off things. Most of the books in the royal library were sleep aids themselves, but this unnamed author had chosen to leave out any religious references in favor of lurid tales of intrigue and the violent wars that had dogged the world's leaders (before the Contagion had rendered such things pointless, of course).
The attempt at distraction wasn't working tonight. Finally she shut the book, set it on the nearby table, and pulled up a chair to her mother's rarely-used writing desk by the window.
With a heavy sigh the apprentice astrologer who had once been a princess leaned over the wooden surface and ran thin fingers through her black hair. She couldn't remember everything but the last part had been the same dream: running across the rooftops of the city, fleeing some unknown hunter. The mass grave. The barbed wires that snagged at her limbs and dragged her down into the endless hunger of the Void. Above it all, her ghostly master's strange admonition. She swiped an arm across her eyes, as if it would clear the fatigue she felt. Worse than anything, she wanted to fold her arms over the surface of her table and lay her head down and sleep. Instead she stared at the unfinished horoscope chart.
Then she hesitated, realizing at last what the trouble was. Reading and studying weren't helping because in the back of her mind, what she really wanted was to see if she could catch Typhon and his friend talking again. What had been the other's name again? Not that it really mattered. One deathknight was much the same as another, in her experience.
Clare cast the parchment an apologetic glance before she stuffed it back into her bag, grabbed her heavy shawl, and exited her mother's chambers.
Her eyes flickered over Valerian's closed door as she passed it on her way to the antechamber corridor. A mental image flashed through her mind's eye, of the grim-faced boy with purple eyes. Clare admitted to herself that Valerian was mostly a curiosity. She had never had friends her age before so the idea of finding someone in the palace who could possibly fill that role fascinated her. If he wasn't exactly a fairytale prince, that was fine. He wasn't in league with the Mask of Winters. That alone made him suitable 'friend' material.
Don't think about that right now. Keep your eyes open. Make sure you aren't spotted.
There was no one around to see her, but even so, she scurried through the hallway like a mouse in dark corners, grateful to escape notice. She knew that she wouldn't sleep well unless she figured out what they were up to. Nothing good, no doubt, but the question was what was so important that they wanted to interrogate her aunt?
She'd find out, one way or another.
The Steadfast Warrior of Blasphemous Covenants Sealed in Silence was not a man overly given to personal introspection but for some reason he occasionally found himself musing over his mortal existence.
His family had been a wealthy one, long ago, an aristocratic bloodline of some note - but they had fallen upon hard times due to his great-uncle's mismanagement of their funds and during his childhood, they had been merely rice farmers with one or two "servants" to help with the harvest. Father had enlisted in the shogun's army to march south at the Scarlet Empress' call to arms; Calin was far weaker than its neighbors, certainly could not stand up to the Realm's might, and put up little resistance when Thorns demanded the nobles honor their old alliances.
The harvest was not a good one, and Mother had recently given birth and was weak, but Father had left anyway in hopes that the modest earnings of a soldier might boost their coffers. He had died when Covenant was only ten years old. Mother stopped eating and eventually, so did the baby girl that didn't live long enough to be named. They went to a pauper's grave and Covenant and his brother went to an Immaculate orphanage.
Covenant had never stopped hating everything and everyone for what had happened. Hatred for the orphanage, for Thorns, for the Realm itself, even for his father. Hatred was what spurred him into becoming a mercenary. Spite had kept him alive long enough to accept the Mask's bargain, the elusive promise that one day, he'd have the revenge he sought.
Thorns had gotten what was coming to it, completely and utterly cowed by the might of the Neverborn, but it left him cold and he didn't understand why. After all, it wasn't as if the Mask of Winters treated him poorly. Covenant liked fighting and there was no lack of fights. He could have his choice of pretty young things, of the best wine and food, of power and fear and respect. There wasn't any reason to be dissatisfied.
"Are you going to stand there woolgathering all night?" Typhon's voice echoed, amused. "You should save the brooding for the ladies."
"And you should keep your voice down," Covenant snapped. "Or were you hoping to let the entirety of the palace know your business?"
Typhon laughed. "My dear man, no one is awake at this hour. And even if they were, what could they even do?"
"Then why are we bothering to skulk about like this? I'd prefer a more direct approach anyway."
"Because I'd rather not risk word of this getting back to the resistance. As amusing as it is to watch their little passion play, I don't think it would go in our favor if a bunch of raggedy peasants managed to thwart a very important mission. That sort of thing tends to irritate the Mask, and I for one would rather remain in his good graces." Typhon crossed his arms and, Covenant noted, lowered his voice. "Have you had a chance to speak with Wisdom Whispered's little toy yet?"
"Unfortunately not. I had other matters to tend to."
"Something more important than finding the war manse?"
Covenant flushed. "I have other duties besides playing sneak thief."
"Yes, such as telling our former queen that you'll pull her lungs out through her pretty little throat and keep her alive long enough to watch you play them like a bagpipe, if she doesn't tell you where the manse is."
"I told you, I'll get to it." He couldn't meet the Day Caste's gaze as he clenched his fists. "And I'll get the information from her. But I won't lay a hand on her. I'm no thug."
"And here I thought you enjoyed killing."
"Yes. When my opponent can face me on equal ground. There's no sport in killing someone that can't fight back."
Typhon snorted derisively. "Whatever you say. It's no matter to me how you get the information, just get it. We have to have it if we expect to face Lookshy in the spring. Let's see how well they bluster and brag when they have an Essence blast full in their teeth."
"Fine. I'll talk to her tomorrow. Are you satisfied?"
"So long as you do it. We've got to find that manse, and if anyone would know she will."
"And if she doesn't?"
"Then we do it the honest way - duplicity. Keep your eye on every last man, woman, and child in this place. Between them, someone ought to have a clue."
Neither man noticed the small green spider dangling from the ceiling, or the small figure crouched in the shadows listening to their every word. Clare didn't realize she was holding her breath until it all came out in a long, silent sigh the moment the two Abyssals had chosen to continue their conversation elsewhere, the massive door to the throne room shutting behind them with a loud creak and a hollow bang.
"What's this about a war manse?" she muttered.
It didn't make sense. The palace itself was a minor manse, but that was of importance only in that it kept the waters in the city fresh and clean, and they had to know about it. The hearthstone chamber was in the throne room, after all. Was there something else, something that only her aunt knew about?
Clare bit her lip. It wasn't anything she could do anything about tonight. But tomorrow, she'd have to make an excuse to go check on her aunt, and hope that she could get more information. And while she was at it, try to cast her net a little wider. She should leave well enough alone, she knew that, but it was a secret and a big one, and Clare hated having her curiosity go unsatisfied.
She'd have to tell Valerian too, as soon as she could. He was a doctor; that gave him access to parts of the palace she didn't have. Maybe he could learn something...
You're playing in dangerous waters, you know, a voice in the back of her head berated. This isn't a game.
Midnight Clarity lifted her hands to catch the tiny essence spider that had drifted down from the ceiling, and it disappeared in a few sparks of green light.
"No," she agreed in a whisper, "it isn't."