I had a brother with that smile, I think, and that voice, but he was different. Had to be, ‘cause powers and saints, I followed him past the edge of first map and near to the end of the second and I wouldn’t’ve followed anyone like this that far.
Oh, Milly-Fox, you’d follow anyone who’d take you.
So now I think I got maybe two brothers, identical, only one is the only thing I can hear, just him and the fucking tick-tick-tick, did something to me when we came here so’s anyone else who moved their lips and I couldn’t hear it. Or sometimes I could, but it was still his voice, purring and burning from inside to out till I screamed or cried or told him how I got here.
I told him pretty fast, but you would too, only now I can’t remember what I told him along of how I can’t remember how I got here anyway. Sometimes it’s like that, that when I open my mouth to tell him something, the second it gets outside of me, it’s his now and I don’t got my own thought anymore. Just gave it up to him.
I think I gave plenty up to my other brother too, but this is the one who likes to hear me talk. Wasn’t ever no one else wanted me to talk so much. No one else smiled so wide, so charming - no one thanked me for opening my ugly mouth like he did and I never wanted his thanks neither, but he gave it to me all soft and purring and petting and I’d talk more to make that stop too.
First thing I told him was my name, and I thought wasn’t no harm in telling it, along of how there weren’t no dogs to find me here and they’d stopped looking the moment I took up in the Mirador anyhow. Only then he loved it, told me how ironic it was, as if I didn’t already know that, thank you so very fucking much.
Zephyr’d told me that much. First thing he’d said to me when he learned. “Bit ironic, don’t you think,” and then he’d told me what the word meant without making me feel stupid or nothing.
He swallowed up my name like it was covered in honey. “Mild-May-Your-Sufferings-Be,” he started and just like that it was his. And then he smiled wide as Don Escobar with the shepherdess, and laughed like him too. “At-The-Hands-Of-The-Wicked? Darling, what does that make me?”
That was before he was my brother, I think, along of him having those rubies on his fingers and witchlights that shone through them leaving ugly red against the floor. Was a drain there too, rusted, and I figured soon enough it would be me draining right through that grate, all me except what he chose to keep of me.
Before he was my brother, yeah, but he still had the same voice, like the shared it, passing it back and forth between them, and it weren’t long neither before they passed the face back and forth too, so’s it was hard to forget there was two of ‘em, and then when I thought back as to how I got here, how was I supposed to know which one brought me here anyway?
Except there was the one brother I’d followed off the map and then there was the one in here who I wouldn’t follow to food if I was starving (and I was, and I think the last time I’d been this hungry there’d been a barn and a threat of a noose, only I’d told him about that and so that was his now, couldn’t get it back), and there was the one with the voice in my head and the tick-tick-tick in my chest and there was the one tugging me with a command in my ear that I couldn’t make out, a rope around my chest dragging me back -
But they both had those.
And I couldn’t breathe sometimes between the two of them and couldn’t stop crying and powers, it hurt so much that the drain didn’t look so bad, you know, like maybe I’d just be melted down into nothing and say thank you for it.
“Mildmay, Mildmay,” he said, crooning like a pusher, only I was a centime short my latest fix. “The obligation d’ame isn’t meant to be stretched this distance.” Got his fingers in my hair till it tangled and pulled in his ruby-rings and burned and I’d cut it off and give that to him too, if I could. Be less of me for him to touch that way. Do me a favor if he’d cut off my head along with it.
“Oh, don’t say that, you poor creature,” he said, only I didn’t remember saying it at all. I was crying then too and bleeding and sweating and it all hurt, hurt, hurt -
Poor Milly-Fox, didn’t I warn you how they’d use you, and maybe it was just that it was so good to have a different voice in my head that I talked back to it, held onto it hard before he’d make that his too. “Sorry, Keeper,” I muttered but stupid, he thought I was talking to him, cause he pressed a kiss to a cut on my temple and when he pulled back, there was blood on his lips.
What sort of things did blood-witches do with your blood? Lucky me for having a host of answers dancing around in my head like whole fucking grand ballet.
“Quite all right, my dear,” he said and if I shut my eyes, he’d give my brother back his face. He let me this time.
“It would be a shame for you to lose your head now. There’s an art to your face, isn’t there?” He dragged his ringed knuckle up my scar and I couldn’t feel it or nothing, not really, but I swallowed against throwing up bile.
I’d thrown up on his shoes, I think, earlier on. Can’t remember what he did to me after that, except when I woke up my voice mostly gone and my bad leg didn’t hold my weight neither.
“The animal brings out the beauty in the man.” He leaned in so close that even though my hands were tied, if I really were an animal, I could’ve gone for his throat with my teeth.
Then I thought, why shouldn’t I? Weren’t nothing but half human to him anyway.
So I lunged forward like the wolf after Sir Gregorius and I caught jaw in my teeth before he slammed me way and my head hit the floor and I thought for a moment that I’d be feeling that till next Jeudi before I remembered that I got no reason to believe I’d be alive then at all, and I didn’t want to be neither, and I didn’t even know what day it was today.
And then I laughed, only then I think I started crying again and the only good thing to come out of that was for a moment he stopped looking my brother.
No, one other good thing. He looked at me a lot less like Don Escobar and lot more like any other bourgeois what found a snotty kid in the gutter tried to pick his pocket. Which meant probably now he’d get a good kick in and leave me alone and powers, I wanted that - not to be alone, maybe, but to be alone of him. Him and my brother’s face hovering over his.
His lip curled, all disgusted, and fuck me sideways if that wasn’t pure familiar right there. “Yes, well,” he said and the whip in his hand made it fine and clear that it wasn’t just gonna be his boot right now after all. “Beasts do have their uses.” He smiled so bright and charming that I wondered he was wasting it on me at all and I never hated someone so much as I did right then.
Kept thinking he’d have to get tired soon, kept thinking hocuses didn’t know how to use their arms, but by the time he was done, I wasn’t thinking so much in general, and probably for the best, don’t sprain yourself thinking, and when he finally finally finally finally dropped the whip, he fucking wasn’t done and it was boots after all, at my ribs, my stomach, face till I couldn’t see out of one eye and I -
I didn’t get why he hated me this much, didn’t get why he had to look at me like that, why he had to look like that, only sometimes he said, Felix and run his finger over my lip before he split it with his ring and I remembered that he wasn’t the only one stealing faces.
He crouched down, arms around me, and his arms were warm and I was cold but didn’t matter and I thought maybe I could shake them off, only it made me dizzy and once I started I couldn’t stop shaking and he didn’t move, just held me still as he could before he clicked something around my neck and I thought maybe that was it, maybe he was gonna magic me into a beast for real. “Maybe so,” he said, and fastened a leash to the collar and cupped my chin and looked at me hard.
“Well, darling, I think we’ll give it a bit longer for the bruising and then how would you like to see your brother?”
Which one, I thought, and Kethe, let it be the one from Nera and the one from the crypts, let it be the one who might’ve killed himself laying those poor ghosts. Let it be the one I missed.
And a fine brother you are, Milly-Fox, hoping for him to join you here.
“Do you think he wants to see you, hmm?” He drew a finger my back, over the wheals from the whip, and trying to get away from it only pressed me closer to him and he smiled at that, but it ain’t like I ever got a choice about it.
“I have to admit, I’m counting on him wanting it, but I can’t say as it’s all too likely. He set you on poor Vey, didn’t he? He can’t have thought you’d be successful.”
Well I didn’t know, did I, and that was one of the bits I’d already given up to him, so he could tell that story however he liked and it’d be true, ‘cause that’s how stories worked here.
“Then again, to send a monster after a monster... oh don’t cry darling, you had to know you weren’t done with that. Or...” I heard him smile the way I heard everything he wanted me to, deep in my head where I couldn’t never get away from it. “Or did you think you could reform yourself? Mildmay, Mildmay, in my experience you have to take the child from the Lower City at a much younger age to truly improve him. By your age, well.” He clicked his tongue.
“No true loss. Annemer, after all.”
He dug his finger back into a weal on the back of my thigh and the animal noise I made proved him right, and that’s just what I did, proved them right over and over and over and then whose fault was it when they sent me to kill?
Can’t stop being a monster.
“That’s right,” he agreed, all crooning again, and gave me another of his smiles. If I were a better monster, I’d have ghoul’s claws and teeth and I could scratch it off his face along with the rest of his skin. “Now let’s not let that binding go to waste, shall we, stretched thin though it is... how do you feel about sending a message to your brother?”
Opened my mouth to say, can’t write, but closed it again, along of really, what was the point.
If he wanted me to write, I’d be writing.
He lifted me up then, though I could’ve on my own if he’d given me the chance, and the smile he gave me was so close to kind I could’ve sobbed all over again and fuck, I missed my ghost-laying brother. “There we go,” he said and led me by the leash down a hall and I limped along after, and kept plenty of slack too, along of how last he did this, he tugged hard enough I almost broke my neck. I know that cause he told me, I think.
Then, “almost there,” and he crooked a finger at me, and what else was I supposed to do but come up to him and then his hand was on the side of my face, fingers digging into bruises and dragging me in closer and closer, his head lower lower until he pressed his mouth against mine and it weren’t no kiss like one that could be shared, just him taking from me until we had one skin between the two of us and fine, fine, he could just take the rest of me and leave me with nothing and that would be better than this, there wasn’t room for the two of us in me but he kept pouring himself in, his heartbeat like the tick-tick-tick of the clock and he was filling me up as he searched for something and I didn’t know what it was until he found it.
‘Cause like I said, I think maybe I had two brothers, and one was him whose voice he made sure was the only thing in my head, but the other was the one that thrummed in my chest and made up the backdrop in my dreams like the curtains in a puppet opera, and he found the rope that led to the other one, the rope that tugged from behind my heart, kept tugging me back, only I couldn’t go nowhere, and that was rich anyway, cause he’d sent me here in the first place.
I think. Like I said, I told that part to him, so that was his story now.
So he found that rope and poured himself into that too and it hurt, hurt, hurt from the inside out and I guess he did what he needed to, ‘cause he smiled, and I felt that too from the inside and then pulled back and broke the kiss and it was just me again. Me and his voice echoing in my head, me and my brother tugging me back, but me all the same - save for his hands on that bond, twisting it, tugging it back and I was strung thin between the two of them, fraying like Pietro’s magic rope when the spell ran out.
I was running out.
And he sent his witchlight ahead into a room, cast a light that made my eyes water, and then he sent me into it too, shoved me forward into it the circle it made, and I couldn’t keep my feet under me and my knee took it instead. But he said he was sending a message and whatever that means, I couldn’t do that kneeling. Spent my life kneeling, I think, like maybe nothing else was real save for kneeling in this room, right now, and I couldn’t do that so I stood, only my leg didn’t like that none and almost sent me down again.
Caught myself. Not stupid enough to look up, though, ‘cause whatever was waiting in here for me wouldn’t be nothing I wanted see, only standing here with nothing but waiting was about to kill me anyway and it was cold and I hurt and somebody was watching me, I could feel it, but maybe if I kept my head down I could melt down that drain after all.
Wasn’t what he wanted though. Raise your head, raise your head, raise your head, he shouted inside me, booming against the sides of my skull, and just got louder when I didn’t until finally I had to, didn’t never really have a choice.
So I did.
And for a second I saw him, my brother, the real one, and he was the one staring, and he looks sick and scared as he did in that field, and how the fuck did I ever get them confused, cause I remembered now I only ever had one brother, and it wasn’t his fault that someone trained him up to purr and smile just like he did.
Say something, idiot. Send a message to your loving brother.
Just had one brother, and the one who had me here hadn’t never been him, had taken him and molded him and raped him and twisted him inside out and sent him mad but hadn’t never been him, and my brother thought he knew his name but I knew his real one.
I opened my mouth and I shouted, “Strych,” and then I couldn’t ever stop, even when I felt him wake up inside me with hell-fury, “Strych, Strych, Strych, Strych,” and he was dragging me back by the leash at my neck and it hurt and it burned and he filled me up all over again and the second I left the light, I couldn’t talk no more.
But I knew who he was and so did my brother, my brother what was hurt by him even worse than me.
My ghost-laying brother had Strych in his head and he’d asked for it about as much as I ever did so if I killed Strych, it’d get him out of both of us. Strych who put his fingers back around my head and throat and squeezed and squeezed, shouting at me from the inside out and ripping and ripping and ripping and ripping-
Hocus standing over me. Gotta kill them before they see you coming, only way.
Get my hands round his throat and he’s wheezing and raising his hands and - not Strych.
Not his fault. Let go, let him go to his friend. Two hocuses, two pallets. Door latched from the outside.
Small room. Stone walls. No windows.
Fucking binding-by-forms, tugging, tugging, tugging, somebody on the other end of that leash.
Felix on the the other end.
Don’t none of it matter. Not the hocuses, not the clock, not the binding-by-forms. Not until I murder Brinvillier Strych.