As I ran down the corridor, I could taste Malkar’s magic on the air; bitter and tangy on the back of my tongue, like semen and blood.
He’s here, I thought, heart lurching as I followed the tether of the obligation d’âme to my brother. Malkar was near Mildmay, and I regretted splitting up with Mavortian and Bernard in that moment, knowing I could have done with the extra assistance.
The feeling of the tether flickered for a moment, going briefly slack, and I didn’t want to think about what that meant. As it was, I ran even harder, sprinting through the dark halls beneath the Bastion out of step with Juggernaut’s incessant ticking, heedless of the sound of my boots slapping against the stone. I had no illusions about the element of surprise. Malkar knew I was coming; Malkar had taken Mildmay as bait. But even knowing it had to be a trap, I had no choice but to race into it.
He had my brother.
When I reached the door at the end of a long and lightless corridor, I knew. Mildmay was here, I could feel, as much as I could feel the presence of my own limbs. I swallowed dryly, pressing my hand to the wood. It swung open at a touch, and I had a dizzying moment of deja vu.
From the pentagram in the floor to the arrangement of the shelves, the chamber was nearly identical to Malkar’s workroom in the warren of the Mirador; if it hadn’t been for the damnable sound of Juggernaut, I may have briefly forgotten where I was and wondered if I’d never left, if everything since that horrible night that shattered my mind had been some feverish dream.
But no; I was in the Bastion, I reminded myself. And more importantly, there was Mildmay, suspended from his shackles on the far wall.
My gorge rose. However gruesome Mildmay’s condition had been in Malkar’s sending, it was worse now. He looked like a body the Cade-skiffs pulled out of the Sim, his flesh pale, deriving its only color from the rainbow of livid bruising that covered him. Blood still seeped from angry whip weals and gashes, some crusted with scabs and others inflamed with what was likely infection. His head hung down, fox-red hair loose and scraggly around his face, hiding it from view, and it was only by the rattling sound of his breath that I could even tell he was alive.
A quick glance confirmed the rest of the room was empty; Malkar might be near, the place saturated with his magic, but the Powers had spared me this once. “Mildmay,” I whispered, lurching forward, stepping over the pentagram with a surge of nausea. He didn’t look up, and I winced as I got closer and could see the raw and bloody mess of his wrists where the shackles dug into them. “Hold on, I’m getting you out,” I said, though Mildmay had made no indication he heard me, or was even conscious. I wondered, as I reached up to touch the metal with a spell, if I would be able to carry him out -- I was a good head taller than him, but he was denser, built with muscle I had never developed. Though, judging from how gaunt he appeared, there was perhaps less of that to concern myself with now.
I murmured a word of power and corrosion bloomed over the iron of the shackle, turning it red with rust that crumbled away in seconds. Mildmay’s wrist came free, and as he sagged I moved to catch him. But at my touch, his eyes snapped open. He stared at me and my breath caught, because there was nothing of my brother in those eyes -- he looked as frightened and feral as his namesake, and for a horrible second I thought he didn’t recognize me -- that he’d been broken as I had been and his mind shattered as well.
Then he blinked. “F’lix?” he croaked, and it was only long accustomization to Mildmay’s usual growly, slurred voice that allowed me to recognize the sound he made as my name at all.
“Yes,” I told him, trying to keep my own voice steady even though I wanted to scream and weep at the sight of him. “I’m here. I’m getting you out.” I came for you, and I am so sorry it took this long.
His eyes widened, and then he jerked his head, shaking it. “No,” he rasped. “No--” His hands out of the shackles, he pushed at me, wincing at the pain the movement caused, though managing to shove me back with more strength than I’d have thought him capable of in his condition.
“Mildmay!” I stumbled backward. “We don’t have time for--”
“Ge’out!” he slurred, looking panicked.
“We will, you fool, that’s the idea!” I snapped, reaching for him.
But Mildmay’s eyes had fixed on something behind me, and his face went slack with despair, hands dropping to his sides. And I knew, with icy dread trickling down my spine, a moment before I heard that all-too-familiar voice purr--
“Felix. Darling, what a pleasant surprise.”
My mouth had gone dry. “Malkar,” I heard my own voice say, though I couldn’t recall the decision to speak. Inside my head, I was screaming, gibbering in terror. Slowly, I turned.
He looked the same as he had when he’d handed me to Stephen on the road out through the grasslands. The same as the first day I’d met him in the Shining Tiger, I realized, as he had likely failed to age a day since the death of Jane Teveria. The blood wizardry kept him young, making his scourge one that even time couldn’t cleanse from the world.
He smiled, showing teeth.
“I must say, Darling, for all that you’ve been dreadfully irksome in your little acts of petty rebellion, I have missed you,” he drawled. “Your brother might resemble you, but I fear he’s a poor substitute in more ways than one.”
Behind me, Mildmay inhaled audibly. I tensed and tried not to think of all the ways Malkar had used me, all the ways he’d hurt me, and all the same ways he might have treated Mildmay in the long weeks in which he’d held him. (I failed, my imagination running horribly wild--)
“If that’s the case,” I said, willing my voice not to quaver, “then I will be happy to remove him from your company.”
Malkar tossed his head back and laughed. Something inside me quailed. I was still his creature, I knew, on some level. He’d had his claws in me so deep and for so long that a part of him felt embedded in my soul, like a splinter in an old wound, slowly festering. Even when I thought I’d been free of him, it had only been an illusion -- one he’d shattered when he’d used me to break the Virtu. And I might have dropped to my knees again, paralyzed by the presence of him, if not for Mildmay at my back and the knowledge of what I had come here for.
“Flippancy doesn’t suit you, Felix,” he said, stepping forward. Unthinkingly, I stepped backward, maintaining the distance between us. Years of fear and pain had me prepared for what one of his seemingly-genial moods concealed. I had disobeyed. I had angered him. And he would make me pay for it. As if to confirm my thoughts, he added: “we’ll have to break you of that.”
I tried to find the voice to protest, but it caught in my throat in a useless lump. Instead, it was Mildmay behind me who growled out a single word:
Malkar’s brows rose. “It speaks,” he purred. “Charming. Your pet dog heels well, though I’m surprised you even needed to cast the obligation d’âme on him. Then again, the role of master never did suit you, did it...”
My cheeks were red with shame, even as every other part of me felt chilled, my skin crawling like it wanted to flee from my bones. “No more,” I managed to say, fortified by my brother’s presence, his strong denial. I would borrow his courage, even if I could find none of my own. (And wasn’t that just like me, taking and taking whatever Mildmay had to give.) “We’re leaving,” I continued, calling lightning to my hands.
That only got a velvety chuckle out of him. “I may have missed you, darling, but not enough to offset what a terrible nuisance you’ve insisted on being.” His grin widened. “I will say this for your brother; he can lose much more blood before collapsing than you ever could.” His grin went hard and cold, then his eyes flicked over my shoulder to Mildmay. “Take the knife from the table.”
I let go of my lightning and whirled about in time to see Mildmay go stiff, like a puppet on strings that have just been jerked by an errant child. His muscles locked up, limbs rigid as he fought, but a second later he lurched awkwardly toward the worktable where Malkar had left a blade, his gnarled fingers closing around the hilt.
“Do remember who taught you binding magic, Felix,” Malkar chided, then added, quietly, “and who the master here has always been.”
The obligation de sang, I realized in horror. Of course, Malkar had used it. Used it on Mildmay like he had used it on me when I was sixteen, binding him to him. The dried blood was still caked to his skin, and I could only imagine how much had run through the drain in the floor. “Mildmay,” I said, willing some sign that this was a ruse, that he wasn’t under Malkar’s control. But when he looked up at me there was that same animal wildness in his eyes.
Malkar sounded almost bored as he gave the order. And for a moment -- for a moment Mildmay hesitated, his whole body taut as a wire. Malkar made a sound of displeasure, and sharply added “now!”
Mildmay lunged forward. Had he not been hurt on top of being lamed, he likely would have parted the flesh of my throat neatly with that first swing. As it was, he was slow enough and clumsy enough that I was just barely able to jar myself out of my stupor and dodge, hearing the blade hiss through the air where I’d stood half a second before. I staggered back. “Mildmay,” I repeated, “look at me. You can fight this.” He wasn’t a wizard though -- he didn’t have that kind of will, that kind of power, and I’d only barely been able to fight Malkar’s compulsion. In the end, I’d lost.
He lunged again, swinging at my midsection. I nearly tripped over a chair, knocking over some piece of equipment that clattered. Mildmay’s eyes were wide, and not, I realized, as mindlessly wild as I’d first thought. No-- no, there was horror there, awareness -- and that made it a hundred times worse. My brother was in there watching, helpless as he was used as a weapon against me, as I’d used him as a weapon against my own enemies.
Then I tripped. In a moment Mildmay was on me, pinning me against the floor. I grabbed his bloodied wrist to stop the knife as he aimed it at my chest, and could only wonder if I’d have had the strength to stop him if he’d been at his best. As it was, I might not be able to hold him off for long. Driven by the binding-by-blood, his body would follow Malkar’s order to the expense of his own survival, his own injury. And Malkar would not relent. Mildmay had no hope of fighting his binding as I had...
As I had.
Bile crept up my throat at the knowledge of what I had to do. Knew what power could stand a chance against Malkar’s. “Mildmay, stop,” I commanded, leaning as hard as I could on the obligation d’âme--
And Mildmay stopped. He went still, eyes wide, breath coming in short pants. Across the room, Malkar frowned.
Old blood had already crusted the lower half of Mildmay’s face, flaking and brown. But now a fresh, dark bead began to run from his nose, collecting on the tip before dripping down to strike my cheek in a small, hot spatter. His breathing quickened, and I realized in horror that the two rival compulsions were now using his body as a battleground, tearing him up from the inside in the process.
The knife point trembled inches from my chest.
“Felix,” Mildmay gasped. “Please...” His eyes were wide with panic. “I can’t--”
Malkar’s voice rang out in the quiet: “Finish it.”
Mildmay made a choked sound, and I could feel the dark swell of Malkar’s will rising like a tide against the tether of the obligation d’âme -- could feel the moment it overwhelmed it, submerging it. Hating myself, I jammed my fist up against Mildmay’s bruised ribs, hard enough to make him curl up and lose his balance, allowing me to twist free. I rolled aside and clambered to my feet moments ahead of him, trying to put distance between us, trying to think of a way to overcome Malkar’s binding without destroying my brother’s mind in the process.
“Let him go,” I begged Malkar, knowing it was useless. The urge to offer myself up in return was strong, but I knew I couldn’t -- I had stated it logically enough to the others before, knowing that Malkar would use me to shatter the Mirador’s remaining defenses and topple all of Marathat if he could. I couldn’t exchange one life for that. But that math was harder to justify now with Mildmay bloody and naked in front of me, violated by the worst kind of heresy.
Malkar said nothing, his eyes glittering cruelly.
Mildmay’s movements were jerkier now-- at first I thought I’d hurt him worse than I’d intended, but it wasn’t just a favoring of his ribs or leg. There was a stiffness in the swing of his arms, in the tilt of his head; he was still fighting, I realized with a mix of horror and pride. My annemer little brother was fighting tooth and nail to give me a chance, and I wanted to embrace him for it and howl with grief at the same time.
But even wounded, even fighting back against the binding, the truth remained that Mildmay had been a trained killer. I had never seen it in action before, and I had failed to appreciate what that meant until now. I had seen his rippling muscles as beautiful rather than threatening -- his panther-like grace as something to desire, not something to fear. I had forgotten that he was the man who had killed Cerberus Cresset and Vey Coruscant both.
Now, I realized I had been blind in that.
He was faster than me. Stronger. And I only had so much room to maneuver, handicapped as I was by the need not to kill him. All too soon, I slipped, and he was there, darting forward with unearthly speed to slam me against the stone wall, blade biting into the skin of my throat. It stung, but it paled in comparison to the anguish etched on his features. “Please,” he gasped.
I swallowed, and the movement made the knife cut a hair deeper, a trickle of blood oozing down toward my collar. “Keep fighting it,” I begged him. “You’re strong--” The strongest man I’ve ever known.
He made a helpless sound like a wounded animal that tore at my heart. “Please... stop me,” he managed brokenly.
The knife moved back from my throat. Slowly, Mildmay’s hand began to turn, fraction of an inch by fraction of an inch, pivoting the blade away from me. He was shaking with the effort, and I could only imagine the force of will it required. Across the room, Malkar frowned.
Mildmay looked me in the eyes. “Stop... me,” he repeated. “You... gotta ...”
It took a moment, but then like a blow I realized -- looking at the knife he’d now turned toward himself -- what he was asking.
And I couldn’t.
Even if I had the strength in that moment to overpower Mildmay -- what right did I have? I could almost hear Mehitabel’s voice in my head, cursing me, or see Gideon’s frown as he watched me from across the room. And they’d have been right... I’d hurt Mildmay more than enough. All of this was because of me and my blind foolishness. Powers, even before Vey and Malkar and the Bastion, I’d taken everything from him -- his life in the Lower City, his ability to walk, even his very freedom, whether he’d asked me to do it or not. I was already a monster, it was true, but to cap that monstrosity by taking my own brother's life to save my skin -- to live, but wake every morning with no sign of him, knowing he was dead by my hand, dead like Joline and never coming back --
I grabbed the knife, but didn’t drive it back toward him. I pushed it down instead. My eyes burned, and the words broke forth in a sob:
Across the room, Malkar must have grown bored. “Mildmay,” he snapped, anger in his voice: “kill .”
Between us, Mildmay made a noise of despair and lurched forward.
Whatever I had expected, it hadn’t been his mouth on mine. But before I could question it, he was pressed against me, his lips on mine in a kiss that was a distant mirror of the one we’d shared in Farflung when I’d cast the obligation d’âme. But where that kiss had been hard and needy, my tongue plundering his mouth, this one was as soft and tender as an apology. I didn’t dare breathe, but for a heartbeat I managed to lose myself in the feeling of him, the metallic taste and the texture of his scarred lip.
Then his mouth withdrew and he slumped against me, his weight going limp. I grunted, catching him and feeling something dig uncomfortably against my ribs. “M’sorry,” he mumbled, breath hot against my neck. Taking him by the shoulders to steady him, I looked down--
I didn’t understand the evidence of my eyes. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t want it to make sense. Didn’t want to understand that the thing digging into my ribs had been the hilt of the knife now sticking out of my brother’s chest; didn’t want to understand that he’d driven the blade into his own flesh when he’d thrown himself forward to kiss me; didn’t want to recognize the dark red streaming down Mildmay’s bruised stomach as his life’s blood, and that my brother had saved my life yet again, only this time from himself.
I didn’t want any of it. But it was happening all the same.
I think I screamed. My throat ached and the sound echoed in my ears as I struggled to catch and lower Mildmay when his legs folded under him, both of us crumpling to the stone floor in an uncoordinated heap. His skin was slippery with blood that welled up unceasingly from the wound. Cradling him, I pressed my hand to the place where the blade disappeared into his chest, unsure if I should draw it out or not, useless in my attempts to staunch the flow. His blood was hot between my fingers.
“M’sorry,” he repeated softly. As if he was the one who needed to apologize -- for any of it.
“Don’t.” I shook my head. “Don’t, please--” Don’t leave me too. It was all my fault. And he was going to die in my arms now, just like Joline had in the Rue d’Orphée.
His breath was wheezing now, and when he coughed, blood flecked his lips. Still, with blood-slicked fingers, he took my hand and squeezed. “Kill. Him,” he murmured, holding my gaze with a ferocity that must have taken everything he had left -- a moment later he shuddered slumped, his grip going lax and his eyes drifting closed.
“Mildmay?” My voice cracked.
My brother did not stir.
“Well, that was all rather pitiful.”
Malkar had crossed over and now gave Mildmay’s body a disinterested nudge with his boot. “I’d call it a waste, but we both know gutter-trash when we see it, don’t we?”
I didn’t move. My heart had been torn out. Mildmay was dead and he’d taken my heart with him, leaving nothing but a burning hatred in my chest. A glittering coal of pure, vengeful loathing.
I knew what I had to do.
I let Malkar pull me to my feet. I nodded listlessly as he mentioned second chances; how with my brother now out of the way, I had no reason to go haring off and being a fool; how I had a chance now to remind him what I was good for, why he should keep me alive.
I surrendered to the kiss. I dragged him into my construct.
And then I burned the heart out of him, just like he’d burned the heart out of me.
In the end, I knelt in his ashes and wondered why I wasn’t smouldering cinders too.
It might have been seconds or hours later that I heard Mehitabel’s voice from the corridor.
“Felix, we found other Cabalines, are you-- oh!”
I couldn’t see her in my peripheral vision, standing on my right side as she was. But I knew she was there all the same.
“He’s dead.” I said flatly. It didn’t matter which ‘he’ she thought I meant, the answer was the same in both cases.
I heard her footsteps across the stone but didn’t look up. Her skirts rustled, and then she repeated my name, but this time with urgency: “Felix!”
“What,” I snapped, voice still tight with grief.
“Mildmay is still breathing, Felix, we need to do something!”
My head jerked up. It couldn’t be possible -- Mildmay was so still, so pale, blood pooling around his body and running outward through the seams in the stonework. But Mehitabel had her little compact out, the mirror held to his lips where the glass fogged unmistakably.
I lurched over, heedlessly breaking through and scattering the charred remains of Malkar’s carcass. Mildmay’s face was cold where I pressed my hand against it, but if he lived--
--if he lived, we were still deep in the Bastion, in danger, far from any help, and he still had a knife in his chest. Whatever life was in him wouldn’t last long. I bit back a curse.
“Can you help him?” Mehitabel demanded.
I flinched, wishing selfishly I hadn’t insisted that Gideon stayed behind. “Healing magic is heresy to the Cabalines.”
“Fuck the Cabalines.” She said it with such force that I looked up, meeting her fiery gaze. “Fuck the Cabalines and fuck the rules, you’re Felix fucking Harrowgate and you just killed Brinvillier Strych or Malkar Gennadion or Beaumont whatever-the-hell his name was, now can you help him?”
I looked down at Mildmay. I had never studied healing magic at the Mirador, and Malkar had never taught me. But I remembered fragments of texts in the Gardens of Nephele, snatches of conversations by the celebrants discussing their treatment of patients...
It wasn’t enough. But what choice did I have?
I took hold of the knife hilt and pulled. Mildmay’s body jerked and I felt ill as the blade slipped free and more blood welled forth. Pressing a hand over the wound, I reached inside myself, for my power and for every last scrap of will that I had.
I imagined a tear in a bolt of fabric; a hole in a dam; a crack in stone. Slowly, deliberately, I wove my power through, darning the tear and knitting the fibers together; plugging the hole in the dam to stop the flow of water rushing through; forcing together the seam in the stone until it closed. But I could still feel Mildmay slipping, as if borne away by the current of the Sim. I could see him, pale in the dark water, slipping below its surface, and terror gripped my heart.
The Sim was death.
He jumped in after you, I reminded myself. In Klepsydra, and he’d been ready to do it again under the Mirador.
He’d do it now.
What right do you have?
I dove in. And after me I dragged a tether, my magic coiled into a rope to the living. The water closed over my head and I wanted to scream, but I kicked, letting the icy rush carry me after Mildmay, reaching for him.
The tether wasn’t enough. I pulled, harder, drawing on whatever I could around me. Something above me thrummed with power and I snatched at it, my power like a grappling hook that dug in and held fast. It was thin now, extended too far, and I could see the yawning maw of the Septad Gate up ahead. My heart was in my throat and I wanted to shriek, but Mildmay was close now -- almost close enough to reach --
I pulled. I pulled against that thrumming power above, and from the earth itself below me. I pulled from every single fiber of myself, and pulled from the charred remains of Malkar Gennadion. I pulled until I thought I would snap under the tension.
My fingers closed on Mildmay’s shoulder.
I opened my eyes.
Mehitabel was watching me, her own eyes wide. “Felix?” she asked carefully, her voice too loud in the quiet. The quiet itself was loud -- wrong, though I couldn’t place why--
But then Mildmay drew in a rasping breath and that was all that mattered.
The wound was a livid, puckered scar, red and angry, but it no longer bled. He looked like death, but his chest rose and fell and I could have wept for it. “Mildmay,” I said, my hand on his cheek, willing him to open his eyes...
His lips parted and he coughed, wheezing. “Mildmay,” I repeated, “say something--”
He mumbled. I didn’t understand a word of it, but it was music to my ears all the same, my burned-out heart now whole and leaping in my chest. “What was that?”
“Said...” He opened one bleary green eye. “Fuck me sideways ‘til I cry...”
Heedless of the blood, I grabbed him in an embrace and did not let go.
Three times now, I’d committed heresy. Once to bind. Once to kill. Once to save.
And this last I could not regret for an instant.