“Good morning, Dusty!”
In the four weeks I’d been prisoner here, I still never became used to a padfoot’s footfalls. Every damned time, Antoinetta managed to creep up on me while I was busy. I bit back a sigh and put down my washing, flicking soap bubbles off my hands. I had only a few robes, and I was doing my best to keep them clean down here, washing them in the kitchens where I could stay out of the way.
“Good morning, Antoinetta.”
“You’re in a mood. Is it because of your mother coming soon? Any day now, right?”
It should have been days ago, came the thought, but I didn’t share that. A strange mingle of feelings – the raw anger driving me to near tears every time I thought of her, but even still I was worried about her. What if something had happened on the way? The thought ached, anxious and uncertain. If she was hurt…
Not only that, I worried for myself. What would happen to me, if she never arrived at all?
I could guess.
“Hello? You awake in there?” Antoinetta snapped her fingers in front of my face, pulling me from my thoughts again. “I need a favour.” I was beginning to think the younger Breton liked having me around. She seemed to be one of the lowest on the rung, here. Must have been nice, having someone else to boss around.
“Well…” She dragged the word on her tongue, glancing up coyly while digging something out of her pocket. A little vial, filled with – I recognized it immediately, eyes going wide as she snickered.
“I knew you’d make that face! You made this, didn’t you? You! Little miss pestle-humper in her frumpy robes! I wouldn’t have thought you the type. Have you used it much? Got a handsome someone back at the university you used to test it?”
Heat climbed up from my collar to the edges of my hair. Mara, mother of mercy, get me out of here.
“Well, it works like a charm. I used it in a contract down in the Imperial City once, help make him more – more happy to be alone with me, you know? Poor bastard still had his ‘sword drawn’ even after I slit his throat!”
Mara, if you have any goddamn mercy, you will strike me dead now.
"Could you make some more? We have all the supplies here, I bet, and Vicente said you could use the laboratory. Please? Pretty please?"
...If I ever get back to a chapel, I'm throwing dead slaughterfish through the windows.
Suddenly, Antoinetta went still and wide-eyed. I turned to see – Vicente, The Speaker, and Ocheeva, none of them looking particularly pleased.
“Out. Both of you.”
She bowed her head low and, with a quiet acknowledgement, scurried out. I stalled a moment longer, but the cold look from Lucien was enough to send me out on her tail. She stopped just down the hall, biting her lower lip at my raised brow.
“What was that about?” I worried that I already knew.
“Not my business. You learn quick when to get out of the way down here. I’m going to have a bath.” A toss of her hair.
Not her business, perhaps. But it was mine. I nodded slowly, giving her a little nod and encouragement on her way. “I’ll – I’ll go to the laboratory.”
“Perfect. Make a big batch, I’m sure I’ll use it!” A little wave and she was off. Only when she was out of sight did I inhale deep and try to mimic those near-silent steps she had, moving slowly up against the stone wall to just outside the entrance to the kitchens.
“…been decades, and we are to welcome her back with open arms?” Lucien speaking, sounding disdainful. “She near abandoned her duties in High Rock. And for her to come now, when rumours of a traitor abound…”
“With the blessing of Jehenna’s Speaker, Lucien, in the interest of raising her family. Not such a terrible goal.” I felt my chest hitch at Vicente’s words, tempered as always. “And from what she wrote, she did care for contracts from time to time there, when commanded, training her elder daughter.”
Even then. I bit my tongue hard, hands balling into fists. Even then, with Anya.
“And yet she went to have whelps of her own. We were to receive an assassin from her, not an alchemist. She has shown us little loyalty these past years.”
“This Sanctuary, perhaps, but not the Brotherhood. Her loyalty to Sithis has never wavered. I have no doubt of that.” A hint of amusement in the vampire’s voice. “You never quite forgave her, for leaving us.”
“For a fool healer spreading the word of the Nine. An outsider.” Venom in the Speaker’s voice, enough to startle me. He was – bitter. “And you were never quite able to forget her, were you, Vicente?”
A long silence between them as I listened. Forget her? Did he…
It explained a bit. Why he was so kind to me. Why he was the most welcoming to her, why it was him she’d stayed in contact with even when she left for High Rock with papa. My stomach flopped. I pushed my fist down to steady it, trying to keep my breath steady, low as they spoke again.
“Executioner, honoured Speaker.” It was Ocheeva who broke the pause, voice deferential. “I would, if I may be so bold, say we have our orders regardless of our personal feelings towards Madame Abelle. The Listener shall surely give us the Night Mother’s guidance in this matter when he arrives. Until then, we need only host her and wait.”
So much to absorb. A traitor in the Brotherhood? Who was the Listener? And if Vicente had – affections for my mother, once, did that mean –
A cleared throat behind me.
I had to clap my hands over my mouth to muffle a squeak, turning wide-eyed to meet the Bosmer woman. An unamused glare. She gave only a jerk of her chin down the hall to dismiss me before entering the room in long strides. My heart thudded in my chest as I began to walk away, only to freeze stalk still.
“Brother and Sister, Speaker, forgive my interruption. Madame Abelle has arrived.”
She’s here. She’s here.
“Shall I escort her here?”
“No. We will meet her in the common room.” Lucien, curt and cold. Footsteps. I stayed in place, hugging myself tight as they left one by one in a trail, the Speaker lingering to glance over his shoulder at me. A cold, cold smile.
“Rude to eavesdrop, pet. Are you coming?”
I walked like I was being lead to execution. Perhaps I was. Was it all a lie, over the years? Every kindness, every act of love she’d shown me – was it all about to be undone?
Let it be someone else. Some desperate part of me clung to hope even as I felt numbness trickle through me, fear welling sickly in my chest. Let this be a mistake. All of this. I don’t care if I die, just let this be…
They parted for me, after we entered the common room. Let me walk first towards the woman who was suddenly a stranger and yet so very, very familiar, so unchanged.
Her hair spun tight in a bun, ink black, now traced through with grey and silver. Dressed elegantly, head held high even as a hand rose to her lips. The hands that rocked me to sleep and choked the life out of innocents, the hands that stroked my hair and killed my father. Something clambered up my throat, a single word bitter-sweet and ragged sharp tumbling from my lips.
“My Dust.” She gave a watery smile – gods, I’d missed her smile and gods, it hurt to see it now, stung deep and caustic. I stared hard at her, this woman I'd trusted, I'd loved, as she smoothed her skirt down and approached. Slowly, gently as though toward a frightened animal, or a coiled snake. Bitter bile rose in my throat as she met my gaze.
"I came as quickly as I could. I am so sorry for making you wait, chérie, for – for tangling you in all of this. It was never my intent.”
When she stepped forward, I stepped back. A flicker of pain on her features.
"Dust - "
"Why." Cold and tempered like steel, the simplest thing I could say, the simplest thing I could ask without breaking into tears.
"I..." She trailed away, pursing her lips tight. "I can explain, sweet."
"Why," I persisted, holding the word on my tongue and narrowing my eyes, unmoved as she winced. "He loved you, and you killed him. Why? No." I clutched my brow, shaking my head and backing away, my voice breaking. "I don't want to know, do I? How many have you killed? Papa, Falrung. Sirius, too? How many others, Abelle? "
“Dust, please, let me – “
I ran from her then. Ran like I had from the manor, from the truth about Bolor, like I’d tried to run from the truth that had surrounded me here. I heard her call my name but didn’t slow. The halls echoed eerily with my footfalls, my shadow stretched and fleeing beside me on the wall. I ran as far as I could from her, until I reached the other end of the Sanctuary where Vicente’s room lay, slamming the door behind me and collapsing on it with a strangled curse. I gave a shuddering sigh, hating myself for crying, pressing my brow against the cool mahogany of the door for little comfort.
No more running. No more hiding from it. It was real. She was here.
A knock on the door, the movement of it startled me away. I stood shaking, arms crossed protectively over my chest as Vicente entered, giving a sigh on seeing me.
“I – I’m sorry. I just – I just had to get away.” I squeezed myself tight, voice a croak. I could find somewhere else to hide. Somewhere I wouldn’t have to face this truth, so burning-painful-bright that I wasn’t sure I could see it without being blinded. “I’ll go.”
Infuriatingly, unfailingly mild. “You are angry with her.”
“Of course I’m fucking angry with her!” My own snarl surprised me, the raw coarseness to my voice as I then collapsed into a sob. “She killed my father, the man who taught me magick, a boy too young to shave. She betrayed me. All my life, she lied.”
“Mn.” Just a little sound of affirmation. He gestured to his desk. “Sit down, Dust.”
Still flaring with anger I scoffed. “Why should I take orders from you?”
His gaze hardened, voice gaining a subtle, honed edge. “Sit.”
I sat. He sidled in to rummage through his desk, pulling out an old box, shuffling papers before raising a yellowed envelope. The wax seal was long since broken, the edges bent and wrinkled. Hesitantly I took it from his grasp, shivering as I caught the mingled smell of age and mint.
With the touch of a scholar used to handling ancient texts I smoothed the letter out. Her voice echoed in my head clear and true as I began, holding my breath.
The deed is done. My husband lies dead, and I am to marry Marquis Toltette within the month. I write to you now from my new home in his manor, where the girls and I will begin anew.
I did what I had to. I know this, even as I blame myself. I should have foreseen the depth of Toltette’s feelings for me, known the habits of nobles well enough from my work. Known he would think he was defending me, saving me. But I didn’t. Not until I received the contract, and the order.
I wonder still if it was all a terrible coincidence, or some orchestration. Perhaps a test from our dearest Mother, in my crime of loving an outsider. And I did love him still, even as hurt as I was for his betrayal. Jacques wanted only to help the needy, the unfortunate, but he sacrificed us – our health and wealth – to do it, and learning he loved Falrung over me…
I gave up everything for him, Vicente, as you well know. I followed him to High Rock, gave him his daughters, and he drove me into the arms of a stranger out of loneliness and anger. I should have hated him. I could not, even as I poisoned him that night.
It is done, and I do not regret obeying the order. I am and always will be loyal to our Mother, our Dread Father. Our Family. I only hope I have done the right thing for my own.
Anya will heal, I know. She’s so strong, and she understands death – has always understood, a part of me thinks. She grieves for her father but understands he will not return, and her little lessons have been going well even for one so young. She moves with the grace of a moonlit shadow, already well knows the tale and history of our kind. Someday, she will make our Mother proud.
But little Gabby – Vicente, I cannot feign to think she will follow in her sister’s footsteps or my own. Not now.
She thinks it’s her fault, that her father and Falrung are gone. He had her pour the mead every night they were together, and she believes she somehow did it wrong. It breaks my heart that she blames herself when it is me alone who should carry that burden. Even if it was necessary, even if it means a better life for her, I and I alone should carry that guilt.
She is her father’s daughter. She is utterly a creature of love and laughter, and I would not change this for the world. I found her playing in the kitchen with a mortar and pestle, and when I asked what she was doing she said she was going to get papa back, heal him like he healed others at the chapel. She’s so stubborn, I wonder if she just might do it.
I know these wounds will heal, in time. And as much as I regret the pain I have inflicted on my daughters, I hope as they grow they will embrace their lives here. As you have told me, patience is an assassin's greatest virtue - and perhaps that of a mother, too. Give my warmest regards to the family, even those who will not accept them.
With all of my love,
I hadn’t realized I was crying, not until my tears fell and stained the page. I wiped my face onto my sleeve, taking a deep, shaky breath as Vicente placed a gentle hand on my shoulder.
“She wanted to protect you. To give you a chance at a better life.”
I had a better life, came the bitter thought, and yet – what Anya had said when we were children so long ago was true. What maman had written, true. I loved my father dearly, held him in my memories as pure and untouchable, but he didn’t do what was best for us. He could have found work in a town, kept us comfortable, safe and healthy. He kept us in the village so he could help others, at the sacrifice of ourselves. He’d hurt us, turning to Falrung in secret. And maman…
I hated her. I loved her. She was the woman who murdered my father, and the woman who’d rubbed my back and sung me through the nightmares that followed. And as she stepped into the threshold of the room, eyes wet, I couldn’t push her away.
I flew to her, buried my tears in the crook of her neck and cried like a child as she soothed me. "My Dusty. My little girl. I’ve missed you, so much.”
I choked on a sob. “I missed you too, maman.”
“I have made mistakes, my sweet. Terrible mistakes. It is a difficult thing, to be both a daughter of Sithis and a mother of a child. Forgive me."
What else could I do? I loved her, terribly and deeply and painfully. As angry and betrayed as I was, I couldn't hate her, could never hate her. “I need answers, maman. There’s so much I don’t understand.”
“I know, chérie. I promised you I’d explain, and I will.” She glanced over my shoulder, bright eyes crinkling as she laughed. "Ah, Vicente. My first time here in decades, and already I need to ask a favour. Please, put on some tea." Her gaze turned back to me, stroking cool fingers down my cheek. "I have much to discuss with my daughter."