Something was wrong with my dreams.
I could not identify precisely what it was, only that it was. It was not just the resurgence of nightmares (though there was that) or the uneasiness I felt walking through my construct Melusine. It was less precise, and more troubling for its imprecision. Not knowing what was wrong meant not knowing what to do about it.
Even asking Thaumuris for assistance would be useless. He would have taken it seriously, but I wasn’t about to ask him to spend his limited energy on a vague feeling that was quite possibly an artifact of nothing but my unsettled mind.
And I knew why it would be the case, too. Why the nightmares, why the uneasiness, why I was jumping at shadows.
Three days time would mark five years since Malkar’s death.
I wondered if I would ever really believe he was gone.
Mildmay was eyeing me with his particular blend of wariness and concern that I was pretending not to notice. I wondered if he was as aware of the date as I was - if it bore the same significance for him.
“What,” Mildmay said, and I realized that I’d been staring at him. I looked hastily away and kept myself from fiddling nervously with my rings.
“Nothing,” I said. Too quickly. I looked back down at the book I was supposed to be reading, but could feel Mildmay looking at me, trying to decide if he was going to press or not. Weighing the dangers of doing so, perhaps.
He shifted and stood up. “Want some tea?” he said awkwardly.
“Please,” I said, grateful for the reprieve. I found a smile for him that he did not, of course, return, but he seemed to relax. That was good enough.
If Mildmay was not brooding as I was, I did not want to make him. Better kept to myself, and it would surely pass.
It was my preoccupation, no doubt, that brought Malkar into my dreams. I was on my knees, my hands bound, and Malkar cupped my chin and drew my eyes up to look at him. “Felix,” he said, the sound of my name in his mouth sending a shiver down my spine. His fingers tightened, digging into my jaw until I cried out in pain. He smiled, cruel and cold, and my body stirred, and I bent toward him as I always had. “Have you missed me?”
I tried to pull away without success. “No,” I said, and it was true but it tasted like a lie just the same.
“You should have known better than to run from me. I’ll always catch you.” His eyes glittered. “Now. What’s to be done with a disobedient slut?”
Let go of me, I meant to say, but my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Whatever look was on my face made Malkar laugh, and that laughter followed me as I dragged myself up out of sleep.
There were dents in my palms where my fingernails had dug in, and a cold sweat had broken out on my body. I could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs. Mildmay would be asleep just down the hall, and for a brief moment I was tempted to go and wake him, a child seeking it was just a dream comfort.
Don’t be stupid. Nightmares of Malkar were nothing new, and it was no surprise that one would come now. I stayed where I was and waited for myself to calm, though anxiety continued to prick at me, keeping me awake.
Mildmay took one look at me the next morning and sat up straight, but he didn’t ask, and I didn’t say. Eventually he cleared his throat and said, “you okay?” like he thought I might bite his head off.
“Fine,” I said crisply, and took a vehement bite of toast.
Someone else was in my construct-Melusine.
It ought to be impossible, and I could not find them, but I could feel it just the same: like the feeling of someone staring at me across the room, or the knowledge of a blow before it came.
Like the instinct I’d once had for when Malkar was near, even when I couldn’t see him.
I shoved that thought away and reshaped the dream, thinking show me who is here. The city changed around me, and I stood in Pharoahlight in empty streets, though the buildings seemed to loom over me. I tried again, and stood before the Mirador, just outside the doors.
I wanted to seek out Thaumuris, to pick his brain, but something warned me against going to the Khloidanikos. I let myself fall into ordinary dreams instead, but found no rest there either: I was in the Warrens, and I knew something was pursuing me but did not dare look back to see what. I ran deeper and deeper, and I could sense I was being driven, guided toward something, and whatever it was would kill me but I couldn’t stop or something worse would happen.
I could hear Mildmay calling my name, but I was hopelessly lost, and there was no way I would reach him before either the monster caught me, or I reached whatever horror lay at the center of this labyrinth.
I woke with a sour taste in my mouth and lay staring up at the ceiling for a long time before I gave up on sleeping more and left my bed entirely.
In consequence, I was awake when Mildmay emerged, in a reverse of the usual state of affairs, and he stopped and did a bit of a double take when he saw me.
“Good morning,” I said, though in truth my head was aching and I was struggling to focus.
“You’re up,” Mildmay said blankly.
“Astutely observed,” I said snidely, and Mildmay’s face closed off. I glanced away and modified my tone. “Pardon me. I had an unfortunate night.”
His expression softened again. “Nightmares?” I shrugged, noncommittal, but it hadn’t precisely been a question. “Could’ve woken me up.”
“It wasn’t that bad. But I was awake, so I thought I would…” I gestured at the book in front of me, and the notes I was nominally working on. “Do something useful.”
Mildmay did not look entirely convinced. He seemed to be trying to decide if he was going to say something about it or not. I spoke first. “After breakfast, I thought we could practice your penmanship,” I said brightly, well aware of the unhappy stare it would earn me.
“Dunno who you think I’m gonna be writing to,” he said.
“Mehitabel?” I said, and his face did something strange, though of course without moving much.
“Why would you think she’d want to hear from me?”
“I don’t know why she wouldn’t,” I said almost gently. He blushed a little and looked away.
Successfully deterred, I thought, with a mixture of humor and bitterness. It probably said nothing good of me that I was so willing - and able - to manipulate my brother according to my needs. Never mind that I was only avoiding a conversation neither of us really wanted to have.
But it wasn’t as though I really had anything to share. A bad feeling. Some unpleasant dreams. Nothing, really, and nothing Mildmay could help with.
“Felix. Hey, Felix.”
I thought at first I was dreaming, and then realized I wasn’t, I was awake, but nothing made sense: I was shivering, my clothes were wet, and I wasn’t in my bed at all. The world seemed to tip sideways and then right itself. “What,” I said, and then stopped, still feeling a little as though I was stuck between wakefulness and sleep. Mildmay was standing with one hand gripping my arm, holding a lamp in the other, looking up at me with obvious alarm. I blinked at him.
“You awake now?” he said. I could hear it in his voice: he was frightened. I realized slowly that I could feel grass under my bare feet, and it was raining. My thoughts were all out of order and I struggled to arrange them, to make sense of what had happened.
“I - yes? Why are we outside?”
Mildmay’s shoulders dropped and he let out a sigh. “You were sleepwalking,” he said. “Come on. Let’s go back inside.”
“Sleepwalking?” I said blankly, but I followed Mildmay’s gentle tug, stumbling back toward the house, still half in a daze. Once inside, I stood dripping on the mat, arms wrapped around myself, becoming fully aware of how cold I was. Mildmay took one look at me and went for one of the blankets.
“Sit down,” he said, pointing. “I’m gonna boil some water.”
I nodded mutely and sat, almost folding my legs up on the couch before I remembered not to. I tried to remember if I had been dreaming, but nothing came to mind.
Mildmay emerged with a steaming mug and a pot and handed me the former. I cupped it between my hands and looked at Mildmay, somehow expecting him to explain. He shifted.
“Something woke me up,” he said. “Dunno what. But I looked out and you were walking over toward the cliffs in your nightshirt, and when I tried calling you back you looked around and said…” He trailed off. I bit my lip, forgetting to stop myself.
“What did I say?”
Mildmay’s eyes moved away from me and then back. “‘Something moves in the dark,’” he said. “‘He’s coming back.’ That’s what you said.”
Spiders crawled up my spine and my mouth went dry. “And then?”
Mildmay shook his head. “And nothing. You turned back around and kept going. S’good you weren’t moving fast.” He was eyeing me like he wasn’t certain if he was worried about me or nervous that I might start speaking in tongues.
“I don’t remember…” I cleared my throat. “I suppose I must have been...dreaming.”
“Never gone walking before,” Mildmay said.
That was true. Or if I had, no one had ever mentioned it, and it seemed likely someone would have. I looked away. “I’m afraid I have no explanation.”
Mildmay’s eyebrows furrowed a little and he seemed to be thinking. Finally, slowly, he said, “could be something to do with whatever’s been chewing on you the last few days, maybe.”
It wasn’t a question, but it was an invitation. An opening.
I shivered again, and pulled the blanket up, clutching it like it could protect me. “It’s been five years,” I blurted out. Mildmay gave me a blank look, and I swallowed and looked down. “Or...it will be. In a few days.”
“What will be,” Mildmay said slowly. I caught myself about to rock forward.
“Malkar,” I said. “Five years since...he died. Since I killed him.”
The silence was deadly.
“Oh,” Mildmay said. “Yeah?” I couldn’t read his voice, and didn’t trust mine, so I just jerked my head in a nod.
“You didn’t know,” I said, when I thought I could speak normally again. Mildmay twitched one shoulder up and then down.
“Wasn’t really tracking time,” he said, and I winced. No, he wouldn’t have been. Not locked away in the dark, tortured until he was half out of his mind. I cleared my throat awkwardly.
“Anyway,” I said, “that’s probably all it is.”
Mildmay did not look soothed. Perhaps because I’d just reminded him of one of the lowest points of his life, and perhaps also why he’d been there. I tried not to fidget. “Okay,” he said slowly, finally. “Does that mean you’re gonna go on walkabout again while you’re sleeping?”
“It seems unlikely,” I said. “As it has never happened before.” Mildmay looked dubious, and I expelled a breath. “What are you going to do,” I said acerbically, “lock me in my room?”
The look on Mildmay’s face suggested he’d perhaps been thinking about it. I stood up sharply and said, “absolutely not.”
“What would’ve happened if I hadn’t woken up,” Mildmay said. “You could’ve walked right over the cliff.”
“I will not be shut in like some mad maiden aunt,” I said, too loudly, and turned on my heel. “I am going back to bed.”
I did, but I didn’t go back to sleep. I wondered if Mildmay did, or if he sat awake, waiting in case I went wandering again.
Something moves in the dark. He’s coming back.
I shivered, and rolled to my side to face the wall.
Mildmay and I were both poorly rested and irritable the next morning. I snapped at Mildmay, he retreated into sullen silence, and our housekeeper fled almost the moment she placed our plates in front of us.
The rest of the day did not improve from there. Mildmay left to visit Kay, transparently in order to get away from me, and I attempted to retreat into research but got nowhere for lack of focus. I almost dozed off early in the afternoon only to startle awake, convinced for a moment that I was being watched.
We ate dinner without speaking, and I went to bed early. I considered seeking out Thaumuris and again decided against it; it seemed wiser to attempt to get some actual sleep after the previous night’s unsatisfying rest.
When I fell into dreaming, I did not, at first, realize that I had.
I was lying on my stomach. The welts down the backs of my thighs stung, though the tears on my face had dried some time ago. I was limp, wrung out, aching.
“Well done,” Malkar said, and I closed my eyes and went limp with relief. He dragged a fingernail along one of the welts and I gasped quietly, my body jerking, and heard him laugh. “I always knew you were a treasure, darling, but even I had no idea just how useful you would end up being.”
A shudder ran down my spine like a finger of ice. “Thank you, Malkar,” I said, because I knew I was meant to. I could almost hear his smile.
“Yes,” he said, and tangled his fingers in my hair, pulling my head back until my neck strained. “That’s right. Don’t you know by now, Felix? There is no door you can close tightly enough that I cannot get back in. I made you. You will always belong to me.”
He let go my hair and I realized, very suddenly, I am dreaming. With that knowledge, I tried to wrench myself away, to flee to my construct Melusine, but nothing changed. Malkar pushed my legs apart and knelt between them.
“Don’t fight me, darling,” he said. “I have been learning since we last met. Thanks to you...I never thought much of oneiromancy. An oversight, clearly.”
My breathing quickened. I tried to pull away but my wrists were bound in shackles; in the way of dreams, had always been bound. I was panting for air, breathing too hard and too quickly, but I couldn’t get away.
“No,” I said. “You can’t-”
“Silence, slut,” Malkar said. “This is not...ideal. But it is a start.”
And he thrust into me.
I screamed. I didn’t try not to. I screamed, and struggled, and tried to fight against what he was pushing into me - himself, physical as metaphor, and I knew instinctively that if he succeeded the thing that woke wouldn’t be me. I tried to change the terms of the dream, tried to reshape it around us, around me, but I was losing.
Malkar’s weight pressed down on me, his voice low in my ear: “I think the first thing I’ll do is see to your gutter rat brother.”
I twisted, bucked, howled as he drove into me again and again and I could feel myself tearing, cracking open, an abyss of dark water yawning under me–
Something stung my face. It was sensation that wasn’t Malkar and I lurched toward it, could feel him pulling me back, overwhelming me.
“Fuck - Felix, wake up!”
I woke up. I saw Mildmay, close by, and shoved him away, trying to scramble back but my body didn’t seem to be working right. “Get away,” I said frantically, Malkar’s voice still in my head and I couldn’t feel him anymore but how could I know.
Mildmay’s eyes went hurt, confused, and then closed off. “You woke me up,” he said. “It looked like you were having some kind of fit - Kethe, Felix, what’s going on?”
I swallowed convulsively. My mouth filled with saliva and I only just had enough time to twist so I didn’t vomit on myself. Immediately my face went hot and I squeezed my eyes closed, miserably embarrassed. I heard Mildmay stand, and throw a towel over my mess. “C’mon,” he said. “Get off the floor and sit. I’ll get some water.”
I sat, wrapping my arms around myself and shaking. Had Mildmay broken me free in time? How would I know?
Had it even been real? It had felt..but even as I sat here, shivering in cold sweat and nauseated, the clarity was fading and I was beginning to feel foolish. Malkar’s rubies were locked away. Malkar himself was dead, burned to ash.
There is no door you can close tightly enough…
Mildmay returned with a cup of water and pushed it in my direction. I sipped it slowly, my stomach still churning. After a moment looking at me, Mildmay pulled a blanket off the bed and held that out to me too.
“Okay,” he said, after a long silence. “So.”
I didn’t quite cringe, but I came close. “It was a nightmare.” Mildmay just looked at me, patently unconvinced, and I looked down at my hands, twisting together. I forced them to still, and noticed then something on my wrists.
The shadow of bruises, like something had been digging into my skin. Something like shackles, maybe. My mouth went dry.
I wanted to keep my mouth shut, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep this from Mildmay, not when he might be in danger, not when somehow something of Malkar might yet remain, linked to me and powerful enough to invade my dreams.
Mildmay came over and put a hand on my forehead. I pushed it away. “I’m not sick,” I said, my voice wavering. “I’m-”
My tongue twisted, stilled. I couldn’t speak. Not just didn’t want to, but couldn’t, and I felt as though I’d been plunged into a bucket of ice water.
A compulsion. Malkar had laid a compulsion on me, from within my dream, or maybe it was some piece of him he’d managed to plant inside me before I broke away, keeping me from telling Mildmay or anyone about what was happening.
My head spun and I thought for a moment I might faint.
“Felix?” Mildmay said, audibly worried, from a great distance away. I bent over to put my head on my knees.
“Would you please,” I said, my voice trembling slightly, “get me a pen and paper?”
Mildmay didn’t move. “If you’re sick,” he said, and I interrupted.
“Mildmay. Just the pen and paper. Please.”
Another long pause, but he went. I focused on keeping my breathing slow and trying to steady myself, though my fear kept shrieking at me. If it had worked, I told myself, I wouldn’t be here.
Unless I’d been wrong about what Malkar had been trying to do in the first place. And anyway how, how could he be here, still…
There is no door you can close tightly enough that I cannot get back in. Me. It was me. Somehow, I was his door.
That thought almost sent me back into hysterics, but I managed to hold it off until Mildmay returned with a pen and paper. I penned a quick letter to Virtuer Hutchence requesting that he check on the status of the deposit I’d made to the nullifying chamber, then paused.
I have reason to believe that the person to whom they belonged may have found some way of, I intended to write, but even as I started to write the first word my hand jerked and ink blotted the page. I could feel Mildmay reading over my shoulder and didn’t try to stop him, hesitating over trying to find another way to try to tell him why I was asking, but Malkar had always been...thorough.
I waited for the ink to dry, then folded the letter, realizing belatedly I hadn’t asked for an envelope. I reminded myself that no mail would go out until tomorrow anyway.
“What’s a nullifying chamber,” Mildmay said. I could hear wariness and suspicion and fear all together in his voice.
“It’s a place meant to deaden magic,” I said, as steadily as I could. “Nullify - to make nothing, or cancel out. It is where the College keeps certain...dangerous artifacts, to ensure they can’t affect anyone.”
“And what’d you put in there?”
I almost wondered if I would not be able to answer that, either, but the words came out of my mouth perfectly clearly. “Malkar’s rubies.” When Mildmay did not immediately speak, I added, “they were...poisonous. Saturated with noirance. It seemed safer to…”
“Nah,” Mildmay said. “Glad you’re rid of them. But…” he gestured at the folded paper. “You think someone might’ve...stolen them, or something?”
I almost hoped that was it. I wished that was what I’d been thinking. “I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it’s just...a bad feeling.” There. That was safe to say, apparently. “Most likely I am just being overly cautious.”
“And?” Mildmay said. I glanced at him, and he said, “does that got something to do with what just happened?”
Yes, I tried to say, but the compulsion strangled me again and I said instead, “not exactly.”
Mildmay was frowning at me. He thought I was keeping secrets from him, and I longed to say I don’t want to, I would tell you if I could, but I doubted the compulsion would allow it. I looked down, twisting my hands together.
“So you’re not gonna say,” Mildmay said finally. I could hear his frustration and wanted to wince. It reminded me of the last time Malkar had done this, the Virtu broken, the Curia asking me over and over again what I had done, trying to pry answers out of me that I couldn’t give.
“No,” I said heavily, after struggling with finding a way to say something. “I am not.”
“Fine,” Mildmay said flatly, and stood up and left.
I should send him away. Far away, tell him to go to Esmer for a time - but I doubted he would leave, and asking would only hurt him more.
Besides, I did not want to be alone. Not right now, not with Malkar circling me, stalking me. Here again, years after his death, his claws still sunk into my soul giving him purchase to live again.
In me. Through me.
I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself, and did not go back to sleep.
Would I know if I was possessed?
I did not walk in my sleep, the next two nights, and I did not remember my dreams. Mildmay was distant from me, frustrated by my silence, and I did not dare and did not know how to reach out to him when I could not tell him what was going on.
Even in the silence, though, the seeming lack of activity, I could feel it: the wrongness, the coalescing noirant energy, drawing around me like a snare, or a noose. And I worried that even if he had not been fully successful, Malkar might have planted something that would yet come to fruition. He had shown himself adept at playing a long game before. Even in death.
When at last I sought out my construct Melusine again, he was there waiting for me.
I took an automatic step back, meaning to flee, but I was not fast enough. Even in this place where I should have had control, somehow his mastery still won out. He wrapped his hand around my throat and pulled me back against him, fingers digging in.
“Felix, darling,” he purred in my ear. “Why do you run from me?”
“You are dead,” I said, trying to pull away, but his fingers only tightened further.
“Did you think I did not have contingency plans?” he said. “Of which you were but one. Though certainly the best.” I could feel him trying to dig into my mind and twisted, thinking of the Sim’s black waters, of dragging him down into them.
He bit my shoulder, breaking my focus. “No,” he said, the word reverberating through me, paralyzing me for a moment. I could almost feel my pulse battering against his fingers.
“I don’t belong to you,” I managed, breathless. “Not anymore.”
“Don’t you?” he said. “Won’t you always?” He released my throat only to knot his fingers in my hair and yank my head back, a few strands tearing loose from my scalp. “Ungrateful little whore,” he said, and I could feel myself slipping, sliding toward him, my body answering the way I’d been taught.
No. This isn’t what you are anymore.
I wrenched away, tearing loose of his grasp. Malkar backhanded me but I kept my feet. “No,” I gasped. “This is my life. You can’t have it.”
“I will,” Malkar said. He advanced on me, slowly, and I backed away, a step at a time. “All of it. I will devour you. I will swallow you whole.” His smile sent a shiver down my spine. “You fight me right now. But how long until you surrender?”
“Don’t you remember what happened the last time I surrendered?” I asked, with a spark of defiance, but Malkar laughed at me, and my back was against a wall with nowhere further to retreat.
He stopped, though, and held out a hand. “Come, Felix,” he said, like calling a dog to heel. “Why keep fighting me? You know how this will end. Make it easy for yourself.”
“No,” I said desperately. “No,” and tore myself away, at last.
I was shaking when I woke, cold as ice. For just a moment at the foot of my bed I saw him, standing over me, and imagined I could feel shackles holding me spread-eagled on the bed, but he was gone and I was alone, sitting up with my heart racing. I pressed a hand over my mouth to muffle the sound I wanted to make.
He didn’t have me yet. I was fairly certain of that: he would not be trying so hard to convince me to give in if he did. But I feared what would happen when I could no longer fight. When my strength was gone.
How long until you surrender?
And I was on my own.
Mildmay’s frustration only grew with my silence. I took to avoiding him, as much as I avoided sleep. I pursued answers in the books in the library, chasing mentions of linkages that lingered beyond death, possessions. He wasn’t a fantôme, but something else. Kin to one, maybe, but different. And tied to me. Bound to my soul.
Staring at the pages of the latest book that held no answers, I had the hysterical urge to laugh. Perhaps, it occurred to me bleakly, there was only one way to purge Malkar entirely, and that was to purge myself with him.
I shied from that thought, frightened by the fact that it occurred to me at all.
“I brought some tea.”
I closed the book quickly and straightened up, turning toward Mildmay, who was indeed, holding a tray with a steaming mug and pot on it. He looked uncertain, and I cast him a smile I hoped looked reassuring.
“That’s very kind of you,” I said. He eyed me with a trace of suspicion, like he thought I might be mocking him.
“You’ve been up here for hours,” he said eventually. “Missed lunch.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t realized. Now that he pointed it out, though, my stomach grumbled. “I lost track of time.”
Mildmay set the tray down and studied me like he thought I was making some sort of excuse. I waited for him to ask what I was researching, but he didn’t. I could feel the wall between us, and knew it was my doing, but with the binding on my tongue I did not know how to break it.
“Mildmay,” I said carefully, “I am...you know I am grateful for your presence here. Don’t you?”
The sidelong, wary look he gave me hurt. “Yeah,” he said eventually. “I guess.”
I guess. A ringing endorsement, to be sure. “Well, I am,” I said lamely. Mildmay just looked at me in silence for a while and finally nodded.
“Okay,” he said, and didn’t exactly relax but his eyes softened. I gave him a quick, small smile and reached to pour myself some tea.
Only to miss the handle. Standing across the table from me, there was Malkar, looking at me. The air left my lungs and I stared, wide-eyed, as he smiled. Something seared my palm.
Don’t gape, my sweet. You look ridiculous.
Then he was gone and Mildmay was holding my wrist and swearing. My hand was bright red where I’d burned it on the teapot. I stared at it blankly.
“C’mon,” Mildmay was saying. “You gotta run cold water on it.”
“Wait,” I said, and tried again, Malkar is here, or even just Malkar, but once again my tongue caught on the words, and Mildmay was looking at me with no small amount of worry and I heard Malkar saying again I think the first thing I’ll do is see to your gutter rat brother.
I jerked my hand out of Mildmay’s grasp and took two quick steps back. “You should go,” I said, before I could stop myself. Mildmay’s eyes flickered between confusion and hurt and settled on blankness.
“Okay,” he said, and turned toward the stairs.
“I don’t mean-” I stopped, took a breath, and tried again. “Why don’t you - take a few days? For yourself. Get away from here-” away from me “-and...you could go to Esmer. Visit Corbie. Or anywhere.”
I was somewhat glad I couldn’t read Mildmay’s face. “Why?” he finally asked. I scrambled for something I could say, but I didn’t get there quickly enough. His eyes hardened and he said, “if you want me to leave just say.”
I don’t. I don’t, I don’t want to be alone but I don’t know what happens next and you’ve been a casualty of the war between me and Malkar before.
“It isn’t about what I want,” I said weakly.
“But you ain’t gonna say what it is about,” Mildmay said. Not a question. I looked down.
“No,” I said, after trying to find some other way to respond. My stomach was in knots.
“Okay,” Mildmay said. His voice was flat, entirely without feeling, and I braced myself for whatever he was going to say next, but what he said was, “then I ain’t leaving.”
I stared at him. “Pardon?”
“I said I ain’t leaving,” Mildmay said. “Without you give me a good reason.”
I should just tell him that I did want him to leave. But if I did that - if I did that, there was every possibility he wouldn’t come back, and it would hurt him besides, badly, and I didn’t want that. And, of course, I was selfish: I did not want Mildmay to hate me. Though I might be earning that even without chasing him away.
I could not make myself say the words.
“Right,” Mildmay said. “Let me know if you change your mind and want to tell me what the fuck’s going on with you.” He limped away, leaving me alone with the books and my cooling tea. I poured myself a mug with shaking hands, ignoring the throb of the burn, and stared into the tea as though it might tell me what to do.
Malkar was waiting for me when I fell asleep.
“Felix,” he said. “How long are you going to play this game?”
Wake up, I thought to myself, wake up, but his fingers wove into my hair and pulled. “You cut it off,” he said. “A pity. I liked it the way it was.”
I tore myself free and backed away. “Then I’m doubly glad I did,” I said forcefully, and took a ragged breath in. “This won’t work. I will find a way to drive you out. This time for good.”
Malkar laughed with the kind of indulgent fondness that made me want to flinch. “Dearest,” he said, “what makes you think that you can? What makes you think that you are not so deeply bound to me that there is no escape?”
I felt myself waver. “You are not invincible.”
“I am inevitable.” He didn’t move toward me again, just extended a hand. “Come, darling. I know what you want.”
“Not you,” I said. My voice trembled as I backed away. “Not what you would do to me.”
“Liar,” Malkar purred. My heart hammered and it felt like I was fighting for air. My surroundings wavered, Malkar’s workroom forming around me, shackles on the floor open and waiting. I forced the dream back to safety, but it fought me, Malkar fought me, or I was fighting myself.
“No,” I said desperately. “Not again. Never again.”
“Once a whore, always a whore,” Malkar said casually. “You might as well be useful, darling.” He took me in his arms, and kissed me with a glorious cruelty that left my knees weak. A faint sound escaped me that wasn’t quite a whimper. I could feel him seeking gaps in my defenses, looking for a breach. “Let me in,” he said, and I clamped my lips shut and shook my head, not trusting how my words might twist, how Malkar might twist them.
He drew back and struck me across the face, a stinging blow that jarred me awake. I sat up with a gasp, for a moment relieved at my freedom, but I wasn’t alone: he was still there, standing over me. I cried out and scrambled away.
You will never be free of me, he said. I will always be here. Growing stronger, until either you give in or I am strong enough to break you.
I was gasping, struggling to breathe. “I will find a way to be rid of you,” I said, but my voice sounded so small, pathetic. Weak.
Oh, darling, Malkar said, and I quivered at the tone of his voice. Don’t be so dramatic. Don’t you think it’s time for you to come home?
I bolted for the door to my room, clawing it open and fleeing into the hallway. I fled the house entirely out into the night air. I whirled around the moment I was outside, but nothing and no one followed me. I could have sworn I still felt it. Like hands on my shoulders, or someone breathing on the back of my neck.
I sucked in one breath and then another, fighting for control, but as the panic drained away my knees went weak and I sat down in the damp grass. I could hear the waves pounding away against the cliffs.
I was already exhausted. It didn’t seem like Malkar needed me to assent, the way a fantôme would have. He could take me, whatever I willed, if I gave him the chance. If I weakened for a moment, he would be on me like a wolf on a hare, completing what he’d begun in my dream.
I didn’t know exactly what would become of me then. Would I be a passenger at the back of my own mind? Would it be like the fantôme?
Worse. You could fight that better than him.
He’s only a ghost. Lay him like you would any ghost. Would that be enough? Would that keep him buried, or would he crawl back again, his spirit too strong to be driven out?
I stared at the edge of the cliff and swallowed hard, but I couldn’t. Too afraid. Not desperate enough. I knotted my fingers together and hunched my shoulders as though that would keep me warm against the wind blowing off the sea.
I stayed out for the rest of the night, and came in early morning, shivering and damp. I ran into Mildmay as he descended the stairs, and watched him do a double take on seeing me, and then stiffen.
“I couldn’t sleep,” I said, before he could ask.
“So you went and froze yourself?” he said. “It ain’t summer no more.”
“I know,” I said unhappily. Mildmay studied me, but though there was concern there he also seemed tense, wary, like he expected me to hurt him.
“Lemme put some tea on,” he said finally. I opened my mouth to tell him that he didn’t have to, that we could simply ask Mrs. Palgrave to do it, but shut it again. Selfish as always, I wanted Mildmay’s care. I could almost feel us sliding back, losing all the ground we’d gained. My fault.
If I could only explain...but I couldn’t. And Mildmay was giving me that look, the watchful caution of someone watching a snake that might strike any moment. Could he feel it? I wondered. Malkar had tormented him. Perhaps some primal corner of his mind felt Malkar’s presence hanging around me like a shroud, lurking in my shadow, the slavering black dog of my madness waiting to devour me.
His fear gnawed at my heart, but of course he was right to feel it.
I received back a letter: the rings were just where I had left them. I avoided Mildmay all day - not the easiest proposition, but made easier by the fact that Mildmay didn’t seem to want to be around me much either.
That night Malkar stalked me through the streets of Pharoahlight, and I ran and hid, his laughter following me. I could hear myself pleading, somewhere, please, please don’t hurt me, but there was no use, would be no mercy.
I turned a corner and ground to a halt. Mildmay knelt in front of me, his hands chained together and to the floor, a collar around his throat. When he looked up at me, his eyes were empty. A low, rumbling, inhuman snarl issued from his throat.
I recoiled in horror with a cry, and stumbled back into Malkar, who caught me with two hands on my shoulders.
“Such a savage creature,” he said with relish. “I fear it may be too late to shape him into something useful. But he might provide some sport before I discard him.”
“Don’t touch him,” I said, meaning it to be fierce though it came out with too much desperation. “I won’t let you-”
“Oh, Felix, my sweet,” Malkar purred in my ear. “We are far beyond matters of you letting me do anything.” His hands slid up my shoulders to my neck, thumbs pressing into my spine. I could feel myself shivering, but I couldn’t make myself move, or I wasn’t strong enough to shake him away.
“Now,” he said. “I’ve had enough of this coy behavior, darling. It’s time to stop playing.”
His fingers dug in. He had laid the groundwork in the dream I’d barely escaped before - or perhaps had laid the groundwork every time he had used me, worked his magic on me, raped me.
He changed the street around us to a familiar room, one of the Shining Tiger’s, nearly identical to the one where he’d first taken me.
I was older now than I had been then, but, it seemed, no more able to stop him.
It was not like the fantôme. Not exactly, at any rate. It was being held underwater by the scruff of my neck, it was the weight of Malkar’s body over me, it was the suffocating presence of mikkary. I was aware, but not myself. I tried to speak, to scream, but I no longer had a voice.
And besides: I had invited the fantôme in. What Malkar had done - it was a violation, a new kind of rape. It hurt, like I was going to split in two, or explode, the pain something like when Malkar had used my magic to break the Virtu. I thought I would have welcomed going mad if it ended this.
Control your hysterics, darling, Malkar said. Stop fighting me.
He stood, and stretched. He ran my fingers through my hair and smiled. I knew the power in you, he said, but it is different to feel it like this.
“Now,” Malkar said in my voice. “Shall I keep my promise to you?”
I think the first thing I’ll do is see to your gutter rat brother.
I howled. I battered myself against him, but the weight of his power bore down, crushing me. I was as helpless as a rabbit in a snare as he dressed my body, slipped on my rings, and exited into the hallway. I prayed briefly that he might not know all of what I did, but I felt him pluck the knowledge from me of where Mildmay slept, and walked toward him.
What do you think I should do to him, my sweet? I think I will not kill him, after all. I will break him instead. I will have him crawling at our feet and whimpering like a dog.
It seemed too short a time before I was standing in front of Mildmay’s door. Malkar paused, and I felt his smile on my face before he let us inside. He woke quickly, of course; old instincts, and for a moment I hoped he would know, and attack me. If he was quick - Malkar would not be used to my body.
“Felix?” he said, eyebrows furrowing. “Why’re you up?”
“Why do you think?” I said, and I could hear the silky cruelty in it, and it was Malkar’s but it was also mine. “I came to see you, darling.”
Mildmay tensed at once, his eyes narrowing. “What’s that mean,” he said.
“You never were very bright, were you,” I said, and Mildmay’s face went blank. “I’ve been patient. I’ve been tolerant.” I stepped forward, over the threshold. “But I tire of sleeping alone.”
Mildmay’s eyes went wide with alarm and he did move, then, or started to, but Malkar flicked one of my hands. Pain stabbed through me as he drew on my power, and Mildmay froze. I could see him struggling, fighting against the magic holding him fast as I - as Malkar - as I bore down on him. My hand stretched out and brushed Mildmay’s scarred cheek with the back of my fingers. He shuddered, jaw working, but my magic had taken his voice as well.
“Mildmay,” he said, somewhere between a purr and a whisper, and it was the way I had said his name in guilty dreams. I knew it was meant for me.
No, I thought wildly. You can’t have him. I gave him to you once already. Never again.
I couldn’t have said exactly how I did it, but I wrenched control away from him. I stood for a moment, trembling, gasping, and my eyes locked briefly with Mildmay’s.
I wanted to say something, anything, to make him stop looking at me with that fear and anger, hurt and confusion. But I didn’t know how long I could hold on.
I spun on my heel and ran.
There were caves in the cliffs, down on the beach. I knew because Mildmay had mentioned them to me, and said something about carvings on the walls, but I had never gone looking. You’d have to be careful about when you went, he’d said. Water comes up high enough they probably flood at high tide.
I scrambled down the path to the beach, falling twice and scraping my knees. The second time drew blood. Malkar railed, fighting me, but I clung with all my strength, holding onto the memory of the look in Mildmay’s eyes and the knowledge of the horrible things Malkar would do to him if I lost. I could see the entrance to the caves down the beach; shallow water was already starting to lap at the cliffs..
My body balked involuntarily before I could step into the water. I bit my lip and forced myself forward. The shock of cold made my control slip, just briefly, and I almost lost it, but I closed my eyes and forced myself onward. The water was only calf deep, but the waves coming in brought it up to my knees, and there was enough force to send me stumbling against the cliffs themselves, over the uneven rocks under my feet.
Stupid slut, Malkar snarled at me. What do you think you’re doing? Do you think you can win?
I fell again and cut my hand open on something sharp, but the bright pain brought me back to myself. Twenty steps, I told myself. Fifteen.
I hadn’t really been thinking. Hadn’t let myself think. But half-wading, half-crawling into the mouth of the sea cave, I did know what I was doing here.
I’d killed Malkar before and it hadn’t been enough. Latched onto me like a leech, he’d come back.
The force of a large wave threw me off balance, pitching me into one of the rocks. I leaned on it, panting, my heart pounding in my ears.
I couldn’t make myself swim. Couldn’t make myself walk out into the ocean. But I could sit down here, hidden, and wait. Hold off Malkar for - an hour? Less? It seemed like the tide was coming in rather than going out. If Mildmay came looking for me, he wouldn’t look here.
Better - he wouldn’t look at all. Do the sensible thing and find shelter with Kay and Vanessa. I’d fill my pockets with stones and when the water came in I’d…
Shrieking terror blurred my vision and I doubled over, gasping. The water was cold - freezing - and I was sick and frantic and just barely hanging on to myself.
Is this what you want? Drowned like a rat–
“Better than what you would make of me,” I said grimly.
You are what I made you.
“Not all of me,” I said. I made myself sit down. My cut palm throbbed and stung. I wrapped my arms around my legs and watched the waves rolling in, my whole body wracked with pain as Malkar ripped into me.
I counted the seconds like lashes of a whip, telling myself I could last for five more, and five again, but I was already tired, and the sea wasn’t rising fast enough.
Felix, Malkar said, his voice suddenly gentle, soothing. Look at the state you’re in. You’re frightened, I know. But you know that we belong together.
I shook my head, wordless, as though Malkar was there in truth and not inside of me.
Yes, Malkar said. Who gave you a home, darling? Who gave you a name, a place in the Mirador itself? You were my protege. My masterpiece.
I might have been sobbing. I couldn’t tell. My fingers were starting to go numb in the cold water, and my teeth clattered together with my shivers.
“Damn you,” I said, my voice trembling. I groped around under the water, fumbling for rocks. All I had to do was lie down, I told myself. Not even fully; just curled up on my side like going to sleep. It wouldn’t be easy and it wouldn’t be kind but it would be over.
I should never have let it get this far. Should never have put Mildmay in danger, again, just for being near me.
But I couldn’t make myself move.
Don’t be a fool, Felix, Malkar said, and perhaps I imagined what sounded like desperation, and yet I still couldn’t move. Coward. I squeezed my eyes shut.
In the moment of weakness, Malkar overwhelmed me. He stood up, crouching awkwardly in my body for the low ceiling.
For once, fortune was with me. A large wave swept in over the rocks, and Malkar did not know how to manage my balance. He stumbled, I seized control and did not try to stop myself from falling.
My head cracked painfully against stone. Then fragments: I felt myself hit water - not deep, deep enough, I hoped. Water rushed into my mouth and down my throat. Searing pain in my chest.
I didn’t remember Mildmay reviving me. Forcing the water back out of my lungs, dragging me half-conscious back up to the house, or covering me with blankets, though apparently he had done all of the above, and I could only imagine what that must have cost him in terms of pain.
But I was still alive. And as far as I could tell, I was still myself.
I was too tired to be properly angry at Mildmay for once again standing between me and my self-destruction.
For how long, whispered doubt at the back of my mind. I squeezed my eyes closed and curled up tighter under the blankets like they would keep me safe.
I could have killed Mildmay. I almost had. (It was Malkar, said a small voice, and I could almost hear Thaddeus, is that your answer for everything?)
Mildmay, who shoved a steaming mug into my hands, his face stony. He had spiked the tea with brandy, I noticed, and was distantly grateful. He didn’t speak, just stared down at me, the silence growing heavier and heavier.
“Mildmay,” I began, but my voice strangled in my throat. His expression just got stonier, and I swallowed hard like that would clear what was keeping me from speaking. I didn’t know what I could say, right now, that would matter.
I suppose Mildmay got tired of waiting for me to find my tongue. “So?” he said, more growl than question.
“I’m sorry,” I said, because that seemed like a good place to start. Mildmay’s expression didn’t budge.
“What for,” he said.
I stared at him. “What?”
“You gonna tell me what’s going on now or make me guess?” He was angry. Of course he was angry. I couldn’t blame him, but I still wanted to shrink back, as though I was the one in danger.
“I can’t,” I started to say, miserably, but no weight came down on my shoulders. Desperately, half expecting that this crack of light would vanish, I said, “Malkar.”
Mildmay already hadn’t been moving, but I felt his attention sharpen, his body tensing.
“He’s haunting me,” I said, tripping over the words. “Somehow, he - he’s been in my dreams, and he found some way of...he possessed me. Last night, that’s what happened.”
I couldn’t read Mildmay’s expression at all, and looked down at my hands instead, twisting in my lap. “You didn’t say,” he said after what seemed like an eternity.
“I couldn’t,” I said miserably. “He laid a compulsion on me.”
“That’s why you were asking about the rings.”
I swallowed. “Yes.”
“And the sleepwalking, and the fit you had…” I jerked my head in a nod, and heard Mildmay breathe out. “Okay. Is he gone now?”
He sounded calm. I didn’t know whether or not to believe it. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t...feel him. But I don’t know if that means anything.” I could feel myself starting to shake again, and tried to hold myself still. Maybe I’d come close enough to dying that it had driven him out. But maybe he had just retreated, and even now was prowling around waiting for me to let him in again.
“Hey,” Mildmay said sharply. “Focus.”
I took a shuddering breath and made myself look at him again. “I put you in danger,” I said.
“Ain’t your fault,” he said. I rocked back, and shook my head.
“How is it not-”
“Felix,” he said, “don’t argue with me. Okay?” His face was tight around his eyes, and I just stared at him, helpless, scared, searching myself for any hint of something other than myself. But of course I was the last person I could trust.
“You should leave,” I said.
“Until I can take care of this - I am a danger to you. To everyone, but especially you.”
“Shut up,” Mildmay said, loud and harsh. I blinked at him. “You ran,” he said. “I didn’t know where you were going, or what happened except it seemed like you’d gone crazy. I figured it out, but I ain’t exactly running nowhere these days and when I got down there you were already in the water and not moving. I thought you were dead. You almost were. You weren’t breathing.”
I didn’t say that that had been the point. “It was the only way I could think of to...to make sure that…”
“Yeah,” Mildmay said flatly, “and that’s why I ain’t leaving. And you can’t make me.”
Exhausted and miserable, all I could do was stare at him. Mildmay sighed, finally, and looked away. “I ain’t mad,” he said. And then paused and said, “not really. Not anymore.”
“You aren’t?” I murmured.
“S’easier,” Mildmay said. “Knowing what’s happening, instead of just knowing something’s wrong and not knowing what, and you not saying.”
I should have expected Mildmay’s easy forgiveness by now. I had counted on it, sometimes, that I could be cruel to him without consequence. Yet here and now it hit me like a slap in the face, and my eyes burned with tears that I swallowed back.
“I don’t deserve you,” I said. Mildmay just looked at me, hard.
“Shut up, Felix,” he said, but not really unkindly.
“I wanted to be done hurting you,” I said. Mildmay shifted slightly, and then sat down next to me.
“It wasn’t you,” he said. I shook my head, and he said, “no, listen. I could tell when you walked in, only I didn’t know why. Like someone walking on my grave. And I could tell when it was you again, properly you. There’s a difference.”
“I let him in,” I said. “I didn’t stop him.”
“Yeah, you did,” Mildmay said gently. “You’re you now, ain’t you?”
I opened my mouth to argue only to close it a moment later. It was true, wasn’t it? I hadn’t kept Malkar from taking me in the first place, but I had taken myself back. I was here now, and myself, at least for now. Not, I suspected, forever. Malkar was bound too tightly to me to believe that.
I took a deep breath. “I think I know what I need to do.”
Mildmay didn’t like it.
I was capable of digging in my heels, though, and I was most certainly going to dig in my heels on this. “The principles are sound,” I argued.
“Well, if the principles are sound,” Mildmay said, voice dripping with frustration.
“I know what I’m doing,” I said.
“Bet you knew what you were doing when you set about drowning yourself, too,” he said, I didn’t immediately have a good response to that, though I found one fairly quickly.
“This isn’t the same,” I said. “All I would be doing would be...it’s essentially just laying a ghost.”
“Only you’re sort of laying yourself, ain’t you?” Mildmay said. “What’s that do to you?”
I wasn’t entirely certain. I didn’t think it would harm me, but I couldn’t be entirely sure what the consequences would be. “I’m not a ghost,” I said. “So in theory-”
“In theory,” Mildmay interrupted.
“Do you have another idea?” My voice rose slightly, though it also got noticeably higher. “Please, Mildmay. I need to do this. I need to be certain that he’s gone, and this is the only way I can think of to drive him out and be rid of him once and for all.”
Mildmay’s expression was profoundly unhappy. “And it don’t matter what happens to you doing it,” he said. I grimaced and rubbed my forehead.
“Of course it matters,” I said. Mildmay just looked at me and I had to break first. “It matters more that he...that Malkar is banished. That he can’t use me to claw his way back into the world and hurt more people. It is my responsibility.”
Mildmay’s eyes bored into me. “There’s gotta be another way. Have you even looked?”
“There isn’t time,” I snapped. “He could overpower me again at any time. If I sleep, he’ll be there. And I am not willing to take the risk.”
Mildmay’s jaw worked. “And how do I know this ain’t just you punishing yourself again?” he said harshly.
“It isn’t,” I said, and I was fairly sure it was true. I could see by the look on Mildmay’s face that he didn’t believe me. “Either way, it doesn’t matter,” I said, and added recklessly, “and it isn’t as though you can stop me. I am doing this, with or without your help.”
“I could,” Mildmay muttered, but under his breath, and I knew he was giving in. My shoulders slumped. The truth was that I was afraid, and did not want to be alone when I walked the labyrinth.
I was afraid if I was alone I would let the fear stop me. Mildmay’s presence, as it so often had, would lend me strength I did not have alone.
“What about asking them Virtuers,” Mildmay said, almost plaintive. “Or Corbie if you don’t wanna tell them-”
“Of course I don’t,” I snapped. “Who knows how they would react? And again - time. I only barely won our last battle of wills. There is no guarantee I would again.”
I saw the flicker of fear in Mildmay’s eyes. The memory, no doubt, of what I - what Malkar had nearly done. I swallowed the urge to apologize again.
“How sure are you this’ll even work,” Mildmay said.
Not very. “As I said, the principles are sound,” I said. “The theory makes sense. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work.”
“And what’s the theory say about what happens to you?”
I hesitated. As far as I knew, it didn’t say, because I didn’t know of any reference that paralleled what I was experiencing. “I don’t know,” I admitted. Mildmay’s already unhappy expression got unhappier. “Mildmay,” I said, trying to sound reasonable. It came out more like pleading. “I don’t have another option.”
His shoulders slumped. “If this goes wrong,” he started, and then stopped.
The words rose in my throat. If this doesn’t work, if Malkar takes over, please kill me before I hurt you.
I couldn’t put that burden on him. At any rate, not aloud. But when our eyes met, I thought he might have heard it anyway.
In the end, Mildmay agreed to help me build the labyrinth.
“Tomorrow morning,” he insisted.
“I’m not going to sleep,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I might,” Mildmay said. “And I don’t want to go trying to make a maze and walk around in it in the middle of the night, even with your lights. Besides, you almost drowned. You need to get some rest before trying more hocus-stuff.”
I caved, because I feared if I argued he might dig in his heels on everything else all over again. I stayed downstairs, avoiding my bed and even the temptation of sleep, though I doubted I actually would have been able to if I’d tried, exhaustion or no. There was too much anxious energy flowing through me, and I was certain that if I succumbed Malkar would be there waiting.
I sat downstairs and read instead, though I absorbed almost nothing.
Sometime in the early morning, Mildmay came to join me. “Hey,” he said, hovering at the base of the stairs. I looked up and gave him a wan smile.
“Is it too early for me to bid you a good morning?” I asked. I had meant it to sound teasing, but it fell flat, and Mildmay just shrugged.
“Gonna make tea,” he said after a moment. And then, more carefully, “anything...happen?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.” My hands twisted together in my lap and did not say it’s only a matter of time.
Mildmay went into the kitchen and made tea. When he reemerged with a pot and two cups, he poured one and held it out to me. My hands were shaking a little and I saw him notice, but he didn’t comment aloud.
We sat there together in quiet, waiting. Time seemed to be passing with impossible slowness.
Hello, darling, I thought I heard, and jumped, almost spilling tea all over my hands. I set it hurriedly down.
“Can we just get this over with?” I asked. “I am sick of waiting. It’s only going to get worse.”
Mildmay scrutinized me, the unhappiness and doubt back in his eyes, but he nodded, barely. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “If...you sure you’re good for it?”
“I’m sure,” I said, though I wasn’t, really, or couldn’t be, not knowing what exactly was going to happen. If he doubted me, he let it go.
We made the labyrinth out of ripped up grass, as Mildmay said we had at Nera. I could not remember that but vaguely, but I trusted him. It was neither particularly large nor particularly complicated, but complexity was not everything, particularly not in this.
“Don’t follow me,” I said, standing at the entrance, my mouth dry and my heart pounding. “Not until it is finished.”
Mildmay’s lips pressed together. “You want me to just stand here.”
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
Perhaps it was the please that did it. “Okay,” he said after a long pause. After another, he added, “Felix...Kethe. Good luck.”
I forced a smile. “Thank you,” I said, and took my first step.
If I had doubted that Malkar was still within me, that misapprehension would have been corrected before I’d gone three steps.
What is this new foolishness, darling?
I almost stumbled. “Felix?” Mildmay said, and I gulped.
“Fine,” I said, breathless, and kept walking.
A labyrinth. Really? You think you can lay me like some common ghost? His voice cracked like a whip I could almost feel, and he dug his claws in, grasping for the control he’d lost. Pathetic, my dear. As sorry as your little attempt at suicide. Would it really be so bad to surrender?
“Never,” I said. “I’ll die before I let you loose on the world.”
Don’t be so dramatic. He almost won, this time. Almost wrenched my body away from me, enough that it was his words from my mouth: “after everything I’ve done for you, you might show a little gratitude.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t dare trying to find more words to refute him, fighting my way forward. We had made the labyrinth simple, and small, but it suddenly felt like it was too far.
Malkar lashed out at me. The image surfaced in my mind’s eye of a skinny redheaded boy balled up on the floor and crying silently, only to leap to his feet when the door opened. Eleven years old, the smell of the fire almost still in my nostrils. I rescued you from this, Malkar said, and it was gentle as only he could be gentle. I raised you up. I gave you a home.
I gritted my teeth. “You raped me,” I said. “You made me your catspaw. You tried to make me like you.”
You are like me, darling.
No, I thought desperately. No, I am not.
I glanced toward Mildmay. He was still there, his fists clenched, and our eyes briefly met.
“Don’t think I am done with you,” said Malkar in my voice, and I twisted my head quickly away, forced myself to turn from him, struggling to hold fast.
“You are,” I said. “You are done.”
Because I was focusing so hard on keeping him at bay, I felt it: the first slip. Something pulling at me, a current tugging at my legs, but not at my legs, exactly - something deeper. The edges of a whirlpool drawing me in. My breath caught.
Felix, Malkar said, stop. Like commanding a dog, and for a split second I almost did. But I made my own choices, now. And he was subject to mine. What do you think this will do? If I must, I will sacrifice you to survive. It isn’t my wish. But I will.
I set my jaw and ignored him. He threw more into fighting me, and a spark of defiance and triumph lit in my chest. “Are you afraid?” I asked. “It’s time.” My eyesight was blurring and I blinked hard, staring down at my feet, following the path of ripped up grass.
I almost felt the sting of his hand, the heat of his full-armed slap across my face. The shackles holding me stretched on the floor of his workroom. Mildmay pinned to the floor, only this time Malkar snapped his neck. I sank my teeth into my lip and held fast; one step, then another.
You belong to me.
“Not anymore,” I said. “Never again.” I had a life of my own. Freedom. A home.
Whore! Now there was rage, building fury. Stupid slut, I was the one who first saw what you could be, who pulled you out of the gutter and made you, who loved you.
“You never loved me,” I said. My eyes were watering and my breath in felt like a stab to my lungs. “Be at peace,” I said, savagely, and took the final step.
It was like something inside me tearing in two. My vision went white and my knees buckled, the breath leaving my lungs in a rush so I couldn’t scream. It felt like an eternity, but it could not have been more than a few seconds; when my vision cleared Mildmay was crouching over me, eyes wide with fear that bordered on panic.
“I’m all right,” I said, though I didn’t entirely feel it. My head was pounding relentlessly and I didn’t think I could stand if I tried.
“It’s gone,” Mildmay said abruptly. I blinked at him, and he said, “I didn't see it before, but I saw it leave.”
I felt a chill. “You could feel it,” he said. “Him. Malkar.”
I wasn’t the only one on whom Malkar had left his mark.
“Guess so,” Mildmay said, his eyes skating away from mine. “But it’s gone now.”
Gone, I thought. That feeling of something tearing loose. Like ripping a weed out of the ground. And I felt...lighter. Like a weight bearing down on me had suddenly lifted away.
Mildmay was studying me closely. “You sure you’re okay?”
“I think so,” I said, and then, trying for more conviction, “yes.”
“You look a little sick.”
I laughed weakly. “I feel a little sick,” I said. “But it’s nothing that some rest and hot tea won’t fix.”
The tension that sloughed off Mildmay was obvious. “Yeah,” he said. And, “need help getting up?”
“Please,” I said. I took Mildmay’s offered hand, though I wobbled when I stood and might have fallen if Mildmay hadn’t caught my arm. The worry was back, but I gave him a small smile. “I’m just tired,” I said, and that seemed to ease him a little.
We made our way back to the house. I let Mildmay bundle me into bed - he seemed to want to, all but tucking me in. In truth, I was grateful.
“Thank you,” I said, meaning it for more than the blankets, and Mildmay flushed and shrugged, muttering something under his breath. “No,” I repeated. “Thank you. For everything.”
He shifted, glanced away, and then back, and his expression was open and sincere. “You were the one did it,” he said. “Beat him. Again.”
Now my face was warming. “I was the one who-”
“Felix,” Mildmay said, but he sounded fond. “Shut up.” I pressed my lips together and didn’t quite glare at him. He paused, and seemed to be thinking; I waited.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he said. I took a deep breath, and my smile this time felt a little less weak.
“Yes,” I said. “I think it might be.”