Those who flee survive.

Ap-Merill family motto.

 

Sanctuary earned a bed behind a secret door, a wash with clean water, a candle, and a long time alone, lying on her side, hoping Amisine didn’t find her.

Mae slipped in, stepped on the floorboard in front of the door. It creaked. “I like these people,” she said. “They’re angry.”

Sarea sighed.

“I reckon we can do it,” Mae said, settling on the end of the bed. “Rest up tonight. Between you and them, we got the lay of the land.” She patted Sarea’s leg. “What’s the plan?”

“No plan,” Sarea muttered. What’d she been thinking? Now she’d gotten Mae stuck here too.

“C’mere.” Mae pulled at Sarea’s ankle and, groaning, Sarea sat up. The Hunter nudged her. “You got a plan in there. Think it through. What you got so far?”

Sarea shrugged. “There’s a demon in the marsh. It makes the West Side what it is. Amisine called it grand-da.”

Mae nodded. “That’s the long and short of it. Demon-seed, though. Keyne reckons Gavirn got infected by one, and it took years to take hold. Not a full demon yet.”

“I’m the Sun, and I can…” Give me sunlight. Let me in. “… burn them?”

“So you’re in the right place.” Mae tilted her head. “Anything else?”

Right place? Yes. Sarea smoothed her trousers. I suppose I am. “It killed my sister, and siblings I never met. Almost my entire family.” Bones on a necklace. Guilt on a string. “It wants to kill me, too.”

“Yeah,” Mae said, and put an arm around her shoulders. “That’s about it. You know why?”

Sarea shook her head. “Unless the Durasoona offend it by existing.”

Mae snorted. “Na. It’s blood magic, biter. Demon-seed’s in your ol’ grandpa’s body, and it feeds on life. It could just feed on the entire city. But that’s slow. Boring. If it only feeds on the host’s bloodline, it gets stronger, faster. An’ a line like yours, magic down to the bones?” She squeezed Sarea’s shoulder. “You’re not a good meal. You’d burn it from inside out. Let’s not try it, yeah?”

Sarea smiled. Maybe I even have a chance.

“To us lot, that light’s just light. So we need to get you close without getting stabbed.” Mae paused, then added, “Reckon I like you in one piece, biter. Start with somethin’ in the water?”

The wall was stained, the wood warped. Sarea stared at it, frowning. “Their water tank is on the roof,” she said. “Saves them effort. And we get the rain for it. We could poison what they drink here, but not all of them, and they’d soon work it out. Pods only work on bare skin, so they’re not good traps for patrollers…”

Lily-pads didn’t rely on skin contact, or being taken in somehow. Then… the grass…

“Won’t have long before Pachin knows you’re gone,” Mae said. “Seems to me like her and Tolle were cooking something.”

“Well, he wasn’t teaching me,” she muttered. “We need a plan that’s fast. If the Hunters come in with force, and the Instigators are already under attack -”

“Chaos is your best friend, biter.” Mae squeezed her shoulder again. “That brain got something cooking?”

Sarea wrinkled her nose. “We’ll need jars, and something to carry the weed. And fire, but I’ll handle that.” Only one way to harvest the grass…

:-#-:

Ionas wandered into the workshop, minutes shy of noon, when Sarea would be off cavorting with the O’Hallorn girl. He strolled through to the main room, where Keyne sat in his chair, watching the fire.

Ionas dropped into the other, wincing.

Keyne eyed him. “Talks went well?”

Ionas shrugged one-sided. “We have a plan.”

“Good. Good.” Gregor leaned back. “Can you spare Sarea tonight? I fancy treating her to a feast, and the girl deserves a good night’s sleep.”

Ionas nodded. “Why?”

“She didn’t come home last night, Pachin. You can stay out all hours, but the girl’s still young.” Keyne stretched his arms out and pushed himself up. “Even Miss Isaye got worried for her.”

Ionas stared at empty space. “Ah.”

He wouldn’t panic. He wouldn’t. It’d be some sort of scheduling error, or something she was doing that took too long, or…

No, in a perfect world, Sarea would still find trouble.

“She wasn’t with me,” Ionas said. “I thought she was with that mountain woman.”

Gregor stopped. “Maevanon’s under strict orders to get her home at night.”

“Ah,” Ionas repeated. No. No panic. He wouldn’t – and if he was Sarea, and looking for trouble, and gone all night –

He looked up. “Fuck,” he said. Keyne looked down, then away.

“Get downstairs,” he said. “Fetch Tolle. We’re going to see Lord O’Hallorn.”

“Gregor,” Ionas said.

“And I’m having Maevanon’s hide,” Keyne said, low, deep. “Count on that.”

:-#-:

Sarea woke up to vague, distant images of a crystal dome, darkness, and a creak.

We’re in the West Side, she remembered. Mae slept against her back, and the candle stump stood on the floor. In the darkness she could see shadows – the door open, and someone standing in the doorway.

She lay still. The figure had a woman’s silhouette, so one of the whore house residents, by why? An Instigator spy?

“Get up,” the figure said. The matron… grandmother, she corrected, but wasn’t sure it would stick. It’d been a hunch, only. She’d never known the woman.

“Now, girl,” the matron snapped.

Sarea got up and padded after her, avoiding the creaking floorboard. The ragged carpet felt rough under her bare feet, cold as the chill air.

The old woman led her through the maze of hallways and up a flight of spiralling stairs into the open air and blinding sunlight of the roof.

Attic, she amended, blinking. Someone had sealed the attic floor with a black, solid substance, but the roof timbers still stood where they should be, rotting and green with moss.

The West Side never looked any better in daylight. Tumbledown shacks with the rotting ruins of old, grand houses crammed themselves between the marsh and the wall, and people in rags sat in the narrow streets or shuffled between them, heads down, thin and broken.

A white-stone bridge cut across the marsh to the centre, glittering under wintry blue skies. It led back to a red-brick mansion, a building that sprawled in the south-west corner, surrounded by empty, barren land where neither grass grew nor West Siders dared to build on. Today, Instigators practised on it, or so she assumed. Sunlight danced and shone in the emptiness as it did off Instigator army.

“Do you think you can save this place?” the matron said.

Sarea shook her head. “This is a corpse. A blight-struck plant. Nobody can save it. All I can do is cut out the rot before it spreads.”

Strange. She’d thought the marsh-rot coloured the bridge black, and when did the Instigators practise in full armour? Not when she was a girl.

“Bold talk,” the matron said, and was her face thinner than before? Sharper? Sarea stepped away from her. The matron laughed. “Only way to cut out the rot here -”

“Is to end you.” All she had were hunches.

The matron turned.

“After what you did to Amisine,” Sarea said, quiet, “Did you expect anything else?”

The matron – the demon – smiled. “Quick little girl.”

Sarea kept her mouth shut. No sunlight, not now, even though it rose and pressed against her mind. She wouldn’t give that away. It knew where she was, of course, but –

If she could get it to not tell –

“Your sister wasn’t quick,” it said, and its teeth were fangs, and it’s body bone-thin. “She wasn’t smart. She came to me tonight, weeping and wailing.” It smiled. “You’re here for her.”

What? It – it thought she’d -? She nodded, watching it warily. Why would anyone come back for the dead?

“I’ll play you for her,” she said.

“You don’t stand a chance, little girl.”

Sarea curled her hands, tense, tight. “There’s no fun in anything else, is there? I take out the Instigators, you give her back.”

It laughed, and the sound was human, warm, and male. “Maybe I should have taken you instead. I like the brave ones. They scream more.”

She gave it a flat stare she didn’t, at all, feel. “Are you going to posture or decide?”

“Decide.” It flashed another fanged smile. “It’ll be amusing to watch you try.” It reached out, claws on long-fingered hands. “Try your best, granddaughter. You’re still going to fail.” It was going to touch her –

:-#-:

Sarea woke up to dawn light through the cracks of the wall, cold air, and the floor. She was on the floor.

“Wha’?” Mae said fuzzily, leaning over the bed. “Was tha’?”

“Bad dream,” Sarea rasped. “Just – ” She cleared the throat. “Just a bad dream.”

 

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