Chapter Four: SAVIN
The house near the tailors’ guildhall in Mesarild to which Savin had tracked Alderan’s colours truly was unremarkable: a four¬square, sturdy thing of dressed Elethrainian granite, stolid and rosy as a country squire, surrounded by a low wall built more to deﬁne the small square of neatly scythed lawn behind which the house sat than for any pretensions to security. To all appearances it was a merchant’s residence; someone well-to-do enough to afford a modest garden in the imperial capital, where all the streets sloped steeply away from the Citadel and level ground was at a premium. It was not ostentatious, but possessed of that smug well-keptness that was so dreadfully middle class.
Watching from the shadows of the guildhall’s great arched door, Savin wondered what had motivated Alderan to come here. Visiting a friend would be the obvious answer, but Alderan’s friends tended to be innkeepers and ships’ captains and such – lower sorts who picked up gossip or moved freely around the Empire and could therefore be useful to him. A lace-merchant or mill owner of the type suggested by this house was an unusual choice for the old man.
Another mystery. Another puzzle to be solved.
Light glimmered behind the drapes covering one of the downstairs windows but the upper storey was dark. So the family was at home – at this hour, probably at supper. Good; they’d all be in one place. That would make things easier.
He was about to step out of the shadows and cross the street when the front door opened and a woman appeared, carrying a brass lamp. A housemaid, by her sober gown and white apron. She hung the guest-lamp on a hook by the door to light the way for visitors, then vanished back inside. The door closed behind her with a solid thud.
Savin frowned. How many other servants would there be, for a house that size? A parlour maid and cook, perhaps a housekeeper? Carefully, he reached out with his mind towards the house. Five tight knots of colour clustered in the room with the light behind the drapes, and at the back of the property there was a further dull smear that was most likely the maid, probably in the kitchen or scullery. A scan of the other rooms said they were empty; maybe the householder was not quite as wealthy as he pretended to be.
Something dragged over his senses, as ﬁne and clinging as a cobweb in a darkened room. It was a ward of some kind, one as subtly engineered as any he had ever encountered outside of the Western Isles, and it bound up the entire house – mouse-holes to chimneypots – so delicately that the least touch would tear it.
Savin looked again at the colours he’d found, studying them. Three were children, their nascent gifts as carefree and tangled as a patch of wild ﬂowers, but the other two, now that he looked more closely, were carefully modulated to appear almost nothing at all. The discipline required to conceal a gift so effectively took years of practice.
He almost laughed. Now Alderan’s visit made sense, and the weaving he had detected had most likely been him opening a way through the ward. Which meant – oh, and the realisation ﬁlled him with such glee – that this self-satisﬁed little mansion was probably the Order of the Veil’s safe house in the capital.
So. Kitchen ﬁrst to deal with the maid, then, once there was no chance he’d be disturbed, he’d see what the others could tell him about the old man.
Under his senses the Veil was a rippling many-coloured fabric, billowing like a goodwife’s laundry line. Holding up his hands, palms out, ﬁngers spread, he stilled it, then slid his will into the spaces between the threads. With a simple gesture, he drew the evening apart and stepped into the Hidden Kingdom, then out into the somnolent warmth of the residence’s kitchen.
The maid had her back to him, busy at the table with a bowl of some fruit and custard concoction that she was serving into ﬁne cut-glass dishes. A twist of air around her neck jerked her upright. The serving spoon clattered onto the table, splashing gobs of scarlet fruit across the maid’s white apron. She clutched at her throat, found nothing there and began to struggle against the compression of her windpipe. Clawing at her neck, raising welts on her own skin. Savin tightened the garrotte. The maid kicked out, once, twice, and hit the table hard enough to set the dishes rattling against each other. Time to ﬁnish it; he couldn’t afford any more noise. Another twist and the maid’s dance ended with the brittle snap of the horseshoe bone in her throat.
Quietly, he lowered her to the ﬂoor and waited a moment to see if anyone had heard anything. No voices, no footsteps approaching. Good.
On the table were desserts for four, and a ﬁfth bowl containing stewed apple. He scooped a ﬁngerful of the dessert from the serving bowl and tasted it: raspberries, and a dash of brandy in the sauce. Delicious. He picked up one of the dishes and a spoon and let himself out into the passage. The gentle chink of cutlery and a murmur of conversation, punctuated by the treble interjections of the child who was clearly too young to be eating brandy-laced triﬂe, led him to the room at the front of the house where the master and mistress were indeed taking their supper.
All conversation ceased when he opened the door. The woman, mousy-haired and prettyish, paused in wiping the mouth of the smallest child whilst the two older ones stared. At the head of the table, a stocky man in a brocade waistcoat was slicing meat from a fragrant pork roast. He looked up at the sound of the door opening and the knife stilled in his hand.
‘Good evening,’ Savin said, cutting him off with a bright smile.
The man blinked, momentarily thrown by a display of good manners, then his affront came storming back. The carving fork clattered onto the platter, but he kept a ﬁrm grip on the knife.
‘Explain yourself, sir, or I’ll call for the watch.’ He had the rolling brogue of the marches and his voice was pitched low and steady, no doubt to avoid alarming his family. Splendid, Savin thought. Now he knew exactly where to apply pressure.
‘I’m hoping you can help me,’ he went on conversationally. He hooked a chair out from beneath the table with his mind and sat down, spooning up some triﬂe. ‘I have some questions about a visitor you received a few days ago. I’d like to know why he was here.’
The little demonstration of his gift did not even make the man blink, conﬁrming the fellow was well acquainted with the Song.
‘My visitors are none of your business! You can’t—’
Savin sat back in his chair and crossed his legs, bowl of triﬂe cradled in his lap. ‘Actually,’ he said, taking another spoonful, ‘I think you’ll ﬁnd I can.’
The man’s mouth worked as he gathered himself. He exchanged a look with his wife. ‘I think you’d best take the children upstairs, dear.’
‘Mmph.’ Swallowing, Savin gestured with his spoon. ‘Please, don’t let me interrupt your meal. This shouldn’t take very long.’
He looked around the room, feigning interest. As he’d suspected, the furniture was rather too large and dark for the proportions of the space, and the table overdressed with ﬂowers, candelabra and too much gilt-edged plate. ‘What a charming room.’
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman lay down her napkin and slowly lift the youngest child into her arms. She shifted in her seat and gave herself away with a panicked glance at the door. A single thought slammed the door shut hard enough to rattle the china in the ugly breakfront cabinet. The woman ﬂinched and the child in her arms began to grizzle.
‘I’m afraid I must insist you stay.’
Fear rolling off her, she stared at him with eyes wide as a trapped animal’s. The room froze, became so utterly still that Savin could hear the candlewicks hiss as they burned.
‘Where’s Cally?’ Even allowing for the dread weighing it down, the woman’s voice was unexpectedly lovely.
‘The maid? She’s in the kitchen.’ He scooped up some more triﬂe. ‘Did she make this? It’s really very good.’
‘Please tell me you haven’t hurt her!’
Savin shot her his most dazzling smile, the one that usually set society ladies’ fans ﬂuttering. ‘She’s in no pain, I assure you. Now, I’d like you to tell me why Alderan was here, and where he was going.’
‘Who?’ The man was frightened now, judging by the over-ﬁrm tone, the white knuckles on the handle of the carving knife. The rise and fall of his waistcoated breast betrayed how fast he was breathing. ‘I don’t know that name.’
‘But you know his face.’ A ﬂick of ﬁre-Song sculpted Alderan’s likeness from one of the candle ﬂames, bristle-browed and leonine.
‘You’re mistaken,’ the fellow insisted. ‘I’ve never seen him before.’
‘Mama, who’s that man over there?’ asked one of the children, a boy by its clothes, though at that age the piping voices all sounded the same. His mother hugged the brat on her lap closer and fumbled for the other child’s hand.
‘A . . . friend,’ she managed, voice brittle as ﬁrst frost.
Savin dropped a broad wink for the beneﬁt of the boy.
‘Yes, I’m a friend of your father’s.’
‘Have you come for supper?’
He laughed indulgently. ‘Something like that. Why, would you like me to stay?’
At once the hairs on his scalp lifted as someone in the room reached for the Song. He glanced across the table as the couple’s carefully muted colours ﬂared into brilliance, all subterfuge abandoned.
‘There’s no need for that,’ he said.
The man ﬂung down the carving knife and bunched his hands into ﬁsts. ‘Get out of my house,’ he growled.
Savin clicked his tongue. ‘That’d be a shame, just when we’re starting to get to know each other.’
Wrapped in the Song, he felt their weavings begin. The woman snatched her children against her skirts beneath a shield as her husband launched ﬁsts of air in Savin’s direction. A ﬂick of his own power turned the blows aside; another smashed the man back¬wards into the breakfront, shattering the glazed doors. Display plates tumbled from their stands and ﬂew into pieces as they hit the ﬂoor.
‘Egan!’ The woman yelped her husband’s name. To his credit he recovered quickly, shook broken glass from his hair and lunged for the table. His hand closed around the hilt of the carving knife.
‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ said Savin softly, power thrumming through him. The knife came up, greasy blade glinting, and he exhaled irritably. People never listened.
A thought trapped the knife with his will. The man cursed and threw his weight forward but his hand and arm moved not an inch. Gripping his own wrist, he tried to pull it back, equally fruitlessly. His ﬁngers were locked around the handle as if it was a part of him.
‘What are you doing?’ The man’s shoulder worked as he tried to wrench his hand free by main force. Then the Song surged and blow after blow hammered at Savin’s will. Beads of sweat broke on the man’s forehead. The two younger children started wailing, too young to understand the forces being wielded around them, and pressed their hands over their ears to try to block out the power’s roar.
‘Shush now, darlings,’ their mother quavered, cuddling them close. Beneath the soap bubble of her shield, her eyes were glassy with tears. ‘It’s all right, it’s all right. Shh.’
‘Damn it, let me go!’
Head tilted to one side, Savin watched the man’s efforts grow more and more frantic. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t think I shall.’
Slowly, his will bent the man’s arm, lifting it up then across his body. Guessing what was about to happen, the fellow tried to jerk his head back but another thread of air-Song held it still.
‘Oh, Goddess, just let him go!’ his wife moaned. ‘Please, we’ll tell you anything— Egan!’
Without looking, Savin threw a ward for silence around the woman and her keening children. She rained blows on him and on his weaving but she hadn’t her husband’s strength; they were easily turned aside and ignored. Instead he watched the man staring at the rising blade, his eyes swivelling desperately to keep it in sight as it glided towards his neck.
When it passed out of his ﬁeld of view, he shut his eyes. Hufﬁng stertorously, he whispered, ‘Please . . .’
The knife came to rest against the side of the man’s bull-like neck, pressed, stopped. A tiny thread of blood trickled down beneath his collar, staining his white shirt.
Sitting back in his chair, Savin smiled brightly around the table at the bewildered, wobble-lipped children, their mother with her face gone pale as whey. Her mouth formed the empty shapes of what might have been a prayer.
‘Now,’ he said, spooning up some more dessert, ‘shall we start again?’