When he returns to their Lodgings that evening, all of the candles are snuffed out, and the Pyrotechnician’s equipment is covered with a large grimy sheet, as if she’s packed up for the night. He goes to her room to check if she’s in, and is mildly relieved to see that she isn’t, because of what’s somehow managed to slip his mind. He can’t imagine what she would say if she saw him like this. Possibly something scathing, something worried, something loud, something horrified.
He goes to wash the blood away, and washes again and again until it’s clear that the wounds aren’t healing, and then he binds them tightly with lily-pure bandages and watches them become dark and stained, and wonders if that’s just another twisted metaphor for what he’s done. He binds them again, and goes to cover them up so she won’t see.
Death has never been this messy – there’s blood everywhere. Too much, far too much. There’s no salvaging his clothes, of course, but he has spares. It’s always best to be prepared, after all. The weeping scars – his torso, his body, and the most recent, his shoulder – are quickly hidden beneath layers of tweed and question marks, and as he traces the outline of his face in the brass mirror above the sink, he thinks he could almost pass for sane. The dark shadows under his eyes betray him, as they always do, but that’s fine. He isn’t trying to hide those.
The well was cold and dark and piercing and necessary.
He stops thinking about that and starts thinking about where the Irreverent Pyrotechnician is as he sets out to find his battered old umbrella. He didn’t bring it with him during his errand earlier; not wanting to lose it. He finds it, tucked in the corner of his closet, next to the old Storm-Threnody (recovered during a particularly successful expedition with the Inebriated Archaeologist). He picks up the umbrella; twirls it. What a silly thing to be sentimental about. What a silly thing to need in a place with no rain.
He leaves the umbrella in the closet, and follows his intuition – and the faint sound of pencil scratching against paper that he can, impossibly, infuriatingly hear from all this distance – up the stairs, into the attic, through the window and onto the roof. There she is, jacket covered in Surface badges and patches that would sell for a fortune at the Bazaar (if she wasn’t so proud and possessive of them, anyway), sharing secrets with the cats in hushed tones.
He almost smiles for the first time in a good long while as he watches the scene – a favorite pastime of hers. She’s frequently, jokingly said that the simple act of talking to cats makes her stealthier. He barely doubts it; stranger things have happened. Stranger things indeed do and continue to happen, and dangerous, horrible things do as well.
He shakes himself out of it, and closes the window softly behind him before beginning to approach.
“Professor!” exclaims the Irreverent Pyrotechnician, twisting around to see him before he can even alert her to his presence. At this, the cats scatter in all directions, all bright eyes and claws flashing in the darkness as they scurry across the rooftops. Usually they wouldn’t – usually they’d stay and listen to his secrets like they always have, but he suspects that they can already smell it on him. What it is, he isn’t sure yet. The blood, maybe. The stench of betrayal, that’s still yet to arrive. Something else, something that can never be erased.
The Pyrotechnician is grinning at him. She’d noticed him before the cats did. She’s always had an uncanny talent for detecting him sneaking up on her – not surprisingly, considering just how much of a sagacious and perilous lady she is.
“You’re back!” she says, and then there is a pause as she tilts her head and he moves just a little bit back so that the light from the streets below doesn’t fall across him quite so much. It doesn’t work. “…you look awful.”
“Charming,” he notes. His eyes flick quickly over her, and he finds a means of deflection. “You’re not precisely in the running for the ‘healthiest resident of the Neath’ award yourself. Is that a black eye I see?”
“Huh?” Her hand shoots up, and she winces when she realizes. “Oh – yeah, that. Almost forgot.”
“Another streetfight?” He presses his lips together and tries his best to look intensely disapproving, although it’s hard to do so. A simple street brawl is nothing, nothing, practically a tea party compared to what he has been up to that evening. Compared to what he’ll continue to do. Still. Best to keep up appearances.
“Nah. I was in the Flit,” she says, smirking. “Spire-running.”
“Aha,” he says. “But that still doesn’t explain the black eye – unless you missed a leap? Fell down to Spite, injuring yourself in the process?”
“Don’t be daft.” She makes a motion that seems to imply that if he were closer to her right now, she would have just playfully slapped him on the arm. “Actually, I won.” He glances at her sleeve. There’s a crudely-made badge that seems to have been pieced together from scraps of rostygold. It’s displayed prominently, like a medal of honor. “I won a bit too well, if you get my meaning.” She pauses, and then clarifies: “The Topsy-King really wasn’t happy. And by extension, neither were his raggedy men.”
“Dear me. Quite the adventure, it sounds like.”
“I’m good, though!” she’s quick to assure him, waving a dismissive hand at her black eye. “The urchins around there helped me out. They like me. And I got some Strangling Willow Absinthe in the process, so… not a complete waste of time, right?”
“I do hope you’re not planning to drink that,” he says immediately, not even needing to fake his disapproval this time. Despite everything, there are some things he needs to object to; on principal.
In response, she pulls a face at him. “Ugh, you’re kidding. That stuff’s bad. No, I’m going to save it for… you know, whatever we need it for later. Or maybe I’ll experiment with it. Might make a good cocktail.”
“Hmm. Be careful.” He nods grudgingly, and then inclines his head at what she’s holding. “You’re writing something?”
“I – oh, yeah, right!” She brightens even more, and turns around to face him properly. “I’ve been working on… well, I came up with a new one. Want to see?”
He leans forward and takes her notebook. As expected, there’s a simple rhyming couplet scribbled on her latest page, nestled amongst a multitude of words that end with –at.
The Starveling Rhyme! The Starveling Rhyme!
Making one up is eating my time!
“Very nice,” he tells her, passing it back. Although her (admittedly scattered) attempts at poetry usually never fail to make him smile, today it’s a conscious struggle to do so.
“I’m working on it.” She studies him for a moment. “Are you… okay?” she says, hesitantly, doubtfully. Emotions aren’t her strong suit. It sounds like it’s a struggle to even ask. “You… you look…”
He’s still standing on the rooftop, a bit above her, near the attic window. He can feel a trickle of blood running down his back that wasn’t caught by the bandages, and he’s not sure how painful sitting down will be.
“I’m perfectly fine,” he lies. He even rolls the ‘r’ in perfectly, rather unnecessarily, in order to prove it. “Whatever would make you ask a question like that?”
“You’ve been…” She struggles, trying to choose her words carefully, and then sighs, giving up. “…distant. Weird. Well – hungry. Lately.”
“Have I?” He keeps his tone calculatedly distant, but comes over to sit right next to her on the edge of the rooftop. The false-stars seem dimmer than usual tonight.
“Yeah.” Her fingers drum anxiously on the shingles. She thinks he can’t hear them, but right now he can hear everything. Fingers. Cats. Heartbeat. Is it hers? Heartbeat. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Somebody’s talking downstairs. All shall be well; all shall be well. “You never eat, Professor.”
“Don’t I?” He turns his head sideways slightly; smiles at her. Hopes it doesn’t look strange.
“Chamomile tea doesn’t count,” she tells him, giving him a Look that probably deserves the capital L. “And neither does that disgusting Darkdrop Coffee of yours. I swear, that crap should be illegal.”
“It keeps me going,” he says. His hands are shaking. Or are they? It’s so hard to tell nowadays. “I trust you have a point with this?”
Her half-teasing look fades. She looks utterly serious. “Yeah. I know you never – well, barely – eat. The most I’ve seen you do is half a sandwich per week, but…. there were empty jars of Honey everywhere when I came back last night.” When she looks at him again, it’s almost scared. “…and all of the meat’s gone.”
The hunger’s been unbearable lately. He can’t remember precisely what he’s been consuming in order to sate it, but he doesn’t doubt that the lack of food in their lodgings is more or less entirely his fault. “My apologies. I needed more Echoes; they were easiest to trade.”
“Echoes?” Another Look – arched brow, tilted head. “What for?”
“Money can be exchanged for goods and services,” he deadpans.
“Oh, ha ha, very funny – all right, what about the meat?”
“I was investigating a small matter,” he says. The lies trip easily off of his tongue – he doesn’t even flinch and briefly, he wonders if he would if things were different. “It became… well, necessary to strike a deal with Mr Hearts.”
The Pyrotechnician winces visibly. She doesn’t deal with the Masters of the Bazaar well. She tends to avoid them, on principle. So does he, now, with one notable exception – although she doesn’t know that. More importantly, she doesn’t know anything about Mr Hearts – doesn’t know what trading with it would entail. He used to be strictly vegetarian, he remembers, and wonders when that changed. Scatterthoughts, fractured like mirrors. Seven of them, perhaps? Hard to tell. Shards everywhere; what a mess. His mind flashes back to her earlier poem attempt, and on a whim, tunes out her earnest voice for a moment or two while he deigns to compose his own.
The Master’s name! The Master’s name! For weeks it’s driven me quite insane!
“Professor. Professor,” she says, and he realizes that she’s been saying it for quite some time. He comes back to himself and she is staring at him; eyes dark and worried.
“I’m fine,” he says, perhaps too quickly.
“’Course you are,” she says, no hint of sarcasm in her voice, but she keeps eyeing him.
There will be consequences, he has known this from the beginning. He just didn’t anticipate how quickly they’d arrive. A reckoning will not be postponed…
“You should go to bed,” she says. “You look like you’re about to pass out on the spot.”
He already has plans for two betrayals, has planned them out ever since he knew he would have to commit them. He’s been making a list in preparation – many lists, lining them up neatly on the pages of his commonplace book; taking precautions and notes. It will never be enough. The Pyrotechnican was, very briefly (so briefly that it barely is worth mentioning) on that list, but the instant that he finished writing her name he scrawled it out violently with thick, black dashes, obscuring it utterly from view, but never from memory. Not her. He crossed out the whole page, flipped to a new one, started again. Never her. He flipped back, tore it out entirely; crushed it between his hands and went to feed it to the Starveling Cat that she doesn’t know he has locked away in his bedroom. How dare he even consider it? How dare he drag her into another one of his schemes; especially this one, of all things –
“Yes,” he says. “I think I will go to bed.” He rises, pausing only to tap her affectionately on the nose, and says, “good night.”
“’Night, Professor.” A blink; a tilt of her head. “…please take care of yourself.”
“When do I not?” he smiles and lies, and goes to his room, where the Starveling Cat watches him with unblinking yellow eyes for all eternity and the stains on his soul soak through his clothes and mind.
He sleeps and dreams of the North, singing to him endlessly.