The sound and the smell hit her at the same time.
The sound, a measured strike of metal on glass, cut through the chatter from boisterous Aur Pióra competitors and haughty aristocrats that filled the Roost. It was too precisely timed and rang too sharply to pass for the idle tic that echoed off the walls of Sofia’s childhood home, but close enough to fool an outsider.
The smell, on the other hand, was just as sickeningly sweet as she always remembered. A room full of people waiting for an open tattoo artist would naturally come with clouds of jaunroot smoke from those unwilling to sit through the inking process without some kind of skin-numbing agent. But this was a specific brand, laced with enough lychee extract that she could taste it in the back of her throat.
The small part of her with any foresight told Sofia to leave. Knowing that they’re here is enough for now. She could find them again later, somewhere outdoors with just as much of a crowd but more room to run if need be.
Despite the warning knell of her heart against her chest, the rest of Sofia decided to pull her cape tighter around her shoulders and her hat lower on her sweat slick brow. As hard as she tried to inconspicuously shoulder her way between griffin handlers with riding gear and servers with trays and wealthy patrons in flouncy dresses, that was nearly impossible covered hat to shoe buckle in feathers as she was.
Over the almost familiar tink, tink, tink of the glass came a voice she hadn’t heard in months, and her racing heartbeat screeched to a halt.
“Can this not wait three days? We have better artists and far better inks at home,” said Vera, the grimace on her face seeping into her tone. “Not to mention cleaner equipment.”
Not daring to cross the remaining row of people between her and the low oval table around which two of her sisters sat, Sofia peeked through the narrow gap between a pair of faces too deep in conversation to notice her.
On a curved couch sat Vermillion, clothed in a high necked, sleeveless gown with a tight black bodice. A long skirt made up of fine, wine-dark red and violet layers danced weightlessly around crossed ankles. Crimson gloves snaked up her arms almost to her shoulders. In one hand she tapped a ringed finger against a large conical glass of green liquid.
A very long few seconds passed before Sofia realized the brilliant gold and garnet ring was her father’s, as was the sound Vera had been trying to evoke with her metronome-like tapping.
“Well Aur Pióra isn’t happening in three days at home, so I think I’ll get it here,” a petulant second voice interrupted before Sofia’s thoughts could sink in any further.
Scyllarus punctuated her response with a quick thok thok thok of a cheese knife against the small charcuterie board in front of her, spearing a few pieces of cured meat and soft white cheese that she pulled off the blade with her teeth. She took another drag from the long pipe in her hand, stood up, and began to unclasp the front of her rider’s vest.
She wore green this year, with cherry blossoms twisted into her hair. Scylla had never been one to receive compliments gracefully, but in spite of that and the current circumstances Sofia felt obligated to make some perfunctory gesture of congratulations.
“I don’t see why you have to be such an ass about it. Cid gets to mourn in her own ridiculous way, why can’t I?”
“You call this mourning? This is getting a tattoo at a kitschy bar for bird jockeys who want to feel rich for a week. Cid isn’t making us look like idiots in front of the Church.”
It wasn’t until then that Sofia recognized the shadowy, motionless figure at the other end of the couch as Muricidae. She sat still enough to be mistaken for an unlit lamp, especially with the lacy black shroud draped over her head. The ivory headpiece shaped like a bird’s skull she was wearing wouldn’t have seemed too out of place among the city’s decor, either. Sofia couldn’t decide whether Cid looked like she was handling recent developments better or worse than the other Beauregards.
“I’m getting it for father,” Scylla said in a tone caught somewhere between smug and genuinely solemn. She tore the vest from her shoulders. “I’m dedicating my performance to him and I wanted to commemorate that.”
Vera snatched the vest and folded it neatly in her lap before Scylla could toss it into a crumpled pile on the couch. “Wonderful. Stamp your one fifth place medal all over his memory. He’d be so proud. Wouldn’t want him to miss out on any embarrassment just because he’s at the bottom of the sea, now would we.”
“He took more pride in my jousting than anything you ever did. How many medals do you have for bookkeeping?”
Sofia saw a nearby server dodge the flying metal cap Vera flicked off a new emerald bottle. “How much gold is a fatherly pat on the back worth?” She refilled her glass to the brim. “More than the race’s entry fee?”
“If we’re talking in gold I’d say a many-eyed feather’s weight, at the very least.”
She continued rearranging the pins and flowers in her hair to pull it up off her back, refusing to meet Vera’s gaze as she took one long sip from her drink.
The glass was emptied and Vera broke the silence with a click of her tongue. “One cherry blossom on your lapel and you think you’re something special.”
“Sixteen, Vera!” Scylla snapped a string of pearls from around her neck, followed by matching earrings, and tossed them onto the table. “I’ve won sixteen tournaments since last Aur Pióra!”
“Spent twice that in thousands since last month.”
“I’ll win all your fucking gold back, okay?” Scylla grabbed Vera’s purse from the table and rifled through it for something to tip the tattoo artist with. “I’m going to smoke everyone in this room and in three days you’ll have enough money to restock father’s cellar a hundred times over, so can you please shut up for once in your life?”
“Seems someone’s got a healthy amount of ambition,” came a low voice from beside Vera.
Her nose flared and eyes rolled back in a silent groan. She mouthed a series of expletives before turning to face the man at her side.
“Miss Beauregard,” said Tiberius.
“Youngblood,” said Vera. She discreetly placed her glass back on the table, pushing it to the side opposite from her, and raised the back of her ringed hand towards him.
Rather than bowing to kiss her hand Tiberius placed a firm hold on her forearm, pulling her into a typical weapons-check airiner’s handshake. Vera responded with a sneer and an iron grip that audibly cracked something in his wrist.
They traded tight-lipped smiles for long enough to make Sofia cringe from where she was standing. She let out a sigh of relief when Tiberius cleared his throat and broke the unbearably awkward handshake standoff.
“Well then!” He clapped a hand on Scylla’s shoulder, which came up a foot below his own. “Ready for the race? If I heard correctly just now you’ve set your sights quite high.”
Scylla barked a laugh and brushed his hand off her shoulder as she would a mosquito. “Don’t patronize me, Aristocracy’s getting smoked too,” she said with just enough of a smile to maintain some air of humor. “Great name for a bird, by the way. Very subtle.”
“I appreciate the input, Princess.”
Scylla’s eye twitched the same way it always did when she was suppressing the urge to remind somebody she was eight years old when she named that bird.
“Speaking of, ahem, interesting names,” he continued, “is Miss Drosophila here? I thought they usually allowed absences for students involved with the festival.”
Vera coughed into her fist. “She’s sick.”
“Had to stay home. You know how she is.”
Tiberius cocked an eyebrow. “I don’t believe I do, actually.”
“Weak constitution. Weak generally, but mostly in that regard. Which of you is competing this year, anyway?” Scylla stood on her toes and peeked over his shoulder into the crowd behind him. “I haven’t run into any of your siblings yet and I need to tell them not to get their hopes up.”
He chuckled at her like she was a papillon yapping at him from its silk cushion. “That would be me,” he said, placing a hand on his chest.
Scylla scoffed. “Since when are you a rider? I’ve never seen you show up to one of these, let alone compete.”
“Good question!” Vera said in a singsong voice dripping with syrup and venom in equal amounts. Both she and Scylla seemed eager to ease the tension between them by turning their antagonisms on a new target. “What on god’s flayed corpse are you doing here, Tiberius?”
He shrugged. “Making an appearance.”
“You’re telling me they couldn’t send a different Youngblood?”
“No, unfortunately the rest are all occupied or otherwise out of commission.” He sighed as if he were speaking to friendly acquaintances commiserating over a mild inconvenience rather than a pair of vicious gossips from a rival family who were very blatantly trying to get a rise out of him.
“And shouldn’t you be occupied ‘keeping the skies safe’ or whatever it is you do?”
“My thoughts exactly, Vera. Trust me, I’m not happy about it either.”
“So I’ll ask again,” Vera hissed, thumb and forefinger pressed to her forehead above impeccably painted eyelids. “Why do you have to be here?”
“Same as you all. Decorum. Optics.”
“Speak for yourself, I’m here to win.” Scylla bared brilliant white teeth and got as close to in-Tiberius’-face as she could given their respective heights. “So I suggest you keep out of my way if you don’t want to be put out of commission as well.”
Tiberius grinned and put his palms up in mock surrender. “I’ll try my best to steer clear. And what about Miss Muricidae? Participating in the show again?” He turned his eyes to the silent black silhouette and, upon being reminded of certain recent occurrences, immediately regretted addressing her.
“Not this year,” said Vera, forcing her face into something approaching amiable, “wouldn’t want to put too much on her plate, what with the wedding and all.”
His brow furrowed. “Wedding?”
“Yes, wedding, right Cid?”
For the first time that night, Cid moved. She rose from her seat, picked up her black parasol from where it was leaned against the table, and bowed. “I’ll excuse myself if you don’t mind. Enjoy your alcohol and tattoos and talk of gold.”
The crowd parted slightly for her as she floated away.
Vera turned from shooting daggers at Cid’s back to face a sceptical and slightly concerned looking Tiberius. “She’s fine. You know how she is.”
He made a slight nod and a motion to remove a hat that wasn’t there, which he then almost successfully tried to pass off as just brushing his hair back. He looked somehow even more uncomfortable than he did a minute ago, locked in the vice of Vera’s glove. “Apologies, I don’t think I’ve yet had the chance to offer you my condolences.”
“Much appreciated. I’ll put them with the others,” Vera yawned. “Was there anything else you wanted to say? Because if you’re just hovering here waiting for me to offer you a drink or a seat-“
He took a deep breath. “I wanted to tell you that if you need anything from the Youngbloods in a time like this, we’re happy to help.”
“Nope, no thank you, trust me the condolences are far more than enough.”
“And I know you don’t like accepting assistance from the syndicate-“
“You’re right. I don’t. Amazing how you still know me so well.”
“I don’t know if you believe dead gods can send signs, but you should take your father’s fate as one.” Tiberius spoke through clenched teeth, struggling to keep his voice low. “You’re a smart woman, Millie, you know you can’t keep this up.”
Vera’s hand curled around the nacre and gold pommeled cane propped up against the table. “Call me that again, I dare you.”
He opened his mouth and closed it again. Some of the bar patrons were beginning to stare. “Fine. Fine. We’ll talk about this when you’re sober.”
“We’ll talk when you get a new coat. This one’s starting to fade orange. Better fix that before it starts clashing with all the blue accents on your—“ she waved her cane dismissively in his direction “—patches.”
“There’s a difference between a patch and a badge, you of all people should know that,” he grumbled indignantly.
“Of course I know that! I was insulting you, you obtuse piece of-“
“I get it! This was a bad time!” He inhaled sharply, exhaled slowly, and took a wide step back. “Have a nice rest of your evening. See you on the racetrack tomorrow,” he said with a curt bow before turning on his heel and disappearing into a murder of white vests.
Scylla made a sound between a huff and a flat laugh, blowing a puff of smoke in the now empty space where Tiberius had just been standing. “So she’s sick.”
Vera didn’t even bother with the glass. She left dark maroon lipstick smeared over the lip of the bottle. “Yes. Severely.”
“And what disease will she have when someone finds her making a complete clown of herself halfway across Spèir?”
Vera cackled, covering her mouth with her glove to keep from spraying all over the table. “The girl can barely lace up her own riding boots, bold of you to think she’s made it off continent.”
Sofia realized that in Tiberius’ absence, she took his place as the designated object of ridicule. She missed this even less than she missed having to listen to them bicker amongst themselves.
“Whatever allowance she has left over won’t last long and she’ll last even shorter. I guarantee you she’ll be waiting for us by the time we get back.”
“And if she isn’t?”
Vera slammed the base of the bottle onto the table and carefully dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a purple handkerchief. “Then she’s dead.”
“Well you can’t say that. What happens when she shows up again not dead?”
“I’m not just saying that.”
Scylla’s laughter fizzled out like a kettle pulled from a stovetop.
“To be honest with you she’s probably gone and gotten herself killed already. Definitely no shortage of ways to do it.”
Silence settled back over them as Vera downed the rest of the bottle.
Scylla cleared her throat and took a generous handful of coins from Vera’s purse. “Well if you’ll excuse me I’m going to get that kitschy tattoo now.” She stopped a passing server and asked for more drinks to be brought to the table before heading off towards one of the groups of athletes waiting for an open artist, which happened to be dangerously close to Sofia’s location.
Now was probably a good time to leave, Sofia decided.
She turned to find herself face to veil with a column of black lace, staring into the hollow eyes of an ivory bird skull.