THIS WAS A VERY BAD DAY.
Salis buffed his shoes, ironed his uniform, used magic to change the shade several times until the seams began to fray, and finally gave up and purchased a brand new one.
He’d needed one anyway. Half-troll heritage made regular clothing replacement necessary.
“Be respectful,” said Lord-General Ramses Al-Benumm tá Oman, divesting him of his weapons (why?) and handing him official paperwork.
“I am always respectful,” said Salis stiffly.
“That’s why we’re sending you,” said the Lord-General.
Salis did not say but you were supposed to go yourself. He thought it, though.
This was a very bad day.
Notte’s home was… nice.
It definitely wasn’t the kind of place one would expect from the terrifying ancient creator of an entire powerful race. Perched on a cliff above the Mediterranean Sea, it sat surrounded by flower beds and an enormous circular drive clearly designed to deliver multiple guests to the front door. It glowed in the evening sun, stucco and red clay emanating the warmth of artisanship from artigiani centuries past.
There were no guard dogs, no gun turrets, no hired hands ready with wands or magic swords to skewer trespassers. The windows were all clean, but Salis could not see through them.
He swallowed. Breathed deeply. Remained calm.
His boots crunched on the gravel, a heavy sound hinting at his own weight; hopefully, this place had been maintained and he wouldn’t find himself stomping holes in anyone’s floors.
No one stopped him all the way across the drive. No one issued a challenge or asked politely for an invitation or subtly threatened repercussions if he stepped out of line. Salis stood at the door for a moment, waiting for servants, or bells, or any of the usual magical precautions.
He swallowed again. Was Notte… not home?
His hearts rattled in his chest like dropped stones. Had the Blood King not been told he was coming?
Salis had never run from anything his entire life—not from his mixed heritage, or his hateful teachers, or his superiors who refused to promote him as earned. He’d never run from any enemy at all, but this weird situation made running look tempting.
“May I help you?” came of course from behind with no footsteps and no shadow and not even an errant breeze to warn him.
Salis counted carefully to three as he turned so as not to move too quickly. One should never move quickly when facing a predator. This was lesson number one in dealing with any member of the Darkness, after all.
Well, it wasn’t Notte.
A gangly, freckled man stood there, the crazy red of his hair and freckles startling against the vibrant vampire green of his eyes. Night Children were almost impossible to date because they simply didn’t age like the rest of the world, but Salis had been around the block more than once. This angular youth—standing there with hands in his pockets and an easy smile—was old. It was in the eyes, sometimes.
Salis bowed. “Yes, I believe you can. Greetings. Among the Mythos, I am Salis, of the Hush. I am looking for your father.”
“Good luck with that. He’s been lost at sea for about a thousand years,” said this guy, then laughed.
That was a break in protocol.
Ah, but the Hush were used to that. Frightened people, guilty people, angry people, everyone responded differently to the presence of the Hush—though this was the first time Salis had seen unafraid. “I believe you know that is not the father I mean.” He stepped closer. “I am here to speak with your father. Disrespect will be met with extreme prejudice.”
This would normally be the point at which the interogatee babbled, or went pale, or fidgeted. Or lied.
The redhead waved one hand like shooing away a fly. “He’ll be here. He’s taking care of something in New York right now. Wanna come in for a cuppa?”
Another breach. Salis breathed slowly, willing his stony skin to keep its gray color instead of blooming an angry blue. “Was he not told of our visit?” Damn you, Ramses.
“Sure. But there was an emergency—family stuff. Come on in, will you? Sun’s setting, and you do not want to know what creeps around this place in the dark.”
This was disrespect. It would not be brooked. It would not—
The vampire held his door open. “Oh, I’m Terrance, by the way.” Terrance held out his hand, teeth white and even, freckles like stars all up his arm and under his sleeve.
Were all Night Children crazy? Hand-shaking? How… human. Salis ignored it, cursed Ramses out a few more times in his head, and pushed past the insane redhead into the manor.
The inside was… nice.
There were no windows, at least not in this hall. Wallpaper glittered with gold patterns in the soft candlelight, and jewel-toned cloth draped the walls in great arching swaths, casting strange shadows. Enormous portraits hung between them in frames thicker than Salis’ whole body, and beneath them sat half-moon tables tastefully decorated with vases that were probably special because they didn’t look special at all. Carpet muffled all sound. It didn’t smell like anything.
A bit posh.
Terrance carried a small brass chamberstick, and that sufficed for light.
“Is this a tomb?” said Salis.
Terrance snorted. “Aye, we’d just welcome a guest in and bury him. No, of course not.”
“I sense no life -” Salis didn’t finish.
A white thing—a puff, a phantom, a see-through blobby shape like a pillowcase underwater—flew through the wall and between them, bringing with it a cold wind and wearing an impossibly solid red bowtie near its top.
Salis stopped dead as the cold breeze died, staring at the tapestry the thing had flown through. This was beyond violation. Nothing he’d ever seen among the Mythos fit that… that. Whatever that was. “An unregistered apparition?”
The chamberstick in Terrance’s hand was steady. “Not quite.”
Salis knew his skin was darkening with rage, but he couldn’t stop it now. “Then what was that?”
The word meant nothing. “Explain.”
“Hey! Dormus, get back here,” said Terrance, snapping his fingers.
The thing floated back through the wall.
It had a shape, of sorts—curvy and blobby and really not humanoid. There were no limbs. The red bow-tie indicated the possibility of a head, but there was no face; above the tie, the blob tapered, ending in a sort of empty-windsock sag.
Terrance pointed a thumb at the thing. “He’s a wraith.”
There were no wraiths. This didn’t exist.
The floor groaned, ancient wood and earth straining against his sudden change in mass. But Salis’ control never slipped; not one stitch in his new suit popped.
Terrance and the wraith both waited, staring at him, the one with a face as unreadable as the one without.
“There is no wraith in the registry of Seven Peoples,” Salis began, pulling a small glass ball from his pocket to record everything. “This will be a reprimand. Perhaps incarceration.”
Terrance laughed. “Hold on! So serious! Here, I’ll educate you.” He stuck his fist into his jeans pocket nearly up to his elbow, clearly accessing some private magical storehouse.
“Resistance will result in the application of force,” Salis continued, raising his fist, focusing until it glowed brightly enough to drown out the candle and cast the vampire’s shadow long and thin down the hall.
Terrance rolled his eyes. “Read it and weep,” he said, and held up a curled, ragged piece of parchment.
The light from Salis’ fist turned the calligraphied runes red, and he lowered his hand lest his power erase them.
The parchment was vellum. The ink was blood. The words were…
“Impossible,” said Salis.
For the first time, Terrance’s smile faded. “You calling my da’ a liar?”
“This is impossible. Death does not create.”
And Terrance did something nobody ever did, something nobody had ever done since Salis was born from stone, since his skin grew its scratchy calcification and his power to produce lava settled disputes on his behalf: Terrance leaned right into his face, not even an inch away, without blinking.
“Are you,” said Terrance with slow warning, “calling my father a liar?”
Night Children were insanely loyal to their makers. “Is he?” Salis said.
“No. He’s not.” Terrance withdrew, sullen in that dark, dangerous way that usually involved hidden knives. “Also, he’s here. You can ask him yourself.” He pointed with his chin.
Of course, that meant Notte was behind him.
Salis was not authorized to arrest the lord of the Night Children; that was out of his jurisdiction, so he counted to three as he turned, reigning it in, exercising self-control and recording everything that went on. “Greetings. Among the Mythos, I am Salis, of the Hush.”
Notte bowed back, elegant in his dark blue suit. The candlelight scattered red highlights in his curly hair. “Among the Mythos, I am Nox Eterna of the Night Children, called Notte.”
Finally! A return to protocol. “Did you receive our missive?”
“Indeed,” said Notte. “I believe, however, it was incorrect: there are reparations to be made.”
“And you have an unregistered creature to explain,” Salis said.
“Excellent. Let us repair to the tea-room.”
Fire flickered cheerfully in the wall-wide hearth, giving off enough warmth and light for the whole room. Again, there were no windows. Salis stood beside his armchair, stiff.
“It has been spelled to handle weights far greater than your own,” said Notte so gently it felt like a boot to the stomach.
“I prefer to stand.”
“As you wish. First, let us discuss the incident in the hall.” Notte steepled his fingers. “I believe you had some questions about my servant?”
“In the bow-tie.”
“I do insist on protocol in my household,” said Notte with a small, self-deprecating smile. “Full clothing would obviously be absurd, but I see no reason to avoid formalities.”
The t-shirted Terrance made a noise, not quite a laugh.
Notte’s eyebrows twitched. “Some of my older children have earned the right to dress as they wish. This is important. Self-discipline, as you know, is the core of our familial structure.”
“So they dress as you wish until you feel they are old enough to do so themselves?”
“It is one of many regimens,” Notte said mildly.
It sounded like home to Salis. Order, regimen, routine… “And this so-called wraith? It is not one of your children. It is not in the index of Seven Peoples at all.”
“Ah, but it is. I apologize—I should have warned you.” Notte’s eyes glittered and his lips twitched again as he held up the old vellum scroll. “This explains it.”
“That claims nonsense.” Salis sat down to emphasize his point. To his surprise, the chair did not creak. “The wraith could not be what that contract claims.”
“But it is. I have done Death some service, a long time ago. In gratitude, he provided me with helpers for my household. As long as I need them, they will remain.”
“That does not fall into the category of the Seven Peoples, and therefore triggers the clause on experimental lifeforms,” Salis said, shifting forward to rise.
Notte held up his hand.
Salis stopped. He stopped as though ordered by a god, as though the chief of all Hush had commanded him.
“Technically,” said Notte, “they are pieces of deceased members of the Sun. Thus, they fit neatly onto your chart, and in fact, on the great Wheel itself.”
Salis wanted to rise. To stand, to loom, to use his weight and power for progress. For some reason, he dared not disobey that hand. “Pieces of the Sun? They’re slivers?” Slivers—leftover pieces of destroyed ‘gods’—were deadly dangerous, and had to be destroyed.
“These are pieces who have died, and of whom no other parts remain alive or dead. Hades—pardon me, Death—heals them as best he can, since they can never be whole. The pieces that remain with me are in process of rehabilitation.”
“This sounds like superstition.”
“Rather, fine print.” Notte held up the vellum again.
Salis took it this time, careful not to crush it.
The runes were in an Indo-European dialect rarely spoken these days. Apparently, Death was lending useless pieces of dead gods to Notte. In return, also apparently, Notte called Death “friend.”
Salis rubbed his face; steam rose from his sweat, and his uniform creaked and strained against the slight changes in his form.
“Cool, ain’t it?” drawled Terrance, whom Salis chose then and there to ignore.
“Is this satisfactory?” said Notte. “I could call him in, if you wish; Death does come when I ask him, but I do hate to pull him aside from his many, many duties.”
Salis looked up sharply. Good hell, the vampire was serious. “No. Thank you. I plan to see him only upon my own demise.”
“A wise preference. One never knows how he will respond when pulled into mortal time,” said Notte. He sipped delicately from his teacup, then put it on the sidetable and steepled his fingers again. “Now. The child whose belongings you believe you interfered with is Jonathan Sumeragi. The woman whom you apprehended is Katherine Aelwyn Lin, of the Lins of Wales. I believe a proper apology is due.”
“There is no issue.” Salis tried to imagine how Ramses would handle this. Probably not very well. “No harm was committed, all goods were returned, and the blood-provider was barely detained as she went about her business.”
“All goods were not returned. First, however, I require an apology to Ms. Lin. She was arrested and detained without cause.”
“All goods were returned. And traces of her aura were found at the scene! She’s fortunate she isn’t still in interrogation.”
Notte could not be ruffled. “As were dozens of other auras—yet I believe all of those belonged to royalty, yes? I do understand. You were left with the terrible decision of pursuing someone a little too important for your taste, or attempting to pin the destruction on the one true civilian present. Again, I say an apology is due.”
Salis’s teeth ground together. Ramses had cocked this up to an unbelievable level. “If that is the case, as you say, then an apology is due to your child.”
“To Ms. Lin.”
“Are you saying she was not your child’s blood provider?” Salis half-rose again.
“She is merely my child’s friend. Nevertheless, she is innocent of wrongdoing—and while Merlin may be currently engaged in the business of making peace between our people and the Ever-Dying, I believe you know he will eventually return to the night of the incident. Should he discover that his favorite niece was implicated—and I do know how your record-keeping works, and that she has a mark against her name– he will not be pleased.”
Boy, oh, boy: Ramses had bollixed this up like a pro. No wonder he hadn’t wanted to come here.
Salis studied Notte, read his eyes and his calm aura, and knew the vampire told true. He sighed slowly. “I understand.”
“We will drop any…lingering charges on Katherine Aelwyn Lin.”
“All. All notes. All suspicions. This must be expunged; it should never have happened in the first place. And now, we must return to the issue of missing black diamonds.”
For a moment, Salis forgot to breathe. “What black diamonds?”
Notte’s raised eyebrows spoke surprise, innocence, no trap at all. “Did you not know?”
“What black diamonds?” Salis snarled.
“She had been given a gift of black diamonds by Jonathan—a friendship gift, no more. And when she was released, they were missing.”
This was a nightmare. The Hush was strict—they had to be—and sometimes, yes, they convicted on little evidence. But they were honest and true, and they never stole. Never. “Can you prove this statement, Blood King?”
“Yes.” Notte handed over a simple piece of paper, stamped in several places with seer sigils—guarantee that whatever this paper said was the truth.
Salis read it.
He read it again.
And he laughed.
This. This! This was it! This proved definitively that Ramses had stolen goods from a suspect and failed to register them as in the woman’s possession in the first place. The scene had been “witnessed” by numerous seers, confirmed and categorized. This was everything!
Notte waited, fingers still steepled. “You may keep the letter.”
“Do you know what this is?” Salis said.
“Yes. An opportunity for justice. He has harassed my children before, Salis. This is the end.”
That was terrifying. Notte didn’t growl or loom or do anything alarming, but the gentle, casual way he said that was somehow even worse.
The Hush were the most important authority among the worlds—and yet in that moment, Salis felt very small.
He swallowed. “And I may keep this, as you said?”
He’d use it. He would not be overlooked for promotions again. No more being stuck on what was essentially diaper duty. Ramses was going down, and Salis would ride that sled until it hit bottom.
Salis stowed the paper, turning green and purple and bright, bright blue before he could pull his emotions back under control while Notte waited. “Thank you. Ah. I believe the matter of wraiths can be overlooked—as you said, it’s all in order. Ms. Lin’s record will be fully expunged. As for this…” Salis smiled, and his teeth held shadows like wind-worn boulders. “I will see to the return of your property personally.”
The rumors were right. Notte’s absurd predilection toward humans was going to get him in trouble someday, but that day was not today. “Of course,” said Salis.
“Thank you. Allow me to see you to the door, please.”
Salis didn’t care who saw him to the door. This was it. This was power. Ramses’ reign was over. He laughed again as he pulled his portal-controller from his pocket, heading directly to Hush headquarters in the heart of Mount Kilimanjaro.
From the shadows of the hall, Jonathan watched him leave. He remained silent, barely breathing, until Notte returned, closing the door quietly.
There was no need to talk in detail. Notte had known for years that Ramses regularly visited Jonathan’s old maker, joining in the torture to activate Jonathan’s glimpses of the future. Jonathan wanted to forget, but Notte never forgot—and when it came to Notte’s family, he also never forgave.
“Is it done?” Jonathan whispered.
Jonathan exhaled, deflating, and put his face in his hands. “Finally.”
“This was a long time coming,” said Notte quietly.
Jonathan couldn’t answer at first. “Yes.” Inaudible. “Yes, it was.”
“Come.” Notte put his arm around the other’s slim shoulders and walked him back, back, deeper into the manor that was bigger on the inside, deeper into dark, quiet places with warm and willing blood and soft places to sleep. “Come, my child. It is time, at last, to rest.”