The Duchess of the Orange Court
“Heartmaker: Little is known about this obscure profession and most accounts come from the patients themselves. What is known is this; all verified rules regarding magic do not seem to apply to them, and they are free to do anything they desire. They can turn the nonphysical aspect of a human heart into something corporeal, alterable, and mechanical. They can fix cardiac diseases using gears, and even replace a real heart with a manmade one. Heartmakers are rare, valued, and much feared.” – The Narrow Ways Encyclopedia
The next morning, settled in the comfortable bed in the fascinating room on the top floor, Catskill woke up to focus on a pair of staring brown eyes. Her breath caught, but she relaxed again when she saw it was Serendib, kneeling by the bed and watching her with unwavering focus.
“You’re awake,” Serendib said in satisfaction, climbing onto the bed and pushing Catskill out. “Get up, it’s breakfast. We’re having waffles.”
Serendib helped Catskill dress, even attempted to brush her hair for her but to no avail; Catskill’s black hair had a type of wild, natural curled wave that fought one another for which direction each individual tress should go. It wouldn’t tame.
“You’ve grown since I saw you at the tavern. You must’ve grown four inches.” Serendib stated, giving up and heading downstairs. “You look your age now.”
I look forty? Catskill thought tiredly as they reached the kitchen. She felt weightless now that her name had been returned, and took pleasure in the domestic scene before her: there was Bishop with his feet on the table, tea in one hand as he read a huge book engorged with pages and notes, Heretic cooking and slinging insults as Portcullis sang until he molted, and Milliner crouching on the ground, still managing to look debonair while he examined Yew.
“Morning,” Bishop gave Catskill his crooked smile. “We’re making waffles.”
“By which he means I alone am making waffles,” Heretic growled, before hurling a slur at the parrot.
“Talkin’ ‘bout my girl…my girl,” it warbled
“I swear to God he’s insulting me.”
Waffles were put on the table in tall, crispy stacks and they all sat down. Bishop slathered jam onto his as he told his housemates, “I need to go see if I can find the Heartmaker. He moves around so I doubt Barghest has any idea where he is, but I’ll still ask.”
Milliner’s face tightened. “Hm. I can’t say I’m displeased that I needn’t go.”
“Thank you, jack. Although I can’t say I’m thrilled to go…at least Lazarus is paying for the operation. Which brings me to my point; I’ll be gone for the bulk of the day, so I want you to see to Skill’s studies.”
After Bishop left on his quest Heretic tended to the shop, Serendib went to go sleep on the roof, and Milliner took to the vast, scattered library available in the house.
Catskill followed Milliner to a bookcase in the shop and cleared her throat.
“Ah, yes,” he tugged his hand away from a shelf, “the lessons. I’ve never had an apprentice, though I’ve considered it; what does Bishop have you do?”
Catskill picked up a book – Manipulation; the Art of Physically Altering your Surroundings – and answered; “Read, and ask questions if I have them.”
“I wonder why I put off being a master for so long. It’s far easier than most people complain about.”
They retired to the study and built couches from the cushions, reclining there for hours as they read in the last warm October day that filtered through the windows.
When her eyes began to cramp and the words seeped into one another in an incomprehensible mess, Catskill closed the book. “Alright.”
“‘Alright’ what?” Milliner swiveled his head, lying on his back with a book propped against his knees.
“I want to try manipulation.”
“If you so command.” Milliner scrunched his brow and looked around the study, “If memory serves, my master had me work on clay first.”
They rummaged around the room until Milliner opened a drawer on the workbench and pulled out a can of blue Play-Doh. He shook it out onto the workbench, resumed his spot on the cushions, and said with a vague wave, “Have fun.”
She did. The book was straight-forward on the subject of manipulation, which was also her only example on how to work magic. ‘The first step is to concentrate the raw life that animates your body. This is easier than it sounds; imagine to yourself some aspect of being alive – most choose warmth to begin with – and try to trace it back to the rawest image of what you consider your ‘energy source’. If you succeed, you’ll feel an overwhelming sense of equilibrium; this is your ‘life’, or to be more precise, your magic. Once you’ve a hold of it, don’t worry about losing it; some find it difficult to let go – you’ll grip at it reflexively – so minimal concentration is required. Now work the magic away from yourself, which is counter-intuitive to your body so try hard, and you’ll be able to see golden-like tendrils. Only you can see them; they are your manipulators. Use them to mold what is around you.’
Finding her life source was simpler than she had assumed. It was like trying to break through a wall to find it was made of paper. In a moment she felt a delicious sense of calm, ordered balance. Concentrating that delicious life away from herself, however, was as nonsensical to her brain as bathing in acid; it rebelled with violence at the idea of dwindling away the force which ran its host.
It took effort, but soon Catskill mastered this psychological feet-dragging and watched with excitement as hesitant, sleepy tendrils worked themselves from her body. Golden was a poor description; they were like condensed sunlight, a beautiful mix of every fiery color. Coppery, on occasion, or so pale it was white.
It was cumbersome work, but Catskill managed to mold the Play-Doh into a penguin. She was about to finish the left flipper when the door opened and Bishop stepped in, snapping what little concentration she required. This snap of magic had a whiplash effect that caused a sensation like static popping in her throat, making her fall into a fit of coughing.
Recognizing the symptom, Bishop turned to the workbench. “What’s this then?” he asked. “Manipulation?”
“It looks like a penguin,” Milliner remarked.
Bishop ruffled Catskill’s hair. “Good job, Owl Eyes! Your first try too; and without help, I’ve no doubt, from the jack.”
“Au contraire. My effervescent presence provided her with the emotional support she needed,” he answered, flipping a page. “Oh, by the way, did you find the Heartmaker?”
Bishop soured, leaning against the wall and rubbing at his hair. “Yes and no. I know where he’s been last, and I have to go there to ask where he’ll be next.”
“He was tending to the ailments of the Duchess of the Orange Court.”
Catskill watched Milliner’s mouth tighten. “Her?”
“Ah, you are aware of her extreme misandric tendencies? She won’t answer any of my questions. I was thinking, if I bring Skill, that she might give out the information more readily…”
“But she’s in the Orange Court! That place is hell and I should know,” Milliner snapped, bolting upright. Catskill wondered if she should leave, but instead withdrew behind the workbench, not wanting to be noticed.
“I know that,” Bishop barked. “All the royals of all the Courts are unsafe! And I don’t want to drag Skill there anymore than you do, but–”
“Can’t you send Serendib? She’s a woman, and could get the information.”
“Serendib isn’t royalty; she couldn’t arrange a meeting if she wanted to. I have to be present, which would lessen her credibility. Skill is not only female, but also young and nice; the Duchess won’t be able to refuse a direct inquiry from her, regardless of my presence.”
“This is ludicrous! It’d be safer to mail Skill to Marshall; what if she gets killed? Lazarus would fire me if something happened to that girl’s heart, I’d lose my chance at being a courtier! If I’m not even allowed to be seen with you two, how can I protect her?”
“Oh hell, I’m glad to see you’re so emotionally invested in her safety.”
They were arguing loud enough to rattle the timepieces by this point. Catskill caught sight of Heretic and Serendib standing in the kitchen, just outside the door; their faces mapped their feelings on the matter, and it made her cringe to see them both looking afraid.
Catskill gritted her teeth, and then cleared her throat, making both men stop and recall she was in the room. “If there’s no other option, then there’s no point in arguing. When do we leave?”
“…I’ve arranged a meeting with her at eight,” Bishop said. “She has to see me – I’m royalty – but I rather expect her to have prepared a vat of boiling oil to pour on me when I arrive.”
“Well, sounds like your plans for the evening are fixed,” Milliner remarked, his tone freezing the air. “And what am I to do? Disguise myself in a dress and pretend to be Skill’s nanny?”
Bishop returned the cold look with one of condescension. “I sometimes think you’ve forgotten that there is a reason I’m Lazarus’s Archduke. But, if you’re so foolish as to still be concerned about my apprentice’s safety, I will let you and Serendib wait outside. We'll also bring Yew along; it’ll be chilly this evening.”
The air in the shop was hostile for the rest of the day. Milliner was frustrated and infuriated, Serendib was mad at Bishop for continuing to use Catskill to simplify business, and Bishop was an insurmountable wall of superciliousness. Strange enough, Catskill discovered Heretic was her partner in seeking diplomacy; they both tried in vain to smooth things over, but ended up settling for keeping them apart.
Hours stretched for so long that Catskill was actually relieved when the time came for them to leave. The moment the clocks sounded seven, Bishop flung Yew around Catskill’s shoulders, pulled on his coat, and stepped out into the cold of the October evening.
“It’ll be a long walk,” he warned her, stepping back onto the stoop to let a group of people pass. There seemed to be a lot of activity that night; people could be heard walking or chatting in the alleys nearby, and all the lanterns on all the houses were brighter than normal. Everyone was busy, and had a vibe similar to spring cleaning, though Bishop didn’t seem to notice.
They were stepping down from the stoop when the raucous clatter of wheels came crashing down on them. A giant greyhound, six feet to the withers, panted pungent clouds in Catskill’s face; Yew twitched, but resumed his faux-wrap guise.
The greyhound had a massive horse harness strapped to his sleek coat, which led to an elegant hansom cab, and beyond his oversized head, leaning from the sprung seat attached to the back of the vehicle, a familiar bowler hat and eye patch showed itself.
“Why hello, hello, Bishie and rodent-girl; your carriage has arrived,” Chaz called down. He was wearing a vast, heavy coat with numerous capes and collars; it bagged at his bony neck and wrists, making him appear skinnier than was possible.
Bishop didn’t let this ruffle him; he opened the door and climbed in with Catskill, as though this was all prearranged. The black leather seat was piled with heavy blankets to defend against the open front that let in the wind. Behind them, a trapdoor opened and Chaz’s voice, no longer hindered by wood, came through; “I expect thanks for my unrequested carriage ride, Bish.”
Bishop was a mirthless statue of gray tweed. He turned his head a fraction of an inch, sending a splintering look through the trapdoor and into Chaz’s unprotected eye.
It was clear – even to Chaz – that Bishop was in no mood for his antics. However, if he thought this would dampen Chaz’s efforts, he was mistaken; they came through the trapdoor, louder and more insufferable.
“Well well! Someone’s in a sour mood. Rodent, what happened? Did he finally discover that you’re smarter than him at everything? Which is sad, as you know, seeing as you yourself have no talent in any area. Or perhaps there was a tatzelwurm in his house this morning; terrible coward when it comes to tatzelwurms, is ol’ Bish…or anything at all. Aren’t you wondering why I’m here Bish-me-lad? Eh? C’mon, you can ask me; I’ll answer dishonestly, I unswear.”
Catskill saw something flicker in Bishop. It dawned on her that any emotion, even anger, would shake him from his current faraway, superior mood; and if anger was called for, Chaz was the best man for the job. Catskill joined in; “He’s afraid of tatzelwurms? But I thought he had one on his back before…”
Chaz grinned though the trapdoor. “Oh, you heard that story, have you? Funny one, that. Bish, being that sort of person – stupid, that is to say – made a bet with Quintal; if he, Bishop, let a tatzelwurm feed on his back for three days straight, he, Quintal, would let Bish read a one-of-a-kind book for an hour. Well, Quintal agreed and a half-starved tatzelwurm was attached to Bishie’s bare back. I was there, naturally; how could I ever miss an event where Bishop is acting like a dancing jackanapes? So I know everything firsthand. Where was I? Oh yes; That tatzelwurm was huge, and very soon so swollen with Bishop’s blood that Bishop could barely stand; oh, it was a hilarious sight! Bishop, weak and trembling, vomiting, glassy eyed; I swear his skin used to be notably pinker than it is now. And that was only in the first fifteen hours. Oh, I won’t recount the changes that occurred in the next fifty-seven, except for the final result when that bloated leech was ripped from his back. He had fainted many times by this point, and I think he had seizures at another, but by this time he was feverish and hallucinating and screaming. He won though, I’ll give him that. But now he’s so afraid of tatzelwurms that he twitches when he hears their name! Heehee!”
Bishop reached his hand through the trapdoor, seized Chaz’s collar, and bashed his skull against the back of the carriage, his entire frame convoluted with suppressed rage. “Say another word.”
“We’re going to crash! Let me drive, idiot!” Chaz squawked, kicking Bishop’s hand back down the trap.
Huddled in his corner, Bishop was now so angry at Chaz he forgot to be in a foul mood with his housemates. He wrapped the blanket around himself and scowled at the greyhound’s haunches.
“If it makes you feel better,” Catskill said with a smile, “I think you’re justified in being afraid of tatzelwurms.”
Bishop opened his mouth; “Condescension! Since when have you teamed up with Chaz?”
In return for his help with restoring – so to speak – Bishop’s mood, Catskill asked the question Chaz was dying to answer; “How did you know we were going to the Duchess’s house?”
“Don’t encourage him,” grunted Bishop.
His face lighting up, Chaz spilled forth his story. “Well, I, being royalty, heard it straight through Lazarus himself. He told me Bish had arranged a meeting with Miss Man-hater, and I thought ‘Now why would Bish want that?’ so then I thought ‘I’ll get the answer from him myself when I drive him there in a coach.’ And here I am, in a coach, about to ask him.” He cleared his throat and whined; “Bishop, why are you meeting with Man-hater?”
Bishop suggested Chaz go to a place once described in great detail by Dante.
“Would it, perchancehaps, happen to do with Rodent being the offspring of Pigeon?”
“You found out.” Bishop sighed; “Oh God, I am having a long day.”
“I don’t know for cold hard fact the reason, but it’s fairly obvious to guess once you know her heritage. Now, come come; why are you taking her to the Man-hater’s house? Aside protection.”
Bishop raised his head; “Wait, perhaps you might be of help for once. I’m going to see the Duchess because I need to find the Heartmaker; do you know where he is? It would save me a lot of time.”
“I’d love to know the information if only so I could withhold it from you, Bish, but unfortunately I have even less idea where the Heartmaker is than you.” Catskill noticed even Chaz said ‘Heartmaker’ with the same anxious irritation as Bishop and Milliner.
Her skin tight with nervousness, Catskill asked, “What is the Duchess’s name?”
“Ursula.” Bishop noticed her palms sweating.
“And is there any protocol?” Catskill asked, steadying her breathing and trying to smile.
“Protocol? Well, be respectful; that’s a must.” Bishop said, patting her head as though he was trying to soothe an animal. “But Narrow Ways doesn’t really have an elaborate system for emphasizing class distinction; they already know they’re below courtiers in authority.”
Too soon the coach pulled up in front of an impressive row house with elaborate carvings, bright windows and detailed gargoyles. The stoop, made of white stone, led to a door of polished black that shone like a mirror.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” Chaz said, “but it’ll cost you what information you glean.”
“We’ll see.” Bishop stepped from the coach, helped Catskill down, and went up to the doors. He was about to knock when the door was opened by a beautiful, hollow-eyed young man in a bright orange uniform and a pageboy haircut. He said, his voice odd and indistinct, “Milady is expecting you. Milady is in the parlor, waiting.”
The luxurious interiors, all in amber and gold tones, dazzled Catskill; sparkling chandeliers, glorious carpets and hundreds of useless, breathtaking ornaments spread about on every available nook and surface.
Everything smelled like spice and roses. Catskill inhaled deeply as they were shown down a hallway with intricate boiseries and low-glowing, golden lamps. The servant-boy opened a heavy rosewood door and bowed them in, announcing; “Milady, your guests have arrived.”
A high, whining voice answered, “Stupid man, do you think I don’t have eyes? Get them seated.” There was a light rattle of chains which made the servant work with haste to escort them onto two antique chairs. The chairs stood to the side of an amber-colored room with high windows, veiled by velvet curtains to shield against the night outside.
On a fainting couch sprawled the Duchess; the only blue thing in a sea of orange tones. Her silk dress, many-folded and over trimmed, engulfed every edge of her, except for a deep blue slipper peeping out from the hem, and her face, emerging from a tower of ruffled lace.
She was Caucasian with a small, delicate and round face; doll-like, with blue eyes and soft butterscotch-colored curls, a small, pouting red mouth and rosy cheeks. Yet her nose was pinched with pink, flared nostrils, giving her a contemptuous look, and everything about her was gaudy and overdone; the odiousness of compensating emptiness with riches.
Besides even all this to distract the eyes, Catskill was side swept by the overwhelming wall of bitterness that flowed from the Duchess. Catskill obscured herself behind Bishop, chose a chair further away from the woman, and averted her gaze in an attempt to be more hidden.
“Now Bishop,” the Duchess sneered, “What would you possibly think you could gain from this visit? Have I not made it perfectly clear that I believe society at large would benefit from your execution?”
“Hello to you too, Ursula,” Bishop answered in a singsong voice, smiling wide. “And, no thank you; I’m well aware of your contempt. This is a personal call.”
“You have to be joking,” the Duchess began when she noticed the young servant still standing by the door. In a smooth motion she raised from amongst the folds of her dress a long, thin chain and snapped it down on his foot. “Out.”
Emotion didn’t seem to register on his face, but for a moment his dead eyes brightened with agony before he bowed and limped out.
Ursula’s lip had curled to bare her teeth, but she unruffled herself, replaced the coils of chain, and turned to speak with Bishop when she caught sight of Catskill and her expression deformed with surprise and sweetness.
Lowering her voice, she wheedled, “Well hello there, shy darling; and who might you be?”
An unpleasant epiphany struck Catskill; if there was any hope in getting information, it wouldn’t be achieved through Bishop.
Looking down at her shoes, she said in a faltering whisper, “I’m…Skill.”
“Oh, precious,” cooed the duchess. “Come to Auntie Ursie; do you like sweets? Come now, tell me.”
Bishop nodded at Catskill, to her remorse, and she kept up the act as she crept forward. The Duchess made room for her by shaking some of the folds of her skirt onto the ground. Patting the cushioned couch, she cajoled, “Sit by me, sweetness, and come tell me what you’d like. Something to drink? Eat?”
Catskill stared at the woman’s face, hating and vicious and smiling, unable to avert her gaze. Ursula terrified her, in a way that reminded her of Edom, though she couldn’t explain why. “Chocolate” She heard herself say, sweating down her nape.
“The little darling.” The Duchess snarled over her shoulder, “Come!”
Only when he moved did Catskill notice there was another person in the room. He was fifteen years old, maybe younger, and he stood to quiet attention behind the couch, dressed in an orange suit of a ripped and worn nature, which blended in with a tapestry on the wall.
He was so mutilated that Catskill had a difficult time trying not to stare. One eye was recently blackened, and the other side had a chain bruise running along his temple, over the eye, and down to his chin. A gash was on his lip, and a chunk of the skin on his jaw was missing, which had just healed over. There were cigarette burns across his neck and cheeks like freckles, and half of his honey-hair was ripped away, with a patch of burned skin in the center.
And he was happy.
He hastened around the couch and smiled at the Duchess, who snapped, “Sit.”
He sat on his haunches next to the couch.
“Are you deaf?” the Duchess inquired.
“Then why,” began the duchess, her pitch building, “didn’t you hear what she asked for! Why aren’t you getting the chocolates!” she swung the chain and struck him in the back of the head, sending forward on all fours.
Bishop didn’t look surprised, nor did he say a word; he adopted an indifferent stance that was almost convincing, if it hadn’t been for his horrible smile. Catskill’s stomach heaved with nausea as she watched Ursula’s wanton cruelty, and she saw the boy’s eyes fringe with tears.
Yet he looked at the Duchess with distilled pity, which sent the Duchess into a raging mood that would’ve been taken out upon the boy had not Bishop cleared his throat to say, “Can we get her those chocolates? She’s been looking forward to this visit.”
This swung the woman’s mood back again. “Yes, of course. Mutt, go and get her the sweets!”
Mutt hurried away, trying not to clutch at the swollen, painful mess at the back of his head.
“Who is this little angel?” The Duchess inquired in an almost civil tone to Bishop, petting Catskill’s tousled hair and making her cringe.
Catskill wondered if Ursula had been the one to raise a hand to mutilate the face of that boy, and knew she had, could almost see it with her discernment. And she knew she hated Ursula. She’d never hated anyone before, and yet she looked at the doll-faced woman and wanted to hurt her like she’d hurt Mutt.
Bishop responded in his casual way, sitting down, “Oh, she’s my little cousin. So Ursula, I heard your health hasn’t been good; what’s wrong?”
Ursula glared at Bishop, on the verge of saying something vicious when Catskill grabbed her sleeve. Her boiling hatred was easy to direct into a manipulative vein, and she asked, turning the full effect of her eyes on the Duchess, “Auntie Ursula is sick?”
“No, no, pet; it’s alright…” replied Ursula. “Just a little problem with my health.”
“Did you get a doctor? Did he say you’ll be alright?”
“Of course, the best doctor for hearts – get over here and give her the sweets!” hissed Ursula. Mutt hurried through the doorway, holding a glass platter piled with chocolates.
He stood to attention next to the seat, holding the platter out for Catskill. Reluctant, Catskill accepted the truffle and gave the boy a slight smile, which he returned with pleasure through his maimed face, despite the pain afforded him.
Ursula was outraged that the boy had even looked at Catskill, but Catskill took a large bite of the truffle and smiled up at the Duchess. “It’s good! Want some?”
“Oh, darling angel,” the Duchess opened her mouth and Catskill put a truffle in her mouth.
Recalling her lesson on manipulation, Catskill wondered how easy it would be to loop the strings of her magic around her neck. Trying to control her vivid mental fantasies, she said aloud “Did the doctor make you better?”
“Oh yes. He’s a Heartmaker, and he fixed my heart right up.”
Catskill met Bishop’s gaze a moment and said to the Duchess in a weak murmur, “Your heart? My heart is sick too.”
Bishop’s eyebrows shot up, and the Duchess fell quiet. She said in a threatening tone; “Bishop? Why haven’t you fixed the problem with her heart?”
Catching on at once, Bishop lowered his voice. “That’s why I came, Ursula. I know you hate me, and rightly so, but…I had to swallow my pride to ask for your help. I need to know where the Heartmaker is, for Skill’s sake.”
They began discussing the matter, and Catskill couldn’t stand being near Ursula anymore. She drew away from the conversation, away from the horrible woman. She left the seat and went to the windows, looking out into the empty, dark alley below, and behind her she heard Bishop talking – earnest and sorrowful – with Ursula, who answered at intervals, terse yet concerned.
Catskill decided to wait outside, the sound of Ursula’s voice making her madder with each word, so when she was unnoticed she slipped into the hallway. She saw Mutt, sitting with his back to the wall and pressing a wet cloth to the back of his head. He looked up with a smile when he saw her. “Hello, do you need anything, Miss?”
Catskill let her discerning eyes scan him, trying to figure out what he really was.
He was pale and slight, bought and sold by bogmen; he had no option to leave, he was a slave with a name owned by a sadist. She felt her hands tremble, and wished she knew more destructive magic than molding Play-Doh. “No, nothing, thanks. Are you alright?”
“Oh, sure.” He dipped the rag into a bucket of water, replacing it on his head. “I’m fine.”
Mutt’s sleeves were rolled up. A massive collection of cuts, burns and bruises coated his thin arms. Catskill was almost blind with suppressed rage, but she forced herself to sit down beside him. Taking the rag from Mutt, she dabbed at his head, grunting, “How can you put up with it? How can you stand her?”
“Milady?” Mutt picked at the carpet. “Don’t think too badly of her, miss. Please.”
Catskill’s eyes stung with tears. “She beat you with a chain. Is this Stockholm syndrome? She deserves to burn in hell!”
Mutt looked up through a chunk of burnt bangs. “No, she doesn’t. I’m not saying what she’s doing is right; what she’s doing is wrong and she must be punished for it, I hope every day someone will stop her. But people don’t hurt others unless someone first hurts them. What does hating someone do but produce more hate? You don’t know what Milady’s father was like; you don’t know what he did to her. So I can’t hate her, I can only pity her. Please miss; if you can’t think well of her, at least feel sorry for her.”
Tears, hot and large, boiled from her eyes as she gritted her teeth and dunked the rag in the bucket. Rubbing her eyes and nose, Catskill sat back against the wall, biting her lip.
Mutt smiled in a shy way, holding up his forearms together and showing her the various wounds. “Look, it’s not all bad,” he said, indicating a long, wide cut on one arm, and a large cigarette burn on the other; “Doesn’t it look like a shooting star?”
It was too surreal, but it was reality and Catskill felt her heart break. This ended up stopping her tears, but left her cold, isolated and exhausted. She turned away from the smiling boy called Mutt, pressed her face against the wall and couldn’t bring herself to move.
The door opened and Bishop emerged. He called back to Ursula; “Ah, here she is, in the hallway. She’s…” he looked at Catskill’s expression, before changing his sentence, “asleep on the carpet. I’ll just bring her to the carriage then; sorry she couldn’t say goodbye.”
That high voice grated on every nerve in Catskill’s body as it called back, “The precious girl! I’ll always tolerate your visits if you bring that child, Bishop. Mutt! Where have you slunk off to? Come!”
Bishop picked up Catskill, to her confusion, and carried her down the hall. In the quiet of solitude he murmured to her, “There’s nothing I can do. Some kittens die, Skill; some can’t be saved.”
Catskill clutched onto Bishop’s neck and wept onto his shoulder until her head was filled with nothing but the sound of her own mourning.
As if through a drug-induced stupor she felt the blast of cold air when they left the house, and heard the whining of the greyhound when they got in the coach. Bishop wrapped her in blankets and said to Chaz, “I found where the Heartmaker is. I’ll tell you later.”
He shut the trapdoor on Chaz and let Catskill sob on his coat; but even her crying was quick in dying away, and stopped altogether by the time they rolled to a halt in front of their stoop.
Bishop watched Catskill with concern, but her hair was covering her face; when they entered the shop front, she murmured something and disappeared upstairs to her room.
Sighing, Bishop dragged himself into the kitchen and found Milliner drinking cocoa as he read. His brow was contracted; “Has Skill been crying?”
“Weren’t you supposed to follow us?” asked Bishop.
“I decided that being outside the building was virtually useless, and that you could probably manage several skilled magicians by yourself. So; has she been crying?”
“She just found out something new about the Narrow Ways; things are evil and unfair. Ursula had a slave she used as a whipping boy to vent her hatred of men, and who legally belongs to her; it broke Skill’s heart.”
Milliner thought this over, then stood up and opened a cabinet. “You need a drink.”
He took out a bottle of old brandy and they sat at the table, drinking in contemplative silence. The house was dark and quiet; Heretic had early nights, and Serendib never slept for more than a few hours at a time and was out roaming the streets.
“I thought it rude to ask,” Bishop remarked, settling on a subject as he swirled his brandy. “But I need to know. What on earth is Serendib? How is she like that?”
Milliner smiled. “Her ‘grandfather’ is Genesis.”
“The man who was executed by Marshall?”
“You heard? I thought the purple court hushed that up. Well, the reason he was executed – so Serendib told me – was because of what he managed to create. He experimented with genetic splicing, but his major problem was that he couldn’t create enough of one creature to prevent interbreeding issues. He somehow managed to make a gene that wouldn’t be watered down by foreign blood.”
Bishop’s eyelids flickered, flashing his eyes for a moment, and Milliner smiled; “Marshall became terrified of the idea that someone could make such a thing, so, uncertain of how to react, he had him killed.”
“That does seem to be his default plan. So Serendib is Genesis’s splicing results?”
Milliner nodded. “Her mother and father were the perfect results of the experiments, and so she’s the first generation to be born like this. Her design is faultless; superior hearing, smell, sight, speed, strength, agility. Serendib tells me the designs for her hips are something that took Genesis forever to get right; they can rotate so she can stand on her legs, and rotate again so she can be on all fours just as easily.”
“He certainly seems to have thought of everything.”
“Don’t be so impressed yet. His original design was more animal, and the proportions were far more practical. He, however, realized that the chance of his creations being able to find regular human mates were low, so he redesigned them to be more appealing. He even chose particularly attractive DNA to ensure such precious genes wouldn’t be lost.”
“It’s a shame such a mind was executed. I should’ve liked to meet him.” Bishop took a long drink. “How’d she start working with you?”
“As my skills with charms became well-known, I’d gotten several revenge jobs. It also came to my attention, while doing such jobs, that I am entirely left in the open while they try to kill me if my charms are warded off. So Barghest introduced me to Serendib, and we’ve become business partners.” Milliner replied, staring into his brandy.
Bishop mulled over that. “Forgive me if this is too personal, but are you two courting?”
Bitter amusement pinched at Milliner’s mouth. “No, no, nothing of the sort. For one thing, she finds me hideous; and not even in a moral failings type of way. My canines are not pronounced enough, I am not skilled at walking on all fours, I cannot see in the dark…the list is endless.”
“Are you saying if she did find you suitable–”
“Oh God, I’m not drunk enough to talk about how pathetic I am,” he grunted, taking a large swallow of the burning liquid. He traced the table’s graining with a finger, and added “At a certain age, her human genes are supposed to find a balance with her animal genes. Over the past year, I’ve noticed her become more and more human, and I’m hoping soon…but what about you? Have you caught the eye of some bonnie lass?”
“Let’s see…no.” Bishop snorted at the idea, letting his palm heat the brandy. “The only ‘female’ in my life is the komodo dragon hanging from my ceiling, and Skill.”
“You know she’s in love with you,” Milliner said.
“Of course I noticed, and she’ll get over it.”
“I’m not sure. If she was a foolish person, I wouldn’t think twice about her passing crush. She admires you but doesn’t ignore your faults; it’s a sober love, quite unromantic.”
“Does this have a point?”
“She’s smart; I was considered a prodigy, but she is smarter at her age than I was. Imagine her in ten years – she’ll be quite the woman. You shouldn’t care what she ends up looking like, you should marry her…but by that time she’ll realize you’re old and ugly, so I suppose the idea is hopeless.”
“Hm. That was the closest I ever came to marriage, and it was hypothetical, and it still didn’t come to pass. Can we stop planning a twelve-year-old girl’s future husband? Go get some of my wine and we’ll talk about the good old days; a popular drinking subject, I’m told.”
“Where is it?”
“Above the refrigerator, in that cabinet.”
In this way they talked late into the night, sometimes about how they’d go about meeting with the Heartmaker, and the rest about how they’d all die if Marshall discovered what they were doing, which he would. They fell asleep at the table, the bottles drained and their hearts heavy with worry and swollen with brandy.