the vauquelin house 🙫 uptown vienda
during the night of the 18th of bethas, 2719
The candlestick made warped, wavering shadows against the stairwell; warm light washed over the walls and glistened in the polished mahogany of the banister. Still, Tom was conscious of the chilly dark before and behind him, prickling at the back of his neck. He tugged his robe tighter around him against a sudden draft, then muttered a curse as a stair creaked loudly underneath his foot. He stood still a moment, but silence soon blanketed the house.
He continued his ascent.
He met Anatole at the top of the stairs, peering at him darkly in the polished glass of the study doors. The ornate handle was like ice underneath his hand. He pushed it open slow and easy-like, slipping inside and clicking it shut behind him. With a sigh, he moved to Vauquelin’s desk, lighting the oil lamp and snuffing out his candle. He swept the room with a quick glance: all was still. Bathed in shadow on the other side of the room, the hearth was empty and sad-looking. Looking at the armchair near it – worn by long-term use, with a matching ottoman sitting just by the grate and a stack of books at one gnarled wooden leg – made Tom’s skin crawl.
Every time he came into this blasted room at this witch’s hour, he expected to see the Incumbent sitting in that Circle-damned chair. ’Course, he wasn’t mung or prone to falling for vodundun; since his talk with Ezre, he’d even given a lot of thought to the Cycle, and he reckoned that if Anatole were anywhere, he’d be in the Otherworld or the Antelife or whatever the hell by now. Maybe even reborn as some unsuspecting, squalling wick baby somewhere in a Red Crow camp. He knew very well that though there were such as ghosts and raen in the world, they didn’t show themselves like that.
Still, it wasn’t a logical thing, this, wasn’t something he could just reason away.
The house’d been cleaned by now. The desk had been pilfered-through by his staff and by Diana, looking for documents he’d been responsible for before he’d “fallen ill”. Everything else was different and new, polished and cleaned, wiped of all signs of habitation – except for that damned reading nook. Nobody’d even moved the books. Just from looking at it, you could’ve told which side of the seat Anatole’d favored, where he’d propped his heels on the ottoman. You could imagine him dozing off beside the fire, a book still open in his lap.
At the top of the stack of books were a couple on Bastian history, one of them a chronicle of the troubles in Edelagne. At the bottom, though, was something called Mistress of the Sea. Tom hadn’t touched them. The thought of going near sent shivers down his spine.
With a sigh, he settled himself behind the desk, fishing in the shadows underneath it for his own stack of readings. He brought them up to the desktop with a dusty thud, wrinkling his nose against a sneeze. Then, fumbling around for the little cabinet on the right, he took out a bottle of Twemlaugh and a snifter, then paused, frowning. He tapped his fingernail against the side of the glass.
“Gods damn it, never mind,” he muttered, putting the brandy back.
Two hours later, he was still slumped at the desk, a pen in one hand and the other knotted in his hair. Spread all over the desk were books and papers, but they weren’t official documents. The one closest him – he was squinting at it blearily, the tip of his pen hovering over the paper – was a leathern journal, its pages covered in scribbles and block print. Whole lines were scratched or blotted out in ink; some letters were jammed together, as if he’d misspelled a word and then hastily fixed it, only to realize he’d misspelled it again, and to fix it again, a little more messily every time. Some words were circled or underlined or marked with asterisks.
Upper consulat – headmistr headmasters, high judges… the middle consulat – religious people (the Everine here)… the lower consulat – thats us fuck this one I hate Anaxas incumbents + local important people…
…a conflict of laws happens when one nations laws are different from anothers, but the Symvoulio – very shakily and carefully-written, as if copied letter-by-letter from the book – doesnt have anything agreed on…
The book beside that one was an old schoolbook. Tom reckoned Anatole’d saved it from Brunnhold, maybe from his third or fourth year, if that. It was an overview of the Symvoulio and basic diplomacy. On the other side of the journal was a well-worn dictionary. More than occasionally, he shifted round in his seat to thumb through it frantically. More often than that, he’d find a word in the definition that he didn’t know, and then he’d have to look that one up.
He’d been at this for over a month, and he reckoned he’d be at it for much longer than that.
At first, he’d found it unbearable, and he’d spend most of the night drinking instead of working. In the morning, Cecily’d find him slumped over the desk, hungover and dizzy. Sometime in early Bethas, though, the first couple of nights after he’d gotten back from Brunnhold, something had clicked. Maybe it’d been his chat in the Ghost Town, or maybe it’d been something else. Maybe trying to figure out Monite had made trying to figure out Estuan seem easier – a script he already, by all rights, knew, just not this kind of vocabulary. Maybe everything percolating in his head had finally started to make sense.
By the Circle, though, he wasn’t going to wander through this half-life in the dark. If he wanted to get anywhere, he’d have to know about everything he could get his hands on. The mona, the dead, the living. There was a book on Anatole’s shelf called The Unrestful Dead: Current Monic Theory on Ghosts and the Afterlife, as Distinct from the Antelife, penned by some Duncliffe toffin, but Tom couldn’t decipher it or wrap his head around what he could understand. Best not start with anything arcane, he reckoned.
He wasn’t exactly proud of himself, but he was satisfied with what he’d done. Tonight, though, his head was aching with a thrum like a gong. He began shutting his books, then paused, fishing the Twemlaugh back out and pouring himself a glass. Swirling it round and watching the amber liquid glisten in the faint light, he paused.
Then, extinguishing the lamp, he pushed himself up out of his chair and wandered over to the window, pulling aside the heavy drapes.
The mellow light of the streetlamp across the way picked out whirling snowflakes. The street was bathed in shadow, frost dusting the neat cobbles. Everything was still. Tom took a sip of brandy, frowning deeply, then seated himself on the broad windowsill. He set the glass down beside him, crossing his arms and shivering against the freezing cold outside. Osa and Benea cast cold light on the frosted window panes.
A creak and a stirring behind him jolted him out of his daze. He rounded on the dark room so quickly that his head spun; he steadied himself on the sill, heart hammering. The moonlight picked out the barren hearth, the empty chair, the stack of books—
In the half-open doorway stood a sheepish-looking servant, half-illuminated by a candlestick. Tom’s eyes widened. It was a human woman, hair in a bun, tall and thin, dark eyes as wide as his. She was frozen to her spot.
“What the fuck’re you doing up here?” he breathed.
With a little squeak, she extinguished the candle and withdrew frantically into the dark, leaving the door cracked behind her. He heard the stairs creak with quick footsteps.
Tom glanced over at the books still stacked on the desk, the shut journal. He swallowed, mouth suddenly dry, then snatched his snifter up off of the sill and downed the rest of his brandy. “Sack it,” he muttered. He realized his hands were shaking; he knotted his free hand in the fabric of his housecoat, taking a deep breath.
Outside, the snow had stopped. He made a mental note to take care with his things before he left for the Rose in a few days. “Take care with everything,” he muttered under his breath. He thought of his meeting with Spencer, then of Ezre, then of Drezda Ecks, then of rainy season just around the corner. “Every little fucking thing. Everything. Everywhere.”
The tension in his back was killing him.