If there was one constant in Tom’s life, it was waking up in terror. He’d have been hard-pressed to remember a time when life hadn’t yanked him from sleep by the throat, tangled in sheets and gasping, heart floundering like a frightened bird. So many times his hama had held him through the feverish first seconds, muttering gentle nothings, fingers tangled in his hair; so many more times he’d woken up alone, gritting his teeth and forcing himself to calm down, to push the ghosts back into the dirty cupboard at the back of his mind. A lot of things were different now that he was Anatole – more things were different than the same – but that hadn’t changed.
This morning was no exception. He woke up in the green armchair, his mouth parched and bittersweet with the aftertaste of whisky; the room spun briefly, and suddenly he felt like somebody was driving a long nail into the base of his skull. He fumbled against the arms of the chair, tried to push himself upright. The last of his dream was just trickling out of his mind, hazy and elusive; he remembered gagging, gurgling blood, remembered twisting around and wrestling vainly to see some assailant behind him in the dark.
In the dream, he’d been himself, and when he woke – for just a fraction of a second – he thought that he was himself again. That he was himself, and that he was fighting for his life. Then he saw the hands that gripped the arms of his chair, white-knuckled and shaky. Somebody else’s hands. Freckled hands. Older.
“Oh, gods,” he muttered when the room stopped spinning. “Oh, gods. No, I’m him. I’m still him.”
The blinds and curtains were drawn. A few threads of crisp morning light crept out from between them, cast themselves on the floor and the furniture and the drifting dust-motes. Forcing his breath to even out and his heart to stop hammering, he studied the room for a few moments.
It wasn’t the Vauquelin house, but it wasn’t the shit-hole he’d lived in in Old Rose, either – and it wasn’t his hama’s chaotic mess in the tenements, either. The building had seen better days, creaky and drafty in the clinging frost of this Bethas, but his rooms were clean and well-appointed. A few well-upholstered chairs, a sofa, a table with carved legs in rich mahogany – a real macha old carpet, something from Mugroba, maybe, top of the spice rack – some nondescript wall-hangings. A real golly little apartment. On the table next to him sat the half-empty handle of whisky and an overturned shot glass, glinting oddly picturesque in the half-light.
There was also a glass of water, which he hadn’t remembered getting. It was brimming. He sniffed the air, smelt fresh coffee; squeezing his eyes shut and cradling his head, he listened carefully and heard the sound of shuffling footsteps, stirring hems, soft humming.
“Cecily,” he muttered, massaging his temples. Unsteadily, he reached for the glass of water, spilling a little on the chair as he wrangled it to his mouth. When he set it back down on the table, it was mostly empty. He let out a deep sigh. “Cecily,” he groaned, louder this time.
“Sir?” A familiar shape, red hair pulled into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. “I’m making coffee, sir, and – forgive me for the presumption, but I got you –”
“Thank you, Cecily,” he slurred, cutting her off.
He heard a soft laugh; the shape disappeared into the kitchen. Tom sank back into the chair and decided to stay there for a few more moments, the air thick with the smell of brewing coffee, the apartment chilly but insulated against the outside world’s unforgiving cold. He pulled Anatole’s thickly-lined banyan closer about him, locating his slippers – scattered on the floor near the chair – with fumbling feet.
Thank the gods he’d nothing to do today. The last week had been nothing but a whirl of nonsense; he’d had barely a moment to himself, and he’d spent that moment – the day before, to be exact – trekking out to the phasmonia. Right now, though, it was seven in the morning on a ten of the week, and he had no appointments, and he planned to spend the day as boneless and inert as he could. No fawning academics, no politicians, no students. As soon as the coffee was done, he was giving Cecily the day off, as he had yesterday. She seemed to be enjoying the Stacks, and he was enjoying the time alone.
Then there came a knock at the door.
He scrambled unsteadily out of the armchair, held onto the arm for support for a moment, ankles wobbly; Cecily had appeared in the doorway again, but he held up a hand. “I’ll get it. Let me get it. Fucking – seven in the morning. What in the gods’ names?”
“Shall –” Cecily broke off, biting her lip. “Shall I wake Kalt, sir?”
“Clocking hell. Absolutely not.” Tom swallowed thickly against a wave of nausea, forcing himself to straighten up, square his shoulders. He cleared his throat, running his hands through his hair. “I’m, uh – I’ll handle it, all right?”
Every thrum of the knock was like a little knife in Tom’s ear, and he winced as he made his way to the door. “Now,” he muttered, fumbling the lock, scrambling the deadbolt out of its track and sending it clattering against the door, “let’s see what ersehat son of a bitch—”
As soon as he opened the door, his mouth dropped open.
“—oh, my gods. You.”
He hadn’t seen her in awhile – not since he’d first started inhabiting Anatole – but he recognized her almost immediately. He racked his brain, panicked for a moment – shit, what’s her name? He could hear it in Diana’s mouth, but it was a garbled, jumbled memory, softened and muddled by his splitting headache. It’s on the tip of my tongue – it’s right there –
He recognized her, but her face was still strange to him; he’d not a single clue how a man was supposed to look at his daughter, but he reckoned he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. He held his head with one hand and the door open with the other, and he squinted into the shadowy hallway – squinted at her face, set and determined, framed with thick, dark hair – like he was trying to decipher a line of Monite. Confused, unfamiliar, a little frightened.
Now that he knew a little more about the mona, he found himself taken aback. That field of hers was a heavy thing; it was still developing, a ninth form’s – or eighth? or tenth? how old was she, anyway? – but well on its way to becoming a brick shithouse. Reminded him a little of Corwynn. Wasn’t unpleasant, but it jarred him in this context. He’d expected Cerise to favor perceptive, like her mother and father; he wondered what a politician’s daughter would need physical conversation for.
Beating the hell out of her father, maybe?
His hand trembled on the door; he pushed it open a little more. The smell of coffee drifted out into the hallway. This – this young woman in front of him, whose resemblance to his host was unmistakable – was incomprehensible to him. He’d never even known his own father. What was a father supposed to be like? This woman was on his doorstep – what was supposed to happen here? What was this?
“Do you – what do you –” He stared dumbly at her. “H-Hello, love. Do you – want to come in?”