It didn’t even sound like a name. It sounded like a word that meant a million things, some of which he knew and most of which he didn’t. In public, on the lips of incumbents and incumbents’ wives and interns and secretaries, it meant one thing. When Ava spoke it, it was the word for a secret. Mr. Vauquelin was the bandage that covered an ulcer, but when she spoke his gods-given name, she unwound that bandage one syllable at a time. It festered, and it festered, and it festered in the air.
She didn’t define it out of context, though. Like only the most helpful of the old dictionaries in his study, she used it in a sentence.
It was everything Tom could do to keep his breath from catching audibly; he swallowed bile, but he knew it wasn’t his pain to feel. The wound she’d exposed was hers. Even still, he couldn’t keep the blood draining from his face, and he squeezed his eyes shut, as if there were something in the very air he couldn’t stand to look at. In the dark, his head spun. It’s not him, he heard, but this is Anatole’s face, his hands, his body lingered behind it. The rough, damp brick against his back grounded him, and he leaned his head against it, forcing himself to listen to her plead. He heard tears in the thickness of her voice. Who was she pleading for? Was it him? Why? Was it her? For what?
When he opened his eyes, Caina’d taken a step forward. He watched her meet Ava’s eye and saw something pass between them; he couldn’t put a name on it, and he only half-knew what it was. When Caina asked her who he was, her voice’d softened, like the rain after the breaking of a storm.
He wasn’t going to be a coward, standing there all helpless and blank and mung while Ava told her his name for him. Nothing could’ve made him burn hotter with shame; she’d done enough, gods damn it. She’d spilt her heart’s sap all over the alleyway already, spilt it till it ran cold and the bitterness of it hung in the air thick as smoke. She was knee-deep in it, soaked to the hem of her glossy silks and that frail, lacy nightgown, and the straight line of her back in the dark was the strongest and hardest thing he’d ever seen.
And he couldn’t let her speak for him. He just couldn’t.
He took a small half-step toward Caina, still carefully out of the other woman’s line of sight. He forced his posture straight; he was scared – piss-scared to be looked-at – but he looked her right in the eye, and his hands in the air weren’t trembling. Despite the tightness in his throat, his voice came out even and soft: it was the same voice he’d used to placate her when she was a boch. “I think you already know, nanabo,” he said, “but the how an’ the why’s complicated, an’ there ain’t time jus’ now. It’s askin’ a lot, but d’you reckon you can trust Tom Cooke one more time, for old times’ sake? When he tells you it’s him, an’ he wouldn’t hurt you, not for the world. Not wi’ somethin’ laoso like this.”
He blinked, swallowing thickly. He looked at her for a long time, large grey eyes wide in the dark.
“An’ if you can’t, d’you reckon you can trust Ms. Weaver, who’s been so good t’ the both of us?” With a raised hand, he gestured toward her – toward that dark braid, only slightly frayed. “She needs to get some weight off that foot, but I— It’d be better if you helped, ye chen? If you’re willin’, madam,” he addressed Ava suddenly. “You don’t need to be walkin’ on that wound in the Vienda mud, anyway.” He studied the back of her head, the set of her shoulders, wondering what it all meant.
Tom looked back at Caina when she lowered her knife and straightened. He lowered his arms himself, stiff, rolling his shoulders and wincing; he straightened the cuff of one sleeve almost delicately. He felt Caina’s eyes on him, met them with a furtive, pained glance of his own. Then he looked deeper into the shadows of the alleyway.
“There a back door, madam?” he asked, sounding gruff after all that.