She said that she was going somewhere cold and green and never coming back. None of us believed it. They all said things like that, and they all came home eventually, some in taxis and some in caskets. Not her, though. Lana came back with her head held high, and you could just see the skin sucked to the bones of her cheeks, the withering look in her eyes. She was still too proud to give into our defeated arms (we had been waiting weeks for her return, afraid she’d run the rented Ford off the road, into the river just as Ryan had).
But she hadn’t wanted to die. She’d wanted to hide, to see what he had, maybe, submerge herself in something cold as ice and not unlike the freezing rushes to which she’d lost him. I was bitter that she had seemed to choose. Later, Blair assured me that she hadn’t. Lana had come back, hadn’t she? But it had taken her too long. It always took her too long.
We found her next to the altar in St. Peter’s, back straight against the cold stone as if it offered her some semblance of warmth. She looked marvelous, even then. Her dark clothes were swathed like rags around bird-thin limbs and her eyes were bright with some otherworld light. None of us had any idea what Lana saw when she was not present; it was one of the things that disconnected her from us, a sea of difference that could be crossed with a hand to a cheek, a private smile.
Her fingertips were tracing a pattern on the floor. She was beautiful, I thought, even though I knew it wasn’t true—Lana had always been too slight, her face too narrow and wan, to be beautiful. But there was that haunting evanescence in her features, like the face of a ghost, which promised she would be there one moment and gone the next. That is what made her precious.
We hated being apart from one another, the four of us. And so Lana’s betrayal was lodged like a knife somewhere beneath my heart. It melted away when I saw her. Gabrielle’s resentment didn’t; her feline features were drawn into a scowl, lips pressed together as if it would hurt to smile. Blair, for her part, knelt on both knees in front of the sprawled girl like a saint begging for alms, even though it was not she who had done the wronging. But that was how it went, sometimes, and Blair always knew when to ask and when to give.
We knew you’d be here. I saw her lips make the motions, but I was not listening, because my eyes went flying then around the empty church, drinking in the familiar sights of the stained glass and the way the dust settled on the pews as if we had been the only occupants for years. We spent so much time by ourselves, I knew, dwelling in mere reflections of the outside world. But it was like growing up in a place without color—if you had never seen it, how would you know what it was like? And more importantly, how could you be expected to miss it?
Lana’s voice, hoarse and low like a boy’s, surprised me back into place. “I couldn’t be like him. I couldn’t do it.”
“You didn’t want to.” The snap of Gabrielle’s chewing gum was abrasive.
“No.” Her voice was firm, and didn’t tremble, and I was filled with love. “I wouldn’t do it unless I was the last one standing. Of us, I mean. Then I might have to, because there’d be nothing left.”
“Always something.” Blair’s gentle hands were folded in her lap, and her shining curtain of dark hair was falling over her shoulders in waves. Everything about her looked soft in the dust filled light that fell from the high windows. “You’ve got to think that there’s always something. Right, Jackie?” She looked to me, (for some reason, she always looked to me) but I didn’t know what to say.
We weren’t talking about it—not directly. You don’t ask, I don’t think, why someone runs away to drown themselves in an icy river. Or at least, we didn’t.
“He loved you,” I finally offered, always the worst with words, because my tongue felt heavy in my mouth and it was obvious: of course he had loved her.
“Almost as much as we do.” Gabrielle’s head was tilted, and she was finally smiling.
Lana’s shoulders trembled with brief silent laughter. I thought she might cry, and I might go and put an arm around her, but her pride wouldn’t allow that. Instead she curled tighter around herself, away from Blair, away from the three of us in equal measure. It wasn’t a selfish thing, to say that we loved her the most. It was only the truth. Ryan, as much as he had adored her, in his simple idealistic way, did not know the nuances that drove her. He couldn’t pick out another’s weakness in the blink of an eye, in the shadow of a laugh; he didn’t see the tremble in her index finger whenever she ran it across a flat surface; he wouldn’t understand the things that possessed her small body at night when she tossed against the cold sheets (Lana was rarely warm). You see, there were people like Ryan, and then there were people like us. Ryans were fixated by fate, shaped by history that had come and gone—and then there were the Lanas, the makers and the destroyers, who watched from above and beyond and who, when they occasionally slipped into the mindset of those other human beings, slipped into tragedy itself. Lana had gone under, and she had come back, and she was the same old Lana, scarless and bright and new all over again.
“They’re silly, aren’t they? The deviants.” The others.
Lana didn’t flare with anger. She simply murmured in agreement, then; “Yeah, I think so, too.”
“They don’t understand—“
“We don’t understand them,” said Blair evenly, watching Lana carefully, but the waspish girl met her eyes and nodded. It’s all right, she was saying. Even though it wasn’t.
“I didn’t mean that,” lied Gabrielle.
“No, it is. Silly to drive yourself into a river. Fucking stupid, actually.” The swearing meant she was approachable again. I went and sat next to her, my shoulder brushing hers. The altar was icy against my back, the light that spilled down so soft in comparison. I closed my eyes and tilted my head back, feeling very tired.
“We’re so glad you’re home.” That was Blair, whose voice was choking at the brink of emotion. She was looking at Lana as if trying to memorize the shape of her face for the last time. I was just trying to remember Ryan, again. We had not seen much of him; he had been friendly, well-dressed, attractive, and older. None of that was surprising. But they had not seemed maddeningly in love; they had not burned with it. There was none of the passion that is the spine and flesh of poetry. They had existed, side by side, but I had never seen Lana ache over him. She had never come close to bursting with the fragility that I thought such a love was supposed to entail. And so, I was confused, but I didn’t say a word.
Gabrielle was also puzzled, I knew; her mouth was pursed slightly as if in disappointment. Maybe she had wanted a story, something glorious to cling to. She’d never admit it. I don’t think Ryan’s death bothered her: not because he was beneath us (he was), but because he had made such a small impression during his short life. He’d been so pale, so translucent. She’d wiped him away like the bones of a moth.
Blair, though. She fell in and out of love with each season. She was looking at Lana with a smile so sweet it made my teeth ache. Her hands were folded in the folds of her fur coat, foxtails. Lana reached out to stroke it. We all relaxed.
“You know, standing on the edge of the river, and everything, I should have thought of my parents. Or Ryan.” The look on her face was almost a smirk, for a moment only. “But I didn’t. I thought about that time Gabrielle convinced us to go to the Night Theatre, and Blair was all reluctant, and then Jackie had us dress up like poor deviants…” She looked at me.
I held my hands out. “No one’s parents suspected us, even though Marcus was sitting six rows down…”
Blair let out a little sigh at the mention of her father. “And Gabrielle volunteered to go on stage during the half-act and she was so well-disguised Marcus didn’t know a thing…” She always called him by his name.
“It was wonderful. Gabrielle faced down a tiger.” Lana smiled.
“Why was Marcus there, anyway?” I couldn’t help but ask it; Blair had never said. The Night Theatre was not exactly a den of ill repute but nor was it one of the prestigious concert halls Blair’s father was known to attend.
“I don’t know.” Blair shrugged. “I never found out.”
That was her way, pushing away the things that bothered her. Blair’s ghosts always seemed terribly present to me—her mother was dead, her father often absent, their giant apartments echoing with emptiness. But one wouldn’t really know from looking at her; she was barely five feet of bronzed skin and deep curls, and wholly capable. It would take more than a lost mother and a neglectful father to make her tremble, it would take more than a mountain. What exactly it would take, I didn’t know.
“I was amazing with that tiger, wasn’t I?” That was Gabrielle, of course.
“Yes,” said Blair. “You were incredible.”
It was almost morning. Faint light was falling through the windows, onto Jesus where he hung like a criminal above our heads. Soon the monks would be here, and then the priests, and last the churchgoers. Gabrielle wrapped her wool coat around her shoulders.
“You should go home,” said Blair.
“No,” said Lana.
“To my penthouse, then.”
“All right.” I suppose there was an unspoken invitation that Gabrielle and I would come, too. The morning light was gentle on our faces. We hailed a cabbie that plucked his way through the streets of Old York with a learned determination and dropped us in front of Blair’s building.
336 Hancock was a giant of Old York, stretching its ancient beauty over nearly half a city block. It occupied a place of honor in the center of the metropolis, and was a glorious mess of turrets and yellowing glass, blocks of stone older than the city itself and winding staircases that led to open balconies. It may have been the oldest building in the city, I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that it was nearly impossible to find an apartment there and harder still to have the money to afford one.
It was a castle in the middle of a very modern city, and foreigners from the Eire and Western Europa liked it especially, seeing in it a glimpse of something old and pure rather than new and affected. The entrance room had a white ceiling of over a hundred feet and doves that sat stolidly on their perches, ruffling their wings now and then from the damp. The bellboys were on duty from dawn till dusk, their uniforms starched to discomfort and their smiles so trained that they were nearly permanent. “It keeps away the riffraff,” Marcus would say, flicking something off of his sleeve. “You know what I mean, Jacqueline. The common mobs, the coarse thugs.” His eyes would run over me apathetically and turn away. “We don’t need any of that here.”
Blair’s father was swamped in luxury, though it was like placing a lion in a bed of feathers. He didn’t belong in the world of aged staircases, framed sixteenth-century portraits, bowls with flowers in every corner. Not to me. He simply adapted, I thought, much like anyone would, but he still frightened me, and he was the first thing we saw when Blair pressed on the red button to be let into the penthouse. Marcus always stood very straight, and had the sort of charisma that made you straighten up around him, fully aware of his own awareness. He rarely slept. Now he stood over the long table in the entrance hall, bone-white skin a contrast to his daughter’s as she went and said something quietly into his ear.
“Lana Lukyan.” He sighed the same way as Blair did. “I did think we’d be seeing you soon.”
Lana smiled thinly. “It was really stupid of me.”
“I hope my driver wasn’t too much trouble. He dropped you off at St. Peter’s?”
“Yeah. Then Blair, Jack, Gabrielle came. Thank you, Marcus.”
Gabrielle nudged her elbow into my side so hard that I nearly fell. When her eyes caught mine, briefly, the look of trepidation told me what she must have been thinking. Strange that Marcus had come to her rescue—come to anyone’s rescue, really—rather than her family. Blair looked somewhat uncomfortable as Marcus curved his neck down and said something else, quietly, to her. Gabrielle stretched her arms until he took notice of the rest of us.
“There isn’t any need for you two to stand there like that. You can come in.”
Years of intimacy with Blair, but we’d never crossed the threshold with Marcus.
“Thank you—my father would just kill me if I came home at this hour.” Gabrielle flashed with a smile both bland and beautiful. It was not meant to entice, because Gabrielle knew better, but she could not help but be one of those people who invited attention wherever she went. Criticism, too, but she ignored that.
“I can imagine. Jonathan isn’t very forgiving.” Marcus’ light eyes took her in appraisingly. “You should get ready for school soon. All of you.”
Blair was already gone into the hall to the right; Lana was very close on her heels, perhaps to evade the interrogation of Gabrielle, who wasn’t far behind. As usual I was left alone due to my lack of deftness. The high-ceilinged chamber, with its dark panels and smell of ancient wood, seemed very close, and this made me feel more claustrophobic yet because Marcus was watching me. And I was quite trapped, too, because I couldn’t duck away from such a dear friend of my family’s. I watched as his tawny cat, Bast, leapt off the table and disappeared into the dark.
“You’re faring well, then?” Yes, I thought, but why do you show such interest? I’ve never trusted you.
“Yes, sir, thank you. I was worried for Blair—when Lana was gone, I mean. She was so shaken up.”
“Well.” Marcus seemed to think about it for a moment, even as he faded deeper into the dimness of the room. “We all were. It was frightening.”
You’ve never been frightened, I wanted to say, but did not. I traced a circle on the glossy surface of the wood table.
“Still,” he continued. “Better that she learn it early.” His eyelashes were too thick for a man’s, but his jaw was too strong to be a woman’s. His wrists were bare and he no longer wore his wedding ring. A part of me felt there was something innately wrong with noticing these things about Blair’s father, but Marcus was so wholly withdrawn from me that it hardly felt obscene.
“What?” I asked, despite myself. “Learn what early?”
“None of us have any business with them. Don’t trust a deviant unless you can see right through them.” He lit a cigarra. “You almost always can.”
Commoners, trash, the poor and the unlucky. We called them deviants, but they had less kind names, too. I frowned as Marcus gently exhaled smoke.
“It’s not their fault. It’s not their fault that they weren’t born like us.”
“And I’ve never heard anyone claim it was.” He was nearly smiling. “You have a very tender heart, Jacqueline.”
I didn’t know what to say, and it didn’t feel right to move.
“You’ve studied your histories. The world used to be a terrible place, where government was involved. Ruled by power-drunk men, possessed dictators, ill-advised kings. The State has cleaned up that mess. You can’t say, surely, that you’d rather we fell back into chaos.”
“No,” I said, uncertain, because I didn’t know why he was asking my opinion to begin with, “But there’s something to be said for a little bit of chaos. It seemed like it at least bought some freedom.”
Marcus looked at me for a long time. I fidgeted underneath his gaze. “You can’t buy freedom, Jacqueline. It is dispensed. It is given. It is bestowed.” He ashed his cigarra into the ivory tray in front of him. “The notion that one could buy freedom is partially what destroyed us.”
“I’m sure you know a lot more about it than I do,” I said, too well-bred to argue, and his interest in me seemed to flicker and die for a moment.
“They do have you trained, don’t they?” Marcus said idly, glancing down at the sheaf of papers before him on the table. “Pity. Of course, I can’t say it isn’t partially my fault. We raised you four together.”
“I don’t try and usurp my elders,” I said, perhaps a bit too quickly. The way he had uttered the word trained didn’t sound kind to my ears. At my resistance, Blair’s father looked back up.
“Trained too well,” he said, because he could get away with it. “I wonder, when does all this shielding begin to harm rather than protect?”
“None of us are damaged, sir. You should know that well enough.” In the quiet entrance hall, our thoughts were twined by the singularity of Blair. But whereas I felt reassured by the thought of her, Marcus looked suddenly disquieted, and I wondered if I shouldn’t have said anything to him. My heart was beating somewhere in the back of my throat.
“That may be precisely the problem.” His face was smooth as a mask again, the knobs of his cheekbones watery in the dim light. Along with other adults who shared his prestige, Marcus never stepped close to the edge of anything. I usually found this frustrating, or at the very least strange, but this time I was merely relieved. There are some people who are better to skitter around, rather than sink into their depths. It was for safety’s sake as well as courtesy that I stood at the opposite end of the table.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“You’ve never been to the Masked Court.” At the shake of my head, he continued. “When you do, you’ll see the essence of us.” There was no pride in his eyes, no self-satisfied conceit. Just an endless patience. “You’ll be able to understand what I mean about power then.”
“My mother says it’s not about power,” I argued, unable to help myself. “She says that it’s about responsibility.”
“Power and responsibility are just the same.” Marcus looked almost sad for me. “Astraea is a noble creature. You were lucky to receive her temperament.” He stubbed out the remains of the cigarra into the ash tray and then looked at me, solidly. That was the thing about Marcus; he always would stare you down as if he had the eyes of an angel, able to look right through you. He had the glance of a mechanic, which was appropriate, I supposed, because Blair said he spent half his time creating. His eyes took things apart and then put them back together again.
“Cigarra?” he offered, finally.
“No, thank you,” I said, wondering how I would be able to escape. Blair would be wondering where I was. “I don’t smoke.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Marcus. “Would you do something for me, Jacqueline?”
“I’m worried about Blair. She’s seemed quite shaken up by Lana’s disappearance—and reappearance, I suppose. I don’t want her to be too reckless. Would you mind keeping an eye on her for me?”
It was a strange request, I thought, and I wondered why he asked me rather than Gabrielle. The fox-like girl was everyone’s favorite; her cool yellow eyes knew how to invite and placate at the same time. No matter that she had the personality of a firecracker. It was Gabrielle’s loveliness that set one at ease in a way that few others could.
“Of course,” I said diplomatically. “I’d do anything for Blair.”
Marcus smiled his lazy smile. “Thank you.”
I had the feeling I was dismissed; he was no longer looking in my direction but back down at the sheaf of papers on the table in front of him. I stood there, awkwardly, for a few moments before moving past him into the hallway. I was relieved to be able to escape him. Every conversation with Marcus felt like some close encounter that I would be lucky to break away from. I took a left, then a right, then walked past two doors until I finally reached Blair’s room. She and Marcus were strange; he owned one half of the penthouse, and she the other.
“Oooh,” said Gabrielle as I opened the door. She grinned suggestively. “What kept you?” She was sitting on Blair’s bed dressed only in a loose blouse and soft pants, a thick blanket wrapped around her.
Blair hit her over the head with a pillow. “That’s vile, Gabrielle.”
“Marcus told me to keep an eye on you,” I said, honestly. “That’s all.”
Blair sighed, rolled back on the bed and stared at the ceiling. “He’s impossible. He either cares too much, or not enough.”
“Better than not caring at all,” said Lana, who was sprawled across the floor. She had not fully come back yet. Her eyes were distant again, foggy, as if she was remembering something she did not want to remember. I sat down next to her and put a hand on her back. She didn’t move away.
“We care,” I said, insubstantially. This made Lana grin. And then she sighed.
“I’m glad that I came home.”
“So are we.” Blair sat up straight again, looking at Lana with all the intensity of a searchlight. “Why’d you do it? Was it really because of us?”
“It was a lot of things,” Lana said, slowly. “But yes. I couldn’t make you stand at my funeral just like I had to stand at Ryan’s. I couldn’t do that to anyone.” She paused. “Especially you, though.”
I moved my hand to hers and she let it rest there, lightly. There was not much else to say, after that. What could we do, other than be there? I thought about Ryan with empathy for the first time in many days. How awful it must be to not be in control of your fate. To feel so hopeless that you would throw yourself into the river and choke on the icy current. I would never let Lana feel that lost again. It was my responsibility, I thought, to take care of all of them—and I would.
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