The Darkest of Dreams - Chapter 1

the darkest of days

 

It was a gorgeous summer day in the wooded rolling hills of Srebra Gora. Birds were singing and cicadas were buzzing and honeybees danced from one flower to the next in their rush to collect pollen before the chills of autumn forced them into hibernation. The sun was shining brightly but not overly hot, and a soft breeze pushed the puffy white clouds across the deep blue sky. All in all, it was about as beautiful of a day as one could’ve asked for, which made it a particularly miserable day for a funeral.

While Finn’s body lay on ice, horse-drawn carriages of all shapes and sizes had brought friends and relatives from every corner of the Estellian Empire to pay their respects to the distinguished and devastated Marinossian family. Their sprawling country hacienda had been draped in yards upon yards of purple and black bunting as was the tradition when a family member died. The colors of death cast the stately home in a forlorn and gloomy aura amidst the backdrop of bright green. The recent rains had ended the drought, but no one in the village was openly celebrating their good fortune. Consumed by their grief and drifting through each day on a wave of tears and pure exhaustion, neither Ambrose nor his wife Althea had wanted so many guests or such an elaborate ceremony for their eldest son. But once the authorities had shackled Talvi’s bloody, shaking hands behind his back and hauled him off to jail, and after the shrouded body of his brother had been carried away by the undertakers, it was only a matter of time before everyone in their village found out the shocking and horrible news.

At first there was rampant speculation as to whether or not Talvi would be convicted of murder or found innocent and set free. By naming Finn as his korvaaminen, he was well within his traditional rights to cancel the contract the old-fashioned way—by death using the hands that had made that very same agreement. Half the residents of Derbedrossivic believed that Talvi had planned his brother’s demise all along, and that he’d named him korvaaminen to evade persecution when the time came. The other half refused to accept such a despicable thought, but knowing Talvi meant that anything was possible. And right about the time he was having his shattered jaw wired shut, a new twist came from nowhere to add more salt to the already gaping wound in everyone’s hearts. It was a follow-up letter from the Ancient Order of the Korvaaminens, addressed to Finn. Ambrose was so distraught when he read the first paragraph that he could hardly read the rest.

 

Dear Finn Marinossian,

 

We are impressed by both the quantity and the quality of the evidence you have provided in favor of your argument regarding your sister by law being safer if placed under your care rather than remaining under the care of your brother Talvi. However, we must regretfully dismiss your request for a hearing. After searching extensively throughout our archives we can find no record of your official title as her korvaaminen. Please disregard our earlier request for sworn statements from you, your family, and any friends.

The role of korvaaminen is an honor of the highest esteem that dates back to ancient times. It is a title that requires the utmost integrity, righteousness, and responsibility. As such, The Order takes great pride in keeping meticulous records of those who elect to uphold this increasingly obscure tradition. If your agreement was made prior to a half year ago, please provide us with the names and locations of those who stood as your witnesses so that we may verify your claims and conclude whether your title is in fact, valid.

However, if this agreement was made within the past half-year, please be aware that a revised edition of The Rite and Rights of the Order of Korvaaminens has been in circulation since that time. All reference textbooks published prior to half a year ago are now null and void. Furthermore, any agreements entered into after that point without the proper documentation and witnesses are hereby declared invalid. As stated in appendix A, section 7, Korvaaminen contracts are now required to have no fewer than three witnesses present for validation purposes. One of those witnesses must be ordained by The Order to ensure that there is no possibility of confusion over the terms. This will also ensure the integrity of our archives as the practice continues to grow more uncommon with each passing generation.

Once we have an official record of your title, you may re-submit your evidence for us to address your concerns. If your brother’s career is determined to endanger the safety of his wife as you have claimed, it would be in your best interest to follow up with The Order as soon as possible. We apologize for any inconvenience or misunderstanding this may have caused.

 

Your faithful servant,

 Gabrial Clark

Junior Magistrate of the High Court of the Ancient Order of Korvaaminens

 

That letter could have easily saved Talvi’s life, and now it sealed his fate. He was facing a very likely death sentence, all because Finn had been referencing an out-of-date textbook when trying to steal Annika from him. The thought of losing both of their sons was too much for the Marinossians to bear, but they had no choice. Once the facts were confirmed with the Ancient Order of Korvaaminens, the local news was funneled into the regional news, which was sent along to the national news and thus read by more eyes than ever before. A trial was scheduled, although it seemed like little more than a formality. There was a body, a weapon, a motive, and a confession. The court of public opinion had already chosen the verdict—Talvi was guilty as charged…and so was his brother.

With the family being so prominent and with Ambrose being a long-time diplomat and semi-retired High Court judge, it was inevitable that the national papers featured sensational headlines like ‘Murder at Marinossian Manor’ and ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts – says Coroner.’ Word spread like wildfire throughout the provinces, and while it was forbidden for the papers to disclose the exact location of where judges resided, there were no rules about sharing what the inside of their homes looked like. Crime-scene photographs were soon leaked to the press, revealing a blood-soaked kitchen with shattered glass for a floor, which lent another level of gruesomeness to the countless articles. There weren’t many souls left in the realm that didn’t have at least a general idea of how the Marinossians lived, or how vicious some of them were capable of behaving. Scandal and speculation reared its ugly head with articles questioning how honorable or capable of a judge could Ambrose truly be if he’d raised a murderer for a son? There were countless editorials claiming that it was time for him to step down for good and focus his energy on growing vegetables, not killers. Even Althea wasn’t able to escape public scorn, although it came primarily in the form of letters of withdrawal from her herbalism students who were ‘regrettably no longer able to attend her classes.’ 

Then there were the exposés on Talvi. His reputation all but guaranteed that a new rumor would be churned out every hour. He’d remained in the local jail just long enough to have his wounds cleaned and his broken jaw dealt with; then the letter from the High Court of Korvaaminens had arrived. Instead of going home to recover, he’d been transported directly to Bleakmoor, the infamous prison island. Plenty of criminals were sent there, but they never left. The official explanation given to the family was that it was for his own safety, but the papers said it was because of the severity of his crime, and that no other prison could contain him. Regardless of the reason why Talvi was sent there, everyone he’d ever so much as snarled at since childhood came crawling out of the woodwork to tell the tale of their daunting encounter with him. Ladies were quick to recount how careless he’d been with their hearts, and how they’d been cast aside for the next pretty face. Men came forward with tales of how he’d cheated them at cards and stolen the very shirts off their backs. And Elden the papermaker was all too happy to remind the public to ‘Never mess with a Marinossian’ as he recounted the time that Talvi cut off his hand for the offense of showing interest in his twin sister Yuri. And speaking of papermakers, if only one positive thing came from the murder of Finn Marinossian, it was that paper production was at a record high to keep up with the sudden explosion of national interest in the quaint little village of Derbedrossivic.

Unlike things in America, no reporters had come knocking on the door to hear Annika’s side of the story—or any of the Marinossians—for that matter. In the days that immediately followed her husband’s heinous crime, she quickly learned that it was considered taboo for outsiders to ask the immediate family for details of how Finn had died unless the family offered that information freely to them. Unless they were granted permission, it was customary for them to hold their tongues for the next month. It was the same practice for any death in the community. If someone broke their neck after falling off a horse, you weren’t supposed to question their riding abilities. You’d have to wait until a relative told you how skilled of a rider they were. If someone choked to death on a crust of bread, you couldn’t ask what kind of bread it was. Only the undertakers and the authorities had that privilege for the next thirty days, and for that Annika was grateful; she was sick of answering questions. She’d been questioned by the local authorities and then questioned by the ones from the regional province, only to be questioned by an investigation team sent on behalf of the London Embassy. Apparently it was routine protocol to follow up and do damage control on all of their employees…even if said employee had worked in a benign department like Mergers and Acquisitions of the Imperial Trade Commission.

Somber re-introductions had been made as elves and humans and samodivi and fairies trickled into the house during the days before the funeral. The names began to run together until Annika’s brain grew as numb as her heart. Althea’s side of the family arrived first; her sister Gousine, her husband Ishkan, and their children Zaven and Sevan. They were noble and elegant, and they quickly took over the task of managing the running of the house, along with finalizing funeral arrangements. Ambrose’s side of the family arrived later; a consequence of living so far south. First his cousin Corbin showed up with his wife Weaver and their sons Swift, Starling, Heron and Hawk. They brought with them an air of sympathy, warmth, and mild chaos into the house, along with crates upon crates of wine from their vineyards. A few days later, Ambrose’s most far-flung relatives finally arrived. Annika had a vague memory of meeting an elderly great uncle and a mess of dark-haired Marinossians—mostly named after birds—but she hadn’t seen them since Talvi and Yuri’s birthday party. They, too, brought more of that sympathetic warmth and chaos with them, thanks to the number of children running through the halls. Annika didn’t know the first thing to say to any of the family, which appeared to work both ways. The painful reason behind their reunion was still too raw to speak of without bursting into sobs.

Instead of the customary flower arrangements that Annika was expecting, black boxes and baskets of fruit and small cakes began to arrive at the front door. Some were modest parcels sent over from the neighboring farms and villages, and some were large crates sent from the upper crust of society. Regardless of their origin, all of them were wrapped carefully in black paper and tied shut with black string. Annika was told that flowers were meant for celebrations, and would’ve been completely inappropriate at a time like this. The fruit and cake was meant to bring a bit of sweetness to those in mourning. But being as popular as they were, neither the Marinossians nor their guests could possibly eat all of it before it spoiled, so they set about canning and preserving everything that they could.

The cursed kitchen had immediately been closed off from daily use, and the family had set up a makeshift one outside in the courtyard. Even with all the extra space and all the canning and all the extra mouths to feed, they didn’t seem to need or want Annika’s help. She was shuffled off to the side and told to ‘rest’ or ‘relax,’ and she didn’t dare argue with them…especially the women of the family. They were a force to be reckoned with. They gave out meticulous orders to the men on exactly what groceries were needed from town, exactly how much wood to chop for each day’s use, exactly how many funeral guests were needing lodging and travel accommodations, and even detailed instructions on which suit Finn should be buried in. The brown frock coat was too formal. The olive green tweed was too common. The black was too typical. They settled on a deep blue suit with a dark plum-colored waistcoat. Their talent for delegating at such a stressful time was sorely appreciated by their hosts, and much-admired by Annika, who was incapable of making any decisions at all. She couldn’t even decide whether or not to get out of bed, whether to change her clothes, or whether to eat. They all seemed like such unbearable obligations given the circumstances. 

Most of the extended family made an effort to be polite to her, especially at dinner, although they spoke primarily in Karsikko, which made her feel exponentially more isolated in her grief. On the occasions where she did speak up, they switched to English for a minute or two and then fell back into using their native tongue. She could hardly blame them, although she longed for just a fraction of that connection that she was missing out on. She only bad a basic grasp of this new language, and the last thing she wanted to do was constantly interrupt her in-laws when they were trying to sort out funeral arrangements. Runa at least tried to translate things to her, along with Nikola’s help, but their best efforts couldn’t keep up with the amount of conversation happening under that roof.

Eventually the day before the funeral arrived, where the undertakers had brought Finn’s open casket into the larger of the two music rooms for the individual visitations. They’d promised everyone in the family a few private moments alone to say goodbye to him. For having all the time in the world, Annika loathed how quickly those precious last minutes had slipped away when her turn came.

Finn had appeared so unnervingly alive while lying there, as if he were merely taking a nap, although his loose brown curls were too neatly arranged for him to be sleeping. He’d been bathed and dressed in the blue suit as requested, with a tall-collared shirt and a thick silken cravat to cover the knife wound on his neck. The loss of so much blood had left him pale, yet the deep suntan etched into his skin made up for it. The resulting color made him look like the epitome of health. The bruises from the fight that cost him so dearly had been artfully concealed with makeup along with the scars that ran down his jaw, making them completely disappear. He looked absolutely perfect. So perfect, in fact, that Annika had reached over and touched his cheek, only to discover that his skin was as lifeless and cool as wax. Just like the light in his permanently closed eyes, the essence of him was forever gone.

The lead undertaker had escorted her away, leading her into the ballroom, which was filled with chairs and tables and more than enough food. She walked through the crowd in a daze, noting the wafts of incense and hundreds of candles lighting up the chandeliers, and the bright white and cobalt blue of a priestess’s robes as she lead a small group in a solemn prayer. Someone handed her a piece of ‘Love and Sorrow cake,’ making a point to tell her that it was called this because it was typically only served at weddings and funerals. It was also bad luck not to eat any of it on those occasions. Annika wasn’t hungry, but she found herself returning for a second piece just in case there was any truth behind the superstition.

The next day she stood beside Runa with the rest of her husband’s relatives around the family plot, which was situated on a clearing on a bluff marked by a massive white gravestone. Worn by weather, it overlooked the river and the home and the pastures below. She’d watched as Finn’s mahogany coffin was lowered into the ground in a space next to his grandmother’s remains. Recalling the tragic circumstances of her death, another round of tears had forced their way to Annika’s cheeks. Another round still managed to push itself out of her when the first shovelful of dirt struck the rich red wood.

Now Annika was hiding with Runa in the conservatory, where both of them were curled up in their black dresses on one of the soft chaise lounges. The painting of Talvi and Yuri had been taken down and replaced with a large mirror, only to have it and all the other mirrors in the house be covered with sheets of white cloth.

“Why did they do that?” she asked, pointing to the space where the painting had hung for the past hundred years.

“Do what? Cover the mirror?” Runa sniffled and wiped her red nose with a handkerchief before going on. “When someone dies and their soul leaves this world, it leaves an empty space that needs to be filled,” she explained in a weary voice. “That empty space is more likely to be filled with evil than good, and there’s nothing that demons love more than preying on those who are weak to begin with. A household in mourning is an ideal place for them to take up residence.”

“If they weren’t already residing here in the first place,” a male voice huffed. Annika looked up to see Nikola had joined them. Having no mourning clothes of his own, he’d been given an old suit from when Finn was an adolescent. Unlike the rest of the Marinossian family and their visitors, the druid’s amulets and talismans were exempt from the customary ban on wearing jewelry while in mourning. Anything more than a wedding ring was considered to be a boastful expression of vanity, which was looked down on during the mourning period. With his amulets resting against his black clothing and his dreadlocks pulled back with a black ribbon, Nikola looked like a movie star that transcended time and space. He also looked as tired as Annika felt, and she was glad that all the mirrors were covered up with sheets.

“What do you mean by that?” Runa asked him. “Do you think demons are living in the house?”

“If they aren’t living here now, I think they were recently,” he countered. “Have you been inside Finn’s chambers since the…er…since…lately?”

Runa’s big brown eyes widened as she shook her head.

“Of course not!” she hissed in revulsion. “Have you?”

“A few times,” he admitted, much to Runa’s disapproval.

“Why would you do such a disrespectful thing? It’s a hallowed space! It’s awful enough that so many peace officers and detectives have rifled through everything he owns. I know they took things that belong to him. And now you say that you’ve been poking around up there as well?”

“All they took was evidence, which they can only keep until the trial is over,” Nikola pointed out. “They were looking for the same thing that I was—some kind of clue as to why he attacked Talvi.”

“We all know why he did it,” Runa argued in a ragged whisper. There was a brief silence where Annika could feel Runa’s eyes resting on her back along with Nikola’s, but she continued to stare out the window instead. She’d spent the past week being looked at in the same exact way; in scorn and ridicule and pain. The weight of the guilt incurred by those judgmental stares was slowly crushing what remained of her resolve. Nobody said it out loud, yet she knew exactly how they felt. If Talvi had been the fire that burned down the mighty oak tree that was Finn, then it was Annika who’d doused him with gasoline and handed his assailant a box of matches. Her role as the catalyst in his death hadn’t exactly gone unnoticed by the media or the villagers, let alone her friends and family. Instead, she felt it constantly. They knew perfectly well that there was more between her and Finn than she was letting on, and they were willing to bet it involved Talvi escorting them home from Paris. Even if they asked for answers, it wouldn’t change the circumstances.

“But what pushed Finn to become so violent?” Nikola insisted as he began to pace around the small room. “Every one of us agrees that it was completely out of character for him—you saw what he did to Talvi’s face with that bottle. The surgeon said his jaw was broken in four different places! Does that sound like something Finn would be capable of doing?”

“No, but he was certainly strong enough. And you heard what Asbjorn said…” Her lip trembled and she swallowed hard. “He said Finn was threatening to hurt Talvi long before he came home. He said that in the past hundred years that they’ve known one another, he’d never seen such a dark side of him until this summer.”

“That’s precisely my point. I think Finn was manipulated by something darker than himself to become so irrational. I’d barely taken two steps into his room and I heard the echo of pure black magic ringing as clear as a bell. Not only that, but I could feel it. And here’s another thing that I don’t understand,” he stopped pacing and pressed his mouth into an impatient frown. “What was he doing in possession of a druid’s knife? Those are meant only for rituals; using it as a weapon is meant as a last resort.”

“I don’t know, Nik,” Runa sighed hopelessly. She gave up on her soggy handkerchief and wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her black dress. “He liked to collect things from his travels. Perhaps the knife was a gift?”

“A druid is required to take their vows before they can ever have one,” he asserted, and revealed a white knife tucked safely inside his jacket. It looked nearly identical to the murder weapon. “Wasn’t Finn an atheist?”

Runa’s big brown eyes squeezed shut as she nodded.

“He was,” she faltered as she fought back her tears. “Which means absolutely nothing. Just because you believe something holds great power doesn’t mean that he believed it did. That’s why he had no concern over keeping the black magic stones from the Pazachi’s wheel inside his personal chambers, let alone under his bed. He was supposed to be studying them, but he was busy with spring planting and all the chores here on the farm. He promised me that there was a protective charm on the trunk they were in, but what if the detectives are right and it broke? What if the seal on the trunk weakened just enough to let the evil spill into his room little by little? His parents said if he wasn’t doing chores that he was always in his room. If it was contaminated with such potent black magic, how could he have not gone mad?”

“That’s precisely my point. If the stones drove him to attack Talvi, then where are they now?”

“I don’t know, Nik!”

There was an uncomfortable silence as she choked back a few sobs, and even Annika’s heart twisted in agony from hearing the pain in her voice. When Runa had composed herself, she tossed her long blonde hair over her shoulder and sighed.

“You heard the authorities. They said Finn needed plenty of money to pay for the case he was bringing against Talvi in the Court of Korvaaminens. If he lost, he’d be required to reimburse Talvi the cost of his legal representation. And if he won, then he would have enough money remaining to start over and make a new life for himself and…” her voice trailed off as she glanced at Annika. She took a deep breath and turned back to Nikola. “Why does it matter where the stones are now? It’s not as if they could bring him back.”

“I just can’t believe that’s all there is to it,” he lamented with a frown. He stepped aside to let a tall, clean-shaven elven man join them. The newcomer’s slim figure moved gracefully through the room, and even though he wore a black suit like all the other men under that roof, his black bow tie managed to make him stand out from the other guests.

“In my line of work, I’ve found that the most obvious explanation is generally the correct one,” he commented while taking a gold cigarette case out of his pocket. Considering the gravity of the situation, he appeared remarkably calm.

“Oh really?” grunted Nikola. “What line of work are you in?”

“I worked in diplomatic relations with Ambrose at the Department of Justice quite some time ago,” he answered with a polite nod of his head. His short greying hair was combed back neatly; not a strand of it had fallen out of place. “That was before he was a High Court judge.”

“You work at the London embassy with Talvi, don’t you?” Annika asked. A mildly amused expression flitted into the man’s face.

“Technically we were under the same roof, although I’ve never worked with him directly. I’m in the Department of National Security and he deals with mergers and acquisitions for the Imperial Trade Commission,” he replied without missing a beat. He extended a hand towards her but she didn’t reach out to take it. “Such a dreadful shame about what’s happened,” he said, and quickly slipped his hand back into his pocket. “I didn’t know Finn well at all, but Talvi’s nearly a nephew to me. I’m ever so sorry for your loss. I’m Cyril, by the way.”

Nikola’s icy blue eyes narrowed in both curiosity and suspicion.

“Cyril Sinclair? You’re the one who sent Talvi to Bleakmoor, aren’t you?”

“I am,” Cyril nodded, and took a short cigarette holder out of the case. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the ghastly and appalled looks he was receiving.

“Why would you do such a thing?”

“To protect him, naturally.”

“To protect him?” Nikola challenged. “That place is a nightmare! Only the worst of the worst criminals are sent to Bleakmoor. Why didn’t you send him someplace closer to his home while he awaits his trial?”

“Because Bleakmoor has more solitary confinement cells than any other prison in the Empire. Being placed in one of them is Talvi’s best chance of staying alive long enough to stand trial,” he said with a courteous nod. “I can’t imagine you’d prefer to have him locked in a smaller prison with fewer guards where he’d be intermingling freely with all the other criminals. Surely you realize that his father helped place a large portion of them in there. He’d be dead the second they learnt his last name.” Cyril took out a cigarette and placed it in the holder, then slipped the gold case back into his jacket’s inner pocket. Stumped by the excellent point he had made, Nikola gave up on arguing any further. A toddler’s crying could be heard approaching, and then Hilda appeared in the doorway with a blonde little girl balanced on her hip.

“Aww, why the tears?” Nikola crooned.

“Violet’s upset because I won’t let her run around in the ballroom,” Hilda sighed in frustration. “Really, though…this is hardly the time nor the place to let her run wild.”

“She doesn’t understand what’s going on, that’s all,” he replied, holding out his arms to take her into them. But the little girl wanted nothing to do with her father. She only buried her head in Hilda’s chest and cried louder. “Maybe we should take her outside and let her play for a while?” he suggested.

“I’ll take her out back if you bring me a glass of wine,” Hilda offered. “She’s been so fussy that I haven’t had a chance to eat or drink anything at all. Not that I’m hungry…”

“Take her outside and I’ll bring you something to eat and plenty to drink,” Nikola promised, and turned to leave the room. When he’d left, Hilda took a few steps closer to Annika and Runa while simultaneously making a point not to make eye contact with Annika.

“Zaven’s looking for you,” she said over Violet’s cries. “Shall I tell him that you’re hiding in here?”

“Please don’t,” her sister groaned. “I need a break from him. He’s so…attentive.”

“You can’t avoid him forever,” she warned as she headed for the hall. “If you don’t like him as much as he likes you, just tell him and get it over with. You’ll only make it worse for yourself the longer you keep leading him on…and worse for him as well.” Ignoring the frown on her sister’s face, she shot a nasty glance at Annika before turning on her heel and walking away.

Intrigued by the dramatic displays of mean girls and young love, Cyril raised an eyebrow yet offered no sage wisdom gleaned from his own life’s experience. Some lessons were meant to be learned the hard way, like the one he was about to impart upon Annika.

“Might I have a private word with you?” he asked, focusing his gaze upon her.

“I can leave, if you like,” Runa offered, but Annika shook her head.

“No, it’s fine,” she said, urging her to stay seated while she climbed out of the chaise lounge. “You’ve got a good hiding spot from Zaven. I’m not going to make you leave it.” She joined the distinguished older gentleman and stepped into the hall with him.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to rely on you to find a quiet place for us to speak, slunchitse.”

Annika’s throat began to swell shut at hearing her secret name. Instead of finding comfort that she could trust Mr. Sinclair, she could only think about the fate that befell those who used it to address her. “I’m still struggling to recall the layout of Ambrose’s home,” he added, motioning down the hall while using his cigarette holder like a baton. “I’ve only been here one other time, ages ago, and it was for a much more joyous occasion.”

She turned to the right and motioned for him to follow.

“Oh really? What was the occasion…sludoor?” she asked in a voice that honestly didn’t care. All she could think about was putting one foot in front of the other as they trudged down the vacant hall.

“Anthea and Asbjorn’s wedding,” he said politely. “Seems like it was only yesterday, and now they’re about to have a third child. I say, time does go by rather fast, doesn’t it?”

“Not fast enough,” Annika grumbled, and stopped in front of the arch that led to the kitchen. A crude wooden door had been hastily installed with a simple lock to keep the children from venturing inside. She slid the cold iron bolt to the side and invited Cyril to follow her though the door. As they stepped into the room, he sucked in a stunned breath at what he saw.

Unlike the rest of the Marinossian home, which was built with beauty and craftsmanship at the forefront of its architect’s mind, nothing about the demolition zone of a kitchen was pleasing to look at. Every cabinet and cupboard had been torn off the wall, leaving huge holes in the plaster walls. The blood-stained tiles had been ripped up from the floor and hurled into one big pile of rubble in the center of the room, along with the remains of the table and the large kitchen island. The crimson-spattered curtains had been yanked from the windows, but even the plaster dust wasn’t enough to completely hide the stain of red or the scent of blood. Shelves had been beaten down with a sledgehammer that now lay on the remnants of broken dishes. Just like the family that lived there, the kitchen was completely gutted. The only things left intact were the enormous hearth, the stove, and the farmhouse sink with the old pump for a handle.

“Dear god of gods,” Cyril hummed under his breath. “What in seven devils…was there an explosion of some kind?” The shards of glass and ceramic and crumbled plaster crunched underneath their shoes as Annika closed the door behind them.

“No. Well, kind of. Ambrose decided that he couldn’t stand the kitchen anymore,” she said as she looked around. She’d heard the commotion as it happened, but seeing the evidence of his mental breakdown made the reality of his pain even more palpable.

“Say no more,” Cyril replied. He briefly held up his hand to signal that he didn’t want to hear any other details. Then he pulled a lighter out of his pocket and lit the cigarette he’d prepared earlier for himself. He took a long puff, and when he settled his eyes on Annika’s he shook his head. His hand disappeared into his pocket, and when it reappeared he extended the gold case towards her. “Pardon my manners. I wasn’t certain if you were a smoker.”

“Not usually,” she said, helping herself to a cigarette out of the case. He quickly lit it for her and then turned to take in all the damage surrounding the two of them. Annika took a drag and held it in her lungs for a few seconds before exhaling. The smoke was smoother than she expected it to be, and it the heady buzz it caused temporarily erased her pain as the nicotine flooded into her bloodstream. She took another drag, listening to the sound of the tobacco crackling, forgetting that she was at a funeral, forgetting the world around her, and forgetting that she wasn’t completely alone in that world. When Cyril spoke again, his elegant, soothing voice was almost intrusive.

“I appreciate you finding a discrete place for us to speak. I wanted you to know that I’ve made arrangements with the Marinossians to escort you back to London when I leave tomorrow.” His words were a perverse blow to her senses.

“Tomorrow?” she repeated. Her blue eyes were wide with both surprise and revulsion. “I’m not leaving tomorrow! Especially not with someone I barely know!” Cyril was unfazed by her instant rejection.

“I understand your hesitation, slunchitse, however, it’s already been decided,” he calmly explained. “It’s for your own good.”

“Oh, I’m sure it is,” she sarcastically spat. “Listen, I don’t care what you say—I’m not going anywhere! Besides, I have to stick around for the trial. Ambrose told me that I’ve been summoned to testify as a witness.”

“Yes, and therein lies the primary explanation as to why I’m taking you away from here first thing in the morning,” he said. There was a serious yet calm expression in his eyes, like he would never accept the word ‘no’ for an answer, and he would never accept ‘yes’ by force. He inhaled another lungful of smoke and then took the cigarette holder out of his mouth, giving it a delicate tap off to one side. Given the state of the kitchen, there was no harm in letting the ashes fall to the floor. “Your mind-cloaking isn’t as bad as I’d expected, but you’re still not skilled enough to conceal your thoughts from three different provincial court judges. They’re going to ask you some very personal and outright invasive questions about your husband; questions which will become public record forever. I’m concerned that your answers—regardless if they are true or false—will condemn Talvi to a death sentence.”

“How could anything I say make him get the death penalty?” she cried out.

“You’ve seen too much of what he’s done,” said Cyril. “That’s why no one in his family knows exactly what he does for a living. Not even Ambrose has seen the extent of what you have. If you take the stand and the judges learn what you know about the true nature of your husband’s work then he is destined for death. Not only that, but national security would be severely compromised if word gets out that our countryside Casanova is actually a highly trained assassin.”

Annika immediately glanced away from him, smoking in silence as she formulated her response. The vision of a large man in a fine suit burst into her memory. So did the image of Talvi dragging him into a bathtub. She took a deep breath, trying desperately to push the image from her mind and calm her pulse. She hoped that the expression on her face wasn’t giving her away.

“An assassin?” she finally snorted, and looked him in the eye. “I don’t know where you heard that, but you’re wrong. The only place he makes a killing is with money. He’s in mergers and acquisitions, just like you said.”

Cyril cocked an eyebrow at her and almost cracked a smile. Almost.

“I only said that for the benefit of your friends. You and I both know the truth, which is that Talvi Marinossian is one of my best operatives.” Then Cyril’s eyebrow furrowed in concern. “He’ll do me no good if he’s locked in a cell for the rest of his life…or buried in the ground beside his poor brother. He has too many secrets that are too valuable to lose, and too many skills which can’t be learnt in the classroom. He’s a valuable asset…not only to me, but to his government, which is why I can’t allow you to testify.”

Annika closed her eyes and shuddered as an eerie vision forced its way out of her memory. She saw Talvi dressed in his black suede traveling outfit, clutching a portly man in an expensive suit against his chest. They were standing in the tub of an opulent bathroom. She couldn’t tell where it was or when it was, but it didn’t matter. She knew all too well what was coming next.

“I’m not telling you anything!” the man insisted as Talvi stepped out of the tub. Holding him tight against his chest, he ran the tip of his black-handled knife over the man’s mouth.

“I’m fairly certain I can persuade you to spill your guts,” he crooned to the man. “It would be better for us both if you just tell me where the plans are.”

“I’m not saying a word, you fiend!” the man growled back.

“Very well,” Talvi sighed, and stuffed the man’s necktie into his gaping mouth. “Have it your way.”

In an instant, he sank his knife into the bottom of the man’s stomach and yanked upward so violently that his intestines spilled out of his belly and into the tub. Talvi stood patiently throughout the muffled screams, watching the river of blood splash all over the walls and white porcelain. He let the body slide out of his arms and onto his own entrails before wiping his blade on the man’s lapel and heading for the sink. He rinsed the blood from his hands and spent an unusually long amount of time fussing with his hair before returning to the tub to rifle through the man’s pockets. After finding a piece of paper inside the jacket, he unfolded it, looked it over carefully, and then took out his lighter and set it on fire.

Who was that man? she wondered for the millionth time since her husband had allowed her to see that dark place inside his mind.

“That’s exactly what the judges will want to know,” Cyril said, jolting her out of her thoughts. “Unfortunately, the very government that requires Talvi to keep that information classified will not be able to come to his rescue.”

“Why not?” Annika demanded in disgust. “He’s worked for you longer than I’ve been alive.” Cyril gave a little shrug, as if he were mildly annoyed.

“It has to do with jurisdiction. If his brother’s death had been committed whilst within the bounds of his service to the empire, then the empire would extend its full protection to him. However, Finn was killed in a domestic dispute…a crime of passion, and there is nothing about the case that will get Talvi off the hook for refusing to reveal secrets that he pledged to keep.”

Annika’s free hand rose up to cover her face, and she sighed heavily.

“I’m barely following along with what you’re saying.”

“What I’m saying is that Talvi not only has to defend himself during his trial, but he’s required to uphold the bonds of his service to the empire. If anyone were to reveal his state secrets as a result of any unrelated testimony given, he’ll most likely be prosecuted by the empire’s secret courts. They’ll find him guilty without question. I can’t recall how many jobs he’s carried out, but it’s enough to hang him a dozen times over.” His voice broke a little as he spoke, and he took a second to clear his throat. Annika could only stare in disbelief. “He couldn’t be pressed harder between a rock and a hard place. His only hope is to plead guilty of self-defense and be convicted of involuntary fratricide…nothing more. The penalty for that ranges anywhere from a hundred years to life in prison. However, if you take the stand, and if your testimony hints at what he’s truly capable of, then he doesn’t stand a chance. That’s why I need him to plead guilty and show enough remorse that he’s given the minimum sentence of a hundred years. It shouldn’t be difficult for him. I daresay he’s more devastated than we are.”

Annika’s mouth became a flat line as she clenched her jaw. It was too much all at once. Things looked darker than grim for Talvi, and Finn’s body hadn’t been in the ground for more than an hour, and now she was expected to go home and move on already? Cyril gave the slightest shrug and lifted the short cigarette holder to his lips. The two of them remained perfectly still as they studied each other. The only thing that moved was Cyril’s mouth when he exhaled the smoke. He was so naturally elegant, like a perfectly preserved specimen from another era. His demeanor was so unbearably calm. He could be lying. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he was telling her the painful truth. Could he be trusted? She felt such anger towards him, but she couldn’t understand why.

“You’re angry because your husband has yet again placed you in an impossible situation,” he informed her, which sent her mind reeling. “You’re angry because he’s taken everything that you loved about him and twisted into everything you could possibly hate about him. To make matters worse, you’re forced to wear an eternal reminder on your left ring finger of everything he’s done to you. You’d love to take it off, cast it aside, and forget his name…but you know you never will. You’ll be tethered to him for the rest of your unimaginably long life, not with decades to dwell on the impact he’s had upon you, but centuries. Stop me if I’m wrong.”

A lump was starting to form in Annika’s throat, and all she could do was nod her head in agreement in between puffs of her cigarette. Satisfied with her reaction, Cyril went on.

“As I said earlier, you’re good at concealing your thoughts when you make the effort…but you’re not good enough to fool three experienced judges. Now then; the coach will be here at dawn so I’ll come for you shortly before we’re to leave. I was told that you didn’t have much to pack.”

“Don’t I have any say in this?” she spluttered. “Or what about not having any say at all? Couldn’t I refuse to testify?”

“In theory, yes, but you’d be damning both yourself and your husband by committing such an act,” he replied with a thoughtful expression. “It would all be for naught because you’ll be forced to reveal what you know against your will, and then you would both be convicted of withholding valuable information from the court. Believe me when I say that you do not want to go to prison here. You’re not cut out for it.”

“Is it any worse than being chained up in a slaughterhouse and attacked by vampires over and over?” she challenged. “Somehow I made it through that just fine! Plus I held my own against the Pazachi.”

“You survived those encounters because you had allies by your side,” he reminded her. “In prison you’ll have none the moment they learn your last name.”

“As far as I’m concerned, my last name is Brisby, not Marinossian,” she argued. It didn’t matter to Cyril, who was already shaking his head before she’d finished speaking.

“To be perfectly blunt, my dear, nobody cares what you think. At least, not enough to make a difference. As far as the general populace is concerned, you’re a modern girl. You don’t belong in our world.”

Annika frowned, but she didn’t argue with him.

“You have heard that these are particularly volatile times we’re living in, have you not?” he went on. “That’s why you fought against the Pazachi last winter; because they tried to take the laws of nature into their own hands.” He paused to tap away the ashes of his cigarette before continuing to speak. “The siren-song of the modern world has reached every province in the empire, and it cannot be ignored any longer. Do you understand that this issue is turning communities against one another? The entire population is divided on whether or not to completely sever ties between Earth and Eritähti. Surely even in a small village like Derbedrossivic you’ve heard rumors of the social unrest.”

“I’ve heard them, but how am I involved?” she shot back. “I’m not the one tearing your society apart!”

“On the contrary, you have become guilty by association.” Cyril tilted his head and eyed her curiously. “You do understand that romantic relations between humans and elves are still forbidden, do you not? It happens on rare occasion, but it’s strictly against the law.”

Once more, Annika gave an unruly toss of her head and nodded in agreement. A contented sound came from Cyril’s chest, as if he was pleased that he didn’t have to start at square one with her. His eyes looked her up and down, but they weren’t observing her physical features. Instead, his gaze ventured past her small stature and studied the soul of the fiery and spirited young woman before him.

“Talvi has informed me that you’re no longer human, but this is knowledge that mustn’t be shared with the general public, lest it draw more negative attention your way,” he went on. Her eyes widened but Cyril’s unruffled nature kept her from becoming alarmed. “You’re safer being thought of as nothing more than a human woman. Unfortunately, the nature of Finn’s death has caused the news of it to spread far and wide throughout the realm. Your name has been mentioned in every article of every newspaper printed within the empire. Your status as a human has also been mentioned, as well as the fact that you are a modern girl. Given that intimate relations between elves and humans is seen as taboo, I trust that you realize there will be consequences for marrying one and allegedly seducing another. The fact that they’re brothers has made your situation exponentially worse.”

“But I didn’t seduce him! That’s why I want to stay here and try to explain things from my point of view,” she argued. “If I can just lay low until things settle down after the trial, maybe…” She trailed off as she tried to gather her thoughts well enough to make her case, but Cyril shook his head.

“You could speak until you’re blue in the face, but it will never change the fact that you’re seen as a home wrecker. If you believe you’re capable of conveying your innocence, then it appears I have the unfortunate duty of reminding you that you’ve already been convicted of being a modern girl. You’re guilty of marrying someone forbidden to you. You’ve all but destroyed a very powerful family. Even if you didn’t outright seduce Finn, you’ve seduced nearly every pair of eyes and ears in the land by your involvement in his death. The press has painted you as the linchpin that will lead to the downfall of our society.”

“Is that really what they’re saying?” she gasped. “Is that why no one’s let me read any of the papers? Is it that bad?” Cyril gave her a dark look.

“No. What they’re actually saying about you is so much worse. You must believe me when I say this will not settle down anytime soon,” he said with a skeptical frown. “You’re thinking of your fast-paced modern life where things blow over in a fortnight and are rarely mentioned again. Life on this side of the veil is slow, Annika, particularly in the countryside. The smaller the village, the slower things are to change. It’s going to be years, if not decades, before the worst of this storm passes through the empire. There are a lot of frightened and angry individuals looking for someone to blame…or worse. It’s become quite routine to blame modern humans for all the ills in our world, and you’re being absurdly naïve if you believe yourself immune to their misplaced anger. That’s why I’ve brought an additional team of Sanctorum Militum with me. They’re not all here for my protection, you know.”

Now it was Annika’s turn to frown skeptically at him.

“I’m sorry, Santorum what?”

Sanctorum Militum. Sacred knights,” he explained. “Paladins…or soldiers, depending on your preferred terminology. They’re our version of Mi-6, only better. They will be escorting us back to London and then Tripp and Adams will continue on to Portland with you. They have instructions to provide you with constant protection round the clock until their services are no longer required.”

“Oh really? And how long will that be?” she challenged, putting one hand on her hip.

“Until the money to pay them runs out. Or until your name no longer means what it currently does.” Cyril gave her a sympathetic look. “Let’s hope the money lasts, because at the moment your name doesn’t mean anything pleasant. It would take a bloody miracle for the general public to change their opinion of you.”

She couldn’t help but shake her head at the hopelessness of her predicament. Maybe this was truly the reason why none of the Marinossians had brought a newspaper anywhere near her. Maybe there was a reason why she hadn’t been allowed out of the house since the night of the murder. She took another drag and let it out slowly while keeping a stiff upper lip.

“How long do you think it will take for everyone to stop hating me?”

“I can’t rightly say, although not everyone hates you,” he said with a thoughtful expression. “Actually, there are quite a few nonconformists out there who admire your nerve and audacity to marry a Marinossian. The trouble is that your involvement in Finn’s death has made you the poster child for the anti-modern movement. The traditionalists are better organized and better funded than those in favor of adopting a more modern lifestyle. If it were up to them, we wouldn’t have any travel between our worlds at all.”

He paused to inhale another breath of smoke, which gave Annika just long enough to process everything he’d said up to that point. He gave the cigarette another soft tap and rested his weight on one leg, as if he were physically preparing to change the direction of his next approach.

“Aside from the objective of keeping you safe whilst keeping the peace, I do have a more personal reason for escorting you home as soon as I can.” His eyes surveyed the kitchen as he gracefully motioned to the holes in the walls and the piles of blood-stained rubble on the floor. “I’m of the opinion that your presence among the Marinossians is not conducive to their grieving and healing process.”

Annika was taken aback.

“Are you saying that I’m making it worse just by being here?”

For the first time since meeting him, she saw pity in his eyes.

“Look at it from their perspective, my dear girl. When they look at your face, do you think it brings them more comfort or more pain?”

There. He’d said it out loud. The one thing that no one else had dared to speak, unless it was behind her back, and he’d said it right to her face. She knew he was absolutely right. A great ball of thick sobs clawed its way out of her chest, and she clapped her free hand over her mouth to avoid having them heard beyond the kitchen. Tears rolled down her cheeks and landed on the dirty floor as a new layer of sadness was illuminated.

“They don’t blame you, my dear,” Cyril went on in that relaxed voice of his. “On the contrary, they love you too much to ever dream of asking you to leave. However, I don’t expect the healing to progress very far or very fast if you are constantly around to reopen their wounds. And if something sinister were to happen to you whilst under their care, you and I both know they could never forgive themselves. Would you agree with those observations?”

Still crying, Annika nodded her head. The reality began to set in that she’d lost just about everyone and everything that meant anything to her. It was too much pain to hit her all at once. Instead, it seeped under her skin with each second that passed by. The forgotten cigarette had now burned down to her fingers, and she held onto it in a desperate attempt to have it wake her up from this terrible dream.

But it wasn’t a dream; the searing cinders on her skin made sure that she knew this one miserable fact. She finally let the cigarette go before it caused any more pain than she already felt. Cyril reached over with his toe and stubbed it out, then put a comforting hand on her shoulder. There was a burst of warmth and concern for her well-being, which only made her cry harder. It was exactly the sort of thing Finn would’ve done.

“There now…go on and have a good cry,” he hummed. “I know you don’t want to leave, but as I said, I’ve spoken with Ambrose and Althea and we all agree it’s for the best. And what with Stephan still on the loose, you’ll be a sitting target as long as you remain here. There are simply too many fingers that are willing to point you out to him, or someone like him, if not someone worse. Those fingers wouldn’t even require bribery with silver or gold…they’ll point you out simply because of how high emotions are running right now. It’s imperative that we leave as soon as possible. Can I count on you to be ready when I come to your door at dawn?”

Annika swallowed hard as she took this in.

“Am I really in that much danger?”

Cyril tapped his cigarette holder until the ashes fell off the end. He watched them fall down to the ripped up excuse of a floor, then raised an unusually concerned eyebrow at her.

“Yes.”