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Waiting for Nando to come out of the room where he’s still talking to the GIB agents makes for a long, strained half hour for Eilian and me. I can’t imagine what it’s like for Nando in there, getting that sort of news.
Dylan’s gone off to politely end the party, and I wonder if Wotan is still out there somewhere. I wonder about José Anjo. What do the two of them have to do with this? What’s their connection to each other?
This isn’t exactly the emergency situation I was fearing—the emergency part already happened, and I wasn’t even there—but I still feel pretty useless. Pretty anxious and under-prepared.
Neither Eilian nor I is in a mood to talk much right now. In fact, Eilian’s so still you’d think she’d actually gone catatonic or something, sitting next to me on the antique sofa outside the office doors and staring at the ground in front of her feet.
I’d forgotten, until tonight, that she knows something about death—that she’s probably still grieving for the loss of her brother—and I wonder, waiting here under the current circumstances, if it brings it all back to her. Makes her own pain feel too fresh.
When we hear the sound of the office doors opening, both Eilian and I shoot up off the couch. We stand there like we’re at attention as the agents come out, Nando trailing behind them looking totally disoriented. Destroyed.
With little glances at Eilian and me, the agents tell Nando they’ll wait downstairs for him before walking out of the room. The three of us just stare at each other for a minute—this pregnant feeling in the air between is as if our pent up emotions are pushing to be released—then, like some dam inside him’s breaking, Nando’s face just crumples into a flood of tears.
It’s pure instinct that sends me stumbling across the floor to him. Eilian rushes to him too. We fall against him in a tangled hug, push warmth from our hands into his essensus, and let our tears spill together to the floor.
It’s the first time I’ve ever performed ramu myself, and my energy speaks my feelings to him so much better than any words I could’ve managed.
I’m in my room an hour so later, searching on my phone for any news about Luis Peréz, when Dylan comes to find me. He strides in, kind of agitated and weirdly intense. Barely waiting for me to close the door before he starts talking.
“What did you see when you met Wotan Schmid this evening?”
His question feels too abrupt. I’m still in the emotional space surrounding Nando’s grief. Still picturing him as we finally said goodbye, as he went off with the agents to deal with details he’d probably rather not deal with right now.
I know we need to discuss everything that happened tonight, but it would be nice to take just a minute, maybe, to engage with Dylan less as the Way Reader and more as a friend.
“Do you think Wotan realized I had a sighting?” I ask, and Dylan gives this sharp shake of his head.
“He wasn’t here for you.”
There’s still a residue of sadness in his face, but there’s something else there now too. Determination. A sense of purpose. A restless energy that, even when he’s staring right at me, makes me feel like he’s barely aware I’m there.
“I saw his stain,” I answer. “Inside his essence. That’s the sighting that I had.”
I don’t know why this question kind of hurts. Maybe because my emotions are raw still—and maybe because I’ve still got this feeling like somehow I haven’t done enough.
When I give Dylan a little nod, he spins suddenly away from me, saying, “Damn it,” under his breath. I know he’s not actually swearing at me, but it still makes me flinch.
“I’m sorry,” he turns back to me real quick, real sincere. “That wasn’t about you.”
“You were hoping for something else?”
He nods, trying his best to hide the disappointment in his face but not doing a very good job of it. Then, just as abrupt as he came, he says, “I’ve got to go.”
He’s nearly to the door by the time I manage to get my own question out.
“Dylan, who is that Wotan guy?”
He turns, and the look he gives me is dark and hard.
“He’s an assassin. One of the Sons of Morning, though he doesn’t kill for the energy. He simply kills to kill.”
Before I can say anything else, he wrenches open the door and he’s gone from the room. I didn’t even get a chance to talk to him about Anjo. About any of the muddle of things running through my head. It leaves me feeling vulnerable. Bare. Defenseless in a situation where there are too many unknown variables.
I want suddenly to cling to my mom. To talk to calm, sensible Agni and have him tell me that everything is going to be okay. It makes it harder that he’s here in Daxa but still totally unreachable. For fear of showing any connection to me, he couldn’t even come to the party tonight.
For a minute I consider calling Mary Warren, but I don’t even know what I’d say. Besides, with the current buzz of anxiety in my veins, I don’t think I could manage sitting around and chatting with anyone. I feel like I’ve at least got to pretend that I’m doing something.
I pull out my phone again, look for news on Luis Peréz’s death. This time there are a few articles there, and I don’t even have to read very far before I’ve got way more information than I bargained for.
“Luis Peréz was found dead this evening in the alley behind Marrow’s tavern in Stranger’s Hollow,” the first article says. “Officials report that he had been tied to a lamppost and his organs slowly heated to boiling point, apparently while he was still alive. It is unclear if his death was due to organ failure or if his attacker used an unrelated method to end Peréz’s life. The victim had been overheard in the tavern earlier, boasting about a relationship with the Way Reader and claiming that he knew her identity. Though his claims seem to have been groundless, it is believed that they may have been a contributing factor in the attacker’s motivation to kill.”
That’s as far as I get, as much as I can handle. I shrink my phone back into my ring and then just sit there on my bed for a while, staring into the shadows at the other end of the room. For the first time tonight I think of that sighting I had when Nando and I met. I understand now why it showed Nando crying, and I’m suddenly furious that I was given the sighting at all.
I mean, what good does it do me, to know the exact dimensions of Nando’s grief? I could have guessed it on my own. Why wasn’t I given a sighting that was worth something? That could have made it possible for me to stop this horror story from happening in the first place?
I jump up from my bed, practically fling myself out of my bedroom. I need some fresh air and I know just the place to get it.
As I storm out of the elevator and through the aerie doors onto the balcony, I’ve got Wotan’s face real clear in my mind. That hungry look in his eyes as he watched Nando’s world fall to pieces. I feel sick. In my stomach, in my heart, in my head.
I brace myself against the railing and stare out at all the twinkling lights of the city. Try to find some comfort by telling myself that each light represents someone who is still alive and well. Someone who the takers and their total insanity haven’t yet been able to touch.
“It’s all a lie,” I hear from behind me, and at the sound of Gwilim’s voice I feel my anger just explode.
I spin around toward him, ready to lash out at him for bringing part of tonight’s trouble to our door, but once I see him, most of my anger toward him drops away.
He’s leaning there against the wall of the house, flicking these tiny little painted sparks off his fingers, looking about as careless as a person could be. If you notice his eyes, though—he’s staring out at the city like he’s never hated anything more in his life.
“From up here everything looks understandable, serene.” He sounds more like he’s talking to himself than to me. “We all like to think that we’re safe, that bad things only happen to other people, but not one of us lives without catastrophe hovering one heartbeat away.”
“I thought you left.” It’s not even close to what I’m really wanting to say.
“I came back.”
I stand there for a while, watching Gwilim send those little sparks out into the night air, letting the cold seep through my skin even though I’ve already learned how to heat myself up with my painting. I don’t want to feel warm and cozy right now. Any warmth I could make for myself would feel too much like a lie.
“Why did you bring that man here tonight?” It sounds angrier than how I meant it, and a wave of frustration and disquiet washes over his face.
“I can’t tell you that, Sophie. I know it sounds trite, but it really is safer for you the less that you know.”
“Do you work for the GIB too?” I ask. “Like, in secret?”
He just looks at me, and I get the impression that the answer is no.
When it’s clear he’s not going to say anything else about it, I turn back around and look over the balcony’s edge where the moonlight’s catching on each flake of the frozen snow in the garden below, as if everything’s been covered in a dusting of tiny stars.
In the shape of each snow-covered tree or bush down there, the transition from light to shadow is so gentle that it’s almost like there’s no real darkness at all. Staring down at it, the threat of tears comes on so fast that I have to bite my lip to make sure I don’t cry. I don’t understand how the world can still be so lovely when the things happening in it are so definitely not.
“How is Dylan?” Gwilim’s voice suddenly cuts through the silence.
I glance around at him, but his expression hasn’t changed. He’s still just flick-flicking those sparks off his fingertips.
It’s strange, Gwilim asking about Dylan like that but not Nando, or even anyone else in the family. I mean Dylan was clearly upset tonight, but he wasn’t the only one.
Gwilim can see my confusion, and there’s a sudden edge to his voice when he says, “Didn’t you know? Luis Peréz was killed the same way Padrig was. Boiled alive from the inside, and then it was Dylan who found him there.”
I feel my heart sink down the whole length of my spine.
“No one’s told you about this,” an incredulous realization passes over his face, and he gives this tiny, bitter little laugh. “Well, we haven’t been much for talking these days.”
“Did Wotan Schmid do it?”
It comes out of my mouth in a rush, my own voice harsh in a way that surprises me, and at first Gwilim doesn’t respond. Just stares at me like he’s trying to decide how much to say.
“Look it up for yourself,” he answers finally, real brusque but not exactly unkind. He flicks one last, enormous spark off his fingers and thrusts himself up off the wall. “But don’t read the regular news outlets. They were all bullied into telling only one story. Read whatever you can find that comes from Shama Haddad.”
Then, touching his fingers to his forehead in some sort of sour-faced military salute, he disappears back into the house.
I don’t know why I never thought to look up Padrig’s death before. Or even their dad’s incarceration. I guess it felt a little intrusive. Like, if the Lucases wanted me to know about it they’d tell me. I’m not expecting to find that the two events are basically one and the same thing. That their dad wasn’t just framed for treason, but also for murdering his own son. As if the one wasn’t bad enough on it’s own.
In the standard news sources, the story reported was that Cadfan Lucas—Dylan and Eilian’s dad—was actually a member of the Sons of Morning and he was using his upcoming exposé as a cover while he worked covertly to help the takers infiltrate the Republic government.
In this version of the story, the trouble came when Cadfan’s secret was discovered by Padrig, who was an agent for the GIB just like Dylan. Because apparently the Lucases don’t know how to do anything normal with their lives.
Cadfan, in an effort to keep his criminal dealings hidden, was supposed to have lured Padrig to their family cabin in the mountains outside of Daxa where he tied Padrig to a chair, broke every one of his toes and fingers so he’d be in too much pain to use his painting to fight back, and then heated Padrig’s insides until they seared right through his skin.
After that he used Padrig’s own blood to write words like gindge—that term that Dylan hated so much, when the tattooed taker said it to me—and all sorts of other awful things all over the walls inside the cabin, in an attempt to make it seem like a revenge killing and point the blame on one of the other takers Padrig had been chasing down in the course of his investigation. Then Cadfan is said to have left Padrig there for his other son, Dylan, to find.
There’s not a single full article by Shama Haddad on the Painter web, as far as I can tell, so at at first this is the only version of the story that I can dig up. But, even though I don’t actually know Cadfan Lucas, with what I do know of his wife and his children and their loyalty to him, this story doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
What it does do, though, is make me feel sick to think what Padrig went through before he died, to think of Dylan finding his brother’s body in a state like that. To think what it must have been like for the Lucas family to have to deal with their dad being thrown straight into a murder trial after all of this, and then sent to jail.
When I do start to see references to Shama Haddad’s reports, it’s like some grim sort of scavenger hunt. All the information is in bits and pieces. Mostly on conspiracy theory sites too, and I can’t help thinking how pleased to death Logan would be about the fact that I’m having to take those guys seriously.
Apparently no mainstream news outlet would publish any of Shama’s work on the subject, though, and when she started posting her articles on her own website, the GIB itself came in and forced her to take them all down. They said it was libel against government officials and that it threatened the security of the Republic.
By then, though, other people had already copied her articles for themselves, and there’s apparently a healthy enough culture of conspiracy theorists in town that they’ve kept her version of the story alive. And based on what I’m able to scramble together with the things they quote from her, Shama’s version of the story goes essentially like this:
When his parents’ research on the Sons of Morning seemed to be hitting some snags, Padrig launched an investigation of his own through the GIB. Though, suspecting the presence of some double agents on the force, he did most of his work in secret, enlisting help from Dylan, who had just barely started at the GIB himself.
Thinking that, if they did encounter too many obstacles going through the GIB, they might need some added leverage to force the agency to continue investigating the Sons of Morning, they approached Shama with an offer of a big story on the condition that she help them gather information.
Shama says that the day he died, Padrig had hinted to her that he’d discovered something crucial to bringing the Sons of Morning down, and that he would need her to be ready to write a piece on it to be published the next morning. He never contacted her again, though.
He and Dylan were supposed to meet at the family cabin that evening to go and get one last bit of proof that Shama’s article would need, but when Dylan got there, Padrig was already dead.
No one knew for sure what information Padrig had gathered—he’d been vague about it even to Dylan in the hopes that it would keep his brother safe—but Dylan told Shama that he had reason to believe that it was, at least in part, about Wotan Schmid, who Padrig had suspected was one of the main killers on the Sons of Morning’s behalf.
And, in fact, once Padrig’s death was made public there was a witness that came forward saying he’d seen a man leaving the woods by the Lucas cabin that night. The description he gave exactly matched Wotan Schmid. Unfortunately, only two days later, the witness went on a crazed streaking fit, running stark naked through the streets of downtown Daxa. It was determined he was mentally unsound, and his testimony never made it to the actual trial.
That’s when everything started pointing toward Cadfan as the killer, though. Things like the city’s illusion barrier data showing an unidentified DNA record passing through that night—meaning that, at first, it didn’t match anyone who was already in the barrier’s system. But then, twenty-four hours later, it suddenly reported that the DNA was a direct match to Cadfan Lucas.
At least three takers who were already in GIB custody came forward to testify that they’d seen Cadfan regularly at Sons of Morning gatherings, and after his trial they all mysteriously disappeared from the prisons where they were being held. A phone—which no one close to Padrig had even seen in his possession—was discovered on his body and a text message was found to have been sent from it to Cadfan stating that Padrig had discovered his father’s secret and was going to bring him to justice.
And then there was Cadfan’s best friend, Jean Cloutier, who also worked at the GIB and had been influential in Padrig getting his job there. Jean had sworn at first that Cadfan was with him the whole evening as part of some chess night that they held on a regular basis, but at the trial itself he said instead that Cadfan had not been with him at all, but had threatened the lives of his two sons, Tom and Maurice, if Jean didn’t act as his alibi.
Even the regular news outlets reported that it was Cloutier’s testimony that really clinched the case against Cadfan. The other evidence might have been dismissed in the face of Cadfan’s spotless reputation, but Jean Cloutier was respected as well. In the end, the jurors trusted him.
It’s hard not to see President Hiarwar’s hand in all of this, both in the corruption of evidence for the trial and in the way none of that corruption got reported in the news. I mean, seems to me that there had to be someone with a lot of power doing this stuff, and if the president is a taker, it makes sense it’d be him.
Dylan must’ve realized it last night when I told him about his uncle’s stain. I wonder if Gwilim knows too. Wonder if that has anything to do with the anger that’s so evident in his face sometimes. I can’t even begin to comprehend what all of this has been like for the Lucases, what it’s going to be like for Nando. It seems like the pain of it would be overwhelming. Just numbingly, impossibly big.
Maybe because at this point it’s about three in the morning and I’m totally exhausted—or maybe because I’m a reasonable human being who can’t see how she can possibly make anything better for her friends—but at this point I just break down and start to cry.
How does someone who’s gone through these things ever feel hope again? How do you offer comfort to someone who knows now that this sort of evil exists in the world?
I lie there for a while. On top of my covers with tears running down my cheeks, my tablet expanded in my hand and the screen showing a picture of Padrig that was featured in the news. He looks youthful and happy and vibrant, and so much like Dylan and Eilian and Gwilim that it feels like it might literally break my heart.
I don’t know exactly when it is that I fade into something like sleep. Or how long it is after that before consciousness starts coming back to me, but as I become aware of my surroundings again I also become aware of a familiar feeling. That certainty, like a tickle in my essensus and in my heart, that someone else is in the room with me.
It sends me shooting straight up in my bed, as wide awake as if I’d never been sleeping. The lights are all out—even though I know I didn’t turn them off myself—and the room’s in total darkness, but I can still tell that he’s here, standing at the foot of my bed. My skin’s crawling with the knowledge of it.
I feel the ghost thing take a step sideways, as if he’s going to come around the corner of the bed toward me, and I suck in a breath, all sharp and gasping. Spring up to my knees, ready to launch myself out onto the floor and make a run for the door.
He stops at that, though, as if my fear is the thing that’s stopped him. And then he retreats. One step. Two. Away from the bed completely. Then, he’s just gone. The same way he faded away before, only this time the room’s real crowded with his absence, as if the air particles there are rushing to refill the space where he was just standing.
That’s when I notice my tablet, sitting at the foot of the bed where there’s no way I could have accidentally pushed it in my sleep. It’s facing away from me and the screen is on, though it’s just this mess of phrenetic, static buzzing.
I reach out real tentative to touch the thing, and nearly pull back again when I encounter waves of excess electricity pulsing off of it. Electricity that should not be inside my tablet in the first place. Electricity that looks and acts almost exactly like a Painter’s essentual energy.
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Next: Chapter 23
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