No matter how Bella Mythen might try to spin the situation to save her sanity, the heart of the artichoke was that a fire-starting demoness, a twelve-year-old girl, and the Second Priest of the Taint were all in her kitchen.
"War zone" would have been an inadequate term for the destruction. There was no adjective or proverb that could adequately describe the raw property damage a pre-teen, a priest, and a pyromaniac demon could inflict.
Thick, acrid smoke. A hissing, popping, steaming lump of dough on the counter… two feet high and, worse yet, still growing. Splatters of some brown goo—most likely chocolate, but that made no sense, as neither Bella nor Vinseth ate much chocolate—all over the walls, the furniture, her houseplants. What looked like twelve egg yolks splattered on the far wall.
The flour-obscured windows.
Her precious houseplants wilting from heat and dehydration.
It was already a virtual nightmare.
And then she saw the burn marks on Cazgo's face and the black ink staining her hands; saw the soured milk with the carton melted down, the flaming egg crate. This hadn't just been unpleasant or startling. This had injured somebody. This had ruined part (if not most) of the kitchen.
Bella Mythen could think of only one question: "What did you do?"
The demoness, of course, was the first to deny responsibility. The way she widened her catlike eyes to peer at her from behind a shield of thin, greasy hair, the way she licked her lips with her forked tongue—maybe Iyohet thought it made her look meek, unworthy of being punished, but in truth, it only solidified Bella's decision to rip that plant-destroying creature to shreds with her favourite mandragora. Now that she'd pulled that innocent look, there was nothing in this world or any other that would convince Bella of Iyohet's sincerity.
Speaking of convincing, Chada Lohz of Ahteir and his "don't look at me; I don't understand the concept of a microwave" expression didn't fool her, either. He might not have been able to identify any object in that kitchen, but as a priest, he should have known that you put up shields when things started to explode. If not around the explosions, then at least around the children who caused them!
And as for the child!
Bella looked at the vicious, downright angry mass forming on Cazgo's nose, the sin-ink on her fingers and trailing from her eyes, the way she was gnawing her lower lip, and decided that perhaps the person most likely at the root of the devastation of her home had, perhaps, suffered the most.
Which meant, much as she would have liked to lecture the so-called adults present into the next few centuries, it would have to wait. Instead, she bent to look Cazgo in the eyes, whispered her fingertips along the girl's cheek, and murmured, "Haz, sweetie, please, please tell me you only tried one spell."
Iyohet took three manic steps backward as Cazgo put her face in her hands and cried. Chada's dark eyes—eyes not as dark as Vinseth's, nowhere near as dark as Vinseth's were, and what was Vinseth Roth going to think when he walked in that door—flicked to look at the girl, then looked to a spot somewhere behind Bella's head.
What Chada was looking at or thinking about was not her concern. Cazgo was her main concern, and after that, the apartment's destroyed front rooms. Cazgo, who was currently touching her face with hands still emanating trace amounts of magic, which would interfere in any magical healing process Bella might need to use.
She tapped Haz's left hand. "Don't touch it, viheyo, sweetheart, don't touch the burn. I'll have to heal it if you do."
Slowly, too slowly, the girl dropped her hands from her face. But she was still crying. And it still hurt just to watch.
So she straightened, turned to glare directly at Chada. "How could you, an ordained, sin-anointed priest and a responsible adult not think to shield the child?" Even before she saw the priest's look of shock, she rounded on Iyohet. "And as for you! Why for watering thorn bushes did you ever even think you could approach my kitchen?"
Cazgo put one hand over her mouth while Chada winced.
Mythen suppressed shivers, forcibly unclenched her fists, as she felt the quiet, mocking words of her partner pass by just above the crown of her head: "Indeed, Iyohet Fire-Bringer, what made you think you could enter her kitchen?"
Vinseth Roth's breath ghosted along the top of her head. Each exhalation made her hair flutter. His chin was—hell and thorns and dead roses, his lips were—just a few scant centimetres from her head. She could feel his body heat even through the faint wisps of fabric and air that separated them; could feel it burning through her clothes, scorching the skin of her back.
And then he chuckled. That low sound thrummed through her, raced down her spine. She closed her eyes and bit down on her lip to keep herself from expressing surprise.
"Roth," she managed to say, sounding as serene as she could, "how good of you to return. You should have been back hours ago."
Roth moved back a step. When he spoke, his voice was perfectly smooth, untroubled, with no hint of the disapproval she knew he felt. "And you should never have left at all."
She felt herself flush. Trust Roth to make her feel guilty. It wasn't as if she'd meant for any of this to happen. It should have been a twenty minute outing. Total. Somehow it had become two hours. And somehow the kitchen had become… this.
Vinseth remained quiet for a little while, as if waiting for her to speak. When she said nothing, he merely brushed past her, his arm sliding against hers in a movement that sent electric sparks up and down her spine.
"I'll be in my room. If you need any help fixing your kitchen, just call."
"I shouldn't have any problems fixing this." As a peace sacrifice, she smiled a little and offered, "It should be clean again inside two hours."
Vinseth turned to look at her, his dark, dark eyes boring into hers. A stray wisp of hair gravitated toward his lower lip, but she found herself unable to look away from that fiercely impassive stare.
They were silent for centuries, until at last Vinseth grunted, "Hn."
With a sudden lengthening of shadows, he was gone. Bella shook her head and sighed in a reply she knew he wouldn't see. After a moment, she forced herself to move toward the living area. "Haz, come sit with me. Chada, Fire-Bringer, out of my sight." She paused, narrowing her eyes, "I'll deal with you later."
The demoness started forward, flinging one smouldering hand in Bella's direction. "I need to speak with you as soon as I can…. My time here is limited and I have used nearly all of it!"
"We'll talk later."
It was Chada who gently gripped the demon child and tugged her away. After a few moments, Bella heard a door slide shut, but she didn't look to see which door. In front of her, Cazgo looked somewhere between terrified and defiant, the way the she tilted her chin, the way those black, black eyes had narrowed but were watery. The way she nibbled on her lip as she tried out what was probably her first attempt at a piercing stare.
Bella pursed her lips as she checked her former stepdaughter over for other signs of injury. Finding none, she gripped Cazgo's hands in one of her own and touched a finger to the marks on her face.
"We'll start with the ink. That's sin-ink. Contact with The Taint leaks into your body. It only leaks out if you try too much for your experience. Easily banished, but uncomfortable."
Cazgo looked down, then shyly looked back up. "Uncomfortable? I thought I'd use it to make a tattoo."
Bella suppressed a snort of laughter. That sense of humour, so wry, so old for her age.
"Nice one," she said, smirking at the younger mage.
"I wasn't joking. It really doesn't hurt at all."
Bella looked down at the black marks staining the high cheekbones. "Don't be silly. Even Vinseth and Dyaiva Chada Lohz feel pain form the sin-ink."
"Well, I don't."
It was nonsense, of course. Vinseth had told her that the ink was unpleasant. And if Vinseth, Dyaivaztra, First Priest, the favoured of Zintzne, felt pain, then surely other followers would as well. So this was obviously a show of pride. But what pride? What face could Cazgo save by claiming the sin-ink did not hurt her?
"If you say so," Bella finally said. "Tell me if I hurt you."
And with that, she tapped into the Gold. The colour Gold represented the Wild. That which no one could predict or control. And that particular Thread of magic was Kailo's domain. Love was Wilderness Itself.
Any power, no matter what power it was, would at least be visible when she used the Gold.
Cazgo's magic was a weave of sticky black threads. A thatch of dark, crisscrossing lines.
Taint. It was visible. Tangible. Gooey under fingers she wasn't touching it with. Creamy on her tongue when she hadn't opened her mouth. Sickly-sweet smelling, like peaches just beginning to rot. There was a tang to the scent, like the scent of alcohol in a glass of wine.
This place was her home. She had made a life here. And there was a power in that. Magic that she did not approve could not abide.
Bella watched as the ink dripped away, the magic in the air shrinking. At length, Cazgo sat cleansed of the Taint. For now.
She reached out for Cazgo's face, healing the burn. The lurid purple faded into that dark gold that was so typical of Vabren skin.
Cazgo opened her eyes. The iris colour was the same deep, true black as the pupil. It was a rare colour, even amongst Vabren, and Vabren lore held that people with such eyes were evil.
All Bella saw in those eyes was youth, fear, sincerity. Not evil. Then again, she had never seen evil in Cazgo. And not in Vinseth's eyes, either.
"Is that it?" The girl's voice was barely more than a squeak. Afraid.
"Yes, viheyo, that's it." Bella trailed a finger along Cazgo's cheek.
Saying nothing more, she stood from the couch. Her heels clicked on the hardwood floor as she made her way to the ruined kitchen. She stopped in front of the island, stared at the smouldering wreck.
The pile of dough had grown. Somehow, in the space of fifteen minutes, it had grown. Almost worse, it was still smoking. The milk jug, which had fused to both the egg carton and the counter, was still producing foul-smelling wisps of steam. The stench of melted plastic, soured milk, rotten eggs, and burned dough invaded her nose.
Not sure what else to do, Bella put her hands on her hips.
"Haz, please don't think I'm scolding you, but how did you manage this? I'm honestly amazed at the destruction here."
Silence from the living room. She chanced a look over. Cazgo had bent over, her long hair brushing against her knees.
"It was going to be cookies!"
That disarmed her. Anything she'd been planning to say flew right out of her head, replaced by the image of that giant, growing, burnt pile of dough sitting on the counter. That monstrous glob was supposed to have been cookies?
Well, it certainly put the steaming, suspiciously chocolate-like splatters on every surface into perspective.
"Chocolate chip cookies, I assume?"
Cazgo only nodded. Her hair teased along her ankles, creating a curtain for her calves.
Gently, Bella probed, "What went wrong, viheyo?"
Yet more silence. Not even a shift in posture from the couched child.
"What was the first bad thing that happened?"
Mutely, Cazgo stood. Without a sound, she moved to the main hall, then passed through, sliding the door to the altar room open. The door slid shut. Clattered a little.
Bella bowed her head. So the girl wasn't taking her failure well. At all. She might have to get Vinseth's help on this one. Not only did the idea of asking scare the hell out of her; what he might consider 'help'….
Well, it wasn't likely to be pretty. With or without his help, this was a sticky situation. New mages were touchy about their lack of control, especially when it caused destruction on this level. With his help, she might be able to understand and comfort a new Dark mage. Without it, she would be lost, only able to comfort Cazgo the way the Dyaivoztro wo Kailo in Kahajeh had once comforted her, too many years ago.
And that was assuming he told her the truth, rather than some sort of ridiculous story designed to mess with her head.
Another door slid open and shut again. There was a faint (but growing, just like that pile of dough that she still hadn't taken care of) scent of sulphur and a stronger scent of burning wood.
"The little warrior-priest is not ready for any of this. Not enough training."
In the living room, one of the choked plants snapped to attention. Its leaves whistled together in an almost military clicking sound. The flowers hissed open, emitting a low, angry buzz.
"I didn't say I was ready to deal with you yet." Bella stretched out a hand, vivid red nails scraping against the air. The mandragora shivered in response. "I hope you'll forgive me, but I have other priorities."
Surprisingly, Iyohet stood her ground. Or stood it as much as she could, considering that her feet were burning it out from under her.
"I have not even an hour left. I must ask you now, or wait too long. I—" Iyohet choked. "I do not know the nature of human courtship, so pardon if I give offence, but I must know!"
Bella flicked her hand impatiently. The mandragora's buzzing grew in volume.
Iyohet's next words came out in a jumbled rush. "Is there any way in this life or the next that you would give consent for me to court Vinseth Roth?"
What happened next was not the doing of the mandragora, the honeysuckle, the lilies, the ivy, or any other plant that Bella had influenced. Nor was it Bella's doing, entirely. She would later wonder exactly how it had happened, and would never know the answer.
Somehow, each and every single vine in the flat gripped Iyohet. They snaked around her ankles, her knees, threading between her toes and wrapping around her waist. There was an awful series of cracks as each vine squeezed, tightly. The demoness whimpered, her head twisting to one side.
And then the tinkling of glass, the vines' sudden relaxation, a sensation of pure, cool relief. Like relaxing all her muscles in a hot bath after a long day. Like a cool, sweet drink of water.
From nineteen stories below, there was a sickening crunch.
The shadows in the room lengthened, twisted. Bella whirled around to find Vinseth leaning in the hallway entrance, propped in the doorframe. She tried not to have a heart attack.
"I assume she gave you a good reason to do that." As always, his roughly accented voice was too calm, too sane to be honest or sincere.
"She—she—" And that was as far as she got. It was simply too mystifying. Too unexpected.
Too frustrating and pointless.
Vinseth turned to stare, deliberately, at the broken windows. The shattered glass sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. An array of diamonds on oak flooring. "She... insulted your mother? Threatened to slit Cazgo's throat in her sleep? Tried to kill you? Threatened the plantbabies?"
Her throat tightened at the last question. She forced herself to swallow, to relax her muscles. After several moments of silence as she tried to calm herself down, she murmured, "What do you know of demon courtship rituals? Is the permission of any female relatives required to court a male?"
Of course, she wasn't actually related to Vinseth. But it would have been an easy leap to make. Especially for somebody who wasn't part of human society, whose understanding of it was stuck three hundred years in the past.
Vinseth snorted. "Demons don't believe in consent. On any side. You take what you want. The weak die."
Bella looked out the window. She could easily make out an impact crater in the asphalt. Whether Iyohet was in the centre of that crater, or whether she had fled, however, was up in the air. It was easily possible, Bella supposed, that Iyohet had set herself on fire and then liquefied, or some such nonsense.
Ghoul-demon hybrids tended to be physiologically odder than demons or ghouls.
"Then why would she…" But she stopped herself there. "It isn't important, Roth. I'll repair the windows."
"Yes, you will." He looked over at the kitchen. "Repair the damage in the kitchen and living room. I'll take care of the dough, the melted plastic, and the chocolate."
"Yes, master," Bella snapped, waving a hand and mumbling a few words in Old Vabren. The glass shards, in their whimsical, almost beautiful, patterns, suddenly lifted. Within moments, the windows had panes again.
Automatically, she turned to repair the damage in the kitchen. Her eyes widened as the energy she was unleashing began to make contact with the Black magic he was working to banish the chocolate blood spatter from the kitchen.
It was like he was standing behind her again. Only this time, that scorching heat really did leave marks, she was sure. It was like full body skin-to-skin contact, only more electric, more intimate. She was aware not only of his physical presence, she was aware of every thought running through his head.
It was too much. Her thoughts raced like cracks in ice. His thoughts were faster. Everything in her brain was a jumbled scramble of sounds in three languages she knew and one she didn't.
"Stop," Vinseth hissed in a language that Bella wasn't sure she wanted to understand.
She stopped casting.
Instantly, the electricity stopped.
Taking in a shaky breath was instinct. She exhaled, slow and shuddering, then inhaled again. Silently, she stood like that, just breathing in and out until she could think and speak normally again. Magical intimacy was something rare, something most mages avoided the way Vinseth avoided silver. It was too close to home, too alive, too Wild for something you did more than once with any given person.
There were those who said that magical connexions were more personal and sacred than sex.
"I hadn't realised…"
His voice was sharp. "I know you hadn't. Pay more attention next time."
"Hopefully, there won't be a next time. Now, do you mind banishing what you said you would?"
Vinseth turned to stare at her. Rather than say anything, however, he waved a hand and mumbled meaningless words. The lump of dough vanished. With it went the milk, the eggs, and the chocolate chips.
She was going to need to buy more milk, she supposed, but she didn't drink milk that often. And Vinseth drank it rarely. Naturally white food products—such as milk or white bread—always gave him trouble. Something about his body and his magical charge rejected any symbol of White magic.
"What did Iyohet say to you?" Vinseth asked as she turned her concentration on the counter, sink, oven, and floor.
Bella thought before speaking. She continued to scour the island with her magic, cleansing Cazgo's influence, as well as any damage. It was more than just the right of living here. It was maintaining that right by maintaining her tie to the place.
Vinseth remained quiet for a few moments. Clearly thinking. Finally, he said, "Don't make me ask her."
And then it all came out in a rush. The audacity of her entrance. The nonsensical questions. The fact that there was no reason for Iyohet to ask, apart from keeping Bella from turning her into a grey smear on black pavement.
Requesting her permission to court her partner.
Vinseth was silent a while, before he, smirking, began to fix the floor in the hallway. Gradually, char marks began to fade, becoming glossy and transparent. It was only after the apartment looked as clean and normal as she'd left it that afternoon that Vinseth turned to her.
"Iyohet asked your permission to court me?"
"And what did you tell her?"
"I threw her out a window."
"So you told her no."
"I think that would translate to a no."
Vinseth raised an eyebrow. The line his mouth made, however, was grim. Un-amused.
"Did I give you permission to mock me?" His tone turned the question into a flat statement.
Not sure what else to do, Bella bowed, gave an apology. She couldn't not notice the way Vinseth's eyes followed her movements.
"Apology accepted." But his gaze lingered on her with an intensity that said he hadn't entirely forgiven her.
And that was fine. If he was going to hold a grudge over something that small, he was welcome to it. He'd probably exact some sort of petty revenge, sparking one of their minor wars, and that was fine, too. Once he'd avenged himself, he would most likely forget about the incident.
But after a few moments, he was still staring at her. His expression had changed more than a little. From a level expression of disapproval to—something she wasn't entirely sure she could read. His lips had quirked, as if he were conjuring up his revenge already and was pleased by it.
Just as suddenly as the expression had come, it vanished. He retreated into the grim, world-weary lack of expression he preferred when he was around her.
And then he was gone in a hushed slide of fabric. Striding away down the hall; shadows contorting, trying to flee him at his every step, but reaching for him after he was gone.
Breathe, Bellatrix, she told herself. See to those poor plants.
So she did. She grabbed her watering can, filled it with water, and flicked the switches for the ceiling fans. Fresh air began to circulate. She watched in satisfaction as the breeze gently blew her plants' leaves.
Their relief was literally tangible. She could feel her own breathing ease, her muscles relaxing as her plants began to feel better.
Humming old hymns of Kailo, Bella began to water them. Each potted plant received special attention. Water soaked their too-dry soil, dripped onto their leaves. She stroked each stem and twig, a smile curving her lips as they shuddered and bloomed under her touch.
Her morning glory was especially needy. After she stopped petting its vines, it lifted its closed blossoms, as if looking for her. Leaves shivered and whispered, and then green tendrils began to snake toward her arms. Just as she began watering her bamboo, several leafy strands entangled in her fingers and pulled her hand back toward the morning glory.
Her plants loved her. There were times that fact was the only thing that saved her sanity. That at least somebody appreciated her and expressed it.
Vinseth's tiny acts of gratitude, the way Dereth hesitantly thanked her, the backhanded compliments and much-derided advancements at work—they were all getting to her.
Why did everyone else in her life have to complicate things so much?
Her mouth closed into a hard, firm line as her plants' shadows began to writhe and curl. She stood, idly stroking the bamboo while mentally reassuring the mandragora, and turned to see which Black priest had decided to visit this time.
Chada. His smirk had a distinctly smug twitch, as if he knew something that the world at large couldn't even wonder about. Those dark eyes seemed to burn as they looked at her. "So, she asked your permission?"
Bella recoiled. Morning glory and mandragora both began to twine along her arms, blossoms opening, mandragora hissing. "How did you know that?"
"Vinseth's shadow told me."
Of course. Black magician. Priest of the Taint. Heaven forefend he learn anything because Vinseth told him. He would, of course, have learned it from Vinseth's shadow, or the sin in Vinseth's eyes, or other associated nonsense.
The mandragora's hiss grew louder, even as she stepped backward.
The shadows behind him were large, twisted in some sort of high emotion. It wasn't the playful shadow-play with which Vinseth advanced on her.
It was something else. Something predatory.
Chada took a step closer to her. "Threatened already?" He paused. The smirk widened, grew even more wicked. "Do you wish you could talk to shadows, Bella?"
Yet more nonsense.
She took a step back, called up her anger at Chada's earlier actions. "Do you wish you could show enough sense to shield a child, Chada?"
The priest's glare was intense enough that she took another step back. She wasn't afraid of him. Not really. She was just giving an angry mage the caution he deserved.
Right. Not afraid of him. What a lie.
Chada's eyes glowed black. The shadows in the room began to twist frantically, then stilled. His shadow connected with hers.
The connexion was lightning-quick; pleasant and painful like a lover's nails raking down her back. His mind was a haven of shadow and satin, of words in a language she tried not to speak and the hissing of snakes. There were other memories there, of sun on sand dunes and the gleam in a young teen's eye.
He closed his eyes, re-opened them again. His pupils burned to see. When he spoke, his voice wasn't the soft, heavily accented voice of a mostly mild-mannered man. There was a metallic undertone, a depth to it that was somehow both inhuman and all too mortal, almost fragile.
"Believe it or not, Bellatrix Lux Mythen Monteqiel, you're one of us."
Her full name. Her real name. The meaning in that wasn't lost on her. Attacking immediately was second nature now. Protecting her secret was instinct.
With one swipe of her hand, the mandragora had grown from its pot and was working on entangling his legs. Its vicious thorns were digging into his skin; she could see it. She kissed her fingertips, traced the ancient patterns of silent praise.
He clenched his fist, laughing harshly as the mandragora shrank from him.
Nothing short of the Dyaivoztro wo Kailo or Kailo herself could have turned the mandragora against her, but to turn it aside… That wasn't impossible.
"Face it, Bella-child," Chada murmured with a boy scout-sweet smirk and in a voice that echoed Vinseth's, "you're as Black as Vinseth or me."
She wrestled his mind—slippery as a fish, sinuous like a snake. Slick and black and shining. Somehow that didn't surprise her—for control of the mandragora. But it wasn't working. His link with her meant that nothing she tried would work.
Just after she'd given up hope and was prepared to wait out the psychotic episode with whatever dignity she could muster, every door in the apartment banged open. She could hear them all opening simultaneously; if people in East Hadrienne couldn't hear it, she'd eat a tonne of cabbages.
Shadows all began stretching for the hallway, reaching for the Black magician who was even now broadcasting his anger across every channel he could. Bellatrix took a step toward the mandragora when he walked into the room. There was something dangerous in his eyes, a glint that she had always been exceedingly wary of.
"Chada. You will cease speaking with her shadow." Vinseth's voice was low, matter-of-fact. There would be no arguing. Once Chada had complied, Vinseth turned to her. "Come with me."
She followed him through the too-clean apartment, past the foyer with all their shoes, out the door that regularly stopped former clients from trying to break in, and through the upscale apartment building that she never could have lived in if she'd lived alone. White walls everywhere. Amazingly, no graffiti.
They reached the roof. Vinseth's yellow meditation mat lay facing west, pinned down by bits of obsidian and, most likely, magic.
Bella watched him sit down, sat next to him when he gestured for her.
The first words out of his mouth were blunt: "Chada has been trying to convince me for some time that you are a Black magician."
"I'm Grey. I thought we settled this issue a few years ago." Like five years.
He turned to look at her. That indecipherable expression on his face was back. He was unreadable, unchangeable. As enigmatic and immutable as a stone statue.
"It'd have stayed settled. But Iyohet asked your permission to court me. Why?"
Bella made a face at him. It was childish and ridiculous and it said exactly what she wished she wasn't too old to say. "Do I look like I understand that crazy demon?"
Vinseth chuckled. For several minutes, he stared at a sky that was just beginning to turn pink. At last, before answering, he sighed. "I know why."
He turned to face her, expression that perfect marble blankness he'd carved onto his face when he began his priestly training. "Because she knew you already had that permission."
The honeysuckle¬—which wasn't doing so well, she could feel the pall spreading through it, even as its trembling need to be useful tried to obscure the illness—rocked and swayed with her emotions.