Illumination 5.6: Jumble

When Jehane pointed out the building where she felt the presence of Malachi, Aya and several cambions, the war party split up. She wasn’t quite sure why, but Hatherly spoke to the Tanist and the others, and they just melted away. Laurel and Hatherly stayed with Jehane as they approached the building, part of a five-building installation. A technology corporation had recently taken possession and was preparing for an opening celebration, judging from the platform already erected and the tents and poles lying folded on the ground.

They walked right up to the main entrance, and Jehane wondered if Hatherly had told the Tanist they’d be bait. But he and Laurel were senior Nightlights. If they thought that was a good idea, she’d cope. It wasn’t like being with Seth and Natalie but she had to branch out eventually.

Hatherly called, “Aya, dear.” His voice was gentle, sweet. Something inside Jehane shuddered, and she found herself listening hard to Hatherly’s shadow music. It was odd: not like Malachi’s emptiness or Tainter’s twang. Not like the aching tremolo in Aya’s music. But there was something. A hitch. It was so faint, she’d never noticed it before. Not in the noise of the Tower, but now–

Hatherly’s hand dropped on Jehane’s shoulder as Aya appeared at the propped-open doors to the tower. Her long black hair shone, but her clothing was the same clothing she’d worn on patrol days earlier, torn into rags that barely served the purpose of clothing. In some places, duct tape had been added. Her face was covered in scratches, like she’d been playing with a particularly dangerous kitten, and makeup had been layered over it. Her eyes were flat and cold.

“Aya!” Laurel charged the taller girl and embraced her, sobbing. Aya stood unmoving as Laurel clung to her, her gaze never leaving Hatherly.

“Laurel has been looking for you, Aya,” said Hatherly.

“Why?”

“She’s been very worried.”

“I don’t know why,” said Aya, and her voice was hard and impatient.

“Oh, she still believes. She hasn’t realized how worthless that is. Please hold onto her tightly for me, will you?” Aya obediently wrapped her arms around Laurel as Hatherly continued. “I need to talk to Miss Jehane here.” His hand on her shoulder was suddenly tight enough to hurt. She froze instinctively, trying to hide in herself as she did from Awakened. But that didn’t work on people.

“Your little gift could be annoying, my girl. Or it could be useful. I can tell you’re not happy with the old guard. You could join us. Help us as we work toward a bold new future.”

Jehane found her voice. “How can it be you? You’re so…”

“Functional?” He glanced at Aya. “Oh, it’s been me for a long time. Would you like to know a little secret? Cambions are born when you’re on the very edge. If you can balance on the edge, why, you can be the parent to many.” He frowned. “I’ve tried to teach the technique to others, but it really hasn’t taken. I think Tainter pushed Aya here a little too far, for example. But even so far beyond the edge, our bright future gives her something to hang onto.”

Laurel stopped crying and raised her head, without letting go of Aya. “You! I knew it was you. I knew you were a sneaky bastard!”

“I have great hopes for your friend, Aya.” Hatherly smiled at Laurel.

Laurel shouted in rage and pulled against Aya’s grip. When Aya didn’t release her, she did something complicated with her feet and elbow that made Aya’s grip loosen. It was enough. Laurel cannoned into Hatherly and Jehane, separating them, and shouted, “Run!”

Jehane turned and managed four steps before another arm caught her around the waist. She struggled, trying to emulate what Laurel had done but without any success. Her new captor twisted her effortlessly, held her hands behind her back and slid his other hand up to her throat, resting it lightly there. Then he pulled her back against his chest.

She couldn’t see him, but she knew him anyhow. From the shadow music, from the gaze she could feel on her skin. She knew him from his warmth and she wasn’t sure she’d ever touched him before. It was Malachi.

Laurel was on the ground, doubled over as if in agony. Aya and Hatherly both stood looking down at her, then Hatherly lifted her with one hand and shoved her back into Aya’s arms.

His mouth next to Jehane’s ear, Malachi whispered, “You don’t have to do what he wants.” His hand on her collarbone and his fingers on her throat made it a promise and a threat: a blade that could cut her throat in an instant. “I’d rather you didn’t.” His breath on her skin was warm.

Dizzy, unfocused, Jehane thought she was reacting in all the wrong ways. She thought, I must talk to Natalie about this later. This is so strange. As soon as she realized the thought, she wanted to laugh at the insanity of the thought: it seemed impossible that there would be any point to worrying about her strange reactions to Malachi later. If she survived this, it would only be because the Nightlights had won and Malachi was dead. The laugh emerged as a sob.

She opened her eyes and met Hatherly’s gaze. He was still waiting for an answer from her, like nothing had happened. Creatures slinked on both sides of him, one low and wide, with eight legs and tentacles holding parcels to its back, and another that seemed half glowing machine.

“Does the bright future involve the experiment?” She leaned her head back against Malachi’s chest as his fingers pressed warningly against her collarbone. She didn’t understand what he wanted, but it was clear he and Hatherly weren’t in agreement on her fate.

“Oh yes. But I shan’t tell you more when you’re just an observer. You have to commit.” Hatherly smiled like an academic encouraging a slow student.

“How do I do that?”

“A cambion is traditional…”

Jehane hesitated, remembering her childhood, remembering her rescue. They’d killed everything. “When I was 8, before they rescued me, I had a protector. I thought later it must have been my cambion, but nobody ever saw it but me.” She shook her head. Her memories of that time were sometimes so muddled.

Hatherly’s smile showed teeth. “Ah, then you have experience. I won’t need to help you much. Come, now.”

Jehane’s gaze slid over to Laurel and Aya. Laurel wasn’t fighting Aya, or holding onto her. She was barely supporting her own weight. But Aya was staring at Laurel, her brow faintly furrowed.

“Let Laurel go, and I’ll stay with you.” The others were close. Jehane was pretty sure she wasn’t going to escape. But maybe she could get Laurel out. And behind her back, she curled her fingers around Malachi’s hand.

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