Garrett x Viktoria if you tilt your head this way; Garrett v. Viktoria if you tilt it that. Pick your poison. Either translates.
For maximum immersion and creepiness, as suggested by a reader, listen to The House of Widow Moira from the Deadly Shadows OST while you go.
Drink to me only with thine eyes,
And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kiss but in the cup,
And I'll not look for wine.
- Ben Jonson
There is a chill in Widow Moira's house tonight.
It blows in across the cold City sea, furls over the whitecaps and Watch buoys. It lands softly underneath the basement, pushing the fore of a rowboat into hard brown sand, rattling the crab cages, whistling up a graystone well. It creeps up the steps, light as goosefeathers, a tickling under the redvelvet curtains. It is not a stormwind, this chill, but a gentle and nervous wisp of darkness; it moves like a held breath, a heart pitter-pat over the marble, behind the servants as they wash plates, above Captain Curtis in his sturdy study chair. It is a whisk along the panes, a fine slipping through rafters, aloft in the air, like a caught leaf, crouched on its knees and then dancing on its toes, scratching the chin of the curious orange cat on its way through the dining room, putting a blackberry in its mouth, pinching out the candlelights, and, always, travelling up. It climbs, stepping gingerly, at a fragile but steadied pace, higher. It is in every window and on every wall.
And then it is in her room.
When Edwina Moira turns in the dark of the tower belvedere and looks at him—through him, past him, her eyes more pearl white than blue—it is a seabreeze colder than any chill Garrett can claim to be.
He has not moved. He's made no sound. No hard soles on creaking floorboards; no cape flutter; no errant sneeze or iron grate catching his sleeve. The wires of Garrett's body are too disciplined. There was only a rattle on the windowpane, a buckle of thunder, light that shattered over the turbulence of waves below. Luck, he tells himself with frozen back and locked hips. Insists it: luck only. She is just a noblewoman. She cannot know he is here. She could not have heard the sudden breath that pealing krak! stole from his lungs.
Moira stands still and speechless where she paused. He wonders if he might see his metal eyeshine caught inside of hers.
The thief closes both—squeezes them shut. No reflection; no gloss of light to find an angle of his wind-raw, vulpine face. He stands motionless in the shadow of this empty alcove. His sooty palms press against the wall, and it is icy, enough to hurt him; the mortar between each block is rough and pale. Cobwebs of a hundred-year-old undercroft stick to his trousers and his elbows. Cinders, too: bony cheeks, broad mouth, fine chin, knife-cut nose. Blood ekes beneath two fingernails bitten by a rooftop trapdoor. He hardly dares to inhale.
"Ginny?" Moira asks into the darkness.
It is violence outside. The storm keens upon the manor walls, breaking outdoor lanterns. Banners bleed dye and slap, heavy with water, on their posts. The harbor groans with barnacles and salt; the white waveheads thrash over it; the dead marlin are tossed ashore; the bitter-cold kelp spirals sadly, sodden and black. Monsters with no names lurk in gloomy water. Everywhere there is the scent of brine and dust; closer, in here, there is candlewax, woodruff perfume, and uneaten cheddar on rye toast; there is old, old stone.
"Ginny," she asks again. Her voice a chime in a gale; her pupils are deep, haunting, two flooded coalmines under moonlight. They see more than they should. She stares blankly, but Garrett knows they see him.
And then, whispered, dreadful hope: "Robert…?"
Garrett is still. He thinks his heart has stopped. Or he would, could he not hear it; the muscle beats into the back of his sternum. It is a wet metronome: ka-thunk. ka-thunk. ka-
She gazes for a moment longer before something like reality comes.
"Would you come into the light?" Widow Moira asks—the shrapnel bangs into the cavity beneath his chest. Run, it says. Run, Garrett; drop everything and run. It is like a tin bell inside his bones: the need to move. He is a flight animal. But there is nowhere to run; he has squeezed both shoulders tight against a dip in this frigid flagstone; it will not let him hide, like a spider, melting through friendly cracks. He has no flash bombs, no gas canisters, no cotton cloths dipped in ether. A small burlap sack full of snagged jewelry, pillowcased statuettes, and tightly-rolled silverware is pressed in the corner behind him. He is trapped.
Yet Mistress Moira does not screech for help or demand an explanation in that high-haughty bluebird shrill of slighted nobility Garrett has come to know well. She tilts her head, confused, and says, effortless as any teatime chat: "Dear. I apologize. I'm afraid my wick has burnt down, and I can barely make you out."
Edwina Moira is a small woman. Garrett is not a large man—o contraire, he is a weed—but between them it is the difference between a partridge and a crow. Her ankles are weak and her hands are frail. She shivers much more than someone of her age ought to, looking wobbly beneath a mass of unkempt, wafting mousey hair, adding ten extra years upon thirty-and-five. Feeble fingers worry the purple lace of her sleeping gown and moonglow makes the gesture vaguely Pagan. Her stockinged feet wear no shoes. There is nothing intimidating about her, a portrait of what precedes a crumbling. Yet when Moira moves forward—three measured, fearless steps—Garrett's stomach plunges. Panic cramps his calves, hamstrings, that taut little tether hinging bottom jaw to top. He has never been so poignantly aware of being solid in all his life.
An arm, tentative, lifts—reaches. The fear that she might touch him is suddenly greater than that of being found. So—hackles bristling on their ends, feeling surreal—Garrett steps from the safety of shadow with wooden face and bothered soul.
They look at each other, widow and thief.
A skiff clinks its moorings in the boathouse.
Someone drops a stack of plates in a kitchen sink far below.
Robert Moira's storm rumbles in the great smog beyond this rain-smacked window glass.
"Oh," Edwina murmurs, brows worried. But it is not an "oh!" of horror or dismay. The scarf she wears has come untied; its cashmere sags, and shows the blue of her throat. There it dangles, sterling and plain: the viktrola cabinet key he had scaled this tower to claim. "I'm sorry. You must forgive me, but this mist is very thick these days, isn't it, and it makes things hard to see. I hate to give such lackluster hospitality, but I've been so very preoccupied, you know. It's been just terribly busy in the house of late. But that's no excuse. That's really no excuse."
Is this real? Garrett pinches his thigh to be sure he is not in a nightmare, but it does not work. The ash blotted upon his brow, his nose, and the corners of his mouth are awkward camouflage. They flash in another lightning surge that bursts behind him. Moira's milky eyes squint.
"It's… is that…Damen, isn't it? Gentle Damen? Our gentle boatswain, Damen?" she hopes. Perhaps this is who Edwina desperately wants to see.
"It is," Garrett hears himself say, a rasp in his throat. He lies badly. This is the most a shaken thief can muster with the widow's tiny hand closing around his leathered forearm, towing him forward, her digits upsettingly cold.
Then Moira is leading him to her single wooden table, almost fussing, lost in something she has forgotten to do. He does not protest. He behaves as she steers him. What else is there to do?
Used tea trays are pushed clumsily aside. She sweeps two fresh candlesticks from the nearby cupboard and thumps them down as a centerpiece; they are a beautiful gold, but he cannot appreciate it right now. His clever fingers are too numb to itch with want. He can see his breath in this sparse tower-top; he can see hers, too.
"Damen, how nice of you to call upon me. Robert must have sent you here ahead of him. You've traveled such a long way. And in this weather! Let me take your coat for you," Moira is ushering, and Garrett feels sick to lose his outer cloak, but must. He shrugs it loose when she pulls the train, letting it fall into grasping hands laden with gaudy, oversized rings. The widow drapes it over her plush sitting chair; this is the tidiest his clothes have been folded in a while. The bow is carried away and propped upon the hauling bag. A thousand noises, far away: broom-scratch downstairs, maids bickering, moaning architecture, fitful seas. Lockpicks twinkle at the thief's belt. They are a fine pair with the stiletto dagger strapped upon his boot neck. "Our servants should have already seen to you. Lazy things. But here—sit, please, at the table," Edwina says. The offered furniture is wooden and squeaky. She moves for a tapper and strikes both candles. They bleed like baubles in the cool, still, mildewed air.
Hood fallen, head free; ears, attuned to every scuffle underfoot; pelt, jagged and silt-brown; neck, lengthy and not very thick. His face is open to the colors and air currents and sights and sounds; his pulse is beating just below his Adam's apple, a dull and stressful throb. Garrett glances up. The chandelier has petered out and it is swinging idly, catching shadows of raindrops down its curves. Someone is tinkering with a piano many steps below.
He has to get out of here, he has to get out; madness will melt you like a flake on the churchyard iron, a rhinestone against cobblestone, an old torch in February sleet…
"What happened to your eye?" the widow gasps. She is standing over his chair, frightfully alarmed, and then mother's hands are upon the thief's face. Her thumb—a cold, cold thumb—presses into the coarse, ugly scar beneath his right socket; her fingers grasp behind his jawbone, making him look up.
"I lost it," Garrett chokes.
Edwina's brow furrows; her slender lips bend with sadness. When her hands fall away, it is a blunt, incredible relief. The thief tenses. He tightens his fists upon the splintery birch and stares hard at them and reminds himself that he is not a child. Her handprint sticks there—a clean star upon a grimy cheek. "Oh. What a pity. I am so sorry to hear that, dear Damen." With the sweep of her gown and soft feet around this table, she takes up the chair opposite his. "Was it pirates? Robert always warned you about shipping foreign wines so late into the season."
Wind clatters the windowsill, teasing of hail. Mistress Moira gazes distantly beyond Garrett, and sighs.
"Damen. Sweet, thoughtful Damen. Now that I've said so, I must ask. Would you," she wonders, drumming fingers upon her anemic lips, "be good enough to poke into the kitchen, perhaps, and fetch me a bottle of wine? Any year or color will do. I'm not finicky—not about wines. It's just that my servants have..." A hesitation— shrewdness—glints behind this miasma that has watered down her eyes. "Forgotten."
And Garrett does it. Builder, wild spirits, whoever help him—he does it, because there is no walking away. She has his cowl and his winnings, the cutlery and decoration and jewels stuffed into cheap burlap. But this is a half-honesty, baby tales. She can be overpowered easily. The truth is that Moira has clutched more than baubles. Something in those far-flung, misty eyes saw into death—hers? His own? Who knows?—and sent an odd dread through the master thief. It reminded him of Keepers. It reminded him of Interpreters of Prophecy—weak, gray-haired scholars wither far before their time. They look at text, darkness, tea leaves, you, and they read more than there is. That is the foresight of those who straddle the end of their lives.
Garrett has witnessed more than his fair share of horrors—of creepers and vines and flesh beyond the grave—but he does not philosophize. That's the Order's job. All Garrett knew, tiptoeing down then up these winding stairs—sinking all the way into a cellar, then slinking open-faced back to the tower-top—was the key dangling at Edwina Moira's neck. It is not thinkable to slice a woman's jugular just to crack a lock. Murder and mayhem are not his tools. This drink is an easier route. Put her to sleep on white wormwood or apple wine, and he could cut that rope bloodlessly from its place around the widow's throat.
So here Garrett is—stepping the last tower step with bottle in one hand, two pewter goblets in the other. He says nothing. He uncorks it—something like cloves wafts up—and sets everything down. No scrapes on Moira's table, shaped like a seashell, small and circular, not unlike her face. No footsteps following him upstairs. The thief feels like an oyster is nestled inside his throat. He is afraid to say too many words for fear of one that might break the spell.
Edwina shows no signs of change. She is sitting at her place, worrying the long chiffon sleeves that devour both hands. She smiles at him. The woman's cheeks are creased by weeping lines she never bothered to wash away. "Oh, thank you, dear. You are kind to wait upon me so," Moira thanks him. She reaches for the chardonnay as soon as he lets go. It pours faster than expected, and droplets swirl around the cup, splashing over. "I'm a miserable hostess for sending you on a chore. I've just had so little strength lately. One must feel sympathy for the guardsmen; standing watch in high places does drain the heat from you. But they take good care of me. My loyal, steadfast Curtis. I suspect he worries about me drinking up here – that I might slip. But I don't swoon so easily. He's a noble man. Do sit and toast with me, Damen," she bids; a tiny, shoeless foot stretches and knocks out the spare chair again. "We should wish Robert a smooth voyage. And pray those pirates are a bother to no one any longer. Or – I'm sorry – did you say it was brigands that took your eye?"
Brigands: schemers, tricksters, clever knaves. A perverse chateau lorded over by one potbellied man in moth-eaten robes; a felt hood that hid his puppet's blackbird hair, soft eyes, wide and scarlet lips. Drinks that smelled of absinthe and honeysuckle; blouse necks loosed deliberately too low. Corridors that led nowhere, floors tilted into ceilings, a mad twist of a house. Sinister gold. Wicked praises. Poisoned promises made by a voice too clear to be wholly woman. "You've done well, Garrett."
How it all fell to vines and bark; cloven feet; too many teeth; red, red eyes and the voice again that turned his soul to lead: BOW TO THE WOODSIE LORD AND OFFER UP YOUR FLESH EYE SO THAT HIS EYE OF STONE MAY SEE.
"It was brigands, actually." Garrett blinks – one eye coffee grounds, one venin green – takes the full goblet she offers, and folds both his hands around it.
"Horrible. Our poor Damen. I hope someone killed them," Edwina whispers. There is a pause between them while she fumbles for her own cup. It trembles as the widow's lips find wine; one wrist rattles, setting her glass back to the rumpled cream tablecloth. She swallows, dabs with a kerchief, then smiles. It is an expression of contentment. "But I'm glad to see everything turned out all right in the end."
So many sounds – gears bursting, treads smoking, boilers gobbling coal. Steam that could melt skin from bone. Clinking, roaring, leaking constructs with copper faces smashed into the iron floors. And then: wood. Ruptured – splinters. His own scream that got stuck somewhere and never quite came. Bark in the air, strange spores, making all the metal-oil-ore of that place smell like rainwater and blood and butterfly weed. Like her. "Yes, I suppose it did."
Edwina nods, lays her handkerchief neatly across one knee, and cloudy eyes flash at him conspiratorially. "I've got brigands in my house, I do," she mutters. Garrett feels his pulse again. She attempts to detangle a stringy knot of hair above her ear. "These houseguests. Can't turn my back on a one of them. These esquires and seigneurs and vidames. And all their silly little wives. They think I don't hear them skulking about – but I do. When my Robert returns…" It trails off. She does. "Do you know the only difference between a brigand and a baronet, dear friend?"
"Pantaloons," Garrett tries; it escapes him before he can bite the mean joke back. This surrealism is starting to wear. Moira titters into her napkin. He takes a drink of his own wine.
"I think the line goes 'better manners.' But we have precisely the same point. Robert says birthrights and bank statements matter little in the true measure of a man. 'Knights or jackknives,' – that's how he'd tell me – 'to know a person – to genuinely know them – you must look them in the eye'." She stares at his one. A thunderclap snaps light against her study key. He wishes she'll go drowsy soon. "Don't you think that's so, Damen?"
"Suppose I should have looked my brigands in the eye." The thief takes another quaff, and sees his own hand shake a little. Would it have done him any good? Trickster preferred an eye made of rock, born in sacrifice, the oldest magicks. And hers were solid red.
But they still cried, at least. Or perhaps they had once – the claws below them dripping crimson, watching Pagan huts burn softly through the cedar trees. When he found the witch as she really was, she had fallen, bowing over the corpses of a white-haired priestess carrying someone's small child – their bodies pinned together by a crossbolt – and clutching at that old crone's arms until they all three bled. A nymph weeping is less like sorrow and more like something terrifying. It's jackal howls, whirlwinds, screech owls, not a woman's noises. But Viktoria was not a woman. Her tears were sticky, yellowish, like nectar; her pain was made more of hate than grief.
"Don't blame yourself, Damen. You never can with things like this. It's what I'm always telling the servants when they break something," Mistress Moira adds, sniffling; the cold makes her nose run. She tucks it into her rag. He thinks about springing across their table and pinning the cloth there until she faints – hand to mouth, nostrils pinched shut – but doesn't. "And what my own mother used to say. There's no use crying over spilt milk, and all that."
Advice from a mad widow – excellent irony. The nervous thief is not in a position to appreciate it, but his lips twist under a bitter smirk. Lightning in the window sill; wine in his cup; dirt from a dozen crawlspaces all across long, aching hands. "You really figure it's that easy?"
"Of course it is, gentle Damen. I say so almost every day. Pick up what you can, and what you can't, you can live without."
Garrett does not recall the locking mechanism on Soulforge's great gold chapel doors; he does remember shutting them, windless, and unfolding his fist to a crumpled handful of leaves.
Edwina blows her nose. "Fie! Madam Mastiff thinks I'll catch my death up here. Maybe she's right! Pass me the bottle again, will you, dear?" The thief does.
"Your husband – Robert – left a message for you. On the downstairs viktrola. If you like, and if you have the key, I could bring it here," he tried. His plan to hear the secret message does not live long before the widow, hand fluttering dismissively, slams shut it.
"No. I hate that infernal contraption," Moira announces with wrinkled nose. "You probably think I'm horribly old-fashioned, but I can't bear the ugly thing. It's faulty, and it makes such a noise. Like branches on a tin pan. All those Mechanist toys do."
And Garrett smiles.
"Thank you for offering, however. I shouldn't worry so. Robert will put things right the moment he arrives. He'll give these counterfeit friends a turnabout." She reaches, takes up the glass neck, and pours two inches of dry chardonnay into both their glasses. Liquor plinks into Garrett's already full goblet. He doesn't refuse. "But in the meantime, this howling old house does get fearfully lonely. There is hardly anyone left to really trust – barring my maids, that is, and Cook. And Captain Curtis. You've met Curtis, haven't you?" The thief quickly dips a yes, lest she summon her bodyguards for a full introduction. Edwina sighs after a large gulp of wine. "Such a good man. You know that's the truth if Robert trusts him with my safety when he's away. My Robert would never let anyone hurt me; there's no better judge of character. But he's so very busy. Few people have time to waste talking to a fretful sailor-wife. You can't let it hurt your feelings, though. You've got no better friends than your guardians, Damen. Remember that."
"I will," Garrett gives; he can't help but wonder what Artemus might say. It's disturbing how often he asks himself this as his knees begin to pop and his vision grows a little darker still.
"Still, it would be nice to have more friends come for tea. Or cakes. Or wine!" The drink has begun to take effect, he thinks – it twirls in sweeps of Mistress Moira's arm, the sloshing of goblets, the easiness of her smiles. There is discord in that high, brittle voice. She harrumphs. "No one has any integrity anymore. Those crooks downstairs, for instance. They don't appreciate anything but coin. They don't know the value of things. Do you know what I mean, Damen?"
"I know exactly what you mean," says the master thief who hides a closet full of treasures – dozens of tokens, pretty ornaments, sentimental conquest trophies – he cannot bear to sell.
Garrett doesn't know why these memories stick to him so: a handful of letters, read once, locked away; one jasper stone struck from the hilt of Constantine's sword, saved; three tattered leaves carried mindlessly from Karras's citadel and pressed into a book he knew he'd never open again. He does not want them. Unlike some arrogant prizes stolen from throne rooms and art galleys, he does not want to be reminded of these things. But he kept them. Keeps them, you could say.
Why? He doesn't know. Or maybe he does, and this is why they must stay close – pieces of past – a warning of what's been lost, what is left to lose.
"You can't buy everything with coin," he says.
Her grin is glad and sloppy. "Right! How very right you are, Damen. A stack of silvers just isn't the same as a hand statue or your mother's mirror or heirloom broche, even if they cost just the same." (Curios that clamor in his loot bag right now. Best not to dwell on this fact.) "Some things simply can't be compensated for. Replaced. Some things are priceless."
"And some things are worth more than their price."
"Yes. Yes a hundred times! It's the context of an item," she says. "It's the history behind it. It makes them singular, you know; it gives them meaning. It makes a thing really special."
"One-of-a-kind," Garrett echoes.
The Widow Moira beholds him fondly. "Do you know what I think? I think we two are just cut from the same cloth." And she deals them both another dose of wine.
What the hell. He drinks what is in his cup.
"I do so welcome you dropping in to see me," Edwina muses, flooding her glass again. "Have I said that? Because I mean it absolutely. There's no one here to whom people like us can really relate. And no one I can talk to. Not even Ginny. Such a sweet girl, my Ginny, but she doesn't understand me." Red-headed little Ginny, a twiggy lass in green, was currently bundled unconscious in a coat closet near the private library. Unlucky girl. An hour ago, she'd gone fleeing tearfully from her head housekeeper, across the storm-lit rotunda, through a dark foyer, and right into Garrett.
He'd silenced her oncoming shriek with one closed fist to the solar plexus. It knocked the oxygen soundless through her open mouth. Ginny doubled-over, fast as a folding easel, gesturing wildly for air she couldn't draw. The thief caught her collar before those panicked hands slammed noisily into the floorboards or smacked some pictures off the walls. From here it was a simple: one brusque pull forward over his left arm, the right locked around her neck. One palm full of cape over nose and mouth before she found her breath. One short sitting of thirty-to-sixty seconds, enduring nails and flailing elbows, waiting for willpower to die, tutting a litany of short shhes until her eyes rolled back in her head and she hung limp as a dead eel.
(It was somewhere in his late twenties Garrett happened upon the humbling realization he'd smothered more girls than he'd kissed. A good deal more. An embarrassingly good deal.)
"I'm afraid I may have gotten poor Ginny in trouble again, asking her to fetch me a sip," Moira was rambling – tipsy in earnest, now – chin-in-hand. Unpainted lashes look weighty. She teeters a bit in the seat. "Madam Mastiff must think she's drinking it all herself. What a notion! I'm glad no one bothered you, Damen. And I hope you don't take me for a common wine sop. Sometimes one just needs a bit of help to relax. I've been at my vigil for eight nights now, you know. I'm sick to death of hot cocoa. And it's all anyone will bring me! It isn't too much to ask, do you think? A little sleep?"
Her teeth clack. Their breaths condense. It occurs to Garrett the widow may indeed have come up here to die.
"Just a nap, you know. To keep my vigor. Sometimes I think I'm sleeping, but then it always turns out to be nothing more than a daydream." Edwina sighs and rolls her shoulders, exaggerated wistfulness, a little girlish stuff. "I do enjoy a nice, oaky chardonnay. I'd drink just about anything right now. Even mead. I despise mead; it tickles my teeth. But I miss my dreams. They're good company. Do you dream often, Damen?"
Not dreams, but nightmares – horrors that overflow from the eyes to imprint the lids. Horn, hoof, chain, muscle rotting through holy red vestment. Rust, cogs, glyphs undulating on limestone. Switches. Steam valves. Grooves of a pillar against his spine. Cage bars, mineshafts, whistles, willows, newts, strange lights specking forest air. Mostly too many teeth in those red, red lips.
Bloody words – unforgiving, accusatory, meant to strike terror SO THAT HIS EYE OF STONE MAY SEE.
"More than I'd like," the thief ruffs, and refills both their glasses himself.
So many times he has thought about throwing that damn book in the fire, prophecy crumbling on parchment, listening for leaflets to pop. It has been years, and Garrett still sees vines in his sleep. All sorts of vines – thorny, punitive, withering, burning. He will wake up halfway through a shout, clammy, skinning knife in his hand or beneath his headboard. He will paw at his cheek in the quilt, dazed, and swear for a horrible second it is not night sweat but blood. There is never peace or sadness or ambiguity. It is always rage, a scream, a crack in the earth. It always fills him with icewater that pounds his heart.
But it is not always the same dream.
Sometimes it is not an eye she snarls for, white flesh to fill some weak god's void, but answers to a question he does not know. WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY—
And he will crash awake to find himself standing – back flat against a wall, perspiration on his face, fingers flat upon the tempered wood and eye plastered wide in the dark.
Why what, witch?
These are the worst nights of all.
"Do you think I'm crazy?" the widow asks him, considering her reflection in a pool of pale wine.
Garrett smiles. "Less and less, Missus Moira. Less and less."
She smiles back – why, he cannot tell. Her eyes close in a long, weary blink.
"Do you think you can sleep now?" Hard rain patters shingles overhead; shards of it threaten to frost, thickening their window, throwing insect webs of shadow across the thief's slanted nose. They tangle on her face, too – her face, denial caught in vague suspension. It looks as though this modest room is underwater.
"Perhaps I'll try," Edwina mulls. It's a consideration made in the half-light of her life.
"I think that's a good idea."
"The housekeepers say I'm moonstruck, did you know? That I've lost my mind." A finger – still benumbed, but much steadier now – rings around the goblet. "But I haven't. They just can't see like I can. I'm saner than those mice downstairs are – riffling about, eyeing all the pretty things in my house, divvying them up while I'm still breathing. And pretending to be my friends! That I can't abide. They're not honest at what they do. That's what riles me more than anything else. I so very far from mad. You believe me, don't you?"
Oh, the widow isn't wholly there – that much is obvious from the way she lilts and calls him Damen – but Garrett has seen madness, how it gobbles you up, makes meat into gold, paves the grass with dust. He is not sure how to describe what flickers and fades behind Edwina Moira's pearly stare. He is sure madness isn't it.
Garrett says "I do."
"I thought you might," she mumbles, a confession that is somehow sad.
The hail begins to wane on the tower roof.
"There are things you can touch, and things you just know," the widow swears. He begins to feel fuzzy; she slurs. There is only a fifth left in the bottle. "You can't touch a sense, a feeling. But that doesn't mean it isn't there. My Robert will always return to me. I know that. Most people don't want to – or can't – admit it, but we all know when someone is looking over us."
An hour ago – no more – this frostbitten mourner had turned straight to Garrett in the lingering dark.
"How?" the thief wonders before thinking better of it.
She bristles happily. "Why, you just do!"
Recurring terrors. Forms that dance or menace in the darkness. Wind that carries to him odd scents and prickles with old but unforgotten danger. An inexplicable bad taste in his mouth – sometimes zinc, sometimes woundwort. Unfounded pity: Dyan's soldiers left alive; his bare hands scooping rich earth to make way for a stolen sapling tree; one arrow shaft zipped thoughtlessly through a gullet, weird reflex action, before the Hammerite priest could spotted the Pagan scouts filching quartz from a Dayport warehouse. Twitches of fraternity felt for simple, straightforward people with messy dialects who hold no love for him. Leaking wells that sound like drums. Boughs that split and strangle and shrieks that demand WHY.
You just know, the widow says.
Five wintry fingers clamp upon his own, stiffly and suddenly enough to slap! – it makes Garrett jump inside his skin.
"We forgot to toast!" Edwina cries, lunging for the wine. What little is left glugs messily into their glasses.
He stops the nozzle with his palm when there is nothing left. "What are we toasting?" the thief wonders, really curious, as she sets the empty vessel down.
"I don't know, but we positively must think of something. It's rotten luck not to toast. Do you have any ideas?"
A moment of stillness, of remembering. The thief's grin tries to break. He lifts his cup – much less full than hers – and dangles it between them. "To real wealth, and the few minds mad enough to understand it."
"Yes, real wealth! To those we watch for, and those who watch for us."
They clink, and all the fine chardonnay spills over their hands. Moira likes this cheer so much, she clinks again.
Then there is silence in the overlook. The clouds boom through bay windows. The widow's head droops upon her neck.
"I hope Robert comes home soon."
"He will," Garrett says, lump in his throat.
"You're right." She beams. Reality tangles with a world she's chosen. "But I am quite tired now, and I really must look for my poor husband. I very much enjoyed drinking with you," Edwina chirrups, and when the lady stands up, nearly missteps on a corner of threadbare rug. She stumbles about aimlessly for a few minutes, vision woolly. The man Moira thought was Damen guides his would-be host to her armchair, where she quickly begins handing back his cloak, hood, and trappings. He puts them on and is glad for the cover of black fabric. While he adjusts his cowl, the manor's mistress pushes Garrett's elbow aside to retrieve both bow and quiver, still propped neatly in a corner. The weapons look bizarre in her fingers. "Thank you for coming to keep a foolish woman company. Please be well, and do help yourself to anything you like from the pantries, or from the guest suites. Else my bloody well-wishers will get them, anyway. Oh, I almost forgot. Your things..."
Bleary, she picks up the loot sack, packed with her own possessions; its bulk hangs awkwardly between two elfin hands.
"If you don't mind," he fumbles. The thief's gaunt, large-eyed face is ashen. "I'll leave them up here for now."
"That's all right. You can always come and pick these up next time you visit." Without a catch, Edwina plops them down. She, too, collapses, replacing herself bonelessly into the waiting cushion. Wood creaks. Glass shudders in the frame. Her youth molts away, laying stark the exhaustion and the sickness of a left, drifting lover made older than she is. He has no inkling as to how she's still speaking with so much wine fermenting in her blank stomach.
"Sure," manages the moonlighter, wincing a smile, voice hoarse.
Mistress Moira's eyes are unable to withstand any more. Fatigued, dry, faded and gratefully drunk, they finally slide shut. She bids farewell through a yawn. "Yes, well. Off you bed with you, then. I hope you are able to rest in this storm." Then, longingly, a handbreadth away: "Perhaps I shall, as well."
Garrett waits quietly in the shadow of her chair. He listens through a downpour for the slow wheeze of sleep.
The mansion's lady is motionless within minutes. Sleeves curtain over patterned armrests; fine taupe tendrils sprawl; her limbs go loose. There is no twitch or cough or jumble of unsober words. Her mouth is increasingly blue. She is like a snow sculpture outside the orphanage hall. She might have been dead were it not for the vapor of her breath.
The widow's throat is like ice when he touches it. Garrett finds her necklace snarled in a shutter of hair and lace. It's sweat-worn; the rope snaps easily with switchblade to thumb. She does not stir. A solitary key flung into his pocket stamps tonight as a success.
It is nearly done. Before he leaves, he pulls a musty blanket from the armoire, shakes it out, and wraps it around Edwina there.
Before he leaves, she leaves him this:
"Sleep well, Good Thief."
The rest of his night is a race. Mewling tabby in the couple's room; warbling captain's baritone; trap hatch behind a portrait nailed upon the exhibition hall. There's his rowboat waiting in shady rockbed. There is a Keeper anticipating results. Compendium clutched in one hand, Garrett runs from that manor as fast as his legs can carry him – in and out, with nothing more.
Fourteen days later – when the widow is dead, her casket barely cooling – the thief returns, and he takes everything.
He never makes up his mind as whether or not Mistress Moira was truly mad. Garrett cannot say if she did not really realize her husband had sailed out on a squall to die – but she did, with powerful certainty, believe he watches her. It isn't something one questions over badly-oaked chardonnay. There are, that tottering sailor-wife knew, binds between what is past and present. The thief is less sure of an afterlife. Walking death, ghosts, apparitions, wisps in the night – all horrors he has witnessed, all still somehow creatures of earth. Let Keepers guard the secrets of mortality. A little chill should not guess what waits beyond the mists at that far horizon line.
Every one of the lost estate's special trinkets he sells for coin. He keeps the widow's key. It gathers dust in that locked carving box, Garrett's secret place – dropped among the letters, the gems, the hieroglyphs, his teacher's notes, some glorified storybook he'll never read that presses a leftover piece from the Woman of the Woods between two random pages.
He does not know if slain, steadfast, vengeful Robert Moira yet roams his cold stone manse on the sea.
He does know who haunts him.