38. Enclave VIII
I woke up, like I always did, around midnight in the room Jorra and I shared. It would be easy to blame it on the vurseng. But the truth was I had already started to expect for things to go wrong. The relative tranquility of the enclave never sat well with me. It was almost like a voice, whispering in the back of my mind, that I was too comfortable here. Reminding me that at any moment, it could all be snatched away. I dragged myself out of the bed quietly and dressed, being extra quiet, the comments Kilvius had made the prior day at the forefront of my mind.
After a brief visit to the bathroom to wash my face, I prepared to leave for the night.
The slow, rousing cry of a baby froze me in my tracks. Strange. Agarin rarely woke in the middle of the night these days. It was probably fine. Any minute, a lantern would be lit, and either Kilvius or Nethtari would trudge down the hallway, wiping sleep from their eyes. Only, it didn’t happen. Come to think of it, they had both looked exhausted after dinner that evening.
I glanced at the front door, then swore quietly under my breath and slipped into Agarin’s room. The baby had unsettled me at first, to a degree that bewildered. It took a while to figure out why. It had nothing to do with the color of his skin, or his tiny tail, or the little black horns that already poked out of his skull. It was something else, something deeper.
Being a father was something I’d never thought about before Lillian. I’d hidden my more visceral reaction from her because she needed support, not additional panic—but gods had I panicked. Every little slight my father had made, the way even the smallest things affected my sisters and I later in our lives, suddenly magnified in my mind, the level of responsibility so overwhelming it was almost paralyzing. How could I possibly be a father when I’d never seen what a father was supposed to be?
And so, I’d blundered forward, forcing down the fear for her sake. And after she was taken from me, there was anger, and grief, and hatred. But beneath it all was the tiniest whisper of something else.
Relief that I would not be able to do to that child what my father had done to me. And I had buried that relief under an ocean of liquor and wine, until I had forgotten it all together.
That is, until Rin.
“Cair?” He said. He was standing, his small hands clutching the wooden slats that made up the walls of the bassinet Nethtari and I had expanded to make it safer. “Cair? Up?”
Despite myself, I smiled. “Sure thing, bud.” I hefted him out of the bassinet, grunting slightly. He’d put on weight at a rate that had to be exclusive to infernals, there’s no way human babies could possibly weigh this much. Making sure to support him from beneath, I carried him over to the rocking chair across the room. There I rocked him in silence, the only sound in the house the slow creak of the chair. His white eyes repeated the cycle of unfocusing and nearly closing, only to snap open again.
I poked his nose gently, and he stirred, looking horribly aggrieved.
“Why?” He asked.
“That’s what I’m saying. Why are you trying so hard to stay awake when everyone else is sleeping?” I pointed to the darkness outside the window. “See? No sun. It’s sleepy time.”
Rin clung to my errant finger when it came into poke his nose a second time. “Story!” he insisted. I snickered. Maybe this was karma, coming back to settle accounts for the inordinate number of times I must have said that word to my mother.
“We can’t make a habit of this, you know. Nethtari would kill me if you kept waking up asking for stories—she’d know exactly who to blame.”
A moments pause. “Story!”
“Fine, fine.” I settled into the rocking chair, and launched into a highly modified selection of the assorted tales of Sir Gantry the Wise. Only, in this version, Sir Gantry was a cyan-skinned infernal.
Sir Gantry approached the pixies of Regal Grove with many gifts, hoping to learn the secret to their metals that—when honed properly, could cut through stone like butter. The pixies fled from Sir Gantry. Only when he laid out an offering of wine and sweet berries did they finally approach. Sir Gantry caught one of the pixies in a net. The pixie’s name was Song. He assured her he did not mean her any harm, he simply wanted to talk. Song was young, but clever, and answered his questions with a question. She said that if Sir Gantry could answer one question correctly, she would tell him the secret of the magical pixie steel.
The question was: what is justice?
Nethtari had entered the room halfway through the story, clothed in a simple white nightdress. She pointed at the baby in my arms and I trailed off, looking down to find Rin fast asleep, thumb planted firmly in his mouth. I snorted. Too much philosophy in that story, it seemed. Slowly and carefully, I returned him to his bassinet, taking care to cushion his head as I placed him down.
I followed Nethtari through the house and out the back door. The chill evening air of the Enclave sent a shiver down my spine. The artificial sun had dimmed to a pale white, a convincing facsimile of a crescent moon. Bits of mica and quartz in the dome caught the light in scattered reflections, almost passing for stars. Nethtari loaded a pipe with rinurian leaf and prepared to light it—She scoffed when I held mine up towards her, then rolled her eyes and lit it anyway.
“Kilvius would throw a fit,” Nethtari said.
“At you, or me?” I smirked. She scowled at the lighthearted blackmail. I shrugged, taking a long draw, quivering slightly as the sudden rush of energy came over me. It might have been somewhat psychologically addictive, but was nowhere near the level of rinurian. “It’s just vurseng.”
“Doubly so, then. Explains your comings and goings at all hours of the night.” Nethtari breathed in her pipe, sighing in sudden contentment. I prepared myself for another lecture, but it didn’t come.
“Thanks for helping with Rin,” Nethtari said, after a moment. “Sometimes I just don’t hear him. Not that I don’t want to. After a while the mind just blocks it out sometimes, especially at night. Scares me half to death.”
“It’s not nothing,” Nethtari insisted. “What are you working on tonight?”
Deciding it might be best to not announce my attention to hone my magic for the next few hours, I instead pulled a book out of my bag.
It covered the intermediate levels of demonic speech. In truth, it was relatively low on my list of priorities, but Maya had insisted it was important, as most demons were not as fluent in common as Kastramoth, and I would need it should I ever hope to bind a lesser demon. It was unlikely, but if the opportunity came along, I couldn’t let it pass me by.
Nethtari walked me through the basic verb conjugations of the demonic word for “call.” The main thing that consistently stumped me in demonic was the fact that there was no definitive grammar order. Rather, the order was determined by the varying cases of a noun. The diremoth slapped my grandma, and my grandma slapped the diremoth, could have the individual words ordered exactly the same way. Only the individual cases of the words changed the ordering.
Add into the mix that the cases differed based on gender of the noun in question, and there were four different genders, and it became linguistically complex all too quickly. Pile on the fact that demons were notorious for leveraging this language in intentionally deceitful and confusing ways, especially in contracts, and it was just nightmarish.
I finished drawing out the diagram for “Call,” feeling only slightly less confused than I had been when I started.
Nethtari reached over to close my notebook, drawing my attention. “Look. Kilvius and I have been talking, and we want to sponsor you for an emissary.”
I chewed on the mouth of my pipe, processing that. There was a tradition amongst the infernals. The children closest to entering the Sanctum were sent to a selection ceremony, where emissaries from the various demon legions would be in attendance, hoping to attain a writ of servitude and bind a demon to aid in their future journey. Simply having a demon to serve as a scout could lessen the danger of the sanctum significantly. But…
“Isn’t it expensive?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about the money.” Nethtari shrugged. “We had a decent chunk set aside for Maya already, but she doesn’t exactly need it now, does she?”
“What about Jorra and Rin?”
“Jorra’s already taken care of. And Rin…” Nethtari shrugged. “There’s more than ten years to save for that. And I’m sure whatever you happen to find in the sanctum will help.”
“I couldn’t possibly—“
Nethtari interrupted. “Cairn, when my daughter brought you home, I had my doubts. I thought you’d behave like a spoiled noble, make demands, and generally act like a brat. I was dreading it. The last thing I needed was another child to care for. But… you’re studious. And you pull your weight. You really do. Moreover, my daughter swore the oath, and I did not nullify it.”
“I didn’t want to be a burden.”
“And you succeeded. But know this. My household does not send its children into the wilds of the sanctum without every possible advantage. Learn to accept a gift when it is given.”
Overwhelmed and feeling a little sick, I said the only thing I could.
Nethtari spent some time telling me how it would work. The emissary selection was not unlike a major trade event. Some demons from higher-end legions were incredibly picky, some were less so. There were certain legions known to be trustworthy and cooperative, others to be avoided at all costs. Most important of all was the trophy. I’d need something to draw attention, to differentiate myself from the others. Jorra had been given a small fragment of a sword that once belonged to an arch-fiend, an heirloom passed down from Nethtari herself.
“What?” I asked, amused. “My royal blood won’t suffice as bait?”
Nethtari shook her head seriously. “Not unless you wish to bind yourself to a demon. Hopefully, I don’t have to tell you how bad that would be. No, all demons really care for is wealth, artifacts, and demonstrations of strength.”
I mulled over a few different ideas. It would not be terribly difficult to acquire wealth, but that would require leaning on my father—something I’d prefer to avoid at all costs, as I was already in his debt and his reasons for being so bizarrely cooperative were still unknown to me. I had no artifacts, and I wasn’t particularly strong. But there was one thing I could do that no one else in the enclave could.
“What about these asmodials, running around? Say I slay a couple of lesser asmodials and use the dantalion flame to seal them. Would their ashes work as a boon?”
Nethtari gave that some thought. “Perhaps. It would close some doors to you, but most demons are as annoyed with the asmodials as the rest of us, as their rebellion is severely interrupting the flow of things and generally giving the rest of them a bad name.”
The idea of demons being so invested in their reputations was endlessly amusing to me.
“However, it would be dangerous. I’m not sure you should be taking such risks. Having a boon won’t help you if you’re dead.”
I shrugged. “It’s just a thought.”
“It’d be worth broaching to Ralakos, at the very least. He might loan you a couple of guards for an expedition into the surface caves,” Nethtari said. She paused for a long moment. I could tell she was deciding whether or not to say something, the air between us growing oddly thick. “Cairn?” She finally asked. “What is my daughter to you?”
The sudden change of subject felt like an ambush. I coughed out a lungful of acrid smoke, wheezing until my breath normalized. Really, though, it was only normal that she would ask. We probably seemed abnormally close, to outside observers who didn’t share the full breadth of our history. But that was all, I was sure of it. The lingering looks, the odd pang in my chest, it was nothing more than simple adolescent growing pains.
“Maya is a dear friend to me. She saved my life. There’s very little I wouldn’t do for her,” I said, carefully.
“Spoken like a true politician. A friend, then.” Nethtari confirmed. There was a strange look in her eyes.
“Yes.” I extended out the word in exasperation. Why did people keep interrogating me on this topic? “There’s nothing wrong with her. She’s beautiful, and amazing, and incredibly smart. She’s important to me and I’ll do whatever I can, now and in the future to help her succeed. But I’m— there’s someone waiting for me back in Whitefall.”
“An arranged marriage?”
“More predestined, really. Part of my visions.”
“And Maya knows this?” Nethtari asked. Her voice was casual, but this was starting to feel more and more like an interrogation.
“Yes.” I took one final pull from my pipe, before it burned out.
“I see.” Nethtari’s questions finally relented, and she turned inwards in thought. I slung my rucksack over my shoulder and prepared to leave. Nethtari dumped the ash out of her pipe into a nearby tray.
“Don’t stay out too late,” Nethtari said. For just a moment, she looked terribly sad, though it passed just as quickly. “We’re heading to the edge to see her off, bright and early.”
“I won’t.” I waved without looking, and headed off towards the training cave, trying very hard not to think about the fact that by this time tomorrow night, Maya would be gone.