Nerani fans herself gently, lifting her twisted brown locks off of the back of her neck. The obstinate afternoon sun sizzles against the cobblestone underfoot. Something uneasy stirs within her and she feels, suddenly, as though she is being watched. Up ahead, the boy and his mother are long gone. She glances cautiously at her surroundings, feeling naked as she exposes her face to the passing crowd. The mass of Chancians that swells and ebbs around her moves with the practiced ease of habit. No one is looking at her. No one can be bothered to look at her. And yet she cannot shake the sensation that someone has seen her.
She continues to maneuver through the crowd, now only a few buildings away from the low, stone residence she and her cousins called home. The crowd thins, the conversation growing noticeably quieter as she approaches the row of crumbling grey buildings. Shafts of white light, speckled with silvery dust motes, pour languidly down through the gaps between the buildings. The heat of it tickles Nerani’s skin as she moves between sunbeams, keeping her eyes peeled. Gooseflesh prickles across her arms beneath the traveling cloak. She thinks again of Mamere’s warning.
Its eerie there—haunted, like. Gives me the shivers just to pass it by.
She stops at the third building on the street, unencumbered by throngs of bustling Chancians. Glancing around, she wishes for the cover of a crowd. It is easiest to go unnoticed, she finds, when she is just another face among many. Here, among the silent, empty buildings, she is out of place. A shiver runs down her spine and she fights the sudden urge to glance over her shoulder.
Was that a footfall she heard upon the stone, or is she imagining things?
She flexes her fingers, chiding herself for being so nervous, and stares up at the building—at her home. The melancholy quiet makes her uneasy. It feels like she is visiting a tomb.
It’s not home anymore, she thinks. It’s a graveyard.
The door has been left open—no doubt by ransacking guardians. Cool air, dark and undisturbed, spills out from the shadows within. She feels mild annoyance bristling under her skin as she ducks through the opening. The faint smell of wood rot reaches her nose as her damask gown sighs across the crumbling threshold.
It takes her eyes several moments to adjust to the gloom. The staircase, coated with threadbare carpeting, rises up just before her. She starts up the steps, her fingertips tracing a trail in the dust that has settled upon the wooden railing. The stairs are old and weathered. They groan beneath her weight as she climbs to the second floor.
She comes to an abrupt stop at the first landing. Behind her, the stairs curve away into obscurity. There was something there—a sound—a slow creaking noise that echoed the cadence of her boots upon the faded velvet rug. She cranes her ears to listen but hears only the distant clip-clop-clip of a horse plodding by somewhere beyond the walls. Another shiver crawls down her spine, lingering in her stomach and putting down roots.
Mamere told her that the guardians patrol this area, and yet the building is empty. She is certain of it. No sounds come from above or below—no voices echo out from behind the closed doors of the apartments. She is completely alone.
She continues to walk, listening closely for any noise over the sound of her own footfalls. There are none.
She stops at the third door on the left, breathing a slow sigh of relief at the familiar feel the cool, sticking doorknob beneath the palm of her hand. Ever unlocked, the old wooden door creaks open with a groan. She slips inside, letting the door slide closed behind her. For a moment, she stands frozen in the wash of muted light that falls in through the soiled windowpanes. The contents of the apartment are swathed in shadow beyond the reach of the sun. Moving forward into the open expanse, she heads for the old armoire that sits askew at one end of the room.
Prying it open takes some work. In their absence, a leak has formed in the cracked ceiling overhead. The white plaster—browned and bulging with a belly full of rainwater—allows the occasional droplet to plop, plop, plop down onto the unfortunate wooden piece below. The door to the old thing is warped and rotting. She tugs at it for a few strenuous moments, gasping victoriously as the door finally gives away with a relenting sigh.
A sickly sweet fragrance wafts out of the opening and she finds herself staring at a stranger. The blue eyes, bright and fierce, are lined with a hostility foreign to Nerani. The pale white face is drawn and thin—the full lips are pressed together in a wary line. So different is this face from the face of the demure young woman that left here only months ago that it takes Nerani a moment to realize she is staring into her own reflection in the dirty, full-length mirror adhered to the inside of the door. She exhales deeply, blowing a stray lock of hair out of her face, and leans down to rustle through the armoire.
Her irritation comes back with a boiling vengeance as she realizes she is not the first person to go through the closet. The shelves have been properly overturned, with the contents strewn carelessly about the bottom. She huffs in annoyance, gathering things within her arms and placing them frantically back where they belong. There is a sharp prick of heat in her hand and she drops the things she is holding with a quiet yelp. Drawing her hand to her lips, she sucks several droplets of blood out of a small cut on the tip of her finger. She glares down into the shadowy interior, anger flaring through her. Several perfume bottles lie shattered across the floor, disgorging that sickly sweet odor into the air. Only one glass vial lies unbroken in the mess, the curves of the rounded flute catching in the sparse sunlight that trickles in between the rusted bronze hinges.
My mother’s, she thinks, feeling a wave of sadness wash over her. She bends down, scooping the unbroken bottle delicately into her hand. The glass is cool and familiar within her palm. She pulls out the tiny cork, allowing her eyes to drift closed as she brings the vial beneath her nose. She is met with the soft scent of lavender. A wave of memories come rushing over her, followed closely behind by the salty threat of tears. Nerani replaces the cork with trembling fingers.
Now is not the time for ghosts, she reminds herself.
She rises slowly, sliding the vial into her cloak. When she straightens, the reflection in the mirror is golden.
Her hand flies unbidden to her throat as she lets out a strangled cry. Her blue eyes stare into the looking glass as she meets the dark gaze of none other than General James Byron. He stands at attention, his shoulders perfectly framed within the crumbling doorway. His jaw is locked as he watches her in silence, unblinking. His lips twist into a contemplative frown.
“You shouldn’t be here,” the reflection mouths. His voice, low and dangerous, emanates from over her shoulder. She turns slowly upon the heel of her boot, raising her chin in a mild show of defiance as she faces him. Her gaze finds his across the vague shadows of the room and her stomach twists itself into a knot. Unencumbered by the distorted reflection of the rusting mirror, his golden uniform appears ever more imposing against the curling white paint of the distressed doorway. His handsome face is bronzed from the sun, as though he has recently spent a great deal of time out of doors. He studies her in measured silence, taking care to keep his expression guarded.
“This is my home,” she says, disappointed to hear her voice wavering at the edge of her lips. She had meant to sound confident—fearless. Instead, she watches as her words fall flat between them.
The shake of his head is barely discernible in the dusky ambiguity of the afternoon. The muscles in his jaw tighten.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he repeats.