The next two days were a haze. Every attempt he made at working failed, resulting in either fumbled results or hours spent distracted by the gleam of a brass flask holder or the hue of a solution. Seffa did not return. He realized, at some point, that he was waiting for her. That all progress had ceased until she came back, at which point he might breathe again.
He didn’t know what this meant for him. Even the immediate future, so clear only days before, was now clouded by a turn of events he truly hadn’t anticipated.
For Key, the ability of others to intrude upon and affect his inner world was consistently astounding. Everything made sense—each part of his plan, however tentative, followed a logical pattern that he had laid out with great thought—until she said no. Until she reacted unpredictably. What made it worse was the knowledge that another person might have seen this particular turn of events as an eventuality. His failure to understand other people felt like an aching hole inside of him. He regretted it, if only because of Seffa. He could have gone on indefinitely, never connecting with or knowing another human being, until she appeared and crept past the ingrained defenses and firebreaks that protected his soul.
Seffa unlocked something inside of him that he’d thought inaccessible, even to himself, and it made him scared and, at times like these, overpowered by a rage that he did not know how to control. He could lock it away, but never snuff it out: it smoldered like a banked coal somewhere beneath his heart.
* * *
She returned two days later. Key, despite wishing and waiting for just this moment, found that he was not ready to face her.
He’d spent the greater part of the two days puttering about the cistern, occasionally reading or fiddling with a piece of equipment but mostly moping, depressed and anxious. He had resigned himself to the idea that she was not coming back, only to reassure himself in the same thought that of course she was coming back, and he must be ready to make his case. This cycle repeated, over and over, with few variations, until he had started quite literally pulling his hair out, plucking them one at a time and examining their ends. He started to find relief in the production of a complete follicle, and more anxiety if the hair broke off above the skin. By the time she walked through the western entrance he’d denuded all of one forearm and a small but growing patch behind his left ear.
She startled him, of course. The soft scrape of her shoe on the stone basin blended into the noise of his surroundings in the cistern lab, as did the polite clearing of her throat: all ambient details of a world Key had left behind over a day ago.
When he did look up he focused on her face, pale, contrite, her hands clasped behind her back. She wore different clothing: a cleaner frock, and sturdy shoes. Her hair was tied up in a neat bun. She looked older than he’d ever seen her. Washed and properly clothed, Key couldn’t help but notice the perfection of her skin, the slight dimple at the juncture of her collarbones, the soft curve of her jaw beneath the soft pile of hair.
“Key,” she said, not for the first time. How long had she been there?
“Seffa,” said Key. After a moment he stood up, willing his hand to stop plucking at his hairline. He even dusted off his trousers, a useless gesture given the state of his clothes.
“You look terrible.”
“How long has it been since you’ve eaten anything?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” he answered honestly. After he’d finished the lab’s meager stores he’d begun to worry, begun to pluck, and time had stopped passing normally. The hollow in his stomach told him it had been two days.
“You should go home, Key,” said Seffa, her hands still behind her back, her eyes steady with concern and something else—Key wished he could read people better.
“I told you,” he said, content to repeat his reasoning for her. It could only help. “I can’t go home. I won’t. I’ve made my choice. My future is elsewhere. Out there.” He gestured vaguely at the sewer wall, toward the south, roughly in the direction of the Inner Sea and the elusive freedom he imagined beyond its calm waters.
“I’ve decided we shouldn’t wait,” he said, taking a step toward her. She hadn’t ascended the platform, but stood on the floor of the large basin, only steps from where she’d entered. “It’s too dangerous. We need to take our chances. We—”
“There is no ‘we’, Keynish,” said Seffa. “I can’t go with you. I’ve told you that.”
“I know you’re scared,” said Key. “I’m scared too. If it’s your parents…”
“It isn’t my parents,” she said, sighing. “I mean, it is, but it’s not just them. I’ve told them about you, Key. Told them everything.”
“What? But they’ll—”
“They’ll do nothing, because there’s nothing for them to do. I won’t be going with you. Not because I can’t get away—” She paused, looking away in thought before finishing her sentence. “Because I don’t want to.”
Her words hung in the damp air like corpse stink. Dead things, dead like the feeling inside him.
She seemed about to say more, but stopped herself, shaking her head.
“There’s just so much more to this—you’re special, Key, but—”
“I loved you.” He spoke the words like an incantation, half regret and half intention.
“No you didn’t,” she said. “You couldn’t. We don’t always—”
“What?” he barked, anger escaping him.
“See the same world,” she finished. “Sometimes I think we’re looking with different eyes entirely, Key. You were a good friend, but I have to go now. I can’t come back here. I don’t want to.”
He seethed, the rage in him mingling with dread and a crushing sense of doom that he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around. This couldn’t be all of it. There was something he was missing, some vital part to the puzzle that would make the other pieces fit together in a logical way. It was like dissection: he merely had to look closer, cut more carefully, section with greater precision. With an effort of will that surprised him, Key wrangled his anger and hurt and frustration under control, tamping it back down into the place where he kept it. He walked to the edge of the platform and jumped down, holding a palm up to ease her nerves when she took a hesitant step backward.
“Tell me the rest of it,” he said. He stood simply before her, his arms at his sides. He stood straight and tall, the way he imagined a man would. “Tell me who’s making you do this.”
Seffa squinted at him, an expression Key decided to take as worry. “Don’t be afraid. You can tell me. Your parents, is it? Did they make you come say this?”
It occurred to him suddenly that perhaps they were listening to the conversation; he imagined hiding, backs against the walls to either side of the cistern entrance, silently nodding as their daughter hit the beats of the performance they’d prepared for her. No wonder Seffa was scared. She was being coerced. They’d put her in an untenable situation that she had no power to control. He nodded to himself.
“It’s all right,” he said. “I understand.” She still hadn’t answered him. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “Just do as I say. Come to me.” Held out his hand, his mind working furiously. There were several ways in and out of the cistern, but which to choose? What if her parents had help? What if it wasn’t her parents themselves at all, but hired guards? Or constables, come to seize him and take him away to a labor camp? He held his arm steady, trying his best to convey confidence to Seffa.
“Come to me,” he repeated, almost mouthing the words.
“Key, you don’t understand,” she said.
“I do,” he said, stepping forward so she could hear him. “Better than you know. Come to me now, Seffa. I will fix this. I’ll fix all of it.”
She shook her head. “No. Listen to me.”
“You listen,” he interrupted, his voice rising. “Come now. Take my hand. We don’t have any time.”
“What are you talking about?” Seffa asked, squinting again. Her confusion as obvious this time.
“I can get us away, Seffa,” he pleaded. “If you come with me now, I can save us. I can…I can protect you. You don’t have to fear them anymore. You just have to trust me. Now give me your hand.” He considered grabbing her, but if they were listening then he would need her cooperation to get away in time.
“No, Key,” she said.
“Seffa,” he said, and growled. Acting on impulse, he grabbed her by the wrist, hoping against hope that she would seize the opportunity and run along side him.
Instead she shrieked, screaming in surprise.
“Key, you’re hurting me!”
“We have to go!”
He whirled, tugging her along behind him like a reluctant dog on a leash. There was the east entrance, but that was too easy to find. The south, then. He dashed across the basin of the cistern, Seffa fighting him the whole way. Never had he been more sure of anything than he was at that moment, and his grip was strong. When they reached the southern lip of the basin, he took her by her small waist and heaved her atop it, scrambling up himself in ample time to take her by the arm again.
The darkness of the southern archway loomed, and he turned to look behind them at their pursuers, throwing his other arm around Seffa to comfort her. She wriggled in his embrace, and Key was about to comfort her when he stopped, realizing that no one had entered the chamber. The western entrance was as empty as they had left it.
“Key!” Seffa yelled, and he clapped a hand over her mouth. She didn’t understand any of this now, but he did. He’d make her understand. He’d explain it all. But where were they? How—he swore in surprise as Seffa growled and bit down on his hand, hard. In his shock he let her go, transfixed by the blood welling in his palm. She’d taken a piece of flesh out of the web of his thumb and forefinger. He looked at her in a daze.
“Keynish,” said another voice, not Seffa’s. He turned back to the archway, his father looming out of it like a figure from his nightmares. “That will be enough.”
Valkin Helg backhanded his son across the face with a fist, and Key’s world spiraled from upside down to flat black.
* * *
He woke slowly, over the course of what felt like hours. For a long time he lay motionless, eyes only cracked, the dim light of his surroundings a blur that refused to resolve. His mind felt similar, and he couldn’t tell if he was simply that tired or if Valkin had drugged him.
After an eternity of hazy half-sleep during which he felt surreally trapped in his own, powerless body, Key managed to open his eyes fully and shift his body slightly. He could feel now that he was in a bed, and after a few moments of blinking, the ceiling of his own bedroom resolved above him. He pushed himself up with a groan, squeezing his temples, suddenly certain from the pounding in his head that his father had dosed him with something. The dryness of his mouth and the faint flutter of his heart suggested laudanum, which made sense. It was what he would have used. And Valkin had been known to partake of the drug occasionally.
He looked down at himself, surprised to find that he been dressed in his nightclothes. He felt clean, as if he’d been washed. Certainly Valkin hadn’t…no. The servants, then. He felt almost new, other than the ache in his head. Then he touched his face, and remembered the blurry mass of his father’s fist dashing him to the stone floor of the cistern.
He swallowed painfully; the left side of his face was a tender mass that hurt even when touched gently. He couldn’t open his jaw all the way, he realized; when he tried, he heard a disturbing click and a spike of pain shot into his head, exacerbating the laudanum headache. Grimacing with pain, Key sank back into his bed, the doom of what had happened in his hidden lab blossoming back into reality. Unable to do anything else, he closed his eyes and fell asleep again.
The next time he woke the unmistakable light of early morning filtered in through his window. He eased himself into a sitting position, finding that it was far easier to do than it had been—when? The night before? Two nights ago? He had no concept of how long he had been unconscious. Given the laudanum, it might well have been days. He fumbled at his bedside and found a pitcher of water, which he drank out of greedily.
The house was strangely quiet, and after wrapping himself in a robe he eased open his bedroom door, intent on assessing the situation before inserting himself into it. His face was still too tender and his head too muddled to do any serious thinking, which came as a relief. There were too many thoughts he would rather not have. The only thing that concerned him at the moment was the whereabouts of his father, and what horrible things might have transpired while he slept.
He opened his door just as a serving girl he didn’t recognize was coming down the hall. She stopped, looked at him oddly, then approached, folding her hands primly.
“Master Helg,” she said. “If you’re awake, it’s my understanding your father would like to see you at once.”
Key squinted at her, confused, his face an unwitting mirror of Seffa’s in the cistern. He banished the thought with a flash of anger.
“What…where is he?” he asked, his voice a dry croak.
“In his study, sir,” said the girl. She nodded and walked past him, continuing on her way without so much as introducing herself. There was something odd about her, a bearing he wasn’t accustomed to in servants. He coughed, clearing stale phlegm from his throat. Probably he was still confused, his brain still withdrawing from the laudanum.
Key considered dressing, but decided that he didn’t care what his father thought. The man had obviously decided not to simply kill him, a possibility Key had considered, but this strange civility—leaving him in his bed, having washed and dressed—was in some way even worse. Valkin was playing with him, Key knew—he knew his father well enough to realize that any outward show of compassion would undoubtedly be a ruse.
So he left his bedroom and walked along the corridor to the doors of Valkin’s study, pushing them open without knocking.
His father sat behind the large desk at the center of the room reading a newspaper, a cup of coffee at his side. He finished whatever he had been reading before looking up.
“Sit down,” he said simply. Key felt the urge to disobey, if only to show him he couldn’t be controlled, but he knew it would be childish gesture. Gritting his teeth, he sat down in one of the armchairs before his father’s desk and folded his hands in silence, waiting, telling himself he was prepared for whatever cruelty his father had prepared for him.
“You may find this hard to believe,” Valkin began, “but I tried to do this as…humanely as possible. Marika’s sake.” Key lowered his eyes at his mother’s name, torn between shame and a desire to punch Valkin in the face for saying it. The man had never done anything for her sake. “You’ve made that impossible.”
His father spoke the words as if they were nothing to him. His tone was flat and bland. He might have been discussing the weather.
“Marika isn’t here to see any of this, thankfully, and the living do not serve the dead in any case. One way is as good as another, as far as I’m concerned.” Valkin leaned back in his chair and considered his only son. Thankfully? Key thought to himself. How dare you.
“A way to do what?” Key asked the question, because he could tell Valkin expected it of him. It was part of the man’s idea of education: Key was a mute receptacle, there only to absorb what information Valkin chose to provide and occasionally chime in with a responsorial to show that he was listening.
“I will not allow you to disgrace my name,” said Valkin. “And as you are the only son I have at the moment, I am forced to make something of you whether you will it or no. To that end, you’ll find that my patience is at an end with your childish games.”
He got up and walked to a sideboard, where he poured himself a glass of brandy and drank deeply. When he returned to his desk, he sat down heavily and removed a sealed envelope from a letter box. Handing it across the desktop, he sat back again, swirling the amber fluid in his glass idly.
Key took the envelope hesitantly, the creamy vellum heavy and impressive in his hands. His father’s personal seal was on the back, stamped into red wax. He turned it around, and saw that it was not, as he might have expected, addressed to him.
“Master Berger Haymel, Helg Manufactory, the Forge,” Key read aloud. His father narrowed his eyes and smiled slightly, a sardonic expression that scared Key more than violence could have.
“What is this?” he asked, knowing again that his father expected it of him. Valkin would not simply tell him what was going to happen, not at this point. He wanted his son to participate, to play his part, so that he could draw from it whatever vile satisfaction sustained him.
“A letter of introduction, and working papers,” his father explained, sipping at his brandy. “Haymel has worked for me for years. He runs my textile plant at the south end of the Forge. He’s expecting you.”
Valkin set his glass down on the desk with a click. “You start tomorrow, at seven of the clock.”
“You still think I’m going to work for you?” asked Key. “Why?” It boggled him. Valkin was so sure of himself, so confident that he could control everyone around him. “What makes you think I won’t just leave again, as soon as I have the chance?” Key knew that taunting him like this was a bad idea, but he was tired of sneaking around.
“You have the chance right now,” said Valkin. “There’s the door. You’re a man now, or so you claim. Men determine their own fate. I should have seen earlier that you must be given the choice.”
Key looked down at the letter, mystified. Was his father saying…what he thought he was saying? Had he actually come to his senses? His fingers curled around the envelope, and he licked his dry lips. His swollen cheek twinged with pain. No. This is a trick.
“And if I leave?” he asked quietly.
“If you leave,” said Valkin, “you will be on your own. You forfeit your inheritance, obviously. But the first lesson in being a man is that every choice you make has consequences. You can out the door right now, today, and I won’t follow you. Disappear back into the sewers, play with your toys. See if I care. Or live a vagabond’s life along the Inner Coast—isn’t that what you were offering the girl?”
Key looked up sharply when his father mentioned Seffa. He’d brought her up for a reason. Valkin Helg did nothing thoughtlessly. His father was smiling outright, now, a jaded glee in his eyes.
“I listened to your offer. She wasn’t biting—oh, excuse me, a poor choice of words.” Key flexed his bitten hand, which had been bound in linen, setting his teeth against the pain. “She wasn’t taking the bait, was she? It doesn’t feel good to be rejected, does it, Keynish?”
“What do you want? What are you saying?”
“Walk out that door anytime you wish. But know that for any harm you bring upon this house, I will visit upon those you love. The girl is nothing to me, Keynish. She seems to be something to you.” Valkin stood up suddenly, standing behind his chair and looking out the window down Kammerend Boulevard. The bustle of morning traffic could be heard below, distant clopping hooves and rattling carriages ferrying the wealthy to their daily appointments.
“It pains me to say it, but I must have an heir. I will not see the assets I’ve worked so hard and so long to build escheat to the city. Leave, if you will, but leave with the knowledge that you have injured me, and injured this estate. Injury merits retribution.”
Key was breathing heavily, almost panting. His hands had curled around the carved, padded arms of his chair. His nails, which were in need of a clipping, dug into the polished wood until they hurt.
Valkin clasped his hands behind his back, a slim silhouette in the morning sunslight coming through the windows.
“Am I making myself clear, my son?” he asked. His head turned over his shoulder, his lips twisted in a sneer. “Do as I say, or I’ll take your penance out of that little whore.”
Key was out of his chair and around the desk before his heart beat twice, intent on wrapping his fingers around his father’s throat and squeezing until he felt the life flow out of him.
Valkin was ready for him, of course, being practiced with threats and the varied responses of the threatened, and Key was only twelve. Valkin was not a large man, but he possessed a wiry strength that belied his aristocratic frame.
His father whirled just as Key reached him, and wrapped one of his own hands around Key’s throat, in eerie mimicry of Key’s fantasy. He squeezed, cutting off the rush of blood that had flooded Key’s head, and looked down at his son placidly. A slight curl of his upper lip betrayed disgust—not for the attack, Key thought, struggling to breathe, but for his son’s failure to execute it.
“You are nothing without me,” said Valkin. Father and son shared a long look, Key’s feet kicking helplessly, almost off the ground beneath his father’s grip, and then Valkin backhanded him again, sending him sprawling onto the floor. Key screamed silently, his face a rictus. The pain, inside and out, was too much to bear. He breathed bubbles of his own blood and in its copper tang found a beaten calm that belied the rage that churned in his stomach.
Suddenly the fight went out of him. The bite wound on his hand pulsed in time with the new agony to his face. He was left, face pressed painfully against the carpet, thinking of the look of disgust and anger on Seffa’s face when he tried to drag her away.
He got his breathing out of control and closed his eyes.
“Yes, father,” he said.