Chapter 22: Shahin
I know I can stop the pain, If I will it all away

Shahin took extra time with her appearance Saturday morning, which meant that, because Yngvi had no patience with her clothes-horse habits and Emrys had threatened to show up as well, she woke early, showered before the sun would be rising four stories above her head, and began working on the layers of her costume – for, today, it was an outfit designed for a specific intent – and the careful painting of her face.

By the time Aelgifu showed up, she had everything ready except the last touches of her hair and her boots. “It’s dark as midnight out there," Ayla said as she came in, and then stopped dead. She looked Shahin up and down, whistling softly. “You look… impressive,” she said. “Can I help with anything?” As she asked, she was taking the curling iron from Shahin’s hand. “Here, I can get the back of your hair better than you can.”

Her disbelief must have shown on her face – Ayla was lovely, but she hadn’t shown much interest in fancy dressing – because her friend giggled softly. “Just because I don’t like the games doesn’t mean I don’t know how to play them,” she chided softly, as she twisted Shahin’s hair around the iron adroitly. “I’ll have you know I was Prom Queen last year.”

“Should have gone for Prom King,” Shahin teased lightly, and was rewarded by a faint blush across Ayla’s cheeks. “Do I really look impressive enough?”

“You look like the Victorian Era’s sexiest widow,” Ayla teased back, and Shahin couldn’t help a little blush of her own. “But, really, Sheen, what’s your goal with this? I thought you’d decided no-one here cared that much about your ‘sable;’ they’re too busy being creepy and monstrous on their own.”

“Ioanna’s not monstrous,” she answered mildly, not certain enough of Emrys status to use him as her argument. Besides, it got such pretty blushes out of Ayla.

“You know what I meant,” she countered. “Why dress for Saturday lunch like you’re going to a funeral?”

Because she was at her most comfortable in clothes like this, knowing exactly why people were staring at her (if they did). “Because it’s easier to play the role if you’re dressed for it.”

“Role?” In the mirror, Shahin could see her expression – that blank look she got when she didn’t understand what was going on in her friend’s mind – and it hurt. She sighed and tried to explain.

“They want to scare us, right? That’s what Emrys said, that they want to creep us out. So really, to win this game, we have to be as un-creeped as possible. Not run, not squeak, not give their silly show the honor of acknowledging we even notice it. Move through their scene entirely unaffected.”

“Do you really think that’s possible?” Ayla asked dubiously, even as she pinned the last of the curls on top of Shahin’s head.

“More than possible. I think it’s probable.” She smirked lightly at her friend’s reflection in the mirror. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s keeping up appearances.”

“But why not just… you know, be scared? I mean, you’ve seen some of those peoples, Sheen. They’re not exactly the most friendly-looking types. They’re not human.”

She shivered softly. “That’s a dangerous road to go down. ‘Not human’ is just the next step after ‘not like us,’ and it leads to persecution and murder justified as culling herds.” She knew she’d gone too far the minute it slipped out of her mouth, but there was no easy way to take it back, even as Ayla’s expression darkened.

“I don’t think that was called for,” she said stiffly. “But humans don’t have wings, Shahin.”

She bit her lip, not wanting to carry this argument on any further, and was saved from retorting by a knock at the door. Still bootless, she answered the door, relieved to find it Yngvi.

Like Aelgifu, he hadn’t taken any special care with his outfit today, and looked his normal well-pressed self in a cornflower-blue polo shirt and khakis. He looked her over with a surprisingly critical eye, taking in the low-cut black dress, buttoned over a snugly corseted waist and swooping to the floor in an elegant line of velvet and silk taffeta.

“You look nice,” he said, though it sounded a little grudging. “I hope this isn’t all for Emrys.” His dour look at Emrys’ name made her duck her head, embarrassed, as if caught doing something naughty by her non-existent father.

“It isn’t all for Emrys… Dad,” she retorted, contorting as elegantly as possible to lace her boots on. “But I’m glad you like it.”

“You put on a very nice show,” he admitted, still sounding sour about the whole thing. “I don’t really understand why you like putting on this kind of show, but as long as you’re not just showing off for him, I can’t really complain.”

She looked up at him, looking so serious. “What is it that you object to about Emrys, anyway?” she asked. She tried to make her voice sound curious and not defensive, but from his responding frown, she wasn’t sure how well she’d succeeded.

“I know guys like him,” he replied, so very seriously that she stopped fiddling with her bootlaces to pay better attention. “They’ll do whatever they need to, say whatever they need to, to get what it is they want, and then they’ll be gone. Users.”

She frowned back at him. “I know users,” she said, matching his tone. “The trick is to use them as much as they’re using you.”

“Sounds sketchy,” he answered, his voice still thick with disapproval, but she was saved from either explaining herself or arguing with him for the second time that morning by a knock on the door.

“I like sketching,” she answered blandly, and opened the door.

Emrys stood framed against a dim red glow, dressed in his normal leather and denim, his eyes glowing more brightly red than normal. He raked his eyes over her, settling at the hollow of her throat, which she’d left bare of adornment. “Good,” he said. He leaned against her door frame insouciantly, his white teeth and pale skin almost glowing. “Ready to go?”

She studied her hand coyly, straightening the little black gloves, and brushed her bodice free of non-existent lint. “If you’re in a hurry, I suppose.”

“Just looking forward to the show.”

“I’ll have to be sure it’s a good one then. Vee? Ayla?” She looked at her friends, praying that they would not decide to continue their arguments now. She wanted to be able to concentrate properly on the face she was portraying.

“Ready for the dangerous trek to breakfast,” Yngvi replied dryly. Ayla said nothing, but nodded in agreement, looking more than a little nervous.

Shahin nodded curtly at both of them, with the edge of a reassuring smile for Aelgifu, and turned the full force of her affected boredom on Emrys. “Lead on, then,” she suggested.

“After you, milady,” he replied, just as dryly, and gestured her forward, so she proceeded forward at a stately pace, as if it had been her own idea, hoping her friends would forgive her leaving them to follow behind like a golden retinue. And they did follow her, leaving Emrys stalking along at the back.

The halls were, indeed, dark, odd noises echoing through them, seeming to bounce strangely in halls that normally seemed sound-dampened. Some of the noises were humans sounds – screams, laughs, an occasional whimper – but some were more animal sounding, including echoes of a lion’s roar. Shahin kept walking, her steps deliberate and calm, her expression bored.

The floor buckled and warped under their feet, while soft skittering sounds rushed and crawled across the ceiling above them. The floor lights climbed the walls in bloody trails, and a slow, thick fluid dripped down the back of her neck. Remembering the illusions at the dance, Shahin kept walking, her boot-steps silent and steady on the thick carpet, even when it felt more like sucking, squelching mud grabbing at her feet. She heard Aelgifu whimper behind her; she heard Yngvi soothe her softly. She neither turned nor stopped. She couldn’t afford to.

Anatoliy lumbered out in front of them, taller and wider than the last time she’d seen him, wearing a horrible scowl. For him, she smiled, sweetly if not warmly, and offered a cheerfully bright “Good morning!”

He looked more startled than anything, and smiled wanly at her. “Good morning,” he replied, and stepped aside to let them pass.

They passed, the hallway quiet here. Ten feet ahead, she stepped into a intersection of halls, and the world went black and cold. She kept walking. It was different, running the gauntlet with friends along. She didn’t know how to share her practiced unflappability with them, so she had to just soldier on, and hope they’d be okay.

And Emrys. She’d given some consideration to the idea that this was all somehow his plan, an elaborate scheme to gain the upper hand, but she didn’t think that sort of machination was really his style, nor did she think he’d be able to pull off all of this with only Anatoliy (and, one assumed, Dysmas and Agatha) to help.

They passed a demon, the DJ, threatening a boy Shahin recognized from her Biology class, Finnegan, a pale, skinny boy seeming more ghost than human most days. The DJ had a knife to his neck, had him pulled up against the wall; the boy was frozen in apparent terror.

Shahin’s steps faltered. That knife was long enough to qualify as a shortsword, and it gleamed wickedly. A thin line of blood was already trickling down the hollow of Finnegan’s throat. Was this part of the show? And if it wasn’t, would anyone interfere?

Seemingly out of nowhere, a woman stepped. She was all over sharp edges, her shirt and pants tight, her boots stilettos with pointed toes, four blades hung on her spiked belt, and an edgy, hard quality to her limbs under their slick layer of clothing, “Hey, now, Ib,” she said lazily, “that one’s mine. Go cut your own if you need to see blood.”

Shahin listened, forcing herself to watch it like a not-particularly-interesting stage show, not allowing her hands to creep inside her sleeves. Not here, not now.

“Does he know he’s yours, Allyse?” the demon asked, in a voice like chewing gravel. But he sheathed the knife as he asked, and Finnegan stumbled forward a step.

“He will,” the girl answered, “given time.” She stepped forward, resting a hand possessively on the boy’s hip, and he looked at her, wan and bleeding, with a look somewhere between gratitude and resentment: is this the frying pan, or the fire?

The show over, the victim “rescued,” Shahin moved on, wondering how she felt about it. “Is that what you were talking about?” she asked Emrys, when they’d moved a suitable distance down the hall, dripping disdain. “Bullying?”

“Among other things,” he answered, although now he sounded amused. “Behind you,” he warned in a voice as lazy as hers.

She glanced behind her – she’d stopped in front of a doorway, not the brightest move – and saw only a flash of someone, topless, albino, his skin the colour of old chalk, his pants the red of fresh blood. Even his eyes and his pierced nipples were white, as, she presumed, was the hand he’d grabbed her with, which was tangled deep in her carefully-coifed hair, tugging her head backwards. The other arm, the one grabbing her around the corseted ribcage, certainly was, sickly, corpselike, and very very white. But strong, pressing the steel bones of the corset into her skin.

“That hairdo took a long time,” she told him, sounding blandly irritated, “and you’ve messed it all up.” It gave her time to peel off a glove – the long sleeves of her widow’s weeds would still cover her wrists – and rest her hand on his forearm.

The images came to her in a flood, a mess of blood and violence, of death and near-death and painful oblivion, a splash of red and brown over white skin and golden grain.

“Interesting.” The images moved not only forwards, as they had before she came to Addergoole, but into the past. She grabbed the closest, and let a note of glee creep into her voice, hoping she wouldn’t alienate Alya and Vee entirely. Hoping Emrys was enjoying the show. She’d worry about the implications of what she was seeing later. “You’ve died before, haven’t you?”

“What?” In surprise, his grip on her loosened, but she didn’t move yet. She wasn’t done with him yet.

“Mmm. Yes, maybe fifty years ago.” The clothing in the images she’d seen had that post-World-War-II-era feel to it. “In a field at the end of a gravel road, where no-one who cared could hear your cries. Of course,” she added with sweet poison, “no one cared, did they? They called you a monster, laid crimes at your door that were not yours, and they ripped you apart. With hooks and with pitchforks, they pulled out your entrails and left them strewn across the field.” Her voice dripped with it, the viscera of his death. “You still dream of it, don’t you?”

His hands had fallen limp at his sides; she turned to smile at him, trailing her bare fingers down his arm. “And you know the worst thing? All that pain in your nightmares? It was nothing compared to what you’re going to go through… oh, tomorrow.” She pulled her glove back on, deliberately turning her back on him. “Have a nice day.”


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