Most people believe the best way to forget someone is to throw them down a well. Or lock them in a room with eight keys, or bury them at a crossroad in the thirteenth hour. But they’re wrong. The best way to forget someone is for them never to have existed in the first place.
Madame Marisol’s Unreality House was where you brought people to make that happen.
It was a harsh October evening when the strange young man showed up at Madame Marisol’s door. This wouldn’t have been strange in itself except that no one ever made the journey across the Whispering Plains after dark; and yet here he was, standing on her front landing with the nerve to drip on her welcome mat.
He was so tall that the top of his hat was cut off from her view as she peered through the peephole, while a blue woollen greatcoat swathed the rest of him, and so she was no better off at guessing his identity or purpose than she had been when his knock had first disturbed her.
The rain fell in diagonal sheets, splattering against the weathered timber of the House and half-soaking the stranger every time a vindictive flurry of wind found its way underneath the veranda.
Madame Marisol pulled back from the peephole and calmly reached for the loaded musket she kept propped up in the umbrella stand. Then, with equal poise, she put down the book she’d been reading to the occupants of the Unreality House, opened the door a crack, and aimed the musket at the strange young gentleman’s face.
‘You have sixty seconds, sir,’ she said, cocking the gun, ‘before you no longer have a head. Use them wisely.’
He took a step backwards, tilted his head to the side as though formulating the fastest way off her veranda, and raised a sodden arm in feeble defence. ‘You can’t be serious. I’m Lord of the Fifth Quarter, you know.’
‘And I’m the Lady Fortuna,’ she remarked, taking in the bare patches on his greatcoat. The Fifth Quarter. He might as well have said he was from north of the Seething Sea – both places were equally imaginary. ‘Did Sterling send you?’
The hat he wore quivered in what could have been a laugh. ‘Last I heard, he was chasing up recruits out in the provinces. Besides, do I look like a daybreaker to you?’
His sass didn’t impress her. Time was, someone who answered back to her in such a manner would find themselves seated in one of the deceptively innocent chairs in her drawing room – the one with the really big spike in the unfortunate position and the lovebird cushions – to be tested on The Little Blue Book of Basic Etiquette, and Days help them if they got an answer wrong. ‘Just for that,’ she said, ‘you’ve got ten seconds left.’
He looked from her face to the musket held steadily in her hands and then back again, and she could almost see the thoughts humming away in his head. Just how good is she with that musket? Could I make a dash for it? She met his eyes, silently daring him to try as her finger twitched against the trigger. The furthest anyone had gotten was the lightning-struck tree by the gate. That gentleman’s false teeth were still embedded in the bark. ‘You could be taking this time to compose some suitable last words, dearie. I’ve heard some corkers.’
‘No doubt.’ Despite her hopes, he paused for another second, and finally drew off his hat in a swift movement, revealing mismatched eyes of blue and brown, a strong brow, and white teeth set into his dark face in a conciliatory grin. ‘There. And may I say what a pleasure it is to meet such a beautiful hostess.’ He bowed, and then paused as though waiting for her reaction. She stubbornly refused to give him the satisfaction. With his wide-brimmed hat swept up just so, revealing his close-cropped hair, the greatcoat falling open at the chest to show just a hint of an embroidered waistcoat, and his handsome face smiling up at her, it was true that he cut a fine figure. But the entire effect reminded Madame Marisol of men she had seen in her youth, waiting in alleyways with cards or dice or cups-and-shells.
‘Oh, don’t try your tricks on me,’ she told him. ‘I’m too old to be charmed by the likes of you. What is your name, daybreaker?’ To his credit, the only hint of his disappointment was a slight twitching in one of his little fingers. ‘My name is Quintalion,’ he said. ‘And though I may own to being cunning, self-absorbed and rather too loose with the truth for some people’s comfort, I can’t yet add “murdering zealot” to my list of vices.’
She settled the musket into a more comfortable position against her shoulder and squinted at him. ‘How do I know that? Just because you say you’re not and you’ve got a nice smile? Daybreakers have teeth too, you know.’
‘True,’ he conceded, ‘but I doubt they have this.’ He reached into the innermost recesses of his coat and pulled out a piece of parchment, little larger than a calling card, which he held out to her between two fingers. His greatcoat had protected against the worst of the weather, but segments of the card were still damp, the green ink blotched and running.
‘Days preserve me,’ Madame Marisol said in the most sarcastic voice she could muster. ‘A piece of paper. Welcome to my humble abode, kind sir. Would you like tea and biscuits?’
The strange young gentlemen who called himself Quintalion huffed out a breath. ‘Take it,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ll at least look at it before depriving me of a head.’
With one hand still pointing the musket where it could do the most damage, she took the offered card and stared at it suspiciously.
‘It’s an invitation,’ he said, as though she didn’t see the very words in front of her. ‘Completely genuine, I think you’ll find.’ It was all there on the parchment: the green ink of the invitation, sealed with a charm that warded off copies and other tricks; the golden sigil of the Unreality House ingrained into the paper; the words she remembered as well as her own name. The bearer of this invitation is offered full rights of entry to my House according to the ancient codes of welcome. She’d written so many of them over the years: scraps of paper that she’d pressed into the hands of distraught family members who’d brought their loved ones to her House to forget about them rather than face the agony of grieving. Most people never found their way back to her door, having forgotten why they visited the moment they left, which was for the best. Precious few of her souls faced a life outside her walls that would be filled with anything other than pain and death. Better an eternal sleep than a life of torment.
‘Where did you get this?’ she asked him sharply, gesturing at him with the barrel of the musket.
He stared at her. ‘Where does one normally get them? It was delivered to me one morning and I assumed I had visited your House to drop off one of my . . .’ He paused. ‘Oh dear,’ he said in a deadpan tone, ‘I do hope it wasn’t Uncle Balthazar.’
It was true that she sometimes sent out invitations to the families she thought were ready to accept their loved one’s passing, or on rare occasions the miracle of having them back again, but she hadn’t sent one in years, not since before . . .
She turned the card over. There, written in handwriting she knew almost as well as her own, were five words: Wake me when it’s safe.
‘When was it delivered?’ Madame Marisol said, fear making her words harsh.
‘A year ago? Three? I don’t remember. A man can’t be running about after possibly dead relatives all the time. Why does it matter?’
‘You don’t understand.’ She tried to keep her voice calm, but she was afraid that the girls in her weekly whist club, were they to hear her now, would be gleefully reminding her to use her indoor voice. ‘The girl pertaining to this particular invitation, she . . .’
‘Oh, a girl, is it? I didn’t know I had a sister, but I suppose that’s the point.’ As Quintalion craned his head, trying to snatch a glance of the House beyond her shoulder, Madame Marisol began to have the sinking feeling that the musket was no longer providing effective dissuasion.
We’ ll see about that when he finds himself short a toe, she thought.
‘And I’m sure you’re well aware of the wording of that invitation: full rights of entry, and final decision to remove said possibly dead relative if I wish it. So lower the frankly intimidating musket, please, and I take my tea with two sugars and a dash of lemon.’
Madame Marisol reluctantly lowered the barrel. Think of page 63 of The Little Blue Book. It is the height of bad manners to kill someone simply for being unpleasant. ‘I suppose you’ll be wanting to come in then.’
His mouth opened into a grin. ‘Only if you’re offering.’
The musket went back into the umbrella stand, but she kept her eyes on the gentleman as he followed her in out of the rain. It paid to be careful. Not many travellers found their way to her House these days – magicians mostly, influential families that still kept to the old ways, and, of course, her weekly whist companions. Invitation or not, this man was still a stranger, and strangers were made to be distrusted.
At the moment, however, he seemed more interested in scraping the mud from his boots than in doing anything underhand.
‘You won’t believe the nonsense I went through to get here,’ he said, leaving a large chunk of mud and grass on the lintel of the door.
She shut it against the rain, pleased when he had to leap to one side to avoid catching his foot. ‘Oh, yes?’
‘Blockades everywhere. The daybreakers have been swarming around the borders for a month now. Don’t want a repeat of what happened up north, I’ll wager.’
‘I don’t blame them,’ she said, remembering how many extra guests she’d had during the horrible years of the Saturday Wars. She’d contemplated lining the keeping-houses up in the hallway. ‘How many died?’
He shot her a dark look. ‘Too many. They say war is never over, but some people are taking it too literally for my liking. It’s bad for business.’
‘Follow me, then,’ she said, and led him further into the House. She snuck a glance over her shoulder as she pattered over the stone floor. When people heard of a house that contained the souls of those caught between death and life, she doubted they imagined a modest little homestead with a fireplace that smoked, cheery wallpaper, and a pianola in the sitting room. And sure enough, her guest was so busy looking around him, one eyebrow raised in disbelief, that he tripped over a rug by the fire.
‘Be careful there, dear,’ she said, ‘that rug’s genuine chimera and you can’t get its like for love nor money these days.’
The House was arranged around the large, two-storeyed entrance hall, which was something of a nonsense since she kept little in it besides the stone fireplace to the left, rugs to warm her old bones, and paintings that the House switched over when it wanted a change. But she had lived here for so long that she wouldn’t have had the House any other way: the sitting room at the front and to the left, the dining room to the right, the kitchen at the back, and the bedrooms up the wooden staircase on the second floor. Everything was where it should be.
Including the room she was leading him to. They walked underneath the second floor landing and into a small passageway at the back of the House. The shadows choked the little light that made it through from the entrance hall, and all she got was a glimpse of white hair and the rose-pink fabric of her favourite dress as she passed a mirror on the wall, before turning away to face the door opposite it.
Madame Marisol felt it before she saw it. Even after all these years, the power of the room and its sleeping occupants still left her breathless. They were the heart of the House; their presence reminded her that, however much she might have felt at home here, she was still and would always be just the caretaker.
She hesitated, her hand hovering above the ruby handle. ‘Is it safe out there for her?’
‘Not my problem,’ he replied quickly. ‘I, Madame, make a point of avoiding situations that can get me killed. I’ll try my utmost to do the same for this girl, whoever she is.’
She could hardly trust the word of a man she’d just met. He wouldn’t be able to guarantee the girl’s safety, not with the daybreakers apparently growing in number. But she had no choice: as the bearer of the invitation, he had the House-given right to take the girl away, however much Madame Marisol herself protested. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t give him a run for his money.
‘Why are you here, really?’
He shrugged. ‘I had an invitation and an inclination to find out why. Besides,’ he pulled aside the bulk of his coat to reveal the ivory handle of a pistol peeking out above the holster at his hip, ‘I’m very much hoping this is worth the trouble.’
So he’s one of those types. Madame Marisol rested her hand against the door in a vain effort to quell the anger rising within her. ‘You do realise, my dear,’ she said, and it took all her concentration to keep her voice calm, ‘that if I hear that you hurt a single hair on that girl’s head, I will have to come after you with all I’ve got?’
Quintalion flicked the cuff of his greatcoat, spraying droplets of water everywhere. ‘Thank you for the warning,’ he said. ‘I would hate to face up against doilies, cat hair and the faint smell of regret.’
Madame Marisol dug her fingernails into the wood so hard that she felt splinters under her nails, but when she turned back to him, she wore a smile on her face. ‘Never underestimate a woman with knitting needles, dearie. Now,’ she added, and pulled the door open with a flourish, ‘would you like to come inside?’
No matter how many times she set foot into the room, Madame Marisol always breathed in that first breath of air like a drowning soul. It tasted of wind and lightning, and seemed to fill her up right from the bottom of her toes to the top of her head. It was like waking up after a good night’s rest, and she automatically whispered, ‘Good morning, my loves.’
The hundreds of keeping-houses lit up all as one, throwing a soft light against the faces of their sleeping occupants. Some were young, barely yet alive, and some had beards that coiled around the bottom of their keeping-houses like blankets. There were peasants and kings, dairymaids and court ladies. Some looked merely asleep, and others as though they would never wake again, with gashes and limbs missing and the pale milky complexion of delayed death.
She knew all their stories. Most were sad. The Unreality House was a place to bring people to escape their fate, be that death or dishonour, and those with happy lives rarely graced her doorstep. Madame Marisol could remember when each of them had arrived at her House, carried on stretchers and funeral biers, or, in one particularly heart-breaking case, entwined in each other’s arms.
There was only one, in all the thousands of souls she had kept safe over the years, who had found her way to Madame Marisol’s House by herself.
Beside her, Quintalion drummed the fingers of one hand against his leg as his head moved from left to right to take in the room. ‘It’s not . . . it’s not possible. The room must be half a furlong from wall to wall, but it’s not possible. Have we gone underground?’
Smiling to herself, she shook her head. ‘Not at all, my dear. We’re still in the Unreality House, of course. Would you like me to define “unreality” for you?’
Without waiting for an answer, she set off past the first row of keeping-houses. Years of experience had left her with knowledge of the twisting paths, but folk had been known to get lost in the room. The House had a way of ridding itself of undesirables.
They walked in silence for a few minutes, the tap, tap, tap of Quintalion’s boots on the marble floor the only indication that he was following along behind her, and, since it felt wrong to cheapen the revered quiet of the room with small talk, Madame Marisol contented herself with humming a little ditty.
Another right, a left, and a complicated half-turn later and they’d almost reached the girl’s resting place. When the girl had first come here, Madame Marisol had placed her close to the back for two reasons: it meant less of a chance that unfriendly eyes would find her, and there was also a group of other young people of good families for her to associate with. Although they spent their time in the perpetual sleep of the Unreality House, Madame Marisol was the last person to claim herself an expert on what went on inside the keeping-houses, which is also why she insisted on reading proper literature to them all every night. ‘I really must remember to put a bookmark in The Tale of Amiens and Aemilia,’ she said absently. ‘Amiens is about to get stabbed with the poison dagger and I would hate for my duckies to miss it.’
‘That would be tragic.’ Quintalion had wandered over to one of the keeping-houses and was peering at the soul encased inside, his nose almost touching the glass.
‘I’ve heard the great heroes of the past are here,’ he said. ‘Sir Tristan the Valiant, the seven sisters, Alaric and his fool, Sylvain the Swordsinger. Of course,’ he added with a carefully timed cough, ‘that’s ridiculous.’
‘You’d be surprised, dearie,’ she said lightly. ‘I’ve met my share of heroes. They’re a strange breed – tramping in without wiping their boots, eating all the scones, insisting to their companions that they’re fine when they’ve got half a quiver lodged in their chests. I’ve never really cared for them. Now,’ she added, ‘I think you’ll find who you’re looking for just over here.’
The girl hung suspended in the pale glow of the keeping-house. She was an odd thing: a girl to forget, frozen halfway between childhood and womanhood, and as gawky as Madame Marisol herself had been at that age. She had a long straight nose set in an otherwise unremarkable thin face, hair the colour of bark that hung in shaggy tendrils to her knees, and a beanpole body. In her most generous mood, after a sherry or two, the most Madame Marisol could have said in her favour was that she was interesting looking.
‘This is the girl,’ she told Quintalion. ‘As she came to me with no name, I called her Tuesday.’
It wasn’t exactly the truth, but she wasn’t about to go spilling all her secrets of that night or the letter that she had hidden in her lanterloo table.
‘Let me guess . . . she arrived on a Tuesday?’ Quintalion raised his eyebrows.
‘You’re just full of insight, fine sir.’ She watched as he circled the girl’s keeping-house with a quick step, once, twice, and then a third time, his hands positioned behind his back. It was taller even than he was: a rectangular box, or coffin, she thought darkly, made out of rosewood on three sides and with a glass door on the fourth. ‘Do you know her?’
He looked down at his dark skin and then back up at Tuesday. ‘She’s certainly no sister of mine.’ He made one final lap and paused in front of the girl, saying softly to himself: ‘And yet he had the invitation . . .’
Madame Marisol had tucked it away up her right sleeve, but now she pulled it out and stared at it again, hoping that a second look would reveal some obvious sign of fraudulence, but it looked more and more authentic the closer she studied it. It even had the second watermark she’d hidden up in the right-hand corner to trick forgers. But something didn’t feel right about the man standing in front of her. She couldn’t decide what it was exactly – his restless fingers or his shark-like smile – but the very air around him smelled wrong, as though the House was trying to warn her about him.
She ran a thumb over the invitation. ‘The funny thing is,’ she said in a deliberately calm tone, ‘I never actually drew up an invitation for Tuesday.’
She had told herself many times over the last ten years that she really ought to get around to it, but every time she sat down to pen the invitation, something always seemed to come up, or she received news of more skirmishes in the borderlands or that Sterling and his daybreakers were on the prowl, and the invitation remained unwritten.
Quintalion didn’t even bother to look away from the girl’s keeping-house before replying: ‘And yet I have one. Surely that indicates one of two things: you’re growing forgetful in your old age, or I’m lying through my teeth. I’m going to go with the former . . . but of course I would say that.’
Or that she didn’t trust me as much as she claimed, Madame Marisol added silently.
‘So what will this Tuesday be like, anyway? I’m not going to have to teach her how to use the privy, am I? Because that doesn’t quite work to my schedule.’
Seven sisters, give me patience. Madame Marisol joined him next to the keeping-house and purposely refused to look at his face, for fear she might forget the rules of invitation and smack him about the ears for his impertinence, instead sweeping the frame of the keeping-house with her eyes: fir branches, splayed open in a delicate pattern, and a nameplate down the bottom, the name mostly hidden by grime. ‘Oh, she’ll be able to tell you what a cup of tea is and hold a decent conversation about the weather, but if you want much more, you’ll have to be patient.’
He snorted through his nose. ‘Not one of my many qualities.’
‘Tough,’ Madame Marisol said. ‘You’re the one trouncing up to my House in the middle of the night. If you’re claiming that invitation of yours is real, then it’s your responsibility to look after her. Which would include not selling her to the highest bidder.’
‘My dearest Madame Marisol, as if I would sell my beloved little sister.’
They were clearly no relation, so the fact that he was claiming kinship spoke more of mockery than any real feeling, and it set her teeth grinding.
He must have noticed, because he added, ‘Fine. If it will put your heart at ease, I promise not to sell her.’
Madame Marisol was sure she heard a right away dangling at the end of his sentence, but as she had no authority to refuse him, she let it slide, and gestured to Tuesday. ‘Then it’s time to wake her up. Be careful, dear, the lock sticks.’ And I know precisely where to stick it . . .
His eyes narrowed. ‘How do I do that, exactly?’
‘Some give a good old kiss, though that’s a little too forward in your case, I’m sure. Contact is the key. Go ahead. Press her hand and be done with it.’
Madame Marisol watched as he fiddled with the door, smirking when he let out a curse at the stubborn latch, before he finally wrestled the glass open, releasing a waft of musty air that smelled like mothballs.
The day that Madame Marisol had first come to the House, so long ago that she barely remembered when, there had been no keeping-houses, just an empty room waiting to be filled. The keeping-houses had gone through many different designs over the years, but she’d ordered the current model from a casket maker in Bittertongue, who had no concept of aeration, it not being a concern of his usual clients . . . or her duckies either, if she cared to think about it.
Quintalion paused with his hand hovering just above Tuesday’s skin and took one long look at her. ‘What was he doing with her?’ he muttered, softly enough that Madame Marisol had to lean in to hear him. ‘Ah well, there’s no accounting for taste.’
Not for the first time, she wished that she’d never introduced the invitations. The ancient codes of welcome were one thing, but they did make it far more difficult to stab someone without the House disapproving.
Quintalion reached out, not for her hand as Madame Marisol had suggested, but to brush his fingers lightly against her left cheek.
The nerve . . .
Golden light bloomed where his fingers touched her skin.
Quintalion let out a strangled hiss, and cradled his hand to his chest. ‘That . . . hurt,’ he said, his breath coming in gasps. He wavered for a moment, leaned over with his eyes screwed up, and then straightened again to look at the white marks he had left behind on the girl’s cheek. ‘I do believe my heart stopped beating for a second there.’
Ah, she thought, her suspicions confirmed, but all she said was: ‘Nothing to worry about, dearie. It happens to the best of us. Now off to the kitchen with you. I’ll not have you blabbering about daybreakers and hearts stopping when she wakes. There’s half a cold chicken in the larder. Help yourself to anything else, but I’d avoid the chocolate cake if I were you. The last gentleman to eat a slice grew an extra head.’
‘Thank you for the warning,’ he said dryly, and turned to leave.
Cursing her snap decision to tell him about the cake, Madame Marisol waited until she heard the door shut off in the distance before she turned her attention back to Tuesday.
The golden light had spread to cover her entire body. It pulsed through her veins and shone out behind her teeth to spill from her slightly opened mouth.
‘There now, my love,’ Madame Marisol told the girl, who was now beginning to vibrate with the throbbing energy and magic that filled her body, awakening every muscle and shooting fire through each nerve ending. ‘It’s just you and me. Show me those pretty eyes of yours.’
Tuesday glowed all over with golden warmth, nowhere brighter than the still visible fingerprints on her cheek.
They’ll leave a mark, Madame Marisol thought. I hope she doesn’t mind.
The light surrounding the girl’s body fluttered faster and faster until she fairly hummed with unreleased energy, like the string of a plucked fiddle. Just when Madame Marisol thought she might have to give her a gentle tap with the paddle she kept for just such occasions, the girl’s eyes flew open.
She gasped, scrunched up her nose in confusion, said, ‘Wh . . . what . . . ?’
And then she fainted.
‘Welcome to existence, dear,’ said Madame Marisol with a slight smile. ‘You’ll get used to it.’
Excerpted from The Book of Days by K.A. Barker. Copyright © 2014 by K.A. Barker.
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