'Oh you poor lamb!' Lanira exclaimed. Her hands fluttered to her chest as she turned around, surveying the damage in Idira's room. A faint tinkling broke the quiet. Lanira glanced at Unambi, who crouched by the broken glass from the window. He picked up a piece and set it into a bucket, careful of the other pieces protruding out of it, jagged and sharp. He met Lanira's look, expressionless, before returning to his work.
'Don't you worry,' Lanira said, nodding, brusque, making up her mind. 'The master will make sure you won't do without. Toys and books can be replaced. What's important is you are safe.' Lanira smiled at Idira, seeking to encourage her, though her smile didn't quite reach her eyes. She surveyed the wreckage scattered across the room, a shred of doubt flitting across her face.
Idira said nothing. She understood. The house was badly damaged, and now VanCleef was not only in a fight with Stormwind but with Papa, too. There wasn't going to be any time for books and toys. Not anymore.
Lanira sighed, muttering to Unambi she had heard most of the staff had fled after the attack, so it would only be the two of them. Unambi grunted and nodded, shifting his position a little to reach out for a long, thin shard of glass.
'I'll start with the bedding,' Lanira remarked to no one in particular as she glanced out the shattered window at the sky. 'There's still a good breeze up, and it's looking to be a warm day, too. Best to get these things dried out before they start to stink of damp, at least until a washerwoman can be found.' She unbuttoned the cuffs of her sleeves and rolled them up to her elbows, her movements quick and efficient. She leaned over and began to strip the bed, grunting with the effort.
'Ah! It's soaked right the way through!' she huffed, annoyed. She gathered up the cover, holding it dripping at arm's length so it wouldn't wet her dress and moved to the door, skirting the glass Unambi had not yet collected. She called to him over her shoulder. 'When you are done with the glass, I'll need you to carry the mattress down to the laundry yard.' She didn't wait for him to answer. She hurried down the stairs, her feet swift, filled with purpose and industriousness. Idira wondered if Lanira somehow enjoyed the sudden changes in the house, the lack of staff, of having to be self-sufficient, and everyone being the same. Even VanCleef was working to clear away the dead, she'd told them when she arrived, flustered and a little excitable.
When Idira asked, Lanira told her Myra and the baby were safe, hidden in a secret chamber in the cellar, filled with provisions for just such an emergency, and would be staying there for at least the day. Idira had tried to think where it could be. She thought she had explored every part of the house, but it seemed it still held secrets, even from her. She asked if she could go and see them, but Unambi shook his head. Ya be lettin' dem clean up da dead first, he'd said.
Idira didn't argue. She didn't really want to see any more blood, anyway. Myra and the baby were safe. One less thing to think about.
'I'm going to go and get Blackie,' she said. Unambi nodded and carried on working. He hadn't said much after he'd found Idira weeping in the hallway, her ruined books scattered every which way. Idira knew enough to know he was mad. He always went quiet like that when he was angry. But just like her, there was nothing he could do about it. Papa and VanCleef had all the power, and Idira, Unambi, Lanira, Nin, Arinna, Myra, and baby Vanessa were just leaves drifting along in their current.
She hurried down the hall, disturbing the plaster dust settled on the carpet, making it rise up in little puffs. She turned the corner and stopped. She had forgotten about the dead men outside the room. She dithered, thinking about going back to get Unambi. What if they weren't really dead and one of them jumped up and grabbed her? She eyed their chests, watching to see if they moved, even a little. They lay perfectly still. She decided to count to sixty. She took her time. She heard Blackie meowing and lost count halfway though and had to start again. This time she made it to sixty. They hadn't moved.
She took a deep breath and scurried to the door. She opened it and slipped inside, shutting it behind her. Blackie had moved to the window's ledge. She stood up and lifted her tail in greeting, the tip curling into the shape of a little hook.
'Are you hungry?' Idira whispered as she stepped towards the cat. She held out her hand, unsure whether Blackie would come to her or not after everything that had happened. Blackie moved forward and rubbed her head against Idira's hand, grateful for her company. A shout came from the stable yard. Idira looked down.
The yard had been cleared of its dead, although dark stains still covered the cobblestones, black and ugly. A burly man, his hands bound behind his back walked across the yard, stumbling a little. Two of VanCleef's men held onto him, one on each side of him, rough, jerking him forward. He looked up at the house. Idira stared, astonished.
'Benny!' she cried, knocking on the window, trying to get his attention. His attention snapped over to her, and his eyes met hers. He looked beat up, really bad. He tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince. The men escorting him glanced up at Idira. They both shook their heads at her, warning her to stay away before they pulled Benny into the kitchen.
Idira didn't waste any time. She gathered Blackie up into her arms and pulled the door open. The men. She had forgotten about them. Again. She was pretty sure they looked the same as they did before. She didn't wait. She bolted down the hall, running so fast, Blackie bounced in her arms. She ran into Unambi's room and put the cat down beside the brazier.
'Unambi!' she called as she ran back out, closing the door again. 'Blackie needs food. I'm going to go and get some for her.' Without waiting for his permission she scarpered down the stairs, hoping with all her heart there wouldn't be any more dead bodies along the way.
She made it down the stairs and through the entrance hall without seeing any bodies, but there was a lot of blood splattered over the walls, rugs and furnishings. Smears trailed across the floor where the dead and dying had been dragged away.
Almost all of the steps and flagstones of the inner courtyard were covered in blood, some of it, caught in the heat of the sun, congealed in thick viscous puddles. Even with the stiff breeze coming through the gaping holes at the front of the house, the house stank of slaughter, reminding Idira of the smell of the abattoir that sometimes blew on a tricky easterly wind, carrying the scent of fear and death.
No one cleaned, and so far, she hadn't seen a single servant. She wondered if they would come back. It was strange to see the house no longer orderly and beautiful. It felt like a bad dream, one she hoped she could wake up from. She stopped. Maybe she was dreaming. It could still be the night of the storm, and Myra could still be in labour. If she was dreaming, then she could warn VanCleef of what was coming and then the house wouldn't be ruined. She pinched herself as hard as she could. Nothing happened apart from a sharp pain and an angry red mark on her forearm. She huffed. So, it was real, after all. Someone took hold of her shoulder. She jumped and bumped into Unambi.
He shook his head at her, his unhappiness plain as he cast a gaze around the bloody arena of the inner courtyard. 'Dis be bad mojo.'
Idira could hear voices coming from the kitchen. She touched Unambi's arm.
'There's someone in there I want to see,' she said, quiet.
He narrowed his eyes, listening to the indistinct voices talking. He shook his head. 'Da boss be in dere I don' tink—'
'We don't have to go in,' Idira interrupted. 'I just want to see him and hear what they are saying,' she looked up at him, willing him to say yes. 'Please?' she begged.
Unambi crouched down, listening, his eyes moving back and forth as he followed the conversation. The voices stopped. Footsteps went outside, to the stable yard. Someone was yelling, protesting. Unambi shook his head. 'No.'
Idira looked at him, surprised. 'Why?'
'Da boss jus' killed a man.' He dragged a finger across his throat. 'Like dat.'
Idira stared at him, disbelieving. 'He killed Benny?'
Footsteps approached. Unambi yanked her behind a huge potted plant. She peeked out. VanCleef walked into the courtyard. He had finally put on some armour, the black one with the sleeveless tunic. His swords hung from his hips, sheathed in their black scabbards. The men Idira had seen in the stable yard followed after him with Benny between them, stumbling to stay on his feet, his arms still bound tight behind him. Closer now, she could see his face looked very swollen and bloody. She bit back a cry of relief. She knew VanCleef wouldn't kill Benny. VanCleef turned and went down the corridor to his study. She waited for him to close the door, he didn't. Voices drifted into the courtyard.
She glanced at Unambi. 'What are they saying?'
'Is dat da one ya wanted ta be seein'?' he asked, jerking his head towards VanCleef's study. Idira nodded, wishing he would tell her what they were talking about. He grunted and tilted his head, his eyes moving once more. He glanced at Idira, a look of approval sliding over his face. His eyes moved some more. He chuckled.
Idira could barely stand it. She tugged on his arm, making it wobble a little against his thigh. 'Wha—'
He held up a finger, silencing her. She waited, watching his face for the tiniest change of expression. He smiled, slow, and nodded. 'He be a good man, dis one. Dey almost done. Jus' you be waitin' an' I be tellin' ya what ya want ta know.'
Idira clung to the edge of the planter, bouncing on her toes and jiggling her legs, trying to hear what was being said for herself, but everything just blended together into a low hum. Frustration and impatience gnawed at her. She huffed. Unambi shot her a sharp look. She held still, though her agitation to know if Benny was going to be alright nearly made her bolt to VanCleef's study. She tightened her grip on the planter, fighting a losing battle with her patience. The voices stopped and the men came out, escorting Benny back into the kitchen. Another door slammed, the one Idira recognised as the one leading to the cellar. VanCleef stayed in his office. She gave Unambi a look, full of meaning. Now?
He didn't answer, instead he picked her up and carried her into the kitchen, navigating the courtyard without touching any of the blood. He set her down onto the table, and began rummaging in the cupboards. A shank of roast meat and a string of cheese appeared his hands. He tossed them onto the table before rifling through the cupboards once more. A loaf of bread joined the rest of the items. He put a platter on the table beside Idira and pushed the food over to her.
'Eat dat,' he said, 'and save some for da kittie.'
Her mouth watered at the sight of the meat. She tore into the bread and meat, the bread was stale, but the meat was still tender. She set the bread aside, and worked her fingers against the roast, shredding strips of the greasy flesh away and into her mouth. She hoped Lanira wouldn't catch her eating like this, or there would be trouble.
'Dat man,' Unambi rumbled as he sank down into a crouch, 'he almos' be killing Jac. Da boss's men be findin' dem fightin' out on da edge o' da town.'
Idira stopped chewing. 'What happened to Papa?' she asked, her mouth full. A tiny part of her hoped VanCleef's men had finished him off.
Unambi shook his head, resigned. 'He be gettin' away.'
Idira looked down. A mixture of disappointment and relief flooded through her. A part of her believed Papa could still change, that if he just had the chance he could be a better man. He had just had so much bad done to him, it had made him bad. She noticed her fingers were all greasy, Lanira would have a fit. She looked around for a napkin, but there was nothing, the linen cupboard had been stripped bare. She guessed everything had been taken to be used for bandages. She wiped her hands on her night dress, it was ruined anyway. She pushed her platter away, still laden with plenty of meat for Blackie.
'Why didn't Benny warn us?' she asked, quiet.
Before Unambi could answer, the door to the cellar opened and VanCleef's men appeared, their tunics blood-spattered and dusty. One of them hefted up the bar over the door. They looked tired. They eyed the food on the table, then the troll hunching in the shadows, his eyes yellow slits. Unambi nodded at them. They came over and helped themselves.
One of them, called Kip, glanced down at Idira as he pulled a section of meat from the shank. He was one of the not-so-mean ones, a mercenary soldier, not a criminal like most of the others. 'How you doing, kid?' he asked.
Idira shrugged. 'Okay.' She looked up. 'Can I see Benny now?'
The two men shared a look, the other one shrugged. 'It's up to Unambi,' Kip said. 'Boss said to untie him. Benny's down in the wine cellar, until things get settled.'
Unambi sniffed. 'What be da situation in da town?'
Kip scoffed. 'Not good.' He glanced at Idira before continuing, 'Between the storm damage and the wreckage from the cannons, Moonbrook's a mess, it's going to take weeks to clean it up. But apart from the one in the cellar and the wounded we found hiding in the houses, it looks like Jac used all his men at once. We didn't find anyone else, no back-up forces anywhere.' He took another bite of meat and continued, his mouth full. 'Shame that bastard got away. He's like a cockroach. Hard to kill.'
Idira stiffened. Kip cleared his throat. 'I'm sorry pet. I know he's your Pa. But he fired cannons at the house where his two daughters live. There's got to be a special place in the Void for someone like him.'
Unambi stood up and pulled Idira off the table. 'Ya want ta be seein' dis Benny?' he asked, soft.
'Yes, please,' Idira whispered, blinking back tears. She followed Unambi to the cellar door, waiting while he lifted the bar away and pulled the door open. She looked back at Kip, watching her, pity in his eyes.
'You're right. Papa's bad,' she said, her voice wavering. 'But I have to believe one day he'll get better, otherwise what does that make me?'
Kip's expression crumpled. 'No, sweetheart. No. Don't think—'
She ran down the stairs ahead of Unambi. She didn't want to hear it. It was true, if Papa was bad, and sometimes Myra was bad, maybe she was bad, too.