One night, the master and I are in bed together—he reading, I unable to sleep for the maelstrom of nervousness and terror and sheer excitement that boils within me—when he suddenly clears his throat and looks down at me.
"I've made a transaction," he says, almost distantly.
"What transaction?" Oh, gods, this can't be good. Whatever it is.
"The boy-twin will be Enki's," he says. "Lucy, you won't understand why just yet, but you should know that there are many powerful players in the universe who would throw themselves on hot coals a thousand times to possess one of the children you carry within you. Enki is one of these. The price he paid to me is beyond measure, without equal."
He sold my son to that strange Enki? That's what he thinks. I will never allow it. But aloud, I calmly say, "Whatever pleases you."
"This does please me," he says. "And what's more, the deal does not come into play until the child is four years of age. You will have four years with your son. A marvelous compromise, I think."
Four years is more than I need. Aaron has said to me that the children I give birth to will grow faster, be stronger, and have more intelligence than a regular child. By the time my son is even three, he and his sister will have the capacity to defeat their father at my direction. This is not bad news; it's good. My babies will not be ripped from my arms. Four years.
"As for the girl," he says, "I haven't found a buyer for her yet. But I will, in due time. Your son and daughter will grow to be two of the most powerful creatures alive."
Just in time, I remember that I'm not supposed to know I'm a castus—that, as far as the master knows, I know nothing of why my children would possibly be special. "Why so?" I ask innocently. "Is it because of you?"
"No, my dear Lucy. Not entirely. But you don't need to know everything just yet. It will come in due time that you will understand."
He doesn't know anything; I'm assured of it now. He wouldn't be talking to me like this if he knew anything about our plan. I allow a little part of me to sigh, to rest easy.
The next morning at six o'clock, I tell Mark and Aaron and three or four of the other men about this news.
Prickly as usual, Aaron only grunts. "Buys us some time, I suppose. But still, I wonder why Enki wouldn't want to take the child right away, condition it from birth."
"Why does that matter?" I say, irritated by his doubt.
"The details matter, girl. Don't be foolish. Don't ignore the details."
Mark interrupts, his voice strangely annoyed and hard as stone. "Think, Aaron. The children will be both abnormally intelligent and nigh on uncontrollable from birth, as far as we know. To take them from their mother would be a disaster. It's only good sense to wait 'til they're older, less primal, more able to control themselves."
"I don't think that's it," says Aaron. "Right, yes, roll your eyes at me if you want, and don't listen to this stupid old man. But I think there's more to it than that."
Mark argues with him. I don't.
Time passes. My belly grows. We plan.
I learn the names of the other men involved with the plan; before, they'd just been faceless to me. Michael is the one with the big nose and kind eyes. Alexander is the one who is angriest, even angrier than Aaron. Anton is the scientist, the one whose rudimentary tools are used to study the fabric of the strange place we call home. William is the one with the shrewdest mind, the one who comes up with the bulk of the plans. There is even a woman, Mina, with a fierce gaze and muscled arms—a regular servant who was never chosen to be a High Servant, which she proclaims with gratefulness and arrogance alike.
Together we plan. Together we plot. And yes, we are together, for now I am as much a part of the plans as anyone else. I am more than the linchpin, more than the vessel carrying the two creatures who will save us. I take active part.
Today we sit together in the dimly lit room and they discuss how long we will wait.
"Two years," says Alexander. "At the most. That's as much as I can stand."
"A two-year-old is an infant, you idiot," rumbles Aaron. "No use for anything, much less defeating the most powerful man in this house."
"They won't be any regular two-year-olds," Alexander argues, fire in his eyes. "You know that. They'll grow faster, learn faster—"
"Stop making assumptions," says Aaron, his voice rising. "We can't predict how fast they'll grow. None of us has seen a pregnancy like this."
I interrupt, annoyed by their fighting. "I'm four months pregnant. I feel like I'm eight," I say loudly. "The pregnancy is progressing twice as fast as it should."
They glance at me, as if they've only just noticed I'm here. "That may be so," says Aaron. To my surprise, there isn't a but.
"I say we should execute our plan at the time they appear five years old, and no younger," I say, looking at each of them in turn. "And I would argue it'll be hard to execute our plan even at that age. These children are meant to be weapons under our control, but how will they understand that they need to kill their own father unless they are old enough to comprehend it? They may be more intelligent than the usual child, but one mistake from them, and the entire plan is damned."
Alexander's eyes blaze. "You speak foolishness. I won't wait any longer than I must. I've waited long enough."
"Shut up," interrupts Aaron, and his voice is thunder, and his word is law. Silence reigns in the room; Alexander is quiet as a mouse now. "The girl does not speak foolishness. She speaks truth. We must be patient and careful. We will use these children as a weapon, and weapons must be able to be guided. If we try the plan too early, all will fail."
I interrupt, having thought of something. "And the children must grow quickly for our plan to succeed. They must be intelligent, more so than usual. You must be right about this," I say. "Because remember, they will be taken away at four years old. No older. They must be ready by that time, or there is no plan at all."
"They will grow quickly," Mark insists, speaking up for the first time tonight. "Every record we've read about the offspring of a castus and ultimum immunditia has said that the child grew abnormally quickly and was highly intelligent."
"And how many records have you read?" I don't know why I'm being so snappish, but I am, my voice as biting as the winter air I barely remember from my childhood.
He meets my gaze, looking annoyed. "I'm allowed special access to the master's private library. It's highly extensive. A book I'm particularly interested in is On the Recording of Biological Obscurities and Rarities. It details seventy-five known examples of hybrid children, and I've studied them all."
So many arguments pop into my mind—If it's a book from the master's library, then how do you know it wasn't planted to lead us the wrong way? Or, If you've only studied one book, how do you know it's the truth without looking into other sources? But the question that blurts from me is not one of those. "Why do you have special access to the master's library?"
Mark turns red, then white. I get the instant impression that he's said something he shouldn't have.
He doesn't say anything. Aaron answers for him, sounding surprisingly defensive. "Why does it matter, girl? The access helps our cause, so why question it? Let the boy have his secrets."
Annoyance surges in me, a hot wave, and anger with it, and a strange feeling of exclusion. Aaron knows something about Mark that I don't, and he's keeping it from me because gods know why. I'm as sick as a dog, sick with child, and sick of secrets.
I look at Aaron, trying to keep my gaze calm and level. "The details matter, old man," I say, my voice tight. "Don't ignore the details."
Aaron, for once, doesn't have anything to say.
The meeting concludes with a rabid argument between the men over who will be the main trainer of my children—who will teach them to fight, to be weapons, to hate their father—but I notice that, through the entire thing, Mark says not a word. He sits there, white as a sheet, blank as paper. And he avoids my gaze most of all.
The master gives me oils and such to rub on my growing belly. And I use them, but only after presenting them to Mark, who inspects them and assures me they are not sanctification oils, nothing that would hurt me.
I don't even need to sanctify myself anymore, in any case. In fact, the master has warned me against it.
"Lucy," he tells me, "this may seem odd, but I would warn you against the sanctification process. It may disturb your pregnancy."
And I don't argue, don't ask questions, only agree and let it go. I wasn't planning to sanctify myself, anyway, and I was worried about how to fake it. Of course, now, I will never sanctify myself again, on pain of death. Now that I know what the process does to me. Perhaps the master does not want stupid, placid babies. More the worse for him. He would be better off if he did.
I am almost more worried about Mark, in fact, than I am about my pregnancy. We speak of trivial things, small things, but we don't talk like we did. We don't converse of ancient spirits hidden deep within dusty relics of books. We don't discuss religion. We don't laugh. We speak tightly, quietly, briefly, if we have to. And then we part.
Every time he sees me, he seems to close in on himself, turning white, frowning, looking all sorts of emotions all at once. I know this is about what he said that night at the meeting. He is hiding something from me. Something vital and humiliating, that's all I know for certain.
I'm sick and tired of it. Other than him, I don't have a friend. I don't have anyone to really talk to. I have no one. The servants—of whom I was once one of their ranks, who I used to commiserate with and have something in common with—are afraid of me, and run scuttling when my gaze so much as falls upon them. This is because of the decree the master has put throughout the mansion: that I am not to be touched, that he who so much as brushes shoulders with me will be burned alive. No other concubine has been afforded this level of protection before, of exclusivity, and they are scared senseless because of it.
So I have no one, my very presence clears a path, and I am alone, and as lonely as I have ever been. And I want Mark back. More than I can say.
One night, I toss and turn in bed, but cannot sleep. The master is not beside me; he's gone, on a "business trip," or so he told me. A welcome relief; although I've grown used to him in recent months, his presence still makes me ill at ease. But although he's gone now and I lie alone, sleep does not find me. My mind races. My heart pounds. I sweat, or else I'm too cold. The blankets are too thick or too thin or both at once. Lying in this dark room is like a living nightmare. I used to lie on my stomach, and couldn't get to sleep any other way. Now, I cannot. My pregnant belly blocks the way.
So instead of sleeping, I wander the halls, my tiredness-addled mind buzzing like so many flies over a dead carcass. My fingers trace the walls, hard stone, cold as ice. My white, silken shift makes me ghostlike as I move through the dark halls. And though I'm not sure where I'm going, my unconscious takes me to the meeting place, that small, dark room.
The door is closed, but I can see torchlight flickering from underneath. I push the door open lightly, and there I can see Mark. He's sitting at a table, one side of his face gently illuminated by firelight from the only lit torch in the room. He's fast asleep, face resting on an open book. The hardness of his face is softened by sleep. He looks younger, happier.
For some reason the sight fills me with unimaginable tenderness. Maybe it's the mother in me. There's a lock of hair fallen into his closed eyes, and I want to brush it away. I take a small step forward. I'm tempted.
I must've made a noise, or perhaps my shadow moving on the table alerted him. Mark's eyes snap open, he sees me, and instantly he's sitting up, staring at me. For a moment I think I see him whisk something away from the page in front of him, but perhaps my eyes are playing tricks on me.
"What are you doing here?"
He sounds so accusatory. It puts me on the defensive. "I'm not a child. I'm allowed to come and go as I want, aren't I?"
He only looks at me, not replying. His eyes are so tired—I'm only now noticing it. The lines underneath them are so harsh. It looks as though he can barely keep them open.
I soften my voice as a sudden, strange pity washes over me. "Are you all right?"
He shakes his head once, twice. "I'm just tired. The past few nights, I haven't slept. I'm sorry if I snapped at you."
I slide into place across from him at the table; it's a bit difficult to fit. "Why haven't you slept?"
He gestures at the book open in front of him, a thick tome. "On the Recording of Biological Obscurities and Rarities. I've been combing it through."
"Looking for what?"
"I'm not sure. I'm just absolutely certain there's something we're missing. I've looked and looked and looked for anything, any clue, that can help us. I feel that it's there—I know that it's there. I read chapters over and over again, studying every word." He stares down at the book, one hand on his forehead, holding his head up with elbow on the table. I can see how tired he is. Down to the bones.
"You need to sleep," I say.
He looks at me. "Why?"
My voice sharpens a little with annoyance. "When people don't sleep, they get ill. You know that. We need you to be healthy."
"I fell asleep by accident tonight," he says, somewhat distantly. "I don't want it to happen again. I won't let myself sleep until I find what I need to find."
"You're chasing a ghost," I say. "You don't even know what's there."
"I feel it. I feel there's something we're missing."
"You're a logical person. Why are you relying on feelings?" His hand leaves his face to rest on the table, and I cover it with my own, hoping this will make him listen to me. "You need to sleep. This ghost-chasing can wait."
He sighs and withdraws his hand. "I'll sleep. I promise. Just let me look for a little longer."
It's a dismissal, an unspoken request for me to leave. I feel myself frowning, but decide to honor it. "All right. But please, please do sleep."
As I rise and make to leave, his voice stops me, a sudden difference in his tone. "Wait."
I turn around.
"Your son…" he says. "Will you love him?"
There's something so different in his voice. This odd brokenness. I'm sure the look on my face tells the whole story: questioning, unsure. The curiosity that killed the cat.
"Yes," I say. "I'll love him."
"Even though you know what he is?"
"You won't leave him?"
"Leave him? I…" I shake my head. "Of course not; he's part of the plan. I can't leave him."
"Afterwards, I mean. If the plan works and we all go free, and you can live your life. Will you keep your son, raise him, love him?" His voice seems to catch in his throat; the look he's giving me is indescribable. "You're a mother. That's why I'm asking you. I'm asking a mother whether she can love her son even though he's a demon."
I'm carrying twins. A boy and a girl. Why is he only asking of the son?
To be perfectly honest, I have to think for a moment. Will I love my son? Will I raise him to be loved unconditionally, as any other mother would? Or will I constantly be looking over my shoulder? Constantly evaluating him as he grows, to see how much he comes to resemble his father?
I come to an answer, and say it decisively. "Yes. Yes, I will love him. I do love him, even now."
Only now do I notice something Mark holds in his right hand. I can't see it—it's concealed in his fist, clenched tight where it rests on the table. But I can see a little bit poking through is fingers. Paper, with dark marks upon it.
Although I suspect it will do me no good to ask, I do. "What is that?"
His fist disappears beneath the table. He doesn't respond.
"Mark. Those questions…what do they mean?" When he still says nothing, I scowl at him, my patience for secrets having long since eroded away. "I'm tired of you and everyone else being cryptic, Mark. You ask me all these strange questions, expect me to answer them honestly, and then when I do, you won't answer mine. How is that fair? How is that—?"
"My mother," he says, staring down at the table. "She left me."
A moment of silence; I can't think of anything to say. Then I say, "I thought it was something like that."
"She left me behind, here," he says. "I don't know where she went, or even if she's alive. Only that she left of her own accord. I was nine years old. She disappeared and left behind a note—it was meant for a servant to find, but I found it first. It said she couldn't stand one more minute with that demon child. Her son."
My mind is racing; I can't muster words. I don't respond.
"I just—" His voice breaks. "I just wanted to ask someone in the same circumstance—with a son, a demon son, in your womb—if you could love him. And maybe when he's born you'll feel different, but for now, you say you'll love him. You think you're capable of loving him. And I can't tell if that makes me feel better or worse."
"Oh, Mark." I cannot say anything else. The words won't leave my throat.
"I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry."
"No—no, you've nothing to be sorry for. Please don't."
"I'm sorry for saying all this to you," he says, voice thick. "And sorry for burdening your heart even more. It's just, today, it'll have been nine years. And all day, I haven't been able to stop thinking about her. I—I can't even remember what she looks like anymore, not from memory. I have to look at this to remind me." He puts the thing in his hand on the table, unfurls it—it's a piece of crumpled-up paper with a drawing on it, an ink drawing of a young woman's face. She looks remarkably like him. The same nose. The same eyes.
But not the same mouth. Her mouth is tiny, puffy. Mark's is wide and thin. And I can't believe I haven't realized this before, but it's apparent now, staring me in the face. I have seen his mouth before on someone else. On the man I have been sleeping beside. On the man whose children are inside me.
"Mark," I whisper. "Your father…"
"I understand why she hated me," he croaks, looking close to tears. "Oh, God, Lucy, I—I never wanted you to know. God, God, I wish I hadn't said anything. Why did I open my mouth? I never wanted you to know."
He rises quickly, awkwardly, from his seat, crumples the paper in his hand again, and goes for the door, leaving the book behind him. But as he passes me, I catch him by the arm.
"Mark," I say, "please—" But I don't know what I'm asking for.
He stares at me. He's not crying, but he looks close; I can see he's making efforts to control himself. "Please let me go. I'm not myself."
For reasons I don't know, I draw him into my arms. He's rigid for a moment, then his arms snake around me and he begins to sob, his head buried in my shoulder. "I never wanted you to know," he says again, voice muffled.
There are tears in my own eyes—tears for this boy, for what he is, for what we all are: trapped. "It's all right," I softly say. "It's all right."
I am playing the part of the mother already, and I want to hold him closer, to reassure him. But my belly is so large, and it is between us. Blocking the way.