The Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance (Page 19)

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“God, man,” Thom said. “Ye smell like vinegar. Can ye even make it to the stairs?”

Casper stumbled into the kitchen and put one bare hand on the table, nearly knocking over a spoon. “Didn’t even know I was gone, did you?”

“I didn’t,” Frannie said softly.

“Ran out of my preferred medication. Should be good for the rest of the night. Or however long it takes a man to drink himself to death. Or worse.”

“Have some self-respect, Maestro,” Thom said. “Man with soft hands like that ought to keep them covered, out on the streets. And drinking so much will rot your mind.”

Casper chuckled, then snorted, then full-on laughed as he staggered up the stairs. “S’gonna do a lot worse than that.” He turned around and made an exaggerated bow. Wine sloshed out of one bottle to puddle, thick and dark, on the floor as he staggered up the first few steps.

Frannie and Thom shared a loaded look that reminded her more than a little of her parents’ wordless conversations over Bertram’s head. When Casper yelped and fell down the stairs, Thom shook his head and went to pick up the fallen man, with Frannie on his heels. She couldn’t help thinking that Thom’s arms were getting quite a workout this week, what with carrying people up and down staircases. Then again, that had to be part of his job, saving Londoners from their burning homes. Her heart went warm, thinking about the first time she had seen him, in his uniform in the middle of her shop, right when she needed help the most. He was a good man, to be sure.

Casper wouldn’t let go of his bottles, and they clanked against the walls as Thom carried him over one shoulder and into Bertram’s room to deposit him on the unmade bed.

“Casper and I are going to have a wee chat, lass,” Thom said to Frannie with a meaningful look. “Best go downstairs and have a bite, eh?”

Frannie watched Casper trying to kick off his tall boots without letting go of his bottles. It hurt her heart, how far away this man was from what he should have been. But she knew well enough that nothing she could do or say would help him find his path. She could take in lost things, but she couldn’t always save them.

“Feel better, Casper,” she said softly, heading downstairs and hoping that Thom could talk some sense into the world’s greatest musician and possibly worst lodger.

She closed and locked the shop door, the birds still shrieking after Casper’s dramatic entrance. Back at the table, she poked at her pie and sighed. She’d never liked it cold, and she wished the birds would calm down so she could relax. After some more salad and a bit of bread with butter, she took a sip of wine and pulled the plate of cakes closer. Each one was the size of her hand, round and beautifully iced in pastel sugar frosting. With a mischievous glance at the stairs, she selected a lavender cake and nibbled the edge, savoring the way the sugar melted on her tongue. When she was little, her mother had always bought her one cake, just one, on her birthday. She had always shared it with Bertram, but the first bite had been her own.

“Cheers, brother,” she said, taking an indulgently deep bite.

She chewed slowly, eyes closed, considering that the only thing sweeter than this cake was the man who had brought it for her.

The strangest feeling came over her. Frannie’s eyes closed, and she slumped to the table before falling to the ground.

“Go on. Go back to her. I don’t want your pity.” Casper pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and swigged, a trickle of red slipping past his lips and staining his shirt.

Thom made a swipe for the bottle. Despite his extreme drunkenness, Casper was faster. “Too bad, lad. You’ve got my pity. That’s about all you’ve got right now, too.”

Casper’s face twisted up in an ugly sneer that he’d never shown Frannie. “I suppose you think I should buck up and be a good little tame musician?”

Thom snorted. “I think you should buck up and be a man.”

“I pay my bills. I do my work. What else is a man supposed to be around here?”

“Sober, for one.” Thom managed to snag the unopened bottle and put it on the floor. When Casper grabbed for it, a firm hand landed against his open shirt, shoving him back on the bed. “Sober. Helpful. Useful. Sacrificial, if sacrifice is needed. Without a heart, you’re not even human. You’re in that poor girl’s brother’s room, sleeping in his bed. Ye look just like the boy, from what I understand. She took you in when you needed it. Try bein’ a little kinder, aye? Try giving her some good memories instead of just dredgin’ up bad ones.”

“She wants nothing to do with me.” Casper sat back against the headboard. “And why should she? I’m disgusting. Not even human, as you say.”

“You can change that. You just have to want to be good. Here.” A thick finger poked hard against Casper’s chest. “You’ve got a hole in your heart. I know how that feels. Just find something to fill it with besides wine, aye?”

Casper hung his head, wagging it back and forth. “You want to know about loss?” His voice was harsh and ragged. “Let me tell you something about loss.”

Before Thom could respond, there was a crash downstairs, and he leaped to his feet. “Frannie? Who’s there?”

There was no answer but the continual din of the birds, their cages rattling and their voices shrill and panicked. Thom rocketed down the stairs to find Frannie fallen on the floor, the white bludkitten inches away and sniffing her, its mouth open in disgust. A lavender cake was broken in pieces on the stones beside her hand, and her eyes were bugged out, their pupils pinpricks that rolled back and forth. He leaned close to listen for breathing, but all he could hear was the birds. One persisted in screeching, “A cracker, miss! I do say!” while a familiar voice called, “She’s a pretty lass, a pretty lass.”

Casper slid down the last three steps and leaned bonelessly in the kitchen door. “What’s up, buttercup?” he asked, eyes closed.

“Lass, what’s happened?” Thom asked urgently, his accent going thick with fear as he tried to sit her up. She had a pulse, but her body was rigid, the muscles hard and quivering, and her eyes unseeing. Of course, she couldn’t answer. Her teeth gnashed together, lavender foam dripping from her lips.

“She okay?”

Casper’s voice slurred low, and Thom gritted his teeth. It was fruitless to wish the musician was the one writhing on the stones so that Thom could turn his back and walk away. But it was Frannie, his Frannie, so he took her stiff hand in his and leaned close.

“I don’t know what to do,” he murmured. All his training in the navy and with the firefighting brigade hadn’t prepared him to help a wee slip of a lass with an unknown ailment, gasping on the ground. He had been helpless and far away when his wife perished, and he’d be damned if he’d watch, dumb and crying, as Frannie died.

“What’s wrong?”

With a roar, Thom shouted over his shoulder, “I don’t know, ye drunken fool!”

Staggering across the room, bottle still clutched in his hand, Casper upset Filbert’s cage before knocking a goblet off the table and falling to his knees at Frannie’s side.

“Poison,” he muttered, wobbling back and forth. “Best fetch a daimon.”

He fell over, already snoring, and Thom stood up and kicked him, just a little. “Bloody bastard!”

With one last look at Frannie and her insensible lodger, Thom ran for the back door. Some soft instinct made him close it quietly so Frannie’s animals wouldn’t have any further reason to panic.

He’d never knocked at Maisie’s door, and he knew it was the wrong time of night, but he would have woken Saint Ermenegilda herself if there was a chance of saving Frannie. It was dark in the alley, and a bludrat raised a warning hiss as he knocked hard enough to split skin on his already callused knuckles. Every second felt like an hour as he waited for an answer.

“Who is it?” an old woman croaked. “No vacancies!”

“I need Reve,” he shouted back. “Frannie’s been poisoned. Send a daimon, I beg you!”

Before she could open the door or argue, he was gone, slipping around the high brick wall and through Frannie’s door, to kneel by her side as the birds in the pet shop continued to batter against their cages. The noise was maddening, but none of it mattered.

“Just hold on, lass,” he whispered. “I need you.”

She was starting to turn blue, her legs kicking feebly and her eyes rolling to focus on Thom, almost pleading. When he couldn’t bear another moment of waiting, the back door opened silently. Reve crept in, a large bag at her side. The daimon’s skin was corpse-white tinged with lavender where it showed beneath her robe, but as soon as she saw Frannie, angry shades of red and black shivered over her like a fire at night.

“I know zis poison.” She spat into the fire and knelt to dig through her bag. “We do not have much time.”

“Can you cure her?” Thom asked.

The daimon didn’t look up from the shadows that seemed to gather around her bag. “That depends, Thomas Maccallan.” She held out a dagger. “What will you give to keep her alive?”


Thom looked hard at Reve and took Frannie’s hand again.

“I didn’t know ye were that kind of daimon, Reve.”

She smiled, or at least pulled back her lips in something like a smile. “I’m not. But ze poison came from a dark daimon, and their spells are best fought with love’s blood.”

He held out his arm. “Take what’s needed. I’ll no’ miss it.”

Reve scattered herbs on the stones and laid out a crucible before handing Thom her knife. “A finger will do. Just a few drops.”

He loosed Frannie’s hand, her arm standing rigid where he left it. With a quick cut, his blood dripped into the stone bowl, and he squeezed it until Reve nodded.

“That is enough.”

He was too busy holding Frannie’s hand to see what went into the daimon’s potion, although he did see her crumble a bit of the spilled cake into the blood. He also noticed, as time strung out, that she snatched up the close-creeping white bludkitten and stuffed it into her bag. Its cry was cut off abruptly, and it didn’t appear again. Finally, she took up a tiny silver spoon and carefully dribbled the liquid from the crucible into Frannie’s open mouth.