Nazlı spins around so hard she damn near gives herself whiplash, and there they are, standing at the bottom of a staircase in the corner of the room. They’re leaning over something, heads bowed, speaking quietly in words lost to the low noise of other people returning to their private moments after the spectacle ended.
Before Julian can get her name out to call her back, Nazlı is tumbling out of her seat and charging toward the couple.
“What the fuck do you people think you’re playing at?”
Mr. and Mrs. Lubbock look up in tandem, startled and backing away from their assailant.
“We’re still getting our footing!” Mrs. Lubbock blurts, startled out of the smooth serenity she’d fed them as they stood over her child.
Her husband pulls her back, saying quietly, “Chelle, why don’t we just…”
“Bullshit!” Nazlı strides forward before they can retreat. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, this is the last kind of thing you should be fucking with! But if you really want to get yourself shit into hell permanently, do it on your own time! That thing could have killed us!”
Julian hangs back, letting her vent her anger at the hapless couple without intervening.
“What?” Mrs. Lubbock’s eyes grow wider and wider, taking over her face. “What thing? We don’t know anything about—”
“Doesn’t fucking matter,” Nazlı snaps. “Why didn’t you tell us about the breach?”
“In your basement. The portal you came through to get here.”
Dead silence drops in. Nazlı’s cheeks heat; she knows that the patrons here are listening very keenly to this outburst. Julian’s fingers slip around her arm, but she can’t tear her eyes away from Mrs. Lubbock’s blank, staring face.
“Hey Z,” he whispers, tugging at her a little more insistently.
She finally turns, allowing herself to be pulled away into Julian’s semi-private counsel. “What? What the fuck is it?” she breathes.
Bowing his head close to hers, he looks her hard in the eye. “That woman has never seen you before in her life. Okay? Look at her.”
Nazlı steals a glance, then back to Julian, sputtering, “Well then what the fuck was—”
“You’ve been to our house? Do you… know how to get back?” Mrs. Lubbock’s voice is trembling, barely over a whisper.
Jerking her arm away instinctively from the woman’s reaching hand, Nazlı whirls again to face her, straightening up. “Yeah, but trust me, bitch, you do not wanna go marching back just right this second.”
Mrs. Lubbock blinks, startled, and her husband finally steps up to interject, but Julian cows him with a sharp look.
The quartet of them falls silent again, three disparate players waiting for Nazlı’s direction.
The pieces assemble slowly, or at least, feel like they’re moving around on the canvas of her sputtering brain, though no real shape is emerging.
She asks the first question that surfaces complete. “Where’s your kid?”
Julian leans back, pulling the neutral expression that screams in their private language that he does not like what Nazlı has said.
Mrs. Lubbock exchanges a glance with her husband. “Excuse me?”
“I think you might have mistaken us for someone else,” says Mr. Lubbock.
“We don’t have any children.”
“Ah, fuck.” Nazlı presses her hands over her face, trying to backtrack to where this train went off the rails. She swallows the impulse to ask how long they’ve been down here, because it’s pointless. Even someone as experienced as Julian in walking underneath has no way to estimate how their time down here might relate to the time upstairs.
“Z?” Julian says, leaning into her field of view as she stares into nothing, wrestling with the disparate fragments of the last hours.
“I was too busy looking at the kid. I didn’t look hard enough at the parents.”
“What are you talking about?” Mrs. Lubbock is trying to marshal a demanding tone, but she mostly sounds frightened, and for the first time, Nazlı can’t blame her.
“We’ve been to your home. In Hope, right?”
Mrs. Lubbock nods, not looking encourage, but following as Nazlı turns to go back to the table. Her legs feel like mud and she just wants to sit down, to slouch, to let the weight droop. To not carry her bones for a minute.
“How about your mother? Do you live with an old lady?”
“Yes… his mother…” she says, her fingers whitening against the edge of the table. “Oh, God. Is she alright?”
“She’s fine. Tough old broad, probably has the clearest idea what’s going on in there, even if she doesn’t know what she knows.” Nazlı heaves a sigh. “Look. Forget what I said before. This isn’t going to make a lot of sense when I say it, but…” She pauses at the wry smile that goes across Mr. Lubbock’s face at that.
“How much stranger can it be than what we’re already going through?”
“…fair point. Okay. Well. It’s like this. There are two people, two things in your house, wearing your faces, your forms. They’re raising a child, as you.” Sometimes, it’s best to just lay it on there. Or, at least, Nazlı tells herself that’s best because she doesn’t know what else to do in the moment.
She’s just thinking that the Lubbock couple is taking this revelation quite well when a set of long, steady hands settles on her shoulders.
“Are you quite sure it’s two people?”
Nazlı jerks away from the Tanmar’s grasp with a spat, “Holy fuck!”
Everyone jumps. Nobody noticed Almere return, so she has no idea how long they’ve been standing there, listening. They move to the end of the table, taking a pair of steaming mugs from a meeker figure trailing behind. It smells delicious. Nazlı’s sinuses tingle and her mouth waters. She has to close her hands to keep them from reaching for a cup.
Almere glances down at her balled fists and then to her face. “You have my word that this will not change you,” they say, the words cutting straight into her brain. It’s one of the real languages of hell, an infernal truth rune woven for her magician’s hearing.
She stares back for a long moment, then accepts this still-dubious hospitality with a nod. Julian follows suit, frowning.
“It’ll do you both some good to get some substance into you. I’m sure your nerves must still be shaking from arriving the way you… did.”
“Thank you,” replies her more diplomatic counterpart.
On the other side of the table, the Lubbocks are miles or centuries away. Mr. Lubbock cries out across this vast distance, pulling Nazlı out of reeling a bit from the touch of Almere’s easily-spoken magic.
“So. Something is living in our house. With my mother. Something that came from down here.”
His voice sobers her. This is someone’s family. Both hands close around the hot stoneware. “Yeah. That’s about the size of it.”
The Lubbocks — Peter, and Chelle — as it turns out are not quite as green as Nazlı first assumed. They’ve been downstairs, by their calculations, for “somewhere around a few months”. She spares them from the revelation that the kid being raised in their house is a few years old and a pregnancy probably would have been undertaken or at least feigned before that. After the initial shock of Nazlı’s verbal assault wore off, they take in her story of the abortive night she and Julian spent in their topside home in Hope, Alaska, with calm, clear-eyed silence, although she can tell that they’re both worried about Peter’s mother, whose name is Sybille. She is, by their accounts, really a lovely person, but nobody seems surprised at the chilly welcome Nazlı and Julian received when they arrived at the house.
What Almere has brought them turns out to be an impossibly rich, clear soup — a bone broth, though Nazlı does not inquire after what type of bones were simmered to make it — and under their quiet, curious eye, Nazlı runs through a rubric of oblique questions designed to determine whether anyone downstairs has attempted to indenture one or both of them, literally sending them up the river. Nothing really untoward seems to have happened so far, though Nazlı can definitely smell some history between the couple and Almere that is carefully being spoken around.
The four of them, the topsiders, get their bearings. Nazlı expected there to be more hesitation from the other two after the greeting she’d given them, but they seem more relieved to have a possibly link with their home than anything else, and once everyone has loosened up their shoulders a little and got talking, she finds herself liking sweet-faced Chelle a lot more than she expected. She’s the more animated of the two, Peter taking a backseat to his wife’s extroversion and keeping a protective eye on her. She’s really quite unlike the ultra-serene woman they’d met in the house in Hope, and Nazlı is kicking herself for not paying more attention to the adults in that house because that means she has no idea what they’re going to be up against when they go back there.
“So…” Chelle breathes, wide-eyed, into a lull in their comparing of notes. “Do you guys know how we can get back? Can we get back? Nobody has really been… willing to tell us.” She pointedly doesn’t look up at Almere, who has been wearing this disconcerting half-smile throughout but not contributed very much to the conversation.
“Straight back in the way you came is probably the most straightforward way,” Nazlı says, not really looking forward to coming out of the crawl space and finding whatever had broken through the basement door to look for them.
Chelle shakes her head with a brief, sidelong glance at Almere. “I’ve tried it. I’ve gotten down there a couple of times, had a real good look around. Nada.”
“Julian can find the way. He’s got the shine, as they say—”
“Oh shut up, you say way dumber shit than that. Anyway,” Nazlı hasn’t broken Chelle’s gaze, trying to stare down the dimensions of their situation as if it exists in the space there between them. “The problem isn’t getting there. The problem is definitely what we do when we get there.”
At this, Peter and Chelle both frown, their hands catching on the table. She closes her eyes and he leans closer to her, a shelter.
“I guess I just keep wishing we can deal with that when we get there. I’m just so…” The breath she pulls in trembles a little, but her lashes stay dry. “I really want to see my own house again.”
“Get back to normal?”
“I have a feeling there’s not really going to be a chance for that,” she says, quieter, looking down.
Nazlı privately wonders what it would be like for this not to be normal in the first place. As much as her bloodline, her gifts, the sometimes-stupid burden of knowing the machinations of some of this, is a genuine pain in the ass sometimes, having known this life, she’s not certain she could cope with the other.
“I may have some insight into the situation,” Almere says quietly from their preternatural stillness at the end of the table. All eyes turn to the Tanmar, who brushes their long hair over their shoulders and surveys the topsiders with a cool gaze.
“Oh?” Nazlı prompts at some length, feeling Julian’s hesitation to engage through the intervening silence. She’s suspicious, and she doesn’t care if Almere knows it, but they’re in no position not to hear out what they have to say.
“Well,” they say, feigning nonchalance. “You have at least three demons between yourselves and happy family, right?”
“Four, by my count,” she replies, cautiously.
“Remember what I said before, rahibe?” they say with a thin, meat-eating smile.
Nazlı has a glimmer of their meaning but doesn’t speak it just yet, hyper-aware of keeping a couple of cards in her own hand for the time being. She doesn’t know for sure yet whether Peter and Chelle Lubbock are free to go. She changes tack, leaning back a little, getting her game face on, and steeling herself to meet Almere’s smoldering eyes.
“What your interest, anyway? There are plenty of little lost lambs wandering around down here. If you were just anxious to have them out of your hair, you’d send them on down the river without a second thought.”
Almere feigns alarmed innocence, spreading their fine hand across their breastbone.
“I’m serious,” Nazlı goes on, in no mood to play this game with this demon. “This is nothing to you. We are nothing to you.” The facts of the case start to line up behind her eyes like little soldiers. She leans in, peering. “You got a bone to pick with the Lubbock’s hant, Almere?”
Their lip curls, eyes falling to their immaculate fingernails. “You old-school hagatesse are all the same, no sense of private business. And I should think you’d know by now that what you are talking about confronting is a good deal more troublesome than what you call a hant.”
“There’s no private business when your currency could by my soul, you barbecued ass-basket,” she snaps
Julian elbows her in the back. Almere laughs.
“What did you mean when you asked if it was two things?” Chelle prompts, blinking up at the Tamnar and evidently unaffected by their gravity. Nazlı’s a little jealous of that. The woman’s either gotten used to it during the time they’ve been down there, or she can’t quite see the creature clearly enough. Nonetheless, she interjects before Almere speaks.
“Our friend here thinks that what’s taken your place is an… well, my family would call it an ikili. Some people use the word Janus, because that legend probably came from one. Down here, it would be one entity, a god, it is immortal. But upstairs it can’t… exist in one spot, our world sort of isn’t deep enough. So it has to split into two aspects.”
Almere nods when Chelle glances to them for confirmation.
“That doesn’t tell us where you fit into the frame, Almere.” Julian has been quiet up to this point, letting Nazlı go over the broad strokes with the Lubbock’s and joust with the demon in more or less equal measure. Now, his voice is cool and steady, like he’s been thinking about the words for a while. All business. “The Tanmar don’t have any categorical bad blood with the two-faced caste, to my knowledge.”
“Your knowledge,” Almere echoes. “No. It’s not a political matter, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“So what is it?” says Julian, unmoved by the Tanmar’s disdain. “My colleague raised a fair question.”
“This one has amassed a ledger of transgressions that needs to be settled,” they say, their voice frosty and flat. “I followed it across the Shantir after a well it created subsumed an entire village. I mean to destroy it.” Their face softens back into a smile, though this is clearly an act. “And this lands us to the same side of a common aim, and means all four of you may make it out of this city after all.”