The Blue Vein Tavern
The rain had not stopped for a week, and the roads that led to the inn were little better than rivers of muck. This, at least, is what Captain Frost said when he tramped indoors, coated in the yellow mud peculiar to that part of the city, before hollering for his breakfast. The rest of the guests sighed. Perhaps today, they had thought. Perhaps today, their unnatural captivity would end. But the bellowing man calling for eggs and burnt toast meant that, for another day at least, fifteen people would remain prisoners of the river Skidwrack, and the new rivers that had once been roads, and the rain.
They passed the day much as they had passed the day before, and the day before that. Eventually, Mr. Haypotten, the innkeeper, announced supper in half an hour; he apologized for the state of the meals and the flickering lights, but without real worry. The Haypottens might run out of provisions eventually, but they had not kept this inn and tavern on the Skidwrack for a quarter of a century and more without seeing a flood or two, and they were well prepared for the whims of the river and the rain. The electricity might flicker and the hot water heating system, bought by the previous owners off an itinerant salesman when Mr. Haypotten was still in short pants, had never worked properly, but since the inn’s fireplaces never went dark, its rooms never went particularly cold. Nobody would freeze, nobody would starve, and as for the rising water: “See that?” Mr. Haypotten would say, opening one of the windows in the lounge barroom against the cold and wet and pointing across the porch that wrapped halfway around the inn to indicate a blue step in the stairway leading down to the river. “That’s where the river came back in ’fifteen. She doesn’t dare come nearer than that. Water won’t rise past a blue stair. Isn’t that so, Captain?”
“That’s so, Marcus,” Captain Frost agreed today as he had every day, because Mr. Haypotten kept the captain in very good sherry. But when Mr. Haypotten left the lounge to go help his wife and the kitchen maid finish preparing supper, the captain sang a different tune. Captain Frost’s eyes were deep-lined, his face tanned to mahogany, and his hair and beard bleached to a yellowed bone color from his decades at sea. He felt himself, not inaccurately, to be somewhat an expert in weather lore, and when the innkeeper was out of earshot, he muttered that he’d never heard such doss before in his life o’ years at sea, and if painting a thing blue were all it took to put water in its place, then how was it every ship in the harbor wasn’t sky-colored? Then he finished his very good sherry, pulled on his coat, and stomped into the hall and back out to check the weather and the roads yet again, as he did at every turn of the cracked half-hour glass he tended as religiously as if he were still aboard ship. It was never far from his elbow when he was inside the house, though it meant rearranging the place settings a bit at meals.
He left four guests behind in the lounge. Jessamy Butcher got up from her chair by the window, where she could see how very close the water was actually coming to the much-discussed blue stair, went around the bar, and found the captain’s bottle of sherry. She poured herself a glass, then held the bottle up in one thin, gloved hand, offering it silently to the rest of the room. The tattooed young man named Negret declined and went back to the pages he had taken from the pockets of his tweed vest and was stacking together on the bar top: a mismatched collection of liquor labels, scraps of newsprint, wallpaper, remnants of the long, match-like twists of paper called spills that the maid kept in vases in each room for lighting the lamps and fires around the inn, and other scavenged oddments. When he had them where he wanted them, he took a sharp, round-handled awl from a roll of tools that lay open on the countertop before him and, pressing the pages flat with his palm, began to poke holes along one edge.
But his brother, Reever, nodded in response to Jessamy’s offer and murmured his thanks as she reached across the bar to pass him a glass. Jessamy tried once again to decide whether or not the pale, brick-haired Colophon brothers were identical under their facial decorations. It was impossible to say. The tattoos were very similar but not quite the same, plus Negret wore his hair long and floppy, while Reever kept his short-cropped and cowlicky. And one didn’t like to be rude by looking too long. Jessamy turned to the fourth person in the room. “Mr. Tesserian?”
At his table across the lounge, Al Tesserian looked up from his half-built castle of playing cards. “Dear God, yes. No, my dear, don’t bother,” he said as Jessamy made a motion to come around the bar. “Be . . . right . . . there.” He placed a card and got up. The other three held a collective breath—but Tesserian’s castles didn’t dare fall until he gave them permission, which was generally done by calling Maisie, the youngest guest, to do the honors. Then and only then, when Maisie had pulled away a queen or gusted a sharp breath onto an ace, they toppled spectacularly, cards flying in all directions as if the laws of physics held no sway in the realm to which they truly belonged.
Tesserian accepted his glass with a bow, then returned to his architecture. He paused on his way to look at Negret’s handiwork. “Binding another book?”
Negret nodded as he lifted the stack of papers and held the edge he’d perforated up to the light, checking to be sure the holes were lined up the way he wanted.
“It needs covers,” Tesserian observed. He felt inside one sleeve, frowned, then took off the battered and narrow-brimmed porkpie hat he wore at all times except meals. From inside the lining, he produced a pair of aces and tossed them on the bar. “Will those do?”
Negret added the cards to his stack, one on top and one on the bottom. “Perfectly, if you can spare them.”
Tesserian laughed. “An old gambler always has a couple of spare aces someplace.”
Elsewhere in the inn, Petra, the guest who had been there the longest, borrowed from the maid a key to one of the countless glass cases that occupied walls and corners all around the inn so that she and Maisie could take down one of Mrs. Haypotten’s music boxes, very carefully wind it, and dance for a bit.
Maisie Cerrajero was young and had been traveling alone to meet the aunt who was taking her in, with no luggage but an old ditty bag that held everything she owned. Each day someone said something along the lines of, “Won’t your auntie be relieved when she gets here and sees that you’re safe?” Most often that someone was Mrs. Haypotten, who had a habit of misplacing her spectacles or her ring of keys or her best little sewing scissors and was never quite sure what, other than “Thank you,” she ought to say when Maisie inevitably found them for her, no matter in what unlikely place they’d been left. Flummoxed, she always came out with something like, “Won’t your auntie be so happy to see what a nice, polite, helpful girl you are when she gets her...