“If that’s true, then why can’t all of us control hollows?” Emma said. “Every peculiar could use some of what Jacob’s got.”
“Because only his basic talent was capable of developing that way. In the times before hollows, the talents of peculiars with souls akin to his probably manifested some other way. It’s said that the Library of Souls was staffed by people who could read peculiar souls like they were books. If those librarians were alive today, perhaps they’d be like him.”
“Why do you say that?” I said. “Is there something about seeing hollows that’s like reading souls?”
Reynaldo conferred with Mother Dust. “You seem to be a reader of hearts,” he said. “You saw some good in Bentham’s, after all. You chose to forgive him.”
“Forgive him?” I said. “What would I have to forgive him for?”
Mother Dust knew she’d said too much, but it was too late to hold back. She whispered to Reynaldo.
“For what he did to your grandfather,” he said.
I turned to Emma, but she seemed just as confused as I was.
“And what did he do to my grandfather?”
“I’ll tell them,” said a voice from the doorway, and then Bentham hobbled in by himself. “It’s my shame, and I should be the one to confess it.”
He shuffled past the sink, pulled a chair away from the table, and sat down facing us.
“During the war, your grandfather was highly valued for his special facility with hollows. We had a secret project, some technologists and I—we thought we could replicate his ability and give it to other peculiars. Inoculate them against hollows, like a vaccine. If we could all see and sense them, they would cease to be a threat, and the war against their kind would be won. Your grandfather made many noble sacrifices, but none so great as this: he agreed to participate.”
Emma’s face was tense as she listened. I could see she’d never heard any of this before.
“We took just a little bit,” Bentham said. “Just a piece of his second soul. We thought it could be spared, or would be replenished, like when someone gives blood.”
“You took his soul,” Emma said, her voice wavering.
Bentham held his finger and thumb a centimeter apart. “This much. We split it up and administered it to several test subjects. Although it had the desired effect, it didn’t last long, and repeated exposure began to rob them of their native abilities. It was a failure.”
“And what about Abe?” Emma said. In her tone was the special malice she reserved for those who hurt people she loved. “What did you do to him?”
“He was weakened, and his talent diluted,” said Bentham. “Before the procedure, he was much like young Jacob. His ability to control hollows was a deciding factor in our war with the wights. After the procedure, however, he found he couldn’t control them any longer, and his second sight became blurred. I’m told that soon afterward he left peculiardom altogether. He worried he would be a danger to his fellow peculiars, rather than a help. He felt he could no longer protect them.”
I looked at Emma. She was staring at the floor, her face unreadable.
“A failed experiment is nothing to be sorry for,” Bentham said. “It’s how scientific progress is made. But what happened to your grandfather is one of the great regrets of my life.”
“That’s why he left,” Emma said, her face tilting upward. “It’s why he went to America.” She turned to me. She didn’t look angry, but wore an expression of dawning relief. “He was ashamed. He said so in a letter once and I never understood why. That he felt ashamed, and unpeculiar.”
“It was taken from him,” I said. Now I had an answer to another question: how a hollowgast could’ve bested my grandfather in his own backyard. He wasn’t senile, or even particularly frail. But his defenses against hollows were mostly gone, and had been for a long time.
“That’s not what you should be sorry for,” said Sharon, standing in the doorway with his arms crossed. “One man wasn’t going to win that war. The real shame is what the wights did with your technology. You created the precursor to ambrosia.”
“I’ve tried to repay my debt,” Bentham said. “Didn’t I help you? And you?” He looked at Sharon and then Mother Dust. Like Sharon, it seemed she, too, had been an ambro addict. “For years I’ve wanted to apologize,” he said, turning to me. “To make it up to your grandfather. That’s why I’ve been looking for him all this time. I hoped he would come back to see me, and I might figure out a way to restore his talent.”
Emma laughed bitterly. “After what you did to him, you thought he’d come back for more?”
“I didn’t consider it likely, but I hoped. Fortunately, redemption comes in many forms. In this case, in the guise of a grandson.”
“I’m not here to redeem you,” I said.
“Nevertheless, I am your servant. If I can do anything, it is yours for the asking.”
“Just help us get our friends back, and your sister.”
“Gladly,” he said, seeming relieved I hadn’t demanded more or stood up and screamed in his face. I still might’ve—my head was spinning, and I hadn’t quite sorted out how to react. “Now,” he said, “as for how to proceed from here …”
“Can we have a moment?” Emma said. “Just Jacob and me?”