Avatar

The Absence of You

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by TOFU

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

“He’s coming to,” said a voice Lucian almost recognized – almost, and then even that was gone.

True to the words, Lucian opened his eyes and found himself in a completely unfamiliar sterile white room. It was like waking from sleep, except he couldn’t remember having gone to bed, and he certainly knew it hadn’t happened here. He should have been panicking, but he felt no need to panic, and so he didn’t.

The more he let his eyes focus, the more he realized this was less of a room and more of an operating theatre. A full story above him, glass walls showed rows of observers in silhouette, their identities disguised from him. On his level, around the chair where he sat, there were at least four people, and maybe more behind him. Had he been injured? Had there been some accident? He felt fine, though – neither pained nor anaesthetized, and when he commanded his fingers and toes to wiggle, they did without hesitation or complaint.

A tall man in a tall hat turned to him and held up a scroll. “Lucian Whitaker,” he read from it, speaking loud enough that his voice echoed off the tile walls and bounced up to gallery above, “today the 25th of October, in the Year of our Lord 1856, your sentence has been carried out in the full sight of God and this court, pursuant to the charges of which you have been found guilty by the Crown’s Justices. The burden of guilt has therefore been lifted from you, and you are in to be considered, in the sight of the law and of God Almighty, a free and innocent man, with all rights and responsibilities restored to you as a free citizen. The sentence has been passed, and the proceedings are now concluded.” He spoke in such a rote, mechanical tone that it took Lucian a moment to realize that the words had meaning, and moreover, they had meaning for him.

He blinked several times to clear his vision. The gallery had already begun to clear of observers. Closer to him stood other men in similar dark clothes, their hats only slightly smaller than the bailiff’s. Then there was one who had no hat at all, only a long robe with the hood pulled back, revealing a head of wild, curly black hair. Lucian watched as he stretched his hand out to sign a document before him – only there was no pen in his hand, and his seal appeared in a brief, linear burst of gold fire, like the trail of a sparkler down to its base. What was a theurgist doing here?

At his side, a nurse appeared with a stethoscope around his neck. “How are you feeling?” he asked, his voice an oddly pleasant contrast against the sterile, formal room.

“Fine, I’m–” Lucian cleared his throat. “I’m fine.”

“Any headache, nausea, blurred vision?” asked the nurse, shining a small light into Lucian’s eyes, one after the other.

“Blurred, yes, a little,” Lucian managed. “But not now.”

“That’s good, that’s all very good.” The nurse smiled at him. He had a kind face, which made Lucian feel a little better. The sensation of not having to panic was subsiding now, though, and that made things feel very much worse. “Can I get you a glass of water?”

Water? That might be nice. How long had it been since he’d last drank? How long had it been since he’d last done anything? Lucian gave a feeble nod, but as the nurse turned to go, he said, “Wait.” When the nurse looked back, Lucian asked, “Where is this?”

That gentle smile didn’t budge an inch. “You’re all well and fine, don’t you worry. Just relax and they’ll explain everything to you in half a tick.” He spoke with a level of familiarity that Lucian didn’t feel. “You’re perfectly safe here. And you’ll be feeling much better very soon.”

Seeing little alternative, Lucian closed his eyes and nodded. He focused on his breathing, trying not to think about how much difficulty he was having remembering the last place he’d been. Surely it had been somewhere reasonable, somewhere that made perfect sense.

Except it didn’t make sense. Because the bailiff had given the date as October 1856, and the last concrete place Lucian could remember having been at was his twenty-third birthday celebration – the evening of the 18th of October, but 1854. And he was starting to have a dreadful sinking feeling about what had happened to the two years in-between.

~*~

The word ‘rain’ seemed unsuited to the task of describing the present weather; it was more like someone had upended the ocean over London and was straining it out through a slotted spoon. He tried to make his way under as many awnings as he could, but by the time he got to his destination, he was all but soaked to the bone. He was glad he’d memorized the destination on the card, because pulling it out in this downpour would have spelled its certain doom.

There was something fantastically plain about the house – so plain, in fact, that Lucian almost did pull out the card from his pocket, to check the address one more time. It looked no different from all the other houses alongside it: tall, narrow, with a brown brick front and no gap between it and the next building. He reached for the brass cord beside the door and rang the bell.

A moment later, the door opened to reveal a buxom blonde whose pretty features melted into pure shock when she saw him there. She composed herself shortly after, though, and straightened her spine. “Can I help you?” she asked.

Lucian cleared his throat. His plan hadn’t extended this far. “I don’t know, I–” He looked up through the dripping curtain of his sodden hair. “Can I just come in?”

She hesitated for a moment, but it was clear this wasn’t weather to leave a beast out in, much less a guest. She stepped back, pulling her long skirts out of the way as Lucian moved inside. He tried to shed his oiled cloak in the doorway, leaving as much of the rain outside as he could. He gave it several good shakes before he hung it over a nearby rack and closed the door behind him.

The woman looked him up and down, then exhaled through pursed lips. “Right, you’re in,” she said, each word somehow more Irish than the last. “What now?”

“I’m looking–” Lucian sighed and raked his fingers back through his hair, slicking it away from his face. “There’s something that’s happened to me lately, and I’m afraid I’m at a terrible loss about a lot of things, and I just … this is the home of Ori Meyer, is it not?”

“Aye,” the woman said with a cautious nod. Her arms were folded across her chest, just under her breasts, and Lucian could see a plain wedding band on her left hand. “But how do you know it is?”

With one last shake to dry his fingers, Lucian reached into the breast pocket of his shirt and pulled out a rumpled black calling card. It was faded and worn, and he had no idea how long it had been in his possession, but the gold letters were still clear as day – since they’d probably been put there through no ordinary process. The front carried the words Ori Meyer, Licensed Theurgist and Psychic Executioner, and the back gave the address of the building he was now inside. “Something has happened to me recently,” he said, glossing over the specifics for fear she’d kick him back out into the rain, “and I have been left with very few possessions or connections, and I don’t know how or why I came to have this, but … please, may I speak with him?”

There was clear conflict on her face as she screwed her lips to one side, then bit down. He supposed he couldn’t blame her, giving how rudely he’d shown up and how completely scattered he seemed. He was relieved, though, to see her hesitation give way. “All right,” she said, nodding to the couch. “Have yourself a seat. He’s in the middle of something, though, so it may be a moment, and he may not be able to see you at all today, do you hear?”

He heard. Seemingly satisfied to see his nod of agreement, she hurried off up a flight of stairs, then disappeared down a hallway at their top. Something about her path was odd, and it took Lucian a moment to realize that according to the exterior of the building, she shouldn’t still be inside the house at all. He supposed he shouldn’t expect less from a theurgist’s home, but the whole effect was still unnerving.

A ceramic tea set rattled, startling Lucian almost out of his skin as he realized it was being placed on the table a foot away from him, by someone whose entrance into the room had gone completely unnoticed. That someone was a robed man with Chinese features and eyes so dark and wide that Lucian couldn’t look at them for too long without feeling some dangerous pull. “This should warm you up a bit,” he said, and for all his exotic looks, he sounded like he’d lived his whole life in sight of the Thames.

Lucian looked down at the tea set. “Thank you,” he said reflexively. The little cup was rough and brown and had no handle. Lucian frowned to see no sugar, milk, or lemon offered anywhere beside it. “What … what kind is it?”

“Your favorite,” said the man cryptically, folding his arms inside his robes. For all the volume of the sleeves and hem, the lapels fell wide open around his shoulders, revealing a deep V of smooth skin almost to his navel. The residents of this house seemed shockingly fond of plunging necklines.

Lucian wrapped his hand around the steaming cup and took an exploratory sip. It was nothing like the pale brown teas he knew; it was strong and almost like drinking the sea. He did like it. “Thank you,” he said again. “This is … it’s very good, actually. Thank you.” He frowned, remembering what he’d grown up being told about magicians of all kinds and how fond they were of tricks and deceptions. “Are – are you Ori Meyer?”

The robed man laughed and shook his head. “No,” he said, extending his hand as though Lucian should kiss his knuckles like a woman’s. Lucian didn’t quite know what to make of that, so he tried for an odd rotated handshake and mostly wound up wrapping his hand around the man’s fingertips. “But I’ll take it as a compliment you thought so. Call me Kit.”

“Kit,” Lucian echoed. “I’m Lucian Whitaker.”

“A pleasure to meet you,” Kit said, and there was a laugh behind his voice that Lucian couldn’t identify, some bit of a private joke Kit wasn’t sharing. “And that was Áine who greeted you at the door.”

Lucius frowned thoughtfully. “Mrs. Meyer?” he guessed.

That made Kit laugh openly this time. “Mrs. Patel,” he said, settling himself in a chair opposite Lucius. Now the robe was falling entirely off one shoulder, revealing its slender, bare curve. Was it the tea making Lucius’ mouth dry? Surely it was. “Her husband, Roger, has been away on business, but he’s due back this evening.”

“And you … all four, live in this house together?” Lucius pointed in the vague direction Áine had gone, assuming that was where the bedrooms were located. In truth, though, he had no idea; if this house could extend in impossible directions, he supposed nothing had to be anywhere in particular.

Kit’s lips formed a wicked smirk. “Magic is an all-consuming discipline,” he said. His long fingers played with the seams at his lapel, and Lucian was shocked to realize that his nails were painted a dark plum color, like a woman’s. “It works better in concentration.”

All four of them, theurgists? No, Lucian thought, that made no sense. There were at most a hundred full-time practitioners in the whole realm, required by law to be registered, and nearly all of them employed by the Crown in some form or fashion. Some, he knew, had firms, and there was a least one full-fledged guild, but they were on the whole a solitary, secretive lot, and did not tend to congregate beyond necessity.

He opened his mouth to ask some question – what, he wasn’t precisely sure – but his inquiry was cut off by a sharp word from the top of the stairs: “Kit!”

Lucian turned over his shoulder to see the man from the white room. There was no mistaking his bearing, or the way the dark, thick curls of hair made a messy halo around his head. Lucian found himself thinking of what it would be like to run his fingers through that hair, then admonished himself for thinking such awful thoughts about a total stranger. Besides, this man had been in his head before; who was to say he wasn’t there now?

At the sound of his name, Kit stood, his expression pleased. “I have shown our guest some hospitality,” he said, gesturing to the tea. Lucian took another drink from his cup, as though to prove the veracity of Kit’s statement. “I think he’s rather comfortable now.”

“Mr. Meyer?” Lucian began, finding too late that he had no idea what title was appropriate here. “I’m Lucian Whitaker.”

“Yes, you are,” said Ori Meyer, and Lucian could have kicked himself for implying that the man would have somehow forgotten in the past three days. Meyer looked at Kit and gave a little shooing gesture. “I’ll shout if we need you.”

“I’ve no doubt you will,” said Kit, making some gesture that was a cross between a curtsey and a bow before sweeping off through the closest door.

Meyer’s face was drawn as he sat down in the chair Kit had vacated. Up close, he was younger than Lucian had realized – younger, perhaps, than even Lucian himself. He had a grim sort of look to his face, though, and despite his youth, strands of white threaded like distant lightning through his hair. Perched across his shoulders was a sleek black cat that stared at Lucian with deep amber eyes. The moment Meyer settled, the cat hopped first to the floor, and then straight into Lucian’s lap, where it curled into a little roll and began purring.

“Well, hello there,” Lucian said under his breath, petting its soft fur. “Aren’t you a sweet thing?” The cat gave no reply, and Lucian had expected none. The silence from Meyer was more pronounced, however, and after almost a full moment of it between them, Lucian sighed and began: “I came to see if you might offer me a job.”

That clearly hadn’t been what Meyer had expected to hear, and the sudden rise of his eyebrows betrayed his surprise. “A job?” he repeated. “Doing what?”

“Anything,” Lucian said, and he meant it. He extended his hands, palms facing upward and empty. “I know this is highly irregular – beyond highly irregular, even, I’m sure – but–” Lucian pulled out the black calling card again. “Did you give this to me?”

Meyer’s face was back to steady unreadability. “No,” he said, with all the blankness of a boring truth or a calm lie.

“Well, I got it somehow,” Lucian said, trying to keep the frustration from his voice. It wouldn’t do to lose his cool, even though that was all he wanted to do. He wanted to scream and panic and shatter windows with his rage. Instead, he focused on petting the cat, who was now purring with the determined efficiency of an electric motor. “Mr. Meyer, two years of my life are … just gone.”

“And I can’t give them back to you,” Meyer said, cold and final.

“I know! I know. I don’t–” I don’t want you to, he’d been about to say, but Lucian stopped himself because he didn’t know if it was a lie or not. “I don’t want to suggest you did anything wrong. It was my punishment, and I accept that. But I’ve had nearly all of my possessions repossessed to pay for the court costs, and I know I’m a free man on paper, and that’s not to be kept in mind by employers, but with the publicity–” Lucian cut himself off again and pressed his lips into a thin line. “No one wants to employ a would-be assassin. Even one who can’t recall why he wanted to do it in the first place.”

“I suppose not,” Meyer said. “I don’t keep tabs on criminals whose memories I’ve taken, but I assume that most of them live far, far from here now. If you’re looking for a loan to put you on a boat, I could manage–”

“No!” Lucian shouted, more urgently than he meant. When one of Meyer’s eyebrows arched in reply, he sighed and folded his hands in front of him. “I don’t want to leave,” he said at last. “I don’t know … that is, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Any marketable skills I’ve developed over the last two years are gone now. I’m not built for labor and I’m not much for dealing with people. And I’d go to Paris, but frankly, I find the French exhausting.”

A little twitch at the corner of Meyer’s mouth spoke of a smile that threatened to slip out, like first light of day at the end of a long, cold night. Lucien told himself not to let that get his hopes up, but at the same time, he clung to it as the first good sign he’d had in, well, he literally didn’t know how long.

“What I want,” Lucian continued after a moment’s pause, “is to do good. I tried to do evil, and it’s landed me here. I don’t just want to shrug as though I’ve woken from a two-year nap and try to pick up my life again. I want to help people. And I know you help people.”

There was that eyebrow again, arched with perfect skepticism. “Have I helped you, then?”

Lucian blinked, then nodded. “Of course. If I’m walking down the street and some fellow walks up and hacks my arm off, I’ll be rather upset. But it’s gangrenous and the surgeon removes it to spare my life, I’ll be grateful. That’s what you do. You remove the rot to save the organism.”

What was going on behind Meyer’s eyes? Lucian could hardly guess. His displays of emotion appeared honest but infrequent, and when he wanted to hold a straight face, he became a marble bust in a museum, unmoved even by time. When he spoke at last, his voice was just as even, yet somehow gentler than before: “And what could you do to help me?”

“Anything,” Lucian said again. “Preparing your tools. Picking up after your business. Minding your books. I don’t even know what help you need, but I can learn.” He reached up and tapped his forehead. “I don’t know what you saw in there, while you were inside, or if you saw anything at all, but you can ask anyone who knew me, and they’ll tell you that I’m smart. Whatever you need, I can be taught.”

“And what salary would you require?” asked Meyer.

Lucian shook his head. “Room and board. At least at first, while I prove myself to you. If you do find me worth my keep, we’ll talk then.”

“Room and board,” Meyer echoed, and it took a beat for Lucian to realize that this had been an agreement upon terms. “As long as you realize, Mr. Whitaker, that this is not a job you go home from. At any moment of the day, any hour of the night, you may be called upon. You don’t get bank holidays and you don’t get to sleep in on Sundays. Are we agreed?”

“Yes,” Lucian said, trying not to let his heart thrum out of his chest with excitement. “Any moment, I’m your man.”

If a look passed over Meyer’s face at that, it was gone so quickly that it might as well not have been there in the first place. “Her name is Queen Mab,” Meyer said, indicating the cat who had conquered Lucian’s lap.

“A fairy cat,” said Lucian with a smile as he scritched behind her twitching black ears. “Is she magic too?”

“No,” said Meyer. “But be warned, nearly everything else in this house is.”

~*~

As promised, Roger Patel arrived home that evening after a trip to Germany, bring back with him trunks whose contents Lucian could hardly guess at. He was a sturdy, square-built, bearded man of obvious Indian descent. When he saw Áine, he swooped her up in his arms and gave her a kiss so deep that Lucian felt himself blush. She leaned in and whispered something into his ear, and he looked then over her shoulder straight at Lucian with an expression less than kind. When Roger came to introduce himself, however, he was all smiles and jovial, bone-crushing handshake. Clearly he was the muscle in this arrangement.

Dinner was thick stew and brown bread, because, it seemed, it had been Áine’s turn to cook, and that was one of the dishes she knew how to make. “Do you cook, mate?” asked Roger, who like Kit sounded as native as kidney pie.

“Ah, no,” said Lucian. Questions like this were so difficult to answer: Did he cook? Well, no, not prior to two years ago. Anything he’d learned in the interim was forfeit.

“You should learn,” Roger said, sopping up the broth. “I bet you’d be right good at it.”

Áine nodded. “If you’re going to be living here, we’ll have to add you to the rotation.”

Lucian nodded; that seemed fair. “Every fourth night, then?”

“Fifth,” Kit said, casting a sly smirk in Meyer’s direction. “He cooks as well as he does everything else.”

Meyer gave a little shrug. “Cooking’s good practice for alchemical work. With the added bonus that most errors won’t cause the result to poison you or explode in your face.”

When supper was finished, Lucian volunteered to clean and put away everything, and offer which no one refused. He wasn’t especially fond of washing up, but it seemed a decent way to get in the house’s good graces. Besides, it gave him something to do, which by his reckoning was always better than nothing to do, especially now. When he had nothing more pressing to occupy his mind, all he could do was think about the hole in his mind, which he’d come to think of as The Absence. It was there, great and horrible – not even something, which might have been its own horror, but a great nothing.

He had pieced together some of it from the outside, though. The case hadn’t made front-page news, but the papers had carried news of it here and there. He’d been a young law student and clerk, at the top of his class, with a bright and promising future. Then he’d attempted to carry out a clearly detailed plan to murder Sir Neville Gardiner, former bank president and current member of parliament.

What the papers hadn’t said was why. As far as Lucian could tell, he’d remained mute about his motive through the whole proceedings. They’d speculated, of course – anything from his being a hitman hired by a global conspiracy, to his simply having gone mad – but these had been guesses without supporting evidence.

Gardiner, of course, had made hay of the former option, citing this as proof that “enemies” were “always stalking through the shadows” and hatching “devious plots” to “undermine us from within,” as the papers were fond of repeating. Even as news of the attempt on his life faded from the pages, Gardiner continued to grab the media’s attentions while nothing more was said about the fate of the would-be killer. Lucian had looked, but he hadn’t found more than a single line letting the paper’s readers know that his punishment had been court-ordered deletion of the last two years of his life, since that had been discovered to be about the length of the planning stages.

Of course, Lucian had lost most of his law education with it, but he didn’t need it to know how rare or serious a sentence like his had been. Deletion of memories was a punishment reserved for only a very small number of cases, ones where it was understood that in the absence of the initial stimulus, the convicted was unlikely to re-offend and could still contribute positively to society. The punishment, then, was the loss of the good with the bad, as well as the fact that the offender would never know what, precisely, had been lost. It was indeed like the loss of a gangrenous limb, if the amputee had then also lost all memory of what function that limb had had in the first place.

Lucian sighed as he scrubbed the bowls clean. He could scour his brain for answers for the rest of his life and find none. Whatever had been there now was gone.

He bore no particular ill will toward Gardiner, who seemed like a bombast and an authoritarian, but so did nearly every other MP Lucian had ever seen. Besides, Gardiner must have agreed to the sentence, which meant that Lucian was free and forgiven, instead of rotting in a jail cell or swinging from the gallows. That, Lucian figured, at the very least earned the man some positive consideration.

He kept going with his task until well into the evening, until he’d scrubbed every corner of both the kitchen and small dining room no fewer than three times. He was here by the grace of the household, after all, and he might as well make those graces as good as possible. As he finished one last dusting sweep of the pantry, however, he heard two people enter the kitchen. “It’s going to wreck Ori, having him here,” said a voice Lucian recognized as Roger’s. He realized they must have had no idea he was nearby.

“Easy, love,” sighed a second, and Lucian was startled to hear those words spoken not by Áine, but Kit. “He knows what he’s doing.”

“I don’t think he does,” Roger said, his tone sharp. “I think he’s mad with grief and guilt, and he’s punishing himself.”

Kit sighed audibly. “You should have seen him. He ate tonight, a full meal. That’s more than he’s managed in nearly a week.”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry I wasn’t here, because I would’ve put a stop to this nonsense,” Roger said, though even Lucian could tell that his words were more bluster than sincere bite. “This is utter lunacy. Now we all have to sit around and play make-believe?”

There was a soft shuffling sound, which must have been Kit’s moving inside the heavy fabrics he wore. “Yes. That is exactly what we’re going to do. I did three-card spread just before you arrived.”

“Yeah?” Roger asked. “What came up?”

“Reversed King of Swords, Two of Swords, and Justice. In that order.”

Roger let out a low whistle. “That’s bad news.”

“That’s neither good nor bad news. It’s just news. It means that all bodies buried rise to the surface someday.” Kit sighed again. “And I do mean all.”

“Yeah, well, your mother was a whore and you’re a lousy fortune-teller,” said Roger with a chuckle in his voice.

“My mother was a whore and I’m a spectacular fortune-teller,” Kit countered. “Now are you going to take me to bed and fuck me like you missed me, or do I have to go start on my own?”

Lucian was glad he wasn’t holding anything, as he surely would have dropped it then. As it was, he clapped a hand over his mouth as his eyes went wide. Surely that had been a joke of some sort, or maybe some form of coded language between them? But the sounds he heard after – the breathy noises of kisses and deep moans – were no joke at all. Then there was a sudden rush of fabric and the musical sound of Kit’s laughter, and Lucian peeked out just in time to see the Roger’s retreating back as he carried Kit like a bride in his arms out of the kitchen.

Even after he heard the bedroom door shut all the way on the other side of the house, Lucian remained hidden in the pantry for nearly an hour afterward, trying in equal measure to catch his breath and will an erection to subside. He was beginning to realize just how vast the borders really were in the land of what he didn’t know.

~*~

The sun hadn’t yet touched the sky before he heard knocking; before he could answer, his door swung open. There, silhouetted by the lights from the hallway, stood Meyer, buttoned up in a dark, high-collared suit. “You have ten minutes to get dressed,” he said.

“Bleeding hell, Ori,” mumbled Lucian, sitting up – or trying to, because sometime in the night, Queen Mab had entered the room and decided there was no better place to sleep than square in the center of his chest.

“Up, up,” said Meyer, his own version of the cock’s crow. “Nine minutes now.”

With that, he strode off, leaving Lucian to displace Her Majesty and then stumble out of bed, thinking about where they might be going and where his clothes might be, and not about how he’d woken up cursing his employer and using his Christian name.

The room where they’d placed him had a closet and many drawers, all full of clothes that Meyer said had been his, but were no longer in fashion. They looked plenty fashionable to Lucian, who was about the same size and shape as Meyer anyway, but what did he know? He’d missed the last two years of trends and similar developments, so he reached for the nearest option and pulled on a double-breasted suit of fine grey wool. There was a matching bowler hat on a rack by the door, so he grabbed it as well and hurried downstairs.

Meyer was waiting there by the front door, hatless in the same hooded cloak Lucian had first seen him in. He carried a cane with a silver knob handle at the top, and though Lucian was certain he’d taken more than nine minutes to pull himself together, Meyer made no comment about the tardiness. Seeing Lucian, he nodded and stepped out the door, gesturing for Lucian to follow him into the misty grey pre-dawn.

“Where are we going?” asked Lucian as they made a brisk pace down the cobbled street.

“I’d be penniless depending on my work for the Crown,” Meyer explained. “I have clients and appointments, and most of them prefer an hour where I’m less likely to be seen coming and going.”

Lucian frowned. “Why?”

Meyer gave a humorless laugh to that. “I don’t traffic in party tricks and entertainments. My services are only needed when something has gone miserably wrong.”

Another two blocks and they were at their destination, a cozy yet fine home surrounded by a small garden. A butler met them at the door as though they were an entirely expected event, took Lucian’s hat, and showed them through to an ornate parlor. There sat two women: an elegant grand dame and a young woman, possible her granddaughter. While the older woman looked anxious, the younger had the hollowed eyes of someone who hadn’t seen a good night’s sleep in ages. The former stood and offered her hand to Meyer, who gave her knuckles a kiss and shot the younger woman a comforting smile. “Lady Courtenay, Eleanor,” he greeted each of them in turn. “I’m training a new assistant today. This is Lucian.”

“Pleasure,” said Lady Courtenay, who did not offer him her hand. Eleanor barely glanced at him, offering a skittish smile before letting her gaze fall to the floor.

“Would you be so kind, Lady Courtenay, as to fetch us some tea?” asked Meyer, his voice honeyed sunshine. “The morning damp is a bit chilling.” Once she’d agreed and gone off to prepare the refreshments, Meyer sat down across from Eleanor, close enough to touch while still keeping his hands to himself. “Good morning, Eleanor,” he sad, his voice low and kind. “How are you feeling today?”

“Honestly?” asked Eleanor, her voice a soft sigh. “I haven’t slept so well the past night. Or the one before. Since last you came, really. It all gets better for a day, and then … it’s all worse again.”

Meyer nodded. “Of course. It’s a matter of time. But you’re feeling better than when we first started, aren’t you?”

Eleanor nodded. “I am, thank you. Bless you.”

“And you, dear Eleanor,” said Meyer. He reached into a hidden fold in his cloak and pulled out a small roll of tools, which he proceeded to unfold on a small table beside him. “While I’m getting set up, why don’t you tell my new assistant about what happened to you?”

The color seemed to drain a bit from Eleanor’s face at the request, but she nodded and squared her shoulders – though she never came close to looking him in the eye. “I’d been shopping with a friend and let time get away from me. I knew I’d be late, and Grandmother would be cross with me, so instead of taking the main thoroughfare, I turned into an alley which I knew would be a shorter route. It was foolish, I know,” she added hastily, “and I shouldn’t have–”

“Eleanor,” said Meyer, cutting her off with the gentle yet firm sound of her name.

Eleanor exhaled slowly and shut her eyes. “Yes. I … I took the alley, and there was a group of young men there who…” She let her voice trail off, and to Lucian it seemed for all the world like she’d been reading from a storybook, only to turn the page and find the next one blank, leaving her adrift in the narrative. “I … don’t know what happened next,” she said slowly, each word dreamlike. “I know it was bad, but I can’t seem to recall what it was.”

“Well, don’t try,” Meyer said, holding a stone in the palm of his hand. “See? Look what good work you’ve done. Now lie back, please.”

By the time Lady Courtenay returned with the tea, Eleanor was stretched out on the sofa with her hands folded across her middle. The stone from Meyer’s hand now rested against her forehead, and she breathed with a heavy slowness. Meyer gestured to Lucian to come closer. “Is she asleep?” asked Lucian.

Meyer shook his head. “This is a trance state. Awake, her conscious mind would fight my intrusion. Asleep, her unconscious mind would do the same. Caught in-between, she’s less likely to reject me. That makes it easier to work.”

Lucian nodded, trying not to picture himself in her place, though under far less voluntary circumstances. “What do I do?” he asked.

“Drink some tea,” Meyer said, “and if I start to seize, pour the rest of the pot straight into my face.”

Shocked, Lucian recoiled. “Is that likely to be necessary?”

“Absolutely not, or I’d have brought someone more experienced.” Peering over the rims of his small spectacles, Meyer gave Lucian a reassuring smile. “I wouldn’t throw you into the deep end on your first day out.”

Lucian was not convinced of this at all, but he did as he was told, sipping from his cup as he watched Meyer draw his legs under him and close his eyes. He contorted his hands into one shape, then another, then others after that, holding each for a full second until Lucian realized they were the same four in a round. His own breathing grew steady and slow, until it matched Eleanor’s. Slowly, his hands went slack in his lap and his head nodded forward, bobbing as though he were boating down the river on a calm day.

After little more than a minute, he opened his eyes again and exhaled all the air in his lungs through pursed lips. “There,” he said, unfolding his legs and standing. “That should be worth at least a few more restful nights.”

They stayed in the parlor for another half hour, Meyer making small talk with Lady Courtneay, until Eleanor gave a soft sigh and opened her eyes. Her grandmother was at her side immediately, taking Eleanor’s hand in hers. “Hello, dearest,” she said.

“Hello, Grandmother,” Eleanor replied, her voice much more confident now than it had been before. She scanned the room blearily until she locked her gaze on Meyer. “Did I do well?”

“Splendidly,” Meyer promised. “Can you tell me who it was you saw in the alley that night?”

“Of course, there were–” And there it was again, that blank-page surprise. Eleanor frowned in thought, but no amount of squinting at nothing could make text reappear there. “There was … who was it? Was it someone I knew?”

Meyer gave her a reassuring smile. “No one of any consequence.”

While Meyer finished with Eleanor, Lucian went into the study with Lady Courtenay as she wrote out a check. They met again at the front door, where Eleanor still kept her gaze locked on the floor, only this time instead of shaking in terror, she seemed to be blushing. Meyer promised he’d be back in two weeks’ time before setting out into the daylight, Lucian right behind him.

As they passed the front gates, Lucian turned to Meyer. “So that’s what you did to me,” he said, not an accusation but a statement of fact.

Meyer nodded, but instead of retracing their steps to the house, he turned in the direction of a nearby park. The full morning was upon them now, busy with merchants and workers and children, everyone on their way to something, save for the two of them. “Though I’m sure you can imagine the difference,” Meyer said. “That was ten seconds. You were two years.”

“Why only seconds?” asked Lucian. “You can take away minutes, even hours. Why not scrub the whole night from her?”

With a sigh, Meyer sat down on a park bench, and Lucian followed. “That seems an odd question, coming from you,” Meyer said.

“Perhaps,” Lucian agreed, “but it stands.”

Meyer’s long fingertips traced circles around the head of his cane. “To return to your gangrenous arm metaphor, I don’t wish to cut off any more healthy tissue than I must. If I truly wanted to rid her of that night, I’d need to take everything from then to the present – an offer I made during the initial consultation. But I advised against it, and they agreed. So we take the slower route, and bit by bit, by deleting we restore.”

Lucian took off his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “It seems strange. I grew up hearing, ‘Learn from your mistakes!’ And I know this wasn’t her mistake, but…”

“That’s precisely why I suggest not razing everything.” Meyer smiled and nodded as a trio of women strolled by, pushing sleeping infants in prams. “When all this is done, she’ll be stronger for it. But that strength is negated if she keeps being wounded, again and again, by the memory of the act. That memory itself is an open wound. And sometimes our wounds define us, and sometimes they just bleed.”

Lucian supposed he didn’t have any reply to that. If he’d been given the choice of what to keep and what to destroy from his own mind, would he have been able to decide? He wasn’t sure. At what point would the desire to murder have become so all-consuming that it colored everything in his life? How much could he have left, anyway? Was it simply easier to let The Absence take it all?

After a moment, Meyer chuckled. “She asked if I’d be sure to bring you again next time.”

“Pardon?” asked Lucian.

That made Meyer laugh outright. “I suspect our dear Eleanor has a bit of a crush.”

Lucian was completely at sea. “On me?” he sputtered.

“Is it so unthinkable a concept?”

“Frankly, yes!” answered Lucian, which just made Meyer laugh harder. “Isn’t this an ethical breach?”

Meyer shook his head. “To the contrary, I think it’s a testament to the strength of her recovery.”

“If not to her eyesight,” Lucian added, and when Meyer looked puzzled, he continued, “to see me when you’re sitting much closer.”

The smile on Meyer’s face remained, but Lucian could see a beat of melancholy pulse behind it. Then it was gone, and Meyer was on his feet again. “There’s a little cafe just around the corner run by three Turks, and they make the strongest coffee in London. Would you care to join me for a cup?”

“I would, thank you,” Lucian said, standing. “It’s practically un-British of me to confess, but I actually prefer coffee to tea.”

“Is that so,” said Meyer, his voice even.

The cafe felt familiar in some way Lucian couldn’t place. The old man behind the counter smiled and waved at him as though Lucian were a regular sight, then brought them both their coffees without having to be asked. Perhaps that was what he did for all the customers, Lucien thought, or perhaps he himself had become a regular sometime in the past two years. Either way, it was a pleasantly friendly sensation in a world that had grown so strange, so he declined to question it, or to report on it to Meyer. Some things hardly merited comment.

~*~

The strangest thing about being on call in Meyer’s employ was that Lucian was not wholly sure what he was on call for. He followed Meyer along to various appointments, but he never did anything, at least nothing more than being a second body in the room and sometimes collecting payment. Who had been doing this before he’d arrived? Was Meyer simply making up busywork to justify keeping Lucian around?

Lucian knew better than to complain, though. He had a bed to sleep in and food to eat and clothes to wear, and if the price of it all was to stand still and be present, so what? He knew miners and millers and factory workers who’d literally kill for a job like his.

Still, there were strangenesses aplenty about the house. It seemed to maintain itself in fine order, even if he never saw anyone cleaning it – certainly not Áine, whom he often found tucked in pleasant nooks of the house, reading books in a language he couldn’t identify. For that matter, there was the curious matter of Áine and Roger’s marriage, which had somehow become even less explicable than what he’d seen in the kitchen. It was no cover; Áine and Roger seemed truly in love, and that affection clearly translated to physical attraction. Yet he sometimes saw, when no one thought him watching, overly familiar contact between Kit and each of them, often while the third was in the room! Lucian didn’t want to appear prudish or provincial, so he simply tried to keep his head down and his expression neutral, as though he’d seen nothing at all.

The sight of their affections made his heart ache, though he chalked that up to his general lonely, disconnected state, and nothing more. More than once he awoke in the middle of the night realizing he’d been dreaming of Roger’s strong hands, or the slender curve of Kit’s neck, or Áine’s truly astonishing breasts, or some combination of the three. He felt deeply ashamed of himself, yet had also found himself wishing for more dreams of the same nature.

And then there was Meyer himself. Lucian didn’t know what to make of him, and also didn’t know what to make of how he didn’t know what to make of him, which put him in an odd place indeed. The man was charismatic and sharp – and obviously rather good at his job – but there was something else about him, some recognition Lucian couldn’t shake. The first time he could place it concretely was when Lucian realized that despite never having been introduced to him as such, he was thinking of him not as ‘Meyer’, but ‘Ori’. He told himself that was rude and tried to retrain himself, but try as he might, ‘Ori’ it was.

The fully formed thought came to him at supper one night, so unbidden that he didn’t realize he was talking until the words were out of his mouth: “Have I been here before?”

The answer came in the way all four of his dinner companions froze, utensils midway to their mouths, and three of them turned straight to Ori. For his own part, Ori kept his neutral expression. “What do you mean?”

“Here. This house.” Lucian felt his heart pounding. He didn’t want to press the question; he could tell from their responses that he had been, and that they were doing their best to pretend it wasn’t so. “That’s how I had your card, wasn’t it? During the two years, I was here.”

The others kept their gazes fixed on Ori, who was silent for a full moment before saying, “Yes. You were.”

“So, this is all–” Lucian gestured around the table. “You know me. All of you. You knew me.” He supposed it should have felt like betrayal, but it didn’t particularly feel like anything at all. It was closer to the sensation of figuring out a math problem, realizing that he had the tools to find the solution, even if he’d been taught them in a separate context.

“Yes. We did.” Ori tore off a small piece of bread and began to sop the stew from his bowl with it.

Lucian leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. “So … from the beginning, you’ve been pretending like I’m a stranger.”

“You are a stranger,” Ori said, without meeting Lucian’s eyes. “You’re not that man, and it would be unfair to burden you with the weight of him. You arrived at our door as strange to us as we were to you.”

That didn’t seem quite right, but Lucian didn’t know how to press it. He wasn’t sure of anything, including how to handle the guilty glances the other three shot his way. Only Ori seemed unbothered by the situation. “Then why was I here?”

Kit opened his mouth, then shut it fast as Ori shot him a stern glare. “Think long,” Ori said to Lucian, “about whether you want the answer to that question. What’s learned is not easily unlearned.”

Lucian supposed he and Ori knew that better than most. “All right,” he said at last, and they finished their meal in relative silence, with only spare comments made to pass dishes or remind others of chores. Lucian offered to clean up after, hoping the task of rinsing and drying would help take his mind off things. And for a while, it did.

And yet, the knowledge chewed at him. He wasn’t upset; he was upset that he wasn’t upset. He’d made himself a burden to them, not only stepping into their lives and begging for some crust of bread, but unknowingly pushing them into this strange charade. How bizarre it must have been for them, pretending day in and day out that he was a new acquaintance. Then again, Ori was right – he wasn’t the man he’d been, or at least Ori had taken great pains to ensure that was true. What must that have been like for Ori, to destroy the mind of a friend? Or had they been friends? What if they’d hated one another? What if they’d been other targets of his assassin’s rage? What if they’d been his accomplices?

The possibilities were too numerous. The only thing Lucian could be certain about was that he’d been rude, forcing them all to feign the amnesia he felt. The least he could do was apologize.

The door to Ori’s study was already ajar when Lucian gave a brief knock. “Come in,” Ori called.

Lucian did, watching as Ori glanced up from his work and seemed surprised by Lucian’s presence. “Am I interrupting?” he asked.

Ori shook his head and took off his glasses, folding them on the desk. “No,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose free of their marks. “I thought you might be Kit, with tea.”

“I can go get tea,” Lucian offered. “Or … go find Kit, if you prefer. Perhaps. I can’t promise I’ll be successful. He’s very hard to locate when he doesn’t want to be found, and impossible to avoid anywhere he does want to be.”

“It’s one of his talents.” Ori gestured to a small stool, the room’s only other seat. “Please, come in.”

Lucian sat, then clasped his hands in front of him, resting his elbows on his splayed knees. “I wanted to say that I’m sorry.”

“For what?” asked Ori, his tone blank.

“For–” Lucian hadn’t thought he’d have to specify. “For showing up. Again, apparently.”

Ori dismissed the apology with a wave of his hand. “You didn’t know. There’s no grudge to be held.”

Lucian chewed on his lips. “I can be packed and gone tomorrow morning.”

“No. Stay.”

“Why?”

Ori frowned. “What do you mean? You’re here. I hired you. You work for me. That hasn’t changed since supper.” As he spoke, Queen Mab poked her head into the study, then trotted on over and began wrapping figure-eights around Lucian’s legs. “And the cat would miss you.”

Lucian reached down and stroked Mab’s long, soft back as she passed by. “You know, the rest of you were pretty good at pretending you’d forgotten me. Cats can’t keep such secrets.”

Ori allowed the faintest hint of a smile at that. “You and she have much in common. You’re both on your second life.”

“What do you mean?” asked Lucian.

“She was a gift from you,” Ori said, with his customary maddening lack of affect. “You found her half-drowned on the riverbank. You said I needed a familiar, like a real witch.”

Had he said that? “So we were friends,” Lucian said.

Ori nodded. “We were.”

“And you just–” Lucian waved his arm as though he were sweeping objects off a table. “You took yourself out of me.”

“I took yourself out of you,” Ori said. “I just happened to be there along with it.”

Lucian bit his lower lip as he thought for a moment. “Didn’t they consider it a conflict of interest, you wiping my memory?”

“They would have, yes.” Ori nodded. “Which is why they didn’t know.”

Lucian’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”

That, at last, won an expression from Ori – something tired and distant, and almost sorrowful. He reached for an unlit cigarette from the top of his desk, and the end was glowing bright by the time it reached his mouth. “I am very good at what I do,” he said, each word carrying with it a wisp of smoke. That’s the thing few realize at magic, how very good we are at what we do – and rarely that talented at anything else. Of course, there’s the little things anyone can learn” –he waved the cigarette in the air– “but true specialities are rare. And we don’t choose them. You think I’d pick this, the art of amputations?”

It occurred to Lucian that he’d never given theurgy that much thought before. It had seemed to him a job, as any other, a case of needs filled by the nearest available applicant. “I don’t know,” he said at last.

“What would they have done to you,” Ori asked, “if I hadn’t agreed to take the case? Do you know?”

“Another executioner?” Lucian asked.

Ori shook his head. “There’s not another for leagues. Poland, I believe, may be the nearest. And they’re not shipping her over for this. No, if I’d refused, they’d have had you swinging from the gallows.”

Lucian felt the color drain from his face. It was a sick feeling, to find out how far he’d passed under Death’s shadow without even knowing. “Then I … I suppose it’s good that I’m here. I can repay you. For saving my life. Or … at least, twenty-three twenty-fifths of it.”

“No, you owe me nothing.” Ori flicked his hand and the cigarette vanished into thin air, only to reappear several seconds later in the fingers of his other hand. “Your slate is clean with me. Do you find the terms of your employment fair?”

Supposing he did, Lucian nodded.

“Settled, then.” Ori inhaled long from the cigarette and let out the smoke through his nostrils, like one of the dragons embroidered on the back of Kit’s robes. “I know you have questions. On my honor, I’ll hide nothing from you. But first you have to decide which answers you want, and which you’re ready to let belong to a past that never concerned the man sitting here now.”

Lucian nodded again. At the moment, he didn’t know what he didn’t want to know, and thought it better to save any questions for a time when he was more certain. He smiled as Queen Mab hopped up onto his lap, then climbed onto his shoulders and draped herself behind his neck. “Do you mind if I … if I stay here, for a while?” Lucian asked. “I won’t make a sound, I promise. But I don’t think I want to be alone right now. May I just be here?”

“You may,” Ori said. “But do you want to sit, or do you want to work?”

“I’ll work.” No matter what Ori said, Lucian still felt deeply indebted to the man, and whatever he could do to show his gratitude, he’d gladly do. “What can I do?”

With some small instruction, Ori set Lucian to work balancing his ledgers. Lucian was more than a bit distressed to see that some of the lines were filled with Chinese characters, and some in an indecipherable looping hand Lucian supposed was Roger’s native tongue. But their equivalents were on adjacent lines, and it didn’t take long before Lucian could make sense at least of the digits. He had enough of a head for numbers that what others might have found boring, Lucian considered relaxing. Best of all, it took just enough of his concentration that he had no space left for worrying about other things.

A knock at the door startled him some time later, and Lucian was shocked to realize that the clock had turned ahead three full hours in the time he’d been calculating. In came Kit with a small tea tray, which he set on the desk between them. Lucian took his cup and regarded its contents. “Is this really my favorite?” he asked.

Kit smiled and nodded, then reached into his robes and pulled out a deck of cards. “Cut it,” he said, handing it to Lucian.

Lucian did, as close to the middle as he could. “Now what?”

“Now hand it back,” Kit instructed, and Lucian did. Kit took the deck and picked off the top card, then laughed as he showed it to Lucian. On the face of the card was the figure of an upside-down man, strung up at one ankle, with the other leg’s knee folded. “Look at what’s in play.”

“Is that me?” asked Lucian, recalling with a shudder how close he’d come to swinging.

With a knowing smirk, Kit replaced the card in the deck, gave it all a thorough shuffle, and handed it to Ori. “Your turn.”

Ori wore the expression of a patient parent indulging an earnest child as he reached over and gave the deck three sharp raps. On the third knock, a single card flipped from the deck and launched into the air, then made a fluttering descent to the book open in front of Ori. The card had a dark figure on it, standing by a river. It looked even more ominous than Lucian’s card, but Kit laughed. “The Hanged Man and the Reversed Five of Cups,” he announced, as though that was supposed to mean something to Lucian. “Not everything lost is gone, hm?”

“Shouldn’t you be out conning some credulous widow out of her husband’s meager pension?” asked Ori in a tone Lucian might once have mistook for genuine annoyance. Now, he could hear the affection coursing beneath it.

“You’re just mad because I’m right,” Kit said, then bent down and pressed a kiss into the thick, wild curls of Ori’s hair. When he straightened again, he looked across the desk at Lucian and gave him a warm smile. “New friends are silver, old friends are gold, but what do you call one who’s both at once?”

Lucian shrugged. “Confused?”

That got Kit to throw back his head in a full-throated laugh, and even Ori smiled. “Magnificent,” Kit said, blowing Lucian a kiss. “You gentlemen know where I’ll be if either – or both – of you want me.” Folding his arms into his sleeves, he made a graceful exit and closed the doors behind him.

The full weight of Kit’s last sentence didn’t land until Lucian was midway through a swallow of tea. He gave a little cough, then looked at Ori. “Were he and I–” Oh no, he had no idea how to finish that sentence. ‘Confused’ didn’t begin to cover it. “Were we … companionable?”

Ori peered at him over the tops of his glasses. “Are you asking because you want to know or because it just occurred to you to ask?”

Lucian didn’t have a response there. “I’ll … go back to this,” he said, burying his face into the ledger’s columns before he could see Ori’s reaction. Saving his questions for later sounded like a better idea all the time.

~*~

Lucian was in the process of shaving when Roger burst into his room unannounced. “Police downstairs,” Roger said, his face drawn. “Want to talk to you about some bodies found.”

“Found when?” asked Lucian, his blood running cold. Had they just discovered another crime he’d committed during his missing years, one far more heinous than simply attempted assassination? What could save him from a murder he couldn’t remember?

Roger shook his head. “Didn’t say.”

Lucian finished shearing his whiskers as fast he could, then threw on a coat and hoped that would count as presentable enough for law enforcement. As he went down the stairs, he saw the two officers seated on the same couch where he’d had his job interview of sorts with Ori. Áine and Ori were in chairs opposite them, and Kit – perhaps wisely – was nowhere to be seen. “Mr. Whitaker,” said one of officers, looking up as Lucian approached.

“Hello,” Lucian said, trying to appear as neutral and unconcerned as he could, even though his stomach was a mess of knots. “Can I help you today?”

“Have a seat,” said the older officer, whose moustache was all but steely grey. As Lucian did, the officer nodded to Ori. “We’ve been speaking with your employer here. Curious that you’ve found yourself in his particular service.”

“Not curious at all,” Ori said, his spine pulled straight. He was wearing a plain suit, but he’d clearly thrown a hooded robe over his shoulder before presenting himself to his guests, reminding them just how dangerous their host could be. “Mr. Whitaker is well-suited to this employment, and I’ve found myself pleased with his work.”

The younger officer scratched his own ginger moustache. Lucian supposed he’d missed the introductions and didn’t merit a second round. “Mr. Whitaker,” he began, “can you account for your whereabouts the evening of this Thursday past?”

Lucian tried not to let the wash of relief show on his face. From the corner of his eye, he saw Ori’s knuckles darken as his hands unclenched, and he realized they must have had the same fear. “I was here,” Lucian said. “What’s this about?”

The younger officer produced a folder with the edges of photographs peeking out from the sides, and placing it on the table before them, he flipped it open before Lucian had time to steel himself for what might be inside. I didn’t matter, though; he could have had days and still not been prepared for the pictures. They clearly showed bodies, but bodies that were wrong. Something terrible had happened to them, and Lucian had no interest in staring long enough to figure out what it was. He shut his eyes and turned away, breathing slowly.

“Three girls,” the older officer explained. “Not whores. From good, loving families. Two of them have been there for some time, but the third disappeared Thursday night. And we have a description of a man seen around those parts, given to us by someone who knows you personally, Mr. Whitaker.”

Lucian shook his head. “I was here. From Thursday afternoon until Friday morning, until I left with Mr. Meyer.”

The younger officer cleared his throat in a way that might have been an ill-disguised scoff. “And can anyone vouch for that?”

Could they? Lucian wracked his brains, trying to dredge up the specifics of an otherwise unmemorable Thursday night. Roger had made dinner. They’d eaten together and gone their separate ways. He’d read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman until he’d fallen asleep with Queen Mab on his chest. If only cats could talk!

The younger officer narrowed his eyes. “If there’s no one here to account for your whereabouts, then–”

“He was with me,” Áine said, stunning the room into silence. She leaned forward, moving to an angle where her breasts threatened to spill forth from her bodice at any moment. “All night. My husband was away on business, and Mr. Whitaker was with me. He was with me.”

There was a loud gasp from the stairwell, and everyone turned to see Roger, red-faced and shaking his fist. “You whore!” he shouted.

“A whore?” Áine shrieked back, standing fast enough to rattle the coffee table with her long skirts. “I should be considered a widow by abandonment!”

“That I have married such a faithless woman!” Roger shouted right over her. “To be cuckolded by a bloody Englishman!” He carried on at such a volume that it took Lucian a moment to realize that what came next was not English, but some Indian language he couldn’t identify. It came flying from Roger’s mouth with the speed of firecrackers tossed into a furnace, and Lucian was startled to hear Áine respond with equal ferocity. She stomped off toward the kitchen and he tore right behind her, slamming the door behind them. Even through the heavy wooden door, those in the parlor could still hear the clamor of raised voices.

In the relative silence that followed, Ori looked at the officers. “I think that shall serve as an alibi for Mr. Whitacre, yes? Now if you wouldn’t mind, please, I have some matter to care for with my household staff.”

“Ah, yes,” harrumphed the older officer. He stood and straightened his jacket, indicating the younger officer should do the same. He did, picking up the folder as he did. “Eyewitness must have been mistaken.”

“It happens,” Ori said, now all smiles and politeness. “Gaslight makes all things strange. May I show you two out?”

The second the door closed with the officers on the other side, Kit emerged from the shadows and shouted into the kitchen, “They’re gone!”

Moment later, Áine and Roger emerged, red-faced and shaking. Lucian was ready to beg Roger’s forgiveness, to swear that it wasn’t true … when he realized that they were laughing so hard they were crying. “You son of a Punjab alley cat!” Áine spat at Roger, or at least tried to; she was giggling too hard to get the words all the way out. Roger had a hand around her waist, steadying them both as they weaved like two drunkards back toward the couch.

Ori, however, was in far less of a good humor. “Tell me true. If you lie, I can’t help you.” He pointed at Lucian and stormed close, his cloak waving around him. “Did you do this?”

“No!” Lucian gasped, grabbing the back of the chair for support. “I wasn’t, that is, Áine and I weren’t, we absolutely weren’t, but – no! No, I swear on my life, I’d never do such a horrible thing!”

Ori’s face remained dark and drawn. He reached into his cloak and pulled out a small iron sigil, one Lucian hardly saw before Ori thrust it into his hand. “If you lie to me, this will kill you where you stand. Did you do this?”

Lucian held up the sigil in a tight fist. “I did not,” he said, praying that there was nothing lost in his past that would brand him false. But the sigil remained still and cold in Lucian’s hand, and after a moment, he returned it to Ori, who looked somewhat placated, if not wholly at peace.

Áine reached under the hem of her dress and pulled out three photographs, obviously from the stack the officers had brought with them. “I didn’t want to take the lot,” she explained, handing them over to Ori; her cheeks were still flushed with mirth, but she had settled into a more serious tone. “They’d be back for that. But three might just have slipped out along the way.”

“Good,” Ori said, glancing at the pictures before setting them face-down on the table. He sank into his seat and the others joined him, Lucian and Kit in chairs, Áine and Roger together on the couch. “We have a problem.”

“The police have a problem,” Kit corrected him. “My heart bleeds for these young women, it truly does, but what has it to do with us?”

“They said they have an eyewitness,” Roger said, furrowing his brow in Lucian’s direction. “Someone who knows you. Why would an acquaintance misidentify you?”

Lucian shrugged. “I don’t know, I – I simply don’t know. They didn’t say who it was, did they?”

Ori shook his head, then took in a deep breath. He reached for the pictures and turned them right-side up, one after the other. “I need you to look,” he said to Lucian, “long and hard, and I need you to tell me if anything here is familar.”

“Familiar?” Lucian sputtered, recoiling from the images. “I swore to you already, I wasn’t there–”

“I know.” Ori silenced him with a raised hand, then waited a beat before pointing again at the photographs. “Try anyway.”

Lucian balled his hands into fists by his sides and caught his lips between his teeth as he made himself stare at the grotesque images before him. These poor women had met such brutal ends, and there was no way to tell which injuries had been visited upon them before or after death. He felt the bile rise in the back of his throat and tried to will it back down. Why was Ori making him do this? If he hadn’t been there, what could he have known about–

“Mary Bellman,” Lucian murmured.

Áine gasped. “Jesus Christ,” she swore under her breath.

“Mary Bellman?” asked Roger.

“Found by the docks,” said Kit, who looked ashen. “It’ll be three years ago this March. But she wasn’t … there was nothing like this.”

“Because she was the first,” Lucian said, feeling something cold and terrible crawl up from the back of his memory, just before its sharp drop-off into nothingness. “My God, there were others, weren’t there? Between then and now?” Grim-faced, Ori nodded, and Lucian felt his head swim. “So what does this have to do with me? Who’s trying to frame me for this?”

“I don’t know,” Ori said. “But from this moment, everyone is on high alert. Only Roger leaves unaccompanied, and even then, only if he must. If the police know you’re here, they’re not the only ones who do. No one comes inside. If they return, tell them we’ll meet them at the station. This was their first and last invitation.”

“Fine,” Kit said after a moment, “we have a problem.”

“No, you don’t,” Lucian said. “I have a problem. And I can go. Like you said when I got here, most men like me can’t go abroad fast enough.”

“Then you’ll die in a Paris alleyway,” Ori said, “or a Roman harbor, or a Tunisian basement. The moment you leave this house unprotected, you become a target. Now, whoever’s trying to set you up has to try. There, they’ll slit your throat and pin whatever they want on your corpse.”

His brief foray into boldness curtailed, Lucian sank back into his chair and covered his face with his hands. “God’s wounds,” he swore.

“Well.” Áine cleared her throat. “If someone’s got a plan, speak up, because there’s only so many affairs my husband can accuse me of having.”

“Oh, my darling,” Roger said, clasping her hand, “you underestimate yourself.”

That at least got smiles out of all of them, even Ori, who otherwise looked as stone-faced as Lucian could ever remember having seen him. Kit suggested they shouldn’t be doing this on empty stomachs and commandeered Áine and Roger to help him fix lunch. They retreated as one to the kitchen, leaving Ori and Lucian in the parlor with the photographs.

“I’m so sorry,” Lucian moaned under his breath. “I’m so sorry, I – Christ, I never would have come here if I’d–”

“No,” Ori said, his tone curt. “There are things I should have believed before, when you said them.”

There was no question here the ‘you’ Ori meant was the Lucian of the lost years. “Did I … did I actually plan to kill Gardiner?”

“Oh, yes.” Ori nodded. “That was beyond any doubt. Had they known to call me as a witness, I could have testified that you’d told me as much.”

“Oh,” sighed Lucian, who’d half-hoped that his innocence on this front might translate to innocence on others. But it seemed that he’d be guilty as charged, for all the good that knowledge did him. “What witnesses did they call, then?”

“None.”

“A trial with no witnesses?” Lucian was baffled.

Ori shook his head. “Not so much of a trial at all. I wasn’t there, but I need to know what I’m working with to do my job, so I had limited access to the court records, such as they were. The evidence was so straightforward that little was presented, or had to be. There was little to say in your defense. There was almost nothing but a verdict and a sentence.”

“No, that’s–” Lucian shook his head, balling his hands into fists. “I had a reason. I had to have had a reason.”

“I don’t know what it was. You never told me.” Ori reached for the photographs, gathering them up and placing them face-down again; Lucian supposed they’d both had enough of those sights to last them a long while. “You told me you didn’t trust me because I worked for the Crown.”

Thinking of what had just happened with the two officers, Lucian chuckled. “Shows what a terrible judge of character I was. And perhaps still am.”

“Perhaps,” Ori agreed, with no humor in his voice. He turned in his chair and looked at Lucian again. “You need to know, I can’t give you those two years back. It isn’t as though I’ve walled them off or boxed them up. You’d have better luck handing me ashes from the fireplace and asking me to make them trees again.”

Lucian supposed, deep in his heart, he’d been holding out hope for that as a possible solution. If it wasn’t to be, however, then there was no good crying over its loss. “Still,” he said, “if I can remember Mary Bellman, then … that means this started further back than you got to. I can make the connections again, if I have the same information. I can come to the same conclusions.”

“The conclusions nearly got you hanged,” Ori pointed out.

“What other choice do I have?” Lucian raked his fingers through his hair. “I found out about a young woman’s murder, and two years later, I tried to kill a member of Parliament. I can’t believe that’s coincidence.”

“I don’t think it is either,” Ori agreed, “but I also don’t read as coincidence a pair of officers showing up intending to bring you in for it. Until we know what it means, we tread lightly. And that means all of us.”

~*~

For all Lucian had questioned the day before, he’d never thought to ask why Roger was allowed out on his own. He supposed he’d chalked it up to necessity; after all, Roger made deliveries and gathered supplies, and demanding he take a chaperone would slow down the household as a whole. Therefore, he thought nothing of it when Roger caught him drinking his morning tea and asked, “Come with me on a delivery run, yeah?”

Lucian hesitated. “Is it all right for me to go?”

“It’s fine, don’t worry.” Roger pointed off toward the main house. “There’s nothing on the client roster for this morning, and I’d think you could use a bit of fresh air.”

The truth was, he absolutely could. He hadn’t realized how long he’d been inside the main house itself until he’d found himself barred from leaving it unaccompanied. The weather was gloomy but the temperature was pleasant, at least. “All right,” Lucian agreed. “Let me get my coat.”

As they walked through the streets at an unhurried pace, Roger looked to Lucian and smiled. “You looked like we scared ten years off your life with the shouting match yesterday. Wanted to make sure you know I’m not in the leastwise mad at you, nor would have been if it’d been true.”

Lucian felt a flush rise to his cheeks; he coughed, tugging at the brim of his hat. “That’s … that’s generous of you, thank you,” he sputtered, because how else was a man meant to respond to such a comment from a husband about a wife?

Roger clapped Lucian affectionately on his shoulder. “In fact, the only thing worth hollering about there would’ve been if she hadn’t invited me along!”

“Oh,” Lucian said, as his cheeks darkened another several shades.

Roger just laughed. “Took you a while to get used to it last time, too, I remember. It’s all right. I know it isn’t standard, but … well, you can’t say my marriage is the strangest thing about the household.”

No, Lucian supposed he couldn’t. This was the first time anyone but Ori had openly brought up his missing years, though, and Lucian followed the trail: “What was I like, when you knew me?”

“Bit louder.” Roger shrugged. “There was something about you earlier, something angry. It’s gone now, and it’s left you jumping at shadows.”

That, Lucian figured, was a fair assessment of his current state. “How did … how did I find you all? Before, I mean.”

“Came home with Ori,” Roger said, before he frowned. “You and he haven’t talked this through?”

Lucian shook his head. “He doesn’t want to talk about it, I don’t think. Was I awful to him?”

Roger sighed, and Lucian could hear the sorrow in his breath. “The opposite. Broke his heart.”

Lightning might as well have struck Lucian on the crown of his head for all the shock he felt. Why hadn’t he considered that as a possibility? He must have been unconsciously trying to avoid thinking too hard on it, to have missed such an obvious answer.

“So you see,” Roger continued, when it was clear Lucian would make no response, “why we were all cautious about having you back. He’s the boss, of course, and what he says goes. But sometimes we’ve got to take care of him too. We love him, yeah? He’s the reason we’re all here and not scraping shit out of gutters to survive. Guess that goes for you too now, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t–” Lucian cleared his throat. “I wouldn’t want to hurt him.”

“Good. Don’t.” They stopped in front of a seedy-looking building where two toughs loomed outside the front door, both sporting hairy forearms and scarred knuckles. Roger extended his hand to Lucian, who took it, expecting he was being handed something. Instead, Roger turned his hand and twined their fingers together, the way lovers might walk together on a pleasant afternoon. “Not a word, yeah?” he said, and Lucian nodded.

Giving the satchel on his other shoulder a securing heft, Roger walked straight forward. Lucian nearly yelped, then remembered his promise and bit his lip to keep from making a sound. As though he owned the place, Roger walked up to the man nearer the doorknob and stood by him.

The man almost looked at Roger – and yet, that almost meant there was a dreamlike quality to his gaze. He stared straight at where Roger was without seeming to see him at all. They remained in place there for nearly a full minute, holding position as Lucian’s hand began to sweat, but Roger held steady. At last, when Lucian felt his heart might burst from his chest, the man wordlessly opened the door and let them inside.

It took all Lucian’s self-control to keep from asking Roger just what in blazes was happening, but he tightened his grip on Roger’s hand and let himself be carried forward. Together they went through winding halls and up flights of stairs Roger clearly knew well, passing by people who moved to let them by, but otherwise didn’t acknowledge their presence. In a small parlor, Roger dropped Lucian’s hand and gestured for Lucian to follow him, then stepped into the adjacent room.

The room was spacious, sparsely furnished, and all elements inside led to a chair where a beautiful woman sat. There was something else to her, though, something that existed in a place Lucian’s gaze could nearly detect. She had long, silvering brown hair and a sleek satin dress, and as pretty as she was, Lucian had to work to keep his eyes from sliding right off her.

“Dear Roger,” she purred, her voice tinged with an accent Lucian couldn’t identify. “What brings you all this way?”

“A letter,” Roger said, opening his satchel, “and a book. One of them is dangerous, and I couldn’t swear which.”

“Probably both,” said the woman with a shrug. She rose from her chair, moving like liquid in reverse. Lucian’s conscious mind told him he was looking at a human, but the animal core of his brain was screaming at him to run, he was in the presence of a predator, he might be dead already. “That’s all?”

Roger placed the items on the table and stepped back. “Can’t carry what I’m not given,” he said with a smile.

She shrugged again, then turned to look at Lucian. “A curious boy,” she said, folding her arms across her chest. “A man with a hole in his mind. A wide one, too. Careful you don’t fall in.”

“I have a favor to ask of you, Great Lady,” Roger said, reaching into his satchel again. “On behalf of the master of my house.” He pulled out a red gem the size of his fist; it wasn’t faceted, worked by a jeweler’s hands, but was instead still raw stone, with dark brown bits of its matrix still clinging to its edges.

The woman laughed as she looked at the stone. “Favors don’t come with payment.”

“They do if the payment may be insufficient.” Roger held out the gem. “There are things lost that might have been caught in your web. All Mr. Meyer wants to know is that you’ll please tell him anything that connects to this man.”

The expression on her face darkened, and for a moment Lucian saw not two eyes but eight, twenty, a million, staring in at him from all corners of the room. Then she blinked and they were gone, replaced by the sunlight through the windows. “Keep your stone,” she said, returning to her chair. “The payment for this will be when this is resolved for all of us.”

“They’re killing women,” Lucian sputtered, forgetting his promise not to talk. “And they’re trying to blame it on me.”

“Yes, they are,” the woman said. “Humans born without wings, graft feathers to their arms and try to fly. How will they fare?”

Lucian swallowed. “Not well.”

The woman gave him an approving nod. “You’re lucky you take after your mother. But be careful. You look so much like your father.”

“My–” Lucian raised a hand to his chest. “My father?”

“That’s all I have for you,” said the woman, reaching for the letter. “And Roger, darling, next time bring me some Marcona almonds, would you?”

“The next time I’m in Spain, Great Lady, I’ll bring you all that I can carry.” Roger gave her a bow, then took Lucian’s hand again. “We’re leaving,” he told Lucian, and Lucian found no reason to argue. Back they went, out the same way they came, moving invisibly through halls and past crowds, until they were well clear of the building.

When Roger dropped Lucian’s hand, Lucian felt himself swoon and grabbed for a nearby lamppost. “I have,” he sputtered, “so many questions about what just happened.”

Roger chuckled. “She’s a god, it’s a phoenix gizzard, and Kit learned how to do that from me, no matter what he tells you.”

Lucian paused for a moment, letting that all sink in. “Now I have … somewhat fewer questions about what just happened.”

“Save them,” Roger said, patting Lucian on his arm. “What she told you needs to go through Ori.”

Ori, right. It was bizarre to think that twenty minutes ago, the most pressing issue in his life had been making sense of whatever he and Ori had once been. Now he was reeling from the cascade of information presented and the implications it had on his understanding of the universe. Sunday School hadn’t prepared him for this. “So … you are a theurgist,” he managed.

Nodding, Roger started off down the boulevard, so Lucian followed him. “Limited fashion. Self-taught.”

“But not registered.”

“Never applied,” Roger said. “They’d turn me down, and then they’d boot me from the country, once they know what I can do. Best to stay harmless, and stay.”

“But–” Lucian looked down at his hand. “How did you bring me with you?”

Roger barked a laugh, but when he saw the look of outright confusion on Lucian’s face, he stopped cold. “You’re like us, mate.” He sighed and put a hand on Lucian’s arm. “We missed you. You’re a right bastard when you want to be, but you were always a good fit.”

Something about the way Roger said it – so casual and sincere, put forth as a fact like any other – knocked Lucian off his feet, and he all but burst into tears there on the sidewalk. He couldn’t remember ever having belonged anywhere, not really. He’d been brought up in orphanages and the foster care of distantly related individuals, with groups of friends as variable as the weather. He’d managed to find what he’d thought was his place in the world, until he’d blinked and found himself stranded again, one more foundling.

Why had he gone to the Meyer house? The card in his pocket, of course, had been his excuse. But why really? He could have had the address of the Lord Mayor in his pocket, and he still wouldn’t have gone knocking at the gates of his home, begging shelter. Something he knew, but that he no longer knew he knew, had told him this was safe. He’d had much taken from him, but maybe there things burned deeper than even Ori’s talents could erase. Not conscious memory, then, but pure instinct. The deep, animal part of his recognized shelter in a storm, knew how to find his own kind, even if he didn’t know them when he saw them.

Roger reached for Lucian and took his hand again, and Lucian clung to him with grateful force, even here in full daylight, in the middle of the street. “And you ever want to sleep with my wife – or her husband,” Roger said with a grin, “you know where to find us.”

Lucian was shaken from his melancholy into pink-cheeked embarrassment. He became profoundly aware of the heat and texture of Roger’s bare skin against his own. “Don’t tease,” he muttered, staring at his feet. He hadn’t yet dealt with any of his more personal feelings about this whole matter, least of all how he’d had to regularly shake himself free of embarrassing fantasies on waking, and he wasn’t ready to be confronted about them by one of their subjects.

Roger scoffed at the comment. “Don’t be daft. When I tease,” he added with a wink, “you’ll know.”

~*~

They found Ori in shirtsleeves, rummaging through the pages of an ancient book with one hand and stroking Queen Mab with the other as he lay on the sofa. Roger began recounting the mundanities of their visit – almonds and all – then added what the Great Lady had said about Lucian, fixed Ori with a stern gaze, and left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Ori sat up and shut his book, marking his page with a faded ribbon. “I have to beg your forgiveness,” he said, “and you must beg mine, even though you can neither accept nor give such.”

Lucian crossed his arms across his chest. “Yours first.”

“I believed the charges,” Ori said, looking Lucian straight in the eye. He clearly wasn’t proud of his statement, but neither was he going to run from it.

“You had cause,” Lucian said with a shrug. “I was guilty.”

Ori shook his head and gestured that Lucian should take a seat on the other end of the couch. This necessitated relocating Queen Mab, who was grumpy about it until she realized this created an entirely new lap for her to occupy. When Lucian was settled, Ori continued: “I believed that you had killed those women.”

Had he been holding anything, Lucian would have dropped it in surprise. “You knew?” he sputtered.

“Of course I knew,” Ori said, his brow darkening. “That’s why I was the one who gave your name to the law.”

The air in Lucian’s lungs felt punched empty. He’d reconciled himself to the fact that Ori was the physical cause of his current condition, reasoning that it had only been Ori’s job – that it in fact surely been hard on Ori as well. But he’d never once considered how far back Ori’s involvement in his guilt might go. His hand stilled on Queen Mab’s back, and he pressed it to her so it would not tremble.

A long, quiet moment later, Ori folded his hands atop the book. “For what it’s worth, I did it to save your life–”

“Stop,” Lucian snapped. He bit his lip and stiffened his spine. “Stop talking around things. Stop tossing me pieces and expecting me to ignore the silences between them. If you want my forgiveness, I need to know the length and breadth of what I’m being expected to forgive.”

Obvious reluctance wrote its way across Ori’s face, but he nodded. He was a brave man, and Lucian supposed one couldn’t make a career of confronting others’ demons without learning the need to face one’s own. “There was no formal charge,” Ori began, “but the evidence was mounting, and I could see that it was pointing to you. I wanted to ask you, but I was too afraid it was true. And I knew that one they caught you, the public would brand you a monster and you’d find yourself a quick trip to the end of a rope.”

Lucian had seen enough sensational headlines to know Ori wasn’t wrong. “I told you I didn’t trust you because you worked for the Crown,” he murmured, remembering what Ori had said.

“You weren’t wrong,” said Ori with a deep sigh. “So I made a calculation. You were demonstrably guilty of a crime worthy of psychic as well as physical execution. I gave your name with the understanding that your life would be spared.”

“Just not my memories.” Lucian ran a hand over his face. “And you thought I’d, what, be grateful?”

“I thought you’d be alive!” snapped Ori, raising his voice. “I thought I’d cut that part out of you, and you’d wander off to spend your days in Tangiers, or the Caribbean, somewhere warm, somewhere you’d live and not hurt anyone anymore.”

Lucian thought about the crime scene photographs and how they must have come as such a shock to Ori. Of course, the police would have read nothing of that on Ori’s face. He had just enough cracks of humor and rage that Lucian was convinced the man was human and not a clever automaton, but only by the faintest of margins.

Ori sighed again, settling himself back against the couch. “And you can’t forgive me, because the man who could, I killed. You see my dilemma.”

Indeed, Lucian could. He wanted to be angry, even fully indignant – how dare you accuse me of such a thing, how could you believe me capable of it? – but the truth was, he was capable of murder, or at least the design of it. If Ori knew that truth about him, it stood to reason he might believe other, similar lies. Not for the first time since this all happened, Lucian felt ill. This was too much too fast, and he experienced it as motion sickness.

And yet, there was always more. Lucian gathered himself and looked at Ori: “And what forgiveness do I need from you?”

“You asked me to murder Gardiner for you,” Ori said, flat as ever.

Lucian’s eyebrows shot up toward his hairline. “I–” he began, then realized he had nothing to follow it except a feeble, “how?”

Ori stared off into some middle distance in the room, and even though bright sunlight poured in through the upper windows, Ori himself seemed to fade into a shadowy cloud. “My business is forgetting,” he said softly. “I can carefully extract an hour or burn away whole years. But the mind holds more than memories. I can make a man forget how to use his legs, or that he has them at all. I can make him forget that he needs to eat. I can make him forget how to breathe. It isn’t even difficult – one with my talents can do it on accident, the way a surgeon removing a tumor can nick an artery. I have spent years of my life honing my art to a precise skill that preserves life. And you would have had me play the butcher.”

Lucian let out a long-held breath in a thin stream from between pursed lips. Ori was right; Lucian couldn’t plead for an apology, because the wrong he’d done was gone now, cut out by that very precision. Perhaps this had been what Roger had meant when he’d said Lucian had broken Ori’s heart.

A grim little smile came over Ori’s face. “I shouted at you, then,” he said, “and you at me, and some unkind words were spoken. And the next time I saw you in person … well, you remember that now as the first time you saw me.”

“This still makes no sense,” Lucian said, because there were still too many pieces in play, and despite his earlier admonitions, Ori still spoke more like the Great Lady than like a regular human being. “You thought I was a murderer. Even now it’s clear I’m not, someone is still blaming it on me. I asked you to kill a man I then tried to kill myself. Why is this happening?”

“I don’t know,” Ori said. “But as long as you’re in my home, you’re safe.”

“How can I be safe?” Lucian asked. “The police found me here.”

“They found the building because they – like you – knew where to look.” Ori ran his fingers along the back of the couch, tracing swirls in the brocade. “As part of my registration, I must have my address on file. Without it, you can’t even locate the building. But don’t mistake location for access. This house doesn’t take kindly to uninvited guests.”

Lucian shuddered at the thought. He’d often felt strangeness in the maze-like quality of the winding hallways and slender staircases, the impossibility of the rooms that stretched wider than the house should have allowed, the way windows could open onto fresh air when he knew there was only brick wall on the other side. He had little trouble imagining how someone could become very lost, perhaps permanently so. It was a thought both reassuring and dreadful at once.

“The, ah,” Lucian began, “the Great Lady? She said that I took after my mother but I look like my father.”

Ori shrugged. “So do many men.”

“But I never knew my mother or my father,” Lucian told him. “So why did she tell me that now?”

“Worth considering, I suppose,” Ori agreed. “I’ll set Áine on it. She has a knack for investigations.”

Lucian didn’t doubt that a bit, not after he’d seen her mesmerize men with her bustline while secreting things into the folds of her skirts. The thought of magical powers among the household occupants gave him pause, though, and he remembered his outing with Roger. “Am I magic?” he asked, fully expecting the response to be outright mocking laughter.

Instead, Ori gave a small nod. “You have the potential. That was what I saw first about you.”

It occurred to Lucian that for all he’d pieced together about his missing years, he still had no idea how he’d come to know Ori in the first place. “How did we meet?” he asked.

“At a gala.”

When Ori fell silent, Lucian waved him on. “Go on, tell me more.”

Ori hesitated for a moment more. “There are things in this story you can’t unlearn about yourself. Are you sure?”

Now it was Lucian’s turn to hesitate. “Bad things?”

“Some would say so.”

“Would you?” asked Lucian, and Ori shook his head. “Then tell me.”

Ori nodded, his eyes going a touch unfocused with the memory. “It was a gathering to honor the ambassador so-and-so of somewhere, I honestly can’t recall. I’d been issued an invitation by a duchess I’d done work for, who thought it the height of curious fashion to bring a theurgist to a gathering. A few glasses of champagne and some rich, spicy food later, and I needed some air. I wandered out to a nearby balcony, and you were standing there.”

This, Lucian had little trouble believing. He’d tried to do his social climbing with charm, working his way into any invitation to any function he could, in order to be seen and known as one who could function in such circles. At the same time, however, he’d often found himself taking the nearest respite he could find. He had no idea how the true social butterflies managed it.

“It was a late summer evening, and there was still a touch of color in the western sky,” Ori continued, “but in the east, the stars had begun to appear. And I remember thinking how you were like that, dim against the receding pink light. With fuller dark, you’d shine.”

“Did you tell me this?” asked Lucian.

Ori scoffed, but there was a little smile at the edge of his mouth. “Not my usual way to start a conversation with a handsome stranger, no. We made small talk. And then I fucked you twice in the garden before sending you home with that card you found in your pocket.”

Lucian choked. “Pardon?”

Now Ori looked downright smug. “There was a charming little gazebo. It was a pleasant night.”

“I had never–” Lucian stopped himself, though, before his protests offended Ori. “That’s … are you sure that was me?”

Ori laughed. “Would you like me to describe the birthmark on your left thigh?”

Lucian had no idea if he would like that or not. “That simply seems … very unlike me.”

“You and me and nearly everyone else there,” Ori said. “The best I can determine, someone was wearing far too much sylphic perfume to the event, and enough of us got near it that there were a number of very interesting scandals to break over the next few weeks, and at least a few children born the following year of, shall we say, irregular parentage.”

Lucian held his hand to his forehead. There was a reason such enchanted scents were forbidden by law. Yet even though it hadn’t been his fault twice over, he felt his cheeks burn with shame. Was he sorry now he’d asked? He didn’t know. There was no virtue in ignorance, but neither was there any in having to sit through an unrecountable past.

“And I know that was your first time,” Ori said, making Lucian’s heart stutter. “You told me later, and I said that I was sorry I hadn’t made it a bit more romantic.”

“I’m sorry, I–” Lucian let his hand drape fully over his eyes, praying that he could learn to become invisible the same way Roger did. If he could learn such a skill, he didn’t know if he’d ever want to be seen again. He felt tears begin to prick at the corners of his eyes, the same way the surface of an overfilled glass did before it spilled its contents down the sides. “I’m so embarrassed,” he managed.

He felt a warm hand come to rest on his knee, and he looked to see Ori staring back at him with an expression so patient, so kind, that one of those tears did slip free and draw a line down Lucian’s cheek. “You have nothing to be embarrassed about,” Ori said, “and not only because you can’t remember. Desire is not an embarrassment. Neither is love. In fact, they are the greatest sources of magical power. Everything I can do is because I love and am loved.”

Lucian fished for a handkerchief in his pocket and held it across his eyes, catching his breath and willing all other tears to evaporate. “I have to … I need to rest,” he said, swallowing hard. It had been a very trying morning on several accounts, and the worst part of it all had been that the back-breaking straw had not been meeting a god, or learning he’d been suspected of and solicited murder, or even hearing of the magic-fueled tryst that had taken a virginity he assumed he’d still possessed. No, the truly unbearable bit was imagining that he had once been thought deserving of such affections, and now, without a trace, they were gone.

Ori patted the couch they sat on. “Lie here for a while, if you’d like,” he said as he stood. “I’ll be right by.”

That, Lucian decided, was a fine offer. He turned his body lengthwise, bending his knees slightly to accommodate for his height. Queen Mab hopped off long enough to let him get settled, then took up her perch as a comforting weight on Lucian’s chest. He closed his eyes and let himself listen to the tidal pulse of his breath.

“Better?” asked Ori.

Lucian nodded. His brain hadn’t geared down entirely, though, and he found himself thinking of the last time something like this had come up in conversation between them: “Were Kit and I also…?”

“Yes,” Ori said.

“And Roger and Áine too?”

“Yes.”

Lucian exhaled long and slow, his breath ruffling Queen Mab’s fur. “And you and I.” That wasn’t a question.

“Yes.” Ori cleared his throat, but his back was now to Lucian, who couldn’t read his face – or know if there was anything there to read at all. “This should put no obligation on you now, though. Not all desire must, or even should, be acted upon. Like love, it can be enough simply to exist.”

Did you love me? was the first question Lucian didn’t ask, and Do you still? was the second. He didn’t know which answer would break him more.

~*~

When he woke again, the light was wrong. It had run backwards, and now was streaming in from the wrong side of the sky. Lucian sat up to realize that Queen Mab was gone, and that he’d slept through the rest of the day and night, on into the following morning. He felt shaky and bleary, but also steadier somehow.

He washed up briefly, letting his pale whiskers be for now, and trudged downstairs. The others were around the kitchen table, and Áine laughed as Lucian walked in. “You’re a bastard!” she announced brightly.

Lucian didn’t know what he’d done to deserve this. “I…”

“But I found out whose bastard you are, Lucian.” Áine folded her arms across her chest. “Or shall I address you as Neville Angelus Gardiner, Jr.?”

All that steadiness bled out from Lucian’s body, starting at his knees. He took the nearest chair, next to Kit. Kit poked him in the shoulder. “Your initials are NAG,” he teased.

Lucian found half a scowl was an appropriate response to that, before turning to the more pressing matter at hand. “How did you…?”

Áine pointed at him with her fork as she talked. “When your mother – a little enchantress named Dania Pilkvist, her customs form indicates skill in unspecified divination – gave birth to you, she listed him as the father on the certificate of birth. Those are all gone now, the archives curiously empty. And the death records have her name there about a month after your birth, ‘complications from childbirth’ listed as the cause. That’s shite, but ignore that for now.”

Lucian felt a bit of whiplash, having gained and lost a mother in the space of a few sentences, but he nodded agreement.

“And they thought they were right clever bastards, having destroyed those, I’m sure,” Áine continued. “But what they didn’t realize is that two weeks after you were born, dear Dania took her little boy to be christened, so that if the Good Lord took him at a tender age, he would go straight into the arms of the Sweet Baby Jesus. And that” –she slammed her hand on the table for emphasis– “is a record-keeping system to rival the Domesday Book. Baptismal records note that the soul of the son of Dania and Neville Gardiner was saved on the afternoon of 2 November 1831.”

Frowning, Lucian chewed over all this for a moment. “Thus … I tried to kill a man I didn’t know was my father?”

“I think you knew,” Ori said. Lucian felt a stab of discomfort about their previous conversation, but Ori appeared as unbothered as ever. At any rate, this was not the time to focus on that. “There were things you didn’t want to tell me. In hindsight, that might have been one of them.”

“There’s more,” Áine said. “By this record, we have proof that Dania’s son was Neville Gardiner’s first child, by three whole months.”

“So?” asked Roger with a shrug.

“So,” Lucian said as more pieces shifted into place, “bastard or not, I’m his heir.”

Áine nodded. “Which would make things very uncomfortable for John Jacob Gardiner.”

“Who’s that?” asked Kit.

“Gardiner’s only son,” Lucian said. “We’ve run in semi-intersecting circles. I know of him more than know, him, largely because–” A wash of cold realization made the hairs on his arms stand on end. “Because everyone tends to mistake us for the other.”

“You look like your father,” Roger echoed.

Christ,” Lucian swore. How had he put this all together before? Had he found the same baptismal records Áine had located? Had he simply stared at the younger Gardiner’s face until one day the resemblance became too obvious to ignore? He raked his fingers through his hair, realizing only then what a fright it was for having been slept on for so long. He needed a bath. He needed several baths. He needed to crawl into a hole and not emerge again until the world stopped being so damned surprising all the time.

Ori steepled his fingers as he thought aloud. “You know Gardiner’s your father. Instead of challenging him in court or outright blackmailing him for your inheritance, you choose to assassinate him. Why?”

Lucian shrugged, unable to follow his old self’s trains of thought. “I don’t know!”

“He murdered your mother,” Áine said. “I’ve no proof, but I can read between lines.”

“Even so, I don’t remember her!” Lucian clenched his fists in frustration, angry once more at his faulty recall. “It’s terrible that she died, and worse if he’s responsible, yes, but I’m not in the habit of avenging all-but-perfect strangers.”

“What if you thought you were preventing future deaths?” Ori asked. “Would you act then?”

“I haven’t had enough coffee for hypotheticals,” Lucian muttered, rubbing his eyes.

Roger scratched his beard thoughtfully. “You think there’s a connection between his mother’s death and the other women they’re trying to pin on him?”

Ori nodded. “Gardiner’s a man with enough influence to buy the law. It wouldn’t even take much money to the right people, and evidence is gone, heads turn in other directions, false leads pop up instead.”

Lucian sat at the table, staring at his folded hands before him. It made good sense, and moreover, he could see how he might have come to these conclusions on his own before. It would have taken him longer, of course – two years, perhaps? – but learning of his dead mother and hearing of the bodies around town would have made the connection for him. Wouldn’t it? And of course, with all evidence burned or buried, there would only have been one choice for saving more lives: taking the murderer’s own life. Wasn’t that right? Didn’t that make sense?

Then why did it still feel wrong, like a puzzle cut on an ill-aligned jigsaw?

He thought back to meeting the Great Lady, a visit that already felt lifetimes away even though it had only been the previous morning. If she was indeed a god – and Lucian had no reason to doubt Roger’s assessment of the situation – then why would she care about such things? Brief human lives ended every moment. He knew little about gods, but he knew their concerns stretched much longer spans. A life fully lived and a life cut short must not have seemed so different from their eternal perspectives. There was something else about this that would make her grateful for its resolution.

What did gods care about, anyway? Worship, Lucian supposed, though the Great Lady didn’t seem wanting for attendants. Tribute, possibly, though again, she seemed well-stocked. Sacrifices, but that would mean she would be in favor of the deaths, not opposed to them. That was, unless–

“Grafting wings,” Lucian said, looking at Roger. “That’s what she said, didn’t she?”

Roger nodded. “Grafting feathers when you’re born without wings.”

“And you get feathers from birds that already have them,” Lucian said, continuing out his train of thought. “But once you have them, the birds can’t fly.”

“That’s basic ornithology, yes,” said Kit drily.

Lucian shook his head. “This isn’t about birds. It’s about magic. Áine, do you have the photographs near?”

Áine reached up as though miming pulling a book off a shelf at eye level. When she drew her hand back, she was holding the grisly crime scene photos, which she set down on the table. Lucian held his hand to his mouth and took a deep breath, then turned his full attention to the images, letting his mind linger not on the facts of their deaths, but on the mechanics thereof.

There it was, plain for anyone to see. Had he known this before? He couldn’t imagine he had, or he’d been screaming his bloody head off from the moment the law took him in. Unless, of course, he’d done just that, and gotten drugged to the gills like a violent madman. There were so many gaps that would never be filled, things he’d never remember doing for reasons he’d never recreate. Either way, if he had, he hadn’t trusted Ori enough to share, and that silence had sealed his fate.

“These girls are potentials, like me,” Lucian said. “I can’t know it, but I’d stake my life on it. Not poor, because poor parents would throw an adept child at the nearest guild: better life for the child, one less mouth for the family to feed. Middle-class, respectable girls, whose parents lived in fear that no one would marry their darling daughter if she was a filthy magician.” He spat out the last word, which was the kind of term for theurgists he’d been told never to say around theurgists. “And someone is coming in and trying to steal that potential for themselves. Plucking their feathers, if you would, and leaving the bodies of the little birds behind.”

The faces around the table looked drawn, and for a brief, brilliant moment, Lucian hoped he was wrong. He prayed for the possibility that he might have landed completely off the mark, so far into fiction that they’d tell him to pen penny dreadfuls and leave the real world to them. He had never before in his life wanted so badly to be mistaken, and in their silence was that very chance.

Then Ori let out a long, slow exhale and nodded. “Corpse magic.”

“I’ve seen it before,” Roger said. “There was a Belarusian man who tried it, some years back, murdering a local tasseographer.”

“He was caught?” asked Lucian.

“He didn’t have to be. They found him after. Wasn’t a pretty sight.” Roger drummed his fingers on the table. “That’s what makes no sense here. If you survive the ritual, you’ve got magic, you stop killing. If you don’t, well, you also stop killing. What does a trail of bodies mean?”

Kit reached over and turned the photographs face-down, now it seemed they were no longer discussing their particulars. “It means a coven,” he said with a sigh. “Gardiner and his ilk probably want the power to rain down fire, or see clear futures through crystal balls, or murder someone at a distance, or take over the whole bloody country, even. But they don’t understand what they’re looking at, so they keep–” Kit had to stop for a moment, pressing his clenched fist to his lips. Lucian had never seen him so furious. “They don’t understand, so they keep slaughtering these girls for violent powers, only to inherit, I don’t know, the ability to tell love fortunes by reading fish bones. So they toss her out like so much garbage and grab for another.”

Áine walked over behind Kit as he talked and put her hands on his shoulders, which seemed to soften him again; he reached up and took her arms, holding her as he caught his breath. “Easy, love,” she said, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “We’ve got a way to find them.”

“How?” asked Lucian, though he already felt several pairs of eyes on him.

“Your mother had skill in divination,” Áine told him. “I think it’s time to see what you can do.”

~*~

According to the others, Lucian before had refused any attempt to awaken magical ability in him beyond what he could already accomplish passively, like becoming unseen along with Roger. Lucian could hardly blame his former self, given the way the others had described the process of that awakening to him; it would have been too intrusive by half to a man who needed to keep his secrets. Now, however, was not the time for reticence.

Ori came to his room three nights later, on an evening Kit’s cards said would be best. Lucian was sitting on his bed, wearing nothing but a long hooded robe belted at his waist, playing with Queen Mab. “Are you ready?” Ori asked.

Lucian nodded, though he didn’t stop teasing Queen Mab with the pillow tassel in his hand, which she batted at and stalked as though it were living prey. “I think so,” he said.

“Last chance to run to Barcelona,” Ori said, and it was only half a joke.

“No,” Lucian said, standing. Mab dealt with her disappointment by flopping on her back dramatically, so Lucian patted her belly again for good measure. “This has already taken too many lives, including one of mine. If I run, it’ll take more.”

“Good.” Instead of leading him out into the rest of the house, though, Ori reached for Lucian and took his hand. He ran his thumb over the meat of Lucian’s palm in small,  soothing circles. “I haven’t been fair to you. I’ve been so focused on not forcing you to be the man you once were, I haven’t given you the chance to choose to be what of him you might still want.”

Lucian closed his fingers around Ori’s thumb, holding him tight. “Were you in love with me?” he asked, grabbing a moment of courage before it could slip away.

“Almost,” Ori said. “But you wouldn’t let me. There was always this shadow between us, secrets we knew but wouldn’t acknowledge. I always assumed that would melt away in time, like fog at morning. And then…” There was no need to finish that sentence; they’d both lived its aftermath. “I never saw you as clearly as I do now. And I’ve never given you the chance to see me in the same way.”

“Can I ask why me?” Lucian inclined his head in the direction of the rest of the house. “It isn’t as though you’re short on admirers.”

Ori chuckled. “You were never afraid of me, not for a moment. Not even when you knew what I could do. One executioner knows another, I suppose.”

“I suppose,” Lucian agreed. “Are you in love with me?”

A twinkle shone in Ori’s eye. “Almost.” That settled, he took Lucian’s hand and led him down the hall.

They’d commandeered Kit’s quarters for this, which Roger had described as ‘a high-class opium den without need for poppies’. When Lucian entered, he was stunned by how accurate a description it had been: lush pillows and draperies everywhere, high ceilings swirling with smoke trailed from burning incense cones, low red lights from scattered lanterns. The other three were already there, chatting amongst themselves, wearing the same robes Lucian and Ori wore.

As he shut the door behind them, Ori gave Lucian an apologetic little shrug. “I suppose I should apologize for not making your second first time a bit more romantic as well.”

Lucian swallowed. “No, I – I think this counts as … well, it’s more romance than I can recall having gotten before.”

“Even so,” Ori said, and he turned to wrap a hand around the back of Lucian’s head. Lucian felt himself swim as he was drawn forward into Ori’s embrace, their mouths warm against one another. He all but forgot to breathe as Ori pulled their bodies close, until all that separate them was thin fabric. He could feel the stirrings of Ori’s cock pressed against his thigh, and the knowledge that he was its cause was heady. His knuckles ached until he realized that he was grabbing the front of Ori’s robes, as though the world were a storm and Ori his last solid place.

He heard an appreciative whoop from the others and broke from the kiss, blushing. Laughing, Ori stroked his back, then directed him toward the center of the room. There, a large map of London was spread out on the ground, with candles burning at five points around it. Following Ori’s direction, Lucian stood in front of one of the candles; the others took their spots at the other four.

“Shall we?” asked Áine.

“Let’s,” Roger said, and then all attention was on Lucian.

He’d read his books and done his preparation, but it all seemed to vanish from his head as he stood before the map. It the size one might hang on a wall instead of use for regular navigation. He could recognize the major streets and paths he frequented; given a little time, he could even have worked out their exact location. It was a map, an ordinary map, except that Lucian didn’t want it to be an ordinary map. He wanted it to talk to him.

“Focus,” said a voice beside his ear, and it was then Lucian realized that Ori was no longer stationed by his candle, but was right behind him. His lips were warm against the curve of Lucian’s jaw, and his hands reached around to unknot the tie at Lucian’s waist. His fingers were as cold as they were beautiful, making Lucian shiver as they touched the bare skin of his belly. “This is magic,” Ori murmured as he wrapped his hand around Lucian’s shaft.

Lucian choked out a cry of surprise, and as he did, the candles sparked. Even knowing this would be coming hadn’t prepared him, either for the sensation of Kit’s hand or the force of being watched by the other three. He was on full display here, with no bit of his desire concealed. Seen, he would be able to see.

He looked at the map, watching the lines. Some lines ended before they reached the edges of the map, but some stretched all the way to its borders, indicating that they continued beyond. He thought about that beyond, about where the lines went when they had nowhere else to go. To the borders of the land, he supposed, to the sea. But seas had borders and other lines drawn around them. They had lines of the waves as they formed and crashed on the shore. They had lines of current that carried warm water up from the tropics to evaporate and condense into rain. The streets were the same as the ocean, the parks patches of forests continents away. His veins were maps, too, pale blue rivers, red pedestrian paths.

Ori’s hand continued to tease up and down his shaft, stroking slower than either of them was breathing. Lucian’s cock throbbed at the touch, until Lucian could feel his pulse in his balls and his temples at once. There were lines there, too, like the waves. There were beats to all this organization. The map had a pulse just like he did. The map was alive. It could tell him things.

His vision went dark, and it took a moment for Lucian to realize that Ori had slipped his other hand over Lucian’s eyes. He tugged backward and Lucian let himself go, falling into the warm blackness. When he landed, it was against the pillows, flat on his back. Ori’s mouth was against his again, the lines of his lips meeting the lines of Lucian’s. There was no separation between the two of them, no place where one ended and the other began.

Then Ori’s mouth was gone, replaced by another’s. It was Roger, he realized, as the soft hairs of his beard brushed against Ori’s smooth-shaven cheeks. He threw his arms up and grabbed at Roger – strong, steady Roger. Roger was the earth that ran beneath the streets, the soil in which trees took root. Roger could not be moved, and would not let him be moved.

A mouth closed around one of fingertips, making Lucian shiver. Was that Kit’s sharp teeth and quick tongue, or Áine’s? Were his eyes still closed, or had the room gone dark? It didn’t matter, though; he didn’t need light to see, any more than the lines on the paper needed the paper to exist. He let his finger become the mouth around it and realized both belonged to Áine, who was moaning beneath Kit’s body. He was inside her, so Lucian was inside her, and Kit was inside him. She was air and he was fire, the two feeding one another like a great coal engine that burned Lucian for fuel.

Where was Ori? He reached out with his hand, then reached out past his hand. Ori was just beyond his grasp, and reaching for him was like reaching for the sea, and he found himself thrown overboard instead. The lines on the streets were the lines of the rivers, he reminded himself. He could walk through one and walk through the other. This time he grabbed and when his hands closed on Ori’s shoulders, the world spun. Suddenly he was on top, kneeling between Ori’s thighs, the master magician at his mercy, hard and ready for him, because of him.

He wanted everything, and he grabbed for it in the darkness. His cock rubbed against Ori’s thigh, and he was beyond shame about it. There was no distinction between the owners of the hands on his body, nor were they any different from the world. He cried out as he came, spilling himself all over Ori’s thigh as his eyes snapped open. Before he’d even caught his breath, he was scrambling for his discarded robe, rummaging through its single pocket. He pulled out a pouch and dumped its contents into his hand, holding it for only a moment before releasing his fist over the map. Tiny animal bones and shells spilled from his palm, scattering as they hit the ground.

He’d spent the past three days throwing bones, hoping to hone his skill. Only now did he realize that the skill had never been in the throwing. It was in the reading.

“The Starbrige Club,” he gasped, “in the basement, tomorrow night.” And then he collapsed again.

This time it was Áine’s arms that caught him and brought him back to the pillows, cradling him against her soft breasts. He had spent a great deal of his life thinking all women’s charms were wasted on him. One learned something about one’s self every day.

“Tomorrow night,” said Kit, petting Lucian’s thigh. “Good thing my calendar’s clear.”

“How are you feeling?” asked Ori.

There were so many words for how Lucian was feeling that he couldn’t summon any of them. Instead, he gave a clumsy thumbs-up gesture, which made the rest of them laugh. He’d expected something like this, a build and then an explosion, like an orgasm itself, and then the same nothingness as before. What he was finding, though, was that though it had subsided, the connections had not disappeared. He reached up for Ori’s face and could still feel that little bleed past himself, the place where each was the other. Ori did not pull back from this, but covered Lucian’s hand with his own, and Lucian closed his eyes again, letting himself dissolve into the warmth and love around him.

~*~

The first thing Lucian noticed about the basement was Ori’s abject disdain for it.

“Look at it,” he sneered, peering down from the balcony that overlooked the chamber. “This is pathetic.”

Lucian had to admit, it looked much like someone’s bad idea of a joke. There were symbols and sigils painted on the walls, but haphazardly, as though someone had copied them from books without regard to origin or orientation. Heavy draperies hung over bare stone walls, their velvet folds perilously close to candle flames. There was power here, Lucian could feel – but it was all wrong, like air poisoned by a rotten piece of meat.

He took Ori’s hand, feeling the chill of Ori’s digits twine with the warmth of his own. “They’re coming,” Lucian said. He didn’t quite know how he knew, but he knew, and though he’d only been a theurgist of any stripe for barely a full day, he’d found that awareness remaining.

Moments later, the doors entered, and in stalked two dozen men in robes, wearing full animal carnival masks. It was all Lucian could do to keep from laughing – whoever had told them they didn’t look ridiculous had been lying. They paraded around in almost military fashion, their movements sterile and harsh as they filed in by twos. They took their posts, arms folded in their sleeves except for those of the foremost man, who wore a hideous pig mask and carried a long knife.

Lucian suspected they might go in for chanting, or some other odd recitation, but the scene was eerily quiet. He found himself thinking of how strange it was that he, in another life, could have been stationed among them instead of perched above. Had he been taken in as a legal heir, instead of cast out like the bastard he was, he likely would have joined their ranks, thinking himself their vast superior.

Or he would have been gutted on the bloody altar before them, Lucian supposed. He had once moved among men like this, after all; he knew they tolerated hierarchy, not specialness. Perhaps as an important man’s son, he would have been seen as an even more desirable sacrifice. They might even have convinced him it was an honor to cut his own throat.

Lucian squeezed Ori’s hand, driving those thoughts away. When roads were not taken, their lines vanished, and they could no longer connect to anyone.

In came another robed pair, escorting between them a mousy young merchant’s daughter – or what they perceived as one, anyway. The real daughter had been set free hours previous, with no memory of the previous day’s events. Áine’s skill at making people see what they wanted to see was in full force, and she shuffled her feet as though her whole spirit had been broken. She was the perfect bait, as it mattered only that she had magic; the fools couldn’t tell what kind in any case, making the switch invisible.

Now the chanting started, utter bloody nonsense, and Lucian was no longer in the mood for finding this funny. Six with heavy poles slammed them against the floor in time to the words, making the whole stone chamber rattle and echo. There was no good or bad magic, Ori had told him the night before, as they lay tangled and breathless on the floor of Kit’s room, laughing and clinging to one another. That was why love mattered so much, because it shaped desire for the goodness of others. Desire for the advancement of the self too easily traveled paths that led to places like these.

Áine lay down as directed on the altar, struggling just enough to make her reluctance believable. Even though he felt the full control of the situation, Lucian still felt his stomach lurch as he saw her prone, with the knife so close. The pig-faced leader raised it high above her, spouting words that Lucian couldn’t understand.

That was when a thin white mist began to roll out from under one of the participants’ robes. It was subtle, barely visible in the flickering candlelight, and by the time anyone noticed it, it was too late. Man by man, the chanting stopped and the poles ceased their rhythmic clamor, until their was silence in the frozen chamber. Even the pig-faced man had gone rigid, the great knife poised to fall but going nowhere.

At last, when all was still, two of the men burst into action. One in a wolf’s mask ran straight for the altar where Áine lay, paralyzed as much as the rest; the other, a fox, held a small glass sphere high, sucking the mist back into it. When the chamber was clear, they nodded up to the balcony and ran out the back, the sacrifice in tow.

“Our turn,” said Ori, heading down the stairs to the main chamber floor, Lucian in tow.

What startled Lucian was the deadness of the eyes he saw behind the masks. They were dull, asleep yet awake, not bothering to track as the intruders passed. He supposed Kit’s paralytic had worked as well as could be expected, but even then, they didn’t have much time.

Ori stopped in the middle of the chamber and pulled Lucian to him, putting their foreheads together. “What I need is an anchor,” he said under his breath. “It’s easy to go in. What I need is a reason to come out again.”

Lucian grabbed Ori’s forearms and nodded. He’d already had Ori taken once from him; like hell he was going to let it happen a second time. “Come back to me,” he said. “I’ll be here.”

Ori nodded once, and then his eyes all but rolled back in his head. This was not the calm, measured descent Ori took during his private client sessions, or even as he fulfilled his role as executioner; this was fast and harsh and brutal on everyone involved. Lucian felt his own reserves drained as Ori pulled through their shared connection, until his own knees were shaking.

The worst part was that he couldn’t tell if it was working. Ori shook in his arms as though he were having a seizure, and the men all around him stood still as though they’d been turned to stone. Lucian didn’t know what to do if the latter situation broke before the former. Would it be worse to grab Ori and sprint away mid-action, or could he manage to hold off twenty angry men and a vicious-looking knife long enough to let Ori surface again? He didn’t know what he could do, but he could die trying. If that had to be enough, it would be enough.

One of the paralyzed men began to groan near him, and the sound stopped Lucian’s heart. He tightened his grip on Lucian’s arms. “Come on, you bastard,” he gritted through clenched teeth. “Come home. It’s time to go.”

For a period of seconds that felt like days, nothing happened. Then Ori’s breath caught and held, and as he exhaled, his gaze began to fix on Lucian. He blinked once, then again, and finally frowned. “Lucian?” he asked.

Run!” Lucian shouted, grabbing Ori’s hand and dragging Ori the first few steps. Ori staggered, but then gained his feet and started stumbling toward the exit. “I’ll be right behind you!” he cried, making for a few steps like it was true. Once Ori was out of sight, though, he stopped.

He could see the eyes of the men around him, bleary but more focused by the moment. When he moved now, their gaze tracked him, and some of them had started to twitch and groan. There, he wouldn’t be safe for long, but a minute or two was all he needed.

“I’m the son of Neville Gardiner,” he told them all, turning so they got a good look at him. “The eldest son and rightful heir to his lands and assets. And I’ve wondered for a while it was you didn’t kill me, Father, the way you murdered my mother.”

That got a sound of muffled distress from the knife-wielding pig-faced man, whose tired arms were clearly starting to tremble with the effort of remaining aloft. Lucian turned to him, sure enough now to address his comments there: “I didn’t understand why you not only let me live, you’ve kept tabs on me. I was an orphan, but provided for. You didn’t acknowledge me, but you made certain I was educated. Because you thought I might be useful, that I might inherit my mother’s talents. That you’d appear at some later point, presenting yourself to me, and I’d run into the arms of the father I’d always wanted. And when that didn’t happen…”

The men around him were starting to grunt and shift, as though straining against some slowly loosening bonds. That was good, then, that they were awake enough to understand him. “Of course it didn’t happen. I cared nothing for you and would never have signed on with a pack of usurpers and murderers. So when that didn’t happen, you found a separate use for me, as your perfect scapegoat. You even convinced those closest to me that I was guilty. You destroyed me and thought you could plant my guilt again in the space left.”

From the edges of his consciousness, he could feel the stress from the others, the worry that he hadn’t returned. He tried to tell them to wait, it was fine. He was almost done, anyway.

“Not everything lost is gone,” said Lucian, remembering the Hanged Man card he’d drawn. He was done hanging now; he’d suffered and learned, and now it was time to stand upright. “But you’re finished. Whatever happens from this point forward, you’re done. This cost me two years of my life, but it will cost you your full lives and fortunes. And when I’m through, I won’t even have to erase my memory a second time. I simply won’t think of you at all.”

He knew he needed to make haste, but he willed himself to walk out, step by step, as though he had everything under control. If he’d learned nothing else from living in a theurgist’s house, he’d learned just how much appearances were worth.

The second Lucian was out of their sight, though, he broke into a dead run, not stopping until he’d made his way to the other side of the heavy doors that led to the basement stairs. Kit threw them shut behind Lucian, then curled his hands and whipped up a small locking curse on the bars. It looked like it was fading even as it appeared, but Lucian supposed it didn’t have to hold permanently; it just had to stay long enough to give them a head start. It said something for their haste that no one even stopped to ask what had held up Lucian. They just fled.

By the time they reached the main floor of the Starbridge Club’s building, Áine was back on her feet, though leaning across Roger’s shoulder like a drunk. This section of the inn was as empty of staff as it had been when they’d arrived, presumably having been given the night off lest they interfere with the goings-on below. Still, they moved slowly, lest they trip any wards or alert any sentinels with their carelessness. They communicated only through gestures and the occasional attention-getting whisper as they found their way to the door to the gardens and the street beyond.

They split up as they met the regular evening traffic of the city, taking separate routes home. Roger took Áine, who was still less than steady on her feet, in the direction of the hired carriages. Lucian wanted to stay with Ori, but Kit took him, arguing that he could only hide so much – and at any rate, Lucian had already shown himself, making stealth less vital for him. Disappointed, Lucian had to agree, and he watched anxiously as Kit and Ori vanished into the crowd, then vanished altogether.

He kept his steady pace through the streets, trying not to dissolve into the adrenaline of what they’d just done. He did not dawdle, but headed straight for home, keeping to main roads and well-lit places as much as he could manage. His hands flexed and relaxed in his pockets in time with every step. The sounds of the street were drowned out by the thudding of his pulse in his ears.

As he stepped, he breathed and stretched himself out, remembering the lines as they left the edges of the paper. He followed his way through the cracks between the cobblestones, out in the directions the others had taken. They were safe – distant, but safe, as one pair rolled on wheels and the other scuttled through alleyways back to the house. He didn’t want to detour, but fearing he might somehow have been followed, he took the slightly longer route, one as far away from the others as he could manage while keeping the same destination. He felt no one at his heels, though, and presently he burst in through the back door to see the four of them already there, waiting for him.

Kit practically jumped him, grabbing the lapels of his coat. “What were you thinking in there?” he shouted at Lucian in a tone some might have understood for anger, had they not been able to hear the panic beneath it.

Lucian put a hand on the back of Kit’s shirt and drew him into a tight embrace. “I had to tie up some loose ends,” he said. Kit, seeming satisfied at the answer, let go after a moment longer, and Lucian turned to Ori. “What did you do?”

That had been the only unplannable bit of the plan, the actual target of Ori’s efforts. They’d discussed possibilities the previous evening and over breakfast, but Ori couldn’t promise he’d have the time or direction to find any of them. There would be no preparation to be had on either side, he’d told them; he’d be flying blind, digging for anything of relevance with no certainty that any of it would rise to the surface. Lucian knew he’d found something, though, because the last resort would have been simply to kill them all, and they’d left every man in that room incapacitated but breathing.

Ori clutched the back of a chair, still catching his breath. He was pale and trembling, and despite his brave smile, the cost of his efforts was written clear on his face. “There was so much there to take, but nothing that couldn’t be re-learned with a book or two. And then … I don’t know if it’ll work, but it was the only thing I could think of.”

“What was it?” asked Roger.

“It was–” Ori chuckled, shaking his head. “I took the part that remembered all this should be kept a secret.”

The other four stared, incredulous, until Áine burst out laughing, bringing the others along with her. “Mother of God,” she said, her speech still a bit slurred, “they’re going to go straight to the papers, aren’t they?”

“They’re proud men,” said Kit, cluching his sides. “Of course they’ll want the publicity! Look what terrible wrong’s been done to them, these hooligans disrupting their neat little sacrifice!”

“Bloody hell,” Roger swore, clapping Ori on his shoulder. “You brilliant bastard. You’ve sealed all their fates with their own big mouths.”

“There’ll be police here tomorrow, I’m afraid,” Lucian said, bringing the mood down a notch. “I thought we might get a day or so before they got involved, but between your letting the cat out of the bag and my brief genealogy lesson tonight, I suspect I’ll be lucky to get a night’s sleep before they come.”

Áine shook one fist as she held on to Roger’s arm with her other hand. “Let them come, we’ll take them all,” she swore, a threat made unfortunately adorable for how she looked about ready to topple over at any moment.

Lucian shook his head and straightened his spine. “There’s no need. Mine was the only face they saw.” He didn’t relish the thought of returning himself to the hands of the law, and he dreaded what they might do to him in retaliation, but if he could sacrifice himself to save the rest of them, he would do so, and gladly. “I will tell them I was there, and I alone, and I will accept what comes next as my due.”

“No, you won’t,” Ori said, and they all turned to look at him. Unsteady as he was, he was still unfathomably powerful, the master of this house and of all of them, and he wasn’t going to let them forget it. “We’ll let them in and we’ll say, yes, we were there, all of us, following a trail we found that the police somehow couldn’t, imagine that. We caught them in the midst of a hideous crime, disrupted what would have been the latest in a series of brutal and ritualistic murders, and fled for our lives, with only a brief stop along the way for you to identify yourself as the bastard son of Neville Gardiner – though if the journalists arrive tomorrow before the officers do, you might want to lead with that part instead.”

“And then if that doesn’t work, we’ll take them all,” Kit said, slipping an arm around Lucian’s waist. “You’re one of us. We should have fought for you before. We won’t make that same mistake twice.”

Lucian nodded manfully so that he didn’t cry, and if he wasn’t entirely successful, everyone else pretended not to notice.

“Do you know what I need?” asked Áine. “I need to go to sleep with all my handsome men.”

Despite his obvious exhaustion, Roger swept her up in his arms and kissed her as she clung to his neck, then started up the stairs. The others trudged after them, following as he led them without discussion down the hall and straight into Kit’s bedroom. The place was still a bit of a mess from the previous night’s ritual, with extinguished and burnt-down candles scattered on every surface; at least, Lucian thought with gratitude, someone had remembered to pick up his own divinatory debris from where it had fallen across the map.

With an ungraceful plop, Roger pitched almost headlong and deposited both Áine and himself, fully clothed, amongst a pile of pillows strong enough to break their fall. His head landed in Áine’s lap, and he lay there, smiling. “I’ll sleep right here, thanks.”

“You’re welcome to,” Áine half-said, half-yawned. “But anyone who thinks I’m moving again before dawn tomorrow has another think coming.”

Kit was right behind them, curling up against Áine’s side with his head pillowed on her arm. He reached his hand down toward Roger, who caught it and held it fast. Lucian watched this all, marveling at how not so long ago this had been too strange of an arrangement to take in. Now it felt right, and more than that, it felt right that he was here to see it. Being seen, he could see; being known, he could know.

“What did you say, when you were calling to me?” Ori kissed the corner of Lucian’s mouth, then gestured to the slowly accumulating pile of humans before them. “Now it’s your turn. Come home.” Letting his heavy cloak lay where it fell, Ori stretched out beside Kit and held out his hand.

Lucian held out his own hand, but stood fast for a moment, letting the connection between them exist without contact. It was there, and it would always be. He had been so brave and ready to throw himself into the fire for them, but he found that given the opportunity, he would rather live for them. He could be their anchor, keeping them all tethered, bringing them all back. It was, after all, only fair.

He was becoming aware of something else, though. The lines of connection that existed between them also doubled back and ran through him. They crisscrossed and interwove, connecting their various points and weaving through terminals, and together they made a fine mesh, a web of sorts. It ran like scar tissue through him, patching up bit by bit over what had been taken from his mind. There was still a hole there, for now, but he didn’t need to worry about falling in and getting lost in its vast emptiness. Soon it would be made safe for crossing, and then new things could be built there. Growth instead of absence, new life springing from salted fields. He liked that idea very much indeed.

At last, he pitched himself forward and landed amongst them, his head resting against Ori’s belly. The others reached for them, but they didn’t even have to touch him; they were there, and he reached back. He was knit into a fabric by powers he was only beginning to understand, and the one that held him tightest – and which he perhaps yet understood the least – was love. He could learn, though, he thought as Ori stroked his hair. It might even be the easiest lesson of all.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinteresttumblrmailFacebooktwittergoogle_pluspinteresttumblrmail
Share this with your friends!


6 thoughts on “The Absence of You

  1. The residents of this house seemed shockingly fond of plunging necklines.
    I love how this line hints at the revelations to come.

    Meyer gave a little shrug. “Cooking’s good practice for alchemical work. With the added bonus that most errors won’t cause the result to poison you or explode in your face.”
    *snicker*

    and not about how he’d woken up cursing his employer and using his Christian name.
    Hmmm, more hints. Nice!

    all full of clothes that Meyer said had been his, but were no longer in fashion
    Somehow, I suspect this might not be strictly true. Especially since Ori does not appear to wear hats.

    You do such a good job of painting who all of these people are and why they might be willing to give Lucien another chance. The whole story is delicious. ^_^

  2. This is a masterpiece *___* I love stories about characters finding love & a family they never thought they’d find or deserve, and the lost memories puts the MOST poignant spin on that.

  3. Oh my god, I love this so much! The memory loss! The accidental torment of loved ones with memory loss! The…I was going to say weird but really actually bog-standard capitalist politics! The revolutionary activity! ÁINE AND ROGER’S IMMEDIATE ARGUMENT ALIBI!!! Wonderful, thank you so much!

  4. Oh god I love everything about this! Everyone in this house is endearing in their own way, and I’m so happy that they’re all together. Thank you for writing this!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *