The Lonely God

by Ozawa Ayaka (小澤綾香)
illustrated by Oishii Yumi

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/190504.html)

Paris, 1871.

Henri had played with the three ondine of the Seine as a child, and he’d had misgivings (to say the very least) watching the city’s elders induce them to do their duty to the city, luring Prussian soldier after soldier to their deaths. In the wake of the Germans’ retreat from Paris, the nymphs had developed a taste for blood and breath — he forced himself to think on this very calmly as he watched Niklas Bergqvist crouch on the riverbank and stare into its depths.

“Eighty thousand francs,” said Henri. “You won’t kill them, will you?”

Closing his eyes, Niklas frowned and dipped his hand into the black water. “Just talk to them.”

He shut his eyes and Henri, out of courtesy, took a step back to allow Niklas’s magic to work, watch him scry the rivers for any trace of the little monsters. It was their third night out in the freezing cold since Niklas had taken the job, and he hadn’t the faintest idea . You’re bored, he admonished himself, bored, and concerned. He had no other guests he wanted to spend time with.

He asked, just to break the silence: “Anything, monsieur? Anything at all?”

Niklas recited a short rhyme in Swedish as he shoved his coat sleeve up to get his arm into the water halfway to his elbow. Then he stood up, shaking his arm dry. He wasn’t human — that, Henri was sure of, if he knew nothing else about the man. The way he walked, the way he moved first thing in the morning, suggested something larger hulking down in a human skin and which had only barely gotten comfortable. And masquerading as a water mage, as well, but that was the least of Niklas’s concerns.

But Henri did not make a habit of caring about the species of his guests, so long as they paid their dues and observed the rules. A stiff gust ruffled Niklas’s short blond hair, and Henri pulled his scarf tighter about his neck and thrust his hands into his armpits for warmth.

“No,” said Niklas. He held out his hand for his gloves, face tight with something that looked very much like irritation then smoothed out into neutral disappointment. “We should go back.”

“And discuss our strategy for tomorrow? What little strategy we have, beyond wearing our boots thin.”

Niklas started toward the house, and Henri rushed to keep up with his long strides. He didn’t know why the man had come down from the north to make his fortune in Paris (London and Berlin were far better options for a talented mage looking for money), but Henri did know that he enjoyed looking at the man — at Niklas’s broad shoulders in his battered coat. Mere idle appreciation, to distract him from the cold.

A carriage passed them by, and the horses stuttered in their trot when they crossed the invisible line between arrondissements — a line only Henri could see, and which was too fresh from the city’s rearrangement to have sunk into the ground yet.

“They’re here,” Niklas said. “In the city, in the river — they’re just frightened. They know what’s looking for them.”

Henri touched Niklas’s arm when they stepped over the boundary so that it wouldn’t affect him. “But you won’t kill them.”

“I give my word,” Niklas said, and didn’t shake Henri’ hand off.

*

The Augier House was a waystation for all manner of wayward mages, gifted individuals, unnatural creatures seeking refuge, as well as for the rest of the flotsam and jetsam of Paris, so long as they had the money to rent a room out. At the moment, it contained only Henri and his fae cousins, related by way of his grandmother, who had taken a fancy to his grandfather and stayed long enough to bear him a son. She forgot I existed, I think, Stéphane Augier explained when Henri turned seven. She didn’t forget Christophe.

“Beautiful, beautiful brandy,” Henri said, shucking his overcoat onto the kitchen floor and putting his father from his mind. The kitchen was the heart of the house and a relic of his grandfather’s tenure as Housekeeper, and in the five years of his own reign, Henri had moved neither pot nor pan. “Brandy and port; and change your clothes, you’re a mess.”

His cousins had invoked right of kin to force Henri to let them stay, and paid in real money, and didn’t eat human food, which was just as well, because there was not much to go around. He had quite a few more rooms than he could fill. Paris had been surrounded by a ring of cold iron and steel for months and months: it was not a fashionable place for the occult, the spectral, or the mythical to see and be seen.

And now he had Niklas. Odd, quiet Niklas, drifting in from the north like a stray breeze to take on the city’s odd jobs. The dangerous jobs he took on, as detective and mercenary both, were the best entertainment he’d had since the Augier House had done its very best to run off the Prussian mages under its roof.

Niklas looked down at himself, as though noticing for the first time that his trousers were sodden to the knees from where he’d waded out into the river under the Pont des Invalides. “Ten minutes,” he said.

Niklas disappeared, and Henri ran a hand over the countertop, wishing he could feel his family’s magic pulse under the surface of the wood. He wasn’t a cripple, but he felt like one, especially in the presence of powerful mages. He merely stopped others’ gifts from working. The talent surfaced in the Augier line — such as it was — every few generations; it was entirely normal.

“Was your night fruitful?” the cousin who called herself Anabelle said. Henri stepped closer to her to keep her from attempting anything. “And how is Monsieur Bergqvist, he’s been so reticent lately.”

illustrated by Oishii Yumi

“I don’t ask for his conversation, Anabelle,” said Henri. “He pays me.”

Anabelle slipped past him and searched through the cupboards for the bottle of brandy, then held it hostage close to her chest, where she knew he would never reach. “The ones you seek were last seen beneath the Pont Marie.”

“How helpful.” He held a hand out for the brandy. He pretended his stomach wasn’t churning. The Augier house was near the center of the city, and the Pont Marie was only a twenty minute walk away, if that. “How near,” he added, swallowing hard. And how convenient, that his sweet cousin should come up with the information they needed after a long night of frustrated searching.

“The poor dears know they’re being hunted.” The pity in her voice sounded nearly human. “Stealing the breath from mortals. They’re not very bright, don’t you think?”

“And you know this — how?” He kept up with his cousins’ activities in the city, and red-haired Anabelle was easily the most malicious of the three, for all that she looked the gentlest at first glance. Her wide, cruel mouth twisted up into a smile.

“We’ve spoken to the city.”

“The city itself?”

Anabelle waved a hand. “A euphemism. We have our ways. If you like, we’ll help you more; Guillaume is getting bored.”

And the price would be far higher than a few months’ waived rent. “Monsieur Bergqvist will be fine, I am sure. May I help you with anything else?” He’d said nothing that could imply a contract, but his heart still beat faster, and though her face betrayed no awareness, she must have heard it. But she was a guest. For all that she made him nervous — and he wasn’t stupid enough to lower his guard — she wouldn’t touch him. She couldn’t. He was inviolable under his own roof.

“No.” There was no note of disappointment in her voice. He hadn’t expected any. Anabelle handed him the bottle and stepped away from him, her loose hair braiding itself as she left the room.

He took a long, deep breath, then released it, feeling the headache he got from being near Anabelle subside as she crossed the house. He considered taking a swig straight from the bottle, but instead picked out two exceptionally large snifters and mounted the stairs to the frigid, godforsaken garret Niklas had insisted on being lodged in. The stairs ended in a door, and Henri pounded on it.

No answer.

Very well, then. He transferred the bottle to his free hand and opened it himself, stepping into the swimming magelight to see Niklas Bergqvist, gentleman of ice, hopping around on one foot, attempting to pry open a bottle of vodka. And scowling. And swearing under his breath in Swedish.

He stopped the moment he noticed Henri at the door. “I tried to chill it,” Niklas said, poised on that one foot like some overgrown blond stork. “It froze.”

The man looked sheepish, Henri thought, watching him lower his foot to the ground. “And you — ”

“I do not normally misfire.” Niklas tucked the bottle under his arm and stood up straight.

“Don’t you?” Henri raised his eyebrows and noted, not without interest, that the magelights flared at the precise moment Niklas’s cheeks turned red. “In any event,” he sat down in the armchair by the grate, warming his toes by a fire that was bigger than it should have been able to hold, “we’re here to talk, not drink.” He paused, looking down into his bottle of brandy. “No, we’re here to drink.”

Niklas breathed a line of hot steam onto the stopper in the neck of the bottle, then eased it out. He poured himself a full glass of the stuff, and when they were seated and comfortable, he said, “We have nothing.”

“We have Anabelle,” Henr]i said. “She offered her assistance.”

“She offered me hers, too.” The lights flared again, though Niklas’s face remained impassive. It was just as well that he was far, far away from Henri’s cousins, who stayed on the first floor.

“No, not that kind.” Henri took a sip of his brandy, staring into the dancing heart of the fire. “She told me where the ondine were. Do we act on it?”

A long silence, then Niklas said, “You’re worried.”

“About liberties,” Henri said, before thinking, then went on. His bond to the Augier house superseded any agreement he might have been duped into. He was safe from the three of them. “Perhaps she and Guillaume decide they can start helping me whenever they wish, one knows what happens when the fae decide to help.”

“Do you think they’re truly your cousins?”

The fae weren’t liars, not precisely, and there was no room for slanting the truth in ‘cousin.’ “No, that isn’t it,” he said, “I think that if I tell you, you will be caught up, if Anabelle and Guillaume decide to provide us more assistance.”

“And Marguerite?”

Henri pretended he didn’t notice the way Niklas’s tone became brighter when he said the name of Henri’s third, eldest cousin. It was merely the liquor; it was half-gone already, and Niklas refilled his glass, staring into the clear liquid.

“Marguerite does not care about us either way,” Henri said, taking another sip of his brandy and trying to avoid picturing them in his mind’s eye, lest he somehow invoke their presence. Guillaume, the golden youth; Anabelle, the woman on fire; Marguerite, hair black as night, skin white as snow, with her gaze like a cold wind on the back of his neck. He’d never heard her voice.

He refilled his own brandy, wondering when he’d gotten so far into his cup in the first place. His head was only barely beginning to buzz. “I’ve a meeting tomorrow,” he recalled aloud, “a terribly important meeting, we shouldn’t drink, Monsieur Bergqvist.”

“Stay,” Niklas said. His blue eyes met Henri’s over their glasses as they both sipped at the same time, and Henri decided — it could hurt nothing, he’d gone to terribly important meetings in worse conditions, he was old enough to restrain himself at twenty-eight.

“This is their mess,” said Henri, once they were farther along, though he was far less drunk than he was pretending, for there were advantages to making things look like slips of the tongue. “The elders, they incited the ondine to kill, and now you’re dealing with it — ”

Niklas set his glass down and smiled for the first time in the month since he’d moved himself and his bag of worldly possessions into the House. Running from something. Henri knew the type. “There’s the money,” he said, and grabbed for his vodka and missed.

“You’re the fifth, you know, the fifth to try; they should have put a stop to this months ago.”

“Tomorrow,” Niklas said, high-handed in the way only a truly experienced drunk could manage, accent thicker than a poorly-made roux, “we will discuss further.”

“Tomorrow,” Henri echoed, and closed his eyes. Just for a moment.

He woke to Niklas carrying him back to his bedroom, as though he was light as a feather. Teetering on the very edge of consciousness, Henri wondered why he’d fallen sleep so quickly, but he pushed away the worry to enjoy Niklas’s powerful arms around him, laying him down in bed.

“Monsieur,” he started, but Niklas shook his head and pulled the covers up to Henri’s chin, careful, as though he thought he’d break him if he breathed wrong.

*

“Marcelline Saint-Évremond and Adrien Desormeaux,” Henri said, letting Niklas button him into his waistcoat. Outside of his window, the city was wide awake, and doing nothing for his headache. He’d needed help getting dressed and second opinions on his clothing. Niklas had been glad to provide the former and less forthcoming with the latter. “They’re — ”

“I’ve met Monsieur Desormeaux,” said Niklas. “His family house — a poltergeist.”

If Niklas found the sight of Henri in his shirtsleeves scandalous, his eyes didn’t linger on anything but the objects around the room, the portraits of his grandfather and his mother, the stacks of books on magic, the old diaries. His movements in the early morning were as stiff and jerky as usual, the first sign Henri had had that Niklas was a creature walking around in a human skin.

Henri looked himself over in the mirror. The dark circles weren’t so noticeable that they’d be remarked on, and made him look a few years older, to boot. “He’s far less dreadful than the other options, though I’d take the poltergeist over him.”

Niklas said nothing and passed Henri his cravat. He was to be the neutral party in a meeting of two great powers and that extended to his sartorial decisions: he’d chosen reds and blacks to avoid matching either Desormeaux blue or the pale creams and grey the Madame Saint-Évremond dressed in.

“In any event, thank you for waking me up.” Henri ran the brush through his hair, working out the very last of the snarls. “And what are your plans for the day? Rescuing maidens from magical sleeps? Searching for wines to take up north with you and sell to the Russians?”

“Nothing.”

“Come with me.” He tied his cravat simply, so as not to outdo Monsieur Desormeaux. “Come watch the proceedings; there is nothing like the two of them on opposite ends of the table. How is my hair?”

Hovering just a fraction too close over his shoulder, Niklas nodded. “I can?”

“Come?” Oh, no, it was far too early in the morning to think of that, he had mediating to do. “Yes, it’s allowed,” he said, turning around, “and you’re certainly imposing enough.” Henri patted Niklas’s chest and shrugged on his morning coat. It didn’t fit him properly in the shoulders or the hips; he’d lost weight in the last few months, from scraping every spare coin he had together to find a suitably powerful mage to fix the foundations of the ancient wards on the house from where the Prussians had cracked them. If he’d had proper magic, he could have done itself.

He patted Niklas’s chest again, just to feel it, and set off down the halls, past the portraits of his ancestors, past art and statues given to the Augier family as payment, which had grown into the walls and floors so seamlessly that they couldn’t have been moved — past rooms with furnishings from centuries and centuries of Housekeepers’ tastes. Niklas didn’t overtake him this time, but walked a respectful three steps behind, and opened the doors for him when they made it to the drawing room.

Marcelline Saint-Évremond looked down her pointed nose at Henri from the head of the table (which was the head by virtue of her sitting there); Adrien Desormeaux sat at the foot, and gave Henri a warm smile. Far, far too warm. He set it aside, composed himself.

Above the door, the portrait of his great-grandmother, Marianne Augier, stood guard over the room, and he’d dressed to match what she wore in the painting, more than anything else. Deep grey dress, white lace, red ribbon about her throat. He looked nothing like her, but he paused long enough in the doorway for every eye in the room to take in the comparison.

“Welcome to the House,” Henri said, after a suitable pause. Niklas stood next to the door, his bulk reassuring at Henri’s back. “Tell us what you seek.”

They were only the ritual words, and the entire room relaxed. The tiny girl seated next to Marcelline started fidgeting again, and one of Marcelline’s seconds hushed her. “Your cousins aren’t here?” Marcelline said. “That’s not one of them, is it, isn’t one of them blond?”

The Saint-Évremond family hated the fae, and Henri was only acceptable by virtue of his position, the blemishes on his pedigree crushed under the weight of the Augier name. Adrien Desormeaux fixed her with the same smile he’d given Henri, but got no response. “That, Madame, is dear Henri’s honored guest. One Niklas Bergqvist? He’s taken on the burden of dealing with our river’s little problem.”

“Ah, yes, I remember.” Marcelline flashed Adrien a smile that, while it lit up her eyes for all of a second, disappeared as quickly as it had come. “To business.”

As if the entire country didn’t know. The two families had been arguing over who had control of which arrondissements since the city had been rearranged a decade ago, and they had finally reached the point where only an Augier could help the negotiations along. Henri had hoped against hope that the dubious honor of standing between two sides would fall to his grandfather, but the man had died before the families could swallow their pride long enough to sit at the table together.

Henri would rather have been out hunting for the ondine.

The arguments were long and tedious — they had been having versions of the same debate for eleven years and had worn grooves in them, and so Henri was not required to do more than agree with the more reasonable side when it was required. And the moment it seemed as though the two of them were ready to begin flinging spells at one another, they found that they couldn’t, which was why they’d chosen Henri over all of the other magical mediators in the city.

He turned around, once, to see Niklas crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue at Marcelline’s daughter — Clothilde, her name was — who struggled not to giggle at him while Adrien shouted her mother down.

Henri let his mind drift through the streets of Paris while he suggested that Monsieur Desormeaux sit down and lower his voice. The Pont Marie, why the Pont Marie? And why would Anabelle choose to help? Adrien dropped back into his chair and let his head loll back while Marcelline sat rigid in her high-backed chair, grinding her teeth — “I think we’ve had enough for the day,” Henri suggested, looking from one of them to another even as he saw the streets of the fourth arrondissement in place of what he should have seen in his left eye.

“As do I,” Marcelline said.

Adrien perked up. “Perhaps a glass of wine, from the family cellar?”

“The cellar is ornery this week; I only barely managed to extract Monsieur Bergqvist from it last night,” Henri said, and Niklas must have nodded to give substance to the lie, because Adrien gave him an indulgent grin that once would have heated him from the inside out.

Marcelline pulled Adrien aside for a few quiet words; their respective family members spoke among themselves as though they weren’t sworn enemies (and they’d all known one another so long that they may well not have been). The seconds-in-command, Sophie and Pierre, stood next to one another and very pointedly did not speak to one another. Niklas came to stand behind Henri’s chair, hands settling on the back of it.

“I’m not sick of this yet,” Henri said, quiet enough so that only Niklas would hear him. “They’re entertaining. But ask me again in five years.”

Niklas made a small sound that Henri chose to interpret it as sympathetic, then patted Henri’s shoulder. At the foot of the table, Clothilde, left all alone, squirmed and looked at Niklas from the corner of her eye. All at once, the leavings of all of the coffee drunk at the meeting lifted themselves from their cups and coalesced into the shape of a cat in front of her, leaving tiny, damp pawprints on the linen as it lolled on its belly. Henri appreciated the craftsmanship almost as much as he appreciated the silent look of delight on Clothilde’s face. He’d have a girl for a successor, he decided, a tiny brown-haired girl mage that he’d pick up somewhere, the way his great-grandmother had found his grandfather.

And then his stomach dropped into at least the third basement of the house, and Niklas must have felt him stiffen, because the coffee cat split itself into seven pieces to walk back into its constituent cups.

“We will talk about this later,” he said. Before Niklas could answer, he stood from his chair in one smooth motion to wish his guests good-bye and to arrange a time and place for the next meeting. Clothilde hugged Niklas’s leg before she scurried after her mother.

“Henri,” Niklas started, but Henri held up a hand and pointed Niklas into a chair, and he went without complaining.

“You,” he said, doing his very best to loom, though his shock now hummed through his entire body and made him feel light-headed and ill and giddy all at once. “You can work magic around me.”

“I can.”

“You have always been able to, and you said nothing.”

“It’s….” Niklas held up his hands. “Old magic. Older than this city.”

“You put me to sleep last night?”

“I did.”

Henri narrowed and adjusted the categories of thing Niklas could have been, but didn’t ask. For the amount of money he paid in rent, the deserved his secrets. “I see.” Had he touched Niklas, he was sure the man would have vibrated like an overwound string. “Did you know,” Henri added, “that this is the first time Clothilde has smiled in months?” Niklas met his eyes, but only very briefly. “Since she lost one of her sisters,” he went on. “An illness went through the city’s mages; she lost her father, too.”

“I had a sister,” Niklas said, his voice tight with something Henri didn’t care to think about.

“You lost her?”

A short nod, and Henri decided to let it go. “My father,” he said, “he went missing when I was a boy. In any event — tomorrow night? The bridge? If you’d like me there.”

“Yes,” Niklas said, too fast, the nearest thing to an outburst Henri had ever heard come from his mouth. “Yes, I would like that.”

*

Henri found his sturdy boots under a chaise lounge in the red sitting room the very moment Anabelle and Guillaume stumbled in wearing their human faces, doing a magnificent impression of drunkenness for beings on whom alcohol had no effect. The thin boy on their arms couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and from some cheap, filthy maison d’abattage — a slaughterhouse, how appropriate. “You,” Anabelle said, running her hands down the boy’s chest, and Guillaume finished, “are so lovely,” and they leaned in to kiss his cheeks at the same time, hands going to his trousers and shirt to pull them off.

Well. Henri knew of their debauchery. He could taste the traces of it on his tongue in the mornings when they helped some exhausted whore across the threshold and gave her a pouch of gold that would disappear on the next full moon. But seeing it in person, up against a bookshelf, was another matter entirely, and he pulled himself from the floor onto the chaise-lounge and said, “Continue, cousins, please, I’m not here.”

The poor boy nearly jumped out his skin, but Anabelle pulled him into her arms as Guillaume walked around them, as if he cared enough of what Henri saw to block them from view. Guillaume was the youngest (one could tell, after a lifetime of dealing with the fae), and more beautiful even than his sisters. “We’ve already been hunting tonight,” he said, “and you’re off, with Monsieur Bergqvist?”

Lacing up one of his boots, Henri pretended that he didn’t hear Anabelle moan. “The ondine won’t catch themselves.”

“We could take care of it for you, you know.” Too, too eager, and Guillaume was far easier to dodge than Anabelle, who was quite occupied at the moment. “Find them, bind them — ”

“No,” said Henri, “no, I don’t think we’ll require you assistance, you’ve done quite enough; I think Monsieur Bergqvist will do quite well on his own.”

“Quite, quite well,” Guillaume said, and looked over his shoulder at Anabelle, gave an approving nod to whatever the boy was doing, then crossed his arms over his chest. “Did you appreciate Anabelle’s help?”

“Guillaume.” The second boot, he had to finish his second boot, but if he rushed to leave the room — he couldn’t afford to show them weakness, not now.

“Yes, yes, I know, you can’t be bound to a contract — did Niklas appreciate her help?”

“Not now, Guillaume.”

“Then will he appreciate it later?”

“Cousin,” Henri said, tying off the laces at last, heart pounding in time with the shaking of the bookshelf behind Guillaume, “try not to kill him?”

“We wouldn’t, “Guillaume said.

They wouldn’t, not when they’d invoked right of kin to stay under his roof — and all of Paris was his roof, his domain — but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t take everything the boy had, otherwise; Henri was tempted to walk close to them, undo whatever magic they’d addled the boy’s brain with, ruin their evening. Instead, he slid into his coat and forced himself to walk calmly from the room, snatching his scarf off of the table as he went.

Henri’s mouth was still dry when he caught Niklas on the front steps of the house. He swallowed hard, and was glad he wore gloves, so that Niklas couldn’t sense how sweaty his palms were. “Pont Marie,” Niklas said. “Lead the way, monsieur.”

Niklas’s presence calmed him, though, and by the time they reached the bridge, Anabelle and Guillaume and their unfortunate whore were in the back of his mind. The three statues in the naves on the Pont Marie stared out across the waters as Henri and Niklas stood on the sandy bank of the river.

“It’s quiet,” Henri said. This early, the bridge still had enough foot traffic to make Henri worry about being seen, but not so much that he would turn back. It was hardly midnight, the sky was clear and the half moon bright above the city, but something about the bridge made his senses dull, made the colors around it pale and the sounds dim. He looked up at Niklas, who nodded. Had Henri not known every inch of the city like the back of his own hand, he would have still been able to feel the Pont Marie’s age in his teeth, in a way that wasn’t magic; or if it was, it was old magic, not unlike Niklas himself. Something that thrummed in the bones of the earth, beat in the very pulse of the city.

Across the river, the Île Saint-Louis loomed near enough to touch, the foliage on the other bank stripped bare, branches swaying in the breeze. Something in Henri didn’t like the island, didn’t like being unable to see clear across to the left bank, but that part was not him, but something that was the city itself in his mind — the thing that gave him the map of the streets.

After five minutes of fruitless scrying, Niklas grunted his frustration and walked out on the surface of the water to stand in the middle of the river. Ice, Henri saw, it was ice, he’d frozen the whole of the slice of river he’d wanted to walk on from bank to bank, leaving only ankle-deep trickle of water

And above them, the three statues —

The three statues

“Niklas,” Henri cried, and managed, “look up,” because the Pont Marie had never had statues in its naves, and the figures turned from stone to flesh before his eyes and dove at Niklas, all at once, graceful as swans. Before Henri could shout, Niklas raised his arms, and a rush of water caught the ondine in the middle of their fall, far above the water’s surface.

The passers-by on the bridge above them did not look down, not even at the ondines’ howls.

Slowly, Niklas brought the three of them down to float before him, and he stood on the waters with his hands clasped behind his back until they stopped their struggling. They looked up at him like angry, beautiful, terrified children, with their ancient eyes and drowned corpse-white skin. Niklas said something to them that Henri couldn’t hear from the bank, and the middle one gesticulated, furious, until Niklas took her face in his hand and looked her in the eye.

“You see me,” Niklas said. “You know me.”

His voice carried across the waters, filled the space between the island and the shores; Henri took a full step back, though the force of it couldn’t have hurt him in any way. The ondine went quiescent in their bonds and bowed their heads, and Niklas stroked the middle one’s cheek and had a few more words with them, then let them slip away into the river.

Henri caught him before he could collapse on the bank. He was lighter than he ought to have been, hollowed out by whatever he’d done — speaking, Henri thought, it was the voice; the stones on the bridge had rattled. “What you did,” he began, and then Niklas hauled himself upright and swayed and Henri caught him once more.

All of the blood had drained from his pale face — he looked half a ghost. “Never mind,” Henri said. “Never mind, let’s get you home, Monsieur Bergqvist,” and the carousers on the street mistook Niklas for a drunken friend, and a few sailors, upon seeing him struggle under Niklas’s increasing weight, pried him from Henri’s arms and carried him over the remaining streets.

“Friendly,” Niklas said, slumped on the kitchen table, after Henri had given the three men a bottle of wine each for their efforts.

“Quite,” Henri said, thinking of the look the Greek sailor — the one with the beautiful green eyes — had given him.

It never hurt to have acquaintances at the docks.

But for the moment, all of his attention was on putting color in Niklas’s face. He emerged triumphant from the wine cellar with a bottle of vodka a Polish sorceress had left his grandfather and set it on the table before Niklas. “She is yours,” he said, “to do with what you will.”

Magelights blossomed at the ends of Niklas’s fingers and floated up to the ceiling, brighter than the gas lights, and under them Niklas looked even paler when he grimaced and gestured for a glass. He knocked all of the warm vodka back in one shuddering pull.

Henri sat across from him and thought about drinking himself, but he needed his wits about him. “Are you hurt?”

“No.”

“Are you lying?”

Niklas put another finger of vodka in the glass, and the glass fogged up with the chill he sent through it. Instead of drinking, he stared into the liquid. Then he pushed it away and shook, very hard, just once.

“Yes.”

The vodka had frozen. He ought to have asked where Niklas was hurt, but, seized by a sudden madness — no, he knew precisely what he was doing — he walked around the table and took one of Niklas’s hands to peel the gloves off of them, finger by finger. When Niklas didn’t protest, he pushed him back in the chair to take his scarf off, let it drop to the floor, and started on the buttons of his coat. Niklas’s chair scraped the wood floors when he moved back a few inches so that Henri could stand between his legs. His fingers trembled by the time he got to the last button, and when he leaned in to slide it off of his broad shoulders, Niklas was fever-warm to the touch.

When he worked Niklas’s shirt open, his chest was one vast, mottled bruise. “What did you do to those poor nymphs,” Henri asked, “to hurt yourself this badly?”

It was inappropriate, this urge to run his fingers over Niklas’s flesh. He did so anyway, testing and prodding and perhaps fondling, so long as he had the man at his mercy. Niklas looked down at Henri’s hands, then back up to his face. “You’re worried?”

“Yes,” Henri said, and Niklas exhaled. All at once, a great rush of tension went out of the man’s body, and with it, the heat Niklas radiated; the bruise faded around the edges, barely enough to be perceptible. Still…. “Would you like me to call a healer?” he asked, helping Niklas the rest of the way out of his shirt. “I’ll add it to your rent.”

Niklas shook his head. “I’ll be fine.”

Only the bruise went down lower, all the way to his stomach, outlining … his lungs, Henri realized, it outlined his lungs, as though they’d tried to batter their way out of his body. Henri had seen near everything, and what he hadn’t witnessed, he’d studied: there was no magic that could do that, no singing from the Baltic nor chants from the dark continent. Not even the revenants of ensorcelled Byzantine liturgy harmed the body from the inside out.

Then again, Niklas wielded the old magics, the truly old magics, and there was no good reason his talents ought to be limited to manipulating liquids.

“Or I could cover the charge; I make Anabelle and Guillaume pay me enough,” he said, trying to sound absent-minded. Niklas remained impassive and stared up at him with eyes that had returned to their native, proper blue, so intent that Henri stood riveted to the spot, hands on Niklas’s shoulders.

Before he could shake himself out of it and take proper advantage of his position, Marguerite swept into the doorway, as though summoned by the mention of her brother and sister. Henri moved to cover Niklas, somehow, but Marguerite looked at him and he stepped back — pure animal instinct, terror beating its furious wings in the back of his mind.

Marguerite was in no way physically imposing: she was lovely, with her great, soft, dark eyes and her ink-black hair braided into a crown on her head. But she was so still that the air itself seemed to congeal around her, that not even her skirts dared rustle as she swept across the room toward the two of them. Henri took another step back, but Niklas turned in his chair to face her. There was no look on her face, but Henri could taste her disappointment in the air, sharp and bitter on his tongue. She put her hands on Niklas’s bare chest and stared down into his eyes.

After five minutes (five minutes, ten, an hour, it made no difference with her presence filling the room, bending and warping the world around her) she turned on her heel and left them.

When Henri managed to draw a breath and move from his place, the bruises on Niklas’s chest were diminished to a crooked splotch of flesh over his breastbone. And Niklas himself — fast asleep.

*

It took three long weeks before the elders of the city decided that the ondine had been pacified, and in that time, the Augier House returned to its normal rhythm: Anabelle and Guillaume prowling the streets at night, Marguerite haunting the halls, Niklas working his odd jobs for the magical element of Paris, and Henri — Henri drifted, caught between purposes. Anabelle was well-behaved, and so, too, was Guillaume. Niklas had no shortage of work lined up for him after his feat at the Pont-Marie.

So he balanced his books, and made sure the gold Guillaume handed him stood up to the test of iron. He wrote letters. He received his family’s traditional gifts of wine and honey, with great pomp. He dodged the attentions of ambitious Saint-Évremond girls. The Greek sailor, Dimitrios, happened to be the son of a Nereid and a satyr, and he had not stumbled across Henri’s path by accident that night — they made a solid, pleasant connection that left Henri frustrated and unfulfilled afterward, despite the century Dimitrios had had to refine his craft.

He and Niklas didn’t speak, much. A word here, exchanged in passing at breakfast; a remark on the weather there, when Niklas handed him the newspaper.

In the fourth week, Adrien Desormeaux materialized on his doorstep with Niklas’s payment. Henri had half a mind to slam the door in the man’s face, except he was the Housekeeper, and Adrien was the head of his family, and they were no longer youths, to bicker and fight and make up vigorously afterward. “Welcome to the house,” Henri said. “Tell us what you seek, Adrien.”

“Ah, ritual. Let me in?” Adrien didn’t stand too close to Henri — proper sorcerers didn’t — but he stood closer than anyone else would have. Anyone but Niklas.

“Your business, monsieur.”

With a long-suffering sigh, Adrien pushed a hand through his deep brown hair and said, “I come to offer payment to your guest, one Monsieur Niklas Bergqvist, for the pacification of the city of Paris’s ondine, to the ringing, vulgar, frankly absurd tune of eighty thousand francs. Is that satisfactory?”

To Adrien’s credit, he waited the whole walk to the study before he had Henri against the wall, tugging at his clothes, pressing slow kisses to the skin just beneath Henri’s ear. Henri allowed it for old time’s sake, to see if it would assuage the itching he’d had under his skin since Dimitrios (and since before, long before), but when he found himself looking up at the ceiling and waiting for it to be finished, he nudged at Adrien’s shoulder to get his attention.

“You presume too much, monsieur,” Henri said. “And you’ve gone grey.”

Adrien touched his hair at the temples, but didn’t cede an inch to Henri’s attempts to wriggle away from him. “And the glamour doesn’t hold up around you. Have you decided that you prefer young men, then? Have I grown too old and wrinkled for your dilettante tastes? Or is it a woman, of all things; are you providing the storied Augier name with a proper heir? I don’t recall receiving a wedding invitation, for shame.”

“No,” Henri started, because the storied Augier name was not blood, but bond, to the city and to the House. Adrien dealt, and knew full well that he dealt, plain insult to Henri’s grandfather, whom the great Marianne Augier had picked up off of the streets of Algiers, a little Berber boy with a great hooked nose too big for his body and a magical talent greater than the city had ever seen —

And then there was a crash somewhere in the house, a miraculous crash, and Henri ripped himself from Adrien’s arms with only the briefest of apologies. He had to investigate, after all.

He found them in front of the stairwell. Guillaume and Niklas stood nearly nose to nose; Guillaume’s hammered-gold hair made Niklas look faint and pale, but they made a pretty picture, which ought to have been the last thing on Henri’s mind. He took in the details of the scene: Niklas, Guillaume, and a puddle. And glaring. They didn’t seem as if they were going to fight, but Henri took a step within range anyway, to keep Guillaume from acting.

“You’d think he would be pleased with me,” Guillaume said, swaying forward on his toes and pulling back just before his face touched Niklas’s.

Niklas didn’t move.

Henri took him by the arm, dragging him away from Guillaume, and the muscles under his touch — such muscles — were bunched stiff.

“Explain,” Henri said. He drew himself to his full height, which was still shorter than both of them (and made shorter still by his proximity to Niklas), but they were on his ground. “Either of you, or both.”

Guillaume stepped away and reclined against the wall next to the window, so that his hair caught the sun. “Monsieur Bergqvist had a problem, cousin — a visitor, you see. I took care of it.”

“Took care.”

“Most thoroughly. It slipped past the house’s defenses. And as long as I stay here, I’m bound to protect the house, aren’t I? To the best of my abilities? I can’t understand why your friend” — snide insinuation on friend, Niklas tensed, Henri ignored it — “is so concerned.” Stretching out his leg, he ran the toes of his boot in a circle through the water. “You ought to clean it up, the floors will warp.”

Then Guillaume left, humming J’ai vu le loup, le renard, le lièvre, c’est moi-même qui les ai revirés. Niklas lifted the water from the ground in a soft, loose sphere and made it dissipate in a puff of steam, still frowning, irritation written in every line of his body.

“My,” Henri said, “I believe this explains why you’re in Paris, Monsieur Bergqvist. A sending? An elemental? Hunting you?”

“That,” said Niklas, face shuttered tight, “was my sister. I — I could have could have talked to her.”

“You caused a disturbance in my house.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’ll need details,” he said, fully aware that he pried where he had no reason to pry. Niklas was no danger to the House, or the city. “To write in the great book, of course. For future generations.”

If Niklas found it transparent, he gave no indication. “A sister of mine was chasing me down. She’s not, anymore.” He gestured to the dry spot on the ground — drier than everything around it. Niklas must have sucked the moisture out of the wood, as well, though the House was already taking steps to repair the rough patch. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

He had the same stillness to him that Marguerite did. Henri flexed his fingers at his sides and took a step closer to him, wanting to shake him out of his sudden daze, and Niklas’s mouth softened around the edges. It was the same look, Henri realized, that he’d had the night after he’d spoken to the ondine. And it would be so easy to close the gap, but he caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye, and that glimpse’s name was Adrien Desormeaux. His eyebrows were raised, and corners of his mouth turned up in amusement, if not a smile.

“It’s fine,” Henri said, pretending the other man wasn’t there. He squeezed Niklas’s upper arms. “You did nothing wrong. I’ll speak to Guillaume; I’ll have Anabelle speak to him. And….” He turned and smiled at Adrien, then put an arm around Niklas’s waist. Niklas leaned into him.”Look, here’s Monsieur Desormeaux, you’ve become to be a rich man today.”

“It took us ages to raise the funds,” said Adrien.

Niklas’s tone was ice. “You didn’t expect me to survive.”

“Well.” Adrien held his hands out, spread wide before him. “No, I’m afraid we didn’t, why would we? But the city of Paris honors its word, even in reduced circumstances. I left the money in my dear Henri’s office, is that to your liking, monsieur?”

“Yes.”

Henri had nothing less than the sense of Adrien’s throwing a piece of brick into the middle of a crowd of particularly fat pigeons, just to watch them fly off.

*

He’d gone into the library to find an old volume he needed for his researches — because if he could do no magic, he would know everything there was to know about it — and stumbled across Niklas and Marguerite, seated across the table from one another.

Marguerite’s eyes were fixed on Niklas’s book, her hands folded before her, and Niklas read to her in a low, rolling tongue that was emphatically not his native Swedish. Looking up from the page, he paused and attempted a heartrendingly shy smile, but all she did was cock her head to the side. Marguerite was comforting, in a way, by virtue of being the least human of the three. Anabelle’s eyes held a glimmer of humor sometimes, and Guillaume could pass for a normal, fashionable youth, and that made them worse.

“The next song, tomorrow,” Niklas said, once he’d finished. Marguerite nodded and stood up, smoothing down her pale green dress. Too pale for her complexion. She walked around the table to tilt Niklas’s head up and kiss his forehead, then pressed her mouth to his ear, and Niklas went still for a long, terrifying moment, didn’t so much as breathe until Marguerite left the room.

That evening, he buried himself in his grandfather’s diary to avoid making entries in his own for the next Housekeeper, for daughter he’d take in someday. It should have been his father’s diary he read — but it was best not to dwell on that, he would only drive himself mad with wondering, the way his grandfather nearly had.

When Anabelle sat down in the armchair in the corner of his study, it was a relief. “You aren’t carousing with Guillaume this evening?” Henri asked.

“He has so much energy,” she said with a long-suffering sigh, kicking her feet out from under her skirts. “I simply can’t keep up with him.”

Henri was far too used to Anabelle’s innuendo to grimace at the implication. “And you’ve come to bother me,” he said. “To grace me with your august presence.”

The pen was made of steel, as was the inkwell, and there was a half-circle of iron laid into the floor under the carpet, should she come too close. “You’ve been so busy, can’t I miss my cousin? My generous, sweet cousin?” She clapped her hands together. “Monsieur Bergqvist is spending time with my sister.”

“And this is not new.”

“I want to break him into small pieces,” Anabelle said. “Monsieur — Niklas. Don’t you?”

“You need something from me.” He didn’t look up from the diary. If he covered it with his hands, she would know it was important.

“This is why you’re our favorite.” She leaned closer to him, and she smelled sweet until her proximity to him stripped away her magic, gave him a noseful of the corruption under the veneer she wore — as though she rotted the air, or the air rotted her. “You understand us so well. Tell me, do you find me attractive?”

“Objectively.”

She knew his proclivities, but she still put her hands on his shoulders, surrounding him with the sweet smell of putrefaction as she worked the knots from his muscles. “Do you find Marguerite attractive?”

“I find her terrifying,” Henri said.

“As you well should.” Anabelle moved up to the side of his neck. “As do I.”

“Your point?”

“My point,” she said, “is that we want to make Marguerite very — very — happy,” and she punctuated those last words with squeezes to the side of Henri’s neck, and they didn’t hurt, because to hurt him would have violated the rules of the House. But he felt the power in her hands, even if she couldn’t use magic so close to him. “She adores your Niklas, you know. And so do Guillaume and I.”

“Monsieur Bergqvist — ”

“Something to think about, Henri,” she said, and kissed his cheek.

*

“Marguerite adores you,” Henri said, bursting into the garret and disturbing Niklas halfway through a glass of wine. “Do you know what you’re playing at? Anabelle, I would understand, you know — Anabelle.”

He’d run out of steam, half the speech he’d prepared on his rush up the stairs. Niklas watched him, then set aside his glass. “I can talk to her,” Niklas said, in a tone that made Henri’s skin feel too tight and hot all over. “She doesn’t ask questions. Not like you would.”

“She doesn’t speak. What were you running from, Monsieur Bergqvist?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Niklas swallowed hard. “Guillaume dispatched her.”

And Niklas had watched his sister die, if that was even the truth. “You accepted his help, monsieur — ”

“Niklas.”

Monsieur,” Henri said, dropping into the chair across from Niklas’s, the same positions they’d been in that night, “you are making love to one of them, and allowing another to clean up your messes. They will worm their way into your affections, then suck you dry.”

Niklas stood. “You’ve seen this before.” Henri’s chest constricted, though there had been no disapproval in his tone. “You have,” he said. “You don’t stop them.” He took Henri’s face between his strong hands and made him look up.

“An Augier does not ask questions,” said Henri, forcing himself to meet Niklas’s eyes.

“You turn a blind eye to their appetites.”

“Not — ”

“But you want to save me,” Niklas said. There was something desperate and vulnerable in his eyes, and Henri reached up to hold his wrists. He understood. This was a job for a Frenchman if there ever was one, aux arms, citoyens, formez vos battalions — it wouldn’t fix anything in either of them, but it would be a comfort to them both. And, besides, one took one’s indulgences where one could.

“I,” Henri said, “want to worm my way into your affections, and then suck you dry.”

“I am not — ” Niklas turned bright red, the way Henri hadn’t seen since that night they’d gotten drunk and discussed the ondine. “Marguerite. Not making love to her.”

Henri guided Niklas down to the bed, made him lay on his back with just the tips of his fingers, and sat astride that lean body, spreading his hands wide on Niklas’s chest. “Are you?”

“She would not be interested. In — in me. Or anyone.”

“No,” Henri said, untucking Niklas’s shirt from his trousers and trying his damnedest to seem uninterested, or, at the very least, casual. “She wouldn’t be.”

“She isn’t interested in anything, anymore,” Niklas began. But Henri had no interest in talking about Marguerite, or talking at all, and Niklas’s mouth went soft and slack when Henri attempted to kiss him, staring up at Henri with stricken, nervous eyes. “I’m not human,” he said.

Henri huffed out a laugh against Niklas’s mouth, even as he forced himself to continue holding Niklas down. “I know,” he said, his whole body one great pulse demanding that he let the man up, let him take whatever he wanted, whatever he needed. And he needed quite a lot, by Henri’s estimation. “I’ve known since you arrived. Did you think it would shock me?”

“Yes,” Niklas admitted.

I’m not entirely human.” Henri nipped at his lower lip, and took Niklas’s flinch as a sign to experiment with sucks and nibbles until something came loose in Niklas, and he arched up against Henri, hand sliding through Henri’s hair to rest at the back of his neck. A light hold, nothing to make Henri nervous, but he could feel the power in his grip, only barely contained by a human skin. “I run an establishment that services the not entirely human, Niklas Bergqvist, why on earth would you think that I would care?”

Niklas’s eyebrows rose at his use of services. “I never had occasion to–” Henri kissed him, now that Niklas had the idea of the thing, and Niklas pushed him away only long enough to finish, “…broach the subject.”

“You’ve picked an excellent moment,” Henri said, taking one of his hands off of Niklas’s shoulders to cup him between the legs, pressing the heel of his palm into what he found there. Gaping and drawing in a nervous — terrified — breath, Niklas stared up at him and trembled, and Henri wondered if he was simply a virgin or if his natural body was less sensitive than this.

But now was not a moment for inquiry, now was a moment for action. With hands that trembled more than they ought to have, he worked open the front of Niklas’s trousers and pulled his half-rigid cock out, and couldn’t contain a smile at what he’d unleashed.

“Tell me,” said Henri, and wrapped his hand around the base just to feel Niklas buck, desperate, into his hand. And he’d only just begun. “Is this body something you stole? Something someone made for you? Where did you find it?”

Over their heads, the magelights flickered bright and dim by turns as Henri stroked Niklas to hardness, watching Niklas’s face grow redder and redder. “Answer me,” Henri said. He took his hand away, just to see Niklas strain against him, and as he waited for Niklas to catch his breath enough to speak, he palmed at himself through his trousers to give himself a moment of distraction.

Niklas stared at that. Licked his lips, as if he wanted to reach out and help. And so Henri did it once more, letting his head fall back just as the lights went low again, and Niklas answered, “A witch made it for me. In exchange for….”

“Your seed?”

Nodding, Niklas took himself in hand and stroked himself just once, then snatched his hand away from his cock as though it was on fire. Henri watched, silent, as Niklas tried it again, more cautious this time, his brow furrowed in concentration. “I’ve never tried this,” he murmured, looking up at Henri for guidance. So Henri covered Niklas’s hand with his own and moved it up and down, increasing the pressure as he went. He shifted, so that he straddled one of Niklas’s thighs and could rub himself against it as he showed Niklas what to do.

That patience was wearing thin, and he was grateful when Niklas sat up to bring their bodies together, kissing him more enthusiastically than well, his cock trapped between them. Henri kept stroking as best he could, even as Niklas held him so close that he could barely move; all he could think of was skin on skin, and he paused to run his hands up Niklas’s back, stroking and smoothing until Niklas relaxed his grip enough for Henri to put some space between them.

The waistcoat was easy. Henri made sure he didn’t tear any buttons off when he helped Niklas out of his shirt, next, because he was in no mood sew them back on. On the ceiling, the magelights blazed sun-bright for a sustained moment when Niklas tossed his clothes aside.

“Magnificent,” Henri said, looking at the torso before him. “Fine craftsmanship, Madame Witch.” He ran his finger in a circle around the head of Niklas’s cock. “She must have taken your seed after you were in this body.”

“No,” said Niklas. He kissed Henri before Henri could speak more. They got as far as shoving Henri’s shirt down his shoulders so that it hung off his elbows before it was Niklas’s turn to grab at him, Henri pausing his lips’ exploration of that strong jawline to glory in the clumsy groping, unable to recall how long he’d wanted this for, or even if he’d wanted it half as badly as he did now.

Henri undid his trousers for Niklas, to spare him the embarrassment, and Niklas pulled him out, shy with him even now. “Tell me,” Niklas said.

“Tell you what?” Easy, this was too easy, everything made Niklas react, from the scrape of teeth over his earlobe to sucking at the side of his neck to running fingernails down his chest. He tried to lean back to watch how they touched one another, how Niklas did his very best to match Henri’s rhythm but wasn’t half so smooth or finessed or practiced, and that was fine. More than fine.

With a groan, Niklas grabbed his upper arm to pull him close again, saying, “Tell me that this — this is all right, that….”

Then Niklas shut his eyes tight, and Henri leaned forward to whisper a litany of reassurances into his ear, told him that this was wonderful, that he was wonderful, that his cock, especially, was wonderful, spoke and spoke until Niklas’s deep groans trailed off into simple, needy moans.

Still Henri continued, murmured how he’d thought of his body while making love to the Greek sailor, and Niklas’s eyes flew open at that — oh, yes, that had been a risk, but Henri had struck something there, something lovely, and he went on, detailing every moment of the encounter, embellishing as needed, while Niklas thrust his hips up helplessly into Henri’s hand, then gasped and came and fell back on the thin mattress.

“No,” Henri said, hissed, in his best Housekeeper voice, the one that made small children cower, as he cleaned off his hand with a bit of blanket. “Don’t you dare.”

“Let me watch you.”

illustrated by Oishii Yumi

The naked awe in Niklas’s eyes gave Henri pause, and so he shed his shirt entirely and pulled his hair from its ribbon so that it fell about his shoulders, running a hand through it. If Monsieur Bergqvist wanted a show, Henri would give him a show. He cared only for his guests’ comfort, after all. He stroked himself off, slow and lazy, noting how Niklas’s hands balled up into fists at his sides, the muscles in his forearms standing out as he fought not to touch, and from the set of his jaw he must have been biting his tongue.

Henri put his hand on his throat, ran it down his collarbones and chest as he worked faster, and when his little death came upon him he had no presence of mind to turn to the side, and instead spent himself on Niklas’s stomach.

“Ah,” Niklas said. He dabbed a finger into the white streak on his belly and brought it absently up to his mouth.

“If you didn’t like it, we needn’t do it again.” Henri fell on his back next to Niklas, then wriggled out of his trousers. “I didn’t mean to impose on you, monsieur.”

“It’s fine,” Niklas said, suddenly solemn. “It was — good. Good,” he repeated, “it was nice,” and Henri sat up enough to kiss him before he could continue babbling. It didn’t work. “But perhaps we could–”

“Go slower?”

Niklas nodded, and then rolled over onto his stomach to look at Henri. This — here — this, Henri knew, was the moment he should have found some excuse to leave the room, lest Niklas become attached, but for once in his life he found himself unworried by the prospect, and let Niklas pull him into his arms.

*

It took a week for Niklas to convince him to abandon the comfort of his bedroom to sleep in the garret, which had been a horrible idea, but at the very least he didn’t hog blankets or snore. So Henri lay awake with frozen toes, staring up at the ceiling when the door swung open. He pretended to be asleep until he heard the rushing of skirts on the floor, rather than boots, and sat up to see Marguerite, face glowing with the moonlight.

“Hello,” he said, pretending to yawn, though in retrospect he’d sat up too quickly to have been sleeping in the first place. “It’s a lovely night, don’t you think?”

Next to him, Niklas didn’t wake. And as Marguerite didn’t answer, he went on, “You’re related to me — otherwise the house wouldn’t have recognized your right of kin, isn’t that true?” The tiniest incline of her head. He’d given up trying to talk to her a year ago, when it became obvious that she would never respond to anyone but Anabelle, but here she was.

She pulled a stool up to the side of his bed and folded her hands on her lap, and the moonbeams coming through the window bent in their path to light the two of them. Henri sat cross-legged under the blankets, holding his toes in each hand for warmth. “Do you know my grandmother?” he asked.

She nodded, quick and curt, the most human gesture he’d ever gotten from her.

“…My father?”

He’d never dared to ask the question of any of them; the pit of his stomach churned while Marguerite stared at him. Stared through him. He hardly dared meet her gaze. Then she nodded, and took his chin in her hand to force him to look at her, and they had the same eyes, he saw, the same shape and color, and now her face was very close to his, and she patted his cheek and let him go. He drew back as though her hand was on fire.

She nodded again, more emphatically, and he had the sudden sense that she was an empress whose imperial court was wherever she set her foot, and that she’d granted him an audience. She had not blinked, not once. “They– Grandpère said that my father was wearing a watch. When grandmère took him. He said her name was Clémence,” he found himself babbling, “grandmère, but I’m sure you knew that, and that she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. And the most terrible. I’m sure — I’m sure he hadn’t met Anabelle. Or Guillaume.”

Marguerite covered her mouth with the back of her hand and turned her head to the side. Henri paused, confused by the gesture, then realized that it was laughter. Or something very much like it. “Grandpère said that he left his clothes behind, but not his pocketwatch. And maman couldn’t take it, that there was no conceivable way to retrieve him, once grandmère took him back as the flesh of her flesh, and at the thought that grandmère might take me — there was no danger of it, grandpère told her, but she wouldn’t listen — and she left me with grandpère to raise.” It was only a recitation of events he’d only heard about near a decade after they’d happened, and there was no sympathy in Marguerite’s eyes — nor was there pity. Adrien had pitied him.

There was one more question. He shut his eyes and wet his lips to steel himself, then looked up not at her, but at the bent light that haloed her form, and asked, “Is he alive?”

A shake of the head.

“I see,” Henri said. “Thank you,” he said. The light straightened, and Marguerite left him alone. When he lay back down, Niklas grunted in his sleep and put an arm around Henri’s front, dragging him in close to his chest, and Henri was glad of the warmth, but little else.

*

Henri was indebted to the Saint-Évremond family for restoring the House wards nearly free of charge, and so he entertained Marcelline’s eldest daughter and heir presumptive, Sophie, once a month. Thus, the family gained a measure of glamour for their intimate association with the Housekeeper, and Henri had someone to perform the magical chores he couldn’t — and to keep track of Anabelle and Guillaume in his stead, for the Saint-Évremond family kept track of every fae in the north of France.

Outside of grand diplomatic meetings, Sophie was an easy young woman to talk to (unless Henri slipped and mentioned the the Desormeaux family), and a kind one, beneath her exoskeleton of reserve. Over their early lunch that day, she said, “They’re looking for something.”

Henri paused in his contemplation of the place settings to look up at her. “Oh?” Elsewhere in the house, Clothilde shrieked with laughter; they’d left her alone with Niklas, and the two of them played tag through the hallways.

“Your horrific cousins,” said Sophie, nibbling at the end of a croissant. “They’ve been prodding at things that ought not be prodded at. Visiting the Library under the library. Behaving themselves.”

“Oh,” Henri said. He refreshed her cup of coffee, smiled as best he could. “We can’t have that, can we,” he added, while Anabelle’s words echoed through his mind: I want to break him into small pieces.

She wiped her mouth with the folded edge of her napkin and changed the subject, which meant that she had nothing more to give him and didn’t want to chance revealing her vested interest in Anabelle.

Sophie’s interest in Anabelle was the only amusing thing about the situation.

But he paid attention, and they were around less and less. The dryads of the city reported nothing to him, nor did the whores, and a trip to see Dimitrios at the docks yielded nothing but rumpled clothes, unrelated information, and an invitation to drink.

He said nothing to Niklas; he refused to do anything to crush the tiny smiles he got from him, in quiet moments.

And that was a mistake.

They cornered him and Niklas in the green sitting room, Anabelle seated in Henri’s grandfather’s armchair, on the throne; Guillaume standing behind her with his hands on her shoulders. “Can we help you?” Henri said, standing between them and Niklas, but they ignored and looked through him until Niklas came around to face them.

“You have business with me,” he said, arms behind his back. Henri looked down, and one of Niklas’s hands flexed, so he took it and squeezed.

“Jötunn,” Guillaume said. “We know your name.” Something moved and shifted under his face, something terrible that made Henri’s head hurt. Niklas’s arm came around Henri’s waist as he retched, supporting him lest he fall to his knees.

“Speak it,” said Niklas. “And then?”

Anabelle stood up and kissed her brother’s cheek, lips lingering a moment too long. “We want you to come stay with us. Ah, Henri — our magic, I’m terribly sorry; Guillaume, let us be considerate of our sweet cousin’s delicate constitution.” But they let him gag one last time before whatever effect they had on him (they should not have had an effect on him) ceased to work. “We’ve taken the most dreadful fancy to you, Monsieur Bergqvist, Monsieur Giant.”

“What do you want of me?”

Giant, Henri thought, clinging to Niklas without shame. Frost giant, from the north. That was a new one.

“What do we want?” Guillaume wrapped his arms around Anabelle’s shoulders and pressed his lips to her hair before speaking again. “What do we want, sister,” he said, and then the human skins they wore went thin, so that Henri could see the odd, sick angles of their true faces.

“I revoke,” Henri began, gasping, to call on the House to expel the two of them, but somehow his voice stopped halfway up his throat. Anabelle’s doing, from the way she smiled at him.

“We would like to know, first, why you were running,” Anabelle said.

“We’ve wondered,” Guillaume added, aping her light tone but sounding too young and eager: nothing but a small yellow dog straining at its leash.

“She was my sister, and we fought together.” Niklas’s tone was level. These are only facts. “There was a battle. I left her to die, alone.” Henri buried his face in Niklas’s shoulder and tried to order his thoughts enough to do something useful, to give Niklas comfort or order the House to expel them from the city, but his cousins did something to make his legs turn to jelly. He looked up at Niklas, whose mouth was pressed into a grim line. “You deprived us of our fight.”

With Niklas at its center, a sudden chill overtook the room and spread, until Guillaume shivered and looked at Anabelle in confusion. And then the door opened before Marguerite’s form as though it couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.

“Sister,” Anabelle said, grinning broadly through chattering teeth and holding out her arms, “look what we’ve found for you, we have his true name, now.”

Marguerite took in the tableau before her, and something in her eyes blazed so bright that Henri couldn’t meet them.

Then she said, “No,” and her voice made the foundation of the house rattle and hum and vibrate, brought her siblings to their knees before her. Something wet trickled down the side of Henri’s neck, and his fingers came back red when he slapped a hand over it. Niklas, though — Niklas was unaffected, and did not take look away from Marguerite for a second.

Anabelle managed to raise her head and open her mouth, but Marguerite leant over to whisper in her ear, then Guillaume’s, while the windowpanes and walls cracked and repaired themselves again and again, the House trying its best to keep up with the damage her voice did to it.

Next to him, Niklas covered Henri’s eyes and pulled him in close, Henri’s back against his front, and Henri gave in to him, no matter how much he wanted to see what was happening. He did not try to look when he felt Marguerite’s skirts brush against his legs, heard the soft sound of her kissing Niklas’s cheek one last time, and then their heavy presence was gone from the room.

*

“What was that?” Henri asked, when Niklas had carried him back to his bedroom and he’d finished vomiting up the contents of his stomach. “What in God’s name….” he said, then drifted off to sleep and knew that it was Niklas who did it to him, and didn’t mind, much. When he woke up, Niklas had drawn a bath for him, and they didn’t speak until he emerged in his dressing gown to lie flat on his back in bed.

“They used me,” Niklas said simply. He sat next to the bed on a stool and sponged at Henri’s forehead with a cool cloth, and Henri didn’t have it in him to put him off his task — Henri could feel the guilt, understood that Niklas needed this, far more than he did. He wouldn’t ask about Niklas’s sister. Niklas would tell him more, or he wouldn’t. “They went through me. My magic is old magic — it affects you. Theirs….” He shook his head.

Jötunn. Frost giant. He didn’t care. “And Marguerite,” Henri said, “what of her?”

“She’s an ancient,” Niklas said. “A true ancient, older than I am. She can’t speak anymore, lest — ”

And then it hit Henri, and he cut in, “The ondine.” The compelling voice he’d used. “You learnt it from her?”

“She was fond of me. She’s nearly a god, Henri — a lonely god. And she’s so tired. I was something new.”

“An ancient and a giant,” said Henri, sitting up and brushing his damp hair away from his face. “You were her student.”

The magelights blazed for a long second. “Marguerite….” He shut his eyes and frowned until Henri stroked his strong thigh. “She’s the first of your grandmother’s line. Anabelle and Guillaume — her descendants, her attendants. They thought to steal me for her as a pet, that’s all.”

He rested his head against Niklas’s chest, assuring himself that he was still there, that both of them were still alive, though he had his doubts as to whether Niklas could die. “We shouldn’t do this,” he said, after a deep breath. “You ought to leave.”

Niklas picked Henri’s hair out of its ribbon, and Henri made a half-hearted attempt to snatch it back before he dropped his arm into Niklas’s lap, looking up at him. The blue of Niklas’s eyes had gone watery and thin — the glamour, perhaps, wearing ragged around the edges after some great expenditure of power. “You don’t want me to leave,” Niklas said.

“No,” Henri admitted.

“You want me to stay.”

Because the two were, after all, different things, even if Niklas hadn’t phrased it as a question. “I do,” said Henri, “I would like it very much.” He leaned up to curve his hand around Niklas’s fine jaw and kiss him. “But you ought to know that it gets horrifically warm in the summer, my dear friend, I wouldn’t want you to melt.”

At the word friend, Niklas’s eyes widened, and Henri had to kiss him one more time. “I don’t melt,” he said. “I carry the cold with me.”

“But you’re so warm now.” Henri sat himself in Niklas’s lap, then added, “My fingers are cold. From the ordeal.” He wriggled them in front of Niklas’s grave face, and Niklas took two of them and sucked them into his mouth, guileless in a way that made Henri’s stomach clench. The falls of their trousers would be easy to undo, but it was better to make this last. Make this count. Teasing, he curled his fingers upward to stroke the roof of Niklas’s mouth as he sucked; in response, a strong hand covered the small of his back, pulling him closer. “That’s,” Henri said, and attempted to force the rest of the sentence out around his sudden awareness of the jut of Niklas’s thick cock, pressed against his thigh, “ah, that’s quite warm enough, thank you.”

De rien,” Niklas said.

“Your accent is improving,” Henri said.

He was too close, now, to remove those pesky layers of cloth between them, and all he could do was settle his arms on Niklas’s shoulders and do his level best not to rut against the poor man’s thigh, which, as he looked down into Niklas’s hungry eyes, seemed like a better and better option.

Hesitation flickered across Niklas’s face, and then he kissed Henri’s neck the way Henri had taught him, his rough, untutored mouth setting his blood aflame. “I’ve been practicing,” he said.

“With whom?” Henri gave in and moved, making sure to rub up against Niklas’s cock in the process. The parts of Niklas that weren’t already stiff went rigid, and he gasped and dragged his mouth away from Henri’s neck. “Your accent, I mean, I am not a jealous man.”

Niklas frowned — at the memory of Adrien, perhaps; he would have to let Dimitrios free, gently, perhaps introduce the two of them to one another, they’d drive each other mad — and Henri thumbed at the corner of his mouth.

“You have a meeting with Marcelline Saint-Évremond tomorrow,” said Niklas. “Morning. In case you’d forgotten.”

“And now you’re my secretary,” Henri said, and kissed Niklas, slow, until Niklas’s lips parted of their own accord and he took control of the kiss, like the warrior Henri knew he was, deep down in his bones. Niklas’s callused hands pulled Henri’s shirt out of his trousers, slid up his back and held him in place until all Henri could do was wrap his arms around Niklas’s neck, shudder, and give in.

http://shousetsubangbang.com/2011-10/lonelygod-3.jpg

Spring in Paris, and with the first green buds on the trees came a group of noisy maenads to replace his cousins as lodgers, then a loup-garou, far from her pack, followed by a procession of sad-eyed banshees on their way south to Spain. (An Augier did not ask.) And Niklas stayed by his side, and, despite all of Henri’s joking, did not melt when the temperature grew warm enough to make even Henri consider going out in public in his shirtsleeves.

“Theoretically,” Henri said, “I don’t have to die. It’s a choice. My life is tied to the house’s, you know, and Marianne Augier lived for two hundred years — ”

“Comforting,” Niklas grunted, and guided Henri’s head back down between his legs.

After the banshees settled in, a flock of sentient magpies and their human-shaped representative took up residence in Niklas’s old garret (Niklas having moved down to Henri’s rooms), and the House felt alive again, buzzing with activity and positive cash flow.

The night of the first summer thunderstorm, Marguerite showed up at the front door, dressed as a man, in ill-fitting trousers and a waistcoat and her shirtsleeves. The raindrops swerved to avoid her.

” — come in,” said Henri, glad that Niklas had dozed off over his Kalevala hours and hours ago, “come in, cousin, you’ll catch your death.” He led her in to the foyer and took the umbrella that hung useless from her hands. The oldest of his grandmother’s line, a true ancient, a lonely, tired god, glancing up at the ceilings as though she was remembering how to inhabit the physical world again. She probably was. “What can I help you with?”

He kicked himself for forgetting the ritual lines in his hurry to get her inside, and she reached into her pocket to pull out a watch on a long chain. Its cheap gilt was half rubbed away, but on the back were engraved the initials C.A.

Christophe Augier.

Henri’s heart jumped into his throat. Marguerite let it dangle from his chain between the two of them, then took her hand away. It hung in midair, swaying back and forth, and Henri nearly reached for it before pulling his hand back and clasping his arms behind his back. “You give this to me freely,” he said, “and without expectation of compensation, in any form?”

“No expectation,” Marguerite said, hardly above a whisper, and it still made his teeth hurt and his head throb.

He took the watch and, after rubbing his thumb over the engraving, opened his mouth to thank her, but she was gone.

He returned to the study, where Niklas’s long, lean form lay sprawled out on the couch, shins and bare feet hanging half a foot off of the arm. “Where did you go?” he asked, and Henri ran a finger up the bottom of one of his feet, just to watch Niklas’s face contort with the effort it took him not to smile. He was ticklish everywhere, it was a delight.

“Mademoiselles Pouliot and Perrault were having a row; I thought to stop them from shrieking every window in the house to bits,” Henri said, feeling the cold metal of the pocketwatch through his trousers. It was personal, as personal as how Marguerite had taught Niklas to use her voice — her Voice, even. “Something about a string of pearls.”

“Ah,” said Niklas. There were still pink creases on the side of his face from where he’d pillowed his face on his arm. Henri rubbed at his temples and sat back down at his desk to pen the day’s entry in his journal. “And how is Marguerite doing?” he asked, after a pause long enough to make Henri flinch.

He thought to lie, but only for a second. “Lighter,” he said, “she seems lighter. She had no entourage.”

“Why did she come?” Did she say anything about me, he meant. Henri knew. Niklas had only used the voice once in the last few months, and had been bedridden for a full week and a half before the bruises on his chest healed overnight.

“To give me something,” Henri said, setting his pen aside. Niklas’s brow furrowed, then smoothed, and then he sat upright and set his book aside to allow Henri to nestle close to him, without questions, without complaint.

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