by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by beili
The moon was bone-cold over the dark, murderous waters the night Simon Carrington died. It had been night when he began to die; it was night when he progressed full forth into the act; and it would be night when it was finished, as he lay blue and cold beneath the surface of the silent lake. His body jerked as his lungs struggled for air, but Rust’s firm hands held him with strength from knuckle to wrist as he drowned him. Simon’s mind tumbled inwards, and he gasped one last time, dying the only way he knew how.
The dreaming had come first. Four months of hard dreaming, and by the end of it, all of London had begged to be released.
For four months and one hundred twenty two days, deep in the vault of winter, Simon had slumbered with the rest of the city — with the King in Clarence House, with the parlour maids of Mayfair, with the workhouse urchins of the East End, with the jewelers and the luthiers and the printers with newspaper ink still on their fingers, papers rustling with the loneliness of London’s enchantment. They had all slept, every single one of them; collapsed against kitchen walls, on cobblestone floors, against statues, in baths. The protections that English magicians had put around the city and its most precious places had collapsed. Because of a traitor, someone said. Because a man had been seen leading the enemy around before the sleep-season began. An English magician had betrayed his fellow people, and as a result, London had slept, dreaming of monsters.
This was what the Church had feared when magicians first became known in England. This sort of devilry, the very tooth and nail of it — fey and chaotic and against God. Had the archbishop not properly warned the country of what would come of witchcraft? Oh yes, he had warned them until he was blue in the face, and now look to it, the results of the English people’s folly.
For a fairy lady, the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, had come to London, casting her spell that put the city asleep. She had claimed London for her own, and while the true rulers tossed and turned in their beds, she and her otherworldly folk waltzed in the streets full of sleeping bodies. She had held balls in Buckingham Palace for her fairy courtiers, sharp-eyed and strange, and they had played whist while drinking salt tears and eating the skeletons of birds.
“It cannot happen a second time,” Simon’s father said. Dr. Carrington sat among an informal gathering of the Royal Society of Magicians. He was wan and solemn, still ill from too much dreaming. “We had to broker this peace with whatever means we were able.”
“With whatever means?” Kirk repeated. “Even our souls?”
“Pray do not be so dramatic,” Hamwell said from his chaise. “We have hardly pledged our souls to the Dreaming Queen.”
“One soul,” Kirk said.
Hamwell opened his mouth for a quick retort — he had always been, to Simon’s recollection, one of the more argumentative of their ilk — but then he shut it. “Yes,” he said quietly, “one soul. Damn that Judas, wherever he may be. His soul is already promised to Hell.”
Simon watched them, as he always did, from the divide between the sitting room and the foyer, lingering like a pudgy rat for a scrap of attention. At three and twenty, he was not the youngest member at the gathering, if member he could be considered at all. However, there were not many younger than he, and those who were had joined the ranks of the Society on their own merits, unlike Simon, who was privy to these meetings simply because his father was the head.
For Simon could not perform magic. He was the son of two of England’s greatest magicians, the nephew of another, and the godson of numerous magical luminaries. He could not so much as summon a spark.
The Royal Society magicians oft glanced at him in pity. Poor shy, myopic Simon, with too much meat on his bones but not enough skill in his blood. Some well-meaning sod made such a remark at nearly every meeting. Tonight was the only night that had proved different. Tonight, no one cared enough for Simon’s future, for they were all concerned with a subject far vaster and more troubling: the truce with the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, and what they must pay for it.
Simon heard a noise from the door behind him. Someone was knocking. As everybody else was deep in conversation and it was the maid’s night off, it fell to him to answer for his household. “H-hello?” he said, opening the door a crack. “Oh, it is you, Rust.”
“Did you think it was someone else?” Thomas Rust replied. His voice was slow and even, very calm. Rust was always so calm, though he was not much older than Simon.
“Ah, um, no,” Simon said. “But come in from the cold. My father will be glad to see you.” He looked at his hands, and then at the space where the maid should be. “Shall I take your coat?” he asked uncertainly.
“No need,” Rust said. With his coat still on, and his hat in his hands, he entered the sitting room. All the other magicians stirred upon his arrival, and made room for him against the wall where the younger, fitter gentlemen were standing to let their elders rest their weary bones. Rust slotted himself in between Hamwell and Duplass. Simon looked at him for a moment, and then looked away.
“We were discussing the tithe,” Dr. Carrington informed Rust.
Rust nodded. “As is the entire city.”
“It is barbaric,” Kirk said. “That we should give up one of our own — to sell our own flesh and blood into slavery!”
“Why?” It was Allegra Fondant who spoke this time. She was one of the few female magicians, and so dark and cold that it scared Simon. “Our people are hardly innocent of the history of slavery. When humans sell other humans, why should it be so strange that we should sell one of our children to a fairy queen? We are buying peace and for her to return to her lands and leave us be; it cannot be cheap.”
“It is,” Duplass said nervously, “only one sacrifice.”
“One per ten years,” Dr. Carrington reminded him.
“More babes die of cholera in a single year,” Duplass said. “Many more may have died if we did not accept the Dreaming Queen’s terms.”
“It is done!” Hamwell interjected. He threw his hands in the air so violently that Rust ducked to avoid being struck in the face. “What are we, chattering birds, to beat the subject so? No matter what we say here, the matter is: it is done! The vile woman gave her terms, and we, on behalf of good King William, accepted them. We shall give her a tithe. We shall give her a plaything. And we will sleep uneasily for it, but at least we shall wake up when the sleep is over!”
To wake, Simon thought as he watched the meeting progress and the magicians descend into petty squabbling. Such a small thing that even children were capable of. Such a small thing, and such a large burden.
They had boiled kidneys for supper that night, and Simon ate second helpings. He would not dare appear so gluttonous if more of his father’s friends had stayed the night, but as it were, few were in the proper spirits to partake. They had all left: Duplass and Hamwell and Kirk and Allegra Fondant in her white fox furs. Only Rust remained, as he often did, to dine with Dr. and Mrs. Carrington and their useless son.
The kidneys had a chewy texture that was not particularly pleasant. Cook must be terrified, Simon thought. She had a son who was of age for the tithe. The kidneys were clear evidence.
Dr. Carrington drank heavily of his port. Mrs. Carrington ate slowly. Only Rust seemed unaffected, tucking away a side helping of potatoes as he tried to lighten his hosts’ moods with idle chatter about spellcrafting and tea cosies. “My mother wishes to come to town,” he said. “She is an avid collector of tea cosies, and so I believe tea cosies must be the first matter of order. Nothing else is to distract her from her single-minded goal.”
“Oh how charming,” Mrs. Carrington said without much heart in it.
Simon squinted at the potatoes. His spectacles were no longer as effective as they were when his father had first procured them. That was some seven years ago; now the potatoes seemed a yellowy, buttery lump, though they were as near as his elbow.
“Here,” Rust said. He passed the dish to Simon, who murmured his thanks. He wondered what Rust must truly be thinking. It was Fondant and Rust who had led the negotiations with the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, for her to release slumbering London as her playground. King William and half of Parliament had been in London at the time, as were a good portion of the Royal Society’s magicians. Hence it had fallen to countryside magicians, and the practitioners in smaller cities, to parlay. Rust had been at his family’s farm in Norfolk at the time, and from Simon heard, had taken one of his prize horses and come riding into London when the city first fell.
He had met the fairy queen face-to-face. Simon studied Rust furtively, trying to see what about him seemed different or affected. But Rust appeared to be the same old Rust he had known for years past, ever since Rust came straight from the pastures and the cow fields to learn magic under Dr. Carrington’s tutelage.
The memory of another one of his father’s favourites stirred Simon. “Does anybody recall Hawthorne?” he asked out loud. “Tall, wore pince-nez, fond of discussing morality. He used to hire himself out as a tutor.” As he spoke, his father developed a faraway expression.
“I believe so,” Rust said, “though it has been years since we last saw him. I was just returning from the Navy when he vanished. What makes you think of him now?”
“I—” Simon cast about for words.
“He wonders if there might be a fairy connection that would aid us,” Mrs. Carrington said gently. “Isn’t that right, Simon?”
“Yes, Mother.” How did his mother always know exactly where his mind was going? It could not be magic; it was too reliable for that. “Have some more kidney, Mother,” he suggested. “You have barely touched your food.”
“Food,” Dr. Carrington said with a sudden chortle. “Even in the darkest times, our Simon can always take the time to think of food.”
“Food is gospel for the stomach,” Rust said. Simon did not know if he felt relieved or ashamed that Rust was coming to his defense. “And in war, a well-fed soldier is the most dangerous.”
“Are we in war then?” Dr. Carrington asked.
His wife pursed her lips. “How can we not be? A queen from another land has her hounds baying at our door. Of course it is war.”
“We are already waving the white flag,” Dr. Carrington said.
“And one day we shall turn right back around and fight,” she said.
“With what?” Dr. Carrington cried. “With what gunpowder and what steel? Even our best magicians are no match against that foul queen! And we still do not know who it was that led the queen straight past our protections!”
A flame flickered in Mrs. Carrington’s hair, in the pearls around her neck. The shadow of a deep magic passed through her. Even Simon with his poor eyesight could glimpse it. To play peacekeeper, he reached over and put his hand over hers, clasping them tightly. Her skin was so cold, he thought; how could his mother’s skin be so cold when he could see so clearly the fire-magic that kindled within her? “The tithe will come but do not fear for me,” he said. “The Queen of All Night’s Dreaming wants a young magician as tithe, but I am not a magician, am I? So it will never come to that.”
“Simon is right, madam,” Rust said. “It is more likely they will pull my name from the hat.”
“And that is meant to comfort me?” she said. “You are hardly inconsequential to me either, Thomas. Oh! I have no more appetite for this discussion, nor for this meal. Gentlemen, you must excuse me.” She pushed her chair away. They all stood and watched as she left the table, muttering to herself.
“Father,” Simon began.
“It was my fault for letting our talk run sour,” Dr. Carrington said. “I should not have made jest, least of all about you. Forgive me.”
“Of course I forgive you,” Simon said. “You have a gentle bear’s heart; how could I be angry with you?” He ate another iron spoonful of potatoes, and then put on his best smile. If it wobbled at the edges, no one but Rust was close enough to see by candlelight, and Rust was kind enough not to remark. “When we finish eating, shall you show me your newest project? Those singing stones?”
His father brightened immediately.
His father’s study was an airy room on the upper floor of their London house, and for as long as Simon could remember, it had been four walls encasing an architectural blueprint for wonder. All of Simon’s earliest childhood memories circled around his father’s study in some fashion, circling and flitting like the glass dragonflies that buzzed about the windows, tapping idly against the frost. These small enchantments were Dr. Carrington’s pride and joy, the enchantments and the collections of folklore.
Stories and toys — sometimes, when Simon thought more deeply on it, it was astonishing that his father had been chosen to lead the Royal Society of Magicians at all. His father was a writer and tinkerer. His poor health when young had kept him from many of the occupations other magicians of his generation, the first out-and-about magicians of England, had tended towards. Most of Dr. Carrington’s colleagues had soldiered and fought, giving their skills to king and country. Dr. Carrington, instead, had built a laboratory.
It was the finest Elysium a boy could ask for. Even now, when everybody was tense and afraid, Simon smiled to see his father bound about his study, examining his plants, brushing dust off his books, and prodding his teacups. Tin soldiers opened their eyes when Dr. Carrington and Simon passed by, and flowers stretched and bloomed, aching to be touched. Simon ran his finger over the velvety lip of a lily. “Hullo, Virginia,” he said, and the lily shivered with delight.
“Here, my boy, quick, here!” Dr. Carrington called. Simon obediently trotted over in time to see his father pull out a drawer full of shining blue stones. “I have been fascinated as of late in the relationship between magic and music, and I think these stones may contain just the answer. Pick one up. Can you not hear the ocean?”
“I do,” Simon said. “It is lovely. I would — I would very much like to see the ocean again.” His parents used to take him to Brighton when he was young, and his mother would make the shells go clack-clack-clack. He set the stone down.
“Then we shall,” Dr. Carrington said. “When all this is over, let us spend an entire fortnight by the water, your mother and us.”
Simon and his father spent a happy evening playing with the stones, Simon content simply to hear his father’s voice — that tilt of boyish glee that Simon only ever heard when his father was with his magic or with his wife. It was much too late when Simon walked his sleepy father to bed before heading down to the sitting room to clean up the last remains of the Royal Society’s meetings. There he found Rust, sitting in an armchair reading Aristotle. “You are not in bed,” Simon said, and then knew himself for a dolt for saying something so blatantly obvious.
“The tithe is in three days,” Rust said. “It is difficult to sleep knowing I was responsible for these terms.”
“Not just you,” Simon said. “The entire Royal Society, or those who were not asleep, accepted the terms. And Miss Fondant was with you as well.” Cautiously, he ventured, “I daresay she had some opinion in the matter.”
Rust did not smile. He was not a man who wore his emotions plainly; he was far too serious for that. The matrons of London always did praise Rust for being a solemn and unfrivolous gentleman, the sort of magician who never played games the way other young bucks with a few glamours up their sleeves did. Rust was a gentleman who danced with ladies at Almack’s, walked them through parks, and returned them home safely like an older brother. Simon wondered if Rust tended to think of him in the same stroke as those sheltered debutantes. “Miss Fondant was a great help,” he said.
“Is it true she is one of the deathless?” Simon asked. He picked up a stray handkerchief, making a mental note from the monograms to return it to Mr. Hamwell. “My father won’t say, but I — I hear things.”
“It is not my place to gainsay your father then,” Rust said.
Simon frowned. “I am a man full grown.”
Rust had a round face. Not as round as Simon’s own, of course, but Rust’s cheekbones were flat and wide, and some of the crueller, wittier magicians said it made him look like the provincial practitioner that he was. Despite being a gentleman whether in drawing rooms or gambling halls, Rust’s origins were more earthy. He was a farmer’s son with a farmer’s strong, stocky build, and was shorter than Simon, who was not himself considered overly statuesque. Their personal histories also differed dramatically. While Simon learned at a young age he did not possess his family’s talents, Rust had discovered his affinity for magic while shearing sheep, and then he had supported his family by joining the Navy, sailing for many years before meeting Dr. Carrington by happenchance in the middle of a rainy London street. They had bumped into each other, ruining Dr. Carrington’s umbrella, and Rust had performed a bit of magic to make amends, which had pleased Dr. Carrington so greatly that he took Rust on as a student.
Simon tilted his head towards the book in Thomas’ hands. “How is Aristotle?”
“The truth?” Rust said. “I am afraid I do not always know what he means. Have you read this particular work of his? I see you reading, often.”
“Not often,” Simon said. “I am not a great scholar like my father.”
“What are you good at then?”
You should know; you have been a regular in our household for the past several years, Simon thought. But unlike others, Rust did not seem to be mocking him, so he answered honestly. “Eating,” he said. When Rust looked uncomfortable, he made a placating gesture. “It is true enough. Nothing like a good meal. I eat when I am sad. I eat when I am happy. I eat when I am feeling nothing in particular. What else?” He thought about it. “I paint, sometimes. I watch the hansom cabs go by. I like playing nursemaid to the Royal Society’s children, when they should come visit.”
“You plan to have a great many of your own one day, I presume,” Rust said.
“I—” Simon hesitated. “Not when I am the way I am.” He waited for Rust to press the question to its inevitable conclusion, but Rust did not. “But it is true,” Simon continued, filling in the silent spaces. “Children can — well, they can be quite horrible. But when they laugh — the sound of that laugh — it is like plunging your hand into a fire. I have never been able to do that, like my mother. So I must find other ways.”
“Carrington,” Rust said. His voice dropped a timbre. “You know you will be entered in the lottery for the tithe? Even if you are not a magician — you are the child of two magicians, and it will be as good as.”
“I am aware,” Simon said. He began folding the handkerchief in two.
“I am sorry,” said Rust.
“You are not sorry,” Simon said. “You are glad it shall bring peace.” He realized his own rudeness the moment it left his mouth.
“I am sorry,” Rust said. He leaned forward in his chair, Aristotle forgotten. “None of this was as I would like it to be. England and Fairy are meant to be separate, the walls firmly in place. None of this should happen.”
“Many things should never happen,” Simon said quietly. “Did you know that I used to have a twin brother? I barely recall him; we were so young. And one day, when our parents took us to visit our aunt in the countryside, my brother and I went to the lake with our nursemaid. She looked aside for a moment, and my brother and I wandered away. We tried to swim. We could not. Our nursemaid dove in to save us; a strong country girl, but she could only save one.” There was a cool, flat pressure behind his eyes as he spoke. “My brother showed a capacity for magic even at that age. So you see, if one of us were ordained to die, it should not have—” He bent his head. “I am babbling. Ignore me.”
Rust was staring at him. Simon knew this from the corner of his vision, but he could not bear to look more directly. How stupid of him to let the grim events of late twist his humours and make him cry and cry and cry. As if he did not have enough to embarrass him in front of England’s best magicians!
“Your cup is empty. I shall fetch you some more tea,” Simon said, and excused himself.
There was a letter waiting in the foyer when the Carringtons woke the next morning. It smelled of violets, and the maid could not recall where it had come from. Mrs. Carrington was the one who opened it.
On the 5th of April, you will have a visitor at this address come to fetch the human magician (no older than thirty) who is to be given to me in the name of Pax Regina. Do not keep him waiting. He is quite impatient.
A shining sigil writhed underneath the silky handwriting.
“So the lottery is not to be called off,” Rust observed.
“Did you truly think it would?” Mrs. Carrington asked.
“No,” Rust said. He removed the silver pen he carried everywhere with him and pressed the steel nib to the paper. He tried to write, but nothing emerged. He then pressed the pen to his skin of his hand, and ink bled out. “Well then,” he said, “we shall proceed as normal.” He picked up the violet and tucked it inside his coat.
The lottery, two days later, was held at Hyde Park. Though it had been wet and gloomy since the past Sunday, it was brisk and clear when the Carringtons and Rust arrived. There was a table set in the middle of a field, and entire swathes of magicians with their families. Many of them had brought their luncheon in picnic baskets, as if they planned to dine on cider cake after learning of their fates. It was a fairly secluded area of the park, with guards from Buckingham Palace manning the perimeters, in order to keep curious civilians from making a raucous. This was a magicians’ affair, if they were to send one of their own young, and they did not want prying eyes.
Simon shivered. Even though the sun was plain above his head, he felt cold. His nose began to run. He saw his mother was similarly affected, and he tucked her arm into his, keeping her close. “We shall be together, you and I,” he whispered. “I won’t go far.”
Dr. Carrington was visibly uneasy. “We are at the hour. I suppose I should draw the name, then, as I am head of our society,” he said, but Rust stepped in front of him.
“No, sir, let me.”
“You are a good man, Thomas,” Dr. Carrington said, relieved. “I have rarely met one better.”
Mrs. Carrington thought otherwise. “Don’t be a coward,” she said to her husband in clipped tones, loud enough for all to hear. “These are your people, your followers. If a knife is to fall, yours must be the hand that wields it.”
Dr. Carrington stammered. He sounded much like Simon in that moment. “I — I take your meaning, Bella, but—”
He did not have the chance to defend his honour. Rust had already seized it from him by stepping to the table, where there was a vase with slips of paper inside. It was a plain vase, grey stone with a crack down one side. There were thirty names inside. Simon had spent all of last night writing them out and cutting them, while his father snored extravagantly in the chair beside him, having fallen asleep after a late night drink. When Simon had finished with the names, he had folded them inside an envelope and kissed his father on the forehead.
He closed his eyes now, wiped his nose, and waited. When Rust plunged his hand inside the vase and pulled out a sacrifice, he heard it even before Rust spoke it. The sound of his name, in all the ways it could be held on a person’s tongue — the soft, amused voice of his mother, the excited tones of his father, and even the high-pitched clear giggle of his brother Henry right before he had run into that lake.
Allegra Fondant, that deathless woman, stood behind him. “So Simon Carrington goes off to die,” he heard her say, right before his mother turned around and slapped her.
It was humorous, nonetheless, how once the knowledge was given to him, and unavoidable, how much better he felt. Now that he knew, he could not unknow, and this comforted his scattered mind in a way that did not seem to apply to others. It was absurdly humorous, though — starting with a duel in Hyde Park between his mother and Allegra Fondant, which had required five other magicians to help break, including Rust, who had rolled up his sleeves and used his farmboy muscles to pull Mrs. Carrington back from calling lightning down on all of them.
Her palms were blackened when Simon guided her home. She would not look at him. “Mother,” he said softly. He touched her wrist. “Mother, it shall be all right.”
She would not look at him.
Cook had made them a French stew of peas and bacon, heavy with parsley and Worcestershire sauce, when they returned to their household. Her son, young Georgie, spooned out three bowls. Rust had taken his leave and was boarding with Duplass, so it was Simon alone with his parents, urging them to eat the stew, though his mother was as still as a Mulready painting while his father’s fingers shook as he grasped his spoon. Drops fell onto their Turkish carpet. No one spoke.
Finally, the silence was so awful that Simon could stand it no longer. “It will not be so terrible,” he said with forced joviality. “We do not know what the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming intends to do with her tribute. I could very well become a darling member of her court. Think of all the new waistcoats.”
“New waistcoats,” Dr. Carrington said blankly. “When that woman danced through sleeping London and took children from their mothers’ arms.”
Simon looked down at his stew. It was true; there were many still unaccounted for after the sleep had lifted from the city, and bodies had been discovered cut clean through. No one quite understood the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming’s reasons for conquering London so, except, it seemed, for the pure thrill of the hunt, and for the knowledge that mortals to her were like cut flowers, their lives all these little blossoms to garnish the trains of her dresses. But then Simon shook his head, forced a smile, and said, “At least poor Georgie wasn’t chosen!”
He played a spot of pianoforte that evening. His mother, lacking daughters, had always desired for him to learn, and though he was clumsy at it he played it for her while she sat unseeing in her chair, late-hour tea and biscuits untouched. He played some of Thomas More’s Irish airs, and more than one rendition of Robin Adair. As he played, he imagined his father’s singing stones upstairs, vibrating with restlessness.
The maid, Jane, helped his mother and father to bed. They went with her like confused children. Simon watched them with his heart a sharp, aching pressure, and then he was alone at the pianoforte bench, the sheet music dry and yellowing at the edges from a time he had once been caught in the rain after a lesson. Simon sat quietly for minutes, unsure of what to do with himself. Then he stood and helped Jane clear the sitting room. When Jane herself went to bed, Simon was alone once more. He found himself lingering by the hearth, where he picked up the Aristotle that Rust had left on a side board.
The stout Vetters clock was counting down the hour to midnight, its mechanical hand run not by clockwork but by one of his mother’s intricately crafted spells. Those sorts of spells were the most difficult; long-standing and permanent, meant to last months and years rather than a single moment. Such were the protections that had surrounded London to keep evil at bay. The combined efforts of the Royal Society, they had believed, would be enough to give a supernatural force pause — but they would never know truly, not when the Dreaming Queen had torn through their glamours with the ease of a dart.
Only one soul claimed to have seen the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming before she spun her trap. A midwife on the West End, a Frenchwoman by birth who had married an English tailor. She had been returning from a breech birth in the middle of the night when, as she told the magicians afterwards, she had crossed paths with another woman in an empty alleyway. But this was no human woman; she had sensed it immediately, despite only knowing of fairies through storybooks and mothers’ warnings. The woman had been shrouded with a muchness. Too tall, too bright, too sharp. A man had accompanied her, and this man, the midwife had described, struck her as very human indeed. He had been leading the fairy woman somewhere, giving her directions, and that was the last the midwife saw of them.
When Rust, Fondant, and the others had pressed the midwife further, she admitted that she could not recall what the human man had looked like, so startled she was by the sight of the fairy queen. She was sure the whole encounter had been a hallucination, and it was only when the magic happened that she believed otherwise. All she could say of the man was that he had been ‘a young fellow’ and ‘gave the impression of a magician.’
Simon fell asleep by the fire. He dreamed of the young magician who had led the fairy queen past London’s seals. The traitor wore multiple faces. First he wore Rust’s, sculpted by those broad and dependable cheekbones, the rare quirk of a smile. Then he was Simon’s father, red-faced from too much wine and excitement. Then he was Henry, falling deeper into the water. Finally, he was Simon himself, round-bellied and nervous, and he was leading the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming through the wet black shadows.
He did not know these streets, though he had spent a lifetime feeling the stone beneath his feet. He did not this stone now, nor this air or moon or even the sound of his own breath, tight with fear. The Dreaming Queen was following him, but he dared not look behind him and meet her too-large eyes. He could smell her: violets and old blood. He wondered if the stories were true, that fairies could not abide iron, and whether something as simple as a spoon or fork could save him. But he was not brave enough to try.
She did not wear shoes, this queen. Her bare, damp feet left snail tracks between the grooves. She was smiling. He could feel that much. She smiled at his hurrying back, and when he turned another corner and paused, hopelessly lost, she laughed.
Little Simon sweetling, show me what is in your blood.
He looked down at his palm. There was a crucifixion wound there, dried around the edges.
I wait for you, the queen sang. I wait for you in my kingdom, in the fire garden and the paths of rain. You shall come to me like a fat, golden lamb, and I shall be pleased beyond measure.
She walked up behind him. He trembled, rooted to the spot, but she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and placed a cold kiss on the crown of his head. It seared him like a hemlock tonic, and Simon woke up shakily, sour with the weight of his panicked sweat. His forehead and his shoulders were wet with it; he was moist in the crooks of his elbows. The Aristotle slipped from his lap and thudded on the floor.
He stared at the clock. It was past midnight. He looked down at his lap, where the book had fallen. A sprig of violet perched on his knee, blooming.
There were, in the meantime, parties.
Simon wondered if the seven youths and seven maidens of Athens ever had such sending-off parties. He wondered if Andromeda, before she was sent to wait for the monster Cetus, ever spent so much time sipping ratafia while sad-eyed women and emotionally gruff men bid her safe journeys. There were parties at the Duke of Ravensbourgh’s, at the Viscount Selby’s, all along the freshly painted houses of Pall Mall, and even an orchestral composition at Covent Garden performed in his honour (Bach, he noted, sounded very redemptive).
No expense was spared to see Simon off. He ate as much as he was able, and danced with all the eligible women of London, none of whom needed to fear him as a marriage prospect. It had been a concern before, being the son of the highly regarded Dr. Carrington, and the debutantes had once looked upon Simon and his waddling feet with alarm. Now, however, he was the perfectly safe option. He even heard whispers of women developing a sudden desire to snatch him in matrimony before he embarked on a trip to Fairy. The Carringtons had money, he was their only son, and what a quick way to become a merry widow!
“Ignore them,” Rust said as he accompanied Simon like a terrier. “Death is easily forgotten in the presence of too much dancing.” He was frowning at the ambitious women, though, clearly displeased at their lack of character.
“It is fine,” Simon said. “It is only some of them, not all.” The other girls were perfectly pleasant, if often tongue-tied. There were not many instructions in their etiquette books, after all, about how to properly address a man who had been tithed to Fairy.
Simon’s spectacles were sliding down his nose. He pushed them up. “You do not need to follow me everywhere, just to appease my father. There is cordial and eggs en cocotte, and I think some of the men have set up a gambling table over there. You should enjoy yourself.”
Rust did not respond.
“Do you dance?” Simon asked instead.
“Not — not very well, I am afraid,” Rust said. He seemed embarrassed, and Simon looked at him in surprise. He did not think anything could embarrass Rust, who was well-known for his prodigious talents, who had risen from his humble pastoral beginnings to learn the arcane arts. Rust had an easy way with magic. It seemed to cling to him like Chinese silk. Simon was more than tad envious.
Rust gazed at the ballroom, all the ladies’ damask dresses and the musicians’ stringed bows buttered by candlelight. He said, “I feel out of my element in places like these. I never know the proper courtesies or the modern fashions, and I always fret I shall forget that I am capable of producing a fruity London accent now and slip into country cant instead.”
“Oh,” Simon said, astonished. “Country cant. Well, I suppose it would be different if this were a sheep field? Er, not that I wish to imply anything insulting, I simply meant—”
“I would be much more at ease if this were a sheep field,” Rust interrupted wryly. “This shirt I am wearing would not be so uncomfortable then. I suspect I paid too much for it in the shop, but I did not want to seem horribly provincial and kept my mouth shut when I should have haggled.”
Simon could not help but grin at him. Rust smiled back, a rather sweet, shy smile. Then Rust spoiled the companionable moment by adding, “Your father has asked me to tutor you in some small matters before the emissary from Fairy comes.”
Simon looked away. He could only mean one thing, and it was not a small matter at all. “It will be of no use. What can I learn in of magic in a few weeks that would be more effective than years of frustration? Sometimes—” he floundered for the right words, “two dun horses shall give birth to a black one.”
“It would please your father to have you try again anyway,” Rust said.
The very last time I am able to please him, Simon thought. He removed his spectacles and wiped them on his cravat, but fumbled in the process. His spectacles fell to the floor. Rust quickly scooped them up and returned them. Simon’s face was red. “It does not matter to me,” he said. “If you have the time and patience to teach me, I am willing.”
Rust’s expression was unreadable, but Simon believed he could see the unfurling of a horrible, sympathetic tenderness. “Please,” he said. “Do not look at me like that. Not like the rest of them. My name was drawn; I shall do my duty. It does not make me a hero, or an object worthy of admiration. I am simply — as I always have been.”
“Not quite, I daresay,” Rust said. “You are having an audience with the king tomorrow.”
“Have you ever met the king before?”
“A farm muck like me?” Rust said. “Hardly. I would probably have to buy a new shirt, and we all know what a disaster that would be.”
Simon did not personally have to worry about his accoutrement. His mother took care of that for him, and when he was received by King William the next day, it was only his own nervous sweat that ruined the perfectly cut line of his trousers. They clung to him awkwardly, and Simon wished the moment could pass as quickly as possible so he could go home to his bed, save that it did not. There were introductions to the Prime Minister, to high members of Parliament, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then at last to His Majesty, who proclaimed Simon to be a true and obedient servant of their Lord.
“I suspect Rome might even make you a saint one day,” the king said to Simon. “Wouldn’t that be a grand stroke of luck?”
“Um. Yes,” Simon said, while his father paled and Rust’s eyebrows twitched.
London was joyous. They were free from the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming. Safe from this threat that was even worse than French armies, they celebrated from dawn to dusk. Fireworks exploded over the Thames while Simon looked out from a carriage window, craning his neck to better watch. They sparkled through the sky like grains of sugar.
When he disembarked the carriage for the next soiree of an already cramped eve, there was a crowd eager to catch a glimpse of him. An elderly woman pushed her way through the front with surprising violence. Rust moved to protect him, drawing forth the pen that was the tool of so much of his magic, but the woman stopped in her tracks and handed Simon a flower. For a sickening moment he thought it was a violet, but it was not. It was a poesy, sweet and small. “God be with you, Carrington!” the woman said. “God be with you!”
Rust entered the library with a china bowl full of Cook’s hard-boiled eggs. He set them on the drum table and selected one egg, holding it between thumb and forefinger. Simon watched him warily, already suspecting he knew the trajectory of the lesson to come. Rust was not the first magician who believed he could teach Simon magic — though it was likely he would be the last.
Simon’s nose was running again. He wondered if he was catching a cold. He discreetly wiped his nose on his handkerchief while trying to give Rust all of his attention.
“Eggs are one of the most useful instruments in magic,” Rust said. “It was how I first learned to use my talents. They are so delicate on the outside, you see, but strong and milky inside. There are layers, and that is the crux of magic. You begin with one layer and then add another, and another, and the pieces themselves may appear mundane but when put together you have created something extraordinary.”
Simon felt that Rust’s earnestness was rather misplaced, but he did not say so. He nodded politely as Rust continued to wax on the subject of magical education, noticing how it made Rust seem warm and boyish. His father was much the same — he was a completely different person when he spoke of what he loved.
Even if he was not a magician, Simon thought, he was fortunate. To be surrounded by people of supreme skill and passion, who were capable of spinning fantastic creations from the air — he could lie happily forever in the warmth of their company.
Rust was still holding the hard-boiled egg and talking. Simon turned his ears back towards the discussion in time to hear Rust say, “Now you should try to break it.”
“Break it?” Simon said. He wriggled his fingers towards the egg, but Rust pulled his arm back.
“Without touching it, I mean,” he said.
“I know,” Simon said. “I was merely jesting.” He was not entirely sure what Rust hoped to accomplish. Even if Simon were to miraculously display an aptitude hitherto unseen, such limited skills — the breaking of eggs! — were hardly stalwart protections against the Dreaming Queen. However, Rust’s expression was very grave, and it was apparent that this was important to him. Simon indulged his delusions.
He shut his eyes. His father had taught him the mental parlours necessary to practice magic; one could not have cluttered thoughts. One’s mind must needs be as clean as a newly swept floor. Only then could one fill it with new delights. Hence Simon shut his eyes and thought of nothing except snow and water, cold and still. When he opened his eyes, he did not straightaways focus on the egg in Rust’s hand. He allowed it to happen naturally, and waited for the egg to re-emerge with its blurred edges through the glass of his worn spectacles.
Nothing happened. Rust remained patient. “I was unable to effect anything my first time,” he said. He watched Simon blow his nose before urging him to try again.
There was no success. “There is a block,” Simon explained, as he had explained to others many previous. “If magic is a humour that exists in the belly, then something in me is blocked like so much horse glue.”
“Hmm,” Rust said. “Do you feel it within and are unable to summon it properly, or do you feel nothing at all?”
“I feel nothing but my own indigestion,” Simon said ruefully. “Mayhap if you show me how it is meant to be done…?”
Rust complied. Simon held up an egg for him, and Rust narrowed his gaze upon its shell, breaking it into a lacework pattern of tiny cracks. He lifted his head towards Simon with such an intense, inwardly focused countenance that Simon shivered. With what, he did not know, or would not properly admit to himself. It was the same shiver he sometimes had when seeing burly men make deliveries to the house, or when he had seen the king’s guards in all their fine regalia. Rust seemed very much like a soldier then before he blinked and gathered himself. “I do it like that,” he said mildly.
“No block then?” Simon asked.
“No,” Rust admitted.
What must it be like? Simon wondered. To be so wild and unfettered? To be anything but utterly plain and ordinary? He wondered if Rust would ever be able to put it in words for him. Then he noticed Rust was staring at him with a sliver of that former intensity. Simon bit his lip.
“You cannot go into the Fairy alone,” Rust said.
“What are you suggesting?” Simon said. “That you will come with me? You need not be a — a Galahad. What would be the point? I am promised. The Dreaming Queen can do whatever she likes with me.”
“It would be a disservice to your father, who has been a mentor to me,” Rust said. “To let his only child wander into the dark lands alone.” He met Simon’s myopic gaze. “It would be a disservice to you too. I would like to think of us as — as friends.”
“Friends?” Simon squeaked.
“For how long have we known each other?”
It was not the same! Simon’s mind protested. Magicians went in and out of his house, and some impressed themselves upon his father so much that they were near constant guests, but they were not Simon’s friends. Simon brought them tea and tried to entertain them with idle conversation while waiting for his father to emerge from his study, but that was the typical extent of these interactions. Friends? No, not so much.
Rust’s face was grave but kind. Simon shivered once more. He let himself feel things he knew he should not be weak to. “Friends then,” he agreed. “But you are not — not coming into Fairy with me!”
Rust made a noncommittal sound and rolled up his shirtsleeves. Let us get to work, his actions said. They spent the rest of the afternoon peeling and eating the eggs.
The emissary from Fairy arrived exactly when the Dreaming Queen’s letter said he would arrive. They were ready, all of them: Dr. and Mrs. Carrington in their Sunday best, with Simon, Rust, Cook, Georgie, and Jane gathered in the sitting room. Cook had made lavender shortbread accompanied by rich, fortifying cocoa — precisely the sort of food she thought a fairy might eat, though she fretted over the stove until Mrs. Carrington send Simon to calm her nerves.
So they sat, the entire household, frozen in tableau. Mrs. Carrington had her gloved hands folded in her lap while Dr. Carrington’s knuckles were snowy around the volume of lore he was trying to read. Simon did not blink much. The clock tolled the noon hour, and then one o’clock and so on. It was closer to dusk when someone knocked on the front door.
“Oh, that better not be the postman again!” Cook declared.
It was not. When Jane went to answer the door, shaking, she returned with a man, slim and short with handsome features and dark hair. The entire household was agog when they realized he was not a fairy at all, but mortal. He was smartly dressed in forest greens with lambskin breeches, and his hair was slightly damp, as if he had traveled through rain, though it was a lovely, clear day outside. He carried with him a plain black umbrella.
“A Mr. Wellesley,” Jane announced anxiously.
Wellesley looked at them. Simon shuddered when he realized the man’s eyes were entirely black with no iris. Then Wellesley smiled, quick and sharp. “London!” he said. “Not quite worth the trip through blood, fire, and wretched fairy tea parties, but here we are.”
“Here we are,” Rust said.
“What, is there an echo in this room?” Wellesley replied. He spied the platter of shortbread and took one.
Mrs. Carrington rose. “We welcome you to our home, sir. We hope you will make yourself comfortable, and that you are in no rush to leave — we would dearly love to spend more time with our Simon before you take him away.”
“Yes, yes, that is fine,” Wellesley said. “It is not simple for a non-magician to pass into Fairy; we shall need to wait a few days before the proper roads clear for us. It has to do with the moon, the price of tea in China, and quite possibly a heifer mooing somewhere in a field. Very complicated stuff.”
Dr. Carrington could not stop staring at Wellesley. When Wellesley crooked an eyebrow at him, Dr. Carrington said, “Pardon me for being so rude — but you are obviously not of the fey folk. Why would the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming send you? I fear I am curious.”
“You mean you don’t remember me?” Wellesley asked.
“I am afraid not.”
“Before I was a grand pawn in the games of Fairy, I was an English magician. Our paths crossed then, but only once or twice,” Wellesley said. “The answer to your question is this: the Mad Queen sent me because I am not a fairy. She believed I would be better prepared to deal with… human frailties, which the fair folk have no patience with.”
“How did you come to be her servant then?” Dr. Carrington asked.
“I am not her wretched servant,” Wellesley said. “I am on loan, if you will, from the court of the Duke of Forget-Me-Not, whose demesne overlaps with the Dreaming Queen’s. She asked for me personally, and His Grace agreed to spare me.” He looked at Simon. “So you are the tithe?”
Simon bobbed his head.
“Fat, aren’t you?”
“Be careful what you say,” Rust said. “You are in our realm and must abide by our courtesies.”
“Meaning the king of England will clap me in irons for insulting an over-round fellow?” Wellesley said. He threw himself in an empty chair and yawned. “I am thinking we leave on the Wednesday. That shall give us enough time. Any objections? Besides the grossly obvious, I warrant.”
“No,” Mrs. Carrington said stiffly. “Jane shall show you to your rooms.”
“Jane looks ready to cut and flee,” Wellesley said. He smiled at their maid. “No worries, sweet peach. I have not killed a mortal in a very long time.”
“You are not so old,” Rust frowned.
“Time passes differently in Fairy,” Wellesley said. “I feel I have been gone from England for centuries.” He glanced at Simon. “It will feel like as such to you too.”
“I — I trust you will teach me the proper Fairy ways,” Simon said courteously. He tried to sit up straight with his shoulders thrown backwards, to show that he was not afraid of whatever this stranger might say.
“To what end?” Wellesley said. “You shall be dead soon enough, by the reckoning of both worlds.”
Supper that night was a tense affair, to say the least. Simon dropped his cutlery at least three times, and even Rust did not seem his usual sturdy self. Wellesley ate ravenously with a glee that was nearly obscene, while Dr. and Mrs. Carrington were silent throughout, leaving their plates untouched. Simon tried to encourage Wellesley to tell stories of Fairy, knowing this would interest his father the folklorist, but Wellesley’s stories tended to end in bloodshed or death, which upset everyone’s appetites.
Mrs. Carrington excused herself first. When supper was finished and the table cleared, Simon wandered into the kitchen — for the homeliness of it, for the safety and comfort, and also for another piece of bread — but found his mother alone, standing over the stove and staring at the greasy wall with no expression. Simon called out to her softly, and Mrs. Carrington stirred.
“Mother,” he called out tentatively.
“Oh, mind me not,” she said. “I was — thinking. How I must give up my practice as a magician when I wed, how I must give up my time when I bore children, how I must give up one son and now another!”
Simon swallowed against a croquet ball in his throat. He took her clammy hand in his, and at first she appeared to resist, but then the strength left her body and he guided her towards the sitting room. “You should not be alone,” he said. “Let us think together.”
“If only for a brief while,” she said, but followed him anyway.
His dreaming traveled as deep as an illness, smearing his skin hot with fever. In his dream, he was by the lake where Henry died, and a woman was bathing naked underneath the milky moonlight. It was the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, and water shone on her swan-white back as she poured a cupful over her head before turning and smiling at Simon. Her hands, astonishingly tiny, cupped her breasts while her thumbs laid rest on her nipples.
When he failed to respond appropriately, she smiled more broadly. You do not favour women, do you? she said. In the garden of freshly cut flowers, you are lavender. But am I not beautiful enough for you, Simon Carrington?
She was beautiful, but in the way that a flood was beautiful; or a burning fire the same shade as her brimstone hair. Simon could see silhouettes of bodies in the water, and he was nauseous, remembering what he did not actually remember: Henry’s yelling, the heavy weight of him pulling Simon down as both of them scrambled to make the shore.
I wonder what makes you burn, the Dreaming Queen said. Have you ever touched a man before, beloved Simon? Put your hand on his hardness and made him moan?
He had, once. When he was seventeen, a young magician named John Peck had accompanied him to an opera, and had smiled at Simon all night, sly and knowing. They had fumbled in the carriage ride home that night, and Simon had spent himself all over Peck’s slender hands. He had woken up the next morning eager to see Peck again, and had sent a message to be delivered to Peck’s London house, only to discover that Peck had meant to leave for Germany that day, to learn from the great water-masters of the Danube. The next time Peck had returned to England, and paid visit to Dr. Carrington’s household, he had brought his wife and son.
The fairy queen saw his discomfort and laughed. No matter. When you come to my court, you shall see a surfeit of beautiful men, all of whom shall be eager and willing to educate a tender morsel such as you. Such beauty as you do not see in mortals, the highborn sons of Fairy; and all for you to lick and touch and fuck as you wish.
“That is not what I want,” Simon said.
Are you a monk? Do you flagellate yourself for such thoughts? The queen raised her eyebrows. Or is it because of him? The sheep lad? He tries to be strong and proud, oh yes, and has fooled many of your father’s magicians into believing so. But he is a rough, uncertain thing, and as hairy as a beast underneath those fine London clothes of his!
Simon did not speak. The queen stepped out of the water, all white skin and shadows. Soon we shall be together, she said. You shall see all I have done to prepare my court for your coming. I promise you shall like it. All the cakes and birds and bones you could hope to eat. We shall have a party for you every night, and dance until our feet are silver-bloody. The foxes shall bow to you; the bears shall curtsy, and the serpents shall sing.
“Then — then I shall die?” Simon said. “When you grow tired of me, I mean. When the next mortal is tithed, and I become a forgotten plaything.”
So rarely does anything die in Fairy, she replied. Yours shall be splendid.
“Simon!” A man’s voice split his dream in two. “Simon! Simon! Wake up!” He opened his eyes to find himself in his bedroom, with the rushlights ablaze and Rust shaking him by the shoulder.
“I was dreaming,” Simon croaked.
“You were thrashing and yelling, that is what you were doing,” Rust said. “You are waking the entire house.”
“W-water,” Simon said. His throat was so very dry. Rust took his pen from inside his shirt and pressed the nib to an empty cup on Simon’s bedside table. It filled with cold, sweet water. Simon gulped it greedily. “What could you possibly be doing at this hour?” he asked, water dripping down his chin. “You are not even dressed for bed.”
“I was packing,” Rust answered.
“Not for Fairy?”
“I told you I am your friend and have a duty to see you safely,” Rust said. As he spoke, Simon remembered all the things the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming had accused him of in his dream, and her words jabbed him like a steel spring. It coiled unpleasantly in the bottom of his belly, and then lashed upwards through his throat and past the spaces between his teeth.
“It is not your duty!” he said. His voice was too loud, he knew, but he could not control what pushed up through his lungs. “You do not always need to be a hero! You are allowed to be as scared and frail as the rest of us, and you are allowed to stay home!”
Rust’s eyes were coppery. Even in the dark, and with his spectacles shoved to the side, they were sitting close enough that Simon could see them. Rust said, “Why would I stay home?”
“Because you are needed here,” Simon shot back. “Because you are a great up-and-coming magician, tapped one day to lead the Royal Society when my father is too old. Because people love you, and respect you, because even King William sings your praises.”
Rust opened his mouth, and shut it. He shook his head wildly. “There is nothing for me to stay for.”
“You are lying.”
“I am not lying,” Rust said. “So what if I am a great magician? There shall be more to take my place. I have no wife, no children, no true friends — people do not love me, you know, to most I am akin to a tin soldier, reliable and responsible, quickly forgotten when I am not around. Or there are those who suspect me to be the traitor.” He leaned forward and clasped Simon’s knee through the bedsheet, his grip hard and fierce. “Even my mother and father are distant to me. They are God-fearing folk, and do not understand magic.”
Simon was not moved. “And this means you must give it up to follow me into Fairy? What nonsense!”
“We are both lonely people,” Rust replied. “There! I have said it!”
“So what if we are? That is not enough!” Simon leaned even closer, his fury turning cold and clean, like a slice of butter floating to the top of a boiling pot. He had come to peace with his fate. Who was Rust to step in and make it murky, and worse, make him hope? “There are thousands of lonely people in London — go find one of them to save. Leave me alone.”
“God help me, I can’t,” Rust said. He made an abrupt movement with his elbow; Simon could see him closing the final, barely realized distance between them. Then Rust was kissing him, hard and clumsy, and his mouth was wet with sherry — so he had been drinking. Rust’s strong soldier hands clasped Simon’s shoulders, pulling him in, and Simon gasped at the pleasure of it, blood-deep and strange. One of Rust’s hands left his shoulder to entwine itself in Simon’s hair, and Simon felt himself being pushed backwards onto the bed. He caught a glimpse of Rust’s terrified eyes—
“Do carry on,” Wellesley drawled. They broke apart to see their guest standing in the doorway of Simon’s bedroom with a flame in his open palm. Rust scrambled off of Simon, turning red.
“What is it?” he asked stiffly, adjusting his trousers.
“You are not in Fairy yet,” Wellesley said mockingly. “You are still in England, where they do not look kindly upon relations between those of the same sex. So the two of you, control yourselves. I do not wish to be stoned even before we leave.”
Simon pressed his wrists to his eyes. The dim light, the proximity of sweating bodies, the bruised ghost of Rust’s mouth against his — it was too much, and he was developing a headache. Worst of all, he could hear her voice from far away, the sound of her delighted laughter. Wellesley could hear it too, judging by the tilt of his head and his dark smile.
“We grow near to the hour,” he said.
If Simon had a choice, he would have slipped out to Fairy in the middle of the night, leaving his parents to discover his cold pillows when they woke. It seemed the more merciful option, where they did not have to suffer through formal goodbyes. But Simon was a good son. If he had nothing else to recommend him, at least he was a good, dutiful son. He knew that the only mercy would be his own— so he stayed the morning, and allowed his mother and father to see him off.
His mother did not cry. She seemed very removed, and would not even look him straight in the eye. Simon put his arms around her, and held her close — she was more fragile than she used to be, and the hollows of her cheeks were paper thin.
His father made noises like a wounded beast. “My son,” he kept saying. “My only son— can you not bring him back, Rust?”
“Sir,” Rust said, “I — I do not know.”
“It will be all right, Father,” Simon told Dr. Carrington, trying to smile. “Do you remember what His Majesty said? They may even saint me.”
Dr. Carrington shook his head. “Look,” he said thickly. He was carrying a book under his arm, and now he opened it to a page in the middle. “I was reading all night — trying to take my mind away — and I found this. A verse, given by the Oracle of Calais.”
“The Oracle of Calais?” Simon said. According to the stories, she was a mysterious woman who had appeared in Calais some fifty years prior, and some had thought her a messenger from the fairy realm. “You have always thought it poppycock.”
“I no longer know what I believe,” Dr. Carrington said. “However, this gives me hope. She writes, A soldier, a traitor, a dead man, a king / Watch for what victory the silent waters may bring.” He put his thumb on the worn page. “A soldier is Rust. A dead man… that is likely a reference to you, my son. The king I do not know. And the traitor you may be meeting — watch for him, and watch for these silent waters. Will you promise?”
“I promise,” Simon said solemnly.
“When you and Henry were born,” Dr. Carrington said, “that was the happiest day of my life.”
Simon kissed his father on both cheeks, and tried not to weep himself. Wellesley was waiting for them by the carriage, and he was evidently impatient. Rust was carrying their bags, loading them into the carriage with Georgie’s help. Simon walked down the path to join them.
“You truly do not need to join us,” he told Rust. But Rust would not meet his eyes, would not give him any reminder of last night’s desperate fumblings. He simply opened the door of the carriage and helped Simon in. The vehicle was enough to fit four, and Wellesley was already inside, reading a dirty French novel while his umbrella laid at his feet. He looked up when Simon entered.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“I wish — I wish we had done this a long time ago,” Simon said. The parties, the goodbyes, the waiting — it had all been too much. The carriage shifted as Rust climbed in, and then Wellesley tapped the rooftop, giving the signal to go.
“How shall we enter Fairy?” Rust asked as the horses lurched forward. “Do not give us that song-and-dance about the price of tea in China.”
“Really, sir, you interrupt me in the most entertaining portion of the novel,” Wellesley said. “Young Marie, fresh from the nunnery, is about to be educated in the erotic arts by her stern, heartless uncle.” Rust’s answering glare was truly impressive, so Wellesley put down the French novel reluctantly. “I know a man,” he said. “Fairy is his birthright. He can pass between the worlds like a needle through gossamer. The rest of us, we are not so fortunate. There is a doorway in London that the fairy folk themselves use — the same door the Dreaming Queen used to enter London when she put it to sleep. It opens thrice a year. That is where we are headed.”
Rust studied Wellesley. “How do you know all this? How did you become a servant of the queen’s, an Englishman yourself?”
“I am not a servant of the queen, remember,” Wellesley said. “I am a personal aide to the His Grace the Duke of Forget-Me-Not, who is an ally.”
“How did you go about becoming an aide?”
“I fell,” Wellesley said.
“You fell? What does that mean?”
“What do you think it means?” Wellesley said. “The heart pounds, the palms grow nervous, the tongue says insufferable nonsense it does not mean to reveal — I fell.”
“With the duke?” Rust pressed. “You mean you fell in love with a fairy?”
“No,” Wellesley said. “I fell for an insufferable, uptight halfblood Englishman who could not leave things be and insists on making both worlds a better place.” He smirked. “It is horrible, having to live with him in Fairy. They make me eat grass.”
Simon giggled helplessly. Grass! He could not see where they were going, as there were no windows in the carriage, but he could feel the bumping of cobblestone roads beneath them. They turned left, right, right, and left again. He lost track of time, instead watching Wellesley return to his dirty novel. He tried to look at Rust once or twice, but Rust stared straight ahead, serious and untouchable. Perhaps his desperate kiss had been but a dream, Simon thought. The Dreaming Queen was good at creating those, and perhaps she wished to confuse him.
Finally, the carriage stopped. Rust stepped out, and helped Simon be steady on his feet. Wellesley climbed out last, as sprightly as a jackdaw. They were in front of a church. Not a large grand church, but a small rundown beggar’s church that seemed halfway between London and the countryside. A wooden cross hung over the plain-hinged door, and the windows were cheap, blurry glass, no homage to the miracles of their Lord at all.
“This is the doorway to Fairy?” Rust asked, echoing both his and Simon’s disbelief.
“This, my dears, is the most magical place in England,” Wellesley said. “Not the church itself, oh no. That is merely a hodgepodge of wood. But the ground underneath — this is where a great battle was fought many hundreds of years ago, and where Arthur fell amongst his knights and where the Lady of the Lake went to fetch and bathe his body. Right here, in all this dirt. The death of kings.”
They entered the church. Simon moved heavily among the pews, bumping his knees into their sides because it was so dark. There was moonlight, thick and waxy, shining through the windows, but it was hardly sufficient as guide. He stumbled as he followed Wellesley to the pulpit, which Wellesley moved aside like a door, revealing a set of stone stairs underneath. Simon peered into an even deeper pitch of darkness, and he could smell blood.
“There?” he asked uncertainly.
“No, through my underpants.” Wellesley rolled his eyes. “Go already!”
The stairs led deep underground, much deeper than Simon thought possible. The stone was grooved and pitted like a pox victim’s skin. The smell of blood grew even stronger towards the bottom, and when they did reach the last of the stairs, Simon saw that they were in a wet, dark tunnel. Wellesley formed fire with his hands, while Rust took his pen and summoned a light from its tip, holding the writing implement like a torch. They threw shadows like coins against the wall, shadows that stretched onwards and onwards.
“Follow me,” Wellesley said.
“I do not see how we have another choice,” Rust replied, sounding irked. He and Simon exchanged glances, but Simon shrugged. They were at Wellesley’s mercy now — better to just accept it. He took one of the pieces of luggage from Rust’s grasp, wrestling for it because Rust refused to let Simon shoulder any of the burdens, which was ridiculous because Rust was not their pack mule. Simon finally tore a valise from Rust’s hands, and bore it deep into the tunnels, plodding to keep up with Wellesley’s pace.
“These are catacombs,” he said after a while. Graves had been dug into the walls, and he could see the white flashes of bones. “But why does it smell so much of fresh blood then?”
“There are monsters who move in the tunnels,” Wellesley said.
“They grow hungry,” Wellesley said. “But don’t worry, little Simon. I shall protect you from being gobbled up straightaways.”
“That is not humorous in the least,” Rust said.
“He has no sense of humour, does he?” Wellesley confided in Simon. “Is that how you like your men? Noble and irrepressibly dour?”
Simon sputtered. Rust grew red once more. Wellesley’s laughter bounced off the subterraneous walls, echoing like a skipping stone. He held his ball of flame up higher, and said, “Look, we have reached the tombs.”
They were in a chamber full of graves. Cairns of white stone were stacked as tall as a man’s height, and out of the cracks of the pearly rock there grew a tangle of spiky, inhuman flowers: purple, black, and grey blooms that gave off the smell of rotting meat. Insects and worms crawled off the flowers, writhing like a mass of hair. Simon choked and covered his nose, but curiosity propelled him further to examine one of the cairns. It bore no name and could have belonged to anyone. “Who were they?” he asked Wellesley.
“They were the ancient kings and queens of Fairy,” Wellesley said. “So old that even their own descendants no longer recall their names or their deeds.”
“How did they die?” Rust asked. “Fairies are immortal. They cannot die even in battle.”
“It is true,” Wellesley said. “Humans can be made immortal by cutting their death from them and keeping them safe somewhere else, but fairies are born without any death at all. That is why it is a great mystery, is it not? How to kill a fairy?” He looked at the cairns. “Some say that in the ancient days, the borders between Fairy and the human world was thinner, and fairies mingled with humans all the more. They grew to care for their mortal counterparts, and that is why these old kings and queens died — that in doing so, they became mortal themselves.”
“Do you believe that to be true?” Simon asked, frowning. “That a death can just — grow out of nowhere? Because of love?”
“You can grow a potato out of a pile of dirt,” Wellesley said. “I do not see why a death would be so much harder.” He looked at Simon with his black, iris-less eyes. “But when I say the old Fairy lords cared for humans all too well, do not make the mistake of thinking their descendants have that same weakness.”
“They are a plague upon God,” Rust said sharply. “These fairy folk. Not even animals are so cruel.”
“Yes indeed, say that while you are on their very doorstep,” Wellesley said. “Why not shout it from the rooftops? You stupid boys.” He dropped his bags to the ground. “We may as well rest here for a while. Have some luncheon meats. Your mother, Simon, packed us some boiled partridges.”
“But — but there are worms all around us,” Simon said. He winced as he felt the ground beneath him twist and move. “That is disgusting.”
“You insult their wormy honour,” Wellesley said. “Now stop being such a spoiled London society brat, and sit your arse down. These partridges are delicious.”
They traveled for three days, or so it was by Simon’s imprecise count. It was difficult to count time in the catacombs, and he would have given up entirely save for Rust, who had a mechanical pocket watch that was still in operation. He counted down the hours for them, as they walked through tunnel after tunnel, opening occasionally to a cavern that glittered with diamonds and underground ivy, and bushes where the leaves split open to reveal teeth. Wellesley maintained a brisk pace, but by the third day even he seemed weary of all the walking. Simon, who had never been the most athletic of men to begin with, leaned against Rust, who supported him.
“I am sorry to burden you,” Simon said tiredly. “I am sorry that I am always burdening you.”
“If you say this one more time, I shall have no choice but to hit you,” Rust said. “Wellesley, you damned fool! Where is the water?”
Wellesley turned neatly on his heel. “No need for name-calling, Mr. Rust,” he said. “As I have told you before, we only have a limited supply of water and we shall needs conserve it.”
“Simon is parched,” Rust said. His own voice sounded crackling and dry.
“I think we are all a bit snappish and under the weather,” Wellesley said, for he too had a sickly pallor despite his omnipresent smirk. “We shall drink when we rest, and it is not yet time to rest. We have ground to cover if we are to make it to the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming court in the time she requests.”
Simon looked longingly at the glittering pools of water in the cavern. He dared not drink them, however, for Wellesley had informed them they were poison. “How long?” he asked plaintively.
“Not long,” Wellesley said. “We shall be there before we know it — though what rush you have to reach the Queen’s court, I have no idea.”
Simon closed his eyes. Rust wrapped his arm even more tightly around him, and they picked up their pace. They walked for another several hours until Wellesley at last declared a rest. They made camp by an outpost of rock in the shape of a pointing finger, and Wellesley poured each of them a thimble full of water. It was not nearly enough. Simon wished that Rust could use his powers to create more, as he had the night he had filled Simon’s cup, but the magic did not seem to work properly inside the tunnels. Rust’s spell-water was sucked into the walls the moment it appeared; Fairy was thirsty for it.
Wellesley looked up at the ceiling. “It is night,” he said. “We should sleep.”
“I shall stand guard,” Rust said, but Wellesley stopped him.
“No, you sleep too,” he said. “I am willing to take first watch.” He sat down cross-legged and began reading his French novel again, humming to himself. Rust was silent for a while, and then helped Simon spread out their blankets. The ground was dirty and still ridden with insects, but Simon was too tired to care. He slept quickly, plunging into slumber like a silver knife.
He heard voices when he woke. Wellesley’s was among them, but there were two new voices, both female. The surprise of it jolted him awake, and he scrambled to his knees, looking around. “Rust,” he hissed, and Rust too stirred from his sleep, groggy and slow. When he saw their new guests, however, he stiffened and reached for his pen to draw wards in the air.
Wellesley glanced at them. He was sitting at a makeshift stone table with two women, both skeletal thin with white eyes and long white fingernails. One was dressed in grey and the other in black. The table between them was covered in an array of china plates, and on those plates were food — bread and oranges and cooked hare and a vial of water. Simon’s heart sped up in his chest.
“Your wards have but meagre effect among such grand presences,” Wellesley said to Rust. “May I introduce you to our eminences, Lady Smoke and Lady Salt? Your ladies, this is Simon Carrington and Thomas Rust, lately of London.”
“The tithe,” Lady Salt said. She had a hissing snake’s voice. She lifted one of the teacups to her lips with a shaky hand.
“Sssssso plump,” Lady Smoke moaned.
Rust moved in front of Simon. Lady Salt regarded him. “Who is thissssss? Thisssss was not mentioned in the pax.”
“An overbearing companion; pay him no mind,” Wellesley said. For some absurd reason he was carrying his umbrella in the darkness, and he laid it across his knees like a beloved pet. “The queen can be rid of him as she likes.”
Simon made a noise. See, you should not have come, his glance said to Rust, who pursed his lips tightly.
“Very well,” Lady Smoke said. “The queen awaitsssssss.”
“She awaitsssss in her palace of sea and sinew,” Lady Salt said. “She awaitsssss on her throne of snow and sorrow.”
“We are all waiting to see what she does with her new plaything, my ladies,” Wellesley said. “Everyone I know is taking bets on it.”
Lady Smoke suddenly shot forward. Her neck stretched like an accordion and Simon yelped as her face came rushing towards his. She halted when they were but a breath apart, and he could smell the blood from her red coral mouth. He swallowed with bitter fear coating his throat, and grew uncomfortably tense as Lady Smoke licked her lips.
“Ssssshall we eat?” she said.
“I — I suppose,” Simon said. He looked to the table of plates. His traitorous stomach did so long for some of that food.
“Do you like cake?” she asked.
“P-pardon?” His gaze jerked back to her in time to see her holding out a cake: a puffy, floury conconcution that swelled with sugar like a sea anemone, nested between the labyrinthine curls of her fingernails. “Ah, um—”
“Mr. Carrington is not hungry,” Wellesley interrupted. “His weak human stomach, you know. It does not digest fairy food.”
Lady Smoke narrowed her white eyes at Wellesley. “It issss a gift.”
“Do you want him to be sick everywhere?” Wellesley said. “Vomit all over the place — all over your flowers.”
“It isssss cake.”
Wellesley sighed, long-suffering. “Yes, your ladyship, we know it is cake. We daresay we have eaten cake before, and I assure you it is a beautiful cake, a cake fit for a dauphine, etcetera. But the point of the matter is: it is not the right sort of cake for him to eat. Trust me, as I am the expert on human bodies. But we thank you for your gift.” As he prattled on, Simon saw shadows begin to shift on the walls; they detached themselves in the form of hounds. He nudged Rust to get his attention, and Rust sucked in a deep breath. They watched as the hounds crawled closer and closer.
“Wellesley!” Simon said in a strangled voice.
“What?” Wellesley snapped furiously. “I am having a very important conversation about cake!” Lady Salt and Lady Smoke were rising from the table now, their white eyes clouding over with hunger. “Oh for God’s sake!” Wellesley said, and he opened his umbrella.
There was a light, a hot and blinding light. It flashed through the cavern, and Simon fell backwards onto Rust, who threw his arms out to steady him. They both tumbled to the ground, flattened by the light and the force of Wellesley’s magic, more powerful than anything Simon had ever felt before — none of the Royal Society magicians could match this. Rust wrapped his arm around Simon’s waist, pinning him underneath his body for protection. They heard the hounds snarl and bark, going wild, and two high-pitched voices caught in a web of angry screaming.
“You dare refuse?” Lady Salt shrieked. “You mongrel mortalsssss?”
Wellesley spun his umbrella in a full rotation, and their screams grew louder as the light pressed onwards. It was a physical weapon, this summoned light, sharp and mean and as deadly as a seraph’s sword. “I am James Wellesley of Leicestershire,” Wellesley said. “I am the Knight of Foxes, the Baron of First Winter, and the right hand of the Duke of Forget-Me-Not. I am the child that was taken and the man who is promised to die. These mortals are under my protection, and as long as I am alive, neither you nor your queen shall touch them.”
The ladies’ screaming grew more insistent, and the hounds threw themselves against the light, but fell backwards, scorched. There was another series of flashing lights, followed by a chain of firework explosions. Wellesley turned to Simon and Rust. “Go!” he said. “I shall catch up! Go!”
They scrambled over themselves to comply.
They ran. Crashing and careening, with only Rust’s witch-lights to guide them. They ran until Simon’s lungs ached with anguish, until Rust’s breathing came out in ragged gasps. The catacomb butterflies flew down from the ceiling and fluttered in their path; they spread their wings in whispers. “Stop,” Simon said at last, bending over and grasping his knees. “I cannot. I — I need to rest.”
Rust came to a halt. “I do not hear anyone following us.”
“Then does that mean — Wellesley —?” He could not finish the sentence.
“I do not know,” Rust admitted. He put a hand on Simon’s shoulder. “Take a breath. If we cannot run any further, then we cannot run any further.”
“You still — you still have your pack on you,” Simon wheezed. “Thank goodness.”
“Well,” Rust said, “I could not have left our suppers behind, could I?” He smiled lopsidedly, and the sight of it made Simon smile too. Then they both started wheezing, not in weariness but in disbelieving laughter, their bodies shaking with the effort of realizing their absurdities. Simon had never heard Rust laugh before, and this was certainly not how he wished to have experienced it — running from their lives from mad fairy ladies — but what else was there to do? They were alone, and there was no sign Wellesley was coming after them.
“Perhaps I should have eaten the cake after all,” Simon gasped.
“Dear God no,” Rust said. “It would be like Persephone with the pomegranate. Is that not the first rule of traveling the underworld? Never eat the food you are offered.”
“This place is as much of an underworld as any,” Simon agreed. He pushed his spectacles up his nose bridge; it was a small wonder they had not fallen off as they had run. He squinted. “Do — do you see that light, though? Ahead of us?”
Rust peered over his shoulder. “I wonder if it is friend or foe.”
It was neither. They followed the rest of the tunnel towards the light, and came upon a circular antechamber cut out of the stone. There were torches blazing on the walls, illuminating the door. It was, as they could see, the only way out. The door, however, did not have a knob, nor did it move when Rust applied his weight against it. Simon’s legs gave out and he sat on the ground while Rust paced the door. Then Rust narrowed his eyes and drew his pen.
“What are you doing?” Simon asked him.
“I am going to make this door open for us,” Rust said. He licked the nib of his pen and wrote on the door. Simon could not see what. Then Rust stabbed the pen into his palm, creating a small wound. He collected the blood and went over the saliva — this time Simon could better see what he wrote. It was the word OUT in swooping capital letters.
“Your father taught me to read and write,” Rust said hesitantly. “I did not know when I first came to London. I remember the magicians laughing at me.”
“They should not have,” Simon said.
“You never laughed,” Rust said. “Though you barely noticed me either. You were always in the kitchen or attempting to hide in a corner when I came to visit.”
The notion that Rust had noticed him at all, and that his seeming disinterest had bothered him, was astonishing. “But I knew you were different,” Simon insisted. “I knew it from the first time you stepped inside my father’s laboratory, and all the chimes began to sing, and all the fires bent towards you — you were touched by magic. It had chosen you as its fledgling.”
“For what good it shall do us here,” Rust said. “Simon, I do not know — if Wellesley does not find us, I do not know — that is, my powers may be deemed impressive in England but they may not be enough to see us safely through Fairy.”
“Do not be so hard on yourself. I would never want you to be that powerful,” Simon said passionately. “If it meant becoming like them, even Wellesley. Strange and cruel and cold — no, never.”
Rust fell silent. He looked at the door with OUT written in blood and spit. He unbuttoned his waistcoat and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt, exposing his wrists. It made him look so young that Simon could see him as a boy in the green fields of his home, running and tumbling through the grass. Rust said, “Will you hold my hand?”
Simon, blushing, said yes. “But what good shall that do?”
“It comforts me,” Rust said. So Simon held one hand while Rust readied his pen in the other, the pen that Simon’s father had given him long ago when he learned his letters. Simon watched him as he worked. There he went: Thomas Philip Rust of Norfolk, Magician First Class and servant of the King of England. He may not have been able to affect grandeurs, but his aim was swift and true.
Simon clutched his hand as Thomas slashed his pen down diagonally in the air and stabbed it into the door. There was a moment of silence, of waiting with their breaths as loud as factory machinery. Their hands remained clasped together. Then the door groaned and swung open.
It was night-time. Simon had not yet seen a sun in Fairy and was not sure, from the stories, whether it even existed. Hence night-time remained as deeply rendered as a stain, but what lay beyond the door was not another cavern or catacomb or grave full of near-forgotten bones. It was aboveground, out in the open, with rustling trees and wind and a swollen moon. He grabbed Thomas and ran towards it eagerly.
He stopped abruptly. Once his his vision better adjusted, he could tell that they were standing in a garden but a garden the likes of which he had never seen before. There were trees and shrubs and flowering bushes arranged in an elegant fashion, but growing from the stems were hundreds of eyes. They swiveled towards Simon and Thomas and blinked, a heavy fleshy lid slithering out from the base of the stem and covering the eye before retreating.
“Where should we go from here?” Simon whispered. “Should we wait for Wellesley? He may yet be coming.”
“We cannot depend on it,” Thomas answered, watching the eyes in the garden as if they would leap out and attack. “I believe we have three options. Either we go find the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming — not optimal. Or we go home — perhaps not possible.”
“The third option? What is it?”
“Wellesley’s liege. The Duke of Forget-Me-Not.” Thomas started guiding Simon away from the eyes with a firm hand to his back. “Do you remember, when he was warding off Lady Salt and Lady Smoke, Wellesley said something about ‘not even the queen shall touch us.’ It makes me wonder.”
“If he and the Duke of Forget-Me-Not had another plan, you mean?” Simon said. “You are right. Lady Salt and Lady Smoke appeared to be the Dreaming Queen’s handmaidens — so why should Wellesley have driven them off?”
“I do not know what the answer is,” Thomas said. He ran a hand through his hair. “The prospect of seeking a fairy lord does not make me happy — who knows what this duke is like? But we do not know anywhere else to claim sanctuary in Fairy. He may be able to protect us.”
Simon spoke. “I confess I do not want to die. I know I was promised as tithe, and I do go willingly, but that does not mean—” He looked at the sky. “Matters have changed for me.”
“You are not going to die,” Thomas said sharply. “We have a plan now. We shall find the Duke of Forget-Me-Not and earn his sympathies. The only question is where.”
All this time he had not let go of Simon’s hand. Simon was shyly pleased by this. “I remember reading through some of my father’s records when Wellesley first came to our home,” he said. “That first dinner, when he mentioned he knew my father. I became curious. There were some notes in the Royal Society’s old registrars mentioning an obscure gentry magician named James Wellesley going missing. Included was a letter from his aunt asking for information about his disappearance. I do not know if anybody responded to her. I do not know if anybody paid much attention at all to the affair, at least not until I chose to go back and search for clues.”
Thomas turned to him. “Yes?”
“I think — and this is merely a guess — but I think I may have an inkling of how to find the Duke of Forget-Me-Not,” Simon said. “Over there. A hawthorn tree.”
One hawthorn tree followed the next, and from each tree they could spy, in the distance, a brethren. It was hardly a star of Bethlehem, but it was the only sign they could surmise in a foreign land, and the berries grew like beads on the hawthorns, so bright and red that Simon’s mouth watered at the sight of them. He grasped a handful, crushing the berries between his fingers and releasing their sour scent. His hand was crimson, afterwards, and when he wiped it on his trousers there was a smear that resembled blood.
Thomas rationed the remainder of their food. He carried their bags and made their fires. When Simon told him he now felt rather useless, like an over-large piece of luggage himself, Thomas cut him off. “You must be prepared to run at any instant,” he said. “After all, it is you, not me, that the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming is after.”
“We should not say her name,” Simon said. “What if she can hear it on the winds?”
“But it is only a true name that has power,” Thomas argued. “This is but her title. Nevertheless, I take your point. We shall be more careful from now on.”
They were careful. They were very, very careful, keeping to the shadows of the hawthorn trees and stamping their fire out the moment it was no longer needed. They slept in the darkness and dodged behind bushes whenever they heard even the faintest noise. For they were not alone in these gardens. There were passers-by, beasts on two legs and sharp-clawed strangers in ruby and gilt. Simon thought he saw a human too, a young woman in a tattered dress, but Thomas pulled him backwards before he could approach her.
“We cannot be sure,” Thomas said.
They could never be sure of anything. They could not be sure if they were heading in the right direction to find the Duke of Forget-Me-Not. They could not be sure if Wellesley was trying to find them. They could not be sure if the Mad Queen was seeking them as well, and one hour, when Simon saw a pair of golden tigers, he lay flat on the ground beneath the leaf-shade and buried his face in the grass.
The tigers left. Not long after, they fell upon a grove of lemon trees. “Oh!” Simon said, ducking as quickly as he was able, as there was a woman already in the grove, sitting at the head of a long table filled with silver chalices. The woman wore a gown of grey damask, and from her lovely dark head there grew two great cornucopia horns.
She raised her eyes at the interruption. “I see you already, Carrington,” she said in a clear, light voice — like a white tea. “Your attempts to will be of no particular use.”
Simon and Thomas stepped out of the trees. “You know our names,” Thomas said coolly.
“Yes,” the horned woman replied. “I am the Oracle of Calais, and this is my midnight birthday.” She gestured at the chalices, which were each filled with some dark liquid. “Come. Please join me. It has been many years since I have had birthday guests.”
“We should be on our way,” Thomas said. “We should not tarry.”
Simon touched his shoulder. “What harm will it do us?” he said tiredly. “We need to rest our feet, and this is as good a place as any. If this is a trap, she has already caught us in it.” He dropped himself into one of the chairs facing the oracle and rubbed his arm over his eyes. “We have not slept, Thomas, for days.”
Thomas did not look convinced, and seemed halfway convinced to argue that they should be automatons, but the oracle was already pouring a new cup of wine for Simon. Starlight glittered on her brow. “You need not fear me,” she said. “I am an ally of the Duke of Forget-Me-Not and no great friend of the Dreaming Queen’s.” She passed the cup to Simon. “Here. Drink. Eat. You are under my hospitality.”
Simon held the cup between his berry-blooded palms.
“You seek the lands of His Grace the Duke,” the oracle said. “You have seen the sign of the hawthorn, and that is both clever and wise.”
“Are — are we far?” Simon asked.
“No, not at all,” the oracle said. “Past the lake of mirrors and through the hidden glade, and then you shall see his palace, and the small, tidy cottage with the dog roses where he resides with his consort. He shall be glad to give you aid.” She pressed the tips of her fingers together and balanced her chin on top. “There is to be war in Fairy, you see.”
“We are no longer certain who is servant to whom,” Thomas said. “All of these careful games, all of these maneuverings — we are not of this world to understand them.”
“It used to be we all lived in fear of the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming,” the oracle spoke. “Not very long ago. Her kingdom was the largest, her hounds the fiercest. But the moon is turning. A thousand years of night in Fairy, and I see in my dreams a sunrise — the sun shall come again. There are rebellions here and there. Then the Duke of Forget-Me-Not shall lead his armies against the Dreaming Queen.” She looked at Simon. “I see a place for you among those armies.”
“Me? In an army?” Simon laughed hoarsely. “Surely you are teasing me.”
“A soldier, a traitor, a dead man, a king,” she said. She smoothed the folds of her dress. “Now shall you not eat? It is the anniversary of my birth, the remembrance of the day I hatched from an egg in my mother’s nest. I cannot tell a lie on my birthday — it is the law of oracles, you know.”
“I did not know oracles had laws,” Simon said.
“Certainly we do,” she said. “Even in Fairy, there are laws. Blood-laws. Water-laws. Moon-laws.” She dipped her thumb into a cup of wine, and then leaned forward. Before Simon could stop her, she marked him on the forehead. “There!” she said, pleased. “You are marked as my guest tonight. Nothing shall harm you without harming me first.”
Simon glanced at Thomas, who remained impassive. The oracle, seeing this, stood. She drifted over to Thomas, who reached for his sharp-toothed pen, but the oracle placed her hand against his cheek and whispered in his ear. Simon saw Thomas’ shoulders collapse, though he could not hear what she said to him.
“Very well,” Thomas said. “We may rest here for the night.”
After that, there seemed to be no good reason to refuse the oracle’s gifts. They ate at her table and drank her wine. She drew for them a map on the tablecloth with the wine dripping off her finger, showing them the lands surrounding the grove and how to reach the lake of mirrors by first light. Simon saw that Thomas was much wearier than he had originally confessed to, for it was Thomas who fell asleep first, putting his head against the table. “I close my eyes only for a moment,” he promised, but then he was fast asleep and snoring.
Simon smiled fondly. “He is a good man,” he said out loud. “To have come this far. I do not know why he has chosen me of all people to care for — but he is good. So very good.” His voice broke on the last syllable as he reached forward to stroke Thomas’ hair.
“He cares for you,” the oracle agreed, “but he does not know you.”
Simon said nothing.
She rested her chin in one hand thoughtfully. “A soldier, a traitor, a dead man, a king,” she said. “He thinks he is with the dead man. He does not know he is with the traitor.”
“The Mad Queen would have killed my mother and father,” Simon said quietly. “If I had not shown her how to cross into London and undo the wards. She would have killed everyone I had left to love.”
“But others were murdered instead, during the dreaming season,” the oracle said. “Children missing from their cradles, mere silhouettes against the wall. They never did account for all the dreamers, did they?” She stirred her cup with her pinkie finger before sipping it. “How do you account for that impossibly high price?”
“By dying,” Simon said.
“So why do you tremble?” she asked, and indeed he was. Simon’s hands were knotted into fists, and he felt his shoulders shaking. “You never had any intention of surviving Fairy. It was to be your payment for the cruelties you have done unto others, and for more still — for your twin brother Henry, who drowned because you saved yourself first. For the lies you have told all these years and the man you have pretended to be. You know that your death shall account for your crimes. So why do you tremble?”
“Because I am afraid,” Simon said. “Goddamnit. I have no future, and yet I am afraid. I cannot shake this human weakness, this desire, at the end of all things, to live.” He covered his face with his hand. “What does that make me?”
The Oracle of Calais rose. “Let me tell you what I have seen.”
He should not shake off the cold. It was stitched into him like a drunken sailor’s tattoo, and his lips turned blue the moment they left the grove and the oracle, moving onwards towards the Duke of Forget-Me-Not. “Thomas,” Simon said softly, calling out the name that had become so unbearably sweet to him. “Thomas—!” The man in question was moving quickly, trying to cover as much ground as possible while holding Simon’s hand. It was not until Simon dug his nails into Thomas’ flesh that Thomas yelped and stopped.
“Thomas,” Simon repeated.
“What is it? Are you feeling ill?” Thomas looked at him more closely. “By God, you are! What happened? Was it the fairy food?”
“Stop saying my name like that; it is worrisome. Tell me, what is the matter?”
“Thomas,” Simon sighed, He pushed his spectacles up his nose. “I am so very sorry.” And then he took the knife he had stolen from the oracle’s midnight feast, which he had hid in his coat, and he slid it into Thomas’ chest.
Thomas’ eyes widened. “S-Simon.” He grasped at the knife in his chest, but Simon’s fingers closed around it and pushed it deeper, kind and lovely, straight home. “Simon, why are you—?” But Simon stroked his hair and kissed him full on the mouth.
“Good night, Thomas,” he said. He watched Thomas struggle to remain standing, fail, and then collapse. The poisoned knife did as the Oracle of Calais had promised, and Thomas did not stir once he hit the ground. Simon then sheathed the knife and grabbed Thomas by the feet. He was not strong, and Thomas was a heavy man, but with great effort and several grunts he managed to move Thomas underneath a patch of bushes, hiding his body well.
Simon shivered. There was a winter in his heart, and he knew he might never be warm again. He wiped his nose on the sleeve of his coat and set his gaze eastwards, towards the lake of mirrors. He hefted his bags and stepped forward, beginning his journey alone, but not before sparing a long glance at where Thomas lay. It was a mistake. God, but it hurt — how had Simon allowed it to hurt this much?
Love was always a disease that seemed to strike when it was least convenient. From a young age, Simon had seen it addle minds and influence foolish decisions, even from the more brilliant adults he knew. The entire Royal Society of Magicians, who could alter even the weather to their wills, would lie at the gate of love and pine for entrance. Love, young Simon decided, would never be like that for him. He would keep it close and guard it jealously, for if his great weakness and shame was that he was not a magician, then at least he would not be weak in any other ways.
But there was Henry, for a while, and his mother and father. They had slipped through his net and became tangled. Simon could not help but love them helplessly, desperately, trying to ward off their inevitable deaths with his young body. It had not worked, in the end. Henry had died anyway, because of Simon’s weakness. They had buried him in a church cemetary, and Simon had snuck there in the middle of the night to press his cheek against Henry’s grave, sick with love and grief.
So when the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming had first appeared in his sleep, and told him what he must do to spare his parents, he had obeyed. Because of love, he thought. Because of goddamn love, and his father’s smile over the top of his books, and his mother’s voice calling him to supper, and for afternoon tea and the laboratory full of singing stones, and for them to live even after he was gone — he should have died with Henry, he should have died that very fucking day.
He should have.
But the fear would not leave him, small and petty. It nestled against the coldness in his ribcage, and he stopped by a stream to fall on his knees and retch. The food he had eaten last night at the oracle’s table coated the grass, and he felt gravely ill. His chest hurt, as if something had reached inside him and pulled out an organ. He splayed his fingers over himself, searching for that absence, but it merely made him retch again.
He stared at his own reflection in the water. Stupid, stupid, stupid! He had the face of some piggish fool. But he forced himself to remember what the oracle had told him last night, after she had shown him his future. He forced himself to stand and adjust his pack and resume walking, though his feet ached and his ears rang with a bell’s sharp pain.
When he made camp that night to sleep, he saw the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming crawling towards him, her hair hanging wet around her face. Simon, little Simon, where are you? Your queen calls — why do you not answer? Have you stopped loving me?
She was so beautiful. He hated her so much.
Night terrors woke him from his troubled sleep — he heard the growling of tigers. He recognized that sound, for tigers were the Dreaming Queen’s emissaries, which was why he and Thomas had hid from them so well, though he had not explained to Thomas exactly how he knew the tigers to be so dangerous. Their pelts were as golden as their jeweled claws, and Simon threw himself behind a juniper bush to watch them pass. He bit down on his lip when he saw that they were dragging a body behind them, bumping up and down on the road.
They had found Thomas.
No. No. No.
Simon stood. There would be stories, later, of worlds and histories in which it went differently. In some of these stories he would remain crouched behind the juniper. In some of these stories Thomas was brought to the Dreaming Queen and had his head chopped off on the block. In some of these stories the teller of the tale would sigh and say, He had gone too far; grief had taken him entirely and he had no heart. But those were not the true stories, for even Simon Carrington, empty of magic and tenderness, was in the very least mortal, and in all mortal things there is love.
“You cannot have him,” he said flatly. He spoke not to the tigers, who were deaf and dumb, but to the queen who saw through their eyes. “He is not part of our arrangement; you must let him go.”
The wind stirred. A sigh moved among the violets. Come back to me, Simon, and he shall be free.
So Simon went. The tigers surrounded him, growling in their throats. They would not let him out of their sight. He looked at Thomas’ comatose body, and then he looked at the moon, which was the colour of a pox scar. “Well,” he said, “I suppose this story only does have one ending, after all.”
The lake of mirrors was smooth and flat, the water barely stirring. It was named as such for the mirror-rushes that grew wild on its shores, the mirror-cattails and the mirror-fish that swam in the quiet waters. Their scales glinted like butcher’s knives, and Simon watched them dully as the tigers stopped to rest. With deft paws, one of them attached a silver strong to Thomas’ wrist, and then attached the string to a willow tree. The tiger gave it a tug, and saw that it was strong.
They tied Simon to the other side of the tree. “What need is there?” Simon asked. “I would not have come if I were not willing.” But they tied him anyway, and the string cut piecemeal into his skin. Another tiger padded up to him with a dish of water between its teeth. It dropped the dish before Simon’s feet. There, drink, it seemed to say.
Thomas groaned. Simon quickly whipped around, dragging what length of cord he could so that he was able to move around the tree and see Thomas better. Thomas groaned twice more and began to open his eyes groggily. The sedative that had wounded him was fading, and he gained greater control over his muscles. When he saw Simon, it seemed to strike him all over again. He froze.
“Hello,” Simon said tentatively.
Thomas took in the lake, the tigers, the imprisonment. Then he looked at Simon, and there were so many vulnerable questions in his eyes that Simon could not bear it. How could he be around so good and pure a man?
“You hurt me,” Thomas said.
“I stabbed you,” Simon said.
Thomas looked down at his chest and saw the wound healed over. “Did you mean it?”
“I — I do not know what I mean anymore,” Simon said. “I feel as if everything has gone so very wrong, that somewhere in my life I made a mistake and I have been paying for it ever since, and so have you.” He managed to wrestle himself up to his knees. “The Queen of All Night’s Dreaming has said she shall free you when we arrive at her court.”
“Do you believe her?” Thomas said. He jerked his face away. When he turned back, he had hidden those secrets in his eyes, and now his face and voice were impossible to read. “How do you know?”
“I have been her servant for a long time,” Simon said.
“Yes.” Simon’s throat was wet. “Over and over again. The Judas.”
“I came all this way to protect you!” Thomas laughed bitterly. He touched the bindings around his wrist and tested it, twisting this way and that. They did not give. “You let me come all this way and you were her pawn all along!”
“I told you not to,” Simon said. “I told you so many times — you did not listen.”
Thomas lunged forward. It startled Simon so much that he stumbled backwards, only the cord did not let him go far. He fell roughly, feeling his ankle twist in an awkward fashion. Thomas’ face was no longer unreadable; in fact, it was quite simple to see that the expression crowning the slopes of his cheeks was fury. “England!” he shouted. The tigers by the lake looked up, but did not come over to stop them. They were content to let the humans argue. “England and the Royal Society and all the others — how could you have done that against your own people?”
“Do you know, sometimes, when I think of my life, I think of a long hallway with a door,” Simon said. “And that door is never open. There is a light underneath, pouring through the sliver of the hinges and underneath. But the door does not open.”
“What does that mean?” Thomas yelled. “What use is your poetry? I do not understand!”
“I mean that England is so many people,” Simon said. “How can I love so many people? How is there room in one body for so much grief?” It was difficult to breathe now; his words were punctuated by gasps.
Rust said, without hesitation, “Perhaps you do deserve to die.”
It was the veritable truth, and he had come here to do just that — had he not rigged the lottery with Allegra Fondant’s help and taken his place in Fairy for that very purpose? — but when Thomas said those words, they struck him plainly and clean through. Simon felt the chill so insipid in his heart clench down and bite into the useless organ, drinking its juices. He leaned backwards on his heels and let any last vestige of kindness fall from him. It was easy, not to feel anything anymore. It was so easy.
“Then you should be the one to do it,” he said coldly.
Thomas speared him with a glare, but there was surprise in it. “Simon.”
“No,” Simon carried on. “You wish to kill me? Well, I am right here! You are much stronger than I, and those tigers cannot hear a thing, and perhaps the Mad Queen is too preoccupied with other matters to pay us any attention right now — so here is your chance.” He smiled with sharp alacrity. “You were a soldier, Rust. Have you never killed a man before?”
Thomas was silent. Simon moved closer and whispered in his ear. Like the Oracle of Calais had done in the midnight grove, but this time Simon knew exactly what was said; if there was a secret, it was between the two of them and no other. “Thomas Rust,” he hissed, “you know you must do your duty.” And then Thomas turned his head, put a hand on Simon’s waist, snarled, and kissed him.
If there were blood-laws, water-laws, moon-laws, then there were kisses of the same, and this was all of them — blood, water, moon. Thomas kissed Simon with an antediluvian wildness that they had never shared before, and Simon kissed back just as fiercely, dropping all shyness and lies. He was not the innocent, helpless young man Thomas had imagined him to be, but Thomas perhaps was not what he had thought either; the Rust he had known in London would have never been so feral, so uncivilized, so bright with anger and disdain as he bit bloody kisses into Simon’s jaw.
Simon pushed him against the tree. “On your knees,” he said. Thomas sucked in a sharp breath, and Simon raised an eyebrow. “I told you. On your knees.”
“You bastard,” Thomas breathed. Simon did not smile or acknowledge the statement, but when Thomas was on his knees, he made quick work of his trousers. He glanced over his shoulder, briefly, and saw the tigers watching. Good, he thought, let them see. Then he spared them no further thought; all of his attention was for beautiful, righteous Thomas.
He had to say something. “I would have had you like this, always,” was what he chose. “In my bed, tied to the bedposts, for everyone to watch — you are a singular specimen of manhood.” He stroked Thomas’ hair and kissed him on the forehead.
“Damn your foul mouth,” Thomas hissed, but the hiss took on a different calibre altogether when Simon reached into his trousers and grasped his length. Thomas’ insults turned into a low gasp and he dropped his head onto Simon’s shoulder as Simon began to work him, sliding his fingers up and down before rubbing right on the spot beneath the crown that he knew would drive a man wild the most. Thomas shuddered, moaning.
Simon kissed him again. He could not help it. If this was to be their last, he wanted to steal all the kisses he could. He kissed Thomas wetly, and not particularly kindly, forcing his mouth to open and for him to take Simon’s tongue. Thomas’ hips were bucking now, in tune to Simon’s hand, and as he chanted “oh God, oh God, oh God,” Simon had the startling thought that mayhap he did not do this often. Thomas always was so careful to maintain gentlemanly appearances in London — and look, he was so touch-starved as a result.
Perhaps it was not Simon that excited him. Perhaps it was anybody’s opportunity. But it was Simon who had seized it, Simon whose triumphant, sinning hands pushed him through the door and out the other side into the moonlight. Thomas let out a loud, desperate moan that was lost in the pressure of their two mouths joining, and then Thomas was spilling over Simon’s hands, bucking so hard that Simon had to use his free hand to hold him steady so that they would not both fall over.
He smoothed the sweat off Thomas’ face when it was done, and kissed the wetness off Thomas’ eyelashes. Thomas’ harsh breathing began to even, and that was when Simon held his hands once more, spreading Thomas’ calloused fingers with his own. He moved Thomas’ fingers to his neck and wrapped them around on both sides.
The mirror-fish swam underneath the wine-black surface. They had their own concerns, their small fish lives, and they did not heed the mortal performances happening on the shore above. The cord that bound Thomas and Simon to the willow tree had enough length that they could slide into the water, and that was what Simon did. He tumbled backwards, drawing Thomas on top of him with all the kindness he knew how to give, never letting Thomas’ hands leave his neck. Thomas’ eyes were pepper-dark, and Simon could see the reflection of the eternal Fairy moon in them, a landscape that had never known sun.
“Please,” Simon said. He breathed the word on his tongue. Let Thomas trust him, though he had no reason to. Let the price be paid. Let him sleep. He felt Thomas’ hands flex and shudder, and in the darkness he saw that Thomas was crying. So this is love, Simon thought. How extraordinary. He raised himself to kiss Thomas’ knuckles one last time before Thomas was pushing him down into the water, strangling him among the fishes.
There, on the banks of the silent lake, in the waters of Fairy to which he was tithed, did Simon Carrington finally die.
There was a house in Brighton, by the water. There was sunlight peeling like rhubarb over the bric-a-bracs on his mother’s dining table. There was Henry, all of six years old, gap-toothed as he played with his wooden soldiers while the cook’s cat nuzzled his ankles. Simon remembered this house, and all those happy summers his family had spent in it. When he was fully alive, the memories were faint and dream-like, but now that he was dead, his mind had no such distractions.
The Queen of All Night’s Dreaming was standing in the door, framed by sunlight. Her fox-red hair was tied in tiers of amethyst, and in the doorway she was more solid than she had been in any of his dreams, as flesh-and-blood as the night he had led her through London. He could see the grains of her skin, the points of her canine teeth, the battle-scars on her bare shoulders. She took on the aspects of a true person, then, not merely a monster.
A man stood beside her, tall and primly dressed with a pair of pince-nez perched fussily on his nose. Simon had not seen him for many years, but he recognized him from his father’s circle nonetheless. The man and the queen were speaking to each other, and they did not appear to be able to see Simon, who stood watching them by the braziers. For that was what he did best: stand silently, watch, and remember.
“My tithe is dead,” the Dreaming Queen said. “His fool of a lover killed him. How do you explain that, Hawthorne?”
“People kill each other every day,” the Duke of Forget-Me-Not said. “You are somewhat of an expert on the subject; why ask me?”
“They were mortals, like you,” the Dreaming Queen said. “You must know how their minds work — all that clack-clack-clack about love and forgiveness and ohhhh it is infuriating!” Violets burst through the walls and bloomed around her, but Henry, still playing with his toy soldiers, did not pause or look up.
“You sound as if you wish to understand,” the duke said. “The way your ancestors did. In those times when the border between the human world and Fairy was thinner, and our people mingled and were able to live with each other.”
The queen laughed wildly. “You think it good for me to learn, you mean? That I should give it my best effort and find myself developing softer feelings for a mortal. That I shall swoon and prance and learn the joys of being some common fisherman’s wife, fat with mortal children and too stupid to care.” She grinned at the Duke of Forget-Me-Not. “You are too much like them. You are too much like your mother, and that sulky James you so love.” She stared out the window at Brighton beach. “I would tear their hateful world down, piece by piece. They have denied me my tithe, and thus broken our terms of peace, so what is there to stop me?”
“I would stop you, Columbine,” the duke said.
“Yes, I thought so,” she said. “It seems the sort of foolhardy, morally upright cause you would support. To war then.”
“I wish with all my heart no, but I know your ways by now. You are not the one I want to see upon the throne, deciding the fate of England and Fairy.” The duke paused. “To war then.”
The breeze through the open windows brought the smell of market-salt. Simon watched the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming tilting her head upwards to drink it in. “If traitorous little Simon had to die, he picked a beautiful day for it,” she said. “Do you feel the sun and how warm it is? It is the one thing that I miss.” She closed her eyes and breathed. Then she ruffled her skirts. “Well, I must go. There is a party to attend and armies to raise. We shall see each other soon enough.”
The queen departed. She walked past Simon without looking at him, taking the front steps two by two, and then Simon was alone with the Duke of Forget-Me-Not, who moved about the room slowly, curiously examining this and that. Henry giggled on the floor, and the duke lowered himself onto his haunches. “Are these your toys?” he said.
“Yes,” Henry said proudly, “me and Simon’s.”
“It is very fine,” the duke said. “You must take good care of them, do you hear?”
“‘course,” Henry said, and proceeded to bash the soldiers with his fist, scattering them across the makeshift battlefield. Simon chuckled out loud, and the Duke of Forget-Me-Not rose back onto his feet. He walked over to the fireplace, where he looked at the family portrait on the mantel. He examined the candlesticks, the china dolls, the bouquet of posies.
“Can I tell you something, Henry?” the duke said. Henry was no longer paying attention, but the duke went on regardless. “A man’s death can be cut from him. Like a peach pit, or a seed. It can be removed wholesale from him, and kept safe someplace else. Then you might never have to die.”
“Boom!” Henry said, knocking over the soldiers. “Boom! Boom! Boom!”
“It is awful thing, to never have to die,” the duke said. “But it should come only when the time is right. Do you not think so?”
“Kakakaka!” Henry shouted, and he picked up a handful of toy soldiers and ran straight towards Simon, who threw his arms around Henry and picked him up off his feet. “Higher! Higher!” Henry shouted, while Simon’s mouth tilted upwards in a hopeful, disbelieving smile and he twirled him round and round. The Duke of Forget-Me-Not watched the two of them somberly, taking a seat with his hands clasped around one knee.
“Simon,” he said, “wake up. There is still work to be done.”
“I, for one, am feeling highly inconvenienced by Simon just lying around like an overfed porpoise,” Wellesley was saying. “If he would wake up, then at least we could do something. As it is I have already eaten three platters of biscuits out of sheer ennui.”
“Urggghhh,” Simon croaked. “Stop — talking.”
“So the mouse does wake, and he has a temper,” Wellesley’s face appeared in his vision, looming over — a bed, yes. Simon sought to rearrange his thoughts. He was awakening in a bed with the covers splayed over him, and Wellesley was playing nursemaid with a ladle of water, which he promptly inserted in Simon’s mouth. Simon started choking, but Wellesley gave him a few reluctant, perfunctory slaps on the back, and Simon drank. The rest of it dribbled down his skin and onto his — he looked down. A night shift.
“Am I alive then?” he said, squinting. “Or this some sort of Hell?”
“How droll,” Wellesley said. “If you have enough clarity of mind to jest, then there is nothing to be worried about.” He set the pitcher of water and ladle aside. “Let me be the first to celebrate your great return to the land of the breathing. You were dead, and then you were not — it happens, at times, though yours was particularly spectacular.”
“I was dead,” Simon said quietly. A figure detached itself from the dark corner of the bedroom, and he looked straight at Thomas. “I was in the in-between place. I saw His Grace there, and we spoke.”
Wellesley rolled his eyes. “Of course you saw Hawthorne. He loves nothing more than to wander about saving stupid mortals from themselves. It is practically his favourite hobby.”
Simon did not remove his eyes from Thomas. “I did not — I did not know if I would wake.”
“But you removed your death,” Rust said. “Or rather, the Oracle of Calais removed it for you when we were at her feast and I had fallen asleep. When I later — when I strangled and drowned you by the lake of mirrors, you surely must have known that you would not stay dead. All of this was part of your machinations, which you would not share with me at all.” His voice turned harsh.
“This is all I knew,” Simon said. “I knew I wanted to return. To — to you.”
Thomas was still angry. “The oracle cut your death from you; how dare you say you did not know what would happen?”
“Because I did not!” Simon said. “It was Fairy. She is a fairy, and the Duke of Forget-Me-Not is a fairy—”
“Half-fairy,” Wellesley interjected.
“—they are not like us!” Simon insisted. He sat up quickly, but became woozy and slid back down. His fingers clutched his blankets and tore holes into the fine cotton. “I did not even expect to meet the oracle, or any friendly party! Once I did, I confess the ideas began turning, but none of it was certain, and I did not know who besides you to trust. That is why I did not tell you, because I could very well have died in that lake and never woke up again.”
“Then I would have killed you!” Thomas said, turning red. “By God, Simon, do you never think of anyone else? I would have lived with the guilt of killing you!”
“So why did you do it?” Simon said.
Thomas rubbed his face tiredly. “I did it because I realized you are cold and conniving, and I thought surely this was another part of your schemes — and I wanted to help you. For all that you have done, all the pain you have caused… I wanted you to live. I was your pawn that night, and I would have done whatever you wanted me to without asking questions.” He met Simon’s stricken gaze. “Why did you have me kill you? Why not wait for the Dreaming Queen, or her tigers? Why subject me?”
Simon swallowed. “I wanted her to see me die, but I did not want her to look too closely. She believes I am dead now. I am free from her.”
“It is true,” Wellesley said. “Fairies so rarely see death up close that they are rather weak at recognizing its signs. It is simply not part of their language. Speaking of which — the Oracle of Calais has a gift for you, Simon.” He reached underneath the bed and produced a jewel box, which he opened for Simon to see. Inside there was a peach.
“Your death belongs to you,” Wellesley said. “We are never meant to be far from it.” He held the box steadily, but the same could not be said for Simon’s hand as he reached inside and plucked out the peach. It was warm. He bit into it and tasted a thousand wonders. The cold that had wrapped itself around him eased and lifted. He could breathe more easily again, and the colours of the room were brighter, the sheets softer against his skin.
“Tell the oracle thank you,” Simon said. “She could have let me die. It would not have harmed anyone. Yet she chose otherwise.” He lifted his shoulders and shrugged helplessly. “Thank you.”
“It would not have harmed—!” Thomas sounded strangled. “Perhaps all of this is beyond me. Fairy and tithes and deaths-that-are-not-deaths. Perhaps I am too simple-minded a man to grasp this after all, and I should return to my farm and raise my pigs.”
“I cannot let you do that,” Wellesley said.
“Pray tell why not?” Thomas asked coolly.
“There is a war coming, and you both are needed,” Wellesley said. “You are little use to us as a farmer. I did not risk life and limb with Lady Salt and Lady Smoke, or drag you from those tigers, to have you till land and plant potatoes.” He pointed at Simon. “This one is a non-entity of a magician, so you shall have to make up for his lack.”
“Why should I do that?” Thomas said, and Simon’s breathing caught like a fish hook. It was his own fault, and he should not expect more, but it hurt nonetheless. It was Wellesley who answered.
“Because he came back from the dead for you,” he said. “He was ready to die until he met the oracle. Terrified, yes, but I believe he would have gone through with it. You changed his mind.”
“No,” Simon said, struggling to sit up again. “No, Wellesley, enough. I have done great ill by Thomas, and by this country and everything he loves. I do not expect him to stay.” He wrapped the blankets around his shoulders and huddled miserably into them. “Go,” he said, and so Thomas went.
The Duke of Forget-Me-Not had a house in London, in Mayfair Square. It was where Simon had woken up. He found the whole concept incredulous, but Wellesley seemed entirely comfortable inside it, so perhaps it was not so strange, the idea of a fairy lord coming to London every now and then and living amongst dowagers, viscounts, and the rest of English high society.
Dying was not easy to recover from, and as Simon regained his strength, he was forced to dwell in the house with Wellesley, who moved about cheerfully and was fond of banging the cupboards when Simon had finally managed to fall asleep. Simon spent most of the next few days convalescing in bed. Wellesley, on the other hand, finished a stack of French novels, cooked an entire lobster turbot, and entertained a handful of guests, among whom was Allegra Fondant, who gazed at Simon and said, simply, “Your parents shall be delighted to know that you are not food for worms.”
“He won’t let me send a letter,” Simon said.
“Truly?” Wellesley said. He turned to Allegra. “My dear lady, remember that I am a second-rate magician with only my looks and my ability to pleasure aristocracy to elevate my station. This fellow is apparently a trickster Hermes. I think if he wanted to get a letter to his parents, he is more than capable.”
Simon sighed. “I am not ready yet. Soon, however. They must be suffering.”
When Allegra Fondant left, he turned to Wellesley, who was clearing the teacups. “Do you truly think I am a trickster? That like Thomas thinks, I am cold and conniving?”
“I think yours is a head I would never want to get into,” Wellesley replied. “Also because it is quite round.”
Simon laughed. The sound of it surprised even himself, a laugh like a spark of wildfire leaping from the hearth. The marigold sunlight pressed against the window where he sat, and he thought, with a sudden violent joy, I am alive, I am alive. Could an immortal such as a fairy truly appreciate life, he wondered, if they had never tasted of death? He pushed himself from his armchair and rose to his feet, still bearing a shawl and three layers of clothing. He felt like a puffed up cake, quite ridiculous, but his words were not. “Will there truly be a war in Fairy?” he asked.
Wellesley cut him a swift glance. “Yes,” he replied. “Hawthorne believes in making both worlds a better place.”
“Better.” Simon tested that word. “Yes. Better. By the by, do you know where Thomas is staying in London? Is it with my mother and father?”
“Are you sure you wish to know?” Wellesley said. “Some sorts of anger may never dissipate. You put him through what was quite possibly the most horrific experience of his life.”
“I am sure,” Simon said. So the next day Wellesley gave him an address in Bedford Square where Thomas had been staying with a friend. Simon took a fustian coat, a hat, and a walking stick, and he hobbled his way over to Bedford where he effected great pains to hide his face. There had been so many galas for him when he was tithed, he was sure to be recognized. However, no one did, and he sent a paper airplane flying through Thomas’ window with the note, Come see me.
Thomas met him in the alley behind the tenements. He came slowly, narrowing his eyes, and his arms were crossed over his chest in a wholly defensive position.
“I have something to say to you,” Simon said, “though I know I do not deserve your attention, least of all your affections. But do you think people can become better? Do you think our stars are set from the moment we are born, or that we are capable of great works and change?”
“Do you mean people in a general sense, or do you have someone more specific in mind?” Thomas asked dryly.
“I mean—” Oh, how he ached to reach forward and touch Thomas. But though he twitched, Simon kept his hands to himself. “You are a good man,” he said. “I have told you again and again, because the sun shines and the trees rustle and you are a good man, the kindest, bravest, most loyal man I know. I hope one day to be as half as decent as you.”
“You let an enemy into London. You allowed innocent folk to die,” Thomas said. “You stabbed me and then you forced me to murder you while I wept. I am not sure you can become even a quarter as decent as a penny beggar on the street.”
“But I want to try,” Simon said.
“Because you love me?” Thomas sighed.
“No,” Simon said. “Because I want to be able to love myself, as wretched as I am. Because I love my mother and my father and poor sweet Henry — and yes, because I love you, and I suspect I always shall. You are the goal that I must one day reach; you are the fixed star I must prove myself worthy of.” He took a breath. “There is a war to be fought. I want to help win it and do good deeds. Will you come?”
“Simon,” Thomas said. “I do not belong in that world. If the Duke of Forget-Me-Not is air, and Wellesley is fire, and you are water, then I am dull, solid earth, and I must stay where my feet are planted. I have come to see that. Even if you had not wronged me, England is where I belong and where I am best able to use my talents.”
Simon bowed his head. “Of course. H-how selfish of me. See, I am failing already. You should do what you want, even if it is returning to your family’s farm. If it makes you happy, then you must do it, and I for my part shall not bother you again.”
Thomas hesitated and touched his shoulder. Simon’s heart began beating a sonata. “Come visit me sometime,” Thomas said.
“Do you mean it?”
“Yes,” Thomas said. “I want to see what sort of man you become.”
“I want to kiss you again,” Simon confessed.
“Well now you are being selfish,” Thomas said, but it was he who pulled Simon into his arms and kissed him softly. Simon dropped his walking stick and flung his arms around Thomas, stealing as many kisses as he was able. It knocked his spectacles askew. Thomas let him go and adjusted his spectacles for him before bending down to pick up the fallen stick. He handed it to Simon, smiling gently.
“Be good,” he said.
“I shall,” Simon promised. He stroked Thomas’ cheek one last time, memorizing the feel of warm skin and early hour stubble beneath the tips of his fingers. Then he grasped his walking stick and forced himself to walk down the alley, towards the bright, clanging noises of the afternoon, and London, home, and everything to come.
A fragment of a late 19th century letter from Allegra Fondant to her friend Lucas Madrigal, reprinted in THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF ALLEGRA FONDANT, Hawkling Press, 1967:
…the last glory days of the Royal Society of Magicians, for it was Thomas Rust who carried on the legacy of Richard Carrington upon his natural death, leading the Society & its studies for two decades. However now the Society is scattered, & who yet knows what the next age of magic in England shall be. Even the oracles in their scrying cannot give me but the murkiest of answers. The end of the war in Fairy has created a new order of things & a new sort of modern magician to go with it. We are of the old guard, I am afraid, & we shall retreat to become relics of history.
As for Rust’s recent disappearance, which splintered the Royal Society so, this is all I know of the matter: that he was with his students at his farm, demonstrating a new version of the Vincenzo hexagram when he froze abruptly. The students looked to the open door to see a man that none of them knew. Young Lawrence told me afterwards that he had never witnessed anything like the keenness that came over Dr. Rust’s face then (boring, staid old bachelor Dr. Rust! remember he called him, & remarked that Dr. Rust always seemed like he was waiting for something that never came). But that day, in the sunlight, they watched as Rust went to the strange man. The man took Rust’s hand silently & they walked together into the fields of grass & towards the bodies of glittering water. We have not seen them since.