by Nori Kanfuyu (法 寒冬)
illustrated by Tamago
Sébastien’s body was lying on the floor directly in front of the fire grate. I finished drying my hands while looking down at it. The flickering flames changed the shape of his face over and over, each dying light making him a different man. I put my boot on his hip and rolled him towards me. No, that was definitely Sébastien, no matter what dusk tried to hide him from me. The same round gold-rimmed glasses, the same tousled curls that never knew the tug of a brush, the same aquiline nose jutting out from his face. There was a line of blood running down from it, long dried.
I crouched to examine the corpse for a moment. He could be sleeping, if I chose to be blind to any of the details. The slack crook of his arm, thrown out as if he had fallen violently. The blood spotted on the cuff of his white shirt, and on the hem of his untucked shirt. The blue pallidity in his face. I brushed his hair back from his face, lingering on his cold skin. Sébastien, I thought, and touched his closed eyelids.
I stood and kicked him in the ribs with all the might I could manage. Again. The dull thump of it — the crunch — my face was red with the exertion, and I could hear the harsh rasp of my own breath. My heart — it was better not to listen to the sound of my heart.
“Sébastien,” I said, through the clench of my jaw, into the empty room. No answer. Of course. I raised my foot over his outstretched hand, bracing myself on the cold stone of the mantelpiece, and paused. Perhaps that was a step too far.
Later, when I had finished tucking the blanket around his shoulders and sat back on my side of the table, with its deep scratches right where my hands naturally lay, I watched the steam curling up from his mug towards his face. His hands were shaking so badly he could barely stir the spoon. Mine were steady; that was why I had been given the quill and logbook, and Sébastien was watching me carefully trim the edge of it with the little knife. I was careful. Slow, even. I wanted him to think about what he had done.
He had not questioned why I had flipped open a book and poised to take notes, but I saw him focus on the pages and pages of crabbed handwriting. It was familiar and unfamiliar to him; I could sense his hesitancy, and I looked at him expectantly. He looked at the page, then back up at me. I said nothing; I just watched him work his way back and forward in his mind, unwilling to ask me to explain, but unsure of what to do —
“It was bad this time,” he said, eventually. He was an academic at heart, and he knew that when someone opened a log and was waiting to take notes, he should probably speak. His voice was a dry rasp. He stopped for a moment; I laid down my quill to finish rolling my cigarette, carefully folding the rose petal around the end. “I don’t know why but — it was bad.” He winced and pressed a hand against his side. “Did you anchor me the whole time?”
“Of course,” I said, pinching life into the end of my cigarette, and picking up the quill again. A bead of ink hung on the end, waiting for his words. If he said, read me back yesterday’s notes, what would I say? I would not know unless he did. “Exactly as you said.”
“Then that can’t be the reason,” ” he said, looking down into his mug, his eyes tracing the tea with a faint jitter. All around us were the tools of his art, carefully organised vials of crushed tarrywort and lemonseed — I knew the basics, but they were stacked ceiling-high in his dark wood bookcases. “Was I down for a particularly long time?”
“Can’t you tell?”
“No,” he said, raising his hand to his mouth and then away. I knew what that was: the long-broken habit of biting his fingernails. “A few minutes?” he said, and I could hear the hope in his voice. I said nothing, watching him search my face in hopes of a pleasing answer. “An hour?”
“Something like that,” I said, making a squiggle on the page with my pen. He was desperately unsatisfied with that answer. It provided him no relief, but it was also unscientific. Haven’t you been keeping time? he wanted to say, but something held his tongue.
“All right,” he said, and I bent and wrote a few words. He couldn’t read my handwriting anyway. “Did I move? Or say anything?”
“No,” I said, and pressed my lips together to fight off the laugh. Did my corpse speak? Did my mouth fall open and my dead tongue form words? “Did you see anything unusual?”
“Did I see — ” His face went blank and slack, his eyes looking right through me. He was remembering what he had seen, down in the dark. It passed across his eyes like oil on water. I stuck my cigarette in my mouth and waited for him to return. Watching him struggle to think wasn’t as satisfying as I had hoped. It was becoming — dull. He sighed and shook his head. “What was I saying?”
I shrugged, and bent my head to the notes.
“I, uh,” he said, and trailed off. I had seen him speak for an hour more than once, in depth, on some question or other I had asked about theory, without even having to pause to think. To see him brought so low made me burn inside. “I’m s—I can’t remember.”
“Did you see him?”
“No,” he said, and bent his head to cough for a moment, a rattling cough that shook his body. I got up and touched his back, pulling the woollen blanket higher around his neck. “I thought for a moment I felt him — ” He reached up to touch the top of his forehead where one curl always hung, and I leaned forward too, to see if there was a mark there; he twisted and hit me, his claddagh ring catching me across the mouth, my head snapping to the side. Blood seeped into my mouth and trickled down my chin. He was not looking at me. His eyes were blank.
I sat back, putting the cigarette to my throbbing lip. “Sébastien,” I said. “What does it feel like?”
“Down there?” he said. He blinked, slowly. I dragged on my cigarette and watched him; it was like looking through a telescope the wrong way. “I once fell into a weir — have I told you this before?”
“No,” I said, though I could picture exactly what he was talking about; the moss-covered blue-grey stones, the low cloud, the dark firs, the warmth of his mother’s hands. “You haven’t told me this before.”
“The water is so cold it knocks the breath right out from you,” he said, tracing a finger around the edge of his mug. “Every movement hurts. The strength it takes just to move — “
“Mm,” I said, licking at the raw corner of my lip. He was looking down into his mug again. I checked my watch, running the edge of my thumb across the face and along the cold band. “You should sleep.”
“No,” he said, head snapping up. “No, I was so close. You have to anchor me — put me down again.”
“What’s my name?”
“Jon,” he said promptly, and looked up at me, slowly.
“My last name?”
“I know what it is,” he said, tone edging into snappish. “You think I don’t know your last name?”
“If you know it, say it,” I said.
It was too far — I knew it the moment I said it. I saw the cold change go over him, as if he had brought a fragment of the below back with him. He leapt over the table at me, the mug smashing somewhere distantly, the table tipping. I went over backwards in a terrible, stomach-lurching whirl, landing with a thump and the sound of rattling, breaking glass. Sébastien was on top of me, his weight pinning me down, the blanket settling somewhere around my feet in a tangle.
I was caught — caught in a trap he had not made of his own accord. I could not hurt him, despite the impulse to twist out of his grip like a fox caught in a cage — to bite, to sink my teeth into his wrist and taste his blood and veins, just the animal urge to get out. Beyond that was the tempered urge to leverage my weight against him, flip him under me. One strike to a vulnerable place and I would be in control.
But even louder than that was the chant in my mind of if you hurt him he can’t go under, if you hurt him he can’t go under — and even that ceased when he closed his hands around my neck. I went still, fighting every instinct to gouge at his eyes, strike at his throat. He would not kill me, I knew — I hoped. He was strong — stronger than I might have expected from a mage, and an academic mage at that, who spent his days closer to chalk dust than any firmament.
I took a half-choked breath as he started to squeeze. Some part of his mind was still under, still in whatever was below us, tainted with the dark. There was nothing in his face — it was as if he was still down there, still searching for him. Calling Sébastien’s name would draw him back to me where he belonged, but all that came from my throat was a strange wheeze. My body felt limp and far away; I tried to raise my hand and saw it move, but it felt like no hand of mine. A sibilant came from me, or what would soon be my body; his huge, hot hands were still wrapped around my neck, strong hands, crushing my throat. Sparks danced at the corners of my vision. This was it — we would never finish our work.
He came back to himself in a terrible rush. I saw it happen — felt it. His hands tightened around my neck for a brief second and then released all at once. He looked terrified and dazed, blinking down at me as if he had just woken from a long sleep.
“Jon,” he said. “What happened to your mouth?”
“Nothing,” I said, and I could not help flicking my tongue out to wet the drying blood. “I fell while you were under.”
“Oh,” he said, looking around. “You fell?”
There was a patina of broken glass all around us, like tiny stars in the dark. His weight was hot on me, his body feverish. He pushed his hair back from his forehead with shaking hands and adjusted his glasses.
“Is it getting worse?” he said.
“No,” I said. “I said I’d tell you if it was getting worse. I promised.”
“You promised?” he said, rubbing at his arms with his hands. There was a chilled shiver running through him. Carefully, avoiding the glass, he stood. I could not pretend that I was not rattled as I stood in front of him. “Of course. I remember.”
He did not remember. I could see it in his eyes.
“As your apprentice, it’s my duty,” I said, watching him look down and away to hide that he needed to hear the obvious. “I anchor you, but I want to attend to your true body’s needs as well.”
“Of course,” he said again, but he would not meet my eye. I helped him to bed. He was so tired; I could tell from the slump of his shoulders, the dark rings under his eyes. But the effects of being under were leaving him. His hands were warm against mine, but not burning hot. His eyes were warm, if overly fearful, as they met mine. I pulled the blanket to his chin as he lay back in his narrow bed. The quarters for academics were narrow and cramped, especially for two people; I practically slept at the foot of his bed like a dog.
“Jon,” he said, eyes half-closed. They were a warm dark brown, even when looking for me. “You’re my apprentice.” He was trying to state it as a fact, but it sounded like a question. I hesitated; I did not want to answer him. I was afraid of what he did not know — and also what he did. “Jon Hama — John H—h—”
“Don’t,” I said, clenching my fingers in the edge of his woollen blanket. “You need rest. You need to sleep in order to go under again.”
“If you’re my apprentice,” he said, eyes flying open, “why do you call me by my first name?” He struggled to sit up, the blanket falling off his chest. It hurt me to look at him; he looked so exhausted, the deep, dark circles prominent against his skin. It would be worse tomorrow.
“Does it matter?” I said, trying to keep my tone light. “You need rest.”
“It does matter,” he said. “Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter — “
“Because I’m not just your apprentice,” I said, all in a breathless rush. “Sébastien, I’m — ” I could not find the words, but I knew he would expect something. All I could do was reach across the bed and clutch at his hand. My hand was too tight, too desperate, but after a moment’s hesitation he squeezed back.
“You’re — “
“I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say it,” I said. There was an edge of desperation to my voice. I could not tell if he believed me or not. His body was warm. I wanted to lay my head on his blanket-covered thigh and have him put his hand on top of my head.
“My apprentice?” He looked confused. “But you’re so young to be studying ethereal geometry. Are you saying that you’re — that I — with my apprentice?” But he still didn’t pull his hand away. I leaned closer until I could feel the warmth of his body. His other hand hovered close to me, but he did not reach closer to touch me.
“Feel this,” I said, very softly. I was looking at the way his curls rested along the shell of his ear; I could see his eyes moving back and forth almost frantically. I reached for a restrained spark of magic and ran it down along my hand and into his. I was afraid he would flinch, but he just gasped softly, his lips parting. “It feels familiar, doesn’t it? It feels — “
“I know it,” he said, cutting me off. He squeezed my hand so hard I could feel my blood throbbing through my fingers. “It’s familiar. I know it.” He released me, then, to press his fingers over his eyes; he shook with dry sobs. “You’ve explained this to me before, haven’t you?” he said. “We’ve had this conversation before.”
“Please,” I said. His energy was fading. He lay back, his hands limp and lifeless by his sides, staring up at the ceiling. “I don’t want you to think of this as a bad thing. I don’t want you to think of this — “
“Stop,” he said. I reached out and took his hand once more, and he did not move away, letting me rub my thumb along the side of his hand until he slept. I wanted to kiss his mouth. I wanted to run my lips across his jaw and feel the scratch of his unshaven face. I did neither.
I swept the glass and felt sorry doing it — sorry both that its glitter was gone, and that I could not leave it here to be stepped on. The shock of it might knock something loose in either one of us. The whole room ought to smell of blood.
I swept. I straightened. I salvaged whatever herbs I could from the ground. I opened the curtains and shut them again, too quickly. Sébastien stirred, just enough that I knew it was time to snatch the flame from the candle and take my spot at his feet.
“The rune needs to be done,” Sébastien said. He was always at his strongest the morning after going under, although he still looked weary.
“I know,” I said. I was sewing little pieces of ginger into nightshade leaf packages, using corn silk as thread, and the thread kept breaking. It was occupying much of my attention, though not so much that I didn’t hear Sébastien mutter superstition under his breath. “Let me have my superstitions,” I said, flicking a piece of fresh-cut ginger root in his direction. “Let me do what the old wives say, if it brings you back to me.”
He flushed, hands squeezing tight around his warm mug. I could tell he was not entirely comfortable with the idea of me — what I had told him. “Nothing will bring me back except the anchor,” he said. “And if I’ve come back, you must be doing that correctly.”
Faint praise that made my heart swell. He waved a hand and the candles next to me flared to life, though their flame seemed to barely penetrate the darkness that surrounded us. It was a gloomy day.
“Open that curtain,” Sébastien said, glancing behind me.
“Open it yourself,” I said, looking back down at my sewing. The corn silk was finally cooperating with me, though I had pricked myself with the needle.
“Are you my apprentice or not?” he said, but when I looked up, he was looking at me with a faint smile gracing his face, though I could sense its hesitancy.
“I don’t want to let the chill in,” I said, glancing down again.
“It’s summer,” he said, brow furrowing.
“I went to the rotunda this morning,” I said. “You know how cold the stones get there in the morning. I overheard the others talking about you while I was there,” I said too quickly, tying off the silk.
“All good things, I suppose,” he said, terribly dry. “Surely I’ve told you not to listen to university gossip.”
“It was good things, actually,” I said, setting down my needle and pinching at where I had pricked my finger. “Talking about how your research is at the forefront — “
He snorted. “Oh, who was saying that? Calis? They’re only saying these things because they hope they reach my ear through you.”
“I’m sure no one is attempting to influence a lowly apprentice,” I said.
“Oh, I’m very sure they’ll attempt it,” he said, his smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. He had dimples when he smiled, which I could not look at. “What did they ask you?”
“Just about your progress on this latest thesis,” I said, winding the thread between my fingers.
“Where’d you learn to do that?” he said, pointing down at the little hedgewitchery I had finished. “Not from me — from here, I mean.”
His questioning was inelegant. All the little tricks, easing me in, waiting in the silence, making sure I was comfortable, were missing. He could have simply turned to me and asked for my life’s history, bald-faced, and it would have carried the same blunt force as this hammer of a question. Perhaps to others it would not appear this way — but it did to me. He might as well have done it to save his own dignity. I would not answer either way.
“Have I offended you?” I said, looking down at the corn silks. “I know it’s not the most highbrow magic.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, pushing up his glasses and rubbing at his closed eyes. “The others might look down on it — ” and he stopped, because I knew he did too. I could have carried on this conversation by myself with very little effort. I’m sorry, I always seem to say the wrong thing with you. I’m sorry, I don’t know anything about you. I’m sorry. I was tired of it. “Plenty of people from — outside the city come in with a background of hedgewitchery.”
“Mm,” I said, while he watched me with the expectation that I’d confirm or deny either of those things. Honestly, Sébastien, I thought. Put a little effort into it. “Don’t worry about Calis,” I said. “He only tried to make small talk.”
“Tried is apt for Calis,” he said, smiling a little. “He probably thinks he did you a service talking to you at all.”
“I’m the apprentice of the most powerful mage here,” I said. “Perhaps I did the service by listening.”
He laughed, a bark that rattled around the room. “The most powerful — tell it to the collegium. Perhaps they’ll increase my funding.” I could tell he was looking at me in a way I could only register as calculating. He knows too much to be lying to me, he was thinking.
“Jon Hamazaki,” I said, quietly.
He slapped the table, sending my work jumping. “I know that,” he said, loud and harsh. “Don’t you think I know that? And don’t look at me like that.”
“Like you’re trying to work out if I remember,” he said, but the force of his anger was dissipating quickly. “Just don’t — look at me like that.” He took off his glasses and rubbed at his closed eyes with his hands.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I could tell he did not know what to say to me. He only looked at me when he thought I was looking away. I could see the strain in his forehead, the way he was rubbing at his whole face as if it would give even the slightest relief to his headache. He never ate the morning before going under; if he did, he would be spitting black bile for the rest of the day.
“It’s fine,” he said, blinking his eyes open and replacing his glasses. He stood, then, wiping his hands on the front of his woollen jumper. “I’m — ” But he cut himself off and said nothing more. Looking at him was painful, seeing him so concerned, brought low by the weight that was on him. But there was a determination there too. He believed he would solve this — believed that he would sink low enough to find what we were looking for. I believed he would too.
I stood too, pushing the chair back from the table. I went to him, slow enough that he could step back if he wished, although he did not. He was watching me the way a cat might let someone approach them, if they were feeling particularly generous. “Here,” I said, slipping my superstition into his pocket. He did not protest, though I did not think he appreciated it, either.
“Thank you,” he said, dry. He was looking at me as if I was a stranger on the street. I had gotten used to that.
“Tell me,” I said, and he was watching me — no, studying me, as if there was any sort of information from my appearance that he could pretend he had known all along. “Have you ever been out of the country?”
“What?” he said. I had knocked him completely off his train of thought. He had no idea how to answer me. “This is important, Jon. I don’t have time for your — nonsense questions.” He turned away from me, raking his hands through his hair. “If you don’t answer any questions about your past, aren’t I entitled to the same?” He picked up my brush and ink from my side of his desk and shoved them towards me, heedless if they would splash or break. “Are you going to do this rune for me or not?”
“Of course,” I said, taking the ink from him. “I have to do what you say, after all.”
“Do you?” he said. He was pulling off his jumper and the shirt underneath, baring his skin to the cold, ignoring how his skin raced with goosebumps, and the way his nipples were drawn to peaks. Ignoring my gaze most of all.
“Then do it,” he said, between gritted teeth. He lay down in the chalk circle next to the fireplace and turned his head away, though I could still see the tight muscle flickering in his jaw, and his eyes shuttering. I knelt next to him, ignoring how my breath caught in my throat, and dipped my brush in the ink, drawing the first stroke of the rune over his ribs. He flinched, shivered.
“Is it cold?” I said.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said, and he was quiet for a moment as I drew stroke after stroke of bold black across his ribs, up to his chest, down to his hips, watching the ink dry and sink into his skin. He closed his eyes, his lashes soft on his cheek, and even then he was still able to tell what I was doing, saying a bit longer there — no, flick the other way. Then, after a few moments, a peace offering. “You have steady hands,” he said.
“So I’ve been told,” I said. Drawing the rune always made me feel meditative, my mind close and far away from my brush at the same time.
“Exceptionally steady,” he said.
“Are you accusing me of something?” I said.
“No, of course not,” he said, and then after a moment, “Should I be?” He was looking back at me now, sly.
“Not unless you have proof,” I said, and drew the final stroke, watching him shake with pain as every line burnt into him with false fire, the evidence of my power. I saw him inhale quickly at the sensation of it, the fire running down and settling into his hands.
“The sincerest form of flattery,” he said when he had recovered, sitting up and adjusting his gold-rimmed glasses.
“What do you mean?” I said. I knew what he meant.
“Your magic signature,” he said. “You truly are a prodigious apprentice.”
“So you like to say,” I said, and although I waited for his face to cloud over, instead he flushed and looked away. “Are you going to go now?”
“If you’re ready to anchor me,” he said. The room around us was all dark, oppressive stonework, filled with the clutter of Sébastien’s supplies. He sent a wave of power past me that was palpable, and the candles flared half a metre high, a brief flash of blinding light that left afterimages on my vision. “I don’t know why it’s so damn dark in here,” he said, rubbing at his eyes again.
“I’ll open the window in a moment,” I said, though he wouldn’t be alive to know if I did or not. He glanced at me, perhaps trying to read my face. He would find nothing.
“Can you anchor me now?” he said. “I’d just feel better if — “
“If you were sure I could do it?” I said. He frowned, but did not take the bait.
I reached out for his hands, but he drew back. He was looking directly at me, his gaze fixed on my mouth — no, not my mouth. The mark where he had hit me was turning into a scab on the corner of my lips, and his eyes were fixed on it, brow furrowed. I could practically read his mind, just from the way his eyes were narrowed, the way he was reaching out towards me, his fingers brushing at my lip, and then the flare of pain as he touched the wound. I did this, didn’t I? he was thinking. He won’t tell me — but I did this.
Just his touch sparked a rush of warmth through my body. I leaned into it; I could not help myself. He rarely touched me — he was rarely comfortable enough to touch me, these days.
“It was me, wasn’t it?” I could have mouthed along with his words before he spoke. His thumb pressed against my lip; his fingers were brushing my chin, and grazed along my jaw. I wanted to close my eyes, but I was unable to look away from him. His entire focus was on me, and it was making my heart speed up.
“No,” I said. My lips brushed his thumb, and I saw him shiver. He did not move away.
“Why is it that you think lying to me will make me feel better?” he asked, but there was no heart to what he was saying. His wit was absent, distracted.
“I don’t know,” I said. I could taste blood. I flicked my tongue across his thumb, and he jerked back as if I had bitten him. His face was flushed bright red, and he looked away, quickly enough that I could tell he was truly shaken.
“I don’t have time for these distractions,” he said. “Surely I’ve told you that before.”
“Perhaps,” I said. I reached down into my well of power and spun out a thread that came into life as a golden rope that I could see in my mind’s eye, though not with my real one. It reached out to Sébastien and twined around his wrist, knotting there like a hand-woven bracelet. He looked down at it.
“That’s not exactly traditional,” he said.
“I’m not a traditional apprentice, am I?” I said.
“No,” he said. Then he lay back in the chalk circle. I hesitated next to him for a moment; I did not want to leave his side. Something of a change came over him at my hesitation. He reached out, quick as a striking snake, and grabbed my arm, digging his fingers into my skin.
“Sébastien, you’re hurting me,” I said. Had the mere act of entering the circle changed him? Allowed the darkness to reach up past his defenses? I looked for the burning light of madness in his eyes. He did not loosen his grip; I put my hand on top of his.
“You know who I am,” he said. “Did you really think I wouldn’t figure it out?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” I said. My heart was steady, my breath slow. It was important to remain calm.
His face twisted, mouth turning down, but the look on his face was more akin to disappointment than rage. “I would have thought some of my reputation precedes me. My inquisitive mind.”
“It does,” I said. It was better to remain calm when he was like this — confused. I hoped my calmness would reach him. “Trust me, Sébastien, it does.”
“I figured you out,” he said. I could feel his fingers leaving bruises in my arms. “I know what you’re doing.”
“I’m sure you do,” I said, stroking the back of his hand. “Do you think this is the first time you’ve figured it out?” I stood over him, pulling out of his grip, feeling the scrape of his nails against my bicep. “You know who you are. You know what you’re supposed to be doing.”
“You’ll keep the anchor, won’t you?” He sounded lost, his agitation redirected from me. “Won’t you?”
I stepped back outside the circle and watched him prepare, reaching down to run his fingers across the dark lines on his side as if he was strumming the strings of a harp. The air around him was beginning to shimmer; I watched his chest begin to rise and fall rapidly, his eyes rolling back in his head.
He reached for the anchor around his wrist and found it; that was when his breath choked in his throat, and he began to seize as his psyche slipped free of his body, the trembling in the air growing to a terrible ripple that stayed — for now — within the bonds of the chalk circle. I could hear his body groan, the wheeze of breath in his chest like a low rattle, the sound a soldier might make giving his last breath on the battlefield. All the while, through every moment, he gripped onto the anchor, harder and harder until there was a red mark on his wrist, clinging onto the safety of it. It was harder and harder to hold onto it, supporting him entirely. It dragged on my soul.
His breath was a soft whisper now. I opened my hand and let go of the anchor.
It felt like dropping a stone down a dark well and hearing it rattle off the walls, spinning down into an endless darkness, the sound of it getting further and further down, all the way thinking surely it should have hit the bottom by now?
I stepped over the chalk circle. Inside, the air held the chill of death. His eyes were open and staring up at me behind the rim of his glasses, crooked on his nose. Even his mouth was slightly open, his head tipped up, his hands clutching at each other.
I knelt at his side. I touched his hand. I bent and kissed his open mouth, hard enough to bruise, and harder still until there was a trace of my blood on his lip. I kissed him, chasing the last vestiges of warmth on his inert tongue.
“You’re a fool,” I whispered against his cheek. I could smell the barest hint of ginger. He was dead; his breath would not fog a mirror, no matter how close you held it.
I stood and set myself to tidying the room, straightening the jars and putting away the tea mugs. I was making his bed when the sound of something rustling startled me. Under his pillow was a scrap of paper, and on that paper in his careful hand was written Jon Hamazaki.
“Shit,” I said. I could barely hold it; I could barely even look at it. He’d written it with care — or I was reading too far into it, seeing what I wanted to see — the letters scribed in the careful hand of an academic. I cast it into the fire, expecting it to leap with green flames as if I had cast salt into it. I rubbed my hand on my shirt. It felt as if I had handled a poisoned letter. I wished I’d kept it instead.
I returned to his bed. It had the twisted blanket and sheets of someone who slept in fits and starts, tossing and turning from strange dreams. There was another curl of paper pushed between the mattress and the wall. Jon Hamazaki. It was a trail of breadcrumbs; inside his pillowcase was a twice-folded leather notebook, tied tight with string. It was small enough that I had never noticed it. It made no bump in the pillow.
My hands were shaking as I untied the string. It had bitten deep into the leather, like flesh. I knew Sébastien’s handwriting as well as I knew my own.
Thirty minutes in the darkness is all I can stand. Anchor seems fine. Too much tarrywort in the formula. Tasted terrible.
I rolled my eyes, and flicked through the pages. Surely Sébastien wouldn’t keep a secret journal from me just to keep notes on his experiments.
Apprentice capable but surly. I have sworn him to secrecy about my recent memory difficulties. From the look in his eye, I have sworn him more than once before. Seemed almost bored. Monosyllabic would be generous. Is this the provost’s new way of punishing me? Reduce nightleaf, might be causing amnesia.
“Surly?” I said, looking up at Sébastien’s corpse. He was still in rictus. I bit my tongue, turned my attention back to the page.
They were just innocuous observations, but for the fact that I hadn’t known anything about it; I didn’t like that he was keeping secrets from me. I flicked through a few more pages. Observations, changes to his formula. He kept hiding and finding the journal again, pleasantly surprised each time, then concerned as he realised it wasn’t the first time. I was an afterthought to his real concern: proving his theories in the darkness.
Nightleaf changed nothing. Have to keep this log so I remember everything. Things are changing within me. Distant, inexorable memories seem hazy, cloudy. Was telling apprentice something and forgot halfway through what I was talking about. I know my own mind. Memory has always been good. Have to write down everything now. Can’t forget. What am I without my knowledge? Will I begin to forget my studies next?
I cannot tell time down there. Tell apprentice to time everything. Nails in the candle? Surfacing feels like seconds, sometimes days.
- has black eye today. Won’t explain it. I tried to ask, but moments later we were talking about something else. How does he do that?
Then — pages stiff with ink, lines blacked out, slashed so hard with a quill that it had ripped through the page to the other side. I raised my hand and began to pick it apart, fresh ink overlaying old words. Slowly, gradually, I lifted Sébastien’s censorship of his own words. Each letter underneath was written in a hurried scrawl, smudged, blotted. It was written in his personal cipher; he had not anticipated me knowing the key.
Apprentice, Sébastien had written, and then crossed out, and then written again, and then crossed out again, hands trembling. Slept without meaning to. Woke up and found Jon — my name was written with a peculiarly heavy hand, as if he was trying to make it indelible — with a terrible bruise on his neck. He was trying to hide it, trying to heal it. Who did this, I said to him. Felt something rising in me that I had never felt before. A terrible storm. Shipkiller. Thought — hazing in the apprentice dorms. Never seen Jon go back to the dorms. Had they scared him off? But I got closer. There was a blot of ink here; he had hesitated. My blood was hot in my neck. I remembered this.
Bruise in the shape of a mouth. It was like — firestorm. Never felt like that before. Who did this, I said again. I grabbed at his shirt; it tore, buttons fell. The look of shock on his face fuelled me. Thibodeaux’s apprentice? Jon with Thibodeaux’s apprentice? Don’t know why I thought of him. It was like — my mind on fire. Never felt like that. His pen was scratching frantically into the paper. I bit him. Wish I hadn’t. Didn’t regret it. Bit him hard. He cried out. Thought he was pushing me away, but he wasn’t. Pulling me closer. My hands knew the shape of his body. Tasted blood. I pushed him away. He looked like he needed to be hurt — no. He’s so young. I wouldn’t, I hadn’t, there’s no way. I gave him my shirt; I sent him to bed. Even that felt wrong. I should have put him in a Nomad’s Cage while he slept. Nothing gets out. Nothing gets — in.
For once, tomorrow, I will be glad to forget. I cannot forget. I cannot allow myself to forget.
There was a little sketch of me below the words. It was idealised; my eyelashes were not that long. My mouth was not that soft, my lips never gently parted as if in a lovelorn sigh. It was akin to something you might find in a locket, a lover’s portrait.
I licked my lips. I was clutching the little book hard enough that the page threatened to tear. My heart was pounding. I looked up at Sébastien’s body, thought about him finding it, reading it, experiencing the horror of what he had done all over again. It was — I could not name what it was.
The next page was blank, and all the rest. I hesitated; I knew Sébastien well enough that I could feel his magic all over the book, subtle enough that no other would notice it. I pressed my thumbnail into the blank page and it gave a little. I encouraged it with a little flare of my power, and the page responded with spidery lines of magic. He had written it with a spark of his magic, his thoughts laid bare with no veil.
Can’t read any more, letters just move around like in a dream, Jon hasn’t questioned reading things back to me, told him it’s good practice for teaching, elocution. When he sleeps he looks like a painting of Endymion or Hypnos — can’t remember which, can’t remember the painting, doesn’t matter. I’d give up my knowledge of art, prose, poetry for the darkness. Why did I choose to trade my memories of Jon? Jon Hamazaki, I have drunk the waters of the river Styx from your mouth, I have split the apple of Hell with you, and down in the dark I will know your name —
I slammed the book closed. I stood without thinking about it, skirting gingerly around the edge of Sébastien’s circle, avoiding his body, his unseeing eyes.
I threw the book in the fire. I burned the tips of my fingers, poking it as far back into the fire as I dared, the flames flaring. My face was red, sweat prickling on the back of my neck from going back and forth. I was huffing for breath as I checked every corner of the bed, every fold of the sheet, bending my head to look underneath, checking the desk drawers, rifling through his notes and proofs, the neat letters of his handwriting in his notebooks rearranging themselves in front of my eyes, his theories just becoming my name, over and over again.
By the time he was beginning to rouse, his hands clenching on empty air, I had been over the entire room three times, searching in hiding places that I was sure an academic mage would never think of. No drawers with false bottoms or pens with hidden chambers below the ink. Nothing sewn into the lining of his coat — and holding and feeling its thin shabbiness brought forth an emotion in me I could not name. It would keep nobody warm hurrying back and forth across the quadrangle when it was snowing.
Irrelevant details. I sat on the bed and watched him stir, tonguing at the bruise at the corner of my mouth. Would he come for me this time? Would he strike me so hard I could not hide what he had done? I watched him wake. His chest rose and fell with a painful shudder, his hands clenching into fists. His whole body was throbbing with pain and tension as he rolled over onto his front, dry-retching onto the stones below. He lay there, braced on his hands for a long moment, shuddering. I made no move to help him. I could fetch him water, stroke his hair back from his forehead, blot away his tears — for what? He wouldn’t remember anyway.
“So there are enemies even here,” he said, his voice a terrible rasp. “Were you always here, or did I bring you back from the dark?” I had very rarely seen him this bad on his return.
“I’ve always been here,” I said, knotting my fingers in the blanket.
“No, you haven’t,” he said, turning and throwing back his hair. He stood, then, turning towards me. I was struck by his profile for a moment; normally I did not think he would be in demand as a portrait model, despite the familiar-yet-unknowable feelings he stirred in me, but the divide of his face into two halves, light and dark, friend and accuser, made me catch my breath. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said.
“I don’t want you to hurt me either,” I said.
“I just want you to put down the knife.”
“What?” I looked, comically, stupidly between my hands. They were both empty. I raised them, slowly, to show him my palms. It was a strange movement for me to do; it felt wrong.
“Please,” he said. He was looking intently at my left hand. I looked at it too, in case I had picked up something without knowing, but it was, of course, empty, pale against the darkness. Knife — the only knives in here were the one made of gold that could barely cut — symbolic more than anything — and the little fruit knife that Sébastien used to eat his apples, always passing me slices that were crisp and tart on my tongue. Take another, he would say, handing it to me before I could protest.
“I don’t have a knife,” I said. “Sébastien, look at my hands.”
“Unarmed?” he said. “You’re never unarmed — faithless, fool — ”
“Please, it’s me,” I said. “It’s Jon. I’m your apprentice.” There was no recognition in those dark eyes. Too long in the shadows, I thought. They were straining to retain him, to draw him back down from where he had fallen. You can have him for a time, I thought, but he belongs to me.
“Apprentice?” he said, confused, hands reaching out as if he could part the dark and see me clearly. There was the familiar wrinkle between his brows when he was deep in thought, fitting together parts of a proof in his mind as if working on a child’s puzzle, everything sliding into place. “I don’t have an apprentice — I’m alone.”
“You’re not alone,” I said. He touched his face, pushed his hands through his hair, as if he was trying to imagine himself real, solid around the edges. Trying to reconcile whatever he was seeing with reality. “I’m here.”
He would come back to me now, as he always did, if I reached out to him, reached out to the soul of the man I knew. If I was lucky, and sometimes I was, I could talk him down without him using force. I would never hurt him. Perhaps he knew that, somewhere. If I hurt him, he wouldn’t be able to go under any more. And then what, I would just wait on him hand and foot, kneeling by his bedside, a cool cloth on his forehead, waiting, waiting? What kind of a life would that be I was so tired. My head pounded. Worse than tired, I felt old, used-up, weary. I felt like the last domino at the end of the line, waiting for the rest to crash on top of me.
“Did you find him in the dark?” I said. Sébastien had never given the presence a name, never given me more of a sense of it than a shadow. He’d never explained to me exactly what made him pursue it — no, it was more than that. He was drawn to it in a way he could not articulate. I had seen him try.
He took a step towards me. I stood, then. That was all reflex; I regretted it. Sébastien saw me as a threat, no matter how open and pleading my hands were. No matter how I knew I would not hurt him — could not hurt him.
“Him,” he said, and it was anger and reverence all at once. “He hides himself well. I got so close to him. He touched my hand. I can still feel it.” It was said with a terrible fondness I could not share. I would have found it less shocking if he had begun to speak to me in a different language. He touched the back of his own hand, turning it up to the light as if there might be a mark. “
“He’s still there,” I said.
“And what do I find when I come back?” he said. “A spy, a snake — ” The tone was pure vindictiveness, hot spite. It burned my skin. He was not coming back to me at all.
“Sébastien, you can’t go back without me,” I said. “If you want to chase him, you need me.”
He took another step closer. The feeling of his magic was oppressive. It rolled off him in a wave of power, filling the room. It filled my senses, too, like standing too close to a bonfire. In his eyes was nothing but darkness, a night with no moon, no stars. He was straight-backed, one hand raised. All the tiredness, all the doubt in him had been lifted.
Another step — defend yourself; he looks unassuming, but he is a threat — strongest mage of a generation, scribbling with pen and chalk at the top of a tower, ignored by his peers, shunned by the imperium — why would someone with so much talent waste it all on nothing? As his apprentice, I was no threat to him. He could burn me to ashes without a thought. He could break every bone in my body with a breath. He could — he could do whatever he wanted.
Closer still. I could not read his face. That was new. I was so used to being able to tell his thoughts from the slightest movement of his eye; from the press of his lips together; from the flutter of a muscle in his jaw. What would he do —
“I can prove it,” I said. I fumbled at my neck, at the chain there, dipping below my shirt. The metal had been cold once, but it was now blood-warm, flesh-hot. “I have your ring. Sébastien, you gave me your ring.”
“My ring?” he said, and that jolted him. That much I could tell. He searched his own hands for it with frantic fingers, rather than looking down — what was he seeing? “You have my ring?”
I drew his claddagh ring from under my shirt. It caught the light. The hands. The heart. My hands, I thought. Your heart.
“If you knew what that meant, you would wear it on your hand.”
Too close. We were together in a pool of light; there was nothing beyond its edge. “Sébastien,” I whispered, reaching out to his hands. Too late, I realised how vulnerable I was to him.
He was blind, his eyes dark. He had not come back at all.
He grabbed me by the neck and we fell. My whole body swooped. Crashed to the floor. My head knocked against the stone with a crack. I saw stars. I felt stars, a cold rush of pain and nothingness down my body, tingling. I knew I could not fight back. I resolved it, willed myself not to act. He had never seriously hurt me — I choked on the taste of iron. If I hurt him, he can’t — if he killed me, he would never forgive himself.
He smacked me across the face. There was blood in my nose. Blood in my mouth, down my chin. I could barely breathe for all the blood. It dripped down the side of my mouth, landing in an arc across the floor. I opened my mouth to the force of his blow, drawing in a wheezing breath. It was too much. If he was to attack me, I wished he would do it with magic, so it would be quick. I wished I did not have to look up into a face that did not know me.
He was on top of me, pinning me down, his knee in my stomach. His fist was raised. I could see the particular bumps of his knuckles that I knew so well. I could do nothing. I wanted to do — nothing. This was not Sébastien, who I would let hurt me until my soul slipped away. This was something else, and if it killed me, at least I would not be alone with it. My head was swimming. Do what you want, I thought. I probed at the back of my teeth with my tongue. Knock something loose in me. I laughed, a terrible, choked sound, my legs kicking like a hanged man. I saw him blink, though my eyes were blurry and unfocused, saw him —
“I’m sorry,” he said again, later, while I was holding ice to the back of my head.
“You didn’t — “
“Don’t you dare try to tell me you fell,” he said, and he was half-standing, seemingly before he realised it. “How did you let it get this bad?”
“Because you’re so close,” I said. I moved the ice without thinking, and flinched. There was pink water dripping down the back of my neck. I didn’t care. “Every time you get closer and closer — “
“I don’t know,” he said. “It feels like, like hearing a whisper and then finding the room empty. Like feeling a hand on yours and finding no one there.”
“If you’re close,” I said, “who cares about a few knocks? It’ll be worth it when the imperium — “
“Fuck the imperium,” he said, rocking back dangerously in his chair. He looked wild around the edges. It wasn’t how I knew him at all. “You think I care what the imperium thinks? You think this is about, what, awards, funding? My title?”
“Isn’t that the point?” I said.
“No!” he said, and his voice resounded around the whole room, shattering off the glass. “I gave you my ring — ” I could not tell if it was a statement or a question. He ran his hands through his hair.
“You don’t remember,” I said. How could he not remember such a meaningful act?
“Do you know what that ring means to me?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you know who gave me that ring?”
“Yes,” I said, through gritted teeth. My head was throbbing. “Must you question me?”
“How else am I to know,” he said, rocking forward on his chair suddenly. “You act as if it’s something I could give to anyone, but that’s not true. I cannot judge what you do and do not know if you act like it’s nothing.”
“You shouldn’t have to judge me,” I said, and my voice was too hard, too agitated. I felt as if he had cut me, and now my blood was spilling. “Would you have given me your ring if it — if I meant nothing?” I said.
“Don’t answer a question with a question,” he snapped. “Is it that difficult to be honest with me? I swear, Jon, sometimes it’s like you want to fight with me.”
“I don’t care about convincing you,” I said, scraping my teeth over my bottom lip heedlessly. “We’ve done this a hundred times — more.”
“Prove it,” he said. He was looking directly at me, but with the pain in my head distracting me, I could bear the force of his gaze.
“No,” I said. I forced myself to stand. There was so little room to move in here; how had they expected a man and his apprentice to live in such close conditions without — without becoming as close as Sébastien and I had? “What’s the point? I’ll only have to do it again tomorrow.” I shambled towards the bed, clutching at the ice in the towel on my head. Hopeless. “The ring was meant to help me. Take it back if you like; it’s only made things worse.”
“Giving that ring to you would only make things worse, ” he said, and it sounded as if his throat was tight. I did not turn to look at him. So he regretted it. I was unsurprised. I curled my fingers around it. I did not want to return it, even if he asked it of me. “Jon,” he said, and his voice was too gentle, too concerned, laced with guilt.
“Was this wound not enough?” I said, and my voice was weary, broken. “Must you wound my heart as well?” “
I heard his shuddering breath, but I knew he would not answer. It was too much, but I could not stop myself from wishing him to answer, to hold me close and kiss my forehead, his voice warm and sincere as he said —
“Let me look at your head.”
“Are you a healer now?” I said.
“No,” he said. He was coming closer; I could tell by his shadow. I wanted him to. I wanted him to lay his warm hand on the back of my head, regardless of whether or not there was a wound there. I wanted him to press me down into the pillow until I could no longer breathe. “I know a little from — from prerequisites.”
“What’s my name?” I said. He hesitated. I could see his shadow over me, his hand halfway stretched out between us. If he couldn’t remember — and I knew he couldn’t — then there was no point in him touching me. No point feeling the warmth of his hand. It was false.
“Jon,” he said.
“What’s my name?” I twisted around to face him. He looked defeated. Tired. Worse. But inside all I felt was jagged despair. I was the hot lick of a whip on flesh. “I look after you. I sleep at the foot of your bed and you can’t even remember my name.”
“It’s not like that,” he said, stricken.
“Do you care?”
“Of course,” he said, affronted. It was reflexive enough that I thought it might be true. No matter what the dark was taking from him. From both of us. I laid my head on the bed, listless. “Listen,” he said, and he was standing behind me now. “I’m not good with people. You know this — you must know this. If you’re — you are my apprentice, so of course I — have a respect for you. I would not want to see anyone — my apprentice hurt.” It fell totally flat between us; his voice was stiff and fake, as if he was trying to say what he thought I wanted to hear, and finding himself unsure of what that was.
“I love you,” I said, my voice muffled against the blankets. I hunched my shoulders forward as if to protect myself from a blow. I felt real and unreal at the same time, half in and half out of my body. The gloomy room around us promised unsettled dreams.
“I — “
“Don’t say it if you don’t mean it,” I said. My face was wet. I blinked my blurry eyes, trying to focus.
“This isn’t fair,” he said. But he came and knelt behind me, and put his hand on the back of my neck, hesitating when I shivered. “It isn’t fair to you,” he said, and then — I saw the movement in his shadow, though I hardly believed it — he leaned forward and kissed the side of my head. I let out a shuddering breath. His hand was warm. I felt anchored by his touch. “I never planned to take an apprentice. My work is too dangerous — too strange. It’s barely recognised when I do it.”
“What are you saying?” I said.
“I would not want to be responsible for putting you in such danger,” he said. “I would want to bear that responsibility alone.”
“I’m not in danger,” I said, turning sideways to look at him a little. He was pensive, gazing towards the fire. “You are the only one risking your life.”
“You call this safe?” he said, fingers brushing at the edge of the bruise on the back of my head. “I might risk my mind, but you anchor me. I don’t want to risk — anyone.”
“I don’t care about that,” I said. I turned, shifted. His fingers brushed across my neck. It was still tender from when he had choked me. Do it again, I thought. He was watching me, and pulled his hand back the second our eyes met.
“I don’t understand this — devotion,” he said. “I’m an academic, nothing more. Unless you have a particular fascination for peer review and marking.”
“It’s not that you don’t understand,” I said, slipping the ice from my head. It was beginning to feel better. “It’s that you don’t remember.”
“All right,” he said.
“You need to sleep.”
“Don’t — ” I saw the consternation in his face, before he pushed his glasses up and rubbed at his eyes under them. “Don’t look after me. It’s not your place.”
“Not my place as your apprentice,” I said.
“That’s right,” he said. “Look — “
“But it is my place as your — “
“Please,” he said.
“No, it’s perfectly all right,” I said. I stood, brushing cold water off my neck. “Say whatever you like — it’ll help me have this conversation tomorrow.”
He sighed, and took his glasses off, cleaning them on his sleeve. When he put them back on, his eyes were weary. He was beginning to figure out how to look at me. First, he could barely look at me at all, but now his eyes skirted me at the edges when I looked away. By tomorrow morning, he’d be able to look at my hands, my shoulders. Just before he went under again, he’d be able to look me in the eye.
My place was at the end of the bed, a sort of wide trunk with a flat lid, shoved up against the wall. I had a shawl and a pillow there. Sébastien watched me shamble over to it, and he frowned. “Do you sleep there?” he said.
“Have to sleep somewhere,” I said. He was usually much more tired coming out from the darkness. I could not recall him noticing where I slept before.
“You don’t sleep with me?” he said. When I turned, his face was a blotchy red, his mouth pressed firmly closed, as if he had tried to take the words back after he had spoken them.
“Is that what you would prefer?”
He had no answer for me. I would have laughed if I could summon it up. I would have —
I turned myself against the wall. That was my kindness, to face the wall and not turn back into the heat of his body. We were back to back. I knew he was awake. How could I not? It was a narrow scholar’s bed with a thin, old mattress that bowled us together at the slightest shift. I was a cold sleeper; I always had been, and I yearned to tuck my chilly feet against the warmth of his lanky legs and hear him shout before pulling me against him. But that was gone. I could feel the nervousness in his body, the instinctual pulling away from me. He was leaving so much space between us, even though I knew I did not take up much room. Turn over, I thought, but he did not move, breathing the slow, familiar rhythm of the false sleeper. Be the one who turns over for once. I feared if I turned I would find no one there. I feared if I turned, he would be looking back at me.
My days were running out. One thing or another would bring this to a close, be it the march of time or Sébastien’s magic.
“I want to put you under,” he said, looking at me over the rim of his tea mug. He looked as if he had barely slept. Under his eyes was a black morass. He was clenching his fingers on the mug to hide their trembling.
“I think you’re ready.”
It would be a good ploy, if it had been used on anyone other than me. Someone with more arrogance. Someone with more ambition. I could read his every thought: I’ve been going too deep. I’m afraid I won’t come back. I’m afraid —
“Do you know how?”
If I had been that craven, ambitious person, that would have been the blow. The thought that he might doubt that I even knew the theory — but that wasn’t what it was. He could not remember if he had taught me or not. I looked him directly in the eye and saw that he wanted me to say no, so he could say, that’s all right. We’ll just pass the day together, then, as we used to. But I doubted he remembered those days at all.
I was unsure how to answer. No, that was untrue. I was unsure which lie to tell.
“I know the theory,” I said. “I’ve seen you do it many times.”
How many times? his face said, a desperate twist to his mouth. He wanted to preserve the fiction to himself, I thought. Perhaps he would seem less desperately pathetic to himself if he did not have to beg for scraps of information from me. I didn’t care. I’d seen it all before. What answer would soothe him? Shock him? A hundred? A thousand?
“It’s different on the other side,” he said. “I mean — it’s different to be the one to go. It’s different there, too.” I was aware of what he meant; it was like that when I was waiting for him sometimes, watching the hands of my watch spin backwards.
“What do I do if I see him?” I said.
“If you see — ” He choked off. He hated that idea, I could see it, but I was unsure if it was because he feared for me, or he wished to keep that presence to himself.”I won’t let you go that deep. For your first time, it’ll be more impressions. Shadows. Just enough for you to feel what it feels like.”
He was too tired to go himself. Too exhausted. Afraid. I could not shake the tingles of excitement that were burning through my veins. He had never asked me to send my soul below before. My hands shook, though with anticipation that I was sure read as nervousness. I had to press one over my mouth to keep from laughing as he watched me; I was sure his gaze held guilt, shame at himself.
Finally, finally, I had made something change. There was so little time left. What would I find down there? A way out? I would plunge deep and return triumphant, and he would take notes on what I had learned.
I stood and gathered the herbs he asked of me. Fool’s jasmine, carradyne, and just the edge of a nightleaf. A thread of saffron to tie it all together, ground by my pestle. He watched me follow his orders without complaint. Mostly, he watched my hands. Watched the ring slip and slide back on its chain around my neck. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he watched my mouth.
Everything was in order, except the herbs that had to brew. I had to do something to pass the time. I could not sit in silence with him. I propped my chin up on my hand and said, “Do mages often have enemies?”
“Enemies?” he said, startled out of his reverie. He seemed relieved that I was at least asking him something that he could answer. “No, not particularly. I mean — unless you mean colleagues.” He smiled, then, his eyes crinkling up behind his glasses. I wanted to crack him like an egg. “Why do you ask?”
“Just something I heard in the rotunda,” I said, idly checking my fingernails. “Gossip about someone hiring a man of the knife.”
“A man of the knife?” Sébastien said, and he began to laugh, covering his mouth. “If anyone can afford a man of the knife on adjunct wages, I’d like to see it.”
“I suppose it is a bit ridiculous,” I said. “Why would they send an assassin after an academic, anyway?”
“Well,” he said, in the way that he often took preposterous questions seriously for their discussion value, “just because we spend most of our time with books doesn’t mean we’re without our fair share of controversy.”
“You mean you professors?”
“I meant you and I,” he said, his eyes warm. I looked away. “For a while I thought I was on the verge of discovering a new type of magic, but nothing came of it. I wrote a few papers, but no one wanted to publish them. Apparently specialising in ethereal geometry and shadow physics was already obscure enough.”
“I appreciate your obscurity,” I said, with rather more fervour than I had intended.
“I know,” he said, smiling. “I’m not prone to flights of fancy about men of the knife. Not like — you haven’t been going to those penny dreadful plays that the philosophers are always talking about, have you?” he said, looking up at me, eyes narrowed with amusement.
“No, I haven’t.”
“Don’t listen to any philosophers,” he said. “They only want your blood — or worse, your meal tokens.”
I couldn’t help smiling at that, and he caught my eye, pleased with himself.
“We could go some time if you like.”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I have no patience for the theatre. I’ve been in the follies, but only under threat.”
“I remember,” I said. “You played the silk witch.”
“That’s right,” he said, surprised. “I didn’t think — “
“You wanted the lead, but it went to Martîn,” I said.
“Professor Thibodeaux,” he corrected automatically, and then he frowned. “I don’t — I’ve never told anyone that. I don’t even think I’ve spoken about it.”
“Do you want me to do my own rune?” I said, into the pause. I could do it. Upside down, backwards. Half asleep. Eyes closed. You have the steadiest — you have the steadiest — you have the steadiest hands.
“I’ll do it,” he said. I took off my shirt without complaint. Look at me, I thought. Don’t see your fear of me. See me. His hands were trembling badly as he pushed the brush through the empty air towards my ribs. Sometimes I caught him thinking, Have I done this before? Have I touched him before? Have we —
I left it unsaid. I always left it unsaid. Anything I could say would not scare him as badly as what he imagined. I watched him look away, and the thrill of that power warmed me from head to toe.
The brush touched me, and my breath hitched. I shuddered at the cold stroke of the brush over my ribs. If this was the only way he would touch me, then I would accept it. I would let him paint on me more and more. Who cared what they did to me; who cared how his magic changed me. It would be worth it.
I could feel the hot trail of his eyes following the brush. Just out of the corner of my eye I could see his face, deep in concentration. He was not thinking about the heat of my body, nor the way I was looking at his eyes, his dark eyelashes over-long and sleepy. I let out a long, shuddering sigh. A lover’s sigh.
The ring was still around my neck. I imagined it was his big, warm hands on me, his fingers stroking over my ribs with the barest hint of his warm, familiar magic sliding over my skin. He kept going, line after line after line. He was torturing me. Protection on protection on protection. I was more rune than man. He could cut my throat after this, and I would not die. His magic was pouring into me like I was the icon of a prayer. Keep this man safe. Bring him back to me. Keep this man safe.
An errant swipe of the brush flicked against the edge of my nipple. False fire sank into me, burning hot. I moaned, biting it off into the flesh of my arm. He jerked back; I felt the cold air replace him. I had not been conscious of how close he had gotten to me. I doubted he had been, either.
I was half-hard and he knew it. I could feel him looking. Look all you like, I thought. I thought of rolling over and tucking my fingers beneath my waistband, thought of rolling over and doing whatever he told me to do —
“Are you ready?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, turning to look at him. He was looking away. He stepped out of the chalk circle.
“It’s going to feel a little like going to sleep at first,” he said. His voice was calm. “If it gets too much, just reach back up the anchor.” He stepped further back. His eyes were a little sad, but it was deep inside, where he could pretend that it was not there at all. “If I feel you need it, I’ll pull you right back up. Don’t go deeper, even if you feel the urge — even if you hear someone call your name. I won’t let that happen. I won’t.”
I looked up at the dark stone above. Magic rushed through me and down into the dark, the endless yawn of it. I summoned the power to cast myself down with incredible force. I was a thing on the ground. I was a skull with a cracked jaw. I was the seep of dead blood between teeth.
“Wait,” he said, and I saw him start to move forward again, his hand outstretched; I heard the words he was about to say like a memory, what are you doing?
I fell like a stone into my father’s weir. No light followed me down here; it could not. I was bodiless. Mindless, for a moment, before I jammed my teeth into my tongue, tasting my own hot lifeblood. Somewhere above me, I was in a rictus, gasping out my last breath. That no longer mattered.
I fell — I fell into the darkness. Something was wrong. I had never dropped a stone into a weir. I had never had a father.
What have I forgotten? I wondered. Below me were terribly distant stars. I fell, and I thought, what have I lost, here in the in-between?
Darkness. Falling. I could feel my body jerking independent of my mind, jolting out of sleep. I was in the evening sky, a faint light under black clouds. In the air I could smell incense and snow. Yes — yes. The monastery where I had grown up, the pines frosted with snow all year round — I had transcended, I was free.
But it faded to nothing as I grabbed at it, leaving only the hanging flames of the candles. I was wet to my knees, the water chill and freezing on my bare legs. I was standing on the bank of the weir, the water still in a way it never should be, frozen without ice. It reflected nothing, not even the low light.
It wasn’t right; I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be here again.
“Back for more?” Sébastien said. I turned as fast as I could, raising my hands. There was no one there, no second presence. No him. The voice echoed across the water. There was light underneath it.
My reflection moved without my guidance, turning away. I was not well acquainted with the back of my own neck, but I did not imagine it to be this way, faintly flushed, soft, the crisp line of my hair — these were not my thoughts. This was not my memory.
“Don’t,” my reflection said. I could see only the barest hint of the side of my face.
“You didn’t have a problem with it before,” Sébastien’s voice said from behind me. It was a different Sébastien. Younger. Capricious. I put my hands over my ears.
“Shut up,” I said. I breathed in the air, hoping for a trace of the monastery’s incense, or the barest hint of a hymn.
Jon, Sébastien’s voice said, his breath brushing the back of my neck. The water of the weir was ice cold; I moved, and the ripples broke my reflection into a thousand pieces, a thousand Jons who pressed their hands over their faces and said, Sébastien, please, can’t we just go back?
Was this what Sébastien saw when he came here? I dug my fingernails into my hands and gasped — there was blood on my left palm, welling from a deep cut. It dripped into the weir, tainting my reflection.
“I’ve had enough of this,” I cried out, and I could hear the echo of my own words issuing from the water before me, had — enough, and I knew I could stand here for a hundred years and never hear anything I had not heard before. “Aren’t you sick of me? Send me home!”
“Little liar,” Sébastien’s voice said from behind me, warm, and I felt that if I turned I would surely see him there, and he would know me, from my name to everything else. But that could never happen — would not happen, not after what I had done.
“I’m sorry,” I said — sorry, my reflection said — but it was too late. His hands wrapped around my neck and pushed me forward and down into the water. It was not how I remembered, because I fought like a mad thing; I could not help it. I was smashing apart the still water, thrashing against my own death.
There was a terrible golden light reaching down for me, warm against my grave-cold flesh. I closed my eyes and waited for the knife.
Anchor — it was Sébastien’s anchor, reaching down for me. A thread of his soul, burning with his desire to bring me back, raised me up to him. I clutched at it — it cut my fingers to the bone. It felt like him. The essence of him. Sometimes I felt like I had known him since the beginning of time. I was drawn upwards to that man, who had reached down to save me.
Of course, he had only done that not knowing what I was.
Heat — that was what I noticed first. Even the air was hot and thick; I had to suck it down into my lungs. Why did he stoke the fire so high? My thoughts were muzzy and soft. How long had I been dead? It could only have been minutes. Sébastien Gold, I thought, as quickly as I could. Sébastien Gold. It felt like sliding my tongue around the back of my teeth, with the suspicion of finding one chipped. Jon Hamazaki. Sébastien Gold.
“Sébastien Gold,” I said. I was cold all down my front, ice cold. The stone was rough against my bare skin. I felt — raw, as if my whole front had been dragged on the stone. Why was it so cold, when my back was so hot?
“Yes?” he said. He was closer — much closer than I had expected. His voice was right against my ear. The back of my shoulders burned with pain, as if I had been lashed with a whip. There was something in his voice that put me on edge, immediately. It sounded as if — as if the madness had settled over him again, though that was not possible. It should be on me.
“What’s my name?” I said, and my voice was stupid and slurred, tongue thick in my mouth.
“Jon Hamazaki,” he said, with no hesitation. He kissed the back of my neck, scraped his teeth over the bumps of my spine. His weight was on my back, pushing me down into the ground. I was naked on the floor, my head turned, cheek against the stone. “My apprentice.”
“Whuh — ” I tried to move my arms to push myself up, but they wouldn’t move. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. My arms were behind my back, wrists bound with something I could barely feel. Of course, Sébastien was not crass enough to use rope. It was his magic that he had bound me with. “Let me go,” I said. There was no fervour in my tone, only weariness. “Sébastien, let me go.”
“No,” he said. His hands were on my waist, pinning me to the floor. “You’re my apprentice.”
“I know,” I said. And then, my voice, a little shaky, “You remember?”
“Of course I remember,” he said, his voice low. “How could I forget you?” He bit the top of my shoulder, right in the muscle, hard enough that I cried out. The weight of him was unbearable. He ran his tongue over the bite mark, tasting my blood. “You’re mine.” He rolled his hips against my ass, and I shivered, my heart pounding with cold fear.
“You don’t want this,” I said, and the words were coming with short pants of breath. “Sébastien, this isn’t you.”
“I know exactly what I want,” he said.
I tried to wriggle free, tried to move my arms, but he had bound them so tightly behind my back that they were beginning to go numb from his weight. He touched the circlet of bruises around my neck; he rubbed his fingers over the graze on my lip, and then pushed them inside my mouth. He pressed them down against my tongue until I choked. “Be good,” he said. His voice was throaty, rough.
I was hot all over. Wasn’t this what I had wanted? Wasn’t this what I had pushed for, once upon a time, before I realised it didn’t serve my purpose? Deep within me, I wanted to succumb to him. I wanted to be good for him.
His trousers and shirt were rough on my naked back. I rubbed my tongue against his fingers, chasing the salt of his skin. I didn’t want it. I wanted it more than I had ever wanted anything. He pulled back. “Stop,” I said. He did not stop. I was gaining a growing awareness of my body. My knees felt bruised. My neck was sore. How long had he been touching me?
“You belong to me,” he said, and bit me again, dragging his teeth across the nape of my neck. “Isn’t that right? That’s what you keep telling me. Bound together by the dark.”
“I’m your apprentice,” I said, and my voice was low, choked out. This was what I had wanted, wasn’t it? I wanted him to acknowledge what I was.
“That’s right,” he said. He shifted forward, his weight bearing me down into the stone. I huffed out a pained breath, and felt him smile against the side of my neck. “You belong to me. They gave you to me, to do with what I wish.”
“That’s not — ”
“My wish is to share my knowledge with you,” he whispered, running his teeth along the curve of my neck. “I’ve been waiting, but you’re ready now that you’ve seen it too. Ready for your true education.”
He stood and pulled me with him, dragging my feet off the floor. I had never thought of him as stronger than me, but his motions seemed effortless now. I kicked back at him — I couldn’t help it. It connected with his leg, but it didn’t stop him. He threw me down on the bed. I landed half on my side, and I could see him now, his hair raked back from his red-flushed face. His glasses were gone, and I so rarely saw him without them that it knocked me off-kilter. He looked severe. Like a stranger.
He slapped the back of my thigh. I jolted, twisting back to look at him. “Pay attention,” he said. “You know how to take instruction, don’t you?”
“Sébastien — ” I said, suddenly, wilfully thinking of the tale of calling the husband-turned-wolf back from the woods with his name.
“Jon,” he said. He was looking down on me with a burning gaze, his hand over the hot mark on my thigh. Beyond him, I could see the scuffed-out chalk circle.
“Sébastien, you didn’t,” I said, my bound arms and my nakedness forgotten for a moment. I tried to roll, to see what he had done, but he put his hand on my chest and pushed me flat on my back again. “That’s elementary, that’s — ” He was tracing the lines of the rune still painted on my skin. I did not believe he was listening to me at all. “If a mage succumbs to something in a circle, you leave him to die.”
“I can’t let you die,” he said, still tracing the lines of the rune over my ribs, a feather-light touch that was giving me goosebumps. “You’re the only other one who knows what it’s like. I’d be alone without you. “
“Would that be so bad?” I said.
He did not answer. His full attention was only on my skin, my body. He raked his nails down my thighs just to watch me shiver, pulling me bodily to the end of the bed. If this had been in Sébastien all this time, I certainly had never seen it. Perhaps a seed of madness, blossoming now under the glare of knowledge.
“Be a good boy,” he said. His hands were tight on my thighs, digging into the muscle. “I want you to learn what I’ve learned. I want you to see what I’ve seen. When you break through there are so many stars — “
“Stop,” I said, but my protests were becoming more and more half-hearted. They were belied by my body, the hard ache of my cock, though I wished I could hide that from him — the honesty of it was too much. But he wouldn’t remember this, anyway. Even though it was false, I wanted him to touch me. Even if it wasn’t really him. “Sébastien — “
“That’s over-familiar,” he said, sliding his hands up to my neck. One rested against the bruises on my neck, with a weighted promise. “Is that what my apprentice should call me?”
He slapped me across the face. I gasped, the hot shock of pain settling across my jaw. I wriggled against my bonds, trying to free my hands. I was going to let go and drown. I wanted to.
“Teacher,” I said, and the shivery, hot humiliation of it began to shudder through me, a powerful wave. “Tell me what to do.”
He smiled, a sharp-toothed smile I had never seen from him before. “Good boy,” he said, low and soft enough that it shook something loose within me. I wanted to obey whatever he said. I would do anything. “Come here.”
He pulled me off the bed onto my knees — oh, of course he knew, somewhere, that that was where I belonged, at his feet — his hand winding into my hair, and I could see how hard he was. I wanted it, and it was a deep, white-hot need that shocked me as I strained forward. I needed to put my mouth on it.
I was pulled back only by his painful grip. “What do you say?”
“Please, Teacher,” I gasped, and I did not recognise the voice as my own. I had never felt like this or acted like this before. Something about him was melting away who I was. “Let me.”
“Good,” he said, and loosened the grip on my hair. I tried to fit my mouth around the shape of his cock in his trousers, and I couldn’t help moaning around it, my mouth wet and wanting. I couldn’t move my arms, and I just wanted, I wanted —
“Poor thing,” he said, reaching down to pull me back again.
“I’ll make it good,” I said, frantically. “I’ll make it good, I promise.” I would. I’d do anything to have his true gaze on me, flaying me to the bone. He saw down to my very soul, through everything. My worst desires, and he didn’t care. The brutal fondness in his touch scorched me.
“Oh, I don’t doubt that,” he said. “Put your tongue out.”
Put my — I flushed. I wanted to do what he said, but it made me feel strange, hot tingles of shame sweeping through my entire body. If my hands were free, I would’ve been touching myself. Perhaps that was why he had tied them. I tipped my face up and opened my mouth.
“Good,” he said, freeing his cock from his pants and sliding it across my tongue. I moaned — I couldn’t help it. He was so hard, so wet, and the weight of his cock promised to choke me. I wanted it. I wanted it so badly I could’ve begged, except I would not have freed my mouth to do it. “You always look at me like that,” he said, rubbing his cock deeper and deeper into my mouth. “You always look as if you think you know something I don’t. But I’m the one who knows. He told me everything, whispered in tongues I do not yet know, promising further study. You and I can serve him together. No one will match our power.”
He pushed further. The thickness of his cock was stretching my lips. My mouth was so wet as I bent my head to my task. I wanted to make it good for him.
“Ah, ah,” he said, pulling back. I moaned at the loss. “I know you’re eager, but is it the student that leads the lesson?”
“No, Teacher,” I said, as best I could, feeling hot and strange all over.
“Then let me lead,” he said, pushing deeper into my mouth again. His cock bumped at the back of my throat and I choked on it; he sighed. “You must have been popular in the apprentice dorms,” he said, eyes closed, rocking his hips forward, ignoring my frantic attempts to cope with what he was doing, as I tried to force myself to relax. His hand was clenched in my hair, pulling me back and forth as if I was only for his pleasure. “The mouth on you — the line would’ve been out the door.”
I moaned and tried to relax into it, letting him do what he wished. There was no way to tell him he was wrong, after all, and if he wished to imagine it, I certainly wouldn’t stop him. But relaxing into it changed something within me. I was accepting his dominion over me. My entire being was just for his pleasure.
“Stop,” he said, suddenly, pulling my head back. I looked up at him with dazed, blurry eyes, a tear trickling down my cheek. “Stop unless you’re willing to swallow.” I was, and I think he knew it as he looked down at me. He rubbed his cock on my tongue as if he simply couldn’t bear to pull back. “Do you want to choose where I come, apprentice? Your mouth or — “
“Both,” I said as quickly as I could, pulling away despite his firm hand on the back of my head. I wanted him to come down my throat, or across my open mouth, my tongue, my face, my stomach, inside me — I wanted him to have to look me in the eye with the knowledge of what he had done, and remember me, see me.
“Get up,” he said, suddenly, pulling me up by my neck. I struggled, wheezing for breath. “It’s not your decision, is it? It’s mine.”
“Yes, Teacher,” I said, my voice coming out in a croak.
His magic slammed into me with terrifying force, knocking me back into the bed. It was a slow, hot wave painfully working its way up from my feet, over my legs, my cock, with aching, tingling force. It was like a giant, hot hand pinning me to the bed. He rolled me over without touching me, ignoring my cry of surprise. This wasn’t who I was. I wasn’t someone that would show my back to, to anyone. But I didn’t care what he did to me. I didn’t care if it was his turn with the knife —
“I know you better than you might think, my apprentice,” he said, and his hands ghosted lightly over my shoulder blades. I shivered. Then — he swept his hands over my lower back and I gasped, before he dug his thumbs in right at the point where I was most sensitive. I shuddered with it — my vision danced with stars, my muscles tightening, my ears ringing, all with pleasure that was too intense to bear.
How had he known? I had certainly never told him about my weak spot. I had never told anyone. I had never breathed a word. I was rubbing my cock on the bed, biting at the blankets to try and stifle my voice, digging my nails into my hands. He touched the small of my back again, lightly, and I flinched.
“Please don’t,” I said. My voice was a ruined croak. “It’s too much. T—Teacher.”
“Hmm,” he said. The slightest pressure of his hands below mine, his fingers brushing at my bound arms. I closed my eyes and tensed, waiting for him to dig his thumbs into me again. I couldn’t breathe; every part of me was shaking with anticipation. “You can’t even control yourself, can you?” he said, and all he did was stroke his fingers over my skin, over and over until I could no longer think.
“Perfect,” he said, gripping at my ass and pulling it apart. He looked down at my hole for what seemed like a long time, until I began to twist and squirm with embarrassment.
“Don’t,” I said.
“Don’t look,” he said, “or don’t just look? Be honest for once.”
His thumb traced the edge of my hole, and I choked on my own breath. I hadn’t been imagining it. I had been trying to dismiss my own senses, but I felt a little raw, wet, open. He nudged at my hole with the head of his cock, and I wanted to tell him to stop, but at the barest force I opened to him, and at the same time I had the thought, shocking and sudden with its sheer force: Did Sébastien fuck me when I was dead?
I came with such sudden intensity that it hurt, my stomach cramping, my body jerking like my neck was in the hangman’s noose. My ears rang. I could feel the sick, sweet pleasure of it sweeping my entire body, as I sobbed into the blanket. The hot stretch of him pushing into me, the faint jolt of him slapping my ass, his laugh — it faded into nothing. Just that same question, tumbling over and over in my mind.
When I came back to myself, he was lying back and I was straddling his thighs, looking down at his hard, wet cock. “Well, come on,” he said.
“I don’t — “
“Oh, you’re back?” he said, and there was a cruel glint in his eye that I had never seen before. I was wet with my own come on my stomach and thighs. His body was inhumanly hot underneath me. “It’s your turn.”
“My turn?” I felt stupid, wrung out. He could not have rendered me more insensate if he had banged my head on the floor once more.
“Show me what you’ve learned, darling,” he said. “You can’t have the teacher do all the work, after all.”
I knew what he was asking me to do, but my arms were still firmly behind my back. I tested the bonds of his magic and found no weakness, no faltering. “I can’t,” I said.
“Not a good start.”
“Let my hands go,” I said.
“No,” he said, and he rubbed his big, hot hands over my thighs. I had to bite at my lips just to diffuse some of the wool in my head.
“Then I can’t do it,” I said, the frustration and humiliation pooling hot in my belly. I didn’t know how to get through to him. My hole felt sore and hot, a throb of emptiness. I hadn’t even realised that I was gently rocking back and forth, seeking stimulation. To my amazement, hot tears pooled in my eyes.
“You don’t want it, Jon?”
“Yes, I fucking want it,” I said. I must have looked pathetic — I felt it.
“Ah, there’s finally some honesty,” he said. “I was wondering.”
“Fuck you,” I said, with a heat that surprised me. “Just — help me.” My nerves felt like they were fraying; I was losing myself.
“Of course,” he said, reaching down without hesitation. “You only had to ask,” he added, as he lined himself up and I finally sank down on his cock, the breadth of it shocking me. I sought my own pleasure, rocking back and forth, my cock struggling valiantly to get hard again, but I was sensitive all over, overstimulated. Everything was too much and not enough.
“I hate you,” I said, without venom, clenching my hands into fists behind my back.
“No, you don’t,” he said, too easy. “Come on, don’t give up now.” He grabbed my hips and began to move his own, jolting me out of the soft rocking I had been doing, my mouth slack and wet.
I could feel — something coming. Something I had no words for. It was as if my vision was dimming, even pleasure washing away. I could feel all the points we were connected, growing warmer and warmer as everything else became cold and distant —
“Sébastien,” I said, hearing my own voice from very far away. I winced; I had said his name. But no retort came, and when I looked down, slowly, he was slack on the bed, his spirit gone. His eyes were rolled back in his head, leaving only the white. Whatever had been in him was gone, his face softened, the perpetual wrinkle between his eyes. But I could not concentrate on my concern for him fully; I was still shifting up and down, still feeling his cock inside me, hot and huge, pressing on my prostate.
“Sébastien,” I hissed, but he did not stir. Ah — I could barely think, concentrating on the wave of magic I could feel building up behind me, as if I had turned away from a cliff but continued to step backwards. What would he think, to see me like this? My hands bound behind my back, tears and spit dripping off my face, eyes wild. I tried to wipe my eyes off on my shoulder, but I couldn’t manage it, and swore softly as I struggled. He was stirring, his fingers shifting on my hips, eyelashes fluttering.
“Fuck,” I said, softly. I could barely think. The only thing I could think to do was — I began to ride him again, aggressively enough that I hoped it looked genuine, his hands still tight on my hips. “Sébastien, don’t stop,” I said, closing my eyes and tipping my head back. “Feels so good — so big, don’t stop — “
“What?” His voice was groggy, disoriented. The flow of magic between us was becoming faster and faster as I chased my own pleasure, my cock hard and making me shiver with sharp-edged, painful pleasure. “Jon?”
“Touch me,” I begged, and it was fractured through with my true need. I sensed hesitation — he wouldn’t do it. “Please,” I said. “I need it.”
He moved his left hand, slowly, unsure, before touching my cock lightly. I opened my eyes just the slightest bit, and watched his face change as I thrust forward into his touch, pushing against his hand. The magic rising in me reached a peak and something inside me shattered; it flew forth from me and spilled into Sébastien, and I felt his magic come to me in a terrible rush at the same time. It was overwhelming — distantly, I could feel my body still working as he cried out and came somewhere deep within me, hot and desperate, and then I was coming too, the rush of it taking over my entire mind as I shuddered, coming on his hand and wrist. It was too much. My mind was white-hot and burning with it.
I had no strength left to hold myself up; I fell forward in a boneless slump. He caught me at the last second, avoiding our heads banging together. Finally, I felt his magic dissolve from my arms, and extended them in front of me. There were red lines criss-crossing my forearms, and my hands shook terribly.
He reached down and slipped free of my ass, his face burning red. I watched him — even though I was so close, lying on his chest — to see what he would do. Would he pretend that he remembered everything? I could feel his come on my thighs.
“The last thing I remember,” he said, and his voice was flat with suppressed terror, “is you starting — ” He cut himself off, his jaw snapping shut with a click.
“Surely not,” I said, casually pressing my face against his neck. “Am I that forgettable?”
He said nothing, but I could sense his trepidation. “What’s this?” he said, gently touching the bite mark on my back. I flinched, cursing myself internally. There was no way to suppress it. I could feel the hot throb of it on my back, now he had reawakened it. “I hurt you again.” There was something choked in his words, not a sob, but something close to it.
“I asked you to do that,” I said, almost flippant. Poor, stupid Sébastien; he wanted to believe it.
“And your arms?” he said, bitter, defeated. I propped my head up on my hand, looking down at him, almost theatrical. “Did you ask me to do that too?”
“Of course,” I said, half-shrugging. “It’s what I like.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said, and I could feel that he wanted to shove me off him, from how his weight was shifting uncomfortably beneath me. “I can’t believe you.”
“You saw it for yourself,” I said, and I watched him look down the length of my body to where the bruises of his fingers were on my hips. “Is it so unbelievable?”
“It felt like we harmonised,” he said. He was looking straight up at the ceiling now. “Did you feel that?”
“What’s that?” I said, and then as his eyes snapped to me, I covered with, “I felt something.”
He was frowning now, but for a moment his trepidation disappeared under his need to impart knowledge. “You should — harmonisation only happens when mages have been together for a long time, worked together for years — ” His brows were drawn together, mouth pressed tight. “It doesn’t happen after such a short time.” There was a growing edge of coldness to his voice.
“Hmm,” I said, laying my head on his chest. He was breathing short, uncomfortable breaths, and after a few minutes, with some murmured words, he got up and fetched a damp cloth. He cleaned himself and then me off so roughly that I was hard again by the end of it, although he pretended not to notice.
Then, moving so awkwardly in the cramped room that we seemed to bump into each other at every turn, we sat across from each other at the table. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do but sit there, him with his hands wrapped around his perpetual cup, me picking at a scar on the tabletop from some accident or other. No matter how I tried to distract him or me, he did not look away. I could not escape the weight of his gaze; he was not afraid of me looking up and seeing him. He was searching me with the piercing gaze of a scholar trying to pick apart something unsolvable. Nothing would deter him. There was nothing more I could do, and for a moment I felt the fear of meeting his gaze.
After what seemed like an eternity, I could see the barest crack within him. He was sitting there, cold, looking directly at me. I could see his thoughts moving; sense the intensity of them. Had I finally pushed too far?
Say it, I thought. Say it. He said nothing. I turned to get my cigarettes from the shelf behind me, and to the back of my neck he said, “There’s always been something wrong with you, hasn’t there?”
I went still. Triumph raised its ugly head within me, my heart beating ten times faster than it normally did. How to play it rushed through my head, no, Sébastien, I feel perfectly fine — is it you that’s not well?
I pressed my hand over my mouth, my shoulders shaking, but I couldn’t hold it in. I could feel the hot weight of his eyes still on the back of my neck. I laughed; I couldn’t help it. Everything about this was ridiculous.
I turned back. He looked colder than I had ever seen him before, staring at me with hard eyes.
“Now you figure it out?” I said. I couldn’t suppress my smile, my mouth wobbling with it. “Oh, Sébastien.”
“Don’t call me that,” he said. I could see his hands shaking. What did he want to say? What was real? Was any of it real? “What have you done to me?”
“I’m sure you’ve been told your whole life that you’re intelligent,” I said, standing — he flinched back into his chair — “but you’re really very stupid.”
He didn’t look affronted by what I had said. He shouldn’t — it was the truth, after all. I hopped up onto the table and lit my cigarette, calling flame to it from the air. He didn’t seem shocked by that either. Had I finally lost my power to flummox him? I hoped not.
“You’re not Jon,” he said.
“Oh, if only it was that simple, Professor,” I said, blowing smoke in his face. He waved it away, irritated. “Go on, ask me what you wish.”
“And will you answer?” Sébastien said through gritted teeth. “I have asked you a thousand questions and you have answered maybe one.”
“Tell me your theories,” I said. “I can see your mind working.”
“Jon, listen to me,” Sébastien said. “I know this isn’t you.”
“All right, then explain it to me,” I said. “Tell me how you figured it out.”
“I haven’t figured anything out,” he said, and he looked tired, for a brief second, before it was burned away with anger. “All I know is — any apprentice of mine would know of harmonisation.”
“Oh?” I said. I put my bare foot high on his thigh to watch him flinch, and curled my toes. His hand hovered in the air between us, unsure if he should push me away or — something else. “Do you harmonise with all your apprentices?”
“No,” he said, pushing my foot away with disgust. “I would never do that. Never.” The strength of his conviction lit an answering fire deep in my gut. I had seen him get like this before, in an argument about another professor’s published article, that had led to him flipping a table — but so rarely.
“But you did.”
“You’re a demon, a spirit,” he said. “Someone offered you something, power, knowledge, and you took it, you stupid fool.”
“If that were true,” I said, crossing my legs, “would you not have sensed a change? Some collegiate mage you are, to not be able to tell the difference between man and spirit.”
He said nothing, his lips thinning to an angry line.
“So all your wards and charms failed too? All of them at once, and the ones on the building, too — “
“That’s enough,” he said, forming a fist and slamming it down on the arm of the chair.
“My apologies, Professor,” I said, pushing my hair back out of my eyes. “I did not mean to shatter your theory so easily.” My heart was going wild, but the triumph I felt was cold and hard, like a knife between my ribs, not the rush of delight I had expected. “Perhaps I should call you apprentice — it’s clear you’re a novice at best.”
“At what, deception?” Sébastien said. “I suppose I must be. Compared to you. I might not remember you, but I thought I sensed that you cared for me in some way. If there was ever some part of you that did — “
I leaned back in my chair, plucking another cigarette from my pocket. “Don’t be so melodramatic,” I said. “Do you want one?”
“No,” he said, and then, perhaps because I had knocked him off balance, “I don’t know how.”
“You don’t know how to smoke?” I said, standing. He blinked up at me as I came around the table. Even in the intermission of our argument, even though I was trying to break him, it wasn’t enough to make him instinctively move away from me. “Don’t you have any vices?”
“No, not really,” he said. I could see that he was fighting to keep his equilibrium. Tongue-tied — I had interrupted his chain of thoughts, and the rhythm of his inquisition. “Jon — “
“I’ll show you,” I said, slinging my leg over him and sitting down on his lap so we were face to face. I pinched the end of the cigarette into a cherry-red flare with a spark of magic. I was being reckless, but I didn’t care. I could feel the warmth of his body, sense the tiredness in him, even as his heart was beating so fast. “You weren’t much of a junior delinquent.”
“No,” he said.
“It wasn’t a question,” I said, putting the cigarette between my lips and drawing deep, then bending down to kiss him, pushing the smoke into his mouth. I didn’t close my eyes, but I saw him shut his painfully tight, the metal of his glasses pushing into my cheek. He choked a little, pulling back from me, his eyes accusing.
“Well? I’d said I’d answer anything,” I said. “Aren’t you going to take advantage of the opportunity?”
“Who are you?” he said with sudden fervour, gripping at the front of my shirt, my arms. His hands were hot and huge; I fought not to surrender to his touch. “Some kind of thief — Calis sent you to learn my theories, is it? Steal my research?”
“I would never do anything Calis told me to do,” I said.
“Have you been poisoning me for him?”
I scoffed. “I would never hurt you.” The for somebody else remained unspoken, but from the way he shifted back and forth uncomfortably, pressing a hand against his ribs, I knew he was thinking about it. “What’s the last thing you remember?” I said.
“I’m asking the questions,” he said, leaning forward. Trying to regain his power as the interrogator — the one with the questions and the answers. “You stole my ring.”
I shrugged, reaching up to tug on the chain until it emerged from my shirt. “You would have given it to me eventually anyway.”
“What makes you so sure?,” he said. I could see him fighting the question. I could taste my own blood from scraping my teeth over my lip. “Do you think I’m weak?”
“Just think of it as another betrothal,” I said, tugging at the ring around my neck.
“How dare you,” he said, his cheeks going red with fury. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“But I do,” I said. “Think about it — how can that be? Where’s your theory, Professor? Perhaps you’re right. Maybe I’m making it all up. But in that case, where were you born?”
“I was born — here,” he said, pushing his glasses up and rubbing at his eyes. “There isn’t anywhere else. Your questions never make any sense.” He choked on his own words, dragging in a frenzied breath.
“How can that be true?” I said. “Where’s the weir? Where are the peach trees?” I pushed forward, my arms over his shoulders, lover-close.
“I don’t know,” he said, and he sounded lost. “How can that be? I remember the water — I’ve tried to forget it, but I was born in the city, I grew up here.” I had waited so long to see him crack, but now that it was happening I felt chilled, removed from myself. Watching him wounded, flailing for answers, was giving me no satisfaction at all.
His eyes met mine, and for a moment I thought they were clouded with darkness, but it was restrained fury. “What have you done to me?”
I moved closer. I wanted him to see nothing but me, think of nothing but me. He wanted to shove me off, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to. I felt like the edge of a page caught alight, curling and turning black.
“Well, they called you into the family home,” I said, “and they said, Sébastien, son of ours, we have arranged an advantageous marriage for you with a family ring, which quite upset you, of course — “
“Don’t,” he said, warning in his tone.
” — because you wanted to go to the capital and study your magic and bed all the young men that it had to offer — “
“You’re making it something it wasn’t,” he said, fists clenched in fury. I raised an eyebrow and shrugged, waving the cigarette in the air.
“Who’s to say?” I said. “But they insisted, so you went out to the peach trees and the weir, and you paced back and forth, and you threw the ring in the water, as far as you could manage, and then you took yourself to the shore, and worked up your courage — “
“Shut up,” he said, suddenly, and shoved me off him. I landed back on the table with a crash, and he pinned me there, his arm across my neck. “Shut up, that’s impossible.”
“How could I know that?” I said, and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing, high, strange peals of it twisting my words. “Go on, ask me.”
“What are you?” he said. “What thing came back with you from the dark?”
“What’s my name?”
“Jon,” he said, his teeth gritted together, and it was like a verbal slap. I felt outside of my own body. I wrapped my arms around him, drawing him close. He hated that, but I knew he could not resist it.
I felt his power growing within him in a great killing wave, to burn out whatever was within me. That was all he could do; it was that or think about what I was trying to tell him. I wanted him to reach between my ribs and find the answer within the flesh of my heart. Pulling it free would kill me, but at least he would know. “Tell me what you remember.”
“I was alone,” he said, and he clutched me tighter without thinking, one hand on my arm, the other on my waist, making me shiver. He was just grasping on to any anchor, I thought. If he noticed he had done it, he would flinch away. “I couldn’t bear it. I could not see a way through. I went down to the weir, and I I couldn’t do it. I stood in the water and I couldn’t do it, so I — “
He was blinking rapidly, eyes bright with tears, looking over my shoulder and then up and into my eyes. “I could not do it, so I asked you for help.”
“I held your head under the water,” I said, touching his hair, the side of his face. “That was the first time you forgot me.”
“That’s impossible,” he said, the words falling like stones from his shocked lips.
“Of course it fucking is,” I said. “But all of this is impossible. What’s the last thing you remember?” He closed his eyes and took a shuddering breath. The shock of the familiar — I had seen him do that a hundred times when an experiment failed or he had missed an obvious mistake in his own work, trying to retain his equilibrium.
“Breaking glass,” he said, after a moment. I knew what he was thinking of; I could see it myself in my mind’s eye. Dark sky, the seam of light on the horizon dimming, Sébastien attending to his notes by the light of a single candle — breaking glass.
“You’re not my apprentice,” he said, eyes closed. The air thrummed between our faces, still so close; I could feel, faintly, the rush of harmonisation between us. “I’ve never had an apprentice.”
A hot flare of anger went through me, suddenly enough that it disarmed me. No, I wasn’t angry. This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? I wanted him to cast me aside. Let me go. I could not beg for that and cling to him at the same time. I could not let go, either, even if I wanted to; I could not escape from his weight pinning me down to the table. I laughed, but it was rueful. “Pity you had to end up with this one, then,” I said. “I apologise for being so inconvenient. I wanted things from you. I got in the way of your studies — ” And I remembered, briefly, suddenly and too strong, getting drunk with him after finishing a paper, both of us with our robes on backwards, while he stood in front of the chalkboard and I shouted out increasingly unhinged theories for Montrey’s unprovable theorem —
“You want me to say you’re my lover,” he said, and the words were bitter and angry. “Is that what this is about?”
I said nothing. I refused to lay myself so bare.
“Lover,” he said, gripping at my waist. I took in a shuddering breath. I could not meet his eyes and see myself reflected in them. “Apprentice. Friend.” He was cutting through my skin with every word. “But there’s more. I know you. From the first moment I remember — childhood friends. My tutor, my classmate. I have always known you.”
“Please stop,” I said. “Just let me go.”
“When did we become — like this?” he said. “I can’t remember.” And then, the question I dreaded most of all: “How old was I? How old are you?”
“You don’t want me to answer that,” I said.
“Did I die at the weir?” he said, more to himself than to me. “Is this the dream of what I wanted?” His grip on my waist was verging on painful now. I wanted him to shove me aside, to pull me closer. Both at once. There was a light in the ceiling that I had never seen before, a soft pinprick in the darkness like the most distant star.
“When I went into the darkness,” he said, “I returned to my memories, searching for something that should not be there. I felt a presence, an intrusion. I thought it was a fragment of an entity from another world, calling to me. Reaching out to share knowledge, but — ” He trailed off. “When I think of you, my mind tells me you’re my apprentice, trying to help me prove a theory, but when I think of the theory, I feel nothing at all; I know only what you tell me. No notes, no journals, nothing.”
I gripped at his shoulders, bowing my head. How long had I waited for this moment? And now that it was here, I could do nothing to stop it. I could do nothing but hold on to him and hope something would avert it. My time had always been limited. Over the years he had become harder and harder to convince, moving from the sun-drenched distant past to now, where things were solid around the edges. “Please don’t,” I said.
“You made it up,” he said, with growing horror. “I can see and not see you at the same time. You’re not here. The presence I felt in my memories was you.”
I could feel his heart beating so quickly that I would have feared for his life, if there was any need to.
“I was sure you’d see it wouldn’t make sense,” I said at last. “But you didn’t. I think you didn’t want to.”
His face twisted; I felt the fight go out of him. A warm wind was sweeping over me, stirring the edge of the curtain. He looked up, and I followed his gaze. There was nothing outside. Not darkness — just nothing. No light. No sense of life. It felt like closing one eye and facing not darkness, but simply a lack of sight.
“You were so alone,” I said. He did not want to hear it, even now; I did not blame him. I could not even meet his eyes, now that he knew what I was — nothing to him at all.
“No,” he said, some last-ditch attempt to grip onto the world we had made together, against the encroaching void. “You’re my apprentice,” he said. “We’re trying to prove a theory — ” He spoke the words, but there was no weight of belief behind them. He collapsed onto me, hot and heavy. “Don’t leave me here,” he said. “I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be,” I said. Here, right here, this room, was the sum total of human existence, and its walls were collapsing. I could feel his thoughts leeching softly into mine — I’ve been here, always only here, in this room, with Jon. I don’t want to be alone, I don’t want to — I stroked his hair, touched his back, felt his hot tears leak onto my shoulder. “I should have realised it sooner. You can’t dig your way out of a well. Please just let me go.”
“I should have known,” he said. He looped his arms around my waist, pulling me against him. The world around us was shattering; it was made by him, and despite his protests, he was tearing it down. Everything around us was dissolving, unspun into light. “I can’t remember your name because I never knew it.”
I reentered myself like emerging from a long, dark tunnel into my own consciousness. Sébastien’s room was at the end of it.
A wall of magic had encircled him, thrown from my own hand, and the knife was shattering against it. I cried out, metal fragments flying back at my face, my hand cut and bleeding, my fingertips scorched. Nomad’s Cage — I saw the shock on his face. A second ago — less — I had not known what a Nomad’s Cage was. A second ago, he would not have sensed any magic from me at all.
Remembering what had happened, in that long frozen instant, was like remembering something from aeons ago. I had come through the window, glass shattering around me like terrible stars, the knife raised in a killing blow, know the name of your death, Jon Hama — and then what? Light, pain.
There was no pain now on my return, just a rush of sensation, like waking up from a long, cold dream. There was blood on my arms. I could feel it on my face, too. But worse than that, I could taste it all down the back of my throat; it was dripping from my nose. All strength fled from me, and I fell forward onto the floor, only my reflexes preventing me from banging my head — but I had hit my head, hadn’t I? I choked and spat blood onto the stone.
Worse than that, a cold wave of pain was finally washing over me. I could feel it crawling up my legs, thighs, claiming my body. My veins were on fire in its wake. Something was forcing its way into me, crowding through my blood, making room inside my muscles. I cried out and began to shake; my body no longer belonged to me. I could see the black lines of the rune Sébastien had drawn on my side, where my shirt had ridden up. That was not possible. That had not been real.
I was so tired. My body felt a thousand years old. I was reminded stupidly of a fairy tale where, upon returning from the land of the fae, a man simply crumbled into dust. I would welcome that.
I could hear someone calling my name. It was an effort to roll over, my body limp and weak. How would he explain this? A dead man in his room —
“Jon, I need you to let me out,” he said, and his voice was frantic. I heard the thump of him throwing himself against the cage. I could only see out of one eye; the other was full of blood, and I could barely see him behind the wall of magic. He was a shadow behind stained glass. “I can help you — please let me out.”
“Don’t,” I said, though it was choked with blood. I did not know what word I was supposed to say next. Just, don’t, Sébastien. Leave me here to die.
“It’s the magic,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault. I was trying to stop you, and I think it reacted to something latent in you. You have to let me help you!” He was banging on the cage; I could feel the shock of it as if he were banging on my mind itself. It didn’t matter. The cage would remain until I died.
“No magic,” I said, and I rolled onto my front, spitting out more blood in a frantic, reflexive attempt to breathe. I’d been hurt worse. No, I hadn’t. I’d made it through worse on my own. No, I hadn’t.
I began to drag myself towards the broken window, reaching the edge of the broken glass in the rug — the room was so much bigger than I had remembered, the colours brighter. The memory of it had not been accurate at all. There was an armchair by the fire, a book cracked open and hanging on its arm. Little things I had never seen before. I had no right to look at them now.
“You do have magic now,” he said, with fierce passion. “You have mine.” How could I have thought the shade of him was the real man? Even his voice was rich and full of warmth. Even the curl of his hair, the little I could see behind the trap, was too much to look at. I tried anyway. My head was crowded with too many thoughts, with twice the memories for the years my body had lived. I could barely think. “I don’t want you to die here,” he said, and his voice was choked with tears. “Let me help you.”
I could taste nothing but my own blood. “What’s my — “
“Jon Hamazaki,” he said, and then with a terrible effort that I felt in my very bones, he shattered the cage, an overwhelming wave of power that rattled the walls themselves, vials and jars falling onto the ground, an roar of sheer force that left my ears ringing. I saw him above me, felt his warm hands on my face as his magic began to harmonise with mine — they were the same, the same magic, and it quelled the terrible storm within me. I tried to get away, pulling myself across the stones, dodging his kind touch. I did not deserve it.
“Did you think you were alone the whole time?”
“It wasn’t real,” I said, and I could barely look him in the eye. “None of it was real.”
“I remember it,” he said. “If I remember it, doesn’t that count for something?” He pushed the hair back from my forehead, gripped at my hands and filled me with his magic until I began to stop shaking. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know how this happened.”
My throat was clearing. I did not have the courage to look him in the eye. I had tried to kill him not once, but over the years, I had tried to kill him so many times —
“Let me die,” I said, and it was clear and wretched. “Just let me — “
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, pulling my head onto his lap and brushing the tears from the corners of my eyes. I was getting blood on his clothes. “An animal in a trap would chew its own limb off to get free. In this case, it just happened to be mine.” I swallowed. He could not know me with such precision without remembering everything I had said and done. I was not a person like he was. I had never existed before the moment he had trapped me in his memories.
But I wanted to believe him. It couldn’t be true, but I wanted it. My heart throbbed. I clutched at my chest. The magic was settling throughout my body, a vast and warm thing like a favoured blanket. “No,” I said, but my voice was small.
“I wish you’d asked me to help you,” he said, quietly. “We could have escaped together.” I could feel part of him looking around for some pen and paper, to jot this all down, and I loved him all the more for that. “What did you see? What happened?”
“I was in your — “
“In my memories,” he said, with quiet realisation. I felt as if I was teetering on the edge of some vast precipice, and it was only Sébastien’s fingers on my hands that kept me on the earth. “It’s strange, now,” he said. “All those years I was alone — I can remember having someone else there, now. I remember you.”
“Sébastien Gold,” I said, my voice creaky and shaken. I wasn’t the same person I had been ten minutes ago. That man had been killed by my own hand.
“Jon Hamazaki,” he said, and he bent his head and kissed me, softly, sweetly, and stroked my cheek until I stopped weeping, and held my hand until I stopped shaking. Jon Hamazaki, he whispered against my lips, and he wouldn’t stop saying it, wouldn’t let me go. This was real — this was true. He knew who I was. He knew my name.