written and illustrated by Iron Eater
Hugh had known for a very long time that the only thing he was capable of doing well was hurting people.
Some gentlemen among his peers had only found this out when they started along the staggering, fawn-legged road that led from a boy’s years to manhood, but not Hugh. Hugh had learned swift and early. He had fallen in with patrons who were understanding of his shortcomings and found good outlets for them, ones that didn’t cause trouble with the constabulary, which meant that on days like today when he sat on the opposite side of Mr. Clifford-Smythe’s terrible desk it was with unbound hands and unsullied clothes. Not everyone could say that.
Mr. Clifford-Smythe himself regarded Hugh with dispassion. This was not unusual, as Mr. Clifford-Smythe was what you would get if you exhumed a corpse and loaned it the face of a young lord, with a matching temperament. He was not without emotion, but as those he tended to exhibit erred on the side of frustration, anger, or disgust, those who worked for him strove to never see more than his statue-serene resting state. It was safer. More predictable.
“What seems to be the issue today, Mr. Wainwright?” he asked, tapping one long nail against the wood with the steady precision of a clock.
Hugh had trouble meeting Mr. Clifford-Smythe’s eyes where they hid behind their tidy little spectacles. He lifted a hand so it was easier to see. “They just keep growing back, sir,” said Hugh.
They, in this situation, meant the little clawed digits that branched off of his hand and forearm like stray roots on a carrot. Some of them nudged against the interior sleeve of his frock coat with the eagerness of puppies, distending it in curious ways, which had prompted Hugh to conceal it beneath a wrapped blanket and a handful of books on his trip out from the lodgings he currently kept. They were not his books, and he had no plans to reclaim them. Their previous owner was in no state to complain.
He concentrated enough to ease the claws back into stillness. Doing this too much gave him a headache; he felt it unwise to say as much to Mr. Clifford-Smythe until prompted. Lack of self-control was looked upon poorly in his line of work.
“Hm, yes,” said Mr. Clifford-Smythe, who did not rise from his desk. “It seems we will be sending you out into the evening sooner than previously expected.”
Mr. Clifford-Smythe steeped his fingers, which was worse than when he’d simply been tapping them. “I have seen this sort of symptom before,” he said. “You could say it is a form of immunodeficiency reaction particular to those of your nature. When a man is anemic, he becomes pale and fainting until this weakness of the blood is addressed with deed and diet. When a man is dehydrated, he is dizzy and unwell until his thirst is slaked over an extended period of time. When a monster is insufficiently monstrous, he consumes himself inefficiently, and like the hemophiliac, he cannot scab over his wounds properly; these issues must be addressed at their source. This was the same hand you injured three assignments prior, is it not, Mr. Wainwright?”
Hugh racked his brains. Too many years in his field of work meant that incidents tended to smear together like lumps of jam on bread. His cravat felt tighter than he knew he’d tied it.
“A rhetorical question,” said Mr. Clifford-Smythe. He gestured towards a ledger sat on the edge of the desk, covering one of the not-quite-cleaned-away stains that mottled the wood. “I reviewed your records earlier this week, so the date is still fresh in my mind. You returned from the night city with need of urgent medical care, which you received in full before you were permitted to return to your warren, with subsequent follow-up sessions after assignments to evaluate its progress. It would seem that the metaphorical scab has begun to flake.”
“What shall I do to fix it, sir?” asked Hugh. None of the answers he could imagine were ones he liked very much. His focus faltered and he felt the digits wiggle again, their claws rustling against his clothes.
Mr. Clifford-Smythe leaned forward far enough that the firelight failed to catch his spectacle lenses. People who were sufficiently perceptive—whose number most certainly included Hugh—might have noticed how his eyes sometimes seemed to teem with smaller ones, a veritable nest of frog’s eggs all shoved into a single sunken socket. It took everything Hugh had not to reel back. He had never been comfortable among his own kind.
“You would be well-advised to not view this as something that can be fixed, Mr. Wainwright,” he said, his voice the uncaring evenness of an epitaph. “But there is treatment of a sort available. Come eventide tomorrow you will return to the night city to work, residing in lodging we provide for you, and you will remain there until you are sent for again. A handler has been arranged.”
Hugh’s skin prickled with goosebumps. They felt he needed a handler? They’d already arranged for one? He’d thought he’d hidden himself well up until now. “Should I get my affairs in order before then, sir?”
“It might be wise.” Mr. Clifford-Smythe leaned back in his seat once again. “A flush to the system such as this may take quite a while. We never take for granted that a man will return from where we send him in the same condition in which he left.”
When Hugh had joined the society, as much as one in his position could be said to join anything, he had known he was being accepted as a nail in a horseshoe, a vital member with vital work whose absence or injury could throw countless lives into jeopardy, yet still an ultimately expendable asset should he show the slightest sign of weakness. It was a special sort of precarious; even with all the benefits he reaped from his tireless service, Hugh never had the impression that his trade was a secure one. Mr. Clifford-Smythe made for Hell’s own farrier.
“Will there be trouble with my quarters, sir? I was given them with the understanding I would be responsible for keeping them in good condition. I will be unable to clean while assigned elsewhere.”
“That is not your concern,” said Mr. Clifford-Smythe. “I suggest you pack thoughtfully.”
Hugh bowed his head meekly. “Of course, sir.”
“Is there any other business that needs my attention?”
“Then when you next hear from me it will be by post in the night city. I suggest you become friendly with your courier, Mr. Wainwright.”
“Of course, sir.”
“You are dismissed.”
The entire trip back home, Hugh found himself wondering if that would be the last time Mr. Clifford-Smythe would dismiss him so.
“Can I have your shelves?” asked Jonathan, still damp with sweat and panting for breath. Hugh did not particularly like Jonathan, but they were in the same line of work and found each other suitable enough for their respective needs, so they frequently entertained one another’s company. Jonathan lived in a different part of the same manor that housed Hugh, giving them the advantage of proximity whenever the mood struck. The news of Hugh’s assignment had inspired the mood to strike hard and fast. It wasn’t like the other lodgers would be willing to see to Jonathan’s needs in the interim; save for a smattering of vestigial camaraderie, they loathed his presence, and would find excuses to avoid his company with the manic fervor of cockroaches avoiding the light.
Hugh wiped his mouth on his handkerchief. “No,” he said. “I’ll need them when I get back.” He tried to ignore the rudeness of the question. Jonathan had terrible manners; Hugh had dallied with porters and fishermen with better presence of mind, even if those affairs had ended badly.
“You know you’re not coming back,” said Jonathan. Hugh scowled. Their truth didn’t make those words go down any easier.
“The maester told me my quarters would be seen to,” Hugh said as he sat himself down on the pile of rumpled quilts tossed across his too-small bed. He felt he was getting better at reading between the lines when speaking to Mr. Clifford-Smythe.
Jonathan smirked. “Told you or implied?”
It felt like a good time to lie. “Told. I just have to clean everything up before I go so they can send someone in while I’m gone.”
“I still want your shelves when you leave.”
“There’s an entire study that nobody’s been assigned to, use some of those.”
“Those got stained when we were handling the previous infestation. I want nice shelves. Ones that haven’t had an animal bleeding and slobbering all over them, to be clear.”
Hugh had been present for the infestation, as well, and felt Jonathan was overreacting. He made a pointed gesture of scratching the side of his face with one of his temporary extra fingers. “I don’t know why you’d want mine, then,” he said. “You know where they’ve been.”
“Doesn’t mean they aren’t nicer than the firewood in the study,” grumbled Jonathan. Hugh felt a foul little thrill at the way his hand clearly upset his caller, though not so much they hadn’t thought to go at each other a bit once Hugh proved he didn’t have any extra teeth or tongues hiding on the other side of his cheeks. “I still say you aren’t cutting those off right. You should let me do it.”
“I’m not letting you do it, Petticote.”
He harrumphed. “Then enjoy spending forever in the night city until you change your mind,” he said. He swiveled his legs off the bed and stood up, the cast bronze of his right foot clunking against the small rug Hugh kept in his room.
Jonathan, in spite of his age, was a man who favored the older practices of the society, which meant foul-smelling incense and mortification of the flesh and the adoration of certain specific alloys he insisted were alchemically divine; it was one of the many reasons the others in the house hated being around him. He was extremely loud about it in the manner of any young man emboldened by tradition. The longer Hugh was around him, the more he suspected he tolerated Jonathan’s presence purely because Jonathan tolerated his own. It was easy to encourage people to tolerate you when your more socially acceptable urges had you down on your knees with your lips folded over your teeth.
They said their farewells, Jonathan all the while speaking of what things he wanted to scavenge from Hugh’s room upon Hugh’s inevitable death, and then Hugh was left alone with unpacked luggage and a storm lantern for company.
While he had been to the other side of town plenty of times, Hugh had yet to stay there so long that he was expected to bring a change of clothes. He’d slept there before, usually in the odd unlocked attic or blocked-off alley, so hearing that this time he was to have an actual base of operations was new. Hugh wondered if it would be a nice one. Then again, anywhere he didn’t have to sleep with one eye open would feel nice to him.
He drifted through the motions of packing away his necessities and let his mind wander. He’d heard of the valets the society employed; whether said valets were actually people he couldn’t say. What sort of man did you need to keep a beast in line? To whom would they answer? In theory a handler was meant to provide medical and spiritual assistance to one in need, the attending seraphim of the society’s upper echelons dispensed to their lessers as deemed fit. He had yet to meet anyone who had been aided by one other than Old Timothy, and the less spoken of Old Timothy the better. He hoped whoever they sent to him had advice other than cutting off his offending hand with a hacksaw. Hugh knew from experience that that was only a temporary solution.
Packing at least meant he had an excuse not to attend supper with the others. Hugh didn’t dislike them. The problem was that he wasn’t sure if he liked them all that much, either. They had all worked together at one point or another, and the lot of them had been responsible for acquiring the house in the first place, and none of them seemed the sort to wish ill on the rest of their lot (with the possible exception of Jonathan). Hugh knew their names but did not use them much. Colleagues, he might call them. Peers, certainly. People like Hugh did not have friends.
Even if he loved them all as brothers he likely would have skipped supper if given the chance. Suppers brought out the worst in them, and their worst meant a litany of bravado and tales woven about what work they’d done recently. Hugh didn’t like thinking about assignments during his personal hours. He did what was necessary, then went home. That others might dwell on a job afterwards struck him as ghoulish.
Someone knocked at the door. When Hugh peered into the hallway no one was there, but the visitor had left behind a tray loaded with a little plate of steamed vegetables, two slices of roast something, a bowl of vague and starchy whiteness, and a glass of merlot. He took the tray into his room and sat at his desk to eat. He was going to miss the food here.
The sound of his knife scraping across the plate was the only sound save for the distant chatter of the other lodgers. He tried to treasure the silence. The night city was busier and stranger, a place where the air was never all the way still, and quiet places there meant you frequently had stepped into the domain of something nasty. The noise made it hard to bed down there. If Hugh didn’t suspect it would be more dangerous for him in the long run he would have considered packing sleeping draughts in with his things.
Near the tail end of his meal Hugh realized that his extra digits were attempting to help hold his silverware. He flexed them. They moved comfortably, their movements as natural as though he had been born with them. If they had the courtesy to only make themselves known when he desired their presence he might have found them charming. The human body was a source of countless wonders, even one as blasphemous as his.
Once finished with his meal he wiped his mouth on his napkin, rinsed the dishes in the sink they’d installed for him, and placed everything back on the tray on the floorboards just outside the door to his room. He did not expect the housekeepers to miss him when he was gone. Even still, he did not want to cause anyone any more trouble than he already had, so he was always particular about keeping tidy. It made his personal quarters that much more of a safe harbor for him. His colleagues, bless them, seemed to revel in being foul.
Now fed, he rummaged for the tools of his trade in the various places he’d stored them. The way Mr. Clifford-Smythe had spoken, Hugh had the feeling he would be on call for who knew how many tasks, and of who knew what variety, for who knew how long. This was all assuming it would be the usual sort of society work; once more Hugh’s thoughts turned to the handler, and he had no reason not to assume they would have tasks for him of their own. Perhaps he would need to exercise in certain ways, or only eat certain foods. He vainly hoped anything else they might have him do would be similarly benign.
A book on the art of perception caught Hugh’s eye, which he supposed was an appropriate thing for it to do. He leafed through it. He’d read it cover to cover several times before, each time coming away enlightened; the nature of learning to perceive was that you could potentially learn something new by returning to familiar ground. This time his interest was piqued by a passage next to an illustration of a figure with a many-taloned hand that was an aesthetically perfect version of Hugh’s own. He read on.
Eyes within and eyes without (said the book) are methods by which we seek the truth, but one must be aware of their unwelcome presence as a symptom outside of mere praxis. The learned man on the brink of enlightenment may manifest physical oddities as his mind strains to make sense of the things which lie beyond his senses, creating eyes without. The man who has embraced falsehood in the name of truth, and clings to it thusly, instead finds a more subtle change to his person which may not always be noticed by his brethren. In this case it is regarded as a form of manifested eyes within. While the former is a physical matter, the latter is a plague of the mind and spirit, and is no less concerning than a transfigured corpus….
It went on in this manner for several pages, but that first passage stayed with Hugh. A man of reason had no time for superstition and spiritualism. A monster of reason, on the other hand, kept his mind open. He placed the book reverently atop his ritual bag with the rest of his things and finished his packing.
Hugh closed his trunk with a thunk and pushed it in front of the door. He locked both. Nobody would need to see him until after he slept, and he preferred not to risk the whimsical nature of one of the other lodgers with such an important day coming up. Judging by the distant laughter from the dining room they were whipping themselves into quite a bit of whimsy.
He stripped down to nothing but his society emblem and stretched to his true height. The extra claws moved with him. The others didn’t sleep in the nude, but Hugh insisted, claiming it was better for the joints when a man spent a little time each day not constantly sewn up inside a too-tight skin, and he refused to budge on the issue; not even Jonathan would tolerate this quirk of his, unfortunately, and so Hugh slept alone. While all too aware it was an outer reflection of an inner vile nature, Hugh liked to stretch. In the safety of a private room with a lock on the door he felt far more at ease when he wasn’t folded up awkwardly.
Duly unfettered, Hugh scrubbed himself clean in the washtub he kept behind a screen in one corner of the room. He neatly folded each piece of skin he shed and placed it in the basket the housekeepers had given him for that purpose. His peers thought it was wasteful to use tooth powder while he had an excess of mouth; while Hugh agreed on some level, the nature of his work encouraged him to be thorough, and so he carefully cleaned all along his muzzle with the little pick and brush he’d acquired for that purpose, taking pains to not leave any scraps behind. A proper gentleman did not rely entirely on comfits to keep his breath agreeable.
Something shattered upstairs, paired with barks of laughter. Hugh ignored both.
He went down the list he’d written for himself as a way to make sense of how quickly he was expected to be up and out. All his clothes, even the few left unpacked, were clean, the laundry having been done the previous day to his great fortune and relief. He had managed a final tryst with Jonathan, as he suspected there would be few opportunities to engage in such during his treatment. The books and curios in their shelves were all neatly arranged, the floor swept, the furnishings dusted. He had told the rest of the fellows in the house where he was going. The luggage was ready for the carriage. Once he blew out the lamp and made his bed in the morning there was nothing else left for him to do.
With his affairs in as much order as they were going to be, Hugh curled up beneath the quilts and drifted off to uneasy sleep.
Hugh kept his cloak and hat turned against the rain as he shivered on the doorstep of the address the man from the society had told him. The storm had washed away the sweat foaming on the carriage-horses’ hides as he had stepped out into the wet, but even a junior member of the society knew how to see the pall of fear hanging over something as basic as an animal. He had heard once of a horse that had died of fright simply from crossing into this part of town. He wondered how often that happened.
The greening bronze knockers guarding the doors leading inside were shaped like ram-horned birds of prey with rings clenched in their sneering beaks. Like many things in the night city, they were overly ornate, to the extent that they might have seemed out of place on such a simple abode if the whole of that part of town wasn’t built to similarly baroque standards. The lamps flanking the doorway guttered. Hugh glanced around warily, then took one of the rings in hand and knocked again. This was where he had been told to wait, and so here he would be. To entertain the thought that he might have been left abandoned in the rain in the depths of the city was unacceptable. The society looked after its own.
He had just begun to consider knocking again when the door’s latch clicked open without the guidance of a human hand. Hugh was familiar with such things; there was a sort of weight and pulley system on the other side, a novelty favored by those who accepted visitors but preferred not to leave the comfort of a study or workshop to actually receive said. No matter how dark it looked indoors it had to be better than slowly drowning in what was sure to be a raging thunderstorm soon. Hugh needed no more prompting to drag his things inside and shut the doors behind him.
Inside was the sort of receiving room he’d been in countless times before. He wiped his half-sodden boots on the scraping mat next to the door and shook some of the water from his cloak. A mechanism built all around the archway ground its elements together, and on cue the doors locked behind him, paired with the boom of a deadbolt. Hugh approved of sleeping in this place already.
“Hello?” he called into the darkness. “It’s Hugh Wainwright, from the society. I have papers from the maester identifying me if you need proof.”
Another mechanism rumbled in the wall and an interior door slid open, revealing a room with lit fireplace that glowed like the sun in the darkness of the house. Hugh was drawn to it with the single-mindedness of a moth. He left his trunk where it lay and dripped his way into what he assumed was the parlor.
Hugh’s assumption was correct. Aside from the fireplace there were a few lush-looking chairs he dared not sit on until he was drier, paintings on the walls he couldn’t quite make out, and assorted curios that were no doubt fascinating in better light. The carpet underfoot was one of the intricate foreign kind with patterns that looped like lichen in and out of themselves before giving way to a fringe of tassels. Curtains hung heavily across barred windows. The furnishings were exactly the sort he expected to see in a well-heeled night city home.
What he did not expect to see was a man—a normal man, not one of the skin-shifted monsters he and his peers denied they were—waiting for him there next to the fire, hands clasped at the small of his back.
“Good evening, Mr. Wainwright,” said the mystery man. “My name is Mr. Ward. I’ve been tasked to assist you. May I take your luggage up to your room?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Hugh. His eyes darted over Mr. Ward’s smart black suit and neatly-groomed hair, worn fashionably long. He couldn’t spy anything outright suspicious; his insightful nature failed to find anything lingering strangely upon Mr. Ward’s person. He only noted the usual number of eyes. This was probably someone safe. “When last we spoke the maester said I would be assigned a handler. Would that be you, or is the duty someone else’s?”
“I am the full package, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, and this got a chuckle out of Hugh, the first he’d had in days. Mr. Ward nodded to him. “Please take some time by the fire, Mr. Wainwright. Once you are more comfortable I will fetch you something to eat.”
“Do you need my papers?”
“I will have plenty of time to review them later. First we must care for your physical well-being.”
Hugh had been born to a life of comfortable means, ones comfortable enough that when his nature had become apparent it prompted hushed conversations and quiet relocations instead of treachery in the dark, and his time at the old house had been one made convenient by servants, yet he was at something of a loss how to handle being waited on personally. He held still while Mr. Ward peeled away his outer garb and spirited them away to some other nook or cranny. He held still while Mr. Ward carefully wrung the excess water from his hair. He held still for quite a bit, only moving when coaxed closer to the fire before Mr. Ward disappeared back into the foyer to deal with his luggage.
Hugh watched the fire crackle. He held his many-fingered hand up to the light and marveled at how strange a silhouette it made, sometimes nothing like a hand at all when viewed from certain angles. The warmth of the fire and the rich blackness of the rest of the parlor lulled him into a sort of trance. It was only broken when Mr. Ward stepped directly into Hugh’s side vision, causing him to yelp in surprise.
“I said, I have put your things away, Mr. Wainwright,” Mr. Ward repeated, “and I would be pleased to tell you more of your treatment once you have had a chance to recuperate from your trip. If you do not mind dining out here, I will bring a tray for you.”
“Thank you, you’re very kind,” said Hugh.
Mr. Ward waved off the compliment. “I am a professional, Mr. Wainwright. I would expect nothing less from myself were I in your place.”
Thunder roared outside in time with the rising wind. Hugh, now pleasantly desiccated, still turtled into his cravat reflexively, as though he was half convinced he had left part of himself outside in the storm. Mr. Ward gestured wordlessly towards one of the wingback chairs that huddled by the fireplace. Hugh seated himself and nodded to Mr. Ward, who disappeared again. Mr. Ward seemed to have a knack for doing so.
When Hugh thought of someone bringing him a tray, his mind presented him with the image of something much like the help used at the old house: honest food on an honest plate with an honest drink to pair it with. What Mr. Ward returned with was a little wheeled cart, upon which was a tureen of steaming soup, a smaller bowl with paired napkin and spoon, two pieces of buttered bread, an empty cup on a saucer, and a samovar. On most days Hugh was generally not much of a tea drinker. The weather promised to make him challenge that preference.
“No wine?” he asked. He hoped he didn’t sound like a surly child.
“We will be receiving some with the next acquisition of supplies,” said Mr. Ward. “For now, however, I advise that you keep your wits unmulled. At any rate, Mr. Wainwright, you will be best served by steeling yourself against catching cold.”
Hugh placed the napkin in his lap and waited while Mr. Ward filled his bowl and teacup with a creamy leek soup and some sort of souchong, respectively. The tea warmed his belly in a way he’d previously assumed only came with brandy. He grimaced against the taste and drained his cup before turning to the soup. Thinking of it as medicine helped.
The soup was much better. As much as Hugh disliked tea he could really get behind a good soup or stew most any day of the year, and this one was quite good. He polished it off with the speed of a starving dog. Mr. Ward refilled his bowl without commenting on Hugh’s manners; Hugh, now self-conscious, sampled the second serving with better composure. Mr. Ward spoke to him as he ate.
“From what I have been told, you only eat minimal meat for a man of your temperament, Mr. Wainwright. I took this into consideration when preparing your meal for this evening. I hope it is to your liking.”
Hugh nodded. He didn’t not eat meat, but save for the rarest of occasions or the usual necessities of the profession he never thought about it much. He had once overheard one of the housekeepers saying it was a small gift how easygoing he was about his portions.
Mr. Ward continued on. “At the behest of the society we shall be keeping track of your meals. You will find a personal ledger in your quarters, which I request you note down what you have each day. My duties include providing both advice and dishes that I believe would align best with your recovery. You are free to act as you please, including ignoring these entirely, so long as you keep record of your actions.”
It was a reasonable request, especially for an organization so in love with notes and numbers. Hugh daubed at some dregs of soup with a bread crust and let Mr. Ward speak.
“It is my understanding that you will continue your work for our mutual employers during your stay here. I will see to it that this house remains a secure base of operations. Tomorrow you will be shown the ways in which you can enter the building from the outside, as for obvious reasons it is usually kept closed up against roving city-folk. I was told you are particularly fond of rooftops. We will begin there after your breakfast.”
Another bowl of leek soup gradually disappeared as Hugh listened. Mr. Ward spoke with similar flourishes as Mr. Clifford-Smythe, and with a similar air of professional impassivity, and in spite of both these things there was still a subtle warmth to his manner that kept the orientation from feeling clinical. Hugh suspected it might have been the effect of a warm fire and an increasingly full stomach. One could forgive a lot in a man so long as they were comfortable at the time.
“A parcel drop has been arranged in your name. Any letters which arrive for you while you are out will be left in the basket by your door, and in the event you have yet to open them come the new day I will gather them up so you my review them with your first meal. Again, Mr. Wainwright, you are free to act in accordance with your own wishes; my duties are simply to ensure that your tasks are not left forgotten in light of an unfamiliar environment. Any mail you do not wish me to handle for you may be placed directly in the dumbwaiter connected to the parcel drop for delivery.”
Hugh had assumed that he would be going about his business the same as ever during his time across town. The more Mr. Ward talked the more foolish he felt for his naiveté. It really was like a hospital stay, from what little Hugh remembered of his own. Mr. Ward’s continued insistence on how many personal freedoms Hugh still possessed was starting to concern him.
There was a lot Mr. Ward had to say to him, ranging from certain quirks of the mechanical house to where Hugh was to leave the laundry, and it was quite honestly enough to make a man’s head spin. It felt like the better part of an hour before the tone of things began to change, ever so gradually, towards winding down.
“Your more intimate preferences have been made known to me, Mr. Wainwright, and thusly I was also requested to inform you that while it is expected that you might feel the needs of a man during your stay, you are advised not to deal directly with the people of the city, in the interest of your continued health.”
Hugh nodded. He’d suspected that much; you heard stories about people who went looking for love in the darker streets, and they never ended well.
“Should you need to address such needs, I have been assigned to aid you with relieving them in the manner of your choosing, and with both proficiency and understanding. It is for the best you not deny yourself your simpler instincts unless otherwise advised. Do not hesitate to ask if you require assistance in this or any other matter, Mr. Wainwright. I take this post quite seriously.” Mr. Ward’s expression was as serene as ever.
“The full package, was it?” said Hugh, still half off his guard.
“Indeed,” said Mr. Ward. He collected the dishes and Hugh’s napkin and put them back on the little cart. “Now then. If you have finished eating, I will show you to your room.”
One guided jaunt up the stairs later and Hugh was alone again, now sprawled on his back to stare at the shadowy woodwork that spiderwebbed across the ceiling. The rain hissed outside. Save for the lamp Mr. Ward had lit for him, which itself had a sort of greasy orange glow that looked ever so slightly unreal, the room was quite dark in a way you only really saw in the night city. It should have been an eerie sight, one that set teeth on edge and hair on end. Hugh found it comforting.
He laced his fingers across his stomach and closed his eyes to take in the sounds of the house. Mr. Ward moved with the light and subtle tread of a career manservant, betrayed only by the warped cry of the occasional floorboard. Muffled clinks and rattles eddied up from the kitchen as Mr. Ward tidied up. Different rattles sounded from inside the walls as unseen devices moved against one another. In the very far distance, nearly drowned out by the storm, Hugh thought he could hear the wails of the locals as they toiled beneath the weight of their own wildness, but perhaps that was just an old habit coming home for one final roost. Here, at least for now, he could sleep safely.
Mr. Ward had insisted he act in accordance with his own wishes, so Hugh decided to do exactly that. He stripped and stretched. The room, curiously, still felt properly proportioned to him when he stood with an unbent back, which he took as a good sign. He sat at the desk, opened the ledger (which was exactly where Mr. Ward had said it would be), took up a pen (which his extra fingers cradled deftly), and began to write his first litany of leeks.
Day the second of the treatment, afternoon tea.
– two cups tea mixture
– five ginger biscuits
– one apple, sliced
Was feeling ill to the stomach and was advised ginger biscuits to ease digestion. At the time of this writing it has helped. All consumables provided by Mr. Ward.
Midway through the third day of the treatment Hugh found himself in the chamber they’d dubbed the medical room, seated patiently with a selection of shed, folded skins in his lap. Mr. Ward had been keen on requesting them after Hugh’s first physical the day after he’d arrived. He spent his time seeing how many of the room’s hidden panels he remembered and the activation mechanisms of each, and had gotten up to the two hidden passages in the wall and the one compartment by an arrangement of silk flowers in which he’d placed a society-smithed pistol when Mr. Ward arrived, entirely mundanely, through the door to the hallway.
Hugh sat up straight in his chair. “You asked to see my daily shed, Mr. Ward?”
“I did indeed,” said Mr. Ward. He lifted up the corner of a skin with the tip of his quill. “Is this common for you, Mr. Wainwright?”
Hugh nodded. “For a few years now. If I sleep unclothed and properly stretched out it makes it less bad. I still feel very much like a lizard if I do not husk myself daily.”
“And when you do so, is it usually in such great amounts?”
Hugh stretched out a piece of skin and held it up to the light, which shone through with a dim, oily iridescence. “This is less than it tends to be by perhaps a quarter. I am not entirely sure why that might be, unless the air in this part of town is good for my complexion.” The way Mr. Ward was talking it was as if shedding was something unusual. He was fairly certain all his peers back at the house had their own skin-baskets. Then again, perhaps he merely assumed they did; it was not as though he visited any of their quarters very often, not even Jonathan’s.
“As you are my first case study in this locale, I cannot say for certain,” said Mr. Ward. “I will certainly keep it in mind. The night city, as a rule, does not see the sun, so I must wonder if you have a solar allergy. Do you get out much when you are on the other side of town?”
Going to society meetings probably didn’t count as getting out much. “I spend much of my free time reading,” said Hugh. “Sometimes I consider a more active hobby, but my peers are swift to remind me such frivolities are unseemly in a gentleman.” It was bad enough to them that Hugh took satisfaction from his work. They had been in the profession longer than he had, most of them, so he tried to keep their words in mind when it came time to fill his freer hours. What would he get from taking walks in the greener parts of the city, anyway?
Mr. Ward’s forehead wrinkled. “I trust you will consider my advice with somewhat more weight than theirs, Mr. Wainwright.”
“Of course, Mr. Ward. You are my physician.”
Their discussion slowly worked its way towards the matter of Hugh’s bedeviled hand. Mr. Ward was careful to count all of Hugh’s fingers and made a meticulous diagram. Hugh tried not to wriggle with discomfort as his digits were manhandled.
“And you have had these since you recovered from the injury mentioned in the report, Mr. Wainwright?” asked Mr. Ward as he tested how good a job each spare finger could do of bending and flexing.
“Yes, they are quite regenerative, I fear.”
“May I ask after the details of your previous attempts?”
Hugh glanced up at the crown molding in thought. “I might be forgetting a few, but my methods included removing them with a penknife, removing them with shears, removing them with heated shears, removing them through gnawing, removing them and two of the original digits with a hatchet, an underwhelming experience with acid, and an ultimately fruitless experience involving a saw applied to the forearm. The latter had my hand come back with alarming speed: I had the whole thing regrown, with more fingers than the last time, in a matter of days.”
“Very interesting, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. He studied each part of Hugh’s hand again, noting things in his ledger all the while. “I would like to request you not attempt to mutilate yourself further unless under explicit instruction to do so. Will that be a problem?”
“I will do my best to leave it alone,” said Hugh, who was rewarded for his promise of self-restraint by developing an immediate irritating itch on one of the extra digits.
The rest of the exam required less direct input from Hugh, so as he went through the motions of touching his toes and submitting to having samples of his hair collected he thought about things other than his current condition. He usually visited the night city by foot, not by carriage, which left him feeling slightly discombobulated due to lack of a proper mental map; a traipse across the rooftops would probably do him good, but it felt off to leave the house without orders to do so. Hugh was fortunate that he could get to this side of town by foot, as many of his peers had to bring charms of guidance or have someone else lead the way. It had been one of many traits that had helped secure his quite comfortable rank with such celerity.
It was probably a sign of poor character that he did not miss the sun as much as he felt he ought. He engaged in very little stargazing while on assignment, so it had taken until his commitment to the treatment for him to notice that the moon rose over the night city on a natural cycle, though its phases were off in ways he could not immediately voice. Some days the mist was thick and some days it was nearly absent. There were no stars. There was never, ever daylight. It made for a very dark house at the best of times, and Hugh was quietly grateful for whatever cunning device helped keep the interior lanterns’ reservoirs full.
In time Mr. Ward finished his exams and left the room, taking the skins with him. Hugh felt unsure as to whether he wanted anyone else touching them. The housekeepers back home handled sheddings, it was true, but he suspected they would shovel the things into the furnace the first chance they got whenever the basket filled up. Mr. Ward had tests in mind for them, though at least he had been clear and upfront about this; he had promised Hugh that the beastly shed would be properly disposed of in a manner that would not risk drawing unwanted visitors to their scent. The denizens of the night city found Hugh’s kind nearly as delectable as they did normal people.
Then again, if the house was beset by things from beyond, it would bring quite the thrill to an as of yet uneventful stay….
Somewhat horrified with his line of thinking, Hugh spent the rest of the day exploring the trick passages and trying not to think about how casually he had invited trouble upon himself and Mr. Ward.
Day the third of the treatment, evening meal.
– one cup tea mixture
– two glasses claret
– two pieces bread, rye
– one slice mince pie
– one serving succotash
– one pear
All consumables provided by Mr. Ward.
The more he drank it, the more Hugh got used to the tea Mr. Ward prepared for him daily. It was never something he was going to think tasted very nice, of this he was certain, but he was able to appreciate its warmth in the city’s incessant damp and the way its bracing scent cleared his head. After some negotiation he and Mr. Ward agreed that Hugh would have at least one cup of it with most meals, but he would also be permitted all the wine he liked with his suppers. It felt like an arrangement that would work nicely for them both.
A glass of said claret had accompanied Hugh to the study that evening. The first feelings of restlessness were creeping into his habits, due in no small part to him being confined to the house for the whole of his stay; he had gone outside with Mr. Ward to be shown the various ways he might get back indoors if the need presented itself, and when the rain wasn’t too fierce he spent time in the courtyard to freshen the air in his lungs, and aside from that he was homebound. He hated to admit that he was growing restless for a new assignment.
Hugh did his best to refine that restlessness into personal enrichment. The book on perception he had brought with him proved quite useful in that regard, as each time he reread a chapter he felt as though a fresh set of scales had fallen from his eyes. Even his least productive days still gave him something to do with his time.
It wasn’t that he wanted for company, as while Mr. Ward was distant Hugh found comfort in the presence of someone who didn’t keep staring at his hand. Mr. Ward did not stare, he evaluated. Twice a day Hugh permitted himself to be measured with varying tools and twice a day his fingers proved to be the same as they had been the last time. Mr. Ward was always at meals, as well. It was comforting knowing that there was a friendly, if impassive, face no fewer than a few rooms away in the mechanical house.
He turned another page to regard the diagrams drawn there. His surfeit of digits was now something he no longer even thought about even when handling the most delicate of paper; Mr. Ward had advised him to file his nails tidily but to otherwise leave them be, and whatever factors had combined in the days Hugh had been away from the other side of town had left him with surprising dexterity. Sometimes he found himself checking his left hand to see if it would mirror his right.
Eyes without, the book said. Hugh was fairly certain a finger was different than an eye. If more ways to see was a sign of enlightenment, what did it mean when a man developed more ways to touch? His experiments with running his fingertips along the curtains and carpeting had yielded nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps he needed to do more reading to truly understand the purpose of it all.
“Mr. Wainwright?” said Mr. Ward from the hallway.
“Yes, Mr. Ward? I’m in the study.”
“A letter has arrived for you. It’s from the society. Would you prefer I deliver it to your own hands or shall I put it in your room?”
Hugh straightened up in his chair. “Bring it here, please.”
The letter had the usual wax seal stamped crisp and unbroken on its front. Hugh opened it eagerly, his eyes darting over the words written upon it with such eagerness he had to back up and reread parts several times. The restlessness plaguing him had evaporated like so much mineral spirits. A smile creased his cheeks as he verified he had read the letter right and not hoped at its contents.
“I take it there is good news, Mr. Wainwright?”
“Extremely, Mr. Ward. I have finally been called to fulfill a societal task.”
“I am pleased to hear that, Mr. Wainwright. I will ensure the stockroom is in order in case you need to make use of its resources. Dinner will be ready shortly.”
“Thank you,” said Hugh with an absent wave, his attention still held by the letter. He felt like a racing horse straining at the gate from its urge to run. Back home—which felt like an odder choice by the hour by which to refer to the other half of the city—he could go for weeks without an assignment and not feel a thing; here in the night city, with its rain and smoke and countless distant noises, his blood felt filled with thunder. He folded up the letter and tucked it in the pocket of his vest on his way out. There was so much to do and so little time in which to do it, but Hugh couldn’t have cared less about the breakneck schedule the society had demanded of him.
It was, at long last, time to get to work.
Day the fifth of the treatment, mid-day meal.
– three cups tea mixture
– one glass plain water
– two pieces bread, rye
– two pieces ham with mustard glaze
– one bowl chicken soup with rice
– one bowl stewed greens with pepper
– one saucer applesauce
– one saucer steamed carrots
– one handful fresh grapes
Larger meal than usual due to assignment this following night. All consumables provided by Mr. Ward.
Hugh waited in the shadow of a chimney with his tricorne hat pulled low over his eyes. It had been raining on and off every day since he’d arrived in town, which had meant he’d needed to take certain precautions before going out. He rested a gloved hand against the shingles and shifted his weight slightly; rooftop work meant constant mental mathematics about how weather and angles affected your chances of tumbling off the edge and smashing to pieces on the cobbles. Ever since Mr. Ward had provided him with a new glove that accounted for his extra fingers he had felt much more secure at such a height.
The target ambled through the streets below. To the untrained eye it was nothing more than a beggar with a dog. Hugh’s eye was trained exceedingly well, which meant he could perceive how the man left tracks of foul smoke in his wake, and from where Hugh lurked he could already see that the dog was no mere pet but actually a roiling mass of leech-worms sewn up in scraps of patchwork skin. Both were not uncommon sights in the night city. He sometimes heard such things passing by the house as he prepared for bed, as regular as birds in the morning.
The target was different. Hugh focused himself, letting his already heightened senses work for him. Even from his perch he could taste the color of the terrible wisdoms it had accrued, the sort of thing that risked splitting open the air like a peach before a paring knife, and his ears rang with the scent of danger. The target was primed to transmogrify in a manner most dreadful. He could tell why the society was concerned.
Hugh hefted his working tools, timed his breaths just so, and dove.
Any fear of losing his edge he might have harbored melted away when he struck true, his blade shearing into maggoty flesh even as his chemical torch flared to noisome life to burn away the mist that erupted from the target as it struck the earth. He rolled and righted himself with the lingering momentum. When hunting you had to strike first, fast, and hard, granting your opponent no quarter, because even if you were a monster wearing human skin they were something far worse that did not understand the concept of mercy. Hugh had lost more than a few acquaintances when they made the mistake of not bursting from the shadows in a frenzy of aggression.
The un-dog snarled at him. Hugh snarled back from behind his scarf; his throat was the wrong shape to yield a truly forceful bellow, but his pulse was high, and a man of Hugh’s profession had to swim with the current of instinct to keep from drowning. He swung the torch to and fro in front of him in a low arc. The un-dog shied from it but did not leave its master’s side, instead allowing the worms inside it to churn before lashing out at Hugh with a tongue backed by the force of a ship’s cannon.
Hugh dodged to the side swiftly enough to only have his coat and hunting cloak damaged, though the same could not be said for the wall behind him. Bits of ruined brick rained down on his hat. He pivoted and brought his weapon down on the tongue of worms before it could retract, severing part of it, then pivoted again to avoid the spray of blood that followed. The worm-thing screeched. Hugh danced backwards and watched for an opening in the creature’s defenses. It would only take one more good thrust to be rid of it for good.
Watching the walking worms so closely meant his attention strayed from the main target, which had begun to tremble where it lay. Nothing short of chance saved Hugh; the target’s hand twitched in just such a way as to disturb some fallen mortar and the scrape caught Hugh’s ear, prompting him to reel away before the target could wrench itself into position for what might have been a killing blow. He crossed his tools in front of himself defensively. The impact struck them instead of his hands or face, which was good, but left his hands stingingly numb nearly up to the elbows, which was less so. Hugh strained not to drop either of them. He couldn’t afford not having both at his side.
Smoke held the thing together where the wound Hugh had first dealt it should have left it a broken mess. Viscera glistened wetly in the light of the chemical torch. Hugh had hunted for long enough that he could tell it was dying, or perhaps dead already, and whether it was the latter or the former did not change that it had righted itself and was staggering towards him once again, propelled by pure, unnatural hate.
Hugh did not make the same mistake twice. He bolted forward, veering not towards the target but to its companion, which still thrashed and trembled as it bled out. He weathered a few final flailings from its segmented claws and thrust the chemical torch into the part of its mass where he knew its heart lay hidden; Hugh’s own blood, now running down the shaft of the torch from the cuts on his arm, enlivened the flame so that it consumed the not-dog entirely. He inhaled deeply and felt his lungs take in its dying gasp. The deed was half done.
One fewer foe meant far more choices with where Hugh could move. He circled the target warily. The torch threatened to slip from his off hand even as his extra fingers curled desperately around the handle of his blade to keep it close, so he knew he didn’t have the luxury of waiting the thing out. Fortune smiled upon him once again as the target swiped with a hand wreathed in black smoke, leaving a hair’s breadth of an opening into which Hugh shoved his blade. He pushed and kept pushing until they both struck the opposite alley wall, then twisted. Another death rattle was his reward.
It was extremely convenient that the society had such constructive uses for a man who could only hurt other people.
Hugh scanned the darkness for hidden nasties. The worst of his wounds closed up, though he would need to ask Mr. Ward for curative salts to add to the bath once he got home. His hands still ached from the force of the target’s blow. Stealth would be a necessity on the return trip, as he suspected he was not in the proper shape to defend himself from some of the fouler things that stalked the streets, and he had long since learned the wisdom in always assuming the worst thing possible would be the next thing one encountered. The secret was not to encounter anything in the first place.
Disposal of a job well done was not part of his usual job description, as the night city tended to reclaim things left to it once no one was looking. On most other hunts Hugh wouldn’t have thought twice of it. Most other hunts did not see him returning to a mechanical house nestled in the depths of the other side of the city once his butcher’s work was finished. It was strange realizing how much he’d missed the thrill of pursuit despite having sometimes gone weeks, and in one instance months, between assignments back before he’d begun his treatment.
There was something about this place that coaxed his desires into curious shapes. He’d been eating such nice meals lately that Hugh’s gullet longed for something that wasn’t nice at all. There wasn’t room to stretch here, not properly, but he still let the muscles in his face and neck relax until his scarf and hat no longer fit as they should. He bit at the oily air and took satisfaction in the way his teeth sounded as they snapped against one another. The smell of his gory work curled into his nostrils tantalizingly, paired with the roasting from the torch. Hugh knew what he needed to do.
Mr. Clifford-Smythe had implied he was spiritually anemic, after all.
Day the fifth of the treatment, evening snack.
– one serving raw prey, medium-sized
– one serving raw prey, small-sized
I will need to apologize to Mr. Ward in the event I have no appetite for supper upon returning home. All consumables personally harvested.
“Have you ever considered having yourself measured for garments that fit you more comfortably?” asked Mr. Ward one day, a little over a week and a half into Hugh’s assignment.
Hugh glanced down at his vest and blouse-sleeved shirt where they lay folded on his dressing bench. “Have I fallen out of fashion, Mr. Ward?”
“Not in the slightest, Mr. Wainwright. I have simply noted that you seem to feel most at ease when not contorting yourself to fit into any particular posture. An outfit tailored for these more natural stances seems like the most reasonable course of action.” Mr. Ward gestured. “You have said as much yourself that you prefer to sleep in the nude, and yet I cannot help but wonder if it is for want of comfortable nightclothes. You have said as much yourself that you no longer shed at all.”
He hadn’t thought of that before. Having a second set of clothing on a patently impossible scale was the sort of thing frowned upon by the society at large, and the society’s word was law. The society, however, concerned itself primarily with the affairs of the other city, not the night city and especially not the mechanical house. Should some lost lamb find their way into his wardrobe and discover a shirt cut for something far from a normal man’s frame it would be the absolute least of their troubles. It would not jeopardize the great work for him to own such things. Mr. Ward was also quite correct that Hugh no longer left parts of himself behind like a cicada, which Hugh had to admit had increased his frequency of stretching in the first place.
A small thrill eddied through him as he wondered if Mr. Ward would appreciate the sight of him dressed smartly. Mr. Ward tended to regard Hugh with the same calm, even manner whether Hugh was normal-sized or small. Not even Hugh’s peers reacted to the sight of one of their own in such a casual way. Would it be unreasonable to hope he might cause the slightest turn of that stone-faced head when clad in flattering trousers?
“I think that sounds nice,” said Hugh, which, while mostly addressed towards his own thoughts, was thankfully also an appropriate answer to Mr. Ward’s query. He stuffed these unexpected flutterings of his heart into a metaphorical bottle. Mr. Ward was his keeper and doctor, a staunchly professional man who abided little nonsense, and it would be disrespectful to insert him into such juvenile notions. Besides, the notion of a monster dressed like a man was a laughable one. Mr. Ward arranging for something Hugh might sleep in to keep the cold away was a matter of logistics, nothing more.
“Very good,” said Mr. Ward. “When you are ready, I will take a tailor’s tape to you. I should have something prepared within a matter of days at the most.”
Hugh blinked in surprise. “All that time for a dressing gown?”
“It will be paired with a suit that matches your preferred style, of course. You should be able to roam the whole of the house in comfort no matter your posture or the time of day. If you would care to update your look, of course, it would be my pleasure to bring such a request to life.”
What had seemed like a passing fancy mere moments ago now struck Hugh with dread. Mr. Ward actually sounded serious about his offer. In the interest of deflection, Hugh scoffed.
A small frown appeared on Mr. Ward’s lips. “Is something the matter?”
“Yes, something is the matter, and it is your suggestion!” said Hugh, his tone louder and sharper than was perhaps necessary. “It’s ridiculous! Monsters don’t wear clothes, much less fine ones. It’s simply not done. A beast does not forget his station.”
“Mr. Wainwright, I must ask you: By whose decree?”
Those three words were ones Hugh had never paused to consider for himself. Men who were monsters were monsters first and men only as means of camouflage. To muddle the distinction between the two was dangerous. More normal men were helpless before the raw might of a grotesque; if he began to put on airs that he was permitted to think himself on their level, that risked exposing them to great harm. He knew how his peers could be.
Explaining that all to Mr. Ward would take time and energy Hugh did not have. “It is the way of the world, for good or for ill,” he said instead.
Mr. Ward arched an eyebrow at this. “And do you agree? Or do you simply not voice any dissent?”
Hugh refused to answer.
“This seems to be about far more than a new set of clothes. Am I correct in that assumption?”
“What does it change if you are?” asked Hugh. “If you put a butcher in masquerade dress, he is no less a butcher. It doesn’t matter what I wear. You may say what you please about it, but at the end of the day I am a thing made for a very particular sort of task, and nothing more.”
“There is more to any of us than just our trades, Mr. Wainwright.”
Hugh wanted to find somewhere else for his eyes to be. Everywhere he looked was a reminder of who he was and what he did: here a trophy, there a vial of chemicals for the torch, and yonder lay the outfit still being mended from his last outing. It would not be unreasonable to take him for a man obsessed. “But the work…. I like it, Mr. Ward. It fulfills me like no other. I do not know if you have been a-hunting before, but I can tell you that it is not a task for decent people. I have perhaps entertained thoughts of finding a life outside the society, and every time I have come to the same conclusion: I could not bear to leave this profession behind.”
“I do not recall saying anything about the acceptance of your personal wants and the continuation of your work being mutually exclusive,” said Mr. Ward. “You have been nothing but courteous to me throughout your time in my care, Mr. Wainwright, be you man-shaped or otherwise, and I prefer to judge a man’s character by his actions when no others are looking than by what I’ve been told but have yet to see. Your well-being is my responsibility as long as you are a patient of mine, and this extends beyond the mere physical. Can you truly say you would not feel more yourself if you had more options in how to exist within the sanctity of this house’s walls?”
Hugh was struck with the thought of himself folded up to fit in one of the dining room chairs, a silver fork in one many-taloned hand and a serving of pheasant with cranberry sauce laid out before him on a plate that was outright dainty in comparison, all while dressed like a smart and proper gentleman despite being wholly the wrong scale; he would have laughed had he not wanted it so desperately.
His mind returned to the book of perception. The issue of excess manifestations could be seen as a sign of internal turmoil, it had said, namely in those of Hugh’s variety who were close to a personal breakthrough. It was true that Hugh did not view himself as quite the same as his peers, but he had always taken that as proof he was an imperfect creation, one too fierce to dwell among the general populace but too weak-hearted to take his place among a court of proper monsters. He had doubted himself since long before the injury to his hand. Perhaps his subconscious thoughts had simply been wanting for an opportunity to make themselves known.
There was no use in fighting it. If this was part of the society’s plans for him, then so be it.
“If you truly meant your offer, then I will accept it, Mr. Ward. I would feel better if I had more things that fit.” He paused. “Though if I continue to sleep skyclad after making an attempt with the nightclothes, it will be by personal choice instead of necessity. I hope you will not take it personally.”
Mr. Ward nodded. “Not in the slightest, Mr. Wainwright. I will do my best to have the color and cut remain agreeable to your sensibilities. Shall I bring you anything else when I return with my measuring tools?”
“I would appreciate something simple to settle my stomach,” said Hugh. “And Mr. Ward?”
“I was not expecting to find the discussion angle of the treatment as valuable as I have. Thank you.”
“It is my pleasure, Mr. Wainwright.”
Day the eleventh of the treatment, between meals.
– one cup tea mixture
– three salt crackers
Thoughts of cranberry sauce. All consumables provided by Mr. Ward.
Things finally came to a head a little while after Hugh had taken to experimenting with the new, roomier clothing during his stretches. At the time he was comparing some passages in a few of his books and sipping at an elixir to help offset the mild headaches this sort of study always brought with it when Mr. Ward knocked sharply at the door. The knock carried with it a sort of urgency that Mr. Ward’s presence so frequently lacked. It was likely not something to do with the laundry.
Hugh turned a wheel embedded in the wall and let Mr. Ward into the room. He had yet to see Mr. Ward so tense; not even seeing to Hugh’s wounds after the hunt had found him in such a clearly concerned state. He held a sheaf of medical documents in his hands. It was enough to make Hugh put a marker in his largest book and close it to ensure Mr. Ward his undivided attention.
“Mr. Wainwright, I request permission to speak with you frankly. It concerns the nature of your treatment thus far.”
Hugh raised his eyebrows. “Of course, Mr. Ward,” he said. “The maester set you as my handler, so it’s only right that you perform your duties even when frankness is required.”
Mr. Ward nodded crisply, like a bird. “You will recall, then, that when you first came into my care you were advised not to hobble your psyche, as such repression might interfere with your treatment. Do you remember us discussing this during our introduction?”
“Perhaps not in as many words, but yes, I remember.”
“I have reason to believe you have not been wholly honest with yourself, Mr. Wainwright. You have abstained from tending to the gentleman’s task during your entire stay, with scarcely a moment for centering yourself. This is inconsistent with your personal history and I have not been feeding you saltpeter or any such limiting agent. If you are unwilling to dedicate some part of your week to self-maintenance, I fear I will have to take matters into my own hands, lest all our efforts in understanding your condition be for naught.”
Reason stated that Mr. Ward was simply the size of a typical man with nothing physically imposing about him beyond a general sense of presence. Reason also stated that Hugh, being quite a deal taller than Mr. Ward when stretched out properly, had nothing to fear from Mr. Ward, who was not armed with any manner of torch or blade that might even the odds. Hugh ignored reason in both cases and instead quailed in place.
“I…I most certainly do, Mr. Ward! In the bath,” Hugh lied. In truth he’d been avoiding it for the single awkward fact that he knew he had imprinted quite strongly on Mr. Ward and would think of him during the act, and while there had been the highly intriguing standing offer made back on that first stormy night Hugh was conflicted over whether it was ethical for him to act on such. Only a boor and a churl would force himself upon the staff, knowing they lacked the authority to deny his advances.
At any rate, Mr. Ward frequently observed him in the nude for medical exams, and Hugh worried how his body might react if he allowed his idle thoughts any closer to the surface than he already dared. A man of proper manners did not make social situations awkward whenever it was in his power to do so.
Mr. Ward was unconvinced. “Please respect my intelligence, Mr. Wainwright,” he said. He tapped the papers with the back of his free hand. “I take great pains in my record-keeping. I can tell from the balance of humors in the blood samples taken each day that you have not found physical release since your arrival. I have seen no sign of so much as an emission during your sleep for over two full weeks now. It concerns me greatly.” His tone softened ever so slightly, as much as Mr. Ward could be said to be capable of softness. “Is it a matter of stress? I can adjust the admixture of the tea to soothe rather than to brace, if you think it would be useful.”
“Ah,” said Hugh, who certainly did feel some degree of stress.
“Perhaps the absence of your peers is some cause? I understand you are close with one of the other inhabitants of the manor, and that you both had some kinship in your work for the society.”
Hugh had not thought of Jonathan for the duration of his stay. “I couldn’t say,” he said.
“If it is your daily stretches that affect your drive, I will not deny you them, but it will need to be something I put in my notes,” said Mr. Ward.
“I can safely say I do not lack the drive.”
Mr. Ward sighed. “Then I fear I am at a loss, Mr. Wainwright.”
Hugh desperately wished for the ability to fold himself up like a piece of spare linen and place himself in a trunk, itself safely distanced from their current conversation. The thought of taking advantage of Mr. Ward was loathsome. The thought of being taken advantage of by Mr. Ward was thrilling. Reconciling these two conflicting opinions was bound to give Hugh far worse of a headache than studying impossible knowledge ever could.
The final thread from which hung Hugh’s reserve snapped. He lay his head down on the desk and sighed through his many teeth. “Mr. Ward, you must understand that discussing such personal matters as this is difficult for me,” he said, his voice weary and defeated.
“Understandable,” said Mr. Ward, drawing closer. The medical records he placed safely out of range of Hugh’s cross-referenced tomes. “I assure you, Mr. Wainwright, that I will view whatever might be causing your dispassion with great compassion, whenever you wish to share it. My issue is not with how frequently you do or do not indulge but the fact that your current behavior seems so out of character with the information I was given when first assigned to you. I am concerned for your well-being as a person in addition to as a patient.”
“That would be part of the problem,” said Hugh.
“Might I ask how?”
Hugh grimaced. A face like his was well-suited to grimacing. “Mr. Ward, if you are as familiar with my personal history as you say, then you are aware that much of my life has been one lived at an arm’s distance from others, whether out of their disgust or my desire not to cause further harm. Now I have been plunged bodily into this, this” —he waved his hands in search of the words— “this situation, and you have not only seen to it that I have my basic needs met but that I am enriched in so many ways I never knew I was lacking. I am not used to being cared for outside of having my clothes cleaned and my meals cooked. Save for dalliances with Mr. Petticote I was previously accustomed to neither touching nor being touched by anyone else at all.”
Hugh closed his eyes. Saying things aloud made them more real, and to his rising horror he found he already considered the house in the night city far more of a home than his old lodgings had ever been. The treatment was temporary by nature. He couldn’t allow himself to get overly attached.
“You are unused to intimacy, then? It’s nothing to cause shame, Mr. Wainwright. Many a gentleman has found himself ensnared in the web of modern manners, leaving him helpless once cut from the spider’s clutches. Propriety makes fools of us all.”
“I am unused to being viewed as anything more than a tool suited for a single certain purpose,” said Hugh. “Men of my sort are not intended for a life outside of needful demolition.”
This earned him a disapproving sound from Mr. Ward, one so quiet Hugh suspected he hadn’t been intended to hear it. “You are as much a man as any other, no matter your size and shape. It is both unwise and unhealthy to view yourself as undeserving of basic human dignity. If it is your desire to request carnal favors of me, I shall remind you that I am, as always, the full package.”
“I am aware it has always been an element of your responsibilities, you have said as much to me, but I couldn’t possibly burden you—”
Mr. Ward rested his hand on Hugh’s cheek. “You assume, Mr. Wainwright, that doing so would be a burden.”
Years of being raised to carefully push away his own wants had Hugh primed to voice a few half-hearted complaints, but in that instant he knew he was undone. A shiver ran down his spine as though he were being electrocuted. He leaned against Mr. Ward’s palm with its cool skin and well-groomed nails, luxuriating in being touched purely for the sake of it. If Mr. Clifford-Smythe had truly set this fascinating man as his attendant, and the society as a whole truly expected him to make use of all of Mr. Ward’s services during his stay, then so it would be.
“Then I would very much like to have you in my mouth, Mr. Ward. I have liked the thought of that for a great while.”
“That can certainly be arranged.”
Hugh was so caught up in emotion that he did not think to make himself more presentable first, and it would not be until later that he would realize how Mr. Ward did not seem off-put in the slightest by the sight of Hugh’s muzzle nosing eagerly at his trousers. In the heat of the moment all he cared about was the growing turgidity of Mr. Ward’s shaft and the pleasing difference of color between the glans and the rest of him. The scent was divine. He huffed warm air against Mr. Ward’s skin and took pleasure at the little sigh this elicited. Hugh could not remember the last time he’d been with a man who, by all evidence, viewed him as more than a useful orifice; the thought of returning an act of kindness upon someone who had already done so much for him was nearly as exciting as the member he planned to taste.
Mr. Ward didn’t seem interested in finding a place to sit, which was fine by Hugh, who enjoyed kneeling in the shadow of another man. A benefit of having a differently-shaped mouth meant that Hugh could take Mr. Ward up to the base without any strain or effort. Keeping his fangs out of the way was trivial for one with as much practice in this particular act as he. Mr. Ward tasted as good as he smelled and Hugh bobbed his head in bliss.
He was used to keeping his hands pressed against his upper legs, which helped keep them out of the way and removed the risk of accidentally brushing them against a partner who was busy concentrating; Mr. Ward seemed uninterested in this level of detachment, instead pulling away from Hugh only long enough to guide a hand—the polydactyl one, Hugh noted—to rest against his hip next to his unbuttoned fastens. Hugh touched him as though he were afraid of being burned. Mr. Ward hummed in approval as Hugh shifted to a more purposeful touch, placing his free hand against Mr. Ward’s opposite hip to hold him close. It did not matter that Mr. Ward was obligated to tolerate such advances as this by decree of the society, because at that moment Hugh was convinced he would rather die than grant him anything short of perfect pleasure.
It was not just Mr. Ward’s flesh that Hugh found pleasing. Hugh had been with men who were silent as the grave when in the act, and he had been with others who would shout and moan as though they were being flayed alive; Mr. Ward was neither, though he erred more towards the former than the latter. Each quiet sound Hugh coaxed from him was like a note from a cherub’s lyre. Hugh himself thrilled at the subtle thrusts of Mr. Ward’s hips, the sort that came from a man seeking not to choke his partner but not wholly able to overcome the urge. He was a firm man with deep veins of gentleness, at least when it came to having Hugh’s mouth on him. Hugh would have gladly knelt for hours just basking in the feeling of being thought of.
Like all good things it ultimately had to end. Mr. Ward placed his hands on either side of Hugh’s snout and held him in place; this was followed by a soft, guttural sound that preceded a familiar warm spattering along Hugh’s tongue. Hugh swallowed greedily. He milked the last drops from Mr. Ward into his hand and licked it clean.
“I hope my request was not too much of an inconvenience,” said Hugh, his jaws agape in a lazy smile and his tongue lolling off to the side like a dog’s.
“I am happy to be of assistance, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. “I should note we are not yet done, however, as you have yet to finish. Your negligence in doing so was the whole reason we had this confrontation in the first place.” He cracked his knuckles. “If you would like assistance with your part, as well, I am as always your humble servant.”
There was wordplay that could be made about Mr. Ward certainly being a handler for Hugh. His first instinct was to refuse, or to say it was nothing he could not manage himself. These were the habits of the old Hugh, who by all accounts was a far less happy man than the Hugh that needed special gloves and lived in darkness and was lulled to sleep by distant cacophonies each night. The new Hugh was more willing to enjoy things in life. Having Mr. Ward touch him intimately seemed very much something worth enjoying.
“I have always enjoyed the thought of soaking in a warm tub while being touched,” he said. “It seems like it would be relaxing.” Hugh did not mention it also seemed like it would have him at a good height for putting his mouth to use again, as that might have been misconstrued as asking too much. He instead lingered on the idea and enjoyed the mild discomfort of having his trousers quite brazenly distended.
Mr. Ward nodded. He had yet to tuck himself away, which was interesting. “Then I shall draw a bath for you. Do you have a preference for the size of tub I use?”
“Mr. Wainwright, I shall be as honest as I can: I have no preference, so long as you are comfortable, and as I imagine you will be more at ease when requesting my time in this manner, you may come to me however you please. I am a man who appreciates variety.”
“And should I change my mind part ways through?”
“While it might prove disastrous while in the bath, I am loath to imagine any other scenario where it would be unwelcome, Mr. Wainwright. Feeling equally at home in both your skins, to the neglect of neither, is a noble goal.”
The suggestion was downright scandalous, and yet Mr. Ward had answered promptly and without judgment. Hugh was ashamed for having thought he might say anything but. There was more talk between them worth having about the reasoning behind such a thing; until then, he would enjoy the attentions of a man who felt him worthy of kindness. If dressing in proper clothing had bolstered Hugh’s heart enough to make this much of a breakthrough, who knew what the touch of skin on skin might do for him?
Hugh placed a clawed hand on the sleeve of Mr. Ward’s jacket. “I have no letters from the society to address, be they to hunt or to research or simply a call to speak with Mr. Clifford-Smythe in person. There is still a good slice of the day left. If it would not be too much trouble, once I have had my assisted soak, I would care to appreciate your company more in that time remaining, and in the manner of your choosing, until sleep beckons once again.”
“I would not be opposed,” said Mr. Ward with his trademark lack of surprise. “I must warn you, however, that I did not create my schedule for this day with extended company in mind, so supper is likely to be smaller and later than you are accustomed.”
“I have faith I will find some suitable way to quell my appetite until then,” said Hugh. He licked his chops and grinned.
Mr. Ward smiled one of his hair’s-breadth smiles as he turned towards the hall leading to the bathroom suite. “Very good, Mr. Wainwright.”
Day the thirteenth of the treatment, between meals.
– three servings masculine humors
All consumables provided by Mr. Ward.
Mr. Ward’s steel-gray eyes met Hugh’s own, at least as much as they were able to given the differing totals involved. At approaching four weeks into the treatment Hugh’s face had decided to sprout extras, starting first with two on either side of his eyes when he stretched—six in all—and then with a seventh that had split its way down the middle of his forehead like some curious ocular bindi; the five guests hid themselves with no trouble when Hugh chose to look more inconspicuous, which he felt was a small miracle. He held still as Mr. Ward examined the new additions with the focus of a jeweler appraising a raw gem.
“They seem to be coming along nicely,” said Mr. Ward. “Is there any discomfort you have found since last we evaluated them? Have you come across any detriment to your vision in either state?”
Hugh shook his head gently, careful not to displace Mr. Ward’s hands where they steadied him. He felt it quite the pity that he was being held by the snout for a medical examination and not a more private encounter, but Hugh reminded himself that there would be time enough in the schedule once the more polite portions of the treatment ran their course.
“My sight with them is getting better, I think,” said Hugh. “I haven’t felt ill keeping them open since they were able to better gauge color and movement two days prior. The center one is the best. I dare say it’s at the level of the two I was born with.”
“Very interesting, Mr. Wainwright. And your hand?”
Hugh held up both hands. The right hand had fewer fingers than it had before—though still more than five—and now the left hand matched it, making a nice little pair. “Still willing to make an attempt at symmetry.”
“And the results of the experiment?”
“They’ve already grown back again, and are as dexterous as ever, but only the ones cut away, and no others.” Hugh pursed his lips in thought, inasmuch as he had anything resembling lips to purse. “I will note, Mr. Ward, that I would rather not perform a similar experiment with any of my eyes.”
“Perish the thought, Mr. Wainwright. As a man of the society I would be at risk of breaking my oaths if I did so. So long as they do not cause you distress, I will stand by idly even if you were to become a rival to Argus himself.”
Something had been weighing on Hugh’s mind for a while. “Do you think it is the cause of the environment that does it?” he asked.
He waved a hand at the room in which they did the examinations. Parts of it had been unlatched and unfolded for precisely this purpose; the mechanical house seemed fiendishly modular in its design, and Hugh was at a loss for why such a convenient design was not used more in the sunlit city. “The curious house. The night half of town itself. Any of it, or all of it. Am I being molded by an unseen sculptor to better fit their plan?”
Mr. Ward nodded and went back to measuring the distance between Hugh’s various pupils. “It is the result of the treatment interacting with your personal growth, Mr. Wainwright. You are making grand strides to understand your own nature and limitations, to say nothing of accepting them. This is the most significant part of the process, as without it you would not have had your first halting metamorphosis that encouraged Mr. Clifford-Smythe to assign us to one another.”
“So I have him to thank?”
This got a genuine sneer out of Mr. Ward. “I would personally advise against it. Humanity owes him much for his work with the society, as the flock needs sheep-dogs to keep the wolves at bay, but he prefers to never treat a dog as anything but a wolf that knows its own name.”
Hugh frowned. “That is the case, is it not?”
Mr. Ward sat down in a chair next to Hugh’s and sighed. “It is the responsibility of those with power to place themselves at the mercy of the powerless, this is true. A man of your sort with even half your physical prowess could tear me asunder bare-handed and scarcely break a sweat. It is right and good that people be protected from that, and the fear of its possibility.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “The problem is that certain members of the society, Mr. Clifford-Smythe among them, believe that because it is part of a man’s nature to be monstrous, he can only be monstrous, and must be reminded of this at every turn, even—and especially—if he strives to act otherwise. Ease of corruption, ease of manipulation, these are tendencies around which the culture at large must navigate, but they are hardly set in stone.”
“I take it you do not share these opinions,” said Hugh. He slipped a claw beneath his cravat and fiddled with the society emblem he wore there. It was like the collar on an animal: proof of ownership, of the presence of someone who would notice he was missing. He did not know how to feel about it now.
“That is correct, Mr. Wainwright. A lack of compassion in our work is only asking for resentment to fester, and ultimately bring about our mutual doom. It is my belief that we of the society would instead do right by our charges by emboldening their humanity while simultaneously enriching their other halves. You have found great success during your hunts here, if I am not mistaken?”
Hugh nodded with enthusiasm. The hunting had been fantastic, and provided Hugh would agree to eating leftovers for the next day’s meals Mr. Ward did not even mind him feasting upon his own kills. It was exhilarating. He felt alive in the night city, dreadful as it was. The excitement of finding a new assignment in the mail, and the satisfaction of summarizing it to Mr. Ward as his wounds were seen to afterwards, provided the perfect seasoning to the longer, quieter days spent with his books in the mechanical house.
“I suspect it is in no small part because you are shedding your sense of shame in your profession,” continued Mr. Ward. “You hunt and harry, and do these things well, and yet you seem to define yourself by more than just those things now even as your professional ability grows with the aggression of a thistle. I have heard you practicing the pianoforte in the parlor at times, for example. When you first arrived you shied from such expression.”
A pianoforte made certain assumptions about how many fingers its player possessed. Hugh had found he could limit himself to six per hand when condensed, which made things easier. He was still not any good at it.
Mr. Ward took his ledger from the table and wrote something in it next to a sketch of the arrangement of Hugh’s eyes. “Eyes within and eyes without is your favorite passage from your collection to quote to me. Each mote of personal truth, each gram of acceptance you show yourself, has contributed to these. You see your own self with greater clarity and in turn your self turns that clarity outwards.” He added the day’s date in the corner of the page. “I had hoped that this treatment might bear fruit, but I could hardly anticipate such wonderful results. You are proof that there is goodness inherent in the monstrous that does not require the excising of your own monstrosity.”
Hugh adjusted his vest self-consciously. Praise was a rare enough treat, but praise from Mr. Ward was sweetest ambrosia. “I am at a loss for words, Mr. Ward,” he said.
Something else was troubling him beyond simple humility. “You said that you do not agree with Mr. Clifford-Smythe’s methodology, and yet he assigned you to me with presumed full knowledge of this. Why?”
Mr. Ward chuckled darkly. “Most likely he was hoping I would be mauled to death so he would no longer need to deal with me. It was a risk I was willing to take.”
“He expected that from me?” said Hugh, more to himself than to anyone else.
A comforting hand alighted on his shoulder. “Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, his voice uncommonly kind. “What that foul man assumed of you was to be nothing more than the same caricature he feels all of your lot to be. What you are is one Hugh Robin Wainwright, society jägermeister, aficionado of light foods and heavy wines, student of lore, tyro of music, and beast with the heart of a man. I am gladdened to have the pleasure of knowing you.”
“And I you, Mr. Ward.” It bordered on too familiar, but Hugh supposed that if there was anyone with whom he had the right to be familiar it would be a man whose most intimate flavors he knew. Surely Mr. Ward would understand.
They sat together for a while, neither saying anything in favor of listening to the ticking of the house and the wails of creatures passing outside. After a while Mr. Ward took up his physician’s tools once more and returned to the task of documenting Hugh’s progressing anomalies.
Hugh had just finished having his blood drawn for the session when something struck him.
“Mr. Ward, may I ask you something?”
“Certainly,” said Mr. Ward, not looking up for the dressing he was wrapping around the crook of Hugh’s left elbow.
“You are not a creature yourself, correct?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
Hugh wrinkled his snout and narrowed his central eye in puzzlement. “If you are not one of our kind, why such concern over our well-being? Mr. Clifford-Smythe’s methods, and those of men who came before him, have worked thus far. You get nothing out of this. I cannot imagine why you would invest such time and effort in our lot when you have neither proof it would work out for the better nor personal reason to hope it might.”
Mr. Ward clipped the last roll of gauze in place. “Because it is the right thing to do, Mr. Wainwright,” he said.
“And not simply because you fancy us?”
The closest thing Hugh had ever seen to anger flickered across Mr. Ward’s features. “Mr. Wainwright. I shall choose my words carefully, so please listen to them with equal care. I am unashamed to say that I enjoy your company however it pleases you to share it with me, and that it brings a level of satisfaction to my work that I had hoped for, but not expected, from assisting you with your treatment. I had expected the offer initially made to be one of courtesy, perhaps a mechanical task to which I would not object. It is a fine thing that matters progressed otherwise.
“However. I have taken my stance with the society because I am a humanitarian at heart, and monsters or no, we are all human alike. I felt there was an injustice to be addressed, and so began my work as an advocate for less horrific treatment. The more I dealt with your kin the more I appreciated your unique natures. I expect no laurels for my personal tastes; I say this because I wish there to be no question that I am concerned with the wrongs done in the shadow of older wrongs first, and any other inspiration a far distant second. To claim I am motivated solely by lust is to spit on the work done by many others before me, and no doubt many others who must come after, all of us toiling in the name of compassion.
“So, to answer: No, it is not simply because I fancy you. It is because I recognize you, as I would recognize any monster of the society, as a man with flaws and finesses alike, and it is those traits that I respect and think worthy of my time. Do I make myself abundantly clear?”
Hugh, stunned, could only nod. Mr. Ward smoothed back his hair and returned to his usual blank mask of a face as he reviewed Hugh’s meal listing. There was a sense of history to those words, the sort that implied old wounds whose nerves Hugh had inadvertently twanged. He did not want their examination to end on such a foul note, so he waited once more for Mr. Ward to finish comparing records before he spoke again.
“I apologize for behaving rudely, Mr. Ward. It was an unkind thing to say.”
Mr. Ward flared his nostrils. “Indeed it was, Mr. Wainwright. I accept your apology, but I would ask you to mind your language about the subject in the future. It is a sensitive one.”
This exchange had involved so little diplomatic maneuvering that Hugh felt himself left in the lurch. He realized he was reeling from expecting a talk like one with his peers, perhaps the sort that featured Jonathan finding an increasingly long litany of sins for which he felt Hugh must atone. How strange that the air here was clearer even with the sky outside so frequently blanketed with dark fog!
Hugh condensed and stretched on request as Mr. Ward continued with their usual routine. He did not understand the number of chemicals Mr. Ward kept on hand, though not for lack of trying; all Hugh knew for certain was that some were designed to react based on a man’s organic makeup, others were meant to cleanse or to cure, and others still were more mundane substances like the fuel for the chemical torch. It never ceased to amaze him how confidently Mr. Ward flitted from one to the other like some curious oracle. The treatment was truly an elaborate thing.
Thinking about the treatment sent Hugh’s mind wandering to thoughts of the future. It would be nice to spend his days this way, as uncomfortable as some of the collections were; pleasant as the thought was, it would be foolish to assume it so. Mr. Clifford-Smythe himself had implied the treatment was a temporary affair. He had said as much to Mr. Ward, but the thought of returning to the manor they had cleaned and reclaimed filled Hugh with dread. Jonathan could have the shelves.
Mr. Ward made a sound of interest as he daubed a heated wire against a drop of Hugh’s blood; the latter surged up like the growth of a fleshy mushroom at a hundred times the usual speed, which was the expected behavior, and one which caused neither of them concern.
“I had meant to ask,” said Hugh. “What is to become of us once the time allotted for the treatment has run its course? I imagine I will be returned to my previous quarters, which is an outcome I find I have lost my taste for.”
“I shall ideally remain here in the mechanical house, offering my services to those who come in your wake. As you have done so well I imagine there will be at least one or two in the coming months.” Mr. Ward stroked his chin in thought. “You are objectively a far more efficient hunter here than anywhere else in the city. If you so wish, I could make a case for your continued assignment to the house, perhaps as a continuing case study. You would be free to leave at any time, of course, and beholden to none but yourself. I dislike the thought of you being seen as a pet.”
“Ah, but that is true in its own way, is it not?” asked Hugh, overcome with puckishness. “You are my handler, Mr. Ward.”
This earned a quirk of the brow from Mr. Ward. “It seems there is still a great deal we do not understand about one another, Mr. Wainwright,” he said after a moment’s contemplation. “I treasure the opportunity to continue to learn.” He stood and began storing the tools of his trade back in their compartments in the walls. “For now, however, I must begin preparing supper. Greens do not stew themselves.”
“Simply call me when it is time and I shall come running for my bowl, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh, and he chuckled at his own joke all the way back to the study.
Day the twenty-sixth of the treatment, first meal.
– two cups tea mixture
– one glass fruit juice
– one glass milk
– four pieces toasted bread, rye
– two eggs, soft-boiled
– one serving cold chicken
– one serving rice and peppered cabbage
– one apple, sliced
Woke up ravenous but was able to ease the worst of it with a left-over dish from supper. All consumables provided by Mr. Ward.
Hugh awoke to smoke and confusion.
His first instinct was to reach for one of the many weapons he kept hidden in his room, but something was wrong with the devices in the walls. Nothing opened the way it was supposed to. He wasted a few seconds prying at a stuck panel between himself and a trick-saw before giving up. If he could not get at his tools then he would have to make do with natural ability.
The familiar evening sounds were conspicuously absent save for the odd ululation in the distance; instead Hugh heard the roar of fire and the sound of breaking architecture. There were many things in the house that might have started such a conflagration, from the simple error of a misplaced candle all the way up to a malfunction with his trusty hunting torch, and he might have suspected any of these had he not had the presence of mind to perceive. Doing this revealed the baleful tells he had hoped he would not see. This was neither an accident nor the doings of one of the night city’s fell fauna overcoming the house’s defenses. This had been set, and set by a society hand.
He had not spent that evening in Mr. Ward’s chambers, having kept to his own room thanks to some reading on the history of the profession that had interested him, so Hugh’s next course of action was to carefully navigate the hallway towards said quarters in an attempt to rendezvous. The upstairs hall was not yet aflame. Flickering light tinged with unnatural colors glowed from the stairwell, illuminating the space in ways Hugh had never seen during his stay; his heart ached for the inevitable loss of such fine woodwork and carpeting. It was easy to become numb to the artistry that had gone into building the place when it was so dark all the time. Who knew if there was anywhere comparable in the whole of the city?
Houses, even mechanical ones, could be rebuilt. People could not. Hugh placed a hand at the door to Mr. Ward’s bedroom and found it cool to the touch, so he tried the handle. It didn’t budge. Cursing, he fumbled with the lock hidden within the animal-headed sculptures set all around the doorframe, each fruitless twist of a horn or pull of a concealed lever fraying his nerves further. When the door finally clicked open, the room was empty.
Mr. Ward knew a great many ways to get into the house, which logically meant he had to know a method or two to escape it. Hugh prayed that would be the case. More concerning was that the compartments which housed Mr. Ward’s research were all open, each as empty as the bedchamber. Nearly a month of work didn’t simply get up and walk away. Had Mr. Ward been burgled? Worse, had he set the fire, leaving Hugh to roast like last night’s duck? Hugh was not so good with scents that he could track a target like a hound unless they had an air of the eldritch about them; if Mr. Ward had vanished into some passage in the wall, Hugh couldn’t tell.
Assuming the worst of Mr. Ward was a bad habit left over from bad times, Hugh scolded himself. There were no traces of foul play. Mr. Ward would hardly have spent so much time and effort rehabilitating him, changing the very way he thought, if the end goal was to cut and run in as dramatic a manner as this. Surely all Hugh had to do was reach the courtyard and he would find Mr. Ward there with a satchel full of records.
Getting to the courtyard made itself Hugh’s next goal. He closed things up behind him to prevent the easy passage of air—having set his share of fires in his time, Hugh knew a thing or two about how they spread—and returned to the hall. A crash from downstairs signaled the end of the pianoforte. He might have written it off as the result of a rafter collapsing had it not been followed by additional sounds of musical ruin. Someone was intentionally destroying the parlor.
A man clad in little but a sleeping gown and a pair of boots could cover quite a lot of distance if suitably motivated. Hugh strained to keep his steps light; the slightest creak of a rafter could reveal his presence, and he had every reason to assume the worst of whoever was down there. He couldn’t slip out any of the barred-over windows, nor rely on the usual passages that led through the bowels of the house. The smoke was half blinding already. Hugh didn’t relish being as exposed as he would be if he took the stairs, but he was running out of options. He had to find Mr. Ward.
The further he descended into the house the thicker and hotter the air became. The stench was unbelievable. Between the many strong-smelling chemicals used for different parts of the work and the general charnel reek of a successful hunt Hugh was not unaccustomed to strong odors; this, however, was something different. It was like the concentrated foulness of a target but stronger than he’d ever encountered. Hugh began to fit the pieces of the puzzle together and the picture it revealed was not one he liked any way it completed itself.
He snuck to an outside door and slipped through it as quietly as he was able. In the courtyard he could see the extent of the fire, and the lack of damage to the interior walls, but there was still no sign of Mr. Ward. Hugh frowned. He wouldn’t have any trouble scaling the bricks to get to a neighboring rooftop; the problem was that he couldn’t tell if there was anything waiting for him there. Between the smoke and the stink his senses were thoroughly befuddled.
Something huge and metal smashed through the wall from inside the house; Hugh could only describe it as a plowshare someone had beaten into a sword, though the serrated teeth had no place on either instrument. He had never seen a trick weapon on such a scale before. Hugh skittered backwards, his hands already twisting into defensive, many-fingered claws. He felt his society emblem thump against his collarbone as he came back upright; to his increasing dread, he doubted whoever had ruined the house would care about his allegiance. There was only one kind of man who could do this sort of thing.
“Wainwright,” said Jonathan, his blade leveled at Hugh’s head. “I’ve been tasked to bring you back.”
“The maester has not summoned me, Petticote,” said Hugh.
“Of course he hasn’t. Any missives he would have delivered here would be at risk of that damned man seeing them, and we can’t be having that.”
Hugh strained not to snarl at Jonathan referring to Mr. Ward so crudely. “Have you done something with him?”
Jonathan spat. “No, more’s the pity, so I’ve had to do the next best thing and destroy his heretical work myself. Was this the cage they had you in, Wainwright? It’s as fragile as marzipan.”
“I was getting better here,” said Hugh.
“That’s your problem, Wainwright,” said Jonathan as he took another step forward. His teeth were stained pink. If Jonathan hadn’t intercepted Mr. Ward, what had he been eating? “There’s nothing better about your current state. By God’s hooks, man, just look at the state of your hands! You’ve allowed things to fester instead of just cutting them out.”
Hugh kept his eyes on the weapon in Jonathan’s hands. “That’s a barbarous solution to anything, isn’t it?”
Ruddy metal glinted from everywhere on Jonathan’s person. Had he always had so many pieces of himself replaced? Hugh had known men who had been in accidents who had needed to repair themselves, but this was not that: Jonathan had been seemingly rent to pieces and put back together like the shell of a broken egg. It had not even been an entire month since Hugh had left. If this was the sort of thing that happened back beneath the sun, he would gladly stay in the night city forever.
Jonathan sneered. “What defines the barbaric? The weak and the wicked will always have excuses. You would still know as much if you hadn’t listened to the lies they’ve been stuffing into your head for the past weeks.” He swung the bastard weapon again, forcing Hugh to duck. “Come on along, now. You don’t need whatever you’ve been taught you do. The maester can still find a use for you within the society.”
“I’m quite useful already,” said Hugh with all sincerity. Had he not found himself at peak performance here? Had he not pursued the society’s goals with efficiency and class? Even if Mr. Ward’s treatment was ultimately a fluke, he had felt productive each time he contributed another dull set of data points. Something as simple as writing down how much tea he had every day gave his life a sense of purpose it had lacked before.
“I’m warning you, Wainwright, this is your last offer before I deem you too far gone to salvage.”
“I think I shall decline, Petticote.”
“Then be hunted.” The rest of his body boiled around the metal charms he wore against his skin. His brass prosthesis buckled beneath the weight of his transformation as a new leg erupted from the stump, a perfect match for his left. When Jonathan opened his mouth it was in a wide and chasmous grin filled with teeth. Hugh squinted, willing himself to see what he was trying to ignore, and a layer of mental film peeled away to reveal the eyes that rolled in impossible sockets all along Jonathan’s cheeks and gums. Eyes within, the book had said, and even given his own nigh-apotheosis this struck Hugh as terribly, horribly literal.
What struck Hugh, even as he avoided being struck by the thing in Jonathan’s hands, was how wrong Jonathan looked. The grotesquery wasn’t what stood out, as any time Hugh stretched his own reflection greeted him with something far less human, but the sense of desperation: Jonathan moved as though he loathed his second shape, and while he had always been a bigger and broader man than Hugh he did not seem capable of feeling enough peace with himself to make use of it. Hugh had to keep moving. Nimble or no, he feared what would happen if he was hit even once by the nameless hunting weapon. He also couldn’t be certain he could outlast his foe, as while Hugh had been awake for all of a few minutes Jonathan had had time to prepare.
Jonathan belched a glob of something fiery at Hugh that seared his back even as Hugh fell prone to avoid it. This was a mistake. Something pinned him to the ground with a great and terrible weight and he craned his neck upwards to see Jonathan leering at him, a new light already glowing between his teeth. Hugh struggled in vain. He had taken down opponents larger than himself before, but none in so cramped a set of quarters and never without his equipment. Even as he stared down the source of his imminent conflagration, Hugh distantly hoped that Mr. Ward, wherever he was, had made it out to safety, and would never return to see what had become of his patient.
A shot rang out like a thunderclap and Jonathan reeled, a bloom of molten silver dribbling down his brass-studded shoulder. His confusion was the chance that Hugh needed. Changing with such violence that he shredded his clothes, Hugh pushed Jonathan off of him and fell upon the hunter with great ferocity.
Fangs rent skin with the ease of a knife through crisp lettuce. Hugh fought like a demon. He hooked his claws wherever they might find purchase and pulled; it took little effort to find a length of gut looped around his wrist, and barely more than that to wrench it free. The ash-dappled ground became a sodden slurry as spilled blood soaked into the earth, and Hugh’s curious toes splayed instinctively to keep him from losing his footing. What wounds he received in return were nothing. Hugh was a monster, and so he would be monstrous.
It was not merely an opponent Hugh was ruining, but everything Jonathan stood for, every rotten vein poisoning the society, every time a person of his sort was forced into an ill-fitting mold because they were told they could be nothing else, and in particular every order from Mr. Clifford-Smythe’s duplicitous pen. Years of anger he had never known he had borne now came undone with Jonathan taking the brunt of it. There was joy in violence, Hugh found, and ripping apart a symbol of that which had kept its boot on his neck was something he could not have torn himself from even if he had tried.
When Jonathan’s remains stopped twitching and the red haze passed from Hugh’s eyes, he looked over to what had been the source of the gunshot. A slender figure, his fashionably long hair slightly singed, leaned against the wall, Hugh’s beast-hunting pistol clutched in both trembling hands. He was breathing heavily.
Hugh straightened up. “Mr. Ward?”
“Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward with a weak nod. “I fear I’m a bit dizzy all of a sudden.”
Hugh was at his side in the blink of an eye. He supported Mr. Ward with one arm and eased him to a seat on one of the courtyard benches. “I never store my pistols loaded, and it had to draw its shot from somewhere. It is a devil of a thing if you not accustomed to the process. You will be all right in the end, Mr. Ward, but I urge you to be careful with my tools.”
Mr. Ward coughed and leaned against Hugh. His suit was already smeared with blood; to Hugh’s great relief none of it smelled human. The gun fell from his fingers and rattled harmlessly to the paving stones. “Ghastly things, firearms. A pity they are sometimes so useful,” muttered Mr. Ward before he returned his attention to Hugh. “I evaded our visitor until he began breaking the house. By then I had become trapped in one of the passages, and I must admit I feared I would cook to death, though something connected to my chamber door opened at the right moment to free me. Was that your doing?”
Hugh nodded. Wood crashed behind him in a shower of sparks but he ignored it. Houses, however fit for the knacker’s, could always be rebuilt.
“I had wondered if it was from the big man trying to root me out,” said Mr. Ward. “I’m glad it wasn’t. You were looking for me?”
“I was worried for your safety,” said Hugh. “It was the first thing on my mind when I awoke. I fear I’m rather fond of you, Mr. Ward. Romantically so.”
The corner of Mr. Ward’s mouth curled into the smallest of smiles. “I shall strive not to hold it against you, Mr. Wainwright.”
Hugh rested his head in Mr. Ward’s lap and gazed up at him worriedly with his central eye. “He once was a peer of mine. He said he’d been sent by the maester to fetch me, and that he had orders to ruin everything you had studied thus far. Is a month of sewing me clothes and feeding me tea that much of a threat to the society?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not. Mr. Clifford-Smythe is fond of his little games. He might have tired of one hunter or two, he might have sought to destroy my research or simply put it through its paces. I have dealt with him for years and not once would I consider him any less slippery than a hagfish.” Mr. Ward brushed some ash from his shoulders. “One does not expect to get work done in the society without finding it put to one crucible or another.”
“Your work…,” said Hugh, his voice mournful as he watched the house burn down around its treasures.
Mr. Ward stroked his nose. “Some is saved, some is hidden in other safe-houses not even you know of. More than a little is lost, however. I hesitate to burden you with the responsibility of helping me replace it—”
“But I do not hesitate to agree,” said Hugh. He allowed himself another floppy-tongued dog’s grin. “You may blame that most vexable fondness of mine, if you like.”
“Perhaps I shall,” said Mr. Ward. “Once I have caught my breath I can lead us to a safe place to sleep. It will not be as fine as this, and the larder is a simple one, but we shall regroup. I shall be sure to fine Mr. Clifford-Smythe for not properly disciplining one of his charges, resulting in damages to the mechanical house which must now be repaired.”
Hugh looked skeptical. “Will that work?”
“Doubtful, Mr. Wainwright, but I will be putting more of my cards on the table, and if he does not wish to lose face he will have to respond to tonight’s incident in some fashion. I am hoping that by showing our claws we have made it clear we are serious about the treatment. Perhaps in time we can help rehabilitate some other poor soul or two….”
“I would like that, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh.
Hugh had thought for a very long time that the only thing he was capable of doing well was hurting people. As he sat in the burning courtyard, slick with gore from a man he once called friend and resting his head in the lap of a man he once feared was a foe, he permitted that perhaps there was always more to a monster than one thought.