Damnatio Memoriae

written and illustrated by Iron Eater

❦ 1

The sun shone brightly overhead, coaxing the summer air into something fresher than the usual soup-thick seasonal humidity, but even with parasol in hand Hugh was in no mood to enjoy it; no amount of good weather could influence the vexation that came from slogging about the grounds of Martlethead Court in search of the supernatural. Normally this would have been quite the spot of fun for him, as Hugh loved nothing more than to romp about in pursuit of something or another, whether approved by the society (those in the know did not need to ask which society) or otherwise, and a part of him was enjoying trudging across hill and dale with the promise of a picnic lunch in the future. Being set on a chase like the hound he was never troubled him much. The problem was the location: Martlethead Court was far from the city he called home, much too far, and those who lived in the manor were the selfsame pe]rsons who’d had him sent away all those years ago when his true nature expressed itself in a manner most exigent. Hugh quietly resented being forced into an unplanned family reunion.

“Oh, fuss and blight,” said Hugh as he rounded yet another ornamental shrub to discover nothing hiding behind it.

“I take it there’s still no sign of the anomaly, Mr. Wainwright?” said Mr. Ward from a few steps behind him. Being Hugh’s most dear companion of some years by that point—among a great many other things, including valet, physician, and handler—the society had seen fit to dispatch him with Hugh on assignments such as these, as their respective skillsets complimented one another’s nicely. If Hugh was a fearsome hand of the society, then Mr. Ward was one of its ever-furtive eyes; woe unto any who thought such analogies were the limit of either gentleman’s ability!

Hugh nodded. “I fear it is so, Mr. Ward. I’ve not spotted so much as a fox-hole’s worth of strangeness this whole time.” He huffed in irritation. “If things are going to be so set on being dull, they could have been courteous enough to provide interesting wildlife to see while we march along. Or even domestic creatures! I would have rather liked to see a swan.”

“For the swans’ sake, perhaps it’s best they keep their distance.” 

“But I’ve heard their tongues are toothed, like a goose’s! Would it not be unreasonable to see for myself? A proper naturalist cannot subsist solely on the research of others.”

“Would that such were the only cause for your peers to claim impropriety, Mr. Wainwright. Save troubling the birds for our next visit to the coast.” Those not accustomed to Mr. Ward’s mannerisms might have thought the statement icy; Hugh, having no small experience in deciphering his handler’s subtleties, reveled in the ribbon of fondness his keen ears heard there. He allowed his usual sheepish half-smile to bloom into something more genuine. How lovely it was to be able to adore Mr. Ward while on the job! They worked best as a team for reasons above and beyond mere complimentary ability. The boost to morale was most welcome when supernatural things insisted on remaining imperceptible.

Mr. Ward either didn’t notice the heat or, more likely, willfully ignored it, aside from having tied his hair back and away from his neck, and save for a bit of greenery clinging to his trouser cuffs he still looked neat as a pin despite all the nature through which they’d walked. Sunlight gleamed off the frames of his spectacles. The smart butler’s livery he wore was as black as Hugh’s own clothes were cheerily colorful. A basket hung from the crook of his arm, his case notebook poking out from beneath its hinged lid; there had been no call for him to open either since their outing had begun. Would the whole day be similarly inefficacious, then? That was what Hugh feared most: Mr. Ward was a busy man, very busy, and being called away from home was distraction enough from his most recent dissertation without the indignity of having his time wasted laid atop it. So far Mr. Ward hadn’t mentioned feeling one way or another about the situation. Hugh had known him long enough to know this was never proof of anything.

No, no, it wouldn’t do to dwell on what they hadn’t accomplished thus far, but to review all that they had. They had come to Martlethead Court three days prior, the first day dedicated to settling in after their trip and the next two spent learning the grounds (those parts Hugh could bear to visit, at any rate) and the general state of the household. As he walked the halls Hugh found he still remembered much of the manor’s layout from his boyhood years. There was the library, the cellars, the chapel, the nursery that had spat him out back when he’d made himself unforgivably unwelcome, all of it practically untouched beyond the most surface-level of adjustments. The gardens had changed, of course, since uprooting decorative shrubs to put down in new configurations was far easier to do than tear down parts of the great house proper; try as he might, no matter how much time spent tracing the blooming corridors Hugh couldn’t find any significance to their patterns beyond the aesthetic. Perhaps that would have been too easy. People accidentally called forth unknowable presences all the time if left to their own devices with too much geometry in their heads; had this been such a straightforward case, it was unlikely that a society hunter—much less a jägermeister such as Hugh—would have been called to attend to the matter. The dossier the maesters had given him back at the city had mentioned society agents (which agents, it did not say, not that he expected it to) had already investigated to no avail. It made sense to Hugh that dispatching a team such as himself and Mr. Ward would be the next logical step.

Looking for the unreal was something of a métier of Hugh’s. It came to him naturally, perhaps not so much as breathing but certainly as comfortable as climbing or making sure his hair looked neat in the morning, and seeing as the unreal presence in question (at least according to the dossier) was an unreal place, said place being a little scrap of the city on the metaphorical other side of the mirror, the society had called him in as a specialist. Hugh was not about to argue. He adored the so-called night city, loved its ever-changing streets and its eternal black skies and the many, many horrors that roamed its twisting expanses, and he liked to think it might even abstractly love him back, perhaps in the manner a wild beast would permit a range-warden to touch its flank. Each new instance of that place he discovered was a fresh joy to explore. If there was one such new spot bubbling up on the manor grounds right where it oughtn’t, it was his duty to find the thing, figure out what was causing it and why, and ultimately have it dealt with safely. As much as the night city was his home, it was a deathtrap for the unsuspecting; much as a road-worker smoothed over holes in the street to keep carts from veering wild, so too did Hugh smooth over holes in the world to keep the common folk from falling in. That he could find no trace of the reported trouble was concerning, indeed.

Was there a secret hidden in the wind, perhaps? Hugh stood ramrod-straight to let the summer breeze flutter through his curls and tug at his parasol. He didn’t taste anything strange as the air ran between his bared teeth. No diagrams wrote themselves into being among the scarce few clouds. The only thing he smelled was the heady perfume of the rose bushes, paired with the sweet tang of grass and the faintest hint of the scented oil Mr. Ward had applied that morning, and while these all had their charms, they were strictly denizens of the natural world. At least Hugh and Mr. Ward were both getting plenty of fresh air and sunshine. That had to count for something in Mr. Ward’s complex web of health-conscious theory.

Even with the weather so horribly brilliant Hugh was far happier out-of-doors than inside. Inside was where the majority of the family dwelt. Thinking of them as the family rather than his family came surprisingly easily, given how little Hugh’d had to do with them across the course of his adult life. He was vaguely aware of some sort of society funding provided by the more senior Wainwrights. What, however, had they done for him lately? Since being handed off to the society for admittedly understandable reasons, and save for a brief period shortly after his transfer while the business with the writ of restraint was being finalized, Hugh had been a ghost to them. He’d no account of any of the family Wainwright being present for even the more socially acceptable of his achievements. None of them wrote, not for courtesy or any other reason. Holidays were right out! No, it was simple as could be for Hugh to place these half-strangers at arm’s length. He was related to them by blood and nothing more. Picking through topiary in the sun was far preferable to trying to make conversation with those mysterious parties by several orders of magnitude.

He tried not to dwell on it. The family would stay out of the way while he and Mr. Ward performed the task they had arrived to do, and once everything was done the appropriate signatures would be collected, and then Hugh would pack up his things to once more leave the place where he was born, this time hopefully for good. All he had to do was keep moving forward and things would surely work themselves out the way they always did. He’d continue to tell himself as much until given ironclad proof otherwise.

After a few more passes Hugh declared the rose garden completely and utterly untouched by the unnatural (barring those places where his shoes had trod, which didn’t count), which became a fruitless zig-zag along a manicured lawn, which itself ended in the shade of a folly. Said folly was an ornamental structure built in an overly-complex style that had been popular a few decades back, the kind that always made Hugh think of stacked-up fancy pastries, and like most follies it existed for little reason other than to look nice when looking out of one of the manor’s many windows. It was also out of direct sunlight. Hugh’s sensitive skin was usually able to withstand daylight outings so long as he had his parasol at hand and kept up with his proper diet and medicines; as the typical daylight outing was also one that involved significantly more cover than the rambling expanse of his family’s lands, however, Hugh and Mr. Ward both agreed it would be best for his health to take a rest until the sun was no longer at its zenith.

“Let us have something to eat while we wait, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, who was already unfurling a blanket across the marble floor. Being responsible for both of their tailoring and laundry, he was particular about keeping their clothes as clean as possible while out and about. “You’re about due for your next tonic, and a meal shall pass the rest of the time nicely.”

“What a lovely idea! I could stand to have a little rest,” agreed Hugh. He sat himself down and smoothed out the tails of his frock coat behind him, then dedicated himself to keeping out of the way as Mr. Ward set out the plates of treats he’d prepared that morning.

Martlethead Court had its own dedicated kitchen staff, which meant much of Hugh’s food thus far had been the work of unfamiliar hands in ways he tried very hard to appreciate. The results were overwhelmingly brown and gray in a way Hugh’s palate found increasingly displeasing with time; Mr. Ward’s cooking, even when limited to the level of finger sandwiches and sliced fruit, was a welcome respite. Hugh suspected that the manor’s pantry had not contained much in the way of lavender butter when Mr. Ward had first darkened its threshold. Not that compound butters of any sort were unusual in the region—one of Hugh’s scant few happy memories of the manor involved picnicking by the stream with his parents and siblings, and flower-flavored sandwiches had often been part of these—but there was an air of listlessness about the place he hadn’t known to be aware of as a lad. Was that a recent development? Was it the anomaly’s fault? Given how much dreary self-loathing Hugh had needed to slough away when he had first been entrusted to Mr. Ward’s care, of how bone-deep that wretchedness had festered, perhaps not.

Hugh, choosing not to linger on the notion for longer than he already had, removed his gloves—it was difficult finding ones in his size with a full six fingers per, so he tended to be a bit precious about keeping his clean—and set about happily nipping up everything he was plated. He took his time and chewed everything properly so as to better savor the delicate flavors instilled into each. Ah, the lightness of cucumber and watercress! Ah, the savory creaminess of salmon salad! Two of the little sandwiches even had pieces of what Hugh took to be salted lamb in them, which was quite the rare treat; Mr. Ward almost never served red meat at home, given how much of Hugh’s diet came from his evening patrols, and the lack of a known hunting ground from which he could feed was already making Hugh restless. How his stomach would cry out for all the tastiest parts of a fresh kill! The lamb (paired with a deft application of mint butter, naturally) slaked some of that craving, which made him feel like quite the wolf, indeed. Wolves were handsome creatures that cared greatly for their mates, so Hugh supposed there were far worse things to be.

After the sandwiches came a little bowl of spinach leaves, dried berries, and chopped nuts, all dressed in a pleasantly light vinaigrette, and after the salad there was fruit and cheese to enjoy for dessert. Mr. Ward poured him glasses of fresh-mixed lemonade throughout. What a finely-matched meal for the weather it turned out to be! It was all very nice; ignoring for the way his health faltered when there was a lack of gore in his diet, Hugh could easily imagine himself eating similar fare every day for a month without tiring of it.

Lamb sandwiches were not the only method he had to keep his needs in check, thankfully, and upon swallowing the last of the dessert strawberries Hugh found a familiar wax-sealed red bottle perched on its own saucer in front of him, complete with a few extra mint leaves and a curl of vinaigrette to decorate the plate. People who claimed Mr. Ward didn’t possess a sense of humor really didn’t know what they were talking about. Hugh broke the seal and drank deeply of the smell that rolled out; it was a pungent, coppery stink, primal yet subtly medicinal, and it carried with it the noisome echoes of all the wrong parts of a slaughterhouse that nonetheless set Hugh’s mouth to watering the more he pulled air across his tongue.

The lack of a night city meant that Hugh’s usual diet was disrupted, a detail around which they’d planned, and the lack of access to the kitchens only exacerbated the fact; Mr. Ward had attempted to audit the larder’s supply of vegetables several times by then, wielding his status as Hugh’s personal physician like a footman’s morning star, but without full access to the stores and ovens to make good on this intel there was only so much they could do. Why in the world were they so guarded against an outsider getting into the spinach? Were there greater plans for the chard and lentils? At least it was nothing that couldn’t be managed through careful planning. Conditions such as these were why the sharp-smelling tonics had been brewed in the first place.

“Be sure to consume your tonic with more than just your nose, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, mildly, currently busying himself with cleaning off the luncheon plates with a damp rag before returning them to the basket. He’d already finished his own half of the picnic.

“Yes, yes, I’ll be sure to,” said Hugh. He licked at the stopper and sighed with pleasure. “I’m simply enjoying this little taste of home in the time we have. It’s still a bit too bright to return to the investigation, after all.” One hand gestured demonstratively at a patch of sunlight that practically glowed against the marble. “My parasol does its best, but we’ve been out for so long, have we not? I fear I’ll start to shed again if we aren’t careful. Whatever would we do with the things? Best to extend our break a hair longer, for my sake.”

Mr. Ward replied with a hum that neither agreed nor disagreed and continued packing up the plates.

There was no sense to trying to make small talk with Mr. Ward when he had something on his mind, so Hugh took one last sniff of the tonic bottle before gulping down the whole thing. He dabbed his tongue against the lip of the bottle before replacing its stopper and setting it back on the plate on which it had been presented. The tonic itself coated his guts comfortingly. A final mouthful of lemonade rinsed the worst of the color from his teeth, and one of the peppermint humbugs in his coat pocket would handle the rest of the tidying up his medicine required; aside from the pleasingly bracing flavor and the way it covered up the smell of his tonics, humbugs reminded him to swallow his surfeit of saliva more often, which was generally preferable to having it dribble down his front if he became incensed over something. The excess drooling had come into his life at about the same time his extra fingers did, or perhaps when his eyes had changed color, or perhaps some time before the accident whose treatment first brought him and Mr. Ward together. Hugh was never wholly sure which bestial tell came first. It wasn’t completely without impact on his everyday life—Mr. Ward had to wear head-squares to bed to keep his hair dry, as Hugh’s mouth was as wet as ever while asleep—but just as a man with a limp knew how to balance his stride to safely traverse a flight of stairs, so too had Hugh adapted to being a creature ever-slavering.

Hugh palmed a sweet, unwrapped it, and popped it in his mouth to roll around on his tongue. How refreshing it was! The mint chased the bloody smell from his breath the way it always did, and his sinuses finally felt clear and open after hours of trotting across unfamiliar lawns. Most importantly, the humbugs rendered him suitably kissable once more. Mr. Ward was a man of strange desires and curious wants, but one thing on which he was firm was his strong dislike for the taste of blood, and so Hugh would never cease to go to great lengths to keep such from his lips once he was done with hunting, or drinking a tonic, or any other deed that might tinge his affections sanguinely. It was only polite.

As for Mr. Ward himself, he was still painstakingly returning the dishes to the basket after cleaning them, his notebook resting on the blanket just far enough to avoid stray water droplets. Hugh felt the care shown to the crockery to be quite the considerate move and commented as much.

“Would that it were done purely out of respect,” said Mr. Ward as he checked the stacking of the dishes. “I have…some respect for the kitchen’s staff, as is best practice, but they seem to have been instructed to view me as one might a venomous spider.”

The thought of how exactly it would look were one to perceive Mr. Ward as a spider briefly crossed Hugh’s mind (the extra arms would no doubt help with the housework, after all, and a red hourglass on the back of his tailcoat would not be the worst addition…) though he chose not to share this. Instead, he asked, “Why, whatever might be the case, Mr. Ward?”

“You have asked me to be patient during our visit, Mr. Wainwright, and for your sake I have been, but after all this time my observation remains the same: your family do not seem to care for me much.”

Hugh sighed. “I fear that comes as little surprise.”

“That you are carrying on with a commoner causes no end of pointed words when you’re out of earshot.” Mr. Ward did not pronounce commoner like an insult, instead clearly taking pride in being seen as such; Hugh suspected Mr. Ward reveled in how a society decree would grant him access to places that would prefer to toss him out the instant they heard so much as a single growling word spoken in his fishing-town accent. People caring about Mr. Ward’s pedigree was the sort of petty nonsense Hugh’d expected when told he’d be darkening Martlethead Court’s door once more. It was so easy to forget how fiercely the social circles of the sunlit world enforced themselves; there were many reasons to love the night city, and freedom from others caring about his perceived station (or Mr. Ward’s lack thereof) was one of them. There were so many better things to worry about while striving to remain hidden in its shadowed, twisting streets.

“Oh, let them gossip!” said Hugh with a harrumph. Expecting nasty tittle-tattle and silently accepting it were entirely different things. “I’m sure it’s some badly needed relief from their lives of being most agonizingly comfortable. I’ve enough experience with this nest of vipers to know there is no way to win their favor now that they have deemed me a thing most sinful; it would not matter what I did, be you wealthy or born of great standing, as it would be paired with my continued existence, and it is that detail to which they take the most affront.”

“All the more reason to look after your health and well-being, then, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward with a tone that came dangerously close to dry mirth.

So Mr. Ward wasn’t strictly in the foulest of moods? A mischievous notion bubbled up from Hugh’s thoughts, neatly displacing the spider-shaped whimsies from previously. He nodded to the early afternoon sky. “It would no doubt be quite healthy to remain in place and out of the sunshine, then,” he said, wearing a hopeful little smile. “Perhaps we might fill that time spent waiting with something pleasant?” Hugh settled back on his haunches and let the tip of his tongue dart across his minty lips, just to be perfectly clear about his intentions. He and Mr. Ward were so very dear to one another, and if his family was upset that the two of them carried on in the scriptural sense, then clearly the proper thing to do would be to engage themselves in more theology.

Mr. Ward packed away the lemonade jug and the rinsed-out glasses before standing; the blanket and his notebook remained where they were. He looked down his hawk’s-beak nose at Hugh as though he were studying an interesting sort of frog. “It would, indeed, be best for us to wait for the sun to sink lower,” he said. “We cannot have you feeling out of sorts during the investigation.”

Hugh, emboldened, continued to make his case. “This part of the folly can’t be seen from the manor proper,” he said. It was so: the folly was meant for admiring from afar, and not from the direction they’d chosen for their picnic lunch. “If you’d care for it, I was wondering if I might offer a way to ease your troubled spirits, and bring you joy in a moment of privacy.”

“I don’t doubt you would be quite able to do so, Mr. Wainwright.”

“So, then, might I?” asked Hugh, leaning further forward. They’d only had enough time to themselves for the simplest of trysts the previous evenings, and while there was nothing wrong with simplicity, he found himself wanting more. Hugh knew how to provide more. Spending part of a warm summer’s day on his knees struck him as a divine solution to a great many problems in both their lives.

Before Hugh could close the remaining distance between them, Mr. Ward reached out and placed the tip of his index finger against the middle of Hugh’s forehead. Hugh froze in place; he wanted to whine in frustration, and it would have been trivial to simply brush that clean-nailed digit aside to continue his advances, but he did neither of those things. A society handler was only as reliable as their bond with their charge. Hugh sought, always, to be unfailing when it came to his half of their arrangement.

“Later, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. He touched Hugh’s face with his free hand, brushing his pinky finger against the skin in a way that would have put Hugh’s flesh in contact with the simple silver band Mr. Ward wore there, or at least it would have done so had Mr. Ward not been wearing gloves. Such rings were a subtle sign between those of the society that their bearers had recognized skill; Mr. Ward’s was proof that he was an experienced handler of creatures that wore human skin. Hugh had learned to thrill at its touch. Perhaps there was the ghost of a smile haunting the corner of Mr. Ward’s mouth and perhaps there was not; either way, his voice was calm as he added, “We need your senses at their keenest while we search.”

“I understand,” said Hugh. His shoulders drooped. “It’s not an unreasonable offer to make, is it?”

Mr. Ward petted Hugh’s cheek. “Not at all,” he said. “Take care not to mistake delay for disinterest. So long as you keep your perception honed, it might not be a poor idea to dwell on that offer of yours further, in fact. Perhaps until after our evening meal, when I may draw you a proper bath, and you may do as you like with no worry or distraction.” He took his hands away and gave Hugh two pats on the coat sleeve. “Now then, Mr. Wainwright, if you would kindly step onto the marble, I should like to fold up the blanket before we become too comfortable, and risk laxity in our duties.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” Hugh could feel a little color rising in his usually wan features as he stepped out of the little picnic space they’d created. How skilled Mr. Ward was at winding him like a watch key, and how delightful it could be to have to tick along obediently once wound thus! He’d not seriously considered how being unable to freely take pleasure in Mr. Ward’s company might season those moments they could spare. Perhaps the lack of freedom they had here could be beaten into a more useful shape behind closed doors, like the metaphorical sword-turned-plowshare; even if untrue, Hugh was determined to cling to whatever passing fancy could keep the wind in his sails and purpose in his stride, and there were far worse things for which to hope.

Still within the shade of the folly, Hugh closed his eyes and reached out with his subtler means of seeing. No night cities greeted him, nor did any trace of their passing, nor was there so much as a ripple of anomalous behavior. Surely they hadn’t shipped him out here for nothing? No, no, that was defeatist, paranoid nonsense; he and Mr. Ward were expensive when plucked from their mechanical house and set off after some out-of-town affair, especially since they both kept exhaustive records and receipts. If anything, the two of them had been dispatched in the vain hope that one or the other would perish in the process (ideally inducing the survivor to ruin, as well), which was the sort of duplicity Hugh had come to expect from his employers. Society hands had already combed through the place, which meant the simpler options had long been exhausted; the time had come for society claws. He would find out what was going on. He would study the anomaly, record it, take what knowledge it had to give as his own. He would wring himself dry in pursuit of understanding. And once he had learned all that he could from whatever it was that had disturbed this place, he would rip out its heart with his own teeth.

The wisest wardens knew when their forests needed to burn, after all.

A gentle touch alighted on his shoulder, snapping him back to the here-and-now. “Are you ready to continue the hunt, Mr. Wainwright?”

“Always!” said Hugh, smiling cheerily. With Mr. Ward (and packed basket) in tow and parasol held high, he strode back beneath the unflinching sulfur eye of the sun.

❦ 2

Dinner at Martlethead Court was nothing Aubrey had not experienced before. He had worked around other people’s large, luxurious meals since his hallboy days back up north, and while his career had taken an unexpected turn when the society became involved, his initiation had scarcely prevented him from tending to a table in the years since. The food was unremarkable; the family Wainwright, it seemed, was the sort that felt volume was sufficient substitute for a job done with thought or care, and so the spread proved mediocre time and time again. Perhaps it wasn’t the kitchen’s fault. Much of Aubrey’s own cooking experience had its origins in places both humble and curious, and one could not expect the same of servants who’d likely never left the same few-dozen-mile radius for generations. How could there be excellence without experimentation? How could someone experiment if they were kept too busy to learn? Was there room for the joy of the craft between the flour-streaked shelves of the pantry? Was the kitchen’s current staff the best choice for the job? Were they overworked, undertrained, ignored? How hard was it to get quality supplies this far out in the country? Whatever the cause of it, the evening meal was the result of many skilled hands working for many long hours to produce something…adequate. The Wainwrights certainly didn’t seem to mind. So long as the bread rose enough and the cream didn’t curdle, some people could be happy with very little.

Aubrey was not one of those people.

The manor’s house staff were a territorial lot, as was customary in such environments, and so he’d had little chance to speak with them on equal terms. What little they’d let slip around him had been the usual: some were put off by his dour nature, others scandalized by his open tenderness with Mr. Wainwright—given the profundity of masculine Wainwrights about, Aubrey referred to his own as “the professor” in conversation for clarity’s sake—yet others displeased at an outsider walking their halls, and nigh unto all of them beyond a certain age concerned about Mr. Wainwright’s return to the manor. But the writ of restraint! they hissed to one another in quiet corners. Does no one care for the well-being of Mister Andrew? It was the sort of question that never got asked during quieter days, when the well-being of said family member (Mr. Wainwright’s uncle, in this case) might genuinely need consideration. No matter; they would either respect Aubrey’s skill as a handler, and therefore accept that no one on those grounds would come to harm, or they would continue to doubt him, and their doubt would mean nothing once he and Mr. Wainwright returned home to their house on Kettle Street. There was too much to be done to dwell on it.

As for Mr. Wainwright himself, he dined using nothing but his best manners, always employing the correct utensil and method for the dish in question and taking very small bites, forever dabbing a napkin to his lips to keep his salivation in check. He stood out from the others at the dining table like a leopard among housecats. He was hardly the only one dressed colorfully—his sisters’ dresses were made from boldly fashionable fabrics, and the husband of one of his brothers appeared to know about the existence of tones other than black—and the whole family shared his pallid complexion and sunken features, albeit perhaps not as severely as he. It was the way he held himself that made all the difference: not even the baronet himself could exude such calm, casual confidence, the sort that only came about from years of effort to render Mr. Wainwright the most dangerous creature in the room. The others were afraid of him. They deserved to be.

“The roses are so lovely this time of year! Don’t you agree, Mr. Ward?”

At the sound of his name Aubrey glanced down at Mr. Wainwright; during these family meals Aubrey preferred to stand at attention a little ways behind his charge’s seat in case of emergency. “Indeed, professor,” he said. Professor did not carry the same level of respect on Aubrey’s tongue as Mr., but said title was one Mr. Wainwright achieved through his own merit—unlike other, more hereditary ones which a detail-minded individual might mention—and it was important the family be reminded of Mr. Wainwright’s accomplishments, as they so desperately kept trying to keep ignorant of such. What better revenge than living well?

“They remind me of the botanical gardens in the city!” continued Mr. Wainwright, who staunchly remained cordial in the face of distrust. “The scale is very different, of course, as there’s so much more room here to ramble, and there’s all the trees and fields of the countryside…” He trailed off with a sigh. Mr. Wainwright had only become more of a romantic with age, and in spite of how often he bemoaned keeping company with his kin, Aubrey still caught him admiring the library or looking wistfully through the windows at the rural splendors beyond. Some things the night city couldn’t replicate. Martlethead Court was truly a Gordian knot of emotions.

“You go out, Hugh?” asked Mr. Wainwright’s father, the baronet. 

Mr. Wainwright took a dainty sip of wine before answering. “Oh yes. It’s very important for a gentleman of standing to be active in the local culture, and there is so very much to see and do! Mr. Ward and I are, in fact, patrons of an independent theater.”

“Are you, now.”

“It’s in tandem with an overall society effort to encourage everyday engagement with the arts, you see,” said Mr. Wainwright. “By emboldening the population at large, we can inoculate them against needless fears, and inspire them to greater works on whatever scale they can manage.”

One of Mr. Wainwright’s brothers—an unmarried one—sniffed. “What kind of theater arts would your society even sponsor?” he asked. “Do they just murder one another on stage?”

“Like the great tragedies of classical tradition!” said Mr. Wainwright, effervescent. The academy which had granted him his scholarly title liked to refer to practitioners of certain occluded arts as classicists, a handy little euphemism when speaking with outsiders, and Mr. Wainwright had taken this as an opportunity to fling himself into consuming all manner of texts; he delighted in being a naturalist in the same way, appreciating the subtleties of all manner of living things when not studying the fell denizens of the night city or teaching others how best to hunt said monstrosities. Aubrey had been a calmly encouraging presence throughout this part of Mr. Wainwright’s reinvention. “It’s quite clever how they perform their illusions,” he continued. He gestured with his fork in enthusiasm. “Such passion do the actors put into their roles, one can easily come to believe a length of red satin is a fiercely spraying death-blow!”

Several of the siblings in attendance looked uneasy. In mixed company it might have been in questionable taste to mention such violence in such detail, and with how the family’s minds were still weighed heavy by the incident with Mr. Wainwright’s uncle, mention of actual wounds was likely to prod at spiritual ones. Had this been a matter of diplomacy it would have been Aubrey’s duty to bring Mr. Wainwright back in line, the better to ensure a smooth and pleasant negotiation; a handler was responsible for any patients in their care in all ways, and ensuring the populace remained unaware of a patient’s true nature was arguably the greatest responsibility of all. The visit to the manor was society business, with initiated (if non-acting) society members, ones who had many decades ago abandoned their suffering child when it became too inconvenient to care for him. Aubrey made no move to comfort them.

Mr. Wainwright’s mother, her hair all strewn with pearls, put a hand to her mouth in dismay. “Do they ever use…wetter blood?”

“Sometimes, yes. It makes for a stupendously grand finale! Though they do go through a great deal of soap after each performance.” Mr. Wainwright took another sip of wine. “They’re supplied from the local butcher shops, of course, as they’re not about to go around actually stabbing or garroting or what-notting one another. Like many actors, they consider themselves as close as kin—many are companions, or even married, after all!—and that simply isn’t a proper way to treat family.”

Save for a small, subtle flare of his nostrils, Aubrey made no response to this, either.

The conversation turned to more pedestrian fare after that, likely out of self-defense, and no one chose to ask questions of Mr. Wainwright for the rest of the meal. In time the table was cleared. The Wainwrights (carnivorous son included) dispersed to different parts of the manor, leaving Aubrey to eat a modest meal of leftovers with the other servants while Mr. Wainwright vanished after one sibling or another. Sometimes his mild, nobly-accented voice passed close to the servants’ halls, giving Aubrey pause, but it inevitably veered away in pursuit of another family member before Mr. Wainwright could come to collect Aubrey himself. This was not unlike the previous two nights. What was unusual was how often it seemed the manor staff kept finding things for Aubrey to do: he had helped clean and polish dishes without question, but would he mind delivering some firewood to the baronet’s chambers, or run some more wine to Mr. Tuttle—the manor’s actual butler—who was seeing to those family using the salon, and once that was done would it be all right if he helped set up some pickling? Aubrey was skilled in all these things and more, and so he did them. There was no reason not to. The servants were owed some degree of solidarity, whether they were testing his limits or not, and if they had never been shown certain ways to do things, he could blessed well show them. If Mr. Wainwright was not in need of dedicated care, and as he had not been hunting or engaging in the practitioner’s art recently he decidedly wasn’t, Aubrey would add his hands to the many that kept the manor running.

A tall pendulum clock in an antechamber to the servants’ passages was chiming the hour when Aubrey was finally released for the evening. Martlethead Court dripped with needless wealth, so there were still hallway lights aglow as he headed back to the room; the stub of a candle tucked into his coat remained a testament to how many nights he’d spent without such luxuries. He moved quietly through the half-lit corridors towards the room he shared with Mr. Wainwright, and any time his steps found a slight sound when they met the floor he adjusted his tread to be ever more silent. A man who lived in the night city understood the need to remain unseen.

One of Hugh’s sisters stepped from an alcove to intercept him a few turns away from the room. The candelabrum she held joined the reflections of the hall lights upon the window glass, a trail of will-o’-wisps that haunted the manor. Her voice was soft but determined. “Mr. Ward. A moment, if you would?”

Aubrey paused. Most of the Martlethead Wainwrights had tried very hard to treat him like an ornamental lamp: physically present, aesthetically pleasing, able to fulfill a utility but not hold a conversation. Actually being addressed by one without Mr. Wainwright prompting them in some way was new. This particular sister—Olivia—had hair the same color as her brother’s, but hers was pulled back to fall in night-loosened curls where his was styled with more energetic textures. Mr. Wainwright’s siblings clearly didn’t share their brother’s condition if they couldn’t manage a supernatural trait as simple as a self-setting coiffure.

Olivia glanced over Aubrey’s shoulder. Perhaps she expected to see her brother there. “You’re Hugh’s…handler, yes?” she asked, saying the word like it was sour in her mouth.

“That is indeed one of my many duties, Miss Olivia,” said Aubrey. Were they passing on the street or speaking in a salon he would have used a more courteous Ms. Wainwright, but just as there were many feminine Wainwrights in the manor, so too did the manor have its own frustrating rules of address. It still sounded more like addressing a child than a woman only a few years Mr. Wainwright’s junior.

She lowered her voice, her eyes darting about before continuing. She had trouble looking Aubrey straight in the face. “Then you know what he did, didn’t you? Back when they sent him away?”

Aubrey gave a curt nod. “I was fully briefed on his history when first assigned his case.” The society had nigh unto gushed about Mr. Wainwright’s past deeds when informing Aubrey he was to care for a hunter—and not just any hunter, no mere rank-and-file harrier, but one who held the highest rank the society could bear to award, one whose own flesh was turning against him—and so Aubrey had known plenty about the sad, denigrated thing that arrived at his doorstep. Mr. Wainwright had crossed the threshold of the house on Kettle Street that rainy night those deceptively few years ago, and from that point onward he’d never truly left.

“How can you be at peace with him returning here, then?” she hissed. “There was a writ!” No surprise that the manor’s working hands were abuzz with talk of such, then, if it poured so freely from the family’s own mouths.

“I am well aware of the writ of restraint against the professor. My presence is mandated by it,” said Aubrey. The maesters had learned better than to try and separate them for assignments, writ or no writ, but Olivia scarcely needed to know that detail. He removed his spectacles and began to polish them with a cloth, his steel-gray regard unwavering. “If there were any other option, the society would have taken it, and neither of us would be here to trouble your household.” Replacing his glasses, he added, “Are the agents from before still in town? We know we aren’t the first.”

Olivia narrowed her eyes. She had a fire to her, one undampened by the woes of youth, and a shadow of Mr. Wainwright’s own ferocity thrummed at its core. “You only ask that now?”

“We’ve asked it plenty, Miss Olivia, from the first hour of our arrival. Neither of us have been given a straight answer.”

Her displeased look became a proper frown. “Lucrecia and Perry worked with them most closely,” she said, naming two more of Mr. Wainwright’s nigh-infinite siblings. “If anyone would know, it would be one of them.”

“Then we shall speak with them in the morning, once the house has risen for the day,” said Aubrey.

“Better you do it alone, Ward,” said Olivia. “I might have some small love remaining for Hugh, but it’s foolish to assume the same of the others. After what he did to Uncle Andrew…” She shuddered. “If we can finish this whole nasty affair before our dear uncle returns from his trip, it will be easier for everyone.”


Olivia looked him over like a farmer appraising an unfamiliar horse. “I will not pretend to understand what Hugh sees in you, or you in him, but if you can keep him from making future mistakes, it will have to do,” she said. “Thank you for being my brother’s keeper.”

“Handler, Miss Olivia. The professor can keep after himself unassisted.”

She did not look convinced. “As you say. Goodnight, Ward.” With that, Olivia and her trio of candles returned to their alcove to vanish into the guts of the manor once more.

It was late when Aubrey finally returned to the room, the family’s long dinner only compounded by the time it took to help tidy up and have something to eat of his own, to say nothing of dealing with Olivia. The thick curtains (a necessity for Mr. Wainwright’s condition) blocked out what nighttime illumination the heavens might have offered, and with neither lamps nor fireplace lit the room was nearly pitch black save for the faint light from the hallway. Sometimes the night city could look the same way. Aubrey was undeterred by this, instead stepping inside and closing the door behind him with a gentle click. Shadow closed around him like the depths of the sea.

Something stirred at the sound of the door.

“Oh, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright’s voice from the velvet darkness, vaguely in the direction of the bed. “Is something the matter? I was surprised when you weren’t here before me this time.”

Aubrey locked the door and tucked away the key. “Your sister wished a word with me.”

Fabric rustled against fabric. “Dear oh dear. Which one? Was it Anne? She’s never forgiven me since…well, you know since when.”

“Olivia. Who also remains troubled by the event.”

Mr. Wainwright sighed. “I fear that’s most of my family for you,” he said. He yawned, and the creaking of the bed implied a leisurely shift of position. “Please excuse me. It seems all that fresh air and sunshine today left me more tired than I thought.”

“Of course, Mr. Wainwright.”

Like many of the rooms in the manor, the guest chamber Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright shared had higher ceilings than its dimensions might normally demand, calling to mind drawings of palaces or holdings of the Crown more than a home; this was, presumably, the point, though they did at least serve the purpose of carrying some of the heat of the day away from floor level. An unseasonable chill waited in the gloom. That wouldn’t do, especially not with Mr. Wainwright’s constitution already taxed from so long in the sun, and plenty of work for them both waiting come the morning.

Aubrey felt around the console until his hand found a box of lucifers, and with a scratch and a hiss the oil lamp next to it was coaxed to life. The dark remained so thick the light barely extended a few feet out from his shoes. Mr. Wainwright’s evening outfit had been neatly hung up against the armoire to air out, the flickering lamplight making the floral patterns of his frock lining and waistcoat dance in an imaginary breeze. Mr. Wainwright himself remained unseen.

“It seems I will have business with two of your siblings tomorrow,” said Aubrey as he moved slowly towards the fireplace. “Perry and Lucrecia. I was told that they have information we need, but would rather not deal with you personally. I suspect this will not be the only such event.”

Another yawn. “To be expected, Mr. Ward. I know what I am and what I’ve done.” He sounded reserved, perhaps sad. That wouldn’t do. Thankfully, there were ways to attend to such a problem.

“Would you care for some assistance with your bath, Mr. Wainwright?”

Mr. Wainwright hummed in dismay. “Oh dear. I washed up before you arrived. I was here for some time on my own before your return, and feared I might fall asleep in an unkempt state were I to wait. I’m so very sorry for spoiling our fun…”

“No need to apologize,” said Aubrey. “If you are not in need of one this evening, then I shall simply draw you one tomorrow. We gain no accolades for refusing to change as the protean day demands.” The lamp revealed fresh-piled fuel for the fire, which was trivial to get stacked and lit; even back home in the city there was often need for a flame on a clear summer’s night. Each piece of wood that caught extended the pool of light further until it cut a broad semicircle from the black. In time, its warmth would grow to fill that same space.

The fire revealed more of the room’s interior. There were chairs, a settee, a table, a dressing screen: little out of the ordinary. The luggage Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright had brought with them lay stacked against the wall in menacing arrangements, having been emptied out or kept packed as deemed best, and spare footwear stood in tidy rows near where Mr. Wainwright’s suit hung. Most significant was the canopy bed, its curtains pulled closed to conceal whatever slept there, and so great was its size that one could imagine all manner of beasts lurking behind its drapes or beneath its frame with plenty of room for their elbows. Had they wished, they might have been able to fit much of the luggage in that great space. Its frame had to be so high up to make room for the manservant’s bed that nested there when not in use. This smaller bed did not get employed as intended. There was no need to play at propriety, not with the two of them being as close to wedded as one could be without a ceremony to seal it, and Aubrey hadn’t spent his youngest years sleeping in a pulled-out dresser drawer to repeat the experience as a man. Ever efficient, he instead had found some success in using it as a staging area for clothing; even though Mr. Wainwright had left most of his harrier’s garb at home, his handsome suits were their own sort of kit, and as Mr. Wainwright’s handler Aubrey owed it to him to see that every tool of the hunter’s trade was available. People would say all sorts of things to a man dressed well enough.

Enough time had passed that the air had shaken away its wintry aspersions. Aubrey turned his back towards the fire to stand silhouetted against it, his hands folded at the small of his back. “Mr. Wainwright. I have not forgotten the words we exchanged at midday, and I, too, have dwelled on them since. I shall still make good on the deeper meaning of that offer I made you, if you so desire.”

“I…I would like that very much, Mr. Ward. If you would have me.”

“Always, Mr. Wainwright.”

The bed creaked and rustled again, but the floorboards made no sound. Nothing stirred in the firelit dark for a long moment. Aubrey took one breath, and then another, and by the time the third left his lungs Mr. Wainwright stood, skyclad, at the edge of the pool of light, and whether he had draped himself in shadow or simply moved with cunning swiftness to accomplish this mattered not. He was there, his many-fingered hands half-curled into claws and his great need standing unhidden, and by the way the latter gleamed he had let that yearning simmer inside him over the course of many hours. It was good to let him want things. Acceptance and exploration of that wanting were all a part of rehabilitating him into the proud gentleman he was today.

Step by step, Mr. Wainwright drew closer. The plate about his neck, its deceptively delicate chain covered by his coats and cravats during the day, was bared to the world, and any initiated soul could see the stamping on its front that declared him to be a creature tasked to serve the society’s interests. His eyes glinted yellow, beast-like, as they caught the fire, giving way to their proper maroon hue once he drew near enough, and the many hard edges of his body grasped at any shadow that fell across them until he was no more than a hand’s breadth away from Aubrey. The contrast between them was great. Mr. Wainwright was lean where Aubrey was broad, gnarled and tough where Aubrey carried smooth softness, and he was obviously the taller of the two, yet in spite of his outward physical prowess there could be no question which of them commanded the space within those walls.

Primitive clans in days primordial must have known similar looks as Mr. Wainwright’s when confronting the wolves that would whelp the first dogs: wildness crackled there, a proud ferocity, but so did longing for the comforts of the fire and the trust of those who built it, a willingness to cooperate if only they might be met by the proper guiding hand.

Aubrey removed his gloves, tucking them away as he did before any involved task. Another moment of silent regard passed between them before he cracked his knuckles and spoke plainly. “What is it you desire?”

“Touch me,” whispered Mr. Wainwright, his request reverent.

The answer was another fingertip pressed to the center of Mr. Wainwright’s forehead; this time Aubrey did not stop when Mr. Wainwright froze, instead exerting a gentle pressure. Mr. Wainwright let himself be guided by that touch to kneel at Aubrey’s feet, his heavy-lidded gaze never once breaking from Aubrey’s own. Their skin knew one another’s. Oft did Mr. Wainwright’s anatomy need to be manhandled during the course of a physical exam, no stranger he to being pulled or bent in the name of medical science, and never did he complain even in the face of discomfort, as they both agreed there was too much at stake. Brutal efficiency was the fact of the matter. When they were together under more intimate circumstances, Aubrey’s hand could afford to be gentler.

One such gentler hand stroked Mr. Wainwright’s side whiskers. “You shall be touched, Mr. Wainwright, and brought satisfaction,” said Aubrey. “And is that all that you wish?”

They were once more as close as they had been in the shade of he folly—closer, even—and though Aubrey still stood with his back against the light, Mr. Wainwright’s eyes took no time in finding where the front of Aubrey’s trousers pulled taut. He lingered there in appreciation before lifting his eyes once more. “Should it please you, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright, his breaths shuddering and his lips wet, “I would take you in my mouth, to know your warmth once more, and bid you find gladness against my tongue.”

“Will it be a night for tribute?”

“I…” A hesitant smile crossed Mr. Wainwright’s face. “I should like that very much.”

Another smile, smaller and fleeting but no less pleased, flickered over Aubrey’s features this time. “Then let it be done.”

Mr. Wainwright kept his hands pressed against his upper legs as he leaned forward to close the distance between them. He did not start with his mouth; many a time he would do so, this was true, and he made no secret of how dearly he loved cutting to the quick of the matter when pulses were high and time was short, but Aubrey had set these events in motion hours prior, like a vintner tending a cask. There was opportunity to savor, and so they both would do so, with no need to wantonly knock back what had been so carefully prepared.

What Mr. Wainwright did do was place the side of his face against Aubrey’s trouser-front. He breathed deeply of it. His senses were not so keen that he could hunt down prey by scent alone—no hound or vulture, he, at least not in the literal sense—but he had written his share of odes to the act of drinking in that intimate aroma, each stumbling paean a new cry of appreciation for that uniquely personal mingling of soap and sweat and masculinity, even if they did tend to rhyme have with love. Mr. Wainwright nuzzled with abandon, his eyes unfocused. At times he pressed his brow there instead of his cheek like a petitioner before the statue of a saint. The way he carried on the whole world outside their little circle of firelight may as well have been so much smoke. Aubrey made no move to interrupt his reverie. Such was the point of paying tribute, after all.

Left to the mercy of his own whims Mr. Wainwright might have spent hours in adoration. It was the gentleman in him: he could look well enough after his own needs, so he’d said during one of their earliest speaking sessions back when they’d first crossed the barrier of carnal closeness, but what of the man who shared his precious time? No, nothing brought Mr. Wainwright joy quite like guiding a partner to a tipping point, of being used well and praised for his utility, and Aubrey made no complaint whenever Mr. Wainwright sought once more to usher him to paradise. The trouble was that sometimes a little prodding was needed lest Mr. Wainwright remain forever on the edges of the ballroom without ever bothering to dance. There were worse flaws to have.

“Show me what I might expect should I unfasten myself,” growled Aubrey.

He did not need to say it twice. Mr. Wainwright mouthed at the fabric before him, the moisture on his lips rendering the black just a little darker with each passing. He traced the subtle curvature of Aubrey’s shaft this way, each press of flesh to distended trousers a promise of things to come, and he hummed and sighed with varying degrees of muffling. Breath puffed against the kiss-marks he left. His eyes, now alert, were pleading. He made no move to take his hands from where they lay.

“Well done,” said Aubrey. He twined his fingers in Mr. Wainwright’s curls and tightened them, a subtle reminder of which of them was the handler and which was the beast. With his free hand he worked loose the ties and buttons that gave his stand what little modesty its engorged state could muster. It, too, shone in the firelight, and Mr. Wainwright’s neck tensed against Aubrey’s grasp in anticipation. Aubrey stroked the side of Mr. Wainwright’s nose with fondness. “Now then, Mr. Wainwright,” he murmured, adjusting his stance so that his feet were parallel to his charge’s flat-palmed hands, “I bid you finish the task before you.”

Emboldened thus, Mr. Wainwright fell upon Aubrey’s member like he might die if he did not.

Reason dictated that a person’s mouth was designed to reject that which it could not safely swallow in whole, but a society man was well-served knowing when not to be bound by the shackles of moderation, and after but a few laps of his tongue Mr. Wainwright gulped Aubrey like a snake. Mr. Wainwright approached the taste of another man as a gift he might be given, the claiming of that gift the simplest of tasks on his own part; at one time he had paid disinterested day laborers for the privilege of doing this for them. With only Aubrey in his life, and their finances intertwined in a manner far more complex than a single afternoon’s transaction, now it was as though he was trying to pay back every meal cooked and button mended, instead. Not that either of them owed the other so much as a penny: they had worked a great deal to shed the pall of debts and dues that clung to Mr. Wainwright’s heart when he’d first entered Aubrey’s care. Free from the illusion of insolvency to which he’d cleaved for so long, Mr. Wainwright was getting better at asking. That Aubrey so often demanded desires be voiced before they be acted upon was no doubt involved, too.

Mr. Wainwright lunged against Aubrey, trading off between working the muscles in his neck and those in his back as his lips and tongue engulfed every inch of flesh they could; even if he had not knelt in worship to Aubrey beforehand, between his enthusiasm and his flowing spring of a mouth there would be no way for it to be a dry affair. In deference to those laborers of days gone, they had certainly given him plenty of practice, and even without a guiding hand to correct his speed and angles he had refined the act to a virtuoso level by then. That skill, while impressive, was irrelevant. What mattered was Aubrey touching him, the connection they shared from heartbeat to heartbeat, the statement that Mr. Wainwright mattered, that he meant something more than simply being a warm, wet hole. One was not enough, either; Aubrey’s ring-bearing hand, unoccupied with holding Mr. Wainwright’s hair, rested softly against Mr. Wainwright’s jaw, equal parts lover’s caress and another reminder of who was at whose feet. This, too, was something Mr. Wainwright requested by name. Why deny something so heartfelt and reasonably-worded?

They would trade off wordlessly, sometimes Mr. Wainwright bobbing his head to service Aubrey and sometimes Aubrey holding him in place to explore that eager mouth with thrusting hips. It was its own kind of conversation. Every quiet sigh or muted sound of pleasure that Mr. Wainwright could coax from Aubrey’s lips spurred him onward with the mad animal joy of a horse chasing the far horizon. Unlike that horse, Aubrey could not gallop forever, and so he made subtle motions with his hands where they clutched at Mr. Wainwright before being overtaken by a shudder and a sigh that belied him finding that gladness to which he had been bidden. Mr. Wainwright swallowed the lot of it, now tacitly free to touch and grasp that he might milk forth any truant droplets from Aubrey’s softening part; he needed to wipe his chin often, and neither of them addressed how little they had done to prevent him from drooling down his front during the act itself. It did not need to be said. His half of the task was complete.

Once he was clean enough, Aubrey released Mr. Wainwright’s hair—which, true to form, tried to curl back around his fingers whimsically, as even during their private hours Mr. Wainwright did so love to play—and returned the tip of a finger to the center of his forehead. Mr. Wainwright let his hands fall limp. A gentle push and he began to bend backwards, still on his knees, and he may well have continued to contort himself until his head rested against the tasseled rug beneath them had there not been an ottoman between the two. Aubrey knelt next to him, one arm about his shoulders in a half-embrace. He tilted Mr. Wainwright’s chin upwards until they were once more eye-to-eye. His spectacles caught the light in a manner most dramatic.

“Shall I see that you, too, find relief, as acknowledgment of a job well done?” he asked.

“If it would not be a burden,” said Mr. Wainwright, smiling at his little joke.

“Then as I said: you shall be touched.”

Aubrey’s hand left Mr. Wainwright’s chin to alight much lower. The two of them contrasted in many ways, and their gentleman’s parts were no different; while both fell within reasonable dimensions for men of their respective heights, Mr. Wainwright’s was somewhat longer and less stout, and its curvature fit neatly against a visiting palm. More notable than mere measurements was how his had reacted to his inner nature asserting itself: his body had learned to knit even the most grievous wounds with time and care, with no statute of limitations, and so he had regrown what had been cut from there in infancy. Its new mass was soft and supple when he was at rest. There before the fire Mr. Wainwright was most clearly not at rest, and so his extra skin was more difficult to spot at a glance. Aubrey had no trouble working with it all the same.

It might have been possible to draw out Mr. Wainwright’s release into the early hours, teasing and diminishing in turn like the cycle of the tides, but such indulgences were best spent when the only schedules to be kept were their own; instead Aubrey held him close and attended to his needs with a swift and practiced deftness. Mr. Wainwright called out softly. Five, ten, fifteen seconds elapsed, and before the count reached twenty he was spilling into Aubrey’s hand, his cries muffled by a fearsome kiss. Years together had seen them refine their dalliances to a science, a thing of dancing tongues and mingled breath and the sheen of sweat on skin, as Mr. Wainwright was a creature who lived through every one of his senses. To be regardfully overwhelmed in such a manner was a prize precious few hunters—even other decorated jägermeisters—found at the end of their patrols, so he liked to say, and so it seemed right to give him such when the opportunity arose. Not every indulgence needed to wait until the distant journey home.

“I love you, Mr. Ward,” whispered Mr. Wainwright against Aubrey’s lips upon breaking their kiss.

Aubrey let Mr. Wainwright’s head loll against his shoulder. “And that love is returned,” he said, so quietly that it might have been lost in the snapping hisses of the fire.

They held one another for some time, Mr. Wainwright making no remark on the pearly blaze streaked across his stomach, nor the draft that rustled the bed-curtains and tousled a few stray strands of Aubrey’s hair. The clock ticked ever-onwards, though, and at last Aubrey leaned away to rise to his feet and see to restoring his modesty. Upon putting himself away once more he tended to Mr. Wainwright with a damp cloth from the washbasin. After this Mr. Wainwright was dried, and after that he was helped into proper nightclothes; while capable of doing these things for himself, even while still soft-headed with delight, he never shied from a helping hand when winding down for bed. It was all kept very familiar. What fragments of their usual routine could be salvaged were important for maintaining his general wellness.

“Will you be joining me soon, Mr. Ward?” asked Mr. Wainwright as Aubrey tucked him in for the night beneath the cavernous canopy. He patted the mattress beside him. There was enough space there for two and a half Aubreys to fit, easily—Mr. Wainwright was a very narrow man in spite of his fiendish build, which helped—and yet the hour was not yet right for it.

Aubrey shook his head. “It’s still early, Mr. Wainwright.”

“Is it? Oh.” He allowed Mr. Ward to fold his hands against his chest and pull the covers up to his chin. “I keep having to second-guess our schedule here. My gut is trying to mark time by the night city’s flow, I think.”

“Perhaps. It might be worth seeing what it tells you, if you let it.”

Mr. Wainwright nodded sleepily. “Perhaps indeed.”

They kissed goodnight and Aubrey drew closed the last curtain against the firelight; Mr. Wainwright dreamed best in a tomb. It was all the more important to see that his charge was snug and sound if Aubrey lacked the usual option to retreat to another room to engage in one of his endless labors, as a handler’s (or at least Aubrey’s) work was never done. Between the thick curtains and the sound of the fire, and perhaps a bit of luck, Mr. Wainwright’s sleep would remain undisturbed yet again.

Aubrey hung up his heavier layers, loosened the ties of the corset he wore beneath his waistcoat, and took a moment to fix his hair. He then selected a book from his collection and let it fall open to the marker he’d placed the previous night. A sheaf of loose papers and a quill set joined it on the table. The society could take him from his lab, his workshop, and his home, but it could not pry him from his oaths to the betterment of humanity as a whole. Managing the manor’s curious anomaly was only a temporary setback in the face of scientific breakthrough.

With pen in hand and book at the ready, Aubrey began his research anew.

❦ 3

For quite some time Hugh had assumed he was dreadful at talking to people, generally preferring the company of his books and not much else, but under Mr. Ward’s supervision he’d found new seams of confidence, which themselves made him prone to cheerful garrulity when the mood struck him. Now Hugh had passions (that were not hunting). Now he had peers (many of whom weren’t hunters). Now he also had rather more practice at being social than he’d used to, as well, which certainly didn’t hurt. He was still terrible at managing an actual semester of coursework—it felt wrong to evaluate whether or not a student had learned what he was teaching without several layers of abstraction and explanation, which sat badly with the precision-seeking minds of the academy’s administration—but he could lab and lecture for hours upon hours with great enthusiasm, and he’d accumulated a collection of fellow creatures to whom he offered private, specialized tutoring in the nature of being what they were to the best of their beastly ability. He suspected he could even be charming under the proper circumstances. Yes, he could now consider himself quite the raconteur in all manner of environments.

Alas, dealing with family was proving to not be one of them.

His relationship with Sir Peter Isaac Wainwright, Baronet was a difficult thing to suss out; Hugh would have personally been at peace with never seeing the man again, as neither he nor his father possessed much love for one another even before Hugh left and he certainly wasn’t interested in whatever would be expected of him were he to inherit Sir Peter’s title, but their reunion had been neither a thing of grand drama nor absence-kindled delight nor seething intrigue. It had simply been a meeting of two men who’d vaguely known one another in another life, and one would be the guest of the other until the work was done. Sir Peter was society-initiated—he’d had to be, given that one couldn’t just ship their son off to the warrens without accepting a bit of the society’s great burden—and so he knew a bit of what all Hugh and Mr. Ward would be doing. Whether he understood it was another matter entirely. Perhaps he’d become a practitioner since they’d last known of one another. Perhaps he’d read reports of how a certain hunter had risen through the ranks to become a jägermeister. Perhaps when he looked at Hugh he still saw the frothing, blood-smeared thing that had been too dangerous to keep close. So long as Sir Peter didn’t interfere with his duties, Hugh cared rather little about what his father thought of him one way or another.

There was a whole world’s worth of difference between knowing this intellectually and having to keep it in mind when Sir Peter himself was seated at the desk across from Hugh, looking annoyed and lightly bored in a way Hugh had come to associate with the typical society maester. At least Sir Peter was simply a blood relation with a handful of clout. That was far less harrowing than risking getting involved with the terrible games the maesters swore they did not play.

Sir Peter’s eyes flicked across the report Hugh had written up the previous day. “Unfortunate that there’s been nothing to report, even after days of work,” he said. He did not couch it in insult or scorn: he may as well have been talking about the price of grain and barley. “I suppose there’s no helping it. Were it an easy scenario to resolve, the first agents would have had something to show for it during their own attempts.”

Hugh had yet to meet said fellows in person. “Likely so,” he said, for lack of anything more concrete.

“We are hosting a midsummer’s ball in a few weeks’ time. Do you know if things will be handled by then?”

Of course another of their endless parties was more of a priority than human lives! “With all due respect, father, I cannot say anything until there’s anything to say.” It felt odd referring to Sir Peter as such—father felt more appropriate when referring to Ezekiel Ward, who had quickly accepted Hugh as something of a makeshift son-in-law and always wrote the loveliest letters (if not in the loveliest handwriting)—but it felt odd referring to him as anything else, either. “What I can promise is that I shall work diligently, from many angles, until I can for certain explain…whatever is happening.” He settled back in his seat, tapping the tips of his fingers together in thought. “I’ve read everything they’ve given me about the situation and you verified it yourself on our first day here, but I should like to hear the situation in greater detail, sir, and in your own words, if you’d care to speak them. What is going on at Martlethead Court?”

“There are monsters about, my boy.”

Hugh perked up. The promise of potential prey was almost enough to keep him from rankling at yet another phrase that felt more suitable in the context of Ezekiel than anyone else. “I read that the groundskeepers dispatched a few?”

Sir Peter nodded, his manner still curiously bored for a man speaking of otherworldly horrors erupting from thin air. “That’s correct. Nasty things, each ranging from the size of a cat to the size of a ram. Killed one myself with the family sword.” He gestured to a blade hung over the office fireplace. Hugh appraised it from where he sat: it was a well-kept longsword, the metal bright and the edge honed, and a legless bird—the mythical martlet from which the manor took its name—adorned a device upon the pommel. As a child he’d imagined it being wielded by brave knights on dashing adventures. As a grown man, his critical eye told him it’d need some time in the workshop before it would be suitable for the manner of adventures he had. It wasn’t dusty, though, and he couldn’t spot any evidence that implied it had not seen recent use; he had every reason to believe Sir Peter spoke the truth.

“And no one was injured, correct?”

“Only a few scrapes and bruises. I’ve seen worse done by a broody hen.”

Thank goodness for that! Hugh would have felt quite the ghoul if his love of the hunt had superceded genuine human misery. “What became of the remains?”

“Do we not feed you well enough here?” asked Sir Peter.

Was it a joke or an actual question? Hugh wasn’t sure which was the intention, and the fact that he had hoped that he might sneak a bite or two to offset the bland main courses made things all the more complicated. Best not to invite extrapolation. “I admit Mr. Ward hasn’t been able to keep my meals as finely-curated as usual,” he said, choosing his words with care, “but more to the point, the anatomy of the unreal animal is one of my areas of expertise. If I can examine the denizens of a night city then I can better understand the night city itself.”

“Your overseers mentioned as much. That was one reason they recommended your presence, in spite of the circumstances,” said Sir Peter.

Had the maesters actually something nice to say about Hugh’s abilities? Would wonders never cease! “They recommend correctly,” he said. “So if you might show me to what is left of the intruders…?”

Sir Peter sniffed. “We destroyed the bodies on the advice of Caldecott and Pembroke. They feared that the smell of it might attract more monsters, or otherwise embolden the anomaly in some fashion.”

Damnation! Hugh had just started looking forward to performing a joint dissection with Mr. Ward, and now in the space of a few words that possibility had been dashed to pieces. He strained to not let it show, to not voice his displeasure. “Probably wise,” he said, instead. “The barrier between the night city and the sunlight world is an all-too-permeable membrane, and it takes so very little to strain it. What’s odd is that I haven’t found any sign of wear and tear anywhere on the grounds.”

“How do you mean?”

Hugh stroked his chin in thought. Sir Peter had some occult knowledge, and Caldecott and Pembroke were both on record as being recognized practitioners of a sort and clearly had been advising him on what to beware, so surely there was room to be specific; then again, even when lecturing university students with a robust academic background, Hugh was notorious for veering down dark alleyways of technicality and concept. Perhaps approaching the subject like he was addressing a sophomore class would work? At least it would imply he respected Sir Peter’s intelligence.

“Usually,” said Hugh, “there are two ways one gets into or out of the night city: either through some static method—be it a looking-glass, a tunnel to nowhere, a ring of mushrooms, or some other connection between that place and the light of the sun—or by punching through with intent. The latter is most often done by society practitioners, and is how the average hunter accesses that place, often in a somewhat harrowing fashion, or at least a nauseating one. But! It is possible for that barrier to become thin, and for night creatures to tumble out accidentally. The more creatures there are in a patch of night city, the more likely one might get through to cause trouble for the community, this being a major reason we cull their numbers regularly.” He paused to calm himself; talking about his ever-important work was thrilling in a way that could get out of hand without self-guidance. Even other hunters could be taken back by the sheer joy Hugh took from the three-step dance of the chase, slaughter, and feast. He popped a humbug in his mouth and focused on the taste to keep from succumbing to excitement.

Thusly centered, Hugh continued. “Now, this second method must be done with care, let the membrane be ripped, itself causing harmful mingling between the sides. Nature divides itself for a reason! The sky and the sea touch, after all, and both are filled with life aplenty, but a fish cannot abide too long in the open air, and a bird would drown were the firmament to be filled with water. This is why many new travelers become ill when first stepping over. Even a safe and successful jaunt can leave evidence behind if one knows for what one must look, and most horrors lack the finesse to go undetected. And yet, for all my patrolling, I’ve found not so much as a thin spot in the metaphorical weave. It’s all tough as can be, with no indication of ever being elsewise.”

“So there’s neither spoor nor sign to be found,” said Sir Peter.

“Precisely! I do not doubt that the beasts appeared, carcasses or no, but I’m puzzled as to their origin. I simply can’t find anywhere they might have hidden, much less broken through.”

Still placid, Sir Peter replied, “That’s concerning.”

Hugh nodded. “Very much so. Problems like these do not go away by themselves.”

“I see.”

“You said neither of the specialists find anything unusual. How long did it take for them to arrive? And did anything happen after they arrived, or was it all previous?”

“That’s a very specific question,” said Sir Peter.

Hugh nodded again, adjusting how he sat in the chair as he did so so he could cross his ankles. “Just so, sir. If they found nothing, but nothing new occurred after their visit, it might mean that whatever steps they took had an effect, and I could attempt to engineer a solution in reverse.”

Now it was Sir Peter’s turn to shift in his seat. He stared at the wall behind Hugh as he summoned up the details. “The first problem appeared during the second week of spring,” he said, “and some of the maids complained of seeing dark shapes moving about in reflections soon after. Appearances started at one a week, increasing in frequency until we ultimately had two in the same day. One large, one small.”

“Were Pembroke and Caldecott on the premises yet?”

“Yes. They helped us with the chase, in fact, so they can verify the things’ presence. That was when they told us how to dispose of the ones we’d been keeping.”

Hugh raised his eyebrows. “You’d been holding on to remains before that?”

“Naturally. Can’t have some poor fool coming across something they shouldn’t, and the society has made it abundantly clear that it does not approve of trafficking in otherworldly fauna.”

That policy was more meant to protect polymorphic persons like Hugh than the night city’s denizens, as too many young or unfortunate creatures had been vanished in days past in the name of producing artifacts, but there was no need to correct Sir Peter on the finer details of the matter. It did mean Hugh was unlikely to find a snack in the dark hours of the night, alas. At least knowing the men before him had managed some manner of patch job could buy him some time. That did, however, raise another question.

“How did the two of them decide they needed more help in the matter? I would have thought they’d meet us in person, but the maesters had blessed little to say about them, and Mr. Ward and I did not have so much as a shopping list left behind when we arrived.”

“They spoke with me about calling in another team of practitioners, speaking of urgent news elsewhere. By the time I received a message from the city about your arrival they had retreated to their office in town. Getting a hold of them since has proven difficult. One can’t help but wonder if something has gone wrong.”

Concerning indeed. Had they managed to unmake themselves while hunting for the hemorrhaging night city, leaving nothing but a lingering sense of presence behind? Was that unmaking connected to how blasted impossible it had been finding the night city that was supposed to be about? Hugh would need to ask Mr. Ward about this once they were finished with their respective tasks. “I’ll be sure to watch for any sign of them, as well, just in case something disastrous has befallen them, but I fear I’ve yet to see any such thing in or out of the manor.”

Sir Peter glanced over the report again. He tapped at the simple coverage diagram Hugh had copied from some blueprints. “I see there are some places on the property you and your manservant have yet to investigate.”

Training to keep quiet even when frightened or in pain was one of the first things demanded of the neophyte hunter; even with years of experience, and the ability to stubbornly ignore grievous wounds up to and including dismemberment, Hugh still fought to keep his heart from dropping. “Just so, father,” he said. Perhaps the sheen of sweat on his forehead could be chalked up to the warm weather? “I was hoping to find something worthwhile without needing to go there.”

“The kennels are empty right now, you know. Andrew’s off in the country with his pups. There would be no risk.”

No risk? No risk? Did Sir Peter think Hugh had anything to fear from any earthly dog? He wore certain colognes while out on the town for the animals’ sake, that they not be so terrified of him if they scented what he was, not because he was at risk from a protective retriever. Best to address the matter swiftly: “I will be sure to inform you if I have reason to enter them, father, and if anything is found.”

“See that you do.” Sir Peter studied Hugh like he was looking for a seam in a wall panel. “I must say I was surprised to see what’s become of you since we needed to send you away. You seem unconcerned by the outward evidence of your inner nature.” He gestured to himself at eye level. “These no longer match the paintings of you we had made before.”

Hugh wasn’t so sure about that; during his and Mr. Ward’s initial sweep of the manor house they had come across the odd portrait from his childhood, and he was fairly certain those solemn little boys all had eyes just as red-purple as his own, even if their hands all had the expected number of fingers. Such things happened when dealing with the extramundane as closely as he did. Pointing this out was likely to start an argument he didn’t want to have, and so he fished for a more neutral response. “I’ve found that by trying to neither hide nor draw attention to such things, they go unnoticed, father. It’s remarkably efficient camouflage.”

“And what happens when someone on the street does notice?”

“Then I inform them it is a medical condition, which is true, and carry on with my day. Some of the university faculty informs me they’ve considered adopting parasols of their own after seeing how comfortable I am with my own. Why, at this rate I’ll be a proper trend-setter, and all without troubling Mr. Ward for his aid, for once.” Hugh chuckled to himself. Mr. Ward was always on top of keeping Hugh’s outfits tailored to the peak of fashion—the florals Hugh wore were plentiful evidence of that—but wouldn’t it be fun to be among the vanguard for a spell, to see how others iterated on his ideas? A man needed enrichment outside his work! Granted, he’d still carry a sunshade even if they (inevitably) fell out of style again, as he could hardly not do so if he expected to leave the house, but that was where being a known eccentric among his favored districts of the city would buoy him to safety.

Sir Peter did not share Hugh’s amusement. “You are very open about the…unusual rapport you have with your handler, Hugh,” he said. “I thought you knew the merits of being discreet.”

Hugh refused to rise to the bait. “Mr. Ward is in no short supply of skill, knowledge, and experience, and we work together well. He has been a crucial element of my rehabilitation since my health concern some years prior. I am pleased to have him as a companion.”

“I worry for your reputation.”

“My reputation, sir, is either as a harmless academic or as a society-recognized master of the hunt, and neither is harmed by me keeping close company with someone I love.”

“He is a commoner, Hugh,” said Sir Peter, using the same enunciation and displeasure as one might have spoken the word criminal. “He doesn’t even attempt to hide the accent. I could not care less who warms your bed, boy, but your lassitude permits him to reach outside his station in a way most inappropriate. Have you no concern for propriety?”

What cheek! The family Wainwright had land and titles, yes, but they were hardly actual members of the peerage; such was the fate of all baronetcies, and in Hugh’s opinion it had left a nasty little complex in its wake that everyone else had to deal with. “I owe him so much,” he said. “It was his hand that reached for me when I lay helpless in the mire, his voice that guided me towards understanding my inner self.” Hugh pressed a hand against his heart in passion. “Can you not understand the feeling it was to meet someone who felt my nature was not something to be corrected, but refined?

“I expected better of the society, and of you from your time within it. Could you not be more like your brother William?”

Hugh had had enough. One offense would be too many, and yet here Sir Peter had layered insult upon indignity, striking Hugh in so many ways it was clear that no more fruitful conversation could be had. William was not even a bad man—very dull, yes, as was his husband, Thomas, but being boring was no proof of poor character—and yet it was clear why Sir Peter had mentioned him: William had courted Thomas with the reliable prudence of a manners guidebook, which he probably had referred to religiously, and their wedding (to which Hugh had not been invited) had sounded like the sort of interchangeable well-heeled social affair that was expected of a baronet’s eldest son being wed to the heir of a mechanism merchant. Their union, so he’d observed, was a calm and stable thing, sure to weather the years. It also had all the romance of a business merger. How could Hugh, even a version of himself that did not hie unto the dark places by instinct, hope to survive such a bland existence? How could a phoenix fit back inside its egg? At least he could be proud of himself for having the decency to be upset instead of collapsing into a jiggling mess of apologies.

“You cannot be surprised if, upon sending a lad to learn the way of the hunter, he returns a beast of venery,” he retorted with as much ferocity as he dared.

Sir Peter had no response to share.

Feeling upset and mildly triumphant, Hugh stood, reclaimed his document case from next to his chair, and clasped his hands in front of him. “I have research to do in the archives while Mr. Ward is still in town. Are we finished here?”

“I suppose we are,” said Sir Peter, forever unruffled. “I’ll see you at dinner, Hugh.”

There was no more to be said, and so Hugh set out in the direction of the manor library, closing the door behind him without ever looking back.

❦ 4

The plan had been for Aubrey to speak with Hugh’s more society-facing siblings at breakfast while Mr. Wainwright spoke with the baronet, making good use of everyone’s full rest and filled stomachs, but a kitchen fire—one not of Aubrey’s doing, at that—had demanded attention, and by the time all parties were accounted for neither Lucrecia nor Perry Wainwright remained in the manor. It wasn’t difficult to find where they’d gone, at least, but as the pair had gone to do some business in a Wainwright-owned storehouse in the nearby town, it was going to require some walking.

Normally Aubrey would have worn his usual attire for the trip there and back, as a man did not make his home in the middle of the night city without knowing how to keep himself tidy; the problem was that there was only one possible allegiance for a man dressed in a butler’s coat in the area, and the other staff had made it abundantly clear that they did not consider Aubrey one of their own. To dress as such invited a clash. The trouble in obstinately keeping to his working blacks outweighed the benefits, and he was already on the wrong foot with the whole of the manor. Salvation came in the form of the handsome brown suit and matching bowler Mr. Wainwright had insisted he bring. It was usually kept to the domain of being taken somewhere nice by Mr. Wainwright, a thing for fine meals or attending the symphony, but if the pursuit of the truth demanded he leave the grounds in a whole other uniform, so he would be clad. At least the attaché case in which he kept his notebook matched.

The town (which also called itself Martlethead, apparently) was far enough away that one couldn’t see the manor from its outskirts, but close enough that Aubrey’s shoes were back on paving cobbles after a mere half-hour’s walking. The blossom-heavy trees along the road gave way to fencing and streetlights. It looked to be doing well enough, with no more grime than was expected from an area with modest modern industry and its infrastructure in good enough repair; while it was unlikely that so much as a penny’s worth of Wainwright money had gone into the place without that generosity benefiting themselves in some fashion, the town was not left festering in the shadow of a thriving palace, which was better than expected. There was room for social empowerment—there always was, outside the most radical of villages—but for now, the case came first.

It was late enough in the morning that there were a good number of people on the streets. Here Aubrey went unnoticed among their number in a different way than usual; usually his clothes marked him as someone else’s attendant, and therefore running errands for someone more important, and at times he had cause to dress in laborer’s garb for dirtier work, but the suit was plumage all its own. It rendered him unremarkable. Aubrey slipped through the crowds with the confidence of a salmon heading upstream, turning no heads and inspiring no complaints, and when he arrived at the door of the storehouse whose address he’d been given, he could have been mistaken for any other modestly well-to-do man of business. How long that illusion persisted would be put to the test.

He let himself through the front door into the little receiving office of one of several storehouses connected to the family’s interests. This one, the manor’s staff had assured him, would contain at least one of the people he sought, though when he rang the bell at the front desk it was a harried-looking clerk who answered him.

“Yes, can I help you?” she said in the clipped tone of someone with countless dozens of tasks to do and a mere handful of hours in which to do them.

Aubrey removed his hat and offered her a half-bow. “Good morning. I’m here to speak with Lucrecia Wainwright, or her brother, Perry, or both, if they are available.”

“Who shall I say is calling?”

“Tell them the professor’s companion is here on manor business. They’ll know who and what you mean.”

The clerk nodded at him knowingly. “Manor business, right.” She tucked the grease pencil she had in hand behind her ear, adding another subtle smudge to its outer curve. “If you’d care to wait here, I’ll see if anyone is available.”

“Thank you, madam,” said Aubrey, replacing his hat once she disappeared through a door into the dimly-lit guts of the facility.

It wasn’t long before the clerk returned, slightly winded, to usher Aubrey through the interior door. “This way, please, sir. We’re very busy, but they agreed to speak with you all the same.” She threw the latch behind him before leading him through the racks that rose like towering honeycombs in the storehouse proper. “It must be important business indeed if they’re willing to do so without an appointment.”

Aubrey weaved after her, turning himself sideways where necessary and keeping his attaché case held in close. “A safe assumption. I trust you understand why I’m not more forthcoming with details.”

“Naturally, sir.”

They didn’t say anything else to one another save for an exchange of mild pleasantries upon arriving at the Wainwrights’ actual office door. The clerk stayed long enough to see Aubrey in and check if there was anything else needed for her, and as soon as she was dismissed she was gone. It was the kind of swift, crisp efficiency one needed to keep any venture above a certain scale functioning. The Wainwrights had found the right person for the job. 

As for the Wainwrights themselves, they were both dressed in sensible summer-weight coats and trousers in the same dove gray fabric, though there was enough conscious difference in their styling to imply they weren’t trying to come across as twins. They were looking at a blueprint that took up the whole space of a table when he came in. Both studied him cautiously until he closed the door behind him with a clack of a latch. For a moment after its closing, the office was still and silent.

Lucrecia reacted first. “Good morning,” she said with a polite incline of her head. “It’s…Ward, right? Hugh’s aide.”

Aubrey nodded. “Correct. I would ask a moment of your time, please. It’s for the investigation.”

“Ms. Crowe mentioned,” said Perry. He tapped the edge of the stack of papers he held against the edge of the table to straighten them before putting them aside. “What is it you need?”

“Miss Olivia spoke with me last night and advised I confer with you about the society representatives who were here before the professor and I. She says you two worked with them most closely, and would be best-informed as to what all they were able to do during their time here.”

Lucrecia sniffed. “It’s about Pembroke and Caldecott, is it? Best hit the bolt on that door, Ward, I’d rather what we discuss here not walk out in anyone’s ears but yours.”

“Will Ms. Crowe be a concern?” asked Aubrey, locking the inner office.

Perry shook his head. “She’s initiated,” he said. “I’d rather she not be parcel to this conversation, but it won’t be a problem if she overhears anything.”

It was a reasonable level of caution and rationality, showing trust in their hired work, but did raise the question of why they needed an initiated woman handling forms and figures for them if Martlethead Court remained a mostly mundane entity. Knowing the actions of the society this far from the city, perhaps they were involved in moving controlled materials—or persons—between safehouses; simply transporting a rogue magician required resources a typical constabulary did not have. Perhaps the practitioners in the area worked out of this one storehouse, and needed a central location to acquire and deliver missives not at the mercies of the public mail. Perhaps, instead, it was simply easier to keep the books balanced if one’s accountant didn’t need to be deceived about just how many unnatural causes were funded in part by the family’s coffers. There were many reasons one might employ an initiated individual with a head for numbers, and Aubrey was proof himself of the value of such.

Mentioning such would be a distraction from the task at hand, and so Aubrey said nothing as he set his case on the floor by his chair, produced his notebook from it, and flipped to a fresh page. “The professor and I were told some about the previous agents’ actions, but I’d prefer to hear the account in your own words, if you’d be so kind.”

“All right,” said Lucrecia. She pulled out a padded chair from her personal desk and seated herself; Perry followed suit with a desk chair of his own, and Aubrey claimed a simpler seat across the table from them both. Lucrecia folded her arms across her front and pursed her lips in though. “How far back do you need to know?”

“If you can tell me anything about how things first started, I’d be appreciative, Miss Lucrecia.”

Between Lucrecia and Perry’s accounts, Aubrey was able to verify that the first days of the trouble were much as the first briefing had said, with odd (if not very large) beasts appearing from nowhere and causing mischief, their frequency intensifying as the days progressed. A call was made to the society, going through the cell that operated out of Martlethead, which saw Benjamin Pembroke and Matthew Caldecott dispatched to the manor with initiated assistant (no name provided, potentially “Eustace” if going by precious records) in tow; there was no great reason for them being chosen, simply that they were the closest available agents, having offices elsewhere in town. Their work ethic was good enough. They walked around the place, put their noses into cupboards, waved clusters of leaves, drew plentiful symbols. More involved secret arts were probably invoked, even if no one ever caught them doing it, or knew what methods might be practiced. It seemed like they were always going back to their offices for something; the delivery boy Perry paid to tail them claimed they were bad at organizing paperwork and kept going through beer and lemonade at a fearsome clip thanks to the rising heat. One could hardly blame a man running circles in the manor wood for working up a thirst. If they knew how to better delegate tasks to their assistant, they either chose not to or didn’t trust him to follow orders. It was not too different from hiring a building contractor whose promises far outstripped their skill: irritating and prone to wasting time, but hardly malicious. The hope was that if left to their own devices for long enough they’d bumble their way into a solution and leave.

Eventually the scope of things escalated that a pair of middling practitioners was clearly unable to handle things, and as they’d been having trouble with the aforesaid assistant before then, it was decided that they’d need to call in more help before regrouping. They’d fallen out of touch a few days before Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright had received the formal declaration of assignment. Society men were overwhelmed by what was asked of them all the time, and frequently double-booked for troubleshooting, so this wasn’t unusual in and of itself, though having both their office and the local society cell unable to speak for their whereabouts was unusual. Room existed for them to have gone rogue. Slipping their tethers when under such scrutiny was a foolish choice, though, especially with work left undone; surely they would have known bigger fish were swimming upstream, rendering potential mischief all the more difficult. Had misfortune actually befallen the pair, it would be important to determine what, and why, it was, to say nothing of establishing the well-being of both agents and assistant. Perhaps the answer lay hidden in a different line of questioning.

Aubrey jotted down a few final details about the society men’s antics before changing the subject. “Thank you, this is most helpful,” he said, turning to a new page in his notebook. “I would like to hear more about the unknown beasts that troubled the manor next, if you please.”

Perry nodded and produced a page from a simple calendar block, the sort without any set month or dates printed on it in favor of having everything written in. The dates on it lined up with what Aubrey had been told. “Here’s where they first showed up,” he said. He tapped a square near the top of the calendar. “I’ve marked here the dates for each appearance, with approximate times, and both where they were first found and where they were slain. None of them survived more than a few hours.”

Aubrey copied down the lot of it. “The record-keeping is welcome. Can you describe what they looked like?”

“Fangs, claws, too many eyes,” said Lucrecia, “each one a patchwork jumble of bits all jammed together to somehow make a living thing that could hiss and scamper. God’s spit, but they could scamper! Not too dangerous, though, at least once they lost the element of surprise. The servants dispatched most of them without too much trouble.”

“Father even killed one with his sword,” added Perry. “He toyed with having it stuffed and mounted, but that would cause no end of problems were he to actually display the awful thing.”

“What became of the remains?”

“They’re stored away elsewhere in town, away from the manor,” said Lucrecia. “We didn’t want the smell attracting more.”

“An interesting decision,” said Aubrey. “Are the others kept there, as well?”

She shook her head. “Caldecott advised against it, and bade us destroy everything. The only reason we still have father’s on hand is sheer luck.”

“What makes it lucky?”

“Well, Caldecott oversaw the burning himself. He was very keen to, each time a new thing met its end for trampling mother’s daisies or what have you, and he always chalked up a circle with sigils before letting us put fire to the things. I would have just tossed them in the incinerator, myself, but I suppose that’s why I’m not an agent. The thing father killed, though, we moved to the spot we use to keep his hunting trophies while they await taxidermy, since he’s so proud of his trophies. We weren’t even thinking much about it.”

“Save for keeping the smell away from the manor house?”

Lucrecia nodded. “Right.”

“You mentioned the creatures weren’t too dangerous. Did the society men help any, or was the beasts’ extermination purely the realm of the manor staff?”

“Just the servants and father’s doing.”

“When you say the servants, that’s in reference to only those who work for the manor, correct?” asked Aubrey. One had to be exact in these situations. If Aubrey wasn’t now, the society certainly would be later, and that could spell all manner of trouble for people trying to do their jobs, no matter how territorial they were.

As was typical when Lucrecia had been the one to answer several questions in a row, Perry stepped in to shoulder the conversational burden. “Yes, it was only our own people who did much of anything, no thanks to Pembroke and Caldecott,” he said. “Their own manservant was worse than useless. Poor attitude, worse work ethic, never seemed to be where they wanted him. He even tried stealing one of father’s watches and had to be dismissed before he’d so much as washed a single set of socks. They had to dismiss him in the middle of the proceedings! It was a whole mess, and since he was initiated, they couldn’t just fire him and send him on along with a swift kick to the ass-meat.”

“Are you sure one of the monsters didn’t get him?”

“Oh, definitely. They’d long since stopped showing up by then.”

The tip of Aubrey’s pencil scratched away at the page. He was going to need to sharpen it soon. “Any injuries?”

Perry made a thoughtful noise. “One of the kitchen girls got a nasty scrape when something burst out of a cupboard at her, but aside from that it was nothing more than the usual sort of thing from dealing with wild animals, just cuts and bruises of the sort that heal up in a few days the way you’d expect of them. The stablehands and one of mother’s maids handled the brunt of it. Like angry cats, they said. No one was bitten hard enough to break skin.”

“We haven’t heard any claims of nightmares or odd behavior from those who were hurt,” said Lucrecia.

“I’m glad to hear it,” said Aubrey.

More thoughtful noises escaped Perry’s lips, to the extent it risked becoming a joke. “Speaking of odd behavior, though, my dear sister and I can’t help but notice you haven’t mentioned brother Hugh at all, save to get yourself in the door,” he said, after much hem-and-haw theatrics. “Are you sure you’re companions?”

That it had taken this long for a lesser Wainwright to cast doubt upon Aubrey’s dedication to Mr. Wainwright’s holistic wellness was a small miracle, though the family had surely been doing so in private since they last remembered either of them existed at all. As for the insult itself, he had heard far worse from far closer allies. “I know the professor’s history with the rest of his family is fraught,” said Aubrey, calmly, “and as it isn’t relevant to this part of the investigation, I felt it wisest and most courteous to keep from prodding at old wounds. Miss Olivia was careful to mention you preferred to keep your distance. I sought to respect that.”

“Sister Olivia has a yapping mouth,” grumbled Lucrecia.

That she did, especially if she made her siblings so visibly uncomfortable just by speaking of them. “I cannot possibly comment, madam.”

“Brother Hugh’s got something weird about him, we all know it,” said Perry. “Ever since he was a boy, even before he went away, you could feel how off he was. It was like shadows were always just a little bit darker around him. How can we be certain he won’t make things worse?”

“Professor Wainwright has vastly greater control over his faculties than the child you knew, Mister Perry,” said Aubrey. “While it is true his presence may exacerbate any anomalies to be found in Martlethead Court and its surrounds, the society—and myself, I shall add—believe that it is worth this mild risk to have an agent of his caliber following up where lesser men have failed.”

“And what of his inevitable rampages?”

Aubrey’s eyebrow quirked for a moment before returning to its usual resting arch. “I can personally attest that since the professor has been entrusted to my care he has caused no harm to members of the general public. Save for certain unavoidable incidents involving other hunters, detailed reports of which are on file with the society, he strives to use non-violent restraint when his duties require him to pursue other human beings, even if the letter of the law might permit him otherwise.”

Perry looked unconvinced. “So you say he’s harmless?”

“I will say no such thing,” replied Aubrey. While no stranger to lies, this lie, if uttered and believed, could cause so much more harm than it helped, which meant it would do him no good at all. Control of his patients’ narrative was sometimes all Aubrey could hope to do. “But Professor Wainwright is a man who understands the need for thoughtful self-control and personal discipline when it comes to making use of his particular skills, and I do not consider him a danger to the manor or its people. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

Lucrecia’s eyes were like fire. “You say all this, after what he did to Uncle Andrew?” It seemed the Wainwrights were fond of using that pattern of intonation when discussing their absent uncle. Never could one claim the family lacked any flair for the dramatic.

“Yes. I do.” Aubrey had known the fate of Andrew Wainwright only a few minutes less than he’d known of the existence of Mr. Wainwright himself, as it had been at the top of the dossier prepared for potential handlers. The matter with said uncle pained Mr. Wainwright like a thorn unable to be plucked. He dwelled on it less during their talks nowadays, couching it heavily in past tense, and yet there was a lingering whiff of self-disgust to his words whenever Aubrey needed to refer to the event directly. Its foul odor lingered. The continuing business with the writ of restraint had brought those despairing tendencies to the fore, no matter how cheery Mr. Wainwright behaved on the surface, and damn the maesters forever for unweaving so much hard work with their demands. Aubrey’s treatment notes were filling up with more and more points of concern. Concern was a different animal from danger, and he would not have permitted Mr. Wainwright come all this way if there was threat of the latter; all the same, the sooner Mr. Wainwright could return home, the sooner Aubrey could begin to repair any cracks in his foundation.

“Word on the wind is that you’re a man who will never feel Death’s cold kiss, Ward,” said Perry as Lucrecia fumed. “You understand that we mere mortals, lacking the bonds shared by you both, are far more threatened from any outbursts to which brother Hugh could succumb.”

Aubrey adjusted his glasses without looking up from his note-taking. “One might say it is a matter of skill.”

A matter of skill?” cried Lucrecia, leaping from her seat. “Our dear uncle was infirm for months, struggled to recover for years, is still challenged each and every day by that terrible happening, and you dare to—?”

Perry cut her off before she could take the idea elsewhere. “Don’t let him rile you, sister. It’s what he wants.”

The situation was likely to explode like a powder-keg if left untended, and while Aubrey had weathered the wrath of many an argument, only a fool burned a bridge before being certain they no longer needed to cross it. He gentled his tone. “If it is any consolation, Miss Lucrecia, the professor carries regret for his actions each and every day. His dearest wish is that he might never act out in such a fashion ever again. Much of his treatment revolves around identifying and counteracting anything that might induce that same state.”

“How fortunate for us all,” said Lucrecia. “And how extra fortunate for Hugh that he can sit in a nice little house, eating his nice little meals and collecting his nice little salary instead of suffering the way he deserves for his sins.” She sat back down, still glowering, and when Perry touched her sleeve she placed her own trembling hand over it. This was the most genuine affection any of the Wainwrights had shown one another in Aubrey’s presence since his arrival—not even the wedded couples managed as much—and cemented the two siblings as being allied, potentially against him. That would require careful handling.

Neither of them had more to say until Lucrecia finished catching her breath, but it was Perry who spoke first. “You may say he is tamed, but he is our brother, and we know what he can do. No number of sing-alongs and good deeds can uncrack an egg once broken.”

Aubrey placed his pencil atop his notebook, smoothed back his hair, and laced his fingers together to rest them on the table. “I am not arguing that such is possible,” he said. “I am simply stating that, as the professor’s handler and physician for some years, whose documentation you may request from a society office at your leisure, I believe the man that he is now is not the sort who would make that same mistake a second time.”

“And I say he should be clapped in irons like any other criminal,” said Perry. “More importantly, he should not be here.

“You would rather he spend the rest of his days moldering in a cell?” Creatures such as Mr. Wainwright were better off restrained with brass than iron, as there was something about that alloy’s nature that worked more reliably than anything else, and this was not the sort of information either sibling needed to know if they did not already; woe betide the unlucky soul that fell afoul of them otherwise. How many of that many-shaped lot had been hurt terribly by those who were supposed to love them, spurred to false action by truth and lie alike? Aubrey had too much personal experience trying to tend the wounds such knowledge could facilitate.

Lucrecia’s lip curled. “They put away more common murderers, don’t they?”

Mr. Wainwright was not a murderer any more than a soldier in the crown’s army was; he had slain exactly one other person by his own hand, another hunter they suspected had been dispatched by the society itself, and that man was not Andrew Wainwright. No other altercations had ended in death for a fellow human being. This, too, was nothing that needed to be shared. Instead, the siblings were due some flavor of victory: “The professor is here at the society’s behest, and their hand was guided by the needs of the manor, and that is all we are here to manage. I shall do everything in my power to keep him apart from your uncle, for both men’s sake. Your uncle is not tied to what is happening in this place, unless I am sorely misinformed, and so if there is any reason to involve him in the investigation, I swear to you that it will be done through myself alone.”

“You’re phrasing that like it’s a reward, not common decency,” said Lucrecia.

“I do not expect either of you to care for me, which is your right,” said Aubrey. “All I wish is that you answer what I ask of you to the best of your ability, that the anomaly might be handled as soon as the professor and I are able to handle it, and that we leave your company equally soon.” He extended a hand to them. “Will you accept that of me?”

Lucrecia looked suspicious, which was a reasonable approach to take around Aubrey, but she took his hand and shook it all the same. Perry followed suit. Thus mollified, the siblings allowed the conversation to ease back towards the two’s dealings with Pembroke and Caldecott once more.

Pembroke and Caldecott were slippery as eels in butter, as any attempt to contact them upon their vacation of the manor resulted in nothing. There was nothing in the cell’s archives that suggested malice or incompetence. One day they had been there, the next they had not, and by the time Mr. Wainwright had arrived with Aubrey there was no sign of their predecessors save for locks on their office door. No one in town had seen them. No back pay had been collected. It was as though the two of them and their assistant had simply vanished like so much dew in the morning.

Every time Aubrey attempted to ask more about the agents’ assistant, the answer kept changing in subtle ways. First no one had a name to speak, then it was Eustace, then Elias, then Lester, and never was there a surname to be had despite names of any sort being a society concern; when a name changed, for any reason, the records needed to be amended properly, lest the discrepancy form a kink in the chain that a name-breaker could abuse. There was power in a name, power that went above and beyond the joke of a person stopping cold if called by their whole proper name at once: that was not a primal fear of an angry governess but a small, quiet invocation of the truth inside of them, an addressing of all that they were, and the recognition was enough to startle all but the most self-deluded back to reality. If the assistant’s name wasn’t on record there had to be a reason for it. It might, of course, have been the Wainwrights feeling themselves too above an errand boy to remember much about him. The problem would be if if was not.

Did the nameless assistant have some other use to Caldecott and Pembroke? It was hardly unheard of for society men to keep bedmates on hand for lengthy assignments—Aubrey himself was proof of that, in a way—and it made sense to have an extra set of hands when dealing with a property as large as Martlethead Court. Martlethead town was walking distance away, though, so why bring someone onto the grounds if all they were good for was private satisfaction and annoying the hosts? If the only thing the assistant could do was wander like a barn cat, how had the society deemed him fit for field work? Something didn’t add up. Aubrey kept any suspicions to his notebook without any outward challenges. The last thing he needed was to remind them he was too clever to be spoken to carelessly.

Time passed. Eventually the talk was brought to its end by Crowe rapping gently at the office door with a reminder of the time, which sent both Wainwrights into a flurry of activity; interviews or no, they had duties of their own to maintain, and so they both bid Aubrey goodbye. He had just enough time to pack up his case again. The last he saw of them before the door clacked shut was their becoated backs bending to pore over their diagrams once more.

“Mr. Ward,” said Crowe with a nod as the door’s latch caught. Aubrey had not given her his name, nor had her employers, which answered whether or not she’d been privy to any part of the previous hours.

“Ms. Crowe,” he said with a nod of his own.

She glanced at the door, then back at Aubrey, and held up one finger for silence. “Allow me to guide you back outside, if you’d please. It’s very easy to get turned around in here with things packed tight as they are.”

“Of course.”

He followed her through the same path as before, save for when they veered between two shelves that formed a natural alcove blocked off from view of either office. She waved him in to stand at her side.

“You’re here about the society men?” she whispered.

Aubrey nodded in reply.

“If you haven’t already, go speak with the lads at the society house,” continued Crowe. “My brother, Shelby, works there as a scrivener, and now that you’ve formally spoken with some Wainwrights he can provide you with more papers than the ones you’ve got in your little book. I think you’ll find them very interesting.”

“Should I doubt anything I’ve heard today, Ms. Crowe?”

She shook her head. “Those two are honest enough, I’ll tell you now, but they’re too smart, and think they can outplay anyone who’d lie to them. They’ll tell you what they think is true. They’re also plenty good at convincing themselves of all manner of things in the name of that truth. Whatever words they feed you, be sure to have a grain of salt as well.” Crowe wet her lips, peeking officewards, and kept speaking at the edge of her voice. “If they were going to ask any further after Caldecott and Pembroke’s whereabouts they’d have told me to do it by now. And I’ll tell you this much, Mr. Ward, I’ve not had call to leave this storehouse that isn’t tied to going home in the evening.”

“Shelby Crowe, scrivener, has information on agent activity, sent by his sister,” said Aubrey, each entry on that list earning him a new brisk nod of affirmation. “Will he need your first name?”

“I don’t go by it, usually,” said Crowe. “Tell him that much and he’ll know it’s me.” 

Aubrey nodded. “Why aid me, if you don’t mind my asking?” he asked, keeping his voice to the softest growl he could manage. “I’m grateful for the helping hand, I assure you, but you understand why I might be suspicious, given the family’s history.”

“Because it is the right thing to do, and nothing more,” said Crowe. She then squeezed past Aubrey towards the office, speaking in a louder, but still hushed, voice as she did so about the various things that passed through the storehouse. There was more to her than she admitted (as anyone—other than a Wainwright, apparently—could have told), which meant she was dangerous, which meant she was already much more likely an ally than anyone else to which Aubrey had spoken for his entire stay thus far. The extra precautions would be worth it.

So there were ways to wring blood from the stone that was an unfamiliar cell, were there? Aubrey glanced at the clock over Crowe’s desk and sighed to himself. It was going to be a much longer day than anyone had expected.

❦ 5

Even as a boy Hugh had enjoyed being in the library, toting along his storybooks from the nursery to account for how the stacks’ contents proper were near unto incomprehensible to his youthful eyes, and while his grown self did not have quite such a happy association with the place, its high ceilings and tall shelves promised to contain something or another that might shed light on the mystery of the hour. His first target was the section detailing the history of the manor and surrounding region. The tomes he found all skewed towards the tremendously dry, which was hardly a sin but did make them a chore to skim for useful information; he could find no accounts of odd happenings outside the usual almanac-worthy peculiarity, and an unusually large squash grown fifteen years prior, with no behemoth gourds on record before or since, lacked the oomph he desired. Were there truly no earlier outbreaks of runaway horrors? There were no instances of plague, or famine, or anything else that sometimes ushered in unwanted guests across the veil. Had he not known better he would have found the place idyllic. At least that ruled out anything, and when presented with so few proper answers to anything Hugh would take a winnowing of detail where he could get it.

Next came browsing the family accounts. These Hugh knew better: he’d been trained to respect the Wainwright lineage from a young age, and while he did not share the glowing regard instilled in him during those tender years, he could navigate a family tree comfortably. Everyone was accounted for. Everyone, that is, except for one of the sons of the current patriarch, and not one of the ones that had died during childhood. Hugh Robin Wainwright: Fell ill & retired to the city read the legends next to each blacked-out portrait. Well, that explained why none of them cared to celebrate his achievements. Hugh had known he’d been as written out of the Wainwright records as he could be without actual treachery being involved, but it was one thing to know this academically and another to see how deftly they’d cut him from said records. He really didn’t belong at Martlethead Court. It was almost like he’d never been there in the first place.

That realization of being discarded like so much burnt gruel stung at him like a hornet’s tail as he exhausted tome after tome. Hadn’t he cried out all his tears during his first years of training? Hadn’t he braced himself to be received like a stranger, or like an enemy, or only through proxies, or as a ghost to be avoided entirely? Hadn’t he known that a good deal of money had changed hands to erase the stain of his existence? They didn’t know who he was when they placed him in the society’s hands because he wasn’t even fully himself by then, as he’d only just been learning what that even meant relatively recently, so there was no way they would be prepared to receive him as he truly was. He was used to being alone in a crowd every time he walked down to the high street to buy himself something nice; most of those he passed by did not even know persons of his condition existed, much less monsters or practitioners or the assorted other impossible things that were Hugh’s bread and butter. Working hard so everyday people could have the freedom to remain ignorant of such strangeness was the entire point. Usually that was enough. 

What was different now? Why did it hurt so? Hadn’t he seen how unmindfully Sir Peter had addressed him, how much the other members of his family avoided him even at meals, how any portraits with him in them were consigned to the far corners of the manor? He’d rid himself of these people ages ago, so he’d thought, and yet being confronted with the knowledge that he was only an embarrassing footnote to his entire lineage made him care so very much about what they thought of his work. Not that they could ever understand it! Most of Hugh’s own colleagues barely understood his methodology, and there were blessed few hunters—even those of high rank—that could empathize with his love of the night city, how that manifested in seeking to understand it ever-deeper even as he butchered his way through its denizens. That he ate what he killed was both a sign of respect for the horrors he put down and part of a balanced diet. What was so odd about that? And yet time after time it felt like only Mr. Ward (and, more recently, a small handful of kindred souls, some of whom had been Hugh’s students and most of whom were also polymorphic) truly intuited his passions.

Ah, but Mr. Ward was there, and did have insight into Hugh’s inner workings, sometimes even more than Hugh did himself; perhaps it was courting danger to place so much of himself in the hands of a single man, but Mr. Ward’s hands were cunning ones, and his mind and tongue were keener still. Once this was all done Hugh would need to ask him for a proper doctoral chat, a good long one, that they might unpack Hugh’s parcel of troubles to see how the pieces fit together. After all, a man could not be surprised that, upon stirring a long-still bog, the lost and sunken things at its bottom resurfaced, and what was this place if not a cesspit of unhappy memories stewing beneath a crust of decorum? Hugh would be due for a cleaning of the heart and spirit the same as any peat farmer returning from a long day’s digging needed a wash.

While this was all well and good to think about for the future, it didn’t help him feel much better in the here and now. What good would he be if he spent all his time moping when he was supposed to be looking for useful nibbles of information? No, that wouldn’t do at all; Mr. Ward was no doubt giving things his all out in the town, and Hugh needed to hold up his half of the equation. If his mind kept drifting to unwanted places he would simply need to distract himself.

Removing himself from the library entirely risked losing what little momentum Hugh had built, so the best distractions would be those found within its walls. Reading more of the archives would be out until his thoughts were no longer circling themselves and snapping at their own tails; studying what art was on display would bring similarly little fruit, as there were far more family portraits than anything else, and any which actually had Hugh in them were tucked away in harder to reach corners of the manor. Ah, but what was this? Tucked away in one corner of the library, in a place with acoustics he could imagine would amplify a cry of terror or roar of challenge quite easily, was a pianoforte, its lacquered wooden frame gleaming in the sunlight that streamed through the windows and threatened to give Hugh quite an itch. How splendid was its woodworking, how fine the metal details! It was a modern beast, too, covering at least six whole octaves at a glance and with pedals instead of the hand stops some older models used. There was no sheet music left open upon it, and to Hugh’s dismay there wasn’t so much as a leaflet (or anything else) inside the matching padded bench. Who in the world kept a pianoforte bench without bothering to hide things in it? Hugh’s at home was host to a multitude of songbooks, a box of ritual chalk, and a spare ammunition cache, and the only reason he didn’t hide house-keys there was because Mr. Ward had asked him not to. He tried not to think too long about it lest his tendency for homesickness get the better of him. There were instruments to inspect!

Hugh circled the pianoforte thoughtfully. The instrument itself was set on a wine-colored circular carpet and didn’t have so much as a speck of dust on it. It looked as good as new. Too new, in fact, as the bench was barely worn and a glance under the lid showed the strikers were practically unused. He pressed a few of the keys to see how it was tuned; the results, unsurprisingly, were that it was seen to with enough frequency to not sound broken, but said frequency lacked the sort of honing that was necessary for a truly nice performance. If anyone in the family played very much, it could have fooled Hugh. His pianoforte back home was only slightly better off, of course, but Hugh felt he could be excused for being a hobbyist who did not own a sprawling estate filled with people who could be paid to handle instrument maintenance for him, and he actually used his. One could not exactly get a repairman in to a night city address whenever one pleased. Perhaps the house itself might be taught how? It seemed to appreciate the care with which he and Mr. Ward kept it, and the way they decorated, and how willing they were to engage with its many puzzles and passages. That the mechanical house on Kettle Street would be willing to keep an instrument in tune in exchange for Hugh playing said instrument more often was not an unreasonable assumption.

He sat himself down to get a feel for the timbre of the notes. Hugh’s hands stumbled from scale to scale across the wood and ivory keys until he acclimated properly to the thing’s specifics. Playing with six fingers per hand wasn’t that difficult after enough practice, he’d found, and he was able to coax some simpler études from the pianoforte upon properly warming up. A shame Mr. Ward wouldn’t be back until later to share in the fun! Not that Mr. Ward played anything, himself, but the pair of them had spent many a pleasant evening in with Mr. Ward seeing to a bit of sewing or ironing or some similar such while Hugh assiduously practiced away. Knowing his companion could take enough initiative to pursue creative productivity when upset would no doubt be a balm upon his prickly soul. What better proof of a healer’s skill than to see a patient grow stronger on their own terms? It did not matter if Hugh’s playing was leagues away from that of the performers they’d go to see in concert; what mattered was that he played in the first place, and took satisfaction from the act. So Mr. Ward said, anyway, and that was good enough for Hugh far more often than it wasn’t.

The longer Hugh played the more he could feel something was off. There was a sort of stubborn gumminess in the works around certain keys, something not quite the same as the overall halfhearted tuning, and even with his gloves on he could feel a difference between each of the afflicted parts of the keyboard. When he took off a glove to play bare-handed, the discrepancy was even more prominent. He hadn’t made his home in a night city building for so many years to not spot a hidden mechanism—it would explain the ghastly tuning if things needed to remain just so for whatever it was to function—and he was sure the pattern would reveal itself if only he kept experimenting. What was the order? What was its purpose? With a top society man on the case, the library’s secret could only remain hidden for so long.

Part ways through another round of Chatterjee’s Minuet in F #3 (so chosen because it hit all the notes he needed and was tricky enough to not sound too suspicious if he kept replaying parts of it), Hugh could feel eyes upon him. As a hunter, his every instinct protested against being perceived by that which he could not see himself and strained to whip ’round to confront the viewer; as a gentleman and functioning member of society, he finished the rest of the tune before turning to see who it might be. Three dangerously teenaged children (probably some species of cousin, given their lack of servant’s attire) lurked among the nearby shelves, all gawking. They…probably weren’t dangerous. Probably.

“I told you he had odd hands!” hissed one to the others in a voice that Hugh would’ve heard even if he’d still been fighting against the keys.

“Good day, young gentles,” said Hugh. He scooted around on the bench to properly face his audience, flipped his coattails back behind him, and folded his hands in his lap. “What can I do for you?”

They giggled among themselves before a different member of the trio responded. “Is it true you’re part monster, cousin Hugh?”

Hugh cocked his head to the side and offered a half-smile. “That’s one way I’ve heard it described, yes,” he said. If these were cousins of his, whose children were they? Like many modern men of means, Hugh was swimming in relatives, and given how many of said relatives were well into adulthood there were doubtless great teeming reserves of family he’d never seen from whence these youths might have sprung. At least the fact was less upsetting to entertain than the one that had sent him towards the pianoforte in the first place. The society was going to have its pick of members if any of the initiates at the manor bothered to knock on the right doors.

It took the trio a moment before the original speaker found their voice again. “Prove it, hey? Make some monster noises for us.”

Hugh curled his fingers like claws and flexed them. “Raaar,” he said. “Ararr. Rahh.”

“No, I meant real monster noises,” said the first cousin with much rolling of eyes as the other two giggled some more. Hugh’s own infrequent students were a good deal older—even the youngest were of age to be married, should they find opportunity for such a happy event—and yet their cockerel bravado was much the same at times. “Good ones, roars and such,” continued said cousin, “not the sounds of a farty governess. We want to hear some bone-chilling howls!”

While Hugh was very good at making those sorts of sounds, to the extent he could use them to drive his quarry somewhere or at least give them a spot of demoralization if the situation demanded, he demurred with an awkward grin. “Now, now. I shouldn’t go making such a fuss in the library, of all places, now should I?”

“Come on!”

He gestured at the pianoforte without swinging his legs back around to work the pedals. “I could try and play you a little song, if you like? I’m still practicing, so the notes may have sourness mixed in with the sweet, but…”

The audience was unimpressed. “You never said he’d be boring,” complained the previously silent third cousin with a mighty pout.

“Dreadfully so!” agreed Hugh.

As Hugh continued to prove himself uninteresting to the casual eye, his cousins found other things to focus upon, and they began to find other places to be once he started playing Kite’s Box-Tail Waltz for them at three-quarters tempo. By the time he returned to the Minuet again he was once more alone in the library.

The keys remained just as oddly off-set as before; no amount of pressure revealed their inner mechanism, save for the expected musical tone, which went plonk instead of the expected note if he pressed too hard. What a dastardly puzzle! Hugh retraced his playing to see if his fingers could feel out anything new. Had his cousins been sent to check on his progress because he was getting somewhere with his earlier attempts, or was it just as it appeared: a passing fancy and a chance to peer at a city cousin they’d never met before?

Oh, dash it all, he was getting lost in his own head over this. Mr. Ward had warned him about this sort of thing in the past, of how the human mind’s skill for finding patterns in nothing could lead a careless man to ruin. What if he was lunging at shadows? Without a clear target to pursue Hugh was at risk of making one up from the ether. Houses that knew the light of day did not contain the same mechanisms as those that only saw the darkness, and expecting a complex mechanism to remain functional without a guiding presence (and a minder’s hands) to tend to its working parts would be like putting a shoe upon a horse and then never returning to the farrier’s: tantamount to asking for a disaster the moment things began to wear down. There was every possibility the pianoforte was just a pianoforte.

But! But! What if it was left out as a diversionary tactic, to throw him or any other nosy sorts off the trail? What if there was something more important just out of sight? Hugh replaced his gloves as he looked about as casually as he could manage. He relaxed some senses and focused others. Something strange pressed at the edge of his perception; it was not a night city, or at least not any night city he’d encountered before, even accounting for those night cities that happened in places that weren’t near civilization at all. The barrier between here and there was as firm as ever save for that strangeness, and so Hugh focused on the part that stuck out from the rest. It felt like the wake left on the surface of the water when a boat or animal passed. Was this it? Had the anomaly been here, all this time? He couldn’t find anywhere to ease between the cracks of the world in the manner he usually did. This called for less efficient, but still effective, measures.

The library was decorated mostly with paintings, Sir Peter’s mounted trophies, and the odd curio or two, but it also subscribed to the trend of using cleverly-placed mirrors to make a room look larger from certain angles. Hugh selected the one most hidden, located at the end of a row of shelves laden with outdated scientific texts, then plucked up a book to conceal his scan of his surroundings. He felt alone, but was he truly? Another sweep implied he was. Careful, careful. Was there anything in his reflection odder than himself? Was there a scratching in the walls? Were the imps in cousins’ clothing coming back? He’d never get anything done if he kept waffling over every single step, and so, after tucking the book back among its neighbors—and someone sure had been keen on those botany guides, given how worn the spines were compared to their neighbors on less sylvan topics—Hugh checked his hair, straightened his coat, and stepped through the mirror.

There was nothing much to see on the opposite side. The titles lining the shelves were all backwards, of course, as were the keys on the pianoforte and the layout of the library itself; that was to be expected when exploring a reflection. One could even find people inside a mirror, their eerie phantasms mimicking the gestures of the originals in perfect synchronicity, though unless they were physically visiting (like Hugh was) they would remain unaware of anyone who walked past, provided one didn’t catch sight of said passing by glancing into another mirror. Hugh still avoided them out of habit whenever he saw them. This time, so far, he saw none.

Sometimes students attending his lectures would ask him how it all worked. Was every mirror its own little world, or were they all connected? Could anything reflective count? Could one sneak into one mirror and then out of another? What if the mirror broke while a visitor was still inside of it? What if a mirror was turned face-down? What of mirrors in the night city? What if one took a mirror from the night city to the sunlit city, or vice versa? What if one tried to cause harm to a reflection? Did anything live in there naturally? They were so clever, the academy pupils were, and oh, but how they loathed to be told that some questions lacked a consistent answer. Hugh could use mirrors just as he was now. When it came to actually understanding much of anything, it was only the night city he claimed to know with proficiency. At least he knew enough to offer what few clarifications he could.

While colloquially referred to as the other side of the mirror, a night city was not strictly the same thing as the world inside a reflection; one could walk into a mirror-glass without technically leaving the sun behind, and night city mirrors had their own subtleties, to say nothing of the way the ideas could nest within one another. Hugh tended to keep any mirrors back home covered when not in use as a matter of course. One couldn’t predict what might step out at odd hours! Unlike the night city, which was both in the same place as the world of the day and yet divorced from it to the extent of going unseen by all but the trained, talented, or unfortunate, anyone could see something in a mirror, which required an element of caution. The people of the manor (family and otherwise) knew only the vaguest details about Hugh’s current abilities, and while his bag of tricks was near bottomless, it felt wise not to display any that weren’t common-enough knowledge, relations or no. A clever hunter never showed their whole hand.

Hugh stalked the stacks, ever-vigilant for signs of the strange and familiar alike. That waterless wake remained. Something had been here, or near here, but it wasn’t anymore; when Hugh still frequented the riverside for companionship he would sometimes watch the ships cut through the water like canvas-crowned leviathans, and the feeling of standing on a dock after a boat had cast off for foreign seas was almost like what he felt now, though on a much humbler scale. Night cities didn’t move—they were tied to other places, and arguably couldn’t move even if they wanted to outside of contracting or expanding their otherworldly sprawl—so what could this be?

Also curious was the matter of the door. Only a few rows down from the pianoforte, Hugh had found it during a final sweep through the stacks, and he couldn’t help but be captivated by it. It was a humble thing, like a closet or servants’ entrance, and there were many such doors all about the manor; what was strange was how he hadn’t noticed it from the original angle, not because it was concealed with craftiness, but because he hadn’t been facing in the right direction. But how could that be possible? He’d been all over the library looking for useful books, and upon retracing his steps Hugh found he would have passed said door many times, yet only now had he fully parsed its presence. That was enough to get his attention.

Precursory searches revealed no traps or practitioner’s symbols to Hugh’s questing eye, which probably meant it was safe to touch. Hugh gave it a nudge. It stuck in its hinges, locked without a key. Now what was this all about? He could imagine all sorts of things behind that door: the place-without-a-place whose absence he could still taste, the source of the horrors the manor staff had slain, perhaps a hidden practitioner’s den! That last one was unlikely without so much as a smudged sigil to be seen, but Hugh had apprehended his share of sloppy magicians in his time, and who knew what had caused the disturbance in the first place, so one couldn’t discount it without further proof one way or the other. He rattled the handle a few more times with no luck. Fie and blast! Perhaps this was what the pianoforte keys were meant to open? The mechanical house loved such paired devices, after all, so if he could simply figure out the necessary string of notes, he’d be in business. Was the wood grain meant to resemble a staff with notes? Was the wear along the door frame a hidden clue? Maybe it had something to do with the way the books were shelved; some were rather worn, after all, and someone trying to place or conceal a coded message would have reason to handle aging texts aplenty. So many opportunities abounded!

Before Hugh could test any of his hypotheses he caught the sound of approaching footsteps from somewhere in a neighboring room. It didn’t matter from which side of the mirror they originated, he could not be seen here! Quick as a flash he popped back out of a different reflection than the one he’d left. He had just enough time to dust himself off before a governess with a stack of sheet music under her arm stormed past, trailed by the flock of cousins from before. Ah, music lessons! It was good to know the next generation was getting a proper shot at appreciating art and culture, but people being in the library formed an undeniable obstacle to further inspection. He’d have to come back later.

It felt like his nerves kept jangling at the slightest thing. That was no doubt sign he was suffering from mental fatigue, even if his body felt hale and hearty; he’d return to his room and do some stretching. Hugh had been neglecting that part of his usual calisthenics routine since he and Mr. Ward had agreed he should wait a few days to settle in first, so perhaps that little return to normalcy would help him sort everything in his head. He was due some private time to help unwind before dinner. The worn books weren’t affixed in place in any way, so he could help himself to one to see if there was any damning evidence tucked between its pages after he stretched. Limbering up would shake out all the knots in his head. Worse come to worst, he could talk to Mr. Ward about it, and with their combined wisdom they’d have something figured out by bedtime. If they didn’t? Tomorrow was another day. So long as he kept walking forward, he would reach the end of the path.

With field guide in hand and a spring in his step, Hugh silently vanished into the hallway without disturbing so much as a petticoat as he passed.

❦ 6

Dealing with society cells was always a special challenge, and whether they recognized Aubrey fully or didn’t know him from Adam, there was never any shortage of potential problems. Shelby Crowe had been willing to work with him, just as advertised; the problem was convincing anyone else he was worthy of that attention. Who was Aubrey? What clearance did he have? Did he know of what he spoke, or was he blustering for the sake of impressing the Wainwright family like the last set had been? Even displaying his handler’s ring barely cut through the conversational briars, as suddenly this changed him from a stray entity to a man neglecting his charge, and it had taken significant arguing to prove Aubrey’s intentions were noble. Getting permission to leave with copies of anything he read was its own separate hurdle. At least there was a file on active jägermeisters to prove Mr. Wainwright’s skill and Aubrey’s dedication to him; only after the cell’s members recognized the skill it took to provide such a terrifying subject with suitable care (and just how long Aubrey had been doing so) did they bother to let him out the door again. Paranoia clung deep to the society’s roots no matter how far one traveled, it seemed.

Between interviewing Mr. Wainwright’s siblings, arguing for far too long over whether he could be permitted to lay his eyes upon the movements of potentially incompetent agents, and simply walking to and from Martlethead town, it was dangerously late in the afternoon by the time Aubrey returned to the manor. Hints of a coming storm followed him back. His earth-colored special-occasion suit earned him the odd glance of surprise as he made his way through the halls; neither staff nor family had seen him in anything but black since he and Mr. Wainwright had arrived, and even with no effort made to hide the sharpness of his profile or the way he wore his hair, it seemed the people of the manor saw his usual livery before any other part of him. It would have been trivial to avoid notice if one of the parties the manor kept chattering about was in session. Dangerous knowledge, had he any cause to wish the Wainwrights ill.

Aubrey returned to an empty room. This was not surprising in and of itself, as Mr. Wainwright had made mention of looking around the manor while Aubrey was out, though the sight of the clothes Mr. Wainwright had worn at breakfast left neatly laid out on the side bed was enough to give Aubrey pause. Unlike the typical man of means, Mr. Wainwright only rarely changed clothes after dressing in the morning, and without need to don his hunting garb he had, at the most, chosen to swap out his frock coats and accessories to match the weather; with himself and Aubrey traveling, Mr. Wainwright liked to minimize the need for laundry. He wasn’t having a bath—the door had been locked when Aubrey arrived, granted, but the tub was dry and the screen had not been pulled in front of it—and the bed-curtains were pulled back to reveal the bed itself to be unoccupied. It was unlikely something dire had befallen him or Aubrey would have been stopped as soon as he set foot past the manor threshold. Where, then, had Mr. Wainwright gone?

The first order of business was to return the special-occasion suit to the armoire. Aubrey brushed it clean before tucking it in place next to Mr. Wainwright’s gallimaufry of bright fabrics. He was part ways through polishing the matching set of dress shoes when he caught movement along the bed’s dust ruffle: it was small and subtle, like the passing of a mouse or similar little creature, but vermin fled from any place Mr. Wainwright slept in for more than the length of a nap and would avoid said place for weeks afterward. The glyphs of warding and protection Aubrey had drawn up once they’d gotten their luggage situated were untouched. With a glance to the mirror (still covered up properly) and the windows (latched up behind their sun-shielding drapes), he checked the lacing of his corset before finishing his current task. Aubrey’s corsetry was only partially for fashion; while his working clothes were assembled around a cinch-waisted fit, the garment itself was made to be a kind of armor against the dangers a person like Mr. Wainwright could shrug away but which could lay a man like Aubrey low. They were also proofed against the secret arts. Aubrey’s insistence on wearing it throughout his working day had saved his life many a time, and it had served him well to view each day as another he might need its subtle protections.

With trousers, shoes, and waistcoat now traded out for the usual ebon affairs, Aubrey approached the empty bed. The dust ruffle twitched again. He stopped in place, still too far away to reach down and check what lay beneath; any plans he had formulated would need to adapt to the scenario as it rapidly revealed its true nature before his eyes.

A many-fanged, spit-streaked muzzle poked from under the bed, the single hole it bore in place of a more fully-formed nose snuffling, and in an instant it had fixated upon Aubrey with wide and gaping jaws that revealed another, inner set of teeth that gnashed like a maddened insect’s. Perhaps the staff of Martlethead Court had beheld such a sight on a smaller scale when the world turned itself inside out before their eyes. Hunters went up against such horrors each time they went out on assignment, and so did Aubrey any time he braved the treacherous route to meet with the courier who kept the house stocked with fruit and fresh vegetables; the familiarity did not make it any less fearsome to behold. After a prolonged moment of snarling menace the fiendish mouth relaxed and fell open into a grin.

“Surprise!” said Mr. Wainwright from his hiding space. He sounded very pleased with himself.

“I see you’re feeling whimsical today, Mr. Wainwright,” replied Aubrey, calmly. Mr. Wainwright’s little pranks were never truly surprising, as he reserved genuine stealth for society targets (who generally needed to be subdued with minimal harm) or worthy prey (which, as a rule, never, ever included people), and so Aubrey had acclimated to the ever-present thread of mild mischief during the hours Mr. Wainwright wasn’t otherwise occupied. He tended not to discourage this. Playfulness was a criminally underdocumented angle of the average creature’s nature.

“Oh yes,” said Mr. Wainwright. “I know we spoke of me waiting a few days to stretch, just in case, but I simply couldn’t go any further without a little bit of proper exercise. I can’t risk a cramp if I need to be taller at unexpected hours!” He adjusted how he held himself; at his current size there was quite a lot of Mr. Wainwright to go around, and the fact that he could fit the whole of his mass all under a single bed was testament to his flexibility. “I’ve already performed a round of calisthenics and washed up from the exertion, and as I was still feeling somewhat out of sorts it seemed like such a lovely opportunity to have myself a nap afterwards, so I felt I’d be least likely to upset the manor staff this way. If nothing else it’s a most lovely darkness down here.”

Aubrey closed the distance and put out his hand, prompting Mr. Wainwright to stretch forth his snout to press it against the proffered palm with affection. The ruffle still draped across his eyes like a mourner’s veil. “Might I ask why you chose to be under the bed instead of simply pulling closed its curtains?” asked Aubrey.

Mr. Wainwright nuzzled at Aubrey’s hand. “What better place for a fellow of my character to rest his head than in his natural habitat?” he joked. “It’s permitted me the chance to meditate upon how I might go about things were I to change my profession to that of a night terror. If someone were to sit upon the mattress, why, I dare say I could grab at their ankles with ease from this vantage, and it’d be sure to give them quite a fright.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t try for the armoire,” said Aubrey with a nod towards the suit-filled standing closet. “It’s sure to be less dusty.”

The suggestion earned Aubrey a scandalized snortle. “Well! It’s a place for keeping lovely clothes, not a gentleman! Even if things were different, at this point in my life I doubt I’d fit.”

“Come on out from there, then,” said Aubrey. He withdrew his hand and stepped to the side. “Let’s get a proper look at you.”

Quick as a flash, Mr. Wainwright scurried out from beneath the bed and coiled himself up atop the comforter in a pile of joints and fingers that only roughly conformed to the shape of a smaller human body. His sunken eyes were bright. As was common when he took a midday rest, he was not wholly unclothed: initiated housekeepers meant creature-sized clothing could safely be included in their luggage, and so he was dressed in an extra-large pair of lacy breeches fastened about the knees with ribbons. His little tail (also accounted for by the breeches) wagged with delight as he pressed his snout into Aubrey’s smartly-buttoned front. “What do you think, though? Is everything in order?”

“I will want to organize my records before we begin a proper physical evaluation,” said Aubrey, making no move to organize much of anything. He stroked the bridge of Mr. Wainwright’s nose. “You mentioned you were feeling out of sorts?”

The wagging slowed but did not stop. “It’s nothing, really. I’m simply…not at my best, currently, like the clouds outside are mirroring the pall upon my sunny disposition. It’s the stress of all the uncertainty.” Mr. Wainwright rested a few clawed digits against Aubrey’s shoulder, careful as always not to scratch or tear. “Your presence, as always, Mr. Ward, has me feeling ever so much better, as my heart fills with gladness just by being able to see you once more.”

“I am glad to hear it, Mr. Wainwright.” Aubrey let Mr. Wainwright stay as he was for a while. Creatures such as he were so often even lonelier than their distant, drifting peers, denied the comfort of touch when expressing their other natures; part of Aubrey’s radical treatment methods demanded the patient be regularly brought back into connection with other human beings, be they friends or loved ones or simply colleagues who understood the importance of physical contact. A reminder of another’s care could do remarkable things. It could not solve every problem, unfortunately, and so eventually Aubrey had to say more. “Are you certain you aren’t in the mood for talking through your troubles?”

Mr. Wainwright shifted in place. “Must I be?”

Aubrey cupped his hand against one of Mr. Wainwright’s long, side-whiskered cheeks, running his thumb along the bruised socket surrounding one of Mr. Wainwright’s many eyes. “It is you who decides the pace and nature of our therapeutic conversations when not in a crisis state. I shan’t force your hand unless I believe it necessary for your continued well-being.”

“Then…might we postpone it, at least for a while? You know my temperament, Mr. Ward, and how I have my passing fits of melancholia, and I should hate to waste your time on something that will tidily fix itself if left to burn down its own wick. I’d rather spend our afternoon seeing to my physical state.”

“As you wish.”

Basic exams required far less bookkeeping than a full physical; while both would need to be done in time, it made the most sense to start with the former before leading into the latter. Aubrey gestured and Mr. Wainwright sat up straight, and even with his torso bent as it was his ears were pressed down by the canopy overhead. His ribs, all knitted together like the legs of a millipede, rose and fell with each steady breath. Tree-roots of muscle clung to his grand yet narrow frame. A draft found its way in from somewhere—perhaps the chimney flue needed to be adjusted, perhaps a window was open a tiny crack—and it passing, unhindered by the bed-curtains as they were, rose goose-pimples across Mr. Wainwright’s pale skin. He shivered.

“Oh, Mr. Ward, see how the foul weather already tries to sneak inside to vex us!” He laced some of his fingers together and placed them in his lap, jutting out his chest just so as he glanced sweetly askance. The way this also brought his chill-peaked nipples into prominence was no accident. “Would it not be a shame if I fell ill because we were not wholly aware of my health?”

Responsibility dictated that Aubrey should provide Mr. Wainwright with a cursory examination, finishing quickly so as to more efficiently review the papers he’d brought home while plenty of daylight remained. Responsibility did not have such an enchanting smile, however. Time spent in one’s companion’s company was time well spent, especially after how much talking Aubrey had needed to do prior, and it was useful to Aubrey’s research to compare the different ways Mr. Wainwright configured himself from day to day. Lengthy investigations required one to pace themselves, not expend every ounce of energy at once in a wild-eyed sprint. There was nothing in the society documents so important that they couldn’t wait a little while longer to be read.

“It would, indeed, be a shame.” Aubrey reached up—and up—to press the meat of his thumb against a presented nipple, rolling it against the muscle on which it perched before pinching it against his forefinger. Mr. Wainwright let out a soft gasp. “Is your pain reflex as it should be, Mr. Wainwright?” asked Aubrey. “It’s important a hunter know when they are wounded.”

Mr. Wainwright licked his snout. He didn’t have lips when stretched out to his fuller height, not that this impeded his ability to speak or kiss, and his little mannerisms adjusted themselves as needed to allow for rows of misshapen fangs or fingers that sprouted all the way down to the elbow. “I think you should test more thoroughly, Mr. Ward,” he said as he bowed his spine to bring his sternum closer to eye level. “It would be such a shame were it to go unnoticed until too late.”

As a patient Mr. Wainwright was an agreeable sort, always punctual with his teas and tonics and keen to change his habits in ways he was advised, and as a companion he was even more eager to please. It was for Aubrey’s sake that Mr. Wainwright would guide a hand beneath his shirt to caress an areola, for Aubrey’s sake that he would permit all manner of willing discourtesies to befall that tender flesh. He was so eager to please that finding ways to impede his offers without ruining the intimate mood between them had become a form of enrichment all its own. For now, though, he deserved an easy victory, and so Aubrey was sure to give the other peak a fearsome twist to let Mr. Wainwright know the esteem in which he was held.

“Very good, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey to the delighted cries he evoked. He waited for the outburst to still before continuing. “We’ll need to check you over more thoroughly to be certain, but your base reactions seem to check out.”

“I shall do whatever you ask of me, Mr. Ward, and answer all queries with truth and honesty,” said Mr. Wainwright, dreamily.

Aubrey released Mr. Wainwright and took a step back to better look him in the eye. “I am glad to hear it. Are your meal records up to date?”

This caught Mr. Wainwright by surprise, though he recovered quickly. “Of course, Mr. Ward,” he said, beaming. He had a great many teeth with which to do this. “Even if much of the food the kitchen prepares for us is without the charm to which I am accustomed, I’ve been taking note of every grape and biscuit of which I’ve partaken since we arrived. It seemed more important than ever without your hand at the ladle.” Sure as he spoke, the little paper folio he used to track his choices in food while abroad was folded up on the desk next to a writing quill. Back at the house on Kettle Street he maintained a hardbound miniature journal for the purpose. Given what else he ate while at home, they had agreed that a fresh set of documents would cause the least amount of fuss during their visit should prying eyes come across them. Some people simply had no respect for the hierarchy of predation.

“And how are your tonics keeping you?”

“I should very much like to come across one of the nasties they say was plaguing the place when this trouble first started, as I keep dreaming of how nice it would be to tear one apart, but I think the medicine will keep those desires in check for a while yet,” said Mr. Wainwright.

“And the anemic tendencies to which they also attend?”

Mr. Wainwright sighed. His color looked the same as it always did. “Also kept in check, though I would dearly love it were they to serve me spinach with dinner for a change. You don’t suppose you might speak with the kitchen…?”

“I doubt they will permit me to influence the menu any more than they did the last many times I asked, Mr. Wainwright. The head cook is still sore about permitting the lunch I prepared for us yesterday.”

“Bother,” said Mr. Wainwright. He scrunched his neck against itself in irritation, his ears slicked back against his hair. His society plate’s chain rucked up around the folds in his shoulders. “I hope you don’t mind if I ask for extra greens with every meal for a week once we’re home again. You won’t get tired of preparing them, will you?”

Aubrey scratched beneath Mr. Wainwright’s chin. “Not at all.” The mood was faltering, and it wouldn’t do to leave Mr. Wainwright in a worse state than the one in which he’d been found. Aubrey took another few steps backwards and gestured to the floorboards between himself and the bed. “Let us continue with your exam,” he said in a voice of calm sovereignty. “Stand up straight, if you’d please, so I can look at you from all sides.”

“Of course!”

The bed creaked as Mr. Wainwright left it to permit the curtain-filtered afternoon light to fall across him in full glory. He’d always been taller than Aubrey, his nose even with the middle of Aubrey’s forehead when they nestled against each other to sleep, and now he was taller still, his limbs hanging from his frame more like a marionette’s than any mortal meat. Even when he folded his arms up like a mantis his dimensions exceeded those of even the broadest fellow on the street. The bedroom’s ceiling was high enough for him to straighten out his back. Had his eyes not been so alert and wet or his breathing so regular, he could have been mistaken for a ghastly piece of sculpture; like that same theoretical sculpture, he filled the chamber with the purpose of being observed.

Strictly speaking a medical examination was a purely platonic affair, being the sort of thing Aubrey had done for Mr. Wainwright throughout their professional relationship, and it was possible for one to remain a chaste thing, especially when determining how cleanly an injury had healed. Mr. Wainwright only sometimes bantered while having dismembered limbs reattached. Sometimes all that was needed was ensuring nothing had changed in his physical state in an unpredicted manner. This soon proved itself to not be such an exam.

Mr. Wainwright leaned into Aubrey’s touch at every opportunity even as he turned in place, presenting limbs and appendages as requested. Two taps on the top of his snout made him gape his jaws wide to permit his dentition be inspected, while a single finger against his brow spurred him to kneel and stand as Aubrey so decreed. Had Aubrey gestured so, Mr. Wainwright would have tried to tie his body into a knot with the enthusiasm of a twisting hagfish; only concern for his health (and his lack of the trademark loose and slimy skin that emboldened the hagfish so) kept this request from being made. Physical limitations required whole new definitions when dealing with a man like Mr. Wainwright.

“Have you noticed any aches or pains in your day-to-day business?” asked Aubrey as he traced the knobs of Mr. Wainwright’s lower back up from the hem of his breeches.

“Only the one.”

“That being?”

Mr. Wainwright chuckled. “Why, it’s improper to speak its name in polite company, Mr. Ward, and as you are a man of manners I shall say it is sometimes known as the gentleman’s toothache.” He adjusted his stance; sure as he spoke, the front of Mr. Wainwright’s lovely undergarment pushed forward, pulled into a lewd shape by the flesh beneath the satin. The wagging of his tail, once more excited, made the rise twitch to and fro in time. It was a bold presentation, impossible to mistake for anything else. How far he had come from the cringing wretch that had felt his wishes to be nothing but a burden others must never be made to shoulder!

Such boldness deserved a reward. Aubrey cupped his hand against the presented fabric and gently squeezed until he elicited a gasp. “Does it hurt, Mr. Wainwright?”

“Oh no, not at all,” said Mr. Wainwright, his words rendered quavering from his shaking breaths. Another squeeze made him hiss through his teeth. “It is agony, but a lovely sort, as even left untreated it might bring me happiness.”

“What treatment do you recommend?”

A twinkle alighted in the most centered of Mr. Wainwright’s eyes. “Why, Mr. Ward, are you not the expert? Surely you know what is best for me.”

Aubrey permitted himself a delicate curl of the lip, subtle as a single grain of salt in a whole basin of water. “Indeed I do.”

“Will you not tell me?” asked Mr. Wainwright, his tone light and innocent even as he rubbed himself against Aubrey’s still-clasping hand. “I only wish to do what is right by us both…”

“Then listen.” Aubrey relaxed his hand and pulled back just enough to wind up his arm, then shoved with modest force against the front of Mr. Wainwright’s breeches, this being easier to reach—and making more of a statement—than his chest. Mr. Wainwright could maintain his balance in a storm, or even in the middle of a fight, especially when he could splay out his monstrous toes to grasp at the ground with greater force than any bird of prey, but this assumed he did not wish to be moved; standing before Aubrey in the pleasant afternoon dim, it took only a feather’s touch to send him falling backwards to land on the bed. He giggled with excitement. Aubrey strode between the hinges of his long, long legs to once more take hold of the straining satin, to Mr. Wainwright’s vocal glee. “Take these off,” demanded Aubrey. “We won’t continue until you do.”

Mr. Wainwright propped himself up on his elbows that he might press his claws to his cheeks in faux concern. “Are they making things worse, Mr. Ward?” he asked, still grinning from ear to ear save where a band of tissue disrupted the line of his teeth.

“Not yet, Mr. Wainwright, but I’d rather not need to wash masculine humours from your intimate apparel without the aid of soaps I know.” Aubrey ran his hand along Mr. Wainwright’s thigh, allowing the breeches’ fabric to pull along with his fingers. “That ache of yours cannot be well cured without spilling something to restore your inner chemical balance.”

“Yes, yes, of course!” Mr. Wainwright slipped out of the garment one leg at a time, careful not to strike or jostle Aubrey with any one of his assortment of knees. His part, now exposed, was shaped very much as it was when stood at his shorter height, though in his current state it remained roughly proportional. It still twitched from side to side opposite the movements of his tail. Mr. Wainwright had the oddest knack for remaining charming in all sorts of interesting situations.

Two little table-dressers flanked the bed, one on either side, and from a drawer on Mr. Wainwright’s side Aubrey drew a dainty decanter not unlike one of the tonic bottles; this one, however, was made of clear glass, and its contents were equally transparent. He tapped the stopper. “I believe the usual administration of boudoir oil will best see to your trouble, Mr. Wainwright,” he said. Seizing Mr. Wainwright by the chin, he glared over his spectacles and continued. “I must ask, however: will I have a mess to clean once I’ve had my medicinal way with you?”

“Oh!” said Mr. Wainwright, the word tumbling out in a lilting squeak. He balled his toes into fists. “I, I, I shall try my best to, ah, keep everything contained,” he stammered, “and I promise to be very good, and make myself most, ah, welcoming, in all ways, should you wish to expend yourself inside of me.” An air of shy pride returned to his face. His next words were more confident: “I would like it very much if you took your pleasure from me so. It makes me feel rather handsome.”

“Does it, now.”

Mr. Wainwright wiped at the newest trickle of saliva streaking his jaws. “Like little else,” he said. He spread his thighs wider. “It might be best if I kept my hips facing you. That way, when I am granted satisfaction, I will only express it upon my own person, and the blankets will stay clean another day.”

Aubrey was already loosening his fasteners. This form of congress required greater freedom of anatomy for him than when Mr. Wainwright used his mouth, though through trial and error they had found he could still keep much of his uniform in place without any concern. Braces were perfectly suited for this sort of thing. Whatever wrinkles and rumples Aubrey might accrue from the coming exertions would be nothing to smooth away once the deed was done. “A wise decision,” he said, studying the puckered spot where he was meant to go. “I suppose I shall grasp you by the tail before you, and leave be the one that curls behind.”

“Yes, yes, please do,” said Mr. Wainwright. He arched his back, which caused some highly intriguing results in the definition of his torso.

The bottle stopper made a glass-on-glass sound as Aubrey pulled it free, and a clink when he placed it atop the table-dresser. He anointed himself thoroughly. Mr. Wainwright’s eyes were fixed upon that shining length, and they only looked away when it came time for Aubrey to massage oil into Mr. Wainwright’s passage. Aubrey’s hands were diligent in their attentions. This was purely a matter of comfort: in a strictly physical sense, there was little Aubrey could do to cause Mr. Wainwright harm (even before taking the swift healing of certain soft tissues into account), but in a psychological sense, it was easier on them both to remind him to relax before they began, no matter the narrative they’d built for themselves. Even the mightiest of hunters could have a vulnerable spot. Practice and encouragement had taken Mr. Wainwright far in his quest to lie beneath the man he so loved.

Practice had also cured Mr. Wainwright of his need to mewl when first pieced, and so when he made such a sound at the first hint of Aubrey nudging the head of his staff inside it had to be a conscious choice. The spasms that accompanied this were more of a reflex. He wiggled and writhed upon Aubrey’s wholly modest girth, risking slipping away entirely at times, and he squeezed his eyes shut in concentration. Aubrey was familiar with this; he stopped his entry and waited until Mr. Wainwright actively pushed against him before pressing further in. So far they had yet to see through a single act of sodomy without Mr. Wainwright getting the fidgets at the start. He liked to claim it was a matter of acclimating to the sensation, of reminding his conscious mind that all was well and that he did enjoy reversing the natural order in this way from time to time. Aubrey, who had more experience with the act, did not comment on the matter either way.

Once Mr. Wainwright was no longer at risk of dislodging Aubrey from his nethers, they were able to move together in earnest. Aubrey kept his palms flat against the covers, having wiped away any lingering oil before inserting himself, and given the height of the bed this provided him with enough leverage to lean against Mr. Wainwright while remaining standing. Mr. Wainwright himself kept his back to the mattress as he hugged himself with his quickening left bobbing, untouched, above his lower stomach. He licked his chops nervously as Aubrey worked the same few inches of flesh in and out with a craftsman’s precision.

“Mr. Ward?” he said, peeking through his lower left lid.

As there was no concern in Mr. Wainwright’s voice, Aubrey did not slow, though he did look up from his task. “Yes, Mr. Wainwright?”

“Would it be all right were I to…bring you closer to me? Leaving us entwined thus? I would hold you, if you’d permit it.” Everything with Mr. Wainwright was balanced between what he could do and what Aubrey expected of him. A creature—not just any creature, but a blooded and beribboned hunter, a master pursuer, a monster among monsters, a jägermeister—could tear a man to pieces with so little effort, and for them to lie together as they did required a perfect trust between them. If he wished, Mr. Wainwright could wrench Aubrey’s head from his shoulders as easily as picking a petal from a daisy. Mr. Wainwright worked every waking day to prove he did not wish for that at all.

To refuse such a gentle request would be to refuse Mr. Wainwright entirely. “Of course,” said Aubrey.

Mr. Wainwright wasted no time making use of that permission. He lifted his legs up until his knees fell over Aubrey’s shoulders, his other joints hinging into a gangly halo about Aubrey’s head until his toes were able to grab—carefully—at the frame of the bed’s canopy. It was both an embrace and a way to angle Aubrey ever-deeper. He gasped as the patch of skin betwixt his plums and posterior made contact with the neatly-groomed thatch that peeked out beneath the parted tails of Aubrey’s shirt. His tail thudded against Aubrey’s trouser legs. Aubrey took this as inspiration to lean further over, his hands now grasping at Mr. Wainwright’s splayed thighs. The floorboards did not creak, nor did the bed’s frame rattle, and neither of these mattered when it came to sharing a moment of passion in this manner. The only accompaniment needed was the quiet sound of their mutual exertions.

With carnal matters there was little in the way of a natural order, requiring the parties involved to determine their own right method, and that order which Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright had come to was as protean as Mr. Wainwright himself. That afternoon it worked out like so: Mr. Wainwright trembled, as he did when his inner fires were close to flaring their brightest, and Aubrey took one hand from a twisted thigh to grasp at Mr. Wainwright’s pride even as Aubrey himself did not let up from plumbing those most personal depths, which made Mr. Wainwright whine and buck upon the length that skewered him. He shivered as he was touched. One, two, three moments more and he crested that ever-rising wave with a groan, contorting himself that his release might patter harmlessly against his belly. Aubrey’s firm hand guided him through it all.

As the rush of the act faded from Mr. Wainwright’s cheeks, he dabbed a talon at one of the lingering spatters and lifted it to his lipless maw to take a dainty taste.

“Is everything well with your balance?” asked Aubrey, dryly, his pace unchanging.

Mr. Wainwright licked his teeth in thought. “I think I am nicer when my diet is at its usual,” he said, “but I don’t regret the sample.” He fluttered his eyelashes. “Shall I tidy myself up while you continue to enjoy me?” he asked. “Would it inspire you, were you to watch me do it?”

“Let us find out together.”

Reaching his own belly was a trivial matter for Mr. Wainwright, as between the length of his neck and the length of his tongue he did not have to curl in on himself too much when he was all stretched out. Pink meat swept across milky skin, leaving wet trails behind it; that it took more than a few swipes was proof that Mr. Wainwright was feeling puckish again, but even when he seized himself just beneath the head of his own part to wring out the last of his joy into his waiting jaws Aubrey did not falter. Mr. Wainwright released his grip on himself to tilt his head at him in concern.

“Is something the matter, Mr. Ward? I had hoped—”

The hiss of air between Aubrey’s teeth meant more than any mere inhalation. Mr. Wainwright snapped his mouth closed around the rest of his sentence, and it was not until Aubrey had finished his own bout of paroxysms that either spoke again.

“You did well, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey.

Mr. Wainwright fussed in place. “Was I not properly inspirational?” he asked.

“Very much so.”

“Then why did you wait until I was done?”

Aubrey made a small, amused sound in the back of his throat. “I’d asked you to keep the bedspread tidy. I didn’t want to risk making you break our agreement through my own carelessness.” He leaned forward and kissed Mr. Wainwright on the forehead next to the eye that peered from its center. “We must both find our fun somehow.”

It was Mr. Wainwright who was better able to fetch the water pitcher and washing-cloths from the other side of the bed, and true to his promise, they were able to clean away sign of their passions without leaving behind a mark upon the covers. Aubrey once more did up his fasteners and Mr. Wainwright found his breeches again. This was as far as they both got before Mr. Wainwright entangled Aubrey and pulled him fully onto the bed for a cuddle. The day had been long, their tasks unceasing. It would probably do more harm to pull away than to allow it to happen, and so Aubrey permitted it. Only God’s fathomless wisdom knew when next they might get the opportunity.

A cuddle beyond a given length risked becoming a nap, and without a head-square Aubrey was at risk of waking up with ruined hair. Showing up mussed for a family gathering was inexcusable. He sighed and patted at Mr. Wainwright’s nearest facsimile of a bicep. “They’ll be calling us for tea soon enough, Mr. Wainwright.”

“Let them,” said Mr. Wainwright, pulling Aubrey closer. “I should like to embrace you a while longer yet, that your warmth linger in my bones when we finally part; I will need it this evening, as the case has cause for me to speak with family whose love for me has long since cooled.” He nuzzled at Aubrey’s ear, leaving an affectionate trail of saliva. “Can’t whatever you wanted wait until after that? Is it truly so dire if it was already postponed this long?”

Aubrey had only been able to skim the documents Shelby Crowe had handed him, each page the spoils of a hard-fought battle for knowledge, but none of them had seemed to contain evidence most damning. Even if they did, they would require careful study to give up their secrets, care of the sort unlikely to be achieved in the next quarter-hour. Mr. Wainwright oft wore his heart upon his sleeve—it was one of his more refreshing traits, and an endearing one—but that did not mean he couldn’t conceal how he felt from time to time; what if he was still hiding something? Then there was the manner of the psychic strain of him prizing fresh news from kin who would rather he had shared the fate of his wounded uncle. The humane thing to do would be to bolster his spirits against whatever fresh hell through which the family Wainwright might put him.

“I suppose it would do no harm were we to tarry a few moments more,” said Aubrey, and as Mr. Wainwright redoubled his embrace, one might have been forgiven for turning away from the still-unopened attaché case, tempering prudence in the name of their shared humanity.

❦ 7

As was typical fashion at the time of its construction, Martlethead Court contained more than one parlor on its grounds, and it was in one of these ancillary chambers that Hugh put himself after the evening meal. He was not alone: the nameless musical cousins from before were there, playing cards, as were a smattering of other family members and the cousins’ governess. Sir Peter was elsewhere—as was to be expected, as why would he settle for spending his evening in a lesser parlor?—which made the room feel that much less oppressive. How could a man make one feel so unwelcome without so much as a hint of outward malice? Hugh’s mother, Lady Catherine (more properly Lady Wainwright, as she insisted upon when among strangers and significantly fewer others of that surname) wasn’t much better; at least Hugh might conceivably speak of hunting with his father, but the inner workings of Lady Catherine were a mystery. Maybe Mr. Ward would get along with her better? Then again, there was a strong possibility that Mr. Ward would instead concoct six different ways of having her discreetly eliminated were she to insult the quality of his needlepoint, so perhaps Hugh would just need to be satisfied with her remaining a mystery. Not all questions had answers.

People ebbed and flowed around Hugh as he sat by the fire with a book. He’d much rather have retreated to his room to enjoy his book in private, perhaps with Mr. Ward’s company, and had the clients been anyone other than family he would have done just that; alas, he was here in defiance of a writ of restraint (no small matter!), and so he needed to be on his best behavior at all hours to justify that defiance. Best behavior meant pretending to be sociable. Pretending to be sociable meant leaving his cozy cavern to be gawked at by people whose faces he barely recognized after so many years away. At least there were socially-accepted methods of sociability at his disposal. The Wainwright cellars went deep.

Hugh was three glasses of claret into socializing with no one at all when Olivia swept in to seat herself in an adjacent chair.

“Brother Hugh,” she said. Her manner was neither friendly nor unfriendly. She had a wine glass of her own in hand, so perhaps she, too, needed to grease her conversational gears? Hugh couldn’t say for sure; neither of them had been old enough to have wine outside of holidays when he’d left.

He toasted her with his glass. “Sister Olivia.”

“It’s been a while since last we spoke,” she said. This was so: while she’d had plenty to say to Mr. Ward the night before, her words with Hugh had been few and far between. What did she even do now? Assuming every one of his brothers and sisters loafed about the place in an abstract state of being wealthy felt unkind, even if it risked being accurate with that lack of charity. Maybe she was a painter, or a mathematician, or a prize-winning equestrian. She always had liked horses.

“How are you?” asked Hugh, for lack of anything better to say. He threaded the book’s marking-ribbon between its pages and put it to the side. If his sister wished to speak with him, he could at least try to give her his whole attention. It was only polite.

Olivia shrugged. “By God’s grace, I have awoken to greet another day, and with Their blessing, I shall live to see the end of it,” she said. That saying had become quite popular in certain circles. “I must be honest, brother. I don’t know how to feel about your presence here.”

Less than a minute and things were already shaping up to be one of those conversations. Hugh’s mouth felt dry; alas, there was not enough wine in the world to undo what had already been done. “That makes two of us,” he said.

“How fares the investigation?”

Hugh wavered a hand. “We’ve yet to find enough to determine much of anything. I don’t doubt what everyone’s been saying is very real and true, but I’ll be dashed if I can find proof of it.”

She sniffed. “I thought that was your calling, these days? Finding things?”

“Just so. You understand why it wounds me that I’ve been turning the grounds upside down with nothing to show for my trouble.”

Olivia made a small, acknowledging sound. She glanced at the card-playing cousins and swirled her glass in thought. “They never told us very much about what was to be done with you back then, brother, just that you’d done something terrible and needed to go away before it happened again,” she said. “Everything I know about you now I had to find out for myself. And I scarcely know anything.”

Hugh tilted his head. “What all have you learned?”

“A test! Since when am I one of your students?” she said with a sharp laugh. Well, at least she could hear his more public-facing title and put two and two together, which was more than Hugh could say for some people. “I know you’re a society man now, not in the way most of the family is but sworn to its care and service, and they send you out to snap up nasty little things before they can do any snapping of their own. Is it true you eat them?”

Digging his teeth into the neck of something with too many eyes and feeling its lifeblood pulse down his throat before ripping out his mouthful in a spiral of carnivorous violence sounded heavenly right now. As dry as his mouth had been before, the mental image was tantalizing; Hugh palmed a humbug as a precaution. “Each hunter has their own tricks, but it’s true that we drink the dying breaths of what we kill. It’s more of a reflex than anything else. Intriguingly, it doesn’t trigger off of animals, unless we’ve engaged with them in some way, particularly if they meet their ends by our own hands.” He recalled milling about outside of a slaughterhouse for hours one day, feeling nothing slide across his tongue, and the immediate difference when he’d helped Mr. Ward prepare some live eels for a pie later that same day. Hugh had been slightly disappointed that the fishy breath hadn’t wiggled going down. “Part of my extended research has involved exploring why that might be, and what evolutionary advantage it might grant.”

Evolutionary advantage? I suppose it’s also true what they say about you being a scientist, then.”

Hugh chuckled. “I am but a man who loves the world and all the beasts and botany that populate it. If you wish to see a properly scientific mind, Mr. Ward is to whom you should be speaking.”

“I’ve already spoken to your valet,” said Olivia. “This is about you, now.”

Woe unto those with clever sisters! Woe unto Hugh in particular! “I’m honored, I suppose,” he said.

Olivia took a sip from her wine glass, pointing at him with her little finger as she drank. “So what is the evolutionary advantage of showing off your abnormality?” she asked.

He’d gotten practice with answering questions such as this, sometimes even from fellow creatures coming to terms with their awe at their own bodies. “The extra digits started as the result of an injury,” he said. Hugh didn’t feel the need to show them off this time; Olivia could surely count all twelve from where she sat. “When I kept fighting it, striving to keep to four fingers and a thumb, my own body rebelled against me, sprouting all manner of additional bits that always returned no matter how aggressively I culled them. Accepting that I would have many more when stretching, and only two more when not, stilled the churning of the tissue, and after a little time spent learning how to comfortably hold things, I scarcely think about it anymore. Mr. Ward helps keep me connected to sympathetic tailors.” He nodded to the cousins, who continued to ignore him. “Yonder youths can attest that I am untroubled when it comes to playing the pianoforte, too.”

“What of the eyes?”

“Their color turned about the same time,” said Hugh. “I like to think it is a reflection of me embracing my inner passions, though it may simply be a side-effect of how attuned to low light they’ve become. See how they shine so when the firelight strikes them!” He turned his head from side to side to demonstrate; with rain on the way the parlor’s fireplace was blazing well before dinner had finished. Sure enough, they gleamed a bestial gold.

Olivia covered her mouth with her free hand. “Oh, I don’t care for that at all.”

“Ah? I’ll stop, then.” Hugh adjusted how he sat. Even if Olivia was hardly the friendliest sort, she was trying to understand him, and that was deserving of consideration.

She still looked uneasy, but Olivia was willing to continue once Hugh no longer turned his wolf’s stare upon her so. “So why show such signs at all?” she asked. “I’ve met a creature or two other than you in my time, and neither of them bore tells, yet here you are, not even bothering to rouge your cheeks to look less like a drowned man. Don’t you care about being marked?”

Hugh pursed his lips. He didn’t care about his tells, and had grown to rather like them, but he couldn’t count on Olivia to understand why without further explaining his logic. What was the best way to put it? “I view it this way, sister,” he said after some thought. “I shall never go about the town with my second nature whole upon display, as to do so would frighten the people I strive to protect, and that fear would do dreadful things to the barrier between the night city and themselves. The uninitiated will never be fully receptive to the reality of myself. This does not mean I have to hide all of who I am, however! By letting my body express itself in a manner that is comfortable, I am honest both to myself and to those who see me, and my heart is more at ease.” He took another pull from his claret. “Some polymorphic persons might live their entire lives and never feel the need to mirror their selves between their varying heights, and this is fine and well. But I cannot live in any way other than openly proclaiming who and what I am to those who know for what to look.”

“Isn’t obscuring your nature at all a form of denial?”

“There is such a thing as time and place,” said Hugh. He thought of the other creatures he tutored, be they those who gathered in society housing, those who were paired with handlers, and the rarest few who lived, in secret, without society oversight at all (barring Hugh himself, technically). How wonderful that some of them were still young! How inspiring it was that they might carry that fiery brand until they could pass it along to future generations! “But I am pleased to report that the number of such places and the frequency of said times are both growing in number, the more we communicate among ourselves and take satisfaction in the knowledge that we exist.”

Olivia uncrossed her ankles and crossed them again in the opposite way. “Is that the most important thing the society has done for you, then? Controlling your monstrosity?”

He scoffed. It was so difficult explaining this to someone who hadn’t lived it a little bit herself! “It isn’t a matter of learning to control it,” he said. “It’s learning how to be it. We cannot exist if we hate what greets us in the mirror each morning. The shadow I cast may be strange and many-jointed when the light falls across me right, this is so, but I no longer shy from that questing lamp, and the conundrum beneath my skin is a thing that has given me joy ever since I dared first embrace a fraction of its magnificent whole. I, and I alone, can determine what meaning it has for me.”

“What happens when that meaning turns to bloodshed?”

Ah. So this was how it was going to be. “I shall have you know, sister Olivia, that I consider what happened with Uncle Andrew to be my greatest failing, and that failing is forever a shackle about my leg. My sworn duty is to never repeat such a thing. In all my time as a hunter, from neophyte to now, only once have I brought harm to another human being, and in my defense, he started it.” Back home, in a little padded box, lay another metal plate not unlike the one Hugh wore, save for its mangling and streaks of soot. Its owner had, indeed, started the aforementioned altercation, and Hugh had finished it. He held onto it as a reminder of what fearsome things he could do when pressed, and the finality of succumbing to that pressure. Not once did Hugh regret plucking it from its bearer’s ruined and cooling corpse.

Placing her chin in her hand, Olivia asked, “So did Uncle Andrew, to use your words, start it? Or is that distinction a modern invention of yours?”

“It was not my fault what happened between himself and me.”

“You tore him apart!”

“I was unwell!” cried Hugh. The others in the parlor were staring at him, now, but he couldn’t find it in him to care, not when his character was being judged so. “I was troubled, I will never deny that, but the fatal flaw was in letting that trouble go untreated, not the trouble itself. You are demanding a child in pain be treated with the same disdain as a grown man.” His eyes felt hot with frustrated tears. He and Mr. Ward had spoken so much of this during their early days, and before returning to the manor Hugh had thought the wound had healed over. It seemed he’d taken a scab for a scar; now picked at, the old wound once more bled.

He stood up with deliberate slowness, lest any speed or energy on his part be misconstrued as an echo of his past shame. The book and glass he left where they were; he loathed leaving a cluttered space that someone else would have to pick up after him, but he needed to be somewhere, anywhere, but the parlor. Taking care to let neither fire nor lamplight strike his eyes at the wrong angle, he turned to Olivia, who remained in her chair with one hand gripping tightly at an armrest.

“Sister Olivia,” he said, and he knew his voice was shaking with emotion, “I know we shall likely never be sweetest of kin, but I wish you could accept that few feel worse about what befell our dear uncle than I do. A man cannot move forward if he does naught but cling to the millstone of the past, and yet this does not mean he has forgotten the weight of that stone or the rasp of its surface against his back. I must take my leave of you now, lest we both say things that cannot be unspoken. I bid you good evening.”

With that, he offered her a little bow, then turned on his heel and left the parlor before she could say anything to make him feel worse.

❦ 8

Aubrey had never needed much in the way of sleep since a very young age. Usually this meant spending the extra waking hours this afforded him on one of his countless tasks, be it furthering his research or seeing to the vast list of chores that came with managing a household mostly alone, and on rare occasions where neither of these felt necessary there was always more reading to do. These plans assumed he was at home. Martlethead Court, however, had its own housekeepers—all of whom had opinions about outsiders getting their hands on the family’s property—and the manor was decidedly light on the complicated lab equipment upon which much of his work relied, which left him with what could charitably be described as free time. Free time spent confined to what amounted to a single chamber was proving to be a less than ideal state for a man whose usual form of rest and relaxation was (when not allowing Mr. Wainwright to treat him to an outing) engaging in a different stripe of work than whatever he’d already accomplished that day. That the manor library was unavailable to guests after hours was nigh unto criminal.

That evening’s block of unstructured hours had initially been spent reviewing and annotating the papers he got from Shelby Crowe. Pembroke and Caldecott’s reputation was not exactly spotless; they weren’t incompetent, at least not as far as the records showed, but neither were they all that good at reporting their actions, responsibly invoking occluded practices, or turning in receipts on time. They would reliably deliver results that were somewhere within a stone’s throw of average, which was…fine. If they’d been more attentive to the less glamorous everyday affairs of being a society agent, it might even have been acceptable. The problem was that they were sloppy. Sloppiness in society matters could get people killed.

Crowe’s accounting, thankfully, was anything but slapdash, and his penmanship carried the confident excellence one might expect from a career scrivener. Aubrey had listings of every coin they’d spent and every good they’d requisitioned. Their needs started out as one might expect—chalk, salt, animal fat, herbs harvested at the stroke of midnight—but as things continued they became very strange. What would they need with a brass spike of those dimensions? How many doves were too many? Aubrey had numerous and varied experiences with making his own practitioner’s tools for certain kinds of work, which could call upon collection methods up to and including grave-robbing, but none of what the papers said lined up with anything he’d crafted before. One would have expected their fumbling attempts would have torn a hole through which all manner of nightmares would have flowed, and yet this was not the case: the agents and their preposterous spike (which had passed through a Wainwright warehouse, intriguingly) had clearly sealed things up if there were no further monster sightings, but clearly something was amiss if Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright had been called out to finish the job.

Equally puzzling was the agents’ schedule. One day they had been reporting in as expected and running pointless circles around the manor grounds, the next they both claimed need for a leave of absence. Their assistant had been dismissed several days before that; just as Lucrecia had claimed, he’d been found guilty of theft against the baronet himself, and many an inkwell had been spent on documenting his expulsion. Aubrey narrowed his eyes at this. The society did not simply expel those who worked against its interests, as to do so was too great a risk, so it made sense to assume the unfortunate fellow had been eliminated as a matter of course. That there was no signed letter of extirpation was highly unusual. Granted, there had been a time or two when such letters had been written for Aubrey himself, so their existence was not ironclad proof of one thing or another, but at least there had been corrections swiftly issued when he refused to be stricken from Life’s great record, and said letters had been taken out from the archives. Nowadays he kept them framed on the wall in the living room.

He would need to speak with Mr. Wainwright about this in the morning. Mr. Wainwright had few equals when it came to trailing after his designated quarry; this, however, required him to know what he was expected to find in the first place. If it was the assistant, not the society men, that served as the font of strangeness, that could explain many things. Alas, Aubrey was only human, and not the sort of human Mr. Wainwright was, at that. Hours of study had only taken him so far. Returning everything to the attaché case and filling time otherwise seemed to be the only reasonable choice.

Updating Mr. Wainwright’s medical records came next. Each tonic drunk was tallied, each meal was logged, and even the highly unserious play-examination they’d enjoyed earlier in the day had its place within the voluminous notes Aubrey kept. It was hard not to view things as the next grand testing of the treatment. Mr. Wainwright had been away from the house for extended periods before, ranging from his earliest semesters at the academy to the field work he and Aubrey had been sent to complete since, and save for a spot of homesickness or listlessness due to lack of things to run down and devour, such trips never drained him as Martlethead Court did. Small wonder that it did, given the constant derogation Mr. Wainwright endured just trying to show courtesy for his family’s hospitality; no one with which Aubrey had spoken could string together a dozen words about Mr. Wainwright without somehow tripping and dropping a whole platter of little knives in the poor man’s back, and even without his presence it surely did him harm on some abstract level. Aubrey could weather such slings and arrows because it was his nature. Mr. Wainwright was too sweet to be expected to and too battle-scarred to deserve it. Just the thought of standing in some places was stressful enough for him. Why make things worse?

But some stressors could not be avoided. They would have to confront the kennels soon. The longer they put it off, the worse it would be for Mr. Wainwright to endure, which meant the worse it would be for his mental health. How could a society man do what was required of him if his heart was wrung out like so much beaten laundry? How could anyone? With luck there would be nothing there, and Mr. Wainwright could truthfully write it off as a place with no purpose to the investigation, and then he could retreat to their quarters to have himself a well-deserved cry before he would be expected to do anything else. Aubrey had read his dossier plenty of times, which had formed the bedrock upon which treating that unhappy part of Mr. Wainwright’s history had been built. If they could confront that place in person, together, perhaps they could wrench away some of the hold it still had over him. If not…if not, then that was why Aubrey was there, and why he was both one of the finest handlers to ever wear the ring and still alive to bear it in the first place. He’d always been known to think on his feet.

Even anatomy as creative as Mr. Wainwright’s could only be studied for so long without lab equipment, and so, too, did the medical records end up stacked and returned to their secured portfolio. Next to face the brunt of Aubrey’s moonlit attentions was the botany manual: Mr. Wainwright had brought it with him from his trip to the library, but he hadn’t said anything about why. A quick flip through its pages showed that the information was alarmingly out of date in places; when he was a child, Aubrey would accompany his father on rambles through the countryside all around their little seaside town, and Ezekiel had taught his only child more about the green places than simply which flowers made for pretty dyes and which roots eased the pains of rheumatism. Some of the accounts given in the text were inaccurate to the point of being dangerous. Paired with the middling quality of its illustrations, it wasn’t clear what value might be drawn from it. Aubrey put it back where Mr. Wainwright had left it.

Further handler’s duties would be too disruptive to pursue as things were, so once Aubrey had exhausted every possible form of research or record-keeping he could divine, he threw himself into the study of a fashion magazine brought along from the city.  The blocky volume’s claims of which trends were worth chasing were unimportant; what mattered were the cunning illustrations of outfits from varying angles—of which even the meanest was far better than any of the color plates in the botany manual—which he could translate into jotted notes on how to modify existing clothes to reflect the freshest fancies of the day. Mr. Wainwright would no doubt be feeling lowly even if the case turned itself around at the crack of dawn, so what better way to lift his spirits than to fit him for something handsome and new? Making new clothes from the whole cloth required time simply did not have, but modifying what already existed could be just as good, or at least good enough. One had to make do with good enough; there were never enough hours in a day to court perfection. Aubrey had learned that much from his mother.

A rustle from the bed drew Aubrey’s attention. Mr. Wainwright slept soundly there; he’d not stretched that night, as they could not yet be certain it would be safe for him to be so vulnerable for so long, and so he looked deceptively small in his cap and nightshirt beneath the spreading canopy. The pillowcase by his mouth was already dark from dream-drooling. Aubrey was used to walking in close proximity to Mr. Wainwright while he slept, so there was little danger of waking him as Aubrey checked to see that all was as it should be. It had been no more than a house-sound. House-sounds were a common thing in the night city, as were screeches and wails from the things that lurched outside the windows, so Aubrey’s ear had trained itself on the sorts of noises Mr. Wainwright made, instead, and in the too-quiet environs of the manor even the gentlest cough was as loud as powder-shot. Such was the fate of a career caretaker. 

He had just sat back down to browse through the books they’d brought—the poetry omnibus Mr. Wainwright had gifted him recently would surely help slice away another claustrophobic chunk of nighttime hours—when a rap came at the door.

Aubrey snorted in irritation. Mr. Wainwright needed his rest; waking up for a drink of water or a trip to the lavatory were acceptable, but much more than that might risk his ability to bed back down. A tired hunter was a careless hunter. A careless hunter was a dead one. Having sewn enough parts of Mr. Wainwright’s anatomy back into their proper places over their years together, Aubrey was well familiar with how dangerous a job it was, even when carried out at the height of a jägermeister’s ability, and it was difficult to shake the impression that their assignment would be a dull one right up until the moment it was not. If nothing else, poor sleep would only worsen the strains of the coming day. He glanced back at the sleeping form of his charge before rising from his seat and answering the knock.

One of the house staff was on the other side of the door. He looked young, likely not much older than Aubrey had been when he himself had first begun work as a hallboy, and the youth’s eyes kept darting past Aubrey to the fire-kissed dark of the guest room.

“The professor is sleeping,” said Aubrey, not bothering to wait for a reason for the interruption.

“Really?” asked the hallboy. He tried to peer around Aubrey; this was easier said than done thanks to Aubrey’s experience with getting in others’ way. “Does he really sprout fangs and claws at night?”

Aubrey’s spectacles focused his glare like sunlight through a magnifying lens. “He shows them whenever he pleases,” he said. “If there is no further reason for your visit, I bid you good evening.”

“Wait!” hissed someone else’s voice.

The unknown speaker emerged from an alcove—there had to be something about the manor that drew people to lurking in its alcoves after a certain hour—to reveal themselves as one of the many kitchen workers that had swapped sour looks with Aubrey when he’d been preparing Mr. Wainwright’s picnic lunch. She moved along the wall without use of a light. Here, then, was someone with experience: staff could not always count on their employers leaving the lamps burning after the family went to bed.

Every word exchanged was another chance to wake Mr. Wainwright, and so, with reluctance, Aubrey stepped out into the hall to continue the conversation. “What do you need?” he asked.

She brushed a strand of hair behind her ear and squared her shoulders. “I’m here to tell you that you ought to watch yourself, Mr. Ward.”

“It is a given, madam.”

“I mean to say you’re upsetting people with how you’re carrying on.”

Upsetting people came part and parcel with every day Aubrey could open his eyes in the morning, and there was no reason to change this trend; he did not say as much, however, instead opting for a simple, “And?”

The kitchen worker looked at him like he was daft. “Speaking out of turn? Not bowing to the baronet? Carrying on so openly with one of the baronet’s own sons? You’re making us look bad!”

Aubrey sniffed. “With how you lot love to beg and scrape, you were managing that last one well enough before my arrival.” Thunder growled somewhere in the distance as if to punctuate his statement. “My wages are paid by a different hand than yours. Tend to your baronet, and I will tend to the professor, and as soon as our business is complete here we will leave and stop tarnishing the good name of voiceless commoners everywhere. Or do you wish to try a different threat?”

The hallboy gawked at them both; unless he came from fiercer stock than he seemed, it was unlikely he’d been present for anyone to speak about the baronet so, especially not someone without a title of his own. He’d likely only come along as a witness. One couldn’t blame the logic, given how swiftly Pembroke and Caldecott’s manservant had been tossed aside on claims of theft. Mr. Wainwright was so far down the pecking order he had gravel in his beak, but he was still the son of the master of the house, and that was recipe enough for disaster when people went poking around in guest rooms after dark.

“I’m not saying it for my sake, Mr. Ward. I’m saying it for yours. People do all sorts of things if they think they’ve been handed the opportunity, and you not making yourself any friends here is quite the opportunity. Watch yourself.” She tugged on the hallboy’s sleeve. “Come along, Gregory. Mrs. Fawcett found smudges on the glass yesterday and it’ll be both our hides if she sees any again.” The pair turned and hurried away, the hallboy sometimes peeping back over his shoulder as though he expected Aubrey to be the one sprouting fangs and claws.

Alone once more, Aubrey let himself back into the room without making a sound, and any stray noises he might have made were muffled by the growing patter of raindrops against the windows. The gathering storm had arrived.

❦ 9

The morning had been a poor one.

Hugh had awoken to find Mr. Ward in a mood (he claimed he was not, but Hugh knew the difference between a typical resting frown and when there were troubled thoughts behind it), any plans to walk the tree line or hedgerows were scuttled by the weather, and Olivia’s words still rang in his ears. There weren’t even any cherries with breakfast. Nothing felt right. Martlethead Court was unbearably stifling even at the best of times, and now without even the illusion of being able to go out-of-doors it pressed in against him further still. He couldn’t think. He could barely breathe. Hugh could only imagine one solution, one that he’d clung to as a boy, and he prayed it would still do him some good.

It took Mr. Ward some time to follow his trail.

“Mr. Wainwright? I was looking for you.” His voice echoed off the walls, making him sound like a man thrice his size despite his uncharacteristically gentler tone. The tap of his shoes stopped close by; he always had such a knack for providing Hugh with space to think, even without being asked.

Hugh sat up from where he lay. “I’m sorry to have troubled you, Mr. Ward,” he said. “I needed peace in my heart. I suspected I could find it nowhere else, and so I came here.”

Mr. Ward glanced about at their surroundings, then back down to Hugh. “You don’t find it overly literal?”

Hugh chuckled weakly. “To take refuge in a chapel? Ah, but Mr. Ward, here at least I know none of my blood relations will come unexpectedly a-calling. If it’s not a high holiday, the only reason anyone would step foot inside would be to dust it.”

The chapel had been humbler when the manor’s construction first broke ground, so said the blueprints. Some time a century or so ago a past Wainwright had decided to court Godly favor by making the space larger, grander, and more pleasing to the eye: statues lifted their carved hands to the heavens and bands of gold adorned the pillars, all overseen by a petite rose window through which murky sunlight filtered. While that past figure had not had better or worse fortune than any other member of the line, the chapel’s enhancements had endured. Even the most modern household still had cause to patronize such a place from time to time. Hugh had been consecrated within those very same hallowed halls as a babe; he wasn’t sure if said blessing was still intact, what with how such a crucial part of gracing a child had reversed itself, but given that he had yet to bust into flames for resting a hand upon the empty altar he suspected he was welcome enough to linger. Perhaps he would light a votive or two later, as thanks. The most it would cost him was a lit lucifer and a little wax.

“It was here that I first learned of the connections between the manor and the people living around it,” said Hugh, his eyes tracing the spiderweb of leaded cames holding the rose window’s glass fast in place. “Back in the day, it would sound the greater hours on holidays, and the whole town would mark the time by its tolling, too. Everyone knew when prayer could end and the feast could begin. What fun it was to know everyone, no matter their standing, could share in a single experience! We always did start the carols early, though.”

“There’s a bell tower?” asked Mr. Ward.

Hugh nodded and gestured vaguely in the direction of the ceiling on the far side of the sanctuary. “There’s a door back there somewhere that leads to it. People keep adding bits onto the manor like a builder crab’s shell, so it’s easy to miss the steeple from outside.”

“I haven’t heard it chime once since we’ve been here.”

It hadn’t, had it? There wasn’t much in the way of traditional churches or chapels in the night city—the mechanical house certainly didn’t have one, though Hugh supposed one could always be arranged if need be—so he’d fallen out of practice of listening for prayer bells. Most ringing he heard when visiting the city during one of its days was strictly secular: clockwork-powered timekeeping based around the current time and nothing else. The other times he heard night bells…well, those didn’t apply in this situation, either. One would think Martlethead Court would at least get some mechanized gears put in if they didn’t care too much about the original purpose of their own bell.

“I doubt they’ve rung it in years,” said Hugh, feeling responsible for reasons he could not easily discern. “Perhaps from a lack of strong arms to haul the rope, perhaps from a lack of interest to hear its calls to worship, who can say?”

Mr. Ward sat himself down next to Hugh. “Tell me more about what draws you here, if you would, Mr. Wainwright.”

What a question! Hugh didn’t have to dwell on it to know the answer, even if it felt a bit silly to admit to it. He sighed and leaned back in his pew. “Back when I still called Martlethead Court my home, I’d often retreat to this place whenever I craved solitude. It shan’t surprise you to learn it oft stood empty between holidays, even back then, though that inattention did result in plenty of space for a boy to take shelter beneath the angels.” And what angels they were! It was a wonder anyone could keep them clean with all the nooks and crannies in each sculpted figure. Hugh suspected that all that time spent sitting in the shade of their peculiar majesty had influenced the great love of statuary held by his older self. “While at the time I didn’t understand the why of it, I always felt comforted by being in the presence of beings that looked like people, yet were also more than people, and not just because of their lovely wings and halos. They felt important. Perhaps my inner nature found kindred spirits among them?” Hugh chuckled sadly. “I can hardly call myself one of their number, of course! But the shade of their marble feathers was many times the only balm for my troubled young heart.” Another sigh. “At least, up until it wasn’t.”

A gloved hand touched at Hugh’s sleeve, familiar and comforting. “You’ve not spoken before of your childhood dreams to be a celestial messenger. What about them inspired you?”

“Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? They were proof that one could transcend the nature and body of simpler humanity, to be unnatural—at least by modern standards—and still adored by the eyes of God. To be one of their number is to be a paragon of that which is good, even if that goodness might be frightful to others if beheld in its full majesty. I thought…well, I did not think of it consciously, but my little heart still clung to the hope that perhaps I might someday become an angel, and have permission to feel the way that I did.”

“Do you still feel the same way?”

Did he? His swiftest reaction was to deny it, as he simply hadn’t the ability as a child to comprehend the occluded truths to which he’d been introduced across his years of work for the society. Hugh had been many places and performed many deeds, and not once had he encountered a real, living angel. It was safe to assume that their place in the tradition was a way to distill difficult concepts into those the limited scope of the past could find palatable. It was possible to imagine that the nature of God Themselves was a misunderstood truth of the world, the seed of it distorted across centuries’ worth of whisper games to become what They were known to be today. Who among the uninitiated wouldn’t come across a practitioner and mistake their methods for miracles? How could anyone catch sight of a roaming horror and not suspect it was a devil from the fiery pit? One couldn’t call themselves a classicist (in either of the ways Hugh did) without knowing how much of human myth was not the result of some divine hand but a mirror held up to human nature. And those warped reflections could inspire so much harm in their name.

The problem was that Hugh knew all this, and still felt a spark of piety in his heart.

“I think what I wish most of all,” he said, after some thought, “is to know that I am good.”

“And what does that mean to you?”

Goodness was more than a fun idea for between the sheets, though it was fun in that regard, and Hugh had no intention of drawing away from such fancies. Outside of that… “It is not to be seen as in the right by all who encounter me, because I am forever meeting those whose hearts differ from myself, and I must not assume myself above them without striving to understand those differences. It is not to be seen as harmless, because the truth is that I am capable of causing great harm, and I must always respect my potential, that I do not bring that potency to those who have done nothing to deserve it. I think if I forgot either of those things it would do the world a great disservice.” He touched his hand to Mr. Ward’s, which remained upon his sleeve. It was a fine and wondrous thing to have an anchor even in as uncertain waters as these. “But what matters most to me is that my every deed be some small part in creating a greater future, even if I am never to see the whole of it.”

“A terrible idea. It will only grind you down,” said Mr. Ward in one of his oh-so-rare lighter tones.

Hugh chuckled. “What better use for a swift-healing frame than to wear its hands to the bone?” he asked, giving Mr. Ward’s glove a pat. “We both know mine come back.”

This time it was Mr. Ward who chuckled, as brief and quiet as it was. “I should perhaps apologize for being such a woeful influence upon you.”

“Nonsense! You are a wonderful influence, Mr. Ward, and I am so very, very grateful to have you in my life in such troubling times as these. It’s quite the inspiration. The world would be a much worse place without the work you have done with your own two hands.”

Mr. Ward adjusted his spectacles. “My hands are stained with blood, Mr. Wainwright, my nails black with grave-dirt, and I apologize for neither of these.”

“I never said it wasn’t messy work,” said Hugh. “You wish to understand, and to be understood, and to have others come to said understanding after you are gone. Is that not why you’re a man of science? I think it is that—in seeking to better the good of all humanity, of improving the lives of people you have never met and by all likelihood would not even care for all that much were you to meet them in the flesh—that marks your quest as a good thing, and noble one.” He dipped his head as a hint of color rose in his cheeks. “At least, it is to me.”

“I am glad to hear it,” replied Mr. Ward after a little while. He did not take his hand away.

Hugh’s eyes roamed back towards the angels with gilded wing-tips whose fingers entwined around the rose window. Impossible creatures finding impossible creatures in fellowship: that was what the society could be, couldn’t it? He was hardly a divine creature (as he was fairly sure a true scion of holiness would never be woken up in the middle of the night with the need to make water) and yet here he was, a deliverer of messages and fierce judgment alike, following ineffable orders from on high to bring peace to those around him. Maybe that was what he longed for so dearly as a child, that sense of perfect purpose that did not step around his accelerated humanity but found greater use for it, that took joy in his own bizarre nature even when it was not directly in service to a cause. It made enough sense. What greater handler was there than the Almighty?

The chapel was chilly and the sound of rain against its roof was thunderous. It could have been so easy to feel alone in all that emptiness. Mr. Ward was there, though, forever patient and forever understanding, always at the ready to provide Hugh with the warmth he so desperately craved. Even if Mr. Ward was absent it might still have been all right. Hugh could not help but gaze up at the distant ceiling and imagine his grander height expanding to fill the place with his own strange goodness, and how those serene white heads that looked down upon the sanctuary might then regard him as a welcome kindred spirit. Was that not what he’d hoped for all along? It would not be the same as what he’d imagined as a child, but then, few things were.

Eventually his mood would clear, just as eventually the rain would let up, and until that hour arrived he would take comfort among the pews the same as any other man in search of serenity.

❦ 10

The rain refused to let up. At first it had provided a welcome cut to the heat, but the longer it kept falling the more it made the inside of the manor feel like an equatorial swamp. Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright, stuck indoors, had patrolled as much of the manor as had been deemed proper (at least once Mr. Wainwright felt up to leaving the chapel), and once again they hadn’t found so much as a footprint out of place. Falling back to their room to rest and reevaluate their plans felt like the correct move at the time. That it provided more opportunity for Aubrey to keep an eye on Mr. Wainwright’s emotional state was all the more useful.

Even on days as hot and muggy as this Mr. Wainwright liked very much to sit upon the carpet before the fire, his hands folded against Aubrey’s trouser-leg and his cheek resting upon those hands; he often sought opportunity to rest his head in Aubrey’s lap, be it out of restful adoration or for more exciting reasons. Sometimes Aubrey would place his hand upon Mr. Wainwright’s head and stroke his hair, and sometimes he would read his books and papers without that added touch. Mr. Wainwright assured him both approaches were very nice in their own way. There is much to enjoy in the quiet crackling of the logs, he would often say, and the lower fire Aubrey had kindled was able to cut some of the humidity without making the room into a sweat-lodge. They still needed to keep to shirtsleeves. Small or not, a fire was a fire.

“It was the strangest thing,” said Mr. Wainwright, his words focused and alert even as his posture was restful. “I am convinced that there’s something about that door, but no matter how much I tried I could not get it open. Me, unable to out-puzzle a puzzle mechanism! Being stymied so hasn’t precisely contributed to a cheerful mood.”

Aubrey turned another page of the inaccurate botany text as he petted Mr. Wainwright’s head. “And you believe that something of interest lies behind said door?”

“I’m sure of it! I could feel something there, lingering like the memory of a wax cast. I’d hoped we could look into it together, but ever since I needed to make way for a music lesson it’s felt like the library is either occupied or inaccessible.”

“Hm,” said Aubrey. Inaccessible was most often merely a suggestion to him, as there were a great many ways a man could get into spaces were he wasn’t wanted, which had made for a rude surprise their first evening in Martlethead Court when he’d gone to pick the lock on the library doors and found guards (mostly stablehands) posted there. They’d assured him that it was an extra precaution because of the anomaly, mostly to see that nothing happened to the baronet’s trophies stored behind those said-same doors; this might have been coincidence, or a leftover from Caldecott and Pembroke’s advice, or something the baronet was advised to do to keep Aubrey in line, and whatever its reason it made it that much harder to get in to look at the books after hours. There had to be some way around the problem. Offering bribes so early into a stay could sow thorns in the path of the future, and violence was right out in the case of horse-groomers pressed into unexpected bonus service. Murder was at its most useful when it remained the ultimate argument.

Those times Aubrey had managed to get at the stacks had involved a varying chaperon presence, which had been a disincentive to get too creative with where he was looking. Would bringing Mr. Wainwright with him next time make things better or worse? A hunter of Mr. Wainwright’s caliber was rarely troubled by keys and locks for long; whether such methods could be used by another depended on the method. Not everything needed to be a matter of splashing through shadows.

“Do you have any of your calling cards with you, Mr. Wainwright?” asked Aubrey.

“I fear I’ve already tried that little technique.” Mr. Wainwright palmed a little piece of printed card from his waistcoat—he seemed to always have one on him somewhere ever since he’d started having fancier ones made—and turned it to and fro. The embossed details caught the firelight dramatically. “Since we were not only invited in but summoned to appear, it doesn’t have quite the same sort of forced welcome that makes my cards most useful. Something to do with my family ties to the place. You’d think it would be a simple enough thing to always let me into a place I’ve left it, wouldn’t you? I left one hidden behind a picture frame for days and nothing happened. Pah!” He tossed the card into the air, as if to cast it aside, but caught it at the last moment. “What good is being a trickster when none of one’s tricks work?”

“We shall simply have to persevere,” said Aubrey. He scratched along Mr. Wainwright’s bewhiskered jaw line, making him interrupt his sulk long enough to nuzzle into Aubrey’s hand like a cat. “Could you invert its workings, somehow? Something to cast the card-bearer out instead of pulling the card-owner in?”

Mr. Wainwright made a thoughtful sound. “Ye-es,” he said, hesitantly, “but I would rather have access to my workshop for it, to say nothing of safer test environs. There would be a lot I’d want to test before I’d be comfortable leaving it where someone might accidentally touch it.”

Aubrey frowned. “Very true, Mr. Wainwright. I suppose we’ll need to rely on more traditional methods of infiltration.”

“You agree that there’s something there?”

“I trust your senses, and if you believe there to be something in the library, then to the library we shall go.” Aubrey paused, then sighed. “We’ve both walked through it before. There may still be things hidden behind its walls, regardless of whether that mysterious door is involved. But to truly say we are performing our due diligence, that we can have the most perfect claim to places they keep trying to shoo us away from exploring, there is one more place we must visit.”

Mr. Wainwright replied by whining through his nose like the words caused him physical pain.

“We’re going to have to investigate the kennels at least once during our stay, professor,” said Aubrey, not unkindly. “It is inevitable.”

With a rustle of fine shirt fabric Mr. Wainwright contorted himself until he lay looking up into Aubrey’s placid face, his torso twisting at the kind of unnatural angles he’d long since made his own. His knees remained tucked up cozily against the carpet. “I know we must,” he said. “I know. It’s important that we do, for the sake of being thorough. But you know why I dread it so, don’t you?”

“I do, yes.”

Bright wetness formed at the corners of Mr. Wainwright’s eyes. He wiped them dry and sniffed. “It won’t be anything you aren’t already aware of, Mr. Ward, I know as much,” he said. “You’ve read so much about me, heard so much, seen so much. Were there any secrets lingering between us, at least about this, they’d soon be brought to light. One reason they were sure to send you with me is so someone could speak to others about Uncle Andrew without my presence tainting the results!” Mr. Wainwright bit at his knuckle; it didn’t draw blood, so for now he looked to remain in control in spite of his incensed state. “You surely understand the difference between knowing of an event and seeing its dreadful aftermath with your own two eyes.”

Aubrey pulled Mr. Wainwright’s hand away from his mouth with a gentle touch before cupping Mr. Wainwright’s cheek in his hand. “And you scarcely need to ask it.”

Many years ago, in a great house overlooking the sea, an unspeakable thing had thrown himself, disemboweled by his own hand, at the feet of a serving boy who had never encountered such a beast before, that thing’s eyes streaming with tears as he begged for the peace he claimed only death could bring. There had been no way to save him, not with his wounds so great and the room where he’d fallen so bereft of tools; he died wretchedly. For many this would have marked the end of it, whether slain by the creature’s flailing claws or bribed into silence or simply disappeared from their beds one dark night. The boy was not one of that number, and so he acted as the situation demanded. Upon learning that the unspeakable thing had died, that said thing’s negligent keepers were now bedeviled by a youthful witness, that said youth was blessed with no small stores of wits and venom alike, and that said youth kept asking questions whose answers had no business being shared with the simple people of the land, the society for which those keepers worked chose to cut its losses and formally swear him into its mysterious ranks. From that day forth they were unable to ever be rid of the boy (and later, the man) named Aubrey Ward.

The sight of a creature so overcome by despair—so convinced he was not meant to exist—that he would rather ruin himself beyond his ability to heal than live another day with that great sorrow, had been the catalyst for Aubrey’s change from a servant of mere wealthier men to a servant of humanity as a whole, no matter how misshapen the mind or body that came to him in need. Far too often did the society view its work in terms of acceptable casualties, of inconvenient facticity, of things that could be forgiven and forgotten if it meant the wheels kept turning and the world did not unravel from the endless pulling at its loosest threads. Aubrey would not let them forget. He would continue his work until every single maester was dragged by the collar to see the resultant of the orders they penned. He would continue his work until the lives of human beings—monstrous ones, yes, but human all the same—were no longer so many bargaining chips in a game played on a nation-sized stage. He would continue his work until the debts the society owed had been paid, and they were rising every day.

He had seen much worse than what the dossiers had told him awaited him in the kennels. Whether that sight would remain so distant and easy to shoulder remained to be seen.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Mr. Wainwright, breaking the tension like he’d cast a magic spell.

“What is, Mr. Wainwright?”

“All of this,” he replied, twirling his fingers. “Obstacles at every corner I’m used to. Interference from those we’re supposedly helping? A sad reality. But what worries me is that every time it feels as though I’ve gotten my heart back where I expect it, some blasted new problem whizzes by and unseats me, leaving me once more overcome with morbidity. It feels as though we can’t go a whole day without you needing to console me again.” He draped a hand across his eyes. “I fear I’m becoming tiresome to be around, Mr. Ward, for I’m most awfully tiresome to myself.”

Aubrey put the book to the side to cradle Mr. Wainwright’s head with both hands. “Yours is an ongoing condition, Mr. Wainwright, and much of the progress we have made together was in a more neutral setting; here, at the manor, you are having to confront old memories hour after hour, all under the unkind eye of family you no longer know. I’m hardly surprised you feel exhausted by it.” He nudged Mr. Wainwright’s hand away that their eyes could meet once more. “You are not wholly reduced to your earliest, most sorrowful bedrock, however. That you recognize your troubled mind as a problem, and not something to be suffered in silence, is proof enough of that.”

“You’re so very kind to me, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright with one of his weary half-smiles.

“Contrary to popular belief, I do try.”

Mr. Wainwright chuckled. “So what do you advise I try?”

The gifted omnibus lay on the nearby table, still unfinished; in all likelihood Aubrey would not be able to finish reading through it properly until the assignment was done and they could shed the excess Wainwrights neither of them wanted in their lives. “Have you considered expressing your feelings through poetry?”

“Poetry!” said Mr. Wainwright. His lips quirked to the side in thought. “I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” he said, after a moment’s consideration. “If I can view bearing my soul as a challenge to be overcome, and if I can see my work upon the written page, perhaps it won’t be so difficult as relying upon the spoken word alone. It’s not like I’m any stranger to verse.”

Before they could talk any further on the notion of therapeutic poesy there was a knock at the door, which prompted Aubrey to touch Mr Wainwright gently on the shoulder before standing and making to answer. Mr. Wainwright rose from the floor just enough to seat himself more properly on the couch. The staff were already scandalized enough that he and Aubrey were so open about how intimately they knew one another’s gentleman’s portions, so it was just as well there be fewer opportunities for anyone to misunderstand how the two of them conducted themselves. The last thing Aubrey needed were claims of blackmail directed at him. A proper devotee of that art went unsuspected.

A familiar hallboy—Gregory, from before—waited on the other side of the door. “It’s time for tea, sirs.”

“Thank you,” said Aubrey, which was enough to send the lad scurrying away, perhaps to inform the kitchen worker of his most recent brush with bespectacled death.

Mr. Wainwright stretched. “Tea time again already?”

“So it is, Mr. Wainwright. Let me fetch your coat for you. Will you want any assistance with your hair?”

“Shan’t be needed, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright, running his fingers through it until it lay flat around his ears; with a flick of his head it sprang back perfectly into shape. “Why, were it done any more efficiently, I’d end before I began.” He beamed. It was one of their more enduring personal jokes.

Aubrey nodded as he held up Mr. Wainwright’s frock coat sleeve-holes first. “After tea, we’ll search the kennels. I know you’re loath to step foot in there again, but this way we will get it done, and I will never be far from your side. You may write all the poetry you like about it afterwards. All right?”

“All right.”

Proper outfits donned, fire quenched, and reading materials once more stacked, the pair of them left to endure another excruciating low tea at Martlethead Court, the shadow of the unseen and empty dog pens hanging over them the whole way.

❦ 11

The Wainwright kennels had not gone unused since the horrible happening with Uncle Andrew; they were functioning kennels, after all, with good construction and plenty of space for the dogs, and so it was that the first thing Hugh noticed when stepping into it was the powerful animal smell. No one could pass the place off as anything else! It was different from the stables (which also smelled of Animal) thanks to the kennels having a lower ceiling and less ventilation in general, and the hot, wet air clung to every lingering scent like a woeful lover. Also unlike the stables, the dogs, just as Sir Peter had said, were elsewhere. How did that one work? Moving one dog could be an adventure, or so Hugh vaguely recalled, so if every single hound, pup, and whelping dam had been relocated before his arrival it must have been a truly herculean effort. To say nothing of cleaning up after them! The pens weren’t spotless, but they were clean, with fresh straw put down and not a hint of stale water or waste. That he could still sniff out the animals’ presence meant they couldn’t have been gone for long. No one had remarked on the dogs’ absence as being unusual, so it was unlikely the work of the anomaly, and given how skittish the horses had been when Hugh had walked past their stalls, it was probably for the best that he wasn’t expected to get any work done amid a frenzy of panicked barking.

Hugh had previously assumed Uncle Andrew was away from the manor to preserve the binds of the writ of restraint, but for every single dog—not just the finest hunters, or puppies to be sold, or a show animal or two for a dog-fanciers’ event, but every single dog—to have left with him was a curiosity. There were still prize ribbons tacked up on the walls and photographs of the animals (actual photographs! it must have cost a fortune!) displayed by each beast’s pen. Perhaps there was more going on there than Hugh had first expected.

What wasn’t missing were the bloodstains on the cobbles. It would have been trivial to replace them with the kind of coin Martlethead Court kept in its coffers, even if said coffers had been stretched thin by the fees required to send Hugh somewhere else back when the stones had first been stained; that they remained there felt like a lingering insult. Look at what our Hugh has done, said the long-dried ruddy brown, look what we will never forget. It wasn’t like Hugh made a habit of leaving the city, much less traveling to this part of the countryside, so who, precisely, was coming in to admire the remnants of mistakes past?

“Are you all right, Mr. Wainwright?” asked Mr. Ward, and it was only then that Hugh realized how long he’d been staring at the floor.

“I’m having to come to terms with things,” said Hugh.

Mr. Ward’s notebook was already in hand, though now he turned it to a fresh page. “I’m listening.”

The notebook’s cover was slightly different than the one Mr. Ward had brought when they’d been doing patrols, and different still from the one he’d taken to meet with Perry and Lucrecia. Only a trained eye might’ve spotted the differences between them had they not been all lined up together, and Hugh’s eye was exceptionally trained, even when in a mood. “How many of those do you have?

“Enough to perform my duties,” said Mr. Ward. “Please don’t ignore the question.”

Hugh sighed deeply. With how dreadful he kept feeling, he probably couldn’t wait until later to confront his inner turmoil, not with progress on the case so stalled out. “This place is…a reminder. Or perhaps not so much a reminder as a threat? A lingering foreboding?” He grasped for more accurate words, finding none. “Oh, whatever you want to call it, you can see how horrid it was on that day I could no longer control myself, unable to neither keep my furious heart in line nor stay my hand when my will broke. This was where I failed.”

How many years ago had it been? How many decades? It shouldn’t have mattered; time had passed, he had grown, and he had seen (and enacted) far worse than what he’d done back then. Nowadays it was not so much a clear, unfiltered memory as it was an event told in fitfully-recalled emotional beats. He could remember feeling the same call that had drawn him to play in the manor cellars tearing at his insides, demanding he protect himself. Protect himself from what, he did not know, but he’d left his siblings in the nursery that he might preemptively stalk the grounds, and when the dogs had started baying at something he’d fixated upon the sound. Dogs had teeth, didn’t they? Teeth that could seize him, bite at him? Weren’t they trained to pull down grown boars? Wouldn’t they turn on him the moment they knew what he was? The panicked logic had been enough; so guided, he’d gone to the kennels with a terrible purpose. Uncle Andrew had hurried along afterwards once the animals’ baying became fiercer and more terrified, a saber brandished in hand to deal with whatever trouble he might find there. He’d found Hugh. After that…well, Hugh had sworn to never make such mistakes again.

Mr. Ward and Hugh had discussed what had happened many times during their talking sessions, particularly during the first days of Hugh’s treatment, and even if Hugh had remained close-mouthed about the incident there were plentiful sordid details written in the society’s voluminous ledgers. He’d had to be aware of what had happened given the necessary paperwork for being consigned to the society in the first place, to say nothing of when the writ of restraint had been penned, since such a thing couldn’t function the way it needed to without the understanding of all parties involved. It had been so much to bear for a lad who hadn’t even started shaving.

Back then he’d gone bereft of comforting touches and kind words. In the here and now, though, he had ample supply of both. “You were a child, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, his hand on Hugh’s shoulder and a hint of the scent he wore cutting through the drifting animal pong. “You had no knowledge of what you were becoming, no one to help you understand what was in store for you or how to prepare for it.” Mr. Ward’s expression was one of contained ferocity, the sort he wore when speaking of great injustice. Hugh was still getting used to the thought that someone else might wish justice for him. “What happened did happen, of this there can be no question,” continued Mr. Ward, “and you would not be in my care in the first place if your monstrous potency was not what it is, but remember this: it was ignorance and neglect that first sharpened your teeth.”

When the society had first begun training Hugh in the pursuing arts it had come as such a relief that he’d wept the whole of his first hunt, and his fellows had not realized until after they’d returned to their barracks that his face was slick with tears not from fear but of joy. What wonder there could be upon finding purpose in the world! What delight that his fell nature could find somewhere it belonged! He looked away; such thoughts felt wrong to have when stood before a testament to past wrongs. “Is it wrong that I’ve grown glad for their sharpness?”

“No, never.”

A lingering hint of copper lingered on Hugh’s tongue from his most recent tonic. How he longed to chase after that taste and drink deeply of it from an arterial font torn with his own fangs! It did make looking at the bloodstains awkward, though. “Even if it brings me joy to use them?” he asked.

“It is in service to all humanity, is it not? You do what only a few others can. It doesn’t matter if the methods by which you achieve those goals are grisly: a diner may enjoy a well-made sausage without needing to witness every step of its creation.”

Uncle Andrew’s frightened face loomed from the back of Hugh’s thoughts, shifting between his fearful first look at what Hugh had done, to how he had looked when Hugh had first been pulled off of him, to how strange and bruised he’d been at the penning of the writ. Look at what our Hugh has done. “But I’ve caused so much hurt—”

Mr. Ward cut him off sharply. “How long must you make yourself suffer before you’ll be done with your flagellations, Mr. Wainwright?” The little angry crease between his brows smoothed out as he continued talking. “I thought you’d accepted that making peace with your past flaws and failings was the only way to grow beyond them. You’ve said as much to me yourself in past sessions of ours. This is unlike you.”

“Usually I am not standing in a shrine to those flaws, Mr. Ward.” Hugh shivered. “It feels bad to be here. It’s like my very soul is sick.”

“Then let us complete our work here and be done with it. If you are falling ill, I’d like to treat your symptoms as soon as I can.”

Hugh nodded. Maybe he was getting sick; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d had so much as a cold, which meant he was due to catch one any day now, and going from living in a two-person household to being elbows-to-elbows with dozens of family, servants, and assorted visitors, all while the weather was awful, couldn’t be helping things. Paired with his flagging mood it was a wonder he wasn’t already curled up in bed with some soup.

Mr. Ward took his hand away from Hugh’s sleeve to produce a pencil, which he tapped against his notebook. “Let us begin with the basics: do you feel any unnatural presence here beyond your own?”

Did he? Brushing aside the morose feelings that hung in the air as intangibly present as the missing dogs’ smell, Hugh concentrated. He didn’t feel a thinning of borders, nor the presence of a night city. No otherworldly horrors huddled nearby. There weren’t any lingering hints of ritual chalk, burned herbs, or similar leftovers to be found. No, the kennels contained nothing too unusual, save for…ah.

“Something happened here,” said Hugh. “Not what I did. Something else.”

“Can you describe it, Mr. Wainwright?”

Hugh licked his lips nervously. “It’s something like what I felt in the library, that sense of absent vastness, but also something else. I can’t explain it better save that I think they’re connected. I suspect the dogs were housed elsewhere to allow it to happen.”

“Anything else?”

Straining every sense he could, Hugh paced through the kennels and stepped into every cage in turn. “The tracks are covered too well for me to tell anything more,” he said after a final few minutes of dedicated search. “I don’t know if it’s Pembroke’s or Caldecott’s or their attendant’s or someone else’s doing, but something was done here. It was a conscious effort with a guided hand. The anomaly we’re chasing has to be an artificial one, and whether it was opened here, or closed, or whatever went on with the nasty thing, this place was a key part in its existence.”

Scratch scratch scratch went Mr. Ward’s pencil. “Interesting,” went Mr. Ward.

“Any trail leading from here is cold. I could use this place to cross-examine things in the future, I think, but for now…well, just because I have teased out some species of clue does not mean I feel any less unpleasant for staying.”

Mr. Ward closed his notebook with a definitive snap. “For now we shall take our leave, and our findings with us,” he said. “Let’s get you back to the room to rest. I know this was difficult for you. If something still isn’t agreeing with you by dinner, I’ll ask to prepare a plate of something so you may eat on your own time.”

“Won’t they miss us if we’re gone?”

“Social obligations are different for the sick, Mr. Wainwright, and if any take issue with it, then they may deal with me alone.”

Any excuse to avoid yet another meal of merely-tolerable food and not-so-hidden withering looks! Hugh truly was blessed to have someone so thoughtful looking out for him. “Of course, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh.

Just who had ordered the kennels emptied? Was it before or after the damnably unspecified oddness with the manor had begun? Were the current generations of dogs doing well? Had Uncle Andrew won any prizes for them? Would Hugh need to sprinkle a bit of the specialized colognes he wore to ensure the poor things wouldn’t be out of their mind with fright at the scent of a superior predator? Would doing so only make things worse in terms of attracting the absent not-quite-night-city? All these questions and more hung heavy upon his heart, and not even when wrapped up in cozy blankets could Hugh do anything but sit, and stew, and wonder just how much he would have to do to regain the trust of the people he’d once loved, assuming there was anything to be reclaimed at all.

❦ 12

Needing very little sleep worked in both directions: not only was Aubrey customarily late to bed down, but also early to rise, which saw him awake and alert at an hour when only other serving-sorts were up. The room was dark, its fire having burned down to embers during the scant time he’d spent dreaming, and rain still pattered against the manor exterior. At this rate he and Mr. Wainwright were going to have to brave the wet to get anything done. This would prove disastrous for keeping their clothes presentable; perhaps somewhere in the depths of Martlethead Court were some spare gaiters or oilskin capes they could borrow to keep the worst of the weather away. Risking Mr. Wainwright’s fluctuating health was not an option. If the baronet or his wife objected, they were always welcome to have a conversation with God in All Splendor about the ongoing storm, after which they could get back to Aubrey about how that one went. If the maesters objected, Aubrey would deal with them in the usual way. One did not wear a handler’s ring without preparing to fight.

The state of the sky now evaluated, the first point of business was for Aubrey to extricate himself from Mr. Wainwright’s embrace. Mr. Wainwright was a devout sleep-cuddler, never failing to roll into place the moment Aubrey settled onto the mattress, and it was a fool who would interfere with a jägermeister at rest; what had started out as a post-coital whim (as they did not, technically speaking, share a room back at the mechanical house) was now a matter of course (as the only times Mr. Wainwright was likely to spend the night in his bed were when he was in a state of recovery, or perhaps engaged in more involved research). A guarantee of warm sheets on a cold night was but one of many reasons Aubrey had yet to discourage this behavior.

Escaping Mr. Wainwright’s arms was a simple matter of pulling away from them at just the right angle that they would break their grasp and fold back up against his front. Upon freeing himself, Aubrey made up his side of the bed in the near-total dark and tucked the covers back up to Mr. Wainwright’s chin, who stirred but did not wake. He remained still as Aubrey secured the bed-curtains back in place. This was as it should be; Mr. Wainwright generally did not rise until Aubrey touched a hand to his cheek to wake him for breakfast. A gentleman of any profession needed his rest.

Little could be done in a pitch-dark room—at least not the sort of thing that contributed to a productive morning—and so Aubrey poked up the fire until it was once more hot enough to dry out the heavy air and bright enough by which to see (but not, importantly, so bright that it would risk a premature awakening). A fresh candle emboldened that glow until it was just shy of being a reading light. Actual reading lights would come later; Aubrey’s habits skewed towards the frugal, and there was no sense in using more wicks or oil than necessary if tasks could be done without them. There would be time enough for literature once the sun rose.

Next it was time to dress. Aubrey doffed his nightshirt and placed it and his head-square on hangars to air out—the Martlethead Court staff still hadn’t accepted him as one of their own, which meant limited access to the laundry facilities, so it seemed wisest to space out washing sessions as much as possible—before inspecting his livery, which remained where he had hung it up after ironing it some hours before. Not so much as a single crease was out of place. The blacks were inky, the whites were immaculate, and every button shone like a little jewel in the dim firelight. One could have viewed its pristine fit as an act of aggression. This was as it should be.

He washed quickly, shaving almost as fast; Aubrey’s beard had never been the swift-growing sort, which made it convenient to tend to in the mornings. His spectacles gleamed once he finished polishing them. Now that he could see he was better prepared to brush out his hair, kept mercifully dry by the head-square, and as he’d brushed it free of tangles the night before, as well, it was trivial to banish any rough patches that had formed in his sleep. A few dabs of subtle scent were the final touch. He wasn’t fit to go out with his hair in its as yet unfinished state, but he was fit to start dressing. A gentleman could only do so many things at once no matter how neat his grooming.

Shirt, then trousers, braces left loose for the time being. Most persons in his position would set their sights on the waistcoat next, and Aubrey’s was certainly a handsome one, but in his case there was an important step between then and now: the corset.

It was not unreasonable for cosmopolitan persons to wear laced garments in pursuit of the fashions of the day, be they a lady or anyone else; this was certainly one reason he did so, favoring a cinched waist over a more traditionally masculine pheasant’s-breast lacing, but Aubrey’s corsetry was more than any mere accessory. The supportive boning was interspersed with subtle embroidery that bound several secret arts to its form, and its preparation had been as complex as any flying ointment. When worn, it both supported his back (always welcome for a man who needed to clean low places) and kept him armored against all manner of unpleasant surprises. Biting fangs could not pierce it, slashing claws could not shred it. It was not full protection, leaving the space across his heart bare, but that was not the point: the point was that it was a form of defense that could fit beneath his outer clothes with no one being the wiser, and sometimes that element of surprise had made all the difference. The cross-back straps slid over Aubrey’s shoulders with practiced ease. Everything about the corset was practiced. Aubrey could tighten its laces in near perfect darkness, and very frequently did.

Braces (now fully fastened), waistcoat, socks, shoes. The gloves and coat always came last, as Aubrey disliked performing the final styling of his hair with anything less than perfect dexterity, and stray hairs on livery were unacceptably sloppy work. He could tie a ribbon behind his head in the dark, as well. Mr. Wainwright had continued to draw into himself as yesterday had continued, and in the event he really was falling ill it would mean challenging the kitchen for the right to use its hearth to make him something that better suited his stomach than the grease upon grease he’d picked at during the evening; a proper challenge required proper preparation, and well-kept hair was appropriate for both.

It was nearly a quarter past four according to the guest room clock. Normally at this time Aubrey would be checking on dough left to proof overnight to see if it was fit to become the morning’s loaf; Mr. Wainwright was fondest of taking his with fresh butter and jam. Would the daily baking be done in time to greet him with a few slices prepared the way he liked? Surely they had jam somewhere. Weather as dreary as this would require something nice and hot to warm up Mr. Wainwright’s belly; if not bread, Aubrey would make him some oatmeal, and no matter what ended up on the serving tray Mr. Wainwright would no doubt be delighted to be cared for so. He made it easy to want to.

A quick check to ensure there was nothing outwardly wrong with Mr. Wainwright came last. He stirred again when the curtain opened at his side, turning over to face Aubrey and dampen the other side of his pillowcase for a bit. Aubrey’s gaze lingered on Mr. Wainwright’s sleeping face for a long moment. In sleep the lines of his face relaxed—the lines that were not usually there, at any rate—and the pensiveness that colored his expressions was absent. Perhaps he dreamed of better things. Nothing seemed amiss at first glance, so Aubrey once more let the curtain fall back into place before setting out for the kitchen.

Manors such as Martlethead Court were built in memory of castles past, and few places showed it as much as its kitchen, as big families demanded even bigger breakfasts. It was massive on a scale that dwarfed all but that of the manor house where he’d worked before his initiation. Ovens blazed as stoves simmered. It was not yet unbearably hot, though the sight of the whole pig being dressed for roasting was proof enough of the impermanence of such a state; keeping the hearth burning long and steadily enough to cook the roast through was bound to make the kitchen nearly as unlivable as one of the ovens. Most of the staff were still asleep, but the fearsome Fawcett, lord of the ladle, was not. She looked at Aubrey like she’d caught him dragging something dead by the sole of his shoe.

“What brings you here this time, Mr. Ward?” The words were not spoken with an ounce of patience or welcome. Fawcett was apparently the sort of person who could form a grudge over something as minor as outsiders making lavender butter from her realm’s stores.

Aubrey gave her a half-bow in greeting. “The professor was doing poorly when I put him to bed. I would like to know what in the way of hot foods I might bring him come sunrise.”

She scoffed. “Interested in havin’ my girls do your work for you, ay?” She spoke with a workman’s accent; unlike Aubrey’s own speech, hers was more at home among the fields than the fishes, and it lacked the thoughtful shaping he’d done to his over the years. Be it his hair, his words, or his waistline, no part of Aubrey was shown to the world in a way he did not curate.

“I would be happy to cook it myself, Mrs. Fawcett,” he said, “but I did not want to lay claim to any saucepan or stove-eye that was already assigned a purpose. It’s not my kitchen.”

“No, it surely ain’t,” agreed Fawcett.

The loaves would need a good hour or so before they were fully baked and cooled for eating, so porridge it would be. “May I make use of that empty space next to the cooking bacon, if you’d be so kind? I wish to make the professor some oatmeal.”

Fawcett grunted. “Is that what he eats nowadays? Go and make him some, then, Mr. Ward, and clean up once you’re done with it. Servants’ breakfast hasn’t been served yet so I’m not havin’ you mess the place before my girls get so much as a roll down their necks.”

“Of course, madam.”

She left Aubrey to his task, busying herself with things that all miraculously remained within close lunge-and-grabbing range of where he’d asked to work. As this did not interfere with his ability to measure out dry oats or begin boiling milk, he did not comment on it. Far better to keep the milk from scorching than to demand someone concede his every comfort. There were modest meals to be made.

Aubrey nibbled on a spare roll as he cooked, as Mr. Wainwright would be upset if he heard Aubrey hadn’t seen to his own needs during the course of his duties. Neither he nor Fawcett exchanged further words until he stepped away just long enough to fetch a jar of salt from a nearby shelf. He came back to her peering into the pot from a distance; the pot itself didn’t look to contain anything he hadn’t placed there himself.

“Strewth, it really is just oatmeal,” she said when he caught her eye. “Here I was thinkin’ it’d be newt’s eyes or somesuch.”

“The professor’s dietary needs are exceedingly normal, perhaps excessively so,” said Aubrey.

Fawcett barked a laugh. “Nothing but green beans and carrots for his supper, ay?”

“More or less.”

“Does it keep him tamer, then, stuffin’ him full with vegetables? I fancy it gives him less room to lust after meat.”

Mr. Wainwright arguably contained an infinite capacity for hand-harvested grue no how much produce Aubrey fed him. It presumably was stored in the same place that kept the rest of him when he wasn’t all stretched out, some manner of otherworldly primordial pouch. He was forever swearing up and down not to ruin his appetite for meals; whether this was something he could ruin neither of them had yet to test. Could he eat something bigger than he was? More research was needed to say. As for the other sort of lusting, if anything Mr. Wainwright had only gotten more so since first making requests for broiled sprouts and parsnips with dinner, and he’d never come off as anything less than perfectly pleased with his vigorous desires. There was no reason to fix what wasn’t broken.

As these were the sorts of details that made sense to remain confidential, Aubrey said none of them in favor of focusing on his cooking. “He is harmless no matter his diet, Mrs. Fawcett,” he said after tasting the still-thin porridge.

Her look in response was a dark one. “You say that, Mr. Ward, but I was workin’ here way back when Mister Hugh fell upon his uncle. I remember those sounds. You’d think different if you saw it yourself.”

Aubrey’s eyes narrowed just a hair more as he kept them focused on the simmering pot. “I have been working with patients living with the same condition as the professor’s for over a third of my lifetime, Mrs. Fawcett,” he said, addressing the oatmeal more than anyone else in the room. “I have known of their lot for longer still. I am aware of how terribly a creature can injure themselves or others if they do not have the proper tools to manage their nature. All these things do not change my mind in any way.”

“What if he does turn on you?”

People loved to ask Aubrey that question. Perhaps it was to be expected; a lion-tamer with a traveling show would never not be asked what they might do were their cats to slip their tethers. It was a possibility, yes, but between his constant safety measures and the overall agreeable nature of Mr. Wainwright, there were any other number of things more likely to happen before Aubrey’s charge became his executioner. Should worse ultimately come to worst, Aubrey had plans. One did not live the life he’d lived as long as he’d lived it without plans.

“Well?” asked Fawcett.

“Then I will handle things to the best of my ability. I assumed that much was obvious.”

Fawcett screwed up her face, aghast. “Why you society men keep stickin’ your fingers in the bees’ nest will never make sense to me. They’re monsters, Mr. Ward, and from what I recall of the oaths they had me swear there weren’t any such declaration we had to be sweet to crocodiles.”

“Not all of us took our society oaths because our employers needed to pay their troubles away,” said Aubrey. He didn’t bother hiding the disdain in his voice.

“And some of us did,” said Fawcett. As the time melted away and the rainy skies on the other side of the windows began to lighten, the kitchen had churned to life around her; she left Aubrey be long enough to scold some baking-boys and organize more simpler parts of the big breakfast Mr. Wainwright would be skipping. When she returned to the site of the little breakfast she had another question on her tongue: “Isn’t it odd, being in the pocket of one of those things?”

The oatmeal was nearly done, needing simply to be transferred to a bowl and cool off enough that Aubrey could add raisins and a garnish to it without anything instantly wilting. Waiting would arguably be harder than any other part of it. “Professor Wainwright is my client, not my supervisor,” he corrected. The household’s bookkeeping was very clear about that difference.

She frowned in confusion. “But he gives you gifts? And money?”

“That’s right.”

“Don’t you worry it makes you look like his kept man, then?” asked Fawcett.

Aubrey allowed himself a smirk as he said, “You assume I have a problem with being kept.”

This news was apparently too much for Fawcett, who found reason to leave Aubrey be; she didn’t so much as swing past to snap at him for not cleaning out the emptied saucepan properly (which he had) or leaving out stray ingredients (which he hadn’t). People were ever so squeamish about the oldest profession. What Aubrey did was not quite that—his initial assignments were always strictly platonic—but neither did he shy from providing a caring touch for those so dearly in need of it, should they ask him for such. The maesters weren’t thrilled. If the society did not wish for its members to continue its work through intimate means, it did not have to employ Aubrey or his mother, and yet they both remained trusted agents in its service. Trying to have Aubrey killed was not the deterrent they so clearly wished it would be. So long as he could still collect his wages there was no reason to change his methodology.

Besides all that, being able to shower Aubrey in presents made Mr. Wainwright happy. That was purpose enough.

In time only one thing remained in the way of completing the smaller breakfast service: Aubrey couldn’t find the raisins. He knew they were about, as there had been great heaps of them littering the kitchen the night before, and in spite of how much marzipan went into the evening’s pudding (it had been castle-shaped, with pastry tourney-goers) there hadn’t been enough call to use all of them. With Mrs. Fawcett still repelled by his frankness of his and Mr. Wainwright’s agreement, Aubrey had freedom to browse the pantry at his leisure. The results were enlightening.

A jar of raisins had ended up tucked on a high shelf just out of eyesight, requiring a stepladder to find. These were not the enlightening part. What was interesting were the stray seasonings behind it: at a glance they were merely so many herb-garden also-rans, the sort of things that were more at home in the most regional of cooking instead of a baronet’s dinner plate, but a closer look revealed why they seemed so out of place despite having all reason to be found in a working manor larder.

Every single one was listed, incorrectly, as a deadly poison in the out-of-date botany text.

Aubrey didn’t touch them, as the last thing he needed was anyone claiming they saw strange fingerprints on herbage that couldn’t possibly be collected for an innocent reason, and after sprinkling Mr. Wainwright’s breakfast with the proper amount of dried fruit he returned the raisin jar to where he’d found it. What he might have given for his blood-testing equipment right then; it was unlikely that Mr. Wainwright was being poisoned, as it would have had all the effect of trying to murder him with a bundle of bay leaves, but being able to prove an attempt might have been worth something. Something very wrong was afoot at Martlethead Court. The target, motive, and perpetrator were all mysteries (and may well be wholly unrelated to what he’d been asked to uncover), and until Aubrey had evidence otherwise, it was necessary to assume it was a threat to Mr. Wainwright and act accordingly.

Then again, it might simply be another attempt on his life. People would never learn.

❦ 13

Hugh brooded before one of the guest room’s many windows. He was dressed in leggings and an open-fronted blouse that left the chain-plate at his throat (to say nothing of his deceptively gaunt musculature) visible to any who might see; it was the sort of thing he usually only wore at home. Such a scanty look where any might see was downright daring even given the curtains of rain that obscured the already dim morning light. He couldn’t find it in himself to enjoy the mild transgression, however, as the mood in which he’d awoken pressed too forcefully against his heart for him to take much pleasure in anything. He was feeling dramatic. If he was going to feel dramatic he felt the least he could do was dress the part, and so he’d chosen the blouse. It wasn’t helping—he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was playing a character part, not expressing a facet of his very real inner narrative, which was not the kind of thinking conductive to having fun while clad in a navel-deep neckline—and the thought of trying to accessorize in the way he liked filled him with so much ennui he’d been sighing by the window ever since dressing for the day.

He’d arisen all on his own. This wasn’t wholly out of the ordinary, as he tried to keep to a reliable sleep schedule for the sake of his health, and the glowing fire and half-made bed that greeted him were signs that Mr. Ward was out and about somewhere else, no doubt keeping himself busy, but Hugh found himself growing anxious all the same. Where could Mr. Ward be? What if something had happened? Mr. Ward could take care of himself, being capable of maintaining a night city household all on his own, and Martlethead Court was no night city; even keeping this fact in mind, Hugh felt his stomach twisting up with worry.

That sense of worry confounded him. Didn’t he trust Mr. Ward? Didn’t Mr. Ward make a habit of giving Hugh space to exist, often for hours at a time? Wasn’t it most likely that he was simply preparing a nourishing breakfast tray to bring back to the room, as evidenced by his side of the bed being vacated long enough to be cool to the touch? They’d spoken about this. Hugh had no reason to doubt. He also had no reason to feel this way in the first place, but here he was, slowly losing his mind over not being greeted by a hand on his cheek and the smell of baking bread. That was probably worth interrogation.

It’s all falling apart, cried a voice that wasn’t a voice at all at the edge of his conscious mind. That certainly wasn’t a thought of his own: Hugh had dealt with his share of jobs that were boring, frustrating, or otherwise less than ideal without feeling like his very sense of self was so much sugar under a waterfall. Was it even expressed with proper language? He was prone to feeling homesick, that much was so, but Mr. Ward’s presence eased that tendency, and longing for his own bed to sleep in and his familiar rooftops to patrol felt much different from…whatever this was. Given how close he’d come to that peculiar absence-of-presence at least twice by now, it stood to reason it was affecting him, much like smelling a too-strong chemical could give a fellow a headache. That realization was almost enough to make him feel slightly better.

So something was falling apart. Was it the night city? Was it a plan? Was it something else? Hugh wasn’t getting that intrusive feeling in words, so it stood to reason it wasn’t strictly a person capable of focused thought who was responsible for troubling him so. He kept drifting from the window to the writing desk and back again; every attempt he made at writing down more than the most basic of ideas went nowhere. The poetry Mr. Ward had advised he try was right out. At some point his mild morning appetite had also bloomed into a ravenous hunger, which made it harder to concentrate on anything, which only made him crosser. That part, alas, wasn’t the doing of the mysterious outside force.

He tried to remember his dreams. Hugh didn’t put too much stock in dream interpretation unless something actively supernatural was afoot, which was almost certainly some part of the current situation as it so stood. The details eluded him save for the return of the perceived absence of something gargantuan. Night cities didn’t move—they could manifest in strange places and even connect reality in ways that defied the laws of space and physics, but those were still ultimately static behaviors—so what else could it be? Was it some new plane of existence waiting to be studied? Hugh knew he wasn’t in his right mind if the prospect of learning about a whole new kind of night city barely registered to his passions.

Was he the only one that felt this way? Was an addled brain contagious? He thought back to the accounts he’d read and been told of how the manor had taken to being infested with monsters: Sir Peter had said the things’ remains had all been destroyed, but that stood in contrast to claims of a thing being kept in a storehouse for trophies to be taxidermied. The papers Mr. Ward had recovered spoke a lot of Pembroke and Caldecott’s expenses, but there were conspicuous holes in their requests, the sorts of holes made by persons who could harvest a night city for parts. But where could they be getting those if there was no night city to be found in the first place? And what of the botany book he’d seen Mr. Ward reading, was that anything? It was all so frustrating! Maybe everyone was wrong, and that passage of emptiness was his own misconception in a well-sown field of said. Hugh was going to give himself a terrific headache at this rate.

Well, maybe he needed to work with what he knew. What he knew was that his sibling most likely to speak to him still considered him a dangerous criminal, and Perry and Lucrecia were involved in something she didn’t care to tell him more about. He and Mr. Ward had established that the stories weren’t lining up in places as soon as they’d been able to compare their (sometimes quite literal) notes, but what did that mean? Crowe had told Mr. Ward to speak with her brother for more of the truth, but she’d claimed that Lucrecia and Perry spoke nothing but their version of the truth. All three aforementioned siblings still held him accountable for poor Uncle Andrew, but the society agents likely were involved despite not knowing him from a knot on a log, so he couldn’t assume this was purely a personal affair. Maybe the dogs had been moved for someone to use the kennels as a practitioner’s site? That should have left something more than the scraps he’d found, though. And what did any of this have to do with the night city itself?

It was possible to make a night city, if one had the right knowledge and the wrong moral fiber. Had the dogs been moved to one, somehow? No, no, that was silly, he would’ve known something that drastic had happened the moment he stepped foot inside. Were they (and Hugh was unsure who they were, though his gut suspected the agents) using the lingering memories in that place to embolden some art or another? Had Caldecott and Pembroke succeeded at something, but in the wrong way, and found themselves scrambling with any allies they could find to help clean up their mess? It was sad to think it, but perhaps Hugh’s siblings had only needed to be told they could get back at their brother to go along with whatever plans were made; that Hugh had actually shown up had to be the greatest of coincidences. Sir Peter was decidedly the type to go over everyone else’s heads if he thought a problem wasn’t being solved right. How frantic had the agents become upon learning that Hugh really was on the way? And what had actually happened to their assistant, anyway?

A soft rap came at the door, followed by the sound of a key in its lock, itself followed by Mr. Ward letting himself into the room with a steaming tray balanced in one hand. Hugh barely looked up from where he stood. He heard the door close and the lock catch once more, then very little else; what he did notice was the smell of approaching breakfast. Was it oatmeal? That would be nice on a day like today.

The tray clacked against a table-top. A moment passed, then he heard Mr. Ward’s voice: “Are you feeling well, Mr. Wainwright?”

Hugh heaved a great sigh as he kept his cheek against the glass. “I’m most certainly not, Mr. Ward. I’ve been having a devil of a time trying to write my poem, and it’s made me very cross.”

“The day is young, and the muse is fickle,” said Mr. Ward. Hugh could hear him fussing with the tray’s contents. It would be nice to see what all he’d been brought, if only he could find the wherewithal to straighten up and turn. “Is that all that troubles you?”

“No. Not entirely,” said Hugh. The outdoor light was still nothing but shades of gray and blue, the continuing rain shower so steady it was easy to imagine there might never be a proper sunrise again. He mourned that imaginary loss despite spending so much of his time hiding from the sun’s fearsome rays. “Would that I had only a single problem!” he said, tossing his head as though he might shake the warring thoughts out of his head. “It’s a thousand little things all adding up to make me feel miserable that vex me so.”

“Those little things being what we discussed yesterday?”

“Some of them, yes.”

A hand pressed against his back; unlike the way Mr. Ward would touch him on the arm or shoulder, this one had a bit of guiding pressure behind it. “Have something to eat, if you please,” said Mr. Ward. “I tried to bring you something as varied and nourishing as I could with what they permitted me take from the larder. You are at your best self when well-fed.”

“If I must,” said Hugh, letting Mr. Ward steer him towards the breakfast-dressed table.

Some people (Hugh’s family included) greeted the day with grossly large meals, the sort that made sense for plowmen but not so much for career aristocrats, and Hugh had been gamely trying to appreciate all the work the cooking staff put into preparing each and every bountiful repast. Mr. Ward’s approach towards the first meal of the day was decidedly humbler: there was a bowl of piping hot oatmeal (with plenty of raisins beneath the brilliant green garnish, wonderfully enough), some toast points, a serving of peaches and cream, three finger-length sausages, and a green onion omelet, all served with a big glass of orange juice with a round chunk of ice floating in it. Quite the variety of nutrients! As soon as the first bite graced Hugh’s tongue the spell of complacency was broken, and he wolfed down the lot of it with as much in the way of table manners as his empty belly allowed.

“I take it you find things to your liking, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward with some amusement.

Hugh took a deep pull from the juice. It was as though this was his first time ever having food, never mind the plate Mr. Ward had brought him the previous evening! “While I cannot say it’s freed me from my every burden, it tastes divine,” he said. “But knowing how likely I am to stay put today, I fear your efforts may be wasted…”

Mr. Ward raised his hand and shook his head. “Seeing you in better spirits is never a waste.”

“You’re so kind to me, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh with a weary little smile.

He ate until there was not so much as a stray crumb or streak of sauce left behind. Thus sated, it was easier to return to his thoughts, as unsatisfying as they were; the twin troubles of the lack of progress on their investigation and the movement of the great and majestic whatsit had to be connected, as did his overall declining mood on what should have been an excitingly slow-paced hunt, and he said as much to Mr. Ward upon wiping his mouth with a napkin.

“You think it so?” said Mr. Ward to Hugh’s hypothesis. He looked to be digesting thoughts of his own.

“I have no proof, of course, but it strikes me as the wise move to assume a relationship between these things, and to assume there may be some guiding malicious hand. Does it not make sense that my accelerating concerns coincide with us finding more evidence?”

“They also coincide with increasing clashes with your family, Mr. Wainwright.”

Fire and brimstone, so they did. “A fair point,” said Hugh. “I do think I am on to something, though. Would it be all right if I were to spend the day effectively abed to think on things? Perhaps a whole day spent away from my parents and siblings and everyone else is what I need. There’s plenty for me to read if I get bored. I’d hate to be in the way of your own work, though.”

“You wouldn’t be,” said Mr. Ward as he cleared away the breakfast tray.

“If you don’t find me here, be sure to check the mirrors. I’ve only done a little bit of poking around in them, and then only in the library, so I may step out for a look-about if it feels like the right decision at the time.”

“Understood, Mr. Wainwright. I hope your brief holiday serves you well.”

“When it comes to holidays I’d much rather be spending the day at a gallery, or perhaps the aqua-vivarium, and preferably in your company, at that,” said Hugh. He chuckled to himself. “But I shall do my best to make good use of the rest and solitude in turn.”

“Shall I draw you a bath before I go?”

A good hot soak might do something about the sour thoughts that kept trying to get into his marrow. If not, they could at least prepare him for a nap, and waking up with a better-rested head would be its own kind of aid. Hugh nodded. “Yes, please.”

“And would you like further assistance with it?”

Hugh pressed his lips together. On any other day he would like that very much, from watching Mr. Ward add scented oil to the water to letting Mr. Ward help undress him, each layer removed one less barrier between them until Hugh could meet him with perfect, sincere openness; having another set of hands guide a scrub-brush over his skin was relaxing, having those same hands wash his hair was luxurious, and having those still same hands grasp his length until Hugh was overcome with delight was heavenly. A bath could cleanse many parts of the human body at once. It was one of Hugh’s favorite ways to receive pleasure if he was not to be involved in granting such in return, and a much-beloved fantasy for his private hours, so it should have been a welcome offer. Instead he turned away and began to strip out of the dramatic blouse on his own.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Ward, but I don’t think I’m in the mood for it.”

“Of course. Another time, then.”

Water thundered through the pipes. The internal manor’s plumbing—complete with water heating—was a technological marvel when first installed during Sir Peter’s childhood, and had yet to lose the luster of its convenience even as the sheer novelty factor waned, and it caused Hugh to envision how the night city might craft a piping system of its own. Perhaps that sense of absence he felt could be compared to those pipes, with something having run through them until it all drained away somewhere else, guided by goodness knew what or whom. Perhaps Pembroke and Caldecott had been the ones to pull the cork on it, the monsters that scuttled about being so many beard trimmings caught around the drain. Perhaps Hugh was being deafened by the flow of otherworldly essence whooshing away, or through, or in some unknown direction, and the reason why his family’s careless words stayed with him so was because there was so much space left for them to echo. Perhaps Perry and Lucrecia had only innocent goals behind their suspicious words. Perhaps he was overthinking everything, and he just needed to have a bath and a rest and some time to himself. Perhaps that was what the manipulator of everything wanted him to think.

Perhaps, he thought as he slipped behind the privacy screen hiding the tub from sight of the door, it was for the best that he not ask for that assistance, after all.

❦ 14

Mr. Wainwright’s reserves of good cheer ran out all too soon that morning, and each time Aubrey returned to check on him it felt like things were worse in some fashion. He refused lunch. He would not come to tea. In spite of how ferociously he’d fallen upon his breakfast he claimed he had no appetite, a claim all but foreign to his lips. He wasn’t even taking his tonics—Aubrey counted them—which felt like the grimmest proof of all. Aubrey was going to need to take matters into his own hands.

The fire was burning low again. It wasn’t out of the question to let it do so, as the instant the rain eased up into a medium drizzle the temperature returned to an intolerable high; the problem was that none of the lamps were lit, it had been over an hour since sundown (which made the time later than it sounded, thanks to the season), and there was no immediate sign of Mr. Wainwright in the room. Scrawled-upon papers covered the desk. The sheets were lightly rumpled in the way they got when a made bed had been slept upon without pulling back the comforter. The packets of soothing medicinal tea Aubrey prepared were untouched. The pitcher of water Aubrey had filled that morning sat only half-emptied on the table. Most damning was the sight of the fetching blouse and leggings ensemble Mr. Wainwright had worn that morning lying on the side bed to air, as though he’d never dressed after his bath at all.

Aubrey wheeled the cart he’d brought with him next to the bed and knelt down. He lifted up part of the dust ruffle, revealing nothing but darkness beneath the mattress. “Do you care to come out, Mr. Wainwright?”

“Not terribly,” said Mr. Wainwright from where he hid.

“All right. May I see you a little, then?”

“If you must.”

Parts of the bed thumped and rustled as Mr. Wainwright aligned himself beneath it, and once the clamor quieted the expected flayed-horse muzzle emerged where Aubrey had lifted the ruffle. Aubrey gave Mr. Wainwright a pet. “I’ve brought you something,” he said as he nimbly stroked around the fangs.

Mr. Wainwright made a displeased noise up in the back of his sinus cavity. “You didn’t need to, Mr. Ward.”

“Perhaps not, but I did so anyway,” said Aubrey. “You may abstain from dinner with the rest of the household if your wish, Mr. Wainwright, but you must still eat at some point. I’ve roasted you a head of cabbage to offset the reported lack of vegetables in your meals.” He straightened up enough to remove the lid from the tray on the cart, releasing a plume of lightly sulfurous steam as he revealed the broiled brassica beneath. “It’s seasoned to the best of my ability, but I trust you’ll understand that the kitchens still view me with disdain, and that their stores were already taxed by making the evening meal; I must apologize if the flavor is simpler than that to which you’re accustomed.” Taking a set of tongs in hand, Aubrey leaned down and tapped twice on Mr. Wainwright’s muzzle. “Open, please.”

With a great and very put-upon sigh, Mr. Wainwright obediently gaped his jaws, revealing a patch of darkness from which many inner teeth gleamed. Aubrey lifted the whole roast cabbage with the tongs and lay it carefully upon Mr. Wainwright’s tongue. The vegetable thus placed, Aubrey returned the tool to the tray and tapped twice again against Mr. Wainwright’s nose. Those terrible fangs closed around the fire-crisped greens like a reluctant iron trap. After a moment of stalling contrariness, Mr. Wainwright’s inner teeth began to crunch into his prize, the bulk of it still firmly held in place. Aubrey said nothing in favor of silent observation (and getting some proper lights going) until enough of the cabbage had been eaten that Mr. Wainwright could snap down the last of the leaves in a few fearsome bites. Such savagery was generally not exhibited at the table; that Mr. Wainwright would eat like he was out a-hunting was sign enough of just how out of sorts he was feeling.

Mr. Wainwright licked his chops. “Thank you,” he said, grudgingly.

“You’re behind on your tonics, as well. Shall I bring you one?”

This prompted another great sigh. “I’m not in the mood for it, but I know you shall find a way to have me take it eventually. We may as well save both of us some time. I’ll be good.” The way Mr. Wainwright said that last part stood out: outside the context of playful best behavior or philosophical discussion, he usually did not use such phrases to describe himself. No small part of the treatment revolved around viewing himself as a thing worth existing, no matter the opinions of others. How was this the same man who’d spoken of fighting against the very culture around him for the sake of his own definition of goodness? Their conversation in the chapel felt miles away.

Aubrey selected a bottle, broke its seal, and poured the contents into Mr. Wainwright’s unwillingly waiting mouth. Upon seeing that it was swallowed, he fetched the meal record pamphlet and placed it and a quill on the floorboards. Both vanished under the bed.

“I’m sorry to see that your holiday did not go as well as planned,” said Aubrey as the quill scratched away in the darkness.

“No, it did not.”

“Do you wish to talk about any of it?”

“I thought too much,” said Mr. Wainwright. Thinking was sometimes all he ever did in a day, especially when preparing a lecture or picking at an academic paper not yet ready to be published, so to hear him claim he’d done too much of it was out of character, indeed. Aubrey remained quiet to let him speak. “I started wondering, and perhapsing, and engaging with abstract concepts a bit, and even entertaining positions of devil’s advocacy, and I regret to say that those advocates have me ever so bedeviled now.”

“How do you mean?”

“I meditated too long upon my fears.”

This was even stranger out of Mr. Wainwright’s mouth than claims of thinking too much. “I was not aware you feared much of anything, Mr. Wainwright.”

The meal record and quill slid back into view, as did Mr. Wainwright’s snout. “How can I put this?” he said to himself. “I do not fear for myself in an appreciable way. That is, I experience fear and worry, but no more than any other person with an active life and a challenging profession. Little can be done to my body from which I cannot ultimately recover, and for things that would break my mind or spirit, I can turn to those in my life who can nourish my soul back to functionality once more.” He took a deep breath through his nostril and let it out with a whickering buzz of lips he did not technically possess at the moment. “But when we are close, and I can touch your skin and marvel at your determination in spite of your own splendid fragility, I fear for you, Mr. Ward. I fear so very much.”

“I am not in the habit of dying,” said Aubrey.

“It only takes the one time to break such a streak, does it not? What if something happened, and I wasn’t there to help?”

He had precedent for such worries. The first time Mr. Wainwright had saved Aubrey’s life was when the original mechanical house had gone up in flames, during a night before they’d begun sleeping side by side with regularity, and the second time had been during Mr. Wainwright’s first semester at the academy, when the seals of protection had failed just as Aubrey had uncovered a plot to cull some of Mr. Wainwright’s students. Most other life-threatening mischief dated from either before they were assigned to one another or when Mr. Wainwright was never more than a few strides away. What dangers Aubrey faced were soon outmatched by the presence of a jägermeister whose teeth and pistol both were emboldened by truest love. Uncharitable minds might think of him as Aubrey’s trained attack dog. Uncharitable minds were always welcome to say so to their faces.

“We cannot be everywhere at once, Mr. Wainwright. Such is the purview of God and God alone.” He scratched under Mr. Wainwright’s chin and coaxed out a small, happy sound from somewhere behind the wall of layered teeth. “You already strive to be as one of Their angels, in your own way, and even with your wrists bound you can still touch others with your celestial intent. Trust that your wings cast a shadow much further than you realize.”

“And a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, should it not?”

“Just so.”

Bit by bit, Mr. Wainwright’s snout edged into the light, stopping only when his most distal pair of eyes could look up at Aubrey with weary fondness. The others remained hidden. “I do think I had a revelation somewhere in the midst of my misery,” he said. “Not a personal one, but something relevant to our case. Would you care to hear it?”


“You told me that Lucrecia and Perry had moved a creature’s remains from the manor to avoid drawing the attention of more of them, did you not? Something about a hunting trophy? When I spoke with Sir Peter, he claimed that every last one of them had been disposed of at the first society men’s request.” He flared his nostril. “I think…either they were not supposed to tell you that, or they were so convinced I couldn’t get any information out of him they didn’t think to lie. I suspect they have ties to Caldecott and Pembroke in ways that have not been disclosed.”

Aubrey frowned in thought. “The papers Shelby Crowe got to me implied those two made a pig’s ear of the proceedings in ways that would get anyone else dismissed in a matter of days. That they stayed does suggest some connection to your siblings.” He quirked an eyebrow, tilting his head to study Mr. Wainwright from the bottom edge of his spectacles. “Do you have any suspicions why?”

Mr. Wainwright ground his teeth. “I think—and strike me down if it turns out I speak falsely—they are collaborating to some greater end. Perhaps Pembroke and Caldecott were experimenting and caught the attention of my siblings, or perhaps my siblings’ actions drew eyes somewhere, but either way, they are inconvenienced by my presence. I’m noticing things someone believes I should not. Every time I draw near to something, my heart goes crashing down the stairs, and given how we go unobserved so much of the time, and speak of our findings only to each other, that same someone clearly is aware of what I’m doing. And then there’s the matter of a grand spike—one made from brass, I shall remind you, which cannot be a coincidence—moving through town with Wainwright paperwork attached. It can’t be related to brother Thomas’s work, he’s got his own storehouses! If Lucrecia and Perry did not create the night city, they benefit from its existence, and permit things to continue unchecked.”

“Why might they do that?”

“You said it yourself, Mr. Ward: they still hate me for what I did. For Uncle Andrew. For refusing to leap from this mortal coil. Probably for walking away from my birth station and never looking back, too, that one seems popular. We really must hold hands more often.” He smiled at his suggestion before letting solemnity take hold of his features once more. “Whatever reason they’ve picked, they’re using it as an excuse to try to pull me into this grim ordeal, since with the two of us about they can no longer be so sloppy. Relatively sloppy. They’re both clever, I don’t doubt they were juggling many different tasks to keep anyone from noticing, right up until their cover risked being blown and they had to scramble backwards to keep anyone from spotting their not-too-hidden tracks.” A few fingers emerged from beneath the dust ruffle to cup at his chin; they were so long that his palm stayed under the bed. “It would explain how they knew to move the dogs…”

It explained many things. It was maybe too neat an answer, which meant the truth would be more complicated, but having people to talk to in the morning was an actual lead after the better part of a week spent walking in circles. “When do you want to confront them?” asked Aubrey. “We can do so together, if it would be a comfort.”

“It would, yes.” He slid further out from the bed, his befingered arms now folded in front of him like a sphinx made half out of elbow joints. “Let’s try to meet them before breakfast, in a quiet-enough space that they might have room to explain their deeds without being humiliated in front of the whole family, and before they have a chance to nip out to town again. In the event I’ve gotten everything horribly wrong, I want to be able to minimize the damage, and in the event I’ve gotten too much horribly right, they can’t vanish into the storehouse.”

“That is more courtesy than they would ever deign to offer you, Mr. Wainwright.”

The corners of all seven of his eyes crinkled with merriment. “I am already the bigger man in terms of sheer mass. It behooves me that my actions match the rest of me.” He was once again feeling well enough to tell his little jokes, which meant his potential plans came from a place of balanced consideration. That one roast cabbage was doing the job of a whole team of oxen.

“Then we have our work cut out for us,” said Aubrey.

Mr. Wainwright crawled out from his hiding spot to sit on the edge of the bed. This time he hadn’t bothered to wear his larger set of breeches. “I suppose I should dress for bed. It’s late, and I’ve exhausted myself with sorrow. Can’t expect a fellow to confront his siblings about suspected foul play without a good night’s dreaming, now can we?” He began to compress himself down to the shorter of his heights. “I say, I’m actually looking forward to the meeting. My mood’s already on the mend at the thought of it. Promise me you won’t resort to violence, Mr. Ward? These are my blood relations, even if we’ve exhausted our lingering familial love.”

“I make no promises, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey as he handed over the nightshirt he’d ironed during one of his check-ins, “but I will not let it be the first option.”

“Given the company, that’s all I can ask, I suppose.”

Bed preparations were soon finished. Mr. Wainwright, his teeth flossed and his bladder empty, was not yet tired enough to actually drift off to sleep, which made him chatty; he discussed his theories (mostly doorway-based), his trouble with his poem (try as he might, he couldn’t manage to rhyme lightning with mighty in a way he liked), and his thoughts on the cabbage (overall good, but in need of pepper) as Aubrey looked through their collection for a book that could help Mr. Wainwright’s gears wind down. Soon enough they would be back home, where he could spend busy-minded time tinkering in the workshop or practicing another étude in the parlor. Being away from the house on Kettle Street was one of the easiest ways to appreciate it.  Martlethead Court simply could not compete.

“What did you do today, Mr. Ward?” asked Mr. Wainwright as he accepted a well-worn travelogue.

The stashed poisons, each extricated from their hidden jars without leaving so much as half a handprint on the shelf, weighed at Aubrey’s coat. He’d waited all day for the time to be just right to confiscate them. There would be chance to be rid of the damnable things soon enough. “Kitchen work, primarily,” he said.

“I shall be glad when we are once again in charge of our own dishes.”

“As am I,” said Aubrey, stacking up everything on the cabbage tray in such a way that no one could complain he’d misused it. “As am I.”

❦ 15

Hugh realized he felt unwell before he actually realized he’d awoken in the middle of the night. Mr. Ward was not only lying next to him but asleep, so it had to be some truly outrageous hour; as Hugh was accustomed to staying deep in slumber once drifting off, and the day before had involved planning some rather extreme measures, he was immediately struck with worry. Was something trying to meddle with him in his sleep? Was the clandestine despair coming back? Was he, at long last, encountering the actual body of that unseen presence that had thus far eluded him? Was it just the natural result of eating an entire cabbage in one sitting? Of these options, the last one seemed least likely: the meal had been an appropriate portion for his longer-stretched self, so it would have changed its size in his stomach as he did, and as he’d yet to have any trouble with devouring whole carcasses minutes before relaxing back to shorter height, a knot of broiled leaves posed little threat. It might simply have been nerves in anticipation of the coming day that disturbed him, he reminded himself. For now, the best option was to hold Mr. Ward close (as he was warm to the touch and pliant without the protective carapace of his corset) and let what would happen, happen.

A distant whisper hissed in Hugh’s ear, tickling at his instincts. It felt familiar. It felt cozy, even. Did a night city draw near, ready to welcome him after all this time? Night cities didn’t possess intelligence, not in the way science defined it, but just as the mechanical house had a vague sense of wants and needs and guiding principles, so too could there be said to be an underlying quality of existence to the things, and Hugh was not about to discount the fact that one might, somehow, become lonely. Did the night city mourn because it had lost all its denizens? Monsters in such places were a mostly parthenogenetic affair, and in Hugh’s experience did not strictly need to have breeding pairs or newly-whelped young tracked in the same way one might observe a population of more mundane beasts, yet if this was somehow an induced night city instead of a naturally-occurring one, there was room to imagine it to be empty. If it felt him, and he felt it, that could explain why he’d been in such a woeful state as of late. The poor thing: all it wanted was to be helped! He relaxed enough to better let that far-off call make itself heard.

Then he realized what it actually was.

Hugh released Mr. Ward, clapped his hands over his mouth, clenched his teeth, and held his breath until he felt his lungs were near to bursting, all the while steeling himself against the siren song of some poor soul’s last breath. His baser urges clamored in despair. Oh, how sweet it would be to drink it! Oh, how delectable it would be! He’d sworn oaths of restraint, yes, but he hadn’t brought about the unknown’s death, now had he? He was innocent of any harm. The records would show it, assuming there were any records, because surely no witnesses were awake at this hour. Wouldn’t it be nice to give in to his primal desires and sup on that precious nectar just the once? Mr. Ward had plenty to say about self-denial and the great harm it could cause to the mind, so why fight something Hugh wanted as badly as this? Wouldn’t he be praised for it? Wouldn’t Mr. Ward be disappointed to hear he was sliding back into his old habits of forced austerity? Wouldn’t Hugh simply be doing what came naturally?

There was value to be had in doing what came naturally, yes, but Hugh was a gentleman, not an animal, and so he kept himself closed off until the last vestiges of that tantalizing breath had eddied away like candle-smoke in the wind. Every second of it was agony. When the eternal moment finally passed he found himself with a wet face and stinging eyes. It was a good thing he’d let go of Mr. Ward, as Hugh had contorted himself into a tight ball in his efforts to refuse the convocation of instincts he couldn’t be sure were his own. Who knew what that might have done to someone he still held?

A hand groped for Hugh in the dark; Mr. Ward had rolled over to face him some time during the crucial seconds. His fingers brushed Hugh’s cheeks and stopped as soon as they touched the tracks of his tears. “Mr. Wainwright? Is something wrong?”

“Someone has passed away.”

Mr. Ward pushed himself up on his elbow with enough force to jostle Hugh where he lay curled. “Can you tell me anything more?” he asked. Even still rough from sleep his voice carried nothing but perfect, purposeful authority. Under happier circumstances it was easy to admire Mr. Ward for that trait.

Hugh bit back sobs. His mind raced: whose death had he just felt? Living in a city meant people were living and dying around Hugh all the time, and he never felt the urge to drink their breaths, so the unfortunate soul must have been close. But what did close even mean, here? Had one of the manor staff suffered an accident somewhere in the house, perhaps a cook scalded by a boiling pot or a stablehand trampled by a maddened horse? Had some unknown passing transient taken ill somewhere on the grounds, perhaps from the rain, and finally succumbed? Good glory, had family been involved? The notion of unknowingly consuming the last gasp of someone with whom he shared blood (or, at the very least, crown-acknowledged paperwork) was disgusting in a way Hugh had never thought to contemplate. He didn’t bother trying to console himself with the least terrible outcome of an already irreversible situation. There was no best case when it came to human lives.

“Mr. Wainwright? Can you elaborate?”

It felt like he couldn’t breathe at all now that he’d refused someone else’s last lungful. His body had primed itself to drink; now denied, it was lashing out at itself in pain, no matter how he tried to explain things to himself. He was a hunter, and hunters were meant to pull strength from their kills in this manner, but this was not a kill of his! The hierarchy of predation in which he worked was a wholly separate entity from the people his work was meant to protect. It would give him nothing, not as potent as he was, not unless the person who passed had been a practitioner as strong as the world, and even then, Hugh disliked being greedy. If he was to claim something of that magnitude as his own, he would rather work to earn it.

Was it the night city doing this? Whether or not its presence (or lack thereof) was skewing his thoughts, the same alternate cunning that could be said to guide the way a night city grew its buttresses and adorned itself with statues might lead it towards more desperate methods of contact. Did it want him to visit that badly? Surely it would have stayed in one place and let him find it if that was the case, as he’d yet to find a night city that didn’t welcome visitors once they pierced the veil around it. Just because an explorer might be overwhelmed with vertigo, or pains, or whatever else their mortal bodies did when thrust into unreal spaces, didn’t mean the night city despised their presence. He had yet to discover why such places were tied to people so—Hugh had long since accepted that he might never know the whole reason, but he hoped to better understand things anyway—but those that appeared where people lived were always bolder and more lively than those with only animals to guide them. Even the artificial ones he’d encountered knew the touch of a human hand! 

One couldn’t accuse a natural phenomenon of malice; trees fell and lightning struck without a care for their destruction. A night city was both natural and supernatural, real and unreal, so while it was necessary to view it as part of the world as a whole, it was foolish to assume it was only that. Maybe malice had a place in this puzzle. Forget trying to lure him in with gifts; it stood to reason that maybe the night city was angry at him, instead. But why? Had it been calling out for aid, growing angry and bitter when it realized no one could heed it?   What if outside intervention followed by outside neglect had somehow damaged the anomaly? Hugh knew far too well how the lack of potential affection could cut deeper and bleed longer than simply not knowing it in the first place. He was here now, though, here and worried for the space-that-wasn’t. Didn’t it know he loved it? Didn’t it know he cared? Didn’t it know he would bet his skill as a professor of the unknowable that he could soothe its wounded heart? Or was it so broken by its isolation that there was nothing left to fix?

Was it trying to pull Hugh down with it?

A fingertip touched against his forehead, making his brow tingle. “Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. “Something has upset you. I’m still here, and I’ll be here when you’re ready to talk.”

Hugh took a deep breath. It was air and only air that he drew in, thank goodness, and as smotheringly close as the thing had felt before, now the only nearby sensations he could feel were the sheets, the summer air, and Mr. Ward’s comforting presence. He pulled Mr. Ward close.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, clinging to Mr. Ward with as much strength as he dared. “I woke up with a busy mind, and once I realized what was happening I was overcome by another wave of passing despair.”

“Again? That’s very concerning.”

“Especially with how swiftly it struck me,” agreed Hugh. “I cannot say who’s passed, or why, or even where, but I doubt it’s mere coincidence, especially with my spirits flagging every time it feels like we’re about to make progress. I don’t think we have the luxury of waiting until morning.”

Mr. Ward grumbled into Hugh’s shoulder. “Of course we don’t.”

Hugh gave him one final squeeze before sitting up and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “We must dress, and quickly,” he said as he felt around for his slippers with his foot. “I don’t think this is going to be a job for nightclothes.”

“The bobble cap might give the wrong impression, yes.”

The thumps and rustling from across the bed signaled that Mr. Ward was already pulling on more duty-appropriate garb. Hugh doubted his own outfit would be as tidy as Mr. Ward’s inevitably would be; there was no time to worry about fashion when the stakes had been elevated so! Had he brought his full hunting kit he would’ve been tempted to wear it, just for the sake of sending a message, as he’d yet to meet anyone outside another hunter or practitioner that could see a man running at them while adorned in seals and brass and not react in fear. Fear was such a useful tool, one of Hugh’s personal favorites, which was why he was so cross that it was being used against him! Alas, the embroidered black clothes still sitting at home weren’t much use for diplomacy. Until they had absolute proof that it was time for swords and talons, Hugh had to assume that the situation could be resolved through more peaceful means, and he would dress accordingly. It didn’t stop him from salivating at the potential of a good, solid chase in the near future.

A lucifer struck in the darkness and an oil lamp glowed to life. Mr. Ward appeared from the gloom, already looking so sharp it would take an eye like Hugh’s to tell where he’d rushed his preparations, and he waited at Hugh’s side as Hugh finished checking the laces of his shoes and the buttons on his waistcoat.

“I am at your assistance, but I cannot lead the charge,” said Mr. Ward. “Where should we go, Mr. Wainwright?”

Hugh couldn’t feel any obvious pulls at any of his senses; everything had been blown out by whatever had gotten into his head, leaving a sort of spiritual numbness behind. He’d felt that wake before, though, and things were serious enough to dispose of playing coy. Confidence ran when artfulness could no longer creep. “I believe I know exactly where to start.”

❦ 16

The guards posted at the library looked amazed that anyone would bother trying to get in at such an hour, and neither Aubrey nor Mr. Wainwright gave them any explanation beyond a curt society business in passing. It was good to see Mr. Wainwright so focused and free from his slough of despond; one did not spend years of their life (and not a few others’ lives, as well) perfecting methods to manage the unstable tendencies of polymorphic persons and still somehow find their continued unhappiness tolerable.

“I would not be surprised if the staff at the door go to rouse the master of the house,” said Aubrey. As if to answer him, hurried footsteps padded down the hall in the direction of the family’s warren of non-guest bedrooms. It was only a matter of time before they had company.

Mr. Wainwright scoffed. “Let them, then! If Sir Peter wishes to get in my way on this night, of all nights, he is welcome to find out what may happen.”

“I’m pleased to hear you’re unconcerned with navigating the baronet’s current opinions of you.”

“He is welcome to have whatever opinions he likes so long as he stays out of my way,” said Mr. Wainwright. “I’ll take the far side, you take the near?”

“All right.”

Since its lamps had all been extinguished by sunset, the library was extremely dark at that hour, and the light that crept in from the hallway was all but useless once more than a few feet inside. Aubrey’s insistence that Mr. Wainwright bring a candlestick of his own was already bearing fruit. Even at the best of times his eyes were only as good as his lenses allowed them to be; looking for anything smaller than one of the kennels’ relocated dogs was going to require sufficient illumination. He kept his own lamp held high as they performed a quick sweep of the shelves, but its light revealed nothing.

“Any luck, Mr. Wainwright?”

“None yet,” came the reply, “but I didn’t expect anything out in the open.” He beckoned to Aubrey. “Over here. Let me show you the pianoforte, that you might hear its notes and say if you recognize something I do not.”

Aubrey had taken a look at said instrument several times since Mr. Wainwright had first talked about it. He was not a musical man in the slightest but did have experience with maintaining the mechanical house’s varied devices, as a secret door was useless if not kept well-oiled; the pianoforte had lacked even the most whimsical and illogical of elements that were so common to night city structures. Mr. Wainwright’s tapping of a few set keys over and over did not change this impression. The notes were loud in the still of the night and rose to fill the air around them in the pianoforte’s nook. It was just as well they weren’t trying to be stealthy.

It soon became evident that whatever Mr. Wainwright suspected might happen wasn’t going to. “Will you show me to the door, please?” asked Aubrey.

“Yes, yes, of course. It’s right this way.”

The door looked like a supply cupboard, or perhaps a passage into the corridors the servants used to keep out of sight of the wealthy. Mr. Wainwright gestured at it as though it would open up into a shop of wonders at any moment. Moments became seconds, seconds into half a minute. Nothing happened.

“You see? It’s deceptively normal in appearance,” said Mr. Wainwright.

“It is that,” said Aubrey. He pulled off his glove and ran his bare hand all along the seams between the doors and the wall. “I don’t feel any signs of traps, Mr. Wainwright. You said that children come through here on occasion? The library itself, I mean, not the door.”

Mr. Wainwright nodded. “My cousins are always in and out, and not always with their governess. If this door was easy to open, with anything dangerous or delicate behind it, I imagine they’d have been told not to go through it, but when has that ever stopped a youth with nothing to do? It stands to reason that it’d be locked in such a way to prevent harm, otherwise whoever is using the door in the first place would never hear the end of it. Even agents as sloppy as the two the society first sent this way wouldn’t be that unaware. Not with horrors lunging about.”

Aubrey hummed thoughtfully. He touched the doorknob and rattled it. Yielding no results, he took a closer look at the door’s paint. “And it didn’t open, no matter what you did?”

“Upon my life, Mr. Ward, I simply cannot figure out how they keep it closed.”

Placing his lamp on a nearby shelf, Aubrey gave the door a mighty bump with his shoulder, then wrenched the knob until it finally acquiesced to pull back its latch and open once he gave it one last pull. Once he was able to clear the knob of its jambs the rest of the motion was unobstructed.

Mr. Wainwright put his hand to his mouth in surprise. “My goodness! However did you figure that out?”

“It’s the weather, Mr. Wainwright. Whether they applied too much paint over the years or simply built it wrong in the first place, it wasn’t going to open right with the skies this rainy. No need for a puzzle when nature takes its course.”

“But what of the conspicuous off notes in the pianoforte?”

“I believe it would be reasonable to assume that they simply don’t tune it very often, or if they do, they don’t do it very well.” Aubrey shook out his hand, replaced his glove, and took his lamp back in hand before it could singe any of the books. He held it high to better look inside. “I don’t think you’re going to like this much, Mr. Wainwright.”

All that lay behind the door was a closet with some forgotten cleaning tools still perched on its shelves.

“There isn’t a false back, is there?” asked Mr. Wainwright. He kept flaring his nostrils like he could smell something beyond the old books and varnished wood. Horses ready to race wouldn’t snort so. Aubrey stood back to let him get a better view inside, and they both took the time to examine the shallow closet from every possible angle.

There was not a false back.

“And no passages hidden in the floor or ceiling?”

There were no hidden passages.

“Bother!” swore Mr. Wainwright with all the force of a far more potent oath. “I’m so very sorry for wasting your time and mine, Mr. Ward. I was just so sure there was something, anything here…”

Aubrey glanced over the books. Just as Mr. Wainwright had said, and just as Aubrey himself had verified twice over by now, it looked to be little more than outdated references held on to for no clear reason; sentimentality, perhaps, or for the sake of having a bigger library than some other peer of the baronet’s. The spot where Mr. Wainwright had claimed the botany manual looked like a missing tooth. Aubrey reached back behind the tomes and found nothing. If Mr. Wainwright thought he could sense something, then Mr. Wainwright almost certainly did sense something, so simpler human senses would only go so far. Their next move boiled down to pointing him in the right direction once they could divine what the right direction was even supposed to be.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey. “This is a proper investigation, and investigations worth their salt require looking in many places that lead us nowhere.” He frowned. “I don’t doubt this place is important, somehow, even if the closet is not.” He gestured towards the closest mirror. “You mentioned you looked around on the other side?”

“I did, some,” said Mr. Wainwright, thoughtfully.

“Was anything there?”

“No…but last time I was interrupted before I could finish my search. And now I can’t help but wonder if unsticking this door will help with its mirror twin, and if there’s something in that closet that’s of greater interest to us than a few rags and a brush.” He licked his lips. At this rate he was going to need to pop another of his mint candies to keep up with his enthusiasm.

Unlike Mr. Wainwright, Aubrey was not able to step into a reflection with nothing but the will to make it happen fueling it, and attempting to duplicate the feat would take preparation time they did not have. They’d have to split up. This was one of the worst things one could do once an investigation had accelerated from calm hours spent talking to people and looking at burn marks on walls to whatever was going on with the night-city-or-not that kept flinging Mr. Wainwright off an emotional cliff; it was also their only remaining option if they hoped to race the clock and win.

“How fast can you be?” asked Aubrey.

Mr. Wainwright understood the importance of keeping together better than anyone, thanks to his history of coming to Aubrey’s rescue or serving as the trap-iron in instances where Aubrey was the bait; he pulled a distressed face at Aubrey’s suggestion. “Are you sure that’s wise, Mr. Ward?” he asked. “You told me that Caldecott and Pembroke have fallen off the face of God’s earth, to say nothing of their assistant, and no matter what the papers Mr. Crowe gave you might say, they could be anywhere. We don’t know what they can do. We don’t even know what they look like!”

“One is dark, one is fair, and the fair one was last spotted wearing a mustache,” said Aubrey. No one at the society office had offered more description than that. It was as though they only existed as shapes filtered through smoke. What had seemed like an oversight or lack of investment at the time on the part of the other agents in Martlethead town was starting to take on deeper meaning.

“That doesn’t narrow things down much. A shave or a wig is all it’d take for us to pass them by.”

“We work with what we have, Mr. Wainwright, not what we wish we did.” He leaned in to put one hand around Mr. Wainwright’s narrow waist in a busy man’s embrace. “If it eases your mind any, I have hidden a knife on my person,” said Aubrey. This did seem to calm Mr. Wainwright some, based on how he eased into the touch; Aubrey was a practiced surgeon with even more practice in skulduggery, and a knife in his hand was no clumsy instrument.

“Do try not to kill either of them, Mr. Ward.”

“What constitutes a try in your eyes?”

The question was brushed aside. “Due process is owed to every human being under the sun, and even those of us who avoid it,” said Mr. Wainwright, whose bloodthirst lay elsewhere. “How can we hope to clean up their mess if we can’t figure out what they did in the first place?”

“I will defend myself if there is call to do it, Mr. Wainwright, but, for your sake, I may aim somewhere other than the throat.”

“Thank you.” He bowed his head and closed his eyes. “You are my handler, Mr. Ward, and you know what is best in situations such as these. You know what I can do, of that which I am able. You know our weaknesses. You know what must be done.” He took a breath and let it out, trembling. “Tell me: what shall I do?”

If Mr. Wainwright did not falter there was no finer harrier in the whole of the society’s terrible ranks, so it was important that he did not falter, and to keep from faltering he must not succumb to the alien strangeness that pressed in at all sides; Aubrey needed to remind him of the great love that defied whatever lies that strangeness might whisper, and so he popped up on tiptoe to kiss him. He parted Mr. Wainwright’s lips with his tongue to make his point, pairing sweetness with a ferocity out of place with his mild-looking frame. When he pulled away he took Mr. Wainwright’s lamp. Where Mr. Wainwright was going he could rely on more than merely eyes to see. “Go and hunt, hunter.”

“So it shall be done,” said Mr. Wainwright, who had once more found a smile. If it was hungrier than usual, what of it? What mattered was that he was prepared for the trials ahead.

With the confidence of a great cat Mr. Wainwright slipped into the library shadows, with movements like water he flowed towards the closest mirror without leaving a trace, and with the inevitability of a blooming nightmare he vanished into the mirror to see what might be on the other side.

❦ 17

Things were different from the last time Hugh had been here.

His previous visit had been typical of any other trip through the looking-glass, and the reversed library hadn’t looked out of place when he’d walked its aisles. Places tended to not look any stranger in reflections than they did normally, or at least they didn’t once you got used to how it was like holding a piece of paper up to the light to read words written on its other side. Nothing would twist or turn in ways its non-reflected self didn’t. Hugh didn’t find their changes nearly as interesting as he did the way a night city would distort and exaggerate the places to which they connected, and since it was generally unwise for a man of his condition to use mirrors as more than hiding spots or unusual travel routes, he didn’t spend long in them. What was there to say? His passions lay elsewhere, and so he learned what he needed to and moved on. If his past jaunts had shown him something more like this, perhaps he would have found reason to explore in greater depth.

The mirror library was…unwinding, somehow, then quickly pulling itself together again, the process repeating over and over like an image in a spinning zoetrope; he had to step quickly to keep the floorboards from clamping around his feet as they kept bursting apart and settling back in place. Hugh was used to navigating illogical spaces, even ones that required him to run and leap to traverse their half-broken, imperfect paths, so he scaled an infinitely exploding bookshelf to get a better look at what all was happening. It felt like being in the guts of a giant machine, gears clanging and springs whining, the whole thing bleeding to death from self-inflicted wounds as it could not contain that which had been forced inside of it. That, Hugh realized, was the problem: someone had tried to shove an entire idea of a place into a spot neither meant nor sized for it, and like a plant whose questing roots sundered the pot in which it had been set to grow, so too was whatever this thing was breaking out of its laughably ineffective containment.

Was this the absence he’d sensed prior? It certainly didn’t feel like the presence of nothing, not when Hugh had to keep scrambling from perch to perch to safely survey things, and his head didn’t feel filled with the same moroseness that had lied to him so convincingly. Perhaps it was like standing in the middle of an electrified soap bubble: coming close to it from the outside only caused harm, because without that danger the whole thing was as fragile as could be, and its insides may as well have been hollow. Not the best metaphor, he admitted to himself, but a fellow could only be so mentally eloquent when having to keep pace with a reality never meant to let him exist within it. What would happen if that conceptual bubble popped?

Also concerning was just how deep the strangeness went. Things this expansive, this severe were rare to see in a night city, which one could argue was their natural habitat, but Hugh had been in this very reflection mere days ago—had it already been that long? had it only been that long? he was losing track of time just by being here—and seen nothing that could even hint at what had occurred. If this detonation had happened in the space of those few days he should have noticed it. How could he not have? This had to be the anomaly he’d been meant to find, but that he had not found anything but traces of its passing until now raised so many more questions than it answered.

It was clear that this space, whatever it was, wasn’t meant to be here, and by forcing it to exist in a reality unsuited to it the whole place was tearing itself apart in an attempt to find anything that would make it fit for just a breath longer. How had they kept this thing hidden? Had it been inside someone, somehow? It certainly seemed like the sort of thing that could kill a fellow once it started breaking down. It was also going to keep getting worse the longer it was left alone, so Hugh’s next task was to contain, and potentially euthanize, the thing replacing the library before it could make any more trouble.

Hugh had dismantled an induced night city before, and its creation had involved the unmaking (death didn’t strike him as comprehensive enough a word for what had happened) of five people, consumed until nothing remained of them but clothes and ritual daggers; that petite pocket-space had been quite stable up until he’d interfered with the bindings that kept it extant, after which it had collapsed in on itself nice and neatly. This was not neat in the slightest, never mind nice, so hoping to find a single critical spot was likely too much to ask; one could argue the whole thing was in critical condition. If it had made Hugh feel so dreadful just by being vaguely in the presence of its absence, being inside of it couldn’t be good for him, and goodness knew how it might cause harm to someone without his particular training and durability! Everyday people had no business being here. Containment would need to come first if he was to have any chance of proper spatial demolitions.

How did one contain a problem like this? Hugh let his thoughts mix and cure as he navigated the chaotic space as best he could. The first step would likely be to find a connection to an existing night city—that he hadn’t felt any nearby was not a detail he needed to worry about right now—and somehow haul the anomaly through that connection. Would it turn inside-out on transit? That might damage the library, but the library had been still and quiet when they’d arrived, and the servants posted at its doors hadn’t struck him as being concerned with trying to keep intruders out more than anything in particular in, so it was possible that what he had on his hands were the wild ripples of a rock thrown into a pond. Now he just had to figure out how to scoop out those ripples without harming the water on which they sat.

A length of silken thread tucked in a pocket was all Hugh had on hand in terms of implements of binding. Mr. Ward would have been better at this, what with how much more experience he had with the theories and principles of practicing the secret arts than Hugh did (at least in part because a lot of a practitioner’s training involved learning things that Hugh comprehended purely on instinct, and Mr. Ward disliked approaching a task without understanding it from toe to tip), but it would be cruel to step out of the mirror just to try to pull him back through. Perhaps he could be there in spirit, instead. A sympathetic bond that wasn’t actually connected to Hugh struck him as the sort of thing Mr. Ward would use as an anchor. One of his humbugs would do: he felt around for a fresh one, unwrapped it, sucked on it a bit until his mouth tasted of bright peppermint, then wound one end of the thread around the sticky sweet and knotted it in place. He held the humbug out from his body and dropped it. That it floated upon being released was one of the less surprising discoveries of the past few minutes.

Some experimentation proved that the violent slamming-together of the reflected library’s sections was not enough to sever the thread—with said thread being prepared for occult purposes, Hugh would have been cross if the inverse were true—so Hugh darted about from angle to angle, winding the thread around the sturdiest pieces of the library he could find. He felt like a spider. As the thread unspooled and his web expanded, Hugh thought he could sense the desperate thrashing of the place ease the tiniest bit, though not enough to make it any less dangerous to traverse. Was it merely a placebo? Genuine or not, it inspired him to keep going, even if he had to run perpendicular to the not-wholly-a-floor more often than he would have liked in his current shoes.

The deed was nearly done and the length of thread was nearly exhausted, but the hurried nature of his plans were starting to show: what would he use for the other end? It ideally was something that had a connection to the library to complete the idea. Would a book work? Maybe, but that felt too easy, the kind of idea so obvious that it might endanger the strength of the bond. A piece of art? A trophy of Sir Peter’s? The pianoforte? Nothing seemed right. There had to be an answer, though, he simply had to be as clever and as aware as he could be to find it.

A glint of silver caught his eye. He focused on it, and there! A simple ring, resting on a middle shelf of the making-and-unmaking side closet, of the sort a higher-ranking society type might wear; that would do nicely for the other end of his snare. Those agents had certainly meddled enough to leave their mark on the place! That they had left enough of themselves behind to make a bit of mirror jewelry was a concern—and there was no way it was the actual thing, as what agent worth the ring would ever willingly take it off?—but he could use that detail all the same: the plain silver would react to the art he was weaving, and he could skew it as an echo of his bond with Mr. Ward without actually being that bond. He could potentially pick-a-back off of the concept of the society to further encourage the library to do what he wished. It wasn’t the best answer, as if he’d had all the time in the world he’d have liked to inspect it more closely, but what other choice was there when the safety of who knew how many people was at stake? A man had to think on his feet! He bounded towards it like an excited monkey, the final bits of thread looped around his fingers so he could better grasp and pivot. All he had to do was tie off the thread, use a few drops of his own blood to embolden the pact, and then—

“By God’s teeth, you were right, Caldecott, they really are like magpies.”

Something sharp struck Hugh in the back with the force of one of his hunting swords. He looked down, expecting to see a gory blade jutting through his ribs, but nothing was there; another strike pierced him, and another, until it felt as though he was trapped inside a gruesome art piece that somehow drew no blood. He couldn’t even fall to his knees from how many imperceptible nails held him in place. A jägermeister caught in a mystical snare? Lured by mere jewelry? How embarrassing. Hugh had been bitten by monsters before—even chewed on, on certain rare occasions—and so he reacted the best way he knew how: by refusing the pressure of those unseen jaws with every fiber of his being.

“Why the delay?” said a different voice. It and the previous speaker seemed to come from the very air around him. Hugh had once read a plaque at the aqua-vivarium urging visitors not to tap on the glass, as the sound could reverberate through the water and cause great pain to the swimming fish within; he felt very much like one of those poor things as the words roared in his ears.

“He’s fighting it, that’s why!” cried the first voice.

A drop of blood. All it would take was a drop of blood and he could fix things. Hugh strained towards the shining silver as he willed his teeth to take enough of an edge to break the skin. His mouth ran crimson with the lightest of bites. If he could stretch out his neck to cross the last foot or so he could do this! If there was one thing Hugh could do with grace and skill, it was transmogrification, and he fought against the foul sensation to let his body do what it knew best; even with this confidence behind him it still felt like there were nails on the inside of his skin, some scratching like hands and others pounding outwards like they were driven by impossible hammers. He couldn’t get any larger! How couldn’t he get any larger? What sort of protean professional couldn’t manage to grow out their spine by a mere few inches?

The wetness upon Hugh’s tongue, half salivary and half sanguine, threatened to choke him. As he struggled to breathe, an answer to his dreadful predicament appeared in his brain with the brilliance of sun after long weeks of clouds. He couldn’t help but laugh as the mint-tinged red stream flowing from his lips stained his shirt and cravat. How had he not seen it before? The rest of his body might be lost to restricting agony, but he knew what to do with his mouth.

“What in heaven…?” asked the second voice.

“Cover the mirror! Now!”

Hugh spat. Blood struck silver, and for better or for worse, the circuit was complete.

❦ 18

That there was a sense of something twisting up and being wrenched away not long after Mr. Wainwright vanished into the mirror was not all that surprising, nor was the way the reflections in the polished floorboards juddered and smeared before righting themselves, all accompanied by what could only be described as the inverse of something very, very loud; it was best to always be prepared for such phenomena when he was busy on the job. What was surprising was his failure to step out of the mirror to report. The clock ticked ever onward towards chiming the hour and yet he did not reappear. When the baronet and some of his children arrived (Perry and Lucrecia among them, naturally), Aubrey greeted their harried and sleep-addled selves with a frown.

“What is the meaning of this, Ward? The library is not to be accessed after hours!” boomed the baronet. He’d thrown a greatcoat over his nightclothes and carried his saber in one hand. How interesting that a man would bring a weapon to attend to something as simple as a guest breaking curfew. It was almost as though Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright had upset some grander plan.

“The professor was made aware of a situation that was too dire to leave until morning,” said Aubrey. Save for his scowl his manner was much the same as always; it took more than a raised voice to rattle him, and the baronet clearly wasn’t used to people remaining calm when he, himself, was not. 

“What could possibly be so important?”

“There has been a death on the grounds, Sir Peter.”

This news stunned the baronet into silence, and Lucrecia and Perry shot each other worried looks. There was still no sign of anything unusual in the mirror. Aubrey reached to his waistcoat and pulled forth a small silver locket; when opened, it revealed a photograph of Mr. Wainwright and a curl of his hair. Neither looked out of order. The locket had been a personal gift, not a practitioner’s tool, so who could say if it was a reliable barometer in such circumstances. Aubrey snapped closed its clasp and put it away with an irritable snort. No small part of a handler’s duty to their charge required knowing where to find said charge in the first place, and he was not in the habit of neglecting his duties. One did not send a hunter off into the gibbering dark without expecting danger, so the task he’d given Mr. Wainwright had room in it for misfortune; the trouble was how close Mr. Wainwright should have been and how far he yet remained.

Aubrey pointed at Lucrecia accusingly. “You there. You and your brother need to tell me everything that’s going on, or there will be terrible consequences for Professor Wainwright.” She blanched. The baronet made to complain but Aubrey cut him off. “We have evidence suggesting you two were working with Pembroke and Caldecott,” he continued. “You lot are in over your heads, and if you don’t cooperate things are going to get worse.”

“It isn’t fair!” said Perry.

“Justice has nothing to do with the situation.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Perry continued, “or that thing you brought with you wouldn’t be here, eating our food and sleeping on our sheets and everyone acting like they’ve forgotten Uncle Andrew ever existed!”

Of course it came down to the fate of Mr. Wainwright’s uncle. For a man still off on holiday in the country his shadow was inescapable. “You and I are both aware that your uncle only factored into this after the plan was first set in motion,” said Aubrey. “He was hurt greatly, there’s never been any denial of that, but someone else has died this night. Do you understand me? Letting innocent souls perish because of a grudge you still hold in the name of the living is far more monstrous than anything of which the professor might be guilty.”

Somewhere in the middle of Aubrey’s tirade Gregory, the hallboy from before, slipped past the crowd gathered at the library doors to dance from foot to foot at Lucrecia’s side with all the nervous energy of a whippet.

“See here, our runner from the kennels has arrived,” said Lucrecia, who looked relieved to have someone else be the focus of attention. She looked down at Gregory with a small, but no less smug, smile. “How is the professor taking to his new quarters?”

“He’s not in there, Miss Lucrecia.”

“He’s what?”

Gregory sounded panicked, his words tinged with the sort of kicked-dog apologetics of someone used to being blamed for things outside their ability to influence. “He’s not in the kennels, Miss Lucrecia, not at all. You told me he was supposed to be in there when you sent me to check but he’s not.”

Aubrey arched an eyebrow. “Whyever would the professor be there when he was here in the library just now?”

“They told us it was going to rip out his wild half! It was supposed to keep him tame!” said Lucrecia.

Depending on the standards used Mr. Wainwright could be considered very tame, given his propensity for sitting on the floor at Aubrey’s feet and accepting treats by hand; neither Lucrecia nor Perry seemed the sorts to care about such petty details as the truth. Whatever procedure they were talking about had certainly not been first drafted with Mr. Wainwright in mind. The question of what it had been meant to do in the first place, before he and Aubrey had arrived to upset Martlethead Court as a whole, was unlikely to go answered during such a hectic time.

“You’re sure he wasn’t there?” said Perry to Gregory.

“Every cage is empty as ever, Mister Perry!”

Lucrecia growled. “They said once he took the bait he’d be tied to a place of great significance, and if he had even half a heart it’d be where he caused our family the most damage. He’s not there, so where are we meant to look, then? His guest room? The cellars? He’s clearly not here in the library, and the instant he had the chance to escape the nursery he’d leave, so at least the cousins are safe.” She gestured in frustration like a poor stage actor. “Damnation, where is he?”

The clock struck. A scream ripped through the air, not a person’s scream but something far worse, and the Wainwrights huddled together at the terrible cry. It sounded close, like it was somewhere else in the manor, and resonated with the warm, rich tones of a performer at a concert hall; something about it shared breath with the un-sound that had shaken the library’s reflections. It was a furious, elemental thing, pained but joyous, and its dissonant tone promised to meet those who crossed its path with that same elated agony. Worst of all, it was not completely unfamiliar.

Aubrey set his teeth. “You fool. He’s in the chapel.”

❦ 19

When the predator awoke it had been in a place that had not been suited to displaying his majesty. He exerted his will and shaped it: small became grand, modest became extravagant. A predator’s territory was sacred, and so the sacred was therefore his territory. It was perfect.

Even after awakening the place into what it had always meant to be, there was no prey there to chase or to harry, no sweet lambs to slaughter or grass-fat cattle to slay. What was a predator without them? He exerted his will once again but nothing came forth, flung back his head in a cry but nothing answered in challenge or in fear. As majestic as his territory looked it was empty, sterile. He was alone.

Strange thoughts—they felt like his own, but the predator couldn’t recall ever thinking them—swirled: memories of smaller predators barking and howling, of how those little hunters were gone in the modern day, of the sorrow that echoed in the space they had left. Why would a king of instinct grieve anything? Lack of opportunity, perhaps, as where so many smaller hunters made their dens, there had to be plenty to eat. He knew in his heart that he could not step beyond the whirling mists that cradled his territory, and with himself as its sole occupant he was effectively entombed. The predator was meant to be an avatar of violence! How dare the world try and let him starve?

He could scent hints of softer, weaker things, beings he knew sometimes hunted for themselves but were so wonderfully frail in comparison to his own splendor. How their proximity taunted him! If he could not step outside the bounds of his territory, how could he lure them to his side? How could he be seen for what he was, loved and feared as a sublime terror who had yet to meet his equal? How could he not bask in the tribute he deserved? They were so close, yet so far away, and if they knew what awaited them they surely would stay away without some greater lure, some angler’s light to tease at their baser needs and bring them gladly to his side. How could he convince them to convene? Would they not flee if they knew the truth?

The predator’s eyes fell upon the hunk of metal hidden in the heights of his territory’s tangled statues. Yes, there were ways of calling prey closer, indeed.

❦ 20

Aubrey strode with purpose through the manor halls, trailing Wainwrights.

“Where are we going?” asked the baronet, who still came off as put off by his children taking center stage from him. He gestured with his saber as he walked. “The chapel’s that way, Ward.”

“I am aware, Sir Peter,” said Aubrey. He didn’t change direction. “I’m not going to see to the professor without my medical bag.”

“You think he’s been hurt by that screeching thing?”

Some people really did forget anything halfway inconvenient when left to their own devices. “To my understanding, he is that screeching thing, no thanks to the actions of some of your other children. I am not going to risk going to him unprepared. If he’s not in his right mind, he will likely need chemical help.”

“Chemical help!” said the baronet with a scoff. “Is that what those little bottles he has with meals are for? Keeping my boy too drugged and silly to be a danger?”

Aubrey remained stone-faced. “That is a dietary supplement, no more and no less,” he said as he approached the door of the room he and Mr. Wainwright shared. “Save for his fondness for red wines, in my experience Professor Wainwright has no taste for exotic substances, and takes his bliss through other means. I’m sure you can make educated guesses about at least some of them.” He produced the key and unlocked the door, spending precious seconds fighting with the tumblers. In friendlier circumstances it might have been enough to leave the door closed but bolted, but alas, the manor was no friendly place, and even without the fearsome tools and weapons Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright kept in the house on Kettle Street, their luggage held too many sensitive contents to leave it unguarded.

The rest of the Wainwrights and their entourage stopped at the threshold. The room wasn’t sealed with anything but the simplest of warding sigils, so there was nothing supernatural to bar their progress; the way they stood spoke of great trepidation, as though for all their dwelling upon the long-ago deeds that had necessitated a writ of restraint they had only just now truly realized what it meant to have Mr. Wainwright in their midst. He had been a nuisance, an embarrassment, a thing to hate so long as he remained mild and kind. Now he was someone different from the sleepy-eyed jägermeister for whom Aubrey cooked and cleaned. The screaming horror in the chapel was unlikely to cherish goodnight kisses. Would he even recognize Aubrey at all?

A bell tolled as Aubrey busied himself with checking the contents of his bag.

“I say, did you feel that?” said the baronet. “How odd. It’s like my heart’s being drawn towards the sound.” The other Wainwrights and servants murmured in assent.

Aubrey did not reply. The syringes were clean and sharp, the scalpels honed. Was there enough gauze? Mr. Wainwright usually didn’t need such mundane things as bandages if he was able to keep well-fed and left to recuperate, but his cries had sounded neither peaceful nor sated. The roasted cabbage must have worn off.

“Did you not hear father?” said Perry. He and Lucrecia kept passing the torch between them as to which would be more ferocious. “Sir Peter asked you a question, Ward.”

It had sounded like a rhetorical question at the time. Aubrey kept his focus on his medical supplies as he answered. “Yes. I felt it.”

“What was it, then? You’d have us believe you’re the expert.”

He was. If they were going to doubt his knowledge, they were welcome to do so in the face of its depths. Someone in the room needed to act like a professional. “It’s possible to create a form of resonance that travels between one side of the world and another, like a reed that exists in both the water and the air,” he said as he inspected a length of suture. “Anything that creates a single, lingering tone will do. In days of old, hunters would use these resonant chimes to call out to one another, and since making sound in the night city is a good way to call its residents to one’s location, such beckoning was rarely for cooperative reasons.” Aubrey pulled out a bone saw and considered it for a long moment before returning it to the bag; if the flesh was diseased, sometimes the kindest thing to do for a patient was to cut it out entirely, that the rest of themselves might yet be saved. How much of Mr. Wainwright’s spirit was gangrenous by now? “He’s issuing a challenge.”

More murmurs and mutters. “I’ve taken down a smaller beast before, and the record will show I’ve won a duel or two in my time, but I don’t want to raise my saber against my own child,” said the baronet, though he kept his sword in hand.

“It would be foolish to try to outmatch him in a test of physicality, Sir Peter,” said Aubrey. “Tell me: when they initiated you all those years ago, did they show you the Acharya Plates?”

“They show everyone those.”

The society pointedly did not show off those illustrations to its rank and file without first determining if they would be a liability, or if evidence suggested the inductee was already in possession of similar knowledge to their contents; Aubrey had been given his own set on the same day they’d formalized his oaths. The self-ruined lost soul that had thrown himself before Aubrey had resembled some of those plates, in a way. “Then you know the sort of things they depict.”

“Hugh is one of them, now?”

Aubrey turned to face the baronet, his preparations as complete as they could be. “No, Sir Peter, those are what he hunts. When he takes to the rooftops every night, they are what fear him. He is far grander than they could ever hope to be.” He removed his spectacles and began to polish them as he continued. “And now, thanks to the actions of parties which shall go conspicuously unnamed, he has surpassed even those magnificent heights.”

Lucrecia jostled her way to the front of the pack without actually stepping into the guest room proper. “So what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to have a talk with him.”

“You mean to say he won’t lay a finger on you?”

“What I am saying is that Professor Wainwright would never wish to hurt me when in his proper state of mind. I cannot say what he’s thinking now.” Aubrey replaced his spectacles and the handkerchief he’d used to clean them, then took up the medical bag like a templar would their shield. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a patient to see to.”

The flock of family parted around him as he approached, only following afterward (and with great hesitation) once he emerged from the opposite side of the crowd, and Aubrey didn’t bother waiting for them to catch up as he hustled towards the chapel. The bell had not stopped its booming the entire time, as though making up for its years of sitting silent, though something about the way its tone warbled through the air and made one’s teeth ache said that Martlethead town would not be hearing this call to worship. Every new peal threatened to make one of the family stagger or trip. It was a wonder no one was hurt just walking there.

When the lot of them arrived at the chapel, they were greeted by a different sight than what had been there during Mr. Wainwright’s visit to ruminate among its pews: the carved double doors were gone, as was the arch adorned with flowers, both replaced with an impossibly large gateway filled with mist that rolled and roiled like a storm. It glowed with an eerie inner light. What lay beyond was blackness. This was no mere anomaly, no odd quirk of time and space. This was a night city, a proper one, the sort Mr. Wainwright had been hunting in vain the whole time they’d been at Martlethead Court. How fitting that he had ultimately been involved in bringing it forth.

“This is where he’s gotten to, and where he considered the dearest part of this whole place,” said Aubrey. “It would seem he’s made some alterations.”

“I’m not going in there,” said Lucrecia. Perry made a wordless sound of agreement, as did many of the others. For once the other Wainwrights had managed, as a whole, to have more common sense than less.

Only the baronet had much else to say. “So will I be leading the charge, then?”

“Absolutely not,” said Aubrey. “What you should do, Sir Peter, is saddle your fastest horse and make for the society cell down in the town. Tell them Aubrey Ward is handling a problem at the manor and that you will need backup in the event complications arise. One of their desk-workers, a Mr. Shelby Crowe, can vouch for me. The office should know that at least one of their number has helped turn a hunter rogue, and there will be hell to pay if a jägermeister slips his handler’s tether with no one on hand with the skill to keep him contained.”

The baronet scowled. “We Wainwrights have always solved our own problems,” he said.

“In my experience, you’ve always preferred to hand them off to someone else. Now use that experience of yours and let me work.

“Are you forgetting your place, Ward?”

Aubrey tilted his head to meet the baronet with the full force of a stare whose terrible steely gaze had been tempered over many years of use. “Have you forgotten yours?”

He brushed past the baronet, who (true to his reputation) made no move to actually stop him despite the graveness of that insult. Just as well, as there was important work to be done. When Aubrey reached out towards the wall of mist it parted before him like welcoming an old friend. There was no use in delaying: he pushed through the barrier, bag in hand, and the fog closed in behind him, the path filling in once more until there was no way to go but forward.

❦ 21

What joy the predator felt when one of those small and distant things answered his call! What a delight to see it walk into his lair, and unarmed, at that! He was slightly disappointed to find his new prey carried no blades or pistols; there was metal in the little thing’s bag, but the predator smelled no gunpowder, only a faint, smoky-sweet scent that clung to its skin. What kind of challenger was this? No matter: the predator had called and something had arrived, and he could feel the presence of more small things just outside. The bell would lead them all in, in time. He would have his fun. All he needed was patience.

The prey stepped through the twisted narthex and into the sanctuary proper, its head turning all about to take in the sight of his territory. How the predator wished he could have known what it was thinking! Did it like the hundreds of candles that cast shadows up towards the cathedral-high ceiling? Did it appreciate the way the statues curled and distorted their figures like the wax of those candles, their gold-tipped pinions shielding their faces from onlookers? Did it marvel at the marble floor, polished to a mirror sheen? Did it bask in the light of the impossible moon that slithered through the bulging rose window? Perhaps it wasn’t clever enough, or insightful enough, to understand what he had done with this place he now called his own. No matter. Let some other fool bother with leading others to greater enlightenment! His sole duty was to hunt, and so hunt he would.

A drop of saliva pattered upon the altar from the bramble-thick cage of rafters overhead. Seconds later it was joined by another. The prey followed the path of the drops with its eyes until the lenses it wore over them were pointing right at where the predator hid. That was his call to take the stage! He only had once chance to make a first impression, and he knew he mustn’t disappoint.

Another thunderous bell-toll guided the predator down from the tangled architecture, his nimble toes and nimbler fingers clinging to every nook and cranny to ensure a steady grip. A lesser hunter might have crashed to the altar, destroying it, but that was not his way: instead he reared up over it, spreading his arms wide and his digits wider until it was like a pair of great wings loomed over the sanctuary, wings that marked him the greatest of the assembled messengers. He screamed with pride. Had the statues witnessing him possessed throats he could imagine the dreadful songs they would sing, the frenzied odes that would herald his arrival, but alas! They were but marble, and no heavenly choir would ring in his presence. The predator would simply fill the silence with his own sweet voice.

The prey’s eyes were fixed upon him, and so he gaped wide both sets of jaws in greeting. Why should he not? Did not an honorable predator respect that which he was about to destroy? Let all who stepped into that sacred place know the depths of his nature and stand in awe of his potency, let any who dared come to their doom first behold his glorious self in all its splendor. His tongue lolled in anticipation. There was something about the frail thing that made his mouth water more than it already did; somehow, he already knew the taste of this one, and he longed to feel it between his teeth once more.

He took in a deep lungful of the smoke-heavy air to get another hint of that splendid taste. The smell of the prey’s cologne tickled at the back of his brain, unearthing thoughts and memories that were gone before he could truly recall them. No! cried something that he recognized as himself, even if it didn’t seem to be part of his proper whole. No, I mustn’t! He could feel the weight of that foreign part dragging at him like a chain. Where had that come from? Since when did a predator refuse to pursue? Jagged pains scraped against bone and muscle, suffering blooming in him with the intensity of a hundred pistol shots all fired from different directions; it was as though his very blood hurt. What devilry was this? Was it the prey’s doing, somehow, or the meddling of that unwanted piece? He’d been given a gift wrapped up in black wool, so who was he to deny it? The prey was perfect. How easily his claws would tear that soft, sweet skin, how greedily he’d wolf down that tender flesh, and how quenched his thirst would be when he could lap up the hot, fresh blood he could hear roaring in its veins!

Never! Never ever!

More screams ripped their way out of his throat as the pain escalated and his own perfect body rebelled against him. The candles’ light shivered in time with each cry, distorting into too-perfect shapes that resembled no earthly wick; the sanctuary understood him, so why not himself? He tossed his mane of curls in defiance. He would not come to the verge of death by his own faltering hand! If he would not be a work of art then he would create that art, instead, and he knew deeper than his own splintering bones that his greatest proficiency lay in deed and action. What could a mewling voice do when the rest of him refused to listen? He would rise like the sun, fall like the night, and flourish like the pristine hunter that he was.

With a flex of his legs and a banshee’s own howl, he leapt.

❦ 22

There came a time in the life of any dedicated handler where the actions of those they were sworn to protect risked causing great harm, be it to themselves or others, and it was vital that said harm be reduced, if not prevented outright; Aubrey had been in such situations before, but none so severe as the reality of Mr. Wainwright bearing down on him, teeth bared and claws outstretched. An ensorcelled corset could not do much in the face of decapitation. This was the worst case scenario spoken of in hushed tones whenever the notion of an experienced hunter in need of handling came up, of a creature’s nature running wild in such a way that they turned on those very souls who were meant to help them. A jägermeister was a death sentence, so the saying went, as how could anyone be so suffused with violence without breaking in some way? It was a cheap thrill, a bad joke. Far easier to gossip about them than to accept them as individuals with complex inner lives beyond how easily they could end a life.

Mr. Wainwright had never shown signs of losing control in all the years he’d been in Aubrey’s care, not in this or any other way, so paired with his increasingly raw moods during their stay, it stood to reason that he’d been primed for this in some manner. He would strike Aubrey down and prove he was no better than an animal. If he escaped the sanctuary in such a state, the whole manor—the whole town—was in danger. He was a mortal man, so it was possible for him to die, but at what cost? No matter how it shook out, the maesters’ quills would assign him from one statistic to another, and they would use Aubrey’s death as a weapon against any creatures on which they chained a plate for generations. This was what the kind of pessimism-proving failure the society wanted. This would be how, like dread Cronus of myth, they excused consuming their own.

One did not work for that same society as long as Aubrey had without being able to make a decision in an instant.

Aubrey stood, back straight, and extended a pointing finger at the lunging beast bearing down on him, his demeanor fearless in spite of no small familiarity with what that same beast could do.

Hugh Robin Wainwright, you forget yourself.

The words boomed throughout the warped chapel. They weren’t loud—Aubrey could be called a soft-spoken man if his usual speech ever strayed from a growl—and their volume was nothing compared to the ferocious screams that had rattled the manor from foundation to roofing-tiles, but there was undeniable purpose behind them. It was the voice of authority spoken by a man who had spent decades struggling beneath the weight of others’ even as he cultivated his own. It was what the truth sounded like.

That was all it took: Mr. Wainwright aborted his lunge by wrenching himself downwards mid-leap, as though caught by an unseen lasso. He skidded frantically, his claws clattering against the marble even as his bulk crashed into and through the pews, and he came to rest mere inches away from where Aubrey stood. Hunkering against the floor like a frog, he leaned his many-eyed head down until he could press his forehead against the pad of Aubrey’s finger. He then burst into tears.

“Don’t be afraid, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey, taking a seat in one of the remaining pews that he could hold Mr. Wainwright’s head in his lap. “I’m here.”

One of Mr. Wainwright’s eyes cracked open and found Aubrey’s. “Help me,” he rasped. “Please, I’m not well.”

Aubrey stroked that great tear-streaked snout with one hand, reaching for his medical bag with the other. When he spoke next it was with a gentle confidence. “Something has bedeviled you, but it doesn’t have to be this way forever,” he said. He held up a syringe so Mr. Wainwright could see it. “I am going to give you a sedative. I will then have you relocated to our room. Once you’ve slept, we can begin to understand what has happened, and work towards a solution. Do you understand?”

All Mr. Wainwright could make was a rattle intermingled with a mantra of, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry…”

“This is not your fault, of that I am certain,” said Aubrey. He held Mr. Wainwright’s head as tenderly as a man could while holding a hypodermic needle in one hand. It didn’t matter that his trousers were growing dark with tears and mucus; ugly crying was true to its name but no less necessary when the hour came for it. “You haven’t hurt anyone, and you’re not going to. You just need to get your thoughts in order so you know who you are once more.”

The sliver of maroon slid closed as Mr. Wainwright’s sobs eased enough for him to speak again. “Let me rest. Let me remember.

“Of course.”

Regardless of the society’s continued denial of his rightfully-deserved doctorate—for which they would be someday corrected—Aubrey knew how to administer an injection to patients of many different shapes and sizes. The powerful mix of reagents lulled Mr. Wainwright to chemical-induced sleep over the course of two harrowing minutes. Aubrey held him the whole time. It was not until he went completely limp and his weeping had ceased to flow that Aubrey lifted Mr. Wainwright’s head from his lap, placed it on a bit of padding from one of the ruined pews, and stood to confront the misty barrier that trapped them both in the sanctuary.

He was no creature himself, and there were far greater practitioners than he both in and out of the society’s ranks, but Aubrey had still lived on his own in the mechanical house before Mr. Wainwright had arrived on his doorstep, and a humble resident of the night city could not remain in residence for long without learning a few tricks. A bottle of human teeth appeared from his bag (Mr. Wainwright had felt like growing a new set one day in a fit of whimsy, and had invited Aubrey to keep the old ones for a rainy day) and Aubrey laid them out in a specific pattern before the whirling fog. He drew a complicated symbol around them with some ritual chalk, careful to reverse which end he was using every few teeth. With a snap of the stick of chalk the pattern vanished. A fresh passageway opened up in the barrier as the ritual chewed its way back to the more rational world. This tunneling did not go unnoticed.

“He’s still alive!” said someone, possibly Perry.

“Which one is?” asked someone else.

“Both of us,” said Aubrey. He crossed his arms over his chest and stood defiantly before the assembled Wainwrights. Successful delegation required confidence. “Help me move him.”

❦ 23

On rare occasions Hugh had received injections from Mr. Ward before, usually in the form of vitamins or the odd coagulant; as a rule Hugh only permitted painkillers during surgeries where full awareness might do more harm than good, and as his experimentation with his own limits progressed these were needed less and less. He’d never needed to be given something as potent as this. Did Mr. Ward always carry such concoctions for emergencies? That was so prescient of him!

Hugh’s thoughts were thick as tar. He couldn’t feel anything, which was to be expected, and the fact that he was fairly certain he was unconscious on top of being numb and mentally inhibited was safer for everyone else. What had happened to him? He could clearly recall spitting at the ring in the library to complete his binding circuit, just as he could remember coming to full awareness in what had originally been the chapel, and as much as he hated to admit it he could remember every thought and feeling from when his mind had not felt like his own. Such notions were what he feared most about himself, not that he ever had them; they were a potential, something he’d been warned could and would return if he kept going down the road that led to what had happened in the kennels. The thought that someone had tried to make a truth out of his inner fear was sickening. He’d tried to hurt Mr. Ward! How could he have lived with himself if he’d gone through with it?

No, no, he couldn’t let what was clearly an atypical result under the worst possible circumstances inform his everyday self. Why let something beyond his control influence his joy in who he was? He and Mr. Ward had talked about this. They would figure out what had happened to him later, after some healing sleep. If he was aware enough to think (such as he was), he could instead use that awareness to study what he’d seen and experienced, as befit a researcher who specialized in the night city itself. He certainly had a unique perspective on it now! If only the knowledge hadn’t come at the cost of at least one human life, this could have been a true breakthrough for better understanding that space beyond spaces…

But perhaps it hadn’t been beyond anything at all this time.

It struck him like a bolt from the blue: the night city had been built inside himself. And if his suspicions were correct, whoever that unfortunate had been whose death he’d felt had been its original host. The voices he’d heard in the library—almost certainly Caldecott and/or Pembroke, though Hugh would be dashed if he could tell them from any other men on the street—would need to be interviewed to know what they’d done, and how, to say nothing of Lucrecia and Perry. Hugh couldn’t let that sort of knowledge fall into the wrong hands. He’d also need to find out what had become of the previous bearer of the anomaly and whether there was anything to bury; if there wasn’t, then they could still hold a proper funeral no matter how heavy the casket. Mr. Ward was from a fishing village, after all, and the sea was forever hungry. He’d know the right way to do it.

Was this a dream he was having, then? That would make sense. Hugh couldn’t do anything tangible until the sedative worked its way through his system, and since it was a sedative Mr. Ward had brewed to bring him down that would no doubt take a while. The intangible, though, might be more within his ability to influence.

Hugh concentrated as best he could and felt for the ragged ends of the space that was never meant to be part of his own inner world. Such a nasty thing! How could it hope to have a symbiotic relationship with a host whose personality suited it so poorly? Best that he rid himself of it, let it try to induce poor behavior in him again. In the waking world he was a lump of meat, immobile and unaware, but here? Here he still had his teeth and his claws, and he was no stranger to chewing away that which he no longer needed. The last time he’d unmade a night city there had been tidy tethers to sever. This time he’d simply get a touch more personal.

❦ 24

Extricating Mr. Wainwright from the chapel had been difficult for reasons other than his size. The size was a part of it, of course, as he hadn’t become some strange new thing when the doors of reason had fallen from their hinges, and his taller height had a good deal of mass to it despite his overall sinewy build; Aubrey had never moved Mr. Wainwright without the latter being at his smaller size and generally willing (if not always fully able) to help stagger in the desired direction. Also a problem was how none of the other Wainwrights nor their staff knew what to make of his many joints. Mr. Wainwright had shredded his handsome suit somewhere between the library and the chapel—quite a shame, as he’d always liked that one, and had only been able to wear it out a few times since Aubrey finished its alterations earlier that same season—which had required Aubrey to remove his own coat and drape it across Mr. Wainwright’s more private anatomy. The poor man was already rendered undignified by circumstance; it was the least Aubrey could do for him.

After much pulling, shoving, and fetching of wheelbarrows later, the sedated bulk of Mr. Wainwright lay in bed once more, now in a properly-sized nightshirt and breeches. The dressing had not come easily. Aubrey had banished the family from the room to give Mr. Wainwright his privacy, which had meant he’d needed to handle all the angles himself, and even with his muscles gone all slack it was not always a simple thing to fold Mr. Wainwright in a desired direction. At least tucking him in was something with which Aubrey had more practice. The goodnight kiss might have struck an outside observer as ghoulish, as Mr. Wainwright was hardly aware enough to perceive it, but there were a great many things Aubrey did that were all about the principle of the thing as opposed to who all was around to witness them. The secret arts were all about good intent paired with correct action. So was being a good companion.

In spite of Mr. Wainwright’s size he was greatly diminished. His ears, usually so expressive, lay dully against the pillow, their tooth-studded curves neither perked with interest, nor slicked back in dismay, nor even relaxed with sleep. His hair fell limp and straight across his shoulders, bereft of its usual curl. He’d rested, unmoving, ever since being manhandled into bed, and yet the pillowcase about his snout was completely dry. Never did his many fingers twitch or his many eyelids flutter. Had his tangled rib cage not risen and fallen in slow, soft breaths he would have resembled some esoteric museum piece waiting for an expert to debunk its veracity. Aubrey remained at his side throughout.

Some of it was surely the sedative’s doing. Mr. Wainwright had been in dismay, after all; the entire point of administering it to him was to bring his thrashing brain to a stop so he could piece himself back together from a neutral state. A wise handler knew the purpose of every tool in their kit. The concern was how those few times before that Mr. Wainwright had been sedated were for basic surgeries. They’d taken the sting away while Aubrey attended to him with scalpel and suture, but Mr. Wainwright had never been under so intensely, favoring a drowsy sort of consciousness; many times he’d even insisted on being helpful during the procedures, passing tools and angling mirrors for Aubrey’s convenience. All those times before, however, had been paired with a typical dosage and admixture. He’d never been injected with so much.

Mr. Wainwright’s exuberant regeneration normally cleansed toxins from his blood in a matter of hours (a detail that came in rather handy for a man as fond of wine as he), and yet the clock had struck thrice more since he’d been put to bed with no sign of change. Aubrey never moved from his chair the entire time. He might have sat there until long past the early summer sunrise had a knock not come at the door. With a long look at Mr. Wainwright’s drawn and sickly features, Aubrey stroked the side of one massive hand before pushing himself to his feet to see who was making a fuss at such an hour.

“It’s Olivia,” said Olivia from the hallway. The way the floorboards creaked, she would need to be leaning heavily forwards, eager as one of her uncle’s hounds at the scent of rabbit.

Aubrey didn’t open the door more than the crack he had. “The professor is not receiving visitors,” he said.

“I know he’s not well,” she replied. “I just want to know how he’s doing.”

“Poorly. Please let him rest.” Aubrey made to close the door again but Olivia seized the handle with surprising strength, keeping the sliver of visibility between them in place. She was fuming now.

“He is my brother, and I care for him,” she said in the tight, too-loud voice of someone trying not to let all of their emotions burst through at once. “I have the right to see him!”

Aubrey regarded her with dispassion. “Where was that care when he needed it?”

“I’m right here!”

He shook his head. “Not now. I mean where was that sororal concern when he was a younger man? Where was it when his woes gave way to triumphs? You seemed happy to forget Professor Wainwright was alive at all until he was dropped in your lap again, and after all those years of silence you cannot seem to understand why he isn’t scrambling for what scraps of affection you might deign to throw him.”

Olivia gaped. “Who are you to say such things to me, Ward?”

“I am his physician, officially appointed by the society, and his companion of nearly as much time, that is who.” 

“Yes, very good, you’re my brother’s pet,” said Olivia. “I still don’t see where you think it gives you the right to address me so.”

The corner of Aubrey’s mouth twitched for but a moment. “You think I’m the professor’s property? Interesting.” He then glared over his spectacle frames at her. “Miss Olivia, for his sake I have been as patient with you and your kin far beyond my usual limits, and even now it is my respect for him that has me address you with courtesy. All the same, he is my charge. I cannot help but be concerned for him in the context of those who claim interest in his well-being despite no prior evidence to the contrary, and no amount of courtesy or lack thereof shall change this.” Sometimes people only paid attention when the subtextual was made textual, and so Aubrey continued: “The professor has solemnly sworn to never take a human life, and to approach any altercation with another person with the goal of causing minimal harm. I have no such qualms.”

Olivia’s frown deepened. “Is that a threat?”

“It is a statement of fact, Miss Olivia.”

Her expression went dark, then relaxed as lightness and softness returned to her demeanor. “If you won’t let me see him, will you at least explain more of what’s happened? I keep asking people but no one will tell me anything.”

It was easier to speak with the Wainwrights when they could forget their own nobility for a moment and address Aubrey as a human being. He adjusted his spectacles to a less malevolent angle before replying to her. “At this time, it is my belief that Professor Wainwright was an unwilling ancilla to a more longer-running affair, itself the cause of the anomaly that caused trouble for your staff and the baronet himself. There was a death this night that I suspect was the previous linchpin for that same affair. In need of replacement, they ensnared him, and saw that he was rendered out of his mind in such a fashion that only a forceful jolt to his psyche and extended bed-rest will be able to reverse those strange damages.”

The piece of Olivia visible through the door looked puzzled. “Why brother Hugh, though?” she asked. “Why not any of us? He’s…he has his condition, yes, but what made him a prime choice and not someone who’s lived here longer, and more recently?”

“Likely because he was the most emotionally vulnerable, to say nothing of the one most likely to track any supernatural footprints left behind. I dare say they counted on the latter. He’s good at following even the faintest of trails so long as he has a hint of the nature of his quarry.”

“Emotionally vulnerable? How so?”

Aubrey sighed. “It is partially my fault. I am keenly aware of the professor’s history, and we both knew that returning to this place would bring with it no small strain, but because of his progress elsewhere I carelessly assumed he’d require no additional tools to handle whatever woes might befall him during his visit. By now he can speak of things from a distance with limited discomfort. More fool me for assuming this would work the same when confronted with the very place the inciting incident occurred, and with outside interference, at that.” He ran a hand through his hair self-consciously. “I have already begun to revise my treatment notes to better address this flaw.”

Olivia twitched; she clearly wanted to pace while talking, but insisted—perhaps wisely—on keeping Aubrey from closing the door in her face. “But what happened?

“That I cannot say, not until Professor Wainwright reclaims control of his faculties,” said Aubrey. “One minute I saw him perform a basic hunter’s task, then the next he was howling down the chapel. I have only guesses and hypotheses as to why he was targeted so, and even fewer for how it was done, given my limited personal experience. All I can say is that I believe I know who the suspects are.” He pulled a notebook from his coat and held it up to where Olivia could see. The page was covered in notes inspired by the society papers he’d requisitioned; his handwriting, even when using a blocky pencil, was immaculate. “For your safety, I shan’t go into further detail until the professor and I can speak with the alleged culprits in person.”

“Fitting that criminals might get to see my own brother before I do,” said Olivia, sourly.

“You’ve waited years, Miss Olivia. You can wait a little while more.”

She looked away, for once permitting herself to look slightly ashamed. “I suppose I must. You’ve already implied he’s not going to be speaking to me for a while.”

“Until he comes to, the professor cannot even make water on his own, much less engage in conversation. You’ll need to bide your time if you wish to speak as grown siblings.”

“So he’s helpless?”

Aubrey glanced back at the bed, whose curtains did not move. “As I’ve ever seen him, I’m afraid.”

“That’s all we needed to know,” said Olivia as she released her grip on the door handle and stepped out of sight. “Take him away.”

Before Aubrey could throw the latch the door burst open, completely failing to wake Mr. Wainwright; Olivia stood there, another candlestick in hand, but while she’d been a fierce and living door-stop it hadn’t been she who charged past. Two men, one dark of hair and one blond and mustachioed, hurried towards him with intent, and Aubrey threw himself between them and Mr. Wainwright’s still-sleeping figure behind the bed-curtains. It turned out that this was unnecessary. The scoundrels’ target wasn’t Mr. Wainwright at all, as they instead tackled Aubrey to the ground in a shower of loose notebook pages.

“Clean those up,” said Olivia. “We can’t give brother Hugh a trail to follow, Ward said as much himself.”

The one with the mustache trussed and gagged Aubrey with the speed of a professional abductor while his darker-haired conspirator picked up the torn pages. “Where should these go, Miss Olivia?” he asked her, spreading them out like a fan.

“It doesn’t matter, just not all over the blasted floor! I know there’s a rubbish bin in here. Mix them in with some of the spare paper on the desk so they’re harder to tell apart. This one’s a writer type, it won’t look out of place. He’s likely another practitioner, too, so you can’t afford to be careless.”

“Done and dusted, miss.”

Aubrey was not a small man—nor a very large one, to speak truthfully—and his corset did no small amount of shaping when it came to his silhouette, but all the same the mustachioed dastard had little trouble rolling him up in a carpet and tossing him over one shoulder. He couldn’t reach his pockets. He couldn’t reach much of anything, especially when the rug-muffled voices of the men and Olivia changed from clipped but intense speech to whispers that carried through the hallway through which they now carried him. The door closed behind them on a room empty of all but Mr. Wainwright.

The curtains never so much as twitched the entire time.

❦ 25

Hugh awoke to a room that was dark and cold. His head swirled like scum atop a whirling sewage-pool. What time was it? He peeked through the bed-curtains to see early morning light struggling to pass from the windows to the floor; given Hugh’s solar allergies, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. What was was what a mess had been made of the desk where he’d been working on his poem. Had Mr. Ward been working while Hugh slept? That seemed fitting, given his character, but Mr. Ward loathed to leave a mess unkempt, as he claimed it made him look incompetent as a housekeeper. Even the most enthused dissections saw every tool cleaned and every bit of extracted tissue organized with care once he was no longer in the throes of scientific ecstasy. Mr. Ward should have been awake at this hour, and he never would’ve let the fire burn all the way out in a still-occupied chamber, much less one where he’d apparently been so busy. Hugh was overcome with an immediate curiosity.

First things first: he was in no condition to coordinate himself at this size, so he relaxed and condensed himself to a more manageable height. This left him clad in clothes that did not fit to such a degree it would’ve made for quite the laugh had circumstances been different. It took some wiggling, which was not easy given how Hugh could barely crab-claw his hands around objects in his current state, but he was able to wrestle out of the too-big sleepwear and into something a bit more comfortable. It didn’t feel very romantic to leap to the (presumed) rescue in little more than slippers and a dressing gown, granted, and he’d have questions to answer if anyone spotted him in the halls in such a state; the alternative, however, was to either go in nothing at all, which was wholly out of the question, or to try to put on one of his usual outfits, which he dared not attempt until he once more possessed anything resembling manual dexterity, and so it made the most sense for him to be comfortable while seeking to preserve his modesty.

After some embarrassing locomotion that would’ve made the average inch-worm laugh at his efforts, Hugh made it to the desk. There was his poetry, and there was a quick list of his symptoms in Mr. Ward’s handwriting, but what was all this in the bin? Hugh dug through it. Some of the pages were drafts of poetry even worse than those he’d left out, some were blank, and some were notebook sheets like those in Mr. Ward’s seemingly endless supply of little tomes. He glanced over one of these latter pages, and then another, and then a third. They were all nonsense. Oh, they looked compelling at first blush, as they were written out as neat as could be just like Mr. Ward’s actual notes. The trick was in paying attention to what they actually said: great heaps of meaningless jargon, formulae that contradicted one another, little diagrams of nothing, and facts about the investigation Hugh knew were untrue. Mr. Ward was not the sort of person to make more work for himself without reason, so if these were in the bin, they were willfully planted there. Mr. Ward was the sort who was always ready for treachery, sometimes to the point of self-parody, that was so…and yet, why would he have written up all these pages, without telling Hugh, only to crumple them all up in the bin with a bundle of unrelated papers? It didn’t add up. Or rather, it didn’t add up if one assumed he’d left them there himself.

So, then, Mr. Ward was likely leaving one of his coded messages again, and potentially via having someone else’s hand deliver it. Dear oh dear, was Hugh’s head even clear enough for cryptography? He could remember their usual ciphers, of course (always such handy things to have when he needed to spend a week or two at the academy for workshops), and none of those plugged into the pages. That meant looking for something else. Between Mr. Ward and the house, Hugh was usually kept well-enriched with all manner of puzzles; Martlethead Court’s oppressively normal construction had left Hugh hungry for a proper enigma, so at least this would give him something to focus on as he lurched out from the depths of his own drug-addled head.

What else was out of place in the room? Now that he knew to look the answer was so obvious: Mr. Ward would never have tolerated tracked dirt like that for long, and the carpet Hugh had knelt upon to adore him was nowhere to be found. Someone else had been here! That they’d vanished with Mr. Ward without first slitting Hugh’s throat in his sleep was the confusing part. Hugh had been helpless as a lamb! If they wanted society men out of the equation, it would’ve been the perfect opportunity; Hugh himself, sworn protector of humanity as he was, would have faced no small temptation if offered a similar arrangement. Mr. Ward was everything to Hugh, but what use did he have to someone who neither shared his household nor paid his wages?

Oh. Oh no. If they couldn’t get their night city to stick to Hugh, were they going for a second attempt?

A terrible feeling ripped through his head, not quite a headache but still bearing teeth of its own. That was not how a happy reality felt. Hugh could have sworn he had shredded the night city someone had stuffed inside of him while still trapped in his own dreamscape. Had he missed a part? Were there more of them? There was no time for lollygagging; questionably agile or no, he needed to find Mr. Ward and whoever had left the dirt in the guest room, and every second spent looking for further context risked costing Mr. Ward his life.

Hugh staggered through the hallways. His shoulder dragged along the wall as he struggled to support his own weight; every inch of him felt leaden, and the familiar ease with which he could scurry across even the most hostile of architecture was lost to him. Usually he was a jolly drunk, finding merriment in the fruit of the vine before coming around to sobriety at a comfortable pace, but his current state felt like every single crapulent morning he’d never had to experience was surging forth for revenge. He could scarcely move, but that hardly mattered; something was wrong again, something beyond the realm of the natural, and as a society man it was his duty to see that such abnormality caused no further harm. Finding Mr. Ward was so natural a goal atop this that it could go unsaid.

Where were the servants? If it had still been nighttime when he’d stumbled out of bed that would have been one thing, but it was already past sunup, and the hour should have seen some manor staff out and about. Where were the boot-boys going from door to door to clean shoes? Where were the ladies’ maids bringing clean water and juice to bedrooms? Hugh knew he wasn’t somehow in a reflection, or a night city, or any other place, which made the lack of people that much eerier. Time felt soupy. At least the trail was easy to follow, as even after the stray dirt had exhausted itself from the miscreant’s boots, Hugh had picked up enough of a lead to manage the rest of the way on his own.

His pursuit took him out onto the lawn, past the coach-houses, past the stables, and to a gardening out-building he’d picked through a few days before. No wonder there was dirt to be found: the whole of the grounds were covered in mud, and one could scarcely step off the cobbled paths for a second before being mired  halfway up the calves. Hugh didn’t allow himself to worry about what his slippers must look like by then. Instead he lurched—stealthily—towards a side window, straining his ears as he fought to keep out of sight. Sure enough, there were voices inside, and they sounded an awful lot like the ones from the mirror library.

“Come on, then, Ward,” said the voice he’d heard first. Pembroke, perhaps? It had been but a few hours ago yet already felt like the better chunk of a lifetime. “You’re a man of science, aren’t you? Why won’t you help us with a little research of our own?”

“It’d be sure to get your name in all the broadsheets,” taunted the second voice from the library. That one lined up with spoken names a little better: it was Caldecott.

“Yes, yes, he’s right,” said Pembroke-enough-for-these-purposes. “That’s what you want, isn’t it? Fame and glory. The office is abuzz with news about you and your sad little quest for recognition. Still no title for the industrious whoreson, they say! Still no one to kiss his cheek and say he’s such a clever lad! We’ve heard your work gets more radical by the day, Ward. What won’t you do for a little piece of paper with a ribbon on it?”

Mr. Ward (and there was no mistaking his voice, no matter how poorly Hugh was feeling) replied with familiar snarling serenity. “You are welcome to untie these bonds and find out.”

Caldecott cackled. “Do you hear that, Pembroke? We’re being threatened by a dollop of meringue that’s escaped its pie. If we aren’t careful, he might threaten us with a fistful of cotton.”

“How dreadful, I’m terrified,” said Pembroke with an affectation so broad that it would have embarrassed every single stage actor Hugh knew. Pembroke was more correct than he knew; if Mr. Ward was lunging at someone with a wad of cotton in one hand, there were most definitely unpleasant chemicals soaked into it.

“Really, now,” said Caldecott, “this would go so much easier for everyone if you’d simply agree to help us with our little project, researcher to researcher.”

Mr. Ward was adamant. “I will do no such thing. Even if I agreed with your foolish desires, a mortal frame cannot support such a terrible weight.”

“Ah, but if any could do so, surely it’d be that of a man who refuses to die!”

“Shut up, the lot of you,” said Olivia. Olivia? How many people were packed in there? She made for at least four.

Lucrecia (that was five of them, now!) scoffed. “I’m surprised you didn’t just club him over the head and drop him in the river,” she said. “He’s only hard to kill because people keep succumbing to overcomplications.”

“You’re the one who said you wanted brother Hugh to suffer,” said Olivia. Was that how Lucrecia truly felt? Hugh was having a bad enough time that morning from pressing himself into wet grass without hearing just how badly the family who’d abandoned him still wished him misery. “He’ll mope and cry if he loses his precious little companion—” and here Olivia likely tried to pinch at Mr. Ward’s cheek, thanks to the click of enamel on enamel and the hurried brush of sleeve fabric being pulled away to avoid being bitten, “—but it won’t be the same as having someone he loves ruined. Just as Uncle Andrew was.”

Two women’s voices and a previously silent man’s (who sounded like Perry, which made for six people all packed into the same little structure, which had to be well on its way to being a sauna by now) all murmured to each other in agreement. Hugh felt very silly for lying still and silent, dressed in his increasingly sopping nightclothes, and letting such talk happen without so much as a word crosswise, but waiting in unfavorable conditions for the right moment was all part of being a hunter. He’d been through worse. Perhaps not as personal, granted, but objectively there had been worse. Which instances those had been would have to wait for another time for him to evaluate.

Something is going to have to be done about brother Hugh,” said Olivia. “I’ve been trying to keep him poisoned this entire time, but they’re either switching out his plates and glasses when I’m not looking or whatever is in those damned tonics of his is counteracting the toxins.”

“Are you sure you aren’t just using the wrong plants?”

Please, Perry, some of us actually do our research,” she said with a sniff. Poison? Mr. Ward had mentioned finding and disposing of something suspicious during his kitchen visits, but Hugh had never suspected it had been for him. Had she been referencing that out-of-date manual to try and bring Hugh low? How awful! He doubted the toxicants were solely responsible for his moods, but with how severely being at the manor had drained him, perhaps they’d contributed in their own way. Olivia continued: “Maybe Ward here was making antidotes every night. You’re the sort who’d do that, wouldn’t you?” Mr. Ward did not dignify this with a reply. “At any rate, if you can’t get brother Hugh restrained, you’d best be ready to answer questions.”

“We’ll slit his throat before whatever’s in his veins works itself out,” said Pembroke. “If we use his own claws, we can say it was an act of self-destruction.”

The three Wainwrights made awkward sounds. Had then not been threatening his companion and collaborating with some clearly dangerous men Hugh might have been touched by their restraint. “This isn’t about murder,” said Perry. “It’s about helping nature take its course.”

“I thought it was about revenge?” asked Caldecott.

“He wasn’t your uncle, Mr. Caldecott,” said Lucrecia. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Pembroke scoffed. “I understand that you were just now asking us to kill Ward, here. That’s plenty murderous, Miss Lucrecia.”

Nobody seemed to want to address that statement, even as Mr. Ward glared daggers at them and Hugh fretted from his reflected hidey-hole.

Olivia was the first to change the subject: “Is father back from town yet?”

“Not yet,” said Perry. “His best horse’s stall is still empty. Damn his eyes, he was gone before I could say a thing to him, so it’s only a matter of time before we’re found out.”

“Then we’d best get back to the manor while the blasted rite of inertia holds,” said Lucrecia. “You two, clean up these loose ends like we discussed. Perry and I are going to have a lot of papers to forge if we want to see this mess through without ending up ruining our family’s reputation.”

They were about to leave? Oh dear, Hugh simply could not afford to be seen while Mr. Ward was held in such a compromising position. Who knew what might be done to either of them? He took in his surroundings: there were trees, but he was unlikely to be able to make it to them in time; there was another building, but that was even further out than the trees; there was the folly, but even in his best shape he’d need a running start to make it that far. What else was there? Hugh glanced down at the muddy ground and sighed with relief. There, right next to him, at a very inconspicuous angle, was a puddle, and the morning light made its surface as smooth and perfect as a mirror. He hauled himself through it just as the door opened. Now he would have to wait and see what happened from within the reflection, and if luck was with him, nothing else would find him until then.

While Hugh had gotten himself plenty filthy on the way out he’d had the presence of mind to will his steps to leave no further trace, and so when his siblings stepped out into the sunshine there were no trails to see but their own. Hugh peeked at them from inside dewdrops and off the metallic sides of tools propped up out of the rain. There weren’t any other surprise Wainwrights inside, now that he could dare to check: the unnatural mirror-mannequins of Caldecott, Pembroke, and Mr. Ward were all that stood there. That made for part of the threat safely offset. Whatever was Hugh to do about the other two, though?

He let himself in through the mirror door (this had no effect on the original door for reasons which required a lot of lecture time to explain to his students) and surveyed the scene. There was Mr. Ward, his lenses askew and his hair a fright, glaring out from where they’d tied him to a pretty outdoor chair being refurbished by the actual operators of the gardeners’ building, and there were Caldecott and Pembroke, whichever one was which, putting a gag back on Mr. Ward to prevent future maulings. Seeing Mr. Ward’s reflected self was uncanny, as Hugh’s brain kept picking out that the little strand of hair that fell across his forehead was meant to go in the other direction, or a subtle difference in coloration was meant to be on the other side, or countless other little things. It would be nice to be back in the company of the real thing once this was all over with. For now, Hugh would continue to watch and listen.

“Why haven’t you stuffed the thing into him yet?” asked the one whose voice Hugh knew as Caldecott. The words were right-side-’round (and why would they not be, as it was images that mirrors reflected, not sound) so Hugh was able to seat his dew-drenched self on a nearby workbench to eavesdrop. The new angle also meant he could see the big brass spike sunk into the floor at the rear of the shed, previously concealed by hanging pieces of burlap; the position of the tied-but-slack ropes and empty clothing at its base were an unfortunate reminder of what all was needed to make an artificial night city. Hugh tried not to let his eyes linger. That probably explained what had become of the agents’ assistant after all this time. What a horrible way to lose one’s last breath.

Pembroke grimaced. “There’s nothing there?”


“Did I mince my words? I said there’s nothing there!”

Caldecott was having none of it. “Preposterous. We both felt the quake from the place it was supposed to be, even if the rest of these torch-wavers couldn’t.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” said Pembroke as he kept his distance from Mr. Ward. “We got an echo and a general ache-and-moaning, but my mirror-glass hasn’t so much as hinted as where the pocket is anymore. It’s not like when that simpleton died and the thing went wild, either, it’s just gone.

“It’s supposed to be tethered to the prodigal Wainwright.”

“Well, it isn’t!” Pembroke pulled the cover from a silvery disc seated on an easel which Hugh just barely avoided being seen by. “Look at this, it’s just us here. No blackness, no mist, no strange buildings, nothing.”

This failed to impress Caldecott. “Well it can’t have vanished, not after all the work we put into keeping it from falling apart,” he said, cocking a thumb at the spike.

Pembroke knelt down and squinted at his own reflection. It squinted back. There wasn’t anything otherworldly about it if one didn’t know about Hugh hiding there, and Hugh had taken care not to stay anywhere he might be seen. “Can’t it? You and I both know we’re grasping at straws, here.”

The time, at last, was right. Hugh, stepping sideways into position, reached out from the mirror-glass and seized Pembroke by the collar. Pembroke had just enough time to make a strangled sound of surprise before Hugh pulled him forcibly into the silvered surface; forehead struck reflection, shattering it, and Pembroke crumpled to the ground. Hugh danced backwards just in time to keep from losing his hands. That was one of them handled, but what of the other?

Caldecott’s mirror twin bellowed and flailed, stamping on the mirror shards as though that would be enough to keep Hugh out. Where could Hugh emerge, though? He couldn’t rely on his usually keen reflexes while still shaking off enough sedative to bring down a rhinoceros, so that ruled out shimmers from the sun through the windows. All the good puddles were outside, and as Caldecott had barred the door the moment Hugh had knocked the sense from Pembroke it would be much trickier to get back in that way. The spike was right out, as no creature dared pass through that much brass unless they were truly desperate. Perhaps the shine on Mr. Ward’s spectacles? No, not with Caldecott menacing him so…oh! Oh no! Caldecott was not just menacing Mr. Ward but making to take him as even more of a hostage than he already was! Hadn’t Mr. Ward had a hard enough time of it that morning?

As Hugh scrambled for an answer Caldecott raised his fist to strike at Mr. Ward. There, on his hand! That was a silver society ring, no question about it, and while Hugh preferred to work with larger, stiller surfaces, desperate times called for desperate measures. How could he call himself a jägermeister if he did not take what opportunity presented itself? Silver was just better at this sort of thing than other materials. He steeled his nerves, popped up onto the balls of his feet, and wrenched himself out of the ring’s shining band with such force that he sent Caldecott staggering and himself tottering to and fro from the exertion. That was one step. Now for the next.

Hugh fell to all fours and gathered what little strength he had left, working more from his muscles’ memory than their current ability, then sprang at Caldecott with hands outstretched. Even in his weakened state there was still several stone of him to contend with! He’d accounted for his reduced speed and might as best he could when angling himself, which bore fruit: though not a direct hit, he was still able to fling himself at the suspect—not his prey, the suspect—with enough force to knock the wind from the knave’s lungs. They fell together like a pile of laundry.

Some scuffling later and Hugh was able to pin Caldecott long enough to bind him with the now very wet socks he’d worn with his slippers. This done, he saw to Mr. Ward. Or at least attempted to; it turned out that jumping on another man and then having to remember how to tie knots had taken more out of him than he’d anticipated.

“Are you hurt?” he said, his words slurring and imprecise like a man with a bee-stung tongue.

Mr. Ward spat and flexed his jaw once the hateful gag fell away. “I shall tell you truthfully, professor, I have been better.”

“So these two are the ones who—” began Hugh as he tried to free Mr. Ward’s wrists, only to receive a blow to his back that knocked the wind from his lungs just as it knocked the whole of him to the mud-tracked ground.

“Useless thing!” said Caldecott. It seemed the knots Hugh had tied were about as effective at keeping a grown man in place as any other pair of knotted wet socks, which was to say not very. He brandished a trowel in one hand. Its edge was bright with blood; judging from the pain and the smell Hugh could recognize it as his own. Caldecott sneered at him. “Without your bestial tricks you can do nothing against me, you vile creature.”

Hugh attempted a witty retort but could only manage a spit-sodden mumble. Was that pink mixed in with his saliva as he burbled? Caldecott must have struck a lung. A careless society lout, getting a solid hit on a hunter of any rank? How embarrassing. That he was now tangled up in his dressing gown did not make things look any better for Hugh. What would his past self—the one who’d freed Mr. Ward from a burning house and protected him from a rampaging monster, the one who’d had all manner of bits ripped off and reattached without losing the pep in his step, the one who’d hidden in shadows and traipsed through museums after rogue practitioners, that past self, not the sad thing the society had dumped in Mr. Ward’s lap and told him to feed—think of him now? One could scarcely make use of a willing distraction if said distraction was still half-trussed, to say nothing of how Caldecott clearly and inescapably had his full attention fixed upon Hugh.

“It’s just business, you know,” said Caldecott as he tossed the razored trowel from hand to hand like a back-alley tough. He gave Hugh a fierce kick in the side. Caldecott fancied himself back-alley bully, too, by the feel of it. “The other Wainwrights paid us more to make a mess than the society ever would to fix it. We’d sweep up the bits once they had their fun breaking you, write up some notes, then get the lot published in a paper or two a few years later. We’d be heroes of the field. What’s that saying, the one about breaking eggs in the kitchen? You two, you’re simply collateral.”

Had he pointed to Hugh and Pembroke just then? Not Mr. Ward? How very interesting. “Is that what became of your assistant, too?” asked Hugh, still unintelligible.


“I said, is that the fate of the poor man who died last night? Collateral?”

Caldecott frowned. “If you’re trying to cast a spell on me, Wainwright, you’d be better off trying to grow your claws back out. This ring I wear is proofed against all manner of witchcraft,” —who in this day and age still called it that? some people were just helplessly backwards, honestly!— “and no matter what tricks you’ve got in that muddy sleeve of yours, I will—urk!” He seized up and crumpled, revealing where Mr. Ward stood behind him, one of the gardeners’ shovels held in both hands. Bits of the same earth that adorned the digging head now dotted Caldecott’s hair. He was now just as out as Pembroke, and quite possibly concussed. Mr. Ward made no hurry to see to his injuries.

“It seems that you were the distraction for a change, professor,” he said, and Hugh was certain he saw a hint of satisfaction on Mr. Ward’s stonily disheveled face.

❦ 26

One thing the Martlethead society cell was good for was quickly processing miscreants that had no business being left to the constabulary or the Wainwright family as a whole. The baronet had been true to his word about raising the hue and cry, which had resulted in him riding back to the manor with a transport carriage in tow; Aubrey had provided Caldecott and Pembroke proper medical attention for their respective head traumas (albeit only after an impassioned, if slightly incoherent, plea from Mr. Wainwright) before handing them over. The Wainwright siblings who’d acted against their brother were far easier to scoop up, being more embarrassed to have been caught in their conspiracy and scolded by the baronet than what they actually did. After tending to Mr. Wainwright’s own wound and securing a promise from him that he wouldn’t drown in his own blood in the interim—which had required another trip to the guest room and back, of course—Aubrey had returned to town with the carriage and its bounty of persons of interest.

After much ado Aubrey found himself in an unfamiliar office and speaking with the cell’s primary society contact, one Matilda Leeks.

“So they’re all involved in this mess?” she asked him.

He nodded. “While it was your own agents who actually did the deed, it was the Wainwrights themselves—some of them, at any rate—who sponsored and guided it. For the sake of Jägermeister Wainwright I should probably request they not be eliminated.”

“Only probably?”

“You know me by reputation if not in person, Ms. Leeks. I trust you can come to your own conclusions.”

Leeks smirked. “They brew them ruthless where you come from, don’t they, Mr. Ward.”

 “I cannot possibly hope to comment.”

“Wouldn’t expect you to. Would you instead kindly tell me what in God’s magnificent name was going on at the manor?”

In the case of the garden-variety practitioner, the process went as follows: said practitioner would be delivered to the nearest safehouse to where they were subdued, their accused crimes would be documented, the subduing agents would be debriefed, damage control would be evaluated as necessary, and due process would be arranged. These were gross simplifications, of course, as each step of that procedure could easily encompass dozens of smaller steps, which was why Aubrey did not involve himself beyond the most basic level whenever possible. Mr. Wainwright handled the collections and they both contributed to records and that was usually the end of it, barring any instances that might require one or both of them to stand witness in a private society court. There was too much to do to get any more entangled in the web of bureaucracy than that.

Alas, Caldecott and Pembroke were hardly garden-variety. They’d been Martlethead men (the town, not the manor) for some time before their more recent exploits, which was how they’d been given such leniency in the first place, and all the ways they’d compromised the society had unspeakably deep roots. One of them had acquired information about how to make an artificial night city from somewhere, the other had been looking into alternate places where night cities might manifest, and between the two of them and a lot of dead livestock they’d made enough strides to affix one such manifestation to the physical body of their late assistant (properly known as one Ulysses Harker, it turned out), who may or may not have been a latent polymorphic person himself. It hadn’t been stable because none of them had fully known what they were doing. It had attracted certain Wainwrights because they, much as one might be loath to admit such, halfway did. The details were still murky. Ask any two conspirators and one would get three answers, but overall the agents had hoped for recognition, whereas the Wainwright siblings had sought to either imprison Hugh or rip out his monstrous self to leave a broken man behind, and they didn’t seem terribly concerned with the repercussions. So long as there was one less hunter walking the streets, any solution would do. A pity poor Harker had been the only faceless sort involved; people who came across unspeakable information on their own were so much easier to neutralize than those with troubling details like recognized society initiations, living family members, and titles.

As far as Aubrey’s personal investigations had implied, the idea of observing a moving night city had arisen before anything to do with Mr. Wainwright ever came to light, but the moment monsters started leaking out and Harker started to show signs of strain, a strange sort of revenge story formed. The absent Uncle Andrew (still on holiday in the countryside with his dogs, according to his regular letters) had the writ of restraint written against Mr. Wainwright, and writs contained such powerful invocations related to place and time that it stood to reason it might interact with Pembroke and Caldecott’s work. Under Olivia’s supervision they’d made enough of a mess to merit calling in Mr. Wainwright, and thanks to Lucrecia and Perry there had always been places to hide evidence and ways to acquire new supplies of questionable legality. So many gears had been turning at once that it was only a matter of time before cracks appeared in the foundation. By the time Mr. Wainwright and Aubrey had arrived, dutiful souls like the Crowe siblings had already compiled all manner of interesting contradictions.

It didn’t have to have been Aubrey or Mr. Wainwright who’d solved things. Thankfully for most parties involved, they had simply been the most efficient.

Leeks took her own notes as Aubrey said these things to her over the course of a long, long conversation. The room was hot and there was only so much water and lemonade could do; as words piled atop words the both of them wilted further. Aubrey’s own outfit was still besmirched with mud and carpet fibers. With luck he could request a ride back to Martlethead Court, as well, as any gentleman’s gentleman who cared about their work would know it wouldn’t do to linger in public in such a state. There was still so much work to be done.

“So what became of their actual research?” asked Leek as time for lunch drew near, which was a devil of a thing to contemplate given how Aubrey hadn’t even had breakfast. Only the lemonade had kept his stomach from gurgling the whole time through. “You brought us the remnants of their mirror-glass but none of what they wrote down about their dread process.”

Aubrey had burned what papers he’d found himself after making copies for his own purposes. Escorting Mr. Wainwright back to the guest room—with the purloined research tucked into Aubrey’s coat—hadn’t been a solely humanitarian matter. People excused all manner of delays when medical procedures were involved. “Destroyed when Jägermeister Wainwright interfered, I suspect,” he said. “Once he’s feeling better, we’ll need to perform a better sweep of the manor grounds and the Wainwright family storehouses here in town. Did either of the society suspects have offices here, too?”

“We’ve already begun to turn them upside down. I’ve got Mr. Crowe on it as we speak.”

Aubrey nodded. There was no confusion as to which Crowe she meant. “Excellent. I would like to speak with him before I leave.”

“Of course.” Leeks rubbed at her hand, which had been taking dictation nearly the entire time Aubrey had been in her office. “This won’t be finished overnight. How long will you and the jägermeister be staying near Martlethead town?”

“A few days more,” said Aubrey, truthfully.

“Will it be possible to contact you after that, in the event something comes to light?”

“Certainly, Ms. Leeks.” He gave her the address of the house on Kettle Street—or rather, one of its myriad postal dead drops, as unlike Mr. Wainwright and his endless auction winnings deliveries Aubrey preferred being more cautious with the mail—and verified the cell’s own address and the spelling of her name in another of his myriad notebooks. They would no doubt be written many more times in the future. Affairs such as these never ended quickly.

They shook hands upon their exchange. “A shame to only speak with a handler of your caliber once the dust has settled, Mr. Ward,” said Leeks. “I’ve heard some very interesting rumors.”

“I’m sure you have. Which ones you choose to believe I will leave up to you.”

She smiled. “Spoken like a true man of the society. Follow me, please, and I’ll show you to where Crowe’s busy pulling the accused’s offices apart.”

Leeks was not mincing words when she described the state of the offices. Even from outside one could tell that every single cabinet and drawer had been thrown wide, their contents strewn everywhere in a strangely organized fashion. When they arrived Shelby Crowe was on his hands and knees with a hammer and crowbar, fervently prying up the floorboards. Going by the pile of books on the floor next to him this had been the correct thing to do. He peered up at them owlishly before recognition dawned on his face.

“Oh, it’s you, Mr. Ward! Please forgive me, I didn’t recognize you in those clothes.”

He put down his tools and straightened his posture enough to give them a proper bow. Greetings were exchanged. His cheery mood remained once Leeks left him and Aubrey alone; it seemed Crowe was the sort of person who was at his happiest when given something to do, especially if it meant utterly ruining a past colleague. Under different circumstances he and Aubrey might have been great friends. As it was, he was still eager to please, and could talk at length about each damning document he unearthed and both where and how he suspected the agents had acquired it, which dovetailed intriguingly with certain operations Mr. Wainwright tracked down during his auctioneering. Aubrey’s current notebook was going to get almost as much of a workout as Leeks’ by the end of the day.

Crowe himself had an exhaustive memory of every time the suspects’ tardiness had caused trouble for himself personally. On its own this was the sort of internal strife that was not out of place in most any business, as human beings were human beings and prone to all the failings of a mortal heart, but paired with Pembroke and Caldecott’s crimes? That would make for a court case worthy of the most lurid of cheap publications. In a just world it would encourage an audit of every single one of their superiors who had tacitly permitted this to happen; alas, a just world was the stuff of a different kind of escapist story, and so whichever maester had signed off on their reports would likely go unchallenged. So it went: the rotten core would likely never see the scraping clean that so often struck the smaller, less important society members. The society would continue to eat its young and Aubrey would endure in spite of these failings. Like Mr. Wainwright, he had learned to be patient.

Some of what Crowe had to share was not strictly in the form of scuttlebutt and contraband.

“What became of their attendant?” asked Aubrey as he skimmed some falsified budgets. “I presume his was the death that Jägermeister Wainwright observed.” It didn’t seem wise to say anything about the brass spike nor the clothes found at its base; the spike had been hidden in the storehouse for someone in Thomas’s company to come take to be melted down, and the clothing could have been anyone’s. The fewer people knew details about how one might make a night city at all, the better.

Crowe nodded. “Most likely, yes. It would match up with a previous incident we had some months ago.”

“Do tell, Mr. Crowe.”

“Well,” said Crowe, who’d returned to pulling up the flooring by then, “there was an odd-jobs sort of fellow they employed to help them with their work in the usual way an odd-jobs-doer will, one of those young initiate types who know enough to be trusted not to upend the whole society soup pot if they see something frightful, you know the type. This chap, a friend of poor Harker, worked with Caldecott and Pembroke for a matter of weeks before, to quote the official report, an incident occurred. Needless to say, sir, that incident left us with one less odd-jobs sort to go around and a mess for me to clean up. I’m always having to clean up after those two.” Another stack of pamphlets arose from the space under the floor to join its neighbors. “Or I was, I suppose. It’ll be interesting seeing if they get out of this one now that the baronet’s brood are all tangled up in it, too. Sir Peter’s a right terror when he wants to be.”

Aubrey looked up from the bookkeeping with a pensive expression. “Another death, you say? How did you report it to local authorities?”

“Natural causes, of course.”

Aubrey cocked an eyebrow. “Natural causes?”

“You cannot live without a spinal column, sir,” said Crowe with a nod. “Anything else would be unnatural.”

That was classic society meddling for you. “What surprises me is how sloppy Caldecott and Pembroke could be without getting caught,” said Aubrey.

“Oh, beastly sloppy, but by the time much could be done about it there was so much Wainwright money sloshing around that it could’ve upset the whole cell if we weren’t careful about it. You know how it is when sponsors get their feathers ruffled. Claiming that the family that helped build this town as it is in the modern day was up to no good? That’d leave feathers not so much ruffled as plucked, and my sister and I are just humble clerks, sir, we’ve no business trying to cook up a chicken. We’ve seen Sir Peter Wainwright at his worst and we didn’t care to get wrapped up in that kind of aristo trouble.”

“So you called in another Wainwright to sidestep it.”

“Goodness me, no, I just write the letters Leeks tells me to and pop them in the mail,” said Crowe, grinning from ear to ear. “I might have helped her remember the name of a certain hunter on the books, though, one with a handler of some renown, and isn’t it ever so convenient when matching last names aren’t just a humorous detail at parties?” He clucked his tongue with amusement. That Martlethead Court was ever in the eye of someone with a mind nearly as twisty as Aubrey’s was a sign that sometimes, somehow, other people could also be in a right-enough place at a right-enough time.

There were interrogations to be made, still, and clothing to launder, and lunch to sort out, and after that were dinner preparations, and in among all of this was seeing how well Mr. Wainwright was doing with regard to recuperating from his sedation and the punctured lung. There would be so very much paperwork to deal with for days to come. There would be meal records to study and tonics to count. There might even be a midday nap at some point, depending on how much of the missed hour of sleep came for Aubrey later in the day. Crowe’s influence ended outside his office, and Leeks could only go a little further out; there was no getting around that Aubrey was going to have to deal with the Wainwright family himself in the coming hours. A handler’s work truly was never done.

❦ 27

Dinner in the dining room was an awkward affair, and not solely because three of the Wainwright children were still answering questions down at the society building; the key element was that Hugh had chosen to arrive in one of his nicest surviving suits to celebrate coming to his senses and averting what could have been a horrible situation, indeed. He had also chosen to arrive at a larger than usual size for family meals. The servants kept glancing up at him every time they passed by. Hugh was quite skilled at eating in a mannerly way no matter how his mouth was shaped, and so he was neat as could be when it came time to actually feast. It would do the family good to see this side of himself now that he was no longer dealing with addled awareness.

Each course was served sequentially, in the new foreign style, which meant hot things arrived hot and cooler dishes remained cool, all dispensed by a fleet of servants from a sideboard instead of off the table itself; at home Hugh was happy with everything ending up on his plate at once, as Mr. Ward was truly sublime when it came to preparing dishes all eaten together, but he could understand how larger groups might not want to rely on platters being passed to and fro to get their supper. It certainly worked out in his favor! Keeping a plate clean was easier when they weren’t so large to begin with.

William and Thomas, easily the least interesting of Hugh’s married siblings (of which there were several), sat across from them. They didn’t seem to understand how to react to all his teeth; neither of them had been among those who’d helped Mr. Ward drag Hugh out of the chapel, or so he’d been told, so it was likely their first time seeing a creature grander than a bantam rooster so close. Even if Hugh hadn’t been seated so close to the head of the table it would’ve been difficult to ignore him! He chose to eat his peas and make pleasant conversation instead of dwelling on the looks he kept getting.

“Mr. Ward and I plan to be off on the first coach back to the city once all the trouble no longer requires us stay nearby,” he said, putting down his knife long enough to gesture with his hands, “and we’ll both be long before the midsummer’s ball, of course.”

“Is that so?” said Thomas. Judging by the way both men sat, Hugh suspected William had grabbed onto Thomas’s leg some time around when Hugh had first seated himself and had yet to let go. That was all right, then. A little excitement was good for the soul! Especially since Hugh bore no ill will towards this particular brother-in-law; one might argue he was the perfect provider of such exhilaration.

“Oh yes! Why, I am simply atrocious when it comes to dancing. I can’t possibly be embarrassing the line by tripping over my own feet in front of everyone.” Hugh put his fingertips to his snout and tittered. “Mr. Ward has kindly accompanied me to a ballroom or two in our time—there are such lovely hotels in the city, you know—but I have yet to manage anything but a galumph.” This was truer than one might have expected at first blush, as while Hugh could keep time while playing the pianoforte or singing carols during the colder months, his instincts to move as quickly and precisely as possible were notorious for pulling him off-beat. That he’d never once trodden on Mr. Ward’s shoes during such an outing was a miracle.

William patted Thomas’s hand where it kept its claw-grip on his leg. “You hear that, dearest? Brother Hugh will give us his final regards before we must bore him by introducing him to all our friends.” William always had been one of the better-spoken of the recent crop of Wainwrights.

And before Uncle Andrew returns from holiday,” added Hugh. “I wish to keep to both the letter and spirit of the writ, as a show of goodwill.”

“Lovely,” said Thomas, who by then was struggling to focus on his mock turtle soup and nothing else.

Mr. Ward appeared at Hugh’s side; after what had no doubt been some choice words exchanged, the Martlethead Court staff had finally permitted him to see to Hugh and Hugh alone during dinner. “I’ve requested to help in cleaning the kennels in preparation for your uncle’s return to the manor, professor,” he said, soft enough to pass as courteous and loud enough that Hugh knew others at the table could hear him. “It won’t do to let bad blood linger on if we have opportunity to wash away the stains.”

Was that too obvious a metaphor? Hugh didn’t know how much wordplay his relations enjoyed during their usual routine, so perhaps obvious was best here. If the implication went over everyone’s heads then Mr. Ward couldn’t say he hadn’t tried. It would be nice to do away with the stains, even if Hugh never returned, as nobody needed a reminder of him at his worst to stew over for years instead of finding new ways to live.

No one could say Hugh wasn’t willing to play along. “What a splendid idea, Mr. Ward!” he said. “I’d love to help. I can help carry water, say.”

“It would be appreciated. I shall let you know more of when to lend your aid once there is anything more to say.” His piece said, Mr. Ward stepped back to watch over dinner with the same indrawn curiosity as a raven on a fence. One could never have told he’d been rolled up in a carpet a few hours prior. That second set of livery he’d brought had been a godsend.

“A bit odd how you carry on with your valet,” said William, now enjoying the soup for himself. He dabbed at his mustache (much fuller and more luxurious than certain other mustaches Hugh had seen recently) with a napkin. “You say you take him out dancing?”

“Why, we are companions, after all,” said Hugh, brightly.

William cocked his head to the side like a dog. “As in you travel together?”

How was William, a gentleman who had preferred the company of other gentlemen his entire life, being so dense? It had to be intentional. It was impossible to imagine anything else. Hugh reminded himself to be patient; as backwards as the society circles in the city could be, more pastoral environs were less likely to challenge their denizens, and therefore the roots of misguidance could reach deep. “That and more! I have managed to cultivate a splendid relationship with the senior Wards. We’re always writing letters, and not solely about society business. I suspect they consider me something of a son-in-law.” Given how easily they referred to him as our Hugh, it was not so much a suspicion as a known fact; as William still didn’t seem to understand, Hugh felt it wisest to couch things in gentler language, just in case. It wasn’t William he’d been sent out to recover. “I care for all of them very much. Mr. Ward especially so.”

Lady Catherine, seated between Hugh and Sir Peter, sighed as though he was a naughty child trying to hide frogs in his siblings’ church clothes. “I’m sure he’s very nice, my boy, but have you considered looking for a more even match?”

“Why, if anything, mother, I’m sure he could do better than myself if he so chose! It’s an honor to be his research assistant.” Hugh finished his wine glass and licked his teeth. “I say, is there any more of this vintage to be had? It’s rather nice.”

“I was under the impression it was the other way ’round,” said Sir Peter. “The research thing, not your wine.” He and Lady Catherine both sounded very bored, which was quite the luxury for persons who’d only hours before learned that three of their children had plotted against a fourth. Did anything ever excite them? Hugh was gladder and gladder he’d found a way out of this place ages ago, even if the inciting incident was regrettable.

Hugh held out his glass for Mr. Tuttle (who, just as he’d been for what bits of Hugh’s manor-dwelling childhood he could recall, did not exactly move with urgency when it came to presenting the wine bottles, especially not with all the added years to his already venerable total) and waited until it was refilled to his liking before replying. “We work with each other, you see, since Mr. Ward has some experience and connections that I do not, but as his field is focused around better understanding my condition and its unique needs and demands—and documenting such things for future generations, of course—I am able to serve as an expert source for things that should not be left to guesses.”

Sir Peter hummed in thought. “I suppose that’s all right then,” he said, after a bit. Perhaps he had listened to any of the words he and Hugh had exchanged on the matter prior? While unlikely, stranger things had happened. “More wine here, too, if you would.”

It was going to take more than that to satisfy Lady Catherine. “That’s very nice that you work so well together, dear, but surely it’d be more convenient for you to find someone more…established?”

The way Mr. Ward was standing meant that Hugh couldn’t see his face without twisting around to take a look; it didn’t take a seer’s crystal to guess that his expression could’ve etched stone. “You won’t be able to forge much in the way of useful alliances through me, I’m afraid,” said Hugh, determined to keep his own words merry. “I’m too entrenched in specific spheres of academia to be able to keep up with all the social necessities of also being a nobleman-about-town with a second nobleman waiting at home. And that’s not even addressing the hunting!”

“Do tell?” asked Sir Peter.

“Hunting is the perfect profession for me, I’ve found. It engages me on many levels, and I am able to do good for the whole of the city with my work.” The family didn’t need to know precise details, Hugh decided, as those who had seen him in the chapel would only interpret them for the worst. And what if they tried to emulate him? He’d trained for longer than some of his relatives had been alive and could wield secret arts even some veteran practitioners couldn’t duplicate; what good would it do some industrious aunt or second cousin to seek their fortune in the night city without the ability to run on walls or leap in mid-air? Sometimes beneficial ignorance was more important than perfect accuracy.

“Good lad. Are you much for trophies?”

Timothy swagged and made a quiet wail of upset at the continued mention of hunting. “Could we perhaps not hear the details of that at the table?” asked William, fanning his crumpling husband with a napkin. “Timothy has a delicate constitution.”

“Oh, certainly, William,” said Hugh. “It’s really not so different from what father gets up to, at any rate, just on a different scale.”

“You hear that, my boy?” said Sir Peter to William. Apparently only the nebulous ideal of pursuit was enough to break him from his aspic of ennui. “Some Wainwrights know what to do when they hear the sound of the horn. You and your man should try to toughen up when the next fox-bothering comes around, hop astride a horse for a change. It’ll be good for you.”

With those words Hugh could already tell he was about to be privy to an argument that had no doubt been going on for ages, so once the servants finished trading out the current plates for new ones he focused his attention back on Lady Catherine. “Who all shall be attending the ball?” he asked her.

“You said you wouldn’t be here for it, Hugh, so I don’t see why it matters.”

“Am I not allowed to take some interest in family during a rare visit to the place of my birth?”

“I just don’t want you getting ideas about showing up…as you are,” she said.

That could mean many things—unmarried at such an advanced age, uninterested in titles beyond the society’s own accolades, carrying on with a commoner, wearing floral prints before the times at Martlethead Court had caught up with modern fashion—but Hugh suspected which one she meant most. “I do not show myself thusly outside of initiated company,” he said between bites of lemon fish. “The handsome outfit is mostly for my own benefit. We’ve found that it can help build up positive associations between the more recently-expressed of my sort and however their seconds selves might be. Some of my students have found they feel much more themselves when they can stretch out while wearing a pretty dress.” He smiled at her with both sets of jaws. “I’m grateful to be able to finally attend a family meal at this size, mother, even after all the excitement. Holding it in was threatening to give me a bit of a spiritual cramp.”

“You mean to say your current…state…isn’t due to the events of this past evening?” she asked, growing more alarmed. The gems in her hair sparkled as she took in the copiously-jointed shape of Hugh in the flesh.


Lady Catherine blanched. “Could you perhaps be…less?”

Hugh chewed his current mouthful of asparagus before replying. “I’m smaller than this much of the time already,” he said. “I’ve been so at every other meal I’ve attended. I was hoping you’d appreciate the honor of me being more open about myself, and Mr. Ward, and the progress we’ve both made since last you knew me. At the very least it’s important to acknowledge this side of who I am.”

“Don’t you worry it’s distasteful?”

“How so?” He knew whatever words out of Lady Catherine’s mouth were unlikely to be kind, even if she truly meant otherwise, but after days of walking on eggshells around her and Sir Peter, Hugh had had enough. If she was to say something terrible then she would have to come out and say it.

She put down her fork to gesture at Timothy with both hands. “Look at how much you’ve upset your brother-in-law by insisting on such a malformed manner!” cried Lady Catherine.

“I’m certain Uncle Andrew had quite the look to him when he was recovering,” said Hugh. “I hope you didn’t demand he eat elsewhere once he was feeling well enough to return to the table.”

“That’s different, Hugh.”

Hugh harrumphed through his nostril, which briefly drew the attention of the other staff and diners before they hurriedly returned to pretending he wasn’t there. “Is it, mother? We’ve both physical conditions these days. Uncle Andrew has been welcomed back and invited to return to breeding his dogs as if nothing ever happened, and yet I refrain from hiding myself once and you’re already making to send me away.”

“We’re just asking you to be a little more reasonable with how you exhibit things,” said Sir Peter, who was taking a break from bothering William and Timothy long enough to bother Hugh again. “You’ve got holes in your cheeks, my boy, and your teeth show clear through them.”

“You’ll note I still chew with my mouth closed, sir.”

“I’m glad you’ve the table manners of a four-year-old, then, but what about the rest of you?”

Hugh laced his fingers together all the way down to the elbow. “I understand it’s an odd way to live, and I shouldn’t expect it to be the first, second, or even tenth choice of anyone other than myself and Mr. Ward, but I am happy this way, father. Mr. Ward’s treatment and the house we keep together encourages me to be healthy and well on all fronts: physical, mental, and even spiritual. Under his care I have become bolder about expressing my love of my curious self, and I shall tell you truthfully, sir, I found wonder in who I am before he taught me to find joy.”

“And how do you manage your urges?” asked Sir Peter. “You’re much bigger than when we committed you to the society’s hands.”

Hugh glanced back at Mr. Ward, who had miraculously managed not to lose every ounce of composure and lunge for Sir Peter with a fork. It truly was a wonder Hugh hadn’t lost any extra family members in the night to mysterious garrote- or poison-related reasons. “Why, I have a regular intake of all manner of iron-rich foods, such as spinach and orange juice, and to compliment a balanced diet I have my anemia tonics, of course.”

“How soon until you run out of those and begin eating pigeons from the yard?”

“Can we please not discuss such subjects in front of Timothy?” asked William. Timothy himself was looking nowhere but his plate of fish and eating with a stern sense of denial.

Sir Peter ignored his eldest son’s request. “Come, now, Hugh, abandon this madness. The way you live is untenable. You need concoctions just to make it from season to season! You’d never last a whole year like that here at Martlethead! Doesn’t that strike you as off? Why not save these little,” and here he paused for a bit to find the worst possible word, or so it seemed to Hugh, “episodes for when no one has to see them? Your peers manage it every day.”

Hugh had prepared for this sort of talk since the moment he’d stepped foot back in Martlethead Court. The day before he’d have been distraught, falling to pieces like bad gingerbread at the slightest hint that someone might not care for the way he’d learn to live, and the days before that hadn’t been much better. Mr. Ward would’ve had his work cut out for him. Now, though? Now Hugh felt like an avenging angel, a bringer of messages most fearsome, and the same confident fury that had blazed in his heart when the anomaly had tried to tip him over the edge of wickedness had returned to set his blood afire with righteous indignation. He let the words fall from his tongue like a God-riddled prophet.

“This place is a contraption into whose mechanism I cannot fit anymore, assuming I ever could at all. To attempt to bend myself into that shape would sicken me terribly! I’d rather learn ways to accept and live with my freakish nature than feast upon the philosophical dross that claims self-loathing is truth,” said Hugh. He blinked slowly at Sir Peter, letting each of his lids so so at slightly other times than their neighbors so the gesture started at one corner of his face and rippled towards the other. It was one of his favorite party tricks. It was also, he had found through personal experience, quite unsettling to the unsuspecting viewer; in this case, that proved a feature, not a flaw. “If my happiness requires being all that you hate, father, and if it is madness to pursue that state, then I fear I must be rather mad, indeed. How fortunate that I already have a physician to care for that condition!”

A brave servant snuck in just long enough to take Hugh’s plate away as he and Sir Peter stared each other down. He looked away first in favor of catching Mr. Ward’s eye. “I clearly have been having too much meat in my diet lately, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh. “I’m going to relax in our room. Would you care to bring me an extra vegetable dish later on, if possible? I don’t want anyone to worry about a perceived lack of dietetic calm on my part. I have also,” he continued, watching Sir Peter and Lady Catherine with different sets of eyes, “been stabbed today, right in the meat of my back, and I fear it may be making me cross.”

“Of course, professor,” said Mr. Ward, who leaned in just enough to give Hugh’s shoulder a squeeze in the guise of brushing away a fleck of dust.

“And do let Mr. Tuttle know he’s been doing a fine job of curating the cellars. I’ve tried multiple different vintages across my stay and have yet to have a drop of actual plonk this whole time.”

“It will be done.”

Someone tapped a knife against a glass and the different dinner conversations murmured to a stop. The lights dimmed. “Ladies and gentlemen, the final course,” said Mrs. Fawcett, proud as could be, and as the kitchen staff wheeled in a cart laden with something large, sugary, and slightly on fire, Hugh found it the perfect opportunity to push in his chair and slip out of the dining hall entirely without having to entertain a single moment more of other people insisting he make their problems his own.

❦ 28

The kitchens were abuzz with people cleaning up the detritus of dinner and feasting on leftovers. A proper servants’ meal would come after the dining room was fully cleared; as that could easily approach ten or eleven, given the family meal’s fashionably late starting hour, no one complained if ravenous scullery workers helping themselves to the uneaten bits of courses past. It wasn’t as though there was anywhere to store them. If the family objected, they could always eat more before their plates were taken away between courses.

Aubrey located a smallish soup pot among the great throngs of used dishes, washed it clean, and filled it with water and scrap broth to boil on one of the more out-of-the-way stoves. He chopped vegetables while waiting for the pot to bubble. A soup promised to be the best way to present Mr. Wainwright with the greens he so craved; while it might be possible to repeat the trick with the cabbage, that would take some time to roast, and it risked displacing a tray of rolls or the like meant for the staff as a whole. At least with stoves one could tell if they were being used at a glance. Returning to the mechanical house, where no one was ever using the kitchen save for Aubrey, would be a welcome relief.

The dessert—heaven forbid anyone refer to it as simply as afters—must have been served because Aubrey found himself in Fawcett’s presence once more.

“Good evening, madam,” he said, plucking an onion from a dish of cooling-ice. “Please excuse the intrusion, as Professor Wainwright has made a request of me in regards to his meal planning.”

“Didn’t the professor just eat?” asked Fawcett.

Aubrey peeled away the onion’s outer skin and began to dice it with great speed and precision. A fellow needed to work fast to make use of chilling the sulfurous sting away. “He’s had a very eventful day,” he said. “Extra vegetables are important to help a battered body recuperate.”

“It’s going to be at least an hour until them onions have softened up properly.”

“I’m aware of how long it takes to make soup, Mrs. Fawcett,” said Aubrey. He pointed to the cast-iron skillet slick with heating butter next to the soup pot. “I’ll be browning these before I add them, of course.”

Fawcett nodded. “Of course.” She didn’t leave as Aubrey chopped up the dregs of the pantry’s carrots, celery, and mushrooms, then sautéed the lot. He made no move to chase her away; it was her kitchen, like it or not, and with easily twenty Wainwrights to feed on the average day and plenty more staff besides, it was no small wonder she kept drifting towards the unfamiliar stitch in the works. One probably couldn’t get anything done under such circumstances as these without a fist of iron.

Roasted potatoes and buttered peas from dinner would fill out the soup’s texture and flavor profiles, and as they were already cooked soft they’d need to be added last to keep from turning to mush; Aubrey scooped them onto a plate for safekeeping. Scrap broth wasn’t as nice as a soup base made with time and care, as he preferred making soups that weren’t so slapdash, but if he wanted to fulfill Mr. Wainwright’s request before midnight it would have to do. Cream and garlic, oil and salt. By the time the fresher vegetables were done in the skillet one could be forgiven for thinking Aubrey had planned this whole thing in advance.

Save for chasing around some of the younger kitchen staff who risked being silly at the wrong times, Mrs. Fawcett hovered nearby the whole time. She looked worried about something. There was nothing so fascinating about putting together a little extra soup for a houseguest at the tail end of a family dinner that should have entranced a woman who’d likely been cooking for as long as Aubrey had been alive, so once he emptied the skillet into the pot he bothered to acknowledge her lingering presence.

“Do you need something from me, Mrs. Fawcett?”

“Just keeping stock of what all you’re puttin’ in there, Mr. Ward,” she said.

Aubrey looked up from the soup, still stirring. “They audit things that aggressively, do they?”

She wasn’t very good at trying to keep her demeanor casual. “I’ve heard some of my girls worryin’ about things going missin’, is all,” said Fawcett. “Things that wouldn’t be good to end up on an unsuspecting plate, or in your professor’s bowl.”


Fawcett wiped her forehead. Even in the post-sundown dark the kitchen was horribly hot, though that didn’t seem to be what fazed her. “You could say that, sir.”

“If you’re worried about rat poison going missing, I found some misplaced materials on an upper shelf a little while back. You don’t need to worry about those.”

“You…found the stash? And didn’t say anything?” she asked. That it was the stash and not a stash spoke volumes. Had Olivia procured it, or demanded the servants perform their own leaf-touching? Either way, it was no longer a problem.

“I disposed of those substances unfit for their tasks, nothing more,” said Aubrey. “A proper kitchen keeps nothing but the finest ingredients on hand. Make sure whoever is sent out to gather the next batch uses a more up-to-date field guide or takes along an herbalist. It would be a pity if the wrong plant were taken back to the manor.” He took a moment to work free a bit of root vegetable that threatened to stick to the bottom of the pot before continuing. “May I recommend the Thistlebrush Guide to Wild Plants of the Country-Side? The sixth edition came out this previous year, but it does not discredit anything in the fifth, so a secondhand copy will serve any future foragers well without being too much of a financial strain.”

She glanced around the kitchen, which remained bustling. No one was paying either of them any particular mind. “Thistlebrush’s fifth edition, was it? I’ll be sure to keep that name on my tongue next time I send a runner down to the shops,” she said.

“It’s filled with useful information about aromatics that grow in this region. Very convenient if you wish to add more options to the herb garden without increasing supply costs.”

Fawcett eyed Aubrey with greater caution than before. “Are you accustomed to explainin’ away new literature to others, Mr. Ward?”

“A gentleman in the habit of providing an alibi for others does not advertise the fact,” said Aubrey. “I simply believe information is best found in the hands of those who could most use it. How you choose to handle your pest problem is not my concern.”

She hummed to herself thoughtfully and eventually detached from Aubrey to check on the status of the servants’ supper. It was not until the whole kitchen was sat down to eat somewhere that she drifted back to his side, a roll in hand.

“Tell me, Mr. Ward,” she said. “How does a man like yourself stand to be courteous before them you can’t stand?”

He coughed up a small, bitter laugh. “The only courtesy I might have for the master of this house would be out of respect to the professor, and as there is no love lost between himself and his father, I see no reason to make whatever else happens in this manor my business.” He sipped at a spoonful of soup, the tip of his tongue parting his lips for a moment following, then added a pinch more pepper and chopped green herbs to the pot. “Please have the courtesy on your end to be thoughtful about it. Reputable poisoners are ill-served by failed attempts at their craft.”

At the mention of poisoners Fawcett froze up, her eyes darting all about, but the only ones nearby were a pair of scullions too wrapped up in the sounds of the sink and their own chatter to pay attention to much else. She needn’t have worried; Aubrey was skilled with knowing when outrageous words would be easier to defend than subtler ones. “I just don’t want anyone gettin’ hurt if they have reason to go foragin’ again,” she said, warily.

“Of course, Mrs. Fawcett,” said Aubrey. He tasted the soup again, this time not adding anything more to it. “I shall only need ten, perhaps fifteen more minutes before this is done. Would you prefer I clean up after myself before I go?”

She shook her head. “I’ll have Gregory wash those, he’ll be thrilled to death to handle something you’ve touched.”

“Will he, now?”

“The lad’s a bit star-struck, Mr. Ward. I don’t see the harm in encouragin’ such so long as it keeps his little hands out of trouble.”

When Aubrey had been that age he’d been dealing with far heavier subject matter. It was easy to forget that this was not the case for everyone, especially with how rarely he encountered actual children in his line of work. Fawcett was right: there were far worse things for a boy to be getting up to than learning how to wash out a seasoned skillet without destroying its cure.

These things took time, because of course they did, and surely Mr. Wainwright had known as much when he’d requested Aubrey cook him something instead of joining him in their room immediately; Mr. Wainwright had seemed in good enough spirits when he’d slipped out during the last course, but how things seemed and how they actually were had been at odds for the entirety of the investigation, and it would be foolish to assume anything. Hopefully he was doing all right on his own. It wouldn’t do to poison any of the Wainwrights, of course, since Aubrey’s methods were documented in certain carefully-guarded places and his disdain for those who felt themselves the world’s betters was even more widely known, so simply being aware that there were others in the manor with potentially similar leanings would have to suffice. The sooner he and Mr. Wainwright were back in a carriage home, the better. Unspeakable horrors from the world behind the world had the decency to be honest about wanting to eviscerate those who caught their attention.

At long last the soup was done enough to serve to Mr. Wainwright without being an embarrassment to Aubrey’s skill, so he helped himself to a tureen, some tableware, and a serving cart with straight-rolling wheels. The soup would at least be presented well, no matter its taste. If anyone objected to him loading up enough bowls and spoons for two then they were invited to ruminate on how long Aubrey had been awake that day, how many times he’d nearly died during the course of said day, and how long it had been since the tea he’d taken with Mr. Wainwright back when the sun was still shining. A man was permitted a little soup.

Fawcett met him on the way out, this time not bothering to make her presence look natural. “That everything you need from us?”

He nodded to her. “Unless Professor Wainwright requests anything else, of course. With luck you shan’t see me until breakfast.”

“Wouldn’t have taken you for the kind who’d not mind answerin’ to his beck and call,” she said.

“The professor may call on me whenever he likes, Mrs. Fawcett. I am his valet.”

“So you are, sir, and nothing but. Good evenin’ to you, Mr. Ward.”

“Good evening, Mrs. Fawcett.”

She stepped to the side to let him pass, and whether there was a spark of respect that passed between them or no, Aubrey went unchallenged through the lamp-lit halls.

❦ 29

Hugh was busy writing at the guest room desk when he heard the door unlock, open, close, and then lock again, accompanied by footsteps and the sound of some species of wheeled cart. He could already smell the soup under the serving cover. Being at his greater height—he hadn’t felt the need to change after leaving dinner, especially since that might have unfortunate implications after the way he’d spoken to his family—didn’t necessarily mean he had a greater appetite, and he could easily subsist on the same amount of food no matter his size; all the same, it had been a very busy day, and the thought of a little more sustenance to fill in the cracks sounded lovely. He had a line to finish, so he remained focused on his work until the sound of the cart and the smell of the soup both arrived at his side.

“Good evening, Mr. Ward. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” Hugh smiled. It felt very nice to smile for someone who could appreciate it.

Mr. Ward took the lid off of the cart, revealing the soup Hugh had smelled. “Good evening, Mr. Wainwright,” he said. “The feeling is mutual. Are you writing?”

“Oh yes,” said Hugh. “I’ve been working on my poem some more.”

“I see,” said Mr. Ward. He took up the ladle and began to prepare Hugh a bowl. It looked to have chunks in it. Hugh approved; he was in the mood for a soup he could chew. “That was an eventful dinner,” continued Mr. Ward as he worked the ladle. “If you wish to talk…”

Hugh straightened up with a crow of delight. “Why, I’m over the moon!” he said. “You heard how rudely the family was being, and this time I did not turn tail and hide the moment it seemed like I might disappoint someone. Oh, but I’m sure they are well disappointed now! I cannot believe I was able to say such things, and to their faces!” He erupted into giggles. “Lady Catherine and Sir Peter surely never imagined their meek little Hugh to be such a spitfire.”

A bowl, saucer, spoon, and folded cloth napkin appeared on the corner of the desk not already in use. Flecks of green and bobbing chunks of root vegetable swirled on the soup’s steaming surface. “I have noticed you tend to only refer to the baronet and his wife as your parents when speaking to them directly, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward as he prepared a bowl for himself. That he scarcely even referred to them by name, much less a title implying familial intimacy, would be foolish to mention, as it was surely an intentional choice. They were fortunate that Mr. Ward had been on his best-enough behavior that he and Hugh could see their investigation through to its proper end.

“Well!” said Hugh. “You don’t seem troubled by loaning me yours, and Primrose and Ezekiel are such lovely sorts, so I figured the thrifty thing to do would be to focus on the family I liked better.” His eyebrows tilted up sheepishly. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“It’s pleasing to hear that you regard them so highly,” said Mr. Ward, which was his way of saying of course not.

They toasted one another with their bowls and tucked into the soup, Mr. Ward taking a nearby chair as his seat. It was nice. Nice was not as nice as something cooked over the span of a day (or, more likely, a night of hunting) to deepen the flavors and enrich the broth, of course, but it had been perhaps an hour and change since Hugh had left the dining room; that Mr. Ward had made something so toothsome in such little time was remarkable. Not being at a table meant Hugh did not need to adhere to proper table manners, either, so after he claimed the final spoonful from his bowl he licked it clean. The white porcelain was bright in the firelight, both from its polish and the trail Hugh’s tongue had left, and he glanced hopefully at the tureen. Still enough for seconds! How Mr. Ward spoiled him so!

His second bowl was just as nice as the first, and no amount of fancy side-dishes could compete with a good, hearty soup made with love and actual seasoning. For the first time in a while, Hugh finally felt full. It was tempting to climb into bed and sleep the night away. It had been such a busy day, just as Mr. Ward had said, and even though the injury that had caused Hugh to cough up blood for hours afterwards had sealed up, he was more accustomed to being pampered after coming home with grievous wounds; spending half the afternoon feeling drunk off of sedative hadn’t made the healing process any nicer. The society office would understand if he didn’t come in until later, wouldn’t they? All he had to do was ask and Mr. Ward would gladly put him to bed without any complaint. It would be a good end to a difficult assignment.

“Would you care to show me your poetry?” asked Mr. Ward, startling Hugh from his drowsy thoughts.

Oh dear! Hugh had said he’d been working on that, hadn’t he? He flattened his ears against his hair and placed his hands over the papers in front of him. “Not yet, if you please. I don’t want knowledge of an incomplete start to tinge your reaction to the finished work.”

“As you like, Mr. Wainwright.”

It seemed rude to reject Mr. Ward without so much as another word, so Hugh went for the obvious route of showing proper thanks for the meal. “The soup was wonderful, Mr. Ward,” he said. “Something nice and hot in my stomach has me feeling much more like a person again. Thank you greatly for your kindness.”

“I’m glad to hear it.”

“So, was there poison in my food, before?”

“Only the most harmless sort,” said Mr. Ward. “I’ve handled things, and seen that such mistakes shan’t be made in the future.” He stretched. “If anything is going to be the death of me, it will be amateurs.”

Was Mr. Ward tired, too? It had to be exhausting, being him, and unless he’d napped during the day he’d gotten half as much sleep as he needed at the very most. Some rest would do them both good. The longer Hugh thought on this, however, the more of a waste of a lovely evening and a lovelier mood it sounded to be. Pleasant conversation would do its own share of good, wouldn’t it?

There was also the matter of how Hugh hadn’t been able to take as leisurely of a wash as he’d liked when scrubbing away the worst of his stagger across the green. It felt like there was still mud in his teeth. A thought came to him: hadn’t it been a while since Mr. Ward had last helped him with a bath? Perhaps he might indulge in a good soak, and perhaps, if he asked in just the right way, he might have obliging company for it.

“Could I trouble you to draw a bath for me?” he asked. “I know it’s late, and you’ve already done so much, but I feel as grimy as a goblin as I am.” He offered his most charming smile. “It wouldn’t do to risk mussing you up when you come to bed later, correct?”

Mr. Ward glanced over Hugh with an appraising look. “I would be happy to prepare the tub, Mr. Wainwright, though I don’t know if the facilities are well-fitted to your current dimensions.”

That was a problem, wasn’t it. Hugh was too used to the mechanical house and all the subtle ways it bent reality around itself so he never had trouble fitting into chairs or bathtubs no matter his shape or size. He would need to pay extra close attention to the dusting next time to properly express his thanks. “I suppose I could always cleanse a little bit at a time…”

“You and I both know you would rather wholly macerate yourself, that nothing be left untended,” said Mr. Ward. “Relax yourself and you shan’t have any trouble with getting stuck.”

“All right, I can do so.” Hugh began to loosen his cravat. It would be best to undress before changing size, he decided, as otherwise he risked becoming tangled up in his own clothing; it was possible to slip out a little at a time, of course, but it required just enough thought and care that Hugh preferred to save it for moments where the anatomical mismatch was the point. He sighed. It would be nice to leave this place and return to someplace he felt more able to be creative with his personal expression and fit in the bath at the same time.

“Is something the matter, Mr. Wainwright?” asked Mr. Ward, looking up from where he’d been calibrating the tub’s temperature. “You seemed in such good spirits a moment ago.”

Bother! Had he already ruined the mood? No, no, Hugh simply had raw nerves, and raw nerves could make a fellow more sensitive to things he usually was not; he could explain himself and be understood. “I know you like me this way,” he said, “and it displeases me to think you might not have the sight you’d have liked.”

Now it was Mr. Ward’s turn to sigh, though his was less despondent and more the weary affection of a man repeating oft-forgotten truths. “I have told you before, Mr. Wainwright, and I shall tell you now, as it remains as true as ever: I am interested in the whole of you as a person, not any one part. You are my companion, no matter your silhouette, and you are pleasing to me however you choose to exist, in all your manifold complexities. It would do you a great disservice to only find one fraction of that acceptable.”

How easy it was to forget Mr. Ward’s way with words when he had reason to honey them, and how wonderful to be the subject of such speech! Hugh felt as giddy as a schoolboy receiving his first anonymous flower tucked into his school-desk. He gave himself permission to dig for more compliments. “You aren’t fond of those who see more meaning in a creature’s claws than a person’s hands, to the exclusion of all else?” he asked.

Mr. Ward sneered dismissively. “They are weak, and shall not survive the winter.”

No sense in arguing that! Mr. Ward was passionate about his concern for persons such as Hugh, and while that passion could be expressed intimately (and, to Hugh’s understanding, had done so with past patients of Mr. Ward’s, had they asked for it), it extended to all those struggling to live a more polymorphic truth. His research extended into subjects that had no bearing on Hugh, worked with society-plated creatures that would never be Hugh’s students, and looked ever towards the future. Who could mistake that devotion to a cause for mere carnal interest? Much like someone only valuing one of Hugh’s different shapes, to see Mr. Ward’s zeal as just one thing would be a discredit to the rest of it.

Hugh peeled away his coat and laid it out on the smaller bed’s quilt. The shreds of the outfit he’d ruined when the library spirited him away lay nearby; it might have been easier to simply destroy them, but that struck Hugh as wasteful. Perhaps they could make for a patchwork sampler? Mr. Ward could do the most surprising things with bits of cabbage-fabric. Layer by layer Hugh shed his clothes—and none of his skin, thankfully, in spite of all the sunlight he’d been getting—until he wore nothing but the plate at this throat, at which point he gradually relaxed until the top of his head wasn’t quite so near the ceiling. He rolled his shoulders. It was nice to stretch, and he liked to do so at least once or twice a day in addition to his calisthenics; it was easy to forget how much shifting his shape factored into his daily routine until that routine was disrupted. How good it would be to return to it!

The guest room’s tub was a great porcelain thing with four claw-shaped feet, as was popular among futurists, and it connected to both the manor’s sewer system and the boiler that lurked in the depths. Growing up surrounded by plumbing, Hugh hadn’t realized how unusual both these things were until he’d done more traveling; that the house on Kettle Street managed such wonders was the sort of modern convenience he was willing to not interrogate too deeply so long as it continued to work. And work it did! That had to be worth even more dusting, maybe even giving the higher-up wall paneling a proper polish. It was important to let others know when they were appreciated.

Martlethead Court was lacking in many ways, but hot water was not one of them. Hugh had to lower himself into the piping hot tub slowly to keep from being hurt. As a young man he’d gone through quite a lot of literature on how, exactly, one was expected to best bathe oneself, and they never seemed to agree with one another; some claimed one must wait several hours after eating (which Hugh ignored), others were highly concerned with how they were unhealthy if the bather was tired or weary (another detail he ignored), and still others made wild claims about one was and was not permitted to mix with the water to avoid vague notions of doom. This latter set Hugh paid attention to solely in the sense that he enjoyed a fancier soak. Whatever would those ever-fretting authors think of his preference for water so hot it left him bright as a crab when he first slipped beneath its surface?

They hadn’t left all their amenities at home. Today’s water additive was a sort of bright tea-like concoction of oils that carried notes of rose, bergamot, and lemon. Would it make for a dreamy bedtime atmosphere, perhaps? Would it make up for the flowers he now had one less suit to display? It was much nicer than the harsh medicinal smell of the actual tea mixture he drank at Mr. Ward’s behest, that was for certain. The soaps left out for him had complimentary fragrances to the bath-oils, light and sweet like honey, and they were enough to almost help him forget he’d been stabbed. Hugh had developed a mindset that wasn’t bothered by being stabbed, or shot at, or mauled, or injured in most any other way provided he was able to act upon the situation. A fellow in his line of work couldn’t afford to be upset by everyday hazards of his post! Knowing that it carried therapeutic benefit made relaxing by the fire in slippers after a lengthy hunt all the more satisfying.

Hugh let his mind wander as he alternated between soaks and scrubbing. He could already imagine the days of paperwork ahead of him. Work would begin with the office, then, where he could finally pair faces with all the names Mr. Ward kept sharing with him, and he’d probably have to meet with various members of the accused in some fashion, as well. There’d be debriefings, and then when he and Mr. Ward returned to the city there would be more debriefings, and goodness knew how much trouble there would be before the trials. There was also the matter of the research Mr. Ward had seized without surrendering the originals to the society. Was any of it usable, or was it just a mess of violence against human beings and night cities alike? At least it was out of the hands of the mischievous for the time being. Whether Pembroke and Caldecott had duplicated their records anywhere was a question that Hugh doubted would be solved with any reliable speed. The Wainwright storehouse alone was going to take months to pick through for lingering clues. The Crowes would have a field-day with it. Better them than he!

He submerged, rinsed the suds from his hair, and rose again with a clearer head. It was important to remember that he didn’t have to do everything himself. Problems like these were handled the same way one traveled long distances, or endured great suffering, or ate a whole roast ox: one step at a time, one day at a time, one bite at a time. He’d put in plenty of steps and days and bites already. So long as he didn’t stop, he could afford to take his time.

Hugh was considering whether or not he was finished with his time in the tub when Mr. Ward spoke from somewhere behind him.. “Would you care for any further assistance with your bath, Mr. Wainwright?”

Hugh’s ears perked at this, albeit in their current state it was only a metaphorical gesture. “I should like that very much, Mr. Ward,” he said. How he loved to hear such words! How sad it had been to turn down such an offer the times before! One might argue that Mr. Ward’s offer was a chaste one, the sort that was not uncommon upon the lips of a career manservant, and it was indeed he who had heated the water, and scented it, and arranged the cloths and scrubbers. One might also look to the established carnal nature of his and Hugh’s arrangement in the interest of making a counterpoint, to say nothing of how Hugh’s length had twitched in anticipation at the sound of that offer. In Hugh’s case, he hoped for a mixture of both.

Mr. Ward put his coat over the back of a chair and rolled up his sleeves. His gloves were folded up like a many-fingered pocket square. He didn’t bother removing his waistcoat; nothing he wore was unsuited to housework, and even if he’d needed to worry after the state of the corset and braces he wore beneath said vest, there was little risk of unwanted splashing. Hugh, excitable as he could be at times, was very well-trained.

The initial tasks were actually chaste, involving flushing out a little of the cooling water in favor of fresher, hotter stuff from a kettle Mr. Ward had on the fire—he was so cunning with how he added it, too, never making Hugh worry for a moment that he might be scalded—and reviving the potency of the bath-oils. He took one of the smaller bathing brushes to Hugh’s nails to banish the residual traces of that morning’s gambol across the greenway. Hugh was scrubbed and rinsed and overall groomed very nicely; he doubted even the most beribboned of Uncle Andrew’s prize show dogs was ever pampered so. Sometimes it was all he needed. Other times, such as that evening, it was not.

A pair of familiar hands touched at Hugh’s back, comparing the side he’d been injured to the side that had gone untouched. “Have I healed up as I ought, Mr. Ward?” Hugh asked.

“There is little but some lightly puckered skin and a discoloration remaining,” said Mr. Ward. His thumbs rubbed circles into Hugh’s muscle tissue. “I can barely feel the difference. Do you notice anything unusual with the sensation, Mr. Wainwright?”

It was much like any other massage to Hugh, and he liked the thought of it continuing. “It’s very nice,” he said. “I shouldn’t mind if you kept at it once you’ve evaluated my regeneration to your liking.”

Mr. Ward’s hands moved upwards, always kneading, until they came to rest upon Hugh’s gnarled shoulders. “Are you enjoying yourself, then?”

“Very much!” said Hugh.

Those hands moved from his shoulders to his trapezius muscles. Hugh’s were frightful to behold without a shirt on over them, though they were shaped so that he still had a deceptively skinny neck to the untrained eye. Mr. Ward’s thumbs found a knot of tension along Hugh’s spine and worked at it. Hugh felt like he was melting in the best possible way.

“What a lucky man I am to know you, Mr. Ward. You are so kind to me, and loving,” he said as he closed his eyes to better focus on that splendid touch.

“I am glad you think that, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. His hands found their way to Hugh’s plate and the chain that bound it there, that sole piece that changed with Hugh’s body in any way it needed save for any that might permit it be removed. Hugh let out a shuddering breath. He barely even thought about his plate anymore, the way one often ignored the presence of socks of sufficient fit and comfort, and he’d carried its weight since a young age, but how could he ignore its presence when Mr. Ward was touching at it so? He imagined the shine of Mr. Ward’s ring as the silver drew near the bonded metal that marked Hugh as a society creature. He wondered if they matched. It would have been fitting: the society was tired of Mr. Ward even as they benefited from all he did in their name, and even their impossibly cold-hearted number knew that Hugh was his beast.

It was worth saying that much aloud, even. “I’m so grateful to be yours.” Hugh was a fiend for the stationery shops in the city, always on the lookout for new cards and print-ups with which to present Mr. Ward, and the till-tenders would greet him warmly if they saw his parasol pass by their windows. It was probably for the best that they only ever had a partial knowledge of the things he made with the little card-kits he purchased every few months. The emotions he cared to express tended not to be found ready on the shelf. Hugh had practiced snipping and re-pasting the suited gentleman cutouts until he could bring a cardboard man to his knees in no time at all.

Mr. Ward made a soft, satisfied sound. “And I am grateful to have you,” he said. The pad of his finger slipped beneath the metal, letting the chain fall across the flat of his nail; there was nothing between them. Hugh’s heart squeezed. “Is it correct to assume that you stay in my care by your own decree? That any writ or letterform that might state it mandatory is a formality at best?”

It was true, all of it. Any time a sheaf of papers appeared in his mail asking if he felt ready for evaluation to be emancipated—a thing Hugh had not heard mentioned by any of the handlers or other creatures that numbered among his peers—he always returned them, stating he was of both sound mind and body but not to be reassigned. He was a hawk whose hood had long since slipped; though he knew the joy of the open sky, he would never fly away for long. “Yes,” whispered Hugh.

“Then that makes me very happy.”

Hugh bit his lip in surprise. Not just happy but very happy? Mr. Ward was not a man prone to showing emotion that wasn’t in some way adjacent to anger or disdain (having such, yes, but showing it, nigh unto never), not even in private, and Hugh had learned to watch for little hints of smiles and other fondness folded into an otherwise perfectly measured exterior. It was like expecting a petit four and getting an entire tiered wedding cake. At this rate he was going to be up all night thinking about those kind words as though they’d never so much as held hands before. Years of being companions with Mr. Ward, years, and still Hugh could be affected so! Perhaps it meant he was soft and silly, but as long as that soft silliness persisted, Hugh would allow it to be.

Sweet words could do a lot more than set his heart aflutter, especially when paired with touches such as those. The tip of his stand threatened to breach the water. “I think I would like extra assistance, if I might be so bold as to request it,” said Hugh.

“That can be arranged, Mr. Wainwright.”

Favored fantasies could have disastrous results if encountered in reality, and Hugh was blessed that he had dodged that particular volley; it was a simple thing, to dream of having a nice bath and then be touched while still soaking in the scented water, and that simplicity made it no less special to him. When Mr. Ward had first knelt down to reach for him in this way Hugh couldn’t believe his fortune. That felt like forever ago. Hugh could still scarcely believe it, but he had grown to accept that this was something he could feel like he deserved.

It was, on the most outer level, not too different from being folded back over an ottoman and touched, or draping himself across Mr. Ward’s lap and being touched, or rucking up his nightshirt to be touched, or any other way he and Mr. Ward might configure themselves to make good use of the skilled hands of a surgeon; those similarities didn’t mean he neglected to treasure it, of course. Being in the bath already made it easy for Hugh to pretend he was drifting along a gentle stream, or floating in some great cosmic sea, and if he had taken the time to clean himself fully it carried with it an air of being prepared to meet someone important. Not that there wasn’t fun to be had in being made to express his satisfaction before washing up! That was for when Hugh was in the mood to be broken down and then rebuilt into something fresh and new, however, and tended to involve fewer incidents where he’d been nearly coerced into causing harm to another human being. For now he would float and enjoy the sensation of knowing fingers caressing his gentleman’s part.

And what knowing fingers they were! Mr. Ward knew just the right way to grasp Hugh, when to clasp firmly and when to be gentle. He needed no fancy tricks here: his left hand remained upon Hugh’s shoulder, one digit still tantalizingly tucked between Hugh’s skin and his plate’s chain, while his right hand tugged. The lens of his spectacles closest to the fire was a bright moon of light, and through the other his eye calmly switched from watching his work to watching Hugh’s face and back again. Hugh kept himself limp, held fast by the attentions of that half-visible gaze and wondering, idly, how much he resembled a butterfly waiting to be pinned. Wouldn’t that be a legacy? At least future students of his lepidopteran self would know he went out happy.

In no time at all he had found his joy. It was a calmer experience, the sort of reserved thing that went well with tea and biscuits and a good book waiting for once everyone had finished washing their hands. He had been sated with as much in the past. Today, though, he felt like he deserved to treat himself. As Mr. Ward made to drain the bathwater, Hugh reached out to touch at a bared forearm.

“It has been a tiring time for us both, Mr. Ward, and you’ve been on your feet for hours. Before I make any demands of you, I must ask: will you be in want of rest once I’ve dried myself off and made for bed?”

Mr. Ward regarded him with an interest Hugh knew was not as detached as it appeared. “Do you have another request in mind, Mr. Wainwright?”

Hugh put his hand to his cheek and fluttered his lashes. “I should very much like to lie with you as I am,” he said. “However you would care to, should you care to, I would have it, but I would like to know the look of your skin on this warm summer’s evening, and to feel it against me.” Sometimes Hugh was shorter and sometimes he was taller; similarly, sometimes Hugh enjoyed being used in manners physical while Mr. Ward remained so sharp in his coats and trousers, while sometimes Hugh needed to feel warm flesh against his own in places other than those where he took that flesh into himself. If Mr. Ward was interested in the whole of his person—and Hugh did not doubt that he was—it only made sense to make all of his desires known, at least when the time and place were right.

“I’m sure something can be arranged,” said Mr. Ward. “Do dry off by the fire, first. I won’t be having you catch cold in this humidity, nor do I wish to sleep on damp sheets.”

“Perish the thought, Mr. Ward! We can put down some spare linens just to be sure.”

By the time Hugh was deemed dry enough to not risk falling sick there were, indeed, extra sheets laid across the comforter of the canopy bed. Hugh lay down upon it and kicked up his heels. Mr. Ward was busy seeing to the oil, having shed his own clothes while Hugh dried, so Hugh took a moment to drink in the splendid way Mr. Ward’s part had risen to greet him, paired with the comparatively rarer sight of the soft, exposed curve of Mr. Ward’s belly, not yet at the point of being a proper paunch but delightful all the same. How nice that would feel as it folded over the cleft of Hugh’s buttocks and pressed against the small of his back! Hugh’s stand agreed. Whether he’d spend the whole of the next act with his length compacted into the spare sheets was yet to be seen.

“Against the headboard, please, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward as he clambered atop the very high mattress. Hugh did so promptly. He spread his knees just so, his hands and breastbone pressed against the requested part of the bed, and arched his back just enough to push back his hips and make the angles overall more interesting as his fingers curled excitedly against the wood. The touch of boudoir oil against his nethers was deceptively cold. He could feel Mr. Ward shuffle into place behind him, the slick heat of a stand he knew so well nestled against him as a hand rested upon his gaunt hip. “This is what you’d hoped for, correct? You may tell me if you’d planned differently.”

Had Hugh a tail at the time he’d have wagged it. “Oh my, yes, it’s ever so correct!”

“Very good, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, and so Hugh was skewered.

Receiving sodomy so directly—even though he’d known to relax for it—saw him gasp and jolt as he was prone to do; Mr. Ward held him fast in spite of it all, instead thrusting into him with short, measured strokes. The hand on Hugh’s hip was joined by another around his shaft, this one clearly unconcerned with pleasing him quickly but not content to leave him wholly untouched. When Mr. Ward’s hips pressed in his hand pulled down. The warmth Hugh so craved was upon him, now, and in him, and breathing against the back of his neck. A shame about the weather; sometimes, in colder months, they would find ways to pursue their respective duties for hours while cuddled up (Hugh had learned he could fit beneath Mr. Ward’s desk with little trouble, in fact, and if he stretched and relaxed in just the right way he never had to worry about his jaw getting tired), but once they were finished with the current evening’s lovemaking they’d have to pull apart and reclaim their nightclothes to keep sweat from gluing themselves to one another. A morning sponge-off was not negotiable when the air itself conspired to make them perspire. Such were their eternal burdens.

How good it was to kneel before another man, no matter the directions they faced! Hugh clenched the wood—not too tightly, of course, lest he splinter the headboard and have to endure someone droning on about the cost of replacing it—and willed himself be still, that Mr. Ward might move as he wished with no concern for support. Receiving intimate attentions from a shorter partner required thought and a bit of mathematics. Would the other Wainwrights have minded Hugh’s choice in bedmates so much if he’d picked a theorist who wasn’t so openly poor-bred? He couldn’t imagine being so delighted by someone whose skills laid within the dancing patterns of numbers, and every numerologist-practitioner he’d met had been unbearable in some fashion, so that would simply be trading one disappointment for another; still, maybe it would give deathly-dull Timothy someone else to talk to when he wasn’t occupied with fainting over whether someone had given him an apricot instead of a peach.

A thought came to Hugh’s mind that made him laugh.

“Are you feeling ticklish, Mr. Wainwright?” asked Mr. Ward, though as Hugh had not given any signal to stop he did not slow his pace. A companionship as established as theirs had its understandings.

“Just a silly notion,” said Hugh. He allowed himself another fit of laughter. “I know that giving you my trust makes me no less of a man, and giving my body does not mean I am property,” he said, his hurried cadence hastily side-stepping certain issues, “but I do think it would be very funny were Sir Peter’s ball guests to learn with whom the more academic of his sons chooses to dance. Perhaps if you were to kiss me in front of them! A nobleman’s son spreading his legs for a working man? One who isn’t trying to marry his way out of his original means? My goodness, they’d simply faint.

Mr. Ward’s pace increased a bit. “Our personal lives are not of their concern,” he said, his pace now making the bedframe slightly shudder if one knew to watch for it.

“Yes, yes, it’s just a passing fancy. It’s not meant to be realistic,” said Hugh. He wrenched his upper body around until his back now lay against the headboard, his lower half remaining in place; he never told his students all the reasons it was useful to be able to metamorphically contort oneself. He looked down into Mr. Ward’s face and attempted his sweetest expression. “I wouldn’t mind a kiss in the here and now, though…?”

The question was answered by Mr. Ward leaning in and up to taste Hugh’s lips, his fingers intertwined with Hugh’s own as he pressed Hugh in place. Their tongues brushed against each other like sea creatures finding friendship in the deep. It was true that Hugh could delight Mr. Ward simply by existing and remembering to take his medicine on time; when he chose to distort his more socially-integrated self in horrific ways, all while remaining at his lesser height, it never failed to please. Some people (wrongfully assuming no one was around to hear them) would whisper to one another that Mr. Ward was an odd sort, that an odd mind bred odder desires. Hugh had yet to find an interest of Mr. Ward’s that had ever struck him as unreasonable, though, and so he would twist his spine and bend his bones until he found another new shape that suited them both. He certainly got a lot more kisses in his life this way.

“It would be a spot of fun, though, wouldn’t it?” said Hugh when they parted.

“I beg your pardon?”

He squeezed his eyes shut with mirth. “Why, to show those stuffy old guests irrevocable proof that a Wainwright has fallen to slumming.” Hugh never used that word himself when he could help it. He’d spent enough of his young life around other people who did to know it disrespected subject and speaker in kind. In this context, however, there was nothing more suited to the cause.

Familiar stern creases appeared between Mr. Ward’s eyebrows. “That shan’t be necessary.”

“It’s ever so unnecessary! But wouldn’t it be scandalous? Me, a spare in terms of inheritance order but no less mannerly in expectations, bent over a billiards table or somesuch, dressed in my most bohemian of attire, thrashing with passion beneath a merciless man of science, while all the other over-bred show ponies can do nothing but watch—”

Enough, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, silencing Hugh with another kiss. A subtle flush rose in his cheeks. Less subtle was the way he twitched inside Hugh and how hard he felt by now. Did that sort of thinking quicken him, then? Perhaps it would be worth reminding him of such the next time they made use of their private box at the theater and they needed a way to spend an intermission. It was no dramatic billiards-table-ravishing, but Hugh would manage.

As Mr. Ward continued his osculations Hugh permitted himself to remain silenced. It was important they each have little triumphs. That was part of the arrangement no one ever spoke aloud, wasn’t it? A handler’s charge needed to be kept healthy, mindful, and enriched, but didn’t the best of such relationships see the charge bringing enrichment to the life of the handler? He would never stoop so low as to misbehave—that was the domain of ill-trained pets and children, and Hugh was much happier being good—but a little mischief, when employed with the proper amount of forethought and care, never hurt anyone. They had so much exploration into the unknown ahead of them, so much they could do to aid one another’s research. It would be such a shame were Mr. Ward to grow bored of him before they exhausted those potential stores.

Mr. Ward turned Hugh to lie with his back (still twisted) against the sheets and his head against the pillows, looming over him as much as a man of no particular vastness could. Hugh helped by propping himself up on his elbows so kissing wouldn’t be so difficult. Had he not been all folded up it would have been possible to dangle his legs off the side of the bed like this. It would have been easy to enjoy this configuration for some time, as Hugh’s hips were not so close to the mattress that he could rut against the sheets in self-stimulation, and he didn’t exactly mind being kept in such a sensory state where he craved release but was unlikely to find it without aid. Mr. Ward, it seemed, had other ideas.

“If you wish to stretch, Mr. Wainwright,” he murmured against Hugh’s ear, “you do not need to commit to a full body’s worth, nor wait until we are done for you to do so, nor stop once you have completed any change.”

The moment that growl of permission made it to his brain, Hugh had no choice but to do so.

He ebbed, he flowed. Muscle stretched like putty. He touched Mr. Ward’s body with his own and marveled at how their textures differed, his tree-root firmness rendering itself pliant in wholly distinctive ways beneath Mr. Ward’s own soft ferocity. Sometimes his height and dimensions were completely cradled by the mattress and sometimes parts of him were of such a scale that they folded against the floorboards. He caressed with many fingers, adored with many eyes, smiled with many teeth. Details rose only to fall away in favor of new ones. Was this how silver felt in a crucible? What moon pulled at Hugh’s tides? There was so much of him, so much he could share, and the trick was that he could never share all of it at once. This came close, though. This carried with it the promise of time, past and future, to behold each facet of Hugh as a jeweler would a priceless gem, knowing the whole to be more than the mere sum of its parts. There was nothing to be afraid of, pinned beneath Mr. Ward in a way more meaningful than being physically overpowered. This was good. This felt right.

At some point Mr. Ward emptied himself into the space meant for him, panting; he rested for but a moment before taking Hugh’s length in hand and returning the kindness. Hugh had remained moving like water throughout, and even though he cared little for reshaping that portion of himself it still had benefit from how alive his senses felt. Oh, but how that touch threatened to burn him with pleasure! Oh, but how different it felt to not have to inhabit either extreme of his nature, but dabble in bits of both! That he could be this, that Mr. Ward had asked for this, was all too much for Hugh. He came to glory in a state of wonder.

They lay nestled together as long as they could stand before the heat betrayed them. Sheets were removed, sweat was daubed away. Save for how Hugh lay his head in Mr. Ward’s lap they might have been mistaken for any other gentleman and his valet, the sorts who didn’t share knowledge of secret tastes and scents; the ever-changing shape was fun for its own sake, but choosing to look mostly like any other member of his family made it easier to relax, to say nothing of how much it simplified wearing clothes and using the furniture. He didn’t have to worry about poking Mr. Ward with an ill-timed vertebral extension this way, either.

“I was surprised to see how readily you took to that suggestion of mine, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. His nightshirt’s embroidery matched Hugh’s. That was a fun detail Hugh rarely got to appreciate during his more normal schedule.

“Partial changes are an important part of the curriculum,” said Hugh. “Never know when one might need to slip through a half-barred gate, or out of a pair of handcuffs.” He sighed, perfectly content. “I never thought to try such an involved approach, or that a change might be applied to such intimacy at any time other than before or after the act. It is…well, it’s overwhelming, is what it is! I’m still half-breathless from it all.”

Mr. Ward petted Hugh’s hair. “I hope it was instructional, at the least.”

“I have learned that I liked it very much,” said Hugh, “and that I am not going to try again until we return home.”


Hugh rolled so that he could look up at Mr. Ward without straining his neck. No need for spine-swirling tricks all of the time! “If it’s to be correctly instructional, I must establish a consistent test environment, and proper control behavior, and take plenty of notes, and above all else I must not have to deal with my dreadful family in any manner come the following day.”

“Very professional of you, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward with a small smile.

“Do you mind, when I say I am fine enough cutting this part of my life free to take refuge with your own kin? Just…leaving, and never coming back? It’s not like I even wanted to return in the first place, and I know they’d rather forget I existed at all, given how they’ve already blotted me out from most of the books and picture, but the society…”

Gentle fingers scratched under Hugh’s chin and up into his side-whiskers, stilling his complaints. “We three Wards are glad to have you.”

Hugh sagged in relief. “How do you propose I do it, then? Just step on the carriage and have that be the end of it? I’m not in the habit of estranging myself. I’m unsure of how it’s meant to be done.”

“When burning a bridge, you need not always make known who first lit that spark, or why,” said Mr. Ward. “Your home is in a living city, where whole districts know the guiding violence of your sword and pistol, not this ouroboros of a family unit so caught up in peerage and protocol they nearly lit their own skirts aflame. When we return home I shall see that any missives from Martlethead Court not directly connected to the case go through me first, and those that would only cause you grief will be destroyed before you even learn of them.”

With a thoughtful pop of his lips, Hugh added, “If any of them include photographs of Uncle Andrew’s dogs, I should like to see those first. He always did take such good care of them. You don’t think he’d be sore about mailing me any pictures, do you?”

“He might be and he might not, but your Uncle Andrew has no reason to worry about the casual interest of one Orion Parish, animal handler, Mr. Parish being one of simply dozens of names of fellow dog-fanciers whose faces he’s never seen.” Mr. Ward adjusted his spectacles. “It would probably do to have an unassuming mail cover for this region, after all. The Crowes are keen on their letters.”

“Ah, Mr. Ward, you are ever so clever. I don’t know how I could do anything without you at all.”

“You would manage, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward, turning to a new page of his poetry omnibus as his fingers returned to stroking Hugh’s hair. “You would manage.”

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4 thoughts on “Damnatio Memoriae

  1. I was delighted to see you were writing another W&W story for this December, and it didn’t disappoint! It’s interesting to see how Hugh reacts to being around his family, especially in contrast with what we’ve seen of Mr. Ward’s family, and that final dinner scene where everyone’s trying to be extremely high-class and well-mannered in their objections to Hugh attending in his alternate form feels so familiar to meals I have attended at awkward points in my relationship to my family, for sure. Hugh’s developed so much confidence and assurance in who he is and what his value is since the first time we saw him, and it’s wonderful to see that growth.

  2. I am always thrilled to see more Ward and Wainwright, and this one is an extra treat! I love that we get a nice twisty little mystery, TONS of delving into Mr. Wainwright’s past, and both of their viewpoints! (And a frankly luxurious amount of sex scenes as a delightful bonus!) I wound up reading roughly a section at a time over breakfast each day, and I’m not sorry to have taken so long to read it. Having W&W on the brain for days has been lovely. :)

    I love the commitment to language you have here. I had to stop mid-sentence and confirm that yes, “aquarium” DID come from “aqua-vivarium” and how freaking cool is that?! It makes me wonder, do you have a hard and fast time period for these stories? I assume there’s some flexibility since it’s very one step to the left of standard history (a world without homophobia but with classism is fascinating, honestly — and takes the too-real edge off of the disapproval toward Ward & Wainwright).

    Two of my favorite bits (that I made note of, anyway — I suspect there were more that I forgot to jot down):
    “[…] the carved double doors were gone, as was the arch adorned with flowers, both replaced with an impossibly large gateway filled with mist that rolled and roiled like a storm. It glowed with an eerie inner light.” Despite the stakes of the scene, I was grinning like crazy at this as I recognized the iconic Soulsborne fog doors, and I’ve barely even played any of the games. It set me up to imagine the rest as the start of a boss fight, and that was quite fun. (A giant health bar topped with “Mr. Wainwright” is pretty funny to imagine as well.) And, of course, Mr. Ward’s legendary composure in the face of basically everything was on perfect display.

    “He and Mr. Ward were so very dear to one another, and if his family was upset that the two of them carried on in the scriptural sense, then clearly the proper thing to do would be to engage themselves in more theology.” I don’t really have deeper thoughts about this, I just love Mr. Wainwright having a chance to be so cheeky. Doubly so in the face of how out of sorts he got as the story progressed! He really got put through the wringer, but it was wonderful to see him come out the other side and be back to his more usual spirits. :) Quite an apt piece for the Christmas issue, as less than pleasant going home for the holidays was undoubtedly happening to quite a few folks.

    Wonderful story, as usual. I hope your holidays were far more enjoyable, and I hope the new year is kind. Looking forward to seeing what you write in 2024!

  3. Wow – what a ride. My first time visiting this rich, multilayered world you’ve built, and how relieved I am to arrive at this hard-earned happy ending. Hugh and Aubrey are both marvelous.

  4. There was really a lot in there! The theme of family expecting you to feel it is inappropriate to be who who are is particularly striking for today’s world. I missed the game elements, so it was interesting to read about them in the notes and others’ comments.

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