by Iron Eater
The little playbill in Hugh’s hand promised him a great many delights upon the stage of the Sauvageot Theater, ranging from jolly comedy to musical performance to acts described in terms most gruesomely lurid, but he had yet to have the opportunity to evaluate the truth of any such claims; until the next chiming of the hour he would simply have to clutch his ticket close and wait out the remaining time between now and when he’d be permitted to take his seat. At least this was unlikely to be dull: the Sauvageot had quite the collection of curios on display once visitors had paid their fee—there was, in fact, a reduced-price ticket that allowed for one to view only this collection, if they so chose, or if the gallery was sold out—and so it was among the offerings of this ersatz museum that he waited out his excessive punctuality.
“Look here, Mr. Ward,” he said to his companion, for whose ticket he had also gladly paid. “They say it’s an exhibit of period torture devices, and yet what they show here is an iron maiden! What a fine demonstration of how art can influence history.”
“Some might argue that such a barbaric device is ill-served by being called ‘art,’ professor,” said Mr. Ward, adjusting his spectacles. He and Hugh had been companions for some years by then, and he had been officially assigned as Hugh’s physician, advisor, and handler for only slightly longer than that; modern times saw them quite inseparable (and willfully ignorant of any breach of ethics that might come from a doctor dallying with his patient). The society for which they worked, having learned its lesson after multiple previous attempts to the contrary, now dispatched them as a paired set when special assignments were concerned. Hugh delighted in how often this gave him the opportunity to exercise the academic side of his expertise.
“Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it?” said Hugh. “We can rightly state that torture is antithetical to civilization, and point at devices such as these as ghastly relics of a clearly less civilized age, conjuring up all manner of violent fantasias of savagery and grue, all the while believing ourselves to be superior to such a wretched bygone age because we, as a people, do not make a habit of building iron maidens in which to store fellows we don’t much like. However,” he added, raising the index finger of the hand not currently clutching his playbill, “formal research into the matter indicates these creations are a thoroughly modern invention!
“Now, you might ask, whyever would this be? Surely one will not find such things in the dungeons of the crown, whose methods of confession are far more refined in this day and age. If they’re not for the storage of the insufficiently delightful, whatever could be the use of them? That’s the crux of it: this device exists so we might look back on the mists of history as a time of unfathomable cruelty and horror, that we might look upon our current day and be soothed by its lack of iron maidens, keen to believe we are, by default, a more enlightened people, and that any loathsome deeds enacted by our contemporaries are less loathsome because they do not reach such fanciful heights.
“‘Ah!’ one might say upon reading of some atrocity in the broadsheets, ‘Look here, it is dreadful, but take heart: we are not placing our countrymen in a casket of iron and piercing them with spikes lining its halves, as villains of old surely did, so have we not come so very far even when we remain cruel?’ It’s an ever so convenient delusion.
“Even if this was not the initial impetus for creating such works as these,” Hugh continued, eagerly enjoying this chance to share knowledge with the ever-receptive audience that was Mr. Ward, “their very presence has certainly shaped the world around them, as I imagine if you ask most any person who’s read tales inspired by the ferocities of yesteryear they would be familiar with the gist of the concept, despite it being, as stated before, a fabrication most thorough. In some sense, the idea that this creation upon which we look is real is more important to the culture than whether or not it has actually perforated anyone, and it is far more likely that someone commission such a thing for that intended purpose today, inspired by accounts which never truly happened, than during any number of cold-blooded centuries past. It’s a self-creating little loop.” He smiled and returned his attention to the display. “I thought that was interesting.”
Mr. Ward’s features remained impassive. This was to be expected, as the man didn’t emote much when on the job, which he and Hugh most certainly were; Hugh had also thankfully learned that it was very difficult to outright bore Mr. Ward, at least when Hugh himself was involved, and so he was untroubled by the reserved, growling manner in which Mr. Ward replied. “So it is better to view devices such as these as more pieces of art than implements of despair?”
This pleased Mr. Ward, assuming Hugh was reading the quirk of his eyebrow correctly. “While I shan’t comment on how it might be used in the hands of the modern-day enthusiast, I’m slightly comforted to know that it’s an elaborate fiction, Professor Wainwright. One cannot call himself a humanitarian without having some level of concern for the abstracts of one’s peers.” He touched his free hand—the other busy holding to Hugh’s elbow instead of a playbill of his own—to his lips in thought. “Am I right to assume it’s not the only part of the collection that’s essentially so much schoolboy whimsy?”
Hugh beamed. Just because his professorship was strictly an emeritus position on paper didn’t mean he’d lost his taste for being asked excellent questions. “Right you are, Mr. Ward!” he said. “Shall I comment on another?”
Mr. Ward nodded. “If you would.”
Glancing about the gallery, Hugh’s eyes spotted another perfect object-lesson, and trotted over to admire it with Mr. Ward in tow. “Behold the pendulum,” he said.
“What fancies does it contain in regards to today’s thesis, professor?” asked Mr. Ward, his tone the closest thing he had to indulgent.
Hugh practically glowed with enthusiasm. “In this case? It is a matter of engineering. Allow me to explain: it would certainly be quite horrifying were one to be strapped beneath it, watching it whisper ever-downwards, bit by bit, on its journey to slice up one’s tum like a very large mandoline, wouldn’t it? But as awful as that situation might be, the details simply do not support it as a viable possibility.
“Consider, first, that for a blade to cut through something with as much resistance as the human body—or even something as relatively straightforward as a large fish—it would have to be devilishly sharp. You have no doubt noted how swiftly your surgical scalpels dull themselves on flesh! And even were something of this size given such a razored edge, the pendulum would ultimately blunt itself on the unlucky recipient before it finished cutting through. While I would certainly not enjoy having a large crescent of metal stuck in my person, it somewhat pales in comparison to the initial promise of being bisected, doesn’t it? One would be more likely to bleed out!
“The pendulum, as a concept, is most effective for what it represents rather than what it can do: it is the essence of helplessness against inevitability, of knowing one’s own doom and being unable to stall it. It is less a way to comfort ourselves by comparison and more a sort of, hm, mental unloading. We may not be able to visualize the many stressors of the day all at once, even as they bear down upon us with great prejudice, but we can take psychic comfort in imagining some poor soul strapped down beneath that blade and watching it swing to and fro.
“In the name of full disclosure, I do not doubt that someone has made such a device and used it on a subject—that may or may not have been a fish—at some point across the wild winds of history. However, to evaluate this thing as a device and not a novelty or gross underestimation of certain laws of physics, I must say it would save everyone some time to simply use a saw.”
Mr. Ward nodded in agreement. “More economical, as well. As you say, my bone saw needs much less frequent maintenance than my surgeon’s blades.” He gestured to a many-lobed device resting on a pedestal in the same display as the pendulum. “The pear of anguish, as they call the thing, is no stranger to the connoisseur of dreadful literature, as you may or may not be aware. Do you have any thoughts on it?”
“Oh my! Yes, yes, indeed I do. Now, being familiar with some level of mechanical maintenance, yourself, Mr. Ward, I’m sure you can recognize the craftsmanship required to make the coiled spring it uses….”
Before Hugh could go much further into a talk on why the object in question was patently incapable of the grisly deed ascribed to it given its engineering (to say nothing of how its design simply could not function as claimed if made using the metallurgical knowledge of its assigned time), someone dressed as an usher of sorts arrived before them from somewhere deeper in the theater. That Hugh had not noticed this unknown staff member’s approach caught his attention immediately; the pair of them had been asked to audit the Sauvageot and its resident troupe for potential breaches of society-enforced secrecy, and while there were certainly ways one could avoid senses as keen as Hugh’s, doing so was still highly suspect.
“Is there trouble with our exhibit, sirs?” said the androgynous usher.
“My companion is enlightening me to the historical shortcomings of your torture chamber,” said Mr. Ward.
This earned him and Hugh a knowing, conspiratorial look. “Not gory enough for you, I presume?” said the usher. “Shortly after we opened the city made us put the mannequins away, so I fear you must wait for the performance itself if you thirst for the glisten of blood. Take heart, gentle sirs, we have all confidence that our presentation will more than satisfy your particular needs.” Their eyes flicked from Hugh’s resplendent colors to the equally well-tailored, if far more drably-dyed, suit Mr. Ward wore. “You’re certainly among the better dressed members of our clientele, good sirs. Have you been told about the Sauvageot’s private boxes? We’re no strangers to guests in formal finery, and some find they enjoy the performance without worrying about dirtying their sleeves on their neighbors’. Suitable refreshments can also be arranged according to your unique palates.” Leaning in closer, they lowered their voice to add, “And, of course, should you find yourselves inspired by the show, the boxes provide a more intimate venue to…appreciate things.”
Hugh brandished their tickets before Mr. Ward could answer in one way or the other. “For our first time attending, we’re keen to experience the show as it’s most intended to be seen. Now, I do fancy myself a patron of the arts” —an entirely true statement, especially since Hugh, upon throwing himself into living out his professorial persona, had discovered he held a genuine love for all things culturally expressive— “so perhaps we might discuss such offerings at some future point? Why, as my companion can attest, at times I become so enamored of a night’s entertainment I can be found scampering to the ticket box immediately after curtain call, determined to secure my place at the next possible showing.”
“The professor is keen to explore his creative passions,” added Mr. Ward; while it had led to occasions where he’d been left waiting for ages in one lobby or another until Hugh had finished negotiating whatever repeat business had seized his attentions, it was not as though Mr. Ward was about to discourage those frequent fancies, as the gist of that ongoing artistic patronage, if not the details, was part of his most recent dissertation on the proper medical treatment of persons such as Hugh. Mr. Ward had written many dissertations over the years he’d spent with Hugh. In the sense that he was seemingly always dredging data points from the most innocuous of outings or quietest of evenings in, to say nothing of handling the lion’s share of the housework in the interim, the man was never not working.
“Of course, sirs, of course,” said the usher. Hugh could feel appraising eyes once more studying the cut of his clothes. Good; he’d made sure to wear some of his finest finery to attract exactly this sort of attention. It wasn’t like he had anything to fear from anyone else who might be drawn to a man dressed thusly. “Do you have plans for after tonight’s performance, perchance?”
An otherwise open schedule was important to maintain for the sake of their investigation, but the usher didn’t need to know that. “I admit we are as of yet unsure,” said Hugh. “Mr. Ward, here, is always swift to remind me I mustn’t overtax myself, as my medical condition can make me quite tired if I become too excited during the day, otherwise we’d surely have put in a reservation at the dining room of the Silver Leaves already….”
Something about the usher changed slightly when Hugh mentioned the name of such a prestigious hotel, perhaps a flare of the nostrils or perk of the ears; either way, Hugh could feel their eagerness to part him from some of the money that would no longer need to pay for braised duck or fancy roasts. He’d actually brought said coin, as well, as aside from having the frightfully deep pockets of any career jägermeister Hugh had been promised compensation upon completion so long as he submitted a proper receipt. Bribery was always easiest for him to stomach when it was a work expense. Bribe he would, too, as anyone whose hand he crossed with coin would no doubt have more need of it than he did, and such transactions worked best if one’s subject knew it was a possibility. Any hunter worth their sword knew the value of properly-laid bait.
As for the usher, they simply smiled at him. “If you won’t be inconvenienced by it, would you like me to arrange for a brief meeting with the leader of our troupe after the show?” they asked. “She is always happy to receive patrons, and would no doubt be interested to hear if you’ve any ideas to make our gallery of torture more historically accurate.”
It took every ounce of Hugh’s self-control not to smile at the snap of a trap well-sprung. Placing a hand to his cheek in moments of great emotion had never been an affectation of his, as every time he did so it was thoroughly sincere, but it certainly never hurt when he needed to play up being an easily-wowed nob in need of lightening his wallet. “Oh, would you, please?” he said. “We’ve heard so much about the Sauvageot, and I don’t doubt it will do my poor heart some good to see proof that everyone is alive and well after viewing what the playbill promises, to say nothing of how I am never not in awe of a master willing to discuss their craft.” He reached to an inner pocket of his coat to produce a calling card. “You’re welcome to deliver her my card, if that’s appropriate.”
“Keep it, professor, with my thanks, as we’ve a card for you and your companion, instead.” They handed him something very much like one of the tickets, save that it was printed on absinthe green stock with a little wax seal on the front. It didn’t look like it had changed hands many times, nor spent time rattling around inside the coat of an usher in search of someone upon whom they might unload it. Hugh suspected now more than ever that he’d been a mark since the moment he stepped through the door with his folded parasol in hand. “Show this to the fellows guarding the big door marked TO HELL at the back of the theater and they’ll let you in to see her. Not until the performance has let out, of course! Until then it’s simply too busy. You understand, gentle sirs.”
“Naturally,” said Hugh. “If they ask who gave me this, who shall I say did the honors…?”
“Ruining surprises is not in my oeuvre, gentle sirs, and I don’t plan to change that today. Perhaps later you’ll learn the answer. A fun mystery, don’t you think?” The usher smiled at them both; that they could manage something so genuine in the face of Mr. Ward’s frosty demeanor was yet another sign of a career performer. “The Sauvageot Theater welcomes you, gentlemen, and may our festival of horrors never fail to disappoint.” With this they took a sweeping bow before heading in the direction of another couple, also well-dressed, being scandalized by a set of thumbscrews.
Once the usher was out of what Hugh deemed to be earshot, he turned the pass over in his hand a few times to examine it with senses not possessed by much of the population. Unless he was mistaken, there was nothing unusual about the oblong green card—that was to say, nothing supernatural, as the pass’s embossed illustrations were certainly unusual in their subject matter—nor any lingering tells of the society practitioner’s art anywhere in the front gallery. The pass might well be nothing more than mundane paper. He gave it a final, fruitless once-over before tucking it back in the front pocket that held their tickets.
Mr. Ward touched at Hugh’s sleeve. “Is it anything like your own cards, professor?” he murmured. Mr. Ward did not whisper, but Hugh always felt murmuring suited him better, anyway.
“In the sense that it is printed up on handsome stock and designed to catch the eye, then yes, it’s very much like them,” said Hugh, “but if you mean if it will permit me access to places normally forbidden to me….” He chuckled. “Well, I suppose it does that, too, hm? Simply in the way any other ticket might allow one through a checkpoint. I dare say it will make the task easier.”
“Hrm. I was expecting it to be harder to make our way backstage.”
Hugh patted at Mr. Ward’s hand comfortingly. “I’m sure there will be some other difficulty to trouble us later, Mr. Ward. There always is.”
More and more people filtered into the little museum as the critical hour drew near and the box office sold more seats. Hugh did his best to look conspicuous, nigh unto begging to be noticed with his fancy coat and fancy hat and fine-set head of wavy, curling hair, all the while keeping other parts of himself carefully obfuscated. Did many noblemen have eyes that same purple-red color, did they always have that many fingers? No, no, it did not matter, what mattered was whether his was the way fashionable gentlemen wore their side-chops these days. By presenting these facets of his nature as things far less interesting than the luxurious fabric of his waistcoat, he’d found people were likely to pay them no mind, even without taking pains to keep them hidden. They might see an aristocrat if they listened to him speak, and they would certainly see a dandy if they evaluated the many-colored clothes upon his back, but they would never, ever see the hunter he truly was, and that was the greatest trick a jägermeister could play upon the world. More importantly, the more of Hugh people saw, the less they were likely to pay any mind to the quiet man in the bowler hat at his side, and Mr. Ward’s years as a manservant had taught him his own way of going seen-while-unseen. That keenness of his was what had ended up getting him initiated into the society in the first place. In a way, Hugh supposed, it had laid the first stone on the long and twisty path that had brought them together with all the terrible inevitability of that theoretical structurally-sound swinging pendulum. Fortune’s wheel spun in the most peculiar ways.
To Hugh’s great delight, the theater gallery contained a smallish wing of statuary right around the doors leading to the seats, though his joy was slightly blunted upon finding it to be mostly liturgical pieces repurposed to make the whole room into something of an exonarthex. He didn’t mind religious imagery, as the chapel of his childhood home had often been one of the few places he’d found any peace back when his first signs of turning had begun to manifest, but it seemed like it was either trying too hard to appeal to the baser instincts of the clientele (if he was being generous) or an utter waste of fine marble (if he wasn’t). Then again, the Sauvageot essentially used baser instincts as its very mortar, so who was Hugh to judge? A man who’d expected to find more pleasing sculpture on display, that was who.
Perhaps the sigh he’d heaved at the stone angel beheading some troublesome historical figure or another had been louder than he’d thought, as now it was his turn to have a gentle palm pat against his arm. “It’s for the best you not be too distracted when the curtain rises, professor,” said Mr. Ward.
“I suppose not,” said Hugh with a huff. “At least now I’ve a mood from which I shall be most grateful to be distracted.”
“The playbill does promise no shortage of diversions within.”
“If only there were a few more of such without! I fear I do them a disservice by comparing the admittedly quite fine pieces they’ve gathered here to those I’ve enjoyed in the past, but with as calm as things are, the mind scrabbles for something it can do. I dearly apologize for any insult,” he added, addressing both angel and increasingly headless personage alike. They did not respond to this. Being stone statues, he had not expected them to.
“Oh, when will that dratted clock sound? At this rate I’ll be so beside myself come showtime I’ll be able to serve as my own mirror.”
“All things in due time, professor.”
As if waiting for a thespian’s cue of its own, the clock tolled just as the last word left Mr. Ward’s unsmiling lips, and as the last peal stilled the doors swung open to greet the pair of them, plus those others who’d assembled in their midst with no small suspense. Hugh brightened instantly. Perhaps there was everyday foul play to be found here, or perhaps there was something more sinister, or perhaps it was all some great misunderstanding that had fallen upon the shoulders of artists who lacked the means to shrug it away; no matter the end result, there was a result to be gleaned from watching the show in earnest, and now that the hour was finally at hand he nigh unto slavered for those future findings like a dog gone mad for the smell of a fox. The thought caused him to dab at his lips with a trembling glove. No, he wasn’t actually drooling, at least not at the moment, so he plucked a wax-papered humbug from his little pocket supply and popped the unwrapped sweet in his mouth to give his saliva something more useful to do. Bracing mint raced across his tongue and up through his sinuses; now if his mouth was a little over-wet there was a proper excuse for it. The not-disguise he wore worked best when it only needed to keep the outsider observer from noting so many things at once.
Mr. Ward had waited patiently throughout Hugh’s impromptu toilette and made no comment when his now fresher-smelling companion offered an elbow once again. The seats and ticket numbers were paired, after all, and while theirs were several more rows back than the performances Hugh more frequently attended—the assignment, he suspected, had been handed down to them in a bit of a rush—they had still managed a lovely set reasonably close to the middle of the section, and even if they’d been placed all the way back in the cheapest of the gods, he would’ve been happy enough for Mr. Ward’s company in such a fun new environment. The stage would soon be set, the lights would soon be dimmed, and the worst part of any task (waiting for it to begin) was nearly over. All they had to do next was see the show.
With tickets at the ready, the pair of them made to file into the waiting auditorium.
The first intermission had arrived in what seemed to Hugh like the blink of an eye, though it was not for lack of things to see: the Sauvageot wasn’t satisfied with serving up a single play for its nightly showings, being determined to fill the whole of the evening with sights, and so the audience had been entertained by music and smaller acts to make the final drama of a mad doctor’s aborted reign of terror land all the more powerfully. Hugh had especially enjoyed the comedies. He’d been careful to close his eyes any time the lights came up or down, as the golden glint they made might prove distracting, and even while laughing at the antics of the Sauvageot’s namesake puppet-clown his senses were forever honed to detect things usually only visible to a man of his nature. No such thing prickled at his mystic whiskers. If there was any unregulated sorcery afoot at the theater that evening, he had yet to notice it.
One thing Hugh did notice, however, was how Mr. Ward’s attention seemed to be flagging. That wouldn’t do at all; not only did Hugh rely upon Mr. Ward’s cunning to help scour the stage for acts upon which the society frowned, the terrors promised upon that stage had struck Hugh as the sort of thing his companion would enjoy for their own sake, being a connoisseur of fictional nasties of no lacking detail. Society work was not designed to be delightful, but if there was a chance it could be, Hugh was determined to pursue that chance.
“Are you well, Mr. Ward? You seem distracted.”
“It’s nothing, professor,” said Mr. Ward, and had Hugh not known him so well it would’ve been easy to suspect he was telling the truth. “I simply need to stretch my legs.”
“My, yes, we have been seated a while, haven’t we? Allow me to accompany you. I saw someone selling oranges elsewhere in the gallery, and I should very much like to treat you to one.” He decided to leave it at that. Whatever was troubling Mr. Ward, surely some refreshments and a little walk around the gallery would do him well, and perhaps someplace a little less public would encourage him to speak more openly; with so many other patrons about, the ever-cautious Mr. Ward would be unlikely to discuss professional, to say nothing of personal, matters. Hugh steered them both towards the orange-seller. If nothing else, by the end of the break, they would still have had themselves some fruit.
“Enjoyin’ the show, sirs?” asked the orange-seller, wearing a gown clearly meant to look like a peddler woman’s but too clean and well-mended to truly be a street vendor’s garment. It was quite a feat of costumery; one who hadn’t learned how to tell the difference between the truly destitute and those who simply wished to look that way never would have known. “Your man there seems a little peaky,” she added, nodding to Mr. Ward. “Our troupe’s no stranger to patrons gettin’ sick, comes with the territory of unflinchin’ naturalism, so it does, but ask at the ticket office for a little bag for him if he’s going to do so while the curtain’s up, hey?”
Mr. Ward didn’t respond to this, and given that Hugh had dragged home far viler things than anything presented on stage (including, on certain occasions, himself), he suspected whatever troubled his companion was something more involved than hidden bladders filled with what had smelled to Hugh like pig’s blood. Well, if Mr. Ward was busy contemplating goodness knows what, the job clearly called for Hugh to take point instead.
“Oh, please don’t worry for him, madam, he’s had enough medical training to not mind a spot of red,” said Hugh. “I’m sure he’s simply in deep thought about the production. And who wouldn’t be? It’s such a grand sight, seeing everything up on stage! To think it’s merely been the first third!” He handed over enough coin for two oranges and then some. “Thank you, thank you, my good lady,” he continued as she rummaged through her basket. “I say, are patrons often allowed to visit backstage after the show?”
The orange-seller gave him an incredulous look. “We’re all right knackered after curtain call, sir, so don’t go expectin’ it.”
Hugh chuckled. “Dear lady, you misunderstand!” he said, keeping his tone merry. He produced the pass from where he’d tucked it and held it up so she could see its tell-tale bold and embossed green. “As you can see, we’ve been invited.”
She raised her eyebrow. “So you have,” she said. “That which you have there is good as gold, so hold on to it close. Might I ask how you came to be in its possession?” Something in her voice was off. It was no sin for someone with a lowborn accent to speak formally—Mr. Ward did so every day of his life, sometimes confrontationally so—but just as there was a difference between a costume gown and an actual tattered frock, so too was there a divide between one who spoke thusly by nature and one who used their words as yet another guise. How intriguing.
“Well! It was the most serendipitous thing: before the doors opened, I was speaking with my companion, here,” said Hugh, gesturing to Mr. Ward, who was busy eating sections of fruit while glaring into the middle distance in the way he always did while mentally occupied, “when an usher arrived from what seemed like the ether itself, and after a brief conversation, offered us this pass.” He leaned in with a faux-conspiratorial air. “They said the leader of the troupe might be interested in discussing matters of history, on which, I’ll have you know, I do sometimes give lectures when the faculty permit it, and I’d be remiss to ignore the opportunity to help make the Sauvageot’s gallery more educational….”
The orange-seller sighed. “Yes, that sounds like something she’d do, all right.” She pulled her patter back in place as she continued: “You’ll be needin’ to give us thirty minutes after we clear the stage so nobody gets caught with their arse hangin’ out, so don’t expect the boys at the door to let you past even with that invite until then. Asked in or no, you ain’t going to be welcome before the worst of the final act gets wiped up.”
“Intermission lasts a little while longer, sirs, so freshen up at your leisure. Hello hello, miss, care for an orange?”
Hugh had not always been too skilled at telling when someone was done talking to him, being accustomed to communication focused around receiving hunting orders and giving debriefings and fairly little else outside of that, but even at his most socially dulled he would’ve been able to suss out the orange-seller’s desire to end things. That was fine. He took his own orange from Mr. Ward (who’d been holding on to it while Hugh handled the pass, having half-peeled it for him already) and, taking care to stop and admire the occasional display, meandered towards a nearly empty part of the gallery.
Gaslights glowed from their sconces all throughout the theater antechambers and set Hugh’s attire to gleaming when he walked past them at certain angles. Some might have viewed gliding through a public space frequented by entertainers whilst clad in manifestly showy garb to be asking to have one’s pocket picked. At times Hugh not only expected this but banked on it; having a wallet—one properly marked with an unseen society sigil, of course—end up in some enterprising youngster’s hands had proven to be a fine way to find fences in the city, and fences were invaluable in tracking down suppliers of contraband (or, less frequently, interesting trinkets for his own collection). Any money lost in this transaction was easily invoiced to the society as a working expense. Some enterprising actor no doubt had more use for such a trivial amount coin than he, after all! While Hugh didn’t mind supporting the arts, he did mind losing the pass, to say nothing of certain other useful things he’d brought with him that day, and so he kept his wits about himself even as there were increasingly fewer people who might consider him for their next harvest.
Only when he’d eaten a proper portion of his fruit did Hugh say anything further. “Well, that one certainly is keeping an eye on the crowds, isn’t she, Mr. Ward? I wonder what roles she plays on stage.”
“Part of the Devil’s Choir, professor,” said Mr. Ward. “Based on her build I suspect her to be one of the Furies. Their costumes are simple enough that she could don and doff her vendor’s attire without much trouble, provided she started during the play, and she could wear whatever makeup she pleases under a singer’s half-mask.”
Hugh nodded. “Speaking of the play, what did you think of it?”
“It’s an adaptation of The Mysterious Doctor Pinflower, a piece serialized in the Weekly Mistral about ten, perhaps fifteen years back, and there are too many similarities for the playwright to claim they merely flung their bucket into the same broad well of inspiration. Some elements have been changed for the sake of the medium, but it’s otherwise a fairly accurate adaptation. I dare say the murders were handled more tastefully, yet also more powerfully, than the original material.”
“And the content proper?”
Mr. Ward flared his nostrils in annoyance. “Anti-science drivel.”
There was a thread of an idea there, some deep and personal affair that vanished into some small part of the great unknown that was Mr. Ward’s mind, and Hugh was eager to give it a tug to see what might unravel. Mr. Ward was not the only one who would nudge his companion towards lecturing. “Do go on. I fear I’m but a simple classicist, and cannot hope to see what you, a proper member of the besmirched field, can.” This was not strictly true—Hugh was quite knowledgeable in many things that one might describe as science, provided a suitably liberal definition of the term—but the easiest way to get Mr. Ward talking was to appeal to his professionalism.
Naturally, this worked. Mr. Ward dabbed his fingers with a cloth wetted from a cup of water he’d procured from somewhere, wiped his mouth clean of lingering juices, and fell into one of the varied postures he favored when sharing one of the countless pearls of wisdom held fast by his oyster of a brain. “Consider, professor, that the titular mysterious doctor is punished with death for practicing his craft, and that there is the implication there was no way for him to pursue a greater understanding of medicine without leaving a trail of corpses. So incensed was he by the act of placing blade to flesh that his desires ultimately exploded into the bloody bacchanal we beheld. The play sees this as an inevitability rather than the sad, avoidable result of insufficient care for what was clearly a troubled mind. It tacitly states that no surgeon can exist without causing great harm to others, and that partaking of their services only promotes said harm.”
“Why, Mr. Ward, I know for a fact that you have personally helped harvest deadman’s dust, and it could be said that such a thing is its own form of harm,” said Hugh, cheerily, though he was careful to keep his voice quiet despite the lack of other patrons in their part of the gallery. The uninitiated tended to have a dim view of graveyard work.
“Corpses are different, professor,” replied Mr. Ward. He bolted down one of his last remaining orange wedges and surreptitiously spat the seed into his water-damp handkerchief. “It’s more than just the doctor who’s portrayed as being at fault. You’ll note the patients were punished for seeking out treatment from an accredited professional, having all turned away from more traditional herb-sellers and salve-boilers, and while I do not dislike seeing a modern work shy from claiming older knowledge has spoiled like sun-soured milk, this piece swings too hard in the opposite direction, fearing anything that it can’t explain in the simplest of ideas, to say nothing of people who can conceive of such complex notions. It meets the unknown not with curiosity but with fear, and cries out that those who don’t are utterly in the wrong. That’s the absolute antithesis of the scientific mind.”
Hugh nibbled at an orange piece of his own thoughtfully. “One might say the society’s greatest goal is keeping the too-curious from bringing down the whole of reality around our ears.” He didn’t hold this opinion, himself, but that didn’t matter; Mr. Ward deserved an easy conversational target to gut if he was already so incensed over what the playbill claimed was the tamest section of the whole show. After all, were their positions reversed, wouldn’t Hugh want very much the same thing?
“One might say so, professor, but one must also take care to properly divide the society, with all its flaws and necessities and desperate need of reformation, from modern society, which is a thing that must always be guided to ever-greater heights of understanding and compassion,” said Mr. Ward. “What good is our apprised perspective if it isn’t used for the betterment of others? We owe it to the whole of humanity to keep the world from splitting open like an overripe gourd, but I believe this can be achieved without branding even the slightest whiff of presenting progress as anathema. There is surely a way to do it without calling down endless tides of the horrors you so eagerly cull.”
“And you believe that one way to do it is through…theater?”
“It is but a single gust in what must be a never-ceasing gale, but given enough wind and enough time, not even stone can stand against that merciless storm.”
Such a statement made enough sense to Hugh; it was something of Mr. Ward’s modus operandi, that ceaseless and incessant struggle against that which refused to yield, simply because to do nothing was so much worse. Hugh had not been his first patient. There had been many disquisitions written before they had met, each one rejected for reasons of variable rationality and decorum, and yet still Mr. Ward would come before the academy council with new findings, almost daring them to reject him again, to see what heights he might scale when fueled by the new repudiation. He would dash himself against those same rocks until something yielded, be it the academy’s will or his own flesh, for to him there was no ethical choice, no humane choice, but to toil to ease the particular sufferings he had identified. Nothing would convince him to stand down from that hill on which he had chosen to die. It was a sort of bravery that Hugh, who would meet all manner of horrors with a raised sword and a wild grin, could scarcely imagine seeing in himself, and it was but one of many reasons his love for Mr. Ward grew deeper with each passing day.
Determination, alas, could not solve problems on its own. “So how, then, might we actually promote this cultural realignment?”
Mr. Ward tapped his chin. “We’ll be speaking with the troupe’s leader after the show, will we not? Perhaps we could encourage a change of subject matter.”
“A fine idea, Mr. Ward, but I fear I’ve no experience with scribing stage directions, and unless you’ve kept it secret from me all this time, I suspect you do not, either. Where might we find a replacement? We cannot simply make demands with no guidance.”
“If their playwright is a member of their company, then that is who we shall address. If they take their scripts from outside sources, however, we shall need to see what the society’s archives can produce.”
Hugh met the suggestion with a puzzled little frown. “Aren’t most plays in the archives interdicted? And for good reason?” Certain records were careful to document, in a roundabout and piecemeal form, the nature of the works the society would no longer tolerate being performed, whether publicly or otherwise; even how many there were (presumably) kept locked away was a difficult detail to discover. It was best not to name which plays, as that might attract their attention. Semi-malevolent written theater had quite the flair for the dramatic.
This earned him a half-shrug from Mr. Ward. “There are some which are not, and even those that are might find new purpose after being properly taken to pieces by a set of censor’s scissors. I do not doubt there is artistic merit to be found in even the most difficult of works. All that is required of us is to sanitize the damaging elements.” Referring to pieces of theater—which caused such a fuss any time they came to light again, which was difficult to curtail, seeing as how many of them came to their authors in fitful dreams accompanied by all manner of maladies—as damaging elements was the sort of understatement with which Mr. Ward excelled.
“Certain members of the archives would be horrified at the thought of changing so much as a single full stop in a manuscript,” said Hugh, “much less gutting something so wholly, only to stretch the skin back over its skeleton in an act of literary taxidermy.”
Mr. Ward tutted. “Taxidermy has its place, professor. A well-preserved animal can teach us so much more about itself than the same creature pushed into a jar of formaldehyde and left to drift in noisome infinity. If there is use left in the carcass then we do the world a disservice to let it molder instead of laying it on the artisan’s table. We can remove the virulent meat without needing to dispose of the skin or bones.” Trust a man who’d grown up on stews made from the less glamorous parts of the fish to have such strong opinions on being resourceful!
Resourceful or not, it was difficult for Hugh to imagine those dream-stricken authors approving of their work being edited with what amounted to the exact opposite motives as those sweat-soaked phantasmal fancies that had first guided nib to paper. “The idea is still a bit ghoulish, isn’t it?”
“If they dislike seeing how sausage is made, no one is forcing them to step into the kitchen to watch.”
Hugh could only fret. Some parts of their work he could stomach more easily than others. “Let’s not be too hasty with such plans,” he said, keeping his eye on a few patrons who had drawn close to their quiet part of the gallery and adjusting his language to better suit eavesdropping. “Perhaps the offending play was simply a poor choice, and the rest of what awaits us will be more to your standards? We must not judge the whole without better knowledge of its parts.”
“Sometimes a festering wound is right in the open, professor, and neglecting to treat it without first seeing to the cleanliness of the injured’s teeth is simply lengthening, and perhaps exacerbating, suffering.” Mr. Ward sighed, then continued: “And yet, you do remind me not to be so hasty. I have personally observed the removal of a fiendishly serious pharmacobezoar from one poor fellow’s stomach; had the doctor who first prescribed him the offending pills bothered to ask more of his diet or family health instead of jumping right to the most powerful medicines available—in acquiring better knowledge of his parts, to use your phrasing—the whole of it might have been avoided.”
Now here was something about which Hugh felt more at ease when it came to fretting! “Dear oh dear. Did he recover afterwards?”
“Let us not use strong words like recover when referring to persons of your nature whom the society has deemed in need of treatment,” said Mr. Ward, and neither of them needed to mention those sad, early sparks that had first lit the fires of indignation in his reform-hungry heart. He refused to stop being troublesome if it meant people like Hugh had a chance at a better standard of living. Nowadays Hugh took it as a sort of compliment that he’d been shown to Mr. Ward’s door back when his condition had taken a turn for the worse; if the society didn’t view him as something too potent to simply shuffle into a back alley and hit with a shovel, they wouldn’t have assigned him such a handler. Oh, there was the unspoken truth that the society had likely hoped such an assignment would mean one of them would end the other, perhaps simultaneously, but that made finding companionship instead of fully-reciprocal destruction all the sweeter in hindsight. Once they came to their mutual understanding Hugh had been all too happy to take up the role of research assistant.
“I say, do I hear correctly that you’re a surgeon, sir?” asked one of the patrons Hugh had been monitoring, who had rolled up with a small entourage, all of whom were now paying quite a lot of attention to Mr. Ward. They were dressed similarly to Hugh, though some wore gowns in place of ruffles and frock coats.
Mr. Ward nodded. “I have professional experience with the knife and gloves, yes,” he replied, and Hugh was quietly grateful that the sudden visitor had asked after a skillset rather than a title. The academy could deny Mr. Ward a thousand different doctorates, but it couldn’t take away all the hours he’d poured into learning the whimsies of the human body!
The crowd of finely-dressed patrons clamored with excitement. “You must have stories, then, dear sir!” said the first speaker with an enthused clap of his hands. He wore his mustache swept to the sides in great bristling swoops that reminded Hugh of a river otter’s muzzle. It was easy to imagine him smacking open clams against a rock balanced on his belly. “No need to be shy! We’re all here for a bit of wicked entertainment, aren’t we? I’m sure my friends and I can handle some truly nasty tales.”
“I suppose there is one…,” said Mr. Ward, and as any lingering discontent to which he might still have clung was soon hidden beneath a calm retelling of sewing a man’s arm back where it belonged, there was little more trouble to be had until the time came to return to their seats.
The second intermission found Mr. Ward’s grave mood returned.
“I take it your standards have yet to be suitably met, Mr. Ward?” asked Hugh. “Not much in the vein of the sciences this time, but you’re incensed all the same, so there’s surely something worth discussing.” He struggled not to wring his hands in worry. They had decided, unspoken, to make a fresh circuit through the gallery, in no small part to avoid having to provide more stories to the little crowd that had demanded Mr. Ward’s time previously; stretching their legs was lovely, but no amount of loveliness could take the role of discussing the task at hand through as little misdirection as they could manage. Hugh had needed to bite his tongue a time or two any time someone spoke rudely of Mr. Ward’s patient, of how foolish he’d been to be injured so, or any other insult. It wasn’t as though they could know it was Hugh’s arm he’d reattached. Hunting was dangerous work, and the less people knew of its details—or its necessity—the better.
“Tell me, professor,” said Mr. Ward in what struck Hugh as a barely-restrained snarl, “if you were to see any of the works we were just shown, what would you most remember when asked?”
“Why, the puppetry, of course,” said Hugh. Silly Sauvageot had once more returned to entertain the patrons of the theater that bore his name, and whoever had been guiding the clown’s painted hands and clattering jaw was truly a master of their craft. Hugh had needed to exert himself quite a bit to keep his senses at the ready in spite of being caught up in peals of laughter.
“Yes, of course it would be the puppetry,” said Mr. Ward, mostly to himself.
Hugh glanced over at Mr. Ward with concern. “I fear I might’ve overlooked something significant, given your words,” he said. “Would you care to share your thoughts with me?”
Mr. Ward made a weary sound and pulled a hand down his face. “Professor, tell me: how would you think it were your entire self flattened down to a single detail, based purely on circumstances at their very worst and nothing else that makes you who you are as an individual, which was then used to paint a portrait wide and unflattering?”
“You speak as though I could only imagine this in the abstract?” said Hugh. All you can do is hurt people, the society’s maesters had told him for years upon years. It’s the only thing beasts like you know how to do. Hugh was still very good at hurting things when the time came for it, but nowadays he could do that and play simpler tunes on the pianoforte for others to enjoy, and that did not count for nothing.
This did make Mr. Ward pause in his tracks a moment, spurred back to motion only when Hugh’s elbow threatened to slip free of his fingers. “You are correct, professor, and I should have chosen my words with greater care,” said Mr. Ward as they rounded a suit of replica full plate. In the space of a few steps he retrieved his fire once more: “But you understand the harm in it, yes? That is how what we saw encourages the viewer to perceive the criminal poor: not as human beings deserving of aid, but as otherly things not quite the same as you or I, and therefore easier to view as some deviant species of primate instead of those most in need of charity. You were raised in a fine house before being sent away to train” —what a fantastic euphemism that was for what had happened, neatly sidestepping all the blood, tears, and paperwork!— “so you no doubt have heard such words with your own ears. The poor. The criminal. The help. Never as adjectives, only ever used as a replacement for their personhood.”
Yonder lay a deep and dodgy pit of a conversation, so Hugh tried to exercise some greater care of his own. “I did notice such things,” he said, “though in the context of what we were being shown, it felt as though these characters were intended to be larger than life, similar to how we do not judge works of Classical literature for reflecting mores from a different time and place.” Another relevant thought came to him as they once more passed through the silent space between two separate crowds. “Is it not better for the populace to worry over natural threats, like cutpurses and brigands, than the unnatural? A single man with a very sharp knife is far simpler to handle at the end of the day, no matter his tricks and trap-wires. Why must we pride ourselves on accuracy here, Mr. Ward? To some extent all fiction must be false.”
As proud as Hugh had been of that observation, Mr. Ward wasn’t quite as taken, though he didn’t reply further until they had sidestepped yet another group of gleefully outraged attendees. “The concern,” he said, “is that too many in the audience see such things and don’t view them as extraordinary fiction or overblown fancy; instead they see an imaginary crime and worry that such a crime might befall them, despite your typical ruffian being no great monster. To this mindset, nowhere can be safe unless all that is criminal is locked away to rot!” Once again his passions spiked, and once again he smoothed them back down into a more respectable contour. “Indeed, to view the criminal as monstrous by default sets a fell precedent, as by deluding themselves to see a pickpocket as something less than human, they make room for the fallacy that a person must forever fear imperfection lest they be seen as Lesser” —Mr. Ward was a man who could very clearly pronounce the capital L— “and in doing so devalue humanity as a whole.”
Surely it couldn’t be the base content to which he objected, as Hugh was certain that there were at least a few master criminals hiding among Mr. Ward’s fiction collection (much of which involved vampires), so he teased his brains further. What would a more moderate way to present such things be without losing the spice that made them so exciting in the first place? One couldn’t expect a gelded story to sire much in the way of imagination; even if the theater’s troupe would hear out their requests in regards to to changing what was performed upon the stage, demanding every dish on the menu be replaced with the blandest of gruel was unlikely to go over well. Hugh pondered. This was proving to be a challenge that required more than a mere few minutes’ of conversation to decipher.
Deciphering worked best with plenty of clues, so Hugh carried on with his questions. “Did you recognize any source material this time around?”
“Grigori the Highwayman, from the original run of All Youth’s Weekly, and Bill Bustard: Devil of the Back-Alleys, from Pennywick’s Serial about ten years previous,” Mr. Ward replied with confident promptness.
“Was the nature of each man of wickedness presented true to the original?”
Mr. Ward hummed in thought. “There is a certain amount of detachment to the written word,” he said. “One may read upon the page that a man’s throat is cut, and it is the reader who, in absence of more particular detail, will decide upon the savagery of the wound and the angle of the knife. Upon the stage, however, we are shown a particular deed, and while this, too, may be an abstraction done with nothing but pantomime and red fabric, there is an air of urgency and intimacy to see the act carried out before our eyes. We cannot imagine away details upon which it might be distressing to dwell were we reading the scene at home. Perhaps no one truly died this evening, but the audience was still present for a murder. Several murders by now, actually.”
This was all very interesting, but it didn’t answer Hugh’s question. Perhaps Mr. Ward expected Hugh to formulate his own solution, so he made an attempt: “So you would say, even if it is a one-for-one creation of an existing work, the change in the medium causes the, hrm, timbre of the original to change?”
“Precisely. The dialogue was nearly verbatim in both instances. Simply staging things so that Bill Bustard stood at a higher angle than his victim, and with a set made up of slanting angles in place of the usual prop-maker’s precision, made him appear very much more an elemental thing than a more traditional approach towards depicting his climactic challenge from the roadside hilltop, one where he might simply come in from stage right like anyone else with props in hand.”
“They were rather nice prop weapons, weren’t they?” said Hugh. They were props and nothing but, so said his trained eye, though he felt he could probably convert them into something worse if left alone in his workshop for an afternoon.
“One needs proper tools if one expects one’s stage violence to be believable, professor.”
“And the quality of the stage violence itself?”
“The quality of the violence was very good,” said Mr. Ward, grudgingly.
Hugh nodded. He’d been keeping an eye on that part of the show, too. “Allow us to discuss it further once we’ve found somewhere more quiet,” he said. “Why, I couldn’t possibly sleep through the night were I to suspect I said something of a salacious nature out where gentler ears might hear!”
A pair of coiffured ladies, also arm-in-arm, chuckled knowingly at Hugh’s statement as they passed. The Sauvageot had a reputation among certain circles in the city for being a place to revel in the unseemly, or at least watch others reenact such things before a paying crowd, and certain other circles (with which there was no small overlap with the previous group) declared it a fine spot to make connections with obliging strangers in search of company; Hugh was happy for the pair to assume he belonged to either of these groups, a fellow patron simply in need of a private place in which he might entertain his companion before the intermission ended. There was an unspoken truce among the patrons that someone might want privacy for all manner of reasons, and should therefore be permitted it. Hugh was grateful for this little agreement as he and Mr. Ward picked through the gallery’s many nooks in search of someplace unoccupied.
The quietest spot in the gallery—for the time being, if nothing else—turned out to be before a display showing a bronze bull, beneath which some enterprising soul had built up a fire-pit, complete with unlit coals beneath a broad iron grille. The open door in its side yawned like a rip in its ribs. A framed print on the nearby wall depicted the thing’s purpose as a variant of death by fire. Hugh found himself wondering how such a device was meant to be cleaned, even if (as his understanding of the subject implied) it never actually roasted anyone inside its bovine bulk across the whole of antiquity. Would it be more intimidating to leave the insides blackened from past victims, or leave it shiny and bright, implying it was well-kept? Would the victim actually die by the heat of the fire, or would they suffocate first, seeing as there was nothing a blaze loved more than to rip breath from a fellow’s lungs? Would you have to go in with a scraper to get all the melted fat out? It all seemed so dreadfully inefficient, though Hugh supposed if one was the sort of tyrant to make a metal aurochs with a mouth designed to amplify the cries of its unfortunate inhabitants, mere efficiency would be one of the last things on one’s mind.
Hugh and Mr. Ward observed the creature in shared silence. There did not appear to be any onlookers, earthly or otherwise, but the gallery was hardly very large; once Hugh was sure that he heard no footsteps nor felt the breath of a hidden witness, he chose to ease back into the business of the evening as casually as he was able. Being a society man required one to forever speak in layers when not in the privacy of one’s own home.
“Rather a funny fellow, this bull,” he said. “I’m surprised the craftsmanship on this one is so good. No melting to pieces in the rain here!” He chuckled and gestured to the gaping door. “You see how the hinges are arranged so upon the side? That’s a subtly modern technique, quite out of sorts with when it claims to have been made, so this was almost certainly commissioned by some art collector. I suppose it would have to be if they wanted to have one for themselves.”
“Seeing as it’s another of your iron maiden devices, yes?” asked Mr. Ward.
“In that its reputation is far more documented than anyone it might’ve actually slain? Naturally.” Hugh pursed his lips. “There is supposedly one factual account of such a thing actually existing, but there is one factual account of all manner of surprising things, and it hardly makes this any less fanciful as something widely used. Its notoriety is more likely a work of propaganda than engineering. Unlike the spring-loaded pear’s misplaced reputation, it’s a bit difficult to mistake our Mr. Brazen Beef-Sides for having any purpose other than the one stated.”
Mr. Ward removed his spectacles and began to polish them with his handkerchief, miraculously failing to streak the lenses with any bits of the orange he’d eaten prior. His face looked strange without them. “It would seem the whole gallery is filled with analogies,” he said. “Is anything here genuine, professor? A foolish thing to ask of a theater, I know, but now you have me curious.”
“Well! I cannot say for the individual pieces without appraising each in turn, but if you mean to ask if certain well-known methods of torture were enacted upon real persons, I can safely tell you yes. In addition to verified records, there are exhumations which support the idea. And, of course, we both understand that the society has its methods and measures.” Hugh had never been trained as an interrogator—he simply hadn’t the stomach for it—but that didn’t mean he couldn’t interrogate, nor that he was unaware of the society’s grimmer needs and those who carried them out with gusto. Such persons never failed to make him uncomfortable during those rare times he had to tolerate their presence. At least when Hugh came home from the hunt with a red mouth and a spent pistol he didn’t pretend to be anything other than what he was.
“Methods and measures, indeed,” said Mr. Ward as he settled his ear-pieces back in place. “What have you to say of the Sauvageot’s own methods, then?”
“Ah, you mean the stage violence we chose to discuss elsewhere? Near as I can tell it’s all achieved through techniques that are, relatively, quite commonplace. It’s very clever how they do it. Really, if I hadn’t seen the actual thing up close so many times, I should be hard-pressed to believe those poor actors weren’t stabbed.”
Hugh leaned against the banister that encircled the little scene before them. He thought back to the odd little ache in the back of his head he kept feeling in bits and pieces, not quite a pain but hardly a comfort, and how he’d been unable to get a proper feel for it. It kept distracting him from the show at rude times, like a seam in a piece of ill-tailored clothing that kept brushing against his skin. It’d appeared partways through the second segment, and he’d thought it nothing but a passing irritant at first, perhaps the result of overextending himself during the first portion of the show. Now he was not so sure.
“There is something odd about this place, Mr. Ward, and I’m having quite a devil of a time figuring out precisely what it might be, but that oddness may simply be due to the night city pressing in at a veil worn thin by grand emotion. My senses are always ever so keen to revel in the comforts of home when they find them, so until I’ve more time to study the environs, I cannot say with certainty that I’m not snapping at shadows.” In his head he ran through the most intense scenes of what they’d seen, none of which had tripped his snares. “Perhaps something is afoot that we’ve yet to see. Perhaps there’s nothing to be found at all. The only certitude I can muster at this point is this: of everything we’ve seen upon that stage, it was done with sleight of hand and choreography and various other trickeries, nothing more. Really quite remarkable, that.”
“You understand why it pains me to find such fine craftsmanship paired with such poor values.”
Values again! Hugh had yet to come up with a good answer to the puzzle he’d set before himself, seeing as how he’d scarcely had the time to walk from one place to another, much less muse upon tricky philosophical issues. Well, perhaps Mr. Ward would be cooled enough to hear out an idea or two, and if not, he could rephrase his own concerns so they might be better understood. Hugh began to put his thoughts in order. “You were saying the key problem is that the audience is encouraged, consciously or no, to view the killers as something not quite human, were you not?”
“Correct,” said Mr. Ward. “Every single thing done upon the stage is a choice, from the build of the sets to the most delicate stroke of makeup, and while some of these are indeed trivial, with minimal purpose beyond fulfilling an artistic need, we must not take this reality and claim that, because one thing means very little, the whole of it means little.”
“Like the woman with her oranges, dressed faux-poorly that patrons might view her as a simpler creature?”
“Exactly that, professor.”
So far, so good; upon verifying he was understanding the issue the way Mr. Ward was explaining it, Hugh felt confident that he finally had a proper idea to share. “So…do excuse me if I misjudge here, but the danger there is not that the story exists at all, but that the way it is presented that is so troublesome, correct? That the careless patron might be tempted to view anyone who halfway reminds them of these ruffians as similarly terrible in some way, even if the only thing they share in common is their, well, commonness?”
“Sublimating fear and uncertainty into loathing, yes,” said Mr. Ward.
Hugh hadn’t interpreted it quite so seriously, though to be fair, he expected Mr. Ward to be far more attuned to such things than he. “I was thinking perhaps a way to make the audience feel more sympathetic to the events might be worth discussing. Would having more of the cast be from the same social stratum as their villains make for a more meaningful comparison? They can keep all the gore in that way, and perhaps even add more, as I know it’s a major reason people pay for tickets in the first place. What’s the point of changing a message for the better if no one comes to see it?”
Mr. Ward looked up at High with a thoughtful noise. “It’d be but a single drop of rain in the whole sea, but the ocean would rise all the same. Keep that thought close, Professor Wainwright, as we may need it to make our case backstage.”
“I’ll keep it as close as I keep our pass,” said Hugh, patting at his coat-front demonstratively.
“Very good, professor.”
This time there were no tales of terror to pass the remaining minutes of the intermission, nor anyone to interrupt them with requests for tales of anything else; as all that their assignment needed of Hugh at that point was to stand at Mr. Ward’s side, reviewing the playbill between thinking about historical replicas of dubious authenticity, he couldn’t have been happier for it.
Scandalized whispers rippled through the audience as the theater emptied in the wake of its thundering final number. It had certainly deserved them: while the plays earlier in the night had been works of balanced (if ostentatious) showmanship, the finale had gone out of its way to challenge and offend, from the Devil’s Choir that roared along with the musicians down in the orchestra pit, all the way up to the stage violence. That had caught Hugh’s attention. As the blood-stained leading lady sang while draped in what were meant to be her own innards, he could feel that same indistinct something he’d first noticed during the second segment crackle off of her like she was a chunk of amber rubbed against a fur. It didn’t seem to be her direct doing, though, which troubled him far more than the decadence onstage. Was she singing down a night city? Did she even know she was doing it? He’d already had questions aplenty for once they were permitted to speak with her in person, and this added plenty more to that towering pile.
He and Mr. Ward remained seated while the audience filed out, soon leaving them with little but the sounds of fading conversation and the bustle of stagehands behind the curtains. Hugh could smell soap above the familiar stink of offal. How much did the Sauvageot spend on cleaning between shows? How much did they haggle with the local slaughterhouses for supplies? It couldn’t have been cheap; he was starting to understand why even tickets as humble as those he’d acquired had gone for so much.
“Well,” said Hugh after tiring of waiting for Mr. Ward to say the first word, “that was quite the show, wasn’t it? Very dramatic! It’s a wonder the broadsheets haven’t spoiled everything thrice over by now. I can’t wait for the chance to go backstage and discuss it all with the actors themselves.” He patted Mr. Ward’s hand, which still lay firm against the armrest. “I should very much care to hear your thoughts on what we’ve seen, once you’ve collected them.”
Mr. Ward made a distracted sort of grumble. “Later, Professor Wainwright,” he said. Lowering his voice, he added, “Something has disturbed one of the alarms you helped me set up earlier in the day.”
“Oh, goodness, which one?”
A brass chain strung with what looked like normal keys lay in Mr. Ward’s lap, one of said keys having developed a striking green patina. He gathered up the chain in his hand so that the newly-verdant key hung across his knuckles. “It looks to be the one you placed high up on the rooftops, near the back.”
Hugh pulled off one glove and let the metal brush against his bare fingers. Yes indeed, that was an alarm that had most definitely been tripped, and the more he concentrated the more certain he was that it wasn’t the work of some passing cat or night-gaunt. It didn’t feel like someone had set it off purposefully, nor could he detect any sign of tampering, so the society’s suspicions that there was some sort of strangeness afoot at the Sauvageot Theater were very likely true. Who was the culprit, though? It was an alarm, not a snare, made more to subtly alert them—to alert Mr. Ward, technically, as it was he who had prepared and held onto the keys even if Hugh had been the one to set many of them—than to spring a trap. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of people toiled away to keep the theater running, so it wasn’t like they could question every single one of them and expect to get anywhere.
More important was how familiar the sensation felt, despite being the work of a stranger. “That curious feeling I’ve been having all evening is tied to it, Mr. Ward. I’m sure of it.” Hugh risked holding the toothed end of the key directly. It wasn’t enough to tell him where the perpetrator was or even who they were, but in the same way a man with his eyes closed could still feel the sun come from behind a cloud, so too could Hugh perceive a sense of vague nearness. “They are somewhere nearby, either in the theater or a building very close to it. I believe they have a target.” Hugh closed his eyes and focused in on that not-quite-sunlight feeling. “It is…someone important to the theater, somehow, and on an emotional level, so likely not a patron. If we remain in the vicinity we’re more likely to intercept them than not.” He swallowed, having found his mouth suddenly wetter than before. First catching sign of some new quarry always did set him to salivating.
“Let us close the noose, then,” said Mr. Ward. “The less room this person has to evade us, the better.”
“Yes, I agree.”
The house lights brightened slightly as ushers began to walk the aisles, tidying as they went. There was no shortage of discarded orange peel. This light was still dim to the average eye, as the theater understood its patrons might require a spot of privacy to prepare themselves to leave, but Hugh’s own eyes were sharp enough to spy the faintest of flushes that had crept across Mr. Ward’s cheeks.
“Oh, my, Mr. Ward, are you well?”
“It’s nothing, professor,” said Mr. Ward.
Hugh fretted. The last thing either of them needed was for Mr. Ward to fall feverish when there was work to be done; Hugh was a skilled and decorated hunter, but his experience lay with finding beasts far more than it did people. People were more Mr. Ward’s domain. The way they worked best was that Mr. Ward would collect information and Hugh would act on it, both branching out their contributions as necessitated by the job, and if all Hugh had to go on was a faint touch of spiritual sunshine he was likely to spend all evening going in circles up in the rafters with nothing to show for it but dust on his shoes. A respectable person couldn’t just charge through a crowd, arms a-whirling, and hope they happened to strike whomever they were meant to! Some hunters might have operated in such a fashion, but they were generally neither jägermeisters nor gentlemen, whereas Hugh was both. He had standards. Those standards would be more difficult to keep if he was going to have to move forward without the aid of his personal oracle.
Caught mid-worry, Hugh happened to glance down at the crisply-ironed fabric that lay beneath the keys draped across Mr. Ward’s lap. This brought the situation into full and proper clarity.
“Why, Mr. Ward, have you been quickened by the things we’ve seen?” Not that Hugh needed outside verification to identify a man’s stand through his trousers; being one of the finest sights under heaven, Hugh had long since familiarized himself with that delightful detail. He chuckled, mostly to himself. “I’m glad to know you’ve not taken ill! And to think, here I was thinking we wouldn’t need a private box this time….”
Mr. Ward grumbled. “We are here for reasons other than pleasure, I shall remind you.”
“Yes, yes, of course we are, but as you have so often said to me, we must take care not to deny ourselves when it comes to matters of personal satisfaction.”
“And yet we must also take care not to gorge ourselves when the time is not yet right for a feast. It can wait.”
Hugh chuckled again. “Oh, I’m sure it can, but it seems like it would be quite the distraction, don’t you agree?” He replaced his glove and folded his hands in his lap, which did not share Mr. Ward’s condition. “Had I but known you might be in need of some relief whilst on the job, why, I would have gladly brought along a kneeling-cloth with me to preserve the cleanliness of my trousers while seeing to your delight. Alas, I made no such preparations, so I fear we must make do with a slightly less practiced skill of mine. Luckily for us both I have been keeping up the lotion-applying regimen you prescribed me to help with shedding.” Hugh’s smile creased slightly with worry. “Unless, of course, you object…?”
“Fine. Yes, I would prefer a clear head during the rest of our investigation, professor,” hissed Mr. Ward. He didn’t even sound pleased at the offer. “Not here. People are trying to work.”
This was a side of him Hugh had previously never seen; usually, if Mr. Ward was feeling amorous, he would make that detail known to Hugh well before getting to this point, and when they were together, it seemed as though he was never not fully in control of his desires, the better to ensure Hugh was, for want of a better term, properly handled. Mr. Ward was a man who prided himself on his cool and composure, on having solutions to problems, and he certainly never shied from tending to physical needs, not with himself nor with Hugh nor any of the patients that had come before him. Mr. Ward did not need. Mr. Ward provided, or requested, and seeing him reluctant to do either was so very strange. Rare was the man who met his own physicality with annoyance.
Could he not have excused himself to the washrooms earlier? No, they had been populated the few times Hugh had passed by them, and Mr. Ward was a fiercely private person. Perhaps mid-program? No, their seats were tucked into the middle of their row, and they needed both sets of eyes on watch for suspicious business. It was very likely that whatever rush of the blood that befell him had been something he’d been able to keep curtailed until the final play, too, at which the combined sights had joined forces to try and shake him apart. That he couldn’t simply grit his teeth through one last carriage ride until they returned home where he could ask Hugh for his company no doubt made things worse. Perhaps Hugh’s little joke of reserving a private box would’ve been the better idea all along.
“Yes, of course, of course. Let us away to a side-room—”
Mr. Ward held up his hand, stopping Hugh mid-sentence. “Outside and around back. There are alleyways there, and if I must be so crass as to seek out a gentleman’s relief while in the field, I will use the result to draw out a sign near where the alarm was sounded. It will be trivial to pair the two. Whether it’s an actor, a stagehand, or some other party that’s causing the disturbance, our jobs will be easier ones if we can snare them halfway.”
Trust Mr. Ward to be all business even in a situation such as this! Hugh nodded. “A fine idea. Let me ask after the pass before we accidentally make more trouble for ourselves.” He waved to the nearest row-roaming usher, who approached him with caution, a litter-filled basket still tucked under one arm. She was not the same person who had given them their pass.
“Excuse us, please,” said Hugh, “my companion has been overcome by the sheer nature of the night’s performance and needs some air! Will we be permitted back inside if we leave now? I have our tickets right here, as you can see, and we were granted an audience with your troupe’s leader once the show concluded. I’d hate to accidentally miss out on that chance simply because we wandered through the wrong door at the wrong time.”
The usher quirked an eyebrow at him. “Stepping out for some ‘air’, sir?”
If this was supposed to fluster Hugh, it decidedly did not work. He beamed. “Naturally! It felt like the most appropriate option, as we did not pay for a private box. One can’t very well find fresh air in the middle of an amphitheater, can they?”
“You’d be surprised,” said the usher. She looked over Hugh’s tickets. “These have the date on them, that’ll be good enough for anyone at the front if the doorman’s changed out since you went for your little walk.” She smirked. “You’d be amazed at how aired out this place can get after some of these things.”
“With such talents on the playbill, I can only imagine! Thank you, madam, you’ve been very helpful.”
“Of course, sir. The Sauvageot thanks you for your patronage.”
Save for a knowing look from the doorman—to whom Hugh cheerily explained the situation again—the pair of them were untroubled as they made their way back out of the theater and around the plaza a bit before looping back between it and a nearby building. The alarm led the way: it was not the kind of alarm that made noise, or motion, or any such thing that could be easily detected by one who didn’t explicitly truck with the practitioner’s art, but Hugh still had no trouble following its soundless clangor. Conveniently, he was also able to still the blasted thing once he’d found a private enough space for them both. Hugh was fairly confident that he’d be able to work through stimuli as relentless as a chiming clock or screeching kettle if the situation called for it, but things were so much easier if he could place the whole of his attention on his companion, or at least the whole of it minus the parts that were keeping track of the time like his life depended on it.
It was hardly the first occasion during which Hugh had entertained someone in a side alley, even though his trysts with Mr. Ward were usually in more indoor settings, so it was with practiced ease that he found a place and angle to stand that would reveal no more than they needed to to any unexpected passers-by. He unfastened the top button of Mr. Ward’s fine trousers, then one below it; had they all the time in the world Hugh might have undone every button in turn before coaxing out Mr. Ward’s length, making a lovely little window to paradise, but alas, the hour was too fleeting to arrange for a proper glimpse of paradise. Mr. Ward’s part jumped against Hugh’s palm when taken in hand. Such a cruelty it was that Hugh could not luxuriate in that touch of skin upon secretive skin! Instead he lightly drummed against the underside of Mr. Ward’s shaft with his fingertips—five little touches all in a row, counterbalanced with his thumb—and, when answered with an impatient hiss, put himself to work.
Generally, if Hugh was performing such an act for someone else, he and whomever else was with him would be facing each other; pressing himself front-to-back against his company like a turtle’s shell tended to strike him as presumptuous. He liked to see Mr. Ward while putting certain experiences of his to work, to gaze up lovingly with the faithful adoration of a well-trained hound, and he also didn’t mind Mr. Ward’s presence behind him when they were close, as such a position allowed for pleasantries of its own (and, depending on how flexible Hugh was feeling at the time, didn’t discount him from being able to do any adoring gazing in the process). Holding Mr. Ward as Hugh did then was something most frequently reserved for whilst they were both clothed and asleep, during those scant few hours a night the man bothered to let himself rest; if Hugh viewed this arrangement similarly, where he could be both a comforting touch and an aegis against the rest of the world, it sat better in his thoughts. At the very least their current alignment was convenient for the task!
Hugh kept his grip as firm and swift as he dared. Such a shame this would need to be brief; under more relaxed circumstances he preferred to take his time, perhaps asking Mr. Ward what had best pleased him about the performance, every touch of hand to length intended to sweeten the moment even as it extended it that much further, but alas, the situation was anything but relaxed. It called for expedience, not sweetness. Ah, but how Hugh longed for the latter! One who claimed it had no place tucked up behind a building of no small reputation in a part of town of equally potent infamy had clearly never had the pleasure of Hugh’s company in such environs.
While there were only so many minutes in which they might complete their task, Hugh was nonetheless determined to make it as fine a time for them both as he could. He leaned in to nuzzle at the side of Mr. Ward’s neck, drinking in the subtle scent of the perfume he wore in his hair, then left a kiss against the shell of one ear. This, too, was easier from the unfamiliar angle. Perhaps there were benefits to holding Mr. Ward so that weren’t wholly things from which only he might benefit. “Once we are done with all of this,” said Hugh, softly, “when we’ve the chance to dally as long as we like, you must let me do things more properly for you, Mr. Ward. You deserve nothing less.”
Mr. Ward made one of his little growling noises. “We must focus first on the task before us, professor,” he said through half-gritted teeth. Hugh was slightly crestfallen that Mr. Ward had not referred to it as the task at hand, which would have provided a chance to make a splendid little joke about how there was more than merely a task in one’s hand at the moment, but perhaps that in and of itself was why he had chosen his words as he had. At least his blood was rushing faster beneath Hugh’s fingers, each heartbeat a fine testament to how in spite of his taciturn nature Mr. Ward was very much a living, feeling creature with needs of his own, needs that Hugh could assuredly slake. And what a heartbeat! Hugh was well acquainted with heart’s blood in several ways, most of which did not involve it staying inside its owner for long, and usually when he felt the thrum of a vein for himself it was in the process of being torn out, but he would be given serious pause if asked to give up every scrap of the pursuing arts in exchange for simply knowing Mr. Ward’s weight in his hand and that joyous pulse against his palm.
Was that a little catch of breath? Was that a small sound of concentration? Hugh reveled at such sounds no matter how he might inspire them and redoubled his efforts, each upward pull of Mr. Ward’s length coaxing forth another bead of anticipation that caught in what little light crept behind the theater. Mr. Ward kept his right hand clasped against Hugh’s left where it curled around his side to hold them both close. It was easy to recall how that same firm hand might twine through Hugh’s hair (which, on certain days, was prone to twining back) to hold him at a useful angle, or how confidently it might slip beneath the petal-strewn waters of a bath to touch Hugh in a way he liked, or the way it would curve just so around the bone of one of Hugh’s hips….
Dear oh dear, now Hugh was becoming excited, himself. At least he had much more experience with keeping a tight leash on his more primal urges. Perhaps there would be a chase later on, or a fight? Either of those—or both, if he was especially fortunate!—would be a fine use of all the heat in his blood, and surely once the work was done and they were once more safe and snug in their little shared home Mr. Ward would be willing to help relieve him of any persisting excitement. Oh yes, there was no need for kneeling-cloths in their house, so he never had to worry about sullying his trousers if he wished to greet Mr. Ward at waist height, nor would there be dirt upon his frock coat if he felt inspired to merrily grovel…and dwelling upon such would surely only make things more troublesome for them both, so Hugh instead busied himself with counting how many hairs he could make out in the lock that curled against Mr. Ward’s shoulder. He would listen for approaching footsteps and nothing more, no matter how sweet or lusty. That was simply proper teamwork.
All too soon—though perhaps the same punctuality that had brought them so early to the Sauvageot was a blessing, here—Hugh felt Mr. Ward shudder in his arms and Mr. Ward’s stand leap and shiver even as Hugh held him tight. Between the two of them they were able to aim Mr. Ward’s satisfaction at a patch of wall. Instead of wiping it away, Mr. Ward carefully daubed at the little spatter until it resembled a certain symbol, at which point it faded into the brickwork as though a rain had washed through early; Hugh could feel the night city churn in response, reluctantly distorting itself at their shared behest. Mr. Ward then went about the task of tucking himself away, fastening his buttons, and arranging his clothes so that one might never know what he had been doing a mere minute before, or at least one wouldn’t once the pink in his cheeks faded back to nothing. “Thank you for your assistance, professor,” he said.
“Always,” replied Hugh, brightly.
“It was difficult not to notice you become further engaged with your task as things progressed,” added Mr. Ward. This was unsurprising; while Hugh’s suit and posture might have concealed the sight of that carnal truth, it would have been most difficult for one in Mr. Ward’s position not to notice, after all! “I fear we’ll need to hurry if we wish to make use of that pass you procured this evening. Will you be able to manage until later?”
Hugh’s mouth was wet as could be, but a few swallows kept the worst of it in line. “I shall do my utmost.”
Mr. Ward nodded. “Once the job is done, we can—”
He didn’t have time to finish those words, for Hugh caught a hint of approaching conversation, and quick as a thunderbolt he scooped Mr. Ward up by the cinch in his waist and scaled a nearby drainpipe until he felt sure the pair of them were even more difficult to see than before. Mr. Ward dangled calmly at his side. This was not the first time either of them had ended halfway up a wall on sudden notice.
The voices themselves didn’t sound familiar. Hugh kept his breathing steady and even as he forced the thunder of his heart (itself already a mild storm from the rest of the evening’s activities) to gentle itself, that he might better overhear whatever there might be to overhear, so long as the speakers didn’t make too much racket with the rubbish bins they were hauling.
“There should be two of them: one tall and pallid, in an expensively colorful suit; the other shorter and bespectacled, with long black hair.” Well, that was very unlikely to be many other people in attendance that evening, so Hugh’s interest was piqued even further than it already had been.
“And you think they’re the cause?”
“Something’s been trying to interfere with the theater all day, and Lindy’s been trying to work the crowds for info since before we opened up proper. She says something’s been afoot ever since those two started sniffing around. If they don’t know secret arts then I’ll be damned.”
Hugh had no faces to go with the names, though he suspected either the first usher or the orange-seller or possibly both of them. That certainly answered the question of whether or not there were practitioners about, but if they were being bedeviled by some outside source, were they the true cause of the society’s concern, or had there been confusion over who was truly at fault? No, that wasn’t quite true, as the society maesters had made it clear that the problem was that certain parties felt that the sights upon the stage could only be accomplished by methods best kept hidden, but perhaps there was more to the story than what the society believed? It would not be the first time the organization to which Hugh owed his very life and livelihood had made a mistake. He listened further.
“You can feel it, can’t you, Will? There’s weirds in the air. I heard Tabitha’s been getting threatening letters no matter what she does. I read one she’d tried burning and it was sore frightful. Some fell bastard’s threatening to snip off bits of her to do I don’t know what. Says she’s better off as a talisman.”
“Good Lord!” choked the one apparently named Will. “Why doesn’t she tell the constabulary?”
A bitter laugh rang out over the din of the bins. “Why d’you think?” asked Will’s partner. “You think they care if a few foreign actors get cut up so long as the mess doesn’t get on some posh lady’s shoes? Everyone knows this is a bad side of town. Besides, they’d probably try and shut us down even if she did go out beggaring aid. Their lot is always gagging for an excuse.”
Was the Sauvageot doing more poorly than Hugh’s research had implied? He’d assumed it was making a tidy profit from all the high-born sorts (Hugh himself included) that filled its rows night after night, but surely things were getting lean if they kept running shows despite someone important receiving repeated threats of mutilation. But then, perhaps that was the point? Maybe there was a plan to lure in this mystery figure, a trap baited with sweetest honey, and only by pretending all was well could it be sprung? Perhaps Hugh had felt whatever they’d done to the local night city when that curious sensation pressed in on him, trying to goad him into making the first move; then again, if Will and company suspected him and Mr. Ward of being practitioners, it stood to reason that the mystery man possessed such knowledge, himself. Was it he who’d been churning at the barrier between one world and the next? It was really quite the spot of bother.
What made up Hugh’s mind was thinking on what the letters had claimed about the mysterious Tabitha, whoever she was. Better off as a talisman was the kind of mindset certain practitioners—most, but not all, found outside the society’s ranks—held towards polymorphic persons, seeing the way that creatures changed their bodies not as the miracle of nature that it was but merely a hint that what potency their flesh held could be just as easily changed into something useful to a third party, and some of these practitioners even attempted to act on that horrid mindset. Some even succeeded. Each piece of such woeful material Hugh intercepted during his work had once been a life, a human being with their own joys and dreams, and each beast-tooth necklace or horror-hair charm received the best funeral that could be arranged, assuming they could find names to go with the pieces. And now someone was trying to repeat such a crime right under his nose? Hugh would not let that stand, not even regarding a stranger whose name he couldn’t even match with a face. He was, after all, a humanitarian at heart.
Going down, he gestured to Mr. Ward in hunter-sign.
Ready, Mr. Ward replied.
Hugh landed, cat-light, on his feet upon the cobbles between the mouth of the back-alley and the two quite surprised theater workers, after which he eased Mr. Ward back upright before tipping his hat with all the courtesy a man could muster after having scurried up and down some architecture at troubling speeds. From his pocket he produced the all-important piece of green card.
“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, the pass raised high. “I hate to interrupt, but I believe you shall find we’ve no small business with your leader today.”
Backstage at the Sauvageot was much different from how Hugh had imagined it. He’d woven through the side-rooms of the academy on more than one occasion, and as a child he’d always been drawn to cellars and crevices, but this was nothing like those: there was both far more space and far, far less, with piled costumes and stacked set-pieces and nooks crammed with half-eaten dinners and so many butcher’s scraps left over from the show. It smelled…unique. Even the troupe’s own leader had cramped quarters, and it was in these quarters that Hugh and Mr. Ward found themselves wedged after enough words had been exchanged to guarantee they’d not be tossed back out on their rumps.
Tabitha—who was, indeed, the leader of that band of actors, and the same woman who’d both sold them oranges and sung the triumphant final number—sat half-sprawled in her seat with one elbow propped up on her vanity, her hair and face still bearing traces of gore and makeup. At her side stood the usher from before—Lindy, naturally—in more casual slacks and shirtsleeves. Both looked exhausted. Neither crackled with otherworldly power or anything else.
“So you claim you’re not the source of these, hm?” asked Tabitha, gesturing with one of the vile letters that littered part of the vanity. She had previously passed it to Hugh, who’d skimmed it over before returning it, glad to be rid of its distressing contents. Whoever had penned the thing had a certainly creative grasp of just how many giblets were contained in the human body. Then again, given what he suspected of the letter’s recipient, perhaps the claims were more fact than fantasy. “If not either of you gents, then who?”
“We’re trying to determine that ourselves,” said Mr. Ward.
Hugh nodded. “As Mr. Ward says. Before we continue, might I ask if either of you is a practitioner, or a creature? It shall make certain topics easier to explain.” When the two women exchanged looks he added, “We overheard the two gents who escorted us speaking of the secret arts in tandem with both your names, so we know one of you must be one or the other. You may safely deduct that the pair of us are in a position of similar knowledge. I kindly request your honesty when you answer.”
“Lindy knows some things,” said Tabitha, warily.
“Good-luck charms, mostly. Actors are superstitious,” said Lindy. “And you can’t so much as brew a toothache tea in some parts of the world without some wild-eyed crone shrieking you’re trying to hex her goats.” Her words had the guarded tone of someone who’d brewed a lot of tea and had been accused of more than a few hexed goats in her lifetime, and perhaps had even been guilty of inducing caprine catastrophe a time or two for good measure. Most practitioners Hugh knew spoke similarly whenever their methods were questioned in mixed company, too.
“Then it’s safe to assume you’d be the one most responsible for the glyphs of warding we found all around the theater’s grounds, I presume,” said Mr. Ward. “We left those where they were any time we spotted traces of one. They didn’t keep us out, nor did they cause us dismay, so we had no reason to disturb them.”
Lindy darkened. “You shouldn’t’ve been able to spot them at all.”
“Mr. Ward has a reputation for being able to achieve many things others wish he wouldn’t,” said Hugh, who’d found his smile again by then.
“As Professor Wainwright says. It takes no small experience to notice them, but they can be perceived if one has the skill or luck to spare, and given what your unwanted admirer has written to you, they presumably have at least one of the two. I believe that they, too, are in possession of supernatural methods. Given what the professor has deduced from our entire evening here, this unknown party may be trying to approach you through the night city, hence why any attempts your own have made to find them have likely turned up empty-handed. Unless you’ve been combing the other side of the mirror I suspect there’s nothing to find.”
Another look passed between Lindy and Tabitha. “Sounds like you know your own share of witchcraft, Mr. Ward,” said Tabitha.
“I prefer not to call it that.”
“Reckon a sweet little chunk of lokum like yourself wouldn’t, no,” said Lindy. Hugh was not wholly sure if this was intended as an insult or not, as Mr. Ward was naturally soft of face and beneath his coat and corset he was certainly as pleasingly squidgy as said confection, but as the comment didn’t get a rise out of Mr. Ward, it was probably best to leave it be. Perhaps it was even a compliment! One certainly wouldn’t suspect Mr. Ward of knowing even a morsel of what he did just to look at him, and his spectacles and bowler were nothing like the pointy-hatted regalia seen in many a seasonal illustration. Going off of looks alone it was difficult to imagine Mr. Ward getting up to very much at all, save for housework, and perhaps frowning. Hugh still had to bite back the urge to defend his handler’s honor.
Intended insult or no, Lindy clearly had other things on her mind than whether or not Mr. Ward was sufficiently magician-shaped. “You, though,” she said to Hugh, “there’s something right off about you. You’d be a ‘creature,’ as you put it, then? Got any proof of that?”
“Lindy,” warned Tabitha, but Hugh was already pulling his glove away.
“It’s no trouble at all, gentlewomen. I’d be happy to demonstrate.”
He held up his hand, drawing attention to his extra digit. Stretching his fingers, he then allowed those which were not visible to make themselves known, at least so much as he could without damaging his shirt or coat with newly-revealed claws; there was no set number of them, nor a number for how many joints each required, simply however many felt good to have at the time. Learning how to write and play basic tunes with such an appendage had been quite the experience! Had Hugh’s suit allowed for it he would have tucked up his arm like the claw of a mantis so his stretched-out hand and extra wrist could rest comfortably, but alas, there simply wasn’t the right arrangement of buttons for it. Instead he retracted what he’d revealed until there was nothing out of the ordinary emerging from the ruffles at his cuff. With his glove back in place he might have been mistaken for any other fellow of agreeable means, provided one ignored the signs that he was not.
“As you can see, I’m quite comfortable with all manner of stretches,” he said, his hands now folded in front of himself. “I’d have shown you my society plate instead,” he added, “but as neither of you are formally initiated, I doubted it would mean quite as much.”
Tabitha frowned. “If you’re here to recruit me to hunt for your organization, best look elsewhere. I’ve no interest in being collared,” she said, bristling with defiance. Was she familiar with what it meant to wear the plate, then? No matter; Hugh bore his own proudly, as he knew the necessity of keeping a hunter such as himself under observation, but if the grand lady did not engage in hunting work nor felt any love for the society that sounded the hunters’ unifying horn, there was no need to push. Why force her to bear a tool that was useless in her hands? She certainly had no shortage of community around her with love and support to share, and that, in Hugh’s opinion, was a far greater thing than making sure she had the right piece of metal about her neck.
“Perish the thought, madam,” said Hugh. “While we may ask you consider working with the society, it shall be as practitioners and steersmen of the city’s culture.”
“Oh, listen to this one, Bitty,” said Lindy with a grin. “Don’t you want to be a ‘steersman of culture’? Love the sound of that. Imagine, our nasty little outfit getting put up on the same shelf as poets and philosophers and, hm, whoever decides what colors are best to be seen wearing.”
“They say floral prints will be all the rage again next season,” Hugh added.
Such fashion advice failed to lighten Tabitha’s dark mood. “Yes, wonderful, I shall be sure to be wearing my best chintz for when some brute slips into my room and peels off my skin to make into opera gloves.”
“If you are all quite finished,” said Mr. Ward, “there is work to be done. I should like to have more words with you both about your choice of material for performances later, but as there is someone with stated murderous intent on the loose, I believe we must adjust our priorities.”
“And what, pray tell, shall you do about it?” asked Tabitha.
“Very simple: we shall take your unwanted admirer into society custody, and no matter what becomes of him after, he’ll trouble you no more.”
Tabitha continued glowering. “So what contract do you expect me to sign before you’ll go fetch him? Going to hold me hostage until I agree to whatever terms you’d ask of us? I’m not signing over my theater. We can’t rebuild again, not so soon after the last time.”
This prompted a surprised sound from Hugh. “Gracious me,” he said, “we shan’t be expecting anything of the sort. We shall be removing him from the premises because he’s a threat to the good citizens of this place, yourself and all your troupe included, and any further alliances between the society and yourselves shall be discussed from the position of an empty slate.” He huffed in frustration, mind now awash with thoughts of students and mentees past, of how many were no more hunters than they were harpsichords; depending on when the signs of their condition first started to show, some in the society’s care could be quite young, indeed. “Creatures such as we do not only come in the form of able-bodied persons of martial skill and temperament. This individual currently troubling you presents a clear threat to any who might cross his path. I shan’t be letting him roam free, not because of a desire to lay debts upon anyone, but because seeing him placed within our auspice is the right thing to do.”
“Ours is a mission of philanthropy,” agreed Mr. Ward.
“If you’d prefer me to write up an agreement on some paper as proof, I’d be happy to do so,” said Hugh.
“Tch, one more piece of paper to potentially get me into trouble,” said Tabitha with a slightly less sour look than before. “For now I’ll take it on faith that you’ve bigger concerns than a confirmed spinster and her pack of actors.” She shifted her weight to no longer be leaning so heavily upon the vanity. “We’ve tried putting people on the watch for him, or setting out charms to mark his passage, but something’s been playing fool’s bells with everything we do. Things have gotten bad enough that Lindy risked putting some outside at the risk of drunks and alley cats. Have those anything to tell you, Lindy-love?”
Lindy shrugged and said, “Nothing we didn’t really suspect before, except now we know it for sure instead of having to guess.”
“Would you care to summarize those for me, please?” said Mr. Ward, a pocket notebook already open in hand.
The summary went something like this: Someone had begun to send Tabitha threatening letters, starting first with missives slipped into the daily mail and moving on up to tucking things under her door or into her personal effects. Most of the troupe hadn’t seen the guilty party at all, and the only reason they believed it to be a man was because of a time early on when one of the chorus girls had been passed one of the hateful things by a fellow dressed in a plain suit. The handwriting, and general content, was always the same. Lindy had also detected some sort of minor trick hidden in the shape of the script, though as near as she could tell it was expecting to be picked apart, and so she’d left it alone for fear of making things worse. They’d not spoken to anyone outside the Sauvageot about the problem. To whom would they even speak? Even if they were the sort of actors whose shoulders carried prestige, the content of the letters was likely to raise questions that would be difficult to answer without causing more trouble, and there was no easy way for them to get in touch with anyone in the city they could trust with matters of the practitioner’s art. The society, after all, did not advertise.
Something about the way they described the secret hidden in the letters kept tickling at Hugh’s brain. “May I see that letter again, please?” he said once Mr. Ward had finished writing. “Now that you speak of it it feels awfully familiar, but I just cannot place it on my own.”
Tabitha passed it back to him as through she were handing off a dead pigeon. Hugh wasn’t about to blame her; even if it had been an entirely normal, undoctored note, its contents were really quite nasty. Willing himself to look past the words into what lay beneath, however, revealed a careful little occult mechanism that was familiar in a most unexpected fashion.
“Why, it’s like one of my calling cards!” said Hugh with what he hoped didn’t sound like an inappropriate level of satisfaction. He produced one of said cards in demonstration; they were so very nice it was a shame to keep them tucked away among company that might properly appreciate them. “I’m sure there’s more to it, but the basic shape of the procedure is that whoever wrote the letter can find their way back anywhere it is kept, untroubled by locks or lookouts. And…let me see, if tossed away, the letter would have left an even bigger rip into which our evil epistoler might slink, like a hook in the mouth of a fish. So you were at risk whether you held onto the horrid things or not.”
“Is that fishhook thing the part that I left alone?” asked Lindy.
Concentrating further, Hugh shook his head. “No, that part’s something more like, oh, how to say it? Like a puffball mushroom, almost, making a mess, and the blackguard would both know when it has been triggered and where the person triggering it is. Based on this evidence, I daresay his knowledge of the arts is a patchwork one at best, likely formed around ideas he should like to have work with no holistic understanding of how to make them happen.”
“Why d’you say that?”
“Well, madam, I cannot say for you, but were I wanting to make someone’s location known to me using this method, I would see that I placed it so that its activation would be more reliable, rather than simply hoping someone—a someone who might be anyone, I might add, not even my desired target—might poke at it clumsily enough. As you demonstrated yourself, all it takes now is a look from the right angle to know not to go poking it. The trap has been set, but they’ve completely forgotten the bait.”
A wry smile returned to Lindy’s face. “You’re an interesting one, professor. Here I thought the only mechanisms you were good for critiquing were the things we keep out front in the gallery.”
“I do have opinions aplenty on them, I assure you,” said Hugh, “but business comes before pleasure.”
Mr. Ward, who had been reviewing his notes, tapped the base of his pencil against his lips. “They’re sloppy work, these letters, and I believe we can use that to our advantage. Once the professor and I verified the author was still in the vicinity we made certain temporary adjustments to the night city around the theater based on what signs we already found. I suspect that this detail shall take the offending party by the surprise once it’s noticed. Allow us to collect him, first and foremost, and we shall discuss the futures of yourselves and the Sauvageot as a whole once our duty is done.”
“And how do the letters tie into things?”
Hugh held up the paper, whose ink briefly glowed like embers before burning away until only a blank sheet remained. Quite the show for something that could’ve easily been undone without so much as a curl of smoke! Given the character of its author he supposed he shouldn’t be surprised at the needless dramatics. He could feel the air grow heavy about him as parts of an unseen world—one unfamiliar to him yet still intimately known—shifted ever so subtly in the places beyond the real, closing themselves off from everything else save for a single well-placed choke point that emptied out into the gallery proper. “Why, we can tie the things into the merry braid we’ve woven for ourselves so nothing can be pulled free on its own. Sloppy work makes it easy to let our unwanted guest know we are aware of his presence. More importantly, you see, he now knows where I am.”
Tabitha scoffed. “Sounds like you’ve simply made it easier for him to hide from you, professor.”
“My dear lady,” said Hugh, “he clearly has little understanding of the arts he uses, so it’s only sporting to give him a chance in situations such as these. If he stays put then perhaps we shall commend his cooperation when delivering him to the powers that be. This is doubtful, however, as based on the craven way he’s behaved up to this point it’s far more likely he’ll try to run.” The small, soft smile he wore pulled into the kind of grin he was careful never to display in public. He was not offended to see Tabitha and Lindy both shy back from it. It was impossible to keep the joy from his voice as he added, with all sincerity, “I like it when they run.”
Intellectually, he was aware that he was going to be careful with his work, as the human body, for all its many wonders, could be damaged in all manner of terrible ways even with extramundane assistance, and Hugh’s time spent teaching had introduced him to the strains even a physique such as his own could be taxed. The letters’ author had committed a crime of extensive, repeated harassment, and clearly planned to enact far worse things if given the opportunity, but Hugh had no proof of anything more, and (as with much of anything involving the society) there was always the chance that overturning a single metaphorical stone would reveal a teeming nest of crawlers beneath it; the culprit would need to stand trial before the doling out of any punishment, as otherwise Hugh and his peers were no better than those imaginary builders of bulls and maidens. Sometimes Hugh would be sent after persons more like himself, be they natural heirs to that state or be it one induced by some curious method or another, but never would he assume a target was anything other than eggshell-delicate without proof to the contrary. There was always the chance that he was wrong! Permitting even those laboring under the most hateful accusations a chance was infinitely kinder than the alternative, as Hugh knew himself just how fallible the society’s judgment could be if one was anything less than perfectly strident. His logical self was prepared to solve the problem with minimal bloodshed.
Intuitively, however, maximal bloodshed sounded far more thrilling.
Something pulled at the back of Hugh’s thoughts and he straightened up, alert for any tangible sign of the patently intangible. Mr. Ward nodded to him.
“I take it you feel something, Professor Wainwright?”
“Oh yes. Something has begun testing the closed-up boundaries of the night city, and found them holding fast. Given how the testing has been done I do not believe it merely a wandering horror in search of a meal, either.” His tongue darted across his lips. “What shall you have me do?”
Was that a gleam in Mr. Ward’s eye? Perhaps it was little more than the dressing-room lamp falling across his lenses, as Tabitha’s quarters were kept dim when no one needed to prepare for a show, but a man could always pretend. It was not as though being given permission to sic a hunter on someone tormenting the oft-forgotten lower classes was something he wouldn’t savor. “If you would do us the courtesy of retrieving who and what’s been caught, the society and I would be most obliged,” he said.
“But of course, Mr. Ward. I shan’t be long,” said Hugh, unable to conceal his excitement, and when he reached out to step through the weave of the world the night city was already waiting for him with the same knowing recognition as a forest greeting its warden.
Hugh loved to run. He loved to prance, and climb, and leap, moving up walls and across rooftops with the nimbleness of a tree monkey and significantly more speed; there was a clarity of spirit to be found while letting his feet propel him ever-forward, each jump and hurdle a moment of punctuation in the poetry of his motion. He loved to let his body and mind merge into a unified whole, thought and action alloyed into something much greater than mere instinct. Most of all he loved to chase, his heart thrumming with excitement each time his sighted quarry sighted him back and tried to flee in the vain attempt to prolong its horrid life, and sometimes he would even slow himself a bit or take a roundabout route just so he could enjoy that delightful pursuit a few seconds more.
The stranger was doing a very good job of that last one. That was fine. It would have been a little disappointing if Hugh hadn’t been able to stretch his legs a little.
He did not have his most terrible tools with him, but a predator of his caliber didn’t lose who they were due to such trifling setbacks; even with empty hands (which begged to once more curl into claws) and low-heeled city boots (which were not made to compliment his speed, nor the feats of impossible athleticism he oft demanded of his working footwear) he was still a jägermeister, master of the hunt, an unquestioned champion of the night city in all its majesty, and there was no escaping him once he had scented proper prey.
There were relatively few hazards in the little pocket city he and Mr. Ward had cordoned off from the rest of the twisting, ever-changing streets, so the handicap which he’d placed upon himself made for a challenge rather than any actual danger. Perhaps he might even look further into creating such things—temporarily, of course, and only after ensuring the night city would come to no lasting harm upon unwinding the briars he’d woven about it—as they surely could help students of the academy who were still learning the whims and wants of a place where statuary could grow up the buildings as easily as ivy. Yes, yes, once he’d verified he wasn’t actively harming his moonlit home he could look into a more controlled, more repeatable form of what they’d made, perhaps with less need to coax forth anyone’s intimate release to make it so, as such might cause concern among the bookkeeping faculty. Every hunter, changing-natured or not, ought to have a chance such as this! If the society was going to insist he hold on to his mostly vestigial scholastic title, the least he could do was attempt to actually further the quality of their own ranks’ education. He’d simply need to remember as much of his current pursuit as possible when drafting up his next proposal. Had the letter-writing cad not upset the good people of the Sauvageot so, Hugh might even have thanked him for providing such an unexpectedly welcome chance to change the face of modern academia.
Grabbing the upper railing of a spike-topped fence, Hugh pulled himself up to perch and survey his surroundings, eyes always darting across the rooftops around him. The sky was as black as ever. While the unknown party knew where he was, and could not escape that knowledge, Hugh had to rely on senses other than the devil’s compass he’d stamped upon his soul to figure out where his quarry had gone. Would that he were an actual hound, so that he could simply follow his nose! No, he would have to be careful when driving his prey—the accused, he corrected himself, as never would he permit the usual fate of things he hunted to befall another human being—towards the sole exit point in the gallery. Too swift and his plan would be obvious, too slow and he’d run the risk of those waiting for them on the other side ending up in harm’s way. Perhaps the theater people could defend themselves and perhaps not, but Hugh knew for a fact that Mr. Ward’s primary line of defense was Hugh himself. What if the stranger was armed? What could Hugh even do with himself if he suspected he’d caused his beloved handler-companion to come to any harm? No, dwelling on such unpleasantries was a distraction, and nothing but; the only acceptable way for the stranger to leave the night city once more would be with Hugh hot on his heels.
A proper hunter knew the value of tiring out their target, and Hugh was well-versed in all the ways that terror might exhaust someone now trapped in a place they did not understand. He made some estimations as to the direction of the stranger from his little roost. If the fleeing man was going that fast in that direction, and was prone to making detours like those…yes, that would do it! Hugh took a deep, cleansing breath of evening air. Another breath and his throat opened up, another still and he could feel his ribs pressing against the snug fit of his shirt. He leaned back, grabbed hold of the railing beneath him, and let loose with an ear-rending screech that echoed through the desolate streets like the howl of a starving wolf, the sound booming forth until his mouth was sharp with the taste of his own blood and he had nothing left in his lungs. Glass tinkled down from the half-shattered windows overlooking the fence where he hunkered. There, in the distance—a whispered curse, footsteps! With nostrils flared and flat-edged teeth bared, Hugh clambered up a nearby chimney as fast as his shoes allowed to give chase once more across the shingles.
Shepherding cries were generally not a good idea while in the night city proper, as the surest way to guide more trouble to one’s location was to make noise, much less a loud one, and Hugh knew he’d have to wait for his throat to knit back from how hoarse he’d screamed it before attempting such a feat again, but as he loped across the sloping roofs he suspected he wouldn’t need to. The stranger was sprinting when he clearly hadn’t trained his body to do so; where Hugh could lunge forward in great bursts and fully catch his breath in a matter of seconds, the man he pursued was becoming a little slower, a little clumsier every time. Every time Hugh changed direction to block off another street he could see the stranger struggle that much more to escape. He forced himself not to let his guard down. Practitioners, no matter how reckless or untrained, should never be underestimated until they were actually clapped in irons, and often not even then. Thinking a user of the occluded arts was out of tricks was a good way to end up chopped up into contraband. In the name of everyone that the stranger had wronged before him, Hugh was determined to see this through to the end.
The night city around the Sauvageot was similar enough to Hugh’s usual territory—namely that it looked like a muddle of statues and architectural whimsy that sprouted up like mushrooms around streets that resembled its sunlit twin’s as much as a rippling pond did what it reflected—but he kept having to second-guess himself when it came to proper navigation. He simply wasn’t familiar enough with the district in either state to move with his usual confidence. Would that Hugh were like the sylvan creatures in his childhood storybooks, willing the streets and towers into new shapes in the manner of dryads with their glens, but while the night city knew him as an apex predator, it was not his to command; every step of progress he made was something he had to earn in spite of his environment. The barriers he and Mr. Ward had thrown high would not last forever. There was always the risk that the stranger would flee to some hidey-hole Hugh didn’t know, and if Hugh allowed himself to be waited out that would put them right back at the start again—worse, even, since the man behind the letters would know Hugh was a factor and could potentially adapt. No, Hugh had played for long enough. It was time to finish things.
He fell back long enough to let the stranger flee into a courtyard spreading before the secret self of the Sauvageot, as the theater had enough of an emotional resonance in the other world to shape this one in its image, and the sole exit point from the night city lay within the grotesque-studded frontispiece. There were no beasts there, no corpses, only a dark plaza ringed with wrought iron and hazy with moonlit mist. It was a moment of calm and quiet. The stranger hobbled to the fountain in the center of the courtyard and took a hesitant sip between gasps for air, still upright in spite of everything he had endured to get this far. His faltering vigor seemed to bolster itself, and after a few splashes of water against his face he turned around to survey the rest of the courtyard.
Hugh, of course, was standing in wait a little ways away with his hands folded behind his back. He gave a little wave of his fingers once he felt it’d be seen. The man saw him, indeed. The man saw him, and knew him, and knew who (if not wholly what) he was, and the terror in his eyes as he came to comprehend the vast potency of Hugh’s ability in comparison to his own was so very sweet.
“Saints and martyrs,” whispered the stranger.
“Would you care to come along willingly, sir?” said Hugh as politely as he could through his grin. The run had been all the time he’d needed for his sore throat to heal up swimmingly, though the taste of blood remained. “You stand accused of some rather uncouth behavior, and the society which I represent would like to discuss that.”
The man took a step back, moving closer to the theater doors. Good. “Get away from me, monster,” he said. He fumbled in the satchel at his side and pulled forth some sort of paper charm. The air suddenly smelled of ozone. “Get away! Or I’ll fry your rotten hide to a crisp!”
Hugh scoffed. “I’ll have you know my shedding has been under control for some time now. No need to insult a legitimate medical condition.”
A tensing around the man’s jaw was the only warning Hugh had, but a hunter of his experience needed little more than that; when the paper shredded itself into dozens of points of blindingly blue lightning, they only struck at the spot where Hugh had been and not the place to which he’d fortuitously rolled. The sleeve and tails of his frock coat were not so lucky. Dash it all, he’d only been able to wear it a few times, too! Hopefully Mr. Ward would be able to salvage the garment. A well-dressed gentleman had no excuse for mistreating his clothes, not even when faced with miscreants rifling through the pockets of Zeus.
“As I said, sir,” continued Hugh as he patted out his smoldering sleeve, “the society would care to have a word with you, and they shan’t be pleased to hear about your actions this evening. Won’t you simply come along?”
The mess of bone and precious metals that appeared in the man’s hand was like nothing Hugh had seen before, but he could still divine its purpose: it was the type of tool most people needed to cross from one side of the city to the other. Could it function as a catalyst for greater mischief? He wasn’t sure, and so he kept pacing at a cautious distance; when the time was right, he went along with the stranger’s feint and danced backwards, giving the unknown man the chance to run again. The great double doors into the theater swallowed him like a whale gulping down a little fish. Hugh’s grin didn’t fade as he padded after his quarry, still trailing little curls of smoke as he followed into the twisting dark. He didn’t have to worry about losing him. There was only one place left where the fellow could go, after all.
Barring bad luck or extensive training, most persons only ended up in the night city with the aid of tools such as the gold and bone amulet-thing the stranger held, and getting back was sometimes even more difficult, given that the night city proper functioned best when it was free from leaks. As Hugh and Mr. Ward had sewn up everything but a single exit as tight and snug as a drum, he wasn’t surprised to feel the familiar wibbling of the space around him as the stranger desperately tried to pass through. The timing, as always, would need to be exact. Hugh stalked the gallery until the arrangement of curtains and infernal devices looked familiar and the tang of blending worlds grew heavy behind his eyes. There, standing at the sole doorway they’d left open, was the stranger, desperately waving his amulet about as he muddled through the puzzle box that stood between him and the sunlit city. Hugh reached out without using his hands to touch at how much of the barrier remained. Thank goodness he’d made it in time! He counted down each onion-skin layer until only one was left, and then, thoroughly ignoring how poorly his shoes were suited for the task, he made his move.
Hugh sprang like a panther from the darkness, grabbing the stranger and plunging through the now-open doorway in the same move, and as his eyes adjusted to the gaslight-bright interior of the actual gallery he kept running forward. He dashed past Mr. Ward, who’d apparently been talking with Tabitha and Lindy when Hugh had burst through, and careened towards his goal: the great bronze bull. All the while he clung to his quarry with no small force, ignoring blows and bites and occasional flailing slashes with the sharper parts of the amulet. With a tuck and a roll across the marble flooring Hugh hurled the man into the open side-door of the bull. Mr. Ward, who’d hurried after Hugh as best as he was able, clanged the door shut behind the stranger, and they both did up the bolts in unison. Once the door was secured Mr. Ward swiftly drew up a sign of sealing on its outer surface. If a practitioner knew one thing, there was no proof they didn’t know half a dozen others, so basic precautions were important. What good was a holding cell if its occupant could simply pop out whenever they pleased?
“Help! Help me!” cried the man from inside, and to the bull’s credit it really did come out as a curious roar though the brazen beast’s hammered throat.
“Be careful of the metal, please. This one’s stolen storms before.” Hugh brushed another few patches of ash from his clothes with a sigh. The damage was far worse than he’d first thought, and now he had to wonder if any of his hair had caught fire, too. Wild magicians were ever so troublesome.
“I take it he didn’t come quietly,” said Mr. Ward, more a statement of fact than a question.
Hugh shook his head. “He most certainly did not. I know we were tasked to bring him back with us, but given what arts he’s displayed, I shan’t be surprised if he were to accidentally injure himself during the attempted recovery.”
Trust me, please, motioned Hugh to Mr. Ward in hunter-sign as he produced a box of lucifers from yet another coat pocket. Mr. Ward nodded back to him; Hugh had a great deal of experience with fire and its workings, even if all he had were little stick-lighters instead of the majestic chemical torch he enjoyed taking with him on the hunt, so it was only sensible that anyone as familiar with his skills as Mr. Ward would trust him not to roast the poor fellow alive, or set light to the theater, or any other nasty end, at least not without intent behind it. The scratch of the lucifer’s head against the striker on the box was nearly lost beneath the sound of the man pummeling on the metal with his fists. When the spare playbill Hugh had retrieved from the ground caught alight—his own was slated to join his collection of such documents, perhaps after being autographed, and was therefore unsuited to the task—the smell of the burning paper did what the quiet sound could not.
“Oh God. Oh God! You wouldn’t!”
“Take care that the wood’s stacked neatly under there, if you please, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh, his spare hand signaling do not bother. “We can’t be having any sparks popping up and catching the curtains. He’s already ruined enough fine fabrics tonight, do you see?”
Mr. Ward grumbled. “I do see. It took me ages to sew those buttons.”
The man banged on the walls and cried out further. “Let me out! Let me ou-u-ut! Please, you can’t do this, I have a family—!”
Hugh hammered back with his knuckles, making their captive yelp. “And so did every missing person you vanished, you utter rascal!” he said, his words granted added heat by memories of too many of his fellow creatures, each taken before their time. He waved the burning playbill closer. “You had best begun making your case lest I roast you alive to save us all the trouble of a trial!”
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please, God forgive me, I’m so sorry, I’ll stop sending the letters, I’ll tell you where everything’s hidden, I tell you who I sell to, I’ll tell you and your society whatever you want, only please, please spare my life….”
“What was that? You said you’ve changed your mind?”
“Yes. Please. I don’t want to die here,” said the stranger, and even his weakest whimpers were amplified in volume by the mouth of the bull.
Hugh smothered the fire with his hands (passing the scorched paper off to Mr. Ward for proper disposal, of course) and flicked his thumb through certain parts of the seal, which released its hold on the bolts. He peeked into the door; inside the man was a trembling, sobbing wreck, his amulet smashed to pieces against the metal and his clothes stinking of urea. The signs of struggle would surely make the bronze bull display look that much more authentic to future visitors! When the stranger caught sight of Hugh he froze in place.
“Now then, that wasn’t so bad, was it, sir?” said Hugh, once again all smiles. “Things are so much easier for everyone when we can all cooperate.”
The man responded by fainting dead away.
In the end it always came down to paperwork. There would be safehouses to contact—as a rule one did not leave misbehaving practitioners unsupervised, for their safety as much as anyone else’s—and reports to file, and all of this was on top of properly documenting a carefully-curated recount of their findings at the theater. Mr. Ward’s pencil had already needed to be sharpened twice. Hugh, for his part, had taken the initiative to remove the still-unnamed, still-swooned man from the bull, search him for any additional implements of mischief (of which Hugh found several), then keep him pinned long enough for Mr. Ward to bind the man securely. When the fellow eventually came to it would not be to some fresh new chance to cause other people trouble.
Mr. Ward had only stopped writing for the duration of tying the stranger’s ropes. Hugh didn’t envy him; where hunters risked life and limb each time they stepped out into the dark, it was other people who had to document things, be they clerks or maesters or someone in between, and a loathing for administrivia had been one of many reasons Hugh had shied away from dedicated teaching. It was really quite a bother. Hugh would have missives of his own to write, of course, as he always did when given a mission from on high, but they paled in comparison to all the ink and paper Mr. Ward could burn through in the course of a typical physical evaluation. Not having him around would’ve made the sometimes tedious task of dotting every I and crossing every T that much worse.
Not that he was focused solely on his work: Mr. Ward passed Hugh a handkerchief between bursts of shorthand. “You’re drooling a bit, professor.”
“Ah, thank you, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh as he dabbed at his chin. He honestly hadn’t noticed the darkened patch on his cravat. “Terribly sorry about that. I would’ve helped myself to a sweet to help with it, but I couldn’t help but envision how silly an end it would be were I to accidentally choke on it after a jump. Why, were I not already dead at that point I’d surely never live it down.”
He returned the half-sodden handkerchief and rummaged in his pockets for the second-to-last humbug on his person. The potently minty little candy was all it took to drive the lingering tinges of copper from his mouth. Hugh had long since gotten into the habit of rendering himself as kissable as possible when not actively on the prowl, and keeping any hint of blood (whether his or anything else’s) from his lips was a large part of this; Mr. Ward, for all his grisly inclinations, simply could not abide the taste of it, and so Hugh dutifully made certain there was not so much as a whiff of pink between his teeth upon returning from a night’s hunting. Those varied vampires on the bookshelf would never be so thoughtful!
Tabitha had been busy wrangling her many actors and stagehands while Hugh had been working on his side of things, and had been keen to avoid the stranger even after the cats had all been herded, so it came as a surprise to him when she returned to the gallery to give her tormentor a closer look. That is, Hugh thought that was why she had appeared right up until she raised a hand to him in greeting without so much as sneaking a peek at the man on the ground. “Hoy, professor. As one actor to another, you play the role of a bounder rather well. I nearly thought you were going to cook him.”
“Well! It’s all thanks to practice, isn’t it? Both of us have experience in making sure others think of us the way we wish them to.”
“So it really was an act?”
“But of course! It’s very important to me that I never bring the extent of my ability against another human being.” He paused. Back home in his study was a metal plate much like the one he wore, but horribly mangled, and to those who had the right to know he never shied from explaining what became of its bearer. “Unless they choose to escalate in a nonnegotiable manner,” he amended.
“Good thing the knave over there didn’t do that, then,” said Tabitha. She kept her hands at her waist and looked from Hugh to Mr. Ward and back again for not the first time that evening. “So you’re both actually initiated society men? You play the role of lovebirds well, too.”
“Professor Wainwright has been my most dear companion, and I his, for some years now, so I should certainly hope it so,” said Mr. Ward, who did not look up from his writing.
Tabitha barked in amusement. “Seems I owe Lindy a shilling, then,” she said.
“Speak of the Devil and he shall appear,” said Lindy, who until then had also been busy with keeping the theater staff from erupting in confusion; upon arrival she took a spot leaning up against a pillar that happened to give her a clear view of the man on the floor. “What was I right about this time?”
“Later,” said Tabitha. “These two have fulfilled their side of the bargain, so I suppose we owe them the courtesy of learning what that ‘steersmen of culture’ talk was all about.” Her bearing then skewed a bit prouder, a shade more regal; Hugh could feel the dignity she projected as easily as he might feel a breeze in a still room. “You’re not the first men to come by claiming we put filth on our stage, saying we should try to be respectable, by which they mean safe. I hope you don’t expect us to dig up the same moldering works you can see at any other playhouse. We pride ourselves on our modernity here.”
Hugh nodded and patted the part of his coat that still held the relics he’d collected that day, which had fortunately not yet been destroyed by flame or lightning. “Oh yes, the paper tickets are proof enough of that,” he said. “Please understand we don’t mean to argue about whether or not your theater is hosting obscenities. The obscenity is not the part to which we object.”
“Yeah? What is, then?”
“Ah…,” said Hugh. He’d understood what he’d been told quite comfortably, but there was an ocean of difference between understanding the problem and being able to explain it to another. “Mr. Ward, would you care to summarize? You’re better with words than I.”
Mr. Ward finished one final sentence before tucking away his writing. “Of course, Professor Wainwright,” he said. He then restated a condensed version of what he had said to Hugh across the space of many intermissions. The man on the floor came to part ways through the explanation; Hugh, ever-helpful, made sure the fellow could breathe around his gag and then kept a shoe pressed against the middle of his back to ensure Mr. Ward’s lecture went uninterrupted.
Upon reaching the end of that speech, Tabitha still didn’t look entirely convinced. “Your reasoning’s sound, sir, but you’re asking us to replace months, sometimes years of work, and none of that came about for free. Where do you expect us to find the resources for it? I can’t send Lindy down to the orchard to pluck herself a bushel of new scripts, and the parts you object to most are those which pull in the biggest crowds. Cutting them out entirely means my troupe can’t get paid.” She sighed. “It’s a noble goal, truly, but you can’t eat nobility.”
“You’d be surprised,” said Mr. Ward under his breath.
He cleared his throat. “I understand that you cannot simply summon new ideas from the ether, and that you have to care for not only yourselves but everyone else who calls the Sauvageot their home. I’ve been thinking about how to present your case to the society for this precise reason. We may be able to arrange for a sort of…artistic grant, if you will, provided you would be willing to cooperate with the society’s greater plans for the culture at large. There may be exclusive pieces made available to you from our archives in exchange for your partnership. I understand they’re quite banned in most places.”
Tabitha’s brows rose. “You’re saying you’d hand over copies of something like The Golden Banquet?”
Mr. Ward tilted his head. “Did I? Surely it would be something that falls short of that piece’s infamy. It would be astoundingly irresponsible to allow it to be read, much less performed, unedited.” He adjusted his spectacles in a manner that Hugh had yet to determine was a willful or unconscious tic. “Fortunately, the society employs editors aplenty.”
Some of that whispered-about work had been added to the society’s collection thanks to Hugh’s tireless scouring of any auctions that promised books or artwork, though even he had never seen the whole folio all together in one place. Simply knowing where all the different parts were stored required exhausting levels of vetting and skill; Hugh had, on a lark, learned that he was capable of the feat, and if Mr. Ward didn’t already officially have such ingress there was no doubt in Hugh’s mind that he either could manage it, or (in spite of what the records might say) already possessed it. It was not an empty offer that he extended.
“If I take this deal,” said Tabitha after some thought, “how much of what you’ve seen goes back to those quill-fiddlers that oversee your little missions?”
This coaxed a snort out of Mr. Ward. “If they wish for me to greet assignments such as these with a more watchful eye, they are welcome to start by properly acknowledging my dissertations, of which I have prepared many. Until then? As far as I am concerned, the professor is the only creature here, and myself and this troublemaker we’ll be taking with us the only practitioners.”
“You simply…won’t say anything at all?” she replied.
“I hear they call it ‘lying’ in some parts,” said Lindy.
With her brow furrowed into a washboard of ridges, Tabitha said, “Everything you’ve said and everything I know says that your society’s a nasty bunch to anger, and that same society also fills your cup and sets your plate so long as you behave. You’d bite the hand that feeds you?”
“I’m quite capable of feeding myself, thank you, but the face that would eat me is in for a surprise.”
Cleanup didn’t take as long as Hugh had feared, as, save for someone needing to wash out the inside of the bull and sweep up a few ashes, most of the mess had been made in the night city, and once they’d wrapped up the letter-writing man in a spare sheet Hugh didn’t have to worry about further mussing his clothes. He and Mr. Ward meticulously tore down the night city’s barriers until not so much as a single sign—theirs or anyone else’s—remained. Any leftover sigils of Lindy’s were carefully adulterated before being removed; there were, after all, no other practitioners reported there. They’d made plans to return and reasoning for said, both true and falsified. The nearest society safehouse was only a few blocks away, so delivering the man they’d captured could be done right on the way home. Everything seemed to be in order when someone called to Hugh while he was halfway down the theater steps.
“Hey! Professor!” said Lindy. “Bitty’s got something she wants to ask you.”
“It was a passing comment, Lindy,” said Tabitha, red-faced.
Hugh turned about, the stranger still tossed over one shoulder like a well-trussed bag of flour. “Now that this miscreant is handled I’ve all the time in the world for questions, madam,” he said with a smile.
“Go on, ask,” said Lindy. She gave Tabitha a little nudge as she spoke.
Tabitha herself looked to not want to have anything to do with the situation, but when Hugh refused to turn and leave she gave in. “You say you teach…people like us, right? How to be us better? Not just how to run around biting things in the dark?”
“If you’re asking for some continued instruction, why, I’d be happy to devise a personal curriculum for you,” said Hugh, now beaming like the long-since-set sun. “Your own companion is welcome to attend, if you’d prefer not to be alone. One can scarcely learn to appreciate their inner self without first being comfortable. And since you work in a performing environment, why, differently-sized clothes shall be nothing at all to hide among the costumes.”
“I told you he’d probably agree,” said Lindy. She cleared her throat. “So you know, we don’t like owing people things. And work’s got its own worth. If you’re going to be tutoring Bitty in monstering lessons, what do you want in exchange?”
Hugh glanced over at Mr. Ward, who was still dutifully writing in his notebook. The society hadn’t said much of anything about the content of the Sauvageot Theater’s performances, merely voiced concern that there was a potential security violation to investigate; the jolly outcome that had landed in their laps was technically extracurricular. He couldn’t expect anyone else to keep an eye on the place! It wouldn’t do to make demands of the theater without frequenting it in the future, both to see how well they were promoting more forward-thinking grue and to appreciate art for art’s sake, and Mr. Ward had noted that the stage violence was all in all quite good.
“How much do you usually charge for a private box…?” Hugh asked, and between Lindy’s wolfish grin and the little crease in the corner of Mr. Ward’s ever-solemn mouth, it was clear this had been the right thing to say.