by shukyou (主教)
Marron Fletcher clutched his hunting rifle in his left hand, pointing toward the edges of his estate with his right. “That’s where it was seen?” he asked.
The young boy nodded, looking pale as a well-laundered sheet. Marron supposed the pack of hounds straining at their leads did nothing to calm anyone’s nerves, least of all those of this gardener’s son. “By the pond, on the side nearest the orchard,” said the boy, trembling in his thin winter coat. “It was moving, though.”
“In which direction?” asked the boy’s father. He did not have a firearm, but he had several sinister-looking gardening implements that had been distributed among the men of the estate’s staff, who had rushed outside at the sound of the boy’s terrified cries. Marron would be at the lead, then; he was better armed than they, and he would not put his employees into a dangerous situation where he would not first go himself.
“I–” The boy shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“Well done, lad,” said Marron, resting a reassuring hand on the boy’s bony shoulder. He motioned to the man holding the hounds to let them lead the way, but to hold them fast all the while. Together they strode forth, the lights of the manor at their backs.
The autumn evening was well past brisk, on into downright chilly. The rolling greens of the estate grounds were not as smooth or gentle as they appeared from a spectator’s distance, and Marron heard more than one man swear as he caught his heel in a gopher-hole or kicked some rotting apple. The moonless sky provided no help as they stumbled forth by flickering lantern-light, its mutable quality making Marron’s eyes dart toward every shadow they passed, searching for movement.
As he marched forward, Marron tried to let his brain linger on the rational possibilities he’d been clinging to for weeks now. There were actual native fauna, of course; elk, cougar, and even bear were common in the region. Wolves were less common, but there were recorded sightings from recent years. Perhaps a trained lion or elephant had escaped from some traveling circus and decided to go wandering the countryside, in search of its native habitat. It might even have been a skinwalker of some stripe, walking as a beast under the new moon, a practice which Marron had not prohibited from his lands as many other towns and villages had.
And of course it could all just have been the boy’s imagination, Marron tried to tell himself. He wished he believed it could be so.
This was not, after all, the first sighting of the figure. This was simply the first that had come so close to Marron’s estate, and he was in no mood for visitors.
The dogs began to snap and howl as they neared the water’s edge, straining against their leads so their master had trouble holding them back. “Do you see anything?” Marron called to the others.
The men all made noises indicating, no, they saw nothing. Sight, however, was perhaps their weakest sense under these conditions, so Marron stretched out as best he could with his others. Part of him hoped that it was indeed intelligent, so that it could be reasoned with and sent away peaceably. Yet a greater part of him feared that it was intelligent — after all, if it knew what it was doing, it knew what it had been doing, and that was cause enough for worry.
A glimpse at the corner of Marron’s perception, a flicker of movement and a rustling sound, and before Marron knew what he was doing, he had his rifle up and at his shoulder. “Show yourself!” he bellowed at the darkness, hoping he sounded threatening. He didn’t want to have to shoot, but he would.
For a moment, everything was still. Even the hounds stopped barking, commanded against their instincts into restless, whimpering silence. A light wind blew through the trees, sending a few remaining dead leaves flickering their way to the ground. Had that been what Marron had sensed? No, he was sure there had been something else, something more tangible, more threatening. The men behind him shifted their weight on their feet, clutching their makeshift weapons so tight Marron could hear their hands press against the wooden grips.
Then the beast attacked, heading straight for Marron. It made no sound, just darted and moved with terrifying speed. It was impossible to see — instead, it made its surroundings visible by its own core absence. The landscape could only be seen where it was not, and that nothingness reflected no light.
Startled, Marron pulled the trigger. The explosion shattered the night, throwing Marron back off his balance with the recoil. The noise and sudden flash from the barrel half-deafened and -blinded them all, so much that Marron almost didn’t hear the sound of a woman’s shouting, somewhere far distant.
The beast stamped and moved in the darkness such that Marron could not tell if he had hit it or not, or if the bullet had done any damage either way. The woman’s voice came again from the distance: “Stop! Stop!”
Despite the proximity of the beast and his clear danger from it, Marron turned his head away to see Alma running across the grounds to him, her long blue dress flowing out behind her. He wanted to tell her to go back, to run the other way; hadn’t she heard the gunshot, didn’t she know what danger she was in? He was doing this to keep her safe! But she barreled forward, waving her arms above her head, shouting for him to stop.
For him to stop? That was how Marron had read her cries at first. But now he turned back to see the beast hesitate, as much as a patch of existence as black as spilled ink could. With the same suddenness it had used to rush Marron, it retreated, vanishing into the trees until the night was empty again.
Marron tossed his firearm to the ground and ran for Alma, catching her in his arms. Breathless, she looked up at him and shook her head, her eyes wild. “Don’t hurt him,” she gasped.
“Him?” Marron asked, not understanding her meaning.
“It’s Ephraim,” Alma managed, grabbing the front of Marron’s coat in both her delicate hands. “It’s Ephraim.”
Marron felt at once as though the whole world had lurched in its rotation, pitching him forward without bothering to stop his fall. He turned back to the place where the absence had first appeared — but no, that wasn’t right. The absence had been with them for twenty years now. It had just finally reached a form he could see.
The memory of his father’s name meant that the news reached all the way from their inland realm to the great cities of the coast: Ephraim Kinstone, 22, son of the late royal enchanter Jacob Kinstone, dead in an auric explosion, cause unknown. Salacious headlines and purple prose filled various newspapers with what little details the reporters could squeeze from servants or scrape off the sidewalk. For nearly a month, their pages ran with every scrap of information they could find, until even those scraps became too meager to satiate a gossip-hungry public’s appetite.
When the whole matter seemed finally to have slipped from print and public consciousness alike, Marron married Alma Fletcher.
He didn’t take it personally when the bride, on what should have been the happiest day of her life, wept through her vows. Instead, he held her hands in his and told her that she looked beautiful, because she did. Even a month of ceaseless crying and sleepless nights hadn’t stolen her loveliness, just hidden it a bit beneath the dark shadows that grief cast beneath her eyes. She was indeed a beauty, with delicate features and wide, dark eyes. She had a beautiful smile, when she smiled.
Once, Alma had planned a fine church wedding to the high-society specifications of her elderly grandparents, her guardians ever since her parents had died of a fever when Alma was a child. She had lists of preparations, from floral arrangements to processional orders to a guest list of the well-heeled from all over. They may not have been entirely thrilled about her choice of future husband, but he’d at least had some respectability to his name, and that had been good enough for them to demand their granddaughter’s wedding be the social event of the season.
Those plans seemed now like they belonged to another life. She wore now a simple dress, dark green with long sleeves and a high collar, her hair pulled back and unveiled. They stood together before a magistrate, reciting lines that should have been for another man. However, Marron didn’t care that she said the words to him without meaning them. This was not about her loving him. This was about his promising to protect her, to be the shield that granted her freedom from any other obligations that might have been imposed upon her. Everything else would came when it came, if it came. And if it didn’t, then that was simply part of the grief they would all have to learn to live with.
“I do,” Marron said as he added no ring to Alma’s finger, nor did she place one on his. There would be time for all the trappings later, if they wanted. For now, what mattered was his vow: He would be her husband, so that she would be forced to take no other, so that if she wished, she could have no husband except by law. It felt like such a simple, sorry gesture, but it was all he could do, and he would do it.
When the magistrate told him he could kiss the bride, he bent down and placed a kiss on her cheek, feeling the damp tracks of her tears. She squeezed his hand in return. It would not occur to him until years later that someone might have taken her lack of enthusiasm as ungrateful. He understood her too well to misread her like that.
He signed the marriage contract in a shaky hand: Marron Fletcher, a half-unfamiliar name that was now wholly his. The elder Fletchers, who had been none too thrilled about the rushed union in general, had at least been mollified that their granddaughter was keeping the family name. Marron suspected this was because they quietly believed it would make things easier one day for her to divorce this strange commoner husband of hers and find a respectable spouse. Just as quietly, he agreed and had already decided to bear her no ill will when it happened. Things like this weren’t meant for people like him.
Marron helped her in to the carriage that would take them back to the family estate — his family estate, now, as strange as that thought was. When he got to his seat, she drew herself up close to him and took his hand, twining their fingers together. She smelled like the sprig of lilacs her grandmother had pinned into her hair. “I wish,” she began, but then her voice trailed off. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need to finish the sentence. They both had the same wish.
“How can you know?” Marron asked as he stoked the coals in the fireplace.
From the couch, Alma shook her head. He’d hurried her back to the house as quickly as possible, and had bundled her up in blankets on the couch nearest to the fire. Her hands wrapped around a mug of tea, pressing to its sides for warmth. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “But I’ve had … a suspicion. Ever since the sightings at the carnival.”
Marron exhaled through pursed lips. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked, trying not to sound too harsh or accusing.
Alma let her gaze fall to the floor. “What was I going to say?”
Marron didn’t know, and he supposed that if he didn’t, there was no reasonable way to demand that she did. He raked his fingers back through his hair, which had in recent years begun to show signs of silver creeping in among his blond locks. They had all felt so adult then, so grown up. Two decades of perspective made Marron realize that they had been nothing more than children dressed in grown-up clothes. Now, he felt positively ancient.
Drawing the blankets closer to her, Alma sighed. “At first, I wrote it off as wishful thinking. Just my wild imagination running away with me, getting nostalgic for youth and for the past, and then the stress of these sightings, so my mind puts together the two least related concepts and tells me they’re the same thing.” She swallowed the last of her tea and put the emptied mug on the table. “But I watched you tonight, from the front door, and I…” With another heavy sigh, Alma sank back beneath the blankets, until the one covering the crown of her head fell forward enough to obscure the top half of her face. “This sounds ridiculous.”
“It doesn’t. I swear.” Marron stopped his pacing and took a seat next to her on the couch. As soon as he was settled in place, she turned to lean against him, and he draped an arm around her shoulders. “I’m just trying to understand.”
“I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up,” Alma said.
Marron grunted at that, but he couldn’t deny how right she was. Their years of marriage had taught him that she was always right, in fact — and not merely in the joking way put forth by the men who seemed to think it was invisible how much they actually hated the women they’d chosen to marry. Alma simply was always right, at least when it came to matters of intuition and appraisal. She had fine business sense and was a tremendous judge of character. And if she believed the beast was connected to Ephraim, then he would believe her.
“I would watch him, sometimes, in his workshop,” Alma said, resting her head against Marron’s shoulder. “And when he did his enchanting, there was sometimes a … a hum. A feeling, as particular to it as the smell of baking bread is to a baker’s work.”
Marron nodded, understanding at least some of her meaning. “He told me sometimes even people with no magical aptitude could tell when a strong enough working was being done.”
“Not even only that. Maybe bread was a bad example. Like–” Alma waved her hand in the air. “Perhaps more like a signature perfume. And I caught a hint of it when we were on the carnival grounds, but as I said before, I was willing to chalk it up to my imagination. Until tonight. There it was, and strong. It’s Ephraim’s doing, whatever it is. I know.”
Pressing his lips together, Marron exhaled heavily through his nose. Neither he nor Alma had any magical aptitude; that had always been Ephraim’s world, around which they had both been loyal satellites. Ephraim had done his best to explain what he could, but at the end of the day, Marron had assumed it was something like explaining the concept of colors to a blind man, where descriptions could translate but never transmit the exact experience. For his own part, Marron had been happy living inside of his limitations. He had known the world and the boundaries of his place inside it. Some things were always best left to the experts.
Now, though, his lack of comprehension threatened to crush not only him, but her, and everyone else around them besides. Already the town was beginning to shatter around them, as word of the sightings spread far beyond its borders. People talked of the beast in hushed, fearful voices, as though saying its name might summon it.
But if Alma was right, the townspeople did not know its name. She and Marron, though, might.
Marron bent down to kiss her soft hair. Hers was darker than his, and the few white strands showed up more by contrast. They were growing old together, just like they had promised to do so many years before. He had managed to be a good husband, he thought, or at least a better one that many potential alternatives. He had promised he would be, after all, and he was a man of his word.
“…What do you think really happened?” she asked, her voice barely audible over the crackling fire.
“I don’t know,” Marron said, because that had always been true.
The sheer force of the blast knocked him off his feet, sending the bags in his arms scattering to the pavement. At first, he thought he’d been smacked by a runaway horse, and such was his fault for not paying better attention to where he was going.
Then he looked around him and saw that he was not the only one — every living creature up and down the street seemed to have been blown back by some unseen force. The animals seemed to take it better, shaking off the blow before finding their feet again, stamping their feet and whining. The people, however, were taken down. Every person on the street had fallen to their knees, clutching at their heads. There was no accompanying sound, but Marron’s ears pounded with a roar like the ocean anyway, as though something had been there once, but was gone.
Then he looked up and saw that the windows of the third floor were all blown out, the panes shattered and the brick around them cracked. Bits of the eaves fell to the street below, and from out of the holes left behind, magical vapor flowed. Marron’s heart stopped.
Against the protests of every battered part of his body, Marron lurched to his feet. He felt something warm on his upper lip, something he would later recognize was a line of blood from burst capillaries in his nose, but he did not stop to investigate. He tried four times to stand before he could find his balance, and once he did, he tried to run. He managed the awkward, staggering gait of a newborn colt, but it was enough to ferry him across the street and to the door of the building. People inside were as flattened as he had been, doubled over and groaning, trying to figure out what had happened. Marron, on the other hand, was crawling on his hands and knees up the building’s main stairwell, terrified that he already knew the answer to their question.
The door to their apartment swung off its hinges, half-charred on the inside. This was why landlords hated renting out workspace to magicians, Marron thought wildly as he grabbed it and pulled himself inside, praying that he might not be too late.
He was. Whatever had happened here, he could have arrived immediately after or days hence, and it would not have mattered.
The workshop was blown out from a single spot, and Marron knew it as the spot where Ephraim generally stood. But there was no Ephraim. Metal instruments lay twisted on the floor or embedded themselves in the wooden walls. All the furniture seemed to have been reduced to kindling, until there was no hope of telling the difference between what might have been a chair and what once was a table. A pile of wet, shattered glass against the far wall was all that remained of a collection of various oils and solutions, now a runny mess that did not distinguish one from the other. But despite the chaos of the wreckage, Marron could see that there was nothing left of his employer and friend except scraps of bright yellow material he recognized as Ephraim’s coat. The magician was gone.
Some uncountable amount of time later, the detectives arrived and found the wreckage, with Marron collapsed in the doorway. They set to interrogating him right there, only to realize quickly that Marron hadn’t been where they’d found him when the incident itself had taken place. Marron had only superficial answers for them, nothing they didn’t surely already know. Yes, he had been bonded to work for the Kinstone family since childhood. No, he’d been out picking up materials because Ephraim had told him to, and because doing what Ephraim told him to was the entirety of his job. Yes, those were his parcels scattered on the street outside. No, he didn’t know what Ephraim had been working on. No, he had no aptitude for or interest in magic himself. No, he didn’t know what had happened.
He held himself together until he heard a sob at the door. With the grim weight of inevitability, he turned to see Alma there, pushing her way through the detectives. Her eyes were wide with terror and she held her hands clutched to her chest, as though they might shield her against the worst of the truth. He could see the engagement ring on her finger, the strange way its woven metal bands caught the fading daylight so beautifully. She saw him and she ran to him, throwing herself into his arms.
He caught her and wrapped his arms around her soft frame, grabbing onto her as though he were drowning and she were the life preserver, only to realize that she held him in the same way. They were both at sea together, then, lost among the waves, their anchor gone. He pressed his face into her hair and at last began to weep.
Even in the daylight, Marron could not see any difference between the trees the beast might have touched and the ones it didn’t. He found the tree that had been shattered by his bullet and ran his hand up and down the splintered wood. There was nothing there but the slug and the wood, as though he had fired it into nothing but a cloud of smoke. There were no tracks or blood trails on the ground to indicate that anything had even been there to hit.
He swore and kicked at a log. It didn’t make him feel particularly better, but he was out of more useful remedies for the situation.
The sightings had started a year ago, even if he hadn’t known them at the time for what they were. The Fletcher estate was vast, more so than Marron had realized when he’d first come to visit it at Alma’s invitation, back when the invitation had actually been Ephraim’s, and Marron himself had been little more than a constant shadow. There was a strange symbiosis between the manor and the town it overlooked, in that at least half of the town’s property and all of its surrounding countryside were by law held by the Fletcher estate. That meant that though the town had a mayor, everyone in it treated the head of the Fletcher household as the real head of the community, and all matters of concern eventually reached him.
The first people who had seen it had been a pair of young women, out enjoying a stroll together at dusk. They’d been sighted tearing back inside the town gates as quickly as their legs could carry them, gasping and warning of a bear, a big black bear, lurking in the woods just beyond the apple orchards. No one else had seen the bear with them, nor did investigations made the next day turn up any evidence that one had been there. The news had made its way back to Marron as little more than curiosity, and when there were no more sightings within the next two weeks, everyone seemed by mutual unspoken agreement to regard it as a trick of the light.
There had been a handful more of these strange reports over the next few months, though hardly in a way that linked one to the other. Those who reported having seen the creature said it did not appear to have any malicious intent. One man even said it gave him the impression that it seemed uncomfortable with its surroundings — as much as a formless black mass could, anyway. But his point, like that of the others who had seen it, had been that it had seemed to bear them no ill will. Many were not even sure it had noticed them at all. A father carrying a young baby told of how the creature, upon hearing a sharp babbling noise from the infant, had dashed off, scared away like a rabbit.
Then the carnival had come. An annual event to celebrate the end of harvest, it was among the town’s largest gatherings. Many of those in attendance came from afar, and had likely planned to do so months in advance. Simple rumors of a spectral sighting had not dissuaded them, if indeed they’d even heard such rumors at all.
Marron had not been there at the moment of its appearance, drawn away instead to another part of the grounds, where he’d been busied with settling some dispute or another over booth space. Few others in attendance that evening, however, had missed the excitement. The thing had materialized this time in the center of the main tent, between acts. Those who had been there said that they had at first thought it was part of the show, some new magical illusion meant to surprise and delight the crowds. Their initial impressions were shattered as it did not perform any sort of delights, but instead bolted and ripped through three of the tent’s prime supports as though they hadn’t been there at all. Without those anchors, the heavy canvas fell over all those inside, frightening humans and circus animals alike. By some miracle, no one had been seriously injured.
The carnival had canceled its run early and moved on, clearing the town of visitors that had come from the surrounding countryside to see it. As rumor spread of what had happened, business in the marketplace had all but dried up outside of daylight hours, which at this end of the year made a narrower window every day.
Marron sighed as he looked out over the lake, watching as a flock of geese settled on the surface of the water. He tried not to fret about matters that hinged on things beyond his comprehension, much less his control. That was easier said than done, though. He would have felt responsible for such a calamity even if he’d had nothing to do with it.
The idea of its being connected to Ephraim, though, threw his whole sense of culpability off its axis. If Alma was correct, there was no way this creature’s appearance so close to them was coincidental.
Selfishly, he hoped that he might be able to ignore the problem and have it disappear on its own. He knew nothing of magic, so he could not say whether or not these happenings were unprecedented. Perhaps it was some common occurrence, one that his upbringing had simply left him ignorant of. If he left it alone long enough, if he acted as though there were nothing, he might even be able to call its bluff and have it vanish on its own.
No, even as he had the thought, he knew it was ridiculous. And yet, without knowing anything more than what he did now, how could he hope to comprehend the situation, much less remedy it?
There was nothing to be solved by worrying, but there was also nothing but worrying to do. So Marron worried as he walked the length of the forest, looking for patterns among the leaves and their trees, trying to find something, anything that would speak to him in a language he understood. The landscape, however, kept its secrets.
“What’s this?” asked Marron, looking up from the parcel that had just landed in his lap.
“A birthday gift,” Ephraim said, leaning in the doorway with his arms crossed across his chest. “Open it.”
Marron ran his fingers over the smooth colored paper that wrapped around the small box beneath, its shiny yellow surface refusing to give away any secrets about its contents. “It’s not my birthday,” he pointed out.
“Don’t care.” Ephraim shrugged defiantly. At fifteen, he was already almost as tall as his father, though his adolescent gangliness was charming, almost puppy-like, especially when put next to Marron’s sudden eruption into elbows and knees and little else. “Do you know we’ve not celebrated your birthday once since I’ve known you? Not once. That’s ten years. It’s a considerable backlog, and I didn’t want to waste a moment clearing it.”
Marron held the box flat in the palm of one hand. It was light, surprisingly so, and for a moment he wondered if there might be nothing in there at all. But no, that kind of trick was not Ephraim’s style. He could be headstrong and sometimes even thoughtless, but he was not cruel. “Thank you,” Marron said.
Ephraim raised his eyebrows. “Well? Open it!”
Turning the box in his fingers, Marron saw the place beneath where a piece of tape held the folded paper’s edges together. He slid his fingertips beneath the crease, prying up the adhesive so that it didn’t tear the sheen off the wrapping paper.
Ephraim made a disgusted noise. “Really? This is the pace we’re going to go?” He rolled his eyes at Marron’s careful pace, but he was smiling all the same.
Marron continued his careful, deliberate movements until the edge of the paper came free. He folded the flap back until he could slide out the small white box inside. Without the paper’s trappings, it weighed even less. He looked from it to Ephraim. “Should I open it?” he teased, his eyes wide and innocent of any distress he might be causing.
“Yes!” Ephraim all but exploded into comical bursts of aggravated confetti. He threw his hands into the air. “Yes, that is what you do with a present! You take it, and you open it, and you ooh and ahh and so on and so forth! It’s very standard.”
Marron of course knew exactly how standard it was, and he did not pause to point out that he only knew this from watching other people receive birthday gifts, not from receiving any of his own. With a delicate touch, he lifted the lid off the box, revealing a small metal object inside. “What’s this?” he asked.
As though he couldn’t contain himself any longer, Ephraim bounced from the door to the bed, then plopped himself down on its edge, just where Marron was sitting. “It’s a present.” He leaned hard against Marron, bumping their shoulders together with playful force. “Come on, take it out.”
“I’m working on it,” Marron protested. He reached in among the folds of the tissue paper that cushioned it and withdrew a small silver pendant on a delicate chain. The pendant itself was wafer-thin and circular, barely larger than the pad of his thumb; it weighed nothing, but when he pressed its edge between his fingertips, he did not feel it begin to bend or give. On its surface was an etching he couldn’t read, a single letter from an alphabet he couldn’t identify. It was simple and beautiful, and Marron found himself at a loss for words.
Words, however, were Ephraim’s specialty. “I made it,” he said proudly, leaning against Marron’s shoulder again. “All right, I didn’t make the chain, or the disc. But I engraved it, and I enchanted it.”
Marron’s eyes widened. He had a million questions at that, but the first one that slipped from his lips before he could think better of it was, “Does your father know?”
A brief cloud passed over Ephraim’s merry features, but it was there and gone in a second, replaced with Ephraim’s tenacious enthusiasm. “He knows I’ve been working on a lot of things,” Ephraim said, pointing to the disc. “He doesn’t care about the little things. And I have to warn you, this is a little thing. It doesn’t give you the ability to summon fire or turn rice into diamonds or anything like that. It’s just a good-fortune rune. It’s meant to keep you a little more safe from danger, and to give you a little more luck in things where luck is a factor. I tried it out myself. Flipped a coin a hundred times, got heads sixty-two of them.”
“I suppose that is lucky,” Marron said. “Unless of course you’re wanting tails.”
Ephraim laughed, shaking his head. No one else laughed at Marron’s infrequent jokes. No one else listened to Marron long enough to hear him say them. “Go on, then, Mr. Lucky, put it on.”
Marron looked at the clasp and how small it seemed in his awkward adolescent paws. “Can you…?”
“Allow me!” Ephraim reached and took the chain from Marron’s hands, then gestured that Marron should turn and face the other direction. As Marron did, Ephraim draped the chain around his neck, letting the coin slip just beneath the collar of Marron’s shirt. His fingers brushed against the back of Marron’s neck as he fit one end of the clasp into the other. The warmth of his hands seemed to burn against Marron’s skin. Marron held his breath.
After what seemed like too long and too short a time at once, Ephraim took Marron’s shoulder in his hand and turned him again, encouraging him to turn back. Marron did, until they were facing one another. Had the temperature in the room just increased several degrees? That was the only possible explanation for how Marron had started to perspire. He and Ephraim were so close their knees were pressed against one another, so close that Marron felt acutely the exact distance between their faces.
He would never. Not in his life would he ever allow himself such weakness. Their relationship was close, but it was ultimately that of a master and a servant. There was a permanent distance between them, one that he had recognized long ago. The fact that he sometimes felt a wild desire to cross that gap, to throw himself into Ephraim’s arms — well, that was Marron’s problem, not Ephraim’s, and Marron would not make it such.
But if Ephraim did first…
No. He bit the inside of his cheek. That was a stupid thought, and he’d hated himself for thinking it every one of the ten thousand times he’d thought it before. It was a thought best gone from his head, and the fact that it would not leave was beyond insulting. The sooner he could learn not to have it at all, the better off he’d be.
“Well?” asked Ephraim, smiling his wide, handsome smile. “Are you feeling luckier now?”
“I think so,” Marron said, tasting his own blood in his mouth.
The trip into town had been meant to be reassuring, both to Marron himself and to everyone else who might be reassured by the head of the town’s most prominent household’s appearance. It could not have gone worse.
Despite the marketplace’s growing fear of the dark, during daylight hours it seemed the same as it had before. It filled what had once been a disused town square, then stretched out down the side streets for blocks in all directions. The majority of the vendors were permanent residents, though a good number came and went as they pleased, in wagons and caravans that carried wonders. Performers took up places in the busier thoroughfares, entertaining the crowds with juggling, song, acrobatics, and even the occasional dramatic piece.
When Marron had first come to visit Alma, he’d been greeted by the sight of a small village, more a waypoint than an actual destination. In the decade and a half since Grandfather Fletcher’s death, Marron had overseen its growth to a thriving mid-sized town, despite its remote location. Much to his surprise, Marron found that the skills he’d gained managing Ephraim’s whole life were indeed transferrable, such that when called upon to be the half-symbolic, half-practical leadership of the community, he took to it as though the task had been made for him. He directed a significant portion of the Fletcher family fortune toward developing the town itself, at first largely as a means of making living there more pleasant for those who did. When that development brought in new residents and new businesses, he continued to direct improvements as he saw fit.
Alma was his constant companion in this endeavor, though she had never been too much for public leadership in the first place, and after Ephraim’s death, she had drawn back into herself, not to emerge fully again. She took up the more solitary aspects of the task, managing the books and hosting smaller meetings at the manor house. Together they created a balance that served them well.
Some days, Marron felt like a gardener, with a town instead of rows of prize plants. He found that a helpful analogy for a kind of work he’d never expected to find himself doing. He enjoyed the work of building up the town, because it made it a more pleasant place to live, and because it made the lives of those who lived there more pleasant.
Since Marron’s rise to the head of the Fletcher household, word had spread that the town and its surrounding area were overseen by a formerly bonded servant, which had also done wonders for the population. Marron had tried his best to make it a place hospitable to those emerging from servitude, often with not a penny to their names. The marketplace was one such project — it was an enormous amount of work to run and maintain, all of which required honest labor, no matter a person’s background.
Two policies set the town apart. The first was its stance on debt-bondage, a practice which the Fletchers themselves had abolished long before Marron had arrived on the scene. Anyone who wanted to do business in the marketplace or settle in the town needed to be able to prove that any servants were fair employees. A bonded servant brought to the town could appeal to have their bonds released, and a number of those who did chose to stay afterwards.
The second was its openness to magic. The cities tended to frown upon, and even outright persecute, practitioners of magic who were not trained through the proper channels. Folk magic and other “extreme” practices were the subject of suspicion and scorn among many people, even when those practices were no more extreme than manipulations of elemental forces. According to the Crown, proper magic should be enchantments, healings, and divinations only, and anything else was barbaric. However, Marron had never much feared barbarians of any stripe. Those who wished to do harm to others were unwelcome; anyone else could come without fear of discovery.
And if, from time to time, Marron visited the enchanters to ask certain questions, what was the harm? It was academic curiosity. He, after all, had no magic, meaning that even the most dangerous secrets were useless to him.
Walking through the stalls, Marron could see that a number of those there wore their criminal past on their faces and arms. That didn’t matter. They were here now, and that was supposed to be safe for them. And on this pleasant afternoon, that seemed to be true. They walked through the crowds, Alma’s hand tight in the crook of Marron’s arm. Half the people, Marron knew, and the other half, he knew knew him; they smiled and called greetings to him as he passed, seeming pleased at having even a brief piece of his attention. It was strange to think that he had spent so much of his life like this, and yet he had never quite stopped being shocked when people treated him as someone to see, not someone to see through. He’d spent the whole first half of his life perfecting the art of being invisible. Look at him now.
As he stood there amid the hustle and bustle, he saw a shadow fall across a nearby building. At first, he thought little of it; the blue sky was dotted with the small, frosty clouds of early winter, after all, moving the day through patches of sunlight and shade. When it did not roll past, however, Marron felt a sinking sensation clutch at his stomach. “Alma,” he said, his voice low.
Before she could even turn to look at him, Marron felt a shiver pass through Alma’s body. Her back was to the shadow, so he knew her senses were set on edge by something else entirely. “It’s here,” she said, her face pale.
Marron swore under his breath. His options were limited. He could try and evacuate the area calmly, though he imagined that would snowball into panic quickly. He could skip the calm evacuation and shoot right to panic, hoping that despite the chaos, everyone would get away faster. He could stay silent and hope it all went away.
Or, he supposed, he could speak to it.
With a wild hope that it might not be expecting a direct confrontation, especially under such public circumstances, Marron took Alma’s hand in his and walked toward the shadow. As he looked at it straight on, he could see that it was nothing like shade from the sun. It was, in fact, nothing. Where the side of the building should have been, there was a nothingness so profound that it was as though someone had converted it to paint, then tossed the whole bucket at the wall.
Others were starting to notice now — first his strange behavior, then what it was he saw. A murmur went through the crowd as they came to the same conclusion Alma had.
“Go,” Marron said, his calm but firm.
That was all the instruction they needed. Some vendors, those with the more precious and portable items, took a moment to scoop up their valuable wares before fleeing. Most, however, just ran — not far, but to a safe distance. He had wanted them to flee completely, but it seemed he had an audience. He couldn’t think about that now. He could only do his best to keep them safe in other ways.
Marron took a deep breath and narrowed his eyes at the void against the building. He recognized it from the night before, though it was no easier to see in sunlight. “I am unarmed,” he told it. “May we talk?”
Talk? said a voice — though ‘said’ was not the word for how the sound came to him. It seemed to bypass his ears entirely, resonating instead in his bones. He felt the words more than he heard them, and from the way Alma clutched her head with her free hand, he could tell it came to her the same. What have we to talk about?
“Why you’re here,” Marron said. He surprised himself with how cool and collected he managed to stay, even as he was gripping Alma’s hand with his own. “Why have you come here?”
This is mine, usurper, spat the voice. The shape of the void against the wall changed, shifted. Marron felt the uneasy certainty that it was like a snake, beginning the coil that would end with a strike.
“I don’t understand,” Marron called to it. “We’ve seen you several times now. What do you want?”
What do I want? Then there was a grating sound, a harsh screech like the creaking of glass scratching glass, except that it vibrated all the way through Marron’s skull. From the edges of the square, where the crowd still packed in to see, came a chorus of pained groans. The building the beast was on shuddered, knocking loose a few tiles from its room; they shattered against the sidewalk below.
“Ephraim!” called Alma, stepping forward.
Marron didn’t know how he knew, but he knew she had its attention. The posture of the nothingness changed — not relaxing, but redirecting its focus onto her. Marron wanted to believe it was just reflex, a reaction to a new voice in the mix, interested more in the fact of her speech than in its substance. He also knew that wasn’t true at all.
Alma took another step, mirroring its movements. “Ephraim, please! Why are you doing this?”
It did not respond, but Marron did not for a moment think it had stopped listening. It was thinking. If it had been possessed of eyes, he knew they would have been trained on her.
Marron came forth as well, standing just enough between Alma and the beast that they could still see one another, but clearly projecting that to get to her, it would have to go through him. “Are you Ephraim?” he asked it, knowing there was no answer it could give to that question that he would want.
It shifted and made a sound like knuckles cracking, sending another several roof tiles crashing to the ground. Are you?
“I’m–” Marron looked to Alma, who frowned in return. It had seemed to recognize him earlier; had that been only a misunderstanding? “Do you know me?”
I know what you should have become, the thing replied in a tone that made Marron’s molars buzz. I know whose life you wear like a coat, like a mask.
It was trying to hurt him, then, and damn everything, it was succeeding. Marron felt Alma’s hand on his shoulder, but he held his ground between them. He could feel the gaze of the crowd on him. “You are frightening everyone,” Marron said, trying to appeal to its more reasonable side, praying that it had one. “Whatever brings you here, I am listening.”
There was a ripple then that spread out across the surface of the nothingness, shimmering out from its center as though its surface were a pond someone had upended precariously, then pitched a stone into. For a moment, Marron thought it had become a mirror, like a black stone polished to a perfect shine. That, however, clearly wasn’t the case — not two figures, but only one appeared from within the dark depths, and Marron realized that the darkness was not a mirror, but a window. He could not see it, but he could see through it. What watched from the other side was human, or at least had a human shape.
Then the sound of shrieking glass filled the air, making members of the crowd cry out and clutch their heads. The side of the building crumbled in on itself, as easily as though a child had too roughly handled the corner of a gingerbread house. Alma grabbed the back of Marron’s coat and hauled him several steps backward, just out of the range of debris. When he looked up again, the beast was gone.
“Did you see it?” he asked Alma, staring at the destruction for some further clue. It was gone now, though, as completely as it had disappeared the night in the woods.
Alma nodded. “There was someone there. On the other side.”
Good, she’d come to the same conclusions he had; that meant if he had indeed gone mad, he hadn’t taken the trip alone. Around them, the bravest souls began to approach, wanting a firsthand look at the destruction. Thank goodness, the damage to the building was not extensive — nothing, at least, that a competent mason couldn’t fix in a few days’ time.
The real damage, however, was far worse. As Marron looked around, he saw nothing but terrified faces surrounding him, peering out from behind walls and over carts. Half of them would be gone by the end of the day; half of those remaining would be gone by the end of the week. A monster had set its sights on the town, which meant no one was safe. For years, Marron had worked tirelessly to bring a haven to life. Ten minutes on a sunny afternoon had signed its death warrant.
Alma pressed her lips together. “It wasn’t Ephraim, though. The man, watching through it. It wasn’t Ephraim.”
Marron had to agree with her assessment: Ephraim had always been sturdily built, but still with a compact frame. The man they’d seen through the window into the void had been at least as tall as Marron, if not more so. He had been formally dressed, with a short cape half-tossed over one of his shoulders. And it had been a man, that much Marron was sure.
If pressed, Marron might even have made a guess at the individual’s identity. The problem was, that someone was even longer-dead than Ephraim.
The funeral had been an ordeal, one which Ephraim had insisted on planning and coordinating himself, despite the number of times Marron had tried to insist on taking the reins. It had seemed too cruel to make a son throw himself into the mechanics of burying his father, until Marron had finally realized that the work was what Ephraim wanted to keep his mind off the grief.
But the funeral was over now, and Jacob Kinstone’s body was a pile of ashes in a jar, and there was no time for anything but grief.
“I’m going to sell it,” Ephraim said. “This whole bloody place.”
Alma sat on the couch with him and held his hand in both of hers, while Marron hovered at a respectful distance, standing on the other side of the room. For the first month or so following her arrival in the city, Marron had been on his most formal behavior with Alma around, pulling himself fully into the role of dutiful manservant. He’d even addressed her as ‘Mistress Fletcher’ until she’d threatened to dump a bucket of cold water over his head if he did it one more time, a statement that had startled Ephraim into laughing until he’d given himself the hiccups. After that, Marron had allowed himself to relax when she was around.
“I’m sick of it,” Ephraim continued, gesturing to the parlor — and, presumably, the house beyond — with his free hand. “It’s so very Father, all of it. I hate it. Perhaps we can sell it to some other former royal enchanter. I’m sure they all have similar aesthetics.” He sighed as he collapsed back against the couch, draping one arm across his eyes. “I don’t need it. It’s unnecessary. It’s ridiculous. All of it, ridiculous. Just … ugly pomp and trying to impress other people. I mean, look at this carpet. This carpet is hideous. Don’t you think?”
Alma glanced to Marron, who gave a little shrug; he had no real opinions as far as carpets were concerned. “I think,” Alma said after a moment’s consideration, “that you should sleep on it. And if you still feel that way afterwards, then we shall help you do so.”
“I’m still going to feel that way, I assure you. I–” With another heavy sigh, Ephraim grabbed at his tie and loosened it from his throat, then undid the top button of his shirt. “There’s just so much. So much junk. Like the carpets. And all of his … his things. I can’t even sell most of them. It’s illegal to trade in half the things he worked with, and immoral to trade in the other half.”
Marron suspected those proportions were exaggerated, but not by much. The late Master Kinstone had licenses and permissions from his time serving the crown that allowed him access to materials ordinary people, especially non-magicians, were forbidden to own. All the household servants knew better than to enter Master Kinstone’s workspaces, or to open unlabeled boxes unasked.
“You can keep them at my grandparents’ home,” Alma said. “The house has basements upon basements. I used to play in them when I was a little girl. If you’re serious about selling this place–“
“And I am,” Ephraim interrupted.
“If,” Alma repeated, her voice soothing but firm, “and you decide you want it gone before you can bear to sort through his possessions, you may store them with me, and go through them at your leisure. I’m sure, when the time comes, Grandmother will be able to give me the list of a dozen different licensed vendors who’ll take everything off your hands.”
Ephraim exhaled heavily through pursed lips, but he nodded. “Won’t they mind the storage?”
“Honestly, I doubt they’d even notice. Especially if I tell them we’re hiring, and those boxes come with the new staff.” Alma drummed her fingers thoughtfully against the back of Ephraim’s hand. “The service bonds have transferred to you now, which I presume you’re dissolving as well. If you’re getting rid of the house, you won’t even need the staff. Anyone who’s willing to move, we could employ.”
With a groan, Ephraim sank deeper in to the couch cushions. “Right, right,” he muttered, dragging the heel of his hand across each of his eyes in turn. He swallowed hard and looked at Marron, forcing a smile that showed far too many teeth and no mirth. “Right, then. Yours first. You’re done. Poof! Chains dissolved. Just like magic.”
Marron’s eyes narrowed as he tried to puzzle out Ephraim’s meeting. “I don’t understand.”
“You’re done! You’re free.” Ephraim sat up, then stood upright, making shooing gestures in the general direction of the parlor’s door. “I officially, and in the presence of this witness, do what I should made my father have done years ago. Your bonds are null and void. I’ll draw up the papers in the morning to this effect.” Ephraim’s voice was loud and joyless. When he moved, it was as though he were drunk, though Marron had been with him all day and knew that to be untrue.
Feeling unsteady, Marron stayed put. “I’m not a slave,” he said, which was true only by the barest legal truth.
“No, of course not.” Ephraim ran his fingers back through his thick auburn hair, sending it into a wild mess. “You’re just a child whose shitty parents sold him into service to another shitty parent. Completely different.” He balled his hands into fists and looked down at his feet, pressing his lips together until they all but disappeared into the line of his mouth. “A shitty parent and his shitty son, who somehow managed to miss for most of his life that his best friend was not only paid, but legally compelled, to spend time with him — and when he did notice, he was too much of a coward to do anything about it until his father was too deceased to yell at him for it.”
Marron supposed that, yes, that was one way to read the situation. It was unkind, but it was not inaccurate. He knew nothing of his parents, save that they had somehow fallen into debt deep enough to warrant selling off at least one of their children, and that Jacob Kinstone had been the one who had wound up with Marron’s particular bond. He wasn’t a slave, because he wasn’t property; he was merely in service until the debt was cleared, and there were several ways to clear it. Ephraim had just stumbled upon the quickest.
Alma stood, taking Ephraim’s hand, but facing Marron. It was clear from the guilty way she looked at him that she had not meant to include him in the discussion of employment. She did not think of him as a bonded servant, just as Ephraim did not, just as Marron himself honestly did not either. They were all three more than the choices that had been made for them.
Marron straightened his shoulders and gave Alma a half-bow. “Mistress Fletcher,” he said in his most formal tone, “I am told that your household is hiring.”
“We are.” Alma nodded.
Ephraim lifted his gaze, obvious confusion written on his face. Marron, however, was not looking at him. “Then,” Marron said to Alma, “I am formally submitting myself for the position of manservant to Master Kinstone.”
“Your application is accepted and you are hired,” Alma said, a smile curling at her lips.
“What? No!” Ephraim looked from Marron to Alma, then back to Marron. “You’re free. Free! Go! You don’t have to stay here any longer! Your debt is clear, your parents’ debt is clear! You’re — you — you can go!”
“With all due respect,” Marron said, his soft voice still cutting like a knife through Ephraim’s near-panic, “you are no longer my employer. If you wish me to leave your service, you will have to take it up with Mistress Fletcher.”
Ephraim looked utterly defeated, but the tears that spilled down his cheeks now were clearly those of relief and gratitude. He opened his mouth as though to say something, anything, but no words came out. Instead, he let go of Alma’s hand and crossed the room in three great strides, then embraced Marron in a hug so tight Marron feared his ribs might crack under the pressure. Choking back sobs, Ephraim pressed his face into the curve of Marron’s neck, his whole frame shaking.
Marron held him back just as tightly, his hands bunching up Ephraim’s shirt as he grabbed him and refused to let go. He had not until just then realized how much of his life had been spent knotted up by the fear that he would be forced to leave Ephraim’s side, that the elder Kinstone would compel him into service elsewhere or that Ephraim himself would tire of him and dismiss him. He was indeed free — not of his bond, that was almost incidental at this point, but of the weight of that fear. He could choose where to be now, and he had made his choice.
“Don’t leave me,” Ephraim pleaded softly, his chest heaving with the effort of speech. “Don’t leave me.”
“Not as long as I live,” Marron swore.
The clatter of a teacup against the saucer on his desk startled him from his concentration. He looked from its steaming surface to Alma, who was bundled in a heavy velvet robe. “If you’re not going to join me, I thought I might join you,” she said, taking the chair opposite him at the desk.
Marron tugged his reading glasses off, then ran his hand across his face. How many hours ago had he promised her he’d come to bed in just a moment? He had no way at hand to measure. Instead, he took the cup and drank from the tea in it, then gave Alma a grateful smile. “You should rest. One of us should rest.”
“We’ll sleep in tomorrow.” Alma looked down at the book open in front of him, squinting in the candlelight at the ornate handwriting that filled its pages. “What’s this?”
With a disgruntled sigh, Marron flipped to the interior of the front cover, where the bookplate indicated that the volume had once belonged to the library of Mr. Jacob Haddenford Kinstone. “Some long-dead enchanter’s travel diary. I think. It’s all but completely written in a magician’s shorthand that reads like code, and it’s making no more sense to me this time than…” Marron let his sentence trail into nothing, then went back to sipping at his tea.
Alma let the silence between them grow for a moment, then sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “I think it’s time you showed me.”
Marron supposed it couldn’t be helped. “You’ll want shoes. And your coat.”
Some minutes later, they stood together at a door just off of the kitchens, a heavy thing set with a steel latch. The rest of the house was stone-silent; all its other inhabitants were asleep in their beds, like sane people who did not carry the past with them like anchors around their necks. Alma wore a long coat and a pair of Marron’s boots, while Marron, still dressed for the day, wrapped a heavy scarf around his throat. The house, old and sprawling as it was, was ill-heated enough above the ground. There was no warmth to be found below.
Marron carried a lantern and went first, lighting the way to the stone-floored landing. On fairer days, in finer weather, the cellars were perfectly acceptable places to be; in high summer, their constant cool was even enjoyable. But in the middle of a late autumn night, they were as forbidding as any place Marron could imagine. Alma’s heavy steps followed him down the wooden stairs, placing one careful foot after another. The first cellar landing was a low-ceilinged room filled with high shelves, which held most of the house’s perishable provisions. Members of the household staff came down here often in the regular course of their duties. They went no further.
Tonight, Marron and Alma did. He led her not because he knew the way any better than did she, who had grown up in the house. He guided her, though, because this was his secret to open.
Of course, it was a secret only in the sense that they did not speak of it. Alma had known from the beginning that Marron came down here often on his own, and she had done them both the courtesy of not asking — not because he didn’t want her to know what he was doing, but because any attempt to explain might, before today, have made him seem like a madman. Just his luck, coins were finally turning up heads.
Three rooms back into the cellar complex, Marron used the lantern to light two others in the room, casting everything in dancing yellow light and shadow. He’d resisted the urge ever to bring a desk down here, as he felt somehow that staying down her too long would be take a toll on his health he didn’t care to pay. He brought things up to the ground level to examine them, but he retrieved them from and returned them to the boxes and crates that lined the walls of this room. Here were the last pieces of House Kinstone, meant to have been retrieved when their rightful owner married in to become the master of the house. As that had never happened, no one had ever touched the belongings.
Except, that was, Marron. “It’s all still there,” he said, gesturing to the piles. “I have to move things around to sort through it all, to get out objects and put them away, but it’s all still in the same general order and arrangement as it was when he had it delivered here.”
Alma nodded and ran her hand over the surface of one of the boxes. Marron had inventoried their contents as best he could, leaving labels stuck to them with handwritten notes about what hid inside each one. “I’d forgotten there was so much.”
Marron smiled. “At first, I came just to organize it. To … it seems foolish, but to be near his things, even if they were only his by way of inheritance, it was somewhat like being near him.”
“I don’t think it foolish,” Alma said. She lifted the lid of one crate, peering into the stacks of books contained within. “I didn’t ask, though I thought it might be something like that. I didn’t want to intrude.”
As much as they shared, some grief was still private, and no one respected that fact more than the two of them did for each other. “I’ve made a list of everything, though … some entries are a bit vague. ‘Red book in language I can’t identify,’ ‘pouch of dried reptile parts,’ ‘orange glass orb,’ and so forth. Most of it, he probably never touched.”
“His father’s things.”
“Yes.” Marron stuck his hands into his pockets, wishing he’d brought gloves; no matter how cold he expected the cellars to be in winter, they always put his poor imagination to shame. “Before the explosion happened, Ephraim was working on something he didn’t want me to know about. Something he should have been. I think he was trying to contact his father.”
Alma’s dark eyes went wide in the lamplight. Talking to the dead was one of the few near-universal magical taboos, not only because of respect to the departed and their eternal rest, but because such doors, once opened, were hard to shut. “Is that what caused it?” asked Alma.
“I don’t know.” Marron shook his head. “He was … there was much he was not telling me, near the end, whether he wanted to protect me or he just didn’t trust me. He was sleeping less, worrying more. He did well to hide it, but that’s hard business to hide from someone who lives with you. I thought he was anxious about the wedding — like you were, which is why I chose not to bother you.”
“I understand,” Alma said. He was unsurprised by her reaction, but grateful for it nonetheless; after all, she would have been well within her rights to demand Marron explain why he hadn’t told her that her fiance was fraying at the edges in the months leading to their wedding. “I might well have made the same choice.”
Whether she would or wouldn’t was entirely hypothetical at this point, but Marron still appreciated her affirmation. “I thought at first I would be safe, having no magical aptitude that might trigger something unstable. But that’s an inability that cuts both ways. I can’t say what I’m missing.”
“What are you looking for?” Alma asked.
“Something.” Marron shook his head as he lifted a small silver blade from a case that held twenty others just like it. Ephraim had owned an identical set, though his had been destroyed in the explosion. Research had taught him they were standard among enchanters for slicing off bits of reactive materials, which was not a need Marron could say he ever had. “Anything. Answers. I swear to you, if ever I’d found something meaningful, you would have been the first person I’d told. But as it was, it became an exercise in frustration. I would spare you that.”
“What’s changed, then?” Alma hugged the coat close to her against the chill. “It’s all been down here for decades. And if everything’s the same as it has been…?”
Marron shook his head again. He’d done nothing lately to the Kinstone possessions he hadn’t done a dozen times before.
“Then why is this suddenly appearing now?” With a grunt, Alma stamped her foot, echoing the same peevish helplessness Marron had felt earlier. “I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of what it might be, and I come up with nothing. And I thought perhaps, if I came down here, I might be able to sense something of Ephraim, the way I did before. If it really is him, or connected to him. But there’s nothing. It’s all must and silence here.”
“The man through the void,” Marron asked, “whom would you say it was?”
Alma quirked her mouth to once side. “If I had to guess?”
“If you had to guess,” Marron said, nodding. “No guess too wild.”
Alma was quiet for a minute, staring first at the boxes piled along the walls, then at the lantern’s flame. “I didn’t spend much time with him. He was always aloof, or busy doing something else, and then he was dead, so I wouldn’t swear to my memory. But … it looked like what I remember of Mr. Kinstone.”
Marron wished having her confirm it made him feel any better. “Then we saw the same thing.” That, however, made less sense to him than the idea it was Ephraim. The reason both he and Alma had been able to wonder about Ephraim’s death was that the explosion had been so intense that nothing of Ephraim’s body had been left in the aftermath, and without that closure, nothing could be settled for sure. However, Marron had seen Jacob Kinstone’s body several times, and over a period of several days — first sprawled on the ground, dead of a broken neck from being thrown from his horse; then embalmed and in his coffin at the viewing; and finally for the last time as his casket was shut and set into the marble walls of the Kinstone family tomb, beside the space that held the body of his late wife. If he believed one thing in the world, it was that Jacob Kinstone was actually, definitively, irreversibly dead.
And good riddance, Marron thought, when he allowed himself the luxury of thinking ill of the departed. Master Kinstone had always been remote yet fair with his servants, and the worst thing Marron could say about the treatment he himself had suffered was that Kinstone had bought a young boy’s bond and brought him into servitude — which someone else would have done if Kinstone hadn’t, so that was hardly a sin to be held against him. The grudge Marron held against him was how badly he had broken again and again the heart of the son who wanted only for his father to love him.
Alma exhaled through pursed lips. “This makes no sense,” she grumbled, crossing her arms across her chest half out of pique, half hugging herself for warmth. “Why would something hold Ephraim’s essence but wear his father’s face?”
“I don’t know.” Marron shook his head, helpless in the face of forces he could not, by his very nature, understand. The problem was his to solve, a knot to untangle whose ends he couldn’t even find. “I’m assuming that when it says I’m wearing a life like a coat, it means I have stolen what should have been Ephraim’s future.”
“That’s unfair,” Alma said.
“Fair or not, it’s accurate. I have his wife. I have the position he would have inherited. I even literally have all his possessions.” With a sweeping gesture, Marron indicated the contents of the basement room around him, Alma included. “And I swear to you, and to anyone else that’s listening, that I would give it all up to have him back. Every piece. He is welcome to walk right back in and pick up where he left off. Do you hear me?” he added, raising his voice so that it bounced off the heavy stone walls.
Alma looked around, peering into the darkness beyond the lantern’s light. “Do you think that worked?”
Marron shrugged, then shook his head. It was not the first time he had shouted into emptiness, nor the hundredth. Each time he heard nothing back but himself.
“Why isn’t it working?” Marron asked, holding the stone in his palm. He had frowned at it as hard as he could, until the creases in his forehead felt as though they might be permanent, but it hadn’t done anything more than reflect the light.
Ephraim reached and plucked it from Marron’s hand. The second his fingers touched its faceted surface, it began to glow with an inner flame as pure and steady as moonlight. “This is how you tell if someone is magic. One way. There are lots of ways.” He held it up before them both before putting it down. As he did, the light died in an instant, fast as pouring water onto a candle. “Father says if you’ve got magic, you’ll make it glow.”
“Oh.” Marron kicked his legs beneath the chair where he was sitting. He’d had a bit of a growth spurt recently, but his legs still weren’t quite tall enough to touch the floor. They were certainly longer than they’d been before, though; his whole growth this time seemed to have been vertical instead of horizontal. It was summer, though, and the fresh air felt good against his ankles, and so he’d resolved not to say anything about their being too small until it could not be avoided. When they simply wouldn’t work anymore, he’d probably snatch some of Ephraim’s cast-offs. Marron was the taller of the two, but Ephraim had a much sturdier build. Marron wondered if he took after the mother who’d died giving birth to him. That seemed a topic neither Kinstone was willing to broach, though, so Marron did not ask.
“Don’t be sad about it,” Ephraim said. “Father says most people can’t do magic anyway. They don’t have the apitude.”
“Aptitude,” Marron corrected him almost without thinking.
“Aptitude,” Ephraim repeated, making sure to get all the consonants in the right place. A bonded servant was not supposed to speak like that to his bond-holder’s son, and Marron made certain that he was never so familiar with Ephraim in front of anyone else — especially not the elder Master Kinstone. When it was just the two of them, though, their roles mattered less. “He says that’s why he got his important job, for the prince. But he’s not going to do it anymore.”
The rumor of Kinstone’s leaving his position had already reached Marron’s ears. He wasn’t one to participate in gossip, but he was both the smallest and the youngest of the house’s servants by a considerable margin, and as such, he overheard a great deal of talk whether he meant to or not. “Why is he stopping?” asked Marron.
Ephraim shrugged. “I think he’s just tired of it. It’s a long way to go and come back all the time. He used to take me with him, before I had lessons.” Wrinkling his nose, Ephraim cast a nasty look in the direction of his piled-up schoolbooks. Marron knew that despite his occasional misspoken vocabulary word, Ephraim was very smart — he just didn’t do well at sitting still and being quiet for long periods of time, as all his tutors wanted him to do. Marron suspected that if they could find a way to let him read his primers and climb a tree at the same time, it would cut down significantly on frustration for everyone. “But now he’s going to be here, and he’s going to teach me how to do magic. Real magic.”
“What sort?” asked Marron.
“What sort?” Ephraim scoffed, then paused, as though he’d misestimated just how obvious the answer should be. “Well … we can start with enchantments, I think. That’s what the prince wants, he says. Coats with buttons that don’t tarnish and pillows that don’t fall off the bed in the middle of the night.”
“That’s what most people want, Father says. Big things or little things, not medium things.” Ephraim mimed pulling a sword out of his belt and stabbing it through the heart of some invisible opponent. “When they’re at war, they want big things. But treaties make it illegal to do most of those things, even when fighting. So they want little things. Father said he once made a baroness a shoe that won’t come off.”
“Ever?” Marron’s brow furrowed as he imagined the hellish state of having permanently affixed shoes.
Ephraim laughed at what he’d said. “On accident. One time she was dancing and her shoe came off and she was embarrassed, so she asked him to make a shoe that would stay on. But Father says any magician can do that. So they don’t need him.”
What, exactly, had made Jacob Kinstone’s name was still something of a mystery to Marron. He knew it had involved a healing of someone of minor nobility, and that it had happened years before Ephraim was born. Beyond that, though, he had been given the impression that the act itself hadn’t been that important — what had mattered was that it had caught the attention of the right people, and that Kinstone had been canny enough to leverage that attention to success. The word canny, in fact, seemed to have been developed for Kinstone personally, or so Marron had thought when he’d first learned it. Every time he blinked, he looked as though he had weighed out the pros and cons before undertaking the action. He had the same core brilliance as Ephraim, but Ephraim’s was a garden gloriously overgrown, while his father’s had been pruned within an inch of iits life.
Marron himself had always been a self-possessed child, who was on his way to growing into a self-possessed teenager. His natural aptitude for staying so still he nearly disappeared had served him well in his years of service to the Kinstones. But because such was his nature, he found himself drawn to Ephraim’s wildness. He let Ephraim coax him into misbehavior in part because he knew he would never feel the pull to do so on his own. He was neither reckless nor brave, and he found that electric pleasure from letting Ephraim’s share of both cover him, if only momentarily.
“If you could do magic, what would you do?” asked Ephraim.
Marron had never even considered such a question before. He pressed his lips together and stared at the crystal, still resting where Ephraim had placed it on the table’s surface. “That’s not a very useful question, is it?”
“It doesn’t have to be useful,” Ephraim said. “You can just make believe. Don’t you ever pretend you’re something you’re not?”
“Not really,” said Marron, because it was true. He supposed he was a little too plain and practical for flights of fancy — especially, as in the case of magical aptitude, when the speculation was not only unlikely but downright impossible. “Maybe I–“
Whatever answer he’d concocted, though, flew from his head as they heard the voice from the end of the hall: “Ephraim!”
Both boys jumped to their feet, and Marron drew his spine ramrod-straight. He automatically took a full step back and away from Ephraim, clasping his hands behind his back so hard his knuckles ached. He focused on making his breath shallow and silent, until his chest barely seemed to move beneath the folds of his shirt. If only he could have blended like a chameleon into the wallpaper, his transformation to invisibility would have been complete.
Ephraim snatched up the stone at the last moment and shoved it into his pocket, where the fabric was thick enough to hide the glow of contact. “I’m in here, Father,” he called out, though the sounds of approaching footsteps suggested the owner of the voice already had some idea of his location.
Seconds later, a figure appeared in the doorway, dressed in fine black clothes and carrying a tall hat in his hand. Jacob Kinstone was a handsome man, with dark reddish hair and beard, and blue eyes that looked sharply on the world around him. Once, when he had been much younger, Marron had regarded Kinstone as a pleasant enough man, not warm, but kindly enough, with a rare but sad smile. Marron sometimes wondered how his earlier impression of the man could have been so mistaken.
“Have you finished your grammar lessons?” asked Kinstone, his voice sharp as steel, and just as heavy. That was his version of a greeting after a three-day absence, it seemed, aiming directly for his son’s least favorite subject.
“Almost, Father,” Ephraim answered, forcing his hands deeper into his pockets. With his usual happy, confident demeanor thrown off-kilter, Ephraim seemed diminished, in the way that without his touch, the stone had ceased to glow. Of course Marron could say nothing about it — it was hardly his place to opine, and even if it had been, what could he have said? It was good for a young man to treat his father with respect and deference, or so Marron had always been told. The elder Kinstone only wanted what was best for his son, just like any parent would. And if those lessons were given in a harsher tone than Marron would have preferred, then that was his opinion, and he could keep it to himself.
“Almost,” Kinstone echoed lowly. “You’ve had all the while I’ve been gone to finish your mundane lessons, and you haven’t even been able to do that.”
“I’ve finished all the others. And my tutors say I’m doing quite well.” Ephraim’s shoulders were square and proud, held with such affected confidence that likely only Marron would ever have noticed the way they were trembling. “I only have my grammar exercises, and I can do those later. I want to practice magic with you.”
Kinstone pulled off his leather riding gloves and tucked them into one of the pockets of his traveling cloak. “Magic.” He said the word as though it were some cruel joke whose punchline Marron could not understand. “My own father had no such aptitude, you know.”
“Yes, Father,” said Ephraim. If Marron had heard the Kinstone genealogy enough times to know it, surely Ephraim had as well.
“Nor did my mother,” Kinstone continued. “He was a mason, and she a seamstress. I had to work for coin to buy lessons. Beg for damaged texts and scraps of parchment from booksellers. I had no such access to a master’s wealth of knowledge living in my household. I had to scrape for every inch of my skill. And I have never taken it for granted, not for a single moment.”
“Of course, Father.” Ephraim’s whole body was so rigid with tension, a strong gust of wind might have toppled him right over.
“Not for a moment!” Kinstone narrowed his eyes at Ephraim — then suddenly seemed to notice that he and his son were not alone. He looked to Marron, giving his servant’s silent presence an appraising nod, then turned back to Ephraim. “You may join me in my workshop tonight. But only once your grammar lessons are done, and done to my satisfaction. Do you understand?”
Ephraim’s eyes brightened, as though the scrap of kindness he’d been offered had not been saturated in one rebuke after another. “Yes, Father. Thank you, Father. I’ll start right away.” As though to prove his sincerity, Ephraim scurried over to his desk by the window, where the last of his lesson papers lay in the same half-finished state they’d occupied for the entire afternoon. Marron supposed he couldn’t blame Ephraim for his lack of interest in grammar; after all, who could care about such things where there was magic to be learned?
The answer to that question seemed to be, Jacob Kinstone. By the time Ephraim turned over his shoulder to look for his father’s approval, the doorway was empty. Ephraim’s hopeful smile fell, replaced with a heavy slump as he turned back to the papers before him.
Marron waited until he was absolutely certain the elder Master Kinstone had moved well out of earshot, then stepped closer to Ephraim. “Do you want me to do them for you?” he offered in a whisper.
“Yes,” said Ephraim honestly. He sighed and shook his head. “No, I’ll do it. It’s okay.” He picked up a pencil and held the unsharpened end between his teeth, looking over the work left to do. “I don’t see why he’s making me do all this stupid stuff when I could be learning magic instead.”
Though he would never have said so, to Marron the answer was obvious. Jacob Kinstone had indeed scraped and scrambled his way into his magical education, meaning his time between had not been filled with schooling, but with whatever work kept food on his family’s table. As he’d had none of the privileges of wealth, he wanted to bestow them upon his son. That, at least, Marron understood.
What he didn’t understand was how Kinstone could be so cruel about it. Ephraim wasn’t disobedient; he was enthusiastic, which meant that sometimes he got so excited about the things he loved that it found it difficult to focus on the things he cared for less. He wanted very hard to please the people most important to him, despite needing the occasional redirection. And if Marron could see that, he didn’t know why Kinstone couldn’t.
He was likely just tired from his journey, Marron rationalized. And if he’d been like this for quite some time before returning from this specific journey, then, perhaps it was the cumulative weight of so many journeys, so much travel. He was leaving that position, though, in favor of being more at his home with his son. Surely having him around would in time make everything better.
The detectives were already a terrifying quantity, called up from beyond the local stock, all the way from the magician’s guilds in the city. But it was the magician herself who set all his nerves on end.
Dressed in a pale blue dress and cloak, she made Marron think of winter. He had little experience with magicians beyond the Kinstones; sometimes they passed through town, but none had ever taken up residence or seen the need to stay for long. Unlike her companions, she had not given her name when she had appeared at their door in the growing dark of the the late winter afternoon. Her black eyes watched both him and Alma with suspicion. She was not on their side.
Neither, for that matter, were the policemen, though they clearly tempered all their interactions with the Fletchers with a certain tone of deference. They were mere mortals themselves, like Alma and Marron, low-level enforcers hired by the guilds to investigate all cases of magical malfeasance to see if actual practitioners needed to get involved. The fact that they had brought a magician with them showed that decision had already been made. “We have to investigate all possibilities,” said the detective named Wheately, a stout man with a fine moustache.
“All possibilities,” echoed Alma, her hands clasped tight in her lap. She was drawn like a bowstring. “Including the possibility of this being our fault.”
The other detective, a man called Bass, lifted his hands as though to calm down a growling dog. “All possibilities, madam. And the sooner this one can be eliminated, the sooner we can determine the best way to deal with this phenomenon.”
Marron looked to Alma, but when she did not speak again, he became the voice for both of them: “How can we prove to you what we’re not doing?”
“It isn’t that simple,” Bass said, reaching for a notepad tucked into his pocket. Marron could see that pages upon pages were filled with his script; this was hardly a rookie investigator he was facing. “It’s addressed you by name, according to eyewitness reports, so we know you’re involved to some degree. Now that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re summoning it–“
“We’re not,” Alma said sharply. “How could we? We’re not magical, neither of us.” She gestured between herself and Marron. “If we had even a hint of ability, do you not think the Kinstones would have detected it?”
“Ah, the Kinstones,” said the magician, speaking up for the first time. Her voice was low and delicate, and it made all the hairs on Marron’s arms stand on end. “You were close to the family, you both.” It was a statement that told Marron she knew exactly how they had been intertwined with the two men, and what had passed among them. Marron supposed it wasn’t uncommon knowledge, given everything about their lives that had made the tabloid fodder, but the way she said it gave him pause.
“That,” Marron said with what he hoped was diplomatic firmness, “is a matter of record, yes.”
Alma folded her arms across her chest. “Close or far matters little. You most of all should know that magical ability is not contagious.”
Wheately pressed his lips together. “There are ways, madam, that even those without inherent magical ability can do workings. Usually it involves the assistance of some object, an alternative source of power that bypasses the person working the ritual. So you understand that even if we wouldn’t suspect you on those grounds, we’ve got to double-check all the others.”
Marron looked to Alma, who looked back at him. The investigators had a point there, loath though he was to admit it. After all, that had been much of Ephraim’s magical trade, working enchantments into objects meant for others’ use. Even if he was not doing such a thing, there was no point in pretending it wasn’t possible. “All right,” Marron said, as Alma nodded her agreement to him. “If your investigation will end whatever this is, we will cooperate. But you must believe, we want this beast gone even more than you do. Why on earth would we bring it on ourselves? What would we gain?”
Bass glanced down at his notepad. “Your family has suffered some financial hardships in recent years, yes?”
Again the idea of rejecting clear facts seemed useless, but Marron wasn’t quite ready to concede this ground wholly. “If you mean that the Fletcher holdings are not what they used to be, then yes, I suppose we have,” he said, keeping his voice steady. “This is because we have not treated them as holdings.”
“So I see,” Bass said, flipping to a different page. “In fact, since you became the head of the household and the manager of its affairs, it seems you’ve far outspent what you’ve brought in nearly every year.”
Were he an animal, Marron’s hackles would have been set all the way up at the idea someone had been in his accounts. Disquieted as he was, though, he all but saw red as Wheately turned to Alma and asked, “Did you know this, Mrs. Fletcher, about your husband’s management of your family’s fortune?”
For as long as he’d known her, through all they’d shared, Marron could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen Alma angry. Her nature was one of infinite patience, such that even when she was upset, she could keep her frustrations at bay. Now, though, Marron could see the press of her lips as she set her jaw. She looked Wheately in the eye. “Detective, the hand that balances our books is mine,” she said, her voice terrifying for its glassy calm. “And were it not, I would feel the same. Our money has gone into the community that surrounds us. We have built a good place here that helps people–“
“Have you?” Wheately interrupted, his expression unkind in its blankness. “And is this your dream or his?”
“Ours!” Alma snapped, her voice beginning to flutter with emotion despite her carefully controlled exterior. “We are partners in all things.”
Bass leaned forward now, the edge of his lip starting to curl in a little sneer. “Are you? Would you stake your life on that?” He held up that damned little notebook, shaking it as though he expected it to make some telltale sound that would stop their hearts. “What if I could show you transactions of his that say otherwise?”
Marron felt as though he had been slapped across the face. He balled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking. He would not give them the satisfaction of seeing him crack under false accusations. He would not! “You are a liar,” he managed through tight-set teeth, “and you should leave our house. All of you. Now.” Whatever help they were offering, it wasn’t worth this abuse.
“I trust my husband,” Alma said, the edges of her voice beginning to fray.
“Do you?” Wheately asked, still staring her and only her down. “Because he wasn’t meant to be your husband in the first place, was he? A curious last-minute substitution — assuming, of course, that wasn’t your plan all along.”
That was it. Accusations of money mismanagement and all other improprieties were bad enough. But suggesting that he — or, God forbid, Alma — had caused the accident that took Ephraim’s life? Marron flew to his feet, pulling himself upright with what he hoped was imposing force. He was only slightly taller than the average man, and certainly no broader, but this was his house, his home territory, and he would be damned if he let guests in it treat him this way. “Out!” he shouted, jabbing a finger toward the door. “Get the hell out!”
“Stop,” said the magician. Her voice was still soft, but the effect was immediate. All the heat from the room ran out in an instant, replaced by her ice. It took a full beat, in fact, before Marron realized that the command had not been for him at all. “Stop. It isn’t them.”
With that, both Bass and Wheately changed their demeanors. Their hostility evaporated, as did any challenge posed by their postures. Both sat back against their chairs, looking at the couple, but no longer staring. Their expressions were even almost pleasant as they regarded the new situation. How foolish Marron had been ever to think that they had been in charge of this.
The magician looked up at Marron, then nodded back to the couch where Alma still sat. “Please,” she said, gesturing with a hand as though this were her parlor, and he were her guest instead.
Marron held his pose on his feet for a moment more, but in the end he could do nothing but sit. As he did, Alma took his hand, clasping it in both of hers. He wanted to draw her to his chest, to wrap his arms around her and swear that none of it was true, that he’d never hurt her the way those men had implied he had. He knew she knew it, but he still wanted to say it. She deserved to hear that her trust in him was well-founded. But not in front of these intruders. They did not deserve to see just how deeply their words had cut.
The magician took in a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “Anger is a revelator,” she said by way of explanation, if not necessarily apology. “If you had been hiding something from me, some ability or even semi-conscious working, I would have felt it just then.”
Still fuming, Marron swallowed hard. He felt Alma’s body tense where her shoulder pressed against his. A test, then, and one they had both passed. Knowing it had averted suspicion was something of cold comfort, though.
“Do you understand what an auric explosion is?” asked the magician.
That hadn’t been a question Marron had expected to face, on this day or any other. He frowned, then looked at Alma. “An explosion,” Alma said, her words edged with hesitation. “One that burns magic instead of gunpowder.”
“Yes and no.” Now that their confrontation had broken like a fever, Marron could see that the magician’s own demeanor had started to thaw. Her tone had lost the bitter edge he’d heard when she’d spoken of the Kinstones. “You are right about its effects. I’m told you were there to see the event itself?” she asked, turning to Marron.
Marron nodded, recalling the destruction in the street, the cracked facades and blown-out windows, and how everyone had been taken off their feet, himself included. “I was. Not in the room. From outside the building.”
“Of course.” The magician nodded. “If you’d been in the room, you would have been blown apart.”
“Like Ephraim,” Alma said.
The magician’s dark lips quirked up at one side. “Perhaps not exactly like Ephraim.”
For what felt like years, Marron could not move. He couldn’t even convince his lungs to breathe, and he was fairly certain that his heart had altogether stopped inside his chest. Alma’s grip on his hand tightened like a vise. “What do you mean?” she asked, her words little more than a whisper.
“Magic as gunpowder, that’s a clever way to think of it,” the magician said. She gestured as she talked, and Marron could see that the nails of her fingers had been painted with some dark polish, giving her movements the same effect as an underline gave printed text. She brought her hands together in front of her, locking her fingers tight, then brought them apart in a sharp movement. “Something to fuel the separation. The shock of that rapid uncoupling scatters everything around it. To everyone else that day, yourself included, it might as well have been gunpowder in that room. But when gunpowder burns, it is destroyed. When magic burns, it is changed.”
“Changed?” echoed Alma. “Into what?”
The magician shook her head. “Without knowing what spell or working caused the explosion? No one could say. At the time, we concluded, given the nature of his other work, that this had been an unfortunate incident of an enchantment gone horribly wrong. Rare, yet possible, and certainly final for the enchanter. What you have experienced here, however, gives us reason to consider that it might not be as final an event as originally thought.”
Marron’s brow had furrowed so far that it was beginning to cause him pain. “What do you mean?”
“There are many possibilities,” the magician said, tucking a strand of dark hair behind one ear. “The nature of magic is transformation through control. Without that control, transformation is unpredictable. Without further information, I cannot say. Is that fair?”
No, it wasn’t fair. It was ridiculous and Marron was furious that there was more to this than he’d previously thought and he was still shaking from what the detectives had accused him of only a few minutes previous, and the worst part of it all was that she was right. She had investigated them, after all, and as cruel as that had been, Marron could see that it had been a necessary precaution against enemy action.
Alma stood then, and the men took to their feet after her. A moment later, the magician stood as well, her expression expectant. “Very well,” Alma said. “Would you care to see the personal effects of Jacob and Ephraim Kinstone?”
“In fact,” said the magician, “I would.”
The basement seemed no cheerier at mid-day. Marron led the strange little train, with the magician close behind him. The two detectives then followed, and Alma brought up the rear, a second lantern in her hand. They passed without remark through the storeroom, walking by ordinary shelves and their contents. When they arrived at the room that had held Ephraim Kinstone’s belongings for two decades, and his father’s for even longer, the magician stopped in her tracks. The detectives spread out on either side of her. “What’s wrong?” asked Wheately, his voice edged with genuine worry.
“God, it’s–” The magician raised a closed fist to the middle of her chest. Marron recognized the gesture; he’d seen Ephraim do it before, mostly when he’d been thrown somehow off-kilter and needed to re-center himself. She turned to Marron. “These things were with him, when the explosion happened?”
Marron shook his head. “Not all. Most were his father’s, stored here before Ephraim died.” He gestured to two crates, both of which had the stamps and scrawls of the police along their boards. They, not Marron, had packed the belongings from the scene, and though Marron had been through them several times since, he had always set them back in the order in which they had arrived. Rearranging them himself seemed somehow beyond his purview. Rearranging them would mean that they were his to rearrange, and that would mean they were at last no longer Ephraim’s. He could not.
The magician approached them, each move hesitant. She narrowed her eyes at the boxes. “What do they contain?” she asked.
Marron shrugged, not because he couldn’t have given her a full accounting, but because he knew that wasn’t her question. “Pieces recovered from his laboratory. Anything not destroyed beyond repair. I don’t know what most of it is or does.”
“He never explained it to you?”
“No,” Marron said. “His work was his. My task was to mind everything else so that he could mind that.”
The magician turned to Alma. “Or to you?”
Alma shook her head. “Sometimes, when we were younger, he would try. But after his father died, he said very little about his work or its purposes.”
Pressing her lips together, the magician nodded. “Do I have your permission to look inside?” she asked, looking straight at Marron.
“Permission? For…?” Marron frowned, looking at the boxes. “They’re not mine.”
“Oh yes, they are.” The magician let her fingertips skim across the metal that formed the hinge between the lid and the side. “For a long time now. Would you open the box for me?”
What happened next must have happened in the span of thirty seconds, Marron knew, perhaps less. But when he thought about it all later, it would seem as though entire years passed in the span it took Marron to open the box and the magician to reach inside. He could see her eyes widen as she beheld the contents; in the dim glow from the lantern, he could see no distinction between her wide pupils and her dark irises. There were many things inside, but her hand stretched out for the object atop them all. Marron had left it there, tucked in between two scraps of embroidered velvet, because it seemed the safest place to keep it.
When her fingers made contact with the glass orb’s sphere, Marron felt as though he’d been smacked in the chest with a flail. It was the same as it had been on the day of Ephraim’s death — except this time he did not fall over, because the shock wave somehow passed through him. It plunged into his chest and tore out his back, leaving him gasping for breath.
He had just enough time to spin on his heel and see the thing that had passed through him. It was the beast he’d seen that night in the forest, the great emptiness that was present because of its absence. Without stopping, it barreled straight for Alma, whose pretty mouth dropped open with shock. Before she could even make a sound, it was gone, tearing into the dark depths of the basement and taking her along with it.
“Alma!” Marron screamed, lunging for her. Except he made no sound, because the blow against his chest made breathing impossible, and he did not lunge for her, because he was falling. Bass had one hand clutched at the back of Marron’s jacket, the other caught around his forearm, while Wheately held the magician slumped against his shoulder. Marron fought against the grip — it had Alma, the thing took Alma, she needed him! — but Bass was as strong as he was sturdy, and Marron was in no condition to put up much of a fight. He staggered backward out of the cellar, dragged by the scruff of his neck, staring helplessly into the dark that had swallowed his wife.
He was still damp from the bath, wearing only a pair of light pants and running a towel across his hair, when there was a knock at the door. “Come in,” Marron called, all but certain his late-evening visitor would be one of the nurses set to the constant care of the elder Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher, who had both been in frail health of late. In the year since he had become their grandson-in-law, the elderly couple had become somewhat fond of Marron and his quiet, polite ways — at least, fond enough that they were no longer calling over eligible bachelors from prominent families for suspicious “high teas,” merely coincidentally timed to occur when Marron had obligations that drew him away from the manor house. For better or for worse, it seemed, they had come to recognize that he would not be leaving by their machinations, anyway.
At the door, however, was Alma herself, dressed in a high-necked, long-sleeved robe that wrapped around her and tied at the middle. Marron pulled his body to attention, suddenly conscious of how improperly attired he was. “Am I disturbing anything?” she asked, shutting the door behind her.
“No, I was just readying for bed.” Marron gave his hair one last wring through with the towel, then folded it and placed it by the windowsill to dry. He knew he didn’t have to do that now — he could have left it draped over the back of a chair, or tossed it on the floor, or opened the window and heaved it out onto the hedge below, and someone else would have taken care of it for him. He remembered too much being that person. “Is everything all right? Are your grandparents ill?”
“Well enough, or so last I heard from their nurses.” Alma clasped her hands before her, spinning her ring around her finger — the same one Ephraim had given her as a token of their engagement, in fact, which served to Marron’s estimation as good of a wedding band as any. She seemed anxious, though Marron could not think why. “Could we … may we speak plainly?”
“Of course,” Marron said. Had she come to tell him their marriage was over, that she would be divorcing him and moving on to find a more suitable husband? He supposed that was fair, though she’d picked a strange setting to do it, so late at night, and both of them dressed for sleep.
Alma let out a soft sigh through pursed lips, then walked over and — to Marron’s great surprise — sat herself down on his bed, upright and propped against the pillows that lined his headboard. He supposed it was by all rights at least half hers, if not more, but it still felt strange. Since Marron had joined the household, he and Alma had occupied entirely different rooms, at separate ends of one of the manor house’s long hallways. Alma remained in the one that had been hers since childhood, while Marron was settled into the room that was rightly theirs as a married couple, thinking of himself almost like a mouse trying to make a home out of an ocean liner. It was too big already for one regular person, and Marron took up so much less space than that. With a gentle smile, she patted the mattress beside her.
Marron was completely at a loss. Should he put on a shirt, or a coat, or an entire new and proper wardrobe? What was the protocol for sitting that close to a young woman of her station? Except she wasn’t just a young woman — she was his wife, and a year into the arrangement, he still had little idea what all that entailed for them. His heart pounding in his chest, he drew himself into bed beside her, seated just as upright, with several inches of space between them.
With him there, Alma’s shoulders relaxed a fraction, and her smile became less thin. “You are my husband,” she said, nodding.
Were they stating facts now? “I am,” Marron agreed.
“You are my husband,” Alma repeated, “and you are entitled to the things to which a husband is entitled.”
A cold sheen of perspiration broke out across Marron’s forehead. “I–” Why was she bringing this up now? Had he given off some sense that he was unhappy with the arrangement? He had tried so hard not to, largely because it was not true — he was happy, or as happy as the circumstances could allow, which was still very happy, all things considered. He stared down at his clasped hands in his lap. “You have already been so generous to me. I would not take from you that which–“
“Marron, stop,” Alma said. She reached over and put her hand atop his.
True to her command, Marron ceased talking. He even pressed his lips together to prove to her how sincere he was about it.
She let her hand rest over his for a moment, then turned her fingers into tools, prying open his own fingers’ grip until her hand was wormed down between his. “Marron, it’s me. It’s Alma. You’ve spent the last year so knotted up around me I think you’ve forgotten that I’m not some stranger, or made of glass. You know me. And … yes, it’s been hard and awful, and things have changed so much, but that hasn’t. We are still friends. I still care for you deeply, and I know you feel the same. You don’t need to be scared of me.”
Marron couldn’t even raise a protest. It seemed they were indeed stating facts, and that she had the lion’s share of them in her corner. “I worry about you,” he said at last. “I want to take care of you.”
“I know!” Alma sighed and squeezed his hand tight. “I know, and you do such a wonderful job. You always think of everyone else before you think of yourself. So I want to take care of you as well.” She moved closer to him, and as she did, the neck of her robe slipped wider, suggesting that she had little on beneath. “I do love you. You are a good, noble, kind man, and I am grateful every day I have you.”
Marron’s entire mouth had gone as dry as deserts he’d only read about in geography books. “I cherish that,” he said, twining his fingers with hers. “You have no obligation to me. I am more than content as we are.”
“Well,” Alma said, screwing up her mouth, “perhaps I’m not.”
“You’re…” Marron’s eyebrows rose in surprise.
“I’m no virgin. You know that. I know you know that.” With a deep sigh, Alma inched closer to him, closing the gap between them on the bed until they were shoulder to shoulder.
“I…” Oh, none of Marron’s sentences were getting very far tonight.
Alma let the silence sit between them for a moment before she spoke again. “Perhaps I should have prefaced this by noting that I, myself, miss sex.”
From the moment he’d suggested the arrangement, Marron had expected entirely that this would be a celibate partnership. The precise mechanics had hardly crossed his mind then, beyond the immediate concern of making it so the Fletchers could not promise Alma to someone else while she was too lost in her grief to mount a protest. In the months since, he’d more come to imagine that she’d give her heart one day to another, and her body to follow it, though he did not care to dwell on such things. As for his own urges, well, he was well-practiced at making those no one’s trouble but his own.
At least, he’d thought he was. But there was no mistaking the heat Alma’s body gave off as she leaned into his, nor did he imagine either of them could have missed the way his heart was pounding.
“Did you like watching us together?” Alma asked, the corners of her mouth turning up into a smile.
No, that couldn’t be right; he must have misheard her. “Did I–” Maybe there was some other meaning to it, something else that she would explain in just a moment, if he waited.
Alma took her hand from Marron’s joined ones and draped her arm across his waist, then rested her head against his shoulder. He could feel the flush of her cheek, radiant against his bare skin. “He knew you so well,” Alma said, splaying her hand across Marron’s side. “In all but this. Because every time, he thought you were watching me.”
Marron felt trapped here, panicked, and the only thing that kept him from bolting and running for his life was the calmness of Alma’s demeanor. Where others might have spoken those words with anger or disgust, Alma clearly felt neither. “I–” Speech was difficult tonight, and getting more so by the second. Marron bit his lower lip hard.
With a gentle slowness, Alma moved her hand until it rested right over Marron’s navel, her pinky stopped just above the waistband of his pants. To his terrible embarrassment, his flesh had decided to be ungentlemanly in the extreme and had begun making its presence known beneath the light pajama fabric. “You loved him as much as I did. With all your heart, and with your body too, if he’d given you the chance.”
He had never spoken a word about this aloud before, not a whisper even when completely alone — yet who should a man be able to trust more than his wife? “If he had,” Marron agreed in a whisper, shutting his eyes. Such desires were shameful in the first place, much less when felt for a friend who’d suspected his affections were only ever pure and fraternal.
“I thought you two might have, for some time.” Though Alma’s tone was heavy, Marron could feel the way a smile still played on her pretty lips. “You were obviously smitten with him, and he doted you on so much. I asked him once, even, if you two had ever been lovers, and do you know what he said?”
Marron no longer had any idea which way was up and which down, much less how Ephraim would have reacted to such an inquiry. He shook his head.
“He said, absolutely not, because you had too much sense to fall for a catastrophe like him.” Alma chuckled. “Which of course was a goad for me as well, and I’m not too proud to say I took the bait. But he was convinced instead that you were in love with me — which he didn’t object to, mind you. He simply took that as further proof of your good judgment.”
This was the most they’d spoken about Ephraim since his death. Outside of legal matters and practical concerns, in fact, they’d said little about him at all. Ephraim had hardly been forgotten — Marron could see the sorrow on Alma’s face that came from her constant remembering, and he knew he wore the same expression as well — but he had become a silent weight, carried without comment, borne up without complaint. Part of Marron was horrified by the disrespect shown by choosing to finally broach his memory here, like this.
And yet, Marron felt there was no more appropriate situation. Ephraim had always been so full of joy, laughing and teasing his friends about everything, with the certainty that they would give him back as good as they got. If anything, they had shown greater disrespect to his memory by choosing to carry it in sorrow, alone.
Alma turned hier body then, and as she did, her robe fell from her shoulder, revealing nothing beneath it but her skin. She pressed her bared breast to his chest and touched her lips to the curve of his ear, even as she slipped her hand beneath the waistband of Marron’s pants. His cock jumped to feel the touch of her soft fingertips along its length. “Did you want him to do this to you?” she asked, her voice a hot whisper that sent sparks racing through his body. “Is this how you wanted him to touch you?”
Even if he’d had the wherewithal to deny it, the way his cock throbbed in her hand would have named him liar. “Yes,” Marron breathed, cheeks flushed scarlet. No one, man, woman, or otherwise, had ever touched him that way before, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t thought in detail about what it would have been like to have Ephraim’s hands on him, his hands and his mouth. Those fantasies had always filled him with shame, but that shame had in time become erotic to him as well, until even now, the more Alma made him blush, the harder Marron got.
She stroked him to full hardness, then withdrew her hand, startling Marron so much he wondered what he’d done to offend her. But she was clearly not offended, as she smiled at him, then shrugged her robe completely from her body. It was not the first time seeing her naked, but it was the first time that nakedness had been for him and only him. She was lovely, her body soft and curved, her breasts full and round. “I want you to touch me too,” she told him, bringing one of his hands up to her breast. The skin there was even softer than he’d imagined, and her nipple stood out like a little pebble beneath her skin. When he pressed his fingers against it, she moaned with pleasure. “Yes, please, I’ve missed this so much.”
Was he doing this correctly? Marron had only her reactions to judge his own performance, but from the way she gasped as his hand caressed her breast, he was a quick enough study to meet his instructor’s demanding standards. He drew his other hand to her back, feeling the hills and planes of her skin. He had never before in his life been drawn to a woman’s body like this, to where he not only wanted to feel more of her, but his heart raced at the thought that he was allowed. But Alma wasn’t just a woman — or no, that wasn’t fair; she was, but she was also so much more than that. She was his wife. She was his friend. She was Alma, who had trusted him enough to bind her whole life to hers in the face of crushing grief. Now it was his turn to trust her.
And so, as he caressed her soft skin, he allowed himself to think about Ephraim.
At first, he almost didn’t know how to situate his thoughts, given their relative positions. Perhaps he wanted to be where he was now, sitting in bed as Ephraim came to him and pressed him back against the pillows. Or perhaps he would have preferred to take Alma’s place, taking control into his own hands. He had always worried that Ephraim would have been horrified at the thought, but now there was a new possibility, one he had never let himself consider before. Would Ephraim have grinned? Would he have laughed, even, not in mockery, but with pleasure? Would that have been another way for them to care for one another?
Marron reached his hand into Alma’s dark hair and brought her down to him for an eager kiss, which she met with passionate intensity. It was true, he had watched Ephraim kiss her like this before — sometimes secretly, or so they’d apparently allowed him to believe. Most men would have been thrown into a rage at the idea of their best friend and their beloved together. Ephraim, however, had not been most men.
As he tasted Alma’s mouth on his own, he realized that Ephraim would have hated the idea that the two people he loved the most were sad, and that he had been the cause of it. Laying it out like that sounded like pure selfish justification, except that Marron knew it was the truth. Alma knew it too, it seemed, for as she drew back from the kiss, she looked lighter and more full of life than he had seen her since the tragedy had become their lives. She was merry now, her eyes bright. “You are a very good kisser, Mr. Fletcher,” she told him with a quiet laugh.
“As are you, Mrs. Fletcher,” Marron answered, letting himself at last feel good enough to smile.
She rode him like that, moving her hips back until she could take his cock inside of her. For all he’d considered sex before, the actual act was shockingly intimate, until Marron worried that this couldn’t possibly be something that she wanted. But no, she wanted him like this, just as he’d seen her take Ephraim before. She gasped with pleasure as his cock settled deep inside her, then began to rock against him, working up to the rhythm of her own need. Marron was at her mercy, and he gave himself over completely to her. He had not expected, when he’d promised to protect and care for her, that this would ever have been part of the bargain. He saw now, though, how necessary this contact was for both of them, even if he himself hadn’t never imagined it might be so.
He knew his duty as a husband was to stay as rigid for her as he could, until she had taken all her pleasure from him. He was still a novice, though, and as such he did not feel too negligent when he could take the warm, tight motions of her body no longer. He came inside her, gasping for breath, and she laughed and kept their bodies joined until he simply could not summon the force to penetrate her any longer. When that happened, she climbed off of him and lay beside him, covering them both with the bedsheets.
Marron exhaled and shut his eyes, and as he did, he could feel tears fall from them, rolling down his cheeks. “I’m so sorry,” he muttered, trying to wipe them away with the heel of his hand before she could be offended by the idea that this had somehow upset or injured him.
But Alma just lay beside him, pillowing his head against his shoulder. “I think I should like to stay here with my husband tonight.”
“I would like that very much,” Marron said, and from that night forward, they did not sleep alone.
His chest felt as though someone had dropped a rock on it, and then someone had dropped an even bigger rock on top of the first rock. Wheezing, he lay doubled over on a cot in the servants’ quarters. The detectives had shouted for everyone to clear the main house, which they had done with all due haste, gathering instead in the separate building that housed most of the household staff with families. Several of the men had helped ferry Marron to the nearest bed, where he had resolved to stay only as long as it took for them to leave him be. As soon as they left him alone, he’d go.
At last, he convinced them of his exhaustion, promising them in half-breaths that if they let him be, he’d just fall asleep. Worried, the servants made him promise that if he needed even the slightest thing, he would let them know. He lied and said he promised, then lay back and shut his eyes, counting seconds from when the door shut. Too few, and they would still be outside. Too many, and one of them would likely return to listen in case he called. What was the perfect medium, then? Three minutes, perhaps. One hundred eighty seconds. He marked the time with shallow breaths, in and out. Each second he willed himself to focus on his breath, and not to think about the image burned on the backs of his eyelids, that of Alma disappearing into the dark. That image would make him panic, and he did not need to panic. He needed to remain calm. All would be lost if he did not remain calm.
“I remember you, you know.”
Marron’s eyes snapped open. When the servants had left the room, it seemed the magician had let herself in. She sat across from the room in a simple wooden chair that seemed even plainer in contrast to her elegance.
“I was at Jacob Kinstone’s funeral,” she continued after a moment, smiling. She looked weary, a bit disheveled, but still in perfect control. “And you were there too, his bright son’s little shadow.”
“I–” Realizing that his ruse had failed, Marron sat upright on the side of the bed, letting his feet touch the cold stone floor. “That was a long time ago.”
“It was,” she agreed. “And we both have changed much since, so I won’t be offended if you don’t remember me in kind.”
Marron leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. It hurt less to be doubled over like this. He expected it would be worse when he eventually managed to stand. “I’m going back in the house,” he said. “You can’t stop me. It’s my house.”
The magician nodded, making no move even to impede his progress. “And you will die.”
“Then I’ll die!” spat Marron with enough force to send himself into a coughing fit. His chest hurt so much. Had the thing that hit him cracked his ribs? Well, if he was going to die, then he supposed a few shattered bones were the least of his worries. “I’ll die knowing I didn’t just … just leave her.”
Again, the magician nodded. “You could do that. Or you could sit and listen to me for a minute, and then you could go, and that way you just might survive.”
The offer caught Marron off-guard. He did not know her game, and he’d known enough magicians in his life to know that a magician always had a game. But Marron had to admit that he’d found himself with no other options. He nodded and let himself slump forward again, focusing on his breath. He hated how much of his concentration the pain stole from him. He should be thinking about Alma, not about himself. Every motion of his lungs, however, made him self-conscious again.
After he’d relaxed, the magician reached into the folds of her robes and pulled out a small blue jar with a cork stuck in its neck. “Lie down, Mr. Fletcher,” she said.
Grumbling, as he’d just gotten partway to comfortable, Marron complied. Flat on his back, he could feel just how shallow his breathing was. Could he even summon the air to get him down the basement steps? He was resolved to try, at least, for all the good it would do him.
He was startled to feel the pressure of her hand just below his throat, and he nearly panicked as he felt her fingers begin to unbutton his shirt. “Relax,” she told him. He settled down again, squirming against the cot as she parted the fabric and revealed the bare skin of his chest. This close, he could see that she had taken more of a blow than he’d imagined. Her makeup was faded and smeared, her lipstick blurring the line of her mouth. She looked not unwell, but tired. Her fingers plucked the cork from the jar’s entrance, then dipped inside to return with some pale white cream. “You’ll forgive me for not having done this since my training.”
“Done what?” Marron began to ask, but his words were cut off as she put her palm, slick with the cream, full against his bare chest. Where being hit by the beast had seemed too dark, this seemed too bright, both to the point of pain. Marron hissed between clenched teeth.
“You’re lucky. If it had stabbed you or maimed you, we would both be left without recourse. Those who can heal physical damage are few and far between.” Her hand moved slightly, chilly fingers splaying against Marron’s warm skin. “But psychic damage? Nearly all of us have at least some rudimentary skill there.”
Marron grimaced as he felt the chill from her hand somehow seep down into his body. He even lifted his head to make sure that her hand had not somehow sunk into his chest. “Psychic damage?” he echoed, barely able to draw the air for words.
“Shush,” she chided him. “Talking will make this take longer. And yes, psychic damage. Were you any kind of magical adept, you would be feeling the blow — as I do — in your aura. Since you clearly are not, you manifest it in physical symptoms. I can fix what has happened, but I can’t protect you from what is to come, if you do go into that basement. …That said, I believe you may be the only person who could do it.”
His lungs felt no fuller with each breath, but at least the pain was beginning to subside. He looked at the magician, silently urging her to continue.
“There are things in the world that feed on ill feelings. Often they are drawn to places of great and sudden catastrophe — I’m sure you can imagine what a banquet a city on fire or a fierce battle would be.” With a rueful smirk, the magician took more cream from the jar and rubbed it slowly into Marron’s chest. It had a bitter, earthy smell, one that made Marron think of old tea leaves and spring mud, though not in an unpleasant way. “Their nature is magic itself, and as such, there are stories of magicians who have entered into contracts with them. The magician gains power; the creature, a steady diet.”
Marron’s brow furrowed as he tried to wrap his mind around the concept. It made no sense to him, though — Ephraim would never have entered into a contract like that with such a creature, and if he had, there was no way Marron would not have noticed either a sudden surge in Ephraim’s abilities or the presence of a supernatural intruder in their shared apartment. And either way, Marron could not imagine Ephraim’s being willing, for any reason, to cause the sort of pain it seemed these monsters cared to eat.
As though reading his mind, the magician smirked. “Not Ephraim. Jacob.”
It was a horrible thing to say and it made all the sense in the world. Marron felt a cold wave of fear wash over him, spreading out from her hands and surging out toward his extremities. “Why,” he managed, “was it still there?”
“In the basement?” The magician shook her head. “Seems an odd place, doesn’t it? After all, your household seems a pleasant enough place — or, at the very least, not a steady source of the horrors this thing considers a meal. The answer seems to be that it wasn’t there by choice. It was trapped, and had been so for a long time. Over time, its prison had begun to weaken. Of late, it seems to have found a way to pierce the walls of its cage. And when I touched it, it at last could commandeer resources it needed to break free.”
“It–” Marron looked at her again, really looked, seeing now her exhaustion for what it was. “It used you? Your magic?”
“It did,” she said, without a hint of self-pity in her voice, “and I will be a long time in fully recovering, if ever. I consider this appropriate punishment for my error and can only hope you will do the same, Mr. Fletcher.”
Marron watched her frown slightly as she kept her hand steady against his chest. Almost without his noticing, his chest had ceased to trouble him nearly as much as it had before. “Marron,” he said at last. “Please. Just Marron.”
“Marron, then.” She nodded. “Rose.”
It took him a moment to realize that it was not a verb, but a name. “Rose,” Marron echoed. He took a deep breath, then began to sit up, moving away from his hand. “I’ll be fine,” he said, hoping it was the truth. If she had indeed been so drained, he would be selfish to expect her to expend any more energies on him than she already had. “Just tell me how to kill it.”
Rose took a handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped her hands clean on it. “And if it isn’t alive, strictly speaking, and therefore can’t be killed? What then?”
The possibility made Marron’s shoulders sag. This was Ephraim’s world, not his. He knew nothing of its creatures, or its customs, or its seemingly endless and ever-shifting rules. “Then tell what I need to know, just in case it can be.”
“Better,” said Rose with an approving nod. “You should know first that you, with your lack of ability, are relatively safe. It can feed on your bad feelings, of course, and it can punish you physically if it desires to do so. But it cannot alter your mind or burn you for fuel, as it did to me, and would likely do so again if given the opportunity.”
Marron hadn’t expected her to volunteer to go with him, but he saw now that he reluctance was due to concerns not only of her own safety, but of how much their enemy could use her to its advantage. “Why did it take Alma?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It should have taken me, had it know what was good for it.” Rose stood from the bed and walked back over to the chair, where there lay draped a long silver cloth; she gathered it around her shoulders as though warding off a chill Marron could not feel. “Which makes me think that it has something in mind for her more important than simply using her for power’s sake. Something that led it to want her and hurt you. And you look unsurprised to hear it.”
“I–” Marron let out a long sigh through pursed lips as he buttoned his shirt again. “”In the darkness, I saw … there was a figure, a man that looked to both Alma and myself to be Jacob Kinstone.”
Rose shook her head. “It wasn’t. Of that, at least, I am certain. The path into death leads in one direction only, and he traveled it years ago. But the fact that it appears as him is a curious fact. Would stealing his face torment you especially, or she?”
That was a curious question, whether he should be particularly unnerved by the reappearance of his decades-dead bond-holder and former master. “Neither Alma nor I liked him,” he confessed, “but no, not especially.” As both of them had resented the man, they had done so largely on Ephraim’s behalf, seeing the cruelty with which he’d treated his son for so many years.
“Then, as difficult as it may be to think this…” Rose pressed her lips together, then looked Marron in the eye, her dark gaze as piercing as a knife. “You may have to consider that the face it wears is not for you.”
“Again!” came a thunderous voice that rattled throughout the hallway.
Marron stood outside the door with two of the housekeeping staff, and all flinched to hear Jacob Kinstone’s angry tone. He would bark and snap at all his servants for the slightest perceived imperfection, but he saved the cruelest pieces of his vitriol for his son. The housekeepers were young women, barely five years older than Marron himself, and both were relatively new to the household service. Marron beckoned them close to him. “Clean this part of the house later,” he told them, not an instruction but a helpful hint.
One of the women looked from him to her companion, then back to him. “But we have to get it cleaned,” she said, her voice thick with a lower-class accent that left little doubt about the circumstances that might have led her into her current position. “It’s part of our duties.”
“Later,” Marron said again, shaking his head. “When he’s in a mood like this one, you don’t want to catch his attention.”
“But what about you?” asked the other woman.
What about himself, indeed. “We all have our duties,” he said with a shrug, trying to look more confident than he actually felt. He gave them one more nod, promising them that his suggestion was the best course of action. They gathered their things and scurried off just in time to miss another bellowed command from behind the heavy door.
The magical workshop was not a place ordinary household servants were allowed to enter — even Marron, whose very charge was to be at Ephraim’s beck and call. The closest he was allowed was to wait just beyond the doors to the room where Ephraim’s magical instructions were conducted.
Marron had no idea what it would hurt if he were allowed within. After all, it wasn’t as though he could steal magical secrets with any hope of putting them into use, and everything Ephraim learned in there, he’d show Marron later anyway. The word of the elder Kinstone was law, though, to be followed without question or comment. That meant Marron would stand outside the door for hours on end sometimes, listening to the sounds from inside but never being able to reach his best friend.
Ephraim’s father had never been a warm man, not so long as Marron had known him — and so much of Marron’s familiarity with the man had been when Marron himself was a child, which he knew even at seventeen had skewed his past perspective. Despite this, he had long been plagued with the nagging sensation that Jacob Kinstone was getting worse. At first, Marron had attributed it to any of several external factors: no longer holding his royal position, spending more time apprenticing his son, simply getting older. For a time, he’d been able to convince himself that this it had all been his perception, not reality. Once the other servants had started spooking at the sound of Kinstone’s voice, however, Marron had been forced to confront that what he saw was indeed the world as it was.
It seemed Marron had sent the housekeepers away just in time, because not ten minutes later, the doors to the workshop slammed wide open, jolting Marron to full attention. Out stormed Jacob Kinstone, looking nothing like the important, powerful royal enchanter he had once been. His clothes were wrinkled and ragged, as though he’d worn them for some time. His once-neat beard had long since grown ragged, as had his hair; both were now as white as they were red.
There is something wrong with your father, Marron absolutely did not say to Ephraim, because he knew Ephraim would not hear it. He would trust Marron on nearly every other subject, but on the matter of his father, Ephraim closed off. His father was simply under a great deal of stress, Ephraim would say. If only he could be a better pupil — a better magician — a better son — if only he could improve to his father’s standards, then his father would be back in his proper sorts again. What could Marron say against that?
Kinstone eyed Marron, squinting for a moment as though he didn’t recognize his own servant and his son’s constant companion. No, that wasn’t quite it — it was more as though Kinstone were distracted, listening to a voice no one else could hear. Then he pursed his lips together and stared Marron down. “Clean him up,” he said, before storming down the hall.
Moments later, Ephraim emerged, smelling of soot and looking as though some small chartreuse bomb had exploded in his face, perhaps more than once. He pressed his lips together and looked at Marron. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Ephraim muttered.
So instead of talking, Marron pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and set about wiping off Ephraim’s face. He pointedly chose not to comment on the small streaks of clean skin leading from the corners of Ephraim’s eyes down his cheeks. Despite Ephraim’s admonition, Marron couldn’t help trying for a little levity: “It’s not your color.”
That caught Ephraim off-guard, and he snorted a laugh, one that dispelled some of the cloud of misery that hung around him. “Yes, that must be what went wrong,” Ephraim said in a deadpan tone. “How can I possibly be expected to work under such unflattering conditions?”
“How indeed?” Marron cast a glance back over Ephraim’s shoulder in to the workshop, where a dim fog of the same color as Ephraim’s face filled the space. “Come on. I’ll draw you a bath.”
“Don’t you think it’d be better if you just tossed me bodily into the sea?” Ephraim muttered as he let Marron lead him on down the hall.
“I do not,” Marron said, patting his friend’s back, giving the only comfort that he could. It wasn’t much, perhaps, but it was all he had to offer. Whether or not it would ever be enough was another matter entirely.
“I bet he does,” Ephraim said so softly, Marron was certain he hadn’t been meant to hear it. Thus, he let the comment go, instead of pushing back against it with what might just as well have been lies. After all, he knew nothing of Jacob Kinstone’s mind, but he couldn’t promise that the man’s cruelty did not extend to thoughts of his son’s harm. All Marron could do was to be there for Ephraim in whatever capacity he could manage. Jacob Kinstone was a storm, and one could not defeat a storm. One could only ride it out until something finally gave way.
Marron was grateful at last for his position and Rose’s associated support, because with their combined authority at work, no one actually stopped him from walking back inside the Fletcher mansion. Several of the servants tried hard to make him reconsider, or at least to allow them to accompany him, but Marron would hear nothing of it. He would risk no one else’s life in this endeavor; he would do it alone, or not at all.
The house itself was eerie and hollow. At first, Marron thought this might be because it had been abandoned mid-day, with only a few lanterns left burning to ward off the darkness that had fallen since. As he stepped through the front door, though, he realized there was more to it than that — there was something there now, a presence that seemed to have saturated the very air of the house. It clung to every surface like wallpaper, thick enough that even Marron could not have missed it.
Standing in the foyer, Marron took a deep breath and raised his head. “I am the master of this house,” he called out in a strong, steady voice, following Rose’s advice for establishing what authority he could muster, given the situation. “You are trespassing and you have taken my wife.”
“Have I?” asked a voice that made Marron’s entire self go cold. “Or have I taken mine?”
It took every ounce of courage in him to turn toward the source of the sound, not because he didn’t want to see the speaker, but because for twenty years, that had been the only thing he’d wanted. There had been days in there where he would have given even his own life for one more chance to gaze upon that face. But not here. Not like this.
Ephraim stood in the hallway that led to the cellar door, looking as young and spry as he had the last day Marron had seen him, and all Marron wanted to do was to run into his arms, to embrace Ephraim and never let him go again, not as long as they both lived. Even his own good sense and all of Rose’s warnings could not have held his feet in place against that impulse. No, what kept him rooted where he stood was the look in Ephraim’s eyes — a cruel glare perched over a sinister smirk, neither of which Ephraim had ever worn of his own accord. Those had been aspects more familiar to his father’s face.
Marron clenched his hands so hard in his pockets he felt sure his knuckles might split open. “Ephraim,” he said, half-hoping the creature would not respond, that it was not Ephraim at all, that it was some clever mimic he could feel no guilt about destroying.
But Ephraim’s smirking reaction let Marron know the name had fit. “Why are you here?” he said with a sneer. He stepped forward, and for a moment, Marron blamed what he saw on the poor light. When Ephraim was still, he was visible, but as he moved, he became less so, as though made of some substance that was not entirely there. He appeared to be wearing a heavy black suit, fastened to his throat, yet when Marron squinted at it, he could not make out the details. His head was unmistakable, but everything else looked as though it were made of mere suggestions, trusting Marron’s memory to fill in the gaps.
Marron took a deep breath and let it out again before he trusted himself to speak. “Where is Alma?”
“You have no business caring,” Ephraim answered, making a gesture that seemed to be folding his arms across his chest.
“Ephraim, please,” Marron said. “God, I’ve — I’ve missed you.”
“Missed me?” Ephraim cackled out a laugh so cruel, Marron could hardly believe his ears. “Missed me, when you had me killed?”
The accusation took Marron like a second blow through his chest. “I … what?” At first he suspected he might have misheard the words entirely, because the accusation made as much sense as implying that Marron had at some point transformed into a giant bat. “Had you killed? Who told you this?”
Ephraim’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, my father told me everything.”
Marron hadn’t wanted Rose to be right, not about anything, and yet he’d known she would be. A broken neck was a fatal injury, something that could not be reversed. An auric explosion, however, had enough magical power to blur the one-way boundary between life and death.
What had happened that day, that horrible afternoon, in their shared apartment? For decades, everyone had assumed the obvious; even the magicians sent to investigate had been willing to conclude, even in the absence of physical evidence, that the destruction had been the end of Ephraim’s life. It had taken him apart on an elemental level, after all, ripping not flesh from flesh, but atom from atom. But what they hadn’t known — what nobody had known, not until the moment Rose had reached for it — was that there had been something else. A trinket among other tools of the trade, nothing of note, practically a paperweight: a glass sphere about the size of a grown man’s fist, one of the pieces of his inheritance that Ephraim kept in his workshop.
The orb had been a catch, meant for one thing: trapping and holding dislocated energy. Jacob Kinstone had made it to contain a monster, one for him to bleed for his own purposes, and his son had gotten caught in its snare.
How long had he been conscious in there? Had he only been aware of his surroundings recently, or had he been awake all this time, calling for help but unable to make his cry heard? Did he think Marron and Alma had been ignoring him? Did he think they had wanted him there? Was he indeed at fault for never having noticed?
“Ephraim, please listen to me,” Marron said, not daring to take a step closer, for fear that it would upset whatever delicate balance kept them together. “Some terrible things have happened. You are hurt and probably confused. But I want to help you. You have to trust me. Don’t you trust me?”
“Trust you?” snapped Ephraim, shimmering as he crossed the distance between them. He appeared so close to Marron’s face that Marron sputtered and stumbled backward. The back of his head connected with the doorframe with a painful crack. “So you can stab me in the back again?”
Marron swallowed hard. “Never,” he managed. “If you come back, this is yours. All of this. House, name, wealth, life? Yours. As though it’s been waiting for you all along. I want none of it. I want you.”
That caught Ephraim visibly off-guard. Frowning, he shimmered back a step, seeming to go soft at the edges of his being, the way ice cream might lose its shape under the summer sun. This had clearly not been the confrontation he had been expecting. “No, I–” He closed his eyes, bringing one of his hands to his forehead. “No, he — he said you’d say that, he said you’d lie like that, that you’d say anything, that you’re a liar.” Ephraim snapped the last word shut with a click of his teeth, perhaps more teeth than he should have had.
“Ephraim,” Marron said again, willing his voice to remain calm and empty of even a shard of fear. He had seen men talk down wild horses like this before, steady and slow. “I have never lied to you. Not once, in all the years we knew one another.”
“No, no.” Ephraim’s form shifted in a way that made Marron think of a man’s clenching his fists. “No, you were a liar. A liar, and jealous! You were jealous of me because you wanted her!”
Marron could hardly take offense on a personal level, because he knew the allegations were unfounded. But if Ephraim believed them, that was another problem entirely. He could hardly pretend some great disinterest, having married the woman in question, so he tried a different approach: “You never kept me out. Don’t you remember? You wanted me in. You, she, and I, we were always more three than two.”
“Liar!” Ephraim shouted.
“We were.” Marron wanted to reach for him, to hold him, to shake him and make him see reason. He kept his hands in his pockets. “And we have been less than two without you ever since.”
Ephraim’s upper lip curled into a sneer, confusion giving way to a confidence Marron didn’t like at all. “She loves you now!”
“And she still loves you!” Marron snapped. He felt tears pricking hot at the corners of his eyes, knowing he shouldn’t say more, but unable to stop himself: “And so do I!”
The way Ephraim recoiled at that made Marron think of water thrown on a hot skillet, jerking to escape something it could not outrun. “Liar, you liar!” shouted Ephraim at a volume Marron was sure could be heard outside the house, if not through the surrounding countryside. “You’re both liars. He said you’d be liars. He said you’d taught her how to lie too. But you’re just a liar, and I don’t have to listen to you.”
What happened next took place almost too quickly for Marron’s eyes to make sense of it. Ephraim dropped the pretense of being a person and expanded like dye dropped into water, filling the air around him and stretching so wide that Marron was afraid Ephraim might swallow him whole. In the darkness that stretched before him, though, he could see two figures now: one, the man that he and Alma had seen at the market; the other, Alma herself, her hands fastened behind her back and tethered to a pole. Thank God, she was all right — or at least unharmed, even if he couldn’t imagine she was comfortable or safe like that. But she was alive.
“Alma!” shouted Marron — and she turned toward him, her eyes searching as though trying to find the source of his voice. Before he could say anything else, though, Ephraim collapsed back in on himself. Instead of rushing Marron, he jerked backward as though connected to a cord that had suddenly been yanked. Away he went in a flash, through the open door to the cellar, which slammed shut so hard behind him that it pulled off its hinges.
Marron wanted to throw up, to lie down, to dissolve into sobs, to just give up. What was ahead of him was too large, and he had suffered so much already. He knew he should retreat and return with an army of magicians, people who actually knew how to destroy the sort of thing that Ephraim had become, to say nothing of the power that was fueling him. Rose might not be safe on her own, but ten like her? Two dozen? A hundred? An army of magicians, come to cleanse the world from what should never have been?
He took one step forward, which was hard, and then a second, which was still hard, but slightly less so. Once the decision to move had been made, it seemed, everything else could follow in its wake. Alone, he began his descent.
Marron did not know how he felt about the concepts of the soul or the afterlife, nor if he subscribed to the idea of eternal reward or punishment. He was, however, certain that if damnation existed, he would have earned it by this.
The sale of his father’s house had given Ephraim a great deal of flexibility with regards to his living space. He’d chosen for them a whole floor of a building in the city, one which had both room for Ephraim’s magical work and quarters for them both. The architects had clearly never imagined that the rooms would be used for habitation, however, meaning that there were certain quirks to the arrangement. For one, there was no infrastructure in place for ventilating a cooking stove, leaving them somewhat dependent on magically boiled water and the food-vendors on the streets below. For another, the bedrooms themselves were too small for much furniture beyond a bed and perhaps a small table for a lamp; a third room became their shared closet, with garments hung along the same racks theatres used to store their costumes.
And then there was the sound.
To say the walls were paper-thin would have insulted an actual paper house. They were sturdy enough for construction purposes, and they kept up some sense of privacy, but that privacy only extended to the visual. In the evenings, Marron could lie in bed and hear the scratchings of Ephraim’s quill as he wrote late into the night in the adjacent room. They could hold entire conversations while in different rooms, with the door shut between them, as though they were face to face.
Marron could not say this bothered him; he had lived his whole life accustomed to shared spaces, after all. He knew, however, that Ephraim had not, and as such resolved to be as quiet and respectful of Ephraim’s space as humanly possible. He found this easy enough to do, right up to the matter of Alma.
She still lived with her grandparents most of the time, but their country manor was nearly half a day’s carriage ride away into the country, and as such, she could hardly make a trip to see Ephraim and return in the same day, now, could she? She would promise them that she would stay with her friends in town, her female friends, who would chaperone her and make certain she got into no trouble.
She did nothing of the sort. While she would drop by and see said friends, there was no question about where she would sleep when she was there.
On the occasion of her first visit after their move, Marron started by trying to make himself scarce for the evening, a plan thwarted by how he was not a night owl in the slightest and really had nowhere to go on his own. He decided instead that he would announce that he was going to bed and retire to his room, hoping that would allow them some sense of freedom. Perhaps he would indeed fall asleep, or pretend not to hear them as they hushed one another, trying to carry on as quietly as possible.
They did no such thing, which in turn rendered Marron incapable of pretending. He did excuse himself early to bed, and even tried to sleep. Before he could so much as close his eyes, though, he heard the springs of the bed in Ephraim’s room give a loud creak, the sound made by two bodies landing there in unison.
He and Ephraim had of course had conversations that included talk of Ephraim and Alma’s sexual exploits, though Ephraim had always glossed around the edges of details, ostensibly out of respect for either Alma’s or Marron’s desire not to be known or to know, respectively. Those details were on full display here, though, as every sound told of the action that had caused it. He could close his eyes and imagine the interchange between their bodies. He knew he needed to shut his ears, but the more he told himself so, the closer he found he was listening.
So it was for the first few of Alma’s visits, and what made the situation bearable was how both she and Ephraim seemed oblivious to the idea there might be any breach of decorum underway. If they suspected nothing, Marron figured, then they were not bothered, and as such he would not be either.
Then came an evening when Alma was in town and Marron truly had a reason to be out of the house that evening. He had no living family known to him, but some of the others who had also served the Kinstones were dear to him, including an elderly housekeeper who had declined the Fletchers’ offer of a new position in favor of retirement. She was lately in poor health, so Marron greeted Alma upon her arrival, then excused himself to bring his ailing friend groceries and ask after her.
When he arrived home much later, the house was dark and silent. Marron supposed that his plans had worked well enough, leaving him with nothing to do but settle into bed and greet them in the morning. He hoped they’d taken advantage of their freedom to enjoy themselves and worry less about being overheard. The last thing Marron ever wanted, after all, was to be in the way.
He slipped off his shoes and jacket by the front door, then tiptoed through the main room by what moonlight filtered in through the windows. The main part of their rented space was Ephraim’s laboratory, which he had filled with all the shelves and workspaces a magician could possibly need. Marron could only guess at the ratio of functional to ornamental items, but he had noticed that the more impressive objects were to be found closer to the fireplace, where there were also a pair of couches Ephraim used for entertaining clients. Marron navigated the gaps between the tables with all the practice of someone who not only knew the space, but straightened it on a regular basis.
As he moved toward the hallway, he noticed that the door to Ephraim’s room was open. He thought for a moment he might have misjudged the situation, that Ephraim and Alma had decided to have an even later night out than his own. That was fine, then, and it meant he could stop worrying about making noise. Maybe he would even be asleep by the time they–
No, they were home. They were home, and more to the point, they were not asleep.
There was a candle still burning by the bedside in Ephraim’s room, giving soft light to the interior of the bedroom, but leaving Marron completely in shadow beyond the doorframe. It hardly mattered, though, because no one was looking in his direction. Alma was stretched out against the bed, her head propped up by a sturdy pillow, her legs spread. She was naked, as was Ephraim, who was face-down along the lower half of the bed, the curve of his backside in the air. His head was planted firmly between her thighs, his hands reaching around from beneath and gripping her hips. He looked up at grinned at her, then bowed his head again, making her squirm and grab for his hair.
He must have done something then with his mouth, because she gasped and arched her back, making no attempt to hide the sounds of her pleasure. They had no idea he was there, then, and they had left the door open by careless accident. Perhaps they had even tried to close it, missing the latch, so that by the time it swung open again, they were too lost in their passions to care. It was an honest mistake, one that anyone could make. A real friend would have tiptoed by, barely daring to breathe, then shut himself up in his room and never even thought about it again so long as he lived.
Marron remained in place as though his feet had become of one substance with the floor beneath them. He brought one hand to his mouth and bit into its side to remind himself of the need for absolute silence. Around his throat, he could feel the weight of the pendant Ephraim had given him years before, the one he’d worn every moment since. After all these years, luck still depended not on the coin, but on the way one wished it would fall.
Alma’s nipples were much darker than the rest of her skin, so that they stood out in sharp relief against her full breasts. Marron had lived in servants’ quarters too close not to have seen a woman’s body prior to this, but he’d never before felt able just to stare. Not that he should stare now, of course, but … well, he was in the shadows, and he would never tell, and these were ridiculous justifications that he knew did not make things right, and he should walk away right this instant. He could even go back out to the front door and slam it behind him on his way “in”. That would be fair warning, which he had not given them before.
He might even have done just that if Ephraim had not in that moment rocked back on his knees, revealing himself. Every moment of even partial nudity between them before, Marron had committed himself fully to looking anywhere but at Ephraim’s body. Like this, however, Ephraim seemed to invite prurient gazes. He was incredibly handsome, fit and sturdy, with broad shoulders and a thick chest. In the candlelight, however, what showed the most were not details but points of contrast, and the most prominent among them was Ephraim’s cock.
Marron had not seen it since they’d both been boys, far too young to think or inspire salacious thoughts. Now, though, he could think nothing but. Even in the flickering light, Marron could see that it was thick, and that it stood out at a sharp angle to the rest of Ephraim’s body. Still kneeling between Alma’s legs, Marron put his hands on her knees and said something Marron couldn’t hear, something that made Alma laugh.
Marron’s cock was throbbing now. He hadn’t even felt himself getting hard — it was more as though someone had flipped a switch, catapulting him forward into arousal. He looked at Ephraim’s hands on Alma’s bare knees and wondered what that though would feel like, what it would be to have Ephraim look at him like that. Marron couldn’t imagine he’d be as casual about it as Alma, who stretched her arms above her head and let him look. Her dark hair flowed out over the pillow like water. All of her looked soft, just as all of Ephraim seemed hard. Marron’s hands ached at the thought of confirming these suspicious for himself.
What were they discussing now, the two of them? Marron could hear the soft pitches of their voices, but could not make out any of the individual words. Ephraim let one hand travel down her thigh, down to the juncture of her legs, then stretched his body out to cover hers. By candlelight, he was beautiful as he bent to kiss her breasts, as she wrapped her legs around him. She sighed as he entered her, grabbing a handful of his auburn hair and holding his head close to her body. He bent close to her ear and said something else there, and she laughed and smacked him in the shoulders. That laughter turned to gasps, though, as he began to move, thrusting into her with slow but strong force.
Had Marron even so much as blinked since he’d come upon this sight? He didn’t think so, from the way his whole body was beginning to ache. Without thinking, he had bit into his hand so hard he was certain there would be marks there come the morning. He was transfixed, because of the transgressive thrill of watching, and also because he knew that if he walked away, he would never have this again.
That was at the heart of what he wanted, after all, wasn’t it? To slip in between the two of them in a way he knew he’d never be allowed, to have them both promise he was a part of what they were together, an integral part, one that would not fade or be replaced. He wanted to belong there, and he never would, and he could be fine with that. Someday, he could be fine with that. Truly, it was more than he deserved.
But if he had to take that, then he would also take this, and beg forgiveness later, if such became necessary.
He stood there, marking time with every shallow breath, as they made love to one another, moaning and laughing and touching one another. They did not make the array of noises Marron was used to hearing through the shared wall of their bedrooms; their voices were hushed this time, so that Marron could hear hints of their words of affection to one another, but could not make out the meaning of anything said. One of them would say something, and the other would laugh, and they would kiss happily, with nothing between them.
After sometime between a minute and a year, Ephraim’s body stiffened and shuddered, and then he collapsed against her. She took him into her arms, stroking his back with one hand, petting his hair with the other. That was when Marron knew it was time to go. Long past, in fact. Moving with as much speed as he dared, he slipped in through the door to his bedroom and left it shut but not closed. Grateful for the relative warmth of the evening, he stripped down to his underclothes, choosing not to put on anything else before he inched into bed.
His cheeks burned as he pressed them into the fabric of his pillow. He curled on his side, trying to will his body to calm down. He’d already been a wretched enough friend this evening; he didn’t need to steal anything else from the experience.
His body, however, refused to let him fall asleep until he did something about the erection he had. After several minutes of trying to ignore it, he gave up and took himself in hand. As he wrapped his hand around his shaft, he felt the ache of the mark he’d bitten into his hand, then thought about the sight of the lovers twined on the bed, lost entirely in each other. With a half-muffled gasp, he came immediately, shooting into his hand and soaking his undershorts. So much for good intentions.
He made a miserable little grunt as he shimmied out of his shorts and tossed them on the floor. He was the worst possible person, he was certain of it — not because it had happened, but because he knew that given the opportunity to do it again, he wouldn’t hesitate.
By the time he woke the next morning, Alma and Ephraim were already awake, seated at the breakfast table and enjoying buttered scones. Marron sighed and drew his robe tighter around his waist. “My apologies,” he sputtered. “I must have overslept. I should — I’ll get tea going.”
“Don’t bother,” said Ephraim with a smile — and at that moment, the kettle on the stove began to whistle. Before Marron could get to it, though, Ephraim stood and waved his fingers, cutting off the heat beneath. “I’ve got it. You have a seat. Alma’s already gone to the baker’s this morning.”
Disoriented and still only half-awake, Marron looked from him to Alma, who smiled as she nudged one of the chairs away from the table. When he sat in it, she pushed one of the scones in his direction. “Someone’s got to look out for you from time to time, after all,” she said, giving the back of his hand a squeeze.
There were too many thoughts rushing around Marron’s head just then, and he was in no position to consider any of them. So instead, he accepted the scone and a cup of tea from Ephraim, and together, the three of them proceeded to enjoy breakfast together.
He had expected some changes to the basement, given what now lay beneath it, free at last to stretch its limbs like waking from a long sleep. He had not, however, imagined they would be so organic. Walls of stone and beams of wood began to fade away almost as soon as Marron reached the bottom of the stairs, replaced with something far less sturdy and substantive. He nearly reached out to touch the strange material before he drew his hand back in horror, realizing what a terrible impulse that had been.
As he passed through what had once been the first room, he began to consider just how little of a plan he really had. He’d tried earlier not to let this bother him — in fact, Rose had nearly encouraged it, reminding him that planning for the unknown would burn time they didn’t know they had. Now he was starting to wonder if she’d had some extraordinary faith in him, or if she’d just hoped Marron would be an easy distraction. Either way, he supposed, it didn’t matter.
Truly, though, he had never been a man of complicated strategy. Working for Ephraim had given him a very regimented way of approaching tasks: identify a single thing that needed to be done, accomplish it, repeat as necessary.
So he was walking down a flight of stairs, into what had recently been the basement of his house, to retrieve his wife. It was as simple as that.
…Except it wasn’t, because of Ephraim. Ephraim had never been a simple anything. If he wanted to bring Ephraim back out with him, he would first have to figure out if that was even possible. To figure out if it was possible, he would have to determine what Ephraim had become. To determine what Ephraim had become, he would have to … he didn’t even know what, honestly. At that point, even the most well-tailored plan would have broken down in the face of his ignorance. Better, then, not to have wasted hours preparing for things one ill-timed fact could erase.
The thing fed on negative emotions, Rose had said. Marron focused on Alma, the smell of her hair, the feel of her hand in his, the sound of her laugh. She was down here, and when he found her, he would find all those things with her. They would make him happy. He would concentrate on that, and it would get no meal from his heart.
The deeper he went, the more gnarled and twisted the walls became, twisting like muscle fibers and meeting at curves instead of right angles. He could have run to her much more quickly, but he took his time, testing every step. This was unfamiliar territory, and he was walking into it essentially unarmed. Caution was advised.
Slow though his pace was, it was not stealthy. He did not take any measures to disguise his arrival, and frankly he didn’t know if he could have entered undetected, even if he’d tried. With every step, he had to assume he was being watched. As such, he was hardly surprised when he entered the room that had once held the Kinstone possessions and saw standing among them a man who looked like Jacob Kinstone.
“You’re not he,” Marron said, folding his arms across his chest. Frankly, he was a bit insulted by the ruse.
“Am I not?” asked the thing with Kinstone’s face.
Marron chose not even to dignify that by changing his expression.
“Very well!” The monster threw its hands into the air, as though conceding a well-played game of chess, all in good fun. “No, I suppose if you talked at all with that little mage, you know what I am.”
“You were Jacob Kinstone’s prisoner,” Marron said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were down here.”
Folding arms across its chest, the monster scoffed. “Now that, I do believe, or you wouldn’t have been fool enough to let an unsuspecting magician lay hands on my cell. And it is for that reason, and that reason alone, I give you the chance to turn around and walk out now, with your life and sanity intact. Go on, go.”
Marron shook his head. “You are holding captive the only two people I’ve ever loved. You’ll understand if I decline.”
“Understand? Not really, no.” The monster tugged its cloak more tightly around its shoulders, a gesture Marron had seen the real Jacob Kinstone make hundreds of times. The impression was frankly uncanny. “If you were some great sorcerer, then perhaps. But I don’t know what you expect to be able to do here, and I’m willing to bet you don’t know either.”
The thing fed off negative emotions, so Marron remained calm, even shrugging in the face of having his bluff called. “Maybe not,” he admitted, “but I’m also willing to bet that you don’t know what to do with that.”
The creature stared at him hard for a moment, then burst out laughing. Marron had never seen the elder Kinstone laugh like that, with full-throated amusement. It looked as strange on him as an organdy dress would have. “I can see why he liked you. Why he let you in. Why it was so easy to torture him with thoughts of you.”
Marron bit the inside of his cheek almost until it bled, willing his breath to stay steady. The detectives had managed to goad him into leaving his emotions unguarded when he’d least expected it. Now that he saw the tactic coming, he had no excuse. He could let his tender heart be torn apart with empathy later. Now was the time for every stitch of control he’d ever learned as a servant of the Kinstone family. He said nothing.
“You realize, if you don’t leave, that’s what I’ll do with you again.” The monster pointed toward the door behind Marron, silently repeating his offer of freedom. “You’re complicated, and you’re clever, but at the end of the day, you’re just another knife in his heart.”
“Small wonder Jacob Kinstone turned into such a bastard,” Marron said, “with you inside his head.”
“Oh, he was a bastard before,” said the monster, laughing with Jacob’s voice. “He made with me a bargain he had no intention of keeping. It took him two months — two paltry months — before he decided that keeping me as a partner was far less expeditious than keeping me in a cage. He lured me in, and he wounded me, and when I was in a weakened state, he trapped me in this glass cage, where he could take from me as he liked, with no cost to himself.”
Marron hated how familiar the tale rang to him. “I understand,” he said, playing for the sole shared thread he could see woven through their respective experiences. “I was his prisoner too.”
“I was his slave!” bellowed the monster, a look of inhuman rage knotting its face. He took an angry step toward Marron, the hem of his long cloak brushing about his ankles. “You were his pet, at worst, a charming little beastie to sleep at the foot of his son’s bed. He bled me. He used me. He laughed at me. And then he had the unmitigated gall to up and die on me, leaving me in my wretched state.”
“And now…?” Shaking his head, Marron made his own gesture toward the cellar’s exit. “You are as free to go as I am. Nothing holds you here but yourself.”
The monster shook its head, turning back toward the darkened depths. “Oh, no. I am not held here. This is mine now, my estate. I claim it as reparations for all the time I spent incarcerated. It is rightfully my son’s, after all,” it added with a smirk, drawing itself up to Kinstone’s full height. “I can just imagine how thrilled they must have been, the old couple, when they learned that all their land and property were by rights going to a common butler.”
“They were not pleased,” Marron admitted. Why try to hide it? Pretending otherwise might dredge up the shame he’d felt under the weight of the way they’d both looked at him. Shame was fodder for the feast, though, and he would not aid the enemy. “But I won them over, in time.”
“How touching.” The monster rolled its very convincing impression of Jacob Kinstone’s blue eyes, then looked Marron up and down. “Truly, what do you hope to accomplish here? This is a pathetic display, even for a human. Leave now, and you may live. Have you really such a desire to die?”
Marron shook his head, because it was true. Even in his deepest moments of grief and despair, he had never grown tired of living, and he had no plans to do so anytime soon. Instead, he folded his arms across his chest and looked the monster straight on. “No,” he said. “I scare you, though.”
The slightest crack showed in Jacob Kinstone’s smile, and that was enough to let Marron know he’d been right. “Ridiculous. Pathetic!”
“Maybe.” Marron kept his breathing slow and even. If he was wrong here — and he didn’t think he was, but if — then he had just bet all three of their lives and lost. “But you’re trying very hard right now to get me to leave. That means you’re not strong enough to kick me out yourself. That means you’re not strong enough for a lot of things. And that means, I’m not leaving. Not without both of them.”
A flash of light struck out toward him, one that Marron barely had time to register before he felt a tightening sensation around his neck. It jerked him forward, toppling him to his knees. A rope, then, looped like someone would toss over a horse’s head to lead it into the barn. It choked him, making him gasp for air; he worked his fingertips underneath its cords, trying to lessen the pressure on his windpipe. He looked up to see that the rope was taut, and its other end was wrapped around the monster’s fist.
“Fine, then, stay and be dust,” spat the monster. It turned and strode forward into the darkness, yanking at the rope. Marron scrambled to his feet, barely getting his balance before he was hauled forward, away from the world above, down into impossible depths. Like a prisoner. Like a slave.
Maybe he was a dagger in Ephraim’s heart. That was all right. He had to believe a dagger was a weapon, no matter which way it was pointed.
“It isn’t even as though anyone would care,” Alma sighed, laughing as she lay back against the blanket Marron had spread out along the grass. The warm spring sunshine through the trees dappled her face with patches of light and shadow. “Half the older women in the court wear wigs, some of which they don’t even want you to mistake for their real hair. But if you so much as hint to Grandmother? Frankly, I’m glad she’s not a magician, or everyone in the salon would have been singed within an inch of their lives.”
Marron chuckled at her story as he rummaged through the picnic basket. “She seems … sensitive about such matters.”
“Intensely so. You wouldn’t believe her beauty regimen. I think there’s twenty, thirty steps to it? All to make herself feel young.” Alma tugged at the skin beneath her eyes, sagging her cheeks. “And she’s still got wrinkles! Because of course she does, because she’s an old woman, and it’s far more ridiculous to pretend she doesn’t.”
“What does your grandfather say about this?”
“Oh, he knows better than to say a single word about it,” Alma said. She rolled on her side, facing Marron. “I think that’s the entire basis of their relationship. One of them does things, and the other shuts their mouth about it.”
Marron unfolded a little bundle of sandwiches he’d had the kitchen prepare for them. The elder Master Kinstone had been away for nearly three full weeks at this particular stretch, and their picnic basket was so well-stocked that Marron imagined most of the kitchen staff had been pleased just to have something to do. “It seems a sad way to be,” he said, hoping as soon as he spoke that he hadn’t overstepped with this opinion.
However, Alma nodded her agreement. “Isn’t it so? It feels like a strange game of lies the world is playing, where they tell you book after book of great love stories, then when it comes your time, say, sorry, we’ve already got your husband picked out here, and we don’t give a fig whether you like him or not!” Alma picked up one of the sandwich wedges and began to nibble at the bread crust. “They’re already talking about marriage for me. It’s horrid.”
“Marriage?” Alma was only fifteen, two full years younger than Ephraim and Marron. Her meeting Ephraim owed to her cleverness, as her grandparents had sent her into the city from their rural estate to finish her studies the same academy Ephraim attended, and due to her previous accomplishment with the subjects, was placed ahead into his literature and mathematics classes. Thinking of marriage even at his own age was a stretch; trying to imagine it at her age made Marron’s head spin.
Alma nodded as she swallowed her bite of cucumber sandwich. “I half-suspect that duke’s son would be at their insistence courting me right now, if he hadn’t been the one to say something about Grandmother’s wig!”
“The duke’s son, with the–” Marron twiddled at his upper lip, which sported hairs so blond he suspected no one could tell whether he shaved them or not.
“Not just with the moustache. He was all moustache.” Alma held one of her hands just beneath her nose, dangling her fingers down over her lips. “That’s what’s so wretched about these society men. They seem to cultivate quirks as substitutes for a personality. Like a moustache. Or archery. Or raising prize rabbits. Or an encyclopedic knowledge of opera buffa. And I feel bad for them, I do. But that doesn’t mean I want to marry them. Or even sit through a tea with them, if I can help it.”
“Will they not let you have some say?”
“Some, yes, or so they’ll claim,” Alma said, sighing as she lay back against the blanket again, looking up toward the sky. “That’s why they’ll start early. I’ve seen it with others, mostly my cousins on my mother’s side. They find a man who becomes a bit of a fixture, and then by the time she’s a marriageable age, well, everyone’s been expecting it for years now, haven’t they? Inevitability. Of course, I’ve also heard tell of girls who get called into the parlor one day and told, congratulations, we’ve just signed your marriage contract for you to Sir So-And-So right here, enjoy wedded bliss!”
Marron screwed his mouth up to one side as she spoke. “That’s terrible.”
“Isn’t it? Bought and sold like livestock.” Her eyes went wide at that, though, and she sat upright, grabbing for Marron’s hand. “No, no, I’m so sorry. Please forget I said that, it was wrong of me. I am so sorry.”
For a moment, Marron didn’t know what she meant or why he might be offended by it; after all, it might have been unkind to suggest these parents and guardians thought of their girls only as breeding stock, but Marron didn’t think the comparison was inaccurate. But then he remembered that he himself had literally been sold not unlike a farm animal, and not even under the kindly guise of marriage.
“Oh,” he said, covering her hand with his own. “Don’t — I mean, it seems so odd to say, but no, I really don’t think of it like that. Master Kinstone is … well, he’s not kind, I don’t think anyone would say that. But neither is he cruel. Many of those bonded to the household have already paid off their debts to him, but they allow him to keep the bonds in place so they can’t fall into debt to anyone else.”
Alma wrinkled up her nose. “It’s still a wretched system,” she said, though she didn’t need to convince Marron she felt that way. The Fletchers were vocal abolitionists, and all those employed by their household were indeed employees; they refused to allow debts to them repaid with human servitude. Marron suspected, but of course could not confirm, this was related to how far they lived out from any major urban center.
“It is,” Marron agreed, nodding. “It is, but…”
“But?” She urged him onward.
Marron looked down at their joined hands, marveling at the dotting of freckles across the backs of her knuckles, like the brightest stars making their presence known at dusk. “This is going to sound ridiculous, so I haven’t said it to anyone before, but it’s something I’ve thought, that … that we’re all held in thrall to something. And in my case, it’s its own kind of blessing not to have to pretend it isn’t true. No one demands I act otherwise. When you speak of your situation, it makes me think, it must be some kind of hell to be a slave compelled to make believe their chains don’t exist.”
Alma chuckled at that, with a nod that told him his wild theory perhaps wasn’t so wild after all. “You’re very perceptive,” she said, smiling up at him through her thick, dark lashes. “I can see why Ephraim is so fond of having you around.”
“I hear my name, and lo, I appear!”
Both of them all but levitated at the sound of Ephraim’s voice, turning around to see him standing behind them with his fists on his hips, beaming like a hero in a children’s adventure novel. Marron realized that he was still holding Alma’s hand in his own and dropped it, trying to cover the gesture by rising to his feet in his master’s presence. “We were expecting you from the main house,” Marron said, nodding back in the opposite direction.
“Had to run something out to the stables first.” Ephraim jerked his thumb back over his shoulder, then clapped Marron on his bicep. “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long! Looks like you’ve got things nice and set up here.” He plopped down onto the blanket and leaned over toward Alma, who greeted him with a warm kiss.
Though the day was lovely and the other two seemed in fine spirits, Marron felt almost as though he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t. In a way, he supposed he had — what young man, after all, would not be put out by seeing his best friend appear to be courting his girlfriend? It was inappropriate at best, and outright betrayal at worst. Had Ephraim just missed the gesture entirely? No, he couldn’t have; he’d snuck up behind them, after all, and from the way he’d approached, he would have been able to see them for at least a full minute before getting close enough to hear.
Yet as Marron took his seat again, Ephraim gave him a warm grin. “A lovely day, isn’t it?” He twined his fingers with Alma’s, then brought her hand up to his lips to plant a kiss against her freckled skin. “Clear skies, gentle breezes, and tiny sandwiches with my two favorite people.”
“I was in fact just saying how lucky you are to have him,” Alma said, nodding in Marron’s direction.
“I’d be lost without him, and that’s the truth,” Ephraim agreed, speaking to Alma but looking Marron in the eye as he did.
His joy at seeing Alma was marred only by his having been thrown into her. She was seated on the floor, untethered but steady in place all the same. Her eyes brightened as she saw him enter the room, something Marron got to see in the half-second before the monster heaved him with one powerful arm. Marron fell forward in an ungainly stumble, landing straight in her lap.
She drew him up in her arms, looking with concern at his throat. He supposed he couldn’t recommend being choked by a magical noose. “Are you all right?” she asked, putting her fingers against his tender skin.
“Are you?” he asked, coughing a little as he spoke.
“Oh, just grand.” Marron was glad to hear that she truly was all right, if she still had the wherewithal to be sarcastic. Alma stroked his hair back from his forehead. “In fact, I was just thinking that the only thing that could make my kidnapping better would be if my handsome husband strolled voluntarily into the very same situation!”
Marron smiled up at her as she settled his head into her lap. “Have I told you I love the way your hair smells?”
“Not recently, no.” Alma sighed, though the corners of her lips lifted into a tired smile. “All right, since you’ve come back into here of your own volition, I assume you have a plan?”
“I do not.”
It was testament to her fine upbringing that Alma’s eyes narrowed only the gentlest fraction. “If we make it out of here alive, I will kill you.”
“I accept this.” With a grunt of effort, Marron pulled himself into a seated position, letting her help him up. He sat on the floor next to her, leaning against her shoulder and surveying their surroundings. The place they were now had never been part of the house’s original construction, Marron was sure; it was a cavern, one that might have been new, or might have been waiting for them all along. They had been tossed into a little nook of it, one that kept them pinned in against most sides, so that if they’d had bars over the opening, it might have been a proper cage.
As it was, there was no way they could have escaped, not without tempting the watchful eye of the monster. It stood in the center of the cavern, between them and the entrance. Around it were scattered the boxes of the real Jacob Kinstone’s belongings. “It’s been going through them all,” Alma said softly, her lips all but pressed to Marron’s ear. He caught that she too had realized the monster in question was not who it appeared to be. “I don’t know what it’s looking for. I don’t know if it knows what it’s looking for.”
Marron found that easy enough to believe; after all, the monster had been trapped since Jacob’s death, and its information since then seemed sparse at best. What might be found in those belongings to aid it in its quest to restore its power, Marron couldn’t say. His only comfort seemed to be that neither could the monster itself.
“What about Ephraim?” he asked.
Alma exhaled and shook her head. “He’s gone somewhere now. I can’t sense him. But … there’s something wrong.”
Marron supposed she meant beyond the obvious part where their once-friend now seemed to be as insubstantial as shadows. “What do you mean?”
Alma held up her left hand. “He kept saying it’s yours,” she said. In the low light from the torches that lit the room, her ring shone around her fourth finger, the engagement ring that had become the wedding band for her marriage to a different man. Marron had made the promises meant to accompany such an ornament. But he hadn’t been the one to put it there in the first place. “Not as though it’s become yours. As though he doesn’t remember putting it there in the first place.”
That, Marron knew, was impossible. Ephraim had cherished few moments as much as he had the one where Alma had agreed to be his wife — and rightly so, considering how much thought and energy he had put into the asking, how much he had worked himself up over the idea that the answer would be anything but a clear, enthusiastic yes. If there were one thought, one single moment burned so deep into who Ephraim was that he would have taken with him even past the dissolution of himself, that one might have been it.
“What Rose — the magician who came with the detectives — what she said was that Ephraim had been scattered by the explosion.” Marron lifted a fist and opened it suddenly, then drew his fingers back into a fist again. “And then re-gathered into the same catch that trapped the thing that’s pretending to be his father. What if not everything came back together?”
Alma frowned, eyeing the monster as it leafed through the pages of an old book. “What if it purposefully held parts of him apart?” she asked.
“What are you two talking about?” asked the monster, its voice a sing-song trill that was anything but sweet. “Are the lovers sharing their tawdry little secrets?”
“Where’s Ephraim?” asked Alma, not rising to the bait.
The monster shrugged, spinning a small metal rod in its fingers. Marron had seen Ephraim use those before, to burn sigils into leather. “Making sure no one up there gets any rash ideas.” It pointed upward, toward the house and grounds and fresh air they’d left behind, then fixed Marron with the indulgent stare one might give a naughty schoolchild. “He’s quite displeased that you’ve had the gall to come back, after what you’ve done to him, you unfaithful wretches.”
Of course, that displeasure was exactly what the monster wanted. And if the monster could also stir up feelings of guilt about their marriage, so much the better. All the more fuel for its fire, the one that would bring it back to its former might. In the past, perhaps, it could have been cunning: spiriting itself around the world toward the nearest great calamity, weaving itself into the walls of prisons and the ropes of gallows. Now, it was weak, having barely sustained itself during its long captivity by drawing on the one thing it had at hand. Whatever infusion of force it had ripped from Rose, that had given it enough strength to stretch and move a little, but only so far as its atrophied limbs could carry it.
Small wonder it hadn’t tried to get free when given the chance. In this condition, it was more likely to be prey than predator. There was no practical reason to hold old estate grounds with no particular tragic history, except that it was convenient. If it became inconvenient, it might leave.
Marron’s first impulse was to defend himself against accusations of faithlessness, but he instead took a deep breath in and sighed it out. “You must know this can’t last. Not if what you’re bleeding him is built on lies.”
“Oh, but it isn’t,” said the monster, laughing. It tapped the rod a few times against its bearded jaw, then discarded it with a careless toss over its shoulder. Whatever it was looking for, apparently that had not been it. “Humans are machines that run on fear, did you know that? You’re barely a few steps beyond skittish barn mice, scampering away from every loud noise and flicker of light. That’s what makes you such delicious meals — because, beneath everything, you are afraid. I may deign to consume anger, resentment, despair — but fear?” Its pink tongue darted out, too long for a human face, and licked the whole of its lips. “Fear is a feast.”
“Fear of what?” asked Alma. “He never feared this. He was not jealous of Marron, nor afraid of losing me.”
“Of course he was.” The monster strode closer as it spoke, looming over both of them as they sat on the hard stone floor. “Humans are never unafraid. They are afraid, and then they have something that tells them, hush, it’s all right, like a mother singing an infant back to sleep. But remove that reassurance — say the mother never comes! What then?”
Alma set her jaw, glaring at the monster with undisguised hatred. Marron rushed to take her hand in his, squeezing tight, and presently he felt the tension in her begin to subside. They had to keep steady.
It was too easy to dismiss the monster’s words as goading. Had Ephraim always been afraid that he’d lose the two of them to each other? Marron supposed that was possible, even likely — but in the way he himself sometimes woke in the mornings and, finding that Alma was not in the bed, feared that she might have left him for good. Of course, such thoughts lasted mere moments, before his rational mind corrected him with the knowledge that she had probably just awakened early and gone about the business of her day. What would it be like if that correction never came?
Worse, he thought as the monster eyed their clasped hands with a sneer, what if there were no correction to be had? His ears could at last hear how hollow their accusations of lies sounded when, to all eyes, it must have appeared just as the monster claimed it to be. Marron had never let such talk bother him before, because he and Alma had both had always known that, no, they had not been conducting an affair behind Ephraim’s back the entire time, just waiting for the chance to get him out of the picture. To that very point, Marron would have said that their opinions were the only ones that mattered.
As a dark cloud began to gather at the monster’s side, Marron realized that, indeed, they had always been three more than two, no matter their arrangement, and that the perception of that third mattered very much indeed.
“My dear son,” said the monster, opening its arms wide in the kind of fatherly embrace Jacob Kinstone had never offered. In fact, for all his years in the household’s service, Marron could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen the two touch one another, even when Ephraim was a boy. Now, Marron watched as Ephraim drew himself together into a physical form, then threw himself into his father’s arms. Making a pleased sound, the facsimile of Jacob enfolded Ephraim into a fierce hug, giving his hair a paternal ruffle.
So that was how that thing, that horrible parasite, had gotten its hooks into Ephraim. Older than Ephraim’s love of Alma, older even than his friendship with Marron, was his desperate desire to win his father’s approval. He’d learned to mask it well, most of the time, so much that perhaps even Alma herself had never understood the degree to which Ephraim craved even a single word of praise from Jacob. But Marron knew.
After a moment, the monster let Ephraim go. Ephraim was grinning from ear to ear like a boy, his eyes sparkling, his face bright. Marron might have thought him some hallucination from twenty years ago, except for one thing: There was a hole in Ephraim’s chest. A jagged thing, it looked as though someone had placed a claw at the base of his throat and drawn it downward to his navel, replacing the substance it gouged out with the black void Marron had first seen. Through it, Marron could see glimpses of something else, though his eyes could not focus long enough to tell him what it was.
For a moment, Marron wondered why on earth the monster would take on such a warm, loving fatherly appearance, given what it had said earlier about feeding. But when Ephraim turned to them and his smiled became a sneer, Marron understood. Strong emotions were unsustainable. Contrast was needed to give them shape, renew their energy.
“Why is he here?” snapped Ephraim, addressing the creature he thought to be his father.
The monster put a comforting hand on Ephraim’s shoulder, though Ephraim was little comforted by it. “Of course,” it said, its voice dripping as if with honey, “he came here to rescue his wife.”
“She’s my wife!” Ephraim shouted, fixing Marron with a hard stare. “She is mine! You can’t have her! You didn’t earn her!”
“Of course he didn’t,” said the monster, squeezing Ephraim’s shoulder as it spoke. Ephraim probably thought the gesture was intended to be comforting; Marron could see it was meant to be agitating. “The second you were gone, he just swept in like that! And to think you’d been so nice to him all those years. Sheltered him, clothed him, fed him….”
Ephraim’s lip curled away from his teeth in a near-feral sneer. “He’s a snake.”
Marron said nothing. He had nothing he could say. He had spent enough of his time around the lifelong wealthy to know that not even the finest orator could post a working rebuttal to an argument when the speaker built it on lies and the hearer wanted to believe it. Alas, saving his breath did little to improve his situation.
The monster came to stand behind Ephraim, placing a hand on either of Ephraim’s shoulders. In life, Jacob Kinstone had never been that much taller than his adult son, and had indeed settled out around the same height as Marron. This facsimile, however, loomed over Ephraim as though Ephraim were a boy of eleven or twelve, demanding the same authority a child that age would have owed his powerful father. “And what should be done about this?” asked the monster. “Should perhaps he receive the lash?”
Marron’s eyes went wide. Flogging was an acceptable punishment for bonded servants, at least legally speaking, but it was not one the Kinstone house employed. Ephraim’s blue eyes widened. “No, I–” he began, sputtering out his sentence. His brow furrowed as he eyed Marron; he caught his lower lip between his teeth, looking puzzled, as though trying to name a song he could only half-remember.
Alma’s hand squeezed Marron’s tight, and he squeezed back — out of relief. Ephraim had hesitated. They’d both seen it. The man they remembered was still there.
“Of course!” laughed the monster, snapping its fingers. “How will they ever learn otherwise?”
Ephraim looked down to his hand, where he now held a coiled whip. It was a small manifestation, but one that made Marron’s stomach clench — that was a bad sign indeed, if the monster had enough power to waste it on trivialities such as that. Ephraim lifted the coiled strap as though testing its weight, though the frown on his face had not subsided.
The monster leaned in, its face a little closer to Ephraim’s now. “Beat him bloody and show your wife that you’re a real man.” It licked its lips as it looked at Alma, who shrank back in horror. “Won’t it feel so good to slide inside her, then? To take her like every woman wants to be taken?”
“Every…” Ephraim looked hard at the lash in his hand.
“Won’t it feel so good?” The monster squeezed Ephraim’s shoulders excitedly, like a good father might cheer on his son before the boy’s first day of school. “I can feel how much you want her. She’s as pretty as she was the day she left you. The day she broke your heart and left you for your ungrateful slave.”
Ephraim’s fist tightened around the lash, his knuckles going pale in contrast to his dusky skin. He looked lost. Every breath he took made his shoulders heave, and as he move, the rift that formed his chest shifted and swayed. Marron could see lights through it, though he still could not make more sense of the visual than that.
“Or maybe,” the monster chuckled, switching tactics, “you’d rather see her bound to the post. Is that what you’d like, son? To see the faithless bitch bleed for you?”
Marron took a protective step in front of Alma; he didn’t want to give the creature the satisfaction, but at the same time, he couldn’t let something of that magnitude go unaddressed. “You want to whip me?” Marron asked, looking at Ephraim as though they were the only ones in the room. He loosened his tie and began unbuttoning his shirt. If this had made Ephraim uncomfortable before, then Marron hoped that pressing the matter would continue to drive the wedge between what the monster had told him and what Ephraim knew to be true. “Let’s go. Beat me bloody.”
He had the pleasure of seeing both of their expressions falter at that. Ephraim did not drop the whip, but neither did he look enthused at the prospect of flogging Marron. In fact, the tight press of his lips told that the idea made him a little sick. The monster with Jacob’s face, on the other hand, seemed only cautious — it hadn’t expected this reaction from one of its prisoners, and it was trying as fast as it could to figure our Marron’s game.
Marron, however, wouldn’t give it the satisfaction. He shrugged off his vest, then stripped off his shirt, leaving himself bare to the waist. “Come on,” Marron said to Ephraim, crossing the distance between them. “I came down here for you. If this is what that means, then I will not flinch in the fulfilment of my duty.”
“You–” Ephraim’s entire chest shimmered with discomfort. He clutched the whip even tighter, but his fist held not only the handle, but two coils of the tail as well, rendering it for the moment inert. “Father, I … I don’t think we need to–“
“Of course we do!” The monster laughed as though this were all a fine game, but Marron could see how the set of its jaw betrayed its false mirth. Rose had said that such things had no true shape; perhaps so, but even in a borrowed face, its smile had too many teeth. “We are the men of the house, after all. We may take no pleasure in discipline, but it is what must be done. Or how–“
“Do you want to do that?” Marron interrupted, as though the monster hadn’t even spoken. He kept his gaze locked on Ephraim’s face. “Do you want to hurt me?”
For a moment, the answer, written all over Ephraim’s face, was clearly no. Ephraim’s eyebrows pulled into a point of confusion right over the bridge of his nose, making him look for all the world like a drunk confronted with a familiar task rendered too difficult by the rum. Something fundamental about the world was at last running contrary to what he’d been told was true, leaving him at the crossroads of belief.
Then the monster pulled Ephraim back against its broad chest, and Ephraim’s whole face changed.
“You hurt me!” Ephraim spat, uncoiling the whip. Its woven leather tail fell in a serpentine pattern along the floor. “You hurt me! You — you took everything from me!”
Marron reeled, caught off-balance by the sudden shift. “What happened to you was an accident,” Marron began to protest, even as he knew his words were useless. “I would have done anything in the world, I would have given my life to–“
“Lies!” The whip cracked as Ephraim struck it against the floor. “Shut up, shut up, you lie! You are a liar, and you have always been a liar, and my father knew it! He always knew about you! That’s why he kept you in chains!” Ephraim moved closer, shimmering as the darkness took him at the edges. He lifted the whip above his head with something that wasn’t quite an arm anymore, reeling it around his head before bringing it down on Marron as hard as he could.
It never hit its mark. Braced as he was for impact, Marron only looked when he realized it wasn’t going to fall, only to see its long coiled tail wrapped around Alma’s raised arm. The set of her teeth and pricks of tears at the corners of her eyes spoke to exactly how much taking the blow must have hurt. Her stance, however, did not waver.
In an instant, Ephraim dropped the whip handle and ran to her, drawing her into his arms. “You fool, you foolish little thing! Did he make you do this?” Ephram clutched her tight for a moment, then held her back at arm’s length, looking her up and down as though he expected to see the cause of her behavior. “Did he tell you lies about what he did to me? You’re mine! You’re still mine, no matter what he says, you’re–“
A crack as loud as the whip’s resounded through the cavern, and Ephraim staggered back, holding a hand to his cheek. Steady as the carved prow of a ship, Alma stood before him, hand still raised from the blow she’d struck him straight across his face.
A crashing sound startled Marron into stark awakeness. He tore out of bed, grasping for something, anything, which might serve as a weapon. The closest he came was a large book, but he imagined it could do a fair bit of damage at the right velocity and angle. Still in his pajama shirt and pants, he crept out of the door to his room, ready to do battle with whatever might have been lurking in the darkness.
Instead, he saw not darkness, but light — the glow of a candle, doing its best to light the space of Ephraim’s laboratory. Still clutching the book, though not at such a lethal pitch anymore, Marron walked to the end of the hall. The sight that greeted him was one of only minor disaster: Ephraim stood, disheveled, over a stack of papers and small boxes scattered across the floor. Marron remembered having stacked them there himself only hours previous, as Ephraim promised that he’d sort through them and deal with the contents appropriately.
Ephraim sighed as he saw Marron standing there. “Sorry,” he said, running a hand across his face, then back through his wild hair. “I got careless. Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s all right,” Marron said, bending to deal with the mess. He gathered the items in piles, but this time left them on the floor, where at least if they were toppled again, they wouldn’t have far to fall. “What time is it?”
“It’s–” Ephraim shook his head. “It’s late. I know. I just wanted to finish this before I went to bed.”
“What is it?”
The question made Ephraim laugh, though Marron could hear there was no joy in it. “It’s ridiculous. A simple binding spell for a book, to make it so no one else can open it. It’s simple. It’s basic enchantment. Father could have done ten without breaking a sweat, without even thinking about it. Just snapped his fingers and had it done.”
Marron pressed his lips together as Ephraim spoke. He’d never cared much for Ephraim’s tendency to compare himself to his father, though at least when Ephraim was young, such could be framed as understandable, even aspirational — no one, after all, expected a child to be on par with a fully trained adult. Now that he was by all measurements out of childhood, though, Ephraim’s assessment of the gap between his father’s skills and his own grew grimmer and bitterer with every passing day.
Ephraim balled his hands into fists and slammed one against the surface of the table, making the items scattered across it jump. “What he’d do to me if he could see me like this,” he spat.
“He’d tell you to go to bed,” Marron said, even though he knew that to be an obvious lie. “You can’t do this work well when you’re exhausted, and you know it.”
The scowl on Ephraim’s face was the one Ephraim wore when someone else — usually Marron, for that matter — was right and Ephraim didn’t want to admit it. “It’s simple,” Ephraim said again, his teeth clenched.
“And so? I can’t do simple sums if I haven’t had a night’s sleep, and that’s far less strenuous than what you’re trying to accomplish.” Marron folded his arms across his chest, trying to look as imposing as he could while still looking like he’d just crawled out of bed. “Did you go to bed last night either?”
The hesitation that followed Marron’s question was enough of an answer. “Some,” Ephraim said at last, staring at his feet as he did.
Marron rolled his eyes. “You know better!” he snapped, irritated. For heaven’s sake, his entire job was to take care of Ephraim, which was hard enough without Ephraim’s making it even harder. “Go to bed.”
“Just after I finish–“
“Now.” Marron narrowed his eyes. “And you’ll wake up in the morning, and you’ll be the one accomplishing it all with a snap of your fingers, and then you’ll feel like a damn fool for not listening to me in the first place.”
Ephraim braced himself against the table, clutching the edge with both his hands. “I didn’t…” He took in a long, deep breath, and let it out through tightened lips. “I shouldn’t be lazy and leave work undone.”
“For the love of–” Marron reached for Ephraim and grabbed him by the front of his shirt, hauling him bodily away from the trappings of his magical profession and toward his bed. It was an inelegant solution to the problem, but it was better than spitting out what he wanted to say, which was: He’s dead! He’s dead, and you’ve got to evict him from your head, because as long as his is the voice you hear guiding all your decisions, you will burn yourself up trying to be what you imagine he wanted from you! Even the first two words of that would have locked Ephraim into his previous impulses, giving him over to his self-destructive tendencies, until he either enchanted the damn book shut or collapsed trying.
Catching him off-guard, however, worked startlingly well. Ephraim tumbled forward, and Marron caught him, snaking one hand around his waist and pushing him toward his bedroom. He was exhausted, as he outweighed Marron by a good fifty pounds, but bent to Marron’s force as a ship in a crosswind. “No, I–” he offered as a token protest.
“Just shut up.” Marron hauled him forward, through the open door of his bedroom, and practically tossed him face-down on the bed. Ephraim was still half-dressed in his clothes from the day, but he’d taken off his shoes and waistcoat, which Marron determined to leave him in an appropriate state for sleeping. Before Ephraim could sit up, Marron tossed a heavy blanket over him, then another, just for good measure.
Ephraim at least had the good sense to know when he’d been beat. “Wake me at dawn,” he murmured, his words muffled by the pillow.
Marron didn’t answer. If Ephraim took his silence as agreement, so be it. It wasn’t.
Though he’d expected some further protest, or at least demands for Marron to justify his actions, Ephraim closed his eyes and fell asleep where he lay. Just how many nights had it been that he’d forced himself awake beyond all good sense, wrecking his health and concentration for some imagined gain?
Despite being all but certain that Ephraim would not rise again until he’d gotten at least some of the rest he needed, Marron grabbed the small room’s single chair and pulled it up to the side of the bed, then took a seat in it. He should have gone back to his own bed, but he knew that his own rest would be a long time in coming. He was too angry to sleep.
Damn Jacob Kinstone, that even death hadn’t saved them from his shadow. Damn the weight he’d left on his son’s shoulders, the voice he’d left whispering lies in his ear. Damn the way he’d looked at his beautiful, capable, warm, loving son and thought that the proper response was to cut his confidence off at the knees. Damn him for deciding that his son was better broken.
And damn Marron himself for not being good enough to put the pieces back together right.
Sitting there in the dark room, watching over Ephraim, Marron felt like a mother lion who’d just carried a straying cub back to safety by the scruff of its neck. Hadn’t that always been at least half the defining dynamic of their relationship, though? He’d been charged from the beginning of his service with attending to Ephraim, which meant sometimes being a brother to an only son, and sometimes being a mother to an orphaned child. That Marron himself had had neither sibling nor parent of his own was immaterial. These were the holes, and his worth was in his ability to fill them.
What would Marron even be without Ephraim to need him?
“I don’t want you,” Alma said, her voice trembling despite her audible attempts to keep it steady. “You are not my husband.”
Marron glanced over at the monster, whose smug expression had returned in earnest. Its arms were folded across its chest, and it looked more than content to let this drama play out. It was practically licking its lips at the sight of Ephraim so wounded, making it clear why it had brought Alma — and deigned to allow Marron — down here in the first place. Why bother with the effort of tormenting Ephraim himself when it could get others to do the labor for it? Marron supposed it thought itself so clever, as clever as Jacob Kinstone had been when he’d reneged on their deal and trapped it in the first place. A fine feast, and for so little work.
Ephraim’s face was indeed a mask of shock and hurt. “Do you — because of this pretender?” he spat, jabbing a clawed finger toward Marron.
“Because of you!” she spat.
Ephraim recoiled as though she’d struck him again, though her arms were still. Up her right forearm, Marron could see the coiling red marks of where the whip had made contact. It was her left hand she raised, though, holding it between them so there was no mistaking its presence.
“When he put this on my hand,” she said, “it was for you. He stood in for you, because of you. I pledged myself to him by law, because you had my heart, and he did not ask to take it from you, and I knew he never would. And he never has.” She closed the distance between herself and Ephraim, soft but unafraid. “You swept me off my feet as a girl, and what I felt for you then has never gone away. But he has been at my side for twenty years, my partner in everything, the best husband I ever could have asked for — and the Ephraim I fell in love with would have been overjoyed at that!”
With a pained hiss, Ephraim turned his face away from her, looking at the ground. “You’re mine,” he growled at her.
Alma folded her arms across her chest. “I am mine,” she said, her jaw set at an angle that Marron knew meant there would be no further argument or changing her mind. “And I fell in love with a young man who cherished that about me. Not one who would grab at me like a toddler’s prized toy!”
Ephraim’s lip curled in a dangerous sneer as he turned back to her. “You’re mine!”
“No.” Alma’s voice was firm and clear as struck crystal. “Neither of us was yours, even though to the world we might have been. And we loved you because you never treated us like that.”
“He never loved me!” Ephraim spat, pointing again at Marron, who could hardly say he was happy at having returned as a topic of discussion.
Instead of reacting with anger, Alma outright laughed in Ephraim’s face. “He has loved you more and better than I ever have. He has never given up on you, nor believed for a moment that he would never see you again. And here you all but spit in his face by implying otherwise!”
Ephraim screwed up his face. “My father–“
“That thing is not your father!” Alma shouted over whatever the end of Ephraim’s sentence might have been. “Your father is dead.”
“He is not–“
“He is dead, Ephraim!” Alma stamped her foot, which was a more resonant gesture than her small stature might have suggested. “I know you never fully believed it, that you always wanted to be wrong about that, but I swear to you, he is dead and buried. Wherever he is now — at peace or in torment — he is beyond your reach.”
Ephraim looked to the monster, who only scoffed and rolled its eyes as though to say, look what silly things women believe! “Really,” it sighed, “I’m standing right here, Ephraim. Don’t you believe your eyes? Surely you know your own father?”
Alma stepped closer, until she within arm’s reach of Ephraim himself. “It’s been lying to you all along. Since before the explosion.” She shook her head. “It heard you crying for him, because you always hoped you’d impress him, and you never could. And you blamed yourself, but it wasn’t your fault, Ephraim. That thing right there, that thing wearing your father’s face? It poisoned him too, until his heart grew cold and there was no more room in it even for his son.”
Had she known, even at the time, how desperate for his father’s approval Ephraim had been? Marron had to believe so, even though they had never spoken about it, then or since. He supposed that was why neither of them had wanted much to know about the cause of the explosion that had taken Ephraim from them. One inspector had said that such explosions were known to result from attempts to reach into the realm of the no-longer-living, and Marron had heard enough. He’d had plenty of grief and despair to deal with at the time, without compounding it with the guilt of not having dissuaded Ephraim from such an obsession.
Of course, Marron had never known he hadn’t had a chance. Not with that pretty glass prison right there on his workbench, and the monster inside it, whispering to him during the silences of the night. It had lied to him in an attempt to set itself free; no small irony, then, that it had only wound up extending its incarceration. What must it have told Ephraim about his father? Marron shuddered to think.
Alma took a deep breath and let it out between pursed lips. “Ephraim,” she said, her voice soft. “What’s my name?”
Ephraim opened his mouth as though to answer, to laugh at the foolish simplicity of it all — and then stopped without uttering a word. He searched her face, gaze clear with obvious recognition. But that part, that essential bit, never rose to his lips.
“I thought so,” Alma said. “What type of sweet did you always get me when we passed by the confectionery? Do you remember? Every time, and then you’d eat half as your ‘finder’s fee.’ We must have stopped in there a hundred times. What was it?”
A chocolate cream puff, Marron knew. When they’d gone to travel to see Alma, once she was back in this very house with her grandparents, he’d brought her whole boxes. Alma had once confessed to Marron that she’d enjoyed the treat, but not more or less than any other the shop had sold; Ephraim, however, had gotten it in his head that they were her favorite, and she did not want to disappoint him.
“You don’t remember even that, do you?” Alma asked, staring at Ephraim’s blank expression. “I would wager you don’t remember anything about me, except that I’m supposed to be your wife. Like I’m a pretty prize and you’re so pleased you’ve won. That thing, that thing with your father’s face, has kept all that from you. And he’s had to, because if you could remember me, the real me? You’d know that the last thing I’d ever want was to be a prize.”
“I … I remember you,” Ephraim spat through clenched teeth. “I love you.”
“I know.” Alma nodded, trickles of tears starting to make their way down her pretty cheeks. “You remember loving me. Do you remember why?”
Ephraim looked utterly defeated, swaying on his feet. The crack in his chest had begun to spread; the lower tip had cut down now nearly to his thigh, while the upper edge stretched up toward his cheek. So much more of him was hollow than he had realized. The lies he’d been told to fill in the gaps were crumbling away like bad plaster, failing to conceal the damage beneath. Marron watched with fists clenched in the pockets of his trousers, breathing hard.
However, the monster looked unconcerned in the extreme. Perhaps this was not as filling of a banquet as it had imagined, but it seemed content enough with the proceedings. And why, Marron wondered, should it not? To remind Ephraim of his gaps was to bring him pain of one kind; to push him forward with the connective tissue of lies was to bring another. Surely it saw that no matter what Alma said, all she could do was hurt Ephraim. They could stay down here, the three of them, litigating their hurts for all eternity, for all it cared. They could shout and cry and scream and strike one another, all while it grew stronger, until the day it would no longer need them anymore.
Alma stepped closer to Ephraim, lifting her hand to his face. She lay her right palm along the edge of the crack along the line of his jaw, the one that reminded them all just how much he hadn’t pulled himself together again. She did not shrink from this missing part, nor did she try to patch it again. For a moment she held him there, almost forehead-to-forehead, until his matched his breathing to hers and began to settle from fear into calm.
Then she thrust her left hand into his chest.
Everything that happened next took place in a matter of moments. Had Marron been standing on the sidelines, holding a stopwatch he doubted he would have timed ten full seconds from start to finish. That, however, was from the outside. Inside, time stretched out until each heartbeat was a year.
Ephraim gasped — but there was nothing to gasp with, because he had no lungs. He had so little of himself, in fact. What had come back had missed such an essential component of itself that it had not even known the things most important to its very self. He had been brought together only enough to generate the misery that the monster needed to sustain itself. And that pain was Ephraim — but it was not all of Ephraim.
The monster’s face fell as realization dawned, but it had let its little toys stray too far from its reach. Trapped as it was to the facsimile of Jacob Kinstone, it could only move as fast as its created body could manage. Even insubstantial, though, it could not have arrived in time to stop Alma. Truly, it had not seen this coming.
Alma lingered there for only a moment; she knew exactly what she was reaching for. When she withdrew her hand, she had something clutched tight in her fist. It was the glass orb in which both the monster and Ephraim had been locked for decades. It had gathered Ephraim’s particles as they’d scattered, the magical fragments that made up both his body and his soul. A lesser magician might not have survived this dissolution, much less managed to re-gather himself during his own lifetime. Ephraim had never even known how powerful he truly was, not before that power had been all he’d had left.
The monster began to shout something, but Ephraim was only staggering backward, in no shape to comply. The monster, however, was on the move itself. Perhaps it could not have prevented Alma from acting, but it could make sure that snatch was all she accomplished. Cloak swirling behind it, it charged toward her.
Did she know what Marron had on him? Marron couldn’t imagine she had, but she trusted him anyway to know exactly what to do. With no chance of getting away from the monster in time, Alma held the sphere high above her head, perched in her fingertips. She had done her part; now it was Marron’s turn.
Rose had not been able to enter the basement because her magic made her a liability. Likewise, any enchantments Marron had brought down with him, the monster would have smelled right away. It was a magical creature, after all, built to sense its own substance — not that Marron could have managed even the simplest of enchantments, given his complete lack of aptitude.
But there was nothing magical about a pistol.
He’d kept it tucked inside his high boot, at Rose’s suggestion. Even before walking down, he’d known that there was no way something as mundane as a bullet could hope to defeat a magical creature, particularly one powerful enough to form and connect entire caverns beneath the earth. Glass, however, was a perfectly ordinary substance.
As he grabbed for the gun, he felt the chain move around his neck, the one he’d never taken off, not since Ephraim’s hands had put it there all those years ago. He’d never much imagined it had brought him any kind of good fortune — in fact, his life had often felt like one that lacked luck entirely. That wasn’t entirely true, though, Marron supposed. Just as he’d had sorrows, he’d had joys, and if he stacked the two side by side, he would find the latter came out slightly ahead. There were worse odds than sixty-two heads out of a hundred.
Still, Marron didn’t care about the bigger picture now. He cared about one chance, one flip, one outcome. Luck was not in the averages. Luck was a single shot.
Just as the monster’s hand reached to snatch the orb from Alma’s grip, Marron aimed the pistol and put a bullet straight through the glowing glass center, shattering it beyond repair. Shards rained down over the three of them as the prison that had held them both for so long became nothing at all.
Ephraim lifted the ring up to the light, so that Marron could see the barest hint of fine engraving on the band’s inside, runes that Marron could not hope to read. “Do you think she’ll like it?”
“She’ll love it,” Marron said, because it was true. She would have loved a piece of string tied into a loop, if it had come from Ephraim and carried the promise of his love. “And she’ll say yes, so stop working yourself up about it.”
“I’m not working myself up,” Ephraim huffed, clearly working himself up. He stopped pacing, though, plopping down cross-legged on a nearby footstool. “I might be slightly working myself up.”
“You might be slightly,” Marron agreed.
Ephraim put the ring on his own thumb, letting it slip down to the first joint, where it was stopped by the knobbiness of Ephraim’s knuckle. “Her grandparents are going to insist on some big society to-do. They’re going to hate it, but they’ll allow it, because Father had his name, and I have his money now. And because they probably know that if they say no, she’ll just run off and do whatever she wants anyway.”
Marron couldn’t argue with that assessment. “So when are you planning to ask her?”
“I–” Ephraim screwed his mouth up to one side. “I have no idea. What if she does say no?”
“She’s not going to say no.”
“She might!” Ephraim plucked the ring off his thumb and held it out toward Marron. “You ask her.”
“Me?” Marron folded his arms across his chest so he wasn’t even tempted. “As your girlfriend to marry you, on your behalf, because you’re too ridiculous of a human being to do it yourself?”
Ephraim let his gaze fall to the floor. “Well, when you put it like that…” He put the ring back in its small velvet box, then shut it and slipped it back in his shirt pocket. “Perhaps I’ll just carry it around. Wait for the right moment. Let marital inspiration strike me.”
Marron narrowed his eyes. “If you do that, it will still be sitting in your pocket a year from now.”
Ephraim grunted again, then snapped to attention, his eyes bright with an idea. “Perhaps I should organize something. Hire jugglers and an orchestra. Write her name across the sky with fire!”
“All right, I take it back: If you do that, she’s absolutely going to say no.”
“This is hard!” Ephraim rose to his feet and started pacing again. “This is hard and I don’t like it!”
With a long-suffering sigh, Marron stood as well, then grabbed Ephraim’s shoulders, arresting his movement. “It is only hard because you are making it hard,” he said, giving the center of Ephraim’s chest a sharp poke. “You are going to find a time when the two of you are together. You are going to take her somewhere nice. You are going to say to her, Alma, I love you and I want you to be my wife. And then you are going to give her the ring. Clear?”
“That’s … that’s good, actually,” Ephraim said, nodding. “Do you have a pen? I should write that down.”
Marron wanted to grab him and toss him bodily into a rain barrel. It would ruin his silk tie, but at this point, it might be worth it. “Absolutely do not use notes for this.”
To his great credit, Ephraim did not challenge why Marron should be presenting himself as the expert on this, what with Marron’s having to the best of Ephraim’s (correct) knowledge never so much as made eyes with a woman. As in so many other things, he proved willing to defer to Marron’s guidance and common sense, no matter its origin. He pressed his lips together and stared down at the floor, his body practically sparking with pent-up energy.
“Look,” Marron said after a moment, “why do you want to marry her?”
“Because she–” Ephraim reached for the ring box and pulled it out again, looking at the band as he spoke. “She’s amazing. She’s unlike any other person I’ve ever met. She’s compassionate, but she’ll also tell you what’s on her mind. She’s funny! She makes me laugh. She makes me happy to be around her, and sad when she’s away. She … she understands me, even the parts I thought no woman ever would. And I’m sick of waking up in the morning and not having her there.”
Marron pinched the box shut again, then took it from Ephraim’s hand and replaced it in his shirt pocket. “Then that is what you should tell her.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.” Marron nodded.
“That’s–” Ephraim laughed self-consciously. “It doesn’t make me sound pathetic?”
“I promise, she already knows you’re pathetic,” Marron said with a teasing smile. “You can at least show her you’re pathetic for her.”
“That strangely makes me feel better,” Ephraim said.
Marron shrugged. “I live to serve.”
At that, Ephraim stepped close and placed a hand behind Marron’s head, pulling them together until their foreheads touched. The difference in their heights meant that Marron had to bend a little, but he could not have minded less. Ephraim held him there for a moment as his flustered breathing settled back to normal, letting Marron be the anchor that steadied him in a raging see. “Thank you,” Ephraim said softly. He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, then pulled back and gave Marron a bright grin. “So you’re going to be there, yes?”
“No,” Marron said, rolling his eyes even as a smile curled at his lips.
“Yes.” Ephraim folded his arms across his chest. “I’ll simply ask her the next time you both are in the same room. So unless you’re planning to avoid her forever…”
Marron shook his head. “You’re ridiculous,” he said.
“Then,” Ephraim declared with a confident smirk, “you shall simply have to accept that I’m pathetic for her and ridiculous for you.”
Despite every best effort of his to make sure Ephraim knew exactly how ridiculous he was, Marron couldn’t keep the corners of his mouth from betraying his true feelings.
From the moment Rose had proposed it as a theory, Marron had been horrified at the thought of how painful for Ephraim re-forming must have been. Now it seemed his imagination had been off by an order of magnitude.
Ephraim screamed — and it was not a scream that could have been made by human lungs. His was a cry that called up from the emptiness inside him, screeching as it was filled with what should have always been there. These were the pieces that the monster had held back, the bits of Ephraim that would never have allowed him to do anything that would have hurt the two people he loved most in the world. These parts remembered the pastry he thought Alma liked, knew exactly what Marron had done for him and why. They burned through him like antiseptic over a wound, where the torture of clearing out the infection was only bearable because of the promise of healing on the other side.
The shards of light from the shattered sphere gathered to him in the way iron filiments found the nearest magnet, seeping into to fill the emptinesses that had bound him together. In a horrible way, it was beautiful, seeing all these sparks gathered in to him and knowing that each one was a little piece of the man Marron loved. All he could do was wonder which piece was which. Was that little flitting glow the memory of dancing with Alma at the midwinter fair? Was the one next to it the knowledge of his father’s death? What had the monster had to excise to leave Ephraim in such a state as would be best for feeding? What parts were held back to keep that reassuring comfort from ever coming? There were hundreds of them, like fireflies, drifting around in the air before targeting the center of Ephraim’s chest and shooting forward with an arrow’s precision.
Staggering, Ephraim collapsed forward into Alma’s arms. In her surprise, she could not brace herself to hold him, and the two fell to the floor together. She wrapped her arms around him, cradling him as he writhed and clutched at the glowing mass in his chest.
The monster barely spared them a glance. It was glaring daggers at the only other figure still standing in the room: Marron, pistol still clutched in his hand. Marron raised the weapon again, pointing it straight at the monster’s chest. What a bullet would do to it, Marron had no way of knowing. If the monster charged him, however, he was going to find out.
But the monster stayed in its place, shifting its weight on its feet. “Well played,” it said, a grudging admiration seeping through the venom in its voice. “What will you do to me now?”
What would he do to the monster now? Marron had no idea. He was out of magical traps, and even if he hadn’t destroyed the only one he’d ever known about, he wasn’t sure he could have operated it anyway. He looked down to where Ephraim was curled in on himself on the floor, sobbing and gasping as Alma held him tight. For twenty years, it had kept Ephraim from him. It had lured him to the disaster in the first place, promising him things Marron couldn’t even imagine, if only Ephraim would do what was needed to set it free. And it had lied to him, Marron was sure, because there was no way a man like Ephraim would let a monster like that out into the world.
No, that was something Ephraim would not do. It was something Jacob Kinstone had not done. Yet Marron was not like them. With a sigh, he uncocked the hammer of the pistol and lowered it to his side. “Go,” he said.
The monster frowned. “Go?” it echoed, as though to make sure it had heard the syllable correctly.
“You were right,” Marron said. He bent down to the ground and placed the pistol there, then nudged it even further away with his foot, well out of his reach. “I was never a slave like you were. But I understand what it is to be bound. To feel as though you’ve run out of options. And I–” He ran his fingers back through his hair, raking it from his face. “Jacob Kinstone was wrong. He was a bastard, and he hurt you, and you answered in kind. To survive.”
On the floor, Ephraim had stopped wailing, but he was panting loudly now, gritting his teeth as though suffering under a surgeon’s knife without anaesthesia. There was a part of Marron that wanted to hurt the monster on Ephraim’s behalf, to answer injury for injury.
And perhaps, if it had been intentional about that hurt, Marron could have justified it. But standing in the cavern, he could at last see clearly from the monster’s side what had happened. It had been betrayed on a deal, only to find itself trapped without hope of escape. Suddenly, after years of imprisonment, it had found itself with the raw materials that might facilitate its escape. All it needed to do was shape them, form them into a tool it could use. It may have hated Jacob Kinstone, but it bore no particular ill will toward his son. It had just wanted to be free.
Marron stepped to the side, clearing further the path between the monster and the door. “Go,” he said again. “But make no mistake: You are not welcome here, nor anywhere near. If I were you, I would go far, and fast. I can show you mercy. I would not ask it from him.”
The monster followed Marron’s gaze to where Ephraim lay with his head pillowed on Alma’s lap. In the past, before the explosion, Ephraim’s own sense of his magical worth had been hobbled both by his lack of confidence and by the poison the monster had been dripping into his ear. What would he be like now, having not only shrugged off those fetters, but spent so long as a creature of pure magical energy? Surely, surely the monster did not want to stay and find out.
From the way it shuffle on its borrowed feet, indeed, it did not appear eager to stay. It hesitated, however, and looked around at the caverns that surrounded them. “When I am gone,” it said at last, its voice much softer than it had been before, “this place will cease to be a safe one for mortals.”
Marron raised his eyebrows. A fair warning, then. With one last nod of understanding, he turned to Alma and Ephraim. “We must leave,” he said to her.
“We can’t move him,” Alma said, looking at Ephraim’s crumpled frame. He had stopped shouting in pain and was now whimpering, gritting as the sparks surrounded and entered him. It had taken him nearly twenty years before to pull himself together again. How could they hope to do it now?
Then Marron saw Alma’s hand on Ephraim’s chest, and he knew. That was why she could sense his workings, the way she had that night on the grounds — only a few days ago, but it seemed like a lifetime now. Of course an enchanter would have woven an enchantment into something that precious, the same way he’d imprinted luck into the pendant around Marron’s neck. It would have been subtle, nothing she would have needed to call on consciously, since she had no magic of her own. Small wonder he’d never said anything about it — or maybe that would have been part of the wedding vows, the ones he never got to make. But it was here for them now.
“He made it so you could always find him,” Marron thought aloud, looking at her ring. Thank heavens for unintended consequences, the enchantment turned out to work both ways.
Alma stared at the ring in surprise. The enchantment’s pull hadn’t been enough to break through the walls of the magical prison, the one where Ephraim had been forced to spend so long recollecting himself without equivalent lodestone, but it was here now. “What do we do?” she asked.
“Put it on him,” Marron said, reaching for the chain around his own neck. The clasp was unfamiliar to him at first — small wonder, considering how much of his life he’d worn it without ever taking it off — but he worked open its hinge. With the way the void had stretched up Ephraim’s jaw, Marron did not want to chance that putting the chain around Ephraim’s neck would become a hindrance. Instead, he wound it three times around Ephraim’s wrist and secured it there.
He saw that Alma had a similar difficulty removing her ring, which had been taken off almost exactly as often as Marron’s gift had. She managed it with a tug, though, and slipped it around the little finger of Ephraim’s other hand. All the magic he had given them, they had now given back to him. They would have to hope it was enough.
Marron placed one arm beneath Ephraim’s knees and another behind his back, guiding Ephraim’s arm over his own bare shoulder. He wanted to linger like that, to savor the intimacy of a touch he’d missed with all his heart, but there was no time. They had to go.
Ephraim was suspiciously light, light enough that Marron could stand without Alma’s help, something he hadn’t been counting on. It made sense, Marron supposed — Ephraim was pulling himself together from the incorporeal world, and Marron knew just how far inside of Ephraim the absences had reached. “Keep your hand on him,” Marron said to Alma, despite knowing how awkward that would make their procession. She did, taking point on their strange party, with one hand stretched behind her always, pressed to what was slowly ceasing to be the gap in Ephraim’s chest.
As they were about to leave the chamber itself, Marron took once glance back to see the monster. Already it had stopped looking so much like Jacob Kinstone; at this point, Marron suspected that was more habit than choice. Soon there would be no point in looking like that at all, or ever again. It would return to its incorporeal state, until it could flit around from disaster to disaster again, consuming and digesting the emotions it found there.
What a strange thing to be, Marron had mused when Rose had explained it to him the first time. Now, however, Marron thought of carrion-eaters. Perhaps one had learned to cause the disasters that fed it, but that was not in its nature. In a world of so many sorrows, it was in a strange way comforting to know that at least some of them could be consumed, digested, and transmuted into something other than raw pain. At least, Marron had to believe it was so.
Alma held steady and did not look back. Though the cavern paths were dim, she followed them by the light that shone from Ephraim himself, their strange beacon. She kept her hand behind her, pressed to his side.
With every step he took behind her, Marron swore that Ephraim grew heavier. At first, he chalked such a thought up to his own fatigue — after all, as a landholding man in his forties, he was unaccustomed to carrying other human beings around. But as he walked, he realized that it was more than his imagination. Ephraim was, in fact, becoming more solid with every moment. He grunted and twitched in the way of a man with a fever, but he was not limp and insensible; indeed, he held on to Marron as much as Marron held to him, keeping his strong arms around Marron’s neck. “We’re almost there,” Marron said, or wanted to say, but the growing exertion with each step took the air from his lungs.
At last, Ephraim was more than Marron could bear. He stumbled, coming dangerously close to pitching Ephraim outright onto the floor, then let him down to the cold floor as gently as he could. As he did, though, he realized that the floor was not the ragged, water-worn terrain of the caverns that the monster had burrowed into, deep into the earth. The floor was the flat, ground-down plane of bedrock, carved down to by the same human hands that had laid the foundations of the house over a century ago. Marron looked back the way they had come, but where there had once been a path, now only a solid wall remained. They had made it back.
Marron collapsed double over Ephraim’s body. The chill from the basement pricked at his bared skin, but that was all beside the point. He felt Alma’s hand rest on his shoulder, and he began to weep, at last, under the twinned weights of exhaustion and sheer relief.
The solicitor sat there in silence a moment, his face worked into the perfect mask of professional compassion, one he’d probably been practicing his entire legal career, if not his whole life. When he moved his head as though to speak some encouragement, Marron preempted him by picking up the pen and signing his name across the indicated line. He had no desire to do so, even though he knew that the only one in the room judging him at the moment was himself.
He hadn’t walked into the office expecting to walk out shockingly wealthy. He’d been prepared for a sad, sober task of filing through a few formalities and perhaps taking charge of some few final debts. He’d had no idea that following his father’s death, Ephraim had made a will of his own, one which named a single beneficiary.
“Thank you,” the solicitor said, taking the papers from Marron and stacking him atop his much larger pile. “I shall file these this afternoon, and barring any unforeseen complications, by the time you wake up tomorrow, you should be the rightful inheritor of all properties and titles associated with Ephraim Kinstone, specified and unspecified by his will.”
Marron nodded numbly. He felt sick, like he’d somehow just been paid to accept the reality of Ephraim’s death, as though money were a fair trade. He wanted to scream at the solicitor to take it all back; that he didn’t want any of it, he wanted Ephraim. Instead, he kept himself quiet and turned to Alma, who wore a black mourning veil across her face. “Are you ready to go?”
Alma nodded and stood, pulling her shawl closer to her. Even without the veil, Marron doubted he could have read her expression. Was she upset that he had been the one named in the will, and not she? On even the most a practical level, Marron knew that the choice made sense — not only did Alma have access to her grandparents’ fortunes, but Ephraim had made the will before they had become engaged. He would have had the will re-drawn after they’d married, of course. But like so many things, it hadn’t happened, and now it never would.
Marron offered her his arm. She took it as more than a polite gesture; she leaned on him for support, which he offered as much as he could. Together they left the office and walked out into the street. The day was cloudy but pleasant, lovely weather for a picnic or a horseback ride or anything at all that wasn’t dealing with the mundanities of death.
There was a small park nearby, on a low bluff overlooking the harbor. Without asking, Marron led Alma there, hoping the fresh sea air would do her good. She followed without question, letting him guide her to a small bench beneath the bluff’s only tree, a salt-soaked poplar. It was a squat, ugly thing, unlike its more majestic cousins lucky enough to grow up away from the constant battering of the elements, but it would be there long after any of them were gone. They sat down in its shade, looking out over the water, watching the boats go to and fro.
That seemed the strangest thing to Marron, that the world continued to turn around them as though no cataclysm had occurred. The end of the world was indeed a local phenomenon. He reached for Alma’s hand and lay his over it, feeling the outline of her fingers through the glove.
He would never have to work another day in his life, if he didn’t want to. Hell’s bells, he would never have to lift another finger for himself. But just as Jacob Kinstone’s death had left him vulnerable, Ephraim’s death had left her in much the same state. Marron had never forgotten that feeling, nor how Alma had saved him from it. Now it was his turn.
“Let me marry you,” he said.
Startled, she pulled back her veil and frowned at him. “What?”
Taking a steadying breath, he turned to face her. “Let me become your husband. You need one. I would not have your grandparents, in your grief, make you someone’s wife against your consent, with you too sorrowed to protest. Let me keep that from happening to you.”
Alma stared at him for a moment, eyes rimmed with red, before bursting into tears again.
Marron supposed that wasn’t the reaction most men were looking for from a wedding proposal, but he understood. He handed her the handkerchief from his pocket, which she took gratefully. “I’m sorry,” she muttered into its silk folds.
“Don’t be,” Marron said. He draped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her to his side. “You don’t have to answer–“
“No, no, of course.” Alma swallowed hard, then nodded. “You’re correct, you’re absolutely correct. It’s what he–” Her voice cut off in a hiccuping sob, and she had to gather herself a moment before she could speak again. “It’s what he would have wanted. Which … is a strange thing to say, isn’t it?”
That the deceased man would have wanted, in the advent of his death, his best friend to marry his fiancee? Yes, Marron supposed that was not a thing that could be said about most men, deceased or otherwise. But Ephraim had not been most men, nor would he ever be again. He was a hole in their lives, the missing piece that would never be replaced. The best they could do would be to mend around it.
Marron nodded and drew her close to him. Some part of him wanted to protest that he meant nothing ill to Ephraim’s memory by making this offer, to swear that he had not simply been waiting on the sidelines, hoping for Ephraim’s death so that he could have his chance at Alma. There might yet be others who needed him to make these claims before them. Not Alma, though. She had always understood.
They would make arrangements that afternoon. For now, though, they sat together on the bluff and let the salt breezes ruffle their clothes. Above them, the poplar tree bowed and swayed, doing as ever what it needed to endure.
For the first week, Ephraim did little but sleep, and Marron supposed he couldn’t blame him. After all, pulling one’s self back together was an exhausting feat even just to hear about, much less to pull off. The strange glow in his chest had subsided, and Rose was sure that it would fade in time, as his flesh and soul alike remembered just what it was to be whole again.
Indeed, Rose had been a watchful constant in the days following, more attentive than a physician — and more skilled, even, considering the malady. However the monster had diminished her capacity, Marron could not tell. She seemed to him more than confident and capable than he himself would have been, considering the circumstances. Even Ephraim, who had never cared for doctors, had taken to her almost instantly.
She’d also been a great help to Marron, who’d been tasked with convincing the world that the threat was ended without getting into the specifics of what, precisely, had ended it. For the time being, they — Alma, Marron, and Rose — had made the decision not to let the world know that Ephraim Kinstone was not as dead as he once had appeared to be. If he wanted to make that announcement later, then so be it, but they would not say anything without his permission that could not be taken back. Instead, Rose had made a public proclamations on behalf of the magicians’ guilds that the creature in question would now threaten them no longer. She had even gone out of her way to make the point that the Fletchers had had nothing to do with its arrival, and had been victims of the circumstances just as much as anyone else had been.
And it looked as though her reassurances were working. At the first market after her announcement, a number of adventurous souls made their way out to find that, in fact, things were again perfectly safe. The next day, there were even more.
In a way, Marron was grateful for the public image problems. He was thrilled that they had to deal with townsfolk who were afraid of staying and merchants who were afraid of returning. Those were practical, temporal problems. They had practical solutions. And if the individuals involved did leave, that was all right — there would be more, in time, and he could deal with their problems as well.
The more time he focused on that, the less time he had to worry about Ephraim.
Alma herself had barely left Ephraim’s side since his return. With help from the household staff, they’d carried Ephraim up to the master bedroom, where he’d resided ever since. Marron had set himself up in one of the guest bedrooms just down the hall, giving Ephraim the space he needed while he recovered from such a shock.
Part of him, however, suspected that would be where he’d remain. Cruel as the monster had been, it hadn’t been wrong: Marron had stepped into the gap Ephraim had left behind, and now that Ephraim was gone, Marron’s place-holding duties were at an end. Of course, Marron would likely still manage the Fletcher household — Ephraim had never had much of a head for those sorts of things, and to require him to do it would make him miserable — but to Marron’s mind, there was no question that his marriage was now effectively at an end. That had been the bargain it had been built upon, hadn’t it? That without Ephraim’s absence, Alma would never have found herself wedded to Marron, and Marron would never have found himself wedded at all. Now that Ephraim was back, that bargain was no longer necessary.
Marron threw himself into work so he did not have to think about these things. Eventually, he would be all right with it. Things would go back to the way they had been before. He had loved that and he missed it terribly. So it would be all right.
Midway through the second week of Ephraim’s return, Alma caught Marron in the hall and took his hand in hers. “Where are you going?” she asked.
“To bed,” he said, which was a half-truth. He would go to his bed, certainly, but he had every intention of staying awake reading until he could not keep his eyes open any longer, then falling asleep face-first in the papers detailing matters that he could pretend needed his urgent attention.
She sighed and glanced back toward the door to the bedroom that had once been his alone, and then had been his and Alma’s, and now was Alma’s and Ephraim’s. “You’re avoiding this.”
“I’m not avoiding anything,” said Marron, who was absolutely avoiding everything he could about the situation. “I’m giving him some space. Him and you both.”
Alma exhaled hard through her nose. “He doesn’t need space. He needs you.”
“He…” The words formed on Marron’s tongue, and it pained him to say them, but he could no longer pretend they weren’t true. “He doesn’t need me. Not really.”
Alma pressed her lips together in an angry line. “Are you listening to yourself?” she snapped, her voice no less intense for how she was nearly whispering. “Because if you are, that’s the only person you’re listening to right now.”
Marron opened his mouth, ready to say something about how everything was again back to the way it once had been, so they didn’t need to worry about him anymore. He didn’t make it through the first syllable, though, before the door to the bedroom creaked open. They stood there for a moment as it swung wide enough to admit a person — and then Ephraim stepped through, pale and wobbling on legs that were unreliable supports. He looked first down to the empty end of the hallway, then turned to where they stood, with a look of honest surprise to find them there. “Oh,” he said, then collapsed.
They were to his side in a flash, Marron more quickly only by the advantage of his height. He gathered up Ephraim in his arms as best he could, despite Ephraim’s awkward scramblings and promises that he was fine, he could manage. Alma bent down to help try to stand Ephraim to his feet — then stopped in their shared progress, her hands tightening around his arm. “Were you leaving?” she spat.
Marron then looked closely at Ephraim and realized that while both he and Alma were dressed as though on their way to bed, Ephraim was not. He was wearing heavy trousers and a shirt — both of which were Marron’s, meaning that their legs and sleeves were too long for his limbs. Once upon a time, they would also have been too narrow to close around Ephraim’s thicker figure, but Marron had filled out a bit in later adulthood, and the man that Ephraim remembered himself to be was diminished as well, making them a better fit than they otherwise might have been. Either way, he was not dressed as a man given to convalescence.
Ephraim sighed. “Just … going out, for a moment,” he managed, though the lie of it was audible in his voice.
“You! You both!” Alma smacked Ephraim lightly on his shoulder, then mirrored it with a much more forceful blow against Marron’s arm. “Help me get him back into bed. I am not having this conversation on the hallway floor.”
Marron complied, and with his and Alma’s support, Ephraim stood again. They stayed at either side all the way back to his bed, letting him settle into the middle. The bed was so wide, however, that both Alma and Marron wound up in it as well, stretched out beside Ephraim. With a pained expression, Ephraim turned on his side, with his back toward Alma and his face toward Marron.
Alma settled in behind him, stroking his hair away from his forehead. How did Marron mistake Ephraim for having come back the same? He had not aged, but he looked older nonetheless. “I love you,” she said, pressing her lips to Ephraim’s temple as she spoke, but looking at Marron. “I love you both. And I will tie you both to the bedposts, if I have to.”
Marron had no doubt she would, and from the guilty look that crept into his expression, neither did Ephraim.
“We don’t want you to go,” Alma said, wrapping an arm around Ephraim’s waist. “That is the last thing in the world we want you to do.”
Ephraim shut his eyes. “I–” He took a deep breath. “I know I don’t have a place here.”
“Yes you do!” Marron found himself answering, trying not to shout for the force of the sentiment. He lowered himself a bit more against the bed, until he was lying fully on his side, almost forehead-to-forehead with Ephraim. “Your place is here. It’s always been here, with us.”
Ephraim’s forehead wrinkled as though he were pained. Marron wondered how long it had seemed to him, trapped in that sphere, drawing himself back together from pieces, being unable to find them all. How many times had the monster tortured Ephraim with thoughts that he didn’t belong, that he had never belonged, that he had never been wanted — not by his father, not by his fiancee, not by his best friend? Marron had never thought those lies would continue to plague Ephraim even now, but why would they just disappear?
More than that, Marron felt ashamed of his selfishness. He had been so wrapped up in the worry of his own displacement that he had simply assumed that worry was his own. They had all been thrown out of their various orbits. Everyone needed to come home again.
So Marron took a deep breath. Before, Ephraim would have taken the lead on this, as he had taken the lead on everything about their lives, up to and even past the moment of his disappearance.Time had changed them all, though. What they had once had could never be retrieved; what came next was up to them.
“Mrs. Fletcher,” said Marron, his voice soft.
Alma gave him a sweet smile. “Yes, Mr. Fletcher?”
Marron brought up a hand and let his fingertips rest against Ephraim’s cheek. “May I kiss your fiance?”
Ephraim’s blue eyes widened with surprise even as Alma laughed, her voice a silver bell. “You have my permission and my encouragement,” she said.
Once, Alma had come to him in this very bed and convinced Marron that he was wanted, that he was loved, not for who or what he could pretend to be, but for himself. He could have doubted every word she said, but he could never have doubted the way her body felt against his. It was a lesson Marron had never forgotten. Now it was his turn to teach. He leaned forward and pressed his mouth to Ephraim’s.
Ephraim met the kiss with caution, but Marron could feel him leaning into the touch. Marron kissed him tenderly, trying to find the middle ground to hold Ephraim so he didn’t feel trapped, but at the same time knew Marron didn’t want to let him go. How long had Marron thought about this, imagined what it would be like to kiss Ephraim? How many times in this very bed had he asked Alma to tell him about it? But imagination could not hold a candle to reality.
When Marron pulled back from the long, slow kiss, he realized Ephraim was shaking a little, even as Alma held him tight. Marron touched their foreheads together and closed his eyes. “I have wanted you since I knew what it was to want someone,” Marron said, his tone gentle but firm, letting there be no mistaking his sincerity. “As long as I have been able to love, I have loved you. The years have changed many things, but they haven’t changed that.”
“I can’t–” Ephraim swallowed. “I can’t ask this of you.”
“You didn’t ask it! No one’s asking anything. We are agreed,” said Marron, looking over Ephraim to where Alma lay, smiling. Even though they had not spoken on the matter, he knew this piece of her heart as well as he knew his own. “Your place is here.”
“As is yours,” Alma said, reaching to take Marron’s hand.
Caught by her honesty, Marron had to at last admit that he had been listening to his own fears while ignoring the reassurances right in front of him. No, she wasn’t going to leave him for Ephraim, any more than she had left Ephraim for him. She loved them both, not in the same way, but with the same intensity. All the self-pity in the world could not change an inch of that.
“As is mine,” Marron agreed after a moment. “Ours.”
The way the bright sparks of himself had filled the absence in Ephraim’s chest, that was the way he filled the space between Marron and Alma now. He had been there all along. He was the reason for everything they had together. Marron had not taken his place, nor could Ephraim now take Marron’s. They were not mere interchangeable substitutes for one another; they were each a part of what they had always been.
Marron leaned in to kiss Ephraim again, pulling him close by pulling Alma close. She curled up against Ephraim’s back, nuzzling his neck as Marron kissed his mouth again. This time Ephraim reached for Marron and put a hand on his hip with almost grateful intensity. He held on to Marron as though Marron were the only steady point in a storm. In a way, that was what Marron had always been to Ephraim. Now, Marron would not let him get washed away.
Too many nights now, Marron had thought of how much of Ephraim’s existence over the past decades had been nothing but pain. He had been trapped in a place where his feelings of hurt and fear were exploited. Marron wanted to make him feel good again.
He reached for Alma’s hand where it lay draped over Ephraim’s waist and gave it a quick squeeze, then joined their hands together, fingers twined. Marron then led their joined hands down past the loose waistband of Ephraim’s pants, where he was delighted to find Ephraim already hard. Marron smiled into the kiss as his and Alma’s clasped hands took hold of Ephraim’s cock between them.
Ephraim gasped, breaking from the kiss just to get enough air into his lungs. “No, you don’t–” he sputtered, though it was perfectly clear to Marron’s ears that this was a protest because Ephraim thought they shouldn’t, not because he didn’t want it. Of course he wanted to belong, to love and to feel loved. He had merely forgotten how to allow those things.
Over Ephraim’s shoulder, Marron could see Alma smirk. He loved seeing her like this, keyed high with arousal and delight. She let go of Marron’s hand, indicating with a firm tap that he should remain where he was, then let her hand slip lower, until she had both of Ephraim’s balls in her hand. That touch seemed to make Ephraim shiver, which in turn made Alma smile. Marron supposed she was indeed the expert on what got the best reactions from Ephraim. He could hardly wait to see all of them, and so close.
For his own part, Marron set about the business of learning Marron’s cock by touch. It was the first of someone else’s he’d ever touched, and he found himself mesmerized with how alike and yet different from his own it felt. Ephraim’s places were different places; how Ephraim liked to be touched was different from how Marron himself liked to be touched. “How do you feel?” asked Marron, nuzzling Ephraim’s lips.
Ephraim’s answer was a cross between a choked gasp and a low groan, which Marron took as a positive sign. Alma seemed to as well, smiling as she pressed closer to Ephraim. “He’s so beautiful like this,” she said to Marron, nuzzling Ephraim’s ear with her lips as she spoke. “I always wanted to show you.” That got a curious noise out of Ephraim, which made both Marron and Alma chuckle. “Yes, we talked about you,” Alma said to Ephraim. “We talked a lot about you.”
“We did,” Marron said as he tightened his hand around Ephraim’s shaft, stroking with greater intensity. “You were never far from our minds.”
“Or our other parts,” Alma said, giving Ephraim another squeeze. “Do you want to see me ride him? To hold me as I make love to him? To have your hands on him as he’s inside of me?”
Despite what Marron might have expected, Ephraim’s answering nod wasn’t just a desperate one — it was an enthusiastic one, as though she’d hit upon an idea Ephraim had been thinking about for some time. The idea of watching his fiancee with someone else had been torture when he’d been afraid such a thing would mean being left behind. Now that Ephraim was returning to himself, though, Marron could at last understand the smile he’d seen on Ephraim’s face the day he’d come upon Alma and Marron clasping hands while picnicking together. If Ephraim loved them each so well separately, what could be better than to see them love each other as well — especially when he was guaranteed a spot between them?
But Marron had to make sure that it was clear this wasn’t only Alma’s idea. “I want you to touch me,” he told Ephraim, sincere for all his sheepishness. He’d never been good at making sexy conversation, but Alma had always promised him that he was far better than he thought. All he had to do was say honestly what he was thinking. “I want you to take me like I saw you with her. I’ve thought about you like that for so long, having you on top of me. Having your mouth on me. Not watching from the darkness, but being there beside you on the bed while you touched her. I wanted to be there. I wanted to be right here.”
To punctuate his words, Marron leaned in and kissed Ephraim once again, then lifted his face to meet Alma’s mouth with his own. He could feel Ephraim’s cock jump in his hand as he did, twitching with arousal. “Oh,” Ephraim gasped, leaning into Marron’s touch. “Yes, please, yes–” He came then, right into Marron’s hand, shaking and thrusting his hips as though his body had all but left his own control. Perhaps indeed it had — and for Ephraim, that was all right. His two favorite people had him. He could let go and be safe.
When Ephraim at last exhaled, he pitched forward against Marron’s chest with a sob that startled Marron. Alma, however, looked as though she’d expected this all along. “There you are,” she murmured against his ear, pressing close. “We’ve got you. It’s all right.”
“We’ve got you,” Marron promised as well, which seemed a curious thing to say with a hand down someone else’s pants, covered in his jism. Then again, perhaps that was the perfect place for it. The monster had spent so long lying to Ephraim with words that he needed something more for true reassurance. From the way Ephraim sighed as he nestled between them, Marron supposed they had found just the thing.
He didn’t imagine it would be easy, of course. They had so much still to cover between them, years and changes and injuries that would not disappear just because they were back together again. But they were back together again, and that was the first step in facing whatever would come. They could be each other’s strength, as they’d been before.
“Welcome home,” Alma whispered, and just like that, it was so.