written and illustrated by Iron Eater
Aubrey and the house on Kettle Street had something of an understanding between them, namely that he would keep it clean and tidy, while it in turn would remain a home. The maintenance of a mechanical dwelling was a subtle thing, starting firstly with accepting that it was the sort of architecture which, while hardly sapient, could still be said to have a mind of its own. On the outside they looked like any other part of the city, but within each frontage of brick and ironwork lay countless hidden elements, passages, and abstract apparatuses, all overseen by a sort of intuitive animal cunning that more typical edifices lacked. They did not have to be houses. Daylight never touched their facades nor their interiors; the night city was not called such because of an abundance of sun. Whether the things that roamed its tenebrous, twisting streets understood the complexities of the homes ’round which they cried and wailed was not a question worth asking. A more proper query would be who would possess such acumen, and for what purpose they might open those locks that scoffed at such mundanities as keys.
It was in this context that Aubrey tended to the house. He swept its floors and dusted its shelves with patient fervor; as the house was just as deep within the night city as its neighbors, its moody ambiance meant that the wallpaper needed regular cleansing of the soot from the long-burning lamps, the many fireplaces in equally constant need of fresh wood or disposal of their cinders. These lights could flicker strangely across the dim rooms in ways that might fool the eye about the nature of the space it beheld. At times shadows twisted in the far hallways even while no natural thing was there to cast them. Aubrey paid neither phenomenon any mind. He and the house had long since established their truce, this being a necessity for anyone who made their home in such a place, and so as long as he checked the seals and sigils twice daily he went unperturbed by the horrors outside. There truly was no finer fortress for a man of his station.
Evening meals were an affair that often kept Aubrey tethered to the kitchen for some time—any cook worth his salt knew the dangers of leaving a pot a-boil or an oven unattended while still searingly hot—and so that evening found him polishing the table settings as that day’s soup simmered away. It was one of many chores his hands knew by touch alone. Silver was important to have on hand for reasons both mystical and practical; its lunar association easily brought balance to the body’s humours, tempering passion with contemplation, while a full silver service looked quite smart upon the table without giving a foully metallic taste to things drunk or eaten from it. Clarity of mind, clarity of stomach: a proper gentleman’s gentleman knew to respect such efficiency. Aubrey had lived the whole of his life in pursuit of propriety in all things, a goal he approached with the most exacting of standards, and so the household ate on silver and finest porcelain for all but the simplest meals. Anything less would have been inefficient.
No one else was in the house at that time of day. Day was perhaps not the right word, as without the sun the passage of time was tracked by methods most arbitrary, but modern society was nothing if not in need of arbitration; the tall pendulum clock in the parlor was far more an anchor to the other side of town than the phases of the traitorous moon above ever would be. Even were it still an earlier hour Aubrey would have found himself alone, the master of the house (for certain definitions of the phrase) being out seeing to the day’s business, and as usual Aubrey chose to use the solitude to see to his nigh upon endless series of tasks.
Once the silver was polished, the table would be set. Once the table was set, it might be time for dinner to be served. Once dinner had been eaten, the dishes and kitchen alike would need cleaning. Once the meal’s last remnant had been washed away, he would likely have tailoring work to do, and that was assuming there were no rituals he needed to oversee. On and on it went, a steady parade of necessary deeds all feeding one into another like dovetail joints, and even with the extra hours afforded him by his uncanny wakefulness there was scarcely a quiet moment between them. It was a wonder he ever had time for his research. Some persons in his profession might have balked at the workload, but not Aubrey; like certain pelagic fish, it was as though his very life required him to remain in motion, and unlike his peers he refused to compromise the impression he might make on any visitor who might come a-calling at any point during this process. It was in crisply-laundered butler’s livery—his hair always arranged in one of the latest fashions—that he handled every ounce of housework. He refused to settle for even half a whisker’s worth of laxity.
A floorboard creaked behind him; this sort of sound occurred not infrequently, given the whims of the house, and so it was not until a soft chuckle came from that same direction did he turn to see what might have caused the disturbance. He kept the polishing rag in one hand and held it, casually, against the half-bright table knife his opposite hand clutched. Silver was a fine thing to have around for many reasons, indeed.
A tall, caliginous figure stood in the kitchen doorway, dressed something like a highwayman, though no road-stalker carried a blade like the one at the figure’s hip, nor had they access to the strange tools tucked crossways into their belt like a pair of pistols. A battered riding cape draped down about the figure’s shoulders, blending with the rest of their clothes into an uncertain silhouette that wavered like the air before a fire. It was difficult for the eye to stay fixed upon that shape for long, sliding away as though suddenly tired from too many hours spent hunched over a delicate task; even during brief moments of focus there was an uncertainty to where exactly they ended and the darkness around them began. Not even the gaslights to either side of the figure could do much to illuminate their greatcoat-clad form. It was as if the shadows had disgorged a smaller piece of themselves. One boot still stood deliberately pressed against the floorboard that had cried out; unlike the hallway phantoms Aubrey so often ignored, this visitor was very much corporeal.
“Dear me, it seems something dreadful has gotten in,” said the figure in a sing-song masculine voice that carried a nobleman’s accent.
“One might indeed say as much,” said Aubrey. He kept his hand on the knife.
“It’s a fine night indeed for dreadful things. Am I correct in assuming the table shall be set once the silver is polished, Mr. Ward?”
“Of course, Mr. Wainwright.”
“How lovely. It seems I’ve quite the appetite at this hour.” The aforementioned Mr. Wainwright chuckled to himself as he took a step forward. It was a light, airy sound, like a man delighted by a clever scene in a play, and it made the darkness draped around him ripple like light reflecting through some half-flooded grotto. This time the floorboards did not make so much as a sound. One might suspect he was flaunting how furtive he could be if only he wished it.
Aubrey did not let his attention sway nor his stance falter. Mr. Wainwright took another step towards him and let the mantle of borrowed shadows tear away from their moorings like lengths of crepe. The kitchen lights revealed a gleam of gold at the level of his eyes, still half-concealed by his hat, and that gleam was echoed by those of countless little charms affixed to his garb. Aubrey was not a small man—nor a large one, to be fair, but still hardly small—and yet Mr. Wainwright loomed over him by easily half a head, every movement the liquid-muscled prowl of a predator. The way he carried himself was as though all he had to do was straighten his back to brush the plume in his hat against the rafters.
Leaving his shroud of occlusion behind revealed more than Mr. Wainwright’s aristocratic profile alone. The space all around his mouth and jaw was slick with scarlet, as was the exposed skin of his throat, and his cravat and the clothes across his breast were similarly gore-darkened; it was all too severe a mess to have easily been caused by teeth as small and neat as his, and yet there it was, the remnants of some great gruesome feast framing a mild smile. A drop of red beaded at his chin and fell to the floorboards with a soft, liquid impact. By the time he took another step the little spatter had already begun to soak into the wood; by the time he stood within arm’s reach of Aubrey it had nearly vanished as though it was nothing more than a raindrop against dry earth. This, too, was simply another reality of living in a mechanical house. Many things in the night city thirsted.
“Hunting was very good today,” said Mr. Wainwright, still smiling. “It’s left me in a fine mood, and I should very much enjoy your company, if you should give me the pleasure.”
The knife remained in Aubrey’s hand, angled just so; he was not a man skilled in violence, but this was not the first time he had stared down a creature such as Mr. Wainwright, and he had long since learned the value of a quick diversion when making an escape. His face remained calm throughout. It was not the nature of a proper valet to betray their feelings while seeing to a necessary task, after all, and occurrences such as this were indeed such a task. His voice was even as he spoke: “Whyever might I not, Mr. Wainwright?”
“Haven’t you heard? My kind are said to be notorious maneaters.”
“Am I at risk of being devoured, then?” asked Aubrey.
Mr. Wainwright grinned, the lamplight catching the sanguine film that clung to his teeth. “Only temporarily.”
One corner of Aubrey’s mouth curled upwards, changing his expression in the subtlest of ways. “Then I suspect I shall enjoy that very much.”
“A mutual suspicion, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright. His gory grin turned sly. “Though I would prefer if you would do something with the little blade you’re hiding, first. I rather dislike having weapons pointed at me, no matter the company, as it seems I’ve something of a distaste for being stabbed.”
Aubrey nodded in approval. “Very good, Mr. Wainwright,” he said. Hunters needed surprises in their lives to keep their cunning at its keenest. He placed the knife back on the table with its fellows and looked Mr. Wainwright in the eye; the glint made this easy to do even with Mr. Wainwright’s hat still angled as it was. “For the sake of our dinners I would prefer to stay near the kitchen. Will that be a problem?”
“Not in the slightest, Mr. Ward.”
“Very good.” Aubrey removed and folded his spotless white gloves and placed them on the table next to the silver service. He cracked his knuckles. Mr. Wainwright, emboldened, took another step forward, and then another still, but before he could wholly close the distance between them Aubrey stopped him with a fingertip pressed firmly against the forehead. “Not yet,” said Aubrey, and while Mr. Wainwright’s grin faltered with impatience (becoming simply an eager, hungry smile) he remained still as a statue. “First you must tell me if you’ve any injuries in need of attention. I shall be quite cross if your post-hunting examination reveals you were keeping anything from me in your enthusiasm. As your physician, I recommend being forthright on the matter.” It was a speech upon which he gave some variation most any day Mr. Wainwright returned from the hunt. Even individuals as durable as hunters of the society were only human at day’s end.
Mr. Wainwright didn’t move a muscle. “Almost none of this is mine today,” he said, not breaking the look between them. “I fear my garb may need a spot of mending along with the usual wash, but your only stitches this evening will be across cloth, not skin.”
“And you’re certain you haven’t spoiled your appetite?”
“Oh no, Mr. Ward, I would never.” He glanced askance as his features softened further into something less ravening. “Knowledge of the bounty awaiting me at home keeps me from gorging while I am out, for I would far rather meet the fate of my own prey than cause you even a moment’s disappointment.”
“I am pleased to hear so, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey, and if he meant this with anything less than perfect sincerity, his voice did not betray it.
Now that Mr. Wainwright was no longer held in Aubrey’s gaze he relaxed out of his jägermeister’s persona. He was not diminished by this, losing neither mass nor the sense of unearthly prowess that fell about his person like the air before a storm, but he no longer held himself in the manner of a beast about to strike, nor did his hands seem quite so itching to reach for his sword or hunting tools. When Aubrey took his finger away from Mr. Wainwright’s forehead, it took but another glance between them for Mr. Wainwright to settle to his knees on the now-bloodless floorboards at Aubrey’s feet. He placed his hands on his knees and looked up again with adoring ferocity. The coppery smell rising from him was thick enough to cut through the gentler scent of the soup in the kitchen as it cooked ever closer to completion. To a typical city-dweller it might have been unbearably ghastly, like stepping into an abattoir unawares, but between both men’s professions it was nothing either had encountered before. If Aubrey’s breath came a little faster upon taking it in, surely it was simply out of relief that Mr. Wainwright was well.
Aubrey lifted Mr. Wainwright’s hat off of his head and placed it on the table next to the folded pair of gloves. This revealed the actual color of his eyes—which, when not reflecting the light like a great, hellish cat’s, were a deep maroon—and a neatly-kept head of brown hair arranged in waves and curls. It also revealed further blood spattering, though as none of Mr. Wainwright’s hair was matted in the tell-tale manner of a head injury it matched his claims of belonging to someone else. Given how he usually didn’t begore himself so high up into the whiskers he kept along his jawline, his prey that evening must have been either particularly toothsome or particularly gruesome, or perhaps some amount of both. Mr. Wainwright had fostered quite the knack for rarely doing things by halves.
“Before we proceed further, I would prefer to check if anything is amiss,” said Aubrey. “It would be a shame were either of us inconvenienced due to a lapse of vigilance.”
Mr. Wainwright gave a simple nod. “Yes, of course. You are my physician, after all.”
Aubrey placed the fingers of his left hand against Mr. Wainwright’s chin and jaw, gently tilting them upwards until the angle proved satisfactory. He then pressed his right thumb between Mr. Wainwright’s lips, hooked it against the inside of his cheek, and pulled outwards with modest force, the motion coaxing open Mr. Wainwright’s jaw until he was left gaping like a fish caught upon an angler’s hook. He did not make any sound other than a soft, happy gasp when first seized. Mr. Wainwright allowed the inside of his mouth to be studied with great patience and calm, his eyes heavy-lidded with desire the whole while, and to his credit he didn’t press his tongue suggestively against Aubrey’s thumb more than a scant few times. He didn’t so much as flinch when the manhandling sparked his mouth to watering, causing the floor to once again be dribbled with swift-vanishing drops of rosy saliva from his lips. Only when Aubrey released him did he speak. “Am I all in order today, Mr. Ward?”
“No more than the expected number of teeth, and no other forms of anatomy roaming into locations they usually are not.” Aubrey studied the bruised hollows under Mr. Wainwright’s eyes and the maggot-pale hue of his complexion in those places the blood had not stained. “I dare say you are the very picture of health for a gentleman of your condition.”
“Said condition being freshly ichorous?” asked Mr. Wainwright, straight-faced.
“I consider that an added perquisite to your overall good well-being.”
His smile returned, bright and coquettish, as did the sparkle in his eye. “You are fond of a touch of scarlet, after all. Who better to play the role of red-breast than a fellow with Robin as his name?”
“One with that as his given name rather than tucked in the middle,” said Aubrey, though as dry as his words were he could not completely keep from wearing a fond look of his own. He steepled his fingers. “It seems my hands are a touch begrimed and I’d rather not sully my trousers with careless thumbprints. If you would be so kind, Mr. Wainwright?”
This was all the encouragement Mr. Wainwright needed to fall upon Aubrey’s trouser buttons in a flash, his hunting gloves no obstacle as he unfastened each one with familiar ease, and soon the fasteners of Aubrey’s drawers found themselves equally undone. Once having overcome the tyranny of the buttons Mr. Wainwright reverently pulled each layer of fabric to the side to reveal Aubrey’s length beneath them; Aubrey was already well quickened by then, and any flagging in his stand was banished by Mr. Wainwright’s touch as he eased Aubrey the rest of the way into the lamplight, taking care that nothing was troubled by the way those trouser-fronts fell. He handled Aubrey like a connoisseur might a piece of fine art. Neither touched anything else they were wearing; there was no need to.
“I’m pleased to see you as well, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright as he sized up Aubrey with a look no less wolfish than before. He chuckled to himself and ran his tongue along the edge of his teeth. Warm breath, sultry and tinged with the remnants of his kill, played against the underside of Aubrey’s shaft, and Mr. Wainwright leaned in close enough that a mere hair’s breadth was all that separated his lips from that expanse of intimate skin. He lingered there, holding himself with perfect poise and no shortage of self-discipline, and looked up to Aubrey once more. When their eyes met a wordless question passed between them, which Aubrey answered with a nod. Mr. Wainwright left a kiss against Aubrey’s exposed skin in response, the resulting lip-print dark and grisly against the pale flesh it bedighted; he then placed one hand on either of Aubrey’s fabric-clad hips and threw himself into exercising a skill of his that, while having little place in the midst of a chase, was one which he had honed with equal passion to any of his pursuing arts.
The ease with which Mr. Wainwright could go from little more than a tease of the tip to having his face buried in the lap of an obliging party was not something that the society’s dossier on him mentioned (though it did, in a roundabout way, at least touch on his proclivities, mostly in the event something went on a rampage through the docks and likely candidates needed naming), but those things it did deem proper to catalog all reflected his gentleman’s knowledge. He was known to be deft, and so his tongue reflected that dexterity as it danced and lapped all along Aubrey’s length. He was known to be cunning, and so he had long since learned the many ways Aubrey enjoyed being tasted, pairing these ways with how forcefully to move his head or how soft to make his mouth. He was known to be hardy, and so he never hinted at tiring however long it took for him to bestow his gift upon Aubrey’s person, no matter how weary he returned from the hunt or how long he had waited on his knees. He was known to be strong, and so he was able to contain that great strength, needing but a simple touch of Aubrey’s hand to make him pull away and await a new command. Mr. Wainwright only rarely needed his strength.
While Mr. Wainwright would, if asked, readily claim he needed nothing from an intimate partner than their presence, Aubrey—who had been the exclusive player of that role for some years—made a habit of exceeding those low expectations.
Firstly he wiped off his hands in Mr. Wainwright’s hair, which was scarcely enough to properly clean them but at least cured them of being slick enough to shine in the light; it was not as though there wasn’t already dried gore there itself in need of washing. The action sometimes meant more than the result. Once this was done he lay one palm against the back of Mr. Wainwright’s head in guidance and rested his other against the six-fingered glove clasping his hip. Upon entering this half embrace he did not leave himself a stone: he permitted himself the odd bit of movement in reaction to Mr. Wainwright’s ministrations, these occasional brief gyrations peppered with sighs and hums and other little sounds of approval, and at times Aubrey would stroke Mr. Wainwright’s hair or fondly run his thumb against Mr. Wainwright’s own. There was no urgency in either of their actions. With the soup still some minutes out from cooking through, there didn’t need to be.
Paced or not, Mr. Wainwright knew full well what he was doing and Aubrey was only human; all too soon after they had begun Aubrey further tightened his grip on Mr. Wainwright’s hair and made a soft groaning sound that might have been mistaken for a cry of pain by someone not so familiar with his vocalizations. Mr. Wainwright, a keen audience of such noises, sat obediently until Aubrey was finished with him, and when Aubrey pulled himself away Mr. Wainwright made a great show of swallowing, and lip-licking, and similar things. This was very heavily theater. The way he settled back against his heels and sighed with contentment, however, was less so.
“As always, Mr. Ward,” he said, his voice husky, “if you’ve any other requests of me, I am pleased to be of service.”
Aubrey gave him a pat on the head. “You’re thoughtful to ask,” he replied. He gestured at his softening length, now smeared alarmingly pink with traces of fiendish feeding. “As you can see, Mr. Wainwright, you’ve shared a bit of your hunt with me. I shan’t be tucking myself away in such a state. Clean me up, if you’d be so kind, and do be careful about it.”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
A typical tryst did not require this step, but a typical tryst was at far less risk of leaving secondhand bloodstains in unfortunate places; Aubrey, while a veteran of the laundry tub, had too much to do to spend time on avoidable scrubbing, and so Mr. Wainwright had happily volunteered to preserve the tidiness of Aubrey’s drawers in the interest of efficiency. He sipped at the cup of water Aubrey poured for him and swished it about his mouth to further dilute the color still lingering there, and once Aubrey approved of the state of things Mr. Wainwright set to licking away every little blemish he’d left behind. Neither of them mentioned how this meticulosity soon had brought Aubrey’s length back to full attention. If Mr. Wainwright took extra care in certain spots, or brushed a cleared patch of shaft with a bloodied cheek to render it in need of cleansing once more, surely it was simply a result of the lingering nerves any hunter might feel after returning from the field.
The last trace he erased was the lip-print at Aubrey’s hip; he left another, cleaner kiss in its wake before settling back to await further instruction. He looked disappointed as Aubrey returned each fastener to its proper place. “Such a shame to put it away when there’s clearly still powder-shot in the chamber,” said Mr. Wainwright. His eyes kept flicking from Aubrey’s face to the straining fabric Aubrey now wore. “You really oughtn’t store such dangerous things still loaded, Mr. Ward. I regret not being a better example.”
“You are example enough, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey. He gestured and Mr. Wainwright rose to his feet, once more towering over Aubrey. What menace tried to settle back onto Mr. Wainwright’s caped frame was cut by the way he startled at Aubrey’s hand striking out like a snake to grasp at his own hidden part; while he had yet to see to his own needs Mr. Wainwright had clearly taken no small amount of joy from leading Aubrey to bliss. A peaceful heart brings cunning hands, said the little sampler on the wall of Aubrey’s quarters. Surely his heart was as serene as could be given the clever way he gripped just so at Mr. Wainwright’s own trousers, his fingers kneading at the distended fabric mercilessly. Mr. Wainwright whined happily. “After all,” Aubrey growled in his ear as he shuddered, “you’ve oft mentioned the difference between storing a weapon and simply waiting for the proper time to fire it.”
“Perhaps I’m a better instructor than I thought….”
“Perhaps you are, indeed.” Aubrey gave Mr. Wainwright another fearsome squeeze before releasing him and giving him a little pat on the shoulder. “Now wash up for dinner, please. You shall have a kiss when the task is done.”
“You spoil me, Mr. Ward!” said Mr. Wainwright, beaming like the sun the house never saw, and with that he dissolved back into the shadows in the direction of the upstairs washroom.
In the end it turned out to be a mild, pleasant soup, and in spite of Aubrey’s endless chores there was time enough to enjoy it, and each other, until Mr. Wainwright could no longer complain of careless storage of firearms at all.
In a certain social club, in a certain undisclosed location, a certain group had met. Among these were persons of peculiar skills, their shared knowledge signified by a silver ring worn about the smallest finger of the left hand, and while each might define their profession slightly differently, they were united by a common task: their secretive society kept creatures of rare and abstract shapes, and these fellows were those fell creatures’ handlers. Not all of their number were in attendance—this would be quite impossible, for they lived in more than just the one city—but those who were there included some of their finest among their ranks, and it was in this particular company that Aubrey sipped at a cup of imported tea and listened to his compeers discuss the business of the day.
“The first, second, and fifth districts of the city have seen a marked improvement in stability,” said Reeds, who was fond of statistics. She never failed to bring in sheaves of annotated records when it was her turn to report. “The second is most significant, as it has never been terribly reliable; something about the place makes it difficult for our hunters to patrol. Or did, at any rate. Every specialist I’ve spoken with over the past months has claimed the borders between its sides have become remarkably sturdy. Other sources of mine tell me there has been a simultaneous dip in unsolved murders and missing persons in the area.”
“Fewer people getting eaten, no doubt,” said someone.
“Are you certain?” said someone else. “If you’ve read Coralton’s Weft of Suffering, they posit that it’s the other way ’round, where decreasing tragedies on this side of things make it less likely for cracks to form in reality.”
“Which still means fewer people ending up places they’ll get eaten.”
Reeds cleared her throat. “We can discuss the theory later, but at this time I believe we all agree that this is a promising development, do we not?” A round of muted affirmations rippled through the club room. She waited for them to ebb before continuing. “I’ve prepared a chart of which hunters have been assigned to which districts, and when, and the results are intriguing. Please try not to fold these, my scrivener spent ages making enough copies for everyone.” The aforementioned scrivener had been a clerk for one of the city’s counting-houses before her initiation, and had thus far been the only person who could keep up with Reeds’ insatiable need for paperwork. The society always found use for people within its great work no matter how humble their skills.
The chart itself involved lists of hunters and districts, as Reeds had said, with each hunter’s visits to each district neatly dated; the district numbers matched those of the large city map she’d set up on an easel at the front of the room. Reeds tapped each district with a pointer as she spoke. “As you can see, any area that borders Waxworker’s Lane has become something of a hotspot for assignments, with equally significant reduction in reactive measures….”
It took Reeds a while to fully explain her findings. Most of the hunters who were dispatched to the districts in question had no handlers save for the maesters—strictly speaking, society maesters were everyone’s handlers, as it was their quills that guided the great work from on high—but a scant few were minded by more direct intervention, and a few outlier cases saw handled individuals who weren’t technically registered for hunting contributing to keeping the city’s selves in balance. There was also a separate entry on the list: an entire column simply marked “Wainwright.” Reeds had touched on this lightly, as it was the only column dedicated to a single party, but it was ultimately left as a footnote to her findings at large. Mr. Wainwright’s habits were long since old news by then.
Reeds was also keen to discuss the various public works being done in each district, be they services for the misfortunate, repairs to the city’s decaying groundwork, or simply more effort put into hauling refuse; it was still unclear whether these acts were what strengthened the city’s division from its stranger self or if they were made more possible because of that strength, though even the least civic-minded among their number found it hard to be upset with the ever-busy streets becoming slightly less disgusting.
After a bit more debate that ultimately went nowhere, Reeds gathered up her papers and made to step down. “I believe it’s time for us to move to our next topic,” she said. “Mr. Ward, if you’d be so kind?”
Aubrey (who had remained silent for most of the presentation) nodded, finished his tea, and refilled his cup before speaking. “The ongoing trouble with the Leland estate has been seen to,” he said. Unlike Reeds he had no charts or papers to which he might refer, and so he kept in his seat. “While the estate caused us no small trouble, Mr. Leland’s recent demise has left his heirs far more agreeable, especially upon learning their patriarch was involved in smuggling. We have been able to recover the contraband in his possession without further incident. His actual crimes have been made a matter of record, of course.”
“What became of the late Mr. Leland, anyway?” asked Owsler, the least senior of those assembled; this still meant he had more than a decade of experience to his name. “The broadsheets say it was illness, but that devil never seemed less than in perfect health the few times I had the displeasure of his company.”
Aubrey removed his spectacles, polished the lenses, and replaced them. “He’s been inconvenienced,” he replied, with nary a quirk of the lip.
“Come now, Mr. Ward,” said someone. “Surely our ears won’t be scandalized to hear more detail.”
“The lady of the house regularly made use of belladonna to widen her eyes. It would seem there was a tragic error in the most recent delivery and they were mistaken for an order of bilberries, which ended up in a pie served for the late Mr. Leland’s birthday. We are fortunate no one else fell ill.” Aubrey sipped his cup. “Quite the tragedy.”
“Hrm, yes,” said Owsler. “I’d heard he’d signed a confession…?”
“Had he done so, the whole Leland family would have been in shambles,” said Aubrey. “It’s a curious coincidence that the instant his successors agreed to work with us, no such document could be found. Certainly just a rumor inspired by the previous excitement in his household.” He adjusted his spectacles. For a moment, the gleam of the lamps concealed the gray of his eyes. “Of course, if it were to surface later, admission of wrongdoing could still easily unmake the lot of them, but I’m sure it won’t be a problem. Especially if they’re wise enough to mind our advice.”
Llewellyn, an ex-courier, chuckled. “It’s always best to have plenty of wisdom when there’s Wards around, lest all manner of nasties from the past come scurrying after,” they said, and while their tone was jovial it carried no disrespect. Aubrey had built a reputation for himself during his years of service; any handler esteemed enough to be in that room knew of it, and they tended to give him a wide berth outside of formal business.
“About damned time that nonsense has finally been sorted out, at any rate,” continued Owsler. “What was it that filled his coffers, anyway? Artifacts? Secrets?”
“I heard something of it,” said Llewellyn. “They say he was found to have been embezzling something most dreadful, and the proof was found to be a web of things so subtle they only made a whole picture when viewed from afar. Of course, that’s not the only thing you won’t read in the papers, isn’t it, Mr. Ward?”
Aubrey nodded. “He’d come into possession of a piece of beast-bone and was beginning to experiment with how one might apply it creatively.”
Llewellyn made an amused noise up in the top of their throat. “I can’t imagine you were pleased to hear that in the slightest.”
“No. No, I was not. I have yet to identify to whom the bone belonged,” said Aubrey, and those who knew him well might have been able to spot the flourish of regret swirling through his taciturn words. “The professor has been assisting me as best he can, but his books of ritual can only help so much. We’ve yet to even determine how old it is. I shall send word once we’ve made any progress, especially if we can determine whether there are more remains that need confiscation. A proper funeral is likely quite some weeks away.”
“You’re very kindhearted for a man of your skills, Mr. Ward,” said Owsler.
“Our charges are not disposable, whether paired with handlers or no,” Aubrey replied. “We must never forget we are dealing with other human beings.”
As little else at the meeting was of concern to Aubrey, he spent much of the remaining reports focused on his needlework. Being in charge of an entire household, to say nothing of the fearsome beast that dwelled there, meant there were always things that needed making or mending, and he’d only achieved what success he had in life through careful use of his time. The other handlers had long grown used to the sight of his sewing basket tucked up next to his seat; once he’d made it clear that he was perfectly capable of absorbing what was being said around him while double-stitching a seam, no one gave it any mind.
Almost no one, that is. “What’s that you’re sewing, there?” asked Llewellyn, still wearing their cheeky expression from before, though they did at least seem genuinely interested; Llewellyn’s eye for artifacts meant they could easily spot any sigils Aubrey might be embroidering into something. They’d drifted over once the meeting had relaxed into socialization. Aubrey tended to stay put during such times.
Aubrey tied off the thread and flipped the bit of cloth open, revealing it to be nothing more than a mundane garment. “A headsquare for bed. I run through them faster than I’d like, but the professor drools heavily in his sleep, and I rather dislike waking up with damp hair.” He passed it over to Llewellyn for inspection and reclaimed his teacup from the side-table. Handlers’ meetings served more than just pekoe, fruits, and little sandwiches, but only rarely did Aubrey partake in more than these. The carriage ride home was best not taken on a full stomach.
Owsler, who had detached from his previous conversation, peered at the headsquare as Llewellyn held it up to the light. “Whyever would it be…oh. Oh, my, I see.” He turned a bright pink as his face reflected the mental connections he was making. “You are, ah, close with your charge, then?”
“So close they share feasts and holidays. Our Mr. Ward has always been a touch eccentric,” said Llewellyn, cheerily. “Good thing, too, as I can’t imagine a more conservative temperament having the elasticity to handle a hunter like Professor Wainwright. What’s the fellow’s actual rank, again? Grand harrier? High-hound?”
Aubrey sipped at his tea. “Jägermeister,” he replied, and his cup concealed any expression he might have paired with the word.
“Ward, dear fellow, they say that’s a death sentence,” said Owsler. “In the whole of my apprenticeship I never so much as saw a hunter more than a few seasons blooded. How on earth are you able to keep one of those in check while remaining in one piece?”
Llewellyn laughed like a crow that had learned a secret. They seemed to be having a fine time of speaking in Aubrey’s stead, and so he let them, especially since they chose that time to return the half-sewn cloth to him. “Haven’t you heard?” they said. “Mr. Ward has adopted a strict philosophy of not dying when his passing might be convenient to others. The maesters have been trying to get rid of him since he was first initiated and he simply refuses to do as they wish, all while taking great pains to do as they say. The man shall live forever if it’s grinding someone’s guts he does so.”
“That’s a fine trick if he’s found companionship with the professor.” Owsler frowned. “Aren’t creatures known to steal the breath from a fellow’s lungs? Seems like it’d make affections perilous.” He and Llewellyn both regarded Aubrey with curiosity.
“I cannot say whether or not it’s impossible, save that despite numerous opportunities and no lack of ability on his part, the professor has thus far neglected to pull my soul from me. Should this ever change, I suspect you will learn of it one way or another.”
Peckham, a veteran of the society who had worn the ring even longer than Aubrey had, appeared from one of the side rooms, carrying a tart on one of the pretty little plates the club used for meetings such as theirs. “There’s too much merriment in here,” she said, mildly. “Mx. Llewellyn, do leave Mr. Owsler alone. You know he’s still learning the subtleties of our group, and that includes who shares whose, and what’s, bed.”
“You’re as fun as a bilestone,” said Llewellyn, still smiling.
“Please, there’s no need to insult bilestones in that way.” Peckham took a seat in an empty chair near Aubrey’s and placed her tart-plate in her lap. “Mr. Ward, might I have a moment of your time, when you’re able? I’ve questions about your research.”
Aubrey nodded. “I can do so now, Ms. Peckham, assuming there aren’t more questions about my personal life begging to be asked.”
When glances at Llewellyn and Owsler inspired no further comment, Peckham turned her attention back to Aubrey. “I’m worried about Miss Yates,” she said. “No matter what I do it seems she’s suffused with gloom, and I dislike the thought of what may happen if things don’t brighten sooner than later. I’d hate to see a repeat of the incident in the alleyway. Your own Professor Wainwright was deeply unhappy when he came to you, was he not? How did you help turn him ’round?”
“It took a great deal of effort between us both,” said Aubrey. “Empathy, communication, and self-discipline between handler and patient is crucial. Have you encouraged her to investigate additional avenues of enrichment?”
“The professor has developed a fondness for playing the pianoforte, for example, as it is a skill he can develop unrelated to his work. He finds pleasure in the natural world whenever he goes birdwatching or leaf-peeping. He’s also quite fond of tracking a stipend he deducts from his own wages and pouring it into auction bids, and through his little trips we’ve intercepted more than one attempt to smuggle goods of a suspicious nature.”
Peckham nibbled at her tart. “I don’t think Miss Yates sees herself a virtuoso,” she said.
“I said the professor was fond of the pianoforte, not skilled. So long as a patient derives meaning and satisfaction from it, it doesn’t matter how particularly well they perform a given activity.”
“I shall keep it in mind,” said Peckham. “What else would you advise?”
Aubrey pursed his lips in thought. He had yet to meet Peckham’s charge in person, and as creatures in the society’s care were people, there were no two of them entirely the same. “How often does she stretch?” he asked.
“As in transmogrify? Not frequently, even assuming she does so behind closed doors. I believe she’s frightened of that part of her nature. I can scarcely blame her.”
“That would be it, then. A beast that loathes herself will never be able to escape that which brings her sorrow. She doesn’t hunt, does she?”
Peckham shook her head. “Miss Yates is still unsure of what she wants to do with herself, but I suspect it will be something quiet: a ritual master’s aide, or perhaps a clerical position. We’ll see if Ms. Reeds has exhausted her poor clerk by then.”
“In that case, her changes will be almost entirely for her own comfort and self-security,” said Aubrey. “I would advise giving her regular reason to change under your supervision. A physical examination is often a good time for it. You may also consider getting her fitted for an outfit or two that matches her larger size and personal taste. If she has a constant reminder of her humanity, it can help her better accept who she is, and will make it easier to accept her condition as a natural one.”
This got a scoff out of Llewellyn. “I’ll never understand the desire to dress an animal up in little clothes,” they said. “A dog’s still a dog even if you put it in a coat.”
The scowl Aubrey wore could have bored through an iron block. Peckham spoke before whatever dire words were brewing in Aubrey’s head made it all the way to his mouth. “That’s quite enough, Mx. Llewellyn,” she said to them. “If you’re not going to offer advice for my patient then you are welcome to wait until the conversation changes to offer input. Otherwise I dare say you could be said to be interfering with my duty.” She glared until Llewellyn threw up their hands in frustration and found somewhere else to be; once they left, she turned back to Aubrey. “I’ll talk with her about what she’d like, and we can meet with an initiated tailor afterwards. Is there anything else?”
“Ensure her meals are balanced to her needs. If my research had been deemed worthy of publication yet I’d simply refer you to it, but we both know how well that goes for anyone lacking a title, or enough breeding to forgive that lack.”
Peckham sighed. “I take it the academy refused your petition again?”
Aubrey snorted, his brow once more creasing with displeasure. “Yet another note in the endless choir of rejections. I’m fortunate the professor sees fit to fund my research out of his own pocket, but I worry even his boundless generosity will run dry before those fools bother recognizing my work for what it could mean for others. For what it is.”
“You’ve done enough to earn a doctorate thrice over by now. Why on earth haven’t they awarded it?”
“Doctorates are for doctors’ sons, or lords’ daughters, or similar people whose rank is delectable to academia. A fisherman’s child would only stink up the place no matter what knowledge he’s documented,” he said, bitterly.
“I have faith you shall persevere, Mr. Ward,” said Peckham. “It is, after all, something at which you excel. I am forever in awe as to the depths you will go out of sheer stubbornness, and the great heights towards which said descent then spurs you. Some might call it madness.”
Aubrey shrugged. His hands cradled his teacup; it was still most of the way full. “They may call it as they wish, so long as they accept my findings. I owe it to humanity at large to continue. If I ever stop, who can I trust to take up that noble burden with the passion it deserves? Abandoning my work would not only be admitting defeat but damning so many more innocents to unearned misery.”
Peckham raised her half-eaten tart in a toast to him. “To the good of all humanity, then?”
“To the good of all humanity,” said Aubrey, lifting his cup in response, and he drained the rest of it in a single pull.
Ever since the society had placed the honorary title of professor about his shoulders Mr. Wainwright had striven to cultivate a life of great culture; some days this meant taking in the symphony, others a visit to the theater or a fine museum, and on this day he’d had Aubrey join him on an outing to the botanical gardens. The sun was bright overhead—the gardens were, like most things cultural, on the side of town that knew more than moonlight—and so Mr. Wainwright kept his parasol high, clearly determined to enjoy the stroll no matter how bright the hour. Other times of the year might have seen the gardens more splendid, with more or more ostentatious flora in bloom, but if these factors were any concern to him he didn’t show it; it seemed nearly every few steps he found some new thing to admire, occasionally with a little cry of delight and always with the utmost sincerity. The past few years had done much to rid him of old, emotion-dampening habits.
As for Aubrey, he kept pace with little trouble, his hand tucked into the crook of Mr. Wainwright’s sunshade-bearing elbow in the manner any other companion would with their own paramour. Clad in a tailored brown suit instead of his usual livery (Mr. Wainwright had insisted on funding such a thing and would hear no protest to the contrary, only grudgingly agreeing with Aubrey keeping to humbler earthen colors in its construction) he looked drab next to Mr. Wainwright’s bright, resplendent jewel tones, having significantly fewer ruffles, engraved buttons, or anything approaching the jolly boutonniere Mr. Wainwright had purchased at the start of their visit. When walking together in this manner they looked not unlike a mated pair of grouses: the eye slid towards his brilliance as easily as it slid off of Aubrey’s more austere fashion. This was the design. People could say all manner of interesting things when they weren’t paying attention to who all was in earshot.
It was not that there was some great scandal in them being seen in public. Those not initiated into the society had no way of knowing what they both were, after all, and the city was suitably cosmopolitan that there was no shortage of other gentlemen enjoying one another’s company in the pleasant weather. Mr. Wainwright moved through glen and gallery alike with the confidence of a fellow born into comfort, itself bolstered by the confidence of a fellow who was frequently the most dangerous creature in the room, and this temperament cast a long shadow into which Aubrey would readily slip during their assorted outings. A fiend for the arts, Mr. Wainwright oft found reason to attend each new and wonderful event with a guest, no matter how prohibitive the entry fee. Buoyed by Mr. Wainwright’s pocketbook, the world was Aubrey’s in a way it not always had been.
A blossom dislodged itself from one of the trees and tumbled through the air to land on the brim of Aubrey’s hat—Mr. Wainwright had been equally insistent about the hat—before the turn of his head sent it tumbling to land in his hair.
“I say, Mr. Ward!” said Mr. Wainwright, all good nature and volume as he cocked his head to appreciate the sight. “You should make a wish on your visitor before you brush it away. It could bring you good fortune!”
“Could it, now?” replied Aubrey. Any wishes he made went unvoiced before he plucked the bloom free and sent it drifting towards the little fish pond they were rounding.
“Did they not have that custom where you came from? My family was fond of it, and my mother once claimed it was from the northern parts of the country, though I suppose there is a great deal of northerliness to go around….”
This earned Mr. Wainwright a small nod. “Correct on both accounts, professor. I’ve heard my father say it before. Of course, he was always keen to teach me more about flowers than just folklore. I have him to thank for knowing what foraging was fine to season a soup and which was best left to grow as they may.”
“I’d never marked dear Ezekiel as a botanist.”
“He is many things,” said Aubrey. He made no comment on Mr. Wainwright referring to his father so casually; the elder Wards both viewed their son’s companion dearly, and—having deemed him worthy of their esteem—had invited that familiarity since their first meeting. Mr. Wainwright wrote them nearly as often as Aubrey did. For only having two occupants, the house on Kettle Street produced a veritable torrent of mail.
Mr. Wainwright hummed in thought. “Surely he only taught you to watch for the poisonous ones, that you not sicken your little self while exploring the green places?” he asked, a sparkle of mischief in his eye.
Aubrey kept his gaze fixed on the pond. “Whyever might a simple fisherman know more than that, professor?” he replied.
Mr. Wainwright chuckled. He patted the hand of Aubrey’s still dutifully holding to his parasol-bearing arm. “Of course, of course.” His eyes followed Aubrey’s own towards the fish pond and its cap of floating lilies. “Whatever the details, it’s rather nice he gave you an eye for seeing what pictures nature paints for itself, isn’t it?”
“So it is, professor.”
They passed though a tunnel made from great green boughs coaxed to grow all around one another like a lattice, wove their way through a hedge maze (in which Mr. Wainwright had to be reminded not to reach the exit in fewer turns than possible), observed a flower clock strike the hour, and shared a serving of sweetened ice chips with cherries before ultimately ending up in the sculpture garden. The day had involved quite a lot of walking, and so Aubrey guided them to a bench with a fine view of one of the new bronzes in from abroad; Mr. Wainwright did not comment on this, instead seating himself so that he could put an arm around Aubrey’s shoulder while still keeping his parasol in place. He gave Aubrey a kiss on the temple once they settled in against one another.
“It’s so very nice having more opportunities to enjoy the arts!” he said, gesturing at the bronze, which was new enough to still shine brightly in the sun. “You know, they were one of the few indulgences I permitted myself before I was entrusted to your care. Galleries and such, I mean.”
Aubrey made a wordless, curious sound. “You took solace in something other than your work and your studies?” He made no mention of Mr. Wainwright’s history of dockside visits; those, at least, were a known quantity.
“Well, at the time I had convinced myself that careful study of the artistic world could help me spot potential breaches of initiated lore, and I wasn’t wholly wrong, I shall add,” said Mr. Wainwright, twirling his free hand to accent his words, “but deep in my heart I knew it was something that brought me delight for its own sake. I’d fall in and out of the practice depending on how much I could stomach the guilt.”
“I’m glad you’ve adopted a different point of view, professor,” said Aubrey.
“Quite the same! And it’s so much nicer to have someone with whom I might discuss what I see on equal terms.” He glanced about. The only other visitors to this part of the gardens were on the opposite side and well out of earshot, so he continued. “Of course, I appreciate them for more than just aesthetic merit, you know. A display such as this brought me great revelation when I was younger.” The way he said those words made it clear he was speaking of matters other than philosophy.
Aubrey raised his eyebrow. “Indeed?”
“It was an exhibition of marble statues from a southern nation. You could certainly tell it was one of the warmer ones, too, as they scarcely had a handkerchief for clothes to spare between them, the artisan having not been shy about depicting the, ah, grand contours of the human body.” Mr. Wainwright sighed wistfully. “I was barely of age at the time, still coming to terms with my own gentleman’s needs, and I dare say it helped set some details in order in my mind, if you understand my meaning. Save for certain wonders which are not suitable for polite conversation, what I took away most was the way that sculptor’s chisel had made this unyielding material look soft as could be.” Lowering his voice, he added, “The way those statues portrayed the shape of a buttock rising between clasping fingers left a mark on me no level of practitioner’s tricks might undo.”
“And what of these we see today? Do they move you similarly?”
Mr. Wainwright studied the statue a while. “I can appreciate the artistry at work, Mr. Ward, but I fear I’m unlikely to have a second epiphany at the sight of a horse-headed mermaid. The juxtaposition of the wings and trident are very nice? It’s the sort of thing I could see fetching a high price at auction.”
“Yes, you’d be a good judge of that,” said Aubrey. “When is the next one you’ll be attending? Next week, was it?”
“Roundabouts, yes. They’ve been showing lithographs from a certain series the past few times I attended and there’s a certain one from the set I’m determined to have for my own. It’s always nice finding wall art that didn’t come with the house.” Much of the art in the house on Kettle Street did not so much come with it as appear in place one day at the whims of the building, though as it tended to suit both their tastes, neither Aubrey nor Mr. Wainwright found reason to object to its presence. It was the house that had gifted them the huge oil portrait of Mr. Wainwright that hung over the parlor fireplace, and it was presumably the house that sometimes switched his cane and gaily-colored clothes for bloodied hunting kit. The variety was welcome.
Aubrey nodded. “If it’s anything like the snippet from Bitterlea’s On Fiends and Their Fellows we have in the dining room, I think it shall be a handsome addition,” he said.
“Peter Bitterlea’s long since been a favorite of yours, hasn’t he?”
“One of the first authors of any literary merit I read. That particular poem proved formative when it came to teaching me one could approach the grotesque with empathy.”
Mr. Wainwright tapped a finger to his lips. “Remarkable that you ended up in your current field with such a mindset.”
“Given that I learned my letters from cheap dreadfuls, perhaps my current profession was inevitable. Neither they nor Bitterlea’s collected works were at a loss for detail most lurid. Nor, for that matter, vampires. I suspect they both played their part in my inspiration.”
This earned him an impish little smile from Mr. Wainwright. “You, inspired by grisly tales of flesh-rippers and blood-drinkers, Mr. Ward? Why, I never would have thought it. There’s simply no evidence.” He pulled Aubrey against his side in a warm half-hug. “You and I both know how wildly the winds of Fate can gust about the auction house, so I shan’t say anything more of what I have and haven’t seen there unless you ask. I’d hate for you to be disappointed. Simply know that my eyes are always on the watch for anything I think you might enjoy.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you, professor.”
“I do try.”
They admired the statuary for a while, both seated and standing, as there were quite a few bronzes to appreciate in addition to the horse-headed mermaid; they spent that time discussing the artistic merit of each, sometimes making small talk instead, so it was not until the distant bell towers had chimed two separate quarter-hour carillons that their conversation turned once more to society business.
“Your next meeting is in about two weeks’ time by solar reckoning, is it not?” asked Mr. Wainwright as they studied an urn piled high with brazen grapes.
Aubrey nodded. “Correct.”
“Have you ever thought it might be useful if I were to attend with you? Proof of concept, one might say.”
This earned him a tired sigh. “I have been trying my best to make my case on the strength of my findings,” said Aubrey. “The treatment is what I’m positing, and while its effects on the individual are a crucial element of each paper, I do not wish to divert undue attention onto your person. It feels dehumanizing. You’re neither a rare insect to be kept in a case nor a prize to be flaunted. I’d rather not the society think you’re nothing but a playing-piece in the grand scheme of my research.”
“Oh, but surely I’m a pawn in at least a few of your schemes?”
“Perish the thought, Professor Wainwright. You are at the very least a bishop.”
With a grin, Mr. Wainwright adjusted his hat. “I shall try my best to fill the part, then, but I suspect I wouldn’t look quite as fashionable in a miter.” He placed a chaste kiss on Aubrey’s cheek. “If you ever do wish for my presence, Mr. Ward, know I shan’t be displeased to be asked the favor. The more people the treatment can help, the better, and anything that might make your associates realize its worth shall surely be worth the trouble, no matter how much I may be vexed by calipers in the interim.” He glanced up at the sky, which was still bright and blue with infrequent clouds. “Dear me, the time certainly has gotten away from us! I really ought to put myself indoors for a bit. How do you feel about being treated to a meal at one of the new restaurants in the Golden District?”
“Provided you are once more volunteering to cover the bill, professor, I shall accompany you wherever you wish.”
“Splendid! Now, what’s tempting your tongue this afternoon? I can personally attest that Merchant’s off of Broadangle Street has plenty of seafood and a wonderful selection of wines, but I’ve also heard the Silver Chalice on Two Capers Lane is already making quite a name for itself with its desserts….”
The two of them slowly retraced their steps through the botanical gardens, Mr. Wainwright offering a diner’s guide worth of opinions the whole way, and while most of the places he mentioned were gruesomely expensive (easily tallying fees in excess of a whole half-week of Aubrey’s wages), between Mr. Wainwright’s dandy appearance and deep pockets there was never a question that he and his companion would be permitted wherever he wished to visit. It was in this context that hunter and handler alike pursued their next target: a late and leisurely lunch.
In a certain social club, in a certain undisclosed location, the handlers had gathered once again. Their meeting days were irregular, following a schedule carefully designed to be difficult for outsiders to predict—numerology was supposedly involved—and yet each time the proper hour arrived, there they were, as regular as clockwork. One did not rise to such laudable heights as theirs if punctuality was a problem; sometimes all that stood between a handler and a patient succumbing to self-destruction was a reliable schedule, and even the gentlest of creatures’ well-being was secured by bureaucracy most foul. The kind of mind that could manage all the stamps and papers demanded by the society’s maesters was nearly always also the kind of mind that considered arriving five minutes early to an event to be shamefully late.
Aubrey, who had been among the many sharply-dressed people waiting outside the meeting room door at ten minutes ’til the stated time, had taken careful notes all throughout the main speeches, and was reviewing them between bites of miniature jam cake when Owsler settled into the chair next to him.
“Rather interesting presentation Mx. Llewellyn had for us today, wasn’t it?”
“I suppose that’s one way to put it,” said Aubrey after finishing his current mouthful. “I agree with most of their points, though certain details don’t quite line up with my personal findings. I’ve yet to discover any part of the mechanical houses in which I’ve lived to contain literal meat.” He dabbed at his mouth with his napkin. “Granted, I don’t doubt such things exist somewhere in the night city, but I believe the dwellings we’re most likely to utilize for our own purposes aren’t among their number.”
Owsler stroked his mustache in thought. He had a lot of mustache to stroke, and had carefully waxed the tips of it into handsome upswept curls; paired with his snub nose and full beard, he was quite the opposite of Aubrey’s hawkish, clean-shaven profile. “You’re one of those fellows who chooses to spend most of your waking hours in the night city, aren’t you, Mr. Ward?”
“They’re speaking of how my Wendy may need relocation soon—for her health, you see, as it’s flagging a bit—and sure as I’m oathed I’m not about to leave her to twist in the wind. I recall reading a paper by your Professor Wainwright on how a creature can thrive in that environment. Academic, is he?”
Aubrey nodded. “He loathes having to oversee formal coursework, and requested being deemed ’emeritus’ solely so he could return to the field, but he still takes that honorary title of his quite seriously; he still gives lectures now and again. The society could stand to have more creatures advising their own. Watching him flourish under the treatment, then turn about and seek to pay that good fortune forward, has been a task most satisfying.”
“How is the professor these days?”
Aubrey wavered a hand. “Currently abed. He had a nasty altercation on a recent outing and has been resting off the worst of it, and it’s been giving him the opportunity to catch up with some of his reading. So long as he keeps his appetite and is regular with his supplements I’m sure he’ll be back on the rooftops in no time.”
“Happens often, does it?”
“More often than never, Mr. Owsler, though given the circumstances by which he was entrusted to my care in the first place you may safely assume his constitution can keep up with the hazards of his duties. You’ve presumably read some of his records…?”
Owsler paled and nodded. “Professor Wainwright’s a very…durable fellow, isn’t he? I’m grateful I’ve only seen after charges assigned to reclamation and relocation. Spiriting people away in the night involves far less bloodshed than the hunters’ oeuvre.”
“Occasionally, yes,” said Aubrey, who had experience orchestrating both.
Before any further talk of the art of kidnapping could come to pass, both gentlemen were distracted by a disturbance from over by the billiards table, where Peckham and Carruthers—who had not been present for the previous meeting, having been performing an emergency surgery that day—were locked in as fierce an argument as both could manage without raising their voices more than they already had.
“It is absolutely our role as initiates to become involved in local affairs, Mr. Carruthers,” said Peckham. She glared down her cue at her opponent and took a shot without breaking that glare. The balls cracked like gunfire. “When we speak of acting for the good of humanity, what use are we if we turn away from that same humanity, even if the business of the day is entirely mundane in nature? We do these good folk a disservice if we refuse to help without a maester’s pen urging to action.”
Carruthers tossed his cornsilk-fine hair with a scoff. “Need I remind you, Ms. Peckham, that part of our mutual oath is to keep the society’s true knowledges unseen? If we permit ourselves any closeness, we invite disaster. The society as a whole has fought for every scrap of progress it’s gained across its ever-tenuous history. All it takes is one set of eyes in the wrong place and the whole of it shall be undone.”
“And yet most of those in this very room were once that selfsame pair of eyes,” said Peckham. She shot a glance at Aubrey, who nodded back to her. “We cannot stop happenstance, nor should we, lest we find ourselves without all those skilled and loyal agents whose initiations only came about by chance. The society lives and dies on the backs of the too-curious.”
“Yet none of us are of the mere rank and file!” barked Carruthers. He placed a hand to his chest dramatically, causing the light to shine off the ring on his little finger. “We are handlers, and the things we oversee have no place among those good folk, nor should they be confused with such. That the creatures need our care in the first place is proof of that.” The way he said creatures was tinged with quiet horror. It was not uncommon to hear it in a society handler’s voice; the position brought with it new challenges and stressors, far beyond those of the clerks and the cleaners and the simpler magicians, as well as firsthand knowledge of how terrible a person could be if they lost control of their inner beast. Some handlers had nightmares of it happening to themselves. For some, it even did.
Peckham missed her next shot, sighed, and stepped back from the table to allow Carruthers his turn. “You keep speaking like they’re contagious. My allowing Miss Yates to walk with the neighbor children isn’t planting some nightmare seed in their little hearts, nor are we jeopardizing the work if we speak up at a meeting of the city council. Our patients are but one part of a greater garth, and we must tend every part of it if we wish anything to thrive.” She gestured in Aubrey’s direction. “If you don’t believe me, Mr. Ward can attest to the value of a more holistic approach. His records are exhaustive.”
“If I wanted exhaustive records I’d just ask Ms. Reeds for some,” said Carruthers.
Aubrey, having now been mentioned by name, rose from his seat and took a spot a little ways out from the billiards table that had a full view of the game. As far as billiards went the two contestants were evenly matched; as far as their debate went, it was harder to say.
Carruthers noted Aubrey’s presence with detachment. “Speak of the wolf and he’s at your door,” he said, mildly, as he chalked the tip of his cue. “I take it you’re partly responsible for Ms. Peckham’s newfound insistence on taking a rabid dog to luncheon.”
“Miss Yates has been recovering from her outburst for several months now,” said Aubrey. “If Ms. Peckham deems her well enough to socialize, then we should assume it is so.” He removed his spectacles and began to polish them on a monogrammed handkerchief produced from the debts of his coat. “It’s inhumane to judge persons of her nature for things they can no more control than the feverish their spasms. Like that feverish soul, a creature must sometimes be kept away for their own health and others’, but we do them a great disfavor if we view our duties in terms of containment rather than recovery and rehabilitation.” He replaced his lenses and folded up the handkerchief back into a tidy square before tucking it away. “Quarantines must eventually be lifted, otherwise they’re no more than a prison sentence by another name.”
Peckham looked pleased by his answer, though her expression curdled when her next shot just missed the ball at which she’d been aiming. Carruthers was not so easily swayed: “Your priorities have always struck me as curious for a man who holds no second skin beneath his first. Of course, I suppose it does make enough sense; a fellow who reliably frequents the evening street-corners is soonest to worry whenever he hears there’s murderers at large.”
The clear insult failed to get a rise out of Aubrey. “You’ll find it’s usually the molls who worry first,” he said, his tone firm and even. “Do remember before you try to make another ill-worded point that certain high-ranking society members still practice that profession. If you’d be shamed to make your metaphor in front of Primrose Ward, you’d be best off not saying it elsewhere.”
“Strange move to mention your mother when your own motivations are questioned, Mr. Ward,” said Carruthers.
“Hardly,” said Aubrey. “It’s an often inglorious service, much like the one we ourselves provide to our patients. We get our hands quite dirty in the name of human embetterment. No need to deride another contributor to the culture simply because they work out of bedrooms and alleyways instead of wherever we’ve agreed upon is respectable.”
Llewellyn, no doubt sensing trouble, appeared from wherever they’d been hiding themselves since the presentations had ended. “Are you picking on our favorite whoreson, Mr. Carruthers?” they said around a bite of scone tucked into their cheek. Llewellyn approached table manners as an optional amusement. “You’d think you’d have learned by now: you can’t offend a Ward unless you aim for family. Now you’re going to get a scorpion in your bed.”
“Better my bed than Mr. Ward’s, then. It’ll sting me with its chastity intact.”
“Mr. Carruthers,” said Peckham, her billiard cue brandished like a valkyrie’s spear.
“Thank you, Ms. Peckham, but there’s no need,” said Aubrey. His already sharp brows furrowed further as he turned to Carruthers. “I shall continue to posit that, no matter your distaste for the idea, our charges are people first and creatures second, and that one of the kindest things we can do for them is to foster the former without denying the latter.”
This earned a scoffing laugh from Llewellyn. “Are you sure kindness is what you’re providing Professor Wainwright? They say he bears tells now, ones he didn’t before being entrusted to your care.”
Aubrey kept his glare fixed. “If he does, what then? He is no less himself for the color of his eyes, nor diminished in his humanity for showing extra digits. He takes confidence that both reflect him truthfully. Should we perhaps discuss how before he came to me he assumed it was regular for his skin, and sometimes flesh, to slough away in great sheets? He is no longer troubled by either. We are all shamed as a group for how long it took for him to realize his suffering was anomalous.”
Peckham, having succeeded at a rather fiddly trick shot, stood back with some determination. “I can vouch that Miss Yates has no longer been leaving teeth in odd places, nor does she open extra mouths or eyes when upset. Knowing that she is permitted to open them whenever she pleases, so long as it is a conscious choice, seems to have tempered the instinct to do so. She’s also much less shy around others now that she’s running errands for certain elderly neighbors. Under my supervision, of course.” She leaned over again to continue with her turn, adding, “It’s been a productive month for both of us.”
“I’m glad to hear that, Ms. Peckham, both for your and Miss Yates’ sake,” said Aubrey. “You’ll likely see her progress begin to slow down in the coming weeks, but so long as you continue encouraging her to understand herself, it’s very likely she’ll find new avenues of self-improvement for the rest of her days.” He watched another set of billiard balls skitter and clack across the table before adding, “Now, if you are interested in the meal and exercise regimen the professor and I have agreed upon, I—”
“Do spare us,” said Carruthers. “Next you’ll be telling us the importance of having patients send little cards to their sweethearts.”
Aubrey, who had a drawer in his room dedicated to filing the many letters with which Mr. Wainwright had showered him over the years, simply shrugged. “I believe that is the charge’s call to make.”
“What, whether to get a kit from the stationer’s?”
“To foster such a relationship at all.”
“I’ll let Miss Yates have herself a few more birthdays before we go worrying about such details, I think,” said Peckham. “Though if she changes her mind later, I can’t imagine it causing any harm. I think it would be quite charming to see her woo or be wooed by a little friend of similar age.”
Carruthers groaned in disgust. “The lot of you have succumbed to anthropomorphization,” he said. “Like a man who sees human motivation in his cat’s habits, you’re putting emotional weight behind details that have no such meaning. You’ve not seen the patients I have.”
“Prisoners of war are often little more than animals when reclaimed,” said Owsler. All heads turned towards him; before his time with the society he’d been a medic for the crown’s army. Some days, in great confidence, he would admit that the things he had seen since his initiation were often sore pressed to compare to the horrors he’d witnessed beneath the sun. “That makes them deserving of sympathy and care, not a cage.”
“Oh, don’t you start, Mr. Owsler,” said Carruthers.
The light caught Aubrey’s lenses as he adjusted them again. “As he says, it’s highly situational, and the maximal nature of their being puts them at a disadvantage because the world outside the society simply cannot fathom the tools to help them. We too often see creatures at their worst because they have been suffused with hatred and despair. When all they know is loathing, whether for others or themselves, how can we be surprised if they lash out?”
Llewellyn stroked their chin, lips pursed. “So you’re saying it’s natural they’re miserable?”
“No more than it being natural for weeds to choke out a flower box,” said Aubrey. “The will of nature is to thrive by any means necessary, no matter how flawed or harmful. We have been given the gift to overcome that. Be it the grace of a loving God or a quirk of brain chemistry, we do not have to live our lives purely at the mercy of our basest urges, nor do we have to let others do the same.”
“Fine words for a man whose previous patients were all gone within months,” said Carruthers.
A dark expression crossed over Aubrey’s face for but an instant, then was gone. “One might argue this means I am personally experienced in how much of an unkindness the society thinks to do them until they have broken so greatly that all they know is pain.” He sighed. “That I could give them any solace during our time working together is the only comfort I can take. Medical journals are written in blood.”
Peckham began gathering up the billiard balls to rack a new game. “Loath as I am to say it, Carruthers has half a point. It’s unusual that you’ve been with the professor for so long, both on a personal level and a professional one. What makes him different from the others?”
“It’s difficult to say,” said Aubrey. “Perhaps he was already sympathetic to the treatment before he was assigned to my care. Perhaps he had done much of the necessary work on his own, just in need of context and permission. He already enjoyed stretching before he came to me, and was used to performing tasks of hygiene and exercise while thusly transformed, so not having to struggle against denial of that half of his self saved us a great deal of time. Once he had clothes of the proper size it was simple for him to—”
“Good God, I’d forgotten you made him little outfits,” said Carruthers. “How are we to believe you when you talk of how we should view creatures as people when you clearly view yours as a pet?”
The dark look returned, and while it once more vanished it lingered for a few moments longer than before. “Need I remind you, Mr. Carruthers, that I am in charge of tending to a household, one which the society decreed to me through terms most explicit? Cooking, cleaning, mending, grooming: these are all part of that duty, as they would be to anyone else who was put on record as that house’s ménage. He is no more a pet of mine than any aristocrat their servants’.”
“So you say. I still say you’re looking for meaning in the smile on a dog. Your methods are strange ones, Mr. Ward.”
Aubrey’s expression had settled into a fearsome scowl even as his voice remained more or less calm. “My methods never raise concern when they involve the disappearance of the inconvenient, or the relocation of knowledge, or the acquisition of resources, or the transfer of outside funds in exchange for specific services or abstention thereof, and yet? The moment I suggest we treat the society’s polymorphic membership as the people they are instead of mere tools to be used and disposed of, as is commodious, this is when the questions arise. I see.”
“It’s reasonable he’s asking you to think about it more,” said Llewellyn. “We all know you’re no slouch when it comes to cemetery work and no one’s going to doubt your skill with talismans, not even Mr. Carruthers. He’s not arguing to target a potter’s field instead of a mausoleum; in that case, either way you choose the graves still get dug up.” They paused for a sip from their glass, swallowed the remains of whatever snack they’d been hiding in their mouth, and continued. “He’s asking if what you’re doing is, for want of a better word, ethical.”
“If you’re asking me to choose between ethics and compassion, Mx. Llewellyn, then you already know the answer.”
Soft murmurs rippled through the room, as those involved in the conversation were not the only ones present. Even those sympathetic towards Aubrey’s cause showed some sign of unease; just as he had said, it was the kind of discomfort that was conspicuously absent from discussing the sort of handlers’ activities that required corpse-fat or hangman’s rope. The treatment he had been perfecting over the course of years had never been an easy sell.
“As for Professor Wainwright,” said Aubrey to the room at large, “I shall ask him to accompany me to our next meeting, that you may see for yourselves the fruits of our shared labors. I’m sure he’ll be happy to speak to you. You may draw your own conclusions from there, but I shall say this much now: if you cannot find it in your hearts to see those creatures in your own care in a slightly kinder light from having met him, perhaps you should contact the maesters to find you a new post.”
“And would you have us bring our own charges, then?” said Carruthers. “Shall they flock together to sup on tea and biscuits and perhaps have a little sing-along?”
“I dare say you ought!” growled Aubrey. “He may claim his title is toothless, but the society does still recognize Professor Wainwright as a full-fledged educator suited to tutoring his own. Perhaps he might be the influence your unhappy patients need to actually begin meaningful recovery.”
Owsler raised a halting hand. “I suspect mine will still be needing bed rest by then, Mr. Ward,” he said. “We ought to have the new address within a few days. Would it be possible to arrange for a house call at some future point after the meeting…?”
“Don’t you go encouraging him, Mr. Owsler,” said Carruthers.
“I shall encourage who I please, young man,” said Owsler, who did indeed have years of actual age, if not society service, to spare on most anyone in the room. He turned back to Aubrey, still hesitant. “I hope you won’t be offended if I wish to meet him myself before I trouble my Wendy’s disposition by inviting an unproven stranger in. Poor thing would fret herself to death if I didn’t, relocated to the night city or no. When she frets, she gets to chewing. You understand, don’t you, Mr. Ward?”
Aubrey nodded. “As I said, you may speak to him when next we meet. I dare say you may have trouble getting him to stop: he’s quite friendly in society environments these days, and is quick to vocalize his affections to any he sees.”
Carruthers made a face. “So is a parrot!”
“Scorpion, parrot, cat, dog,” said Llewellyn, ticking the animals off on their fingers. “I imagine if we try enough we could find a fifth name to round out the set. Is anyone going to compare the professor to a horse today? Surely someone’s got a good reason for it.”
“That’s quite enough, the lot of you,” said Peckham, and given how the babble swelled in the wake of her words, it clearly was not. The argument raged on from there.
Once it became clear that little else was going to be agreed upon that day, Aubrey excused himself to a pleasant little rooftop balcony the club maintained. Usually the handlers avoided such places (these being too open and visible for most of their private-minded ranks’ liking), and with the whole of the club reserved for their meeting there was no one else about at that hour. The moon hung low over the skyline, its glowing face marred by jagged, architectonic claws made by roofs and steeples, and the light it cast was silvery in the evening blue. A soft din of city noise drifted through the heavy air. The balcony may as well have been part of the night city itself for how distant it felt from the rest of the world.
The railing felt sturdy enough to support a man’s weight, so Aubrey leaned on it. He palmed a hinged silver pendant from a pocket in his waistcoat and thumbed open its clasp. Inside was a single curl of brown hair—arranged in a perfect spiral, as was its nature when left to its own devices—kept gathered with a ribbon, matched with a little photograph of Mr. Wainwright. It had been a present for the winter holiday, though hardly a surprise, as Mr. Wainwright had insisted on constant consultation throughout its creation to ensure everything was just so; he had managed to hold one of his weary-eyed smiles long enough for the equipment to capture his likeness, and only his likeness, in spite of a lengthy series of failed prior attempts. The less said of what had appeared in the first photographs developed, the better.
Were Aubrey to move the lock of hair aside he would have revealed an inscription in small, formal letters: To AOW, For everything. With love, HRW. He’d read the words many times before. He did not read them now, instead letting his eyes rest on Mr. Wainwright’s smile (one he had not at first been able to wear) before looking out over the city. From his vantage one might have forgotten how the place was home to uncounted thousands of innocents and criminals and beasts yet to know the shape of their secret skins. No matter their nature, there was only one thing that stood between them and the horrors in the unknowable dark, and for all of its flaws (of which there were equally uncounted thousands), they needed the society to exist. If they needed it to exist, it was only fair to assume that it was the society’s duty to continue doing so. Anything less was barbarous.
Aubrey remained in thought for some time before he closed up the locket with a click, tucked it back in its place, and began making his way back down the stairs with purpose in his step.
Upon returning to the mechanical house, there had not been time for Aubrey to take six full paces from the front door when a great, despairing wail came from the direction of Mr. Wainwright’s study, and while the sound was a familiar one he still promptly hustled himself up the stairs to investigate its source. He pressed the little glass pieces in the door in order and slid them in place to form the head of a ram, which he turned until the locking mechanism clicked. Inside was a maelstrom of vile tomes and books of unspeakable truths, interspersed with trophies of a most dreadful nature, and in the middle of all of this was a lushly-upholstered wingback chair upon which Mr. Wainwright was lounging sideways in his nightclothes. He looked up Aubrey entered.
“Ah, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright, cheery and slightly flushed. He gestured to the half-empty wine bottle and very empty glass beside him. “As you can see, a carriage stopped by with some of my auction winnings while you were out.”
Aubrey glanced at the fireplace, whose crackling blaze had already consumed parts of a book that looked to have been thrown into it with great force. Its title and author were still just barely legible on the cover. “And I can also see you are once again displeased with the plot of your novel.”
“Margaret had no right to deny the Lady Wilgefortis,” said Mr. Wainwright, his tone suddenly and intensely sour. Volumes of unreal realities rarely piqued more than a professional interest in his breast, no matter how paradigm-shattering the revelations within or how thoughtful his debates on their contents became, but his increasingly frequent trips to more mundane bookseller’s sparked fires—metaphorical and otherwise—at an alarming rate.
“Casting the whole thing to flame because you disagree with the presence or absence of a betrothal is not going to change the resolution of the plot, Mr. Wainwright. The moment your Margaret can hear your wails of grief and act on them is the moment you shall need to store your fiction further away from your ritual codices.” He took a moment to compose himself before continuing. “You made it all the way down the stairs and back up again in your current state? And answered the door?”
Mr. Wainwright swelled with satisfaction. “I was sure to put on a proper robe and parlor-cap before answering, so as not to be indecent should I be seen in my nightclothes. The coachman was very polite.”
“I’m glad to hear of his manners, Mr. Wainwright, but I’m still concerned about the stairs.”
“Oh! I promise I was very careful, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright, adding, “I know you worry about me.” He had the decency to look sheepish about it.
“Please define what ‘very careful’ means in this situation.”
“Well, it’s quite simple, really. I simply chose to be perpendicular and took my time walking along the wall instead, then chose to be parallel again once I reached the bottom so I wouldn’t tumble into the parlor. It worked the same way going up. My parcels I simply put in the dumbwaiter and pulled up after me once I returned to the study.”
Aubrey steepled his hands around his nose and took a deep breath through them. “So I will have footprints to clean off of the wallpaper, then.”
“Only a few! I tried not to track through the lamp soot.”
“At least there’s that,” said Aubrey with a sigh. “May I examine your stitches, please? Swift healer or no, you oughtn’t be taxing yourself so much. Caution today reaps rewards tomorrow.”
Mr. Wainwright obligingly hiked up his nightshirt to show the full length of his left leg, the cuff of his drawers having been rolled up to allow for the line of tidy stitches that went all around said leg’s circumference about a hand’s breadth above his knee. The wound itself was bloodless save for some aggressive scabbing. “I’ve already got feeling back in it,” he said, “and while it can’t quite support my full weight, I can wiggle my toes, and even walk without a cane, provided I go slowly and permit myself to lean on the wall when I must.”
“You shall recall I asked you to make use of that cane until the bone and muscle have finished knitting together,” said Aubrey.
“Well! The call to nature can sometimes have ideas of its own, Mr. Ward, and a fellow must sometimes hurry to heed it.” He gestured proudly at his leg. “This time I’m pleased to note I didn’t pop a single stitch.”
Aubrey sighed. “You shall surely be the death of me someday, Mr. Wainwright.”
“I live every waking moment striving to prove that prediction wrong, Mr. Ward,” replied Mr. Wainwright with a chuckle as he poured himself another glass of claret. “How was your meeting?”
Mr. Wainwright paused mid-pour, then gently returned the wine bottle to its place by the chair. “Would you perhaps like to talk about it?”
“No,” said Aubrey, who sternly studied his surgeon’s needlework and took down some notes in a ledger. After a spot of angry record-keeping and a wipe of the wound site with a rag doused in chlorinated lime, he continued. “It’s mostly the same argument as always, Mr. Wainwright, in that I sincerely believe that creatures are every bit as human as anyone else, while too many others believe I’m little more than a man who’s trained a horse to stamp and claims it as proof of the animal’s genius.”
“Ah. That,” said Mr. Wainwright. He matched Aubrey’s scowl before taking a deep drink from his glass. “I can’t much say I care for how certain peers of ours still treat me, despite years of documentation that I’m safe as a kitten’s whisker to the vast majority of the populace, and those not in this category well and truly had it coming.” As he said this he gestured in the direction of the mantelpiece, upon which a small padded box lay open, its interior cradling a warped and ruined piece of metal that still vaguely resembled the plate on a slender chain worn at Mr. Wainwright’s throat. Known creatures of the society bore such things as proof of their observation; said plates were usually unable to be removed without the wearer’s demise. The incident by which the plate in the box came to be in Mr. Wainwright’s possession was yet another instance in which Aubrey had evaded death through pure luck and contumacy.
“It is not simply you whose value I’m having to prove,” said Aubrey. “Would that it were so; you are living proof that approaching those with your condition with proper solicitude and understanding is a far superior method to the mortifications so beloved by my peers. I am immensely proud of your progress.” He looked up and away wearily, his eyes darting from place to place until settling upon a neutral-enough location: a display of preserved echinoderms that Mr. Wainwright had claimed during one of his auction visits. “I despise that a person of your caliber might be treated as an unthinking beast simply because they have been denied an environment in which to thrive. My treatises mention it often.”
Mr. Wainwright drew his lips into a thoughtful purse. “If memory serves, the society still claims your findings are needlessly deviant.”
“Which it is very swift to remind me,” said Aubrey. “At least I am starting to see some of those aforementioned peers look towards kinder solutions for their own patients. I’ll accept even the daintiest ripples if they’re signs of a proper sea change.”
“So it was not a total loss of a meeting, I hope?”
“There were plenty of meaningful topics discussed, and some modestly hopeful news. I simply find it hard to consider such a meeting successful if it ends on as foul a note as it did.”
The rustle of fabric signaled Mr. Wainwright shifting his weight. “Foul enough to keep you from attending the next?” he asked.
“On the contrary, Mr. Wainwright: I’d like to take you up on your offer to join me, assuming you are feeling both sound of body and agreeable of attitude come the next appointed date. Perhaps speaking with you directly will prove more convincing to certain parties than my expert opinion.”
“Why, I’d be happy to! Though I must wonder, Mr. Ward, as we make no secret of our involvement, nor have we ever, whether doing so shan’t cause future trouble with the perceived deviance of your research.”
“Your presence shall provide proof of how well that deviance can serve the initiated as a whole!” said Aubrey, his voice elevating from stern to a sharpness he rarely used when addressing Mr. Wainwright directly. It was enough to make the latter startle back in surprise. Aubrey smoothed back his hair and continued, once more enrobed in the cool demeanor he usually affected. “We shall show them, Mr. Wainwright. We shall show the whole lot. And with that knowledge we impart, others can then be inspired to bring about their own great deeds of mercy.”
Mr. Wainwright rotated in his seat so he could lean forward, his weight braced against his good leg. “You seem very keen on the idea, Mr. Ward, when but a few weeks ago it was all in the domain of the ifs and perhapses. Much ado was made of me not being a beetle under glass. If you made good on an offer of mine every time you clashed with another part of the society I’d never see the inside of the house again. Surely there’s more than just that one reason…?”
Aubrey glanced around the room, which had become a bit of a warren over the course of Mr. Wainwright’s regeneration. Even in the best of times its bookshelves groaned under their weight, the piles of tomes eager for the right breeze to send them tumbling, and without the extra hands to see to them they threatened to overwhelm the study. Only by great effort had Aubrey been able to keep up with the laundry and dishes accumulated therein. One man was not enough to keep up with a fellow with a mind as busy as Mr. Wainwright’s, especially not when he was bored. “I admit I worry you are undersocialized.”
“Why, however so, Mr. Ward? We speak throughout the day, on a variety of topics, and it’s quite the lovely arrangement. Between that, correspondence over society business, my lectures, and the odd visit to the shops, I find I never want for friendly company, and a common day’s work sees me having quite a fine time of it out-of-doors, making my time back home all the finer.”
“Indeed, I am pleased at the variety of ways you spend your time, and your constant striving towards self-betterment is an example to all.” He adjusted his spectacles. “My concern, however, is that you have very little connection to the society as a community, especially when I am out of pocket. Instructing future generations is a noble goal, but have you considered you might well further enrich this dreadful system in the form of sincere fellowship?”
Mr. Wainwright thoughtfully swirled the dregs of his glass. “I suppose I ought to give the idea more time than I have…,” he said.
“While our circumstances find us quite bereft of neighbors, I recall how comforting you found it to send me letters during your first semester of teaching, to say nothing of your continued missives to my parents, and find myself wondering if you would not like finding other persons in your situation who you could advise, confide in, and generally enjoy.”
“A ‘pen-pal,’ you say?”
“I do not think it would be out of the question.”
The glass, upon being emptied, joined the bottle on the floor. Mr. Wainwright seemed to be having trouble finding a comfortable way to be in his chair, which was a clever trick given how readily he would contort himself in it whenever a book had fully captured his attention. “Fuss and bother, I wish I could agree with the same enthusiasm I had when I first made the offer,” he said.
“Is something the matter, Mr. Wainwright?”
“I can’t form a reasonable objection to anything you’ve said, and I do believe very strongly in the value of the treatment, and I do wish to be able to write kind and encouraging things to other creatures in need of a mentor’s balm, but….”
“Yours is the heart bolstered enough to stand against the society, Mr. Ward, not mine,” said Mr. Wainwright. “I could scarcely say a word to Mr. Clifford-Smythe when he first sent me here when I began to first lose control of my person, and even when I had the most damning proof that the university’s leadership wished my students ill I could do little to confront them directly. Now you expect me to stand before a whole room of such unkind minds.” He sighed. “I fear I am a coward. What good can I do for others who share my nature if I scuttle back to my shadows the moment I suspect a problem cannot be evaded through comfortable methods?”
Aubrey took Mr. Wainwright’s hand and laced their fingers together, six cradling five. He did not smile—Aubrey was a man of limited outward cheer—but there was a gentleness in his voice all the same. “Proving that they can hope for happiness on terms they might set themselves is no small thing.”
“And yet, should they not expect more from a decorated jägermeister…?” said Mr. Wainwright. He looked down, but did not pull his hand away from where Aubrey held it.
“Why should they? A hunter exists to hunt, and hunt well, and arguably little else unless they claim further duties. It says nothing of what they might do when deprived of pistol and blade.” Aubrey stroked his thumb against the side of Mr. Wainwright’s index finger. “The society poisons us to think it is we who are at fault for being failed by its callousness; it tells us we are broken things, not only incapable of kindness but unworthy of it, for only a monster through and through can truly be set against its kin and hope to emerge victorious.” With his free hand he coaxed Mr. Wainwright by the chin until their eyes once more met. “Above all else, you are proof to all that it need not be so.”
Whatever color Mr. Wainwright’s eyes had been before they had changed to match his nature—and no one, least of all Mr. Wainwright himself, could recall the original shade, so it wasn’t like it mattered—they were now boldly their own: too purple to be brown, too brown to be red, too warm to be puce, too cool to be burgundy. Llewellyn had spoken the truth when they claimed he bore tells. For every odd-colored iris or extra digit he carried, though, it was as though a tremendous weight had been pulled away from him, and while Mr. Wainwright did not draw undue attention to these curious traits, the moment he stopped trying to conceal or deny them entirely was the moment he stopped manifesting more. By his own admission there would always be a part of Mr. Wainwright that needed to be defined by his skill, to know he was a knife that could be drawn or a torch that could be lit, and yet he had still been willing to listen to Aubrey’s suggestion that he could be more than just this. All the medical procedures in the world couldn’t replace that realization.
Aubrey had not created a monster, merely encouraged one.
“I shall trust your judgment, Mr. Ward,” said Mr. Wainwright after what had clearly been no small amount of internal debate. “After all, they say even a masterpiece may be nothing but flaws to its painter.”
“I thought you preferred sculpture?”
“I do, but don’t tell the house. I wouldn’t want it to be self-conscious about how it decorates.”
“Probably wise, yes,” said Aubrey. He released Mr. Wainwright’s hand and chin, then paused, a slight frown on his lips. “Speaking of not upsetting the house, the lock to your study stuck a bit when I was matching up the pieces, and I know I was moving them in the new order. Have you been writing down the solutions to any of the mechanisms again? You know it dislikes that.”
The little harumph Mr. Wainwright made told a tale clearer than verbal confirmation ever could. “I’m making sure to dress them up in riddles, so they’re more like mnemonics, really.”
“You shall need to do a better job of hiding them, then. I would prefer none of the trick passageways change how they open while I’m in the middle of oiling their hinges. Travel within the walls is only efficient if it’s guaranteed.”
“As you say, Mr. Ward.”
Upon being fed, given the rest of his medical tests for the day, and helped with his bath (which was thankfully no trouble for his leg once he was actually in the tub), Mr. Wainwright permitted Aubrey to put him to bed with a much less exciting book for entertainment. Their conversation had continued throughout—Mr. Wainwright had spoken the truth when claiming they spoke throughout the day—but it was not until Aubrey was putting fresh logs on the fire that anything more meaningful came of it.
“Yes, Mr. Wainwright?”
“I still remember what you said, when I offered to accompany you that day in the gardens,” he said. He twiddled with the tassel on his nightcap. “By going with you, assuming all is well by then…well, I shan’t be putting years of work at risk with my presence, shall I? What if they do think me nothing but a playing-piece who’s trained to do what he’s told? What if I just make your fellows view my kind even more unkindly?”
Aubrey pulled the fire-guard back in place, threw its bolts, and straightened up. “Then they shall be my responsibility to correct, and no one else’s,” he said.
“Oh dear. What of their poor clients, then?”
“It’s entirely possible they might come around to a more productive way of thinking without leaving those persons in their care in the lurch. Just as you will stay your hand just shy of cutting loose another hunter’s breath whenever you are able, so too do I display more discretion when it comes to most who wear the ring.” Aubrey took the layered blankets and tucked them up around Mr. Wainwright’s chin, taking care not to dislodge the much less exciting book. “You tend to yours, and I tend to mine, and together we shall see if we can’t make the society’s tomorrows a little bit better. We’ve plenty of time to prepare ourselves.”
Mr. Wainwright’s expression brightened. “No shame in optimism if there’s effort enough to justify it, yes?”
“Quite,” said Aubrey. He placed a kiss upon Mr. Wainwright’s cheek. No matter where Aubrey spent the few hours of sleep he claimed each night, this was a consistent part of their ritual. “Goodnight, Mr. Wainwright. Pleasant dreams.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Ward. I’ll see you in the morning. We’ll see if I’m good enough to come down to breakfast myself by then, won’t we?”
“We shall see, indeed,” said Aubrey. He gave Mr. Wainwright a final fond once-over before dimming the lights and disappearing into the hallway. The lock click-clattered closed behind him like the piece of complex machinery it was, whatever had vexed it so earlier in the day having been forgiven or forgotten, assuming there had ever been anything there at all.
In a certain social club, in a certain undisclosed location, it was still fifteen minutes before a certain appointed time. Aubrey and Mr. Wainwright had arrived at the venue much earlier than that, even, ostensibly for the purposes of reconnaissance; more importantly, it gave Aubrey ample opportunity to soothe Mr. Wainwright, who had spent the whole of the carriage ride across town thinking in knots. Now that they were both actually where they needed to be there would be ample time to untangle that sort of thing.
“I know you’ve said you don’t know how many others like myself will be here today, Mr. Ward, and I’ve read the papers you prepared for me a dozen times over by now, but I simply must know how big a little study-group you expect there to be.” Mr. Wainwright swayed to and fro as he leaned on his parasol, currently folded up into a lumpy walking stick. So long as he stayed away from the windows he was generally safe to wander about indoors sans sunshade. “There’s a great difference in scope for whether one is addressing five or twenty-five. And that’s assuming they’re academically minded in the first place.”
Aubrey patted Mr. Wainwright’s arm. “There are only so many handlers in this part of the country, professor, and only so many of that number attend these meetings. Of that fraction, it’s unlikely more than half of us have brought our charges, and in all likelihood we should expect not even a quarter.”
“That’s still anywhere in the vicinity of five and a dozen!”
“So it is,” said Aubrey. “This was not the reaction I expected from you. You certainly weren’t like this before your lectures at the academy.”
“Not any that you were present for,” said Mr. Wainwright. “The first handful of a semester, though? Simply awful.”
This earned a thoughtful sound from Aubrey. “Given how eagerly you’d offered to accompany me before it still comes as a surprise.”
Mr. Wainwright fretted. “I was expecting I’d be attending as a test subject, not a role model!”
“If it brings you any comfort, professor, you may consider yourself both,” said Aubrey. “Your presence will attest to the validity of the treatment no matter how flustered you may feel, and simply by thriving where others may see you will prove there is more to a life like yours than sorrow and pain.” He reached up to rest a gloved palm against Mr. Wainwright’s cheek. “Remember: you fear that you will make anything less than a perfect impression. They fear that they may not be permitted to exist.”
After a resigned sigh and a bit of nuzzling against Aubrey’s hand, Mr. Wainwright straightened up. “You always know just what to say, Mr. Ward,” he said.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Now, it’s correct to assume there’s a strong chance of spiritual anemia amongst any of my kind with whom I speak today, correct?”
“If any take tonics, such medicines are concocted from formulae other than my own.”
Mr. Wainwright smacked his lips. “And here I am, having drank mine up just after breakfast. Pity I didn’t bring a spare with me! I imagine there’d be little harm in allowing someone a sip.”
The tonics had been something of a necessity when traveling, as they filled the niche in Mr. Wainwright’s diet that he usually handled himself through making efficient use of his hunts; not everywhere the society sent them had night cities, unfortunately, and the kinds of tools required for a well-prepared hunt were unwise to cart about where just anyone might come across them, so a temporary measure had been devised. Being a deep, bloody red and stinking of murder (among other things), said tonics were not subtle brews. The wax daubed all around their stoppers was as much to keep the smell from getting out as it was for preventing unwanted adulterations from getting in. On assignments that pulled them away from the house for more than a smattering of days Mr. Wainwright had taken to keeping wax-papered humbugs on his person to keep the butcher’s tinge from his breath.
“Remember, professor,” said Aubrey, “that some of the patients you may see today are much younger than you’re used to seeing. They may not have much more experience with what they are than short, frightened outbursts, and are likely yet to embrace that half of themselves. Take care that your joy is not misinterpreted. No matter what their handlers have said, if they are anything like you were when you came to me, they may well view anything more outward than pure stoicism as a character flaw. The society does so love its cautionary tales of the beasts lurking within all our hearts.”
“Yes, yes, one must be forever wary of nights’ desires and devils’ fires,” said Mr. Wainwright with a roll of his eyes. “I’ll try not to be too happy in public, Mr. Ward.”
The clack of one of the doors leading from the club’s receiving room commanded their attention and both men turned to see who it was. First came Peckham, severe as always with her hair pulled back into a chignon, who then held the door to allow a young lady—of uncertain age, though she carried herself with the awkward half-adulthood of a girl in her teens—dressed in a long skirt paired with a pretty white blouse whose high collar was secured in place with a ribbon. She kept close to Peckham’s side but appeared unfettered. At least Mr. Wainwright wouldn’t be the only creature to attend without first being clapped in brass.
Peckham nodded to them in turn. “Professor Wainwright. Mr. Ward. A pleasure,” she said.
“Consider me most charmed, Ms. Peckham,” said Mr. Wainwright with a doff of his hat, all sign of his earlier nerves melting away into one of the sleepy grins he favored. He kept his hat to his chest as he regarded the young lady. “Would this be the same Miss Yates of whom I’ve heard?”
“I’m Penelope,” said Penelope.
Mr. Wainwright nodded and replaced his hat. “Well! Allow me to introduce myself properly: Jägermeister Hugh Robin Wainwright, professor emeritus of the academy, specialized in the ritual practitioner’s craft and all things related to the art of pursuit,” he said. He tugged at his cravat to reveal the metal it hid. Had they not been already indoors it would have been an absurdly incautious move; within the walls of the club’s receiving room, it was merely unwise. “Ms. Peckham may have mentioned there would be certain types of God’s children attending today. As you can see, I’m one of them.”
The unconscious brush of Penelope’s fingertips against her neck ribbon would have spoken volumes had Aubrey not already known what she was. “Ms. Peckham, am I supposed to…?” she asked. Her voice was as unevenly confident as her stride, though the keen ear could pick out snippets of boldness that were still being broken in, not unlike the tread of a newly gifted pair of shoes.
“The professor is simply making a show in good faith, Miss Yates,” said Peckham. “You may keep your bow in place if you’d rather keep your plate to yourself.”
Penelope nodded. “Does it hurt?” she asked, gesturing to Mr. Wainwright’s hands as he retied things. Her own were nothing unusual: five fingers, trimmed nails. Most creatures’ were much the same.
“Does what…oh! No, not in the slightest. Once I was properly symmetrical I adapted to the extra digits comfortably. They’re only slightly inconvenient when I am practicing my musical skills, and that is more because a pianoforte has certain anatomical expectations. When out and a-prowl I quite appreciate the subtly enhanced grip they afford me.”
This saw a look of discomfort settle on Penelope’s face. “I’m not a hunter, professor,” she said. “Hope you’re not disappointed.”
“My goodness, whyever would I be?” said Mr. Wainwright. “We creatures are well-suited to the task, this much is so, but just like any other member of the society, we’ve the right to choose more than a single path. Mr. Ward has mentioned you’ve been taking steps to be more neighborly, and to keep abreast of local affairs, besides, but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d be delighted to hear more detail straight from your own mouth?”
Before Penelope could answer, another door-click (this one from an inner chamber) signaled the arrival of Owsler, who’d been in charge of overseeing the catering that session and had likely been there for hours making sure there were enough trays of checkerboard sandwiches. He blinked at Mr. Wainwright in astonishment. “By God’s teeth, you actually brought him,” he said in Aubrey’s general direction. “Mr. Carruthers is going to be simply beside himself.”
“Good,” said Aubrey.
“Ms. Peckham, Mr. Ward, good to see you and your charges both,” added Owsler, hurriedly. “My Wendy couldn’t make it today, as her health’s still a bit too delicate. She sends her regards.” He stood back and gestured to the meeting room. “Won’t you all come in? You really must see what’s been done with the watercress. And the petit fours! The club’s staff have really outdone themselves today.”
“Of course, Mr. Owsler,” said Aubrey. “Ms. Peckham, Miss Yates, professor, let us all find somewhere more comfortable to be.”
They filed into the club’s depths, soon joined by other similarly-punctual attendees and certain guests, and when the doors closed again it was on an empty room much like any other.
The skies were as calm beneath the sun as they were furious in the night city, and it was a torrent of rain punctuated by the bright sizzle of thunderbolts that greeted hunter and handler both as their ride back from the club passed through one of the city’s many thresholds. Aside from the weather the trip had been a calm one of quiet conversation. Mr. Wainwright checked his pocketwatch throughout; it was not unusual for him to carry such a thing, especially if he had appointments to keep on the other side of the city, but as there had been nothing scheduled for either of them after the handlers’ meeting it was not in character for him to be so concerned with the minute and the hour. He claimed it was nothing when asked. As his answer was followed by a brief period where their driver had to fight to keep the horses from screaming down every monster for miles, it was easy to let the matter lie for a little while. Mr. Wainwright was not in the practice of keeping secrets. That is, at least not from Aubrey.
For a meeting that could have been absurdly messy it had gone surprisingly well. Carruthers had been livid, of course, and kept finding excuses to ask how well it would reflect on the society were a creature allowed to go about in public suddenly snap; to the others’ credit, this point was more or less ignored, even by devout provocateurs such as Llewellyn. The actual meat of the session hadn’t involved the charges at all, which had made it trivial to group together the assorted many-natured persons in attendance (of which there had been a smattering) to let them converse over some light dining while their handlers debated the issues of the hour elsewhere. Despite his initial nerves Mr. Wainwright had once again proven he didn’t not deserve his academic title. Demonstrative partial stretching had been involved. By the end of things no one had been mauled, even a little, and Mr. Wainwright had even managed to acquire post-forwarding information from most of the others; Penelope had been deemed a bit too young for regular contact, though he’d been sure to provide her with the address of a letter drop in the event she wanted advice later. It had not been perfect—not that anyone expected it to be—but for a statement proposed unofficially and in anger it could certainly have gone worse.
It was still pouring rain when the coach-horses’ hooves finally clattered to a stop before the house on Kettle Street. Aubrey shared some quiet words with the coachman through a sliding panel built into the carriage body itself; members of the society usually worked together with the assumption that any outstanding fees would be settled up by some clerk or another as they kept those ineffable ledgers balanced, but whenever dealing with anyone with less clout than a courier he preferred to write out a proper receipt. Someone had to be mindful of the little gears without which the whole mess of machinery would crumble. No small part of Aubrey’s fearsome reputation among those who needed to know it was of how seriously he took the need to keep those little gears greased, and what happened to those foolish enough to think they could scrap a few cogs while he was watching.
“Isn’t it lovely to be home again, Mr. Ward?” said Mr. Wainwright once they’d closed the front door behind them; his parasol had kept them from being complete drenched during their dash from the carriage, but the wind had been fierce enough that their clothes had gotten wet all the same.
“Your coat, please,” said Aubrey. He gestured and Mr. Wainwright relinquished his outer layers, which soon joined Aubrey’s own coat and cape on the drying rack. After some consideration the rest of their suits were deemed unlikely to imperil the furniture, though they both needed a change into cleaner house shoes before Aubrey was satisfied. Just because the house had thirsty floorboards didn’t justify tracking mud all over its carpeting.
Another flash of lightning illuminated the foyer as Aubrey lit a candlestick and beckoned to Mr. Wainwright. “Follow me, Mr. Wainwright,” he said, one foot resting on the lowest stair. “I’ll get a fire going for you.”
Mr. Wainwright glanced towards the parlor, where the great fireplace (which never quite went out, provided someone was formally staying at the house) loomed. “Oh? Is something the matter with the downstairs hearth?”
“Not at all. After such a tiring day I assume you may be weary, however, and I should like to see you properly dried off before you are left to recuperate. You are still partways in recovery.” This was true enough, as Mr. Wainwright’s last two rooftop outings had been purely to reacclimate to his preferred element; there were likely more tonics in his future before he was fit to find his own feast once more.
“Ye-es, I suppose so….”
“I would like to see you get some bed rest. My bed, preferably.”
The hesitance in Mr. Wainwright’s face evaporated. He finally put his pocketwatch away. “Mental exhaustion is just as serious as the physical kind,” he agreed, and he fell dutifully into step.
Aubrey took the stairs at the same pace as usual, untroubled by the pronounced cinch of his waist; one did not do housework in a corset as a matter of course without growing accustomed to its demands. Mr. Wainwright was kind enough to not make himself perpendicular again during their ascent, as even when not standing at his full height he was a nimbler, longer-legged man than Aubrey. Allowing patience for the limits of untransfigured humanity was important.
The door to Aubrey’s room, like most doors in the house, was secured by a devious lock that resembled a museum piece to the untrained eye, and if he took a bit more time than usual to place the cut-glass jewels into their proper slots in the graven goat’s head, clearly it was just to keep Mr. Wainwright from overexertion. Inside was as tidy as ever, Aubrey having remade the bed after waking Mr. Wainwright for breakfast that morning; he did not guide Mr. Wainwright there just yet, however, instead ushering him to a carpet in the center of the room. There Mr. Wainwright remained, his attention forever upon Aubrey (now busy with the fireplace, for which the humble candle-flame proved most helpful) even as thunder rolled outside and distant creatures cried out in ways that usually pulled his heart in the direction of claw and sword, of the ecstasy of the chase. A hunter could scarcely call themselves such if they couldn’t focus.
Soon the hearth was lit. Aubrey snuffed the candle and set it on the mantelpiece before vanishing in the direction of a linen cabinet, from which he returned with towels. Mr. Wainwright, for his part, remained still and allowed his face to be patted dry and his hair to be wrung out. In time the fire had caught enough to warm the room, and their clothes shed little wisps of steam. There were faster ways to handle wet clothes—changing into a fresh set, for example, or using tricks to simply step aside from where the water was—but neither of them commented on this.
The lamps were still turned down, leaving proper illumination to the fire and occasional interjection from the storm, and so it was a flickering glow that fell upon Aubrey as he silently tended to the duties of a gentleman’s gentleman, the towel about his shoulders the only concession to his own needs. It was this same glow that shone from the metal of his spectacles and cufflinks as he pressed his hand against Mr. Wainwright’s chest, walking them both along until Mr. Wainwright’s back was pressed to a part of the hearth not quite so ornamental as the rest. Mr. Wainwright offered no resistance. The fabric of his shirt was just on the cusp of dry, the half-avoided deluge now no more than a lingering dampness that grew less by the minute. Soon it would be like he’d never known anything but the coziness of the chamber dark. No one could say his handler was a negligent one.
“I take it you’re pleased with the way things went at the meeting?” said Mr. Wainwright with a smile.
“Yes,” said Aubrey.
“Am I correct to assume you have advice on how I should rest myself?”
Aubrey leaned in and up, now standing much closer than a normal butler would with an employer. “Very much so.”
“Well! Whatever it is, Mr. Ward, I’m sure it’s most reasonable.”
If Mr. Wainwright objected to being grabbed by the blouse-front and kissed with great force, he was very poor at showing it, as the way he pulled Aubrey closer gave a decidedly antithetical impression. One might argue that the way he folded his hands together at the small of Aubrey’s back, the lacing of his fingers mirroring the lacing of Aubrey’s corset, implied a certain familiarity, or how the way he sighed into Aubrey’s mouth upon finding a hand against the back of his head could be misinterpreted when paired with the pressure he put behind his hips. A physical reaction was never proof of the heart’s desire, on this they were both clear, and so it may have been nothing more than friction that caused the growing strain in his trousers; granted, there were no less than four layers of linen and wool between them there, even more if one took into account such matters as tucked-in shirttails, but Mr. Wainwright’s superior height meant that there would naturally be an alignment there in even the most innocent of situations. Assumptions were the seed of many a misunderstanding.
“How do you want me?” whispered Mr. Wainwright once they parted, banishing the need for assumption of any sort.
Aubrey wasted no time in answering. “Fold your clothes and leave them on the settee, please. It would be a shame to ruin them while you stretch.” He released his hold on Mr. Wainwright and stood back. Some things needed room to be done properly.
It was not the first time Mr. Wainwright had stretched since his leg had healed fully, as he had been quick to do so once the final stitch came free, and also preferred to sleep at his full height (with matching nightclothes, of course) much of the time; outside of dry medical examinations and the odd spot of assisting with Aubrey’s research, however, he’d been so busy with seeing to his backlog of responsibilities that he’d simply not had the time to display himself. Now there was nothing but time. He stripped down quickly and folded everything as he’d been asked, and after a quick glance at Aubrey for an approving nod, Mr. Wainwright let his anatomy redefine itself.
Creatures were no less human than anyone else, so Aubrey regularly claimed, and it could be said that there was certainly more of them to be human. Mr. Wainwright was a fine example of this. When he stretched there was an effortless comfort to it, as though he was merely limbering up before a spot of light exercise instead of letting his limbs find new joints. His second self was made up of hinges. The taut abdominal definition he usually kept under frocks and ruffles changed to match the elongated shape of his spine, his musculature choosing to multiply in addition to merely changing size, leaving him with a midsection unlike most other men’s: both halfway natural and yet intensely not. Each hand boasted far more than six fingers, the digits traveling down his forearms almost like the pinions of a bird. Those clothes tailored to fit him at such a height required extra sleeve buttons to account for these fingers, but such a challenge had been nothing to a sewing-minded valet. The claws that jutted from each fingertip and toe he’d long since learned to keep from scratching the floors or wallpaper. No matter how sharp his fangs he never so much as chipped any of their painted teacups. No matter how hungrily he ate he never so much as smudged the silver Aubrey polished so regularly. No matter how great his need—and now with no fabric to contain him he was clearly a beast in need—he always waited to see how his partner might wish to dance. Mr. Wainwright was, at all times, a most gentlemanly monster.
At his full height Mr. Wainwright stood even taller than usual, and so he sank down on the more convenient of his knees so that Aubrey could reach his head. Aubrey ran a hand along Mr. Wainwright’s muzzle and stroked his thumb along the bone of Mr. Wainwright’s cheek, the touch falling just beneath a row of eyes all tinged a familiar maroon. Those eyes glinted gold when reflecting the fire: three on one side, three on the other, and a seventh resting in the center of his forehead. His hair, both that on his face and that on his head, remained perfect.
“Do I please you?” asked Mr. Wainwright, his speech untroubled by the new shape of his mouth. He rubbed against the glove like a cat leaving its scent. This, too, was a task he could complete without risking cutting anything on his teeth.
“Always, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey. “I could scarcely begin to imagine a finer research assistant.”
Mr. Wainwright let himself be petted. “Is it presumptuous of me to think some of this evening’s kindness is due to your pride in my actions at the meeting?” he asked as Aubrey stroked the bridge of his nose.
The ghost of a smile settled on Aubrey’s lips, gone with the next roar of thunder but no less meaningful than the lightning that preceded it. “You were fine company, with good manners and temperament, and keen to make pleasant conversation. You shepherded others towards hope and purpose while proving the validity of my ongoing research. All this, and you indirectly humiliated a rival of mine. Of course I am proud.”
Mr. Wainwright beamed beamed (yet another thing he could do without risk of maiming anyone) and leaned in, perhaps for a kiss, when Aubrey stopped him with a finger placed to Mr. Wainwright’s forehead, just above his central eye.
“Not yet, Mr. Wainwright.”
“I can see you’re externally well,” continued Aubrey, “but I would like to look more thoroughly before we continue further.”
“Better eyes without than eyes within,” said Mr. Wainwright, agreeably. He’d once written a paper on the deeper meanings of finding eyes in unexpected places. So far he’d always manifested his externally, but one could never be too careful.
Two taps on Mr. Wainwright’s nose spurred him into opening his jaws a bit, which was enough for Aubrey to cradle Mr. Wainwright’s chin in one hand and hook a thumb into the belt of tissue that approximated a cheek. This revealed his interior teeth, which (though far less expressive than his outer set) still did their best to smile around the split in the lower set that allowed his tongue to pass between them. Another tug at his cheek-meat coaxed open this second pair, as well. A regimen of tooth powder and floss could truly work wonders for even the most atypical of dentition; Mr. Wainwright’s breath even still carried the lightly minty scent of one of his humbugs. Aubrey studied this fact and more with his usual air of calm professionalism. Once he had seen what he needed to he released Mr. Wainwright and wiped his saliva-wet hands on the towel still about his shoulders.
“You strike me as hale and hearty throughout, Mr. Wainwright, but we should perform one final test to be certain. It would be a shame if you were not fully convalesced.”
“Quite right, Mr. Ward.”
Strictly speaking, Mr. Wainwright did not possess lips when standing at his full height, but trivialities such as this had never stalled Aubrey before or now; they kissed one another with ease in spite of the impossibility. Their embrace was practiced. Aubrey reached for Mr. Wainwright’s hand and placed it against the fastens of his corset, and so, in a move nearly as practiced, Mr. Wainwright went about the careful process of relieving Aubrey of his narrow-middled figure. This was not as simple as merely relieving someone of their garment, as that which Aubrey wore was designed for society functionality as much as fashion, and its proofing against thaumaturgies and similar dreadful things meant that anyone other than Aubrey was at a great disadvantage in getting it off of him. Mr. Wainwright, being both a dreadful thing and also reliably invested in seeing Aubrey in the altogether, ultimately prevailed, and his little laugh of triumph when the final lacing fell loose once more proved the task a tolerable one. Finding ways to keep him suitably enriched was part of a handler’s duty, after all.
Without his corsetry Aubrey was left much softer, not unlike a mollusk relieved of its shell, but unlike the unlucky oyster he had nothing to fear for being in this vulnerable state; once he had unbuttoned his shirt, Aubrey was rewarded with Mr. Wainwright’s fingers pressing gently into the now-exposed flesh with care one might not normally expect from a creature of his size and ferocity.
He observed the way his sides dimpled beneath those careful claws with detached amusement. “Do I resemble one of those marbles from your youth this way, Mr. Wainwright?”
“Oh, my, yes…,” came the murmur in Aubrey’s ear.
“What thoughts do I inspire?”
“I, I should very much like to touch you more, Mr. Ward, and then take your length in my mouth to savor it, being certain to gently frame the head of it with my second teeth in the way you like.” His hands kept trying to roam everywhere at once. This was easy to do for one with hands like Mr. Wainwright.
“While I don’t doubt I’d enjoy that, I worry you might strain your neck if you aren’t careful. You’ve only recently been able to properly exercise again and mustn’t overextend yourself.”
This got a chuckle out of Mr. Wainwright even as his claws remained in motion. “Why, if I did, I surely wouldn’t fit in the parlor anymore.”
Before Mr. Wainwright could belabor his little joke, Aubrey silenced him with another kiss. This one was not as long as the previous one, broken when Aubrey took one of Mr. Wainwright’s nipples between thumb and forefinger and twisted just hard enough to make him gasp back in pleasure. Discovering the precise pressure to use had been a less-publicized part of their research.
“Jocularity aside, I insist you relax yourself this evening, Mr. Wainwright. Too much time on your knees defeats the goal of the rest I’ve prescribed you.”
“And if I’m ready to be taken to bed for said rest…?” said Mr. Wainwright, stammering and eager. His long body undulated in anticipation.
Aubrey stroked one of Mr. Wainwright’s tooth-lined ears. “Then I assure you you shan’t go untouched.”
The bed was a kingly thing compared to the cots upon which Aubrey had slept during his younger years, though compared to the canopied extravagance in the study it was still humble; it had enough room to entertain an extra sleeper, said position gladly filled by Mr. Wainwright most days, but said sleeper was expected to be of typical size and dimensions. In his current state Mr. Wainwright should not have fit, and yet when he lay himself out across the sheets he did not drape off the sides save in the way he wished to when trying to look alluring. It provided a fine view of him: lean and fierce, his skin unblemished by scars (his reattached leg having healed up perfectly, just like any other time), his more monstrous traits displayed proudly instead of concealed in shame. Upon learning Aubrey’s mind was an open one, the only time Mr. Wainwright had ever worried over his body was concern over his regenerated circumcision, which Aubrey had repeatedly assured him was no cause for concern at all. There was much to appreciate about any jägermeister on a professional level. With a fellow such as Mr. Wainwright, mere professionalism found itself woefully inadequate.
Quilted fabric made for a soft and downy backdrop as Aubrey settled into place at Mr. Wainwright’s side. The fire cut enough of the storm-carried chill that they could admire one another in comfort, though not so much that close contact was sweltering, and so they simply lay together for a while to enjoy the novelty of bare skin. Despite agreeing to passivity Mr. Wainwright had not lost his fascination with putting his hands wherever he was permitted; now that they were both recumbent, Aubrey permitted quite a lot.
“Were I as rich as Croesus, I would commission that same sculptor from my youth to immortalize you,” said Mr. Wainwright as he cupped a buttock with as many fingers as he could fit around it. “I’d be sure his finished marble honored you properly, of course. We could put it in the courtyard.”
“And with whom might I be paired, Mr. Wainwright?”
“Why, whomever you wish, of course, though if you’d not mind me as the participant, I’d be honored.”
“Your poor sculptor would likely exhaust his remaining years before he could finish capturing your true likeness,” said Aubrey, his hand slowly running down the bumps of Mr. Wainwright’s many-boned spine and then along the contour of one hip. It was not an unfair assessment; even the most partial study of Mr. Wainwright’s anatomy would take days to plan, much less execute, and this was assuming a stone reproduction wouldn’t be subject to the same concerns as the rejected photographs.
The potential subject was having none of it. “Such details have no place in a daydream, Mr. Ward.”
“I suppose they don’t.”
Aubrey let Mr. Wainwright hold him a while longer before sitting up. Mr. Wainwright made to follow suit but found a hand against his side, willing him stay in place, and while he did as he was told he made a curious sound in response.
“Rest,” said Aubrey. “You spoke much today about the necessity of trust between handler and patient. I would like to engage in a mutual showing of that trust.”
Mr. Wainwright flattened his ears against his head and blushed; it was hardly the first time such a suggestion had been made between them, even if their dalliances usually involved other activities. “Oh my. Are you sure that won’t cause me to exhaust myself?” His voice was eager despite his words.
“We shall have to see together, shan’t we?”
It took little time for Aubrey to pile up the pillows to support Mr. Wainwright’s head from various angles. He then opened the little stand at the side of the bed and produced a small stoppered container of boudoir oil, as even a thing as strange as Mr. Wainwright needed some assistance to remain comfortable during the proposed act, and even a practitioner as clever as Aubrey was well-served by relying on more than rite and ritual for such activities. Aubrey prepared himself first: he poured some of the oil into his cupped hand and held it a few moments to warm it, then pressed that anointed palm against the underside of his length and worked the stuff all along himself until every inch of skin glistened in the firelight. This was always the easier part.
Mr. Wainwright did not always fashion a tail, its presence depending on his whims and available trousers, and those times he did it was generally short and tapered; that evening found him with such an appendage, held in a delightful curl that had no time for false modesty. In spite of his eagerness he still had to be coaxed into relaxation as Aubrey applied oil to the ring of snug muscle situated a ways beneath said anatomy, and as usual it was easiest to seize Mr. Wainwright by the tail so that he couldn’t wriggle away when the time came to anele his interior self. The first time they had tried this Mr. Wainwright had made sounds like he was being murdered. With patience and practice—and no small amount of promises to Aubrey that he wasn’t truly in pain, and even if he was it was the sort that would fix itself quickly—he learned to still his cries. They had yet to find much that stilled the wriggling.
Soon the preparations were done. Aubrey guided Mr. Wainwright’s hips up to a suitable angle, one that left the latter participant still mostly lounged restfully as per his doctor’s orders. With another tug of Mr. Wainwright’s tail (earning a delighted yelp), Aubrey aligned himself with Mr. Wainwright’s eager orifice (earning an anticipatory whimper), and, with practiced restraint, pushed his tip inside (earning a gasp that became a moan, which itself fell apart into a panting breath). As skilled as Mr. Wainwright was with his mouth he’d barely done anything with his opposite side save for some youthful fumblings during his earliest years of training, and so it was important to be gentle with him. It was a simple truth: bodies took time to commit a new task to memory, even bodies supernaturally blessed, and this was so whether the task was learning a new music book or continued studies in receptive sodomy. That Mr. Wainwright was pleased in the end was all that really mattered.
Aubrey’s movements started subtly, working only the first inch or so past his glans as he allowed Mr. Wainwright to acclimate. These slow, shallow thrusts deepened over time. Mr. Wainwright was not typically the vocal sort, even when his mouth was unoccupied, but this detail changed somewhat when Aubrey lay with him this way; he would gasp and sigh as the spirit moved him, sometimes making softer vowel sounds that were not unlike Aubrey’s own infrequent utterances, and when Aubrey finally fit the whole of himself inside this prompted a cry close enough to one of pain that he paused mid-movement.
“Are you well, Mr. Wainwright?”
“Oh…,” came the reply. “Oh, but it is lovely, Mr. Ward. It’s as though I’m skewered stem to stern.” This was, strictly speaking, impossible, as there was more space between Mr. Wainwright’s stern and stem than there was of all of Aubrey put together, but Mr. Wainwright had always been a dramatic soul.
“If you would be so kind,” said Mr. Wainwright, and he smiled broadly enough for his tongue to flop out onto the pillowcase.
He did not need to repeat his request. Aubrey, emboldened, returned to his thrusting with gusto, alternating between swift movements that saw him unsheathe a mere fraction of himself before slamming home again and longer, more forceful strokes that at times risked unseating him from Mr. Wainwright’s nethers. A groan rose in his throat. No matter Mr. Wainwright’s shape he seldom had trouble turning Aubrey’s head, but it was whenever Mr. Wainwright made a show of prowess and then surrendered that strength and skill to him that Aubrey’s pulse was fiercest. Few things quickened him more intensely. Perhaps there were society philosophers who could find deeper meaning in the way his breaths came faster the greater the beast at his feet, but as Aubrey did not report to any such persons, the only academic to appreciate this detail was busy being pressed into the mattress, and was hardly an impartial observer.
Said observer had squeezed shut his eyes and kept bucking back against Aubrey’s stomach. “Please, oh please,” whimpered Mr. Wainwright between soft, animal sounds of need. “You, you must…you are so close, I beg of you….” He clung vainly to a pillow he’d been given. Trembles ran all through his body, sometimes in ways that didn’t wholly align with the muscle.
Aubrey placed his free hand against Mr. Wainwright’s stomach, just close enough to Mr. Wainwright’s member that each could no doubt feel the heat of the other. Mr. Wainwright’s ear was too far away for murmuring, so Aubrey spoke aloud: “What must I do?”
“Touch me, touch me, lest I surely go mad from it!”
The next thunderbolt was particularly fierce and washed out most detail it illuminated, so it was impossible to say for sure, but Aubrey may have looked quite smug as he wrapped his non-tail-holding hand about Mr. Wainwright’s quickening. In very little time Mr. Wainwright came with a sigh like he’d shrugged off a great weight, and his spasms were intense enough to bring Aubrey to satisfaction shortly after. Aubrey milked himself dry as he pulled out. The sheets would need washing again, but any butler worth his gloves understood that the needs of the master of the house sometimes necessitated extra effort. Until then they would simply fold something over the wet spot and lie together fondly, letting housework be a problem for the future.
“Listen to that lovely rain,” said Mr. Wainwright. Something screamed in the distance above the hiss of the storm; both men ignored it. What they did not ignore was the sound of a heavy knocker on the front door booming against its fixture. Said knockers went undisturbed by weather, unbedeviled by night creatures. The house did not permit anyone other than legitimate visitors to touch them.
Mr. Wainwright sat up like a shot. “Oh! The rest of my auctioneering must be here!” He slicked his ears back against his head, suddenly shy. “Would you mind receiving the parcels? I fear it might take me a bit too long to make myself look suitable for company. I tried to keep aware of the time, but, ah….”
“Certainly, Mr. Wainwright,” said Aubrey, already swinging his legs over the side of the bed in the direction of a rarely-worn robe. “Stay as you are, I won’t be long.”
It was, indeed, Mr. Wainwright’s final winnings at the door. The courier said nothing of Aubrey’s disheveled state, nor the hurriedness with which the interior lamps had been lit, as night city couriers had more to worry about than mussed hair or flushed cheeks on those who answered their summons. The winnings themselves were two familiar bottle-shaped packages and one much wider, flatter box. Aubrey, having completed what paperwork was needed of him, was about to take these all back upstairs when the skyclad bulk of Mr. Wainwright appeared from the shadows.
“Wonderful, wonderful!” he said, tapping his claws together with excitement. “The wine you recognize, but I’d like very much for you to examine the third, if you’d be so kind.”
Aubrey raised his eyebrows. Mr. Wainwright was usually terrible about spoiling gifts, but he hadn’t said a word about anything other than his usual personal acquisitions. “A present, is it?”
The box required Mr. Wainwright’s assistance to open, substituting brute strength for a pry-bar, but once he’d loosened the worst of the nails Aubrey was able to pull away the rest of the wood. Inside lay a framed lithograph depicting a woman, a curled whip in her hand, pointing at another figure, while a four-legged monster lunged towards the figure at her implied command. Above it were six lines of calligraphic verse:
A creature fierce, a creature wild
Who feasts on woman, man, and child
May lend its strength and vicious claws
To better serve a worthy cause
Beware the beast that makes the choice
To heed the lion-tamer’s voice!
This was followed by a proper attribution to Peter Bitterlea’s On Fiends and Their Fellows, with a conspicuous red signature beneath the author’s name. Bitterlea himself had been dead for some years by then; those remaining prints he’d signed were the last of their kind. The art was gorgeous, a far more skillful interpretation of the work than any of the cheaply-made poetry collections Aubrey had received during his childhood. It could quite easily hang in the company of the parlor’s existing artworks without being overshadowed. The house was sure to love it.
Mr. Wainwright poked his snout over Aubrey’s shoulder. “Well?”
“You bid for a Bitterlea quote,” murmured Aubrey. “The most important one.”
“I was so worried you’d guessed the surprise when you mentioned him by name during our outing at the botanical gardens,” said Mr. Wainwright. “I was determined to bid for it either way, but I really did hope I could bring you a bit of joy unexpected.” He dipped his head. “I hope it is not too presumptuous of me to fancy myself a heeder of your voice. Assuming your cause has need of me, at any rate.”
“Always,” said Aubrey. He reverently placed the lithograph on the foyer console before taking Mr. Wainwright’s face in his hands and kissing him with a sweetness usually kept stranger to his lips.
“So you do like it?” asked Mr. Wainwright once they parted.
Aubrey nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I daresay it shows you understand me far deeper than any other, perhaps more than my own blood. Words simply escape me.” He touched at Mr. Wainwright’s snout with the same reverence a pilgrim would a relic. “You are loved, Mr. Wainwright.”
The tips of Mr. Wainwright’s ears turned pink all around the teeth jutting from them. His eyes were awash with emotion. “I can never repay my debt to you. There’s simply nothing that would suffice. But my strength and claws are yours, always, and I shall forever be at the ready to do as you say.”
Wind howled across the chimney-tops as though to make comment. Aubrey shivered in the draft that followed; neither of them were properly dressed for the weather, even indoors, and with the parlor left dark the downstairs was bitterly cold. “Then you may consider it my first act as lion-tamer to advise you return to bed for more rest, lest you catch a chill in this foul storm.”
“The kind of bed rest that involves company, yes?”
“Perhaps,” said Aubrey. “Of course, if your beastly choice lies elsewhere….”
He didn’t have the chance to finish that sentence, as Mr. Wainwright was already galloping up the stairs by the time the first syllable left Aubrey’s lips. It was to be expected: when presented with a suitably appealing goal, a hunter’s instinct was to put everything into the pursuit of said goal, and only sanction from on high (or the word of a handler) could hope to stop them. That is, assuming one wanted them to be stopped.
With a private smile, Aubrey began to once more follow in pursuit of the ever-loyal vanguard.