written and illustrated by Iron Eater
The sun was not quite low enough for Hugh to risk folding up his parasol before he stepped into the lodging house that was set to be his home for the next several days. The interior looked more like a tavern than what he’d expected, though given how small the town was—to the extent he wasn’t quite sure if town was the right word for it—it made enough sense that the proprietor would need to find more money than whatever meager income could be coaxed from travelers and the more well-off of the locals. A few grizzled fellows in one corner of the room watched him with bored investment as he collapsed his portable sunshade into a less unwieldy shape. He was about to ask if either of the gents owned the place when a man with a rag in one hand and a boiled-looking complexion bustled out of a back room with great fuss and purpose.
“Afternoon, your esteemed lordship!” said the pink-faced man, his voice heavy with the local accent. “What might bring a man of your standing to my humble establishment?”
Hugh had prepared for this. “Yes, hello, I’m Professor H.R. Wainwright, out from the city,” he said with a tip of his hat. “I’ve had prior arrangement made to stay here for a while, given its proximity to Cadfael Heath. If you need to see a copy of the correspondence…?” He made to pull an envelope from one of the many inner pockets of his coat, but the proprietor waved him still.
“Shan’t be needed, your lordship, shan’t be needed. Of course we’re ready for one Professor Wainwright! The room’s all ready for you, nice and clean, perfect for a little holiday from the hustle and bustle while still befitting of your station, best one in the house, no question. No half-measures here at the Siren’s Head! You’re a most generous man, I say it truly, and I’d hate to imply I don’t recognize such generosity when it comes a-calling! Any friend of the manor’s is a friend of mine!” He spoke loudly, and with more force, than Hugh was accustomed to hearing, and despite having spent a mere minute or two in this garrulous man’s presence he already found himself growing exhausted.
“Splendid,” said Hugh, for want of something to say.
“We don’t see much in the way of high-learned men come through these parts, your lordship! What might I ask do you teach?”
Hugh had a great deal of practice in lying to the uninitiated. “Classics and naturalism,” he replied, brightly. The general populace didn’t need to know that there were magicians and horror-hunters in their midst, much less that Hugh sometimes advised the next generation of said. “I should note that it’s technically ‘professor emeritus,’ as I’ve been encouraged to tend to my own wellness before returning for another semester.” In truth he’d been desperate to leave teaching to return full-time to field work. The proprietor did not need to know this.
“Such a pity to hear, but what’s needed is needed.” The proprietor gave him a once-over with all the subtlety and tact of a festival bonfire. “Surely it ain’t simply yourself as you are to visit? I run no coaching house, your lordship, and it seems you’re a bit light on clothes and things if you plan to stay more than a mere night or so.”
This was also a question for which Hugh had prepared. “I do not travel alone, sir, never fear. As mentioned in the letters, I am abroad whilst in the company of a specialist who sees to my particular medical condition, and it is he who is handling the luggage.” A rap came from the vestibule door in a particular rhythm. Hugh, recognizing it, smiled. “Ah, that would be him now.” He stepped out of the way of the door, taking care to avoid what little light still streamed through the grimy glass windows. It was far too early in his visit to let his allergies get the best of him.
An oak-slat trunk entered the main room first, followed by the ever-solemn visage of Mr. Ward, the aforementioned specialist. He was still clad in his traveling garb of coat and flat cap, his long hair having begun to escape from where he’d tucked it up beneath the latter. Save for an impassive glance from behind his spectacles he paid the proprietor no heed as he rounded the trunk to haul, two-handed, on one of its handles until its bulk was no longer barring the doorway. Another mighty pull saw him and the luggage at Hugh’s side.
This informal entrance didn’t seem to trouble the proprietor, who made a little gasp of recognition when Mr. Ward straightened himself once more. “Well, bless my soul, if it isn’t little Ori Ward, twice as big and just as solemn!”
Mr. Ward ignored him. “Do we know which room is ours yet, Professor Wainwright?” he asked Hugh. He, too, spoke with the local accent, though it had clearly spent some time being shaped by life spent elsewhere, not unlike the pruning of a wild and healthy hedge into a topiary.
“Only that it is a fine one, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh.
“Yes, I suppose that would be more important,” said Mr. Ward. “Clearly we would never know where to lay our heads without this information.”
The proprietor was still unflappable even in the face of this chilly reception. “For all the letters we exchanged, you never once said it was you holding the pen, dear boy,” he said, leaning over Mr. Ward’s shoulder and now very much in the way. “Here I am, having traded mail for weeks without knowing the wiser. Some folk ’round here—not myself, of course, never myself—were convinced you got gobbled up by the city once you left your post up at the manor! I’m so pleased to see this was pure poppycock.” His rheumy eyes glinted with avarice. “His lordship says you’re a doctor now, does he?”
“I regret to say my field has yet to award me a title, Mr. Cutty, and so my work yields more humble fruit than that which you may imagine,” said Mr. Ward. “It is for the good of mankind, not monetary gain, that I follow my current path, and I am no less dedicated to the professor’s well-being for it.”
“Yes, of course, of course, we all must do as we can within our station,” said Mr. Cutty, who made no move to stand aside.
Mr. Ward said nothing as he rubbed at his hands. Usually Hugh was the one who moved heavy things around the house, being the more physically adept of the two, but such was hardly interchangeable with their current locale; a member of the gentry simply did not trouble themselves with carrying their impedimenta, whether on holiday or most any other day of the year, and so Mr. Ward was called into service to do so. Only the specter of propriety kept Hugh from fussing over him in front of the whole room.
“They do feed you in the city, don’t they?” asked Mr. Cutty as he peered, owlishly, at Mr. Ward’s hourglass figure. “Why, even these old eyes can see you’re simply wasting away.”
“It is called a corset, Mr. Cutty.” Mr. Ward cracked his knuckles with the most guarded of winces. “Would you please let me know which room is ours? The professor has been traveling all day.”
Mr. Cutty blustered but ultimately relinquished the key. There was light discussion of payment, public hours, and the kitchens, and after that Mr. Cutty insisted on leading them up to their room himself. Hugh was not certain how one might end up getting lost in a building whose structure, as near as he could tell, was unlikely to change itself; then again, he was a man of different skills than most, so perhaps Mr. Cutty found the routine necessary for a more typical guest.
The room, once they reached it, was a humble affair with a bed, a window, and little else. Their luggage had seemed modest during the ride out from the city; here on the third floor of the Siren’s Head it felt as big as the black-watered sea. It was a wonder the three of them could stand in it at once.
“Here she is, your lordship, a fine room, and on the topmost floor so you shan’t be troubled by the local rabble,” said Mr. Cutty. He winked at Mr. Ward, who continued to ignore him in favor of getting the trunk as out of the way as he could manage. “The washroom’s down the hall, and we’ve got the pipes in what don’t require cisterns to get your water. Going to be a fine and relaxing stay with that magnificence on your side, won’t it, professor?”
Hugh, who had never lived a day of his life without indoor plumbing, nodded.
“We’ve got bits of supper cooking downstairs, and you’ll be mindful to come down between eight and nine o’ the clock if you wish some, with breakfast come about seven tomorrow morn. Your lordship is welcome to use the kitchen, of course, but I’ll not have anyone upsettin’ my cook-staff, as they’ve the whole of the place to feed plus any pub-comers in the hours between.” How many people were counted in this tally Hugh did not know, though he suspected the answer was generally not a large number. “Can I get anything else for our esteemed guest?”
“That will be all, Mr. Cutty,” said Mr. Ward. He opened up the trunk to produce a lantern, which he lit and set on one of the two shelves that ran parallel to the bed. Upon checking the window he made a small exhalation through his nose, one which Hugh had learned signaled disapproval, then wiped down the glass with a rag before pulling closed the ratty curtain and hanging a longer drape over it; had they not their lamp with them the room would have been rendered quite dark. The Siren’s Head was clearly not set up for modern illumination. Rag still in hand, he turned to Mr. Cutty once more. “May we have our privacy? The professor needs his rest.”
Mr. Cutty scuttled sideways into the hall like a very pink crab. “Yes, of course, of course. You do as you must, my dear boy, and we shall see you at suppertime?”
“If the professor’s schedule permits. Good evening, Mr. Cutty,” said Mr. Ward, who closed the door between them.
Hugh waited until Mr. Cutty’s steps vanished downstairs to comment. “It’s rather small, isn’t it?”
“With that there is no argument, Mr. Wainwright, but we are still fortunate the room is ours and ours alone. Mr. Cutty is of the breed that believes a bed left unslept in is wasteful. He was once known to rent rooms in shifts.”
“My goodness me. Whenever would they have time to launder the sheets?”
“They all too frequently wouldn’t,” said Mr. Ward, who took this as a prompt to shake out the comforter. Dust motes went a-whirling in the oily light. Hugh stood back and let him work. Usually Hugh assisted with the chores in the hours between his society responsibilities, having learned the ways Mr. Ward wished things to be done; for this assignment, however, Mr. Ward had insisted Hugh play the part of the well-heeled layabout, as it would inspire fewer questions. If staying out of the way was the only thing he could do for now, so Hugh would endeavor.
Soon the room was, if not necessarily pristine, at least more livable, with the trunk’s contents arranged as much as they could be. “This should suffice for now,” said Mr. Ward. “Please do tell me if the sun causes you any trouble, Mr. Wainwright. I dislike the thought of you becoming day-sick from insufficient darkness. Would you mind seeing if you’ll be caused any discomfort this evening?”
Hugh carefully doffed a glove and wiggled his exposed digits in the path of where the last fingers of sundown had fallen across the floorboards. “Neither pain nor itching, Mr. Ward,” he said.
Mr. Ward nodded in approval. “Good. We shall see how things progress tomorrow, after your trip to the seaside. I ask that you be self-aware during your constitutional.”
“Will you not be joining me, Mr. Ward?”
“I have business to which I must attend, Mr. Wainwright, and we must remember why we are both here. There will ideally be occasion for us both to visit later.”
“Yes, I suppose that is so…,” said Hugh, trying his best not to sound too glum. For all his years he’d never once been to the seaside, his past waterfront visits remaining strictly riparian, and since he’d first learned of their assignment to the little ocean burg he’d had many a happy daydream of strolling arm-in-arm with Mr. Ward as they observed the shore. They were actually in town to investigate the suspicious disappearance of the lord of Cadfael Heath, he reminded himself, but his was a sentimental nature, and he could not help but be disappointed at one less chance to enjoy the scenery with his beloved handler.
When the society had first told him he’d be paired with Mr. Ward, Hugh had been distraught. Did they not trust in his abilities? Worse, did they fear he might harm something—or someone—other than that to which he was assigned? It had been a mystery as to what should expect from his mysterious overseer all the way up until arriving at the storm-slick doorstep of their first house. Mr. Ward had greeted him with courtesy, professionalism, and a meal of very pleasant soup. In retrospect, that evening was the first proper step on Hugh’s ever-winding journey of enlightenment; if Mr. Ward’s calm and impartial care came paired with fondness for the man who treated him with such genuine compassion, who could be surprised?
He aided Mr. Ward with his research, and Mr. Ward in turn oversaw Hugh’s self-betterment, the two of them building upon one another’s strengths until they made for a whole far more fearsome than the sum of its halves. The society soon learned not to separate them. It was therefore only natural that they had been dispatched together; rationally, Hugh knew that there were places a wealthy-looking man could go that a humbler local could not, and vice versa, but he’d still hoped that their first joint assignment would have started off a bit more romantic.
By the time Mr. Ward finished it was nearly time for supper, which they took in one of the downstairs booths amid a crowd larger than expected but still nowhere big enough to fill the place. Hugh had never had water souchy before, being a gentleman who usually took his fish in filets or minced up into a pie rather than served in its own boiling-broth, but after the initial surprise of the pin bones in his first mouthful he found he took to it well enough. It was the only thing served that night that had much flavor to speak of at all. Savory or not, he wrote down everything he ate in the little meal-tracking booklet he’d bound together explicitly for travel; his proper records he’d left at home, as the parts of his diet he harvested himself were no business of nosy pickpockets. He’d yet to feel so much as a tingling remnant of a night city about, either, which meant no chance to hunt, and that meant he’d need to ration the tonics Mr. Ward had packed for him to reduce the risk of becoming nutritionally deficient. Few gave much of a thought to whatever wild smells came from a bottle provided they assumed it to be medicine.
The washroom Mr. Cutty had pointed out wasn’t dirty, which brought Hugh no end of relief, although he found it difficult to find anywhere he could reliably keep his clothes while bathing, and dressing for bed required some creativity. He was careful to tie a kerchief about the society emblem at his neck. Men such as Hugh wore them as a sign of allegiance, and in fact couldn’t remove them, but the last thing he needed was some keen-eyed stranger spotting it and knowing what it—and therefore Hugh—was. A mild, foppish instructor was far lower a profile to keep than a beast-hunting beast.
Reading by lamplight made way for uneasy sleep. Hugh had lived in plenty of places that housed other residents, some quite boisterous, and even the mechanical house that was his current home was never completely still; the Siren’s Head, on the other hand, was built in such a way that it felt like every set of footsteps he heard were sure to pass right outside his door, startling him back to alertness each time they caught his ear. The mattress and pillows were all wrong. There wasn’t enough room. Hugh sometimes slept without stretching, as his body no longer cried out for any excuse to expand to its proper size, yet just as he’d feared he felt cramped now that the choice was taken away from him once more.
He pulled the blankets close. Not every night would be like this, he reminded himself, as surely he would acclimate with time, and once Mr. Ward did not need to perform so many furtive tasks after dark they would have more opportunity to enjoy one another’s company. Until then, Hugh could only devote himself to warming the bed; this affirmation of purpose did bring some comfort with it. A good night’s rest would see them both all the more prepared for their tasks. It was not as though they never slept apart, after all, and Hugh chose to use the circumstances as a way to mentally bolster himself against the strain of adopting a slightly ill-fitting persona for as long as was necessary. His last conscious thoughts before slumber embraced him were full of the potential of a brand new day.
The beach, it turned out, was a rather miserable place to be that time of year, especially alone, which Hugh was, and particularly if one possessed a temperament easily coaxed into melancholy, which Hugh most certainly did. He huddled beneath his parasol. The rain made his sunshade not quite as conspicuous, he reasoned, and it did block some of the spray from the waves, but those waves themselves were terrors. How on earth had anyone managed to settle here when it seemed like the waters longed to swallow up everything before them? More disappointing than the weather was how Hugh had not seen a single sea-star despite trudging up and down the sand for hours. He couldn’t help but feel personally offended.
Those boats out on the pier strained at their tethers; only the most ferocious of fishermen would risk fighting against such a squall, Hugh supposed, assuming they were not already at sea when the storm roared down. This had seen the Siren’s Head far busier than it had been the night before, which had brought many a curious look cast at Hugh ever since he’d stepped downstairs for breakfast. He could feel them study the embroidery of his coat and his fashionable hat. Rationally he had nothing to fear from the townsfolk, as his subtler senses had detected nothing but dedicated humanity in their midst, and Hugh, even unarmed, was a creature of sublime skill and ferocity. Irrationally, he’d felt very much like a peafowl strutting before a gaggle of hungry cats.
Judging eyes still found Hugh out on the sand. He’d thought at first that he’d simply been imagining things, or perhaps making the error of assuming one gentleman in simple-colored clothes was the same as another, but the longer he patrolled the shore the clearer it became that the same man kept meandering down the waterfront. The portly fellow wore an oilskin coat pulled over his thick gray sweater, his face so weathered beneath his broad-brimmed hat that Hugh couldn’t imagine him as any other profession than fisherman. He was also clearly watching Hugh in such a manner that implied he didn’t care if he was seen. Did he know what Hugh was? Was he displeased at having a man of the society about? To whom did he report? There were no answers for any of these queries, but at least Hugh had something of note to share with Mr. Ward when next they spoke.
Hugh puttered about on the shore until the bell tower rang half past ten. This struck him as a fine time to prepare for a morning call, as the great manor of Cadfael Heath would still take him time to reach by appropriate means; in his natural habitat Hugh feared neither rain nor distance, but his natural habitat was rather far away at the moment. He resigned himself to a slow walk.
Cadfael Heath’s main grounds overlooked the sea. One might argue whether much of the town did so, but not so the manor; it was built on a cliffside many dozens of feet above the water, and the hall glared from its basalt-ringed perch at a height that rivaled that of the nearby lighthouse. The estate gates were thankfully left open. The chimes for quarter past eleven rang out just as he alighted upon the step and rapped one of the great brass door-knockers against its impact plate. If he was early for a visit he was not unfathomably so, Hugh reckoned, especially since he and the local gentry were unknowns to one another, and all he needed to do was get inside.
A man in a smart black coat answered the door, his face drawn and weary. He barely opened it enough to reveal a slice of his features—certainly not enough to admit a guest—and seemed uninterested in Hugh’s presence. “Yes?”
While much time had passed since Hugh had last been in such a situation, he distinctly remembered house staff employing more formal methods of greeting unexpected visitors. The strain of Lord Cadfael’s absence, to say nothing of the others in his employ who’d vanished, was clearly taking its toll. “Good morning to you,” he said with a tip of his hat. “I am Professor Wainwright, just out from the city, here to pay my respects to the lord of the manor. I arrived by carriage just last evening and fear I could not introduce myself any sooner than now.”
“His lordship is not receiving visitors today. Please leave.”
Not so much as an ortolan handkerchief of an excuse draped over the situation? Some of Hugh’s wilder suspicions perhaps held an element of truth if he was being shooed away so brusquely. He didn’t hold it against the doorman; only a churl blamed the servant for the master’s folly. “I’m so terribly sorry to impose. In that case, may I ask when it might be more fitting for me to return?”
The doorman sighed. “His lordship has made it clear to us that he will not be meeting with anyone, even family, until he has completed his current business to his satisfaction,” he said. Hugh’s time with Mr. Ward had taught him many ways to identify double-speech; were this man not evading something on behalf of some part of the estate, Hugh would be simply amazed.
Ulterior motives or no, Hugh was determined to be as polite as could be on his end of the equation. “I understand, and I shall not trouble him further unless called upon. My specialist and I have lodging at the Siren’s Head. If I may leave my card…?” He proffered the aforementioned calling card, one corner already turned down to signify his visit of courtesy. Its brilliant colors were even brighter against the deep black of his gloves. He was sure to hold it in such a way that the extra digit he bore on that hand didn’t call attention to itself.
“His lordship has no time for them,” said the doorman without spending so much as a moment to admire the fine birds and flowers adorning the little card. “Good day to you, professor.” He then firmly closed the door and threw the bolt with an audible click, leaving Hugh with no company but the rain and an overwhelming feeling of frustration.
Hugh’s first impulse was to become quite grumpy, which he permitted himself for a short while, and once the initial sting of foiled plans dulled he took it upon himself to be more clever in how he approached things. His time with the society had taught him to be insightful in many ways which were not solely dedicated to hunting. Still huddled beneath the hall’s entablature, he let himself rest against a column and expanded his subtler senses outwards. Soon he had the answer he sought: somewhere upon the grounds of Cadfael Heath was a little pocket of a night city wholly unconnected to anything else.
What was troubling was that it was not one which he could enter by the usual means.
Travel to and from the night city was usually something Hugh approached with all the gravitas of nipping down to the shops to find himself something needful, or perhaps a treat for Mr. Ward, and as his current residence stood within the night city itself he often traipsed between city-sides quite casually, and sometimes many times in a single day, if there was commerce to be done. Any hunter among the initiated could do so. It was not unreasonable that a typical visitor might need an amulet of guidance, or a relic of suitable attunement, or some similar assistive device, to better breach the gap, as the trip could be a jarring one even if they were a seasoned traveler; Hugh had long ago realized that slipping from place to place unkitted was but one of many aspects of the work that came to him with great comfort and ease. He was, simply put, quite good at doing impossible things both before and after breakfast. That a night city eluded him was unthinkable.
A pocket place such as this could, to his knowledge, come from many sources, from sheer misfortune on up to being sculpted by some mystical architect, and as there was no night side to the town there were unlikely to be other hunters. Those local broadsheets he had been able to acquire before the trip had said nothing of strange sights in dark places, missing persons, or terrible violence, which meant that whatever thing—or things—made their lair within it had yet to go a-roaming from it. He perceived no signs of creatures entering or leaving the hall, which further limited the pocket’s influence. Was he the only one who knew this yet? Were there any initiates among the townsfolk? Were there any among the denizens of Cadfael Heath itself? With luck, Mr. Ward would know the answer to at least one of his questions. It was time to regroup.
The rain eased up as he walked back down to town, the skies still gray but no longer weeping, and Hugh was eager enough to not be wearing many layers of damp wool that he took a brief detour to a nearby copse; no one was there among the trees to espy him dissolve into odd vapors only to reassemble himself again, now nice and dry, but even if he’d witnesses they surely would have understood how few enjoyed the feeling of sopping wet clothes on an already chilly day. Magicians, even ritual masters of Hugh’s ability, were only human.
“What in the world is this?”
Mr. Ward glanced down at one of the two paper-wrapped oblong things he held. “It’s codfish, professor.” He took a demonstrative bite from the piece not held in his outstretched hand, revealing the flaky white flesh of the oblong’s innards. They steamed in the cold. “Granted, when I serve fish I prepare it differently, but surely you’ve had it batter-fried before?”
“Batter-fried! I never would have imagined!” said Hugh as he accepted the cod. The paper felt heavier than a simple filet would imply; to his delight, packed all around the fish’s breading were little chunks of what he took to be potato, also smelling of the most savory of greases. “And it comes with a little side! I’ve never seen such before, in all my days. What a lovely lunch! Oh, I do hope it didn’t cost you too much to acquire these, Mr. Ward.”
Mr. Ward’s brow creased. “It’s a common street food,” he said. “Even as a child I could afford it.”
“Really, now!” said Hugh around a mouthful of fish and crispy breading. “I never would have suspected. Though in hindsight it does make sense, being so close to the sea.” He popped a whole potato chunk between his lips and munched happily. “I imagine one can dine quite handsomely in town with such delights as this available on the streets themselves. To think they made such a magnificent meal using no doubt far less than a restaurant’s kitchen!”
“We make do, professor,” said Mr. Ward.
Hugh nibbled his way through several more bites of his lunch as he and Mr. Ward sat beneath a little shelter that faced the sand. The food warmed his body from the inside out. His occasional glances over at Mr. Ward showed Hugh that he wasn’t alone in enjoying the meal, as Mr. Ward had finished his own nearly down to the paper. Was this a comfort food of his, perhaps? Hugh decided he would request Mr. Ward prepare some time once they were safely back home and had a few more typical dinners between then and now. It would be nice if they could both share a treat.
Soon his thoughts turned once again to their work. “Were you able to do what you needed this morning, Mr. Ward?”
This earned Hugh a dissatisfied grumble. “No, professor, I was not. We were supposed to receive a parcel upon our arrival here, and records show it was delivered two days prior to when we first stepped foot into the public house. I am very upset with its absence.”
“Oh dear! Did it contain tools of the trade?”
“Yes. You understand why I am concerned.”
Hugh nodded. Even at its mildest Mr. Ward’s trade involved a profusion of syringes and scalpels, and from there it became increasingly esoteric and increasingly hazardous. Cargo such as that would be sealed against tampering by those not sworn to society secrets, and yet if there was already an unknown night city in this place, who knew how long such a seal might hold?
“Is there a postmaster in town we might ask after it?”
Mr. Ward folded up his fishwrap and scowled at the wave-scalloped horizon. “That was where I began. We found papers tracking it, all filed as they ought in her records, but at some step of the process they were compromised. The postmaster told me one of her stamps went missing a few months prior; she suspected it had simply become lost, and had a replacement made with subtle differences to its mark to more easily suss out forgery. You can imagine our dismay when each mark on the documents matched the new stamp perfectly.”
“So it would not be surprising if there was strange trickery afoot,” said Hugh. Society magicians were loath to directly name their craft outside the most secluded of safe-houses.
This earned him a nod. “Precisely, professor.” Mr. Ward glanced at him over the tops of his spectacles. “Were you able to arrange an audience at the manor? I should hate to think we’ve both been thwarted.”
“I fear it may well be so, Mr. Ward….”
His brains were not so rain-soaked that his memory failed him, and so Hugh summoned up the best report he could manage, striving to be ever-informative while keeping his words just veiled enough that some passer-by might mistake it for little more than a foiled social call. Mr. Ward’s mouth twitched disapprovingly when Hugh described the doorman’s actions. Just as Hugh suspected, the moment he spoke of a heretofore unknown night city in the vicinity—and one he could not enter in his usual manner, at that—was enough to provoke a look of genuine surprise. Mr. Ward spent so much of his time with his eyes half-lidded it made for quite a sight.
“And you were unwelcome at every door you tried, you say?” said Mr. Ward once Hugh had finished. “They would not even accept a card?”
“Nor even touch it! I may well have offered him a dead bird.”
“So we cannot even pay a visit later to reclaim it. Very unsettling. Did anything else peculiar happen to you this morning, professor?”
Something had happened, or at least potentially had done so. “I suspect a fellow was watching me.”
“Indeed? Could you describe him for me, please?”
“I shall try,” said Hugh. “He was an older gentleman, I think, one old enough to have children of his own. Perhaps even grandchildren? Big oilskin coat over a sweater, silver whiskers, well-loved dark leather boots. He struck me as a laboring sort. I thought he might be a fisherman, as his attire and features would not be out of place with those of such a trade I have known in the past, and it’s a known profession in these parts.”
“Did he say anything to you?”
“Not a word, Mr. Ward. He simply was there many times, on a day when few would wish to be out, and with no clear task to bring him from his home into the weather.” Hugh bolted down the last fried potato and, once prompted, handed over the greasy paper, which soon met the same angrily-folded fate as its twin. “I also suspect he knew I could see him, and that he made no attempt to conceal his observation worries me.”
Mr. Ward stroked his chin. “Then I shall watch for him during my evening errands, professor.”
“Oh, please do, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh. “I worry!”
“You’re very kind.” The town clock chimed another quarter hour; it felt like they’d been speaking both longer and shorter than they actually had been. Mr. Ward glanced over at Hugh. “And since you may need to eat on your own this evening, we should see to your daily regimen sooner than later, lest the change in routine make it easy to forget.”
The medicinal (and not terribly pleasant) tea blend that Hugh usually thought of as a daily necessity was easy enough for him to prepare on his own; it was clear from context Mr. Ward meant the other substance. Going without the latter would have different repercussions than less-settled nerves. “Yes, I suppose we ought to be getting back, hadn’t we?”
“No need to return to the room, professor. I’ve your supplement right here.” Mr. Ward reached to his satchel to produce a stoppered glass bottle full of something sludgy and red. A sharp, thick scent came from its mouth once he broke the seal with his thumbnail; it was very much the smell of a charnel house, or perhaps a battlefield hospital. Hugh’s stomach, having long since learned to associate that grisly smell with food, growled in spite of the meal still fresh between his teeth. His pale cheeks flushed with embarrassment. Usually he had such good self-control! Mr. Ward, for his part, simply looked amused.
Hugh gladly accepted the bottle and downed its contents with forced care, complete with a lick of the stopper before he replaced it again. It was important he not spill so much as a drop of it. He wouldn’t be able to hunt while away from home, after all, and it was important for a man of his temperament to maintain a balanced diet. The fish and its supplement both went down in his meal ledger as usual.
“I must be back to my errands, professor,” said Mr. Ward as he reclaimed the bottle. “Be careful not to get too much sun. Even with your parasol you risk taxing yourself, as I suspect this is the most you have been out-of-doors before nightfall in quite some time.”
“The sea-stars cannot evade me forever, Mr. Ward, but I promise I will come in from the rain if I have yet to spy any by midafternoon. I shall be sure to spend plenty of time drying out by the fire afterward.”
“Very good.It is not a large settlement, professor, but I trust you shall find a worthwhile place to spend your time once you have tired of your vigil.” Having said this Mr. Ward leaned up, which prompted Hugh to turn his cheek to receive a kiss. Mr. Ward was many things, and hesitant in his fondness was not one of them. Those who might be scandalized by such public sincerity, he had explained once, were the sort that deserved to be scandalized. “A fine day to you, Professor Wainwright, and I shall most likely see you in the morning.”
“I wish you well with your every endeavor, Mr. Ward.”
With a flick of his sunshade Hugh left the shelter for the sand, his eyes ever-watchful for strange fishermen.
Once the tide began coming in once more Hugh found he could no longer comfortably loiter on the beach; the gap of time between then and the next meal to be served back at the public house needed filling that ideally did not include Mr. Cutty, and so Hugh went exploring. The town was too small for a formal library, though some questioning into the matter revealed that the local ragged school—loudly funded by the lord of the manor, naturally—kept a reading-room that the public was permitted to visit, provided they did not disturb the lessons of any of the wan-faced youngsters who trickled in when their work permitted them, and so Hugh found himself there for want of anywhere more enchanting to be (or, barring that, the presence of Mr. Ward to render most any surroundings so). He selected a book on the history of Cadfael Heath and began to compare what it said to the information he already knew.
Cadfael Heath (so the book said) was built two centuries prior when the family Cadfael was granted its title by the crown; being a shipping family by trade they requested lands close to the sea, and being of utterly limited importance (so the book tried not to imply) they were set to lord over the town and surrounding region. Officially this was so they could better sponsor the lighthouses along that most perilous portion of coast, as well as general keeping of the peace and stewardship of the resident common-folk; unofficially it kept them out of the way of grander lineages with more thalassophobic leanings. Hugh supposed all of these would reasonably add up to building such a grand estate that challenged the very ocean itself with its architecture. They could not have their port, so they settled for the portentous.
Hugh had no trouble in finding the ever-lengthening list of public works sponsored by the manor. The school in which he sat was an obvious choice, as was the church, but he was surprised to learn that a town of such modest means had a casual ward; he usually associated such places with bigger cities, the sort that had a populace dense enough to justify an entire edifice’s worth of day-by-day housing. Mr. Cutty was taxed enough to rent the beds in his hostel, was he not? Perhaps this was one reason. A night in the spike (so Hugh had heard such places called) required equal work the next day to pay off, and such labor would surely interfere with the trawling upon which so much of the town relied. While he expected little from perusing a collection mostly meant for younger readers, Hugh still took it upon himself to hunt for any sign that the town had seen an influx of roustabouts at some recent juncture.
A scrap of sanguine caught Hugh’s eye from across the room as he searched for useful titles. This turned out to be a book bound in crimson; between the brilliance of its binding and the crispness of its pages it clearly was not read often, likely due to its spot on a shelf so high up that the little ladder-steps provided for the children had no hope of reaching it. He picked it up and skimmed through it. Its content was unremarkable—a thoroughly average collection of folktales—but the bookplate on the inside cover was far more interesting, declaring it a gift from a purveyor of books and rarities, and given the address a local one, at that. What business did a town of this size have with hosting an antiquarian? Hugh looked the book over with care. He detected no sigils worked into the pattern of the bookplate, nor hidden anywhere else within the pages, nor could he suss out any ulterior motive for its donation beyond charity. It still didn’t sit right. First the fisherman, then the doorman, and now this little surprise; it was as though the town was devising new ways to unsettle his balance at every turn.
Hugh stayed indoors until one of the school’s staff shooed him out, which luckily coincided with the next meal service at the Siren’s Head. The main room was even busier than it had been that morning. Some stew, bread, and two glasses of disappointing wine should have made for a passable meal, but this was not to be, less so because of the wine (though it truly was unpleasant) and more because of Mr. Cutty, who (upon finding Hugh dining alone) seemed keen on sharing every possible detail of Mr. Ward’s history he could think up no matter their veracity or propriety. Hugh felt like an accomplice in the invasion of Mr. Ward’s privacy. He knew some of his handler’s history, delivered organically in bits and pieces over the course of several months, and Mr. Ward was quite aware of Hugh’s own, as it had been in his case file when they were first assigned to one another. This outpouring of gossip without its subject’s blessing struck him as nothing less than mean-spirited.
“Some in town say he’s my own, you know,” said Mr. Cutty in one of his endless bloviations. “Now, your lordship, you know I’d never cast aspersions upon dear Primrose, but we all do know she’s of that oldest profession, and I don’t mean her tailorin’, of course.”
“Ezekiel doesn’t mind it, see, and not minding things is a trait well unknown to Ori Ward, so given an apple rarely falls far from its branch I’ve my suspicions, I do. There’s also a similarity of profile to be considered. Why, I heard some who saw us both as lads say we’re the spitting image of one another. You can see it, can’t you, professor?” Mr. Cutty turned to the side and gestured to himself. Save for an overall general softness about the face there was no such similarity that Hugh could see.
Were he a fiercer man (not unlike the absent Mr. Ward himself) Hugh might have said a great many things to this. Instead, all he could manage was a meek, “My goodness.”
Mr. Cutty barreled onward. “It’s wonderful having him back, of course, never let it be thought I’d say otherwise. We’d all thought him et up by witches or the like until he appeared on the doorstep yesterday. A man can miss a lad terribly, and yet he’s been cold as clay the whole time despite knowing this. He never even said a word of who he was through all those letters he wrote to arrange for your room! Surely you’d be willing to put in a kind word for me, your lordship?”
“Certainly,” Hugh lied.
“Now I couldn’t help but wonder, professor, why a gent might carry an umbrella such as that one at your side? It’s been a rainy day today, as you know, but you had it with you yesterday, and it was dry as a bone then.”
“It’s the sunlight, Mr. Cutty. I’m quite allergic to it. I am still recovering from a recent swoon, and Mr. Ward has been exacting with my treatment since.” In truth the worst that would happen were Hugh to bask would be sloughing off great sheets of dead skin and flesh, perhaps with the odd spot of dizziness or general unease, which was disquieting but hardly a hazard to his health. He already carried a parasol, which there was no use hiding, so it was easier all around to frame it in as a condition worthy of sympathy.
“Sunlight, you say,” said Mr. Cutty, making a face that Hugh first took for gas troubles before realizing it was meant to be a look of great cunning. “That in mind, I cannot help but note you’ve been preferrin’ the less seasoned of our offerings this evening, professor, and it really is quite an odd trait. What sort of fellow doesn’t take his winkles with garlic?”
The hairs on the back of Hugh’s neck stood up. Mr. Cutty was extraordinarily wrong, of course, as Hugh was no more a strigoi than he was a sturgeon, but the dreadful old proprietor had nevertheless somehow sussed out that Hugh possessed more humanity than the norm. At least there was truth to fall back on. “I fear I’m unused to eating periwinkles in any way, sir, and thought perhaps I should sample them with minimal additives to best understand the flavor. Mr. Ward encourages me to holistically appreciate my food.”
“And what of these, then?” Mr. Cutty clacked one of Hugh’s tonic bottles down on the table. Its red-brown contents sloshed sludgily on impact. “One of the maids brought it to me this evening, and professor, I must tell you it true does stink.”
Now this was definitely a falsehood, since if Mr. Cutty employed maids they were not the sort who were paid enough to be both willing and able to break a seal set with chalk and care. Mr. Ward had been right to urge Hugh to leave anything remotely society-related at home. The tonic itself was easily explained: “Why, it’s my anemia medicine, Mr. Cutty.” Hugh cheerily opened the bottle—the seal had not been broken, so Mr. Cutty had presumably guessed what the stuff smelled like—and drained it. He wiped his mouth on his napkin once he finished. “Mr. Ward uses all manner of fortifying things to brew it, sir, and I fear they really do make a smell once they’re mixed up. Hence why there’s wax all about the stopper. I was due for my night-time dose, so I’m grateful you brought this to me, sir. You’re very kind.”
Mr. Cutty visibly struggled with the praise. “No courtesy spared at the Siren’s Head, professor, that you can see,” he said, awkwardly.
“As plain as the mermaid on its sign,” agreed Hugh.
“Just to be clear, professor, you might ought be careful with how you do carry yourself about, as someone not as in the know as myself might see some details in a piecemeal fashion and come to a bad conclusion, indeed.”
Hugh chuckled. “If that conclusion is the same one I suspect it might be, why, they would not be wholly incorrect. I am of the peerage, after all.” As a younger man he’d never considered the deeper metaphors behind certain fiends of literature (he was, after all, such a creature himself, and far less allegorical) and he might well have continued in this fashion had he not made the acquaintance of Mr. Ward. Mr. Ward had a great deal to say about the meaning of monsters. Once one knew how to spot the transposition of the predations of the aristocracy to the red-streaked maw of a brute that stalked the alleys of the commoners’ wards it was clear as day.
Mr. Cutty did not seem to make the same connection. “Didn’t mean to imply you weren’t highborn, your lordship,” he said, “simply that coincidence can build on coincidence, and a right-thinking gent might get the wrong idea, and—”
The town’s clock rang out the hour and Hugh brightened at this perfect chance to escape. “Goodness me, would you simply look at the time,” he said. “I really ought to take my evening constitutional, as Mr. Ward expressed his worries that I might celebrate too much if I stay in too long on my own.” He rapped the nearby wine bottle with his knuckle, hoping Mr. Cutty didn’t notice just how little was missing. If there was so much as a drop of decent claret in town, it had yet to cross Hugh’s path. He rose, retrieved his hat from its nearby hanging-peg, and adjusted how his hair sat beneath its brim. “If he asks, do let him know I am minding his advice, won’t you, sir?”
“Of course, professor,” said Mr. Cutty. He made no move to stop Hugh, though the look on his face implied he had yet to shed his suspicions. That was fine, then; Hugh had experience with being looked upon like a wild animal waiting to show its teeth.
With folded parasol in hand Hugh weaved through the mealtime crowd towards the starlit dark of the street, and if anyone else took issue with the glint in his eye or the metallic tang to his breath they were wise enough to leave such things unsaid.
The antiquarian’s little shop was still at the address Hugh had copied and had already closed up for the night by the time he arrived. Pressing his nose against the glass, Hugh could pick out rows of tidy bookshelves interspersed with glass cases and curios. Who knew what wonders lay within those covers? How many rare editions lay within, how many priceless references? The ragged school’s reading-room had done what it could, but this, this was a veritable feast for the collector of distinction. He felt like a child outside a toymaker’s; were the year closer to the winter holidays he might well have started composing a list for himself.
Hugh closed his eyes and concentrated. When he opened them again they were finely-tuned to what little light made it through the shop window, and tuned finer still to the little tells a gentleman of his profession learned to spot when handling unfamiliar artifacts. What he saw of the place was clean, and yet there was a certain character to the place, an echo of sorts; perhaps there were no such things there now, but society contraband had been present in the shop recently enough that Hugh could still detect its presence some time after the fact. He wet his lips. Was this a stop-off for smuggling, then? Even if it had nothing to do with Lord Cadfael’s fate at all, the society would want to know about a possible chink in its armor, as the society couldn’t afford to let outsiders get curious. Curiosity was what made far too many decent people disappear.
Hugh pondered. How was he to further investigate? He was a self-professed professor of classics, so he had every reason to swing by the shop come daylight, and the thought of browsing the public stock was tantalizing. The antiquarian was unknown to the society record, however, which meant the usual method of a call-and-response cipher to establish a bond of courteous trust was out, and Hugh was clearly being suspicious enough already. Too much attention drawn to himself could ruin the whole affair! A half-infirm lecturer would have every reason to take home something new from a bookshop once he heard it existed.
There really were quite a lot of fantastic things inside. Perhaps this was what had become of the missing parcel? Hugh cursed himself for not asking Mr. Ward what signs had been placed upon it, as if he knew what to feel for he might have been able to verify if it was on the premises. There he had it: yet another reason he would want to return here with Mr. Ward. If he happened to walk out with a pile of new material all wrapped up in butcher paper, no one could blame him. The oft-infirm had to plan ahead to entertain themselves for those long, dreary days when their health faltered, after all….
He was shaken from his thoughts by the sound of two cats yowling, which became two cats fighting, which finished as suddenly as it began as the winner and loser bolted off in what were likely opposite directions. When was the last time Hugh had heard a cat? The night city’s sounds were a thing of their own, so it likely had been during his teaching days, or perhaps back before he’d begun his treatment at all. He’d forgotten how calm places sounded when they weren’t awash with night creatures. Hugh sighed. He could recognize the local sounds for what they were, but they really couldn’t compare to the soothing cacophony of home. He rested his parasol against his shoulder and took a moment to truly listen to his surroundings; if he couldn’t be lulled to sleep by distant howling, he could at least experience what the sun-touched world considered normal, and reflect on all the differences he risked taking for granted.
It was then that something else caught his ear: footsteps.
Without a moment’s hesitation Hugh scurried up a drainpipe and flattened himself against the shingles. The steps continued their approach with a calm and even gait; whoever was making them did not seem to care if they were detected. Soon the glow of a lantern rounded the bend and Hugh was able to see whoever was coming. He could not find it in himself to be surprised when the light revealed a weathered face with silver whiskers, the owner of that face clad in oilskin laid over the thick, familiar weave of a fisherman’s sweater.
The fisherman made his way to the door of the shop but didn’t knock. He, too, peered through the window, sometimes raising or lowering his lantern to change the way the light fell inside. What Hugh did not expect was for the old man to then rattle the door like a burglar hunting for easy marks. Thusly thwarted, he went through a nearby alley and tried the back door the same way, followed by some of the windows. Nothing opened for him. This struck Hugh as disappointing; he had rather liked the mystery of why this unknown party seemed so keen on observing him and how he’d been followed at what felt like the perfect time. That the fisherman was perhaps nothing more than a common thief felt anticlimactic.
Had that been the end of it, Hugh might have considered it an odd but otherwise unremarkable event; what made his guts twist in his belly was how the old man then studied the ground below where Hugh had climbed. A normal man would not have been able to see the tracks Hugh left. The fisherman, however, was able to perfectly trace the outline of a boot print with his finger, then follow with his eyes the drain up which Hugh had tried to vanish as though the old man could recall the act itself. Sweat beaded at Hugh’s temples. He had hidden from worse before, and so he would remain hidden, and he repeated this over and over in his mind even as it seemed the fisherman was staring right at him despite the angle of the roof.
A long minute passed. Hugh willed himself calm and still—he could scarcely call himself a hunter if he could not, much less a jägermeister—and let the old man see nothing even as his eyes passed over the place where Hugh had melded into the shadows. In time the fisherman, whose expression never once changed as he scanned the roof, the alley, and various points behind the shop, seemed to lose interest, and so he circled back to look through its window one final time before turning back to from whence he first came. He hadn’t uttered a single sound the entire time he was there.
Hugh waited until those measured footsteps had receded beneath the sound of the waves, and then a little while after that, before he allowed himself to so much as scan his surroundings with eyes still sharpened by hunter’s tricks. There was no sign of the old man or anyone else. From his vantage he could see certain parts of the town still housed the occasional light, as while the hour was late it was not so late that every day-laborer would be in bed, while the streets around the antiquarian’s shop remained dark as pitch save for the moon’s thin luster; he saw no candles in the windows or movements behind their shutters. How strange it was to perform his everyday task of moving unseen without the safety of snuffing out any unwanted witness to his passing!
The town’s clock tolled as though to scold Hugh for dawdling. It was time to regroup and make sense of what he had learned. He skidded down the side of the shop, brushed the worst of the grime from his clothes (looking no doubt the result of a fall, Hugh hoped, as who would suspect a silly professor left alone in the wet and dark wouldn’t take a tumble?), ground away the prints where he’d landed with his heel, and began to walk back towards the Siren’s Head, his eyes forever scanning the shadows for the shine of a lantern off of oilskin.
It had been a rather calm night save for the brief pocket of mystery at the bookshop, and between his nerves still sizzling from going unseen and the absorbing treatise on local sea-birds he’d taken to bed with him Hugh found himself wide awake with a second wind at an hour far longer than he suspected was usual. He didn’t truly realize just how late it was until he caught the sound of the lock, followed by the unmistakable silhouette of Mr. Ward as he slipped in from the hallway. Mr. Ward’s tread was as quiet as a spider’s—unsurprising, given his history of service and other, more furtive pursuits—and as he usually took to bed well after Hugh did it was something of a novelty to see him retire. Hugh let what few sounds Mr. Ward did make guide his mind’s eye through a routine he usually never saw.
The creaks and thumps would be Mr. Ward opening their luggage and looking for something. The rustles would be fabric on fabric, one outfit painstakingly doffed followed by a far more expedient donning of nightclothes. The second set of rustles would be him brushing out his hair before tying it back to keep it tidy as he slept. The rattle was him double-checking the door and its bolts. The click was his glasses folding up to be placed on the room’s shelf. All of these sounded refreshingly normal, and when his soft, familiar shape nestled against Hugh’s own Hugh could almost imagine they were back in the mechanical house, safe and cozy in the depths of the waking nightmare they’d made their home.
Hugh instinctively put an arm about Mr. Ward’s waist and drew him close into a sideways embrace. They were so close he could still make out the faint traces of scent that Mr. Ward had dabbed into his hair the day before. “Good evening, Mr. Ward,” he said, softly.
“Good evening, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. “I was surprised to find you still awake.”
If anyone could tell whether Hugh was sleeping at a glance, surely it was his dedicated handler. “Nothing troublesome, I assure you,” he said.
“Too much reading?”
“Naturally.” Hugh placed a kiss against the back of Mr. Ward’s neck. “I shan’t complain much, though, as without this vexing wakefulness I’d be denied the pleasure of your company.”
“Indeed, Mr. Wainwright.” Hugh seized upon the sliver of genuine fondness that crept into those words. An unkind person might claim Mr. Ward was wholly without emotion, having a face of stone with a heart to match. Hugh knew better; Mr. Ward was simply guarded in his mannerisms (knowing firsthand how well a perceived weakness could become another man’s advantage) and strictly curated those few who were permitted to see past his oft-serene surface, so each subtle quirk of his Cupid’s-bow lips could speak volumes through sheer context alone to those who knew how to read them. Hugh was an avid reader in this regard, too.
“Did you accomplish what you wished to today?”
Mr. Ward was quite invisible in the curtain-swaddled dark, and yet Hugh could so easily imagine the way he rolled his eyes, perhaps accompanied by a furrowing of his brow. Mr. Ward was never pleased if something interfered with his own personal goals of efficiency. “I achieved more than nothing, and it shall have to do.”
“I am sure it was no small amount of effort. Let the day be done. You deserve a good night’s rest.”
“I suppose so, Mr. Wainwright.” Mr. Ward permitted Hugh to hold him a while longer before he rolled over so they could lie face-to-face, or, more accurately, nose-to-forehead. “I am glad you’re still awake, actually, as I wish to reinforce the seals. I believe someone has been inside while we were out.”
The memory of Mr. Cutty with one of Hugh’s tonics in hand haunted Hugh. How many unwelcome fingers had already poked through his personal effects? “Yes, I agree,” he said. “How much blood will you need?”
“A simple draw’s worth should suffice,” said Mr. Ward. He paused, then rested his palm against Hugh’s chest. “However, should you wish to contribute different reagents, I would be happy to oblige in their collection.”
“I should like that very much, Mr. Ward.”
“Then so it shall be done.”
A nudge was all it took to convince Hugh to roll onto his opposite side. Their time together—a hair over two years, by now! he could barely conceive of it—had introduced him to the many wonderful things capable of a man with Mr. Ward’s manual dexterity, and yet it was still a surprise when Mr. Ward did not reach beneath the hem of Hugh’s nightshirt as was usual but instead unfastened the lacing keeping Hugh’s garment fitted in place. The evening chill was swiftly replaced by a questing hand, which also did not seek out Hugh’s member, instead brushing against his varied knots of muscle before coming to rest just beneath a nipple.
“Like so?” said Mr. Ward in Hugh’s ear.
“Like so,” Hugh agreed, breathily, his attention fully upon the hand as fully as it was upon him.
That same hand drew a fingertip across Hugh’s areola, angling just so as it kept from brushing the stiffening peak in its center, and it took very little time for that counterclockwise motion to demand his attention in entirety. When Mr. Ward deigned to touch him fully it was enough to make Hugh’s breath catch, and when that touch became a twist between thumb and forefinger Hugh cried out softly in pleasure in spite of himself. Hopefully that was the sort of fondness Mr. Ward needed from him.
Mr. Ward’s other hand did not remain idle. He threaded it between the mattress and Hugh’s narrow waist to fall against the front of Hugh’s nightshirt, choosing to clutch at his flesh through the fabric instead of pulling up the hem to touch him directly. This did not signal a pause in Mr. Ward’s attentions to Hugh’s chest; he remained merciless in his ministrations. Hugh wriggled and pressed back against Mr. Ward, who, even in the midst of his focus, was becoming quite hard. Was this something he liked, then? The way he ground up against the cleft of Hugh’s buttocks certainly implied so, and the attentions paid to Hugh’s tender spots made quite the argument in Mr. Ward’s favor.
Hugh’s thoughts raced with the memory of Mr. Ward’s bare thighs pressed against the backs of his own, of Hugh’s manifold claws curled against the backboard or scrabbling for fistfuls of sheets, of the way it felt to be able to count Mr. Ward’s heartbeats in such an intimate manner, of the deep satisfaction in knowing he could bring someone so dear to him delight. That he could hear Mr. Ward’s breath in his ear made these recollections all the sweeter.
Thanks to wistful thinking and Mr. Ward’s nimbleness it was not overly long before Hugh felt the familiar rising tension in his core. He whimpered a few syllables that might have been words; intelligible or no, Mr. Ward understood their meaning, and with his trademark proficiency rucked Hugh’s nightshirt up and his breeches down to ensure that a cupped palm, not Hugh’s clothes, would collect his satisfaction. A firm and kindly touch saw the deed completed. Mr. Ward stripped him of his delight-dampened garments and placed them with those Hugh had befouled when hiding on the roof; a creak of their luggage and a soft thump on the pillow next to Hugh’s head signaled the arrival of a fresh set of nightclothes. Hugh dressed himself dreamily as Mr. Ward went about the process of strengthening that which had weakened.
Nearly every humour one could extract from a man had value as a practitioner’s reagent, and if said man was a creature it was exponentially so; at home they kept many neatly labeled samples of Hugh’s blood in a cupboard, as it retained much of its potency even after the regimen of medical tests performed upon it. That most masculine of Hugh’s humours usually did not see such usage, but this did not make it any less a wellspring of vitality, and as Mr. Ward’s methods were subtle ones it was not as though there would be any residue to alarm the (potentially mythical) cleaning staff once they took their final leave. Hugh closed his eyes and relaxed as he listened to Mr. Ward work. The murmured incantations were as soothing as any lullaby.
He could feel the seals—wards, more technically, but given Mr. Ward’s surname it felt rather twee to refer to them as such—as they snapped into focus in a way imperceptible to those untrained in the art. More worrisome was that said focus also revealed the presence of someone in the hallway. Feeling others nearby without seeing them was no new trick to a hunter skilled with watch-patterns, but this was nothing as simple as sensing someone stepping from another room or heading up the stairs; in this case, they were right outside the door, perhaps with an ear against the wall, and judging by their position and certain subtler details they had clearly been lurking there for some time.
Hugh felt ill. It took every ounce of his composure to keep from leaping from the bed and accosting the villain where they stood. His hands itched for weapons he did not have, longed to stretch into claws he must not reveal. It made him feel helpless in a way he had not expected when he first agreed to hide that part of himself behind the professor’s wan and foolish smile.
It seemed he was not the only one who noticed, either. “You seem restless, professor,” said Mr. Ward in a voice a hair louder than before. “Would some water help?”
“Please,” said Hugh.
“A moment, then, and I shall bring you a cup from the washroom.” He was loud in unlocking the door, and Hugh took some satisfaction in how quickly he felt the interloper bolt back down the hallway at the first scrape of the tumblers.
True to his word, Mr. Ward did actually bring Hugh some water, which Hugh sipped at as they discussed details of the day that now had different context. Everything circled back to the lurker at the door. “One moment they were not there, and then the next, they were as clear as a church’s bell,” he said. “I suspect it to be Mr. Cutty, or someone in allegiance with him, as he had one of my tonics in his possession earlier today, and I know I keep the whole of my supply locked up tight. Even if he’s innocent that still leaves us with the mystery of how this skulk concealed themselves. I am rather unused to anything hiding from me in such a manner, quarry or otherwise.”
Mr. Ward hissed in frustration. “Why their presence would be guarded against persons of your nature concerns me. I suspect this is somehow tied to the absence at the manor.” He paced as he spoke, having not yet returned to bed.
“At least it’s connected to our reason for coming out all this way,” said Hugh. “I would be quite cross were it simply an unrelated bedevilment to an already trying assignment.”
This earned him a sigh. “Let us hope that is the case.”
Hugh frowned. “Shall I pursue them, Mr. Ward?”
“No, better they not yet know we’ve noticed. We can ensnare them better later. For now, Lord Cadfael is our primary concern.”
This was a reasonable statement, even if Hugh’s instincts cried out for the chase. “With the visitor scared away and us with no intent on running them down, this does leave us at an impasse until morning,” he said, then leaned towards Mr. Ward’s upright silhouette. “Shall I instead use this opportunity to repay you for your kindness…?” He wet his lips in anticipation. A true gentleman was always keen to return favors.
Mr. Ward waved him off. “Later, Mr. Wainwright. In light of what we’ve learned I must make additional notes for tomorrow.”
“Yes, of course.” Hugh strained not to sound wounded. He’d felt how fiercely quickened Mr. Ward had been. How he already longed to carry that quickening in his mouth! Usually it took little more than an exchange of knowing looks for Hugh to be on his knees, eagerly providing the gentler of his perfected services, and rare were the times when such a look went without reciprocation. It really would only take a few minutes of their time…. “Was it purely an obligation for you, then? The collection?”
“No, Mr. Wainwright, it was not,” said Mr. Ward, gently. He leaned down and left a kiss upon Hugh’s temple. “I’m sure we will find the opportunity in time. For now, you need your rest.”
“As you say, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh, unconvinced.
A match struck and the lamp guttered to life, followed by the scratch of pen against paper. Hugh sighed. They were due to meet with one of the few society members in town the following day, so it made sense Mr. Ward would see to documenting anything out of the ordinary at the first possible moment. In times of great discovery it was rare to see him without a veritable halo of notes, filling his every waking hour with the compulsion to write things down for future reference. Some nights it was as though the man never slept. Much as Hugh had hoped otherwise, this was likely to be one such evening.
With as much decorum as he could salvage, Hugh pulled the blankets up around his chin, closed his eyes, and waited for wakefulness to finally take its leave.
Breakfast had been an awkward affair, not because of Mr. Ward, who had at least been willing to cuddle for a few blissful minutes that morning, but because of Mr. Cutty, who (upon finding Hugh dining alone while Mr. Ward saw to some last-minute details) seemed keen on sharing every possible detail of Mr. Ward’s history he could think up no matter their veracity or propriety. This outpouring of gossip without its subject’s blessing struck Hugh as nothing less than mean-spirited.
The awkward feeling followed Hugh on his morning walk. It felt like the whole place was awash with eyes, and while normally this was to be expected given the cut of his clothes and the grand parasol under which he walked, something felt off about the attention. The locals—many having stayed on land again due to the lingering tells of foul weather—gave him a wide berth as he passed, some glancing places other than his hat, his fancy boots, or the spray of flowers pinned to the lapel of his coat. Did his gloves not disguise his extra fingers well enough? Were his eyes shining too redly in this light, or too golden? A glance in a shop window revealed him to look much as he always did when on the town. Did this place not approve of him carrying on with one of its own, then? Hugh was unsure how one went about convincing an entire geographical location of his character, but he found himself determined to try.
Hugh met up with Mr. Ward in the center square. After such an off-putting morning he was grateful for the chance to clasp hands and kiss one another’s cheeks with suitably chaste affection. After an exchange of pleasantries they fell into step, Mr. Ward leading the way. He kept the picnic basket he’d packed that morning held close to his person. A fellow could go all manner of places if he looked like he was trying to reach some other goal.
“Mr. Cutty is very…attached to you, is he not?” asked Hugh as they navigated the twisting streets.
Mr. Ward scoffed. “He’s an occasional client of my mother’s. He fancies himself to be my biological father, despite the unlikelihood of such. This does not stop him from trying to curry my favor.”
This knowledge sat poorly with Hugh in the face of recent events. “If he considers you his flesh and blood, why would he linger so outside our door?”
“I never said he was a decorous man, professor.”
Hugh shuddered. His lineage was not one so noble as to have a braided family tree, and so even the hint of such proclivities was all it took to make him feel quite unwell. “On that I can agree. He seemed keen to recount every element he could imagine whilst I was having my morning porridge. I shut my ears to as much of it as I could, Mr. Ward, as it was not his story to share, but I fear he spoke regardless.”
“You are asking me to set the record straight, then?”
“If you should care to. I understand if it is a delicate matter.”
Mr. Ward gave him a half-shrug in response. “It doesn’t trouble me, professor. The basic elements are simple: I was born to a moll and a fisherman, who raised me with great love. In time we realized my eyes were so poor as to need lenses, and as I was old enough to walk and speak on my own, I went out into the world to help earn the coin to afford them.”
“Mr. Cutty did mention you had once been a mudlark,” said Hugh. He tried to imagine Mr. Ward as a child; the best he could manage was a shorter version of the original, sans spectacles and much of the length of his hair, glaring calmly into the water as his little fingers fished up rubbish to resell or rope-bits to pick for oakum. Hugh suspected this was not wholly accurate.
“Just so. Through great effort, and no less great fortune, we maintained a simple home for ourselves, and needed not throw ourselves upon the mercy of the spike. When not laboring I took advantage of the ragged school, of course, as my parents were keen I study what I could, when I could, as they had scant time to tutor me themselves.”
Hugh brightened. “Ah, the school! I saw the reading-room there! It must have been a splendid place to learn your letters.”
Mr. Ward shrugged again. “I could only attend so often. Most of my understanding of the written word actually came from passing around serials with other young people. One of my comrades even acquired a dictionary to help us better understand the more lurid details.”
Hugh thought back to the hardbound volumes of penny-dreadful tales sometimes in Mr. Ward’s possession, at least one of which had made its way into their luggage with them. He’d assumed they were a baser pleasure—and perhaps they were—but this added knowledge made each tome of gore and cruelty that much more meaningful. He made an interested noise and waited for Mr. Ward to continue.
“I turned from river-dipping to helping my mother with her sewing once I had skill enough with a needle to do so. This was how I worked until a call came out for a hallboy at the manor, and since I was the best with numbers and most willing to clean they accepted me for the role. I was in the employ of Lord Cadfael until I was asked to see to some curious guests, whereupon I witnessed curious things, and his lordship was informed I would be returning to the city with them for ‘mentorship.’ I was initiated shortly thereafter. The rest you know.”
Some things didn’t need to be stated outright to be said. “Did Lord Cadfael know they were society men, these guests of his?”
“He is not on record as having sworn the oaths, so I suspect not, professor. The fact of the matter is that he knew these guests often engaged in behaviors that were prone to reducing the number of help available. You know my temperament, Professor Wainwright, and it is not a new invention. I believe he wished to be rid of me without the stigma of sending away a lad considered helpful by his other staff. After all, his lordship fancies himself a humanitarian.” His expression darkened. “One might suspect I have adopted similar goals as a way of showing the manner in which such a thing is properly done.”
“As well you should, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh, and he meant every word of it. He spotted another knot of day-laborers watching him with distrust and waited until they turned another corner before making mention of it. “They look at me so, no matter how jovial I try to be. Is my mask slipping? Is it because they know?”
Mr. Ward touched the sleeve of Hugh’s coat in a brief moment of comfort. “In a way, yes, professor: They know you are closer in wealth to Lord Cadfael than themselves, and they have no reason not to be wary.”
“He is that cruel to them?”
“One might say he is no crueler than any other aristocrat, professor, and that is what they see.”
In due time they arrived at a ramshackle building, half of which stuck out over the water like the neck of a heron. It was in good repair, simply weathered and in place plagued by cheap materials; from the flowers in the box gardens and the clean curtains visible through the greenish glass windows, it was clear that someone cared for the place. Mr. Ward strode up to the door and rapped at it in a casually particular pattern. A panel in the door opened, revealing the eyes—and little else—of someone Hugh took to be an older woman. “Yes?”
“Good morning,” said Mr. Ward. He held up his hand in greeting to the face behind the door, angled so that the ring about his smallest finger was clearly visible. “I apologize for calling so early again, but there is so much to do and I’ve only two hands.”
“And it does take many hands to build a proper society,” replied the person on the other side. While generally not in a position to ever use one himself, Hugh still recognized a simple call-and-response cipher. Any society member worth their salt was very careful not to expose their doings to the heedless world at large. The pair of eyes glanced at him with casual curiosity. “That would be the professor with you?”
“That he is.”
“In you come, then, the rain’s due to start up again any moment.” The panel closed up, and Hugh could hear the sound of a chain being unfastened and bolts being thrown. When the door opened up it was not into a vast and cavernous dark (a sight to which he was accustomed) but into the cramped, warm-looking entryway of a home that, while certainly no match for the manor, or even the mechanical house, was much finer than its exterior implied. Mr. Ward walked inside without a second thought. As it would not do for him to be left out on the stoop without a handler, and as the person inside had made their allegiance clear, Hugh folded up his parasol and followed with only mild trepidation.
Inside there was barely any room to take a step before colliding with the stairwell that ascended towards an upper floor. Mr. Ward beckoned to Hugh before vanishing through one of the doorways branching off from the entryway; this ended up leading to a sitting room of sorts kitted out with weathered furniture arranged in front of a fireplace. Hugh had not expected there to be so many bookshelves, nor so many framed prints on the walls among the fishing floats and scrap fabric. He wasn’t sure what he had expected to see.
From the sitting room they continued on towards the back of the building, which opened out into an empty boathouse. Mr. Ward lit the lanterns hanging from the boathouse beams before returning to Hugh’s side. There was a subtle twinge in the air that reminded Hugh of ritual spaces he’d visited before. He’d come expecting water transport for their planned picnic, perhaps from a local who would ferry visitors for a fee; he knew he should have shed such notions the instant he heard the exchange of ciphers. They had scheduled a picnic, yes, but it was a picnic planned by Mr. Ward in the midst of an investigation. Of course there would be society business afoot!
The woman who’d answered the door settled onto a bench built into the wall and bade the two of them sit. Her hair was gray, shot through with strands that still clung to their original darker hue, and the tailored dress she wore was of a make Hugh usually only saw further inland, though of far simpler fabrics. It was difficult to place her age, as she had no small number of wrinkles but also great clarity to her skin, and he would have believed nearly any number told to him; however old she was (or was not), there was no denying the cunning in her gaze. This was no green initiate. The simple ring she wore about her smallest finger was proof enough of that.
Mr. Ward kissed the woman’s cheek and gestured at Hugh. “Permit me to introduce Professor Hugh Robin Wainwright, decorated jägermeister of our society and my patient for these past two years. Mr. Wainwright, may I introduce to you Primrose Melitta Ward, also of the society.”
Somehow the knowledge that he was in Mr. Ward’s hometown, and that Mr. Ward regularly sent letters and money back to said home, had failed to combine for Hugh in a manner that completed the equation now before him. Now that he could see them next to each other it was easy to see their shared similarity. Who could mistake such a hawkish profile or the sharp angle of those brows? He had only vaguely known this woman was alive before they had last left home, and here he was, invited into her house and formally introduced. Hugh quietly swore at himself for neglecting to bring a gift.
“Yes, hello, madam. Mr. Ward would be your son…?”
Primrose’s eyes sparkled. “Just so, and I see he’s as forthcoming with information as always. He’s been like that ever since he was a gosling.” As much as she and Mr. Ward were alike about the face, she was already far more open with her smiles. It did not yet put Hugh at ease. “He’s been to visit a few times since you two arrived, so there’s no need to tell me why you’re here. Do take a seat for yourself. We’ve nothing to do until Ezekiel’s come back,” —perhaps the same Ezekiel Mr. Cutty had mentioned?— “and I’m quite keen to meet the man our Aubrey calls companion.”
Companion! They mysterious name was forgotten as soon as it arose in the face of Mr. Ward’s words. He’d once asked if Hugh minded him referring to what they had with such intimate terminology, and Hugh had eagerly agreed. There was, after all, no sense in denying the truth. If Mr. Ward was as close to his family as he’d implied, it should’ve come as no surprise that he’d mentioned their camaraderie during one of his many letters home. Still, inevitable or no, the reality of being so open about things around a family member affected Hugh more than he’d realized. At least it was one less detail about which he’d need to tiptoe. He perched himself on a chair facing Primrose’s bench.
“He’s spoken of you a great deal,” said Primrose once Hugh was seated. “We’re very grateful for all the opportunities you’ve provided for him. To say nothing of the money.”
Hugh’s ears burned. “Ms. Ward—”
“Please, call me Primrose, professor.”
“Ah. Primrose, then…I’m so very sorry for arriving at your door in such a careless state. Had I but known—”
“Had you known you no doubt would’ve been beside yourself the entire way, if I’ve sussed out your nature correctly. You may treat me proper once your current job’s done. There’s too much work to do to go wasting time on decorum.”
Mr. Ward, who had yet to sit, inclined his head to Primrose. “If you do not mind, mother, I should like to prepare us all something in the kitchen.”
She smiled at him knowingly. “Not just yet, lovey. After all, I’ve reclaimed that parcel you said went missing.” A nudge of one neat little shoe was enough to flip the bundled canvas from off a package of significant size, its top clearly showing the address of the Siren’s Head in Mr. Ward’s impeccable hand, the return address directing to one of the society’s many inland safe-houses within a day of home. It looked unopened.
This was enough to give even Mr. Ward pause. He settled into a chair next to Hugh, placed the basket on the ground between them, and folded his hands in his lap. “Were our suspicions correct?”
“At least some of them. There’s a certain dealer in rare goods in town—”
Hugh straightened in his seat. “Oh! On Dandywine Street, isn’t it?”
“Such a keen one he is, Aubrey,” said Primrose with amusement. “That’s his shop, professor, sure as sugar, and the fellow who runs it is an occasional client of mine. Give him a bit of his street’s namesake and he’s prone to sharing all manner of things. Seems he doesn’t always agree with the ownership of certain goods he’s heard are passing through town and isn’t shy about relocating them places he feels better suit them. He’s not the only one capable of disagreement, of course.” She chuckled to himself. “I’m an honest woman and I upheld my end of our little contract of courtesy, and if afterwards he was abed sooner than a man of his years prefers, well, such are the dangers of the bottle.”
Had she been there before Hugh paid his own visit? Hugh’s sense of time followed the ebb and flow of the night city so he felt adrift without the regular peals of the clock tower to center him, so perhaps it had not been very late at all when he arrived to find the place locked up and dark. Before he could comment on this (or on the patrolling fisherman, whose presence was even more alarming knowing that Primrose might have avoided him by mere minutes) she continued.
“I checked it best I could without unsealing anything. I left a little something in return, of course, not that the dear fool knows I did. I’m so glad you had a spare calling card,” she said, once more directly addressing Hugh. “Our Aubrey brought it by yesterday, and I suspect you may need to tidy up once your business up at the manor’s sorted, and he’s got such locks on his doors, so it would be much easier if you could simply invite yourselves in. He’s unlikely to find where I hid it before then.”
“My word, Primrose,” said Hugh, “you are simply remarkable.”
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear demurely. “I’m just a woman who likes to see things done well, professor, nothing more.”
“One might say it’s in the blood,” added Mr. Ward.
“One might indeed,” said Primrose. “Although speaking of the nature of the blood, I should say you’re the first man of your character I’ve met knowingly, professor, and were there not so many things to do I could surely let you educate me on your nature for hours.”
While Hugh was once again unsure what to say to this, Mr. Ward was keen to elaborate. “The professor is a fascinating subject as both a man and as a creature. It is rare that one be given such a perfect specimen by which to realize one’s life’s work.” He placed a hand on Hugh’s knee and squeezed. Hugh offered him a small, shy smile in return before covering Mr. Ward’s hand with his own.
“Is it safe to open up the parcel here?” asked Mr. Ward, all business even with their fingers intertwined. “I do not know how suited this part of the house is for it.”
“Dear Ezekiel nipped out to fetch the key shortly before you arrived. He thought it wise to store it out of the house until it was needed, as there’d surely be a reason you posted it to a different address than the box itself.”
“He thought correctly,” said Mr. Ward with a small nod.
Primrose rapped her knuckles against the parcel’s top. “It’s an ungainly thing, this one. Once we found out where it had gotten to it took the two of us in tandem to move it. Well we cooperated, too, as there was apparently something slightly off when he swung by afterwards to make sure we’d closed up right. He couldn’t quite place what it was, which is quite unusual for him, but since nothing presented itself to a bit of searching he felt the shop-owner would be safe enough.”
Certain details fell into place for Hugh. “Dear me,” he said. “Would this Ezekiel of yours have a silvery beard? And perhaps be staying ashore these past days due to the weather and otherwise?” He swallowed. “I have noticed such a gentleman shadowing me since shortly after we arrived, and expressed my concern. Had I but known it was an ally, why….”
Primrose sighed with the weariness of one well-used to certain irks and gave Mr. Ward a weary look. “Aubrey, lovey, I understand you prefer to share only what you think is best, but you really ought to have mentioned your own father at some point.” Hugh felt both relieved and very, very silly. “He knows they saw each other at least the once. Surely the professor made mention of it, given how often you say the two of you discuss the day.”
“In my defense, mother,” said Mr. Ward, “I never saw the person that upset the professor so, and the description he gave could be nigh unto anyone in this town, not unlike warning me of the presence of a man with two legs.”
“I can say it was likely my presence that was noticed at the shop last night,” said Hugh, eager to change the subject. “I assure you, Primrose, I meant no harm to you, or your client, or Ezekiel.” It wounded Hugh to think of him so familiarly, but there was room for exactly one “Mr. Ward” in his thoughts, and that position was well and truly filled. Ezekiel’s ability to loom ominously without making any directly threatening actions was proof enough for Hugh that he and Mr. Ward were well and truly related, by familiarity if not by lineage. No wonder Mr. Ward had so little time for Mr. Cutty. “I must say, I’m quite impressed he spotted what little sign I left. We of the pursuing arts pride ourselves on being shadows in the dark.”
“And so you are, professor.” Primrose offered him another comforting smile. “Do recall that he and I both have been initiated for many years now. We may be no great practitioners, but we still serve the society in our own way, and he’s always had a knack for spotting what others miss. The only way he spied anything at all was to focus on its purposeful absence.”
Hugh sighed. “Clever indeed, but it still shows I’ve room for improvement in my craft.”
Mr. Ward squeezed Hugh’s knee again. “Better to forever strive for the impossibility of perfection than to settle for a plateau,” he said. “Our goals, there, are similar.”
This brought some lightness to Hugh’s flagging spirits, though he was happy to let Mr. Ward and Primrose guide the conversation that followed. They spoke of casual matters (sewing, cooking, and blackmail, primarily) until a familiar man in an unfamiliar boat rowed near. He whistled to the boathouse and Primrose whistled back, both in purposeful patterns but casual enough to sound improvised. The boat drifted into the boathouse, whereupon Primrose manipulated a pulley that closed it off to the outside via a set of barn-style doors; mere moments later, the promised rain arrived.
Ezekiel was wearing very much the same things he had been the other times Hugh had seen him, though in slightly different colors, and much as Primrose’s features were prone to settling into a smile, his own expression veered to the hangdog side. He tossed some tie-lines up to Primrose and Mr. Ward, both of whom had stood once the boat had come close enough, and the pair of them tied it off quickly. Ezekiel stepped from the rain-rocked rowboat onto the boathouse floor with the grace of a man who’d weathered a thousand storms. He gave Primrose a kiss on the cheek before nodding to Hugh.
“Mornin’ to you, professor.” His voice was calm and sea-roughened. It sounded very much like his son’s, if harsher, and perhaps half an octave down.
“Good morning,” said Hugh. “You were the gentleman watching me the other day on the beach, were you not, sir?” It was a given by that point, of course, but it behooved him to make absolutely certain of details before acting upon them.
“That’d be so,” said Ezekiel. He sized Hugh up with a thoughtful look. His eyes were a familiar thunderhead gray. “You’ll forgive me starin’ thusly, I hope. I’ve been with the society since our Aubrey were a pup, and all this time I’ve never had a hunter up close and cordial.” The inflection in his voice when he said hunter made it clear he didn’t mean the single-shaped ranks of Hugh’s fellows. “His letters’ve mentioned a measured diet is part of the process he’s testin’ on you. Seems he’s feeding you all right. Couldn’t say as much for the lad himself, ay?”
“It is a corset, father. Has no one in this backwater hamlet seen a cinched waist outside of a picture?” groused Mr. Ward, though unlike his correction of Mr. Cutty a few days prior there was warmth mixed into his exasperation. It was the sort of playful antagonism one might see among long-time friends, or between loving family; either way it was a pleasant novelty to Hugh. These were people Mr. Ward considered his own. Perhaps he had been raised here and perhaps not, but either way this was Mr. Ward’s home—one of them, at least—and so it was that whatever had happened at Cadfael Heath, if left to fester, could wound him in some way. It was good indeed that they had been the ones assigned to it.
After the briefest of pleasant conversation Ezekiel produced an envelope from inside his coat and handed it to Mr. Ward. “There’s a little place a ways out by Plover Rock that’s good for hidin’ small things in ways nobody will notice unless they’ve business noticin’ such,” he said. “The paper’s a bit wet and crumply, but I was sure it didn’t open up.”
“Excellent. Thank you, father.” Mr. Ward worried open the flap and tipped what looked to be an ordinary brass key into his hand. Hugh could scent the traces of broken occult procedures wafting away. “I shall set about opening things,” continued Mr. Ward as he walked around the boathouse, his hands reaching to test at hidden seals. “I want to be ready to go once the rain lets up. The professor will be quite upset if he cannot have his picnic luncheon, after all, and there will be good viewing of the birds when the sun comes out.”
“Your professor’s good at pretendin’, I take it,” said Ezekiel. He settled heavily into a rocking chair next to Primrose’s bench. “Unless a body knows what to look for, it’d be well impossible to assume he’s anything but the face he’s wearin’. And he is one of those sorts with a second face to manifest, that much you’ve written us, ay?”
Mr. Ward nodded as he continued his perimeter. He turned towards Hugh and asked, “Would you give them a small show that you are the genuine article, if you do not mind?”
“I do not mind it at all, Mr. Ward. I’m pleased to be of assistance.” If the boathouse was safe enough to open up the sort of parcels Mr. Ward sent separate from their keys then it was safe enough for a demonstration. Hugh unwound his cravat to reveal the piece of metal he wore about his neck on a chain, the stamped plate having no clasp or fasten; it had rested against his throat since he had first been deemed fit for the society’s use, and he’d still been very much a boy then. He stretched out his neck and the little emblem went with it. Hugh’s stretches were a silent affair but he still liked to imagine his whole self creaking and groaning like a ship at sea as he permitted his bones to lengthen and his muscles to connect themselves in new ways. Thanks to regular practice it was easy as could be to relax everything above his shoulders without so much as ruffling his shirt, and while the scale was not to its proper size he was still able to properly reveal his second face to the parlor. “Tan-ta-ra-ra! A pleasure to see you.” He blinked asynchronously to accent his little joke.
“Well,” said Ezekiel, “today I can truly say the good Lord makes us all from different molds.”
Primrose touched her fingers to her mouth thoughtfully. “And he didn’t even disturb his hat.”
“Professor Wainwright is a man of many talents,” said Mr. Ward.
The parcel, unwrapped, contained a crate that needed to be undone with a pry-bar, a service which Hugh gladly provided once he condensed himself once more. Inside lay a smaller case bearing a lock made from the same brass as the key. It bore other, less visible, measures, which Mr. Ward undid each in turn before sliding the key home and turning it with a click. There was no light that issued from within once the lid was cracked, nor strange smoke, nor any such trappings of the parlor-mystic set. The society did not have time for such things. The only things waiting for them in the case were what Mr. Ward had put there, this Hugh knew with all security, and so with bated breath he watched the case finally fall all the way open.
Inside lay a mummified severed hand, its leathery wrist bound up in fabric and its long nails neatly trimmed, with a thick taper as broad around as a man’s forearm nestled beside it in the box.
“Glorious,” whispered Hugh.
“I should certainly hope it so, Professor Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward.
“A real hand of glory,” said Primrose, clearly awed. “Never thought I’d see one with my own eyes. Was it costly to acquire?”
“Only a fool purchases what is more efficiently made, mother. You taught me that yourself.” He plucked hand and candle both from amidst the curls of shredded broadsheet and tucked them into the picnic basket. “It’s a fresh set, too, so hopefully at its most potent.”
“So that’s how you’ll be gettin’ into the manor,” said Ezekiel. “Here I thought it’d be a ruse shaped like a lunch on the green.”
“It will be that, too.” Mr. Ward straightened up and brushed the shreds from his clothes. “With the four of us here I should like to prepare that refreshment I spoke of earlier. Would you both mind if I handled the actual meal portion of our picnic, as well? I refuse to use our public house’s vile accommodations.”
“I’ll help out, Aubrey dearest,” said Primrose. “The stove is still a bit of a bastard. No sense in you burning your sweet self when there’s jobs to do.”
“Mother, I can give you the money to have a new one brought in.”
“The moment it breaks for good is the moment you can tip out your pocketbook, and not an instant more,” she replied, which earned her a snort of irritation. They argued over the stove (in a fond way, Hugh noted, one where neither was wholly in the right and they both knew it) all the way across the plank floor and back into the house proper.
This left Hugh alone with Ezekiel.
He wasn’t sure what he was meant to say in such an occasion. Hugh knew how to talk to people, both in and out of the society, and within the society’s ranks he knew the proper decorum for speaking with a practitioner, a hunter, a maester, and all sorts of initiates between; this should have given him a place to begin, and yet even the simplest of pleasantries escaped him. Mr. Ward had written letters. Many letters. As you know, sir, I have plentiful knowledge of your son in the Scriptural sense was such a churlish thing to say, and yet how else was Hugh expected to begin any honest conversation with a man he’d thought a foe until that very hour?
Mercifully, it was Ezekiel who spoke first. “You seem to be doin’ well for yourself, professor.”
“Indeed, sir, well enough.”
“Our Aubrey is always sure to pass on that which you so often are sharin’ with him.”
It took Hugh a moment to realize Ezekiel was speaking about money. “Oh!” he said, still flustered. “Yes, yes, I’m happy to fund his research. He is doing such great things for so many people, and can I say in truth I should be putting them to better use if I kept my wages to myself?”
“Only you’d be able to say for sure, Professor Wainwright,” said Ezekiel. With that he fell silent save for the rhythmic creak of his rocking chair.
Hugh fidgeted. He knew he was being studied, but not in the way he was used to; sitting on a boathouse landing with his companion’s father staring him down from behind a wall of whiskers was most unlike a proper medical examination. The rain hissed down all around them. Was Ezekiel the sort to watch him with contempt like the people on the street had done that morning? Had Hugh’s revelation—instinctively a delightful thing, thanks to Mr. Ward’s constant advice on the need to embrace one’s nature—been something repellent, instead? Mr. Ward met Hugh’s dual selves with the same quiet acceptance, seeing Hugh as the sum of his selves and more, but was it fair to assume Ezekiel felt any way the same?
The questions built up one after the other until Hugh could remain silent no longer. “Does it trouble you, sir? My proximity?”
Ezekiel chuckled. “You’re a fine enough gentleman for our Aubrey to say as much in his letters. Better the devil you know, as the saying goes, and you seem yourself a well-mannered beastie besides. If my boy’s come here at your side he clearly knows just how tight to hold your leash.”
“I…yes, that is not an unfair way to put it.”
A sly smile flickered across Ezekiel’s face, gone as soon as it had arrived. “He’s a clever one. Gets it from his mum. I’ve no doubt he’s in good company with you, professor, no matter the quirks of your breeding, and if he trusts you, then I see no reason I oughtn’t.” He watched the water running below the boathouse dance as the rain struck it from outside. “There’s worse here in this town than things that go bump in the night.”
“What did occur at Cadfael Heath, sir?”
“Who can say? Bad business, whatever it is, and his lordship’s so gilded ’round with authority ain’t a soul in town that will touch him for fear of retribution. Lucky for us both the society is blind to his riches, and luckier still it had a fellow like you in its pocket to come see things brought right again. Set a fiend to catch its kin, ay?”
The metaphor was not lost on Hugh. “I take it there is no love lost between you and his lordship?”
“He took my only child, that gift from me to Primrose and likewise from her to me, and set him to a duty meant to ruin him, professor, a duty he weren’t e’er meant to complete. To my boy he did this, all for the sin of being contrary.” Even had Hugh not known the details of Mr. Ward’s initiation he would have been able to suss out an old and terrible wound in how bitterly Ezekiel spoke. “Should you walk out that manor door with Lord Cadfael’s hoary head clutched in your jaws, professor, know that I’ll be the first to spit in his eye, then shake your hand for givin’ me the honor. Our Aubrey ain’t the only one with skill at bein’ vengeful.”
Hugh did not need permission to practice his profession; with few exceptions, the vast majority chaperoned, he scarcely left the house without planning to do what hunters did best. No manslayer he, however: Hugh’s claws were strictly reserved for night creatures, not the people of the sunlit world. It was no more appropriate to turn his teeth against an ordinary man, even a man of high standing, than it would be to crush an ant with a cannonade. A hunter who lost his way was the worst kind of dangerous. Hugh could not afford to be seen that way again.
Here was a man who knew the potential depths of Hugh’s capability for ugliness and did not shy from them, aghast that Hugh would acknowledge such within himself. No, Ezekiel was truly a man of the society, and if he spoke of a fiend that haunted the town it was clear it was not Hugh’s face it wore. The roundabout blessing was touching. “I shall take that to heart, sir. Thank you.”
The sky chose that moment to break open in a tremendous squall, enough that even the boathouse roof couldn’t keep it all at bay. As the two of them retreated towards the warmth of the sitting room and the succor of whatever Mr. Ward had made to share, Hugh couldn’t help but think that Ezekiel’s piercing stare fell upon him just a bit more warmly than before.
The lower passage into the manor was not a well-known one, as despite the perfect picnic environment there was no direct path leading there from higher ground, so it came as no surprise that there was little there to see beyond the many birds that nested among the rocks. With the storm having passed a mere hour prior everything was still sodden with rain. Hugh watched the little boat that had ferried them there as it disappeared into the afternoon mists, his parasol in one hand and a viewing-glass in the other. Ezekiel—as it was indeed Ezekiel at the oars—piloted it like it was a part of his own body; he made it look effortless as he wove through the shoals, and had Hugh not read many a lurid local account of how treacherous those waters were he never would have known the many perils that waited just beneath the surface. Soon it was just him and Mr. Ward, alone among the gulls and curlews.
“It really is quite nice,” said Hugh. “Once we are done with our assignment I should like to return here to better enjoy the many local creatures.”
Mr. Ward busied himself with the basket they’d packed. “Still in pursuit of your sea-stars, Mr. Wainwright?”
“But of course. You see how there are hints of divots out past the water’s edge? When the tide recedes, those shall become little pools, and my books assure me such places are a fine habitat for the wandering echinoderm.”
“And if all you find are urchins?”
“Then I shall give them each a shilling and invite them to buy something nice from the shops,” said Hugh with a chuckle.
They walked along the shore as though they really were nothing but a set of picnickers, save that when the sand ended against a honeycomb of black stone pillars Mr. Ward kept going. It was no illusion but an optical one: tucked back against the basalt was a narrow path which wound into the mouth of a cave, and at the back of said cave was a door bristling with locks. A dock, complete with tethered rowboat, jutted into the water a little ways from the door. Hugh regarded both with puzzlement as he followed Mr. Ward towards them.
“Why did Ezekiel not take us directly here?”
“I would prefer my father have some plausible deniability, Mr. Wainwright,” said Mr. Ward. “If asked, he can truthfully say he left us on the sand for a picnic, and that he knows nothing else save that he is to return before sundown. What we do here, we do alone.”
Hugh pondered this. “Do you always plan for potential treachery, Mr. Ward?”
Mr. Ward adjusted his spectacles and tightened his grip on the basket. “It has served me well thus far.”
Once they were close enough Hugh took the opportunity to study the dock further. It was clean and in good repair, its pilings caked enough with scum that it was clearly no new construction. The moorings’ metal was only slightly rusted, and even that was merely surface-level; a nudge with his boot revealed them to be quite sturdy, as was the length of rope tying the rowboat to one of them. The boat itself had no oars. The water inside the cave went from shallow to deep and green in the space of a few strides, with the dark hints of hidden pillars clustered about the walls, and it emptied out into what looked to be a switchback passage. Small wonder the cave went unknown! A rowboat was no match for the fury of the waves, but a sea escape seemed a very reasonable continuity for any estate big enough to lay siege.
Mr. Ward set the basket on the dock at Hugh’s feet, then pulled the hand of glory from where it had been hidden beneath some sandwiches. He began to unwind its shroud with practiced ease. “Leave your sunshade here, Mr. Wainwright. We can reclaim it later.”
Hugh nodded and placed his parasol and viewing-glass next to the basket. He helped himself to one of the sandwiches. They had discussed this part of the plan in great detail: Mr. Ward would take point, as his steel-trap memory still held fast to the layout of Cadfael Heath, while Hugh would follow behind with a lantern, as the hand’s candle could only illuminate so much. In lieu of his usual tools (and his usual prey) it felt like a free hand and a second light would be the most useful things he could bring with him.
Upon finishing his snack, Hugh produced the aforementioned lantern and a box of lucifers from the basket. “I shall wait to light this until we’re inside,” he said as he checked the oil stores. “We have only so much fuel remaining, and I’d like to make good use of every drop.”
“Understood. We’re nearly done.”
Something had been bothering Hugh since he first laid eyes on the contents of the parcel. “Should I be troubled by you wielding the hand so boldly, Mr. Ward?”
“Not at all, professor. You’ll recall a short while back I requested a curl of your hair.”
“Indeed I do,” said Hugh. Deflating, he added, “I had thought it was perhaps for a locket….”
“Next time,” said Mr. Ward, kindly. “What I did was work it into the length of the wick so that it knows you as its own. You have nothing to fear from the candle’s light.” As Mr. Ward said this he tucked the bundled-up shroud back into the basket, then lifted the hand of glory up by its wrist, the taper pressed into its palm like a ghoulish candlestick. He struck one of the lucifers against the rough wall of the cave and lit the wick. Hugh thought he smelled burning metal, and perhaps tasted the sound of a headache, but the feeling soon passed once the hand recognized him as kin to its fell components. Mr. Ward presented the thing to the door; the many locks were no match for the hand’s steady glow, and the door swung open in invitation. “In you go, Mr. Wainwright. I shall be right behind you.”
Inside was a stairwell that ascended into a dark too deep for Hugh’s keen eyes to pierce. Mr. Ward closed the door behind them and replaced the beam that had barred it from within before the hand had compelled it otherwise. He held the hand high, studying the way its candle flame fell across the stairs. Once Hugh coaxed the lantern to life the puddle of light surrounding them grew to a proper pool.
“Follow me, please, and mind your head,” said Mr. Ward. “The hand’s radiance will keep us from being troubled. I shall remind you that despite their allegiance to an odious master, these people are not to be harmed.”
“Perish the thought, Mr. Ward. They are something like an extended family to you, are they not?”
“Something like it.”
At the top of the stairs was another door with many locks, and just like its twin by the dock it, too, swung open when presented with the hand. Inside was an estate house cellar like any other. Mr. Ward bade Hugh close up behind them; once this was done he paused to get his bearings, then strode down one of the darkened halls with great purpose, the hand of glory held before him like the lamp of Hyperion.
Hugh had faint knowledge of cellars such as these. He’d played in one as a boy, being drawn to the dark places even in his greenest youth, and while he did not know these passages there was still things that felt half-familiar in the way this stack of boxes was arranged or that brace of wine bottles lay on display. A quick glance proved many of the latter to be of expensive, but not (in Hugh’s opinion) terribly flavorful, vintage. Hugh’s own modest cellar back at the mechanical house found their numbers limited by available space and their speed of consumption; in spite of this, it was difficult for him to view his as the poorer of the two collections.
From the grove of bottles they passed into the more modern parts of the manor. Hugh kept reaching for the night city. It felt as though it was layered atop the cellar, which was a normal thing for a night city to do, but how it remained anchored to its sunlit twin without any clear point of entry he had yet to understand. It was all very strange, as night cities, by their nature, were shaped by the places they mirrored, even as they rewrote themselves into vast and twisty mazes; in Hugh’s experience there was an almost playful element to their layers of nightmare. A place could exist without a night city but not the other way around, after all, so why should a night city seek to undo that whose shadow it colored? This one, however, seemed skittish and diffident, as though it wanted no part of Cadfael Heath at all. It reminded him of a fledgling plucked from its nest.
He was musing over this detail when he caught sight of distant movement out of the corner of his eye. Hugh swiftly doused the lantern—he’d been sure to take the lucifers along in a pocket in case of just such an event—and pulled Mr. Ward with him into hiding. They peered through gaps in the stacked boxes to try to see whatever Hugh had noticed.
Two figures stood at the end of one of the cellar’s passages, watching a third descend some stairs from the floor above; the first two were dressed in footman’s livery, the third as a maid. They spoke in quiet snippets of everyday conversation that one could find on the lips of anyone who worked on behalf of a greater unit, but while their words were casual Hugh could pick out strain in their voices. They avoided speaking directly of Lord Cadfael or his whereabouts. The man’s absence left ripples all throughout the pond of his influence.
Hugh would have been happy to wait unseen until the servants had finished whatever errands brought them into the cellar, as much of his professional life revolved around picking his battles. Mr. Ward clearly had other ideas. Pulling away from Hugh’s grasp, he left the safety of the shadows and marched towards the trio with purpose.
“Wait, who’s there?” said one of the footmen, causing them all to turn towards him. This proved to be their undoing: Mr. Ward held high the hand of glory and its second utility made itself known, the servants freezing in place the moment Mr. Ward was close enough for its light fell across them. It was not a gentle paralysis; they remained where they stood rather than collapsing to the floor, their faces twisted into masks of fear. Hugh remained where he was though all of this. If Mr. Ward needed him, he could be there in a flash, but until then he chose to stay back to see what all Mr. Ward meant to achieve by ensorcelling the help.
Mr. Ward studied the face of each servant in turn and kept the candle in full view of the three, even though anyone of his experience knew it took no more than a glance for the hand to do its work. No matter the reasoning, for it, Mr. Ward acted with nothing less than perfect confidence. Whatever he wanted to see was not to be found in the eyes of either footman, and so with a sigh he turned to the maid. Here, he lingered.
“Ori…?” she croaked. It was barely more than a vowel sound; Hugh marveled that she was able to move her tongue at all.
“Don’t be alarmed, Ms. Wimbly,” said Mr. Ward with surprising gentleness. “This will all be over soon. You won’t remember a thing.” He subtly adjusted the angle of the hand and Ms. Wimbly’s face relaxed from its grimace, though her eyes still darted about in terror. “Will you tell me where his lordship is?”
“Wh-what are you holding, Ori? What has it done to me?”
“Please, Ms. Wimbly, it’s important. People are missing.”
Her eyes brimmed with tears. “You used to be such a sweet boy. Is this what you learned after you went away?”
Mr. Ward nodded. “It is, yes. That is why you can trust me when I say it will do you no harm, nor do I wish harm to any of the honest staff of the manor, and that once I am done you will forget being frightened by the candle-flame.” He tilted his head slightly. “You know his lordship is doing wrong, don’t you?”
Ms. Wimbly did not look comforted by this, though Hugh supposed if his first reunion with someone he’d not seen for years had involved the desiccated hand of a hanged man clutching at a corpse-fat candle he would not feel terribly soothed, himself. “It’s not my place to say,” she mumbled.
“Then don’t say it, Ms. Wimbly. Instead tell me where he is and you will no longer have to pretend you don’t know why Daniel Larkspur went missing, or Molly Partridge, or Joseph Brewer, or Bonnie Henshaw, or Lily—”
“Lily didn’t do no wrong!” cried Ms. Wimbly. “She just dropped a tray, which ain’t a crime, and she’s always had the tremors since she were a baby….”
Mr. Ward leaned in, the hand held stock-still as he did so. “Lily Wimbly deserves a church funeral, but they don’t give those to girls who run away with highwaymen.”
The tears in Ms. Wimbly’s eyes began to roll down her cheeks. “She was a good girl. So good. I know she would never’ve run off the way they told me she did, especially not with so many others goin’ absent at the same time, and I thought…I thought maybe….” Her words trailed off into a squeak of misery. After a few heaving sobs—the sort made when one was forced to confront a terrible truth, perhaps—she caught her breath and looked Mr. Ward in the eye. “We hain’t seen his lordship for some weeks, now, but we do hear him through the walls, and he takes all his meals down in the lower study. Nobody but George brings him his tray.” Her face creased into a frown. “You won’t be hurtin’ George, will you, Ori?”
“As I said, Ms. Wimbly, I have no interest in harming any of the honest staff of the manor. So long as he remains honest, he has nothing to fear from me.” He adjusted a knuckle of the hand. “You’ve been very helpful, ma’am. Now, sleep. It’s simply the fault of a passing anomaly in the gas lines, nothing more, and you shall all feel better come sundown.” Just as he said, all three servants’ eyes drifted closed, leaving them frozen in place, motionlessly asleep on their feet.
Without another word Mr. Ward strode through the silent trio towards the stairs. Hugh trotted along after him, unlit lantern in hand. The stairs opened up into a pantry. Mr. Ward stuck his head through one of the doors, then another, then opened one leading into what looked to be a servants’ passage and beckoned for Hugh to follow.
“Where to next, Mr. Ward?” whispered Hugh as they slipped into the dim hall.
“Under normal circumstances we would have to find the butler, George, or at the very least his lodgings, and through his assistance find access to the lower study, in the form of a key or otherwise, perhaps also acquiring his lordship’s tea as a cover, all while avoiding the eyes of the rest of the staff and evading betrayal from those too loyal for their own good.” He gestured to the hand of glory. “Normal circumstances do not have such tools at their disposal. This way, please.”
The hand was quite the sight to see. No one could see its light and go untouched by it (though they did sometimes go touched by Hugh, who hid them away in the event they became paralyzed somewhere conspicuous), no door could remain sealed. Soon they stood at the threshold of the lower study. Mr. Ward raised high the candle once again and the double doors creaked open to reveal a grand sight.
The lower study, contrary to Hugh’s expectations, was not wholly subterranean, though it did seat itself beneath the bulk of the manor; one side of it emerged from the cliff face itself and gazed out over the stormy sea. A fireplace and fine furniture huddled by one wall, a well-kept desk across from them. There were books here, so many books, interspersed with trophies and curios and strange works of art. Hugh instantly resented not being able to peruse them at his leisure. He could also feel the night city here, fiercer but still standoffish. There was a spot in the center of the floor that felt meaningful, likely the place that George left the trays, but Hugh found no sign of past dinners. He found no sign of much of anything, really. No, Lord Cadfael had not used his study for many days.
With effort Hugh found the beginnings of a door. It was not shaped the way an entrance to a night city was meant to be, like an eye that had never escaped its lid. There was no doubting now that this place had had an inexpert hand guiding its genesis.
“There is a door here, Mr. Ward,” said Hugh. “I have marked it in the usual way. If the hand can break it open, I shall lead us through.”
Mr. Ward frowned. “It is not designed for such, Mr. Wainwright. Doing so is likely to ruin it.”
“We still have our lantern.” He offered his most comforting smile and let his eyes catch the light just so. “And at the end of the day, we still have me.”
“That we do, Mr. Wainwright. I suppose I’ll get started.”
Hugh disrobed carefully. The cold, wet air of the unlit study was unpleasant against his bare skin, and he was shivering before he finished placing the last of his vestments on the chair. Stretching out only did so much for the chill. How he missed the clothes he had at home! The risk of unplanned discovery—quite a real one, as Mr. Cutty had so rudely proven—was too great to bring them, but he still longed for the warmth of a coat sewn to scale. It was the clearest way to separate himself from the horrors in the dark! At least the emblem at his throat proved he was a kept beast.
A curse from Mr. Ward and a pulse of sensation, paired with a rather nasty smell, signaled the glorious end of the hand of glory. Hugh reached out for the door and found it waiting for him. He smiled. His current mouth was good at smiling.
“It worked, Mr. Ward.”
“Good,” said Mr. Ward, sourly. He brushed deadman’s dust from his wasp-waisted front. “I have not had a tool detonate on me before. I cannot say I enjoyed it.” He took up the lantern and rummaged for the lucifers in Hugh’s waistcoat. “Shall we?”
“Of course. Hold on tight, please. I should hate to lose you.”
Mr. Ward nodded and placed his free hand within Hugh’s outstretched tangle of fingers. Hugh concentrated until he knew where he needed to go. He stepped forward, then stepped forward, and then he and Mr. Ward passed through into the spaces the world dreamed of in its sleep.
The door led through the window out over the water, but that is not where they went when they entered it, and when it shut behind them there was no one to see it close.
The space beyond was dark the way a cave was dark. It was like a great tunnel leading into the earth, the stone slick with seawater, and all around its width were encrustations of barnacles that sometimes erupted into knots of enormous molars as though the passage was one great and malformed mouth whose saliva glistened in the light they brought. Roars like distant waves echoed up from its depths, building upon each other into a solid wall of sound. The air was heavy with brine. Hugh trotted along with confidence; this night city, however artificial and however bereft of actual “city” to traverse, was a comforting place, as pleasing to the senses as a newly-tailored pair of breeches.
The hardest part of the descent was keeping pace with Mr. Ward and his far shorter legs. Hugh had to concentrate on measuring each step he took, as his usual lope would have separated them far too quickly. He wanted to run. He wanted to chase. There was something at the end of the tunnel—perhaps Lord Cadfael, perhaps something else—and he needed to meet it with jaws agape. It was all he could do not to prance and gambol into the depths.
Then again, Mr. Ward’s way had been working so far, and it generally had nothing to do with jaws at all. What would a man with a lantern do in the face of whatever waited for them? The answer struck Hugh in an instant. “Let us pause a moment, Mr. Ward. If you are to have a proper talking-to with anyone I must first make myself more easily overlooked.”
Someone unfamiliar with the society’s methods might have laughed at the thought of a huge creature becoming inconspicuous, but Hugh was as familiar as could be. “I shall hide in your shadow. Do take care that no one else steps in it, as that shall ruin the surprise.” He flattened his ears against his head and placed his hands in front of his privates. Being indoors somehow made him feel more naked. “It wouldn’t do to be needlessly seen so. My ankles are out, as is the rest of me.”
Mr. Ward patted his arm. “I’ll do what I can to preserve your modesty, Mr. Wainwright. The society would be nowhere without your sacrifice.”
The tether to Mr. Ward’s shadow helped Hugh shorten his steps. Down they walked, forever down. He could feel something in the distance that matched the spot on the study floor for George’s trays. It was not as though they risked getting lost in the tunnel, but Hugh still fixed upon that distant point to keep his bearings. Straightforward now did not always mean straightforward later.
At long last, the endless tunnel opened up into a cyst of a cavern, and Hugh knew they had found their destination.
It was a broad place that bulged from the end of the descent like the head of a tadpole, its walls and ceiling adorned with the same toothed barnacles as before. On the ground lay five sets of clothing that matched the servants’ livery. Each was clean and empty, as though laid out for the morning, but the daggers piercing each suit’s heart spoke of other happenings. Hugh reckoned them to be a dainty hecatomb, their bodies consumed by whatever method Lord Cadfael had found to make the night city. This was not the sort of information the society was comfortable having in its own hands, much less an untrained outsider’s! At least unmaking it would be as simple as pulling free its anchors. With luck Hugh would have opportunity to do said pulling.
Past the clothes was a darkened lump that shifted as Mr. Ward approached. It was hunched over a fan of books and papers spread out on the floor like the work of a madman, or perhaps one of Hugh’s more intense students.
“George,” rumbled the thing. “I told you never to come this far again.”
“George is indisposed, your lordship,” said Mr. Ward.
The thing—Lord Cadfael, Hugh corrected himself—turned and lifted a misshapen appendage to cover his eyes against the lantern. “Who are you? Get out!”
“I’ve come looking for Lily Wimbly. I hear you know what became of her,” said Mr. Ward, standing over a dagger-pierced maid’s outfit. His words were caked with ice. “My name is Aubrey Orion Ward, a friend of her mother’s.”
“Never heard of you,” sneered Lord Cadfael.
“But I have heard of you, sir. And I have heard of Lily.” He raised his lantern high to better reveal Lord Cadfael’s current condition. “Am I correct in assuming she is no longer in your employ?”
“I gave the peasants their casual ward, their school, their bell tower. I have no time to be lectured on how I should shepherd them further! Begone!” shouted Lord Cadfael, and with that syllable he spat out something like a bone needle that struck Mr. Ward soundly in the side. Mr. Ward collapsed in pain. The lantern tumbled, its light whirling madly but somehow not going out, and Mr. Ward’s shadow ended up a dozen places at once. This suited Hugh just fine; with a full-throated cry he exploded from the darkness and fell upon Lord Cadfael with great ferocity.
It was no grand battle: Hugh had a lifetime of honing his skills and senses, and years’ worth of refining how to move at his proper height, whereas Lord Cadfael was but a man in an ill-fitting costume. In no time at all Hugh forced him to the ground, pinioned. Hugh gaped his jaws in Lord Cadfael’s face (first the outer set, then the inner) and sibilated until the lord of the manor stopped struggling so. With both hands and one twin-thumbed foot keeping Lord Cadfael in place, Hugh adjusted his posture into a more dignified one and intoned one of the society’s most binding invocations.
“Lord Winfrey Eustace Harold Peter Llewellyn Cadfael of Cadfael Heath, by the authority of the society, I, Professor Hugh Robin Wainwright, do hereby declare your behaviors up to this point to be gross misconduct, and, recognizing your lack of fealty to the society, demand that you surrender yourself to my custody, that the damage wrought by your person be fully investigated and set right once more, causality permitting, and that those secrets which you have wrongfully unearthed be properly occluded.”
“You are arresting me?” sputtered Lord Cadfael, his fear replaced with sheer umbrage. “Do you know who I am, you baseborn lout? No constable would dare!”
“It is fortunate, then, that I am no constable,” said Hugh.
Lord Cadfael gurgled deep in his throat and spat forth another shard of sharpened bone, which struck Hugh in the cheek. Hugh shook it free with a flick of his head. “Do note that your unwillingness to comply will be mentioned in my report, your lordship,” he said, harrumphing.
“And mine as well,” said the wavering voice of Mr. Ward. He staggered over from where he’d fallen, one hand still clutching his side. A hole pierced his clothes where the shard had struck. Not a single drop of blood stained the fabric.
“Are you quite all right, Mr. Ward?” asked Hugh as he transferred a hand from holding one of Lord Cadfael’s wrists to squeezing the man’s mouth shut.
“Corsetry is vastly underrated, professor, particularly when one embroiders it with proper countermeasures during its construction.”
“Fashionable and practical,” agreed Hugh. He turned his attention back to Lord Cadfael. “The objects which you have accrued shall be returned to the society’s care, and this place you have created shall be cut free to return to tumbling entropy. The society is not pleased with your actions, your lordship. Knowing that your deeds ushered in the untimely ends of five people shall displease them even further.”
Lord Cadfael’s snout struggled free of Hugh’s grasp. “Th-there is another!” he stammered. “A man on Dandywine Street! He gave me those things!”
“Yes, we know,” said Mr. Ward. “You, sir, are the one who used them, and therefore our priority.”
“I am the lord of this manor! Cadfael Heath is nothing without me, and the whole of that dreadful burg is nothing without Cadfael Heath! You’d damn the whole town just for spite, you wretch?”
Hugh couldn’t be certain due to the angle, but he could have sworn he saw Mr. Ward mouth the word yes to Lord Cadfael’s question. What Mr. Ward said aloud was, “Young Master Godfrey will be back from his schooling at the end of the month, and it’s known to any who care to ask of it the whole of the staff would rather a useless man like himself at the helm. I’m sure the place can manage itself until he returns.” He took a step forward and stumbled, giving Lord Cadfael a solid kick in the side as he caught his balance.
“Mr. Ward!” cried Hugh.
Mr. Ward adjusted his spectacles and looked up at Hugh calmly. “The ground is quite slick, professor. It seems I slipped.”
“Take care in the future, then. There is no need to be monstrous about this.”
“No need to be monstrous!” said Lord Cadfael, having once again pulled free. “Do you see me, you vile thing? Do you see yourself?”
“You are no monster, sir, no more a true creature than a crowned play-actor is a king,” said Hugh. He narrowed his eyes. “And I? I am a gentleman. Take care to reflect on that while the society determines the best means of reparation.”
Hugh felt for that shortcut leading to the lower study and smashed it open using certain methods he usually avoided for their lack of subtlety. There was no closing it now, not while it still led somewhere, but it certainly beat having to traverse the whole of the tunnel. He helped Mr. Ward through and began to pass Lord Cadfael’s hoard through the shortcut. Lord Cadfael himself proved easiest to keep subdued by sitting on him. A coil of rope in one corner of the study—Mr. Ward noted a seafaring lineage had every reason to evaluate the rigging of ships under construction—came in very handy for trussing him up properly; several loops of woven hemp kept Lord Cadfael quieter than he’d likely ever been since claiming his title.
Soon the only things left in the chamber were Hugh, Lord Cadfael, and the five empty uniforms. Hugh regarded them with a sigh.
“A shame we won’t be able to bring back anything to bury,” he said.
“It is a fishing town, Professor Wainwright, and the ocean is greedy. We’re used to holding wakes for empty coffins.” He reached through the shortcut to stroke Hugh’s nose. “What matters is that those wakes can now be held at all.”
Hugh sighed again. Five outfits, five lives. “I scarcely knew them, yet the more I think about their fates the more I fear I shall cry. Does this make me foolish?”
“There is nothing foolish about being human,” said Mr. Ward. He tilted Hugh’s muzzle so they could see eyes-to-eye despite the dizzying angles involved. “This place isn’t meant to be, but we can set that right. They’ve suffered long enough. It’s time to let them go.”
“Will you say their names again?” asked Hugh.
Mr. Ward nodded. “To the memory of Lily Wimbly, and Daniel Larkspur, and Molly Partridge, and Joseph Brewer, and Bonnie Henshaw,” he said.
“To all of them, and any who still go forgotten,” said Hugh, and he reached down to pull the first dagger free.
Muffled voices came from within the bookshop on Dandywine Street, and so intense was their conversation that Mr. Ward had no trouble slipping in the back door thanks to Hugh’s calling card, left by Primrose the day before. He followed the sound of the commotion upstairs to a secluded, windowless part of the shop clearly not meant for patrons.
The previously unseen proprietor stood across a table from Mr. Cutty, the two of them arguing hotly. One of Hugh’s tonics sat on the table between them with its stopper opened.
“—completely mundane, Mr. Cutty, and not worth my time,” said the antiquarian.
“Hell’s bells, Mr. Lamb, you can see it with your own eyes! Why else would he have such a thing locked up so were it not valuable?”
“You said he changed the lock on you,” said Mr. Lamb.
“I palmed a second when I took the first, back before the door stopped takin’ the skeleton key. He’s some manner of horror, I’m sure of it, sir, and no doubt those special customers you keep askin’ me to provision would be interested in a slug of his devil drink.”
Mr. Lamb rubbed at his chin wearily. “You have yet to tell me what it even does, Mr. Cutty.”
“It’s for balancing the humours of the stomach,” said Mr. Ward, who neither had noticed before then. They both startled at his voice.
Mr. Cutty was the first to recover. “Ori, lad, whyever are you here?”
“Mr. Cutty,” said Mr. Ward, his voice radiating disdain despite its calm. “I have unfinished business to discuss with Mr. Lamb.” He gestured towards the vial. “I’m disappointed to learn my patient did not simply misplace one of his tonics, however. They are not easily replaced.”
Mr. Lamb crossed his arms over his reedy chest. “You heard the man. I’m not paying for someone else’s digestives.”
“We’ll continue this later,” said Mr. Cutty to Mr. Lamb. He made for the door but paused at Mr. Ward’s side, his expression pinched. “A moment of your time?”
“A moment only. The night grows no younger.”
This earned him a simper from Mr. Cutty. “I’ve heard rumors, dear boy, and I am never a man to spread gossip, never and never, but I must ask, that if I overhear wagging tongues in the future I might still them: The professor does not use his station to take advantage of you, does he? He seems a fine enough gent from what I’ve seen, but he keeps such strange things in his company, and lips do talk—”
“I perform those tasks required of me by my position, and I do them efficiently and well,” said Mr. Ward.
“Surely that is all fine and platonic then?”
“I am my mother’s son, Mr. Cutty.”
Mr. Cutty’s red face paled. “Then he has enthralled you, dear boy!”
“So long as it does not interfere with my salary, he may enchant me all he pleases. Good evening to you.” He glared after Mr. Cutty until the latter sheepishly retreated out of the room and downstairs. Mr. Ward did not turn back to Mr. Lamb until the front door clunked closed.
“I see our local publician is just as poor at covering his tracks as I feared him to be,” said Mr. Lamb.
Mr. Ward took the abandoned spot across the table. “That ‘skeleton key’ you provided him was well-made, defying lock and eye alike with its nature. A layman would never have known,” he said. Inclining his head so the lamplight caught the frames of his spectacles, he added, “The flaw was assuming I am a layman.”
“So I see,” said Mr. Lamb. “I take it this is about more than some rifled-through luggage, then?”
They sized each other up in silence. It was Mr. Ward that first broke it. “It might be of interest to you to hear that earlier today Lord Cadfael was taken into the custody of certain parties, and certain trappings of his were confiscated in the process. He claims you were the one who provided him with such.”
“My whole profession is providing people with the rare and unusual. Given his lordship’s wealth and his fondness for that little reading-room I’m not surprised he spent some of it on a trinket or two for himself. Why should I be concerned if a nobleman acts within his station?”
“These ‘trinkets’ were books of what some might call witchcraft, Mr. Lamb.”
Mr. Lamb was imperturbable. “I’m not going to critique a man for collecting fairy tales, sir.”
“Indeed, I shouldn’t expect it. But you know full well that is not what was exchanged. And as I stand here in your shop despite the door never being unlocked for me, I should hope you are aware I know it, too.” He removed his spectacles, polished them with a handkerchief, and replaced both. “If you need to be dragged before what Lord Cadfael has become before you confess, Mr. Lamb, that can be arranged.”
“Perhaps some of my trade is less public than the rest,” said Mr. Lamb. “It is because I believe in the flexibility of knowledge, and that the world is more interesting to me by enabling that flexibility. A man can learn so much if he’s willing to go outside the sterile world of university. I have simply gone further outside than most know is possible, no more. The pursuit of enlightenment is no crime by the law of the land.”
“I do not take you for a common sciolist, sir,” said Mr. Ward. “That I trust you know at least some of that to which you profess is what troubles me.”
They watched each other in silence again; had they been animals they no doubt would have been prowling ’round one another. “So why are you here?” asked Mr. Lamb, eventually. “You ghost into my shop and chase away my supplier, then stand across the table and claim you’ve found connection between me and mythology. I’m uncertain as to your motives, sir.”
“Then let me make them clear: I am part of a group that is keenly invested in knowledge and enlightenment alike, but is even more keenly concerned with ensuring that such things do not unravel the world’s weave through laxity. We see you. As you are, we do not approve, but if you’d be willing to align your goals with our own, well….” The corner of his mouth turned up very slightly. “We can give you answers you are dying to receive, Mr. Lamb.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I would highly advise you not to.”
It would have been wholly expected for Mr. Lamb to continue their banter deep into the night, but instead he bolted. Mr. Ward tried to block him, though the incident with the bone needle clearly pained him still; he clenched his teeth as he made for the threshold and his motions were sluggish. He limped after Mr. Lamb, who in his haste trod firmly upon Mr. Ward’s stretching shadow where it fell across the ground beneath their feet. Hugh, his concealment thus broken, fountained up from his hiding place to seize Mr. Lamb with a mild smile and a grip of iron. “Good evening, sir. I fear you shan’t be getting away that easily.”
“God have mercy on me,” said Mr. Lamb.
“I am sure the Divine loves you with all Their most sacred heart,” said Mr. Ward as he caught up to them. “The society, however, would have some words.” He glanced at the stairs, sighed, and began to take them very slowly. “Come along, professor. We’ve people who need to speak with this man posthaste.”
Hugh solved the problem of Mr. Lamb’s not wanting to move by lifting him until his shoe-heels were an inch off the ground and carrying him along. The three of them left by the back exit again, which locked up behind them. A pair of shapes waited in the drizzling alley behind the shop.
“Evenin’, Mr. Lamb,” said Primrose from beneath her heavy rain hood.
“You…?” asked Mr. Lamb.
She patted his cheek. “So it is, dear. You really ought to be more careful who you talk to these days, all manner of people might catch word of it. Ezekiel, my darling, would you see to his fetters?”
Ezekiel was not as strong as Hugh—most people weren’t, unless they too wore an emblem at their throat—but he still had no trouble tying Mr. Lamb’s wrists together. The apprehended antiquarian struggled in vain; between the attentions of two fellows keen on seeing him stay put he had little hope of escape. He looked absolutely terrified.
“I’m sure you’ll come to see things our way,” Hugh murmured in his ear. “Lovely people, the Wards. I hear they can be ever so persuasive.” All Mr. Lamb offered in return was a whimper.
Hugh waved as the three vanished down a side-street into the rainy dark. Once they were out of sight he unhooked his parasol from his arm and fluttered it open to hold over Mr. Ward’s head. “That’s the two biggest fish fried, then, isn’t it?” he asked. “If I’m not mistaken, that leaves us with nothing left but to prepare our reports and records, that proper cleanup may begin.”
“Just so, professor,” said Mr. Ward. He rubbed his side and grimaced. “I believe I shall celebrate by sleeping in.”
“My word! A whole three hours?” asked Hugh, smiling. He sidled closer. “Perhaps I can assist with your recuperation. I do owe you a kindness.”
“I should like that very much, Mr. Wainwright.” Thunder growled in the distance and Mr. Ward growled back at it. “Let’s be off before the weather worsens. We can better discuss the nature of human compassion and fellowship once we’re out of the rain.”
“Yes, of course.” Hugh lifted up his sunshade-holding arm so Mr. Ward could take it by the elbow. “I do so enjoy regular discourse of philosophy.”
“As do I, Mr. Wainwright. As do I.”
Arm in arm and only slightly drenched, they began the long walk back to the Siren’s Head, and no matter what troubles were revealed by the light of day, with luck there might yet be sea-stars.