by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
Hawthorne was dead and Thomas was dying; here indeed, he thought, was the beginning of the slow passage of magic from England.
Well, it could not be helped. Hawthorne’s death was undeniably a shame as the Duke of Forget-Me-Not had been a stalwart general in the ongoing fairy civil war. His loss would be keenly felt by his allies. For Dr. Thomas Rust, formerly head of the Royal Society of Magicians, now laid up in bed with prickling chest pains, dying was a rather less existentially complicated matter. He was no half-fairy lordling. He was six and sixty, and his body was failing.
Young Lawrence — and was not everyone these days ‘young’ someone or the other to him! — fluffed his pillows for him. “Are you quite comfortable, sir?”
Thomas offered a smile. “Yes, of course; you need not fuss over me so. I am sure I shall do excellently here, with my blankets and my books.” There were lavish piles of books within reach. So here was a pleasant side effect of slowly dying: time enough to finally catch up on reading.
Lawrence was doubtful, so Thomas shooed him onwards. “Go join the others,” he said, and, calling after him: “Try not to set anything particularly valuable on fire!”
He could hear a gaggle of them moving in the library, talking and making laughter, though swiftly hushed thereafter as if they did not want Thomas to hear their mirth. Young Royal Society magicians, having made the journey to the countryside to visit their old mentor, even as Thomas suspected only Lawrence held him in any true affection. That was well and fine too. He had not, in earlier days, made himself a figure of warmth. What was it he had overheard them saying once? Boring old staid Dr. Rust!
He wished all of them well, these energetic young bucks. He could plainly hear them debating the only subject any of them could talk about these days: the slow bleed of magic from England. Year by year, their workings had less power; their wards failed, their summonings brought nothing. They blamed the war in Fairy for the change.
He hoped the library would provide a comfortable setting for their discussion, at least. He had built it himself after retiring to his family’s farmhouse in Norfolk some five years ago. He had lengthened the house and reseeded the garden. When he saw the windblown larkspurs outside his window, he thought of his mother.
Her name had been Priya. How lonesome she must have been, so far from home. She had died alone too; he had been delivering a talk in London at the time. He imagined her ghost in the room with him. “I feel a charlatan,” he mused to her. “Do you know what these children call me? The grandfather of nineteenth century English magic!” He wheezed in laughter. Him! Half-English, half-Indian Tommy Rust, a farmer’s son, a perfectly adequate, ruthlessly average magician.
“They think because I have gone to Fairy, I possess some great knowledge.” But of course he did not. His youthful time in Fairy had been wretched. His thoughts turned, without bidding, to Simon Carrington — and then he wrenched them back, for it did no good to think of Simon, lovely Simon, Simon who betrayed them, Simon who may well be as dead as Hawthorne for all he knew.
It was a long time ago. He was an old man. An old man in interesting times, true enough, with Fairy trying to cleave itself in twain. But Thomas had naught to do with any of it anymore, what little part he might have played in the past.
His solicitor had come a fortnight ago to assist with composing his will. He had no children or siblings, no family still alive. He would give the farm to Lawrence. If magic in England became a blackened, wizened thing, mayhap they could all become farmers again.
Thomas laughed. It became a cough.
“Sir!” he could hear Lawrence cry out from the library.
“No need, no need,” Thomas called back, as he could hear chairs shuffle and people begin to stand. “Go back to your business.”
He slept at great length, dozing in the sunlight with a book atop his chest, stirring only to hear some loud noise or great bang from the library. He did not let it trouble him. He did not dream of Fairy. He did not dream of gardens with oracles or trees lined with milky moonlight. He did not dream of a knife pushed into his chest. He did not dream of hands wrapping around his, so that he could better strangle a friend. His dreams were plain and dull; he was standing in front of Parliament and Queen Victoria again, giving his very last address as the leader of Her Majesty’s magicians. Or, he was a young man once more, spotty-faced and in the Navy, and his captain was shouting at him to “use your magic and quell this storm — good God, man, just do it!” while he stammered that he could not, he did not know how.
It had been popular in the first half of the century for nobility and gentry to look for talent in their second sons. The Church had misliked it, but there were made schools and private tutors for this sort of thing. None of which had helped Thomas in rural Norfolk, raised to milk cows and sow land. A late-blooming shrub, shabbily trained, was what they said about him when he first made his appearance before the Society. No one could have fathomed that they would one day vote him their head.
He dreamed of their laughter. Yes, even now, he dreamed of it. A young man’s hurt, he thought self-deprecatingly, when he woke. How long it lasted, even when it became trivial history.
Lawrence and some of the others came in to check on him. He slept through portions of it, and other times he merely feigned sleep. In this manner he heard one of them whisper, less discreetly than she would have liked, “We ought to ask of him before he — passes. What he saw in Fairy.”
“He will not speak of it.” That was Lawrence, firmly voiced.
“The only living magician who has crossed to the other side and come back!” someone else — Hallett, the one with the temper? — exploded. “And he will not speak! How do we know there is truly a war in Fairy, with only his word for it?”
“Is magic not waning?” Lawrence argued. “Have you not seen the blood moon, the dead foxes? Has the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming not walked through London and put all who saw her to sleep? Don’t be a cad, Tristan. There is a war.”
“I saw Algernon Hawthorne when he came to us in his raiment,” Miss Helen Lackmore — the one with the dun hair — said quietly.
“That halfbreed?” Hallett scoffed.
“The Duke of Forget-Me-Not, and flowers sprung in his wake,” Helen said. “I can never forget.”
“I hear he is dead now.”
“Fairies cannot die.”
“This one did,” Lawrence interjected.
“Oh, bravo, most excellent!” Hallett said. “Our allies in Fairy dead, and yet Dr. Rust will not speak. How do we know the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, the Mad Queen herself, will not come for us once more? A war at our doorstep, magic gone from England within our lifetimes, and this one—” he spat it out, a seed in his mouth “—does nothing.”
“Look at him!” Lawrence said, and perhaps he meant it as a kindness, this gentle boy. “What would you ask him to do? He is past all that now.”
They left. Thomas slept again. He swam through sleep, crawled through the hours, until voices returned to his bedside, and he groaned. “Lawrence, my dear, what is it.” It must be well into night by now. The air was cool on his skin, though his brow felt hot. Cicadas hummed in the distant fields. Thomas opened his eyes.
It was not Young Lawrence sitting beside his bed. It was another man altogether, some forty years of age, round and paunchy belly, soft face, wispy blond hair, spectacles. His brown fustian coat had a tear along the front and frayed sleeves. He looked as if he had not slept in days.
“Ah, hello,” said Simon Carrington, blinking owlishly.
Only Thomas would be so fat-headed as to bleat the first thought that floated on his tongue, which was: “But you look so young.”
Which was not, in fact, the truth. The last he had seen of Simon Carrington, when they had parted with a kiss, Simon had been three and twenty. The man by his bed was older now, wearier than Thomas’ memories of him. However, when one considered the proper passage of time and that Simon had been born only a few scant years after Thomas, the Simon he saw now was startlingly younger than he should have been. So he must have been in Fairy all this while, Thomas thought, for only Fairy could weave time so crooked on its frame. A week in Fairy could be years elsewhere.
Thomas struggled to sit upright. He did not wish to be lying supine and helpless at their reunion.
Simon reached out to aid him, but Thomas bit out a no. Simon drew his hand back, looking wary and offended, which made Thomas want to laugh again because what reason did Simon have to take offense? Simon who had once sold all of London to the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming. Simon who had made Thomas drown him in a black lake.
“Do you hate me still?” Simon asked.
Anger was a clean, fiery baptism. “You said that you would work to repent for your sins, yet it is 1871 and I have not seen you for nigh on forty years, so tell me what I ought to think,” Thomas said. His lips were dry; he wet them agitatedly, yearning for water.
Simon cocked his head. In his soft-spoken voice, a voice Thomas first heard across a crowded room of magicians and halted in his tracks to better catch it, he said, “I cannot tell what your objection is. Is it to my sins, which are many, or is it that I have not paid a visit? I have been busy, Rust.”
They had rarely been anything but careful and formal to each other in their youth, Thomas always reverentially aware of Simon’s influential father. To hear Simon speak to him so brusquely now was another shock. Whatever Simon had been in the past — Judas, lost soul, the Mad Queen’s pawn — he had not been cold.
Thomas could see that this Simon was a cold creature. Bedrock and iron ore. The old Simon used to stutter when he was taken aback. This Simon did not seem a man who allowed himself to stutter.
“Now, however, you have the time,” said Thomas.
For some unfathomable reason, Simon smiled. “As much time as can be bought.”
“What do you mean by that?” Thomas would have never spoken so impatiently to Simon in the past either; so already they proved themselves both changed. “I am old, Carrington. My heart does poorly. I shall die in this bed. I have no time for fey riddles.” Exhaustion spilled through him like milk on a farmhouse floor.
Simon swallowed. “I speak true when I say that I have no riddles for you. What I bring you is time. Have you ever thought that time might be changed?”
Thomas’ head felt woolly. “Of course time changes. Day becomes night becomes day again.”
“The Oracle of Calais said the people of this age might not understand,” Simon murmured. “You are not accustomed, I see, to the — porousness of time. But as one who will accept that oracles may see the future,” and here Thomas reluctantly nodded, for he knew this, divination was an ancient art, “so can we bend the secrets of the past.”
“Time that has passed contains no mysteries,” Thomas said, brow furrowed. He would not let Simon see his frustration. “It has already been seen.”
“Seen, yes.” Simon bounced one knee. “But it can be more than seen. Do you not grasp my meaning? Past events can be made different.”
Thomas turned his face away. “You speak nonsense.”
“Can you truly not imagine it?” Simon asked despairingly. “The greatest mortal magician of our era and you cannot fathom this small magic trick?” He reached into his coat and fished out a silver pocket watch inlaid with filigree roses. “The Queen of All Night’s Dreaming made this extraordinary timepiece. I can use it to relive a single day as many times as I wish. I can walk through my dreams to days past.”
“Even were that so,” Thomas said, “you would use her magic? She is a lunatic who has started a war, and I see that you are still her man, after you said you would be freed from her.” A spasm went through him. “I find that rather disappointing, when you have had forty years to improve your morals.”
“I was ever a slow student,” Simon agreed, turning the watch in his pale hands. No socially troublesome Hindustani blood for Simon, who was the picture of pure English stock, albeit more portly than the ideal. “The war is near won. Hawthorne’s death has dealt a great blow to the rallying of the Many. She will pass through Fairy with the Wild Hunt at her heels. When that is done, she will enslave England. The oracles say this shall happen.”
Thomas closed his eyes. And, as Hallett said, what had he done to stop this? Lived a little in peaceful ignorance. Died a little more. “You must tell the Royal Society,” he said. “They must needs time to mount their defenses.”
“There is no defense once the Wild Hunt is brought forth,” Simon said. “They are the powers that birthed Fairy. They are the ancestors of the fair folk. They are primal. They are chaos.” He flicked open his pocket watch. “Many thousands of years ago, the first fairy lords saw the danger of the Wild Hunt and — broke their power into pieces. The Dreaming Queen has been resurrecting those pieces. She is nearly complete.”
Thomas’ bones were heavy. “So then.”
“There is no victory in the future,” Simon said. He lifted his chin to meet Thomas’ gaze. “Only the past.”
Thomas was possessed of no great wit or intellect, and he struggled to comprehend. His body ached in all limbs. He wished for sleep. “You would, with that devilish device of hers, walk through — events past? To what end?”
“To the only end that I have been toiling towards all these years,” Simon said, blinking behind his spectacles. “The end of the war, of course. We must thwart the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming.”
It was a lengthy tale that Simon told next, but what choice had Thomas but to listen? He scarce had the strength to leap out of his bed and dash into the meadows shrieking. Hence he remained, and he listened, and his fingerbones bore the fiery brand of pain from how he struggled not to clench them, to lay them wholly still atop the blankets while his eyes scoured Simon’s face, his haggard countenance. He did not seem well, like a man in the stages of long illness.
“This pocket watch, made by the Mad Queen, has marvelous properties,” Simon said, and Thomas’s ire rose at the expression on Simon’s face, of astonishment, of admiration, but then Simon did always possess an unhealthy awe of magic. He was the son and godson of famous magicians, and yet had no skill of his own. How could their lives have been otherwise, Thomas thought, if only Simon had inherited his kin’s abilities. If he had been a fair to decent hedge magician, of no danger to anyone.
Simon made to pass the watch to Thomas, so that he could see, but Thomas was stony. “I shall not touch it,” he said, “if it is hers.”
“For a man of your professional interests,” Simon said, turning cross, “you do have a mealy stomach for anything Fairy.”
“I ought to think I have exceptionally convincing reasons.”
“For God’s sake!” Simon said. “Simply because an object is made by a villainess does not mean it cannot be put to good purpose. If you were to come across a pack of wild dogs, and the only means of defense you had was Napoleon’s flintlock, would you not use it?” His mouth settled sullenly. “A tool is a tool, no more.”
Thomas rather believed it more complicated than that, when a tool was ensorcelled and the villainess was the queen that was tearing Fairy asunder, but he said nothing. Simon could be as stubborn as he wished on the matter. He would not touch the watch.
“Very well,” Simon said. “Allow to me to describe what this watch does.”
“If you think I would be more inclined to paw it after you no doubt tell me that it—”
“Rust, hush,” Simon interjected. “My memories of you, I must say, did not have you in such a constant miff.”
I was young, Thomas thought. My heart was full of calf-love for you. “You would not have dared interrupt me, forty years ago,” he said instead. “You were too much of a pallid shadow.”
“I was,” Simon said simply. “I have been a shadow all these years, putting on the faces of other men, other Simons. Acting the simpering mortal in the Mad Queen’s court, amusing her, passing what intelligence to Hawthorne I could, waiting for the moment to strike.” His hands twitched. “But that moment never came, did it? Or I was too craven to see it. The only truly brave act I ever did as a supposed spy was to obtain this watch.”
Thomas’ eyes narrowed. “How did you obtain it?”
Simon’s eyes were the blue of deepest water. “The Mad Queen had a mortal lover for a whim. She bestowed it upon him as a trinket. I killed him for it.” He said it evenly, so evenly. “She has forgotten about the watch, I think. She has many baubles like it. When she remembers, she may come searching for it among his former possessions, but for now she does not know that it is gone.” He looked at Thomas. “We have time to act.”
“Act?” Thomas echoed. “What do you propose we do? What could I possibly do?”
“This watch has fourteen uses,” Simon said. “When calibrated correctly, it will take you to a single day in the past. Then, when that day is done, it shall return you to the present. There is a day, I think, when, if sufficiently altered, could have changed the tilt of this war.”
Thomas had no desire to be curious, had no desire for any of this, but some things could not be helped no matter how stalwart a critic you were. “What day?” he asked. “And what has any of this to do with myself? You have the watch, and you have the strategy.”
“I will answer your first question first,” Simon said. “It requires a piece of Fairy history to comprehend. The Wild Hunt, as I said previously, conceived Fairy. Like Gaia and Uranus, they were the primal elements that birthed the first fairies. But when their children overthrew them — like Zeus and his brethren overthrew the Titans —, the Wild Hunt were drawn and quartered. They cannot be killed, no trueborn fey truly can, but pieces of their bodies, their power, were vivisected and then… swallowed by the first fairies.”
“Swallowed,” Thomas repeated.
“The fairies that swallowed parts of the Wild Hunt received a measure of their power, and became lords of the realm,” Simon continued. “Then, as time went on, many of these fairy lords passed the organs of the Wild Hunt unto the bodies of their own children.”
“How did they pass on these organs?”
Simon waved a hand. “The way a mother passes parts of her skin and blood onto any infant,” he said. “Or sometimes, through — acts of cannibalism.” His voice dropped. “It does not signify. What I mean to say is, the power of the Wild Hunt is diminished but not gone. However, what the Mad Queen desires is to — release that power. She has been for some time hunting down Wild Hunt hosts and dissecting them. Taking their Wild Hunt organs for her own.”
“Does she consume it for herself, if I follow?” Thomas said. “These parts live on in her?”
“Nay.” Simon shook his head. “That would be less alarming than what she is doing. Consuming the piece simply gives you a sliver of their power, a warped reflection. I told you that she is resurrecting the Wild Hunt. I mean precisely that. The Wild Hunt, as they were, unfettered and unbound.”
“Oh,” said Thomas.
“The body of the Lord of the Wild Hunt,” Simon continued, “was split across some seven fairies. Three of them are in a set of brothers — the Woodland Princes. There was a day when the Mad Queen fell upon all three Woodland Princes, and in doing so was able to gather in one swoop most of what she needed to resurrect the Lord of the Wild Hunt. Their most powerful member. That,” he said meaningfully, “was the turning point of the war. It was not difficult for her to collect the remaining four pieces elsewhere. We never could recover, having lost that stride.”
Thomas rested his head on his feathered pillow, on patches damp with his own sweat. “You mean to return to that day. When the Woodland Princes were lost.”
“Yes,” said Simon. He was quiet again, eyes darting rapidly, fox-like.
“If the Woodland Princes could be saved,” Thomas said, and coughed, his chest aching with phlegm, “then that could alter all the events that came after, and make a chance for the war to be won.”
“Yes,” said Simon.
“You have the watch. You know how to calibrate it.”
“Yes,” said Simon. “But you see, it cannot be myself who crosses back into the past. It must be you.”
“I know you think it a jest,” Simon said, dark-eyed, “but I shall tell you: there is another boon in picking this particular day to change. I was present then. When the Mad Queen’s kidnapper fled with the Woodland Princes. I was there. I have intimate knowledge of everything to do with that day — increasing our chances of changing it.” He started speaking very quickly. “But that means I cannot be the one to travel there. Do you not see? My past self, then-Simon, is already there. They would surely notice if there were two of me.”
“However,” Simon said, growing ever more insistent, “your past self was in London at the time, and also your face is less well-known — you do not matter to the powers in Fairy.” Thomas’ mouth quirked wryly. “So you comprehend! Fourteen uses, one day each. I will guide you in the present. Each night, when you return to this time, I will provide counsel. You would not be without information. But you must be the agent of this change, not I.”
“This is not a hero’s body,” Thomas said, gesturing at himself. “Even were the heart willing.”
“We do not need to consider this body of yours,” Simon explained. “You are returning to your past, do you not recall? Some twenty years ago. You will be young and hale.” He caught Thomas’ expression and cocked his head. “I would have thought that to sweeten the pot,” he admitted.
“Young again, a day at a time, for fourteen turns of the dial,” Thomas said. “What use have I for that? Fourteen more days does not seem like much when you are my age.” He hacked out a wet cough. “I am not afraid to die. I have lived a long life. At times, it was even a good one.”
He wondered what argument Simon would use next. Would he attempt to sway Thomas by telling him that thwarting the Dreaming Queen was his moral duty? Would he speak of the lives saved, of Fairy restored, of magic flourishing in England? He had always felt that, at the depth of it, he and Simon understood each other, had seen straight into each other’s characters nearly from the time they first met. But perhaps that was no longer true. Perhaps Simon did not know him anymore, the man he was now.
Simon hung his head. He looked defeated. “A good life,” he said. “Well and so, you have the right to say it. I know I have squandered mine.”
“You killed a man for this watch,” Thomas said, and he did not soften the blow, nor did he wish to.
“Yes,” said Simon, stricken. “You would think that a mortal without any magical inclination would be but a docile cow in Fairy, but I have killed a great many people trying to do what is right. I named it bravery but I have—” he put his head in his hands. “Very well,” he said at last, standing. “I will not bother you further.”
Thomas looked out the window, at the larkspurs and the mallow flowers, at the fat bobbing bees, at the crust of sky meeting land. His chest hurt more than ever. He thought of his mother standing at this window waiting for him to come home. She had never been overfond of his chosen profession. She had thought magic an evil thing.
“It does seem a remarkably common pattern in my life,” he said. “Called upon to save Simon Carrington from his own folly.”
“You are the best part of me,” said Simon, fiddling with his coat buttons. “I ought to have — visited more often.” Or even once, Thomas thought. “But this too I was frightened of. What you would say. The names you would rightfully call me.”
“No,” Thomas said, “do not speak of me as if I am a saint. I have only ever been—” he sighed “—too dull for wonders.”
“I need you, my old friend,” Simon said. “One last time.”
“I am dying,” Thomas said frankly, “so we may as well begin tonight.”
Simon cranked the watch.
It was only ever night-time in Fairy. If ever there was a sun, it had been lost with the Wild Hunt. Thomas woke in a body that had belonged to him some twenty years ago, barrel-chested and stocky with a full head of hair. He did not want to bestow it too much sentiment but Simon, damn him for a lark, was right: it was an added drop of honey, to be reunited with this body, akin to seeing a companion one had thought forever gone. To be able to run and leap and move his fingers freely, without creak of pain.
The air in Fairy was very still, like something ancient and not oft disturbed. It hung heavy on his brow, the darkness and the quiet. From where Simon had sent him, he followed a brook down a mossy valley where the trees bore leaves made of blown glass. They tinkled faintly as he passed, though there was no wind.
The Woodland Princes, Simon had said, aged and regressed and aged again, and had continued this cycle for some thousand years. On this day in time they had been children, young boys, and as such were entrusted to the care of the Queen of the Daoine Sidhe, whom they also called the Lady of Eight.
She is among the Many who oppose the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, Simon had said. Hawthorne and the others had felt the children were safest in her court, though of course this had proven ultimately incorrect.
Thomas’ legs became clumsy as they carried him into the valley and to the mounds of the Daoine Sidhe, their court beneath the earth. His heart in his chest resembled swollen fruit, and he had to halt for breath, and for nerves. You will tell them that you are a friend of the Duke of Forget-Me-Not, Simon had instructed him. I will give you the words to make them believe you. But Thomas was no fine actor, no dissembler of lies. He could smell smoke and ash as he approached. He traipsed the words over his tongue, repeating them silently.
Two women stood guard. Their skin glittered with scales.
“A mortal?” one said.
“Blood, fat, bone,” said the other.
“So many mortals now in Fairy, where must the firstborn go? Where shall we put our heads to rest, when mortals sleep in our beds and eat at our table?”
Thomas cleared his throat. “Good day. I am Thomas Orwell Rust,” he said. “Son of David Rust and Priya Khurana. I am known to His Grace the Duke of Forget-Me-Not, and I have come to present obeisance before their Majesties the Princes Three.” He steadied his voice and willed it not to waver, styling it slow and solemn as if he was giving a lecture before his Royal Society students. There had always been a wellspring of calm within him, that had set him apart from other men. He reached for it now. “Around three o’clockish on a Thursday in October.” He paused. “James Wellesley did live.”
“Where is Wellesley?” said the first woman. “Does he not come? Does His Grace not send his right hand?”
“Otherwise occupied with the war,” Thomas said, and were he a more flippant man, he might say more.
“A magician,” said the second woman. “I smell it on him.”
“I shall perform no magic that does not meet your queen’s tastes,” Thomas promised.
“Bring you news?” asked the first.
“Yes,” said Thomas, for Simon had provided some. Thus satisfied, the guards stepped aside and opened a door, and there he passed through newborn darkness to the court of the Lady of Eight.
“She will want to see you,” said the second guard, and then promptly left Thomas in the corridor. Queer creatures and fey walked by them in serpentine slithers of silk, uncaring and uncurious. There was a man with the legs of a fawn and a woman with a tiger’s stripes. Thomas hurried apace with the guard before she could abandon him.
“Do you know when Her Ladyship will have time to see me?” he asked.
The guard blinked. “I do not understand.”
“Is it today? Is it — tomorrow?” He would not be here tomorrow; the watch would call him back.
“Leave me,” said the guard, and Thomas hurriedly withdrew. He knew better than to bait a fairy into irritation.
“You waste your questions; fairies do not count time, not truly,” said a voice that had appeared at his side. It was Simon, of course, but not the Simon who had come to Thomas’ sickbed and spun a tale of watches and days. It was a younger Simon, some thirty winters old, with a face as soft as a peach. The Simon of this time. Thomas waited for this Simon to express amazement at seeing him here, of all places, but Simon did not. He took Thomas by the elbow and guided him into a chamber with a single lonely harp. He closed the door behind them.
“I am—” said Thomas, unsure of where to begin. He longed for a silver tongue.
Simon studied him, and then removed his spectacles to wipe them across his shirt. “You are not my Rust,” he said, and Thomas frowned, for who was this Simon to so cavalierly claim him as a possession? But when Simon returned his spectacles to his nose, Thomas saw that his hands were shaking. “I do not know how I can say so with such surety, but I can. There is something… otherwise about you. Tell me, did the watch send you?”
Thomas nodded. Simon took a deep, sharp breath. “Then I succeeded, in the future. In obtaining the watch.”
“Thank God,” Simon said in a rush. “Thomas, you cannot even begin to know how gladdened I am to hear that. I—” He stopped and stiffened. “I forget myself. That is to say, thank you. For coming here. What event in this time are you meant to change?”
“The Woodland Princes,” Thomas said simply. “And are you certain this room is secure? What if the Mad Queen has her own spies here?”
“Of a certainty she has her spies,” Simon said, “and this room is secure enough as I can make it.” He rubbed his nose. “Ah, the Woodland Princes. She wishes to resurrect the Wild Hunt; so that is her stratagem. Yes, the pieces come together. I must tell Hawthorne.” He began mumbling to himself.
“The Dreaming Queen would not dare come here, not without attempting other methods first, so who is it that acts on her behalf? Is it a traitor within the Lady of Eight’s court?”
“The woman with the auburn hair,” said Thomas. “Or so I am told.”
“Their nursemaid?” Simon said sharply.
“Has she no other name? I have been wondering.”
“The Lady of Eight has not remembered to give her one,” Simon said. “The woman with the auburn hair is mortal. German, I think. This is… interesting. I did not expect it to be her.”
“If the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming can lure one mortal to her side,” Thomas said, “then it is not so astounding that she could lead another.” He looked at Simon as he said this, and Simon’s face flattened into something quite calm and blank.
Thomas continued. “I had thought at first to simply relay this knowledge to you, so that you may inform the Lady of Eight. You are known to her as a spy, and would conceivably know who in her court may be false.”
“—and I am sure that my future self quickly disabused you of that notion,” Simon said, “for while I may be tolerated in her court, for Hawthorne’s sake, she does not trust me. Anything that has been tainted by the Dreaming Queen first is… distasteful to her.”
“Your other self did say as much,” Thomas admitted. “Then I had thought I might tell her myself, but the other Simon said he did not advise that either.”
“No, he would not,” Simon said quickly. “Fairies hold viciously to protocol. You are a stranger to her. There is also the consideration that whatever you change today shall bleed into the future. If it became common knowledge that the Mad Queen’s watch allowed us to thwart her — well then, perhaps in the future she would know to not build the watch at all.”
“Just as I told the other Simon: that puts us at a standstill, no?” Thomas crossed his arms. “You have removed our most direct courses of action.”
“You were never very good at politicking,” Simon said.
“This goes far beyond politicking, I would argue. It is veritably cloak and dagger.”
“Those are my primary skills these days,” Simon said, and sighed. “If you are here, I imagine the woman with the auburn hair will choose to act tonight.” Thomas nodded. “Then I see that we have two choices. We may — why are you, why are you smiling so?”
“I cannot help it,” Thomas said. “The other Simon laid out his plan much the same, very nearly to the last word. It is uncanny, is all.”
Simon fidgeted. “Well, he is I and I am him.”
“He was not certain if you would be agreeable to my presence, or if I could convince you of who I am,” Thomas said. “He said you might be a risk. But we also agreed that as there is no way to avoid you, if you offered your help, I ought to take it.”
“Wise,” Simon muttered.
“Your future self said, we have two choices,” Thomas said. “We can ourselves prevent her from carrying out her plan, possibly by force, or we can catch her in the act and expose her to the Lady of Eight, so that Her Ladyship has no recourse but to believe us. Of the two plans, you and I both favour the latter. We make a paltry guard compared to what a fairy queen might muster.”
The other Simon had also said, If it comes to it, and we must stop her ourselves, and the only choice therein is to kill her, mayhap it is for the better that you have my younger self with you. Yet if he thought that Thomas would agreeably hand over the knife, he did not understand a whit about Thomas at all. Thomas had no appetite for murder, even for an agent of the Mad Queen. However, he was the magician, not Simon, and he would hardly allow Simon to face their enemies for the sole purpose of keeping his own hands clean.
“What business have you in the Lady of Eight’s court?” he asked instead. He had wondered this too. “She is an enemy of the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming and you are, by appearances, the Dreaming Queen’s pet. Does no one find issue with your being here?”
“The Mad Queen does not know that I am here,” Simon replied. “I am not her favourite; she forgets my existence more oft than not, and allows me to come and go as I please. The Lady of Eight’s courtiers know my true allegiances and have so far kept that secret.”
Thomas raised his eyebrows. “Even if the Lady of Eight holds doubts about those allegiances?”
“Her doubts have not yet overcome my usefulness, though one day it might,” Simon shrugged. “This is when Her Ladyship can be bothered to think of me at all. Fairies are not much interested in mortals, you will observe, outside of some few distinct uses.” He offered a small smile. “In that way, our comings and goings today, however suspicious, may be made easier.”
“We have fourteen tries,” Thomas said peaceably. “I have no great hopes, but let us see how far we go.”
“I can broker an introduction to the Woodland Princes,” Simon said, later that day. “In doing so you may also meet the woman with the auburn hair.”
“Do as you think best,” said Thomas. “Your other self told me she is a magician.”
“I believe so, though I have yet to see her work any magic,” said Simon. “If she is a magician we may needs to consider the likelihood of a magician’s duel.”
“Duel,” Thomas said wonderingly. Such a civilized word for what it might come to. He had been in the Navy. He had seen battles before; the dirty, rough scrabbling in the water and mud for survival. “Well, I do have some small experience as a combat magician, though I daresay it has been a very long time since I have used any of those arts.”
“Fourteen tries,” Simon said grimly. “It shall have to stick, at least once. Come.” He led Thomas through the halls that smelled of sweetly rotten earth and honeysuckle, to rap at a door with a brass knob.
The woman with the auburn hair opened it. She was very thin and very pale, and quite unkempt, with a torn hem on her muslin dress and a face that had not been washed in days. “Carrington,” she said in a low, husky voice. “I did not know you were — with us today.”
She is the Mad Queen’s pawn, Thomas thought with sudden alarm. If there was a single person in this court who would be keenly interested to report Simon double-crossing his mistress, this was she. While Thomas was suffused with abrupt dismay, thinking foolish, foolish, foolish! Simon sketched a brief bow and said, “I would pay the princes a visit. It has been overlong and they have grown.”
Three young voices chorused deep in the cavernous chamber; three boys playing with leaves and sticks, wielding them like shields and swords. “Little Simon!” one of them called out joyously. “Look, look, brother! It is Little Simon come to us.”
“Your Highnesses,” Simon said. “May I introduce a friend? This is Dr. Thomas Rust. He is from the court of the Duke of Forget-Me-Not.”
“Funny old Hawthorne,” the second prince said, sticking out his tongue. “With his nose always up in the air!”
“Hello, Highnesses,” Thomas said solemnly. “That looks like quite the stick war you have going on — very ferocious. Have you names I can call you by?”
“I am the Eyes of the Woods,” said the first prince, with the dark hair.
“I am the Breath of the Woods,” said the second prince, with the sharp chin.
“I am the Heart of the Woods,” said the third, with the scar by his mouth. “And have you more of those stories Little Simon tells us? About the fairy king of England?”
“Fairy king of England?” Thomas said. He turned to Simon. “I wonder what sort of stories these may be.”
“Yes, he with the grand palaces in every city and town in England!” cried the Eyes of the Woods. “He who split the fish and bread! He who died and rose again!”
Simon had the grace to look embarrassed. “I tried to explain that Jesus Christ is not a fairy, however…”
“Of course he is a fairy,” the Breath of the Woods said sensibly. “What else would he be?”
Thomas chanced a glance at the woman with the auburn hair, to see how she was taking this, but her expression was distant and withdrawn, like sunlight through wax paper; she was not even listening. He chose to watch her as Simon got onto his haunches to play with the princes, letting them ride his back as they beat him with their sticks. They did not seem to have much interest in allowing Thomas into their game. “Faster, faster, you mule!” the Heart of the Woods cried, pulling Simon by the hair until his eyes watered.
They were ancient fairy princes; of course they would treat mortals such. Simon bore it without complaint, until the boys grew tired of the play, demanded a story, and when that story was exhausted sought other entertainments. The woman with the auburn hair went with them soundlessly.
“She is a magician,” Thomas said quietly, after she had left. “Of that much I can tell. It is as the guards said — you can smell it, when you try. But of what calibre and skill, it is impossible to say. I may have to do more research into German magics.”
“There is no time for research and your beloved books,” Simon said, “and my knees hurt.”
“Come and be six and sixty with me in the future,” Thomas said, “and I shall tell you about hurt knees.” He hesitated. “They seemed to enjoy your company,” In another future, perhaps, the very future they were trying to bring to bear, Simon might have children of his own. It was a strange thought, but not as strange as it might have been yesterday.
Simon appeared to have clutched at much the same thought. “Rust,” he said softly.
“Did you, ah, did you ever marry?”
“No,” Thomas said, and left it at that.
They retreated to Simon’s guest bedchamber. Mushrooms sprouted from the dirt floor. Thomas sank onto the bed. “Have you a piece of string?” he asked, and Simon hared off in search. He found the string, and the rest of what Thomas asked for: two glass marbles. Thomas used a pocketknife on the vanity to cut the string.
“What are you making?” Simon asked, sitting gingerly on the opposite end of the bed.
“We agreed that our first attempts ought to be to expose the woman with the auburn hair in the act.” Thomas tested the tautness of the string. “Unless we wish to dog the woman’s heel all day, we need less physical methods of tracking her.”
“Undoubtedly true,” Simon said. “Is that then—”
“An eye,” Thomas said. “I require your assistance. We must each pierce the marble with a hole. Have you a second knife?”
Some half hour later of digging the point of his knife into the marble, with gruellingly slow success, Simon panted, “Is there no better way to do this? Must these marbles be glass? Can we not use clay?”
“I do not know how to do this with clay,” Thomas said, “only glass.”
“This is mundane work when we have little time for it.” Now Simon sounded like a cross cat.
“You of anyone ought to know that magic is nothing but mundane work,” Thomas said without meaning to, slipping into the same sonorous tone he used for his students. Young Lawrence would have been more than familiar with it. “My apologies,” Thomas said, embarrassed. “I do not mean to… lecture.”
“I consider it a loss that I have never attended one of your lectures,” Simon grunted.
“Why?” Thomas said, surprised. “They put many a young magician to sleep.”
“I am not a magician, am I?” Simon made a satisfied noise as he finished digging through his marble. “There we are. A hole, as the good professor requested.”
Thomas took the marble from Simon’s hand and strung it on the string. Then he added the second marble. He tied the string into a circle, creating a knot with quick, brisk movements, for despite what Simon claimed he did not wish to squander their time either. When the circle with the two marbles was complete, he enclosed it in his palm and breathed over it, giving it warmth. Simon watched him avidly, hardly blinking. Thomas then took the pocketknife and cut the string. The two marbles fell into his hand. They were biscuit-warm.
Bound together once, he thought, and would be so again.
“Ah,” Simon said, “they truly are become eyes.” He watched as the images of ghostly phantasms appeared inside the glass. There were two men: one fair-haired and plump, the other a burly half-Indian. Simon raised his hand. The Simon in the marble raised his hand.
Thomas spoke to one of the eyes. “Go and follow the woman with the the auburn hair.” It spun and spun, and when Thomas opened the door, rolled out of the room. He studied the other marble in his hand and watched what it showed him: corridors, shadows, cereus shyly blooming in underground bowers. Being that the Lady of Eight’s court was so persistently dark, they would have to hope no one noticed a marble scuttling about; he would not have dared this in more brightly lit environs.
Now there was naught to do but wait. It was dreary work, waiting, when Thomas was ever cognisant of his newfound youthful body, the quickness of it, the strength. It was not a body meant for sitting around and waiting. What other purposes could he use it for, he wondered, until he glanced at Simon sitting taut and quiet on his bed and those thoughts came to an end. With a younger man’s body came a younger man’s desire too, for all that it was pitiful for Thomas to still want Simon Carrington. It was a sickness, he thought, a malady.
There were no intimate affects in Simon’s chamber, only a bed, a wardrobe, a vanity, and a ragged portmanteau tossed carelessly on the earth. Thomas wondered what was inside the portmanteau, what a man who once betrayed his friends and family to the Mad Queen, and now betrayed the Mad Queen herself, might carry for his use.
“What is the reasoning behind this war?” Thomas asked instead. In the marble he saw that its sister had reached the nursery, and there was the woman with the auburn hair watching the Woodland Princes whilst reading.
“Reasoning?” Simon echoed. “To stop the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming.”
“That much I have comprehended,” Thomas said dryly.
“Well.” Simon seemed at a loss for words. He stared at his own knuckles, clenched over his knees.
“The Dreaming Queen must have her own reasons for this,” Thomas said. “For resurrecting the Wild Hunt. Is it for power? Does she wish to be a conqueror?”
“Of a sort,” said Simon. “The Wild Hunt is chaotic. It has no master and cannot be commanded, not truly. When they are released, they will ride roughshod over Fairy and remake it into what it once was. Something raw. Something beyond even her control.”
“Then what good does it do for her to resurrect them?” Thomas said. “If they will not be her servants?”
“I have wondered this myself,” Simon said. He laughed a little. “Everybody has wondered this. She is the Mad Queen; must she require a reason?”
“It is an absurdly expensive war to have no reason,” Thomas said patiently. “Though mayhap you are right. I confess I have little experience with madness.”
They were quiet for a moment, each nursing their own thoughts. Thomas continued watching the glass eye. Then Simon spoke.
“Magic is dying.”
“You have heard the news from home? I would be astonished if there is another generation of magicians in England,” Thomas said. “Or elsewhere. My colleagues in India, in China, in the Americas… in their letters to me, they share similar stories.” He borrowed their fanciful language. “A fin de siècle.” He felt silly even saying it. A man like himself, with no formal education to speak of, should have no business speaking French.
“Not only in the mortal realms,” Simon said.
Thomas looked at him.
“Perhaps Fairy is too old.” Simon fiddled with his hands, an old habit Thomas remembered well. “It rots from the inside.”
“Is that even possible?” Thomas asked in disbelief. “Fairy is—” he struggled for the right word “—Fairy is Fairy.” Oh well done, he thought to himself; what a wit.
“Though it may seem static, Fairy too changes with time,” Simon said. “Perhaps it is because it has been too long since the Wild Hunt wandered these lands, like a spring that renews us — this, I suspect, between you and I, is the Mad Queen’s desire.”
“Then,” Thomas said slowly, “in her own way, she is trying to save Fairy. I had not thought of this.”
“Is your world knocked askew?” Simon asked, though not unkindly. “She loves Fairy above all else. All that she does, she does out of a great and terrible love.” He picked at his own fingernails. “But to have the Wild Hunt remake Fairy… it would signify the end of what we currently are. It would entail sacrificing everything in the present for the sake of an unknown future.”
When he speaks of Fairy, he says ‘we’, Thomas noticed.
The hours passed strangely. Time in a fairy court was like wind moving through clouds. But there was no sunlight for Thomas to mark it by. He wondered what traveling back in time for a day meant, when the very understanding of a day seemed so foreign in Fairy. “Do fairies sleep?” he finally asked, having watched the glass eye until his own eyes were red-rimmed and fatigued. “Is that how they count days?”
“Some do,” Simon said, “when they remember.” He had chosen to lie on the bed with his hands folded across his chest. He appeared to be quite passionate about something on the ceiling. Thomas looked up and saw fireflies.
Further more hours, and Thomas began to nod off. Simon called his name.
“My apologies,” Thomas said, startling.
“I can keep watch,” Simon said, and Thomas was not so foolish as to refuse. Glad to rest his eyes, he handed the marble to him. “You may sleep if you are tired,” Simon said. “Fairy has that effect on mortals.”
Thomas saw the folds of skin beneath Simon’s eyes, the lines on his face. “I sleep most of my days as an old man. I do not love the experience so much as to want to repeat it here. A bit of light rest is what I need.”
“You shall need to be alert, when the time comes for action.”
“I am alert,” Thomas said, though he was not, not truly.
Simon did not call attention to his lie, albeit his face changed, and with it a weight in Thomas’ chest. It was needless to feel at a temper. It was needless to look at Simon and think, It was you who brought me here, dragged me from my deathbed for your impossible task when I was content to be left alone. Thomas considered himself above such childish sentiments; he was a statesman among magicians, a man dignified, ruled by logic and rational humours. He did not feel any of those worthy characteristics now.
More hours. No slumber, only Simon’s silence and the grinding of Thomas’ teeth.
Then at last: “there,” said Simon, staring at the eye. “This is unusual. She is preparing milk for the princes in the kitchens. Oh! Now she is leaving the kitchens with a tray of cups.”
Thomas’ spine stiffened. “Do you think she slipped a draught into the milk?”
“It is only a guess,” Simon said tersely, “but as I said, it is unusual. I have never known a fairy court to allow their food to be prepared by a mortal. It is taboo.”
Thomas leaped to his feet.
“I shall find and fetch the Lady of Eight,” Simon said at his side. “Do you remember the way to the nursery? You will need to head our enemy off.”
“Yes,” Thomas said shortly, and he ran. Fairy courtiers turned to watch him; beaded eyes studied his journey. He could not claim to have made it with any sort of practiced grace; he clamoured to the nursery, overturning a chancellor in livery, and rushed to the chamber in time to see the woman with the auburn hair enter from a side door with three cups on a tin tray. She blinked at him with her dull, glassy eyes.
Thomas’ mind was a stage coach rushing off a pier. He could not rein it back. “I am thirsty,” he said. “Let me drink some of that milk.”
“This is fairy food and not meant for you, Little Simon’s friend,” she replied. “Who are you to disturb me like this?”
“I am thirsty,” Thomas repeated, and took a step forward. The woman with the auburn hair recoiled and set the tray on a table. In the next room he could hear the Woodland Princes playing, shouting at each other merrily.
Thomas was a poor dissembler; she saw his thoughts immediately.
“Little Simon told me he was at this court under our queen’s orders,” she said absently. “He said we were the same. But I think that is not why he is here, after all.”
It was not true that Thomas had never killed a man. He had disdained Simon for it, for his brutal methods, when as a soldier Thomas had — once. In Greece, where he had been stationed, to support the revolution. He had been nineteen, and there had been a Greek magician, instructed to remove the spotty English lad they have on the ship, who makes such weather. He had caught Thomas unawares. They had fought.
He lunged at the woman with the auburn hair, aiming to use his weight and superior strength to his advantage. Curious how, when faced with peril, he did not first think to use magic. A human to the end, he thought as he bore the woman to the floor where she hissed and raked her nails over his face. He yelped and straddled her with his knees. She stared at him with hate in her eyes, and placed her palms flat on the ground. The earth moaned.
Thomas wrapped his hands around her wrists. He only needed to detain her until Simon could bring the Lady of Eight to expose her dealings. She was a slip of a creature, but the earth made another horrible sound and the ground rumbled. It cracked all around them, slabs of it falling into crevasse, and Thomas was thrown off-balance.
She used the change in momentum to rise from beneath him. She grabbed him by the head and covered his eyes with one hand.
“Be blind,” she hissed, and lo, he was.
He fought back, in fear. He spat into his palm and summoned lightning. Young Lawrence would have been agog to see him do it; old Dr. Rust did have some tricks after all, he whose workings had once been described by a critic as chiefly agricultural, good for raising pigs. They had forgotten, those who laughed at him, about sky and earth and land and sea. Magic was dying in Fairy, and yet Jovian lightning arced through the nursery, the smell of it in Thomas’ nostrils, in his blood. He swung it, with all his might, unseeing, and struck—
A table. Falling cups. A clatter.
Boyish voices: “Oh see now, they are fighting! Is this a game?”
The woman with the auburn hair responding, “I know not why this stranger attacked me. Quickly, dear lambs — you must find Her Ladyship.”
Thomas, groaning, twisting to and fro at the voices, not knowing where to aim — and then another woman, who he could not see, transforming the air as she entered with a sound like the dry crackle of moth wings, said, “Who is this? Who makes this spectacle? Who dares assault a member of my household that I have plucked with my own hand from the masses to serve me?”
Simon then, trying to speak. “Your Ladyship, we have observed this nursemaid to have—”
“The chattering of mortals hurts my head,” said the Lady of Eight. “We shall judge this matter later. Put this man in chains.”
Simon, sitting by his bed, peered at him.
“No,” Thomas croaked. He pressed a hand to his forehead. It felt hot. “I tried — I tried to duel her. She took my sight. I would have asked them to — to examine the cups, but I fear I knocked them over. I was reckless. I spent the remainder of the day in gaol.” Shame soaked through his voice. He had not thought himself especially useful to Simon’s cause but now he knew the truth of it.
“I have no one else,” Simon said. “Rest some. We try again tomorrow.”
On the second day of his travels it was the same.
“A mortal?” the first guard said.
Her companion replied, “Blood, fat, bone.”
On the third day the woman with the auburn hair tore open his throat.
He returned to his own time, thrashing. Simon climbed in the bed and held him. He whispered in his ear, over and over again, “You are alive, you are alive. The Thomas of that time is in London. The Thomas who becomes you is safe. She cannot reach him. Shhhh.”
Thomas gasped in his arms.
On the fourth day he killed her.
It was, unfortunately, not a resounding success.
“If you have possessed any prior knowledge that she is deathless, perhaps it would have behooved you to share it,” Thomas said.
The Simon-of-the-past wrinkled his nose. “I did not know. You must trust me when I say that it is as much a surprise to me as it is to you.”
Thomas had wondered if she might possess special characteristics, but as his first choice had not been to kill, he had not pressed the matter. Now he questioned if he ought to have. A truly powerful Fairy could carve a mortal’s death from her body, and after that ordeal a mortal could never die or be killed. As such, on the fourth day his lightning had traveled through her heart and dropped her to the ground, only to have her stumble to her feet again. It was an immortality that many would commit lavish sins for, and yet there was a price.
“The Mad Queen has countless mortals to play with, but I have never known her to take a death from any of them,” Simon went on. “Despite the stories, few fairies do. They enjoy seeing a mortal die. It is an amusement, a rare novelty to them who death does not touch.”
Thomas looked at him askance. “Magicians in England go missing, sometimes. I am not able to track them.”
“I know,” said Simon. “Fairies set traps near the borderlands. Then they hold a fete so that all may watch their sport. The Dreaming Queen relies on me to bury the bones when she is done.”
Thomas said nothing.
“You must have guessed,” said Simon, swallowing.
“Those were my students,” Thomas said.
Simon stood and paced the room. He walked to one end, and then to the other. When he turned to Thomas at last, he said, “I am aweary of this place.”
I did not ask about you, Thomas bit behind his teeth, for it seemed even his grief must be molded to Simon’s design. But nor could he look away from Simon’s white face and trembling mouth, or stuff his ears with cotton to keep from hearing Simon’s voice as it rose. “I would raze it to the ground,” Simon said. “Do you not know that? If I were not the — the weakling that I am, I would burn all of Fairy, every last evil thing, every petty cruelty, every bloody amusement. I would burn it for them and I would burn it for you — and,” here Simon was gasping, “Hawthorne thought Fairy may be changed if just rulers hold sway, but even Hawthorne did not understand fairies as I do. They were his people, so naturally he wished to see the good in them, but I am past hope.” Simon swiped at his face. “I have none left in me. They have taken it. It is no more than I deserve.”
“What you deserve—” Thomas struggled. He did not know what Simon deserved. It did not seem as clear as it before. “What would you have me say? I know that you have seen more than I have, trapped in these kingdoms for so long.”
“Not trapped,” Simon said roughly. “Do not think me a victim in this. I told you the Mad Queen cares not what I do. I could have returned to London. Or — not London. I don’t think I could bear returning to London. But I could have taken some fairy silver and made a home for myself on the Continent.” He breathed shakily. “A house somewhere. By the sea. Full of light.”
And Thomas could see it, in his mind’s eye, the future where this happened. It was so peaceful. He swallowed too.
“Wellesley told me I was a fool for not doing it, but Hawthorne said he needed me. And was that not a siren call in and of itself? To be needed?” Simon shook his head. “Ah, I prattle on. I squander time. Forgive me, Rust. I — I am a crying wee babe in the cradle. We were speaking of — of deathlessness.”
Thomas, to his shame, was all too eager to speak of their plans again. Sentiment made him uneasy, as did tears. His own family had ever been very private, very reserved folk, his childhood quiet and contained. A small life, from beginning to end. “It need not matter that the woman with the auburn hair is deathless,” he said, “if only we could bring the Lady of Eight to witness her act in time. However, the timing of it is… more difficult than we had originally supposed.”
“I am to blame,” Simon said.
“I did not accuse—”
“If I could summon the Lady of Eight more swiftly, our problems would be resolved,” Simon said, voice growing steadier. It seemed it was easier for him to speak of their plans as well. “Every day she is in the same place, in her sitting room having a meal. It is easy enough to find her. But she does not come willingly. She thinks that I am making a fool of her, with my demands.”
“You said that she does not trust you.”
“I had suspected, but now I know,” Simon said. “My God, she hates me.”
“Have you no ally among her inner circle?” Thomas pressed. “If she will not come at your cry for help, could someone else not convince her?”
“I ought not to have chosen this day to travel back to,” Simon muttered. “I ought to have had someone from Hawthorne’s court — Hawthorne himself most like — come and expose the woman with the auburn hair. He is alive in this time. Her Ladyship would not dismiss him.”
“Would we be able to make the journey to Hawthorne’s court, within our time here?” Thomas asked. “Or would it require you to travel back to another day altogether?”
“It is a journey of many days,” Simon said. “Even to send some post.”
“Well then! That seems to be our answer,” replied Thomas. “If you are able to set the clock to, let us say, three or four days before this one, that would be splendid. I do agree — Hawthorne or his ilk would be better suited for this plan, not you and I.”
“It is not as simple as that,” Simon said bitterly. “It takes years of calculations to be able to set the watch correctly.”
“And?” Thomas queried. “You were youthful enough when you came to me, in the future. I daresay you have those years.”
“So I spend another three years making those calculations,” Simon said. “Those are years in which the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming may come for her watch. I dare not take that risk. Also,” he said, “I was not as — as hale as I may have appeared.”
Thomas thought of future Simon’s sickly pallor.
“How would you know?” he asked quietly.
Simon grew still.
“It is true that you were… ill-looking,” Thomas said. “But how would you, the Simon of this time, know what the Simon of many years to come looked like? I did not tell you. And when you said that Hawthorne is alive here. I do not recall telling you that he had died in my time. I had thought not to mention it, in case it would upset you.”
“Would you be sufficiently convinced if I said that I merely guessed those things? I have poor habits and Hawthorne made himself mortal; all mortals will one day die.” Simon’s face was rueful as he took in Thomas’ set jaw. “No? Well. You ought to know by now that I lie to you, Rust, incessantly.”
“So I gather,” Thomas said stiffly. “Who are you, Carrington? Which person are you right now?”
“It does not matter,” Simon said. “Both of them are strangers to you.”
When Thomas woke in his own time, his bedside was empty, though Simon’s fustian coat had been folded over the back of a chair and he could hear someone moving about in the kitchens. Thomas stared at the coat for a long time, then at his hands, dark with liver spots, fighting the pain that overcame his aged body, the plaintive cry of his bones, the stabbing throbs of his chest. He was so weak that when Simon returned to the bedchamber, a plate of cheese, ham, and bread in hand, Thomas could scarce lift his head to greet him.
“I ran into a lad,” Simon said carelessly. “Gave him quite a fright. He said his name is Lawrence. Is he Duplass’ son? His face is a dead likeness.”
“Grandson,” Thomas managed between chapped lips.
“My God,” Simon said. “The time does pass whilst one is away from England. I hope he is kinder than his grandfather. Duplass once told me I was as useless as a third teat.” He began cutting the cheese, and offered a piece to Thomas.
Thomas did not take it.
“Suit yourself,” said Simon, stuffing it into his mouth.
“My teeth,” Thomas croaked. “Broth.”
“Oh! Of course!” Simon leaped to his feet, plainly ashamed. “I had not thought to consider it, but you are — that is—” he waved his hands helplessly. “Um, I will see if I may procure some broth. Do not hope for much. My domestic skills are… lacking.”
“Ask Lawrence,” Thomas whispered, and then he was too worn out to say more.
The next time he woke Simon was at his side, and so was a bowl of porridge. “It is cold, I am afraid,” Simon said apologetically. “Are you hungry yet? Should I—?” he made abortive attempts to gesture the spoon at Thomas’ mouth. Thomas burned with mortification, but he had no other choice in this body than to let Simon Carrington feed him like an invalid. It was honest, at least, for that was what he was these days, an old man too frail to climb out of bed.
Porridge slipped out of Thomas’ mouth and dribbled down his chin. Simon sopped it up with a handkerchief.
“You stare as if you want to ask,” Thomas mumbled harshly.
“What would I ask?”
“What it is like,” Thomas said. “To be old. To die.”
“What would you know of death?” Simon said. “When you are still here, living.”
Simon had died once. He had used Thomas as an instrument of his own death, at the time attempting to escape the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming. He had been saved by the Oracle of Calais, who was an ally of Hawthorne, who had, as Simon said, seen some use for his life. Dying to escape the Mad Queen, Thomas thought, and then to be sent straight back into her arms as a spy. He had only ever held respect for Hawthorne’s decisions, but this one had been callous.
“I am very close to my end,” he said out loud, fighting with his throat for the words to come. He was tired again; he wanted to sleep. “I am waiting. I am — not frightened.”
“No?” Simon asked softly. “This is the second time you have said this. I would be.”
“I am dying easier than most,” Thomas said, and what he meant was that he was still in possession of sound mind. It was his greatest fear to not be. He had seen many friends through their deaths, and witnessed the decline of their thoughts, their memories, an onset of what seemed uncomfortably close to madness. Thomas would die, but he would die as himself. As for the rest of it, well. Thomas used to speak of these matters with his mother, when he was in a philosophical bent of mind, wherein she was always appalled that her son did not believe in deity, did not believe in that which came after.
His mother was the only person who had known Thomas was an atheist. When he was still active in the Royal Society, he would attend church every Sunday. He did so because there was widespread fear of magicians and their indecencies, particularly when he, a man with a foreign mother, became head of the Society. He attended church so that no one could say that he would ruin England’s magicians with dark Hindu magics. And a bit because it pleased his father. His father who had been a kind and quiet man, defying convention to marry Thomas’ mother, but who had remained wary of anything not Christian. He had misliked Priya whispering her prayers to Thomas when he was a child at her knees.
Where had they gone when they died, he wondered. To the worms, most like, but a part of him hoped that he was wrong and that his mother and father had each found their own peace that suited them. That his father was in heaven with his shepherd, and that whenever Thomas passed a young Indian woman on the streets of London, recently landed from a faraway ship, he was seeing his mother reborn.
It was a lovely supposition. He wanted to believe it. “Mayhap I have not the wits to be afraid,” Thomas said tiredly.
“I have rarely ever been accused of having a surfeit of wits,” Simon said. He turned his face away. “Sleep now. When you are ready, we can resume our work.” Thomas did not need further permission. He closed his eyes and let his body slip into dreams. Dreams of hair and teeth and three boys laughing, and a dream of Simon leaning over his bed and putting a cool hand on Thomas’ forehead.
Oh my love, said Simon.
“To return to a thought you had earlier,” said Simon, in the past. Not past-Simon, for Thomas knew that this Simon he was speaking to was the same one at his bedside, who had seemingly made the sojourn back in time with him. But Simon did not seem inclined to discuss this particular deception, and Thomas was tired of arguing. It did not matter in the end.
“That we could alert someone the Lady of Eight trusts more than myself,” Simon said, absently cleaning his spectacles.
Thomas played with the marble in his palm. He watched it, out of habit, but having spent four days already in this loop he knew that the woman with the auburn hair would not prepare the poisoned milk for several hours hence. “Is there such a person?” he asked.
“I am not certain,” Simon admitted. “I have not spent much time in this court, only passing through at Hawthorne’s instruction. She does have a chancellor who strikes me as… reasonable. For a fairy.”
Thomas smiled slightly, at the exasperation in Simon’s words. Here was a man who had been dealing with the reasonableness of fairies for most of his life. “If we had evidence,” he prompted, “would that help? If the woman with the auburn hair uses a draught, she must have it in possession somewhere. Or perhaps something even more damning. Would she have a letter from the Mad Queen?”
“Fairies do not write on pen and paper,” Simon scoffed. “They write by moonlight.”
“Of course,” said Thomas.
“You are — mocking me now, aren’t you?” Simon said, albeit he sounded amused too. “But that is an excellent notion, if we were able to search her rooms. That can be our first plan.”
“Do we have more plans than one?” Thomas asked, half sober, half in jest.
“If we can find where her death is hidden, and restore it to her,” Simon said, “then that would be the… most expedient method.”
Killing someone often is, thought Thomas. “Is there a library?” he asked. “Of moonlight-scribed books or some such? Even should fairies live forever, if they have a written tradition then somewhere there may exist information on how we might locate a person’s death. There must be a spell for it.”
“Mm,” was the answer.
“What are you thinking now?” Thomas asked suspiciously.
“That even in Fairy Thomas Rust shall find a library to bury his nose in,” Simon said. “I will show you where it is. Then whilst you are there, I will see if I may enter the woman with the auburn hair’s rooms. She is with the princes all day, so my chances are good.”
Thomas quelled the urge to grab Simon by the forearms and shake him. “You must be careful,” he said. Simon would not stand a chance against a magician.
“I will,” Simon promised, but Simon was a liar, and so when Simon deposited him at the library doors he watched him go with a queasy stomach. I must gather my thoughts, Thomas thought sternly, for he too would need to practice caution. Then he walked through the doors of the library, and by doing so stepped into an orchard. Thomas could not stop from goggling; an orchard, and each of the trees with a name on its trunk: the Tree of Many Things, the Tree of Few Things, the Tree of Things We Have Forgot, the Tree of What Will Come. Scrolls hung from the boughs of the trees, tied by wispy vine.
It was impossible to know where to begin, and faced with this dilemma Thomas turned to his own methodical nature. He started at the tree closest to him, the Tree of Few Things, and released a scroll from the lowest branch. He opened it, expecting paper even when Simon had told him otherwise. What he found was: a spill of moonlight, a shadow stealing across the grass, and a memory. Someone’s memory — no, he amended, the memory of the author. A memory of two fairies tumbling through a bush, pulling at each other’s clothes, fierce with desire.
Thomas quickly capped the scroll, his face burning. To think, his first try and he would find fairy pornography!
He began to work through the other memories in the library, and they were all memories, true remembrances as much as he could ascertain, fixed to a person and a place. There did not seem to be any works of fiction, no fairy Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollopes, or Rossettis, and he wondered if fairies did not tell those kinds of tales, for what use did fairies have for fairy-stories? The literary traditions of Fairy would be a fascinating study for a young member of the Royal Society to undertake, he thought, and he was busy ruminating on this until he remembered, with a start, what his true purpose was. He could not allow himself to become woollen-headed.
He browsed the scrolls as quickly as he could from thereon in. In them he saw memories of the earliest days of Fairy, snatches of the awful splendour of the Wild Hunt. He saw the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming, not as she was now, but as a young girl, coltish and freckled and running hand-in-hand with a girl who had spider’s legs. Brighid, the young queen called to the young Lady of Eight, and Brighid responded in turn, bright-faced with an insect’s eyes, Columbine, you are going much too fast!
There were other memories too. Memories of recipes for custard cakes, advice for how to grow white lotuses, how to dig a hole to China. Maps of places. Celebrations of births. Battle songs. Memories for how to find something that never existed. How to kill that which could not be killed.
Thomas seized upon the mention of the latter, drinking in the moonlight-memory. When Simon came to fetch him later in the day, he found Thomas wild-haired and near manic.
“It is most frustrating!” Thomas cried. “Here, you see: a writer talks about cutting a death from a mortal, hiding it, and that it may be found were it to become lost. But they do not tell us how. They say only that one must refer to the Book of Oracles, and I do not know where that could possibly be, or if the Book of Oracles might be here at all.” He spun on his heel. “This library has no classification system.”
“But that the knowledge exists!” Simon said. “I am glad to hear it.” He sat on the grass beside Thomas. No one else was in the library, or had wandered through all day. “You have had more luck than me.” His face was woeful.
“Nothing in her rooms then?”
“Entirely bare,” Simon said. “To think I felt so clever at stealing inside without any magic! But if her locks can be picked, it is because she has nothing there to hide.” He groaned, heartfelt. “What if she keeps the draught on her person? Should we accost her for it? What a scene that would make, we would be thrown into gaol without hesitation.”
His words brought Thomas back to himself. “Pray ignore my poor humour. You are right,” he said, more meekly. “What I found in the library today is small, but knowledge is never a worthless thing.”
“Damn it all, but yes, yes, we both know it. We must be patient and diligent.” Simon sighed. “I shall help you search the library.”
They worked together, Thomas with more buoyant hopes than before, until the hour passed that the woman with the auburn hair would bring the milk to the princes.
Thomas remembered it, glancing at his marble, and he faltered. “Should we?” he said, for they had failed in the more direct method so many times before, but then he answered his own question, for he had spent too much of his life in inaction. He did not want to be the sort of man who allowed three children to be harmed, even if they were to return to this same day tomorrow and relive it.
Simon, who did know him very well after all, murmured, “They are not truly children, and they will not die from it. They cannot die from it.”
“I have my duties,” Thomas said, and thought of those students he could never find, the searches he let trail to nothing, convincing himself they were mundane in nature and better suited to Scotland Yard. He turned and ran. Wind be my breath.
He was too late this time, and he saw now what he never had the chance to before: the princes sprawled on the ground, too weak to move, crying out in pain as the woman with the auburn hair used a knife to saw through their soft kittenish bellies. From the Heart of the Woods, she dug in his stomach and pulled out what Thomas saw was a thumb — a piece of the Wild Hunt. She swallowed it whole, and then burrowed her hand into the prince’s innards again, doubtless searching for more, when Thomas rushed and barreled into her, sending the two of them careening into the wall. Blood, fat, bone.
“Help!” he yelled. “Over here! Murder!” He made as loud of a racket as he could. But by then his own face was streaked with the princes’ blood, he was struggling with her for the knife, and when the guards burst into the chamber, they went for him first, and subdued him.
He woke in his bed, and near cried for frustration. “The princes said they could not remember who it was that hurt them,” he said. “Not remember!”
Simon chewed on his lip. “They are not children, but their minds are childish. They were greatly confused and drugged. It was similar in the original time — when asked who had cut the pieces of Wild Hunt from them, they could not recall. It was only some days later that they could name their nursemaid, and by then she had fled.”
“I did not even have the pieces on my person,” he hissed. He remembered that she had swallowed them.
“I am certain that, had you been present the following day, they would have torn you open to see.”
“Damnation!” Thomas snarled, and began to cough, his chest too weak to contain the full force of his outrage. “They know my true name. They could very well—”
“It will puzzle them to have you disappear from your cell, but they will not hunt the Thomas of that time,” Simon assured him, “for if they had, our future would have been more vastly changed when we returned to it. No, the princes shall remember in time to save you.”
Anger and relief were strange allies. Thomas coughed even more violently. Simon tried to soothe him, rubbing circles over his back. “We know now about the Book of Oracles. We will continue looking for an answer.”
Thomas coughed blood into his hand. Simon hurried into the kitchens to fetch him water. He helped Thomas drink it down, and then found him some more pillows so that he could better sit upright. Thomas shook with the effort.
“I believe,” Simon said, attempting levity, “that your Lawrence is quite alarmed by me. He does not know who I am, nor why I have taken his place at your side. He thinks I am some swindling cousin and I mean to—” he snorted “—insert myself into your will.”
“The boy has too much imagination, and time to cultivate it,” Thomas said waspishly, allowing Simon to clean the blood from his mouth.
“He loves you, I think.”
“I have tried to,” Thomas pushed Simon away feebly and launched into another series of coughs, “—to be good to him. He suffers from — overbearing parents. It is difficult for him.”
Simon smiled a little.
“As — you did,” Thomas wheezed. He thought of Dr. and Mrs. Carrington, how kindly they had been, how proud when they spoke of their only living child, though that pride had become bafflement in the years after Simon’s disappearance, knowing not where he had gone. “You ought to have visited them,” he said at last. “Your mother — she, she asked me every day if I had news of you.”
Simon bowed his head. “I sent them letters.”
“They never received them.”
“I wondered,” Simon said. “The Mad Queen said — well, it is too late now.” He glanced aside. “I also thought it may have been that they had no… desire to write me.”
“Did you not tell them?” Simon said. “The reason behind my disappearance. What I did, who I was.”
“Never,” Thomas said, for he did not think they could have borne it. They had lost one son before Simon already. Having then lost both, he had wanted to let them think that somewhere in the world Simon was happy and carefree.
Sorrow passed through Simon’s face. He adjusted his spectacles and murmured, “Do you remember that time my father tried to do the Ursine Simplified Complex in front of a group of Cambridge scholars, but instead of salt for the working, he used sugar?”
Thomas did remember. “It turned his face an unfortunate shade of purple. Then one of the dons said—”
Simon pitched his voice higher, in imitation. “—should we fetch a cook to assist you, Dr. Carrington? Oh but I could have gleefully murdered them. Though it was quite entertaining, so I do not really blame them. Father could be ridiculous. Imagine swapping sugar for salt!”
“I have made the same mistake,” Thomas said. “You should not become a magician if you are afraid of occasionally looking the fool.”
Simon threw his head back and laughed. The sound of it crept into Thomas’ bones, warming him, and it was then that he realized he had not thought about the woman with the auburn hair, or the maimed princes, for several minutes now. “You must be tired,” Simon said when he stopped. “How selfish I am, for — for keeping you up like this.”
“I am tired,” Thomas said, reluctantly, for he had forgotten what Simon’s laughter sounded like, though now he could not imagine how he ever would. Fill a library with his own memories and they would be of going to the Carringtons’ house as a young man and Simon opening the door for him, the ticking of the stout Vetters clock by the hearth, Simon in his father’s study with the toy dragonflies buzzing above his cherubic head, Simon procuring Thomas a cup of good tea and listening to him ramble on about plants for hours, the dreamy smile he would have as if he thought Thomas terribly foolish but wonderful.
“Sleep then,” Simon said, smiling.
“Do not terrorize Young Lawrence when I cannot see you doing it,” Thomas warned. He closed his eyes, listening to the irregular thud of his heart. There was something Simon could do. “I have several old books in my possession I have never — never read. Certainly not the Book of Oracles, but there may be some — some further clue there.” Exhaustion laid its hand over him; his words slurred.
“Of course,” Simon nodded. “I shall have a look.”
On the seventh day, Thomas looked up from the library and said, “I have been thinking. Is it truly impossible, within a single day, to go to Hawthorne’s court and bring him here? Or for a courier to do the same?” Fairy must have its methods, he privately thought.
“I have given this some thought,” Simon said heavily. “It is not true that no one may do it. The swiftness required is beyond the capabilities of you or I, but there are some in this court who could travel the old ley lines.” He raked his fingers through his hair. “Fairy lords, more or less. Her Ladyship. The Woodland Princes.”
“If the Princes can be made to go to Hawthorne—” Thomas shook his head. “No, I see the rub. Their nursemaid would travel with them, and we would still have no way of passing on a message to Hawthorne about her true allegiances. Unless we would be permitted to go with them?”
“I do not think Her Ladyship would allow it,” Simon said. “It is one thing for me to visit the princes in court, with the woman with the auburn hair chaperoning them. It is another to allow us to accompany them in high wilderness, without a retinue of guards — there would have to be no guards, for the ley lines could not support the weight of so many. I cannot see the Lady of Eight accepting that risk.”
“I have wondered this too,” said Thomas. “Have the princes no guard in their chambers? This is stupendously lax.”
“The woman with the auburn hair is their guard,” Simon said. “There used to be more, but the princes themselves chafed. They did not like being watched at all hours.”
“Her Ladyship agreed to this?” Thomas asked in disbelief. “Knowing they contain some of the Wild Hunt in them?”
“They are fairy lords in their own right,” Simon said, “and although they are Her Ladyship’s guests, she has no sovereignty over them. And if you have ever seen a fairy lord throw a tantrum…” he shuddered delicately.
“But I have seen you with them,” Thomas said. “They have some fondness for you. Could you ask them to send a message to Hawthorne, begging him to come? Or — no, I see the flaw in this too,” he corrected his own thought. “We cannot speak to the princes without the woman present, and she would change her plan for another day knowing the Duke of Forget-Me-Not is to come.”
Simon shrugged ruefully. “There is some merit in summoning Hawthorne regardless, as we could tell him our tale, and he would believe us. But at the same time, he would still need evidence against the woman with the auburn hair, for it would not do for one fairy lord to go about blithely accusing the vassals of another fairy lord.” He grimaced. “If the Lady of Eight were to take affront, this would harm their alliance, which may in turn even further harm the war.”
Thomas groaned loudly. “To think the politics in England are tangled enough for my tastes!”
“There is a reason why fairy lords employ spies such as myself,” Simon said, “whilst they sit magnanimously upon their thrones.” He nudged Thomas’ shoulder. “How is our search for the Book of Oracles?”
“It eludes me still,” Thomas said. “I have been looking for a master record, but there seems to be none either.”
“We have seven days,” Simon said. “Can you read an entire library in that time?”
“I’ll damn well try,” Thomas said, but then rubbed his eyes. “I need a brief respite, however, or my head will burst and then I shall be of no use to anyone.” He set aside his scroll and stood, cracking the joints in his aching spine. “I have another question for you. You did not want to answer it before, but the more I think of it, the more I must insist on knowing.”
“Ah,” said Simon.
“Where is the other Simon? If you are the Simon from my time, traveled with me, then where is he? You said that he was here on this day.”
Simon tucked a strand of hair behind one ear. “I may have…”
Thomas leaned in. “I cannot hear you; you are mumbling.”
“I may have stuffed him in a wardrobe.”
Simon threw up his hands. “He went willingly! Or mostly willingly! It is for a good cause, by the by!”
“My head hurts now more than ever,” Thomas said plainly. “For one, if the watch sends you back with me, how is it that I always seem to arrive in this time alone? Where do you land and why is it different? How do you have time to… stuff the other Simon in a wardrobe before I come across you?”
“This is why I did not want you to ask,” Simon complained. “I do arrive with you. The watch cannot be made to send both parties to two locations. But have you ever seen yourself when you time travel? You are as weak and disoriented as a newborn foal. You would not notice me even if I were to smash a pan over your head.”
“I do not think I am so disoriented—”
“You simply do not remember,” Simon interjected. “I leave you moaning and groaning, and make my way to the fairy mounds first, where I see to any inconvenient doubles.”
Thomas considered this. “If you are capable of removing your inconvenient double, then you told me a falsehood.”
“You will have to be more specific,” Simon said.
“When you said that your double was why you could not do this job and needed me in your stead.” Thomas tried to look arch and knowing, though keeping his face stern was something of a struggle. “Could there have been another reason you sought me out?”
Simon blanched, and his face went through five shades of apoplexy.
“You are a magician,” Simon retorted. “I am not.”
“A sensible answer,” Thomas said gravely, “and I suppose you did not trust your other self to provide the same assistance, when you have far vaster hindsight and experience.”
“You see then, why I would—”
Thomas cut him off. “Certainly I do. I am only astonished you felt the need for the deception. Masquerading as your younger self? I would have not have questioned your company or your—”
“You have questioned my company repeatedly,” Simon huffed. “Do not claim otherwise! If you must insist on beholding the other Simon for yourself, out of some noble guilt, then very well. Follow me.” He swept out of the library, and Thomas trotted after him, satisfied at having gained the upper hand for once. Simon took him to his chambers and walked them up to the wardrobe that Thomas had oft noticed but never opened.
“I hear nothing inside,” he said.
“These wardrobes muffle noise,” Simon said.
“To what end?” Thomas asked, baffled. It could not have been Simon who enchanted it.
“I have never asked,” Simon said primly, and then he took a key from his pocket and unlocked the doors. Inside, a second Simon Carrington, identical to the first, blinked myopically at them, rubbing his eyes and yawning.
“Is it done then?” the second Simon said, and though he seemed to address the question to the first Simon, his gaze fixed on Thomas and did not waver. The intensity of it made Thomas’ face warm.
“Hardly,” Simon replied. “We are searching for some old book. But this one—” with a gesture towards Thomas “—insisted on knowing that I did not murder you to take your place in this timeline.”
“I am not murdered,” the second Simon said mildly, “though I am quite cramped and miserable, not to mention peckish.”
“This is ridiculous,” Thomas said. “To think of all those hours we spent in this room, and he was here all along! It makes my skin crawl. Simon, let this poor man go. If he cannot be in this court at the same time as you, let him leave and hide in the woods where he may have some freedom.”
The second Simon smiled at this. The first Simon scowled.
“He is as princely as ever before,” the second Simon observed. “Concerned for the comfort of all man and beast.”
“I know,” Simon replied. “Fine. Go. But do not make trouble!”
The second Simon unfurled himself from the wardrobe. He stepped closer to Thomas and curled a hand around the nape of his neck, drawing him in. Thomas faltered at this unexpected display of intimacy, flushing through his brown skin, and then he made a noise of utter surprise as the second Simon kissed him, softly, tenderly.
“My God, do not molest him!” the first Simon shouted with some ire. The second Simon released Thomas with a wistful smile.
“I shall see you one day,” he said. “The knowledge of that is the only reason why I am able to leave you now.” Another soft kiss, impossibly sweet, Thomas’ breath a quiet stutter, and then he departed, looking both directions before creeping down the hall and stealing away.
Simon’s face was wholly red. “I do not recall my younger self being so wanton.”
“Nor I,” Thomas said, licking his mouth.
“The wardrobe must have addled his wits,” Simon said.
On the seventh day, Thomas placed Simon in the library.
“If we are, at this moment, unable to kill the woman with the auburn hair,” he said, “then there may be other methods to entrap her. I have been researching them as well.”
Simon did not make a particularly good lieutenant. “It troubles me to have you in the field by yourself. You do not know Fairy near as well as I.”
“Yet someone must continue searching for the Book of Oracles,” Thomas said, pinning him with a hard look. “There is only you and I; we must accept the resources that we have.” Simon bowed his head in reluctant acknowledgement.
“What will you try?”
“First,” said Thomas, “I shall require passage to London.”
“That journey cannot be made in less than a day,” Simon said.
“Ordinarily, no,” Thomas agreed, “but having read some of these scrolls I suspect there is a method we have not considered. Call it a ley line, if you will.” Simon’s expression twisted regretfully, as if he was preparing himself to spring a leak in Thomas’ hopes, but Thomas ploughed on. “For is the Thomas of this time not in London at this very moment? And can one Thomas Rust not reach out to another? He is my lodestone, the weight to which my thread is tied.”
“Will it—” Simon’s mouth flapped. “I do not know.”
For all of Simon’s cleverness, his lack of magical skill left him at a disadvantage for certain things, and this was one of them. “I feel him, you know,” Thomas said. “I can sense the stir of his breath, the shifting of his bones. The other Thomas. We are one, he and I. I believe I may be able to perform some working to be at his side straightaways.”
“Say that you can. What would you have him do?”
“He — I — we are the head of the Royal Society of Magicians during this time,” Thomas said. “There is another working in these books, wherein a group of magicians may gather enough power to summon a Fairy from her lands.” He held out his hands. “A human strikes me as a rather less daunting task.”
Simon chewed at a ragged nail. “So then,” he finally said, and unable to find fault with Thomas’ plan, fell into moody silence.
“I shall require a mirror as well,” Thomas said, quite pleasantly. “Preferably one as tall as I am.”
“I will ask the servants for one,” said Simon, and left. Thomas looked through more scrolls. When Simon returned he hauled a large gilt-framed looking-glass. Thomas circled it, watching his own reflection circle back. Then he rapped the mirror neatly — once, twice, thrice. He had some skill with mirror-magics; he wondered if Simon knew this. It had put off the rest of the Royal Society, who considered, and rightly so, mirror magic the providence of the fey. The pane of the looking-glass melted into water, and he was able to reach inside it and turn the key he found there.
“What will you do with her once you have summoned her to London?” Simon said, as Thomas began to step through the mirror.
“Why, stuff her into a wardrobe, I think,” Thomas said, and vanished.
In London he hailed a hackney to his residence on Harley Street, his neat little house tucked between the surgeons’ workshops and the hospitals, and his maid of all work Molly blinked with confusion when she answered the front door for him, having clearly served him tea in his study but a few moments prior. “Hullo Molly,” Thomas said gravely, and brushed past her up the stairs into said study, where he closed the door behind him with a soft twist of the lock.
“Molly, I told you, I do not require more biscuits,” said the man behind the desk, who looked up and stopped. His jaw worked, as if gnashing hard walnuts.
And suddenly, Thomas remembered this. He remembered being six and forty, overworked and furious at the incompetence of his fellow magicians, the letter he had received that morning begging his aid in a matter he did not wish to be entangled in, and looking up to be greeted by his doppelganger. He was making this memory in his past even as he forged it now, and his head was struck with pain like the ringing of a large bell. He clutched at it the same time as his younger self did, and vied for steady breaths.
“Who are you?” other-Thomas demanded. “Why have you taken my shape?” His hands curled into fists, and the air smelled of the sky before storm.
“I am going to tell you a story,” Thomas said calmly, and did.
“Time travel,” said other-Thomas when he was finished. “The Wild Hunt. Simon bloody Carrington. What reason have I to believe any of this? Did Duplass put you up to this trick?” His jaw clenched even more tightly, and Thomas wondered if this was what everyone else saw when they looked at him, this man stiff and unyielding, faded past his prime, who rarely smiled, who had no joy to be found in him. No wonder he would die alone, with only a dutiful student to attend him.
Thomas regarded this man, and he spoke again, slowly. “Om bhur bhuvah svah / Tat savitur vareniyam / Bhargo devasya dhimahi / dhiyo yo nah prachodayat.” It was the prayer his mother had whispered to herself every morning of her life.
The other-Thomas closed his eyes.
“I need you to fetch four of your best magicians,” Thomas told him. “Kirk, Mompellion, Fondant, and yes, even Duplass the Senior, would be my recommendations. Have them come to your home this evening and summon the woman with the auburn hair. We reckon with her here, on our lands.”
“You mean to mirror-bind her,” other-Thomas said. “I know your methods.”
“Five magicians in a room together,” Thomas said. “It is our best chance.”
“Five?” other-Thomas asked. “You will not join us?”
“Simon warned me that if it became common knowledge we used the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming’s own watch against her, she may know not to build the watch.” Thomas shook his head. “Duplass and Kirk are chatterers. They cannot know of my involvement. They must believe this request comes directly from you.”
“You will ruin my reputation for years.”
“I do not give a frig for your reputation,” said Thomas.
As the other-Thomas, resigned to his fate, hurried to send messages, Thomas prepared the dining room. He fetched his tall looking-glass that had been a gift from Simon’s father in his will and set it flat on the floor. He wrote his notes for the other-Thomas to follow. Then he hid behind the draperies. When the other magicians came, they added to the surface of the mirror each a drop of their own blood.
“This is lunacy,” said Duplass, wiping at his hand.
“What are we attempting to accomplish here?” Kirk said.
“Who are we trying to summon?” asked Fondant.
“Blood and mirrors — do you think the people of England will be pleased by this?” said Mompellion. “We would make more friends whilst focusing on useful talents.”
The other-Thomas was stoic and unmoving. He studied the notes and began to give instructions.
The mirror burst into a flame-like blaze. Then they watched it as it cracked and turned black.
“We need a name,” Fondant said. “A true name.”
“There is no name,” other-Thomas said gruffly.
There was no way for Thomas to return to Fairy that evening, no ley line for him to follow. When he next saw Simon, the day was over and he was in the future again, in his bed that was more a prison, his feeble body. Simon had only to look at him to know that his plan had gone awry.
“I had hoped,” Thomas said, “that without a name — but it was a foolish hope, in the end.” His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth.
Simon’s face fell.
“I think it did — reach her.” Thomas coughed. “The mirror was ablaze. But without a name she did not feel compelled to answer its call. Or without a — magician skilled enough to make due for the lack.”
“There were five magicians working in concert,” Simon said. “The fault does not lie with you.”
“I gave the instructions,” Thomas said. “There must be a detail I do not see, a piece missing from the working that—” he tasted blood in his mouth, behind his teeth. He made himself look upon Simon’s disappointment without flinching, and it opened up something inside of him, huge and overwhelming, an old fear. “You must know by now that she outclasses me, she defeats me at every turn, and still you insist on bringing me, on using me. Of all people.”
“You ought to have been the magician, not I,” Thomas croaked. “You are farsighted. You see what needs to be seen, whereas I must be told to do it. I was an exemplary accountant and adequate administrator for the Royal Society, but as a magician I was not, I was not—” His voice gave out.
“Here you go on again!” Simon said sharply. He dug his nails into Thomas’ blankets. “I knew this was coming. See, I cannot speak to your leadership of the Royal Society, for I was not present for any of it, but you have ever been a fearsome magician.” He breathed through his nose, like a bull pulled to anger. “Have I not told you this many times? You have but to walk into a room and I can smell the magic on your skin. It lives in your hair, your eyelashes, your bloody fingernail clippings. Your students hold you in awe. In a hundred years they will still speak of your legacy. But Christ, your self-pity is dull!”
“‘tis not self-pity,” Thomas managed, “but truth. You are blinded by your boyish adoration.”
“So you say! In every action you take, you tell me that I should not rely on you, and do you know: saying so makes you a bore!” Simon’s face turned motley red. “You are a dreadful bore, Rust, a dullard of the likes I have never seen elsewhere! But perhaps it is true that I have been blinded, for even so I have only ever loved you, and loved you, and still loved you.”
Thomas had used up all his strength; he could not speak.
“I don’t know why I cannot seem to stop,” Simon said, and then, having said too much, he got up and left.
I want to see what sort of man you become, Thomas had said to Simon, when they were young and desperate and enfolded in each other’s arms in the middle of London.
Be good, he had said.
On the eleventh day, he found the Book of Oracles.
They had become stiff and courteous around each other, remembering Simon’s agitated confession, and this was a game that Thomas would always win, for no one could be as stiff or as courteous as he.
“The deathless dream of their deaths,” he said quietly. “That is what it says.”
Simon turned from the Tree of Many Things where he had been fiddling with a vine-string and replied, “The deathless do not dream. They cannot dream. They walk through their days as empty as an old trough. This is part of what haunts them.”
“The Book of Oracles says otherwise,” Thomas said, “but that is all it says: that the deathless dream of their deaths. I do not know what sense to make of it.”
He saw Simon bite his tongue, as if he would say more, but then he did not speak. Thomas turned the scroll in his hands again and again, waiting for an illumination that did not come. The deathless dream of their deaths, as if the reader was to understand what that meant.
And on the twelfth day, a guard in livery appeared in the library and said, “Her Ladyship wishes to see you in her parlour.”
Thomas struggled to contain his astonishment; not a single person had come by the library in all their days, and certainly the Lady of Eight had never called them to her presence, despite his asking of it the first day. Simon, who had been pacing between the trees, wearing down the grass to dead yellow stalks, gazed at him then. They exchanged a look wherein he could see the whole of Simon’s thoughts, his surprise and his worry. Then Simon was brushing the grass from his knees and nodding towards the guard, saying, “Yes, of course, we shall come without delay.”
This is a strange turn of events, Thomas thought, light-headed, and proceeded after Simon and the guard.
She was seated in the hollow of a massive oak, curled up like a child with her six legs tucked in neatly, and before her was a table decadent with golden dishes of food. She had a woman’s face and breasts on a spider’s body, and her front side was wet with web and milk. They watched as she lazily extended a leg to reach for the plate nearest to her, which contained a pile of fleshy fingers; Thomas’ stomach churned as she chose one and began to gnaw.
They waited until she was finished with her snack, and then watched as she ate another, moaning with delight.
It was a long while before she seemed to remember their arrival. Then she turned her hooded eyes to them. “Bleat not to Hawthorne. Mortal flesh is sweetest, but he is priggish about it, so I have slowed my appetites for his sake.” She licked her pincers. “These are fairy fingers. My darling people cut off their limbs for me, to show their love.”
“Your Ladyship,” Simon murmured.
“Well, Little Simon?” she said. “You come from the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming’s court. What news do you bring?”
“Whispers and suspicions,” Simon said, and then with another swift glance at Thomas, nervous-like, he said, “She has been speaking of late of the Wild Hunt.”
“Columbine loves to speak of all manner of things,” the Lady of Eight said. “Including of treacherous little Simon Carrington, who lies to everyone he meets. My woman with the auburn hair says you have been telling the princes stories?”
“Ah, yes,” Simon said. “English stories, stories of my own childhood. They seem to enjoy them.”
“The princes are young, then old, then young again,” the Lady of Eight said, and devoured her next finger with such relish that saliva coated her mouth. They waited for her to say more, but that seemed to be the end of it; she continued eating.
Thomas cleared his throat. “Your Ladyship—”
Simon startled. He had evidently not expected Thomas to speak. The Lady of Eight turned her attentions to a plate of eyes. Thomas licked his dry lips and went on. “Your Ladyship — we have been enjoying the hospitality of your library. I have never before seen the like. There is one book in particular I have been fascinated by. Do you know the Book of Oracles?”
She swallowed the eyes one by one.
Simon was staring at him, but they had only the two days left, Thomas thought. Merely two days, and one last mystery to solve. “The deathless dream of their deaths,” he said out loud, and then waited. For what, he could not say. To be clapped in cold chains again. To be ignored. To be smited on the spot. To have an ending to all things. Well, but he had failed so many times already; he could bear it one more time.
Underneath the table, Simon took his hand and squeezed.
“Those are her methods,” the Lady of Eight said, her voice a rustling whisper. “We do not dream-walk in these courts.”
“But the deathless do not dream,” Thomas said boldly.
“All creatures,” said the Lady of Eight, “can be made to dream.”
Simon’s hand was cold with sweat. Thomas held it as tightly as he was able.
The Lady of Eight hissed. “We have met before, I think, you and I. This is not the first time.” Her eyes blinked. “Look at how you cling to him! Do you trust him so? Do you trust Simon Carrington, servant to the Dreaming Queen, traitor twice over?”
He could hear the quickening of Simon’s breath beside him, how he tried to slip his hand out of Thomas’ grasp. “I trust him,” Thomas said. “As all mortals change, so has he.”
Simon stopped squirming. The Lady of Eight placed another eye in her mouth and chewed on it contemplatively.
“It will need water,” she finally said. “A great deal of it. A bathtub would do. Now go; when I look at the two of you, I become ever more famished.” They could hear her muttering to herself as they fled her parlour. “What a waste, what a waste!” the Queen of the Daoine Sidhe said. “One of them will die before the end of this, and not a single morsel for me to taste!”
In his chamber, Simon lay on his bed and put his hands over his face. He was trembling, so Thomas sat on the mattress beside him and stroked his hair. He was not angry anymore, could not remember why he had squandered time for it. “You are frightened of her,” he said gently, “when you have spoke to her so many times before?”
“I dream of futures where she eats me for a lark,” Simon said. “I dream of futures where Hawthorne does not care.”
Thomas carded his fingers through his hair, scratching his scalp soothingly.
“She said that one of us shall die,” Simon said, his voice breaking.
“You find this humorous? This of all things?” Simon demanded. He tried to roll over on his belly, to hide his face in the featherdown pillows, but Thomas would not let him.
“Of course one of us shall die,” Thomas said, smiling. “When this is done and we are returned to our true time, I am old. I very much doubt I will last the fortnight. I am already a dead man, you see, so what fear do I have for some fairy prophecy? I will die but you will live.” One of them would die, she had said. Only one, and he had never felt gladder for it.
Simon tried to roll over again. Thomas, daringly, placed a hand on his belly. Simon gasped.
“Is dying such an aphrodisiac for you?” he said, and he must have meant for it to be tremendously cutting, a blow to Thomas’ heart, but Simon was not actually very good at wounding him, Thomas was beginning to learn.
Thomas spread his fingers over the warmth of Simon’s belly, over his paunch that had always secretly delighted Thomas for how round it was, how soft. It pleased him to know that Simon was still capable of being soft, somewhere. “I am tired,” Thomas admitted. “I don’t want to spend our last days arguing over inconsequential matters, bellowing stale air at each other when we could — when I could — with this body.” He could not find the words, he was not silver-tongued. He bent his head to kiss Simon instead, and Simon whimpered into his mouth.
“Thomas,” he said, and he sounded close to weeping. Thomas reared back, alarmed, but Simon wound his arms around his neck.
“Tell me no and I shall go; we do not have to speak of this,” Thomas said kindly, but Simon shook his head with fierce motions and pulled him closer.
“Thomas fucking Rust,” he said, and Thomas laughed again, the sound bursting through him after so long in silence.
He had made love to Simon before, but only once, and that had been a frenzied tumble. He had not been sure whether he wanted to hurt Simon or dig his nails into him and never let go. We only ever come together when we are close to utter ruin, Thomas thought ruefully, but he would not be so rushed this time, not if it was the last. He kissed Simon slowly and carefully, until Simon was bucking underneath him eager for more, fingers buried in Thomas’ hair.
How sweet he was, when he was Thomas’ to have. Thomas remembered how sweet Simon had been when they first met, this shy lad too tongue-tied to speak to him. He reminded Simon of this in between kisses, how young Simon had stuttered in his speech, how he had grown clumsy-footed when Thomas looked his way. “I think,” Thomas said thoughtfully, “overall yours was quite the successful seduction campaign.”
“I did not — I was not—” Simon sputtered.
Thomas shushed him with a kiss. Simon melted into him, warm and pliant, all too content to lie on the bed and watch Thomas as he shed their shirts, trousers, and smallclothes. He touched Simon’s scars, too many of them, and Simon shuddered. He kissed them, and Simon moaned beautifully.
“There is oil — in the vanity,” he managed.
“Is there?” Thomas asked, faintly scandalized.
“I swear that it is for a modest purpose, only I cannot remember what that is,” Simon said, and scrambled out of the bed to fetch it. Thomas admired his backside, and wrapped himself around Simon when he returned, smoothing Simon’s belly and playing with his hardened prick. Simon moaned and writhed in Thomas’ arms, dropping the oil on the floor, trying to pick it up, and dropping it again.
“I do not think I will be very good at this,” Thomas said in Simon’s ear. “Let me warn you. I have been celibate for… well, longer than I can remember.”
“Whatever for?” Simon said.
“Advancing age,” Thomas said, stroking him slowly. “A balding head. A distinct lack of prospects. Not to mention my poor, plodding manners. I could name you many reasons. Not all of us have had the pleasure of tumbling fairies behind trees.”
Simon shuddered as Thomas stroked the head of his prick. “I have not — this is a gross over-exaggeration, and besides,” he panted, “fairies have teeth where teeth ought not be.”
“Oh dear,” Thomas said sympathetically. “Well, perhaps you ought to—” and now he blushed himself, amazed by his own brazenness, “—examine me for unexpected teeth.”
“No wonder you have been celibate,” Simon said, “with charm like that.” He stared as Thomas leaned over and fumbled under the bed for the dropped oil. “Oh,” Simon said softly as Thomas poured the oil over his own fingers and then reached around and began to probe at himself. “Christ in heaven,” Simon said meaningfully, and Thomas smiled with half-formed embarrassment. He knew this was awfully forward of him, he was long out of practice, but he had imagined this for too long to care about any of it. He wanted what he wanted, and that was Simon’s cock inside him. He would be daring for this.
The sight of Thomas using his fingers to prepare his own arse was too much for Simon, who fell back against the pillows with a series of nonsensical mutterings, the only part of which Thomas could understand was his name. Simon could not stop touching him, running his hands over Thomas’ side, tugging him in for a messy kiss, panting in Thomas’ ear, and then, when Thomas was ready, he let Simon push his forefinger inside of him, alongside Thomas’ thumb, holding him open.
Simon moaned, long and musical, when Thomas finally dropped himself in Simon’s lap, taking the brunt of him in one slow, tight slide. Thomas gasped, and pressed his face into Simon’s shoulder. He began to move his hips, rolling them experimentally, whilst Simon trembled beneath him. “Do not hurt yourself,” Simon said, “be gentle,” but then Thomas raised himself on his haunches and dropped down again, hard, and Simon cried out in pleasure.
There was some pain, but Thomas was accustomed to pain; there was so much more pleasure. The weight and girth of Simon’s prick inside him, the sound of their skin slapping, Simon’s mouth red and panting, his eyes fixed on Thomas’ face. Thomas rode him long and rough, until Simon was trying to push him off, mewling that he would finish soon, he could not last — and Thomas tossed his head back and rode all the harder, watching Simon come to pieces beneath him.
Simon pushed him over when he was done, and crawled between Thomas’ legs, where his thighs glistened with sweat and seed. He nudged one finger into Thomas’ open and sore arse, and Thomas coloured, only to groan as Simon put his tongue beside his finger. He lapped at him for what felt like hours, eating his own finish from inside Thomas, nuzzling at him until Thomas cried out and spasmed on his tongue.
When he finally had the energy to lift his head, wrung out as he was, shivery-shook with pleasure, he saw the curve of Simon’s smile angling up at him, hesitant and sweet, like a boy who wanted to be praised.
“So then,” said Simon, and Thomas kissed him hungrily.
When the day was over and Thomas woke in his bed, he turned to Simon beside him. He did not know what to think now, only that his body was aged again, unlovely, liver-spotted with loose flaps of skin. He wondered if Simon had forgot that this was what he truly looked like. He would not take offense, he decided, if Simon’s affections were now changed.
“So then,” he said, barely a whisper, and Simon slipped into the bed beside him and reached for his hand.
The Lady of Eight had said: water, a bathtub.
Simon poured for him a bath, and Thomas dropped his clothes and climbed into it, sinking into the steaming, scalding water until all of him was submerged. Simon’s arms clutched at his shoulders, ready to pull him upright. His presence was a comfort. Thomas closed his eyes and willed his heart to calm. He must near approach catatonia as he was able.
Every midday, the princes take a nap, and the woman with the auburn hair naps with them, Simon had said.
All creatures can be made to dream.
There, deep underneath the water with no breath in his lungs, Thomas reached out with his magic and touched her mind.
The woman with the auburn hair dreamt for the first time since she was a child.
A farmhouse, a library, a bed of larkspurs.
Thomas knew this place.
“She saw your home in Norfolk?” Simon said. “Are you sure you aren’t mistaken? That is to say, it was not you giving her that dream? She dreamt it herself?”
Thomas waited patiently for him to wind through his thoughts. “Do you trust me?” he said when Simon was finished babbling.
Simon laughed like a man being tortured. “I always have.”
“Thank you,” Thomas said, and meant it true. He stirred abed. “It is not merely that her death is buried some furlongs outside my fields. She dreamed of my farm not as it was during her time, but in our time, this time, in 1871. The roof was only of late patched as she saw it.” He mulled on this. “If we have been able to travel back in time, she must have — sent her death forward in time.”
Simon’s mouth worked.
“She is the Queen of All Night’s Dreaming’s woman, is she not?” Thomas said reasonably. “The very queen who made the watch we have used. Surely it is not so inconceivable that she made another, and of greater power.”
“Say that she did,” Simon said, resigned to it now. “You are suggesting that her death is buried — oh,” he waved aimlessly, “right in view of this window.”
“Yes,” said Thomas, “help me stand.” Simon braced himself against Thomas as Thomas struggled to unfold his six and sixty body from his bed. He clutched Simon for stability and tried to find his breath, exhausted as he was by this one simple action.
“Stay here,” Simon said. “If it is as close as you say, I can go and find it. There is no use in you bestirring yourself, and at such great labour.” He cried out as Thomas’ balance wavered and clutched at him to keep him from falling to the floor. Thomas winced. Simon forgot how delicate his bones were.
“I will come,” Thomas said stubbornly. “Where is my cane? Where did Young Lawrence put it?”
Simon located his cane for him, and then, having ensured Thomas was at least properly bundled in his greatcoat over his nightgown, they set off together across the fields. Simon held tightly to Thomas’ elbow. It was slow going, very slow going, each step uncertain of its purchase, and Thomas regretted his choice almost immediately; his chest burned with pain, his knees shot sharp through.
“This is beautiful land,” Simon said quietly, to distract him. “Goldenrod land, my mother would have said, how the sunlight touches the trees.” Thomas nodded, for he knew what Simon meant: the heavy rich sunlight, like buttermilk, painted over all of his childhood memories.
“My family — eight generations on this land,” he wheezed.
“How rustic,” Simon said.
“Terrible effort,” Thomas said with censure, and Simon smiled weakly.
The fields, in late autumn, were heavy with bounty: with turnips, and barley, and clover, and peas — the Norfolk four-course, as it were. When he had retired from the Royal Society and left London he had directed the tilling of the land for a time, hiring a family from the local village. They had been glad for the work too, having been displaced by their landlord from the farm they had sown previously; that land was needed for the rail, they were told, the rail was coming, the rail was coming.
Now that he was bedridden, he let them have the run of his farm, selling what they wanted and giving him a share of the profit. They had converted an old hermitage on the edge of the property into their house, and Thomas could see the evening smoke from their chimney and a tallow candle in the window, a dog in front running about chasing its own tail. When Lawrence and the others were not visiting, their oldest daughter Mary came over every day to cook and clean for Thomas; bathed him, emptied his chamber pots, and fed him when he could not manage. Thomas had told Lawrence to be a good landlord when he was gone.
The woman with the auburn hair’s death was not hidden by the Firths’ cottage. It was further afield, where the end of Thomas’ property bumped merrily alongside his neighbour’s, and there was a copse of trees, some scraggly hedge bushes, a long shadow cast across a ground stained red with fallen berries that no one had bothered to pick.
When they came to the spot, Thomas leaned on Simon and panted for breath. “Take your time, take your time,” Simon urged, but he was wrong; there was no time.
The woman with the auburn hair, a watch hanging on a chain around her neck, stole behind them. Simon cried out and fumbled for a knife in his belt.
“They said I was German,” she said, “because of how I spoke, but I only did that because it amused the Lady of Eight to hear a strong Bavarian accent. When in truth, I was born not two hundred acres from here, by a mother who did not want another mouth to feed. Bundled in a rag and left to freeze.” She straightened, snapping taut like a fisherman’s line, and her long dank hair fell about her face. There was a smear of dirt and stain about her mouth; her lips were so dry they were as cracked as old wax. She had the look of someone starved and deprived.
“You sent me the dream,” she said.
Simon stepped in front of Thomas, but it was Thomas she addressed, and Thomas who spoke. “I did,” he said.
The woman with the auburn hair released a breath. “Magic is dying,” she said woodenly. “Come the twentieth century and it shall be all — steel and coal. My lady has seen it. I have seen it.” She spat on her hands.
“Simon.” Thomas found that his mouth could scarce form the words. “Run.”
But Simon did not run. He peeled away from Thomas’ side and stepped toward the woman with his knife, his face wan and pale. The woman with the auburn hair raised her hands to the sky and brought down fire. She engulfed Simon in it, quick as anything, and Simon screamed and screamed as he burned.
Thomas shouted and rushed forward, but his body would not obey him, and he fell, toppling to the grass, too weak to rise, while Simon burned to a blackened char, screaming the entire time. Thomas struggled to stand, fell again, and lay on the ground gasping at the golden sky. His magic fought slow and sluggish in his blood. He could count the thrum of it, a vibration in his bones, a raging fury, but it would not boil, he was too sickly.
The woman with the auburn hair looked down at him dispassionately, and then turned to the shrubs. Thomas crawled on the ground, inching towards her, snarling. She paid him no mind, and proceeded to dig through the bush with her nails. Thomas crawled to her side and yanked at her leg. His mind was clean of all save rage. You will die for this, you will die for this, you will die for this, and she backhanded him swiftly, breaking his nose and loosening his teeth.
Thomas fell. He stood up again, laboriously.
She struck him.
On and on it went, and she swatted him like a bloatfly, breaking his bones whilst she continued to dig. Finally she had a deep hole under the thrush, and they could see something buried there, a bolt of dirty cloth. The woman with the auburn hair sighed wearily when she saw it.
Thomas wrapped his fingers around her ankle. He bared his teeth. She glanced down, stomped on his hand, and then grabbed him by the ear. “A nuisance,” she said, and slammed his head to the ground. He sobbed with pain, and she prepared to do it again, intent on dashing his brains out once and for all, when she looked up to see the sky swollen with fire and lightning.
Eight generations of his family, this land that had weaned Thomas; magic from his first broken tooth, from his hands in the soil, from his body’s blood. Thomas, once the greatest magician in England whether he knew it or not, and here was his home. Fire and lightning, a red sky, and somewhere in the distance an unearthly shriek of wind: the rail is come, the rail is come. The woman with the auburn hair grabbed Thomas again, and the fields turned to electricity around her, a banshee storm; she could not hold on.
She released Thomas and pivoted towards the hole she had made. Lightning caught her three times: her chest, her heart, her head. She fell, got up again. Lightning flooded her bones, turned her into a bright shining spectacle, a light that could be seen as far as the village, and she wailed, grasping the watch around her neck and crying no, no, no, as the watch broke, a dog barked, and she vanished to her own time.
“Dr. Rust!” he could hear Lawrence shouting from the farmhouse, and then the voices of Mary and her family. More barking. They were coming for him. He lay collapsed on the ground with his eyes shut, and Simon dead beside him.
“In the hole,” he gasped, with what strength he had left. “Take it — quickly, take it!”
Lawrence, confused, afraid, reached inside. “It is some old cloth,” he said, “like that which may swaddle a child.”
“Throw it into the hearth,” Thomas said, hacking blood and teeth. “Burn it. Then — go to my bed. Bring me the watch there.”
“Sir!” Lawrence wept. “The state of you! That light! What happened?”
“Be a good lad,” Thomas said, broken and shattered, “and do what I say.”
On the fourteenth day, Thomas stepped through time, went to the nursery, and killed the woman with the auburn hair. She was waiting for him, snarling and spitting, her hair matted to her head, no longer deathless, a mortal after a very long time of going without. They were not on his land. He was outmatched. He did not care.
They fought until they were both bloody with it, two feral dogs, out of their minds. Her teeth and his knife, the sound of crunching bone, until they were done, and, unused to being mortal, not knowing how to shield when once she might have borne the blow, he sank his knife between her ribs, aimed true and soldierly for her heart, and she died.
The princes were watching.
“Why did you do this?” asked the Eyes of the Woods.
“She was our friend,” said the Breath of the Woods.
“She was afraid to die,” said the Heart of the Woods, and then he gathered his brothers in his arms and they wept tears of perfect understanding.
Thomas wiped his knife clean and went back home.
The world was changed then. He knew he had changed it. It did not feel the same when he woke in his bed, old once more but bones unbroken, and — oh! Simon was there, at his side, blinking owlishly behind his spectacles. “I do believe that I was dead,” he said, and Thomas laughed for pure relief, darkness lifting from his brow.
“I do believe I may have saved you,” he said, “again.”
“Killing my killer in her own time, before she could kill me.” Simon shook his head. “You are a marvel, Thomas Rust, but of course I had reckoned it. Do you think the rest of it changed too? The princes, the Wild Hunt, the tides of the war?”
“Listen,” Thomas said.
“I hear only the birds.”
“No, listen,” Thomas said, and he cupped Simon’s ear as best he could with his weak hand, thumbing the slope of it. He had memories now that he did not have before. Just as he remembered what he had told younger-Thomas when he visited him in London, and those memories became a part of him, he remembered now an entire lifetime: the Woodland Princes alive, the rallying of the Many, and Simon come to him at last, the two of them retreating from London to live on the farm. Simon learning to tend the garden while Thomas read his books; Simon sitting by the windowsill while Thomas played the fiddle.
Simon’s face shone. “It is different. Our lives were different. I was… free.”
“Yes,” Thomas smiled. Simon even looked different, older and more akin to Thomas’ true age, grey in his hair and fine lines around his mouth; not a man who had recently lived in Fairy.
“But if I was free, then how did I know, in 1871, to send you back in time?” Simon said.
“A man with many faces—” and here Thomas coughed, his lungs aching, “knows each face he has been.”
“Who said that?”
“Many years ago,” Thomas said, smiling even as he spat blood into his hand, “when we were young and you were still running about stabbing people in the back for a living.”
“I remember that,” Simon said, and hoisted himself onto the bed to join him. “Is this comfortable for you?”
“Yes,” lied Thomas.
“I adored you then,” Simon said softly. He peered into Thomas’ face.
“And now?” Thomas studied him.
“I suppose you are satisfactory,” Simon said, and lifted Thomas’ hand to kiss his knuckles. “Having saved the better part of Fairy and the mortal realms.”
“And mostly done in my bed, what a convenience it has been,” Thomas said. He stirred. “Simon, when I am gone, will you be sure to handle my affairs? Make sure Young Lawrence has what he needs, make sure the Firths continue to have use of the land, and — watch over the Royal Society, if you will.” He coughed more blood. “I know that they are a frivolous lot of milksops, but they are—”
“—they are Rustian magicians,” Simon said quietly. “I hear you, and I vow to you I will.”
“I was not — very good as a leader,” Thomas sighed.
“We make up for our own failings, in the end,” Simon said. “A certain teacher taught me that.”
“Whilst he was old and dying?”
“My Thomas,” Simon said, and rested his golden head on Thomas’ shoulder. Thomas stroked his beautiful hair and thought, I absolve you, and though Simon could not have heard him, he felt Simon’s shudder nonetheless. Outside the window, the larkspurs bent in the breeze. Together they went to sleep.
A note in The Times, October 8 1871:
Those of us who still bear a passing interest in English magic will mark the death of Dr. Thomas Orwell Rust, he who once governed the Royal Society of Magicians. His funeral, we were told, was attended by a small gathering of friends and former students. Dr. Rust leaves behind multiple publications, a school in his name, and some Norfolk property. He is buried in his village cemetery beside the rest of his family. His gravestone reads in Latin, De Integro, or: a second time; anew; again.