by Ogiwara Saki (荻原咲)
illustrated by neomeruru
Around three o’clockish on a Thursday in October, James Wellesley lay in an excellent specimen of a claw-footed Chatterham bathtub, where he slit his wrists and waited to die. Unfortunately, the desired cessation of existence was not so accommodating, and he was forced to climb out of the tub and don appropriate clothing when summoned for supper two hours later.
“Oh, the vicar,” James said as he adjusted his cuffs, trying his utmost to hide the geography of scars on his left wrist where the recent cut shone red and raw above the mass of thickened tissue. His voice, when he spoke, was butter-thick with the sort of amusement that made his aunt hesitate, stop in her tread, and place her delicate gloved hand on his arm.
“You will behave, won’t you?” she said anxiously. “I am afraid the vicar has been out of sorts with our family, on account of what your uncle said to him last Sunday at church, and I do hate for there to be any sort of bad feeling with the parish.”
James had little fondness for most of his blood relations, and the feeling was most eagerly returned, but he did have a fondness for his owl-eyed aunt, who had not complained when his parents cleaned their trunks of him and shipped him to Milborrow Court at the impressionable age of thirteen. So he took her hands between his and looked down at her from his greater height. “I will give the vicar no reason to complain,” he said.
She sighed in relief. “Mayhap you can even show him one of your little spells? The vicar does have an interest in magic.”
“How positively apostate of him,” James said, for in the past four decades since the awareness of magicians had blossomed in English society, the Church had been akin to a brooding magistrate, joyless in everything except the possibility of sentencing magicians for abuse of decency under the Arcadia Act. There was an endless struggle taking place between Dr. Carrington, head of the Royal Society of Magicians, and the Bishop of Exeter. If James were to pick up one of the circulating partisan papers, he would no doubt be regaled with yet another manifesto, from either Dr. Carrington, arguing about the essential freedom and patriotism of the English magician, or the Bishop of Exeter’s associates, warning against the dangers of idolatrous powers and seduction by fairies. James could read his fill of such debates, if he wished to, which he most vigorously did not.
That magicians had the capacity to cause havoc, he did not doubt, as he had seen a magician call down lightning on another magician’s head out of spite and no small measure of drunkenness. That magicians were idolatrous, he supposed depended on the specific magician and the amount of Christian feeling involved, or lack thereof. That there were magicians seduced by fairies might have been laughable, except James himself had been taken by fairies when he was a very young boy. Taken and, in the estimation of his less than benevolent parents, forever altered.
Did you, or did you not, lie with evil sprites and swear carnal allegiance to the Devil? his father had shouted at him.
I might very well have been tempted to, James had replied, if I had not been six years old at the time.
He adjusted his cuffs over his scars one more time, and then proceeded to join his family in the dining hall where they were wont to receive guests. Despite his brisk and efficient preparation, he was the last to arrive, as his aunt, uncle, and cousins were already seated, as was the vicar, and Mr. Hawthorne, James’ tutor. To have a mere tutor dine at the same table as the family should have been an unorthodox sight indeed. However, Mr. Hawthorne was James’ tutor in the arts arcane, and even James’ uncle was sensible enough to realize that one did not slight a magician.
Magic must be controlled, a kindly magician had said to James at Eton. It is like a knife, bright and shining and capable of many useful tricks, but would you place a knife in the hands of just anyone?
James rather thought that at the advanced age of three and twenty, he was no longer in need of a schoolroom or a matching tutor. Yet his uncle and his father were adamant, seemingly under the impression that if James did not have a guiding influence to temper him, he would cause the house to crumble around their ears. They were not overly mistaken in that suspicion, though not for the reasons they believed.
James took his seat, and after the footmen had brought the light soups, followed by the turbot with lobster and Dutch sauce, he took the opportunity to settle his gaze on the vicar. He did not attend church nearly as often as propriety indicated he should, but one of the advantages of being thought a fey-touched heathen was, indeed, being thought a fey-touched heathen. As such, he did not know their local vicar much, nor his opinions on magic. Was it true, as his aunt had said, that there were religious men fascinated by magic?
The vicar looked up, and then looked away, twitchy.
Perhaps not then.
His aunt, however, continued in her insistence. “If you would not mind,” she said to the vicar, “but my nephew James is most passionate to show you one of his small enchantments. He has spoken of nothing else all day.”
Hawthorne made an expression of consummate disbelief, but the vicar cleared his throat. “Of course he may,” he said politely. “I shall like nothing more than to see it.”
“We must give credit where credit is due,” Mrs. Milborrow said. “James has come along so well under Mr. Hawthorne’s tutelage. Is that not so?”
Hawthorne still had not lost that stuffed frog face. Though he was James’ tutor, he could not be more than a handful of years older than his pupil, and with his well-worn black fustian coat and his pince-nez spectacles, he resembled a stiff country doctor more used to gouty limbs and oozing sores than polite society. “That is correct,” he said haltingly, while James looked at him from beneath his eyelashes with a barely concealed smirk. “He has made excellent, er, excellent progress.”
Such was James’ cue. He set down his spoon and lifted a lazy hand. Without even looking at the epergne that stood as centerpiece in the folds of the damask tablecloth, he flicked his wrist. The small pink buds that dogged the epergne’s floral branches drew small and dry, and then they seemed to give a great shudder before they dried and withered. A cold pressure traveled along the underside of James’ wrist, running through his scars. He used to flinch at it, before, but now he merely tolerated it.
“Oh!” the vicar said. “That is quite, I mean to say, that is utterly remarkable.”
But Hawthorne frowned. “Magic should be used for creation and not destruction,” he said. “Better that you had made flowers bloom.”
“You should tell that to the King’s magician corps,” James said easily.
“It is not the same,” Hawthorne said. “Their chaos is borne out of necessity. But while we are here, safe and well, there should be no need for such displays.”
“Ah,” James said. He turned to the vicar and smiled apologetically, falsely. “You must forgive our friend Mr. Hawthorne. He has many noble opinions on the proper usage of magic, but you see, he is a conservative. He cannot tolerate new methods of thinking. It taxes his intellect.” The disapproval on Hawthorne’s face deepened the cobweb lines around his mouth, making him look older than he actually was, but James had a long-standing tradition of mocking his tutor, his stiff-necked gaoler whose services and condescension he did not need and yet was saddled by.
“I am not–” Hawthorne began, but Mrs. Milborrow seized the conversation.
“More soup?” she said to the vicar.
James did not consider his paltry countryside existence much of a life, but what little he did have, he was forced to spend the vast majority of it listening to Hawthorne’s homilies. Every day, for up to three hours, the two of them would retreat to the drawing room that had become, as Cousin Fanny referred to it, the magicians’ fortress. There, while James sprawled on the chaise longue and effected a pretense of listening, Hawthorne would go over, for the umpteenth time, the proper control of spells and the ethics of glamour. It was a farce, they both knew. James was far too advanced to benefit from any of Hawthorne’s lessons, though he maintained the facade that he was still a novice, if only to keep his uncle from having vapours of fright. He imagined that Hawthorne, in turn, must also be in desperate straits, that he would willingly spend his time on wasted endeavours. Either he needed the money, James thought, or he feared that if he left Milborrow Court, he would not able to find further employment.
This latter thought intrigued James, made him sit up and think about potential tawdry pasts for his milquetoast tutor. Perhaps he was a highwayman running from the noose. Perhaps he had been the lover of a spurned duchess. Perhaps he was a ruined priest who had dallied too long and too much with a particularly tempting parishioner. His father, according to town gossip, had been a French sailor who had gotten him on his mother and then jumped from port.
James was not often surprised by people, but one of the most profound astonishments of his life had come with the realization that Hawthorne wanted him. Not as a well-behaved charge, not even as a successful pupil, but in the particular way of a certain passage in Genesis that spoke of the city of Sodom. No, there were moments during lessons when Hawthorne’s eyes slid from the doubtlessly wicked expression on James’ face to the even wickeder space between his legs, moments when James would lean over to pick up a fallen pen and he could hear Hawthorne’s sharp intake of breath. Such a discovery was marvellous, if ultimately useless, for no matter how much James flirted with the man, Hawthorne refused to confess his attraction. He could not entirely hide it, but he could pretend it did not exist with the steeliness of a man on a sinking, arrow-ridden ship.
It was a shame, James thought. He was curious to see what Hawthorne’s face might look like slack with pleasure, and pressing him to the carpet to grind against him would be a much more interesting way to pass their time than discussing the relation between magic and Platonic forms.
Hawthorne noticed his stare, and a slight sheen of rose covered his cheeks. But he shook his head. “You are thinking cruel thoughts again,” he accused.
“Cruel?” James asked, spreading his limbs out further on the chaise longue. “Why would you say that? I have never done anyone an ounce of harm.”
“What sort of fool do you take me for?” Hawthorne said. “What of the guests you have been rude to, the disrespect you show your uncle, the… the men whose bed you entertain and then leave behind? You delight in others’ discomfort. I say that you are cruel, and you are, though I sympathize that it is part of your nature, having been taken by fairies so young.”
“Are you an expert on fairies then?” James asked.
“I have read a great deal about them, particularly Dr. Carrington’s works,” Hawthorne said. “I know that they are inhuman in their sentiments, knowing neither kindness nor joy. They are creatures driven by hunger.”
“And that is what you think I am?”
“That is what I know you are, despite your efforts to play the lazy good-for-nothing,” Hawthorne said. “The time you spent among the fairies, though you do not remember it, must have affected you in this fundamental way.”
“I see,” James said. He brought his fingers to his lips and licked them thoughtfully, enjoying Hawthorne’s suddenly narrowed gaze. “I propose an alternate theory. That James Wellesley was abducted by fairies as a boy, and that they led him to a pool and drowned him. Then they took one of their own children and gave him the appearance of James Wellesley, returning him to the arms of his anxious, ignorant parents.”
“You are not a changeling,” Hawthorne said.
“Are you certain? Do your books tell you how to recognize a fairy? The pointed ears perhaps?” James ran a hand along his ears. “Mine are rather sharp, you must admit.”
“I know because I am educated enough to realize when I am in the presence of the fey, and despite your lack of a human heart, you reek of human sweat,” Hawthorne said severely. “Such recognition is a talent you may one day aspire to as well, if you should pay attention to what I have to teach you.”
“Do you think it is so far out of reach that I’m a changeling?” James challenged. The reek of human sweat indeed; his pride felt pricked by that remark. “Let me tell you, though you continue to avoid this subject: I have killed myself, like clockwork, every Thursday around three o’clock. I have turned down invitations, spurned lovers, shut the door on my aunt, all without explanation because there is no reasonable way to explain that I am otherwise preoccupied with my imminent death. Every Thursday for the last five years, and yet here I stand.” He spread his arms in sardonic triumph, Caesar presenting himself to the Senate. “I have watched the blood bleed from my body, have felt bullets tear through my head, and yet I do not die. I rise and take tea. Tell me what is human about that.”
Hawthorne was pale, and James felt a vicious stab of righteousness. Good. Let him be pale. When they first met, James had tried to take him as confidante about this particular matter, but Hawthorne had rebuffed him. He all but refused to speak of it, coward that he was.
“I cannot say why your body acts that way,” Hawthorne said.
“You mean you do not know,” James said. “You do not know because Dr. Carrington does not know, for he is all you will ever amount to, his dusty tomes and his near-sighted philosophies. You know nothing about real magic, wild magic, what I bear.”
“I know all the magic that is required for someone of your station, living as landed gentry,” Hawthorne protested, but James cut him off with a laugh, all the more disturbing for how charming it sounded.
“How to impress ladies at soirees? How to turn water into wine? How to imprint scenic images on fire screens? Yes, I am certain that the one time I performed a shadow puppet play on Lady Bigelow’s fire screen was the pinnacle of my inherent abilities.”
“It is good magic, magic that makes people happy,” Hawthorne said. “I cannot fathom why you would want more than that.”
“What I want?” James said. “What I want is to feel human again. What I want is to know the tickle of sunlight on my face, to taste sugar on my tongue, to hear a melody and be moved by it. I no longer remember what any of those felt like, except in bits and snatches.”
“You escaped Fairy alive. You should be grateful.”
“I would burn all of England down,” James said, “if it would make me feel warm again.”
Hawthorne fell into shocked silence.
“So it is a good thing you have never taught me pyromancy,” James said. “Congratulations, my man. You have just saved your country.”
There were precious few activities that brought James any satisfaction, any respite to the hunger that coiled like winter needles inside his belly, but the short list included: sex (which of late meant tumbling the blacksmith’s son in town), seeing his uncle make a fool of himself, breaking in a new pair of Hessians, and winning at cards. It was a short list, certainly, but James was also a man for whom all food tasted like chimney ash and all poetry sounded like scraping stones. He did not dream, nor did he much sleep. On the very worst nights, he resorted to using laudanum. Alcohol might have been a more effective solution, but James had long discovered that it had no effect on his constitution. He could drink the entirety of Milborrow Court’s cellars, and still he would remain lucid and possessed of his damned faculties.
And Hawthorne dares claim I am still human? he thought.
For other men, more regular men, pleasure was the November fox hunt.
James woke in the blacksmith’s son’s bed, and he groaned as he rubbed his hands over his stubble. “Today is the fox hunt,” he said, turning to look at Peter, who smiled sweetly at him while wriggling his pert arse. “I wish I did not have to go. It is little more than inglorious tromping and I am always soaked and chilled afterwards.”
“Why do you go then?” Peter said, pressing his mouth to James’ naked chest and kissing him there. “Stay with me. I don’t have to be at my da’s until later.”
“My uncle demands my presence.” James curled his fingers around Peter’s elfin chin, lifting him into a wet, obscene kiss. When he pulled away, Peter was panting and erect once more, so James gave him a few luxurious strokes before rolling out of bed and searching for his drawers.
“You’d leave me like this?” Peter said, falling back onto the flock bed, his legs spread wide. Not for the first time, James gave thanks that while fairy magic seemed to shun food and drink and most simple human pleasures, at least fairies liked to fuck. That was not lost to him.
He smiled at Peter with the points of his teeth. “I think I will,” he said, finding his drawers and then his trousers. He laced himself up. “I shall leave you exactly like that, so you can think about next time, when I shall pin you to your bed and slide right into you, and fuck you so hard your legs give out.”
Peter groaned, and James laughed softly to himself as he picked his way through the town and back to Milborrow Court, where he was able to find his mount hastily enough to join the field as they headed out for the hunt. His cousins were present, his cousin Lizzie wearing a hat that nearly overshadowed most of her face, and both of them looked well-sated after a preparatory luncheon. James was sated too, with a different sort of meal, and he was in good humour as his uncle spoke quick words to the master of the foxhounds.
James had not expected to see Hawthorne joining the hunt, for the man preferred to stay indoors with his books rather than get his cheeks ruddy, but there he was, chatting with cousin Lizzie as their horses trotted side by side. He noticed James watching him, and his mouth tightened, but he nodded in curt greeting before turning back to Lizzie’s conversational delights, for she was a witty girl and had many. But he does not desire her, James thought. I can tell.
In any case, a match between a girl of her generous dowry and a penniless tutor would be unthinkable. Even if said tutor could spin pretty silk birds out of air.
Earlier that morning, when the sun had barely lightened the sky, a troop of servants had gone out and stuffed all the fox-holes they could find on the land. The foxes had nowhere to return, and it was with this knowledge that James’ uncle trembled with an excited chuckle, urging the master of foxhounds with his pack of forty dogs to lead them towards gorse patches where the foxes might hide instead. The men accompanying James’ uncle, of similar stock and inclinations (local gentry and gentlemen farmers all), rode eagerly, groaning in disappointment when the hounds would tear into the covert and find no foxes, merely a few dormice, which the hounds killed without difficulty.
James could not help but envy the mice, somewhat, for possessing a talent that he did not.
Leicestershire rolled before him, an endless Midland plateau of grass and domesticated farmland, with the hedgerows clutching to their last summer blossoms, and the dog roses faded almost colourless when the heavy tread of the hunting party knocked them off their stems. When James looked up at the midday sky, he could see jackdaws take flight from the rustling trees. When he looked to his left, he could see the river snaking through tilled banks. When he looked to his right, he could see his uncle searching the ground for thickets where foxes might be lurking. When he looked forward, he could see the hounds in their formidable pack, barely controlled by their master, vicious and wild.
They found a fox within the hour, cousin Fanny being the first to spot it. She let out a cry of tally-ho, and then the fox streaked past them with the dogs at its heel, running, running, running. The hunting party surged forward. The game was on.
Tromping, James had called it, and tromping it was. As well as trampling, and tussling, and any other word that could describe a field of hunters and their dogs racing after a quick-footed fox. The chase was the prime enjoyment of the hunt, as he was made to understand, though for most things James understood enjoyment only in the purely academic sense, as a concept that he was assured existed and yet rarely had a chance to observe for himself. Was hunting like sex, he wondered, searching for his own basis of comparison, or was it like something else entirely? There were aspects of the hunt that seemed like sex (the flushed faces, the irregular breathing, the almost orgasmic desire to pin an animal down and claim it), but James, for all his many perversions, shared few similarities with the Marquis de Sade.
The dogs caught their prey at the edge of a flowering row, and the fox screeched in pain as the hounds’ teeth snarled into its soft flesh. Then there was just the fox being ripped to pieces by the dogs, yanked to and fro between their greedy paws, bleeding outwards and onto the dry grass. James with his heightened senses caught the precise moment when the fox died, and his own hands convulsed where he was holding his reins.
By the end of it, there were leftover pieces of face, tail, and paw that the hounds dropped from their teeth and left lying among the trampled roses.
James heard Hawthorne come up behind him and say, low and insistent, “If this is what men are capable of, think of what greater responsibility we magicians must take. Our power is a weapon more potent than any pack of hounds.”
“Must you turn every decent moment into a sermon?” James said.
“Your uncle and aunt hired me to educate you on the weight of being a magician,” Hawthorne said. “You are young still and–”
“–And you are soft-hearted,” James said. “The fox is a martyr now. It will go to fox-heaven and sing with the fox-angels, so you see, there is no reason at all for us to mourn its passing. I know I certainly will not give it another thought.” He nodded towards his cousin. “Lizzie shall be missing you. I suggest you return to her.”
As he rode away, he amended his list of small pleasures to include an new entry: the precise variations of the expression Hawthorne had when displeased with James but not knowing what to do.
It was Hawthorne who buckled first, as it always was. He came to their lessons the next day with a slice of Cook’s luncheon cake and a tense but hesitant visage. “I realize that we have had many arguments over the past year,” Hawthorne began before James could speak, and possibly that was a wise decision for James could think of any number of cutting remarks. “I see your power and it makes me wary, so I grow over-cautious in your education. I forget sometimes that you are a capable man, intelligent in your own way, and it is rude of me to treat you like a silly child.”
“You realized all that, truly?” James said. “My, that must be marvellous cake.”
“The cake has nothing to do with my thoughts,” Hawthorne said. “The cake is for today’s lesson.”
“A lesson delivered by means of confectionery? My curiosity is piqued,” James said.
“Please, sit,” Hawthorne said, and for once, James obeyed without complaint. He took his seat opposite Hawthorne, who sat on the settee primly and neatly, holding the piece of cake between his pallid fingers. “As I have explained before, complex spells have many layers, many pieces of workings that enable them to be successful. A competent magician is able to distinguish all of those ingredients, just as you will name for me all of the ingredients that went into making this piece of cake.”
“Do I look like a baker?” James asked.
“I am not expecting you to be a baker,” Hawthorne said. “I am expecting you to taste the cake and use your senses.”
“I see,” James said, intrigued in spite of himself. Whether or not Hawthorne realized it, this would be a particularly difficult challenge for him because of his unique condition. So often cake tasted like termite-ridden wood; he was not sure he would be able to do what Hawthorne asked of him, and therefore he wanted to try badly.
“Will you feed me by hand?” he asked coquettishly.
“No,” Hawthorne said.
“A shame,” James said, and Hawthorne furrowed his brow before leaning over and passing the piece of cake. James accepted a fork alongside the plate. He could hear Hawthorne’s breath, and so for good measure, James made sure to eat the forkful of cake as slowly as he could, his pink tongue darting out to lick the flat, spongy side. Years of experience had taught him how to school his expression to blankness when he first registered the foul, decaying taste. He chewed, swallowed, and forced himself to take another bite.
“Raisins, without a doubt,” he said.
“That much should be obvious,” Hawthorne agreed.
“Flour, butter, eggs, yeast, milk…” James continued, naming what he knew were essential ingredients because that was the clever way to approach this task, and he was nothing if not clever. “Sugar,” he added.
“What kind of sugar?” Hawthorne asked.
James thought about it for a moment. “Caster sugar,” he said. “Nutmeg as well. Caraway.”
“Well done,” Hawthorne said. “One more ingredient and then I shall be willing to call myself impressed.”
“Are you genuinely capable of being impressed?” James remarked. He closed his eyes to better hone his senses, and there it was: the sharpness hiding underneath the softness. “Lemon peels,” he said. “There is the barest hint of lemon peels.” His examination accomplished, he swallowed as quickly as he could. “And what do you mean when you say that I am intelligent ‘in my own way’?”
“I see my every word is destined to be recorded for posterity,” Hawthorne said in that fussy way that meant he was secretly pleased. Then he looked down at his lap, where the fingers of his left hand were entwined with the fingers of his right. He unlaced them and smoothed his trousers. Then he laced them again, and James grew impatient just watching him. Hawthorne looked up, his eyes large and grey, nearly washed out by the wheat of his hair. “Yesterday, you called me soft-hearted, and I fear that you may be right. It is not a magician’s place, especially a magician of my… circumstances, to be anything other than practical and straightforward. Yet you have thrown a dart and struck me in my weakness.”
“Oh?” James asked pointedly.
“My soft-heartedness towards you has made me less than forthcoming with the truth,” Hawthorne said.
James barked in laughter. “You have been soft-hearted towards me? When?”
“You need not laugh,” Hawthorne said peevishly. “And while you may not assume it to be so, I have been quite lenient and compassionate towards you. I have always kept your best interests at heart, which is why I have withheld certain details from you, thinking it best to shelter you from the world. Because of my, as you say, soft heart.”
“Is this so,” James said. “Would these details have to do with your desire to bend me over this chaise and have your merry way with me? I am afraid that is not much of a secret, though I understand why you would not tell me. I am quite too handsome for you.”
Hawthorne flushed. “It is not that.”
“Then what is it, pray tell?”
“I know why you are the way you are,” Hawthorne said. “Why you are restless, why you are unhappy. Why you cannot die.” The foul taste rose in James’ mouth again as he listened to Hawthorne speak. “I read it in the monograph On fairies, goblins, witches, and their customs, written by William Pool. What is the crux of the difference between a human and a fairy, is the issue he ponders, and he goes on to explain that it is mortality. Fairies are immortal. They are born without death. Humans are born with death, and so when a fairy takes a human into the fairy realm to partake of their courts, they remove his death.”
“What do you mean,” James asked coolly, “that they remove his death?”
“They carve it from him,” Hawthorne said. “I do not know how, but they do. They take it from his body and they hide it somewhere safe. Until he reclaims his death, he is not quite human anymore, nor is he fully fairy. He straddles the two worlds, satisfied with neither.”
“That is what Pool claims?”
“I believe it to be true,” Hawthorne said. “When those fairies took you as a boy, they must have carved your death from your body, carving a part of you out.”
It was the queerest thing James had ever heard, but perhaps, when he considered the matter more deeply, not so queer as lying in his own blood, with his veins emptied, and then blinking up at the ceiling and thinking about bagatelle. My death, he thought. I am no longer in possession of it. And suddenly he was powerfully angry, angry enough to bite down on iron, because it was his death and no one had the right of taking it from him.
Hawthorne was blinking at him from behind his tiny round spectacles. “So now you know,” he said, and James’ mangled fury and gratitude made him clench his fists, unsure of whether he wanted to strike Hawthorne or shake his hand. “I am sorry I did not tell you earlier. But what good would it have done? What good is it even now that you know? You cannot discover where the fairies hid your death. You cannot reclaim it.”
“Can I not?” James said.
But Hawthorne leaned over and grabbed his shoulders. “No,” he said tightly. “You must promise me this, if you never promise me anything else in your life. Promise that you will not go chasing after your death.”
“Why, afraid that I shall die?” James drawled.
“There are futures that are worse than dying,” Hawthorne insisted. “I — I have seen terrible fates befall people when they think to bargain with fairies. People that I cared for. It is not worth it, James. Live and live well. Immortality is not such a bad hand to be dealt. Think of all that you can do with your given time! You could write operas, seduce principessas, journey to foreign lands. So many possibilities!”
James shook him off. “What would a moralizing milksop like you know about possibility?” he scoffed, and he saw the despair that twisted Hawthorne’s features as James stood up and stalked out of the room. However, it did not compel him to stop, not until much later that night when he was lying sleepless on his feathered mattress, shivering underneath his five blankets, vying for heat that he could not find. It was then that he felt the first touch of the most unlikely sentiment of them all, regret.
He did not apologize for his behaviour, for it was not in his nature to admit his wrongs, but he did attempt to be less callous the next day in time for their lessons. He thought of a number of insults, from the shabbiness of Hawthorne’s coat to his overlong nose, but he held his tongue inside his mouth and listened to Hawthorne’s lessons without voicing his complaints. Hawthorne, to his credit, seemed content to act as if their previous conversation had been nothing more than a fantastical daydream, and so life at Milborrow Court continued without undue alteration. Save for the knowledge that had since dug into the cavity of James’ chest, where it ached with every meaningless breath. But Hawthorne had made one half-acceptable argument: what could James do with that knowledge? It was unbearably precious and consequently useless.
With the rise of James’ character in Hawthorne’s estimation (or perhaps ‘rise’ was not the best description, perhaps ‘slight, minor deviation, most deeply begrudged’), their lessons took on an intensity anew. Hawthorne ceased the practice of light-summoning, flower-curling, and tea-warming, for which James was most thankful, and even set poor much-maligned Plato on the gargoyle bookshelf. His teachings began to take on a more worldly tone, as he began to speak of the ways in which a magician might manipulate water, stone, air.
His knowledge was wholly theoretical and delivered uncomfortably, for Hawthorne was a creature of the domestic sphere. What he knew of wild magic, he drew from his readings, which he occasionally chose to share with James, bringing a choice volume one day or a controversial dissertation the other. He did not contrive to bring William Pool’s writings, however, as he confessed he had accidentally dropped them in the bath, soaking the precious papers beyond repair.
“It is unlike you to be so clumsy,” James said.
“I was startled, is all,” Hawthorne replied. “I believed, mistakenly, that I heard a pecking sound at the window.”
He was hardly singular in his distractions. As November passed into December, James had the whimsical notion that Milborrow Court was haunted. Window frames shuddered, stairs appeared and disappeared, and the teak armoire that stood parallel to James’ bed took the sudden notion to topple over the night previous, creating such a loud racket that the steward had begun banging on his door, crying, “Master James, Master James, are you all right?” The armoire was ancient and no doubt heavier than an oliphant, and yet it had tumbled to its side like a reed pushed by the breeze. If fairies could exist, James thought, why not ghosts as well?
“A great many spirits and ethereal beings exist,” Hawthorne said with a straight face. “The breadth of God’s creations cannot be fathomed by mortals. Ghosts, nonetheless, are rarer than one might expect. Usually it is nothing more than an excess of imagination coupled with an abundance of Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels.”
“And the ghost of Milborrow Court?”
“If there is one,” Hawthorne said. “We shall see.” He smiled slightly. “It has not done any real harm, has it? Perhaps we should let it remain. I daresay it adds some colour to the place. though Mr. Milborrow might not agree.”
James laughed. “Yes, colour. I do so enjoy hearing the housemaids shrieking when teaspoons start bending backwards.”
“You care? Those of us who live downstairs do not often capture the affections of our masters.”
“I care,” James said, “about living as comfortably and as peacefully as I am able, which includes a decided lack of ghastly shrieks and terrified grunts. I have enough difficulty sleeping as it is.”
“If it is to improve the quality of your sleep,” Hawthorne said dryly, “then by all means, let us find the ghost and put it to rest.”
Which led to the event of James being woken in the middle of the night, Hawthorne standing above him holding a smouldering rushlight in his hand. “What do you want?” James groaned, irritated at the disturbance (it had taken four hours for him to fall asleep, which was slightly improved from the five hours of yesterday), but Hawthorne made a shushing motion and urged James out of the bed. The tutor, despite the unnatural hour, was perfunctorily dressed, his collars pointed and his boots buffed as if he was prepared to pay call on some local lady. James looked down at his nightshirt, sighed, and said, “Let me get dressed, at the very least.”
Hawthorne nodded and turned around, studying the formerly possessed armoire. James quickly divested his slumbering regalia in exchange for trousers and a white linen shirt, which he did not bother to button so that it hung open, exposing his lean, lithe chest. Hawthorne swallowed hard when he turned around, but all he said was, “You were earnest when you said you wanted the ghost gone?”
“My dear Hawthorne,” James said, “I am always in earnest.”
At first he believed the lewdness had gone unnoticed by Hawthorne’s puritanism, but Hawthorne cleared his throat and looked away. He is well aware, James thought, and his smile broadened into something lascivious. It was meaningful, to him, to tease helpless Hawthorne like this, because Hawthorne was the embodiment of a desire that James could barely vocalize: a man who knew him in all his worst influences, and yet desired him anyway. Peter desired him but did not truly know him; to Peter, he was a harmless conjurer, amusing and yet no more dangerous than Lee, one of Mr. Weston’s farmhands, who could call birds to roost on his arms without birdfeed.
It was ten species of dark on the staircase, and so James summoned witchlights on his fingers, which provided greater range of sight than Hawthorne’s thin, lonely rushlights, with the grease soaking the pith of the plant. “You have magic and yet you so rarely use it,” James observed. Hawthorne said nothing while he led them through the hallways towards the servants’ quarters, where there was a winding staircase up into the higher reaches of the manor and the west mezzanine landings. Oriel windows poured in cold winter moonlight, making Hawthorne seem corpse white, though it drew silhouettes on the slender line of his jaw.
James watched as Hawthorne crouched on his haunches, opening the satchel he carried with him and producing two hand-held mirrors, a china saucer, and a phial containing a clear liquid that James suspected was water. “I have cast the proper spells, and this seems to be where the epicentre of the activities seem to be,” Hawthorne explained under his breath. “This must be where the ghost met her end.”
“Her?” James asked.
“Further investigation suggests that the ghost is Mrs. Mary Milborrow, the wife of the lord of the manor thrice preceding your uncle. She died when she fell down the stairs during a tryst with a footman.” Hawthorne passed one of the mirrors to James. “Hold this but do not use it unless the spirit becomes hostile. Mirrors attract fairies but they repel ghosts.”
“Does iron then repel fairies but attract ghosts?” James asked.
“Nothing as simple as that,” Hawthorne said. “Ghosts are drawn to water.” He uncapped the vial and poured the water into the saucer, before setting the saucer on the floorboards.
James smirked. It seemed more as if they were luring a cat than a restless ghost, but he did not say anything as Hawthorne pulled him back towards the wall. James made sure to push his body as close to Hawthorne’s in the confined space as was socially acceptable, and then some more. Hawthorne stiffened, but James smiled into the starchy scent of his coat. They waited, though James could not say for how long, and even James’ legs grew leaden after a sufficient amount of time. He yawned and then began humming “The Lass of Swansea Town.”
“Stop that,” Hawthorne said.
“Mrs. Mary is not coming,” James murmured. “Mayhap she does not like this particular water. Mayhap she will only come if we bring her eau from the wells of Jerusalem.” Hawthorne frowned, but then he turned his head towards the saucer on the stairs where there was a whispering sound, and then a rattle of crockery.
“There she is,” Hawthorne said. He shook himself free of James’ embrace and knelt by the water, unraveling a heavy silver crucifix from around his neck that James had never seen before. Hawthorne dipped the crucifix into the water, and there was another great shudder, both on the rippling water and in the set of Hawthorne’s shoulders. Then Hawthorne stood and tucked the crucifix back underneath his vestments.
“That is all?” James asked.
“Were you expecting more?” Hawthorne asked. “Gunpowder and fireworks? A wrestling match with Jacob’s angel?” He found his gloves in his pocket and put them back on, his fingers disappearing underneath the fine cloth. “She is bound to the cross now. I shall release her when the proper time comes, so that she can travel to Heaven and bother us no further.”
“Water and mirrors,” James said. “I ought to remember that for the future.”
“Often the simplest implements, used correctly and precisely, have the greatest effect,” Hawthorne said. He shook his head ruefully. “But do not fear. I learned that lesson late in life as well.”
Heaven, James thought. He would never go to Heaven, of course. It was not for the likes of him, too much touched by devilish trickery.
Then he laughed, sharply, for it was a useless conundrum. To enter Heaven, he would first need to die (unless he wanted to be as Enoch, ascended), and he would never die. I shall never go to Heaven even if I deserve to, he thought as he sorted through the latest package in the mail from Mudie’s Circulating Library. The trumps shall sound and St. Michael shall lead the armies on Earth, and only then, perhaps, at the end of all things, will I know what it is like to be as my fellow man. He wondered if he would continue to grow old, so that he would be Tithonus at the apocalypse, hobbling along with his cane and his ruined legs.
He did not want to admit that it frightened him, but it frightened him badly. It put him off sorting through the rest of Mudie’s books, leaving them all for his aunt and cousins as he retreated to his drawing room and threw himself over the chaise longue, listless.
There were two globes over the fireplace mantel, a globe of Heaven and a globe of Earth. The globe of Earth showed the continents and the seas, though James did not quite trust it to accurately represent the cartography of the New World. The globe of Heaven was rather less reliable than that, a mappa mundi with God in His throne at the very tip, and the cherubs with their harps circling His holy feet.
There should be a globe for Fairy as well, James thought, if any person is brave enough to plot it. He knew stories of travelers to Fairy, who stumbled into the kingdoms of Forget-Me-Not and the Lands of Night’s Dreaming. There were more intrepid magicians who set out for Fairy than who ever returned. Then there were those, such as him, who had never purposefully set out at all, but who wandered into woods on some bout of mischief and wept when the woods turned into seas, and when the seas turned into cold hands that led him by his wrists, away.
Hawthorne entered the drawing room with a sheaf of papers under his elbow. He stilled when he saw James. “I did not expect you here,” he said. “We are not due together for yet another hour.”
“I was sulking,” James said. “I am told it drives the women wild with passion. It gives me a rather brooding, romantic air, do you not agree?” He tilted his head and regarded Hawthorne interestedly. “Are you here to prepare for the lesson?”
“Ah, no,” Hawthorne said. “I thought I would compose a few letters while I still had time. My room is too cold, and here it is warm.”
“Barely,” James said. Hawthorne seated himself at the escritoire, and James gave him a few moments’ peace before he said, “Do you know of a way to remember something you have forgotten?”
“I imagine racking your head very hard for the answer might help,” Hawthorne replied. “Or asking another person.”
“I mean by magic,” James said.
“Why do you wish to know?” Hawthorne asked.
“Oh, you see, I misplaced my favourite hat the other day,” James said airily. “None of the servants have seen it, and none of my many, many lovers have either, so unless I left it in one of their arses, it is plain vanished, I’m afraid.”
He loved how visible blushes were on Hawthorne’s skin. He used to believe that he would make an excellent cleric, but now he knew that for a falsehood. Hawthorne would make a dreadful cleric. Any time he was tempted with sin, the entire congregation would know. “I merely thought,” said James, “that there must be some way in which a magician can reach into his mind and master it in a way that lesser folk cannot.”
“I do know of a way to organize one’s thoughts,” Hawthorne said slowly, “though I have never attempted it myself.”
“Tell me,” James coaxed.
Hawthorne could never resist an opportunity to impress on James the expanse of his advanced knowledge. He played at modesty and keeping to his station, but in actuality he had pride as fierce as a prince’s. James felt a peculiar sort of affection fill him as Hawthorne set aside his missives, though affection was soon replaced by a barely tempered thirst. He struggled to keep his expression placid, feigning casual interest when his every limb felt numb with anticipation.
“Think of the mind as a coat,” Hawthorne said.
“Not like your coat, I hope,” James interrupted. “Your coat is in desperate need of mending.”
“As a coat,” Hawthorne insisted. “With many pockets. And each pocket represents a different facet of the mind. Some of the pockets are hidden. Some of the pockets can only be reached with the right turnaround. Some of the pockets you do not even know are there, until you brush your fingers against them and find a piece of twine that you thought you misplaced. That is what our minds are like, and with the right training and proper education, one may be able to riffle through the pockets more easily, recovering past thoughts and prior observations.”
“What sort of training would it take?” James wanted to know.
“I am afraid it is not easily taught,” Hawthorne said, irritated now at the prospect of a skill he could not teach. “It bears resemblance to Eastern meditation. You must focus the mind inwards, not outwards. As I have said, I have never tried the practice, so I do not know much about it.”
“Then how do you know it is successful?”
“I have colleagues who are masters of the technique,” Hawthorne said. “Dr. Carrington, for one, as much as you mock him. If you meet the man, you shall see that his control of his mind is worthy of deep admiration.” He flicked his eyes sideways. “Perhaps you should meet him. The Royal Society of Magicians is convening in January. I think it is high time you paid attention to their proceedings.”
“What use would I have for a guild that would not understand me or sympathize with me?” James asked.
“You are hardly the only person to have lost his death,” Hawthorne said. “There are others in England who share your affliction.”
“Really? Can you name them?”
“Allegra Fondant,” Hawthorne said. “Mark Sampson. I have been corresponding with them both, and they will be in London in January. And, if I might say, if you never register yourself with the Royal Society of Magicians, you will never be more than a hedge wizard plying your tricks in parlours, which I thought was the last thing you wanted to be.”
His arrow aimed true. James’ lips pulled back in the beginnings of a snarl, but then he recalled that he was supposed to be human, despite evidence to the contrary. “Very well,” he said. “To London then.”
James detested traveling, particularly in the winter months when merely stepping outside of Milborrow Court’s walls was enough to make his lips turn blue. No matter how high he piled the furs in the stagecoach, no matter how many braziers he lit in wayside inns, it was not enough to stop his wretched teeth from chattering, nor for him to catch cold, coughing so loudly and often that Hawthorne finally asked him if he thought it was pleurisy.
“You grow used to the cold, after a fashion,” Hawthorne said by way of sympathy, but James stared at him with knives in his eyes and said that was simply not true, and what did Hawthorne know anyway, he was probably half French.
“That is not an explanation for anything,” Hawthorne complained, but he did not bother James so much after that. James almost wished that they were beset by highwaymen on their travels, if only so that he could exercise his foul temper on anyone foolish enough to threaten an English magician. He knew a number of nasty hexes that Hawthorne would never teach him, but which creativity and subversive readings were happy to fill the lapse. Sadly, no such event occurred and the countryside roads remained clear, save for the occasional vexing snowbank.
It was cold, and miserable, and London was very grey, dulled underneath a layer of soot and frost. James was much cheered by the hearty fire waiting for them in his uncle’s residence at Berkley Square, however, and was moreover glad at having the house to himself. His own and Hawthorne’s, that was. During the proper Season, his aunt and his cousins would come to London in the hopes of finding Fanny and Lizzie an eligible match, but in the dead of winter, the house was empty save for the lusty fire and the handful of servants. Supper was served, galantine of pork cooked with juicy mushrooms, and James ate as much of it as he could before the urge to lose his stomach forced him to halt his progress.
“Your cough is improving already,” Hawthorne noted.
“So quickly,” James agreed. “Yet another example of fairy magic at work, I presume. My body is always chilled. I can only leech the warmth of my surroundings, and suffer when there is none.” He peered at Hawthorne from beneath his feminine lashes. “Do you think it was my death that kept me warm?”
“If the heart knows it shall die, it beats all the more preciously,” Hawthorne said. He had rolled up his sleeves, allowing his skin to become golden by the fire, and he had removed his shoes as well, his feet clad only in his stockings. Such informality he rarely indulged in, but James’ improved mood seemed to correlate with his own. He offered James a crooked smile before reaching into his bags and producing a book, one of Miss Austen’s works.
“Does it frighten you?” James asked after a length of silence.
“Miss Austen?” Hawthorne asked. “Her ease with words when I have none, a bit.”
“My lack of death,” James said. “It frightened my parents when they saw that I fell from one of the old fortress turrets, and yet remained unharmed. That was one of the reasons, one of the many reasons, they sent me to live with relatives.”
“Your magic does not frighten me,” Hawthorne said, and it even had the taste of truth.
The next morning, after a light repast of kippers, they attended the convention of the Royal Society of Magicians. The Society’s headquarters were in Bedford Square, an elevated address to represent the elevated status of magicians in England. Less than fifty years ago, a budding magician hid from the wrath of the Church and the superstition of his peers, and yet they were now openly gathering in an elegant house with yellow trimmings and a meeting hall that had once been several parlours and dining rooms, until the walls were knocked down to create the single concave space. Madeira was poured and gossip exchanged, and James could recognize straight away the double chins of Dr. Carrington, who stood by the speaker’s dais chatting with a Wessex magician. Hawthorne immediately began to move towards Dr. Carrington, joyful, leaving James to his own devices.
“–and yet the MacLeod method of the five-point stasis has its benefits as opposed to the more traditional Calvino hexagram–“
“–did you see how he nearly set the King on fire?”
“–you can accomplish it with a pinch of salt, but you must be careful. One little distraction and the whole thing could blow up in your face–”
“–the Duke of Forget-Me-Not, one of the seven great princes, is heard to have quarreled with his brother, the Lord of Lost Causes–”
A woman in a pomegranate dress appeared before James. Or rather, the man blocking James’ view of her suddenly moved, and there she was, standing alone with a flute of wine, watching the others with a hard glint to her kohl-lined eyes. She had an exotic look to her, possibly Italian. “I know you,” she said when James approached. “You are Algernon’s deathless pupil.”
“Has Hawthorne described me in his correspondence then?” James asked pleasantly.
“‘A sweet, youthful aspect to him, though it does not suit,'” Allegra Fondant intoned. “‘Dark, curly hair and a wicked mouth, like one of the nephilim born from the union of human and angel.'” She examined James with her heavy eyes. “I do not understand what Algernon wants me to do for you. There is nothing I can say that he cannot say himself. So I am deathless as well. What of it?”
James considered asking her how she had been taken by fairies, and at what age, but that seemed an impossibly rude inquiry, akin to asking what positions she preferred in bed and what sounds she made when she climaxed. He settled for smiling languidly and saying, “I hope to not remain deathless for long.”
“You mean you want your death?”
“You mean you do not?”
“What a thing to ask,” Allegra replied. “The woods call to me, the streams call to me, the hunger is fierce, and every day I must remain in London is a day that is dry and brittle. But Fairy will not take our kind beyond a quick flirtation. There is nowhere else for me to go save for death, and yet…” A bitter countenance passed over her. “Have Algernon tell you the story about Lucas Madrigal and what happened to him when he went hunting for his death.”
“We have time yet before the session,” James said. “We have… well, to be honest, perfectly atrocious wine, but we have our splendid selves and a fire blazing behind us. Why not you tell me the story?”
“It is Algernon’s tragedy to tell,” Allegra said. “I was not in love with the man.”
James cocked an eyebrow. Allegra laughed, not kindly. “He keeps his secrets, I see. Well and good. I shall not reveal them for him, not even to a tender morsel such as you.” She made to move away, but stopped at the last moment and looked over her rounded shoulder, her face lovely and hollow in the firelight. “I leave you with only this: where did he say he learned of the deathless?”
“A monograph by William Pool,” James supplied.
“There is no William Pool.”
The house in Berkeley Square had shadows like rivers, sliding smooth and slippery against the thickly textured wallpaper. James sat in his armchair, donning nothing more than a pair of loose trousers, smoking a cigar while watching the snow blow against the frosted windowpanes. He could hear the sounds of the servants downstairs, cleaning up the last bit of the kitchen, setting the house aright before they took to their beds. He could not hear Hawthorne at all, though the man’s room was next door, but knew him to be awake. There was a scent, a bit like ink and a bit like crushed cloves, that James’ nose picked up. Hawthorne’s scent.
How laughable, that he should know so much about Hawthorne (his scent, his smile, the precise degree of his disapproving sniffs), and yet know so little.
I could be wrong, James thought, sucking on the end of his cigar. This could be a plot of Allegra Fondant’s, to turn me against him. Her long life must be full of ennui.
However, the fact was veritable that Hawthorne had kept him in the darkness about deathlessness. If he was capable of that, there could be no end to what else he knew and did not say. James already found it irksome that Hawthorne had been aware of the precise cause of his condition and had chosen to watch James suffer in ignorance, offering him no hope as to a solution. No matter that he had thought it for the best. Innocent motives did not excuse barbarous actions. What else did Hawthorne keep from him? Did he know where the fairies hid the deaths that they stole? Was there a graveyard somewhere, in the borderlands between one realm and the next, and Hawthorne had a copy of the map?
A portion of James did not enjoy thinking of this. He wished to return to the equilibrium they once had between them, where James could act the dissolute young master and Hawthorne could be the trustworthy, if staid, hired help. That pattern was as natural as the movements of the celestial bodies. He was not used to thinking of Hawthorne outwitting him. William Pool, he had said, and he had not even blinked, the liar!
He must tell me what he knows, he decided. All of it.
There were three known methods to loosening a man’s tongue. The first was money, but James had a limited allowance and so that avenue was not available to him. The second was force, but James had no desire to use it unless absolutely necessary. The third was seduction. He smiled to himself as he rose from his chair and padded to Hawthorne’s chambers, raising his fist to knock on the closed door. There was no response at first, though the ink-and-cloves smell grew stronger and muskier. James was amused at the prospect of Hawthorne feigning sleep like a nervous little boy, but then Hawthorne came and answered the door in his nightshirt, the cut of it revealing his knobby knees.
“Yes?” he inquired.
“I cannot sleep,” James said, and knew that the fire in Hawthorne’s hearth warmed the muscles of his bare chest to his best advantage. James knew many things this way. Where to stand to reveal the elegance of his profile, how to slouch as to suggest insouciance with the barest hint of lewdness. Some of this was practiced, but quite a bit of it was not. It was not a magician’s trick, or a fairy one, but one of the few talents he could truthfully call his own.
“Warm milk may help,” Hawthorne said cautiously, his pince-nez spectacles sliding down his nose.
“I am thirsty,” James said, “but not, I think, for milk.”
Hawthorne’s eyes widened, and he took a step backwards that turned into a stumble. Queerly adorable, James thought, but Hawthorne lifted both hands in front of him as a shield. “I know what you are after,” he said, “and I am flattered, I truly am. But we have been dancing at this for a long time, and do you not think that if I have not succumbed, it is because I have a good reason?”
“I think your reason,” said James, advancing forward with a feline smile, “is simply cowardice. Are you a virgin? I can help you with that.”
“That is none of your business,” Hawthorne said.
“So you are,” James replied. “Ah, well, let me name the other reasons. Are you promised to someone else?”
Hawthorne’s jaw clenched. “I am not.”
“Are you diseased?”
“Will it offend God?”
Hawthorne’s laugh was unexpected and tight. “It might,” he said, “but it will be the least I have done to offend God.”
“Then I can think of no other reason to deny it,” James said. He lowered his voice, husky. “There is no shame in desire, you see. A quick tumble and a long kiss between willing partners can be a pleasant diversion, and I know that you are lonely.” He caught Hawthorne’s eyes. “So am I,” he said.
Hawthorne took a shaky breath, and the beauty of it made James forget about secrets and deaths and why he had chosen tonight of all nights to press his urgency, when before Hawthorne’s desire for him had been a sweet burn, sweeter for all that it was unfulfilled. The firelight blazed Hawthorne’s hair into bronze, and the moonlight washed his skin like ice. James shivered, and saw Hawthorne imitate him. In that instance, he knew that his suspicions were correct. Hawthorne was deathless too.
A terrible sensation swam through him then. Hawthorne turned his face to meet James’ squarely, and in that instance James was no longer the tempter and Hawthorne the victim. As quick as a house of cards tumbling, James felt his chest constrict, ill-like, but Hawthorne kept looking at him, steady and contemplative, his previous expression of nervousness wiped clean. The look burned through James wildly. He felt his groin tighten even as the cold fairy pressure in his throat rose and spread to his cheeks. His face was hot, not with embarrassment but with helpless desire. All this and Hawthorne had not even touched him. It was as if Hawthorne had sent out a call, and James’ body could do naught but respond.
If two deathless come together, does that make life?
“No,” Hawthorne said finally. “I — I will not mock you by saying I do not desire this, but no. There are — there are too many dangers.”
James had never responded well to rejection. If there was a book of etiquette on how to manage spurned advances, he would rip it up and throw it into the fire, so little did he wish to learn to be gracious. “Dangers?” he hissed. “Or do you mean that I am not your beloved Lucas Madrigal?”
Hawthorne blanched, and then flushed. “So Allegra told you, did she? Then you will know why I do not wish to give myself to you. And if you are any sort of gentleman, you will understand.”
“I am not a gentleman,” James said. “I am a magician, as are you.”
“Right now I am a very tired, vexed magician,” Hawthorne said angrily. “Go back to your room. Find another spoony to play with. There are countless handsome specimens of manhood in London. Chase after one, hire one, lure one to your bed. What do you need me for?”
A moment short enough to turn a card in whist, and James find himself standing outside, staring at an unfriendly door.
I need you to tell me where my death is.
James did not have the capacity for dreams, but when he closed his eyes, he could sometimes see a flicker of a memory painted on the back of his eyelids. A stone obelisk here, a field of dead grass there. The grasp of frozen hands on his wrists, yanking him from his parents, from his home. The jagged teeth of an iron knife as it sank into his ribs and through the other side. As he practiced organizing his mind, more and more of these pictures came to him.
They were in Milborrow Court again, though everything was changed. Hawthorne was still angry, and so their lessons were strained and barely perfunctory, Hawthorne giving James useless exercises that took James less than a quarter of an hour to complete, leaving the rest of the time for Hawthorne to jab at his correspondence while James stared out the window, smoking cigars and trying to remember his past.
He did not tell Hawthorne what he was doing, and Hawthorne did not offer any aid. So James’ progress with his mind-mastery was slower than it could have been, and many times he fumbled with going in one direction when he should have gone in the other. It allowed him to appreciate how subtle Hawthorne’s pedagogy was, even when delivered in that annoying popish way of his that was half rebuke, half disappointment. Nonetheless, James was no fool on his own, and was not afraid of hard work when it promised vast reward. As February and Candlemas came and went, he began to see the rooms of his mind more visibly.
They were not pockets. The whole of his mind was a dying, echoing estate, full of tangled, feral gardens and bones buried in overturned soil. Mushrooms grew in wasted Turkish carpets, and as James walked through the manor, with white sheets thrown over every stick of furniture, he comprehended the rooms for what they were.
The Room of Foiled Plots. The Room of Thwarted Lusts. The Room of Inappropriate Thoughts. The Room of General Triumphs. The Room of Falsehoods. The Room of Goals Set and Forgotten.
And lastly, the room at the very anterior of the house where he would never think to wander if he had not searched all the rest, the Room of Lost Memories.
:::They could not have continued in this way for the rest of the foreseeable future, and in any case, James was not inclined to allow them that privilege. No matter what slights brewed between him and Hawthorne, the closer he approached to the door to the Room of Lost Memories, the more paramount it became that he expand his education. He was not under the illusion that going after his death would be easy, and was determined to be as prepared as one possibly could. To his admittedly inexperienced judgment, this included fire spells, hunting spells, spells to encourage fleetness, spells of invisibility. When the King’s regiments passed through town, James sought out the battalion magician, plying him with drinks and sweet smiles until Willis agreed to show him the essentials of combat magic.
“This,” he said, “is your basic healing charm–”
James laughed. “My good sir, if there is one scholastic enterprise you need not trouble me with, it is that.”
But his careless admission only served to make Willis’ expression darken. “So you’re one of them,” he said, with a wary glance at the scars on James’ wrists, and after that, he would speak to James no more.
“I do not mind that you are seeking the advice of others,” Hawthorne said, cornering James later that evening. “In fact, I think it is a good idea. Diverse experiences can lead to diverse abilities. But you must be careful not to learn from the wrong magician. That way trouble lies.”
“You think Willis was an evil wizard?” James asked. “Oh! Well, that does explain the way he kept on looking at me, like he wanted to gobble me up.”
“The fact of the matter is,” James said darkly, “if you do not teach me what I want to know, then you can only blame yourself for what becomes of me.”
“You are a grown man,” Hawthorne said in affront. “You must take responsibility for your own actions. On that subject, let me say that I do not understand your sudden desire to learn war magic, as the closest you will ever approach the battlefield is some misguided magicians’ duel.”
“I do wish to duel,” James said. “And you coddle me if you think there is no possible situation in which it may ever be useful to learn how to take down another magician. Is this another instance of your soft heart?”
Hawthorne swelled like steam in a teacup. “Very well,” he said, the pulse at his jaw throbbing as he clenched it. “If you truly desire to learn how to duel, I shall find you the proper teacher. There must be at least one magician in the Royal Society willing to come to Leicestershire for a few afternoons’ worth of lessons.”
“You will not teach me yourself?”
“That would be the folly of follies,” Hawthorne said.
A fortnight later, Hawthorne stared glumly at the wall and remarked, “Apparently there is no magician in the Royal Society willing to come to Leicestershire.” James did his best not to laugh, for while Hawthorne was possessed of fine cerebral faculties, it had never occurred to him that all this while James had been hiding his correspondence. Hawthorne rolled up his sleeves and ran his hands through his hair. “I did not want it to come to this,” he said. “Stand up. Spread your feet a sturdy amount of distance.”
“Should I spread my legs as well?” James asked.
“What — oh, stop it, James, now is not the time,” Hawthorne said. “The first rule of a magician’s duel, or any duel for that matter, is that you must be watchful. We have been honing your senses all these years. Well, use that now. Look, listen, smell, touch. You must be as the elements are: completely willing to change.” He studied James’ stance critically, and then nodded. “I am going to shoot a bit of fire at you now. Be prepared.”
Anticipation raced along the pores of James’ skin. Hawthorne lifted his arm, and when the tendril of fire came dancing along (not very fast, James noted, not very fast at all), James made it evaporate before it touched him.
“Yes, well, that is the gist of it,” Hawthorne said. “You know how to be on the offensive, and with some practice, you will learn how to mount a passable defense as well. You are not taking down the other magician, not like in a dirty brawl. You are taking down the other magicians’ spells.”
“Then, when he is distracted, I can pull out my pistol and shoot him,” James said.
“That is not quite sportsmanlike,” Hawthorne frowned. “If it is your strategy, I daresay I disapprove. There shall be some magicians you cannot hope to shoot at all.” When James began to protest the slight on his abilities, Hawthorne continued. “It has nothing to do with your amount of skill. I am saying that there are some magicians whose blood makes them more in tune with magic than someone like you could ever be.”
“I am fey-touched,” James said. “I am deathless. What could be more agreeable to magic than that?”
“You are not using your head,” Hawthorne said. “Among humans, yes, your skill, once mastered, will be fearsome to behold. But do you think you can stand up to a fairy? Or even a half-fairy? You will fall to paper at their hands.”
“I was under the impression that fairies could not have children,” James said. “There are no such thing as half-fairies.”
“Oh yes,” Hawthorne muttered, “there are.”
“Another piece of knowledge you have withheld from me, I see,” James said.
“I have withheld it from you because there is no reason for you to ever know about half-fairies,” Hawthorne said, his voice growing strangled. James watched him carefully then, and knew that they were about to embark on a chapter that could never be undone. So Hawthorne was deathless, and mayhap something else altogether. “Half-fairies are wretched beings, not worth a single jot of your attention. They cannot die, and yet everything they touch turns to ruin. They wander the Earth lonely and afraid and malicious, and it is good fortune you have never encountered a half-fairy, because you would not survive the experience. They would eat your heart and then cry over your bones.”
“You speak as if you know,” James taunted. “Your Lucas Madrigal, he was a half-fairy then? Did he eat your heart?”
“He was not a half-fairy,” Hawthorne snapped, “and you will not insult his memory by saying that he was so.”
“Are you certain that he was not?” James said, smiling now in a dangerous way. “You seem awfully worked up about this issue. I cannot help but think that there must be a half-fairy in your past, to have wronged you in such a manner that you cannot speak of them without having an apoplexy.”
“I am not having an apoplexy!” Hawthorne said. “I am speaking to you calmly and rationally, trying to drum some sense into your fool head!”
“Which half was the fairy half?” James wondered. “Did his fairy father fuck his mother, or did his fairy mother fuck his father? I do not suppose you ever asked him?”
“If you know what is good for you…”
“Taking a fairy to bed must be quite the experience. Did you ever lick his ear? Or spread his cheeks and fuck his tight fairy arse–” James was thrown back by a sudden invisible force that lifted his feet and slammed him into the wall. His head hit the edge of a painting, and then Hawthorne was before him, horrified.
“James, James, I am sorry, I did not mean to–”
James threw his power at Hawthorne, and it said much for what sort of magician Hawthorne actually was that even while he looked shocked and dismayed, James’ power vanished before it could strike him. It did not seem like Hawthorne had put any effort into dispersing James’ spell, more as if his mere presence made the magic falter, that a blink was sufficient in undoing it. Hawthorne croaked his name, his eyes white with shame, and James struck at him again, but the spell met the same futile end as its predecessor. Hawthorne took a step forward, and then James called lightning to his palms.
“What will happen if I throw this at you?” James demanded.
“Let us calm down, let us discuss this reasonably,” Hawthorne pleaded.
“What will happen if I throw this at you?”
“Nothing,” Hawthorne said. James stared at him piercingly, and Hawthorne shuddered at the weight of it. His knees trembled. “Nothing. I will block it. I will block all your attacks. You are right. I have lied to you. I have lied to your family. I am a thief and a coward and death to everything that I love. Lucas was not the half-fairy. It was me. It was me.” He made a shrill sobbing sound in his throat, and James melted the lightning away.
“I did not mean…” He hesitated, discomfited by Hawthorne’s wretchedness. “I did not mean to cause you anguish. I only wanted to know if you could be trusted.”
Hawthorne gasped for air. “Well, now you know that I cannot,” he said. “You must be very satisfied with yourself. Congratulations. You are a Witchfinder Extraordinary. Please excuse me. There is so much to do… I must pack… I tender my resignation…” He stumbled in the other direction, and James wished to grab him by the elbow and slow him down. However, the instant he attempted to do so, Hawthorne looked down at the juncture where their bodies met, and he shook his head. “No, you have done enough,” he said. He took one step. Two steps. He vanished. It was no mere invisibility spell, for the ink-and-clove scent vanished as well. Hawthorn was simply no longer there.
That was magic the British Empire would sell its teeth for.
“I do not want you to resign,” James said to the closed door of Hawthorne’s room. “In fact, I refuse to accept it.” He tested the knob and was startled to find that the door was unlocked. He entered the room to find Hawthorne, not in the midst of packing or writing his resignation as he had expected, but lying on his bed with his hands folded over his stomach.
“I grow weary of these games with you,” Hawthorne said, staring at the ceiling. “You make me act like a high-strung soprano. I had thought, when I came to Milborrow Court, to find some measure of peace. Your uncle was the only employer who did not ask for references.”
“Happy to foist me on any poor bastard,” James remarked.
“I did not know you were deathless until my contract was already drawn,” Hawthorne continued in that same empty voice, like a rock squeezed of its insides. “My goal was to find a biddable pupil and live a quiet, unremarkable life in the countryside where none of my relatives could find me. When I got you instead, and you most certainly were not biddable, I wanted to leave. But then I thought of the responsibility I had, for who would guide you properly if I abandoned you?”
James said nothing, but there was a chair by Hawthorne’s bed. He took his seat.
“I failed,” Hawthorne said bleakly. “You remain incorrigible despite my best efforts, incorrigible and desirable, and you force me to reveal my secrets. What is there left for me now?” He turned to look at James. “Do you wish to bed me? Fine, I am willing.”
“This is not precisely the passionate encounter I had envisioned,” James said wryly. “I imagined more tearing of shirts and declarations of lust.” He balanced his elbow on his knee, and his chin on his elbow. “I have traveled to the Room of Lost Memories, and I have seen where the fairies have hidden my death. It is in the twilight borderlands. Down a river, past a feast, and through a forest. What I want from you, my dear Hawthorne, is nothing so complicated. I simply want you to tell me what I can expect if I should go after it.”
“You should not go after it at all,” Hawthorne said.
“As Lucas Madrigal did,” James said, and did not mean to be petty, but it needed to be said before Hawthorne could clam up again and leave him in ignorance.
“Lucas.” Hawthorne cast his gaze to nothing in particular. “He was deathless like you, and he was my dearest friend. I loved him, though the sentiment was not returned. He preferred women. It did not matter. I was happy to be his faithful companion. When he told me he had discovered where his death was hidden, I was happy to aid him in his quest.”
“We came to a mountain, and then a sea, and then a field,” Hawthorne said. “Then we were beset. I managed to flee. He did not.”
“He died then?” James asked.
“Have I taught you nothing?” Hawthorne said. “The deathless cannot die. The field is there still, save now there is a pyre in the centre of it, and Lucas in the centre of the pyre. He burns. His flesh blackens and melts, his insides shrivel. He does not die.”
James licked his dry lips.
“I could not save him,” Hawthorne said. “Craven that I am, I could not save him, and I cannot save him even now. But I can save Allegra, and I can save Mark Sampson, and I can save you.” He sat up abruptly and reached for James’ hands, cradling them between his own. “You think you suffer now, but you do not feel a quarter of it. I know that it is difficult. I hurt and shiver alongside you. My death was taken from me as well, moments after my birth. But I know better than to go hunting for it.”
“Where were you born?” James asked quietly. “In France?”
“Hardly,” Hawthorne said. “I was born in Fairy. My father is the Duke of Forget-Me-Not.”
“So all this time, I have been flirting with a fairy lord?” James said. “This will be quite the tidbit to feed the ladies of my sewing circle.”
“Do not make a joke of it,” Hawthorne said, but James gently extracted his hands and rose to his feet.
“I am glad that you have shared your knowledge with me,” James said. “I am moved by your consideration and by the affection you bear me, which I do not deserve. But I am not afraid.”
“You should be,” Hawthorne murmured. James thought of what he should have been: an airy gentlemen without a care in the world, a boy cherished by his parents, a fellow able to drink and eat and have a decent night’s sleep, a husband who did not fear that he would one day outlive every person that he loved. He felt grief for the end of the child he had been, and with that grief was stitched hope for the man he could yet be.
“You said yourself that we must change as the elements do,” James said. “The difference is that I choose change rather than wait to have it thrust upon me. Goodbye, Hawthorne. Thank you for your years of friendship. I must go now.”
His aunt did not comprehend why James passed her a bundle of letters wrapped in ribbon and told her that they were meant for various personages should anything happen to him. Nor did she understand why he gazed at her and then kissed the top of her head, soft and uncharacteristically vulnerable. “Now, James, you are acting silly,” Mrs. Milborrow said, but her nephew slid her an enigmatic smile before reminding her just who the letters were meant for. One for his parents, one for Hawthorne, one for her, and another for Dr. Carrington in London. “To tell him what I think of his theories in his latest publication,” James said innocently.
“You are not planning on doing anything exceedingly foolish, are you?” she asked.
“Not exceedingly foolish. Only minutely, I should think,” James replied, and was saved from further clarification by cousin Fanny shrieking at the sight of a rodent running over her foot.
After he had settled his affairs, it was merely a matter of waiting. The only known record of someone successfully entering Fairy of her own volition was Maria Danton, who had penned her deathbed autobiography with the memory that I went through the reflection of a full moon in a mirror. There was time yet before the moon was round in the sky, which was fortunate as it gave James opportunity to prepare. He said his goodbyes, though most did not know them for what they were, and he packed a sackcloth bag with walnut bread, light cheese, a canteen of boiled water, an iron knife, and matches.
Hawthorne avoided him for most of the days, and James had to confess his relief at that. He did not know what more he could say to Hawthorne that would not cause them to rehash their old argument, and he did not want to leave him with bitterness where cordial respect might be instead. Hawthorne had fairy blood and was tormented by it, and therefore was not what James had thought he was. But then again, James was not what Hawthorne had thought he would be either. Surprises and surprises again.
Around three o’clockish in the morning on a Thursday in April, James Wellesley hauled a full-length mirror out to the gardens of Milborrow Court, where he positioned it to best capture the reflection of the moonlight. Then he prepared to step through the threshold.
Nothing happened. The mirror remained solid and unyielding, and James had a bruised nose for his efforts.
“What the bloody Hell,” James said.
“It is not the right sort of mirror,” Hawthorne said from behind him. “Nor the right sort of moonlight.”
“You could have warned me ahead of time,” James contrived to complain. “It would have saved me the effort of dragging the heavy mirror on my back, and now I shall have to drag it back before Lizzie notices it missing.”
But Hawthorne’s countenance was very serious and somber. “Is there no way for me to change your mind?” he asked.
“None,” James said.
Hawthorne sighed with the long-suffering air of a martyr. “Then take my hand,” he said, and proceeded to grasp James’ right hand before James could act or give consent. His fingers were long and slim, bending like willow trees.
“What is this?” James asked.
“I can hardly let you traipse through Fairy on your own,” Hawthorne said. “You will do something utterly stupid and then your aunt will cry, and if you are gone I shall have to find employment elsewhere, and it is all such a nuisance that I had better come with you, just to make sure you do it right.”
A smile curled the edge of James’ mouth. “Will the mirror work now that you are here?”
“Fairy is my birthright. I need no mirrors,” Hawthorne said, and he squeezed James’ hand tight.
The world tilted. Spun. Set itself right again. Then there were two moons in the sky, and an eel-like silvering light that was unlike anything James had ever seen before. The air was very still and very cool, almost subterranean in its silence. James took a breath and found that it was difficult but not impossible, while Hawthorne waited for him patiently. Hawthorne, damn him, seemed completely unaffected, and looked about them with a weary sort of familiarity. “Are you certain that your death lies in the borderlands?” he said, speaking of the shimmering counties that separated England from Fairy proper, the bridges upon which magic waned and waxed.
“Yes,” James said. “When the fairies took me, they did not take me further than this.”
“Good,” Hawthorne said. “It shall be easier if we do not have to go into the heart of Fairy. The borderlands are tamer. Comparatively so,” he added. “Be on your guard and keep your knife at your side always.”
“Imagine if fairies had no weaknesses at all,” James said. “What a terrifying world that would be.” He clutched his knife as Hawthorne sniffed the air.
“A river, you say?”
“A river,” James confirmed.
“This way then,” Hawthorne said, and James was content to be led along by an expert. The grass was cool and frost-tipped beneath their feet, and there were roads with signage, but Hawthorne avoided them deftly, leading James through ditches and banks and small groves where the trees blotted out the moons and there was precious little light. He could not be sure of where they were going anymore. He summoned his witchlights, but Hawthorne shook his head. “Conserve your talents,” he suggested. If you should need it later, he did not say.
He followed Hawthorne’s breathing in the darkness until they came to a boat tied to a dock. “Well,” Hawthorne said, “I suppose that is as clear a sign as anything we can hope for.” He gingerly boarded the boat while James stood on the docks, unsure.
“What is it?” Hawthorne asked.
“We are in Fairy borderlands, and you choose to climb onto unfamiliar crafts?” James pointed out.
“Fairy knows that we are here,” Hawthorne said. “Fairy molds itself to every traveler. If there is a boat, then it is meant for us.”
“Yes, and what if it is meant to carry us into the hands of our enemies?”
Hawthorne gave James a look as if he pitied him, and anger jumped into James’ throat. “I know you do not trust me,” Hawthorne said, “but I am in this with you. Whatever happens to you shall happen to me as well. Now get onto the bloody boat before I drag you on.”
“You are somewhat less attractive when you are bossy,” James said, but he climbed onto the boat and clutched its sides as it began to move. There was no rowing crew, but the boat glided through the glimmering tar-slick water of its own accord. The journey was so smooth as to be unnatural. James sat at the port of the boat and leaned his head against the side, watching as the river remained unchanging but the landscape less so, trees and hedges and thorn trees passing them by.
Hawthorne was quiet for a long time, before he pointed to the distance and said, “Look.”
There was a wooden gate that spanned the breadth of the river. James shivered as the boat approached it and the gate was closed, barring the rest of their way downriver. A slip of paper dangled from the hinge of the gate, above surface level, tied to the wood by a thin red thread. James grasped the paper as the hull of the boat bumped the gate. He yanked it off and unfolded it.
Your eye colour, it said.
“This is the River of Sacrifices,” Hawthorne said regretfully. “You must make a sacrifice in order to pass.”
“My eye colour is not so great a sacrifice,” James said. “I never liked its particular shade of blue anyway.”
The gate opened.
James swallowed. “What do my eyes look like now?” he asked.
“Your irises are become as black as your pupils.” Hawthorne tilted his head and attempted to offer a smile. “It looks fetching. It gives you an air of sinfulness, though I daresay you possessed that in spades already.”
The second gate said, A secret.
“If you sacrifice this, it means that everybody shall know your secret,” Hawthorne said. “It shall no longer be yours.”
“After a lifetime of ensuring nobody knows the least meaningful thing about me,” James said. “This does seem a very well-chosen sort of sacrifice.” He picked a patch of cracked skin off his fingers before looking up at the gate. “Damn you. All right. If my father and mother were to welcome me home right now, I would gladly go. If they would only let me, I would beg for the opportunity.” His ears burned at the shameful admission.
A stillness like a suicide, and then the gate parted.
James feared what the third gate would be. He fixed his gaze steadfastly forward and settled into himself like a statue, ignoring Hawthorne’s concerned glances in his direction. The boat moved slowly to the third gate, and James’ hand shook as he pulled the paper off the hinge. The following words: love, friend, home. James reminded himself that these were not terrible losses after all. What did it matter if he could never say ‘love’ anymore? That was what synonyms were for. I like you greatly, he thought, testing it on his tongue. I am full of passion for you. You are my most precious. That was not so terrible, was it? At least the river was not asking him for his limbs, his memories, or his magic.
Yet his reflection in the water when it was over had the feverish tint of a consumptive. Hawthorne leaned over his shoulder. “It is done,” he said. “You were brave. There are only three gates. Now we move on to the feast.” James swallowed the ball in his throat and nodded.
The feast waited for him on a banquet table with three legs. There were bowls and plates and pitchers of ice water, and there was bone. Small finger bones on delicate platters, larger thigh bones on gilded trays, bones that were so tiny they could only belong to children, bones large enough that they must have been the skeletons of giants. There was a sugar bowl, and when James lifted its lid, he saw that inside there were teeth. The Feast of Teeth and Bone, he thought, and he was sick to his stomach at the knowledge that he would have to eat all of it.
Hawthorne pulled out his chair for him, and James did not even have the wherewithal to mock him for it. He sat at the table, looking for fork and knife. He found the knife easily enough, but there was no fork or spoon. “Take your time,” Hawthorne said. “Time passes differently in Fairy than it does outside.” He meant it as a kindness, but it made James choke, for he realized that he could be here for years and years, trying to eat all the bone. He picked up a length of vertebrae, ambitious enough to start with a larger morsel, and cut it into eight fragments. He picked up the largest portion and bit down, feeling the dry bone crumble in his mouth. He ate. When he finished the vertebrae, he moved on to a skull, and then after that, he nibbled on the teeth. He ate until his stomach turned, and then he retched onto the ground, and then he drank water, and then he ate some more.
Sweat beaded his hair from his crown to the nape of his neck. The moons rode in chariots across the endless night sky. He could hear Hawthorne beside him, murmuring encouragement, but James barely registered his presence. He only remembered him truly when he threw up for the last time, spilling the contents of his stomach onto the needled grass, wet at first and then he was heaving scarce more than air.
Only the forest remained, a crescent scimitar arc of snow and solstice, the night as long as sainthood. Pine and spruce fought the hard, packed ground, and there was a third moon now to join her sisters in reveling at James’ misery. It was cold, so cold, and James saw his folly now in not bringing a thicker coat or even furs. He yearned for a thick, oily set of furs to wrap around his trembling shoulders as he watched his breath puff in the frigid air. He could still taste the bone dust in his mouth, behind his teeth and deep underneath his tongue. He might have heaved again if there was anything left in his belly to heave. As it was, he slid forward and touched his burning forehead to the skin of a rough, forbidding tree. Snow shook off the branches and onto his hair.
“Are you… can you go on?” Hawthorne asked.
“Do not worry on my account,” James said. “I have not come all this way to be waylaid by fever and stomach pains.” He grimaced. “What is this, then?”
“The Fox Hunt,” Hawthorne said softly.
James breathed in the thin, painful air. “My death is near,” he said. “That much I know. Come. Let us be done with this.”
“You were the one who professed himself eager for this little excursion,” Hawthorne replied, but he followed James into the depths of the woods, where it was cool and silent, each movement of the trees a mystery never to be solved. James kept his wits about him, searching his path for any sign of a foxhole. He spied one about a furlong in, and he fell clumsily to his knees, cursing that he did not have his uncle’s pack of hounds with him.
“How am I supposed to catch a fox, with a knife and my bare hands?” he said.
“I imagine so,” Hawthorne said. “That, and you are a magician. You would not be much of one if you could not devise a tolerably cunning plan.” He watched a shadow pass through the grove, as slick as wine. “I envy you, you know. At least you have a hope of finding your death. Mine is too far out of my reach.”
“How can you say that,” said James, digging, “if you do not know where it is?”
“I do know where it is,” Hawthorne said. “My father keeps it in his piano room, in a little music box that he brings out only for special occasions.” His expression became impassive. “You only have to face gates and bones and foxes. I have to defeat the Duke of Forget-Me-Not.”
James turned his head and met Hawthorne’s gaze unblinkingly. He did not know what paltry comfort he could offer, and so settled for offering none. Hawthorne turned away after a long while and fingered the cross underneath his shirt. James returned to digging into the foxhole, only to find it empty. Well, of course. If there had been a fox inside, he would have no doubt detected its movements already. His only hope was that it had been slumbering, but it did not seem likely that Fairy would make the Fox Hunt such an effortless prize, not like when he was fifteen and won a Latin grammar competition at Eton because he had been the boy with the best head for irregular verbs.
“Onwards and onwards,” James said, struggling to his feet. He could not be sure how large the forest was. As large as it needed to be, he supposed, as unfathomable as an ancient temple, and in its heart the Holy of Holies. He rubbed his stiffening fingers over his eyes, trying to wake himself up. Of all the times to find falling asleep easy!
He searched for an hour, perhaps two, or perhaps a month. His body grew sluggishly limpid and his eyelids developed an instinct of their own. He found himself sleeping at one point, and it was only when Hawthorne pinched his arm that he woke, screaming profanities. He struggled against Hawthorne, kicking him, until Hawthorne shook him hard and said, “Get yourself together! Now is not the time to fall into fairy illusions!”
“Is this all an illusion, do you think?” James panted, staring at the bruises he had left on Hawthorne’s neck. “Do you think that if I were to concentrate hard enough, we would suddenly find ourselves in Milborrow Court, tripping over Fanny’s old rocking horse?”
“Is there a difference between suffering by an illusion and suffering by physical impetus?” Hawthorne responded. “I do not think so. Get up. You are too heavy for me to carry, even should I want to.”
“Cruel, cruel prince,” said James, but he found it within himself to stay awake and continue hunting. When he finally saw the fox, it was as if he had been plunged onto a crucifix, his hands and feet nailed to wood. Pressure built behind his eyes, his nose, his mouth. He blinked, and then blinked again, not quite able to believe that fatigue was not affecting his vision. Then, with a burst of speed that he did not know he possessed, James started running. The fox looked up and darted to the left, but James lunged, throwing his whole body to the floor without consideration for aches and pains. His knees smashed the dirt and his elbow cracked painfully. His hands touched fur, and then cradled air.
James was not a hunter. Left to his own machinations, he would never join his uncle’s field parties at all. He would prefer to stay indoors, turn conversation, and watch the men exert themselves to red faces and sweaty mustaches from an aloof distance. However, chasing after the fox, he felt some hidden recess of his body come alive, some secret joint of his knees, some previously unknown talent. He would have called it magic, but he would have also termed it life. He felt alive, suddenly, and so it did not matter that he hurt everywhere and that his skin was a palimpsest of cuts and bruises. A branch snapped into his face so roughly that he tasted blood, and it only served to thrill him more.
Hawthorne kept pace with him, and then said, “There is someone else in the forest.” James wheeled to a stop. Hawthorne spoke again. “Let me take care of it.”
James thought, burning, pyre, undying. A measure of his mind must have been apparent in his lightless eyes, as Hawthorne smiled slightly. James saw that there were holes in the tips of Hawthorne’s gloves, and that somewhere between the feast and the forest, a patch had been torn from his coat, leaving it shabbier than ever. “Are you worried for me?” Hawthorne asked in low, intimate tones.
James considered his answer, remembering the prickliness of his forbidden words. “Yes,” he confessed at last, and Hawthorne looked yearning before he turned away and tugged his gloves more firmly over his hands.
“I go,” he said. He blinked out of existence. James wondered if he would ever grow used to the eerie sight, but he moved on, aware that he was alone now. The woods took on a whispering sibilance, and he tasted salt.
The knife, he thought, fingering its rough edge. Then he took off in the forest towards the direction the fox had streaked. He ran until he felt his battered body could take no more, and then he reminded himself that he was a magician, and he ran some more. His blood ran summer rich with magic, pushing his legs beyond durance and with a speed he had never hitherto possessed. And there, there it was, the fox was on the edge of the copse, where the evergreen thicket flourished with icy heather. The fox stopped and sniffed the air. James steadied the knife.
He summoned a silvery net, swimming with moonlight. The fox jumped to flee again, but James cast the net quickly, and his pulse leaped as he saw the fox fall. The net pinned the fox to the forest floor, where it struggled but could not free itself. “My prey,” James whispered between bloody lips, and he sank his knife into the fox’s belly.
There was a hellish screech. The fox squirmed as James yanked the knife from the tip of its belly to the stern, cutting flesh and tendon. James’ breathing took on a staggered quality when he saw the gleam of the glass vial inside the fox’s innards. He reached for the vial through the warm morass of guts–
–and the fox was Hawthorne, lying beneath the net, with an open wound.
“No, no, no, no,” gasped James, pulling his hand back in terror. Hawthorne’s sweat slicked his hair to his temples, and he was panting, breathing shallowly, trying to contain the pain of the violent slash James had just made in his stomach. James could see the red shine of his organs, his coiling intestines. The sight let him know that his body had not released all that it could, for he crawled to the side and retched again, acrid and afraid, while Hawthorne lay bleeding in the snow.
“This is an illusion,” James said. “Tell me this is an illusion.”
“It hurts,” Hawthorne said. “Oh God, it hurts.”
“You need to be healed!” James said, voice rising in panic. He was such a fool, always thinking of himself, that he had never even considered learning medical magic for another person’s sake. He put his hands over Hawthorne’s wound, trying to staunch the flow of blood, but it only made Hawthorne’s eyes roll to the back of his head.
“Quickly,” Hawthorne said. “The vial is inside me. I feel it! Quickly!”
The vial was buried too deep. James could only ascertain a glimpse of it, half buried beneath a fleshy piece of Hawthorne’s interior, and to fetch it would mean to dig his fingers back inside. His hesitance made Hawthorne jerk upwards, grasping his arm with surprising strength for a man nearly eviscerated. “I cannot die, I will not die of this,” he said between clenched teeth. “This is what you want so badly. Take it.”
The salt taste returned to James, and he understood now that it was grief. With Hawthorne’s wild eyes watching him, he curled his fingers back inside the gaping wound, tears wetting a mask on his face as he fumbled without grace. Hawthorne cried out, and then he screamed, and James felt his throat rip apart in a sob when his fingers finally pried the vial from its hiding space behind Hawthorne’s liver. He dropped it once, and then for a second time, and it was only a very lucky coincidence of reflex that he was able to pick it up for the third time and pop out the stopper. He knocked back the contents of the vial, and salt was replaced by a bitterness so tremendous that James began to choke. His arms wrapped around Hawthorne, fish-slippery with blood, and he held him tight, choking and dying there in the heart of the forest.
The Grimshaw Inn stood at the ephemeral boundary between England and Fairy, and could be accessed by denizens of either realm, thus was the reason why there was an eclectic mix of fairies and humans downstairs in the tavern, where the innkeeper had sunset hair and stringent wards to keep anyone from skipping out on their tab. James had had no coin on him as such when he had hauled Hawthorne past the threshold and upstairs to one of the vacant rooms, but the innkeeper caressed a lock of James’ dirty hair and whispered, “I shall come and collect later, sweet boy” in a voice that had too many edges.
James agreed. He did not care. He laid an unconscious Hawthorne on the single bed and then watched him from one moon to the next (for such was the way time passed in the ubiquitous night-time of Fairy — one measured time by blood moons or crow moons). Having never seen another deathless conquer death, he had not realized how gruesome the self-repairing process was. Hawthorne’s body stitched itself back together messily, nonsensically, and it was only when the skin settled into some semblance of calm that James saw the process had gone well, leaving only a burnished scar bisecting Hawthorne’s bare stomach.
Hawthorne woke, grasping at nothing. “Father!” he said. His fingernails began digging into the wall at his side, breaking the nails into nubs.
James rushed over and tugged at his wrists before more damage could ensue. “No, it is only me,” he said, making smoothing motions meant to calm a rabid animal. “You are safe now. I will kill anyone who dares harm you.”
His voice composed Hawthorne, and soon enough Hawthorne was examining his scar and then looking up at James, who retreated unobtrusively to the door. “You drank your death then?” he asked. “You are mortal now?”
“I suppose I must be,” said James. “There was a humming sensation under my skin for a few good hours after the forest. It is gone now, or mayhap I have simply grown used to it. Also, I heard music on my way in and found it lovely.”
“Yes, I think you are mortal,” Hawthorne said. “You have never been more beautiful than you are in this moment, and you have always been distressingly beautiful.”
James’ lips parted involuntarily.
“No saucy remarks?” Hawthorne said, colouring.
“You are hurt, and I am tired,” James said, though the reasons ran more deeply than that. It did not seem right anymore to treat Hawthorne the way he used to. The very thought of it made him feel shame, more acute than the piecemeal imitation he had ever felt while deathless. He looked towards the crackling fireplace of the inn’s best room. The embers were wonderfully warm against his cheeks, the first time he had felt them in seventeen years. Then he glanced back at Hawthorne, alive and solid, and so inexplicably wrought with meaning that it made the scars on James’ wrist ache. “I believe you have earned the privilege of being accorded dignity,” James said.
“It was not for dignity that I did any of it,” Hawthorne said.
“Are you hungry?” James interrupted. “I know that whatever I bring shall taste like manure to you, but your body does need nourishment, and I…” His mouth moved in a ghostly paroxysm of a smile. “I am curious to remember what porridge tastes like.”
Hawthorne gave indication that porridge was acceptable, and James went downstairs to fetch two bowls from the innkeeper. He returned with both of them balanced precariously in his hands, his movements much less fluid now that he had his death again. He did not spill any, despite a wavering that indicated near miss, and Hawthorne accepted his bowl graciously, managing a few mouthfuls before setting it aside. James spooned his own portion cautiously.
“What happened in the forest?” James asked. “How did you become the fox?”
“It happened quickly,” Hawthorne explained. “I sensed a presence in the woods, so I followed her. She was… I believe she was a guardian of some sort, not human and not fey either. A construct, likely ancient. The moment I reached for her, there was thunder, and I was knocked flat on my back, waking up to the sight and pain of you.”
“The pain of me,” James said sardonically. “You would not be the first to claim that, though you may be the most worthy.”
Hawthorne watched him stir his porridge. “Is it good?” he asked him after the first bite.
“Rather wonderful,” James said, and his smile was no longer ghostly at all.
“James, I do not know what has happened, but it seems as if your appetite has increased tenfold in the past fortnight,” Mrs. Milborrow said, watching him devour his suet pudding. “I must admit that I am glad. I did not think your limited appetite quite natural before.”
His tongue darted out to lick a drop of pudding at the corner of his mouth. “It is as if the world is altered,” he agreed solemnly, and she stared solemnly back in a moment that may have indicated understanding, or may have indicated veritably nothing of importance.
“I am glad,” she repeated.
“May I have more pudding?” James asked.
This was his world now. Pudding, and sunshine, and sparrows in the meadow, and Lizzie playing on the pianoforte, and a paper cut that had startled him with how much it hurt. His body did not feel alien to him, but instead appeared to call upon a memory, as if he had returned to an old home and found it in tip-top shape, having waited for him all the while. He set up residence inside himself for the first time, and though he was reluctant to call his new-found sentiment peace, it had the potential to one day approximate it. He wrote a letter to Allegra Fondant, and to Mark Sampson, and then to his parents, saying, Yes, it is true, but just because I love you does not mean I forgive you.
“I feel that bringing you to Fairy was a bit much,” Hawthorne said. “It is as if I have already proctored to you the final examination. I am not sure what I should be teaching you from now on.”
James looked up lazily from the window. “Teach me medicine,” he said. “Teach me quickness, teach me kindness. Teach me to be a good person.”
“Yes, you remind me of my original ambitions,” Hawthorne said ruefully. “Perhaps it was hypocritical of me to have tried to encourage goodness in you, when I have struggled so long with it myself.”
“You are an astoundingly decent person,” James said. “If you have struggled, it does not show.”
“Of course it shows,” Hawthorne said. “It shows in the very fact that I could pass for an ordinary human for so long, I fooled even you. It shows in that I was able to gain your family’s respect. It shows in that generally, when provoked, I have not resorted to violence or murder or fey cruelty.” He grimaced. “Pardoning the occasion when I attacked you. I am so very sorry for that. It was one of the few moments I allowed myself to be overtaken by my essential nature.”
“Being angry does not make you less human,” James observed. “You are too hard on yourself.”
“You mean that I am pitiable,” Hawthorne corrected. He tapped his fingers on the surface of the escritoire, and James saw the map of ink smears on the tips. Longing filled him. “I did not think it in the beginning, but watching you go after your death, seeing your remarkable bravery… it has only served to remind me of how yellow-bellied I am. Believing that if I simply stayed hidden from my father, I could learn to be happy. Now I see that happiness lies in action, not passivity. I must forge my own joy. I cannot expect it to fall in my lap, and I cannot expect others to love me when I cannot love myself.”
“L—” James straightened around the taboo word. “That sentiment in question is so valuable to you?”
“Yes,” said Hawthorne, and James thought of a number of responses in the span of a minute, but none of them seemed sufficient. “I think,” Hawthorne said after an even greater span of time, when dust motes fell obliquely into his hair, “I think it is time for me to go hunting.”
“Your father,” said James.
“Has benefited from my cowardice for too long,” Hawthorne finished. “And as of late, he is not what he used to be. His court is crumbling, his grasp on Forget-Me-Not slipping. I may stand a chance of thwarting him. I must also… I must rescue Lucas.”
“Naturally,” James said, realizing this for what it was: his first test of altruism, for he could not hear Lucas’ name without wanting to tear it apart and scrub Hawthorne’s mouth of it. He had done not a single good favour to earn Hawthorne’s approval, and so this was the price. This was the justice parceled out from his prior endeavours, and while fairies cared naught for justice, humanity did. “I will lend you every aid that is possible. You need only ask.”
Another month passed, and they spoke no more of Hawthorne’s death. A second month followed on the heels of the first, and May crept crisp and clean into the eaves of Milborrow Court. It was nearly possible to forget their prior conversation, but James never did. Even as Hawthorne continued to act as he always had, furthering their lessons with an advanced study of physician technique, a restless mood was borne between them, by which James knew that Hawthorne was bidding his time to leave.
It came to a head on a full moon night, when James was woken from his blessedly deep sleep by a person entering his room and kneeling by his bed. That the door was locked alerted him as to the identity of the intruder. Locks might halt burglars and overly amorous house guests, but they were as will-o’-the-wisps to Hawthorne.
“I apologize for my rude entry,” Hawthorne said immediately, “but I need to inform you. I am leaving tonight.”
James relinquished his supine position, letting the blankets pool around his hips. “Why tonight?” he asked, and did not enjoy the way his voice went scratchy, betraying his emotions.
“Several reasons, mostly to do with court politics, too complicated to explain. A raven came for me from Night’s Dreaming,” Hawthorne said. He looked at James with eyes half hidden in the shadows of the room; his grey pupils were as almost as dark as James’ after the first river gate. “I wanted to say farewell before I left. I owe you as much.”
“Yes, well, goodbye then,” James said.
“Oh.” Hawthorne seemed disappointed. “Is that all?”
“I do not know what more you expect of me. Gunpowder and fireworks? A wrestling match with Jacob’s angel?” James traded scratchiness for his old mocking tone, and did not count it for the better, though he was fain unwilling to stop. “Or have you come for the tumble you never got?” He peered more keenly at Hawthorne’s face and saw the embarrassed but hopeful expression that Hawthorne tried to hide but was not quick enough for. “You have come for a tumble,” James said.
“I have never before — that is to say — most uncharacteristic — I seem to have taken leave of my senses.” Hawthorne began to pull away, but James was quick enough for the both of them, reaching out to clasp his fingers around Hawthorne’s wrists. He could feel his heartbeat there, the rush of blood. “I do not know how to do this,” Hawthorne said miserably.
“Like this,” James said, and he arched up against Hawthorne to kiss him.
Messiness and lack of coordination and Hawthorne’s fingers digging too tightly into his shoulders, and James knew that someday, if he should have the fortune to survive to be an old man, he would sit by the fire with his creaking joints and think of this. This singular moment when Hawthorne went lax against his body, allowing James to pull him down onto the bed and flip them over so that James straddled his hips. Hawthorne let him eagerly, gasping and melting into the long, long kiss, his pulse butterfly-fast in the loose line of his throat. James pressed his mouth to Hawthorne’s throat, nipping his teeth along the curve of the muscle, and Hawthorne made a sound like he was wounded.
“You do want this,” James marveled. He hoped that the smoothness of his tones concealed the quickening of his own heart. He could not stop touching Hawthorne, not even when it became paramount to divest them both of their clothing; he could not bear to let go long enough to undo the buttons of Hawthorne’s shirt, a dismal dilemma.
“I have always wanted this,” Hawthorne breathed. “I just did not think it would be wise –” His voice broke when James rubbed him through his trousers. “But I may never return.”
“We shall not speak of that,” James said, occupying Hawthorne’s mouth with a rough kiss. In this matter, he was the teacher and Hawthorne the pupil, and Hawthorne was astonishingly compliant, when previously James might have supposed that he would bristle at any subversion of his authority. It made James smile, and moreover it gave him the presence of mind to lean backwards at last and use the brief interlude of no-kisses to strip himself, and then relieve Hawthorne of of his shirt, vest, and trousers.
Then he was content to lean on one elbow and look his fill. Hawthorne’s chest was milky and freckled, his belly soft from spending too much time indoors with books. The ugly gutting scar split the valley of his skin. When Hawthorne remembered it, he squirmed uncomfortably and made to cover himself. James batted his hands away and lapped at the scar, tenderly, in case it was not fully healed. “Why the modesty? I am told that fairies frolic naked in sunbeams and rainbows,” he said. “This should be but second nature to you.”
“I am told that humans,” Hawthorne said crossly, “are ruled entirely by their lusts. What a shame that it is not true.”
James ground down. Hawthorne whimpered.
“Humans are dirty, perverted, dreadfully lustful creatures,” James agreed, arching his back and burying his hands in his own hair, allowing Hawthorne the full purvey of his bare body. “Given the right opportunity, we never think of anything but fucking.” He lowered his face towards Hawthorne’s and grinned, his eyes bright with amusement. “This human in particular is thinking a great deal right now. About fucking.”
Hawthorne swallowed. “Oh yes?”
James responded by sliding down Hawthorne’s torso and wrapping his tongue around his most impressive erection.
“I — I see what you mean,” Hawthorne stammered. “Perverse indeed.” The next movement of James’ talented tongue drove the ability of speech from him, and he groaned as he pushed his hips upwards, tentative at first and then more confidently when he saw that James derived as much enjoyment from the giving of pleasure as Hawthorne did from taking it. James teased with shallow, clever licks until Hawthorne threatened to go witless, and then James took him into his mouth proper. “Dear God!” Hawthorne cried, and that was the extent of his elegance once James began to bob up and down.
James peered up at Hawthorne, whose cheeks were alarmingly flushed and who gripped the tangled sheets until his knuckles were dove white. The sight of him, balanced on the knife’s edge of control, made James’ cock harden even further. James soon found himself rubbing against the mattress helplessly, unable to stop as he swallowed Hawthorne down, hoarding every private taste and intimate moan.
“James,” Hawthorne said, his head beginning to thrash against the goosedown pillow. “James, you must leave me be, I feel myself about to–” But James found even his carnal innocence heart-rending, and he lifted his head so that he could kiss Hawthorne’s inner thigh, licking the sweaty sheen.
“I do not mind,” he whispered, and then he took Hawthorne inside his mouth again and sucked him to completion, Hawthorne reaching climax with a strangled cry while James rode the mattress until it was sticky.
They lay together, panting, while James traced idle patterns on Hawthorne’s chest, waiting for him to climb down from the peak. When he did, James reared up to gaze properly at Hawthorne’s face, wondering what he would find there. Regret? Sympathy? Fear? He braced himself for all possibilities. But instead Hawthorne smiled, and then laughed, and James’ ribcage suddenly felt too small for his chest; it squeezed so hard.
A medical malady, he thought, a lingering effect of mortality. That must be why it hurt so much when the laughter faded and Hawthorne climbed out of bed to search for his clothes. “I should not tarry,” he said. “The horses are waiting.” James said nothing as he watched Hawthorne dress, and he continued to say nothing as Hawthorne made uneasy overtures at the door. He paused at the last moment, as if a tenet of his conviction was faltering, and turned back. His lips moved; James had the notion that Hawthorne desired to kiss him again. He waited for it, naked and guarded in the moonlight, but Hawthorne did not kiss him after all.
The entirety of Milborrow Court was convinced that a deed of James’ had driven Hawthorne off, despite Hawthorne’s foresight to leave a letter explaining plaintively that this was not so. In the letter, he made sure to praise James extensively, citing him to be the most talented young magician he had ever met. No mention then, of legs tangled and breaths mingled, not that it would have been proper to mention such in a missive to Mr. Milborrow. Nonetheless, James found himself disappointed, regretful that he had not bedded Hawthorne just the bit rougher. At least that way he would have bruises to remind him that it had not been a dream.
Life felt like a dream, slow and almost too rich, and dreaming felt like life. James walked through his mind’s house, dusting the spiderwebs as he went. The Room of Secret Pleasures opened to him, as did the Room of Unexpected Attachments. It was not that he could not occupy his time without Hawthorne’s lessons. He could occupy his time quite well, and did just so, riding and reading and even spending two weeks in the London Season, chaperoning his cousins while making sure to shock the beau monde with his black eyes and casual manners.
He met with Allegra Fondant once, twice, and saw how much gin she drank, even though it could not have been pleasant for her.
I have my life now, James thought. I do not need to be as she is. And if she regarded him with a mixture of envy and pity, he kindly pretended not to notice.
“It is peculiar,” he said to her one evening. “I feel like I am waiting for something. My death, obviously, now that my life has a clock attached to it. But not only that. I am constantly possessed by the sensation that I am standing on a curb, waiting for a hansom cab or some such to appear.”
“Is it not obvious?” Allegra said. “You are waiting for him.”
“He is not coming back,” James said harshly.
“You have such little faith in his abilities?”
“I do not mean to say that he will fail in his hunt,” James said. “I mean that I cannot be waiting for him, for even if he succeeds, I will not be what he returns to. He will come back triumphant with Lucas Madrigal in tow, and he will find some other satisfactory employment. Milborrow Court has nothing left to offer him. One day, we will cross each other’s path on a London street, and we shall tip our hats and smile politely, perhaps fondly. That is the extent of it.”
But Allegra laughed without making a sound. “So much knowledge of Fairy, and yet it is as if you have never heard a single fairy tale. You speak of action and forthrightness and making a mastery of life rather than life making a mastery of you. What are you sitting here for? Go after him.”
Could it be that easy? he wondered. No, it would not be easy at all. He would have to leave his —- (home, he whispered, he could still say it in his mind, home) behind. He would have to research the proper methods of entering Fairy. He would have to find Hawthorne, impossible task that might be, and then he would have to help him, and to not get himself killed in the process. There would be dangers, and enemies, and sacrifices in every river. James was mortal now, and could no longer afford to go running reckless into ambushes.
Every logical faculty told him it was a foolish idea, and yet he thought of Hawthorne, not as he had left him, nor even during the months leading to his departure, but as James had first seen him, glimpsed out of a window on a summer afternoon. Hawthorne walking up the path to his new position in Milborrow Court, bags in hand, pince-nez spectacles sliding hopelessly down his nose. He had stopped to adjust his spectacles, and James dwelled on that long buried memory: Hawthorne neat and put-together, eager to teach, lingering under the shade of a thorn tree.
This time, when he gave his aunt the parcel of letters wrapped in ribbon, she did not even ask why.
“Every brave traveler to Fairy knows that there is little constant in that strange, perfidious land, much less in its stories. At the Grimshaw Inn, one may hear travelers speak of a brace of English magicians seen wandering the wayward roads. It is possible, they say, to share a meal with the pair and listen to their stories, but it is equally possible to look at them askance and watch them vanish like birds. Others speak still of the downfall of the Duke of Forget-Me-Not at the hands of his halfbreed son, who assumed his throne, though some will claim that the treachery of Forget-Me-Not was wrought from the inside, not the outside, and that the duke’s son played no part. There are also those who tell the story of two graves, side by side, where the wind does not sing and the sun does not shine. They say this is a happy story, though I cannot account for it.”
— Dr. Richard Carrington, The Mythology of Fairy-Folk, second edition.