The Huntsmen: Chapter 20

“So let me get this bit straight,” Rafe said. He and Stephen were sitting in Casmin’s room, waiting for Edmund. “This Graves wants to be God?”

“No,” Stian said. “He wants to be a god. God is the creator of all things, the ultimate governor of the universe. A god is more like… a high ranking bureaucrat with extraordinary powers.”

Rafe raised an eyebrow. “Religious man, are you?”

“Try doing what I do for ten years and be otherwise,” said Stian. “The Church won’t have me for fairly obvious reasons but I refuse to let my relationship with God be defined by the problems I have with his staff.”

“Fair enough,” Rafe said.

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The Huntsmen: Chapter 19

Harrison had no idea how lucky he was.

 

Edmund had experienced by that point one of the worst days of his existence, one bordered by the deaths of loved ones and the day that Rafe had been sent away into the Navy. But whereas each of those previous days had provided moments of clarity, of purpose and definition, this one left him completely adrift.

 

It was not a condition that suited Edmund Greyson.

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The Huntsmen: Chapter 18

When Edmund returned at lunchtime, Casmin flagged him upstairs and into his room.

“What did you find?” He stopped short when he saw Willamina still studying the neckband, quietly talking to her twin. “I hope you haven’t been making a pest of yourself, Willamina.” She stood and blushed before stammering her apologies and leaving.

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The Huntsmen: Chapter 17

If the previous evening’s dinner had been tense, it was nothing compared to the discomfort of breakfast. Veronica wasn’t speaking to Willamina, who was silent and miserable. Rebecca and Lady Hughes felt mutually terrible about the entire situation and were friendly but deeply awkward. Stephen wasn’t speaking to Edmund, and Rafe quite frankly wasn’t thrilled with him either. Sir Thomas and Harrison were the only two who seemed unaffected, and they chatted amiably while the rest of the party glared.

Rafe ate as quickly as he could, then headed upstairs. He met the two mages on the landing, and said, “You don’t want to go down there.”

“That bad?” Casmin asked.

“I’ve been to more cheerful funerals. In fact I’ve been to at least one funeral where the corpse was in better humor.”

Stian grimaced. “Perhaps we’d best skip breakfast.”

“I’d recommend it,” Rafe said. “Look, can you do me a favor?”

Casmin nodded. “Of course.”

“Tell Edmund I need him to get Harrison out of the house for at least an hour.”

“I will,” Casmin said, “but why can’t you tell him?”

“Because any conversation I have with my brother today is going to start with the words ‘You arrogant, insensitive, prat’ and go downhill from there. This will save time.”

 

The message must have been successfully conveyed, because shortly after breakfast, Edmund, Harrison and Sir Thomas rode out to shoot. The younger Thomas was, apparently, packing up and returning to London early in spite of his father’s encouragements that persuasion would improve his marital chances. The resulting tumult — hurried packing, maternal dismay and pleading, Veronica’s door slamming, Sir Thomas’ confusion over such elaborate drama — worked in Rafe’s favor, and as soon as Harrison was out of the house he made his way to the man’s guestroom.

He tried the knob: locked. Not unexpected, and it confirmed that Harrison had hidden whatever he had gotten the night before in his room. The lock was a simple rotating bolt, so all he needed was…

“What are you doing?” a voice hissed at him.

Rafe flinched, then relaxed as he saw his sister peering around the corner at him. “Perfect timing, Wils. I don’t supposed I could borrow…”

His sister rolled her eyes and reached up into her hair, pulling out a pin and handing it to him. “Why are we burglarizing John Harrison’s room?”

“We?” Willamina just stared, waiting for him to continue. He sighed, flicked the bolt open, and stepped into the room. Closing the door behind them, he said, “I followed Harrison last night while you… Where were you, anyway?”

“I went out,” she said.

“No you didn’t,” he said. “I would have seen your tracks.”

She shrugged. “I went out a different way.”

“In any case,” Rafe said, “while you were out in questionable circumstances, I followed Harrison to a meeting. He was given a box, and I want to know what’s in it.”

“You think he’s smuggling?” WIllamina asked.

“No,” said Rafe. He began eyeing the bookshelves along the west wall of the room. “I think it has something to do with why we’re here. The meeting was of people like him.”

“People like him meaning?”

“Werewolves. I think. I can’t see whatever you can. But even I wouldn’t drink with that lot, so whatever he got, I don’t want him to keep.”

“Fair enough,” she said. “You get the dresser, I’ll check the shelves.”

It only took five minutes of searching. Willamina threw the sheets back off the bed and felt gingerly under the mattress. She clucked when her fingertips hit wood. “Not very creative, is he…”

“He didn’t have three brothers to hide things from.”

“Apparently.” She handed Rafe the box.

Inside was a golden torc. It was made of heavy gauge wire, twisted and then shaped into a neck band. Both ends were capped by tiny gold wolf’s heads. Their fangs were bared and their tongues lolled out, and their eyes were set with what looked like tiny rubies. Rafe whistled and reached for it.

“Don’t touch it,” Willamina said urgently.

“Why not?”

“Just… don’t. Take it to your room, and I’ll find Dr. Casmin.”

She found Casmin and Stian in the drawing room. They had been cornered by Veronica who was, as far as Willamina could tell, attempting to flirt. Badly. She waved from the doorway, attempting to catch one of their eyes. Stian was already starting to look for an escape, and noticed her first. She waved him towards her, and he looked startled and started to rise. She then gestured towards Casmin, and he nodded. “Excuse me, Miss Hughes,” he said, interrupting her mid-chatter, “But Dr. Casmin and I are needed elsewhere. She turned in her chair, and seeing Willamina, scowled.

“Well,” thought Willamina, “that’s one friendship that isn’t going to recover.” She ducked out into the hallway and waited for the two men.

“Rafe found something I think you should see.”

Once upstairs in Casmin’s room, Rafe handed Casmin the box. He opened it, and again Willamina jumped. “Don’t touch it.”

“What’s wrong?” Casmin asked.

“It’s covered in spikes,” she said, fishing around for the right words.

Casmin looked at Stian, who shook his head. “I can see that it’s glamoured, but that’s it. You go get your student, and we’ll pull this apart.” He called for Fetch while Casmin got Stephen.

Willamina’s eyes widened when the imp appeared. “I knew I wasn’t seeing things.”

Stian gave a half smile. “It’s quite the unusual talent you’ve picked up.”

When Casmin returned with Stephen, Stian said, “All right, show us.” Fetch hissed at the torc, and a series of glowing lines appeared, wrapped around the gold. There were three interlocking sets: one grey and leaden, one glowing like flame, and one an ugly, infected looking red. This last resembled nothing so much as barbed wire, sharp and spiked.

“Oh, you ugly little son of a cu…” Stian began before Casmin kicked him. His eyes flashed to Willamina and he grinned. “Sorry.”

She returned the smile. “I told you it as nasty.”

“Nasty indeed,” Casmin said. “Is that…” he leaned in close, peering at the spellwork.

“You said Hart was supposed to *wear* this?” Stian asked.

Rafe nodded. “That’s what the man said.”

“I wouldn’t put this on a dog. No pun intended. You see this?” Stian pointed to the glowing line. “This is an enhancement spell. Whoever wore this would be…well, stronger, faster, even than the boost they’d get from being in wolf form.”

“I’d bet this year’s salary that’s how he’s talked them into it,” Casmin said.

“And the catch is?” Stephen asked.

“The grey cord is a binding,” Stian continued. “Probably connected to the one who gave them the bands. See how it’s wrapped around the red?”

Stephen nodded, then frowned. “It’s a choke collar.”

“With ‘choke’ being a literal threat here,” Casmin said. “It would have bound on contact, Rafe.”

“And isn’t it lucky you let me tag along just this once?” Willamina said. To her credit, it barely sounded like she was gloating.

The Huntsmen: Chapter 16

It was one of those nights, Rafe reflected, during which everyone in the room was tense and everyone was pretending not to notice. He had spent the day staying close to Harrison, which had been easy given the situation. After Edmund’s triumph that morning they had spent the day hunting, which in this case really meant getting away from the house for as long as possible while the women did… whatever they did all day. Conversation over dinner had been dominated by Sir Thomas and Edmund, and even Rafe had a limit to how much discussion of weaponry he could stomach.

Now he was playing faro with his brothers in the larger of the downstairs parlors while Stian and Casmin sat nearby, all of them trying to look bored. Hart sat with the older members of the party, while Veronica and Willamina sat in the back corner. Stephen had just dealt a hand when the younger Thomas came in, looking flushed and nervous. Rafe watched from behind his cards as he went to where the girls were sitting, spoke to his own sister, and then led Willamina outside onto the terrace.

“And he’s off,” Rafe said quietly.

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The Huntsmen: Chapter 15

When the plan was proposed to the party at large, the vote was unanimous. Rafe agreed to keep close to Harrison through the evening and follow him once he left for the meeting, with Fetch along for backup.

“Do I have to bring the blue thing?” Rafe asked, scowling. “It gives me the creeps.”

“For an imp, he’s incredibly useful,” said Stian. The imp in question made an obscene gesture at his employer in response.

“It’s got… bug eyes,” said Rafe.

“The better to watch you arse with,” said Casmin.

“He’s not the one I want watching my… oh, never mind,” said Rafe. “Just tell him to keep out of my way.”

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The Huntsmen: Chapter 14

Casmin was the first downstairs in the morning. He hadn’t seen Stian again last night, and he was growing anxious. Luckily he didn’t have to wait long, his friend was the next one down the stairs.

“You’re hovering, Andre,” Stian said under his breath.

“I wouldn’t call it hovering,” said Casmin.

“I know you. You’re hovering. And let me save you the trouble: yes I’m fine, no I don’t want to talk about it, no it won’t happen again.”

Casmin gave him an appraising look. Then he said lightly, “Do you want to play the scene where I’m the overbearing father figure and you play the pig headed child?”

Stian shrugged. “We could if you insist but I’d rather we go straight to breakfast.”

“Good, because I’m starving.” Casmin tried to keep his tone light as they piled up their plates from the buffet Lady Hughes’ staff had set out. He also tried not to scrutinize the younger man too closely. Stian seemed at ease, and carried his accustomed air of relaxed calm, but Casmin knew from long acquaintance that this was an act as often as it was genuine.They sat making small talk over breakfast until they heard the happy chatter of the girls coming down the stairs. Casmin felt his friend tense for the briefest of moments, but he showed no other outward signs of discomfort.

Stephen had come down with the girls, although he clearly was unable to get a word in edgewise. He was visibly relieved to see Stian and Casmin already at the table, and after loading up his own plate he sat next to them.

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