The Huntsmen: Chapter 7

On Casmin’s instructions, Stian met him and the Greysons at Rafe’s the next evening. Rafe caught him at the door, and looked him up and down. “You’re terribly over-dressed. We’ll have to find you something… less.” Stian frowned down at his suit while Rafe ran upstairs. He came back down and tossed him a rough shirt, a pair of braces, and a pair of work boots. “See if these fit. The pants’ll have to do: we’ll just dust them up on the way. You can change in the back.”

“Where are we going?” Stian asked. He gave the armful of clothes a sniff before wincing.
Rafe grinned. “The King’s Head.”

The tavern was nondescript from the outside. It occupied one corner of a neighborhood that had seen better centuries. Still, the storefronts were full, and the mood among the crowds along the street was weary but amiable. Inside, it was clean and well lit, if worn. The door opened into a spacious tavern, with the bar itself running the left side of the room while the back and sides were lined with high backed booths. The upstairs overlooked the main floor, with a circling balcony that both allowed the staff to keep an eye on things below and gave the women who rented the rooms upstairs an opportunity to advertise their trade.

As they walked in, they passed a waitress, who grinned. “Your booth’s open, Rafe.”

“Thanks, Ginger. Evening, Abbie,” he called out to  another girl, whose artfully draped shawl slipped off her bare shoulders as she waved back, revealing nothing beyond a corset and chemise underneath.

“This is a… brothel?” Stian asked, awkwardly.

The five of them worked their way slowly through the evening crowd. “No,” Rafe grinned back. “Just a pub with a very friendly staff. And an extended menu. And rooms upstairs. And an absolutely amazing lamb stew. Looking lovely, Janey.” Edmund gave his younger brother a Look. “It’s not what it looks like!” Rafe protested.

A short, bountiful young woman with black hair in loose bun slapped his rear as they walked by. “Hello Millie!” He looked back sheepishly. “All right, that one was what it looked like.” By that point they had worked their way back to the corner booth, and squeezed their way into the benches while Edmund went to the bar for a round of drinks.

Casmin smirked at Rafe as they settled in. “Come here often, I take it?”

“I do a lot of business here,” Rafe said, more to Stian than to Casmin, who had joined Rafe at the Head on more than one occasion. “It’s busy, loud, and clean. And I wasn’t kidding about the stew.”

“The view’s not bad either,” Stephen said, looking around eagerly.

“Very true, little brother,” Rafe agreed. He laughed, then looked over at Stian,  who was staring fixedly at the table top. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Stian said.

Rafe laughed harder, and said, “My god, Stian, you’re blushing like a virgin.” Stephen and Casmin joined in the laughter then, but all three stopped abruptly when Stian only blushed more deeply and squirmed.

“Wait…” Rafe said.

“You’re not.” Casmin said.

“I fail to see why this is an acceptable topic of conversation.”

“How did *that* happen?” Casmin asked incredulously.

“My family puts a great deal of emphasis on discipline,” Mogen said. “You know this.”

“Yes,” Rafe interjected, “But there’s discipline, and then there’s… whatever you’re doing.”
By this point Edmund had returned with a handful of pints. He set them on the table before sitting down and asking, “What are you cackling about, Rafe?”

“Stian’s a virgin.”

The topic of conversation slumped forward, knocking his forehead on the table.

“Really? I find it quite admirable,” said Edmund.

“Thank you, Edmund,” Stian said.

“In fact,  I was a virgin once too. ” Edmund deadpanned, and the duke slumped again.

“But surely you had offers,” Rafe said to Stian.

“Well, of course,” Stian said. “ But given my position they were all… contingent.”

“Never stopped any of our dukes,” Edmund said drily.

“I doubt any of their offers came with these kinds of strings attached,” Stian said. “I do not want to lose my soul.”

“I didn’t realize you were a religious man,” Edmund said.

“He is,” Casmin said. “But I suspect he means that literally.”

“In any case, we could take care of this right now,” Rafe suggested.  “There’s a reason Abbie’s so popular.”

“I don’t know,” Casmin said casually. “I think he liked the look of the redhead by the door better.”

“Look, there has to be a reason that we’re here other than to discuss my personal life,” said Stian with a growing pitch of desperation.

“We’re doing it, actually,” said Rafe. “The first victim had this place’s address in his pocket. The man we found yesterday was a regular here. It’s not much, but it’s what we have.”

“So the plan is…”

“We sit here, drink, and see if anything comes up?” asked Stephen.

Casmin traded his empty pint glass for Stian’s full one. “Best plan we’ve had all week.”

Rafe laughed again, but shook his head. “No. We’re here to meet one of my best sources.”

“And who is he?” Edmund asked.

As if on cue, one of the barmaids danced over to them and slid lithely into the booth depositing herself in Rafe’s lap.

“Hullo, Millie,” he said. “Boys, Millie. Millie, boys.”

The Huntsmen: Chapter 6

Unusually, Edmund was the last to arrive at Rafe’s townhouse the next day. He came in, slamming the door behind him, and went directly to the liquor cabinet. Pouring a whiskey, he asked Rafe,
“Can I move in with you?”

“Excuse me?” Rafe asked, incredulous.

Edmund slid a stack of books off the end of the couch before sitting. “It’s a rat’s nest, but it’s peaceful.”

Edmund’s assessment was accurate, if somewhat unfair. Rebecca Greyson made the townhouse a gift to her middle son on his discharge from the Navy; it had belonged to her uncle, and on his death it had mostly sat empty. Giving it to Rafe served a multitude of functions, not least of which being that it removed him from the house and the constant pressure of Edmund’s scrutiny while keeping him near enough for her sanity.

“There’s a reason I spent the day studying,” Stephen added.

“Domestic troubles?” Casmin asked.

“The country house needs a new roof, Willamina’s cat has taken off, and we lost our cook,” Edmund said. “My morning has consisted of five kinds of female hysterics, several unexpected bills, and the utter ruination of my New Year’s plans.”

“You chased off another cook?” Rafe asked.

“Third one this year,” Edmund said. “At least she’s staying until the New Year. The last one gave her notice at breakfast and was gone by dinner. Mother’s in a snit, Willamina is re-enacting Wuthering Heights over a flea-bitten tabby who couldn’t catch mice, the scullery maid has decided to pick every available fight with the cook now that she’s on short time… In the name of fraternal affection, Rafael, you have to let me stay here.”

Rafe stopped laughing long enough to say, “Sorry brother, but the answer is still no. The entire point of this place is getting away from you lot and I mean to keep it that way.“

Edmund groaned. “You know I’m still technically the one that pays your allowance until you’re thirty.”

“I have other sources of income,” Rafe said. “Blackmail won’t work.”

“If he moves in,” Stephen added, “I do too. You can’t leave me there alone.”

Casmin couldn’t help but grin. It was the first time, he reflected, that he had seen Edmund really smile. The shadows around him were, if not lifting, at least fading. Then he looked at Stian, who was watching the brothers with a wistful expression. It was a rare, unguarded moment for the duke, but it reminded Casmin of the first time he had seen him. He had been ten at most, and trying to look very much the man. The effect had been almost comical: a scrawny, half-grown boy surrounded by guards three times his size. He had never decided if it was funny or sad that every one of them, fearsome with their spears and wolf-pelt cloaks, were terrified of the child. Or, for that matter, that the princeling had been aware of it.

He let them banter on another minute before saying, “Terribly sorry to interrupt, but there was a reason for meeting here, if I remember correctly.”

“Right,” Mogen said as the brothers fell silent. “When Andre first contacted me about your difficulties four months ago, I told him to look at Charlotte’’s neck. I was looking for this mark.” He put a piece of paper bearing the now-familiar symbol on the table that sat between the couch and two chairs. “I was hoping not to find it, but we all know how that went.”

Edmund nodded slowly, mirth draining from his face. “You know this brand.”

“Yes,” said Stian. “This mark was first seen almost twenty five years ago, on a body that was found in Baghdad. Since then, it has appeared from time to time, but never more than once or twice every few years. We were suspicious, but had almost nothing to pursue. We couldn’t know why these people were killed, or how. There was no connection between them: the mark was seen in Persia, Russia, Japan, Mali… men, women, old, young. There was no logic to it, and we could do no more than note its presence. But now, three times in so few months? It is significant.”

“You think this is all the work of one man?” Rafe asked. “But we thought –”

Stian raised his hand to interrupt him. “You found one man responsible, yes. And he was how old again?”

“Thirty,” Rafe said. “We were at school together briefly.”

Robert Whitethorn had confessed to causing Charlotte’s death. He had also claimed responsibility for the near death of her ward, Amelia.

But Stian was shaking his head. “Too young.”

Stephen asked, “A… society, then? A kind of cabal?”

Casmin said, “It’s not just that Whitethorn is too young to have committed the other crimes.”

“He’s too young to have committed any of them,” Stian finished. “Forgive me, Edmund, but Charlotte’s death… it is not the work of an amateur. That kind of working, it requires years of training and experience. Great discipline. Dedication.”

Rafe leaned back against the wall and folded his arms, scowling. “None of that describes Rob Whitethorn. He was a drunkard at 16, and the fact that we found him in an opium den suggests his nature didn’t improve with age.”

They were all silent before Edmund said, “Are you telling me we got the wrong man?”

“No,” Stian said quickly. “But I do not think he acted alone. And whoever he was working in concert with has been slowly working for almost thirty years. And we were completely unaware of it. This makes us… greatly uncomfortable.” Stian frowned as he said the words, as if they, and the concept behind them, were new. “Anyone with this kind of power should have been known to us, one way or another. The fact that he has kept himself hidden, learned entirely in secret… it’s unprecedented. Completely,” he said, looking at Casmin significantly.

“You, what,” Rafe asked, a bit incredulous. “Keep a directory of every known magic user in the world?”

Stian shrugged. “My family has been around a while. We keep an eye on these things.”

“And that, students,” Casmin said drily, “is the definition of an understatement.”

“Be that as it may,” Stian continued, “He has been intentionally avoiding our notice. There’s a bit of debate as to what that means. My father is willing to consider that he merely escaped our observation: there has been rather a proliferation of magic users in the last one hundred years.”

Rafe blinked. “I thought your father was no longer with us.”

“You’re correct,” Stian said. “He died five years ago.”

Rafe and Stephen looked at each other, eyes wide. “Excuse me?” Stephen asked.

“We’ll discuss that later,” Casmin said before turning back to the duke. “I take it Beorn disagrees?” Casmin asked.

Stian nodded. “My grandfather maintains that concealment should be perceived as an inherently hostile act. On one hand, he has a tendency to take anything as a hostile act…”

“But you’re inclined to agree with him?” Edmund finished.

“This time, yes. He’s been dead for twenty years, but he’s still the sharpest of the bunch.”

Edmund twitched visibly.

“You talk to the dead.” Rafe said.

Stian paused, thinking, before he shrugged. “Only some of them. They’re not generally good conversationalists, but there are exceptions.”

“Right,” Rafe responded. “That’s really creepy.”

“I hate to even bring them up, but have you spoken to the Brotherhood?” Casmin asked.

“I tried.”

“And?”

“They asked me what I was doing in their territory.”

Casmin’s face darkened. “They did what?”

“We’ll worry about them later. Right now we need to figure out where this pack is, and what they are doing. Because right now, it’s all we have to work with.”

“And that’s not much,” Edmund said.

“No, it’s not. But I do not think we will have to wait long to find out more.”

The really irritating thing about Mogen, Casmin thought the following afternoon as he walked from his flat to the Greyson’s family home, was that he was so often correct. Another body had turned up: killed during the night, most likely, but not found until a barmaid carried out the garbage from the lunch rush. Once he reached the house, he was admitted and told to await Mr. Greyson in his study.

He passed Stephen on his way down the corridor.

“News?” Stephen asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Casmin said.

“I’ll be right down back down,” Stephen said.

It was then that Casmin noticed a cat sitting on the bottom step. He frowned. “Stephen? How long has that been here?”

“The cat? It showed up this morning. Wils must have let it in – hers hasn’t been back yet, and you know how she is about them.”

Casmin waited until Stephen was upstairs before glaring. “Are you out of your god damned mind?” he hissed.

The cat simply stared back.

“Be at my place by midnight, or so help me…” he broke off as Edmund began down the stairs.
“Ah, there you are!”

“Something’s turned up, I take it?” Edmund said.

“Another body. I’m off to take a look, if you care to join me.”

Edmund nodded. He turned, and called up the stairs, “Stephen, we’ll be out front. And Willamina?”

“What?” she called back from her room upstairs.

“Come get this cat. You know you’re supposed to keep them out of the rest of the house.”

“What cat?”

Edmund simply shook his head as he grabbed his coat and headed out the front door. “I’m living in a mad house.”

Willamina came out into the hallway just as Stephen was pulling on his coat. She looked at the cat sitting on the stairs. She blinked. Rubbed her eyes. Looked again.

“Stephen?”

“Wils?”

“Can people turn into other things?”

“Apparently;why?”

“No reason.” She picked up the cat, a buff colored, long haired creature, and carried it upstairs.

They met Rafe when they reached the lot where the body had been dumped. “Where’s Mogen?” he asked.

“Couldn’t find him,” Casmin responded. “Could be anywhere.” Stephen looked at him sharply, but said nothing.

Walking over to the corpse, Rafe grimaced. Kneeling down, he said, “I know this one.”

“How?” Edmund asked.

He scratched his head, and looked up, squinting awkwardly. “Remember that, er, bar I mentioned?”

Back at the house, Willamina went to her room and closed the door. She set the cat on her bed, and stared at it. Finally she said, “So who are you, anyway? You seem… familiar. Have we met?” She blinked. “I’m sitting here talking to a cat.” She leaned over to scratch its ears. The cat froze for a moment, then lazily closed its eyes and leaned into her hand, purring.

There was a quick rap on her door, and her mother came into the room. “Willamina, I need you to…” Rebecca paused, raised an eyebrow, and crossed her arms. “As I was saying, I need your help downstairs. But first, you’d better put that cat out before your brother gets home.”

An hour later, Andre Casmin was anxiously pacing the floor in his flat. Anxiety gave way to relief, then proceeded to anger when Stian opened the door and came inside. Casmin put both hands on the table and sagged for a moment. “Allow me to repeat myself,” he said. “Are you out of your god damned mind?”

“Andre, I…”

“What am I supposed to tell your father when he comes back to haunt me? ‘I’m sorry, Dag, I promised to look after your boy for you. I know you’ve had an unbroken line of Mogens seated in the Hjelm for twelve hundred years, but I didn’t foresee the idiot risking it all on his infatuation with a redhead.’”

Stian scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. I was in no danger…”

“Have you met her brother?”

“And my interest in the girl is purely professional. I had only met her the once, and I had to get a closer look.”

“And?” Casmin asked.

“And I was right before. She’s absolutely astonishing.”

Casmin looked at his friend. He was grinning ear to ear and his eyes were dancing, and his frame could barely contain his energy. Professional interest my ass. “Is that so?”

“She knew me.”

“She…” Casmin grew alarmed again.

“Well, not exactly. She didn’t know it was me. But she knew I wasn’t a cat. Stephen didn’t even blink, you saw that.”

“You’re right, that is astonishing.” Damn it, Andre cursed inwardly. He was right again.

“How long did it take you to learn to see past a Form?” Stian asked.

“Your father taught me…”

“And she’s doing it naturally. That’s True Sight. Do you have any idea how rare that is?” He was practically jumping up and down.

Andre sighed. “I do. But how exactly does this information help us, Stian?”

Stian gaped at him. “What do you mean, how does this help us? This changes everything…”

“It changes nothing. We’re still stuck unable to do anything about it.”

Stian deflated, sitting heavily on the couch. “Greyson is that stubborn?”

“Again, have you met him? Yes. He’s that stubborn. And that afraid for her future.”

“But…”

“Stian, you were raised to this.” He sat down next to the younger man. “And, I think, you’ve gotten used to the office. I know, you didn’t ask for it, and you don’t particularly like it. But you’ve grown accustomed to being the law. In this case, though, he has the right of it. He’s her guardian, and unless she specifically asks for our help, our hands are tied. And even then, we’d have to evaluate if the… political ramifications are worth it.”

“And this is all over her marriage prospects?” Stian asked.

“I’m starting to wonder. But you know, there’s one obvious solution here…”

Stian stiffened. “Have you been talking to Josef?”

“I had a letter from him a month or so ago, yes.” Casmin tried to keep his voice light.

“I will not be managed, Andre.”

He was startled by the anger in the duke’s voice. “It was a joke, Stian.”

“I’m a grown man.”

“Then act like one.” He grinned, hoping to lighten the mood. “Stop climbing onto girls’ balconies like a love-sick sixteen year old.”

It worked. “I did no such thing!” Stian smiled back. “I climbed down from her balcony, but I went in through the front door.”

The Huntsmen: Chapter 5

The patrolmen whistled, warning them that the other officers were returning with the hearse. Mogen waved the little imp back onto his shoulder, while Rafe quickly began rifling through the man’s pockets.

“What on earth, Rafe?” Edmund said.

“It won’t do the police any good,” Rafe said. “You think they’ll know what to make of this?” He came up with a few scraps of paper he pocketed for himself, and they all made a hasty exit back out to the street.

Edmund leaned in closer to Casmin as they walked. “So how do you know his grace?”

“Please don’t call me that,” Mogen said.

Edmund blinked back at him. “I beg your pardon?”

“The name is Stian,” the duke said. “The title is a… useful formality.”

Edmund looked sincerely offended, and Stian went on quickly. “Andre and my father were very close. He came as a –”

Casmin interrupted. “I met the boy when he was this high, if you can imagine it now.” He held his hand flat at waist height. “He just kept growing.”

“Andre is not easily excited,” Stian said. “So when he wrote with so much excitement about you all, I had to come and see for myself.”

“So you went to a ball,” Casmin said. He grinned at that again, laughing at a joke the others hadn’t caught onto yet.

Stian grumbled. “I promised my uncle I would do so. It was his price for overseeing matters while I was away. So I accepted the first invitation I received when I arrived off the train.”

Casmin looked even more baffled. “You took a train?”

Stian brightened considerably at this. “Oh yes. It was amazing. They had a little cart that went up the hallway, and it was filled with drinks and little meals, and…” He trailed off at the others’ baffled expressions. “It was a new experience,” he said. “As I was saying, I accepted the first invitation I received, which came with… frightening speed.”

“Are you married?” Rafe asked.

“God, no,” said Stian.
“That’s why,” said Rafe. “There is no spy network on earth with the efficiency of English mothers.”

“They’re terrifying,” Stian said. “I was about to leave when I ran into Miss Greyson. Literally, I’m afraid. I was in such a hurry I nearly bowled her over.” He at least had the grace to look sheepish.

“Willamina?” Stephen said.

“Yes,” Stian said. “Absolutely astonishing. Andre, please tell me you’ve found a teacher for her already.”

Casmin winced as Edmund came to a complete stop on the street. “Your grace,” he said, his voice a low growl.

“Yes, sir,” Stian said.

“We welcome any assistance you have to offer in the matter at hand, namely, the deaths of those two poor souls back there. Casmin here calls you a friend, and that carries a great deal of weight with us. But you should consider the topic of my sister out of bounds,” Edmund continued. After a moment’s thought he added, “In any sense you can possibly imagine. Do you understand?”

“Of course, my apologies…” He looked utterly baffled. He turned to Casmin, who mouthed “Later.”

“Hullo,” Rafe said loudly. He had been looking over the papers he found, and now he held up one, a scrawled address and a time, 9 pm. “I know this place. It’s a… well, you know.”

“A landing spot for fallen women?” Stephen said.

Rafe scowled. “I hate that expression. Fallen women. As if they were walking down the street one day, turned their ankles, and suddenly landed in the brothel. Lovely way men have of evading responsibility, isn’t it.”

“Your point, Rafe?” Edmund asked.

“You don’t want to hear my point, but I do know this address. It’s a bar, among other things, and I should be able to find someone who knows our deceased friend back there. If I move quickly, I may be able to do it before anyone knows he’s gone cold. They’ll talk more freely.”

Edmund nodded. “Go on, then. There’s not much the rest of us can do tonight.”

“We’ll meet up tomorrow, then?” Rafe said.

“At the townhouse,” Edmund quickly added.

And with that, Edmund and Stephen made their way home, while Andre led Stian back to his flat. Once inside, Casmin made straight for the side table.

“You certainly stumbled upon quite the interesting family,” Stian said.

“You have no idea,” Casmin said, pouring a scotch. “Drink?”

“No, thank you. You said that Stephen is coming along quickly?”

“Incredibly. He’s only been working on elemental summoning for four months now, and he’s gotten one of them down.”

Stian whistled. “And you said Edmund…”

“Nothing that I’ve seen so far,” Casmin said. “Magic unnerves him.”

“And Rafe?”

Casmin sipped, and shook his head. “Also nothing. Which is almost certainly for the best, for all of mankind. But what did you mean about Willamina?”

“She saw Fetch, when I first ran into her.”

That got Casmin’s attention.“He was under a glamour?”

“The best one he has,” Stian said. “It’s never happened before. She’s the youngest?”

“No, Stephen is, although by all of twenty minutes from what I’m told.” Stian gaped at him. “What?”

“They’re twins?” Stian asked, incredulous.

“Yes, but…”

“Have you been taking precautions, then?” His voice raised slightly, already incensed by the coming refusal.

“What?” Casmin asked, still confused.

Stian sat down heavily in a chair and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Fucking magicians.”

Casmin sat across from him and fished a cigarette out of a mahogany case on the end table. “What are you on about?”

“What’s the law of sympathy again?” Stian asked, with a patient but pedantic tone.

Casmin scowled with irritation. “Like affects like.”

“And?”

Casmin went on, “Two objects sharing the same origin or sharing close physical proximity for… oh, fuck.”

Stian nodded.

Casmin rubbed his face. “So as Stephen becomes more adept…”

“Her own abilities will continue to manifest with greater force. It could be harmless, but we have to assess her now…

“Or it could be catastrophic.” Casmin groaned. “This is… a serious problem.”

“Because of Edmund?” Stian asked.

“If it weren’t for Charlotte’s murder, we’d be having to teach Stephen secretly. I asked him once before if Willamina had shown any potential, and got the same reaction you did.”

Stian looked baffled again. “But why?”

“She’s coming out this season.” The younger man still looked confused, and Andre explained, “This year, or next, she’ll be married. She already has a reputation for being headstrong, and the family is terrified that if word gets out that she’s in any way… unusual, she’ll be considered undesirable.”

The duke’s expression shifted from lost to disgusted. “But if her potential is anything like her brother’s…”

“Even if Edmund were familiar with the magical community, he genuinely loves his sister. The idea of trading her off as a broodmare to one of the Brotherhood families…”

“That’s not what I meant!”

“No, but that’s how it would be. English mages don’t choose their own partners, especially not when they’re as talented as this pair seem to be. Edmund Greyson is a good man, who has had entirely too much thrown at him. He’s still in mourning for Charlotte; he has one brother who is wildly unpredictable, if entertaining, the other has developed the ability to create fireballs, and an hour ago he discovered that werewolves actually exist. And that’s not the strangest thing that’s happened to him this year. He is pushed to the limit.”

“And the girl?” Stian asked.

“He’ll do what’s best for her,” Casmin said, as much to himself as to Stian. “We just have to convince him that we know what’s best. But you can’t dictate to him, Stian. We’ll have to be canny about this.”

Stian grunted. “All right. But you must be careful with Stephen. We may have to slow him down. The elemental work should be fine, but if he shows any signs of Walking…”

“We’ll nail his feet to the floor. Now,” he said, looking at the clock on the mantel. “I’m kicking you out. I’m an old man. I need my sleep.”

“You’re only ten years older than I am,” Stian said with a grin.

“Talk to me when you’re forty. It’s a longer ten years than it looks from your end.”

The Huntsmen: Chapter 4

Rafe had been away when Charlotte died.

At some point during the wedding preparations, he noticed the way his future sister-in-law looked at him, and then at her ward, Amelia, and smiled to herself. He knew the signs of a woman plotting. And he knew to get out of the way quickly.

Rafe liked Amelia. He liked her a lot. After a few drinks, or in a particular mood, he would admit that he could even love her. But it would be disastrous, for both of them, for more reasons that he could count. So he judged it a good time to explore Prague and points beyond.

He made it home just in time for the funeral.

It was during the wake that he met Casmin, who had escorted Stephen home from University. It was at the same time that Rafe realized that Charlotte’s death had been the result of distinctly unnatural causes.

He knew the smell of magic, a literal perception somewhere between sulfur and cinnamon, and, this time, overlaid with a putrescent odor that made him gag.

No one else noticed. He concealed his own reaction as quickly as he could, but not before Stephen’s professor noticed.

They found each other later outside the parlor. “You know what this is,” Casmin said.

“Yes,” Rafe answered, his eyes restlessly scanning around him. He knew it, and he had come unarmed, and the spot between his shoulder blades was twitching with it.

“We need to examine the body,” Casmin said.

“I’ll take care of it,” Rafe answered, and he had. The right undermaid was distracted, the staff were already off balance and more than willing to take the night off at his suggestion, and Charlotte’s sudden death of an unknown illness meant that none of the guests lingered.

That didn’t help his unease when he opened the side door and let Casmin and his younger brother in.

“You brought Stephen?” he hissed.

“”He’s got to start somewhere,” Casmin answered cryptically.

It had only taken him five minutes to find what he was looking for: a mark, like a blue-black brand, beneath her hair on the back of her neck.

“What does it mean?” Stephen asked.

Casmin shook his head slowly. “I don’t know.”

Rafe tried to shake off the memory as Casmin led them to an alley less than a mile away. The entrance was guarded by a single patrolman. “Perfect timing, Professor,” he said in a thick Cockney. “Detectives just left, meat wagon will be here soon.”

“Thank you,” Casmin replied, slipping the man a coin before leading the three brothers into the crime scene.

There were two bodies lying in the shadows. One was – well, had been – fully clothed. Much of it was bloodied and shredded now. He lay on his back, staring at the sky. He had been a middle aged man, heavy and muscular. His shoes were of decent quality but worn almost to the point of destruction, and the fabric of his remaining clothing was rough but well mended. He had several major wounds, but the final cause of death was obvious: his throat had been completely torn out.

The other body was naked, and lay on one side, curled like a sleeping child. He was painfully thin and though he looked no older than fourteen, his size and obvious malnutrition made it difficult to be certain. There was blood on his mouth, but the only wound was a bullet hole in the side of his chest.

The men eyed the scene silently for a moment, adjusting to the horror. Finally, Casmin said, “Right then,” and went to kneel next to the older man’s corpse. He looked him over a moment, then said, “Stephen, help me turn him.”

Stephen turned an even brighter shade of green and gulped, but did as he was asked. The backs of the man’s thighs were like mincemeat, torn and shredded. Stephen gagged, and Casmin’s jaw muscles flexed as he fought the instinct to do the same. “All right, set him down.”

“What could do this?” Edmund asked. His voice was low and tight.

“You hunt,” Casmin said. Gesturing at the man’s legs he said, “What takes down an animal like this?”

“Dogs?” Edmund said. “But…”

“Not dogs,” said a voice from the shadows. “Wolves.” The voice was soon matched to a form as the shadows seemed to coalesce into the duke.

They all gaped, but it was Casmin who said, “What the hell are you doing here, Stian?”

Mogen grinned, an expression so unlike what they had seen of him so far that it was perhaps the most unreal part of his sudden appearance.

“I heard there was an historical emergency.”

“Difficulty,” said Stephen, shifting his feet. “I said difficulty.”

Rafe punched Stephen in the shoulder. “I told you that was stupid.”

Casmin looked from them back to the duke. “You’ve met?”

“At the ball,” Rafe said.

“You went to a ball?” Casmin asked, somehow finding that the most ridiculous part of the equation.

“Can we return to the matter at hand?” Edmund said, giving his most Jovian scowl.

Mogen nodded and said, “He was hamstrung, then brought down by the arms before they tore out his throat.”

“They? There’s more than one?” Edmund asked.

“That throat wound is an instant kill,” Rafe said. “He couldn’t have gotten off more than one shot. That killed the boy here, so someone had to finish him off.”

Casmin said, “A dog pack wouldn’t have run off. And I think they’d be noticed.”

Edmund looked at the duke. “You said wolves.”

Mogen nodded. “Of a kind.”

Edmund started shaking his head. “Please tell me you’re not saying what I think you’re saying.” Edmund looked deeply uneasy.

“Werewolves?” Rafe asked a touch incredulously.

“Looks like,” Casmin said.

Rafe shook his head. “I’ve heard stories, but…”

“So have I,” Casmin replied. “But never in the middle of a city.”

“Too young to be a shapeshifter,” Mogen said, frowning over the boy’s corpse.

“Are you sure?” Casmin asked.

The duke nodded. “Shape shifting takes… many years of training.” He knelt down, pulled down the boy’s eyelids and looked at the eyes.

He waved Stephen over. ““You see this? Blue. There are three ways to gain the ability to change your form.” His voice was low and serious now, and his accent more clipped. “You can gain it through study and ritual, but it takes years. Then there are bloodline families, who are born with the ability. They’re the most likely to run in packs, but they live out in the wilds whenever possible. And he’s not one of them.”

“Because his eyes are blue?” Stephen asked.

“Almost certainly. Born wolves almost always have golden eyes. Yet another reason they don’t come to town often. He also doesn’t smell right, but you’d have no way to know that. Which leaves the third possibility.”

“Which is?”

“A curse,” Casmin answered. “It’s a form of possession, actually. Frowned upon by shapeshifters and mages alike.”

“Why is that?” Edmund asked, fascinated, although against his better judgment.

“Because in any possession the spirit fights with that of the body it possesses for dominance. Usually the wolf-demon wins, and things get… interesting,” Stian said, grimacing. “But I’ve never heard of the cursed traveling in packs, either. Not in my lifetime, anyways . And then there’s this,” he added, gesturing at the boy’s body. “They just… left him here. Abandoned him, like a piece of meat. And he’s barely more than a child.” He gritted his teeth, and growled deep in his throat. “Fetch,” he barked. For a moment, Stephen thought he was talking to him, and wondered what he was meant to get. But then there was a slight popping sound, and a small, blue-grey figure appeared on the duke’s shoulders. It was perhaps 18 inches tall and vaguely man-shaped, excepting a tail, long curved claws, and a set of ram’s horns on its head. Mogen spoke to it softly in a language Stephen couldn’t understand, and it leapt down onto the boy’s body. It looked over it, carefully.

The imp had paused over the boy’s right shoulder, and was sniffing. It held its hands over a patch of skin, and uttered a single syllable. When he did, a sign blazed a bright gold for a moment before settling to black. An Enochian symbol, like a tilted “L” with a crosshatch and an extra leg on the lower bar.

They had seen it before, branded into the back of Charlotte Claire’s neck.

“Son of a syphilitic whore,” Mogen swore.

The Huntsmen: Chapter 3

The problem with being the only girl, Willamina thought to herself, is that you’re always stuck in the carriage. Stephen, Rafe and Edmund would join her and Mother at Lord Carter’s;  while they’d been required to pass inspection before they left the house, they would be allowed to arrive, and of course leave, by their own means and on their own schedule. Willamina, however, rode with her mother, guaranteeing she would be trapped for the entire length of the evening. She was facing five hours of a crowded ballroom, tiny bits of food,  and Polite Conversation.

She did have to admit she liked the dress. It was a heavy silk taffeta dyed a dusty rose. As much as her mother’s ministrations irritated her, they did share a taste in clothing that tended towards the simple and elegant and away from the worst excesses of the day. As such, her gown had a fitted bodice, but a soft bustle draped gracefully down to a short train.  There were ruffles, but only inasmuch as they enhanced the sway of her step.
She would have knifed anyone before admitting that she loved the way it rustled.

“Nervous?” her mother asked, noticing that her daughter was uncharacteristically quiet.

“Of course not,” she squeaked.

Rebecca smiled warmly. “You’ll do fine.”

This was not Willamina’s first ball. She had attended others, either with Charlotte and Edmund or to help fill out the floor at less attended events out of the city. But this winter had brought a definite change to the tenor of her engagements. Before she had been in the background, watching the swirl and parade. Now it felt like being nudged closer and closer to the end of the plank. In shark infested waters. For now, however, she was willing to let herself be heartened by her mother’s encouragement.

The Carter house was known for both its beauty and its ostentation. The effect began in the entryway: it overwhelmed with glass and gold leaf and polished ebony. A double staircase curved up both sides of the foyer, leading to the ballroom. Willamina was following her mother up these steps when she looked back, hoping to catch sight of one of her brothers.

She was so distracted, in fact, that she didn’t mark where she was going. At least, not until she ran smack into a wall of solid muscle. She gasped and stepped back, nearly falling backwards down the stairs before she was caught and set back on her feet. Once she regained her balance, she looked up at both the cause of her near mishap and her rescue from it.

And kept looking up until her neck craned uncomfortably. It was partially an effect of the stairs: the man before her had stepped back up quickly after she was steady on her feet again. But only partially. She could see that he was at least as tall as Edmund. It made him an imposing figure, an effect that was only magnified by the black cloak he currently wore. His pale hair was cut in a longer style than was fashionable, and his eyes were a piercing blue green that made her think, unexpectedly, of a pair of earrings Rafe had brought her from one of his trips to the East. Any impression she might have formed of his features, however, was ruined by his expression. Her first impulse was to laugh, both at herself and the ridiculous situation of the moment, but that instinct was quelled by what she read as the utter indifference on his face.

“Excuse me, I…” Her stammer turned to another intake of breath and a step backwards before she added, “Do you have a monkey? You mustn’t let Lady Carter see it. She has a horror of…” And then her words trailed off again as he raised an eyebrow and gave her an incredulous look. She looked at his right shoulder again where she had sworn she had seen something a moment before, and to her impossibly increasing mortification there was nothing there.

“Excuse me,” she said again, and ducked around him to make as reasonable a dash as she could to the top of the stairs.

There she met two of her friends, Veronica and Sophie. Both were giggling behind their hands, and, torn between their reaction and  the tears pricking the backs of her eyes, she decided to make light of it.

“I see you’ve met the Duke,” Sophie said. They had both been leaning over the balcony, watching the incoming crowd.

“Duke?” Willamina asked.

“Yes. Lady Carter has been preening about it all night. Apparently he accepted the invitation at the last minute.”

“Duke of what?”

“I’m not sure – something in Denmark,” Sophie replied.

“Mama said he’s a complete barbarian,” Veronica added with great delight.

“What’s his name?” Willamina asked.

“His Christian name is something completely unpronounceable, but the family name is Mogen.”

Willamina squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think I like him one bit.”

 

It became a somewhat popular opinion within a few hours. While the hostess had lured several extra dancers (or, more accurately, had lured their mothers) to the party with the promise of a titled and unmarried guest, the duke might have passed for a piece of the furniture. He claimed, in halting English, that he did not dance, and his apparent lack of skill with the language similarly hindered his ability to carry on a conversation.

Rafe found the twist of fate hilarious. “I’d pay to see Lady Carter’s reaction when the guests are gone. She’ll be screaming at the parlor maids for a week.”

Edmund managed to smile at that. “Now now. I’m sure she’ll restrain herself to the scullery.”

“Ten pounds says Carter decides to go hunting until Christmas,” said Rafe.

“I don’t think ‘night flowers’ are in season,” Edmund said.

“Always in season,” said Rafe. “But oh Lord, Stephen has him cornered.”

Willamina, who had just run up, breathless, said, “They deserve each other. Neither of them will dance with me, and Charles Halton is headed this way.”

Edmund looked over her shoulder. “He is. What’s the problem?”

Her eyes widened in terror. “He’s fifty and has seven children. Rafe, you have to save me.”

“But you’d make a lovely stepmother,” said Rafe.

“Dance with me or I’m telling Mother what really happened to her favorite rug last summer.”

Rafe paled. “You’re ruthless.”

“I’m desperate. Polonaise. Now.”

Edmund laughed as Rafe was pulled back onto the dance floor. As they disappeared into the crush, he worked his way over to Stephen, curious how he had managed to keep the foreign guest’s attention for so long.

“Anyway, I want to focus on Tudor history and manuscripts, but my advisor is pushing me to work on papyri – “

“He would,” said the duke.

“How’s that?” Stephen asked, confused.

Mogen blinked twice before saying, “It is a popular subject now, isn’t it?”

“Oh, yes,” Stephen said. “But I have several, ah, reasons for wanting to study the English Renaissance instead.”

“You might follow your advisor’s recommendation in this,” the duke said. “The English tradition has a number of pitfalls you’d do best to avoid.”

Stephen gave him a sharp look, and was about to speak again when Edmund interrupted. “Your English has rapidly improved, your grace.”

To his surprise, the duke reddened. “It may be a bit better than I let on, yes.”

Edmund frowned, and was prepared to utter a polite but properly cutting line on the importance of social discourse and British integrity, but he was interrupted by Rafe.

“We must take our leave,” said Rafe without prelude.

“Oh, good,” said Stephen.

“I’m not averse to the suggestion,” said Edmund, “but why is that?”

Rafe’s eyes darted from Edmund to Mogen and back again. “We’ve been summoned by our mutual friend.”

“Which one?” asked Stephen.

Edmund and Rafe glared at him. “Your friend,” said Rafe. When Stephen still looked baffled he added, “From the University?”

“Right,” said Stephen. “We have an, er, historical… difficulty to attend to.”

They all stared at each other for too long a moment before Rafe said, “Right. Off we go then?”

 

As they made their way outside, Rafe said, “Historical difficulty?”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time?” Stephen said.

Edmund glared at Rafe. “Listen to him, you’re contagious.”

“That’s a vicious rumor and I’ve got a doctor’s notice to prove it false,” said Rafe.

Edmund closed his eyes before shaking his head and saying, “Oh well. It isn’t as if he can accuse us of dishonesty.”

Casmin was waiting for them under the carriage awning.  His hair was more disheveled than usual, and he was lighting a new cigarette from the old one.

“What news?” Edmund asked.

“Another body,” Casmin said. He took a long drag of smoke before he added, “It’s happened again.”

The Huntsmen: Chapter 2

Edmund’s study had belonged to their father while he lived. Edmund changed little about its decor, not as a kind of tribute but out of a familial similarity in taste. Their father had been conservative, practical, and serious, and as Edmund inherited all of these qualities himself, the room in which both Greyson patriarchs spent the bulk of their time mirrored their natures. The floor was covered in a deep, plush Persian carpet in reds and browns, which gave the room both its primary luxury and its brightest colors. There was a long sofa against the wall and a number of chairs covered in leather, but Edmund himself always sat behind the desk while at work.
Rafe studied the desk now. It was a massive piece of mahogany, polished to a deep, warm shine. It was carved in a manner that was decorative without appearing to be so, with corbels and fluting that mirrored an Ionic temple. The seat of Jupiter himself it had seemed to him as a boy, and the impression hadn’t dimmed much with years. It held an inkwell (new), and a ledger, and a neat stack of correspondence that had been folded and sealed and would be handed to Higgins at 7:47 as Edmund walked across the hall to dinner.

And, for a heartbeat, Rafe could see its entire weight cast down, the papers scattered across the floor and the inkwell shattered against the wall. Without thinking he slid his eyes to the wall, where a new painting hung. The staff must have been unable to get the stain off the wallpaper, he thought, and they had done an admirable job of finding a suitably masculine painting to cover the spot so quickly.

Rafe had been the one to tell Edmund that day, that Charlotte’s death had not been from natural causes as they had all first believed. The crash as the desk hit the wall was one of the sounds he would carry with him until he died.
Casmin’s voice brought Rafe back into the present. “He’s an extraordinary talent,” the older man said as he poured a glass from the decanter, paused, and poured a bit more.

“I noticed,” said Rafe. He accepted a glass from Edmund and sat back in one of the chairs facing the desk, attempting to appear comfortable.

“I cannot pretend to approve,” Edmund said. He sat in the chair opposite, and Rafe observed (not for the first time) that Edmund had a set of features designed for expression of disapproval.

Casmin stiffened slightly before settling into an expression that Rafe guessed was becoming habitual for the professor. “I realize you’re not comfortable with the more… unusual elements that have come to the forefront lately…” Edmund barked a dry laugh over his whiskey glass as Casmin continued. “But it can’t be helped. Once an ability like Stephen’s appears it won’t simply vanish. It must be trained, or the consequences can be…”

“You’re going to say ‘interesting’, aren’t you,” Rafe said.

“I was,” Casmin allowed with a flash of a smile. But as quickly as it had appeared it fled
as he went on. “With some students I could simply teach him to maintain a basic control of what occurs naturally. But for fire mages? It isn’t an option.” Casmin reached into his breast pocket and drew out a small leather cigarette case. He removed one, place it between his lips, and held his thumb and forefinger before its tip.

Once it had caught, Edmund said, “Very useful.”

“It is,” Casmin agreed. “And it’s decades of practice.  I know that you’re used to thinking of the twins as… normal.” Rafe noticed the twist of Casmin’s lips around the word, and the dark humor it inspired. He also noticed that the professor had quietly shifted from discussing only Stephen to including Wilamina as well. “I would have passed as normal as well, when I was young. You couldn’t have told me from any other kid in Brooklyn. Until a nightmare scared me and I woke up with my bed on fire. If you’re a fire mage you have two choices: train, or die. Because ignoring what you are — what your brother is, Edmund — will destroy you from the inside out.”

Casmin took a slow sip of his whiskey. He took a deep breath before adding, “And you’re certain that his sister…”

“Never,” Edmund said.

“It’s very unusual for a talent this strong to just appear,” Casmin said. “It’s not completely unprecedented, but for Wilamina’s own safety…”

When Edmund interrupted it was with a finality that brooked no interruption. “It is out of the question.” He was quiet for a moment while he gathered his temper together.

“Wilamina is many things. She is headstrong, stubborn, and too used to having her own way. She is intelligent, relatively obedient to her mother, and far too interested in the latest fashion. She is, in short, a completely ordinary young woman. One who will be coming out this season, and, God willing, married by the end of next year.”

“So long?” Rafe said mildly. “You’re such a shrewd businessman, I’d have thought you can offload her more quickly than that.”

Edmund’s expression turned from stiff to a far more customary irritation. “Don’t be crass, Rafe.”

“If this man sets his mind to something,” Rafe said to Casmin, “he can accomplish it in record time. No turning him aside. If we get Wils in on it, I think we could have a contract signed by Twelfth Night.”

Casmin took both Rafe’s meaning and the change of subject with a rueful grin. “I thought that  hunting season didn’t start until Easter.”

Rafe waved a hand. “The trick is properly motivating the prey. In my experience…”

“Yes that will be enough, thank you,” said Edmund quickly.

Casmin said smoothly, “We will keep an eye on the situation, then, and otherwise leave it as it is. Stephen will continue with his traditional education through the end of the spring term…”

“Yes,” said Edmund, approval and relief apparent in his voice.

“…and Rafe, now that you’re back from your wanderings, I need to make use of your contacts.”

Rafe drained off the rest of his glass. “I know just the place to continue this conversation, then.”

“King’s Head?” Casmin asked.

“Where else? Edmund, care to join us?” Rafe asked.

“Thank you for the invitation,” Edmund said, “But I have affairs… elsewhere.” He waved a hand at this last, not bothering to add substance to his excuse.  What this study was to Edmund, the King’s Head was to Rafe: part office, part haven, and thoroughly a reflection of the man. As such Edmund wouldn’t go within 100 yards of the place if he could help it.

Having made their farewells, Rafe and Casmin paused on the front stairs long enough to turn their collars up against the cold.

“That went…well,” Casmin said.

Rafe gave a wry smile as he lit his own cigarette. “That’s Edmund for you. When he gets his neck up like that there’s no help for it.”

“You think he’ll come around?” Casmin asked.

“I think the minute Wils realizes what he’s planning for her it will be out of all our hands.”

“It’ll be a quick way to find out if she shares her brother’s fire.”

And with a laugh they were down the street.

 

Rafe noticed the small figure in the nearby alley as they passed. On another night, he might well have made his way over to talk to the boy. But he had business of his own to attend, and more worries than he was letting Casmin see, so he walked on, although he tried to catch the child’s eye to give him a friendly smile.
Robb Smith sat, in the lee of the alleyway, trying to wrap his coat more tightly about him. It was growing darker, and colder, and he knew that he’d have to head indoors soon. He had a flop: it wasn’t warm, or dry, or, for that matter, free of rats. But it kept him safe from the larger, two legged predators.

Robb was a skinny boy, thirteen, although his size made him seem much younger. He scraped by with running errands when he could, begging when he couldn’t, and the occasional snatch and grab when absolutely necessary. He was quick and clever, but his small size made him a favorite target of the larger boys on the street. He was steeling himself to make his way to shelter for the night, but it was lonely there.
He loved to watch the people go by: the fine ladies in trailing dresses, busy mothers herding  small packs of laughing children, young men heading out for the night with their friends. Robb had never managed the trick of belonging, but watching allowed him to pretend, at least for a little while.

“I thought we told you to stay out of our patch,” a nasty, nasal voice grumbled at him. Robb looked up at the source of the voice, his stomach twisting. Tom was as tall and broad as Robb was slight. And he was the smallest of his crew. Robb turned and ran, the other boys close in pursuit. He slipped down an alley, only to find himself cut off.  He turned, balling his fists and squaring his chest. He knew from experience that submitting, curling up and taking the beating, made it worse. These bullies at least respected a show of force.

As he braced himself for the first blow, he heard a new voice, deep and full of menace. “I think you boys had best be elsewhere.” Tom and his lot froze, and looked at the speaker. Tom was big: this was one of the biggest men Robb had ever seen. The other boys marked this as well, and decided to take the big man’s advice. With a final sneer at Robb, they turned and slunk away.

Which left Robb alone in the alley with the newcomer. They looked each other over, the big man with a calculating stare and the boy with a frightened one. Finally the older man said, “If you come with me, you’ll never have to worry about a pack like that again.”

“What do you mean, sir?”

“You need one of your own. There’s strength in numbers, you know. We all need family, of one sort or another.” The man tried to smile, but it wasn’t reassuring. “Come meet the boys. Have a hot meal, and a bath, try it on for size. We won’t make you stay.”
Robb  wasn’t sure he believed that last bit, and was silent for a while, pondering. The man frightened him, and years out here had taught him to trust his gut. But he also seemed honest. A full stomach and a night’s sleep somewhere warm were almost more than he could imagine.
After all, what did he have to lose?

The Huntsmen: Chapter 1

There are tides to things, great and small, as though the universe were a great ocean and events were rises and eddies among its waters. We humans ride the smallest of rafts through the waves, and with all of our limitations might as well be riding backwards for all the view we have of our surroundings. So we never know if what we are suffering is the crest of the wave or if it is only the first buffet of an oncoming hurricane. Or, for that matter, if we are in a true calm or simply the eye of the storm.

The tide that carries us into the darkest part of the year had only just begun to rise when Rafe Greyson made his way to his mother’s house. The hour wasn’t late according to the clock, but by this point in December the sun had already sunk below the horizon. The sky was a luminescent blue underscored with lead – the deceptive sort of heavy clouds that make you dream of snow but never deliver on the proffer. As he made his way through the busy press of crowds the street lamps were being lit, and the smells of coal smoke and horse shit were cut by the bright orange tang of fresh-lit oil.

Rafe told himself that he had chosen to walk the last miles home when he could have just as easily hired a cab because he wanted to walk. He had spent the last month on the water, sharing a sailboat with a friend from his short-lived school days, and the sudden expanse of cobblestones had its appeal. Even if the air was cold and the sky pressed down like a sodden blanket.

He wasn’t lying to himself, either. He didn’t really believe his own bullshit. The exercise did feel good, but the walk also slowed his approach to his mother’s house, let him slip into the face he wore when he was there. Rafe-at-home was a younger, safer man. Something predictable, even comical. He’d had to let that mask slip far too much on his previous visit, and he hoped that with time and distance it was something they would all start to forget.

He walked slowly, taking in the shop windows festooned with pine boughs and ribbons, the bright displays of toys and holiday finery. It was, he reflected, rather like the clouds above: they promised something they wouldn’t deliver. Somehow that thought was a line too far, even for Rafe’s love of the dramatic. He laughed at his own melancholia and quickened his step, striding down the last quarter mile to the large and sensibly fashionable house he had once called home. He paused for only the briefest second before he rapped at the door, noticing that the black mourning bands had already been replaced by a Christmas wreath. Boxwood, with a red velvet bow. It was as it should be: a family did not long publicly mourn the death of a son’s fiancée. There was probably a chart somewhere, he imagined, with precisely how many days black should be worn. Not only would Mother know of it, she would follow it to the letter. Rafe usually laughed at formal social observances, but in this case the brevity of the allowed period of mourning seemed cruel. Even if it hadn’t been his own sweetheart they’d buried.

And with that last, rather bleak thought, the door swung open and the butler’s face registered only a faint note of surprise.

“Master Rafe,” he said, stepping aside and letting the young man in.

“You don’t have to look so shocked every time, Higgins,” Rafe said as he shrugged out of a well-worn wool coat. “You make me think you’ve already planned my funeral.”

That provoked a full widening of the eyes as the butler closed the door.

“Not at all,” Higgins said. “We just didn’t expect you for another week.”

“I didn’t either,” said Rafe, “but the weather started to turn, and… oof!”

His explanation had been cut off by the sudden and violent application of roughly five feet, six inches of baby sister.

“You’re back!” she squealed.

At least, that’s what he thought she said. The sound itself was so high pitched and muffled by such a cloud of red hair, along with the creaking of his own ribs, that the syllables were indistinct.

“I am,” he laughed. “Though you’ll get little enjoyment of the fact if you strangle the life out of me now.”

Wilamina set her feet down and stepped back, smoothing her hair out of her face. It was a job – her hair fell in thick waves to her waist, and since she began putting it up a few years ago Rafe had only seen it down once or twice. This gave him pause. It was down and drying free, in the middle of the week. Which meant…

“You’re just in time,” she said. Her grin was part delight and part mischief.

“Just in time for what?” he asked, not hiding his trepidation. Drying today meant dressing tomorrow, and the second week of December meant…

“For the Carter’s Christmas ball,” said a much lower voice from the top of the stairs.

Rafe looked up at his mother. She descended the stairs in a far more elegant manner than her daughter’s headlong flight, one hand gliding down the cherrywood banister, the other holding up her brown silk skirts. Rebecca Greyson had lived long enough to see her four children into adulthood, but she was unmistakably still a beautiful woman. Her copper-brown hair was streaked with silver and fine lines spidered around her eyes, and more recent cares had carved soft furrows between her eyebrows. But this gave distinction to a pair of bright hazel eyes that were both intelligent and playful.

“I can only assume,” she added, “that you hurried home to meet your obligations at the event.”

“Of… course?” Rafe said.

“I need someone to stand up with me,” Wilamina said by way of explanation. “I can’t ask Stephen, I like my toes where they are.”

Their youngest brother was possessed of many skills. None of them were in the least helpful on a dance floor. “And, well, I could ask Edmund, but it’s only been…”

Wilamina would strike the casual observer as flighty. Her age and class would do little to discourage this impression, nor would her manner of expression. But this very expressiveness was eloquent now, and Rafe rescued his sister from further struggle with words.

“Wouldn’t be quite the thing, would it,” he said.  He ran his fingers through the fox-colored scruff that had grown on his cheeks. “If you don’t mind your escort being sun burnt, wind burnt, and a little drunk, I’ll dig up a razor somewhere.”

“Rafe,” his mother began, but Wilamina saved her the trouble by punching him in the shoulder. Hard.

“Oww!”

“No getting soused before ten, you promise me three dances, more if your old ‘friend’ Pritchard is there –”

“He shouldn’t be,” Rafe said.

“You said that last time, and I got pinched twice. You have to defend me.”

“Done,” said Rafe.

“And by midnight you can be at the pub,” she finished.

“Who taught you to haggle?” Rafe asked.

“My brother,” said Wilamina. “They say he’s a rake, but at least he taught me how to gamble when my mother wasn’t looking.”

He pinched her nose for that. She slapped his hand away but grinned. “I tried to teach you,” Rafe said, “but you can’t bluff, and you’re too excitable to play roulette.”

“I’m not excitable,” she said. “I’m vivacious. No matter what you-know-who says.”

The smiles faded from both their faces as he asked, “How is Edmund?”

On cue, a baritone voice answered from the back hallway, “Edmund is well.” The figure that emerged from the study at the rear of the first floor was tall and saturnine but, to Rafe’s relief, no thinner than it had been when Rafe had left home.  He was folding a pair of spectacles and had the book he had been reading tucked under his arm. “Edmund was wondering if he could keep your allowance as a Christmas present this year.”

“Sorry to disappoint,” Rafe said. “You get me, I get my allowance.”

“What do I get?” Wilamina asked.

“A new embroidery kit,” her mother said, not lacking in humor.

Wilamina pulled a horrified face, and Rafe said, “You’ll have to wait for Christmas to see what I brought you.”

“But that’s weeks away.”

“It’s fifteen days,” said Rafe. “Speaking of, where’s Stephen? Shouldn’t he be paroled for the holidays by now?”

“He’s upstairs,” said Edmund. “With the professor.”

“I’ll just pop in then,” said Rafe.

“I’ll join…” Wilamina began, but she was quickly cut off by Edmund.

“Leave them to their work,” he said. “I’m sure they have no time for nonsense.”

Wilamina scowled, an expression that both deepened and turned silly when Rafe reached over to ruffle her hair. Then he kissed his mother, met her eyes in a look that promised a more lengthy interview later, and gestured to Edmund to follow him up the stairs.

“So,”  said Rafe to his brother, “what did I miss?”

What had once been a simple question now contained the expanse of heaviness that lay between them. It was death, and unanswered questions, and Edmund’s discovery of a world he had not known existed. Here there be dragons, thought Rafe.

“There have been no further developments,” Edmund said. “I thought we had uncovered some new information, but it was something…”

Rafe waited, but when Edmund didn’t finish he prompted, “False alarm?”

“Not exactly,” said Edmund, “but a story for another time. Meanwhile, Stephen… well.”

By this time they had reached the top of the stairs and traversed the wide hallway that led to the family sleeping quarters. The maid at the far end of the hall was just finishing lighting the gas lamps, which flickered across a plush ivory and red carpet. Edmund opened the last door on the left, revealing Stephen’s room. Once in, he hovered near the door. He slid his hands into his pockets, an unusually casual pose for him even at home, and watched the scene within.

Rafe couldn’t read the expression Edmund wore, but he gave it little thought once he fully comprehended what their youngest brother was engaged in. Stephen’s furniture — bed, desk, dressing table, wardrobe — had all been pushed to the far side of the room. The rug, a match in pattern to the hallway’s runner, had been rolled up and stood on its end in the corner. On the floorboards beneath were painted two black concentric circles, one six feet in diameter and one eight inches larger. In the space between the circles were inscribed, in black and gold, a series of symbols. Rafe recognized some as alechmical, but the majority were a mystery.

Inside the circle, with legs folded beneath him and with pale, still-skinny chest bare, sat Stephen. His hair, almost black like Edmund’s, was made even darker by the sheen of sweat that covered him. He was starting at the space, approximately 12 inches wide, between his outstretched hands. As Rafe watched, Stephen’s brow creased in further concentration and his arms stiffened for a split second. As a shudder passed through them, a spark appeared in the empty space between his palms. It was small, and at first Rafe thought he had imagined it. But then Stephen shook his hands and repeated the gesture and the spark reappeared, bright this time and lasting a second longer before it fizzled in a puff of smoke, like a match that doesn’t catch when struck.

A man with dark hair that curled enough to keep it from looking disheveled but was too mussed to qualify as fully groomed stood outside the circle, watching closely. His suit was of good cut and material, but the jacket and cravat had been thrown over the dressing table and the sleeves were cuffed up crisply, which almost concealed the ink stains along their hems. Professor Casmin watched Stephen with an intensity that only added to the hawk-like impression his features already created on their own.

Rafe realized that for all the affectations of relaxation, Edmund’s shoulders were tense and his jaw was clenched. Edmund looked to him to gauge his reaction, but instead of commenting directly, Rafe said, “I’ve only been gone four weeks, Casmin. What have you done to the place?”

“We’ll move the furniture back,” the professor said with a wave of his hand.

“And the paint on the floor? Although I have to say, the gold is a nice touch.”

“Well, if you’re doing to do a thing you might as well put the requisite effort into it,” Casmin said drily. It was how he said almost everything. It went well with the graveled voice and arched black eyebrows.

“Still, what is Mother going to say?”

“Probably that she’d prefer a little paint under the rug to scorch marks on the ceiling.” Casmin took a small coin out of his pocket and flicked it towards Stephen with his thumb. It reached the level of the black paint and bounced backwards with a dull ping before clattering to the floor.

“Clever,” Rafe said.

A corner of Casmin’s mouth twitched.

Edmund drew a deep breath, but said nothing. Rafe clapped him on the back and stepped closer to the circles on the floor.

As he did, Casmin said, “Come on, Stephen, I’ve seen children do better than this.”

Stephen’s eyes flickered over to Casmin and he scowled, but said nothing in response.

“I’m lying,” Casmin said quietly to Rafe. The quirk returned to his lips, and his eyes beamed with pride. “He’s come further in three months than some do in years.”

Stephen redoubled his efforts and at his next attempt the spark caught, turning into a small flicker of flame. Edmund’s startled intake of breath was a sharp hiss in the room’s silence.

“Well. No more bullying little brother,” Rafe said.