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.
“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.