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?