Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Tower: Chapter Four, Part Two

Notes: This isn't what I had planned on writing, but plot and character intruded where I wanted something a little...sexier. It's also on the short side, but I had a surprise outing with Baby Girl and feel fortunate I got enough time to eat, much less write a thousand words. So please, enjoy, and rest assured that I'll do my best to give the next chapter a more satisfying conclusion.

Title: The Towe: Chapter Four, Part Two

***


Chapter Four, Part Two



Anton was never one to regret time spent in study, but even for a student as keen as himself, the day dragged. It didn’t help that he had no time to spend on his own work—he assisted in the first two classes, then narrowly evaded being dragged to a lunch he no doubt couldn’t afford by Montgomery and his companions by hiding—or rather, evading notice—in an empty classroom.

The increasing interest that the other man had in trying to monopolize Anton’s time was irritating, and put him in mind of a little boy who, upon being told no, promptly threw a tantrum. Probably at this point, the fastest way to get rid of the man would be to go and waste some time with him in a public setting, to make it clear that whatever game they were playing at, he had won. It would require nothing more than for Anton to swallow his pride, really. He ignored the uncomfortable squirming sensation in his stomach at the thought of being seen with peers of the realm, however removed they were from their homeland, and mentally shook his head. Perhaps when he had resolved things with Camille. For now, he had no time to waste on braggarts and buffoons.

After lunch Anton had office hours, which were interrupted halfway through by Doctor Grable himself. He shooed the underclassman out of the small room that had been set aside near his own, much larger office, shut the door, and turned his famous glare on Anton as he crossed his arms. 
Doctor Grable was a brilliant thaumaturge, one of the few researchers who Caroline spoke well of, as well as a reputation for prowess at using his gift in combat. Where he had learned such skills no one was exactly sure, and the dour, stern-faced doctor wasn’t saying, but everything about his demeanor, from his craggy face and stormy brow to his stark black robes, warned the wary to tread cautiously. The unwary rarely got far enough to annoy him before he removed them from his presence. And now he was here.

Anton gulped.

“I understand you’ve been in contact with one of our emperor’s lumières.”

Wait, what? Anton thought the whole reason Camille had gone without him to see Doctor Grable was to keep his involvement quiet. His mentor must have read something of his confusion in his face.

“After Lord Lumière informed me of the circumstances of the deaths, I offered him the use of my best forensic thaumaturge—you. He politely refused, which is not the action of a man who wishes to solve crimes. It didn’t take long to realize that he must have felt at liberty to refuse my offer because you had already given him assistance. This whole matter…does it have anything to do with that bloody business on the train?”

“No, sir.” Anton found his tongue at last. “No, not at all. That is merely where I made his acquaintance. There’s no connection, as far as I know.”

“But you are working with him.”

“He asked for my assistance and I gave it.”

“Then you know what—who—he’s looking for.”

“Broadly speaking,” Anton extemporized. Doctor Grable didn’t seem to appreciate it. He took two steps closer, the storminess of his thoughts darkening his eyes.

“If there is a murderer among our students, I want to know about it. It becomes my business, whether Lord Lumière wishes it or not, because I am responsible for them.” He held up a hand as Anton opened his mouth. “In the broadest sense, I am responsible for the actions of all the gifted who reside in this school. If one of them is misusing their gift in such a heinous way, then it falls on me to act. Not him. Me.” The passion in his voice spoke of violence, and Anton barely resisted the urge to shudder. When Doctor Grable took a step back, it was as though Anton could finally breathe again. “I trust you’ll tell him this when next you see him.”

“Oh, I—I don’t know if—”

“Don’t bother trying to deny it—he would be a fool not to make more use of you. You might be rather too narrowly focused in your studies at times, but where you make an effort, your results are always exemplary.” It was perhaps the first open and direct compliment Anton had ever had from the man, and he tried not to let the glow of accomplishment it lit within his chest shine too brightly on his face. “That said, if you don’t involve me in the prosecution of this matter, I am perfectly prepared to make your life quite difficult, Mr. Seiber. Quite difficult. Do you understand me?”

The glow was promptly snuffed out. “I do, Doctor.”

“Good. Carry on, then. Consider yourself relieved of your teaching duties until this mess is resolved.”

“I—thank you.”

“Thank me by catching the bastard responsible for this.” A moment later Doctor Grable let himself out, and Anton slumped back into his chair, winded without even having moved. He wasn’t intimidated by many people—annoyed by them, forced to be polite to them, reluctantly respectful to them yes, but intimidated? That honor was reserved for people he was attracted to and Doctor Grable, possibly not in that order.


Being relieved of his teaching duties was pleasant, but of course no one had thought to tell the students that, and Anton felt obliged to see the ones who had been waiting outside his office before leaving. By the time he was done with them all, the sun had vanished over the edge of the mountains, the time to meet with Camille was drawing near, and he had managed once again to eat nothing since breakfast. Anton stopped in the dormitory long enough to grab a cup of tea, constantly alert to evading notice, but he seemed to have weathered the worst of other peoples’ unwanted attentions at this point. He grabbed his holdall, not sure what might be required of him this evening but wanting to be prepared for anything, and headed to Camille’s inn.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Tower: Chapter Four, Part One

Notes: It's short but it's here! Two weeks in a row, booyah! Have some planning and preparation, and also some cake. Mmmm, cake.

Title: The Tower: Chapter Four, Part One

***


Chapter Four, Part One



It was not that Anton couldn’t see that Camille’s determination was logical. When working a crime that involved thaumaturges, especially ones capable of killing each other, it made sense to steer the investigation toward the highest density of magic users. In this case, though…

“You do realize there are over four hundred students, graduate students and professors at the university, don’t you?” Anton questioned over tea and tortes in a little café not far from his dormitory. Camille had insisted on buying him breakfast after their early morning, and Anton soon recovered enough of his appetite to make the idea of eating appealing. He added a bit of jam to his pastry and bit in, doing his best not to moan at the taste of it. He hadn’t eaten out in…well, perhaps since arriving and having a welcome dinner with Doctor Grable. The food provided in the dormitory cafeteria was simple and filling and, best of all, cheap, but it rarely came with jam.

“I realize that, yes.” Camille sipped at his cup of coffee, which Anton had to admit smelled good even if it tasted vile, then shrugged. “But the vast majority of them are easy to exclude.”

“How do you figure that?” Anton asked after a hasty swallow.

Camille waved a hand at him. “Consider what we know, and then tell me who we’re looking for.”

Anton frowned. “Are you trying to turn me into an investigator?”

“Simply trying to expand your already-impressive powers of deduction. You are a man of logic. Approach the problem logically, and you’ll soon see why a near-hopeless task becomes quite doable.”

“Fine.” Anton set his pastry down and thought about what they’d seen that morning. “It must be someone powerful. But, power is difficult to quantify, and in fact there are rules against trying to categorize ourselves, in order to keep down abuses of authority.”

“And yet, you are ranked as students,” Camille pointed out. “Thaumaturgy has never been about simple raw power. It is a combination of finesse, attention to detail, willpower and, only lastly, the inherent strength of one’s ability. Given what we know of our murderer, I believe that no one in less than the top tenth percentile of practitioners could do what has been done.”

“That still leaves you with forty people to consider, and that’s if it’s a student at all. It could be a local, or someone working here—after all, the men killed were workers, not students.”

“True, but one must start somewhere.” Camille dabbed at his lips with a linen napkin. “And I believe we can narrow it down even further.” He didn’t continue, just looked at Anton patiently.

“Because…you believe the killer is…” What had he insinuated before? “A fellow Englishman?”

“I think it entirely possible.”

“But the Devoué are not as well-established in England as they are on the continent. Doesn’t it make more sense for the killer to be one of them?”

“The Devoué are merely one branch of a larger movement, one that encompasses the British Isles as well as all of the mainland. And, as you say, they may not be well-established in England, but they’re not unheard of.”

It still seemed like an awful lot of guesswork to Anton. “So you think we’re looking for an English thaumaturge who is ranked in the top ten percent of students at the university?”

“It’s merely one possibility,” Camille said. “But a strong one, strong enough to begin with. The timing works, if we assume that it’s the palimpsest the killer is after. And that assumption isn’t one we can easily dismiss.”

“The Universität Zürich has a very large population of foreign students.” But among the best in his classes… “I think there are perhaps eleven or twelve of my fellows whom I would categorize both as adept enough to do this and of my own nationality.”

“Excellent. I shall confirm this with your Doctor Grable and begin my enquiries this afternoon.”

“I can meet you at his office by—”

“No.” Camille’s brisk headshake put an end to Anton’s brief hopes. “I don’t want to throw any more of a spotlight on you than I already have. We still don’t know the entirety of the killer’s criteria when it comes to choosing his victims, and I don’t want to make it any worse for you by singling you out.”

Was Camille going to push him away, now that he had utilized Anton’s particular expertise? “I can still help you.”

“You have already done so, most admirably.” Anton opened his mouth to object, and Camille raised a hand. “And you shall continue to do so after I’ve met with Doctor Grable and procured the information I need. But I will not be careless with your safety, Anton. Your disguises are no doubt excellent, but remember—there are no guarantees. What one can do, another can see through. Let me do this on my own, and we shall meet again this evening to begin narrowing down our search.”

Well, damnation. It was hard to argue with the man when he based his entire argument on protecting Anton’s life and livelihood. “You swear you will not cut me out?” he pressed.

“Absolutely.” Camille gave him a half-smile. “Anton, I came to you this time, not the other way around. I’m not planning on relinquishing your assistance before the murderer is caught, or before I am made to for some unavoidable reason. I promise.”

There was more to the heft of his words and the heat of Camille’s gaze than Anton was entirely comfortable staring down, but he didn’t look away. He had never been so infatuated with another human being in his life, and the very idea that his interest was still reciprocated, perhaps strongly enough to act on this time… “Where should we meet this evening, then?”

“My rooms are private enough, I believe, and I don’t want to give away my presence to the general populace at the university too soon.” He gave Anton the address. “Meet me there, discreetly, at half past seven. I’ll provide food and drink, you can provide me with your opinion on the people who make the cut.”

Anton swallowed. “I’ll be there.”

“I’m glad to hear it.” Camille paid the bill, then pressed to his feet. “Until this evening, then.”

“Mmhmm.”

He smiled and left the café, and Anton reached for his tea and swallowed the remnants down in one enormous gulp. Good lord, could he be any more awkward?

Then again, if awkwardness hadn’t put Camille off of him so far, it wasn’t likely to at this point. Feeling cheered, he finished his torte and stood up, heading out into the street. He carefully dismantled the spell obfuscating his appearance as he went, so that by the time he reached the university, he once again looked like himself. He had ten minutes left before his first class began.


Anton already knew that the day would drag, but at least he had something—someone—to look forward to at the end of it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Tower: Chapter Three, Part Two

Notes: Oh my god, I did it! I managed to get some words down while my baby was napping! Have some Anton and Camille and dead people, enjoy, yaaaaay!

Title: The Tower: Chapter Three, Part Two

***


Chapter Three, Part Two



The second morgue wasn’t quite as neat and kept up as the first, but it was still a testament to the cultural fastidiousness of Zürich’s population. There was almost no smell of death at all, and while the walls and floor weren’t clean enough to eat from, they were a far cry from the charnel houses of London. This morgue was kept along a dark side street near the red light district, and while the stars were beginning to disappear overhead by the time they arrived there, there was still plenty of darkness left to assure a successful miasma.

The proprietor, a woman this time, let them in silently. She took the handful of coins that Camille proffered, pointed toward a heavy wooden door, then took herself off to another part of the house.

“Curious,” Anton murmured.

“Not really. Frau Schumacher and I came to an agreement over the bodies yesterday. She knew to expect us. And as she is functionally mute nowadays, I didn’t expect much in the way of verbal interaction.”

“Mute?” Anton blinked. “What happened to her?”

“I believe it was an unexpected side effect of a particularly nasty spell, but it’s impolite to speculate about such things. What affects one person one way—”

“—might have a completely different effect on another, yes, I know.” It was one of the first things any thaumaturge learned in school: you could predict the outcome of a spell down to the minutiae, that was what all the symbols and equations and paraphernalia was for. The less you left things to chance, to variability, the more control you had over the outcome. However, no spell was completely foolproof, and little things about the people you cast it on or around, from their emotional state to the clothes they wore to the changing direction of the wind, might wreak havoc on it. Anton still remembered an incident when he was young, when one of his fellow students cast an illusion on another, then promptly began shrieking with horror when the illusion made the boy appear as a hideously mutilated corpse, instead of simply altered to be paler.

Camille’s gentle touch on Anton’s elbow broke him out of his remembrance. “Shall we?”

“Uh, yes. Of course.” Anton led the way into the morgue, cool and quiet. A dimmed lantern already hung on the wall, providing just enough illumination to see the two bodies, five feet apart. “Which one first?”

Camille stepped up to the body on the right and checked beneath the linen cloth covering it. “This one. This is Jackson Clark, our most adept street mage. One wonders what the finder was being asked to find.”

“The palimpsest, surely,” Anton said as he set up his equipment again.

“Yes, but by what means? If it is as secret as I suspect it to be, then there should be no way to locate it directly. The more details with a finding spell, the better, correct?”

“Always. A resonance spell would have been ideal, but without coming into contact with the palimpsest there was no way to know the resonance of it.” Anton chalked the path to the body, then went back and lit his little flame. Camille kept silent, and a moment later, as the smoke wafted over the body, the scene played out. It was sadly familiar. The man writhed on the ground, caught in the grip of an unseen hand, and after a few moments, his throat was unceremoniously slit.

Camille sighed. “As I suspected.”

“If only some of them had invested the time in learning defensive spells.” Anton shook his head. “It might have saved their lives.”

“Yet magic is notoriously poor at being quick-cast.”

“Proper defensive spells are not quick-cast,” Anton replied. “Offensive spells might be, but that is a special branch of thaumaturgy that I’ve never delved very deeply into. Defensive spells, though, those can be linked to anything, like this charm I’m wearing to hide my face. They might not be very powerful, but they could be the difference between life, and…well.” He waved at the body of Jackson Clark. “That.”

Camille seemed interested, stepping closer as Anton began to set up for the final death miasma. “Do you employ them yourself?”

“Well, I didn’t before the—the incident on the train.” And it was a shame, because being better prepared might have saved Anton from several beatings. “But since then, I’ve begun studying it a bit. The knife, you know, was a variant on a defensive spell, a very powerful variant. I’d never go that far, but.” He shrugged. “It certainly pays to be prepared.”

“Indeed.” Camille looked down at Anton warmly, and he felt his cheeks heat in reaction. “You’ll have to tell me about the fruit of your studies at a more opportune moment.”

“I-I would be delighted to, of course.” Anton looked down and cursed himself silently for blushing. Would he never have better control over his own emotions where Camille was concerned? “Give me a moment.”

“Take all the time you need.”

Anton focused his energies and cast the spell for the last time. The smoke rose toward the fourth body, the final unfortunate soul who had been lost to this killer. Anton expected the death scene to be much the same as the others, but instead—

The man’s body jerked and flailed, staggering to his feet and dropping down to his knees again as he slapped ineffectually at his chest and face. His smoky mouth opened in a silent scream, hands clenched like claws on either side of his head. Something appeared to dart down his throat, and a moment later, he convulsed and fell onto his side.

The scene repeated. It repeated again. By the third time, Anton was more than ready to abolish it, and Camille finally nodded. Rather than looking disgusted, he appeared intrigued.

“Ah, now that is interesting.”

“He was…” Anton had seen this before, just not as violently. “He was being eaten alive.”

“Indeed he was. I knew that Garth Killian’s body had been found somewhat chewed, but—” he walked over and checked under the cloth “—I didn’t know that it was because he had been attacked by his own magic.”

“What do you mean?”

“Give me a moment to confirm.” Camille pried the poor man’s mouth open and peered inside of it. “Yes. There’s a rat down there.”

Anton’s stomach swooped dangerously. “He was forced to swallow a rat?”

“He was. Mr. Killian was a very effective exterminator—it was his sole focus. For his own magic to be turned against him, or at the very least for his spell to be overwhelmed by someone else’s, he must have been killed by another thaumaturge.”

Anton slowly felt the logical part of his brain begin to function again with a little bit of distance from the horror now. “It’s hard to beat someone at their own game. There are intricacies that can only be known through years of experimentation and practice.”

“Indeed. So, it must have been a very strong thaumaturge, someone strong enough to force their will on a street mage with little to no damage to themselves.”

“Dangerous,” Anton said. “But possible.”

“The act of someone steeped in contempt for who he was dealing with, and filled with a powerful sense of his own abilities,” Camille agreed. “Well. This narrows the field considerably.”

“Where will you look next?”

Camille smiled, the warmth replaced by something sharper. “Why, at your university, of course.”


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Oh Baby

My baby is here! Oh my gosh, my baby is here. I am so full of love it's overwhelming.

I'm also tired, sore, sleep deprived, tired, hungry, sleepy, and did I mention tired? Because I am.

I will have more Tower for you as soon as childishly possible, but my kiddo has needs, and those include most of my time and brain power at the moment. First kid, what can I say? There's a learning curve.

Thanks for being patient, and for the lovely well wishes :)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Moving Things Up--ie, Why There's No Tower Today

Hi guys.

So, there should be a chapter here, yeah? Or at least half a chapter. But life has gotten in the way, in a BIG way. After a doctor's appointment last week, it was decided that Baby Girl needs to come out sooner rather than later, so tomorrow we're going in to be induced. Technically she's full term and everything looks like it's working okay, we're just three weeks earlier than I thought we'd be.

Three weeks. Three WEEKS. I was counting on having those weeks to get all sorts of stuff done, and now life has turned into a mad dash of getting the house ready, buying whatever else we might need, making preparations for our dog, readying ourselves for the hospital--you get the drill. I've been the next best thing to frantic, and tired and super pregnant to boot, so...yeah. I wish I'd gotten it done, but I didn't. I don't know when the next chapter will post, since after tomorrow I'll have a tiny human depending on my and my man, and our tiny human expertise is limited. I see a lot of trial and error in my future.

I'm excited to welcome my baby, though, and excited to get the pregnancy part of this experience over with, and excited about labor--or, wait, that might be anxiety. Probably anxiety. I'll try to let you guys know how things go as soon as possible. In the meantime, thanks for reading (or trying to read) and best of luck in whatever you're doing this next week.

Cari

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Tower: Chapter Three, Part One

Notes: It's body time! Let's investigate some death miasmas, shall we?

Title: The Tower: Chapter Three, Part One

***


Chapter Three, Part One


The first morgue on their list was not far from the magnificent Grossmünster Cathedral, a holy place dating from the time of Charlemagne. Its grounds had served as a burial place for over eight centuries, so perhaps it was no wonder that a morgue had found its way into the church’s shadow. Those in the community who were better off would surely prefer to bury their dead in the church graveyard, and a conveniently placed morgue was essential for keeping a body fresh before burial, even in a cool locale like Zürich. It was nothing like the places Anton had worked in London, with stained bricks and wet slabs and bodies piling up in the back while he cast spell after spell, confirming cause of death and, in some cases, illuminating it.

It had been necessary, honorable work, but the stink of the nearby Thames, rotting bodies and ever-burning crematoriums had seeped into his clothing, his hair, and even his skin by the end of a day. Even the harshest soaps could not entirely scrub him clean, not in one washing, and no matter how his mother had tried, essence of lavender and extract of lemon were no match for particles of immolated fat. Anton had not been in a position to refuse to do such work, but when the chance at getting his Master’s had come along, he had seized it with both hands.

The morgue they entered now was a crisp, clean place, its front whitewashed and very visible even in the low light. An elderly man carrying a taper met them at the door. “You’re the investigators here to view the young gentlemen, I take it?” he asked calmly.

“Indeed.” Camille held out a hand and the two men shook. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with us at this early hour. This is my colleague, Herr Vogt.”

“Herr Vogt.” The old man smiled thinly. “And you the emperor’s lumière. Quite the hardy knot of justice looking into these deaths.” His smile vanished. “These poor lads should have been buried two days ago, Monsieur Lumière. It is not seemly to make the dead wait for their final resting place with the Lord.”

“It would be even less seemly for them to go to their eternal rest with their murders unresolved,” Camille rejoined. “They cannot speak for themselves now, so allow my colleague and I to discover what we may of them. If we can prevent this tragedy from befalling other talented young men, I will consider the sacrifice of their wait well worth it.”

The man grumbled a little, but turned aside and waved them through. “They are in the back, next to Frau Fischer. Go straight down the hall, it is the final door, and unlocked. No one has been inside since yesterday, when we brought the good woman in. Her husband is also anxiously awaiting the release of his dear wife’s body, so I implore you—make haste.”

“You have followed protocol most precisely, my thanks.” Camille bowed slightly, and the man handed over the taper with an incline of his own head. “We shall be gone before the next hour is struck.”

“I shall hope for it, Monsieur.” He locked the front door behind them, then disappeared upstairs. Camille didn’t bother to watch him go, just strode down the hall so fast Anton was hard-pressed to keep up at first.

“Do you want to go in by yourself first?” Camille asked, stopping in front of the door. “I remember that being quite important on the train.”

Anton shook his head. “The bodies have already been taken from their original resting places. I won’t get much out of their surroundings at this point. We’ll be lucky to get five seconds of miasma here, and it likely won’t be repeatable for long, so do join me.”

“Very well.” Still, he hung back and let Anton lead now, which was…heartening. He pushed the door open and stepped into the chill of the morgue.

However this proprietor was keeping the place cold, he was doing an excellent job of it. Anton could see his own breath in the faint light, and he rubbed his hands together briefly before approaching the first slab. He eased back the linen covering the man’s face and took in the white collar around his ruined neck. “The priest.”

“Father Jeremiah Brooks,” Camille confirmed. “A strange target, even for someone going after magically-talented Englishmen. He had enough ability to rank as a full priest, but Father Brooks was no true thaumaturge. The most interesting thing about him was his wanderlust.”

“Perhaps there will be something more to glean upon seeing his death miasma.” Anton took a step back and opened his holdall. “Please position yourself against the wall while I make the spell.”

“Of course.” Camille stepped back and then there was just Anton and the work he knew like the back of his hand. He pulled out a small silver bowl, set it on the floor, then inscribed a circle of symbols around it in chalk. From those, he drew a straight line over to the slab, ending it just shy of Father Brook’s head. He knelt again, pulled out the mixture of herbs and metals that went hand in hand with conjuring a miasma, and set the sachet inside the bowl.

He took out a match and a paper fan, closed his eyes and drew in his power along with his breath, then spoke the triggering spell. The match lit, and he lowered it to the herbs, which blazed far brighter than such a little package should have. The fire died just as quickly, and Anton used the fan to waft the smoke toward the body, allowing nothing to disturb his focus and concentration. The chalk acted like an updraft, drawing the smoke to the slab. It collected over the body, then stilled. Anton held his breath. Perhaps it had been too long, perhaps he was too late…

Suddenly the smoke coalesced into the wavering form of a standing man. His head snapped back as though he’d been struck, and he fell to his knees. His hands rose in front of him, and a moment later, a gush of smoke erupted from his hazy throat. The man fell onto his side, the life flowing out of him, and a moment later, the scene reset.

Anton let it play twice more before Camille finally said, “Enough.” He erased the primary glyph holding the spell together, and the smoke began to dissipate. Camille stepped up to his side, his expression intent. “Interesting.”

“Why?”

“Because he was not bound. His hands were free right up to the end. It makes me think he either knew his attacker, or was seeing them in a professional capacity before they went for him. Father Brooks was found in his rooms, but he was known to have visitors on occasion.”

“Professional capacity.” Anton finally caught up. “You mean, he was acting as someone’s priest? A confessor, perhaps?”

“Perhaps. Or just a friendly ear in a foreign city. Curious.” Camille tapped his lips with one forefinger. “Most curious. And he didn’t even attempt to defend himself, simply made the sign of the cross as he died. Why he wouldn’t cry out…”

“Maybe he wanted to die with dignity.”

“There is little dignity to be had in death, especially a violent one,” Camille said. “You should remember that much from the train.” Anton shuddered and looked away. No one who had died on that train had died well, that was certain. “But let us move on. Master Frederick Hollyoak awaits.” He gestured to the next slab.

Anton cleaned up his first spell with steady hands, despite how unnerved he felt by the scene, and resettled in front of the other body. Camille pulled back the shroud as Anton began his preparations. His expression went from calm to stone-cold in an instant. “Ah.”

Anton refocused on him. “Ah?”

“Do the spell, but I have a feeling I already know what you’re going to find.” Camille replaced the cloth gently, and waved Anton back down when he made to stand up. “No, don’t look. It won’t make any difference if you see his state, and you don’t need the distraction.”

“I’ve worked with literally hundreds of corpses before,” Anton protested. “I won’t be frightened by what I see.”

“You won’t be improved by it either. Please.” There was a note of something almost imploring in Camille’s voice, and hearing it made Anton shiver. “Don’t look. Just cast the spell.”

“I…very well.” Anton went through the motions again, preparing the spell, speaking the incantation to light the match, and finally moving the smoke where it needed to go. It huddled over the body, which didn’t seem to react. No, wait—it had shifted, so that the journeyman thaumaturge was on his belly now instead of his back. He seemed to be barely breathing, awful, hitched things that caught in his lungs. An invisible hand lifted his head up, and Anton had just a second to see the way smoke seemed to ooze from every plane of the man’s face before his throat was cut, blood gushing. The scene reset.

“Is he…was he…”

“Tortured,” Camille confirmed. “Yes. I had been told, of course, but it’s different to see the evidence for myself. He was tortured quite brutally before his murderer finally killed him.”

“But for what?” Anton murmured, feeling sick to his stomach. He’d seen the afterimages of so many violent deaths, but rarely had they ever been more than that. Acts of passion, acts of coldhearted deliberation, yes, but not acts of drawn-out suffering.

“That is what we must discover.” Camille rested his hand on Anton’s shoulder for a moment. “Can you continue?”

“Of course.” Anton shook his head a little. “Of course I can. I was just surprised.”

“Good. The other morgue is a bit of a walk, and it’s too early yet for a coach.”

“I won’t let you down.”


Anton could hear the smile in the other man’s voice. “You never have. I don’t doubt that you never shall.”

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Tower: Chapter Two, Part Two

Notes: We're off to see the corpses, but first Anton has to navigate a--let's call it, complicated--offer from someone who really ought to know better. What a dick.

Title: The Tower: Chapter Two, Part Two

***


Chapter Two, Part Two

Photo: Scott Phillips

Anton had to rush to make his appointment with Camille on time, waking in a flurry with a mere twenty minutes to spare. He tidied himself up as well as he could, but didn’t bother shaving—a bit of a beard would lend credibility to his run-down illusion. He checked his holdall, making sure he had all the necessary ingredients for constructing a death miasma in a morgue, rather than in situ, and then bolted for the front door of the dormitory.

He was stopped on the way out by Montgomery and two of his pack of rowdies, who looked like they were just getting in after their night of debauchery. “Seiber!” Montgomery cried out when he saw him, in a voice so stentorian it was a wonder he didn’t wake the sun itself. “Come to join us at last? A bit late, man, but for you—”

“I merely have some early morning errands to run,” Anton said, smoothly sidestepping the drunken arm that threatened to descend around his shoulders again. “And you fellows look like you’re more ready for your beds than your cups.”

Montgomery waved his hand in a clumsy brushoff. “A proper man should always be ready for both.”

“Then you will forgive me if I ask that you skip the one in favor of the other. It is too early for drink now.”

“But not too late for bed.” Montgomery’s eyes gleamed briefly. “Perhaps you could accompany me there instead.”

Anton’s mouth dropped open. He was—did he—good God, the gentry could just get away with anything couldn’t they? Including propositioning someone of their own gender with no fear of repercussions or tarnished reputations, which was what Anton would certainly face, at a minimum, if his preferences were found out. No modern country had adopted the relaxed attitude of those long-gone Greek and Roman philosophers, but it was clearly true that with enough money and influence, anything could be forgiven or ignored.

“You’ve struck him dumb,” one of Montgomery’s friends—Anton didn’t know this one’s name, but he had a round, florid face and wispy blond hair that had mostly floated free of his queue. “Not everyone likes to drink from both hands at once, Gerry, especially not the boring, serious ones like Seiber. You’d have better luck tempting a monk into your bed!”

“I need a bath before bed,” the other one, Percy, said mournfully as he examined the stained white lace at the edge of his cuffs. “I think possibly there was something nasty in that gutter.”

“Of course there was, it’s a gutter. They’re made to catch filth.” The unnamed one began to laugh. “It caught you, didn’t it?”

“Best shut your mouth before I haul you out of here by your ears and see how well the nearest gutter catches you, Harry!”

“Gentlemen.” Montgomery shook his head. “It’s both far too early and far too late for arguing. Harry, haul Percy to the showers. I’ll be along in a minute.” They disappeared down the hallway, and Montgomery turned back to Anton. “Are you struck dumb with surprise, or disgust?” he asked in a tone more honest and curious than any Anton had ever heard from him before.

Anton finally gathered himself together enough to shake his head. “Neither, my lord. Just surprised, that’s all.”

Montgomery smiled. “Ah, now you pull out the ‘my lord’ like a dagger. Do you mean to shame me?”

“Nothing I could ever say would shame you, I’m quite sure.” For his pertness, Anton expected to be told off; he didn’t expect Montgomery to move even closer, not yet touching him, but near enough to practically feel the larger man’s body heat.

“Then why say it? Do you refuse me due to issues of class, or out of pure disinterest? Are you a monk like Harry implies, or are you merely a cautious man?”

“There is nothing ‘mere’ about caution when one doesn’t have the protections of title and wealth,” Anton replied. The church bell began to toll five-o-clock, and he realized if he didn’t leave now, he would be inexcusably late. “Forgive me, but I must take my leave.”

“For your ‘errands.’”

“Precisely, my lord.”

They stared at each other for a long moment before Montgomery finally chuckled and shook his head. “You are brave, aren’t you? And stubborn, I sense. I’ll not have my way with you easily, not like my other lads.”

“I venture to guess that you’ll likely not have your way with me at all.”

“But not because you’re not the type.” When Anton paused, Montgomery’s smile widened. “I knew it! I always know these things.”

“Go to bed, my lord,” Anton advised him, transferring his heavy holdall to his other hand. “Alone. You’ll sleep better.” Then he turned and briskly walked out into the cold pre-dawn air, doing his best to conceal how he shook through darkness and distance. To think that that arrogant, indolent, unfairly gifted fool should be able to order someone into his company, into his bed, for no other reason than that he was bored and he could… Anton had felt ready to hammer his fist into the other man’s face, and it was only the clock that had saved him from the indignity of getting his arse kicked, he was sure. It wasn’t even—to imagine that he—

It wasn’t the taboo. Anton knew his preferences well enough to be at peace with them, by now. He had only managed a few male lovers in his relatively short life, but those liaisons had brought gratifying physical satisfaction that no other romantic contemplations even came close to. If he could have fallen in love with a woman enough to marry her, it would have been Caroline, of course. She was beautiful, incredibly intelligent, and sincerely loved him back. But it was not to be, and if it couldn’t be with her, it wouldn’t be with any of the fairer sex.

As for desiring more experiences with men, well…most of the time, Anton simply didn’t notice potential partners. He was a student, he was a thaumaturge, and he had duties and responsibilities and far more pressing needs than fulfilling the desires of the flesh. It took an exceptional man to gain his interest, and the only exceptional man he’d noticed of late was Camille.

God, how he had wanted him, back on the train. What he would have done for just another half-hour in the man’s company, alone, nothing to hold them back. Everything he’d ever felt, experienced, practiced with another lover, Anton would have brought to bear on Camille. Anything to give him pleasure, Anton would have done, and gladly, eagerly. Not since his first kiss had he felt so out of control with desire.

Just as well things had been…delayed, was perhaps the right term. After months apart, Anton wasn’t entirely sure where they stood with each other. The situation would only have been more complicated if he had already slept with the lumière. Best to put it from his mind. He reached into his pocket, clasped the first charm bag, and quietly spoke the incantation. He felt it take effect, and smiled.

Camille was waiting for him outside the guesthouse when he arrived, but not with anything like an air of distaste at Anton’s slight tardiness. “Here.” He held out a crusty piece of bread, still warm from the oven. “Have a bite to eat before we begin. I recall your spellcasting being a bit more pleasant for you when you’ve had some sustenance.”

“Thank you.” Anton managed not to brush their fingers together as he took the slice. The first bite was heavenly, and he closed his eyes and savored it for a moment. When he opened them again, Camille appeared to be studying him.

“Have you done something to yourself?”

Anton swallowed quickly. “What?”

“Have you…your gait, when you approached, was slower than usual, almost with a hitch, as though you were fighting off a cramp or…has someone laid hands on you since I saw you last?”

“Oh.” Anton blinked, then shook his head rapidly. “Oh, no, not at all! I hadn’t realized I was doing that.” It made sense, though—he always changed his mannerisms when he changed his form, a holdover from reckless games of childhood hide and seek. “I’ve cast a glamour on myself to modify my appearance, just a bit. I look older, so I am walking as though I am.”

“I see.” The edges of Camille’s moustache lifted. “It’s a shame I can’t appreciate you in your newfound glory.”

“It feels rather nice for at least one person to see me as I really am,” Anton confessed.

“Then I’m pleased to be that person for you. Now.” Camille straightened up as Anton bolted down the rest of the bread. “We’ve a little over two hours before sunrise, and four corpses to examine. Are you ready?”

“I am.”

“Then follow me.”


Gladly, Anton thought but dared not speak as he trailed Camille into the misty gloom of Zürich’s darkened alleyways.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Tower, Chapter Two, Part One

Notes: A little shorter than my last installment, but full of the technical side of magic. Next week, on to Camille and the death miasmas!

Title: The Tower: Chapter Two, Part One

***


Chapter Two, Part One


The answer to “When do we start?” was “On the morrow,” and early enough that when Camille suggested they part for the evening, it barely stung to agree. Camille was lodged in a guesthouse not a quarter-mile from Anton’s own dormitory, and they would need in the morning before first light, in an effort to get to the morgues as soon as possible.

For some reason—and there were many theories, none of them proven—it was easier to construct a death miasma in times of darkness. Perhaps it was nothing more than the effect of unconscious bias in training—Anton could do it in full day just fine thank to much zealous practice, after all—but he also didn’t mind hastening his next rendezvous with Camille.

After Camille left, Anton took the time to reset his wards and make sure his experiments were either in stasis or resolved before setting off for his own cold bed. It was a bit late to get dinner in the student kitchens, but some kind cook had left out a loaf of brown bread and a bit of fatty goose drippings on the counter. If the food was left out, it was fair game, and Anton took the offering with quiet gratitude before continuing on his way.

It wasn’t that he was quite as poor as he made out to be—the purse of coins Camille had given him after the case on the train was still mostly full—but he was afraid to spend it too fast. His mother had done all she could to set him up well, but she had her own problems in the wake of his father’s death, and he would not intrude on her fragile peace of mind.

Anton made his way to his room—his private room, tiny but certainly a blessing—at the back of the first floor as he munched on the last piece his meal. A quick check told him that his locks here remained inviolate, and he sighed with relief as he drew the opening glyph in midair with his wand. The door opened, and he entered, only to sigh when he saw the rat droppings on the far floor.

“Works on everything but rats,” he muttered. They must get in through the window—he kept it shuttered tight, but like everything else in Zürich, the building was old and full of tiny crevices through which a pest could enter. He picked up the small, bristled broom in the corner of his chamber and swept the mess to the side, to be dealt with later. For now, he had preparations to make.

Anton had told Camille he could be discreet, look other than he was now. And that was entirely true, he could. It wasn’t something he’d practiced in a while, his studies and work being what they were, but Anton’s first, childish spells had all revolved around making himself into something else. He smiled as he lit the candles on his little, worn desk, remembering how his mother had shrieked when she found a messy young chimneysweep sitting at her breakfast table, eating jam straight out of the jar with sooty hands. All an illusion, of course, and worth the scolding he’d received for it.

The spells weren’t especially complicated, but they did require some time to prepare, and time was something Anton was short of. He was due to be out and about again in a bit less than six hours—he would have to make the modifications simple. Starting with his hair.

He chalked a circle on the perfectly flat workstation in the middle of his desk, then plucked a strand of his dark brown hair and set it in the mortar and pestle on the side. He thought for a moment, then added a pinch of ash from a gorse bush for age, the tiniest shavings of sulfur and platinum to lend intensity and stability to the blend, and a few dried petals of Adonis flower, to improve the humbleness of his design and add a sense of grief that would make others think twice about intruding. He blended it all together, set a piece of virgin linen in the center of the chalk circle, then poured the mixture into the center of it.

First, a test. Anton took up his chalk again and wrote out an equation for a minor transformation, barely enough to sap the ingredients, then laid his forefinger on the bag and his thumb at the end of the equation. Because it was a personal illusion, he could accentuate it a bit by applying some of his own energy to the spell. He spoke the glyph’s trigger, then looked into the small, scratched mirror above the desk.

Ah, excellent. He had easily aged twenty years, the dark shine of his hair lost to grey, the youthful—if slightly sallow from fatigue—glow of his skin leeched by the gray march of time. Not unhandsome, and not even vastly different in appearance from himself, but older, more worn and beaten by life and work. Subtle. Perfect.

So perfect, in fact, that perhaps he should do a variant. Just for the practice, and it might be nice to have another identity at hand in case of emergency or if the first ran out of power. Anton tied up the linen sachet and set it aside to go into his breast pocked tomorrow, then began again. Red this time, dark red, more of an auburn blaze than a twilight, where had he left his dahlia petals again? Not back in the lab, please, he didn’t want to march back up there but a rose wouldn’t give the same effect, he needed—ah, there!

This mixture took a bit more time, was a bit brighter and livelier and more energetic, and so required more energy. But the results were so striking that Anton decided to round things out with one more, a softer, deeper transformation this time, one that spoke of gentleness backed by an incisive edge. Something more like Caroline. Such spells would be simplistic for an intellect as grand as hers, but she always saw the beauty in things both simple and complex. He should write to her soon, it had been too long since her last letter from Scotland.


By the time Anton fell into bed, he had but four hours remaining before he was due to meet Camille again. He couldn’t bring himself to be upset about it, though. Who needed sleep when there were murderers to catch, and at the side of the man who had haunted his dreams for the past three months, no less? Anton couldn’t think of anything he would rather do, and let that conviction carry him quickly off to sleep.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Tower: Chapter One, Part Two

Notes: On to Part Two! I hope you enjoy it, I'm having a great time wrestling with this mystery. The plot thickens...

Title: The Tower: Chapter One, Part Two

***

Chapter One, Part Two



“Englishmen?” Anton was taken aback. “Whatever for?” There might be a fair number of his fellow citizens scattered across Zürich, but they were still a tiny minority in such a large city. Most of them were merchants, or students like himself. “Do you suspect the Dévoué?” The Dévoué were a sect of rabid nationalists, intent on breaking apart Napoleon III’s empire and reestablishing separate, sovereign kingdoms.

It was a member of the Dévoué who had been responsible for the death of Viscount Bonaparte, and in charge of the train on which Anton himself had nearly been killed more than once. It was a member of that sect that had composed a magical palimpsest that Anton was still working on translating, which contained a spell that would imbue weapons with the ability to ensure death once they were wielded.

He still had nightmares about those weapons—the gun that never missed, the knife that once unsheathed would not be put away until it had killed. Anton—and Camille—had been the targets of both of them, and it was only through sheer luck that they had survived. Such a spell would obviously be brutally dangerous in the wrong hands, and Anton had been more than ready to give the palimpsest up to Camille, but the lumière had entrusted it to his keeping instead. In deciphering the spell, they might learn how to defeat it. Or such was Anton’s hope, at least.

“It is possible,” Camille allowed, a frown creasing his brow and drawing down the edges of his moustache. Anton tried to watch him a bit less raptly, but it was hard. Camille had been a constant presence in his mind ever since Anton’s arrival in Zürich, the first man—first person, really—to get his attention and hold it, and one of the few men to openly praise his thaumaturgical skills. That he was tall, broad-shouldered and appealingly attractive were other marks in his favor. It would not be a lie to say that Anton drove himself to distraction with his work, in part, because it was better than fruitless pining.

“Possible, but if so, it is a very targeted attack,” Camille continued. “The English are no allies to Napoleon, despite the truce between our empires. Probably the only reason your leaders haven’t come out in open favor of the Dévoué is fear that such rebellion would spread to your own colonies. That does not mean that there aren’t covert actions being taken to strengthen dissent and weaken the hold of the crown.”

Anton was confused. “So then, it is spies who are being targeted? Could the killer be one of your fellow lumières?”

Camille shook his head. “Not that I know of. And as for who is being targeted, well, that is very odd. Four men have died so far, each of them relatively new to the city. They are largely solitary individuals, not members of established groups, and all of them have shown varying levels of talent in thaumaturgy.”

Now it was Anton’s turn to frown. “What do you mean by that? Are you speaking of formal masters or priests, or students, or is it street magic?” Street magic was what those who were born with more ability than most to effect thaumaturgy but without the means for a proper education, resorted to in order to hone their skills. Street magic was an unpredictable mirror of formal thaumaturgy, cut with poor ingredients and improper alchemical equations. Street magic could be immensely powerful when done by the right practitioner, but more than half who tried anything more complicated than a simple locator or resonance spell ended up hurting themselves, or even dying, from backlash.

“A combination of all, actually. One man was a journeyman thaumaturgical locksmith, employed by one of the banks. He was quite proficient within his own sphere, but knew little beyond it. Another was a priest, again a young man, stopping here to continue his study of religious architecture. The final two were street mages, one specializing in keeping away vermin, the other a finder.”

“A finder?” That was a rare skill to develop, especially for someone with an inferior education. “He must have been in high demand.”

“And he took the longest to die,” Camille said grimly. “All four of these men were killed over the past two weeks, all four of them tortured before having their throats slit. Whatever their murderer was looking for, it seems that he or she hasn’t discovered it yet.”

“How has none of this appeared in the papers? Why haven’t I heard of it before now?”

“The margrave of this canton has taken pains to conceal the deaths, putting the bodies in holding as they appeared. He requested a lumière to look into the matter, and thus, here I am.”

“You said you would allow no other to take it up.” Anton felt his face heat, and was grateful for the dim light in his laboratory. “But you haven’t yet said why, other than the fact that these men share my origin.”

“It is more than that. All young men, all arriving three months ago, all thaumaturges to some degree, all tortured to death. Do you not see the common thread?”

Anton frowned. “Other than what you’ve already laid out?”

“In addition to it, perhaps. Anton,” now Camille laid his hands on Anton’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes, “they are all of them quite similar to you. I kept your true identity hidden after the debacle on the train, but not everything could be concealed, including the truth that you were not, in fact, Consul Hasler, once the discovery of his body had breached the gap from Paris to Zürich.

“Puzzle pieces were put together, pieces I should have tried harder to eradicate, but there was so little time. It became known that you were English, that you had training in magic, and that you were also in possession of something very valuable. Something that a member of the Dévoué, or an unscrupulous lumière, or even an enterprising freelance spy or assassin would gladly kill to obtain.”

Anton felt the blood drain from his head. “The palimpsest.”

“Indeed. The ability of those weapons used on the train was not easily covered up, and with the revelation of Consul Hasler’s own skillset, well.” He shook his head. “It would be quite a prize.”

“Do you think it’s a lumière?”

“No,” Camille replied swiftly, which was something of a relief. “I know most if not all of my fellows, and while all of us are dedicated to justice in the name of the emperor, we are no less dedicated to finding the truth in ways that result in little collateral damage. Whoever the murderer is, they don’t care about leaving a trail of bodies to get what they want. There was another death.” He sighed. “The landlady of the locksmith was found in her front room, her throat slit before she had a chance to cry out. Her body, unfortunately, could not be held. She has already been buried.”

Anton felt dizzy. He gripped Camille’s forearms in an effort to keep himself upright. “What…what shall I…what do I…”

“Stay calm,” Camille advised. “Here, sit down now.” He led Anton over to his bench and knelt in front of him, chafing his arms and shoulders gently. “Breathe in slowly, there you go. I should perhaps have gone about telling you a bit more diplomatically,” he added, his voice rueful.

Anton chuckled weakly. “It would be hard to couch this in truly diplomatic terms, I think. Someone is murdering innocent people in an effort to kill me.”

“Indeed.”

“I wish we had burned that bloody book.”

“It would not have mattered,” Camille said quietly. “Someone would have come looking anyway. I’m sorry I involved you so greatly in the matter on the train, Anton.”

Anton met Camille’s concerned gaze. “I’m not.” He exhaled, some of his tension finally draining from his limbs. Unfortunately, the loss left him feeling sluggish, but such fatigue would tell one way or another. “So, what happens next? I haven’t finished translating the palimpsest, although I am more than halfway through it.”

“Any interesting discoveries?”

“A lot of threads that make no sense independently, but a tapestry is beginning to emerge. Once it is completely unraveled, I shall make a full study of it.”

“And where is the book now?”

Anton smiled. “It’s safe.”

Camille paused, then nodded. “Better that you don’t tell me, just in case.”

In case you are captured and tortured and…and… Anton shook his head in an effort to clear it. “How else can I help you?”

“I am not asking you for your help,” Camille said at once. “I am not well known in this city, and most never see me at all, but if I were discovered as a lumière and you were with me, it would throw suspicion onto you. The last thing you need is to be set apart in such a way.”

“I cannot sit idly by while you work on this case!” Anton objected. “People are dying, people who have the bad luck to share a few things in common with me. I am a forensic thaumaturge, and you have access to their bodies. You must at least let me help you to see their death miasmas.”

“It still puts you in harm’s way.”

“Camille.” Anton patted his shoulder. “You tell me I am already in harm’s way. Hastening the speed of your investigation shall only lead to a quicker resolution. Besides, there are some tricks I can employ to reduce my own visibility. Let me help you.”

Camille crouched in silence for a long moment before abruptly getting to his feet. “You have the devil’s own ability at persuasion,” he said. “Fine. But only if you take those precautions, and only if, when I tell you to leave me, you go without hesitation. I would never willingly risk your safety.”

“But you would risk your own.”

Camille shrugged. “Such is the life of a lumière.”

Well then. Neither of them were perfectly happy, but at least Anton was not entirely shut out. He pushed to his feet and was relieved to find himself steady. “When do we start?”

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Tower: Chapter One, Part One

Notes: On to our new story at last! This is the sequel to The Train, and will make more sense if you've read that one. If not, then know this: this is alt history, magic-wielding, pre-WWI craziness. The continent remained conquered by Napoleon, and is now ruled by his grandson Napoleon III. Our hero is Anton Seiber, a young thaumaturge--a magical scientist, basically--from England who traveled to Zurich to continue his education. Getting there was really difficult, and he became friends--and maybe more--with an imperial investigator who is immune to magic.

This starts three months after they part. Enjoy!

Title: The Tower: Chapter One, Part One

***

The Tower

Chapter One, Part One



“Seiber!” A meaty hand clapped Anton on the shoulder before he could escape it. “Where are you lurking off to now? Not going to crawl back into your dusty lab and burn the midnight oil on one of your projects for the dead, are you?” Without giving Anton a chance to reply, his captor spun him around.

Face to face, Gerald Montgomery was even less appealing to Anton than he’d been from behind. Montgomery was the unofficial head of the surprisingly large contingent of students at the Universität Zürich who hailed from the British Isles. He was as loud, brash, and universally disliked by most of Anton’s fellow master’s students as any of his ilk had been at Cambridge. And like at Cambridge, he was not only tolerated, but by and large, encouraged—Gerald Montgomery was in line to become a marquess when his father died, and it was never a bad idea to ingratiate yourself with a member of the peerage. Anton had to remind himself of that as Gerald’s hand on his shoulder tightened to the point of pain.

“Alas, I have spells in situ that simply cannot wait.” Finally, Montgomery let go of his shoulder, but Anton’s relief was short-lived as the man immediately threw his arm around Anton’s neck. It felt—unsurprisingly—rather like being yoked as though he were a beast of burden.

“Seiber, Seiber, Seiber.” Montgomery shook his head. “You will waste the best years of your youth if you spend them all on the edification of the mind to the exclusion of the body. Mens sana in corpore sano, as the Romans say. Come with us to the pub, have a few drinks, relax for a while! The Langstrasse area is an easy walk from there, and I daresay we could find an easy woman who might tempt even your virtue.”

Oh, yes. Lovely. Just what Anton wanted after a long day of taking and teaching classes, handling both eager and recalcitrant students and pining for his own hard-earned space—a trip to the whorehouses of Zürich with a group of drunk, loud, and largely ridiculous fellow thaumaturges. Perhaps one of them would get creative with his spellwork and set off a stink bomb, or turn someone’s skin purple. Fortunately, Anton had a trump card to play.

“Have pity on a poor student,” Anton said smoothly, patting Montgomery on the forearm before casually ducking out from under his grasp. “Some of us are here on scholarship, you know. My work output is all that keeps me in my studies, and I cannot afford to falter.” Under normal circumstances, he would never advertise his own relative poverty, but on this early evening Anton was more than willing to paint himself as a sad sap in exchange for liberty.

Montgomery frowned. “You always say that. But I will spot you the coin tonight, free you from your workaday shackles.” Clearly the idea of being seen as a patron to his peers appealed to him. Anton wondered, for perhaps the hundredth time, why this privileged son of the aristocracy had come all the way to Zürich to pursue a degree he seemed to have little interest in, when he would have been accepted with open arms and grasping pocketbooks by the finest universities in England.

It wasn’t that Gerald Montgomery was unskilled at thaumaturgy—he was rather irritatingly efficient at casting spells, in fact, although his basic preparations left much to be desired and were more often assembled by his cadre of admirers. It was simply that he seemed to have little interest in doing more than the basics, spending the rest of his time in personal and rather frivolous pursuits. At a research institution like this one, it made no sense. The man wouldn’t even have to rely on his thaumaturgy skill to earn a living one day—he was nobility, he was guaranteed an income.

“Not this time,” Anton said. “My spells simply won’t wait.”

“Then later this weekend,” Montgomery insisted. “You cannot have every minute of every day planned, and if you do, then change it.”

Change your life to suit my smallest whim, Seiber. Anton kept his calm smile on his face with a great deal of effort. “I will endeavor to, I assure you.”

“Gerry!” Another one of their British fellows called to Montgomery from the lecture hall’s side stone egress. “Hurry, before we lose our chance at a good place in the pub! Ella’s section always fills the fastest!”

“Shut your flapping lips, Percy, I’ll be there in a moment!” He turned back to Anton with a bit of mischief still in his face. “Are you sure? Percy can’t hold his liquor to save himself, and he’s hilarious when he’s blotto.”

“Next time,” Anton said, and finally, finally, the other man shrugged and turned away. Once he finally vanished into his throng of admirers, Anton let out a slow, relieved breath. There was one obstacle down, at least.

Fortunately, he had no students waiting for his time this evening. As soon as the university’s Head of Thaumaturgy, Doctor Grable, had ascertained that Anton possessed a Device that allowed him to speak seven different languages—Doctor Grable was renowned for his ability to detect and interpret thaumaturgical signatures of all kinds, and Anton had had no chance of denying his father’s Device’s existence—he had made Anton the go-to graduate student for students who struggled with English and German. He’d spent many hours he would have rather been researching helping those students interpret thaumaturgical equations and simplifying high-level magic as best he could.

It was useful work, and he didn’t begrudge his professor the right to give him responsibilities, but Anton was desperate for time alone. He had far too much to be getting on with to waste time on people like Gerald Montgomery. Anton shook his head to help clear the day from it, then gathered his paraphernalia into his holdall and headed for the Tower.

The Universität Zürich had different branches scattered throughout the city, but the sciences were housed in and around the main building, an imposingly large gray stone edifice lightened by patches of lawn and sky-high cupolas. Just behind the main building was the Tower of Thaumaturgy, where the founders of the school had wisely set apart their most volatile researchers. It was less of a tower than a dark, veiny square block that rose without grace into the air, buttressed by thick stonework and fewer windows than the rest of the university monuments. It was often described as “ugly, a blight, more like a prison than a university.” It was heavily spelled to maintain a neutral magical space, and securing a place for research in it was the source of much cutthroat negotiating between graduate students.

Anton had such a place, a small laboratory on the thirteenth floor, the highest in the tower. It was a long walk up, especially after an exhaustive day of teaching. Happily, that very inconvenience made it even more worthwhile for Anton, because few people found their way up there, which meant less botheration by his peers. On top of that, his lab was thaumaturgically secured by a series of locks that Anton had been improving ever since he settled in, three months ago now. It was as inviolable as he could possibly make it, which made the sight of his door standing open rather shocking to him.

“Oh no,” he murmured, hastening along the hall toward his tiny chamber, silver wand held high to project his simple charm for illumination down the stone corridor. Rather than bolting inside as soon as he got there, though, he bent down and surveyed the door itself. The spells were still there, they had simply been rendered—inert, for lack of a better word. They would need to be recharged, but that was easier than reconstructing them completely. Only a truly exceptional master would be able to get through his defenses without setting off an alarm. There were no signs of scuff marks around the edge of the lock or handle itself, so if it was a thief, then they were very good at picking locks.

But if they were so good, why had they left the door open? There were only two logical options for who could have entered so smoothly and obviously, and one of them would never make the hike to the thirteenth floor when he had an expansive laboratory of his own on the first.

Anton’s hand trembled slightly on the handle as he pushed the door the rest of the way open. Inside, the last rays of the sunset were barely enough to combat the encroaching grayness, but Anton could make out the familiar silhouette of a tall man in a top hat standing along the far wall.

He's here! But Anton had to be sure. “Camille?”

The figure turned, and Anton’s heart leapt in his chest when he verified the identity of his mysterious visitor. “Anton.” Lord Lumière, special investigator for his majesty Napoleon III, solver of the convoluted murder of the Viscount Bonaparte on the train to Lucerne, and one of a secret class of people who were immune to magic—some said because they were soulless, damned at birth by God—inclined his head in a show of perfect politeness. The smile on his face, however, was far more welcoming. “It is astonishingly good to see you again.”

That was all the welcome Anton needed to cross the room in six long steps and throw himself into Camille’s embrace. It was precipitous of him, probably even ridiculous, but he couldn’t help himself. He had experienced no truly welcome touch since their kiss farewell, three long months ago. Anton barely knew Camille, really, but he felt far closer to him than their stressful, exciting train trip together had merited. From the way Camille’s arms closed around his waist like they belonged there, pulling him closer and warming him from head to toe, perhaps Anton’s feelings weren’t entirely foolish or one-sided.

Nevertheless, he remembered his own abandoned dignity eventually and pulled away with a faint cough. “I—I wasn’t expecting you.” He winced, because what had he expected, that the lumière would tell him he was coming? That was the opposite of covert, and Camille was an expert at being covert.

“Forgive me for not contacting you in advance,” Camille replied, surprising Anton. “I was actually on my way to another part of the country when the emperor redirected me here.”

Oh. So it was mere chance that had led Camille this way again, rather than…something else. Anton nodded and put a little more space between them. “I see.” Of course he did, and he could be professional about it. “What is it that brought you to Zürich, then?”

“A murder, of course.” Of course. “Several, in fact. And when I ascertained the targets of these murders, I would allow no other lumière to take on the task.”

“Oh? Who is being murdered?”


“Englishmen.” The word dropped between them like a boulder, heavy with unspoken implication. “People like you, Anton.”

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

One last delay!

I'm going on maternity leave soon, and I've got to prep for my replacements, so...one more delay! I'm so effing sorry, but I need another twelve hours in the day to get everything done.



Which...HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!! This is going to be my life once I'm a mom! I need to get used to it now! My time management will get better, I swear to god.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Prepping

I'm prepping for the new story, I'm prepping for giving up my day job in anticipation of maternity leave, and I'm taking childbirth prep classes. I am prepping out of my freaking mind. Two and a half hours of learning about effacement and dilation and timing and relaxation techniques, all while sitting in a chair that would give anyone, much less a pregnant person, a backache. I eventually gave up and sat on a pillow on the floor.

But I'm going to be ready as hell, damn it.

So, hopefully I'll start The Tower next week. This week I'm getting my mind and my schedule straight.

Hope your week is a little more relaxed, darlins.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reformation: Chapter Forty-Two

Notes: Oh my god, it's the last chapter. It's the end! Almost 70k and one year later, it's the end! Whaaaaaaat?!? It's a bit of an open question, but that's because this universe never really ends. I'm sure I'll return to it after the next story, which will be a continuation of last year's The Train. So! Gimme a week to put myself in order and I'll compile this onto a single post to make reading easier, and...well, wow. Thanks for following along and loving my people so much :)

Title: Reformation: Chapter Forty-Two

***


Chapter Forty-Two



Cody didn’t know what to do next.

Ten would say that was a fairly normal state of being for him, but Ten was caught in the same boat. Ze dealt with it by throwing hirself into science: modifying the shield on the hoverbike, testing the fuel mixture, idly designing a better waste management system for the enormous Drifter ship that was still floating above Pandora, riddled with problems and slowly being fixed. Ten had plenty to keep hirself occupied. For Cody, things were…a little different.

Maybe it was more fair to say that he didn’t know what was going to happen next, to anybody. Independent action was all well and good, but sometimes life took over the controls. In this case, “life” was “a huge, sticky morass of political, military, and socioeconomic explosions rocking the Federation ‘verse in all directions.” News reports from Olympus showed the Senate under the direct control of Admiral Liang, a situation unlikely to change in the near future. It was far from business as usual, though. Everything about that business was under review, from the way contracts were assigned to non-governmental entities to the data used to determine allotments and supply status for various Fringe planets. A lot of Central System leaders had protested the changes, to which the Admiral said they were welcome to initialize proceedings for withdrawing from the Federation any time they wanted.

No planet had withdrawn a membership from the Federation for over a century, and the Central System had been entrenched in position and power for twice that. One of their governors decided to push things and try, and the speed at which Liang had signed off on the preliminary paperwork for Monteyo’s exit had alarmed its citizens so much that the government had had to beg to withdraw the petition, weakening their status. Things were unstable, and instability made most people reach for whatever they could hold onto that was rock-solid. Plenty of corporations were folding under the weight of sudden abandonment by their CEOs, and law and order was hanging by a thread in most places.

The upheaval touched Pandora differently, mostly because it was a Fringe planet already used to being ignored, and partly because—well, a good portion of the entire Federation’s fleet was using its resurrected space dock. There were no questions of more piracy, not on Pandora or any other planet within easy jump distance. In fact, for the first time in more than a decade, not a single planet on the Fringe had suffered any sort of external attack for over two weeks. Plenty of people had a lot to say about “state-sponsored terrorism,” but Cody didn’t let himself dwell on that either. His issues all hit a little closer to home.

He'd made it. He’d done what he set out to do, made it to Pandora and found his father in an almost-miraculous fashion. He should be happy. He should be thrilled with the way things had turned out, but it had all become so…brittle instead. Nothing was the way he’d left it. Nothing was the way he remembered it, and nothing, Cody was coming to understand, would ever be the same.

For starters, Miles was going to Perelan. Claudia and the girls were already there, and had been welcomed by the House of Grenn as political refugees. When Cody had asked his grandfather why, Miles had sighed. “I was basically illegally ordered back into the field. The people who put me here are still out there, even if Liang’s got a chokehold on the military at the moment. They tried to kill my family. Until I know for sure that they’re out of power, I’m not going to risk living on a Federation planet, and going into the Beyond isn’t an option, not with the girls. Perelan’s ambassadors offered a temporary refuge, and I’m going to take them up on it until the Senate works out a guarantee of immunity and safety.”

Even worse, Grennson and Darrel were going with them. They were still technically a part of the Academy, but the admiral had personally signed off on a study abroad for both of them. “It will help Darrel further his language skills,” Grennson had said cheerfully. “And give me a chance to educate my people about the incredible complexities of Federation life. Our matriarch had wanted to push for Perelan to become the first non-human world to enter the Federation, but now she’s thinking it might be better to form an alliance with the Dorn and the Maazi. Humanity has turned out to be rather unpredictable.”

A long-term stay on Perelan wasn’t really an option for Cody, though. The atmosphere there was so toxic to him that he hadn’t been able to spend any time outside, not without taking major precautions. So instead of going with his friends and the rest of his family, for now Cody, Ten, Jonah and Garrett were staying on Pandora. Ten didn’t really care, as long as ze had access to a lab. Jonah was just happy to have all of them together at last. But Garrett…

Garrett had been different since he joined them on Pandora. He seemed subdued, less talkative than Cody remembered, less inclined to join in their conversations. A week ago, Cody had asked his father if Garrett was still mad at him, even though his stepdad had assured him that he wasn’t. Jonah had shaken his head. “He’s a little off-kilter right now, but he’ll come around. Just give him some time.”

Garrett wasn’t supposed to need time, though. He wasn’t supposed to get off-kilter. He was always in control, always perfect, always healthy—how could he not be, when he had full access to Regen and was smarter than most entire groups of people? The change made Cody nervous, and he tiptoed around his parents until Ten finally got sick of it.

“If you want to know something, you have to ask,” ze’d insisted one night, after commenting that Cody seemed unusually mopey. “Even if there isn’t an answer to the question yet, it’s better to know, isn’t it? That way you won’t be distracted when I’m giving you a blowjob, either.”

“I’m not distracted!”

“Prove it.”

Cody had definitely proved it that evening, and the next day he took Ten’s advice and went to Garrett directly. It was kind of hard to find him: he wasn’t in the command center, wasn’t supervising any of the ship repairs or communicating with Perelan or any of a hundred other things that would have been normal for him. Instead Cody found him standing just outside the force field that kept out the worst of the weather, his eyes closed against the cool mist that whipped up into an icy frenzy every now and then.

Cody stopped next to Garrett and stood awkwardly for a moment. “Hey.”

“Hi.”

Nope, his dad wasn’t going to make this easy on him. “What are you doing out here?”

Garrett shrugged. “Nothing in particular.”

But Garrett was always doing something! “Why?”

“Because it’s nice.”

“And cold. And wet.” On impulse, Cody reached out and took his stepfather’s hand. “Walk with me?”

Garrett smiled slightly. It wasn’t the beam that Cody was used to seeing, but he’d take it. “All right.”

Cody led him back into The Box, and after a moment steered them in the direction of the playground. It was where he’d run to, back when he first wanted to join the Academy and his dad had told him no. Garrett had been the one to mediate that fight, the one to figure out how to make things work for everybody. It was time for Cody to do the same for him. He tugged Garrett down onto a swing, then sat down beside him. “Are you sick?” he asked point-blank.

“Hmm.” To Cody’s dismay, his dad actually had to consider the question. “No, I wouldn’t say so. Not right now.”

“But you’re acting differently.”

“Because things are different. I’m different, you’re different, the whole universe is different. If that’s not a good reason to change things up a little, I don’t know what is.”

“But you don’t seem happy,” Cody pressed. “Not like you used to.”

“Was I happy, or was I just busy?” Garrett wondered out loud. “I’m not entirely sure. I’ve been breathtakingly busy for over a decade, now. I think…I think everything I am just needs a break from that.”

Cody felt like he’d been punched. “You weren’t happy before?”

Now it was Garrett’s turn to take his hand. “I was, when I was with you and Jonah. When I had my family. But that happened less and less as time went on, and I know that I’m not going to be able to keep everyone within arm’s reach of me forever. Look at Miles and the girls, look at Robbie and Wyl. Look at you.”

“I’m so sorry—”

“I know, I’m not mad about you leaving the Academy anymore,” Garrett soothed. “Although I maintain that the way you did it was tempting fate. But I’ve been taking care of so many people and processes and ideas for so long, I hardly know what to do with myself when all of that goes away. I think now is as good a chance as I’m ever going to get to figure it out.”

“But you’re not going to do it…alone, right?” The thought of Garrett deciding he needed to completely separate himself from the rest of them, from his family, made Cody’s heart race.

Garrett shook his head. “I’m not leaving Jonah. I’m not going anywhere, I just need to take the time to consider what happens next without thinking ten steps in advance. It’s exhausting and it never works out how I foresee it anyhow, no matter how good I think I am at it.” He smiled crookedly. “You’re the one who drove that lesson home for me, and it’s good that you did. My life, my future…they don’t and shouldn’t revolve around your choices. You’re an adult now, for all that you’re still my kid.”

A month ago, Cody would have rejoiced at such a statement of independence. Now, though… “I’ll always be your kid.”

“I know.” Garrett leaned over and kissed his forehead. “Let’s go find your dad and get him to make us dinner, huh?”

“I’ll see if I can pull Ten out of hir lab.”

“If anyone can, it’s you.” Garrett stood up and put his hands in his pockets. “And if you can’t, well…nobody can control everything.” He sounded considerably lighter saying it this time, like he was breathing easier. “And it’s better not to try.”

They walked in silence back to the house, but at least for now, it was a contented silence.


The End