The bundle in her hands was already struggling as she stepped out the front door. Leathery wings slipped through twiggy fingers, thrashing as though it could lift them both up through sheer force of will. “Hush now,” she said over the chittering. “Go on then.” Praxis threw the mass into the air, tipping her head back to watch as it unfurled, a brilliant chaos of iridescent blue and silver. In the harsh morning sun its wings flashed for only an instant, and then with a squeak it was gone, zooming over the spiral rooftops of the great house. “And don’t bring back any canaries this time!” Praxis shouted after it. She listened as a caw to rival those of the largest birds of prey drifted back down over her, and then she shook her head. She rapped her knuckles on the doorframe behind her. “All right, let’s get this over with.”
On cue, the errand boy stumbled over the threshold into the morning light. His arms were loaded down with empty crates and boxes, and a large wire cage was strapped to his back. Wide leather belts wrapped themselves several times around his chest and shoulders. He glared at Praxis as she pulled a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles out of her pocket and slipped them primly over her eyes. The lenses were tinted so dark that they looked black, and not for the first time, the errand boy wondered how it was that Praxis saw out of them at all. She donned a gentleman’s bowler hat, turned up the collar of her slate-blue overcoat, and set off down the steps, leaving the errand boy to struggle with closing the door on his own.
He caught up with her halfway down the gravel drive, just as she was passing the fountains. As she approached, the water was reaching its crescendo, jetties of droplets spilling up from the mouths of the marble sea nymphs. The misty spray caught the light and twisted it in colorful ribbons. Praxis flicked one hand as if shooing away an insect, and the droplets turned to ice and crashed into the pool below.
It hadn’t been a good morning in Brindlewood Hall. The errand boy blamed the mistress, as he often did these days. Rumor in the kitchen was that she hadn’t slept well, that she was feeling ill all night, that she awoke feverish and worried. This had led to Mr. Vandervoon fretting and pacing in his study before breakfast. Which wouldn’t have caused too much trouble, except that soon he was calling for Praxis. The command came into the kitchen via the serving maid. She twisted her apron in her hands as she delivered the news to the matron, who had immediately pivoted responsibility for that particular duty onto the errand boy.
The errand boy, who was actually called Kaedrich, had bolted for a hiding spot underneath one of the large chopping blocks the instant he’d realized what was happening, but he hadn’t been quick enough. He was the newest member of the staff, tall and skinny and quiet, and so anything that the rest of the household didn’t want to deal with, anything that they had earned the right not to deal with by having dealt with it for so many years already, was passed on to his stooped shoulders. The matron had grabbed him by his ear before he’d even gotten halfway underneath the butcher’s block, and unceremoniously kicked him into the hallway. “Make sure that she’s sober.”
“How am I supposed—” Kaedrich began, but the door shut in his face before he could finish. Grumbling, Kaedrich dusted himself off and made his way through the hidden servants’ hallways of Brindlewood. He headed towards the west wing. At the end of a long corridor was the Tower.
It had no other name, at least not these days. Maybe, once, long before Kaedrich had arrived; he got the impression that it might have, but he had never asked for sure. It had a majestic set of wide steps around the outside with a magnificent view of the grounds, and a narrow, dimly lit interior set that wound up the core. Kaedrich climbed the steps by feel, dread filling him to the bones. Because the Tower wasn’t just another part of the household—the Tower was Praxis’s domain.
Mr. Vandervoon had given it over to her completely when she took the job, stressing to the servants that everything inside, from top to bottom, must follow her rules of tidiness. The credence was put in place to ensure that no neatening up would accidentally disrupt one of her creations, but Praxis had taken it to heart and made things simple: no one was to clean in there, at all. Kaedrich reached the top and let himself into the antechamber. The door caught the corner of a pile of books, and they spilled down the outer steps. Kaedrich jumped forward, trying to collect them, but then his eyes trailed farther down the stairs. Socks, pencils, and bits of paper were the most ordinary of detritus that dotted the path. With a shrug, he dropped the books back where they’d fallen; she would never even notice. He stepped over a discarded beaker and half of a globe, and let himself into her room.
The first time that he had come up here, about two months earlier, he hadn’t been prepared for what awaited him. The room was simply full. Three levels tall, and every inch was used. Curved bookcases were built into every piece of wall that wasn’t devoted to a window. Work tables were crammed in at odd angles, along with various carts on wheels and easels with enormous canvases stretched across them. Every surface was littered with sketch paper and notes, and contraptions of wood and clockwork spread themselves across the figures and reminders scrawled there. Several shelves housed cages and glass tanks, filled with plants and the occasional darting tail of a creature running for cover. At the far end of the room was a ladder, disappearing up into the impossibly high ceiling. He had only later found out that the top of the tower housed an enormous brass telescope that poked through a cutaway in the roof.
And in the center of everything, the largest contraption of all. He couldn’t even begin to figure out what it was supposed to do. It was made of what looked like every possible material in the world, incorporating the usual assortment of metals and wood, as well as glass, cloth, leather, and ivory. It had a telescope attached to the top, but it pointed down into the center of the device. There was a horn on a wooden swing arm that rested near the floor. Piano strings crisscrossed the center and stretched out to attach to other parts of the room. At about eye-level there was the piece of a telegraph machine that operators tapped out their messages on. From one of the spindles hung a child’s spinning top, suspended by a wire so thin that you had to catch it in the light to see it. The contraption kept changing, every few days, and yet to Kaedrich’s eye it never seemed to be getting any closer to completion, and sometimes he wondered if it was supposed to have a function at all. Maybe Praxis was building it just to distract from everything else.
All the controlled chaos in the room meant that you didn’t even notice the bed at first, wedged into a darkened nook. It was as far away from the windows as possible, hidden behind a large bookcase that had been brought into the room expressly to sit between Praxis and the faint strips of morning light that fought through the shutters. Kaedrich wove his way through the clutter, slipping in between the bedframe and the bookcase, and looked down at what his job would be that morning. Praxis was sprawled facedown across the top of her unmade bedsheets, her cheek pressed against an open book like it was a pillow—a pile of drool had already ruined several of the pages. White-blond hair, cropped short like a man’s, was sticking up at every angle from her scalp. Underneath the line of her hair, her skin was so pale that she looked dead. Kaedrich had seen a dead body that they’d fished out of the river once, bloated and blanched; whenever he was around Praxis, he kept getting flashes of the memory. Even now, sleeping peacefully, he hesitated before reaching out to rouse her.
Praxis snatched his wrist out of the air before he’d even touched her. Her eyes were still closed, and up until a second ago she had been snoring solidly. “What in the blazes could you possibly want?” she snarled, talking into the spine of her book.
“Mr. Vandervoon wishes to see you.”
“Oh gods, what now?” She twisted until she could look up at him, and propped one bloodshot eye open. The color of a frozen winter morning, streaked with rivers of fire-red. Praxis narrowed it as he involuntarily jerked back.
Kaedrich quickly composed himself. “He’s worried about Madam Vandervoon, I think. He didn’t say what he wanted you for.”
“Tell him that his wife is supposed to be feeling like shit right now. That’s what being with child means, and if he hasn’t figured that out by now, he’s a bigger idiot than he looks.”
It took Kaedrich a moment to sort out what Praxis had just said, her normally controlled accent running rampant across her sentences. Every L-sound dragged on as if it was a teenager loping by, and all of the words ran together like ink bleeding across the page.
But the meaning eventually sprinkled in.
“I don’t think that’s really what he wants to discuss,” Kaedrich said.
“Then tell him to bugger off. It’s the middle of the night.”
“It’s half past seven.”
“Like I said.” Praxis shut her eye and burrowed her face back into her book. She dropped his arm and pulled a wad of blanket over her head.
There’s no reasoning with her, the matron had told Kaedrich that first day, the first time he’d been charged with this task. You’ve got to just yank on her leash like she’s a pup in training.
Kaedrich sighed. He grabbed the blanket and pulled. Half of it was tucked underneath her torso, and the force of his efforts knocked her off of the bed. The book fell with her, sliding off of her face as she crashed to the floor. Praxis shouted incoherently as she fumbled for something to grab on to, which Kaedrich provided by pulling her to her feet. She could barely stand, wavering in her spot and nearly falling over the first time that she attempted to straighten up. She began to sputter at his face, but Kaedrich cut her off. “Mr. Vandervoon wishes to see you,” he repeated, enunciating each syllable as if he was speaking to the nearly deaf.
Praxis gripped her head and groaned, leaning against his outstretched arm. Kaedrich held his breath, avoiding the bouquet wafting off of her. His eyes stung. He gave her a slight nudge, and she obediently stumbled forward. Reaching out to support herself on shelves and tables, she lurched through the room. Praxis made her way to the far wall, wincing in the sunlight, and threw open a cabinet full of tiny, unlabeled bottles. She swallowed the contents of five of them, chugging them back like shots, then stuffed her feet into battered wingtip shoes and motioned for Kaedrich to lead the way.
She was still wearing the clothes that she had slept in, the clothes that she had worn the day before, and who knows for how many more before that. Her brown pinstripe trousers were rumpled up and down both legs, the knees practically worn through. She had a man’s button-up shirt that might have once been white, which she tucked in with casual disregard as she pulled up sagging maroon suspenders. The redness of her eyes was reduced, but now they were watery, the lids puffing underneath. Her breath was marginally better, though, so Kaedrich was prepared to call that a win. She hadn’t even bothered to try taming her hair. On the way down the steps, she glanced at the books that Kaedrich had knocked over. “I expect you to put those back as you found them,” she said, her voice echoing off of the tower walls; it had been neatened and pressed, all of her letters folded to align to Kaedrich’s ear.
Now the midmorning sun was burning the dew off of the grass of the front lawn as Kaedrich trotted to catch up with her. She had talked to Mr. Vandervoon while he drank his morning tea, and then had wordlessly returned to her chambers, tidied her appearance, and strolled into the kitchen to slap the errand boy across the back of his head. “You’re coming with me,” she’d told him, and led him to a closet at the back of the house where she’d loaded him down with the crates and boxes, strapping the cage to his back. “Wait here,” she said, and returned a minute later with a chittering bundle cupped gently in her hands.
Outside, Kaedrich watched the shards of ice bob in the glittering water, and hurried to fall into step beside Praxis.
The estate was surrounded by a stone wall with a double iron gate. The bars were thick with vines, weaving a door almost as solid as the walls beside it. The only gap in the deep green leaves was over the lock and latch. All the higher ranking members of the household staff had a key to the gate—Kaedrich did not. When people would send him on errands, they would give him theirs until he returned; otherwise, he’d have to get someone like the groundskeeper or stable hand to let him in and out, which rarely worked out for him on the return trips, as they were often in high prankster spirits and would make him wait and beg for hours at a time. Kaedrich had never been on an errand with Praxis before. She rarely left the house at all, preferring to spend her time up in the tower. She’d been raised in Yandosia, in the frozen south near the pole, where they say that it’s dark nine months out of ten. She stood just off to the side of the gate, in the shade of a yew tree that hung over the wall, as she attempted to fish the key out of her pocket.
Kaedrich watched, the sun warming his back. Praxis was patting down all the many pockets of her coat, methodically, left to right and top to bottom. She pulled out a broken fob watch, a screwdriver, a spool of thread, a balled up strip of leather, a bracelet loaded down with a rainbow of gemstones, huffing each time it turned out not to be the key and dropping them back in place.
“Any time now, miss.”
“I know it’s in here somewhere.” She pulled out a withered rat’s tail, wrinkled her nose, and threw it aside onto the lawn. “And don’t call me that. I’m not your boss.”
“What, so I don’t have to carry this stuff for you?”
“Oh, you absolutely need to carry it,” she said. She sighed, and began to pat down the pockets from the top again, muttering something to herself. “I’m just saying, it’s . . . I’m not the master of the house, and I’m not even formally a member of the staff, so I can’t outrank you, you know? So don’t get all grovelly, with the Yes’m’s and thank you miss’s. Gives me a headache, and believe me, I don’t need anything else adding to my headaches. Like missing keys—Ugh! Damned things.”
Kaedrich frowned. “Can’t you just use magic?”
“Finally,” Praxis said, pulling a brass key out of an inner pocket near her chest. She stepped up to the gate and twisted it open, letting herself out and then moving aside for Kaedrich to follow. As she closed up the gate, she said, “No, by the way.”
“No,” she repeated, dropping the key back where she found it. “I couldn’t just use magic. I mean”—she shrugged—“of course I could, sure, yes. Absolutely. Except no.” She made a motion for him to follow, and dashed across the few feet of grass that separated the country lane from the edge of the trees. Brindlewood was a half an hour’s walk from the village of Brindle, down a wide gravel road that had been cut out through the middle of a forest. Kaedrich stayed about two feet to the right, keeping to the edge of the lane and the warm sunshine that spilled over the tops of the trees. “It’s just,” she began again once she was safely in the shade, “it’s not something to be used frivolously.”
“You mean like turning the spray of a fountain into ice?”
Praxis batted the comment away. “That wasn’t magic. Not proper magic. That was . . . stress relief. And anyway, it didn’t count.”
Kaedrich shifted the weight of the boxes that he was carrying. “Why not?”
“Are you always this nosy?” she asked. “I don’t remember you being nosy.”
“I’m surprised that you remember me at all. I never thought that you paid attention to me before.”
Praxis shrugged. “I don’t, really, to be honest. Who are you, again?”
“Kaedrich,” Kaedrich said, and when that was met with nothing but a blank stare he added, “Kaedrich Mannly?”
“Mannly, Mannly . . . ,” Praxis mused. She chewed on her lip for several seconds, then shook her head. “Nope, not ringing any bells. Have you been here long?”
Kaedrich lapsed into silence for a moment. “It must be nearly two months time, by now.”
“Ah, well, that explains it. I’ve been . . . occupied.”
“Is that what they call being boshed in your country, then? Because it seems like that’s all that I’ve seen of you when I’ve gone to fetch you before.”
Praxis stopped walking. It took Kaedrich a few more steps before he’d realized, and by the time he did he had to turn back around to see her. She had pulled her spectacles off and fixed him with a deep frown, those icy eyes cutting right through him. Kaedrich felt his shoulders sag under the weight of her gaze. She put the glasses back on. “Yeah, I’ve changed my mind,” she said as she began walking. “Start grovelling again.”
Kaedrich shrugged. The leather straps that held the cage to his back were beginning to dig into his shoulders. “Yes, miss.”
* * *
The village encompassed a fertile strip of land that rested between a mountain and the junction of two rivers. To the north, the purple-gray shale stone loomed over everything. Rumor had it that once, long ago, the mountain had been alive with fire, rivers of death pouring out from the crest in a brilliant plume, spreading a wave of destruction across the entire valley. But the mountain had gone dormant, so long ago now that most people dismissed the old stories, although they weighed heavily on Praxis’s mind. The valley had healed over, a dozen generations of warm rains and mild winters tempering the land. Life of every shade had blossomed and flourished, and now only the mountain remained dead, a stark cliff face jutting from the ground to act as a stone wall that buffered the village from the stronger plains-winds.
Coming from Brindlewood Hall, you reached the farms before the village. The forest ended abruptly at the edge of the first field, cut back and held at bay by a slat fence and a twice-yearly pruning with a pair of heavy shears. From that point on, there was really no shade to speak of. Praxis hesitated at the threshold. She could feel the heat of the sunlight already, waves of it pouring off of every surface, a searing force that beat down from the sky. Inside of her coat her shirt was damp with sweat, and yet removing it and feeling her skin burn under the fury of the light would be so much worse.
She looked over at Kaedrich, who had his green shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows and was soaking the warmth of it in, his warm brown face turned up towards the sun. The people here in Durland practically bathed in the stuff, peeling off as many layers as decency would allow whenever they worked out-of-doors. Mothers would arrange straw baskets on their front steps and lay out their babies in nothing more than a diaper. Sick children were kicked out into the fields, told to rest in the grass until they felt better. Sunlight was believed to help the elderly to ward off death for another day, to put hair on young men’s chests, to give women a strong complexion. The rich had special rooms on the top floor of their houses, with no windows and no ceiling, where they would strip down in the afternoons and just lay there on chaise lounges, baking in the sun. Tans were the height of health and youth, and one reason why people like Kaedrich were often treated as inferior. To start dark (and darker than the rich could ever achieve) was viewed as an attempt to cheat the system. Praxis shuddered. “How can you stand it?”
Kaedrich blinked as he turned his head, almost as if he had forgotten that Praxis was even there. “Stand what, miss?” His forehead was covered in a film of sweat drops, fine as morning mist.
“Never mind,” Praxis said. She tugged her bowler farther down and her collar farther up, and stepped out into the oppressive day.
Praxis scurried down the center of the gravel road, past pastures and spiny orchard bushes. She spoke to no one that they passed in the light traffic going back-and-forth into the village, and so Kaedrich tried to make up for her lack of social graces: he nodded hello to the delivery boys out making their rounds; stayed respectfully silent when the butler of their neighbor, Lady Gransley, passed in the household’s gleaming black carriage; when Attendant Lasure strolled by in his sunshine yellow robe, his bald head peeling and spotted, Kaedrich held his hand to his chest and spread his fingers wide in greeting. The Attendant smiled benevolently at him, although Kaedrich had only gone to Lasure’s services once and hadn’t been back for ages. Kaedrich broke eye-contact, calling out “what?” as he pretended that Praxis had spoken to him, and quickened his pace.
Praxis veered to the edge of the street only when the first shop appeared, as the surface beneath their feet turned from packed gravel to worn tar graying with age. She huddled in the scant shadow cast by the old mill and breathed deeply, as if she was a fish who had just made a dash across land and now flapped about in the last traces of a puddle. Kaedrich shifted the weight of the crates he was carrying. He watched with fascination as Praxis darted from building to building, tacking her path around the village square by way of patches of shade that were so small that Kaedrich hadn’t even noticed them.
At first, they made the usual sort of rounds—the butchers, the grocer, the pipe shop—and Kaedrich was forced to wonder why this errand was necessary at all. The matron maintained the household pantry, and the valet would run purchases for all the tobacco and liquors that the Vandervoons required. Things made a bit more sense when they swung by the druggist’s, but everything still seemed somewhat redundant as Praxis skittered farther down the main street and slipped through the pub door. Kaedrich adjusted his straps with a sigh, and followed her in.
There was no way that this was part of the errand. By day, the pub was lightly populated, serving more lunches than drink. Conversations floated easily overhead, laughter peppering the room. The tables were arranged in a bath of light that poured in from a massive bay window along the street-side wall. The other wall boasted the bar. It was a domineering oak slab, highly polished, and since this was still daylight, since the patrons still didn’t need much supervision, it was staffed only by the owner’s daughter, Calestra. Her back was turned when Kaedrich entered, but when he saw her he ducked his head and darted after Praxis. She had retreated to the darkest corner of the bright room, and was in the process of pulling off her overcoat, her hat, her darkened spectacles. She dropped into a chair and dipped her head between her knees, taking deep breaths. Her hands were clamped around the back of her neck, her fingers mussing the base of her shorn hairline as if working out deep knots.
Kaedrich approached with caution, exercising equal caution in keeping his back towards the bar. He stood several paces off, awkwardly toying with the corners of the packages in his hands. Was he supposed to sit down? Get her something to drink? Wait outside? The idea of approaching the bar filled him with dread, and yet it looked as if a glass of water might be useful here. Perhaps Praxis had overheated, having been swaddled in all of those layers of coat.
Mercifully, Kaedrich’s dilemma was cut short by Praxis lifting her head. Her eyes were a little unfocused and her cheeks were tinged with the faintest pink sheen, but she seemed more or less all right. She nodded at the chair opposite her own. “You might as well make yourself comfortable. The rest of our stops are going to have to wait until the sun has passed its apex.”
Kaedrich glanced over his shoulder, at the light pouring in through the window, at the corner of the room where Calestra was laughing at something a patron was telling her. “That’s . . . not going to be for several hours.”
“Like I said.”
“Listen, maybe . . . maybe I should come back for you. I can keep an eye on things, come ’round again when it gets a bit later.”
Praxis narrowed her eyes at him. “Do you find my company so distasteful that you cannot stand the thought of being in the same room with me? Do you think that this is some clever ploy to get—how did you put it? Boshed?”
“No, miss, I would never—”
“I told you not to bother with that kind of title.” Praxis pinched the bridge of her nose as if she had a headache. “I don’t care what you do. If you want to go, then just go,” she said, dropping her hand. Her accent had returned with a fervor, the edges of her words blending together. She stood and made her way towards the bar, pausing as she passed him. “Leave the parcels.”
* * *
Kaedrich made his way to the southeastern edge of the village, where the river cut through the landscape. Across the way, the forests loomed. Farther upriver, in the village square, everything was alive and abustle, the water churning with as much enthusiasm as the market-goers themselves, and a mile south the water would pick up speed again—but here lay a slice of quiet, the river ambling fat and lazy, reluctant to leave. In the middle of this quiet was a bend where the river skewed south, to make its way to Abbney Bay and the Violet Seas beyond. Right at the bend there was a flat slab of rock that jutted into the water at surface level. Most days a thin layer of water ran across the farthest edge of the rock; however, today was the fourth week of the summer droughts, and the water level was a full four inches below the drop-off point. Kaedrich ditched his shoes at the end of the grass, and enjoyed the radiating heat of the trapped sunlight as he made his way out on the rock. It extended nearly halfway into the river, and Kaedrich went all the way to the end before he sat down. He rolled up his brown plaid trousers and dipped his legs into the chilled water, and pulled a slim piece of chalk from his pocket.
In some ways, it was Kaedrich’s most prized possession, stolen from Praxis’s tower on that first morning. He brushed a few bits of leaves and dirt from the rock beside him, and began to write out the alphabet. He worked slowly, smudging out any minor mistakes before he allowed himself to move on. Each letter he wrote in capital and lowercase, matched two-by-two in neat rows of six. Kaedrich could identify them all now—he no longer carried around the slim reader that he’d bought used for two pennies—and yet this accomplishment gave him little satisfaction. As he finished, he sat back to inspect his handiwork, frowning at the efforts.
The problem wasn’t his craftsmanship, nor a lack of familiarity with the materials. For weeks now, he had been drilling himself, identifying all the component letters that made up the words on signs and books, bottles and labels, yet that was how they always remained: individual letters. For all of Kaedrich’s efforts, he couldn’t figure out the magic of how they strung together, what turned them into a smaller piece of a larger whole. He tried not to be too hard on himself. If he had someone guiding him through the process, this would be easier. Instead, all he had was the battered reader and the knowledge that somehow these things worked. Which was about as useful as knowing that somehow a steam engine functioned, and then trying to build one out of scrap metal for yourself.
Sighing, Kaedrich pulled out a handkerchief, dipped it into the water, and washed away his efforts. He twisted to the other side and began to fill in that space as well, letters two-by-two, refusing to connect.
He made it about halfway before something across the river caught his eye. Kaedrich’s hand froze as he looked up, refocusing on the interplay of trees and shadows, the sparkle kicked up by the water. His eyes scanned the riverside, searching for movement, for anything that didn’t belong. He listened, for horses or men or wild animals. He found only the gentle lapping of water against rocks, the susurrus of the leaves as they shifted in the breeze, the flitting of a bird from one branch to another. Maybe it had been nothing.
There was a crash from upriver, and Kaedrich turned in time to see a magnificent beast arcing through the air. Fully extended, its body covered at least a third of the river in a single spread. Its basic shape matched one of those exotic jungle cats that the truly wealthy were rumored to have in gilt cages in their parlors, but it was far more terrifying than any drawings of such that Kaedrich had ever seen. It had four strong legs with four horrifying paws, and a long tail that whipped the air behind it. It was covered in black armored scales that reflected a thousand varieties of pearly sheen. Its neck and breast were collared with a brilliant coat of midnight blue fur. Spines ran along its back, down its tail, while two curled horns protruded from its head. In his shock, Kaedrich watched as the beast seemed to hang in midair above the water, but then the thing snapped its awful jaws as if angered by the wind itself, and it barreled onto the opposite shore as easily as if it had skipped a puddle. With a slice of its tail it was gone, across a scant patch of grass and up the road.
Kaedrich scrambled to his feet, dropping his chalk, and ran back to shore. He stood in the middle of the gravel road that led to the village, but the thing was gone by then; the packed road was scarred by rutted wheel paths and hardened hoof prints, quiet and deathly still. The faintest cloud of up-kicked dust remained hanging in the air, the only sign that anything had been there at all. He stood there for a moment, clutching at a brass pin that he wore on his lapel. While he had certainly never seen a creature like that before (and, Perlandra willing, he never would again), something about the image tickled at his memory, like he should have known what it was. But he didn’t, and now it was gone, heading straight for Brindle.
It would have been noble to say that he had bolted after it, charged down the road without any thought to his shoes or the chalk that he had lost in his haste. The version of Kaedrich that lived in his head was certainly bounding after the creature, had already caught up and was slaying it with a handy sword that he had found nearby, while all around him the villagers gaped in awe of his battle skills. Even the less noble version of himself was mentally surging ahead, at the very least wanting not to be branded a coward. But the part of him that was actually him, and not just his impression of the person that he was supposed to be, that he wanted to be, that version bit his lip and ran back to the river to collect his shoes, see if he could quickly recover his bit of chalk. And it was that version, the one stuffing his feet back into the shoes, the version that was craning his neck forward to see if the chalk was anywhere to be found, it was that version that spotted a dark and hooded figure weaving its way hurriedly through the trees across the way. The person was gone almost as soon as Kaedrich had seen him, blending back into the shadows as if he had never even been there.
Kaedrich hesitated, his second shoe nearly all the way on now. He peered upriver, toward the village, tried to determine if he could yet hear the faint wailing of screams. He looked back across the way, where a shifting darkness was moving farther north, following the trail of the creature. The village had its fair share of strong men, a modest supply of hunting rifles; Constable Jakly was rumored to be a crack marksman with a pistol. Even Praxis was there—if they weren’t safe with a notorious wizard in their midst, what use would Kaedrich be? He would be able to do nothing to help. He would stand on the sidelines and gawp, or find a hole to bury himself in until all of it was over, or simply run screaming from the scene. But he was a good swimmer and a decent tracker, and so he took his first shoe off again, tied them together to hang off of his belt, and slipped into the water.
* * *
Praxis nursed a single drink. Even in the darkest corner, the bar was too bright. She had put her tinted spectacles back on, and faced the shadowy walls. The crates and packs lay piled behind her, blocking out a bit of the light and conversation, isolating her from the rest of the pub. Idly, she massaged her left wrist, pushing back the sleeve. A ring of puffed scar tissue, years old, still ached with repressed heat. It was the full width of her wrist, and it glared red and irritated. Inside were two lines of a triangle, pointing away from the hand massaging it. Her opposite wrist bore a black tattoo, all crisp edges and graceful curls. It, too, was circular in design, a clean drawing of a bird’s wing surrounded by stylized licks of flame. When she held her hands out, wrists together, the scar’s vague arrow and the tattoo fit together in a crude representation of flight.
Praxis dropped her hands. She pulled a battered pocket watch out of her trousers, sighed at it, and looked up in time to see the barmaid peer around her wall of solitude. The girl was doe-eyed, curly haired, cheerful as a fresh cut bouquet. She held a pitcher in one hand and a rag in the other. “Just wanted to see if you’re needin’ anything, miss,” she said as she wiped away a nonexistent spot on the table.
Praxis shook her head, waved the girl off lazily. There were still hours to go, and her drink was only half gone.
The barmaid craned her neck over the pile of Praxis’s luggage. “Will your friend be joining you again?”
For a second, Praxis didn’t know what the girl was talking about. She looked up and frowned through her tinted lenses, uncertain as to whether or not she was being poorly mocked. But then she caught sight of the barmaid’s eager expression, at the way that she was twisting the rag around her thumb over and over again, and she remembered that she hadn’t, in fact, entered the bar alone. “Oh. Right, him. Yeah, I’d say he’ll probably be back. Eventually.”
The girl tried to suppress a grin, and failed. She wiped a larger swath across the table. “He, um. He works with you up at the big house, right? For Mister and Madam Vandervoon?”
Praxis studied the girl. “He does.”
The barmaid nodded. “Does he . . . ever talk about me? It’s just that I’ve seen him around here a few times, we’ve talked. And I was just—just wondering.”
“What’s your name?”
The girl blushed. “Calestra.”
“Well, we don’t really talk much,” Praxis said. “I’m sure that if you asked some of the lads that he works with directly, your name must have come up.”
Calestra grinned, pleased enough by the lie. She seemed like she might have inquired further, but when she looked up at the door her eyes bugged. “Excuse me, miss,” she said, bobbing at Praxis and hurrying around to reach the newest patron.
Praxis closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair, propping her feet up on a nearby crate. She had learned years ago how to sleep in just about any position and circumstance, and now perhaps she might be able to catch up on some that had been stolen from her by Mr. Vandervoon’s summons. But no sooner had she begun to settle in when a hand clapped her shoulder, and a booming voice broke the stillness.
“Praxis Fellows!” it said, clapping her shoulder again. “My, what a surprise running into you here—and on such a lovely day!” It laughed, overly pleased with itself, and the creaking of wood revealed a heavyset man sitting down beside her.
“Maestro Eagleburns, how are you?” Praxis asked before she’d even opened her eyes. Now that she did, she wished that she hadn’t. As far as Praxis was concerned, the Maestro’s mien was an assault on the senses, always had been. He dominated his chair, sprawled as proud as a cat, his round belly hanging between his spread thighs. One arm hung over the backrest of the chair beside him, the other he had slapped onto the tabletop. His fat, bejeweled fingers were already inching towards the remains of Praxis’s drink. He was swaddled in a fashionable new suit of the finest silk, his shirt popping white against midnight black. His jacket was drawn back, his green waistcoat on full display. Gold buttons bore the symbol of the Royal Society of Magic, mirrored on a ring on his smallest finger. His flushed face was beaming at Praxis, still amused by his own brilliance, but his smile was hidden away underneath a burly horseshoe mustache streaked with white.
The Maestro laughed at nothing. “Can’t complain, can’t complain,” he said, draining the last of her glass and wiping the foam away with the back of his sleeve. “And it’s Don now, just to be correct. Not that I would have expected you to hear about that, tucked away all the way up here.”
Praxis grimaced. She had heard of his promotion—she had just been hoping that it was nothing more than idle gossip. To think of him as a Don, to picture life back at the Royal Society of Magic with this man on the council . . . while she may have no great love for the Society, the thought of it still gave her a shudder.
“Well, this establishment is certainly . . . quaint,” the Don said, looking around the room with a smug expression. “And what are you getting yourself up to these days, my dear Fellows?” He chuckled at his own joke, and shook his empty glass at her. “Nothing too ambitious, I hope.”
Underneath the table, Praxis’s fingers itched with a repressed hex. She took off her tinted spectacles and trained her eyes solidly on the Don, knowing how much they disquieted him. Sure enough, his face ticked, and Praxis fought hard against the urge to smirk at him. “Keeping busy. Of course, I would never dream of violating my ban, so it’s nothing worth reporting to a gentleman such as yourself.”
“I certainly hope so,” the Don said, all pretense of jolliness momentarily suspended. “There are many that would like to extend the bounds of your exile. I would hate to see anything happen that might sway the majority vote in that direction.”
Praxis put her spectacles back on. “And what brings you so far from the tender arms of civilization? Nothing as banal as catching up with an old friend, I suppose.”
The Don laughed. “No, certainly not, quite right. Ah, but if I could tell you . . . I probably still wouldn’t. Society business, and all that. Nothing that you need to worry your pretty head over, I assure you.”
Don Eagleburns smirked. He tipped the glass, verifying its emptiness, and glanced back at Praxis. And smiled.
While Praxis dressed in gentleman’s clothing, she had never gone to any radical steps to hide her womanhood—her breasts were unbound, she did not pad out or tuck in any of the subtle curves of her sides. Her limbs were lean, her face was delicate. With that dreadful overcoat that she always wore cast to one side, the beaten cotton of her shirt fell almost gracefully across her chest. If anyone from this country had tried to dress the way that she did, the Don had no doubt that the result would be a disaster of ill-advised rebellion; but on her it was exotic. The foreign woman from a foreign land, skin and temper so strangely matched, her icy demeanor and frozen glare the perfect compliment to her tundral heritage. He reached up and smoothed his mustache as his eyes raked over her.
It took every last scrap of Praxis’s self control not to curse him dead on the spot. If she moved a muscle she would surely burst into a furious rage. How long she could keep her hold, she did not know, could not even begin to contemplate.
So it was lucky for her, really, that the tiny world around them chose to descend into chaos at that particular moment.