Leonard had just spent another tiring day arguing with Duke Janson when Johann decided to abuse his power of being able to talk with his patron at any time. Leonard was not in the best mood, and he thought it very commendable that he did not smack Johann across the street when he asked, “and, Duke Mephisto, what if I don’t want to continue the work that you have given me these powers for?”
First of all, they had not spoken since their argument, which had been three weeks before. What kind of idiot walked across a busy street to start a conversation with someone they hadn’t seen in so long to start a conversation with ‘and?’ Secondly, Leonard had given him a full explanation the last time they had spoken. Thirdly, he had no control over Johann and would never admit that, so this conversation was entirely and completely pointless. It would never get anywhere.
He kept these thoughts to himself, and put on his best demonic smile. “Why, Johann, these powers are yours to command.”
Johann looked incredibly relieved. “I thought there was some kind of clause in the contract-”
“Let us not discuss the contract,” Leonard said. “Do whatever you want. I have to meet my wife and some other couples for supper.”
“Can I come along?” Johann asked.
Strictly speaking, it was a dinner for a set of six couples: The Mephistos and Jansons representing one party, the Archs and Cherubs representing another, Camilla and Daisy for the third, and the lord and lady Edmond Oberon and Helen Titania for the last. Leonard wasn’t sure if he was supposed to invite someone, especially someone who was alone, but he wanted the conversation over with as soon as possible. “Do you have another person you can bring?”
“Uh… well, I suppose I do. We aren’t, I mean, together, but I think she would go with me if I asked her. Her and Jean Gévaudan.”
“Jean Gévaudan?” Oh, sure, a couple was more than two people. Why not?
“He’s my, um, my neighbor.” Johann’s discomfort appeared to be mounting by the minute, and Leonard had no idea why.
“Well, bring them both, if you have to. They might not let Jean Gévaudan in, but that isn’t my fault. Supper’s at eight, at Duke Janson’s house. Do you know where that is?”
“Then meet me there, and arrive early.”
Johann awkwardly tipped his hat, and walked off quickly down the street. Leonard stared after him to make sure he was gone, then started off for his home. He needed a change of clothes, preferably a bath, and the company of Serena.
Brownie was, of course, waiting for him at the door. “Sir, remember William D Sallos?”
In a moment of blackout frustration, Leonard punched the wall as hard as he could. He felt a finger bone crack, and he clenched his jaw.
“Sir?” Brownie asked.
“I had a rotten day, Brownie.”
“Did you lose your boxing match?”
“What? When would I have been boxing? I’ve been giving tedious speeches all day, Brownie, and I am completely finished.”
Leonard gestured vaguely.
“Oh. Well, sir, William D Sallos stopped by earlier. He wanted to see you.”
“Tell him that I’ve broken my hand and cannot get out of bed.”
“Yes, sir.” Brownie tipped his little cap, and appeared about to run off. He teetered from foot to foot, before saying, “Sir, what’s the opposite of a fond greeting?”
Leonard thought for a moment. “Perhaps an insult.”
“Well, I heard that you’re meeting with Edmond Oberon tonight.”
“He’s my father, sir.”
Leonard sighed. “Of course he is.” With Oberon’s sheer and constant hedonism, he was entirely unsurprised.
“Well, I want you to give him the opposite of a fond greeting. Tell him I hate him. Tell him to go and f-”
“I know what you want me to say, Brownie.”
“And will you?”
“Thank you, sir!” Brownie tipped his hat again, and ran off.
Leonard went inside, nursing his hand. Punching a wall had been a bad idea. He stopped in the middle of the foyer to laugh over the simplicity and obviousness of the statement, which surely made him look very strange to anyone else who might have been around. Serena was with a friend, so Leonard went to bathe. He wrapped his hand so that the injury looked worse than it probably was, mostly so that he could use it to drive away Sallos if they ever ran into each other. He then sank into the bathtub, where he tried to wash off the frustration that had built up over the day as well as the dirt. He trimmed his beard after he got out, and dressed in a suit colored different values of red, with a yellow tie.
There was a book lying open on the bed, which Serena had probably been reading. Leonard picked it up to see that no, it was one of the ones she had written, titled An Index of Fishes and Marine Life Found In and Around the Northernmost Coastline of Scotland. Serena always published under her own name, which had been at the time of writing ‘Serena Selk.’
There was commotion downstairs, the door opened, then closed, and there was silence. There were loud footsteps on the stairs, and Serena entered the room.
“Good evening, dear. I see you’ve found my book.”
“Yes. It’s one of your better ones, I think. I like the sketches.” Leonard put the book down. “I had a very bad day today.”
“Oh? Very bad?”
“Can I make it better for you?”
“Well, you see, I’ve just had a bath.”
“Oh, we won’t get dirty. Besides, we have, what, two hours before we have to go to that dinner party? Plenty of time.”
Leonard smiled. “Alright, but we have to be at the party on time.”
An hour and a half later, they were riding in an open-topped carriage to Duke Janson’s house. It was horribly hot, but Leonard was distracted by the much worse discomfort coming from his broken fingers, which throbbed under the bandage.
“Why did you punch a wall?” Serena had asked him when they’d been lying in bed together, just before getting dressed and going out to the carriage.
“I was frustrated.”
“Well, better to punch a wall than punch a person.”
Serena was leaning against him now, holding his arm against her body. Her dress was the same crimson as his jacket, pants, and hat, and her hair was done up behind her head with a ribbon. Leonard shifted, trying to distract himself from the intense heat.
“It’s so damn hot,” Serena said. No doubt she could feel how much he was sweating.
“Too hot,” said Leonard. “When I came up here, I was promised England would be cold.”
A man and woman were running up along the side of the carriage, shouting. The man waved at Leonard, who was incredulous.
“Hey, don’t you remember me?” the man said.
“Dammit,” said Leonard. He had been hoping to be drunk when he encountered these two.
Serena sat up. “King Oberon?”
Edmond Oberon waved. “I’m not alone this time, Mrs Mephisto! Meet my lady wife.”
“That’s your wife beside you?”
“Yes, that’s Queen Helen Titania.”
“Stop the carriage,” Serena said.
“Speed up,” said Leonard.
“Do not,” Serena said. “Stop the carriage and kindly allow the King and Queen to ride with us.”
The carriage ground to a stop, and the couple climbed onto the bench across from them. Oberon, a short man with curly black hair, was dressed, as always, like he had fallen out of 1780. He wore a green waistcoat embroidered with flowers over a puffy, frilled shirt, loose green pants, tall socks, and buckled shoes. His coat was of green silk, was embroidered like the waistcoat, and had a tall collar. All in all, he looked like he ought to be giving impassioned speeches to other instigators of the French Revolution, not lazing around London in the year 1860. Really, Oberon was quite handsome, with his sharply pointed face, tanned skin, and lazy, playful smile. If only he had dressed differently, Leonard might have told him so.
Helen Titania was his wife – or so he claimed, and Oberon had not proven himself to be a reliable source in the past – and she dressed much the same as her ‘husband.’ Her dress at the moment had many layered petticoats, all of green, and a fitted bodice held closed in the front by pale lace. There was a sharp curve in the back, and there were a frankly ridiculous amount of frills on the entire thing. Titania herself was pale-skinned and Scottish – probably – and had long blonde hair woven with flowers. Her face was more round, but still with sharp angles that made her look cruel from the profile.
The carriage started up again, and blessedly, neither of the newcomers spoke until they were getting close to Duke Janson’s home.
“Now, I have to warn you,” Oberon said.
“Oh no, here we go,” said Titania.
“Well, you see, Miss Clarissa Janson, Mrs Holland, and Ms Janson – Emma – were over at my home about three weeks ago. How they managed to get away I cannot say, but, well, there was, with Mrs Holland and Ms Janson-”
“Oh, I know what happened with Mrs Holland,” Titania said. “Do you have any idea how hard it was to deal with? Stop it. I don’t mind who you take to bed, so long as you don’t send the products my way afterwards. Got that?”
“But, you forget, Mrs Holland is still missing.”
“Well… maybe she was allowed to stay. Forever.”
“Oh, but I’m not allowed to recruit-”
“Recruit anyone you want! Just, do not send them to me. And by God, keep your bastards away from my place, unless they are- well, you know what they must be. They must fit in at my court, they must have full blood, they must be loyal and of good breeding, et cetera. I needn’t give my entire speech, especially not with the Duke and Duchess Mephisto here.”
Oberon paused. “You aren’t talking about Clara, are you? Because we both know that she’s as legitimate as Gloriana or Moth.”
By this point, Leonard had lost track of what they were talking about entirely.
Titania shook her head. “No, no, not her. I mean that changeling boy you love so much. The- erm-” she said something in an alien language that Leonard didn’t understand.
“I understand,” Oberon said.
“I don’t,” said Serena.
“I’m using him as a manservant,” Oberon continued, ignoring her entirely. “He’s important.”
“Right, well, I don’t ever want to see his face again.”
“Sir!” A voice called.
They all turned, and saw a young dark-haired, dark-skinned man of about sixteen running along beside the carriage.
“Hullo, Mark!” Oberon said.
“Dammit,” said Titania.
The table was nearly full when they finally made it to Duke Janson’s dining room. Camilla was with her completely and totally platonic ‘friend,’ Daisy, sitting as far away from the head of the table as was possible. Leonard made sure to say hello to her as they walked in.
“Richard’s been ill,” Leonard said pointedly.
Apparently, she did not catch the subtext of go visit him, because Camilla’s only response was to say, “give him my condolences.”
Gabriel and Mary Arch, a police captain and a merchant’s daughter, were next to her. Gabriel’s suit was pale blue, highlighted in yellow like Leonard’s was, to match the color of his golden hair. Mary’s dress was a much darker blue, and the hat covering her auburn hair was made of lace. Gabriel nodded politely to Leonard as he walked past, but they didn’t exchange a word and probably wouldn’t all night. They had been friends, once, and hadn’t parted on the best terms.
The Cherubs, a couple where one, Catherine Cherub, was pale-skinned with brown hair and the other, Uriel Cherub, was dark-skinned with black brown hair, sat across from the Archs. Catherine was in violet, and Uriel was in white. Fortunately, none of their thousand children were present.
Duke Janson, a man with light brown skin, cropped dark hair, large eyes, and a goatee, sat at the head of the table. His wife, Duchess Janson, a large woman with blonde hair, light skin, and a thin face, sat next to him. Both were dressed in black.
“Did you invite those paupers into my parlor?” Duke Janson asked.
Leonard had almost forgotten about Johann. “Oh? Yes, I did invite Dr Faust and his girl – or boy, I don’t really know and I don’t really care – to this little gathering. He might have brought a Frenchman with him, too.”
“I don’t want them here.”
“Well, they’re my guests. Oberon’s brought a manservant, why can’t I have someone I’m the patron of?”
Janson stood up and looked him in the eyes. In an instant, Leonard was aware that Janson knew about Johann, and he knew exactly what Leonard had done. “I don’t want them here, and if you had a single lick of sense in your body, you wouldn’t either.” Janson smiled. “I don’t think I will have to say why, exactly, since you and I both know what I’m referring to.”
“Yes, but consider that they’ve made the journey. You would turn them out?”
Leonard was already in over his head, so why not go deeper? “I think not. Let them in, Duke Janson, or I shall take offense.”
“Oh, I am so terribly frightened. Have you gotten any letter from the prince? Has Volac showed up on your doorstep? What exactly is going on in your dukedom at the moment?”
Leonard was incensed. True, he had lost control of parts of his dukedom, but Tecualt was working to reclaim them, and it wasn’t anything serious. Besides, his work with Johann was more important. “My dukedom is perfectly fine. There has been a small rebellion, but Tecualt-”
“Oh? Tecualt? You mean the butcher from the war in Texas? Yes, I’m sure he’ll do just fine. There won’t be much needless slaughter, not with Tecualt in charge!”
“Hm? Needless slaughter? Why not go speak to your son, hm? You know, the one who was demoted in the navy for murdering important captives for the fun of it?” Leonard smiled. “You did a poor job hushing that one up, Janson.”
“At least it was my son, and not me who disobeyed orders so badly he was demoted. We all know that that’s the true reason you dropped out of the army back in, what, 1812?” Janson smiled. “Murdered an angel, that’s what I’d heard.”
Their argument had slowly grown in volume, until everyone was staring. Neither of them had noticed Johann, Deirdre – what was Richard’s friend doing here? – and someone who was presumably Jean Gévaudan entering the room.
“1812?” Johann asked. “But that would make you well over sixty years old. How- how old are you, Duke Mephisto?”
“As old as Janson, here, older than Camilla, but not quite as old as Oberon,” Leonard said.
“As old as me, but not nearly so experienced,” said Janson. “I can say with certainty that I would never lose my land to dead souls. I could send all of them to double-hell without much effort.”
“I’ll fight you,” Leonard said. “We’ll see then who can send souls to double-hell without much effort.” Some kind of momentary madness had made him say it, but the decision seemed sound now that he said it aloud.
The entire room seemed to be holding its breath while Janson stood there, frowning and not speaking for an agonizing minute. At last, Janson smiled and said, “Why, Duke Mephisto, are you challenging me to a duel?”
“Pistols,” Leonard said. That would be far in his favor; he was a good shot, and Janson was famous for not being one.
“You want pistols?” Janson pretended to consider the idea. “Very well, then. I accept. Oberon?”
Oberon looked up from where he was flirting with Daisy. “Huh?”
“You’re my second. Duke Mephisto, do you have-”
“Johann,” Leonard said, knowing this would be seen as another insult, if only by Janson himself.
“Duke Mephisto?” Johann asked.
“You’re my second. Do you understand what that means?”
“I’ve fought duels before, don’t worry. I know what I have to do.”
Duke Janson sat down at the head of the table. “Very well, then. We will eat dinner, and in a few days, we will play for our lives in a senseless, pointless game.”
“Don’t act like you didn’t cause this,” Leonard said as he sat down.
Dinner arrived, being venison that had been cooked to death with onions and leeks. Any food Leonard ate tonight seemed to turn to ash in his mouth, but he ate anyway, if only to keep up an appearance of civility. The three newcomers were seated at the end of the table, next to Camilla. Johann and Deirdre ate ravenously, but had excellent table manners, considering where they lived. Jean Gévaudan, on the other hand, ate like an animal, and only ate the meat. Leonard was disgusted, and beyond politeness. He glared pointedly at Gévaudan until the man looked up, then very slowly demonstrated how to properly cut meat and bring it to your mouth. Gévaudan smirked and copied him but once, then went back to the way he had been eating.
“Duke Mephisto? Do you have any thoughts on the subject?” Camilla’s voice broke through his thoughts and growing anger.
“I really hadn’t been paying attention,” Leonard said. “What is ‘the subject?’”
“We were just discussing the impact of the recent killings.”
Ah, right, the killings. Multiple people from all walks of life had been found slaughtered, with their throats ripped open and their faces torn beyond recognition. Leonard suspected that Johann had something to do with it, since he had acted strangely in the past few weeks, like a man who had committed a great crime.
Leonard looked around at the others. Jean Gévaudan looked interested in an odd way, like he saw something deeper in this conversation. Serena was completely disinterested, more focused on the designs on the tablecloth than what Camilla was saying. Titania clearly had no idea what Camilla was talking about, and was looking like she wanted to leave. Johann was a nervous wreck, and Deirdre looked like her mind was a thousand miles away. Other than that, Gabriel, Mary, and Uriel were listening intently, without any obvious ulterior motive.
“I don’t know much about the killings,” Leonard said. “I only know what the papers have told me. What about you?”
“The bodies are mutilated before death,” Jean Gévaudan said. “Violently. The killer strikes particularly for the throat, but seems to eat certain organs, as well, such as the liver and kidneys.”
“Indeed they do,” said Gabriel. “And they’re stronger than most of the killers we’ve encountered, since they seem to leave a dog to their killings. A large dog, which seems truly immune to bullets.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Camilla said. “I could kill it if pressed. You’d just need explosives.”
Gabriel gave her a horrified look, but Jean Gévaudan seemed interested. “And… would you be able to create these explosives?”
“Maybe I could. There is a law man here, after all.”
Gévaudan thought about this for a moment, considering something. “Explosives might damage it. What do you think, father?”
Oberon started, which made Leonard chuckle.
“Me?” Oberon asked.
“Yes, you. Aren’t you my father?”
“Probably,” Oberon said. “Why would you call me that if you weren’t sure?”
“I figured I could get your attention that way. We know each other, Oberon. Why have you been ignoring me?”
Oberon ignored his second question and said, “Well, I think the killings should stop.”
“A bold new viewpoint,” said Camilla.
“Shut up,” Oberon said.
“Speaking of father,” said Leonard, “one of your sons entrusted me with a message for you.”
“He hates you.”
Oberon sighed. “Oh, good. Just what I needed.”