“This is a terrible idea,” Johann said. “Why did you agree to this?”
Leonard rapped on the carriage window. “This is good glass, you know.”
“Focus. Why did you challenge Duke Janson to a duel? It’s a dreadful idea!”
“Bold words from you. I don’t accept accusations of my ideas being dreadful from anyone who routinely brings people back from the dead with no plan for what to do afterward.”
“So, are you saying that my bad idea should be condemned, but yours shouldn’t?”
Johann scowled. Why wouldn’t Leonard listen to him when he said that he had everything under control? “What do I have to do when we get there?”
“You said you’d been a second in a duel before. Talk to him. Decide the make of the pistols, when, where, all of that.”
“Actually, that wasn’t what I said. I said that I’ve fought duels before, which I did, in medical school, but I’ve never acted as a second. What do we even talk about? ‘Hello, it is I, Dr Faust, and I need to know what kind of gun Duke Janson wants to use when he tries to blow Duke Mephisto’s brains out.’”
Leonard cracked the first smile Johann had seen in days. “I dare you to say that.”
Johann laughed, feeling awkward that Leonard’s only reaction was a small half-smile. He knew that things had been difficult for Leonard lately, with the fact that one of his friends was deathly sick, the constant battles he had to fight every day in the government, the vague drama going on in his dukedom, and the duel he was about to fight. His tension was palpable, and it made Johann uncomfortable to even be around him.
But friends were supposed to support each other, weren’t they? Johann wouldn’t call Leonard a friend, exactly, but he still was vaguely sure he had some kind of duty to help his fellow man as best he could. The years in seminary were unclear memories, but he was pretty sure that that idea had been mentioned at least once.
“I’ll just try to be natural,” Johann said.
“Do that,” said Leonard.
They were silent for a few minutes, before Leonard said, “I never got a chance to ask you the other night, but was that girl you brought to the dinner party your significant other?”
Johann sighed. “That’s Deirdre. We’re not together all the time, or most of the time, really, but-” He shook his head. Things with Deirdre were complicated. He thought he might have loved her, and if he did then he loved her more than anything on the Earth, but it might have just been a passing infatuation… or a way to prove that he did have control, and that he was not a puppet. She might have loved him, too, but she always acted so weird, and whenever they started talking like maybe they wanted to have an actual relationship, she went back into her shell, which she wouldn’t come out of for days at the minimum. There was just too much left unspoken for it to be a real relationship, or one that had any meaning. Johann barely even knew anything about her, other than the fact that she was Irish, she lived with the Sappings, and she was friends with Richard.
“So you aren’t seeing each other?”
“Well, we sort of are. Sometimes we are, sometimes we aren’t. We’re close, either way, and we’ve-”
“I don’t need gritty details, thank you. Does this mean that you’re romantically inclined towards girls?”
“No? Well, keep it to yourself, if that’s what you want. I found you an assistant the other day.”
“His name is Monty Conray, and he lives in your apartment building. He’s working as a sailor, but he wants a second job as your assistant, so long as you pay him. Can you?”
“Umm…” Johann had been having some financial troubles lately, mostly because he’d been too focused on his work to get a real job. “I think I can pay him. Does he have any training in… anything?”
“Probably not, but he has supreme listening skills. You can teach him.”
“Medicine is delicate! I cannot teach him!”
“Yes, you can. Do you accept him as an assistant?”
The carriage stopped, and the door opened. They were in front of Oberon’s enormous mansion, which was quiet despite the fact that it was past noon. Johann nervously stepped out of the carriage, and the door slammed shut behind him. There was no going back now.
He walked up to the door and knocked. It opened a few seconds later.
“Yeah?” The maid asked. “Oh, it’s- oh, you’re Dr Faust, are you? Yeah, come in.”
Johann entered, and was led into a sitting room. Oberon emerged several minutes later, looking disgruntled, like he’d just been awoken.
“What do you want?” Oberon asked. A servant brought him a pipe, which he lit.
Opium? At this hour? Here? Johann straightened. At least it would be easier to deal with the man if he was high on opium. “I’m here to negotiate for the duel.”
“Ugh,” Oberon said. “Folly, you know?”
“Yes, folly. I agree.”
“Well, unavoidable. What did he say to talk about?”
“To figure out the make of pistols, the time, the place…”
Oberon grunted. “Pistols. No, we’ll use cannons.”
Johann stared at him. He reminded himself that Oberon was on drugs. “We can’t use cannons.”
“Actually, we can. It would be merely a small addition to this tomfoolery. See, it’s like this: I send a letter to Janson and Mephisto with the message that we’ll be using cannons. I forage your signature at the bottom so that they think you agreed to this. They think you did. They blow each other to smithereens with cannons. My problems are over and I get both their houses.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works, Lord- excuse me, but I have to ask. What exactly is your rank?”
“Me? I’m a king. Why do you ask.”
Johann rolled his eyes. “You are not the king of England.”
Oberon smiled. “Where did I mention England?”
The light reflected strangely off of his face as he said it, and his smile seemed more sinister than welcoming. His black curls blew back, even though there was no wind inside the building. Johann had the sense that he was trapped in a maze, and that he had somehow signed some contract he shouldn’t have by merely entering the house. Suddenly, Johann was deeply unsettled by this house and its occupant, and he moved to the other side of the sofa he sat on to distance himself from Oberon. His smirk deepened, and the room seemed to flip so that suddenly Oberon was across from Johann again.
“Are you hungry, Dr Faust?” Oberon asked. His voice had deepened, and was quieter. His French accent was less pronounced, replaced with something Johann couldn’t quite place.
“No,” Johann said. Best to stay confident, so that Oberon would not notice his inner distress. “I am here to discuss the details of the upcoming duel between Dukes Janson and Mephisto.”
“We’ll speak of that later,” said Oberon. “Have some fruit, Dr Faust. Or some wine, try that.”
Though Johann had not seen the servant come in to deliver it, there was now a platter of fruit and wine sitting on the table between them. Johann’s head spun, hopefully from the opium.
“I am not hungry,” Johann said. Asserting himself had always worked before. “We have to decide the make of pistol that will be used in the duel.”
Oberon leaned back into the sofa. “Alright, then we will. What about flintlock duelling pistols?”
“Flintlock? Aren’t those a little outdated?”
“Yes, but it’s tradition to use flintlock duelling pistols. Besides, they come in a set, and where Mephisto and Janson come from, it’s doubly tradition to use flintlock duelling pistols.”
Johann took out a notepad and wrote that down. “Do you have a set they can use?”
“I do.” Oberon clicked his fingers, and a servant rushed in with a box. Oberon whipped the top off, revealing two ordinary duelling pistols.
Johann picked one up. They seemed perfectly sound and ready to use in a duel. “Alright, let’s use these.”
“Very good. Now, Dr Faust, something has suddenly come to me.” Oberon smiled, and held out a hand. “Your first name?”
Something was deeply, deeply wrong here. Johann cleared his throat nervously, and smiled. “Why do you want my first name, L- I mean, King Oberon?”
“Well, I suppose I’m curious.” He was still holding out his hand, like he was waiting for a handshake.
“Well, my name is-” All his instincts screamed at him to stop, which he found quite ridiculous. He set his jaw and pushed down the panic inside of him. There was nothing to fear from this lazy, drugged nobleman! “My name is Johann Wolfgang Faust, why do you ask?”
Oberon’s smile remained for a moment, before it turned into a scowl. “That’s it?”
Johann was beginning to get impatient with his strange statements and requests. “Well, technically, it’s Johann Wolfgang Von Faust. I think my family was noble, or something, once.”
Oberon glared at him, and his face suddenly looked frighteningly wild. “Listen, you don’t want to lie to me. Do you understand? Good. Now, I ask you again: can I have your name?”
Johann stood up, having had his fill of this game. “My name is Johann Wolfgang Von Faust, the son of Wolfgang Paul Von Faust and Juliane Eva Von Faust. Do you want the names of my brothers and sisters, too, or are we done here?”
Oberon sat back, looking like a petulant child who had just been told ‘no’ for the first time. “I suppose we are. Sit down, Dr Faust, and have something to eat or drink. Please.”
Johann was beginning to catch on to this game. “I don’t think so. We need to talk about the-” He was distracted by a book sitting on the shelf behind Oberon. The Exploration of the Veil, by an unnamed author. He’d been looking for that book, and had discovered that it was illegal in many places, including Germany, Italy, France, Spain, America, England, Scotland, and Ireland. Why, he couldn’t say, but the fact that it was illegal only made him want it even more.
“Yes?” Oberon asked.
“I’m sorry, but could I borrow that book behind you?”
“What, this?” Oberon hefted the thick tome. “Oh, sure. My friend, Lord Howard, left that here when he stayed with me for several weeks.”
“Why did he stay with you?”
“Some drama between him and his mother, or him and his wife, or him and his son. I can’t remember.” Oberon poured a thick purple substance out of the ‘wine’ bottle and into a goblet. “Want some?”
Johann’s heart skipped a beat. He knew exactly how that would taste, exactly where it had come from, and exactly what King Oberon was. Suddenly, everything about the names and about the fruit made sense. “N- no. I don’t want any.” That drug he had taken and the liquid he had drunk afterwards had caused him no end of trouble. There was no way he was going to repeat the experience here, and there was no way he was going to accept strange gifts from a faerie.
“No?” Oberon asked. He lifted the goblet to his mouth and swallowed most of its contents in one go. “Are you sure? It is quite good.”
“No,” Johann said. “That is my final decision. Now, hand over the book to me, if you’re really going to let me borrow it, and let’s discuss the time and place of the duel.”
“Tomorrow,” said Oberon. “Dawn.”
“Why dawn? And why tomorrow?”
“Dawn is the time I will have the most control over the duel, and tomorrow is the soonest we can get it over with.” Oberon finished his glass of purple sludge and replaced the pill in his pipe of opium. “Can you mobilize Mephisto that fast?”
“Good.” Oberon lit the pipe again. “By the way, you live on Temptation, don’t you? In that big apartment building?”
What did that have to do with anything? “I do.”
“My stepdaughter lives there, too. Her name is Sylvia. Do you know her?”
“Well, sure. She’s taking care of Mr. Golson right now, who I’ve had to attend several times in the past few days.” He’d also spent time in her flat, either when he was spending the night with Deirdre or when he was too frightened to sleep in his attic alone. Sylvia hardly slept; she rose early in the morning to watch the sunrise, and she went to bed past midnight. She also ate very little, and went through dramatic mood swings that Johann thought were due to an undiagnosed mental illness. He had learned this term from Duke Mephisto, and had found that it applied to more people than he had expected.
Oberon sighed. “I haven’t seen her in years. Do you think you could take her a message for me?”
“What kind of message?”
“I have it written down here.” Oberon took out a letter, and handed it to him. “Deliver it to Sylvia, and bring me her response tomorrow. Please. Here, take the book, as well.”
Johann figured that since the book wasn’t technically Oberon’s to give, accepting it wouldn’t be considered accepting a gift from Oberon, but instead Lord Howard, whoever that was. “Thank you, and please thank Lord Howard when you see him again. I’ll give the message to Sylvia.”
Oberon sat back down on the sofa and waved him away. Johann left the room, but this time there was no one to lead him back out of the maze-like house. He was vaguely sure that he was supposed to walk forward, and he had an idea that sticking to one wall was good for getting out of mazes. He walked until he ended up at the end of a hallway, with a set of large double doors in front of him.
Johann opened the doors and found himself in a cavernous room lined completely with mirrors. The walls, floor, ceiling, and even the other side of the door were glass, and the door that was closed was nearly invisible against the wall. There was no furniture, except for a table at the very center with a locked black book on it, and no obvious light source despite the fact that the entire room was brightly lit.
“What on Earth?” Johann asked aloud. Could there be lights embedded in the ceiling? The light was harsh, and he felt that it might burn his skin if he stayed for too long.
He walked forward, meaning to see what book was on the table, and thought he could hear someone else’s footsteps mimicking his own, but there wasn’t anyone else in the room. There was a sound like someone running on all fours, with no obvious source, until Johann looked up at the far wall.
There were footprints on the glass above him, like someone was walking there. As he watched, more appeared, until he was right under the newest ones. Johann felt that spreading emptiness that he’d felt after bringing Dominic Sapping back, and he realized the complete lack of color in the room.
He smiled nervously, as if that simple motion could dismiss the monster that was probably right above him. Johann held the smile as he left the room, closed the door behind him, and locked it from the outside.
Duke Mephisto’s carriage was gone, so he jogged home. Ransom Egerton, the teenage thug who lived below him, was outside, smoking.
“Hey, Doctor,” Egerton said.
Johann stopped. “Hm?”
“You got poisons ‘n stuff up it that trunk u’ yours, right?”
“… Yes, I do. Why?”
“Well, ‘s a bit of a hazard, dontcha think?”
“Having poisons up in my rooms, as a doctor. No, I do not think.”
Egerton shrugged. “Whatever. Do you know Mark?”
“Mr. Murphy? Yes, I do.”
“I don’t like him very much. Do you?”
“I confess, I haven’t had much interaction with him.”
“He’s a problem, and I need to take care of him.”
“Well, he works for some important people now, so you hold off on that.” Specifically, Mark Murphy worked for the Faerie King, but Johann didn’t say that for fear of being taken as insane.
“Eh,” Egerton said. “I don’t think so. Anyway, it don’t matter. Have a nice day, Doctor.”
Johann went to walk inside, but Egerton stopped him by putting a hand on his coat sleeve. “You have to come attend my mum when she gives birth to the baby in her belly, got it?”
“Can you pay me?”
Egerton’s face darkened. “I can pay you in life, Doctor.”
“I don’t accept blood money, and nor do I accept threats.”
“I’ll pay you, all right.”
Johann nodded and tipped his hat. “Have a good day, then, Mr Egerton.” He dashed up the stairs, and went into Sylvia’s apartment. Sylvia and Deirdre sat at the table, gazes fixated on Jean Gévaudan, who looked uncomfortable, for once.
“What’s this?” Johann asked.
“They seem to think I know where Mr Johnson has gone,” Jean said.
“And do you?” asked Johann.
“No, I don’t,” Jean said. “It’s propaganda to say that I do.”
Johann sighed. “Here, Sylvia, I have a note for you.”
“From?” She looked to be doing better than she had been a day prior, when Johann had come to tend Richard. The dark bags under her eyes had been reduced, and she smiled rather than looking afraid.
“Your stepfather, King Oberon.”
Sylvia didn’t seem to react, but Deirdre looked nervous and Jean turned his head sharply towards her. She opened the letter and read it with a neutral expression on her face, then turned it over to check if anything was written on the other side.
“Ha!” Sylvia said, with a happy shrug. “Was that all?”
“Yes, but he wants me to bring your response to the duel tomorrow.”
“Oberon is fighting a duel?”
“No, Duke Janson is, and- you know what, I’ve said too much already. This is technically illegal, after all. Just give me your response.”
Sylvia took a pen out of her pocket and wrote in French on the back of Oberon’s paper: I won’t.
What was that supposed to mean? Johann pretended that he hadn’t read it, and surreptitiously flipped the note when he picked it up so that he could see what Oberon had written.
It was written in some alien language that he didn’t speak, and that he was sure wasn’t something that any mortal on Earth spoke. Johann sighed, and stuck it in his pocket. He said his brief goodbyes, and went upstairs to spend the rest of the night alone and go to sleep early. It would be an early morning tomorrow, and a stressful one. He needed the rest.