Leonard – 1.16.4

Richard had dragged himself out of bed to show up at the duel, something Leonard was eternally grateful for. He was jittery that morning, and he had barely slept a wink the previous night. It was absurd, since he’d fought duels before, and the idea of him dying in any meaningful way from a mortal gun was preposterous. He was a much better shot than Janson was, anyway, and he had spent the evening before practicing with Serena. There was nothing to fear from this duel, that much was true, so why was he so nervous?

Leonard cracked as many bones in his hand as was possible for the fiftieth time that morning, and looked down at the paper bearing the address.

“Are you sure this is it?” Serena asked.

They stood in front of an abandoned factory, which was falling apart but was completely empty. Richard was loitering outside, and Titania had jogged up a few minutes ago and gone inside.

“Why would both of them be here if it wasn’t?” asked Leonard.

“That’s a fair point.”

“Well, I suppose we should go inside.” Leonard shoved the paper in his pocket and called out, “Richy Richard!”

Richard looked up. “Oh! I’m so glad you’re here. They’re beginning to think that you’re not showing up.”

“Here we are,” Serena said. 

They followed Richard into the factory shell. A boulder coming up to Leonard’s knee had been placed in the middle, with two lines sloppily painted in the dirt on either side. Duke Janson stood with his wife and sons behind one of the lines, berating Duchess Janson about something. Clarissa stood off to one side with Oberon, Titania, and some other girl, who Oberon was flirting with.

On the other side was Johann, Deirdre, Richard, and Camilla. Leonard had told the bare minimum of people about this duel, so that he hopefully wouldn’t be smeared by the press. There had already been an obviously untrue scandal last year accusing him of having an affair with Camilla, and he wasn’t eager for a repeat, especially since this time he was doing something to cause him shame.

Oberon and Johann approached the rock in the center.

“Doctor Faust,” Oberon said.

“King Oberon,” said Johann.

“Has Duke Mephisto apologized or backed down from the challenge?”

“He has not. Has Duke Janson apologized or backed down from the challenge?”

“He has not.”

“In that case, I suppose we should go on with the duel. Who’s officiating?”

Richard came forward. “I am.”

“Very impartial,” Camilla said.

“Why is that woman here?” Janson asked. “Everyone here knows she’s-”
“I will also fight you, if you insult anything so shallow about Camilla Chambers again,” Serena said. “And don’t think I’ll have you in some honor bound duel, either. I’ll jump you in the middle of the street, and you won’t come out of it unchanged, I promise you that much.”

Janson tried to look like he wasn’t bothered, but Leonard drew great satisfaction from seeing how he moved away from them, and that he didn’t finish his accusation. 

“Are we going to do this?” Richard asked. 

“We’ve come this far,” Leonard said. He tried to crack his hands again, but he’d done it so many times that he only hurt himself. “Who has the pistols?”

Oberon came forward and placed two duelling pistols on the rock. “Loaded with one bullet each. You each have one shot, and you can shoot at any point, but you may not cross the lines in the dirt.”

Leonard and Janson took their pistols and went back to stand in their places. Their respective supporters stood well back, and Richard himself also took several steps backward. “Alright, load your guns, now. On my count.”

Leonard loaded his gun and cocked it. He lined it up with Janson’s face, and put his finger on the trigger. Janson had done the same, and there was an awkward pause of several seconds while they waited for Richard to count.

“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”

Janson fired his gun immediately. Leonard had a split second to think about what a stupid move that was before he became aware of a hot wetness at the top of his leg, and he realized that the shot had struck. 

The blinding pain hit him several seconds afterward, and he realized what an idiot he must have seemed, standing there with his gun in the air and a bullet in his leg. His hands were beginning to shake, and the chance was slipping away from him. He centered his gun again, and pulled the trigger.

Janson’s head rocked backwards, and Leonard realized that he must have got him, too. At least both of them would die of infected wounds, and not just him.

Leonard slid to the ground, gritting his teeth against the pain. There was blood everywhere, and people were yelling around him, though it seemed to him strangely calm. He peeled a strip of bloody fabric off of his bullet wound, and saw that the bone beneath it was probably shattered.

Serena was leaning over him, talking faster than he could keep up with in his current state. Leonard nodded along with her, acting like he understood exactly what she was saying, and took her hand when she held it out to him. The edges of his vision darkened, and he felt her touch his face as he slipped away.

The next thing he was aware of was being on a stretcher, and that he was deathly thirsty. He reached up, but saw a surgeon above him and realized that he was about to be operated on, so he rested his head back on the straw pillow beneath it.

“Duke Mephisto?” the surgeon asked.

“Water,” he groaned. “Duke Janson?”

“Duke Janson sustained severe injuries, including several broken ribs. He is being operated on as we speak.”

Water flooded Leonard’s mouth, and he nearly choked. He licked his parched lips, and tried to sit up. 

The surgeon pushed him back down. “Not right now, Duke Mephisto. We have to operate quickly, or your condition will worsen.”

“Okay,” he said. “Okay.” Something was put over his face, and everything went black once again.

After that, he slipped in and out of consciousness for what might have been hours, or days, or weeks. There was always blinding pain when he awoke, and worried faces, and the rank smell of sickness in his room. He was feverish, and often delirious when he woke, but mostly he slept.

His fever dreams were incredibly vivid. The only one that he could remember was a memory of swimming in a lake as a boy, with some of his friends. It was deep water, and a young Oswald Janson was tossing coins in for the other children to dive for.

One of his other friends, Lavinia Avnas, managed to get a rather large coin of solid gold after jumping off the rock into the deepest part of the lake. John Amon climbed up on the same rock, but when he tried to jump, he slipped, screamed, and fell face-first into the water. Leonard and Lavinia were certainly laughing when they pulled him out, and John himself took it like a massive joke. That was how he took everything in those days, after all.

“Let’s see what Allocer can do,” Janson said. “A gold coin, into the deepest part of the lake. If the handmaiden can do it, so can you.” ‘Handmaiden’ being his teasing nickname for Lavinia, in the same way that ‘the drunk’ was what he called John later in life.

He tossed in the coin and Leonard dove in after it. He was a strong swimmer, due to the broiling hot summers where one only went outside to go swimming that he’d lived through his whole life in his dukedom. He slipped through the water like a knife, making hardly a splash, and kicked his way down to the bottom. Twelve feet down, Leonard’s ears began to hurt, fourteen and his lungs felt as if they would burst. He pushed some bubbles out his nose and kept going, down to the bottom where the coin glinted in the mud. He scooped it up and swam for dear life toward the surface. His lungs burned, but he struggled to keep calm, knowing that panic would just make it worse. Leonard’s ears made an odd noise like they were letting out bubbles, and his head broke the surface.

He climbed out onto the rock, held up the coin to Janson, and shoved it in his pocket.

A crafty smile came onto Janson’s face. “Alright, very good, Allocer. Let’s see if he can do it.”

He tossed another coin into the water, in the part where the bottom was rocky and uneven, then pointed to another boy, who Leonard didn’t recognize. The boy plunked himself in the water and began to swim towards where the coin had landed, slowly, like he had all the time in the world. He went under when he got to the point where the coin was, and Leonard expected him to come up a few seconds after.

He didn’t.

“Where is he?” John Amon asked, after a few more seconds of the boy being under. 

Janson shrugged. “There’s turtles in that water. I don’t want to jump in to get him.”

Always eager to outdo his rival, Leonard catapulted himself into the water. He swam over to where he’d seen the boy go under, confused as to why so much of the red mud at the bottom of the lake had been stirred up in this particular area. He got his answer moments later, when he saw what had become of the boy.

A snapping turtle had seized the boy’s foot in its jaws, and was holding him underwater. Leonard, who knew next to nothing about turtles, reacted in the same way young boys react to everything – he slammed his fist into the turtle’s jaw. It released the boy’s foot, and Leonard managed to pull him to the surface. The turtle whipped around, and crunched into his toes, which made him scream, flooding his mouth with water. He and the boy went back under, the dead weight of the boy dragging Leonard down. He kicked, and knocked the turtle off.

He swam for the shore, coming up to breathe not nearly often enough, with the boy dragging behind him. Leonard was mere meters away from the shore when he sank down, unable to keep going.

Three more pairs of arms reached down into the water and pulled him up. Leonard was thrown onto the grass, where he coughed for a long time before being able to speak.

The other three children were silent, standing around the unknown boy, whose wet, bloated body was splayed out by the lake.

“He’s, erm,” Lavinia said. “He’s dead.”

“How do you know?” Leonard asked.

“Not breathing.”

“Not breathing?” Leonard had heard that there was something or another that you could do when someone wasn’t breathing. He crawled towards the boy, and put his hands on his chest. He pumped once, twice, three times, then stopped for a moment. He repeated the process several times, but there was no change.

Leonard stood up, and joined the other children in staring silently at the boy’s corpse.

John Amon was crying. Well, he was the youngest there, that was to be expected.

“Did anyone know his name?” Lavinia Avnas asked.

No one did.

“Where did he come from?” Lavinia Avnas asked. “Did anyone know him?”

“No,” Janson said. “He was just some village kid.”

Just like that, the dream ended, and Leonard was awake, and no longer a child. 

He sat up in bed, feeling feverish and weak, but better than he had for however long he’d been ill. He was in a guest room that had large windows on the wall of his right, alone in a queen sized bed. Leonard picked up a bell on his nightstand and rang it, assuming it would summon a servant.

Instead, it summoned Serena, who came in and threw her arms around him.

“We thought you were going to die,” she said.

“How long has it been?” Leonard asked.

“You’ve been in a fever for two weeks,” said Serena. “Your leg’s healing well, though, they say that much. You probably won’t even have a limp.”

“That’s good.” He’d limped for much of his boyhood, thanks to his cloven right foot, but a brace and much practice walking in a certain style had made it so that his limp was hardly detectable. 

“There’s further good news, too. You won the duel, and I do believe you’ve gained a supporter in Titania.”

“And Oberon?”

“Oberon never shows up to anything.”

“That’s a fair point. Has anything else of note happened while I’ve been ill?”

“You shot Duke Janson in the side, and he’s been recovering badly. Albert Janson’s condition has also worsened, to the point that he’s locked himself in his rooms. He’s composed music, though, and seems to have become instantly famous. Do you know who else has become instantly famous? Two people, actually. Cesare Sabia and Camilla Chambers, almost at the same time. They’ve been trying to out-do each other in terms of… fame, I think? It’s not clear, but they’ve become vastly more competitive, as if such a thing were possible.”

A servant came in, and said, “your grace, you mustn’t lay so close to Duke Mephisto. You’ll catch his fever.” 

“Sorry,” Serena said. She moved away, though Leonard wanted her to stay pressed against him. He needed the physical contact badly after so many days alone. 

The servant put down a breakfast tray in front of him. “How are you feeling, your grace?”

His head had begun to pound again. “Not well, but much better. I’m not hallucinating Satan, or rather, my boss, in the corner anymore, but I feel like hell.”

“That’s good. The doctor recommends that you stay in bed until you’re completely better.”

“I will gladly do so.”

Serena stood up. “I should go. I hope you feel better, my love.” She kissed him and left the room.

Leonard was only able to eat part of his breakfast before his headache became so bad that he had to lie down in darkness and put a wet towel over his eyes just to bring it to a bearable level. He shivered and sweated simultaneously, and began to hear things that weren’t there. He could hear his mother, asking him if his foot felt alright, and when he tried to answer he found his tongue so thick from dehydration that he could hardly speak. He heard people moving about the room, as if he were trapped in a crowd that he desperately wanted to escape, but when he tried to sit up his arms were so weak he couldn’t push himself into a sitting position. 

The commotion grew, and Leonard pulled a pillow over his head to drown it out. Someone removed it, saying, “you’ll suffocate yourself like that, your grace.”

“Let me suffocate, then!” he said. “I have to stop this damned noise.”

“There’s no noise, your grace.”

“Yes, there is. Can’t you hear it?”

The person left the room, and a few minutes later a thermometer was being stuffed into his mouth, and someone he assumed was a doctor was going about the room, propping him up with pillows and lighting a fire.

“Get him out of that nightshirt,” the man suspected of being a doctor said. “Has he been eating? Drinking regularly? Make him some tea out of willow bark, that helps. Quickly, now!”

Leonard groaned at being jostled into a sitting position. He felt like he had been run over by a train. Suddenly he remembered Dominic Sapping, and what poor taste the comparison was in, and he laughed.

Someone peeled the wet rag away from his eyes, and he brought up an arm to block the light. The man in front of him was indeed a doctor, the man who worked as his personal physician, whose name he couldn’t remember at the moment. 

“Let me sleep,” he hissed. “Please.”

The doctor held up a cup. “Here, your grace, drink this.”

Leonard grabbed the cup and took a deep drink, if only to get the man off his back. He immediately spat it out. “This is broth!”

“Yes,” the doctor said.

“You could have warned me.”

“My apologies, your grace. Drink the broth, please. It’ll help you feel better, I promise.”

Leonard drank as much as he could before he started to feel sick to his stomach. The doctor urged him to continue, but Leonard didn’t want to throw up all over himself in front of… anyone, really, but especially not a doctor. He put the cup of broth down, and picked up a tin cup of water. He’d heard that water would help settle the stomach.

A servant brought him a cup of tea, which he accepted. Another servant brought him a stack of newspapers, which all had his duel with Janson as the front page story. Leonard sighed and began to read the first one.

“Your grace, should you not rest?” The doctor asked. “Can’t the media wait?”

“It can never wait, I’m afraid, and I’ll have to get better as soon as possible so that I can deal with it.”

The doctor pulled the newspaper out of his hands. “No, you must rest.”

Leonard sighed and leaned back against the pillows. His leg throbbed and his head pounded. He curled up into a ball and wished for all the pain and fever to disappear. Moments later, he was asleep.

Johann 1.15.3

“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.”

“Well, you-”

“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?”

“Umm…”

“No? Well, keep it to yourself, if that’s what you want. I found you an assistant the other day.”

“Who?” 

“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?” 

“Fine.”

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?”

“I can.”

“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.

Richard – 1.9.2

Richard’s group of writer friends were the only people he had ever been truly comfortable around. He’d never had many friends, thanks to his skin condition, and his only sibling had died in the cradle after taking his mother with her. His father was distant, to say the least, often shutting himself up for long periods of time to avoid talking with his sister, son, or his own aging father. The sister, Jane Redmond, was a widow whose husband had died of typhus just after she’d given birth to her twins, Elizabeth and Owen. Jane had raised him, and Richard had played with her children in his youth, until Owen was sent away to be an officer in the army and Elizabeth eloped with a woman. Richard’s grandfather had died when he was thirteen, and Aunt Jane had helped him get into painting as a way to cope with the isolation and grief. She’d died, too, in a shipwreck with Richard’s ever-distant father when he was seventeen. After that he’d gone to study at university for two years, before returning to London.

He had met Duke Leonard at university when he was twenty, and through him he’d met Leonard’s wife Serena, Camilla Chambers, Cesare Sabia, Elijah Wade, Hai Daiyu, Veronika – Vera to close friends – Nikitovna, and the ever-mysterious friend he’d only met in person once, a few years ago in Italy, Enoch Carter. 

All of them were writers in some fashion, except for Leonard, who tagged along because he was such a dear friend and because he had obscene amounts of money. Richard wrote horror, Camilla wrote romance (and horror, apparently), Cesare was a poet, Elijah a poet and philosopher, Daiyu wrote science fiction, Serena studied fish and wrote papers on them, Vera was a playwright and poet, and Enoch wrote mysteries.

Apparently, his outing to draw dancers and quick conversation with Serena and Cesare had transitioned into a full get-together. Once the opera ended, he was swept up by the rest of the group into a carriage, then to Leonard and Serena’s house for dinner. 

“I’ve composed another poem,” Cesare said.

“Congratulations,” said Camilla. “I wish I had the motivation to write anything.”

“You’ll find it. Did you finish that last novel about the man falling in love with the fish?”

“Excuse me?” Serena asked. “You wrote about what?”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Camilla. “I finished it, but I haven’t published it yet.”

“What exactly was that about a fish?” 

Camilla shrugged. “Really, it doesn’t matter.”

“I study fish. I want to know if you wrote a book about one.”

“Oh, I did.”

A servant arrived with drinks. Richard took out a pencil and started idly sketching the bizarre hat a man in one of the paintings on the wall was wearing. 

“And the fish was…”

“The love interest,” Camilla said.

“I’m afraid I don’t quite understand,” said Serena.

“He fell in love with the fish woman.”

“Was she more of a mermaid?”

“Sort of. She had a fish upper half.”

“This sounds more like surreal horror than romance.”

“I suppose it could be considered such. The man does die at the end. Falls off his balcony after giving a long soliloquy.”

“That makes no sense.”

“You don’t have context.”

Serena sniffed. “Well, I can say with scientific authority that fish people are impossible.”

“That you know of.” Camilla rejected silverware a servant tried to put down in front of her. “I don’t eat.”

Richard finished his drawing and stuck it in the pocket of his coat. Hopefully, Deirdre wouldn’t come looking for him tonight, because gatherings like this often ran quite late.

A few minutes later, Vera, Daiyu, and Elijah showed up in quick succession. Richard was already between Leonard and Camilla, so he wasn’t sitting next to any of them.

They were a diverse group, in both appearance and personality. Nearly none of them came from the same place. Leonard and Richard himself were English, Serena was Scottish, Camilla was a Native American, Elijah an African-American, Cesare was Italian, Vera was Russian, Daiyu was Chinese, and the never-present Enoch a New Englander. Their various personalities often led to conflict, specifically between Cesare’s arrogant hedonism and Camilla’s intrinsic need to make fun of everything on the face of the Earth. It was all in good fun, though. Probably. Hopefully. 

Vera was Russian, a woman who had been born a lucky peasant and was now somehow engaged to the rich American philosopher Elijah Wade. She had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a round, nearly perfectly symmetrical face. Richard had done a portrait of her a few months past, which, come to think, he needed to have framed. It was still leaning against the wall in his studio.

Elijah was African-American, a philosopher who had made his money with his radical ideas and utterly nihilistic worldview. He’d written lots of books, most of them philosophical but some composed of poetry. He had dark brown skin, curly black hair cut close to his head, a short beard, a blocky face, and inky eyes. Elijah was rather handsome, at least in the sense that classical artists understood the word. He would not have been out of place as a statue in a ruined Greek graveyard. 

The last of the newcomers, Daiyu, was a science fiction writer who wrote mostly about aliens and the unknown. She was Chinese, and had short dark brown hair, brown eyes, and round face, which Richard thought was just average enough in terms of classical beauty that she might have been painted in as a background character by some great Renaissance artist. Not ugly, per se, but not a great beauty, either. Just rather average. 

Leonard and Serena stood to greet each of the three as they arrived. They took their seats, and conversation started anew.

“I mislike Duke Janson’s new laws,” Elijah said. “Workhouses and prisons are not my idea of a solution to poverty.”

I mislike politics,” Daiyu said. “They make me feel sick. Let’s talk about something else. Did you know that in America they’re developing-”

“A war?” Camilla suggested.

Elijah gave a long, suffering sigh. “I’ve heard quite enough about the war in America for an entire lifetime.”

“And to think, it hasn’t even started yet!” said Cesare.

“It’s all just war this, war that, I heard you’re American, can you tell us anything? As if I’ve been home in the last year.”

“Didn’t you take a vacation there?” Serena asked.

“I am sad to say that the trip to Italy soured me to vacations forever, my friends.” Elijah paused for a moment. “And, let me add, all of you are to blame. I don’t divide between individuals. When a group does nothing to stop troublesome individuals the entire group is held guilty.”

Richard sighed. The whole group of them had gone to Italy a few years ago, only to be promptly quarantined in their house for much longer than anticipated due to an unexpected outbreak of typhoid in the small town they’d stayed in. Richard had spent nearly the entire trip indoors, except for when he went down to the beach at night. That had been the only thing keeping him sane, mostly due to his housemates at the time.

Enoch had been there. He was in his thirties, with brown hair flecked with early gray. His face was thin, his skin pale, and he had a very serious disposition. He had talked at length of his family, especially his younger brother, Percy. 

“Very profound,” Camilla said, draining her glass of what was presumably red wine in a single swallow. “What do you think of the war?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t care?” Richard was indecorous. How could someone simply not care about something so terrible as war?

Elijah scoffed. “Of course not. Why should I? Does it affect me at all? Does it interrupt my way of life? Render anything impossible for me? I’ll answer my question for you: no, no it doesn’t. I care little about anything that does trouble me, and even less for things that do not.”

“You’d be saying differently if the war was here,” Serena said.

“I highly doubt that. If there was a war here, I would simply survive for as long as I could on nothing and then die. What else do humans do, anyway, but that?”

“You’re speaking hypothetically,” said Richard, who was desperate for a reason to believe that this philosophy was a simple front. “If there really was a war here, or a war breaking out in America-”

“My philosophy wouldn’t change,” Camilla said. “It’s much the same as Elijah, here.”

“What would you know about war?” Cesare asked. Richard was wondering the same thing.

“Plenty, my good friend. I know enough to have developed a philosophy like Elijah’s. It’s like this: Everything dies. People, animals, plants, buildings, philosophies, even words, sometimes. Everything dies, and once it dies, it can’t come back. Ever. So, if everything dies, and doesn’t come back, then nothing you do can ever matter, because it will all be forgotten and rendered pointless someday. However, consider this. If nothing you do can ever matter, because it will all be forgotten and rendered pointless someday, then there’s no reason to do anything good with your time alive. Anything considered good will be torn down someday, anyhow. It’s all for naught, so you might as well enjoy it. And, if nothing good matters, then logically nothing bad matters, either. If anything considered ‘good’ will be torn down someday, then so will anything ‘bad.’” Camilla smiled and drank more of her wine. “It’s a game with no rules, Richard. Why do you still try to play the good guy?”

Richard stood as fast as his weak feet would allow him. “Because being bad makes me feel terrible.” How could they consider basic morals to be pointless? He grabbed his cane, turned on his heel, and left the room. 

He was only going to the toilet, but it was a good dramatic exit if he did say so himself. His blood still boiled as he entered the toilet. It’s a pointless game with no rules, Richard. Why do you still try to play the good guy? He bit his lip. There was a reason he could come up with beyond ‘it makes me feel bad,’ and it was the fact that he had had instilled in him from a young age a deathly fear of being a ‘bad person.’ To be a bad person was to fail someone else even once, to not sacrifice everything you had for your fellow man. To not put yourself second always. Richard clenched his fist around his cane. 

After he was done, he came out to find Serena standing in the hallway.

“Richard-”

“It’s alright, I’m coming back,” he said. “I was just a bit angry in the moment, that’s all.”

Serena put her hand on his shoulder. “Camilla’s drunk, Richard. She probably didn’t mean any of what she said, and even if she did, she hasn’t the courage to act any of it out.”

Richard made no response. Why do you still try to play the good guy? He played the good guy because he had to. It was how he covered everything up, neatly in a bow, with kindness and compassion and empathy. Without that, he would have to face everything inside him, and that wasn’t something he ever wanted to do. 

“Elijah said he apologizes. He didn’t mean to upset anyone, he was only trying to answer Camilla’s questions. Well, he claims. It isn’t difficult to tell that he’s not only lying, but also a godawful liar.” Serena patted him on the back. “I don’t think it was you he was trying to upset. I think he just wanted a reaction out of Camilla.”

Well, he had gotten one. “I know he did. And really, it isn’t bothering me anymore.” What a lie. Richard smiled, but it came out looking more like he was about to cry.

Serena raised an eyebrow, clearly seeing right through him, but she didn’t say anything further. They reentered the dining room and took their seats.

“I would be completely willing to eat an entire meal fit for hundreds just now,” Cesare said. 

“Or, you could just eat a horse,” said Camilla. “That, too, is an option.”

“I detest horse meat,” Leonard said. “I’ve had to eat it involuntarily many times before, and… eurgh. Never again.”

“Why did you have to involuntarily eat horse meat?” Richard asked, eager to participate in the conversation. He had to act like he didn’t care about what had just happened. He had to act like it didn’t bother him deeply. 

“Putting down another damned rebellion,” said Leonard. “Tecualt was late with the supply train, so we ate the dead horses. I very nearly fired the man.” He left something unsaid at the end of that sentence, Richard could tell. 

“My husband is a very brave warrior,” Serena said. “He puts down a lot of rebellions in his dukedom.” She twisted his wrist under the table as she said this.

Leonard looked supremely uncomfortable. “Why, look, it’s the food. Why don’t we eat?”

The subjects of war and rebellion were not brought up again for the rest of the dinner, nor when they went into the parlor to continue their conversation. Richard was not the last to leave; Camilla and Cesare were still there when he did, but it was late when he began his trek back home.

Some strange urge compelled him to take a detour through the docks. He didn’t like them very much, at least not on most days, when the cold and wet would sometimes seep through his shoes and make his feet hurt, and his cane would occasionally slip on the wet wood. It had been hot, though, so maybe the walking areas would be a little drier. 

They weren’t. In fact, they seemed even more damp, and slippery, almost as if it had poured rain for days without letting up. Richard made an irritated noise and did his best.

A piece of paper flew through the air, carried on a chill night wind. Richard caught it before it went into the water and held it up to read it:

Someone here to see you, sir.

Perhaps it was a fragment of a message? Part of a letter that had been lost? Richard shook his head and tossed it away.

Only a few seconds later it flew back into his face. He glared down at it again.

Someone here to see you, sir.

Had it been underlined before? He didn’t think so. Richard turned around, looking for a young ruffian who might have thrown it back at him, and that was when he saw them.

There were four figures, standing at the end of a dock. The first one was a woman with dark skin and black hair, wearing a white nightgown soaked through with blood at waist-level. She held the hand of a child, a sickly looking little boy whose entire front was also bloody. Richard didn’t recognize either of them, though there was an odd familiarity in their eyes. The little boy swayed back and forth, a nasty, bloody grin on his face, and Richard realized he could hear his ragged, shallow breathing from several meters away.

The other two had their faces obscured. The first was probably a woman, judging by the fact that she appeared to have breasts. She was dressed in dark clothing made darker by the fact that it was soaking wet. The clothing seemed to be for travelling; her dress buttoned up the front, it was devoid of frills, and she had a white shawl instead of a collar. Her bonnet was pulled down to obscure her face, but her mouth was slightly visible, and Richard could see a small trickle of water coming down from the side of it. The last figure stood beside her, illuminating the whole group with a lantern. It was probably a man, since he didn’t have breasts, dressed in a soaked suit of dark fabric. He had hidden his face with a tricorn hat, but the lantern shone down to show that water flowed freely from his mouth, as well.

There was a disturbing sense of familiarity here. Richard wanted to run, he wanted to leave the unnatural wraiths at the docks, but something seemed to compel his feet forward.

“D- Do I know you?” Richard asked.

The man looked up and gave a rattling cough, causing salt water to spray from his mouth. His eyes were still hidden. “Barely.”

“What?”

“Barely, I said. Who am I to judge your memory? I can say that you may have known me, once, but you hardly know what’s left of me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You sure are thick, for a writer.”

“How do you know that?”

“I know everything about you.” The cough came again, and Richard realized why he couldn’t see the man’s eyes: they were gone. There was a strip of canvas fabric where they should have been, splotchy with blood and salt.

“You can’t,” Richard said.

“Maybe not.”

“Are you a sailor?”

“Hah! Hardly. I wouldn’t be here if I had been.”

“I still don’t understand.”

The man laughed, drawing his hands up as if he was grasping at something, then coughed into his lantern-less fist. “You’re a blind idiot.”

“What?”

The man pointed to the sneering boy. “Henry, the son of my body. Eldest. He caught the consumption when he was three, he lived with it until he was five.” He gestured with his lantern towards the blood-soaked woman. “Cathy, show him the baby.”

She moved her arm to reveal that she had been carrying a bundle Richard had taken for another part of her bloody dress. Richard shook his head and stepped back. “I don’t want to look at it.”

“Look at it or don’t, makes no difference to me,” the lantern man said. “Jane, after her aunt.”

Jane was the aunt that had raised him. Richard’s palms were clammy with sweat, and his head began to ache. He felt dizzy, and he felt outside of his body, like none of this was real. He hoped it wasn’t.

“My sister,” the lantern man continued, gesturing to the woman beside him. “Her name’s Jane, she’s the one I should have listened to. ‘Don’t go on that ship,’ she said. ‘It’s a bad idea to leave the boy.’ Yes, at least I might have taken him with me. With us.” The man coughed again, and fell to one  knee. When Richard ran forward to help him up, he realized that the man was as pale as a statue, and as cold as a corpse. Surely there should have been some redness, somewhere on his body? Some redness to prove that blood still flowed through his veins?

The man looked up, and his hat blew away, taking the eye covering with it. Those two bloody, empty sockets were a pair of twin voids, and the sneer fixed on the lantern man’s face matched to them perfectly. 

“Not such a blind idiot now, huh?” The lantern man said.

“Oh, Christ,” said Richard.

“My name is Peter Henry Golson,” his father said. “I’m not such a blind idiot now, either. I didn’t believe in God, you know that? Of course you do. I never took you to church, that was her responsibility. Well, I can tell you, son, that I was only half right. There’s something up there, that’s for sure. Something that craves worship and wants followers. But you know what? It’s asleep, son. It’s asleep and it wants to wake up.”

Richard was stumbling back. He had lost his cane. Had his father always been so tall? The world was spinning. He wasn’t in his body. This was fake, it was a dream, it was something he would see inside his head. His head was about to explode with built up pressure. Peter Henry Golson’s face twisted into something that was threatening and inhuman. He drew back his arm and threw the lantern. It hit Richard square in the chest, and he knew nothing more.