Mark – 1.20.3

Content warning: This chapter is EXTREMELY heavy on death, including the death of a child.

Mark woke up that morning like usual, and decided not to go to work. Oberon had told him that he was not needed on weekends, and though he had previously been going anyway, he decided that today he would be staying home with his family. Mark walked out into the other room, and sat down on the floor to play cards with Mildred’s fiance, Tom Curtis. 

“Aren’t you going to work?” His mother asked when she came in.

“Oberon said I could have the weekends off if I wanted, so, no.” 

“Oh. Alright.”

Mark had discovered something in the past few weeks, and that was the power of the word no. It had saved him from the drugs at Oberon’s house, it had stopped him from attending a highly publicized duel he’d been invited to, and it was the way he had, for the most part, avoided the horrorshow of Ransom’s mother’s death. He was realizing slowly that he could say no to things sometimes, that people were alright with it, and he himself would even come out better having done so.

It was an excellent realization, and he felt much better having had it. 

He went outside around noon to get some water from downstairs, and found a buzz of activity in the hallway. Ransom Egerton was going into Hobart Blakely’s apartment, holding an ambiguous brown bottle and box of matches. Deirdre was in the hallway outside of her apartment, talking with Jean about something as he brushed his dog. Lottie and Ansel Conray were playing jacks with Joanne Blakely and Mark’s sisters Margaret and Martha in the empty flat. Sylvia Sapping was standing by the stairs, very casually chugging a bottle of laudanum. Johann Faust sat at the bottom of the other stairs to his attic, cleaning his medical implements. There was an axe across his lap, which Mark found quite strange. 

Mark went downstairs and drew up water, then came back up to his apartment. He sat on the floor next to his open door, and opened a book of pulp horror stories he’d bought with Oberon’s money. The story he’d been reading was about a man being hunted alive.

Still dressed in his wedding clothes, Roden ran frantically through the muddy, dilapidated corridors of the sewers. Where have the crypts gone? One moment there were graves, now there’s just dung! The bricks fell about him. Roden had seen that last, crazed look in his uncle’s eyes as the Thorne boy had fallen through the Gate, and had decided that he wasn’t going to stick around to find out what was on the other side of the veil. The void could keep to itself, for all he cared. He had to escape. 

Roden let out a frustrated cry and took a left turn. The sewers seemed to be sloping upward ever so slightly, so maybe he was going in the right direction. Maybe. Hopefully.

Something gave an inhuman scream behind him, and Roden ran faster. There were monsters coming through the Gate, for sure, and he was not going to let them catch him. I have to get back to Mother,  he thought. I have to tell her what happened. I have to tell her how he died. 

One of the falling bricks narrowly avoided his face. This section of the sewers was clearly very unstable. Ah, I regret going this way. Roden dashed around a corner, and found a dead end. He ran back, but cut too close to the wall and tripped. His nose broke with a crunch as he hit the ground, turning the muck beneath him a shade of dark red. Roden started to stand, disorientated by the pain, but was thrown back down by a shudder of the Earth. He yelled, getting blood into his mouth. I can still escape. This isn’t the end.

Something came around the corner.

The creature was unlike any worldly animal. It walked on all fours, with hairless gray flesh that hugged its bones so that Roden could count every one. The thing was about as big as a lion, with wicked long claws that made a tap tap on the stone flags. Its face was the outline of its skull, and there were red glowing lights where its eyes should have been.

All of the sudden, Ransom ran out of the Blakely flat, slamming the door shut behind him. Mark looked up, irritated at having been interrupted. Ransom ran down the hallway, disappeared into the Egerton flat for a few minutes, then ran out and locked the door behind him.

Mark rolled his eyes and looked back down at the page.

The thing roared, showing off fangs as large as Roden’s hand as it did. It stood on its hind legs and brought those wicked long claws down on his abdomen. They burnt as they entered his skin, as hot as a thousand irons. Roden screamed and screamed.

Suddenly a long, jagged knife sprouted from the back of the thing’s neck. It snarled and turned around, leaping at Roden’s unknown rescuer. He was too blinded by pain to see who it was or the struggle that surely followed, but heard when the thing finally collapsed, dead.

From behind its corpse came a small boy with black hair. He wore nothing but a pair of bloodstained leather pants, cut off at the knee. The boy’s chest and arms were also covered in strange spiral tattoos that reminded Roden of the things Thorne had drawn to create the Gate. As the boy drew closer, Roden saw that his hair was not hair at all, it was feathers, black as coal and growing out of the boy’s head like that was a perfectly reasonable place for feathers to be.

Ransom promptly interrupted him again by running up behind him and shoving him into his apartment. He then slammed the door, and Mark heard him lock it with a click.

“What was that for?” Mark asked aloud.

He stood up and watched Ransom lock the last door, the one of the empty flat full of children, including, Mark now saw, the two youngest Egertons.

“What’s going on?” his littlest brother, Matthew, asked.

Mark shrugged. “I don’t know.”

He thought he smelled someone cooking something in another apartment, which made him hungry. “Let’s have something to eat.”

He cut them bread, which they stuck on toasting forks and roasted slowly above the fire. Mark spread butter on their toast when it was done, and they crunched through several pieces each. Matthew ate a remarkable amount for a three year old, but Mark supposed being hungry was a given when one was so poor.

Someone was definitely cooking something nearby. Mark could smell the smoke. He frowned, and went to try to unlock the door. It was jammed somehow, and he couldn’t get it open after several minutes of trying.

“Marky?” Matthew asked. 

Mark shook his head. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Someone screamed outside, and Mark realized that the smell of smoke and sudden heat probably wasn’t from someone cooking something. He tried to calm himself down, telling himself that no, the building was not on fire, but yes, he should try to get this door open as fast as he could. 

He remembered that the rest of his family were downstairs with a woman who had just given birth, helping with her other children. It was just him and Matthew here in this room.

There was more screaming from outside. The door was hot to the touch. Matthew didn’t seem to understand what was going on, but Mark certainly did. There was a fire. The building was on fire. 

He was panicking as he fiddled more with the lock and the doorway. Damn Ransom Egerton! He had locked them inside of a burning building!

Suddenly, the door burst open, and smoke flooded the room. Mark jumped back, coughing and squeezing his eyes shut. Blindly, he felt for Matthew, who was screaming. 

“There’s fire!” Matthew said. “FIREFIREFIREFIRE-”

“Yes, I know,” Mark yelled over the sound of the flames and the people screaming. He picked up Matthew and cracked his eyes open. Most of the hallway was full of flames, but if he ran fast enough he thought he would probably be able to get through to the empty flat, the one with the children in it. People still screamed in most of the other rooms, though the Conray flat was ominously silent save for the flames pouring out of it. 

Mark was horrified to remember Ransom going inside the Conray apartment with a bottle and a box of matches. Had he started the fire? Was he to blame?

It wasn’t the time to think these things over. Mark shouldered Matthew and ran for the opposite door, avoiding the flames for the most part. He put his hand on the doorknob and instantly regretted it. The metal was hot, and it burned him so badly he was certain he lost skin. He screamed, and nearly dropped Matthew. What was he doing here? He was only fourteen. Still a child. 

Mark slammed his shoulder into the door, which did the trick. The wood had been weakened by the fire, and it buckled under his considerable weight. He slammed into it again, and again, and again, until he was coughing and his eyes were stinging but the door was open, and the children could get out.

“Come out!” Mark shouted.

Davey and Eliza Egerton ran out and past him, down the stairs. They’d probably be able to get out, but Mark didn’t see any of the others, or if they were awake. “Martha?” he called. “Margaret?”

The heat was unbearable. Mark realized that he was going to have to run, and he prayed all the way down the stairs that his sisters would be able to get out, too. 

The stairs were on fire as well, but not as much, and Mark was able to dodge the flames, for the most part. Matthew sobbed all the way down, and Mark realized that he was crying, too, though maybe that was from the smoke. He could see the doorway, and he could hear people outside. Mark picked up his pace to run the last few feet, out the door. Once he was out he barely registered it, but kept running until he was as far away from the heat and smoke as he could be. 

He then set Matthew down and turned around to see what they’d just escaped. 

The entire building was engulfed by a ball of fire. There were firefighters there, but they weren’t doing much against the blaze. Mark had a feeling that they would just elect to let it burn out. 

He wondered who had opened the door for him. An angel? Mark said a prayer of thanks to himself and looked around. Johann, Deirdre, Sylvia, and Jean had all escaped, and were huddled together outside of a nearby building. A baby was crying somewhere, and a man’s voice quieted it. Mark began to feel very lethargic. He just wanted to lie down. It would be so nice to simply lie down on the pavement and nap… Who would miss him?

No. No, no, no, he was still standing. He was still standing. He struggled to breathe, and even when he did draw enough air into his lungs it was accompanied by stabbing pain. Mark knew what that probably meant, and why his body wanted him to give up.

Well, he refused. He would not die. He was strong. He had just accomplished something that had killed many others. He would make it out of this. Somebody would help him and even if they didn’t, he’d make it. Mark waved to Johann, who stood up and came over to him.

Johann shook his head, already knowing what Mark was about to ask. “How much smoke did you breathe in?”

“A lot,” Mark rasped.

“I don’t know, Mark.”

Everything felt so heavy. His body was trying to force him to the ground, to lay down and close his eyes, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t give in, not yet. He could still make it, he just needed some rest. He supposed he would lie down for a little while, but he would not close his eyes. He repeated it over and over to himself, as a mantra. Do not close your eyes.

Johann sat down and took Mark’s head in his lap. “You’re very brave, you know. You saved your brother and you saved the younger Egertons.”

He knew his lungs were too ravaged to be saved. Mark looked up at Johann, and smiled. He had always feared dying alone. He was glad to have somebody by his side until the very end. There was Matthew, too, holding his hand. Mark smiled and, breaking his own order, closed his eyes. 

He couldn’t focus, everything was spinning. He felt dizzy, even with his eyes closed. 

Mark squeezed Matthew’s hand, and thought of seeing his family who had surely died in the fire in the afterlife. It would be nice to see them again. He imagined seeing his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles who had died. It was a pleasant thought, and it was his last before unconsciousness overtook him.

Notes:

This is the last chapter of part one, apart from a short epilogue! Part two will be published on its own page, and the first part will be released next Tuesday. The epilogue will be released this Saturday, along with something else I’ve had planned for a while. Thank you for reading!

Johann – 1.19.4

Johann had just gotten out of the anxiety-ridden state he had been in since Dominic Sapping’s second death, after long periods where he would make himself physically sick with worry. The only good thing that had come out of it was that Deirdre had helped take care of him, and talked to him, and in exchange he had helped her with her own problems, and they had grown much closer. She was not as afraid to show affection as she had been, and he was not as afraid of talking to her. He supposed that their relationship was official now, and that he ought to start calling her his significant other. 

The other thing that had happened was that his confidence had shot up. He had determined that he was not afraid of things he saw while on drugs, and he was not afraid of shrimpy little blonde boys. He was afraid of the nightmares he had, Dominic Sapping’s bloody corpse, hellfire, the Man in Red, and what might happen to him because of his part in giving Duke Janson an infected wound. He was not afraid of hallucinations, or what some child might do because his mother had died in an extremely commonplace way. In fact, it irritated him that everyone else seemed so concerned about it. Ransom Egerton was a child. Johann Faust had the powers of Hell behind him.

He was called away from his work a week after Mrs Egerton died to try and save the life of the child she had died giving birth to. He did all he could, and by morning the girl’s fever had broken. Even as he worked tirelessly to save his sister’s life, Ransom glowered at him the whole time, but Johann ignored it. He wouldn’t show that he was worried – which he wasn’t – and Ransom wouldn’t do anything to him. Fear was something people relied on, and by taking it away Johann was certain that he had dissuaded Ransom from retaliating for some perceived crime.

Some roof shingles nearly fell on him the next day as he was standing outside waiting for the landlord to appear so he could pay his rent. They fell mere inches away from his head, and if Johann had been standing just to the right he might have died. 

This near death experience had only increased his confidence. Johann tipped his hat at Ransom as he climbed the stairs to his attic, and got a glare and a swear in return.

The next day, he found that someone had tampered with his chemicals and made it so that when held too close to the flame, several of them would have exploded. He dumped the liquid out and washed the bottles thoroughly before reusing them.

That night he told Deirdre about it. The nights were getting colder, so she often slept in his bed to keep warm. 

“Don’t you think that you should be worried?” she asked. “It sounds an awful lot like someone has it out for you.”

“God?” Johann asked.

Deirdre laughed, but still looked scared. “I just think that we should be careful.”

“We will be, don’t worry.” Johann shivered. “It’s cold in here. Did I leave the window open?”

“You’ve closed that window every night for months, without fail. Why would you have forgotten now?”

“Everyone makes mistakes.” Johann stood up and went over to the window. It was indeed open, so he latched it shut. 

The floor in the attic squeaked badly, which was probably what saved Johann’s life. He heard Ransom running towards him from behind, and managed to jump aside before the axe came down on his head. He hit his arm on the way down, probably bruising it badly, but he had avoided death.

Deirdre jumped up behind Ransom, and somehow managed to get the axe away from him. Johann stood up, holding his arm, and stumbled away from the struggle. Ransom punched Deirdre in the face, and her head snapped back, but she managed to keep the axe far away from where he could get it. Johann grabbed Ransom around the neck from behind, and tried to wrestle him to the ground, but it turned out that being a shrimpy scientist who hardly ever worked out and didn’t have the best diet was not a factor that helped win fights.

Ransom threw him off easily, and went at Deirdre again with his fists. She knocked his hands aside with the shaft of the axe, which caused Ransom to yell and bend over to rub his bruised knuckles. 

“What are you doing here?” Johann asked. He was still processing what was happening. A boy had just broken into his home to try and kill him, and Deirdre had smashed his fingers with an axe.

“Killing you,” Ransom snarled. “For killing my mum.”

“I didn’t-”

Ransom flew at his throat, and Johann had to throw himself across the room again to avoid him. Deirdre pounced on Ransom, and smacked the blunt end of the axe into the back of his head. He fell instantly, and Deirdre dragged him out of the room before he could come to. 

Johann was initially shocked by her fast, violent reaction, but when he thought about it it made perfect sense that Deirdre, who had told him something of her past and given him an idea of why she couldn’t talk about it, was so good at spur-of-the-moment survival now. She’d been forced to survive in a spur-of-the-moment way all of her life as a child, of course she would be perfectly willing to fight off a maniac with an axe.

Deirdre came back up the stairs, slammed the door, and latched it shut.

“I didn’t think he would do that,” Johann said.

“I noticed,” said Deirdre.

“I thought he was just a kid.”

“I noticed that, too.”

“I guess I probably should have listened to you a little more.”

“So, you admit that you were wrong?”

“No,” Johann said. “I’m just saying I should have listened to you more, and that I’m sorry I didn’t. We could have died.”

“And that was your fault.”

“Actually Ransom Egerton-”

Deirdre shook her head. “Can we go to sleep? Please?”

Johann climbed back in bed and pressed his back up against the wall. Deirdre liked to sleep facing out, facing the door so that she could see anyone coming into the room, so he had moved his bed to the back wall. She crawled into bed next to him, and pulled the blankets up so that they were cocooned in a warm bubble. 

“I’ll listen to you next time,” Johann said. He meant it, too. The experience of nearly being murdered had shaken him to the core, and he didn’t want to repeat it.

“I think Ransom may take drastic measures,” said Deirdre. “He might do something big.”

“Like?”

“I don’t know, but I think he’s going out of his way to hurt you, and he might try something else.”

“In that case, it’s not safe for you to be around me for the next few days.”

“I know. I was planning to leave the building altogether and go stay with Richard. I wasn’t sure how to tell you.”

“That’s a good plan. I’ll get a message to you when everything smoothes out, alright?”

“Alright.”

Johann pulled her closer to him, and she sighed contentedly. He was feeling anxious again, but not to the point of sickness like he had been. He told himself that everything would be alright, that everything would turn out fine. Deirdre would go stay with Richard, he would continue his work here, and Ransom Egerton would calm down. Everything would be alright.

Notes:

Apologies for the short length of today’s chapter. Hopefully, this will be compensated by Thursday’s chapter and the fact that this Saturday something new and considerably longer will be released.

Thank you for reading!

Clarissa 1.18.3

Clara regretted going to see her father. 

For one thing, she’d been abed for a fortnight after going there. She didn’t know what kind of drugs she’d taken, willingly or unwillingly, but they’d messed her up for a long time. She had terrible nightmares every night, and sometimes hallucinated vines climbing up her bed, or heard mad laughter from somewhere in the house. She was told that Albert was getting worse, that his slow death from consumption was at last coming to a close. She was also told that Duke Janson had been injured badly in a duel, and Duke Mephisto, too, had been sick for a long time. Clara didn’t care about either of them, she only cared about the fact that she’d gone to her father’s house once – once – and instantly been bedridden for weeks. What kind of monster would do that to their own daughter? What was he? 

When Clara had been sick for weeks and weeks, she heard them talking about sending her off to a madhouse. She shuddered and begged them to let her stay, insisted that she was quite sane. Just sick, that was all. They gave her more opium to help her sleep and told her not to worry about any of it. They told her it would all be just fine. 

Ernest came in often during the day, but even he seemed to doubt Clara’s sanity. She had to plead with him to believe her, and though he took her side quickly, there was still the fact that she had had to convince her beloved husband that she wasn’t crazy. Clara cursed her father and his strange drugs, and whoever else he associated with. 

At some point, maybe in early November, when Clara was watching it get colder outside with every passing minute, a servant came into her room and handed her a calling card.

King Edmond Oberon

Lord of faeries and fanciful things

Clara almost ripped the card in half. She never, ever, wanted to see the man’s face ever again. Still, maybe if she let him in this once she would be able to get answers about what drug had put her in such a state? She sighed and said, “he’s welcome.”

The servant rushed off and came back a few minutes later with Oberon.

Clara opened her mouth and took a breath to denounce him viciously and permanently, but before she could Oberon handed her another calling card. 

Queen Helen Titania 

Lady of faeries and fanciful things

“Who?” Clara asked.

“Is she welcome?” asked Oberon.

“Fine. Whatever. I’d like to have a word with you, however, on your own. Drugging me? What was that? What did you intend to do? What did you do with Sarah? She’s still missing, and I don’t know how much longer they’ll be able to cover it up. What’s wrong with you? What’s your problem? Why do you do things like this, huh? I’d like to-”

The door opened, a second person came in, and Clara’s heart just about stopped. She knew that face, and that body. She knew it perfectly, in fact.

That was her mother. Here. Standing next to Oberon and hanging on his arm.

“Wh- what?” Clara stammered. “What’s-”

Oberon and her mother sat down on opposite sides of the bed. 

“There’s a lot you don’t know, Clara,” her mother said. “Just, in general. But, today, we’re going to talk about something specific.”

“Namely the fact that you know pretty much nothing about your childhood,” said Oberon. 

“I know plenty about my childhood,” Clara said angrily. 

“Oh? Tell me the name of your best friend and of your nursemaid.”

“Their names-” Clara was horrified to realize that she didn’t know those names. “It’s just been too long.”

“Alright, then, where were you raised?”

“I- in Scotland.”

“Tell me the exact name of the place. Was it a castle? An abbey? A manor?”

Clara was mortified to realize that she didn’t know these details, and that whenever she tried to reach for the answers, she found them running away from her. “I don’t know.”

“No?” Her mother smiled. “There’s a reason. Do you know what happened in 1816?”

“The year without a summer. That’s when my favorite book was written.”

“Good. Do you know why there was no summer?”

“A volcano?”

Oberon crossed his arms and glared at Clara’s mother. “Hmm, I wonder, was there a volcano, Titania?”

Titania? Clara’s mind went immediately to Shakespeare at the mention of that name. She began to feel uneasy, as she thought about the bickering couple, the enchanted garden, and the fact that they were talking about extreme natural events as if they’d influenced them. She almost laughed at the silly notion of this Oberon and Titania being the Oberon and Titania. It was just a coincidence that her father’s name was the same as the faerie king’s, or it was a fake name and he’d chosen it on purpose. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was fiction. 

“Yes, Oberon, there was a volcano. I wonder why there were so many storms?”

“Oh, and I wonder why-”

“Get to the point,” Clara said. She wasn’t having this foolishness today, or any time soon.

“Right,” Titania said. “Well, I’m unsure how to break this to you softly, but you’re the reason that happened. I’m sure you’ve figured out that I am your ‘mother’ by now, and he is obviously your ‘father,’ and the reason there was no summer was because we were fighting. Over you.”

“We’re the king and queen of faerie,” said Oberon. “That’s the how of it.”

Clara would normally have laughed at them, but she lived with Duke Janson, who had a dukedom in Hell itself. If demons existed, why not faeries? “A- alright. But, I wasn’t born in 1816.”

“Quite right, you were born in 1806.”

She couldn’t help but laugh at this. “That would make me over fifty years old.”

“Time flows more slowly in Faerie,” Oberon said. “By the reckoning of the place you were raised, you’re only in your twenties, but by this world’s, you’re in your fifties. Reality, thankfully, chooses to go with our side of things.”

“You mean I was raised in Faerie?”

“You were raised in what’s so close to the mortal realm it’s more Scotland than Faerie.”

“Then my parents are the king and queen of Faerie?” Clara felt like she was in some sugar-coated fairy tale. 

Titania laughed. “My dear, no. You’re a changeling who was meant to replace the son we lost in the 1740s. A faerie-human hybrid by our work, not by nature. Unfortunately, this adoption didn’t work out quite as we hoped, which is why he left. It was to deal with his mother dear, who we’ve just had to get rid of again, which is why we didn’t come earlier.”

“So what you mean is you stole me from my real parents, and adopted me because your son died?”

“Yes,” Oberon said.

“Am I even British?”

“Not at all, you were born on Nantucket Island, off the coast of Massachusetts, to Quaker parents whose family had lived there since the place was settled.”

Clara huddled down in bed. Her entire identity was being ripped apart. “Then… that story about you being… so terrible…”

Titania glared at Oberon. “Not entirely fabricated, my dear. Those exact events never happened, but it was based heavily on reality.”

“I feel like a horrible person for telling everyone that,” Clara said. She really did, and she felt like she was going to have to go back and tell every person she’d ever met that everything they knew about her was false. 

“You had no idea you spoke untruth,”  Titania said.

“Then, you’re not actually such a terrible person? Well, that doesn’t matter, because you still drugged me.”

Oberon looked confused. “No I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did. And if you didn’t, you drugged the others.”

“The others picked up those cups willingly, and ate the fruit when they were already aware of the effect the wine was having on them, and gave me their names of their own free will. I did not force anyone to do anything they did not consent to.”

“People can’t consent when under faerie charms.”

“Actually, I didn’t do anything that would have required consent, and the charm broke instantly when Mrs Holland was transported to our realm.”

“Did it?” Clara was pleasantly surprised.

“It did.”

“Then, how come I’ve been so ill, and hallucinating?”

Oberon laughed. “How can you be sure that those things aren’t real?”

That realization was like being slapped in the face. “Oh.”

Titania stood, and Oberon did the same. “I hope that you will come visit us. There’s much more to talk about.”

Clara held up a finger to stop them. “Wait, one more question.”

“Go,” Titania said. 

“What if I want to meet my real parents?”

“Well, a trip to Nantucket isn’t so hard when you’re a faerie. You rest now, Clara, and mull over what we’ve told you. This is a fairly stable time, so you’d better enjoy it.”

Notes:

As you may have noticed, the chapters for Johann and Deirdre now have header images of the characters. They’re also on display on the new art page. The rest of the images will be coming out either this Saturday or the next one.

Thank you for reading!

Deirdre – 1.17.3

Content warning: Graphic depiction of death by childbirth

Deirdre crawled out from under her bed, where she’d been sleeping for fear of the thing at her window, which now hung from her ceiling to watch her sleep as she did not have a window. She stood up and brushed herself off, and walked over to the cupboard. There was nothing to eat, so she slipped out of the door and into the hallway.

Richard had gone back home after the duel, but Sylvia had continued to use the empty flat as a makeshift opium den. Deirdre worried greatly about her, especially since she’d been in the bad place for the past few days, the place where she was depressed and hopeless. There was no way opium was helping that, but Deirdre didn’t intervene. 

As she went to go down the stairs, she was startled by someone coming up them.

“Hello,” Ransom Egerton said. 

Deirdre moved to the side, already uncomfortable with his presence. “Hey, Ransom.” 

“You seen Marky Mark around here?”

“Not really, no.”

“Eh, that’s too bad. You seen Faust around here?”

“Johann? No.” Actually, that was a lie, he had just left her earlier that night.

“You’re with him, aren’t you?”

Deirdre blushed, and prayed that Ransom couldn’t see it in the minimal light. She enjoyed the attention Johann gave her, and the fact that he didn’t judge her, or try to make her do things that she didn’t want to do, and she would have loved him if he had asked. At the moment, however, neither of them seemed ready for a real relationship, and she was fine keeping it as it was. “Not really.”

“No? Huh, well why don’t I believe that?” Ransom grabbed her arm. “Hey, you’re a girl, you have girl’s parts. You know how to deliver a baby?”

“What? Of course not.”

“You don’t?”

“Why would I know how to deliver a baby?”

“You know the mechanics, though, right? And what’s going on down there for a woman?”

“I guess.”

“Good, come with me. We have to get hot water.”

“Why?”

“My mum’s giving birth!”

“And you want me to help?”

Ransom balled his fists. “I can’t do it all on my own. I’d rather have Marky Mark here, too, but you’ll have to do.”

“Al- alright, I’ll help you.”

She followed him downstairs, to the landlord’s door. Ransom broke the lock, and they went inside the flat.

“He’s got running water there,” Ransom said. “Turn on the tap, and find something to carry the hot water in.”

Deirdre rifled through his cabinets until she found a big bowl, which she placed under the tap. She turned on the hot water, and waited for the bowl to fill. There were some mostly clean rags by the sink, so she grabbed those, too. In previous years, Deirdre might have had a moral qualm about stealing, but she had learned to do what it took to survive.

The door to what might have been a bedroom opened, and the landlord, a man with a long face and fiery red sideburns, came out wearing nothing but a towel. “Wha-”

Ransom pulled out a gun and pointed it at him. “My mum’s givin’ birth. We need your water.”

The landlord put his hands up. “Okay, okay. Just don’t-”

Ransom cocked his gun and stepped closer. “You stand still until she’s done, got that?”

Deirdre tried to ignore it. She didn’t want violence, she was sick of it. Sick of violence, sick of fighting, sick of sickness and death and drugs and poverty and starvation. She just wanted out, but that wasn’t going to happen any time soon, so instead she blocked her ears and was silent.

When she’d finished with the bowl, she picked it up and carried it out of the room. A gunshot sounded mere moments after, and Ransom came running up the stairs. 

“You killed our landlord?”

“I killed his pig wife.”

“What made her a pig?”

Ransom shrugged. “Didn’t like the look of her.”

Mark was standing in the hallway in his nightshirt, looking confused and utterly exhausted. In short, exactly how Deirdre felt.

“What’s going on?” Mark asked.

“Help my mum give birth,” Ransom said. 

“Why?”

“Because she’s giving birth.”

A woman screamed somewhere in the building, probably Ransom’s mother. He motioned Deirdre forward, and pulled Mark along with them.

To Deirdre’s shock, Mark had planted his feet on the ground. “Actually, Ransom, I don’t think I will help you.”

Ransom’s face was unreadable. “You won’t?”

“No. I need sleep.”

“So you won’t help your lifelong friend.”

Mark hesitated, then clenched his jaw and shook his head. “No.”

“Goodnight, then, Mr Murphy.” Ransom was silent as he led a very impressed Deirdre away.

Deirdre had never been inside the Egerton apartment before, but she couldn’t say she was surprised by what she saw. There was very little furniture, and hardly any light. Mr Egerton was passed out on the sofa, from drink or drugs or genuine exhaustion Deirdre could not say. Two small children, identical in every way save for gender, were huddled under the blankets of the bottom bunk bed. Mrs Egerton and her elder daughter, Clara, were in the smaller second room, the mother lying on a bed with her legs spread apart for birth and the daughter sitting beside her. 

There was certainly a look to the whole family. They all had straight, soft blonde hair, lively round faces, and big, watery blue eyes, Ransom especially. The only one who did not follow this trend was Mr Egerton, whose hair was a brilliant red, whose eyes were black, and whose face was sharp and thin. Would the newest child share the same look? It was probable.

Deirdre set the water down on the floor beside the bed. Mrs Egerton screamed again, and squeezed Clara’s hand.

“That’s contractions,” Deirdre said. “That’s normal. I think.”  

“Go get the doctor,” Ransom said.

Deirdre took that to mean her, so she dashed out of the apartment and up the stairs to Johann’s door. She banged on the door, and it opened to reveal Johann Faust, who looked like he had neither slept nor eaten in days.

“Ransom’s mum is giving birth,” Deirdre said. “Ransom wants you there to attend to her.”

Johann hesitated, at least, before shaking his head. “I am afraid that I cannot.”

“Why not?” Deirdre was suddenly afraid for this proud man she was learning to love. Ransom was dangerous and unpredictable, he had shown that much by killing the landlord’s wife. He was also known to be spiteful, and she was suddenly worried that if Johann refused he would be in deep trouble. 

“Because he insulted me, and because I cannot leave my work at this time.”

“Johann-” How to show him that this was a gut feeling, one that was informed by the past she so desperately repressed? “You have to. Please?”

“I’m sorry, Deirdre, I can’t.” He started to shut the door, so she put her foot in the way.

“Could you kiss me goodbye?” she asked. 

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m scared.”

Johann leaned out the door and kissed her on the cheek, then slammed the door shut and left her standing there, being eaten away inside by fear. She sighed and went down the stairs, and back into the room where Mrs Egerton was giving birth.

“Well?” Ransom demanded.

“He’s not coming.”

“What? Why?”

“Busy.” That was a good enough lie for now.

“He can’t be busy. This is more important.”

“Not to him, I guess.” She was just digging Johann deeper, she could feel it. “Listen, Ransom, I can help. I think I know what to do.”

“That means you’ve lied to me either here or outside.”

Deirdre shuffled her feet and swallowed hard. She’d experienced people like this before, and she knew what to do. Stay submissive until they get bored of the abuse. It had always worked with the other people in her life who had been bad to her. “It’s a gut feeling.”

“Fine then, we’ll go off your feelings. Come here and help my mum not die.”

Deirdre soaked a rag in water and dabbed the woman’s head. This was something she’d seen people do, but she didn’t know what it actually did. Something good, she hoped.

Mrs Egerton screamed again, and Deirdre saw the head of a baby poking out between her legs. “That’s good,” she said. “You need to push like that again.”

Mrs Egerton did, and more of the baby came out this time. Clara had her hands in place to catch it. 

A few chaotic minutes and lots of screaming later, the baby popped out of its mother’s body. Clara picked it up and placed it on Mrs Egerton’s breast after checking the gender. The little wrinkled bundle screamed and cried, but Mrs Egerton didn’t look bothered, and Deirdre was just relieved that both mother and daughter had survived.

“Why is there so much blood?” Clara asked. “This isn’t good.”

Deirdre looked and saw that there was indeed far, far too much blood coming out. She picked up one of the rags to wipe it, but stopped. She bit her lip for a moment, paralyzed by the sheer amount of blood and the fact that this woman’s life now rested in her hands. How long had it been since she’d had to do this? How long since she’d been in this situation and realized that despite that, she was failing? 

“Name the baby Alice,” Mrs Egerton murmured. “After the daughter we lost.”

No. She couldn’t do this. She had to get out. Deirdre stepped back and left the room. She couldn’t watch someone else die, especially not this woman who had just given birth. That was one of her failings, that she couldn’t watch someone die, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it.

Of course, her mind immediately went to the most morbid place it could have. When had she last watched someone die? Was it the night she had died? Deirdre did her best to smack those thoughts and memories back into the darkness where they belonged.

Ransom stormed out of the room a few minutes later, and Deirdre knew that Mrs Egerton was dead. “You! You let my mum die!”

Deirdre shook her head. “I- I did my best.” She had. Hadn’t she?

“You should have gotten the doctor.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t try to kill her, I swear. It was just an accident. Misfortune. And Johann, he wouldn’t come, and I couldn’t force him. Please, you must understand-”

Ransom slapped her hard across the face. Deirdre didn’t cry out, even though it stung badly, and she wanted to cry. It was her fault, wasn’t it? She’d messed up somehow, and killed Mrs Egerton. “I can take the baby and find a woman to nurse her.”

“You’d better not kill her, you hear? I hear that anything even kind of bad happened to her, and I swear I’ll beat you bloody. Got that?”

“Yes.”

Ransom held out the baby, who was wrapped in a bundle of cloth. Deirdre took her, and went out into the hallway. Mark had an older sister who was nursing a child, didn’t he? She went into Mark’s apartment, and found a woman, a baby, two toddlers and a boy covered in coal dust sitting on the floor.

“Do you need anything?” the woman with the baby asked.

“Are you nursing?” asked Deirdre.

“I am. Does that child need to be nursed?”

“Yes, she does. Her mother-”

“No need to tell me. Give her here and I’ll take care of her.”

Deirdre handed the baby over and went back into Ransom’s flat. Mr Egerton had awoken, and was sitting on the sofa with dead eyes. 

“My wife is dead, Deirdre,” he said.

“I know.”

“Is my daughter alive?”

“She is.” Deirdre wanted to add a for now, but she thought it would be callous in the moment. 

“What am I supposed to name her?”

“Alice, after a child who died.”

“That’s no good. She’ll be called Anne, after her mum.”

“But it was your wife’s dying wish for her to-”

“I don’t care. Her name is Anne.”

“Alright.”

Mr Egerton turned around to look at the two young children on the bed. “Can you take Davey and Eliza with you for now? The boy’s all up in a rage, and I don’t want them getting hurt.”

“I can do that.”

“Thank you.”

Deirdre went over to the bed and roused the twins. “You’re going to come with me, okay?”

The boy, Davey, sat up and punched his sister awake. “Okay, lady, we can do that.”

Deirdre led them into the empty flat, where she woke up Sylvia. “I need your help.”

Sylvia’s eyes were bloodshot, and when she spoke her voice was hoarse. “What with?”

“The Egerton twins need to stay in here.”

“Why?”

“Mrs Egerton just died.”

Sylvia looked from her to the children. “Okay, let’s make a bed for them, then.”

They went back to their flat to get some of the very little extra linen they had, to make a small nest on Richard’s old pallet for the children to sleep on. Sylvia filled the water bucket from a fountain down the street so that they would have fresh water, and Deirdre set to work twisting the unused rags from their sister’s birth into a doll. All the while, her hands trembled, and she wondered why Mr Egerton had wanted them away. What would Ransom do that they had to be away from? How would he retaliate? Deirdre swallowed hard and set the unfinished doll down. She crossed the hall and climbed the stairs to Johann’s door and knocked.

He looked like he’d been roused from his sleep, but he no doubt had heard Ransom shouting and a baby crying, which probably told him all he needed to know. Deirdre was infinitely grateful when this time, he let her in.

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 – 1.14.3

Content warning: Drug use and implied abuse

Richard had been sick for weeks. What had started as a simple feeling of weakness and chill had progressed over the course of a week or two into what the doctors called pneumonia, and his caretaker, Sylvia Sapping, called ‘being on death’s door.’ He had awoken the night after hallucinating his dead family members with bad sunburns on his face, but feeling otherwise fine. A few days later, he began to feel weaker, and about a week after that he’d caught a stubborn fever. 

Sylvia Sapping was a longtime friend who had come over to Richard’s house to take care of him while he was ill. She lived a ways away, and after a while it grew too impractical for her to make the journey every morning, so, instead, Richard was moved into an abandoned apartment across from hers.

He lay on a pallet against the back wall, swaddled in blankets and with a bucket of water and a loaded gun beside him. It was hard to breathe, Richard was so weak he could barely move, and he was always so, so cold.

Sometimes, people came to visit him. There were occasionally people who were still alive, like Leonard, who had paid for the doctor and the blankets, or Deirdre, who lived across the hall and came to refill his water and make sure that no one had bothered him. Those visitations made sense, but the appearances of the woman soaked in blood, Catherine, his mother, who sang to him, and the shadow man in red who stood at the door, never moving, were less explainable. Richard had felt that man’s touch one night, and Sylvia said he had afterwards become so hot he had nearly died.

Richard kept his journal near his pallet, and his sketchbook, and he wrote and drew until he was physically unable to hold the pencil. He kept careful track of his illness, and knew from his journal that a doctor had been to see him on the seventeenth of September, 1860, at two in the afternoon. The doctor had diagnosed him with pneumonia and had wanted to give him purgatives, blister his chest, and bleed him. Fortunately, not only did Leonard disagree, Sylvia Sapping also had a deathly fear of doctors, and had not allowed the man back. 

Richard awoke on the twenty-fourth to find Sylvia taking laudanum on the ground next to him. She grinned at him when he stared at her.

“The doctors wanted you to take this,” Sylvia said. “Don’t worry, though, I’ll polish it off for you.”

“You’ll polish it off?” Richard’s voice came out like a croak. 

“Unless you do want it.”

“No, you can have it.” Richard picked up his bucket of water and took a long drink. “I’m starved.”

“Get used to it, ghoul boy,” Sylvia said. “Oh, and by the way…”

“Yes?”

“Your legs.”

“My legs?”

“Your feet.”

“What’s wrong with them? Have they swollen up?” That had happened before, and Richard had soaked them in hot water to get the swelling down. “I know what to do.”

“Well, not exactly…”

“What happened to them, Sylvia?”

She cleared her throat and faced him. “Are you sensitive about anyone finding out the nature of your disability?”

Oh no. Richard had worn his shoes less when he was younger, and he had had insults hurled at him by certain people, including his grandfather. Once, his grandfather had locked him in a church for hours and hours after he’d taken off his shoes in front of him. “Erm… listen, Sylvia…”

“Let me be straight with you, then. You’ve been delirious for several days, and you made me take off your shoes. You said they were too hot. I, em, well, the best way to say this is that I know that your feet are hooves, Richard.”

And there it was. The reason he wore special shoes, the reason he couldn’t walk properly without a cane and shoes or crutches. “They aren’t hooves,” Richard said quietly. “It’s a natural mutation of bony growths that grew at the ends of the bones that should have formed my feet in the womb.” His grandfather had called him satanic, and said that his mother must have consorted with the devil to birth him. After that, Richard, his father, and his mother had severed contact with the old man until his grandmother’s death a few years later.

“It’s okay,” Sylvia said. “Whatever they are. It’s a common disability where I’m from. There’s lots of people with it, and we all know ways to help the pain.”

“Will you show me sometime, when I get better?”

“Sure thing.” Sylvia took another swallow of the laudanum. “You’re feeling better?”

“Not by much.”

Sylvia put her bottle down and left the room. She returned a few minutes later with Dr Faust, who carried a medical bag.

Dr Faust sat down next to Richard and held up a thermometer. Richard opened his mouth and waited while the thermometer read his temperature. 

“His fever’s gotten better,” Dr Faust said. “Not much better, but better. How do you feel?”

“It’s easier to breathe. I feel stronger.”

“That’s good.” Johann put his thermometer away. “I would recommend continued rest and as much fluid as you can keep down. That’s for the fever. Otherwise… I don’t know, Richard. To give you my professional opinion, I don’t think you have pneumonia. To be totally honest with you, I don’t know what you have. Are you sure there was nothing out of the ordinary just before you contracted this illness?”

“I think I saw ghosts,” Richard said.

Johann rolled his eyes. “Anything real?”

“I saw ghosts.”

“Right, well, if you don’t want to tell me, don’t. Sylvia, I have to thank you for keeping the doctors away from him. You may have saved his life.”

Sylvia lifted her bottle of laudanum. “Hooray for fear!”
Johann picked up his bag and went back to his room. Richard pulled his arms out of the blankets and reached for his journal. He’d been writing a new story that he thought he might be able to finish today.

“You know, Johann has a lot of gall diagnosing people, the way he’s been acting lately,” Sylvia said.

Richard looked up. “You know, you say this as you drink opium on the floor of an abandoned apartment.”

“Hm? Oh, I know I have problems, but at least I don’t go around saying, ‘you, you have a problem. Ignore my extremely nervous, pale, and thin exterior, I know what’s best for you.’ Don’t you think it’s just a little f-”

I think that you just hate doctors,” Richard said. 

“Can’t stand them. My father never let one in to see me, and look at me now.”

Sylvia Sapping, a twenty-one-year-old half-greek woman with long dark hair that came down to her waist, an almost circular face, and wide eyes, sat against the wall of an abandoned apartment, wearing rags and drinking laudanum. She didn’t seem to have any illnesses, at least no visible ones, and wasn’t currently injured. She also wasn’t as bony as she could have been; there was a good amount of flesh on her and even some fat around her face and on her legs. Those last two factors alone made her very successful, at least as far as Richard could tell. He smiled. “I suppose you’re doing alright.”

“But, am I?”

“… You look like you are. Is something wrong? If there is, you know that I’m always ready to listen.”

Sylvia was silent for a few moments, before she swallowed the last of her bottle of laudanum and turned to him. “I’m scared, Richard.”

“Scared?”

“Yeah, really scared.”

“What of?” He could have made a tasteless joke about doctors here, but Richard kept his mouth shut.

“Well, em, I guess I’m scared of a lot of things. I’m scared you might die, then who would run the gang? Scared of illness in general, but doctors, too. There’s Johann, I’m scared because he’s been acting strangely. I’m scared for Deirdre because of the attachment she seems to have to him. Jean and Tate scare me, but for different reasons. Jean’s dog is scary, and sometimes when he goes out at night he comes back with a lot of… cuts… and I don’t know what he’s doing or where he gets them, but it worries me. Tate, he’s just… just bad. I don’t want to talk about him or what he does to- to- um…”

“You don’t have to,” Richard said. “Please, if it makes you uncomfortable, don’t.”

Sylvia shifted, nodded, and cleared her throat. “He’s the kind of person who gave Deirdre the bad memories she has.”

“Why not throw him out?”
“Because I’m scared of him.”

“You think he might hurt you if you do?”

“He’s already hurt me, Richard. I suppose I’m afraid he’ll hurt me further, or hurt someone I care about.”

“That’s a valid thought.”

They sat there silently for a few minutes, before Sylvia said, “I saw my stepfather today, did you know that?”

Richard took a long drink from his bucket. “You have a stepfather?”

“Edmond Oberon.”

“Oberon. Like Shakespeare?”

Sylvia laughed longer and harder than he’d expected.”Yes, Richard. Just like Shakespeare.”

“Where did you see him?”

“Outside of an opium den. He was going in, and I know he was going in to use the drug, because I hung around there for hours today and he didn’t come out.” Sylvia cracked a smile. “He’s married to my maman, always has been, and when we went to live in France it was because of him. Maman went to stay with him, so we came along, and I met him there.”

“What do you think of him?”

“What I think of him changes often, and is based on memory, mostly. I remember that sometimes, he was my good friend, sometimes my worst, detested enemy. He taught me many things, both how to love and how to hate. I was very close with him, for a time, but he often drove me away, and I grew closer to my blood father, and then we were friends again, and then we were not. It was confusing and sometimes, hm, hard, but he taught me how I could manage my own feelings, not so far different from his own.” Sylvia had another bottle of laudanum, which she opened and drank from. “I hadn’t seen him in years. I supposed for the longest time that he was dead.”

“Well, maybe you should go up to him and speak with him.”

“If I can find him again, not drugged out of his mind.” Sylvia sighed and slid down until she was lying on the floor. “I just want to forget that I’m alive right now, Richard. Is that too much to ask? Please leave me alone.”

Richard put down his journal and picked up his sketchbook. He began a scene of waves crashing against rocks, with the largest, most outlandish bird he could draw flying overhead. The room became peaceful, with Sylvia silently lying in a daze of opium on the floor, and Richard quietly sketching. The only sounds were their breathing, the scratch of his pencil, and occasionally Sylvia shifting on the floor. Richard finished his drawing and laid back against his pallet. He shivered, and drew his blanket back over himself.

“Sylvia?” he asked.

She groaned.

“Are you alright?”

She groaned again.

“Do you need anything?”

“Emotional stability,” Sylvia said.

“Anything I can physically provide for you?”

“You’re the one who’s dying, Richard. If you need something, let me get it for you. I’m alright – well, I’m not, but whatever. You don’t need to help me while you’re sick.”

Richard sank deeper into his nest of blankets. Actually, he did need to help her, if he didn’t want to be a bad person. “Well, if you need anything-”

“I don’t.”

“Alright.”

They lapsed into silence again. Eventually, the peace was disturbed by the return of Jean Gévaudan.

Jean wasn’t as injured as he usually was upon return, though, which was good. He entered the empty apartment to toss Sylvia another bottle of laudanum, which she caught. Jean looked like he was himself on a high, with his wild eyes and wide grin. His face and frock coat were splashed with blood, and his hair was knotted with some kind of thick red substance. His hands, too, were so bloody he seemed to be wearing red gloves, as if he had been scratching at someone to kill them.

“Bought this for you,” Jean said. “I saw your father.”

“He’s dead,” said Richard. “He died once, about four weeks ago, and then someone mutilated his body, and they called it a ‘second death.’”

“I saw him. He has died again. I brought the paper, if you wanted to read about it.”

“Did you also see my stepfather?” Sylvia asked.

“Your stepfather is who?”

“Edmond Oberon.”

“In that case, we are almost siblings! He is my blood father. Yes, I did see him, he was-”

“Opium? I wouldn’t be surprised if he was having another go. It takes a lot to get us under the influence of anything.” Sylvia punctuated her sentence by draining half of her current bottle of laudanum.

“He was just in the square. Talking with someone.”

“Yeah, okay.” Sylvia drank more of her laudanum. “What about my mother?”

“I saw her, as well.”

“What was she doing?”

“She was with another woman, I think.”

“That makes sense. See any of my brothers or sisters?”

“There’s me.”

“You don’t count. Blood relations?”

“No.” Jean handed the paper to Richard. “I hope you feel better, Richy Richard.”

Richard picked up the paper and saw that the very first page article was about Dominic Sapping.

A chill shook him, and he coughed violently. Sylvia looked over at him with eyes that were glazed over from the laudanum, then looked away. Richard dropped the paper and pulled the blankets up around himself, shivering and desperately trying to breathe. He looked up, and saw his father standing in the doorway. Heat emanated off of him, which made Richard crawl closer to the door. Sylvia didn’t move, Jean had gone, and no one stopped him. He reached out for the hem of his father’s pants, feeling the heat coming off it in waves, thawing Richard’s frozen fingers. He was about to make contact with the cloth, when his father whipped away.

“I bet you wonder about Dominic Sapping,” his father said.

“A bit,” said Richard. “The papers make it seem like he came back from the dead.”

“Shockingly and disappointingly, the papers are right about something for once.”

What?”

His father smirked. “Go and talk to Johann Faust, I would say. Go and speak to him about what he’s been doing, exactly. You’ll find out more than you need to know.”

Richard was silent for a moment. “I have a question.”

“Yes?”

“Was Camilla right?”

“What?”

“Camilla. She gave a speech on how nothing matters because no one cares and everything dies, and there’s no afterlife, and all that. Was she right?”

His father paused. “There is an afterlife. And I can tell you, what you do does matter. It matters very much, I’m afraid.”

“That’s a relief,” Richard said. He felt a wave of satisfaction at knowing he had been right, but he pushed it down. A good person wouldn’t feel so good about this.

“Do you have another question?”

“Are you really here, or am I hallucinating you?”

His father sighed. “I’m here for real. Unfortunately.”

“Is the afterlife nice?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Because I think I’m about to end up there.”

“Don’t worry, I can say with authority that this sickness won’t kill you. Go and rest, son.”

“One more question?”

“Fine.”

“Why are you here now?”

It was a while before his father answered. “It’s Faust’s fault. Go and talk to him and I’m sure he’ll explain everything.”

Leonard – 1.13.3

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?”

“I do.”

“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.”

“Finished with?”

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.”

“But-”

Tell him.”

“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.”

“Yes…”

“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?”

“Of course.”

“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?”

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.”

Serena laughed. 

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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“Eh?”

“He hates you.”

Oberon sighed. “Oh, good. Just what I needed.”

Mark – 1.12.2

Two things were good, and three things were bad. The good was that Mark had found a new job, one that paid a lot more and took him away from the environment in his apartment building, and that he was allowed to stay in the Ghoul’s gang regardless. The bad was that he wasn’t as important, or invaluable, he didn’t have nearly as much time at home with his family, and his new employer was… strange, to say the least. It wasn’t even quite clear what Mark was being paid to do, beyond following him around and carrying out any orders that were bellowed, which were usually quite simple and could have easily been carried out by the man himself.

What his employer’s title was was also not clear. He had a French accent, though whether or not he had ever lived there or if he was French by birth was unclear. He claimed to be a king quite frequently, and Mark had heard people refer to him with a whole host of titles, some of them not even noble. Mark had settled on addressing him as ‘Lord Edmund Oberon,’ because that was the title least likely to start any fights. 

Presently, Oberon was passed out asleep, even though it was past noon, and Mark was trying to read a book called A Collection of Stories of the Unknown, by an author named Richard Golson. He had heard Deirdre talking about him, and wanted to read something he had written. Mark thought it more than odd that the way Richard Golson sounded so much like the way his boss, Ghoul, talked, and he had a strange feeling that they were the same person. 

A servant came into the room, casting a ray of light on Mark’s book. He had been reading by the light of a small candle. 

“Is King Oberon awake?” the servant asked.

“Not yet,” Mark said. “I can wake him, I suppose. He’s slept long enough.”

“There are three women here to meet him. One of them claims another is his daughter.”

Mark wouldn’t be surprised if half the population of London related to Oberon by now. He seemed to have family everywhere, and more children than anyone Mark had ever met. They were impossible to keep straight. “I’ll wake him.”

The servant nodded and left the room. Mark put his book down and approached Oberon’s bed. His lord was splayed out under one of the blankets, probably naked, since it had been as hot as hellfire the night before. Mark shook Oberon’s shoulder and whispered, “My lord Edmond Oberon.”

Oberon did not stir.

Mark shook him harder and said in a louder voice, “My lord Edmond Oberon.

Still, he didn’t react.

Mark was afraid to irritate the man, who despite being rather short, was very athletic and had an unpredictable temper. He shook Oberon’s shoulder harder, and continuously, until at last he got a groan.

“My lord,” Mark said.

Oberon rolled over onto his back and groaned again. 

“There’s people here to see you.”

“Head,” Oberon said.

“It hurts, my lord?”

“Water.”

Mark ran downstairs to fetch him a glass of water. When he returned, Oberon was sitting up in bed and looking ahead with the vacant gaze of a man who has just been awoken from a needed sleep and currently hates everything on Earth. 

“Who is it who wants to see me? Is it my wife? I’ll bet it’s my wife. Tell her she can’t come in and that I’m still angry.”

Mark was utterly confused. “You’re married?”

“Don’t be an idiot, of course I am.” Oberon winced and rubbed at his head. “Did I drink a lot last night, or-”

“No, my lord, you smacked your head on the doorframe.”

“What, last night?”

“You also drank a lot.”

“I thought so. You must remember next time that Drunk Me does not have the sense of Sober Me, and that Drunk Me does not figure out locks as well as Sober Me does.”

How had he gotten across that some of those words were capitalized verbally? Mark couldn’t do that. “I tried locking you in, my lord, just like you told me to.”

“And?”

“You still managed to get out.”

“Curse it. I hate being me.” Oberon swallowed the glass full of water in one gulp. “Who’s here to see me?”

“Well, apparently, my lord, there’s someone who says she’s your daughter.”
“You’ll have to be more specific than that.”

“A servant left her calling card. Mrs Clarissa Janson? Married to Mr Ernest Janson?”

Oberon threw the blankets off abruptly. He was naked, but didn’t seem to care for this or for Mark’s embarrassment. “I’ll see her.”

“My lord-”

“What?”

“Well, you’ll have to put some clothes on.”

“Right. Get me something to wear, then.”

Mark fetched him a series of different pieces of apparel, had each one rejected for a different reason, until he finally settled on a pale green silk waistcoat embroidered with flowers, a puffy white shirt, tight dark green pants, and black buckled boots. Oberon was a relatively short man, with short, curly black hair that fell down over his forehead, a lazy smile, a sharp face, and tanned skin. Where he got enough sun that his skin was so tan Mark could not say, since Oberon didn’t seem to go out during the day much unless he was forced.

They sat down at a small table, and a servant brought in coffee and a plate of fruit. There were grapes and peaches on the plate for sure, but other than that there was some kind of fruit that looked a little like a peach, but was bright purple and more pointed, a cluster of brilliant yellow berries, and several bright red fruits about twice the size of a peach pit. When Mark tried to take one of the red fruits, if only to examine it, Oberon smacked his hand away.

“Not for you,” he said.

Mark put his hands in his lap, feeling the sting of the rebuke. He hadn’t been told off many times before, especially concerning eating something supposedly so healthy. Oberon also usually invited him to share his breakfast. Why would he have a problem with it this time? Mark twisted his hands. It only mattered that he’d been told off. He wasn’t going to ask.

Oberon must have seen the look on his face, because he handed him a peach. “Try this.”

Mark hadn’t wanted to eat it, but he would take what he could get. The peach was very ripe, and the juice dripped down his chin and onto his coat as he ate. A servant came in and drew back the heavy curtains on the windows, flooding the room with afternoon light. Oberon picked up the book Mark had been reading.

“Oh, this one. I know this author.”

“Personally?”

“In a vague sense.”

The servant who had brought news of Clarissa Janson’s arrival came back into the room. “Shall I send in the visitors?”

“What? Oh, no, I’ll receive them in the garden. Come on, Mark.” He stood up and left the room, sending Mark scrambling afterward.

The garden was around the side of the house. There were many trees, most of which Mark could not identify even after bringing Lottie Conray, one of his friends who had a stolen book of plants she could consult, hanging over a series of stone platforms. The flowers, of which there were many, were brightly colored, but strangely shaped, especially the ones on the flowering trees. The fruit was bizarre, similar to the ones that Oberon had taken for breakfast in that they were mostly small, sweetly smelling, and very attractive in general. The entire garden had a sickly sweet aroma hanging over it, which made Mark want to either stay there forever and bask in the scent or throw up, depending on the moment.

They sat down on a carved wooden bench and waited for the visitors.

A few minutes later, three young women were led into the garden. The leader was dark haired, with a round face and large eyes. She wore a green dress, and was probably the oldest. The next had hair so blonde it was nearly white, a round face with small features, and eyes that were a dead ringer for Oberon’s. She wore a white and silver dress, which made her look like some kind of ethereal sprite. The effect was somewhat ruined, however, by the scowl on her face. The last was older than the second but younger than the first, with dark brown hair, darker skin, and the same eyes as the first. Her dress was also green, but a slightly different style than the first’s. If Mark had to guess, he would say that the first woman was married, and the last wasn’t.

Oberon motioned to the bench across from him. He had one leg crossed over another, an arm thrown over the back of the bench, and a smile on his face. Mark suddenly felt horribly out of place.

“Good morning to Mrs Ernest Janson, Mrs Holland, and Ms Janson. What do you think of my home?”

“Of your home I cannot find any fault,” the one with the whire-blonde hair said, “but I think you ought to give your outfit back to whichever gentleman from the French Revolution you stole it from.”

Mark was shocked by the insult, but Oberon guffawed. “You are Clarissa, no? My daughter?”

“By Mrs Clarissa Gray, yes.”

“Who? Oh. My wife. I remember now.”

Was that the marriage he’d referenced earlier? From Clarissa’s body language, Mark doubted it. He knew remarkably little about Oberon’s personal life, now that he thought about it. There was a man who was younger by a year or two who sometimes came to hunt with him, and an older woman who he seemed to greatly look up to. They weren’t related to him – at least, Mark didn’t think they were, and he hoped the younger man wasn’t, considering their general conduct around each other. Other than that, and the fact that Oberon was apparently married, Mark knew next to nothing about him. That bothered him deeply. What could he be hiding? He resolved that later that day, he would discuss it with him.

Clarissa Janson rolled her eyes. “We were close when I was younger, remember? You called me Clary.”

“I remember.”

“Well, I hate you.”

“You’re not the only one uncomfortable with this exchange, believe me.”

Mark was horrified by the callousness of the exchange. They hadn’t seen each other in years, and this was all they had to say to each other? An awkward silence lapsed. The three women sat down on the bench across from them. Mark tried to disappear, to no avail.

“So, Mr… Oberon?” the older dark haired girl said.

“Yes, that is my name,” said Oberon.

“Who is this young man sitting next to you?”

“Why don’t you ask him who he is?”

The woman turned to Mark, who was having a miniature panic at the idea of having to take part in this conversation. “Who are you?”

“M- my name is-” He suddenly remembered Scarecrow’s advice. Never give your real name or age. Well, he’d have to give his real name, because Oberon knew it. “My name is Mark Murphy.” 

“Ah, and are you his servant, Mr Murphy?”

It felt good to be addressed as Mr. “Well, sort of. Yes. I work for him.”

“That’s very good. My name is Mrs Holland.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mrs Holland.”

“How did you come to work for Lord Oberon?”

“I worked as a gravedigger before this. It wasn’t much money, so I began asking around for a different job. Someone pointed me in his direction, and he hired me as soon as I applied.” Well, he has also quit his old job because the undertaker had noticed the missing papers and very nearly reported him to the police. It had been too close for him to keep working there, and when he told Ghoul he’d been pointed towards Oberon.

“Have you any siblings, Mr Murphy?”

“I have-” he might as well not lie to these people. They were so far above him that they might take offense if he lied. “I have six siblings.”

“And what are their names?”

“Mildred is the eldest. She has a daughter, Madeline.”

Mrs Holland smiled. “I detect a theme of names.”

Mark chuckled nervously. “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Where do you live?”

“I live on Temptation. In an apartment building.”

Clarissa perked up. “That’s where Dr Faust lives.”

“Dr- oh, you mean Johann. He lives above me.” Mark remembered how hot it had been the night before, and how he’d not been able to sleep one bit. There had been a commotion sometime around midnight, which had involved Jean Gévaudan and his big, scary dog running out of the building after a man who had looked remarkably like Dominic Sapping, but couldn’t have been him because Dominic Sapping was long dead. After Jean Gévaudan and the man had disappeared, Johann had come down and gone off with Deirdre, presumably for drinks. Mark had passed both them and Jean Gévaudan on his way down the stairs at dawn, when he was going to his job at Oberon’s house. Johann’s arm had been injured, and dripped blood that had looked gray in the early morning light. Deirdre had looked bedraggled, exhausted, and hungover, but otherwise alright. Jean Gévaudan, however, had been in a considerably worse state, with an entire side of his handsome face covered with sticky blood and one eye bandaged. 

“I haven’t met Dr Faust yet,” Oberon said. “What’s he like?”

Clarissa was silent for several seconds, before saying, “He’s very ambitious. That was the main thing I took away, is that he has the ambition and the talent to achieve anything he wishes… though he is perhaps lacking in good sense.”

“How so?” The third young woman, who Mark assumed to be Ms Janson, asked. “I thought he was a fine young man. Handsome, too.”

Clarissa rolled her eyes again. “Did you not catch Duke Mephisto’s reference to his unholy powers of death?”

“Duke Mephisto is an idiot,” Oberon said. “He tends to joke like that.”

“I’m afraid I can say with certainty that this was not a joke.”

“Truly? Duke Mephisto, speaking the truth for once? I am agog!”

Clarissa shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Do you sit in the House of Lords, Lord Oberon?” Mrs Holland asked.

“Isn’t he French?” asked Ms Janson. 

“No, he isn’t French,” Clarissa said. 

“Oh? Why does he sound like that, then? And why did you tell me that he had a castle and a wife there if he isn’t French?”

Mark leaned in to listen. Anything he could glean about his employer was important.

“My wife is not French,” Oberon said. “And neither am I, though the closest approximation of where I am from is France. Similarly, the closest approximation of Duke Mephisto and Duke Janson’s home is England.”

“You’re married?” Both Mrs Holland and Ms Janson exclaimed this at the same time.

Clarissa sighed in an exaggerated fashion. “Of course he is. Not to my mother, though, I presume.”

Oberon shrugged. “What did you say her name was, again?”

“You can’t even remember her name? Bastard.”

“Actually, I am a perfectly legitimate child.”

“That’s news to me. Who are your parents, then?”

“Julius Caesar and Morgan Le Fay.”

It was a strange sort of joke, but Mrs Holland, Mark, and Ms Janson still laughed. Clarissa only rolled her eyes. 

“A serious answer, now,” Mrs Holland said. “Who are your parents?”

Oberon smiled. “They were in fact named Julius and Morgan, though I’m afraid that any other details would meet the same wall of my ‘joke.’” He turned his attention to Clarissa. “And how have you been, my prodigal daughter?”

“I should think you were the prodigal one, being the one who left.”

“Perhaps so, perhaps so. Still, how are you? You’re married, I heard. I’m happy for you, truly. Ernest Janson is a good young man.”

“How would you know that? You’ve never truly met him.” 

“I have. In fact, his father invited me to go hunting earlier today. I declined, being asleep.”

“They’re members of the same political party, Clara,” Ms Janson said. “Sometimes Lord Oberon comes over for supper.”

“Oh,” said Clara. “Well, I didn’t know that. Forgive me my ignorance.”

“Have you never seen him?”

“Lots of people come over to Duke Janson’s house for supper.”

“You do have a point there.”

Again, a silence lapsed. Oberon was fiddling with the buttons on his waistcoat, clearly bored but doing a good job disguising it. He reached up into a nearby tree and plucked a strange purple fruit out of the branches. “Can I interest you in a snack, Clara?”

Clarissa hesitated, but reached forward and took the fruit. She didn’t eat it, though, only held it in her hand.

A servant arrived with a tray of drinks, which he placed on the table between the two benches. Oberon poured a thick, purple substance into each cup, and waited until each person had taken one to hold his cup aloft and say, “A toast to the dwindling summer.”

He drank deeply, and so did Mrs Holland and Ms Janson. Clarissa waited for a moment before lifting her cup to her mouth and drinking only the barest bit of it. Mark, assuming it was some kind of exotic wine, drank as much as he could.

That was a mistake. The substance turned into a gel as soon as it hit his mouth, and it tasted sickly sweet, like something that had been rotting for a long time. There was smoke in that cup, too, and it almost made him gag. Oberon watched him expectantly, so Mark swallowed it as best he could and tried to smile.

“Very good, sir,” he said. He was then forced to disguise a gag as a cough.

Oberon’s smile was tinted dark purple, like the drink. He quaffed it like wine, drinking several cup-fulls throughout the next area of conversation, which was the idea of marriage and child rearing. The others drank more, too, enough that their words started to slur, and they started to sway. The liquid tasted less foul with each cup, until it was the sweetest thing in the world. Mark tried to concentrate, but his vision blurred, and he couldn’t even understand what they were talking about. After a long time of trying to focus, he realized that they were discussing Oberon’s land, and their names. 

“Your name?” Oberon asked.

Ridiculous. Oberon already knew his name. Mark opened his mouth to speak, and some instinct kicked in to change what he meant to say. “My name is Ghost, sir, a lowly urchin.”

Oberon’s face twisted in anger.

Mark was surprised that he had given that answer. He saw Mrs Holland bite into one of the fruits from the trees, and realized that a platter of similar fruits had been placed before them. Hypnotic whispering wind filled the trees, driving his hands towards the platter, driving him to pick up a fruit which looked like an orange but was distinctly not one, driving him to bring it to his mouth. He was about to bite into it, when a thought entered his addled brain.

He realized that he had never eaten a meal at Oberon’s house before. Sure, he had taken bread or an apple off his lord’s plate, but he had never eaten a proper meal, or consented to eat anything offered to him freely, without cause. He had always asked, or given a reason that he should have something. Never had he accepted a gift.

Mark lowered the fruit. Mrs Holland and Ms Janson had gotten up, and were dancing under the trees with Oberon and Clarissa. He was the only one sitting down, staring at the fruit in his hands, trying to puzzle something through his drunken or perhaps drugged mind.

He saw Oberon leading Mrs Holland off. Mark placed the fruit on the table, and sat back. He had never, not once, accepted one of Oberon’s gifts, even though he had had many offers. He had never accepted a gift, and he had still been able to leave each night, and come back as he pleased.

Mark stood up. Oberon and Mrs Holland had vanished, but Clarissa and Ms Janson still danced. He wanted badly to join them, so badly it was nearly painful, but he resisted. Instead, he sat down on the grass and watched.

The dance was intricate and unlike anything Mark had ever seen before, but the two women seemed to know every movement. They whirled back and forth to a strange sort of music that drifted in on the wind, putting him in a sort of trance, always staying together until Oberon reappeared, alone, and they parted for him. He took Ms Janson’s hand, and waltzed off with her into the trees – had there been so many of them before? Mark couldn’t recall. His eyes drifted shut, and when he awoke the sun had gone down, and he was alone in the garden.

Mark stood up, and saw that he had been wrong about being alone. Oberon sitting in the grass under one of the trees, playing a lute. Mark lurched over to him, his head pounding.

“You’re awake,” Oberon said.

“What did you do to me?” Mark shouted. “What was that? Did you drug me? Where are the women? What kind of monster are you?”

Oberon shook his head. “The others are safe at their respective homes, and no, I did not drug you. You simply drank too much of the wine.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Believe, don’t believe…” Oberon started to play a quiet lullaby tune on his lute. “You should go home, Mark. It’s rather late.”

“I want to know who and what you are first, and what you just did to me.”

“Alright, sit down, and I’ll tell you. Do you believe in faeries, Mark?”

Mark laughed. “No, of course not.”

“No?” Oberon stopped playing to tune the lute, then resumed. “Well, then I suppose my explanation won’t be worth much of anything, then.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you’re a faerie?”

Oberon only smiled. 

Mark sighed. “Listen, I know you like being cryptic, or whatever, but I really need a straight answer.”

“That’s a yes on me being a faerie, then. Faerie king of the seelie court, in fact. I served wine from my home earlier, and these trees are native to it. Ever wondered why you can’t eat the fruit, Mark? That’s why.”

Mark’s head hurt too bad to argue with him. “So you’re telling me that you’re the immortal faerie king that Shakespeare referenced?”

Oberon shrugged. “I suppose I am.”
“I don’t believe you.”

“Do you have any better explanations?”

“Well-” Mark sighed again. “Fine. So, what did you do with the others?”

“Sarah was a changeling. She’s gone home for the first time in her life.”

“So she’s trapped in Faerie?”

“She could leave at any time she wanted to, but I doubt she will. It’s her home.”

“Alright, and Emma and your daughter?”

“At their home. Go and check on them if you don’t believe me.” Oberon finished the song he’d been playing and started a new one. “It was just normal wine that we drank, Mark, I swear, just with more alcohol than usual. I didn’t drug you.”

Mark was silent for a moment. Then he said, “I believe you. I don’t think you would be bad enough to do anything to your own daughter.” Suddenly he doubted himself. “Would you?”

“Never. Loyalty to family is important. Speaking of,” Oberon said, “you should get home to your family.”

Mark looked at the ground. He was harrowed from his experience, and had a lot to think over. “Yeah. Goodbye, I guess?”

“Goodbye, Mark.”

Clarissa – 1.11.2

Content warning – graphic violence in the first part of this chapter

Clara heard Albert coughing somewhere in the house. She shifted her body against Ernest’s, and tried to get comfortable. The room was too hot, even though she was naked with only a thin blanket to cover her. The air was still and stagnant, almost choking in its heat. Clara rolled over and tried to  press herself further into the mattress. There was a buzzing at the window that was keeping her awake. Well, the buzzing at the window, the heat, and the fact that in her wide-awake brain, the room seemed as bright as daylight despite being supposedly completely dark. Clara groaned and slid out of bed. She put on a light nightgown to cover herself as she walked to the window. 

Sure enough, there was a veritable cloud of flies outside, crowding to be let in. Clara threw open the widow, and they dissipated at the sudden movement. She leaned out and shivered. How strange it was that the air was so cool outside but so stiflingly hot inside. 

She wrapped a blanket around her shoulders and left the bedroom. The clock at the base of the stairs clock struck one thirty as she walked past it, headed for the front parlor. There was light from under the door, and when she opened it she discovered that someone else was also awake. 

“Albert,” Clara said, suddenly embarrassed to be wearing so little. That explained why she’d been able to hear him coughing so clearly. 

Albert smiled. He put down the book he was reading and patted the sofa next to him. “Come sit next to me.”

She did, and he put his arm around her shoulders. Clara shifted uncomfortably, and not only did he let go, he also moved little away from her. She appreciated that.

“You know, I’ve never known how Ernest managed to land such a wife as you,” Albert said. “Such a beautiful, wonderful wife. Such a good person, just, in general. I’d never be able to find a woman like that, much less make her love me.”

Clara sighed. Albert could be a bit melodramatic at times. “You’ll find love someday.”

He gave her a sad smile. “That’s very kind of you, Clara. I wish it were true. I wish I was like you, too. You never hesitate to tell people exactly what you think. You don’t keep it all bottled up.”

“I keep more bottled up than you would think.”

“You once killed someone.”

That was true. She had murdered someone, once, a few years ago. With a sword. It had been gorier than she’d thought, and not as satisfying as she’d expected. “Yes, but consider this: I didn’t want to, and it wasn’t just because of my emotions. It was self defense.”

“Well, you-”

There was a harsh knock at the front door. Albert stood up and went to see who it was. Clara could see the door from where she was sitting, and she saw him open it. Surely it was just some salesman or messenger. 

The door opened, and Clara nearly fainted right where she was. 

“Need to see,” said Dominic Sapping. He looked like he’d been run over by a train. His body was a mess of ravaged flesh, decaying skin, and open wounds barely held together by bandages. His face was eerily untouched in all the carnage, which was why she recognized him immediately. 

Albert jumped back, banging into a table and breaking a vase as he did. A flap of skin on Dominic Sapping’s chest fell open, and he pressed it back with badly lacerated fingers. 

“Need to see her,” he said. “Now.”

“Me?” Clara heard herself ask.

“You,” said Dominic Sapping. “Have to run. I do. I have to warn you.”

“What? Why?”

“I’m being chased. The dogs don’t like it when I come. They’re chasing me.”

What?”

Dominic Sapping limped into the room. “They want me, but it doesn’t matter. I have to warn you. You Da started something bad, and it’s going to hurt you.”

“My father has been dead for ten years.”

“Oh. Your Da-in-law, then.”

“Duke Janson?”

“Yes, him. He’s started something bad, given the wrong powers, and it’s stirred everything up, and it’s going to hurt you.”

“Who’s them?”

“You know them. You always have. They’re right there in the mirror. But listen, that’s not important. What’s important is that you have to either convince Janson to fix this mess, or convince Doctor Faust. ”

Doctor Faust? I don’t understand.”

“You will have to. Otherwise, suffer. Maybe even die.” Dominic Sapping paused. “Or not-die. Just as bad.”

“I still don’t understand. What do you want me to say to him?” 

Dominic Sapping shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. Simply stop him.”

A dog barked, and Clara saw a flash of auburn fur in the light of a streetlamp. There was a low growl, and a monstrous creature stepped into the light. It was, in theory, some kind of dog or wolf, the size of a cow, with a long, lean frame. It had a stretched head, like a greyhound’s, with a flat snout, wolflike ears, and a wide mouth full of fearsome teeth. Its broad chest was splashed with white fur, and when it turned Clara saw that its tail was longer than a wolf’s, with a white tuft at the end. The rest of it was russet-colored, with black stripes down its back.

The beast snarled, and covered the ground between the streetlamp and Dominic Sapping in several long strides. Why wasn’t Sapping running? Didn’t he see the beast before him? Albert grabbed Clara’s arm, yanked her back into the entryway, and threw her to the ground. He moved to do something – take out a gun, maybe? – but Clara threw a paperweight that was sitting on the floor next to her. It struck him on the foot, and Albert stumbled back for enough time that she could stand, and grab the first sharp object she saw – a long, thin pen that Hugh had been using at some point earlier in the day. 

Her and the beast pounced at the same moment, both of them on poor Dominic Sapping, the monster with the intent to harm, her with the intent to protect.

The beast was on top of Sapping first, ripping his throat out and causing a veritable fountain of blood before Clara could cover the ground between them. The monster turned to her and screamed when she tried to come near it.

Clara wasted no time. She threw herself at it, and brought the pen down as hard as she could on its eye. There was an uncomfortable squish, hot blood soaking her hand, and the beast gave a disturbingly human-like scream. It wrenched away from her, and loped off down the street, trailing blood as it went.

“Sapping’s dead,” Albert said. To her strange look, he replied, “I saw his name and face in the papers.”

Clara stood up. She felt numb. “I’m going to bed. Goodnight.” She walked upstairs, went into her room, took off her bloody nightgown, and threw it in the fireplace. She lit the fire, and waited for it to burn. The heat was suffocating, but Clara bore it all the same. A strange autonomy had taken over her, and she felt nothing but apathy towards the events that had just transpired. 

Ernest had not awoken, even with all the commotion. Clara smiled, and laid down next to him. She had done her part to protect her husband tonight, and now she needed to sleep. Sarah and her children were coming tomorrow, and Clara had to be ready for them. She closed her eyes, but imagined she could still feel the beast’s blood on her hand. She stood up, went to the sink, and washed her hands thoroughly. 

It was easier to calm down after that, but she was still too excited from the fight to sleep. Clara sighed, and reached for the book she’d been reading, The House of the Seven Gables by Nathanial Hawthorne, an American author. She was greatly enjoying it, though at the moment she wasn’t able to read more than a single page. Clara tossed the book aside and went to the bookshelf. 

The first book that grabbed her eye was A Collection of Stories of the Unknown, by Richard Golson. She’d never read anything by that author before, so she took the book back to bed with her.

The first story was titled Corrupted by Eternity. Clara read it slowly, and had to go back to read a few of the parts, because they were written in such an odd way. She got through it, though, and by the end had decided that that was quite enough reading for tonight. She put the book down, put out her candle, and laid down in bed.

The story she’d read had greatly disturbed her. There was a group of children, entering some kind of contest in their town, held by another boy, who had come out of the well, and one by one… something… happened to them, until none were left but one. Clara shifted, imagining she saw the dead child from the story standing at the foot of the bed, sneering at her. She could almost hear his hollow voice ringing out through the room. I like games. Don’t you? Everyone likes games, after all.

Clara shuddered and buried herself in the covers. She had just fought off a monster with a pen. Fictional dead children were no threat to her.

~*~

Commotion throughout the house woke Clara. She groaned and sat up. Already, she was so exhausted that nothing felt real, as if her body was automatically doing it all and she was just watching.

It didn’t matter how tired she was, though, because her family waited for nothing. A servant helped her get dressed, did up her hair, and helped her with makeup. The woman did a good job of covering the dark circles under her eyes. She stumbled downstairs to where the rest of the family was eating, and sat down next to Ernest, in between him and Emma. Sarah sat across from them with her husband, Baron Gerald Holland, and her four children.

The eldest, Gerald Jr, was nine years old. He had his father’s pale yellow hair, his mother’s brown eyes, and the same freckles Oswald Janson himself had had at a younger age. He was small for his age, with a round face and short hair, and a cheerful disposition.

The next two children, Henry and Oswald, were seven and six, respectively. Henry looked the most like a Janson, with dark hair, tanned skin, and wide brown eyes. Oswald, ironically, was the spitting image of his father, with the same coarse blonde hair, green eyes, long face, and pudgy body.

The last child, Titania, was two years old and named after her grandmother. Her hair was wispy and brown, and her eyes were blue. She was not in any way related to William Shakespeare, at least as far as Clara could tell.

The nursemaid, Leah Blakely, was also there, and when Titania started to cry she rushed in to take her off to calm down. Clara yawned, and struggled to keep her eyes open.

“How are you, Miss Clarissa?” Gerald Jr asked.

Clara nodded, for some reason. “I could be better.”

Gerald Jr was apparently confused by this reaction. It was probably the nod. “Oh… um… well, my mother told me that you like dogs. Cats. Pets. Animals! I like animals too. Did you know that we read a good book about African animals? Mother said that Uncle Ernest had recommended it.”

“Yes, I do like animals, refrigerators – I mean, regardless, I don’t have any pets here.”

Duke Janson gave her a sharp look. Clara yawned again.

“I’ve got a big dog back home,” Henry said. “A big mean dog that could kill Gerry’s stupid giraffe.”

“He could not!”

“He could too! He’d just grab the giraffe by its big ‘ol neck and he’d just – snap – kill him, just like that. Beat that!”

“Oh yeah, well my giraffe could kill him.”

“Oh yeah? How?”

“With his hoofs!”

“Children,” Gerlad Holland said sharply. “Remember that this is all a hypothetical discussion anyways. Under no circumstances will Gerald or any of the rest of you be getting a pet giraffe.”

“Not even if Uncle Ernest goes to Africa and brings me back one?” Gerald Jr asked.

“Not even then. Besides, how would he fit it in a ship?”

“He could bring it in a box.”

“Dummy,” Henry shouted. “There’s not enough wood in the world to make a box so big!”

“Shut up!”

Gerald Holland stood up. “Oswald, if you would be so kind as to sit between your brothers?”

Oswald Holland, with a wide grin on his face, pushed Henry out of his chair and took his place. Gerald Holland sat back down, and neither boy tried to begin the argument anew. 

Duke Janson’s facial expressions throughout all of this had been a source of pure entertainment. He had gone from shock to disapproval to outright anger, then just as quickly back to a neutral expression when Sarah turned to talk with him. Clara cracked a grin, causing Ernest to grab her shoulder and ask, “Are you feeling quite alright this morning?”

“Just fine,” Clara said. She yawned again and tried to focus.

“What do you think of this war?” Gerald Holland asked.

“I think that I would rather not discuss politics,” Duke Janson replied.

“I can recite Romantic poetry,” said Gerald Jr.

“Not as well as I can,” said Henry.

“Don’t start this again, children,” Sarah said.

“But it’s true, really.”

“No it’s not!”

“That may be, but if you keep this up both of you will be exiled from the table. Would you like to go eat with your nursemaid? You may, if that is what you wish.”

Henry shook his head vehemently. “I only sook to tell him what’s true.”

“Sook?” Ernest asked.

“Like seek, but in the past.”

“Sook isn’t a word,” Duke Janson said icily. His face was a mask of disapproval.

Gerald Jr pointed at Henry. “Ha-ha!”

That was apparently the last straw, because Sarah said, “Gerry, I think you should go eat with Mrs Blakely and Titania.”

“But-”

“Let me rephrase myself. Gerry, you will go eat with Mrs Blakely and Titania.”

Gerald Jr stood up and moped in a very dramatic fashion to the door. He flopped his head to the side and sighed loudly, which earned him nothing but a continuing glare from Duke Janson. He frowned at the lack of reaction, and continued out of the dining room, dragging his feet all the way.

“You would do well to discipline that child,” Duke Janson said. “A few strikes with a rod when he misbehaves will put the fear of God in him.” 

“I will not beat my child,” Sarah said. “And besides, it did little to help Hugh when he misbehaved.”

Hugh winked at her from across the table, and she laughed. 

The food was delivered, and though Clara wasn’t hungry she still managed to eat most of her plate. Henry told an amusing story about how a boy he was friends with had fallen into a creek, floated down river, and, unable to get home, had accepted his lot and pretended to be a mud monster for a full three days straight before his father found him and dragged him back home. Oswald stood up and recited something he’d read in a book, which Henry easily made less impressive by reciting an even longer poem. 

Once they finished breakfast, Duke Janson, Gerald, Ernest, Hugh, and Albert departed for some kind of men’s only event. The nursemaid came back to retrieve Oswald and Henry, and dragged them off with Gerald Jr to their lessons.

“We should call on Serena Mephisto later on,” Emma Janson said. 

“Duke Mephisto’s wife?” asked Sarah.

“Yes, her.”

“Do we know any other?” Clara asked.

Emma glared at her. “What a good thing it is that you are our guest, Sarah.”

Oh, right. She was supposed to be kind to guests. That had been very important to her father, who she only had dim memories of, since he had ‘died’ – a phrase understood in the common tongue as ‘abandoned them’ – when she was eleven years old. Well, Clara wasn’t feeling very up to the task of respecting the views of her long-gone father when she was this tired. She glared at Emma, and Emma glared back. 

Sarah was blissfully unaware of this small confrontation. “Yes, I am quite pleased to be your guest. I think it is good for my children to experience London, as well, don’t you?”

Clara turned her attention away from Emma. “Yes, I do.”

“Where did you grow up, Clarissa?” Sarah asked.

“In Scotland.”

“Where in Scotland?”

“In Scotland.”

“In a city, or-”

“No, up in the northern part. Not in a city.”

Emma smiled. “Did your father have a castle?”

“What my father had was a problem with understanding common human morality.” Clara clenched her mouth shut. Apparently, the filter between her mouth and brain fell off when she was tired.

“It’s not good to insult your father so,” Emma said.

Well, she was already too far in to get out, so why not take the plunge? “My father was a scoundrel who only married my mother on a passing whim. Did you know that he got her pregnant with me before they were married? Did you know that she was also already engaged to someone else when they married? Did you know that my mother became estranged with her father after that? Did you know that he went against my mother’s ideas of how to raise me correctly? Or how about how he disappeared when I was eleven? Never to be seen again, except for when I moved to London with Ernest and found him an important political figure and ambassador? Did you know that I haven’t been to call on him yet because I fear I might attack him if I ever see him again? No, you don’t. You don’t know anything about him, or me, or our relationship.” 

“You haven’t been to see your father!” Sarah said.

“No, and I don’t wish to,” said Clara.

“You must!” Sarah hooked her arm into Clara’s and practically dragged her out of the room. “He is still family, after all. Surely you can think of one good thing about him.”

“I don’t wish to.”

“Please?”

Clara paused, then said, “He took me to France repeatedly. I’m fluent in French because of him.”

“Did he have a home in France?”

“Yes, a castle there. And what I believe was a wife.” Sarah sighed. “Well, he sounds like an awful man from what you’ve said, but you must remember, Clarissa, that there are two sides to every story. We shall go and see him anyway, because he is family. Come on, Emma, we have to go and call on Clara’s father!”

Clara yawned, and reluctantly allowed herself to be marched out the front door and into a carriage. She was still so tired, and it would be a moderately long ride. There was plenty of time for a nap, surely.