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Penumbra (Series Two)

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Stone arch graphic Penumbra 2 - Hammam

Against the back of my eyelids, the darkness turned red. It faded. I inhaled the scent of the sea, heard the pattering of pebbles sliding down a sloping bank, tumbling onto the foreshore. Consciousness dawned. I rolled away, curled around the dark throb of sensation at my centre and sunk below the horizon.

The flash was scarlet.

I sat up, heart pounding, eyes darting around the dim room.

There. He was there. Bent over his workbench, half obscured by the vapours rising from his retorts.

My breathing slowed. My eyes adjusted to the half-light. He hadn’t dressed. I was transfixed.

He reached across the ledge, fingers outstretched and curved. When he pulled them back from the wall, they were dark with clay. He scraped it off with a knife into something in front of him that I couldn’t see.

Steam rose about him then, swirling over his head, droplets forming in his curls. The lightning struck, forked and brilliant and blinding.

I started up, blinking. “Sherlock,” I gasped.

“There you are, John,” he said.

As though I’d gone somewhere!

“Are you burnt?” I asked, trying to get limbs to work that were still asleep.

“Yes.” He moved closer to where I stood, an earthenware bowl in his hand and the drops of water gleaming like stars in his unkempt hair. I narrowed my eyes at him, scanning for injuries. His thighs and upper arms were smudged as though he’d been wiping his hands on them.

"Where?" I needed to run my hands over him to understand. I stepped forward.

He shook his head. The droplets flew, sizzling on his shoulders. “I’m too hot. Sit back down, have some tea, it’ll only be a few more minutes before the last of your rings is done and then I'll cool.” He tilted the bowl towards me and I saw that what he kneaded with his fingers, gleamed.

My gaze swept over him again.

The cloud had followed him. It was raining softly. Water trickled over his shoulders. It added to the steam.

I stepped back. My heel hit the cushions and I sat. “All right,” I breathed, still watching.

“Have the tea,” he repeated and turned away.

It was a lovely view. The clay was dripping down his arms and legs, leaving wet tracks that glimmered in the silvery light. I looked about. There was the small table with a tea tray, my moon blade waiting beside it. The candle had burnt away, as had the ones in the sconces on the walls. In their places, white orbs glowed, like so many miniature moons. They bleached the colours from things.

“Right,” I murmured and poured the steaming liquid from the pot. Even in the wan light, I could see the tea was red. It smelled like roses.

***

“For you,” he said, crouching before me and holding out his hands.

They were full of gold bands, one so large it hung over his wrist. I ducked my head and saw that its circle wasn’t complete.

“For me?”

He raised an eyebrow. He does hate to repeat himself, although he’s done it for me.

“Why?”

His lips quirked up at one side. “Better,” he said.

But it wasn’t an answer. I reached out with a finger and touched the top of the pile. It was warm.

I glanced at him.

He was watching my face, eyes alight, expectant.

“Which one?” I asked, looking down at the gold and hoping I wouldn’t pick the wrong one.

Maybe it’s a test.

I hope not.

“All of them.”

“What?”

“Everything.” He extended his cupped hands further, elbows balanced on his knees. “Put them on.”

I checked his face again. There was a smudge of clay across his cheek bone. It made his eyes brighter. I reached out and tried to wipe it away. Instead, it smeared.

“Later,” he said. “Try them. Choose the fingers.” He moved his own slightly and the metal tinkled.

I glanced down. One of the rings had a pale, round stone set between pairs of heart-shaped leaves. Morning glories have leaves like that. I flushed. The stone had surely come from the clay. I took it up first.

Sherlock smiled at that.

Right choice.

It would seem.

I considered my fingers. Where should it go?

Left forefinger. To point with.

I slipped it on. The stone caught the lambent light and appeared to hold it. I moved to touch Sherlock’s hand with the tip of my finger. Static electricity snapped between us before I reached his skin.

“Is that right?” I asked.

“How does it feel?”

“Amazing.” A faint tingling was travelling up my arm. It was gone before it reached my shoulder.

“Choose another.”

There was a band of openwork gold in the shape of thistle flowers and leaves. With more assurance, I slid it onto the ring finger of my left hand. I smiled and held it out. It felt good there.

“Go on,” he urged.

I picked quickly after that, each finger seeming to find its ring without much intercession on my part. I’d never been much for wearing rings, although every time I had they’d meant something – except the time I played Mercutio in school and had worn two for my part. Well, maybe even then. I’d had something of a crush on the classmates playing Romeo and Juliet; they had only had eyes for each other. Great casting for the play. Difficult rehearsals for me.

I held out both hands, every finger be-ringed, even the thumbs. I moved them as though I was plucking my harp. The rings glittered and my fingers felt stronger with them on. I’d certainly do more damage with a right hook with them there.

Sherlock dropped the remaining gold on the cushion next to me. “I’ll help you with the rest,” he said, settling on the floor and lifting up a narrow braid of gold and silver. He grasped each side and pulled. The capped ends opened.

I held out my left arm.

He slipped it over my wrist and pushed the ends together. They felt warm where they joined.

I offered my right hand and an open cuff scored with the outlines of intricate knots slipped over my wrist. Its pattern was the same as the designs on my harp.

I swivelled my wrist to and fro. “You made these while I was asleep?”

Sherlock’s hands dropped to his lap, his gaze dropping with them. “I’ve been working on the rings for a few months. You were going to need them at some point.” He picked up an odd-sized band from the cushion, began rolling it between his fingers. “I started on the others as soon as the plan for this ball was visited on us. You’ll…”

I laid my hand on his arm. “Special kit. I get it.”

Are you sure?

Not completely.

I picked up the largest circlet. As I held it up to the light, it fell open; the coiled tail of a serpent unlatching from the red enamelled tongue protruding from the serpent’s gaping jaws. Red-clawed forelegs were drawn up close to the head. Scales were etched into the narrow body. Folded wings thickened the middle portion of the body, each plume delineated with precision. It was a three-dimensional version of the creature on my harp. It looked ready to take flight.

“You didn’t have time to make this,” I said, squinting at the red jewels embedded either side of the golden head.

“No. It’s one of mine. See how it fits.”

I put it round my neck, unfastened, and looked over at him. In the low light, his pallor had taken on a blue cast. I had never seen him wear any metal that wasn’t silvery. The first dagger he’d given me was silver. It needed polishing every new moon.

“I changed it to gold for you.”

I didn’t ask how he knew what I was thinking. He does it so often, I’ve become inured.

“Changed it?” I hate when I echo what he says.

He hates it.

Yeah, I know.

“Gold suits the sunlight in you,” he said, “the fire.”

He was looking at the gold in his hand again, fidgeting with it. I couldn’t see his eyes.

“How could you change it?”

“The same way I changed the clay into gold to finish your bands,” he said, not looking up.

“Transmutation? The alchemist’s dream?”

He smiled then, meeting my eyes without raising his head. I've always thought it a mischievous look. “I am a chemist after all.”

“Scientists need research facilities’ worth of equipment to change a few molecules into gold; you just changed a bowlful of it.”

He sat up straighter. “That was only the last batch. You’ve been asleep for a while.”

I considered the dim light from the glowing orbs, glanced over my shoulder at the faint glow from the few stones left scattered in the hearth and back at Sherlock. He’d said he was hot a few moments before. “But the heat necessary for such a process would incinerate…” My eyes rose to the ceiling. “This whole house and you and me and everyone else in it.”

His hand darted out, fingertips stroking over the flints in the floor. “She’s old and strong, this house; not easy at all to burn her nor those she shelters.”

It set me back. I had an urge to apologise. “I meant no offense,” I declared and not being sure where to direct my words, I turned my head about as I spoke.

There was a sharp rap on the floor, a second and several more. I stared at the bench and saw another stone fall from the lower part of the ledge and clack against the flint.

“You are a fortunate man, John Watson,” Sherlock said, scooping up a few of the fallen rocks and dropping them into my palm.

They felt very good in my hand.

I looked at Sherlock. His attention had shifted again to the band in his hand. He had it suspended from his thumb.

“So how?”

“It will take years more before my explanation would truly make sense to you, so suffice it to say that they waste a vast amounts of energy because they don’t know how to apply it…nor where.”

Obviously, Sherlock did.

I touched the torc around my neck. It seemed to settle into place, the horns at the side of its face pricking lightly against my skin. “It’s not fairy gold, is it?”

Several expressions warred for supremacy on Sherlock’s face. “Its atomic structure is perfect, every proton, neutron and electron orbiting in its proper place unless acted upon by some very powerful external force that very few can wield.” He rolled his shoulders back. “Very, very few.”

The contrast often leaves me speechless. The erudite scientist and the adept…what? Sorcerer? Alchemist? Vampire?

You the sorcerer’s apprentice, then?

I rubbed my free hand across my face. The backs of the rings were hard, cool and very real against my skin. I peeked between my fingers. The cloud was still drizzling on him, a warm rain I supposed because he didn’t appear chilled. His lips were drawn in. I hadn’t meant to offend him.

My brilliant, proud, supernatural being.

Yours, is he?

Yes.

My hand fell into my lap and I gazed at every beautiful, indignant part of him I could see.

And I’m going to try my worst to keep it so.

He raised an eyebrow at me. His expression becoming more curious than outraged.

I leaned forward and placed a hand on his knee. The tingle went up my arm, fading out below my ear. I didn’t let it sidetrack me.

“The little I thought I knew, I have to unlearn,” I said. “I didn’t mean to give offense.”

His shoulders relaxed. “Yes, well, fairy gold is an illusion, a glamour. It has its uses, of course, but that’s not what these are.”

I realised then that I’d asked him if his gifts were tat.

Well done, Watson.

“I…I’m not trying to excuse my ignorance here mind…I thought maybe they were only needed for tonight.”

He covered my hand with his; the tingling reached the crown of my head. I held steady. “A glamour wouldn’t work on these. They require the real thing.” His gaze lowered to my neck. “Some volume was lost in transmuting the silver into gold. He’s a slenderer, denser dragon now.”

The torc slithered over my collarbone. My hand flew up to it. There was a small hiss. “Ah. So what does this do?”

“He’ll bite anything that tries to bite you.”

“Right. Good. That’s good. But I thought we were sticking with dancing.”

“It would be a terrible breach of etiquette to bite a member of one’s host’s household and I doubt anyone would be so crude…” Sherlock said.

“But you don’t entirely rule it out.”

“No.”

“Civilised on the surface, treacherous underneath,” I said. “A familiar arrangement.”

Sherlock nodded. “Much as I loathe these gatherings, it might have been prudent to volunteer to host another one sooner. I’ve never attended any elsewhere and I was nineteen the last time we had one here.”

There’s an image.

Yeah.

My hand found its way back to his knee. The tingling wasn’t as strong as before and I stroked the skin, feeling an odd regret as the sensation ebbed away. In his hand, the last gold band remained, still unoffered, the chains affixed to it chiming faintly as he flipped it around his fingers.

“What’s that one, then?”

“It’s optional,” he said.

I edged closer, my hand sliding onto his thigh.

Like the knives, it caught the light, which was surprising considering how dim they were and how small the band.

“You wouldn’t have made it without a reason.”

He looked up from beneath his brows at that.

“I do things out of curiosity sometimes,” he said.

I curved my hand onto his inner thigh. The skin is nearly hairless there and incredibly soft. “Yes, but not now, with this…this thing looming over us.”

“It’s also dangerous,” he added, leaning back on one hand. It let more of what light there was reach the bangle as he twirled it between his fingers. The delicate chiming of gold against gold increased. Its little chains whirled outwards from one rim of the cuff. There were markings around the outside. I couldn’t see what they were.

“You know that’ll appeal to me,” I said, stretching my legs and slipping off the cushion so I could get closer.

“Yes,” he said.

I realised it had a hinge and a clasp, two semi-circles joined together. I gestured with my hand, the one with the stones in it. My other kneaded high up Sherlock’s thigh.

Sherlock stopped his spinning, looked intently at the opalescent rocks on my palm and then at my face.

“That’s interesting,” he said and I saw that the small chains were horizontal to the floor, like so many compass needles pointing north. He moved his hand above mine and the chains fell straight down.

“What does that mean?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said and withdrew his hand. The little chains flailed in the air.

“It wants the stones back.”

“What?”

“The gold was clay, the stones came from the clay and now the clay wants them back,” I said.

“No!” Sherlock exclaimed. “Gifts are not taken back!”

Start composing your next apology, Watson.

I withdrew my hand and held it palm up. “Then, she wants me to accept your offer.”

“I haven’t made an offer.”

“Make one and I’ll accept. If…she’d never want to take the stones back then she wants me to take the gold.”

Sherlock appeared to consider. “There’s a danger in it,” he said, scanning me from my head, past my open hands open and downwards. He paused at my naval. I looked down as well and almost laughed.

My new state appeared to be fairly permanently at attention. A quip was forming on my tongue, when I realised what the band was meant to encompass. My hands dropped.

You can be very slow sometimes.

“Tell me about the danger, Sherlock,” I said and if I was instilling as much charm into the words as I could, it wasn’t a duplicitous act, but an instinctive one.

His brows rose a little at my boldness, but he didn’t raise his head. “If the recipient of such a gift accepts to wear it, he cannot remove it alone; giver and receiver must unlock it together.”

“In harmony,” I said rather facilely.

He’s not telling you everything.

Such as that my melodic skills aren’t all I thought they were? Opening and unlocking, after all, had been among the first tunes I had learnt and I fancied I used them rather well.

He lifted his eyes to mine. “It’s locked. Try opening it.”

I didn’t turn my eyes away and instead of the barely audible hum that I’d come to use, I sang it. I’ve played the notes, whistled them, hummed them both loudly and quietly, but I have never given them full-throated voice.

There was a soft, tearing sound and the band split open in Sherlock’s hand.

My voice lowered to a croon as the gap widened. When two semi-circles lay side-by-side, connected by some supple hinge, a ripple ran through the metal.

I peered at the transformation, my voice an undulating hum. The semi-circles stretched out, arched up and took flight. It was a short glide from Sherlock’s hand to mine, the landing in my upturned palm accompanied by a light clink as the metal met the stones.

Sherlock leaned close, his curls brushing my forehead as we watched the metal melt like spring snow. Next to my skin, warmth spread, akin to the feel of a hot mug of tea on a blustery morning. The outlines of the stones under the softening gold grew less distinct until they had dissolved altogether. The heat increased.

I held my hand steady and thought of bonfires roaring towards November skies, flames darting between orange, glowing branches spewing sparks as they cracked and surrendered, beckoning me to join them in the white gold heart of the blaze. I had always wanted to step forwards, but had always stepped back, destined to watch from a safer distance as autumn air cooled my scorched cheeks and leeched the warmth from my bones.

My humming was barely more than an articulated sigh. I touched my forehead to Sherlock’s and watched the molten gold crystallise and divide into two bands. My palm cooled. My humming ceased.

“You weren’t expecting that I accept it,” I finally said.

Sherlock cradled my hand in both of his. “I thought there was a chance you might, but that you would take it and fashion a telluride from it? No,” he breathed, tilting my hand a little to the left and then to the right, “that I never expected, but you, John, are a continual surprise.”

I hope you can keep that up, Watson.

Me, too, except I don’t know how it happened.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“What do you feel it means?” he replied, his thumbs stroking the inside of my wrist, seemingly absentmindedly, as he continued to peer at the two circlets.

“We should face this danger together and that whatever protection you had created for me – you need it, too.”

“We’ve been preparing to face it together,” he said.

It was distracting how he was stroking my arm. My pulse beat more strongly there as though the blood was trying to reach him.

“I think…you’ve been preparing me to protect myself, not to help protect you,” I said and the danger connected to wearing the band became clear. “There’s a small chance you won’t be able to defend yourself and I’d be a celibate man for the rest of my life because you wouldn’t be around to help me unlock the band.”

Sherlock nodded. He was tracing the veins from my wrist to the inside of my elbow.

“You’ve been discarding strategies that posed too great a risk to me,” I continued. “You think someone might break the rules and attack before we can dance the dance that could foil them all.”

Sherlock looked up. “It comes in flashes, your insight. Like an eye that is recovering from an injury that swelled it shut.” He frowned. “Your protective spells are mainly unconscious. You don’t know how you’ve done them and you don’t know how to undo them. Even I haven’t seen past most of them.”

“At least you saw that I wanted you,” I said.

He smiled a little at that.

“But not how much,” I added and raised my forearm to his mouth. “Take more. It strengthens you. I can see that.”

“You can see or you can feel it?” he asked.

“I can see it as your doctor and I can feel it as-”

I hesitated to name myself his lover; it sounded so bold to claim the title, despite all we had done…

“My beloved,” he finished, interrupting my equivocations.

“…your lover,” I said at nearly the same time.

He smiled a little more at that. “Then, you must open yourself for me…” He added a word I could barely hear, in a language I didn’t know, but its sound pleased me nonetheless.

I took the moon blade from the table and pressed the tip over the flesh beneath which the cephalic and basilica veins joined. A large drop welled from the tiny incision, and with one hand at my elbow and the other cupped below the hand that held our bands, he lifted my arm and drank.

And I watched until I couldn’t resist the urge to close my eyes anymore.

The flames were orange and red; they licked and flickered along my veins, too quick to burn, teasing and bright.

He pulled away too soon.

I opened my eyes and saw his lips, plump and red. He glanced at me from half opened eyes and bent down…

Drink, drink.

…for a kiss.

The wound closed. He set my arm back on my thigh.

“I could taste it,” he said.

I frowned.

“Your song,” he said. “It’s still in your blood, hot and bright.”

He nipped at his wrist and held it out.

“For balance,” he said and I heard his voice more than the words as the fragrance hit me.

I seized his arm, no drop to waste. His blood was warmer this time and it tasted…of course, it tasted, like roses. In the sun.

I felt him try to pull his arm away. I gripped him more tightly.

“No more now…”

I stopped, appalled that I had overdone, weakened him.

He shook his head. “It will make you drunk.” He smiled at me then and I smiled back, both of us bloodied.

I licked my lips, shivered at the last effects and exhaled slowly. “And now,” I began, indicating my open hand with a glance.

He tapped each of the bands with a fingertip. “We both take the risk?”

“Yes.”

“It’s thirteen hours ‘til dawn,” he pointed out.

I considered his priapic state and stroked a hand over the insistent evidence of mine. “Something to take the edge off?”

He shrugged. “I will not say no, but the effect will be short-lived as there are things we must each do after the bands are on to seal the charm.”

“One step at a time,” I said, leaning forward to kiss my blood off his lips.

***

Time had passed, although there were no clocks, no ray of sun or moon to provide a clue as to how much. Sherlock was beside me, the rise and fall of his ribs a reassuring rhythm beneath my arm. I smiled to myself. I had finally lulled him to sleep.

As far as you know, he hasn’t slept in days.

My momentary smugness disappeared. I opened an eye. The faint glow of the moon blade on the table and the bands on the floor gave hints at his posture as his skin reflected back their light. One arm was above his head, the other I felt stretched out behind my neck. His legs were splayed, one half on the floor, the other crooked over my thighs. My smugness returned, enhanced by relief at how much his anxiety appeared to have abated.

Preparations complete?

I rubbed my cheek against his arm, felt the bristles there. Not quite. Maybe we could have a long steam in the hammam. Our muscles could use it and a good wash seemed in order. Best to be refreshed and relaxed before dancing on our enemies’ graves.

Where did that come from?

I don’t know.

The image was strong.

The ballroom resplendent with the flames of hundreds of candles reflected endlessly in the mirrors and night-dark glass of the long walls. Music floated down from the gallery: harp and violin and pipe. Our music.

I felt light-headed with it. I held Sherlock tighter.

The vision persisted.

Beneath the music, voices murmured, but I could not see who possessed them. They swirled between us in a blur of lustrous fabrics, but when the steps brought you and I face to face and our hands touched, I neither heard nor saw even that much of them. I saw you, tall and regal as the night sky, your black garments studded with constellations of crystal, slashed to reveal cloth as radiant as the moon, and I danced for you.

And when I danced alone, I felt clay and chalk, rock and earth through my soft shoes, instead of the parquet I knew was there. Tambours sounded and I danced to their rhythm, over swords, crossed and gleaming, and the heads of my rivals bowed lower each time I touched the ground with toe or heel. I saw their grasping hands fall to their sides, their backs hunch and their robes hang like limp rags. Over their stooped shoulders, I saw your eyes upon me and when you smiled I stomped the earth with my whole foot and those that would have you in my stead, crumpled to dust and blew away.

You stepped over the places where they had been and offered me your hand. I clasped it to my chest and we danced as the harp and the violin sang and beneath our feet the rocks cracked and the clay and the chalk and the earth bloomed.

It took a while to catch my breath. When I could lift my head, I kissed Sherlock’s cheek. “Have we slept a hundred years?” I whispered.

He turned his head and looked at me, through me. “You are ready now.”

“I’m not even sure I’m awake,” I said, running my hand over a dry patch on my belly. “Time for a trip to the hammam to clear the brain and loosen the limbs?”

He shook his head against the cushion. “Time isn’t the issue. What’s on our skin needs to stay there.”

I rubbed my hand over my jaw. “You sure about that?”

His eyes crinkled. “A shampoo, a shave, clean teeth…” He brushed down his chest. “Maybe a damp flannel gently applied here and there.”

I sighed in relief.

“Only a bit,” he emphasised, reaching over his head and scooping up both bands. “Enough so we don’t chafe wearing these, no more.”

“So, this is how we’re deterring unwanted suitors?”

He laughed. “I’ve distilled an excellent perfume.” The apparatus on the ledge burbled as if it had been waiting for a cue. “And I’m afraid their intent has little to do with whether we are sweet or pungent.”

“I cede to your superior knowledge,” I said, thinking that he could smell like a polecat and it would barely dim his allure.

His grinned up at me. “Of course, you do.”

I shook my head. I could still hear the music playing.

“And you’re going to like what we need to do once the bands are on,” he added, lifting his leg off me and sitting up. “At first, anyway.”

***

“Do they all have crowns?” I whispered as I looked down from the gallery. “I feel underdressed.”

We had paused, three-quarters of the way up the spiral staircase leading to the music room gallery, and looked out through a grating in the wall into the fencing…the ball room. The hall of my vision lay before us.

A couple steps below me on the stairs, Sherlock stood close, his chest firm against my back. I could feel him breathing. He touched my hair. “Yours is the mightier crown,” he murmured. I might have suspected a jest, but for the gravitas in his voice. It made me stand straighter. I reached up and brushed the leaves of the gold branches laden with acorns he had wound about my head.

I scrutinised the glittering throng and spotted a few other guests without jewels encircling their brows. A tall, ominous figure was skirting the edge of the room in sable raiment and what looked like a cloth cap from which several long, thin black feathers pointed downwards. I decided to keep an eye on him. He would be easy enough to spot.

A loud guffaw drew my gaze to a short fellow, holding forth at the centre of an attentive circle of listeners, with a multi-coloured hat that jingled as he moved his head.

Is that a jester?

He seems too fond of his own jests to be a real one.

He turned then and looked up at the grating from which we peered and I shivered.

“That’s one of them,” Sherlock said, looking over my shoulder.

“The bantam?” I asked and his headdress took on more of the appearance of a coxcomb even as I stared.

“They are taking their seats,” Sherlock said. “We will be expected shortly.”

I turned my attention from the raucous cock reluctantly. Small or not, it seemed better to keep him in view.

A cursory sweep of the room to where Sherlock was pointing, showed a number of scabbards gleaming as brightly as the crowns. I felt for my daggers and my blade and wondered whether I could assume all the other guests had similar weapons concealed against their silk-stockinged thighs or inside their billowing sleeves.

 

I sighted along the line of Sherlock’s forefinger. Halfway down the long wall of windows, a shapely woman in silver robes was settling into one of a pair of high gilded chairs situated on a small platform connecting two window seats. Her fair hair was swept up and held by a diadem of gems that scattered light as she tilted her head upwards. Her gloved hand was held aloft by a tall, snowy-haired man whose sumptuous cloak glimmered darkly as he released her hand with a kiss. Their elegance would have made them stand out even without the raised platform.

“Them?” I asked, hoping neither was one of my rivals.

“My parents,” Sherlock grumbled and nudged me forward. “They are not patient.”

An odd mixture of relief and trepidation overtook me. “A family trait,” I whispered back and climbed the last few steps to ease open the narrow door at the top. When we slid aside the middle panel that connected the music room and ballroom galleries, a murmur ran through the crowd below us. We walked rapidly along the ballroom gallery and disappeared into the door on the other side that led down to the ballroom. “Was I imagining that?” I asked as we descended.

“No,” Sherlock replied dryly. “I have succeeded in avoiding these gatherings for years and become something of a curiosity as a consequence. Unfortunately, I cannot avoid attending when my parents host one here.” He rested a hand on my shoulder as I reached the bottom. “Wait a moment.”

“I thought we were in a hurry?”

“Give the musicians a chance to settle.”

The sound of chairs scraping over wood echoed down the stairwell and I realised that they had probably been waiting for us to cross the gallery before they mounted the stairs. I had not seen anyone in the music room, but they could have been in the passage that ran parallel to the music room. I still had never gone down it, no matter how invitingly the door to it always seemed to be ajar when I passed.

There was a brief tuning of instruments and then the musicians began to play.

“Go,” Sherlock urged.

“What? We needed music for our entrance?” I joked, but Sherlock just prodded me and I opened the door.

After a couple minutes in the gloom of the stairwell, I was dazzled. The colours were more vivid and the room brighter than I thought possible with candlelight.

Ever seen this many candles lit before?

Fair enough.

The toe of Sherlock’s shoe bumped my heel and I stepped forward. If his parents were waiting, I supposed that was our first destination. I walked in that direction and hoped our perfumes were as efficacious as Sherlock claimed.

He, at any rate, smelled like a garden in full flower.

Along with the music, which sounded eerily like wind through bare branches, the chatter around us rose like a chorus of crickets and I felt a strange conflict between the satin and mirrors I saw and the perceptions of my other senses. The spring beneath my feet had the feel of a carpet of needles on a forest floor rather than the parquet of a ballroom and the scent of the climbing roses from our balcony seemed to be all I could smell.

I stopped in front of the raised platform and looked up at the seated figures there. Closer now, I could see Sherlock in both their faces, but they seemed far too young to be his parents despite their white hair. The man spoke.

Oh, god!

I saw his lips move, but the words refused to make sense. They were Sherlock’s lips and had no right to be on this other person, especially considering what I had so recently watched them doing. I forced myself to smile politely, because it seemed the words might have required at least that. If they had required a reply, I couldn’t have attempted it. I heard Sherlock introduce me and my name sounded odd, as though it had extra syllables.

His mother…surely she couldn’t be…held out her hand.

I took a step up onto the platform, bent over her fingers and managed not to stumble nor actually touch her glove with my lips. I could feel the heat in my cheeks when I straightened up again. She smiled at me and I saw a bluer variation of Sherlock’s eyes. I wondered if I could hum the spell to hide myself in a mist.

Don’t think it would deceive eyes like hers.

Probably not.

“You’ll do well,” she said and slipped her hand away from mine.

I realised that I had clasped it and thought I might go up in flame.

Not a good idea with all this lace and stuff about.

“Yes, I believe he will,” said the man.

His father, fool.

Yes.

I turned towards him, some wild grimace no doubt on my face. He nodded genially at me and I retreated without falling down the step and felt very grateful for that.

Not the usual ‘meeting the parents’.

No. Not that I’ve done much of that.

Sherlock walked past me, kissed both his parents’ hands in a demonstration of how it should be gracefully done, and exchanged some quiet words that I could not hear, although I felt sure they were in a language I had not yet learned.

But you will.

Yes, I probably should.

In a moment, Sherlock was back beside me, his hand on my arm guiding me away. “And now,” he said, so softly I doubted I could be hearing him over the symphony of crickets and fiddles that was possibly in my head, “we must dance for the rest of the evening. Ready to begin?”

We were in the middle of the room when I next noted my surroundings, and I realised there was a space opening as the crowd moved back in silence. The music, too, had stopped. I thought the air might have left with it. I looked at Sherlock, solemn and pale, and squared my shoulders, dipping my chin so infinitesimally, only Sherlock could possibly have detected it.

I might have been assenting to a dash behind enemy lines or a charge up a bramble-filled hill in the altogether.

I knew where the first image came from and hoped the second hadn’t occurred sometime when I had been too drunk to remember…until now.

The music resumed. The sound of the grand harp, with the barest accompaniment from a flute, rained down on the room and I hoped it was Mrs Hudson playing and that somehow she was watching out for us, even if she had been sort of experimenting on me.

Sherlock bowed and I bowed back. He held out his hand and we began.

***

Once more, the music paused. I had managed to remember the figures Sherlock had taught me with the care of an armourer showing how a new gun should be assembled. He hadn’t explained explicitly how it might be, but I had been sure a misstep would mean far more than a trodden toe and had applied myself accordingly.

You apply yourself to everything he asks you to do.

Yes, well.

The diagram for the dance had traced the pattern of a rose and as we danced the scent of roses had intensified. At its conclusion, we bowed to one another. All around us others did the same. I had not noticed them dancing at all.

There was a suggestion of a smile on Sherlock’s lips and I was enjoying the sense of having acquitted myself adequately when at his elbow appeared a man wearing one of the crowns I had seen from the stairs. It was heavy gold ringed with round rubies and sapphires – or red and blue glass. He was of my height and holding a scarlet half mask over his face. Sherlock’s smile faded quite away.

Battle stations.

I studied this lank-haired apparition whose pale lips twitched restlessly beneath a sparse moustache and above an even sparser goatee. Through the mask’s eyes, I glimpsed his, gleaming and dark, wild and cold.

I heard a slithering.

A full blue and gold robe didn’t hide his serpentine sinuousness.

“I had heard you’d found a green one,” he drawled at Sherlock with a familiarity that brought my hand to the hilt of my dagger. “But I could hardly believe it. They are so terribly rare.” He turned then to look at me much as one might assess a classic car or a racehorse, I supposed.

I stared steadily back. The moon blade grew icy against my chest. I forbore to touch it. His eyes were too quick.

The leaves about my head rustled.

His eyes widened, the candlelight dancing in them, then the lids drooped and he scanned me from top to bottom and back. “And a lively one, at that. Oh, yes. A very lively one, I’d warrant.” He turned to Sherlock. “Hard to keep the lively ones satisfied, I’ve read.” His glance flickered back to me for an instant. “But I’ve researched a lot on how it might be managed. I don’t suppose you’d like to share your little treasure.” He laid his hand on Sherlock’s arm. “Give yourself a little rest.”

The ‘little’ might have rankled if he hadn’t been so much of a size with me, but the way he stroked down Sherlock’s sleeve as he finished his little speech, made me want to break his little be-ringed fingers – one by one.

I glared at him instead and he laughed.

“Would you like to dance, Doctor Watson? Looks like Sherlock here’s trained you up well.” He leaned towards me and lowered his voice. “I’ve always loved watching Sherlock dance.”

My temperature went up, the urge to lay hands on him pulling at my bones. I clenched my fists at my side.

He leaned closer still. “But watching him with a well-trained partner would be even more delicious. What all has he taught you, little one?”

Such an old trick. Don’t give anything away, Watson.

My temperature plummeted, my hands relaxed and I grew very calm. I even smiled.

He leaned back.

“Very good.” He looked up at Sherlock. “You’ve done very well,” he repeated, swinging the hand holding his mask to the side and waving it up and down as though marking the metre of what he said.

I considered his pallid, ordinary face and the expressions he exaggerated nearly to parody. Usually, that was his mask, I decided. But the hunger on his face when he looked at Sherlock was raw and genuine and he would have done better to continue to disguise it. Even if it would be hard without a velvet mask.

I would know.

“Doctor Watson has no free dances this evening,” Sherlock said serenely, but his face was too still for serenity.

“Oh, doesn't he now?” the starving man said in a sing-song voice.

I heard a hiss and a howl in it and tried to identify the melody. I failed. It was doing something though, I was sure, and it wasn’t directed at me.

“Such a pity.” He held his mask up again and turned away. The crowd parted before him.

“I’ll ask again after supper,” he called over his shoulder.

The crowd closed behind him. “You might feel differently by then.” The words floated to us over the heads of the throng. If he said more, it was lost as the musicians began again to play.

As unpleasant as his presence had been, I didn’t like losing sight of him either.

Sherlock held out his hand.

“Cock No. 2?” I asked, aiming for a little levity. I turned to face him.

“No. 2,” he repeated without a smile. "No, No. 3."

I gripped his hand tightly at that and let him swirl me away.

***