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Penumbra (Series Two)

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Caduceus B&W cropped for Penumbra 2 - chapter 5

I had done dinner justice: emptied silver shells of fish; made roots and sprouts, full of colour and savour, disappear; and relished a soup, so unusual in flavour I knew it had to be a concoction of Sherlock’s. I’d given voice to my appreciation and he’d seemed pleased.

Yet I could not give myself over fully to the pleasures of the table with the jester’s tintinnabulation intruding into every pause in the music or the conversation. Neither could I ignore the incantatory voice on the other side of Sherlock. I kept having to resist the urge to lift the tablecloth to see what Wild Eyes might be attempting under its cover.

“Shall we start calling you Salome, Sherlock?” he said, his hungry eyes sweeping over Sherlock’s chest and shoulders and opening wider as he stared at Sherlock’s face. “Just the head not enough for you?”

Sherlock’s lips barely moved as he said something terse in reply I couldn’t hear.

“The lightning was a sweet touch,” Wild Eyes said. “I actually didn’t see that coming. I bet ol’ Magnus didn’t either.”

Sherlock inclined his head at the compliment. It seemed to thaw his reserve somewhat.

“So little surprises me,” Wild Eyes lamented. “I’d almost forgotten how good a really good surprise feels.”

Substitute ‘shag’ for ‘surprise’ in that sentence.

I’m trying not to, there are so many knives on the table.

Then, he started in on the touching.

Sherlock remained without doublet or cloak. Wild Eyes’ hand was that much closer to Sherlock’s skin as he stroked up and down the linen sleeve. His fingertips were tracing the shape of Sherlock’s muscles through the thin cloth. He leaned a bit closer as he stared up into Sherlock’s eyes.

“Offer still stands,” he crooned, “for you…” He looked past Sherlock at me. “…and your little, green man.” His eyes dropped to the table’s edge and lingered as though he could see through it. “All this waiting for dancing and electrocuting must have you both on edge.”

He turned his gaze back to Sherlock, but seemed to continue addressing me. “I’ve been waiting for an answer from him for years, but he’s such a difficult butterfly to pin down.”

Sherlock met those wild eyes with a look I usually see when he’s at his microscope.

“He’s worth the wait though, because beneath that icy shell, I know he’s on fire, too.” Wild Eyes glanced back at me, his hand slipping up Sherlock’s arm as he spoke, kneading the flesh as he went. “You saw it straight away, too. I can tell. I admire clear-sightedness in a man.”

I couldn’t understand why Sherlock hadn’t dispatched this creature. Perhaps it wasn’t polite to incinerate guests inside the house.

He’s mad.

The insanity defence, is it? Well, he needs to be locked up, then, for his own protection.

And your peace of mind?

Yes! Or I’m going to kill him here, before the coffee is served.

He seemed aware of my homicidal intentions and his eyes gleamed at me.

“Any dances free up?” he asked with that song in his voice that was infuriating and alluring at the same time.

In the gallery, an oboe sounded; strings vibrated.

“No.” Sherlock gave one of his gargoyle smiles to Wild Eyes, pushed back his chair, gripped my arm and led me away.

It was not very decorous, and I could have used the caffeine, but it was just as well.

***

The music had a sedate air after dinner; the conversations were quieter. The guests traced the figures of their dances with a stately grace, as did we. In the lulls between songs, I did not always hear the jester’s laugh or the jangle of his bells.

And yet, below the apparent languor of a long night drawing to a close, there thrummed an energy, a taut wire of expectation that encircled the crowd. Whispers stopped as we danced past, and, as the moon over the river approached the treetops, more and more bright eyes were turned upon us.

“Are they waiting for our last dance?”

Sherlock’s hand smoothed down my back. “Yes.”

“Why do they care whether one of us is lured away from the other?”

He shook his head. “I can’t explain more yet.”

Although my feet remained sure, fatigue was beginning to dull my brain; I lacked the alertness to deal with one more puzzle. Resting my head on Sherlock’s chest was what I wanted to do, but our current dance, a waltz of some sort, didn’t bring us close enough. “Can you tell me then, why they were so pleased…Magnus…met his end? Or was it all part of the entertainment?”

Feeling cross?

Tired.

“He wasn’t invited.”

“Death to gate crashers?”

“Not exactly. Many people here have had dealings with him one way or another. Unpleasant dealings,” Sherlock explained.

I scowled. “What could he do to them?”

“Almost everyone has someone without our…abilities, who is important to them. He made it his business to find out who cared for whom and used threats against the more vulnerable individual to control the stronger one. He’s been doing it for quite a while, although I hadn’t become aware until last year when one of the guests here came to ask for my help on behalf of her husband. Unfortunately, I had to quell that disturbance in the Artic and wasn’t able to solve his problem before he affected his own solution, removing the burden from his wife’s life by killing himself.”

I had noticed a woman with a glistening face standing quietly among the applauding throng on the terrace. I had thought it possible that she was shedding a tear for the recently deceased.

Well, she was.

You know who I meant.

I surveyed the room and spotted her in a small group of people, talking. She caught my eye and gently inclined her head.

“Well, I was certainly happy to see him boiled, but I didn’t understand why everyone else was.”

“And now you do.”

“And now I do,” I repeated. I drew in a long breath and let it out slowly. “So what’s Wild-Eyed Boy do to amuse himself other than try to seduce you?”

“I’m not sure Jim’s ever been interested in me physically…”

Oh, you’ve got that so wrong, sweet cheeks.

Hey!

You agree with me though.

Yeah, I do.

“He tries to keep himself entertained by bringing his talents to bear on diverting problems and makes the people who bring their problems to him pay a great deal as part of the fun. He never cares about the havoc he wreaks as long as the solution is clever, and because he thinks I’m nearly as clever as he is, he’s always wanted me to join his enterprise. If he could seduce me, he assumed I would be more likely to agree.”

Don’t ask him, Watson.

I didn’t ask. I’m not sure I wanted to know whether Wild-Eyed Jim had ever made Sherlock the least bit curious.

“Shouldn’t Greg be arresting him or something?” I thought I had glimpsed Lestrade in a black velvet half-mask earlier in the evening.

“Jim never gets close enough to the execution of his solutions for there to be any evidence implicating him.”

“Still, isn’t being here a risk?”

“Jim loves risks. Helps relieve the boredom that plagues him.”

“I got that he was barking,” I said.

“Did you?” Sherlock regarded me. “It took me quite some time.”

Helps to have grown up around crazy people.

Yeah.

“And the jester? Why does he want to ‘woo’ you?”

“To feast on me,” Sherlock said matter-of-factly.

My back stiffened. “Figuratively?” I whispered and knew I was wrong.

“He gave up blood; too easy to obtain these days he says.” Sherlock turned us around. “Dread and panic are his sustenance now. He inhales despair; claims it is the headiest perfume. He’s cultivated an addiction to it, craves stronger and stronger doses. Brought to despair, he thinks I would be particularly intoxicating.”

Despite the wine and the dinner in me, my skin broke out in gooseflesh. Sherlock did not sound like it was such a far-fetched circumstance. “But how could he ever…”

The music faded away and we stood still. About us, no one chattered. The air quivered in the silence.

“He hopes that I’ll volunteer,” Sherlock replied, looking away.

You’re in danger, Johnny.

I hate when you call me that.

Danger, Johnny. Strobe light-flashing, siren-wailing danger.

I considered Sherlock’s set jaw and pressed my lips together, so I didn’t say anything aloud that would give me away, just in case he can’t read my thoughts. I’ve seen only a fraction of what he can do. I know that. Of course, his destruction would have to come from within. I tightened my fingers between his.

Across the vast room, a single bell tinkled.

We’ll see who has the last laugh tonight, you jingling fucker.

***

Sherlock took a sip from his flask and urged me to finish the rest.

I did and handed it back. “How soon?” I asked, itching for confrontation.

Discordant notes fell from the gallery.

“A couple minutes…” He looked up at the winged creatures flying through the starry sky of the ceiling. “I’m supposed to tell you at this point that you could withdraw.” Their chariot disappeared behind a cloud-shrouded moon above the doors leading out to the double staircase to the roof.

“You really think I could?”

He glanced down at me and scowled. “John?”

I raised a forefinger, touched it to his lips. “This time, I’ll explain later.”

One of his eyebrows went up. He was trying for insouciance, but a shadow passed over his face.

I drew my finger away, pulled my shoulders back and held out my hand, palm up.

“You need to say it though.”

“I do not withdraw, Sherlock,” I said.

Sherlock looked from my face to my hand and to my face once more. He was searching for something there.

“May I have this dance?” I asked, hoping that he had found it.

“I would dance with no other.”

Eyes fixed on him, I lowered my chin and extended my hand a little further. “Let’s show them, then.”

He almost smiled and put his hand in mine.

Guests stepped out of our way as we walked to the middle of the room and I could see that a section of the parquet had been cleared for us. We turned to face one another, unclasped our hands for a moment, and bowed.

The musicians began to play. A multitude of them.

***

Sherlock was trying to watch my eyes. I bowed my head and looked up at him from beneath my brows. My hands were clamped around his forearms. I had pulled him close enough for his elbows to need to bend. I dug my thumbs into the tracery of veins at his wrists. His eyes opened wide with the pain. I pushed my weight on his arms and he went down on his knees. I pressed again to keep him there. He bit his lip to stop from crying out, but his eyes had cleared for a bit. He had understood.

I lifted his left arm, kissed his wrist where a bruise would surely form and set his hand on his right shoulder; did the same with the right wrist, so that his arms crossed his chest. His fingers tightened in the linen at his shoulders to keep his arms in place. It was a ward. Whether I was able to make it strong enough to be of any use, I didn’t know.

He looked up at me; eyes not completely focussed. I bent to kiss his forehead and placing one foot directly behind the other, backed away. Albeit blearily, his eyes followed me.

 

After we had traced the pattern of our dance once on the floor, I knew something was wrong. Our lines were there, I could see them, but they had little light where they crossed and not a single leaf sprouted from any of them. I had asked why, but Sherlock had merely shaken his head, leaning more of his weight upon me. I hadn’t had time to think it through, but he was losing the ability to stand and some instinct told me that he shouldn’t fall across our design, that the little we had laid down was at least some protection. So, I brought him to his knees in the centre where our steps hadn’t fallen and hoped I could re-enforce the pattern on my own.

The music, which had accommodated the interruption to our dance with a flight of improvisation, resumed its beat when I reached the edge of periphery of the design. From there, I retraced every one of my steps to the tempo.

The glow of my lines brightened; Sherlock’s remained mere shimmers on the parquet. I had attempted to reinforce his, but the tips of my toes touching one line had produced the scent of burning leaves. I lifted my foot and kept to my lines. If I couldn’t strengthen his, I’d re-enforce mine with enough passion for the two of us. I hoped that could work. I hoped it with a passion. I danced it with a passion that felt remarkably like fear.

There were singers on the gallery now or maybe the winged creatures painted on the ceiling sang. The voices rose, urging me on. My footsteps hit to their beat, harder and harder, until the floor resounded like a drum. With each stomp, our fortress walls rose higher. They would block every attempt against us. All of us. And within their safety, I could tend to Sherlock.

I moved a quarter circle from where I had started retracing, heel at right angle to toes, jagged steps for a jagged edge, then stepped carefully between our designs in another line towards the centre, where Sherlock knelt. Precision under pressure. It was something I knew how to do, although I usually performed with my hands. When I reached him, I had created two lines, straight as arrows, or the spokes of a wheel, pulsing green with the light of a glow-worm, a very long one.

Sherlock swayed slightly, even though he was sitting back on his heels. I placed my hand on his head. His hair was damp. Quickly, I stepped a quarter of the way round him and back to the rim of the circle. I had three lines. Why they were important, I didn’t know, but they were. I retraced my designs again. They glowed brighter, bleeding slightly into Sherlock’s lines, where they crossed. I danced barbs along another quarter of the border and headed back to him, a fourth straight line.

The music diminished to a hum. A soloist sang, high and plaintive. A chorus answered her, low and fierce.

Drums took up the beat and my wheel began to turn, grating and grinding, stone against stone. Sparks spewed into the room from the jagged edges and the quadrants, half-filled with silver, green, gold or red lines, turned with it. The guests stepped back. Among them, I saw Wild-eyed Jim. He saw that I saw him and took a half-step forward, his hands raised in front of his chest as though he might applaud, the sparks reflected in his eyes.

I turned to Sherlock. Dismissed everything else in the room. His head and shoulders were bowed. His hands had dropped to his thighs.

I crouched in front of him and looked up into his face. His muscle tone was slack, his eyes barely open, his breathing shallow. Shaded by his curls, I couldn’t judge his colour. I seized him below his shoulders and brought him to a more upright position. His skin looked grey. Where my grip had tugged open the collar of his shirt, I saw his torc hanging down either side of his neck, its silver scales tarnished, its jewelled eyes closed. A band of fear constricted around my heart.

Under my chin, I felt the flick of a tongue, heard a hiss. My torc uncoiled and skittered down my arm inside my sleeve. It wriggled out at my cuff; stretched and sniffed and nipped at the limp dragon around Sherlock’s neck. Then it reared back and bit my wrist.

I drew in a pained breath.

Blood trickled down my arm. A red tongue darted over my skin, removing every drop, then the creature wielding it stretched out and bit behind the head of Sherlock’s serpent. Its tail twitched as it was dragged from Sherlock’s neck and dropped to the floor.

My serpent slipped the rest of the way out of my sleeve and onto its comrade, holding it down with red claws and biting along its spine, lower and lower, biting and licking, its wings half opening, then closing.

I stared. Sherlock had said the creature would defend me, but I couldn’t see the connection between its actions and my well-being at the moment.

The jaws of Sherlock’s serpent opened. Its lolling tongue was nearly white. From between its teeth, a grey, sluggish form protruded.

The golden dragon bit again, gradually moving up the tarnished spine of its mate. The slug-like thing emerged fully and my serpent clamped its jaws together behind a gaping, tooth-rimmed mouth; its tail tightening below the smaller mouth at the other end of the creature, which I recognised finally as a leech. It squirmed and gasped. Its breath smelt of rotting meat and made me snort. Then, with a faint tinkle and a puff of fetid smoke, it disappeared. My dragon hissed and spat on the floor, where something viscous sizzled a while and was gone.
It had taken two serpents to kill it.

From the corner of my eye, I saw the cloth over Sherlock’s shoulder shift.

My dagger was in my hand before I had finished drawing in another tainted breath. I sliced through seams and ripped linen. Jaws firmly attached to Sherlock’s shoulder, a glistening, bloated leech wriggled in the air. A filigree of grey lines was spreading outwards from where it adhered. It should be too soon for the wound to be necrotising, but the stink of the other leech made me doubt. Before my eyes, the leech’s hind mouth attached to Sherlock’s flesh.

My lip curled.

Steady, Watson.

Yes. Very steady.

A little present from the jester as we passed through the crowd. For once, he must have been silent and I had not seen him.

“There is a leech on you, Sherlock. Not an ordinary one,” I whispered. “The skin around it is already dying, so I’m going to cut it away.” The only reply I heard was a slightly louder exhalation of breath.

With my dagger, I severed the leather thong about my neck, grasped the handle of the moon blade and cut an oval of flesh away from Sherlock’s shoulder with it. I flicked it onto the ground and inspected my excision. It remained white and bloodless for longer than it ought and when the blood finally welled up, it was thick and far too dark.

It wasn’t just sucking blood out.

No. It was dripping something in and it’s probably all through his system by now.

Sherlock’s breathing deepened, but his colour didn’t improve. He slumped against me.

Moon blade in hand, I stroked his hair and watched the blood slowly fill the slight concavity of my excision. No new grey lines formed.

Were you expecting a miraculous recovery once the thing was off him?

Maybe. The miraculous isn’t rare around here.

Another flicker of motion caught my eye. The discarded leech was inching across the floor, dragging Sherlock’s shrivelling flesh with it. It was already half-way to the edge of our design, creeping along one of my straight lines, even as it rotated. Right-handed, I threw my silver dagger over Sherlock’s bleeding shoulder. The knife hit home with a thump, the tip pinning the leech to the floor.

A murmur rose from the crowd and I remembered that there were other people with us.

Why don’t they help us?

Circle of magic fire around you, remember?

Either I did something more effective than I realised I was able to do or they don’t want to help.

Not even his parents?

Fine. OK. They can’t. I’m better at this than I thought. Fine time to have got this good.

The skewered leech released Sherlock’s flesh and raised its empty maws. Smoke curled up from them and I thought I heard bells jangling. When the smoke wafted past me, I gagged.

Seasoned surgeon, eh?

You have no sense of smell.

A sharp pain in my leg distracted me from the stench. The golden dragon was up on its hind legs and biting into my thigh. On the floor, Sherlock’s dragon was scrabbling to get its feet under itself. Its silver scales shone in the fiery light, as it collapsed back onto its belly.

My dragon yanked the torn cloth of my trousers out of the way and bit more deeply into my flesh.

I managed not to shout and refrained from backhanding it; its fangs were too deep in my leg for that to work well.

I panted until it withdrew. The puncture wounds bled slowly. The dragon licked up the droplets and resumed biting its comrade. My wounds closed.

Against me, Sherlock began to tremble. I unhooked my cloak, wrapped it around him and held him to me.

“Don’t leave me, Sherlock,” I whispered. My leg burned and a tremor ran up my arm. I buried my face in his hair. It smelt sour. “Fight it. Fight it for me.”

Watson, you fool. What does Sherlock ever need when he’s injured? And in case you’ve forgotten, you’ve had a bleeding demonstration--literally.

I’m not in the mood for riddles.

The room throbbed with the beat of drums. The ebb and flow of a rhythm I knew, of blood through a beating heart that was slowing down. I hid my face in Sherlock’s hair. “Don’t leave me.”

There was laughter. Loud and joyous.

The air grew icy. I held Sherlock more tightly. Why don’t I know what to do? Sherlock’s often hurt, I always knew what to do. I was his doctor. I am his doctor. Why can’t I think?

Get up, Watson! Get up and bleed. If something’s sucking on you, you can find it later. Get up now and give him blood! Lots of it!

What if it’s contaminated, too?

It can’t be as contaminated as his. Bleed!

I steadied Sherlock with a hand on his uninjured shoulder and stood. It took me a long time, as though the air were congealing, and once I was upright, he slumped against my legs and almost overbalanced me. His knuckles cracked against the floor. I winced and wanted to bend back down to kiss them.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

Bleed, Watson!

Another peal of laughter rang out, louder than the drums.

I looked around. Surely someone would help.

You’re already here, Watson. You’re all the help he needs. The only help he needs.

Beyond our circle of sparks, the room was dark. Inside, my part of our design glowed weakly. Sherlock’s part was barely there.

“Don’t fade away, Sherlock, please.”

The laughter echoed off the walls.

Bleed, Watson!

Blood. Yes, the blood in me.

The moon blade was in my left hand. I hadn’t let go of it. I raised it high and it caught all the colours of the sparks encircling us, drew them into its pearly depths. I stared at the patterns they made. The blade was so beautiful and Sherlock had made it for me.

With one downward swipe, I sliced through tunic and shirt and flesh.

There was a sigh through the trees.

I held the knife out to my side. My chest burned. The blood was warm against my skin.

I bent over Sherlock and let it pour over his wound; knotted my fingers in his hair and pulled his head back to let the blood flow into his mouth.

You cut too deep.

Doesn’t matter. He has what he needs.

“Drink.” In my head, a chorus of endearments clamoured to be spoken. I said again, “Drink.”

He pressed his lips together and swallowed.

“Drink,” I whispered and wanted to kiss his blood-stained mouth.

His tongue darted over his lips and he swallowed again.

Between the streaks of blood, I saw the grey receding, his shoulder wound closing.

This was as it should be. I breathed.

He opened his eyes. They were clear. He looked at me and he saw me.

This was as it should be. I tried to smile at him. “Drink,” I murmured.

A long-fingered hand closed about my arm and pulled me down. I saw him bite his lip. Oh, how I wanted to kiss it. He kissed the cut in my chest instead.

Far too deep.

I was shaking.

Sherlock pulled me lower still. My knees buckled and I half fell on him. I slid down to sit on the floor. My head was on his shoulder, his on mine. One of his arms was around me. It was a parody of dancing, a still life, except for the rise and fall of our backs as we pulled in air and the knife in my outstretched hand.

“It was despair, John,” Sherlock whispered in my ear. “He must have fed the leeches on his dying victims’ blood, storing up their despair to use on people whom he couldn’t bring to feel it in any other way.”

I felt his forefinger stroke my lip. It was wet. I drew it into my mouth and the shaking stopped.

“You got a little of it when your dragon bit you after biting mine.”

“You saw that?” I asked.

“I did, but couldn’t do anything, not even speak. A large dose acts like a paralytic.”

My head was clearing. I huffed. “That’s cheating, isn’t it? Artificially induced despair?”

“No honour among the malevolent, John.”

His hand slid off my back. He leaned to the side and pressed his palm over a part of the inner edge of our design – on one of his lines. It grew more distinct near his hand, a pale silvery-blue. The colour spread, grew more intense.

“Are you strong enough to be doing that?”

“Your blood always works a treat,” he replied. “I still haven’t identified exactly why.” He reached past me.

I looked over my shoulder and saw a line brightening under his other hand. I twisted around until my back was against his chest and watched the pattern change as his lines began to glow and our colours merged where they crossed.

“Where did you learn what you did along the outer edge there?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Our design wasn’t finished; you were ill. I needed to protect you.”

Sherlock sniffed, paused, sniffed again. “Sulphur,” he said, “probably from pyrite. You called it up from the clay in a precise formation and set it in motion. I am impressed.”

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” I confessed. “I was desperate.”

You could have just taken the compliment.

I didn’t know what I was doing.

“Interesting,” Sherlock said. “The adrenaline would have helped you. It has the opposite effect on some individuals. We need to explore this, but for now we need it to stop. Do you want to try your hand at it or shall I?”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“Oh, you will. Very soon, I think. I’ll handle it now. Can you stand?”

I took a few deep breaths and rubbed my palms along my thighs. My brain seemed my own again and my leg didn’t hurt.

“I think so,” I said. “And you?”

“As soon as the last parts of the design are finished, we’ll try. And if we succeed, I’ll slow down your wheels within wheels.”

“You’re not going to stop them?” I asked, bending one leg and then the other to see if the blood was flowing properly through them.

“Let’s see what’s waiting on the other side first. It’s a very good barrier,” Sherlock said.

Accidentally achieved or not, I couldn’t help feeling chuffed. Who knew I had latent engineering skills.

Let’s not overdo it, Watson. It’s just a stone wheel rotating around a smaller cog.

A minute ago, you wanted me to accept praise for it.

It solved the problem to hand. I’d hold off on plans for a career change.

Fine, fine. The different colours are pretty though.

What are they about?

I have no idea.

Sherlock sat back. The pattern was finished. Stalks were sprouting where lines crossed, small leaves unfurled and buds formed as I watched. “It’s a season wheel,” he said. “Quite appropriate for an equinox.” He stared at me. “You didn’t intend that either.”

“Nope.”

“Oh, John, we have so much to do once we have the manor back to ourselves.” One long leg arced over my head.

God, the thoughts that gave me.

“Take it slowly. You lost a lot of blood.”

“I didn’t lose it. I know exactly where it went.” Sherlock rolled his eyes at me. “Your parents staying long?” I asked, rising cautiously to my knees. No light-headedness.

Sherlock stood, adjusted my cape over his bare shoulder, draping it over the front of his bloody shirt. It hid the worst of it, but where he’d wiped his mouth on the other sleeve showed. “They never do. It’s against their nature as peripatetic creatures.” He held out his hand to me. “Our childhood was a trial for them.”

Steadying myself on his forearm, I achieved a vertical position. I looked down at myself. My bare chest was visible almost to my navel. Under the drying blood, my skin was whole again, but the bottom of my tunic was dark with blood, the linen scarlet with it. I held on.

Sherlock stared at the floor. Spilt blood formed an irregular outline around where we had been seated. Pointed green leaves were sprouting from the darkening stains. “Thistles.” He looked at me. “I should have predicted that.” He frowned. “Mind where you step, the leather of your shoes is soft.”

His scowl deepened.

A soft chuckle seemed to surround us.

Sherlock held a hand out, moved his fingers as though conducting a tune. “Have a weapon to hand. Culvert isn’t likely to be pleased when he can see more clearly once the sparks die down.”

I slipped the moon blade into my belt. I wasn’t going to risk its being contaminated by his foul blood.

Expecting a bloody encounter then?

Let’s just say, I’m ready for one.

I eased a slender dagger past the cuff of my sleeve. It would serve.

The fountain of sparks around us dwindled until it marked the edge of the circle with a frothing border no higher than my ankle. Afterimages danced before my eyes and it was several seconds before I could make out more than the vaguest shapes beyond its perimeter.

The music grew gentle, the drumbeat muffled, steady.

I looked about, holding my knife point upwards along the inside of my arm, ready for when I understood upon whom I might need to use it.

A nervous titter in front of me clarified matters. Culvert stood at the edge of the circle, jingling a little to my left, face lit from below on one side by the border glowing green at his feet, and on the other by the silvery blue light of the adjacent quadrant and the line leading from where Sherlock stood to the edge.

Bad choice of location.

Yes.

He was near where I would be strongest. Well, a couple steps to the right would have been in the middle of the quarter and that would have been even worse for him.

How do you know this?

It’s what we ushered in tonight, isn’t it? Look at everything growing around us. We brought spring.”

I think it might have arrived with or without your intercession.

I thought of how pale our first lines had been on the floor.

I’m not so sure about that.

Culvert sputtered. “No, no, no! How can you be standing?” He grimaced, then giggled. “A Herculean effort, but surely you are about to keel over. You must feel the weakness in your limbs.” He leered at us. “You feel it, don’t you? Creeping up on you, drear and inescapable? All your failures, your incompetence, every time you disappointed someone?”

Sherlock took my hand and held it up as though we might promenade past Culvert, or perhaps directly at him and raise our linked arms even higher to pass over him.

Perhaps that would make him disappear.

Oh, that it would.

“I feel remarkably well,” Sherlock replied, “although my garments are much the worse for wear.” He glanced at me. “Do you feel well, Doctor Watson?”

My turn.

I grinned at Culvert. “I’m in remarkably good form,” I said and directed my gaze to where my silver dagger stuck up from the floor.

Culvert followed my line of sight and frowned at the upright blade. “You can’t feel well.” He snickered. “Sherlock is fading away as we speak. See how pale and wan he is.”

There was some dire music in his words. I shivered.

He sniggered. “No one can withstand two of my leeches – not even a fine, tall fellow like Sherlock. Mind, you’ve done well to be standing at all right now. You have surprised me, but it won’t last. The ichor is in his blood; it can’t be cut out. It’s killing him now. Think how desolate you will feel when he’s gone. The despair as you think on how you weren’t able to help him one jot.”

“I don’t fade away easily,” Sherlock said. “I have something of a reputation for being indestructible.” He took a step forward, gripping my hand more tightly.

I moved with him, nodding my agreement. The echoes of Culvert’s words receded.

Culvert shook his head. Bells jangled. One fell off and clattered on the floor. His eyes slid to it and back to Sherlock.

“No one I chose survived, Mr Holmes. Not a one, and you won’t either. Try to resist as you might, I’ll leave with what I came here to collect tonight. You may not want to come with me, but you’ll come all the same. You have no choice; it got past all your defences and it’s in your blood now.”

We moved another step closer.

Culvert turned his eyes on me. “You have a choice though, Doctor Watson. You can stay behind and endure your loneliness. Ponder how you couldn’t do anything for him. What did you try to do? Cut it out of him? Is that why you’re both covered in blood? Are you even a doctor, Doctor Watson? How could you think you could ever be a dancer, you barber, you butcher?”

We took another step.

“I have a choice,” Sherlock said and his voice had gone impossibly deep, “and it’s to survive.”

“You can’t. Struggle as much as you like against it. I like to watch the stronger ones struggle for a while with the effects of the first leech, but the second one always ends it.”

A scratching sound along the floor made me look down. The two dragons were circling our feet. Sherlock’s stood on its hind feet and began to climb his trouser leg.

“Not for me, it doesn’t.”

Culvert eyed the silven beast clambering up Sherlock’s side.

“None of the others have a creature like these?” Sherlock asked, stroking the serpent’s back. “They are so loyal. I don’t suppose you’d understand that. They’d attack anything that tried to harm us.”

Culvert pursed his lips. “I’ll kill them, too, then.”

“Oh, I don’t think you will,” Sherlock said.

A black-gloved hand came around Culvert’s face from behind, another pulled his arm around his back, and judging by his grimace, yanked it up high. “I think you’ve said enough for tonight,” Lestrade said, his features still half-hidden by his mask. “But we’ll give you a chance to say more tomorrow and all the tomorrows after.”

Two attendants emerged from the dimness behind Lestrade. One fastened Culvert’s hands behind his back, the other bound Culvert’s legs at the ankles. Lestrade tied a velvet band around Culvert’s mouth, and, drawing a silver dagger, much like my own, from its sheath, cut the bells from the jester’s hat. One of the attendants collected the bells from the floor. When he stood, Lestrade nodded and the two shouldered Culvert like a rolled carpet and turned towards the terrace doors.

As they turned, horns sounded triumphant from the gallery. The candles flared and I could see the guests clearly again. They shrank back from the attendants, giving them a wide passage clear to the door and those that had fans used them vigorously. The stench was the same as had accompanied the leeches’ demise, only much stronger.

I coughed.

“It was the one method of communication Lestrade didn’t neutralise,” Sherlock said.

“More’s the pity.” I tucked the knife in my hand back into my sleeve and bent to pull my silver dagger from the floor. My serpent took the opportunity to leap onto my shoulder. A moment later, I felt it coiling about my throat. “It’s not true, what he said about the poison being in your blood, is it?”

“As far as he knew, it was,” Sherlock said, stepping closer and lowering his voice. “He’s never sampled your blood.”

I shuddered – a full body shudder, at the idea.

“Yes,” Sherlock said, “repugnant fellow.”

“What’s going to happen to him?”

“The boatman should be waiting at the bottom of the terrace steps to transport them to the Tower. I’m sure they will find accommodation that will suit him. Permanently.”

“Do they still do that there?” I asked.

“Not these days,” Sherlock said.

“Right.”

He let go of my hand, strode to the edge of the circle, stooped then stood up straight with his hand raised above his head. It looked like what he does with police tape around a crime scene for me to walk under.

“What are you…”

“Just walk under, John. I’ve recently had surgery, you don’t want me overexerting myself.”

I joined him quickly and stepped over the fiery border and under his arm. It felt warmer outside the circle and Culvert’s stench was dissipating.

Sherlock stepped over the perimeter and lowered his hand. “The bottom edge of the boundary you created is at floor level, the upper boundary is about chest height now. I believe it was considerably higher when the sparks where spouting.”

Hmph.

From the gallery, a gentle melody floated, all strings and woodwinds.

“A highly commendable first effort, John. Making a gap in it and lifting it took some effort.”

“Oh.” My hand went up to his shoulder. “Nothing’s bleeding is it?”

“Of course not, but I wouldn’t mind sitting down whilst we wait out the next stage.” We weaved through the crowd. Guests stepped aside, smiling at us as we passed.

“Next?”

“The farewells, John. They’re not interminable, but they do often feel that way.”

We ensconced ourselves in the window seat closest to the minstrels’ gallery. Only one of the windows was open and steps hadn’t been placed by them. Sherlock leaned against the wall of the niche, I against the frame of the closed window. When he’d settled his legs across my thighs, he sighed. I curled one hand around his ankle, found the posterior tibial artery pulse point and savoured its beat. An attendant came with a tray of food. I looked at them and felt ravenous. Sherlock shook his head, but I took a plate of fruit and raisins and nuts and another of sweets and sat them on the cushion by me. I thought I could probably tempt him with the sweets after a while.

Sherlock took his flask from his trousers’ pocket and held it out to me.

“I thought we finished that,” I said.

Sherlock waggled the flask at me. “We did, but that was over an hour ago.”

I took it from him. It was heavy. I opened it and drank. It was full. “That’s useful,” I remarked and handed it back.

Sherlock smiled and drank deep. “It is. Especially when it’s such a delicate formulation.”

I reached for the flask with one hand and held a tartlet out in the other. He took it, sniffed it and ate. I drank, felt the spark and burn of the elixir’s ingredients in different parts of my mouth. It watered and I had to move Sherlock’s legs a little lower on my thighs.

“So how long do farewells take?” I asked.

“Somewhat less than forever.” He sighed more melodramatically than before and held out his hand.

I gave him another tart and watched him eat.

***