Magnus Bane emerged from the dark dungeons of Lightwood Hall in a state of disarray that would have utterly ruined his reputation, had anyone been awake to see. Thankfully, it was well past midnight and most of the estate’s guests had already gone to bed. Magnus himself had been in his own warm bed earlier, and wanted nothing more than to return to it as soon as possible. The dungeon was damp, he was dressed only in a thin silk nightshirt, and he was chilled to the bone.
The iron door was heavier than he expected, though, and as it swung shut behind him it clanged, the sound echoing down the empty corridor. To Magnus’s ears it was practically deafening. He swore softly and ducked into an alcove, pressing himself to the wall before peering out to make certain no one was rushing forward, pitchforks waving, to brand him a thief or a brigand in the night. The flickering witchlight stones along the passageway cast dancing shadows on the wall as he waited with his heart pounding in his ears. Fortunately, the corridor remained deserted and he continued on his way. The carved stone staircase at the end of the passage led him out into what he recognized as the first floor library – he breathed a sigh of relief; hopefully he could find his way from here.
The last thing Magnus needed was to be found in a compromising position. It was all well and good for the local peasantry to brand him a mystic, or for the gentry to speculate over their brandy and cards about his various love affairs. Magnus, who had been orphaned young, then adopted and raised by a kind monastic Brotherhood, had earned his way into society by virtue of his independent wealth and charm, capitalizing occasionally on his more specialized talents - which the Clave allowed so long as Magnus was discreet, and so long as he remained at their beck and call when needed. But to be caught outside of his room at a late hour in only his bedclothes would certainly do him no favors. No matter how rich or dashingly handsome one might be, a man with no reputation was as good as cast out into the street.
Magnus continued towards the guest wing of the estate, or rather in the direction he thought it was most likely to be. Lightwood Hall was massive, and though he’d only been there for a single day he’d already been lost several times. His bare feet were silent as he crept along the marble-floored hallway. Even though most of the Lightwoods’ guests and the servants would be in their chambers at this hour, there could be a few stragglers still roaming the halls. Of course there was always the chance of stumbling over a forbidden romantic tryst in the dark twisting passageways of any such place. Magnus had been nearly caught a few times himself, in his carefree younger days. But he had grown much cleverer and more circumspect with age. It had been years since he’d been caught at anything he didn’t want to be caught at.
He listened carefully to every noise, every creak as he made his way through the house. Just as Magnus neared the main staircase - so close he could almost touch the intricate carving of the banisters - a noise from behind made his heart skip a beat. He froze mid-stride and peered over his shoulder at the growing triangle of light emerging from the doorway of the billiard room. Tension coiled in his stomach. Someone was coming.
From the shadowed recesses beneath the staircase, Lord Alexander Lightwood watched the stealthy movements of the cautious figure nearing the stairs. At first glance, flitting between strips of cold silvery moonlight from the windows and the long shadows of the semi-darkened hallway, the stranger had appeared more like a spirit than flesh and blood. Alec had ducked under the stairs as a reflex, momentarily startled by the apparition. But as the ghostly form had moved closer its identity had been unmistakable.
Magnus Bane had been invited to Lightwood Hall by Alec’s mother without his prior knowledge. It was not an unusual occurrence; his widowed mother frequently invited all manner of people to their home in her obsessive quest for truth, enlightenment and consolidation of the family's power. Alec and his siblings had attempted for years to dissuade their mother from the more occult pursuits, but had met with little success. That was to be expected - Lady Maryse Lightwood was a force to be reckoned with. Now, with scandal threatening to erupt around their family at the recent unexplained death of Alec's fiancé, Lady Lydia Branwell - whether by suicide or murder was yet to be determined, a mystery in which Alec himself was not above suspicion - Alec had a hunch that his mother was seeking someone who could speak to the spirits of the dead. And rumor had it that Magnus Bane was the person to do just that.
Was this all a part of Bane’s confidence game, he wondered? Was he masquerading the halls as a ‘ghost’ to prop up business for his own psychic endeavors? Or was he returning from a romantic midnight tryst? Alec didn’t know, but he meant to find out. If Mr. Bane was playing at being a spirit, attempting to frighten other guests to line his own pockets further, he would send the charlatan packing regardless of his mother’s protests.
Alec knew from experience that it was impossible to dissuade his mother from anything once she’d set her mind to it. She might have issued the invitation, but since his father’s untimely death in service to the Clave, Alexander was now head of the household. It was his discretion to rescind the invitation at any time and for any reason of his choosing. He would, of course, pay dearly for going beyond his mother’s wishes. But that was a price Alec had long ago grown used to, and he wasn’t a young child any more to be cowed by simple threats and shouting.
Alexander watched as Bane moved carefully down the hall, wondering what could have prompted him to be out and about in such a state. Earlier in the day, when Bane’s entourage had arrived at the estate, his behavior had been completely circumspect. At their formal introduction he had greeted Alec with perfect manners and a firm handshake. Alec found it curious that the same man he had observed all afternoon as the epitome of social graces would court scandal by traipsing about recklessly, after hours, in his nightclothes.
In truth, everything about Magnus Bane was curious to Alec. He was well-known throughout the local countryside to be a mystic, occasionally in the employ of the Clave, yet Alec had observed all day the man deftly deflecting or avoiding any direct discussion of ghosts, witchery or the spirit world. Now, here he was wandering the halls in a state of undress, his thin silk nightshirt practically displaying his lean but well-muscled body to any passerby.
Alec really couldn’t complain too much about that display as he studied Bane’s handsome features from his vantage point under the stairwell. Of course he wasn’t the only one to have noted Bane’s many charms. Nearly every woman present at dinner (and a good portion of the unattached men) had been intrigued by him, including the lecherous Lady Belcourt, with whom it seemed Bane had already made some acquaintance long ago. The Countess had attached herself to the poor fellow for the course of the evening; given some of the expressions that had flitted across the man’s face while Lady Belcourt spoke, Alexander had almost felt sorry for him.
Alec’s thoughts were cut short as the door to the billiard room slowly opened. The cascade of light moving toward him froze Bane in his tracks, panic flitting across his face. Swiftly, Alec considered his options. Allowing Bane to be discovered would be one way to get rid the man effectively. But it was hardly an honorable course of action for a host to stand idly by while one of his invited guests was humiliated. And if Bane left now, his mother would only bring in someone else until she had satisfied her latest whimsy. Bane’s replacement might be even worse, a true charlatan or a thief; at least if Alec stepped in now, perhaps he would have some leverage to use to find out what Bane was really up to, and what information the man may have gathered so far about Lydia's death.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Alec stepped forward, grasped Bane’s wrist and pulled the startled man close against his chest. He brought his other hand up to quickly cover Bane’s mouth, drawing him into the deeper shadows beneath the stairs. Alec spun them so that Bane’s body, in its light colored clothing, was inward and shielded from the hallway. Alec’s black evening clothes blended with the shadows and rendered them almost invisible.
“It’s a bit late for a stroll, Mr. Bane.” He felt Bane shiver as Alec’s whispered words ghosted across the back of the other man’s neck. Was it fear? Or something else? This close, with his sight limited and his other senses heightened, Alec caught the faint scents of sandalwood and sage. He felt the heat through the thin fabric of Bane’s clothing, unavoidable with the man’s body pressed so intimately against him. Two conflicting desires warred within Alec, suddenly: to pull back, get away from the unbidden attraction racing through his blood, or to press closer – he shuddered himself, at the improper thought, and moved to put as much physical distance as he could between them. Alec had spent a good portion of his adult life keeping his own desires at bay, for the sake of his familial and state duties. His job was to marry well, once his name was cleared and the acceptable mourning period ended, and produce heirs to carry on the family name, to serve the military and political needs of the Clave like generations of Lightwoods before him had done. His own wishes and desires were irrelevant; he had been born into responsibility, and did not have the privilege of choosing for himself in matters of the heart. He couldn’t afford to be distracted, and most definitely not by a man such as Magnus Bane.
Trapped within the circle of Lord Alexander Lightwood’s surprisingly strong arms, Magnus shivered as his unexpected savior’s warm breath fanned over the sensitive skin of his neck, taunting him. He was exceedingly grateful to have been rescued from discovery, but how would Magnus explain to his host what business he had out of bed at such an hour? His mind raced, trying to think of an excuse that would seem plausible. Sleepwalking? That had worked in the past when he wasn't yet prepared to reveal the true scope of his abilities.
Bawdy laughter boomed down the hall as the shadows of two gentlemen passed over their hiding place. Their coarse commentary about several of the female guests of the estate – including, Bane noted with disgust, Lightwood’s kind and intelligent sister, Lady Isabelle - faded as they turned up the staircase toward their sleeping rooms. He felt Lightwood’s body shudder and suddenly tense; not an unexpected reaction, he supposed, to overhearing one’s sister’s virtue so inappropriately disparaged by the uncouth guests. Or … was it something else? Did Magnus imagine it, through the press of the man’s ribcage against his back, or was Lightwood’s heart pounding just as hard as Magnus’s own? Surely the Duke should have no worry about being discovered wandering at night in his own home. So what else could it be?
Against every instinct he possessed that encouraged Magnus to struggle, to try to get away from being held helpless against his will, he stilled, relaxing against the muscular chest that had protected him from discovery. Sensing his acquiescence, Lightwood removed his hand from Magnus's mouth and let go of his wrist, allowing Magnus to step away and turn to face him. Magnus’s back felt suddenly cold; he mourned the loss of the other man’s body heat, but resisted the urge to step closer and close the distance between them again. Instead, he moved away as quickly as possible. Magnus was already at risk of being shunned from society through his foreign ancestry and his unnatural abilities - he didn’t need to add an illicit tryst with a young lord from a high-ranking Clave family to the growing list of things people might try to use against him.
But Lydia Branwell’s family had always had a special place in Magnus’s heart. Her grandfather Henry, Magnus's longtime friend, had insisted that Lydia was a happy, loving young woman who would never have jumped from atop the tower of Lightwood Hall of her own volition as the local constabulary wished everyone to believe. When Lady Maryse had reached out through a mutual acquaintance and asked for Magnus's help solving Lydia's death once and for all, Magnus had sworn to Henry that he would get to the truth. He couldn’t afford to be distracted by the handsome face of the primary suspect – Lydia’s bereaved fiancé.
Magnus’s bravado faltered momentarily as he looked into the shuttered hazel eyes of his host. Lord Lightwood still wore the fine evening clothes he’d looked so impeccable in at dinner, though his neck cloth was now hopelessly rumpled and his curling black hair disheveled, but even that did not detract from the man’s angelic beauty. In the dim light, the dark shadowing of whiskers on his square jaw was visible, silhouetting his full mouth. Lightwood was only a little taller than Magnus himself, but his lifetime of military bearing accented his masculinity, making him seem larger than life. Magnus had never been the easily intimidated type, however; he quickly set aside his thoughts on the young lord’s beauty as Lightwood fixed him with an assessing stare, eyes filled with unasked questions.
As Bane stepped away from him, Alec resisted an unexpected desire to reach out and pull him closer again. He doubted that the gesture would be well received, a belief reinforced when Bane wasted no time in quickly putting at least an arm’s length between them. When Bane turned to face Alec, his chin lifted defiantly, the moonlight playing across his striking features made Alec’s breath catch. Desire, already piqued by their recent physical proximity, spiked within him. It was only years of intense self-discipline at hiding such indecent thoughts that allowed Alec to repress his traitorous body’s response.
He stepped forward out of the shadows to meet Bane’s steady gaze. He saw recognition in the man’s dark eyes, and the spark of uncertainty that followed. Did Bane believe the rumors? Did he think Alec was a murderer? It was also possible that he had not managed to fully disguise his response to their touch. If Bane had recognized his body’s reaction to their physical closeness, then perhaps he was expecting Alec to engage in unwanted pursuit of further affections. It would be difficult for Bane to reject any advances from his host, a man of higher social station, who had just caught him in a compromising situation. Alec held up his hands, a gesture of peace, hoping that it might put Bane at ease.
“A thousand pardons, Your Grace,” Bane said, his tone barely above a whisper. “I was lost, and then it seems that I panicked.”
His voice was warm and silky, shivering over Alec’s skin. Alec pressed his lips together and reminded himself that Bane was out of reach for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was that Alec was destined to be betrothed to his mother’s choice of suitable woman again, someday. While he had little patience for the mysticism that his mother was so very fond of, he had even less patience for the idea of romanticizing something that could never be.
Aware that the silence had stretched uncomfortably long between them, Alec finally spoke. “And you lost your dressing gown as well, I see.”
“Indeed, Your Grace. I am quite chilled and would very much like to return to the warmth of my -” Bed had so clearly been on the tip of his tongue, but quickly rephrasing, he said, “To my room”.
The hesitation had not been subtle. Nevertheless, the unspoken word hung in the air between them. It took all of Alec’s hard-won mastery to hold his face impassive; given Bane’s present state of undress, some would have taken the mention of his bedroom as an invitation. Perhaps Bane believed, and well he might, that any person blessed enough to find him in such a state at this hour of night would already be thinking of taking him to bed, regardless of whether the word was said or not. Alec was certainly struggling not to think of exactly that. He had yet to bed anyone, man or woman; the latter because he had no natural inclination to seek female company of that sort, and the former because the only person he’d ever had feelings for, was the dearest of friends but hadn’t returned his feelings in kind.
Not so Magnus Bane, if rumors were to be believed. The common gossip was that Bane had no lack of lovers. Both men and women seemed to find their way into his bed with alacrity; always the most beautiful, most sought-after members of all social classes and standings. Alec had little desire to become just another name on Bane’s growing list of conquests. Alec’s life was complicated, but his matters of the heart were simple: he loved who he loved – his sister, his brother, his parents, and his best friend - there was little space left over for meaningless dalliance. If his mother would ever allow him the freedom of choice (a long shot, at best) he would take a partner when he was ready to give them his whole heart, and nothing less.
“Can you find your way?” he asked solicitously. Bane seemed hesitant to reply, and Alexander took pity on him. The house was large and complex to navigate even in daylight, and Bane had only just arrived, never having visited them before. It would certainly be a stain on the Lightwood’s honor if one of their guests fell down a flight of stairs or accidentally disappeared into the unused dungeons, never to be heard from again.
“I am not sure, Your Grace,” Bane finally replied. “If you could direct me …”
Alexander considered it carefully. For the most part, his mother’s guests were an honorable sort, but some were questionable. Lady Belcourt, for example, was thoroughly enamored of Bane - she had made that much clear at dinner. Some of Alec’s military school friends who were in attendance were little better. Several had spent their evening consuming copious amounts of brandy while socializing and gaming. In his present state of undress, Bane would be at risk of creating a scene should he stumble across any of the more lecherous sort, who might be too drunk to mind their manners and too stubborn to take no for an answer. Though his own thoughts about Bane at the moment were less than pure, Alec would certainly never act on them. He could not guarantee that would be the case with some of the others. And he did have a duty of care for all of the guests in his household.
And still, considering the distance to the wing where the guests were being housed, it begged the question of how Bane had come to be so far from his chambers in the first place. “If I may ask, Mr. Bane, what are you doing about at this time of night in this … state?” He gestured to Bane’s clothing, or rather, his lack thereof.
“I sleepwalk, Your Grace. Normally my valet will prevent me from wandering too far afield, but he indulged overmuch in the wine during dinner, I’m afraid.” The words rolled smoothly off Bane’s tongue, his dark eyes wide with innocence.
Alec couldn’t have said exactly how he knew it was a lie, but the explanation sounded too rehearsed, too simple. Yet he sensed that he would get nothing further. The other man’s expression was inscrutable; Alec knew in that moment that he would have his work cut out for him, to get to the bottom of the mystery that was Magnus Bane.
Alec decided that the best option would be to appear as Bane’s ally. Perhaps if he could gain the other man’s trust, Alec could get close enough to discover what he knew. And if Bane intended to swindle his mother, or anyone else in their family – Bane would rue the day he chose to cross the Lightwoods.
With that thought in mind, he said, “Then let’s get you back to your chambers. Maybe we can both still salvage a decent night’s sleep.” Bane grinned at that, and Alec felt a surprising rush of warmth at how the other man’s face lit up with the smile. Shaking it off, he continued. “We shall use the secret passageway. It is quicker and there is far less risk of discovery.” As an afterthought, he shrugged out of his coat and passed it over; the silhouette of the man’s naked body beneath his thin nightshirt, backlit by moonlight, was becoming far too distracting. Bane accepted the gesture, wrapping the coat loosely around his shoulders with a nod of thanks.
The Duke had asked him a direct question, and Magnus had lied. But what could he say? That he had been in a trance, transported by an insistent spirit he couldn’t remember upon awakening, to the dungeons for reasons yet unknown? Hardly. The Clave had threatened Magnus with exile in the past, as punishment for far less than admitting the full range of his talents. Yet a flicker of guilt passed through him at the lie; an unexpected emotion to be examined further, later, back in the safety of his own room.
The weight of Lightwood’s coat settled around his shoulders. Magnus was grateful for the warmth, but disturbed by the scent which clung to the fabric. It was citrus and pine, with a hint of smoke and something else unique to Lightwood himself. It left Magnus unsettled. It made him even more painfully aware of how handsome the young Duke was. Its absence from his person also revealed the breadth of Lightwood’s shoulders and the muscular planes of his chest, which owed little to the cut of his clothing. He averted his eyes, but it made little difference - the tantalizing image would be hard to forget.
“The entrance is through here,” Lightwood explained, leading him back into the library and directly to a bookcase beside the fireplace, opposite to the wall where Magnus had come up out of the dungeons. He depressed a small lever beneath one of the shelves and a small section shifted backward, revealing a narrow staircase ascending behind the wall. Lightwood picked up a witchlight from the side table. The flare of light cast ominous shadows over the angular planes of his face. With the light gripped firmly in one hand, he gestured to Magnus to follow.
“The stairs are quite steep and can be treacherous,” he warned. “Tread carefully.”
Lightwood led him up the stairs into another long, narrow corridor. Magnus recognized the guest quarters with a sigh of relief. He had half-wondered if Lightwood was leading him up to the top of the tower to shove him off. But Magnus had met some truly awful people in his lifetime, hardened criminals and men with pure evil in their hearts. Lightwood did not give Magnus that impression at all; rather, quite the opposite: he seemed a man of principle, and kind hearted, even if he was the type to keep his thoughts and feelings close to the vest. Magnus could normally respect that, but since Lightwood was a suspect in Lydia’s death, he was going to have to find a way to pierce through Lightwood’s shields and really get to know the man underneath if he wanted to properly solve the case.
“Secret passageways,” he murmured aloud, trying to ease some of the tension. “It’s all so mysterious and dramatic.” Lightwood snorted, amused, but did not reply further. Magnus took the hint and continued to follow Lightwood silently through a seemingly endless maze of twisting and turning hallways until they finally stopped at the door to his chambers.
Magnus slipped off Lightwood’s coat and held it out. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
“Alexander,” Lightwood said.
Magnus blinked. “Your Grace?”
Lightwood smiled. “I think given the strangely intimate circumstances of this evening, we can now think of ourselves friends, and call each other by our given names. Unless you object?”
Magnus smiled demurely. It had been a risky move, and it had shown him Lightwood’s hand: the man was as curious about Magnus, as Magnus was about him. Perhaps the increase in familiarity was meant to rattle him, to shake his composure or bring his guard down. But this was the kind of game Magnus could play better than most: he wanted Lightwood to be as affected by their new acquaintance as Magnus was himself.
“Of course not, Alexander. Please call me Magnus.” As Alexander shrugged his arms back into the sleeves of his coat, Magnus let his eyes travel suggestively down the man’s body, returning to meet the Duke’s gaze as he straightened the cuffs of his sleeves. Magnus was surprised, and inordinately pleased, to see the flush that crept over Alexander’s cheeks at the overtly appreciative gesture.
“Well then, Magnus,” Alexander said crisply, “I will see you at breakfast.”
Magnus stood in the hallway, the chill creeping back under his skin, and watched until the last traces of witchlight disappeared from view.
His distraction was unfortunate; as he turned to enter his room, he missed seeing the shadowy figure that slipped from behind a nearby column and melted away into the darkness.
“I think you’re curious about more than his motives, my friend.”
Alec made his way through the maze of hallways, down the main staircase and back to the billiard room. His encounter with Magnus Bane had left the Duke feeling curiously off balance. Magnus was a contradiction, although an appealing one. Alec might have truly enjoyed getting to know the man if only there wasn’t so much at stake. The attraction he felt was an unforeseen complication that he could not afford to indulge. But, he admitted to himself, since he would have to keep a close eye on the mystic, it would at least prove to be a pleasant task.
Once during his hurried walk back to the billiard room he thought he heard soft footsteps following, but when he turned and shone the witchlight behind him no one was there. He shook his head; everyone’s nerves were on edge since Lydia’s death. Especially his own.
Lord Jace Wayland looked up from the billiard table as Alec entered. “Where did you run off to? Stealing tomorrow’s pies from the kitchen again? Or perhaps some aspiring young countess dragged you into an alcove.” Jace winked.
Jace could always be depended upon to bring women into a conversation. Alec’s best friend and adoptive brother had plenty of vices – drinking, gaming, vanity, and a tendency to sarcasm among them - but the fairer sex was high on his list of life’s enjoyments. Alexander only raised an eyebrow at him, bemused. “A gentleman would never say.”
Jace eyed him with equal amusement as he idly chalked his cue. “We are not gentlemen, are we? You are a murderous hypocrite, and I am a womanizing scoundrel.”
As far as society gossip was concerned, Jace was correct on both counts. Alec glanced around the room, checking that the other guests were out of range of hearing. “It was the psychic, Magnus Bane, if you must know,” he said in a low voice. “But nothing happened. He was lost and I escorted him back to his chambers.”
Jace’s amused grin turned devilish. Alec swore under his breath - perhaps something in Alec’s voice had alerted his friend to the undercurrent of attraction. For all the times Jace could be oblivious to Alec’s true feelings, there were moments when his insight was alarmingly keen. “Really, Alec? If you keep on this way for much longer, Lady Maryse will send me packing for bringing you down to my level.”
Alec shot Jace a warning look. “Mr. Bane is a gentleman - a landed one, with good financial standing and he serves at the Clave’s convenience. What ‘level’ would I be going down to, exactly? Showing a man to his room is hardly equivalent to fiddling with a housemaid behind the parlor chimney.”
Jace chuckled, eyes twinkling as he leaned over the billiard table; his shot sailed gracefully into the pocket. “If you say so. But Bane’s reputation precedes him; tread carefully, brother. The man is known for having exotic tastes.”
Alec frowned. Normally he was only aware of the most commonly repeated gossip, the type one had to be sleeping or dead to miss. Jace on the other hand was privy to much more, as his reluctance to form any lasting attachment meant he had regular contact with a number of ladies - including the town gossips and some of the servants who were the eyes and ears of a place like Lightwood Hall. Although Jace usually only wanted to find out what people were gossiping about him personally, Alec hadn’t been above using those connections in the past to find out other types of information.
“I can take care of myself,” he reminded Jace. Alec regularly performed his required military service and been commended many times for his athleticism and his fighting skills – as had Jace, who routinely served alongside him. Neither of them would be easily overcome in a situation that required physical strength. And besides, Magnus hadn't struck him as that kind of person, at all. “Bane’s carnal interests aside, though, what else do you know about him?”
Jace walked around the table to stand next to Alec, looking at him curiously. “We have good games, good friends, and excellent brandy here, yet all you want to talk about is Magnus Bane.”
Jace was being deliberately obtuse. It was a ploy that Alec knew well, being a master of the tactic himself. “I’d like to know if I should confiscate Mother’s jewelry for safe keeping. Mr. Bane’s psychic talents are not in question, of course, as the Clave has recognized him in good standing and has him under regular employ. But I have yet to ascertain how it benefits him to be here, even at Mother’s request. Money, attention, a bit of notoriety from helping the Lightwood family? I seem to recall there was no love lost between Mr. Bane and Father before his death. Even Mother has spoken poorly of him in the past, before inviting him here out of the blue … so why would he come here now? How can we be certain he is honest?”
Jace snorted. “In this house? The crown jewels themselves could not be safer. It would take a far stealthier villain than your Mr. Bane to part Maryse Lightwood from her valuables. As for what he wants, I do not believe it to be money, attention or notoriety.” He paused for dramatic effect. “I watched him for a bit tonight. He’s very easy to watch, you know? There are other men present who are a real chore to look at, but he is quite graceful; he speaks well and has no lack of charm to draw admirers from both sides of the table.”
Alec knew he was being baited, but he ignored it, simply pretending to select his own cue stick until Jace continued. “But it strikes me that he feels out of place. Since he arrived, everyone has been after him to do parlor tricks like he’s some sort of court jester, but he’s deftly managed to avoid even touching a deck of cards or conjuring up a single candle flame. I think he'd rather be anywhere else but here, only he simply can’t turn down a reasonable request from a family as powerful as the Lightwoods without damaging his own standing. Personally, I think he’d rather be holed up in the library with a good book, away from all the fuss. That is how I found him this afternoon during Isabelle’s blasted tea service that we were all hiding from. Off by himself, curled up with a copy of Macbeth.”
Jace missed his next shot. Alec eyed him dubiously. Jace never missed a shot. Perhaps he’d done so purposely to provide a chance for Alec to actually play in the game. Or maybe it was a diversionary tactic, considering the information he’d just casually tossed at him.
“You found Magnus Bane alone in the library and didn’t think to mention it?”
Jace shrugged, a dismissive gesture that had so often infuriated their commanding officers in military school. “I didn’t know you were so curious.”
Alec lined up a complicated shot with care and watched two balls in sequence sink into the pocket. “I only want to know what his intentions are and why he’s really here. Find out what you can.”
Jace took a generous swallow of brandy as Alec lined up again, the devilish grin returning to his lips.
“By any means necessary?”
Alec’s shot went wide.
Jace chuckled again. “I think you’re curious about more than his motives, my friend.”
Alec didn’t bother to try to deny it, pouring a healthy sized glass of brandy for himself and sulking silently as he watched Jace clear the table.
Magnus descended the stairs, straightening his jacket. Despite his occasional late night wanderings and his love of a good party, he was generally an early riser. The Brotherhood that raised him had instilled a strong work ethic in all its charges. Rarely was he the type to lay about idle, especially on a spring day dawning as beautifully as this one promised to be. But he was tired to the bone; he had lain awake much of the night, trying to guess at the questions he’d seen simmering just below the surface of Lord Alexander’s eyes - and to forget how it had felt to be pressed up against him, in the dark.
Magnus paused just outside the door of the breakfast room, drawing a deep breath. He was always a little off balance around people he didn’t know very well; his abilities labelled him nothing but a curiosity for some, a challenge for others. He wasn’t sure which way Alexander had been leaning during their encounter the previous night. But no matter what the Duke might be thinking about him, Magnus was going to have to be especially careful not to let his guard down too quickly. Handsome, charming, enigmatic men could still be cold blooded killers, and that was what Magnus was here to find out.
Magnus settled his face into a neutral expression and pushed the door open, hoping to exude an air of confidence. He was surprised to see the breakfast room empty but for Alexander. The Duke sat alone at the head of the table reading over his morning papers. Upon glancing up to see Magnus enter, he pushed the papers aside and folded his hands atop the table.
“Good morning, Magnus,” he said, his greeting polite but carrying an undertone of familiarity.
“Good morning, Lord Alexander,” Magnus smiled, matching his host’s tone precisely. He gestured toward the discarded papers. “Please, don’t let me interrupt your reading. I know you’re a very busy man.”
Alexander smiled. “Many people find the daily news tedious; for me as head of house, it is a necessary evil. But I find enlightening conversation a far better way to begin the day.”
Magnus could feel Alexander’s gaze follow him as he approached the sideboard. In the bright morning sunlight, he hadn’t missed the pallor of the lord’s skin, the dark shadows beneath his eyes. It was petty, but he was somewhat gratified to know that he wasn’t the only one who’d had a sleepless night after their encounter.
As Alec sipped his coffee, he wondered whether Magnus had slept as poorly as him. The man certainly showed no signs of exhaustion. He watched as Magnus selected his breakfast, each movement economical, every pause deliberate. He took some satisfaction in the thought that it was a stalling tactic, meant to draw the time out as long as possible in the hopes of limiting Alexander’s chance to speak with him alone. That didn’t seem like a method that would be employed by a man with nothing to hide.
Or, it could be the reflection of a man who didn’t welcome another’s particular company, Alec thought more grimly. Perhaps Magnus was embarrassed about the previous evening, or perhaps he simply didn’t like Alec … if he was going to befriend Magnus he’d have to do a far better job than he was doing now. But despite himself, he couldn’t help staring at the movement of Magnus’s shoulders and arms beneath his jacket or noticing the way his neatly trimmed hair brushed his collar. He remembered the way Magnus had smelled and the heat that had risen from his body as they pressed together under the stairwell. He cursed his wayward thoughts; to his embarrassment, Magnus turned around just as he felt the heat start to rise in his own cheeks.
When Magnus finally turned to face Alexander he was surprised to see the remnants of a blush that marked the Duke’s face. The Duke was always so careful to school his features into a blank or stern expression; Magnus wondered what had brought on such an involuntary reaction. Was there perhaps, a spark of awareness between them after all? Perhaps Magnus’s interest wasn’t one-sided. He wondered if their mutual distrust of each other was mirrored by a mutual attraction. But there was no time to explore that, now. Magnus filed it away as a curiosity, to be mulled over at leisure.
“So, Alexander,” he said in a cheery voice, approaching the table to sit at the Duke’s left. “What scintillating conversational topics did you have in mind?”
“Why don’t we start with you, Magnus, and your – interesting abilities.”
Magnus hoped the Duke didn’t notice the fraction of a second’s pause between scooping up a forkful of eggs and bringing them to his mouth. “Define interesting,” he said, then took the bite and began to chew his food, slowly. It was a tactical maneuver, designed to give him time to think while Alexander spoke further.
Alexander watched him closely, his gaze once again inscrutable. “By all accounts, you are a mystic, which I know already from Clave reports. You can perform some conjuring and you can set warding spells, for example. I understand that your healing potions are also in high demand. But it is lately being reported that you are also a medium, with the remarkable ability to speak with spirits of the departed. Since my mother lately has some fascination with that sort of occult practice, I simply desire to differentiate fact from fiction as an advocate of my mother’s best interest. Is it true? Can you speak directly with the dead?”
Magnus blinked, taken aback by Alexander’s forthrightness. He had been expecting a longer game, more song-and-dance … the direct approach was startling; not at all what Magnus was used to.
“I have never made such claims. It is true that I have been occasionally employed to investigate deaths that happened under mysterious circumstances. But I am merely observant, moreso than the average person; as such I have been able to deduce answers to questions that others have missed.” Magnus kept his tone dismissive, but not impolite.
He was well aware of the things that were whispered about him behind his back. Most people viewed Magnus simply as an entertaining diversion, never realizing what his abilities had cost him over his lifetime. Disclosing the full scope of his powers even to those he considered his closest friends almost never ended well. He was sometimes uncomfortable being a subject of curiosity, but it would be even worse to be feared and avoided. He had an unfortunate history of losing people he had grown to like – or even to love - when they could not handle the truth of who he was. And some of the things he had seen, had learned from spirits of the dead ... knowing the atrocities committed by people against others so often in the name of “love” made him wary of giving his trust away easily.
“Did you not call upon the spirit of Lord Aldertree, learning from his ghost that it was his jealous mistress who ended his life with poison?” Alexander’s voice was businesslike, brusque but not unkind. Not that his tone made any difference to Magnus. The question shocked him too deeply.
Magnus felt a cold despair creep over him as he placed his fork carefully on the plate. It took much effort to do so - hurling it across the room would have felt more appropriate. The Aldertree case had been his first time using his mediumship powers in the service of another; it had been a request Magnus wanted to - but couldn't - refuse. He had then made the grave error of bringing the spirit forth in front of the Aldertree heirs, albeit unintentionally - he hadn't been fully in control yet; the spirits back then had come and gone from him at will without any respect for time or place. Now, he had learned to be more in control (at least, during his waking hours - sleep was another matter). But the Aldertrees had sworn to keep everything confidential.
Obviously that promise had been broken. Magnus could not propose that the Earl and Countess were liars, which is what any denial of his own would imply. He was trapped, and he hated that feeling above all else. He fixed his eyes on his plate, refusing to look at Alexander. Magnus had not earned his reputation by being easily rattled. He could not let Alexander see how much he had been shaken.
The young lord must have sensed his advantage, however, because he pressed stubbornly onward. “What questions is my mother seeking answers to? Why did she ask you to come? Is it because of my father? Or because of Lydia?”
Could Magnus tell him the truth? Could he tell Lord Alexander Lightwood that his own mother doubted him, needed proof that her son was not a murderer? Or that Magnus had not come only at Maryse’s request, but that the Branwell family had also asked for his help because they suspected Alexander as well? One side had every interest in protecting Alexander; the other, every reason to wish to brand him a murderer. Magnus was caught in the middle – but he only wanted to find the truth.
Magnus raised his eyes and met Alexander’s stare head-on. He had entered the room uncertain where they stood with each other, but after such questioning he had even less reason to trust the Duke now.
“That is a question you should ask your mother, Your Grace.” Magnus pushed back his chair and left the room, propriety be damned; he would not sit for more of this line of questioning, Duke or no Duke.
“I will,” Alexander called after him, as the door swung closed behind him. But Magnus did not look back.
This is a universe that's kind of a mish-mosh between Shadowhunters canon and Regency era. I'm no expert in Regency other than having read a lot of it, mostly bodice-ripping romance novels in my youth :/ so I humbly beg you to grant the author some artistic license, especially if I inadvertently toss in some anachronism or poor turn of phrase.
The little girl looked at him. “Not every story can be nice, Magnus.”
Magnus felt himself go very still.
“I didn’t tell you my name.”
Leaning over the breakfast table, Alec watched Magnus’s face closely for any flicker of emotion. He had suspected that a man who might make a living defrauding others would be challenging to read, and Magnus unwittingly supported that theory as he kept a masterful grasp on his physical responses no matter how hard Alec pushed. But he could not hide everything, by the end: from the involuntary stiffness of his shoulders and the slight rise of his chin, Alec knew he’d gone one step too far, and realized that in trying to disprove his own suspicions he had lost his chance to win the psychic’s cooperation and trust.
He hadn’t meant to be so direct in speaking to Magnus about his abilities, at first, but something told Alec that subterfuge would be a game he was likely to lose. Everything he had ever heard about the enigmatic mystic indicated that Magnus had sublime skill at clever turns of speech and evading answers that Alec could never hope to match. He had thought that a more targeted approach might put Magnus off balance, maybe even be met with equal honesty from the other side. But either the man was even better at hiding things than Alec thought, or there really was simply nothing to hide.
As Magnus swept from the room, seething with barely suppressed anger, Alec put his head in his hands and sighed. Well, he might get nothing from Magnus – not today, anyway – but he was determined to have answers. He had lost all appetite for breakfast; washing down his disappointment with a few gulps of unpleasantly cold tea, he headed for the door.
Alec took the stairs two at a time to the family wing and strode down the corridor toward his mother’s rooms. She always had her morning meal served in her sitting room, so he knew he wouldn’t have to go far to find her. His brisk knock was answered right away, and he opened the door.
“Good morning, Mother. Cousin Élodie.”
“Good morning, Alec,” Lady Maryse said, sipping her tea and eyeing him curiously. His mother’s close friend and cousin, Lady Élodie Verlac, was seated beside her, the two of them sharing breakfast as they planned the day’s entertainment for Maryse’s guests. Maryse shared her children’s coloring. Her silken black hair was laced with silver at the temples, swept back in a neat chignon from her still-beautiful face. She was dressed in black, as usual, her statuesque figure seeming oddly contained by the mourning color.
Alec didn’t feel like wasting time with small talk, still riding the high of adrenaline from his confrontation downstairs and he needed to capitalize on it before his courage faltered. “What was your purpose for inviting Magnus Bane here?”
Maryse pressed her lips together in a thin line as Alec spoke, but when she replied her tone was cool and calm. “Mr. Bane is broadly accepted among the higher social circles within the Clave, and we have not invited him here before. I thought now would be a perfect time. Next season will be Isabelle’s coming out, and waiting two years would be far too long to be seemly. It could give the appearance that we put too much weight against certain – rumors – about his person.” Her upper lip curled as she said the last, and Alec had to make a concerted effort not to roll his eyes in response.
Alec knew very well his mother’s opinions of men who didn’t want to perform their “sacred duty” to marry and produce the requisite number of heirs to carry on their family name. He’d heard more than enough about it when he’d tried to protest his own engagement. Even Jace and Isabelle had bravely argued on his behalf, but to no avail. Maryse might suspect, or even know for certain that her eldest son’s true affections lay more toward the male than the female sex, but it made no difference to her. Duty was duty, and Lightwoods always fulfilled theirs.
Alec crossed his arms. “I am fully aware of the rumors about Mr. Bane. And I know you better than that; please don’t patronize me. I will ask again, Mother, what was your purpose?”
Élodie rolled her eyes as Maryse squared her shoulders, preparing for battle with her equally hard-headed son. “Just tell him, Maryse, for goodness’ sake! It isn’t as if Bane’s abilities are a state secret.”
Maryse met his gaze levelly. “Very well. I brought the psychic here to find out the truth about Lydia’s death.”
Alexander ran his hand through his hair and scrubbed at the back of his neck, exasperated. He had already suspected that his mother did not fully believe his innocence, but it still stung to hear the words said aloud.
“The truth about Lydia is that she was unhappy, given to periods of deep sadness and grief. She had already buried one fiance who was, by all accounts agreed, the love of her life. She drank more wine than she should have one night, and made the decision to follow him into death by jumping from the tower rather than be forced into a loveless marriage with me.” He paused, grief prickling at the edges of his heart. He had liked Lydia, and respected what he knew of her, even if he hadn’t loved her or wanted the marriage any more than she did. He had hoped they might have become friends, but … there hadn’t been a good time to have that conversation, and then suddenly it had been too late. Maybe she might have made a different choice, if she had come to know and trust him sooner. He would regret his own inaction and carry the guilt of it for the rest of his life. He swallowed his feelings, cleared his throat and continued. “What more is there to discover?”
“I’ve chosen to trust your word, but the rest of the world has no requirement to do so. If you are ever to marry at all, any hint of scandal will need to be erased. If Mr. Bane can confirm your innocence then all the gossips that have been invited here will know it immediately. They will carry the news far outside these walls and your reputation will be restored. Then your sister’s season can proceed, you can find a suitable wife – maybe we can even get Jace to settle down properly, hopefully before Max is done with school - and the Lightwood family can go on about our rightful business once again.” Maryse looked at him, pointedly.
With his standing as a Duke, there were few people powerful enough in their own right to give Alec the cut direct or to shun him openly. But it was wearing on him, having the rumors fly that he’d murdered his betrothed for reasons unknown – although reasons were constantly being guessed at, with the fervent zeal that gossips reserved for the truly juiciest of stories. He could feel eyes on him sometimes, see gentlemen whispering in corners, ladies talking behind their fans and casting sidelong glances his way. Notoriety was not something he had ever desired. Having it thrust upon him by his belated fiancé had been unpleasant to say the least.
“Assuming that Mr. Bane has the ability to commune with the dead, and assuming that Lydia is present and willing to be communed with. I do not like assumptions, Mother. Even more, I dislike leaving such things to the whims of a stranger with nothing to lose.”
Maryse sighed heavily. “I will speak with Mr. Bane directly. I, too, do not want another scandal. I will not have the future of this family destroyed by anyone, no matter the price I must pay.”
Élodie jumped in to add her agreement. “Given his already tenuous social standing, Mr. Bane has nothing to gain by making our family his enemies, and much to gain by having our favor. Everything will be fine, Alexander. Your mother and I will see to it.”
Élodie would blackmail Magnus into saying exactly what she wanted him to say before she would let Maryse buy his cooperation, Alec thought. His mother could be ruthless, but her cousin Élodie was even more so. She was single-minded, relentless, and devoted to the family. Unable to have children of her own, when Elodie’s older brother Patrick and his wife had both been killed unexpectedly, she had taken in her young nephew Sebastian without hesitation and raised him alongside her own stepdaughter. Loyalty to the family was everything; the good of the whole was expected to be put before the comfort and happiness of any one person, always.
“You said the same to me when you informed me that I would marry Lydia,” he said coldly, “yet we see where that has led us.” A part of him, deep down, relished the shocked looks on both of their faces at his impertinence.
Alec turned and left the room, aware of his mother’s eyes boring holes into the back of his head. He had resented his family for pushing him into the engagement, and that resentment still tugged at his conscience although it did nothing to abate his simmering anger. Everything he had done, for his entire life, had been for sake of his family and their reputation. He’d endured years of loneliness and misery, knowing he would never be able to have what he truly wanted. He had sacrificed his own happiness at every turn. And where had it gotten him? Still alone, albeit now also branded a murdering scoundrel, dependent on a distractingly handsome yet furiously impenetrable magician-for-hire to clear his name.
Alec turned over many thoughts in his brain, as he strode back toward his own rooms. He had a strange, almost overwhelming desire to go and seek out Magnus again, to apologize for his behavior, to ask forgiveness and see if they could start over. He wanted to continue their friendship just to spite his mother - and maybe, maybe – pursue something more. It seemed like Magnus might have been interested, at one point. He did not think he had imagined the widening eyes, the flushed cheeks, the tiny glances Magnus had thrown his way when he suspected Alec’s attentions were elsewhere. And he did not think that all of Magnus’s flirtations had been only a distraction technique.
Pursuing Magnus would defy every Lightwood norm he had strived to follow, and would be as big a declaration of independence as the young Duke could ever make - it would certainly have the Lightwood name on every set of lips in the country, although not for reasons his mother would approve. But it was impossible. Unfortunately Alec had destroyed any chance he might have had during their confrontation over breakfast. Magnus certainly had no reason to welcome Alec’s company, and even less to accept any discreet romantic overture. And Alec had no one to blame for it but himself.
Disgusted with himself, society and his interfering family, he stalked into his bedroom and slammed the door. But even locking himself away from the others would give him very little peace, since it was his own thoughts that troubled him most.
Craving solitude, working to bring his spiraling emotions under control, Magnus decided to put the day to good use. Rather than endure the company of still more curious onlookers – and possibly risk another encounter with his impertinent host - during the day’s round of socializing and games, he spent his time exploring Lightwood Hall. He had several reasons for learning the layout of the estate, not the least of which was knowing how to find his way back to his room just in case another wayward spirit decided to drag him out of bed in the dark of night. The last thing he wanted was to find himself at the mercy of the Duke again, or worse, at the mercy of someone even less honorable.
After his self-guided tour was complete, Magnus decided to reward himself with a quiet afternoon in the garden. Perhaps immersing himself in some reading would help maintain his calm and drive thoughts of the incorrigible, insufferable, unfathomable Alexander Lightwood out of his mind for a while. With a borrowed book of poetry from the well-stocked library under his arm, he found a comfortable bench some distance from the house, near the perimeter woods, and seated himself in the pleasant rays of the afternoon sun. It was a wonderful spring day and Magnus intended to enjoy it while it lasted.
“What are you reading?” The voice, quiet and very soft, had the high pitch of a child. Magnus looked up at the young girl who stood before him. She had dark hair, cupid’s-bow lips and warm brown eyes.
“A poem, but it’s a grown up poem. You will most likely find it boring and dull.” He smiled. “But I could tell you a story, if you wish. What is your name?”
The little girl smiled back. “I’m Aline. I don’t want to hear a story, though. I want to tell one.” Magnus was charmed; she was a pretty child and seemed to have a sweet nature.
He nodded. “I would like to hear it.”
The little girl seated herself next to him on the bench, smoothed out the skirt of her clean white dress, and began to speak. “There was a princess who lived here, in this house. But the princess was very unhappy. She was being made to marry a man she didn’t love. He was a kind man though, or tried to be, but the princess was sad at having to marry him. In the end she trusted the wrong person, and she paid a hard price."
Magnus frowned. It was not a story, at all. It was thinly veiled gossip about the Duke. “That isn’t a very nice story.”
The little girl looked at him. “Not every story can be nice, Magnus.”
Magnus felt himself go very still.
“I didn’t tell you my name.”
The little girl’s eyes crinkled knowingly as she met Magnus’s startled gaze. “You don’t have to tell us your name. We know who you are.”
Magnus studied the girl closely. Rarely was he able to speak with spirits when he was awake, and before now, none had ever appeared so clear. They had always been transparent, ephemeral. Much more ghost-like. But however much this child looked like she was flesh and blood, Magnus suddenly knew without doubt that she was a spirit. The gentle afternoon breeze was not even so much as ruffling a hair on the child’s head.
His mind was racing as the impact of what the spirit had said began to sink in. “Who is this 'we' you speak of? How am I seeing you now, in broad daylight?”
The ghost-child pointed at the ground, a few feet away. "I am strongest here. This is where I was murdered."
Magnus bowed his head. "I'm so sorry."
She shrugged dismissively. “There are many of us spirits, all around the living, always. Only a few are strong enough to speak to ones such as you.” She cocked her head to the side, watching Magnus closely. “But even you don’t really want us to. You try to ignore us. You put walls up during the day and make us come to you in dreams, where we can only speak in riddles and signs. But you will not find answers that way. If you want answers, then you must let us come to you during waking hours. Even if you think we will say things you do not wish to hear.”
“Thank you, my dear. I’ll keep that in mind,” he replied.
“Talking to yourself or reading aloud? I don’t remember that line from Shakespeare.”
Magnus looked up to see Lord Wayland strolling toward him.
“I’m reading Lord Byron today,” he replied curtly, snapping shut the book he had forgotten he had on his lap.
The man was an inveigler and a rake, most likely come to spy on him at Alexander’s request. Magnus was in no mood to deal with him. He glanced to the spot where the ghost-child had been, but Aline had vanished.
“That didn’t sound like any poetry I’ve ever heard. Who were you talking with, Mr. Bane? A clandestine lover, perhaps, hiding in the rosebush? You can confide in me. I promise to keep your secret safe.” Jace put on what would probably have been, in other circumstances, a very charming smile.
Magnus laughed. The promise of a scoundrel was not to be trusted, and Jace’s reputation was among the worst of all. “How many young ladies have you said that to, in your lifetime?” he jibed. “No offense, Lord Wayland, but even as handsome as you are - blondes aren’t really my preference.”
“None taken. You are a fine gentleman, Mr. Bane, but I have no designs on you either. As you noted, my eyes are only for the ladies. I am here just as a friend.” Jace continued to smile, but it was a soft smile, Magnus noted, not a predatory one.
Magnus admired people of intelligence, and he had suspected there was more to Jace than just a pretty face. He couldn’t imagine someone like Alexander being best friends and compatriots with a man whose reputation truly matched the things that were whispered about his adopted brother. That close relationship might bring him some invaluable insight into Alexander. Perhaps he could afford to test Jace’s integrity, take this opportunity to see what the young man was made of.
“A friend.” Magnus let his face shift into an uncertain grin, mirroring Jace. “Well, the angels know I could certainly use another one of those. They do seem in short supply.”
“Then it’s settled. Now, my new friend - who were you talking to?”
“No one, truly. I suspect only a figment of my imagination.”
Jace raised an eyebrow at him. “It didn’t sound like imagination, at all. Was it Lydia? Come back to lament my brother Alec in her death?” he offered.
Magnus widened his eyes, pretending to be shocked. “How could it be Miss Branwell? She is dead!” Magnus pressed a hand to his forehead. “I cannot have this conversation with you. I can’t tell you - it isn’t possible!” Let us see how dedicated you are to finding answers, he thought. Politeness would dictate that Jace stop questioning, and take his leave.
But instead Jace took a step toward him, face etched with concern; whether real or fake, Magnus was uncertain, but either way it seemed Jace was determined – and buying into his plan. “But you must tell someone; clearly you have been upset.” Jace leaned in closer, lowering his voice in a conspiratorial manner. “You know I can never repeat what you say, because then I would have to tell the world I’d been alone with you in the garden. My lady friends would never stand for it – me, abandoning them for your charms? My nights would become so lonely and cold. Lo, the suffering it would bring upon me.”
Magnus chuckled a little as Jace swept his arm dramatically, one hand pressed over his heart in imagined despair. He couldn’t help feeling a twinge of admiration for the theatrically exaggerated cry of woe that had certainly been meant to charm and disarm him (and, to be quite honest with himself, was working – a little). For someone purported to be so carefree, there was an undercurrent of intensity about Jace that caught Magnus’s experienced eye. There was more to the young lord than he was letting on.
Although really, he did want to tell someone, Magnus realized. Secrets were hard to carry alone indefinitely. And unfortunately it was really the only way to test Lord Jace’s proffered loyalty.
“She said her name was Aline.”
Jace felt the color drain from his face; it felt as if the ground had dropped out from beneath his feet. Through a herculean effort he managed to keep his face straight and stay on his feet. “Aline, really? How interesting. What else did she say to you?”
“She told me a story about a princess, forced to marry a kind man she didn’t love. She said the princess was sad because she loved another. But Aline also said the princess trusted unwisely. And she said she herself was murdered and died here, in that very spot. Does that mean anything to you?”
It did. It meant so much that the hair at the back of Jace’s neck stood up.
He fought to keep his voice steady. “What did this Aline look like? I’ve never seen a ghost; I find myself quite curious.”
“She was a little girl, of perhaps ten years. She had dark, silky hair and brown eyes. I had thought at first that she must be a relative of Lord Lightwood, sneaked away from her governess ... You are asking such unusual questions, Lord Wayland.”
Jace’s skin prickled. He felt as if the temperature of the air around him had suddenly dropped. When he opened his mouth to answer, he was surprised to see his breath misting in front of him, caught by the afternoon sun.
“Find your way to the portrait gallery, Mr. Bane. On the northern end, second from the window on the eastern wall, you’ll find the mysterious Aline.” As the other man looked up at him, astonished, Jace turned and strode away into the garden, putting as much distance between himself and the psychic as he could manage.
There was a static charge in the air around him, a sensation that he had felt a few times before at Lightwood Hall. He had dismissed it in the past, blaming it on overconsumption of spirits of another kind. But what if Magnus Bane was telling the truth? What if Aline’s spirit remained at the estate, unable to rest?
“Are you here?” Jace asked aloud, though his voice quavered strangely in his own ears. “If you can hear me, I miss you, and I am so very, very sorry.”
He blinked back the tears that burned behind his eyes. It had been almost two decades, but the guilt still gnawed at him. Without a backward glance, Jace changed direction, hurrying toward the house and the bar in the billiard room. He’d spent his adult life burying bad memories in brandy and the arms of willing women, and had no intention of stopping.
Jace turned away, his shoulders hunched forward, clearly struggling with some strong emotion. Magnus rose and looked after him as he left, torn: should he go after Jace, offer some comfort, or should he go to the portrait hall? But Jace was moving quickly, and in only a few moments had passed from sight. Magnus sighed, and turned toward the estate.
Some minutes later he stood in the portrait gallery, staring at the face of a dead child with shining brown eyes and dark hair. It was a family portrait, and the girl Aline was seated in the grass of the manor lawn beside younger versions of Lord Alexander and Lord Jace, their sister Lady Isabelle, and another boy Magnus didn’t recognize. It couldn't be Maxwell Lightwood - he was much younger, possibly hadn't even been born yet, and the boy didn't resemble Alexander or Isabelle at all. The unknown boy was slender and fair, good looking in an ephemeral sort of way, with a long nose, sharp cheekbones. On a small plaque hung beneath the portrait was engraved a year more than a decade past, and their names: Aline Penhallow, Alexander Lightwood, Jonathan Wayland, Isabelle Lightwood, Sebastian Verlac.
Staring at the portrait, Magnus wished himself anywhere else but Lightwood Hall. Somewhere that he wouldn’t have to communicate with the dead family and friends of a man who unnerved him almost as much as the spirits themselves.
He watched from the shadows as Bane and Wayland spoke. He was too far away to hear what they said, but he had seen the psychic talking and gesturing to nothing before Wayland had arrived; saw the normally stoic Wayland blanch as they talked. His fists clenched at his sides as anger rose inside him. He knew why Bane was there, knew the things people said about his abilities, so he could guess at what might have turned Wayland pale as a proverbial ghost. Whether the rumors about him were true or not, Bane was becoming a problem. Bane would have to be dealt with.
He knew what everyone whispered about himself, as well. People always acted like they were so much better than him, as if he were somehow a lesser person. In their eyes he would always be just a tragic story, fodder for gossip and sneaking laughter and shame. Only Aline had ever thought he was anyone that mattered. Only Aline had ever been kind. But even she had betrayed him in the end, rejecting his professions of love, turning away from his anger and his pain.
He wanted to follow Wayland, to drop poison in his brandy, or better yet to stab him in the back and straight through to the heart, whispering in his ear so he would know exactly who had done for him as he died. Wayland had thought he was good enough for Aline, had tried to make her love him too. But he couldn’t be. No one could ever be good enough for Aline, except for him, even if she had refused to see that. He had made sure that no one could ever take her away from him; she would be his and only his, forever. Unless Bane interfered and ruined everything.
Yes, he thought, a dark resolution forming deep inside him. Bane would have to go. He would make them all suffer, he thought. Everyone who discounted and pitied him would pay. Turning on his heel, he walked toward the woods and his waiting horse, humming softly to himself.
He could not see the pale, cold face that floated behind, watching him go.
“You are not the only one with a reputation to uphold.”
Magnus left the portrait gallery and returned to his room to collect himself. He couldn’t go to dinner, make small talk and idle gossip about the mundanities of country life until he’d had time to gather his thoughts.
The encounter in the garden had rattled Magnus in more ways than one. Magnus usually received communication from spirits only in his head, as images, thoughts or ideas. He often had to interpret meanings based on what he already knew compared to what the dead showed him. But the ghost-child had spoken aloud to him, or so he had thought until Lord Jace had arrived. It had been clear that he, unlike Magnus, could not hear the spirit’s voice. Still, having a spirit appear during his waking hours and have a conversation with him was an unexpected change in Magnus’s abilities.
Magnus was also surprised at the revelations about the Lightwood family. He made it a habit to review every update of Herondale’s Book of Peerage, a practice started in his childhood. Know your friends, know your enemies; know your targets, know their families. Brother Matthew’s words echoed in his mind; Magnus smiled as he thought of the taciturn monk who had tutored him and taught him to control his powers. But the book was only a genealogical record; it didn’t contain a lot of detail.
He had known Lord Robert Lightwood, having interacted with the man on Clave business in the past. He had known the Lightwoods had three children of their own and had formally adopted Jace upon Lord Wayland’s death. But he hadn’t known about their cousins, Aline and Sebastian, who had apparently been close enough to earn a spot on the family portrait wall. He wondered if the families were from another country. That would explain why neither the Penhallows nor the Verlacs had been noted in the Peerage.
Neither had he known of Aline’s death at the estate. Something that significant should have been impossible to miss even with the most basic review of family history. He could only imagine that it had been kept quiet by direct order of the Clave, to spare the influential family further scandal or grief.
He mulled over these and many other questions as the afternoon lengthened, until finally his valet came in to help him dress for dinner. Before Magnus had even noticed his presence, Raphael had his trousers and waistcoat already laid out and brushed and was preparing his evening coat. Magnus saw, with relief, a fresh glass of wine already poured and waiting on the side table.
There was no better manservant to be found in all of Clave territory than Raphael Santiago. Magnus had pulled the dirty, underfed lad out of a marketplace in Cadiz during one of his journeys on Clave business. It took some sweet talking, and a fair amount of gold, to convince Raphael to come on as his valet. After all, Raphael was one of the few living people who knew the full extent of what Magnus was capable of; knew the things he kept hidden even from the Clave and wished he could keep hidden from himself. Raphael had been raised by his grandmother, who spun tales for him in the night of monsters, witches and other nameless things from a time when old gods roamed the earth and men felt their mortality keenly. Raphael, in his strange quiet way, understood the old ways and thus understood Magnus - possibly better than Magnus understood himself. But despite Raphael knowing Magnus’s darkest secrets, he wasn’t afraid. Because of that, Magnus trusted Raphael more than anyone else in his life.
Magnus swirled his wine in its glass thoughtfully, then wiggled his fingers in Raphael’s direction. “Not the blue tonight, darling. I feel like wearing black.”
“Which is exactly why you are wearing the blue,” Raphael said, and his tone brooked no argument. “You are not the only one with a reputation to uphold.”
Magnus rolled his eyes but Raphael, as always, was right. His practical nature had drawn Magnus to the young man at first glance. Well, at second glance - Raphael was also quite handsome, even as thin and unkempt as he had been on the streets. But his taciturn persona was a perfect balance to Magnus’s gregariousness. He was generally un-swayed by Magnus’s predilection to emotional reactions. Raphael was the voice of reason that Magnus, in his natural impulsiveness, wanted so badly to ignore; Raphael refused to be ignored, and Magnus was wise enough to hold on to a guardian angel’s namesake when he found one.
Raphael silently polished the silver buttons of the waistcoat as Magnus studied himself in a nearby mirror. The deep blue silk would warm his skin and contrast beautifully against his thick black hair. In spite of – or perhaps because of – his confrontation with the Duke at breakfast, deep down Magnus wanted to stand out this evening in every way possible. Alexander was still a remarkably handsome man, regardless of how rudely he had treated Magnus earlier, and Magnus couldn’t help but take every opportunity to show him what he was missing.
Raphael brought over a jewelry case so Magnus could select what to wear with his evening ensemble. As he studied a number of rings on his fingers, trying to choose, Magnus was keenly aware of Raphael’s black eyes burning into the side of his skull. Finally, he turned to the valet with an exasperated sigh.
“Whatever it is, get on with saying it or you’re going to make me late for dinner.”
“You know what it is.” Raphael shut the case with a snap and turned away.
Magnus closed his eyes for a moment. “Raphael.”
“No,” Raphael said. “I watch you, you know. Even when you think I am not, I am watching. I see you brooding alone. You let the smallest whispers from irrelevant fools get under your skin. You could snap their necks like twigs with a flick of your wrist; you could make them dance until they drop from exhaustion into death. You have more power than they could ever dream of. Why do you do it?” Raphael fixed him with a cool stare, but the corner of his mouth twitched; the closest thing to an emotion Raphael ever showed. “Why do you let inconsequential people hurt you so much?”
Magnus looked at Raphael. “No one is inconsequential. The smallest infant, the largest man, each are miracles in their own way. Unfortunately not all of those miracles keep their innocent hearts, but the ones that do … oh, how they shine,” he murmured, thinking of nights long gone by; of kind, beautiful women and gentle boys that burned for him like beacons in the dark.
Raphael turned and cast a glance at him, chin tilted, dark lashes swept over his pale cheeks. “No one has the right to make you feel badly. Especially not yourself.”
“Why does it matter, Rafa, what I feel? In their eyes I am foreign, I am dangerous. No one has to tell them. They can sense it, deep down; their instincts tell them I am not to be trusted. I have killed monsters and men in my lifetime at the behest of my superiors without a second thought; now I am cursed and spirits haunt me as the consequence of my own arrogance.” Magnus blinked, the intensity of his feelings surprised even himself. “I am the Clave’s inquisitor, not entirely human; I do not deserve to be loved by them at all.”
Raphael snorted, but he softened the tiniest fraction. “You are a fool smothering himself in useless penance. It is obvious that nothing I can say will change that.” He picked up Magnus’s neck-cloth and stepped closer. “At least I can make sure you do not dress like one.”
Magnus gave Raphael’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze in reply. He knew his valet always had his best interests at heart – which was more than Magnus could say for himself, sometimes.
“His Grace’s cousin arrived from Alicante today,” Raphael said calmly as he arranged and rearranged the fabric at Magnus’s throat, its interwoven strands of silver thread glittering in the slanting evening sunlight.
Magnus looked at him thoughtfully. “Sebastian Verlac?”
Raphael nodded. “The maids are on edge. Lord Verlac carries an unpleasant reputation around the servants. The younger and more innocent they are, the worse they shudder at his name.”
“Duly noted,” Magnus replied. “I shall keep my eye on him.”
Raphael patted his chest as he settled a diamond pin in place. “You can’t take care of the dead; at least try to take care of yourself.”
A short time later, Magnus made his way to the drawing room with Raphael’s words still swirling in his mind. Though it was not a large crowd, there were enough people already laughing together in groups to make him feel self-consciously alone. He took a seat on the periphery of the room and accepted a glass of sherry from a footman. Conversation hummed around him as he idly sipped the sherry, but he did not feel compelled to join in. Many of the dinner guests were local gentry and a few neighbors of significant social importance; most were not staying the night and would leave after the evening’s entertainment.
Across the room, two young women were whispering behind their hands and casting sidelong glances in his direction. The real question was not whether or not they were whispering about him, but whether they were discussing the rumors of his abilities, his latest imagined lover, or that his coat was cut in the newer spring fashion, outshining most of the other men who seemed content to still wear their midwinter styles on a cool spring evening. They had many sources of gossip to choose from where Magnus was concerned. He tipped his glass to them and winked, enjoying the widening of their eyes and the gasps that dissolved into shy giggles at his notice.
The gentlemen trickled in piecemeal, in small groups from wherever they had been congregating. Magnus’s eyes fell immediately on Alexander as he entered. The Duke was taller than most of the other gentlemen and therefore easy to spot. His dark hair, broad shoulders, and confident mannerisms set him apart. Lord Jace followed directly, with the ill-at-ease look of a man already well into his cups. Perhaps the shock of hearing about Aline’s ghost had rattled the young lord even more than he had let on.
Sebastian Verlac entered with the final group, holding himself a bit apart. Magnus recognized the young man’s wan look and slicing cheekbones from the family portrait. Lady Élodie, his aunt and adoptive mother, swept over to him immediately; she kissed his face and then bent her head as he whispered to her. They drew off alone into a far corner to talk. But Magnus didn’t watch them for long, his gaze was inevitably drawn back to Alexander like a moth to a flame.
Magnus felt his pulse jump as Alexander caught his eye. In the traditional sense of the word, Lord Jace was the more handsome of the two men, with his floppy blonde hair, square jaw and sparkling mismatched eyes. But he did not draw Magnus’s attention like Alexander did, or set his traitorous pulse racing with excitement. The two men held each other’s gaze for a long moment, both stoic, neither revealing any emotion. Then Alexander glanced to Magnus’s right, just as he felt a weight settle on the cushions next to him. Alexander’s brow furrowed with the beginning of a frown, but then Wayland tugged at his arm and his attention was forced away.
“Captivating, isn’t he?”
Magnus turned to look at the woman who had joined him on the settee. She was a porcelain-skinned, dark-haired beauty, petite and willowy, almost child-like in her appearance. Her gown was a pale rose silk that made her complexion glow with the flush of false youth; she was much older than she looked, much like Magnus himself. Even so, Magnus knew from experience there was nothing innocent about the Countess Belcourt.
“I thought the Lightwoods weren’t your cup of tea, my lady,” he said, his voice coming out more brittle than intended.
She laughed, a cold sound. “Just so. Although Wayland does catch one’s eye, but I’m afraid I must refrain from indulging my curiosities there. I have my sights set on a higher prize.”
“Of course you do,” Magnus muttered under his breath, his smile forced and tight. “Who is it this time, Camille? Another elderly Viscount, with no inconvenient heirs to claim his fortune after he mysteriously passes in the night?”
She traced a finger along the rim of her sherry glass. “A lady must make her way in this man’s world however she can, poppet.” She fixed her eyes on him, pearly teeth gleaming, her doe-eyes turning feral and sharp. “So, have you spoken to the Duke’s dearly departed fiancé? What news from the afterlife, hmm? Have we a murderer in our midst?”
Magnus met the woman’s calculating gaze. To everyone else in the room, Camille was simply a beautiful widow of means, fending off suitors left and right as they vied for her amassed fortune and estate along with her hand in matrimony. But Magnus knew, as very few did, that Camille was a viper in the grass. She used information as currency, poison as a financial strategy. How he longed to expose her for what she was, to rid the world of her venom.
But the Clave had occasional use for her particular talents. They allowed her to go on mostly unchecked as long as she remained agreeable to their choices of elderly husbands for her to be widowed by. Since Camille’s assassinations were strategic and sanctioned by the governing body, Magnus’s spiritualistic talents were of little concern to her. He would never be called upon to solve the mysteries of her murders; at least not until the Clave had grown tired of her. And they would, someday. Magnus knew it as well as she did. Then it would be a race to see which of them could eliminate the other first.
But that day was far off; for now they had to settle for a battle of wits in the Lightwood’s drawing room – one cut short by the announcement of dinner, before Magnus could formulate a pithy comeback to Camille’s blunt question. As they stood, a distinguished older gentleman stepped forward to escort the Countess into the dining room. They nodded their goodbyes and Magnus watched her go, her smile as hollow and empty as her soul.
Men outnumbered women at the gathering, so Magnus was without an assigned escort. He did not mind it. The less idle conversation he had to make, the better. He soon found himself seated with the young Marquis and Marchioness Carstairs, and felt cheered by it immediately: the wife was a jovial woman, and her husband was kind. She needed very little encouragement to talk about her charity work with children orphaned by the Clave Wars, a topic near and dear to Magnus’s own heart. The dinner passed easily and in good company.
But try as he might, Magnus could not prevent his attention from straying to the end of the table and the young Duke who sat quietly, seemingly lost in thought throughout most of the meal. An occasional nudge from Wayland, seated to his right, spurred Alexander to polite responses when his attention drifted too far to notice he was being directly addressed. But Magnus could not catch his eye again: Alexander judiciously kept his gaze averted from Magnus’s side of the table. Magnus did, however, notice Alexander’s line of sight occasionally fall on the Countess Belcourt; the dark looks he sent in her direction were definitely a point in the young Duke’s favor.
The sight of Magnus in evening dress took Alec’s breath away as soon as he entered the drawing room. When their eyes met, it had been all Alec could do to keep his face impassive.
He was embarrassed over his behavior at breakfast, still angry at his relatives’ machinations, and flustered by what Jace had revealed to him in private over one of several glasses of brandy: that he had found Magnus in the garden, seemingly speaking to no one; that Magnus had claimed to have seen Aline’s ghost; that Magnus had known details nearly impossible to pick up just from idle gossip; that Jace swore he had felt an unearthly cold presence that made all the hairs on his body stand on end, before he fled for a tumbler full of amber liquid to numb his painful memories.
Alec didn’t know what to believe. The mind was powerful, and could play tricks; a mystic like Magnus could cast spells perhaps, to make a man believe he was seeing or feeling something that wasn’t really there. But Jace was almost as naturally skeptical as Alec, not a man easily taken in by sleight of hand. He had rarely seen his brother so unnerved.
During their childhood Aline had lived abroad in Paris with her father, a diplomat in the service of the Clave. Her mother had died in childbirth. Her father followed some years later, a lingering illness taking him not long after marrying his second wife. Every summer Aline and Élodie had come to stay with the Lightwoods, Maryse and Élodie having grown up together as children and remaining quite close. Sebastian began joining them on visits after Élodie adopted her deceased brother’s son.
Sebastian’s parents’ deaths had weighed heavily on him. Aline, a kindhearted child who understood the special grief of losing one’s parents, had taken it upon herself to care for her new stepbrother and make him feel welcome. But then Aline had died, and there had been a long separation after; only in the last two years had Élodie and Sebastian started coming to visit the Lightwoods again.
Alec remembered Élodie from his youth as a warm, laughing woman and Sebastian as an intelligent, if somewhat emotionally distant boy. But the change in his relatives over those intervening years was remarkable. Elodie had become colder and more distant; Sebastian had dark moods and was often cruel.
Sebastian had arrived that afternoon, but Alec had been sequestered with Jace in his study and had left the welcoming duty to his mother. Now, Alec watched Sebastian and Elodie where they sat together at dinner. Elodie made conversation with those seated around them but Sebastian said very little to anyone at all. Seated across from Isabelle, he responded politely when she tried to make conversation, but Alec caught Sebastian’s lip curling in a sneer a few times when Isabelle’s back was turned. It made Alec angry, to see a family member – however distantly related – be dismissive of his younger sister.
As children, Isabelle and Aline had been inseparable, doing lessons together and frequently dissolving into giggles at their own private jokes. The boys had spent hours practicing combat skills with swords and bows and wooden staves. Jace and Sebastian were closely matched in hand-to-hand fighting, so a tense rivalry had sprung up between them over the years; tutors had stepped in to break them apart more than once when their casual sparring escalated nearly out of hand.
Jace had always had a little bit of a crush on Aline, so Alec wasn’t terribly shocked on the day that he, Isabelle and Sebastian had caught Jace and Aline kissing in the music room. The three of them had stumbled in looking for the others, just in time to catch them sitting on the piano bench, lips pressed together awkwardly in the way that children think kissing is supposed to be done. Sebastian had turned pale and gasped aloud. When they broke apart Jace had looked mortified. But Aline had only laughed, a bright, happy sound as she skipped over and took Isabelle’s hand.
“I just wanted to know what it was like to kiss a person,” she had said. “So I asked him to kiss me. And Jace is – well, he’s family, of course, but he’s not family, if you know what I mean. I couldn’t kiss any of you. We’re cousins and siblings.” She had made a face, wrinkling her nose in mock disgust and Isabelle had laughed with her. Jace hadn’t said a word, only blushed deeply and stared at his feet. But Alec had been watching Sebastian, and had seen the younger boy’s heart shatter into pieces at her words.
Before that, Alec hadn’t realized how deeply Sebastian felt for Aline. Sebastian wasn’t any more related to Aline than Jace was; Aline was only Élodie’s stepdaughter, after all. But Aline thought of Sebastian as her brother, much to Sebastian’s dismay. Alec didn't fail to notice Sebastian’s tendency to swing harder at Jace during training than was necessary, after that.
Alec understood both sides, having long battled a crush on Jace when he was younger while struggling to reconcile it with his brotherly affections. He knew firsthand how difficult it would be for Aline to think of Sebastian in any non-sisterly way, should he ever have broached the topic. But Alec wasn’t exactly the kind of person to be open about his feelings even as a child, so he hadn’t offered up any sympathies to either of them.
Aline had caught on eventually. Alec had rounded a corner a couple of weeks after the kissing incident and seen her running away from Sebastian, crying. Sebastian had been standing with his jaw set, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. Alec had paused, uncertain about intruding, but Sebastian had stalked off in the other direction before Alec had to think of something to say. Aline had shut herself in her bedroom, locking out even Isabelle, and refused to come down for dinner, pleading a stomachache.
The timing of their falling out could not have been worse. The next day Jace had found Aline in the garden bleeding profusely from a crushing blow to the head. She had died there in the grass, clutched tightly in Jace’s arms. She and her stepbrother never had the chance to make amends.
The entire estate had been stunned by the attack. The prevailing theory was that a footpad had been on the grounds and Aline had stumbled onto him by chance. She had likely been struck so the criminal could get away without the alarm being raised. Silver had been discovered missing from the kitchens closest to that side of the house, lending some weight to the story. But the stolen goods never turned up anywhere and no one was ever charged in the crime.
Perhaps the cad had meant to kill her, perhaps he had not. But Aline could not tell who had struck her – the coward had caught her from behind, and the force of the blow had made her confused. She had called plaintively for Sebastian and her stepmother. Jace had screamed as loud as he could for help, not wanting to leave her side, until the stable master heard him and came running. But there was nothing anyone could do. The Verlacs had been sequestered in the south wing some distance away; though the swiftest stable boy ran to fetch them, they did not reach her in time.
At the sight of the girl’s lifeless body Élodie had screamed and fainted dead away. Sebastian had shoved Jace aside and collapsed next to Aline, clutching at her hand and weeping, calling his stepsister’s name over and over, until the physician came to make the declaration and the footmen had carried her body away. Alec had helped Jace back to the house, brought him warm water and rags to wash off the blood. Jace had clung to him, sobbing inconsolably. They had slept in the same bed that night, Jace curled against Alec’s chest, kicking and crying out in his sleep as Alec stroked his brother’s damp face and tried to soothe him.
But Aline’s death had taken Sebastian the hardest of them all. He had stood at her graveside in silence, pale face drawn and pinched as one of the Brotherhood intoned the burial liturgy. He had always been a beautiful boy with a natural charisma that drew people to him despite his quiet demeanor. But Alec had watched all of that wither and die like plucked roses in the heat of the summer sun. Sebastian had completely shut down; he became hard as ice and sharp as steel. Charm was replaced by anger, sweetness by sneering disgust. He was cruel to the servants and distant with his family – save for Élodie, who he shadowed like a lost lamb following a shepherd. Only his adoptive mother did he seem to trust. Only to her did he speak with any modicum of respect. Alec, Jace and Isabelle gave up and did their best to avoid him for the rest of the summer, and the following year breathed a tiny sigh of relief when the Verlacs had chosen not to visit.
A sharp laugh interrupted Alec’s wandering memories. He glanced over to see Lady Belcourt working her charms on her dining partner, Lord Danbury. Her hand placed lightly on the gentleman’s arm, she batted her eyelashes and smiled beatifically upon the doddering old man. Alec grimaced. Lady Belcourt’s predilection for rich, elderly husbands was well known, yet her beauty and seductive charms made her irresistible to the very men who should have known better. Although, Lord Danbury did have some significant gambling debts, and owed the Clave quite a bit of money as well - or so the rumor mill said. Lady Belcourt was more likely the one who should be careful with her own fortune.
Alec had seen her approach Magnus in the drawing room. He hadn’t liked the predatory looks she had given him, even worse than her behavior at the first night’s dinner. A small spark of heat flared in Alec’s chest - not jealousy, he told himself as convincingly as he could. Only suspicion. He simply didn’t trust Lady Belcourt’s motives. Magnus was unmarried and a man of means, so he was a desirable target for many. Alec promised himself that next time he saw her bothering Magnus he would intervene. Perhaps it would be a step back into Magnus’s good graces and give Alec an opening to apologize.
Alec sighed. Getting an opportunity to talk to Magnus alone was going to be a challenge. He couldn’t count on the mystic taking another mysterious midnight stroll. He mulled over the problem as he chewed his food. He didn’t relish the meal; his mouth was dry and nothing tasted good to him. He settled for pushing everything around on his plate and pretending to drink his wine until the servants came to clear the table.
As the women prepared to retreat to the drawing room and brandy and cigars started to circulate among the men, Lady Maryse suddenly stood and clapped her hands for attention.
“Honored guests,” she said brightly, “if you would be so kind as to join us in the music room I have arranged a very special performance by our local psychic, Madame Dorothea. She will be giving tarot readings and holding a séance for us to speak with our departed loved ones!”
As a murmur of excitement traveled around the room, Alec felt his stomach drop. Madame Dorothea was a local curiosity, of low birth, who made her living as a fortune-teller. Maryse had consulted her for tarot readings on several occasions, even inviting her into the family parlor much to Alec’s chagrin. She was exactly the kind of person Alec didn’t want to have around. Alec called the butler over and engaged him to have the housemistress check Madame Dorothea’s pockets thoroughly before she left.
“I know that some of you may be frightened or uncomfortable with the occult, so if you do not wish to participate please feel at leisure to decline. You may remain here and take your tea and dessert together. The rest of you, please come with me. We will take our refreshments in the music room while Madame Dorothea prepares.”
Alec and Jace exchanged a long glance. An unspoken understanding passed between them; Jace clasped Alec’s shoulder then went to Maryse’s side to escort her to the music room. Alec searched through the milling guests until he found his target, engaged in animated conversation with Lord Carstairs and his wife. Alec tugged nervously at the cuffs of his dinner jacket, then made his way across the room, his eyes fixed on Magnus Bane.
A lot of backstory in this chapter. THANK YOU for reading this far and for letting me know you like the story.
A conversation in the parlor; an unconventional performance.
“… then she said, I really haven’t got a notion!”
Magnus tossed back his head and laughed at Lady Carstairs’ joke. He enjoyed her company; her sense of humor and her husband’s skill at storytelling had helped chase away much of the beleaguering stress of the day.
The wine at dinner had helped quite a bit as well.
They were soon joined by Lords Granby and Little, whom Magnus had met in Alicante the season before. Lord Granby was a second cousin of the Inquisitor and a renowned physician who served as a medic through the last years of the most recent War. Lord Little, Granby’s lover, had been wounded in battle and so walked with a cane. But the injury had done nothing to dim the man’s warm and open spirit. Magnus was happy to make introductions, and soon the four gentlemen were enjoying even more of Lady Carstairs’ clever humor.
But then Granby’s smile broadened as he looked past Magnus, and a cold feeling descended over the mystic like a wet blanket.
“My Lord and Lady Carstairs; Doctor Granby, Lord Little.” Alexander entered their circle smiling broadly, kissing Lady Carstairs’ gloved hand. He turned politely to Magnus, crossed his hands behind his back and inclined his head. “Magnus.”
Alexander’s use of the familiar address was confusing. Magnus had expected a more stoic greeting, a return to cold formality after their earlier confrontation. He saw Granby and Little exchange a curious glance out of the corner of his eye. But handling the unexpected was one of his more practiced skills; Magnus nodded back, fingers barely tightening around the stem of his wineglass. “Your Grace.”
Granby and Little made their excuses – Little’s injury made him tired and he would not stay for the entertainment. Granby offered to walk him back to their rooms, but said he would return for the show. After saying their farewells Alec inquired politely after the Carstairs’ children and they about his liking of country life. After a few moments of small talk he turned to Magnus again.
“Magnus, may I have a word in private?”
Magnus’s smile felt frozen on his lips. “As you wish, my lord.”
They extricated themselves politely from the Marquis and Marchioness with little difficulty. Alexander turned toward a side door, indicating with a gesture that Magnus should accompany him. Neither spoke until they had passed into the family parlor. It was empty save for the two of them, but brightly lit. The ladies would retire here after the entertainment, for gossip and cards and whatever else ladies did without men around to bore them.
Alexander walked to the center of the room, then stopped and turned to face Magnus. He had his bottom lip between his teeth, worrying at it nervously; Magnus might have found the habit endearing if he himself hadn’t been so tense. After an uncomfortable number of seconds had ticked by, Magnus could take the suspense no longer.
He cleared his throat. “There is something you wish to discuss with me, Your Grace?”
Alexander met his gaze, finally. “Magnus, I – “ but he faltered and stopped, his fingers tugging absently at the sleeves of his coat.
Magnus realized in that moment how young Alexander truly was. Not in calendar age, perhaps, but most certainly in worldliness. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-four but he suddenly looked much younger as he stood uncertainly searching for words. All trace of his aristocratic arrogance from the morning was gone. There was no artifice about him. Magnus didn’t quite know how to take it.
By contrast, Magnus wasn’t exactly ancient, but it had been a heavy lifetime for Magnus to carry. The weight of a thousand past griefs draped across his shoulders like a shroud. He had lived a dozen lives already - loved and lost, and lost again. But the rumor mill claimed that Alexander had never even had a single lover before his engagement to Lady Lydia. He stayed close to his family, never traveled for pleasure and was known for leaving parties early. Aside from familial duties and military service the young lord seemed remarkably inexperienced at cultivating relationships. Much like Raphael was Magnus’s opposite on the emotional spectrum, Alexander was his inverse in social matters, despite his title and his family’s standing with the Clave.
Feeling an unexpected surge of sympathy, he grasped for an opportunity to forestall further awkwardness and save face for them both.
“If I may interrupt, Your Grace,” Magnus finally said. “I must apologize for my hasty exit from breakfast this morning. I did not sleep well and I was overtired from the previous night, therefore unprepared for the intensity of your questioning. I fear I reacted more strongly than was deserved. I humbly beg your pardon.”
Alexander blinked at him. “What?”
It was such an unusual response that Magnus felt the corner of his mouth twitch in amusement. “I am apologizing to you, Your Grace.”
Alexander only continued to stare. Magnus cocked his head. “Perhaps you’ve heard of it? A social custom, where one party expresses sorrow for having wronged another?”
Alexander blinked again, shaking his head. “But why are you apologizing to me? I was the one out of line. I overstepped my bounds; you are the wronged party, not myself. I asked you here so I could apologize to you for my unconscionable rudeness. Pray, forgive me. It was a poor way to treat an honored guest in my own home.”
It was Magnus’s turn to blink in surprise. “Well,” he said, making his tone contrite. “Now I have to apologize again for stepping on your apology.” He quirked an eyebrow at the Duke. “This could go on all night.”
Alexander stared at him for a second longer and then, to Magnus’s immense relief, both corners of his mouth tilted into a sheepish grin.
“I appear to be rubbish at both apologies and friendships.” He held out his hand. “Perhaps we could start again, Magnus.”
Magnus accepted the proffered handshake and returned the Duke’s smile. “I would like that very much, Alexander.”
“Before we do, though,” Alexander said cautiously, so that Magnus narrowed his eyes as they let go of each other’s hands. “I must make one further inquiry. If it offends you, I pray please tell me so. You may retain the right not to answer and I shall let the matter drop.”
Magnus tilted his head, considering. “All right. Ask.”
“Did you have any role in helping my mother acquire Madame Dorothea’s services for this evening?”
Magnus huffed. “I most certainly did not.”
The Duke nodded, crossing his arms over his chest, his hand stroking his chin thoughtfully. “Do you know anything of the woman? I have met her in the past, but I have never taken her particularly seriously; she seems to me more of an entertainer than a spiritualist, if you take my meaning.”
Magnus nodded. “Perhaps she has some insight into the human psyche that allows her to give soothing counsel to those in need. No one should speak poorly of that, if she can bring comfort to the grieving at not too dear a price. But to the best of my knowledge Madame Dorothea is merely a good stage actress and cannot actually commune with spirits. I am curious to see what she will do to convince the gallery otherwise.”
Alexander sighed. “Well, then. Let’s go and watch the show. Maybe we will both learn something.”
“I spoke with my mother after breakfast,” Alec said quietly, as they made their way toward the music room. The hall was empty; the rest of the guests had preceded them while they made their apologies in the parlor. But he kept his voice low anyway. Sound sometimes carried oddly through the house.
“Did you,” Magnus acknowledged, seeming unruffled by the news.
Against the darkened windows a flash of lightning shimmered across the sky. The first storm of spring was rolling in. Alec had seen the dark clouds gathering in the distance as his valet had dressed him for dinner. Alec tugged at his collar. He disliked thunderstorms. The air felt heavy around him.
“She told me that she asked you to commune with Lydia’s spirit and prove my innocence.”
Magnus only nodded in acknowledgement.
“And have you agreed to provide the assistance she requested?”
Magnus put a hand on Alec’s arm and stopped walking. Alec turned to face him, watching carefully for any signs that the psychic was growing angry or might withdraw. But Magnus’s face seemed perfectly calm as far as Alec could tell.
“I have not yet,” Magnus answered. “But you must understand something about my abilities, Alexander. Spirits aren’t like a candle flame to be called forth when needed and then extinguished when one is through. They only come when the conditions are right: the spirit must be strong enough to cross over, and I must be open to receive it. A great deal of energy is required for both spirit and medium to make that link. I cannot simply command the spirit of Lydia Branwell into existence. I explained much the same to Lady Maryse.” He paused, although he looked like he wanted to say more.
Alec placed a hand on Magnus’s shoulder, gripping it softly; he sensed some uncertainty and wanted to reassure. “Please,” he said, “I’m listening. Please go on.”
Magnus seemed to relax a bit under Alec’s touch. “Nevertheless, should I observe something that might be helpful to Lady Maryse in her quest, I feel honor bound to inform her of my findings. I simply have not yet agreed to actively seek out what she desires to know. I am still considering all the potential ramifications of the request. One must not take such things lightly.”
The door to the music room opened. Alec dropped his hand from Magnus’s shoulder as a maid exited bearing a tray of empty teacups. By the volume of excited conversation that followed her through the door, Alec could tell they had a little more time before the séance formally began. When the maid was out of earshot he turned back to Magnus.
“I wish to also inform you that I spoke with Lord Jace about what transpired today in the garden.”
Magnus remained still, but his lips pressed together in a sharp line. “I had hoped my lord would be more discreet about our unintentional encounter. But," he sighed, "I could see that he was shaken. I declined to pursue him further, as I did not think he would accept any comfort from me. I am glad he found it with you.”
“He was quite upset,” Alec confirmed. “I am sure he did not break your confidence lightly. He has never been much of a believer in spirits.”
“Nor have you,” Magnus said wryly.
“Nor have I,” Alec agreed. “But Aline’s murder has haunted us both for many years. It is not common knowledge outside of the family. It was officially said that she died of a fall, and the Clave made it known that idle gossip about the incident would not be tolerated out of respect for all three families.”
Magnus nodded, frowning thoughtfully. Alec screwed up his courage and continued. “Jace is convinced that you are no charlatan. He may have the reputation of a scoundrel, but he has always had a good sense of people’s hidden motives. It is an instinct that I have learned to trust. Had anyone else come to me with the same story, I confess I would have thought them bewitched, or highly suggestible at the least. But I know my brother. Jace has faith in you and I take his newfound belief to heart. If there is anything I can do to assist you - should you decide to pursue this, or any other mystery on these grounds - please do come to me without hesitation.”
Magnus did not answer right away, only studied Alec’s face intently. As Alec stood waiting for Magnus to reply, his gaze flicked toward Magnus’s mouth. Magnus’s lips were slightly pursed as though he were deep in thought. Alec had to push down a sudden shocking desire to lean forward and kiss him, right in the middle of the hallway.
He looked away quickly, focusing back on Magnus’s deep, luminous brown eyes, now crinkled with something very like amusement. Alec felt his cheeks grow warm. Magnus had surely seen Alec looking at his mouth. Alec wished he could sink into the floor; how he suddenly envied a ghost its ability to pass through walls. But Magnus, thankfully, released him from his agony quickly.
“Thank you, Alexander. You are very kind.”
Before either of them could speak again the door to the music room opened a second time. Jace looked out at them expectantly. “Come on, you two,” he said. “It’s starting.”
Magnus entered the music room and nearly laughed aloud. Madame Dorothea stood in the center of the room, a small round table before her, a deck of tarot cards spread out across the top. She was a small woman, young and not unattractive, but her face was heavily painted with kohl and rouge. She wore long, shimmering robes, stacked bracelets on both arms from wrist to elbow, and the most elaborate turban Magnus had ever seen. Her ensemble was a garish offense to the entire concept of mysticism – and fashion. Thankfully, before he stared too long, Jace tugged at his sleeve and steered Magnus toward an empty chair.
The chairs had been placed in a closed circle around the table. Guests were finding their seats; Jace slipped into the empty chair to Alexander’s right and indicated to Magnus to take the seat on the left. Magnus spotted Lord Sebastian and Lady Élodie taking seats behind Madame Dorothea His new friends the Carstairs were off to one side with Lord Granby, who glanced sidelong at Alexander and threw Magnus a conspiratorial wink. He also noted, with no small relief, that Lady Camille was nowhere to be seen. Lady Isabelle was also notably missing; perhaps she had stayed behind in the dining room to entertain the guests who had chosen not to come.
As Magnus looked around the room again, identifying more faces, Lady Maryse took the empty seat to his own left. “Mr. Bane,” she greeted him. “I am so glad you have joined us.”
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world, my lady,” he replied, trying to sound cheerful.
“Oh, I’ve had the most delightful thought,” Lady Maryse said, clasping her hands together, her sharp eyes watching him closely. “Perhaps you could join Madame Dorothea this evening? Your combined efforts would be quite something to see.”
Magnus stiffened; she was calling him out on the spot, knowing that he would not be able to refuse. It was the second time in one day he’d felt trapped by a Lightwood.
Before he could think of a reply, Alexander came to his rescue. “Mother,” he chided, “I know you value your relationship with Madame Dorothea. I can’t imagine she would welcome Mr. Bane sharing the spotlight. This is her livelihood, after all. If Magnus outshines her, it could ruin her trade.”
“Just so,” Maryse said, dropping her hands into her lap. Magnus was surprised that she backed down so quickly; she could have continued to push. But perhaps she simply did not want to cross the young Duke in front of others. “You are right, Alec. I should have considered that.”
“Please don’t give it another thought, Lady Maryse,” Magnus reassured her. “It was kind of you to wish to include me.”
“Of course,” she smiled, though it did not quite reach her eyes. She turned to address the woman on her left as Magnus shot a grateful look at his savior, who rolled his eyes discreetly. Magnus was pleased. If he had to sit through this farce, he was glad that he had made peace with Alexander and perhaps even gained an unexpected ally. At least they could suffer in silence together.
As the audience continued to gather, Magnus studied the young Duke as surreptitiously as he could manage. His aristocratic bearing was back, and he looked more mature than he had during their conversation in the parlor. But their encounter had started Magnus thinking. Lord Lightwood was well past the usual age of marriage, and should have had a passel of Lightwood heirs running about by now. Granted, he had served in a War for some of those years, but that was not uncommon among the gentry and certainly not a true impediment to marriage. Why hadn’t he taken a wife?
Lydia written to her parents shortly before her death, begging them to release her from the engagement contract. In one of the letters Lord Henry had shown him, Magnus had read in Lydia’s fine, looping script:
Lord Alexander is loyal and he is kind; he will never defy Lady Maryse openly in these matters. Nor does he wish to burden me overmuch with his own pain. But Mother, I know it in my heart: if he is forced to marry any woman, he will be unhappy for the rest of his life and so will she. I do not wish to be the instrument of his suffering any more than he desires to be mine. Can nothing be done to stop this folly?
Upon the initial reading, Magnus had interpreted Lydia’s words to mean that Alexander simply did not want to be forced into marriage with a woman not of his own choosing. But now he kept going back to one phrase: any woman. Lydia was a careful speaker, she did not choose her phrasing lightly.
Magnus thought back over their two-day acquaintance, to all of Alexander’s unexpected reactions: a rising flush to his cheek here and there, an indrawn breath when their hands had accidentally brushed together, the flicker of his eyes toward Magnus’s lips in the hallway … Magnus had been willing to write these small things off as immaterial, or even wishful thinking, a product of his own imagination given his burgeoning attraction to the young Duke. But perhaps Lydia had known something deeper. Perhaps Alexander had even confided in her his true feelings … maybe Alexander was not interested in women at all, for marriage or otherwise. What if Alexander was as attracted to Magnus, as he was to Alexander?
Magnus’s heart fluttered at the thought. Should he even dare to dream of pursuing Lord Lightwood? While his case was somewhat unorthodox, Magnus’s own social standing within the Clave was still high enough that the Duke was not unattainable merely because of their stations. And while same-sex marriage was not permitted within the limited confines of Clave law, there was nothing preventing such relationships from occurring openly. The lack of legal spousal standing and inheritance for same-gender companions only meant that there tended to be fewer gold-diggers, with most relationships built on real commitment and trust. Lords Granby and Little had lived as a couple for years both during and after the War, and they were broadly welcomed everywhere they went in society.
There were still some countries where such relations were considered unnatural and punishable under cruel, archaic laws. And some of the older Clave families still retained the outdated practice of forcing their otherwise-inclined children to marry to produce legal heirs, even against their own preferences. Perhaps that had been the case with Alexander. Magnus wondered if he and Lydia had been contracted for that reason: he wouldn’t have put it past Maryse Lightwood to want to micromanage her children, and cling to the older ways as a guarantee of grandchildren to carry on the family legacy.
Maryse would likely be the biggest obstacle, should Magnus decide to try to pursue Alexander. But at least Magnus did not have to worry about being thrown in jail or executed just for making a romantic overture to the Duke. If Alexander refused him, so be it. But Magnus found himself seriously considering an attempt to court the handsome – and hopefully not murderous - Lord Lightwood. Their chairs were so close together that Magnus could feel Alexander’s warm, muscular thigh pressing against his own. The Duke did not seem uncomfortable with the contact, although his attention was currently focused on Lord Jace, chatting animatedly on his other side. If the Duke was willing, Magnus certainly would be interested in seeing where their attraction might lead.
The whispers around them were dying away. Only the sound of silk skirts rustling could be heard as the last guests settled into their seats. Madame Dorothea cleared her throat, raised her hands above her head and spoke.
“I sense,” she began, in a deep and dramatic voice, “there are those among you who doubt the power of Madame Dorothea.”
Magnus nudged Alexander’s leg with his own and was gratified to hear a quiet huff of laughter in return.
“But you will not doubt for long. I have seen the tragedies that have befallen many in this room. Spirits are with us, walking these halls, longing to communicate with us.”
Magnus felt Alec slowly grow tense in his seat, as Madame Dorothea began to wave her hand over the tarot cards. Her fingers swirled hypnotically and she hummed, a low, mesmerizing sound. Was Alexander bracing himself? Did he think Madame Dorothea was about to point a finger at him and shout, murderer? Magnus started to lean towards him, but caught movement out of the corner of his eye: Lord Jace put his hand on Alexander’s arm, just below the elbow, and his fingers tightened enough that the tips went white. Alexander put his hand over Jace’s and pressed it; some of the tension left his own body at the comforting gesture, and Magnus settled back into his seat.
“All must join hands,” Madame Dorothea ordered, her gaze sweeping the room. Magnus politely took Lady Maryse’s small hand, her skin cool against his own. Alexander slid their fingers together and entwined them. Magnus swallowed, more nervous than he had expected to be at the intimacy of the touch.
Unlike his mother’s hand, Alec’s skin was warm. Magnus considered how perfectly their hands fit together, and he took it as a promising sign. He hoped his rings were not cold or pressing too much into Alexander’s skin. He hoped that nerves had not made his own palm unpleasantly sweaty. Perhaps he would be able to blame it on damp air from the approaching storm.
“Now, we must have darkness,” Madame Dorothea intoned. She paused dramatically as the servants scattered about the edges of the room moved toward the lamps and candles, with covers for the witchlights as well, ready to extinguish them. “Spirits move in the shadows.” Magnus watched her complicated hand movements as she hummed, and admired her performance. He wondered if he knew anyone in theater circles he could send a letter of recommendation to; the woman’s talent was being wasted like this.
Tension grew around the room as the lights went out. Only a few candles remained, the dim light casting strange shadows all over. Some of the ladies shifted nervously in their seats. Magnus stole another sidelong glance at Alexander. In the partial darkness his handsome face had taken on a hard, sinister quality. He looked every inch a soldier and a warrior, born into privilege and station. In the moment, upright in his seat, his eyes focused on Madame Dorothea with a burning intensity, Alexander looked perfectly capable of killing - in the defense of his country, his home, his loved ones, and maybe even himself. But more and more, Magnus doubted that Alexander was a cold-blooded murderer. He had no proof yet, and the spirits of Lightwood Hall might or might not be able to steer him to the answers. But Magnus’s desire to find the truth was deepening with every moment they spent in each other’s company.
“In my experience, my lady, most gossip bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. I prefer to deal with the latter.”
Alec felt the press of Magnus’s leg against his own when Madame Dorothea spoke, and couldn’t help but laugh at their shared joke. He was glad they seemed to have settled their differences, although he had not yet let his guard down completely and he sensed Magnus was still being cautious as well. But Alec felt a growing sense that he could trust the man. He couldn’t quite explain why, but his presence at Alec’s side was comforting in ways that Alec had never felt before. Not even with Jace, who he had known for most of his life.
As Madame Dorothea gestured and hummed, Alec began to worry. What if it wasn’t just an act and she really was a psychic medium? Might she also bring forth Aline’s ghost? That concerned him far more than anything else. He knew he was innocent of Lydia’s murder, so if her spirit really came forward he had nothing to fear. Alec only had to worry about whether Madame Dorothea might decide that wrongly accusing him would be good for her business. Fortunately he didn’t think he had to worry about that, since his mother was a regular client. Surely she would not hurt the proverbial goose that laid her golden eggs.
But he didn’t think Jace could handle hearing about Aline again so soon. With Sebastian and Élodie in attendance as well, no good could come from that summoning. Jace must have been thinking along the same lines; Alec felt his brother grip his arm tightly. His concern and attention shifted instantly to Jace. Alec pressed his hand reassuringly and felt Jace take a deep, shaky breath.
When the audience was ordered to join hands, Alec nearly lost all feeling in his fingers from the tightness of Jace’s grip across his palm. He had to nudge Jace with his foot to get him to ease up a bit. Magnus’s hand settled comfortably into his own, their fingers entwining as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Alec felt ashamed of his bitten nails and the calluses on his palm; he and Jace still took weapons practice a few times a week and the physical work showed in his skin. Magnus’s hands were perfectly manicured and smooth, but strong. It was strange that such a small point of contact could carry with it such keen awareness of another person; Alec was glad as the lights went out one by one so no one could see the flush creeping up the back of his neck.
Raindrops began pelting against the windows, the sound amplified in the growing dark. Madame Dorothea moaned suddenly, and Alec jumped a little in spite of himself.
“They are here! I feel the spirits moving around us. They will bring many secrets to light!”
A chill swept through him, and Jace shuddered, but Magnus squeezed Alec’s hand just as Alec squeezed Jace’s. It was odd to think that someone wanted to comfort Alec as much as he wanted to comfort others. It was unexplored territory, to say the least.
Madame Dorothea’s arm swept across the dimly lit room, her bracelets jangling loud in the tense silence. “There are those here who are not what they seem!” As if by some unseen signal, lightning flashed and thunder bellowed outside. A sudden gust of wind sent the French doors crashing open behind her. The increasing downpour of rain lashed through the opening. The dim light from the remaining candles vanished as they were blown out by the wind, pitching the room into total darkness. Some of the ladies screamed.
Alec and Jace sprang to their feet in one practiced, fluid motion. Behind him, Alec heard the servants scrambling for the lights. He realized with some surprise that he was still holding Magnus’s hand, and that Magnus had leaped to his feet alongside them. Alec glanced toward Magnus and blinked rapidly, trying to focus; he thought he saw … but it couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible.
Lightning crashed again, illuminating the room. Alec caught a flutter of movement in his peripheral vision as one of the younger ladies swooned in a faint. Her companion lunged to catch her before she dropped heavily to the floor. But what made his blood run cold, starkly revealed in that brief flash of light, was Madame Dorothea slumped across the table, a dark stain of blood pooling under her head.
Jace ran for the door, calling some of the servants with him. Lord Granby was already at Madame Dorothea’s side, his fingers pressed against the side of her neck. He met Alec’s eyes and shook his head.
“Magnus,” Alec said, releasing the other man’s hand almost as an afterthought while the lights started to come back on. Lady Maryse sat stone-still in her chair, her knuckles pressed against her mouth in horror. “Could I trouble you to stay with Lady Maryse for a few moments while I attend to my guests?” It was one of the biggest gestures of trust Alec could give: to leave his mother in Magnus’s care.
Their eyes met for only a moment, but Alec could see that Magnus understood. He nodded, and turned to the shocked woman as Alec strode across the room to close and lock the French doors.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his voice carrying with unmistakable authority to every corner of the room. “If you would all please come with me.”
Madame Dorothea’s killer schooled his face into an impassive glare, but inwardly he smiled. He had come to watch the show for entertainment only, assuming that the medium was a fraud. But as she had begun to speak about secrets and spirits he became uneasy. What if she really was a psychic? What if Bane wasn’t the only threat he needed to deal with? Aline’s death and Lydia’s must remain unexamined. Their secrets should stay buried with them. A growing sense of fear nagged at the back of his mind as the tension grew in her performance. He did not like being afraid.
Her word alone might carry little weight, especially if she was simply a performer and merely guessed well. It would be an annoyance, though a manageable one; she could probably be paid off well enough for her silence. But if Bane agreed to use his abilities to support any of her claims, and they both presented the same conclusions - anyone would be hard pressed to argue against two accusers, one being of high standing within the Clave.
When the doors unexpectedly blew open and the lights went out, in the ensuing seconds of chaos it had been easy enough to grab the heavy candelabra from the sideboard and strike a blow. He hadn’t intended to kill her, only to prevent her from continuing her act. But … if the accident made Magnus Bane more cautious, or even drove the man away in fear for his own safety, then it was a risk well worth the taking.
As Magnus awaited his turn to be questioned by the local magistrate, he held fast to a single resolution: he would make sure Lord Alexander would not be wrongly accused. Magnus was owed favors by enough high-ranking members of the Clave that he could keep His Grace from being unjustly blamed in this, at least.
Alec hadn’t let go of his hand until after the lights came back on. He could not possibly have killed Madame Dorothea. Lady Maryse had let go of his hand in the chaos, but her innocence was not in question - the heavy murder weapon had been swung with such force that the magistrate had agreed the ladies could be ruled out as suspects. It was an assertion Magnus would only have disagreed with if Lady Camille had been present at the séance. She was petite, but deceptively strong for her size; but most of the other people who knew her secret were already quite dead.
“The magistrate wishes to see you now,” the butler announced from the door. Magnus dutifully followed the butler to Alexander’s study. The sound of their heels against the parquet floor echoed down the eerily silent hall. The rain had stopped, the storm long gone but an oppressive feeling still remained in the air.
Upon entering the study, Magnus found the magistrate and Jace glaring balefully at one another across the room. Alexander was seated at his desk between them, his fingers steepled and pressed to his lips, his face impassive. The butler cleared his throat, then pulled the door closed behind him in one smooth, practiced motion as he left the room.
“His Grace protests innocence in the crime that was committed here today. I understand you were seated by him during the attack.” The magistrate turned and fixed Magnus with a haughty stare. The omission of a formal greeting told Magnus exactly where he stood in the man’s eyes. But Magnus had faced down horrors that would make this blustering bully wet himself in terror. He met the man’s challenging gaze head on, his shoulders back, chin lifted, refusing to speak until the magistrate finally blinked and glanced away, conceding the challenge.
“I was seated next to His Grace before the attack, and during.”
The magistrate glowered intently at a spot just above Magnus’s left ear. “And when the lights went out, what happened?”
“The medium had requested everyone to link hands, so at that moment I was joined with both Lord Alexander on my right, and Lady Maryse on my left. When the lights went out, we heard screams; Lord Alexander, Lord Wayland and myself immediately rose to our feet with thoughts of rendering aid. When the lightning came again we saw Madame Dorothea’s body on the table.”
“And His Grace was still next to you at that time?”
“It was pitch dark, was it not, Mr. Bane, and the room is not overly large. Is it possible that His Grace, a trained combat soldier, could have moved quickly across the floor, bashed the deceased with the candelabra, and then returned to your side?”
“Impossible. In all the confusion, we hadn’t yet released other’s hands. I am certain I would have felt myself being dragged about the room during the conduct of a murder.” He extended his arms. “My arms, as you can see, are not as long as all that.” Jace coughed softly, covering what Magnus suspected might have been an involuntary laugh.
The magistrate turned positively purple and opened his mouth, but Alexander interrupted, rising from his chair.
“There you have the witness’s statement, sir. I am sorry if it is not more to your liking.” He spoke with a steady, commanding tone that sent an unexpected thrill through Magnus’s chest. It was easy to see how the Duke had earned many commendations throughout the War. He had a natural kind of authority, one that not everyone born to such a title could possess.
The magistrate looked as if he would like to throttle them all.
“Is Mr. Bane free to go?”
A vein pulsed alarmingly in the lawman’s forehead. Magnus wondered if perhaps they should call Doctor Granby to check the man’s heart before they ended up with two corpses on their hands. But the magistrate got himself under control quickly.
“Send in the next witness,” he ordered, dismissing Magnus with a wave of his hand.
“Mr. Bane is a guest in my house, Charles. He is not to be ordered about like a tavern wench.” The anger simmering underneath Alexander’s tone was unmistakable. Jace straightened up from where he had been leaning against the wall, his right hand habitually twitching toward a nonexistent sidearm. Magnus held his breath.
The magistrate swallowed and looked toward Magnus, although not directly at him. “I beg your pardon, Mr. Bane. It is a difficult case. Madame Dorothea and my wife were close friends.”
Magnus inclined his head in acceptance.
“Anyway, Mr. Bane is the last. You have questioned all of my guests. We can start with the servants now. Lord Wayland, if you would,” Alec said, his eyes never leaving the magistrate. Jace strode to the door and opened it so Magnus could leave. Jace then motioned to the butler outside, who nodded and walked back toward the music room where the attending servants had been ordered to remain until called for.
It was a long climb up the stairs to his rooms. Magnus was deeply tired; the hour had grown late and the events of the day were wearing on him. He had so much to tell Raphael. He hoped the valet was still awake; he would be glad of his friend’s quiet, unassuming company for once.
The following day a picnic and lawn games were quickly arranged by the shores of Lake Lyn, which formed most of the southern border of the Lightwood estate. Alec prayed for rain so he could avoid the hushed whispers and stares that his presence would surely stir among the guests. But the weather was perfect, the day unseasonably warm for spring. His prayers went unanswered.
Still, he managed to delay his arrival late into the morning on the excuse of attending to household matters. When he finally went out he found the guests, his mother and sister among them, preparing to be seated to dine for lunch. As he walked along the small, informal tables that had been set along the lawn, he was met by many nods and smiles. No one seemed overly eager to whisper about the unsavory topic of murder underneath the cheerful sun. If anyone was inclined to brand him a serial killer, at least it didn’t look like they were going to do so over tea sandwiches and punch.
The seating was informal. The tables were arranged in a semicircle affording a lovely view of the lake. Alec very quickly spotted Magnus already seated with the Carstairs and another couple. There was an empty seat next to Magnus, but Alec did not immediately move to take it; doing so after being seen holding hands with the other man during the séance - as innocent as that had been - might have been misconstrued. Alec was in no position to make overtures of a romantic sort and didn’t want to put Magnus in the position of having to deny such a rumor. But before he could overthink the matter, Jace took the open seat, shaking Magnus’s hand and greeting the rest of the table with his most disarming smile.
Well, he had asked Jace to find out everything he could about Magnus, after all. Perhaps their lunch conversation would bring something new to light. Relieved, Alec took a seat at a nearby table, not quite close enough to overhear what was being said, but where he could keep a close eye on the psychic and ensure he wasn’t being overly bothered by anyone, especially –
Lady Belcourt, who was sliding smoothly into the empty seat to Alec’s right while Élodie and Sebastian took the seats across from him. Lady Maryse and Lady Isabelle came behind to round out the table.
The Duke groaned inwardly; he’d been inattentive for only a moment but now he would pay the price. At least Isabelle had sat beside him. Perhaps his sister could offer some protections from the machinations of the Countess.
Magnus watched Camille as she fluttered around Alexander, shooting surreptitious glances in Magnus’s direction to see if he was watching. Of course he was watching, his fingers twitching under the table with irritation. Alec was a model of gentlemanly courtesy, but Magnus didn’t fail to notice how skillfully Lady Isabelle kept interjecting herself into any conversation Camille tried to engage with Alec alone. The Lightwood’s daughter would be a force to be reckoned with when she came of age, Magnus observed with a smile. He thought he might like to befriend the young woman someday.
As Camille leaned forward to catch something Isabelle was saying, she pretended to nearly topple into Alexander’s lap. She put a hand on his chest to catch herself and the other disappeared under the table into the young lord’s lap. Something visceral and unrelenting twisted in Magnus’s belly. Alec flushed, but Camille only gave a pretend-embarrassed laugh and looked the very picture of innocence as he helped her back into her seat.
Oh, how Magnus longed to fling her into the nearby lake with just a flick of his wrist. But he refrained. Overtly using his ordinary magic, except in immediately life-threatening situations, was expressly forbidden by the Clave. It would be grounds for Magnus’s exile – or execution, depending on whether anyone actually died, or how many people had to have their memories altered afterward. There were so few genuine mystics or other supernatural creatures remaining after the last few centuries of Clave Wars – ghosts being the exception, since mortal death never seemed to take a holiday - that Magnus could not risk himself for something as petty as Camille’s obvious manipulations. He had been able to successfully skirt the edges of Clave rules from time to time without stirring their ire, but he couldn’t afford to make a mistake that would get him into real hot water.
Although if Camille were taken out of the supernatural tally, Magnus wouldn’t really have minded that much. He assumed she was only toying with Alexander to annoy him personally, but with Camille one could never really be certain. If she made any move toward Alexander’s food or drink Magnus would have to strike fast and sure. Although Magnus wasn’t sure even his magic could overcome Camille’s particular kind of venom. He’d never had to try. But he was willing to risk his life to find out, if it came to that.
As Jace and Lady Carstairs together were well able to drive the conversation at their table, it gave Magnus a chance to study Alexander discreetly. His dark hair was as unruly as ever, but Magnus found it charming, unlike Lord Carstairs who carried a hairstyle that could only be described as having a frightened owl atop his head. Alexander avoided garish colors, choosing to wear muted, darker shades even in the daytime. He also eschewed any jewelry or other ornamentation like Magnus himself dearly loved. But the linen of his suit was fine and well-cut. Having seen the Duke in only his shirt sleeves, Magnus knew quite well that Alexander required no padding to create a masculine silhouette. He remembered how strong Alexander’s hand had been in his own, the skin soft but slightly callused. A soldier’s hand and a gentleman’s all in one.
Magnus felt his face grow warm as his mind carried the thoughts of Alexander’s hands farther than was seemly for a public event. He fanned himself quietly, and when queried, merely said he was used to a northern clime and not yet accustomed to the southern spring heat.
Fending off Lady Belcourt was exhausting. Alec didn’t know how Magnus had managed to make it look so effortless.
Isabelle had managed to bring the conversation around to the newest spring styles, which fortunately the Countess seemed especially interested in describing. Alec took advantage of their distraction to simply keep putting food in his mouth. He was actually quite hungry, having not had much appetite for dinner, and then skipped breakfast to manage some more of the fallout from the previous night’s incident. He had set to work upon waking and taken no time for anything more than a cup of tea. There had been letters to send to the Clave, notices to draft and send out to be put up in the town. He had sent a letter of condolence and a substantial donation to Madame Dorothea’s family with a promise to leave no stone unturned in bringing justice for her death.
Having to chew also gave him a reasonable excuse not to reveal the degree of his ignorance about ladies’ millinery, a topic his sister was suddenly debating with an alarming degree of passion.
He knew Magnus had been looking in their direction when Lady Belcourt had practically fallen into his lap, blaming her tight stays for sending her off balance as she’d leaned a bit too far forward. Alec was working very hard to forget where her wayward hand had gone as he’d helped her back into her seat. He didn’t dare look Magnus’s way; he was too embarrassed at his own continued fumbling of the situation. Alec had never been good at playing the kind of flirtatious games the Countess kept trying to draw him into, and he most definitely didn’t want to practice such things with her. He wished he’d risked his mother’s disapproval and just not come down at all.
But then he wouldn’t have seen how beautiful Magnus looked today, with the sun sparkling off his hair and his golden skin practically glowing in the light. Magnus was definitely a sight worth seeing under any circumstance. Alec sighed; Lady Belcourt’s attention was the price he would just have to pay. Alec felt yet another twinge of regret that he would never be able to pursue more than a friendship with the intriguing and handsome man.
Keeping his gaze turned away from Magnus and his attention off Lady Belcourt gave Alec few other options, so he spent much of the meal discreetly observing Sebastian. Élodie and Maryse spent most of their time in conversation, but Sebastian sat quietly, picking at his food and looking about. As he watched, Alec noted Sebastian’s eyes frequently drifting toward Magnus’s table. He couldn’t tell if Sebastian was watching Magnus or watching Jace, but no matter which man was responsible, Alec found the repeated glances troubling. He knew there was no love lost between Sebastian and Jace, but he did not really know Sebastian well enough anymore to guess how far his cousin might push their mutual dislike. As long as Sebastian kept himself to himself and didn’t overtly start any trouble Alec would let him alone. But if he so much as curled his lip toward Jace, or Magnus, or anyone -
“What do you think of it, Lord Alexander?”
Alec froze as the Countess addressed him directly. He had been lost in thought, paying absolutely no attention to the winding topics of discussion. As Alec stared blankly between the two ladies, Isabelle laughed. “My brother would have to follow gossip in order to have any opinion about Lord Worsley’s latest scandal.”
Lady Belcourt fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Why, my lord, I shouldn’t have thought a man as handsome and charming as you would be such a wallflower.”
Alec frowned slightly. “In my experience, my lady, most gossip bears only a passing resemblance to the truth. I prefer to deal with the latter.”
“Of course you do,” the Countess deferred. But Alec didn’t miss how her eyes flickered toward Magnus as she said it.
Fun fact: there really was a regency hairstyle for men known as the "frightened owl".
I have to take a couple of days off from writing; I have a fair amount written ahead, and it's beginning to come together toward an ending. But updates may be less frequent for the next week or so. Never fear, the story continues. Thank you for letting me know you're reading along with me!
"Between Scylla and Charybdis," Magnus murmured. "How poetic."
As the lunch tables were cleared away and the guests drifted toward the green, where games were being set up, Magnus politely declined Lady Carstairs’ invitation to partner her in lawn bowling. As he moved toward the edge of the crowd he saw that Lady Maryse had cornered Alexander by the hedge. Their conversation was one-sided; the Duke’s jaw was set while his mother talked non-stop. Magnus watched for a few moments, then sighed. His chances of conversing socially with Alexander were dwindling with every second.
He retrieved a small book from his pocket and started toward a shade tree at the edge of the border woods, where he could sit and read.
He had to give Lord Wayland credit – the man was stealthy. Magnus was a hard man to sneak up on, yet Jace kept managing it, somehow.
“Byron again,” Magnus replied, waving the cover at him.
“You seem to have a fondness for his lordship’s poetry,” Jace teased, but his eyes were kind.
Magnus smiled softly. “It’s only that there is so much of it to read; one barely has time to grow tired of the latest book before he’s already published the next.” He looked out over the lake, lost for a moment in memory. “We were friends. I knew him in Venice.” He discreetly left out the part where he strongly suspected that parts of Don Juan had been written with a few of Magnus’s past exploits in mind.
“I had no idea you were so well-traveled,” Jace said absently, turning to look over his shoulder. His eyes fixed momentarily on Lady Maryse and Alexander; her animated rant showed no signs of slowing down.
Magnus smiled, a little sadly. “There are a lot of things people don’t know about me.”
Jace turned to look at him, his expression growing serious.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of our dining companions that might spoil a lovely meal. But I wish to thank you for your defense of Alec last night. Charles has been overly eager to pin Lydia’s death on him, and is terribly affronted that the Clave wants to declare it a suicide. He would have loved for you to have given him a reason to also accuse Alec of Madame Dorothea’s murder.”
Magnus shrugged. “I simply told the truth. It was not a particularly challenging task.”
“Still,” Jace said. “I thank you for your honesty. It did put you in an uncomfortable position.” Jace studied Magnus closely. “There are a number of painful secrets in our family. I am afraid you are going to be caught up in the thick of all of them soon, by virtue of your special talents, whether you want to be or not.”
Magnus raised an eyebrow at him. “Every family has secrets, my lord. To be frank, I wondered if that was why you had chosen to sit at my table – perhaps to try to learn a few of mine.”
Jace’s wolfish grin returned in full force. “Ah, nothing that devious I’m afraid. I was only there to ensure that Lady Belcourt maintained a suitable distance from your person. I saw her moving toward your table so I simply headed her off. She seems to have quite an interest in you, but Alec mentioned to be that her repeated attentions at mealtimes were making you uncomfortable. ”
Magnus stared at him, surprised and also pleased that Alexander had noticed not only Camille’s actions but also Magnus’s reactions to them. Then he laughed in spite of himself. “You came to protect me from Her Ladyship - and left Lord Alexander wide open.”
Jace’s grin deepened. “No plan is ever perfect, is it? I expected him to fall on his butter knife just to make it end.”
Magnus shook his head. “I felt sorry for him. He was so far out of his element. It was painful to watch.”
“Alec is out of his element with women in general,” Jace remarked.
Magnus tilted his head, curious. “However did he manage his engagement to Lady Branwell, then?”
“Ah, that was a mutual arrangement between the family heads. We have all known each other since childhood, of course; the Branwells and the Lightwoods have a long and storied history between them. But neither Lydia nor Alec were particularly inclined to marry at all. So as far as I can tell, both of them viewed it as a devil-you-know kind of situation. Better to marry someone you can at least enjoy a companionable silence with, if you have to marry at all.”
Magnus pondered Jace’s answer, then decided to push forward, taking advantage of Jace's unexpected openness. “So you are saying Lord Alexander is not the marrying kind?”
Jace waved his hand, a gesture that seemed to sweep the question away. “Alec regularly does things he doesn’t want to do in the name of family duty. It’s the Lightwood way.”
Magnus frowned. “I’m afraid I do not understand.”
Jace came to stand beside Magnus, then. They stood shoulder to shoulder watching Alexander as he stood quietly, buffeted by the storm of his mother's verbal tirade. “My brother is a complicated man, but he has a simple heart. He was not in love with Lydia and he knew she was not in love with him. I believe that is what gave him the most pain. If he thought she had at least cared for him as a wife should care for her husband, then he might have tried to pretend, for her sake. But she had been betrothed already, for all that it ended in tragedy, and she had said to us many times that she could never love again.” He shook his head. “Alec will always put someone else’s feelings ahead of his own, even when it’s to his detriment. He struggled with the dilemma for many weeks: he could not refuse Lydia without humiliating the Branwells and infuriating Maryse, but he could not accept his mother's direction without hurting Lydia."
"Between Scylla and Charybdis," Magnus murmured. "How poetic."
"But he did not kill Lydia,” Jace said firmly, his hands tightening into fists even as they hung at his sides. “He never would have done such a thing.”
Magnus put his hand on Jace’s arm. “I believe you, my lord. Even though our interactions have been limited and brief, I cannot fathom Lord Alexander to be a murderer.”
Jace nodded. “The very idea is ludicrous. But the rumor mill is churning, and until it has something else to go on about, Alec has a shadow lingering over him. Maryse is desperate to clear his name so that when his mourning period is ended she can marry him off to her second choice. God only knows who that will be - there are ladies lining up all across the country hoping to snare the most eligible bachelor in the land. Besides me, of course. To be honest –“ and Magnus didn’t miss the assessing, sidelong glance Jace shot his way, though he did not acknowledge it - “I think my brother would far prefer a match with another eligible bachelor. Although that will make it problematic to produce the requisite Lightwood heir. But Lady Maryse will have the best strategic match in mind already, I’m sure. I just hope for his sake it isn’t Lady Belcourt.” Jace shuddered in mock horror.
Magnus pressed a finger to his lips, thoughtfully. So that was the piece he’d been missing. The Lightwoods did ascribe to the older ways of arranged marriages. That explained a number of things: the lack of affection between Alec and his betrothed, Alec’s social inadequacies with the fairer sex, and possibly his flustering around Magnus. He had observed Alexander’s strong sense of honor first hand, so it was easy for him to imagine that the Duke would go along with such a requirement even at the cost of his own happiness. Of course there were two other Lightwood children, and Jace, who even as an adopted son could serve in the heir production capacity if he were so inclined in the future. But as the oldest and the heir apparent to the Lightwood estate, Alexander would be expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the burden on his own.
“Never fear, my lord," he said reassuringly, before he could get too lost in his own thoughts. "I have it on good authority that Lady Belcourt has her sights set elsewhere.”
“Danbury will never know what hit him,” Jace murmured, and Magnus wholeheartedly agreed.
In good humor after that, they chatted idly for a few more moments. But before long Magnus could sense that Jace was holding something back, so he said as much, directly, when the conversation reached a natural pause.
Jace took the opening and dove in. “I must confess, I would like to hear more about your conversation with Aline.”
Magnus cocked his head. “I did notice that you were very affected by our encounter in the garden, my lord. Were you very close?”
Jace’s smile was sad. “She was my first love. I once asked if she would marry me when we were grown up. She said that we were family and she couldn’t conceive of it. Even though she said it kindly, my poor young heart was broken. And it broke again the day she died. I was the one who found her, you see. It was weeks before I got over the shock.” Jace’s eyes looked as if they were focused on the distant past. His smile faded.
“I’m so sorry,” Magnus said quietly, and he truly was.
“Did she – “ Jace paused as though he were trying to organize his thoughts. “Did she seem unhappy? Did she say anything besides what you’ve already told me?”
Magnus shook his head. “She seemed quite calm, actually, neither happy nor unhappy. She said nothing else besides what I recounted to you at the time.” To his surprise, he found himself struggling with just how much he wanted to reveal to the other man. He shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet and back again, rocking uncertainly. Jace had trusted him with some new information, and he had no reason to doubt its veracity, but Magnus still found it hard to let his guard down too much. At the same time he wanted to offer Jace some comfort, somehow. He felt encouraged by their talk. It was nice to be taken on faith; that happened so rarely, in his past experience. Jace gave every appearance of having accepted Magnus’s abilities, and wasn’t questioning either his character or his sanity at every turn.
“Spirits can go for exceptionally long periods of time without any contact with the living,” he said finally. “Then when someone actually comes along that they can speak to, a person that isn’t frightened and running away, or actively trying to exorcise them, by that time some of them are so weak they can barely materialize in a corporeal form. Others can’t remember how to use words at all. They may only be able to communicate by projecting images or gesturing in response to simple questions. But Aline came through very clearly. So clearly I thought she was a living girl, at first. She was one of the strongest spirits I have ever encountered. She draws that strength from her attachment to the estate, but more importantly, to its living occupants. She must have loved all of you just as much as you loved her.”
Jace’s shoulders hunched forward; it was a posture Magnus recognized, a man borne down under the weight of an old grief long carried. “Did she know that I was there?”
Magnus felt a deep pang of sympathy. He understood the pain of losing a loved one, and he knew from personal experience how especially hard that pain was for young children to bear.
“I do not know, my lord. I looked away from her when you approached and when I looked back, she had gone.”
“Well.” Jace took a deep breath, straightening his back. “I am grateful to hear that she did not seem distressed, at least.”
Magnus’s curiosity had been rising, and although it was a ghastly question, he could not help but ask it. “How did she die?”
But there were limits to what even Jace could bear in one day, it seemed. His young face clouded as he shook his head. “Horribly, Magnus. She died horribly; if you’ll pardon me, I haven’t the stomach to revisit it today.”
Magnus nodded, his hands clasped in front of him purposefully as he suppressed a fleeting desire to offer the young lord a sympathetic but highly inappropriate hug. As if sensing Magnus’s compassion, Jace clapped him on the shoulder once, his lips pressed into a thin smile that didn’t reach his eyes, as he took his leave.
Magnus had lost all interest in poetry. The echo of Jace’s sadness lingered, heavy in the air, and regret swept over Magnus like a wave. Tucking the book back into his pocket he turned and started down one of the graveled paths that led through the woods toward the lake. He needed to get away from the party before anyone else approached him. He wasn’t in the mood for conversation any more.
As he paced back and forth at the water’s edge and looked out at the view, Magnus wondered what would happen to the Lightwood family if he did uncover anything of meaning. Not just about Lydia’s death, but about Aline’s as well. Sometimes finding answers could bring relief and closure to a wounded heart. But it could also turn a person’s entire world upside down. When the mysteries had finally been solved, everything would change for the Lightwood family – whether for better or for worse, was anyone’s guess. And even the most intelligent, rationally-minded people sometimes blamed the messenger if they didn’t like the message they received.
Lost in thought, Magnus didn’t hear the soft footsteps in the sandy earth behind him. The only warning he had was a soft hiss of air; just as he started to turn, a thick branch smashed into the side of his head. The blow sent him toppling into the icy water with a cry.
A headache pressed behind Alec’s eyes, the kind that only his mother could give. He had spent over a quarter of an hour listening to Lady Maryse complain about the impact of Madame Dorothea’s most inconvenient murder on the rest of that week’s social plans. He wished she had caught Isabelle or Élodie instead, but he hadn’t been able to disentangle himself from Lady Belcourt quickly enough to escape before Maryse cornered him. He rubbed his aching forehead as he absently scanned the lawn, eventually spotting Jace and Magnus in conversation near the lake path.
Alec felt a twinge of concern when he realized that Jace looked unhappy. Magnus’s expression was also serious; it was soft, however, and sympathetic rather than angry or sad. Alec sighed heavily; Jace was undoubtedly asking the psychic about Aline. When a guest came hurrying over with a question and finally set him free from his mother’s tirade, he started toward them, but hadn’t gotten far before the two men broke apart. Jace strode across the lawn in Alec’s direction but Magnus turned and walked down into the trees, moving toward the lake and out of sight.
As they came together, Alec reached out a hand and clasped Jace’s forearm. “Are you alright?” His brother looked like he had been near tears and was only just starting to collect himself.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” Jace assured him, patting Alec’s hand. “I am going over there to distract myself with a glass of punch and a game of shuttlecock with those beautiful young ladies.”
Alec frowned. “Are you certain? We could walk together, if there’s something you want to talk about.”
Jace peeled Alec’s fingers off his sleeve. “Alec, I promise you, I am alright. Magnus did seem a little sad, though. I asked him about Aline. He was careful with his answers, but I think that was more to spare my feelings than from him having any intent to deceive. He was kind to me; what he said was comforting, in its own way.”
Alec stared in the direction of the lake path. Jace nudged him with an elbow. “You should probably go after him,” he said. “He might need a tall, dark, handsome shoulder to lean on.”
Alec shot Jace a warning glance. “Magnus can take care of himself.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Jace replied. “But sometimes people appreciate having others show they are interested in caring for them.”
Alec’s glare deepened, but Jace only chuckled and shoved him lightly toward the path. “Go, already. You’re keeping me from my ladies.”
Alec shook his head at Jace’s transparent attempts at matchmaking, but still headed out in the direction Magnus had gone. If Jace wasn't being forthcoming with information about their conversation, maybe Magnus would have more to say. He might also be able to ask the older man for tips about managing Lady Belcourt, in case she managed to worm her way close to Alec again. He shivered at the unpleasant thought.
He followed the lake path down through the trees toward the water’s edge; as he walked he thought he heard a faint rustling in the trees. He paused to listen, tense, but then a squirrel ran across his path. He let out the breath he had been holding, relieved. But before he could take another step, still caught in the stillness of his pause, another sound broke the silence: a faint cry ahead, followed by a splash.
Alec ran. As he broke through the trees, he caught sight of the pale fabric of Magnus’s sleeve just sinking beneath the water’s surface. Alec was already shrugging his own coat off as he hit the water at a dead run. The muddy bottom sucked at his feet and legs, but he fought against its pull. He quickly reached Magnus and dragged him back up to the surface.
Magnus coughed reflexively; he spit water out of his mouth, but his eyes remained closed. Alec half carried, half dragged him up onto the bank. Magnus coughed again as Alec laid him gently on the ground, rolling him onto his side so he could expel the water from his lungs. But he still didn’t stir. Alec patted Magnus’s cheek and called his name, but there was no response. As he pushed the dark strands of wet hair back from Magnus’s face Alec’s fingertips brushed across his hairline and came away bright red with blood. He found the cut easily; it didn’t look too awfully deep, but a dark bruise was already forming across Magnus’s temple and cheek.
Alec swore under his breath. He lifted Magnus over his shoulders, just as he would have carried a wounded soldier from the battlefield. He didn’t bother with the path, instead climbing straight up through the trees in a more direct route toward the house. He and Jace had run all through the woods when they were boys and knew every inch of ground on the estate like they knew the backs of their own hands.
As he came out of the tree-line near the kitchen gardens one of the groundskeepers saw him and rushed over to help. Alec waved him away. “Find Lord Granby,” he panted. “He’s down at the picnic. And bring Lord Wayland as well.”
Alec stumbled across the lawn as the man took off running. The cook must have been looking out the kitchen window and saw him coming, for there she was holding open the door, calling back into the house for help. As Alec staggered up the stairs the butler met him at the top. Together they eased Magnus’s limp form down off his shoulders. “Fetch us clean hot water and rags,” he said to the cook, and off she went.
Alec slung one of Magnus’s arms over his own neck, the butler taking the other. The two men half-carried, half-dragged the unconscious Magnus to the nearest room – Alec’s study. Alec for once was glad of his mother’s insistence about his décor; he had been content to have only an armchair and a desk, but Maryse had insisted on other furnishings befitting his station so that he could present a respectable showing to visitors. They were able to lay Magnus down gently upon the long sofa without his feet hanging over the edge.
“We need a blanket.” The butler was gone before Alec’s mouth had even closed around the last word. His concern was more for cold and shock than anything else; Magnus was shivering. He pulled off Magnus’s shoes and socks, then managed to remove his coat and vest without difficulty just as the butler suddenly returned with Magnus’s valet in tow.
“That was fast,” he said, surprised, standing up with Magnus’s dripping vest hanging limply in his grasp.
The valet swept past him. In the man’s arms were a full set of nightclothes, including a fur-lined dressing gown, and a heavy blanket. “I saw you from the window,” the man said brusquely, already setting about unbuttoning Magnus’s shirt.
Cook came to the doorway carrying water and towels, stopped, and gasped at the sight of the unconscious, half-naked psychic. “Thank you Alice,” the butler said, taking her burdens from her and ushering her back out. He closed the door softly behind her shocked face as the valet continued to peel off Magnus’s wet clothing with alarming efficiency. Alec started wetting the towels and moved around to the back side of the sofa, leaning over so he could clean Magnus’s wound. The valet glanced up at him, eyebrow raised. “Is the doctor coming?”
“Any minute now, I hope,” Alec replied. As the valet stripped Magnus down to his underclothes, Alec folded a dry towel and tucked it under Magnus’s head. He looked away from what the valet was doing, focusing on cleaning off as much of the blood and mud and lake water as he could. He knew it was necessary to get Magnus’s body wrapped in warm dry clothes to stave off hypothermia and shock, but it felt like a terrible invasion of privacy for the man to be stripped like that in front of three other people. Even if one of them was his own valet.
By the time Magnus’s wet clothes were off, spread by the fireplace to dry, and he was snugly wrapped in his housecoat, just as Alec had finished cleaning the wound and slowed the bleeding as much as he could, Jace’s voice rang out in the hall.
“Where the devil are they?”
The butler opened the study door and called out. Within seconds Granby barreled into the room, Jace just behind him. The butler stepped out into the hallway; Alec could hear him shooing away other curious servants who had started to gather at the commotion. Magnus’s valet remained, fading back into a corner and out of the way.
Granby stripped off his jacket and was rolling up his shirt sleeves. “I’ve sent a lad to my rooms for my kit,” he said. “What happened?”
“Mr. Bane was walking by the lake. He appears to have fallen, struck his head and then tumbled into the water. I was nearby and heard him cry out. I was able to pull him out, and he coughed up some water. But he has never stirred since then.” As he spoke, Alec and Jace locked eyes. A look passed between them; Alec could see that they were of one mind – Jace shared Alec’s suspicions without him having to say them aloud.
“This wound is not deep. I don’t think we will need stitches,” Granby said as he turned Magnus’s head gently and checked all around for further injury. He looked at Magnus’s hands, then at his elbows, and his knees. “He fell and hit his head, you say?”
“He must have,” Alec said carefully. “I was some distance away, so I did not witness it directly, but there is no other explanation for his having fallen into the water.”
Granby looked up at Alec, the beginnings of a slight frown skimming across his face. Alec held the doctor’s gaze steadily for a few moments, until Granby, apparently satisfied with whatever he saw in Alec’s expression, turned back to the unconscious man. “Head wounds can be tricky,” he said. “I’ll need to stay here until he wakes.”
“Should he be taken to his room?” Alec’s study had only a very small fireplace. The chill air was most worrisome. He looked over at Magnus’s valet but the young man stood still as stone, hands clasped behind his back, his dark eyes fixed on Magnus. He must have known Alec was looking at him, but he did not acknowledge the Duke at all. Alec felt a little stung by it. Their brusque exchange had been unremarkable. It was understandable that social graces might be discarded in a time of emergency – soldiers in the middle of a battle didn’t bother to call out another man’s full title to get his attention, after all – but the man’s stoic avoidance of eye contact was an easily noted slight.
Granby’s reply interrupted his thoughts. “No, he should be moved as little as possible. Once he awakens, we will know better if there was any impact to his vision or his mind.”
“We can get some bricks from the kitchen fire,” Jace said. “Wrap them in cloth and tuck them in alongside him, like we used to do when we were children. It will help keep him warm.” He inclined his head toward the door with a raised eyebrow sent Alec’s way; Alec caught on, and moved to join him.
A house boy came rushing in with the Doctor’s medical bag just then, distracting him, so the two brothers slipped out into the hall.
“There are no abrasions on his palms or knees,” Jace said quietly as they walked briskly down the hall. “And the head injury is in such a place that he could not easily have fallen so directly into the lake, if he acquired it on the ground. He did not fall and strike his head.”
“I do not think it so either,” Alec agreed. “I believe he was struck by an assailant, hard enough to be thrown into the water and left to drown.”
Jace nodded. “It is the most likely answer.”
“Granby suspects as well,” Alec said. “But I think the good Doctor will not say anything yet. He understands the need for discretion, when we might unintentionally send the other guests into a panic. I will speak to him as soon as I can – I do not want this spread about; whoever did this cannot be allowed to know what we think. They may flee and we will never catch them.”
Magnus had the ability to help the Lightwood family get answers to some very important questions. Alec clenched his jaw as they strode toward the kitchen, his fists curling and uncurling at his sides. Given what had happened the previous night, a picture was becoming very clear: there was someone at Lightwood Hall who didn’t want those answers to be found.
“You never asked to be a part of this.”
Everywhere he looked, there was only darkness.
Magnus turned this way and that, searching for some way to determine where he was. Surely there would be a flash of light, maybe a sound in the distance, to guide him. But in all directions he saw only a blank nothingness. He wasn’t even sure whether he actually felt ground under his feet, or if his imagination was simply working overtime.
“Am I dead?” Magnus wondered aloud. His words fell into the blackness, muffled, like the soft thud of an egg being dropped onto a feather pillow.
“Being dead is not like this,” a woman said, alarmingly close to his ear.
A feeling of deep sadness washed over him, but the sensation was alien. He knew immediately that it wasn’t his own emotion he was feeling. A shiver ran down his back, but it wasn’t fear. It was cold. He was freezing, he realized suddenly. His fingers and toes – where they should have been, anyway, lost for now in the all-encompassing blackness - felt like tiny blocks of ice. He shivered again as he turned his head, looking for the source of the voice.
“Who are you?” he inquired of the disembodied person, trying to rub his numb hands over his goosefleshed arms. The cold was increasing to the point that it was almost painful.
“Your walls are too strong when you’re awake,” she said, now in his opposite ear. “This is the only time I can come to you. When your walls are down. I need your help.”
So he was dreaming, and not actually lost in a void; that was comforting at least. Magnus instinctively turned his head toward the voice again, but still no one was there.
“What can I do to help you?”
“I already showed you,” she murmured, now somewhere directly in front of him. “I took you there. But you don’t remember, because you were asleep. That’s the problem, Magnus. That’s why you need to let me in when you are awake. I won’t hurt you. I just need you to find it so I can move on. He is waiting for me. But I can’t go until this is done.”
“Where did you take me? What do you need me to find?”
He felt a silky softness brush over his invisible skin, wrapping itself around his body. The frigid chill gradually began to release him. He still felt cold, but it was not as painfully sharp as it had been before. The feeling of sadness was dissipating as well. There was a long pause, then when the voice finally spoke again, it was more distant. “I can take you again. But you still won’t remember. Someone needs to be there to remember.” There were several more long seconds of silence, and then she said, so faintly he almost missed it: “You need to stop sleeping alone.”
Magnus frowned. Why was she fading away? “How can I remember? Please, tell me what to do.” He listened intently, but the sadness had gone completely, and apparently so had the voice. She did not answer again.
“I don’t know what to do,” he whispered to himself.
“Let me help you.”
Magnus jumped, startled at the deep, masculine voice. It sounded almost like Alexander. But no – how could Alexander be here?
“Magnus, open your eyes.”
Magnus thought about opening his eyes. Instantly he was in his bedroom, and his eyes were wide open. There was a fire in the grate but he was still cold. He shivered again. Why couldn’t he get warm? He tried to pull the blankets tighter around himself. His fingers kept slipping off the edges.
He felt a weight settle on the bed behind him. “Let me help you,” Alexander’s voice said again, and then a muscular body slid under the blanket with him, its naked chest pressed up against his naked back, skin to skin and deliciously warm. He instinctively pushed his cold toes back against the enveloping heat, but then hesitated, unsure of having taken the liberty. But Alexander only laughed, and tangled his own legs around Magnus’s icy feet.
He shivered, but not entirely because of the cold. Alexander wrapped his arms tightly around Magnus’s torso, pulling him closer. Magnus brought his hands up and wound his fingers around Alexander’s. Their joined hands burned against his chest, a pool of heat spreading outward from that central point of contact. He felt the soft dusting of hair on Alexander’s chest against the cool skin of his back, and shivered again.
It had been an eternity since anyone had touched Magnus like this. Possibly no one had ever touched him quite like this. They lay like that, silent, unmoving, for what seemed like hours. He felt warm, and safe, and comfortably sleepy. Magnus never wanted it to end.
But then, quite abruptly, something wasn’t quite right. The pleasurable sensation of warmth in his hands and feet began to turn into tiny pinpricks of pain. Annoyed, he shifted, moving his fingers and toes to try to erase the needling sensation. Suddenly there was a strong odor, sharply acidic, stinging the inside of his nose. Magnus shook his head briskly, annoyed, and sneezed. “What is that horrible stench?”
Alexander’s lips brushed his ear. “It’s time to wake up.”
“No,” Magnus murmured, pushing back into Alexander’s chest, away from the unpleasant sensations and toward the pleasant ones. “I don’t want to.” But the odor became stronger. His eyes started to water. He couldn’t breathe, his lungs wanted to seize up from the obnoxious vapors. He twisted away, gasping for fresh air – and opened his eyes.
Confused, it took him a moment to orient himself. He was in Alexander’s study, wrapped in his winter dressing gown and a pile of blankets. It seemed like night-time. The only light came from the small fireplace and a couple of candles. The lights hurt his eyes; he looked away from them. There were warm, cloth-wrapped bricks laid on his chest and at his feet. Dr. Granby leaned over him; Raphael glowered from the opposite end of the sofa. Bracing himself on his elbows, he tried to sit up but instantly regretted it - his head hurt, awfully. He winced and lay back down with a heavy sigh.
Granby re-capped and placed the offensive vinaigrette on a nearby side table, then studied him intently. “Well, Magnus,” he said gruffly. “Welcome back to the land of the living.”
Alec hurried up the stairs, irritable from lack of rest, still blinking the bleariness of sleep from his eyes. He had tossed and turned most of the night, until the early light of dawn crept over the horizon. He had finally fallen asleep trying to count the number of seconds it was taking for the sun to rise – only to be awakened after less than an hour. He suspected that it had been a mistake to let himself sleep at all - he felt worse than he imagined he might have if he had just stayed up all night.
Granby had sent word to Alec immediately when Magnus had awakened, but had insisted that Magnus be allowed to rest undisturbed until morning. If Alec had to hear the doctor say head injuries are nothing to trifle with, one more time …
Just then, echoing from the hallway at the top of the stairs, he heard two voices: one low and angry, one higher pitched and anxious. Frowning, he quickened his pace. As he reached the landing, he saw his cousin Sebastian in close quarters with Isabelle’s maid. The young girl was pale, her eyes wide with fright and reddened as if she had been crying. Her back was pressed against the paneled wall as Sebastian loomed threateningly over her. His right hand gripped the girl’s left wrist tightly, cruelly, the knuckles standing out white against his skin.
At the sound of footsteps Sebastian turned, a snarl dying on his lips as he registered the Duke’s presence. He dropped the girl’s wrist as his face smoothed over, but his eyes still flashed. He was angry, and Alec didn’t have to guess why. Sebastian’s taste for young servants – boys and girls alike - was discussed often enough among the gossipmongers that even Alec had heard of it. But he also knew – perhaps because of Isabelle’s influence - that his sister’s maid was of a less submissive constitution than some of the other servants at Lightwood Hall.
“Sebastian,” Alec said politely, but firmly. “Miss Emma.”
“Your Grace,” the girl squeaked, half curtseying as best she could with her hands trembling so that she could barely hold her skirt. As she ducked her head Alec saw a red handprint deepening slowly on her cheek.
Sebastian remained silent.
“Is there a problem?” Alec drew himself up to his full height, hands on his hips. He addressed the question to Emma directly, then turned slowly to look at Sebastian.
“N-no, Your Grace,” she gasped. Sebastian smiled. His expression sent a chill down Alec’s spine.
“Sebastian,” Alec said, a lifetime of military training behind the commanding tone of his voice. “A word, if you please.” He looked at the maid. “Go to your lady’s chamber, Emma.” The girl shot him a grateful look as she ducked around Sebastian and hurried off toward Isabelle’s rooms.
“The girl is insolent.” Sebastian stepped forward, eyes narrowed; he was not as tall as Alec, nor did he have the reach of him. But Alec knew Sebastian was no easy mark. He had been a dirty fighter when they were children and he would only be better at it by now. He would have a knife up his sleeve, or another way to press an unfair advantage. Alec shifted his feet, balancing his weight unconsciously in a fighter’s stance. “Is this how you run your household, cousin? Even the servants are permitted to talk back to their betters?”
“How you run your household is your business, Sebastian. How I run mine is none of yours. If you have a problem with the servants take it up with my lady mother or myself. But you will leave them alone.” He stepped forward, squaring his shoulders, one finger pointing menacingly at the sneering blonde’s chest. “If I catch you laying a hand on any of my staff again, you will answer directly to me.”
Sebastian looked down at Alec’s finger, then slowly back up to meet his gaze. His cold smile turned predatory. “I will look forward to it.” He spun on his heel and stalked away, his hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Give your pet psychic my regards,” he called over his shoulder, leaving Alec staring darkly after him.
When Alec finally reached Magnus’s room, to his surprise he found the door slightly open. He raised his hand to knock out of courtesy, but paused when he caught sight of Magnus sat up in an overstuffed, comfortable chair, surrounded by a pile of pillows from his bed. His blanket-covered legs and feet were propped on an ottoman for support. Granby bustled around him, removing bandages from his head.
“Are you sure it doesn’t need stitches?” Magnus asked the doctor, studying the healing cut in a gilded hand mirror. He raised his fingers to touch the side of his head. Granby swatted his hand away.
“Stop fussing over it. I’ve cared for children that were better behaved than you are.”
"I just don't wish it to scar and spoil my good looks," Magnus huffed. Alec couldn’t quite suppress an amused smile.
"An important concern, of course," Granby snorted. "While I am sure many would find it easier to go about their days if you were less distractingly handsome, if you insist on poking at it, then I can make you no promises.”
“Fine,” Magnus said exasperatedly. “And I can hear your eyes rolling from here, Raphael,” he called out to his valet, who had just come into sight and was moving steadily – toward him, Alec realized with a start, stepping back just as the door was pulled fully open.
“Your Grace,” the valet intoned drily. Alec wondered how the man managed to maintain such a gloomy expression seemingly every hour of every day.
Magnus looked up in surprise. “Alexander!” he exclaimed. “How kind of you to come and see me.”
“I wanted to come last night, but I was told no visitors were allowed until morning.” He stepped into the room, hands in his pockets, glancing pointedly at Granby who looked right back at him, unfazed.
“Rest is of critical importance, after a –“
“Yes, yes,” Magnus interrupted. “One wonders if you learned anything else at medical school.”
“I learned how to test a man’s vision. How many fingers am I holding up?” Granby made a gesture, and to Alec’s surprise, Magnus laughed.
“Point taken, my friend. I am, of course, eternally grateful for your most excellent care.”
Granby rolled his eyes as he snapped his medical kit shut. “On that note, I’m going to get some breakfast, and then some sleep. At least I know the sarcasm and vanity sections of your brain are working properly.”
Granby paused to speak to Alec on his way to the door. “Don’t overtire him,” the doctor warned. “He’s stubborn, and he will push himself too far without a second thought. But he really does need to rest.”
“I understand,” Alec replied gravely. Magnus rolled his eyes behind Granby’s back – then winced, and put a hand to his forehead. Alec felt a pang of sympathy.
“Raphael,” Magnus said to the stony-faced valet. “Could I trouble you to bring me some of that exquisite Indian tea from the kitchens? Make sure to brew it properly this time. No need to rush.”
A long look passed between the valet and the psychic, and Alec wondered what unspoken communication he was missing. Neither man’s expression wavered. But after a few moments the valet simply bowed slightly at the waist, one hand on his chest, the other behind his back. Then with a side-eyed glance at Alec, he left the room, pulling the door closed behind him.
Now that they were alone, Alec suddenly felt self-conscious. He folded his hands behind his back, willing himself to stand still and not bounce on the balls of his feet as he was prone to do when nervous. He wasn’t sure how to start the conversation, but before he could spend too much time worrying about it, Magnus cleared his throat and spoke first.
“So, Your Grace. I understand that it was you who found me and pulled me out of the lake.”
Magnus toyed with his blankets as he seemed to search for more words. “Thank you,” he said finally, looking up at Alec. “I don’t like to think about what would have happened if you hadn’t come along at just that moment.”
Alec smiled. “There’s no need to thank me. I’d be a poor host indeed if I let one of my guests drown.” Magnus smiled back at him, then looked down at his hands where they lay folded in his lap. Alec, taking the opportunity, pressed on. He gestured at another nearby ottoman. “May I?”
“Yes, please do,” Magnus said brightly.
Alec sat down next to Magnus, guiding the stool underneath him so that they were almost at eye-level with each other. “So how are you feeling? I imagine you must have quite a headache today.”
Magnus grimaced slightly in acknowledgement. “It’s better than it was. At least this morning the sun isn’t hurting my eyes like the candlelight did last night. Granby says that’s a good sign. Apparently,” and his voice took on a mocking tone, “head injuries –“
“- are nothing to trifle with,” Alec joined in simultaneously, and they shared a quick laugh at the doctor’s expense. “But in all seriousness,” Alec continued, “are you all right? Is there anything I can get for you?”
Magnus shook his head, but his eyes moved briefly to the side table next to him. Alec followed his glance and saw a small book, its bound cover and all its pages warped, the ink badly smeared. “What is that?” he asked curiously.
“A gift from an old friend,” Magnus answered. “Unfortunately it didn't survive the fall into the lake as well as I did. I suppose if I ask nicely, he might send me another. But he will give me a devil of a time about having ruined the first one.”
“Oh,” was all Alec could think of to say. He stared at the far wall for a moment, gathering his courage to broach the subject of the attack. Magnus, as if sensing his discomfort, shifted slightly in his chair and carelessly plucked at the edge of his blanket.
“Magnus,” Alec finally began, drawing a deep breath. “Will you tell me what you remember of yesterday’s events?”
Magnus tilted his head as if remembering. “I left the party and I was walking by the lake. Enjoying the view. Then I heard something – footsteps, I thought at the time. I was turning to look, but I guess I moved too slowly. Something struck me from behind, everything went black, and then I woke up in your study wrapped in a dozen blankets with only Granby’s sorry excuse for bedside manner to greet me.”
Alec leaned forward and studied Magnus’s face carefully. “Is it possible that you fell? Or that you wandered too close to the tree line, and a branch struck you, blown by the wind?”
Magnus looked at Alec, his expression one of consternation. “No,” he said firmly. “I did not fall. I remember it quite clearly.”
Alec nodded. “Nor are your injuries consistent with someone who has taken a fall. This was no accident.” He reached out tentatively for Magnus’s hand, turned it over, and looked at his uninjured palm and wrists. “You have no defensive injuries, either. So there was no scuffle. You were attacked from behind, in a most cowardly way.”
Magnus didn’t say anything in reply. Concerned, Alec glanced up at him. Magnus’s eyes were fixed on their joined hands, a slight flush rising in his cheeks. Alec quickly let go, clasping his hands together on his knees as Magnus quietly folded his together again and stared down at them.
“Dare I to hope that you caught a glimpse of your assailant?”
Magnus shook his head the tiniest bit. Still looking at his own hands, he began smoothing the blanket in a calm, steady rhythm. “Unfortunately I barely even remember the blow itself. Everything happened so fast.”
“I sent Jace down to the lakeside as soon as I could, but he didn’t find anything. Even my footprints were gone. There were no marks on the shoreline where I dragged you out. Someone came back with branches and swept over everything. Whoever did this knew we would be checking, and knows how to cover their tracks.”
Magnus looked thoughtfully off in the distance, and when he spoke he sounded disappointed. “I wish I could tell you more. I’m sorry.”
Alec smiled reassuringly. “I’m just glad you’re all right.” Vengeance for Aline and Lydia was Alec’s ultimate goal, but the desire to keep Magnus safe had recently sparked within him. He was glad that Magnus had not been more badly hurt or even killed. The very thought made his gut twist painfully. There had been enough death at Lightwood Hall. He would do everything in his power to make sure there was no more.
Magnus glanced up at him, finally, his eyelashes dark against his golden skin. “Who else knows that this wasn’t an accident?”
“Besides you, me, and the good doctor, Jace also shares my suspicions. We haven’t told the other guests yet, although the gossip hounds will probably already have heard from the staff that you've been injured. I’m going to have to tell people something – perhaps that you slipped and fell. With this happening so soon after Madame Dorothea’s murder, they may or may not believe it. I can’t speak for how much the rest of the staff, or your valet, might have guessed between yesterday and now. But even if they do figure out the truth, I trust most of my people to be discreet.”
“I trust Raphael with my life,” Magnus said quietly. “He knows what happened. Granby said he refused to leave my side. The poor dear stood watch over me all night. I’m surprised that he agreed to let you be here alone with me. I expected more of a fight when I asked him to leave us.”
“Why?” Alec asked, caught off guard. Did Raphael think Alec was the one who had attacked Magnus? Did he believe the rumors about Lydia’s death?
Magnus waved his hand dismissively. “The answer to that question is far too long to give right now. Suffice it to say that Raphael has significant trust issues, especially where nobility are concerned. He has assigned himself the guardian of my virtues, and nothing can sway him from his chosen post.” His lips quirked up in a fond gin, then he reached out to gently touch Alec’s forearm. His fingertips were light, tentative, against Alec’s sleeve. “Look, Alexander, my pride can take the fall for this. I don’t mind people thinking that I temporarily lost command of my usual cat-like reflexes, or that I choose my amazingly fashionable shoes without any thought to how much traction they provide. Most people who know me will be shocked that I ventured out of doors at all.” He paused for a moment, his expression turning serious despite his self-deprecating humor. “But in the interest of safety, Your Grace, I agree it’s best that we don’t mention the truth to anyone else for now. Perhaps by keeping it quiet, we can lure our enemy into revealing themselves.”
Alec nodded, as Magnus withdrew his hand. Magnus had said our enemy, like they were in this together, and Alec supposed they were. Once someone was nearly murdered, it did give them a vested personal interest in finding out by whom, and why. It was Alec’s turn to stare off into space for a moment, his jaw clenched against a deep sadness that he had spent years trying to avoid. He cleared his throat, blinking rapidly before he trusted himself to speak against the raw emotions threatening to break through.
“I hope you are right. Justice has been far too long in coming for Aline. Nor can I bear the thought that Lydia has had to wait so many days for her reckoning. And poor Dorothea, she never asked to be part of this.” He stared down at his hands. “You never asked to be part of this.”
Magnus twisted his fingers in the hem of the blanket. The movement caught Alec’s eye and he looked up; a fleeting distress crossed Magnus’s face, a mirror of what was in his own heart. Magnus took a long, shaky breath as he looked up to meet Alec’s searching gaze.
“I’m sorry that you have had to confront all of these painful memories. Sorry both for you and for Jace. You’ve had to relive some incredibly painful experiences because of my presence here. And now this … I wish -”
Alec held up a hand to stop him. “Don’t apologize, please. Memories need to be confronted before they can be put to rest. You may be the catalyst that has set our killer in motion, but none of this is your fault. You aren’t responsible for what this person has done.” Magnus blinked several times in rapid succession as Alec watched him closely. Was he fighting back tears? His concern for Magnus’s feelings rose again; Alec desperately wanted to reassure him. “Magnus, if you can help us find the person responsible, so that we may see justice done, it will have all been worth it.” He gestured to the side table, suddenly feeling a little guilty himself. “Except for what happened to your friend’s book. I’m sorry that you lost something precious to you because of all my family’s drama. I hope someday I can give you something equally special to make up for it.”
Magnus only continued to look at him, but something new in his expression made Alec’s breath catch in his throat. In Magnus’s eyes he saw a mixture of concern, of sorrow, and something else – something warm and open, that seemed almost like wonder. The look sparked an answering warmth within Alec’s chest. It had begun to dawn on Alec, slowly, that something was changing between them. Something unique was growing; he could feel it taking root, but it was delicate. He feared he might easily upset the balance if he pushed, even a little, in the wrong direction.
Yet still he found he could not look away from Magnus’s penetrating gaze. And as the seconds ticked by, the silent exchange between then stretching on, Alec felt himself irresistibly pulled toward the other man. Impulsively, Alec leaned forward, as though he couldn’t stop himself: grasping Magnus’s chin gently, Alec tilted his face up and pressed their lips together. It was the barest hint of a kiss, just the swift brush of Alec’s lips over Magnus’s mouth. He felt Magnus’s surprised intake of breath, but Magnus didn’t pull away. Nor did he move forward; he sat unnaturally still, as though he really were a cat, and Alec was a bird he was trying not to frighten into flight.
Alec leaned into the kiss, increasing the pressure just slightly. Magnus’s breath hitched again, then Alec felt the other man’s body relax as he sighed against Alec’s mouth. It made Alec’s head spin. The kiss was both too much, and not nearly enough. But it wasn’t very long before common sense broke through to remind him that the valet was due back any moment, and this was not the time or place for such reckless behavior. He pulled back abruptly.
Magnus’s eyes were wide and shining, his lips still slightly parted in shock. Alec knew his own cheeks were burning; he could feel the flames engulfing his entire face. He swallowed, suddenly more terrified than he had ever been in his life. “Forgive me,” he said, “I – I cannot say what came over me just – “ he floundered helplessly for an agonizing few seconds, then took a deep breath and stood. “I will come back again tomorrow, to see how you are feeling.” He turned and walked toward the door. It took all the self-control he possessed not only to keep from stumbling, but to stop himself from turning back. As he opened the door, he saw Raphael approaching with a tray that held a teapot and two cups and saucers. Alec nodded in acknowedgement, but fled in the opposite direction, leaving the valet to stare suspiciously after him.
As he hurried down the corridor, he mentally berated himself. How could he have done that! How could he have been so weak? Giving in to his own temptation was inexcusable. A little voice inside him whispered that he was entitled to happiness, and that maybe he even deserved it - but he pushed that voice aside. He had a duty to his family; if Maryse could get all of her matchmaking desires fulfilled with her eldest, it might at least spare his younger siblings from the same fate.
At least some Lightwood should be allowed to marry for love, Alec thought grimly. Even if it would never be him.
Leaning heavily against the pillows, Magnus touched his fingertips to his lips in amazement as Raphael, discreet as ever, set about arranging the tea service. It had been the most innocent kiss he’d ever had in his life, but his heart was pounding in his chest and he felt as though he could barely catch his breath. He suddenly understood like never before the swooning maidens he’d always scoffed at in poetry. This floating feeling, this headiness, Magnus had always thought to be merely the stuff of fiction. The product of an overactive imagination - a fantasy of love, one which love itself could never equal.
Love! He thought suddenly, alarmed at his own careless thoughts. If Alec could fluster him so much with only that small touch, surely it must be? – But it could not be. The Duke was beautiful and kind, intelligent, commanding, protective, and calm. He was everything Magnus had ever wanted – and he was also simply waiting to be betrothed at his mother’s disposal. He could never … Magnus would never …
He shook his head sadly, disappointment settling over him like a shroud. Magnus could not let something like this happen again. Anything more would be disastrous for them both. Maryse Lightwood would have Magnus’s head on a platter if she thought he’d seduced her most marriageable son. He resisted the urge to tell Raphael to pack his bags, to flee without a backward glance. Even if Magnus left today, no matter if he retreated to Alicante and never came back to Lightwood Hall again, he could never forget what it had felt like to have Alec’s lips on his own. And justice might never come for the restless spirits who needed his help. He buried his face in his hands and groaned. For once, Magnus Bane was well out of his depth, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“I have no interest in Magnus Bane.”
After suffering through the most awkward breakfast of his life, Alec retreated to his study. If not for Jace he might never have made it through the meal with his sanity intact. Alec had always been too honest for his own good, according to his siblings: awful at telling lies, even necessary ones. With long-practiced skill, Jace related their cover story over and over, telling their more inquisitive guests - like Lady Belcourt - that Magnus had simply taken a fall and should be well enough to join them again soon. Alec occasionally added an affirming nod or comment, and reinforced the assertion that no one should go wandering around the grounds alone.
That last directive provoked a flurry of excitement among some of the younger ladies. They whispered together in tight groups and cast sidelong glances at Jace. Of course Jace had been happy to offer to escort any ladies who wanted to take a stroll around the grounds. Alec suspected Jace was only inviting trouble, as if they didn't have enough already. But he was an adult who could look after himself; Alec had too much else on his mind to worry about Jace's shenanigans.
He managed to pass the morning in peace, finishing work that the house party had forced him to postpone. He was too tired and ill-tempered for more socializing, and he hoped - since she hadn't come looking for him - that his mother didn’t need him for anything in particular. He was happy to bury himself in Clave reports, writing letters, and reviewing accounting statements. It helped him avoid thinking about … other things.
As he tallied up the ongoing costs of food, drink, and entertainment for the guests, adding in what was needed for the remainder of the week, he swore softly under his breath. His mother had already overstretched the budget for the party. The lawn event cost three times more than the indoor plans it had replaced, and on top of the subsidy he'd sent to Madame Dorothea’s family … He dropped his pen on the desk with a clatter and passed a hand over his aching eyes. He would have to speak to Maryse about reining in some of her spending. He didn't look forward to having that conversation.
As noon approached, the butler came to inquire about Alec's plans for lunch. “Your lady mother has taken the guests into town today,” he explained in response to Alec’s inquisitive look. Alec sighed and made a quick note alongside his earlier tally: she would surely be pleasure shopping to soothe over the added strain of recent events. He hoped she would keep count of her spending.
“Who, besides myself, is still here?” Alec asked, thinking of how many there could possibly be. Surely Magnus would not have been allowed to go on the excursion. Granby, bless him, was probably still asleep.
“Lady Isabelle and Lord Jace did not choose to go along,” the butler replied, ticking off on his fingers. “Lady Élodie also remained here. Mr. Bane is upstairs, of course, so we can ask if he feels well enough to come down. Doctor Granby’s footman said he is resting and not to be disturbed, but Lord Little is in the library reading and could probably be persuaded.”
Alec considered for a moment, then reluctantly agreed to serve as host for the small group. Hopefully he could get them all through one simple meal without too much of a fuss.
Alec was the last to arrive when lunch was finally served. As he entered the dining room, after pausing outside to take a few deep breaths to calm his nerves, he immediately saw Magnus engaged in conversation with Isabelle and Little. He managed to catch Magnus’s eye for a brief moment, but before Alec could manage to smile in greeting, the other man cleared his throat and looked away, adjusting his napkin where it lay folded on the table. Alec cringed inwardly – he’d hoped that Magnus would have already forgiven him for his ill-conceived, impulsive kiss. But perhaps it would just take a little more time. At any rate, he had come downstairs to eat with them, knowing that Alec would almost certainly be present. He hoped that meant that things were not irreparably damaged between them, yet.
Alec greeted everyone politely, but after that he was mostly ignored. Of course they all wanted to talk to Magnus. As he listened quietly to the conversation, Alec was impressed at how lightheartedly Magnus handled questions about his supposed fall. Soon everyone was smiling and chuckling as Magnus spun a simple loss of balance into a grand adventure. But it was impossible for Alec not to realize that Magnus was deftly avoiding looking in his direction.
When the food was served, the conversation naturally died down. Lady Élodie had spoken very little, simply listening as Magnus regaled them with jokes at Doctor Granby’s expense (much to Lord Little’s amusement). Élodie had a longstanding reputation for preferring to be the center of attention, so Alec was not surprised when she finally spoke just as everyone else began to eat.
“Tell me, Mr. Bane,” Élodie began, with a polite smile. “Have you given any more thought to the questions Lady Maryse posed to you when you arrived at Lightwood Hall?”
Magnus smiled back at her, equally polite. “I have considered the matter, yes.”
Élodie let several seconds of silence pass, as though she expected Magnus to continue speaking. Her eyes narrowed just the tiniest bit when he did not. Alec instinctively sat up straighter in his chair. Magnus had responded to the main point of the question, of course, but he also clearly did not wish to discuss the matter further. Unfortunately, Élodie was easily offended and had a short fuse. He did not doubt that Magnus could handle her wrath easily enough, but Alec still watched them both closely. Isabelle’s eyes also flickered between Élodie and Magnus. Jace and Little politely pretended to pay no attention at all, focusing on their food.
“And do you have an answer?” Élodie’s continued, in an unmistakably frosty tone. Memories from his youth sprang to Alec’s mind: a scolding for entering the house muddy from playing near the stables; a lecture about not having his lessons completed on time. In Alec's peripheral vision Jace’s fingers twitched around the handle of his spoon. All of the Lightwood children had borne the brunt of Élodie’s displeasure from time to time. The chill in her words was something they had learned to dread.
“My lady,” Magnus began, then paused, a small crease appearing between his brows. His hands smoothed over the top of the tablecloth. Alec remembered the gesture from earlier: Magnus fidgeting with his blankets when he was uncertain about what to say next.
“Perhaps there are no answers to present,” Alec interjected. Magnus shot him a grateful look as Élodie turned toward him. As far as she knew, Alec was still skeptical of Magnus’s purported abilities. Maybe he could draw her attention away from her target before she pushed Magnus into saying something they would all regret.
“Or perhaps you are preoccupied with something else,” Élodie suggested, ignoring Alec’s remark and turning back to Magnus. “Certainly there are many distractions here. The house is full of eligible ladies – and gentlemen. I am not so old that I have forgotten what these events are like for the unattached. The attention can be overwhelming.” This time she purposefully turned slowly to look directly at Alec, her sharp eyes glittering. Alec schooled his expression into polite disinterest and sipped his drink, pretending not to take her meaning. Isabelle’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped; Alec nudged her foot under the table with his own, and hoped she had the sense to stay quiet.
At Eloise's pointed comment, Magnus’s hands stilled. Then he folded them and put them in his lap. “Of course I have been enjoying both the company, and the entertainment - as have we all. Such is the very purpose of a house party, is it not?" He spoke calmly, but Alec noted the clipped, measured precision with which Magnus delivered each word. "I have already agreed to inform Lady Maryse if I discover anything regarding the answers she seeks. Other than that, I cannot imagine what you believe I may be preoccupied with. I am here at the request of your family, after all. I did not come with any agenda of my own.”
Magnus’s eyelashes fluttered a bit on his last sentence, a subtle tell, but one that Alec had already learned meant that Magnus wasn't being entirely forthcoming. His mind whirled as he considered the implications. If Magnus had in fact come with his own agenda – what was it? And why had he kept it secret from Alec?
“I was so pleased when you accepted Maryse’s invitation,” Élodie stated, but the sarcastic tone of her voice made the unspoken meaning clear: she was definitely not pleased with him now.
“As was I. Your hospitality has been unparalleled,” Magnus countered, matching Elodie's tone note for note - unfortunately at the very moment Alec had chosen to take another sip of his tea. He choked as the hot liquid went down the wrong side of his throat. Alec grabbed his napkin to muffle the paroxysm of coughing as Little and Jace pounded him on the back. The episode fortunately distracted everyone else and abruptly ended the conversation before it could escalate further.
When Alec could breathe freely again, as he sat dabbing the corners of his watering eyes, Lady Élodie rose from the table and took her leave. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon, gentlemen, Isabelle,” she said coolly, with an irritated glare at Alec as she departed. He steeled himself; his mother was sure to come looking for him later, once she was informed of Alec's refusal to defend Élodie against Magnus’s remarks. Even though Élodie had been the aggressor from the start.
The rest of the meal passed in an uneasy silence, with only a few murmurs of random conversation passing between them all. Try as he might, Alec could not catch Magnus’s eye again. Afterward, Little offered to walk Magnus back to his room. They managed to say a polite goodbye to each other, but Magnus studiously avoided looking Alec in the eyes, even to the end.
Alec returned to his study, alone, where he ignored his paperwork and sat lost in thought for many long minutes.
Until a familiar knock came at his door.
“What is it,” he called out, annoyed at the interruption.
“Lord Lightwood,” the butler replied, peeking around the edge of the door, an exasperated expression on his normally reserved face. “Please forgive the disturbance. Lady Élodie would like a word.”
Alec buried his face in his hands. His day could not possibly get any worse.
Magnus was bored. Granby had forbidden him any books – “reading will strain your eyes, and frankly so will rolling them at me, so stop doing that, Raphael can’t you talk some sense into him, head injuries, etc etc”. How the doctor had prattled on … but Raphael had taken all of it quite seriously, and would not be swayed. Every time Magnus tried to look at even just the cover of a book, Raphael appeared and snatched it from his fingers, completely unimpressed by the black looks Magnus gave him in response.
He spent much of the afternoon staring idly out the window at the groundskeepers going about their work. He had a lovely view of the garden, but it was too early in the spring for most flowers to be in bloom. Trimming and mulching lost most of its entertainment appeal by the second hour. From time to time, despite his best efforts to maintain an interest in the various gardening implements that the muscular and not-unattractive young men were using outside, his thoughts wandered back to Lord Alexander.
Alec had looked uncharacteristically nervous when he saw Magnus at the table, and he had sensed the Duke’s discomfort increasing further throughout the meal. Every time Magnus’s eyes passed over Alec’s handsome features, memories flooded back: the way it had felt when they kissed, the dream-vision of Alec climbing into bed with him, and their midnight encounter under the stairs. Magnus had found no solution to his distracting problem except to avoid looking at Alec altogether. Other than throwing him a look of gratitude when Alec had tried to deflect Lady Élodie’s questions, they had barely acknowledged each other’s presence.
But even that did not dim the memory of their kiss. Alec’s impulsiveness had startled Magnus. It was such a divergence from the Alec he had come to know – normally so reserved, and difficult to read. Even the way the Duke spooned clotted cream onto a scone was restrained. But as their lips had touched, tentatively, intimately, Magnus had sensed the undercurrent of repressed desire thrumming through Alec’s whole body. Magnus wished he could be the one to release that desire. If Alec was half as passionate and commanding in bed as he was in other areas of his life – Magnus shivered at the thought. He wanted so badly to encourage the young man’s continued attentions toward him, and to return them in kind. But he knew, as Alec must certainly also know, that nothing permanent could ever come of such a liaison. Magnus would prefer to never let himself love the Duke at all, if the only other option was to love and then to lose him, no matter what Lord Tennyson’s poetry might have to say on the matter.
He was still lost in contemplation when a knock came at his door, startling him out of his reverie. His heart leaped with excitement for a moment at the idea of company – quickly replaced by cold dread at the thought that it might be Alec.
Raphael paused on his way to the door. “Are you receiving guests?” His expression clearly showed his personal opinion of what Magnus’s answer should be.
Magnus lifted his chin stubbornly as he gathered his self-control. How embarrassing, to be so nervous about any man, breathtakingly handsome though he may be. “Yes,” Magnus said. After a brief pause, he added, “Unless it is the doctor. Then tell him I am asleep, as he ordered, and I’m not to be disturbed, also as he ordered. Oh, and then tell him I want my books back. And then tell him to go away.”
Raphael grimaced. Magnus thought it might have been an attempt to smile.
But his worries proved unfounded when Lord Jace bounded into the room like an untrained puppy. Magnus smiled; he had already become somewhat fond of the boy. Raphael trailed behind Jace, his expression almost inscrutable, but Magnus knew him too well. Irritating Raphael for no good reason was another checkmark in Jace’s favor.
After the standard pleasantries, Jace produced a small flask from his pocket and slipped it to Magnus when Raphael’s back was turned. “Rum is good for the brain,” he whispered, and Magnus thanked him discreetly as he tucked it between the cushions of his chair.
“I don’t want to tire you out, because Alec will have my head." Magnus felt a small twinge of pain at the casual remark. “But we need to come to an agreement on how we plan to move forward from now on.”
Magnus cocked his head. “We?”
“Yes, we,” Jace replied. “Security at the estate is my responsibility. Unfortunately I cannot be your personal bodyguard 24 hours a day, mostly since you don’t prefer blondes.” Magnus chuckled a little at their inside joke. “But I think we both understand,” Jace continued, “that you will be in danger as long as you remain here.”
“You mean from someone other than your cousin?” Magnus quipped, but then waved a hand at Jace’s contrite expression. “No, no, I am only joking. I am not bothered by it; please don’t concern yourself on my behalf. Lady Élodie hardly seems the dangerous kind.”
Jace shook his head. “My lady cousin may not be murderous, but she will try to assassinate you socially if she has the slightest reason to try.”
Magnus laughed, and Jace looked surprised at the bitterness of the sound. “Believe me,” Magnus said, “your aunt’s commentary would barely be a drop in the bucket where my reputation is concerned.” Raphael caught his eye over Jace’s head, and dipped his chin in a scolding glance.
“Anyway,” Magnus continued, “Raphael is also my bodyguard. Appearances can be deceiving, as you know. He is well-trained, proficient in many styles of fighting and weaponry; I assure you I am quite safe in his presence.”
“Raphael also cannot be everywhere with you at all times,” Jace replied. “You must promise me that you will not go anywhere alone, and when you do need to move about you must take either myself or Alec with you.”
Magnus plucked at the hem of his shirt. “Am I to be a guest, or a prisoner?” He sounded petulant, even to his own ears.
Jace clapped a hand on his shoulder reassuringly. “You are to be kept safe and alive. Nothing more than that.”
Magnus shrugged. “I suppose that is an important factor to consider.”
Jace studied his expression thoughtfully. “If you object to my presence, I can do my best to ensure that Alec is available to –“
“No,” Magnus said quickly – too quickly, judging by Jace’s startled look. “I mean, of course I welcome your presence. But I’m sure you could have your pick of much more desirable company than me.”
Jace narrowed his eyes, but seemed willing to let the half-truth slide by. “Then we agree,” he said. “You will have someone by your side at all times – someone that we all trust.”
Magnus sighed. “Agreed.”
If that person ever had to be Alec, Magnus would just have to find a way to deal with it. He suddenly wished, as he often did, that he better understood how to control his powers. If he could just call up Lydia Branwell and Aline Penhallow, ask who murdered them, and get it over with, he could leave Lightwood Hall and put this whole mess behind him.
“You must do something about it,” Élodie exclaimed. “That man was so rude to me! You must speak to him immediately. I do not care if he is recovering from an accident! It is unacceptable.”
Alec struggled valiantly to keep his expression neutral and his tone of voice respectful. He had been raised to respect his elders, of course, but he was also responsible for the hospitality of Lightwood Hall, and his mother's reputation as a hostess. He could not allow Élodie’s insults to Magnus to go unchallenged.
“Mr. Bane is an invited guest in this house. Your questioning today was beyond rude; it was intrusive, and unnecessary. His response was nothing more than what your own actions invited upon yourself.” She stared at him, mouth open in surprise, as he continued. “I expect you to be more welcoming toward our guest from now on.”
“He is trouble, Alexander,” she scoffed, her mouth now pressed into a thin line. “Surely you can see that.” She tilted her head and arched an eyebrow at him. “I wonder what has prompted you to display such an interest in his welfare.”
Alec leaned forward, clasping his hands on top of the desk. He looked her straight in the eye, unblinking. “I have no interest in Magnus Bane.”
It was the smoothest lie he had ever told. He almost wished Jace had been there to see it. His brother would have been so proud.
“My primary interest is that the good name of this house not be sullied by garnering a reputation for rudeness,” he went on, which was fortunately a true statement. “Mr. Bane, in spite of his eccentricities, has done nothing untoward to anyone since his arrival here. He has been the very model of social graces. The same cannot be said of you. Or your son,” he added, remembering the confrontation with Sebastian on the landing. He had no doubt Élodie had heard all about their run-in, from the gossiping maids if not from Sebastian himself. He was surprised she hadn’t already broached that topic with him as well.
Élodie’s eyes flashed. “How dare you bring Sebastian into this! This is not about us! This is about that – that charlatan – and you have the audacity to try to make me out to be the villain!”
Alec knew well that Élodie put her family’s name and reputation first above all else, no matter the cost. He did not want to start an all-out war with her but he needed to make sure his main point was heard and understood: Magnus Bane was off limits. “Now, cousin,” he said calmly, but firmly. “You are certainly not a villain. But I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that you can be – quite formidable, in your own way. I am simply asking you to treat Mr. Bane with the same respect and solicitude that you would show to any other guest.”
He rose from his seat and moved around to lean on the front of his desk, eliminating the physical barrier between them but also allowing him to tower over her. It was a tactic he had often seen his father use when dealing with a particularly recalcitrant visitor, one who could not simply be cowed into submission but also needed to be convinced everyone was on the same side – while also being reminded of their place.
“The party will end on Saturday. Although with Madame Dorothea’s murder still fresh news, I assume some might want to leave early so they can get that juicy bit of scandal out before someone else does. Unless we can convince them somehow to stay through the weekend ... I hope we can count on you to bring all your influence to bear, in that respect.” Élodie smirked at that; she understood the type of guests that Maryse had invited for the week, and the hidden purposes behind that choice. “I intend to ask Mr. Bane to extend his stay here by at least another week, partly for his convalescence, partly so that he can continue to look for the answers mother is seeking –“ he paused, then made the tactical decision to show his hand – “-and also to help us answer some other questions.”
“Other questions?” Élodie queried. Alec studied her face; was he imagining it, or had she grown slightly pale?
“Mr. Bane appears to have been able to communicate recently, with Aline.”
“Aline is gone,” Élodie said sharply. “It’s a trick.”
Alec watched her, assessing her unexpected reactions. She definitely looked pale, her pupils wide with – surprise? Alarm? He could not say.
“You were willing to indulge my mother’s belief that Mr. Bane could communicate with Lydia’s spirit, but not willing to consider that he might also reach Aline’s?”
“I have never believed in spirits, or that the man is anything less than a fraud,” Élodie snapped. “I simply chose to humor your mother. In fact I encouraged her to prop up Bane’s reputation to our advantage, and then buy his assistance. Let the man name his price! I even volunteered to provide the script for him to follow while professing your innocence of Lydia’s death.”
It was nothing Alec had not already suspected, though he imagined that Magnus would never accept such an offer – in fact, he would likely be highly offended by it, if Alec’s reading of him was accurate. “But my lady, Magnus Bane gives every appearance of being a man of principle. Why would he accept such an offer? If word got around that he had accepted money to lie, it would cast doubt on all of his previous work and could severely limit his options for the future.”
Élodie laughed bitterly. “Dear boy, every man has his price. And if he had refused to cooperate, well, I have other ways of ensuring his compliance. If he insists on doing things the hard way, then that can also be arranged.”
Alec’s gut clenched with a tight, cold burst of rage that took all of his willpower to suppress. The intensity of his own desire to protect Magnus caught him by surprise. He looked down, clenching his teeth tightly to hold his expression in check; he did not want her to see any revealing emotion on his face.
Élodie must have misinterpreted the bowing of his head. Thinking perhaps to press her perceived advantage, she stood and took a step toward him. She was nowhere near Alec’s height, though she was tall for a woman, but he recognized the action as the equalizing gesture it was meant to be. She wrung her hands with a particularly dramatic flair as she spoke.
“Alexander, please try to look at it from my point of view. Aline was my beloved daughter.” She blinked rapidly, as if fighting back tears, though Alec could see her eyes were dry. “The very idea that she might not be at her eternal peace - can you not see how that would destroy me? And Sebastian. His poor sister was the only person - besides his parents and myself - that he ever truly loved. Imagine if he were to discover that even in death, she lingered on, unhappy. Think how it would hurt us. Why would you want us to suffer? What good can come from it?” Her voice cracked; it was a manipulative tactic Alec had seen Isabelle use many times when trying to get her way. Now he knew where she had learned it.
Alec spoke gently, as though he believed her manufactured emotional display. “But if it is real, if Bane really can commune with spirits – wouldn’t you want to see Aline’s killer brought to justice?”
Élodie looked at him with something like pity. “If it’s real? Oh, Alexander. Surely you haven’t been taken in by this man?” She stepped closer again, gazing up at him with wide, sorrowful eyes. “No one can speak with the dead, my darling child. They are gone from this world. Aline’s killer was a wandering vagrant, a common thief. Even assuming this ridiculous notion could have any truth behind it - how could she tell the psychic his name? She couldn’t possibly know. Please, Alexander. Don’t drag us all into this old pain.” Her expression turned pleading. “Help me convince your mother about Lydia. Help me persuade Mr. Bane. We can pay him handsomely; money is not the question. What we require is discretion, and a verdict of innocence for you. Then he can be on his way, and we need not darken each other’s doorsteps again.”
Alec crossed his arms. “I have not been taken in by anyone, cousin. You need not fear it. Do you think me so easily misled? I am not a child, anymore.” He watched something flicker across her face – was it fear? Uncertainty? Perhaps both? “I am simply willing to entertain the notion that Mr. Bane might possess skills beyond the norm. I have not confirmed it with my own eyes yet, one way or another. But regardless of that, we are finished with this conversation. My original point remains: you will be respectful to Mr. Bane – and all the rest of our guests - in the future, and if you cannot at least be polite, then it may be best that you not go near him at all. As for the rest of what you have said, I will consider it. But you must give me time to weigh out all sides of your proposal.”
Élodie’s jaw worked for a moment, as though she had more left to say. But finally, she nodded her understanding, then swept out of the room without another word. After she had gone, Alec collapsed on the sofa. He ruffled his hands through his hair with a heavy sigh as he replayed the conversation in his mind. He was not surprised that Élodie wanted to take the fastest and easiest path in resolving the matter of Lydia’s death. But he had not expected the intensity of her reaction at the mention of Aline, nor the vigor with which she had tried to convince Alec to forego any attempt to discover the truth about her stepdaughter’s murder.
He wondered if Élodie really was suffering from a fresh surge of grief – or if perhaps she had something to hide. He stroked his chin thoughtfully. He would have to pay more attention to Élodie in the coming days. He had overlooked her until now; perhaps that had been a mistake. The past several days had turned Alec’s entire life upside down. He did not know if there was anyone or anything he could take for granted, any more.
Thanks to Blue for beta'ing this part and for making some really great suggestions that I am totally stealing, I mean, incorporating into this story.
“Alexander, I assume that you have an explanation for – whatever this is.”
Alec lay awake late into the night, once again unable to sleep. His traitorous mind alternated between replaying his unexpected conversation with Élodie and reliving his stolen kiss with Magnus Bane. As he pondered what he ought to say to his mother about any of it, movement caught his eye - a flash of moonlight shone in the window as the diaphanous curtain fluttered in the night air. He watched the shadows that it created dancing across the wall, momentarily distracted from his own thoughts. But as he looked, it slowly dawned on him that the curtain shouldn’t have been shifting at all. The window was closed. There was no breeze to move it.
Frowning, he climbed out of bed and went to the window. It was shut tight and locked, just as he had thought. As he turned to make his way back to bed he heard a faint shuffle of footsteps in the corridor outside. Curious who else might be up and about so late, he donned his dressing gown and stepped out of his door just in time to see a pale flash disappearing up the stairs that led to the tower.
Alec stiffened with alarm. The tower door had been locked when he had gone to bed. He personally checked it every night. With his mother’s house party in full swing, he didn’t want curious guests sneaking up there for a late night tryst, or possibly having an “accident” themselves.
The tower had been Lydia’s sanctuary during the few short weeks she had spent at Lightwood Hall in preparation for their wedding. She had occasionally gone up there to be alone and collect her thoughts. The tower had also been Isabelle’s favorite place to daydream and to read when they were children. So she had shown it to Lydia, and given her a key so she could have a place to rest and reflect away from the daily pressures that came with being the Duke’s betrothed and Maryse Lightwood’s future daughter-in-law.
It was also the last place that Lydia had been alive. He didn’t want people tromping around up there at all hours; it seemed disrespectful as well as dangerous.
Grimly, he strode toward the door then took the stairs two at a time, his long legs carrying him swiftly to the top. As he reached the upper chamber he found the inner door open. He knew that door had also been locked – he had locked it himself the day Lydia died; no one else besides his mother had a key. He felt a growing sense of unease as he hurried on.
Bright moonlight poured through the tall windows as he entered the chamber. It was frigidly cold inside. The windows were closed, but his breath misted in the air. Frost spread in delicate patterns across the glass.
Magnus stood in the center of the room, once again wearing only a nightshirt. His eyes were wide and unfocused. He simply stood staring blankly as Alec stepped through the doorway. Alec paused, uncertain. Was Magnus sleepwalking again? He tried to remember what he had heard about sleepwalkers. Was it dangerous to wake them? Or more dangerous to let them stay asleep?
Before he could remember, Magnus cocked his head to the side as if listening. Then Magnus finally looked directly at him, but his eyes were distant. Alec was not sure if Magnus actually saw him.
“It’s here,” Magnus said. His voice sounded strange, breathless and higher pitched than normal. He turned and moved toward the far window, the same spot from where Lydia had fallen.
Alec took several steps after him, concerned for his safety, but Magnus stopped before the small wooden window seat that Robert Lightwood had built for his daughter many years before. He knelt in front of the bench to toss the cushions and pillows aside, then slowly stretched his hand toward one of the spiral circles carved into the backrest. He pressed it and a small panel slid open. As Alec watched in amazement, Magnus reached inside the dark space and pulled out a bundle wrapped in a pale blue shawl.
Alec recognized the shawl as one of Lydia’s. Magnus unwrapped the bundle, pulling out a small, leather-bound journal. He rose to his feet, turned and stepped toward Alec.
Magnus held the journal out to him. “The answers you seek are in here.” There was something about the changed way he spoke … the accent, the cadence … it was so familiar, and yet Alec couldn’t quite place it.
Alec’s fingers brushed Magnus’s as he accepted the book. They were as cold as ice. As he released his grip on the journal Magnus’s eyes closed suddenly. Alec jumped to catch him as he swayed forward, bracing the other man against his chest before he could fall to the ground. He shoved the small journal into the pocket of his dressing gown, put his other arm under Magnus’s knees, lifted him up and carried him over to the small daybed against the opposite wall. As Alec settled him down on the bed, Magnus’s eyes flew open with a start. His hands latched on to Alec’s forearms as he stared wildly around the room, fighting to sit up, gasping in the still-frigid air.
“It’s all right,” Alec said quickly, gripping Magnus’s shoulders tightly and giving him a gentle shake. “Magnus, you’re all right.” After a moment, Magnus’s breathing calmed and his face relaxed. Alec released him and he slowly sat up the rest of the way, looking at Alec in confusion.
“You were sleepwalking again,” Alec said nonchalantly, sitting down on the bed next to him. But from the look that passed across Magnus’s face, it was clear that Magnus knew just as well as Alec did, that he had been doing no such thing. "We are in the upper chamber of the tower. I heard your footsteps in the corridor; I had not yet fallen asleep."
“And you followed me?”
“It’s my duty as a host to look after my guests,” Alec replied, choosing his words with care. “All of my guests.” He held Magnus’s gaze, unblinking, and knew from the way that Magnus’s whole expression suddenly shuttered that he understood Alec’s meaning quite well.
Magnus looked away, crossing his arms and drawing in on himself. Alec felt a twinge of pity, but he pushed it aside; there could be no more secrets between them. Too much was at stake for them both.
“The door to the tower and the door to this room were both locked earlier tonight. I always check them myself. Since you have no way, given your present attire, to hide a stolen key or a set of lock picking tools - I can only assume that someone unlocked the doors for you.”
“Someone?” Magnus repeated, lifting his chin, staring off into the distance, his expression guarded.
“Or something,” Alec said quietly.
Magnus went very still. Neither of them moved. The sound of their breathing echoed off the stone walls of the moonlit room. The chill had started to dissipate; Alec could no longer see his breath, but the hair on his arms stood all on end.
“Magnus,” he said, reaching into his pocket. “You could never have been in this room before, and yet you found a secret cubby in the window seat that apparently was also known to someone else – although not to me.” He held up the journal.
For several seconds Magnus stared at the book, frowning. When he finally spoke, his voice shook with emotion and exhaustion.
“I do not know how it happens - why some spirits can take over my mind when I sleep, yet others cannot. I can never remember the possession when I wake up. I find myself in strange places, not knowing what they wanted from me, or how I am supposed to help them. I do not know how to lock them out when I am asleep.” His face shifted, suddenly. Alec had never seen him look so distressed. “I don’t want any of this. I’ve never wanted any of this.”
Magnus spoke with such sincerity and such despair that it tugged at Alec’s conscience. He felt sorry for having wrenched such a painful confession out of the beleaguered psychic. But it had to be done; they would never catch Lydia’s killer if Magnus didn’t trust Alec enough to take him fully into his confidence. Alec knew he had not given Magnus very good reasons to trust him at first. But he had been trying harder every day. Surely Magnus must be able to recognize that by now. Alec didn’t know what else he could do to make things better between them.
Magnus shuddered just then, and Alec realized how cold he must be dressed only in his thin nightclothes. Lydia’s shawl had fallen nearby. He picked it up and moved to put it around Magnus for warmth. He eased the soft wool around Magnus, adjusting the collar to drape over his shoulders. Magnus murmured his thanks and pulled it closed around his chest. It felt like he was putting a shield between himself and Alec.
In the short week that they had known each other, Alec had learned that Magnus was a kind person, with a biting sense of humor and a unique, effervescent beauty like no one Alec had ever known. But in that moment, shivering in the moonlight, he just looked lost and alone. His dark eyes were luminous, and haunted; it nearly broke Alec’s heart.
He meant only to offer comfort at first as he reached out and put his arms around Magnus. He pulled the shivering man closer and rubbed slow circles on his back, trying to warm him a little. But the memory of their kiss came unbidden to his mind once again. His breathing quickened and he felt his heart begin to race. Magnus was lean and firm, gracefully muscular in a way so different from his own athletic build; the faint mixed scents of sandalwood and sage that clung to the other man reminded him of their accidental midnight encounter under the staircase. That all seemed like ages ago, though it had been less than a week since they first met. Alec took a shaky breath, struggling to keep his own reactions in check.
As if reading his mind Magnus leaned toward him, tilting his face up, his lips parted slightly in open invitation. At that, Alec could control himself no longer. He lowered his head and claimed Magnus’s mouth. His lips were soft beneath Alec’s, parting easily. Then Magnus’s tongue slipped between Alec’s lips, probing, tasting. This time it was the Duke who shuddered, moaning breathlessly, his whole body ignited on fire at the teasing touch.
This was no repeat of the innocent kiss they had shared in Magnus’s sitting room. It quickly grew more insistent, more intense. Magnus’s hands slid up Alec’s shoulders to tangle in his thick hair, trying to pull him even closer. Alec wrapped his arms around Magnus’s waist and half-lifted, half-dragged Magnus onto his lap. Magnus relaxed against him, his thighs wrapped around Alec’s hips, pressing as close as he could against the warmth and strength of his body. They fitted together perfectly, Alec thought, as Magnus moved one hand down to Alec’s chest, tugging at the buttons of Alec’s nightshirt as he swept his tongue across Alec’s lower lip.
Desire flared through Alec like a lightning strike as Magnus’s fingertips brushed across the hair on his chest. Dozens of tiny pinpoints of sensation trailed after the touch. He brought his hands up to cup Magnus’s jaw, instinctively angling their heads to deepen the kiss.
It wasn’t anything like the kisses Isabelle had read aloud to him and Jace when they were children from the scandalous novels she had smuggled out of the library. No heavenly music played in his ears, only the stuttering gasps of their ragged breathing and the entrancing wet sounds that their mouths made as they came together and broke apart in a steady, sensual rhythm, over and over and over. No fireworks flashed behind his eyes; only the taste and smell and heat of Magnus permeated all of his senses until Alec was dizzy from wanting. Kissing Magnus was everything he’d ever desired, but never dared to hope for. Alec didn’t want to let him go.
He slid his hands down Magnus’s back again, caught the hem of his nightshirt and pulled it up. With one hand still on Magnus’s lower back for support he trailed the flat of his other palm over the smooth skin of Magnus’s ribs to his chest. He felt gooseflesh rise on Magnus’s body as his hand moved; when his fingers accidentally brushed over a nipple Magnus gasped into his mouth with a soft, hoarse cry.
Alec suddenly wanted nothing more than to hear Magnus make that sound again. Magnus was kissing him more urgently now, tugging harder until Alec felt several buttons of his own nightshirt pop completely off. He had barely a second to wonder how he would explain it to his valet in the morning before Magnus suddenly wasn’t kissing him anymore. He whimpered at the loss, the air cold against his heated mouth. Then Magnus was biting at the side of his neck, moving down to his shoulder as he pulled the interfering fabric away. His lips and teeth nibbled gently while his hands trailed intricate patterns across Alec’s bare torso. Alec’s eyes nearly rolled back into his head from the onslaught of sensation. It was too much, but he only wanted more.
He fell back on the bed, pulling Magnus on top of him, all thoughts of propriety fled far from his mind. He tugged Magnus’s head down, rising up to meet him and then they were kissing again, fiercely, as if starved for each other. Alec was breathless as he arched into the other man’s body. He marveled at the weight of Magnus on top of him, how tantalizing it was and how good it felt. They clung to each other, legs tangling together, swallowing each other’s soft moans - until Alec reached up to brush the hair out of Magnus’s face, and Magnus suddenly flinched and pulled back with a sharp hiss.
Alec instantly froze, his hand suspended in mid-air while his brain tried to process what was happening. It took only a moment before understanding hit him: he had completely forgotten Magnus’s injury and accidentally touched a painful spot.
They were still for a moment, panting, staring wide-eyed at each other. Magnus finally lowered his head again to press his forehead against Alec’s and closed his eyes. “Alexander,” he gasped. “It’s all right, I – we can –“
“Stop,” Alec said breathlessly, cursing himself over how much he really did not want to stop. “Magnus. We - we have to get you back to your room. You’ve had too many shocks in the last two days; this isn’t good for you.” He pushed at Magnus’s shoulders gently, rolling him off to the side so Alec could sit up. “I shouldn’t have taken advantage,” he said quietly, trying and failing to arrange his button-less shirt in some respectable fashion. Magnus sat up, swaying a little, tugging the hem of his shirt down almost as an afterthought. Alec swallowed, struggling to get his breathing under control. “I sincerely beg your pardon.”
Magnus looked stunned. His eyes were glassy. Alec wondered how much of it was from their physical contact and how much could be attributed to the lingering effects of near-drowning, exhaustion, and late night spiritual possession. And that reminder made Alec cringe even harder – could the ghosts see them? Did they know what was happening? He scrubbed a hand over his face, hiding his eyes, horrified at the idea of Lydia floating invisibly above the bed with a judgmental look on her spectral face. He shivered, his whole body rejecting the thought.
Magnus must have thought him chilled, because he finally snapped out of his stupor. “No need to beg my pardon, Alexander.” He placed a hand on Alec’s shoulder, the touch firm but tentative. Alec slowly dropped his hand from his face and raised his eyes to look at him. Magnus’s guarded expression was slowly coming back, but he still managed to smile softly. “Believe me, there is nothing to apologize for.”
Alec put his hand over Magnus’s and gave it a gentle squeeze, stroking the knuckles with his thumb. It was the only thing he could think of to do. He had no idea what one said in a situation like this, where one had ravished one’s houseguest in the middle of the night on a dusty daybed in a mysteriously unlocked tower. Most books of etiquette didn’t get quite so far into these kinds of details. He didn’t realize that he’d said the last sentence aloud to himself until Magnus chuckled.
“No they don’t, and more’s the pity for us. We’ll just have to improvise.” Alec smiled a little at that, as Magnus untangled their lower limbs and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. But the sudden movement must have made him dizzy for he wavered a little. Alec reached for his arm.
“Let me help you,” he said simply. Magnus nodded. Together they rose and made their way carefully down the steep tower stairs.
They managed to make their way through the rest of house undetected, but had barely reached the corridor of the guest wing when a door opened just as they entered the hall. They both froze, but there was nowhere to hide and it was too late to turn back. When Alec’s mother stepped into the hallway, Lady Élodie and the Countess Belcourt close behind her, he felt Magnus stiffen with alarm.
Élodie looked at Alec with cold satisfaction as Maryse stalked toward them, disapproval evident in every line of her body. The Countess stood expressionless, but her eyes glittered like obsidian in the dim light. Alec heard Magnus swear softly under his breath. With the Countess as a witness, there was no way that this encounter could fail to be the talk of the town gossips by daybreak the next morning.
“Mother,” he said coolly. He was pleased to hear how calm his own voice sounded in his ears, his embarrassment and frustration well disguised even as her eyes raked over their current mutual states of dishevelment, lingering on Alec’s open nightshirt. “I hope we have not disturbed your midnight social hour.”
“Alexander, I assume that you have an explanation for – whatever this is.” Maryse stood before them, her arms crossed, standing to her full height, every inch the matriarch of Lightwood Hall.
But she had raised her son well; the young Duke was her equal in many respects, but in stubbornness and quick-thinking he occasionally surpassed her. He would not allow Magnus to be humiliated, or any obstacle to interfere with his investigation; he made a snap decision, and prayed that Magnus would understand and go along with it in silence.
“With all due respect mother, I hardly believe explanations are necessary at this point.” He reached down and took Magnus’s hand in his own. Magnus tensed momentarily, but then relaxed; he said nothing, only glanced sideways at Alec, curiously. “I will be announcing my intention to formally court Mr. Bane in the morning.”
He heard the soft intake of Magnus’s breath as he tugged him forward, but it was drowned out by his mother’s gasp, her hand flying to her chest in shock, and Lady Élodie’s snicker that she didn’t even bother to try to disguise as a cough.
Lady Belcourt said nothing as they passed her, Alec still clutching Magnus’s hand defiantly. But to Alec her forced smile seemed more a baring of teeth more than a gesture of amusement or goodwill. He didn't understand why, but he felt her sharp eyes on him as he led Magnus the rest of the way to his room and left him in the care of his perpetually annoyed valet.
In which there is fallout, and unreliable narrators abound.
Alec paced the floor of his bedroom deep into the night, paging through Lydia’s half-filled journal. Unfortunately, it was written in some kind of cipher – he couldn’t make heads or tails of its contents. He wondered if Isabelle might be able to interpret some of the coded entries; his sister had always had a knack for puzzles. He had no idea what any of it meant. The ways of women were a mystery that he had never had any inclination to sort out.
But that wasn’t the only thing keeping him awake. He berated himself over and over for having put Magnus into an unenviable situation: he would now be forced to either accept a formal courtship that he had expressed no clear interest in pursuing, or suffer the social censure that came with rejecting the overtures of a Duke. If Alec had been caught out with a lady, he would have been pressured to marry her quickly to avoid scandal. But because Magnus was a man, there was no risk of a tryst leading to an unplanned child, therefore no need to rush - and since they could not officially marry under Clave law anyway the same rules did not quite apply. They could enter a longstanding commitment through formal courtship, as Granby and Little and others had throughout the years … but Alec couldn’t imagine why Magnus would want to do any such thing. No doubt he would feel overly restricted and would never be content; resentment would surely grow and fester between them until they were both utterly miserable. He had already lived through the pain of enforced commitment with Lydia. Alec had no desire to put himself or anyone else through that again.
Alec wouldn’t be able to bear seeing Magnus unhappy, especially knowing himself to be the cause. Magnus was a free spirit and moved about the world with ease, having all kinds of grand adventures; he was the complete opposite of Alec, who loved being at home enjoying his quiet life surrounded by his family and closest friends. A man like Magnus would never want to be tied down to some boring Duke in a boring manor in the boring countryside. Magnus deserved his freedom, and to be given the same choices Alec had always wanted for himself: to choose his own love freely, not have it pressed upon him by convention.
Of course Élodie had been delighted to see them both so embarrassed, given their altercations earlier in the day. But his mother was undoubtedly furious – she would more than likely have preferred him to have admitted to an impulsive but brief assignation, paid for Magnus’s silence and had it over quickly. If Alec attached himself permanently to another man then the responsibility to produce an heir to keep the family line going would fall to Isabelle. Maryse would likely marry her off as a political favor to the most powerful Clave officer that she could find. Jace would be pushed aside in the line of succession in favor of Isabelle’s husband. Max, the youngest, would simply continue to be ignored. Alec’s uncharacteristic impulsiveness had created a rippling mess that would touch the lives of everyone he loved; he needed to fix it, and fast.
By the time he finally fell asleep, Alec had resolved to end the nightmare for them both, gracefully and as soon as it was feasible. He would willingly bear the brunt of the social backlash and hope to leave Magnus as untouched by it as possible. If they worked together with Isabelle and Jace – assuming Magnus even still wanted to speak to him, after last night’s debacle – perhaps they could all come up with a more acceptable solution, and work quickly to solve the murders before anyone else got hurt.
He was out of bed at the first hint of daylight and downstairs before even some of the staff were about, hoping Magnus would continue his habit of rising early; they could address the urgent matters between them before anyone else should interrupt.
There would no doubt be a flurry of activity among the guests once news of the Duke’s late-night dalliance with Mr. Bane had spread through the house party. He expected at least a few of them to come up with excuses to return to the city early so they could be the first to spread the tantalizing gossip. An illicit tryst involving the Duke with the Clave’s renowned mystic, and another unexplained death at Lightwood Hall … they would barely be able to contain themselves.
As anticipated, Magnus appeared not long after Alec had started on his second cup of coffee. Alec glanced up from the remains of a buttered roll on his plate and felt the now-familiar stutter of his heart as Magnus entered the room. Magnus smiled broadly at him in greeting. Of course he would put on the bravest face he could, Alec thought, and pretend to be pleased to see him; Magnus excelled at hiding his feelings. His dress was surprisingly modest compared to his normal standards: soft doeskin breeches, polished Hessian boots, and a perfectly starched white shirt under a simple ivory waistcoat topped off with an unassuming but tasteful cravat. His high-collared coat was beautifully cut as always, although the delicate dove-gray color - almost lilac in the soft morning light - was a far cry from his usual deeper blues, burgundies and blacks. But even in this simple, unassuming ensemble, Alec thought that Magnus was the most elegant person he had ever seen.
“Wow,” he blurted out, completely forgetting the existence of manners.
Magnus paused on his way to the sideboard. He raised one hand and tugged at his ear, shifting his weight from foot to foot. “Is something wrong?” he asked cautiously.
“Not at all,” Alec reassured him. “You just look – different.”
Magnus lifted an eyebrow. “In a good way, I hope.”
Alec didn’t trust his voice to remain steady in that moment, so he simply nodded and then stuffed another chunk of bread into his mouth so that the act of chewing would keep him from gaping like an idiot at a sideshow. All of the courage, all of the calm rationalizations he’d come downstairs with had vaporized at the first glimpse of Magnus’s dark eyes and dazzling smile.
“Well,” Magnus drawled as he spread hearty portions of marmalade over several pieces of toast. “When one is about to be courted by a Duke, one must present oneself accordingly.” He paused as he came alongside the table, looking at Alec expectantly. “Aren’t you going to pull out my chair, Your Grace?”
“Magnus,” Alec sighed. He couldn’t bear Magnus’s sarcasm, no matter how well the other man was disguising it as playfulness. The false sincerity stung him more than it would have if Magnus had just confronted his mistakes directly. “I owe you an apology, for all the good it will do us now, but I truly am sorry about last night.”
“What a shockingly unromantic thing to say,” Magnus said, his tone light and teasing, as he sat down across from Alec, snapping out his napkin with a flourish.
Alec took a deep breath, having completely forgotten the sensible speech he had prepared. He just hoped Magnus would be magnanimous enough to accept his woefully insufficient efforts to make things right.
“We’ve just started to make some progress around these spiritual investigations, before we were unfortunately compromised,” he continued. “There was no easy way to explain our presence together. It was the only thing I could think of at the moment that gave us a reasonable excuse to have been out at that hour, without revealing … other secrets.” Alec looked down at his plate. “It was hasty and ill-conceived; a statement I had no business making without having attained your agreement first. But there was no time … I understand that I put you in an uncomfortable spot, and I beg your forgiveness. You needn’t worry; I won’t make any such announcement. The rumor mill will have to run its course about the two of us being caught out together – fortunately any implications of impropriety that arise from it are unlikely to negatively impact your reputation, and I don’t really care about what it does to mine. We can put this behind us; I hope we can keep moving forward with the investigation without too much discomfort for you. And that we can still work at being friends, even after all of … this.”
He was apparently still awful at giving apologies; when he glanced back up Magnus was watching him, his expression carefully schooled into blankness, but a stiff tension had settled in Magnus’s shoulders.
“So you do not actually intend to court me, then?”
Alec blinked. Magnus sounded – disappointed.
“Do … do you …” he stammered in confusion. It was like the ground had shifted under him. The room grew hot, suddenly; he ran a finger under the seam of his collar, trying to get some air. “Do you – want me to court you?”
Magnus fixed him with a steely-eyed glare.
“Do you think me so wanton, Lord Lightwood,” he said icily, “that I routinely take random midnight tumbles with any old person who comes along?”
Alexander’s face was flushed and anxious; with his full lips, carved cheekbones and doe eyes he resembled nothing so much as a sculpture from the Italian Renaissance, a tribute by the master artists to the ultimate perfection of mankind. But the despair Magnus felt running through his own body was more akin to something out of a Greek tragedy than a Renaissance romance.
He had slept soundly and awoke that morning feeling rested for the first time in days. Even Raphael’s vocal disapproval over the previous night’s events hadn’t put a damper on his mood. Alec had learned one of his secrets, yet hadn’t pushed him away. Alec had instead pulled him closer, opening himself up to pursuing the undeniable attraction between them; by doing so he had also opened Magnus in a way the mystic had not experienced in many long years.
Magnus wasn’t an idiot, of course – he had known immediately that Alec’s declaration to Lady Maryse had been a distraction technique, meant to forestall his mother’s suspicions and buy them time. It would give Magnus a reason to remain at the estate for a while so they could continue to work out what villain had created the lingering, restless spirits haunting its grounds. It would have been a ruse, of course, but a ruse with potential. Perhaps their feelings might even grow deeper; perhaps Magnus finally had a chance to find the happiness that had eluded him thus far. He’d been startled by Alec’s boldness in the moment, but as he drifted off to sleep Magnus had dared to let himself dream of the burning pleasure he had found in Alexander’s mouth on his, of Alec’s gorgeous body yielding under Magnus’s seeking touch, of Alec’s brave and generous heart one day giving itself into Magnus’s tender care.
But all his foolish dreams had been dashed in one swift instant. It seemed that it had all been pretend, after all; now that they faced each other in the harsh light of morning, Alec seemed disinclined to continue the charade he had nearly convinced Magnus to believe.
Magnus drew himself up bravely. He had faced his share of rejection in his time. He was no stranger to hiding his feelings. He could take the easy way out that Alec was had offered - but as he rapidly turned the events of the past week over in his mind, he found that he didn’t want to. Alexander’s rejection hurt.
The pain was Magnus’s own fault, of course. He’d let himself get carried away with a man far above his station. He had no idea what he could have been thinking, to let himself believe that Lord Lightwood could seriously consider pursuing someone like him. And even if Alec did have feelings for him, once he found out the rest of Magnus’s secrets - that would certainly put an end to any hope of a continuance. But Magnus wasn’t going to just sit back and let it happen without saying a word. In the past he had found it quite easy to desire a person without longing for their company. He had bedded plenty of willing partners and not given them another thought afterward, nor they him. But with Alec things had been different. He had actually enjoyed being in the man’s presence. He had grown to look forward to seeing him each day, and Alec was frequently in his thoughts even when they were apart. It had been new territory for Magnus. It rattled his normally unshakeable confidence to think that he had misread things so entirely.
But no, he thought as he remembered everything that had passed. Not all of it was Magnus’s fault, and he wasn’t going to martyr himself to shoulder the blame alone. If Alec hadn’t been serious he should never have kissed Magnus at all. Hearts were not playthings to be used and discarded; the sooner the young Duke learned that painful lesson, the better things would go for them both.
“I didn’t realize I had given you the impression that I was that kind of person,” Magnus continued bitterly. “But if you had no intention of seeking a relationship between us, Your Grace – you should not have led me on so unfairly. I had expected better from you. I am sorry to have been proven wrong.”
“Magnus, no, I – it’s not like that!” Alec’s eyes grew wide; Magnus turned away from him, and started to rise from his chair. He had no interest in hearing more excuses and rationalizations. His head started to hurt again. He just wanted to go back to bed.
When Alec gripped his elbow to prevent his impending flight, Magnus looked down in surprise, then slowly back up at Alec’s face, wary of the possibility that the young lord might have a temper. But the Duke’s expression was raw, open; there was pain written there, doubt, and – something else. It made Magnus’s heart twist in his chest. He sank back down into his seat, holding his breath, waiting.
“I just didn’t want to presume anything,” Alec said softly. “I didn’t want you to feel trapped, or forced to do something you might not want to do. I did spring the idea on you, after all, without any warning or having sought your permission; I … I only wished to give you the opportunity to decline and save face for us both, in case my attentions were unwelcome.”
Magnus stared at him. He felt the tension start to drain from his body, the headache forgotten as the meaning of Alec’s words sunk in.
“Unwelcome? Unwelcome? Why on earth would you think that?”
Alec’s smile was rueful. “In case you haven’t realized it yet, I don’t exactly have a lot of experience in these matters.”
“But Alexander,” Magnus said wonderingly, reaching out to place a tentative hand on the side of his face. “Have you ever even looked in a mirror?”
Alec lifted his own hand to cover Magnus’s, turned his face and to Magnus’s utter surprise and delight, kissed his palm.
“It’s kind of you to say,” Alec replied, laughing softly, “considering that you are the most beautiful person in existence.”
“Well,” Magnus smiled back at him, “before I met you, I would have agreed.”
“Sorry to interrupt this touching exchange of compliments,” Jace said as he strolled into the room with a yawn. “But we all know that I’m better looking than both of you combined, so you can each give up these foolish dreams of physical superiority and accept your rightful place as second best.”
Jace slowly paced the length of Alec’s study, paging through the mysterious journal. He turned to Magnus, gesturing at the pages full of looping, unreadable script. “You can’t translate this?”
“No,” Magnus admitted. “It’s not any of the standard Clave ciphers, and it doesn’t match any of the ancient supernatural languages I know either.”
“We should give it to Isabelle,” Alec remarked. “It’s exactly the kind of thing she loves getting her teeth into.”
“True,” Jace agreed. “Besides, that will spare the rest of us from embarrassment if it contains any particular references to … lady business.” He made a face; Alec echoed his horrified expression.
Magnus cleared his throat, amused at their gentlemanly discomfort, but unwilling to let the conversation move off onto a tangent. “We must remember that there is a real possibility the book contains not only Lydia’s secrets, but potentially others which could hold the key to Aline’s death as well.”
Jace paled slightly at that; Magnus knew the young lord was not entirely ready to learn the full truth about the latter, but time was a luxury they did not possess. Lack of time was one of the key reasons that Alec had proposed the three of them retire to the study, where they could talk more privately and without risk of unexpected interruption.
The reasons to remove themselves from the breakfast room were many: as head of security, Jace needed to be brought up to speed with the latest developments. They needed to formulate a plan of action, and quickly. Last, but not at all least, neither Magnus nor Alec were ready to speak publicly about their impending change in relationship status just yet. Magnus still hadn’t quite accepted it, himself: that Alexander really wasn’t rejecting him, that there just might be a chance for happiness somewhere in his future. He didn’t want to give anyone else the opportunity to shatter that growing feeling inside him, just yet.
“I’ll take it to her,” Jace said, slipping the journal into his pocket. “You two are going to have a busy enough day ahead of you as it is.” He shook his head, and looked at Alec with an unmistakably fond expression. “I’ve been waiting for the day you’d decide to take a risk for your own happiness,” he said, then turned to Magnus with an equally inclusive smile. “I’m honestly pleased for you both.”
Magnus bowed his head in a gesture of thanks, although he did it mostly to hide the flush he felt spreading across his cheeks.
Alec fervently wished that Jace had been wrong about what lay ahead for them, but deep down he had known facing the rest of the guests was unavoidable. He’d been spared it for the afternoon at least, being drawn into a lengthy discussion with the cook and the housemistress about hiring more kitchen help, while Magnus had retreated back to his rooms for a check-up with Granby and more rest. They managed to delay facing the court of public opinion until dinnertime, which was as much of a reprieve as Alec could have hoped for.
Then Maryse had intentionally seated Magnus next to Alec at dinner, much to the whispered delight of the attending crowd; the meal had been a tense one for him, though the people around him seemed delighted to deliver their good wishes on the announcement of their courtship. Magnus managed to carry on enough of the conversation for them both, much to Alec’s relief. But as everyone retired to the ballroom afterward for drinks and music, Maryse pulled Alec aside and informed him in no uncertain terms that she expected the two of them to continue to behave with the proper degree of decorum in front of their guests.
“You needn’t worry, mother,” he said irritably. “I know how this game is played. I won’t embarrass you further, and neither will Magnus.” He felt her eyes boring into the back of his head as he stalked away, fighting to regain his good humor before the rest of his evening was ruined.
When he entered the ballroom, Jace was already seated at the piano, his fingers flying over the keys with practiced skill. The usual ensemble of ladies had gathered round to listen. Alec was pleased to see Magnus there as well, smiling and conversing casually with the others as they admired Jace’s musical abilities.
Now that Alec had formally stated his intention toward Magnus, and Magnus had formally accepted, the other man could mingle among the unattached ladies without violating any social courtesies. Alec paused for a moment and let the scene wash over him: it was comforting to see everyone at peace, enjoying themselves. For that one moment in time, everyone seemed like they were happy.
Maybe even Alec himself.
He stepped forward into the press of bodies and the ladies drew back to let him through, exchanging furtive glances and dreamy smiles between themselves. “Mr. Bane,” he said, drawing alongside his intended. “Would you do me the honor of taking a walk with me?”
“I’d be delighted, Your Grace,” Magnus beamed, taking Alec’s proffered arm. As they drew away, a cluster of sighs followed them wistfully through the air. Magnus rolled his eyes, pressing Alec’s elbow gently. “I should thank you for making me the romantic envy of all of the eligible ladies in the country.”
Alec snorted. “All of them? Really?”
“Most of them,” Magnus conceded, with a tilt of his head. “A few of them may still be pining after your brother.”
“Well, there is no accounting for taste,” Alec remarked as they finally drew to the edge of the room, out of hearing of the rest of the crowd. “But I think more than a few of them might actually be pining after you.”
Magnus continued to beam happily. He let go of Alec's arm as they stopped walking and turned to face each other. “Has Isabelle looked at the journal yet?”
Alec looked out over the crowd, carefully maintaining a blank expression. In the far corner Lady Élodie and Sebastian stood huddled together, their backs to the room as they talked. The line of Élodie’s spine was stiff with tension that she could not quite hide; Sebastian slouched against a column, seeming lackadaisical, although the corner of his cousin’s jaw worked in a steady rhythm as he listened to his mother speak. Alec suspected he was anything but relaxed. Whatever she was saying wasn’t making Sebastian very happy, at all.
“She has,” he replied, bringing his attention back to Magnus. “She thinks she recognizes some of the phrasing. She is so excited she will probably be up all night working on it.” He smiled as he remembered her unbridled enthusiasm. “She said she would have been too excited to sleep anyway because of our announcement, so at least now she’ll have something constructive to do in the meantime.”
Magnus smiled softly. “Your sister is an angel,” he said. “She is intelligent and kind. I am pleased to hear that she thinks well of me.”
“She wants me to be happy,” Alec said, and then flushed suddenly, dropping his eyes. “To be honest, I don’t think she ever expected me to be.”
Magnus reached out with his hand and took Alec’s fingers in his own. “Your happiness is important to me as well, Alexander,” he said. Alec looked down at their joined hands, fully visible for once in the bright golden light of the ballroom. Magnus had the slender, elegant fingers of an artist, but his hands were broad and there was a surprising strength in his grip. His skin was warm and unblemished, the nails healthy and polished to a shine. Alec’s nails were short and practical, and barely clean; his palms were equally broad, but they were everywhere covered with the scars of a warrior’s life. It was a visual reminder of how different they were, and how much Magnus still didn’t know about him.
He swallowed nervously and looked away, only to catch Lady Belcourt turning her head away quickly. Had she been staring at them? He remembered her expression from the night before.
“I fear not everyone shares your point of view,” he remarked, and Magnus followed his gaze, then let go of Alec’s hand.
“The Countess has no one’s interests at heart but her own,” Magnus said firmly. “But I’m fairly certain it isn’t your happiness that concerns her.” Not for the first time, Alec wanted to ask Magnus about their history together. Why was Lady Belcourt so fixated on Magnus? What secrets had passed between them that drew such coldness from them both? But now was not the time; he filed that question away for a more appropriate day.
“I wanted to ask you,” he began, and he saw Magnus’s eyelashes flutter nervously. “Not about her,” he said, just in case Magnus was getting the wrong idea. “But about the first night you were here. When I encountered you by the stairwell. Where were you coming from?”
Magnus relaxed a little. “The dungeons, I think, if you can believe it. I awakened in some sort of underground tunnel. It was dark and quite unpleasant.” He wrinkled his nose. Alec found the gesture unspeakably adorable. “But I do not know what I was intended to discover. There was nothing obvious, I had no light and I did not relish the thought of wandering further alone. I suspect the spirit that took me there was the same one that took me to the tower.” Lydia, Alec thought, though there had been no confirmation; but only Lydia could have known about her own journal, so expertly had it been hidden. Even Isabelle claimed she hadn’t known about the secret drawer in the window seat.
“Interesting,” Alec said thoughtfully. “So perhaps there are more clues to be found there.” He considered for a moment. “There is an excursion to the lake tomorrow,” he said at last. “Mother is taking the guests boating. I have an excuse to beg off – we have to inventory the stables, but it doesn’t actually have to be done tomorrow. The stable master owes me a favor.” He looked at Magnus, who was watching him closely. “No one would think anything amiss if you did not wish to return to the lake so soon after your fall.”
The corners of Magnus’s eyes crinkled. “Are you suggesting we explore the dungeons together?” He tugged at his ear again, a coy gesture that made Alec’s stomach do a little flip. “If you just want to get me alone, I can think of more romantic places to go.”
Alec tried not to smile at the flirtation, but the corners of his lips twisted up in spite of himself. “Maybe we can explore those options after we see what secrets the dungeons hold.”
As they made their plans for the following day, Alec’s attention focused entirely on Magnus. He did not see when Sebastian turned around, studied the two of them for a long moment, then slipped quietly from the room. He did not see Lady Élodie’s short conversation with his mother which left Lady Maryse pale, her lips pressed into a thin, tight line. And as his distraction continued he did not see the Countess Belcourt make her way around the room, whispering behind her fan to guest after guest in succession, nor the way their eyes drifted suspiciously to himself and Magnus for the rest of the evening, long after she moved on.
Next chapter: action! adventure! intrigue! I think we are getting close to the thrilling conclusion. Two, maybe three chapters left. I can't wait to find out who the murderer is. I hope somebody knows!
(just kidding, I know. OR DO I? we will see.)
Listen, I know Alec would not have said "wow" in a true regency setting. He'd have said "gosh," or "ods bodkins", or something like that. But this is "regency-ISH" as noted earlier. In other words I do what I want. So it's settled, then. :) Alec says "wow" in every universe, I imagine, when he sees Magnus looking like Magnus looks. I mean, wouldn't you?
“I have behaved properly my entire life, yet somehow I lose all sense with you.”
Raphael had only just begun to help Magnus out of his evening dress when a soft, sharp knock came at his chamber door. They exchanged a glance; there were few reasons for anyone to call at such a late hour, and none of them were good.
Magnus positioned himself behind the large armchair, unbuttoning the cuffs of his sleeves and flexing his fingers as Raphael moved silently toward the door. A thin silver blade gleamed sharply at Raphael’s wrist; he looked over his shoulder at Magnus, who nodded in acknowledgement before calling out, “Who’s there?”
“An old friend,” purred a silken voice. Raphael stiffened. Magnus groaned.
“Let her in,” he grumbled, but he did not move from behind the chair, nor did Raphael immediately sheath his weapon as he opened the door.
Lady Belcourt sauntered into the room like a cat returning from its evening hunt. “Why, Raphael,” she murmured. “How nice to see you again. Don’t you look positively delicious?”
Raphael only gave her an implacable look. He flicked his wrist; the snick of the blade returning to its hiding place was soft, but unmistakable. She looked him up and down, one eyebrow arched in tacit amusement. “Such a good soldier,” she said, tucking her chin against her chest and eyeing him appraisingly. “Always prepared.”
Raphael remained expressionless, but his sharp eyes did not leave the Countess even as he closed the door.
“What do you want, Camille?” Magnus sighed, picking up the flask of rum that Jace had left him and pouring some into a small glass.
“To compliment you on your good fortune in catching the eye of Lord Lightwood,” she replied coolly, “and to say goodbye.” She moved slowly about the room, studying the artwork on the walls before turning back to give Magnus a calculating smile. “Lord Danbury departs in the morning. I will accompany him back to Alicante.”
“Congratulations on your impending nuptials. I am sure the Clave will expedite your request for a marriage license.” Magnus tossed back the rum in one swallow, enjoying the burn as it went down his throat. “And goodbye.” He gestured with his free hand. “Raphael, the door, if you please.”
She chuckled softly. “Ah, Magnus. There is one more reason, of course. Don’t you want to know what it is?”
“Not really, but it’s obvious that you want me to know. I’m too tired for nonsense, Camille. Out with it, or stop wasting my time.”
The Countess stilled. Behind her, Raphael shifted his stance. The hairs on the back of Magnus’s neck prickled as they rose. The ozone smell of ancient magic crackled through the air then; the irises of Camille’s eyes disappeared as her pupils expanded, the whites swallowed up next by the spreading inky blackness.
It was said that a shark could never stop moving underwater or it would drown; Camille was like that, Magnus thought as he watched her. Always moving, always circling. Always looking for her next target. Behind her beautiful lips and perfectly pearly white human teeth lay a row of hollow fangs, each filled with enough venom to kill a man three times over. Magnus could hear scales shifting under her pale skin as her chest rose and fell with each unnecessary breath.
“You would do well to remember who you are dealing with, Bane,” she hissed.
A bolt of red fire flew from Magnus’s hand. She ducked, but barely in time; it struck the stone wall behind her and dissipated.
“As would you, lady. And I use the term loosely.” He watched her warily, his hands still outstretched.
She bared her teeth. “Do you honestly plan on living your life like this, reined in all the time? How can you bear always having to hide your powers around these weak, insufferable mortals! One might even suspect that you enjoy having the Clave’s leash and collar around your neck.” She raised her chin and looked down her nose at him. “You know he will never love you. Why do you even pretend? Once he learns who you really are, he will only leave you broken hearted in his wake. Just like all the rest.”
Sparks crackled again from Magnus’s fingertips. “My choices are not for the likes of you to judge,” he growled. “Say what you came to say, and get out before I really lose my temper.”
“Why, it’s the talk of the party, your unexpected tryst. The Duke and the mystic, a whirlwind romance! Until one realizes the true motives behind it.” A chill ran through Magnus’s body, but he held himself impassive as he listened. “Rumor has it that Magnus Bane is tantalizingly close to discovering the identity of Lydia Branwell’s murderer. So close, in fact, that now the murderer himself has seduced the hapless mystic for his own protection. Lord Lightwood is certainly banking on the hopes that Bane will never send his own lover to the gallows. The favored outcomes among the wagering crowd tend toward one or both of them dead at each other’s hands before summer’s end. For what it’s worth - I put my money on Lightwood being the one to die.”
Magnus seethed. He didn't care what people said about him, but to bring even more suspicion upon Alec, when Magnus's whole purpose for being here was to determine the truth of his innocence ... this rumor would taint everything they were working toward; it would damage Magnus's credibility enough to make any declaration of guilt or innocence, suspect. He should have realized - he should never have let Alec go through with the courting announcement. How could this have backfired so badly? He clenched his fists, infuriated. “Camille,” Magnus warned. “If I find out this vicious gossip is your doing –“
She laughed sharply. “Not my doing, no. I am just the messenger.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Just in case you’ve forgotten the promise we made to each other long ago: one day, I will be the one who kills you.” Magnus scowled, but she continued. “I will take all of your power into myself. Imagine it! Your immortal life force, coursing through my veins. It will keep me going for centuries.” She licked her lips and moved slowly toward him, but halted as Raphael suddenly darted between them.
“Not one step closer,” he warned, the tip of his silver blade at the hollow of her throat. It sizzled where it touched her. She stepped back with a hiss of pain.
She flicked her eyes down to the blade, then back to Magnus. “But if you grow so careless with your little dalliances that someone else gets to you first, where will that leave me? What happens if the Clave decides your new liaison is too dangerous for them? If Lightwood finds out your secrets they will kill him, and they may very well kill you as well. It could be centuries before another mystic comes along as powerful as you. I don’t feel like taking that chance.” She backed away slowly toward the door. “You have more than one enemy in this house, Magnus. Come the dawn, I will be gone - but they will still be here. Tread carefully. Watch your back.”
As the door closed behind her, Magnus picked up the flask, uncapped it and poured the rest of the rum straight down his throat.
Raphael locked the door but said nothing; Magnus was grateful for the silence as he turned and stumbled toward his waiting, welcoming bed.
The following day dawned with more perfect weather, as though Mother Nature herself was conspiring with Magnus and Alec to remove any impediments to their planned excursion. Magnus was relieved to note that Lady Belcourt and Lord Danbury’s early departure went mostly unremarked upon at breakfast. All of the other guests seemed welcoming and relaxed, not in the least inclined to accuse Magnus of having been taken in by a swindling murderer. He could only hope that she had been exaggerating her claims. But the lack of any such tension may have been helped by the fact that Alec took his morning meal in his rooms; Lady Maryse, when asked about his absence, simply said that the Duke was temporarily indisposed with household matters.
Lady Isabelle pulled him aside as soon as she came down. She whispered excitedly that she believed she was close to cracking the code in Lydia’s journal, and that she was going to skip the lake trip to keep working on it through the day. Magnus tried to persuade her differently. “You should take advantage your youth while you still have it,” he told her. “Days like this are uncommon enough. I hate to think of you stuck inside, when the sun is so bright and cheerful. We can spare one day for you to enjoy yourself.”
But his efforts were in vain. She tapped him lightly on the arm, amused by his concern. “I need at least one day away from the other single ladies, Magnus. They are so boring. And vapid! All they want to talk about is who they can catch to marry them.” She rolled her eyes, and Magnus found himself chuckling at her impatience. He grew fonder of Isabelle every time they spoke.
After breakfast, Magnus decided to visit the library again. Granby had finally declared him well enough to read. He hoped there was something among the stacks that would occupy his mind enough to distract him. His nerves were on edge after Camille’s late night visit, and he felt restless. The idea of travelling into the dark, abandoned dungeons – even with Alexander by his side – was unsettling, given that there was still possibly someone on the estate who wanted Magnus dead.
He browsed among the library shelves for some time undisturbed, enjoying the rare opportunity for peace and quiet. Much to his delight, he found a dusty, worn copy of the Malleus Maleficarum - Daemonologie, a rare book he had always wanted to own himself. He scanned the pages in earnest, remembering various supernatural creatures that had once populated the world but were now endangered or even extinct. Vampires and werewolves still survived, but very few were ever seen among proper society any more - although quite a number of werewolves had made good career for themselves in military circles, which reminded him that he needed to pay a couple of long overdue calls after his work at Lightwood Hall was finished. The various species of fae had vanished from all records decades before, though he suspected they still existed and were just very good at hiding. Demons of all sorts still showed up now and again, which was why the Clave even existed in the first place, and why they let powerful beings like Magnus still exist – and they never seemed to want to let Magnus forget it.
He paused over one page in particular, his fingers trailing over a lithograph showing a couple lying across an ornate bed; the female had the head and torso of a woman but the scaled lower body of a serpent. A man lay in her arms, his head thrown back in ecstasy as the lamia’s jaws poised to close over his throat. Her jaw had unhinged like a snake’s as if she were going to bite off his head and swallow it whole. A forked tongue lashed out between her inhumanly long, pointed teeth.
No one ever got the mouth right. Camille would have been outraged. Magnus smirked at the thought.
“Would we have been friends, I wonder?”
The skin on Magnus’s arms prickled. He closed the book and turned slowly. “Hello, Aline. Would who have been friends?”
“You and I,” the ghost-child replied. She gazed down at him from her perch atop the fireplace mantle, swinging her legs daintily in the air. He noted that she appeared less solid in the house, some distance away from the gardens, but her voice was still clear and strong.
He tilted his head, considering. “I think we would have been, yes. Everyone has told me what a very kind person you were in your life. I should have been pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Her eyes crinkled for a moment and she looked sad. “I always tried to be kind,” she told him. “But I didn’t always make good choices about who I should be kind to.”
“No one ever does, my dear. But it is an incredibly generous thing for one to be kind even when others may not think it deserved. It is the sign of a loving heart, and a good soul.” He put the Malleus Maleficarum back on its shelf and crossed the room to stand by the fireplace, looking up at her solemnly. “I would really like to help you, Aline. Is there anything you can tell me? A place to start looking for answers? A name? Anything at all.”
“I didn’t see who hit me,” she said mournfully, and it hurt him to see such pain etched on such a young face. “I don’t know who it was. I can feel their energy sometimes, I believe; it seems that I can sense when that person is nearby. But I am never able to know precisely who it is. Only a very general feeling of … dread.”
Magnus raised one eyebrow. If Aline could feel her killer’s presence, then most likely it hadn’t been a vagrant. Could it have been one of the staff? He made a mental note to ask Jace to cross-check names of the servants who had been on the estate when Aline was killed, with those of the present.
“If you can feel them, does that mean that sometimes the person is here on the grounds? Are they always here, or do they come and go?” He watched her expectantly, hoping she would be able to say.
She considered his questions, concentrating so deeply that she actually flickered briefly before finally growing steady again. “Sometimes. I think. I don’t know. Time is … it’s not the same for me as it is for them. I can’t always feel them. But I don’t know how long I am just left drifting, in between.”
“Are they here now?”
She shook her head. “Not right now in this room with us, no.”
If spirits were in some way adrift in time, Magnus thought, perhaps it would help if he could give her an anchor point. “Aline, since the last time you and I spoke – out in the garden - have you felt that person’s presence?”
She nodded. Then vanished as abruptly as she had appeared.
“It’s barely been one day and you’re already breaking our agreement.”
Magnus spun around, startled; Jace really was a stealthy bastard. “You have got to stop sneaking up on me like that.”
Jace leaned against the door frame, studying him closely. “You’re lucky it was just me. With your back to the entrance you were a perfect candidate for a head-bashing. I asked you not to go anywhere alone.” The library was at the far end of the north wing, for privacy and quiet, and it was full of objets d’art like porcelain vases and carved busts and other blunt, heavy things. Jace was right –Magnus had been momentarily careless, again.
I can take care of myself, he thought, but he couldn’t realistically tell Jace about his abilities. And it wasn’t like he hadn’t been caught off guard before. Just as he had been distracted at the lake, he had been so lost in thought while talking to Aline that he had forgotten to remain watchful on his own behalf. He couldn’t protect himself from an attack he didn’t see coming. That had already been proven, and the assailant might grow bolder next time.
He inclined his head in apology. “You are right, of course. I won’t make the same mistake again.”
“Good,” Jace said. “Lucky for you I have most of my morning free, and I decided I might keep you company for a while. I heard you have a very exciting afternoon planned. I’d hate for you not to live long enough to accomplish your mission.”
“Ah,” Magnus responded quietly. “Alec told you?”
“It’s the safe thing to do. Someone has to know where to start looking for you two if you don’t come back on time. Besides, he knows that as head of security for the estate, I have the blueprints from when the manor was built locked in the vault in my office. He couldn’t just ask to see the layout of the dungeons without telling me why.” Jace rubbed his hands over his arms with an abrupt shiver. “Why is it so cold in here?” Frowning, he walked to the nearest window and drew back the curtain, letting the morning sun warm his face. Tiny particles of dust swirled around him in the beams.
Magnus walked along the nearest wall of bookshelves, running his fingers gently over the rigid spines of their contents. “Well, I shall hope that we won’t need to be rescued by you. As thrilling as such adventures might sound in a book, I’ve no desire to be trapped in such a place. Not even with two handsome men around to catch me if I swoon.”
Jace gave Magnus a sidelong glance. “Just let me know if you find anything relevant to our investigation. Whatever else the two of you get up to down there, that information should be only released on a need-to-know basis. Actually, no, I beg you, just keep it to yourselves. I don’t want to have to defend my brother’s honor.” He gave Magnus a wink. “I bet you’re a better shot than you look.”
Magnus laid a finger alongside his nose but said nothing in reply. He finally selected a book and settled down into an overstuffed chair to read while Jace remained at the window, looking out over the gardens, lost in his own thoughts.
He stood in the darkness of the secret passageway and listened intently to the conversation Bane was having with Wayland. Following Wayland had been the right thing to do. A growing sense of urgency came over him as the two men talked. He didn’t know why Lightwood and Bane felt they needed to go to the dungeons, but it was clear that they expected to find some clue to either Lydia’s death, or Aline’s. But as he listened, a plan began to form in his mind. Perhaps here was an opportunity he could exploit. He slipped away, smiling darkly to himself: perhaps he could rid himself of not one, but two persistent annoyances – forever.
Somehow, around noontime, Jace procured a bottle of red wine and a plate of bread and cheeses for a casual meal, much to Magnus’s delight. Jace poured a glass for each of them and they passed the rest of their time in companionable silence. In fact, Magnus became so deeply engrossed in reading about the maritime adventures of a rogue pirate that he didn’t hear the soft knock at first. But he looked up when Jace – who had fallen asleep on the chaise partway into his second glass, an open book lying across his face - sprang blearily to his feet at the sound.
Alexander cleared his throat as he entered the room. “I wanted to return these,” he said, holding out a thick roll of papers. Jace accepted them, running a hand through his sleep-tousled hair. He glanced apologetically at Magnus.
“I beg your pardon. I seem to have fallen asleep on the job.”
Magnus shrugged. “It was no bother. I felt quite safe; in fact I found your snores unexpectedly soothing.”
“I can take it from here,” Alec said, the corner of his mouth twitching with amusement.
“I need to get back to work anyway,” Jace murmured as he inched toward the door. “Be careful,” he admonished them both as he left.
Alec watched him go, worrying at his bottom lip with his teeth. “He’s not happy that I won’t let him come with us.”
“He only wants to help.”
Alec nodded. “I know. But if something happens down there, I can’t risk having all three of us in the same hot water. Better to have reinforcements in waiting.”
“It’s a sound strategy,” Magnus agreed. “Wine? I hate to drink alone.” He poured a glass and held it out to Alexander, who hesitated but then accepted it as Magnus held up his own glass in salute.
“To not getting lost forever in the dungeons of Lightwood Hall.”
Alec smiled. “I’ll happily toast to that.”
After they drank, Magnus returned to the chair and sat down, once again lost in thought. Alec must have seen something on his face, because he sat down in an adjacent chair but didn’t say anything, only played idly with the stem of his wineglass until Magnus finally spoke.
“I saw Aline again. Not in the garden, this time, but here in the library.”
Alec nodded, his face serious. “What happened?”
Magnus related the story, and Alec listened intently as he sipped at the wine. “So whoever killed Aline wasn’t a random passerby after all.” He looked over at Magnus, his brow furrowed with concern. “You look troubled. What is it?”
“She looked so sad, this time, Alexander.” He shook his head in dismay. “She’s caught between two worlds right now. Our living realm, and wherever the dead go when they pass. Imagine what it must be like for a child, with the mind of a child, to have one foot in two realities. I’m impressed that she can come through and make any sense at all. I hope we can help her. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be so … trapped. Living half a life in each place, unable to move forward or back.”
Alec looked down at his empty wine glass and said nothing, but his gaze was distant. Magnus frowned a little. Had he said something wrong?
“Another drink?” he asked with false cheer, holding up the bottle.
Alec stood and put his glass down on the table, shaking his head no with a rueful grin. “This early in the day? You will turn me into a drunkard,” he chided gently.
“Well.” Magnus stood as well, setting the bottle down next to the empty glass. “I hardly wish for that.” When he straightened, Alec had stepped closer, looking at him with a soft, open expression. Alec’s enticingly full lips were reddened from the wine. Magnus found he couldn’t take his eyes off of them.
Alec took Magnus’s hand in his, brought it to his lips and kissed it, then pressed it to his chest. He took Magnus’s waist with his other hand and pulled him closer so that their bodies were nearly touching. “I dislike seeing you sad,” Alec said shyly, a flush rising in his cheeks.
It was disconcerting for Magnus that with a single touch Alec could send his senses reeling. He leaned into the taller man, his palm resting against Alec’s chest, feeling the heartbeat beneath his hand. Having Alec’s body so near to his own called to some unfamiliar, primal part of Magnus that he eagerly welcomed - something that had awakened in him after a long, dark slumber.
“What you do to me,” he whispered, breathing the words against Alec’s lips. Alec gathered the lapels of Magnus’s jacket in his hands and closed the last little space between them with a searing kiss. His mouth was sticky and sweet from the alcohol; he tasted like cherries. Magnus drank it in, swiping his tongue over Alec’s bottom lip, heady with a surge of desire.
Alec broke the kiss but did not move away from him. Instead he cradled Magnus’s head against his shoulder and held him there, stroking the back of his neck, his breathing quick and shallow. Their bodies pressed together from shoulder to hip. Magnus could still feel Alec’s heart pounding furiously and knew that it mirrored his own.
“I have behaved properly my entire life, yet somehow I lose all sense with you.” Alec’s voice was rough. It send shivers down the back of Magnus’s spine.
Magnus smiled. “Consider me eternally grateful.” He couldn’t resist pressing a kiss to the long, graceful line of Alec’s neck, tantalizingly close to his lips already. It seemed only right to then let his mouth travel further along Alec’s jaw, to the delicate shell of his ear and then back to his throat – with lips, tongue and teeth he explored every inch of bare flesh that he could reach. Alec clutched at him, pressing Magnus’s mouth even harder against his skin; he gasped Magnus’s name, and at that, Magnus was very nearly lost.
Until he remembered that they were in the library and it was the middle of the afternoon. Anyone might come along at any moment.
“Not here,” he managed to say, stepping back a pace, though it took a herculean effort to move away from Alexander’s seeking hands. Desire pulsed through him; it was agonizing not to be able to act on it. But if Magnus didn’t stop them now he was going to drag Alec up against the nearest flat surface and have his way with him, sensibility be damned.
Alec’s eyes were glazed, his pupils huge as he struggled to regain some semblance of self-control. “Right,” he said hoarsely. “Of course.” He drew a deep, ragged breath. “I – I should go. Get supplies ready. We’ll need witchlights, and I – I copied out a map. I’ll see you in an hour?”
Magnus nodded, not trusting himself to speak again. They both hurried from the room, breathless and still flushed. Magnus pondered his own reaction all the way back to his chambers - he almost didn’t recognize himself in what had just happened. Magnus was not some inexperienced lad, to completely lose his head at the sight of a pretty face or a seductive touch. This was something more. Alec Lightwood was peeling him apart, one layer at a time. He fervently hoped that by the time Alec dug deep enough, what he found there wouldn’t drive him away from Magnus forever.
Sorry for the wait for this chapter. Things are about to get pretty intense! Stay tuned.