"Do you know, Stephen, I have given much thought lately to whether it would be better to be a servant in Heaven than a king in Hell," said the gentleman, and Stephen realized he must be dreaming. He felt this should, perhaps, have reassured him, but he found that it did not.
"You have, sir?"
The gentleman tutted. "Kings do not need to address one another so formally, surely. Why do you not use my name, and I shall use yours - your true name, that is, for I remember it still, and after all the trouble I went through to acquire it (which was very little, really, given that it was, after all, for you, who is so very dear to me), surely it would be a pity to let it go to waste."
"Sir," said Stephen Black. "That is not possible, for I do not know your name. I am sorry," he added, for he saw the gentleman frown at his statement.
"Well, but of course it is true that to give one's true name to another person is an act of great trust," said the gentleman. "I should not tell my name to just anyone."
Stephen mumbled that, indeed, he was sure the gentleman should not. His fear was, for no particular reason that he could discern, slowly receding. Perhaps it was the realization that he was dreaming, after all, even if Stephen was far from sure that the gentleman could not do as much mischief in a dream as he could in the waking world.
"But to you, my dear Stephen, why, I see no reason at all why I should not tell my name to you," said the gentleman.
"Your trust honors me, sir." And yet, Stephen knew, the gentleman would not actually tell him the name, any more than he would tell Stephen what name his mother had given him before she'd died.
"I think that, if you are a king in Hell, there really cannot be any reason for you to be a servant in Heaven. It is wholly illogical," said the gentleman. "Do you not agree?"
Stephen confessed that he had never given much thought to the idea. "But, sir," he said, "do you mean to tell me that you are, in fact, in Hell?"
For all the harm the gentleman had done - not just to Stephen himself, but to Lady Pole, and Arabella Strange and doubtless many, many others more, Stephen found that the notion of the gentleman now being in Hell disturbed him. Death, in Stephen Black's opinion, should erase a man's sins.
This was not, of course, the opinion of the Church of England, but then, as the Church of England seemed scarcely sure of whether or not faeries had souls to begin with, Stephen did not put very great stock in their opinion. (Before him stood, after all, quite clear proof that faeries did indeed have souls.)
"Why, certainly not! Whatever could have put such a strange notion in your head? Has anyone told you this, perhaps? No, do not tell me, I can guess well enough. My dear Stephen, how you must have suffered, believing such a thing!" The gentleman gestured with his hands, and for a moment, Stephen thought he might wring them. "To believe that one who holds you so dear is trapped in such an awful place - why, it is quite ghastly. Quite ghastly. Even so, your concern touches me."
"You have been there, then, sir?"
"Oh, never," the gentleman declared with something that came very close to cheer. "Whyever would I go there, when I already know there can't possibly be anything at all likeable about it?"
Stephen replied that, indeed, there seemed no reason why the gentleman would visit such a place.
"But come now, is there nothing you wish to tell me?" The gentleman gave Stephen an expectant look.
Stephen considered that, in order to ask forgiveness for any action, one needed to be quite sure that, would a similar situation occur, one would act quite differently. To say that he was sorry for killing the gentleman would be a lie; he was not.
He regretted that it had been necessary, and he regretted that it appeared the gentleman was not resting in peace but rather wandering around people's dreams. This, however, was the extent of his regrets. "I cannot think of anything, sir."
"Not anything?" The gentleman frowned a little. "Come now, Stephen. Are we not friends? You can speak plainly to me, without fear."
Stephen felt words rise to his lips. They were harsh, unkind words, and yet they were also true words, and he thought that perhaps that meant they ought to be spoken out loud.
He pressed his lips together to keep them inside, shaking his head once, in reply to the gentleman's coaxing, feeling he was acting rather ill-mannered. To speak would have been evem more ill-mannered, though.
"You are angry with me," the gentleman said sadly. "There is no use in denying it; I know that it is true. And you are, of course, quite right in being so."
Stephen felt the words stop trying to get out and crawl back down his throat. They tickled a little on their way, a skittery sensation.
"After all, I have not come to see you for so very long," said the gentleman.
Stephen did not say that he had assumed the gentleman to be dead. It did not seem kind and, in addition, it did not seem prudent to admit his ignorance on this particular subject. "It has only been a few months, sir." Seven nearly, although they had felt more like weeks than months.
There was a great deal of work to do, and it seemed to Stephen that all too often, when it became time to go to bed, he realized that he had not accomplished half as much as he had set out to accomplish that morning.
"Can you ever forgive me, do you think?" the gentleman asked, and Stephen very nearly replied that really, there was nothing to forgive, when he realized how untrue this would be.
Even if the gentleman had only ever acted from a sincere desire to please him; even if the gentleman did not think or feel things as humans did; even if the gentleman had perhaps been wronged by England's magicians, then that did not mean that he was blameless and ought to be forgiven.
The truth, after all, was that Stephen had not been pleased; that the gentleman very likely had not cared what humans might have thought or felt at his actions, and that if England's magicians had wronged the gentleman, they had only done so out of ignorance, not because they had set out to do so. Which possibly made them as bad as the gentleman, but not worse.
"I really could not say, sir," said Stephen, making his tone as gentle as he could. "It is a difficult thing to give to another person, forgiveness."
"Oh, indeed," said the gentleman, and if he was disappointed with Stephen's answer, it only showed for the briefest of moments. "Why, I do not believe I have ever done so. Although of course to you, my dear Stephen, I would - without any hesitation or reserve."
"It is kind of you to say so, sir." It was also, Stephen knew, a lie, for all that the gentleman did not seem to blame Stephen in any way for having killed him.
Perhaps to a faerie, that was not an offense that required forgiveness.
"Have I ever been less than kind to you? Have I not promised you that you would be king? And now you are, and I could not be more delighted, really I could not."
Stephen wondered what would happen when he woke up, if he would remember this conversation.
"But now, my dear Stephen, I need your help," said the gentleman.
It was not an unexpected statement. When people's loved ones appeared to them in their dreams, it was often to ask for help, or pass on a last bit of advice, or make some strange prediction that could later be interpreted as having come true any which way.
"My help, sir?" It would be the greatest foolishness to agree.
"Your help. Really, it is the most simple thing," said the gentleman. "There will be no danger to you whatsoever, and it would only cost you the smallest amount of time."
Stephen concluded that what the gentleman wished for him to do would be likely a complicated thing, that it would be quite dangerous, and that it would cost him a great deal of time.
"You see, I have been king for many, many years. Centuries, in fact," said the gentleman. "And I have become quite good at it - although, of course, I am certain that you are an excellent king as well. You may think it selfish of me to have decided that I do not wish to be king anymore, that I am, in fact, rather bored of being king. It is a great comfort to me that I know my subjects have had the great fortune of finding you to be their new king - I do not know that I could have done this otherwise."
Stephen waited for a few seconds before he politely inquired as to what the gentleman had decided to become, instead of king.
"A very good question, my dear Stephen." The gentleman beamed at him with approval. "I gave the matter much thought, as I already mentioned, and the answer seems to me to be entirely obvious."
Stephen offered that perhaps what was obvious to the gentleman was not so to Stephen who was, after all, a human.
"Why, a servant, of course! Is it not the most perfect symmetry? As I have taught you all you know about kingship once, so you can teach me all you know of being a servant now. I confess," the gentleman said, "I am not sure if I should enjoy being a servant as long as I enjoyed being a king, but I believe it will be a very interesting and enjoyable experience."
Stephen did not know how to respond to this. The idea of the gentleman as a servant to anyone seemed ridiculous to him, but dangerous, too, for he knew how powerful the gentleman's magic was, how easily an unscrupled master might take advantage of such a thing.
True, the gentleman might choose to serve a good, proper person, but how long would it be until that person would say or do something that displeased him?
Finally, he said that he thought being a servant would certainly be a very different experience from being a king, to which the gentleman nodded in happy agreement.
"Although of course, in order to be a proper servant, I shall need a body," said the gentleman. "I cannot be a servant only in people's dreams; that would never do at all. I do not suppose you have one lying around that I might use?"
"A body?" Stephen asked. "No, sir, indeed I do not. I do not imagine many people do."
"No, I suppose not." The gentleman's tone made it clear he considered this a gross oversight and rather short-sighted. "Well, never mind. I shall think on the problem for a while and surely hit on a solution sooner rather than later."
"Would your old body not do, sir?" Stephen asked, a little hesitantly. He had marked its location well, although he was not sure if he would be able to bring himself to recover the gentleman's body in order to revive him, to undo what he had done to save himself and a great many other people.
"Of course not." The gentleman sounded shocked Stephen would suggest such a thing. "My old body would not do at all. It is, after all, quite dead, and who ever heard of someone walking around in a dead body? No, no, it is impossible."
"My apologies, sir. I had not realized this."
"I shall have to take someone else's," said the gentleman broodingly. "A human's, I think."
Stephen felt himself go cold. (It was a dream, though, so he assumed the sensation was only an illusion and not truly real.) "You mean that you will kill someone in order to steal their body, sir?"
"They should be pleased, I think," said the gentleman. "I am sure to take far better care of their body than they would have themselves, and it will last much longer besides."
"Can you not create a new body for yourself, sir? With your magic?"
The gentleman sighed. "Why, I could, certainly, but it takes a very long time and it is a quite bothersome thing to do, not fun at all."
Stephen cautiously asked how long 'a very long time' might be.
"As much as five hours," said the gentleman. "Really, if this is how you intend to treat me, I shall have to reconsider choosing to become your servant after all, for I do not like it at all."
Stephen did not know if it was the shock of this announcement or some soft sound that woke him, but wake he did, to find it was nearly time for him to be served his breakfast before going to work.
He did not think he would get much done during the next five hours, or after that, but he resolved to do his best, and to deal with events as they would unfold.