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The King's Man

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When a second round began shortly after the first, the milkmaid’s enthusiasm clearly audible through the flimsy wooden walls, Childermass gave up. He pounded the adjoining wall with his fist — a last, futile thump of protest — then went to find his shoes. Vinculus and his current paramour would be outraging the sensibilities of everyone within earshot for another hour at least; Childermass had grown remarkably adept at predicting the frequency and duration of Vinculus’ nocturnal adventures after spending a year and half in the man’s company.

They had left York after a week spent with the Learned Society of York Magicians. In all truth, Childermass had decided to approach them less out of a desire to gain their aid in translating the new Book of John Uskglass, and more to see Dr. Foxcastle and his ilk confronted by a naked, capering Vinculus. Their reactions had been all he could have hoped for. It was lucky that that had been his primary aim, however; they were singularly useless when it came to examining the actual lettering of the book.

Now that he thought back on it, though, he could not be entirely sure his decision to approach the York magicians had entirely been his own. Throughout the entirety of the ride from Starecross Hall, the two men had been buffeted by the insistent flutter of newspapers. That so many copies of the York Chronicle had come to be blowing about in the snowy wilderness, catching upon their feet and on occasion even flying upward into their faces, had not at the time seemed odd in the slightest. His desire to unsettle the proper and prim gentlemen of the York Society by posting an ad available to all with the penny to purchase a copy of the Chronicle and the wherewithal to read or have it be read to them had, at the time, seemed to be entirely natural and in keeping with his own character.

The following week he had spent at the Old Starre Inn had been spent not in perusal of the impenetrable tangle of words writ blue upon Vinculus’ filthy skin—the man retained a medieval conviction that bathing was an insidious and dangerous habit, which made his ability to coax so many females into his bedsheets all the more perplexing—but rather in arbitrating a number of disputes that had arisen between the ancient impractical magicians and the new members of their number. This included a number of bright-eyed children, unmarried young women, bemused and obstinate farmers, and young noblemen whose sole pursuit before that week had been cards and heavy drinking.

There had, perhaps not unsurprisingly, been a considerable degree of discord engendered by the close proximity of these groups. And where normally Childermass would have watched the chaos unfold with a smirk, he found himself instead oddly compelled to sally forth and attempt to impose some semblance of order among the mob of magicians.

His attempts had not, as such, been hugely successful. Miss Redruth had at one point managed to convince the wigs of the more obstinate members of the Society to act as snakes, which would then whip forth and bite their owners on the nose whenever they spoke. Amusing, no doubt, but not exactly a traditional form of civilized debate.

Still, he had managed to leave the town after achieving some sort of uneasy stalemate – at the very least, the wigs no longer hissed every; time their owners opened their mouths to speak.

That had begun the first stage of what had become a very long, arduous, and trying journey, made all the more trying for being made primarily in the sole company of Vinculus.

Surprisingly, the man mostly was a pleasant traveling companion, though Childermass was occasionally forced to go to some lengths to render the fellow palatable to the nose.

Their first month of wandering had also failed to result in Childermass translating so much as a fingerbone of the Book, and instead had taken them in an odd, seemingly aimless path through several towns and hamlets, whereupon Vinculus and Childermass found themselves beset by charitable duties. They were first compelled to teach a young coven how to effectively wall off a nearby fairy road, to keep safe children who might be lured away and lost to the mists. The road gave off an intoxicating scent of wild magic, very like summer berries and fresh mountain air, and it drifted through the village in a rise and fall with the ebbing of the moon.

Mere brick or stone had not been enough to deter the children from making their way to the road, and Childermass had helped the villagers work out a tangle of spellwork and gardenry that finally served to hold the wind of Faerie at bay.

Then they’d been off again, this time stumbling upon two warring families of water spirits and millers. Oddly enough, this time Vinculus had acted as the primary arbiter. The blue-gray undines, with their pebbled skin and milky eyes, would tolerate no one else to speak with them, respondeding only with an intolerable wail that made all those within earshot vomit an odd, frothy red liquid. Childermass had grudgingly been forced to rely upon Vinculus as an intermediary. The frustration of wrangling some semblance of coherence out of the man had been nearly intolerable; the very mention of the word 'millhouse' could now set Childermass’ eye to twitching.

And yet, somehow the mediation had succeeded. They had heard recently from a passing alderman that the two different families had against all odds become great friends, and there was no more talk of uncontrolled and unseasonable flooding among the Raile Valley folk, though there was talk of unholy unions and damned half-human offspring named after the great magician Vinculus.

It was around then that Childermass had begun to wonder when, exactly, he had lost control over the direction of his life.

Vinculus let out a particularly exuberant noise, reminiscent of a bullfrog or perhaps a dying cow, which served admirably to jolt Childermass out of his thoughts and back to the present. He redoubled his efforts to fumble on his boots and escape the room with all haste, before the howling started.

“Should you not bring your scarf with you, John Childermass?” a dry voice said from behind him. Childermass grimly pulled on his left boot, then looked over his shoulder. He was thoroughly unsurprised to see the Raven King was stretched out amidst the disordered bedclothes, staring thoughtfully up at the ceiling. He was wearing his boots in bed, shedding bits of bright red dirt about the sheets, and there was a circlet of wintery metal on his brow that glinted icily and cast strange shadows that seemed to be part of another larger, grander room entirely.

“It is nearly June,” Childermass said, watching his King with a jaundiced eye. “I do not need a scarf.”

“June, is it?” the Raven King said disinterestedly, tapping his foot idly against a bedpost and sending a shower of dirt upon the rough wooden floor. Childermass sighed and trudged over to the bag of belongings he’d stashed behind the wardrobe. His winter things were naturally wadded at the very bottom and could not be reached without upending everything else in the bag. Childermass found his tattered woolen scarf and wrapped it irritably about his neck. It smelled of mildew, of long days, and of cold, sodden weather.

In the next room, the milkmaid made a sound which was remarkably similar to that of a boar in heat, followed by a ululating wail. John Uskglass raised an inky eyebrow, looking faintly impressed.

“Vinculus will get a son off of her,” he announced absently, and then stretched, yawning.

Childermass pressed the heel of his hand to one eye.

“Does your Majesty require anything else this evening?” he inquired as he stomped towards the door. It was the kind of door which warped sullenly over the years and required digging in one’s heels and pulling with all one’s might to convince it to open, and only a good solid kick could thereafter force it closed again. Childermass summoned all his strength and gave it a firm yank. It creaked sullenly and moved perhaps a candlewidth.

Childermass hated this inn, and this door, and a good deal else about his life at this moment. He was tired – he had spent the better part of the day convincing a toddler to transform the town mayor from marzipan back into a florid, outraged politician again, and when it had all been over with, Childermass had rather felt more sympathy with the grumbling infant. Also, his hair still smelled of almonds, and while it was a pleasant enough odor in small quantities, over the hours it grew rather sickly.

Fresh air, he thought. Fresh air and a pipe and then, God willing, sleep.

“No,” the King said, watching Childermass wrestle with the door, his voice faintly amused. “I require nothing. I only came to see how you fare on your journey, John Childermass." There was a pause. "Do you fare well?”

“You are maddening,” Childermass informed the man, and finally wrenched the door open, then viciously kicked it shut on his smirking king.

Being the king’s man, he thought, moving through the common room of the inn like a thundercloud and sending its patrons skittering outwards in his wake, was rather more palatable as a lifelong goal than as a goal achieved.

Perhaps if he had left well enough alone, he thought wistfully, the king would have remained a beloved and mysterious figure. A distant, mysterious enigmatic figure.

If only, but alas, Childermass was not well-known for his propensity to accept bizarre coincidences at face value, or for his tendency to restrain his fingers from prying into secrets, once the presences of secrets had become evident. When he had begun puzzling over his sudden tendency towards philanthropic ventures, as well as the events of that day he and Vinculus had reunited, and the Book had been rewritten, he came up with several inconsistencies.

The first was that Vinculus had indubitably been dead, and then returned to life. Childermass distinctly recalled cutting the man down from the tree, checking his pulse and then pondering how best to transport the corpse. The time between that moment and the moment when he had watched Vinculus draw a rasping, indignant breath was muddled and out of focus, like looking for the bottom of a deep, cold lake. He could recall the sensation of a damp finger on his eyelids, on his lips, on the skin above his heart. The fall of his pistol from his nerveless fingers, and the sound it had made as it hit the snow, that too he remembered. Nothing else.

More puzzling still was that Childermass had not thought of anything of this discrepancy until months later. He had quite calmly administered a bottle of claret to the wheezing, outraged hanged man, and then pondered only how best to preserve the knowledge of the missing Book. The sudden healing of the terrible cut upon Childermass' cheek had given him not the slightest pause, whereas it later began to plague his thoughts constantly. Stroking a finger along the faint, pale ridge had become somewhat of a nervous twitch, in fact.

Other strange happenings began to attract his attention, once he made himself focus.

The wind nudging them down a particular fork in the road. The blades of grass bending in the direction of a particular stone-encrusted town full of marble inhabitants. The queer way his hand seemed to sketch signs in the air, over an enchantment he'd never heard of, let alone knew how to break.

Something had happened in the time between Vinculus being cut from the tree, and Vinculus drawing breath again. All Childermass had to go on was the recollection of a fingertip upon his skin, the sound of a gun falling to the muddy ground, but he had studied among magicians for well over twenty years. He was confident he could tease an answer from the glassy blankness in his mind from those small fragments of memory alone.

It had been the height of midsummer before he could work out a method, however. Childermass had left Vinculus dozing in the arms of the baker’s wife and had assembled the haphazard ingredients he thought necessary to bring to life his own memories. A silver scrying bowl (purloioned from the baker's employer), an attar of wild roses, and a black skein of thread.

He had stared down into the bowl beneath the summer moon, holding it cradled carefully in one hand. Then he had spoken the words of Strange's Revelation and carefully dabbed the rose-scented oil over his eyelids with the other, looking down into the bowl with some trepidation. His hands had trembled at the boiling blackness that had appeared, glossy and almost overflowing from the bowl.

“Well met, John Childermass,” a voice had said gravely out of nowhere, and Childermass had reacted instinctively, throwing the scrying bowl directly at the Raven King’s head.

That, apparently, had not been the anticipated response, and for several seconds the two men had stood staring at one another, one dripping, the other preparing to be turned into a newt, or perhaps a slug, or some other fate messier altogether.

“Less well met than I had hoped for,” the King had said finally, scrubbing a sleeve across his face, and Childermass had dropped to one knee and begged forgiveness.

The memory of this now caused Childermass no small measure of regret. It was not that he did not love his King, or that he did not feel more whole now that his King had returned, as though his life previous had been spent with a missing eye or leg.
It was more that he wished he'd taken the time to appreciate getting to dump a bowl of cold, murky water on the man when he'd had the chance.

What all the historians had failed to uncover and the texts of magic had skimmed over, Childermass found, was that John Uskglass really was damned annoying.

Oh, there had been hints in folklore and legend, but the reality far surpassed them.

Outside the inn there a light snow was falling, whispering down and tracing almost-familiar shapes on the cobblestones, swirling in the wintery night wind. Childermass sighed, hands already red and stiff with cold, and patted his pockets for his pipe.

“You forgot your matches, John,” the Raven King said and cupped a pale hand around Childermass’ pipe. There was a red glow behind his fingers, and then a tendril of smoke stretched up lazily and brushed against Childermass’ cheek.

Small drifts of snow were gathering at their feet and forming insistent arabesques and arches. Childermass could just make out a word or two, nothing more. He considered kicking the blasted things to pieces. If the King had a message for him, he could just bloody well deliver it out loud, instead of tormenting Childermass with frozen water and the omnipresent nocturnal ruttings of Vinculus.

"Vinculus needs no encouragement from me," John Uskglass said mildly, and perhaps one day Childermass would get used to the man divining his thoughts, but for now, it was deucedly annoying. "You were going to be awake regardless."

“Yes, your majesty is terribly efficient, as always,” Childermass said snidely. The King did not respond to this jibe, only regarded the clear sky above, frowning slightly. Childermass sighed and gave in to the inevitable; there would be no peace until he did. “Why Lindisfarne? And what the devil do you mean, a time of rabbits?”

“Ah,” said the King with a crooked smile, still staring dreamily up at the clouds above. “You are improving.”

 “Can you not just speak plainly?” Childermass retorted, puffing crossly on his pipe. “If you have a task to set us, you need only to say so, since you happen to be on hand. One would almost think you had nothing better to do.”

“Hmm,” said the Raven King, mouth quirking slightly. “But this way, I can be sure you learn your Letters.”

That was another thing. What use was having a Reader of the King’s Letters if said letters could only be comprehended after considerable mental turmoil and near-impossible amounts of concentration on such riveting subjects as the wind in the grass and the way the stones were ordered about the roots of trees?

The King laughed and the snow picked up. Childermass blew a smoke ring in the King’s direction.

“It is not an understanding that comes from being taught,” John Uskglass told him cheerfully, and there was a suggestion of movement in the depths of his eyes, something like a winter wave crashing down upon a rocky shore. It made Childermass dizzy to look at him for too long. “The language is yours, John Childermass. I cannot decipher it for you.”

“Helpful as always,” Childermass muttered. His tobacco had a different flavor than it had had that morning – it tasted oddly of the meadowsweet grass he had chewed as a small boy during high summer, spicy and not unpleasant. His gloveless hands seemed to be thawing. A moment before they had been clumsy with cold.

“If you are not here to help translate your own book,” Childermass said crossly – he should have known better than to let the King touch his pipe. Now he felt flushed and pink, near to drunkeness. “Then why the devil are you here?”

The King smiled.

“Childermass,” he said, raising both eyebrows. “You would find life very dull without me.”

Childermass managed to refrain from squawking indignantly – not that it mattered since between one blink and the next the man had disappeared in a swirl of snow, the flakes dancing against Childermass' cheek. And he knew, just knew, they were spelling out something insulting against his skin. Damnation.

He sighed and tilted his head, gauging the darkness of the sky. It was perhaps two hours off from dawn. Surely Vinculus would be finished with his nocturnal symphony soon.

He tapped out the embers in his pipe, careful not to shake loose any of the remaining tobacco, and settled it back into his pocket. He had a feeling he was going to need the taste of summer as they headed further north, where cold weather still lingered.

The common room of the inn was mostly empty, but for a few lingering drinkers who crowded around the hearth and muttered to each other in perplexed tones about the sudden shift in weather.

“John Uskglass does not pay attention to his business tonight,” one slurred knowledgeably, and Childermass rolled his eyes to the heavens, shaking his head.

The hallway was blessedly full of the low buzzing snore, which had become that had become oddly comforting and familiar over the last few months. Childermass bent to the task of quietly kicking the door to his room back open. He was warm, his head felt pleasantly light, and he almost was thinking charitable, fond thoughts towards his king when he slipped into bed, whereupon he abruptly remembered the sheets were still filled with red clumps of dirt from said king’s boots.

He would seethe over it in the morning, he decided, and drifted off to sleep at last, the sound of snoring and faint laughter in his ears.