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The Erlking of Bergdis Valley

Chapter Text

The Erlking of Bergdis Valley

Part I.

Chapter I.

In the dead of the night, in the Bone Grove, the prince and the usurper fought.

The battle was a savage thing, brutal, with little in the way of skills or wits, and nothing at all in the way of elegance or dignity. The usurper had the upper hand, having gotten an arm around the prince’s neck and dragged him to the ground. He would not let go, no matter how many blows the prince dealt him, nor how many wounds opened his flesh to the bone.

The summertime night had a biting cold to it. The fog characteristic of Bergdis Valley had settled in as thick as milk, everywhere but here. Breath rose, in huffs of pale clouds, and the ground was damp with the promise of frost by morning.

As brutish as the fight was, it was also short.

The prince sank his father’s blade into the usurper’s left side, wedged between his ribs. He never had a chance to twist the blade; the usurper pulled his own knife across the prince’s throat, and before the prince could sputter and die, he yanked the blade free of the young man’s flesh and opened him again, from pelvis diagonally to ribcage. The cut was deep enough to leave sliced organs in its wake.

This done, he shoved the prince away form him, and kicked him onto his side. The intestines began a slippery escape from the body. The usurper crouched over the faltering, choking body of the prince and pushed the man onto his back. Using the knife as a tool, he opened the abdomen further, just under the ribcage. He reached both hands and the knife into the hot cavity of the body, past the slime and pulse of living internal organs, and he cut out the heart.

The body of Garet Agripin (prince and rightful heir to the crown of the Erlking of Bergdis Valley, son of Charles Agripin, Erlking of almost fifty years) would be burned the following morning, all but for the heart, which would be left on the stained altar for weeks afterwards. All who knew their way to the Bone Grove, be they mourners, former enemies, or merely curious, could come to see the ruin of the prince.

The usurper had no sooner pulled the heart free than he dropped it, and stepped backwards. His hands went to his side, and the hilt protruding there. He tried to pull the knife free, but with a snap and an agonizing, burning white pain, the blade broke off on his rib and remained lodged just under his lung. He swore, viciously, but his skin was already healing around the abscess of the blade, without seam or scar and only drying blood to show where it had been. It would have to be removed in the following week, by a bewildered doctor in a modern hospital.

It was a small price to pay.

Mathuin, usurper and murderer, was Erlking.

•••

Jem bolted upright in bed.

For a few confused moments, his mind was a scattered jumble of thoughts, dreaming and remembered tangled together. In the dream’s perspective, he could still see Garet Agripin’s ruined, bloody body lying in the damp grass, eyes a milky half open. Before he could comfort himself thinking that it was all a wretched nightmare, he remembered that it was true, at least the facts of it; Garet Agripin was dead, for months now. Jem’s heart sank.

Beside him, Mathuin stirred, still more asleep than not. He reached out a hand for Jem, murmuring something unintelligible, and Jem allowed himself to be drawn back to lying down. He pulled the blankets up around his neck, as Mathuin’s arm tightened around his waist. Even half asleep, Mathuin was strong enough to drag Jem about as easily as a child with a ragdoll.

Jem lay awake, eyes wide. He was not one of the people who had made their way to the Bone Grove, to see what little remained of Garet, on the altar. To judge by how many rumors he heard, how many descriptions of what was to be found there, he had been perhaps the only person who hadn’t gone to see. The tone of the story varied, depending on whether the person telling it had wanted Garet dead or had been devastated by his death. The primary gist remained the same: a heart on an altar, one that scavengers would not touch, and a campfire pile of blackened wood and ashes mixed with crushed bone, quickly returning to the earth in the constant summer rain.

The Agripinite cause died with Garet, and its most avid supporters died literally. Calvin Lance, Garet’s best friend, was found stabbed twice in the abdomen, with his throat slashed— he had put up a fight, when Mathuin came for him. Raul Contreras, Garet’s oldest supporter, was found facedown in the Little Columbia River, bloated and blue. Professor Michele Reeves was found in her office on the Merodack College campus, shot in the head. Sheriff Scott Copeland was found in the woods, not far from the Bone Grove, his face black and his throat cut like Lance’s. Sophia Nemael, Garet Agripin’s girlfriend and rumored fiancée, had disappeared altogether.

Bergdis had a new sheriff, former Deputy John Horn, and Merodack College had found a new professor of Ancient Cults to take Professor Reeves’s place.

Jem turned onto his side to face the wall, and willed himself back to sleep, but it evaded him. No one— least of all Mathuin— had ever told Jem any particular details about the manner of Garet’s death on that night in June. He knew there had been a fight in the Bone Grove, and he knew the end result, the dismemberment. He knew (because he knew Mathuin’s methods) that the bone knife had been used.

He wondered, if he were to ask Mathuin about an old injury involving a blade lodged under the ribs, just what the man might say.

The dream had seemed not so much nightmarish or horrific but simply matter-of-fact, and he couldn’t quite shake the altogether alarming notion that he had just become a latecomer witness.

Why now? Garet was some four months dead. He turned this unsettling question over and over again in his mind but he didn’t even have half-formulated theories for answers. Eventually, the dark and the quiet overtook him and he returned to sleep.

•••

The cat led him to the body.

In the afternoon, the day after the dream, Jem was biking home from class when he saw it skulking in a red tangle of raspberry bush, not far from the Bergdis public library. He had never seen an animal in so dire need of a vet: the orange fur was gray with dirt and brown with old sores, the ribs protruded and the belly dragged, and the left front paw was red-black with blood. It was as small as a kitten, at perhaps six months old, and it stared out at him with lantern yellow eyes, as he pulled his bike to the side of the road and dismounted. When he abandoned his bike and approached it, it turned and bolted into the undergrowth.

Jem fought his way through the thorns and rotted raspberries that left saccharine red smears on his hands and clothes, and took off after it. It was not as fast as a cat could be, given the limping paw, but it scudded around a copse of trees, and straight for a leaf pile, out back behind the library. It paused, for just a moment, twisting around to glare at him with ears flattened back, before it took off again.

This time, Jem didn’t give chase.

In the leaf pile, he could see just a zippered corner of a dark blue jacket. In and of itself, that wouldn’t have been enough to distract him from the more pressing matter of the injured cat, but that the hint of cloth lead his eyes to the more generalized shape of what looked not entirely unlike a supine body.

Jem approached. Dread filled him like wine filling a glass, but he felt some ineffable sense of duty, an unspoken but understood obligation: when you thought you saw a body, unburied in the woods, you had to find out for sure.

He didn’t touch the edge of the jacket, but he pulled a handful of leaves away from just above it, and revealed a glimpse of the fabric of a shirt, and the unmistakable quality of flesh underneath that shirt. Jem’s gorge rose, but he moved to where the head might be, and gingerly brushed away the leaves, until a face and a means of death were revealed.

Mr. Reuben Vaughn, the elderly head librarian of Merodack College, had apparently died of a cut throat. His doughy eyes were closed, thankfully, but the mouth was a twisted, awful shape. The throat had been sliced so deeply that only the bone stopped the knife from severing the head. It made for a gaping maw of gore, black and crusted brown and sickly pale skin tinged blue, but with no hint of red. The leaves were sticky and disgusting with the stuff. Jem was no expert on dead bodies, but to judge by the colorless pallor and the black, bruised quality of Mr. Vaughn’s flesh, he was not freshly dead.

Jem dropped the leaves and stumbled back, took a gasping breath, and immediately regretted it. Now that the body was partially uncovered, and now that he knew what to expect, he could smell the cold, damp hints of decay. Instinctively, he looked around, but there was no one in sight, neither human nor feline.

He took a moment to think of just what to do. He knew, given the new and unpleasant circumstances of his life, that he should contact Mathuin before anyone else. However, no one had ever explicitly told Jem what to do in the event of finding a body, and he was not quite so obedient a captive as to obey an order he hadn’t been given. He pulled his phone out of his pocket with shaking hands, and called 911.

The police arrived very quickly. First, a pair of local officers, who whistled at the sight of the dead man and emphatically decided that there was nothing to be gained from calling an ambulance. They sectioned off the scene and told Jem to stay put. Shortly thereafter, Detectives Malone and Harrison arrived, along with the bustle of coroner, crime scene photographer, crime scene investigators, and more. Detective Malone leaned over the dead man, examining whatever could be seen before the rest of the leaves were moved, while Detective Harrison pulled Jem far enough to the side that their conversation wouldn’t be overheard, and began asking him questions.

Jem explained, quickly and stuttering, how he had been chasing after a cat— “Not your cat? A stray?” — which was how he found the body.

“It’s Mr. Vaughn, the librarian,” he said firmly, when Det. Harrison referred to the man as ‘the deceased’. “Not this library,” he added for clarification, jerking his head at the building through the woods. “The Merodack College Library.”

“You know him? You’re a student at the school, then?” Det. Harrison asked.

Jem nodded, and pulled out his school ID, followed by his Maine driver’s license. “Ashur Dorchester,” Harrison read aloud. “Twenty-one years old.” He glanced at Jem for confirmation.

“I go by Jem. My middle name,” Jem said. A lifetime of correcting teachers and administrators had made the habit automatic.

“What do you study at school, Jem?” Harrison asked. He was softening, Jem thought, as if it had occurred to him that as horrifying as it was to find a body in the woods, it was even worse when that body was someone you knew.

“Anthropology. Folklore and fairy tales,” Jem said, half distracted. The coroner was moving the leaves away from Mr. Vaughn’s body, and Jem craned around Det. Harrison’s shoulder to see. Det. Harrison moved, subtly but deliberately, to block his view.

“That must mean a lot of time in the library,” he said gravely, and Jem nodded. “When was the last time you saw the deceased?”

“Um…” Jem had to think. “I go to the library almost every day, but… I don’t think he was there yesterday. Maybe the day before that?” Det. Harrison started to write that down, and Jem corrected himself. “No, you know, that’s not right, a student was behind the counter that day. It must have been Tuesday, that I last remember seeing him.” He wasn’t about to add this little detail, but the reason he remembered Tuesday was because he’d spared Vaughn a brief but hateful glare when he had wordlessly picked up his Inter-Library Loan books. Jem didn’t usually bother with antipathy, but he occasionally made an exception for Vaughn in particular.

“Tuesday,” Det. Harrison murmured, and then, “Can you think of anyone who would have anything against the deceased? Any, ah… rumors, maybe, going around the school…?”

“God, no,” Jem said. It was a lie. He could. The first person on that list was himself, and a close second was Ophelia Dorchester, his twin.

Det. Harrison nodded, and would have asked further questions, but that Det. Malone called for him to hurry it up. “Look,” he said. “After we determine the time and cause of death, we’re going to want to ask you a few more questions— where you were, routine stuff like that. I don’t suppose that this is your current address?” He indicated the Maine driver’s license. “Do you live on campus?”

“Uh, no… My address is— it’s Number 1, Elderberry Road,” Jem said.

“You live with a roommate?”

“No… No, I’m— m-married,” Jem said. He had Det. Harrison’s refocused attention at that.

“For how long now?”

“Since July.”

“Congratulations,” Det. Harrison said with the tight you’re-too-young-to-be-married smile. Jem didn’t return it.

Jem gave over his phone number, and, with no more questions asked of him, was clapped reassuringly on the shoulder by Det. Harrison and sent on his way. He noticed a number of stares from the various police officers and Det. Malone as he went, but he kept his back straight and made his way back to his bike, lying near the road and the raspberry bush.

He had not gone more than a block, when he saw the orange kitten again, this time, hiding under someone’s porch stairs. He once again got off the bike and approached. He made sure the house was empty, to judge by the empty driveway and dark windows, and then crouched down by the stairs. The cat hunkered down and set about licking its injured paw, and Jem reached under the steps and pulled it out.

It responded with a devil of a fight, two handfuls’ worth of clawing and biting with needle sharp teeth. It didn’t make a sound other than a few spitting, hissing breaths. Jem tucked it into his arms and walked both it and his bike into Bergdis proper, and the veterinarian’s office. After a great deal of initial abuse, it finally settled for staying put in his arms and shaking.

Jem had never had any reason to visit the vet before, but he’d seen the sign, and he knew the name. The receptionist was deeply suspicious when he presented what was obviously a stray cat, and without an appointment at that, but she went to find Dr. Claudine Ochoa when Jem asked for her by name.

Dr. Claudine arrived wearing pale blue scrubs, with her mouse pale hair piled on her head in a loose approximation of a bun. She smiled at Jem, a bit tiredly, as if she recognized him, which Jem supposed that she might, and welcomed him into an examination room, cat and all.

“I think she’s a stray,” Jem explained. “But there’s something wrong with her paw, see, and she doesn’t look too good…”

“We don’t have many strays in Bergdis,” Dr. Claudine said, as she pulled on thick gloves. “The habitat doesn’t support them especially well.” Which meant, Jem supposed, that being this deep in the woods, the foxes, wolves, bears, owls, hawks, and eagles made short work of any animal without the protection of a home.

When she examined the cat, it bit her, but she ignored it. She did, however, pause and give Jem a more critical look. “Do you need to sit down? You don’t look very good, Jem.”

“I’m fine,” Jem insisted, but his hands were shaking. Dr. Claudine ushered him back into waiting room to sit down, and asked the receptionist to give him a cup of coffee.

He stayed there and he drank the coffee, though it tasted bitter and half-full of dregs. He very deliberately did not ruminate on the memory of Vaughn’s dead face. After perhaps fifteen minutes, Dr. Claudine came out of the examination room empty-handed and sat down next to him, peeling off her gloves.

“Well, she’s a female,” she said frankly. “The paw just needs a few stitches— it looks like she got herself into a bit of a fight, but she’ll be fine. The bigger concern is that I think she might have some parasites in her skin, and in her gut as well.” She looked like she was about to go on, until she caught sight of Jem’s face, and thought better of it. “Wash your hands especially well before you leave, would you? Anyway. She’s spayed, which means she must have had a home at some point. The thing is,” she added, “There isn’t any veterinary record of an orange female cat in Bergdis, not for years and years. Orange females are exceedingly rare, so that narrows the search parameters.”

“Some family who came for the summer?” Jem asked vaguely.

“Maybe.”

“I thought she was a kitten… too young to be spayed,” he added.

“Well, she’s only about nine months old, at my best guess. And she’s been starving, for quite some time.” Claudine paused. “It’s a very good thing you brought her to me.”

Jem flushed, and raised the cup to his lips for a moment before he remembered the coffee was gone. He set it down deliberately.

“She’s also got a kink in her tail where it was broken— did you notice that? It looks like it was maybe slammed in a door, and it wasn’t set by a vet.” She paused. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’ll keep her here for a few days, to stitch her up and treat her for the parasites, and I’ll ask Tildie,” she nodded to the receptionist, who was watching them. “To search through any Lost Cat notices we’ve received to see if she matches the descriptions. If we can’t find her home, we’ll give you a call, and she’ll be yours. Okay?”

There was something in Dr. Claudine’s tone that told Jem very clearly that she wasn’t expecting to find the cat’s home. He nodded.

“About the bill,” he started.

“Don’t worry about it,” Claudine said with a quick smile. “I’ll bill Mathuin. He’s an old friend, I know he won’t mind.” That, Jem thought, was possibly the most alarming thing she had said yet.

For the second time that day, he left his phone number. He went to say goodbye to the cat, who glared at him with her lantern eyes, and with no other procrastination available to him, he left. Before he climbed on his bike, he paused to text Ophelia regarding the events of the day.

He had a long ride to make, from the town proper to Elderberry Road, and the sun had set by the time he finally arrived. He left his bike in the garage, and then made his way up the front steps to the porch. There, he found the porch swing and chairs occupied by Jubilee Spence, Christopher Duarte, and Brian Ritter, Jem’s least favorites of Mathuin’s various minions.

He didn’t spare so much as a glance at them, but Jubilee wasn’t going to have that. “Hey!” she shouted. “Vaughn is dead— and you found him?”

Jem paused— not because of Jubilee, but because he could see, in the kitchen window, that Detective Malone was speaking to Professor Keith Wharton, while Michael Hemming stood nearby like a mountain, arms crossed. It might mean nothing, Jem thought. Wharton was Vaughn’s old colleague, after all, and the detectives must be interested in interviewing as many such colleagues as they could find, especially given that, as far as Jem knew, Vaughn had never had much life besides his work.

But it was also quite likely that Det. Malone was a Mathuinite.

Jubilee had just made her way over to Jem’s side when the door opened, and Mathuin stepped out.

Jem still had to force himself not to cringe in Mathuin’s presence. Of all the outspoken Agripinites, all those who didn’t hide their allegiances in subterfuge, Jem had always been the most afraid of Mathuin. Which did have a certain irony to it, now; they were all dead by Mathuin’s hand, except for Ophelia, who had fled, and Jem alone remained and survived.

Mathuin was a giant of a man, taller even than Hemming, and he looked down on Jem with an unmistakable choler. Jem had always been skinny, narrow-shouldered and not especially tall, but Mathuin made him feel it. “Kätzchen,” he said. “You should have called me.”

“And more to the point,” Jubilee said, “Where’s your sister?”

“Spence,” Mathuin said, reprimanding, at the same time that Duarte groaned “Jubee,” from across the porch, in the tones of someone who knew how pointless it was to try to stop a friend from acting unwisely.

“What?” she demanded. “Vaughn is dead, and we’re all pretending we don’t know who did it?”

“She’s not even in Bergdis,” Jem said furiously.

“How does that make a difference? She’s a witch, you idiot,” Jubilee snapped, and turned furiously to Mathuin. “You have to do something about it. Find her.”

Mathuin’s face was impassive, as was the usual for him. He glanced at Jem, but what he said was, “A deal is a deal, Spence.”

“That deal can’t go so far as protecting her even after she murders Vaughn,” Jubilee said in exasperation.

He wasn’t going to ask, but Jem reckoned that Mathuin wasn’t quite as interested in avenging Vaughn as he might have been for any other follower. Vaughn was a Mathuinite at the very end, when it mattered, but he had been an Agripinite right up until that end, and shifting loyalties impressed Mathuin as little as they impressed any king.

Still, Jem thought, fuming. “Ophelia didn’t do it. I would know if she killed someone. And, if she killed someone, I wouldn’t have found the fucking body, because I would know not to go anywhere near it.”

It was an argument that apparently persuaded neither Mathuin nor Jubilee, but Mathuin wasn’t interested in debating the propinquity of twins. “Just go inside,” he ordered, opening the door. Jem heard Jubilee arguing with him further, but he did as he was told. He avoided the kitchen, and went instead to the bathroom to scrub his hands clean, and cleaner than they’d ever been at that, given Dr. Claudine’s talk of parasites.

He was just finished texting all of the day’s events to Ophelia when Mathuin found him again. Jem realized that the general quiet of the house meant that they were likely alone.

“What in the hell happened to your hands?” Mathuin asked frankly.

Jem glanced down at the plethora of scratches and punctures. “Oh. A cat.”

“Were you strangling it?” His voice was neutral, but Jem had lived with Mathuin long enough to hear the private joke underneath.

Jem just gave him a look at that, and got to his feet. “I’m going to make something to eat,” he declared, and tried to shimmy past Mathuin, who was standing in the doorway.

Mathuin grabbed his arm and hauled him back. “The next time you get the urge to call the police— about anything— you call me first, you hear?” His fingers tightened until his grip was certain to leave bruises on Jem’s arm, and Jem hissed, trying to twist away from him. “Which you already fucking knew, didn’t you, sweetheart?”

“Let go,” Jem snapped.

“You hear me?”

“Yes! Yes, I hear you—” Mathuin released him, and Jem sprang away from him, down the hall, and into the kitchen. If he was lucky, he thought, that would be the end of it; Mathuin would decide he’d sufficiently rattled Jem, and further decide that, reasonable expectations aside, it couldn’t be counted as disobedience to have broken a rule that was never stated in the first place.

His phone chimed before he got to the kitchen, and he looked down to see a single, distressing text from Ophelia: I’m coming back to town.

•••

Jem spent most of the following morning worrying over this news from his sister, so much so that he couldn’t spare much anxiety to consider the matter of Vaughn’s murder at any great length, or the possibility that Mathuin might not be done bullying him over it. He spent the morning before class in the library, and had been staring at precisely the same spot in his book on Russian folklore for about ten minutes when he realized someone was gently trying to get his attention, and jumped.

She gave him an apologetic, if alarmed, smile. “Hi,” she said. “Sorry. I just wanted… I mean, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“No. It’s fine.” Jem ran a hand through his hair. “Who are you? Are you a new student?” She looked about college aged, and while Jem didn’t know most of the students of Merodack College by name, he knew almost all of them by sight, and he’d never seen her before. She was dark-haired, and somewhat better groomed and better dressed than the usual for Merodack College, in her button-up shirt and with her hair neatly pinned back by barrettes.

“Oh, no. I’m Regina Virginia.” She held out a hand, and he took it, slowly. “I came for the coronation. You’re Jem Dorchester, aren’t you? Of the Dorchesters?”

Struck by old alarm, Jem looked around, and found no one in sight, all before he remembered that of the many mortal concerns of Bergdis Valley, being hunted down for belonging to a witch family was not among them. “Ah. Yes. Sorry, how did you know…?”

“I saw pictures of the wedding,” she said, waving a hand to dismiss the matter.

And then Jem realized what else she had said, earlier. “The coronation?” he repeated. He felt a bit weak. “You’re kind of early, aren’t you?”

She smiled shyly. “Well… yes.” She didn’t giggle, but it was a near thing. “And… Jem Dorchester… you’re the genius loci of Bergdis, aren’t you?” She beamed at him like she was meeting a celebrity. “I’ve heard so much about you!”

That, Jem thought, was horrifying.

“Yes. That’s right,” he said, and he wanted this girl away from him, immediately. “You’ll want to meet Mathuin, right? I can give you directions to his office…”

She wanted to talk to him further about his being the genius loci, but he was emphatic about sending her on her way, and how, if she had come for the coronation, then it was the Erlking she really wanted to see. Besides, he told her, he was just leaving.

He had entirely forgotten about the matter of the coronation. Mathuin was king by virtue of murdering Garet Agripin, but there was still the formality of a ceremony to go through. Having been reminded of the coronation, it occurred to Jem to wonder if Vaughn’s murder might have more to do with the upcoming ceremony than Vaughn’s betrayal of Garet Agripin.

Chapter Text

Chapter II.

Dr. Claudine left him a voicemail about the cat while he was in class. Jem listened as soon as he was out, and was delighted if not entirely surprised to discover that he was supposed to come collect the cat. It seemed to him that two days was not nearly enough time to find this cat’s supposed owners, but who was he to question a vet?

When he arrived, straight after listening the voicemail, the cat was sitting upright in her cage, a glory of pale orange fur and enormous lantern eyes. She looked much more kindly on Jem now that she was clean and well-fed, and Jem sent a picture of her to Ophelia, along with the text, She needs a name.

Dr. Claudine handed him pill bottles for the parasites— “They’re probably taken care of, but she should take the pills to the end of the bottle—” and then advised him about having a cat in general. “She’s yours now, of course, and you can do as you see fit, but I strongly advise that cats should be indoors only.” She fixed him with a look when she said this, and he didn’t dare to let the cat roam outside ever again.

“Um… yeah.” Jem had not mentioned the possibility of a cat to Mathuin; he’d meant to, but he thought he had more time, and besides, it was a daunting notion. He had also thought, until he listened Dr. Claudine’s voicemail, that he could bear to walk away from this cat and allow her to be put up for adoption.

The cat was placed in a cardboard carrier, which Jem and Tildie the receptionist secured carefully to the rack of Jem’s bike. Dr. Claudine bestowed upon Jem what she called a starter kit, made up of bags of kitty litter, cat food, and a single cat toy, and he shoveled this starter kit and the medications into his backpack.

He biked home slowly and carefully, stopping every other block to check on the cat, who was frightened but otherwise fine. When he finally arrived at home, he found it empty, to his relief. He put out a bowl of cat food and water on the porch for the cat, and then sat down to watch her eat, when he heard the familiar chime of a text from his sister.

She had sent a single word: Britomartis.

“Britomartis,” he said aloud, reaching out to stroke the orange cat, which she bore reasonably well. “Is that fancy enough for you?”
Leaving the cat on the porch, where she couldn’t escape into the wild but also couldn’t do any damage to the interior of the house, he went into the garage to find something that could make do as a litter box until he purchased a real one.

He was not generally in the habit of going through Mathuin’s things; theirs was not so forgiving nor so hospitable a marriage as all that. Usually, he left his bike just inside the door, where it would be sheltered from the rain but close enough to easily get at again the next morning. Now, he went searching through the various power tools and equipment, a seemingly endless supply of stray pieces of wood and old furniture in need of restoration, a child’s sled (which brought up some questions), and…

In the dark, he found the handle of a bike. He pulled out his phone and turned on the flashlight, to see it better. A moment later, he turned the light off again, and fled the garage.

When Mathuin returned home, some hours later, Jem had laid out newspapers with cat litter spilled on top in the far corner of the porch. He was sitting on the porch swing, with Britomartis curled up contentedly in his lap, purring very quietly and rather sporadically. Mathuin laid eyes on her and immediately groaned. “Oh, fuck no. Where the fuck did you find a cat?”

Jem swallowed hard, trying to find the words to speak. “She was a stray,” he said. “I brought her to Claudine—” He looked up just in time to see Mathuin staring hard at him, and ducked his head down again. He could guess that his face was ashen.

Mathuin went into the house without another word, but Jem heard his voice shortly thereafter— it sounded like he was on the phone, and if Jem had to guess, from the tone of his voice, he’d called Claudine. Britomartis, the cat, turned her head up to Jem and blinked her eyes slowly at him, making a rumbling noise.

A few minutes later, Mathuin opened the door again. “All right,” he said. “You can keep the cat.” He smiled and reached out to tousle Jem’s hair. “The two of you match,” he commented, referring to the color of Jem’s hair, and said nothing more on the matter.

•••

Jem could not remember a time when he had not known about Bergdis Valley.

His parents had met there, when his father was a teacher at Merodack College, and his mother was visiting her family and childhood home. Jessica Dorchester had been teaching her young cousin, Henry, to drive, when Henry had run a stop sign and hit Alexander McBride’s car. Everyone had gotten out, and Jessica had transformed Alexander’s dented Chevy Impala into a silver Porsche, and had threatened to turn him into a frog if he complained about it. Alexander liked to say fondly that he had asked her out for coffee right then and there. Jem tended to think that this story had been dressed up a great deal in its retellings, but he didn’t scrutinize it out loud.

“Where did you go for a drink?” Ophelia asked once.

“Starbucks!” Alexander said fondly. “It’s a Washington classic.” His children found this deeply unimpressive.

Jessica told her children endless stories of Bergdis Valley; of the flowers that bloomed thick and wild, the apple trees heavy with fruit, the ribbons of aurora borealis in the sky, the mornings when she would look out into her parents’ backyard to see lynx or bears or elk. In tones of wonder, she explained that the valley was a haven, a place where anyone could hide from those who hunted them and be safe. In Jem’s mind, Bergdis served as a second Garden of Eden, complete with the expulsion.

The Dorchester witch family was known in the supernatural world, but they were not respected. They were the least powerful of all witch families, the old laughingstock for their weaker powers and greater mishaps. It was this lack of skill that compelled the Dorchesters to seek a haven more than any of their fellows, and for a time, they found it.

In 1959, Jem’s Great Aunt Nerissa and her husband and children were killed by the Knights of the Alyscamps, who hunted all witches and most supernatural folk. Later that year, Jem’s cousin, Ursula, struck up an alliance with the contemporaneous Erlking of Bergdis Valley, Charles Agripin, and the entire extended family moved to Bergdis or nearby, where they could take shelter if there was any imminent threat of Knights and witch hunting. Bergdis Valley, after all, was the only place that the Knights could not go.

It had seemed a miraculous solution, until 1993, when the Erlking disappeared, and his court was thrown into chaos and eventual decay. In the increasingly dangerous political environment, the Dorchester family scattered. Alexander McBride and Jessica Dorchester, who had been living together unmarried in Seattle, moved to Louisiana, where, a year later, the twins were born.

Jem remembered his mother as an extravagant and independent woman, an extraordinary witch, who doted on her twins and loved Jem’s father even if she refused to marry him, right up until the day she disappeared. The twins were eleven at the time, and little was said directly to them, but in the years that passed, Jem came to understand that the Knights were somehow involved, and even if there was no body, there was no hope that she was still alive.

Five years later, when Jem was sixteen, his father reached out to those same Knights. There had been talk, Jem learned later, of the Knights relaxing certain laws, and perhaps becoming somewhat less homicidal in their dealings in the supernatural world. Alexander McBride, as a man who had loved a witch but was in no way magical or otherworldly himself, saw himself as an ideal mediator. He had, after all, broken none of the Knights’ laws, but he could reasonably speak on behalf of those who had. In these modern days, he had said, when the finer points of Christianity were not automatically accepted as law, perhaps it was time for the Knights to reconsider their position on witchcraft.

They killed him anyway, and this time, there was a body to bury.

In the days that followed their father’s death, Ophelia fumed and Jem grieved. They were close to adulthood, close enough to want to do something in retaliation. Before a month had gone by, Ophelia had become a witch herself, and was pressuring Jem to do the same, both of them with some half-formed puerile plot of revenge in mind.

They let go of these ideas of revenge the day their aunts Valeria and Perdita met with them in the kitchen of the Maine apartment, the day before the apartment was sold and they were to be homeless.

“You remember your mother’s stories about Bergdis, don’t you?” Valeria had begun. “There’s a prince.”

The last Jem had heard of Bergdis, the king had disappeared, there had been political chaos of the supernatural variety, and the Dorchesters had fled. It turned out that there was a bit more to the story than that. “They found Charles Agripin’s body in the woods in 2000,” Perdita explained. “His skeleton, really, but they tested the DNA, and… well.”

Furthermore, there was one candidate above all others for the murderer.

“His name is Mathuin,” Valeria said. “Now, Charles Agripin claimed the throne back in 1947— he had been a soldier in World War II, and when he came home from the war, he became king. At the time, Mathuin was another possibility for Erlking. As some tell the story, Agripin defeated Mathuin but spared his life; as others say it, Mathuin declined the role, and Agripin was suspicious of him ever after. Whatever the truth is, they were friends before Agripin became king, and they became enemies afterwards.

“After Charles’s death, Mathuin also disappeared.”

“Why does everyone keep disappearing?” Jem asked irritably. He remembered sounding like a child when he asked, trying to be as sullen as a teenager.

“Bergdis is the site of an otherworldly court,” Perdita said. “What do you expect?”

“When did he reappear?” Ophelia wanted to know.

“He hasn’t, yet,” Valeria said.

“Then why is he a problem? If he’s not around?”

At that, Valeria had paused, and chosen her words as carefully and simply as she might. “Mathuin is not a man to be meddled with,” she said, very quietly. At the time, Jem hadn’t really understood.

The king’s disappearance and later discovery had thrown the matter of primogeniture into uncertainty. Without a definite death, his son had been unable to claim his inheritance with any confidence. When the court dissolved and the political climate became dangerous and opportunistic, Garet Agripin fled, in fear for his life. Jem (whose father had taught Tudor history, and by extension, European monarchical history in context) had visions of a prince reluctantly spirited away in the night, kept safe by overbearing caretakers but longing for home.

“You are not going to get revenge for your parents’ deaths,” Valeria said, and her voice carried all the absolute finality in the world. “You’re not going to kill, hurt, or even mildly inconvenience any of the Knights, and neither Jessica nor Alexander would want you to risk yourselves by trying. But what you can do, maybe, is help the Dorchester family by reclaiming this place where we can be safe.”

With some grudging sullenness, the twins agreed to help Garet Agripin and by extension the Dorchester family, and to give up their aspirations of revenge.

By then, there were two primary parties of the so-called Erling Conflict; the Agripinites, who wanted to see the rightful heir, Garet Agripin, restored as king, and the Mathuinites, who championed the likely murderer, Mathuin. The Mathuinites were comprised of those who had always wanted Mathuin as Erlking, since Charles Agripin had become king in 1947, and those who believed in a more sinister method of succession— in essence, that the victor kept what he killed.

It was no open war but a game of subterfuge, a method of quiet supporters and converts, professed ignorance, and the occasional murder.

Ophelia was a valuable addition to Garet’s team, of course; she was a witch, and even though she was just beginning to learn witchcraft, she showed great potential. Jem rather expected Garet Agripin to appreciate his support, and then forget about him entirely— as a sixteen-year-old with no magical powers to speak of, he wasn’t of the illusion that he had much to offer.

Garet, however, had a project just for him. He needed a spy, he explained, someone he knew to be loyal to himself, but whom no one in Bergdis would recognize. Someone young, who seemed innocent and harmless.

“There’s a new professor in Merodack College,” he explained. They were in California at the time, at Garet’s beach house, and Jem remembered Garet as being impressive as any prince: handsome, tall, dark-haired, with a quick smile, and a distracted sort of charm. In this moment, however, he was giving Jem his full attention, while Ophelia stood nearby and looked on curiously. “His name is Jakob Meissner. I have some reason to believe he might know something about Mathuin’s whereabouts.”

That was the goal of the game, in late 2009: find the murderer, Mathuin. When Mathuin was found, Mathuin could be killed, and when Mathuin was dead, well, there would be no point to the Mathuinites, and Garet’s father would be avenged. Of course, it turned out to be a bit more complicated than that, but Jem was sixteen, and he wasn’t in charge of any of the scheming. That was done by Garet and a handful of friends and advisors.

Jem’s mission was to enroll as a student at Merodack College, take Meissner’s classes, gain his trust, and learn everything and anything he could.

He was sent to live with a foster family in Bergdis, under the name of Jem McBride, and enrolled as a junior in the Bergdis Public High School, where, it quickly appeared, he had already advanced out of any history or literature classes they offered. This was not a surprise, given the interest his father had once taken in his and Ophelia’s humanities and literary studies. Jem got his new high school’s blessing to take college courses where these two areas of study were concerned.

Merodack College quickly turned out to be the biggest obstacle to the plan. The college, long accustomed to erratic and reclusive methods of education, had a particular antipathy towards the idea of a high school student taking classes. Jem had to write letters to the dean of students and the college president, reminding them that he was the offspring of a former teacher and pointing out that he planned to enroll as soon as he graduated from high school (which was true). Even so, they were reluctant.

They were willing to allow that he take Professor Andrade’s introductory seminar on the Brothers Grimm’s methods of folklore and cultural research, given that he intended to major in folklore and fairytales, but they would not budge to allow him to take any other classes; a diverse and varied education was not part of the Merodack College philosophy.

Eventually, to Jem’s surprise, the matter was resolved when Professor Andrade mentioned to Professor Meissner that there was a high school student who wanted to take his class and the college was blocking that high school student’s efforts. Meissner reached out to the administration that was stone-walling Jem, and that was the end of it. The day before term was to begin after the winter holidays, Jem learned that he was allowed to take Meissner’s introductory class on the Knossic Labyrinths in Crete, as a history credit, on the condition that he proved himself proficient enough to keep up in class.

Both of his new college classes were brutal. Andrade and Meissner demanded enormous amounts of work and a relentless intelligence from their students, to say nothing of their whole attention. Jem was smart, but in some ways, that was now a disadvantage; he had always been ahead of his class, and had never had the experience of actually having to work at anything, academically. Furthermore, given that he was an impostor, he was utterly terrified of any hint that he didn’t belong.

To add to an already stressful situation, Garet Agripin had the habit of calling every other week or so to ask if Jem had made any progress with Meissner; usually, he had not.

As such, he had very little time to think about Mathuinites as a concept. He knew that they were around, somewhere, in a generalized sense. He had some childish notion in his mind, an assumption that the Mathuinites knew they were the villains (after all, he thought, how could they support a murderer?), and would therefore be the minority. He was at least not so childish as to think the villains would wear their unethical perversions about them in obvious physical deformity or ugliness, as in a children’s book; he knew that evil came as handsome as good.

Because he was the class’s youngest, least educated, and least invested student, he should have been the biggest burden, and — though he never knew what grades anyone else was getting, except that Jubilee Spence was likely the best of them— the worst student. He was quiet in class, and afraid to speak when he thought his ideas might be too stupid to be worth hearing. In spite of all of this, Meissner, who did not have any sort of reputation for being even the slightest bit kind-hearted, was more patient with Jem than he was with any of the rest of his pupils.

At the time, Jem figured it was his age that instigated this incongruous consideration from his teacher, though he wondered if, given that Meissner was faculty and therefore might know about the fate of Alexander McBride, part of it was due to the recentness of his father’s death. Whatever the case may be, Jem was willing to take advantage of whatever he could get.

In hindsight, he saw Meissner’s patience with another perspective entirely.

Chapter Text

Chapter III.

Bergdis Valley could be found in the heart of Washington, cut deep into the mountains that characterized much of the state. It was famous for the Bergdis National State Park, located in the north of the valley, which inspired tourists to brave the winding mountain drive in order to visit the celebrated and beautiful Rosalyn Falls, where the Little Columbia River cascaded over mountain cliffs and plummeted hundreds of feet into the beginning of the valley, at the Northwestern tip.

The town of Bergdis had grown considerably since the end of the second world war. It had become a largely modern place, clean, composed of glass and stone, and endlessly devoted to local business at the expense of widespread franchises. The population tended to be wealthy, which was attributed to the tourism income, but was much more likely due to the abnormally high percentage of supernatural inhabitants, many of whom had unscrupulous ways of making money, and a great deal of money at that.

The supernatural population of Bergdis usually lived outside of the proper town, frequently hidden in the woods in the more northern, isolated neighborhoods of the valley. There were those who stayed because of Merodack College; those who lived in Bergdis because their families had done so for decades; those who stayed for the supernatural community (there was no other like it in the world); and those who stayed because they knew they were neither clever nor powerful enough to have any hope of escaping the Knights who hunted the outside world. There was an understanding in the supernatural world that Bergdis was a haven, and as such, the Erling Conflict was especially unwanted and induced considerable anxiety.

Occasionally, Jem went to St. Leonard’s Bar after class. It was the bar Garet had once patronized, and therefore known as the Agripinite bar.

After Garet’s death, the place did a poor trade. The lights always seemed dimmer, the music quieter, and many patrons had abandoned the place altogether. Those who did not were those for whom denying any Agripinite allegiance was a hard sell; various members of the Frazier and Bates families, old friends of Charles and Garet Agripin, people who had, if not worn their allegiances on their sleeves, at least given it away a few too many times.

It was a depressing place, but it was not the school library, nor home, and Jem was in some need of other places to go. He brought his homework with him, purchased a beer and tipped well, and then sat down to complete his schoolwork as best he could in the dim light. Today, however, he had a purpose for being here; he wanted to know if there were any rumors going around regarding Vaughn’s murder.

Usually, the patrons sat about and lamented the Agripinite dead, mostly Garet, of course, but also his friends, Contreras and Lance, the elderly Professor Reeves (most people were especially horrified by her death, as she had surely posed no threat), and Sheriff Copeland. Though the explosive end of the Erling Conflict and the resultant dead were always the main topic of conversation, they occasionally returned to the time before the end, and the much less straight-forward murders of that time. Blake Townsend’s murder by Mathuinites, some three years before Garet’s death, tended to come up, along with the supposedly accidental death of Logan McGuire, another likely Agripinite, and the disappearance of Edie Torres, a Merodack student. They ruminated over the death of John Key, who had died before Jem had ever set foot in Bergdis. But then, so did the Mathuinites; no one knew for sure who had killed Key, nor even what side he had been on.

The Fraziers had a tendency to bring up the vandalism of their family bookstore, and the damage done to their business. There was more talk of assorted acts of vandalism and assault, but no one mentioned that the Cobbs family grocery store had been burned to the ground, in late 2011; the Cobbs were known Mathuinites. Nor did they bring up Lydia Dunlap, whose murder had been covered up as a supposed suicide, or Richard Harmon, a Mathuinite who had been found dead in the woods during Jem’s freshman year of college. Their little war had taken its toll.

After first being married, Jem had been nervous about returning to St. Leonard’s. He was afraid that he would be blamed or called traitor, but no such thing happened. Now, he found the place tiring more than anything. The Agripinites moaned and the Mathuinites gloated, and he found both responses after the end to be entirely useless.

A few Agripinites did have the especially annoying habit of, after a few too many drinks, approaching Jem and mournfully engaging him in conversation about how terrible his life was, now that he had been taken and forcibly married by Mathuin. He had been told twice, once by Jason Bates, and a few months later by Marjorie Gibson, that they didn’t see how he hadn’t killed himself yet, given that his life could hardly be worth living as Mathuin’s slave. He understood that they were voicing sentiments a great many people shared. Gibson meant it sympathetically, Bates, less so— Mathuin had murdered his brother, a magician, many years earlier. Both of them had horrified Jem.

Eventually, the conversation did turn to Vaughn. Peter Frazier shared an unflinching explanation of the details of the murder, and an unsympathetic speculation as to who, or what, had killed him. If Jem had been hoping for a name or a credible theory as to who the murderer might be, he was disappointed; the Agripinites had ideas, each more unsubstantiated than the last, and nothing more.

While there was no grief for Vaughn, there was a great deal of fear. None of them had done it, they were sure, and therefore it must be some Mathuinites, secure in their victory and now taking revenge for their own dead. The murder represented precisely what every Agripinite most feared. For them, there was no authority to appeal to (Mathuin, by now, even owned the Bergdis police, and that was common knowledge), and therefore no safety.

Jem listened to them when he should be reading his book, and thought about how gloomy and alone they all were, these losers of the Erling Conflict. Vaughn had been more isolated than anyone else. No Mathuinite accepted him as a friend, and the remaining Agripinites would spit on him as soon as look at him. He had been too much a staple of Charles Agripin’s court, too much a scholar of the supernatural world, and too peculiar of a person, to ever go amongst the mundane world to look for company. Those last few months, he had nothing but the terminally silent Merodack College library for comfort. He had been found outside the Bergdis Public Library, therefore implying that all he did with his free time was patronize a different library.

It was an unpleasant thought, and peculiar when Jem found himself thinking that at least when he woke in the night, he had the privilege of waking Mathuin with him, whether the man liked it or not. Misery loved company.

He drained his drink, and left, wishing all the while that he had his twin to talk to.

•••

“I’m making progress,” he had told Garet on one unlikely warm day, at the beginning of June. He had finished his high school classes for the term, but his Merodack classes would continue until July; Merodack College did not hold with the concept of a summer break. “I think he’s beginning to trust me.”

Professor Meissner had invited his entire Knossic Labyrinths class, ten students, over for beers on Friday night— “Beers, and milk for you,” this last part directed at Jem and Jubilee Spence, who were both underage. Of course, everyone had agreed to attend.

Garet spoke frankly. “Do you think he’s a Mathuinite?”

Jem considered the matter, and chewed on his lip. It was a bad habit when he was a teenager that he had stopped by the time he was in his twenties. “I don’t know,” he said.

“I know that— you would have contacted me right away if you had any proof. I’m asking you what you think, not what you know.”

“I just— I really couldn’t say,” Jem said.

Jem didn’t believe for so much as a second that Meissner wasn’t knowledgeable of and involved in the supernatural other world, the world of witches, demons, angels, monsters, and, occasionally, Knights. As such, he must know about the Erling Conflict. On the one hand, to guess by Meissner’s decisive personality, he was not one to stay neutral. On the other hand, as Jem was quickly learning, precious few people ever admitted to having chosen either side. Neutrality was the saving grace in an atmosphere of fear.

“Do you much about Viscuomancy?” He had heard the word whispered among his fellow students. “It’s also called Entrailic Magic.”

“Can’t say that I do.” Garet sounded breezy, in that unconcerned way that made Jem deeply uneasy.

“I think Professor Meissner teaches Viscuomancy to his more advanced students— I know my class, Labyrinths, is just an introductory class, and I think that’s where it leads. Besides, that’s Merodack’s kind of thing, offering majors in more esoteric forms of magic, isn’t it?”

“So, Viscuomancy is something we’re going to have to contend with, if Meissner is a Mathuinite,” Garet said thoughtfully, and now, at least, he sounded engaged.

What Garet did not mention, was that Mathuin was the foremost expert in the field of Viscuomancy. Everyone who had once belonged to Charles Agripin’s court knew this, and that very much including Garet.

“Anything else I should know about the good professor?”

“I’ll see what I can find,” Jem said in a subdued voice.

Come Friday, Jem biked to the address Meissner had given him. Most professors lived on campus, but Meissner was a guest professor, and, Jem had gathered, not one for conforming. He had taken up residence in a house outside of town, the only house on his road. Jem, who had expected a small log cabin, arrived to find a large house two stories tall, with a wrap-around porch and a deck out back. The exterior was of stone and brick, and a chimney of red brick rose from the center of the home. Much of the house was covered in blankets of ivy, giving the place a haunted, hidden quality.

A few of the windows were only sheeted plastic, and there were pieces of lumber and various stones and frames scattered about in the yard and on the porch; Meissner had mentioned spending his free time fixing up his new home once or twice in class. Across from what had once been a garden was a small garage, and next to it, a wood pile as tall as Jem.

He didn’t spare it much thought at the time, but the house was isolated even by Bergdis standards, being deep in the woods and a few miles from the nearest neighbor. Jem left his bike leaned up against the side of the porch, and made his way up the stairs to the front door, which was answered as soon as he knocked by Jubilee Spence, who held a beer in one hand. She gave him a brilliant smile and invited him inside; she liked him at the time, though that would change before the night was over. He left his shoes on the porch, as everyone else had done. He never saw those shoes again.

Professor Meissner was in the den, sitting in front of the cold fireplace, with a beer in one hand. He did not then, nor ever had, look like an academic. His seemingly endless supply of elbow-patched sweaters and jackets did nothing to help, though they had become, unbeknownst to him, a source of amusement amongst his students. He was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with an easy white grin, in his thirties, and he was big. At six-feet-some tall, he was one of the tallest men Jem had ever met, broad-shouldered and muscular, and it was this, if nothing else, that had caught Jem’s attention when he first walked into class and met Professor Meissner.

The twins’ parents had taught them many things about the supernatural world, in an effort to keep them alive, and one was that unusual height— especially unusual tallness— had a peculiar tendency to indicate that a person might be something other than ordinarily human. It was not, Jessica Dorchester explained, that all tall people were angels or demons or djinni or something else; it was that angels, demons, and other kin were, by and large, surprisingly tall.

The Knights, Jem knew, were always big.

Accordingly, Jem nursed an unspoken suspicion that Meissner was not quite human. Six months had gone by, in which Meissner had done nothing more interesting than lecture on the subject of antiquated Crete, assign essays, and bully the occasional obtuse student, and Jem had begun to feel that this suspicion was rather silly, but he had never quite let go of it.

Meissner greeted Jem without getting up, and directed him to the kitchen. “Get yourself something to drink,” he said, and, “Something non-alcoholic.”

Jem made his way to the kitchen, where Ritter, with a wink, found him an opaque glass and filled it with beer. Jem sipped it and discovered that beer was absolutely disgusting. When he returned to the den, he made sure to stay just far enough away from his teacher that his beverage would be neither seen nor smelled, and he gulped it down quickly, despite the taste. From the discerning look Meissner gave him after a particular swallow and the following grimace, Jem didn’t really think that the professor had been fooled.

The discussion of the moment was the matter of the Eleusinian Mysteries, about which Jem knew very little and Jubilee Spence, it transpired, knew a great deal, and wanted to know everything Meissner knew as well. He was comfortably disinclined to the conversation.

“Spence,” he said at one point, “If this is something you’re so interested in, you should consider studying with Professor Reeves instead.”

“I can have more than one interest,” she said, as if she were declaring independence. “Despite what the administration thinks.” At that, Meissner’s face twitched into a hint of a smile, in spite of himself. “But you’ve actually been to Eleusis, haven’t you? And to the Eleusinion?”

“I’ve been a lot of places,” Meissner said, unperturbed.

“But you co-directed an archaeological dig there,” Jubilee said, eyes gleaming. “I read the papers you published about your findings.”

Having finished his drink, Jem set it down and turned to Chen to quietly ask her where the bathroom was. She directed him to the one on the first floor, and if that was full, to the one at the top of the stairs.

Ritter was in the first floor bathroom, which was how Jem had chosen his timing. He made his way upstairs, and closed the bathroom door, to make it look occupied. That done, he made a quick exploration of the rest of the second floor, running into quite a few locked doors along the way, and found Professor Meissner’s home office.

The room was neat and clean, with everything in its place and no sign of dust, like all of Professor Meissner’s home that Jem had seen thus far. He wondered if the man had a maid or a girlfriend, because he didn’t seem like the type to do any cleaning himself. He couldn’t rationalize the idea of a maid with a man who bought a house with the intention of restoring it by himself, but Meissner had never mentioned a girlfriend in class— not that Meissner was one for talking about his private life with his students. Just at that thought, Jem laid eyes on a photograph on the desk.

It was the only photograph in the room, and, in fact, the only photograph Jem had seen in the house. The picture was of a petite blonde girl, a teenager. To judge by her clothes, it had been taken in the 80s, with the hint of formality. She was not a relative, Jem decided, not unless Meissner had relatives who looked nothing like him.

He decided to leave the computer alone. Though he knew that it probably was most likely to tell him what he wanted to know, it also seemed like the best way to get caught snooping, given that he would have to get past passwords, and wait for the thing to turn on. He searched through the desk, briefly and silently, but found only Meissner’s notes on the research paper he was writing, and several student essays in need of grading.

He closed the desk drawer and, looking around, turned to the bookshelf instead. It held a number of books on archaic subjects and archaeology, a great many texts in Greek and German and other varyingly atavistic languages. Altogether, it was precisely what Jem expected from a Merodack professor’s book collection, except for a few leather-bound photo albums on the bottom shelf.

When he considered the matter later, when he turned the events of this night over and over in his head, he came to the conclusion that the only reason he was drawn to the photo albums was because the picture of the girl was still on his mind. He knelt down by the shelf and pulled out an old album bound in black leather and let it fall open.

The photos, all in faded black and white, were of ships and smiling soldiers, standing in groups. The time period was not difficult to identify; like any other American, Jem had seen hundreds, if not thousands, of pictures from the second world war.

He assumed that this album must be an heirloom from Meissner’s grandfather or some other relative, but he didn’t lose interest. He remembered being told by his Aunt Valeria that Charles Agripin, the old Erlking, had fought in WWII, just before becoming king.

He flipped through pages, looking for something relevant, and came to a stop on one particular picture.

It was a polaroid of two soldiers, arms looped around each other’s shoulders. They stood on a dock of some sort, with the sea behind them, surely just about to ship out to wherever they would fight. They were both grinning at the camera with a certain bloodthirstiness, a ferocity in their eyes and expressions that marked an eerie difference from the usual good-humored patriotism, camaraderie, and nervousness that Jem was more accustomed to seeing in pictures taken of young soldiers.

One of them had Garet Agripin’s face, but for a length of nose, and a stronger jaw, meaner eyes. The other was Jakob Meissner.

Underneath the picture, someone had written in neat cursive, Pvt. Charles Agripin & Pvt. Jakob Mathuin, 1941.

It occurred to Jem, somewhere in the back of his head, that he had never realized that Mathuin might have a first name.

Something made him look up, with heart pounding, though in the future he would never be able to say just what it was— there was no sound, no shifting in the corner of his eye. Professor Meissner— Jakob Mathuin— stood in the doorway, so tall that his head brushed the frame.

Jem felt his entrails turn to liquid. He shut the photo album, too late.

There was a moment that went on for much too long before Meissner said, almost gently, “That was a long time ago.”

Jem’s mouth was too dry to speak.

“So, now you know,” Meissner said, and grinned, briefly, like a wolf bearing its teeth. It was surely not deliberate that the smile was horrifically similar to the one he’d worn in the photograph. “Just as Garet Agripin would know, if he had the balls to come to Bergdis himself, instead of sending a sixteen-year-old twink to spy on me.”

“I won’t tell him,” Jem blurted out through sheer force of will.

“Of course you’ll tell him, you little idiot. That’s what you came here for.”

Jem was on his feet before he knew what he was going to do. He tried to barrel past Meissner, and Meissner caught him easily. Before Jem could thrash or scream, he had a hand around his mouth and another hand around Jem’s wrists, forcing his arms up behind him.

He was gagged, blind-folded, and another hood pulled over his head for good measure, cuffed at both his wrists and feet, and thrown unceremoniously over someone— Meissner’s— shoulder. The hood cut off his air supply, and before long, he was semi-conscious at best.

He knew when he was carried outside, because it was damp and cold in the June night air. He had some notion that hours had passed since he’d been caught in that office, though he was never entirely sure what had happened in those hours. He didn’t know how long he was carried through the woods, but when the hood was removed and the blindfold with it, he found himself standing in the Bone Grove, a clearing in the woods he’d only heard stories about.

He was surrounded by people, far more than the gathering of students at Meissner’s house. The clothing varied, from modern to ancient and strange, but they each wore a blank iron mask, old and rusted, with rectangular slits for eyes and mouth. Some had antlers sprouting from their heads, some were old and stooped. Each held a lit candle, which offered only the barest illumination for the mesonoxian gathering.

Bones lined the clearing, hanging from the trees in a thick circle; the skulls and ribcages and pelvises and spines and legs of elk, moose, bear, wolf, beaver, deer, mountain lion, lynx, and more, hundreds of weathered bones that dangled from strong rope.

In the center of the circle stood a single stone altar, a roughly hewn creation taller than Jem’s waist, stained by its usages and half-clothed in moss.

The only person who was not masked, besides Jem, was Meissner. His face held no expression at all.

With the help of a handful of the masked people, one of whom smelled of Jubilee Spence’s perfume, Meissner bent Jem backwards over the altar. He released his wrists and ankles, only to tie them to stakes in the ground. Jem struggled like a mad thing, kicked and screamed through the gag, but he could not get free.

Meissner pulled a knife from its sheath at his belt, revealing the wickedly curved thing, which had been carved from a single long bone. He cut off Jem’s clothes in a few quick strokes, until the boy was shivering and naked, and lastly, he cut off the gag.

Jem didn’t try to talk to him. Meissner and everyone around him looked too inhuman to beg mercy from, any more than one might beg mercy of the monster under the bed. When Meissner first touched him, Jem jumped badly enough to nearly yank his arms from their sockets. Meissner wrote on the skin of his abdomen, in black soot mixed with red wine, leaving behind delicately precise runes. Jem knew too little about magic to have any idea what this was meant to do, but enough to know what the next step was likely to be. He was horrified, but not at all surprised, when Meissner raised the blade.

He made three incisions: two from the point of each hip bone to just above his navel, meeting at an arrow, and the third, from the arrow’s point to just underneath his sternum, where the halves of his ribcage met. The cutting, which sliced through skin and muscle and a thin layer of subcutaneous fat, was the worst pain Jem had ever felt. He screamed more terribly than he knew he could scream, screamed raggedly at volumes that had his ears ringing and made even the most foreboding of the masked figures wince.

In the future, he’d be surprised, given his screaming and his desperate, aborted attempts to move, just how straight the cuts were.

With uncompromising deliberation, Meissner peeled back each flap of flesh. He used three carefully placed dissecting pins, each pressed deep into Jem’s flesh, to pin back each piece. That done, he reached into Jem’s insides and carefully extracted a handful of small intestine.

Jem didn’t remember what followed very well. He didn’t faint, but he didn’t necessarily pay the best of attention, either. He knew that Meissner wrote black, burning runes into his insides, spiraling around his small intestines, in parallel lines along his large intestine, in criss-cross lines across other, less easily identified organs. He couldn’t recall just what Meissner wrote with; there had been no pen, no quill, or anything like it. He knew there were marks made on his liver and spleen and gallbladder, knew that his appendix was carefully removed (with neat, surgical stitches in its place), and buried by one of the masked people underneath the skull of a deer. He remembered that a cold ember was pushed into his mouth, and he spat out black ash. And then, somehow, it was over. Dawn was beginning to break in the sky, and he hadn’t yet bled to death. Meissner unpinned his flesh, and closed him back up with a few large, sawing stitches rendered in surgical thread. The ropes that held Jem pinned to the altar were cut, not that he could move, and the crowd of masked figures retreated, one by one, into the woods.

Meissner picked his wayward student up like a bride. Jem’s head lolled, and the last thing he remembered seeing and feeling for quite some time afterwards was the altar in that dawn light and the surprise that there could be that much blood inside of him.

He was told, later, that he was found in the woods and rushed to the hospital in an ambulance, but he found this story suspicious. He didn’t quite trust the doctors and other hospital employees who worked on him, as they clung too stubbornly to the story of an animal attack, despite the obviously contradictory nature of his injuries.

In a matter of days, the trustworthiness of these doctors no longer mattered. As soon as his sister heard what had happened, she orchestrated his transfer to a hospital in Seattle. It was July by the time he was released. He had three neat scars in angry red that turned into thin white lines by the end of the year. He did not return to Bergdis to collect his things. The family that had been fostering him mailed to him everything he had brought with him, though it occurred to him, now and then, to wonder what became of his bike, still left at Meissner’s house.

In that Seattle hospital, when he was still freshly sewn up and not yet eating solid foods, he explained what had happened, and the spell involved, to Ophelia, Garet Agripin, and Professor Michele Reeves, whom Jem had never met before.

Reeves had an explanation for what had been done. “You were right that Mathuin is a practitioner of Viscuomancy,” she said, with a certain detached dryness that Jem later learned was her way of coping with the alarmingly messy human cost of Erling Conflict politics. “He’s become more proficient than I knew, if he managed to pull this off. I would go so far as to guess that Viscuomancy, more than anything else, is what the college hired him to teach. He’s clearly earned his reputation; I’ve never heard of Viscuomancy being used to do something like this.”

“But what did he pull off?” Garet asked. “Jem didn’t die, after all.”

“No, of course not. Jem wasn’t meant to die— not yet, anyway.” Ophelia was sitting next to Jem, holding his hand, and at this statement, her grip became very tight. “No, what Mathuin did… I had no idea it could be done. He made you, a living boy, into a genius loci.” At the blank faces that met this statement, she expanded: “A daimon, a spirit— the living personification of a place.”

“Like the Romans’ household gods?” Jem asked, thinking back to his father’s teachings. “Lares and penates?”

“A little bit,” Reeves said encouragingly. It was very clear that she was not used to dealing with teenagers.

“The genius loci of what, exactly?” Ophelia asked.

Reeves didn’t hear the danger in her voice. “Bergdis Valley, of course.”

“But… how does that help Mathuin?” Garet asked.

“Well, that is the question, isn’t it?” Reeves said thoughtfully. She frowned. “I wonder why he didn’t use one of his own followers instead. Of course… it may have simply been an experiment, one that he wasn’t sure was going to work, or that Jem would survive. There’s no rule that a place can have only one genius loci, if he decided to try again.”

“And if it didn’t work— if it killed Jem, instead of making him into this thing— then he doesn’t lose anything,” Garet postulated.

“Maybe.” Reeves already sounded dubious about her own theory, and Jem himself was not altogether convinced. He thought of that congregation of masked witnesses. Mathuin had appeared to know precisely what he was doing, and moreover, like he’d had the entire event planned well in advance of that night. “Of course… perhaps he means to make Jem into a sacrifice. But if he meant to do that, I doubt he would have allowed Jem to slip out of his grasp.”

Ophelia’s grip tightened ominously on Jem’s hand again, at these words, but Garet waved a hand, as if the many mysteries of Mathuin’s behavior was hardly the most interesting subject to him. “Is there any way this can benefit us?” he asked. “Having the genius loci of Bergdis Valley on our side… there must be something we can do with that?”

“So long as Jem has sided with you, and so long as you keep him out of Mathuin’s power, the very implication is that the land has sided with you as well,” Reeves said, and her voice was gentle. She adjusted her glasses. “It’s a subtle, symbol-based kind of magic— too subtle, I would surmise, for Mathuin’s interest— but it may just be what wins us this war.”

Garet beamed. “So perhaps Mathuin’s experimenting has made his downfall,” he said, much too cheerfully. “That is, as long as you don’t betray me, Jem— and you’re not planning to, are you?”

Jem had smiled at the time, and answered no, of course not, but he didn’t share Reeves’s and Garet’s confidence. He couldn’t let go of the fear that they were underestimating Mathuin, and in the years that followed, he would never be able to convince them that they were. Garet, and his advisors Vaughn and Reeves, his friends Calvin Lance, Raul Contreras, and Nate Wallace, they all knew that Jem was utterly terrified of Mathuin after what had been done to him, and as such, they knew Jem attributed to Mathuin a sort of diabolical genius that lead him to overestimate Mathuin’s abilities and strategy.

Ophelia alone listened to him— but in the end, even Jem underestimated the extent of Mathuin’s reach.

Chapter Text

Chapter IV.

Jem woke up choking. He sat up before he even knew he was awake, with one hand clutched over his stomach, and he shook as if he still had screaming echoing in his ears. He was breathing hard— not so much breathing hard, he realized, as making gulping, gagging noises like a frog vomiting up its innards. He managed to stop himself.

The dream had been vague in its visions and precise in its sensation. Something about a hospital bed, in the dark and the cold, a scalpel in hand, and that old familiar feeling of cutting.

He had spent a considerable amount of time looking for precisely the right verb for what Mathuin had done on that night. Gutted wasn’t right, nor disembowel or eviscerate; they all implied the permanent removal of organs. The best word Jem had found was vivisect. Or, simply, open.

He heard Mathuin stir, before the man turned the light on and dragged himself up to sitting as if it were an enormous effort. He blinked and squinted at Jem before he realized just where Jem had his hands, and what sort of nightmare that placement of hands indicated.

“Fuck,” he muttered, and reached for Jem. At the first touch, Jem flinched hard and went stiff, but he allowed Mathuin to draw him back to lying down, curled up on his side. His hands remained pressed to his abdomen as if they were all that held himself inside.

Mathuin turned off the lamp and lay down behind Jem, drawing him close, the boy’s head tucked under his chin. Jem was still shaking, in great, twitching shudders that wracked his whole body, still gulping down air like he was drowning. After a few long moments of listening to Mathuin breathe, he managed to calm himself into something more human.

“Are we going to talk about it?” Jem asked eventually. His voice was hoarse.

Mathuin shifted, and ran a hand through Jem’s hair. “What do you want to say about it?” He paused. “I regret it. Not doing it… not after all it gained me. But I should have drugged you for it, so you wouldn’t remember it.”

Jem imagined waking, to find his abdomen opened, with a last memory of seeing that tell-tale photograph, and nothing in between. He shuddered again. “Why didn’t you?”

“Because I was furious with you.” Mathuin’s hands were stroking his stomach, gentle and careful even as they inexorably nudged Jem’s hands out of the way. He neither avoided nor paid extra attention to the scars; even so, the sensation between skin and scar tissue was nothing alike for Jem. “Sneaking around, spying on me, doing your level best to gain my trust so that you could betray it—”

“But you weren’t fooled by it,” Jem interrupted. “You knew what I was there for, from the very beginning. You were fooling me, more than I was fooling you—”

Mathuin pinched him, hard, in reprimand, and Jem flinched, and choked down whatever he’d been about to say next. It wasn’t so much that it hurt as it reawakened that old, bone-deep fear of Mathuin, the fear that never really went away. At the sound of Jem choking, Mathuin’s hand smoothed over the spot, as if in apology, but what he said was, “You still did it, Kätzchen.”

“Yes,” Jem agreed quietly, and said nothing more. Mathuin slid a hand up, around Jem’s throat, and kissed the top of his head. It took Jem a long time to recognize the hand at his throat as affectionate instead of threatening.

•••

In the morning, Mathuin caught Jem by his arm and hauled him a step back, just before he was about to run out the door. “I need you back here before dark,” he said simply. And because Jem was staring at him in confusion, he added, “Given Vaughn’s death, I’d rather you be more careful.”

“Okay.” Jem hesitated for a long moment before he said, “Oaf’s coming back to town. For a visit.”

He immediately regretted calling her Oaf— it was the kind of thing he only did around people he was comfortable with. Mathuin didn’t notice the nickname, but he didn’t look pleased. “Any particular reason why she decided to return?”

“She said the coronation is soon, and everyone’s going to be here.” She had also said (texted) that she was worried about Jem, but that was nothing unusual.

“How astute,” Mathuin said in the same tone he used when a student said something aggressively idiotic in class.

“Right,” Jem said, edging away from him. “Have a good day— try not to make any students cry.” With that, he bolted.

The news of the head librarian’s brutal murder had not hit Merodack College with quite the same impact that it might have had on a different college campus. There was no noticeable change in the college atmosphere, but at the beginning of the seminar, Professor Andrade put her hands together, and announced, “As I’m sure you may have heard… Mr. Vaughn passed away a few days ago. It seems he died violently.” Her eyes lingered over Jem for only a moment.

She was a tall woman, Professor Kate Andrade, with a cloud of gray hair and thick, coke-bottle glasses. She had an endless variety of knit shawls in gray and cream, and Jem had never once seen her wear so much as a scrap of color. When he had first started taking her class, when he was sixteen, it had taken him weeks to realize she was not nearly as old as she enjoyed appearing.

All four of her students had already heard, to say nothing of Jem, who had more than heard. “That’s the second murder on campus in only a few months,” Nina announced.

“And the second with the throat slit,” Isabelle said, which meant, Jem realized, that students not only knew, they knew some of the particular details.

“There was the sheriff, also, who got his throat cut. Does Bergdis have a serial killer, or something?” Nina asked intently.

“Sheriff Copeland was not killed on campus,” Professor Andrade said, aggravated, as if this particular detail made all the difference to her.

“But Professor Reeves was,” Miriam said quietly. To the best of Jem’s knowledge, Miriam had never met Reeves; even so, the college’s administration seemed to be in a much greater hurry to forget Professor Reeves than most of the students.

“Do they know who did it?” Nina asked.

“My understanding is that the police are currently investigating,” Professor Andrade said. “It is a tragedy, of course, and it is quite understandable if you are… upset. Even so, you know my policy on the matter of personal lives interrupting our studies.” She was met with stony faces all around. “Now. Shall we continue with the lesson? I assume you all read your Olinas?”

Merodack College was a peculiar place.

It was the sleepiest college campus Jem had ever encountered, by a far margin, and as the child of a college teacher who changed jobs every other year for most of his career, Jem had seen quite a few campuses. The official story was that the plot of land had once been a large and wealthy farm, which, upon old Farmer Merodack’s death, had been transformed into a college specially geared towards those most interested in historical and ancient arts. Indeed, a student could major in subjects at Merodack that he or she would not find anywhere else; Egyptian Hieroglyphics, Mayan Code-Breaking, Ancient Etruscan, Tudor Astrology and the Magician Dee (once taught by none other than Jem’s father), and many more, many stranger.

The old farmhouse had become the college’s main administrative building, while the barn had become the library. For the rest of its campus, Merodack had elected not to build academic buildings in any sense, but a series of houses, varying in size. The paths between the houses were thick with trees which grew strong in the constant rain, so that all campus features were hidden behind walls of green leaves. Small as it was, it was notoriously difficult to learn one’s way around.

Classes were held in the larger of these various houses, in the bedrooms and dining rooms and basements and patios. Professor Andrade, in particular, seemed to have an affinity for holding class in the various attics, where it tended to be warmer than the rest of the drafty house, given Bergdis’s perpetually rainy and miserable climate. The students were lodged in a series of smaller houses, each with a central kitchen and facilities (bathroom, laundry room, dryer), and a handful of tiny bedrooms.

Students were encouraged not to socialize between areas of study. The residents of each house were carefully grouped by chosen major, which must be chosen before one arrived on campus, and could not be changed. Before he had been pulled away to live with Mathuin in matrimony, Jem had shared the Bremen House with fellow folklore students Isabelle, Nina, and Miriam. Students of Merodack College studied with one professor, occasionally two if the specifics of their major called for additional study outside of that professor’s area of expertise, and never more than three teachers in total.

There was no internet at Merodack College, not in the houses nor the library. There were no ceremonies, of graduation or arrival, nor any reliable school calendar year. There were no designated social events, and if any students attempted to organize any, they were discouraged.

The administration was a vague entity at best, and could be counted on to solve few if any problems. The administration’s main duty, above anything else, was to see to it that Merodack was a college wherein a student could graduate an expert on the subject of, for example, the emergence of ballet in the Italian Renaissance, without ever knowing that the most studied major at Merodack College was witchcraft and that a great number of her peers not only studied some of the more esoteric forms of magic, but were quite proficient.

Jem did not socialize any more or less than the next Merodack student, but he was skeptical that the administration was quite so successful in their aims of isolationism as they wished to be. He knew about the presence of St. Nepomucene and Sons, the college bar just on the other side of the river, and he also knew that the impossibility of dating inside one’s own major (given the incestuous nature of just how much you had to see those people when you both lived and studied with them) had not exactly given way to a rise in celibacy amongst his fellow students. Ophelia, who was far more outgoing than Jem, had treated Merodack’s atmosphere more as a challenge than an indication as to how she should behave, when she was a student.

After class, Jem turned down Nina, Isabelle, and Miriam’s offer to retreat to Bremen House to study, and, rather than return to the library, biked home. He arrived earlier than he usually did, and he promptly discovered that the place wasn’t empty; Jubilee, Duarte, and Ritter had taken up residence in the den.

Over the past five years, Mathuin’s house had served as a home base to the Mathuinite cause, and now that they had won, it hosted what was quickly beginning to look like a court. There was always some group or another of Mathuinites lingering on the porch or in the den or out in the backyard, regardless of where Mathuin himself was. It was a particular aspect of his new married life that aggravated Jem like nothing else.

They were sitting in front of the cold fireplace, and they were discussing Reuben Vaughn’s recent murder. “… Seems kind of specific, doesn’t it?” Ritter was saying in an undertone. Jem stood still in the hallway, torn between deliberately listening in or going about his way. “They killed him the same way that Reeves and Copeland died— and there are a few people who think that Agripin got his throat cut, too, you know, before all the rest.”

“Well, it’s not like Mathuin got rid of all the Agripinites, did he?” Jubilee’s voice floated. “Just the major ones. All of the ones who kept it a secret, they got to live.”

“And you think— what— they killed Vaughn out of revenge?” Duarte sounded skeptical.

“It was Vaughn’s betrayal that lost them the war, wasn’t it?”

“Sure, but now that Agripin’s dead, they don’t have another candidate to put forward, do they? What’s the point of murdering a traitor and causing problems if you don’t have any hope of doing anything except pissing off the king?”

“The point is spite,” Jubilee said.

Duarte made a noise like he thought that was ludicrous, but Ritter interrupted. “I agree with Jubilee,” he said. “We killed their prince and then killed another— however many— of their best and brightest, so to speak. You can’t expect people to take that lying down.”

“And I can think of two people in particular who might especially have it out for Vaughn,” Jubilee said darkly.

“I can’t really see Jem slitting anyone’s throat,” Ritter said, and Jem decided that he didn’t really want to listen to them talking about himself and Ophelia. He made his way upstairs as quietly as he could.

When Mathuin returned home, a few hours later, it was to find Jem in the kitchen, nursing a cup of tea. “Your— students— are in the den,” Jem told him, with just an emphasis on the one word to communicate a litany of grievances.

“Of course they are. I don’t suppose you went and said hello to them?” Mathuin asked, with an entirely straight face.

Jem ignored that. “Have you figured out who killed Vaughn yet?”

“No, I haven’t, seeing as it hasn’t even been a week yet.” Mathuin grinned suddenly. “Why do you ask? Are you interested in seeing justice for poor old Vaughn?”

“I’m interested in not being blamed for it,” Jem said, and let the matter die there.

He was becoming worried. If the Mathuinites to a one thought that Ophelia was the murderer, then they wouldn’t be searching for the actual killer.

While the den was occupied and therefore off-limits in Jem’s view, he instead searched the house to find Britomartis, the cat.

In spite of everything, Jem loved Mathuin’s house, and it was not an easy place to love. The house sprawled, two stories and an attic, with a basement and a cellar underneath the basement, a porch in the front and a deck in the back. Mathuin made use of the extra bedrooms by turning them into guest bedrooms, largely unused, and libraries. Two upstairs bedrooms were left locked, and a few rooms in the basement; Jem had never seen the insides of these rooms. The basement was filled with extra stores of any supplies that could possibly be needed, in the event of a blizzard that left the residents stranded for months.

There was no internet, and while the hot water and electricity were reliable even in the worst storms, the house had neither central air conditioning nor heat, but for the sporadic fireplace or wood-burning stove, distributed throughout the rooms. The lack of air conditioning had not been a problem in the summertime— Bergdis simply never became warm enough to penetrate the general cold of the house— but the cold was already becoming quite pronounced by October.

In his time living in captivity, Jem had noticed that the place had quite a few peculiar traits about the house. For one, no matter how much he cooked, the kitchen never ran out of certain basic ingredients, such as flour, milk, and the like. The house was always perpetually clean, without the slightest hint of dust, grease, or dirt, and no one ever cleaned it. If Jem let a chore go undone long enough, such as laundry, he would return to find it already done, and that was on days when he was home by himself.

The previous owners had left behind a few indications of themselves, indications that Mathuin, for whatever reason, had chosen to keep. There were notches in the side of a kitchen doorway, documenting a child’s growth, and that child’s sled in the garage, as well as the occasional old box of books, fiction or romance, that Jem doubted belonged to Mathuin.

Mathuin had nothing to say about the house’s peculiarities, and little to say about the place in general, which Jem found strange in and of itself; Mathuin had moved in with the intention of repairing the home after it had been abandoned and rundown for at least a decade. Jem had never before met anyone who had undertaken such a large home improvement project and then not seized every opportunity to explain, in length and detail, just what had needed to be done and how they had done it.

The gardens outside had been left entirely alone. In the absence of a caretaker, they had grown wild and weedy, but with the surviving descendant plants of old flowerbeds; thorny red roses, blue hydrangeas, beds of irises and forget-me-nots and lavender, wild tomatoes and blueberry bushes. In the summertime, Jem had considered gardening— it reminded him of his grandmother— but he had never felt at home enough to take charge of the place.

Much as Jem liked the house, there were precious few signs that he actually lived there. He managed to squirrel away all of his worldly possessions, into the corners of the bedroom he shared with Mathuin, on a spare bookshelf here, a drawer there. Most of his childhood things were kept in his Aunt Valeria’s house, alongside Ophelia’s, and he hadn’t seen that house since before being married to Mathuin.

The most important possessions were his books, especially the fairytales; he had some doubts about his major, but he hadn’t lost interest in the subject entirely. He had books authored by Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, Alexander Afanasyev, Richard Francis Burton, and, of course, all of Andrew Lang’s colored fairy books: Blue, Red, Green, Yellow, Pink, Grey, Violet, Crimson, Brown, Orange, Olive, and Lilac. By Lang alone, Jem knew he had read at least four hundred thirty-four fairy tales.

Because Jem had studied fairy tales for years, he neither idolized nor idealized them. He found them interesting, but not enchanting nor charming, and especially not instructive, least of all in terms of morality. What he liked best about them was the unexpected; apart from the handful of twenty or so tales that kept themselves in public awareness (from Cinderella to Bluebeard), there was an underbelly of hundreds or thousands, and in this underbelly, anything could happen. They wore their clichéd and formulaic structures like proud exoskeletons, and occasionally turned themselves inside out.

Jem had heard that the “original” versions of the tales (and he was not sure what original was supposed to mean, because Grimms, Perrault, and Lang couldn’t be credited with bringing more than a slim minority of their stories into proper creation; that lonely honor went to Andersen) were darker than their modern counterparts. He had his doubts about that— even the Disney versions featured a great deal of abuse, slavery, death, and attempted murder, albeit dressed up in bright colors and song. What was true, however, was that modern versions held tight to a rigid structure, to which older versions felt no obligation.

The protagonist-apparent princess of The Black Thief and the Knight of Glen stepped into the role of villainess queen upon the discovery of her stepchildren; other protagonists ended up not married happily ever after, but dead (The Yellow Dwarf, The Death of the Sun Hero, The Snow-Daughter and the Fire-Son); heroes occasionally forced princesses who explicitly hated them into marriages without a breath of love, but a great deal of entitlement (The Magic Ring). In general, protagonists could be expected to occasionally behave despicably, even murderously, and yet escape any kind of justice in the end. The world was not always put right at the end of a fairy tale, and Jem had come to appreciate that these endings were presented baldly with neither apology nor explanation.

Jem found Britomartis in the closet under the stairs, fast asleep on a pile of towels, which left him wondering just how she had gotten in there. He decided not disturb her, but instead returned to the den, where he discovered that Mathuin had shooed away Jubilee, Duarte, and Ritter. He had started a fire and was busy grading a student’s paper.

He gestured Jem closer, and Jem did as he was bid. “Did you get rid of them because I said something?” he asked. He was apprehensive about getting close enough to touch. He discovered he’d underestimated Mathuin’s reach when Mathuin put down the papers and sat up enough to stretch out and yank him closer.

“I got rid of them because I wanted the place to myself,” he said. With a fistful of Jem’s shirt, he guided Jem down to the floor and to his knees, and started unbuttoning Jem’s shirt.

Jem’s hands went to unzip Mathuin’s jeans automatically— he knew how this went. He knew how to do this, or so he told himself, time and again. Mathuin would leave him alone if he was satisfied— usually, anyway. “Are you going to stay a professor, next term?”

Mathuin laughed, as his hand curled around the back of Jem’s head. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Two professions seems like… a bit much,” Jem said, and swallowed hard. “King and professor.”

“I think I’ll manage.” Mathuin pulled Jem’s head down, and Jem opened his mouth obediently.

Chapter Text

Chapter V.

Jem woke to the sound of the chime that meant his twin was texting him. He reached for the phone, even as Mathuin groaned and rolled over and wrapped an arm around Jem’s waist to pull him close. The man had his nose buried in Jem’s hair when Jem said quietly, “Ophelia’s here.”

“Here?” Mathuin repeated, ominous if still half-asleep.

Jem squirmed. “In Bergdis.” He fought his way out of Mathuin’s arms and sat up. “Is it all right if she comes for dinner?”

This time of day— when Mathuin would rather be asleep— was the best time to ask for anything, Jem had discovered. Not because Mathuin was more likely to be amenable, but because whatever answer he gave, it was probably going to be monosyllabic.

Mathuin put a hand to his eyes. “Sure.”

“Thanks.” Jem leaned down just long enough to kiss his cheek, which seemed like an appropriately marital sort of thing to do, and then climbed over him to get out of bed. It was going to be a hell of a family dinner, he thought. He found himself contemplating the nearness between two words, marital and martial. Relating to marriage and relating to war.

Ophelia had another text, shortly following the first: Any news about who killed Vaughn?

Jem hesitated, and shot a glance back at Mathuin before he replied, No.

•••

Reuben Vaughn had been a part of the Erling Conflict before there was ever any Conflict, a lifelong supporter of the Agripin family. He had always looked like a kindly grandfatherly sort to Jem. He and Professor Reeves were known to always coach caution and discretion in contrast to Garet’s frequent hot-headedness. Vaughn, as Merodack College’s librarian of more than thirty years, impressed Jem because he appeared to know just everything.

The betrayal had been a blow, but there was some mercy to it; Garet Agripin was dead before he could ever learn the machinations of how that death had come about.

After the Agripinite defeat, Jem still saw Vaughn nearly every day, and at least every week, but he only ever spoke to the man once, about a week after he was married. They were in the library at the time, and Jem was clutching a book on Scottish Ballads in white-knuckled hands when he asked Vaughn why he did it.

Vaughn had looked at him with a resigned sadness. Neither of them wanted to be having this conversation, Jem thought, but at least— the very least— Vaughn wasn’t gloating in the way of every other fucking Mathuinite Jem had encountered since Garet’s death.

“You know why,” he said gravely. “Because Garet was the losing side, Jem. There was never anything more than a madman’s hope for him. Eventually, I had to make myself see, there wasn’t even that.”

Jem had not known that. He had thought, until that moment, that the sides had been more or less equally matched. He walked away feeling dazed.

Vaughn had been known to occasionally deliver an aggressively dull tirade on the subject of the right of primogeniture and the importance of law above all else. Jem was dismayed to realize that he hadn’t been lying about those principles, nor had he precisely turned his back on them; Vaughn had simply come to the conclusion that what should be wasn’t what was going to be, and had quietly if compliantly secured his own future, what little there was left of it, in the face of inevitability.

While Mathuin’s eventual victory might have been guaranteed, the events certainly happened a great deal more quickly once Vaughn had switched sides. Ophelia, who was exceedingly cautious when she put her mind to it, went to the library late one night, which was typical behavior of any Merodack student. She should have been safe, given that it was Agripinite domain. When she arrived, Vaughn contacted his new comrades, and from there, Ophelia was snatched away by Mathuinites.

Her boyfriend of the time, Nate Wallace, showed up panic-stricken on the doorstep of the Bremen House, with a note written by Jubilee Spence, which he said he had found on Ophelia’s bed. The contents of the note were simple: Mathuin was willing to trade Ophelia for Jem.

Jem remembered that horrible night being fitfully stormy and miserable, with winds screaming, the nearby grumblings of thunder, and an unenthusiastic smattering of rain. It was not so much atmospheric as it was typical of Bergdis; by midnight, it had quieted down to utter silence and fog had settled in instead. He remembered feeling anxious before he ever heard Nate’s erratic knock on the door. He remembered looking at the note and thinking that he just might vomit.

Nate drove Jem to Mathuin’s house in utter silence, having consented without any voiced reservations about Jem’s decision to pay Ophelia’s ransom with himself, as requested. Jem spent the entire drive holding the note in white-knuckled hands, staring down at it.

He knew nothing of Vaughn’s treachery at the time. What he also didn’t know was that Nate, an old friend of Garet’s, had been a Mathuinite spy all along. Jem wouldn’t learn about Nate’s true allegiances until Mathuin was busy murdering the main Agripinite supporters, and it occurred to him to wonder how or why Nate had escaped death. Nate hadn’t found any note; Jubilee Spence had handed it to him directly.

Jem anticipated there being some deliberations, between Mathuin and himself, but there was not. Mathuin simply proposed the bargain, that Ophelia would be safe and free so long as Jem belonged to Mathuin (and Jem had thought the language was odd, but questioning language hadn’t been a major concern at just that moment), and Jem agreed to it. He knew that Mathuin, for all his murderous ways, was not about to stat breaking oaths. In a place such as Bergdis, a broken oath was not easily set aside, and especially so if one was about to make a bid to become Erlking.

“You realize,” Mathuin had said, just a bit later. He had brought Jem, handcuffed, down into the cellar underneath the basement, where Jem fully expected to be killed. Instead, he was lead to a chair, and tied to it. “You chose your sister over Agripin. You realize you decided this mess?” Jem did notice that Mathuin had waited until there was no way for Jem to renege on his side of the deal before he pointed this out.

“I know,” Jem said, but he hadn’t, not really. He was still thinking in terms of how deeply unpleasant it was going to be when he saw Garet again— if he lived long enough to see Garet again— now that he had betrayed him for Ophelia.

Even in the greatest moments of guilt, Jem never lied to himself; he had chosen Ophelia over Garet Agripin, and if he were given the choice a thousand times, she would still be his decision every time. In Jem’s reckoning of the world, his twin took precedence over everything else.

He spent the night tied to the chair, guarded by a sleepy Brian Ritter and Professor Keith Wharton. By the time Mathuin came to untie him, in the early morning, the man was covered in Garet Agripin’s blood, and his clothes smelled of smoke and something rotten burning.

Jem had remained a captive for the next miserable week, still in the cellar. He spent his twenty-first birthday there, informed of the date by Ritter. He was only released when Mathuin found time to put him in the backseat of a car and drive him to the Bergdis courthouse. There, to Jem’s very great surprise, they were married.

“It’s the symbol of the thing, right?” he had asked Mathuin, when they returned to the car. He still felt entirely dumbfounded. The presider had looked deeply discomfited at just how unenthusiastic Jem was at his own wedding, but Jem had said the words and signed the papers all the same— Mathuin only had to remind him of Ophelia’s safety to get him to do so. “I’m the genius loci, and you’re Erlking, now, so… like a marriage of land and state… or something…” He was mumbling his words so badly he wasn’t sure Mathuin could hear. The witnesses had all been Mathuinites, of course, trying to disguise their victorious crowing as nuptial-appropriate celebrations.

Mathuin glanced back at him after being asked this question, if only for a moment. “Sure,” he said.

It didn’t really matter what he said. Jem wouldn’t be able to get rid of the feeling that he had just walked face first into a door until about four vodka tonics later.

As could only be expected, there was a party to celebrate the impromptu wedding, held in Mathuin’s home. It contained a truly surprising number of guests who appeared to have taken the news that Mathuin had married an Agripinite entirely in stride. Guests included Mathuinites and suspected Agripinites alike, and celebrated the end of the Erling Conflict more than any marriage. It was here that Jem first met Dr. Claudine Ochoa.

Jem, who had come to the dismaying realization that opportunism was all that was left to him, made the best of the party by getting completely, utterly drunk.

He had nursed that hangover for about three days afterwards, which was a new low. Despite the near alcohol poisoning, he did not black out any of the night, no matter how badly he might wish to. In spite of all the taunting he had received, all the tormenting and jeering, all the snide, alarming comments, there was only one moment that he later turned over again and again in his head.

By the time he’d done all the drinking he was going to do, much later that night, he was a complete mess. Mathuin, whom he hadn’t seen since the very beginning of the party, appeared to collect him, with the intention of putting him to bed, where he could sleep off the booze.

Jem had taken the opportunity to kiss him.

He remembered acting more out of spite than anything else, certainly more out of spite than any sense of affection. He had some idea in his mind that given the political nature of the marriage he had been forced into, physical contact was the very last thing Mathuin wanted. Mathuin, however, rather than reacting with disgust or irritation, had yanked him close and kissed him back, hard.

That, Jem understood, was the true beginning of the marriage.

•••

Jem had gotten his teenaged rebellion over with early. At the age of twelve, when still missing his mother and chafing against the abnormalities imposed on him by being born into a witch family, he took up the habit of giving his father hell at every opportunity.

Alexander McBride was not at all prepared. Firstly, he had never imagined himself as the single parent of a pair of preteens, and secondly, he had spent the past twelve years thinking that it was Ophelia who was going to be trouble when the twins hit this age, not Jem. Alexander’s short temper only fueled Jem’s craving for chaos and disharmony, and it was quite the craving; the times when he and his father were shouting at each other, were the only times when he wasn’t consumed with grief for his mother.

After one especially bad row, which followed Jem piercing his own ear and a subsequent and entirely predictable infection, and during which Jem complained that he was stuck with this family, Alexander was at his most exasperated. “Jem,” he said. “For Christ’s sake. When you’re in prison, make peace with the warden.”

The teenaged rebellion settled down shortly thereafter, but this shred of wisdom, however briefly imparted, stuck with Jem. It was something he thought about a great deal, in the days that followed his marriage.

There was no pretending that he was happy with how things had turned out, from the end of the Erling Conflict to the various murders to the wedding itself. He indulged in a few fantasies about just how much havoc he could wreak on Jakob Mathuin’s life— marriage, in this case, largely meant proximity, and as Jem knew full well from having a twin, domestic cohabitation came with its own kind of hell.

Fantasies of chaos aside, his instinctive reaction was to give Mathuin the cold shoulder, to be married to him in name and law only, and to avoid his presence as much as was humanly possible. It would be like living forever in the wake of a huge fight, he thought when he turned the matter over in his head. He imagined the experience would be deeply awkward and unpleasant.

But he made himself face facts: this wasn’t so much a marriage as it was slavery, and Mathuin was a great deal more capable of making Jem’s life a living hell than Jem was of returning the favor. Besides, there was simply nothing to be gained from a marital war zone. It wasn’t going to bring Garet Agripin back from the grave, and it wasn’t going to encourage Mathuin to release Jem while still honoring his promise to let Ophelia live free. The Agripinites had lost, and nothing was going to change that.

Jem decided to do his best to bury the hatchet, at least as much as he could while still terrified of Mathuin. In those first few days and weeks, he tried to make conversation, however quiet and short those conversations were, and he was careful to be as polite as he could be. He made eye contact without glaring, and without flinching, much. He made a point of listening carefully whenever Mathuin spoke, and made a show of responding with more courtesy than apathy.

He was darkly pleased when this change of heart surprised Mathuin; it made him feel like he had accomplished something particularly adultish. When Mathuin reached out further, when he started longer conversations and initiated the occasional bit of affection, Jem didn’t reciprocate, exactly, but he didn’t pull away, either.

One day, when the marriage was a little more than four weeks old, it started raining worse than usual while Jem was in class. It was the first major downpour since Jem had moved into Mathuin’s home. His daily bike ride between campus and his new home took considerably more than an hour even in the best of weather, and while he was used to biking in the spitting sort of rain that was frequent in Bergdis, this was something else.

After class, he made his way across campus to the old house where Mathuin kept his office, and walked in after knocking. Mathuin, who was leaning back in his chair with his feet on his desk and a student’s paper in one hand, raised his eyebrows upon seeing him. “Ever heard of an umbrella, Kätzchen?”

“Can you give me a ride home?” Jem asked outright. He glanced down long enough to see that he was making a puddle on the nice wooden floor.

Mathuin put his feet down and considered Jem for a long moment. “Sure. How about we go out to eat?”

“I don’t have any money.”

Mathuin didn’t, quite, smile. “I’ll pay,” he said seriously.

“All right,” Jem said awkwardly.

It didn’t occur to him until they were at the restaurant— a steakhouse, one that usually catered to the tourists— that this could be construed as a date, if it still counted as a date when you were married. There were candles on the table, and the waitress smiled at them in a way that made it very clear that she expected more of a tip from romantic couples.

“Have you heard from Ophelia lately?” Mathuin asked, after they had ordered.

“Yes,” Jem said cautiously. He had heard from Ophelia fifteen minutes earlier, by text. They both texted constantly. She was worried that Mathuin would someday murder him, while he was anxious that the Knights would get her.

“How is she doing?”

Jem realized that Mathuin was just making conversation. “Fine. She’s in Rio de Janeiro at the moment, being a tourist. She’s making the best of being a witch, and no longer in college.”

Before Mathuin could answer that, the wine arrived, and shortly thereafter, a man recognized Mathuin and came over to greet them. Jem gathered that he was a local businessman, and knew something of Mathuin’s status as Erlking. Since the man ignored him entirely, Jem spent the minutes swirling his wine and staring at its black depths.

Going on a date, if that’s what this was, lead him rather easily to the question of sex, and wasn’t that a terrifying idea. By then, he had spent enough time with Mathuin to know that what the man ultimately wanted, as crazy as it seemed, was a true marriage. Perhaps political and certainly forced, but a real marriage all the same, a relationship, which coached the marriage in very different terms than Jem had realized when he was dragged to the altar.

The second altar, he amended in his mind, and he had drunk his entire glass of wine by the time Mathuin got rid of the businessman and turned his attention back to Jem. He frowned at the sight of Jem reaching for the wine bottle. “Jem…”

“Oh, look, the food’s here,” Jem said, nodding to the approaching waitress. He had ordered a salad, which he picked at, while Mathuin had ordered a steak dinner, which he finished. It never failed to amaze Jem just how much food Mathuin could eat.

Jem was mostly dry but shivering badly by the time the meal was finished, and as such, Mathuin called for the check rather than attempting any more conversation. When they got home, they barely got inside the door before Jem announced that he was going to take a shower, and vanished into the upstairs bathroom. He was somewhat tipsy from the wine, but nowhere near drunk. Granted, after his wedding and the resulting hangover, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be drunk ever again.

He was still freezing after his shower, but Mathuin had built a fire, despite the summertime. Jem curled up on the couch in front of it, a blanket around his shoulders, and a book on his knees.

Eventually, Mathuin joined him, and put an arm around him to draw him close. Jem’s heart was still pounding when Mathuin kissed him.

Jem kissed back, and that was easy enough. Mathuin was much bigger than he was, which Jem discovered he enjoyed, even if it was simultaneously alarming. Mathuin rubbed his back up and down, but that was more calming than sexual, for now.

When Mathuin broke away, to throw another log on the fire, Jem went upstairs and to bed, early. He couldn’t decide if this act was an invitation or a refusal, but Mathuin took it as an invitation, and followed him only a few minutes later.

The kissing became a great deal more sexual here. Mathuin got Jem out of his t-shirt and pajama pants in no time at all, kissed his nose, chin, neck, collar, and shoulder, while his hands roamed. Jem kissed back, with considerably more shyness, and eventually Mathuin’s hands slid down to his hips, and he leaned down to kiss, and then lick Jem’s cock.

Jem leaned back on the bed and balled up the fabric of the quilt in his fist.

He was almost too fretful thinking about what came next to pay enough attention to the blowjob or relax enough to come. It helped that Mathuin clearly had quite a bit of skill in the matter.

For all of Mathuin’s occasional kindnesses, for all the times he affectionately tousled Jem’s hair or indulgently tolerated Jem’s peculiarities, there was a part of Jem that never forgot precisely the sound, sight, and sensation of Mathuin cutting him open with the same bone knife he later used to murder Garet Agripin.

Afterwards, Mathuin rolled onto his side and reached for the bedside drawer, where he pulled out a small tube of lube. Jem, who was lying on his back with eyes half closed, recovering, thought that keeping it there had been a bit optimistic, but, he decided, whatever.

Mathuin kissed him again, and Jem kissed back, languidly, until he felt Mathuin’s knuckles slowly brushing against his hip and blundering into the bottom left point of scar tissue. He jumped and pushed him away.

The scars were difficult to see. The flesh had been cut with a knife as sharp as a new scalpel, the wounds had been expertly stitched up in the hospital, and the scars had healed well, leaving only three pencil-thin snow white lines against Jem’s fish-belly white skin. They did not feel much different than the surrounding skin, either, distinguished only by a velvety softness. None of this was relevant to how Jem felt about them. Having been, quite literally, opened, had lent him a terrified self-awareness that he could not let go of.

He curled up on his side, one arm wrapped protectively around his middle. “I— sorry,” he mumbled, and through sheer force of will did not think about the fact that he was apologizing for an injury to the man who had done it. To judge by Mathuin’s face, he was thinking about it. “I’d rather… I’d rather not be on my back.”

Mathuin pulled away. He looked like he wanted to reach for Jem. “We don’t have to do this now,” he said evenly.

Jem reached a hand down to curl between his legs. He really didn’t want to do this at the moment— but at least part of his lack of desire was the fact that he had just come, and so, he was fine. He could see enough of a bulge to know the feeling wasn’t mutual from Mathuin.

“No,” he said quietly, “Let’s.”

He had a feeling Mathuin knew that he meant Let’s get this over with, but the man didn’t complain. He stood up, off the bed, to pull off his shirt, which Jem discovered he rather appreciated, and then took off his pants.

Jem sat up immediately to scoot back on the bed. That, he thought, is not going to fit. Mathuin, as quick as a snake, reached down to grab his ankle and pull him back. “You’ll be fine,” he said flatly, discerning exactly what Jem had been thinking. He paused, his hand tightening around Jem’s ankle. “Have you ever had sex before?”

“Just blowjobs,” Jem said awkwardly.

Mathuin’s mouth curved into a smile. “How precious,” he said. Jem kicked him.

“Have you ever slept with one of your students before? Or former students?” he asked ominously.

“You were the only student I ever had that I wanted to fuck,” Mathuin said frankly.

“When I was sixteen?”

“When you were a little fucking spy?” Mathuin yanked him down onto his back by his ankle. “Come here.”

Jem went down on his knees on the floor, which felt decidedly subservient, and sucked him off. He would have preferred that that be the end of it, but afterwards, Mathuin coaxed him onto his hands and knees on the bed, with his ass in the air. Mathuin leaned over him, just touching at first, stroking, eventually nudging his knees open. Jem wasn’t quite sure when it went from something pleasant to something painful, but he was hissing in discomfort by the time Mathuin pushed two fingers into him. “Fuck, you’re tight,” Mathuin muttered, and Jem squirmed anxiously.

He twisted his fingers around, which produced an undignified squawk from the boy. When he pulled his fingers out, and Jem sat up and scooted away from him.

“I don’t think…” He started.

Mathuin wrapped an arm around his waist and pulled him back, put him back on his knees with his head down. Jem felt a warning nudge against him. He had barely a moment to brace himself before Mathuin leaned over him and the nudge became a full push, an insistence. He yelped.

“Open your legs, just a bit,” Mathuin said. “And push back into me. Just like so…” Jem struggled to do as instructed and felt it slide in several more inches. Jem gasped, and, somehow, didn’t start choking in panic. With a few more thrusts, Mathuin came to a rest, and paused, flush up against Jem, with an iron arm around Jem’s waist to keep him from squirming away. Jem could hardly breathe. He tried very hard to avoid the thought that Mathuin seemed to be somewhere just behind his stomach.

“How does that feel?” Math murmured into his ear. His breathing was a great deal more even than Jem’s.

“It hurts,” Jem snapped. “And I hate it.”

Mathuin laughed, low and short, and pulled out just enough to thrust harder. “Well, you’re married to me. So get used to it.”

Jem put his hands over his head at that, and didn’t speak again. It seemed to go a long time, Mathuin fucking him hard and occasionally murmuring something dirty or encouraging into Jem’s ear. When he finally came, Jem discovered he was too exhausted for the shock or disgust he rather felt he ought to feel. Mathuin lay down on Jem, still inside of him, and forced him down flat on the bed. Jem struggled and kicked at him, unable to breathe, until Mathuin finally pulled out of him and rolled onto his back.

Jem went into the bathroom to clean himself up. He felt bruised and possibly torn, but he found no blood. He realized, prodding at the forming bruises experimentally, that tomorrow was going to be a fresh agony.

He wasn’t sure that he would have returned at all if Mathuin hadn’t eventually come to collect him, and steer him back to bed with a firm grip on his upper arm.

That night, Jem lay awake in Mathuin’s arms, listening to the rain hitting the windows. Mathuin got up in the night and, unasked, brought him a glass of water and tousled his hair before settling back down. Jem wondered if he should think himself pampered or abused, and pushed the thought out of his mind.

He fell asleep telling himself, over and over again, that he was going to be okay. When he woke in the morning, it didn’t feel like quite so much of a lie, and the marriage didn’t seem quite so daunting.

•••

Ophelia met Jem at the Starbucks in Bergdis. She arrived before he did, and had already ordered a mocha latte with extra cream for herself and a dirty chai tea latte for Jem.

“You’ve got to stop biking,” she told Jem, as he came inside. The weather was a miserable sleeting, freezing rain driven horizontal in the screaming wind, and Jem had frost forming in his hair and his eyelashes. “It’s got to be, what, twenty miles between Mathuin’s place and campus? It’s going to be a long winter, Jem. Buy a stupid car already.”

Ophelia dressed like someone making their first tentative trip outside after months of battling a debilitating illness. She had a perpetual fear of being cold. It was a progressive day when she showed up in sweats instead of outright pajama pants, and she piled sweaters on ripped t-shirts on camisoles, until she was happily nested in layers of cloth. She did not adorn her face with so much as the slightest speck of make-up, because that would have taken effort, and the most she ever did for her hair was a loose braid. All of her bras, as Jem knew, were entirely pristine, because they had never been worn, not that anyone could tell given how fully she enmeshed herself in cloth. She was not afraid of any fashion faux pas, from clashing patterns to sandals with socks, though she had not deviated much from the Ugg boot after discovering it in 2006. She had been their mother’s despair, while Jem had been a fastidious little gentleman.

“Parking is a nightmare at Merodack,” Jem said irritably, accepting his chai. He pulled off his soaked gloves, and the cup burned his fingers.

“I s’pose you can always get Mathuin to give you a ride.” Ophelia’s mouth twisted in a way that almost looked humorous. “How is your husband doing these days, anyhow?”

“Fine,” Jem muttered, and sipped his chai.

“I still can’t believe you’re married.” She took a gulp of her drink. “It’s like… it’s like in the movies, when the dark lord demands the princess’s hand in marriage? And then the hero swoops in at the wedding and saves her at the last second? It’s like that, but he was actually successful, and you’re not much of a princess.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t have gotten your ass kidnapped,” Jem said, and she made a goblin face at that. “How’ve you been, anyway? Where have you been, for that matter?”

“Alaska,” Ophelia said, waving a hand to indicate the unimportance of such a thing. “Just for a quick nip. But,” she continued, her tone turning steely. “Let’s talk about Vaughn, may his traitor soul rest in peace.”

Jem put down the chai. “Oaf,” he said quietly. “You didn’t kill him, did you? You would tell me if you were going to kill someone. Wouldn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t kill him,” she said. “Though I won’t say the thought didn’t occur. Not as much as the thought of killing your husband— how would you like to be a widower?”

“Don’t try it.” Jem sincerely doubted that Mathuin wasn’t equal to even the best curse Ophelia could cast.

“Does everyone think that I killed Vaughn?” she asked, a slow, diabolical smile climbing over her face.

“Yes.” He leaned forward. “And it’s not fucking funny. For one thing, if they think you did it, that means the murderer gets away—”

“Oh, so sad—”

“Oaf—” Jem had to take a moment to grapple with his frustration. He loved her, but he wanted to strangle her. “We have no idea who did this, or why.”

“No, but I’ve got a few good guesses for the why,” Oaf said.

“But we don’t know that. And—” Jem stopped. “You didn’t see the body,” he said finally, with some difficulty.

She did have the grace to go quiet at that. Jem let his eyes rest on his sister’s hands, holding the latte, and the smallest finger missing from her left hand. Five years later, he still wasn’t used to this disfigurement, and worse, it reminded him of their mother.

“For another thing,” he said slowly. “You and I get to stay alive because Mathuin says so. The idea that you might be taking advantage of the deal by murdering Mathuinites… well, it’s an idea that’s got Jubilee Spence all riled up, if no one else.”

“Jubilee Spence is a born rabble-rouser,” Ophelia said, their grandmother to the life. Jem raised his eyebrows. “Does Mathuin think I did it?”

Jem thought about that. On that first night, on the porch, he would have said yes, but since then… “I don’t think so,” he said slowly. “But he hasn’t said what he thinks.”

Ophelia finished her latte. “Well,” she declared. “Let’s hop to it, shall we? Let’s go have dinner with my beloved brother-in-law.”

End of Part I.

Chapter Text

Part II.

Chapter VI.

The scene had an inexpressible quality to it, the sense of the ephemeral made quite suddenly permanent, the transient nature of time stopped at one very sudden and very unpleasant moment.

The murder had been committed with considerable speed, and the murderer had not lingered about the place afterwards. Unlike Vaughn, this victim had seen it coming, and had fought back. The small cabin was a disaster of upturned furniture, spilled foodstuffs in the kitchen, shattered dishes, and smears of blood and mud decorating the floor. The body had landed in a chair, where it slumped in a splay of arms and legs. From the throat (cut as deeply as Vaughn’s— more of a partial decapitation than a slit throat), blood had painted the walls in enthusiastic gouts, long since turned black and brown. The chair under the corpse stood in a puddle of the congealed stuff.

Mathuin stepped as carefully as a dancer around the various mess of the scene, from spilled objects to smeared blood, in order to get a good look at the corpse’s face. Detective Malone stood nearby, and even through the fetid scents of murder, Mathuin could smell the nervousness on him. The detective had requested that he not touch anything unless he felt it was necessary to do so, but there would be no repercussions if he chose to ignore that particular request.

The face was slack, as if the puppet strings animating it had all been cut. There was no emotional expression to be divined here, just the unpleasant reality of dead flesh. “How long do you suppose he’s been here?” Mathuin asked.

“More than a day,” Detective Malone said. “But probably not much more. As his landlady tells it, it’s lucky we found him before he’d been lying here more than a week. She got worried when his rent check wasn’t turned in early— says he’s been early every month for the last twenty-five years.” He coughed, and then snorted into the crook of his arm. “God bless reliable people,” he muttered. “This’d look a lot worse if we’d found him later.”

Mathuin straightened, and, having decided that he had seen all he was likely to see of any relevance, went outside, where Hemming and Keith Wharton were waiting for him. Keith was pacing; Hemming was stone still and perfectly passive, as always.

Wharton looked up. “Ivan Williams?” he asked. “The old ranger?”

“That’s the one,” Mathuin said.

“Shit. Same thing happened to him as to Vaughn? Same people, you think, who did it?”

Mathuin looked over at Malone. “Detective?”

The detective looked as uncomfortable as ever. “It’s early to say for sure,” he said. “But yeah, I’d put that out there as the principle theory, for now. They’re damned similar crimes. The slit throat, the level of, uh, opportunism…”

Mathuin rubbed his eyes. “Yeah,” he heard Wharton saying. “But Williams was killed in his home, while Vaughn was hidden out in a pile of leaves.”

“Reasonably, neither body should have been found as soon as it was,” Malone said. “We got lucky both times.”

Wharton grunted. “What about motive?” he said. “Vaughn, that’s easy enough. Half the fucking town must want him dead, and the other half wasn’t too keen on him to start with. The traitor’s lot, as it were.” He didn’t sound very sympathetic. “But Williams…”

“It’s the same motive,” Mathuin said softly. “But the question is, how the murderer knew.” Unlike Vaughn, the ambiguities of Williams’s allegiances had never become public knowledge.

Hemming squinted at him. “The girl’s back in town,” he growled. It was about as pointed a statement as Hemming ever made.

Mathuin grimaced and turned back to Malone. “You’ll investigate this to furthest extent of your abilities, Detective?” he asked mildly.

“Of course.” Detective Malone looked worried. “But it might turn out that all I can really do is eliminate the possibility of a, uh… a human attacker. The kind that makes mistakes, anyway.”

What Malone was saying was that demons and shadows didn’t leave behind human DNA or fingerprints. And he didn’t expect to find the killer’s DNA, despite the mess that had been made.

By morning, if Mathuin knew this damned town at all, every resident who had anything at all to do with the supernatural, would know that Ivan Williams was dead. By noon, they would know that he was a discreet Agripinite— the sort of Agripinite Mathuin left alive— and by dusk, they would all know that he had something to do with Garet Agripin’s death, regardless of the veracity of any of these items.

Mathuin leaned against his car for a long moment, after walking away from the murder scene. He was vaguely aware of Wharton still prying answers out of Malone, who was deeply uncomfortable with this intersection of monarchical allegiance crossed with professional objectivism. Hemming lingered nearby Mathuin, as good-tempered as a thundercloud.

Mathuin did have some appreciation for Hemming’s company. The man served an office, that of the Hound of the Erlking, and accordingly, he had been staunchly neutral in the Erling Conflict. He had no reason to pretend to love Mathuin, and none of that campaign zeal that still infected so many of his followers.

“You’re considering other suspects besides Ophelia Dorchester,” Hemming said in a low voice. His tone gave no indication as to if he thought this was idiocy or wisdom on Mathuin’s part.

“The murderer, if it is a single murderer, seems to be targeting Agripinites whose allegiances were…” He waved a hand. “Unsatisfactory, shall we say, by the end.”

“Traitors,” Hemming said.

“People they believe to be traitors,” Mathuin distinguished quietly. “Or,” he added, “To look at it a very different way, they’re killing Mathuinites who, for whatever reason, are more vulnerable. More isolated.” He smiled humorlessly. “Vaughn, as I hear it, didn’t have too many friends in the last few months of his life.”

“Either way, the murderer is most likely an Agripinite,” Hemming said slowly. “And it’s the Agripinites who want vengeance.”

Mathuin didn’t answer. Everyone, he thought, scratched the right way, wanted vengeance. This was a conflict that had begun in 1992; earlier, if he counted his falling out with Charles Agripin. There had been losses by both sides, a great deal of unanswered questions and unhealed wounds, and Mathuin was not nearly so naïve as to believe that his winning ameliorated any of those old grievances.

Hemming turned to him. “The ones who most want revenge are the family members and loved ones of those you murdered,” he said slowly. “All of whom are being vetted and watched, by my hounds. The interesting thing is, the revenge they need is your death, not Vaughn’s, and especially not Williams’s. But there’s been no attempt on your life since the peace.”

Hemming was so old-fashioned that he referred to Mathuin’s marriage— symbolic as it was, between land and king, Agripinite and Mathuinite— as peace, an idea that Mathuin very privately found hilarious.

“You’re saying the murderer is someone who has it out for Vaughn, and Williams, specifically.”

“Someone who felt betrayed by them.”

“Garet Agripin.” Mathuin paused. “And whoever’s taken up his cause.”

“And,” Hemming said, relentless. “The twins.” Mathuin glanced at him. “Vaughn used them as the tools of his treachery. His act was personal for them, much more personal than your act against Agripin.”

“I imagine Jem might have taken a few of my subsequent acts rather personally since then,” Mathuin quipped, but at the heart of things, he knew Hemming was right. Any train of logic circled too easily back to Ophelia Dorchester and Ophelia, as coincidence would have it, had the means to easily pull off both murders. She was not alone in having those means, but it was something to consider.

“Even Ophelia is probably more interested in my death than Vaughn’s,” Mathuin said. “She gave it a try or two, a while back, remember?”

“She’s not unintelligent,” Hemming replied, which Mathuin thought was a rather astute observation on Hemming’s part. Most people who met Ophelia saw a skinny redheaded girl who spoke too fast, was too impressed with her own cleverness, and too eager to discuss superhero movies at great length. “She knows that killing you is far more difficult than killing Vaughn, and she knows that you’re all that stands between her brother and a town of vengeful Mathuinites. And she knows,” this said more slowly, “That killing Vaughn won’t raise your wrath in the same way that killing Nate Wallace might.”

Mathuin smiled. “Well,” he said, very softly. “That is a good point.”

“You’re not convinced,” Hemming observed. Mathuin occasionally had the feeling that Hemming rather disliked having someone easily meet his eye; the Hound usually towered over everyone he met.

“Not yet,” Mathuin agreed. “But I’ve just missed a family dinner with our prime suspect, because of this.” He indicated the murder inside the cabin. “I’m sure I’ll catch up with her soon enough, whether or not either of us likes it, and maybe then she can lend me some insight.”

•••

By the time he returned home, it was well after nine in the evening. He found Jem in the den, in front of a small fire, and nestled in wool blankets and scattered books, with his computer on his lap and the new cat curled up next to his hip, his red-blond hair tousled and lovely.

“There’s some dinner in the kitchen,” Jem said, with only the briefest glance up at him. “If you haven’t had any.”

“Where’s Ophelia?”

“The Fuseli House.” Which was Merodack’s biggest house, where most of the students studying witchcraft lived. “They’re letting her stay while she’s in town.”

Mathuin nodded, and went to the kitchen, where he discovered that Jem had roasted a chicken with vegetables and baked potatoes. There was a plate piled high with food left out for Mathuin.

He picked it up and returned to the den where Jem was. “Sorry I missed dinner with you and your sister,” he said gently.

There were only a few people who Mathuin ever apologized to; Claudine, Fiona, Jem, a few others who were dead and gone now. Mathuin somehow doubted that Jem had noticed just how extraordinary it was whenever he heard the word ‘Sorry’ from him.

“It’s fine,” he said, without looking up. “I figured, you being king… you’ll be busy.”

Mathuin discovered that he was ravenously hungry. He cleaned the plate, and went to the kitchen for a glass of wine. When he returned, Jem was still preoccupied with his essay, but the cat got up and stretched, staring at Mathuin with a distinctly unfriendly gaze.

“What’s your essay on?” Mathuin asked.

“Tam Lin.” Jem said it without any particular interest. He paused, to scrub a bony hand across his face. “It’s my term project, and I…” He stopped, glanced up at Mathuin, and fell silent. He had been about to complain, Mathuin guessed, before he remembered who he was talking to.

Mathuin remembered Jem’s papers, when he was a student. They were always carefully researched, eloquently written, turned in on time without typos, blemishes, or issues. Mathuin had the impression with each one that the paper he was reading had been edited, by every person Jem could bully into the chore, until every shred of personality had been wrung out of it. He was not the sort of brilliant student in which Merodack College tended to specialize; smart, certainly, but never genius, and not daring. But that was five years ago, and not in the subject of Jem’s major. Mathuin wondered just what sort of product Kate Andrade found on her desk when Jem turned in a paper— especially considering that Jem hadn’t exactly had the easiest year.

“How did you choose Tam Lin?”

Jem just shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said, which was Jem’s way of saying that he knew but didn’t care enough to put the anecdote into words.

Before Mathuin could needle him about that, his phone rang. He pulled it out of his pocket, and when he saw Detective Malone’s name, stepped out on the porch to answer it.

“Sorry to call so late.” The detective paused. “We’re looking for signs of a forced entry, and it looks like— well. Rather than anyone breaking down the door, it looks like it was hit with a very serendipitous bolt of lightning.” He heard a shuffling noise, and the detective huffing into the phone. “Does that mean anything to you? Anything… or anyone… that could summon up lightning accurate enough to compromise the lock on a door?”

“Other than the Knights, you mean.” Mathuin thought about it. “It’s an odd decision to make,” he said. “But any demon and a number of spirits— afrits, tempesto- sylphs, even a strong imp, that sort of thing— they could all do it. But each of those could also break down the door just as easily, which is the more straight-forward way of going about the problem.”

“Maybe they wanted to make sure they shocked him,” Malone said. “What could summon up a spirit like that? A witch, maybe?”

“Witches, certainly.” Mathuin rubbed his forehead. “But really, almost any magician worth their salt could do it. An adult, that is— I wouldn’t waste your time looking at students, unless it was an especially precocious or talented one.” Like Ophelia Dorchester, he thought but did not say.

Malone grumbled something under his breath about how this didn’t narrow down suspects, but he thanked Mathuin for the information.

After hanging up the phone, Mathuin returned to the den. “Put the computer away,” he told Jem. Jem did so immediately. Mathuin, who did not quite feel like sitting just yet, towered over him when he asked, “Did you ever meet Ivan Williams, Kätzchen?”

Jem shook his head. “Who is that?” he asked.

“A park ranger and, the current theory is, a former Agripinite,” Mathuin said.

Jem blanched. “There were a lot of Agripinites that I didn’t meet,” he said quietly.

Mathuin nodded. That was simply a statement of fact— the Erling Conflict had been so marked by espionage and subterfuge that only about two dozen of the most involved individuals had ever revealed their allegiances openly. The rest was done in secrecy and ambiguity.

“Why are you asking about him?” Jem asked uneasily.

“He’s dead. In the same manner as Vaughn.”

Jem’s head jerked back as if he had been struck. “Another— another death?”

“And whoever did it used magic.” Mathuin leaned over the chair, slouching. “It’s beginning to seem like there’s a conspiracy afoot, Kätzchen.”

“You said he was an Agripinite,” Jem said. “In theory.”

“So was Vaughn.” Mathuin paused. “And as little as I want to concede to Spence… our bargain, the one that keeps Ophelia safe— that only goes so far. Do you understand me?”

Jem, if possible, went even whiter. “It’s not her,” he said. “I don’t know who, or what, killed Vaughn and… and— Williams? — But it wasn’t Ophelia.”

•••

The first time Mathuin met the boy, his eyes had been rimmed red from crying.

Jem McBride, Mathuin was perfectly aware, was actually Ashur Dorchester, and his father was barely two months in the grave. Garet, Mathuin mused, must be desperate if he was sending grieving teenagers to case out a probable enemy. Or perhaps Garet thought he was doing the unexpected and was therefore getting one past him.

Mathuin had wanted the boy from the moment he laid eyes on him, heaven help him, and the feeling only got worse as the year wore on. As he got to know the boy better, Mathuin found that Jem was never far from his mind. By springtime, the season for such things, he realized he was in love. Jem was pretty as a picture, sweet and polite, occasionally indignant and amusing, quiet, and above all else, submissive, and Mathuin wanted him like he had never wanted anyone before.

He didn’t meet the boy’s twin until she enrolled at Merodack College, years after he had made Jem into the genius loci. The twins were exactly the same height, five-six— which was respectable for a woman and not so much for Jem. Ophelia had coppery red hair, to Jem’s strawberry blond, and a healthy smattering of freckles to his paleness. They had the same nut brown eyes, the same slender, scrawny frames, the same bony faces and pouty lips. They were nothing alike in personality; Ophelia was outgoing and Jem withdrawn, Ophelia cheery and Jem undemonstrative, Ophelia brave and Jem fearful. Ophelia lead, and Jem followed.

Mathuin suspected that this outward personality duality might be more complex than it initially appeared. Since living with Jem, he’d seen only brief glimpses of Jem’s relationship with his sister— if there was any one thing Jem truly wanted to hide from his husband, it was his relationship with the twin Mathuin had once threatened. Regardless, Mathuin had seen Jem snap at Ophelia, by phone or text, throwing off the passivity he usually showed in the wake of her presence, and then returning to his comfortable meekness as soon as it suited him. Mathuin had also seen the way Ophelia sometimes hung off of Jem’s opinion, looking for his blessing before she acted.

Jem didn’t have much of a backbone, Mathuin thought, but that didn’t mean it was wise to discount him. The boy might be submissive and fearful, but he’d shown up at Mathuin’s door to sacrifice himself all the same.

•••

Jem fell asleep early that night, while Mathuin stayed up late, reading an Italian scholar’s paper about a three-times palimpsest found in a recent archaeological dig. In the middle of the night, Jem woke and silently climbed over Mathuin to get a glass of water. He returned shivering, and when he tried to climb back into bed, Mathuin grabbed him and pulled him close. He rolled them, so Jem lay on his back with Mathuin over him, and kissed him. Jem bore it reasonably well.

Mathuin had gotten everything that he wanted that could be got: his revenge against Charles; the end of Garet, who had been trying to kill him; the boy he loved inescapably in his grasp, and even in his bed. The last was unexpected— he would have thought that it would be years before Jem calmed down about being married against his will enough to be seduced, but Jem had proved himself more submissive, pragmatic, and far more tractable than Mathuin ever would have guessed.

He placed Jem’s hands overhead and pulled his legs up, over his shoulders. Jem bore it all reasonably well until after Mathuin had pushed into him, when he reached down to stroke him in time with the thrusts. At that, Jem started writhing, as if he wanted to twist away from Mathuin but didn’t dare let himself. “You don’t have to—”

Mathuin shushed him and kissed him.

Afterwards, Jem slept, curled up with his head resting on Mathuin’s chest while Mathuin played with his hair. Jem was tranquil, for now. He was, generally, a cringing, twitching, wincing mess, and it never came out quite so much as when he was asleep. He had frequent nightmares, and though Jem never told him the details about those dreams, Mathuin could guess that he was the author of most of them.

It was, he supposed, the price that came with everything he’d won.

Chapter Text

Chapter VII.

Come morning, what remained of the thorny dead tangles of rosebushes and hydrangea stalks were coated in a thin layer of ice. It was an unusually sunny day, and the ice shone like broken glass. Jem made himself tea for breakfast, while Britomartis took up the incomprehensible habit of rampaging around the kitchen with her fur on end, swatting at apparently offensive patches of air.

Ophelia arrived before nine, already bundled up in a puffy royal blue winter coat, with a fringe of tawny fake fur around the hood. Jem went to the door to let her in. “There’s been another murder,” he told her, before she even had a chance to take her boots off.

“Oh yeah?” She looked up, startled. “Who?”

“Someone named Ivan Williams.”

“Who’s that?”

“No idea.” Jem sipped at his tea and it burned his tongue. “But I guess it’s the same circumstances as Vaughn’s death.”

He explained further while she stripped off her boots and coat. She didn’t find the news of a second murder quite as disturbing as he did. “It’s a bad sign when we’re so out of the loop that we’re getting our news from Mathuin,” she commented drolly, making her way into the kitchen and very nearly tripping over Britomartis in the process.

“Is that all you have to say about it?” Jem asked.

“I don’t know enough to say anything more about it.” She turned back to him. “But there was something else I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve been researching the genius loci, since I left Bergdis.”

Jem didn’t like the sound of that. “What about it?”

“Well, one thing that came up was that apparently, genius loci have a… a knack, I guess, or a talent, for discovering the secrets of the land they represent. You know— uncovering old mysteries and finding lost things, and the like.” She paused to wash her hands in the sink, stepping around Britomartis in order to do so. “I was reminded when you texted me to say you had found Vaughn. I think that was an example of your genius loci magic at work.”

“I have a propensity for finding bodies?” Jem asked, alarmed.

“Finding any secret things,” Oaf said encouragingly. “I think, if you hadn’t found Vaughn’s body, it would have been there a long time. At least until springtime.”

“They would have sent out search parties,” Jem said, but he was not so sure.

“Right,” Ophelia said. “Well, anyway, I think we should put this to the test. By going exploring.”

Jem eyed her. She had the tone of voice that meant she had a project in mind, and wasn’t going to let up, not until she had what she wanted. “What are we going to gain from this?”

“Answers to questions,” she said. “Questions like… Where the hell did Mathuin come from?”

That was a bit of a mystery, Jem thought. “And, where did Charles Agripin come from?”

“What was here before Charles Agripin?”

“What’s so special about Bergdis Valley that hides it from the Knights?”

“That is a good question,” Ophelia said. “See, we have all kinds of things to learn.”

These all sounded like questions Mathuin would not want him sticking his nose into, Jem thought. “Where did you have in mind?” he asked quietly.

“All over,” she said. “But I thought we’d start with our ancestral home.”

Ancestral home was a stretch, as Jem knew— their grandparents had bought the place in 1970, which was not exactly centuries ago. Regardless, he climbed into the car next to Oaf and let her drive him through the icy roads to the old house.

Like Mathuin’s place, the Dorchester home was isolated in the woods, significantly outside of town. Having never properly been sold, it was long abandoned by the family, who had left in a hurry. No one had visited the place in years, with the possible exception of local rascals. The windows were all broken and the roof caved in, the porch and steps overgrown with dead weeds. When wandering about the property, Jem found the dead indications of a garden gone back to nature, the desiccated remains of flowers and fruit bushes. A small creek carved its way around the outer edge of the property and disappeared back into the woods where it eventually met up with the Little Columbia River.

The ruins looked grim to Jem, but, frankly, empty. They were too quiet to be haunted by old memories, and too rundown to present a former shell of what had once been. The Dorchesters had come to tragedy, sure enough, but this was only an incidental location on the path of that tragedy.

He mucked about in the weeds, while his sister edged nearer and nearer to the ruins. “Looks like it should have been condemned a long time ago,” she commented. “Do you think there’s still anything left of Granddad’s and Grandmother’s, inside?”

“Dunno,” Jem said noncommittally. They had left in a hurry, he thought, but not a panic. They hadn’t been chased. They had probably had enough time to grab everything they meant to grab.

Oaf stood up on one of the outcropped foundations of the porch and turned back to Jem. With her furred hood around her red hair, she looked like a child playing king of the castle.

Jem squinted up at her. “Where are your familiars?” he asked. “It’s occurred to me that I haven’t seen anything on your shoulder recently…”

“It’s not very polite to have a crow inside Starbucks, or a home when you’re a guest,” Ophelia told him primly. “But, now that you mention it—” She waved a hand like a princess, summoning the crow. “There’s something you should probably know.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re being followed.”

Jem whirled around. After a few moments of heart-pounding silence, wherein he wasn’t sure if he should panic or throttle his sister or both, a figure stepped out from behind the nearby trees, garbed in a dark raincoat, long hair, and a rather churlish expression.

Jem thought he might explode. “Jubilee fucking Spence!” He turned on Ophelia. “When the fuck were you going to tell me!”

“I told you just now!” Oaf said shrilly.

He turned back to Jubilee. “The hell are you doing here?” he asked.

She twisted her mouth into a severe line. “I wanted to see what you two were up to,” she said, with infinite dignity. “Nothing good, I figured.”

“You?” Jem said. “Mathuin didn’t even put you up to it, did he? You just took it upon your own damned self.”

Oaf hopped down from the porch. “You thought you’d overhear me confessing to a murder?” she asked disdainfully. “Stupid. I didn’t kill him.”

Jubilee’s eyes flashed. “Two murders,” she said.

“I didn’t even know the other guy.” Ophelia waved a hand and the crow took flight again.

“How long did you know she was here?” Jem asked, very nearly as angry with her as he was with Jubilee.

“Since we parked, and Ragozine saw her park just a little ways further down the road,” she said, indicating the crow.

Jem turned back to Jubilee. “For someone with nothing to hide, you sure are pissed off—” Jubilee began.

“Don’t fucking start with me, and mind your own fucking business,” Jem said. He waved a hand. “And if you think I had something to hide— welcome to the old Dorchester home. Here it is.” He turned back to Ophelia. “Let’s go.”

“We haven’t found anything,” she protested.

“Oaf!”

They left. Ophelia dropped Jem off at class half an hour later, and he forgave her via text during the seminar when he realized that if he didn’t forgive her, he was going to have to walk some fifteen miles home by himself, or ask Mathuin for a ride. By the time she pulled up, she was talking about the possibility of going exploring again tomorrow.

•••

“Where do you want to go?” he asked in the morning. He was not as grumpy as he pretended to be. For all that he was putting on a show of being irritated with Oaf, and unconvinced by this exploring idea, he would much rather be spending time with his sister than studying. Or, worse, contemplating the uselessness of studying and ruminating over the present conditions of his life.

“I want you to show me the way to the Bone Grove, so I can find it myself,” she said. Jem frowned. “But we have to wait before we go.”

“Wait for what?” Jem wasn’t exactly looking to rush out the door, but he was accustomed to Ophelia being the impatient one.

“Jubilee. I texted her asking if she wanted to come along, and she said yes.”

Jem stared at her. “How do you even have her phone number? Wait, I don’t care about that. Why on earth did you invite her?”

“Well, she’s going to follow us anyway,” Oaf said, as if he were being the unreasonable one.

“How is that a good reason to bring her along? Oaf, she thinks you killed someone.”

“Seeing as I didn’t kill anyone, she’s not exactly going to find evidence for that, is she?”

Jem thought there were quite a few problems with that logic, but he gave up on the argument all the same.

Jubilee arrived with a haughty expression on her face, as if determined to annoy Jem even more than she could simply with her presence. “What is it you two want to see today?” she asked Ophelia.

“The Bone Grove,” Ophelia said.

“Why?”

“You never know when you might need to go someplace, urgently,” Oaf said breezily. The rule of the Bone Grove was that only those who had been there before could find it again, and Ophelia had never gone. Jem had, once and involuntarily, and he was not terribly eager to return, but he was used to Ophelia getting her way.

Somewhere in the back of his head, it began to occur to Jem just how feeble this was all going to sound when it got back to Mathuin.

Nevertheless, they made their way into the woods, with Jem leading the way and no real idea of where he was going. Ophelia trailed behind, chatting happily with Jubilee. “I’ve been wondering,” she began, loud enough to include her twin.

“If this is about the competing DC and Marvel universe thing again,” Jem said, “I swear to God…”

“Not that. Mathuin. Is the coronation going to be in the Bone Grove, do you think?”

Jem glanced back just in time to see Jubilee shoot Oaf a wary look. “I don’t see where else it would be,” she said.

“So, you haven’t heard much plans about the ceremony, then? Is Mathuin going to keep it relatively low-key?”

“That seems like a good question for Jem to ask Mathuin,” Jubilee said, rather pointedly.

“He likes you better. You’re his favorite student,” Jem said automatically. He was putting one foot in front of the other, and wandering deeper into the woods along trails that became increasingly less worn. “You ask him.”

“He married you.”

“Just because of the stupid genius loci thing,” Jem said. He glanced back again. “Jubilee, why aren’t you leading the way? You’ve actually been there, and you weren’t blindfolded or carried.”

“As long as you actually mean to go there, what you’re doing now will get you there, no problem,” Jubilee said, and Jem turned back just in time to swat a tree branch out of his eyes.

“So,” Oaf said conversationally. “This new guy who was recently murdered? Who is he, again?”

“His name is Ivan Williams,” Jubilee said grudgingly.

“Sure, but who is he?”

“Who was he,” Jem corrected automatically.

“He was a park ranger,” Jubilee began. “He yelled at Brian and me once because we left food out accidentally, at the Blue Meadow Picnic spot. Something about the bears and people food.”

“Is that why someone killed him? Because he yelled at people about the bears?”

Jubilee cleared her throat. “You two are really not in-the-know,” she declared.

I just got back into Bergdis,” Oaf defended herself.

“No one tells me anything,” Jem said. “Your guy killed all the people who kept me in-the-know.”

“Your husband,” Jubilee reminded him.

“You think I forgot that?”

“Would you two stop bickering about who Mathuin belongs to?” Oaf snapped at both of them. “Why did anyone want to kill Ivan Williams, the park ranger? Literally, the only thing I now know about this guy is that he was strict about the bears, apparently. He was an Agripinite, right? Was he also a Mathuinite? Was that the problem? What?”

“The predominant theory is that he was an Agripinite,” Jubilee started.

“The theory?” Oaf said. “Look, I get that this whole mess was all dark and mysterious, but the only person, currently alive, who knows for sure what side anyone was on at any given time is Mathuin— can’t he tell you for sure whether or not this guy was an Agripinite?”

“Not if he was double-crossing,” Jem said softly.

Jubilee nodded. “And— and I think you missed this part, Ophelia— Mathuin’s being very quiet about what everyone’s allegiance once was or wasn’t. People can claim that they were always a Mathuinite, all along, and even if they’re lying, he’ll let them have it. That way, people don’t have to commit to their shitty decision of supporting Garet Agripin now that he’s gone. He’s trying to bring about some peace,” she added, with a distinct note of pride in her voice.

Jem paused just long enough to look back at his sister, only to see her face too shadowed to judge her reaction. “Okay,” Ophelia said slowly. “So, we don’t know if Williams was an Agripinite or not. What was it that got him killed?”

“No one knows for sure, but… Williams was the one who brought Garet Agripin the message, that Mathuin wanted to meet him in the Bone Grove, the night you were kidnapped. The night Agripin died.”

At that, Jem stopped walking and turned back to the two girls.

Ophelia, who had also stopped, tilted her head up to the trees overhead. “Someone shot the messenger,” she said simply.

“Cut his throat, more like,” Jubilee said. “Like Vaughn.”

“He must have at least sworn allegiance to the Agripinite cause in order for Garet to have agreed to take the message,” Oaf said. “Which means Mathuin either sought out someone he knew to be an Agripinite and sent him on his way, or he was always a double-crosser.”

“If he was a double-crosser, then he wasn’t a very important one, given that Mathuin risked him for something when a phone call could have gotten the job done,” Jem said. “But even if he was a traitor, generally— that act, of taking that message to Garet. I don’t know that that was treachery. Garet was chomping at the bit waiting for that fucking message, and he had been for years.” What he left unsaid was that Garet had believed, much too whole-heartedly, that he was going to easily defeat Mathuin, if he only had a chance to get the man one-on-one.

“But Garet still died,” Ophelia said quietly. “And someone’s not happy about that.”

“Right,” Jubilee said coolly, looking between the two of them. “Someone.”

“Oh—” Ophelia pointed through the trees. “Is that it?”

Jem turned back, and sure enough, he could see a glimpse of bone white, and the shadowed indication of a clearing through the trees, directly ahead of them. He felt unsettled. He was sure the space hadn’t been there when he’d looked away a moment earlier.

They made their way into the clearing, where Jem looked around and was quietly, immensely relieved to see no immediate indication of Garet Agripin’s murder. If his skull was one of the handful of human skulls that hung amongst ox, bear, elk, and more, then it looked no different than any other anonymous bone. If black ash had covered the clearing floor, the grass and moss and fungus had since overtaken it. The altar looked no more weathered or stained than it ever looked in Jem’s nightmares.

The lack of any remnants of Garet’s existence did not make the Bone Grove’s atmosphere any more hospitable. The air was thinner and colder here than anywhere else throughout the forest, and Jem could not stand still for more than a moment without feeling his skin crawl. The wind picked up while they looked around, and it stung Jem’s eyes even as it picked up Ophelia’s hair and blew it into a tangled red flag. The hanging bones didn’t move.

“So this is it,” Oaf said.

“It looks bigger when there aren’t twenty or so masked figures crowding around,” Jem said dryly, with a glance Jubilee’s way.

“I wonder who started hanging these bones here?” Ophelia stepped up to the nearby skull of a stag, with antlers still attached. The bone had weathered down to gray, with the vague hints of especially hardy lichen clinging to the shadows. Ophelia raised a hand and summoned her crow, Ragozine the familiar, which perched on her shoulder and ruffled his feathers. “This can’t be more than a hundred years old.”

“Not these bones,” Jem said, walking around the perimeter. “You don’t know what’s under the earth.” He couldn’t shake the feeling that something was about to reach out of the woods and grab him.

“Hundreds of sacrifices, probably,” Oaf said dismissively. Jem looked back at her. “When were you last here?” she asked Jubilee.

“I couldn’t say,” Jubilee answered.

“Really? You didn’t come to see Garet’s…” Jem trailed off as he spoke, staring through the branches of the trees behind the myriad bones.

“Did you find something?” Ophelia asked.

“I don’t know… maybe—” He ducked down underneath the swinging pelvis of some unidentified animal and fought his way through the tree branches until it was safe to straighten up. What he saw was an outcropping of rock, two pieces leaning against one another at a point that reached well above Jem’s head, and between them, they made something that looked like a doorway.

Jem turned back to Jubilee, who had followed just behind him. “Has that always been there?”

She couldn’t see. “Has what always been there?”

Jem fought his way through the tangled trees until he emerged onto an animal trail, in front of the outcropping. He made his way up to the stones, with Ophelia and Jubilee following just behind.

Upon closer inspection, the door turned out to be a door, but a piece of trash; the same style as the doors found on any barn or old farmhouse in the county, complete with peeling paint and rusted hinges. It leaned against the rock, clearly not attached to anything.

“Why would someone drag that all the way out here?” Ophelia asked.

“This whole area might’ve been a farm, back in the day,” Jubilee pointed out. “The trees are grown too close together and too thick to be very old.”

“Yes, but… they’d have to work around this rock, so it’s not an ideal place for a field…” Jem started, and reached for the handle of the door. He pulled it open expecting to be met with a rain of disrupted lichen, damp fungus, and dead grubs.

The door’s absence revealed a rough, dark shape between the rocks. It could not be called a cave, precisely, as there was no rough-hewn rock. If anything, it looked like an overgrown burrow. Jem stepped back, perplexed, as Oaf dug out her phone to employ the flashlight app. The light didn’t help much.

“What is this?” Jubilee asked, very softly.

Jem stepped down into the entrance of the burrow and reached for Oaf’s phone, which she handed over. He crouched down in the tunnel and stepped forward, shining the light as far as it would go. “It’s a tunnel,” he said.

“I can see that,” Jubilee said.

“You found something!” Ophelia congratulated him.

Jem climbed back out. “Do you have anything on retainer that would be useful for this?” he asked his sister. “I don’t really want to go down there and find out the hard way that the earth is full of carbon monoxide, or something.”

“Anything useful on retainer?” Jubilee repeated.

“Yeah, give me a sec,” Ophelia said, turning back from them.

“She’s a witch,” Jem said to Jubilee. “As you reminded me, recently. So she’s got all the things she’s summoned and bound, and, hopefully, a rat familiar that I don’t know about…?”

“I do not have a rat familiar,” Ophelia called over her shoulder. “I wouldn’t keep a rat unless I was in a city. But Abhorson will do all right.” She emerged with a squirming imp held in one hand. “Listen,” she told it quietly. “I want to know what’s down there, how far the tunnel goes, and if there’s oxygen, or anything poisonous in the air. I want to know if there’s anything dangerous at all, really. Be back before fifteen minutes are gone.” She released it at the mouth of the tunnel and it vanished immediately, nothing more than dark in darkness.

“You’ll never see Abhorson again,” Jem predicted.

Abhorson returned some ten minutes later, out of the darkness in a flash. Ophelia collected it in one hand and put it to her ear. “It says the oxygen is fine for breathing, and there’s nothing poisonous, no traps… the tunnel goes down another three hundred feet before the first divergence, and then…”

“The first divergence?” Jubilee repeated.

“I think it’s a whole system of tunnels down there,” Ophelia said.

“All right,” Jem said, stepping down into the entrance. He held out his hand. “Oaf. Witchlight, please. I don’t want the battery to give out on your phone.”

She made a goblin face at him, even as she let Abhorson vanish and wove a small orb of glowing pale out of the air. “You could become a witch on your own and not ask me to do everything,” she reminded him.

“I could,” he said, and accepted the orb. “But I know what goes into becoming a witch.” He turned and started down the tunnel.
Jubilee was on his heels before Ophelia was. “And what is that?” she asked. “What goes into becoming a witch, I mean.”

He was surprised she didn’t know, given that she was Mathuin’s star pupil and a longtime student at Merodack. “You ever noticed they’re all missing a finger or two?” he asked, making his way further into the tunnel.

“Yes. So? You wouldn’t give up a pinkie finger for magical powers?”

“There’s a little more to it than that,” Oaf said, from just behind them.

The witchlight was as effective as any lantern. The tunnel resembled nothing so much as a large rabbit burrow, the walls evenly round but organically rough, thick with the occasional rocks and worm trails and pale dangling roots. The floor sloped downwards until the tunnel abruptly branched into three paths; left and right, and a spiraling staircase down. Jem shone the light up and revealed the barest hint of old wooden supports, thicker than his waist. The stairs appeared to be possibly carved of stone but so muddy with the tracked path of the tunnel that it was difficult to tell.

“Which way do we go?” Jem asked. “The stairs?”

In the thin light, Jubilee looked anxious. She had to slouch more than the twins in the narrowness of the tunnel. “Are you sure that imp of yours can lead us back?” she asked Ophelia nervously.

“Yeah, sure,” Oaf said carelessly.

The stairs spiraled down some three or four stories and opened onto another tunnel and a doorway. The tunnel, this time, was much like the one before it, but that the walls were thick with chips of mica and the floor with pieces of broken glass and broken mirrors, until the entire place was illuminated in glittering, shifting light reflected from the witchlight.

The doorway was nothing more than black. When Jem reached out for it, he found it to be a wall of black glass, not entirely unlike obsidian, but that it was much less distinct.

As they continued to explore, they found several more of these black glass doorways and tunnels, some as short as Jem’s knee and with intricately carved doorways, others as large as a room and all blank black space melting into the earthen wall.

They found the occasional roughly hewn room, usually dusty inside with something indicating what might have been; there was a broken loom in one, piles of goose feathers and thistle mixed together in another, scraps of dirty but intricately embroidered silk here and there, the occasional piece of barely recognizable broken furniture. As they walked through the tunnels, occasionally a wind from nowhere would pick up and blow past them, rendering the air fresh if bitingly cold. In one small corner, Jem found a pile of whiskey bottles, unbroken, that probably dated back to before Prohibition.

They spoke little while they explored, other than to indicate where they should go next, and to point out an interesting sight. At the end, there turned out to be no need to get Ophelia’s imp Abhorson to show them the way to return. Jem discovered a door at about waist height, and pushed it open to reveal sunlight. He crawled through and found himself emerging from the roots of an enormous tree, in a part of the woods he didn’t recognize at all.

Ophelia and Jubilee followed just behind him.

They emerged into a small clearing entirely different than the one they had left behind. Here, the trees were giant conifers, standing farther apart than a new growth forest, the undergrowth less dense and coated in a dirty layer of ice. Just ahead of them, they saw a monolith crafted of pale stone.

Jem climbed over the tree roots and made his way to it. It was only a few inches taller than he was, as long and wide as a king-sized bed. He inspected it, and discovered that it was made of polished petrified wood, in a rainbow pastel splay of crystalized colors. Scenes had been carved into the walls like hieroglyphics. As he walked around it and made sense of the shape, he realized it was a tomb.

“God,” Jubilee said, half under her breath. “Where are we?”

Ophelia raised a hand, as if to summon Ragozine, but Ragozine didn’t immediately appear. Frowning, she put her hand down.

“Better question,” Jem said. “Who’s buried alone in the middle of the Washington state woods, like a lost Greek princess?” The carvings in the tomb walls depicted summertime scenes of nymphs frolicking in flowered woods, the playing of various instruments, beautiful girls kissing pretty young men with their privates carefully hidden by stray corners of cloth or a bouquet of flowers held in hand. He took out his phone to take a picture, and watched as the phone searched and searched for service— and then abruptly changed. Jem’s stomach did a funny little wiggle. He looked up at the sky overhead and found it orange in the far distance.

“Hey,” he said. “How long do you think we were down there?”

They both turned back to him. “Maybe an hour?” Ophelia suggested.

“A little less,” Jubilee said.

“And we left at ten,” Jem said. “So the time…”

“We were walking in the woods for about an hour,” Jubilee guessed. “So, it should be about noon now.”

“Yeah. It’s actually five, and I missed my class.” He showed her the phone, and she swore.

Suddenly, they were not nearly so copacetic about not knowing precisely where they were. Luckily, it was just then that Ragozine the familiar returned to Ophelia. “He says the road is this way,” she said, indicating.

Jubilee pulled out her phone and determined their coordinates. “It’s a bit of a long walk back to Mathuin’s,” she commented.

“How far?” Oaf asked.

“About twenty miles.” Jem swore. “We can get a ride, I think, if I can figure out where on the road we are…”

Once they made it to the side of the road, they called Brian Ritter to request that he come pick them up. Jubilee asked Ophelia, “Why can’t you fix this with witchcraft?”

“What?” Ophelia asked. She was in a bad mood. “Just snap my fingers and summon up— I don’t know, Sleipnir, to get us back? I left my grimoire back in my room, for one, and even if I hadn’t, I don’t know that we’d have all the damned bat toes or birch ash or ancient Peruvian corpse needles or whatever the fuck else needed for whatever spell.”

Jem ignored both of them. His phone was buzzing, cataloguing the variety of texts and calls he’d missed while in the tunnels. He found he had three missed calls and a voicemail from Professor Andrade, with a single text from Mathuin: Where are you.

He wrote I don’t know back at Mathuin and then listened to the voicemail. Andrade was not pleased with him for missing class.

Brian Ritter was surprisingly quick about retrieving them— less surprising, once they were in the car and had the opportunity to learn just how uninterested Ritter was in obeying the speed limit.

Jubilee described their explorations to Ritter, who was entirely bewildered. She was interrupted, before she could mention the tomb, when she and Ophelia began debating just what was the nature of the tunnels. “It was something man made,” Oaf commented. “But it must have been supernatural, somehow— those tunnels couldn’t have been intact without spells, given how long ago they’d been abandoned.”

“It was a sidh,” Jubilee said. “A fairy hill.”

Ophelia made a face. “A sidh?”

“A dead one,” Jubilee confirmed.

“This is America— and, specifically, the American west,” Ophelia said. “Washington didn’t even become a state until after the Civil War. Sidhs are known for being a bit more European.”

“A young dead sidh,” Jubilee amended.

“If that’s so,” Ritter called, from the front seat. “Then you might have just found the old queen’s court.”

“The queen’s court?” Jem repeated.

“Yeah— Hemming once mentioned something about a queen who came before ol’ Charles Agripin a while back.”

“When?” Jem asked.

“When did he mention it? This was… I dunno, a few months ago, maybe. Not that long ago, because the entire time this Erling Conflict has been going on, I hadn’t heard anything about a queen, so it stood out. He was talking to Mathuin, but he said it in front of Jubee, Duarte, and me, and we wanted to ask him about it, of course, but Mathuin had this look on his face and we, uh… we decided to let it drop.”

“Yeah,” Jubilee said. “Something about a fairy queen. I remember. Mathuin wasn’t pleased.”

“Did he kill her too?” Ophelia asked.

That went ignored.

“If it’s an old fairy court,” Jubilee continued to speculate, “Then all those black glass doorways we saw everywhere must have been defunct entrances to secondary realms.”

It was not for nothing that Jem had grown up in a witch family and studied at Merodack College. He had heard of secondary realms. “Like hells, you mean?” he heard himself ask.

“Maybe,” Jubilee said. “But I think fairy realms are more likely.”

Ophelia agreed with this. “I wonder how they became defunct,” she mused. “And… if they’re defunct now, does that mean the secondary realm itself was obliterated, or merely cut off from that entrance?”

While Ophelia and Jubilee debated the various possibilities there, Jem listened to the message from Professor Andrade again. Afterwards, he put his phone down and leaned forward to talk to Jubilee in the front seat. “Jubilee. How is it you haven’t graduated yet?” he asked her evenly.

She looked surprised at the sudden change of conversation, but she adjusted with grace. “I’ve only been here five years,” she said. “And I started a year early to begin with, because I skipped a grade…”

“I know.” Five years ago, he and Jubilee had been friendly, before she learned he was Garet Agripin’s spy. She, not content with being the best student in Mathuin’s class, had never missed an opportunity to remind whomever would listen that she had skipped a grade in elementary school. “But that’s still one year more than the usual four.”

“I’m hoping to complete my senior project this summer,” she said. “But I have to get to the Madeira Temple in the Andes of Chile in order to do so, and the mountain pass doesn’t open up until May, and then closes again in September, in a good year. So I have to wait.”

“The Madeira Temple?” Jem repeated.

“Yes— named after the Portuguese explorer. The ancient priests there constructed their own brand of Entrailic Magic, and even Mathuin, who’s the world expert on the subject, admits that there’s not much known about the particulars of how they crafted their art, so I figured if I went with an archaeological dig, I could make some discoveries that…”

Jem tuned most of the rest of what she was saying out. The main thing he understood was, between the months of May and September next year, he would be temporarily rid of Jubilee.

“And then you’ll have graduated,” he interrupted. “And then what?”

“And then,” she said. “I’d like to be Mathuin’s apprentice, if he’ll take me on.”

“You don’t know if he’ll take you?” Ritter interrupted. “How have you not discussed this with him?”

“Well, he said he would, but it would all depend on the Erling Conflict,” Jubilee said. “I don’t know if you noticed, but there have been these recent murders, so things aren’t exactly peaceful yet…”

Jem sat back in his seat, and Ophelia turned to him, frowning. “Andrade not too happy about you missing class?” she asked.

“No.”

“You’re a year away from graduating yourself,” she said. “A year and a senior project, anyway.”

“We haven’t discussed it.” Jem paused, and waited for her to ask the obvious question, and when she didn’t, he asked it himself, quietly, so as to not be overheard by Ritter and Jubilee, who were absorbed in their own conversation. “Oaf, what in the fuck am I going to do with this useless fucking degree? What am I going to do, at all? I’m stuck here. Become a fucking expert in folklore? Or a fucking professor at Merodack?”

“What do you want to do?” Ophelia asked, very quietly.

“Not be a teacher, or an academic,” Jem said in despair. “What’s the point of even graduating? It’s all this effort to race to a finish line that’s got nothing but a ribbon at the end, and the ribbon doesn’t get me anything.”

Ophelia didn’t answer; they had arrived at Mathuin’s house, to find— to Jem’s unpleasant surprise— a number of cars around the property, and every sign of a party going on inside.

“Didn’t Mathuin warn you?” Jubilee asked, upon catching sight of Jem’s face.

“What is this?”

“There are people coming from all over the world for the coronation. He wanted to have them over— you know, start making allegiances, get to know everyone and make them welcome, that sort of thing.”

Jem refrained from snapping something rude at her for no better reason than to express his mood and turned to Ophelia instead. “I’ll walk you to your car,” he said.

“Good luck with all of this,” Oaf told him minutes later, as she slid behind the wheel. She narrowed her eyes at the rather complex path that had been only grudgingly left by the other cars to allow her to get off the property and back on the main road. “If I have to push some stupid volkswagen into a ditch to get it out of my way, I swear to God I won’t hesitate…”

“Oaf.” Jem leaned down before she could close the door. “Something occurred to me.”

She looked up. “That we should to go exploring again tomorrow?”

He ignored that. “The fairy queen. The one Jubilee was talking about.”

“Charles Agripin’s predecessor. Yes?”

“That was her tomb. I bet you anything. That tomb, the petrified wood, all beautiful— it must have been.”

Ophelia considered that, and then nodded. “I’m still wondering if your husband killed her,” she said. She reached out and touched his nose. “I’ll see you tomorrow, ‘kay?”

Chapter Text

Chapter VIII.

Jem made his way up to the house with all the enthusiasm of a prisoner trudging to the execution block.

He didn’t recognize most of the people standing about the kitchen, dining room, and den, with cold beers in hand, which turned out not to be a bad thing; he noticed considerably fewer scathing stares than he usually did at any sort of Mathuinite party. The kitchen countertops were filled with plates of sliced red apples and red pears, smaller baskets filled to overflowing with sweet cherries, red grapes, and red raspberries. The floor was cluttered with a series of coolers, each packed with ice and beers. On the dining room table, someone had set up a series of dishes to be eaten as if at a buffet; sautéed asparagus, roasted herbed potatoes, fresh red salmon and halibut.

Jem abandoned the party immediately to go upstairs to search for Britomartis. When he didn’t find her, he went down into the basement, and then down into the cellar under the basement. There was a small bathroom accompanying the cellar, and he found her there, curled up in the sink. Content that she was safe, and probably didn’t want to be moved, he returned to the party.

He found Mathuin out on the deck, sitting next to the hot grill, with his feet propped up, tongs in hand. He was talking to a handful of people, but he sent them away with a placating sort of smile when he spotted Jem. “Where in the hell were you?” he asked. “Kate said that you missed class.”

“It’s a long story,” Jem said, looking back at the crowds just inside. He very deliberately didn’t think about the unpleasant realization that Professor Andrade had called Mathuin, or, for that matter, discussed anything at all about his education with Mathuin, because if he thought about it, he was going to explode. “Who are all of these people?” he asked. “They’re very tall.”

Mathuin got to his feet. “C’mon,” he said, taking Jem’s arm.

He introduced Jem to almost everyone, with that charismatic air that he could assume when he put his mind to it. There were several mentions of having met various individuals someplace else, enough for Jem to get an impressionistic glimpse of the extent of Mathuin’s travels: Ian Hall, whom Mathuin had last encountered in Lampazos, Nueva Léon of Mexico; the one-eyed Gordon Shaw, previously seen in Montreal, Canada, and before that, Köln, Germany; Emmelyne Padilla, who discussed the findings of an archaeological dig outside of Sasolburg, South Africa, and several more.

To those he had never met before, Mathuin was charming and attentive, learning whatever they would tell him in the course of conversation. To some, Jem had the faint impression that Mathuin might be gloating when he introduced Jem, as if showing him off as an accomplishment. No one ever hinted at who might be human and who might be other, but Jem surmised that few if any of them were ordinary. He noticed several men and women who were each missing a finger.

He overheard pieces of conversation, mostly of the outside world and all the various supernatural goings-on, an alarming number of which seemed to concern the Knights. A chthonic god had awoken, in the mountains; the Knights had succeeded, for the first time in recorded history, in putting down a dragon, a real dragon and not a wyrm or wyvern or the like; a family of wolves had been murdered, in the midwest. It startled Jem to remember that there even was a proper world outside of Bergdis.

In the the den, closest to the fireplace, Mathuin introduced Jem to a small group of women who were discussing how much the town had changed, and to whom Mathuin was polite but distant. One such woman approached him when he turned away. She was smaller than most of the rest of the crowd, with pale hair pulled back into two french braids. Jem was unsure if her hair was white blonde or white with age, and her face gave no indication. Her eyes were very large and very green, and she wore necklaces with dripping beads of jade and aventurine.

Jakob,”she said, with emphasis, and reached out her hand. Mathuin smiled and took it. Before he could introduce Jem, she said, “I saw the paper you wrote, about the findings at the Rosa-San Hermenegildo graveyard. It was so good of you to carry on poor Gabriela’s work—”

Mathuin had a proprietary hand resting on the back of Jem’s neck, and his face was a mask. He sounded somewhat more wooden than usual when he said, “It was the least I could do. How are you doing, these days, Ms. Avery?”

She began to answer that, starting with a complaint about how an old restaurant had recently gone out of business, when Jem noticed a figure sitting nearby, mousy-haired, and with a glass of wine in hand. He excused himself as politely as he could, ducked away from Mathuin’s hand, and made his way to Dr. Claudine.

She looked up at him when he approached. “Jem,” she said. “How is the cat?”

“She’s doing well, thank you.”

“What did you decide to call her?”

“Britomartis,” Jem said. “My sister named her.”

Claudine smiled. “Britomartis. I like that.”

Jem sat down across from her. He spared a glance up at Mathuin, to see him absorbed in conversation with someone else— or, at least, giving off the appearance of being absorbed. “Dr. Claudine,” Jem started. “I wanted to ask you something?”

“Yes?” She was quite suddenly attentive.

“I—” He had wanted to ask if she was an Agripinite or a Mathuinite, before such meanings became moot, but something about the way she suddenly focused her complete attention on him reminded him that such a question wasn’t precisely fair to ask her. Especially not in a place like this. “I…” He cleared his throat. “I wanted to know how you met Mathuin?”

He didn’t look over his shoulder to check if Mathuin had overheard the question, but he dearly wanted to.

Claudine smiled placidly at him. “You didn’t know?” she asked. “We were children together.”

Whatever Jem had been expecting, it wasn’t been that. “Children?” he repeated. “You and…?” He wasn’t sure it had ever occurred to him that Mathuin could ever have been a child.

“Myself, and Jakob, yes.” She was trying not to laugh. “And others, of course, but I don’t think you’ve met most of my childhood friends— oh, and Charles. You’ll have heard of him.”

“Charles Agripin?” He remembered that WWII picture.

She nodded. “You’re very young, aren’t you, Jem?” she said. “You haven’t yet had the opportunity to witness your childhood friends grow up and make what they will of themselves.” Her face was a grimace passed off as politesse. “Cherish the time while you still have it.”

“You mean what Mathuin made of himself?” Jem asked. A murderer and a king, he thought.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I meant Charles.”

Jem wanted to ask more, but he was distracted when he overheard his name, Dorchester. He craned around and saw a man and a woman, both of relatively average height, ageless faces, and unmistakably wealthy garb. Both were missing their smallest finger on the left hand. “… Used to live around here, you know, before the old king was got rid of,” the man was saying.

“I appreciate it whenever Dorchesters are up to something,” the woman said. “It’s amazing they’ve made it as long as they have.”

“Did you hear the story of how they survived the Scourge?” the man asked.

“‘Scuse me,” Jem said to Claudine. He had suddenly realized he wanted to be out of the house.

He stumbled outside feeling drunk, for all that he hadn’t drunk anything at all. He wanted to breathe, wanted to think— he wanted, if he were being honest, everyone out of his home, now, and when had this place become home?

He heard voices, and it was not the usual cheerful and blasé tones of the party, but the distinct sound of a girl, sobbing.

Jem walked around the side of the house until he stood in the dead garden, just barely out of sight, from which he could gaze up at the deck. He found it empty, but for two figures, Mathuin, and a dark-haired girl. Jem realized with a shock that he recognized her: it was Regina Virginia, who had spoken to him in the library.

Mathuin was saying something, too low for Jem to hear. He thought it might be an apology. He revised that idea, when he did hear the next part, as Mathuin said, “You need to behave yourself. I don’t know who you’ve fallen in with—”

“I haven’t fallen in with anyone!” she snapped.

“Then keep it that way!” He sounded much more frustrated than Jem was used to hearing. He sounded— and the thought was not at all welcome— like a father lecturing a daughter he didn’t understand. “If I have to hear about any more fucking shenanigans from you, from anyone—”

“You won’t.” She sniffed. “I haven’t done anything. I’ll be a good little Mathuinite.” She sounded like she was spitting out poison.

“Mathuinite and Agripinite is both beside the point now.” Mathuin’s voice was low. “All I need from you— and everyone else— is peace.”

“Your peace,” she said crossly.

“It’s the only one I’ve got,” he said.

Jem slipped away; his fingers were freezing in the October air, and as fascinating as it was to watch some drama unfold between Mathuin and a college girl, it wasn’t worth being caught eavesdropping. He returned, however reluctantly, inside.

•••

By the time Mathuin was done dealing with Regina, he was in a raging bad mood. The party was quickly beginning to wind down, and several members, cottoning on that it might not be such a good idea to overstay their welcome, wished him goodbye. He walked Regina out to her car and she gave him one last scowl when he wished her good night.

He returned to the house to find a few guests lingering over their wine or beer. Jem, who could not be more pointed unless he were to climb up on a stool and scream at them to leave, was putting away remaining food and cleaning up all around them, pulling napkins out from under their drinks when need be, and generally doing anything he could think of to silently tell them to hurry it up.

Mathuin was in the process of ushering people out, with at least a bit more cajoling than Jem, when Elzbieta Zurauskaite, the Lauma, noticed Jem with unkind attention. “You married that boy, yes?” she asked Mathuin. The accent she had nursed in his childhood had long since given way to a more practical American dialect, with only the occasional pitched vowel or long consonant. “But you haven’t married him, have you? Not as a genius loci should be married, with the great spell, at Bealtine-time?”

Jem was collecting refuse on a plate, but at this question, his head came up much too sharply for Mathuin to ever hope that he hadn’t overheard. Given that he was a witch’s son, he likely had a decent understanding of just what Elzbieta was talking about.

Mathuin smiled, though it pained him, and reminded Elzbieta in a low voice that the conflict had only ended this past July.

He waited until all the guests had left, except for Wharton and Hemming. Jem, who still hadn’t said much more than a word to him, finished cleaning everything that couldn’t be easily left until tomorrow morning, and then went downstairs to find his cat.

Mathuin found him there a few minutes later, holding the miniature-sized orange beast in his arms. “Do you want to talk?” he asked quietly. He wanted to reach out to touch Jem, wanted to pull him close or tousle his hair or bite his neck, but he restrained himself.

Jem didn’t look at him. “Is there going to be another spell-ceremony? In May? In the Bone Grove?” Jem snuck a look his way, and then went back to speaking directly to the cat’s fur. “To bind the land and king together, or the king’s sovereignty over the land, or some other un-American bullshit like that?”

“Yes,” Mathuin said.

Jem’s voice got softer. “And is that ceremony going to include you raping me in public? In front of everyone?”

Mathuin paused. There were a thousand ways to answer that sentence, he thought, and not a one of those ways was decent.

“Yes.”

He waited for the explosion.

Jem made a face, and, when Britomartis made one of her silent mews, let her jump down out of his arms. He turned without saying a word to Mathuin and went upstairs.

Much later, after Wharton and Hemming had left, after Jem had fretted over the homework he had missed, and after Mathuin had asked a few more probing and unanswered questions about just where and how Jem had spent the day, Mathuin finally got the reaction he had been waiting for. After a shower, in the quiet of the night, Jem flopped facedown on the bed. In a spastic movement, he buried his face in his pillow, and then grabbed the nearby pillow, pressed it over his head, and screamed.

The scream was wordless, animalistic, and entirely muffled by the pillows. Mathuin sat down on the edge of the bed next to him and reached out a hand to touch his back. Jem flinched, hard, and then kept screaming.

Chapter Text

Chapter IX.

At midnight of the following evening, Mathuin made the icy drive alone and met Hemming and Wharton at the St. Corbinian’s Funeral Home and Morgue, where the body of one Ivan Williams patiently waited for cremation and disposal.

Detective Malone let them in and played lookout, unasked. He moved from window to window and stared out at the empty streets below, humming with anxiety. His unease at least kept him busy and out of the way.

Mathuin did not particularly care what he did. He had the police in his pocket, had for some years now, and had sealed the matter by appointing John Horn as the new Sheriff, in Scott Copeland’s place. He was perfectly confident that he could be caught desecrating a corpse (the legal term for what he was about to do) without so much as the worry of being asked any difficult questions. Even if something should go wrong— even if the police turned on him, which they wouldn’t— he had contingency plans in place, plans lined up in rows in his mind, should he ever need them.

He had always made survival his first priority, and let everything else fall where it would. This had been a disastrous way to live his life, for the first few decades, until he slowly learned to plot his survival ten, twenty, a hundred steps in advance.

He made his way down the basement steps into the proper morgue, where he found Ivan Williams’ body laid out, waiting. The autopsy had been performed earlier that afternoon, and Williams looked a great deal better after having been taken apart, examined, and put back together, than he had when found in his home. The blood had been washed away, his eyes gummed shut, twisted limbs laid out straight and clean. The major Y incision that spanned from his collar to pelvis was still open and unstitched.

The autopsy had discovered little new or relevant information. Williams had been murdered in precisely the way in which he looked like he had been murdered, and about the time they had guessed. His flesh hid no great secrets, nor revealed anything useful about his death.

“Is this going to work?” Wharton asked in a low voice. “Isn’t it like a car— you take everything out, clean it all off, and then you put it back together, but nothing’s hooked up to anything else, so it won’t actually work?”

“Fuck if that isn’t the stupidest metaphor I ever heard,” Mathuin answered. “You sound like my students.”

Wharton grinned at that, while Mathuin yanked on rubber gloves up to the elbow. “Fine, then. Provide me with a better metaphor.”

“Think of a laptop lying at the bottom of the ocean,” he said. He didn’t have to come up with this anecdote on the spot; he’d taught this spell to Jubilee, Duarte, Ritter, and Chen (Chen, who had politely declined having anything to do with the Erling Conflict) not so long ago, and he’d used this explanation then. “We pull it back up to the surface, and try, not so much to turn it on, but to coax whatever information we can get out of it, piecemeal and haphazard and glitchy though it may be.” He strapped a facemask on, and then an apron— more of a precaution, because there wasn’t much left in the way of fluid in Ivan Williams. Even so, what little there was, he didn’t want it on himself. “The question is, how long has it been at the bottom of that ocean; how corroded has it become, and is there any actual information left written on its insides, or has it reverted back to a lump of useless metal and plastic.”

“I gather, then, that Williams will make a somewhat unreliable witness,” Wharton said, gazing down at the corpse’s slack face.

“No court would have him,” Mathuin agreed.

“I’ll adjust my expectations,” Wharton decided.

Hemming shifted, more interested in watching Mathuin, and the doorway, than Williams’s still frame. “And what if you revive him, and you’re unable to then retract that revival?” he asked. “He certainly can’t be killed.” He indicated, with a small gesture, the refrigerator where Williams’s brain currently rested, awaiting analysis. Mathuin had told the medical examiner to get the organs of the abdomen and chest cavity back where they were supposed to go, in whatever state they happened to be in, and to make sure the man still had a tongue in his mouth. Nothing else mattered.

“I’ll deal with that if it comes up,” he said, and without further ado, opened the Y incision of the dead man’s abdomen and began his spell.

It was gory, disgusting work, reviving the dead, and not the recently dead at that. Williams had the consistency of cold meat, congealed and sickly. Worse, Mathuin discovered he was somewhat unfazed by it. He was struck by the memory of himself as a young man (sometime in the twenties, perhaps, if he had to guess), trying this spell again and again on whatever corpses he could get, victims of industrial accidents and cancers and the myriad dozens of diseases that haunted the nation back in those days; influenza, tuberculosis, dysentery, polio. He saw himself bloody up to the shoulders, toying with electricity and fairy incantations and strange potions, all those tools he now knew had little or nothing to do with Viscuomancy.

Afterwards, after he had failed, again, he would shower until he couldn’t smell the blood or rot anymore, and then jovially make his way to the bars. He would have a few drinks, and then pick up some pretty blond man, or have a verbal spar with his friend who was always willing to be up until the small hours of the morning, Charles.

He wrenched the liver around and into place, and— holding much of the flesh out of his way— he began to write.

Viscuomancy, like many other magics, was a system of writing. Its method of symbol-communication more resembled the structure of DNA (that chemical-organic, twisting communication of orders given and carried out) than anything of the grammar and syntax of a proper language. It used all of the inner organs of the abdominal cavity, from lungs to gall bladder to spleen to kidneys to heart to intestines, and the labyrinthine path of a winding maze, with all the power contained therein.

Mathuin usually started his students on the external sources, the labyrinths of Ancient Crete, and then worked his way to the internal, and anatomy. He’d only allowed a sixteen-year-old into his class with the certain knowledge that said sixteen-year-old would never go anywhere near a medical cadaver with a scalpel. Even now, he tried to imagine Jem dissecting so much as a rat, and couldn’t picture it— but he could picture Jem fainting.

He’d crafted this spell so many times before that he noticed a moment too late just how close to done he was. “I should warn you—” he started, to Hemming and Wharton, just as he snapped the sternum into place. The body (his hand somewhere around the cold heart area) jerked and seized, and then Williams’s torso lifted off the slab like a man trying to levitate and screamed.

The noise was truly dreadful. It wasn’t human enough to be gendered, nor loud enough to be traumatic to the ears, but it was sickly and wrong, like something that had wormed its way out of a nightmare. The man collapsed at the end of what could not properly be called a breath, as if exhausted, and lay flat on the table. His mouth worked furiously and soundlessly, his gummy eyelids retreating into his skull.

His heart was still cold and unmoving. Mathuin pulled his hand out and leaned over him. “Ivan. Can you hear me?”

There was a jerk of acknowledgement, a harrumph of a groan. Mathuin glanced up, to see Wharton looking like he’d much rather be anywhere else, and Hemming narrow-eyed. Hemming, skeptic though he might be, wanted this insane plan to work, wanted the name of the murderer, however he could get it.

“Speak,” Mathuin ordered, and that ugly mouth fell open, to the smells of formaldehyde and bleach.

“Sh… sh… shae… cob… Ma…” For a recently resurrected soul, whose brain was in a refrigerator and who was relearning how to speak, Mathuin was impressed that Ivan knew who he was. That did not, however, prevent the brief and entirely off-putting sensation that he might suddenly look up to find himself cast in a play of The Christmas Carol. “Marley, Jacob Marley,” he remembered an actor intoning in sepulchral tones, and Fee dissolving into silent giggles in the seat beside him.

“Yes, Ivan,” Mathuin said. Gently, because regardless of what Ivan had or had not done in life, he deserved to have this said gently, “You’re dead, Ivan, do you know that?”

Ivan groaned again. Mathuin looked down at that ruined throat, the edges as clean as could be reasonably expected. The trachea was cut off from the lungs, the vocal cords ruined. The corpse might move like a puppet, but it was not, and could not be, making the vocal noises it was making, at least not through conventional means.

“You were murdered,” Mathuin continued. “And I mean to have justice for you, if I can get it. Do you know who murdered you?” A groan in the negative. “Had you seen his face before?”

“Never…” Barely more than a whisper. “Never…”

Mathuin gritted his teeth. He knew this might happen, that Ivan wouldn’t have recognized his murderer or known him by name. He had limited time, and he did not want to ask for a description— he thought it best to let Ivan struggle through one or two word answers, at most. “It was a man?” he asked. A groan in the affirmative. “Young or old?”

“No,” wheezed Ivan.

“Helpful,” Wharton muttered. And then he raised his voice, just enough to carry, as if he was hoping the corpse wouldn’t hear him. “If he doesn’t know who killed him, isn’t that just the end of it?”

Mathuin ignored that. “Do you know what it was about, Ivan?” he asked, and then grinned, inappropriately. “Was it about me?”

“Yes,” Ivan mumbled. He was moderately more awake, which still put him barely above comatose, and debatably that. He looked impossibly ancient, as if he had lived centuries rather than a life cut short. “And… about… about the girl.”

Mathuin went still, and Wharton involuntarily took a step forward. “The girl,” Mathuin said slowly, putting his mind in order.

“He means Ophelia,” Wharton hissed, and Mathuin snarled a mouthed Shut up at him.

He turned back to Ivan and said, very slowly. “Is this girl living, dead, or disappeared?”

He spared a moment to indulge in the singular thought: fuck Bergdis. This wretched valley had far more than its share of the latter two categories.

“She spoke to me,” Ivan said, in a tone that was almost wondrous, and Wharton made a noise like a teakettle boiling over.
“She asked me… she… she was beautiful…”

“Living, then,” Mathuin said quietly. He had some experience with resurrecting the dead, and he knew that they always found the living beautiful. He also knew they didn’t have the best grasp of time. Unhelpfully, this conversation between Ivan and a mysterious girl could have happened recently or years in the past, and asking the dead to clarify was a useless endeavor. “What did she ask, Ivan?”

“Ah…” Ivan made a noise that couldn’t properly be called a sigh or a creak. “She wanted my help. You. Against you. She wanted to kill you.”

“What did you say?” Mathuin asked slowly. “I mean, how did you answer her?”

“Nothing,” Ivan grumbled. “Nothing, nothing.”

“And then later, this man appeared, and killed you. Because of the girl, because of what she asked?”

Ivan was making a whimpering noise, but he was fading fast. “The cold, the cold,” he whined.

Mathuin made a choice. “Go back to sleep, Ivan,” he ordered.

“Murdered,” Ivan mumbled.

“No. You were just sleeping. Sleep, now.”

Ivan was gone again, a few minutes later. The corpse looked worse for the wear, given the spell it had been through, but it lay limp and finally lifeless. The morgue was deafening in its silence.

Mathuin turned on the lights and began cleaning up the handiwork of his spell. Wharton, who had bitten his tongue while Mathuin ushered the dead man back out of the world again, looked like he was about to burst. “You were just getting somewhere!”

“He was fading,” Mathuin said. “Running out of energy. And I’ve found that you don’t want them returning, awakened, like that.”

“Created your fair share of hauntings, have you?” Hemming asked thoughtfully.

Wharton wasn’t pacing, precisely, but he moved in such a way that indicated just how much he would have liked to. “A girl,” he said. “The man, the murderer, is no surprise, of course— but a girl. You know what this means, don’t you? It’s Ophelia Dorchester.”

“She’s hardly the only girl around, is she?” Hemming snapped, and Mathuin wasn’t sure if he was playing devil’s advocate or just being a skeptic. Or, possibly, he simply disliked Wharton.

“What? You think Jubilee’s staging a coup?” Wharton retorted.

Hemming turned to Mathuin. “What about Sophia Nemael?”

Mathuin sighed, and stepped back, stripping his apron, mask, and gloves off. “It’s not Sophia Nemael,” he said. “Not the least, because if she were making appearances around Bergdis, it would dispel all the fucking rumors that she’s dead. That doesn’t mean it’s Ophelia Dorchester, either,” he added, to Wharton.

“She’s the most likely candidate,” Wharton shot back, and at that, Mathuin inclined his head. Privately, he was putting aside the matter to think about later, when he was alone. There was a wry, exhausted voice in the back of his mind, pointing out that Ophelia Dorchester was by no means the only young woman who had a grudge against him, and he’d best not forget it.

“What I’m more interested in,” he said slowly. “Is what the relationship between our girl and our murderer might be.”

“Isn’t that clear?” Wharton asked. “He’s working for her. Or they’re working together. Williams turned down her offer, and he came to clean up.”

“No,” Hemming said slowly. “Williams didn’t turn the offer down. Williams said nothing.”

“Which could mean anything,” Mathuin said quietly. “The dead are helpful in that way.”

“He could have said yes, then, or someone could have thought he had said yes. And in that case, it’s possible that this man is aware of, but not a part of, some conspiracy against you, and he’s doing his best to keep that conspiracy from coming to fruition. It wouldn’t be the first time that someone’s killed in your name and behind your back,” Hemming finished.

Mathuin glanced over at Wharton, whose face was all shadow. “That makes sense,” Wharton admitted. “Especially for Vaughn. We all know Vaughn wouldn’t have sided with you if he thought there was any chance of crowning an Agripin. Maybe something new came along, and, well, this time, he thought it was actually worth a second shot. Something a bit more equal to your strength than poor Garet.”

This was all speculation. Mathuin thought of Vaughn, working late in that library, slowing dying alone long before he was ever murdered, and couldn’t help but think that if Vaughn had smelled even the first hint of hope, the first chance of redemption, he would’ve seen it in every line of the old man.

“It’s late,” he said finally. “We’ll discuss in the morning.” He wanted a shower like nothing else.

Wharton frowned at him. “You might be returning to the viper’s open arms,” he pointed out, where might meant will. Wharton kept his criticisms of Mathuin’s marital choices few but pointed.

“A viper and open arms,” Mathuin said. “You and fucking metaphors, Keith.” Even as he said, it, there was that discomfiting thought; perhaps not open arms, but Jem still greeted him a great deal more cheerfully than should anyone whose life he had so thoroughly ruined, and why was that?

They left the mess of Ivan Williams to be cremated in the morning, and Mathuin told Malone to look for witnesses who had seen a conversation between a young woman and Williams. He went home disappointed, if not surprised, and pessimistically thinking that he would just have to wait for the next murder.

Chapter Text

Chapter X.

Jem biked home after class, on one of the last days he thought might be bearable to do so, given the approaching winter. As he left Merodack’s campus, he was struck by a peculiar urge to visit St. Nepumocene’s and Sons.

The feeling unnerved him. He had never found much of anything appealing about the bar before, and that hadn’t changed, except that he suddenly felt that he should stop by and pay the place a visit. If Ophelia had been with him, he might’ve mentioned the feeling and explored accordingly, but as he was alone, he simply pulled up his hood and continued towards home.

He was tired when he finally arrived, but not surprised and therefore not especially dismayed to find a handful of Mathuinites in the kitchen and den; a few members of the various Cobb and Harmon families, Jubilee and Ritter camped out in front of the fire, and the like. He was just thinking that he was used to this by now when he was accosted in the hallway, just after he’d finished pulling off his boots, by a man’s voice: “Hey, Jem— I heard Ophelia was back in town?”

Jem’s head came up so fast his neck hurt. He hadn’t heard that voice in months, and he hadn’t missed it.

Nate Wallace was a rare sighting in Bergdis, these days, but he stood before Jem in the flesh, dark hair mussed as if he had recently come in from the cold, as gangly and bespectacled as ever. His face was painfully easy to read, hopefulness mixed with trepidation.

Jem stood up straight. “Sorry?” he said blankly.

“I’m looking for Ophelia,” Nate clarified.

“No, you are not,” Jem replied. He had a personal rule against starting fights with Mathuinites— there was no way a dispute would ever end well for him— and he wasn’t sure he wanted to make an exception to the rule for Nate. Even so, he thought he could be reasonably expected to tolerate only so much stupidity on Nate’s part.

Nate made a face that, in Jem’s opinion, indicated entirely too much friendliness between them. “She’s still mad, then?”

That did not seem worth dignifying with an answer. Jem stepped around the boots, carefully, freeing himself from the space. “What are you doing here, Nate?” When Nate looked perplexed, he said, “Oh, God, you really are here for Ophelia, aren’t you?”

Nate shoved his hands into his pockets. “We both know that it didn’t end well,” he began. Jem actually didn’t know, but he could surmise as much; they had broken up when Ophelia discovered Nate had been a spy all along. Knowing Ophelia, Jem could guess that the break up must have been truly spectacular, but it had happened when he was locked in a cellar, immediately before being married. Ophelia had the grace to know when she should be supportive instead of asking for support.

“Isn’t it time to start making amends?” Nate asked, and he sounded faintly pleading. “The Erling Conflict is over now, and it’s been months. And you, of all people, I thought…” Jem held up a hand, because he absolutely didn’t want to know what the end of that sentence was, and Nate stopped. “I thought maybe we could at least talk, Fellie and me.”

“You still call her Fellie?” Jem asked vaguely, but it was a question in passing.

He thought of when they had first started dating, when Ophelia was a sophomore and Nate part of some ambiguous graduate program. Jem had asked, “Are you in love with him?” and Oaf had smiled like a goblin, and said, “No, but he’s in love with me.”

Jem had known then that she was going to fall in love. He hadn’t known how pointless it was all going to be. Nate was a spy, and he was loyal to his cause, in the end, regardless of his affections, and Ophelia was cured of any romantic feelings the moment he betrayed her.

“Maybe,” he said, picking his words carefully, because he did not want to sound like the possessive brother nor like he was asking for a fight, “It’s time to just… let things go.”

“You mean—”

“I mean, leave her alone.”

Before Nate could find an answer or an argument to that, Elise Hemming stuck her head around the corner. “Nate,” she said, in some surprise. “What in the world are you doing here?” She looked at Jem as she spoke, with just enough of a nod to imply she was deliberately saving him.

Elise was one of Hemmings’ hounds, who served the Erlking, at the bidding of the Hound, an office currently filled by Michael Hemming himself. Jem knew that all of the hounds were members of the Hemming family, and that Hemming had taken up the role after his father died, sometime after Charles Agripin was murdered but before Mathuin had assumed the throne. Jem also knew that the hounds had been staunchly neutral throughout the Erling Conflict, despite the abuse heaped upon them by both sides. The Hound was meant to be apolitical, with neither opinion nor judgment, and while Jem found this vow of blind obedience somewhat disquieting, he did find it comforting to have Hemming around, as one other person who made no pretense of having any love for the Mathuinite cause.

“Why shouldn’t I be here?” Nate asked, with a brief flash of that quick grin that had made it so easy to trust him. “I’m one of the gang, aren’t I?”

“I’m not,” Jem muttered, and danced around them, excusing himself from the scene before he could hear Elise’s response. Nate’s comment— one of the gang— brought back all the memories he’d more or less successfully suppressed: Garet Agripin, and all his faithful supporters, all of them willing to die for the prince, and none of them thinking they actually would. Jem made his way upstairs, away from the rest of the Mathuinites.

Nate Wallace had played the game of the Erling Conflict better than anyone else. He’d insinuated himself into Garet’s group when he was still a teenager (he was from Bergdis, originally, though Jem knew nothing about his family), and made himself into a sleeper agent for Mathuin, long before Mathuin had ever deigned to return to Bergdis to give Garet the conflict he was aching for.

Nate had been close to Garet, far more so than Jem. Until he started dating Oaf, Jem never saw Nate apart from that band: Garet and his eldest friend, the sardonic and overly cautious Calvin Lance, as well as the jovial, broad-shouldered Raul Contreras, and Garet’s girlfriend, Sophia. Nate was always the cleverest of the lot of them, the one who took Garet’s plans and made something successful out of them. He was smitten with Ophelia even in the twins’ freshman year of college, and he’d hardly ever looked twice at Jem— which Jem found somewhat notable, in retrospect, given how much of an effect Nate’s spying had on Jem’s life.

Nate was the one who told Mathuin that Vaughn could be turned, and that Ophelia could be captured in the library, late one night. He was the one who advised Mathuin that Jem was too exceedingly cautious to capture on his own and to get him, they would have to use his sister instead.

Jem had learned this all piecemeal; certain secrets had become common knowledge in the weeks and months after Garet’s death. Between Mathuinite gloating and Agripinite moaning, Jem learned the details of his downfall, and just how doomed he had always been.

True to form, when all was revealed, Nate did what was smartest, and made himself scarce. The Erling Conflict might be freshly over, but tempers were still frayed and suspicions were high, and Nate knew better than to put himself in the middle of this atmosphere. Instead, he had become one of Bergdis’s recluses. Jem envied him this.

When Mathuin still wasn’t home, later that evening, Jem slipped back downstairs just long enough to collect a half sandwich and a cup of tea, speaking to no one as he did so. He took a shower and curled up in bed, with the intention of working on his Tam Lin essay.

Somehow, he found himself texting his sister about her ex instead. He tried not to mock Nate’s desperation too much, but it presented too much of a temptation, and Jem was only human.

•••

Mathuin came home late enough to wake Jem when he came in. After discarding his sweater, belt, and socks, he sat on the edge of the bed and coaxed Jem out. In spite of the cold, he turned on all of the lights, and cajoled Jem into stripping and lying naked on the bed.

He did this, now and then. Mathuin hardly ever saw much more than a tantalizing glimpse of Jem naked, for all that he frequently fucked him, in the dark and under the covers, and he wanted more.

Jem indulged him in this proclivity, lying naked and displayed on the bed. Mathuin had no idea why Jem cooperated; if it was because he thought Mathuin might grow monstrous if he wasn’t placated, or if he took it as complimentary and an indication of just how smitten Mathuin was with him, or for other, stranger reasons that Mathuin couldn’t fathom. But he was getting what he wanted, so he didn’t ask.

For the moment, Jem lay on his stomach, his legs long but primly shut and crossed at the ankles, his head resting on his folded arms. He might have fallen asleep, except for the shivering.

“This is the second night in a row you’ve come home so late,” he commented quietly.

Mathuin observed the long line of his body; the indenture of his curving spine, the beautiful heart- shaped ass. He reached out and trailed a hand over Jem’s shoulder blades and down his back. The bones protruded. He let his fingers trace over every knob of spine. “Are you worried, or jealous?” he asked.

Jem didn’t acknowledge that for the joke it was. “What were you doing?”

“Just some light necromancy.”

“Are you any closer to catching the person who killed Vaughn?”

“To be honest, it looks more and more like Ophelia every day,” Mathuin confessed.

“It’s not Ophelia.”

“And why is it you’re so interested in justice for Vaughn, anyway?”

“Because I found the body,” Jem snapped, with just enough bite in his voice to reprimand.

Mathuin traced his fingers down the boy’s side, over each clearly visible rib. He was getting skinnier, he noticed, and the boy didn’t exactly have much weight to lose in the first place.

But then, what had he expected? That making him live the rest of his life as a hostage would be good for his health, mental or physical? Mathuin had spent years conniving to capture the boy and deliberately not caring about Jem’s happiness. If he thought about the matter at all, it was to think that Jem had forfeited any consideration from Mathuin when he went through with the action of spying— when he went from being a passive observer in class to taking the initiative to rifle through Mathuin’s office. He couldn’t remember, now, if he’d ever had much concern for the boy’s health, if he’d ever thought about the inevitable result of imprisoning and terrorizing him.

“Turn onto your back,” Mathuin ordered, and Jem did it sluggishly, his knees coming up, and his arms wrapping around himself, as if to ward off the cold but conveniently in front of his scars. He was blue to the lips.

Despite sharing a campus with him, Mathuin had only barely seen Jem in the years after he was made genius loci and before Garet’s death. Whenever he did see him, it was always obviously a miscalculation on Jem’s part; the boy would go pale and vanish before Mathuin could so much as try to talk to him, with none of the false bravado the rest of his group of Agripinites displayed.

He’d mostly worn button-up shirts, and jeans back then, Mathuin remembered. He nudged Jem’s arms out of the way, to see the three scars. The button-up shirts had come in pale blues and whites, with the sleeves pushed up to the elbows, usually looking more fashionable than most of his peers. Now, Jem wore knit sweaters, one piled on another, wool socks two layers thick, usually a heavy scarf even inside, and altogether, he was as austere as a nun.

“How is your term going?” he asked softly.

Jem gritted his teeth. “Fine,” he said, which Mathuin took to mean ‘badly’, but he didn’t want to be asked about it. He sat up. “I can’t do this.” Mathuin made a short gesture, and Jem crawled under the covers, shaking with cold.

“And your paper, how is that coming along? Tam Lin, wasn’t it?”

Jem shot him a look, one that said without instigating any argument, We’re not going to talk about this. Jem had staunchly ignored Mathuin’s interest in his major even since he was a visiting high school student. Despite being married to him for almost six months, Mathuin still had no idea what it was about fairy tales or folktales that Jem wanted to spend four years of his life studying them.

“Speaking of Ophelia,” Jem said instead, once he was safely wrapped in blankets. Mathuin gazed at him and thought that he was going to fuck him, soon. “Nate showed up today.”

“Nate,” Mathuin repeated slowly, suddenly thinking fast.

“He was looking for Oaf.”

Mathuin recalled, years ago, when Nate had made his report in the dead of one October night. Amidst his explanations of Garet’s various movements and plots, most of which bored Mathuin to no end, he had mentioned in a too-casual voice pitched high, that he had asked Ophelia Dorchester out on a date. “Have you gone out of your fucking mind?” Mathuin had replied.

“And you and I made a deal that Ophelia would be safe from me and all my followers,” Mathuin said. “Is that what this is about?”

Jem straightened up, eyes wide. “Should it be?” he asked. “He said he wanted to reconcile with her, and I just thought he was mooning like an idiot.” Mathuin was startled into laughter. “Is this about something else? Did he want something else with her?”

“No— forget I said anything. He’s just in love with your sister, and you already knew that.” He was about to ask if Ophelia might give Nate a second chance, but he thought better of it; he was the reason why she wouldn’t. He didn’t know Ophelia well enough to know to know whether or not she could forgive Nate’s role in Garet Agripin’s death (probably not), but he was certain she couldn’t forgive her brother’s imprisonment.

“Why is Nate loyal to you, anyway?”

“I don’t know that he really is.” That blithe comment earned him an acidic look from Jem; clearly, the matter of loyalty, especially Nate’s, wasn’t something Jem found especially blasé. Mathuin sighed. “Nate’s mother, Rebecca Wallace, was an assistant professor of literature at Merodack and a devoted follower of Charles Agripin. Years ago, she and Charles had some sort of falling out. Shortly afterwards, she disappeared. She was found dead in the woods a few weeks later.”

“Murdered?” Jem asked.

“What do you think usually happened to people who were inconvenient to Charles?” Mathuin sat back. “Until me, anyway.”

He noticed that the comment startled Jem, but before he could needle him on that point, Jem asked, “But what does this have to do with Garet?”

“Garet…” Garet, the wretched idiot. “Garet didn’t know the details of Rebecca Wallace and Charles Agripin’s falling out, but Nate did. Nate had reason to believe— rightfully or not, I couldn’t say— that if Garet were to become Erlking and find out those details, he might turn on Nate.”

“And kill Nate?” Jem asked, his eyebrows going up, disbelief evident.

“Nate wasn’t going to take the chance.”

Jem pursed his lips, turning this over in his head. “What’s the point of only telling me half the story? The whole stupid conflict is over— I’m not going to be able to do anything with this information, now that I have it. You may as well just tell me the whole thing.”

Mathuin laughed. “There’s still a conspiracy going on, you little idiot— did you forget about that?”

“Yeah, but that has nothing to do with me.”

Mathuin just looked at him. He couldn’t entirely discount the notion (the increasingly likely notion, unfortunately) that Ophelia was behind the two murders, and Jem with her. The possibility— however remote, given Ophelia Dorchester’s wrath— of the twins recruiting Nate into working with them was the sort of thing that gnawed at Mathuin at night.

Mathuin didn’t think that Ophelia could be so pragmatic or forgiving, but Nate had no real loyalty to the Mathuinite cause; just an understanding of common enemies. He had spent the past few years pretending the two could be conflated, which was a dubious fiction at the best of times, and extremely questionable when their mutual enemy was gone.

The fact of the matter was that Nate was the best spy Mathuin had ever encountered, and Mathuin did not want him working against him. For his part, Nate understood the danger of being as skilled as he was and as unsatisfactorily devoted to the cause— which was why, now that the war was done, he kept himself well out of sight.

“Did you ever draw a connection between Nate and yourself?” Mathuin asked curiously, sitting back on the bed.

“What?” Jem asked. “You mean how we did the same thing, but that he got rewarded and I got punished for the rest of my life? Or how we did the same thing, but he was much better at it than I was?”

“So, that’s a yes, then?” Mathuin said dryly. It had not been a wise question to ask.

The funny thing was, Jem was by no means bad at spying. He had, in his six months, shown patience and an aptitude for passivity and adaptability that, while not necessarily useful traits anywhere else, were ideal for spying. If Garet had just let him grow up a bit, and hadn’t prematurely shoved him into a situation where he stuck out like an impostor— and, of course, if Nate Wallace hadn’t betrayed him from the start— he might have had a decent chance of doing some real damage.

Jem was quiet. He looked down at his hands, folded in the blankets, and no longer shivering quite so badly. “I like that you don’t boast,” he said, so quietly that Mathuin had to lean forward to hear him. “All the rest of them on your side… well. I like that you don’t shove my face in it, even though you could.”

Mathuin took the invitation where he saw it, and kissed him; Jem tilted his head back and opened his mouth. The thought was in the back of Mathuin’s head, even as his hands trailed down Jem’s arms, down to his waist, that it was scant praise indeed, and it held a darker, larger implication.

He had known he was going to put Jem in captivity, of course; but he hadn’t bothered to think about the fact that he would be putting him in the middle of a community where he would be reviled, despised, and mocked. And Jem, who was reserved to begin with and didn’t exactly look at Mathuin as a protector, was never going to tell him outright.

End of Part II.

Chapter Text

Part III.

Chapter XI.

It was raining by morning, a wretched, sleeting, pouring rain that coated the world over in ice. Jem biked to Merodack feeling personally offended by the weather. He made it nearly the entire way, moving at about a quarter of the pace he usually went, and was within sight of the campus when his bike tires slipped out from under him, the breaks did nothing, and he went careening face over handlebars.

He landed awkwardly, and somehow managed to bruise both wrists, his chin, his left shoulder and left knee. After that, he walked the bike the rest of the way.

He met up with Professor Andrade in her office, where they argued, first over his reasons for missing class a few days earlier, and then over his recent admittedly lackluster essay, and finally, over some of the finer points of his Tam Lin thesis. By the end, Jem was fairly certain they were arguing simply for the sake of arguing. He walked out basking in both catharsis and fury, and made his way, with glum inevitability, to Mathuin’s office.

“Don’t tell me you tried to bike,” Mathuin said, upon catching sight of him.

Jem scowled and rubbed his shoulder. “Can you give me a ride home?” he asked. “Not now, I’ll go hang out in the library for now… but when you’re ready…”

He trailed off when Mathuin got to his feet and crossed the room. He put one hand on Jem’s arm, and with the other, closed and locked the door behind him.

“Let me see the damage,” he said, guiding Jem back to the desk.

Jem squirmed. “That can wait—”

“Just let me see.” Jem quickly checked the window, but given the ice-coated branches of a nearby tree, it was clear no one could see up into the room from the ground below. Mathuin slid a hand up his shirt, and when Jem twisted around to put his hands up, pulled both shirt and sweater over his head and off.

“I don’t—” Jem started, but, true to his word, Mathuin was inspecting the damage he’d done to himself, the bruised chin and shoulder and more. There wasn’t much to see, other than the hint of red and developing purple, but Mathuin’s hands were thorough, gentle if insistent.

“You’re going to stop biking, right?” He sounded almost kind. He touched Jem’s hair, and leaned forward to nuzzle his neck, and, by extension, push him up to the desk. “I’ll give you a ride to and from—”

“What,” Jem hissed. “Are you doing?”

Mathuin pushed him down, bent over the desk, and Jem didn’t know whether to be astonished or furious. He jumped when Mathuin slid a hand into his jeans, around the curve of his ass. “You can’t— your fucking office! Any one of your students could just walk in—”

“They’re not going to get through a locked door,” Mathuin said into his ear. He got Jem’s jeans loose and pulled them down. Jem tried to twist around to kick him, but Mathuin held his bruised shoulder down, and then twisted his arm around behind his back. “And none of them are stupid enough to think knocking on my door when it’s closed is a good idea.”

“Someone will hear,” Jem snarled.

“Then be quiet.”

For a moment, he thought it would be easier to be complaisant, and just wait for this to be over. Mathuin stripped him naked, and with one hand on his wrist, keeping him pressed down to the desk, kneed his legs open. Jem’s gorge rose.

“No!” He couldn’t bring himself to scream, but it was loud enough. He tried to twist back, and his shoulder erupted with pain. Mathuin’s grip was bruising. He kicked, wildly, and twisted his head around. “No, fuck you, I said no—”

“Kätzchen—” Mathuin sounded more irritated than thwarted and still amused. “Be good, just—”

“No!” Jem wanted to kill him. “I’m not your fucking student porno fantasy. I still get to say no,” he spat over his shoulder. “Rapist.”

He said it like it was the word he had been searching for through lethologica. Mathuin paused, let go of his arm, and stepped away from him.

Jem had never dressed so quickly in his life. Mathuin watched him, silently, without looking away once. He didn’t move until Jem, still shaking, was more or less decent, when he started for the door. “Come on,” he said woodenly. “I’ll take you home.”

The car ride was like living a horror movie, Jem thought; he kept waiting for the strike, waiting for Mathuin to turn on him and hurt him with every ounce of force he possessed. He curled up in the front seat of the car, face twisted towards the window, and neither of them spoke once the entire way home. After the car had been parked, Jem fumbled his seatbelt, which gave Mathuin time to come around the car and open his door for him.

He observed the sight of Jem fighting with the seatbelt silently before he said, “You’re still shaking?”

Jem managed to get the seatbelt undone. He dared a look up at Mathuin’s stony face, like a child peeking through fingers. “If I hadn’t said that,” he said, voice wavering, “Would you have stopped?”

Mathuin considered the question. “If you had started screaming, I would have stopped,” he decided.

“I couldn’t scream,” Jem said. “I couldn’t breathe, it was like a night—” He cut himself off, but Mathuin looked like he understood. He took a deep shuddering breath. “I said no,” he said, very firmly.

“I know what you said.”

“So it just didn’t matter?” His voice sounded like a gunshot. He cringed when he heard it, waiting for the responding blow. “What I say doesn’t matter?”

“Jem,” Mathuin said, “Go the fuck inside.”

•••

Jem was useless for the rest of the day. He roamed the house, unable to sit still, unable to put his mind to a task or a chore, unable to read more than a sentence and actually comprehend what was written. Mathuin was home later than usual, and there was no sign of Hemming, Wharton, or any of the rest of his infernal minions, and for once, Jem was not pleased by the solitude. He stayed away from his husband.

He had had sex with him, Jem repeatedly reminded himself. The marriage was, of course, a monstrosity, and he didn’t always like or enjoy sex, but he did it, almost every day, and it wasn’t forced. Mathuin had never indicated that there would be consequences if he were to refuse, never demanded it nor threatened. Jem felt like an idiot for feeling so betrayed now, when he had given consent before. It hadn’t been hard to take that consent back, he thought, sick to his stomach— it had just been hard to convince Mathuin that he actually meant it.

He was appalled to learn that being raped might come of something so utterly asinine as his husband failing to listen to him.

Jem went to bed early, without eating dinner, convinced that he wasn’t going to sleep a wink, but he did.

In the dream, he was trying to find his way out of a lightless room, with his eyes full of eigengrau, fingertips working along the sticky surfaces of tables and chairs and floors. He could not see, but he knew, with the point-blank certainty of any subconscious, that he shared the room with the corpse of Professor Reeves. His mind’s eye held an image sticky with black blood and a gaping mouth where her neck should be. He needed to find his way out, needed to, without touching her, without stumbling over her, and meanwhile, something was rising up behind him—

He woke choking and whimpering, and discovered that Mathuin had shaken him awake. Before he could blink the dream out of his eyes, Mathuin pulled him close, into a bruising tight grip. Jem lay against him, paradoxically comforted, and listened to his own heartbeat until it slowed to something manageable.

Long after Jem thought Mathuin had returned to sleep, the man spoke. “I’m sorry. I am, truly.”

Jem squirmed out of his arms, mumbled something about getting water, and fled to the bathroom.

He returned a few minutes later, glass full of water clutched in one hand, and determined to have a confrontation that, by any sense, he should have had months earlier. His voice was wavering, but he asked Mathuin, “Why did you decide to make me into the genius loci?”

Mathuin sat up in bed, and while the lamp was lit, it did little to drive away the overall dark of the room. He did not appear to be vexed or even especially surprised by the question. He looked great deal more comfortable than Jem felt.

“I would have thought you’d have figured that out by now,” Mathuin said patiently.

Jem swallowed hard. “Let’s say I’m obtuse,” he said.

Mathuin almost smiled at that, but when he looked at Jem, there was a canny expression to his eyes. “You were spying,” he began. “And I wanted to keep you alive.”

“You knew I was a spy from before I ever walked into class,” Jem said. He already knew this truth, but thinking back on it made him feel faint and vaguely sick. “How? Nate Wallace?” It had never before occurred to him to ask directly; he had always just assumed.

Mathuin nodded. “Yes, Nate told me— but even if he hadn’t… Garet Agripin’s moves were never especially difficult to anticipate.” He said it dryly, without malice. Jem had almost gotten used to this; Mathuin didn’t speak about his defeat of Agripin and the Agripinite cause often, but when he did so, he spoke with neither pride nor humility, with all the enthusiasm of describing a particularly dull chore. “But then I met you. And I wanted you.”

“What do you mean?” Jem asked.

Mathuin frowned. “I fell in love with you,” he said.

Ludicrous, Jem thought, that the same sentiment could be expressed in two such wholly different ways.

“By then, I’d learned not to underestimate my followers. Except for Nate, they didn’t know you were a spy, and when they found out, there would be hell to pay. Therefore, you had to either have a use, or be killed, and I wasn’t interested in the latter.” He looked away and ran a hand through his hair. “I think it took me half that fucking term to find something suitable to do with you, and probably another month to figure out if that damned spell would work in Bergdis in the first place.”

Jem was almost at a loss for words. There were so many questions that he simply chose one, as if picking it at random. “When did you know about the marriage?”

“That’s what genius loci are for,” Mathuin said. “Marrying. In the literal and the archaic sense.”

Marrying, Jem thought. Marrying, fucking, breeding. He looked down at the glass shaking in his hand, and thought it was a wonder he hadn’t thrown it at Mathuin yet.

“You said you were in love with me—”

“I didn’t say was.”

“— But when you did this— all of this— you didn’t— you did it—” Jem fumbled. “You didn’t care,” he accused, finally. “What it would do to me. What it would be like, for me.” He couldn’t bring himself to put the accusation in more blatant terms, of kidnapping and captivity and slavery and the end of any future of his own.

“You,” Mathuin said, and his voice was as cold and smooth as the winter surface of a lake. “Fucking spied. Did you forget about that? I never did a damned thing to you, or any other Dorchester, and you struck first. Was I supposed to let that go?” Jem met his eyes, but it was an effort. “If any of my followers had their way, you’d be five years in the grave. You betrayed my trust, apropos of nothing, and in return, I saved your life. I’d say you got a good deal, there.”

“You killed Charles Agripin,” Jem said. To his own ears, he sounded very distant.

“That had nothing to do with you,” Mathuin said.

“If you hadn’t killed him, we wouldn’t’ve fled. I would’ve grown up in Bergdis, and my parents wouldn’t be dead.”

Mathuin’s expression, which had until now been stony, changed into surprise and revulsion, if only momentarily. “You are not fucking blaming me for the Dorchesters’ flight, or anything the fucking Knights have done,” Mathuin said furiously. Jem heard it in his voice; this now was just an argument, but if he pushed this point, it would turn into a fight. He knew better than to go down this path.

He had another question, besides, one he hadn’t intended to ask, except that Mathuin’s intimation, that he should feel grateful for being turned into a genius loci and married against his will, had him bristling. “Even if you hadn’t turned me into a genius loci, you were always going to keep me?” he asked. “What if I hadn’t… been willing? Ever?”

Mathuin narrowed his eyes. He understood what Jem was asking. “I would have been patient,” he said. “You know you aren’t going to age any older than the age you’re going to be in May, right? The terms of the marriage. I could wait for a hundred years.”

“Given what happens in May,” Jem snapped. “That does not count as waiting.”

“You know what I mean.”

As tempted as Jem was to respond to that with something pointedly malefic, he bit his tongue. He looked down at the glass held tightly in his hands, and stared at it, trying to convince himself that he was sure he wasn’t about to scream, cry, or vomit.

“Kätzchen.” Mathuin’s voice softened. “You look like shit. Come back to bed.”

Jem hesitated, but in the end, he nodded. He drank his water, and climbed into bed and into Mathuin’s arms.

•••

Mathuin woke at dawn, to the morning racket of crying birds outside. He found himself with arms wrapped tight around Jem, as if that might keep the boy from twisting and writhing until he woke up panicking due to some wretched nightmare. Jem was perfectly still, his face buried in Mathuin’s arm.

Shifting, careful not to disturb him, Mathuin reached a hand under Jem’s shirt and stroked him, feeling the boy’s skin under his knuckles. He might have drifted back to sleep, except that Jem woke, and curled closer to Mathuin, tucking his head under the man’s chin. He nuzzled at first, which turned easily into kissing, and a quick, experimental nip. Mathuin traced his hands down to Jem’s hip, and then into his pajamas.

When Jem was just starting to squirm with arousal, Mathuin turned him onto his front and grabbed him around the hips to get his knees under him.

Jem went suddenly stiff, even as he got his elbows up to support himself. “If I said no,” he started, very clearly. “Would you listen to me?”

Mathuin, leaning over him as he was, buried his nose in Jem’s hair. Yesterday wasn’t forgotten so easily as he could have hoped— which was not a surprise. “Yes. I’ll listen.” He reached a hand around to curl around Jem’s arousal. “Are you saying no?”

“Fuck you,” Jem muttered. Mathuin grinned and pulled his pajama pants down and off him. He kissed the boy’s ear and neck and chin, until Jem twisted a hand around and grabbed his mouth. “You’re rubbing me raw,” he grumbled. “Have you not shaved for days?”

Mathuin laughed, low in the back of his throat. “Mean, aren’t you? Beautiful boy.”

“Bastard,” Jem said.

“Kätzchen.” He placed a hand over Jem’s hips and adjusted him, so the boy’s ass was tucked up against him, where he could press himself against that roundness.

Jem went stiff at that, and Mathuin gentled, stroking him from stomach to cock. He didn’t mind Jem’s attitude or irritability, as long as the boy was consenting. He found he didn’t mind much of anything, as long as he had this boy.

He pressed Jem’s shoulders down, and nudged his legs opened, reached over him and opened the bedside drawer to find the tube of KY. He’d no sooner grabbed it than Jem snatched it out of his hand and curled onto his side so as to get out from under Mathuin.

Mathuin waited until Jem was opening himself up before he pulled the blankets away and pressed the boy’s legs open. “Let me see.” Jem made a distinct noise of discontent in the back of his throat, but he opened his legs, and turned his face away, cheeks rosy with embarrassment. Mathuin watched him, hungry and adoring. He was all pink and cream, this boy, slim thighs and long fingers and that delicate red mouth. Mathuin would have liked pictures of the boy in every pose and stage of sex, but he had no illusions as to how poorly Jem would take to that idea.

His eyes traced up to the three, barely visible scars on the boy’s abdomen. Who needed a marriage band, he thought, or his surname replacing the witch name? He’d seen the inside cavity of the twink and left his ownership carved into the center of him. He reached for Jem’s waist and pulled him back under himself.

Jem was flushed, panting and eyes bright. Mathuin leaned down to kiss him, hard, biting at the boy’s tongue and lips, and Jem’s hands scrabbled at the sheets underneath himself. Mathuin broke off the kiss to lean down to swallow his cock, and at the same time, slide a finger deep into him, searching for that spot and finding it. Jem made a desperate noise. Mathuin pulled away from him at the last moment, and swatted his hand away when he tried to finish himself, before he hauled the boy up and flipped him onto his front.

Jem froze. “Don’t!”

Mathuin was so ready it hurt. “What?” he snapped, and gritted his teeth. When Jem startled curling into himself, as if he meant to scoot out from under Mathuin, and out of the bed entirely, Mathuin slid an arm around his waist, wrapped tight, to keep him from doing exactly that.

Jem squirmed. “Give me a moment.”

“Are you fucking testing me?” That earned him an elbow aimed backwards at his face. Mathuin dodged it, and rolled onto his back, pulling Jem onto him.

He was more than twice the boy’s weight and had more than a foot’s worth of height on him, and if he were to forget that, Jem certainly wouldn’t. Even if there were no other issues, his size alone would make sex a daunting prospect for Jem. Mathuin was well aware the boy tried to keep him sated with blowjobs; Jem didn’t much enjoy giving them, but it was an act that didn’t threaten injury, unlike this.

Mathuin stroked the boy’s back, letting his fingers trace each vertebrae in turn, until some of the tension began to leave Jem’s shoulders, and the boy settled down on Mathuin’s body, letting his chin rest on the man’s collarbone. “Beautiful boy,” Mathuin murmured. He still intended to have him on his knees, submissive like a supplicant before the throne. “Lovely, perfect boy…”

“Shut up,” Jem mumbled.

Mathuin grinned. “Get your legs open,” he said, snaking a hand between them, and Jem, however hesitantly, obeyed.

He was still too tight. Mathuin kept one hand rubbing the boy’s lower back, soothing, while the other worked him open, while Jem twisted and squirmed in increasing anxiety. It was a wonder Jem ever let him do this, Mathuin thought darkly, given that it had to hurt, every time. While there might be something to be said for a bit of pain for pleasure in sex, that wasn’t much of a benefit given that Jem was genuinely afraid of him, and reasonably so.

He sometimes came to to find himself holding the boy down, pinned by the neck or wrists, with Jem uncomplaining but gritting his teeth. He wanted more. He wanted to tie the boy up, handcuff him wrist and ankle, wanted to gag him and blindfold him, wanted to enact any number of fantasies on his flesh. Since Jem was in no way mentally recovered from the night that made him genius loci five years ago, Mathuin figured he was going to have to wait a few years, if not forever, to explore any such fantasies. There were compromises to any relationship, and if that was how this one worked out, so be it.

He moved again, rolling the boy onto his back, and crouching over him. He kissed him gently, and gripped himself in anticipation. Jem twisted around, onto his front, and Mathuin grabbed his hips and pulled him onto his knees. “Ready, sweetheart?” he murmured into Jem’s ear, pinching him open with one hand and with the other nudging against the hot, wet center of him. If Jem had commanded it, he would have stopped, but it would be hell.

Jem made a noise, and Mathuin pressed into him, and then thrust, hard.

Jem let out a yelp that was more pain than surprise and Mathuin gritted his teeth. He went perhaps more forcefully than he should have, but the boy was heavenly inside, hot and wet and tight as a vise— much too tight— it had to be hurting him. He swore with the effort, but he went more slowly, more gently, while Jem clutched at a pillow, his knuckles turning white. “Relax,” Mathuin muttered in his ear. “Come on, sweetheart, baby…” His hand went to Jem’s arousal, and with a bit of coaxing, he had the boy squirming again, skewering himself as he twisted back into Mathuin. Slowly, Mathuin started fucking him again, and when Jem came, nearly pulling himself free with the effort, Mathuin grabbed him, parting his knees and lifting him, so his weight bore down on his shaking arms.

He moved with a frenzy as he forgot himself, forgot how delicate Jem was. His force was more than enough to leave bruises printed on his hips and thighs and ass. He went hard and long, and Jem let himself be moved back and forth on the bed. He made a kitten noise in the back of his throat when Mathuin went too deep, and was otherwise silent and complaisant, but for a twinge when Mathuin pressed him down hard and came.

He recovered to find himself pinning Jem’s wrists in one hand, and was immediately angry with himself— it was something he was inclined to by instinct, but tried not to do, given the dynamics between them. He let go of the boy’s wrists, but was didn’t pull out. Instead, he ran a hand down the boy’s back, and up again. Jem didn’t flinch.

He found his voice. “Are you all right?”

Jem put a hand up to his face, and moved with a certain obvious discomfort. Gently, Mathuin pulled out of him. “Yes,” the boy said.

Mathuin inspected him. There was no sign of blood, thankfully, though there would certainly be bruises to show for it. Jem kicked him away and stretched aching limbs, but he didn’t seem especially perturbed. He was wild-haired and slack-jawed, eyes blinking sleepily. He looked well-fucked.

Mathuin ruffled his hair and kissed his forehead before he climbed out of bed as he remembered, with some dismay, that he had a class that morning. Jem was asleep again by the time he was dressed.

•••

Ophelia arrived, not unexpectedly, and brought Starbucks with her. She showed up early, and as such, managed to overlap her visit with Mathuin, who usually left before nine. They ran into each other in the kitchen doorway, Ophelia just barely managing to keep from spilling the Starbucks, while Jem held Britomartis nearby and shouted at them to be careful.

Ophelia had a mocha cappuccino for herself and a chai latte for Jem, and no apology for having neglected Mathuin, not that he expected one. She also announced that she came bearing gifts, which she had forgotten to deliver until now, and news from their family, which she had learned last night.

“They never call me,” Jem said enviously as she unloaded the contents of her bag onto the table.

You never call them,” Ophelia said with the air of old grievances, but Jem was distracted. One of the pictures she had placed on the table was a framed photograph of their parents, which he had requested she retrieve from Aunt Valeria’s family album. He picked it up to examine it more closely, and Mathuin looked over his shoulder.

“Auntie Valeria said that was taken back in Bergdis,” Ophelia said when she saw what Jem was looking at.

“Where did the red hair come from?” Mathuin asked.

“What?” It took Jem a moment to understand; both of his parents were dark-haired, with no hint between them of the copper or the strawberry blond that infected their offspring. “Oh. I dunno.”

Mathuin smiled at that, bid the two of them a good day, kissed Jem’s forehead, and left.

When he was gone, Ophelia rattled off the various family news items she had been told to recite, starting with the alarming: “Cousin Katie— you remember, you remember, Portia’s baby— she went missing about a week or so ago.”

Jem looked up sharply. “What?”

“It’s fine— they found her a couple hours later. She’d toddled off into a neighbor’s yard and found a hiding spot in the alley between two houses. Gave Portie quite a scare, though.” Ophelia chewed on her lip. “And… let’s see… Jack’s getting married to his girlfriend… Grauntie Emilia recently bought a farm, and Auntie Valeria told me why, but I forget… oh, and Henry’s going on a cruise. In the Mediterranean. With his girlfriend. We’re all feeling very excited for Henry.” She smiled.

“You didn’t need to tell me that one,” Jem said, jealous and cross. He did not like being reminded that he was trapped in Bergdis.

“Yeah, well.” She straightened in her seat. “I thought we could try to find that dead sidh again today and explore it further. I’m sure there’s more to see.”

“All right,” Jem said cautiously.

“And I invited Jubilee along.”

“Goddamnit, Oaf, why?”

“Keep your enemies closer,” Ophelia recited faithfully, and Jem rolled his eyes. “Anyway, she sent me a text saying she’d be here in about fifteen minutes.”

Jubilee arrived precisely on time, looking far more cheerful than Jem felt, equipped with a backpack full of varying supplies one might need for exploring tunnels of earth. “We’ll go back to the Bone Grove,” Jubilee said, “And go from there. Right?”
Oaf agreed. Jem grunted.

As soon as they were outside, Ophelia pointed out that it was quite possibly the last beautiful day of autumn. Given that the whole world was coated in layers of ice an inch or two thick, and the air was as biting cold as winter, Jem thought she was a bit late to this statement, but she was right in that there might be very little sunshine after today, for quite a few months.

“Jubilee,” Jem heard himself say, after they had been walking for what felt like too long. Jubilee and Ophelia were both entirely too content to let him lead the way. “Can I ask you a question?”

When he glanced back at her, her eyes were narrowed in suspicion, but she agreed. “What do you want to know?”

“Why’d you side with Mathuin in the Erling Conflict?”

She stopped walking, and both twins stopped with her.

“Because he was— he is— the rightful king,” she said. “The Erlking, the Master of the Hunt, the position passes when the successor kills his predecessor.” She looked between the two. “Haven’t you ever read The Golden Bough?”

“Not recently,” Oaf said breezily.

“Just enough to remember how much of a racist Frazer was,” Jem said.

“Well.” She scowled at the two of them. “Whether you like it or not, in Bergdis, in the Bone Grove, you keep what you kill. Mathuin slew Agripin, and that makes him Erlking. I can see why Garet Agripin was very upset about that, but that doesn’t give him the right to claim what doesn’t belong to him based on an incorrect notion of applied primogeniture and start a whole little war over it. It does give him the right to try his own hand at the kingship, which he did, and failed.”

“So instead you supported a murderer,” Ophelia observed.

“You would have been supporting a murderer, too, if Garet Agripin had won,” Jubilee shot back. “No one made him come back to Bergdis. No one hunted him down, no one forced him into that fight.”

“Except some sense of justice,” Jem said quietly.

“Vengeance, more like. Justice,” Jubilee said, with emphasis. “Is past the point. Besides, if we’re talking justice, what about how horrid Charles Agripin was to his subjects?” Jem blinked at that, and took a step back. Jubilee’s nostrils flared as if she had scented blood. “Did you hear any of those stories? About the people who disagreed with him who vanished in the night? Or Esther Harmon, who was left beaten on the steps of St. Isidore’s Church? Did you hear about the bloodthirsty dogs or the paranoia or the huntings?”

The essence of this news about Charles Agripin didn’t come as much of a surprise, given that Jem remembered Claudine’s words, and Mathuin’s comment about Rebecca Wallace— but it was a surprise to learn that these failings of Charles’s were so well known that even Jubilee knew about them.

“No,” Ophelia said with unshakeable dignity. “We hadn’t heard that—” By her tone, she intended to argue this point, but she met Jem’s eyes, and became withdrawn.

“Garet never showed an inclination towards being like that,” Jem said quietly.

Jubilee looked pained. “Except for with you,” she said.

“What?”

“He sent you here, to spy. Do you think he didn’t know it might get you killed? That it would probably get you killed? And you were sixteen, for God’s sake. Do you think he didn’t think about that?”

Jem was about to answer, but something caught his eye, some hint of smoke and pale stone through the woods. He indicated it to Jubilee and Ophelia, who both consented to be distracted. They followed the trail down until they were close.

In this part of the woods, the trees grew impossibly tall, mostly conifers, and surprisingly close together, until the very air was dense with ice-coated branches and the heavy scent of pine. Upon lifting a final tree-branch, Jem found himself looking onto a small cottage.

It was modern, more or less; telephone wires protruded from one side and vanished into the woods. The small red chimney, composed of round stones, was smoking, and nearby, someone had stacked a woodpile taller than Jem’s head. The cottage itself was composed of stone walls and small, round stained glass windows, with a red door to match the chimney. Beds of flowers or vegetables clustered round the front like the cottage’s voluminous skirts, buried in a thick blanket of leaves for the winter. The entire place appeared small, quaint, and cozy, altogether overwhelmingly charming.

The path that lead up to the cottage was marked by a single boulder taller than Jem, lying on an uneven side. The stone face was pale, but coated in moss and deeply shaped by time.

“Should we…?” Oaf started.

“No.” Jem was surprised by how strong his voice was. “No, we shouldn’t.” The place looked lovely, but something about it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, made him want to go running back into Mathuin’s arms like a child.

“That rock looks like a skull,” Jubilee said, fascinated. She pointed to the boulder, but Jem didn’t see the resemblance until she said, “Not a human skull. Some kind of animal, with the horns broken off, there, see…”

In the distance, Jem heard something galloping, something fast.

He stepped back. “Let’s go.”

Oaf looked back at him, perplexed. “Jem—”

Now,” Jem said sharply.

With nothing more than a last look at the peculiar little cottage, they left.

Chapter Text

Chapter XII.

“Are we still trying to find the Bone Grove?” Ophelia asked, after they had gotten far enough away from the cottage that Jem’s heartbeat had slowed to something manageable.

“Eh.” He said it under his breath. Oaf wouldn’t be too pleased to hear it, but Jem wasn’t all that interested in finding the Bone Grove or the old sidh. He was curious, but the woods were bitterly cold, and he wanted to go home.

Before Ophelia or Jubilee could press the point any further, or pointedly ask just where they were going, Jem stumbled into a clearing. He took a moment to recognize the scene before him as a campsite, given that the ice coated everything, with a blackened fire pit in the center and dead logs assembled around for seats. The place was an overgrown mess, given that it had been abandoned as soon as the weather turned sour. Improvised trash heaps dotted the area in the occasional hiding spot, filled with broken glasses and crumpled beer cans. The birds were a cacophony overhead.

“Oh, I know this place,” Jubilee said in surprise. “We’re near the college.”

“We are?” It was impossible they’d walked anywhere near that far, Jem thought. Then again, that was just what had happened when they had explored the dead sidh.

“Yeah… Brian and Christopher dragged me out here, my freshman year. Always had a terrible time— even with the fire, it felt even colder than Bergdis usually does.”

Ophelia, who was rummaging about a bit farther from them, kicked an old Smirnoff Ice bottle into a tree, where it shed its ice coating but remained otherwise intact.

“Should we go back to the college, then?” Jem asked, exploring the outermost areas, where the dead logs retreated easily back into nature. “Get someone to drive us home? It’s cold as fuck out here.”

Ophelia sighed. “If you want,” she said.

Jem stepped up on a log, but he slipped on the ice and it shifted out from under him. He landed hard, among the icy leaves that blanketed the forest floor, and the log, with slow, uncertain shifting, rolled, and then settled back into its bed.

There was a hint of something, Jem realized. A rotted, hollowed-out area of the log, and something inside of it. Out of pure curiosity, and without getting up, he put his foot to it and shoved, hard, until the log rolled onto its side and the rotted area was revealed.

In the darkness underneath, made up entirely of the varying sepias, fauns, and coffee browns of dirty ice, rotten wood, old leaves, and dusty moss. Even so, he made out the hint of a shape that sent alarm ringing through him before he’d even registered what he had seen: the pair of two round holes, the row of nubs underneath. Eyes, and teeth.

Jem scrambled to his feet, shouting and alarming both Jubilee and Ophelia. When he peered closer, what had been a nightmarish and impressionistic became clear.

The rotted interior of the old log contained a jumbled mix of bones, the same dirty color as the surroundings, but distinct in their shape. Ophelia shrieked at the sight, and Jubilee swore furiously. Jem thought he was going to be sick.

It was a nightmare, he thought. It was Vaughn all over again, and this couldn’t happen twice, and so, it was a nightmare.

He found himself having stumbled over to a nearby log and sat down. He discovered that he had taken out his phone, and he had dialed Mathuin’s number. The Erlking answered after a single ring. “Kätzchen.”

Jem’s voice was hoarse. “You said to call you first. If there was another body.”

A pause. “Is there another body?”

Jem nodded, and didn’t realize Mathuin couldn’t see. “There’s bones.”

“Where are you? Are you safe? Are Ophelia and Jubilee there?”

“Yes. Yes, to both. And it’s… it’s a campfire spot just outside of campus. That’s what Jubilee said.” Jem swallowed hard. The shock was beginning to wear off, and with it came the feeling that he needed to take action. “They’re old bones, I think. Someone hid them in a log.”

“Right.” Mathuin considered, for only a moment. “Hang up, and call the police.”

Whatever Jem had expected, it hadn’t been that. Nevertheless, he did so.

Detectives Malone and Harrison were surprisingly good about the fact that this was the second body Jem had found in a matter of weeks. They gave the three a ride to the campus, after they had gotten as complete an account of the discovery as the three could jabber out, and delivered them directly to Mathuin’s office. Little was said on the subject of who the bones might belong to, or what might have happened to the person in question.

It was a third murder, Jem realized, from the backseat of Mathuin’s car. The third murder, or the first, to judge how old the bones looked, and this one was nothing like the previous two.

•••

Upon returning home, and Mathuin’s prompting, the entire story came out; how Ophelia had read up on genius loci, and decided they should explore Bergdis; how that had lead to a campsite, and Jem happenstance finding another body. Jem neglected to mention the cottage in the woods, and Jubilee and Ophelia both deemed it unimportant. The part that was most confusing to Mathuin was how Jubilee had gotten wrapped up in this little adventure, and none of the three were at their most articulate.

Mathuin waited what he felt was the appropriate amount of time and not a moment more before he expelled Jubilee and Ophelia from his home. He summoned Wharton and Hemming, but before they arrived, he trapped Jem in the kitchen to interrogate him. “What in the fuck,” he started. “Did you think you were doing? Exploring?”

Jem had been leaning against the counter. Mathuin placed an arm on either side of him, effectively keeping him just where he was, and leaning over him close enough to touch.

“Why wouldn’t we go exploring?” Jem asked defensively.

“Not a good answer.”

Jem put his chin up at that. “Did you kill them?” he asked. “The person who— whose bones that was. Did you put them there?”

“No,” Mathuin said coldly. “If I’d done it, I wouldn’t have told you to call the police.”

“If I keep exploring— and I keep finding bodies— am I going to find more of yours?” His voice was shaking.

“You’ll be pleased to hear that all of my victims are accounted for,” he said, utterly droll, as if nothing could have interested him less than a discussion about the fact that he was a murderer, and a repeated one at that. “But you’re not going to find anymore bodies, because you’re not going fucking exploring again. Do you understand?”

“Why not?” Jem asked. “What am I going to find?” Before Mathuin could answer that provocative question, he plowed on. “Nobody fucking asked you to make me into a genius loci.”

Mathuin moved closer to him, towering, and Jem leaned back involuntarily, until he was arched over the counter. He considered trying to duck under Mathuin’s arm to escape, but decided it wasn’t worth the indignity. “If I didn’t know better,” Mathuin said, very quietly. “I might think that you were up to something, with your twin. Hatching some new fucking conspiracy, as it were. But you’re not so stupid as that, are you, kitten?”

Jem opened his mouth and then shut it with a snap. “Jubilee was there the entire fucking time! Were we plotting with her, too?”

“I wouldn’t dare to presume,” Mathuin said, but for all his sardonicism, he wasn’t hiding his anger.

Jem forwent dignity and ducked under Mathuin’s arm to get away— Mathuin, in turn, grabbed his upper arm and yanked him close.

“It wasn’t anything like that,” Jem declared, breathless. “We just— Oaf and I, we just— we just wanted some questions answered, that was it.”

“Like what.”

“Like where you came from.” Mathuin’s eyebrows went up at that. “And— and— what was here before Charles Agripin. And what Charles Agripin’s court was like. Jubilee said…” But Jem trailed off. This seemed like a bad time.

“Maybe you should have been curious about all of that before you threw your lot in with Garet Agripin,” Mathuin snapped.

They heard the outside door open and shut, and Mathuin looked up just as Hemming walked into the kitchen. Hemming took one look at the sight in front of him, and blanched. “A bad time?” he guessed.

“You could say so,” Mathuin said. “No,” he started when Hemming made to step out of the room again. “It’s fine. We’re finished.” He straightened up to leave.

“But—” Jem began desperately. “I mean it,” he said, and Mathuin stopped while he was still in the doorway. “We weren’t conspiring. I’m not, I wouldn’t do that, I… we’re just—” He floundered. “I’m just bored, I needed something to do. It was fucking harmless.”

By his expression, Mathuin was in no way mollified. “You’ll forgive me for not being convinced,” he said.

“Why?” Jem snapped. “It’s the simplest explanation.” That sounded like a rather specious argument even to his own ears, and there was a color rising in his cheeks that was primarily due to Hemming witnessing this— not that it had ever, until now, occurred to Jem to care what Hemming thought.

Mathuin ruminated on the question. “Not to put too fine a point on it, Kätzchen,” he said. “But you’ve handled this marriage with far too much grace to be believable.”

Jem reacted almost before he knew he’d understood the words. He seized the nearest object, a glass sugar jar, and flung it at Mathuin. He had always been strictly mediocre at sport, but in this, his aim was precise— Mathuin ducked, and the jar flew through the space where his head had been and shattered against the corner of the wall, damaging the wood in the process. Jem heard Hemming shout.

He didn’t linger to find out if this particular display had changed Mathuin’s opinion at all. He was out of the room in a moment, collecting Britomartis when he saw her on the stairs, and then curling up in one of the library rooms with his Tam Lin books and notes.

He did very little work while he was busy fuming, and after a while, gave up in despair, and looked through the nearby books on the shelves instead. He found a copy of Yeats’s poetry that interested him, but when he took it back to the chair to read, he couldn’t make himself concentrate even enough to open the book.

He fell asleep there, curled up in the armchair, long after Britomartis had abandoned him to roam the house. He woke when Mathuin shook his shoulder, and pulled him, wordlessly, back to bed.

•••

Jem woke in the morning feeling rueful about the fight. It had been the heat of the moment, he thought. And it had been stupid. He was still pissed off, not the least because of Mathuin’s parting comment, but with a bit of perspective and unpleasant reflection, he could understand that, given the history, conspiracy did seem like a far more plausible explanation than the twins being idiots and short-sighted.

Not, he thought, that he and Oaf had ever really been anything other than idiots and short-sighted, but with various magical powers thrown in for spice, and he couldn’t help but think that Mathuin should know that.

He sat up in bed when Mathuin was getting up. “I’m sorry for throwing a jar of sugar at your head.”

Mathuin didn’t answer— just reached back and tousled Jem’s hair. Jem watched him leave with an exhausted determination. He was going to have to make things right, he decided, because the quality of this marriage, monstrous as it was, determined the quality of his life. With that freshly depressing thought, he curled up under the blankets and went back to sleep.

He spent most of the day trying to make up his schoolwork. In the evening, Mathuin’s followers congregated downstairs, to Jem’s deep irritation. He stayed upstairs, in one of the library rooms, wrapped in blankets that didn’t quite block out the cold, until he heard Mathuin come home.

He made his way downstairs, and into the gathering, however gingerly. He was careful not to meet Jubilee’s eyes, but he found Mathuin, sitting on the couch with a beer, and asked him if he could speak to him privately.

Mathuin agreed without displaying any displeasure at this request, and pulled Jem out onto the deck that overlooked the backyard. “Why are you shivering?” he asked Jem, as soon as he had shut the door.

Jem looked at him suspiciously. “Because it’s cold upstairs,” he said.

“There’s a fireplace down here.” Jem just looked at him, and he sighed. “What did you want, Kätzchen?”

“It’s about my family.”

“You want to visit them?”

Jem squirmed. “No, I… Is it possible… they could come live here?” When Mathuin’s response to this question was a dead stare, he added, “In Bergdis, they’d be safe from the Knights.”

“Why are you asking me this now?” Mathuin asked. “Why not wait until I’m in a good mood, when we haven’t had a fight in the last twenty-four hours?”

Jem shrugged. “I didn’t want you to think I was trying to suck up to you. And I didn’t want you to accuse me of being manipulative when I asked.”

By the look Mathuin gave him, that estimation of his character, however oblique, was not appreciated. “No,” Mathuin said. Jem grimaced. He hadn’t expected anything better.

“I don’t ask for anything,” he started, a little more desperately than he’d intended to sound. “But just this—”

“You don’t ask for anything, except your sister’s safety,” Mathuin said, and leaned forward. “And her freedom. That was the bargain we made. Did you forget about asking for that?”

“Is that… all you wanted from me?” Jem said, with enormous trepidation.

He was not even precisely sure what he was offering. There was some idea, in the back of his mind, that he should have withheld sex and then offered it in return for this, but the idea was too ludicrous to be entertained. Firstly, he already felt like a whore most nights, without giving Mathuin the incentive to call him one outright; and secondly, he was too awkward, too inexperienced, and too deeply uncomfortable to ever have made that offer convincing, let alone tempting. Besides, he thought, he hadn’t realized just how badly Mathuin wanted him until he was already on his hands and knees, and that was much too late to be making deals with the devil.

“I already have everything I want,” Mathuin said, and Jem flinched.

“There are going to be more deaths,” he said, and his voice was thin and shaking. It sounded like he was saying something he wasn’t sure of.
If he was more eloquent, or better at debate, if he was a more assertive person— and he would torture himself with all of these, late into the night— he might have been able to put forth an argument that clearly articulated that while the supernatural world might find the Dorchesters to be a hilarious example of incompetence, being a Dorchester meant living with the guarantee of a tragedy every five years or so, as the Knights hunted down those hilariously incompetent relatives of his one by one. He might have been able to explain that the real impetus for this request was Ophelia’s story about his baby cousin, Katie, and that brief scare, and he might have been able to state it in such a way that didn’t sound like hysteria or paranoia. But Jem was not eloquent, and least of all when trying to go against Mathuin.

By the expression on Mathuin’s face, he didn’t find this statement of Jem’s particularly credible, though whether he thought Jem was lying or exaggerating wasn’t clear. “They threw their lot in with Garet Agripin, and they can deal with the consequences. I’ve got more than enough Agripinites to deal with without importing more.”

Before Jem could try to find a counterargument to that, the door opened and Hemming stood there, looking grimmer than ever. “Sir,” he said. “Sorry to interrupt. A Knight was seen in New Mora, and word is spreading fast.”

Mathuin swore, and left Jem on the deck without a glance back. Jem went inside, to find the group in the den working themselves into something of a tizzy over the news. New Mora was the closest town, by road, to Bergdis, and one had to go through New Mora to get into Bergdis Valley at all. Furthermore, there were a good many travelers, Jem learned, who were coming to Bergdis for the coronation but preferred to stay just outside of the valley, where they could have space and privacy and lower the risk of running into old enemies. Many of those people would be moving into town as soon as they heard the distressing news that a Knight might be hunting on the outskirts.

As nothing was asked of Jem, he instead made his way upstairs, away from everyone else, and spent the night by himself.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIII.

Jem walked to class in the morning where Merodack, in typical fashion, showed no indication of an upheaval in the otherworld that closely surrounded it. He turned in his latest piece of writing to Professor Andrade, while she returned the piece she had just graded and pointed out that the quality had gone down considerably from what she expected of him.

“Perhaps you could ask someone else to read your drafts before you turn them in to me?” she asked gravely. “I’m sure Jakob would be amenable.”

Jakob, Jem thought, later. If she had wanted to find a way to motivate him to study by obliquely bullying him, this was probably the best she could do. There were few things Jem could imagine himself doing less than, of his own volition, asking Mathuin to proofread one of his term papers.

He was in the library when Ophelia found him, later that day. “I just got a text from Jubilee,” she announced. “She said that there aren’t enough hotel rooms to handle everyone who has come to Bergdis for the coronation, and Mathuin allowed a few people to take up residence in his house, while he finds a place for them.”

“Great,” Jem said, and then, “Are you and Jubilee friends now?”

Ophelia ignored that. “Meaning,” she said. “That we should go over there and see what we can find out. I want to know who they are and what they think.”

Jem consented— he had discovered that he was not interested in studying at the moment— and they drove back home.

To Jem’s surprise, the den was largely filled with a handful of little old ladies, women who were piled in sweaters to keep out the cold and gathered around the fireplace with their knitting, their cards, and a fair amount of catching up between old friends. Jem recognized some of them from the earlier party.

Claudine had dropped by, and brought bags of groceries with her. She was busy in the kitchen, cooking, and she immediately recruited Ophelia into helping her chop onions, and Jem into serving the tea and cookies she had prepared.

He was about to return to the kitchen when one of the ladies— the one who had so kindly quizzed Mathuin as to just how much he had married his genius loci— called him over. “You’re the Dorchester boy, aren’t you?” she asked. She was clustered around a small table, with two friends. She patted the seat next to her. “Sit, a little while, would you, boy? Izzie, dear,” she added, turning to her friend. “This is the one I was telling you about.”

Her other friend, not Izzie, squinted at Jem. “A Dorchester?” she asked. “But you’re not a witch.” She spoke with just the slightest of accents.

“No, ma’am,” Jem said politely, covertly checking her hands. She had all ten fingers. It wasn’t a sure guarantee that she wasn’t a witch— she could be missing a toe instead. “Sorry, I don’t think we’ve been introduced…?”

They introduced themselves, one by one; Elzbieta Zurauskaite, the one who had called him over, her friend, Isaura Papagos, and the one who might be a witch, Ava Rüdinger. Not a one of them, Jem was sure, was fully nor ordinarily human, but it was not good form to ask a person, supernatural or otherwise, just what they were.

“You travelled into Bergdis because of the Knight?” Jem asked, as carefully as he might. “Where are you from, ordinarily?”

“Ah, well, I live in Bergdis,” Ms. Zurauskaite told him. She sipped the tea. Her hair was a white cloud around her head, and she wore wool sweaters draped one over the other, in grays and greens, and over them, pale, embroidered scarves that dripped beads. Her eyes were a very pale gray and slightly protuberant. “But near the edge, see, and I thought, well, it’s not quite as safe as I might like, in these ambiguous times, and so, I made my way into town.”

To live near the edge of Bergdis meant to live in the densely forested mountainside, characterized largely by cliffs and outcroppings of rock that no one could build on. Jem decided not to question her, but merely poured himself a cup of tea, as Ms. Zurauskaite continued on. “But Izzie has come from Seattle, and Ava drove up all the way from Santa Monica—”

Not an easy trip, at my age,” Ms. Rüdinger said, grumpy. She was the most elegant of the three, dressed in pale silks, with her white hair twisted into a coiffed knot at the back of her head. She wore ropes of pearls around her neck and diamonds on her fingers and wrists. The only color to her was a slash of red lipstick, pulled distinctly into a frown. She alone, of all the women in the room, did not seem cold at all.

“Have you lived in Bergdis long?” Jem asked Ms. Zurauskaite as he took a sip of his tea.

“No, not very long at all,” she said blithely. “Only since about 1922, if I remember right.”

Jem did not choke on his tea, but it was quite an effort. “Since 1922?” he repeated.

“Perhaps earlier,” she noted.

Ms. Papagos patted Ms. Zurauskaite’s hand. “You’re forgetting how young they are now, dear,” she said. “When were you born, boy?” she added to Jem.

“I was born in 1994,” Jem said, trying not to be too obvious about how rattled he felt.

“See?” Ms. Papagos said.

“Born in 1994 and already a genius loci?” Ms. Rüdinger asked.

Jem nodded, but he was, once he recovered from the surprise, far more interested in Ms. Zurauskaite. “If you came here in 1922, you must know a great deal about the old court,” he said. “What it was like before Charles Agripin became Erlking…”

She was pleased with this question, like a proud cat placated with petting. “Well, of course,” she said. “I’m not so old that I was here when it all started, mind, but I remember when Charles was just a boy. Ava and Izzie were here, then, too,” she added.

“He was a rat,” Ms. Rüdinger told Jem frankly. “As discourteous as they come, and as rude as his father. Always up to something with those friends of his,” she added, disgusted. “And I mightn’t have cared, but he was a corrupting influence, that one. Claudine was a sweet as a crumpet when he wasn’t goading her into some stupid idea or tormenting her until she cried.”

“He wasn’t so bad as that,” Ms. Zurauskaite protested. “Sure, he tried to have everyone dancing to his tune, but as soon as he was out of sight, Claudine went back to her old self, and, of course, the other one wasn’t so easy to bully.”

“The other one? You mean Jakob?” Ms. Papagos asked, and smiled tightly. Of the three of them, she had no hint of anything but the most American of accents. Her hair was tucked back behind a scarf, a hint of gossamer white compared to the darkness of her skin. Her eyes were very round and very black, and she wore sweaters layered one on top of the other, with high collars poking out and framing a slender neck. Her hands were thick with silver rings, with metal pressed into shapes of helmets and snakes and bumblebees.

“Jakob,” she said, “Never much minded anything Charles did. Not until it was too late.”

“So, you also knew Math— I mean, Jakob— as a child?” Jem asked. He found himself holding his teacup very tightly, and put it down.

“Of course,” Ms. Zurauskaite said. “Well, I mean…”

“As well as anyone could know Jakob,” Ms. Rüdinger explained. “He kept his own counsel, as they say.”

“A very bright child,” Ms. Papagos agreed. “She could never see it.”

“Who?”

“The queen,” Ms. Zurauskaite said. “Don’t get me wrong— she was a dear, dear friend, and when things had become a bit uncomfortable, back in the old country, it was so kind of her to offer me a home here. But just like everyone else, she had her faults, and among them was a certain…”

“She could be heedless,” Ms. Papagos said, quite delicately.

“She was pig-headed,” Ms. Rüdinger said bluntly.

Jem hesitated. “There’s a tomb, out in the woods,” he said. “Made all of petrified wood. It’s beautiful. I was wondering…?”

“Oh yes,” Ms. Zurauskaite said. “That’s hers.”

“And the tunnels, underground…?”

“The old court,” Ms. Zurauskaite said, nodding. She looked pleased. “You’ve found all sorts of things, haven’t you?”

Jem nodded. “Was she the one who made the court?” he asked quietly.

“Of course,” Ms. Rüdinger said. “She fled Germany, you see— a near run-in with the Knights, long before she was ever queen material.” She scowled. “In some ways, nothing has changed. But she came to America, and to New York, where she heard that there was a place in the West where the Knights could not go. Even then, Bergdis was enchanted.”

“Why is that, exactly?” Jem asked. “No one’s ever explained it to me…”

Until now, the women had been positively chatty, but at this question, he was met with three shuttered faces.

In defiance of her friends’ cowardice, Ms. Rüdinger put her chin up. “There’s an old woman who lives in the woods,” she said quietly. “Much older than the likes of us, if you’ll believe that. The Native Americans of this area, the Colville people, they gave her a wide berth, out of respect, and perhaps a certain wisdom. They refused to step foot into this valley, and the Knights cannot; she repels them. But when the old queen came here, she made a deal with the old woman, and thus, the court was born. The town followed, and eventually the college too.”

“The old woman,” Jem said slowly. “Does she live in a cottage in the woods… by a boulder that looks a bit like an animal skull…?”

Ms. Rüdinger looked surprised. “I believe she does,” Ms. Zurauskaite said thoughtfully.

“She took a new name for herself,” Ms. Papagos commented. “It was… if I remember right… Evelyn Beir.”

The name sounded familiar, but Jem couldn’t quite place it. He sipped his tea again, and then asked, “Where did Mathuin come from? Was he born into the court?”

“Not quite,” Ms. Zurauskaite said with a suppressed smile.

“You know,” Ms. Papagos said, putting her teacup down with emphasis. “There’s a line in that poem of Mr. Yeats’s, but I can’t quite remember it… the waters and the wild…”

Jem could have asked what in the world a line of Yeats poetry had to do with the parents that Mathuin must have had, but he was not belaboring under the illusion that these three ladies had any obligation to indulge him and his questions, and he wanted the answers they were providing far more than they needed someone to talk to. “I have a book of Yeats’s upstairs,” he said, getting to his feet. “Let me go get it.”

He found it just where he had left it, as battered as ever, on the table next to the chair. As he walked downstairs, he flipped it open, and discovered the margins black with ink, and chosen lines underlined in red; someone had taken endless notes, carefully recorded in neat, precise cursive, each letter no more than a few millimeters tall. It was not Mathuin’s handwriting.

He handed the book over to Ms. Papagos, who opened it without comment as to its previous owner, and searched for her poem. “Here it is,” she announced:

“There we’ve hid our faery vats/ Full of berrys/ And of reddest stolen cherries. / Come away, O human child! / To the waters and the wild/ With a faery, hand in hand/ For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”

Jem swallowed. “Mathuin was a changeling,” he said.

“Mm. Yes,” Ms. Zurauskaite agreed. “She took him as such a tiny little thing, of course. She knew he’d grow up big— a ‘bruiser’, if you will— and she wanted him to be sure he would always be loyal to Claudine. He was supposed to be her protector, her hound, her unquestioning second-in-command. This was all before my arrival, of course.”

“He was supposed to be Hemming,” Jem breathed.

“Mm. Well, the Hound was a bit of a different office, in those days,” Ms. Papagos said obliquely.

“She misestimated,” Ms. Rüdinger said with flat disapproval. “As I said, she could be a real pig-headed fool when she didn’t want to see something. She wanted Jakob to be a henchman, a big oaf, and she grew him like a weed for that purpose. She didn’t see how intelligent and conniving he was until it was much too late. Besides, she wanted Claudine to succeed her, but Claudine never had an ambitious bone in her body.”

“Claudine is her daughter,” Jem established. He kept his voice soft.

“The one and only,” Ms. Papagos agreed.

Jem hesitated. “How did she treat him?” he asked. “The old queen, how did she treat Mathuin?”

“Oh, well, that one— he wanted his freedom as soon as he was old enough to know he didn’t have it,” Ms. Zurauskaite chuckled. “And she was never very forgiving nor very understanding. I remember hearing the story of when he figured out his first spell, and it worked— he was so preciously young, barely ten years old, and already working magic, can you imagine it? But she flew into such a rage. Had him whipped bloody before the court.”

Jem flinched.

“She was a character,” Ms. Papagos said dryly.

Jem cleared his throat. “How did she die?” he asked.

“There was the matter of the Agripins,” Ms. Rüdinger said. “We told you that Charles grew up with Claudine and Jakob, but we didn’t tell you about his father, did we? Old John Agripin. He was famous in his day, though it seems everyone’s since forgotten him. He came to Bergdis after his wife had recently been killed, when Charles was just a babe in arms, and it was such an honor for the court, to have a sorcerer and a scholar of such renown in residence. But over the years, he got it into his head that where there was a queen there should be a king. She couldn’t have that, of course, so she killed him— but not before he cursed her.”

“He cursed her? How?”

“It was Christmastime,” Ms. Papagos said, with a glance towards the nearby fire that warmed the room. “And the court celebrated, in their own way. Everyone gave the queen a gift, as was only appropriate, and John Agripin gave her a bejeweled egg. It was quite beautiful, wasn’t it, Elzbieta?”

“Very beautiful,” Ms. Zurauskaite agreed. “All lacquered red and trimmed with gold and silver and crystal, set with diamonds and rubies and pink sapphires and fire opals.”

“But it was cursed. It took her ten years to die of it.”

“Ten years of hunting Charles Agripin,” Ms. Zurauskaite added. “But she never caught him. She would’ve killed him if she had— she knew he had his father’s ambitions.”

“And then Charles made her proper fairy court into a magician’s court instead,” Ms. Rüdinger added, rather sourly.

“I’ve heard—” Jem hesitated. “I’ve heard that it came down to Mathuin or Agripin, when it was time to choose a king.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Ms. Papagos said.

“The old queen wanted Jakob on the throne, when she finally came to her senses and realized Claudine would have nothing to do with it,” Ms. Rüdinger explained.

“But he wanted it almost as little as Claudine,” Ms. Zurauskaite added. “Though I suppose he must have changed his mind. Poor Charles. If he could have defeated Jakob in a fair fight, then he would have proven that the throne was his, once and for all, but since Jakob never gave him the pleasure, there was always that lingering suspicion that he was the weaker choice.”

“That suspicion turned out to be true, didn’t it?” Ms. Rüdinger said blithely. “It wasn’t very difficult, killing him, was it?” She addressed this question to behind Jem. Jem’s heart jumped into his throat; he twisted around, and discovered, to a dreadful lack of surprise, Mathuin standing just behind him. He didn’t think he had ever seen the man looking quite so unimpressed, and that was despite every stupid thing Jem had once had the pleasure of hearing Ritter say in class.

“No,” Mathuin said. “It wasn’t. Jem, Claudine could use your help in the kitchen.”

Jem went, and quickly. He found Claudine distracted but not terribly hassled. She set him to loading the dishwasher, a task that was done surprisingly quickly given how badly he was shaking. The meal prepared, Ophelia was busy distributing it onto plates, while Claudine bustled about, pouring drinks, preparing piles of silverware and napkins, and otherwise trying to remember what she had forgotten.

When she left to carry the first few plates out into the den, Jem finished with the dishwasher and turned it on before turning back to his sister.

“Oaf,” he said. “I need to talk to you.”

“Okay,” she said. “So we shouldn’t go join everyone else to eat?”

“Can you set something up so that we’ll get a warning if anyone else is about to walk in here?”

She sent Abhorson the imp to play lookout, and in the meantime, they settled down with a plate of Claudine’s food between them. Claudine had roasted a porketta, prepared with green beans, asparagus, okra, and leeks cooked with bacon, sweet potatoes cooked with sugar and nuts. The dishes were accompanied by French bread, cheesy biscuits, and baked potatoes, applesauce and cut pears, and for dessert, caramel- cinnamon rolls that exhaled steam when pulled apart.

“She really didn’t want anyone to go hungry, did she?” Jem observed.

“What was it you had to tell me?” Ophelia asked.

As quickly as he could, and while constantly checking over his shoulder as to where Mathuin might be, he explained everything the three ladies had told him. Ophelia listened silently, until the very end.

“Claudine certainly kept all that quiet,” she observed thoughtfully, once all was said. “As did Garet, for that matter.” She frowned. “You realize this means that what Jubilee said about the Erlking being a position that passes from victim to murderer has a grand precedent of one, right?”

“That did occur to me.” Jem paused. “And— if that’s right— it doesn’t just mean that Mathuin’s the rightful king. It means that Mathuin’s been king since 1993, since he killed Charles Agripin.”

“Then why—” Ophelia started, but she was interrupted. Abhorson flew back into the room, indicating an imminent interruption, and sure enough, Claudine appeared a moment later, to ask Jem to put the kettle on for more tea.

The rest of the night was busy enough that the twins didn’t get a chance to speak again. Mathuin somehow managed to find a place for everyone that wasn’t his own home, and Jem wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or even more nervous than he already was. Everyone was gone by midnight, and since Mathuin had taken it upon himself to personally escort Ms. Rüdinger to her hotel room, Jem was left alone.

He cleaned up, as quickly as he could, and when he heard Mathuin’s car in the driveway, darted upstairs and into the shower. He climbed out only reluctantly when he couldn’t procrastinate any longer, and found Mathuin waiting for him in the bedroom.

Mathuin smiled at him, like the cat with a mouse under its paw. “Did you have a good time, talking to my guests?”

Jem hunched his shoulders and pulled the towel closer around himself. As much as showering to delay this confrontation had seemed like a good idea at the time, he discovered that he didn’t much care to have it while naked. “Are you mad about that?” he asked.

“What should I be mad about? You prying into things that aren’t your business?” He got to his feet, which meant unfolding into his full, impossibly tall height. Jem eyed him, trying, and entirely failing, to imagine Mathuin as a precocious ten-year-old, abused by his captors.

“If I asked you questions about the past,” Jem started. “Would you answer me?”

“Probably not,” Mathuin said frankly, unbuckling his belt.

Jem was quiet, as he watched Mathuin pull off his belt. “I should’ve tried to find out all of this information back when I was sixteen,” he said quietly. Unsaid was: before he had allied himself with Garet Agripin. Before he had found himself married, as much of a surprise as that was.

“Probably,” Mathuin agreed, holding the belt doubled over in his hand.

“Did you not make any stupid mistakes when you were sixteen?”

“You wouldn’t believe the dumb shit I did when I was sixteen,” Mathuin answered. “And you can’t imagine the things that were done to me as punishment for it.”

Jem narrowed his eyes. Something about Mathuin’s tone… “You think I’m spoiled,” he accused. “Specifically, you think you spoil me.”

“And you think you’re so mistreated,” Mathuin mocked. “You think I’m such a monster.”

“That’s fucked up,” Jem said, which was not, he thought, the most eloquent way of stating the sentiment. Mathuin moved suddenly, and Jem tried to bolt.

He was always waiting for this moment, when Mathuin moved towards him with violence, instead of the usual controlling wrangling or proprietary affection, and now that it came, his anticipation proved useless. Mathuin moved so quickly Jem barely had a moment to get a hand up before Mathuin had grabbed his upper arm and hauled him with easy force to the bed. Before Jem could find a moment to panic, he found himself sprawled, naked and facedown, across Mathuin’s lap.

Jem twisted back just in time to see the belt folded over, in Mathuin’s fist and raised over his head, before it came down on the back of his legs. The sound was as loud as a gunshot, and every bit as shocking to Jem, so shocking he almost didn’t feel the exploding, burning hurt that followed. He did feel the next blow, and yelped.

“Stop it,” he gasped, after the next one, and that became a chant. “Stop it stop it stop it—”

“What in the world were you expecting?” Mathuin asked him. “You investigating my past— did you think I wouldn’t find out? Or care?” Another blow, that made Jem utter a short shriek.

No one had ever hit him before, with a possible exception of Ophelia, who was so utterly nonthreatening as to be his own hand. No one bullied the witch’s son in the schoolyard, whether or not they consciously knew whose son he was, and his parents were not the sort who could ever so much as dream of disciplining him this way.

Jem writhed and thrashed, trying to get away from him, but Mathuin held him pinned down. The blows layered, from buttocks down his legs and then back up again, while Jem cursed and screamed at him. He called Mathuin a rapist again, which did not get the reaction he wanted— “Who said I was planning to fuck you?” — and eventually, Jem’s ire, which was quickly proving useless, gave way to apologizing, whimpering, and then begging.

At that, Mathuin finally stopped. He was breathing hard, as if he’d just finished fucking Jem, and he dropped the belt, so as to leave his hand free. Jem squirmed. Mathuin had stopped beating him, but his other hand still held Jem’s wrists behind his back in a bruising grip, keeping him pinned down, so any subservient gratitude seemed a bit premature.

Mathuin rubbed his hand over the welts that were quickly developing. Jem flinched. “The things I want to do to you,” Mathuin breathed, first pushing his knees open, and then pinching the flesh of his ass, hard. Jem held his breath, determined not to make so much as another squeak, until Mathuin released his wrists and nudged him out of his lap.

Jem moved quickly to his side of the bed, where he curled up under the covers like a child hiding from a monster, and lay on his side to avoid further aggravating the growing welts. Moving was a fresh hell.

Mathuin left, which provided only temporary relief to Jem, who wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to never lay eyes on him again. He returned minutes later, with ice packs in hand, coaxed Jem onto his stomach, and laid them carefully and gently on Jem’s flesh. Jem wanted to snap at him, but he was more afraid than ever before, and besides, the ice did help.

He did not sleep well. The ice had stopped being soothing by the time he woke in the night. He dragged himself, aching and sore, over Mathuin and out of bed. Mathuin grunted once, but otherwise ignored him, as Jem went to get water.

When he returned, it was to find Mathuin awake if tired. Gingerly, he sat down on the edge of the bed, holding the water balanced on one knee, and asked, “Why did you kill Charles Agripin?”

He had no sooner said it than he regretted it.

Mathuin made a noise that couldn’t properly be called a groan. “Now?” he asked, and when Jem said nothing, “I think you, and everyone else in the world knows the answer to that question, Kätzchen. The same reason I killed Garet Agripin.”

“No, it isn’t.” Jem’s heart was pounding in his throat. “I— I’m not going to claim that I know you, but I’ve lived with you for months now, and I know that no matter what everyone else thinks, you didn’t want to be Erlking. And I know that— regardless of what stupid Garet or Charles Agripin before him ever thought— I know that you’re more deadly than either of them ever was. You could have killed Garet in that grove, even if you didn’t have me.” Mathuin said nothing at all, and Jem blundered on. “You just wanted to make sure you had me before you did it. You wanted to make sure I couldn’t run like Sophia Nemael did. And Garet— he had a lot of bravado, and he thought he was going to win, because he was the hero, and the heir, and the hero always wins, except he didn’t.”

He took a great breath, afraid, and almost hopeful, that Mathuin would interrupt. Mathuin was silent. “I know you don’t kill people without a reason. I know why you killed Garet, and it’s because Garet was trying to kill you, and had been trying since before they found Charles Agripin’s body. But what I don’t know is why you killed Charles Agripin in the first place.”

Having finished, he snuck a nervous look over at Mathuin. The man was silent, but was eyeing Jem was a distant sort of approval, as if he were reconsidering something significant and was pleased to be doing so. After a long time, he said, “You’re right.”

Jem let out a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. He’d expected Mathuin to snarl at him and call him an idiot until just that moment.

“You’re right that I didn’t want to be Erlking.” Mathuin said slowly. “And you’re right that I killed Garet because he was trying to kill me, the wretched moron. And,” This, levelly, “You’re right that I didn’t need to have you in order to win that fight. Though having you certainly didn’t hurt.”

“What changed?” Jem asked quietly. “If you didn’t want to be Erlking… you could just walk away. No one would be able to do anything about it.”

Mathuin looked away. “When I first had the chance, I was young. There was a whole world to see, so much of which was not the fucking state of Washington, and being Erlking seemed like a trap, not a blessing. I didn’t appreciate the power that came with the position, until I saw Charles at the height of his…” His face went stony. “Theatrics. And then, when I killed Charles… I had other things on my mind.”

“Why…?”

“I’m not going to tell you why I killed Charles.” He put it gently, but there was no room for arguing it in his voice. “Not tonight.”

Jem nodded. He was surprised to discover just how much better he liked the lack of truth than an old lie. He let Mathuin draw him back into bed, and he slept.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIV.

Jem woke the next morning when Mathuin pulled him close to kiss him. He fought his way free, pushed the man away, and climbed over him to get out of bed. He had no sooner gotten to his feet than his legs went out from under him, and he landed on his ass. The pain knocked the breath out of him, and set his eyes to watering.

Mathuin sat up and reached for him. “Are you all right?”

Jem ignored the question but dragged himself, and what little remained of his dignity, up and out of the room.

He examined the bruises in the bathroom mirror and found them a brilliant display of color, all electric blue and rich violet and fuchsia red, with just the hints, here and there, where the welts criss-crossed and the bruises were especially concentrated, of an evil-looking necrotic black. Besides these new injuries, he still had the bruises from his fall from the bike.

He dressed, and called his sister for a morning ride, waking her up in the process. “There’s no reason for Andrade to put any of her lectures first thing in the morning,” she groused as she drove. “No goddamned reason at all. She’s not competing for classroom space. None of her students have other classes to attend. She doesn’t have anything else to do.”

“I think she likes to get it out of the way, first thing in the morning,” Jem hypothesized.

“First thing in the morning should be two hours from now. You’re moving weird,” she added, unprompted, and Jem stiffened. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sick,” Jem lied.

There was a bit of a tickle in his throat after all, he noticed as he made his way, slowly and painfully, up the steps to his first class, so it wasn’t that bad of a lie. The bruised skin felt wrong— inelastic and swollen thick, as if it was full of dead blood. Generally, the bruises didn’t hurt much besides a general throbbing, but they were stiff with the rumor of a deeper, unspeakable pain underneath. Walking upstairs awakened all of that pain.

By halfway through Professor Andrade’s lecture, the tickle in his throat had become a knife; by the end, he was coughing and sneezing. After class, when he should have headed to the library, he called his sister.

He woke her again, and demanded a ride home. She was unenthusiastic but cooperative, and it was a peculiar car ride, with Ophelia quiet in a tired stupor, while Jem sneezed and clicked his throat and rubbed at his ears.

Jem had had the flu once before in his life, and it had been a memorable experience. He knew this feeling, of a sickness that came on hard and fast, and he recognized it here. He didn’t have time to have the damned flu, he thought, childishly furious at the unfairness of the matter, staunchly ignoring that no one ever had time for the flu, and they still got it anyway.

“Do you want me to come inside with you?” Ophelia asked, once they had reached home.

“Nope,” Jem said, climbing out of the car. He muttered a thanks.

“Remember to drink lots of orange juice,” Oaf called after him. Jem just grunted.

He made his way inside, with a half-delirious list of items in mind— cough syrup and orange juice and chicken soup and echinacea pills and honey lemon ginger tea— and was stunned to find Mathuin and Hemming in the kitchen.

“Kätzchen,” Mathuin said pleasantly. “You got my message.”

Jem had not. “What are you doing here?” he asked blankly.

“Waiting for you.” Mathuin’s face was the straight mask Jem had learned to identify as a sign he was appreciating a joke with no one but himself. He reached out, and before Jem could realize what he was doing, he cuffed Jem’s wrists behind his back.

“Wait— what—” He had some notion he should be protesting, for however little good it would do, but the flu left him in a confused haze. Mathuin pulled him out of the kitchen, and down the basement steps. Jem wondered, with bewilderment, if these were the same handcuffs used when Mathuin had cut him open and made him into a genius loci.

“It’s just for a short while.” Jem stumbled, and Mathuin grabbed him to keep him from falling. “Something’s come up, and I need to keep you safe.”

“What…” It didn’t occur to Jem that safety and handcuffs were not precisely logical bedfellows. Mathuin pulled him down yet another flight of stairs, and into the cellar laundry room.

The stone room was small, sparse, and windowless, done entirely in white. There was a smaller bathroom attached. A place had been set up in one corner of the room, consisting of little more than a camping bedroll, a blanket, a pillow, and a pile of his Tam Lin books. Jem gaped, even as Mathuin let go of his arm. He had been kept here in that week between Garet’s death and his marriage, and it wasn’t an experience he wanted to repeat.

It occurred to him, however sluggishly in his exhausted, ill brain, that this had a dual purpose; if there were some threat to Jem, storing him down here would keep him safe. If Jem was the threat, and a conspirator at that, this imprisonment would keep him neutralized.

Given the cruelly austere supplies, Jem guessed Mathuin was probably inclined to the latter.

A great number of questions went through his head, none of them suitable to ask, and all the while, Mathuin patiently waited for him to either start screaming or make a desperate break for the door, open as it still was. With considerable difficulty, Jem found his voice. “How long?” he asked.

“I couldn’t say. Probably not for more than a couple days. Chin up, Kätzchen— I’ll be back to check on you in a few hours.”

“Wait—” Jem started, intending to mention the flu, and ask for medication, but Mathuin didn’t wait. With nothing more than that, Jem found himself locked in the room, alone, with no sound but for Mathuin’s retreating footsteps.

Well, there was no use sulking about it. He made his way over to the bedroll, on unsteady legs with his hands behind his back, and made a controlled fall onto his side. He was asleep within minutes.

•••

Mathuin discovered that he was sick of murder.

He understood it was hypocritical of him. He gazed down at the newest corpse of one of his subjects, and remembered the heat, wetness, and coppery smell, of cutting Sheriff Scott Copeland’s throat. He hadn’t even been sure what he was going to do with Copeland right up to the moment of the confrontation, when Copeland had, in desperation and panic, tried to kill him. That had decided the matter.

The newest murder was of a man, like Vaughn and Williams, and unlike the unidentified bones. The body had been abandoned in the woods, barely; it was just outside St. Nepomucene and Sons, and the feet were visible from the outside trashcans. A bartender had been stacking the recycling when she happened to glance into the trees and spy what she thought was a drunk who had fallen unconscious in the woods.

The body lay on his back, untouched. As with the others, the throat gaped open like a fissure in the earth, down to the hint of bone. Unlike the others, he had apparently been out in the elements for some time. The clothes were coated in ice and mud, and the face and hands had been attacked and obliterated by scavengers. It was an ugly sight, all rotten blacks and sepia browns in the muddy sepulcher scene, but Mathuin imagined it could have been worse. The rain had washed away the blood, and if he had been killed here, the spray would have coated nearby trees and killer alike.

“Do we know who he was?” Mathuin asked Hemming.

“Not yet,” Hemming said, unsurprisingly. “No one’s been reported missing. We’re canvasing, to see if anyone’s unaccounted for, or was behaving strangely up to a week or so ago, but it will take some time.”

Unsaid was what Mathuin already knew; Bergdis as a population was a collection of recluses, each more eccentric and withdrawn and lacking in family and friends than the last. Both of the previous victims, Reuben Vaughn and Ivan Williams, had been recluses themselves, Williams more than Vaughn.

Mathuin turned away, and Hemming followed him. “There’s a rumor going around,” he started slowly. “That it’s a Mathuinite man, and an old Agripinite killed him.”

“How are there already rumors?” Mathuin asked, exasperated. “He’s not even in a body bag yet.”

Hemming nodded; it was a rhetorical question anyway. “People are worried,” he said gravely. “They’re calling it the Coronation Conspiracy. The general consensus seems to be that the Agripinites are getting revenge, or trying to stage a coup.” He paused. “You married an Agripinite.”

“I’m aware of that,” Mathuin said dryly.

“I’ve been asked— by certain individuals, who insisted that they stay anonymous— if it wouldn’t be a better idea for you to make a new genius loci. A satisfactorily loyal genius loci, at that, and marry that one instead.” Hemming said it as blandly as could be, without the least fear that Mathuin would become infuriated. If Hemming had any sense of humor, Mathuin thought, he might find this amusing.

“I can’t imagine why they wanted to stay anonymous. Did they have any sort of suggestion as to what I’m supposed to do with the old genius loci, if I were to follow this advice?”

“They did not. They were, however, willing to concede that it would be fine if the new genius loci was also a boy.”

Mathuin rolled his eyes. “Let’s concentrate on the murder at hand,” he said, sparing a glance back at the corpse. Detective Harrison was milling about, while the coroner prepared the body bag nearby. Meanwhile, Keith Wharton came around the bar, looking worried. Mathuin waved him over.

“I heard there was another murder,” he said. “Who is it?”

“That’s a good question,” Mathuin allowed.

Wharton got a good look at the corpse, just before they zipped it into a body bag. “Ah, fuck. Fuck, that’s— God. That’s bad.”

“That’s one observation,” Hemming said in an utterly dead voice.

“Do they know how long it’s been there?” Wharton asked. His skin had taken on a decidedly green tinge.

“A while,” Mathuin said. “The coroner said he’d need to have a good look at the insects before he could say anything more.”

“Could he have been there since before Williams was killed?” Wharton wanted to know.

“It’s a distinct possibility. The objective, right now, is figuring out who the fuck that is— that’s the best way to figure out how long he’s been here. Given that what the two other victims have in common is a certain… conflicted… loyalty… who else might have been a target?” What Mathuin didn’t add was who else might still be a target? “It’s a difficult question, I realize, as this is a town that made an entire war out of keeping secrets.”

“Spies, traitors, and double-crossers, you mean,” Wharton said drolly. “Both sides desperately needed them when fighting with subterfuge, and everyone reviles them all the same.”

Hemming looked directly at Mathuin. “Jem Dorchester,” he said. “And Nate Wallace.”

Mathuin looked over his shoulder, to where they were taking the body away. The body was neither Jem nor Nate, and everyone knew that perfectly well.

Wharton was deeply unsettled by this assertion that Jem and Nate might be, at the least, the most hunted of Bergdis’s residents. “Only if you suppose that Ophelia Dorchester won’t turn out to be our culprit,” he said. “Which is a hell of an assertion.”

“If Ophelia Dorchester were the murderer, Wallace would have been the first victim,” Hemming said. “She had more reason to have a vendetta against Wallace than Vaughn. Wallace’s was the intimate betrayal.”

Wharton made a face like someone had pinched his nose. “Wallace is more clever than Vaughn ever was.”

“Ophelia is a witch,” Hemming said flatly. “With no particular aptitude for transformation but a talent for summoning. If she put her mind to killing him, he would be dead.”

Wharton turned to Mathuin. “What do you think?”

Mathuin was somewhat more conservative in his dismissal of Ophelia. “She may have left Nate alive for other reasons,” he pointed out. “It’s not a comfortable thing, committing murder, and it’s even more uncomfortable the closer you are to the person you’re murdering. Besides— neither of you have done her enough credit to think that perhaps she has something planned, wherein Vaughn and Williams’s deaths have some purpose, and Nate’s hypothetical murder does not. But, back to the subject at hand— who the fuck is in that body bag?”

Hemming and Wharton had a few more names to offer; all recluses, all one-time Agripinites. None could immediately be dismissed, but Hemming intended to check up on all of them, to make sure they were still alive. Mathuin left, frustrated and with as little information as when he’d arrived.

•••

He returned home later than he intended, and immediately went down to the cellar to check on Jem.

He had some notion that he should let the boy out to eat and generally stretch his legs; he wanted to fuck him, but given that he had kept him in what amounted to solitary confinement for most of the day and beaten him the night before, he wasn’t optimistic about just how forgiving Jem might be feeling.

He had no sooner unlocked the door and walked inside than he knew something was wrong. Nothing had been moved from precisely where he had placed it— the blankets, pillow, or books. Jem lay on his side on the camping roll, curled up as tightly into a ball as he could be, with his arms still cuffed behind his back. Mathuin had been sure that the first thing he would do was get his arms in front of him; he was agile enough that it wouldn’t be difficult. His face was turned to the wall, and he was shivering badly, in periodic wracking shudders.

Mathuin crouched down next to him to touch his shoulder, which startled Jem awake. When he looked over his shoulder at Mathuin, his face was ashen pale, with bruises smeared under his eyes as if he’d been kept up for days, and chapped lips.

“You don’t look well, Kätzchen,” Mathuin said quietly.

Jem turned his face into the bedroll and coughed, hard. Mathuin put a hand on his forehead and immediately had his questions answered. “The flu,” Jem mumbled. “That’s why I was home early. I was gonna tell you… but you…”

Mathuin released his wrists, and Jem made an effort to sit up. “Come on,” Mathuin said quietly, pulling him to his feet. “Let’s get you something to eat.”

Jem shook his head and mumbled something about a shower. Once on his feet, he wobbled, as if his feet might give out from underneath him, but managed to drag himself up the stairs, to the desired shower.

Mathuin heard him coughing, but never the noise of impact that would indicate he’d fainted or slipped. He took the time while Jem was gone to prepare a decent meal, and to switch out the bedroll for an air mattress, with sheets and pillows, a down comforter, and an old quilt. He set up a small space heater next to the improvised bed, and a cooler of drinks at the foot.

Jem, having emerged from the shower with the flu scrubbed from his skin, however temporarily, allowed himself to be drawn back down to the cellar room and back to bed without complaint. He took the medicine that Mathuin gave him, and a cough drop, but he refused the soup.

Mathuin sat with him, and ate most of the soup himself. “Have you ever had the flu before?” he asked.

“When I was a kid.” Jem eyed him tiredly. He winced and made a motion to touch his back; Mathuin wondered if it was the aches characteristic of the flu, or just the bruises. His voice was already mostly gone. After the shower, his nose was red, and his mouth looked raw, but he had at least stopped shaking quite so badly. The fever was already reaching alarming heights, given that he hadn’t had the disease for even a full day yet; Mathuin imagined that lying, bound and unmoving, in the bitter cold, probably hadn’t helped anything.

“Oaf had it, our freshman year,” Jem added, and made a face, looking down at his hands and the red marks on his wrists. “I moved into Fuseli House for a couple weeks to take care of her. She was such a brat about it. I think I must have watched every superhero movie ever made with her, and she wouldn’t take half the stuff I gave her.”

“Like this?” Mathuin asked, indicating the soup. Jem wrinkled his nose. “What else would you like, Kätzchen?”

“A lamp.” Jem jabbed a hand at the light overhead. “Something that’s not that.”

“Fine,” Mathuin said. “But I meant food. Or drink.”

Jem scowled and for a moment, Mathuin was sure he was going to get every comment he deserved for locking him up, especially while sick. Instead, Jem decided, “Honey lemon tea. It’s in the fridge.”

“It— what?”

Jem made a noise in the back of his throat and struggled to sit up. “Let me go upstairs to get it— I’m not going to sabotage anything, if you just let me out for a second,” he added, in more of a scratchy hiss than a voice.

In the kitchen, Mathuin learned that Jem kept a mason jar filled with sliced lemon and ginger, pickled in honey, and hidden in the far back of the fridge where it would escape Mathuin’s notice. He shoveled a few spoonfuls into a mug and poured boiling water on top, stirring until the mixture became something like a tea. Mathuin watched and thought it was the most witchy thing he had ever see Jem do.

“Did your mother teach you this recipe?” he asked.

Jem nodded without looking up. In the goldenrod glow of the kitchen light, wreathed in steam from the tea and the kettle, he looked younger and more fragile than ever before, all skinny wrists and large dark eyes and tangled hair. Between the flu, his exhaustion, and the cold medicine, Jem was about as cognizant as the pleasantly drunk. He had a tendency to weave noticeably when he moved about the kitchen.

Mathuin had not expected to feel guilty for locking him up. The feeling wasn’t exactly abated when Jem looked up, those large dark eyes wide, and asked Mathuin if he also wanted some tea, anxious as if he had committed some faux pas by not asking earlier. Mathuin demurred, with a wave of a hand.

Eventually, in the otherwise peaceful quiet of the evening, broken heretofore only by Jem’s coughing and clicking, he spoke. “Kätzchen. I have a question for you.”

Jem’s eyes flicked up, and Mathuin was sure that he saw the guilt he was hiding, and just how keenly Mathuin was observing him. Jem, as Mathuin was well aware, knew him much better than he knew Jem. Since moving into this home, however reluctantly that move had happened, Jem had made knowing Mathuin’s every quirk and trait and preference into something like an academic study, rigorous and detailed and holistic. When he didn’t ask what the question was, but simply waited, Mathuin said, tiredly, “Why did you take to the marriage as well as you did? You should hate me.”

He was taking the risk that Jem would counter with, “I do hate you,” but Mathuin wasn’t worried. If Jem hated him, he’d know it by now.

Jem paused, and then made a face like a tired child. “I don’t have a conspiracy going on— I swear, I don’t know who’s doing the murders in Bergdis, but Oaf and I have nothing to do with it. I wouldn’t— I don’t even know why—”

“I didn’t mean it as part of an interrogation,” Mathuin said, internally kicking himself. “I just wanted to know. Why?”

Jem eyed him. “What did you think I was going to do?” he asked. When Mathuin didn’t immediately answer, he added. “You must have thought about it, and you must’ve had a plan. You being you. You have a plan for everything, don’t you?”

Mathuin laughed shortly. “Not everything. I’d go insane if I did that.” But in this matter, he had done just as Jem said.

He had thought that Jem would have at least one more good conspiracy in him, and if not a conspiracy per se, something more straight-forward; an escape attempt, with his sister, or an attempt at murdering Mathuin in his sleep. He figured Jem wouldn’t resign himself to his new life until after Mathuin had proven to him beyond all hope that he was in control.

It didn’t seem like a good idea to mention conspiracy again. “I thought you would have tried to run away,” he said.

Jem frowned. “But we had a deal, about Ophelia,” he said. He looked down at his tea. “That’s better than everyone who’s told me that if they were in my shoes they’d kill themselves. Like my life’s so bad that being dead would be better.”

Mathuin considered that. “Maybe I should have killed all the Agripinites after all,” he mused.

Jem coughed. “Was that supposed to be a joke?”

“You still haven’t answered the question.”

“I don’t really know the answer to that question. It was just day by day at first. And it was awful, in the beginning, because everything had turned upside down, and it was humiliating and I was trapped and Oaf was gone and every time I turned around, there was another murder, and all anyone could talk about was just murder, murder, murder, and then… I don’t know.

“I kept going, and after a few weeks, it wasn’t so bad as all that, there was still class and Oaf’s texts and it wasn’t like I was cold in the ground, and eventually…” he hesitated. “I just thought… there wasn’t any point in being anything but courteous. I thought, you weren’t my enemy anymore, not if the Erling Conflict was over, so there wasn’t anything to be gained from acting like you were. And the murders… they were bad… but I understood they were political— and I understood what Garet would have done, if he’d won.” He was clutching his tea more tightly than ever. “I thought, someone has to cave, and it was going to be me whether I liked it or not, so I might as well try to control it. It was hard.” He scowled down at his tea. He hadn’t met Mathuin’s eyes once while talking. “Every day, every moment, it was so hard, and I was always scared, so scared that I felt sick from it. If it had just been me, I would have stopped caring, but you don’t get to stop being scared for your twin. I think that was why I threw that jar at you— I’d put so much effort into it, and you made fun of it.”

He stopped talking, and scrubbed his eyes. He looked exhausted; Mathuin would have liked to herd him back down into bed, except that Jem hadn’t even sipped at the tea yet. He coughed. “What was your plan, anyway?” he asked, and he didn’t sound like he truly wanted to know.

“Wait,” Mathuin said practically.

“Wait?”

“Wait, and play it by ear. I’ve got plenty of time.”

Jem eyed him as if he wasn’t entirely sure he wasn’t being mocked. “I could’ve had you celibate for years,” he said.

“You could have,” Mathuin agreed. “Do you want ice for your tea?”

Jem shook his head. “What I want is to not be locked in the cellar.”

“Patience,” Mathuin said. “I’ll visit when I can.”

Jem considered him. His eyes couldn’t quite focus, but despite his lack of sobriety and voice, he spoke quite clearly when he said, “Our marriage is very heteronormative.”

Mathuin choked and only through a very great effort, did not laugh. “What do you think that word means?”

“Exactly what it means,” Jem snapped. “I’m not the complete moron you think I am,” he added, acidic, and Mathuin stopped wanting to laugh. This was it, he thought, the real reason why Jem had made an effort in the marriage, whether he knew it consciously or not; because offering peace meant that Jem could, at his discretion, snatch that offering back. Mathuin couldn’t pretend he didn’t want it. It wasn’t much power, but it was something.

Jem having so little power in the first place did rather easily prove his point— it was a very heteronormative marriage, in spite of gender, sexuality, and modern times. If anything, Mathuin thought, heteronormative was a much kinder word than Jem could have used.

“Come on,” he said quietly. “Get your tea, let’s go.”

Jem picked up the tea and swayed. Mathuin didn’t move fast enough to catch him and he fell, hard, shattering the mug and spilling hot tea everywhere.

Mathuin moved quickly. He got Jem cleaned up and tucked away in the cellar room, where he examined his hands for any sign of burns, and found none. Instead, he coaxed Jem, however reluctantly, onto his stomach, where the boy coughed and coughed while Mathuin rubbed salve into the bruises that covered him from knees to lower back. That done, he went upstairs to clean up the mess in the kitchen, and brew a second cup of tea.

He woke Jem to give him the tea, and helped him sit up to drink it. He found his hand wandering, rubbing Jem’s lower back and sneaking under his t-shirt. Jem ignored him completely until the tea was finished, when Mathuin ducked his head close to Jem’s face to say, “I wish you weren’t sick.”

Jem set the mug down. “You think I’d let you fuck me in this room? Or with these bruises?”

He smiled at that, and moved closer. “How badly do you want to spend the night upstairs?”

Jem shoved him away, and then curled up on his side, away from his husband.

Mathuin ruffled the boy’s hair. “Do you want me to go?”

The noise was almost inaudible. “No.”

With no more encouragement than that, he turned off the lights and joined Jem on the air mattress, curled around the boy but with his feet hanging off the end. Jem spent the night unconscious and coughing, while Mathuin lay awake, listening to him and thinking back over what he’d said.

•••

Jem woke hungry.

It was a first. Mathuin had woken him countless times in the past few days, usually to make him drink or give him medicine, but Jem had been, thus far, entirely uninterested in food. He’d eaten, because Mathuin was quite the bully when he put his mind to it, but he hadn’t been happy about it.

He sat up, carefully propped up and supported by the pillows. He accepted the bowl of black bean soup Mathuin handed to him, and ignored that Mathuin put a hand to his forehead to check if he still had a fever.

“What day is it?” He had to whisper around the absence where his voice should be.

Mathuin frowned. “Friday.” Which meant, Jem thought, that Halloween had come and gone. Probably. He didn’t have the best grasp of the calendar, in his present state of mind.

Jem sipped at the soup, gingerly testing out just how bloody raw his throat was at the moment. Mathuin could cook— and who would have guessed that, Jem thought dryly, considering the past few months. He had done all of the cooking, with little thanks and never an offer of help. “Are you taking care of my cat?”

“I left a bowl of cat food out for it.” Mathuin settled back, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and apparently content to watch Jem eat.

“Her,” Jem mumbled. “It’s a her.” After a little while, when Mathuin gave no indication that he might be leaving and Jem figured he better get used to him, he asked, “What happened, anyway? What made you lock me up?”

Mathuin had a hand resting on Jem’s leg. He tapped his fingers. “There was another murder.”

Jem put the spoon down. “Who?”

“We don’t know yet.” Mathuin paused. “Whoever it was, they were in the woods for a time before they were discovered, and either the scavengers or, possibly, the murderer, got to the face and fingers first.”

Jem winced. At least he hadn’t found this one. “And the bones in the tree? The ones I found? Do they know who that was?”

“No. Not yet.”

Jem nodded. He looked back down at the soup and wondered if he was still hungry. He supposed he should have questions about this most recent murder, and what, if anything, Mathuin thought he had to do with it, but he was quickly discovering that he didn’t feel much curiosity at the moment. Maybe later, he thought, when eating a black bean soup wasn’t a daunting task.

Mathuin brought him a glass of orange juice, when he was nearly done with the soup, and Jem scowled. “I don’t understand how this is supposed to be good for when you’re ill,” he protested, cross. “It’s rehydrated crap anyway, they have to pump artificial vitamin C back into it so they can put that stupid claim on the label.”

“Placebo effect,” Mathuin said, with too straight of a face. Jem grumbled, but he took the glass, and Mathuin settled back into his vigil. He glanced at one of the books he’d stacked by the side of the bed to entertain Jem; needlessly, as Jem was finding the flu and the desire to be unconscious plenty entertaining enough. “Tell me about Tam Lin,” Mathuin said.

“Why? Have you been talking to Professor Andrade about me again? When I’m better,” he declared, “I’m going to go to the administration and
report both of you.”

“When you’re better, and when I let you out of here,” Mathuin said, amused.

“Maybe I won’t get better,” Jem threatened.

“What are you reporting us for?”

“Invasion of privacy.”

“Let me know how that goes over,” Mathuin said dryly. “And no, I haven’t spoken to Kate. I don’t have time to speak to Kate, or most anyone else.” He picked up Jem’s copy of Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. “Tam Lin.”

Jem made a face. “Tam Lin. Child, Ballad 39.” He paused. “What do you want to know? You’ve heard it sung, haven’t you?”

“Many times.”

Jem looked at the book and considered his half-finished essay glumly. “I wrote about Koschei the Deathless for my last term. I got comfortable with fairytales, and switching to a ballad, now…” He scrubbed at his eyes.

“What about it?”

“Ballads are so bare bones— an entire story in so few words— they don’t have to deal with the consequences of the questions they raise.”

“I don’t recall having any questions about Tam Lin,” Mathuin said.

“For example, did he rape her, or was it consensual?” Jem said. “Several versions make it explicitly clear that it’s rape. One version makes it obviously consensual. Most, though, are pretty ambiguous. Of course, it’s sixteenth century Scotland, so the treatment of rape is a bit… careless.”

Mathuin, who had turned the book over to scan the back, looked up at him. His eyes were dark. “Either way,” he said. “It resulted in a child.”

“Yes. And then there’s the matter of the fairy queen, and the tithe.” Jem frowned. There were implications, in the ballad of Tam Lin that the eponymous Tam Lin was himself a changeling; stolen, perhaps, for the express purpose of feeding to hell. A child raised to be a sacrifice. But there were other versions that made him out every bit as much a fairy as the queen herself. “The ballad doesn’t say what happens because Tam Lin escaped. Do they feed someone else to the tithe? Or do they not pay the tithe? What happens if you don’t pay your debt to Hell?”

“Hell comes to collect.” Mathuin set the book down. “This is the most you’ve ever deigned to talk to me about your major.”

“Yeah.” Jem examined his hands. “The cough syrup must be really kicking in, because I don’t usually slip up like that.” He was quiet for a moment. “Your fairy queen,” he said. “She must have paid some sort of tithe to the old woman.”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone refer to her as my fairy queen,” Mathuin said dryly. “But yes. She paid.”

“What? What did she pay?”

“Why don’t you ask Ma’am Winter? I’m sure you can find her cabin, if you put your mind do it.”

Jem decided not to mention that he already had. “Are you still paying it? Halloween was a couple days ago, wasn’t it? Did you sacrifice someone?”

Mathuin considered him. That he had just been asked if he had casually committed murder did not seem to bother him overmuch. “Have you ever read Marlowe’s Faust, Kätzchen?”

Jem nodded. “My father used to teach… well… yes. I’ve read it.”

“‘What goodwill my soul do thy lord’?”

“‘Enlarge his kingdom’,” Jem remembered.

“What kingdom does Ma’am Winter have to enlarge? She doesn’t have any need of sacrifices or souls,” Mathuin said wryly. “You could do Faust, for your project next term.”

“If I make it through this term,” Jem retorted. “Did you just expect me to remember one obscure line of a play I read once six years ago? While sick? Do you do shit like that to your students?”

Mathuin just smiled. “I think you’ll make it through the term just fine,” he said.

Jem turned away from him to cough until his lungs ached. Mathuin gave him medicine and a glass of water, and Jem lay back down. Consciousness was losing its appeal.

“When are you going to let me out of here?” he asked, whispering.

Mathuin stroked his hair. “When I know whether you’re safe or guilty,” he said, and Jem decided he didn’t care to push it any farther than that.

Chapter Text

Chapter XV.

Jem’s fever broke, but the cough lingered on, and his voice was slow to recover. After perhaps a week in the cellar, Mathuin let him into the world above, without comment as to what had secured his release.

He was still sick, if no longer barely one step away from unconsciousness at any given moment, and very weak. In the evening, when he was freed from his captivity, he couldn’t help but think of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the tower; his father had adored Katherine Hepburn’s depiction of her in The Lion In Winter. He dragged himself up to the kitchen, and the kitchen table, where he ate the oatmeal and eggs Mathuin gave to him. He ignored Hemming, lingering nearby, and Jubilee and Duarte’s bickering, which floated in from the den.

The house was bitterly, awfully cold. He kept a blanket wrapped around himself, but still shivered miserably, and from the windows and the frost that caked them, he could see the hint of moonlight reflecting off a foot of snow that had fallen while he had been locked away. He took a shower, and managed not to faint once, not even when he climbed out of the hot water and back into the cold. By the time he climbed into his side of the bed, still naked, the house had gone quiet, indicating that Mathuin had sent everyone away.

Britomartis jumped up on the bed even as he was climbing in, and settled herself in a tight orange ball at his back, purring very softly. Jem dozed, and woke when he felt Mathuin’s weight on the bed, lying down beside him.

He petted Jem in long, soothing strokes, from his hair to his tailbone. When his hand grazed Britomartis, she jumped and let out a spitting, hissing snarl, and Mathuin pulled his hand back and swore.

Jem just curled closer to Mathuin.

He felt the kiss on his forehead, but he didn’t move and didn’t open his eyes until he heard Mathuin speak. “Jem.”

The only reason it even caught his attention was that it was his name, for once, and not Kätzchen. Mathuin put his hands around Jem’s face and tilted his head up. Jem squinted at him. “What you said about those who said they’d kill themselves if they were in your position.”

It took Jem a good moment to remember what he was talking about. “What about them?”

Mathuin searched his face. “You don’t despair, do you?”

“What? No.”

“You’ll tell me if you do.” Jem tried to imagine that scenario, and found it difficult. “Jem.”

“Yes,” he lied. “I’ll tell you.”

Mathuin wrapped an arm around him and held him close. “You’ve been good about this marriage,” he said, very softly. “You’ve been better than I ever could have dreamed of asking you to be. You know that I appreciate it, don’t you?”

He appreciated it, Jem thought, so long as there wasn’t a conspiracy behind it.

He nodded, blearily, and then let himself fall back into sleep.

•••

Jem devoted every waking moment of the next few days to studying. He finished a draft of the latest segment on Tam Lin (the matter of the abortifacient), rewrote the draft once, composed an overdue essay on the seminar subject of the role of personified Time in Russian folklore, had a brief bout of anxiety when he considered the possibility that Professor Andrade might hand one of his essays to Mathuin without his consent, and spent an afternoon very seriously considering dropping out of Merodack College.

For all that Professor Andrade was notoriously unsympathetic to plights of what she referred to as “personal life issues”— a blanket term which covered everything from grandparents’ deaths to nervous breakdowns to break-ups to burgeoning pill addictions— she was, generally, quite good about illness, especially when the illness in question could usually be counted on to have a reasonably timed duration and ending.

Jem immersed himself completely in study, to the point of neglecting everyone but Britomartis (he thought she looked thinner when he was released from the cellar). He put Ophelia off with protestations that turned snappish when she complained, ignored Mathuin’s followers completely by retreating to a different corner of the house when they visited, and kept his nose in a book even when he had Mathuin’s attention. He was still coughing, and his voice was still gone, and as such, he begged off sex, to Mathuin’s disappointment but not his surprise.

He found himself, quite suddenly on Wednesday afternoon, unable to even look at another book or article; and, to his astonishment and relief, with nothing that needed to be done by tomorrow. He also had nothing to do, and no one around to entertain him, except his cat, and he was feeling well enough that the prospect of sleeping the afternoon away seemed more boring than appealing.

He played with Britomartis for a time, by flicking uncooked black beans skittering across the floor for her to bolt after and abuse; but after a while, she grew tired of this game and hopped up on a nearby chair to groom herself and ignore him.

“What do you say?” he asked her. “What did I do with myself before I spent every hour in the damn library?”

But already, something was coming to mind. He had asked Mathuin questions about a fairy queen and a tithe— and Mathuin had told him to ask his questions of Ma’am Winter herself.

Admittedly, he had said it in tones that implied he would be furious if Jem did as he suggested. Jem picked himself up off the floor and went to get his coat and his boots.

He wasn’t sure he was recovered enough for a long walk in the woods, but it was a beautiful day, icy cold, without a cloud in the sky, and the whole world white. This was what Bergdis had looked like, when he first arrived in January at the age of sixteen; thick with snow like a frosted cake. The town of Bergdis was, perhaps, somewhat lazy when it came to managing snow. Streets were fully plowed only after considerable effort, and the sidewalks shoveled later. Snow days were frequently declared, a fact that had delighted Jem when he was a teenager.

He paused, in the woods, to lean against a tree and cough. He thought of turning back, but instead decided to carry on, if only for a little while longer. He had figured out that the way to Bergdis’s hidden things was either to go with clear intention and full desire, for a specific location, or to wander with nothing in mind, in order to find something he never knew existed.

He had not gone so much further when he saw, through the trees, the indication of that cottage home; the red door and chimney, and the skull boulder. The path leading to the front door had been shoveled, but the trees nearby loomed over the small cottage, several stories taller than the roof. Smoke puffed out of the chimney, and there was a gentle, flickering glow to the frosted windows.

Jem gathered up his courage, walked up to the door, and knocked.

He heard a creaking noise, and after a silence so long he considered turning around, the door opened.

An elderly woman stood just before him, peering at him from behind small, round glasses. She was a head shorter than he was, and she would have fit right in with Mses. Zurauskaite, Papagos, and Rüdinger. A heavy woolen shawl lay wrapped around her shoulders, and her fragile white hair was pilled back into an old-fashioned hairstyle and pinned into a delicate bun. Her face wasn’t quite so lined as the rest of her implied age, but her brown skin was tissue paper thin, and she stared at him with large, dark eyes.

“Ms. Beir?” Jem asked, uneasy.

“My stars,” she said, with sardonic delight. “Ashur Dorchester, my genius loci. I was wondering when you might come to visit me.” Her voice was much stronger than his. She stepped back and opened the door further. “Come in, come in, my boy.”

There are, as Jem knew better than most, a great deal of fairytales and folklore concerning the etiquette of interactions with witches in all states of being, in all settings and locales. Be it a godmother at a christening or a beggar woman asking for a drink at the well, there are protocols to be followed, manners to be observed, and consequences to be reaped by the unwise. As Jem knew, only the most idiotic of protagonists walked into a witch’s home of their own volition.

Jem had written a paper in his first term for Professor Andrade, one that was satisfactory if not especially impressive, on the subject of fairytale duality; a notable phenomenon, given that duality was a deviation from the custom fairytale loyalty to triality patterns. In many tales, the duality of the witch is expressed in one rude character and one generous; the rude girl who denies the beggar a drink at the well and has frogs and snakes for words in reward, and the generous girl, who gives the beggar her drink and earns diamonds and pearls instead. In certain versions, the witch is interchangeable with the Virgin Mary, or the Twelve Months.

In one tale, Jem pointed out in his paper, there is no such duality, or at least not in the aforementioned expression. Hansel and Gretel (or, as Jem could tell you, Johnnie and Grizzle, or a dozen other names, and usually the narrator didn’t name the wayward children at all) went to the witch’s house, and both children were poorly mannered enough to nibble at it. In that iteration, there is no mirror scenario about a child being polite to such a witch, because in the witch’s house, manners are beside the point; the house is no house but a baited trap, and the witch cares as little for a child’s manners as the farmer cares for the pig’s on butchering day.

“I didn’t want to interrupt you,” Jem said anxiously. His voice wasn’t really back yet, but it seemed she wasn’t hard of hearing. “It was… a bit of a lark… coming over here… I wasn’t sure if I could find the place…”

“Come in, and I’ll get you a cup of tea,” she purred, ushering him inside. “You look frozen over already, and you sound awful, my dear. Besides, we have a great deal to talk about, don’t we?”

“Do we?” Jem asked, leaning down to pull off his boots, and wobbling uncertainly to stay on the rug.

“Of course. You, the genius loci, of my valley.” She smiled at him. “And a student at Merodack, too, if I have the right of it?”

He had only the briefest of glances into a kitchen containing an old but impeccably clean black iron stove, with copper pots and pans hanging from the ceiling amongst bunches of herbs and dried flowers and braided ropes of onions. The cupboards were open, revealing fine pastel china edged with silver and gold, and endless teacups and saucers. In the windows, fresh bunches of red geraniums hung from hooks, next to bird skulls like beads on twine.

The parlor was a small if oppressive room, with velvet-covered, old-fashioned furniture gathered around a fireplace. Bookshelves lined each wall, packed full to bursting with books and the occasional tchotchke. Next to the most worn chair, which was closest to the fire, was a large wicker basket overflowing with yarns of dark neutrals and deep reds, with the hint of knitting needles poking out from a new project. On the nearby table was a book: Caitlin R. Kiernan’s, The Drowning Girl, of which Jem had never heard.

“One strives to be current,” Ms. Beir said when she returned and saw that he was looking at the book. She had a full platter in hand; a set of teapot, teacups, and saucers all in a china pattern of powder blue morning glories with tangled knot work vines and flowers, and foxes with red fur tipped in gold sneaking through the morning glory design. There was a tiny bowl for sugar and a tiny pitcher for cream, and silver spoons printed in the shapes of mermaids holding large seashells at the ends of long arms.

Ms. Beir served the tea and was pleased by Jem’s specifications of cream and sugar (“Tea should always be treated as a bit of a luxury, shouldn’t it? A bit of a ceremony. One shouldn’t skimp the details.”) and handed him his teacup and saucer. He brought it to his lips and blew at the steam rising from the top. It was still close to boiling hot; when he stirred the sugar and cream, steam erupted as released from within.

“I wanted to ask,” Jem said as she sat down across from him, her own tea liberally thick with cream and sugar. “How should I address you? I called you Ms. Beir earlier, as that’s the name I was told, but I’ve heard… other titles…”

“Oh, Ms. Beir will be fine— Evelyn, if you’re familiar, but if I have the right of you, dear, you’ll hold your manners close.” She smiled, a private little thought kept to herself. “There have been other names and other titles, of course. When the girl’s court was in full bloom, I was Ma’am Winter, and they said it as if I were the Empress to their Queen.” She pulled herself out of a momentary reverie. “But you— I’ll call you Ashur.”

“Um. Yes. But I go by my middle name. Jem,” Jem said.

“How did that happen, Ashur Jem?” Ms. Beir asked, quite severely.

“Well, I’m a twin,” Jem said carefully. “And they were expecting only the one. They had Ophelia’s names worked out— Ophelia, for my mother’s mother, and Anne, for my father’s mother. I caught them by surprise. My mother picked Ashur, for her uncle who died when she was a child, and Jem, from To Kill A Mockingbird. Uncle Ashur had given her the book for her birthday, and she loved it, so…” he trailed off. “I think she just liked the name Jem better, in the end.”

He sipped his tea and it burned his tongue. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bore you with all of this—”

“No, no. By all means, call me quite fascinated. Your mother, she liked literature?” Said in the tones of one pronouncing approval.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And have you read your namesake book?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“What did you think?”

Jem paused. “It’s very beautiful,” he said. “And very honest, which is, in some respects, unusual of literature. It asks you to encompass a world made up of tragedy through the lens of a child’s eye. It’s a book about the horror of the immediate world, but the book yearns for amelioration, that is both intermittently given and denied to the reader.”

“And what do you not like about it?”

“I thought that Mayella got a raw deal of things,” Jem said. “And there’s no Atticus Finch to fight for her behalf in the eyes of the reader. We’re not supposed to care about what happens to her.”

“But her tormenter was dead by the end,” Ms. Beir pointed out. “And she had quite a list of sins for her own, her circumstances be damned.”

“He was her tormenter, but her provider, too. I imagine that made things rather difficult, afterwards,” Jem said. He blinked. He had suddenly realized where he had heard Evelyn Beir’s name before. “Excuse me… are you one of the guest speakers for the Literature Department at Merodack?”

She smiled. “When I’m feeling up to the task,” she said. “Now I have another question. Where are you, and that Erlking of mine, living these days? Did he go back to the old house on Elderberry Road? I was glad to hear he was fixing up the place.”

“Um— yes.” He wondered precisely what she meant by ‘back’. It hadn’t occurred to Jem that Mathuin might have owned the house before, but once he thought of it, it made a certain amount of sense. The time when the house stood abandoned was the same time that followed Charles Agripin’s death, when Mathuin had left Bergdis behind.

“Good,” Ms. Beir said, with satisfaction. “She would have wanted it that way. She was always so very fond of that home of hers.”

“She… you mean… the woman who lived in the house before…?” Jem was confused.

“Fiona, yes. She was my favorite,” she declared, in the fond tones a woman might use to speak about her cats. “Of all the mortals, you know. Such a dear… She used to bake the strangest things, using what she grew in that garden of hers— tomato cookies and lavender mints and little violet sugar candies. She would always bring me a plate of whatever it was she made, and come to discuss whatever poet she was reading. Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Dickinson.”

“Or Yeats?” Jem asked. He could have asked why they were discussing this woman, but it seemed only wise to let Ms. Beir discuss whatever she liked without protest.

“Ah. Yes. Yeats. She did a term paper on Yeats, when she was at the college. She could talk about him endlessly. She had started keeping bees, by then, and she would bring me a jar of honey, or a plate of honey biscuits, and her latest draft of her paper, or just a page wherein she went on and on about just one line of poetry until no more could be said. She was an excellent writer, very astute, and full of wit. A delight, that girl.” Ma’am Winter sighed. “I imagine the bees are all gone by now… I am not so good at keeping track of the time.”

“Fiona— what was her surname?” Jem asked, for lack of anything better to say. He was wondering why Mathuin had her copy of Yeats, if she loved the poet so much, and why she had given up the home, if she loved that as well.

Ms. Beir looked at him, impassive, and then, slowly, tilted her head like a bird of prey observing movement in the grass. “You don’t know,” she said. “Jakob never told you.”

“Did something happen to her?” Jem asked uneasily.

“Very much so,” Ms. Beir said. “Her name was Fiona Mathuin.”

The creeping feeling, when he had considered the possibility of something tragic having taken place in his home, grew considerably worst. “She was— she was his— his mother, his sister?”

“His daughter,” Ms. Beir said, with finality.

Jem remembered, quite suddenly, the child’s sled in the garage. The etched wood in the kitchen doorway, marking a child’s growth. The photograph in the office.

He swallowed. “She’s dead?” he guessed.

“Buried in the graveyard, out by that church under the redwood tree,” Ms. Beir replied.

“St. Isidore’s,” Jem said.

“Such a shame. The mortal I liked best, and she was here and gone again in a blink.” She sent Jem a canny look. “Would you like to know more, boy?”

Jem would, but he thought better of his curiosity. Having stumbled onto something deeply personal, something tragic, he thought it better to at least ask Mathuin directly, and let him tell the story as he would. He shook his head.

“Very well,” Ms. Beir said. “Then let’s you and I discuss this king.”

“Shall we?” Jem asked faintly.

“He’s a strong king.”

“Can I ask you…” Jem stopped, and swallowed a cough, with a gulp of tea. “Is it true, that the kingship passes from one man to another by murder?”

Ms. Beir sipped her tea. “The office is one of blood; the Erlking holds the Valley and leads the Hunt. How else should the successor be decided, if not by who is the strongest?”

“I was going to ask who got to make up that rule, who got to decide if the kingship was inherited by primogeniture or by murder… but it’s you, isn’t it?”

Ms. Beir ignored that last question. “As I said, he’s a strong king. There shall be no physical defect of old age or illness. No hint of weakness of spirit, like there was in the last king. Others may try their hand at the kingship, now and again, but few are likely to succeed against him. I suspect he will most likely end his reign just the way it started— with his neglect. He is not terribly in love with Bergdis. I’m afraid we don’t see eye to eye in this matter.”

“He has been Erlking for the past twenty-some years, then,” Jem said softly. “Since before I was born.”

“Uncrowned, but yes, king,” Ms. Beir replied. “I am ambivalent. On the one hand, I appreciate strength, and a strong king, a strong advocate, will undeniably be quite good for my Bergdis. The valley will be strong, the town will thrive economically, the people will be united, when they come round, and the Knights will hazard no impositions.”

“On the other hand…?”

“On the other hand, blood is good for the realm, in its own way.” At these words, Jem swallowed hard. “And,” she continued, “I have, I do confess, a certain thirst in me, a desire for… forced reinvigoration. Jakob Mathuin, in his heart of hearts, is a pacifist— albeit, one who’s learned to survive. He’s capable of anything when threatened, but he’ll do nothing at all when not. Despite this recent rash of murders, when he has control again, I’m unlikely to get all I wish for.

“This last king, Agripin— a strong man, and a weak king— he slaked my thirst. He was good at making enemies, but bad at improving situations, and that led to bloodshed more frequently than even his supporters liked.” She paused, and Jem somehow found nothing at all to say. She sipped her tea, considered the matter, and decided, “Well, my ambivalence hardly matters. I’ll keep the winters, as I always do. I made the bargain, and it must be kept, even if I don’t care for the recent developments.”

Jem stirred. “The bargain,” he said. “You mean the one you made with the first queen? More than a hundred years ago?” He summoned up the courage, and asked, “What did she sell to you?”

Ms. Beir looked at him, wide-eyed behind her glasses. “Not blood,” she said, quite correctly guessing what he had been thinking. “Heavens no. Anyone could offer that, and I could get it myself without too much trouble at all.”

“Then what?” Jem asked, dreading the response.

“Oh,” she said. “I wanted a college, all of my very own. Just nearby. But I have been alone so long, I’m not adept at moving amongst human societies… it was a complex task, and when she offered, it was an easy choice to take her up on it.” Jem stared at her. “One does get so bored as time goes by, my dear,” she said. “Though I do wish Merodack would expand its literature program. They have hardly any consideration for the modern writers!” She indicated her book.

Jem jerked himself back to his senses. “Right,” he said. “Literature. And Mathuin— he’s a professor.” A bit wildly, he asked, “Did you teach him Viscuomancy?”

“He taught himself that,” Ms. Beir said, uninterested. She considered him. “Tell me, what is it you had planned to do with being genius loci?”

“I…” Jem trailed off. He hadn’t planned anything, least of all to do with being genius loci.

“Things have changed,” Ms. Beir murmured. “Not here, of course, but across the sea, they did it so frequently in the old days. They made them out of children, usually young girls… it’s a strange thing, to be a genius loci, a daimon. To be, all at once, a receptacle to be fertilized and made good for the harvest, a tombstone for the unshriven dead, and a divining rod for all lost things.”

Jem finished his tea in a last gulp. “Well,” he said, with dignity, “these are modern times.”

Ms. Beir put her chin up. “Fiona used to say that,” she mused.

“The nineties— eighties? They were modern, too. I really have to be going.” He almost added, I have to ask my husband about his dead daughter, but he bit it back.

Ms. Beir’s eyes were glittering. “Come and visit again,” she said.

“I will,” Jem promised. He’d bring food, next time, he decided, and a good book. He would follow Fiona Mathuin’s example.

Chapter Text

Chapter XVI.

He emerged from the cottage to discover that night had fallen over Bergdis, rendering the woods a spectacle of looming dark trees and moonlight so bright the snow nearly glowed under his feet. He walked home and returned to find Mathuin already there, prowling and impatient. Jem’s cough had returned in full glory along the walk, and Mathuin had to wait for it to subside before he could ask, “Where in the world have you been?”

“I…” He needed to explain, he thought, but he could hardly think of how to begin to spit the words out.

The doorbell rang, and he was saved, for the moment.

Jem was expecting Hemming or Wharton or Jubilee. It was Detective Malone. “You finally figured out the identity of the St. Nepumocene body?” Mathuin asked him before he had done much more than say hello.

“I’m afraid not,” Det. Malone confessed. “I’ve got a different one— the girl, whose bones were found.” He nodded sympathetically at Jem, who straightened up where he had been hunched over coughing. “Though I imagine you’ll be pleased to hear, Jem Dorchester, that you’re not a suspect, despite having now found two bodies. You weren’t anywhere near Washington in the late autumn of 2008— I checked.” He cleared his throat. “It was Edie Torres.”

Even Jem had heard of Edie Torres.

She had been a student at Merodack, and moreover, a student of Mathuin’s. She had attended fall classes and was gone by the spring term, meaning Jem never met her. He knew about her mostly because of Jubilee, Duarte, and Ritter, who made fun of her after she was gone, saying the course load had been too much for her, and she had run home to mother. He’d heard from others, mostly Agripinites, that she had genuinely disappeared, but he’d never been quite sure which story was true, until now. Merodack College, with its characteristic reticence, told its students nothing, which made Jem wonder just what Jubilee and her lot knew.

Mathuin looked, if not struck by this revelation, unpleasantly surprised. He said nothing about the girl’s character, but asked what, if anything, Det. Malone knew about the manner of her death, and if there was any indication of who her murderer might be. Det. Malone had no idea who the killer might be, but as for the manner of her death, “Her hyoid bone was broken. At this point, the medical examiner is calling it a likely strangulation.”

“It couldn’t have been a possible slit throat, instead?” Mathuin asked, pointedly.

Det. Malone shrugged. “The bones are so badly degraded that it would be difficult to make a definitive call. I wouldn’t rule the possibility out.”

The two of them briefly discussed how the other murder investigations were coming along, which largely sounded like they weren’t, and then Det. Malone bid them goodnight, and left.

“Isn’t there a way for you to divine the answers to all these question?” Jem asked Mathuin as soon as he was gone. “Entrailic magic and all that.”

“You want me to open up a goat on the altar and poke around its guts?” Mathuin asked pleasantly. He herded Jem into the den, where the fire was going, having apparently noticed how badly Jem was shivering. “Now. You didn’t answer my question. Where were you?”

Jem gritted his teeth. “You’re going to be mad,” he predicted.

“Are you going to confess to a conspiracy after all?”

“No.” He straightened up as much as his aching lungs would let him. “I went to see Ma’am Winter.”

Mathuin paused. “You’re right. I am mad.”

“And—” Jem hated this. “She told me about your daughter.” Mathuin’s face looked like carved stone; he had never been so still. Jem quelled under his gaze, and was struck by an almost irresistible urge to crawl under a table. “Not everything,” he said weakly. “Just that she existed.”

“Not everything?” Mathuin repeated coldly.

“Just— just her name and— and that she liked poetry—” Mathuin jerked as if he’d been struck. “She didn’t say how you had a daughter, or what happened to her, or—”

Mathuin swore, viciously, and Jem shut up. He reached out and grabbed Jem’s arm, yanking him closer. “Oh?” he asked. “You didn’t put your clever little head to the question and figure out the answer? You didn’t come up with anything?” Jem hesitated, until Mathuin shook him. At that, he jerked backwards and tried to yank his arm free.

“She’s why— she’s why you killed Charles Agripin, right?” Jem gasped. Mathuin released him, and Jem stumbled back. “Because he killed her. But—” he stopped. “Why? Why did he kill her?”

“Well, he didn’t mean to,” Mathuin said, very quietly, and then, slowly, sighed. He ran a hand through his hair. “Fine,” he said quietly. “Just… fucking… fine. You want to know what happened?”

Jem nodded.

“The thing you have to understand,” Mathuin started slowly. “Is that Fee— my daughter— she was a homebody. She loved it here. She used to bicker with me if I even took her as far as Seattle.” He shook his head, as if bewildered. “And I— wasn’t. I wanted to see the world, as much of it as I possibly could. I did drag her along, most of the time, throughout her childhood, though she always gave me hell for it.”

He stopped. Jem couldn’t fathom what this had to do with anything, other than confirming that the existence of Fiona Mathuin had not been a trick on the part of Ms. Beir.

With difficulty, Mathuin continued. “That was how I got her, actually. In the early sixties, I met a woman— not like that,” he added, to the look Jem was giving him. “Gabriela Carter. She was an archaeologist and an anthropologist and she was brilliant. She could look at these sites that just baffled everyone and she’d have a working theory before an hour was gone. She would publish her findings on a dig, sometimes under a man’s name, and I would consult with her after the fact about the magical items or evidence she found. We became friends, and eventually, she asked me for help in getting a job at Merodack College as a professor.”

“If she was an archaeologist…” Jem started.

“There were a lot of things she wanted to learn, and a professor, unlike a student, gets paid to be there,” Mathuin said. “That was, what, 1970. I didn’t spend much time in Bergdis in those days, not when Charles made a show of friendship but didn’t know whether to hate me or be afraid of me, so I didn’t see her often. Then, in 1971, she called me out of the blue. She was pregnant, unwed, unlikely to be wed in any immediate future, and Merodack was not so progressive that they wouldn’t consider firing a woman who behaved so inappropriately as to have a child out of wedlock. I stepped in for her, and she kept her job.

“When she was almost nine months pregnant, she got into a car accident. She died, and they cut the child out of her. I was listed as her emergency contact and her next of kin, and— despite the lack of any resemblance— they must have thought I was the father.” He shook his head.

Jem found his voice. “The name…? Where did the name come from?”

Mathuin stared at him. “What does that matter?” Jem quailed, and Mathuin shook his head. “Fiona Carter Mathuin. Gabriela had written me a letter mentioning that if the baby was a girl, she wanted to name it Fiona. She was excited about the kid, even though the scandal nearly ended her career.”

“So you raised her,” Jem said quietly.

“Yeah. And I built this house for her, and enchanted it so that she’d always be comfortable.” He looked around, if only briefly, and Jem couldn’t decide if he looked wistful or despairing. “I think she had every intention of becoming an English teacher at Merodack and living her entire life in this house. She did live her entire life here, come to think of it. She was… I know every parent wants to say this, but she was the best kid. She was kind, sweet, generous, patient, smart as could be… if I ever did anything good with my life, it was in Fiona.”

“What happened?” Jem asked, very timidly.

“When she was twenty, and a student at Merodack. I left, for a trip to Germany, and there wasn’t any reason to think that she’d be unsafe. The house is spelled to hell and back against any sort of danger, and she called me every week, and wrote letters besides. I was supposed to be gone for about a year.” He paused. “She was miserable… I realize now, that was the warning sign. She was having a hard time with her classes, she always sounded moody and depressed, and I knew she was having a rough term, but she didn’t… she didn’t give me any reason to suspect anything was wrong, not that wrong. And then… when I’d been gone ten months, she called me, and this time, she was screaming.”

He pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. “She said she’d been eight months pregnant, and she’d given birth to the child. She’d been raped. She hadn’t wanted to tell me about it when it happened, because she knew I would come home and kill him— and she was right about that. But while she was still trying to figure out how to tell me there was even going to be a baby, she had gone into labor and delivered the fucking thing. It was,” he added slowly, “A bad labor. She lost a lot of blood. She would have been dead then and there in the old days, before modern medicine.

“When she got out of the hospital, with the child in tow, he confronted her.” Mathuin dropped his voice. “He told her to enjoy what little time she had, because he was coming to take the kid— he couldn’t do it then and there, in a public place, I guess. My understanding is that they had been fighting about this throughout the pregnancy, though I’ve never been quite sure— and there’s no one left to ask. Anyway, after this last confrontation, she called me, panicking, begging me to save her and not to let him take the kid from her. I got on the first flight available— I got home as soon as I could— but it was still the better part of a day before I could be back in Bergdis.

“The spells should have protected her. They were almost enough. But he had a few magicians in his employ, and together, they found a way inside.”

He gritted his teeth. “I found her in the doorway. Already dead, and no kid. It was obvious enough, what had happened. He came for the baby, they fought, he knocked her head against the doorway, and left with the child. It wasn’t a great injury, nothing that couldn’t be survived, except that she had lost so much blood giving birth.”

Jem had to ask, faintly, “And, on the phone, she told you who… who did it…?”

“Yes.” Mathuin looked away. “Charles Agripin. Always wanted whatever the fuck he wanted, and couldn’t stand being told no. He, ah… he confirmed it. When I came for him, he had the kid, and we… had a talk.”

“So you killed him.”

Mathuin looked back at him. “What would you have had me do instead?”

Jem didn’t have an answer to that. “And those magicians, the ones who helped him break in?”

“What do you think I did?”

Jem recalled Jason Bates’s brother. He asked instead, “What happened to the baby?”

“I gave her to her Agripin relatives to raise. I made sure Charles’s widow had nothing to do with her upbringing, because that would’ve been a goddamned disaster, and I checked in on her now and then, but… I couldn’t. When Fee was barely cold, I just fucking couldn’t. I never wanted anything less than I wanted to raise her. I couldn’t even stand to be in Bergdis.”

Jem swallowed hard. “She would have been Garet’s little sister.”

“She is Garet’s little sister,” Mathuin said. “My understanding is that they were, if not close, not exactly estranged, either. She was certainly closer to him than she is to me. You can ask yourself why Garet didn’t think she was worth mentioning to you or the rest of his fucking group when he was rallying followers to seek revenge for his bastard father.”

Jem took a step backwards, until he had a chair to lean against. He had so many questions they spun in his head like tops, and nothing at all came out of his mouth. Fee Mathuin, he thought. Raped, killed by Charles Agripin. Mathuin, a father, and that was somehow too easy to imagine.

He sat down on the arm of the armchair and looked up at Mathuin. A question, seemingly random, occurred to him. “This happened in 1993, right? Your granddaughter is older than I am?” He pushed the thought away. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this earlier?”

“Why would I share my daughter’s death with the follower of her murderer’s son?” Mathuin asked flatly. “It’s not the most hidden story, but it happened more than twenty years ago— and you didn’t look too closely at the Agripins because you didn’t want to look too closely at the Agripins. You wanted to align yourself with them, so the Dorchesters could have a home. You wanted the Agripins to be worthy of your allegiance, and you put aside the question of whether or not they actually were.”

Jem turned away. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to scream at Mathuin, but he was sure it wasn’t a good idea.

“I’m sorry about your daughter,” he said quietly. “Ms. Beir, Ma’am Winter, she made her sound like a good person. And I didn’t get the impression she was used to thinking of humans as humans.”

Mathuin didn’t dispute that observation. They were silent for a long time, until Jem was shivering too badly to keep quiet. “Why didn’t you spell the house with heat?” he asked, trying to sound curious and not accusatory.

“I did, originally,” Mathuin said. “The spells all went haywire when the three magicians broke through the protective charms so that Charles could get at her. Most of them were easy enough to put right, when I started restoring the place, but that one wouldn’t work again. I may not have tried very hard,” he admitted. “It seemed… fitting. The place where she died being perpetually cold.” He looked at Jem. “And now there’s you. You’re more affectionate when you’re cold.”

“You still want me to be affectionate?” Jem asked, feeling a bit dazed. He rubbed his eyes. “That picture you had in your office, the blonde girl… that was her?”

“You remember that picture?” Mathuin asked, and looked amused in spite of everything. But for that one unwise day of spying, Jem had never set foot in Mathuin’s office.

“I remember that whole evening pretty well,” Jem snapped.

“Yes. That’s her.” He ran a hand through his hair. “It’s late, Kätzchen.”

Jem eyed him. “Are you going to punish me? For going to see Ms. Beir? I didn’t ask about you, this time. She brought you up.”

Mathuin just shook his head. “No. I’m not going to punish you. Besides, you’re still sick. Let’s go to bed.”

•••

Jem woke, bleary and thick-headed with sleep, to the sound of buzzing. He watched as Mathuin reached over and answered his phone.

The conversation was brief. Jem didn’t try to compose the series of grunts and monosyllabic answers or questions Mathuin offered into half a conversation, but after the phone had been placed back on the bedside table, he asked, “What was that about?”

He was lying on his back, ready to return to sleep. His voice was almost back, and his throat sounded full of frogs.

Mathuin reached for him and pulled up his t-shirt to expose his stomach and bury his face in Jem’s flesh. Jem put a hand on his head and thought, in this half-conscious state, he could almost pretend he didn’t feel the scars. “Malone figured out who the dead man is.”

That woke Jem up. “What?”

“Michael Payne,” Mathuin said.

Michael Payne— it took Jem a good moment of turning through his mind before he came to the conclusion that he didn’t know who the man was; he’d never met him, and couldn’t place a face with the name, or even remember a time he’d so much as heard the name. “He was a Mathuinite?” he asked faintly.

“No…” Mathuin said slowly. “Payne wasn’t anything. He waited until the very end, and then he swore allegiance to me because I won.” That was a relatively common practice throughout Bergdis; there had been a good percentage of supernatural residents who could not care less about the difference between Mathuin and Agripin, and simply wanted the two to stop fighting. “Whoever killed him wanted something from him. They tortured him before he died— cut off his fingers one by one and beat him half to death before they cut his throat.” He was still only half awake and therefore, perhaps not considering the wisdom of sharing such information.

Jem’s stomach turned. He shoved Mathuin away from him and got out of bed.

Later, after he had made a cup of morning tea, he told Mathuin, in bracing language as he readied himself for a fight, that he was going to tell Ophelia about the existence of Fiona Mathuin.

Rather than arguing, Mathuin gave him a funny look. “What?” Jem asked. “You thought I would keep it a secret from her?”

“No. I thought you were going to tell her, I just didn’t think I was going to get a warning first.”

Jem didn’t have an answer to that.

It was a long day. Professor Andrade kept him busy, as she pulled apart his latest segment on Tam Lin sentence by sentence, declaring there to be great potential and good observations but much work needed, a judgment with which Jem, however disgruntled, privately agreed. He did not have a chance to meet up with Ophelia, but he did run by the library just after dusk, in order to reserve a copy of Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Andrade had wanted to see him apply the text to some of the more oblique versions of the ballad of Tam Lin, namely those versions cobbled together from Francis James Child’s notes. She had been thoroughly scandalized when Jem told her he had both read Frazer and thought the ancient anthropological text a uselessly outdated, ethnocentric, and vague piece of literature. Jem wasn’t even sure he actually believed his own argument, but he’d never liked Frazer. He lost the quarrel with Professor Andrade.

A student assistant, one of many who had taken over Vaughn’s duties while the college administration lazily got around to replacing the old librarian, announced in a mumble over the loudspeaker that the library would be closing in fifteen minutes. The library closed at eight, technically, but Jem knew from experience that the employees couldn’t be bothered to actually kick anyone out for at least three more hours. Working here was the closest most of them had to a social life.

He was wandering around the upstairs level, in the section on ceramic religious iconography, debating with himself as to the question of how to get home. He could either text Mathuin or Ophelia, neither of which seemed like an especially appealing option. No favor from Mathuin was free, and as for Oaf, when he saw her next, he was going to have to explain everything he’d learned about Fiona Mathuin, which was a conversation he’d rather put off.

Without consciously making a decision as to how to procrastinate, Jem found himself in the section of the library where Merodack College kept its official ephemera. There was not much here, despite the lengthy history of the college; there were no yearbooks, after all, and what little memorabilia there was, articles and accolades the various students and alumni had accumulated, had to be kept scrubbed clean of any indication that Merodack was anything more than a small liberal arts college.

He sneezed several times at the dust that had accumulated, and then picked out the books of 1989, 1990, and 1991 students, and began flipping through them. He was unsure what year, exactly, she had started school, but he found her easily enough; Fiona Carter Mathuin, an English Literature Major, under the tutelage of Professor Rangel, who had since retired.

Jem examined the picture. She had died at the same age he was now, but she was only a few years younger than his own mother, this departed, ethereal step-daughter of his. She smiled uncertainly at the camera, an older teenager, with her cornsilk pale hair pushed back by a headband. She looked nervous, and, Jem thought, very young.

He realized the futility in trying to discern a personality from a photograph, when even the descriptions he’d heard, specific and intimate though they were, added up to paradox. From what Mathuin had said, she sounded wracked by fear, largely fear of an outside world that had done nothing but fulfill that fear, brutally— but she had also gone out of her way to befriend a crone who terrified the entire supernatural court, and for no reason Jem knew of, other than that it had suited her to do so. She had not wanted Charles Agripin murdered for his crime, at least not at first, and Jem had no idea what to make of that. Alone, raped, pregnant, and hiding in her fortress of a home, she could have been thinking any of a thousand things, and without her voice, Jem couldn’t begin to speculate.

He put aside Fiona Mathuin for the moment, found the book of 2009 students, and pulled it from the shelf. He flipped to the fall term, and then through student names, one after another, listed next to pictures and various facts about them; where they came from, their date of birth, their majors and specialties in ambiguously coded language.

Jem flipped to the late T’s, where he found Edie Torres almost immediately.

He didn’t know what, precisely, he was looking for in Edie Torres, other than the face that had once clothed the skull, but he noticed almost immediately that she was not an ordinary student. First and foremost, she had been twenty-two at the time of her admittance to Merodack, a transfer student from UC Berkeley, which meant that she had elected to become a freshman again after making it all the way to senior year— and nearly to graduation at that— at her previous college. She was born and raised in Vermont, and her academic accolades went unremarked upon, other than to say that her advisor was guest professor Jakob Meissner (whose name would change in the books, without comment, to Jakob Mathuin in the fall term of 2010, when he became a full professor).

For no discernible reason, Jem had expected Edie Torres to be dark-haired and solemn. Instead, her picture indicated the kind of sunny- disposition blonde that brought up notions of California and summertime Pacific beaches. She beamed at the camera, dark-eyed, with little make-up but her delicate hair swept into an approximation of the blow-outs that had been fashionable at the time.

Despite the difference in persona, she reminded Jem of the picture he had seen of Fiona Mathuin.

He shook his head to clear it. Fiona Mathuin was on his mind like a splinter under the skin, he told himself, and he was prone to seeing her likeness wherever it could be found. He heard footsteps, nearby, and snapped the book shut, returning it to its place on the shelf just in time to look up and see whoever it was who had joined him in this remote corner of the library.

He immediately received a shock, because this girl, though she was dark-haired (unlike Fiona and Edie), also reminded him of Fiona. A moment later, he recognized her, as one Regina Virginia, whom he had met before, also in the library.

He smiled, weakly, and was about to murmur something to excuse himself without getting drawn into a real greeting and all that entailed, but that she interrupted him. “Jem,” she said, quite seriously and very unlike the last time they had spoken, “Can I talk to you?”

“What?” Jem had a distinct feeling of foreboding.

“I want to make a bargain with you,” she said, Jem knew he was not going to like anything that came next. “I have two things to offer you, which I think you want,” she said, and she sounded very regal indeed when she put her chin up and said, “Specifically this; your freedom, and revenge for Garet.”

She did not remind him of Fiona Mathuin because he was seeing Fiona everywhere; she reminded him of Fiona because she shared a face with the dead girl, the same delicate bones and large eyes, but for the nose and the mouth. The nose, an aquiline structure, she shared with her dead brother.

“You’re the baby,” Jem realized, numbly. “Her baby. Mathuin’s daughter’s baby.”

Color rose in her cheeks in two bright spots, and Jem found himself wondering if that was a trait she shared with her mother, because he didn’t recognize it from Garet.

“He’s told you about that,” she said, and then made a face like a child tasting something disgusting. “I thought when I came here that everyone would know, but they would politely never speak of it. Like how you don’t talk about a past tragedy that infects your locality except at those very special times when you talk about it… but I’ve learned that’s not the case.

“I’m told, my mother buried herself in sweaters and jackets until the fifth month, when she couldn’t hide it anymore. After that, she just didn’t go out, and stopped attending class except to turn in her essays or take out books— she told her advisor she was sick, which I suppose was close enough to the truth. No one knew she was pregnant.”

“Who told you that?” Jem asked faintly.

“My brother,” she said stiffly. “Garet.”

Jem nodded. “Which is it, can I ask? Regina Agripin or Regina…”

“Mathuin. Regina Virginia Mathuin.”

“Right.” Jem leaned against the bookshelf. “You said you had a bargain. You were, I think, offering me freedom and…”

“And vengeance,” she said, very softly. “For my brother. But I need your help.”

“You want to kill your grandfather,” Jem said, quite a bit louder than he should while speaking about any sort of conspiracy.

Regina stepped back, and regarded him; she was perhaps an inch taller than he was, and she looked down her nose at him. She did not look thrilled that he had put her plan in such plain language, but she didn’t dispute it. “As I said. I need your help. You’re close to him— physically, close. Of every Agripinite left alive, you have the most to hate him for.”

Jem swallowed hard. “You… you’re the one who killed them?” He discovered that he did not want to ask this— he did not want to be in the position of ever asking anyone, alone in a nearly empty library, if they were a murderer— but he had to know. “Vaughn and Williams and Payne?”

“What? No! Why would I kill them? Why would I draw attention to myself?”

Jem didn’t answer, but he could think of a few reasons.

“Will you help me?” she asked.

Like Garet, Jem thought. Just swear allegiance to her, like a knight in medieval court, and see what happened.

“You’re asking a lot.”

“I’m offering you everything.”

“You’re asking me to risk everything. Last time I got caught browsing through a fucking photo album I ended up on that altar with my guts pulled out,” Jem hissed. “Next time, he might not put them back in.”

Regina didn’t wince. “Last time,” she said. “Garet didn’t have anyone like you. He didn’t have anyone who was so close to my grandfather that he shared a house with him.”

Jem bit back an observation that this was becoming an extravagant family squabble.

“You’re hesitating because you’re afraid,” Regina said. “Which is no reason to do— or not do— anything. But you’ve got your entire life ahead of you, Jem, and you can spend it free of him and free of this place, or you can spend it by his side, as his slave.”

Jem rubbed his eyes. “Give me— give me time to think about it,” he said. His voice sounded ragged, as if what little recovery he’d made from the flu was going to vanish altogether.

“What is there to think about?” she demanded. “I’m not trying to pull you into a war, like Garet’s— it will just be one single assassination.”

“Oh my god,” Jem said, quite a bit louder and more aggrieved than he intended. “If you’re suggesting making me Erlking—”

“I’m not, I swear. I just need you to help me get close to him. When he’s vulnerable. All I want,” she said, lowering her voice in response to how Jem had raised his, “Is to do to him what he did to my father. One quick blow in the woods, and no need to drag anyone else into it.” She looked, suddenly and quite in spite of herself, exhausted. “For Garet. For my brother.”

“Let me think about it,” Jem said, and when she opened her mouth, spoke over her. “You’re not doing yourself any favors by not letting me think it through. It makes me feel like this is the irrational decision that I would have the common sense to turn down if I could just think.”

She closed her mouth with a snap. “All right,” she said quietly. “I don’t mean to pressure you. I assumed you’d jump at the chance the second you had it.”

She was, after all, offering freedom, Jem thought, and then thought of Reeves, Lance, Contreras, Copeland, Nemael, and then of Vaughn, Williams, and now Payne.

“You’ve got a cell phone that Mathuin knows nothing about, right?” Jem asked. He remembered a few tricks from Garet. He handed her his phone. “Put your contact in under some alias. Some student who goes here… let’s say… Jenevieve Rowes. She’s one of Ophelia’s friends, and it would make sense for me to have her number, but I don’t. I’ll text you when I’m ready to meet.”

She scowled at that, but took his phone. “Don’t wait too long. I want this done before the coronation can take place.”

“I won’t,” Jem promised, tired.

When he parted company with her, he went down to the entryway of the library and promptly called Mathuin to ask for a ride home.

End of Part III.

Chapter Text

Part IV.

Chapter XVII.

Starbucks was the only franchise that had snuck, like a particularly clever mold, into Bergdis. The first store had opened in 1987, when the coffee shop was opening locations throughout the Seattle area and surrounding metropolises. At a time when the franchise was ubiquitous from coast to coast, Bergdis natives, in their isolated lack of attentiveness, still thought of the place as a spendy but very Washingtonian feature.

Jem picked it as the most neutral place he could think of, from Merodack’s campus to his very home, and asked Ophelia to meet him there. They met in the back corner table during the morning rush, when and where they were unlikely to be noticed or overheard. Ophelia arrived a few minutes late, and frowned when Jem pushed a latte and a handful of sugar-in-the-raw packets to her.

“You didn’t get anything for yourself,” she said.

“I have a lot to tell you. And— I’m not looking for suggestions. I’ve already decided what I want to do, and I don’t want to fight about it.”

She deposited her bag at her feet and took the latte. “Okay. What’s happened, exactly? Why haven’t I seen you in forever, and why do you sound like shit?”

He had forgotten about that. “I had the flu. That’s not important.” He explained the story in as linear a fashion as he could: Ms. Beir, the discovery of Fiona Mathuin, the identities of murder victims Michael Payne and Edie Torres, and, finally, Regina Mathuin’s proposal in the library.

Ophelia listened to all of it without comment, and without taking so much as a sip of her latte. She waited until Jem fell into a hesitation which became an ellipsis, waited until she was sure he was waiting to hear what she had to say.

“You haven’t described how Mathuin himself reacted to any of this,” she pointed out.

That was true. Jem had recited the facts and repeated what was said, but had carefully left out how it was said.

“He wasn’t happy.”

“That you found out about his daughter?” She made a face. “Look, I realize, it’s a marriage in the most technical sense of the word, but even so… you don’t usually hide your dead child from your spouse.”

“You don’t usually carve up a sixteen-year-old on an altar and then marry him five years later,” Jem pointed out. “He was… It seemed like every mention of Fiona brought him pain.” He flicked a sugar packet. “He only called her Fee.”

“And it turns out Charles Agripin was a fucking rapist.” Oaf made a face and looked away, at the customers passing by. “It would have been good to know that from the start.”

“Is it different, avenging your father when he was a rapist?” Jem said. Ophelia raised her eyebrows. “I mean, yes, obviously, it’s different, but…”

“Garet took great pains to make sure that we all thought the motive for his father’s death was jealousy. Mathuin wanting to take what wasn’t his. You know— the shady Judas character stabbing the good king in the back. Bullshit like that.” She rubbed her eyes. “Which brings me, I suppose, to the obvious question. I’m guessing that what you told me when I got here, that you’d already decided what to do, and you weren’t looking for suggestions— that must have been in regards to Regina’s offer?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re going to take her up on it, of course?”

Jem chewed on his lip. Here we go, he thought. “No. I turned her down.”

Ophelia stared at him. “Jem!” she said, loudly enough that a few people in the customer line turned to look at them.

“For a lot of reasons,” Jem said with forced steadiness. “And I swear to God, if you lecture me…”

“Lecture you? What? Something about you killing your only and best chance at fucking freedom?” Oaf hissed. Jem scowled at her, until she settled. “Fine. Explain it to me.”

With that prompt, Jem somehow found himself floundering. “We have a deal, Mathuin and I,” he began, lamely. “And it keeps you safe.”

“Excuse me? Excuse you? Don’t make me responsible for you throwing your fucking life away!” She clutched her latte and leaned forward. “And in case the thought hadn’t occurred to you, Mathuin might have agreed not to have me killed like every other Agripinite in the inner circle, but he certainly doesn’t keep me fucking safe. He expelled me from living in Bergdis, and outside of Bergdis is where the Knights are circling like fucking sharks. Which is exactly what got us into this whole fucking mess in the first place!”

“Don’t fucking lecture me!” For a moment, Jem was certain he was ten years old again, balling up his fists to keep from yanking his twin’s pigtail. “Okay. Yes. It doesn’t keep you safe. It keeps him from killing you outright— or letting any other Mathuinite kill you. Still. What in the ever loving fuck do you think he would do to me if he caught me in this fucking scheme? As his brand new fucking wife? After what he did because I went flipping through a fucking photo album, how do you think he’s going to handle a betrayal like this?”

“Well, he has to catch you first,” Oaf snapped.

“Which brings me to the main reason,” Jem said. “I don’t think it can work.”

Ophelia paused to consider. “Yes,” she admitted. “That.”

“There’s nothing about this girl that makes me think she could do it. Not when Garet failed. For fuck’s sake, she’s just a year older than we are.” He swallowed hard, and managed to suppress a lingering cough. “The risk isn’t equal to the reward.”

“You sound like you came with that one prepared,” Oaf said ironically.

“And it’s not like I have nothing to lose, much as everyone might think that,” Jem said venomously. “I do, for fucking example, have my life. Still. For now.”

Ophelia looked down at her hands, considering. “What has she tried to sell you on? Like, what’s supposed to convince you that she can do it, after all?”

“Well, that she’ll have me on her side. And, as she pointed out, I’m close to Mathuin.”

“Mm,” Ophelia said. “Yeah. You’ve convinced me. Don’t go along with this girl.”

Jem opened his mouth and then shut it. “Do you think I’m that incompetent?” he asked after a moment. He wasn’t even sure if he was insulted, but there was something galling about having won the argument because of his own inadequacy.

“Do you think I’ve never sent a demon or two to try to kill Mathuin?” Ophelia asked. Jem stared at her, aghast. “Not recently,” she assured him. “It was back just after he’d killed Garet, when he went to the hospital to get that blade taken out of his side, and he still had you as a hostage, unmarried. You know. When he was weak, and away from his home turf. At his most vulnerable, as any grimoire could tell you.” She paused. “Anyway, as I’m quite sure you’ve noticed, he’s still here, that fucking bastard, and it turned out it was kind of hard to plead ignorance after the truce was all set up and you were married, so… I stopped trying.”

“When were you going to tell me this?”

“Now, I suppose.”

“How’d you know he had a blade removed from his side?”

“Because he left Bergdis— to go to the hospital— to remove said blade.” She sipped her latte. “I was tracking his movements, and I was on the lookout for him leaving Bergdis, of course. I wanted to get at him.”

“And when were you going to tell me that?”

That, I thought you knew— you’re sleeping with him, why wouldn’t you know that Garet stabbed him?”

“How long was he gone from Bergdis?” Jem asked, thinking hard.

Ophelia shrugged. “Two days, maybe three including travel time?”

“What two days? Of that week?” Jem himself had not laid eyes on Mathuin once throughout that week, until he was dragged out of the cellar and to the courthouse. He had been sure Mathuin had forgotten him, only to be very surprised.

Ophelia paused. “It was the middle of the week. Wednesday and Thursday, and I think he left Tuesday night and got back Friday… yeah, I remember now. It’s better to summon demons on Friday, and I did it on Wednesday instead, because I didn’t think it was a good idea to wait.

“Anyway. Back to the topic at hand. Regina Mathuin. Daughter of Charles Agripin, baby sister of Garet Agripin, daughter of Fiona Mathuin, granddaughter of Jakob Mathuin, and step-granddaughter of Jem Dorchester, by my count.” Jem flinched, and Oaf sucked on her lip. “What do you think he’s going to do? When he finds out?”

“I don’t know.” That was a nasty question indeed; with a rare exception in Jem, Mathuin had never shown a particular inclination towards forgiveness towards anyone who made a try at his life. “I also… I don’t like her motivation,” Jem confessed.

“She’s avenging her brother!” Ophelia actually looked quite taken aback. “Who, unlike her father, to the best of our knowledge, was not a rapist. Her dead brother. Garet.”

“It’s become a fucking revenge farce,” Jem said.

“It’s been a revenge farce. Apparently. From the beginning.”

“And eventually, someone just needs to say enough. Not that she needs to forgive him, not that she needs to do anything like that, but…” He struggled for a moment. “I don’t want him murdered,” he heard himself blurt out.

Ophelia gave him a strange look. “I thought you might say something like that,” she said.

“What does that mean?” Jem asked, suddenly suspicious.

“Nothing. Never mind. You don’t like it when people get murdered, Jem— there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Jem paused. “Maybe,” he suggested quietly, “Peace is more important than me, personally, winning.”

“Well, you, personally, losing meant that our entire family lost,” Ophelia said. “But that’s neither here nor there. I support you and your decisions, with reservations, whole-heartedly, because we’re twins, and that’s what twins do. Even if you are making the wrong choice, as usual.” Jem wasn’t so sure about this principle, but he kept the thought to himself.

Oaf leaned forward across the table. “That being said… a bit of advice, if you please… don’t be so eager to turn Regina down. Not that you should take up her offer— just that, once you turn her down, then you’re not an ally, and you become a liability instead, if not an outright enemy. And then—” Ophelia stared at him, wide-eyed. “The bitch is gonna cut you, you hear me?”

Jem’s stomach did a funny little flip. “About that,” he said, and pulled out his phone. He dragged up the text conversation and showed it to Oaf.

“Jenevieve?” she asked immediately.

“A pseudonym. Don’t worry about that part.”

She read the brief exchange. “What the fuck— you sent this to her five seconds before I arrived!”

“I thought you were going to talk me out of it!” Jem said wretchedly. “I wanted to commit to the decision— make sure I couldn’t take it back.”

“Oh, well, you did that,” Ophelia said, furious. She was already on her feet, latte in hand. “And as much as I appreciate your estimation of my powers of persuasion, let’s go, now, please.”

“Where?” Jem asked, rising to his feet.

“Your home. Which, as I’ve noticed in the past, is spelled up enough to put a Knight’s estate to shame. Regina fucking Mathuin certainly wasn’t conceived there, I’ll tell you that.” She grabbed his arm, and hustled him out of the coffee shop and to the car, ignoring how much he protested as they went. “Once we’ve got you home, you’ll be safe, and there, you’ll tell Mathuin that you’ve uncovered his granddaughter’s little conspiracy, right? So at the very least, you won’t have both Mathuins out for your throat.”

Jem pulled the car door open and climbed in. “That’s not a sentence I ever thought I’d hear,” he said.

“Yeah.” Ophelia settled into the driver’s seat. “I remember thinking, once, just after I’d gotten to Bergdis and I found out he was gay— thank goodness, at least there won’t be any little Mathuins running around.” She shook her head. “If I only knew.”

•••

Ophelia left when Hemming arrived, reassured for the moment that Jem would be safe. Jem was restless, unsure of what to do with himself; he had papers to write, lest he miss yet another of Andrade’s revised deadlines, but found himself too wracked with anxiety to concentrate. He cooked, instead, which kept his hands moving and provided him with a list of instructions that didn’t ask for independent thought.

Mathuin came home in a relatively good mood, despite having had a long day. Jem waited until after Hemming had left, and after Mathuin had eaten before he went, however nervously, into the kitchen where Mathuin was pouring himself a glass of wine.

He smiled when he saw Jem and held out a hand. Jem stepped closer, and Mathuin pulled him in close, until Jem stepped up onto Mathuin’s feet with Mathuin’s arm around his back for support.

“What’s got you on a hot tin roof this time?” Mathuin asked, but he said it gently enough.

Jem leaned against him and wondered what the punishment was for the truth. “I have something to tell you,” he said, readying himself.

Mathuin stroked his hair. “All right. What is it?”

“I met your granddaughter. Regina.”

Mathuin’s hand stilled on Jem’s head. “You’ve met her before. She was here for that welcoming party, a few weeks back.”

Jem buried his face in Mathuin’s shirt and only emerged enough to explain, “She wanted to recruit me. She had this plan, and she wanted… she wants to avenge her brother, Garet…” he stopped. He wished for any reaction from Mathuin, any indication to what he was thinking, and but Mathuin was utterly silent.

“She wanted me to help her,” Jem said numbly. “Because I’m close to you, she wanted to me to…” He trailed off.

Mathuin finally stirred. “Wanted you to do what?” he prompted. He didn’t actually sound like he cared, Jem thought. He sounded like he was in class, nudging a student to explain their rationale for a point he already knew to be wrong.

“Help her assassinate you,” Jem said, and waited.

“And what did you say?”

Jem stared at him. “I wouldn’t be telling you about it if I’d agreed,” he said, dumbfounded. And then it occurred to him; “I can prove that I told her no.”

Mathuin showed the first hint of surprise. “You don’t need to prove it to me, I believe you— but why the fuck did you tell her no?”

Jem took a step backwards. “What?” Something was wrong. He heard himself speaking. “You’re not surprised that your granddaughter is trying to kill you… But you’re surprised I told her no?” Mathuin didn’t answer, and Jem realized, “You knew, didn’t you? Oh my god, you already knew.”

The corner of Mathuin’s mouth twitched. “Why did you say no?”

“Because I didn’t want you to die,” Jem said, too aghast for anything but the truth. He took another step back.

“That’s—” Mathuin struggled with himself. “That’s sweet, Kätzchen, but it also fucks up every plan I had.”

Jem stepped backwards until his back hit the counter, which, thankfully, provided something to grab onto. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. “You knew about it,” he said. “And you thought I was going to say yes.”

“I was counting on you saying yes,” Mathuin said, reaching for his wine, and then draining it in one gulp. Jem looked up and realized that he’d never seen the man quite so off-kilter. “How… strongly… did you turn her down?” Jem just stared at him, dumbly. “You didn’t leave any ambiguity to it, did you?” Jem shook his head, and Mathuin swore. “What did you say, exactly?”

Jem could not, for the life of him, see why the exact words might be important, but he silently went to retrieve his phone, and pulled up the texts, as asked. He handed it to Mathuin. It was brief, and to the point— it was, after all, a fucking text message exchange, he thought— but Mathuin studied it for several moments before he decided, “She wouldn’t believe you if you were to try to turn this around. Regina always did have a good head on her shoulders.”

Jem felt the first stirrings of anger, through the fog that seemed to have overtaken his brain. He reached over to reclaim his phone from Mathuin. “What makes you think I’d go along with that?” he heard himself ask hoarsely. His voice, which had barely recovered, had evaporated again.

Mathuin shot him a look. “She’s going to be out for your throat,” he said. “She told you her plans, which are supposed to be secret, and you turned her down, which means that now she’s got to shut you up, permanently, to keep you from doing exactly what you just did.”

“I know that,” Jem said coldly. His fingers curled around the phone until they hurt, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to look at Mathuin’s face. “If I had said yes…”

“You’d have been safe,” Mathuin said.

“I know. From Regina. But when it went to its logical conclusion, when the conspiracy and the assassination failed, and when you knew that I was a part of it— because you clearly knew— just what were you planning to do with me?” He was shaking, as if he were still sick with the flu.

Mathuin looked down at him. He did not look distracted anymore. “What do you mean, what was I planning to do with you?” he asked quietly. “You think I would have come all this way, gone to all those lengths to keep you, just to get rid of you after one toothless little conspiracy?”

“I didn’t say you were going to get rid of me. I just asked what.”

“Fuck, Jem— why the fuck would I have that planned out—”

Jem scrubbed at his face with his hands. He felt feverish. “There’s no winning with you, is there?” He felt desperate and exhausted, trapped and panicked, and it both galled and shamed him that the question sounded so much like a whine. “Someone offers me a way out, and I don’t take it, and it turns out you knew about the whole fucking thing anyway. I do what I think you want me to, like a good little fucking catamite, and it turns out that’s the wrong move anyway—”

“I didn’t say it was the wrong move—”

“Fuck you,” Jem snapped.

Mathuin didn’t look the least bit offended. He was studying Jem, as if curious and observing something he’d never seen before. “Why did you say no?” he asked, very gently.

Jem looked away, miserable. “Never mind,” he said.

“No. Why did you say no?” Jem got up to leave and Mathuin immediately grabbed his arm. “Tell me.”

“Because— fuck, for more reasons than I can remember,” Jem snapped. “Because being your slave keeps Ophelia safe, from you, and from your followers. Because I didn’t think it was going to work— and I was right about that, wasn’t I? Because I don’t like Regina’s reasons. Because I want some fucking peace, because I think Bergdis wants some fucking peace, and I don’t think Bergdis cares whose peace anymore. Because your daughter seems like she was a decent person, and I doubt she’d want her kid to kill her father, even if they both fucking deserve each other.”

Mathuin leaned over him. “Regina offered you everything you want, didn’t she? Garet avenged, and me dead—”

“What I want,” Jem said furiously, “Is a place for my family to be safe, and you weren’t my favorite candidate because you killed the last guy, remember that?” He tipped his chin up with a bravado he didn’t feel. “There’s a big fucking difference between that and actually wanting you dead.”

Mathuin hummed, and straightened, but he didn’t release Jem’s arm. “You’ll forgive me for not marking that difference too closely.”

Jem studied him. He wanted to scream, wanted to start a fight— and usually, when he started swearing and bringing up old grievances, Mathuin was more than willing to accommodate him. Not tonight. “You’re thrilled, aren’t you?” he accused. “I said no, and that screwed with all your plans, but you’re fucking delighted.”

“I’ll be less delighted after Regina does her best to shut you up.”

“She said she wasn’t behind the murders. I asked.” Jem hesitated, suddenly worried. He pulled his arm away. “Is she?”

The argument suddenly felt frivolous, in the wake of this concern. Mathuin looked away. “It’s hard to say,” he said, which Jem interpreted as meaning that he had a few good ideas and didn’t think sharing those ideas with Jem was wise.

“When did you find out she was behind the conspiracy, anyway?” Jem asked crossly. “Before or after you locked me in a cellar for a week when I had the flu?” By his tone, he made it clear that he expected to be told ‘before’.

Mathuin looked like he didn’t know whether to be exasperated or amused. “Shortly after the second murder, I learned that Ivan Williams had had a brief encounter with a young woman,” he said. “A girl who propositioned him. At the time, it seemed most likely that that young woman had been Ophelia, until Malone managed to find a witness who described her as being dark-haired.”

“Instead of red-haired,” Jem said slowly.

“Malone showed this witness pictures of Ophelia and Regina, and she picked out Regina. That was what got you released from that cellar. I knew what I was dealing with, then.”

“And you had to let me go,” Jem said darkly. “So you could send me off to join Regina’s fucking team. Like you were so sure I would.”
Mathuin leaned back, elbows against the countertop, and surveyed the boy. “What in the world are we going to do with you, Kätzchen?”

“Nothing,” Jem said. He rubbed his face. “I’m going to bed.”

•••

Mathuin woke him when he came to bed, later that night, to Jem’s extreme irritation. When Mathuin laid a hand on him, with clear intentions, Jem kicked him.

It didn’t seem to faze the man much, but he certainly took note. “What is it about me knowing about Regina’s plan that’s got you in such a twist?” he asked quietly. “You were still free to make your choice, and deal with the consequences either way— which you did.”

Jem didn’t look at him. “Because at the same time that I was choosing to side with you, you were choosing to give me enough rope to hang myself with,” he said. There was more to it than that— there was, for one, the distinctly horrifying notion that no matter which way he turned, no matter how hard he fought or how saintly submissive he was, he couldn’t win with Mathuin, but that was harder to articulate, and he doubted Mathuin would have agreed, or been terribly sympathetic. “You could have told me what was going on,” he accused. “You could have told me she was going to ask for my help, and that I should say yes. You could have made me double-cross her.”

“You would have loved that,” Mathuin murmured.

“You didn’t, because you wanted to see what I would do. But you weren’t optimistic.”

“I didn’t, because I was sure of what you were going to do.” It was a quiet confession, and Jem finally graced him with a look. “And I was wrong.”

Jem made a withering face at him. “If I could go back in time…”

“Well.” Mathuin’s hand closed around his ankle and he yanked Jem closer. “You can’t.”

Jem started struggling. “I don’t want—”

Mathuin shushed him, even as hands climbed up to Jem’s hips and pulled up his t-shirt. “Nothing like that,” he coaxed, kissing Jem’s stomach, even as he pulled down the pajamas and, with only a bit of effort, pulled them off completely.

He managed to bring Jem, gasping and sullenly resistant, to orgasm before he even bothered to get his shirt off. He only undressed himself afterwards, and pulled Jem close to kiss him, again and again, his mouth and neck and collar. He leaned over him, an oppressive presence even if he wasn’t actually pinning Jem down, and nudged his legs open, enough to grab his knees and hook them up, around his elbows.

Jem squirmed, arching his back. “You fucking liar,” he said, but his heart was pounding. This would be the first time they’d had sex in quite a while— since before Jem had gotten sick, and, by extension, since before Mathuin had beaten him. There were still ghostly blue bruises down the backs of his legs.

“I changed my mind,” Mathuin admitted in a low voice. Jem thought that sounded like a lie, but when Mathuin leaned over to kiss him again, while his hands roamed, Jem kissed him back. He nuzzled Jem’s ear. “It’s always up and down, with you and me, isn’t it?”

Jem swallowed hard but didn’t answer. He let himself relax, as Mathuin’s hands worked him open and, eventually, aroused again.

•••

Jem woke, at not-quite dawn, with a nightmare that drove him bolting upright before he knew he was awake. He sat in the dark, panting, unable to quite remember the nightmare even moments later— something, he thought, about a woman with a bird’s skull for a head, something about Mathuin chasing him with that bone knife—

Mathuin, inevitably, stirred, and reached out a hand to grab his arm, to pull him back down. Jem went, slowly, and lay on his back with Mathuin’s arm possessively around his stomach. In the wake of the proceeding day, and all the unpleasantries therein, he felt almost hungover, as headachey and dizzy and faintly nauseated as if he’d been drinking right up until he fell asleep. He had just as dreadful a feeling about the new day, but he managed to send himself back to sleep.

When he woke again, it was because his phone was chirping with a text from Ophelia. Mathuin had gone, without disturbing Jem.

He sat up, and checked the text, and was immediately overcome with anxiety. Ophelia had sent only two words: Call me.

They never called each other. Throat dry, Jem dialed her number.

She sounded exhausted when she answered, and he was at least glad to hear her voice; he had some terrible notion that it had been someone else, having commandeered her phone, about to tell him bad news about her. “Auntie Valeria said that she was leery about contacting you— house of the enemy, all that. So, she said I should tell you.”

“What happened?” Jem asked, his heart in his throat.

“It’s Henry. He was on a cruise, remember that? Anyway, the Knights got him.”

•••

Jem had not known his cousin Henry especially well— Henry was Jem’s mother’s first cousin, and closer to her age than Jem’s. Still, he had seen Henry a number of times in various family gatherings, at Thanksgivings and summertime visits, and they had been fond of each other in the general way of cousins, benevolent acquaintances linked by family.

He was thoroughly sick of Dorchesters being killed by Knights.

He spent most of the day in the upstairs rooms that (he realized now) held Fiona Mathuin’s robust book collection, unsure of how to grieve, and therefore studying instead. He heard Mathuin’s court downstairs, Jubilee, Ritter, Duarte, and other members, but he ignored them.

The lot of them were still occupying the den (and the warm area by the fireplace) when Mathuin got home, late that evening, and went upstairs to speak to Jem. “You haven’t been sulking here all day, have you?” he asked.

Jem scowled at him. He was buried in blankets, with Britomartis on his lap. “I’m not sulking.”

“Right.” Mathuin was tall enough to reach up to touch the beams overhead, and he grabbed them to support himself as he loomed over Jem when he said, “So what are we going to do about Thanksgiving, Kätzchen?”

“Thanksgiving?” Jem repeated. It was Monday night. “Is that on Thursday?” he asked, astonished.

“Next Thursday. You’re not very good at keeping track of the date, are you?” Mathuin observed.

It would be the first true family holiday since they had married, given the July wedding, and the precursor to that greater calendrical monster, Christmas. It was also the first family holiday where Jem hadn’t received some sort of e-mail from his aunts, telling him when and where to show up, and sending him plane tickets. Ophelia hadn’t mentioned it either.

“I’ll get some things from the grocery store,” Jem said automatically.

“You will not. You’re not leaving this house until I’m sure Regina won’t murder you the moment you set foot off the property. Give a grocery list to Hemming, he’ll send one of his hounds to get the food.”

“And I’ll invite a few people. Like Oaf.”

Mathuin nodded. “Fine.”

“How about your granddaughter? Do you think she’s doing anything?”

Mathuin just stared at him. “I hadn’t asked,” he said dryly.

“She’s your only family, isn’t she?” Jem asked, thinking of Henry.

“Yes. Her and Claudine.”

Jem paused. “Do you remember… much… about your family?” he asked cautiously. This seemed like a sensitive subject— one that he should probably hide his curiosity about. “When were you born, anyway?”

Mathuin looked amused. “No, I don’t remember,” he said. “And I don’t know when I was born— sometime around the turn of the century, in Colville.”

Jem decided to change the subject. “Something else I wanted to ask you,” he started. “About Regina. You said she was seen, talking to Ivan Williams— does that mean you think she was the person who murdered him?”

“Not directly. Ivan Williams was murdered by a man.”

Jem drew his knees up to his chest. “What does ‘not directly’ mean?”

Mathuin looked away. “The thing about Regina, and her conspiracy, and the reason that I’ve let it continue thus far, is that it must be funded or supported, somehow,” he said slowly. “You don’t just kill a king out of no where and then put yourself on the throne— the aim is to replace one regime with another, not to introduce chaos. The rules of inheritance might stipulate that you keep what you kill, but that’s no guarantee that the court will go quietly into the transition.” He made a face, perhaps remembering his own assumption of power. “Regina’s no idiot. She was upset about Garet’s death, but she wouldn’t have embarked on this stupid idea if she didn’t have someone whispering in her ear. Since I don’t know who, or what organization, is supporting her, I’d rather leave it uninterrupted until I know precisely what I’m dealing with. I have a few ideas, but nothing more.”

“Isn’t that a bit dangerous, in and of itself?”

“Conspiracies are like rot,” Mathuin said. “If you don’t root the entire thing out, all at once, because you don’t know the extent of it, then six months or twenty years later, you’ll be dealing with some new plot borne out of the one person you neglected to get rid of.”

Jem pressed his lips together. “You’re speaking in the abstract,” he said, very quietly, “But remember, would you, that I actually knew Contreras and Lance and Copeland as real fucking people in real life? Please?”

Mathuin made a helpless gesture, as if to say, what was I supposed to do? Not murder them?

“I suppose Regina qualifies,” Jem added slowly. “You left Garet Agripin’s closest living relative alive. And now look.”

Mathuin nodded. “My suspicion is that someone supporting Regina— but not Regina herself— is responsible for the latest spate of murders. There’s a number of possible reasons why, as well as the question of whether Regina herself knows.”

“They’re killing for her,” Jem said slowly. “The same way that some of your followers killed for you.” When Mathuin was silent, he added, “Because you didn’t kill them all, did you?”

“How do you figure that?” Mathuin asked. His voice was carefully neutral.

“Well, I was stuck in the basement at the time,” Jem said wryly. “But Oaf pointed out to me that that week when I was in the basement, you were out of Bergdis for two days— getting that blade removed from your side, right? And you were gone on the day Professor Reeves was murdered.”

Mathuin looked away and made a face. “Reeves— I confronted her. I told her to get the fuck out of Bergdis. She hadn’t gone as far as Lance, Contreras, or Copeland— she’d been part of the Agripinite plot, but I couldn’t say that she’d ever made a real attempt on my life. She was going to flee Bergdis, and Washington— but she didn’t move fast enough.” He shook his head. “I suppose there’s something to be said about the paving of the path to hell.”

“Who did kill them her, then?” Jem asked.

“That, I’m not going to tell you. It’s not a name that would mean anything significant to you anyway. Just some members of the court who were certain that their loyalty was going to be called into question, and they were going to need proof of their devotion to the Mathuinite cause.”

Jem did understand his reticence; there were those defeated Agripinites who, while by no means happy about the current regime, accepted it as politics. If they were to find out that a few of their peers, their countrymen, were responsible for Reeves’s murder, vengeance would be a great deal more plausible against those peers than against the Erlking.

Mathuin narrowed his eyes. “You’re not going to bandy that about, are you, Kätzchen?”

“Who would I tell?” Jem asked. “Just Ophelia, and you banished her anyway.” He considered asking Mathuin to stop looming over him like a nightmare, but decided against it. “About the murders,” he added. “Whoever it is who killed Vaughn, Williams, and Payne… it’s probably not the same person who murdered Edie Torres, is it?”

“I think not,” Mathuin said quietly. “One girl’s murder, six years ago, and then a new spree of three murders within two months. The first differs from the latest by age, gender, and most other demographics. She was most likely strangled, they all had their throats cut. The only real similarity is that none of the bodies were hidden especially well— Williams was left precisely where he died, Vaughn was dumped in a pile of leaves outside a library when the murderer could have taken an extra twenty minutes to drag him into the woods, and Payne was barely thirty feet from the bar.”

“Edie was well hidden,” Jem pointed out.

“That murderer got lucky. A girl in a log, at an unpopular campsite near a college. She should have been found right away. Whoever killed her could have buried her in a shallow grave in the woods, but didn’t even bother to do that.” He paused. “Edie Torres disappeared in late November, right before a weekend snowstorm. No one would have visited that campsite again until the snow melted, in April or May at the earliest.”

“So, if she wasn’t killed as part of the current conspiracy, like Vaughn, Williams, and Payne were…”

Mathuin stared at him, dead-eyed. “Then she was another casualty of the Erling Conflict.”

Chapter Text

Chapter XVIII.

Jubilee was the first to arrive Thanksgiving afternoon, with a bottle of wine in hand and a smile as she explained that she was hopeless at cooking and had therefore elected against bringing a dish. Mathuin covered his surprise well enough to greet her amiably, and, promptly afterwards, trapped Jem in the kitchen to ask him just who else he had invited.

“Oaf and Regina,” Jem said promptly. “And then Hemming will be here because he’s always here? I guess. I would have invited Claudine, but I don’t have her personal number, and the vet’s office said she’d already left when I called them.”

“You weren’t kidding about Regina,” Mathuin said.

“Why would I have been kidding?”

The man just shook his head. “Why did you invite Spence? Have you two started getting along?”

“Barely.” The main thing Jem thought of when he thought of Jubilee, still, was her perfume when a number of anonymous hands held him down naked over an altar, and that was not the sort of thing one forgave nor forgot very quickly. But he wanted to ask her a few questions, and he found Jubilee far more tolerable when she was not accompanied by Ritter or Duarte.

Oaf arrived next, with a pecan pie. “I made pumpkin,” Jem said automatically.

“That is nonsense,” Oaf told him loftily, and went to place the pie next to the other.

Regina arrived not much later, empty-handed. She did not look nearly as nervous as Jem thought she should be, but she did stop, to talk to her grandfather. While they were both distracted, and Ophelia was in the kitchen stealing bits of turkey from the plate, Jem went to find Jubilee.

She stood before a bookshelf in the library just off of the den, examining the contents with a scholar’s eye. She must have seen these books before, Jem thought, given how often she was here with her peers.

“There was something I wanted to ask you about,” he started.

“Okay.” She stepped back and turned to face him.

“The term before I showed up at Merodack… the first time, I mean. Edie Torres was part of the class, wasn’t she?”

At the name, Jubilee blanched. “You already knew that,” she accused.

“Do you know what happened to her?” he persisted.

“Not really,” she said.

“What does ‘not really’ mean? You can tell me,” he added, to the dubious look she gave him. “What am I going to do, go to the police? You know I don’t have any power.”

She didn’t appear to agree with that statement, but now wasn’t the time to fight him on it. “I don’t know what happened to Edie, other than that she disappeared,” she said. “And at the time, I didn’t know anything. But now, I do know… well… why she disappeared.”

“She was involved in the Erling Conflict,” Jem hazarded.

“Yes… but there’s a bit more to it than that. Jem, why do you think Garet Agripin picked you out to come and spy on Mathuin at Merodack? It’s not like you were the right age.”

“Because I’d just offered to do anything for him.”

“Lots of people offered to do anything for Agripin. I’ll tell you why,” she said. “It’s because Mathuin has a history of having flings with pretty young men with fair hair.” She reached over and flicked a tuft of Jem’s hair out of his eyes. “Not usually as young as you are now, let alone as young as you were then, but you know, needs must when the devil drives, and don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and all that.”

“What?” Jem asked, more waspishly than he’d intended. “Garet was hoping I’d seduce Mathuin?”

“Not so much, I don’t think. He was hoping that Mathuin would have an affinity for you.”

“What does this have to do with Edie Torres’s death?”

“Disappearance,” Jubilee corrected, and Jem didn’t correct her back, for now. “Just this: you weren’t Agripin’s first try at a spy. For his first try, he went with someone who might remind Mathuin of his daughter, instead. It seemed like a much more sure thing, I’m guessing, or it did, right up until Edie disappeared.”

Jem, through sheer force of will, compartmentalized what he was being told, and put it aside to think about later. “So, what happened to her?” he asked woodenly.

“I said, I don’t know. I know Mathuin knew she was a spy, but I don’t think he killed her. I don’t think he could. He used to make these faces at her, in class, when she was speaking— I think Garet did too good a job at finding a girl who was as much of an imitation of Fee Mathuin as could be found.”

“Which means,” Jem said quietly, “That Garet always thought Meissner was Mathuin.”

That was not a conversation he wanted to have with Jubilee— but she was right there, and somehow, it just came out.

“Well, of course,” she said. “Mathuin was only barely trying to hide it— look at the names. The funny thing,” she added, squinting at him, “Is that spies are supposed to be the most informed.”

Jem ignored that, and put his mind back to the problem of Edie Torres. He remembered the look on Mathuin’s face when Malone had announced the identity of the bones, and then that offhanded comment Mathuin had made once, about finding out just how far his followers would go. He was inclined to agree with Jubilee, that whoever the killer was, it was not Mathuin. “How do you know all of this, anyway?” he asked. “That Mathuin has a daughter, that Edie was like that daughter…”

“Nate told me,” Jubilee said heavily. “And I checked— I went over to the only cemetery in Bergdis, and her gravestone is there, with her name plain as day. Fiona Carter Mathuin.”

Jem supposed that the next question was how Nate Wallace knew, but he had some inkling— Nate, unlike Jubilee or Jem, was a native of Bergdis, and had been friends with Garet Agripin, more or less. “Well,” he said. “Edie Torres is dead. It’s her bones that we found, in that log.”

Jubilee was horrified, but Ophelia interrupted by calling that it was time for dinner.

When they sat down for Thanksgiving, after the dishes had been distributed throughout the table and an awkward moment wherein grace should be said had passed, Mathuin turned to Oaf, who was helping herself to liberal amounts of the marshmallow yams. “How are you doing these days, Ophelia?” he asked, clearly for reasons of politesse.

“I’m doing all right,” she said without looking at him. “It’s just awful, and it’s hard to believe he’s dead, but we weren’t very close, so… you know. Grauntie Katherina’s devastated, though.”

Mathuin stared at her and Jem’s heart sank. He waited until Mathuin turned to look at him for an explanation before he said, squirming, “Our cousin Henry passed away.”

Oaf’s head came up. “Jem hadn’t told you that?”

“What happened?” Regina asked from down the table.

“The Knights,” Oaf said. “As usual.” She turned back to Mathuin, and with the polite air of any family member inquiring after the handful of items she knew about his life, she asked him how his students were treating him this year.

The rest of the dinner passed more or less without incident. Jem managed to make conversation between Regina and Jubilee as if he didn’t have his own reasons for hating each of them, and even occasionally tried to speak to Hemming, though the man was never especially receptive.

After dinner, most everyone went to the den, ostensibly to discuss the latest superhero movie Oaf was telling Jubilee about at great length, and Jem went to the kitchen to put the coffee pot on and do his best to start dealing with the hopeless amount of dishes.

He was surprised a few minutes later when Regina wandered in with a lackadaisical manner. “I heard so much about this place as a kid,” she commented, looking around. “I saw it a few times, too, when it was all gone to ruin. I remember coming in here, once, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and there were columbines and weeds growing up from the floor. The place did seem awful quick to go back to nature. But that must have been just before he came back to fix it up.” She turned to Jem, apparently unaware of how uneasy she was making him.

“What did you hear about it?” Jem asked.

“Mostly how much my mother loved it. I heard a lot about her— my aunt, who raised me, was very fond of her. Actually, it seems like everyone was very fond of her.” She dragged a finger along the countertop, as if expecting to find ancient dust. There was none. “Even Charles, in his way.”

Jem bit his tongue on the comment that her mention of Charles’s fondness for Fiona was quite possibly one of the worst things he’d ever heard. “I’ve heard that she loved this place, too.”

“Fee Mathuin, always with her nose in a book.” She looked around and made a face.

Jem leaned against the counter and made his hands rest at his sides, balled into fists just where she couldn’t see them. “You seem like you’re aching to say something,” he said. She turned to stare at him at that, eyebrows raised. “About your mother, I mean. You don’t seem quite so pleased with the enchantment she cast over everyone else.”

“Well, I didn’t know her, so I can’t be enchanted, can I?” She paused, and when Jem said nothing, she said, “She really did botch it— she couldn’t have done it more wrong. If she’d called her father sooner, or if she hadn’t fought with Charles when he took me… if she’d done just any one thing differently… She might’ve survived, and we wouldn’t have had the Erling Conflict.”

Jem looked away.

“I’m making you uncomfortable,” Regina guessed.

“Why is it on her to have done something differently?” Jem said irritably.

Regina smiled at him. “You sympathize with her,” she accused. “You think, you and she, both trapped in these unfavorable situations, in this house… Bear in mind, she was raised by Mathuin, and his hands were every bit as bloody then as they are today. She wasn’t a shining saint.” Just when Jem was ready to argue with her, she looked down. “But— it’s not like I blame her for everything. I just wish… She fought so hard to keep me that she died in the fight, and it’s hard to know that, and not have a mother, at the same time. She would have been a good mother, I think. And that, despite the fact that there was no way she wanted me.”

Jem found nothing at all to say that, or nothing that didn’t at least obliquely mention that Regina’s way of paying Fiona back for her devotion was to try to murder her father. Regina’s focus, however, had already gone to the nearby window. “I’ve heard that she kept bees,” she said. “Can you show me where she had the hives? I know it was in the backyard, between the trees.”

Jem hesitated. “I’m not exactly sure,” he warned.

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Let’s just turn the porch light on and go have a look.”

He wasn’t sure how she talked him into it or why he agreed to it, but before long, he had thrown on a coat and boots and stomped out into the yard, through snow as deep as knees or thighs depending on the drift, into the gardens of the backyard. Regina, just ahead of him and only slightly better dressed for the poor weather, trudged for the tree line.

“What are you looking for?” he called after her, bewildered. The ruins of the hives, more than twenty years old? Or just the best place one would hypothetically put a hive?

“I have a few pictures of the yard, with her standing by the hives,” Regina explained. “They were about here, I think, maybe— no… no, they must have been further back. These trees are young. The forest is creeping up on the yard.”

Jem followed, as they left the last of the porch light behind and stepped into the darkness of the trees. He realized, in a rather distant sort of way, that he knew that Regina was almost certainly up to something. They must be near the edge of the property, where any protective spells vanished away, and she must have some plan here (if she was the murderer after all, he thought, that plan would involve his throat, mostly open). He found only vaguely interested, at best. It was not that he wanted to die; but he was tired, so very tired, of being trapped, and the immediately pressing threat that Regina represented was refreshing compared to the promise of eternity in which Mathuin had caged him.

She turned on heel to speak to him, and he stumbled to a stop. “I need you not to tell Mathuin what I offered, that day in the library.”

“Is that what you brought me out here to say?” Jem asked with an acidity he didn’t really feel. “Your poor, dead mother, and her poor bees. A sham.”

Wherever this conversation was going, it was cut short. The porch door slammed open, and they both looked over to see the distant silhouette of Mathuin. He shouted something at them.

Quick as a snake, Regina reached for Jem. Her hand had black runes written in thin lines across the palm. She closed bare fingers around the skin of his wrist, under his jacket sleeve, her grip so tight that fingernails dug into his skin. “You should never have been genius loci, Jem,” she said.

Jem yanked his wrist away, and stepped backwards, and then back, into the light, just in time for Mathuin to catch up to them.

He was angry. He shouted at them both for being out in the dark and the yard, though he gave no particular reason why they shouldn’t be here, and he bodily dragged Jem back to the house.

•••

The rest of Thanksgiving passed without any excitement. Mathuin, while still furious with Regina, gave no sign of it when he wished her goodnight. Before long, the house was empty but for him and Jem.

He went into the den, to sit near the fire, and called Jem away from the dishes. The charms that ran the house would clean the place efficiently, if just given some time.

Jem came when called, with a wary expression on his face. He did not look pleased when Mathuin pulled him close by a fistful of his shirt, and then coaxed him down onto his knees between the man’s legs, but he went willingly enough.

Afterwards, Mathuin buttoned up his jeans but kept a fistful of Jem’s hair in order to keep him down on his knees. Softly, he asked, “Why did you follow Regina outside? What in the world were you thinking?”

Jem squirmed, and stared up at him sullenly from under the mop of strawberry blond hair. “I don’t know,” he said, and then, with a bit more thought, “I think I just wanted to see what would happen.”

“And if she killed you?” Mathuin said coolly. “You didn’t really think she would, did you?”

Jem didn’t answer, but Mathuin had another question anyway. “Why didn’t you tell me about your cousin?”

Jem pulled back, out of Mathuin’s grip, and got to his feet. “I don’t want to talk about Henry,” he said, and that was the end of that conversation.

Later, after Jem had collected his Tam Lin books and curled up in bed for the night, Mathuin made his way up the stairs. It was only coincidence that he happened to be at the top of the stairs when he heard Jem yelp.

He stepped into the room just in time to see Jem folding his shirt down over his stomach. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jem said, much too quickly, but Mathuin saw his hand pressed to his abdomen. He reached for the boy and forcibly pulled up his wrist, only to see Jem’s palm come up red. At that alarming sight, he yanked up the edge of Jem’s shirt.

The three scars were needle thin and bloodlessly white. At the top scar, the one that extended from just underneath the juncture Jem’s ribcage, about a half an inch of the line had opened up and was bleeding freely.

Mathuin swore, and pressed a handful of Jem’s shirt into the wound, ignoring Jem’s flinch. “What did Regina say to you?” he demanded. “What did she do?”

“Nothing, nothing—” Jem caught sight of his face and blanched. “She said… she said I was never meant to be genius loci.”

“And?”

“And… and she reached out to grab my arm when she said it. My wrist.”

“She touched bare skin?” Mathuin asked, and Jem nodded.

Mathuin pulled him downstairs, into the basement where he kept a workshop for his spells and experiments, one of the handful of rooms throughout the house that he never allowed Jem into.

With a bit of convincing, he managed to get Jem laid out on the metal table, naked and shivering badly. He shone a bright light on the wound, and ignored the way that Jem’s eyes flickered uneasily over the shelves that lined the walls and the various glass jars and instruments that populated those shelves.

“What did she do?” Jem asked, after Mathuin had cleaned away the blood and examined the opening wound.

“She’s trying to unseal the binding that made you into a genius loci.” The scar hadn’t opened any further— not yet, anyway.

“She can do that?” Jem shifted like he wanted to sit up.

“There’s only one way to get out of being genius loci, and you already know what it is,” Mathuin said. He checked Jem’s expression and immediately wished he hadn’t used quite so blasé a tone.

Jem covered up his devastation quickly enough, and asked, “Can you stop it?”

“We’ll see.” He found the appropriate materials and went to work, numbing the skin, stitching up the newly opened wound, and taping bandages over it. He sealed it with a spell. “There are things I can do to slow down the progress, and I can thwart it in the end.” This attempted unbinding, after all, was a paltry thing, a parasitic little charm, and nothing compared to the sealing Mathuin had enacted five years earlier, in blood and ink. “But…”

“But it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” Jem stared up at the ceiling.

“Right.” Mathuin cleaned his hands, and then laid one palm on Jem’s stomach, just below the new bandages. He watched the rise and fall of Jem’s breath. “What I’m curious about,” he admitted, very softly. “Is just how my granddaughter went about obtaining this sort of magic. She doesn’t have it on her own.”

Jem tucked his chin down to look at him. “It’s Entrailic magic.”

“No,” Mathuin said firmly. “It is not.”

“It’s not witchcraft, either.” Which was the only type of magic that Jem could easily identify. Mathuin wasn’t sure if he found this brand of ignorance in Jem endearing or exasperating. Under his hand, Jem twitched and then squirmed, as unstill as he ever was. “How did you stop me from bleeding to death?” he asked. “Back when… when you made me into a genius loci.” His voice cracked on the words.

Mathuin moved his hand up to tweak a nipple— Jem flinched— and then let it rest, again, on the boy’s belly. “Not by magic. A few rough stitches and cloth bandage wrapped tight. Viscuomancy, for all of its many advantages, is better for causing bleeding than staunching it.”

“You must have had the hospital workers in your pocket, like Oaf thought,” Jem said. He sounded as if he were marveling at the lengths Mathuin had gone to.

“I didn’t have it planned out as far as that,” Mathuin said. “But I have ways of getting people to do what I want them to.”

“Why did you let me transfer out of that hospital?” Jem asked.

Mathuin didn’t answer. The truth was that he had done no such thing; he had been caught by surprise by Ophelia. He hadn’t guessed that a sixteen-year-old might be so proactive when it came to moving her injured brother, nor even that she had intuited there was something wrong with the hospital in the first place.

Throughout the conversation, Jem’s heartbeat had only gotten faster and faster. “Are you panicking?” Mathuin asked. He tried to put it as kindly as he could, but even to his own ears, he sounded harsh and mocking.

Jem struggled up, not quite to sitting, but sliding his legs off the table and landing more or less on his feet. Mathuin caught him and leaned over him to kiss him, snaking an arm around the boy’s back in order to pull him close.

“Why,” he started, “Why did you invite Regina to Thanksgiving?”

Jem merely shrugged. “She’s family,” he said. “Like it or not. And besides, you don’t know that there’s a conspiracy going on, remember? So, since you don’t know, wouldn’t you logically be inviting your only family over for the holidays?”

Which was, Mathuin thought, emphatically not the truthful answer. If he had to guess, it was that Jem, who resented being caught in the middle of Mathuin and Regina’s silent struggle, had found a rather passive aggressive way of paying back both of them.

Jem leaned back. “I asked Jubilee about Edie Torres,” he said, very quietly.

Mathuin paused. He did not, now or ever, want to talk about Edie. “What about her? I can’t imagine Spence knows who killed her.”

“No, she doesn’t,” Jem said quietly. “Just that… that Garet had sent her as a spy. And then, when she disappeared…”

“When she disappeared, he sent another one before the year was out,” Mathuin said. “As if that was a good idea.”

“He must have thought he was sending me to my death,” Jem said, very softly. “What was even the point?”

Mathuin shifted. He still had an arm around Jem, but the boy was limp, neither leaning into him nor trying to get free. “If I’d killed you— well, he might have gotten some information out of you along the way. Besides, it would have made your sister irrevocably committed to destroying me. She was the only witch he ever had for his side, and he needed to keep her.”

Jem made a faint noise in the back of his throat.

Mathuin pulled him close and kissed the top of his head. Normally, he might have taken the chance to remind Jem that he had spied, that he had conspired against him and betrayed him, and he had nothing and no one but himself to blame for the consequences. “You’re going to be all right,” he said instead.

Chapter Text

Chapter XIX.

Jem insisted on being allowed to go to class, come Monday morning, to Mathuin’s vexation. He had very real concerns about failing to get his term paper in before the beginning of Christmas Break. “I’ve missed enough class already,” he pointed out when they argued about it. “And besides, you’ll be right there, on campus. No one’s going to try anything when you’re around.”

A week went by, in which little happened, and Jem saw no sign of Regina. After class on Monday of the next week, he spent hours with Professor Andrade, going over his most recent draft, before he was freed to go to the library. He never made it there.

He had only barely left the classroom behind when someone grabbed his arm, hard, and yanked him around. Jem turned, surprised, and was even more surprised to find himself staring up at a man who was almost as tall as Mathuin. His face was an amalgamation of crag, scar, and scowl, somehow both ageless and ancient at once. He kept his hair in a buzzcut, revealing a recently closed seam that wound around his hairline in vivid red, and to judge by his coat, gloves, and boots, he was well-prepared for the unsparing cold of Bergdis.

“Jem Dorchester,” the man said.

“Yes?” Jem said, polite if bewildered. He tried to pull his arm away, and in response, the man yanked him closer, towards an entirely different path than Jem intended to take. It did occur to Jem, somewhat uneasily, that the man seemed to have come entirely out of no where.

His thought, in the moment (though he would later realize it for utter stupidity) was that the man needed directions around the campus, or perhaps was one of Mathuin’s guests, come for the coronation. He was slow to realize that there was no one else around, and it didn’t occur to him that no one of Merodack’s sleepy campus was likely to hear him if he started screaming. When he struggled, and the man’s grip tightened in improbable rudeness, the first bolt of panic hit his stomach.

They were still walking, even as Jem tried to get free, and fast approaching the edge of campus. “Excuse me—” Jem started, and then, furiously, “What the hell are you doing?”

He was yanked into the woods barely a moment later— close, he estimated, to where he had found Edie Torres’s bones. The man finally paused, turned to him, and with his free hand, reached into his backpack and pulled out a knife, free of its sheath. Jem stared at it.

The knife was at least a foot long, and as wide as the palm of Jem’s hand. It did not look sharp so much as well-used. The thought occurred to Jem, in a moment of matter-of-fact understanding, that if one were to go about cutting necks straight down to the bone, one would probably wish to use a tool like this. He tried to pull away again, but that was an instinctual, hopeless thing by now.

“Listen up, boy,” the man snapped, giving him a shake. “Listen— This is what we’re going to do.” Jem was listening. “You’re the genius loci, the one and only. Since you might not be the genius loci for much longer, thanks to the idiot girl, we’re going to have to do this now, much as it fucks with the plan. You’re going to lead the way, using that one skill of yours, and you’re going to find the cabin in the woods.”

Jem found his voice. “Any cabin in the woods?” he asked faintly.

“No, dumbass,” the man said. “Ma’am Winter’s cabin. Now, boy.”

The choice was obedience or the knife; Jem chose obedience. He had never been so determined to find a location ever before.

The following occurred to him, as he walked:

First, that this man must be one of the group that Mathuin had spoken of, those who supported and funded Regina and her claim. That, Jem figured, was how he knew of the spell she had laid on him days earlier.

Secondly, that not only did this man know about Ms. Beir, but he had some business with her, and nothing good could come of that.

Thirdly, that this man wouldn’t kill Jem before reaching the cottage, and was certainly going to kill him afterwards.

When this last revelation hit Jem, he abruptly slowed to a trudge. The man behind him shoved him forward, hard, and Jem dared a look back at him. “Who the fuck are you?” he asked.

“Keep going,” the man ordered.

“You’re going to kill me after we get there, aren’t you?” Jem stumbled. “So tell me. You can at least tell me your name, before you kill me.”

“I’m not going to kill you. Not if you do as I tell you.”

Jem didn’t believe him. He kept walking, in spite of the deepening snow. He was finding it harder to breathe with every step.

Even he was surprised when the trees finally broke into a clearing. Just ahead of them stood Ms. Beir’s cottage, like a gingerbread house frosted in sugar, smoke puffing out of the chimney. Jem froze, even as the man behind him let out a low breath.

“Here we are,” he said, very softly, and then, “Good.”

He took Jem’s shoulder and turned the boy to face him. He still held the knife in his other hand. Jem didn’t dare look at it.

Before he had the chance to raise it, and thus bring it down in a devastating arc, something swooped out the air above them and into the man’s face, a fury of black feathers and clawing talons. The man stumbled backwards and shouted, and Jem didn’t hesitate.

He bolted, away from his kidnapper, and away from the dubious protection of Ms. Beir’s cottage. He ran through the woods without seeing the trees or the snow or the heavy undergrowth. He heard blood rushing in his ears, and ran and ran until it finally occurred to him to find a place to run to. He decided on home, without question, and moments later, the woods erupted into the backyard, the place where Regina had lead him, with the intention of finding the location of Fee Mathuin’s beehives.

Jem did not slow. He ran all the way up the steps, and into the house, stumbling on snow-caked boots and aching legs, and found the place empty. Once he was inside, he dared to look back, at the window outside, to see who or what might have followed him. There was nothing.

He jumped when his phone rang; it was Ophelia. “Are you all right?” she demanded. “Are you safe? Where are you, at home? What happened?”

Jem was almost too dumbfounded to speak, and he could barely get a proper breath in anyway. He managed to tell her he was home, and safe, and choked out the one thought that had stuck with him more than any other: “I met the murderer—”

•••

Ophelia made it home some few minutes before Mathuin, all in a frazzled panic, a scant twenty minutes after hanging up the phone with Jem.

Her side of the story came out in a few anxious outbursts, and Jem learned in no time at all that she always had at least a few familiars following him wherever he went; a hare named Menteth, which lived in the front yard and kept an eye on him when he was at home, and a starling named Orsino that followed him whenever he left the property. She had been alerted to the kidnapping almost the moment it had happened, and she had sent Ragozine the crow to do whatever he could. Jem had the distinct suspicion that she had sent a small army of familiars to take on his kidnapper and only Ragozine had arrived first, but he didn’t ask.

He further learned that she was not the only one; Mathuin had a spell or two woven around him to keep track of him, which had alerted him to something being wrong when Jem had vanished from campus. Oaf knew about the presence of the spell but not any details to speak of, not how the spell worked nor when it had been created, therefore exasperating Jem to no end.

Mathuin arrived in a raging bad mood, having been proven right that he shouldn’t let Jem out of the house. Jem decided that if he wanted to bring up the conversation of having spells cast about his person without his knowledge or consent, now was not the best time. Mathuin thanked Ophelia for saving Jem, and waited until she was out of the room, gone to check on the rest of her familiars who had returned to her. The moment she was gone, he turned and snapped at Jem, “What the fuck did I tell you?”

Jem’s composure broke. Since Oaf’s arrival, he had been shivering in gentle, widely-spaced tremors, like an indication of earthquake under the skin, but at the promise of a fight with Mathuin, his legs gave out from under him and he sat down hard on the kitchen floor.

He found himself shaking so badly he could barely see straight, his teeth chattering in his head, tears stinging at his eyes. Mathuin watched him for almost an entire minute, a somewhat tortured expression on his face before he finally sat down next to Jem and put a hand on his head.

“Tell me what happened,” he ordered, just as Ophelia returned.

He told the story as best he could, with as much detail as he could manage, and he didn’t completely dissolve into a panic attack, though it was an effort. While he described the physical appearance of the murderer, Ophelia made him a cup of tea. Mathuin was still and silent, listening without speaking.

Once Jem had drifted into silence, Oaf handed him the steaming mug and asked Mathuin, “Does this mean that Ms. Beir is dead?”

“What?” He looked up. “No. Of course not. I would have felt that. We all would.”

While they were speaking, Jem put the mug down on the floor and flipped up his shirt to discover that another half inch of his scar had opened in the excitement, and was bleeding sluggishly.

“Then what did this bastard want with her cottage?” Ophelia asked.

Jem looked up. Until now, it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder.

“That’s a very good question,” Mathuin said slowly. “We all try to give Ma’am Winter a wide berth, and if anyone annoys her, well, she’s better equipped for defending herself than any other entity I’ve ever met.” He looked down. “He couldn’t steal from her or hurt her. If he tried it, he’s dead.”

“You don’t know that,” Ophelia said. “You don’t know who he is or what he is or where he came from.”

“True,” Mathuin admitted. “But I know a fair bit about what she is. And that’s enough.”

“Even if he can’t— why would he want to kill Ms. Beir?” Jem asked. “I mean, I get why everyone wants to kill you— sorry,” he added, unrepentant, when Mathuin turned to look at him. “What would he want with Ms. Beir at all?”

“Her location, apparently,” Mathuin said, and frowned. “Describe his face again.”

Jem did his best, and heard himself delineating something that sounded quite like Frankenstein’s monster, which was not at all correct. He stopped, and said, “He was almost as tall as you are— that must make him stand out like nothing else. The only other person I’ve ever seen in Bergdis nearly as big as you is Hemming, and it wasn’t Hemming.”

“Huh,” Mathuin said, without commitment.

Oaf narrowed her eyes. “Who do you think it was?” she asked.

“Not a Bergdis native,” Mathuin said. “But other than that, I couldn’t tell you.”

He waited until not only Hemming, but most of the court had arrived, before announcing that he intended to go and have a talk with Ms. Beir.

Ophelia, in turn, waited until she was sure he was gone before collecting a wooden bowl and a sharp pair of scissors from the kitchen and making her way upstairs. Jem, who had a pretty good idea of what this entailed, followed her.

“You’re going to scry him out?” he asked, while she filled the bowl with water in the bathroom sink. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“I’m sure I want to know everything I can find out about this bastard,” she said, carrying the bowl of water into the nearby library room. She set it down on the floor and sat next to it, cross-legged.

Ragozine, the crow familiar had touched the man’s skin and drawn his blood by talons; it was enough. Ophelia summoned up Abhorson, the imp, and while he lingered about, waiting for orders, she picked up the scissors and snipped each of the pads of the three fingers and thumb of her left hand. Jem sat cross-legged across the bowl from her, and tried not to wince. Being a witch required a strong stomach and an iron will, and while he knew that, it didn’t make the mutilation any easier to watch.

She pressed her fingers into the bowl and Abhorson vanished away like a shadow meeting sunlight. Ophelia closed her eyes and breathed deep.

It only took a few minutes before Abhorson found the man, and Ophelia with him. “He’s leaving Bergdis,” she said, and her voice sounded slightly awed, as if whatever was behind her eyes was beautiful or devastating, and not merely utilitarian.

“He’s leaving?” Jem repeated faintly.

“He’s on the road to New Mora. A black car. We’re close— there.” She paused. “His name,” she announced, quite plainly, “Is Ezra Prades.”

“Prades.” Something was uneasy under Jem’s skin, something twitching and sick and wrong. He wanted to lean over and yank her hand out of the water, wanted to tell her to send Abhorson on a reconnaissance mission free of herself, so that whatever became of the imp, she wasn’t part of its fate.

“He’s not human,” she said. “But I don’t know what, precisely… he’s got power, Jem, like nothing I’ve quite seen before…”

“Power?”

“Like stone and like lightning. Power.” Jem flinched, and Ophelia was quiet for much too long. “He meant to kill you,” she said suddenly. “His knife still aches with the potential. It’s seen the insides of three throats.”

“Vaughn, Williams, and Payne,” Jem said.

“Vaughn, Williams, and Payne,” Ophelia echoed.

But not Edie Torres, Jem thought. He didn’t say it.

“He’s come to New Mora,” Oaf announced, rather quietly, and then suddenly went far too still. “Oh!” Her eyes opened and went wide, rolled up to the whites— there was a shriek and a shudder at the heart of things, an un-noise that left Jem deaf and blind in a heart-rending moment. Just as immediately, it was over. Ophelia collapsed and the power went out of the house with a snap and a shout from the downstairs Mathuinites who were suddenly left in darkness.

Jem began to scream.

He had the good sense, in the dark, to reach over to his twin and pull her hand from the bowl— even the touch shocked him, like static electricity, and powerful enough to make his arm ache up to the elbow. He managed to push her onto her back. She was cold, and utterly still, but when he put his hand under her nose, he could feel her breathing shallowly. He kept screaming for help, desperate, until he heard footsteps, thundering on the stairs.

It was the first and only time he was ever grateful for the congregation of Mathuinites invading his home. In the basement, someone managed to get the power up and running again. When the lights returned, they found Ophelia lying as still as a corpse, unconscious, her skin the color of old oatmeal. Duarte and Ritter helped Jem move her to a couch, while Wharton called various local witches, looking for assistance.

After the better part of a half an hour, during which Jem dissolved into panic and complete despair, she began to wake, first with the faint noises of pained breathing. Finally, with a pinched face, she stirred.

Everyone crowded around, entirely silent, while Jem knelt next to the couch, holding her hand tightly, bloody though it was. He said her name several times, before she whispered something that sounded like it might be a response.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jem demanded at this first hint of proper consciousness. He heard his voice cracking and couldn’t bring himself to care.

She scowled like a child waking from a deep sleep, and with her other hand, rubbed her eyes. “They got me,” she whispered.

“What?” He stopped. “Abhorson. What happened to Abhorson, Oaf?”

“Ab’s dead.” Simply, and without elaboration or emotion. With a great effort, Ophelia heaved herself into better wakefulness and opened her eyes into a squint. She did not appear to notice the crowd of Mathuinites that surrounded her, or anything but her brother. Her very manner chilled Jem; she spoke like a sleepwalker, as if she thought they shared a mutual mind. “New Mora,” she said, still in her whisper. “There’s dozens of them, maybe fifty, maybe more. They’ve all come to congregate there. Waiting. He’s one of them, but not anymore… something happened, and he became other, but not other. He wants back in.”

“Who’s he?” Jubilee asked, just behind Jem.

“More like, who’s them,” Duarte muttered.

“You know,” Ophelia said to Jem in a whisper so quiet almost no one could hear. She patted his cheek with her good hand, like a playful child. “Mommy and daddy.”

And somehow, Jem figured it out. His hand tightened on hers. “Knights,” he said. “There are dozens of Knights congregating in New Mora. That’s what you mean, right? And he— Ezra Prades, him— he used to be one of them.”

Ophelia simply nodded, and then lay her head back down and settled into sleep.

•••

The precise details of what had happened were beyond Jem’s understanding, and, he suspected, beyond the understanding of anyone except those who had a very advanced magical education. The essential story was: Ophelia, channeling through the vessel and minion imp Abhorson, had attached herself in some way, if only through a ghostly shadow, to one Ezra Prades, murderer and, apparently, ex-Knight.

Upon entering the Knights’ domain, specifically, the township of New Mora, the Knights perceived her presence and reacted with their usual brutal efficiency. They had not managed to attack her before she glimpsed a few key details, but nonetheless, the damage was devastating.

Abhorson was dead and with him all the rest of Ophelia’s familiars: Ragozine, Menteth, Orsino, and others whose names Jem didn’t know. Ophelia’s power may very well be compromised, and her mind might be severely damaged. No one knew.

The three witches that Wharton had called arrived and debated amongst themselves. They hovered over Ophelia like plague doctors as they prodded her forehead and hands, and muttered spells between themselves, investigating, questioning. Jem, who had been shooed out of the way, stayed on the other side of the room, staring at them as they mused over his sister. He saw the occasional flicks here and there of summoned spirits and familiars appearing and vanishing amongst the shadows, glimpses he never would have known to look for if he hadn’t spent a childhood watching his mother work magic.

After the better part of an hour, Jubilee approached him and sat down next to him. He thought that he would have liked to say something truly nasty to her to make her leave him alone, but he couldn’t think of anything. When she was sure Jem wasn’t going to speak first, she said, very quietly, “You know that this means that the Coronation Conspiracy is the work of the Knights. Instigated by them, at least, if nothing else.”

Jem started. He had completely forgotten Regina— Regina, who must have been working with the Knights all along. It turned out, he thought, that he was more right in turning her down than he ever could have known. His stomach roiled at even the thought of working for the Knights, however ignorantly, and he wondered if she realized it herself, or if they had tricked her into it. Jem did not know Regina well, but it was difficult to believe that anyone with any roots in Bergdis would think conspiring with the Knights was a good idea.

“Which means you’re exonerated,” Jubilee added. “People may not trust you or like you very much, but they certainly don’t think you’d stoop so low as to ally yourself with them. Everyone knows the Dorchesters—”

Stop,” Jem ordered, and she went very red and fell silent. He didn’t think he could bear to be reminded of his family’s long history of dying at the hands of the Knights, not now that his sister was on the cusp of becoming a part of that history. After a few painful moments, Jem found his voice, hoarse as it was, and said, “This means it couldn’t have been an Agripinite plot at all.”

Jubilee nodded an agreement. “That’s what they’re saying,” she said, indicating the doorway and the Mathuinites through it, who were giving the witches, and Jem, plenty of space.

“Why kill Vaughn, Williams, and Payne, then?” Jem said. He stopped. “The Knights can’t have any love lost for Garet, so they weren’t trying to avenge him. Why would they?”

“Are you sure? Maybe Garet promised them something.”

Jem looked sideways at her. “What, his crown? What do you think Garet could have promised them?” He discovered that he had absolutely no fondness left in him for Garet at all, nothing but a cold irritation at the man for bungling just everything and then sealing it all off by dying at the end. But for all his mistakes, Garet could never have so much as opened up communications with the Knights. “All they want is access to Bergdis. Garet couldn’t give them that even if he wanted…” He trailed off as a thought occurred to him.

“They wanted disunity,” Jubilee said, with certainty. “It’s perfect, isn’t it? Kill off the bad Agripinites, those with the ambiguous loyalties, and no one’s sure what’s going on, but everyone’s terrified. The Agripinites aren’t sure if it’s one of their own killing for them or someone from the other side hunting them, and the Mathuinites feel almost the same way, and either way, no one’s going to be so foolish as to start making overtures of forgiving and forgetting and forging new relationships. Everyone’s so busy being wary of everyone else, and certain that the next murder is just around the corner, that they never see a third party playing both sides.”

“Prades,” Jem said. “He made me walk him to Ms. Beir’s cottage. If she dies, somehow, then the Knights can get into Bergdis. And, just at a time when there are supernatural people congregated here from all over the world. It would be a second Scourge.”

That certainly caught Jubilee’s attention, though the details were somewhat lost. “Who is Ms. Beir?” she demanded.

Jem didn’t have time to explain; Mathuin had returned.

Chapter Text

Chapter XX.

Mathuin was not the last person to learn that there was a group of perhaps fifty Knights just outside of Bergdis valley, waiting for the first chance to attack, but he was a long way from the first. It was precisely the sort of information he would have preferred to keep controlled and quiet, but there was no hope of that. Panic and rumors spread, and he was sure that by dawn tomorrow, every supernatural resident of Bergdis would know about the small army waiting on their doorstep.

He had the situation of Ophelia explained to him before he saw Jem, and so he knew what to expect. Even so, it was unpleasant. Jem’s face was a bloodless blue-white, his eyes very large and smeared with bruises underneath. He looked like a wraith, like a child raised on whiskey and kept up past its bedtime, like it was he instead of his sister who’d been cursed. He was unnaturally still and solemn when Mathuin entered the room.

The rest was explained to him piecemeal, mostly by Wharton and Jubilee, and only by Jem when Jubilee needed to turn to him to clarify something. Jubilee explained the possibility of an attempt on Ms. Beir’s life, and the motivation of the murders as a distraction and a means of disharmony, and eventually the name Ezra Prades came up as the newly-declared murderer, to Mathuin’s surprise.

“Ophelia said— she sort of said, before she went back into being like that—” Jubilee jerked her head in Ophelia’s direction. “That he’s one of them, but not. That he wants back in. You can’t—” Here she hesitated. “You can’t become a Knight, can you?”

“They’re born, not made,” Wharton confirmed.

“Grown, more like,” Mathuin murmured.

“You know the name, Prades, don’t you?” Wharton asked.

“Yeah… I met him, in France, in 1944,” Mathuin said. “That was right before the Scourge happened, and I remember wondering why he paid so little attention to us, even though he knew full well what each of us were. Myself, and Charles,” he added, to Jubilee’s questioning look.

“What…” she started.

“He was a Knight, wasn’t he?” Jem asked suddenly, in a quiet voice that nonetheless carried. “But now, something’s happened, and he’s not a Knight anymore. That’s why he can enter Bergdis Valley.”

Mathuin nodded.

“How do you stop being a Knight? Accidentally?” Wharton asked, bewildered.

“Well, there’s a question.” Precious little was known about the Knights, and how they operated, but what few scraps existed were traded about the otherworldly communities like the most precious of sacred stories. “He must have broken one of their laws. Something went wrong, certainly, and he needs to earn his redemption. I imagine… handing them as good a catch as Bergdis would probably be more than enough.”

“What sort of law?” Jubilee asked.

Mathuin shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe he killed one of his brothers. Maybe a witch got the best of him. Maybe…”

He lost the thread of the thought when one of the witches, a woman from the inestimable Lampay family, ventured outside to cast a circle and summon a sycoro-sylph. The summoning was an impressive spell, and all the more impressive given that it was done promptly, when such a thing usually took days of preparation.

The sylph, more advanced than any kind of its brethren, wove its way in and out of Ophelia, through her cells, brain and body, through her minds and magics, while Jem stood nearby, his hands balled into fists. It was purely an investigative measure, given that without knowing precisely what was wrong, no one had the slightest idea of how to fix it.

Finally, Ms. Lampay turned to Mathuin, and gestured the sylph back into herself, to remain there until she was ready to banish it. “She will make a full recovery,” she said regally, without once glancing at Jem. “It will not be quick; she won’t be herself again until summertime, I should guess, and she shouldn’t so much as attempt a spell until spring at the earliest.”

“You don’t need to treat her any more than that…?” Mathuin asked slowly.

“She cut herself off from the connection just at the last moment,” Ms. Lampay said, and then added, as if it pained her, “It was a highly skilled move. A foolish attempt at scrying, given how little she knew, and what she blundered into, but I doubt anyone could have done a better job of it.” Ophelia, Mathuin remembered, had a hell of a talent for summoning, and all its aspects. “She suffered a severe blow, but it hit her intact, when her mind and magic was closed off to invasion. If they had struck her a moment sooner, or if she had tried to cut the connection a moment later, or if she had tried to save the familiars—”

Mathuin shook his head, just slightly. He did not want to hear what would have happened if the Knights had gotten inside of Ophelia’s magic and mind. More to the point, he did not want Jem to hear, because he already had a fairly good idea of what would have become of her.

Ms. Lampay took the hint. “Well. She’s bruised, of the mind, but like any bruise, she’ll heal. She’ll be unconscious more often than not for the next month or so, and—” And here, she gave the first slight acknowledgement of Jem. “You’ll have to look after her— make sure she stays fed and hydrated and doesn’t succumb to muscular atrophy. But she will recover.”

It was the best that could be expected, but Jem didn’t exactly erupt into jubilation. He took up the task of preparing a bed for Ophelia to be moved to, while Mathuin found himself caught up in planning a strategy for the unpleasant reality of an army of Knights waiting just outside of town.

A few members of the court, including Jubilee, Duarte, and Ritter, chose to stay the night, in the perceived safety of Mathuin’s home, where they would be immediately helpful the next morning. If Jem felt any chagrin when he discovered their plan, he didn’t show it. They made up beds for themselves in the den and first floor guest rooms, while Mathuin, exhausted, made his way upstairs, to find Jem.

The boy was still tending to his sister, who was unconscious, and already looking better than he did. Mathuin convinced Jem to leave her be for the night, and pulled him into the bathroom, got him undressed while he was still distractedly fretting, and prodded him into the shower. Jem was disconcertingly covered in blood— his own, from the opening scar, and his sister’s.

After the shower, and after Mathuin had stitched up the newest opening segment of the wound, Jem sat on his side of the bed, hugging his knees to his chest. He looked entirely shell-shocked when he said, “I almost lost her today.”

Mathuin, who was feeling the exhaustion of the day, shot him a look, and thought that he had almost lost Jem. His mind was on Prades, and that knife, alone in the woods.

Jem looked at him. “What became of Ms. Beir?”

“Nothing. She was fine as could be.” A little bloodthirsty at the possibility of a nearby invader, Mathuin thought, but we all have our quirks.

“I brought him there, but he didn’t do anything?”

Mathuin shrugged. “The cabin operates under the same principle as the Bone Grove— you have to have been there before to find the place. Or—” He laid a proprietary hand on Jem’s head. “You have to be the genius loci.”

“So he wants to know where it is, for later. They want to kill her,” Jem asserted. Mathuin simply nodded. “Can it be done?”

“I don’t know, but I’d be very surprised.”

“They must have something in mind, or they wouldn’t be doing all of this.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Mathuin paused. “If Prades is no longer a Knight, then he’s a desperate man. He’s gone from hunter to hunted, and if they’re accepting him for the time being, it’s because he’s promising to throw them bigger prey— much bigger prey— than himself. You see the bind of that? If you owe someone money, and your life depends on it, you’re not going to admit it if you’re broke, are you?”

Jem was silent for a long moment. “Do you think he knew Oaf was on his back?”

“And deliberately lured her into New Mora?” Mathuin paused. “It seems likely.”

Jem looked away. He scrubbed a hand over his eyes once, and then, to Mathuin’s utter horror, he began to cry. In spite of everything, it was the first time he’d actually seen the boy cry, and not just the later evidence of it.

He did it quietly, at least, as Jem did everything quietly. Mathuin discovered that he was just as bad at comforting a crying person as he had been when Fee was a child. He pulled Jem close, and though Jem did not seem especially appreciative, he didn’t fight the embrace. He held him, and thought about how the last time he had ever heard Fee’s voice, she had been hysterical and sobbing. Rape and a baby about to be stolen away, months of misery and a bloody birth, and “Help me, please help me, please, please come home and kill him, Daddy…”

There was no pretending Fee had gone peacefully into her death; her story was the sort of fabric ghosts and hauntings were fashioned out of, but her grave was as silent as could be. There were ways of contacting the dead, and Mathuin knew them. But to do so would be to bring her back to the moment of her death, and he couldn’t convince himself that waking her just to suffer was worth no better reason than him wrangling with his grief.

•••

Jem checked on Ophelia five times throughout the night, roused to his feet by periodic fits of anxiety. Each time, he found her unchanged, lying in her bed in a sea of blankets, motionless but breathing. He returned, shivering, to his bed, where Mathuin pulled him close.

When he woke in the morning, he found Mathuin awake, standing on the other side of the room, and speaking to someone on the phone. It was still dark outside, but he sat up. Mathuin was asking the person on the other end where they were and if they were all right. Then, in a somewhat less gentle voice, he asked if they knew they had been working with the Knights all along, and Jem realized he was talking to Regina.

He dragged himself up and out of bed, despite the cold, and went to check on Ophelia once again. He found her bed empty, and would have panicked, but that she emerged from the bathroom a moment later, stumbling and rubbing her eyes. Her hair was a tangled red cloud around her head.

“It’s fucking freezing in here,” she said to him, her words slurring under the weight of near unconsciousness. “How do you stand it?” She returned, posthaste, to the warmth of her bed.

Jem found a comb in the bathroom and started trying to work out some of the snarls and knots from her hair. As he worked, Britomartis hopped up on the bed, and then crawled under the blankets to cuddle in Ophelia’s arms, with just her nose peeking out from under the blankets.

“I didn’t think you’d be up and moving around yet,” Jem told her quietly, and she merely made a noise in response. Despite her venture out of bed, she was not at all fully awake. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Not well,” she said.

“The Lampay witch said you weren’t to try to use magic until summertime, or later.”

Ophelia grunted, and then mumbled something uncharitable about the Lampays. The Lampays were among the most respected of American witch families, the very opposite of the Dorchesters, and as a witch, Ophelia would likely feel that rivalry much more acutely than Jem. He hid a smile. “She did compliment your escape. Something about how skilled you were.”

“All of my familiars are dead,” Oaf replied in a deadened voice. Jem didn’t have an answer to that, but she slipped back into sleep before long anyway.

•••

Upon venturing downstairs for a cup of tea and breakfast, Jem discovered the host of Mathuinites had galvanized into action, and furthermore, had taken it upon themselves to decorate for the holidays.

The main purpose of the decorations was the impending coronation and the many events that surrounded it, most of which would take place either deep in the woods or in the main town hall. Nevertheless, there were a few gatherings planned for Mathuin’s house, for only that inner party of Mathuinites, those who had shown their loyalty on their sleeves during the most dangerous times of the Erling Conflict, and a smattering of elite guests from outside of Bergdis. And Jem.

They had planted at least one Christmas tree in every room of the first floor, and a few in the upstairs rooms as well, including (Jem would find it later) one small tree to look over Ophelia in her room. Each tree was clinquant in enchanted candles, silvery chains dripping with crystals and gems, and tangled antlers, some of them gilded.

Glass snowflakes were hung in the windows and the available tabletops were crowded with candles of plain wax and glass vases full of appropriately wintery flowers; white lily, poinsettia, star of Bethlehem, and amaryllis. Greenery was pinned around the ceilings, and mistletoe hung from the doorways, wreaths of holly placed on the doors and in the windows.

The kitchen was stuffed with food, baskets overflowing with oranges, apples, pears, and figs, wheels of cheese left out on cutting boards and braids of onions and garlic hung from hooks on the wall. The constant smells of baking, bread and cookies and roasts, permeated the house.

Jem did not care for the changes; he didn’t mind the decorations, but the constant presence of Mathuinites whenever he wanted to be near the fire or in the kitchen, was more than a bit grating, especially given that he was not allowed outside. He did notice that a pot of tea was usually left out for him, as well as various platters of snacks such as zucchini bread or slices of summer sausage. He suspected it was Jubilee’s attempt at a peace offering, and he appreciated it.

He spent the day moving from one empty room to the next as each was eventually invaded by Mathuinites, feeling like an introvert at a house party, and checking in on his sister every hour or so. He did not get much work done on his essay, but he did spend a great deal of time playing over the events of the previous day in his mind.

Mathuin returned in the evening, but Jem didn’t see him until he was getting ready for bed that night. “You had your last day of class today?” he asked uncertainly. He’d overheard something to that effect earlier.

“I handed out the final. They’re to get it back to me by next week, and then they’re free for the term.” Which meant he was ending classes early compared to Merodack’s official estimation of when the term ended, something the college would allow him to do without comment. Jem almost wished Professor Andrade would do the same— he would fail, but it would put him out of his misery.

Jem sat cross-legged on his side of the bed, and Mathuin watched him speculatively, a look he didn’t think he cared for. “You know the coronation is at sundown on the twenty-second,” he said.

“Yeah,” Jem said. “I have to be there, don’t I?”

Mathuin’s mouth quirked. “Yes. But more to the point, I go into a state of seclusion, a vigil, for the twenty-four hour period before that. I’ll be in the woods, and you won’t be able to contact me.”

“That’s when the Knights are going to attack,” Jem said immediately, and then blushed. He realized what he was saying, that Mathuin was all that protected Bergdis and Jem himself from the Knights, that he was invaluable and indispensable.

Mathuin smiled and sat down on the edge of the bed so as to pull his boots off. “No, they won’t. I’ve got a plan for the Knights.” Jem eyed him until he said, “The same thing the Agripinites were so afraid of after I killed Garet.”

“The Hunt,” Jem said, very quietly.

Calling it the Hunt was a misnomer, given that the name was singular and singularly emblematic at that. In fact, it had a plurality of varying manifestations and permutations throughout the world, composing a group of similar entities and not a single ubiquitous phenomenon. As such, there were a host of names, each with euphemistic fear built into it. Most of those names were simple: Wilde Jagd, Odin’s Hunt, Caccia Morta, Divja Jaga, Dziki Gon, Hostia, Compaña, and Santa Compaña; some had a certain deceptively humorous slant: the Devil’s Dandy Dogs, Åsgårdsreia; and there were those obliquely elegant: Mesnée d’Hellequin, Cain’s Hunt, Cwn Annwn, Gabriel’s Hounds.

The form of the Hunt and the destruction it wrought varied, modified by time, place, and proclivities. Sometimes it was literally a hunting party, of dogs and the undead riding pale horses, while at other times it was wildfire, unquenchable.

Most frequently, it was plague, diseases that spread and mutated and lingered for hundreds or thousands of years after the first brutal outbreak. At other times, it was a parade, a war party, and the omen of doom and destruction. The execution differed, but in its way, it was always the swarm and the horde, the crashing mob of black dogs and dreadfully restless undead. It had been known to chase single targets, mercilessly bringing down kings, gods, or heroes, but it was most feared when it swept through a place or populace, obliterating every human life in its path.

It should not be directly looked at, this host. Though Mathuin intended to release it only for a single sort of prey, and meant to keep an iron grip on its every move, the residents of Bergdis would be careful to stay inside while it rampaged. Those who knew nothing of the otherworldly nature of the valley would be tormented with anxiety and dread, while those who were part of the Erling court (Agripinites and Mathuinites alike) would paint their doorways with lamb’s blood.

“You don’t approve,” Mathuin guessed, watching Jem’s face.

“No,” Jem said. “I mean, no, you’re wrong, I do approve.” He didn’t add it, but there was precious little that anyone could do against the Knights that Jem couldn’t find it in his heart to approve. “I was just thinking… you don’t need the coronation to control them? So you could have unleashed the Hunt against Garet and all the rest of the Agripinites, back when the Erling Conflict was still going on.”

Mathuin raised his eyebrows. “That would be like using a nuke to keep a puppy from biting at your heels,” he said. “Besides, the Hunt is no good for taking prisoners, so how would I have gotten you?”

Jem shifted. “Will it actually kill them?” he asked. “The Knights, I mean.”

This was the problem with the supernatural world, he thought. Certain people— the Knights, Mathuin, Ms. Beir, various gods and djinns and angels and demons and other entities— clawed their way into such immense power, through some combination of acquired immortality, proficiency, and expertise, raw magical ability and pure luck. After that, there was no telling who or what could kill them, until they were somehow pitted against one another. Jem had noticed that you never quite knew who was evenly matched— or, in the case of Garet Agripin and Jakob Mathuin, who was decidedly not evenly matched.

Jem knew the Knights couldn’t be easily killed because he couldn’t think of a single time when it had been done, and that was despite centuries of witches giving it their all. Witches, though not especially inclined towards immortality themselves, given the dangerous lives they lead, were usually fairly accomplished when it came to killing things.

“Maybe,” Mathuin said carelessly.

Jem chewed on his lip to keep the question in, but he asked it all the same: “Could the Knights kill you?”

The reaction to that question was like a dog’s ears perking at the sound of rabbit scurrying by. “Are you worried, Kätzchen?” he asked, his tone mocking, and Jem wished he hadn’t asked. He moved quickly, grabbing Jem’s ankle and yanking him down flat on the bed, pinning him a moment later. “Would you miss me if I died?” His hands moved, under Jem’s clothes, groping.

Jem struggled away, which felt futile. “Your followers would tear me to pieces if you weren’t here to stop them,” he snapped.

“Not anymore. The common threat of the Knights has got everyone feeling rather kindly towards each other.”

Jem twisted onto his side and Mathuin kissed the back of his neck. “Tell me,” he said into Jem’s ear. “Tell me you don’t want me to die.”

“I don’t want you to die. Anymore.” Jem paused, and then shoved at him. “Is this Stockholm Syndrome?” he asked scathingly. “Is this what it feels like?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Mathuin said, suddenly subdued.

“So, when,” Jem said. “When are you going to go off and lead the Hunt?”

Mathuin kissed him again, but didn’t answer the question, and Jem figured that for all the talk of Mathuinites and Agripinites mending their ways, that was a bit more strategy than he wanted to share with the likes of Jem. Jem gave up questioning any further, but he wondered if this Hunt, released with the express purpose of seeking the Knights, would first chase down Ezra Prades.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXI.

Days went by in the most peculiar Christmas season of Jem’s life.

He complained to Jubilee one evening that it wasn’t a real Christmas, given that all the Christmas decorations were for the upcoming Erlking coronation. He said it without realizing that Mathuin was in the nearby den and overheard.

A short time later, the man pulled Jem and Jubilee out into the garage, and managed to dig up a series of boxes, placing them one after another in their arms. Back in the main house, he commandeered a Christmas tree near the fire and gave it to Jem and Jubilee to decorate. The boxed turned out to contain Christmas ornaments and other paraphernalia, largely crafted of delicate, dusty glass and formerly white lace gone sour colored. Some were clearly handmade by a child, and occasionally bore Fiona’s scribbled name, at different ages throughout her life. Jem winced whenever he found one of these ornaments, but he hung them on the tree all the same, with Jubilee’s assistance.

He spent most of his time upstairs, sitting on his sister’s bed, with Britomartis in his lap, frantically trying to read his folklorist books and then write anything comprehensible on the subject of Tam Lin without becoming distracted. He fielded the occasional call from Professor Andrade, and stayed out of Mathuin’s way when the man was at home. He fetched Ophelia Christmas food and teas when she was awake, which was infrequently, and sometimes partook in the cookies, candies, and cheeses himself.

It was not the worst Christmas season he’d ever experienced; that infamy went to either Christmas after each of his parents died.

Given that Mathuin was too busy to do much more than occasionally check on him in order to make sure that he was where he was supposed to be, it was mostly Jubilee who took it upon herself, entirely unasked, to keep Jem company. She fielded his general antipathy, and did her best to keep him updated, as she saw fit.

From her, he learned that while rumored sightings of Ezra Prades abounded, no one was actually sure if he was still in the valley or if he had fled. The general consensus was that he had joined his fellows in New Mora. Furthermore, while Prades was largely accepted as the de facto murderer, few people knew that Mathuin even had a granddaughter, let alone that that granddaughter might have something to do with the Coronation Conspiracy.

“Do you think Regina knew that Prades was working for the Knights?” Jem interrupted to ask when Jubilee brought this up. “Or do you think he did something like… pretend he was one of Garet’s old friends or advisors…”

“I don’t think she could possibly have known,” Jubilee said. “She wouldn’t have gone along with it if she had known. Besides, it couldn’t have been hard for him to pull off pretending to have been one of Garet’s allies— it’s not exactly like they were well-documented.” In addition, Jem thought but didn’t say, Garet had clearly made a point of hiding his little sister, and her dubious origins, away from all of his followers. “And,” Jubilee added, “Who would have thought that a Knight— an ex-Knight, whatever he is— could ever come into the valley in the first place?”

Jem was not so sure. “She was careful that I didn’t know anything about who was supporting her, when she made her offer. As if she knew that I couldn’t find out about Prades…”

“She was probably just being cautious in case you went and blabbed,” Jubilee said. “Which you did.”

Jem could have kicked her. Instead, he asked, “What do you think Mathuin’s going to do with her, when this is all over?”

“He has to nab her, first, doesn’t he?” Jubilee said.

It was true that while Regina hadn’t disappeared precisely, she had certainly made herself quite scarce. She texted and answered the phone only after Mathuin harangued her, and only to let him know that she was still alive before she returned to her silence. Most of these calls and texts took place when Mathuin was safely in the privacy of his own bedroom, with no one but Jem to witness.

“He’s not going to hurt her,” Jem said to Jubilee. By the time Mathuin got ahold of Regina by phone, he was usually livid, a cover Jem recognized rather easily for disguising desperation. He wouldn’t be so worried about someone he intended to get rid of. “But he’s not really very forgiving about people trying to kill him…”

“Imagine that,” Jubilee said sardonically.

Jem didn’t answer. He thought of Ophelia, sending demons to plague Mathuin in a hospital. His stomach did an unpleasant little twist as it occurred to him that if not for the deal he had made with Mathuin, Jem’s freedom for his twin’s life, Ophelia would almost certainly be dead.

The house’s atmosphere changed the following evening. The Christmas music was turned off, and the food went untouched. Several Mathuinites vanished, and those who remained had their suitcases with them, based on the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to return home, even only a few miles away, for whatever they might need, not for several days. There was a general sense of unease, mostly in the quiet that permeated.

Mathuin caught Jem’s arm and pulled him upstairs, and into the bedroom. “What’s going on?” Jem asked, and a moment later, it came to him. “You’re releasing the Hunt tonight, aren’t you?”

“At midnight.” Mathuin paused. “And I won’t just be releasing it. I’ll be leading it.”

“Right.” Jem tried not to flinch away from him. “Happy hunting,” he said lamely.

Mathuin nodded, and then grabbed a fistful of Jem’s shirt and yanked him close enough to kiss. He twisted Jem’s spine into an exaggerated arch for the kiss, and Jem wondered, if only in the most abstract sense, if Mathuin might not come home. After all this time, it seemed entirely impossible. Mathuin’s indestructibility had become a simple fact of life.

Jem crawled into Ophelia’s bed well before midnight, with the intention of being asleep when whatever was going to happen happened. He stayed fully dressed just in case. Britomartis hopped up on the bed and curled up between the twins, and while Oaf slept, Jem lay awake, worrying and waiting.

Near midnight, the general chill of the house deepened into something much worse, permeating the blanket cover of the twins. Jem curled closer to Ophelia and kept an eye on the window. Winter nights in Bergdis were far brighter than their summer counterparts, given the reflection of the moon on the expanse of snow. Now, however, the light darkened down to inky black, until Jem could see nothing at all. There was the grumble and then shout of thunder, in the distance, and then the wind began to scream.

It sounded like a vicious combination of storms, the worst of the summer’s thunder and lightning, and the worst of the wind and snow of winter’s blizzards. While the thunder crashed and bellowed, the wind was worse. It built into a train whistle shriek and pummeled the sides of the house with veils of snow, each tiny piece of ice with its own crackling impact. The cacophony promised death in short order for anyone unwise enough to be caught outside in it. Jem curled closer to his twin, and wished the house was heated. He drifted to sleep with visions in his mind of being found frozen to death in the morning.

•••

Come daybreak, there was less snow than Jem expected. While it was only between knee and thigh deep in most places, the drifts layered up against buildings and trees were simply mountainous. Branches and trees had come down in the forest, felled by the sheer weight of snow.

While the worst of the storm had moved on to New Mora and the southern edge of Bergdis Valley, it had not entirely left Bergdis behind. The snow fell, changing throughout the day from swirling unenthusiastic drifts, to the thick, silent snowfall that covered the world all over white. Occasionally, the wind picked up again and worked its way up to howling, while it gathered up the newly fallen snow and piled it in dunes deeper than a man was tall.

Jem and Jubilee managed to get a radio working. The storm had no casualties, though there had been a few rescues made, from homes that had lost electricity. New Mora was in a declared state of emergency; at this news, Jem got up to throw another couple logs on the fire, and then went to check on his sister.

There was no news of Knights or Mathuin, for days on end, but the Hunt obviously continued without pause, as storms wrecked larger swathes of mid-Washington. The only indication of Mathuin was that the Hunt evidently remained under strict control, as there was damage but no casualties. Since it hadn’t yet dwindled or gone rampaging and free, Jem and Jubilee, as well as the rest of the court, came to the conclusion that Mathuin had not yet run into trouble.

Without news to satisfy them, the two took to debating various theories while they roasted assorted meats and sweets in the fire. Jem wondered if Ezra Prades was still alive, which Jubilee summarily dismissed; both were more interested in just what Prades’s plan might have been, before it was so rudely interrupted by Ophelia’s familiar, Ragozine. The only thing they were sure of was that it must somehow include killing Ms. Beir.

“Everyone talks about her like she can’t be killed,” Jubilee mused.

“They don’t talk about her at all,” Jem corrected. “And they lower her voice and talk around the fact of her, when need be.”

“So she’s like a dirty secret, or something?”

“Like an eldritch abomination, I think.”

Jubilee paused. “She’s never actually done anything,” she commented. “You know, we’re all so terrified of her, but all she ever does is occasionally make her way over to Merodack and lecture on the subject of Nathaniel Hawthorne or Arthur Miller. Or, once, Maya Angelou. I asked Hazel about her,” she added, to the look Jem was giving her. “You know, Hazel Yates? You’ve met her?”

“Nope,” Jem said. “Who is that?”

Jubilee rolled her eyes. “One of our fellow students. Anyway, Hazel just said that she was a good lecturer, except that she was much more interested in the conversation after the lecture and what the students had to say, rather than her own presentation— which is a good or bad thing, depending on your perspective, I suppose.”

Jem turned the skewer on which he was roasting a marshmallow and a slice of sausage just beginning to sizzle. “She’s never done anything… that we know of,” he said slowly. “Even when I talked to her, she wasn’t…” He trailed off, looking for the words.

“She wasn’t, what?” Jubilee asked.

“She wasn’t really bothering to pretend to be human,” Jem said. “I wish I’d asked her about the Knights. I wonder just what it is about them, in particular, that she doesn’t want to allow in.” He bit his lip. “Though maybe it’s more obvious than I’m thinking— after all, it would be very difficult to maintain a college for otherworldly subjects if the Knights were free to invade and stamp out every bit of witchcraft and magic.”

“Maybe they have something about them that actually does pose a threat to her,” Jubilee postulated.

“No way. The Knights can kill her just because they’re Knights? Mathuin didn’t even sound sure that she could die, at all.”

“Mathuin didn’t believe that Prades necessarily had much of any plan to speak of,” Jubilee said. “Just that he was desperate and he might be winging it. But he is a former Knight, and he clearly still has a few powers, if he blasted Williams’s door open with lightning…”

“Prades said something about having a plan,” Jem said. “He said Regina, by trying to kill me, had sped things up, and he sounded mighty pissed about it.”

They lapsed into silence for some time. Jem burned his fingers plucking the sausage from the skewer, but it tasted delicious. The marshmallow was gooey enough for the insides to begin an escape from the crisp skin. Jem ate it before it could make a mess.

“This is impossible because we don’t have the first notion of what could kill Ma’am Winter in the first place,” he ventured after a while. “We have no idea what to look for.”

“And we have no reason to think the Knights know anything more than we do,” Jubilee said.

Jem looked askance at her. “You don’t think the Knights— the people who pulled off a massacre like the Scourge— have better knowledge than we do?”

Jubilee shook her head. “No, because listen— if the Knights knew how to kill Ma’am Winter, they’d have done it or tried it years and years ago. They’ve wanted inside of Bergdis since they knew it was a refuge for everything they were hunting, and that dates back to before Charles Agripin, before the Scourge, even. Right?”

Jem nodded.

“It doesn’t matter that they didn’t necessarily have an ex-Knight, the likes of Prades— they’ve never had a shortage of agents and spies, some human, some creatures or magicians that they caught and blackmailed into working for them. If they knew how to kill her, they would’ve done it. Something’s changed, recently, and I think that something is Prades. Prades desperately wants back in and he needs to pull off some enormous gesture for it. He needs to give them Bergdis.”

“You’re arguing against what you just argued,” Jem pointed out crossly. “You were saying that the Knights might have some way to kill Ms. Beir just by being Knights and that Prades’s plan boiled down to nothing but that, and now you’re saying the opposite.”

“I’m not really arguing anything, either way,” Jubilee said. “I’m just trying to figure out what’s happening and what’s going to happen. I know as much as you do.”

Jem went back to staring at the fire. “Even if he didn’t find a way to kill her, he must have convinced them that he did. There wouldn’t be fifty of them congregated in New Mora, waiting, unless they believed they had something to wait for.”

The conversation went in circles, without solution or breakthrough, and without urgency. Despite the mystery, both Jem and Jubilee felt very safe in the warmth in front of the fire, securely ensconced in Mathuin’s home in the heart of Bergdis Valley, sure that whatever the conspiracy was, it had been thwarted when Mathuin chased the Knights out of New Mora. The murderer Ezra Prades was no threat, and the Knights less so. Christmas was coming, and with it, the promise of peace.

•••

At midnight, the day before the coronation and by extension, the day of Mathuin’s vigil, the Hunt went quiet.

The various residents of Mathuin’s home (even Ophelia who, while semi-conscious, managed to wake for this) listened on the radio as weather forecasters commented that the storm that had been wreaking havoc on the remote areas of Washington had lost its élan, seemingly all at once. The weather outside transformed into a gentle and silent snowfall, and the cold softened.

The Mathuinites took the news as cause for celebration. They opened a bottle of wine for the occasion and wished one another happy holidays all around. Ophelia kissed Jem’s cheek and went back to bed, smiling. The understanding was that Mathuin, having done what he meant to do, had put the Hunt away, now that it was no longer needed, and had gone seamlessly into his vigil.

Jem went to bed early, and for once, he returned to the bed he normally shared with Mathuin. Given the timing, he knew that this general consensus was most likely correct. Still, there was some niggling part of him that worried.

As Jem saw it, there were two possibilities, should Mathuin be killed while leading the Hunt. Either the Hunt would go wild, and wreak destruction throughout the Northwest, killing indiscriminately until it was either stopped or ran out of steam; or, it would return to hibernation as quickly as it had been roused, leaving a shell of a storm collapsing in its wake.

Jem wondered and worried, uselessly, until he slept.

•••

He woke, in the night, when he heard the phone buzzing.

He went scrambling for it— found his own phone, which was silent, and then woke up enough to open up the bedside drawer, on Mathuin’s side, and there found Mathuin’s phone. He hardly had a moment to wonder what the Hunt entailed if it meant Mathuin couldn’t take his phone with him before he had to answer it or miss the call.

Jakob?” Jem recognized the voice with a shock— it was Regina, and while she wasn’t crying, something was very wrong. She sounded as if she were struggling to breathe. “Help me, please— he’s here, and I need—” There was a click, and then silence. As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Jem was out of bed and dressed in a rush, his hands shaking. He made his way downstairs, still in the dark. There, he found Jubilee, sleeping on the air mattress in front of the fireplace, positively buried in blankets, and flanked on either side by other sleepers. Crouching over her, he shook her shoulder until she woke, and followed him, shivering, into the kitchen.

Stammering but speaking quickly, Jem explained what had happened. Jubilee was surprisingly awake, given how little time he gave her before launching into his story, and at the end, she said, still in a whisper, “I bet you anything that the ‘he’ was Prades.”

You thought he was dead,” Jem hissed. Jubilee waved a hand to indicate the unimportance. “What do we do?”

“Well.” She made a face. “We have to help her,” she declared.

“We don’t even know where she is,” Jem said.

“I’ll get dressed,” she said. “And it doesn’t matter. You’re the genius loci, remember, Jem? You can find whatever needs to be found, so long as it’s in Bergdis.”

Equipped with winter clothes, a knife from the kitchen (Jubilee’s idea— Jem was dubious), and their phones (not that the batteries were likely to last long in the bitter cold), they stepped out into the winter night. Jem wanted to try calling Regina back, but Jubilee pointed out that if she could speak on the phone, she’d be calling again, and as it was, calling her might alert the person she was with— Prades— that someone was trying to help her.

Once outside, in the vicious cold of the night and the deep snow, Jem immediately turned back and walked around the house, heading for the location of the lost beehives and the woods beyond.

Jubilee followed him, as quickly as she could given the heavy snow. “We’re not heading towards the road?” she asked.

“This way,” Jem said, with a confidence he didn’t know he could feel.

He did not think. He refused to think. He was walking into a situation with his hands alarmingly empty of any weapon, without defense, without knowing what he was getting into, or where he was going, or what would happen.

But that moment of pleading on the phone— he knew he could not let her be. He was certain that if he stayed at home, he would crawl out of his own skin obsessing over it, and no matter what became of Regina— and he couldn’t believe it would be anything good— he would never be able to live with himself.

Besides, he thought. Mathuin had already lost Fee, and Regina might be a poor replacement, but she was all that was left of her mother.

And he was sick to death of murder.

The forest was pitch black. It was snowing, very softly, and the clouds blocked out what little moon there might have been. Jem discovered that he could find his way without eyesight, and without haphazardly running into trees. He walked, on and on, with Jubilee following just behind him, breathing hard. He clutched Mathuin’s phone, and wished it would start buzzing in his hands, but it was still and silent.

They came to a juncture in the rock, and what appeared to be (though it was difficult to tell, frozen and buried in the snow) a spring that flowed down into a tiny creek. Here, he found an opening, roughly the size of a window, where the rocks met. Jem had to dig through the snow with his gloved hands before he could get down on his hands and knees and worm his way inside. He emerged into a tunnel that was astonishingly warm compared to the frozen world outside, and large enough that he could get to his feet. Jubilee followed just behind.

It was all pitch black darkness. “Should we try a light?” Jubilee asked, very softly.

“That will just tell them we’re coming,” Jem whispered. Besides, he thought. He knew his way. He had no idea how this worked, but he knew.

They paused to shed their heavier jackets, and then their boots, leaving only socked feet. Without these impediments, they could move silently, though they were both uneasily aware that if they had to emerge suddenly and irrevocably into the outside world, they’d almost certainly lose a few toes to frostbite, if not their lives to hypothermia.

But Regina was close. Jem was certain of it. In the tangled innards of the old court, he went forth to find her.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXII.

The path sloped ever downwards, curving and twisting. They heard a distant roar, unexplained until the tunnel abruptly turned a corner and opened into a cavern dominated by a small but fierce waterfall. It erupted from somewhere overhead and thundered down into the depths below. Inexplicably, it somehow brought light with it, as if the water was threaded with pieces of sun. The resulting glow was pale, like moonlight on snow, but in the pitch black of the tunnels, Jem and Jubilee badly needed it. There was no barrier on the edge between the path and the void the water emptied into.

Jem stopped, there, and put a hand on his shirt. “Is something wrong?” Jubilee asked, just behind him, but he didn’t answer. His shirt was wet, and not from the dampness of the waterfall. When he raised his hand to his eyes, it was coated all over in black, and his stomach was beginning to sting, like a wound that barely knew it was bleeding. The scars were opening.

There was nothing that could be done about it. Jem started forward again.

After the waterfall, the path remained threaded with the damp hint of watery light, reflected against the veins of rocks in the walls and the glimmers of broken glass scattered along the earthen floor. Eventually, the path opened again, this time into a long and narrow room, with a dirty stone floor and creaking wooden beams overhead. They walked through, and in the middle of the room, at one side, was a hearth, a fireplace and mantle made all of granite stone. Embers glowed sleepily in the ashes and it exuded warmth as if the fire was at full strength.

“Do you think this means someone was just here?” Jubilee whispered. “Or is it always like this?” Jem didn’t have an answer.

The path continued downwards, and then abruptly turned into an enormous room. Despite the glimmering hints of light, they could not see the ceiling above nor the walls that must frame the room.

The space was littered with trees, each roughly the size of an apple tree, and Jem couldn’t tell if they were statues or had grown organically. When the branches hung close to his face, he saw that the leaves were made of tiny pieces of silver, intricately molded into shape.

“Do you still know the way?” Jubilee asked nervously, and Jem nodded and pointed.

The leaves changed to gold, and then, abruptly, into bare twigs knotted at the ends with clusters of diamonds, twinkling in the peculiar light. Jem was trying to work out the significance of such a woods in such a place as this when he saw it— the opposite wall, a monolith with a single doorway carved into it, like a mouse hole.

When they heard voices, they went quickly but quietly, until these voices grew louder. Finally, Jem saw the hint of something around one corner, saw bright light and moving shadows. He hesitated, and then, slowly and very carefully, peeked just his nose around the corner, enough to see.

At a crossroads of the tunnels, some few feet away, Regina and Prades argued. The light was cast by a discarded flashlight, a vulgar brightness in the general foggy dark of the underground tunnels. Regina held something round that sparkled and gleamed in both hands, and she was trying to give it to Prades, even as he shouted at her, demanding she do as he said. She was crying.

Jem pulled back, and looked at Jubilee. She frowned, and, in an unpleasant surprise, pulled out the kitchen knife she had insisted on bringing along.

Now, she mouthed, and Jem shook his head wildly. How, he thought, was that possibly a good idea? Prades might have lost his powers as a Knight, but he could surely still take on the two of them, likely without much difficulty.

“Come with me,” Prades was saying angrily, and then, “Regina!” when she sobbed.

Jubilee motioned with her fingers and indicated three against one.

Jem shook his head again. Regina was still alive, and whatever Prades wanted, he apparently wasn’t about to kill her, which negated at least some of the urgency Jem felt. Jem didn’t exactly have a plan for what happened next, but if he had, it would not include bursting onto the scene.

Jubilee’s lip tightened. She raised the knife like a sword, turned, and started running, around the corner and for Prades. Jem followed her, scrambling to keep up and almost tripping on her heels. He silently cursed her to hell and back, but he did understand this much: if he slunk back into the shadows, Prades would kill her, and then find him only moments later. At least with their combined force, their chances were better, if only slightly.

He thought they might have the advantage of surprise— they did not. Prades looked up with plenty of time to spare, and before anyone had realized what was happening, when Jubilee was close enough to raise that knife high enough to plunge it down, he grabbed her wrist and squeezed until the knife slipped out of her hands.

Jem jumped at him, scrabbling, desperately trying to grab at his wrists or his neck, but he swung Jubilee away from him, and cracked her head against the wall. She went down, cringing, and Prades turned back to Jem and seized him by the arm.

Throughout, Regina screamed, “Don’t— don’t— don’t!”

His hand tightened until Jem’s arm went numb. Jem punched at Prades’s face with his good hand, beat him around the head and shoulders, with blows that connected but did nothing.

Nearby, Regina had dropped the glittering, sparkling thing she had been holding (an egg, Jem thought, half delirious, and then, quite suddenly, he knew). She launched herself at Prades, and her fingers went for his eyes, clawing, which turned out to be far more effective than anything Jem had done. Prades released Jem’s arm with a hiss just as Jubilee, nearby, got to her feet with considerable difficulty. Jem stumbled backwards and landed hard on the ground.

He looked up just in time to see Prades lift Regina as if she were no more than a doll, and fling her, hard against the wall.

She hit with her back first, and Jem had a moment to be glad that she hadn’t smashed her head. He was already reaching for the egg, and scrabbling up to unsteady feet. As soon as he snatched it up, he had the old Knight’s attention. “What the fuck are you doing here!” Prades shouted. “What! Witch boy! What did you think you’d find here?”

Jem hurled the egg at his face. Prades let out a noise that was all snarl and choke and scream, and stumbled backwards. Something black and strange emerged from the shattered pieces of the egg, and Jem turned away. “Jube— We have to go— now!”

She was on her feet as soon as she’d heard him, having found her dropped knife and shoved it back into her pocket. Jem ran to Regina, with the intention of helping her up, and quickly realized that she was not going to get up. He looked back. “Jubilee!”

Together, Jubilee and Jem managed to hoist up Regina, Jem with her legs, and Jubilee with her arms, in a sort of hammock. Regina screamed when they lifted her, and Jem felt blood drenching his shirt, and a sharp, ripping pain. Nonetheless, they moved, and quickly. They made their way out of the tunnel and away from Prades, who was screaming like an injured animal.

They moved faster than Jem ever would have guessed they could, in such a formation and with such injuries, and much slower than he would have liked. Half-running, they retraced their steps back through the tunnel, and into the room of trees, all the way to the border between silver and diamond.

Here, Jubilee stopped, and went down to her knees, eliciting another pained shriek from Regina. She turned to the side and vomited.

Jem crouched over Regina, trying to set her down carefully. He realized, with considerable relief, that he could feel out Prades’s location, with a vague certainty that was similar to his estimated ability to find the Bone Grove, or Ma’am Winter’s cottage, or home, in the woods. It was a small comfort, but it was something, knowing that Prades was not immediately about to emerge out of the darkness.

He very deliberately did not think that he knew that vomiting was an indication of just how bad Jubilee’s concussion was, and he did not think about the insidiousness of concussions. He did not think about Regina’s dysfunctional back.

He did not think about Prades, who had been a Knight once, and just what his parents’ last moments might have been like, at the hands of such men.

“We have to keep going,” he whispered to Jubilee. “Come on. We have to. Get up.”

She curled up, her hands in her bloody hair, and the blood was so thick Jem could smell the coppery blush of it.

“I’ll carry her,” he said, referring to Regina.

Jubilee helped Regina onto Jem’s back, while he was still crouched, and then helped him stand, while behind him, Regina mumbled and swore. Jem very carefully did not think about just what it might mean, that Regina’s legs were limp when they weren’t gently twitching. Within moments, he felt a deep, organ ache, and a bulge under his shirt. He clasped a hand over his stomach and realized that the scars were coming undone.

“Let’s go,” Jubilee said grimly, apparently unaware of Jem’s predicament.

Jem staggered forward, with Jubilee trying to offer nearby support, and doing quite a bit of drunken staggering herself. They set off, into the tunnels, not at quite the same pace now that Jem could pinpoint Prades’s location, but moving quickly all the same.

After quite a while, and a number of unfamiliar twists and turns, Jubilee asked, “Are we lost?”

Behind Jem, Regina groaned. “How can you be lost?” she mumbled. She was breathing shallowly. “You’re the goddamn genius loci.”

Jem gritted his teeth, his hand clamped over his stomach. “You know, this would be a lot fucking easier if I wasn’t coming open at the fucking seams,” he told her. She ignored him.

“Is he nearby?” Jubilee whispered.

“No,” Jem said shortly, but didn’t elaborate that while Prades wasn’t close, he was indeed coming after them.

He put his energy into finding the exit, and the place where he and Jubilee had left their boots and coats, and very deliberately did not think about the next step, when they emerged into the woods with Prades close behind them and a long way to get back to the safety of Mathuin’s home. Just when they were close, and Prades was getting closer behind, Jubilee stopped in her tracks, and then collapsed.

Regina yelped, and Jem shouted, and then went down. He automatically put a hand over his stomach, and pushed a peculiar bulge back into the opening wound. He shoved Regina off his back— she cried out— and crawled to Jubilee, to roll her onto her back.

There was movement, and light, and Jem felt panic sharp enough to taste— but it was too soon to be Prades. He looked up to see a black silhouette, towering over him, approaching the scene with a blinding light in hand. His eyes took a long, heart-wrenching second to adjust.

“Mathuin.” He was overwhelmed with relief at the sight of the Erlking, which was a remarkably strange feeling, but Jem didn’t dwell on it. He felt weak. Jubilee was regaining consciousness, and looked like she intended to retch again.

Mathuin crouched down beside him; examined Jubilee’s head, and then Regina, only long enough to determine there was nothing he could do in the moment. He turned back to Jubilee and Jem, and Jem saw that there was a crown of blood around his head, coagulating in his hair, alongside dirt and broken twigs. He looked considerably worse for the wear.

“Up,” he ordered, grabbing Jem’s shoulder and hauling him to his feet. Jem squeaked and clutched his stomach, doubling over with pain. Mathuin saw it, but didn’t pause. “You, both of you—” He indicated Jem and Jubilee. “Get yourselves to the Bone Grove.”

There were other people just behind Mathuin, flooding the tunnels— Mathuinites, Jem realized, loyal, ready to serve and ready to fight at Mathuin’s bequest. He hesitated, until Mathuin shouted, “Go!” at him, and then he went.

Keith Wharton met them in the doorway, just as Jem and Jubilee were fumbling to get their boots and coats on, around disobedient hands and vivisected abdomens and contused brains that could not quite operate. Jubilee’s eyes lit up when she saw him. “He said— Mathuin said— to get to the Bone Grove,” she said. Wharton, though he gaped at the sight of them, nodded as if he had expected nothing else.

“I’ll take you,” he told her.

He helped Jubilee, who could not walk straight, and they made their way through the snow. He barely looked back at Jem, who limped along just behind them and left a narrow trail of blood wherever he stepped. Jem’s vision was going white by the time they neared the clearing in the trees, though he couldn’t have said if that was the winter morning or blood loss.

It did occur to him to wonder at the morning. How long had they been in the tunnels?

He was in for a shock upon reaching the Bone Grove.

The snow had been packed down with footprints and painted red. The ancient altar was a gory sight, and new sacrifices hung from the trees; the heads of stag and wolf and grizzly. Jem stared, as Wharton gently helped Jubilee sit, propped up against one icy, blood-splattered tree. He turned back to Jem. “Quite a mess, isn’t it?”

“What did he even want us here for?” Jem asked. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder until now.

“Probably to put you right as the genius loci,” Wharton said practically, clasping a hand on his shoulder.

Jem turned to say something to him— he had no idea what— and Wharton, quite casually, shoved him over. It did not take much effort, and Jem landed on his back. Wharton followed him down, and straddled his chest, his knees pinning Jem’s shoulders down. His hands closed around Jem’s throat and squeezed.

Jem fought like hell, kicking and thrashing, punching at Wharton’s arms and face. Before long, he was clawing at the man’s wrists, digging gashes so deep into his skin that his nails ripped and bent backwards. Wharton’s face was a purplish red, twisted with an abrupt fury, and he was sputtering some half-sensible chant of “Fucking spy fucking cunt traitor fucking Agripinite whore,” with no real sentence structure or point beyond the rage. And while Jem understood— essentially, that he was being murdered— before long, there was nothing to be done. With the oxygen choked out of him, he lost all control of his arms. He couldn’t move. He stared up at the professor, choking and helpless.

It was no easy thing to strangle to death, nor, indeed, to strangle another person to death. Strangling another required strength, endurance, and more than anything else, time. Wharton’s hands clasped around his throat were impossibly strong, and they blocked the airway, but not for long enough before his arms grew tired, or cramping, and he had to readjust. The hands at Jem’s throat interfered with blood flow between the brain and body, cut off his air, and threatened to damage the larynx and fracture the hyoid bone.

As Jem’s brain starved of oxygen and blood, his body prioritized the feeding of the brain at the expense of the limbs; he remained entirely and brutally conscious, but unable to move. His brain sent screaming, urgent commands to arms and legs that may as well have belonged to someone else. It was extraordinarily painful— he felt his limbs searing with the lack of oxygen, felt his temples exploding, his eyes bursting.

Just as blackness would begin to dab in front of his eyes, Wharton would grow exhausted and have to shift his position, have to relax his hands, for just long enough for Jem to get some much needed oxygen, and some blood to his brain, only for Wharton to go back to the task with a renewed vigor. This happened again and again. It went on for a minute, and then another, and on, though Jem had no idea how long.

An eternity passed, and Wharton continued to throttle him, growing increasingly sweaty and red-faced in the exertion, huffing hard in a bizarre caricature of Jem’s choking. Even as Jem slipped closer and closer to death, Wharton grew more exhausted, and their cycle of choking to blackness followed by a reprieve and a gasp of oxygen and then more choking continued in shorter and shorter durations.

And then, quite out of nowhere, something slammed into both of them.

Jem was suddenly free, and weak as a newborn kitten, coughing around the newly open space in his throat. Jubilee, having regained consciousness, had smashed into Wharton and wrestled him to the ground. He threw her off easily, and something took hold of Jem, some understanding, some bountiful rush of adrenaline. It was move or die, and he did not want to die in this place.

He flopped over, onto his stomach, as Wharton scrambled up to his feet, and then, somehow, flopped onto Jubilee. His hands closed around the hilt of the knife in her pocket just as Wharton kicked him onto his side, and then onto his back. He leaned over Jem once again, and before he could grab the boy’s throat, Jem slashed, in a brutal, arcing line, and as instinctual as any creature— he aimed for the face that was looming over him.

Wharton fell backwards, howling, his hands pressed over a bleeding mess of eyes and nose. Jem, though blackness was dancing in front of his eyes at the expense of effort, dragged himself up. He paused only to shove at his stomach, and stuff the pocket of bulging guts back behind the wound, before he advanced.

He controlled his collapse and used the momentum to bury the knife in the soft belly of Keith Wharton, who howled and screamed and connected a fist hard against the side of Jem’s head. Jem had enough presence of mind to yank the knife out again, but that was all he could think to do. He dragged himself backwards, and scrabbled on his hands and feet, through the snow, enough to put some space between himself and Wharton.

At that improbable moment, Mathuin arrived.

He had Prades with him, and he dragged him forward like a headmaster putting an unruly child into detention, with one hand on his shoulder and one keeping his head down. Jem saw just a hint of that face, saw it black with some sort of rot, and recoiled.

Mathuin shoved Prades down, and took quick stock of the situation, of Jem, Jubilee, and Wharton. In short order, he kicked Wharton, hard, blood splattering in arcs across the snow. Wharton crumpled, groaning.

Mathuin turned back to Prades and grabbed the collar of his shirt. He found the knife on Prades’s person easily— the same knife that Jem recognized from being threatened with— and flung it away. That done, he took out the old bone knife that he always used for such tasks, and pulled it across Prades’s throat, opening the man’s neck to the bone. Prades convulsed and collapsed. It took him a long time to bleed out and go still in the snow.

Without waiting, Mathuin left the bone knife on the altar and turned back to Wharton. He yanked him up by his hair just enough to grab his head in one hand and his shoulder in the other. Jem looked away, but not nearly in time to keep from seeing Wharton’s neck snap. The body went limp and Wharton let out a last guttural moan.

Mathuin approached Jem, who flinched backwards. “Easy,” Mathuin said, very softly. He looked to Jubilee first, to make sure she was still breathing and not in immediate danger of death, and with careful hands, he picked her up and laid her on the altar. He did something to her— Jem was in no position to tell just what— and though her head lolled and she remained unconscious, she stopped bleeding, and her breathing became much less labored. That done, Mathuin turned to Jem.

Jem held up his hands, unable to back away, but Mathuin hardly noticed. He hauled Jem up into his arms, and carried him to the altar, just as he had done with Jubilee. There, he laid him down and pulled up his shirt and jacket, enough to see the mess of Regina’s handiwork. With black ink and the bone knife, he put spell right again, and restored Jem, in entirety and finality, as genius loci.

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIII.

When he later reflected on the night, Jem thought that he would have much preferred to simply pass out, as Jubilee did. He would have liked to wake up, in a hospital bed or even at home, already cleaned and bandaged and drugged, the chaos and worry over. It would have been neat, and as it was, there was nothing neat about caring for injuries.

Jem, Jubilee, and Regina were all taken to the hospital, where Jem’s injuries were by far the least concerning. A doctor stitched and bandaged his abdomen and put him on a preemptive regime of antibiotics. A technician x-rayed his ribs where Wharton had kicked him (not cracked, the doctor said, though the treatment was just the same as if they were). A nurse liberally applied ice to every bruise.

The most dangerous injury was that of his neck. The resultant swelling was possibly considerable enough to choke off his air after all, which might necessitate an emergency tracheotomy, and that was in addition to the possibility of internal injuries. A litany of problems arose when the brain was so deprived of oxygen; Jem’s doctor began delineating the chance of multiple strokes and, at the look on Jem’s face, ended the list there, merely with the assurance that they would look into everything. Jem was put through a battery of tests, most of which he merely had to keep still for.

He spent the time ruminating on Wharton’s death, and worrying about the complications of prolonged manual strangulation. He discovered that he did not much care for the irony of being murdered by dead man.

The doctor insisted on strict observation overnight. To Jem’s relief, he was prescribed a variety of pain medications, mostly for his wounded abdomen. After the morphine kicked in, he didn’t remember much. He was still bloody, filthy, and half frozen, but he minded less. He was vaguely aware of a student doctor checking his fingers and toes for frostbite before a nurse cleaned and bandaged his broken and missing fingernails, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

He came out of this high in the morning, with little memory of how he’d spent the night. By then, the doctor tentatively declared him free to go home, on the condition that he was constantly supervised. Mathuin, who just returned, was ready and waiting with his coat and boots.

Jem sluggishly stuck out his foot to let his husband put on the boot, and Mathuin complied, with only a touch of humor. “What happened to Regina and Jubilee?” he whispered. His voice had evaporated as completely as during the worst of the flu. Drugged as he was, he wondered, for a brief and frightening moment, if it would ever return.

He dreaded the answer to his question, but Mathuin simply picked up his other boot and said, “They’ll be fine. Jubilee will be out of here within a day or two— she had a concussion, and she lost some blood. For Regina, it might be longer.” He paused, considering just what to say. “She fucked up her spine, and, ah, you and Jubilee carrying her away— not that I don’t appreciate it, given the alternative— did considerably more damage.”

Disquietude settled in the pit of Jem’s stomach. “Is she going to be paralyzed?”

“She’ll be fine. Her back might give her trouble for the rest of her life, but she’ll be fine.” The way in which he declared Regina and Jubilee’s eventual prognoses lead Jem to suspect that however they were going to be fine, it might have more to do with Mathuin being Erlking and a master of Viscuomancy than anything to do with modern medicine.

Mathuin reached for Jem’s ankle, and Jem watched, half-interested, as he put on the boot. When the man straightened and picked up the coat, he asked, quite hopefully, “Did we miss the coronation?”

Mathuin looked down at him. His mouth twitched. “Don’t sound too disappointed.”

“It was all that blood in the Bone Grove— and in your hair,” Jem realized. He reached out his good arm for Mathuin. “It felt like only a few hours that we were in those tunnels, but it was a day.”

Mathuin put the coat on him, and buttoned it up. He did not, Jem noticed, put any sort of scarf on him, but he did plunk a hat down on his head. That done, he picked Jem up, as easily as a child, resting the boy’s head against his shoulder.

Jem felt a strange bolt of panic. “Did I miss Christmas?” he asked.

“No, idiot,” Mathuin said. “Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve.”

•••

Immediately upon arriving home, Jem made a beeline upstairs and into the bathroom. Mathuin followed close behind; he was not, after all, to be left unsupervised, not that Jem seemed particularly interested in the various intricacies of the doctor’s orders.

Mathuin found him standing in front of the mirror, experimentally prodding at his neck, having rid himself of his neck brace. Jem hadn’t seen any mirrors in the hospital, which was likely a calculated decision on the part of the nurses. His neck was a watercolor expression of midnight purple shaded nearly to black, from ears to collarbone. The bruise was so severe that it was leaking the excess blood into the tissues of his collar and shoulders, creating a waterfall pattern of red, blue, and violet in the undamaged skin.

His bloodshot eyes were even more startling, being more red than white. He was all over a palette of unfamiliar color.

Mathuin ran a shallow bath and coaxed Jem into it. Jem went, with surprising complaisance; he was, Mathuin suspected, still at least moderately high after the various medications he’d been given at the hospital. He lay quiet and still as Mathuin rinsed the dried blood off of his stomach and scrubbed the rest of him clean. When Mathuin moved to replace the dirty water with clean, he shifted. “Are you mad at me?” he asked. “For going after Regina? And not waiting for you to return?”

Mathuin considered the question. “Yes,” he admitted, after the silence had gone on too long for him to say ‘no’. “It could have ended much worse than it did,” he added gravely.

“I know.” Jem put his head back. He squirmed, looked decidedly away, and announced with cold precision, “I failed the term.”

Jem’s academic status was so far from Mathuin’s mind that it took him a moment to understand what the boy was talking about. “How do you figure that? There’s no way you’ve gotten your grades already.”

“I didn’t turn in my term paper,” Jem mumbled, and then said, more clearly, “Because I didn’t finish it.”

“Yeah,” Mathuin said. “You failed.”

Jem made a face and tried to push himself up to sitting. Mathuin instinctively grabbed at his upper arm, worried he was going to injure himself further. Jem didn’t seem to notice. “It’s a fucking nightmare, being married to your former teacher, you know that? I don’t think you do. It’s bad enough, you being the fucking super-villain, but on top of everything else, you were my teacher, and when I was sixteen, no less… like you didn’t have enough power over me in the first place, you’ve got that authority going for you, too.”

It was not a welcome exclamation, nor one that Mathuin thought was at all related to any of the recent events, but it did appear to be one Jem had been ruminating on for some time. “You really think it makes that much of a difference?” He was skeptical, at best.

“You called me an idiot not three hours ago,” Jem said through gritted teeth. “It’s different when your teacher calls you an idiot.”

Perhaps, Mathuin thought, Jem was not nearly as high as he had earlier assumed. He was tempted to ask what it was different from, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. Before he could think of any rejoinder to either placate Jem or worsen the situation, Jem announced, quite as fact, “I’m going to drop out of Merodack.”

“No, you are not,” Mathuin said sharply.

“What would I do with a fucking degree anyway?” Jem asked in his whisper. “Go and start a career in whatever city I liked? Get married and start a family? Travel the country as an anthropologist collecting folk tales like the fucking brothers Grimm?”

The thought occurred to Mathuin that if he were looking for proof that Jem had accepted his lot and was no longer going to try to rebel or escape, this might be it. “You failed one term— it’s not the end of the goddamn world. You’re not the first student not to turn in a term paper, and I doubt you’ll even be the first of Kate’s. You’re not paying a cent for this privilege that other people go into debt for twenty years for, and you’ve made it this far, so you may as well see the damn thing through.” Jem shot him a look that was more sullenness than acquiescence, and Mathuin added, “Even if you drop out— which you won’t— now is not the best time to make a rational decision, when you’re fresh home from the hospital.”

Jem made a face at that, and looked away. “If I do decide to drop out,” he said slowly, in an even quieter whisper than he was already restricted to. “Are you going to let me do that?”

Mathuin reached over to muss his wet hair. “Do you need me to tell you ‘yes, sweetheart, you’re free to do whatever you want’?” he asked. “Is that what you need to hear?”

Jem scowled at him, but he let the matter die.

•••

After the bath, Mathuin tucked Jem into bed, propped up with pillows and ice packs. Jem felt clean, which was a relief after the wretched hospital, and he’d been given more painkillers, as well as a plate of pumpkin bacon hash (he did not feel like eating, but he had been sternly warned against taking the painkillers on an empty stomach). With these improvements, he did feel much better, though he had no intention of mentioning it to Mathuin.

The man vanished for a few minutes, and returned carrying Britomartis. The orange cat was tiny in his large hands, but furious. She bit and scratched and yowled, all until Mathuin tossed her onto the bed, looking quite disgruntled. She did seem happy to see Jem, and Jem was grateful that he had retrieved her.

He reached out a hand to pet her, which she darted away from and then turned back and nuzzled. Keeping his eyes on Britomartis, Jem said, “Speaking of dropping out…”

“No,” Mathuin said shortly. “I don’t want to fucking speak about it. Stay the fuck in school.”

Jem ignored that. “About Wharton,” he said. “Who tried to kill me.” He paused. “Who would have killed me, if not for Jubilee.” He risked a glance up at Mathuin to see the man watching him warily. “He killed Edie Torres, didn’t he?”

Mathuin just looked tired, and deeply unhappy. “Yes,” he said quietly. “I never would have guessed it, but Malone said her hyoid bone was broken, meaning she was strangled to death. And after Keith attacked you…” He was silent for a long moment time before he said, “I couldn’t tell you why.”

“He said something to me,” Jem admitted. “Something about—” he hesitated. “He called me a fucking spy, and a… he just said words. Traitor, cunt, spy, Agripinite whore…” Jem had never spared Wharton much thought before, any more than he had for any aggravating Mathuinite. He’d known Wharton was fiercely loyal, perhaps more than most, but it hadn’t occurred to him to translate that loyalty into a murderous rage.

“I wonder what he planned to do to Jubilee, after he murdered me,” Jem mused.

“Either tell her to keep her mouth shut, or make sure she didn’t have a choice in the matter,” Mathuin said. He shook his head.

“You knew it was a follower who killed Edie,” Jem said.

“Yeah,” Mathuin said. “But not who, and Keith, it seems, had enough sense not to confess anything to me.”

“Because Edie reminded you of Fiona, just like Garet intended,” Jem surmised. “So, Wharton must have thought he was just doing what needed to be done.” That earned him a sour look from Mathuin. “He must’ve been on you to get rid of every Agripinite you could find.” He paused and then asked, “Do you think I’m still gonna be in danger? From people like Wharton? Mathuinites?”

“I think the story of what I did to Keith when I found him throttling you has spread throughout Bergdis better than you might have guessed,” Mathuin said.

Jem went back to petting Britomartis, who had curled up next to his hip and was purring very softly. “Speaking of people who tried to kill me,” he said slowly. “Prades.”

Mathuin folded his arms and leaned back against the desk he never used. He looked up at the ceiling. “Prades,” he said. “Yeah. The bastard.”

“You didn’t get him in the Hunt,” Jem accused.

“You noticed,” Mathuin said dryly. “I wasn’t sure if he was still enough of a Knight for the Hunt to go after, given the restrictions I gave them. Just in case, I told Hemming to use his hounds to hunt him down.” He paused. “But Prades was a Knight back in the day, and even when he wasn’t, he was born during the fucking Roman Empire, and he had more than a few tricks up his sleeve. So I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“What happened, to make him stop being a Knight?” Jem asked.

“Seeing as I haven’t had the opportunity to ask him or any other Knight, I don’t know.” He was quiet for a moment. “The story will get out, eventually. These stories always do.”

He sighed and looked away. “I thought—” he started, and then reconsidered the wisdom of telling Jem whatever it was he thought. When Jem said nothing, he continued, “To be honest, I thought he would leave Bergdis. The jig was up, so to speak, but I underestimated how badly he wanted to become a Knight again. It was a useless, stupid, desperate plot,” he added.

“You underestimated him?” Jem repeated.

Mathuin was silent. Leaning against his desk put his face in more shadow than not, but Jem was used to watching his expressions with practiced and devoted attendance by now. “If he’d just given up the fucking dream of getting back into being a Knight… he could have done well. They were hunting him, I’m sure, but plenty of us manage to evade the Knights, and that’s without the expertise that Prades had. There might have been those looking to take revenge on him for the things he did when he was a Knight, but they would still have a devil of a time of it— he wasn’t helpless. And besides… there’s a thriving industry out there, of people who need help evading the Knights, who will pay limbs and first borns for it, because they have no choice. Prades would have been the best in the field. He knows all their tricks.”

“But switching sides means all his righteous executions, in retrospect, become murders,” Jem pointed out. “He might’ve been able to admit he was wrong, but not that wrong.”

Mathuin shot him a look. “I seem to be misestimating quite a few people, lately,” he said. “You, Keith, Prades…” He gave a short laugh. “That was one thing Fee used to get after me about, all the damn time— misestimating people. She would tell you that paying attention to people, especially when it came to how desperate or scared they were, was not something I was ever particularly good at. But that was Fee.”

“I could have told you that just after having class with you,” Jem said, and very quickly changed the topic of conversation when Mathuin’s eyes narrowed. “Even if he— Prades— had killed Ms. Beir— the Knights wouldn’t have taken Bergdis. Would they?”

“I have no doubt that if she ever leaves or dies, the Knights will become a fucking pestilence in Bergdis,” Mathuin said wryly. “Without her guarding the valley, they’ll be able to come and go as they please. But they won’t make the kind of massacre here that they did with the Scourge, not with the Hunt in their way— unless, I suppose, they managed to kill me and control whomever the next Erlking is, therefore keeping the Hunt in hibernation. Then it would be a massacre.”

“The Hunt is back in hibernation now?” Jem asked.

“They didn’t go easily,” Mathuin said. “But yes.”

Jem looked more closely at Mathuin, and realized that he did appear rather worn out. He was startled to think of Mathuin as being mortal enough to look tired.

“Is that what the Knights wanted from Regina?” Jem asked.

“At first, yes,” Mathuin said wryly. “But plans have a way of changing when things go wrong. If everything had gone right from the beginning, Regina should have been the new rallying point for the Agripinites, and she would have been the puppet queen on the throne after they’d killed me, like you surmised— or, if that couldn’t be accomplished, at least the new head of the Agripinites. Then, while we were busy trying to kill each other, the Knights would slip in and murder Ma’am Winter. It’s easier to conquer two warring parties than it is a united front.”

“But it didn’t go right.”

“No. From the first, it turned out that everyone just wanted the Erling Conflict over with, even you.” Mathuin rubbed a hand across his eyes. “But the Erling Conflict was only ever a means to an end. What Prades and the Knights truly wanted was Ma’am Winter dead. Their hope of reviving the conflict evaporated after Ophelia discovered the lot of them on our doorstep, and when priorities shifted, Regina went from being the intended puppet queen to the proxy used to kill Ma’am Winter. Prades was going to force Regina to give that egg to Ma’am, as something of an early Christmas present, I imagine. Ma’am Winter would promptly murder Regina in return— which was why Prades didn’t want to do the giving himself.”

“And that’s what Jubilee and I interrupted,” Jem realized, remembering Regina’s sobbing and Prades’s coercive “Come with me”. “Who was supposed to give Ms. Beir the egg, if everything had been going according to plan?”

“Ivan Williams,” Mathuin said, with confidence. “If I had to guess.”

“Why did they pick him?”

“They must have thought they could get him to do what they wanted, without asking too many questions. He was reclusive, involved in the conflict the last time round, but with a guilty conscience, given what became of Garet because of the message he delivered. I suspect Prades told Regina they needed Williams for the cause, without telling her just what they wanted him to do— maybe he told her Williams could get close to me but was still an Agripinite at heart, maybe she never even asked. She found him at his job, asked him to join her side, and he gave her an ambiguous answer. He either refused to answer her or told her he intended to stay neutral. I have no idea what she made of that, but Prades recognized it for the threat that it was. He murdered Williams before he could come to me or, worse, come to me and accept Regina’s offer, therefore becoming a spy. That murder, I think, was when Prades knew this wasn’t going to go as easily as he liked.”

Jem made a face. After the days of the storm, the night was eerily quiet, with no wind outside and no one making noise downstairs. Just their voices, and the pervasive cold. He thought back over the series of murders, thought of them executed by a man not with a precise and dastardly plan, but as a roughshod, improvised act of desperation, with one thing going wrong after another. It computed, but it didn’t reckon with the fear the spree had inspired in the town. Murder always seemed more like an expression of evil than a fumble. “It was just the same idea as the old queen and John Agripin? That egg?”

“Yes,” Mathuin said slowly, “Except for one large catch, which is that there isn’t a chance in hell that the curse on that egg is anywhere near severe enough to kill Ma’am Winter.” Mathuin looked over at Jem. “Prades either didn’t know that or was hoping against hope that the information he had was incorrect. Generously, I could say that he thought it would weaken her, and therefore make her vulnerable to something else that could then kill her. But I haven’t seen any shred of a further plan.”

“That…” Jem struggled for a moment. “That’s just stupid, isn’t it?”

Mathuin shrugged. “The Knights don’t always have the right information. When it comes to entities like Ma’am Winter, beings that are too old and too unknown to be defined, they tend to doubt their sources. They would tell you that people are prone to exaggeration. Whatever happened to him to make him other, Prades was still a Knight at heart.”

“How does the egg work, anyway?” Jem asked uneasily. “Given… what I did with it.”

“And given that it effectively murdered Bergdis’s first and only Erlqueen?” Mathuin shifted, and stretched his arms overhead, working out a stiffness of the shoulders. In the darkness of the room, he was a massive form. “You’d have to ask John Agripin that. As best I can tell, it’s triggered into action by being given to an individual, as John gave it to her… and over time, it convinces the cells of the individual to die. Necrotic patches of tissue spread, and eventually, one succumbs to death. She… she had a host of doctors and magicians and various treatments to deal with the thing, and she did hold it at bay for an extraordinarily long time. But eventually, the rot took over.” He paused. “As for what you did, you gave it to Prades, in a manner of speaking, and you shattered the damn thing in his face. Prades had neither the protection of being a Knight nor a host of professionals to help him, so all in all, it worked quickly.”

“Would it have killed him?” Jem asked.

Mathuin shrugged. “I don’t know if what you did qualifies enough as giving. It certainly did some harm.”

“What about Wharton? Would that have killed him? What I did.” What Jem most remembered was having enough presence of mind to know to pull the knife out, to know that unplugging the wound was much deadlier than leaving it. The stabbing had been instinctual, but yanking the knife back out again had been calculated. Jem didn’t feel guilty, exactly, but he didn’t feel right about it either.

Mathuin took a moment to remember. “That knife in the stomach? Only if he didn’t get medical treatment in time, or if he had an infection.” He smiled wryly. “It’s harder to stab a person to death than you think… these days, anyway.”

Jem scooted down in bed. The ice packs were beginning to lose some of their potency, and he knew enough about injuries to know that his were going to become quite unpleasant just as soon as the heat of inflammation took over again. He considered sending Mathuin downstairs to switch them out, but decided to put it off for now. He had more questions. “Why didn’t she smash it?” he asked. “The egg, I mean. It had killed her, after all, and she must’ve… had some feelings about that.”

“Oh, she did,” Mathuin said dryly. “She threw it at the wall. After it repaired itself, and after she killed John Agripin, she threw it at Charles’s head, before he fled.” He brooded for a moment. “It would have saved me a lot of trouble if she’d hit him.”

“It repairs itself,” Jem repeated, focusing on what he found to be the pertinent part of this comment. He felt his heart quicken. “It’s just lying down in that old court, somewhere, in the dirt, something as dangerous as that—”

“I went back and found it, and I hid it,” Mathuin told him irritably. “While you were high as a kite in the hospital. Give me a little credit. I do think of these things.”

“What happened to it after— after, you said, she threw it at Charles Agripin’s head?”

“She ordered one of her lovers to hide it. The man’s name was Philip Payne, and he died decades ago. He had one surviving relative, a nephew.”

“Michael Payne,” Jem realized. “That’s why Prades killed Michael Payne.”

“And tortured him first. Prades gambled on Philip Payne having told someone where the thing could be found before he died. He was right.”

“That’s Williams and Payne… what about Vaughn? Why kill Vaughn?”

Mathuin’s stare was dead-eyed. “To appease Regina, and to convince her that Prades and his unseen cabal had enough clout to support her in a conspiracy against me. She hasn’t admitted to any such thing, of course, and if she’s wise, she never will. Besides… my guess is that Prades thought Vaughn’s death would have a very different effect on Bergdis. He thought it would be assumed that an Agripinite had killed Vaughn, and the Agripinites would be galvanized by the action, given that it was Vaughn’s betrayal that ended with Garet dead. But that wasn’t what happened; instead, the Agripinites were more afraid than ever.”

Jem nodded. After a moment, he heard himself asking, unwisely, “About the fairy queen… Were you pleased when John Agripin gave the egg to her? In the first place?”

“When he murdered her?” Mathuin trailed off into silence for a long time before he answered the question, while Jem held his breath, well aware he’d asked something intensely private and more than a little accusatory. “I’d already won my freedom by the time that happened. I didn’t usually spend much time at court, unless Claudine persuaded me to come around, so I didn’t witness the event. I wasn’t exactly shedding tears when I heard,” he added. “Is that what you want to hear?”

“Claudine…” Jem wanted to ask about the closeness between the two, but he couldn’t find the words.

Mathuin looked away. “She’s like my sister. Like an annoying, very sweet, occasionally infuriating little sister. We grew apart during Charles’s fucking reign of terror. She wanted to be neutral and look on the bright side of things, and that never impressed me very much, while I wanted to be anywhere but Bergdis, and she found that rather unhelpful. We became close again when Fee was growing up, and then that changed again when Fee…” He shook his head. “But we didn’t have a falling out, or anything like that. I think, if I hadn’t killed Charles, Claudine might have done it.”

“Does that make Charles like a brother?” Jem asked. He knew better, but he didn’t think he could bite the question down.
Mathuin looked somewhat pained. “I would have said so, once. I’ve tried hard to forget that.” He shook his head. “The thing about Charles…” His voice got quiet, and Jem was of the distinct impression that if it were any other night, if Jem were anyone else, Mathuin would not be saying this. “All the signs were always there. Not that he was ever a rapist, before, as far as I know, but every other hint… I knew he was capable of terrible things— but then, so am I. I knew he had terrible judgment and an inclination towards feeling entitled when he wasn’t, but I never thought to put it all together and come up with…” He looked away. “But… when she said she’d been raped. I think some part of me knew exactly who she was going to accuse before she ever said the name.”

“What did you do to him?” Jem asked weakly. He knew only Charles Agripin’s skeleton had been found. No cause of death could be determined, nor anything about what might have happened before that death. Bones bore those marks that went deep enough to mar them, and were otherwise a forgiving record of the past.

“You don’t want to know that,” Mathuin promised him.

Jem didn’t answer. He was thinking about Garet Agripin, and what Garet knew, and moreover, who else had known these details about Charles’s crime. Vaughn must have known, and probably Reeves. Nate Wallace would have known, but that was another matter entirely. Contreras, Lance, and Copeland, he was all unsure about.

“I have another question,” Jem said, and when Mathuin didn’t prompt or protest, “Sophia Nemael. Garet’s girlfriend. What happened to her?”

“She’s alive,” Mathuin said with the flat tone to his voice that meant he knew exactly what Jem had suspected and he wasn’t impressed. “She fled Bergdis, and she’s not coming back. We had a brief… chat… before she left. She thought I was going to kill her, but I can’t imagine what the point of that was supposed to be.”

“There were rumors that she was pregnant,” Jem hazarded, bracing himself.

“I didn’t ask,” Mathuin said, sounding uninterested. “If she was, she’s not anymore, and she hasn’t had any children yet, Garet’s or others. You don’t think I’d let her go and then not keep an eye on her, do you?”

Jem had never known Sophia especially well, but for a few polite exchanges. She had struck him as eminently practical, and, perhaps, a bit skittish. She had wanted Garet to turn his back on Bergdis, preferably forever.

He was ruminating on the matter and had lapsed into silence when Mathuin spoke again. “About Prades,” he began, very quietly. “He wasn’t involved in either of your parents’ deaths.”

“Oh,” Jem said faintly. “You found that out?”

“I thought you might be wondering.”

Jem just nodded. There was the unspoken implication, that Mathuin did know the names of the Knights actually involved in his parents’ deaths, and would tell him if he asked.

“It’s late, Kätzchen,” Mathuin said, finally shifting away from the desk. “Let’s call it a night.”

Chapter Text

Chapter XXIV.

Jem woke once in the night with his stomach burning. He prodded Mathuin awake, and sent him to get painkillers and fresh ice packs, which, grumbling, he retrieved. When Jem woke again, it was still dark but morning.

His abdomen ached, but it was his neck that was so stiff he couldn’t turn his head. Moving gingerly, he climbed over Mathuin and made his way downstairs, into the kitchen.

There, to his surprise, he found Ophelia, also awake, and making herself a cup of tea.

“Oh my god,” she said upon catching sight of him. “Look at you. Look at your demon eyes. You look like you went to went to hell and brought it back with you.”

“You’re awake, on your own,” Jem told her. It was a surprise and a relief.

“Yeah.” She dumped a good amount of cream into her tea, followed by a spoonful of enough sugar to make Jem wince. “I kept hearing various pieces here and there— you know, ‘Jem and Jubilee went out for a walk and they haven’t come back yet’, like that isn’t suspicious enough, and ‘the coronation is at midnight, I’m sure your brother will be there,’ and ‘Jem’s in the hospital, but don’t worry, he’s going to be fine’.” She scowled like a goblin. “What in the world happened?”

“Make me a cup of tea, and I’ll tell you,” Jem promised, pulling himself very carefully into a chair.

He began the story and had barely gotten any farther than Regina’s call for succor when Ophelia stopped him. “You went to save Regina?” she asked in disbelief. “Regina fucking Mathuin, who tried to kill you, that Regina? You nearly got your sorry ass killed because of stupid Regina?”

“Yep,” Jem said, and Oaf struck his shoulder, hard. Jem yelped. “I’m injured!” he snapped at her, and found himself uninjured enough to throw a pencil, grabbed from nearby on the countertop, at her head. She ducked out of the way, and but for a bit of snarling, made him go on with his story.

By the time he had finished, the tea was ready to drink, prepared with milk and honey. While he sipped it, he and Ophelia went over the various theories as to what Prades, and Wharton, had been thinking. Jem concentrated mostly on wondering if Prades had had any more surprises in store when Mathuin summarily cut his throat, while Oaf, who sounded a bit shell-shocked, focussed on how close her brother had come to dying.

“Well,” Oaf said finally, finishing her tea with one great gulp. “I suppose since you’ve been busy with going off into the sidh to save people who really didn’t deserve it, you probably haven’t heard much of anything about what became of the Hunt.”

Jem looked up. “Mathuin just said that he’d put them back into hibernation.”

“Yeah, he did. And I’m sure you know that they managed to chase the Knights out of New Mora— and Washington, for that matter. Did Mathuin tell you that he’d killed three of them?”

Jem swallowed hard. “No. He neglected to mention that.”

“Abel Guibert, Edward Gris, and Paul Amils,” Ophelia said without pity. Jem wondered if she knew if any of them were connected to his parents’ deaths, but he didn’t want to bring it up.

“I didn’t realize the Hunt was that powerful,” Jem admitted quietly.

“The Hunt, or Mathuin, or both,” Oaf said glibly. Neither of them said it, but both were thinking it; killing a Knight was next to unheard of, and killing three at once was astounding.

“They’ll leave Bergdis alone,” Jem said.

“Yes, I expect they will.” Ophelia paused, twisting a lock of red hair around her fingers. She was beginning to look worn out, as if this mere conversation had taken all the energy out of her. “One other thing,” she said. “It’s supposed to be a surprise, but I thought you might want a warning. The family is going to be here tomorrow.” When Jem just looked at her, uncomprehending, she explained, “Auntie Valeria, Auntie Perdita, Grauntie Emilia, Bianca and Adam, Rhys and Celia, and all of their various spouses and offspring.”

“All of them?” Jem asked, horrified. And then, “Mathuin gave them permission to visit?”

“Oh, no,” Ophelia said. “Mathuin gave all of us— including me— permission to move to Bergdis. Permanently. You must have appealed to him?”

“Yes, but—” Jem thought about it. He doubted his appeal had done any good, but something had changed Mathuin’s mind. Eventually, he postulated, “I think it was Henry’s death.” Perhaps, he thought, it was the realization that being married to Jem meant living with a steady stream of deaths as the years went by, and the possibility that Jem would blame him for each one.

Ophelia made a face at that and said nothing.

“When did he tell you this?” Jem asked.

“Just before he left on the Hunt,” Oaf said. “I think he was thinking of telling you, but he decided to leave it a surprise.”

Ophelia, who knew Jem a fair bit better than Mathuin ever would, had thought about the wisdom of that surprise and decided to circumvent it. Jem was grateful for the warning. As relieved as he was to have his family safe, and as nice as it would be to have them nearby, he was uneasy about them bearing witness to the humiliation of being married to, and essentially owned by, Jakob Mathuin. Their knowing about it was one thing; their viewing it was another.

“So you’ll be surprised, right?” Ophelia said, hauling herself up. “You want to come into the den? I’m going to make a fire, and then fall asleep. It’ll be a great way to spend Christmas Eve.”

•••

The next great surprise of Christmas Eve came in the afternoon, when there was a knock on the door. Jem, assuming it was another Mathuinite, retreated to the den where his sister was still sleeping, until Naomi Cobb stuck her head in and announced, “Jem, it’s for you.”

Jem returned to the entryway, and found himself face to face with Professor Andrade. He immediately blanched.

“I was told you’d been hospitalized again,” she announced bluntly, squinting at him. “Goodness gracious me, you are a sight.”

“Yes,” Jem said uncomfortably. “Um. Sorry. For, you know…” Neither turning in his paper, he thought, nor contacting her to explain that failure. It was hard to say which was the more egregious crime, and he had no real excuse for the latter other than that he had really, truly, not wanted to do so.

“Yes, yes, I know,” she said. “Well, as you know, I had to turn in grades on Tuesday, and, I’m sorry to say, you took home an incomplete for the term. I’m afraid you’ll have to do an extra fall term, come senior year. Still! These things happen, and I find it’s best to move on. So, you’ll turn in your Tam Lin paper to me as soon as you can get it, and I’ll see what credit I can give you for it. It would be a waste for you to do all that work for nothing.”

“Did you talk to Mathuin about this?” Jem asked, resisting an urge to press his hand to his stitches.

“You mean Jakob?” she said. “No, I haven’t seen him in days. Why do you ask?”

Jem did not believe for a second that Professor Kate Andrade had less than a layman’s understanding of the Erlking and the Coronation Conspiracy, let alone the Erling Conflict of the past few years. But if she didn’t intend to take a side, Agripinite or Mathuinite, and she didn’t intend to pay obeisance to the new Erlking now, playing ignorant was probably best. “I was thinking of dropping out of Merodack,” Jem confessed. He had not really abandoned the idea yet, and in case he went through with it, he wanted her to be prepared. “I was wondering if he told you that.”

“Dropping out?! Because of one bad term? You’ll do no such thing!” Jem made a face at this reaction, and she recovered herself, at least superficially. “I understand you’ve had a bad few days— that is very apparent. I’m sure that by the time we get to the new term, in a couple of weeks, you’ll wonder what you were even thinking.”

That did not reassure Jem. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and she looked deeply displeased at that compromise. “If I decide to stay, though— please don’t contact Mathuin— Jakob— when I miss class, or bring up the idea of him reading my papers. If I ever have to deal with him as a teacher again, I really will drop out, even if it means taking University of Pheonix classes on the computer at the local library.”

She agreed, grudgingly, and left. As soon as she was gone, all of Jem’s old anxiety concerning the ballad of Tam Lin returned to him when he realized he really was going to have to finish the damn paper.

He had a distraction an hour or so later, when several more Mathuinites— namely, the inner circle of the staunchest of Mathuinites— arrived in the driveway and assembled in the kitchen, den, and even (the hardier among them) on the porch and deck outside. Mrs. Cobb and a handful of others had prepared large amounts of food. Altogether, it was indicative of a party, which made sense for Christmas Eve, but Jem was very much not in the mood for this right now.

“Why are they all here?” he demanded when he found Mathuin in the kitchen.

“Just a few things we missed the other day,” Mathuin told him glibly, ruffling his hair as he said it. He put an arm around Jem’s shoulder, dragged him close for a kiss, and promptly gave up after Jem yelped when he pushed his head back, aggravating his injured neck in the process.

What had been missed, apparently, was the swearing of fealty. Everyone who was present at the coronation, Mathuinites and Agripinites alike, had done so. Jem’s absence had been noted, and it deeply discomfited several grumbling Mathuinites. They still thought that if treachery was at all a possibility, it was going to come from him.

Jem said the words he was told to say while kneeling in the den, surrounded by onlookers, and staring up at Mathuin, who sat in his usual chair like a throne. The angle hurt his neck, and the position was uncomfortably familiarly demeaning, even if the words were not— they were, after all, the same words that everyone else said, from Claudine Ochoa to Keith Wharton.

It could have been worst; the oath was supposed to be done in the Bone Grove, and by the sound of things, some Mathuinites wanted to drag him out there to say it, and only relented when Mathuin put his foot down. Jem did have the satisfaction of startling everyone who saw him, from his red eyes to his purple throat. After the words were said, Mathuin had to help him back onto his feet, or he would have been stuck on the floor.

Once the oaths were said, Mathuin had an announcement to make.

“There will be two more oaths made, when the applicants are fit and able,” he explained to a general hush. “The first is Jubilee Spence, whose loyalty, I’m sure, is doubted by no one. The second is my daughter’s daughter and my heir presumptive, Regina Mathuin.”

“He just made sure Bergdis knows that he has a granddaughter,” Ophelia said later, to Jem. She had not been asked to offer fealty; witches swore no oaths, and everyone knew it. “And what’s he doing with an heir? He’s not going to have any use for one.”

“He might,” Jem said reasonably. He was thinking if Ms. Beir’s assertion that Mathuin was not going to end his reign with his own assassination, and that he’d already abandoned Bergdis time and again before. “And yeah, now they know. She would’ve been Garet’s logical heir, too, given that she was his sister and he didn’t have any children… I wonder if it’s meant to be another step in proving the two are united? Mathuinites and Agripinites?”

“I thought that was what your marriage was for,” Oaf said, getting to her feet to get another glass of eggnog. “Maybe it can’t be done.”

“Maybe it just takes time,” Jem countered irritably, but she wasn’t listening.

•••

Nightfall on Christmas Eve found the twins curled up on the couch near the fireplace, sharing a wool blanket, Jem with his legs across Ophelia’s lap and a book in his hands, and Ophelia with her laptop resting on Jem’s knees, watching a Captain America movie (Jem made her put headphones on so he wouldn’t have to listen to it). They heard the commotion at the door when someone new arrived, but they didn’t disentangle themselves.

“Probably Jubilee,” Oaf guessed, sucking on a candy cane.

“Let’s hope not,” Jem groused without looking up.

A few minutes later, Jubilee made her way into the room, firmly supported by Christopher Duarte. “Merry Christmas,” she greeted the twins, and she was a sight. Her head had been entirely shaved of her long dark hair, and replaced in a white bandage as encompassing as a helmet. Otherwise, her skin was a somewhat sallow brown, and her eyes weren’t fully open, as if she were a tired child.

“Shouldn’t you still be in the hospital?” Ophelia asked, more with trepidation than remonstration.

“Mathuin got me out early,” Jubilee said. “I never thought of the possibility of having a devastating concussion as one of those things where it helps to be a magician’s favorite student, but here we are.” Duarte helped her into the armchair across from the twins, and then, at her direction, went to retrieve a plate of Christmas foods. “I’m constantly hungry,” she explained. “Maybe because I keep throwing it all up. But at least I look better than you, Jem,” she added, bright-eyed behind the general painkiller haze.

“Shouldn’t you be in a wheelchair?” Jem asked pointedly.

“Shouldn’t you have your neck brace on?” She leaned back, drawing her legs up onto the sofa. “We did all right, didn’t we? We defeated the bad guys. We got Regina out alive, more or less. I saved your life from Wharton.”

“I saved yours from Prades,” Jem replied.

“Yeah, with that egg.” She smiled slowly. “So we’re square.”

Duarte returned with the food (which Jubilee picked at) and asked for an account of what had happened, which was given to him in a rather piecemeal and unenthusiastic manner. Neither Jem nor Jubilee were feeling up to the task.

They were interrupted when Elise Hemming stepped into the doorway and wheeled Regina Mathuin into their midst.

In spite of the wheelchair and the corset-like back brace, Regina looked much better than Jubilee or Jem, with her head held high, her neatly combed black hair poured over one shoulder, a perfectly folded blanket tucked around her legs. Elise’s face was impassive, as if she had no opinion at all. Jem was certain she knew Regina was the author of the Coronation Conspiracy; all the hounds must know.

“So you got away with it.” Duarte spoke first.

Regina ignored that. “You survived,” she said, to Jem.

“Yes,” Jem said. “And you’re welcome, by the way. For getting you out of there.”

He wanted to ask if she had known that giving her allegiance to Ezra Prades meant working with the Knights, but not now that the opportunity presented itself, he found himself unable to ask. He realized the weirdness, on his own part, that according to his logic, trying to murder her grandfather was forgivable but the way in which she had gone about it was not. Asking the question was too close to asking her for an apology, an apology for what she had tried to get him to do, and he did not want an apology because he didn’t want to have to refuse to accept it.

“Are you done, then?” Oaf asked, with interest. “Trying to oust Mathuin, I mean.”

Regina smiled tightly. “He’s going to have me swear an oath,” she said, and they all knew what that meant. Breaking oaths in the supernatural world was a very bad idea.

“Excuse me,” Elise said, stepping back. “I should mention, there’s someone else here to see you, Ophelia.” Oaf’s eyebrows went up, and Elise made a gesture, for someone standing just outside to come in; a moment later, Nate Wallace appeared in the doorway. Jem felt Oaf tense.

He crossed the room in a few quick strides, and stood over Ophelia to get a good look at her. Jem watched his sister’s face. She looked at Nate with more of a gaze than a glare, and Jem alone knew precisely how bad of a sign that was.

“I heard what happened,” Nate said. “And I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“We are not getting back together, Nate,” Oaf said serenely. When he said nothing, she added, “There is an entire wide world out there, full of people who haven’t maneuvered to have me kidnapped or sell my brother to a monster. Do you understand me?”

“You want me to go, then?”

“Nate.” Regina spoke quietly, but she had everyone’s attention when she said, quite delicately, “I understand that you’re my half brother.”

Nate cringed. Jem had the impression that he would have fled the room after such a declaration, if it wasn’t for the fact that Ophelia looked very interested, in spite of herself. After a glance back at her, he said, “Yeah. My mom was Charles Agripin’s mistress. He didn’t acknowledge me, though— I don’t know if that’s because he didn’t want to or because his wife would have had his balls if he did. Either way. Garet didn’t know,” he added, correctly ascertaining the question Ophelia had opened her mouth to ask. “Mathuin told you?” he asked Regina.

“Just now, on the ride home from the hospital,” she said. “He wanted to point out I still had one brother living.” She made a face like a storm cloud. “Why did you do it, then? Why have Garet killed?”

“First of all,” Nate said, with the beginnings of a fury Jem had never heard in his voice before, “Charles Agripin had my mother killed, so I have no fucking love lost for the Agripins, you understand that? And secondly—”

“Wait.” Jem held up a hand. Something was rattling around his head, a detail Mathuin had mentioned. Rebecca Wallace, an assistant literature professor. Fiona Mathuin, a literature student, who when pregnant only attended her classes, and eventually, not even that. “Your mother knew, didn’t she? About what happened to Fiona. That’s why she and Charles Agripin had their falling out?”

Nate struggled with himself. It was clear that this revealing of his hidden past didn’t sit easily with him— perhaps because he’d spent so many years wherein hiding it was of the paramount importance. “Well, she’s dead, see, and so is he, so it’s kind of hard to know for sure.” He hesitated, and then, because Ophelia was present, he explained, “I was just a little kid, but I remember that one evening, she came home in the worst temper I’d ever seen. She got him on the phone. She was shouting at him that he’d done something, and that she was going to tell someone— at the time, I thought she meant his wife. Now, I think she maybe meant she was going to contact Mathuin. Either way, he came over, and they got into this huge row. The next day, she disappeared. By my best guess, this—” this, aimed at Regina, “was about two or three months before you were born.”

“Okay,” Regina said coldly. “So you’re not mourning our awful father. But why did you kill our brother?”

“Grow the fuck up, Regina,” Nate snapped. “If he got that throne, he would’ve found out all of Charles Agripin’s secrets— Hemming would be obligated to tell him everything— and he would have had me killed. An illegitimate half brother is bad enough, when you’ve decided you’re following the European monarchical method of primogeniture and you’ve got your enemies circling you like wolves. A half brother who has every reason to hate your family is much worse.”

Jem leaned forward, as best he could with his stitches. “I am sick of fighting about this. Let it fucking go, both of you.”

Regina looked ready to argue, but they were interrupted by Mathuin, who came into the room, followed by Hemming.

“You lot,” he said, displeased with the group of them meeting; whether that was because he thought they were fighting or making amends wasn’t clear. “I need to speak to Regina. All of you, out.”

Nate was gone in a moment, with only a last glance back at Ophelia. Jubilee was slower to leave, with Duarte’s help, while Ophelia gingerly disentangled herself from Jem and got to her feet.

“You can stay,” Mathuin said to Jem, who settled back down. Elise, also, positioned herself behind the wheelchair, her wrists crossed, with the assumption that when Mathuin told everyone to get out, she wasn’t included in this ‘everyone’ any more than Hemming was. She was apparently right, as Mathuin spoke as soon as Oaf was gone.

“You two,” he said, looking between Jem and Regina, “And Ophelia, have the dubious distinction of being the only people who have tried to kill me, however indirectly—” this last, aimed at Jem. “— and lived to tell of it. Regina.”

Regina met his gaze easily and shamelessly. Jem watched her, thinking that if it was him under Mathuin’s scrutiny, he would be cringing.

“You’ve probably deduced that you can do just about anything without me ever raising a hand against you, for Fiona’s sake,” Mathuin said coldly. “And you’re right. That said, I assume you’ve heard of Eleanor of Aquitaine.”

“Yes,” Regina said, very quietly.

“You still have your freedom, for now,” Mathuin said, and Jem felt something deep inside himself twitch. “I am sorry about your brother. I wish he’d picked a different path than trying to revenge your bastard of a father. But if you ever try anything like this ever again, you’ll never see the outside world again for as long as I draw breath. Do you understand me?”

Regina nodded.

Jem looked down at his hands, and the bandages that covered his missing fingernails. He reminded himself than he had gotten what he wanted, all that he’d wanted when he was sixteen: his family, safe from the Knights in Bergdis Valley. When he looked up, it was to see Elise staring hard at him.

Regina would have her spine and her ability to walk restored to her; she would have anonymity, when it came to her part in the Coronation Conspiracy; when the time came, if Mathuin resigned, she would have the kingdom. Until that time, she would have her freedom.

It wasn’t fair, but Jem told himself he was used that by now.

•••

Come Christmas morning, Jem woke Mathuin early.

“I didn’t get you a gift,” he confessed.

Mathuin rubbed his eyes. “After seeing that egg again for the first time in more than fifty years, I think I prefer that,” he mumbled.

Jem felt, if possible, even stiffer than he had yesterday, but he went to wake his sister anyway, and then went downstairs to make coffee and tea, while she got out the eggnog and put caramel rolls in to bake. Mathuin started a fire in the den.

Claudine was the first to arrive, still before dawn, and shaking the snow out of her hair and off her coat. “More snow!” she told them crossly when Mathuin came to meet her. “You’d think after the Hunt, we’d had enough. Hello, Jakob.” She went up on her toes to kiss his cheek. “It’s been a long time since we had Christmas together.”

“Since you were at your mother’s court?” Oaf asked.

Claudine didn’t show the slightest surprise that she knew about that. “Since Fee was a teen,” she said. She had a bag of Christmas presents, and she went to put them under the tree that Jem and Jubilee had decorated.

Jem could have hoped for a bit more peace, but dawn had barely broken through the snowy morning when his aunts arrived. The onslaught started with Aunt Valeria and Aunt Perdita, accompanied by Jem’s cousins, Cordelia, Dean, Navarre, Edward, and eventually Celia and her family, with explanations that various husbands and older children and other cousins were coming later but had chosen to sleep in, the spoilsports.

They brought with them armfuls of presents to be carried in from the car, each one lavishly wrapped in glinting or sparkling or velvety paper, complete with extravagant bows and beaded ribbons and beautiful cards. Witches, as Jem knew well, loved giving expensive gifts. It had something to do with being able to manufacture counterfeit money with a simple spell.

Jem was hugged by all, with varying consideration for his injuries and ailments, inspected by his aunts and found to be lacking in health and wellness (no surprise there), and regarded by his younger cousins with a certain terrified awe. Just as Jem’s older cousin Tamora showed up, with her family in tow, and when Ophelia got into an argument with Aunt Perdita about traditional Christmas breakfast, Mathuin drew him away and out onto the deck, into the cold.

He pulled him into an embrace, folding him into his sweater before Jem could complain. Leaning down to his ear, he said, very quietly, “So you got what you wanted.”

Jem nodded and stepped up onto Mathuin’s feet to be closer. “Yes,” he agreed. “I am grateful, I wanted you to know that. They’re all… a bit much… but I’m happy they’re here.”

Mathuin said nothing. Jem leaned against him and closed his eyes.

He could live with this, he told himself.

He could.

 

End.