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In This Fragile Cage of Bone

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The moonbeams had lost their battle with the artificial light streaming across the lawn from the arched windows. James slowed from a jog to a walk, breathing deeply and slow. The air was cooler in the open. He pulled his jumper up around his shoulders and glanced at the sky; the moon was drawing a cloak of clouds about her. Leaves rustled. In the shadows a bird whistled a brief complaint.

A hinge squealed and a voice escaped through opening glass doors. “Two minutes,” it cautioned. James paused at the edge of the woods. He could see a silhouette on the terrace. An orange dot glowed bright and a forbidden fragrance curled towards him. When the figure went back inside, James changed course.

***

Dimmed wall sconces threw strange shapes along the walls of the wide corridor that split the mansion. Grunts and the clatter of wood echoed from a half-open door. James’s footsteps were silent on the marble floor.

He stood watching two actors fence from the doorway. They exchanged blows at close quarters before the taller man shoved his opponent away and followed to press his advantage. Their movement revealed another player, half-costumed, lounging against an ornate column, his sword slim and gilt at his hip. Which prince are you? James asked and stepped closer.

The door swung open. An older woman, grey hair a mass of curls, looked away from the fencers and smiled. She crooked two fingers at him. “James,” she whispered when he reached her, eyes shifting back to the actors. “I saw your name on the list.” The young men mounted the steps where the musicians would play in the ballroom, swords clacking loudly.

“Simone,” he said, leaning sideways to kiss her cheek. “They’re well-matched,” he murmured, his hand closing by his side.

Simone glanced down. “Want to join? We’ve got an odd number and a spare rapier.”

James noted another pair of players watching from the doors to the terrace, one leaning on her wooden sword, the other wiping his sleeve across his face. “You wouldn’t rather?” he asked. Simone had been known to best him in years past.

“I was going to, but I can observe better if I don’t,” she replied. The taller man knocked his opponent’s sword from his hand. It skittered along the parquet. “Q,” she called, raising her voice, “I have a challenge for you.”

All five pairs of eyes looked at James. Q shifted his weight off the pillar and walked towards Simone. James noted the easy grace of the motion. Simone nudged his hand with the hilt of a sword.

“James,” she began, “I’d like to introduce Q, my partner in crime for this project.” Q extended a pale hand without quite smiling. “Q, this is James, another alum, although not such an old one as me.”

“Simone, are you pulling rank on me?” James asked, taking the cool hand in his and holding the cooler gaze.

“You were my protégé, last time round,” she replied, smiling.

Q and James released one another’s hands and turned towards her. James bowed his head in acquiescence.

“Just so we’re clear,” Simone said, the corners of her eyes crinkling.

James was smiling when his eyes returned to the young man still facing him. “Q?” James repeated.

“Short for Quintessential,” Q replied, his gaze level, the corners of his lips lifting. It was obviously a familiar conversation.

James met the grey-green eyes and raised an eyebrow. He recognised a test. He waited.

“My parents were hippies,” Q added, pausing for some predictable response.

James took in the beguiling contrast between the dark hair, the fair skin and the red lips before he returned to the confident look in the clear eyes. “Maybe they were on to something,” he replied. He was pleased at the carefully modulated look of surprise on Q’s face. Surprise was a useful tactic.

“Philosophy professors,” Simone said, almost laughing. She knew Bond well enough to guess at his reaction to Q. “Old friends from university days. Knew Q when he was but a twinkle in his mother’s eye,” she added and they all did laugh. Bond noticed a glint of something other than humour in Q’s eyes before he turned them on Simone and took a step back.

“So,” she continued, waving a hand towards the two men approaching them. “James, this is Claude,” Simone indicated a man nearly two metres tall, with russet curls and an abundance of freckles. Claude nodded and took James’s hand in his huge one. “And Auguste,” Simone continued, smiling at the other fencer, whose expression was still a bit rueful. They were shaking hands, when the last pair joined them. “And this is Justine and Sheng.” As James shook hands with them in rapid succession, Simone concluded, “Everyone, this is James, who’s agreed to be our sixth sword.”

***

“Who are we?” James asked as he hefted the blade Simone had given him.

“A number of characters,” she replied. “We’re going to combine fight scenes, among other things, from several plays. If it helps, be Mercutio to Q’s Tybalt.”

James thought about it. “Lines?” he asked.

“Right now we’re concentrating on the physical interaction, the body language, the choreography. Don’t worry about plot, just explore all the possibilities for a duel in this space,” Simone replied.

James nodded and followed Q to the centre of the ballroom. He stopped when Q turned.

***

James was sweating in earnest now. He and Q had been all over the large room, on the steps, around a couple pillars, out one set of French doors onto the terrace and back in a second set. The other actors had backed against the walls, watching intently.

Q was quick. As light on his feet as James had expected from seeing him walk across the room to meet him, but he was stronger than his slim build would have suggested. Still, with their swords crossed, it was a contest of strength that the two stone James must have on Q was tilting in his favour. He pressed closer, each resisted millimetre bringing more sweat, which brought the danger of the hilt slipping in his grip. James clenched his fingers more tightly.

The muscles stood out in Q’s neck, the tendons in his wrist. James could feel Q’s breath on his face, the heat of his body, the aroma of him. James faltered and Q pushed him back to arm’s length, leapt to the side. They circled and parried. It couldn’t last. James was on him again, chest to chest, Q against the column on which James had first seen him leaning, their sword arms crossed beside Q’s face. James felt Q’s hipbone tilt, positioning himself to throw James off. James shifted more of his weight against Q, pinned the treacherous hip to the pillar and willed his attention to remain on disarming Q.

If they had been so equipped, it would have been the time to deploy daggers. James had written enough of these scenes to know, a fact of which he hoped none of the other fellows at Seven Springs were aware. Of course, Simone had known from the beginning, when the first screenplay was a lark done because Alec dared him, because Alec had needed his help to make a deadline and James hadn’t made him spell it out. He and Simone had been here then, too; he, a newly-minted Ph.D with a grant, Simone, one of the artists-in-residence, already an independent filmmaker of repute. She had encouraged him, warm smile and wine bottle to hand when Alec shoved a diskette at them and stretched out on the floor to sleep. It had been a decade and four successful screenplays with Alec since that weekend.

Would you sneer at me if you knew? Would a fading poetry professor with hardly a poem to his name be any more acceptable… James flicked a glance away from their straining arms to Q’s face. Dark tresses clung to his brow. James’s eyes dropped to his neck. Q’s shirt was tugged open, skin moist, muscles taut. ...to a creature bred to the ivory tower as you are? James twisted his forearm and ground their wrist bones together. Q drew in a sharp breath at the pain and James thought he had won, until Q rolled his hips forward. James's breath caught, his grip loosening. Q moved again and James stumbled, almost fumbling his sword. He stared and Q stared back.

“I think we’ll have to call this one a draw,” Simone declared from somewhere strangely far away. “Shall we also call it a night?” There were murmurs of agreement behind them. “In the dell at ten, if the rain holds off in the morning. Otherwise, back here.”

James cast about for some witty remark, but his brain was full of smoke and orange shadows. Q leaned forward. “And I always thought Mercutio fancied Romeo,” he murmured. A sharp heat spread through James as Q turned and slipped away.

***

James showered. He paced. He drank scotch and paced more. He grabbed paper from the antique desk in his room. Words were scrawled and crossed out, re-written and crossed out again. The pen gouged through the top sheet of the pad and the next page and the next. James threw down the pen. It rolled to the floor. He left it.

He clicked off the lights, opened a window and leaned over the sill. Fog crept through the treetops, light rain wet his hair, pattered on the shrubbery below. The smell of lilacs rose up from them. James folded himself back into the window seat, stared up at the drifting clouds backlit by the moon. “Go ahead, mock me,” he muttered, pressing his fingertips against his eyes and imagining steam rising from his skin where the night air touched it.

Another casement opened close by. For the second time that evening, the scent of tobacco taunted him. James edged as near to the window as he could without leaning out again. An orange light hovered beyond the stone wall of the house on the floor above him to the right. The main house was vast. Fellows lodged in its upper floors between specialised libraries, offices and practice rooms and in the smaller buildings scattered through the gardens and park of the estate. It was ludicrous to think the person smoking above him was who he wished it to be and yet the urge to whisper the question into the dark was strong. He lifted his hand to the latch. Tiny sparks fell past the window.

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I,” a voice sang, light and sweet.

James held his breath; he recognised it. As few words as he had heard, he was certain. He felt the warmth of them in his ear.

“In the cowslip’s bell I lie:
“There I couch me where owls do cry.
“On a bat’s back, I do fly,
“After summer merrily:
“Merrily, merrily shall I live now,
“Under the blossom that hangs on the bough."

O spirit, what game do you play? James’s hand tightened on the latch, but his arm would not move. The song was too brief. An owl hooted. As if in reply, the singer began again. “Where the bee sucks…” James let out a sigh. His hand fell away from the latch; he clenched it in his lap. Entice the pitiful mortal and fly away laughing?

The verse ended. James didn't breathe until it began once more.