Daisy had been aghast when Jasper had told her just who she’d opened the door to, and hadn’t been nearly as offended as Jasper had expected—or, possibly, how much he’d hoped she might be. “Well. Good for him for coming to see you without a lot of fuss and nonsense about it,” she said while they were putting away dishes after supper that night.
“He wasn’t exactly here to see me,” Jasper said.
“Oh yes? Certainly seemed to me that yours was the name he asked for, not Earl Onfroi. I have a very clear memory of it, having been the one to answer the door to him, because you very much did not answer the door.”
“Did he?” Jasper tried to sound offhand. He was still angry, after all. Wasn’t he? “Yeah, well, he shouldn’t’ve come when I was working.”
“You’re being daft,” she said, turning to stare at him and putting her hand on the stack of plates he was about to pick up. “You just said he wasn’t here to see you, but you’re angry he didn’t consult your schedule? Which is it? He made arrangements with Onfroi for when it was convenient for the two of them. You want him to respect your time as housemaster, but not respect your employer’s time? Should he come in the evening, when Onfroi has herself and the children? Yes, you’re more likely to be free, but if he wants to see both of you, wouldn’t that fit better in daylight? And if Onfroi wanted you to be there, then you actually were working. You daft muddle-head. You’re making up reasons to be offended.”
The next day and a half had been spent trying to go over what he and Micah had said, but his mind always wandered off to the indigo velvet glowing in the sunlight and Micah’s pale face and blue eyes revealed around the brim of that hat; the deep green brocade of the waistcoat he’d worn to the gala and the fiery auburn it brought out in his hair, and the red cloak for the dustworks, when he had looked so incredibly relaxed while doing spectacular magic, and then how striking it had been in the wind storm. And that led to thinking about his lean, muscular legs and long fingers, and that hand clutching at his chest. And the slightly rumpled man in the lab, staring at him in shock and insisting he took Jasper’s safety very seriously. And then the lending of finery, two sets now: trousers, shirt, and boots from the night he’d coloured Jasper, and a waistcoat and shirt for the gala. Jasper couldn’t really pretend the man had been inconsiderate.
So here he was, facing the laboratory door with a parcel of borrowed clothes under his arm. Micah could open the door at any second, and see him dithering like an idiot…not at all ashamed, not at all terrified, not embarrassed in the slightest. Except for being ashamed, terrified, and embarrassed. And ashamed of being terrified and embarrassed. And embarrassed about being terrified and ashamed.
And procrastinating, as well.
Which was what made it exactly as unfair as possible when Micah did open the door. Jasper bit back some choice words he tried not to use outside of a pub fight, and closed his eyes, trying to catch his breath.
“No, please, whatever it is, please, come in. I need to apologise, and I can’t bear to wait.”
Jasper opened his eyes, his mouth already hanging open, about to say very nearly the same thing, and now he was very confused that the words hadn’t come out of his own mouth. “You’ve got no reason to,” he finally said, shaking his head, his eyes wide as he let Micah take his arm and gently draw him into the lab.
“I was rude, you were right. I made arrangements with Onfroi but not you, and I thought I shouldn’t draw attention to you, I thought maybe others in the household would be envious and difficult if… I just didn’t think—”
“Please, stop. I was so rude, everything was bad that day, I took it out on you—and oh, here, before I forget again.” He thrust the parcel at Micah. “It’s the clothes you lent me. I meant to try to return them before the gala, but then you lent me more—”
“Please, no, keep them,” Micah said, pulling his hands away and shaking his head. “Yours still aren’t completely fixed, and honestly, these were resized for you and you may as well, changing them again isn’t going to—I mean, I did destroy your jacket, as well—”
“But no, I mean, really—”
“And anyway I got you the ones for the gala as a gift, they were never meant to…well, you did say yours had been packed, and…”
Jasper had taken a breath to interrupt again, then let it out in a little gasp, looking down at his toes. Micah seemed to be winding down and Jasper didn’t look up. He couldn’t, not yet. “Really, I’m sorry,” he said quietly when there was finally silence.
The lightest touch brushed his sleeve, and then Micah’s hand fell away again. “I’m sorry. You’ve… I’m very sorry.”
Jasper glanced up, but still wasn’t quite ready. “Look, can we…can we skip this part?”
Micah snorted, making him look up again to see him nodding. “Well,” Micah added suddenly. “Except for the salary negotiation. That is immutable.”
Jasper laughed, flinging the parcel at a chair and hiding his face behind his arm. “Oh, just stop it.”
Micah laughed, and this time his touch on Jasper’s arm was firmer and lingered a bit. “Come. Come sit down. I promise I won’t apologise anymore.”
“Oh good!” Jasper said brightly, lowering his arm and following Micah to the chairs near the fire. “Is this when the beatings begin?”
Micah picked up the parcel from where it had landed on one of the chairs and threw it at Jasper’s head. “Yes. Absolutely.”
Jasper ducked aside, catching it before it hit his face and setting it on the floor by the chair’s leg before taking a seat. “Good to know. So. What were you working on?”
That threw Micah off balance. “Working… when?”
“When I—hang on, were you just going somewhere? I mean, you were at the door, or did I set off some kind of alarm?”
Micah wrinkled his nose and recoiled slightly, shaking his head. “What? No. Remember, you’re the one who doesn’t set off alarms…?”
“Oh. Then why were you at the door?”
“I knew you were here.”
“You just said I didn’t set off any—”
Micah waved a hand, shaking his head. “No. No, Briggs told me.”
“He…” Jasper had been thinking there was no way Briggs had managed to get to the lab before him and away again without being seen, then remembered he was in the world’s most magical castle, and then he remembered the trick he’d seen the night of the gala: people throwing their voices by whispering into their fists. “Oh.”
“It is sort of his job.”
“Yeah, I guess. Sorry. Anyway, you were saying, about what you’re working on…?” Jasper set his elbow on the arm of the chair and his chin in his palm, settling in to listen.
“Oh, well…at the risk of starting the apologies over again… I really was… I’m just…” He was staring at his fingers by this point, and frowned. “I don’t want to upset you again.”
Jasper waited for something more, and Micah glanced up carefully, frowned, and went back to studying his fingers. It took a moment, but Jasper realised he hadn’t really trailed off, and his tone was a little wrong. “Wait, you mean that? I mean, that…that’s a thing you could be…working on?” The only subject he could imagine that matched Micah’s level of concern, and which he might be unwilling to bring up for fear of angering Jasper, was Penelope’s treatment of him the other day.
Micah gave a helpless little shrug. “I know, it’s presumptuous. I have… no good… I was upset myself, you see. I understand your reasons, but… I don’t like that your…that the Earl, well not the Earl, but… Penelope—”
“But how can you be working on…that? On her?”
“Oh, I can’t, not really,” Micah sighed, shifting back, finally settling into his chair and not perching on the edge like he was ready to launch to his feet and run away. “I was just…I don’t know how clear I’ve been, but while I do very much want to work with you, to understand you, I do need…I absolutely need to be sure that you are safe. I cannot let you be harmed. And I take that very seriously. I came very close to ruining it completely the other day, and I can’t let that happen again.”
“What, the storm at the gala?” Jasper shook his head. “That wasn’t a thing you let happen, Micah, that was someone else—”
“No, at the Earl’s!” Micah interrupted quickly, his voice little short of a wail, and he sagged as though that had finally broken through his wall of misery, draining the agitation. He set his elbow on the arm of his chair and rested his forehead on his thumb and forefinger, shading his face from Jasper’s burning focus, and sighed. “I can’t protect you from her, not as such, I can’t barge in and flay her for speaking to anyone the way she… but I thought maybe, if I had known something of how your day had been going, any hint that you were… So maybe I could have known not to accept the invitation, or put it off a day, or brought some kind of… I don’t know.”
Jasper blinked silently at him for a moment, trying to figure out what he meant, then gave up and shook his head in disbelief. “But… no… no. Micah, you can’t magic me. You can’t magic someone through me. And not even you could somehow magic her personality into something happy and peaceful.”
“No, not her. And of course, mind magic has been completely disproven. No. I meant some kind of… scrying, really. Of course, I can’t invade your privacy or that of your household,” he added, hurriedly and a little irritably, waving it aside even as Jasper’s mouth was opening to object. “But some kind of… emotional scrying, perhaps, which, again, is essentially mind magic, and therefore not really possible for other reasons.”
“And anyway, really, you really are going to have to figure out I am null,” Jasper said carefully. “I mean I know the whole point of me coming here is to prove that or establish that—or, yes, disprove it—but…well, from experience, Mum and Da could tell you they had to rely on a bell around my neck out in the bigger fields if they wanted to find me.”
“Oh… oh! Now that is an idea!”
“You’re not putting a bell on me.”
“No! It does…not…work on me!” Jasper was thumping the arms of his chair for emphasis at that point.
“No, but you see? It doesn’t have to—it works near you. So if you were holding a mirror, say, and I were scrying to see what the mirror saw, I would see you.”
“Or you’d see a blank mirror.”
“Not true, as I could see your face in many reflections on surfaces at the gala.”
“But you weren’t using magic to see it!”
Micah sighed, rubbing his face with both hands, then launched to his feet, beckoning Jasper to follow, which he was already doing. “No, come. I’ll show you.”
Jasper trailed after him toward his work area. Before they were halfway there, he was startled by movement where he’d expected none. Two mirrors lifted down from a shelf as though invisible servants were carrying them, and stood waiting on the table to meet them. Micah took them both, handing one to Jasper. “Here. Hold this up in front of your face.”
Jasper did, then gave Micah a stupid look, really hoping they weren’t going to start arguing about if mirrors were magic.
Micah turned his back to Jasper and raised his own mirror in front of him, angling it so he could, via the mirrors, make eye contact with Jasper; essentially, he was seeing Jasper’s reflection in his, Micah’s, own mirror. “You see?”
“Literally? Yes. Your point? Haven’t a clue.”
Micah laughed a little unwillingly, turning back to face him. “It doesn’t matter how I see your reflection. I can look directly at your mirror, or I can look at your mirror through something else.”
Jasper frowned and opened his mouth to argue, then paused. “I think I’m starting to get it…”
“It will still involve scrying, of course, which is messy and takes quite a while to set up…maybe it’s not worth trying.”
“But you can scry, right?” Jasper asked, pinching his fingers in the air as though trying to stop Micah’s train of thought. “I mean, you do better than the Earl?”
Micah’s face twisted as he weighed possible answers. “Scrying is still…in a way, it’s similar to portals. You’re trying, in essence, to bring a place to where it isn’t. With portals, it’s a physical tying of one place to another, often using a hole that’s already there. With scrying, it’s more like tricking a place into being somewhere it isn’t. You’re trying to just bring a part of it, and sometimes you get the wrong part.”
Jasper was listening, rapt, nodding along more in encouragement than understanding. “But it’s not like a portal? So how can you…bring…anything through?”
“Well that’s the point,” Micah said, blinking. “You can’t. Not physically.”
“Nope, this isn’t going to make sense to me, is it?”
“Look at it this way: Mirrors are essentially glass. Windows are, as well. You can see things through the window, but you can’t touch them. Mirrors are usually one-way, where you only see what you put in. Scrying is trying to look through a window that isn’t exactly a window. Windows allow vision from both directions. Scrying sort of…brings an image closer to you, from the other side of the mirror.”
Micah sighed and smiled, waving his fingers with a graceful flick of his wrist. “In any case. You need something on this side of the mirror that will connect to something on the other side, the side you want to see. Something that is intrinsically linked.”
“Like a finger?”
“Good gracious, no!” Micah shuddered. “I suggest something not actually alive.”
“So a scrap from someone’s shirt?”
“Nnnnno. It needs to be something with a deep link, a solid tie, a piece of the whole. Rocks are actually some of the most useful.”
“Well, okay if you want to look at rocks, but—”
“Again, no, but…let’s try something.” Micah was already digging through his shelves, finding several jars and one crude box made of scraps of wood and bits of thick paper. He gathered the box and the jars up and set them on the table, pushing the mirrors aside. “Right. Somewhere in here I should have—” he trailed off absently, opening the jars and rooting around inside. The bits of stone clanked and chinked against the glass as he turned and shook it.
Jasper dragged the box closer with his finger. It was full of a bewildering variety of rocks and stones and mineral samples, all about the size of his thumb. A few of them seemed to be unnaturally bright colours, but most of them were just ordinary rocks, as far as he could tell. “What are we looking for?”
“I am looking for two rocks that both came from the same place,” Micah said, his words slow as he poked around in the jar with one long finger, then set it aside and picked up another. “Somewhere in here.”
Jasper stirred the contents of the box, and found a bigger lump had been buried. He pulled it out. “Wait, what is this?” He held it up, turning it to let the light from the glowspheres slide across the multi-colored surface. “It kind of looks like tanium, but…it’s staying coloured, see?”
Micah peered at it, then plucked it from Jasper’s fingers. “Ahhh. It is tanium, but it hasn’t been treated yet. The raw state does display all the colours of which it is capable, but without changing. And… here.” He held up a smaller lump of the same kind of stone. “Exactly what I was looking for.”
“Tanium comes from all over, though. How do you know these two lumps came from the same place?”
“Because I picked them up myself,” Micah said, blinking at him.
“Oh! Sorry! Sorry.” Jasper had been trying to imagine Micah out rock-hunting, and failing. “I don’t know why that… I dunno, I mean, someone at the market said you don’t leave the castle much, and I guess… Sorry.”
Micah snorted, setting the rocks down and opening bottles and jars still on the shelves, deftly gathering small amounts of powders using spoons with long handles and bowls smaller than the tip of Jasper’s little finger. He dumped the powders onto the table’s stone surface, pausing now and again to stir things with his finger. “I don’t go to the market often, that much is true. And anyway, as we are currently not technically in the castle, I would say your source may not have been an expert. A lot of my training actually took place rotating through a handful of masters in all sorts of far-flung places. For a few solid years, I…wasn’t here at all.”
Jasper studied him as he spoke. The subject wasn’t one he welcomed, it seemed, and he was a bit embarrassed about it but didn’t back away. Micah clearly disliked being misunderstood, going from the way he was avoiding Jasper’s eyes, but he was resolutely not taking offense. Again, Jasper wondered about the gawky young man who’d approached him at the market, the elegant man dancing at the gala, the powerful magician fighting the storm on the balcony, and the responsible academic assuring his safety and requesting his help. He suspected that very few people had seen so many sides of the Vedouci’s heir.
“Sounds like fun.” Jasper shifted closer to watch what Micah was doing. “Should I even ask what you’re putting together here?” He waved a finger at the small pile Micah was sweeping into a mound with his little finger.
Micah glanced up, and tried to hide a smile. “Why, do you think you’d understand?”
“You’re a bastard sometimes—you do know that, right?”
“I don’t think anyone’s ever actually told me before, to be honest.”
Jasper was startled into hesitating for a moment, fooled by Micah’s seemingly absent-minded admission. But Micah had heard the pause and was smiling again, though not meeting Jasper’s eyes. “Now you know,” Jasper said quietly, grinning. “But really, tell me what this is. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this before, using powders and plant things on a stone.”
“I’m going to try to, in effect, teach the stone. I’m not sure how long it will remember any—”
Jasper burst out laughing, and stopped when Micah simply lifted his eyes and one eyebrow, his lips parted, his hands still.
“But you can’t teach a stone! It has no mind!”
Micah raised his other eyebrow.
“No, really… are you serious?”
Micah sighed and raised his head, resting his hands lightly on the table to either side of the pile and the stones. “It’s a metaphor, of course. Remember what I said about mind magic? Disproven. It’s more like…training an animal, maybe. Or how you learn a movement so well that you can do it without thinking. Your body takes over with no conscious thought from you. Something is thrown at your head, you dodge, or catch it.” Micah pointed at the chairs where they’d been sitting, and Jasper looked back, seeing the parcel of clothes he’d left there, hoping Micah would forget it was there and Jasper could leave without it being pressed back into his hands.
He turned back to Micah, trying not to look as guilty as he felt. “But you can’t teach a stone,” he repeated.
“As I said, a metaphor. Now please, a moment…” Micah moved his hands to either side of the pile, a few inches above the table’s surface, and concentrated.
Without seeing anything under his hands changing, Jasper could still tell when Micah began casting. His whole body changed. The set of his shoulders, the look in his eyes, the curve of his back were all different, and this, finally, was the real, whole Micah.
He began moving his hands in small circles, slightly out of synch with each other. Then the gestures became larger, but equally fluid—the way he’d moved when dancing, Jasper realised. One hand lifted above his head while the other slid across in front of his chest, then his fingers spread and stroked the air above the table as though there were an invisible animal he was petting. He ran his hands from side to side, first his right while his left stayed in place, then the left slid out while the right stayed still, repeating this several times, and finally cupping his long fingers around the stone and pushing down, slowly flattening until both palms were pressed against the table over the stones. He stayed like that for a long moment, then took a deep breath, releasing whatever had been happening and glancing up at Jasper, who shut his mouth with a snap. Micah lifted his hands away and shook them out, and Jasper looked down at the table.
“Hey! Where’d all that…stuff go?”
“Used up,” Micah told him. “Folded into the stone.”
Micah shrugged. “No, not really.” He picked up the larger stone and curled his fist around it, hiding it completely except for one point on the end. As they watched, it slowly became solidly purple, then the colour brightened to magenta. “All right, that part works. Now, we’ve established that you do have a reflection in a mirror.”
Jasper laughed, then tipped his head and went silent. “Don’t tell me mirrors were supposed to be magic.” He thought he’d successfully avoided the question.
“Don’t be silly. Of course not. But they are used quite often.”
“I give up. I just…give up. There’s just so much I don’t know.”
Micah leaned forward across the table and reached out to just barely brush Jasper’s arm. “No. Don’t,” he said softly. “Your life has led you to believe you are null, so of course you don’t know first hand. But you aren’t respecting the things you do know, which is far more than I ever would have expected from a null, if I had ever believed they’d existed. And anyway, I don’t mean to sound conceited, but I am the Vedouci’s heir. I’m perfectly capable of confusing nearly anyone, when it comes to magic. Even Casper.”
“Um…thanks. I mean, it’s good to know I’m not just…yeah.” Jasper stopped himself with an effort, overcome once more with the sheer ridiculousness of where he was, and with whom.
Micah seemed to be about to say something else but changed his mind mid-breath, dropping his attention back to the stone in his hand. “So. Next I need to bind this stone to a mirror, or maybe imbue it with the mirror. Hm.”
“What’s the difference?”
“I may need to do both,” Micah decided, then glanced up as though just hearing Jasper’s question. “Oh, I want it to reflect you, but I need to tie it to another mirror, which would be the one I would then use for scrying to find your stone.”
“Then what’s the other stone for?”
“It is what I would use for the scrying. The natural bond between the two stones will strengthen the link with you. If I can balance this correctly, I would then be able to use the second stone as the conduit to direct what the mirror shows me.”
“Which would be… wait. How can that stone reflect me when it can’t feel me in the first place?”
“It can’t feel you, but I’m going to see if it can feel your reflection.”
“Which is even…less than me,” Jasper said slowly.
“Or, according to some sources, more.” Jasper’s lips parted and Micah raised a hand. “No, I don’t think I’m going to be able to explain it unless it works. Let’s finish tying things together, and see what we end up with.”
Jasper nodded mutely, hoping he hadn’t turned red. He kept reminding himself that Micah had asked him here because he was magically interesting, but he couldn’t help feeling the same embarrassment he’d always felt in school when it came to magic lessons: apologetic for wasting so much of the teacher’s time when they were convinced they just hadn’t explained it well enough, afraid that it didn’t work because there was something seriously wrong with him that no one could figure out because diagnosing things required magic, tired and angry because too often the other children would try to tease him, and he’d have to stand up to them again without hurting anyone even if they absolutely deserved it and he really wanted to.
Now he just pushed himself back a little from the table as Micah brought the mirror with no frame on it to the edge of the table, then brought his hand down on it suddenly, cleanly snapping a piece off the corner. Jasper started back, expecting shards of glass to break off, but Micah only glanced up with a small smile, as though what he’d done was as simple as breaking a biscuit in two. He bent to pick up the piece that had landed on the floor and set it in the centre of his workspace, leaning against the stone he’d been working with. “Now…” he said softly, taking a step back. He raised his hands in front of him. Again, Jasper could tell the moment he started. Micah’s mouth set in a hard line and he frowned, holding his breath for a moment before letting it out in a long, steady exhalation. His hands shook a little, and he shifted them, making minute corrections to counter the movements of something happening invisibly in front of him. His breathing came in little sips and gasps, and he changed his stance, gradually moving closer. The closer his hands came to the stone, the harder he seemed to be pushing. When his hands were within inches of the table’s surface, his teeth were bared, his neck muscles tense, his back and shoulders arching as he put his whole bodyweight behind the effort. Finally, his hands landed on the table, cupped around the stone like claws, and a last growl snapped them down flat. He stood for a moment, then let his breath out in a gasp and stepped back, shaking out his arms again, then swiping the curl of hair that had fallen onto his forehead back into place. He looked up at Jasper, still panting, but with a tired smile.
“Wow,” Jasper said faintly, and shook himself. “Was that a normal kind of spell for you? D’you do that a lot?”
Micah tipped his head, leaning his shoulder against a shelf and massaging his arms. “I don’t do that particular one daily, no, but that wasn’t anything very intricate.”
“It didn’t look intricate. It looked…hard.” He wasn’t sure how much he could say, or even think, about what he’d just seen, and what was hidden under Micah’s very full shirt sleeves.
“I suppose there aren’t many daily spells in most people’s lives that require that amount of effort, but it’s fairly usual for me. But it is nowhere near the most difficult I did today, and today was nothing special.”
“I’ve never seen magic that looked so… physical.” Oh feck, what was he saying? Did that sound like he was flirting? Was it good or bad flirting? No! No flirting! “Well, physically difficult, like it took arm muscles rather than brain muscles, not that that makes a lot of sense, but it looked like strength was kind of…necessary? I don’t see a lot of magic done outside of casual around-the-house stuff or the Earl’s experiments, and he certainly doesn’t do anything that needs muscle…” Babbling! He forced himself to stop, whether that was a good ending point or not, whether he’d explained anything or not. It was the only way, really. Just…stop.
Micah, though, didn’t seem annoyed. His cheeks had even gone a lovely pink. He raised his eyebrows and smiled then looked down, and bit his lips. “Well, what I was doing was fairly physical,” he said, nodding at the table.
Jasper realised he’d never looked at what Micah was doing so much as he’d watched him do it. Now it took him a moment to realise what had happened. “Where’d the piece of mirror go?”
“It’s absorbed into the rock. I pushed it inside and locked it there.”
Micah laughed. “It’s very similar to the last spell, really. Now the rock has some of the properties of a mirror, as well. So…” He picked the stone up and studied it, watching it slowly come to life with a faint tint of dark red or purple. Then he looked up and tossed it to Jasper.
Jasper caught it instinctively. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but it felt warm, as though Micah had been holding it for a while. He thought it might be slightly heavier than he expected, but it wasn’t anything striking. He set it on his palm and watched it for a moment, and the colour it had developed in Micah’s hand faded slowly away. “Well, so much for that idea,” he said sadly and looked up at Micah.
Micah, however, raised his hand, a curious look on his face. “No, wait a moment. The other day when I handed you the tanium pebbles, they turned back to grey immediately when they touched your hand.”
Jasper nodded slowly, staring back at him. “So… I don’t feel any different…”
“I haven’t changed you,” Micah said thoughtfully. “This is different tanium, less pure, and I’ve changed it substantially. I do think there may be something in the reflection concept that is working.”
Looking at the stone in his palm, Jasper wasn’t convinced. “It’s all grey now, anyway. What are you hoping it’ll do?”
“I’m hoping it will make you findable,” Micah admitted. “Ideally, I would have liked the tanium to give me a read on your mood as well.”
“But the mood stuff…I thought that was just a kids’ thing.”
Micah simply raised an eyebrow. He’d been doing it a lot today, and Jasper liked the look of it. It showed more confidence, and as far as Jasper was concerned, Micah should be the most confident man in the world.
Micah reached across to take the stone out of Jasper’s hand. He set it on the larger piece of mirror and put the other stone next to it. “My next step here is to tie the two stones to each other and the mirror. That should make it easier for me to use the second stone to find the first, which shouldn’t be affected at all by your null quality. I think we’ve thoroughly established that magic works perfectly well near you, or I wouldn’t have been able to turn your hair and clothes pink. Or lift the tray you stood on. Or mend your clothes during the gala.”
“Yeah, I can follow that,” Jasper said. “I’m just curious to see how well the scrying works.”
“Give me a moment, and we can find out.”
This time, the magic involved a lot of finger movements around the stones and above them, most of them tapping on the surface of the mirror as though playing some kind of instrument. At one point he switched to his right hand, swapping without pause and shaking his left out absently as the right continued tapping. He swapped hands again, then the movements changed. He bent closer as though listening to something, then tipped his head and closed his eyes. The finger work slowed, a few brief pauses working into the patterns, then the variety simplified until at the end he was just tapping in three places around the stones, over and over. He stopped, opening his eyes and taking a breath, stepping back and staring at the stones, peering at them from different angles and distances before finally brushing his finger against the one that had been the focus of all the previous work. Satisfied, he picked it up and pressed it between his palms, and finally looked up at Jasper.
“I think it’s ready.”
“Testing. Here.” Micah held it out to him and Jasper took it slowly, watching the magenta fade away, maybe even a little more slowly.
“Want me to take it somewhere?”
“First test—let’s make it easy. Just go as far as you can over there.” He flicked his hand toward the opposite end of the room, where the mattress that was his bed lived. Jasper nodded, wondering if this felt as odd to Micah as it did to him. As far as it was possible, he was going to stand in the man’s most personal space, the closest he seemed to come to having a bedroom.
He stopped with his feet inches from the mattress, trying not to notice the blankets pulled up and tucked under the edge of the pillow, a few wrinkles still in the pillow’s case. There was no way any housekeeping staff had made this bed, he realised. No professional staff would have left the pillow with the previous night’s creases undisturbed. He swallowed and turned his back, having just indecently invaded the man’s privacy, but Micah had his back to Jasper, moving further back against the far shelves. He was holding the second stone in one hand and the mirror in the other, like someone holding a cup of tea absently while reading a book.
Micah turned and looked up from the mirror, checking to see if Jasper was in place. He lowered one end of the stone toward the mirror’s surface, and then nothing seemed to happen for a moment. Then Micah looked up, grinning. “Good. I can feel it.”
Jasper looked down at his own stone. “Great. Am I supposed to feel anything?”
“No, why? Do you?”
“Ah. That’s actually correct. Scrying doesn’t affect the subject. Or it shouldn’t, but I never know what’s going to happen with you.” He shrugged. “Let’s try something else. Go into the main lab, and I’ll see if it works through stone.”
Jasper went to the next room, unable to stop looking at the stone, both hoping and fearing something about it might change. “Ready!” he called back.
Nothing happened for a minute, then Micah suddenly appeared in the doorway. “Yes, you’re exactly where I expected.”
Jasper stuck out his tongue. “Okay, how far can it go?”
“I’ll stay in here and shut the door. You, well, you can’t feel the barriers anyway, so just go right out to the corridor, this time.”
Jasper did as he was told, and Micah disappeared into the lab again, then came back a moment later almost giggling. “This time, go through the portal.”
“So in that big hall?” Jasper asked, hesitating in front of the empty door frame at the end of the corridor.
“Yes. Again, I’ll come find you.”
Jasper went through the portal, glancing around to be sure the hall was empty, and a sudden mischievous impulse struck. He sprinted down the middle of the hall, then crossed to hide behind one of the pillars. He put his back to the stone and waited.
A moment or two later, footsteps started. They paused after a few steps, then resumed, heading in his direction. When it was clear Micah knew exactly where he was, Jasper stepped into view, admitting defeat.
“Nice idea,” Micah admitted, his grin nearly splitting his face in half. “Let’s really push it. I’ll give you a few minutes to find somewhere else, wherever you can get to, and I’ll just keep after you.”
Jasper tipped his head, grinning now, himself. “Hide and hunt, eh?”
“If you want to put it that way, yes. But this is absolutely genuine magical research for a good cause, if anyone asks.”
Jasper hesitated. “Wait. That’s a good point. I don’t really know my way around here.”
“Which is what makes it a valid test,” Micah pointed out. “I’ll have to find you. If you’re starting to feel frightened, of course, approach any of the staff and tell them you’re lost.”
“You must be new,” Micah said drily, giving him a pitying look. “We have visitors from all over this world, and several others. This castle is intentionally difficult for people to find their way in. It’s a precaution. The staff are entirely used to lost guests.”
“That makes it sound perfectly safe. I’m sure you’re not setting me up for embarrassment at all.”
Micah held out the stone and mirror he held. “Would you care to switch roles, then?”
Jasper batted his hand aside. “Fine. Give me a count of…what?”
“Let’s say two minutes.”
“Oh, I can get pretty far in two minutes.”
“I’m counting on it.”
When Micah underlined his point by starting to count, Jasper growled and legged it. He remembered enough to find his way to the ballroom that had hosted the gala, counting in his head, ducking behind a tower of stacked chairs about fifteen seconds after Micah would have started looking. It only took another thirty seconds, at most, for Micah to appear around the side of the chairs, just looking up from his mirror. “This time, don’t stop,” he suggested. “Just keep going. I want to see how well it will track movement.”
“Pretty well,” Jasper predicted, already backing away. “Same count?”
“Same count. One, two, three…”
Jasper raced through the castle, dodging down corridors and cutting through rooms. More than a few of the rooms seemed to still be in use well after what Jasper would have expected to be the end of the day. He just backed away again and ran to the next. By the time Micah had started coming after him, Jasper had no idea where he was. A corridor stretched ahead of him, the walls narrowing as he went in farther. When it was finally too narrow to continue even sideways, he backed up until he found an empty office.
Micah strolled in only a few seconds behind him. Jasper burst out laughing. “What the ocray?” he demanded.
“You may not be able to work the tunable portals, but I assure you that I can.” Micah’s grin was just a little smug. “You’re never that far from a portal, in Farek en Innen Ciel.”
“Wait, what? Where did you call this?”
“The Foldings. The castle,” Micah explained. “You didn’t know the name?”
“I thought ‘the Foldings’ was the name,” Jasper said, frowning. “You said that Farek bit the other day and I thought that was just the part of town.”
“Oh! No. ‘Farek en Innen Ciel’ is the proper title. Farek, meaning governmental department, en or of, innen ciel, traffic of the sky.”
“I thought the position of Vedouci was a lot older. Like, ancient.”
“But sky ships are way more recent.”
Micah tipped his head, making a face as he sought words. “That’s too literal. It’s more ‘sky’ in the sense of ‘insubstantial’. And the traffic is…” He gestured vaguely with the hand holding the mirror. “The power moving when magic is performed, I guess. The different types of magic, the knowledge of them in circulation…”
“Oh, so it’s more—yeah. The Vedouci’s realm.”
“More or less. Now I think I’d better lead you out of this wing.”
“Oh, balls, did I—” Jasper began, panicking a bit.
Micah took his arm gently and shook his head, guiding him back down the corridor. “If there were areas off limits, you wouldn’t be able to get in—physically or magically. Otherwise a bit of common sense should be enough. Don’t enter an occupied bedroom or bathroom—”
“Unless I’m invited.”
Micah stared at him, then laughed. “Of course. Mustn’t be rude.”
“Exactly.” Jasper grinned, letting the tip of his tongue stick out again, then turned and ran.
He took Micah at his word, and ran through parts of the castle he never could have imagined, thinking of Daisy’s disappointment at his description the other day. He’d be able to make up for that now—she’d just asked him on the wrong day.
He went up all the stairs he could find, and when most buildings would have stopped using marble and stone on the higher floors, the Foldings clearly had no such limitations or compunctions. He poked his head into an empty bedroom that was three times as tall as the corridor outside it. A huge cascade of embroidered velvet spilled down behind the bed, the same brilliant blue as the drapes and with what looked like gold plating—thin as a handkerchief—on the edges of the blankets. The windows beyond the bed went from floor to the very high ceiling, showing a beautiful sunset over a beach. The sun had set about an hour ago in Lunule, and Jasper stood and stared for a minute. What kind of magic must it take to have so many distant places all connected to one building? Was the bedroom actually in the castle at all? Were the glass doors at the bottom of the windows a portal, or was it the entire window? He was sorely tempted to duck out through the doors and see if the beach was really there, or if it was some kind of illusion. But what kind of illusion would he be able to see? He knew it wasn’t a painting, at least, because there were gentle waves rolling in across the sand and the tufts of grass were moving slightly in a breeze. The water beyond stretched out to the horizon, and Jasper had never seen a body of water so large he couldn’t see across it.
But then Micah caught up and Jasper took off running again, hurtling down the servants’ stairs, giggling madly when he startled maids, under-butlers, clerks, and gardeners, all of whom only had time to gasp and lean out of his way. Good solid wooden stairs gave way to stone steps as he went, and strange carpeted walkways and hallways led right up to the edge of a wooden plank bridge held together with rope, brightly lit from above by floating glow spheres, but with nothing but blackness under the bridge, as far as he could see.
After the abyss, things got even stranger. The corridor widened to the size of a banquet hall, and instead of the floor disappearing, the ceiling did. He blinked up at the sun in a gorgeous blue sky with a couple of fluffy clouds. A flock of birds went past, and rows and rows of plants stretched before him—seedlings in pots the size of his thumb, up to actual trees bearing fruit, coming up through gaps in the stone floor. He moved cautiously down an aisle between an entire rainbow of blooming rose bushes and a tomato vine as thick as his thigh, stretching up on a subtle trellis that supported it in the shape of an oak tree. The branches had everything from flower buds to ripe fruit. Beyond that were herbs, the warm sun bringing out their scents in such a rich mix that it made his stomach growl. There were fruit trees, flowers, and vegetables, and he suddenly realised they were mostly consumables. What wasn’t food was flowers, and all of them had both buds and open blossoms. Bees and butterflies flitted and zoomed around him, and while he was sorely tempted to pick an orange or tomato, he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. This had to be part of the secret to feeding the dozens of people who must live in the castle, and they had likely budgeted every single crop quite carefully.
Still, it wasn’t every day he got to walk through a garden in a sunny basement. He snatched a leaf off of a mint plant as he passed, crushing it between his fingers before slipping it into his mouth, nibbling at it as he went, letting the cool, sharp taste build in his mouth.
The rooms after that were lit by glow spheres and full of shelves, boxes, bags, jars, twine, bins, and barrels. One long shelf had every kind of hand tool and a few sinister-looking gadgets he didn’t recognise, all spikes and blades and wheels. He sidled past that collection and found the next door.
Cold hit him like a slap in the next space, which was more like a cave than a room. Walls, floor, and ceiling were cut into rock, and huge slabs of meat hung on chains, ropes of sausages were coiled on pegs, and bricks of butter with paper between covered an entire wall. Further in were fully-butchered cuts of meat, poultry ready for roasting, and rack after rack of pies ready to go into the oven. He wrapped his arms around himself and hurried on, rubbing his arms and chest to keep warm.
Something started hurting. His first instinct was that it was from the cold. Toes? No. Ears? Fine. Fingers? No. It took longer than it should have to realise that it was his tongue, and then he remembered the mint he was chewing. The taste had gone from sharp to stabbing. He spat it out, swiping his tongue with a finger. The stinging, burning sensation faded, and it didn’t seem to affect his finger, so he figured he was probably safe. He ran the last few steps to the solid wood door only to find the iron handle covered with a thick layer of frost. He wrapped the tail of his shirt around his hand before leaning on the handle. It took a bit of a shove to get it moving, but the next room was a place he could understand again: jars and crocks and pans and trays, all full of things that looked amazing. Sauces, toppings, jams, jellies, creamy-looking pastes, and a hundred other things he was sorely tempted to dip a finger into. He could already hear the sounds of a busy kitchen ahead, and pushed on.
If it weren’t for the pans and pots hanging overhead, he might have thought he’d stumbled into a field of battle. Orders were shouted and acknowledged with a chorus of responses. Things were being pounded, sliced, chopped, beaten, and abused in every possible way, and it smelled simply gorgeous. No one paid him any attention, but they were aware of his presence, standing aside as he strode through—he knew better than to try to run through a working kitchen.
“Here, you found the front door, then?” someone called and he stopped. It took him a moment to place her, but it was the cook who had met him when he’d knocked on the castle’s door for the first time. She was big, as most cooks were, and her face was clearly shaped by laughter. She wasn’t quite smiling at him, but she seemed to have an indelible smile even at rest.
“Yes, chef,” he said, smiling back and probably blushing. “Didn’t mean to disrupt your work.”
“Oh, you’re not,” she assured him, gesturing at someone behind him. “But I would like to know how you found your way into my kitchen nearly a week later. Lots of people get lost, but lost for a week is something special.”
“No, I’m not exactly lost. I’m helping Micah with something. He’s trying to track me.”
“Oh.” She looked at him blankly. “Well. If you get hungry, now you know where to come.”
“If it smells like this every day, I may just sleep in a corner.”
“Not every day, no. Tomorrow’s beef. Do you have a name?”
He probably wasn’t making the best impression, trying vaguely to sidle away, one eye on the door he’d come through. He shook his head and deliberately stepped closer again, offering his hand. “Sorry! Jasper. Housemaster for Earl Onfroi.”
“I’m Sally. Good to meet you.” She had a surprisingly soft hand for someone who needed a lot of strength, and without the callouses and scars he saw on most chefs.
“I know I look like a maniac, but Micah—you know him? The heir?”
She rolled her eyes. “Yes, I know him. Since he was about five.”
“Yeah, sorry… well, he’s going to come through that door any second, and I’m supposed to be—”
“Yes, you are,” came Micah’s voice, making Jasper sag.
He turned around to see Micah casually leaning against the opposite doorway, arms folded, mirror dangling from his fingers. “Now how the flippity-feck did you get in front of me?”
Micah’s laugh echoed through the kitchen and he came down the two steps to join them, moving easily, not at all self-conscious. Jasper looked back at Sally, who didn’t look remotely impressed—more exasperated, actually—and had to conclude that Micah was no stranger to the kitchens, or to Sally. Jasper was surprised, relieved, and pleased to see this: Micah really did get out of the lab, and often enough that it wasn’t unusual. He’d known employers who treated staff as furniture, but Micah clearly was nothing like that. Some of the younger workers seemed a little distracted by the presence of the heir, but not unduly shocked.
“I told you—portals. I can, for the most part, reach any part of the castle in less than a minute.”
“So are you satisfied with your scrying?” Jasper asked. Sally shrugged and walked away, shaking her head.
“I suppose I am, yes. To be fair, I let you get into the pantry before I went for a portal. Once you got past the bridge, you didn’t have a lot of options till you left the kitchen.”
“How far away did I get?” Jasper asked.
“Miles,” Micah assured him. “I do wish I could get the tanium part really working with you, but I guess it’s not all that surprising.”
“Not to me, it isn’t,” Jasper said, sticking his tongue out again briefly. That reminded him of something. “Hey, wait. I came through that big room full of plants, with a sky and everything.”
“Yes, that’s part of the pantry complex.”
“Complex? No, later,” he added as Micah opened his mouth to explain. “So it was really hard, but I didn’t eat anything, really, though I did try chewing on a mint leaf…?” He wasn’t sure how guilty he should feel.
Probably not very, then. “It was burning, spiky mint.”
“A bit unlike numium, then?”
Jasper’s face crumpled into a knot while Micah just blinked innocently at him. “No, it was not like numium, if you must know. Numium is a smooth kind of pasty, chalky minty.”
“I shall relay that information to the chefs.”
“I am fully prepared to go back up to the lab and eat that entire bowl in front of you,” Jasper warned, shaking his finger.
Micah snorted and flinched at the same time. “Oh, don’t even tease,” Micah said, his eyes wide.
Jasper awarded himself a point for catching him off guard. “Right, then. So, that mint—some kind of battle mint?”
Micah studied him for a long moment through narrowed eyes. “We have very few of those on this castle,” he said slowly.
Jasper blinked back at him, then barked out a laugh that had several people turning. “Oh! No, wasn’t talking about defensive architecture. I meant… Is it meant to be some kind of weapon?”
“Not exactly. But there are grades of mint. There are mild, subtle ones, sharper ones like peppermint, and some of them are caustic enough to burn the skin. Well. Most people’s skins.”
Jasper’s eyes widened. “Okay, lesson well and truly learned. I am never eating anything in this building ever again.”
“How do you feel about drinking?”
“Oh, um… sure?”
Micah nodded as though Jasper had passed some kind of test. “I think it should be possible to find you some kind of food safe for nulls.”
“We’re in the right place,” Jasper said, looking around.
Micah had already caught the eye of one of the cooks, and he pointed at something behind Jasper, raising his eyebrows eloquently.
“What? What’d you get?”
Jasper raised his eyebrows and tipped his head, this time.
“There’s usually a pot or two on the fire, and any suitable leftovers are added. The stew…evolves, I suppose.”
Jasper couldn’t help recoiling. “But… then you’ve got things in there that are who knows how old?”
This got him a curled lip and sarcastic glare before Micah answered. “No… I think I might have noticed if three-quarters of the castle suddenly dropped dead from eating spoiled food. No. But this is the kitchen at the Foldings, remember? The flavours blend, but there are layers of enchantments and charms folded in with every addition, and whatever has been simmering the longest… floats to the top, so to speak. It is the default, easiest meal for anyone eating at irregular times, and there is a steady churn of servings removed and more ingredients added.”
“But… not everything goes together. Spicy sausage and creamy chicken and… and… I don’t know what all—”
“Which is why there are usually two or three pots. And why we have chefs in our kitchen. They know what tastes blend and which don’t.”
“And…oh,” Jasper hesitated as a young man came over with a tray. Two no-nonsense wooden bowls on a wooden tray, two slender, polished wooden spoons, a basket holding a steaming napkin-wrapped bundle, and two short, sturdy glass bottles. Jasper got his hands under it, but when the young man smiled and let go of the handles, Micah grabbed them, swinging the tray out of Jasper’s hands.
The damage had been done, though. “Sweet merciful Meg, what is that?” The scent had filled Jasper’s nose, rich and meaty and spicy and hearty and he’d never felt so suddenly hungry before in his life.
“Rolling stew,” Micah repeated. “Do you trust me now? Sadly, I can promise there’s no numium in it.”
“Yeah. I think I do. And, well, I’m not going to try anything without supervision.” Jasper stepped to one side, waving him back toward the door through which Micah had entered.
“That would be greatly appreciated. I don’t want you to feel restricted, but I also don’t want to risk your safety. Or your health.”
Jasper gave him a tight little smile. “Got that.”
“You’re feeling guilty. Why?”
That startled Jasper. He turned to stare at Micah, who kept his attention on their path, glancing aside through open doorways into empty rooms, deliberately avoiding his gaze.
When Jasper couldn’t find anything to say, Micah went on but still without meeting his gaze. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable or worry unnecessarily. Your position with the Earl is challenging enough. I would like to make your time here, well… comfortable. You are doing me, and the world, a great service.”
“I dunno, I think I might be the one getting the help. If you can find a way to teach me something, anything…”
Micah stopped immediately and turned to face him across the tray in his hands. “Even if you cannot learn magic, Jasper, I simply won’t have you feeling guilty. Your bravery—and it is,” Micah added firmly when Jasper opened his mouth to argue; “it’s inspiring. Sometime we will go back and try to figure out which mint you ate, and how much it affects you, because that is valuable information as well. Tempted as I am to rush ahead, we need to move slowly, because if you ever are injured by something, I don’t know what to do to heal you. Not yet, anyway.”
Jasper couldn’t keep meeting his eyes, and turned away, tipping his head to beckon Micah on. “And I need to learn that. This isn’t Ryebury. You must have all sorts of things here I’ve never seen before. What if I’m not null? What if we just haven’t found what gets through to me?”
“I have no answers,” Micah said simply. “But I am devoted to keeping you safe and well.”
Jasper nodded and rubbed his eyes, letting Micah steer him back to the lab.