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The Skulduggery Chronicles

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It was the height of summer. Warm enough that dragonflies buzzed lazily over the still surface of the lake, and humid enough that most men stayed indoors. That ensured the lake remained empty, for all but the insects and the wildlife that scuttled imperceptibly under the bushes and shrubs of the woods.

But boys weren't men, and in particular the little boy who sat hunched over on the lowest bank of the lake, watching the fish swim. His father would have preferred he also remain indoors, studying his Latin or the Bible. Young men, his father often said, didn’t go frolicking about when the air was so still with heat and moisture that it made the matron’s hair stand almost on end.

If that was true, the little boy didn’t want to be a man yet.

He put his finger in the water, and watched the fish swim quickly away from it. He sorely wished he could swim. The water looked so inviting, especially on such a hot day, and the boy – while not a particularly strong swimmer – at least knew enough to be able to keep his head above water, and to avoid the part of the lake where the undercurrent towards the falls became too strong to fight. The problem was his clothes. If he came back with them soiled because they’d been sitting on the bank, or faded because they’d been sitting on the rock in the sun, he’d get a scolding. And if he came back with them soaked, because he’d jumped in fully-clothed, he’d be punished.

Maybe if he did that, and then put the clothes out on the rock to dry? He’d never tried that before. Maybe that would stop the sun from fading them.

It didn’t matter. He didn’t have the time to try now, anyway.

The boy folded his arms over his knees and watched the ripples in the water. He really should go home. Everyone was going to be furious with him for escaping the riding instructor’s watchful eye. The riding instructor, a man patient to a fault, would be furious with him for lying about his father’s wishes. All that awaited him at home was punishment, and so here he was, watching the fish swim.

“Dillon?”

He flinched, and looked up. There was only one man he didn’t want to disappoint today, and that man was walking towards him now, picking his way carefully over the crabgrass. Barely a man, to be fair; he’d only just turned twelve. But that was enough of a man, in their father’s eyes, for him to be more worried about the estate than about having fun with his brothers.

Dillon turned back to the lake. “G-go away, Kenny.”

“It’s Cainneach, remember?” Kenny plopped himself down next to Dillon on the bank. “I gotta be respectable now.”

Despite himself, Dillon smiled. “Respectable p-people don’t say ‘gotta.’”

“Then being respectable’s no fun.” Kenny leaned back on his hands, tipped his head back, and heaved a great sigh. “Father’s beside himself, I hope you know. You've been gone for three hours. He thinks you’re dead.”

“Of course he does,” said Dillon bitterly. “He’s a b-b- he's a bastún.” *

“That’s no way for anyone to speak, respectable or not.”

“He is! He thinks I’m stupid. He thinks I d-don’t know anything. He’s the one who’s stupid.”

“That’s not going to get you very far, either.” Kenny looked over at his younger brother, an amused smile on his face. Dillon turned away so he wouldn't have to see that smile. “He doesn't think you’re stupid. He thinks you’re nine. Nine-year-old boys only think they know everything.”

“I know I don’t,” Dillon objected. “But I know some things. And he acts like I don’t.”

“That’s because you don’t speak to correct him.”

Dillon felt his cheeks heat, even under the hot summer son. “You know why I don’t.”

“You’re not stuttering now,” said Kenny with a grin. “I think you’re just scared of him.”

“I’m not scared of him!”

“No? Then stand up to him once in a while. And don’t keep running away every time he wants something from you. Cowards run away, and you’re not a coward.” Kenny stood up, and started unbuttoning his collared shirt. “It’s hot as Hell today, isn't it? Fancy a swim?”

Dillon turned to stare at him. “W-we’re not allowed.”

“Who says?”

“Father.”

“Father can póg mo thóin.** I’m giving you permission. See? Now if anyone gets into trouble, it will be me.”

Dillon laughed, and shook his head. “Tá tú glan as do mheabhair.” ^

“And don’t you forget it.” Kenny pulled his shirt off, then his pants, stripping down buck naked before he turned and hauled Dillon to his feet. “Come on. I know you want to. You wouldn't have been trying to memorise the lake if you didn’t.”

“If you get in trouble, Father’ll p-punish you worse than he would punish me.”

“I’m a man now. I can take it. Now strip, or I’m going to push you in.”

Dillon eyed his older brother for a moment, considering. He didn’t let any trace of what he was actually planning show on his face or in his body; if there was one thing he was good at, it was subversion. Then he abruptly grinned, and shoved his brother into the lake.

Kenny rose above the surface a moment later, spluttering. “No fair! That was my idea!”

“Too slow!” Dillon cried as he pulled his own clothes off.

“Ciach ort! Go mbeadh cosa gloine fút agus go mbrise an ghloine!” ^^

Dillon only laughed. “Language!” It was what their mother said, when one of them cursed. It was what their father said when one of them spoke the common tongue. “I thought you were a respectable man now!”

“Come help me out, and I’ll show you how respectable I can be!”

Dillon didn’t give him the chance. He’d fallen for that once; never again. Instead, he took a running jump off the bank, and splashed down into the cool water metres past where Kenny had landed. It was a welcome relief from the sweltering summer heat. He resurfaced to find Kenny swimming after him fast, and splashed away towards the other end of the lake to escape him, laughing all the while.

~~

“You know Father loves you.”

It was many hours later, certainly long enough for Father to start thinking Kenny was dead too, but neither of them had mentioned it. The sun was starting to sink below the tree line, and even Kenny seemed to be nervous about what sort of reception they would receive. He hadn't made a move to go back home yet.

Dillon picked up a flat pebble, and chucked it out over the water. “He’s never said it.” The pebble bounced perfectly over each little ripple until it reached the far end of the lake, where it fell into the grass and was lost from sight.

“Father doesn't often say things. It doesn't mean they aren't true.” Kenny shook his head. “You still haven’t taught me how you do that. I've never seen anything like it.”

Dillon shrugged uncomfortably. The truth was, he didn’t know. He just did. “I s-showed you last year, and you couldn't do it.”

“Witchcraft. I’m sure of it.”

Dillon grinned. “You’re just jealous.”

“Of witchcraft? God, no. Father’s going to give you a hiding when he finds out.”

That wiped the smile from Dillon’s face, and he pulled his dry shirt back on without another word. Kenny watched him for a moment, and then sighed. “I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”

Dillon hesitated once his shirt was back on, then looked Kenny in the eye. “Sometimes I wonder if he doesn't wish I was a w-witch. Then, at least, he’d know what to do with me.”

It was a private fear he’d held for years, and it was the first time he’d spoken it out loud. He was terrified that Kenny would laugh, but he didn’t. He simply rested his chin in his hands and looked back, without expression, without a word.

For some reason, that was worse. “It’s true, isn't it?”

“No.”

“He’s embarrassed of me. If I was the oldest s-son, it would be you he took out into p-public first.”

“He’s… concerned. In his own way. He doesn't know you the way I do, and he doesn't want to take the time to fix that. But he loves you. If you did turn out to be a witch, he’d sooner hide it than disown you.”

That was comforting, but not in the way Kenny likely intended it to be. Dillon had never been frightened of being disowned; he knew his father wouldn't drag his own reputation through the mud like that. But the simple reminder that at least Kenny knew Dillon well enough to see past the stutter, the reminder that at least one person cared, was in that moment comfort enough.

“Ready to go back?” Kenny asked.

“No,” Dillon admitted.

“Neither am I.”

They both wordlessly picked up the rest of their clothes, draped their coats over their arms, and turned around to walk back to the manor house, comfortable brotherly silence following them the rest of the way home.

~




This story takes place in the late 16th century in Ireland, circa 1591. Dillon and his brother are sons of a nobleman, and as such, they're raised to speak English. But, being the cheeky young boys they are (and with the amount of time they spend around their servants), they both speak Irish Gaeilic as well - and freely switch to it when they're cursing. The translations are below.

* Exactly as it sounds - 'bastard.'

** 'Kiss my arse.' Quite a bit less innocent.

^ There's no direct translation, but the nearest equivalent is 'You're crazy.'

^^ 'Damn you! May you have glass legs and may the glass break!' A standard insult by the period's standards, but still not something a twelve-year-old boy should be saying...

Chapter Text

Both Dillon and Kenny got into trouble for that afternoon, despite Kenny’s prediction. Dillon wasn’t allowed out of his room for weeks, and when he finally emerged, Kenny was far too busy for even the brief chats they used to have before dinner. It left Dillon lonely and confused, because speaking was so hard with anyone else. With Kenny, he just slipped on some words. With his sisters, with his father, and even with the servants, he couldn't get a single word out.

His father had hired him instructors. Dillon didn’t usually bother to learn their names; they were dismissed too quickly. Dillon’s father, Aeneas, was a man who wanted quick results, and would expect no less. Every time Dillon was called into his father’s study and still refused to utter a word, the previous instructor was dismissed and a new one hired.

“Come now, Dillon,” Aeneas said this latest time. “Let me hear the progress you've made.”

Dillon mutely shook his head. There'd been no progress.

“You’re nine now, Dillon.” There was far less patience in Aeneas's tone. “You’re not a boy anymore. This is a phase you need to grow out of, and soon.”

If he spoke, and stuttered, his father would only grow angrier. So Dillon stayed quiet.

Aeneas glared, then sighed and took off his eyeglasses to rub the bridge of his nose. “A dumb son isn't useful to me, Dillon. Nor is a son who can’t speak when spoken to. You must learn to talk, and you must learn before the year is out.”

But Dillon continued to refuse. And he regretted it, because the new instructor who arrived the next day had a temper, and a habit of rapping the back of Dillon’s hands smartly with a ruler whenever he got an exercise wrong. His father had done that on purpose, Dillon knew it.

It was after one such lesson had ended and he stood in the corner of the room, rubbing his hands and trying not to let tears fall, that he heard the door creak ajar and couldn't stop himself from turning to look. Cara was there, his oldest sister, and his junior by one year.

“Why don’t you like to talk?” she asked, as if they spoke to each other all the time.

Dillon kept his mouth shut tight and shook his head. After a lesson like that, he knew trying to talk would only end in disaster.

“Father thinks you’re possessed by the Devil.”

Dillon hadn't heard that before. In lieu of speaking, he tilted his head to convey his curiosity, and Cara walked further into the room. “I heard him talking about it with the priest. The priest says if you’re still not talking, and you’re not just dumb – and Father said you’re not, because you’re not stupid, your mouth just betrays you – then you have to be possessed by the Devil.”

Dillon felt a cold sort of fear grip him. He pressed his lips closer together until it almost hurt. If he was possessed by the Devil, he wasn’t going to let the Devil have the satisfaction of making him trip over his own words.

“I don’t think you are,” Cara said mater-of-factly.

Dillon stared at her, eyes wide. She gave a shrug. “Nan told me stories of people possessed by demons. They kill people, or they lie, and steal, and hurt small animals. You've never done any of those things. I think you’re just shy.”

“You’re wrong,” Dillon said numbly. He wasn't shy.

“Why?”

“I want to talk.”

“Then why don’t you?”

"B-because-"

He snapped his mouth shut and clasped his hands together in front of him. Cara gave him a strange look, and then an understanding nod. “Because your voice cracks. Nan told me about that too. She said Cainneach’s is going to do it, very soon.”

Dillon’s eyes widened. There was worse to look forward to than just this?

Cara smiled. “I don’t think you should worry. Is minic a bhris béal duine a shrón.” *

“I don’t…” Dillon swallowed. “I don’t understand that.”

“Me neither. Nan says it whenever I ask about you, though, and she says not to worry. So it must mean something good.”

You asked about me? Dillon wanted to say.

“She also says níl saoi gan locht.** I don’t know what that means either. But she says is ait an mac an saol too, and I know what that one means. It means ‘life is strange.’ Does that help?”

Dillon answered honestly. “No.”

“But it made you talk.”

He didn’t have an answer to that. Dillon wondered about it, turning the words over in his mind. He wanted to learn more Irish, he decided. The servants used it all the time, and some of the visitors to the estate did too, and even though Dillon wasn’t supposed to use it, he’d always thought it flowed off the tongue better than English did.

“I like you,” Cara said.

Dillon looked at her, surprised. Again, she shrugged, but this time she didn’t lose her smile. “Cainneach said he was scared you were getting too lonely. So I said I’d help. I like you.”

“I-I-I-“ Dillon clamped his mouth shut, closed his eyes, and willed his tongue to obey. “I l-like you, too.”

“Good.” Cara beamed, and stepped forward to take his throbbing hand. “Want to come play dolls with me?”

Dillon didn’t answer, but she didn’t wait for one, and instead pulled him gently and firmly out of the room.

~~

Several hours later, and Dillon stood in front of his bedroom mirror, contemplating his own face.

His mouth wasn’t any differently-shaped than anyone else’s. His tongue wasn’t any shorter, or longer, or thicker, or thinner. There wasn’t a visible reason why he should have any trouble speaking. So it only made sense that the reason wasn’t visible. And if it wasn’t visible, then it was either in his throat – which felt fine, and looked fine, as far as Dillon could tell – or in it was in his head.

“I’m not possessed,” he told his mirror.

His mirror didn’t believe him. And why should it? His voice had been thin and reedy, quiet and unsure. He tried again, after clearing his throat. “I’m not possessed.

Better. Still not perfect. And Dillon wanted to be perfect. He needed to be perfect, if he was going to impress his father. “I am not p-possessed, and t-there’s nothing wrong w-with me.”

He blew out a frustrated breath, and regarded his reflection. Then, Dillon seized on a hunch, and looked straight into the glass. “Is fearr Gaeilge briste, ná Béarla clíste.”^

Not a single break. He hadn't even heard his voice waver. Dillon fought down a thread of excitement, and tried again. “Is é mo ainm Dillon Ó Fearghail, Tá mé naoi mbliana d'aois, tá mé an mac Aeinéas agus Deirdre Ó Fearghail, agus tá mé ar uasal Chaitliceach na hÉireann.”^^

He watched his mouth in the mirror, and tried to understand what the difference was between Irish and English. Why could he speak in one, but not the other? And why did it have to be the language his father wouldn't approve of? He spoke in Irish, over and over again, watching his mouth, listening to his voice, and switched to English only when he heard footsteps in the corridor outside.

It was his mother. She was the only one who ever knocked before coming in.

Dillon tried, he really tried, to say an English sentence she could be proud of. But he stammered and tripped, and stopped talking before he could embarrass himself further. His mother smiled, and laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I think that’s all the practice you need for tonight. Don’t you?”

“No,” he said stubbornly.

“Your voice won’t grow smooth in one night.”

“Why won’t it?” He spun to face her, and didn’t try to stop the tears that brimmed. “Kenny h-has no trouble, and neither does Cara. Father thinks I’m p-p-p-p-“ He couldn't even get the word out. He didn’t know its equivalent in Irish, and so he was stuck. “Father says I can’t be a gentleman if I can’t even s-speak.”

“Pay no attention to your father.” Deirdre wrapped her son into her arms and hugged him. “My poor child. You think too quickly for your mouth to catch up.”

Dillon flinched. “That’s n-n-not what Father says.”

“I've seen your arithmetic. Dillon, you finish a week’s worth of lessons in two days.”

“S-so does Kenny.”

She laughed. It was a painfully gentle laugh. “If I tell you a secret, Dillon, will you promise not to tell anyone else – especially your brother?”

He nodded.

“You’re already two years past where Cainneach is.”

Dillon didn’t say anything. He felt his hands, wrapped around his mother’s neck, shaking. He hadn't known that. No one had ever told him that. He hadn't thought he was good for anything.

“Will you sleep now, Dillon?”

He nodded, and broke off the hug. He wasn’t a boy anymore, and only boys hugged their mothers when they no longer needed the comfort. “G-good night, mother.”

“I won’t hear you speaking into your mirror at all hours of the night?” she asked with a touch of amusement.

He managed a smile, and shook his head.

“Good night, then.” She ruffled his hair and stood up. “You’ll see as you grow up, Dillon. I can already tell. You’ll be handsome, and your voice will be as smooth as glass, and everyone will know how bright you are. Everyone from your father to Cainneach.”

Dillon was too old for baseless hopes and dreams, but even so, as he took himself to bed that night, he thought about those words. And he dared to hope. Maybe - just maybe - if he practiced in the mirror enough, and he tried hard enough, and he went to church every Sunday and studied his Bible and paid close enough attention to everything the priest said… then maybe he could drive the Devil out all on his own. And maybe then, finally, he’d grow as tall as Kenny was, and speak just as quickly as the older boy could.

~




Irish Translations:

* 'Many a time a man's mouth broke his nose.' An old Irish saying.

** 'There's not a wise man without fault.' (We've all got our weaknesses.) Another old Irish saying. Nan sure does love them.

^ 'Broken Irish is better than clever English.' Another old Irish saying, and one that Dillon would have heard many times over from - you guessed it - Nan.

^^ 'My name is Dillon ó Fearghail, I'm nine years old, I am the son of Aeneas and Deirdre ó Fearghail, and I'm an Irish Catholic gentleman.' It isn't perfect, but it's impressive for a nine-year-old boy without any formal literacy training in Irish. It's all bits and pieces he's picked up from the servants.

Chapter Text

While Kenny was busy growing up into the son Aeneas had always wanted him to be, Dillon started spending more and more time with Cara and his mother when he wasn’t with one of his instructors. He'd learned that his mother was sick - not in her body, but in her mind. It was why she never went outside, and why she rarely dressed into clothes suitable for visitors. Dillon had been frightened at first, worried that it was catching. Deidre had seen the look her son gave her, and laughed, and told him her head was a box that no sickness could leave. He'd decided to believe her. She saw things, sometimes, that no one else did, and sometimes she even stopped making sense. Dillon had learned to call for one of the servants whenever that happened. But when she was normal, she was wonderful, and proud of Dillon in a way no one had ever been before.

And Cara. Dillon had never paid Cara much attention before, because boys weren't supposed to pay any attention to girls – Kenny had said that, many times before. But Dillon saw the looks Kenny gave some of the maids, now that he was a man. And while Dillon didn’t understand those yet, he at least took it as unspoken permission to be friends with his sister.

Cara had an imagination unlike anything Dillon had ever seen. When he and Kenny played, they were limited by what was around them. The horses in the stable, or the lake, or the weather outside. When Dillon played with Cara, suddenly their drawing room was an ancient castle, and the sofas the pillars that help up the aging entrance hall. If they made too much noise, those pillars collapsed, and an imaginary roof came crashing down on top of their heads. Their kitchens became the insides of a volcano, and getting too close to the stovetops meant scalding yourself on magma. The stables became a fairy castle, and each of the horses a fairy. Dillon would show Cara how to escape the notice of the servants on watch; then they would each saddle up a horse and go riding on the backs of fairies, galloping madly over the fields until the horses’ sides were heaving and Dillon and Cara were both laughing their heads off.

It was a lot like when Dillon looked at strangers and knew things about them, sometimes without even trying. Only Cara looked at places, and she made things up. She was great fun. And she was just as enthralled by Dillon’s abilities as he was by hers, sometimes demanding demonstrations when people came to visit.

They would both sit on the first-floor balcony, limbs wrapped in the pillars of the railings, unseen, and watch the visitors, and Dillon would tell her what he saw. “That one,” he would point. “He became very thin very quickly. That’s why he’s so smug. S-s-see how the bottom of his chin is wobbling?”

Cara would giggle and punch him on the shoulder. “You’re making that up.”

“No, I-I’m not. And that man there is his b-brother. They detest each other.”

“No they don’t! They’re brothers!”

“They do,” Dillon insisted. “One of them is the elder and set to i-i-inherit, and the other is p-purple with jealousy.”

“You’re not jealous of Cainneach.”

“Kenny is t-too easy to make fun of.”

“What are you two tittering about?” their mother asked from behind them.

Dillon ducked his head to hide his face, but Cara turned and grinned a very sly grin up at her. “Dillon’s making up stories about Father’s visitors.”

“Is he?” Deidre knelt down beside them. “What sort of stories is he making up?”

“He said those two hate each other.”

Their mother smiled. “Of course they don’t. They’re the best of friends. We wouldn't have invited them here together, if they weren't the best of friends.”

“No they’re n-not,” Dillon repeated. Why was he the only one who could see it? “The older brother thinks they are, but the y-younger keeps looking at him like he w-wants to poison the next meal.”

Dillon.” Deirdre looked at him with something she’d never looked at him with before. “Where do you come up with these things? Are you jealous of Cainneach?”

“N-n-no.” Dillon hated how, when he grew frustrated, his voice betrayed him even more. “Kenny t-thinks he’s clever, but h-h-he’s just easy to make f-fun of. I like Kenny." Dillon didn't care about any old inheritance, anyhow. "That man down there – he h-hates his brother.”

Deirdre put an arm absentmindedly around Dillon’s shoulders. “How did you know they were brothers, Dillon?”

Dillon blinked uncomprehendingly at her. She may as well have asked how he knew that one and one made two. “They are.”

“Yes, but how did you know?”

Dillon squinted down through the banister of the balcony, trying to pinpoint his own thoughts. It always made his mind spin to try, but for his mother, he made the attempt. “Their eyes are the same. The way their hair falls. They have the same walk, too.”

“That’s all?”

“It means they’re r-related. Too close for c-cousins, and too c-close in age not to b-be brothers.”

His mother’s lips pursed in thought, and she pulled her son into her lap. “And why do you think the younger hates the older?”

“P-people’s faces change when they th-think no one’s looking.”

"That's all?"

Dillon shrugged. "That's all I-I need."

His mother didn't say anything else, so Dillon looked up at her face, and was discomforted to see nothing but worry there as she stared unseeing through the banister.

That was the last time Cara asked Dillon for demonstrations, because Deirdre came to find them both the next day, and she still looked worried. “Dillon. A moment, please. You too, Cara.” She waited until they’d both stopped their game and were looking curiously up at her before she spoke. “You have a unique talent, Dillon, and it’s not one that any ten-year-old boy should have. Can you promise me you won’t use it again?”

Dillon didn’t know how to make that promise. He wasn’t using anything; he just looked. But his mother seemed more serious than she ever had, and that frightened him, so he nodded without a word.

“I’ll speak to your father about ridding you of it, but for now, promise me you won’t see with anything but your eyes.”

“W-what else is there?” Dillon asked before he could quite stop himself. His heart clenched, but his mother didn’t scold him. She just suddenly looked very pitying, and very old.

“Dillon," she asked quietly. "How long have you been able to do this?”

“A-always.”

She frowned. "Don't exaggerate."

"I-I'm not," Dillon insisted. "I've a-always seen things like that."

Now his mother was the one looking terrified. Dillon wanted to take it back and try giving her a different answer, one she would like better, but he knew he wouldn't be able to speak fast enough to put her mind at rest, especially since a moment later she turned and left the room.

Dillon looked back at Cara. “What do you s-suppose that was about?”

Cara shook her head. “Don’t you know anything? Don’t you know why the priest is worried for you?”

“No.”

“Sickness in a household leaves a family open to possession,” Cara recited softly, the lilt in her words giving away that she was repeating someone else’s words quickly memorised. “Mother’s very sick. And she’s worried about what that means for the rest of us.”

The implication of that sank in, and Dillon’s mouth fell open. “She th-thinks I’m possessed, t-too?”

“She thinks that something is making you stutter,” Cara said simply.

She was wrong. It wasn’t a demon. It wasn’t the Devil. Dillon had worked for too hard, and too long, for that still to be true. He talked more now, and stuttered less frequently, and even his father had noticed the difference in the last year.

He’d show them, he thought. Mother would get better, because she had to, and then they’d see that his difficulty with speaking didn’t magically disappear. And then maybe Father would start bringing back the speech tutors. Dillon used to hate them, but now that he was making a push, he found he missed them. He missed the way they used to track his progress. One even had charts, and Dillon wanted to see the line on the chart go up, now that he could make measurable progress.

He wanted, more than anything, more than time with Kenny and more even than his father’s favour, for Deirdre ó Fearghail to smile at him with pride once again.

~~

He echoed that smile, a year later, in his own small mirror. It looked ghostly on his pale face. But it was the only version he was ever going to get, and so he made do; then he took the mirror off the wall and put it upside down on his bed, so the spirit of his mother wouldn't be trapped in it.

She’d died the night before. Dillon was the only one of his siblings not to have cried during the wake. He wanted to, and he sat by his mother’s body for hours trying to find it in himself to shed tears the way everyone else did, but nothing ever came. Even then, looking at himself in the mirror, his eyes had been completely dry.

Maybe he really was possessed.

He heard a noise in the doorway, and turned to see his father standing there, looking lost. He didn't even seem to notice where he was, or that he was being watched. Dillon didn't draw attention to himself; he just stood and regarded his father curiously, head tilted. Aeneas looked much older than he ever had before. Most days, he just looked stern. Now he looked tired, and harried, and like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders. There were lines on his face, there was grey in his hair, and there was sadness in his eyes.

Then his eyes fell on his son, and turned suddenly cold. Dillon flinched and took a backward step.

“What are you doing?” Aeneas asked quietly.

Dillon swallowed hard. “H-hiding the mirror.”

“You didn’t do that last night?”

“I forgot about it last night,” said Dillon honestly. “I-It’s a small mirror.”

Aeneas’s eyes narrowed. “What are you?”

“I’m y-your son.”

“No. You’re not. And you haven’t been, for a very long time. You are not my son.”

Aeneas left, striding quickly down the corridor towards the staircases. Dillon stood very still in his room, expecting fear to settle around his heart, and curiously feeling absolutely nothing. His limbs felt numb. His body felt frozen. But his mind raced, touching on a thousand different topics in the few minutes it took for someone else to enter his room.

“Dillon?”

Relief flooded him when he managed to focus again. “Kenny.”

“If you want to be alone, I’ll leave, but –“ Kenny froze, staring. “By God above, Dillon, what happened?”

“W-w-what d-d-“ Dillon cut himself off, cursing his tongue and his mind and everything that had conspired to kill his mother and lead him into this situation.

“You’re ashen. And your voice. Dillon, what happened?”

“F-father.” Dillon closed his eyes and imagined music playing. Sometimes, that helped. “H-he thinks I’m…”

“What? He thinks you're what?”

“P-p-possessed.” Dillon released all his breath once he managed to get the word out, like a weight had been taken off his shoulders. “I c-can do things I sh-shouldn't be able to-"

"Like what, pray tell? Skip a stone across a lake?"

"-a-and I can’t cry. H-he just – he just –“

“Take a deep breath, Dillon.” Kenny stepped closer and put his hands on Dillon’s shoulders, forcing him to stay straight. “Take a deep breath, and don’t try to force it. Wait until you’re ready.”

Dillon did exactly as Kenny said, and when his tongue felt less likely to betray him, he looked up into his brother’s eyes. “He just l-left after saying I’m n-n-not his son.”

Kenny cursed loudly in Irish, a word so terrible that Dillon didn’t even recognise it, and he roughly released Dillon’s shoulders to storm back out into the hallway. He turned just before closing the door. “I’m going to take care of it, Dillon. I promise. I’ll talk some sense into him. No one’s going to bother you tonight, so if you want to get some rest, take it.”

Dillon had always been the one making promises. No one ever made him promises, not unless they involved punishment. He wanted to seal it with something more than just a nod, and so he pointed an accusatory finger at his brother. “Don’t d-do anything s-stupid.”

“Me? Stupid?” Kenny flashed him a cocky grin, only slightly forced. “Bite your tongue.”

Then the door closed, and he was gone.

Chapter Text

It was impossible to get even a wink of sleep that night. Dillon tossed and turned until he was sure it was almost morning, and then he gave up, and went to go sit on the window seat and stare up at the night sky. Stars twinkled in the sky above him. He knew most of the constellations, thanks to one of his tutors from two years ago, but he still had trouble locating them every now and then. They changed with the seasons. He used to think his tutor was responsible for that, solely to make things harder for him.

Would Kenny come back, if he succeeded? Or did he think he was doing Dillon a favour by letting him sleep? Dillon thought about going to look for him, but decided the risk of running into his father again was too great a threat to ignore.

He wished his mother were still alive. Even though she was probably the one who’d convinced Aeneas something was wrong with Dillon, she’d be hugging him right now. Wrapping her thin arms around him and rocking him back and forth, promising him everything was going to be all right. And Dillon could close his eyes and for a moment, almost believe her.

He looked around when he heard a knock on the door. It was an uncertain knock, which meant it wasn’t his father, but it wouldn't be Kenny either. Dillon drew his legs up underneath him and wrapped his arms around his haunches, so no one would see how much his hands were shaking. “C-c-come in.”

Nan opened the door, wearing her night dress. Her hair, usually up in a tight bun, fell in a frizzy mess around her shoulders. Her face, usually bright and cheerful, was withdrawn and afraid. “Master Dillon?”

She never called him Master. Not unless there was someone else there whom she didn’t know, or someone she needed to keep up appearances for. And there was very little that scared her, either, so she was doing something she didn’t want to do, but couldn't say no to. Like showing a stranger up to Dillon’s room.

Dillon curled his toes tightly around the edges of the window seat. “Y-yes, Nan?”

“A Brother Brian, here t’ see you.”

Brother. Dillon’s heart grew cold with terror. He’d never seen an exorcism before, but he knew about them. And he knew that they hurt. He knew that the priests wouldn't stop until they’d driven the demon out, and that they wouldn't believe there was nothing wrong with Dillon. So they wouldn't stop. They wouldn't stop until he was dead. Or worse.

Where was Kenny? Why had Kenny broken his promise?

Now Dillon’s voice cracked, as well as stuttered. “I don’t w-w-want to s-see him.” He gathered his courage and looked Nan right in the eye. “T-t-tell him to come back at a r-r-reasonable hour of th-th-the morning.”

Nan suddenly looked stricken. “I wish I could, young Master, I really-“

She stopped talking, and stepped further into the room, head respectfully bowed in the subservient manner most servants took, but which she never did. It was jarring. Brother Brian came in after her, and he looked very tall and very strong, and wore a cross around his neck.

“Dillon ó Fearghain?” he asked in a deep voice that rumbled.

If Dillon weren't so panic-stricken, he would have laughed. What was he meant to say? No, you must have the wrong child’s bedroom?

“I understand you must be scared,” the monk said, his face full of anything but understanding. “But you have a demon inside you, Dillon. That demon is how you’re able to know as much as you do. It is why you stutter, and how you know what’s about to happen to you now. This demon gives you power, but it is evil, and it will only corrupt you. Right now, you are scared because the demon is scared. Do you understand?”

Dillon shook his head.

“Then that is also the demon’s doing. We will deliver you from its evil, Dillon, but you need to trust us. Will you come with me?”

If he said no, what would happen? Surely they wouldn't just give up. What would they do? Take it as further evidence of his possession, and tie him down? Possibly. They certainly wouldn't leave him alone. There was no way Dillon could escape from this, not without opening the window behind him and jumping.

Unless…

He would need to be brave. He would need to run faster than he’d ever run before. He would need courage in spades. Dillon slowly unwound his legs out from under him, stood up, and straightened himself to his full height. He looked Brother Brian right in the eye, and he nodded. “Yes.”

The monk held out his hand. Dillon walked forward and took it, and just as he suspected, the grip was a weak one. He’d given no indication he would struggle, and so the monk wasn’t immediately worried.

The moment they were out in the hall, Dillon slipped away and ran.

He heard shouts from behind him, but he didn’t stop to look back. He heard Nan’s battle cry, and for a moment wondered if she’d leaped onto the monk’s back to stop him from pursuing. Impossibly, he managed to laugh while he ran.

He went straight for the servants’ staircase, hidden properly behind one of the unassuming closet doors, and took the steps five at a time, sliding down the railings on his hands wherever he could. He made it down to the ground floor of the manor house, and then tore out into the kitchens, startling two of the cooks before he slammed his way out into the dining room – banging his elbow on the doorjamb as he went. He bit back a cry of pain and kept going.

Their priest, Father Martin, was standing under the archway at the other end. Dillon came to a halt, surprised that any of them had thought he might run – and that he’d use the servants’ quarters to do it. They were smart. And now, they were blocking off his only exit.

Dillon turned and went for the window, even though he had no idea how to open it or if he would even fit through it. Father Martin moved to cut him off. Dillon had no other options, and so he put on a burst of speed and ran straight into him, hoping to barrel the old man over.

The old man was much stronger than he looked. He grunted, but he stayed standing, and then Dillon felt himself lifted off his feet and he was powerless to stop it. He kicked out anyway, and screamed, hoping that someone would come and stop this, come and prove that he wasn’t a demon and he’d never been a demon and he didn’t need to be tied down or beaten or whatever it was that happened during exorcisms, he was only eleven, not even a man yet, and he wasn’t evil-

The monk from upstairs, Brother Brian, was suddenly there, and carrying a length of rope. “Hold him still.”

“I’m – trying –“ the priest managed to spit out between his teeth while he struggled.

Dillon felt the beads of a rosary roll against his neck as the priest worked to reel him in, and he kicked out harder. “Imigh sa diabhal! Marbhfháisc ort, cac ar oineach! Imeacht gan teacht ort! Lig dom dul!”* The rosary finally gave way to the priest’s wrist, and as Brother Brian came closer, Dillon seized his chance and bit down hard enough on that wrist to draw blood.

Father Martin howled and let him go. Dillon stumbled forward, saw the rope out of the corner of his eye, and blindly lashed a kick in the monk’s direction. He heard another howl, realised that his kick must have landed just below the belt, and couldn't even find it in himself to be sorry. He dodged around the dining table, ran through the archway into the back wing of the house, and threw himself out of the glass doors onto the outdoor patio.

He didn’t stop there, either. He ran to the stables, passed them, vaulted the fence into the paddock, and ran up to where their most prized horse was enjoying an early morning graze. Blackfeather was the horse Dillon had grown up riding on. They knew each other very well. Blackfeather’s ears didn’t even twitch as Dillon ran up, but it lifted its head and turned a bright eye on him. Dillon ripped off the blanket, swung himself up onto the horse’s back, and nudged him with his heels. “Come on, Blackfeather. Hiya!”

Together, they left the manor house far behind them.

~~

By the time Dillon reached the lake, the sun was starting to rise, and its dusky orange colour was starting to permeate the land. He regretted not thinking to bring a halter so he could tie Blackfeather up, but then decided he didn’t really care if his father lost his prized horse, since his father didn’t seem to care about him. Blackfeather didn’t run away, anyway. He’d missed his breakfast. He stayed around the lake to graze, and to drink, and once even to nudge Dillon on the shoulder. Probably looking for carrots, but Dillon was grateful for that anyway. Horses made very simple company.

He stared out at the lake, thought about his mother’s death, and tried very hard to let that thought bring tears.

It still didn’t.

He thought about biting the priest hard enough to draw blood. He hadn't even spared a moment to consider whether that was really the right thing to do. The blood, and the kick – and all those insults he’d screamed?

Dillon picked up a round rock that should not have been able to skip at all, and chucked it into the water. Part of him expected it to make a large splash, and sink to the bottom of the lake. Another part of him expected it to skip.

He was half-right. The stone splashed, and then sank.

But the splash itself was what didn’t fall again.

Dillon sat and stared. The water hung suspended in the air, in a beautiful sparkling pattern of streams and droplets. They glowed orange with the colour of the sunrise, and threw small rainbows onto the grass.

He looked down. His hand was still out. He withdrew it like he’d been stung, and the water fell back into the lake in a faint waterfall.

Now there were tears. They didn’t fall, but they gathered. Dillon put both of his arms behind him and stood up, backing away from the lake, his heart hammering out a galloping rhythm in his chest.

He didn’t know. He hadn't meant to do it. Magic was evil; he knew that. He’d never wanted to have it. He’d never wished for it. He’d pretended, sometimes, in the games he and Cara played together, but those weren't real. He didn’t want it. He hadn't asked for it.

Demons could give people magic. He knew that too.

Dillon let his arms fall, and then hugged himself against the chill morning air. When he’d resisted the exorcism, had that really been him? Had he really been the one to scream and fight and kick, to justify it by claiming they would kill him?

Or had that been a demon?

Blackfeather nickered behind him. Dillon turned and reached out a hand to stroke the horse’s neck. He should go back, shouldn't he? He should go back and beg forgiveness and submit himself to them. He didn’t want to. The thought terrified him. But if he didn’t, he would only get worse, and then maybe one day he would think it was all right to kill someone. And if he had magic, then he could.

He swallowed, hard, and moved forward to hug Blackfeather properly. He didn’t want to go back. He really didn’t want to go back.

The sun started burning away the dew on the blades of grass, and Dillon knew that it had to be now, or he would never have the nerve to go back again. So he clambered up onto Blackfeather, gave him an encouraging pat, and took him at a steady trot back to the stables.

When he got there, more horses were being saddled up, and his father was among the men gathering near the stable. The sight of him nearly lost Dillon his nerve, but he stayed straight, and only stopped Blackfeather when they were halfway over the field. Aeneas was the first to see him anyway, and with some orders shouted to the others he mounted the big mare he’d been preparing and cantered over. Dillon wanted to put his hands in the air to show he was surrendering, but the memory of what the water had done over the lake when he raised his hand still haunted him, and so he didn’t. He kept his hands buried in Blackfeather’s mane, and he didn’t try to stop the tears from falling. “F-Father.”

Aeneas reared up his mount very suddenly, and came level with Dillon in the middle of the field. He didn’t look angry. He looked scared. “Dillon?”

“I-I-I-“ His tears choked up his throat. “I’m-I’m-“

“Don’t try to speak.” Aeneas reached out and put a hand on Dillon’s shoulder. “Just nod, or shake your head. It is you, isn't it? Dillon?”

Dillon nodded.

“You want to be rid of this, don’t you?”

Dillon nodded again. His father’s hand moved from his shoulder to his cheek, and he smiled. He smiled. It was a sad smile, but it was still a smile. Dillon could almost have convinced himself he was dreaming. “You don’t need to worry, Dillon. I’ll be there. I’ll make sure you don’t run away again.”

It wasn’t exactly comforting, but it was still the most loving thing Dillon had ever heard his father say to him. So when Aeneas lifted him into the saddle in front of him, Dillon didn’t resist. When stable boys came running to take care of Blackfeather, and one of them was Kenny, he didn’t feel angry or betrayed. And when his father took him back to the house, and delivered him into the waiting arms of the priest, he didn’t struggle.

~~




Irish Translations:

* 'Go to the devil! A shroud on you, scoundrel! May you leave without returning! Let me go!'

'Go to the devil' is what it sounds like, a version of 'go to Hell' that was only slightly more socially acceptable, particularly when saying it to a priest. 'A shroud on you' - when someone died, their body was usually kept in the house for at least one night during the wake, and was covered by a white shroud. Dillon is basically telling these men to go die. 'Scoundrel' is more of a jack-of-all-trades term that also meant scumbag, and is literally translated as 'shit on honour,' i.e. someone who doesn't care how they present themselves. 'May you leave without returning' is, again, exactly what it sounds like, except that the connotation was a little different. It's effectively banning someone from visiting ever again, and in a society that thrived on these sorts of visits and partnerships, it was right up there with the best of the insults. 'Let me go' is probably the only phrase here that Dillon actually puts together himself. The rest he would have heard from others, and only guessed at their meanings, albeit fairly accurately.

Chapter Text

Cainneach held a grudge. He held a very strong grudge. He’d grown tall almost immediately, and his voice had dropped not soon after. He had thick hair, brown eyes, and a joyful grin. He’d been, if he did say so himself, quite a catch. And he still was a catch, in many ways. He was seventeen. He had a lot to offer, and per his father’s near-constant insistence these days, he was looking for a wife. Women liked that in a lover.

But Cainneach still held a grudge, because every time Dillon walked into a room, he was forcibly reminded of how just much his younger brother had suddenly and quickly outshone him.

Dillon was, as Nan liked to say, a ‘late bloomer.’ Shortly after he turned fourteen, he shot up like a weed, and was now taller than even their father. His crooked smile, which had made him look so adorable when he was younger, straightened out, and his eyes obtained a twinkle that put itself on full display whenever he was amused. Twinkling green eyes, like their mother. It was hardly fair. Some of the maids were starting to giggle behind his back, rather than Cainneach’s.

“Fancy any of them?” he asked one day.

Dillon looked at him. “What?”

“Do you look at any of them the way they look at you?”

Dillon frowned. “How do they look at me?”

Cainneach stopped walking, and turned to stare at his brother. “Like you’re handsome, Dillon. Like they think you're handsome. Like they want you to whisper sweet nothings into their ear. Like they want you to bed them.”

Kenny.

“Well? Do you feel that way about any of them?”

“No.” Dillon rubbed his shoulder and glanced self-consciously behind them. “Well. Maybe one. But I…”

“What?” Cainneach asked. “But you what?”

“I wouldn't know what to do.”

Cainneach was very glad he hadn't been holding a drink just then, because he would have dropped it. “You wouldn't know what to – you? My younger brother, wouldn't know what to do?” He shook his head. “You have a lot to learn, Dillon. Fortunately for you, I’m an encyclopaedia of knowledge. Go on. Ask me anything.”

Dillon looked at him from the corner of eye, his mouth curled mischievously. “Anything?”

“Anything.”

“When you court someone, w-what do you do?”

“Depends on the girl.” Cainneach slumped against the stairs and considered it, stroking his chin. “Always be honest. That’s the most important thing. No girl is ever worth sacrificing your honour or dignity for. And besides, it’s polite.” He shrugged. “Sometimes you need to be subtle, give compliments – but only ones you mean – and gifts. If that doesn't work, you’d be surprised how often the direct approach does. If nothing works, leave her alone. More often than not, it has nothing to do with you.”

Dillon’s head tilted. “What’s the direct approach?”

“Asking her to your bed.”

“What for?”

Now, Cainneach would have gone and poured himself a glass of brandy and brought it back just to drop it, if he thought there was a chance in Hell he could have gotten away with it. “What do you mean, what for?

Dillon’s cheeks tinged red, and he looked suddenly sheepish. Cainneach stared. “Dillon, you’re fifteen. Hasn't someone spoken to you about this?”

“No.”

“Haven’t you read any of the books in the library? Any of Mother’s romances? Haven’t you –“ he cast about for something else, and finally threw his hands into the air. “Haven’t you experimented during a bath?”

“Experimented during a bath?” Dillon asked, giving Cainneach a slightly disbelieving look. Cainneach was about ready to die of embarrassment for his brother before Dillon thankfully smiled. “That’s an interesting way of p-putting it. Yes, that I have done.”

“Then what do you think you do with a woman in bed?”

“I’d guess something to do with that?”

Cainneach reached up to rub the bridge of his nose. “All right. Let’s see how much of this I can explain. There’s a… certain part, which men have and women don’t.”

“I know that much, Kenny.”

“Oh, good. You have the basic intelligence level of a mollusc. Now stop interrupting, this is going to be hard enough.” Cainneach started pinching the bridge of his nose, like Aeneas often did, but it did absolutely nothing to help. “You undress the woman, and the woman undresses you – or sometimes the other way around, or sometimes you don’t even get that far…”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re both very, very excited.” Cainneach groaned. “I shouldn't be explaining this to you. You should be reading books. Or, better yet, trying it for yourself.”

“But you’re doing such a magnificent job.”

Cainneach glared. “If God in Heaven has any mercy on me, you’ll have to explain this one day. Lugan’s getting to an age where he’ll start asking soon. You can have the honours then.”

“How, if you refuse to explain it now? Who first told you?”

“Actually,” said Cainneach, running a hand through his hair, “no one did. Remember Anna?”

“The girl you swore you l-loved last year?”

“Yes.” That had been embarrassing. “We both had a bit too much to drink one night, and she taught me.”

She taught you?”

“As it turns out, it wasn’t her first time. Now stop interrupting.

Dillon smiled, leaned back against the staircase, and started whistling. It was such a picture of smug nonchalance that Cainneach stared, and then something slipped into place in his thoughts and his eyes narrowed. “You were having me on.”

“Was I?”

“You knew. The whole time. You were just trying to embarrass me.”

“You did that a-all on your own, Kenny. All I wanted was some blackmail material. You gave me more than that. ‘Experimenting in a bath…’ I’m very glad you’re the older brother. This wouldn't have been nearly as much f-fun otherwise.”

“Why, you little –“

“Language. Did you know your face goes bright red when you're e-embarrassed?”

Dillon left Cainneach spluttering there by the staircase, and walked off with a self-satisfied chuckle. Cainneach spent about a minute trying to come up with a suitable retort, and then gave up, blowing all of the air out of his nostrils in a fit of frustration. He remembered when Dillon still looked up to him. Now? Now, Dillon could speak, if a little roughly, and suddenly he thought he was God’s gift to the world.

To be fair, when he wasn’t using that to one-up Cainneach somehow, it was actually rather endearing. And it was a welcome relief, too. They both still remembered the exorcism, even though they never talked about it. Dillon hadn't spoken at all for months afterward, and when he finally did, the stutter was even worse. Aftershocks, Father Martin had called them. He claimed they would always be there, since the demon had been in control for so long, and that the best thing to do for Dillon was to learn to tolerate them.

Tolerate them. Right. Cainneach had sprinkled some black pepper into a mug of tea the priest was drinking that afternoon, and the coughing fit he’d endured afterwards was the first time Cainneach could remember Dillon properly laughing.

After that, when Aeneas had dismissed the speech tutors in the mistaken belief that they would be of no help anymore, Cainneach was the one who helped Dillon practice every day. He made Dillon tell their younger siblings stories, longer ones every month, which had the added effect of making them all grow closer as a family. Cainneach was the one who patiently listened, when Dillon spoke haltingly, rather than their father, who simply shot him down every time. Cainneach was the one who helped Dillon grow.

And, perhaps most importantly, both Dillon and Cainneach had stopped believing in any of the rubbish of the Church. That was why, despite the embarrassment, Cainneach was actually pleased his brother had… experimented. Their father would have called it a sin. Once upon a time, Dillon would have listened.

They never let on they didn’t believe anymore, of course. They’d never even spoken to each other about it. They simply exchanged looks during Sunday Mass, and tried very very hard not to laugh.

Dillon hid very little from Cainneach, but there was one thing Cainneach still didn’t know, and that was why he’d started spending so much time alone at the lake in recent years. Cainneach used to think he met someone there, and had been content to keep the secret for him. But now… Dillon always came back from the lake looking lost, or annoyed, or contemplative. Cainneach was starting to wonder whether telling their father about it wasn’t the right thing to do.

He never did, in the end. Aeneas had broken a promise to Cainneach once before. Any trust that had ever existed there was long gone. Cainneach simply comforted himself in the knowledge that when Dillon was ready to tell him, he would.

~~

The path to the lake on Blackfeather’s back hadn't existed when Dillon was nine. He and Kenny had stumbled upon it by accident one day. Now, with practically daily trips back and forth, there was a very well-worth path through the wood and over the meadow, and Dillon had long since given up even saddling Blackfeather for the trek. The horse knew it by heart. Dillon didn’t have to nudge him in the right direction anymore.

He jumped off when they arrived, and Blackfeather waited expectantly. Dillon reached out toward the water, grasped the thin air, and directed a stream of it up out of the lake towards the horse. He held it still in the air while Blackfeather drank gratefully from it, then released it all over the horse’s back, and laughed at the indignant nicker.

The very first time he’d done this – properly done this, not while panicking the morning right before the exorcism – he’d run towards the lake in some fury he could barely remember anymore, no doubt prompted by his father, and dived in. He’d had a vague idea of letting himself sink to the bottom to drown, which in retrospect would have been impossible even without magic. But he’d been too angry at the time to care. He’d lain on the rocks at the bottom of the lake for as long as his breath would allow, and then… then he’d somehow managed to breathe inside of an air bubble. When he’d finally resurfaced, hours had passed and the sun was setting.

Now that he knew it wasn’t just water he could bend to his will, maybe the air bubble had also been his doing.

Dillon took his coat and shirt off, left them behind on the rock in the sun, and stepped into the lake. He waded further in, took a deep breath, and let his head sink under. He waited until the supply in his lungs was nearly depleted, and then he tried taking a new breath underwater –

- and immediately came up spluttering, coughing out the mouthful of water he’d mistakenly swallowed.

He couldn't remember what he’d done last time. Created air out of the water itself? Summoned it? Surely he hadn't just grown a pair of gills, like a fish.

No, he’d breathed air. Which meant he’d gotten the air from somewhere. Which meant that either there was air compressed in water, or…

Dillon put his hands about a metre in front of his face, tried to imagine the air as solid, and pushed. It could have been simply his imagination, but he did feel some resistance there.

What if he couldn't summon it, just as he couldn't summon water? What if, in order to breathe underwater, he had to bring air with him?

Dillon tested the theory. He took a deep breath, tried to pull air in around his head, and sank under. He knew, the instant he had, that it worked, because the underwater world looked different now. Clearer. Sharper. He could see clear across to the other bank, because he wasn’t looking through water, he was looking through air.

He tentatively took a small breath, and nearly gave the whole thing up for how very very strange it felt.

It was only a small bubble around his head, so it didn’t last for very long. Once Dillon felt himself growing light-headed, he released the air and resurfaced. There had to be a way to make it last longer, because he’d been underwater for hours before, but… for one day’s work, this was good progress. He’d made it a very firm point when he started practicing this magic that he would not rest until he could know exactly how he was controlling it all, because he didn’t need to ask anyone to know that magic without direct and conscious control was disastrous.

When he was eleven, and still recovering, he’d taken it as proof that he’d been adopted, and not told. Now, it was far greater comfort to realise that he hadn't been adopted, and that he was different anyway. It told him, more than any tutor ever had, that Dillon was perfectly capable of forging his own path. All he had to do was find it. Kenny was looking into apprenticeships more and more recently, and Aeneas had told Dillon to start thinking about it, because in a few years he’d be looking for one too.

“What sort of apprenticeship,” he asked Blackfeather, “does someone with f-faery blood in him take on?”

Blackfeather snorted in response. Dillon levitated some more water for him, and then sighed. “It doesn't matter, does it? Father’s not going to let me take one.”

His father had barely let him leave the house since the exorcism, after all.

Chapter Text

“Why pink?” Brianna demanded, folding her arms across her chest and pouting.

Dillon thought about it while Kenny put a hand over his mouth to hide his laughter. It didn’t work, and Brianna shot him a glare, which only made him laugh harder. “Because she’s a princess,” Dillon explained. “Princesses wear pink. It’s tradition.”

“Then tradition is stupid. This princess wears black.”

“Black?” Dillon lifted an eyebrow. “Whose funeral is she going to?”

“She doesn't have to be going to a funeral. She likes black. She wears short black dresses and riding boots.”

“Riding boots?”

“Riding boots.” Brianna glared up at her older brother, as if daring him to argue with her superior logic. Dillon held his hands up in surrender and smiled at her. “Alright. R-riding boots.”

“No. You have to say it properly.”

“Short black dresses and r-r-“ Dillon stopped, and swallowed. He was getting much better, but it still took a few tries every now and then to keep his voice under control. “Riding boots.”

Tá tú do chuid oibre a ghearradh amach ar do shon, deartháir,” Kenny said with a grin.

Shut suas,” * Dillon replied. They’d taken to learning and conversing in Irish, ever since Dillon discovered he never stuttered when speaking a different language. “She’s only ten.”

“Ten years old, and already a handful.”

“I’m not a handful,” Brianna objected haughtily. “And I’m not whatever you called me in Irish, either!”

Kenny laughed, and sat back, lazily draping one leg over the other. Dillon knew from vast amounts of experience that the moment they heard footsteps out in the hall, those legs would slide back into a position much more befitting of a gentleman, but Kenny had never seen the point in worrying so much about his posture around his siblings. “Feisty, freisin.” **

“Feisty is English, Kenny.”

“Of course it was. It was a compliment.” Kenny turned his smile on Brianna. “You’re going to make a man very happy someday in the future, Bri.”

Brianna nodded in self-satisfaction, and then put her chin back in her hands. Dillon quickly revised the entire story in his own mind, and then continued as if he’d never been interrupted. “Unfortunately, this princess was inflicted with a terrible curse. A c-curse that had plagued her since she was born. Do you know what this curse was, Brianna?”

Brianna shook her head, eyes wide.

“It was a curse that made her eyes and her hair bright, bright pink.”

Brianna gasped, and leaned forward, wrapping her arms around her knees. “How’d she get rid of it?”

“With talent, and aplomb, a-and a large broadsword that is strong enough to cut off the heads of ogres.”

Brianna’s eyes twinkled with interest and curiosity. She was wearing a proper dress and stockings that day, but only because she’d been forced into it, kicking and screaming, by Nan. Most days, she insisted on breeches like her twin brother’s – and she was still young enough to get away with it, still young enough for it to endear people to her rather than raise anyone’s eyebrows. Two more years, Dillon knew, and she’d be forced to wear the same sort of thing Cara now was. She’d be miserable.

Her twin brother, Lugan, sat bored beside her. He was her twin in name only; he was ten months older. But the pair were close enough in age, particularly among the rest of their older siblings, that they’d been inseparable for years. Add to that similarities in appearance, and even their father, who so railed against logical inaccuracies and falsehoods, had come to refer to them as ‘the twins.’

A thought occurred to Dillon. With a glance over at Kenny, he picked his next words carefully. “Did you know that curses can also give people m-m-magical abilities?”

Kenny lifted an eyebrow. Brianna, for her part, just let her mouth fall open. “The princess can do magic? What sort of magic?”

“Elemental magic. She can control and summon water, and she can d-do the same thing with air.”

“The Bible says magic is evil.”

“That’s because the Bible’s written by man,” said Lugan, speaking up for the first time since the story started. He always liked to pretend Dillon’s and Kenny’s stories bored him to tears, but it usually took him longer than this to admit he was listening. “And is therefore imperfect. That’s what Father Martin says.”

I’m perfect,” Brianna pointed out quite logically.

“So you are,” Dillon agreed. And so i-is this princess.”

“If she has to have magic, why does it have to be water?” Lugan asked. “Why can’t it be something powerful?”

“Water is very powerful. Remember the beach, during that s-storm? Remember the waves?”

Lugan pursed his lips, thinking about it, and then he nodded. “Alright. Water is powerful. Keep going.”

And Dillon kept going, spinning a tale that kept both Brianna and Lugan entranced. Cara walked in, about halfway through, to get Kenny’s help on something; she ended up staying and listening along with the younger pair. She was thirteen now, and no longer taken by the inventive flights of fancy that had made her so much fun to spend time with when they were younger. Even so, she still enjoyed stories, with adventure and intrigue being her favourites.

Dillon didn’t have the sort of imagination that being a story-teller required, but he knew the sorts of things that would enthrall Brianna. And he knew how to make people think. Kenny pitched in now and again whenever Dillon got stuck, but the tale was largely Dillon's own.

In the end, even when the princess broke the curse, she kept her magical powers. That had been Kenny’s idea.

Dillon thought about it, while he spoke. He ended the story on a very contemplative note for Brianna – the princess grew to miss the pink in her hair and her eyes, so she started wearing pink dresses of her own accord, because she’d finally learned that clothes and outward appearance didn’t make a person’s heart. But, while Brianna and Lugan cheerfully debated it, Dillon was having a small revelation of his own.

Say his magic wasn’t the result of a curse. Say it was because he really did have faery blood in him. Didn’t that mean his powers would grow? And if they would grow, and he was right when he said it was Elemental magic, then when would it stop? Could he one day control fire? Create windstorms? Lash water at a beach to make people think a horrific storm was coming? Could he, one day, control the very Earth itself?

Kenny prodded him in the shoulder to make him look up, and when Dillon did, he was surprised to see a look of concern on his older brother’s face. “Cad é atá tú ag smaoineamh?

Dillon gave him a reassuring smile. “Go leor de na rudaí cliste beag.

Sin ag dul a fháil tú i dtrioblóid lá amháin.

I ndáiríre, i ndáiríre tá súil agam a dhéanann sé.” ^

~~

“You’re on your own much more these days,” Kenny pointed out carefully when he and his brother were alone that night.

Dillon nodded. He’d been expecting a conversation like this to happen sooner or later, and had rehearsed most of his assurances in the mirror for months. “Smaoinigh rud ar bith de. Tá sé aon rud a dhéanamh a bhfuil tú; Tá mé ag iarraidh ach a –" ^^

“In English, Dillon. Please. Trying to what?”

He glanced up in surprise. “You know more Irish than I do. W-why?”

“Because it’s harder for you to lie in English.”

They looked at each other for a long moment in the light of the drawing room candles; then Dillon relented, and sat down to face his brother. “I’m just t-trying to protect you.”

Protect me? From what? What secrets could you possibly have that I wouldn't be able to handle? Have you fallen in love with a girl off the moors? Is that why you’re hiding so much?”

Dillon faltered, and stared. “A girl off the moors? Really, Kenny? You, spending so much time with that servant girl, and you casually insult all others you consider beneath us?”

“I don’t know anymore, Dillon. All that time you spend at the lake? You tell me what you've been doing.”

“You thought I was meeting someone?”

“I hardly thought you were swimming.

“You’re going to follow in Father’s footsteps, and immediately assume the worst of whatever it is you’re observing?”

Kenny’s eyes grew suddenly cold. “Don’t you dare compare me to him. I could think much, much worse.”

“Enlighten me.”

“Devil-worship,” Kenny spat.

The ringing silence alerted him to his own words, and, to his credit, Kenny hastily tried to rephrase. “I know you’re not. I know you, Dillon. But that’s why I’m terrified for you. Because you never hid anything from me, and then for a while after the exorcism I thought I was the only one in the family who understood you, and now I’m starting to see how wrong I was. Your thoughts wander, constantly, and I never know where they’re wandering. You never tell me. It’s as if you've this vast intellect, a reservoir, but speaking took up all of its power. Now, space is freed, and more space is freed every day, and you’re starting to leave me behind in the dust. Do I bore you, Dillon?”

“No.” He spoke almost desperately, now that Kenny was giving him an opening. “Never.”

“Then why don’t you ever talk to me anymore? What are you trying to protect me from?”

Dillon looked away. He wasn’t even sure himself. Maybe he could tell Kenny; maybe he even should have. But something stopped him, and he wasn’t sure what. Fear of their father? Was it deniability that he wanted his brother to have? That might have been part of it; the events of four years ago were burned painfully into his memory, but he would undergo all of it dozens of times over if it meant that Kenny would never have to.

Maybe it was fear of the reaction Kenny himself would have. Maybe it was fear that Dillon would find out he imagined it all. But mostly, Dillon knew, it was selfishness. Because Kenny was right. He had once shared everything with his brother. This, these abilities, this magic – Dillon wanted it to be his and his alone.

Kenny wouldn't understand that, even if he could understand everything else. All he’d feel was betrayal.

Kenny frowned. “Say my name.”

“What?”

“My name. Say it.”

“Kenny?”

“No. My real name.”

“Cainneach.”

The moment the word had left his lips, Dillon realised it was the first time he’d ever spoken it out loud. It was too painful a name to pronounce for a young boy with a pronounced stutter, and so after those first failures, he’d never tried again. He honestly thought, at the time, that he’d never be able to pronounce it.

Kenny’s face lit up with a smile. “There. See? World’s best speech-maker, didn’t I say so? I still say so.”

Dillon felt his mind reeling. “How did you know I’d be able to –“

“You didn’t stutter the whole time we were fighting. I've told you before, haven’t I? When you’re focussed on something important, you’re fine. Your mind’s distracted. You’re using it for something. Otherwise, it goes all over the place and your mouth ties itself in knots trying to follow.”

Dillon tilted his head. “Why, Kenny. Did you nearly pay me a compliment there?”

“And I am never repeating it, so don’t ask me to.”

He laughed. “Fair enough.”

“Don’t get stuck here, Dillon. Don’t let Father stop you from making a life of your own. Find a way out. See the world, fall in love, find people who will be truly impressed with your mental prowess. Then come back home to brag, so I can clobber you over the head for leaving me behind.”

“You make it sound so easy.” Dillon’s smile faded. “These past few months, Father hasn't even let me go to the lake. How am I meant to escape from that?”

“If you don’t find a way,” said Kenny, “then I’ll have to erase everything I just said about you being too intelligent for your own good.”

“We can’t have that, can we?” Dillon yawned. “Help me up. My bed is calling to me.”

“It’s the demons, Dillon. Don’t listen. They’ll possess you again.”

“I can think of at least one who will,” Dillon shot back with a grin.

“Oh dear. You've discovered my secret.” Kenny held out his hand, and yanked Dillon unceremoniously to his feet. “To bed, then, brother. Let the demons envelop you and put you to sleep.”

“Don’t tempt me.”

“You don’t get to order me around. In fact, as the older brother, I’m giving you an order. If you’re still under Father’s thumb by the time I’m married, I will push your head into the wedding cake.”

“That fills me with utter terror.”

“As it should, my dear brother. As it should.”

~




Irish Translations:

* 'You have your work cut out for you, brother.' And, Dillon's oh-so-eloquent response: 'Shut up.'

** 'Feisty, too.'

^
'What are you thinking?'

'Lots of clever little things.'

'That's going to get you in trouble one day.'

'I really, really hope it does.'

^^ 'Think nothing of it. It has nothing to do with you. I'm just trying to - '

Chapter Text

Wedding parties, Dillon reflected, were occasionally even more depressing than funereal wakes.

Not for him, of course. For him, it was fascinating. But it was fascinating because of the myriad of reactions the guests had, of which happiness was usually not one. Women were either doing their best to hide their pronounced jealousy, smug as they dreamt of their own weddings, or embittered by their own failed or forced marriages. Men, as a whole, tended to be bored. That, or frightened, and only barely managing to conceal it. There were exceptions, naturally, as there always were – Brianna was very stubbornly bored by the proceedings, for example, and Lugan was surprisingly interested.

But then, maybe it wasn’t so surprising. Lugan had, more and more these days, taken on the more admirable of Dillon’s traits. He looked up to the elder boy with a sort of fervent hero worship Dillon found both amusing and touching. No one had ever looked up to him before. He’d believed, growing up, that Kenny was the only one worthy of such an honour. Then again, if Kenny hadn't been in the picture, Dillon would probably have grown up idolising his father, just for being able to speak properly.

“What about that one?” Lugan asked, pointing to a heavyset woman in green satin sitting with her husband.

Dillon tilted his head. “Actually, that one’s genuinely happy.”

“She must be the only one, then,” Lugan teased. “How do you know?”

Dillon had long ago gotten into the habit of either saying nothing that was on his mind, or explaining exactly how he'd come to know something. He didn’t think about it, most of the time, but he’d realised years ago that it was because he liked preemptively putting people in awe for his own exploits, without making them believe he was possessed. Either the mystery was absolute, or it was completely revealed. Dillon no longer accepted an in-between.

That was partly why he still hadn't told Kenny about his magical abilities.

“The laugh lines around her eyes,” Dillon explained. “There’s too many of them for her age, and she’s never bothered trying to hide them. She indulges. She very much enjoys parties like this – probably for the same reason we do.”

“And why do we, again?”

“Because nobody else does.”

Lugan tried, unsuccessfully, to hide his laughter behind one hand. “Why do you always think the worst of people?”

“Because I’m usually right.”

“Maybe about Father, but you can’t possibly be right about everyone. What about Kenny? You don’t think the worst of him.”

“Cainneach,” Dillon corrected without thinking. “And that’s because Cainneach is too lovesick to make a fool of himself anymore.”

Lugan nodded sagely. “Remember when he used to be fun?”

Dillon gave him a sideways look. “Not particularly.”

Lugan made no effort to hide his laughter this time and punched Dillon on the shoulder, a hopeless feat that got them both noticed by their father, and a withering glare besides. Lugan clamped his mouth shut and thrust both hands behind his back. Dillon had stopped caring long ago and simply gave his father a cheerful grin in response. A year ago, Aeneas had followed Dillon to the lake, and realised that was where he went whenever he left the house. He’d cut in, thank God, right before seeing anything unnatural. But he’d still been furious, and forbidden Dillon from ever leaving the house again. Kenny, by the time he was seventeen, had found an apprenticeship and gone to live in town, where he’d met his fiancée and was now being married to her. Dillon had just turned seventeen, and had done absolutely nothing. Even his magic, which he could no longer safely practice, was starting to feel the strain. He could feel it, tingling impatiently on his fingertips.

“Hello, you two! Don’t look so glum!” Kenny appeared behind them with a grin that put Dillon’s earlier one to shame, slipped an arm around both of their shoulders, and slumped so that he was practically hanging off them. “It’s a party! We’re celebrating! Enjoy yourselves!”

“You’re drunk,” said Lugan with a half-smile.

“So what if I am? Just means I’m saner than the pair of you. Grab some whiskey. Forget about being stuffy uptight noblemen for one day. Please? For me? Oh, and Dillon, better duck when the cake comes out.”

Lugan frowned. “What happens when the cake comes out?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” said Dillon. His brother really was drunk. He gently pulled Kenny’s arm off his shoulder and pushed him upright. “Don’t worry about us, Kenny. We’re having our own fun. You go take care of your bride.”

“Oh, I’m taking care of her,” Kenny assured them. “I’m taking care of her tonight. You two are not invited.”

Lugan made a face, and Dillon laughed. He patted his older brother on the shoulder. “Kenny, why don’t you go tell Father all about your plans for tonight? I’m sure he’d love to hear them.”

Kenny’s face grew suddenly serious, and he wagged a finger in front of Dillon. “You’re trying to get me into trouble. You’re trying to prank a play on me.”

“Prank a play?” Dillon shot Lugan an innocent look, and Lugan muffled his smile into the sleeve of his shirt. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean, brother.”

“You do. You are playing me for a fool, and I will not stand for it.”

“Then sit down.”

“That…” Kenny trailed off, a faraway and uncomprehending look in his eyes, and then he beamed. “.. is an excellent idea. Let me go find my beautiful bride. Until we meet again!”

And then he wandered off, nearly crashing into the table with the liquor bottles as he did so.

“That,” said Lugan, this time without bothering to hide the grin, “was unforgivably cruel. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”

“And yet.” Dillon sat down again, his attention back on the rest of the party-goers. “Your turn. Tell me what you know about that one.”

Lugan squinted at the young girl Dillon had pointed out, and it was as if Kenny had never interrupted them. “She doesn't want to be here.”

“She doesn't. Odd, in an attractive girl that age, don’t you think?”

“Only because you think all girls have the same thoughts on their mind.” Lugan sank into the plush dining chair next to Dillon’s. “Spurned lover?”

“Possibly. Possibly not. There’s a tear in the sleeve of her dress.”

“And?”

“She pulled it on. Quickly, haphazardly, without any regard for the dress itself. Rather like Brianna.”

“You think she doesn't want to be here because she doesn't like the reminder she’ll have to be married herself one day?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You think she’s Brianna?”

Dillon scoffed. “Hardly. She’s given in to what society demands of her. She’s here, isn't she? Whereas Brianna has yet to appear.”

“That’s true,” Lugan agreed. “Last I saw, Nan was trying to force her into a dress.”

“There you have it.”

“Of course,” said Lugan, scanning the room, “she’s usually succeeded by now, but I haven’t seen Brianna all evening. Have you?”

Dillon frowned. “Come to think of it, no.”

“I’m sure they’re alright.”

“Not if Nan didn’t succeed.” Dillon looked at the spot their father had been occupying up until a few minutes ago, and his suspicion was confirmed when he saw that Aeneas was gone. He wasn’t anywhere else in the room either, and that was just uncharacteristic enough for Dillon to rise to his feet. “I’ll go find her. You stay and make sure Kenny doesn't do anything stupid, like trip and fall into his own cake.”

“You want me to do the impossible?” Lugan protested, but Dillon left before he could argue.

He checked the kitchens first, and came across his brother’s fiancée chatting quietly with a friend. They both waved merrily at him, and Dillon returned both waves, but just before he meant to duck out again the taller girl stopped him. “Dillon, fair warning. Cainneach means to push you into the cake later this evening.”

Dillon stopped, and looked at her. “Why?”

“He said you’d remember. Something about a promise?”

“I've never promised him anything regarding a –"

- except, Dillon belatedly realised, he had. Years ago, the first and only time Kenny confronted him about becoming too withdrawn. Technically, Dillon hadn't promised anything, but Kenny had said that if Dillon was still under Aeneas’s thumb by the time Kenny was married…

Dillon felt his expression sour, and made no attempt to hide it. What could he have possibly done since then? Murdered their father in his sleep? Kenny had done absolutely nothing to help – the moment he'd become infatuated with somebody else, he was the one who’d grown withdrawn. And Dillon had held his tongue.

Kenny's fiancée noticed. “Dillon? Is anything the matter?”

“No.” He consciously wiped his face and turned to leave, then changed his mind. “You haven’t seen Brianna anywhere, have you?”

“Bri?” She shook her head. “No. I heard her kicking up a fuss earlier. I think your maid went to go find your father.”

Dillon felt himself go cold. “Where did he take her?”

“Why would he take her anywhere?”

Dillon spun around and ran before he could say what was on his mind. Before he could say that it was because Aeneas needed to be careful around alcohol, something Dillon had tried mentioning once, and never again. Because Aeneas, when he’d had a bit to drink, was more disposed to irrational anger and more difficult to placate. Because he’d done things he regretted while in the throes of drunkenness, and he’d always, always, been upset over Brianna’s refusal to act like a young lady.

He found them in the private parlour. Nan came rushing out as Dillon approached, and her face etched with relief when she saw him. “Master Dillon – please, help –"

He burst in. Brianna was on the floor, crying, while Aeneas loomed above her with dark eyes full of rage and his arm up by his head.

Dillon barely had time to note that Brianna was in men’s slacks and a button-down shirt – although some part of him had time to be amused by it – before he stalked forward and kicked Aeneas as hard as he could in the ribs. Aeneas folded sideways with a gasp and stumbled against the wall. It was satisfying to watch, but Dillon cursed when he realised he was too late. Half of Brianna’s face was bright red with impact, and there was blood at the top of her cheek by her eye. The ring, Dillon knew, on his father’s hand. The wedding ring. He’d hit Brianna hard enough for that to cut.

Aeneas pushed himself to his feet. “How dare you.”

“F-funny,” said Dillon. His voice always betrayed him when he was speaking to his father. He ignored it. “I could say the s-same thing to you.”

His hands, clutched into fists by his sides, were shaking. Not from fear, as they so often did, but from anger. Anger sudden and hot, spurred on by years of forced isolation and pitying hateful glances and the unwarranted intimidation of his own children and Kenny. Raising a hand to his youngest daughter was where Dillon firmly and irrevocably drew the line.

Aeneas looked at him. Dillon’s fists stilled. It was a look, he knew, which a sober Aeneas would never have worn. It was a look caused by liquor, not by genuine emotion. A look fed by the cinders of irrational fury, not by the objective logic his father so prized.

But in that moment, all Dillon saw was hatred.

“I've given you leeway,” Aeneas said in a very low voice. “I've given you room for your – your eccentricities, your freedoms, your manners. I've tried, very hard, to be understanding to your plight, to allow for the effects of demonic possession, even those which I cannot hope to comprehend. I will not allow for this.”

“Leeway?” Dillon’s laugh sounded bitter, even to his own ears. His anger was too hot for anything else. “Understanding? Father. All you've done is s-suffocate me.”

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were born a demon.”

Had Dillon not found so much of his confidence in the last minute, he would have flinched. As it was, he stood his ground. “Do you? Know any better?”

Oh, how Dillon wished he had a way of capturing the expression on his father’s face with those words, of somehow painting it into immortality. It was a mixture of outrage, confusion, dawning comprehension, and – Dillon’s favourite – fear. He wondered what he looked like just then. Without a stutter, without a twitch, with nothing but a very pointed smile, what did his father see? Did his father see a true demon?

For all Dillon knew, perhaps he was.

Aeneas made the sign of the cross on his chest, and started muttering a prayer beneath his breath. The sight made Dillon laugh. “Are you still trying to fool yourself into thinking you’re a good man?”

His father glared, but didn’t stop the prayer. Dillon shook his head, and spoke in Irish, for no reason but to irritate him further. “Good men don’t hit little girls for not obeying them, Father.”

Something reignited in Aeneas’s eyes. Dillon never did work out what it was. Guilt-driven fury, or perhaps Aeneas had caught their mother’s illness and didn’t even remember what he’d done. It didn’t matter what his motivations were, in the end. What mattered was that he shot to his feet, and went straight for Dillon, with his intent perfectly clear.

Room to practice his magic had become scarce, but Dillon still found it. And, months ago, he’d realised something else he could do. That was what he called on now; he snapped his fingers, felt the heat flare in his palm, and met his father with an outstretched arm before Aeneas could get close enough to hit him. Aeneas gave an inhuman yell of pain and terror, reeling back with the chest of his jacket on fire, beating madly at the flames until he could put them out. Dillon turned his attention to Brianna, and held out his hand. “You’re going to be miserable here. Come with me.”

Brianna stared at him with wide, tear-filled eyes. “Dillon?”

“Yes?”

“Are you a faery?”

Dillon gave her a gentle smile. “I’m the closest thing there is.”

She stared at him for a few moments longer, then blinked the tears away and took his hand, letting her pull her to her feet. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know,” said Dillon honestly. “Dublin, possibly. I've never been to Dublin. Wouldn't you like to know what it’s like?”

She smiled. Tentatively, but it was a smile. “Yes.”

“Then what are we waiting for?” Dillon guided his sister gently but firmly out of the room, waiting just long enough to make sure his father wouldn't be killed. The moment the last flame disappeared, the moment Aeneas slumped on the floor with long deep breaths of relief, Dillon and Brianna were gone.

They skirted the party to leave by one of the side entrances, so they wouldn't attract attention. They avoided the rounds of the footmen and servants stationed outside to take care of the guests’ horses and carriages, just to be safe. Dillon felt as though he was holding his breath until they were all the way at the stables, and only released it when he ascertained the stables themselves were empty of people.

“We can come back,” Brianna said softly. “Can’t we? Once Father’s calmed down?”

Dillon remembered the last time he’d gone back. Aeneas had calmed down, and that still hadn't made things any better. In fact, that had only made things worse. Dillon had been exorcised, on nothing more than the evidence of a stutter and a budding intellect. He’d borne the scars of that exorcism for years afterwards. And now, his father had seen him do real magic.

“No,” he answered. “I can’t. You shouldn't, either, but Father will likely forgive you with the passage of time.”

“What about Lugan?”

“Yes,” said a voice from behind them. “What about me?”

Dillon didn’t even bother turning around. “Lugan, go home.”

“No.” Lugan stepped over to join them in front of Blackfeather’s box stall. “Father’s furious. He’s ruining the party searching for you. If we’re going to go, we've got to go now.”

“Lugan, you haven’t done anything to incur his wrath. We’re leaving with no money, no luggage, no prospects. I doubt we’ll even have a roof over our heads tonight. You do. Take advantage of it.”

Lugan didn’t say anything until Dillon had turned to face him, and could see that something in his expression had grown steely. “I thought you cared about me.”

“I do.”

“Then please.” His voice wavered slightly. “Please, don’t leave me alone with him. You two are the only ones I – please. Don’t leave me on my own. Please.

“Lugan.” Dillon looked him right in the eye and tried to ignore the wrenching of his gut. “If I could rescue everyone from this household, I would. You know I would. But I can’t. Someone has to look after Cara, and you know Kenny won’t. Someone has to be there for her.”

“You can be.”

“Father thinks I’m a demon.”

“Tell him you’re not.”

“It’s not that simple.” Dillon held out his hand and snapped his fingers. The flame grew to engulf his whole hand, and then he released the fire to let it drift in the air, burning itself out until there was nothing left.

Lugan backed up against the wall of the stable and stood there, rigid. Dillon took the opportunity to saddle up Blackfeather, a process during which neither Brianna nor Lugan said a word. Dillon skipped most of the required steps – anything that didn’t immediately contribute to his or Blackfeather’s safety. He was half-surprised Aeneas hadn't thought to check the stable yet. Then again, liquor clouded the mind. Perhaps he’d forget completely.

“You’re not a demon,” Lugan finally said. “You’re not. I know you're not. You can prove that to Father. You can stay.”

“The last time I proved it to Father,” said Dillon without looking up from his work, “I was locked in a room and starved for a week, tied to a bed, f-force-fed poison, and nearly choked to death.”

He tightened the girth one last time, patted Blackfeather’s neck, and held his arms out to Brianna. She reached out silently and he lifted her smoothly up into the saddle. Then he turned back around to deal with Lugan’s budding expression of horror, but the younger boy shook his head and slid further away along the wall. “You’re going to leave me with a man who once did that to his own son?”

“He won’t do it to you. He doesn't have a reason to.”

“When has needing a reason ever stopped him?”

“Lugan.” Dillon turned and swung himself up into the saddle behind Brianna. “If you leave with me, you will not have a future. You need a background to have a future. You need the sort of resources Father can offer. Don’t throw away what you don’t have to.”

“You say that,” said Lugan coldly, “but you’re perfectly happy taking Brianna with you.”

“Father hit me, Lugan,” said Brianna, touching her hand to her cheek. “I want to go.”

“I can protect you from –"

“No, you can’t. I don’t want you to get hurt because of me.”

“Then tell Dillon to let me go with you.”

She didn’t. She stayed quiet. Then she shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. “We’ll be back. I promise. I’ll make sure we are.”

“What if something stops you?”

“Then I’ll beat it to a pulp. Like the pink princess in Dillon’s stories, remember?”

Dillon heard a commotion from up near the main house spill out onto the lawn; he turned Blackfeather around so they were facing the opposite direction and walked him out of the stable. “Don’t let Father catch you here, Lugan. He’ll think you helped us.”

When Lugan didn’t respond, Dillon looked over his shoulder, and was only mildly surprised to see that his brother was already gone. His gut wrenched harder; he ignored it still, and clicked his tongue. “Giddup, Blackfeather. Let’s go.”

He put an arm around Brianna’s waist to keep her steady against the pommel as Blackfeather gathered speed, and then the three of them galloped off into the meadows.

Chapter Text

The first town they came across was nothing more than a collection of houses built around the fork in a river. Even then, that tiny village was further than Dillon had been taken before, so he and Brianna avoided interaction as much as they could. The sun was starting to climb into the sky by the time they arrived, and by all rights they should have earned a rest, but it was still too close to the manor house. It was the first place Aeneas would come. They lingered only long enough to purchase food, and then they were off again.

The food they purchased was already half of the money Dillon had taken with him. It was pocket change that he’d kept in a small drawstring bag hidden in the stables, for just such an emergency as this. The trouble was, he’d anticipated running off on his own. He’d only taken enough for a week’s worth of food, calculated carefully through his studies, and now it was going to disappear twice as fast. More so, because while Dillon didn’t mind scraps for a meal, he wasn’t willing to give Brianna any less than a full course.

“I don’t need this much,” she said uncomfortably as he spread the food over the table at the pub.

“If you don’t eat it,” he said, picking up what he hoped was a potato, “then I will.”

“No you won’t.”

“I won’t?”

“You’ll just force-feed me in my sleep.”

“Either way, you should eat this now.”

Brianna rolled her eyes and took one of the potatoes. “Alright. If you insist.”

They were off again the moment they’d eaten, and spent that night sleeping under the stars around the smouldering remains of a fire Dillon built for them. He resisted the urge to unsaddle Blackfeather for the evening – without a blanket, the horse would shiver in the cold Irish night, and more than likely come down sick before dawn. The saddle wasn't ideal, but it would have to do.

The next morning, the town they arrived at was quite a bit bigger, and there was better food in more places for a little cheaper. In an effort to stretch their money out, Dillon gave in to Brianna’s demands of not being treated any differently than if she was the same age as Dillon, and they both munched on a single apple each while they walked around. The town, as Brianna pointed out, was a place where things happened; everyone looked important, everyone looked busy, no one greeted each other as though they saw each other every day. It was strange. Dillon was used to understanding anyone who came around the estate right away, after only a few moments of observation. These people were different, and more genuine in their feelings towards each other. Either there was less to understand, or Dillon didn't have the knowledge to understand it.

Brianna grew tired quickly, so they sat down to rest on the edge of the square’s fountain and watched the people hurry by. No one paid them any attention. In the previous village, Brianna was regarded with equal parts amusement and scorn for her attire; here, although she was still noticeably out of place, no one spared a glance.

“How long,” Dillon finally asked, “has Lugan been scaring you?”

Brianna looked up at him, startled. “Lugan hasn't been scaring me.”

“Then why didn’t you want him to come?”

“Because – because of what you were saying.”

“What was I saying?”

Brianna stared. Then, because they both knew she couldn't remember enough to answer, she hugged herself and hunched inwards. “You told him not to come because you knew, didn’t you?”

Dillon didn’t say anything. She took a deep breath, blew it out, and then put her face into her knees so her voice came out muffled. “He’s changed. I don’t know how, exactly. But he’s quieter. He’s angrier. He keeps… looking at me. I have a bad feeling, is all. He’s taking –“ her voice faltered. “He’s taking after Father.”

Dillon nodded, and a few moments passed in silence. All around them, people walked, and talked, and occasionally jostled, on their way to wherever the day’s business was taking them. Dillon and Brianna sat a world apart, adrift in a turbulent ocean neither of them were prepared for, in a bubble of calm that broke only when Brianna raised her head. “Dillon, how did you know? I never told anyone.”

“I didn’t,” he said. “Not until that night. You hadn't shown up for the party, and he didn’t seem worried in the least. I wondered. And then your expression when he arrived at the stable convinced me.”

“I didn’t have an expression.”

“Then I must have imagined it. Just as I imagined you telling him yourself to stay behind.”

“How do you do that?” Brianna demanded. “Take the smallest thing, and guess the truth from it? Is that magic too?”

“No,” Dillon smiled. “Just intelligence. Anyone could do it, if they took the time to practice.”

“Dillon, you’re a faery.”

“Faeries can’t be intelligent?”

“Not when it’s magic, they can’t.”

“Alright, then. It’s magic.” Dillon sat back on the heels of his hands and looked up at the clouds.

“Dillon?” Brianna fingered the hem of her button-down, staring down at the cobblestones of the ground under her feet. “Where are we going to go?”

“England,” Dillon decided.

England? Why England?”

“Two reasons. First, Father will never find you there. Nor will Lugan, once he’s grown, if you don’t want him to. Second, we have relatives there, from Mother’s side of the family. I've never met them, but I've seen their names in correspondence, and they've never liked Father. That’s our best chance for finding you a place to live.”

“Me?” Brianna squinted suspiciously. “What about you?”

“I’m seventeen, Brianna. I don’t need guardianship. What I need is to strike out on my own.”

The words had, up until that point, been nothing more than an idea scratching at the back of Dillon’s mind. Now that he’d voiced it out loud, now that he’d made it fact, now that he was actually thinking about the meaning behind them, he froze.

He was free. He no longer had to obey his father’s rule. He was no longer under his father’s thumb. He was free to do what he wanted, pursue what he wanted, become whoever he wanted to be. Kenny no longer had the right to push him into a wedding cake. He probably would anyway, because he was Kenny. But at least now, Dillon could take the moral high ground and not feel guilty about it.

Kenny. The thought sent a pang of very fresh guilt spinning into Dillon's mind. He'd left, quite literally, in the middle of the night, without giving his older brother a single thought, let alone a note or a message. They'd once done everything together. How would Kenny react, when he learned what had happened? How would he feel, with no word or special consideration directed towards him? Angry? Frightened? Upset? Betrayed?

Dillon would never know.

"You’re coming back,” said Brianna. “To Ireland. Aren't you?”

“I have to. If there’s any chance of finding anyone else who can use magic… it’s going to be here.”

“They don’t have magic in England?”

“Not nearly as much.” Dillon could have laughed at himself. Seventeen years old, and already pretending to be an expert on magic and faeries. But he knew he would have come back to Ireland regardless; Ireland was his home. He could speak the language, and it was the country of jade he’d been imprisoned in for most of his life. Now that he could leave, he wanted nothing more than to explore it from border to border.

“How do we get there?” Brianna asked.

“To England? We take a boat.”

“Which boat?”

“A boat from Dublin.”

“Stop fooling and admit when you don’t know,” Brianna grumbled.

“But that might change your opinion of me. And we can’t possibly have that.”

“The pink princess admitted when she didn’t know.”

“I’m no pink princess.”

“You made her up!”

“Did I?” Dillon flashed his sister a teasing smile. “I thought you thought I was a faerie. If that’s true, then you don’t know how old I really am. I could have lived during the time of King Arthur.”

Brianna shoved him off the fountain. Dillon resisted the temptation to cushion his fall with air, landed painfully on the cobblestones, and grunted. His sister only laughed, and then grinned at him. “Can Blackfeather fit on a ship?” she wondered while Dillon climbed to his feet, purely in a transparent effort to distract him. Dillon let her believe she’d gotten away with it, and shrugged.

“We’ll have to sell him when we reach Dublin. That shouldn't be difficult. And we can use the money to secure ourselves passage on something respectable.”

Brianna looked upset. “But he’s Blackfeather.”

Dillon didn’t like the idea any more than she did, and told her so. But if they didn’t have the money, they would have to stowaway, and he didn’t know how to do that without getting caught. Not quite yet. Maybe in a couple of years when he'd had time to travel and experiment and observe, but not now and certainly not with his sister in tow. “I’ll make sure his new owner takes good care of him,” he promised.

“You’d better.” Brianna hopped off the fountain herself and stretched, pushing her hands into the sky in a decidedly unladylike manner, which made Dillon laugh. “I’m not tired anymore. Let’s go.”

She started walking off towards where they’d tethered Blackfeather, and Dillon followed after, forcibly reminded of how their mother’s illness had started revealing itself through bouts of inexplicable lethargy that vanished as quickly as they appeared.

Chapter Text

Ghastly didn’t like boats, as a rule. It was a rule he made up just then, as he watched the sails of the second ship – the Priam – on the horizon. His mother owned a small sailing ship, and she’d always promised it would one day belong to him. Ghastly no longer wanted it. After this was over, he was fairly sure he’d want nothing to do with the seven seas ever again.

“That’s a ship o’ Gráinne Ní Mháille, that is,” one of the shipmen on the upper deck said with uncharacteristic dread.

“Don’t be stupid,” said his companion. “Ní Mháille doesn't sail anymore.”

“Could be her descendant.”

“Don’ make it worse than it already is, mate,” the other man begged.

“What? You wan’ me ta say it’s just a pirate?”

“Be nice, yeah.”

“Fine. We’re abou’ ta be attacked, but it’s alrigh’, ‘cause it’s just pirates. They’re goin’ ta board and take th’ ship an’ run us through with their poisoned sabres, but it’s alrigh’, ‘cause it’s just pirates. Then they’re goin’ ta chain us an’ sell us as slaves, but it’s alrigh’, ‘cause it’s just –“

“Brian, shut up.”

“We’re going to be sold as undead slaves?” Ghastly asked dryly.

“Don’ knock it, mate. All’s I’m sayin’ is, we can’t outrun it, an’ we’re in a deep heapin’ pile o’ shit moment we get boarded.” He paused. “I mean, we’s goin’ ta be in a right pickle when we –“

“I know what you mean.” Ghastly pulled the hood of his cloak tighter around his head. He couldn't be sure if the sailor’s hurried correction was because all the sailors were terrified of him, or if it was because they thought it was their place, what with Ghastly being the tailor who’d hired their small trading vessel. He’d tried to set boundaries right away; he was only the tailor’s son, and therefore shouldn't be treated any differently from a fellow sailor. It worked to some extent - the sailors finally stopped checking their caustic banter the moment he appeared. But every now and then, someone’s reaction still made him self-conscious.

It was a ridiculous feeling to have with a pirates’ ship bearing down on them, and yet. No, Ghastly decided firmly. He definitely didn’t like boats.

“I apologise, Master Bespoke, sir,” said the ship’s captain from beside him. “I promised you an uneventful journey.”

Ghastly looked at him. The man stood rigid, tall, hands clasped behind his back. The captain of the ship in every way. It was a small trading vessel for hire, sailing from England to Ireland at Ghastly’s request, and yet the man had more of a sense of duty and honour than many English Navy captains. Or at least, that was what Ghastly’s father had said. Ghastly had never met an English Navy captain. Nor, by the sounds of it, did he want to.

“It’s alright,” he assured the captain – Coilin, was his name. Captain Coilin. “I've been through worse.”

The captain turned a skeptical eye on him. “You've been through worse than pirates?”

Ghastly hesitated. “Well, no. But I know how to deal with bullies. You have my word, captain. No one on this boat is going to be harmed.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t believe that word. There’s one of you, my men – none of whom are trained in combat – and me, all up against dozens of combat-ready pirates. Those are insurmountable odds.”

“You’ll have to trust me,” said Ghastly with a grim smile. “Don’t fight them. Don’t try. Let them come on board, surrender, and then let me handle the rest.”

“I don’t like the idea of that, Master Bespoke.”

“I don’t think you have a choice,” he replied, genuinely apologetic.

Pirates, he thought grimly as the much larger ship approached. Pirates. This was meant to be a simple errand, a trade, that Ghastly had only undertaken because his father’s business was picking up and his father didn’t have the time. It required a trip over to England to inspect the custom-ordered fabrics, then a trip back with the fabrics in cargo being overseen by someone who knew how to take care of the magical material within. The errand was routine, even for mortals. Especially for mortals. This trading vessel didn’t know what it had. How on earth did pirates know?

If Peter Love turned out to be a sorcerer… well, Ghastly didn’t know what he’d do, but he certainly wouldn't be very pleased. The fewer sorcerers in the world, the better. The idea of a sorcerer who’d still managed to become a prominent and notorious figure among mortals despite having a secret people would have hated him for just wasn’t fair.

“Stand down,” Captain Coilin called out to his crew. “Let them come aboard. Do not try to fight them.”

“Aye aye, cap’n,” said one of the sailors – the one called Brian, who’d first called out the pirates on the horizon. He was adventurous, to an extent, but paranoid about all the wrong things. Strangely enough, he was also the one Ghastly got along with the best. “We’ll jus’ put away our poisoned sabres, here.”

“No lip, Philips.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

“And no smart remarks towards them, either.”

Brian hesitated. “No’ even a little one?”

“Philips.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Ghastly put a hand on Brian’s shoulder, and gave him a sympathetic smile. “There’s a time and a place for it. This isn't it.”

“Oh?” Brian shot Ghastly a sideways look. “Hasn’ stopped you.”

“I've got the muscle to back it up.”

“Do yer know how ta use tha’ muscle?”

“I’ll use it on you, if you continue to endanger people’s lives this way.”

Brian spluttered, stared, and abruptly grinned when he saw the slight smile on Ghastly’s face. It was amazing how often sailors never expected anyone else to understand obvious euphemisms. The fact that Brian had expected Ghastly to understand was something of a refreshing change.

Despite Brian’s attitude and general disregard for authority, Ghastly was confident the sailor wouldn't try anything. He didn’t know how to try anything. And Ghastly turned out to be right; as the Priam drew up alongside their smaller trading vessel, and its passengers became fully apparent – thankfully without any so-called poisoned sabres – Brian’s lips drew tight, and he said nothing.

The ship was sailing under a black flag. Ghastly quietly took note of that, as their own boat was boarded and half the crew’s arms raised in surrender to ensure no one was hurt. This was Ghastly’s first encounter with pirates, but he thought most crews sailed under red. Red meant no quarter, no pity, no mercy. Black just meant… well, disease. And death. Possibly mercy, although black was known to be the opposite of the traditional sailing colour for mercy.

Ghastly didn’t raise his arms. Instead, he bowed his head, hiding the few visible scars on his head in shadow.

The captain of the pirate crew was an Englishman. He had a strong northern accent, as he bellowed out orders to his men. Unshaven, with long black hair that should have been hanging in strands, and instead almost curled around his face. He was wearing the strangest of hats; it looked like a tricorn, but sat in the wrong position, with the brim pinned to the top instead of sewed. It would have been interesting, if it wasn’t sitting on the head of someone who would undoubtedly sell every last one of the sailors into slavery. Ghastly didn’t feel as though he could ignore the bias on this particular occasion.

Half of the pirate’s crew disappeared below decks at their captain’s order to move the stolen cargo over to the Priam. Ghastly stiffened as he watched; they wouldn't know the material of the fabrics was magical, but there were any number of ways they could harm anything they didn’t deem valuable. The captain, meanwhile, cheerfully surveyed his prize before his gaze fell on the sailors, and darkened. There wasn’t a blunter way for him to indicate what value he placed on their lives.

He moved among them, looking some of them up and down, and then stopped in front of Brian. Brian was the only one not looking down at his feet. Ghastly cursed under his breath.

“You.” The captain drew his gun, a model with a long barrel Ghastly hadn't seen before, and prodded Brian in the shoulder with it. “Do you know who I am?”

“I do, sir.”

“Sir, eh?” The captain sneered. “If you do, then why the blatant challenge?”

“No challenge, sir.” Brian didn’t break their eye contact. “I make it a poin’ ta respect anyone pointin’ a gun at me. Sir.”

The captain’s eyes narrowed. “Who do you think I am?”

“Peter Love, sir.”

Love drew back, surprised. Ghastly, for his part, just felt cold dread. Peter Love. The Peter Love. What on earth was he doing off the coast of Ireland? Why would he be targeting them, apart from perhaps being a sorcerer himself and knowing the value of the material beneath him, which, as previously touched upon, would be too unfair to contemplate? Ghastly almost preferred the idea that this was a random occurrence.

“How,” Love asked slowly, “do you know that?”

“I listen, sir.”

“To what? My name hasn't been spoken since we boarded you.”

“Ta rumour, sir. You hear a lot, workin’ the docks.”

Love regarded him with much less scorn or contempt, and much more open curiosity. He smiled, and withdrew his gun. “I like you. Perhaps I’ll achieve something in this siege yet. And you.” He turned to where Ghastly stood. “Why haven’t you removed your hood? Does respect mean much less to you?”

A bully, Ghastly reminded himself. Simply a bully. A bully with a gun, to be fair, but nonetheless. Bullies more or less fought by the same code of conduct. When faced with Ghastly’s scars, they were always much more comfortable if they could convince themselves that Ghastly himself was a big ugly brute. That he couldn't speak, couldn't understand, and certainly couldn't plan.

So he stayed quiet.

“You will speak when spoken to.” Love’s smile vanished, and he put the barrel of the gun within the hood next to Ghastly’s head. “Let us see what you’re hiding beneath it.”

Whatever the gun was, whatever firing mechanism it used, it had to be one with a safety catch, or the gun would have accidentally discharged when it pushed the hood off Ghastly’s head and was immediately withdrawn with panicked surprise. That was what made Ghastly flinch. Love, being the bully that he was, would take the flinch to mean exactly what Ghastly wanted him to take it as; that Ghastly was terrified and unsuccessfully trying to hide it.

“Good God, man!” Love had taken two full steps backward. “What’s wrong with you? Did you make enemies of a barber, or did you take the razor to your head yourself?”

Ghastly’s bald head was covered in large, ridged scars from top to bottom, the result of a curse his mother had been plagued with while pregnant. Sorcerers tended to ask, or stare for a moment, and then nod and move on. Mortals, on the other hand, could never understand, and tended to exaggerate the importance of its impact on appearance and character.

Again, Ghastly kept quiet, and kept his head bowed. This time, Love came to the right conclusion, and nodded to himself. “Hired muscle, are you? Or has someone been saddled with responsibility over you?”

“I have,” said Captain Coilin. Either he caught on quickly, or he was hoping to protect his customer from undue notice and treatment. Either way, Ghastly was grateful.

Love looked at him, and his smile reappeared, tinged with a hint of sympathy. “Relative, or ward?”

“Neither. He’s the son of the man who hired us.”

“God help you, mate.” Love slipped his gun back into its holster and spoke without taking his eyes off Ghastly’s scars. “March ‘em all onto the ship. Doesn't look like we’ll need to worry about this lot, but let me make one thing very clear.” He spoke louder for the last bit, and tore his gaze away from Ghastly to eye each of the sailors in turn. “Anyone resists, and I will shoot without warning.”

Ghastly drew on what his mother had taught him over the years, and counted his mercies to keep himself from dwelling on the worst possible outcomes. No one was dead yet. That should have been a given, but Ghastly had been taught how rare that given could be. Now he was starting to see it for himself. No reason to panic; simply a mercy to count. What else? No one had resisted yet, or looked like they were about to. Not even Brian.

He couldn't think of any others, aside from perhaps all of the fabric now being carried over to the Priam. At least he could still keep what he paid for. Assuming he could manage that while saving everyone else.

God, he needed help.

“Captain,” he said quietly. “You said none of your men can fight. Can you?”

“Not to any admirable extent, Master Bespoke, but I can certainly hold my own.”

“While defending others?”

“If it came to that, I would certainly try.”

The honesty was pleasant, if not precisely helpful. Ghastly considered his options. He didn’t trust himself against the gun, although if worst came to worst, he could probably slow down the bullet enough not to kill anyone. He would, however, need to take care of Love if he was going to be able to help anyone, and… he just couldn't do that on his own. Not so close to the Surge. Not when most of his magic was being drained away in preparation for that.

It wasn’t the first time Ghastly wished his mother was there with him. But it was, by far, the one that put the worst ache in his chest, and that was including the time he’d been punched in the chest.

~~

The brig of the Priam was everything Ghastly expected – larger than what was standard, for fairly obvious reasons. It was dark, and it was dank. There were no sources of light around, and therefore it was cold. Not freezing, not remotely, but... definitely cold. And with the addition of still water, even slight cold could be deadly. Ghastly doubted Love cared.

It took only a few hours for the effects to become apparent. Sailors were hardy by nature, and didn’t complain about something they considered as trivial as temperature. But two of them, the ones trapped closest to the wooden sides of the ship, were shivering. Ghastly had to keep reminding himself why he wasn’t allowed to help. It would be difficult to explain away a flame in the palm of his hand as ‘a piece of flint.’

He was running out of excuses not to help, however, when the man put in the same cell as he had curled up in the corner with his feet as blue as the seawater outside.

“Does this happen a lot?” Ghastly asked, rubbing the man’s feet to try and induce some warmth.

“Mhm,” he mumbled. Ghastly took that as a yes. He looked around, made sure no one’s attention was on him, and then got up onto his knees and showed his empty hand to the sailor.

“This is a piece of flint I carry around with me. I’m going to warm you up a bit with it.”

The man grunted something that sounded like ‘thank you.’ Ghastly lowered his hand, shielded it with his body, and snapped his fingers. The small flame flared as it always did, sending a pulse of warmth up into Ghastly’s face. He held it near the man’s feet, and let it flicker close enough to the skin that within a couple of minutes, said skin was turning a much healthier colour. The man’s breathing evened out. Ghastly doused the flame and reached up to rub the man’s shoulder, hoping the slight build of natural heat up there would help even further.

“Master Bespoke?”

Ghastly looked around. He felt ice slide into his gut when he realised Brian was close enough to see through the partition, and that his eyes were wide with surprise. “Flint,” Ghastly explained, just in case his own eyes were deceiving him in the dark and Brian hadn't seen anything strange at all. “He needed the heat.”

“Can ya give it ‘ere?” Brian put as many fingers through the partition as he could. “We could all do with some heat, too.”

Ghastly hesitated. “I’d rather not.”

“Why not?”

“Because –"

“’Cause you don’ have no flint, do ya?”

He didn’t sound accusatory, nor did he sound terrified. He spoke calmly, in fact, like a man who’d known the answer all along. Ghastly stopped and watched him, warily, without answering. Brian held the eye contact, and then smiled; he held his hand out and snapped the fingers. A small flame flared in the palm of his hand.

Ghastly let all of his relief out in one long breath. “You’re a sorcerer.”

“If that’s what ya call yerselves, I ain’t judgin’.”

The relief disappeared entirely. A mortal-born sorcerer. Well, it was better than nothing, and certainly better than what Ghastly had only a few short minutes ago. “What can you do?”

“Better fire than this, an’ some air besides. I’m best with water.”

Again, Ghastly stared. An untrained, mortal-born sorcerer, one who didn’t even know there was a whole subculture, and he’d already worked all of that out on his own? It was impossible. It was mind-boggling. It was, right at that moment, the best possible blessing. “Can you fight?”

“Uh… not well.”

The next best possible blessing, then. Still better than nothing. “Will you help me stop this?”

“I been tryin’ ta work out how, myself. We gotta take care o’ that gun. That, or we sneak back onto our boat an’-"

“What, swimming across the kilometres of ocean in between?”

Brian gave Ghastly a strange look. “Strong boat like that? The pirates’ll have it. Love’ll be sailin’ ‘em both back ta Ireland. Won’ be too far apart. What did ya think, they’d leave it behind?”

Ghastly honestly hadn't thought of that. He felt justified in not knowing much about how pirates worked, but he really should have realised what they’d do with the other boat. Leaving it to drift in the ocean made very little sense.

“We can take that one, then,” he decided. “If there are fewer pirates on it, we can get everyone out and –"

“No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

Brian sank onto the wooden floor in a cross-legged position. “All yer cargo’s on this one, ain’t it? Can’ leave that behind.”

Now Ghastly was staring for an entirely different reason. “Forget my cargo! My father and I can make do without!”

“Sure.” There was a wry twist to Brian’s smile. “That’s why ya went all th’ way ta England yourself. That’s why ya haven’t been more’n ten metres away from th’ stuff. That’s why ya –“

“We can make do without,” Ghastly said firmly. He was not going to put the lives of fifteen sailors below a few crates of magical cloth. For one thing, his mother would have killed him. “If it’s our best bet, we have to take it.”

“It ain’t our best bet.”

“Then what is?”

“Pirates recruit.”

“Pirates –“ Ghastly frowned. “They recruit? From their own prisoners?”

“They do. Not too much, bu’ they do. If we show ‘em what we can do –"

“No.” Ghastly was the one shaking his head this time, and sank down to join Brian on the floor. “There’s no reason to resort to that.”

“They’re only pirates, Master Bespoke.”

“Ghastly. And I don’t care. If they know, Captain Coilin’s crew will as well, and they’re good men. If they don’t spend the rest of their lives believing they've had a brush with the Devil, then they’re going to want to join us. We don’t tell anyone.”

“What’s wrong with ‘em joinin’ us?”

Ghastly sighed. “It’s a dangerous world we live in, Brian. I don’t like dragging anyone into it, particularly if we can avoid it. And we can. There’s no reason for it.”

“Be easier.”

“That doesn't make it right.”

Brian nodded, and then didn’t argue any further. Instead, he leaned forward against the partition separating them. “Wha’ did happen ta yer head?”

“My mother was jinxed before I was born,” Ghastly answered without missing a beat.

Brian gave a low whistle. “Some jinx.”

Despite everything, Ghastly found himself smiling. “Yes, it was.”

“No magic cure?”

“Not yet.”

“Hm.” Brian rested the side of his head into his hand. “Some sorcerers you lot are.”

“We certainly have our moments.” Ghastly shifted his position into something a little more comfortable up against the side of the ship. “If we get out of this alive, I’d like to introduce you to my mother. She can tell you far more than I can. She can probably even direct you toward a teacher.”

“I’d be honoured.” Brian leaned forward. “Bu’ first, we have ta get out o’ here alive.”

“We’ll have the Captain’s help.”

“We will?” Brian looked surprised, and then something in his bright green eyes gleamed. Something practically twinkled. “Why didn’ ya say so? That makes things easier.”

“Really? Do tell.”

“Well, first, I’m goin’ ta need some flint…”

Chapter Text

Love never descended into the brig himself, but there was always at least one pirate who did, making hourly rounds. Some made jibes at them. Some didn’t. Some looked happy to be given work that wasn’t really work; some looked irritated and upset. It was the irritated ones who would be happy for a break in the monotony, so it wasn’t until one of the irritated ones climbed down the wooden ladder that the plan went underway.

Dillon watched as the man’s steps made the floor beneath his feet creak. He was wearing tall boots with flap-overs, a fairly nice button-up coat, and a sword slung from a large belt. English, most likely, because Love wouldn't employ very many foreigners. English and educated. What, Dillon idly wondered, made him turn to a life of piracy? Unless the pirate’s clothes were his own, possibly the idea of facing a life of poverty. The question was how sympathetic he would be to someone else experiencing the same plight.

Dillon stood up and walked to the front of the cell. “Hello.”

The pirate stopped. Welcoming the chance for conversation, despite how bored he made himself sound. “What?”

“I want ta join Love’s crew.”

The pirate was startled into complete silence for almost a full minute, and then he laughed. “You? Why?”

“Chance fer adventure, if ya like. Fame. Fortune. Not bein' bound by any rules.”

“Lot of fellows want that, lad. Not many get it. And you certainly won’t.”

“Please,” Dillon begged, affecting the accent just a touch more than was strictly necessary. “I got nothin’ else waitin’ fer me. No family, no prospects. This is just a temp’rary way ta get somewhere new. This ship could be my somewhere new.”

“You have nothing to offer.”

“I know where ta sell wares in Ireland without gettin’ caught.”

“And how do you know that?”

Dillon dropped the accent entirely. “Because I grew up there.”

“You –“ The pirate stared. “You couldn't have. You were English a moment ago.”

“I needed a way onto a boat back to Ireland, and they were only hiring Englishmen. Experienced Englishmen at that. I forged the identity papers.”

The pirate regarded him curiously, one eyebrow lifted and an unmistakable flicker of impressment in his features before that. “And you know where to sell wares in Ireland?”

“For a better price than you would get in Wales.”

“And you wouldn't offer up the information to avoid torture because…?”

Dillon hesitated. Then, to make up for the hesitation, he sighed. “I suppose I could try, but it’s a little more complicated than simply writing down a list of instructions for you. There’s at least one merchant who will only buy from me, and a maze of codes besides. Irishmen who will only sell to Irishmen. And the process changes. You could sell this year, and then be caught and hanged another.”

The pirate smirked. “You’re bluffing.”

“That’s not your decision to make, is it?”

“No,” the pirate agreed, the smirk dropping off his face like rainwater off a window. “It’s not.”

He turned and left the brig, the clump of his boots on the wooden steps of the narrow ladder making the whole floor rattle. Dillon waited until he was gone, and then turned to Captain Coilin, who was in the cell just to his right, looking absolutely speechless. He’d been informed of the plan, but no one had told him that ‘Brian’ wasn’t English. “I’m sorry about the deception, captain. Rest assured I’ll turn myself in once we dock in Ireland.”

“For what?” the captain asked. “Pretending to be a pirate?”

“For forging my identity papers.”

He blinked. “You did forge your identity papers? That wasn’t a bluff?”

Again, Dillon hesitated, and this time when he spoke he made his voice quite a bit rougher. “Would ya prefer it was, Cap’n?”

Coilin stared at him for a while longer, and then he heaved a sigh. “If this plan you and Master Bespoke have wrought actually works, I’ll pretend I heard none of it.”

“Oh, good.” Dillon moved to the back of the cell. “I was starting to get sick of the accent. All right there, Bespoke?”

The scarred sorcerer hadn't taken his eyes off Dillon the entire time the pirate was down in the brig, and now that Dillon was paying closer attention, he saw that Ghastly’s mouth was hanging open as well. At his question, the sorcerer’s mouth snapped shut, and Ghastly’s look of surprise became a scrutinising one. “You’re Irish.”

“I am.”

“Your speech is…”

“Not the rough and uneducated growl of an English dockworker?” Dillon shook his head. “No, it isn't.”

“How did you manage that?”

“I spent three years in England. I've had practice.”

“It’s impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“Brian isn't your real name, then, is it?”

Dillon would have chuckled, if it hadn't been for why he chose the name Brian. Partly because it had been an easy name to forge the used papers under, but… partly because of Brianna. “It’s not. Again, I’m sorry for the deception. My real name is Dillon.”

“Dillon?” Ghastly raised his brow. “No last name?”

“Not one I’m willing to use.” He was probably far enough away that it wouldn't matter, but Dillon's father was a nobleman, and it was always possible someone would either recognise the name, or word of it would get back to Aeneas. Dillon just wasn’t willing to risk it. And Ghastly, fortunately, didn’t push. He just nodded, as though missing last names were completely normal for him. Judging by his own name, it might well have been. Dillon resolved to ask about that at a later date, when they weren't about to try and fool a shipload of pirates into freeing them all.

Footsteps on the ladder indicated the return of the earlier poverty-fearing pirate, and this time there was a jangle of metal keys in his hand as he searched for the right one to unlock the cell Dillon and two other sailors were trapped in. “Love wants to see you.”

“I had a feeling he might.” Dillon watched the key go into the lock, turn, and the door swing open. He walked over and stepped out, scarcely needing the gesture of the pirate to do so; then he watched the door get re-locked and the ring of metal keys get slipped back into the pirate’s coat pocket.

On their way back over to the ladder, Dillon moved his fingers by his side, and lifted the keys back out with the air.

He wasn’t quite skilled enough to stop them from jangling, or to keep them aloft for very long. Luckily, a hard slap of the waves against the boat at just the right moment hid the sound of the jangling, and Ghastly’s own manipulation of the air caught the keys before they fell to the floor. Were the waves his doing, as well? Was it possible to manipulate water you couldn't see? More questions for Dillon to ask, once they were safe.

He and his pirate companion climbed above decks, where the pirate would remain blissfully ignorant of the loss of the keys, and where Ghastly would point out the keys on the floor to whoever had the greatest possible chance of reaching them – hopefully the captain, as Dillon had been aiming for him. In the meantime, it began to impress upon Dillon that he was about to go and try bargaining for his life with one of the most well-known pirates of the era. And instead of any fear, he felt only a trembling excitement.

There was probably something wrong with him.

The ship creaked as it rocked in the ocean. It was Dillon’s comfort with the idea of massive amounts of water beneath his feet that stopped him from reaching out and clinging to the woodwork they passed. It wasn’t that he had a particularly strong stomach; it was more that he had faith in his ability to get himself back to shore should the whole ship break apart. He had enough influence with water. That helped to drive away the seasickness.

He was still disappointed when, instead of climbing up into the open air, the pirate took him to a small and stuffy cabin at the rear of the ship.

It was a nice cabin, once his companion had knocked and they entered. Smaller than Dillon would have thought, but well-used for the space there was. There wasn’t a small pile of jewels on the table, but there was a very intricately-drawn map, one that must have cost whoever originally possessed it a fortune. Dillon gave it a cursory glance as he was prodded inside, and then turned his attention to Peter Love.

Love's clothes hadn't changed. Not that that was a surprise. He wasn’t wearing the ridiculous hat anymore, which was only an improvement as far as Dillon was concerned. He wondered where the hat was. A drawer? The cargo hold? Blown into the ocean by the wind?

Why was he fixated on the hat?

“What is your name?” asked Love, drawing Dillon’s attention back to him.

“Which one?”

He wasn’t sure if it was humour Love appreciated, or suicidal bravery. Either way, the pirate smiled. “Your Irish one.”

“Dillon.”

“Just ‘Dillon?’”

“I can change it, if you’d prefer something more intimidating.”

Love laughed. “Dillon will do. Tell me, Dillon. Why would it benefit me to have you on my crew?”

“You already know that,” said Dillon. “I’m sure my new friend here already explained it all to you, so there’s no point in asking me to repeat all of it, unless you take delight in watching prisoners dance around for you like circus monkeys.”

Love lifted an eyebrow. “Circus monkeys?”

“Circus monkeys.”

“Do they have monkeys in circuses? I've quite forgotten.”

Dillon paused, and shrugged. “I have no idea.”

There was an amused glitter in Love’s eyes. Dillon considered it a victory, if a small one. Circus monkeys were amusing, after all. That didn’t mean any actual value was placed on their lives.

“I stand by my first impression of you,” said Love after a moment. “You’re a troublesome sort, but endearing enough in your own way. Now it seems I must amend it a little; you’re not as stupid as you look.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“As it was meant, of course.” Love looked him up and down. “You want to join my crew to avoid a purpose-less life, I heard.”

That wasn’t precisely what Dillon had meant, even under the pretense. But it was easiest to agree with it, so he did. His thoughts were far away from this relatively small cabin, after all. They sat with Ghastly and Captain Coilin two decks below, where by now, they’d be unlocking all the cell doors and letting everyone out. The hourly rounds wouldn't start again until Love was satisfied with Dillon’s true intentions, so Dillon was here to stall for as long as he could.

“Why don’t you reveal your last name?” Love asked. “You're noble-born, if your true speech is anything to go by. If your past would cause trouble for us, better we know about it now, don’t you think?”

He looked smug, as though he thought he’d thrown Dillon off guard by knowing something the Irishman so obviously wanted to keep hidden. Dillon smiled back. “My past is my own. It won’t bother anyone else, just as yours never has.”

“Oh?” The smugness dropped. “And what is my past, pray tell?”

“You’re speaking with a London accent, and a very good one, no doubt to draw attention away from your real birthplace. Whether that’s because you feel an ounce of loyalty to your old homestead, or simply because you think it’s fun to deceive others, I don’t know yet. I’m more inclined to think it’s the former, since a man of your impatience wouldn't keep up a gentlemanly charade for so long if it wasn’t in some way genuine.”

There wasn’t an ounce of smugness on Love’s face now, nor was there any form of amusement. “You know where I was born?”

“Hardly.”

“Then your attempts to identify me wear thin.”

“I’m not identifying you,” Dillon assured him. “I’m simply showing you that psychic scare tactics won’t work on me.”

It was quite amazing, how level he managed to keep his voice. One of the many theories Dillon developed about his early boyhood stutter was that it could be triggered by fear. Fear of his father, fear of neglect, fear of being hidden away from the world for the rest of his life. But he was afraid now, facing a ruthless pirate who put on a very good show of being a gentleman, and Dillon never even came close to stuttering. Either his theory was wrong, or he’d managed to banish the stutter completely.

He knew which explanation he preferred.

“Clearly not.” Love’s lips pursed as he examined Dillon again, and Dillon could imagine what sorts of thoughts were now running through his mind. The pirate captain appreciated initiative, and he certainly appreciated humour, so he’d already made the decision to humour Dillon for several months and see what happened from there. The trouble was that pirates weren't terribly loyal, and only followed Love for their own gains or for his previous shows of power. Dillon, as bright as he was, would be a threat. Love wasn’t deciding whether to let Dillon join; he was deciding what to do to minimise that potential threat.

Once he admitted he’d made his decision, the pirate who brought Dillon here would go back down into the brig. Dillon couldn't let that happen.

“On second thought,” he said abruptly, interrupting Love’s thoughts, “I've changed my mind.”

The look on Love’s face was priceless. Dillon almost considered the whole escapade worth it solely for that. If only Ghastly could have been here to see it.

“I’m sorry,” Love said slowly. “I must have misheard you.”

“On second thought,” Dillon repeated, “I've changed my mind.”

“You just asked a pirate for a place among his crew - a place that must be earned - and then you prove yourself a fool by immediately defecting?”

“No.” Dillon took a deep breath to calm his racing nerves, then turned it into a sigh to hide the fact. “I can’t defect if I haven’t actually joined yet, now, can I?”

Love looked silently at him for a very, very long time. Dillon kept a wary eye on the gun at his belt and the sword hanging on the wooden wall to his side – purely a decorative piece, but likely kept sharp, and just as lethal as gunpowder. Finally, the pirate blew out his breath in a chuckle. “You have guts, lad, I’ll give you that. You have guts.”

“Another compliment?”

“We’ll see.” Love took a step closer to him. “Either tell me what it is you really want, Dillon of Ireland, or assure me you’re not wasting my time.”

“Assure you how?”

“I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

Dillon nodded. “All right. You've just raided a shipment coming to England from the West Indies.”

Love’s eyes widened, and his step backwards, though unconscious, was extremely satisfying. “How on earth do you know that?”

“Your coat,” said Dillon. “It’s new. I recognise the style. It’s been a high fashion in London for the last year.”

“That may have told you it was from the West Indies, but how could you possibly know it was stolen? Perhaps it was a gift. Perhaps I went to the West Indies myself and purchased it.”

Dillon nearly laughed. “You’re a pirate. You don’t purchase what you can steal.”

“I might have been in the West Indies when I stole it.”

“If that were the case, you would know how to wear it.” Dillon pointed. “The buttons would be on the left side, not the front. You raided it from a shipment recently, took it because you liked the look of it, and wear it how you feel it should be worn.”

Love stared at him. “You got all of that from a pair of misplaced buttons?”

“That, and your hat.”

“I’m not wearing my hat.”

“You were. It was a tricorn – or it used to be. You added your own embellishments to it. You’re a man who wears what he wants, how he wants, because there’s no one to stop you from getting away with it. You are, to put it simply, a selfish and egotistical bully.”

Love burst out laughing. Of the many reactions he could have had, this one was by far the most promising, but Dillon didn’t let himself relax – not yet. By now, Ghastly would slowly be getting everyone off of the ship through the end of the brig, hoping no one asked too many questions about the charred hole in the wooden wall that hadn't been there before. Any moment, someone on the deck above would notice the sailors in the water swimming back to the trading vessel, and raise the alarm. Dillon needed to be prepared for that.

“You,” Love finally managed through the laughter, “are a very interesting man. I’m glad I can be the source of so much amusement for you, but I’m starting to suspect this amusement is a cover for something, and my patience does wear thin. Tell me what you want. Now.”

Dillon was saved from having to answer when the cabin door burst open behind him. “Cap’n,” said whichever pirate it was; Dillon didn’t dare turn around. “The prisoners – they’re escaping.”

“What do you mean,” said Love, “escaping? Isn't anyone watching the brig?”

“Yes, Cap’n. But they’re, uh… in the water.”

“Who’s in the water?”

“The prisoners, Cap’n.”

“The prisoners?” Love rounded the small table and stalked towards the door. “How could the prisoners be – you.” He rounded back on Dillon, his hand on his gun. “Tell me what you did.”

Dillon stood his ground, which he considered a feat in and of itself when he had never in his life been more terrified than he was right at that moment. “Me? I stood here and talked to you.”

“There’s only one key,” said the pirate who had taken Dillon up the steps. “And I have that.” The pirate – Grumpy, Dillon decided – started rooting through his pockets. “He can’t have done anything without it, short of wrestling the bars apart with his bare hands, and I’m sure I would have seen…” His voice trailed off as searched all three pockets more rigorously, and then again more frantically.

Love didn’t need to wait to hear the verdict. He drew the gun and aimed it squarely into Dillon’s face. “Tell me what you did.”

Dillon put his hands up in surrender. “Getting a little warm in here, don’t you think?”

What?

Dillon nodded. “You should probably open a window.”

Love’s face twisted into something quite ugly. “Tell me what you did, or I’ll shoot out your kneecaps.”

Two seconds? Probably more like four. Would Love shoot him before those four seconds could pass? Dillon had no way of knowing, but he didn’t have much in the way of options, either. All he could do was make it look like he was about to answer, to try and buy as much time as possible. And then, finally, the flame that was slowly working its way up Love’s ornately woven coattails grew strong enough both to attract his attention, and to defy being extinguished so easily. Love roared with anger, and the gun, mercifully, wavered.

Dillon ducked out of its range and slipped out through the cabin door.

Chapter Text

Grumpy tried to grab him as he was running out, but Dillon was both smaller and quicker; he managed to wriggle out before the grasp was strong enough. He pelted headlong down the corridor, rounded a corner that he hoped would lead him towards the upper deck, and nearly crashed headlong into Ghastly, who was hiding beneath the hood of his cloak once again.

“What took you so long?” Dillon demanded, once they’d both recovered their footing.

“Apart from organising a group of twenty men, half of whom can’t swim, to cross a fairly wide channel between two ships?”

“You could have used the cannon,” Dillon reminded him, taking the steps up two at a time.

“To put the hole in the wall? I’m sure someone would have noticed that.”

“No. To shoot the men across to the other ship.”

The steps did actually lead to the upper deck. The sky was overcast, making it difficult to tell until Dillon opened the door. He took a deep breath and then turned, just in time to see the horrified expression on Ghastly’s face.

He smiled. “I’m joking.”

“It shouldn't be so hard to tell,” Ghastly grumbled.

“I’ll warn you next time.” Dillon looked around. Most of the pirates were busy trying to sail the ship closer to the smaller vessel so they could pick up the swimming prisoners; thankfully, swimming wasn’t considered a required skill for pirates any more than it was for sailors. It meant that Dillon and Ghastly were, for the most part, being ignored. Good. Dillon had been counting on that. “How much do you know about boats, Ghastly?”

“Not as much as I should.”

“Probably still more than I do.” Dillon pointed up at the sails. “If one of those were to, say, burn and fall into the ocean, how badly would the ship be affected?”

Ghastly stared at him. “You need every single sail to sail a ship, Dillon.”

“Ideally, I know. But is there a sail we could lose to make it difficult, but not impossible?”

“You want to sabotage the ship, and yet… still be able to sail it?”

“Quickly, Ghastly, please. Love’s coat isn't going to stay on fire forever.”

“You set Love’s coat on fire?”

“He was about to shoot me. Yes, I set Love’s coat on fire. Which sail, Ghastly?”

After another moment of staring, the scarred tailor finally broke eye contact and looked up. “Not the mainsail. For one thing, it could come down the wrong way and break the masts behind it. If you’re going to burn a sail, I’d say… probably the foremost one on the bow.”

“You don’t sound very confident.”

“I haven’t spent all that much time on boats, Dillon.”

“How sure are you, then?”

Ghastly hesitated, frowning up at the foremost sail, and then he shrugged. “About as sure as I can be.”

“That’s good enough for me.” Dillon skirted around a barrel and made for the fore-deck, dodging around one of the more oblivious pirates in his way. Ghastly followed, and once they were under the sail, they both clicked their fingers and hurled small balls of fire up into the linen. The sail ignited easily, but burned slowly, just as Dillon had hoped. Almost immediately, there was a smell like burning paper – the last thing you wanted to smell on a ship at least a few days out from land. It was practically nauseating when it mixed with the smell of salt-water.

No one saw them set the sail on fire, but a few definitely heard or smelled the sail ignite, and turned around. The panic spread much more quickly than the fire itself did. It meant Dillon and Ghastly managed to avoid undue attention as they headed back towards the stern of the ship, where the wheel was; but it also meant someone was bound to head for the captain’s cabin, and sure enough, Love’s booming voice sounded the moment Dillon and Ghastly had climbed above the doorway onto the stern.

“Cut the sail away! Don’t let it spread, you idiots!”

Dillon turned away to watch the sea around the smaller ship off their port-side stern. He couldn't tell from here if any of the sailors had made it, or if their element of surprise and Dillon’s distraction would be enough for Captain Coilin to liberate his own vessel. But since there were no cries or obvious commotion, Dillon chose to believe they were succeeding.

“The captain’s going to have questions,” Ghastly murmured.

“We can always tell him we exploded some gunpowder.”

“I suppose.” Ghastly looked back toward the pirates. “Do you know how to use a gun?”

“I've… never used one before, no.” He’d studied them on his own, but Dillon remembered enough from those studies to know that knowledge wasn’t the same as knowledge.

“How about a sword?”

“Not against an opponent aiming to kill.”

Ghastly looked at him. “Any other form of fighting?”

“Not especially.”

“Your plan was to start a fight out on the deck, and you don’t know how to fight?”

“I was hoping you would.”

“Your plan was to start a fight out on the deck, and you don’t know –"

“Hush, Ghastly. They’re going to hear you.”

You.” As if waiting for that cue, Love’s face appeared over the steps, twisted in rage. His once-fine coat had now lost its elaborate tail, leaving the bottom edges charred and blackened. That preposterous hat was back on Love’s head, probably grabbed in an effort to remind others of his authority – or perhaps to draw attention away from the coat. Dillon could have saved him the trouble. The preposterousness of the hat didn’t do anything but enhance what already looked ridiculous.

“That,” said Ghastly quietly, “was a custom-tailored Oriental silk-fibred coat, made during the 15th century. That was a priceless artifact. And you burned it.”

“You are very much the tailor’s son,” Dillon told him, backing away from the pirate captain.

“A priceless artifact, Dillon.”

“Being worn by someone who wants to kill us.”

Ghastly frowned, looked over, and then started backing away as well. “I’d forgotten that. How could I have forgotten that?”

‘Your good sense momentarily overwhelmed your survival instinct.”

“Who,” said Love, his hand dropping to the holster on his belt, “the hell are you?”

He wasn’t going to wait for an answer. Dillon didn’t bother to give him one. Instead, he watched Love’s hand as it slid down to grip the handle of the gun. Sure, Dillon may not have known how to use a gun himself, but he certainly knew how they worked. He knew what the safety was meant to do. He knew that, right at that moment, the safety would be blocking the spark from the gunpowder.

The moment Love’s grip was tight enough, Dillon snapped his fingers. The gun went off with the barrel pointed down towards the deck. Love let out an inhuman screech of pain and fell to one knee, which was an unintended if fortuitous side effect. He’d shot himself in the foot. Literally.

Of course, it did mean the crew who had reached the upper deck were now gunning for Ghastly and Dillon, openly furious.

Ghastly let the hood of his cloak drop. There were some sharp intakes of breath, but nothing more – pirates were a hardier bunch. He turned to Dillon. “Do you at least know how to use a sword?”

“Yes.” Any gentleman could, but Dillon knew more from his time spent in England than many of his Irish counterparts. It was mostly fencing, where the aim was to disarm your opponent rather than kill them, but it was the most Dillon had.

Ghastly nodded, turned back around, and went straight for the nearest pirate carrying a sword.

He was good – brutal and efficient. He used the minimum number of blows needed to incapacitate. One down to the ribcage, one to the side of the knee, and then two to either side of the head. No one had time to react before the pirate was slumping, and Ghastly had pulled the sword from its sheath to hand to Dillon.

“I was right,” said Dillon cheerfully. “You can fight.”

“You’re welcome.” Ghastly paused long enough to make sure Dillon actually could handle the sword; then he turned to meet the onslaught of two different pirates without another word.

Dillon was faced with three. He didn’t know if it was because he looked the most inexperienced, or if it was because pirates could smell fear. Either way, it was highly unfair.

At least none of them had guns.

The first one slashed forward with a short dagger. Dillon had no idea how to block a short dagger, so he jumped out of the way, sending the dagger slightly off-course with a short blast of air. That gave him an opening he immediately took advantage of, knocking the hilt of his sword into the pirate’s wrist and forcing him to drop the dagger.

The trouble was, he had no idea what to do after that. Well, he reasoned, the sword was sharp. That was, presumably, for a reason. The pirate probably deserved bleeding out like a stuck pig three times over. That made the next course of action obvious. Dillon delayed a second too long, however, and the pirate danced beyond the sword tip’s range, shaking out his bruised wrist and glaring.

The second pirate came at him, this time with a proper sword. Dillon blocked the first strike, and broke the second. He had to physically dodge the third, lost his footing, and fumbled backwards to regain it. He turned to see how much room he had – just in time to meet the third pirate’s vicious punch.

Pain exploded through the side of his face and he fell hard onto the deck.

Dillon had only experienced pain that intense once or twice before in his life. It wasn’t very much experience to base any sort of conclusion on. And yet, when he felt his mind narrow to an incredibly clear focus even through the throbbing pain in his cheekbone, he wasn’t surprised. He didn’t take even a moment to be thankful. He just listened, heard the creak of the boards under him, and lashed out a kick in the noise’s general direction.

It connected, and there came the grunt of someone who’d lost all his air at once. Whether he’d hit the stomach or lower, Dillon didn’t know, and didn’t stop to find out. He rolled over and struggled to his feet, moving backwards as he regained his balance, and then the world cleared and he saw that the third pirate was Grumpy.

Grumpy was not the one he’d kicked, alas. Grumpy, Dillon decided, was the one he didn’t like. Grumpy was the one who needed to be put in pain.

Grumpy came forward without smiling, sneering, jeering, or even glaring. Dillon circled around him to where he’d dropped the sword, and snatched it up. He let his gaze fall. Grumpy tried to use the momentary distraction to throw another crippling punch; Dillon brought the sword up and slashed along the pirate’s side, sidestepping the intended blow, which he belatedly realised was a feint. His own strike had landed by accident. That was a happy piece of luck.

He swung the sword back around, but Grumpy was already out of range, bent sideways with one arm pressed against his side. A pirate through and through, the way he could ignore the pain in favour of more immediate survival. He shot Dillon a look of such black hatred that it almost made Dillon flinch.

Neither Grumpy nor the first pirate had time to try anything else, however, since there was a thunderous roar in the next moment and the whole ship shook with the force of a cannonball dropping into the sea right before it.

Dillon didn’t chance a look, though the pirates themselves did. He thought about thrusting the blade forward while Grumpy’s attention was elsewhere, but then decided that stabbing a man afraid for the ship he was standing on probably wasn’t all that honourable. He’d caused Grumpy a great deal of pain. That was all that really mattered.

Love, even in his considerable agony, started barking orders, and the crew burst into action. The earlier sail hadn't even been properly doused yet, and they were preparing for sea battle. All hands on deck were necessary. Dillon and Ghastly were both completely forgotten, standing over under the highest point of the stern.

“What the hell is going on?” said Ghastly.

“Pirates,” Dillon told him.

“What, attacking their own ship?”

“One of them obviously thinks he should be captain.”

“Captain Coilin’s ship is a trading vessel. A peaceful boat. There shouldn't be any cannons.”

Dillon shrugged. “Unless Coilin knew he’d be sailing along a pirate’s route, and wanted to be able to defend himself.”

“If that’s the case, why didn’t he use it when they were approaching?”

“Maybe he had the same idea I pretended to, and was hoping to join a crew. Maybe he’s a spy for the Royal Navy. Maybe he’s a cutthroat and a thief, and simply very good at hiding it. Maybe he has a family he needs to support. Or, maybe, just maybe, he completely forgot he had one.”

“Forgot he had a cannon?”

“Until just now, obviously.”

Another crash, this time from behind the ship. The roll of water jerked the boat sideways, upending anything that wasn’t battened down. Ghastly clung to the railing behind him and watched Coilin’s ship in the distance with a numbed sort of horror. “Why would he use it now? He knows we’re here!”

Dillon followed his gaze, but it was still too difficult to see who was standing on the other vessel’s deck. “Two possible reasons. First, they failed, and the pirates tortured the existence and location of the cannon out of him. Second, they succeeded, and either the captain saw enough magic to believe we’re demons, or the pirates over there bribed Coilin into working with them.”

“A captain shouldn't be so easily bought.”

“And if it saved the lives of his men?”

Ghastly hesitated, and grumbled. “We’re the reason they escaped this ship, and this is how they’re repaying us?”

“It makes you gloriously nostalgic for a time before humans learned to speak, doesn't it?”

They both looked around. The pirate crew was remarkably efficient; within a minute, the ship’s cannons were firing back. Ghastly shook his head as another near miss rattled the masts, and made his way forward towards the mid-ship. “I’m not going to sit here and let them fire upon an innocent vessel.”

“We could barely handle five of them between us,” Dillon reminded him. “And you want to start a fight with all of them?”

“Help me set another of the sails on fire.”

“Ghastly –"

“Do you have a better idea, then?”

Dillon looked over towards the other ship. Smaller, meant for a smaller crew, two cannons at the most. More likely just the one. How many cannonballs would it carry? For a ship where the priority was to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible, probably not even a barrelful. If Captain Coilin had been coerced into helping, would he have mentioned that small nugget of information, or…?

When another cannon blast didn’t come, Dillon smiled. “As a matter of fact, I do.”

Chapter Text

“I’m going to save you,” Dillon told Love.

The pirate captain was leaning heavily against the side of the ship on his good foot. Ghastly suspected that was the only reason he didn’t immediately turn around and knock all of Dillon’s teeth out. Instead, Love hobbled around to face them; and if looks could kill, Dillon would have dropped. “What?”

“I’m going to save you,” Dillon repeated. “That cannon on the other ship. I can stop it from firing.”

“You sneaky little toad. What the hell makes you think that –"

"You could easily have shot me before. Granted, you were probably a little distracted by your foot, but even now, you have your hand on your gun. You could shoot me where I’m standing. You’re not. Why?”

“This is your idea of negotiating, is it?” Ghastly muttered beside him. He was nervous, and he made that clear, but he didn’t try to stop Dillon from speaking. As suicidal as a lot of the young sorcerer’s ideas were, it was hard to ignore that no one had actually died yet. Dillon may have been crazy, but he’d achieved what he’d set out to do. That earned him at least a little bit of blind trust.

Love’s gaze flickered to Ghastly, and then back to Dillon again. He said nothing.

“You think we’re demons,” said Dillon. “First your coat, then the sail, now the gun – you’re not an idiot. You know there’s a connection. And that’s the only explanation you can think of.” He smiled. “Well, you’re right. We are demons. It would be a good idea to listen to me when I say that I can stop that other cannon from firing. Have you heard a blast in the last minute?”

Ghastly turned away to hide the incredulity that he was sure showed on his face. Dillon was bargaining an awful lot on the fact that the cannon wouldn't fire again. What was he going to do if it did? Bluff his way into another lie?

“So,” Dillon continued, “call off your attack, unless you want us to set another sail on fire.”

Love looked at him. Scepticism radiated from his entire being. “Demons?”

“Demons.” Dillon nodded toward Ghastly. “Look at him. Doesn't he just scream ‘forged in the fires of Hell’?”

Ghastly sighed. Love looked between the pair of them, eyes narrowed in a soul-chilling glare. But he couldn't deny that no other cannon blast was coming from the other ship, and so after a moment he turned to call down the line of cannons. “Cease fire!”

The call was echoed down, and after no more than ten seconds, every single cannon sat idle.

Love turned back to Dillon. “Now what?”

Dillon hesitated. “You know, I’m not sure. I didn’t think this far ahead. Would you consider docking in Ireland for a day?”

“Is that a command?”

“More of a question. I’m allowing you some say in what happens.”

“Are you?” The smile on Love’s face was wry, twisted, almost broken. “And if I say no?”

“You’ll find it very difficult to sail in the opposite direction.”

“Because I’ll be dead?”

“No. Because the wind won’t be in your favour, and neither will the waters. You’re welcome to try.”

“And if we dock in Ireland,” said Love slowly, “we’ll be arrested the moment we drop anchor.”

‘No,” said Dillon, “you won’t. Not if you change your flag, present yourselves as respectable businessmen, and only stay docked for one day. Long enough to let the rest of us go, help us unload everything that belongs to us, and –"

Help you?”

“ – and sail on, leaving all of us relatively unharmed, to continue doing… whatever it was you were doing. Pillaging?”

Love regarded him without that earlier smile. Ghastly watched him warily, waiting for any sign of attack. The whole ship was silent, save for the creaking of the wood in the water below as the whole boat tipped, very slowly, back and forth over the waves.

“Ireland,” the pirate eventually said, half questioning and half scathing.

“Ireland,” Dillon confirmed.

“Both of our ships.”

“Yes. And speaking of that, the members of your crew you left over there. I think they tried to kill you. You’ll probably want to maroon them somewhere.”

“Not Ireland, please,” Ghastly added quietly. His home country had enough problems without deliberately adding to the criminal population.

Love shook his head. “Now you’re telling me how to run my crew?”

“No,” said Dillon. “I’m only offering suggestions.”

“I don’t like you, Dillon of Ireland.”

“And I don’t like you, Peter Love of the seven seas. But I’m willing to give you a chance. Can you say the same?”

Love cursed and spun around. “Pull us alongside them. Prepare to board. Now. There’s a group of mutineers we need to deal with.”

Dillon waited until Love was thoroughly distracted before stepping back over to where Ghastly was, and he kept his voice low. “Dillon of Ireland?

Ghastly raised an eyebrow. “What about it?”

“It doesn't sound anything like ‘Ghastly Bespoke.’ You said sorcerers take their own names, didn’t you?”

“Not in the middle of trying to fight for their lives, generally.”

“I’m not in the middle of fighting right now. Are there any rules?”

“Not particularly.”

“Anything that might help?”

“No.” Ghastly paused. “Yes. Wait until we’re not in the middle of trying to fight for our lives.”

“You are astonishingly helpful.” Dillon turned back to look over the side of the ship, where the hull was starting to cut through the water as the sails turned to catch the wind. “Can you manipulate water you can’t see?”

Ghastly might have joined him at the sill, if he wasn’t still busy watching for anyone who might decide to renew their attack on the other ship – or, God forbid, on the pair of them. “Yes. Normally, I could help.”

“Why not now?”

He felt himself tense. Ghastly wasn’t quite looking forward to his Surge, as most sorcerers did. He wasn’t entirely sure why, either, but he knew it was too lengthy a discussion to have with murderous pirates nearby, so he didn’t answer. “What are you going to do when they board Captain Coilin’s ship?”

“I haven’t decided yet. It depends on what we find.”

“What do you think we’ll find?”

“I think Coilin was coerced into helping, but sabotaged their plans by neglecting to mention there were only… six cannonballs on board. That would leave those pirates in a very ugly position, which is why I want to get over there quickly. Angry bullies take their anger out on whoever’s nearest.”

Six cannonballs. Six shots. Ghastly nodded slowly, irrationally pleased that there were at least certain leaps in logic he could follow. “Why didn’t they use something else? Cannonballs aren't the only things that can put holes in ships.”

“Pirates aren't very bright, Ghastly.”

“Love was.”

“Love is the exception that proves the rule.”

“I think you’re making that up.”

“I think,” said Dillon, “that we need to stop speaking and quietly contemplate the potential dangers that might befall us the instant they board.”

“What sort of dangers?”

“Well, it’s entirely possible Coilin fired those cannons of his own volition. We might be adding to our enemies.”

“And if we are, what do we do?”

Dillon thought about it, and then shrugged. “We steal one of the ships and sail off with it, obviously.”

“You have no idea what you’re doing, do you?”

“No,” Dillon agreed with a smile. “And yet, you’re still listening to me.”

“More out of a sense of morbid curiosity than anything else,” Ghastly murmured. “It’s also difficult not to, when my only other option is to jump out and swim back to shore.”

It was another twenty minutes before the ship was close enough to discern who was standing on its deck. It was one man Ghastly didn’t recognise, which meant it was probably one of the pirates, except that as they drew even closer the pirate had an expression of abject terror on his face. One of Love’s underlings leaped over to the other ship the moment they were close enough, walked over, and shot him in the leg with Love’s gun.

“You’d better restrict that to your own people,” Dillon called over to Love. “The deal’s off otherwise.”

Love’s only answer was a glare. Ghastly took a deep breath to calm his nerves, felt the air shift behind him just a second too late, and spun around. “Dillon!”

Dillon turned. The space around him rippled as he caught on to the note of urgency in Ghastly’s voice, and whipped the air around with him. It would have been impressive – and was – except that Dillon apparently couldn't feel where people were behind him, or didn’t know he could, and didn’t know in what direction to whip the air. He guessed, and he got it wrong, and the dagger that had been aiming for the small of his back shifted down instead, its momentum otherwise uninterrupted.

Ghastly moved forward at the sound of Dillon’s yell, drew back his fist, and let it land in the face of the offending pirate. The offending pirate reeled backwards and slammed into the wooden side of the ship. He didn’t flip over into the water, and Ghastly had to resist the urge to pick him up and throw him over the side.

Dillon, beside him, sank to one knee. Ghastly turned and was immediately underneath one of his shoulders, keeping him upright. “Hold on,” he managed breathlessly, trying very, very hard not to think about the worst possible scenarios.

“Ungh,” Dillon grunted, putting all of his weight onto the proffered shoulder. “Ow. Ow.

“Stay with me, Dillon.”

“I’m here. I’m – ow.

Dillon sank all the way down onto the deck, and it was all Ghastly could do to let him down gently. It was amazing, how heavy Dillon could become. Ghastly’s fist was hurting from the punch, and tying to claim his full attention. Ghastly ignored it. “You’re going to be alright.”

“That dagger,” Dillon hissed.

“What?”

“Made it drop. Should have paid more attention to it.”

Ghastly shook his head. “You’re going to be alright,” he repeated.

“I know,” Dillon agreed. He put one hand down on the deck. “It missed.”

Ghastly hesitated. “It didn’t exactly miss.”

“It missed my back.”

“It did do that.” Ghastly was suddenly struck by the absurdity of it all, and couldn't help it – he chuckled. “It certainly missed your back.” He picked up the dagger, which had clattered to the floorboards, wiped the blood off of it, and held it out. “It grazed you.”

Dillon looked at it. “It drew blood.”

“It did. But it still only grazed you.”

“You thought I was going to die.”

“I thought no such thing.”

“You wouldn't have told me to hang on if you didn’t think I was going to die.”

“That was probably before I saw what the extent of the damage was.”

Dillon laughed, as Ghastly had hoped he would, before the laugh broke into another cry of pain and he groped for the side of the ship. He wasn’t going to be able to sit down for months, and that was assuming the wound was properly taken care of. They were at least three days out from land. To say things weren't good was a bit of an understatement. Suddenly Ghastly felt terrible for laughing.

He helped Dillon find the side of the ship and let him lean on that, then squeezed his shoulder. “Don’t move.”

Dillon managed to turn around and give him a look that resembled a sort of pained exasperation. Ghastly took that as an affirmation, and went over to where Love still stood between the cannons.

“Dillon was dancing around the topic,” Ghastly told him, “but I won’t. We are demons. We’ll do much worse than setting your sails on fire if any harm comes to anyone else here or on the other boat. Is that clear?”

Love nodded. He didn’t look defeated, exactly, but at least he wasn’t arguing.

“My friend needs help. We’re sailing back to Ireland now. Both ships. We’re unloading when we get there, and then you’re going to sail on your merry way, and never bother this coastline again. Is that clear?”

Again, Love nodded. Ghastly glanced over at Captain Coilin’s ship. “Do you have any bandages or sealant?”

“If I did,” said Love, “nothing could possess me to give them to the likes of you.”

Ghastly begged to differ, but he didn’t have the time or the inclination to try persuading the pirate captain otherwise. Instead, he climbed up onto the side and leaped the shot distance over to the ship he’d spent the last month on, ignored the two pirates on the upper deck entirely – particularly since one had a shattered kneecap – and went below.

It didn’t take long to find Captain Coilin and the others. The small trading vessel didn’t have a brig, but it had plenty of lockable rooms, and all Ghastly had to do when he came across the right one was break it down with one well-placed kick.

“Oh, thank God, Master Bespoke,” the captain said. “You’re alive.”

“And you can come out now,” Ghastly informed him. “Love’s going to sail us all safely to Ireland.

Coilin blinked. “He’s what?”

“He’s seen the error of his ways. Do you have any bandages or sealant?”

“In my cabin.” The captain gave Ghastly one last strange look, and then passed him out of the room to lead the way.

“I assume the element of surprise didn’t work?” Ghastly asked as he followed.

“Not remotely,” Coilin answered. He slowed. “I had to bargain for the lives of my men. I truly apologise for that.”

Dillon had been right. That made Ghastly smile. “Don’t worry. You’re forgiven.”

“No harm came to you, or Master Dillon?”

Ghastly didn’t answer for a moment. Master Dillon. Dillon, or Brian, was technically still a member of the crew. The fact that Captain Coilin was already paying him the respect due a nobleman… it was unsettling, to say the least. “Dillon was grazed with a dagger. He’ll be alright, if we’re quick.”

That succeeded in speeding up the Captain’s steps, although it didn’t stop him from asking questions. “How are you going to make it over there to treat him?”

“We have a truce, of a sort.”

Coilin stopped outside his cabin door and shot Ghastly a disbelieving look. “You weren't joking earlier? Peter Love really will sail us back to Ireland?”

“He won’t be happy about it, but yes.”

“How on earth did you manage that?”

Ghastly thought about it, and then shrugged. “I don’t know. Ask Dillon.”

Coilin shook his head as he unlocked the door and stepped in. “You two make quite a pair.”

“I know.” Ghastly stepped in after him and looked around. It was a much smaller cabin than he’d imagined, but in retrospect, that made sense. Captain Coilin was the sort of man who didn’t enjoy elevating himself over anyone. It was a rare and refreshing trait, Ghastly had found during this eventful short trip to England. The cabin was also sparsely furnished, with an open porthole letting in some sunlight and sea air and not much else.

“Here.” Coilin pulled open the single chest at the foot of the hammock and, with barely even a glance at the contents, pulled out both bandages and sealant. “I take it that it’s safe for everyone to come out, then?”

“Depends,” said Ghastly as he imagined the pirate on the upper deck who’d had his kneecap shot out. “Are any of your men squeamish?”

“Not especially.”

“Then yes. It’s safe for everyone to come out.”

~~

“In the arse.” David, the seaman who’d been friendliest with Dillon right before the pirates appeared on the horizon, laughed. “You got stabbed in the arse.”

“Grazed,” Dillon grumbled. “I was grazed.”

“But it drew blood?”

“Apparently.”

“And you’re Irish?”

“Splendid job keeping yourself updated, David.”

Behind them, Ghastly grunted. “Dillon, hold still. You’re not making this any easier.”

“Are you the one who was stabbed in the arse, Ghastly?”

“I’ll stab you again if I have to redo all of these bandages.”

David collapsed against the wall of Love’s cabin in laughter. Coilin gave him a disapproving look befitting that of a sea captain with men under his command, but the twinkle of amusement in his eyes gave him away. He waited until David had stopped laughing, and then folded his arms. “I still find it difficult to believe that you defeated Peter Love and constructed a truce through nothing more than mere mischief and skulduggery. It’s truly remarkable.”

“Mere mischief and skulduggery?” Ghastly glanced around long enough to give the captain a wry look. “We were both very nearly killed.”

“You set a sail on fire,” David objected, “with gunpowder, and then you shot Peter Love in the foot, and then you talked him down. By bluffing. If that isn't the most blatant skulduggery in history, I don’t know what is. And it worked.”

“What would I have done otherwise?” Dillon asked, actually managing to sound amused before his face tightened with pain again.

David looked surprised. “Well,” he said, “you could have killed them all.”

“With what? One dagger?”

“The gunpowder.”

“All of Ghastly’s wares were on board. That would have been disastrous.”

David laughed again; Dillon grumbled that he didn’t see what was quite so funny, which only made David laugh harder, and it was an annoyingly long time before he regained enough control of himself to ask another question. “How do we know you’re really Irish? If you can change your accent so easily, you could be Scottish and fooling us all.”

Dillon switched seamlessly to an accent he’d heard from the highlands of Scotland. “Ah, no. You've found me out. How transparent I must be.”

All three of them stared at him. Or at least, two of them did; Dillon assumed Ghastly was just as taken aback by the fact that his hands had stopped moving and the rough sound of bandages had cut off. Dillon grinned at the two men he could see. “I’m joking.”

“You are far too good at that,” David managed numbly.

“I've practiced,” said Dillon. It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was close enough. He’d had a talent with languages as he was growing up; when his voice finally settled and ended its lifelong betrayal, that same talent translated itself into sounds, which translated nicely into accents. He’d needed the British one to get onto this boat. The others were more of a hobby, slowly picked up over time in the day-to-day interactions of his mother’s extended family. By the time he left, even Brianna had sounded faintly Welsh.

“Please stay with Irish,” Ghastly murmured. “If only so that Love doesn't immediately think we’re witches and have cause to report us once we’re home.”

“He won’t report us. He has too much at stake.”

“Burn us himself, then.”

Dillon laughed, and then cringed. “I’d like to see him try.”

“Is that all?” Coilin asked after a moment. “We sail to Ireland alongside wanted pirates as though we’re all friends, and then watch them sail away without arrest, whereupon we pretend we've never seen them before in our lives?”

“A deal’s a deal,” Dillon reminded him. “If we stab him in the back, we’re no better than he is.”

“We have a duty to the Crown.”

You have a duty. To the English Crown.”

“Ireland is part of the English Crown,” said Coilin, frowning. “King Henry VIII’s decree was that the Kingdom of Ireland’s lordship come from Great Britain. You’re under English rule.”

“With all due respect, Captain Coilin,” said Dillon, “I like you too much to get into such heavily political arguments. But if you insist on holding that viewpoint, I wouldn't stay in Ireland for very long.”

He heard a quiet chuckle from behind him. It made Dillon wonder how far into sorcerers’ circles these political aspirations ran. Did Irish magic-users care about who governed them, or did they have their own forms of self-government? He couldn't imagine they cared about the religious clashes between Catholics and Protestants very much, although even sorcerers would have to believe in something.

Then again, Dillon didn’t. Not anymore. Was a whole group of non-believers so difficult to believe?

Did Ghastly believe? Dillon almost couldn't believe he hadn't asked yet.

Coilin held Dillon’s gaze for a long time, attempting, semi-successfully, to remain impassive. To Dillon, his face was an open book. Different thoughts and emotions chased each other across it – confusion, distaste, frustration, anger. Everything you’d expect from a man raised his whole life to believe one thing, and suddenly being told another. In the end, Coilin’s upbringing as a respectable man won out, and he didn’t try to continue the argument. Instead, with a curt nod, he smiled. “Mortally wounded, and still able to debate politics?”

“He wasn’t ‘mortally wounded,’” Ghastly patiently explained for the fifth or sixth time. He was starting to sound a little exasperated with each new explanation – not that Dillon could blame him. “With proper medical care, he’ll be fine.”

“Of course.” Coilin unfolded his arms and straightened. “I need to see to my men. I doubt all of them are comfortable with the idea of working with pirates. David, I’ll need your help.”

“Why? Because I am comfortable with the idea of working with pirates?”

“No. Because you can pretend to be, and put them at ease.”

“Isn't that being dishonest?”

“When you become a captain,” said Coilin with a half-smile, “you’ll find that sometimes, being a little dishonest is very much worth the risk when you’re dealing with a ship-wide panic.”

David looked at him, and then he shrugged. “Alright. Who am I to argue? Three cheers for Peter Love. May he not stab us in the back.”

Dillon waited until they’d both left the pirate’s cabin before he took a deep breath, and smiled. “Skulduggery.”

“Hm?” said Ghastly.

“The name I’m meant to take. As ridiculous as yours is, it suits you. It describes you.”

Ghastly stood up and walked around into Dillon’s line of vision. “And you think ‘skulduggery’ suits you?”

He shrugged. “David and the captain certainly thought so. It’s mischief. Trouble. That’s all I ever seem to find.”

“Tell me, Dillon, that you don’t find fights with pirates every week.”

“I don’t find fights with pirates every week. Where are my pants?”

“By the portholes. Dillon, you were stabbed in those pants.”

“And?” Dillon hobbled over with the help of the large table in the middle of the cabin, and snatched the pants up. There was a large hole in the seat of them where the fabric had been ripped apart by the dagger, and that hole was surrounded by spreading bloodstains. It answered his question for him. “Ah.”

“Exactly.” Ghastly’s expression, when Dillon looked up, was one of amused sympathy.

“Well, I can’t very well leave without any pants on.” Dillon tripped his way as carefully as it was possible to trip over to the chest, bit back another yelp of pain, and pulled it open. “I wonder what sorts of pants our friend Love has to offer?”

Ghastly didn’t answer. Dillon rummaged through a blanket and a robe before he reached a respectable pair of breeches, and then he – very gingerly – pulled them on over the bandages. He’d buttoned up before he turned proudly back to the tailor.

Ghastly just looked at him, and sighed. “You’re right,” he relented. “’Skulduggery’ does suit you incredibly well.”

Chapter Text

Ghastly lived above a tailor’s. In retrospect, that should have been obvious. It just meant that Skulduggery was now faced with a flight of stairs he didn’t want to climb. A flight of stairs he really didn’t want to climb. His leg was still sore and he was still limping, and the steps looked utterly impossible to traverse under the circumstances.

Ghastly passed him into the shop proper. “There is a back room.”

“Does the door have a lock?”

“Well… no. But the store’s closed, and my father won’t be home for days. No one’s going to bother us.”

“Are you sure?”

“Relatively sure.”

Skulduggery hesitated, and then he shrugged. “Alright. Where’s the back room?”

“One condition.” As Ghastly turned to lead the way, he snatched the hat off Skulduggery’s head, and tossed it onto the worktable. “The hat does not come with us.”

“I get the distinct impression you don’t like the hat,” Skulduggery muttered as he hobbled after him.

“It defies every law of nature. It’s a tricorn that was changed drastically into something dreadful. My father wouldn't have let it over the threshold.”

“It was Peter Love’s hat,” Skulduggery repeated himself for the twentieth time in the last three days. In his opinion, that was all the argument he should have needed.

“It’s a travesty.”

“It has feathers in it.”

“Oh,” said Ghastly, far too much amusement in his voice for his own good. “Feathers. Well, I stand completely corrected.”

“As long as you recognise that,” Skulduggery reassured him. He didn’t, however, immediately go to pick the hat back up after Ghastly left it on the worktable. He’d taken it from Love as ‘payment’ for services rendered. By the time they reached the docks of Dublin, Love had surrendered it willingly as a gift.

“I’ll make you a new hat,” Ghastly offered as he opened the door into what was presumably the back room. “It’ll be waterproof.”

“Waterproof?” Skulduggery followed him into the gloom of a private workshop. “Is there such a thing in fabrics?”

“My father works with sigils,” Ghastly explained. “He can tailor waterproof coats. He’s working on bulletproof, as well, if you’re interested.”

“Why would I need bulletproof clothes?”

“You were stabbed,” Ghastly reminded him. “In the arse.”

“Precisely. I was stabbed. Why would I need bulletproof clothes?”

Ghastly gave him a very flat and emotionless look, making Skulduggery chuckle. It was remarkably easy to exasperate the tailor, and the amusement of it never truly faded. “Besides,” Skulduggery added, “I don’t make a habit of getting stabbed.”

“Of course you don’t.” Ghastly clicked his fingers, and three candles in the room lit up, driving away the gloom. “To be honest, I’m worried about introducing you to other sorcerers.”

“Why?”

“Because if you treat them the same way you treated Love… they’re not going to be scared off by demons, Dill – Skulduggery. You really will need bulletproof clothes.”

“Love and I were friends by the end, if you recall,” Skulduggery objected. “I liked him. He was a civilised sort of madman.”

“I doubt ‘friend’ is the word he would have used.” Ghastly pulled open a drawer in the far cabinet and took out a box, which he left on the table along with some leaves Skulduggery couldn't immediately identify. “Chew on those.”

“The box, or the leaves?”

“The –" Ghastly turned around sharply, then saw Skulduggery’s face, and sighed. “The leaves, you idiot.”

Skulduggery picked them up and examined them. “Are they magical?”

“To an extent. They numb pain. You’re going to want that.”

Skulduggery needed only to open the box and look at the large sewing needles inside before he put the leaves into his mouth without further argument. He’d never heard of stitching wounds up the same way one would stitch a rip in a pair of pants, but Ghastly had assured him the technique worked. It was painful, the tailor had admitted, but effective. Skulduggery had asked if sorcerers employed their own magical healers for situations like this. Ghastly had hesitated, and then asked whether Skulduggery really wanted to go and explain to a complete stranger what happened on the pirate ship.

“How do I know they work?” he asked now.

“If you start screaming,” said Ghastly, “we can be sure something went wrong.”

Skulduggery turned to look at the scarred tailor, eyes narrowed. “I think I've been a terrible influence on you.”

“You probably have,” Ghastly agreed with a smile. “Believe me, Skulduggery. They work. I’m a professional.”

“Fabric doesn't feel pain.”

“And in a few minutes, neither will you.” Ghastly picked up a small pin from the box and, without warning, jabbed it into Skulduggery’s upper arm. “There. See?”

Skulduggery blinked down at the small drop of blood that welled up. He hadn't felt a thing. He glanced up to see the faintly smug grin on Ghastly’s face, and he nodded. “Alright. I accept your proposal.”

“Good.” Ghastly closed the door behind them, while Skulduggery took one hobbling step forward to transfer his weight onto the table. “Now take off your breeches.”

Pulling them on, back on the ship, had been almost worse than the initial stabbing. The material was tight and rough on skin, and gave no leeway over wounds whatsoever. Now, most of those facts still held true, but didn’t bring with them any pain. Skulduggery was still ginger by instinct, but as it turned out, he didn’t need to be. He barely felt the cloth sliding over his skin, let alone any pain. It was deeply, deeply unnerving.

“How sore am I going to be in the morning?” he asked, trying not to watch Ghastly picking out two large needles and a spool of thread from the box.

“Keep chewing on those leaves,” Ghastly said.

“That isn't an answer.”

“No,” he agreed. “It isn't. Keep chewing on those leaves, Skulduggery.”

“That’s comforting, that is.” Skulduggery picked up another leaf and chewed on that as well, just to be safe. “Don’t tell me what it is you’re doing.”

“Sewing.”

“Yes. Thank you for that.”

Skulduggery could practically hear Ghastly smiling behind him. In an effort to distract himself, he looked around the workshop. Workshops weren't people, traditionally, but he’d developed the habit in England of pretending that they were. Just as people gave away clues to their life stories when one pressed in the right places, the rooms which people lived in painted pictures of lifestyles and timelines their owners wouldn't have otherwise revealed. Clues where everywhere, and this workshop was no different.

On the surface, it was bare, and could have belonged to any tradesman. Everything important was tucked away in drawers and cabinets, away from prying eyes. Ghastly’s father was the tailor, Skulduggery knew, which made him a very neat and ordered man – everything in its place, nothing ever left on the table. It reminded Skulduggery of Aeneas.

On the way here, the front of the shop was very clearly a tailor’s shop, littered with all the tools of the trade. Ghastly and Skulduggery had needed to pick their way carefully around multiple racks and counters to reach the back room. In contrast, the fabrics on the walls were pinned according to a pattern of colours, very aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Aeneas would never have allowed anything like that, and it made Skulduggery smile to think of the story behind it – a man who liked to work without clutter, but didn’t care what others thought of him or the process; a woman who preferred no clutter, and therefore took charge of the one decoration she could, but left her husband his other eccentricities. A couple still very much in love.

That implied one of them wasn’t a sorcerer. They’d been married long enough to fall into amiable habits, but not so long that they could no longer stand each other’s company. And while Skulduggery didn’t quite know what sigils were or how they worked, he knew they were magical as well, which implied Ghastly’s father was the sorcerer. It was quite a romantic love story, when he thought about it.

It also made him think of a rather obvious question he should have thought of before. “Ghastly?”

“Hm?”

“You said your father won’t be home for days. What about your mother?”

“She’s in town.”

Skulduggery waited for the rest of that statement, but nothing came. After a few moments, he turned as far as he could manage. “Isn't there a chance she could come home?”

“Of course, but she won’t come back here. This is my father’s workshop.”

“How can you be sure?”

They both heard the muffled sound of the front door opening and closing. The little bell strung to the top edge of the door tinkled, and then a woman’s voice called out. “Ghastly?”

The floorboards creaked under Ghastly’s feet as he shifted – due to guilt, Skulduggery hoped. “I suppose I can’t be sure.” He raised his voice. “Back here, mother. Don’t come in.”

Before Skulduggery could even think about pulling his breeches back up, a pair of footsteps had traversed the floor of the shop much faster than they had any right to, and the backroom door opened. A woman stood framed in the fading sunlight from outside, short, but confident, and wearing an expression that told Skulduggery all too well how often she was amused by Ghastly trying to give her a command.

“’Don’t come in?’” she repeated, smiling. “Ghastly, when has that ever worked? I've taught you much, much better than to rely on someone’s goodwill overriding their curiosity, particularly when it comes to me. Hello there. Ghastly’s mother, Mistress Aoife. You must be one of his friends.”

Skulduggery was momentarily at a loss for words. He really, really didn’t like being at a loss for words. It reminded him too much of when he still stuttered. He compensated by watching Aoife, trying to spot the part of her that took delight in organising wall fabrics by colour. She was strong, physically so, which made her a fighter of some type. She probably very much enjoyed fighting of whatever type she’d mastered. She didn’t have a sense of shame, apparently, which Skulduggery was acutely aware of for the fact that he was standing there stripped from the waist down and she’d barely so much as flinched.

Ghastly stood and walked around into Skulduggery’s line of sight. There was a resigned slump in the line of his shoulders, the closest to an apology Skulduggery knew he was going to get. “Mother, Skulduggery Pleasant. Skulduggery… my mother.”

She gave him a brisk nod. “Pleasure to meet you. What happened?”

“He was stabbed by a pirate,” Ghastly answered.

Her brow raised. “Where?”

“Where do you think?”

She laughed, and held her hand out. “Give me the thread, Ghastly. I’ll take care of this.”

“I think Skulduggery would rather I take care of it,” Ghastly said. Slowly. Carefully. Skulduggery found himself cursing the husband he had not yet met, for not leaving even one roll of fabric within easy reach for the sake of basic decency.

“Whatever for?” Aoife walked forward and took the thread without waiting for Ghastly to offer it. “You haven’t got anything I haven’t seen before, boyo. Don’t get me wrong, it’s impressive, and if I were several centuries younger you certainly wouldn't have anything to be ashamed of –"

Mother.”

“- but as I am the age I am, and you've been mortally wounded, I’m sure we can all be adults.” She bustled around behind him, and clucked her tongue in an absurdly disappointed manner. “Stabbed by a pirate. I suppose that explains the ridiculous hat on the counter out there. What on earth possessed the pair of you?”

“He was either going to sell us into slavery,” said Skulduggery, even more absurdly feeling the need to defend himself, as though Aoife were his mother, “or kill us if he grew too bored.”

“So you goaded him into stabbing you?”

“What other option was there?”

Aoife blew out a laugh. “Did you consider calling for help?”

“We were out in the middle of the ocean.”

He felt her pause, and then speak to Ghastly. “You were attacked by pirates on your way home?”

“It was random,” Ghastly said quickly. “And Skulduggery helped retrieve all of the cargo. It’s waiting in our warehouse at the docks.”

“How did you manage that?”

“Skulduggery talked the pirate into helping.”

There was, for several moments, a very pregnant silence. Skulduggery briefly wondered what he was going to do if Aoife started lecturing her son. He couldn't stay, obviously. But he also couldn't pull his breeches back on quite yet, and he couldn't leave without trousers on. He would have to stay, and that would drive an awkward wedge into his budding friendship with Ghastly.

To his surprise, Aoife burst out laughing. “I wish I could have seen that! Attacked by pirates out at sea, and you managed to resolve it peacefully? I am impressed. I am very, very impressed. What happened to the pirates?”

“They left,” Ghastly said simply. “They won’t come back again.”

“Are you sure of that?”

“It was Peter Love. He has no reason to come back to Ireland, even if he wasn’t convinced Skulduggery and I were demons.”

“Peter Love?” Aoife even sounded impressed. “You managed to negotiate with Peter Love? You managed to scare – alright. It is an absolute travesty that I am not being told this story. Ghastly, go pour three mugs of whiskey, please.”

“He already has painkillers.”

“They’re not for killing pain, numbskull. They’re for us. Go on, hurry up. I’m nearly done with this, and then we’re going into the sitting-room and you two are telling me this story. How does that sound?”

Skulduggery didn’t answer – partly because he didn’t believe the question was directed at him, and partly because he was still reeling from being faced with a situation he didn’t believe was possible. He already knew that not all parents were like Aeneas. His mother’s extended family had proven that. But they were still parents. There was still a measure of protectiveness in child-rearing, still lectures and disappointment and the passing on of life lessons. Aoife’s reaction was one more suited to a friend than a mother.

“Hello?” he heard her saying, just as she rapped him on the head with a knuckle. “Skulduggery? How does whiskey sound?”

He blinked. “Wh-whiskey sounds –“

He stopped. His breath quickened, for an instant, and then he used years of practice to regulate it back down to a regular rate. Then, before he could think too hard on it, he spoke again. “Whiskey sounds like an excellent idea. Thank you.”

“Are the leaves wearing off?” Ghastly handed him another one before he went for the door. “Chew them a bit slower. That should help.”

Skulduggery laughed, surprising even himself. “I’ll bear that in mind.”

Once Ghastly had left, Aoife reached up to pat Skulduggery on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll behave myself down here.”

Skulduggery didn’t know how to respond to that, so he said the first thing that came to mind. “Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t mention it.”

“Don’t worry,” said Skulduggery. “I don’t plan to.”

~~

Skulduggery Pleasant, Aoife learned slowly over the following day, was a character who certainly lived up to his name.

He was also a genius, and didn’t realise it. Or, well, he did; but at the same time, he didn’t. He knew he was intelligent. He just didn’t realise quite how much. And Aoife had no intention of telling him, if his already-impressive young arrogance was anything to go by. She settled for listening to the stories, and abjectly wishing that she could find out who the poor boy’s parents were so she could go and give them a large piece of her mind.

He was mortal-raised, which probably played a large part in his relative ignorance. He used to have some sort of speech impediment, which Aoife certainly wasn’t going to bring up before he did. But she knew about stutters. They were usually permanent, especially when they started in childhood. Skulduggery had worked hard to rid himself of his, and what was more, succeeded. Probably largely on his own.

Add to that his remarkable perception abilities… yes, he’d gotten a lot about Aoife and her husband, Ardan, wrong. But he’d also gotten a lot right. He’d gotten that one of them was a sorcerer, and the other mortal – just the wrong way round. He’d picked up enough about their daily habits that Aoife knew he wasn’t used to being wrong, and while he’d thought she was the one who ordered the cloths pinned to the walls, he’d also guessed at their temperaments eerily accurately.

It didn’t help that he was also handsome, and far too charming for his own good. That part, he did know. He knew it very well. It was almost amusing.

“No,” she said again, shaking her head. “I don’t believe it. I simply do not believe that Love gave you his hat out of the goodness of his black and twisted heart.”

“He’s more of a gentleman than most people think,” said Skulduggery. “Granted, his ethics leave a lot to be desired, but he’s a pleasure to talk to.”

Aoife didn’t bother trying to hide her scepticism when she looked at Ghastly. Her son shrugged. “They were fairly friendly by the time we docked.”

“And he offered you his hat?” she asked Skulduggery again.

“Not at first,” he admitted. “At first, I had to steal it. You should have seen him, chasing me all over the ship with a bullet in his foot, trying to steal it back.”

“While you had been stabbed in the arse?” Aoife put her chin into her hands, trying to imagine it. A pirate chasing Skulduggery all over a ship, both of them limping horribly, all the onlookers laughing only when neither of them were looking.

“Yes,” Skulduggery said in a very resigned tone. “While I had been stabbed in the arse.” He was sitting very gingerly in the armchair, one leg pulled up underneath him to keep weight from sitting on top of his wound. He was going to have to do that for at least a week, but then the magical thread Aoife used would slowly disintegrate into the wound, healing it further. Within a week after that, there would be no evidence a dagger had entered him at all.

“You, lad,” she said, “need to learn how to fight, so that daggers are never a bother in your future again.”

Skulduggery nodded. “I wouldn't object to that.”

“There’s only one type of dagger that should go anywhere near a man’s arse, and you don’t strike me as the type.”

Ghastly nearly choked on his whiskey, while Skulduggery merely looked politely puzzled. “I don’t follow.”

Ghastly shook his head fiercely. Skulduggery’s head tilted towards him. “And judging by Ghastly’s reaction, I don’t want to.”

Aoife shot him a grin. “My son likes to pretend he’s ashamed of me. I am, however, serious about you learning how to fight. I’m sure Ghastly can teach you a few things.”

Ghastly frowned. “I’m still learning myself.”

“But you learn quickly, and you would have more patience than I would.” She sat back and regarded Skulduggery as objectively as was possible. “As for an income, sorcerers are very low on investigators. You could probably manage a roaring trade if you worked under one for a few years.”

“Sorcerers have incomes?” Skulduggery asked.

“Of course sorcerers have incomes, boyo. How do you think we stay hidden?”

“To be honest, I haven’t given it any thought. What are the differences between sorcerers and… mortals?”

“Well,” said Aoife, “magic.”

“I worked that out on my own, thank you.”

“What a splendid investigator you will make.” Aoife leaned forward. “Apart from magic, there’s lifespan. Sorcerers can live to be eight hundred and older. That makes our societies and our governments rather more stable than the ones you’re used to.”

“Societies and governments? Multiple?”

“We are, unfortunately, still separated by borders of country.”

“Of course you are.” Skulduggery shifted, carefully, to bring his other foot under him. “Is there war?”

“Not at the moment, and not nearly quite as much. Most wars are a result of misunderstanding and miscommunication. They’re not problems for sorcerers. Magic allows for long-distance conversations, and instantaneous travel. Misunderstandings are usually cleared up right away.”

“Ah,” said Skulduggery. “So sorcerers aren't better people, so much as they’re better-prepared.”

“The fact that we use the word ‘mortal’ didn’t give away that we aren't better people?” Ghastly asked with a smile.

“Instantaneous travel?”

“Teleporters,” said Aoife. “We could travel from here to Paris in the blink of an eye, if you found one willing to take you.”

Skulduggery pondered that silently for several moments, and then he shifted again. “Sorcerers have investigators?”

Aoife glanced at Ghastly. Her son raised an eyebrow back in a silent approximation of ‘told you.’ He’d warned her while Skulduggery was settling himself that the young nobleman had very strange priorities, usually due to observations he’d made and hadn't shared. Aoife was starting to see exactly what he meant. The conversation was shifting from topic to topic much faster than she’d ever experienced while explaining things to greenies before.

“Yes,” she answered eventually. “Sorcerers have investigators. They have inspectors, and detectives, and all the rest.”

“It’s possible to investigate crime scenes where magic was used?”

“It is. I’m afraid I don’t know the details. You’d need to speak to a professional investigator for that. But, suffice to say, I’m sure their ranks could benefit from the addition of a man such as you.”

Ghastly shot her a look. She smiled back. “What? It’s a fact.”

And it was. It was very similar to her methods of registering interest in someone, true. But it wasn’t anything Skulduggery himself wasn’t already thinking, and Aoife had standards. Those standards were non-existent at the moment, as she was married. But even before then, and especially after then, her standards were far, far above young men before their Surges only just coming into their own.

Ah. Surges. She’d probably have to explain that, as well.

“I’m flattered,” said Skulduggery, dragging Aoife’s mind back into the present. “But it seems I have a lot to learn before I can consider myself enough of an expert to investigate magical crimes.”

Aoife knew better. Privately, she made a note to speak to some friends of hers about introducing Skulduggery to sorcerers’ society, before he went out on his own and tried to do something stupid.

“I’ll make up a room for you,” she decided.

It was the first thing she said that made Skulduggery look surprised. “You don’t need to –"

“I know I don’t need to, but I want to. Any friend of Ghastly’s is a son of mine. You’ll need a place to stay, free of rent, while you heal. Once you start earning your own income, you can start looking for your own place to live, and I’m sure Ghastly and myself can help you furnish as any sorcerer would. It’s quite useful, having an icebox that doesn't require ice.”

Skulduggery looked about to object, but then thought better of it. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it.”

“This one,” said Skulduggery, “I will mention. Thank you.”

Aoife smiled. “And, once again, don’t mention it. Welcome to the family, Skulduggery.”

“When my father comes home,” Ghastly said, “there’s a tavern around the corner I can introduce you to.”

“Why only when your father comes home?”

Ghastly gave him a look Aoife knew all too well. “Because you’re not going to want to be anywhere inside the shop from about six in the evening until midnight.”

“Six hours?” Aoife gave her own son an innocent smile. “That’s a little generous, don’t you think?”

“Nothing’s generous when it comes to you, mother.”

Skulduggery looked between them as a light comprehension finally dawned on his face. “Ah. The tavern it is, then.”

Ghastly nodded. “Best decision you've made since agreeing to let Peter Love go.”

Chapter Text

[AN: This chapter was written in collaboration with the lovely purplejabberwocky, whose stories - all based on the same headcanon - can be found here.]

It had been a long time since Solomon set foot in the market streets.

Not so long, relatively speaking. It had only been four years or so. But it felt like much longer, because the last time Solomon had been here, it was with his father. Only four years ago, and he barely remembered it.

Da used to enjoy coming to the markets. It reminded him of his place, he said. His place in the world, and how he managed to get there. At least once a year, no matter how busy he was, he’d let the manservants have the week off and take Solomon into Dublin. Solomon could remember every single thing his father had said about practically every single stall, every single tailor, and every single grocer. He could remember his father’s laugh, his scowl, and his reactions to the small homeless boys who occasionally ran across their path. But he couldn't remember anything about how he felt. What he’d thought. Whether he’d laughed at any of Da’s jokes, or asked about any of his opinions. It was a large blank slate, and it was why Solomon didn’t often think of it. It made him feel as though he hadn't truly been there, hadn't shared in his father’s delight, and it twisted him up inside.

Now, after four years, he was again. Stepping carefully over the cobblestone streets, looking at everything that used to overwhelm him, and feeling several worlds apart. Shopkeepers worked, tailors advertised their wares, grocers called to prospective customers across streets. The smell of cinnamon wafted on the breeze from one doorway, baked goods from another. Everything was colourful, everything was vibrant, and everything was foreign. Even in four years, too much had changed.

Solomon kept his head down as he walked. No one here understood anything he’d been through. No one here would understand the power of necromancy. No one looked at his cane, at Da’s cane, and flinched. No one sensed the power he had, or could feel the same magic that he could feel. Solomon thought he could finally understand why necromancers never left the Temple outside of Dublin. Walking these streets alone was so unbearably lonely.

It almost wasn’t worth the fresh air and sunshine.

After a moment, he remembered the list in his hand. Supplies for the Temple; of course. He was here for a reason, not to get lost in half-remembered memories. Food, first and foremost. Solomon took another moment to get his bearings, and then headed towards the smell of freshly cooked meat.

The route took him down a narrow alleyway between two shops, picking his way through the trash that overflowed from the back doors. He walked quickly, tapping the cane down on the cobblestones every so often just to hear the sound echo around the walls.

Two men stood at the other end of the alley. Acutely aware of how well-off he looked, Solomon’s grip on the cane tightened, and his pace slowed. Neither of the men moved, so he didn’t stop, but Solomon could feel his heart rate increasing the closer he came. And it leaped when, all of a sudden, the shorter of the two men stepped properly into Solomon’s way.

A few practice duels in the Temple had in no way prepared Solomon for a real confrontation, and he was reluctant to use necromancy either way. He didn’t want to be the cause of a city-wide witch hunt. “You’re in my way,” he said calmly, setting the tip of his cane on the ground in the same comfortable, deceptively casual stance he had seen his father use so many times. He ignored the twinge in his chest at the thought, and focused on not showing how clammy his hands had suddenly gotten. “Please do be good fellows and move.”

One of the men, the shorter man, laughed. “Listen to ’im! Right little aristocrat, innee?”

“So he is,” said the taller man. His accent was nearly as broad as his companion’s, except for an oddly precise intonation which kept the sounds from slurring together. “You have to wonder what a little aristocrat is doing in our dark little alley.”

Solomon fixed him with an unimpressed stare. “I needed a shortcut.”

“That’s the thing about shortcuts,” said the tall man with the kind of smile that seemed, on the surface, to be amiable, but wasn’t. “Most of the time, they’re not worth following.”

“For you,” said the short man. “For us, it’s real worth following. It ain't even that hard to pass, really. There’s just a toll, see.”

Solomon fought hard not to panic. He was carrying only enough money for everything on the list. He really couldn't afford to bribe anyone – and, he realised with a flash of anger, he shouldn't have to. “I’m not paying you for use of a public alley,” he said evenly, controlling his breathing so that his racing heart wasn’t a distraction. “And I’m not worth your trouble threatening. The people I work for won’t like it if anything happened to me. Let me through, and you won’t have to discover that.”

The tall man gave him an odd look. The short man just laughed, and took out a knife with a shrug. “Too bad. If you can’t pay the toll with money, there’s other ways. Ain't like the people you work for will know who you were stupid enough to refuse.”

He took a step forward. Solomon stood his ground and lifted his cane and flicked it, and a shadow lunged out of the wall. The short man yelped and jumped back, almost tripping over his own feet. For a moment he wavered for balance. Solomon flicked his cane again and the tendril struck the man’s hand, and sent the knife spinning away down the alley.

The short man hit the ground hard and rolled, wheezing and with wide eyes. “Did you see that?! Did you see what he did? What is he?”

The tall man stood very still, and looked at Solomon with an odd expression which made very cold disquiet trickle down Solomon’s back. “That’s easy,” said the tall man with that fake-friendly smile. “He’s a necromancer.”

The short man started at his friend. His eyes were still wide, and now his breathing was fast and laboured with fright. “He’s a what? What are you talking about?”

“A necromancer,” said the tall man again. “A little baby necromancer, all the way from his Temple. He probably hasn't even reached his Surge yet.”

“His Surge? What are you talking about?!”

The tall man sighed. “He’s a child with a few magic tricks. Go ahead and run along if you’re that afraid.”

The short man set his jaw. “I ain't afraid.”

“Good,” said the tall man, and stepped forward. Solomon almost stepped back. He was able to abort the movement, but he wasn’t able to stop the flinch. His heart was suddenly pounding too fast for him to keep it level by counting his breaths. “What’s your name, boy?”

Solomon swallowed and lifted his chin, and focused on the man’s eyes. This man knew about necromancy, but he wasn’t a necromancer. He couldn't be. Solomon had never seen him before, and the Temple wasn’t that big. “What’s yours?”

“That won’t matter to you. Don’t be rude to your elders, boy.”

Solomon stared at him, flatly so as to cover the fact his knees felt shaky. “You haven’t earned my respect, yet.”

The tall man grunted. “Necromancer brat.”

He flung out his hand and something collided with Solomon, so hard that it made pain lash down his neck and back. He felt himself hit the wall of the adjacent building, and then the force let him go and he collapsed to the cobblestones, gasping for air. He’d dropped his cane, but it was lying only a couple of metres away. He reached for it and the tall man trod on his hand, and he cried out as the man ground his heel into Solomon’s fingers.

“Now,” said the tall man pleasantly, “let’s try this again. What’s your name?”

Solomon grit his teeth and said nothing, blinking away the tears of pain. The short man was right behind his friend, glancing down at the cane. Solomon’s stomach jolted. The shaft of the cane had been forged in the Temple, but the pommel was his. His, and inlaid with enough precious metal to pay for both men’s finances for at least a year.

“Don’t,” he said, and the short man grinned at him past his friend. It was a forced grin, trying to be braver than he was, and he bent to reach for the cane. Solomon cried out again as the tall man put all his weight on his hand to kick the cane away.

“Oy!” protested the short man. “We could sell that!”

“Touching a necromancer’s item without express permission means death,” said the tall man without even looking at his companion. All the blood drained out of the mortal’s face until he looked sick, and he backed away from the cane.

“Curses,” he mumbled, “and devilry. Who are you people?”

“I’m your friend, of course,” said the tall man in a tone of such exasperation that Solomon really doubted ‘friend’ was an accurate word. “But he’s just a brat, playing at being a real sorcerer.” He stepped off Solomon’s hand and Solomon drew it up to his chest and scrambled to his feet, and lunged for his cane. He felt that invisible force slam into him again, but this time when his back hit the wall he didn’t fall. Instead the force remained there, pushing him up against the hard brick until he gasped for air.

The tall man kept his hand outstretched as he came closer. The closer he came, the heavier the weight on Solomon’s chest grew, until the corners of his vision started to blur and his heart pounded with fear. He could see just enough to know the tall man’s smile had gained a cutting edge, and his partner’s heels as the mortal fled. Solomon tried to lift his hands, but he couldn't even move them.

“Do you know what the Sanctuary thinks of necromancers, boy?” he asked. “I’ll let up enough so that you can answer, now.” He did something, Solomon wasn’t sure what, and some of the weight eased enough that Solomon could drag in a shallow breath.

“No,” he croaked. He didn’t even know what the Sanctuary was. He didn’t know who this man was, or why he hated necromancers. He didn’t understand why he couldn't move or breathe unless this man allowed him to.

“They hate necromancers,” said the tall man, coming close enough to touch. “You worship death, for God’s sake. Any right-thinking person who know how wrong that is. You’re just pests, in the end. So you see why I don’t care about the people you work for? Because no one will care if anything happens to you. I might even get a reward.”

He smiled and reached into Solomon’s pocket for the coin purse, and Solomon couldn't help the flare of anger that clenched his jaw. The man only laughed as he struggled, and flexed his hand, and the force slammed into him again. Solomon’s head hit the bricks, and for a moment his vision swirled dizzyingly. Angrily he wrenched his mind back to where it should have been, but that didn’t stop the back of his head from aching.

“There’s nothing you can do,” said the tall man as he clicked his fingers and light flared in the palm of his hand, “but if it’s any consolation, I’m saving you from a life of abject misery.”

“Funny,” said another voice, a smooth voice like velvet. “I was about to say the same thing.”

The man’s coattails caught fire out of nowhere. He reeled backwards with a yell and beat them out as fast as he could. The invisible force disappeared and Solomon slumped onto the ground, gasping for the air he’d been denied before, trying to force his limbs to obey him. Weapon. He needed a weapon.

“You’re an Elemental,” said the earlier velvet voice in disbelief. When Solomon looked up, he saw a man even taller than the first, with dark brown hair and green eyes and a well-tailored suit. “Why don’t you just put out the fire?”

The first man glared as he beat the last flame into thin air. “Who are you?”

“I’d tell you,” said the man with green eyes, “but you’re very rude, refusing to give our friend there your name after he asked, so I don’t think you deserve to know. Besides, you didn’t answer my question. Why didn’t you just put out the fire?”

Who are you?”

“I think you’re rather self-defeating. Or perhaps deaf.”

“If I have to ask again –"

“Or could it be that you’re the brat playing at being a real sorcerer?”

“What’s it to do with you?” snarled the tall man.

“To me? Not much at all. But it implies you’re either magically impotent, or ... no, actually, it just implies you’re magically impotent. I suppose that means you can’t be a real sorcerer.”

The tall man seemed to be momentarily beyond words. Solomon wasn’t sure whether it was because he wasn’t used to being back-talked by someone who could so obviously take care of themselves, or whether it was having his own words thrown back at him. Solomon glanced back toward his cane, lying a few metres away against the wall, and then returned his attention to the two men while pushing himself up enough to inch toward it.

“In fact,” continued the man with green eyes, “I might even go so far as to say you’re just an upstart with a few magic tricks.”

“What about you?” demanded the tall man. “You can’t be much older than twenty. What would you know about magic?”

“For one thing, I have far more finesse while using it,” said the man with green eyes, and now also with a smile. Solomon kept his gaze on them, and shifted further backward. “For another, I know how to actually conjure water. Do you? Those are just to start. I’m sure I could come up with many, many other things.”

The tall man looked baffled and angry at once. “Who are you?”

“Haven’t you realised yet? I’m your mark’s best friend.”

Solomon froze as the tall man’s gaze flickered at him, but the man only sneered. “You don’t even know his name.”

“Ah. Yes. That is a drawback.” The man with green eyes looked toward Solomon, and for the first time, Solomon felt as if he was being studied. Not sized up, not having his worth determined, but truly studied, as if under a magnifying glass. He wasn’t sure he liked it. “What is your name?”

It took him a minute, but then he swallowed. “Solomon Wreath.” The tall man was still nearer to him than the man with green eyes, but they were both cutting off his exits, and Solomon didn’t know what either was capable of. His head and neck were aching where he’d been thrown up against the wall, and his hand was in agony from where it had been trod upon.

“There you are,” said the man with green eyes, nodding in Solomon’s direction. “I’m Solomon’s best friend. Aren't I, Solomon?”

“I don’t know your name,” Solomon pointed out.

“Skulduggery Pleasant,” said the man with green eyes with a slight bow, “since it’s you asking and not our dour-faced friend here.” He looked at the tall man. “I’d ask for your name again, but I actually don’t care. I’ll just call you Babel instead. Are you satisfied yet, Babel?”

“Skulduggery Pleasant?” Babel laughed, and it sounded almost relieved. “I've never heard of you before. And here I was afraid you were sent by the Sanctuary.”

“That didn’t exactly answer my question,” said Skulduggery, “but I suppose it will do. What is it you need so much money for, Babel?”

“I’m thinking of donating to the church.”

“Really? Which one?”

“Does it matter?”

Skulduggery blinked. “Have you stepped into a public square in the last five years?”

“I don’t pay attention to idle gossip.”

Skulduggery nodded. “That explains rather a lot. Now, Babel, you know what I think should happen? I think you should give Solomon back his coin purse, and then I think you should toddle off. Isn't that a good idea?”

“I think you’re an arrogant youngster who doesn't know anything about real magic,” said Babel, much more confidently now. “And that you’re the one who should walk away, before you get hurt.”

“Oh, but I’m having so much fun,” Skulduggery said, and then smiled. “Why don’t we ask Solomon his opinion, then? Solomon, that’s a remarkably considering expression you’re wearing. I don’t actually see much fear in it at all. Why don’t you tell us why you’re not afraid anymore?”

Why he wasn’t—abruptly, Solomon felt like laughing. How had Skulduggery known? It couldn't merely have been because of his expression, could it? Solomon hadn't even been sure of what he was feeling until just then.

Babel turned toward him with his brow furrowed in puzzlement, and Solomon smiled up at him. “You said that no one would miss a necromancer,” he said, “but you were worried that Skulduggery had been sent by the Sanctuary. And while I might only be a brat playing at being a real sorcerer, he isn't. If you kill me, you’d have to kill him, and I just don’t think you’re capable of that.”

With a snarl Babel moved toward him and lifted a hand, and Solomon braced himself for the wall of air—what else could it be?—that struck him. He felt a ripple of something powerful passing him by, and in the same moment the force bearing down on him vanished. He dropped and grit his teeth against the jar in his limbs, and glimpsed Skulduggery rushing past. He heard his own laugh through the buzz in his ears. Had Skulduggery planned the whole confrontation like this so he could get an opening through a distraction, or did he just talk until he saw an opportunity and went for it?

When Solomon looked up again he saw Babel hit the ground hard and roll back to his feet, shaking his head, and then Skulduggery throw a punch. Solomon blinked his vision clear and saw his cane lying a short distance away on the cobblestones. He crawled over to it, snatched it up, and got back to his feet, determined not to be useless again.

Skulduggery was a good fighter. Solomon had never in his life been involved in a fist-fight, yet even he could tell that much. It was just that Babel was better; quick, dirty, honed by years of experience on the streets. He swept Skulduggery’s feet out from under him, then snapped his fingers to summon more fire. Without thinking, Solomon swept his cane around. The shadows rippled along the walls and flipped Babel down the alley, where he hit the cobblestones awkwardly and rolled over with a groan.

Solomon lowered his cane, breathing harder than he had when he was choking. He’d never done something like that before. Even in the practice duels, he’d never – it had never worked.

“Excellent,” Skulduggery said, getting up and rubbing his jaw, seemingly unperturbed. Babel staggered to his feet and Skulduggery clicked his fingers, then threw a fireball at him. It caught on Babel’s coat and shirt, and the man shrieked, scrabbling at his burning clothes before vanishing around the corner.

“I suppose that means he can’t summon water,” Skulduggery mused, and turned to Solomon, dusting off his clothes as if he’d merely been caught in a cloud by a passing carriage. “Would you like to help me find a thief?”

Solomon’s mouth opened and closed a few times without any words coming out, and when he finally realised he was doing that, he looked away to try and regain some semblance of control. “Why?”

“Why?” Skulduggery sounded genuinely surprised. “Because we make a fairly good team, and don’t you think it would be far more interesting than running a few errands for the Temple?”

“I –" Solomon shook his head. “I can’t. I have a responsibility. The Temple must come first.”

“Oh dear,” said Skulduggery. “They do have you, don’t they?”

“It’s my home,” Solomon said, very firmly.

“Is it?” Skulduggery looked him up and down. “That’s the sort of response I’d expect from someone who had been raised there and quite effectively brainwashed. The sorcerer who helped me make Babel look like an upstart with a few magic tricks, which to be fair he is, is far too intelligent to let himself be brainwashed so easily.”

“I’m not –"

“When did you join the Temple?”

“I was born there,” he answered, using the response he’d been told to use, trying not to feel as though he was being strung along on a tide.

“Oh, I doubt that,” said Skulduggery. “You know your way around Dublin far too well. You haven’t reached your Surge, but they still let you out. Those clothes you’re wearing are cast-offs, but you stand as though you’re wearing something finely tailored. You’re just as intelligent and observant as you look, and you think on your feet in a crisis, which suggests an expensive tutor or a life full of crisis to teach you. Or both.”

Skulduggery had called Solomon observant, but he was drawing conclusions from the slightest of clues. How was Solomon supposed to answer? Even if he had a lie ready, which he didn’t, Skulduggery would probably see right through it.

“And then,” Skulduggery went on when Solomon didn’t say anything, “you flinched when he mentioned the Church, but not when I implied several clashes between the two different factions recently, so you've probably been caught up in those clashes. That indicates a decently long childhood spent outside the Temple.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Solomon demanded, choosing aggression as a defence. “It isn't any of your business. I thank you for helping me, but I have no need of your help any longer.”

“So you’re not even the least bit curious about other forms of magic, then?” Skulduggery asked.

“How do you know I didn’t already know about them?”

“You looked surprised.”

Solomon glanced away. “Then no, I’m not.” It was a lie, and he knew it, and he knew Skulduggery knew it too. The curiosity was so strong it burned in his chest. But he couldn't afford to say anything else. The Temple had given him a home when the mortal world had stolen his. He owed them too much to go back on his word now. “As I said, thank you for your help, but I have things I need to do before I return to the Temple.”

Skulduggery shrugged and smiled sadly. “Suit yourself.”

Solomon turned and walked away, keeping his back stiff. He had reached the end of the alley before he remembered that Babel had taken his coin purse, and hadn't given it back before he went scurrying off. In fact, Solomon had forgotten all about it. He turned and saw Skulduggery still standing there, his arms crossed and wearing a smug expression.

“Would you really have let me walk away?” Solomon asked, unable to help a smile.

“I had confidence in you,” Skulduggery said.

“In my ability to do what, precisely?”

“I’ll leave that up to your imagination.” Skulduggery straightened up, and came closer, and his eyes were still twinkling. “I’ll make you a deal. If you help me seek out this thief, and take back the item of immeasurable wealth and value which he stole, I will pay you back every penny Babel stole from you. How does that sound?”

For a moment Solomon considered. His alternatives were obvious: he could go back to the Temple and get into trouble for losing their coin, without anything to show for it. Or he could earn the money back, and bring back the shopping. They weren't expecting him for the rest of the day anyway.

But, more to the point, he wanted to do this. The Temple was teaching him, yes, but more often than not he found himself very bored with the slow nature of the lessons. Practice duels were as exciting as anything got, in the Temple, and even then both combatants were using the same magic. Now he knew there was more to magic than necromancy. More to the magical world than the Temple. That alone was exciting.

He smiled. “Deal.”

“There may be more fighting,” Skulduggery warned him.

“I assumed as much.”

“But you handle yourself well, so we shouldn't have any problems.”

Solomon neglected to mention that the hand Babel had stepped on was starting to grow numb. He was fairly sure Skulduggery already knew anyway. Nothing was broken, as he could still move all of his fingers; complaining about it wasn’t going to do anything but make him seem like a whiner.

And he needed that money.

Chapter Text

Solomon learned many things over the next hour, not all of them useful and not all of them wanted. Among the things he learned because Skulduggery told him were that magic could take on many different forms, of which necromancy was only one, and that Skulduggery himself was an Elemental. Among the things that Solomon learned through implication or quiet observation was that Elementalism involved the manipulation of the four elements; that it was the most respected path of magic to take; and that Skulduggery absolutely loved to hear himself talk.

It was such a change from the generally tight-lipped necromantic mentors in the Temple that Solomon found he barely needed to voice a question in order to have it answered. The conversation felt far too one-sided, and Solomon wasn’t sure how to change that. He wasn’t used to this, having to talk over someone else in order to make himself heard.

Skulduggery, for his part, either didn’t notice or didn’t care. “How much do you know about the Sanctuary?” he was asking now.

“Not –"

“They’re the governing body of the sorcerers in one particular country. Governing body in name only, of course. They’re a little like the Royal Family in England. Utter figureheads.”

“The Royal Family isn't –"

“I know. It’s tragic. The most influential sorcerers attend the clansmeet, but you can’t govern sorcerers who don’t want to be governed, any more than you can control one against their will. Well, unless you have their true name. Do you know how names work?”

“I don’t –"

“Never mind, that’s not important. Solomon Wreath isn't your given name, is it?”

Having given up on getting a word in edgeways, Solomon mutely shook his head.

“Good. I thought the surname sounded a bit strange. The man we’re searching for, Solomon, is a criminal.”

Here, Skulduggery stopped, as if something else had caught his attention, but when Solomon looked over the Elemental was as cheerful as he’d always been. He smiled and nodded at people as they passed them in the street, and almost half of those people smiled back. He didn’t look about to say anything else, so Solomon decided to chance a question. “You said he was a thief. What did he steal?”

“He stole something from a friend of mine, something of immeasurable wealth and value, and I’d like to get that item back.”

“What was it?”

Skulduggery gave an easy shrug. “I don’t know. We’ll find out when we find him.”

“How do you know it’s an item of immeasurable wealth and value if –"

“I’m taking my friend’s word for it. The fate of his father’s career hangs in the balance, he said. And since I have a very vested interest in that career surviving, you can see why it’s so vitally important that we track this man down.”

“No,” Solomon disagreed. “I can’t.”

“You can’t?”

“I can’t.”

Skulduggery looked a bit nonplussed for a moment, and then shook his head. “You’ll just have to take my word for it, then.”

It said something about how bizarre this day was that Solomon was willing to do just that. He did, however, have many more questions, and he seized on this chance to ask them before Skulduggery started talking again. “What do you mean, about the Sanctuary only being a figurehead? Babel was worried that you worked for them. They must have some power.”

“Only very recently,” Skulduggery answered. “All thanks to one man in the clansmeet called Eachan Meritorious. He’s trying to change things, you see. And doing remarkably well, considering.”

“Considering…?”

“The opposition. It’s not easy, instituting a new government. Especially when the world’s eyes are on Ireland.”

“Why are the world’s eyes on Ireland?”

“Because Ireland’s a Cradle of Magic. What do they teach you in the Temple?”

Solomon decided to take that as a rhetorical question, and didn’t answer it. “And a Cradle of Magic would be…?” he asked, his tone growing sarcastic now that he’d properly been insulted.

“A place of great power, and one of the places where magic was born. Sorcerers are more powerful in a Cradle, magic naturally has greater effect. You've heard stories of faeries?”

Solomon scoffed. “Who hasn't?”

“Well, a lot of people outside of Ireland.”

It was a way of explaining things that allowed Skulduggery to show off a more experienced and wider breadth of knowledge, but he also had a point. Solomon had wondered, ever since his discovery of the Temple, whether stories of faeries were based on real magic. Now that he knew necromancy wasn’t all there was, the idea made much more sense.

A lot of things were beginning to make much more sense.

“Where are we headed, then?” he asked.

“A warehouse.”

“You think he’s hiding in a warehouse?”

“No. I think he’s working at the warehouse. I should probably mention that the actual robbery took place several weeks ago.”

“Really?” Solomon frowned. “Why has it taken you this long to track him down?”

“Was that a thinly veiled insult, or a thinly veiled compliment?”

“I’ll leave that up to your imagination,” answered Solomon with a shrug and a barely concealed smile.

Skulduggery laughed. “You learn quickly, I’ll give you that. I actually hadn't started looking for him until two days ago. I didn’t care until then.”

“What changed your mind?”

“I was running out of clean suits.”

It wasn’t the first time Skulduggery seemed to give up on the thread of logic in the conversation, and Solomon somehow knew that it wouldn't be the last. He managed to get through a full minute with nothing more than a few strange looks in Skulduggery’s general direction, but eventually he needed to ask. “What exactly are we –"

“Wait.” Skulduggery held his arm out to stop Solomon from walking. “This is it.”

They’d been walking through the shipping district, weaving their way in and out of coaches bearing heavy loads from place to place, and Skulduggery had stopped them in front of one of the warehouses. A strong smell of tar wafted from within. The giant doors were thrown wide open, revealing rows and rows of extremely tall wooden shelves that were filled to brimming with all sorts of different packages.

To Solomon’s surprise, he felt some trepidation. “Is the man we’re looking for a sorcerer?”

It took Skulduggery a moment to answer. “My friend thinks so. I don’t. We have a small wager on which one of us is right.”

“Why don’t you think he is?”

“Because I know very few sorcerers who would be willing to risk stealing something from my friend’s mother. Now, having said that, he obviously knew what he was looking for, so I believe he knows about magic, even if he can’t use it himself.”

“That’s possible?”

“Of course.” Skulduggery surveyed the front of the warehouse, green eyes narrowed in thought. “Someone who knows about magic, enough to turn a tidy profit from it. He probably runs a small smuggling ring for magical artefacts, based out of this warehouse. He’s probably done so for a while, as well, but the more he learns about magic, the more paranoid he’ll become that someone is about to discover his little secret. He’ll be careful. Walking right in isn't a very viable option, I’m afraid.”

“I’ll put aside the delusion that things would be simple,” Solomon replied dryly. “What a sad life he must lead, barely being able to step into a world of such wonder.”

“I don’t know,” said Skulduggery. “I think the whole thing is rather amusing.”

Solomon stared at the older sorcerer. “And what if you were him?”

“I wouldn't be stupid enough to steal from someone much more powerful than me, thus continuing my life of sheltered ignorance in relative peace.”

“And you’d be alright with not knowing magic?”

Skulduggery hesitated. “Probably not,” he admitted. “But that wouldn't trigger me into stealing from people who do. What do you think our next move should be?”

Solomon had no idea, but as he was getting paid for his help, he decided he needed to contribute something. When Skulduggery said they were tracking someone down, he’d had ideas of chasing after a man in the street and tackling him to the ground. He hadn't expected what amounted to detective work and sabotage – although in retrospect, that attitude must have been a bit naïve. “You said we can’t just walk in,” he started.

“That’s right.”

“So we’ll have to sneak in.”

“Ideally.”

“Is there a back entrance?”

“Yes, but it faces the water, and we don’t have a boat. There’s a hatch in the roof, a locked overseer door in the side, and this front entrance here.”

Solomon took a deep breath. “Is dropping through the roof out of the question?”

“Of course not. Nothing’s ever out of the question. In this case, however, it might be a tad unnecessary. We’re trying to elude the attention of one man, not the whole warehouse.”

“Right.” Solomon nodded, hoping he at least looked like he knew what he was talking about. “And the locked door? Is there magic for unlocking doors?”

“There is. I don’t have it.”

“Then what are we meant to do?”

A slow smile spread over Skulduggery’s face. “We’re going to walk right in.”

Solomon sighed. “You just said that –"

“That’s him.” Skulduggery pointed at a slim rat of a man, short and impossibly thin, with a shock of brown hair on top of his head, juggling what could only have been a small bag of coins. “Tavern break, I’d guess. Look how proud of himself he is. Lucky for us, don’t you think?”

“How is that lucky?”

“We can get inside and ask questions without him there. Perhaps we could even find where he keeps the artefacts. Imagine his surprise when he gets back. Slips off for a pint, comes back to find his whole operation in shambles.”

“You,” said Solomon, “are having far too much fun with this.”

“Aren't you?”

Solomon was surprised to discover he was. But he didn’t want to satisfy Skulduggery with that, so he let a casual shrug serve as his answer. “What are we waiting for, then? He’s gone.”

“So he is.” Skulduggery led the way into the warehouse, dodging around big and sweaty men lifting heavy boxes. It didn’t make any sort of sense to Solomon; boxes were being carried this way and that without any rhyme or reason that he could see, and that made it very hard to dodge. He tried to follow in Skulduggery’s footsteps, because Skulduggery seemed to have a natural and effortless grace, but Solomon eventually decided that Skulduggery must have had some sort of magic helping him. Because every move Solomon tried to make ended up with him directly in someone’s way, and more than a few workers cursed at his clumsiness before he could join Skulduggery in a more secluded corner.

He hadn't been in an active warehouse before. He’d always thought they were glorified storage sheds. He didn’t think there was this much activity, this much running about, and this much loud swearing.

“Glorious, isn't it?” said Skulduggery.

“Gloriously sweaty,” Solomon muttered, wrinkling his nose against the smell.

“The working classes of Ireland. I've always been fascinated by their lifestyle. They don’t seem to realise how deep they are under the heels of the rich and influential.”

“Does it really matter to them?” Solomon pointed out. He couldn't imagine the knowledge having any significant impact on the activity in this particular warehouse.

“It would if they knew. It doesn't take much to start a revolution. Unrest, bitterness, and a little time. Fortunately, no one is going to tell them. Shall we get started?”

Skulduggery thought much more quickly than most people. But even after an hour, Solomon was starting to get the hang of it – a little like developing sea legs out on the water. Skulduggery skimmed over anything he didn’t think was important, but he still skimmed. Still considered it. Filed it away in his mind somewhere, most likely. And then he moved on. It was just a matter of realising what Skulduggery thought was important, and landing on the point at the same time as he did without losing balance. This time, Solomon managed it. “How do we do this?”

“We poke around, and we ask questions.”

“That’s all?”

“That’s all.”

“There isn't a magical solution?” Solomon asked, keeping his voice low so the workers passing by wouldn't hear. “There isn't a spell? Or an artefact that can track down hiding places?”

“I’m sure there is, but I don’t have one.”

Solomon blinked. “There’s too many people to just wander around and ask questions. We’d be here for days.”

“That’s true.” Skulduggery looked around. “We’ll have to take separate halves of the warehouse. We’ll cover more ground that way.”

“What sorts of questions am I supposed to ask? ‘Hello, we’re trying to determine if one of the people you work with is running a magical smuggling ring, have you seen anything unusual recently’?”

Skulduggery nodded slowly. “Try not to be so eloquent. They’ll suspect something.”

It wasn’t very often that Solomon was struck dumb. He didn’t like the feeling. “I don’t know how to be… working-class.”

“Speak roughly.”

“I don’t know how to.”

It was difficult to pinpoint exactly what Skulduggery’s expression was when he turned to look at Solomon. It might have been disbelief, but there was a little too much amusement for that. “You don’t know how to be rough?”

“I've never had a reason to be. It wasn’t part of my…” Solomon trailed off right before he finished the sentence with ‘education.’ He was aware of how obvious his upbringing must be, but a few years in the Temple had already made Solomon reluctant to talk about his past. He was hardly about to start with someone he’d only just met. “Perhaps splitting up isn't the best idea.”

“Quite the contrary. Now it’s crucial.”

“Crucial?”

“Solomon, how are you ever going to learn if you don’t leap headfirst into things?” Skulduggery gave him a very patronising pat on the shoulder. “Good luck.”

And then he was gone, vanishing around a corner of the shelves before Solomon could regain control of his mouth.

He worked it a bit like a codfish for a few more seconds, and then pulled himself together with a frustrated sigh and an inward glare. He’d asked for this, hadn't he? He was even getting paid for this, assuming everything went according to plan. If he didn’t get that money, he’d have to return to the Temple empty-handed, so it was really in everyone’s best interest that he wander around and ask questions regardless of how silly it made him feel.

“Excuse me?” he tried, holding a hand up to grab the attention of someone passing. The worker didn’t even spare him a glance, hurrying on before Solomon could ask anything else.

“Excuse me?” he tried with a different one. “I’m looking for a –"

He stopped and frowned. What was he looking for? He didn’t even know the name of the man they were after. “A man who might have had a…”

It didn’t matter. That worker was long gone too.

It felt very much like Solomon was invisible, and he found he didn’t mind the feeling too much. He might have sat back to enjoy it, if he didn’t have a job to do. But since all six workers he subsequently tried treated him about the same as if he was something nasty on the bottom of their shoe that they were too lazy to remove, Solomon quickly decided to change tacks.

He walked up to one of the more idle workers and put his hand on his arm. “What’s your name?”

There was just enough authority in his tone that the worker answered before he could think. “Doyle.”

Solomon smiled. “How well do you know the people you work with?”

“Now, see here, I don’t –"

“Doyle,” Solomon cut him off, surreptitiously pouring some energy into the name as he said it, “please answer my questions. How well do you know the people you work with?”

“I know everyone.” The man looked faintly surprised at the words coming out of his own mouth. “Don’t rat on anyone, though.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” Solomon agreed with a nod. “Do you know someone small and thin with brown hair who steals? Someone secretive?” He remembered what Skulduggery had said earlier, about the man slowly growing paranoid that someone would catch him. “Especially recently? So secretive, in fact, that he even seems to jump at small noises, and he’s always looking over his shoulder?”

“Yeah. That’s Aedan.”

“Tell me everything you know about his stealing.”

Doyle was looking more and more worried over the fact that he couldn't seem to stop himself from speaking. “He sells ‘em, from outta that back room over there. Pays the boss not to ask questions. Got a partner too – Finnegan.”

“Where might I find Finnegan?”

Doyle looked around for a moment, then shrugged. “I dunno. He ain't around today.”

“Thank you.” Solomon removed his hand and walked away, leaving Doyle to try and work out what on Earth had just happened and wonder if this was something he could possibly get in trouble over.

When Solomon arrived at what could only be the back room Doyle mentioned, he was almost annoyed to see that Skulduggery was already there. “What was the point of splitting up?” he asked. “So that I wouldn't slow you down?”

“Nonsense. You’re here, aren't you?”

“And how long have you been waiting?”

Skulduggery gave a casual shrug. “Not long. But I am impressed. How did you find out about this room so quickly?”

“I asked.”

Skulduggery raised an eyebrow. “You asked?”

“I asked a very nice man called Doyle. He told me everything. The man we’re after is called Aedan, and he has a business partner called Finnegan. You’re also right about Aedan becoming paranoid.”

“He told you all of this? Why?”

Something in the way Skulduggery’s smile faded made Solomon wary. He’d been about to tell the detective exactly what it was he’d done, since there was no longer a reason to hide it. Surely, if anyone would understand, it would be a sorcerer. And yet, Skulduggery’s reaction put him on his guard. “Why wouldn't he?”

“Friends don’t usually give friends up so easily. What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“Did you show him some magic? Intimidate him?”

Solomon’s eyes narrowed. “No. I’m not an idiot.”

Skulduggery’s head tilted. He wasn’t completely convinced, but when he spoke again, it was with a new question. “Did he tell you anything else?”

“He didn’t tell me where Finnegan is.”

Skulduggery didn’t speak again, but he didn’t have to. Solomon was finally landing on the same point he already had, and this time, keeping his balance perfectly. If Aedan had left the warehouse, which he had, and if the back room door wasn’t locked, then it stood to reason that Finnegan would be inside, guarding their smuggling operation. And Skulduggery was hesitating, which didn’t make any sense, because Finnegan wouldn't be any more of a sorcerer than his partner was.

Then again, that was only a theory. Aedan knew sorcerers existed. If Aedan was growing paranoid, then Finnegan would certainly be prepared for a sorcerer’s attack.

“Can non-sorcerers use magical artefacts?” Solomon asked.

“Yes,” said Skulduggery. “Yes, they can.”

“Then they could have magical traps set for us.”

“Yes, they could.”

“Are you trying to figure out what they are?”

“I don’t have a way of knowing.” Skulduggery took a deep breath and put his back up against the wall next to the door. “We’ll need to take things as they come.”

Solomon stared. “You want to go in without knowing exactly what we can expect?”

“What choice do we have?”

He didn’t say it as though he were making a reluctant decision. There was too much of a gleam in Skulduggery’s eyes for that, and it lent a desperation to Solomon’s words. “Waiting until we know more.”

Skulduggery nodded. “That’s always an option. Unfortunately, I really am running out of clean suits.”

“What do your clean suits have to do with –"

“On my mark,” Skulduggery interrupted him.

“Mister Pleasant –"

“Skulduggery. Three.”

“Skulduggery, you just said that we don’t have a way of knowing -"

“Two.”

“Will you please listen to me for a moment?”

“One.”

Apparently, he wouldn't. Solomon had the sneaking suspicion that was going to become something to which he’d need to grow accustomed. He took a breath, gripped his cane, and when Skulduggery pushed the door open and went inside, Solomon followed suit.

He knew, from lessons in the Temple, that it was possible to scout an area with shadows. It was useful not only to preempt surprise attacks, but also as an offensive counter-measure. The problem was that he hadn't quite reached that level yet, and probably wouldn't until after his Surge. The most Solomon could do now was have his cane ready, and hope that he saw Finnegan before Finnegan saw them.

The thing was, Finnegan wasn’t in the room.

Skulduggery stopped just over the threshold, leaving only enough room for Solomon to step past him. There was a multitude of small boxes that were sitting on a table against the wall. Unless there was a secret compartment elsewhere in the room, Skulduggery’s item of immeasurable wealth and value could only have been in one of those boxes.

“Well,” said Skulduggery. “Let’s walk forward and see what happens.”

“Alright,” Solomon said slowly. “You first.”

Skulduggery hesitated. “If I drop dead, or worse, end up publicly humiliated, I’m relying on you to come up with a much more heroic story of our exploits.”

“Such as?”

“Well, for one thing, our adversary was here, and he put up a fight. I held my own very admirably, and managed to distract him for long enough so that you could take those boxes unnoticed, and then he cheated by triggering one of this room’s magical traps, thereby killing me instantly.”

Solomon nodded. “I’ll be sure to mention our adversary was a small rat, as well.”

Skulduggery looked back over his shoulder long enough to give Solomon a look that was both amused and exasperated, and then he turned his full attention back to the boxes. He took three steps forward, stopped, and clicked his fingers. Where before in the alleyway the same motion had produced a flare of fire in Skulduggery’s palm, it now did nothing.

“The room’s bound,” Skulduggery said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means magic is dampened. We won’t be able to use it.”

Solomon stared at the older man’s back. “Non-sorcerers can do that?”

“It’s a simple set of sigils. Anyone can do that.”

Solomon tried an experimental flick of his cane. To his surprise, he couldn't even get the cane to move. In fact, he couldn't move at all, not even a centimetre. It felt as though his bones had somehow become stone, or lead. “Skulduggery?”

He turned. “Yes?”

“I can’t move.”

Skulduggery tilted his head, looking at Solomon as he stood there frozen. Then he looked to the side, at a wall that had arcane symbols carved directly into the stone. He sighed. “We’ll have to amend the original story. You’re the one who triggered the magical trap, instead of me.”

“How? All I did was step forward.”

“You stepped past me. The sigils must account for some sort of paralysis to stop intruders, but it’s not quite detailed enough to work more than once. These men are clever, but they aren't sorcerers.”

“I’m glad we've established that they’re clever,” Solomon muttered. “Can you stop it?”

“Without killing you?” Skulduggery stepped over to the wall and ran a hand over the deep lines carved into the stone. “I doubt it.”

Solomon would have stiffened if his limbs allowed it. Instead, he managed to swallow, and tell himself sternly that he was going to be fine, as long as he didn’t panic. That fact had held true for most of his life; there was no reason for it to change now. “Then what are we going to do?”

Skulduggery walked back over to the boxes. “I’m going to retrieve what I came here for, and then I’m going to wait for either Finnegan or Aedan to appear and ask them how to undo the paralysis.”

Solomon nearly laughed. “I hope you’re planning on doing more than asking.”

“I hope asking is all I need to do.”

Solomon felt the breath in his chest growing tight, so he started counting his breaths out, slowly, consciously calming himself down. Skulduggery, meanwhile, started going through the boxes on the table, occasionally making a noise of surprise Solomon knew better than to ask about. There were two or three items he took out and left on the table, but they didn’t look familiar to Solomon. One looked a bit like a tuning fork, but the handle was far too big and elaborate for tuning to be its intended purpose.

Finally, the noise of surprise was also one of triumph, and Skulduggery pocketed one of the smaller items. Solomon didn’t have the chance to see what it was before it disappeared, but with what he was being forcibly put through, he intended to demand full disclosure once everything was over.

“Now, then.” Skulduggery picked up the rest of the items, pocketed them as well, and turned around. “I wonder how long tavern breaks normally take.”

“What if he’s left for the day?” Solomon asked.

“He won’t. He’s a magical artefact smuggler who’s grown paranoid over the last few months, and for very good reason. He’s not going to leave this room unguarded for longer than an hour.”

“And yet, he has.”

“Finnegan’s disappearance is certainly interesting, yes.”

“Why does Finnegan’s disappearance matter?”

Skulduggery gestured back towards the boxes. “Most of the things in there are worthless. Useful, but worthless.”

And anything that wasn’t worthless, Solomon suspected, was currently sitting in Skulduggery’s pockets. “And?”

“And, doesn't the disappearance of anything valuable along with Finnegan’s flight strike you as odd?”

Solomon frowned. “How do you know anything valuable was there in the first place?”

“It’s a smuggling ring. Why wouldn't there be anything valuable? The tricky part of detective work, Solomon, isn't seeing what shouldn't be there. It’s seeing what should be there.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” he said dryly. “How does knowing that Finnegan betrayed Aedan help us?”

“It doesn't.” Skulduggery walked back over to examine the sigils in the stone. “But it might be useful later. I doubt Aedan knows yet. That gives us an advantage over him for when he comes back, which shouldn't take too long now.”

“What do we do until then?”

“Figure out how to rescue you.”

“Right.” Solomon strained to turn his head so he could watch what Skulduggery was doing, but all he managed was giving himself a headache from trying to look out of the side of his head. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“Don’t move.”

Despite the utter inanity of the comment, Solomon found himself laughing. It was an incredibly peculiar feeling, when all he could move was his mouth for speaking and his chest for breathing. “I’ll try my best.”

For the next few minutes, there was nothing but silence. Solomon continued trying not to panic, but that was growing more difficult with each new realisation – that his back was to the open doorway, that he couldn't access his necromancy, that he could hear the scratching of metal indicating Skulduggery was trying to carve something into the stone. Images ran through his mind of one line being put in the wrong place, and shadow daggers shooting out of the walls to skewer Solomon where he stood.

What if the paralysis spread into his lungs?

Solomon coughed, partly to prove to himself that he could, and partly to get Skulduggery’s attention. “Would you talk, please?”

“Hm? What about?”

“Anything.” He hesitated. “I’d just like to be sure I’m not dead.”

“You’re not,” Skulduggery assured him.

“I’d like constant confirmation of that, thank you.”

“You’re still not dead.”

Solomon sighed. “What are you doing?”

“Experimenting.”

“That’s extraordinarily comforting,” he muttered. “What sort of experimenting?”

“The dangerous sort.”

“Skulduggery –"

“I recognise this sigil here,” the detective explained, using the tone of someone who was pointing at whatever they were talking about, despite Solomon’s inability to turn around and actually look. Solomon had to resist the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s used in mind tricks. I’m not sure about the rest, but I’d be willing to bet that this means you’re not really paralysed. You’re only being convinced that you are.”

This time, Solomon did roll his eyes. “And?”

“Theoretically, breaking free of the trap would only require believing that you can.”

“That is the worst magical defence I've ever heard of.”

“And you've heard of a lot, have you?” Skulduggery backed away from the wall into Solomon’s line of sight. “It’s very clever, if you think about it. What sorcerer would believe they can best a sigil trap?”

“I’m believing,” said Solomon. “And I still can’t move.”

Skulduggery hesitated. “Well, I could always be wrong.”

Solomon stifled his frustration by blowing out a long breath and closing his eyes. “Then what do you propose we do next?”

Skulduggery didn’t answer. A moment later, Solomon understood why. Skulduggery was looking over his shoulder, at the open doorway, and all Solomon could do was curse his complete inability to turn around.

“Who are you?” demanded the person in the doorway.

“Manners,” Skulduggery chided. “I’m Skulduggery Pleasant. And you must be the illustrious Aedan we've been hearing so much about.”

“You’re a sorcerer.”

Skulduggery inclined his head. “I am.”

“You’re both sorcerers.”

“Well, not at the moment. Your sigils are very effectively stopping that. My friend is also unable to move. If you wouldn't mind…?”

“If I wouldn't mind what?” Solomon heard the floor behind him creak. “Releasing him? Two against one? Why would I do that?”

“I was hoping not to have to fight,” said Skulduggery. “There’s only one item I want, which I’ll gladly pay for, and the two of us will never bother you again. You have my word on that.”

“Then why’re you trespassing?”

There was an interesting note to Aedan’s voice, one that Solomon hadn't heard in a long time. It was fear. If you were afraid in the Temple, you didn’t show it; and Solomon hadn't been outside the Temple in six years. But it was more than that. Aedan wasn’t just afraid. He was afraid of them.

He was afraid of Solomon.

“We were under the impression that you were dead,” Skulduggery lied. “Now that I know you’re not, I’m willing to negotiate.”

It was impossible to tell what Aedan was thinking or where he was, but Solomon could obtain an idea from watching Skulduggery. The smuggler was in the room now, beyond the doorway, inching closer to the wall with the sigils in it. Why? What was there? Was there such a thing as a sigil of death?

“What would you pay?” asked Aedan as he inched.

“What would you ask for?”

Aedan stayed quiet. Solomon forced himself to breathe – in, out, in, out, two seconds each. After several tense moments, Skulduggery cocked his head. “If you’re about to try something, let me warn you that your relative health is completely dependent on my goodwill. If my friend were to collapse, that goodwill would disappear.”

Once again, Aedan didn’t answer, but it seemed like he’d at least stopped inching. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on Solomon’s part. He couldn't be sure. He really, really didn’t like not being sure.

“Have you dealt with sorcerers before?” Skulduggery asked. Solomon didn’t hear anything, but Aedan must have nodded, because Skulduggery continued as though he’d received an answer in the affirmative. “Most of them have been really arrogant, haven’t they? Most of them have treated you as though you were inferior to them. Maybe one or two offered you a deal, and you decided to take a leap of faith, but when the moment of truth came, they betrayed you. This little smuggling ring is your way of taking revenge, isn't it? Stealing from sorcerers makes you feel good.”

“You’re stalling,” said Aedan.

“Not at all. See, the sorcerer you stole from two weeks ago is one of those precious few sorcerers who wouldn't have looked down on you for being mortal. He’s been made fun of all his life, and he knows exactly what that feels like. He’s a good man. A good man, moreover, who tailors my clothes. Stealing from him was your first mistake.”

“My first?”

“Your second was to trust Finnegan. He’s run off, probably with half of the items here.”

Aedan laughed. That probably wasn’t the best of signs. Solomon focused harder on believing that he was perfectly capable of moving, if he could manage to forget that he was paralysed. “Finnegan’s only doing exactly what I asked of him,” Aedan said, much more confidently than he had before. “What are you? A Sensitive?”

“If I was, it wouldn't be working in here.”

Nothing’s going to work in here. Give it up.”

“Give what up?”

Solomon braced himself for whatever might happen when any of the sigils on the walls got touched. To his surprise, instead of going for the wall, Aedan went in the exact opposite direction and attacked Skulduggery with a short dagger. Skulduggery only barely managed to dodge by falling to the floor, and he rolled backwards to put as much space between himself and the dagger as possible.

It took Solomon a moment to move past his shock, and then another moment to ascertain that Skulduggery could defend himself beyond dodging. When he didn’t see any blood, he closed his eyes and tried to forget that any sort of life-or-death scuffle was occurring right in front of him. Sensitive, Aedan had said. Solomon didn’t know precisely what that was, but he did know Aedan had been concerned enough to ask. Which meant that a Sensitive would probably be able to break the sigils’ hold. What was a Sensitive? What sort of magic did they have?

Solomon seized on a hunch and relaxed, resigning himself completely to remaining here paralysed for all time. A couple of seconds later, he felt his knees buckle, and caught himself on his hands before he fell flat on his face.

Skulduggery was using the table in the room to keep Aedan at a distance, but that wasn’t going to work forever. Solomon glanced over at the sigils. What would happen if he scratched them all out? Would he and Skulduggery be able to use their magic again? Or would he completely erase any possibility of them ever getting their magic back again?

Skulduggery ducked around the table one last time, then knelt down and shoved the entire thing over with his shoulder. It crashed into Aedan’s legs and sent him reeling backwards, where he tripped over Solomon and fell to the floor. Solomon scrambled to his feet to try and stay away from him, but Aedan was fast; before Solomon could even regain his balance Aedan had grabbed him and thrust the tip of the dagger against his neck.

He froze. Skulduggery froze. The noise of the warehouse outside filtered in like something from another world, kilometres away. The only noise inside that small room was Aedan’s ragged breathing right by Solomon’s ear.

“You’re not a murderer,” Skulduggery said. His voice was quiet, but sure. It was enough to reassure Solomon that he was taking it seriously, but there was still Skulduggery’s usual bravado in it, and that bravado was terrifying.

“Don’t test me.”

“What are you planning to accomplish? We can’t leave anymore. The instant we do, I can report you and this smuggling. If you’re going to kill one of us, it’s in your best interest to kill both of us.”

“Why are you giving him ideas?” Solomon hissed through his teeth. He immediately regretted it when Aedan pressed the dagger’s edge in deep enough to hurt.

Skulduggery ignored him and spoke instead to Aedan. “Tell me. What are you going to do now?”

Aedan hesitated. Solomon could feel it. And that split-second distraction was enough for him to sweep his cane around into Aedan’s knees, sending the man once again to the floor, before he whapped his cane into Aedan’s head and jumped away. Skulduggery instantly came in and kicked the dagger out of Aedan’s hand, then pulled the tuning fork from his pocket and jabbed it into Aedan’s shoulder.

Solomon stared as Aedan screamed and jerked, and the edges of the tuning fork sparked. It went on for a good five seconds before Aedan slumped, unconscious, onto the dusty stone floor.

“What was that?” he demanded, eyeing the innocent-looking tuning fork warily.

“Lightning,” answered Skulduggery.

Lightning?”

“Miniature lightning. Portable lightning.” He put the tuning-fork-lightning-rod back into his pocket. “Welcome to the world of magic, Solomon.”

“Why didn’t you use that when you were fighting him?”

“I was biding my time.”

Despite everything, Solomon smiled. “You had no idea what it did, did you?”

“I was biding my time,” Skulduggery grumbled. He nudged Aedan’s unmoving body with his foot. “I do hope I haven’t killed him.”

Solomon thought about kneeling down and checking for a pulse, but decided he didn’t really care enough. His cane wasn’t reacting, which meant the man was most likely still alive. He shrugged. “Either way, we probably should leave.”

“Yes, we should.” Skulduggery glanced back at the table, put a hand over his left pocket, and then nodded briskly. “Let’s try not to look too suspicious on our way out.”

~~

They made it into the open sunshine without being stopped or questioned, or even so much as receiving a strange look. Solomon still felt as if he’d been holding his breath the entire time, and was only able to release it when he could hear the water slapping against the side of the dock outside. He stopped and looked out over the bay, and was joined a moment later by Skulduggery.

“What happens,” Solomon asked as the thought occurred to him, “when he wakes up?”

“He discovers that he’s still alive, and unreported, and even still has a business of a sort.”

“Won’t he try to find you?”

Skulduggery shook his head. “It won’t be worth it for him. He might, and if he does, I’ll deal with him then. But I believe we’re never going to cross paths again. Shall we go?”

Without waiting for an answer, Skulduggery turned and walked off back into the labyrinth of Dublin. Solomon took a moment, and then followed after him. There were two things he still needed to take care of before they parted ways. One of them was a question, and he asked it as soon as he’d caught up. “What was the item Aedan stole from your friend?”

Skulduggery took something out of his pocket and showed it to him. For a moment, Solomon thought he must be joking, because he recognised the tiny object between Skulduggery’s fingers, and it was the last sort of object he would have expected to have magical powers. “That’s it?” He frowned. “You said the stolen item was something of immeasurable wealth and value.”

“And so it is.”

“It’s a spool of thread.”

Skulduggery shifted the spool, just slightly, to make the afternoon sun gleam off the polished wood as they walked. “This is a Spool of Unbreakable Thread. It’s a magical item. Master Ardan and his son are two of the very few tailors who can make magical clothes whose magic doesn't fade after a year.”

“So it’s very expensive, is it?” Solomon asked dubiously. “How many suits can one spool tailor?”

“Not all that many,” Skulduggery admitted, “and since it looks exactly like an ordinary spool of thread, it costs as much as—well, an ordinary spool of thread.”

“Then what’s so immeasurably wealthy and valuable about it?”

Skulduggery shrugged. “Mostly the fact that it was Ghastly’s last spool, and the shipment from the Orient has been delayed. Now at least he can make me one new suit before then.”

Solomon blinked. “You said that the spool was stolen two weeks ago. How do you know the shipment hasn't already arrived?”

“Because I was in their shop yesterday. Besides, I’m running out of clean suits.”

Solomon sighed, chose not to point out that the shipment could very well have arrived this morning, and looked up at the sky. It was only early afternoon—enough time for Solomon to finish his shopping, so long as he got paid very soon. And that was the second, more important thing he needed to take care of before he said good-bye. The only question was how to approach the matter before Skulduggery was distracted by his own self-satisfaction or deliberately evaded the question.

“I suppose you’ll have to take the spool back to your friend, then,” he said.

“Oh, probably,” Skulduggery agreed, and pointed at the townhouse opposite them in the square. “But now that we’re here, I also have a witness to question about another case.”

“We?” Solomon raised an eyebrow. “I’m only being paid for one case.”

“Consider it a complimentary investigation.”

Solomon suppressed the smile he didn’t really want to show and gave Skulduggery his best stern look. “As generous as that is, I’m going to need an hour’s sunlight to get back to the Temple, and I still need to buy supplies.”

“Ah, yes,” Skulduggery said. “Every last penny Babel took, yes?”

“Yes.”

Skulduggery shrugged and reached into his pocket, and held out a coin purse. “Very well, then. Here you go.”

Solomon took the coin purse and weighed it in his hand, gazing thoughtfully down at it. It was very similar to the coin purse he’d had this morning. The same size, the same shape. In fact, it even had the little sewn-up tear in the side to keep the string on.

Skulduggery must have lifted it from Babel’s pocket in their tussle. Solomon looked up, torn between amusement and exasperation. “This is the same purse Babel took from me in the first place. I think I've been cheated.”

“Cheated?” Skulduggery’s eyes widened. “Whyever would you think that?”

“Because you promised you’d pay me for helping you with this investigation,” Solomon answered, “while all the while possessing the money already mine, which you could have returned at any time, as any honest man would have done.”

“Ah.” Skulduggery raised a finger. “All I said was that if you helped me, I would give you every last penny Babel stole from you. And haven’t I just now done exactly that?”

Solomon stared at him for a moment, and then, against his will, laughed. “I suppose you did.”

“Exactly. I am a man of my word, Solomon.”

“Yes, your word and nothing else.”

They stopped in a corner of the courtyard, near the townhouse Skulduggery had pointed at and the street leading to the markets. Solomon pocketed his coin purse and looked up at Skulduggery. Not all that far, he was pleased to see. He wasn’t quite grown into his full height yet, but he wasn’t far off, either. Maybe he would turn out as tall as Skulduggery was.

“Good luck in your investigation, Detective Pleasant,” he said.

“Detective Pleasant,” Skulduggery mused. “I like that. Are you sure you’re not interested in one last investigation? You could be my partner.”

Solomon shook his head, and was surprised by the sinking feeling in his stomach. He knew it was disappointment, but it had been a while since he’d felt it, and he wasn’t sure why he should be. He had everything he needed at the Temple, and he had responsibilities there besides. He couldn't simply leave them.

“No,” he said firmly, both to Skulduggery and to himself. “I need to go. They’re expecting me. Good afternoon, Skulduggery.” He turned and walked away, his cane on his arm, fully expecting never to see Skulduggery Pleasant again and trying not to be disappointed by that fact.

Two days later the Temple sent him out for more supplies, this time for mundane items relating to the more domestic aspects of the Temple. Things servants usually took care of, and with which Solomon now had an unfortunate familiarity.

On that list was a Spool of Unbreakable Thread.

Chapter Text

“I feel ridiculous,” Solomon muttered. Even the shadow of his silhouette on the folding screen looked annoyed. There was a resigned droop to that silhouette’s shoulders, however, which Skulduggery found much more interesting than anything Solomon was actually saying. It meant that despite the many complaints, a part of the necromancer was looking forward to this.

“Nonsense,” Skulduggery replied. “Why would you feel ridiculous?”

“This bonnet is too tight.”

“It was the largest bonnet they had.”

“The pantyhose is tight, as well.”

“Yes, well, I had to steal the pantyhose, Solomon. Unless you wanted to try it on in the shop right there, I had to guess at your size.”

“I don’t have a size pantyhose,” Solomon grumbled. “You know why? Because I’m not a woman.”

“That’s the exact wrong attitude to have.”

“I’m not a woman, Skulduggery. In fact, I’m starting to have second thoughts about this whole adventure. Why am I the one dressing up, and not you?”

Skulduggery sighed. “We've been over this. I’m far too tall, and you don’t know how to pick locks. Switching our roles would do nothing but embarrass us both further. Now stop stalling, and let’s see how you look.”

“You’re not the one being embarrassed,” muttered Solomon, in line with that characteristic of his wherein he always needed to have the last word on a subject. But he did, eventually, stop stalling and step out from behind the folding screen, and Skulduggery looked him up and down with a very discerning eye. Solomon made quite a pretty picture. The low-cut dress was, despite all objections, very well-fitting, and neatly hid that the pantyhose underneath it was perhaps a little too small. The shoes were fashionable platform heels, which Skulduggery had stolen for no reason other than the price was outrageous. And the bonnet, if it was too tight, certainly didn’t look it. Skulduggery had put a little chalk dust into Solomon’s damp hair so that it hung in curls underneath the edge of it.

The only thing that actually ruined the picture was the sour expression on Solomon’s face.

Skulduggery nodded, put a finger on the corner of Solomon’s mouth, and pushed it up into a half smile. “Cheer up. You look beautiful.”

“I look hideous.”

“You look like a courtesan.”

Solomon’s expression soured further. “Why was this important, again?”

“I need to find out what’s happening inside that brothel,” Skulduggery reminded him.

“Need to, or want to?”

“Need to. And as most brothels are very careful about what they say around potential customers, the only way to find out the truth is to ask them as one of their own.”

“They’re not going to recognise me,” Solomon pointed out. “I’m going to be an outsider. There must be other ways of gaining their trust than parading me around like a prize hog.”

“There probably are,” Skulduggery agreed. “But this is the easiest.”

“Again, for you.”

Skulduggery stepped back and lifted an eyebrow at him. “If you’re so solidly against this, then why did you agree to try on the ensemble at all?”

Solomon opened his mouth, closed it again, and glared. “I don’t like you.”

Skulduggery grinned. Everything he’d said was very true and completely practical; but he’d have been lying if he tried to say he wasn’t gleaning any enjoyment from this whatsoever. “Embrace your feminine energies, Solomon.”

“I really don’t like you.”

“Pitch your voice a little higher. You don’t want to sound like a bloodhound.”

“I am not,” Solomon said, “above punching you.”

Skulduggery laughed, but then obligingly dropped the subject. “When is the Temple expecting you back?”

“Sundown,” said Solomon. “As always.”

“A few hours, then. Excellent. Once you get inside, it shouldn't take too long for you to find the right person to ask. Try to have a little bit of fun. Make a game out of it.”

Solomon took a deep breath, making the brassiere that was tied high to give the illusion of bosom shudder. “Try to have fun with extracting information from innocent women whom I’m deliberately tricking. However am I meant to do that?”

That caught Skulduggery’s attention, and it took him a moment or two to realise why. “Innocent women? I thought you were Catholic.”

Solomon looked startled. “How did you know that?”

“Your demeanour. Your reactions. Occasional things you've said.”

There was silence for a moment as Solomon looked at him, his face growing blank – probably quite consciously. Then he shook his head. “What does that have to do with this?”

“Catholicism,” said Skulduggery, “doesn't generally regard women who come from brothels as ‘innocent’.” Lord knew that Aeneas certainly didn’t.

Solomon shrugged. “My father believed that a person’s lot in life shouldn't dictate how a man treats them.”

His father sounded like a much more reasonable man than Aeneas had ever been. He also sounded dead, if Solomon’s use of the past tense was anything to go by. Skulduggery made a mental note to look more into Solomon’s past later. If anything would make a man think becoming a necromancer was his only option, it would be the death of a father he loved and respected.

The dress made shuffling noises as Solomon tried taking a step in the platform heels. He swayed dangerously and almost pitched over onto his face, but for Skulduggery jumping forward to give him some extra support.

“Ow,” he moaned.

“We’re going to have to teach you how to walk first,” Skulduggery decided. “After that, we can focus on decreasing your likeness to a bloodhound.”

As it turned out, learning how to walk in platform heels was a feat that required a little more than a couple of hours. In the end, Solomon announced the attempt utterly fruitless, claimed a healthy new respect for women, and collapsed into an armchair. Skulduggery gave him a pair of polished men’s flats and told him to hide them under the dress.

“Where on earth did you find these?” Solomon asked as he pulled them on. “Is there magic in your pockets that make them bottomless?”

Skulduggery laughed. “No. I found them in the wardrobe.”

“The wardrobe?” Solomon looked up. “Isn’t this a tavern?”

“Did you miss the bar on the way in?”

“What is a nice pair of gentleman’s shoes doing in a tavern wardrobe?”

Skulduggery shrugged. “I don’t pretend to understand the seedy underbelly of this city, or what respectable gentlemen enjoy in the bedroom.”

Solomon cursed in a low voice and tried to kick both of the shoes off. Skulduggery laughed again and put an encouraging hand on Solomon’s shoulder. “It’s either this, or walking around a frequented brothel in socks.”

“I hate you,” Solomon muttered.

“I know. Ready to go?”

“No.” But Solomon grudgingly headed for the door anyway.

The brothel was certainly well-frequented, but it wasn’t one of the more upscale buildings, nor one of the more famous. Skulduggery had once tried to track how brothels advertised, following the rumours as they were passed from street to street. He hadn't succeeded. Brothels were a mystery he would never solve, it seemed. He wasn’t particularly broken-up about that fact.

Solomon found his way in without a problem, and that was the extent of what Skulduggery could watch. He stayed hidden across the street, keeping his eyes on the doors, waiting. He was, to his general surprise, left alone. Perhaps identity was held to a higher level of secrecy on streets like this than anywhere else in Dublin.

Of course, that secrecy was also working against them. Skulduggery put his feet up on the chair across from where he was seated, and satiated himself with trying to pinpoint the many thoughts flitting across the surface of his mind.

Chief among those thoughts was trying to work out where Solomon Wreath had come from. Solomon still refused to talk about his past or his family, and Skulduggery found himself growing more curious with each passing day. His main problem was that he had nothing to go on. Even Solomon’s upper-class upbringing wasn’t much of a clue. Skulduggery didn’t know how much of that upbringing was due to the Temple’s training, and he didn’t know how long Solomon had been in the Temple. Direct questions weren't going to work, so he was going to have to get clever.

He looked up when he heard a commotion coming from inside the brothel. The curtains over the corridor window on the upper level were rustling, which meant Solomon shouldn't be anywhere near whatever was going on. He wouldn't have needed to use the stairs.

Then the commotion moved down to the lower corridor window, which was open and let the noise spill out onto the street, and Skulduggery moved to get to his feet, just in case.

The building’s doors burst open and Solomon was shoved backwards through it, arms up and protecting his head. Skulduggery’s mind immediately leaped to all of the worst-case scenarios as he ran over, dispelled only when the person who pushed Solomon turned out to be a woman. She didn’t pursue Solomon over the threshold, but she did jab a parasol at him in a very threatening manner.

“I won’t have ya in here!” she cried. “I won’t have ya threatenin’ us!”

“What happened?” Skulduggery asked, looking for all the world like he was an innocent bystander interested in helping protect the integrity of the obvious victim. “What did she do?”

“She’s spyin’ for the Pearls, she is! I won’t have no do-gooder spreadin’ lies!” She glared at Solomon. “You ain't welcome at this establishment, you… you… missionary!”

Skulduggery had to work not to laugh. It was simply amazing how often Irish citizens took even a mention of religion as some sort of personal attack. Much of the public was as split on the issue as they were on whether or not the British Crown had any authority over Ireland. It was very likely Solomon hadn't heard of it. News of that divide growing stronger wouldn't have reached the necromancers’ Temple, deep underground.

“My apologies, miss,” Skulduggery said with a short bow. “She’s my niece. I must have lost track of her.”

“Yeh’d do well to be more careful, lad,” the woman said. She still hadn't stopped glaring at Solomon. “Talk like that’s gonna get her into trouble one day.”

“It won’t happen again,” Skulduggery assured her. He put an arm around Solomon’s shoulders and started leading him away, shaking his head. “If I've told you once, I've told you a million times, Brianna. Trying to convert everyone you speak to just isn't a good idea.”

A scowl settled onto Solomon’s now-hidden face, and remained there until they were out of sight. The moment they’d rounded the next corner, he wrenched himself away from Skulduggery’s grip and turned on him, pointing back towards the brothel. “That wasn’t my fault.”

Skulduggery, for his part, hadn't stopped grinning yet. “Wasn't it?”

“I didn’t mention anything about religion or conversion. I don’t know what she thought she heard, or what on earth the Pearls are, but –“ Solomon’s scowl grew deeper. “Why are you laughing?”

“The Pearls,” Skulduggery managed eventually, “are a rival brothel. You played your part too well. She probably assumed you were too experienced, and wouldn't be there unless you had a reason to be.”

Solomon’s scowl disappeared, to be replaced by a look that was completely nonplussed. “She called me a do-gooder. And a missionary.”

“The Pearls are a Protestant group.”

“They’re – what? They’re a Protestant brothel?”

“It takes all kinds.”

Solomon stared at Skulduggery. Skulduggery pretended not to notice, and instead continued walking down the street, hands in his pockets and whistling. Staying in one place for too long in this part of Dublin wasn’t exactly recommended. A couple of moments later, he stopped abruptly and turned back to where Solomon hadn't yet moved an inch. “When is your birthday, by the way?”

“My what?”

“Your birthday.”

Solomon stared a little more, then finally shook himself out of it and shot Skulduggery one of his trademark looks – the look that said, all too well, how much he was secretly enjoying everything that happened that day. “Why on earth do you need to know that?”

“I’m curious.”

“About my birthday?” Solomon laughed and shook his head. “When is yours?”

“I've told you when mine is.”

“No,” Solomon disagreed. “You haven’t. And now I’m curious about why you’re so eager to learn of someone else what you won’t share of yourself.”

“I can always figure it out,” Skulduggery mused. “It can’t be too difficult. Do you feel an affinity to any particular month?”

“You must be joking.”

“You would know by my charming grin.”

“Really? I was under the impression that you joked a little more often than never.”

It was Skulduggery’s turn to shoot Solomon a look, albeit quite a different one from Solomon’s earlier enjoyment. “Why do you consider your birthday a secret?”

“I don’t,” said Solomon. “But as you appear to consider yours a secret, I’m not inclined to share it.”

They looked at each other in silence for a while, as Skulduggery tried to predict what it might take to break Solomon’s stubborn streak. There was a surprising competitive edge to much of what the young necromancer did, so it didn’t take too long to come to a decision. “I’ll tell you what. If you figure out my birthday before I figure out yours, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“A drink?” Solomon made an amusing show of pretending to ponder that, fingers steepled and gaze on the clouds in the sky. “If I manage to work something out before the great Inspector Pleasant does, I think I deserve a little more than a drink.”

“True. If you manage it, I’ll let you dunk me in a lake. If you don’t, then you must tell me everything I ask about your past, before the Temple found you. How does that sound?”

“Dunking you in a lake?” Solomon laughed. “You’re an Elemental. I believe my reward should be getting to see you drunk.”

“Fair enough. Do we have a deal?”

“We have a deal.” Solomon favoured Skulduggery with a smile before he quickly sobered again. “Before I was kicked out, I did manage to discover one thing.”

“What was that?”

“The lady wouldn't tell me what his name was.”

Ah.” Skulduggery’s pace quickened. “We’re looking for a nobleman, then.”

“That’s what I thought,” agreed Solomon. “She didn’t seem the type to scare easily. Only a man backed by real authority would have earned enough respect from her to keep her quiet.”

That narrowed the search down considerably. It also made their job a lot harder, if this meant Skulduggery would need to start going through the extensive list of mortal Irish noblemen. He would have been inclined to end the search here and try a different approach, but for one thing.

Solomon’s father had, most likely, been a mortal Irish nobleman.

They’d walked over two more blocks before Solomon stopped once again, frowning. “How did you know the Temple found me?”

Skulduggery didn’t answer. Only last week, Solomon might have pestered him endlessly for hours, trying every persuasive argument he knew to get Skulduggery to explain himself. Now, he knew better. He sank instead into a contemplative silence, following Skulduggery back through Dublin towards the Temple entrance as the sun set overhead.

It hadn't been all that difficult, really. The son of a nobleman wouldn't have voluntarily sought out necromancy, even if he was natural-born. That left only the one explanation. And hopefully, by the end of the week, Skulduggery was going to know Solomon’s father’s name, as well.

~~

It wasn’t long before Solomon convinced Skulduggery that in order for their growing partnership to work, anything that one of them was forced to endure, the other would need to endure as well. Skulduggery had wholeheartedly agreed, at first. Then Solomon had pointed out that this meant Skulduggery would need to wear women’s clothes one day, and suddenly the idea seemed like much less of a fair one.

Particularly when that day came much sooner than Skulduggery was prepared for.

“I’d really rather not,” he said quietly as they watched the house where a gentleman’s recent death was being mourned. The front doors were wide open, and the steady hum of a large group of people talking amongst themselves could be heard drifting over the threshold.

“It’s the easiest way,” Solomon reminded him. There was no small amount of glee in his voice.

“But it’s not the only way.” Skulduggery glanced up at the roof. “There might be a skylight we could drop down from. No one needs to know we so much as entered the house.”

“So we steal away onto the roof like the thieves we normally track, and enter a wake uninvited? Really, Skulduggery.”

There was a lot Skulduggery could have objected to, in that statement. The only reason he didn’t was because Solomon’s main point was unshakeable. It would be easier to be invited in. And Skulduggery had promised Solomon less than a month ago that whatever one of them endured, the other would have to endure as well. Entering a wake they hadn't been invited to did seem to be the perfect opportunity, considering he’d sent Solomon into a brothel.

“Oh, alright,” he sighed. “On the condition that we never speak of it again.”

“I can’t promise that,” said Solomon.

Skulduggery looked at him. Solomon laughed and held his hands up in surrender almost immediately. “Don’t worry. I was joking. Are you ready to go start looking for pantyhose?”

They didn’t end up buying pantyhose, though it wasn’t for lack of trying on Solomon’s part. Skulduggery wasn’t quite as stick-thin as Solomon was, and he was still a little taller – all of which made a traditional dress unconvincing. In the end, Skulduggery decided on several skirts, a thick hooded cloak, and a white wig, to give the appearance of a respectable woman who was getting on in years.

It was Solomon who insisted on the bonnet. To hide Skulduggery’s face, he said. The wig alone robbed Skulduggery of much more money than he was strictly comfortable with, but sorcerers weren't quite as dependent on currency as mortals were. He would live. It was Solomon and the inevitable embarrassment that Skulduggery was much more worried about.

Solomon observed the final result with a hand on his chin and a critical eye. “You need a flower on your bodice,” he decided. “That, and a cane.”

“You don’t think a flower would be overdoing it?” Skulduggery asked.

“Not at all. You’re a widow, grieving for her lost third cousin four times removed. You need to be believable. You need a flower.”

“I’ll pick a daisy outside the house. You should have thought of the cane while we were still in town.”

I should have thought of the cane?” Solomon raised his brow. “Whatever happened to ‘I’ll take care of everything’?”

“Whatever happened to ‘I’m never listening to another word you say’?”

Solomon laughed and inclined his head. “Fair point.”

“You could be my cane,” Skulduggery decided. “Look at this cloak. I clearly can’t afford anything beyond a little bread and butter. Why would I buy myself a cane when I have a perfectly capable grandson to lead me about the place?”

“Your ‘perfectly capable grandson’ is going to try and lose you in the crowd as soon as he can.”

“Good. I sound downright frightful. My perfectly capable grandson will then distract the mourners downstairs with his wit and charm, while I head upstairs and search the master bedroom uninterrupted.”

“Your perfectly capable grandson thinks that sounds suspiciously like an order.”

“My perfectly capable grandson is marginally more observant than I previously believed.”

“Your perfectly capable grandson –"

“- is going to lead me to the estate now, in lieu of further pointless argument.” Skulduggery pitched his voice about an octave higher. “Hurry up, now. Chop chop.”

Any retort Solomon might have had died on his tongue as he stared at Skulduggery. Skulduggery chortled, tied the bonnet lower on his head, hunched over, and put a single gloved hand on the younger sorcerer’s shoulder. “Why haven’t we left yet? Didn't I say ‘chop, chop’?”

It took Solomon several shocked moments before he managed to laugh, and it took several more minutes after that before they both arrived at the estate they’d been watching earlier, at least one of them looking drastically different. Solomon was already complaining about his shoulder being sore, to which Skulduggery responded by slapping him on the back of the head and telling him to stop whining. When Solomon wheeled around in surprise, Skulduggery shrugged and told him he was just practicing for the role of a doddery old woman.

“Practicing,” Solomon muttered. “Of course.”

“Pipe down and knock on the door, there’s a good lad.”

“I’m starting to doubt this is a good idea.”

“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?”

Solomon grumbled, led Skulduggery over to the side door, and knocked. A footman almost as thin as Solomon opened it, and regarded them in a manner Skulduggery might have called lazy if that very same footman hadn't been opening the door for dozens of mourners since early that morning. “Yes?”

“Hello, my good man. I just received the news yesterday. Terrible. Simply terrible.” Skulduggery reached out and wrung the young footman’s hand, putting a telling quiver into the tone of his voice. “Did I ever tell you about the time he taught my young grandson here how to hunt? I’ll never forget the day –“

“I believe you have,” the footman interrupted, seizing on the opportunity to escape before it would be impolite to do so. “Please, come in. My condolences for your loss.”

“Oh, thank you.” Skulduggery put a hand on the footman’s shoulder in a sympathetic shared grief. “Thank you.” Then he slipped past him into the main hall, unceremoniously dragging Solomon behind him. Solomon grumbled something incomprehensible. Skulduggery waited until they were relatively out of immediate earshot, then turned on him with a smile. “Hm?”

“Is today your birthday?”

Skulduggery blinked. “No. Why?”

“Because you are altogether much too cheerful for a man pretending to be an old woman.”

“No.” Skulduggery tapped his ‘grandson’ on the head. “You were much too morose for a man who was pretending he worked in a brothel.”

“When is your birthday?”

“Oh, come now. Surely I've taught you better than to ask such direct questions.”

“I was hoping to catch you by surprise,” Solomon lamented.

“You’ll have to do much better than that. Now, let’s go pay our respects to the dearly departed whatever-his-name-is.”

The dearly departed whatever-his-name-was turned out to be in the master bedroom. That didn’t bode quite so well, as the master bedroom was the area Skulduggery needed to search uninterrupted. And the body was never left alone during a wake. There was only one gentleman there when Skulduggery and Solomon arrived, but it was one gentleman too many.

They paused outside the doorway, just before they could be seen. Solomon peered around the door frame, then looked back at Skulduggery with his shoulders slumped. “What do we do now?”

“You could always distract him,” Skulduggery suggested.

“With what?”

He thought about that, and came up with nothing, so he shrugged. “Then let’s just walk in and see what happens.”

Solomon gave him a flat look. “No.”

“No? Why not?”

“Because every single time you've said that, it’s always ended terribly, and it’s usually ended terribly for me.”

Skulduggery raised an eyebrow. “Give me an example.”

“Well, there was the time sigils paralysed me and I almost had my throat slit. There was the time I tripped and broke my ankle, the time I had a bottle smashed over my head, the time I was thrown out of a brothel –"

“And recently?”

“The brothel was very recent.”

Skulduggery gave him a patronising pat on the shoulder. “You’re very paranoid, aren't you?”

“Mark my words,” murmured Solomon. “One day, you’re going to be the one regretting the words ‘let’s just walk in and see what happens’.”

Skulduggery tapped the door open a little wider with his foot, and then stepped inside. The gentleman who’d died had quite a bit of money, but he wasn’t a nobleman, and that was evident in the way the bedroom was furnished. He had rich, colourful drapes framing the four-poster, but they didn’t match the drapes over the windows or the elaborate rugs covering the floor. He was a rich man without concept of class.

Skulduggery almost preferred that, with the copious attention to detail his father had tried drilling into him. Then he tried imagining a three-piece suit tailored by Ghastly’s father that didn’t match, and suddenly the room felt twice more oppressive.

A quick scan revealed any number of hiding places for a stack of trading documents. The gentleman had, apparently, been overly fond of dressers. The trouble was that such private documents would not be stuck in a drawer somewhere and forgotten about; they would be hidden. They would be kept safe. And Skulduggery didn’t know where to start looking.

The man who sat next to the bed with his fingers steepled had hair that was greying at the temples, a strong jaw, and a very effective brooding expression. His eyes were red, but there were no tears when he looked up at Skulduggery and Solomon. Nor was there any hint of curiosity. When he looked at them, he simply looked lost. A good friend or a close family member, grieving.

He wasn’t going to know where the trading documents were. That meant Skulduggery needed to find a reason for him to leave.

“Can I help you?” the man asked. His voice, at least, was steady.

“No,” Skulduggery replied, making sure his own voice was very much not. “My grandson and I would just like to pay our respects. Unless you’d prefer to be alone…?”

“No.” The grieving man gave them a weak smile. “Please. Stay as long as you’d like.”

“I've stayed long enough,” said Solomon. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I can handle this. I’ll wait for you downstairs, grandmother.”

“You,” said Skulduggery, turning to point a gloved finger at the necromancer, “are going to stay until I say you've paid your respects, young man. How dare you offend the dead so?”

“Oh, let the poor lad go,” the stranger said. “Not everyone can handle death so staunchly. I’m sure my wife could always use more help in the kitchen.”

“I’d be honoured,” Solomon told him with a short bow. “Thank you, sir.”

“Of course.”

The stranger looked back towards the recently dead gentleman, who lay swathed in sheets on the bed. Solomon took the brief opportunity to shoot a smug smile in Skulduggery’s direction before he turned and left the room. Skulduggery favoured his back with a choice glare, then heaved a long and depressed sigh. “I wish you hadn't given him leave to go. He’ll have to learn about his mortality sometime.”

“There will always be plenty of time for that later,” the stranger replied with a surprisingly warm smile. “If I may be so bold as to ask, how did you know my brother?”

That surprised Skulduggery. The gentleman who’d died was well into his fifties when he passed away peacefully in his sleep – much too old for any surviving siblings to look so comparatively young. “Your brother?”

“There were many years between us,” the man admitted. “He was more of an uncle to me than a brother. But our bond was no less strong.”

“Hm.” That was a nuisance. How was Skulduggery to convince a grieving relation to leave the room, putting their brother’s soul in the hands of a stranger? “You must miss him.”

“Very much.” For a moment, there was a waver in the man’s voice, but he swallowed hard and managed to retain the warm smile. “I do apologise. I didn’t catch your relationship with him.”

“He was a friend,” Skulduggery made up on the spot. A man as conscientious as this one appeared to be would follow up on a lie of a blood relationship, however distant. Better to keep things as vague as possible. “A dear, dear friend, and one I haven’t seen in years.”

The man smiled sadly. “Where did you meet?”

“In Dublin.” The dead gentleman was a frequent traveler, so Skulduggery hoped the answer didn’t seem too convenient – or too odd. “Just outside the quaint café in the square. I’d dropped my parasol, and he turned around to pick it up for me. Such a perfect gentleman, you know. Almost too perfect of a gentleman, occasionally.”

The stranger laughed. “That does sound like him.” He stood up and stepped over. “But where are my manners? Do forgive me. I am Sir Henry Whiting.”

An Englishman, Skulduggery noted as he tried to remember how women were meant to greet their social betters. A truly international family. In the end, he simply held out his own hand, and Sir Henry leaned down to plant a kiss in the air just above it. “And I,” Skulduggery replied, “am Lady Cara Grey. It is a pleasure to meet you, Sir Henry.”

“I do wish it were under better circumstances,” murmured Sir Henry.

He hadn't let go of Skulduggery’s hand yet. For fear of accidentally breaking a custom he hadn't known about, Skulduggery didn’t try to pull his away. Instead, he captured Sir Henry’s hands with both of his own and looked into the man’s eyes, praying that his bonnet was still properly in place. “You must miss him.”

“Very much,” Sir Henry agreed quietly.

“You must have been sitting here for hours.”

“Half the day.”

“You need to eat something,” Skulduggery told him gently, with a motherly pat of his hand. “Go and ask my grandson to fetch you something. I’ll stay here in the meantime, so your brother isn't left alone.”

“I’m alright,” Sir Henry said. “Food is hardly something one thinks about in a situation such as this.”

“Then allow me to think of it for you,” Skulduggery said with his best sympathetic smile. “Your brother would hardly want you to starve yourself on his behalf. Please, go and eat something.”

“I’m flattered by your concern, but my brother would most certainly never forgive me for abandoning him in his hours of need. Perhaps tomorrow, I can think about food. Perhaps tomorrow, we can go downstairs and find food together.”

“You’re certainly stubborn,” Skulduggery muttered. Then he froze. “Tomorrow? Together?”

“I was under the impression you wouldn't leave, either.” Sir Henry withdrew his hand. “Unless I've completely misread the situation?”

For a moment, all Skulduggery could do was stand there and look at him. Sir Henry was mired in grief, and could therefore possibly be forgiven for his complete lack of observation. And, if Skulduggery really had been a grieving woman, his utterly thoughtless transgressions. But they were in his dead brother’s bedroom, and in that dead brother’s presence. There was a very deeply buried part of Skulduggery’s upbringing that settled into complete shock.

Then again, grief was unpredictable. Attraction was not only predictable, but easy to manipulate.

Skulduggery took a long breath, suddenly grateful that Solomon wasn’t anywhere nearby, and then shrugged. “I certainly don’t need to leave.”

“You’d prefer to keep a grieving man company?” The smile was back, and now that Skulduggery knew what to look for, there was a faintly conniving edge. Genuinely grateful, but conniving as well, in that manner of men who believed their passions were being rewarded. It was hardly a pleasant gaze to be caught under, although he certainly hadn't thought it would be.

“You’d be alone otherwise,” Skulduggery pointed out. He ignored the part of himself that was appalled at the situation. “And we can’t have that, can we? Why, I've known many a man to do many a foolish thing when left alone in grief.”

“I shall do my best to control myself.” Despite his hand still being in Skulduggery’s, apparently. “And in the meantime, would you be so good as to regale me with stories of your friendship?”

“I have a better idea,” said Skulduggery. “Why don’t you regale me with your stories? I’m sure they’re much more interesting.”

Sir Henry looked taken aback, which was relatively normal for a man in his position being told what to do – and by a woman, no less – but a moment later, he smiled again, as Skulduggery had been hoping. This smile was also very different from the first. It was the sort of smile that might have made Skulduggery curious as to where Sir Henry’s passions lay, if his common sense didn’t immediately and violently take that curiosity’s place.

“I do remember,” said Sir Henry, “one particular summer, when he took me into town. Our horse developed a lame leg, and left us stranded in the middle of a field. This was during the heat of the day, you understand, and within an hour we were both parched. We ended up stripping and dunking our heads under in the nearby stream, only to be discovered by a pair of lovely young ladies on their way into the countryside. Now, they didn’t realise our clothes were lying on the rocks –"

Something told him he wasn’t going to enjoy where Sir Henry’s story would lead. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” Skulduggery cut in before the situation could get too far out of hand, “but your late brother was a voracious eater, was he not?”

“Winston?” Sir Henry’s brow furrowed. “Not in particular.”

“Oh, but he was!” Skulduggery put as much of the reckless abandon of a memory recalled in grief into his words as he could. “I quite remember. Dear Winston used to purchase two or even three meals to keep me as occupied as he could.”

Sir Henry chuckled. “And he ate every one of them, of course.”

“Confectionery and all. I wonder – would it not be honouring his memory to bring a meal upstairs and eat it alongside him?”

Sir Henry was a proper gentleman, the way that so few in society were. Rather than react with outrage at the thought of breaking such stringent familial tradition, he pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

Skulduggery nodded. “Yes, I think so.”

“Then I don’t see why the servants would say no to me.” Sir Henry gave Skulduggery one of those worrying smiles. “I can appreciate a woman who enjoys fine confectioneries.”

As speechless as Skulduggery found himself with the comment, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as when the honourable Sir Henry, a moment later, leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. Then, with a bow, he finally exercised mercy and left.

For far too long, Skulduggery remained rooted to the spot, staring at poor dead Winston Whiting on the bed, unable to so much as think. The dull noise of chatter drifted up from the sitting room, interspersed with the boisterous voice of someone who’d had a bit too much to drink. Skulduggery noticed, once again, that the drapes didn’t match the carpet, and wondered why on Earth he found that so important.

Finally, he forced himself to move. With the quiet resolution that he was never going to speak of this again, Skulduggery stepped over to the bedside cabinet and began a thorough search of the room.

He eventually found the documents in question, hidden inside a small stout box that lay in a hole in the wall cleverly concealed behind a painting. If the painting had actually matched the haphazard décor of the rest of the room, Skulduggery might never have suspected it. But it didn’t, and so he had, and now he had the documents in hand. With one last apologetic glance at Winston, Skulduggery left the room.

He found Solomon next to the buffet table in the dining room, and intercepted him before he could go for what Skulduggery suspected would be his fourth sandwich. “Time to go.”

Solomon looked around at him. “Already?”

“I have them. Time, naturally, is of the essence.”

“Naturally.” Solomon rolled his eyes and reached for another sandwich, stubbornly refusing to move. “Did anyone see you take them?”

“No,” Skulduggery admitted.

“Then why the sudden rush? Don’t you think it would look suspicious if we left early?”

Skulduggery regarded Solomon. How often, he wondered, did the young necromancer receive a full meal in the Temple? Likely only for special occasions, and Skulduggery had no idea what the Temple might deem a special occasion. A plague, perhaps. It was little wonder Solomon was reluctant to leave a place which offered so much high-class food free of charge.

“A few more minutes won’t hurt,” Skulduggery relented. Then his smile turned suddenly teasing. “Would you like a bag for all of their ham?”

Solomon scowled. “I’m a little hungry, that’s all.”

“I’d hate to see you when you’re really hungry, then.”

Skulduggery kept a wary eye out as Solomon grumbled his woes at the buffet table. Most of the wake-goers would be innocent, he knew, but there was always the chance that someone in the family was aware of how important the documents were. A man over by the veranda doors certainly looked suspicious enough, with a cravat done up much too high and a sparkling golden watch chain hanging, strategically placed, off of a breast pocket. But as Skulduggery watched him further, and noticed the glances the man threw over to the maids, he decided that the suspicion was more due to licentiousness than malicious intent.

It was when Skulduggery caught sight of Sir Henry’s distinctive doublet that he plucked the sandwich out of Solomon’s hands and dropped it onto one of the available platters. “And now the extra minutes are very painful, indeed. Let’s go.”

Solomon made a noise of objection when his sandwich disappeared, but then stood his ground with a glare. “What did you do?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“What did you do? You’re never this impatient without reason.”

“Me?” Skulduggery did his best to feign a look of innocence. “I’m always impatient without reason.”

Solomon raised an eyebrow.

“Please?” Skulduggery tried.

The necromancer looked at him a moment longer, and then sighed. “Would you tell me how fast I have to run, at least?”

There you are,” came an all-too-familiar voice from behind Skulduggery. “Your disappearance concerned me. I hope I didn’t say something to offend you?”

Skulduggery took a moment to compose his face into something a little less hostile and panicked than his initial reaction would have lent, before he turned around. “Ah, Sir Henry! I was hoping I’d be able to find you. As it turns out, my grandson and I have an unfortunate matter we must attend to immediately at home, and it is with the greatest regret that I must leave you prematurely.”

He almost took the sentiment back at the sight of poor Sir Henry’s face falling. It was heartbreaking. “May I ask why?”

“I’d rather not speak of it.”

“Might I be able to write you?”

“I don’t think that would be wise,” Skulduggery admitted gently.

Sir Henry and Solomon both blinked at him, both visibly confused, but it was Sir Henry who voiced his confusion. “Whyever not?”

Skulduggery patted him on the arm. “Because your passions,” he said, “are a direct result of your desire to feel close to your brother. You want something he once had, in order to make yourself feel a little better. I won’t stand for it. I've been hurt once before, you know.”

Sir Henry blinked again, this time looking properly crestfallen – with a well-hidden edge of disbelief. “You don’t believe I’m wise enough to decide my own passions?”

“Frankly,” said Skulduggery, “no.”

Sir Henry’s face firmed. “Then I shall change your mind. I shall do whatever it takes, for however long it takes, to make you see that I don’t say anything without meaning every word.”

If the documents weren't quite so important, and if Sir Henry had made himself slightly less sympathetic, Skulduggery might have taken his bonnet and wig off right there. As it was, he much preferred preserving Sir Henry’s dignity, particularly now that the man had made a semi-public announcement. “And how are you going to do that?”

“If I tell you, it would ruin the surprise,” said Sir Henry.

“Fair enough. Good day, Sir Henry. And I’m sorry, once again, for your loss.”

They were all the way out of the manor and halfway across the grounds before Solomon burst into peals of unmitigated laughter, which Skulduggery didn’t try to interrupt. He instead watched Solomon’s face grow steadily red with the lack of air until the young necromancer finally managed a deep, haggard breath. “He tried to seduce you?”

“He did,” Skulduggery admitted sadly.

“He was wooing you, and you didn’t see fit to correct his grievous error?” Solomon turned sparkling eyes on his mentor. “Skulduggery, is there perhaps something you should be telling me?”

Skulduggery pretended to think about it, gazing up at the cloudless sky. “Yes,” he decided. “I am never again taking up the guise of a grieving widow.”

“But you must have played the part so well.”

“I can always abandon you at the Temple,” Skulduggery reminded him.

Solomon grinned. “You wouldn't dare.”

Skulduggery hesitated. The truth of the matter was, he’d spent many a night lying awake and wondering how best to broach the subject to Solomon – the subject of magic, and whether or not Solomon was better suited to a path other than necromancy. The problem was that Solomon seemed to regard the Temple as his saviour, and Skulduggery still wasn’t entirely sure why. Until he was, he couldn't be sure of how Solomon would take even a gentle suggestion.

Perhaps the food was a good place to start. Skulduggery glanced back at Solomon. “How did you find their sandwiches?”

“By following the smell,” Solomon answered with a smile.

“Do you think you’re clever?”

The smile grew wider. “Yes.”

“You’re not.”

“I’m not the one willingly wearing a bonnet and seducing other men.”

“No,” Skulduggery agreed. “You were the one willingly dressing up as a prostitute and seducing other men.”

“Don’t call them prostitutes,” Solomon answered immediately. Then he smiled again. “I never seduced anyone. Nor did I ever have the intention.”

“I certainly didn’t plan to,” Skulduggery argued before sighing. “I know a lovely restaurant just around the corner from where I live in Dublin. I feel like a spot of lunch. How about you?”

Solomon stopped so suddenly that it took Skulduggery a few steps to realise he had, and when he turned around, the expression on Solomon’s face was nothing short of awe. “You would let me see where you live?”

“Of course I would. We are partners, are we not?”

“We are.” The words came quickly, as though an instinctive response, but Solomon’s face didn’t change to match it. “Are you…” He stopped, and the conscious effort of a brief mental talking-to appeared in his eyes as he drew himself straighter. “Are you sure?”

“Very.” Skulduggery gave him a reassuring smile. “As long as you don’t use the knowledge to then steal from me or ransack my rooms or, Heaven forbid, butcher me in my sleep, I don’t see a reason why not.”

The flippant humour was what finally dragged Solomon out of his irrational awe, and returned his smug grin to him. “I can’t make any promises.”

“I suppose that will have to do.”

“And the documents?” Solomon asked. “I thought we needed to deliver those immediately.”

Skulduggery waved an airy hand. “They can wait. A man, after all, cannot be expected to skip lunch.”

Solomon laughed, and finally started following after him again. “If you insist, Skulduggery. If you insist.”

Chapter Text

Ghastly had a deadline. Or rather, his father had a deadline; a weather-proof casual morning suit commissioned by a member of the high nobility who was aware of the existence of magic, but not a sorcerer himself. The commission was very specific, with attention given to every detail – the exact colour, the cut of the coat, the particular fabric to use in the lining.

The problem was that Master Ardan had come down ill in the past couple of days, which caused the pain in his joints to flare up and his hands to become too stiff to manipulate a needle. It wasn’t severe and it wasn’t life-threatening, but it was, to use his father’s words, an ‘incredible inconvenience.’ Aoife was spending day and night by his bedside nursing him back to health.

The actual tailoring, then, fell to Ghastly, with only a few days left to finish the suit. He could manage that, if he wasn’t interrupted or distracted for the rest of the weekend.

So, of course, Skulduggery had knocked and come in to ask for a favour.

Ghastly didn’t even remember inviting him in, but he didn’t mind the company itself so much while he was sewing. What he minded was being called away from his work on one of Skulduggery’s many self-appointed investigations or missions without giving his consent, and today, he planned on putting his foot down. It was a foolproof plan that only hadn’t worked yet because Skulduggery hadn’t asked for his help yet.

“He’s a fascinating study,” Skulduggery was saying. “Definitely noble-born, but there’s a surprising amount he doesn’t know. He must have spent his childhood years outside of the Temple, but most of his educative years inside. There should be a record of his family somewhere.”

Ghastly held up a finger to silence his friend as he worked through a particularly stubborn corner stitch; then he sighed and sat back. “I’m glad you’ve found such an admirer, Skulduggery, but can’t this wait until I’ve finished?”

“Of course it can,” said Skulduggery. Then he continued on as though Ghastly hadn’t spoken at all. “He knows Dublin fairly well, but I doubt he’s ever lived in the city. Someone who has might have shown him around. Perhaps a parent. I’ve been looking through the records of noblemen living in and around Dublin who might have died within the last five years, but so far, I’ve come up with nothing.”

Ghastly nodded, and bit off the thread which ended the stitch. “Why are you telling me all of this?”

“I’m missing something, Ghastly. Something important.”

“And you think I can provide it for you?”

Skulduggery hesitated. “To be honest, I was hoping speaking about it out loud might be enough to tell me what it was. Since that doesn’t appear to be the case, yes. I would appreciate your advice.”

“Remind me, again, why this can’t wait until I’m finished?”

“He’s fifteen, Ghastly. In three years, he could already be going through his Surge, and then we’ll have lost him to the Temple forever.”

“Have you considered simply asking him?”

Skulduggery shook his head. “He wouldn’t tell me.”

“Ah. So you’re instead sneaking around behind his back. I see.”

“I fully expect him to be doing the same for me,” Skulduggery said defensively. “I doubt he’ll get very far, trapped in the Temple as he is, but who knows? He might find a way around it.”

Ghastly sighed and put down his sewing. “Skulduggery, why are you here?”

“I told you.”

“No. You’ve been doing a lot of explaining, and a lot of dancing, but the one thing you haven’t done is tell me in straightforward terms exactly what you want me to do about any of this.”

Skulduggery looked at him, a very annoying expression of amusement written all over his face. “Ghastly, if you would help me find Solomon Wreath’s birth father, I would be much obliged.”

There we go.” Ghastly picked up the fabric again. “I’m sorry, but I can’t. I have a suit to finish by the end of the weekend, and I can’t be distracted.”

Skulduggery nodded. “Alright. I understand.”

“Stop trying to convince me to help, Skulduggery. Do you really believe I would prefer poring over ancient documents with you?”

“No.”

“Well, you’re wrong. I wouldn’t. Leave me to my work, please. I might help you once the weekend is over.”

“Excellent. I’ll look forward to it.”

Ghastly pricked the needle on the inside of his left knuckle and hissed with the brief flash of pain, then continued on, keeping his hands situated a little more carefully. After a moment, he heard Skulduggery get up and head towards the door. Ghastly managed a fair three seconds of refusing to look up, nearly convincing himself that he wouldn’t, and then dropped the needle on top of the fabric. “Wait.”

Skulduggery turned around. “Hm?”

“I’ll come with you.” Ghastly folded the fabric neatly, keeping the needle and thread inside the folds, and put the pile into one of the cabinet drawers. “But only for one day.”

“Thank you. One day is all I need.”

“I’m sure it is.” Ghastly shot his friend a look while he grabbed his coat, hat, and scarf. “You do owe me for this, Skulduggery.”

“Don’t I always?” Skulduggery murmured as he followed Ghastly out of the shop.

Less than an hour later, Ghastly found himself in Skulduggery’s living room, standing frozen just over the threshold, staring. Staring at the room which had, up until a moment ago, been very familiar to him. Skulduggery stepped inside without so much as a pause, and went straight to the sofa. “I’ve already looked through all of those,” he said, indicating the entire left half of the room. “There were a handful of possibilities, but nothing promising. A little help with the rest would save us a lot of time.”

Every free space in the generously-sized sitting room was taken up by a book, a stack of parchment, an ink pot, or a quill. There was at least one swaying stack of heavy tomes balanced against the wall, several stacks half that height, and no table or sitting space whatsoever. It took Ghastly far too long to be able to form words. “You’ve been looking through all of this?”

Skulduggery looked at him. “No, Ghastly. I’ve been looking through the invisible records in the next room.”

The flippant sarcasm helped relax Ghastly enough to step further into the room. “Where have you been finding the time?”

“Here and there.”

“Where have you been finding all the records?”

“Ah,” said Skulduggery. “That was the hard part. I spent months tracking much of this down. Did you know that if you ask for these records, you’ll be laughed out of practically every library in the city?”

“No,” replied Ghastly. “But I’m not surprised. How do we get started?”

“Efficiently.” Skulduggery moved a short stack of tomes off the sofa, and beckoned Ghastly over to sit down. “I need a little help determining where to start. Each of these books contains a record of a nobleman living in and around Dublin. More than half of them are English, so we can immediately rule them out, but –“

“Rule them out?” Ghastly asked. “Why?”

“Because Solomon’s birth father was Irish,” Skulduggery explained. “If he’d been English, Solomon would have more of an accent. No, he was Irish Catholic, dead within the last five years. Likely murdered, and likely violently.”

Ghastly decided not to ask how on earth Skulduggery knew that. He’d accepted, long ago, that the detective outstripped him on such matters of logic. He instead put his chin into his hands and looked around at the books. “That still leaves you all of this, does it?”

“Unfortunately,” said Skulduggery, “yes. But I can’t narrow it down any further.”

“Was he a sorcerer?”

“No. If he was a sorcerer, Solomon wouldn’t have turned to necromancy after his death.”

Ghastly had to agree there. Sorcerers as a whole were mistrustful of necromancers. “If he was mortal, did he know that his son was a sorcerer?”

Skulduggery hesitated. “You know, I’m not sure. Perhaps, but I wouldn’t think so.”

Years of experience had taught Ghastly that when Skulduggery wasn’t sure about a conclusion he’d come to, it was that conclusion which needed to be pressed. The more confident Skulduggery was, the more likely he was right, regardless of how much logical thinking was actually behind the conclusion he’d come to. When his confidence dipped, he was missing something. He wasn’t confident about this, and so Ghastly pressed. “Why not?”

“Solomon loved his father. There weren’t any unresolved feelings with his death.”

“What does that have to do with knowledge of sorcery?”

Skulduggery glanced at Ghastly with surprise. “Mortals don’t generally take it well when they learn magic exists. If Solomon’s father was Catholic, it would be even worse. If he learned Solomon was a sorcerer, he’d assume demonic possession and demand an exorcism.”

Ghastly nodded. “And?”

“And Solomon loved his father. There wasn’t an exorcism.”

“What does the event of an exorcism have to do with familial love?” Ghastly asked.

That question seemed to stump Skulduggery for a bit. When he spoke again, his tone was much softer. “What do you know about Catholic exorcisms?”

Ghastly spread his hands. “Absolutely nothing.”

“If Solomon had been through one, he would resent it.”

“No.” Ghastly shook his head. “Resent that it happened, perhaps, but not necessarily his father. My mother was cursed while she was pregnant with me, Skulduggery.”

“That’s hardly the same –“

“She knew it was a possibility. She knew that women in her situation are advised to take it easy, and that disregarding that advice could have harmful effects on her child. But she took those risks anyway, because she felt it would be wrong to stand by and do nothing when she believed there were people in danger. I don’t resent her for taking those risks. In fact, I love her for taking those risks. She did what she thought was right.”

Again, Skulduggery was silent. Ghastly put his chin back into his hands and looked at the books double-stacked beside him. “Family is complicated. When you love someone, there’s a lot you’re willing to forgive.”

“Such as an exorcism.”

Ghastly shrugged. “If your friend didn’t know that he was a sorcerer at the time, he might have believed it was necessary as well.”

“That’s interesting, but it doesn’t help –“

Skulduggery cut himself off so abruptly that Ghastly glanced up to make sure everything was alright, and wasn’t particularly surprised to see an expression of dawning comprehension on the detective’s face. “Ah. Oh, Ghastly, I’ve been such an idiot.”

“No arguments from me.” Ghastly smiled. “Why in particular this time?”

“What if Solomon’s father was killed by the King’s Guard?”

“Well, then…” It was frustrating trying to catch up with Skulduggery’s thinking, granted, but Ghastly couldn’t say he disliked the feeling of dawning realisation that accompanied coming to the same conclusion as Skulduggery did. It was more empowering than it had any right to be. “Then all record of the incident would be expunged.”

“Precisely.” Skulduggery looked around the room. “He wouldn’t have been reported as dead. I’ve been looking through the wrong records.”

“Oh? What records should you have been looking through?”

Skulduggery smiled. “Records are kept of exorcisms, I believe, particularly in the Catholic monasteries. I should have been looking through those. Even if an exorcism didn’t occur, the Church has much more stringent record-keeping than the politicians do. I’ll be more likely to find something there.”

Ghastly stared at him. “The Church?”

“The Church.”

“And you believe they’ll simply give you access to these records when you ask?”

Skulduggery raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. That’s why I’ll have to break in.”

He said it flippantly, offhandedly, as though he wasn’t suggesting something that could get him life in prison if he were caught. Ghastly wished he could say he was used to such suggestions, but this one was surprising enough to catch even him off-guard completely. “Break in?”

“Yes.”

“Break into the Church?”

“Yes.”

“For a necromancer?”

“For a potential necromancer,” Skulduggery corrected him. “For a lonely youth in desperate need of proper guidance.”

“And that makes all the difference in the world, does it?”

“Yes,” said Skulduggery. “Of course it does. Don’t worry, I won’t ask for your help breaking in. You’ve already been more than helpful enough.”

“Until you’re caught and carted off to prison. Then you’ll want my help.”

“It won’t come to that,” Skulduggery assured him with one of those confident smiles Ghastly had come to fear. “Would you like some tea?”

Ghastly sighed, took an unopened letter off the stack beside him on the sofa, and settled back into the sofa cushions. “Yes, please. Chamomile, if you have it.” He flipped the letter over, absentmindedly curious about why Skulduggery wouldn’t have touched even a single piece of his mail when he was gathering what looked like half of the records in Dublin.

The outside of the envelope had very neat and precise handwriting, detailing Skulduggery’s address. Ghastly didn’t recognise the return in the corner, but at least it included a name. “Who’s Sir Henry Whiting?”

He heard a bump, and looked up in time to see Skulduggery silently cursing as he rubbed his knee. Apparently, he’d walked right into the doorframe. “No one.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Then why haven’t you opened the letter?”

“I’ve been running low on firewood,” Skulduggery answered over his shoulder as he went to make the tea.

“You’re an Elemental.”

Skulduggery didn’t answer. Ghastly slit open the letter and unfolded it, but only saw ‘Dear Ms. Cara Grey’ before the letter was whipped out of his hand by the air and lost behind a stack of books.

Chapter Text

A swish of dark cloak was Solomon’s only warning, but it was warning enough for him to duck back behind the wall and keep himself hidden while the Cleric passed in the corridor ahead. He waited with bated breath for the Cleric to pass; then, as the footsteps faded into the stone behind him, Solomon crept out through the hidden door into the cemetery.

There was no one among the graves at such an early hour of the morning. In spite of that, Solomon remained wary. He didn’t think anyone in the Temple knew he snuck out quite regularly to meet with Skulduggery Pleasant, but he was hardly willing to blindly believe that. Any day now, he could bump into someone, and his weekly escapes from life underground would come to an abrupt halt.

“Solomon?”

He froze beside one of the taller tombstones, instinctively curling shadows around his cane. That hadn’t been Skulduggery’s voice. No one but Skulduggery should have known where he was going to be.

“It’s alright, Solomon.” Morwenna Crow emerged from the darkness of the towering oak tree. “You’re in no danger from me.”

Solomon relaxed, albeit only slightly. “Mistress Crow,” he replied with a respectful bow. She was reasonable – certainly more reasonable than any of the other High Clerics Solomon had met. She was also fair. But she was still a High Cleric, and bound by the Temple’s rules. Solomon was under no delusion that she would show his recent actions any mercy.

“Why so frightened?” Crow asked, smiling.

“I’m not frightened.” Solomon returned the smile to the best of his ability.

Crow chuckled. “Let’s try a different question, in that case. Why are you sneaking out of the Temple before sunrise?”

Solomon swallowed, tightened his grip on his cane, and drew himself up to his full height. “Cleric Reale asked me to purchase him something from Dublin. I’m simply getting an early start.”

“And has Cleric Reale asked you to purchase this same item several times a month for the last year?”

He was caught. There was no point in trying to deny it. Now, Solomon knew, he needed to maintain damage control. If it were anyone else standing in front of him, he might have tried to fast-talk his way out, the same way Skulduggery often did. But Solomon respected Crow far too much for such heavy-handed tactics.

The truth, then. Solomon took a long breath to steady himself, gripping the cane until his knuckle turned white. “No, ma’am. I’ve been involving myself in the affairs of other sorcerers for the last year.”

It was difficult to tell in the dark, but Crow might have been smiling. “I know.”

He frowned. “You know?”

“You believed I wouldn’t notice when my favourite acolyte went missing so often?” Crow tsked and shook her head. “You insult me, Solomon.”

Despite himself, Solomon smiled. His hands still shook while he answered. “Why haven’t you tried to stop me?”

“Why would I try to stop you? You’re not doing anyone any harm, least of all yourself. Your proficiency in your lessons, not to mention your attention span, has vastly improved since you started these midnight excursions. You’ve walked around with a spring in your step like nothing I’ve ever seen in you before.”

The tension left Solomon’s muscles against his will, but he didn’t make a move to leave. “If you don’t plan on reporting me, then why are you revealing your knowledge to me now?”

“Well,” said Crow, “there’s only so much leeway a teacher can let a student believe they have.” She stepped to the side. “Enjoy your day, Solomon. I’ll expect you to be punctual for your lesson this afternoon.”

Solomon allowed the rest of the tension to leave his limbs, and waited for his heart to stop hammering in his chest. “Yes, ma’am.” He moved to leave, then stopped, and added genuinely, “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Of course, Solomon.”

With a swirl of the oak tree’s shadows, Crow disappeared, and Solomon walked over to wait for Skulduggery at the edge of the graveyard. Ten minutes later, as the first rays of sunlight began to peek over the horizon, the detective appeared over the knoll in the meadow at his usual casual pace, hands in his pockets and whistling. Solomon went out to meet him, but didn’t mention his encounter with Crow.

~~

Skulduggery had taken to making Solomon guess what he was planning for a particular outing. It had been annoying at first. Solomon now regarded it as nothing more than a warm-up exercise, in part because he’d become very good at guessing.

Today, however, he had to admit – he was stumped. Skulduggery wasn’t dressed any differently from his usual, and the only difference in his manner was a certain glee that wasn’t altogether uncharacteristic. Solomon watched him during the entire carriage ride through the city, and he still had no idea what the detective was planning by the time the carriage came to a stop at the docks.

“Did a thief escape over the sea?” Solomon asked, bemused.

“If he did,” said Skulduggery, “we wouldn’t have a hope of catching him. Guess again.”

Solomon shrugged. “We’re going swimming.”

“At this time of year? No. Guess again.”

“That was a joke, Skulduggery.”

“I’m aware.” Skulduggery intertwined his fingers and leaned forward on his knees. “When you joke, it means you’ve given up.”

Solomon looked up sharply. “It does not.”

“Yes, it does.”

“No, it does – I do not only joke when I’ve given up.”

“All other times, you’re sarcastic.”

“As are you,” Solomon snapped.

“Me? Sarcastic? Bite your tongue. Keep guessing.”

Solomon didn’t particularly feel like guessing anymore, but he knew from experience that Skulduggery wouldn’t let him stop, so he folded his arms and tried observing the detective with a fresh eye. “You’re not wearing a hat.”

“No,” Skulduggery agreed.

“You always wear hats. Either someone coerced you into going without this morning, or you’re worried about losing it during the event you have planned for us today. You’re an Elemental, so it can’t be the wind – not unless there are huge gusts of it, and you must focus your attention on something else.”

Skulduggery nodded. “Better. What does that tell you?”

“That there are probably going to be large gusts of wind.” Solomon felt his stomach drop. “Are we going sailing?”

“Why would we do such a thing?”

Solomon let his face drop into his hands. “Why are we going sailing, Skulduggery?”

“Because I’ve recently acquired a sailboat.”

“That doesn’t answer the question. In fact, all it does is fill me with utter dread.”

“Because I’ve recently acquired a sailboat, and I’m anxious to try sailing it.” Skulduggery leaned back again. “I take it you’ve had experiences with seasickness.”

“No,” said Solomon, although he wouldn’t have been surprised if he was one of those prone to it. “I do, however, know that more than one person is required to sail a sailboat.”

Skulduggery tilted his head. “I have you.”

Solomon groaned. “That’s exactly the assumption I was dreading. Skulduggery, I can’t –“

“That’s why I’m going to teach you.”

Solomon kept his mouth shut for the rest of the trundling journey down into the docks proper. Skulduggery was refusing to see reason, and there wasn’t anything Solomon could have said to convince him otherwise, so he wasn’t going to waste the breath. The smell of salty sea air began drifting in through the open carriage window, and it wasn’t long before that smell was followed by the call of seagulls. The closer they got, the larger the knot of dread that had settled into the pit of Solomon’s stomach grew, until the carriage finally came to a halt and Skulduggery jumped out with all the limber grace of someone actually looking forward to the day’s events.

The docks were crowded, as they always were. Faced with the wind coming in off the sea, Solomon could remember the first time he and Skulduggery had met, now over a year ago. He’d been attacked and held hostage, and yet still somehow ended up fast friends with the quick-minded detective. He still wondered occasionally where on earth the time flew.

It took Skulduggery calling up the stone incline for Solomon to snap back to his senses. “What are you waiting for? Hurry up. We haven’t got all day.”

Skulduggery probably did. Solomon, on the other hand, needed to be back at the Temple by early afternoon’s quarters check, or he’d be marked a demerit and be late for the ensuing lesson besides. He took a deep breath, replaced the nervousness on his face with exasperation, and followed Skulduggery down to where the large sailboats bopped up on and down on the waves.

“How did you acquire a sailboat?” he asked, once Skulduggery finally stopped at one of the smaller jetties.

“It isn’t, strictly speaking, mine,” he answered. “It belongs to the mother of a dear friend of mine. He’s promised to take us sailing. He isn’t here yet, so we’ll have to wait, but I’m sure the resulting trip will be worth it.”

“Not if I’m sick all over it,” Solomon muttered.

“Always the pessimist,” Skulduggery lamented with a disapproving cluck of his tongue. “I’m sure you’ll make an excellent sailor.”

“You’ve been sure about a lot,” Solomon reminded him. “And I can count on one hand the number of times you’ve been completely right.”

“Ah,” said Skulduggery, raising a hand. “Completely right. Now name a time when I’ve been completely wrong.”

Solomon opened his mouth, then snapped it closed and glared. “I dislike you.”

“That’s why you’ve followed me for over a year, I take it,” said Skulduggery with a grin.

“Only out of a morbid sense of curiosity.” Solomon eyed a rotting stump on the corner of the jetty, but decided he wouldn’t have risked using it as a seat if his life depended on it. “Then all we can do is wait?”

“All we can do is wait,” Skulduggery confirmed.

“You promised me adventure and excitement.”

“You assumed adventure and excitement.”

Solomon let his wordless rebuttal trickle off into a grumble, and then pacified himself with gazing out at the ocean’s horizon. He’d done this once before, with his father. During one of their trips into Dublin, they’d stopped off on an ocean-side cliff and stared out to sea for almost fifteen quiet minutes. When Solomon finally worked through all of his patience and asked what they were meant to be looking at, his father had smiled and pointed at the horizon.

“Hard to believe England’s right over there, isn’t it, Kian?”

“Are you rethinking your weekly rendezvous outside the Temple?” Skulduggery asked, drawing Solomon out of his nostalgic thoughts. He shook his head to clear it, and then shook it again in response. “You’ll be discovered soon enough,” Skulduggery warned him.

“I’ll be discovered when I’m ready to be discovered.”

Skulduggery shrugged. “As long as your excuses continue to satisfy your tutors at the Temple, so be it. Waiting is rather boring, isn’t it?”

“It’s been less than a minute,” Solomon informed him with only a ghost of the teasing smile he would have been able to muster otherwise. He didn’t much care about his tutors at the Temple or what they would think of his weekly walkabouts, but he did care about what Morwenna Crow thought, and he couldn’t shake from his mind the conversation he’d had with her that morning. She’d seemed accommodating enough, but how long would that last? When would she start growing disappointed in him for his flagrant disregard of the Temple’s rules? When would Solomon be forced to choose between her approval and Skulduggery’s?

Such thoughts were hardly productive, so he banished as many of them as he could and satisfied himself instead with looking around at the docks, and seeing if he could guess what several of the reasons for the hustle and bustle were. He could see dark storm clouds gathering; perhaps that was it. The crisp sea air and the crying gulls painted a very idyllic illusion of a calm afternoon that probably wouldn’t come to pass.

“Why don’t we ever go to the theatre?” Solomon wondered aloud. “I’ve never been.” And he’d always wanted to. His father promised to take him when he was old enough, but he’d never gotten the chance.

“And see what?” Skulduggery asked from inside the first sailboat marooned at the jetty. Solomon whirled around to watch the detective climbing amid the rigging like he had every right in the world to be there. “Something by William Shakespeare? Enjoying his work requires an understanding it’s impossible to achieve at the theatre.”

“Why?” Solomon asked, surprised.

Skulduggery looked up just long enough to give him an amused reply. “Do you really believe an audience sits quietly throughout an entire performance?”

“I…” Solomon trailed off as a sudden breeze picked up, blowing a stray bit of seaweed across the jetty. “I thought they did.”

“Not unless you’re willing to pay a fortune.” Skulduggery turned back to whatever he was doing on the boat. “I never liked him, anyway. He’s a little too arrogant for me.”

“Too arrogant?” Solomon looked at him, bemused. “For you? What is it you’re doing?”

“Casting off.”

“I thought we were waiting for your friend.”

Skulduggery tossed a coil of rope over the side of the boat onto the jetty. It looked important, but Solomon chose not to question it. “We were. Then I saw the storm which is apparently blowing in, and I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands. We can sail around the harbour ourselves, and bring the boat back into port when we’re finished, just in time for my friend to greet us. He’ll probably be looking extremely proud when he does.”

Solomon stared. “You’re stealing the sailboat?”

“Not stealing. Borrowing. There’s a distinct difference.”

“You must be mad if you believe I’m going to take any part in this. I don’t believe you even know how to sail.”

“I know how to sail,” Skulduggery objected. “Remind me to tell you the story of how I sailed Peter Love’s ship from England to Dublin.”

“Peter Love?” Solomon shook his head. “You’re stretching the limits of what I can believe, Skulduggery. Next you’ll tell me that you’ve met William Shakespeare himself and performed at the Globe.”

“Why would I want to meet William Shakespeare?”

“Because even if you think he’s too arrogant for you, he’s been sponsored by Queen Elizabeth herself. He’s important. He has a right to be arrogant. What right do you –“ Solomon stopped. “Are you implying that you wanted to sail Peter Love’s ship from England to Dublin?”

“Well, I didn’t set out for that specifically,” Skulduggery admitted. “But I didn’t have much of a choice. He was about to sell us into slavery. He was remarkably rude.”

“You two must have gotten along famously,” Solomon muttered.

“Oh, we did. We were good friends by the time he left.”

“Alright, that’s it.” Solomon crossed his arms. “I’ll never believe another word you say, and I’ll never obey another word you say if you don’t leave that boat right now and wait for your friend, as you said you were going to.”

Skulduggery straightened up, and then shrugged. “I don’t need you to obey every word I say.”

“Liar.”

“Alright, yes, but I know you will anyway. Your argument is flimsy.”

“No it’s not,” Solomon argued. “You’re just refusing to see it.”

“I am stubborn,” said Skulduggery just as the boat’s sail unfurled. “There we go. Are you coming, or not?”

Solomon took a step back. “Not.”

“Really?” Skulduggery took hold of one of the mast’s ropes and used it to lean forward over the water. Solomon couldn’t see any reason for that, except perhaps to show off. “Sailing around the harbour in the wind of an approaching storm isn’t remotely fun if I can’t share the experience with someone else.”

“Then don’t do it,” said Solomon with an eyebrow raised.

“Where’s the fun in that?”

“Surviving.”

Skulduggery shook his head sadly. “I haven’t been doing nearly as well as I thought I was, if you’re still thinking that way. If I can tell you something about your past you’ve never told anyone before, will you join me?”

“You’ll guess,” said Solomon. “I know you. You bluff, and your bluffs somehow always end up being right.”

“I’ll give you enough details until you’re satisfied. Do we have a deal?”

Solomon considered it. “Until I’m satisfied?”

“Until you’re satisfied.”

Skulduggery had a habit of twisting even the most one-sided bargains into events that benefitted him, so Solomon remained wary. The problem was, those very same bargains and games were usually the only thing Skulduggery actually responded to once he had his mind set on something. “And if I’m not satisfied,” Solomon finally said, “will you leave the boat and wait patiently with me?”

“Of course.”

Oh, why not. Skulduggery could be a stubborn mule occasionally, but he’d never put Solomon in any direct danger before. He had to be telling the truth when he said he knew how to sail; no one in their right mind would take a sailboat out in a budding storm otherwise. “Alright. Tell me something about my past that I’ve never told anyone.”

“You’ve been put through an exorcism.”

For a moment, Solomon was stunned enough to be lost for words; then he recovered quickly, forcing the pain and the guilt down to where they could do no further harm. “You’ve probably known that for nearly as long as you’ve known I was once Catholic. I’m not satisfied.”

Skulduggery smiled. It was a sad smile, and much more gentle than Solomon was used to, as though Skulduggery were actually sympathetic. “You made your father believe it worked, not because you were scared of it happening again, but because you didn’t want to disappoint him. At some point before he died, he discovered your deception, but neither of you managed to resolve your feelings in time.”

Solomon could feel his eyes prickling, but he impatiently brushed that aside. Signs of weakness, the Temple taught, were to be avoided at all costs – not that Solomon would have indulged it either way. It still took an effort to keep his voice steady when he spoke again. “All guesses.”

“You’ve been able to manipulate people since you were a child, haven’t you? If you used their given names, you could tell them to do whatever you wanted.”

Once again, Solomon was reduced to staring. “How could you possibly know that?”

“I suspected when we first met. Remember that warehouse worker who sold his friend out to you without an immediately obvious reason? It would, of course, also explain why both you and your father believed you needed an exorcism.”

“Guesses,” said Solomon. “All guesses.”

“I must be imagining you looking as pale as a ghost, in that case.”

“Stop.” Solomon let his arms fall. “Please, just stop.”

Skulduggery swung himself back upright on the boat. “Are you coming, then?”

That, Solomon reflected bitterly, was utterly unfair. How did Skulduggery always manage to do that? He struck bargains that seemed so simple, so easy, and then in the space of a minute not only won the bargain, he… he made it so you were happy he had. Suddenly all Solomon wanted to do was lose himself on a sailboat in the middle of a storm. Waiting patiently on the dock, as he’d wanted to do until now, would do nothing but dredge up those memories he wanted to keep buried.

He sighed, and let a smile take the place of that bitterness. One thing could be said for spending days in Skulduggery’s company; not a single moment of it was ever boring. “Alright. I’m coming.”

“Excellent. Come on, then.”

Solomon took a half-step to the edge of the dock, tried not to look down at the waves lapping up against the dock’s pillars, and jumped the short distance onto the sailboat before he could think too long about what he was attempting. He slipped on the side and nearly pitched forward onto his face but for Skulduggery’s steadying arm against his chest.

“Careful there,” the detective added in a voice that was only smug because Solomon knew him far too well. Solomon muttered in response, straightened himself, and then looked around at the countless ropes, knots, and hemp cloth sail above him. It all looked so unfamiliar as to be alien.

“What do you want me to do?” he asked, trying not to look as lost as he was.

“Nothing, for the moment.” Skulduggery picked up a long pole and pushed the boat off from the dock with it, but the waves and the wind pushed it right back in. He tried again, pushing harder, and that time Solomon could feel a difference in the direction of the breeze. Skulduggery was an Elemental, of course. No wonder he believed so strongly that he could manage a sailboat.

That attempt worked for a little longer, but then the boat drifted right back to where it started again.

“I don’t understand,” said Skulduggery. “The sail’s pointing in the right direction. What’s stopping us from moving?”

“The anchor?” Solomon suggested, looking out over the side of the boat.

“Don’t be ridiculous. There’s no reason to use an anchor when the boat’s tied to the jetty.”

“And yet.” Solomon pointed to a rope that was held taut in the water. “What could that be, if not an anchor?”

Skulduggery looked at the rope, then back at Solomon. “It could be a mermaid.”

“A mermaid? Is there such a thing as mermaids?”

“Of course there’s such a thing as mermaids. But you’re right; this is much more likely to be the anchor. I was wondering what had happened to it.”

“You claimed you know how to sail,” said Solomon, trying his best to ignore the prickle of fear down his spine. “If you can’t even manage to pull away from the dock –“

“Patience, Solomon.” Skulduggery stretched out a hand over the water, and the area around the rope started to ripple. “The anchor is a mistake anyone could make.”

Solomon raised his brow. “A mistake anyone could make? Are you then claiming that if I were here with a professionally employed sailor, he could possibly have missed that the anchor was still in the water?”

“Yes.”

Despite himself, Solomon laughed. “I am in a sailboat with a madman.”

Skulduggery threw him a smile. “The dock’s just there, if you’re half as worried as you seem.”

“I know.” Solomon joined Skulduggery at the stern and looked at the rippling water around the anchor. “What are you trying to do?”

“Bring the anchor up.” Skulduggery let his hand drop, and the ripples in the water stopped. “Anchors are much heavier than they look.”

Solomon laughed again. “I wonder why that could possibly be. Wouldn’t the boat have something with which to crank it up?”

It took them a few minutes to fish the anchor out from the sea and drop it in the bottom of the boat, and even then, Solomon ended up helping Skulduggery haul it up by its rope for the last few metres. It didn’t turn out to be a mermaid, which Skulduggery felt the inexplicable desire to point out. The moment it left the water, the boat started drifting away from the jetty, and with an infectious smile Skulduggery jumped his way back to the bow. He was far too graceful not to be cheating using the air.

Solomon, for his part, stayed at the stern, and watched the dock slowly slip away from them with a growing unease. There wasn’t a single other boat out, and the storm clouds in the distance were only gathering. By the time they were properly away from the other boats, the wind had picked up, and Solomon could have sworn the sky was growing darker with each second.

He didn’t know anything about what happened to sailboats that were caught in thunderstorms. Were they picked up by the wind and thrown against seaside cliffs? Did they sail out of control until they were dashed upon the rocks at some foreign shore? Would the mast break in half and fall, damaging the boat enough to sink them?

“Don’t look so frightened,” Skulduggery called from the bow.

“I’m about to sail into a storm with a madman,” Solomon muttered. “Why wouldn’t I be frightened?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Hm?” Solomon peered at Skulduggery around the mast. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Must be the wind, then.” Skulduggery swung the horizontal pillar which controlled the direction of the sail to point them out to sea, where the storm was. “I promise we won’t go far.”

Solomon grunted a disbelieving response and decided that watching the dock get smaller wasn’t precisely the best way to help him stave off any seasickness. He turned and tried to pick his way over to the stern. It was a feat made more difficult by the rocking of the boat on waves that were growing progressively rough, and Solomon had to catch himself on a fixture more than once to keep from tripping and falling into the turbid water.

“This isn’t quite as easy as I remember it,” he heard Skulduggery mutter from the wheel.

With one last surge forward, Solomon caught himself on the stern’s edge and hauled himself up. The wind bit fiercely into his face the moment the sea came into view, with tiny droplets of rain lashing his face like miniature whip cracks. He was mildly startled to find himself laughing. If he hadn’t left this morning, if he’d allowed Crow to intimidate him into returning to the Temple even temporarily, he would have missed this. He’d be home and safe underground, true, but in the grand scheme of things, he would still have been freezing. The Temple robes weren’t known for providing warmth.

And this was much more fun than anything his tutors could possibly teach him.

“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?” he called over the sound of the wind.

“Some,” Skulduggery yelled back. “I know that the dock shouldn’t be on our starboard the way it is.”

“Why not?”

“The current’s much too powerful. If we continue on like this, we could sail right down the coast and out to sea.”

The problem was that Skulduggery sounded absolutely thrilled when he said it, as though he were about to embark on an exciting day at the fair. And his excitement was contagious, so much so that Solomon even risked straightening all the way to face the wind head on, hanging onto a rope nearby for dear life. The dock was passing by too quickly on their right, and there was a man on the stone part of the pier trying to match their pace, waving his arms and yelling. Or at least, Solomon assumed he was yelling; the wind snatched away whatever noise he made.

He pointed. “Is that your friend?”

Skulduggery had to shield his eyes against the wind and rain, struggling to keep the sailboat on course with only one hand. “Yes, actually. Late, as usual.”

“Shouldn’t we try docking?”

Skulduggery hesitated. “Well, yes. Yes, that’s a very intelligent course of action to take.”

Solomon glanced back, his heart falling into his shoes. “Then why aren’t we taking it?”

“I don’t know how to.”

Leave it to Skulduggery to take a sailboat out on his own during a gathering storm when he had no idea how to dock the boat again afterwards. He was a detective; he could solve mysteries as easily as he drew breath, and think days ahead in order to outsmart and catch petty criminals. But the moment an idea took root in his mind that had anything to do whatsoever with his personal safety, it was as if all his reasoning and common sense leaped out the window.

“I could probably do it,” the detective added, “if the water was calmer.”

“That doesn’t help us very much, does it?” Solomon snapped.

“No, it doesn’t. I don’t suppose you could become an Elemental within the next five minutes?”

“I’m a necromancer,” Solomon reminded him, a tad unnecessarily. “I might be able to shadow-walk us back to shore, but I’m years away from learning it, and we’d lose the boat besides.”

Skulduggery cupped a hand around his ear. “What?”

Solomon rolled his eyes. “No!”

“Didn’t think so. Oh, well. Time to improvise.”

Solomon wanted to ask what that improvisation would entail, but he didn’t particularly feel like yelling over the sound of the wind again. He looked down to watch the stern cutting through the water. After a moment or two, the wake shifted as the boat turned a few degrees into the harbour.

When they were getting a little too close to the other boats for comfort, Solomon couldn’t put off asking any longer. “What are you doing?”

“Improvising.” Skulduggery’s arms were straining, trying to keep the wheel in place. “Would you lend me a hand?”

Solomon turned and clambered with an unfortunately small amount of dignity up to where Skulduggery was standing, where Skulduggery promptly left him with the wheel and vaulted onto the deck, probably so he could manipulate as much of the wind in the sail and the water around the boat as possible. Solomon wouldn’t have minded, except that holding the wheel in place was every bit as hard as it looked.

Eventually, he had to summon shadows to help him, locking them to the wooden floor of the boat and the spokes of the wheel. It freed up enough of Solomon’s attention for him to look up, which was about when the boat rocked wildly to the side and pointed straight into the harbour. Solomon only managed to avoid falling by whipping his cane up and slipping another shadow around the wheel to act as a rope. The boat listed badly to the side, drifting on a collision course with another very expensive-looking sailboat, and Solomon couldn’t tell if the course was deliberate or not until Skulduggery dropped his hands and turned to yell.

“Jump out!”

What?”

Skulduggery didn’t answer. Either that, or he didn’t hear. He simply turned towards the side and dove out of the boat.

Solomon took a little longer than a split second to follow, frozen on the upper deck as the wind tossed the boat from side to side. But there was no denying it was about to crash into both the dock and the side of the expensive-looking sailboat, and Solomon had no desire to be caught in the middle of that. He took a deep breath, wondered just how cold the water was going to be, and then released all the shadows so he could tuck the cane under his arm and take a running leap into the water below.

It was hard to believe the sea wasn’t frozen. All the air left Solomon’s lungs the moment he went under. His limbs seized up, making a surface current snatch his cane away from him, and before he could see where it went a wave crashed down over his face. Freezing water took the place of the missing air in his lungs. Dizziness overcame him until he didn’t know which way was up and which way was down, much less where the crashing boats were or how far away from them he and his cane had been swept.

A strong arm wrapped around his waist and pulled him in the direction which must have been up. Solomon followed it and broke the surface, gasping for breath and blinking away the seawater in his eyes until he could make out Skulduggery’s face.

“Are you dead?” Skulduggery asked.

Solomon took a moment to wonder at that himself, but the slate-grey sky was above him, he was freezing, he’d lost his cane, and his entire body was aching with cold. If he was dead, then his father had been very wrong about what happened afterwards. “No.”

“Can you swim?”

“Barely.” He could keep himself afloat, at least. It was easier in the relatively calmer water of the harbour, so Solomon pulled away from Skulduggery to prove he wasn’t completely helpless and looked around for his cane. “Have you seen my –“

Skulduggery lifted it out of the water. “Yes.”

Solomon spared him a glare before he snatched the cane back. His father’s silver pommel glinted in the light reflected through the clouds, familiar and comforting at once. All the air left Solomon again, but this time in a rush of relief. The Temple could have replaced a channelling object, but nothing would ever replace that pommel.

He glanced around. The nearest jetty was several metres away, but he couldn’t immediately see the sailboat or where it had undoubtedly crashed. What he did see was a man standing on that jetty, wearing a coat and hood with a cravat done up as high as was possible, bent over double in what Solomon imagined was peals of laughter.

“Your friend?” he asked sourly. He couldn’t see any humour in the situation.

“My friend,” Skulduggery confirmed cheerfully. “Are you ready to go meet him?”

“No.” But it wasn’t as though Solomon had any choice in the matter, especially since Skulduggery struck out immediately for the edge of the jetty. Solomon grumbled and haltingly followed, using his own style of swimming rather than trying to imitate Skulduggery’s long strokes. For one thing, Skulduggery was probably cheating, and using the water to bolster him up. Solomon refused to look like a fool in comparison.

The wooden pillar in the water holding the jetty up was slimy with mould and undersea moss. Solomon stayed as far away from it as he possibly could, but the jetty was too tall to climb onto without the assistance. He grimaced, closed his eyes, and placed both feet against an exposed part of the wood; the moment he did, he felt Skulduggery grip his wrist, and allowed himself to be hauled up onto the jetty.

The air was, if anything, even colder than the water. His wet clothes probably didn’t help. Solomon hugged himself and began shivering uncontrollably.

The man who was Skulduggery’s friend let his hood slip a little, and it revealed the most horrific scars lining the top of his head. Solomon couldn’t help staring as the scarred man clapped a hand to Skulduggery’s shoulder, sparkling eyes just barely holding back more laughter. “You couldn’t have waited a minute longer?”

“I had no way of knowing you were so close,” Skulduggery protested.

“So you decided to go sailing while a storm was brewing?”

Skulduggery shrugged. “Solomon insisted.”

Solomon sputtered. “I did not! I said we should wait patiently, and then the next time I turned around –“

He stopped when he noticed Skulduggery’s friend was laughing again. Any friend of Skulduggery’s, of course, would know what he was like. No friend of Skulduggery’s would have been fooled by such a blatant avoidance of responsibility. Solomon briefly wondered how Skulduggery had any friends, and then he remembered how much boundless fun he’d been having in the thick of the storm’s front.

That startled him. He hadn’t thought about it, but… apparently he considered Skulduggery a friend.

“Solomon,” said Skulduggery, “this is Ghastly Bespoke, a very good friend of mine, as well as the son of my tailor. Ghastly, this is Solomon Wreath, my partner and protégée.”

Solomon scowled. “I am not your protégée.”

“You’re saying that because you’re still angry with me over nearly drowning you.”

Solomon ignored the comment, even as he continued to shiver. “It’s an honour to meet you, Master Bespoke.” His words were starting to shake, and he had to work harder to keep his voice level. “What happened to the boat?”

Ghastly gestured to the end of the jetty. “See for yourself.”

Solomon looked. The expensive-looking sailboat they’d been about to crash into was moored at the very end of the wide jetty, and it had been sliced neatly in two. Ghastly’s boat was, of course, the slicer, and it had rammed right into the jetty, which rendered the stern splintered into pieces.

“My mother,” said Ghastly, “is going to kill you, Skulduggery.”

“For saving both our lives?”

“Whoever owns that ship is going to demand recompense. That’s worth more than either of your lives.”

“Someone is always demanding recompense, Ghastly. We can’t give in to all of them. Would it help if I paid for the damages?”

“You can’t afford it.” Ghastly stepped forward, then stepped back again and shook his head. “I can’t even tell what the boat’s name was. I could ask the dock-master if he keeps detailed ledgers, but… I don’t think we have a way of tracking the owner down.”

“Excellent,” said Skulduggery. “Then we don’t owe them anything.”

“A world that works the way your mind does, Skulduggery, would be a very fascinating world indeed.” Ghastly turned and began heading back up the jetty. “I’ll try to hail a hackney. You two need dry clothes and a fire, if nothing else.”

“I’ll be alright,” Solomon tried to insist, but the effect was somewhat ruined by his voice wavering during the last syllable. “I’ll be alright,” he tried again. “I don’t wish to impose.”

“You wouldn’t be imposing,” Ghastly promised with a small smile over his shoulder. “In fact, my mother would enter the Temple and drag you back out herself if you left before she was certain you were healthy. Skulduggery, on the other hand, should probably start looking into funeral arrangements.”

“Is no one simply glad we’re alive?” Skulduggery wondered as Ghastly left to hail the hackney.

“I am,” Solomon assured him. Then a thought occurred to him, and he frowned. “Why aren’t you dead?”

“Very possibly because I’m far too clever.”

“No.” A chill ran down Solomon’s back. “A necromancer’s item cannot be handled or touched without that necromancer’s permission. You had my cane. You should be dead.”

“Oh, that.” Skulduggery smiled. Unlike all of his dry teasing from before, it was a genuine smile. “I never touched it. I simply used the water to buoy it towards us.”

“You lifted it out.”

“I buoyed it out. There’s a distinct difference.” Skulduggery cupped one hand in front of him, hidden in the folds of his coat, and snapped his fingers to summon a flame. “I’m an Elemental, Solomon. Not a necromancer.”

Skulduggery was well past the age of his Surge, Solomon knew. And if Skulduggery could be believed, then once a sorcerer’s Surge occurred, they could only ever use the branch of magic they were locked into. The buoying made sense, in any case, and Solomon found himself surprisingly relieved that Skulduggery hadn’t been killed by the cane.

What if it had brushed his arm or his leg while he was manoeuvring it, however?

“In the future,” said Solomon softly, “until such time as I say otherwise, you have my full permission to handle my cane.”

Skulduggery glanced at him, surprised. “You trust me to that extent?”

“Is there a reason I shouldn’t?” Solomon fingered the cane’s cold pommel. “This way, you can’t be killed by accidental contact.”

Skulduggery nodded. “Alright.”

Neither of them said another word, but there was something warm in Solomon’s chest, something he hadn’t felt in years. It rose in stark contrast with the freezing water that still soaked his clothes and his hair, making it even more obvious than any time he’d felt it before.

He didn't allow the warmth too much free reign. But for the first time since Morwenna Crow brought Solomon to the necromancers’ Temple, he felt truly safe.

Chapter Text

Aedan had known Doyle for several years. The man was many things, but smart couldn’t exactly be counted among them. Or, for that matter, halfway intelligent. He’d stumbled on the smuggling operation one day, and threatened to tell the overseer, so Aedan gave him a portion of the profits just to shut him up. It figured the one time Aedan turned Doyle loose to help him out, it would come back to bite him in the arse.

He looked at the box on the table, but it was still empty. He looked back up at Doyle, but the man was still looking much too pleased with himself. Eventually, someone had to break the silence, and that unfortunate task fell to Aedan. “What is this?”

“’S magic, Aedan.”

“How?”

“Well, that’s the clever thing, see. He told me you can only see it when you been within an inch of your life.”

Aedan sighed. “Did he say what it was?”

“What it was?” Doyle frowned. “Well, no, on account of he couldn’t see it either. Can you?”

“No.” Aedan closed the box’s lid. “No one’s going to see it, Doyle. You know why? Because there’s nothing there.”

“But he said –"

“He played you for a sap, and you fell for it. How much did you pay?”

“Every last farthing you gave me.” At least this time when he said it, Doyle sounded much more appropriately horrified, but Aedan wasn’t about to let him off the hook just yet. Not when he’d lost a fair amount of money over it, and certainly not if he stood to lose more.

“You’re never doing this for me again,” he said. “If you insist on pretending you control things, so be it, but I won’t have you losing any more of my money. Get back to work before the overseer gets suspicious.”

Doyle scowled, but he did exactly that without another word said. Aedan picked up the box, debated throwing it in the sea, and then kept it with the other magical artefacts on the table. The object had still come from a sorcerer. There was every chance it could be useful.

Someone knocked on the door and entered. Aedan put his forehead into his hands. “Doyle, God help me, if you’re trying another pathetic excuse –“

“I’m not Doyle.”

He looked up. The man who’d just stepped over the threshold was quite a bit wealthier than Doyle, even at a first glance. Possibly a nobleman, possibly not; it didn’t matter. People as well-dressed as he was didn’t tend to visit the warehouse districts. And even if they did, there was absolutely no reason for them to visit officially empty storage rooms within those warehouses. Aedan was immediately on his guard. “Who are you?”

“Dillon,” said the well-dressed stranger. “Dillon Ó Fearghail. I have a question for you.”

Aedan laughed. “You have a question for me? I see. Answer one of mine first. How did you know about this room?”

Ó Fearghail folded his arms. “You advertise.”

“Not this room.”

“Probably not deliberately.”

Now it was Aedan’s turn to scowl, and he looked the wealthy man up and down. He was a sorcerer; had to be. It was the only way. “If you think I stole something from you –“ Aedan began, immediately jumping into his familiar rounds of denial before the wealthy man impatiently interrupted him.

“Do you remember,” the wealthy man said quickly, “about two years ago, being attacked by a tall man with dark hair and green eyes? He might have had a younger man with him.”

Aedan stood up and walked around the desk. “I’m attacked by many people. If you don’t leave, you’ll regret it.”

Ó Fearghail didn’t move. “I’m sure I will. These two would have been sorcerers, and they would have taken something from you. A Spool of Unbreakable Thread?”

“A Spool of what?” Aedan immediately tensed, a flicker of remnant tingles spiralling down his limbs. Oh, he remembered. He remembered all too well. It was a memory he’d tried his hardest to forget.

“Yes,” said Ó Fearghail with a small smile. “Them. What can you tell me about them?”

“They’re bastard sons of –“

“Without the profanity, please.”

Aedan gave him a very choice glare, and then sat back down again. “Get out.”

Ó Fearghail didn’t say anything else for a long while, his expression remaining impressively blank and his body impressively relaxed. It was that last observation which kept Aedan from reaching for a weapon. He’d learned his lesson about fighting sorcerers, and if this Ó Fearghail was a sorcerer…

Eventually, the man inclined his head. “Tell me what I want to know, and I won’t report this whole operation.”

“I’m not telling you anything. You’ll report me the moment you leave.”

“I’m a man of more honour than that,” Ó Fearghail insisted softly. “I don’t lie. I don’t care about you or any of your smuggling. I don’t care about the people you’re robbing blind. All I care about is knowing everything you know about the two people who were here two years ago.”

Aedan looked at Ó Fearghail, and believed him. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because information didn’t have any value, or because the man had come here before doing anything else. Either way, Aedan wanted him gone, and the quickest way to do that was to give him what he wanted. In the long run, information didn’t seem like such a bad thing to give up.

“They’re brothers,” said Aedan. “That was the impression I got.”

Something in Ó Fearghail’s expression tightened. “What gave you that impression?”

“They were… hell, I don’t know. They had each other’s backs. They didn’t need to talk to –“

- to ambush me without warning.

“What else?”

“What else is there?” Aedan demanded. “I can’t give you where they bloody live. They came here, they stole what’s mine, and they left again.”

“They didn’t say anything?” Ó Fearghail asked, ever patient. “Anything that might give you a clue as to what they were trying to do?”

Aedan sighed. “The younger one broke a sigil. I’ve never seen that before.” Or since.

“And?”

His eyes narrowed. “And, they used the lightning stick on me, they took the Spool, they left. If you’re looking for ‘em, you can maybe look for sorcerers who use those Spools a lot. Never thought they’d miss just one.”

“Are there a lot of sorcerers who use those Spools?”

“No,” Aedan admitted. “Tailors, mostly. Faerie tailors, can you believe that?”

“No.” Ó Fearghail crossed his arms. “Which tailor did you steal the Spool from?”

Aedan shrugged. “Don’t remember. Wasn’t me. Somewhere outside the city, I think.”

“If you’re hiding something from me,” Ó Fearghail warned, “I will be back.”

“Please don’t be.” Aedan pulled the box of artefacts closer towards him, half in protection and half to make a clear message that he was finished with the conversation. “I told you everything I know.”

Ó Fearghail was silent again. The next time Aedan looked up, the man was gone.

Well, that was fine by him. The less people poking around his business, the better. Still, it might not hurt to ask around about the man and find out who he was, what his stake in sorcerer activity was, why he cared, why he came here, why he…

Aedan frowned. He glanced at the doorway, then back down at the box of artefacts in front of him. What was he doing?

A man. There was a man here. Wasn’t there a man here, asking questions? The memory was vague and already fading, as though he’d been dreaming.

He must have been dreaming, Aedan decided. It wouldn’t be the first time he dozed off at his desk. He might even have missed a scheduled inspection in the warehouse, and that would be a pile of problems and headaches Aedan really didn’t need. He shook himself to clear away the grogginess, stood up, and locked the door to the room on his way out.

Chapter Text

When winter arrived in Dublin, it arrived fiercely. Harsh winds and freezing temperatures blanketed the landscape, with or without snowstorms creeping over the earth in their wake. It was on such a day in the middle of January that Skulduggery insisted on taking Solomon for what he referred to only as an ‘overnight trip.’

Despite Solomon’s initial resistance to the idea, he still argued passionately in the Temple to be allowed the opportunity. Realising that made him laugh, particularly when Morwenna Crow stepped in on his behalf.

He started regretting the idea the moment he set foot above ground to meet the detective outside the cemetery, and when Skulduggery cheerfully showed Solomon an open wagon with a mule, any lingering amusement vanished along with the winter wind.

“No,” Solomon said flatly.

“Are you objecting to the mule, or the method of transport?” Skulduggery asked with a grin.

“Both.” Solomon took one gloved hand out of his pocket just long enough to gesture to the frigid air outside, then jammed it right back in. “If you’re suggesting that we go riding off in a single exposed wagon being pulled by a mule in this weather, I am going to turn around and go right back to the Temple.” Sure, it wasn’t exactly warmer, but at least Solomon would be out of the wind.

“Do you have something against mules?” Skulduggery asked.

Solomon glared at him. “I have something against the blatant disregard of basic common sense.”

“And yet, you’ve been following me around for the last three years.”

“You have yet to make them worthwhile.”

Skulduggery laughed, and patted the mule on his neck. “That changes tonight, if you’re willing to trust me one last time.”

Solomon sighed. “I trust you. You know that. That doesn’t mean I’m going to follow you into madness.”

“What madness?” Skulduggery tossed the reins into the wagon and climbed up into the driver’s seat. “A little cold? I thought you were sturdier than that.”

“Why should I follow you?”

He shrugged. “Call it an early birthday present.”

That made Solomon laugh. “You still have no idea when my birthday is, do you?”

“I know it’s during a day ending in ‘y’, if that holds any water with you.”

“It doesn’t.” Solomon shook his head. He’d worked out when Skulduggery’s birthday was less than a month ago. The only reason he hadn’t revealed it yet was that he wasn’t quite sure whether Skulduggery actually didn’t know, or if he was lying to try and give Solomon a chance to win their little bargain. Solomon wasn’t going to give the detective the satisfaction of patronising him.

“Alas,” said Skulduggery, giving absolutely no indication what Solomon should believe. “Are you coming, or not?”

If Solomon went home, the only thing that would greet him would be a night spent alone in a freezing room. While he didn’t relish the idea of riding slowly through such weather either, he had no idea what their destination would hold, and Skulduggery rarely steered him wrong. He steered Solomon into trouble, all the time. But he was always there to steer Solomon out of it again.

With a heavy sigh and plenty of resignation, Solomon climbed up into the wagon beside Skulduggery. “I’m going to regret this.”

“You always say that,” Skulduggery pointed out.

“And it’s always true.”

“Nonsense.” Skulduggery picked up the reins and gave them a flick. The wagon began trundling along the road, and Solomon wrapped himself tighter in his cloak against the wind of movement.

The only reason he didn’t freeze during the journey, Solomon suspected, was because Skulduggery finally summoned a flame in his hand to warm them both. It slowed their journey, but by that point, Solomon had slipped past caring. He huddled around that flame as best he could, squeezing his eyes shut and hoping that Skulduggery wasn’t planning on taking them up a mountain, and only looked up again when the wind died down. Blocked by trees, he saw.

Blocked by very familiar trees.

Solomon felt ice flood his veins when they passed the small stream he used to read next to. Skulduggery, next to him, said nothing. Solomon couldn’t find it in himself to break the silence – not until the old manor house finally came into view around the bend in the road.

It was Solomon’s father’s estate. The house Solomon grew up in.

“How did you know?” he asked softly. His voice still reverberated in the resounding quiet.

“Detective work,” said Skulduggery. “I had a little bit of help, as well. I’m not sure of the details of why you left or how the Temple found you, but I discovered enough to know that you need far more closure than you’ve allowed yourself to have.”

“You bastard.” Solomon tried to jump out of the wagon before it came to a complete stop, but his legs were too weak for him to even stand up – whether from cold or shock, he didn’t know. “I told myself I’d never come back here.”

“Well, then you lied.”

“Why wouldn’t you ask me if I wanted to?”

“Because,” Skulduggery said gently, “I knew what your answer was going to be.”

Damn right, Solomon wanted to say, but he choked on the words in his throat. Even at this distance from the main courtyard, his cane was picking up the deaths that had taken place there. They were familiar deaths. They were powerful deaths, made all the more intoxicating for how long they’d lingered there. Solomon could feel the shadows from under the wagon reaching for his cane, drawn to that power, and he took a deep breath before banishing them. With necromancy, it was important one controlled the power, and not the other way around.

“Are you alright?”

Solomon looked up to see the concern on Skulduggery’s face. Somehow, that made things even worse. He grunted an affirmation, and the moment the wagon stopped in front of the stables, he mustered his strength and jumped out.

He could immediately pick out his bedroom window, third from the left on the upper floor, one of two windows that the room possessed. The second overlooked the courtyard’s drive. Solomon remembered the last time he looked out that window, curious at the noise of thundering hooves he could hear outside. He still remembered the faces of the men who rode those horses, men of the King’s Guard, arriving ostensibly to try and negotiate the estate away from Solomon’s father.

“Open this door! Open this door in the name of the King!

Even then, they’d been too angry. Solomon’s father had outsmarted them time and time again. Everyone, it seemed, had known their luck would eventually run out – everyone except for Solomon.

He jumped at the feel of Skulduggery’s hand on his shoulder, and shrugged it off. “I’m not a fragile child.”

“I never said you were,” he replied.

“I’m not going inside.”

“I know.”

A moment later, Solomon stepped towards the servants’ side door. He couldn’t justify not going inside. The overwhelming sensation of death was more than enough to convince him on its own, but he didn’t think he could come all the way out here – or, more accurately, be dragged all the way out here – and then simply turn around and leave again. It would be an insult to his father’s memory. It wouldn’t be right.

And so, despite almost every limb in his body screaming at Solomon to climb back up into the wagon, he steadied himself with a breath and pushed the door open.

The front hall hadn’t changed. It was a little smaller than it was in his memory, but that was to be expected. Dust and cobwebs had taken command of the space now, so thick as to be visible even in the half-light that filtered through the windows. The candles had burned out long ago, of course, leaving nothing but waxy stubs in the chandelier. Solomon looked up at it, and tried to remember when the light from those candles filled the hall with flickering warmth.

A moment later, and the candles all lit up at once. Solomon glanced backwards in surprise to see Skulduggery standing in the doorway. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“I’ve been practicing,” the detective said with a shrug that could potentially be described as modest, if one didn’t know him too well. “It won’t last for long. They’re barely candles anymore. Piles of wax, more like.”

Solomon was still grateful for it. It made things seem less bleak. Less abandoned. Less like it had happened in the distant past.

“We had a footman,” he said before he could quite stop himself. “Aengus. He let them in.”

Skulduggery said nothing, so Solomon moved over to the stairs. Before the King’s Guard arrived, he’d been in the kitchen baking pies with one of the servants. He’d accidentally used magic on her and, in a half-panic, excused himself to go up to his room. Then he’d heard the hoof-beats, and come back downstairs to see what was going on, and the very first thing he’d noticed was his father wearing a sword.

“Da –”

“You’re meant to be in the kitchen.”

“I didn’t realise. Let me come out with you.”

“No. Kian, if they capture you, they will execute you. Go into the kitchen. The other servants are gathering there. They will take care of you.”

There was a secret exit in the kitchen leading out underground. Solomon abruptly changed his mind and veered away from the stairs to explore the servants’ wing instead, and paused just outside the kitchen doorway. He wondered if the secret exit was still there, or if some underground cave-in had rendered it unusable.

He didn’t want to know. He turned around and went back to the front hall.

Skulduggery, for once in his life, was remarkably patient with Solomon’s desire to go around in silent, useless circles. He was right there if Solomon needed to say anything, but otherwise blissfully silent, exploring things on his own. Solomon watched him inspect the chandelier for a few moments, then shook his head and went out into the courtyard.

“It never really went away, did it?”

“No. I tried not to use it.”

“I know. I handled it badly. I should have asked more questions. I shouldn’t have simply assumed what it meant. You’ve tried so hard to be a good man, Kian. I should have stopped to ask what it meant, that you could try so hard to be good and still be able to do things no one else can do. But all I could remember was seeing you like that, wreathed in power and conviction, and I was afraid.”

“Da, please.”

Solomon fingered the pommel of his cane, careful not to let the tip touch the cobblestones under his feet. The sheer power he could feel from the deaths of the Guards threatened to overwhelm him, making the world spin. He still remembered his father putting this exact pommel into his hand, intending for him to have the hidden blade inside for self-defence. He hadn’t thought for a moment that the cane might be useful for anything else.

“So live, Kian. For me.

 Then the captain had run his father through with the sword, and Kian had broken away in time to see it, and the natural metals used to make the cane’s handle reacted to the death violently enough to draw all the nearby shadows in the courtyard –

Solomon. Not Kian. He wasn’t Kian anymore. He was Solomon. Solomon Wreath.

“What,” Solomon said bitterly, “is this accomplishing?”

“I thought they might have left the bodies here,” Skulduggery said from somewhere behind him. “Alas, no such luck. We’ll have to pretend. Is there anyone you’d like to bury?”

Solomon laughed. It was a bitter, broken laugh, and it ended on a choked sob which served as a warning to him of what might happen if he continued trying to speak. So he didn’t. He just turned around to give Skulduggery a steady, flat look.

“An item, then,” said Skulduggery, utterly unperturbed. “They’ll have ransacked the estate, but there’s always a possibility they left items with only sentimental value behind. If you find anything, we can bury it in place of a body.”

“No.” Solomon turned back towards the stables, intending to take the long way around the house so he didn’t have to see the front hall again. “I’d like to leave.”

Skulduggery hesitated, then shrugged and followed after him. “Suit yourself.”

Solomon stopped and closed his eyes. “But thank you.”

Skulduggery stopped beside him, and for a long moment neither of them moved. The wind howled from somewhere distant, but all they felt beside the house was a whisper of a freezing breeze, playing with the tails of the coat Skulduggery had tailored especially for Solomon.

“And,” Solomon added, “if you ever do anything like this again, I will murder you while you’re sleeping.”

“Fair enough.”

“I’m serious. I will dip one of your hats into a barrel of paint.”

“Your point is taken, I assure you.”

“Perhaps more than one hat. Maybe even while you’re still wearing it.”

“Now you’re being vindictive.” Skulduggery started walking again, leading the way back to the wagon. “If I ever take you to your childhood home and suggest a Catholic burial for the purposes of closure without your knowledge again, may a herd of wild horses take me where I stand.”

“I wonder where I can purchase a herd of wild horses,” Solomon mused.

“I’m sure I don’t know.”

Solomon laughed, but this one came unbidden, genuine and relieved. It sparked a strange sort of warmth in his chest, something he knew not even the freezing winter winds of the ride back into Dublin would be able to extinguish. It had been a long, long time since Solomon considered any of the tenets of the Catholic faith, but he had to wonder – what if his father was right? What if souls were immortal, and could walk the Earth whenever they chose?

Was his father there just now? Did he approve of Skulduggery’s mentorship?

Did he approve of Necromancy?

Chapter Text

The house door creaked when it opened. The sound was loud enough to echo off the walls of the unfurnished sitting room, exactly the sort of unassuming sound which Skulduggery Pleasant might have used to pinpoint exactly where he was. Dillon didn’t want to take any chances; he resolved to oil the hinges the first chance he got.

Of course, knowing Skulduggery, even the lack of noise could be a giveaway.

Why would that be a problem? Skulduggery had been training this protégée of his for five years. How much skill was it possible to pass on during that time? Not very much, if Dillon himself was anything to go by. Given that little bit of context, he could hardly believe he’d just been worrying about the creak of an old door he barely used – especially when he was dealing with sorcerers.

He was carrying a bag of fresh apples. Dillon shut the door behind him and dumped that bag on the sideboard next to a whiskey bottle he’d gotten for half-price the day before. A well-stocked pantry if ever he saw one. Skulduggery would almost certainly use the state of the pantry to work out where he was. Fortunately for Dillon, it wasn’t Skulduggery he had to worry about.

He unlocked the cellar door with the same large brass key he’d used to unlock the front door, and left the key on the sideboard next to the apples before descending the steps. One could never be too careful.

“Hello?” he called into the darkness.

Silence. Not that Dillon expected anything different. Either his guest was still unconscious, or he was awake and suspicious, and hardly going to answer the call of a stranger. That was alright. Dillon reached the bottom of the steps and reached out for the small sigil he’d carved into the stonework. The moment his fingers brushed it, it came to life, glowing with a soft blue light that illuminated even the corners of the small, cramped cellar.

The man chained to the wall across from him blinked furiously. Dillon sank down onto the bottom step and, after a moment of thought, wrapped his arms around his knees. Hardly an appropriate posture for the son of a nobleman, but he’d long since decided he didn’t particularly care.

“Sorry,” he said.

Solomon Wreath glared back at him. It was impressive, considering he probably couldn’t see very well yet. Dillon ignored it, and gestured to the sigil above his head. “For the light, I mean. And for everything else, I suppose, but I doubt hearing that is your largest concern.”

“Who are you?” Wreath demanded, thus proving Dillon’s point for him.

“Does that really matter?” Dillon asked. “I’m not doing this for you. You’ve never met me before.”

“Why am I here?”

“I brought you here.”

“Why?” Wreath hesitated. “How?”

Dillon gestured to the sigil again. “I’ve learned some small things. It wasn’t difficult. Men caught unawares are easy to disarm.”

For a long time, Wreath didn’t answer. He just looked at Dillon, a slight furrow in his brow. Dillon looked straight back, his own gaze unwavering, and waited for his captive to ask the next question.

When Wreath finally stirred, it was with a small smile. “Might I have the pleasure of knowing who I’m being held by?”

“You want a name. Of course. Dillon o Fearghain, at your service.”

Wreath sat up. The chains around his wrists jangled. “Dillon, would you be kind enough to let me go?”

Dillon smiled back, and stood up. “What are you expecting me to do, Wreath? Are you expecting me to run and grab the key and unlock your shackles? Are you expecting me to show you the door? You used to be very good at that, so I’ve heard. You used to be good enough to make men kill each other. But now you’re… what was it, a Necromancer? Maybe your power over names isn’t quite as strong as you thought.”

Wreath, to his credit, didn’t pale. His expression didn’t so much as flicker. The only visible reaction was his eyes growing hard. “Who are you?”

“And we’re back to the first question. Why would it matter to you?”

“If you’re expecting revenge on me for those men of the King’s Guard –”

“No.”

“Then who does your identity matter to?”

Interesting question. Dillon could already see where Skulduggery’s influence was having its effect. He didn’t answer, choosing instead to hold Wreath’s piercing gaze, quietly proud that he was successfully holding a sorcerer hostage. The sigils in the shackles he’d spent days perfecting, agonising over, were finally paying off.

“You’re after Skulduggery,” Wreath said a moment later.

Dillon was surprised. He didn’t show it.

“You’re after Skulduggery,” Wreath repeated himself, sitting as far forward as the chains would allow. “You’re hoping he’ll come for me. Why?”

“As a matter of fact, I very much doubt he’s going to come for you.”

“Why? What has he done to you?”

Dillon fought back a surge of anger, took one long breath to calm himself, and smiled again. “That really doesn’t matter very much to you, does it?”

“May I decide what does and doesn’t matter to me?”

“No.” Dillon sat down on the bottom step again. “Why do you idolise him?”

“Excuse me?”

“Why do you idolise him?” Dillon repeated. “What has he done to earn such unerring loyalty from you? Why do you leave that underground Temple at the very least once a month, a feat which can’t be as simple as it sounds, just to follow him around on his cases? Why?”

Wreath blinked, confused for the first time during their brief meeting. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m holding you hostage in my cellar,” Dillon pointed out blandly. “I’m very serious.”

“I don’t idolise Skulduggery. He asks for my help, and I provide it.”

“But you’re friends?” Dillon pressed.

“No,” said Wreath. “He asks for my help, and I provide it out of misplaced spite.”

Sarcasm. Dry sarcasm. Another quality he would have picked up from Skulduggery. The small but compelling proof of how close their relationship had grown over the years did nothing but increase the small bitter hold jealousy had on Dillon’s heart. “You’re brothers.”

“Forgive me for being so staggeringly unoriginal, but why on Earth does that matter to you?”

Dillon got to his feet again and began pacing up and down the cellar. “How did you meet? Why do you trust him as much as you do? You claim not to idolise him, and yet you’ll do anything for him.”

It was Wreath’s turn not to answer. Dillon stopped in the corner and spun to point an accusing finger at the Necromancer. “Your only possible chance of escape from this place is to answer my questions, Wreath. Silence will do nothing for you. How did you meet?”

“He rescued me from a mugging,” Wreath answered quietly.

“And for that, you feel compelled to dance for him?”

Wreath barked out a laugh which surprised them both. “I don’t idolise him, and I certainly don’t dance for him. I ask again – why does this matter so much to you? If you crave revenge on Skulduggery, capturing me isn’t the way to accomplish it. Neither is boring me with tales of… ” His eyes widened. “…of jealousy. You’re related to him.”

Another surge of anger, fought back. Another deep breath. Dillon leaned back against the wall and folded his arms, consciously reminding himself that it really didn’t matter what Wreath managed to discover. It wouldn’t change anything. It certainly wouldn’t give Wreath a way out of his predicament.

“You’re related to him,” Wreath said again, “but you’re not a sorcerer. Why not, I wonder? Is his whole family mortal, or was that just you?”

“You don’t –”

“You’re certainly brave if you’re willing to risk coming after us. What’s the matter, Dillon? Are you upset that your brother’s making you feel impotent?”

Dillon felt the anger flooding his veins. “Be silent.”

“Do you feel as though he abandoned you? I can understand that.”

“Can you?”

“Not you. I can understand why Skulduggery abandoned you in the first place, if the way you solve any childish problem is to assault and kidnap the friends and associates of the person who wronged you. Tell me, was it a dramatic affair? Was he the one who told you about your lack of magic? Did he rub your face in –?”

Dillon stepped forward and punched Wreath, his fist connecting with the other man’s cheek. Wreath reeled back against the wall with a cry of pain, and Dillon followed up with another punch to the gut, folding Wreath over his fist. Then he stood there and watched as the younger man, his lungs emptied and his head hopefully ringing, sank without control all the way down onto the floor.

Younger man. Now that Dillon thought about it, Wreath was only eighteen – only four years Dillon’s junior. If that wasn’t a replacement, then Dillon didn’t know what was. He spared the shackles a quick glance to make sure they were still locked and tight, then walked out of the cellar, slamming the lighting sigil on his way. It flickered into darkness.

“He’ll come.”

Dillon turned. He couldn’t see Wreath any longer, but the weak tone of voice reassured him that Wreath was still in pain, even if he could now speak. “What?”

“Skulduggery.” Wreath coughed, the noise scratching itself out of a tightened throat. “He’ll come for me.”

Good, Dillon wanted to say. He’d been worried about the possibility before, but now he didn’t care. He couldn’t. Let the splendid magical detective of Dublin come to rescue his new brother. Maybe then Dillon could get some answers from him properly.

He turned and left the cellar, locking it back up behind him. The bag of apples still lay on the sideboard. Dillon looked at them, vaguely remembering a plan to use them sparingly as incentives; now he simply picked them up and left the house with them. There must have been a homeless man somewhere at liberty who would be properly grateful for a fresh apple.

Chapter Text

Skulduggery checked his pocket watch. Two minutes and counting. His hand was starting to seize up, but even so, he didn’t stop knocking. Someone would have to come and answer the door eventually.

Another minute ticked by. Then another. He was just about to wonder if Mistress Aoife had some sort of battering ram when the door mercifully opened, and Skulduggery immediately dropped his hand to cradle it within his coat.

“The Temple’s big, is it?” he asked the heavyset and grim-faced man who’d answered his knock.

The heavyset and grim-faced man grew, if it was possible, even grimmer. “What do you want?”

“Solomon Wreath. He’s late for an appointment. I was wondering if he’d been waylaid.”

The man looked Skulduggery up and down with a lazy eye. “What business is it of yours if he was?”

“None at all,” said Skulduggery with a nod, “and yet, you’re going to tell me anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because if you don’t, I’m simply going to keep knocking until someone more important than you comes along and asks you why you can’t take care of one nosy visitor.”

The doorman raised his brow. “My superiors would agree that withstanding one annoying knocker is far more acceptable than letting him inside.”

Did Mistress Aoife have a battering ram? Skulduggery couldn’t understand why he’d never asked before. It seemed obvious in retrospect. Hello, Aoife. Thank you for setting my broken arm. Out of curiosity, do you happen to have a battering ram immediately available?

“They might,” Skulduggery answered when the silence stretched on too long. “But I’m still not going to leave until you tell me where Solomon Wreath is. No one needs to know you helped me, and I’ll cease to be an annoying knocker. All your superiors need to know is that you dealt with the problem with no small amount of admirable aplomb.”

For a moment, Skulduggery didn’t think it was going to work; then the doorman sighed. “He’s on the Continent.”

“The Continent? Why?”

“Why would I know? Do you think they make a habit of explaining their reasoning to everyone?”

They meaning your superiors, I presume.” Skulduggery tilted his head. “Why wouldn’t they? He’s an acolyte. Nothing he does would be considered classified.”

“I don’t make a habit of asking after every acolyte’s activities.”

“Yet you knew where he was.”

“I know when members of our order leave Ireland. I don’t ask why.”

“You’re a stubbornly ignorant fellow, I see.” Skulduggery examined the doorman’s expression more closely, but as far as he could tell, the Necromancer was telling the truth. Either the assignment was given at the last minute, leaving Wreath with no time to cancel or send a messenger to Skulduggery, or else even this doorman was being lied to. Either way, Skulduggery needed more information.

“I’ve changed my mind,” he said. “I’d like to speak to your superior.”

The Necromancer’s eyes narrowed. “No.”

“I don’t suppose ‘please’ would get me anywhere?”

“Out of the graveyard, if you take ‘no’ for an answer and leave us alone.”

Skulduggery sighed. “Could I at least count on your cooperation in telling your superiors about our little exchange just now?”

The doorman didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. Making reports was his job; there was no doubt his superiors would hear about this one way or the other. That was going to have to do. Wreath hadn’t left the Temple so often without drawing the attention of someone important, and Skulduggery was willing to bet that whoever that important person was, they might be a little more sympathetic than this doorman. If Skulduggery was very lucky, he’d be sent a message within the next few days.

So he nodded without waiting for an answer. “Thank you. You’ve been extraordinarily helpful.”

The doorman grunted and pushed the door shut again. The ominous creak from the hinges echoed in the cavernous entrance of the mausoleum. Skulduggery stood there a moment longer, and then headed off home to wait.

~~

Solomon wouldn’t have minded the cold, the silence, or the darkness nearly half as much if he had any way of telling how much time was passing. There was no noise from above him, no noise from below him, and no light to give any indication of what the sun was doing in the sky. The hours stretched before him with no end in sight. It was so remarkably boring that Solomon was reduced to making shapes out of the shifting colours behind his eyelids for entertainment.

His wrists were the first thing to complain. It was impossible to see in the dark, but he was pretty sure bruises were forming. He took to spending his time holding both of the shackles up off of his wrists, but then his arms grew tired and he had to suffer through the pain as best as he could.

His arms were growing tired. It must have been at least half a day since Dillon ό Fearghain left him alone.

Hours later, and Solomon’s stomach began complaining as well. He was much less inclined to forgive that – bruises were one thing, but hunger was very much another, and hunger had to be very low on his list of priorities right now. Hunger wasn’t welcome. Hunger wasn’t helpful.

Then his legs cramped up, and Solomon pushed himself stiffly to his feet. The chains only allowed him a couple of steps away from the wall, but he took those steps anyway, and hissed in pain when the shackles jerked against his bruised wrists. The hiss made him realise his cheek wasn’t throbbing anymore, but the numbness of his face was still enough to make him worry.

It wasn’t until the complaints of his stomach became audible that Solomon started to wonder if Dillon was ever coming back. If the idea was to leave him to rot down here… but no, it couldn’t be. Dillon wanted answers. He wanted to face Skulduggery himself. He wouldn’t kill Solomon – just wait until Skulduggery arrived to rescue him.

The hunger slowly intensified. Solomon sat down when the pain of the shackles dragging on his wrists was too much to bear, and went back to watching the insides of his eyelids.

Skulduggery was going to find him. He’d know Solomon was missing. He’d find him. It was only a matter of time.

~~

The message came the very next day, and Skulduggery went into liberty to meet with one Morwenna Crow. She was a very interesting woman, as it turned out. Not the most important Necromancer, or even on the second tier of importance; but she was Solomon’s mentor and knew almost everything about the Temple, it seemed. And Skulduggery was right. She was the one who had covered for Solomon every time he left the Temple.

“He really is on the Continent?” Skulduggery asked.

“He was sent to the Continent last week,” Crow replied. “He delayed for as long as he could, but responsibility caught up with him yesterday morning. I do apologise, Mister Pleasant. I did all I could to help, but sometimes even the good word of a mentor such as myself isn’t enough.”

“What is he doing there?”

“He’s –”

“Please don’t try to tell me it’s classified. You’re the first Necromancer I’ve respected. It would be a pity to ruin that.”

Crow’s mouth quirked into an amused smile which didn’t quite manage to reach her eyes. “As I was about to say, Mister Pleasant, Acolyte Wreath is spending some time in the Italian Temple on a research assignment. His lessons in Necromancy do need to continue, regardless of the unique relationship the two of you enjoy.”

Skulduggery ignored the barbed comment. “The Italian Temple?”

“It has the best-kept library, not to mention the greatest and most comprehensive resources, of all the existing Temples – particularly regarding our history. I felt Acolyte Wreath would benefit from some time spent studying there. He’ll remain there for a month, which means –”

“He’ll be back in a month and a half,” Skulduggery finished for her. Annoying, but not prohibitively so. The chances of Solomon’s Surge occurring within that month and a half were slim, and there wasn’t much Skulduggery could do even if they weren’t. He’d very nearly fooled himself into believing Solomon would always be available, eager to leave the Temple on a whim. But he was still a Necromancer – commitment to the Temple, first and foremost.

“Exactly.” Crow looked sympathetic. After a moment, Skulduggery even believed the sympathy was genuine. “If you would like to send him a message, I’ll personally see to the transport which carries it.”

Skulduggery shook his head. “Just ask him to come find me when he returns, if you don’t mind.”

“Certainly. Did you have any other questions?”

“No.” Skulduggery bowed his head. “Thank you.”

~~

The door at the top of the steps opened, spilling light in from overhead. It was the first thing to break the monotony in days, but Solomon instinctively shied away from it, squeezing his eyes shut to block it out. He heard the door close, footsteps, and then felt the glowing light of the sigil.

“Here.”

He peered through slitted eyes to see a glass of water being held out to him. Solomon reached up to take it without thinking, wincing when his bruised wrist was jangled, and downed the whole thing in a few gulps. It was heaven against his aching throat.

“I don’t –” He choked, coughed, waited a moment before trying again. “Don’t suppose you… have any food.”

“No.”

Right. And he probably never would. Solomon tried not to feel the little flurry of panic deep in his gut. Skulduggery was going to come for him. Everything was going to be alright.

“You said he abandoned me,” Dillon remarked, his voice calmer than it was before. “You’re right. That’s what he does. The moment I became more trouble than I was worth, he left, and he took everything I ever cared about with him. He’s going to do the same to you.”

It was little wonder that Skulduggery had abandoned a blood brother, if said blood brother believed starving someone to death was a perfectly acceptable way of dealing with his problems. And once Skulduggery knew that Solomon was missing, he would know who the kidnapper was. That was what he did. He knew things. He would be here.

“He won’t bother trying to rescue you,” Dillon went on. “Because you’ve become more trouble than you’re worth.”

Solomon laughed. It came out broken. “You don’t – believe that.”

“Really?”

“You wouldn’t have – captured me.”

“I hope he comes for you. I don’t expect him to. It doesn’t particularly matter. I’m good at improvising.”

Solomon shook his head. “Grow a backbone.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me.” The more Solomon spoke, the stronger his voice became. “Stop – fixating on him. He left you. It happens. Don’t – give him the satisfaction of letting it ruin the rest of your life. It degrades you and absolves him. It – legitimises what he did. Grow a backbone and try doing something more – productive with your time.”

Dillon sat on the steps, the weak light from the sigil illuminating amusement on his face. “He really has you, doesn’t he?”

“He isn’t the one starving me.”

“No,” said Dillon. “He’s just going to be the one who lets me do it.”

Solomon didn’t say anything. He wasn’t going to waste his breath. A few moments of silence later, and Dillon put out the light again on his way back up the stairs.

~~

“Never got a chance to use his shadows,” Mistress Aoife said with a wicked grin. “I’d knocked him on his arse before he could even pull the knife. The look on his face was absolutely priceless.”

“I wish I’d been there to see it,” said Ghastly.

Aoife nodded. “Me too, boyo. Me too. Necromancers like to think they’re powerful and enigmatic. Take away their channelling items, or make them ineffective, and they never have a backup plan. Not quite so enigmatic after that.”

“Don’t paint all necromancers the same way,” Skulduggery said. “I have a friend who’s remarkably resourceful without his cane.”

“Probably doesn’t belong with them, then.” Aoife leaned forward, an eager gleam in her eye. “When do I get to meet this friend, Skul?”

“Not for a while, I’m afraid. He’s on the Continent.”

“What’s he doing there?”

“Research on the Temple’s behalf.”

Aoife made a noise that sounded a bit like a disappointed huff, and sat back. “Let me know the moment he comes back, will you?”

“Of course.”

“He’s eighteen, Mother,” Ghastly said.

“Plenty old enough.” Aoife laughed at the look on her son’s face, and held her hands up in surrender. “I swear, Ghastly, sometimes I’d wonder if you knew me at all. I haven’t even met the man. I’ll reserve judgement.”

“You’d better,” Ghastly murmured.

~~

The hunger was strong enough to make it feel as though Solomon’s stomach was digesting itself. Standing up became an effort, a task Solomon forced himself into once every hour. Or at least, once in a while, whenever he felt like an hour had gone by. He wasn’t going to let his muscles rot just because he’d gone for a few days without food.

Had it been a few days? Maybe that was the optimistic guess.

At first, Solomon pacified himself by reliving treasured memories of his association with Skulduggery. But as time went on, that became harder and harder to do. More time must have been passing than Solomon thought. Dillon appeared every so often with water, but nothing else, and every time he asked the same question.

Where is he, Wreath?

When a week had passed by Solomon’s estimate – and therefore more likely two – he began to wonder if Dillon had already done something to Skulduggery. Something to stop him from coming. But why would he? There was no reason to keep Solomon here if he already had Skulduggery. So why wasn’t Skulduggery coming? Was he stonewalled by the Temple? Probably, but he was Skulduggery Pleasant. That had never, ever stopped him before.

Maybe Solomon was mistaken. Maybe the reason Skulduggery wasn’t overriding the Temple’s stonewalling was that he didn’t care enough about Solomon to see through the lie.

When two weeks had passed by Solomon’s estimate – and therefor more likely four – he didn’t even have the strength to stand up anymore. Every breath hurt. Blinking hurt, and Skulduggery still wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

“Can you remember a single time he helped you without cause?” Dillon asked. “Humoured you at the expense of his own pride?”

Solomon didn’t say anything.

“He never has, I take it.”

Solomon still didn’t say anything. He didn’t have the breath or the wherewithal.

“He doesn’t care about people. He uses people. He used you, and now he’s done with you. Admit that, and I’ll consider letting you go.”

Solomon nodded. His head felt heavy, and the movement made his vision blur.

“I’m sorry? Was that an admittance?”

Solomon nodded again.

He was pretty sure Dillon left after that. Time grew foggy when you were on the brink of death.

Chapter Text

People outside the Temple believed Necromancers put all of their power into their items. It wasn’t true. They channelled their power through their items, sometimes enough to make them inherently magical. But if Necromancers were rendered powerless by the loss of their items, it was only because they’d never bothered to learn how to use Necromancy without one.

Morwenna Crow taught all her pupils the control of Necromancy without an item. Solomon had done it before.

He didn’t know where his cane was. He couldn’t feel it anywhere nearby. The sigils on his shackles blocked his magic, but they couldn’t block his death. His own death. He could sense it. He was practically drowning in it. Slowly, ponderously, it fed him power.

There came a moment when his own death was strong enough to use, and Solomon used it on his shackles. The shackles broke apart.

For the next hour, he didn’t move.

Then he tried standing up. His legs were lead, his arms ribbons, his wrists gaunt. It was a wonder he hadn’t managed to slip his hands out of the shackles. His head swam when he slid up against the wall. Trying to take a step made his knees buckle. Walking was out of the question.

Crawling, now; he could do that. He could crawl. Solomon crawled, pulling his weight after him, towards the stairs. He felt his way blindly through the pitch black until his hand smacked into the first stone step.

How he had the energy to crawl up a flight of stairs, he didn’t know. Dumb luck. Sheer bloody-minded determination. Hatred.

The door at the top was locked. Solomon almost gave up and slumped to die at the top of the stairs; but the thought sent jagged shards of shadow into the lock, and the lock broke apart. The door swung open under Solomon’s weight and he fell heavily into the room above, smashing his head against the stone floor. Stars flashed in front of his eyes.

He was not going to torture himself into freedom, only to die two steps away from the door. He bloody well wasn’t.

When his breathing didn’t stop, Solomon dragged his hands towards his head and pushed himself up. He didn’t take any notice of anything else in the room. Maybe he should have; maybe he could have told the Temple how to get back here and kill Dillon. But taking notice of the room was something Skulduggery would have done. Even if Solomon still wanted to follow him around like a lost puppy, he didn’t have the mental prowess to do it. Not right now. Not when he felt like any movement could be his last.

He needed to stand up. He couldn’t crawl through the streets of Dublin, easy pickings for those who preyed on the weak. He needed to stand, and he needed to walk. Solomon crawled to a table, gripped the edge of it with pale, shaking knuckles, and levered himself upright. His knees shook, but the promise of freedom held them steady enough to carry his weight. He took a long breath, let his lungs remember how to breathe air that wasn’t stale; then he made his way over to the front door, slowly, and let himself out.

He made it onto the street. He made it through Dublin. He made it all the way to the Temple’s doorstep before he collapsed, his vision blurring to black just as the door opened over his head.

Chapter Text

Finbar Wrong wasn’t precisely the sort of person Skulduggery pictured when he thought of powerful Sensitives. For one thing, he was very young – barely past his Surge. For another, he couldn’t seem to hold a basic conversation. Skulduggery couldn’t tell if that was because he hadn’t had very much contact with people, or if he genuinely forgot when he was meant to be saying something.

“Or?” Skulduggery prompted, for the eleventh time.

“Or,” said Finbar, his gaze sharpening at last, “there’s a new restaurant around the corner.”

“How is that relevant?”

“Hm?”

“What does a new restaurant have to do with speaking to the dead?”

“Nothing. Why?”

Skulduggery sighed. Like pulling a hen’s tooth. Did Finbar realise he was switching between English and Irish as easily as if one language was slang of the other? “You were telling me that you have two possible ways of contacting a deceased family member. One was to establish a séance within the confines of the place of death. You were about to tell me what the other one was when you mentioned the new restaurant around the corner.”

Finbar shook his head. “My apologies, Skul-man. Things get… hard to see, sometimes.”

“Skulduggery.”

“I’m sorry?”

“My name is Skulduggery.”

“I know that, Skul-man. You’ve told me twice.”

“Then why do you insist on –” Skulduggery cut himself off. God, but Wrong was some kind of sucking whirlpool; if he wasn’t careful, their conversations were going to last for hours. “Never mind. You can contact someone who’s passed on, I hope?”

“That’s something they say nowadays, innit? Man?”

“Something who say?”

Wrong laughed and waved a hand. “Never mind. I was gonna say I don’t need to be at the place of death. I could hold a séance right here. Just need a candle and some incense. For ambience, you understand.”

No, Skulduggery didn’t. But given that flexibility of location was now a factor, he didn’t argue. “I’ll bring them. Could you perform it tonight?”

“I’m sleepin’ tonight.”

“Before then.”

“Oh.” Wrong gave it some thought. “I suppose I can.”

“Do you remember who you’re contacting?”

“Fellow related to one Solomon Wreath, yeah?”

Skulduggery paused, genuinely surprised. “Yes. Thank you.”

“What for?”

For not being quite as obtuse as you seem. “For agreeing to perform this séance gratis.”

“Gratis?” Wrong raised his hands. “Now, wait just a –”

“You told me, when I first arrived, that you weren’t going to ask for any of my money because – and I’m quoting you directly here – I ‘look like an honest sort of bloke’.”

“That is a vicious lie. I don’t think you look honest at all. I think you look like a cutthroat. I think you look like a pirate.”

Did he now? Had stories of Skulduggery’s exploits with the pirate Love spread so far, or was Wrong permanently adrift in a world where his Sensitivity tendencies seemed more real to him than the world he was living in? “I assure you,” said Skulduggery, “I’m no pirate. Why don’t I owe you a favour, rather than coin?”

Wrong studied him. “How do I know you’ll deliver?”

“You told me I look like an honest sort of bloke.”

“Did I?”

“You did.”

“Are you?”

Skulduggery smiled. “I like to think so.”

Wrong nodded. “Alright. A favour. I suppose I’ll see you after supper, then.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Stop saying ‘thank you’,” Wrong murmured. “I always end up doing things I don’t want to whenever you say that.”

They’d had all of one conversation for Wrong to base that conclusion on, but Skulduggery was quickly learning not to question everything Sensitives said, particularly Sensitives capable of seeing into the future. So, rather than satiate his burning curiosity, he bid Wrong farewell – without thanking him – and left, stepping out into the weak sunlight of an early foggy morning.

That took care of his last errand, so Skulduggery made his way over to the Temple, hands in his pockets and whistling. Solomon had to have returned by now. With any luck the necromancer wouldn’t even remember his birthday was today. It was easy enough to work out once Skulduggery knew where Solomon had lived as a boy, but he’d held off saying anything to see if Solomon would win their little bet first. This year, the opportunity to gift him a conversation with his deceased father was simply too good to pass up.

The same doorman as before answered Skulduggery’s knock. It was impressive, really, how quickly the man’s expression soured upon seeing who his visitor was. Skulduggery greeted him with a little wave and a smile. “Hello. Is Solomon back yet?”

“Acolyte Wreath is not taking any visitors.”

“He’ll see me, I assure you. Remember how irritating I can become when I’m denied my simple desires? Just tell him there’s someone at the door for him, there’s a good chap.”

The doorman’s lip curled, but he dutifully disappeared into the Temple’s depths and Skulduggery leaned against the nearby outcrop of rock to wait. He stopped whistling, though. Whistling didn’t seem like the most appropriate thing to do when trying to avoid attention in a graveyard.

Skulduggery’s first indication that something was wrong was when Solomon came to the door within minutes. Normally, there was someone he needed to see first – some excuse he needed to concoct, or perhaps asking a fellow acolyte to take his menial chores for the day. Skulduggery’s second indication that something was wrong was Solomon himself; he was thin, much too thin, with a pale pallor to his skin that a man returning from Italy should not have had.

The doorman was directly behind Solomon, so Skulduggery didn’t mention it – not yet. “Ah, Solomon,” he said. “There you are. I was beginning to think you’d moved to the New World. Whatever has the Temple had you doing all this time?”

Solomon turned and moved away from the Temple without a word. That was Skulduggery’s third indication that something was wrong.

“What’s this, then?” he asked. He didn’t know enough about the Temple to guess at what Solomon might have been doing, but he was more bemused than worried. “Do you have a new mystery? Or, perhaps, a gift? I do enjoy gifts.”

Solomon didn’t answer until they’d reached a small bluff above the Temple’s graveyard, high enough to see the ocean over the trees. Then he turned to face Skulduggery with a peculiar look in his eye Skulduggery hadn’t seen there before. “I’ve decided to stay with the Temple.”

Skulduggery stopped. They’d spoken occasionally about Solomon learning other forms of magic to undertake his Surge with, but never seriously. Even so, Skulduggery had always harboured a faint hope that something more permanent might come from their partnership, and to hear that avenue so solidly closed off was… jarring, to say the least.

Then again, something was wrong, wasn’t it? Skulduggery frowned. “May I ask why?”

“I’ve realised it’s the best place to be.”

“The best place – what did they have you doing for the past month?”

“They didn’t have me doing anything,” said Solomon shortly. “I’ve spent the last two weeks in recovery, and the three weeks before that rotting in a dank cellar in Dublin.”

Anger bloomed fast and hot – the same anger which made Skulduggery burn his father. He leashed it. “Where?”

“What does it matter? I escaped.”

That peculiar look in his eye. Hate, Skulduggery realised. Not directed at the Temple, or this mysterious captor. Directed at him.

“How?” he asked quietly.

Solomon whirled. “How do you think?” The cane jerked up, drawing in the surrounding shadows and releasing them barely moments later, a flock of sharp-edged and dangerous birds. “They didn’t feed me. They barely left me enough water to survive each day, and not even that. They used binding manacles. Do you know what it feels like, to be cut off from your magic? I felt nothing until finally, three weeks later, I became weak enough to power my magic on my own impending death. Do you know what that feels like? To know that your only means to survive came because you were nearly dead?”

The anger flared again. Still, Skulduggery leashed it. It had never been helpful before, and it certainly wasn’t going to be helpful now. He didn’t know anything about what Solomon’s ordeal felt like, and he didn’t know if there was anything he could possibly say that wouldn’t sound like a mere excuse.

There probably wasn’t. “I’m sorry.”

Solomon didn’t say anything. Skulduggery thought of Finbar Wrong and the surprise séance, the fact that it was Solomon’s birthday. It all seemed laughably irrelevant in the face of this. “I didn’t know,” he added. “I thought –”

“You thought the Temple was holding me?”

“Yes.”

“I thought you were meant to be a detective. Detective Skulduggery Pleasant. And you expect me to believe you when you say you didn’t know?”

Anger wasn’t useful, but at least it burned hot. Guilt didn’t burn. Guilt just sat there, like a lead weight. “I’m only human, Solomon. How was I meant to –?”

“You should have asked!” Solomon glared at him. “After all this time. All the cases we’ve been on together. I was gone for over a month, Skulduggery, and you never even thought to ask where I was?”

He had. Crow. She’d deliberately put him off the trail. Why on Earth had Skulduggery trusted the word of a necromancer? Their insularity was the most important thing to them, not anyone’s safety. Skulduggery could have mentioned her to Solomon – wanted to – but two things stopped him. First, Crow was the necromancer who’d covered for Solomon so often, and Solomon was going to need an ally within the Temple. Someone he trusted implicitly.

The second and more important thing was the implacable hate in Solomon’s eyes.

It made Skulduggery feel like his father.

“What do you want me to say, Solomon?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Solomon said flatly. “I don’t expect anything from you. The fact is that you should have done your job and asked questions, and you didn’t, at a time when I needed you the most. You say that necromancy is evil, Skulduggery? It’s the one thing that has never abandoned me – least of all when I was nearest to death.”

Skulduggery shook his head. “This isn’t who you are.”

“What do you know about who I am?”

“Solomon –”

“Goodbye, Skulduggery.”

Before he could say anything else, Solomon had turned around and walked back down the bluff toward the Temple. Skulduggery watched him go, knew that this was the end of their partnership and realised that was probably for the best. He didn’t know what he would have said if he’d had the opportunity.

It was the first time in a very long time that he felt utterly helpless.

Chapter Text

A light mist of rain dappled the cobblestones, staining where refuse had yet to be cleared away, leaving a faint smell of spring in the air. If Skulduggery closed his eyes, he could almost imagine he wasn’t even in the city. Of course, technically he wasn’t; technically he was on the outskirts, the lawless bordering districts known collectively as the Pale. But that should really have just made the smell worse.

He opened his eyes again, slightly unsettled, and followed the winding alley further into the Pale, taking the opportunity every time he was alone to practice staying dry. It didn’t quite work. Master Ardan’s suits were what Ghastly called water-resistant, a smooth mixture of fine tailoring and magic; the clothing withstood enough rain to keep Skulduggery warm and dry.

The rain fell harder, moving past Skulduggery’s threshold for manipulation, and he gave the task up entirely. It was a waste of strength anyway. Better to save it for when he found Solomon’s captor.

There weren’t very many sorcerers out this way. So far beyond the Pale, even magic couldn’t guarantee survival. If one were skilled enough, it was the perfect place to hold a necromancer captive for three weeks, provided the entrepreneur wasn’t foolish enough to buy or commission binding manacles which would instantly give him away.

This one was incredibly foolish.

Skulduggery stood in front of the address he’d been given – a building right on the corner of an intersection between the winding alley and a slightly bigger alley – and inspected the exterior. Bigger than he thought, to be sure. But he’d expected a hole in the ground, so that wasn’t saying very much. It looked like it even had a cellar. Skulduggery picked the lock and let himself inside, checked to make sure the three top rooms were empty, and then ducked into the cellar.

Binding manacles, bolted to the wall.

“Do you know what it feels like, to be cut off from your magic?”

No. He didn’t. And he was willing to bet Solomon’s captor didn’t, either.

Several hours later, someone finally came home. The light had faded enough outside that Skulduggery could half-hide himself behind one of the doorways and still remain relatively shrouded in shadow. He gathered magic into his fist, preparing for a fight.

Solomon’s captor paused, the wooden floorboards creaking under the shift in his weight, as he no doubt noticed his lock was broken. Skulduggery waited. After several silent moments, he man stepped carefully into the next room, and Skulduggery hit him, small orange flames licking around his knuckle. The man crashed into the wall beside him with a single strained Irish curse. Skulduggery didn’t give him even a moment to manoeuvre; he gripped the man’s shirt collar and held him against the wall, which turned out to be surprisingly easy to do. Skulduggery was taller, broader, packed more strength.

He didn’t quite know what to do after that, though. The man was staring at him. Skulduggery had meant to ask a question, hadn’t he? Why was he hesitating?

“You’re an Elemental,” the man said.

He sounded familiar. Skulduggery frowned.

“Of course,” the man went on. “I don’t know why I – you attacked Father with fire.”

A memory slid into place with the emotional equivalent of a small skipping stone slapping against the surface of a pond. Skulduggery’s frown deepened. “Lugan?”

“No. Cainneach.”

He said it with a sneer. A very, very familiar sneer, which was fast replacing the earlier surprise. Skulduggery had to take a moment to sort the memories inside his own head, but then he let Lugan’s shirt collar go, and let him take his own feet again.

“What are you doing?” Skulduggery asked.

“I could ask you the same thing. Attacking me in my own home?”

“You took Solomon Wreath. You starved him. Why?”

Lugan laughed. Skulduggery hit him again.

Ow! For God’s sake, Dill –”

“Don’t you dare claim to be anywhere close to my good graces. Why? Wreath didn’t know who you were. You didn’t hold him hostage for anything he’d done. If you were trying to get my attention, you have it.”

“Yes,” Lugan said bitterly. “And it only took the month-long disappearance of your closest friend. Thank you ever so, Dillon. Or am I meant to follow this new pattern? Should I be calling you Skulduggery?”

“You know about magic.”

“Damn right I know about magic. There are people who will swear you’re all descended from faeries, you know that? That I should be worshipping you. I used to, as a matter of fact, which I suppose makes me a heathen now.”

Skulduggery didn’t say anything. As with Solomon on the bluff, he had a vague idea nothing he could say would really help the situation. Lugan was angry he’d been left behind all those years ago – and he was well justified in that. It wasn’t the sort of anger which could be easily abated.

But he’d lost all bargaining power the moment he put someone’s life in danger.

“Where’s Brianna?” Lugan asked. “Why isn’t she with you?”

“She’s dead,” Skulduggery answered flatly.

The blood drained from Lugan’s face. “Dead? But – what? How?”

“The same illness Mother had. She died before her sixteenth birthday.”

“Where?” Lugan shook his head, eyes squeezed shut. “Where was she? Where is she buried?”

“London.”

“What in the name of Heaven was she doing in –?”

“I took her there. Mother’s family still lives in the city, if you recall. She was well looked-after.”

“She was well looked-after at home.”

“Yes,” said Skulduggery. “Where Father was on the verge of striking her. She was happy in London, Lugan. She had colour in her cheeks. She was comfortable. She was among family she trusted.”

“Then you should have brought me along,” Lugan snapped. “She must have missed me. She must have asked for me.”

“She didn’t remember you.”

Lugan stopped short. His throat worked, trying to say something, but eventually all he could do was close his mouth and slump against the wall.

A thick, heavy silence enveloped them both. Skulduggery had a theory – the same theory he’d developed in London, in fact. He’d forgotten about that theory, the same way he’d forgotten about Lugan. The same way, he suspected, almost everyone who met Lugan forgot about him.

“I think,” Skulduggery said carefully, “that you’re a sorcerer yourself.”

What? No, I –!”

“Brianna was terrified of you when you were together, and she forgot you the moment she left. That’s not natural, Lugan. That wasn’t her illness. That was magic. Have you noticed anything similar? Do people forget you often?”

Lugan’s face was ash-white. “I... no. No, they – no.”

“Are you sure?”

You didn’t.”

Skulduggery tilted his head. “I had, right up until you mentioned Father.”

“You’re lying.”

“Why would I?”

“Because that’s what you do!” Lugan cried, every semblance of the composure he’d pretended to have crumbling. “You lie, you cheat, you – you manipulate people, just as you were manipulating Wreath, just as you’ve done to everyone. If Brianna was truly sick with what Mother had, why should I believe you aren’t the reason she never remembered me? Why should I believe a single word you say?”

“Because,” Skulduggery answered patiently, “you’ve known something is wrong for a while.”

He must have. He’d accepted the idea that Brianna didn’t remember him far too easily.

“That’s why you’ve come to Dublin to find me,” Skulduggery went on. “You told yourself you want revenge, because that’s all you can believe you want; that’s all your years of hatred will allow you. But you want my help, whatever form it may come in. A part of you is probably hoping I’ll want revenge on you, because then you can let me have it.”

Lugan’s breath came short and ragged. His eyes were glued to Skulduggery’s face, intent and filled with that very heat, but his shoulders were shaking. He was afraid. He was afraid, and Skulduggery couldn’t blame him – going through life without knowledge of a passive and permanent ability to manipulate peoples’ memories? That was a level of hell Skulduggery couldn’t imagine. Brianna had woken up every morning with memory of only two brothers, and was forced to re-learn Lugan’s existence each day without understanding why. She probably hadn’t been aware it was happening. Everywhere Lugan had gone since leaving home, as well – how many relationships did he try to build, only for them to fall apart after enough time had passed?

“How do I control it?” Lugan finally asked, his voice very small.

“I don’t know.”

“How do I learn?”

“I don’t know that, either. There must be a sorcerer in Ireland with a similar discipline. Perhaps we can find you an instructor.”

“If anyone remembers me long enough to teach me.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Skulduggery assured him. “Your magic can’t be very strong if you can’t control it. That means erasing a memory takes time, prolonged exposure, or possibly strong emotion. Most weak forms of magic do. By the time anyone would start to forget you, an instructor will have taught you how to stop it, so long as you try not to grow angry with anyone during the interim.”

“Thanks,” said Lugan dryly. “Fills me with confidence, that.”

The room fell silent again. Skulduggery went in search of a kettle; tea was a staple in situations such as these. Insofar as situations such as these actually happened.

“You really forgot me?” Lugan asked, following. “You and Brianna?”

Skulduggery nodded.

“Is that why you left me behind?”

“No.” Skulduggery turned and paced over to the other side of the room. “I left you behind because you were scaring Brianna. I didn’t know why, but I trusted her judgement.” He turned when he reached the wall and bowed his head. “I shouldn’t have. I’m sorry for that.”

“Bit late.”

“Yes. It is. Especially since you captured and starved someone.”

“Do you think he remembers me?”

Probably not. They. Solomon didn’t once use him; he’d said they. Impersonal and generic. No, he didn’t remember Lugan, but he definitely remembered what happened. And for Solomon, that had been enough. Trapped in Lugan’s cellar for three weeks – it was a wonder he still remembered Skulduggery.

Of course, maybe he didn’t. Maybe he only remembered bits and pieces. Maybe he only remembered whatever Lugan wanted him to remember.

“I don’t know,” lied Skulduggery. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t think he’d take kindly to seeing you again, and I know he wouldn’t take kindly to seeing me again.”

Lugan’s eyes narrowed. “You won’t try and fix it?”

“He’s a necromancer. Even if he renounced the Temple today, that fact won’t change. I was naïve to think it would.”

Another short silence fell, this one heavier than before. Lugan didn’t like Skulduggery’s decision. Skulduggery didn’t particularly care. Was he sympathetic to his brother? Yes. Had Lugan been through a lot in his pursuit? Yes. But it didn’t give him the right to exert any influence on Skulduggery’s decisions, and it certainly didn’t give him the benefit of any doubt. Not when he’d nearly killed a man.

“Does Aeneas remember you?” Skulduggery asked.

Lugan shifted. “I don’t know.”

“Does this house belong to you?”

“Yes.”

“How?”

Lugan shrugged. “I got myself a job.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Skulduggery didn’t ask further; if Lugan was lying, he didn’t particularly want to know. “Alright. I’ll be back soon.”

Lugan glanced up, surprised. “You’re leaving?”

“You don’t have any tea here,” Skulduggery said. “You don’t have much of anything here, in fact. Yes, I’m leaving.”

“You’re sweeping me under the rug? Wreath is one thing, Dillon, but this –”

“I said I’ll be back.” Skulduggery made his way over to the door. “I’d just like to be sure you won’t run into anyone I care about over the next month first.”

Lugan paused. “Why?”

“Because the thought of you manipulating my friends’ memories, Lugan, frankly makes me want to hit something.”

“No, I – well, yes, but – why?”

Skulduggery paused just before crossing the threshold. “Because I’m not leaving you on your own. You can’t be trusted, but I never gave you a reason to trust me, and I aim to fix that. I’ll be back soon.”

And with that, he left, closing the door behind him without a backwards glance.

Chapter Text

Skulduggery slammed into a vendor selling silks from the Middle East. Ostensibly obtained from the Middle East, actually. The material dissolved in water, as Skulduggery had discovered mere minutes before, and he was fairly sure authentic silk wasn’t meant to do that.

All in all, he wasn’t upset about the damage. He was upset about his magical suit being encased in ice.

The ice-summoner approached Skulduggery slowly, grinning. He was cocky, but he had good reason to be. He was powerful. They’d been fighting for over ten minutes, drawing a small crowd who believed they were street performers, and neither of them was any closer to winning. The unfortunate not-really-silk merchant was squawking in Skulduggery’s ear about the cart costing him an arm and a leg. Since he still had both arms and both legs, Skulduggery put his distress at the bottom of his list of priorities, and rolled over the smashed wood to avoid the sorcerer’s ice-encased fist.

As he rolled to his feet, he tried to think of what he was missing. Something important, something nagging at the back of his mind, something –

The ice-summoner came at him with another punch. Skulduggery slipped around it the way Aoife had shown him, caught the sorcerer with a counter in his gut the way Ghastly had shown him, and followed through the way both seasoned fighters had drilled into his head simultaneously over the years. Don’t assume that one punch will be enough, Ghastly always said. Drive the bastard into the ground, Aoife always said. Skulduggery did exactly that, following the sorcerer into the ground, weakening the ice with summoned water, then following up with two more fists to the gut and one to the head.

He was still missing something. Why had the sorcerer done nothing but party tricks? He could do much more damage if he threw all caution to the winds and froze the wind itself.

Unless he wanted mortals to think he was a street performer. Not very many criminals cared about the safety or mental well-being of mortals, but, Skulduggery supposed, there was a first time for everything. He pushed himself to his feet and ran, pausing only long enough to acknowledge the applause with a cheerful smile and a bow before disappearing down an alleyway.

He used the air to lend him both speed and accuracy, turning sharp corners without slowing down, hoping that he wouldn’t run into anyone, especially not –

– the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen.

Skulduggery came to a stop. He drew the short knife he’d taken to carrying in a small scabbard in his boot, slowly, watching the beautiful woman in front of him.

She looked as though she was out for a stroll, wearing an elegant white gown probably made of true silk, and carrying a small parasol over her shoulder to shield her from the sun. She was, Skulduggery noticed, even more beautiful that he’d assumed at first glance, though she looked just as startled to see him as he was to see her.

Then she smiled, and Skulduggery slowly put the knife back. He couldn’t believe he’d even thought she might be a threat. Silly of him, really. The threat was the ice-summoner behind him. Lovely women taking strolls through the back alleys of Dublin probably wouldn’t decide to throw him into vendors in the streets.

“Apologies, milady,” he said. His voice came out rougher than he would have liked. “I didn’t mean to startle you. Are you alright?”

Surprise flickered through her delicate features before she smiled again. “It is no matter. May I ask what you were running from?”

“Of course.” As far as Skulduggery was concerned, she could ask anything she wanted. “There’s a criminal chasing me. He has an odd sense of chivalry regarding innocent bystanders, so I was hoping to lure him into a situation where he would face me with his full strength. Needless to say, I was hoping this street would be empty.”

The woman laughed. Her voice rang softly, like a single bell caught in a breeze, mesmerising and every bit as beautiful as her physical appearance. “I’m sorry to disappoint you, Master…?”

“Pleasant.” Skulduggery tipped his hat. “Skulduggery Pleasant.”

Her smile grew. “A pleasure to meet you, Master Pleasant. Tell me, is this criminal still chasing you?”

“Hopefully. I caused him quite a bit of pain. Please, call me Skulduggery.”

“Correct me if I’m wrong, Skulduggery, but isn’t that a problem you still need to deal with?”

Yes. Yes, it was. Skulduggery frowned. There weren’t many things capable of distracting him completely – let alone from an impending battle. That was enough for him to notice the small thought dancing just out of his reach, and to make a grab for it.

She’s manipulating you.

No she wasn’t. There was no way she could be.

She’s a sorcerer, you simpleton.

“Yes,” Skulduggery said slowly, fighting the haze he’d somehow fallen under. “Thank you. May I ask what your name is?”

That flicker of surprise again, and Skulduggery mentally clung to it. He was good at surprising people, for God’s sake. That was what he enjoyed doing. He wasn’t quite sure how he’d managed it in this particular instance, but he had, and that was what was important.

The woman didn’t answer, so Skulduggery turned and walked back to the corner. He heard pounding footsteps, coming from much closer than he’d been anticipating. He backed up, drew the knife, and kept an eye on the lady’s presence in the air currents behind him while he waited. He felt it when she stepped closer to him, withdrawing the parasol from over her shoulder.

“Sorrows,” she said. “China Sorrows. Allow me, Skulduggery.”

He didn’t have anything to lose by letting her try, particularly since she was a sorcerer. He stepped to the side just as the ice-summoner came barrelling around the corner, thick ice encasing his fists like heavy gloves. China Sorrows spread her arms wide and sent a wave of blue energy slamming into him.

Skulduggery frowned. She couldn’t be an energy-thrower. That blast was much too controlled.

The man lay on the ground, groaning, and China turned to look at Skulduggery, her pale blue eyes dancing with barely concealed amusement. “What next?”

Skulduggery took a long strip of animal hide from his pocket. He walked over to tie the man’s wrists behind him, then straightened and turned to see China raising her brow.

“Are you sure that will be enough to restrain him?” she asked.

“It binds his magic.” Skulduggery hauled the bound sorcerer to his feet, ignoring the slightly louder groans of objection. “Or were you going to keep feigning innocence?”

She laughed again, and while Skulduggery now suspected that it was magic drawing him to her so strongly, it was still one of the most beautiful sounds he’d ever heard. “What are you then, Skulduggery? A detective inspector? A crusader? A fellow criminal in fierce rivalry with this man?”

Skulduggery paused to think about it. “I’d liken myself to a crusader,” he decided.

China nodded. It was, of course, the answer she’d been expecting. “A vigilante of the law. No official sanction, magical or otherwise. You’re marching to the beat of your own drum. And yet, you carry around methods of restraint. What are you planning to do with him?”

“Leave him outside the gaol,” Skulduggery answered. “It usually takes a few weeks for them to work out if he’s a prisoner, and by then the Landsmeet will have caught wind of him.”

The ice-summoner scoffed. “They won’t send anyone for me.”

“They will. The only reason they haven’t already is all the squabbling over resources.”

He sank into a glum silence, and Skulduggery patted him on the shoulder. “That’s the spirit. Well-behaved prisoners usually get their sentences shortened, you know.”

China laughed again. “But how, then, do you collect the price on his head?”

“I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“The Landsmeet is squabbling over resources. I’m hardly going to take any of their money when I don’t need it.”

“Don’t you?” China’s smile lessened a touch, marred by confusion she was hiding very well. “How do you live, if not on the criminals you catch?”

“Odd jobs,” Skulduggery said with a smile. “I am, on occasion, hired by someone. Being a vigilante of the law is more of a hobby.”

“You are a fascinating man, Skulduggery.”

“I hope I’m not being too forward, but you’re a fascinating woman, Lady Sorrows. It’s a bit of a coincidence that you happened to be out walking near where two sorcerers were fighting, isn’t it? You’ve been following one of us. It can’t be our friend here, or you’d be finding a roundabout way to ask for transfer of custody.”

He expected her to laugh again, and was surprised when she didn’t. Instead, China studied him, pale blue eyes narrowed in what Skulduggery rather optimistically wanted to call shock. Then her face cleared. “You’re right,” she said with a sigh. “I’m afraid I haven’t been entirely honest with you. And I’m afraid I can’t be, for the time being.”

Skulduggery nodded. “That’s alright.”

“Is it?”

“Well, no, it isn’t, but I’m willing to forget about it if you do a favour for me.”

China smiled. “What favour would that be?”

“Your magic,” said Skulduggery, “or at least the part of it which isn’t physical, affects people’s minds, doesn’t it?”

“I have no idea what you –”

“Yes, you do.” The exasperation was good; Skulduggery seized on it, using it to drive the haze away from his mind. “You know exactly what I mean. I have a friend whose magic does something similar to yours, but he can’t control it. Were you born with your ability?”

“Good Lord, no,” said China, doing away with her act entirely. “That would have been a very confusing childhood.”

“Really?” For a moment, Skulduggery was distracted again. “Is mind magic a discipline?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. Sigils are my discipline, Skulduggery. There is no magic I cannot master. Is that the favour you’re asking of me? You want me to bind your friend’s magic?”

“Look,” said the ice-summoner beside them. “I’m obviously interrupting an intimate conversation here. I’ll just sidle on –”

Skulduggery tugged on the hide, making him yelp. “Quiet, you. Yes, that’s the favour I’m asking. Will you do it?”

China considered, one long finger tapping thoughtfully on her chin. Then she nodded. “Yes. I’ll do it.”

“Excellent. If you’ll accompany me to the gaol –”

“I’ll do it,” China added, “if you agree to do something for me in return.”

Skulduggery looked at her. “What is it?”

“Oh, don’t worry.” China’s smile practically gleamed. “It shouldn’t strain your abilities. All I need is a little bit of information I haven’t been able to get my hands on. It’s an annoying puzzle, but I can assure you – it’s nothing important.”

~~

There was a part of Skulduggery which was reluctant to put China in any sort of danger, even if that danger was only Lugan. Consciously, he knew the feeling was borne from magic, but the rest of his mind hadn’t seemed to have caught up. Looking at her was an exercise in self-control.

“Would you do a favour for me, Dillon?” China asked, glancing up from where she’d been chalking rough outlines on the slate Skulduggery gave her. “Will you put your finger right here, please?”

She didn’t even have any chalk dust on her fingers. Was that magic as well, or was she simply altering Skulduggery’s perception so he wouldn’t notice it?

Lugan, who somehow managed to remain permanently suspicious of China despite that pervasive magic, moved forward very slowly. “Why?”

“I need to tune the sigils to you. I can hardly do that while you’re standing so very far away, can I?”

Lugan glanced at Skulduggery. Skulduggery nodded. He couldn’t tell if China was writing a spell that would accomplish what she said it would, but he at least took solace in the fact that he would discover very quickly if she wasn’t. Besides, there was something trustworthy about China, something which had nothing to do with her magic. Or so Skulduggery hoped.

This was going to get very annoying one day.

Lugan put one finger very carefully in the middle of the chalked circle. He gasped when the circle glowed; Skulduggery leaned closer, fascinated. He knew about sigils, as most sorcerers did, but he’d never seen someone manipulate them quite so easily.

“There,” said China, sounding pleased. “Thank you, Dillon. You may maintain your distance again, if you wish.”

Lugan walked back to the other side of the room, rubbing his finger. Skulduggery didn’t take his eyes off the glowing circle. “What does it mean?”

“Right now? Absolutely nothing. Once it’s in Master Dillon’s flesh, however, this particular section will be sure the rest of the spell affects him, and only him.”

“What does the rest of the spell do?”

China turned a brilliant smile on him. “Exactly what you asked me for, Skulduggery. Why would you suspect me of trickery?”

“You’re a sorcerer,” Skulduggery said, reminding himself just as much as he was reminding her. “I suspect sorcerers of trickery on principle.”

“What a deeply mistrustful life you must lead.” China added a short stroke to the circle, and the glow faded. Still, not a single speck of white chalk dust marred her perfect fingers. “There. I’ll need a little more time to perfect the depth; slates are, I’m afraid, not very good for picturing what a sigil will look like from more than one side. But these are all the details I need from you. The measurements, if you will.”

“Measurements of the tip of my finger?” Lugan asked, brow raised.

“Precisely.”

“Thank you, Lady Sorrows,” said Skulduggery. “Your help is much appreciated.”

“Of course.” China rose to her feet. “I hope you won’t mind if I keep this. Measurements are quite difficult to note down on paper.”

He did mind, or would have, if anyone other than China had asked. But Skulduggery had resigned himself to the fact from the moment China first started using it, and so he shook his head. “Not at all. I will expect it back when we meet again.”

China smiled. “As I expect you to keep your end of our little bargain, Master Pleasant. Thank you ever so for providing me with such an enjoyable afternoon.”

“Of course.” Skulduggery stood to escort her to the front door. “Do try and avoid taking shortcuts through back alleys from now on.”

“After all you saw today, you’re still concerned over my safety?”

“Yes, I am. You’re drawing a lot of attention to yourself. One of these days, someone’s going to cotton on to what you’re doing, and you’ll lose any chance you had at anonymity.”

China laughed. “Anonymity? My darling, don’t assume I enjoy any mark of anonymity simply because you haven’t heard of me in the circles you frequent. Those assumptions may just get you into trouble one day.”

Chapter Text

China returned exactly one week later, just as she’d promised, to ink the sigils into Lugan’s arm. Skulduggery had been working on his end of the bargain in the meantime; locating the meaning and origin of a complicated symbol China had drawn for him. By the end of the week, he’d learned it was a myth. A fictional representation of an equally fictional organisation. The symbol didn’t exist outside of books kept in the Church’s library.

“Just as I thought,” she said when he told her, sounding nonetheless disappointed. “My friend does so like to play games. Thank you for taking the time; I can’t imagine gaining access to those records was easy.”

It hadn’t been. But for China, Skulduggery would have done it as a favour. He knew that was dangerous, knew that it gave her a worrying amount of influence over both his feelings and his actions, but he couldn’t help it. China Sorrows was, if nothing else, a woman who bore watching.

In the meantime, the sigils she’d inked into Lugan’s arm actually seemed to work. It was impossible to tell for certain, but over the following week Skulduggery stopped forgetting minor things around the place. It no longer took him a second to remember why there was an extra pair of slippers outside the bedroom, or why a door had been left open, or – oppositely – why a door had been closed. Remembering Lugan was no longer a chore.

Lugan no longer looked perpetually bitter, either. Maybe he’d noticed small things as well; a butcher remembering his name, or a bouquet-seller reserving a smile for him every morning.

Skulduggery decided to put it to the test when a day had passed in misty rain, and took Lugan with him to the tavern just around the corner. It wasn’t a very high-class tavern; there were two rooms for rent on the upper floor, and the pub was dingy, a place which didn’t need to advertise so much as it relied on word of disillusioned mouth. Skulduggery didn’t normally come here, and he certainly wouldn’t have brought Lugan here without a good reason. Fortunately, he had one.

Lugan wrinkled his nose the moment they stepped inside. “This was what you meant?”

“Try not to look like you’re riding in on a high horse, please.”

“Just… tell me we’re not spending too long here.”

“We’re not spending too long here.”

“Oh, good.”

Skulduggery slid into a seat at one of the corner tables, scanning the area. A candle bolted into the wall above his head dripped wax onto the table; over at the bar itself, three people had looked up the moment they heard the door open.

Lugan slid in next to him. “You think someone’s watching you, and you think they’re doing it from here?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I notice things. I taught you how to notice things, remember? You used to be quite good at it. I’m disappointed in you.”

Lugan scowled. “I’ve been a little preoccupied.”

“Looking for me, I know. Let’s refresh your memory. Look around, and tell me what you see.”

Lugan looked around. “A tavern.”

“You haven’t let your skills fall this far off the wagon, have you?”

“Oh, all right. Let’s see… five people at the bar, three at tables. Everyone’s here alone. No one’s here because they’re renting a room, and… this pub hasn’t been cleaned in weeks.”

“Anything else?”

“No. What do you see?”

“Quite a lot,” said Skulduggery. “But let’s stay with what’s relevant. If someone is watching me, it stands to reason they would be expecting me. That would seem to exclude everyone who looked up when we arrived. Assuming I’m right, it leaves one man back there in the corner, and he can’t possibly be the culprit. He’s much too old. Someone might have paid him to stay in this tavern and report what he sees from here, but that would be a silly waste of money. That makes our man obvious, doesn’t it?”

Lugan sighed. “Does it?”

“Of course. Who’s the only man here you haven’t noticed?”

“Overtly?” Lugan raised his brow. “You.”

“No. Well, yes, but think about why you haven’t noticed me.”

“Honestly, Dill?”

“Honestly.”

Lugan sighed and put his chin into his hands. It looked very much like a childhood pout. Skulduggery couldn’t quite help a small smile. “I haven’t noticed you,” said Lugan, “because you were the one who dragged me in here.”

“Thus…?”

“Thus, I expect you to be there. Why would I notice you?”

Skulduggery smiled, and Lugan frowned. “Which means… if you’re talking about someone no one notices –” He looked over at the counter. “The barkeep?”

“He didn’t react at all when we came in,” Skulduggery said. “Innocent enough on its own, if it wasn’t for everyone else glancing up. The owners of pubs are usually much more aware of their customers than that.”

“But if this particular owner was trying not to catch your attention,” said Lugan, grinning, “then he might keep his head down and get on with his work.”

“Precisely.” Skulduggery stood up. “I’ll only be a moment.”

He walked over to the bar. The barkeep very pointedly did not meet Skulduggery’s gaze. He stared down at his work, wiping three mugs and rearranging three flasks of whiskey in quick succession. Skulduggery didn’t move. Some more pointless reorganisation later, and the man finally looked up.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I have absolutely no idea,” answered Skulduggery. “I suppose there’s nothing stopping him from staying with me for the foreseeable future, but to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t think I could stand that. And it has nothing to do with magic, you understand; he couldn’t help that. Very few people can. It has much more to do with him being innocent in all this, and for some reason I can’t quite identify, I take issue with that.”

The barkeeper stared at him. “What?”

Skulduggery took the lone empty chair and leaned forward. “Why is Dillon being watched?”

“What the hell are you going on about?”

“Why is my companion being followed?”

“Look, if you’re not going to buy a drink –”

“Please,” said Skulduggery, “don’t try my patience. I may not know how I feel about him, but I know precisely how I feel about people trying to hurt him. Tell me why you’re watching Dillon, and we’ll both leave right now. We won’t cause any further trouble.”

“I swear to you, I don’t –”

“If, on the other hand, you continue pretending not to know what I’m talking about, I’ll set fire to this fine establishment. You know I can do it. You may not be a sorcerer, but you certainly know what sorcerers are capable of. Do we understand each other?”

The barkeep stared some more, a trickle of sweat beading on his brow. He looked around the bar, but no one swooped in to save him, so he put down the mug he was holding and slung the dirty white cloth into a bucket behind him. “I don’t know. I swear to you, I don’t know; these fellows came up to me last week and said I could help ‘em out, so I did.”

Skulduggery frowned. “For money, I presume.”

The barkeeper didn’t answer. That was as good as an affirmation, so Skulduggery didn’t press; he just got up off the stool. “Who were these fine fellows in need of your help?”

“Necromancers.”

“Necromancers?”

“Yeah. They just wanted to know when he – when he’d be alone, like.”

Skulduggery tilted his head. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”

“What have you told them so far?”

“Nothing. Nothing useful. Near as I can tell, he doesn’t leave the place without you right there.”

That was something, at least. Skulduggery pondered the information, watching the barkeeper’s face. An edge of relief; he’d avoided the wrath of a sorcerer, himself and bar intact. A dash of anxiety, which was to be expected; anyone would be anxious when someone who’d threatened them mere moments before was looking at them for so long without saying anything.

But there was no guilt. No shame. No shifting. He didn’t know anything more.

“All right,” said Skulduggery. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. Now get out of my pub.”

“Already gone.” Skulduggery nodded at him with a bright smile and walked back to the corner table Lugan was sitting at.

“Were you right?” Lugan asked.

“Of course I was right. I’m me. We can leave now.”

“What, now? We’ve been here for five minutes.”

“Five minutes too long, in my opinion.” Skulduggery pulled Lugan’s chair out to give him some more room, just in case the table was preventing him from getting up. “Have you made a Necromancer angry recently?”

Lugan got up, stumbled, and caught himself on the edge of the table. “What?”

“Have you made a Necromancer angry recently? I don’t know very much about them, but I’ve heard they enjoy dressing in black and living in graveyards. They might be very pale. Have you crossed a pale person dressed in black?”

Lugan stared at him. “What are you –?”

He froze. His eyes went glassy. He tried to take a step and stumbled again; Skulduggery caught him before he hit the ground.

Poison? he thought wildly, looking over at the bar. Neither of them ate or drank anything, but it might have happened earlier. It might have been a slow-acting poison. Skulduggery levered Lugan back onto the chair, pushing the legs back against the wooden floorboards with a short scraping noise. “Dillon?” he asked, cupping his brother’s chin. “Lugan? Can you hear me?”

Lugan groaned and opened his eyes. “Ow.”

“Are you all right?”

“Ow. No. My head hurts.”

Skulduggery looked into his eyes. “Just your head?”

“Why? Should something else be hurting?” Lugan looked up at the tavern’s ceiling, then at the table, then at the bar. “Where are we?”

Skulduggery hesitated. “You don’t remember?”

“I… no. I thought we were in the – I thought I was sleeping.”

Skulduggery had been a sorcerer for quite a few years by now. He was twenty-seven, and was going to live for hundreds of years. He’d seen magic do wondrous things, things that defied description, meddle with the very laws of nature.

He’d also watched his mother deteriorate from a rambunctious woman full of smiles and laughter to a woman who believed her own son was trying to kill her. There were things even magic couldn’t hold a candle to. The slow disappearance of a human mind was one of them.

“Dillon,” he said, and then stopped.

Lugan looked at him. “What?”

“Is this the first time you’ve forgotten where you are?”

Yes. Don’t try to suggest I can use my magic on myself. I don’t think I’d be able to –”

It couldn’t be the same disease their mother and Brianna had, then. It didn’t present itself quite so dramatically. What was it? Magic? Who knew Skulduggery so intimately that they would be aware of just how frightening Lugan losing his memory would be?

Lugan had the same idea at the same time. His face blanched. “Did someone…?”

Skulduggery nodded slowly.

“Is that possible? Can you cast a spell on someone you can’t see?”

“Yes. I’ve seen it.” Skulduggery stepped back. “Can you stand?”

Lugan stood, rubbing the back of his head. “Yes. My headache’s gone, too.”

“Do you remember why we’re here?”

“No.”

Damn. “Come on, then,” said Skulduggery. “Let’s get you home.”

Lugan took a few halting steps. Skulduggery hesitated, and then moved to support Lugan under his shoulder while they walked, just to be sure. Lugan didn’t look at him, didn’t give any indication that he was grateful for or receptive towards the help, but his face set into a grim mask of determination and his steps became more confident, more sure of themselves.

Beneath his rolled-up sleeve, where neither he nor Skulduggery noticed it, the sigil’s ink pulsed with a faint blue energy.

Chapter Text

There was something beautiful about Dublin in late-morning fog. Mistress Aoife considered taking a carriage when she left her husband’s shop, but immediately changed her mind when she stepped outside. There was a sense of anticipation in the air; a sense of mystery. You felt invisible when you were walking through such thick fog. You felt like you were walking through a world so choked with magic that most of that world had vanished somewhere into the ether.

That, and Aoife didn’t trust hackney drivers not to crash into each other willy-nilly.

The walk took a little over half an hour – less, with the brisk pace Aoife adopted – and then she was on the doorstep of Skulduggery’s modest townhouse along the border of the Pale. She knocked on the door and waited, wishing she’d thought to bring Ardan’s coat. It was chilly out, and her dress didn’t have any pockets. She should’ve changed before coming here. The dress was practically damp with the moisture from the air. Ghastly was going to be beside himself.

When no one came down to answer the door, Aoife knocked again, harder. Two minutes later, the door finally opened.

“You’re late,” she informed Skulduggery as soon as he was visible. “That’s very unlike you. It’s so unlike you, in fact, that I’m debating whether or not to punish you simply for the principle of the matter, even though I couldn’t really care less.” She peered closer at Skulduggery’s dishevelled appearance. “Are you all right? Did someone attack you?”

Skulduggery looked her up and down. “Would you have wanted me to be on time?” he asked.

If anyone else had said that, Aoife might have assumed she was speaking to a Sensitive. Skulduggery was one of the very few people she knew who could convincingly pretend to be one. Far from blushing or stumbling over her words, she scowled. “How did you work that one out?”

“You’re wearing a dress.”

“Skulduggery, I swear –”

“You don’t like wearing dresses. You avoid it whenever you can. Something happened last night, probably a party, where you needed to wear one. You’re still wearing it, however, which means you came home very late and haven’t gotten a wink of sleep since. There’s only one reason you would forego a good night’s sleep.”

To bed her husband. Multiple times. That all made a very annoying sort of sense, but the part which made Aoife frown with concern was the bit where Skulduggery didn’t sound even remotely smug while he spoke. Late for sparring lessons, and now missing an opportunity to show off?

“Skulduggery,” she said quietly. “What’s wrong?”

Skulduggery hesitated, then opened the door wider with a sigh. “Come in.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” Aoife slipped into the house, resisted the temptation to take off her shoes – a rule she kept in her own home, acquired from her travels in the Orient – and turned back to Skulduggery. “Now, what’s wrong?”

Skulduggery led her into the sitting room, where a young man Aoife hadn’t met before was sitting on the sofa. He stood up the moment she entered and favoured her with a bow, albeit an uncertain one. He looked at Skulduggery.

“You haven’t met,” Skulduggery assured him. “Aoife, this is my brother, Dillon. Dillon, this is Mistress Aoife. She’s the mother of a good friend of mine. She’s about to ask you something, and you’re completely within your rights to ignore her.”

Aoife closed her mouth and glared at Skulduggery. “I do not appreciate that.”

“You have a habit of putting men off their balance, Aoife.”

“Not deliberately.”

“What you say is very deliberate, even if your intentions are not.”

Aoife didn’t have a response to that, so she conceded the point, grumbling beneath her breath. “What I was about to say,” she snapped, “before my intent was so rudely taken from me, is that it’s a pleasure to meet you, Dillon. Skulduggery hardly ever speaks about his family.”

“Likewise,” said Dillon with a careful smile.

“Now, if Skulduggery would very kindly stop beating around the bush and simply tell me what’s wrong before I have to bash his head in –”

“We have a problem,” said Skulduggery. “Dillon’s losing his memory.”

Aoife looked at him. “Are you sure?”

“Very. Large sections of it at a time, every few hours.”

“Every few hours?” Aoife turned back to Dillon. “Chronologically? How much can you remember right now?”

“I remember leaving to try and find Skulduggery,” said Dillon. “Nothing past that.”

Leaving to try and find Skulduggery. That was an interesting choice of words. Aoife pushed the thought to the back of her mind, resolved to ask Skulduggery about it later, and returned her attention to more important matters. “What’s your discipline, boyo?”

“Memory manipulation,” Skulduggery answered. “He wasn’t aware of it for most of his life, and he hasn’t been able to control it well. But he’s never been able to use it on himself.”

Aoife nodded. “An outside force, then. Taking advantage of your magic. Dillon, remove your coat.”

“What? Why?”

“Ignore what Skulduggery told you. I’m happily married, I have a son, and my morals prevent me from pursuing the younger brother of one of my son’s friends. You’re perfectly safe.”

Dillon paled further, and glanced at Skulduggery. Skulduggery rolled his eyes and nodded. After a brief hesitation, Dillon peeled off his coat and laid it over an arm of the sofa.

“Your shirt, too,” said Aoife.

Dillon looked about to object, but instead he just blew out an exasperated breath and unbuttoned his shirt, then tossed it on top of the coat. Aoife looked him over, then walked around him. “Remind me later to tell you about when I first met Skulduggery,” she murmured.

“What happened when you first met Skulduggery?”

“I’d been stabbed,” said Skulduggery. “She healed it. There’s really nothing more exciting about it at all.”

Aoife threw him an amused look. “You were stabbed in the arse, boyo. Had your trousers around your ankles when I walked in. The poor lad’s feeling exposed. I thought hearing about your own exploits might help him relax.”

It did. Dillon was laughing, and didn’t look about to stop any time soon. Skulduggery grumbled and walked over the window, glowering. “In my defence,” he said, “you weren’t supposed to come walking through the door.”

“Oh, have a laugh, Skulduggery. I still do.” Aoife stopped and frowned. “Hang on a mo. What’s this?”

Skulduggery came over immediately. “What’s what?”

“This.” Aoife pointed to a thin and delicate tattoo snaking up the inside of Dillon’s forearm. It had almost completely faded into the surrounding skin.

“Ah,” said Skulduggery. “It was meant to cut him off from his magic. When I said he couldn’t control his memory manipulation, what I meant was he slowly erased the memories of anyone he came across. I was hoping it would help stop that from happening while we looked for someone who could help him learn control.”

“And it worked?”

“It seemed to.”

Aoife examined the twisting tattoo. “The artist wouldn’t happen to be one China Sorrows, would it?”

Skulduggery was silent. Aoife took that as her answer and stepped away. “Sorrows is the woman you need to talk to. Whether deliberately or by accident, her sigil must be stripping away more than just his magic. If you like, I can –”

The tattoo surged blue for an instant, and Dillon cried out, stumbling sideways. Skulduggery caught him and lowered him down onto the sofa. Aoife went to go find a spare cloth, brought it back, and had Skulduggery moisten it before she laid it carefully onto the young boy’s forehead.

“I’m all right,” Dillon said with both hands on his head.

“Like Hell,” Aoife muttered. “Headache, eh?”

“It’s already gone.” Dillon blinked his eyes open and looked up at them both. “What were we just…?”

“What’s the last thing you remember?” Skulduggery asked him.

“Uh... Bri. We were in the stables. You were preparing one of the horses.”

Skulduggery looked at Aoife. “He was thirteen.”

“Your last memory,” said Aoife slowly, “is of when you were thirteen? Boyo, I appreciate your blind trust, but why aren’t you running out of the place screaming bloody murder?”

Dillon smiled. It was shaky, and it didn’t last for very long. “I know more has happened, and I know…” He looked at Skulduggery. “I know you. You’re my brother.”

Skulduggery put a hand on his shoulder. “Good man. You hold onto that. I’m going to go kick down Sorrows’ door. Where does she live?”

“No.” Aoife straightened up. “I’m going to kick her door down. You’re going to stay with your brother. Sorrows is a dangerous woman, Skulduggery, and she has magic you’ll need to know the details of if you’re going to –”

“She induces infatuation,” said Skulduggery. “I know. This is what I do for a living, Aoife.”

Aoife hesitated. She didn’t know many men who didn’t try to claim their infatuation with China was real. There was a reason she hadn’t taken her husband or her son to a landsmeet yet, and it had nothing to do with her distaste or distrust of China Sorrows’ bloodline. The Faceless Ones, indeed. The last thing the world needed was another religion.

“All right,” she said slowly. “And you’re expecting me to stay with your brother in the meantime, are you?”

“I’ll reimburse you,” Skulduggery offered.

Aoife snorted. “Don’t insult me, boyo. All you have to do is ask. Course I’ll stay with him. Now, you go straight to Sorrows, and you bring her straight back here, all right? Don’t let her talk you into anything else. You cannot trust that woman, no matter how much sense she makes.”

Skulduggery was already grabbing his coat and hat. The hat was a relatively new addition; Skulduggery had decided he missed wearing the tricorn he stole off a pirate, and started asking Ghastly to make him a hat or two. Aoife had never told him how good he looked. Skulduggery Pleasant did not need a boost to his ego.

“And be back before supper,” she added.

Skulduggery turned. “Aoife –”

“Joke, Skulduggery. Joke.” Aoife waved him off. “Hurry. We don’t have any time to lose.”

Skulduggery left, closing the door behind him. Ten seconds later, he opened the door again, and ducked his head into the sitting room. “You didn’t tell me where she lives.”

Aoife told him, laughing despite herself, and then he was gone again.

Chapter Text

Just outside the border of Dublin, there were several rows of two-storey houses, each an estate unto itself surrounded by sizeable tracts of land and serviced by long meandering carriage paths. China lived in the one of the grandest of these, far enough away from Dublin that it was possible to ignore the pervasive and ripe smells of city life.

Skulduggery would have preferred to walk, but a coach got him there faster, though the ride cost him the last of his coin. He disembarked in front of the house and told the hackney to wait, in case he couldn’t get China to help or she wasn’t home. Then he went to knock on the door.

This wasn’t a door he could kick down. Even if Landsmeet law didn’t clash with Irish law on the subject, this was a quality door, made to withstand the elements. Skulduggery doubted he had the necessary strength, or the skill with a lock pick.

That was annoying.

The footman who opened the door directed him into a parlour just off the front hallway. It was empty. Skulduggery waited impatiently by the window as the seconds ticked by, and at last – at long last – China herself appeared at the door.

“Why, Skulduggery,” she said with a smile. “What a lovely surprise.”

He’d been prepared, but it was somehow stronger than before. Or maybe Skulduggery just hadn’t had the opportunity to fully appreciate China’s beauty until now. She was decadent and glorious, her hair as black as night and pinned in a sweeping half-bun which framed her face to perfection. Her features might have been made of porcelain, while her eyes were a startling blue. Skulduggery’s hat was already in his hands, but he felt the urge to put it on again just so he had a reason to take it off in her presence.

“Lady Sorrows,” he bowed.

“Oh, please,” she said. “Call me China.”

“China.” God, he loved her. “You look absolutely stunning.”

She laughed. “And you’re flattering me, but thank you all the same. Would you like anything to drink?”

Yes, Skulduggery opened his mouth to say.

Lugan needs my help.

He paused, frowning, and shook his head. “Thank you for your hospitality, but I won’t be here that long. I’d just like to ask you about the symbol you tattooed on my friend.”

“That can easily be done over a drink, Skulduggery, my dear. Won’t you join me? I’m sure the servants can rustle up something to your tastes.”

No. Lugan needs my help.

Anger bubbled up from somewhere and Skulduggery shook his head, this time more for his own benefit than China’s. “No,” he said. “And stop that.”

“Stop what?”

“Enthralling me.”

A flicker of surprise, gone as quickly as it appeared and replaced with a confused smile. “I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. What is it you’d like to ask, my dear?”

“Dillon is forgetting who he is, China. Every few hours, he forgets another significant span of time in his life. By tomorrow, he might have no idea who he is.”

“That is unfortunate.” China’s smile faded. “However, I’m not certain what that has to do with me.”

“You blocked his magic.”

“My dear, you cannot prove my sigil is what’s causing his lapses in memory.”

“Your sigil glows right before each lapse in memory.”

China hesitated. “Ah. Then perhaps you can.”

Skulduggery watched her. There wasn’t a single sign of surprise, but neither was there any sign of shame or guilt. Either she had planned this, or she was an utterly remorseless woman. Skulduggery didn’t want to believe either option, but he knew that was a result of China’s low pulses of mind-altering magic, not of any logical reason.

“You didn’t know him until last week,” he said. “Why would you possibly want to hurt him?”

China looked appalled. “I don’t want to hurt him, Skulduggery. My sigil is meant to do exactly as you asked. There is a chance…” She hesitated again, watching Skulduggery with those pale blue eyes, and Skulduggery had to wonder what his face looked like just then. “There is a chance I made a mistake.”

“Really,” he said. His voice was flat. Dripping with the sarcasm it didn’t contain. “How relieved I am to hear that, China. Thank you.”

“I do apologise. That was unforgivable of me.”

Skulduggery believed her. Whether a result of China’s magic or not, he believed her. That didn’t change what he wanted her to do next, and as the silence stretched on, he saw China lift a single eyebrow. “Was that all?” she asked. “Do you need something else from me?”

“Yes. I would like you, if you could at all bother yourself to follow me back to him, to fix your mistake.”

“That was uncharacteristically caustic of you.”

Skulduggery took a deep breath. “Would you like more money?”

“Oh, Heavens, no.”

“You’ll help for free, then?”

“No.”

“What do you want in return?”

“Nothing,” said China with an echo of a smile. “I’m not going to help.”

The silence following her words acted like fuel – dry firewood which sent Skulduggery’s anger soaring to new heights. He hadn’t felt such anger since protecting Brianna all those years before. Since lashing out at Aeneas, and burning his face. Skulduggery kept his hands by his sides and swallowed back his instinctive reply. “Why not?”

“I have two reasons,” she answered, holding up two fingers and lowering each one as she counted them off. “First, his unique branch of magic can only be harnessed under the right conditions, and he’s long since missed those conditions. He would have spent his life in a misery of his own creation if he were allowed to wield his magic. You saw it for yourself; that’s why you came to me asking for help. Second, that sigil is permanent. There is nothing I can do, even if I wanted to.”

“What do you mean?” Skulduggery demanded. “You told me you could remove it once he learned control.”

China shrugged. “I lied.”

The annoying thing, the really annoying thing, was that even in the midst of the anger and the burgeoning hatred, Skulduggery still felt as though China had made the right decision. He still trusted her; he still wanted to kiss her for taking it upon herself to make the choice. He knew those feelings weren’t his own, but that didn’t stop them from happening, and it certainly didn’t stop them from feeling just as legitimate as the hatred. Suddenly, he didn’t want to spend another second in that parlour.

“What’s going to happen to him?” Skulduggery asked tightly.

“That’s up to you,” said China dismissively. “I can’t be sure of the precise effects, but the sigil draws its power from what his magic is naturally trying to do. It loops the effects back onto him. If he’s constantly erasing the memories of those around him, then his own memories will constantly be erased in turn.”

“That’s not a life. Waking up every morning with no idea who you are or who you can trust – that isn’t a life, China.”

China shrugged. “He’ll make new memories.”

“And have them erased almost immediately.”

“No. Not immediately. In fact, there’s a very good chance that once he starts making his own memories – memories which have nothing to do with you, I might add – he’ll keep them, and live out life as a mortal.”

Not just a good chance, Skulduggery interpreted. That was what would happen. That was exactly what China had been planning for.

He took another deep breath. Closed his eyes. “Why?”

“The alternative would be that he isolates himself for the rest of his life. Is that what you prefer?”

Skulduggery couldn’t hit her. Not here, where her servants and her footmen and whoever else she lived with could intervene. Not here in her own home. Not when he was this angry, when he’d lost control once before and burned a man.

But worse than that, he didn’t think he could bring himself to hit her. Not because of her magic, although that probably played a part; but because, deep down, he thought she had a point.

He thought she had a point.

Without another word, Skulduggery walked out of the parlour.

~~

He stopped by the rundown tavern on the way home. It was as sparsely populated as always, but it could have been full of people and it wouldn’t have made one difference to Skulduggery’s intent. He walked right up to the bar.

He wanted to punch the barkeeper, but he’d been planning on restraining himself long before the barkeeper saw him and cowered away, his arms covering his face. That, thought Skulduggery, wasn’t fair. That was the sort of reaction he wanted to get when he was trying to hit someone.

“They’re backing off!” the barkeeper assured him, backing up against the jugs behind him.

“Who are?” Skulduggery asked.

“The – the Necromancers. They’re backing off. I swear it. This’ll be the last time you hear from ‘em.”

Skulduggery hesitated. “Why?”

“I don’t know. I’m not one of ‘em, am I? Could be your friend just ain’t all that interestin’.”

“Why were they working with China Sorrows?”

The barkeeper frowned. “Who?”

Genuine confusion. All right. Skulduggery could accept that. The Necromancers might have been planning something before China became involved, and were withdrawing now because they didn’t consider it worth the trouble. Skulduggery didn’t particularly care. With Lugan’s current condition, he didn’t have the capacity to care about anything else.

“All right,” he said slowly. “That makes things a little easier. Tell them if I do hear from them again, I will follow up on it, and they’ll find themselves regretting it.”

The barkeeper nodded quickly. “Right you are, sir.”

“Have a pleasant evening.”

“Uh… right, sir. Hope you have a pleasant evening too.”

“It’s a little late for that,” Skulduggery told him before he walked out the door. “But I appreciate the sentiment.”

Chapter Text

Aoife had offered to fight China Sorrows and her family in the Landsmeet – or, more accurately, ask politically-minded friends of hers to fight China Sorrows and her family in the Landsmeet. Skulduggery had taken her up on that offer.

“Don’t get your hopes up, boyo,” Aoife had told him. “Sorrows has a powerful family, and nobody knows who your brother is. More than likely, nothing will come of this.”

Skulduggery knew that. Aoife didn’t involve herself in political affairs because she hated the pandering, the posturing, and the sheer gall of the more powerful council members. Her offer was both self-sacrificing and generous, but the fact she made the offer at all was enough to tell Skulduggery she didn’t believe it would work. And she was right; it didn’t.

It wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. The day after Skulduggery visited Sorrows, Lugan’s memory had deteriorated to where he didn’t remember anything of who he was.

~~

The wagon swayed gently on its way up the hill. Skulduggery sat on a hay bale done up with thick rope on one side of the wagon bed; Lugan sat cross-legged on the other, wearing one of Skulduggery’s threadbare coats and a blindfold.

He’d asked about the blindfold. Skulduggery had told him why he was wearing it. Five minutes later, he’d asked again. Now, he was quiet, and Skulduggery wasn’t sure why. Giving up meant remembering there was something to give up on in the first place.

Maybe he thought he was a prisoner.

Two hours later, the wagon arrived in a small town – no more than a village, really – nestled on the banks of a river. The driver stopped on the outskirt, letting his mules have a drink of water, and Skulduggery took the opportunity to pay him for the ride and guide Lugan into the town itself.

“We’re here,” he said.

Lugan turned his head, even though he couldn’t see anything through the blindfold. “Where’s here?”

“I could tell you, but you’d promptly forget. You’ll find out soon enough.”

They both fell quiet again. Skulduggery led them into one of the pastures by a farmhouse, where one of the cattle looked up at them with a baleful expression, then went right back to grazing. A large tree provided shade far enough away from the farmhouse that Lugan wouldn’t be noticed immediately, so Skulduggery stopped there, right beside the thick trunk.

“I smell manure,” said Lugan. “Where are we?”

“Cattle pasture.”

“Alright. Why?”

“Because you’re going to keep forgetting everything you’re told until I’m far enough away, at which point you’ll hopefully be free to live a normal life of your own choosing.”

That was what China had implied, anyway, and there wasn’t a reason not to believe that was precisely what would happen. If China had wanted to kill Lugan, she could easily have done so. Either she actually was trying to help in her own terribly misguided, twisted way, or she deliberately wanted Lugan out of Skulduggery’s way. Regardless of which it was, it meant that there was only one way Skulduggery could help his brother now.

Lugan’s brow crinkled. “What does that have to do with standing in a cattle pasture?”

“Very little,” Skulduggery admitted. “But it might help you if you wander in off one of the farms, rather than the city road. They’ll be more inclined to consider you someone in need of their protection. With any luck, they’ll believe you’re a faerie.”

Lugan paused. “Am I a faerie?”

“In a manner of speaking. Don’t worry; you’ll forget all about this conversation when I leave.”

“Who are you?”

“A friend.”

“A friend wouldn’t leave me.”

“Well,” said Skulduggery, “I wasn’t a very good friend.”

Lugan didn’t speak for a full minute. Then he swallowed, and stood a little straighter. “When are you leaving?”

“As soon as the tattoo glows.”

“You’re very strange, you know that?”

Skulduggery laughed. It sounded bittersweet even to his own ears. “It may have been mentioned to me once or twice.”

“Could I at least have your name?”

“Dillon.”

“Dillon, what’s my –”

Lugan went rigid, then collapsed. Skulduggery caught him, lowered him gently down onto the grass, and retreated to the fence.

A blank slate. Two hours away from Dublin, and a good day’s gallop from Aeneas’s estate. Lugan was never going to have the opportunity to rediscover himself. In a way, Skulduggery was jealous of that. It wasn’t just the good memories Lugan lost; he’d also lost the heartbreak. The grief. The knowledge that he’d ever done anything wrong. The guilt of regret. He could start over, free of burden, his future stretching in front of him completely under his control.

That wasn’t something Lugan had ever had before. Control. Skulduggery looked forward to seeing what he did with it.

~~

A glimpse; that was all it was. And yet it made Eleanor slip on the cellar stairs. She regained her balance by the virtue of a life of good grace, then turned and climbed the stairs again, unable to believe her own eyes. She didn’t know which was worse; that there was a stranger in the cattle pasture, or that her own imagination had sent her nearly tripping to her own death.

She went to the window and looked out. There was, she had to admit, quite definitely a stranger in the cattle pasture. He was wandering aimlessly down to the gate, a strip of cloth in his hand. He was handsome.

And probably a cattle thief, she reminded herself. Eleanor composed her face into a furious expression and left her father’s house. “Oy! You there!”

The stranger looked up, startled. “Me?”

“Yes, you! What are you doing on our farm?”

He looked completely at a loss. Eleanor very nearly took pity on him. She was proud when her expression didn’t waver and her voice remained angry. “If you’re here for unscrupulous reasons, I should warn you that my father is a very violent man, and you would do well to run away, far away, and stop bothering –”

The stranger held up his hands. “I’m not. I swear. I mean no harm.”

“Oh, thank Heaven for that,” said Eleanor, relaxing almost immediately. “Father’s a real sweetheart. I don’t know what I would have done. If you’re not here to steal anything, why are you here?”

“I don’t know.”

Eleanor laughed. “You don’t know?”

“No.”

Her laugh trailed off. He was serious. He really did look lost, and ever so slightly bewildered, like a drunk man who’d sobered up far too quickly. “Well,” she said, “what’s the last thing you remember doing?”

“I…” The man gestured hopelessly at the air. “I don’t know.”

“You don’t know that either?”

“No.”

That was a puzzle. Eleanor studied him with a fresh eye. “What do you know?”

The man opened his mouth. Then he closed it again. He was beginning to look faintly panicked, so Eleanor reached out and put a friendly hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right,” she told him. “I don’t expect Father will mind very much, as long as you’re a good farmhand. What’s your name?”

“Dillon.”

“Dillon who?”

The man shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t – that’s all I remember. My name. I don’t know who I am or where I came from, or why I’m here.” He held out the strip of cloth. “I was wearing a blindfold.”

“Why on Earth were you doing a silly thing like that?”

“I don’t know!” he said, exasperated. “All I remember is waking up under that large tree you’ve got back there.”

“And your name.”

“Yes,” said Dillon. “And my name.”

“So asking you if you’re a good farmhand wouldn’t be a very good idea, then, would it?”

“Listen, I don’t appreciate –” Dillon saw Eleanor’s face and cut himself off, then sagged and closed his eyes. “You’re mocking me, aren’t you?”

“A little,” Eleanor admitted, sliding her arm over his shoulders and guiding him into the farmhouse. “Don’t worry so much, Dillon. Mother says things always happen for a reason, and she hasn’t been wrong yet. If you’ve forgotten who you are, maybe you were supposed to. And maybe I was supposed to find you, too.”

“You believe it’s that simple?” he asked.

“Of course. Let me introduce you to Father. He’ll welcome any reason to open another jar of ale. He’s working out in the fields right now, but he’ll welcome a distraction from that, too. He might be a little suspicious of you, but he’ll warm up to you quickly enough. And he’ll certainly welcome an extra helping hand around the house…”

The door closed on Eleanor’s ceaseless chatter and Dillon’s growing smile. Over on the other side of the pastures, a tall man in a travelling cloak lingered for just long enough to watch that; then he turned and left the farm, heading back toward the city.