Magnus Bane emerged from the dungeons of Lightwood Hall in a state of disarray that would have utterly ruined his reputation, had anyone been awake to see him. Thankfully, it was well past midnight and most of the estate’s guests had already retired for the night. Magnus himself had been in his own warm bed earlier, and wanted nothing more than to return to it as soon as possible. The dungeon was damp, he was dressed only in a thin silk nightshirt, and he was chilled to the bone.
The iron door was heavier than he expected, though, and as it swung shut behind him it clanged. The sound echoed down the empty corridor. He swore softly and ducked into an alcove, pressing himself to the wall before peering out. He didn't immediately see an angry mob rushing forward, pitchforks and torches waving, to brand him a thief or a brigand in the night. The flickering witchlight stones along the passageway cast dancing shadows on the wall as he waited with his heart pounding in his ears. Fortunately, the corridor remained deserted. When he finally continued on his way, the carved stone staircase at the end of the passage led him out into what he recognized as the first floor library. He breathed a sigh of relief. Hopefully he could find his way from here.
The last thing Magnus needed was to be found in a compromising position. It was all well and good for the local peasantry to brand him a simple mundane mystic, or for the gentry to speculate over their brandy and cards about his rumored love affairs. Magnus, who had been orphaned young, then adopted and raised by a kind monastic Brotherhood, had earned his way into society by virtue of his independent wealth and charm. Of course, he did capitalize occasionally on his non-mundane talents - which the Clave allowed, so long as Magnus was discreet, and so long as he remained at their beck and call when needed. But to be caught outside of his room at a late hour in only his bedclothes would do him no favors. No matter how rich or dashingly handsome one might be, a man with no reputation was as good as cast out of society's circles.
Magnus continued towards the guest wing of the estate, or rather in the direction he thought it was most likely to be. Lightwood Hall was massive, and though he’d only been there for a single day he’d already been lost several times. His bare feet were silent as he crept along the marble-floored hallway. Even though most of the Lightwoods’ guests and the servants would be in their chambers at this hour, there could be a few stragglers still roaming the halls. Of course there was always the chance of stumbling over a forbidden romantic tryst in the dark, twisting passageways of any such place. Magnus had been nearly caught a few times himself, in his carefree younger days. But he had grown much cleverer and more circumspect with age. It had been decades since he’d been caught at anything he didn’t want to be caught doing.
He listened carefully to every noise, every creak as he made his way through the house. Just as Magnus neared the main staircase - so close he could almost touch the intricate carving of the banisters - a noise from behind made his heart skip a beat. He froze mid-stride and peered over his shoulder at the growing triangle of light emerging from the doorway of the billiard room. Tension coiled in his stomach. Someone was coming.
From the shadowed recesses beneath the staircase, Lord Alexander Lightwood watched the stealthy movements of the cautious figure nearing the stairs. At first glance, flitting between strips of cold silvery moonlight from the windows and the long shadows of the semi-darkened hallway, the stranger had appeared more like a spirit than flesh and blood. Alec had ducked under the stairs as a reflex, momentarily startled by the apparition. But as the ghostly form moved closer its identity became unmistakable.
Magnus Bane had been invited to Lightwood Hall by Alec’s mother, without the Duke's knowledge or consent. It was not an unusual occurrence; his widowed mother frequently invited all manner of people to their home in her obsessive quest for truth, enlightenment and consolidation of the family's political power. Alec and his siblings had attempted for years to dissuade their mother from these pursuits, but had met with little success. That was to be expected - Lady Maryse Lightwood was a force to be reckoned with. Now, with scandal threatening to erupt around their family at the recent unexplained death of Alec's fiancée, Lady Lydia Branwell - whether by suicide or murder yet to be determined, a mystery in which Alec himself was not above suspicion - Alec had a hunch that his mother was seeking someone who could speak to the spirits of the dead. And rumor had it that Magnus Bane was the person to do just that.
Was this all a part of Bane’s confidence game, he wondered? Was he masquerading the halls as a ‘ghost’ to prop up business for his own psychic endeavors? Or was he returning from a romantic midnight tryst? Alec didn’t know, but he meant to find out. If Mr. Bane was playing at being a spirit, attempting to frighten other guests to line his own pockets further, he would send the charlatan packing regardless of his mother’s protests.
Alec knew from experience that it was impossible to dissuade his mother from anything once she’d set her mind to it. She might have issued the invitation, but since his father’s untimely death in service to the Clave, Alexander was now head of the household. It was his discretion to rescind the invitation at any time and for any reason of his choosing. He would, of course, pay dearly for going beyond his mother’s wishes. But that was a price Alec had long ago grown used to, and he wasn’t a young child any more to be cowed by simple threats and shouting.
Alexander watched as Bane moved carefully down the hall, wondering what could have prompted him to be out and about in such a state. Earlier in the day, when Bane’s entourage had arrived at the estate, his behavior had been completely circumspect. At their formal introduction he had greeted Alec with perfect manners and a firm handshake. Alec found it curious that the same man he had observed all afternoon as the epitome of social graces would court scandal by traipsing about recklessly, after hours, in his nightclothes.
In truth, everything about Magnus Bane was curious to Alec. He was well-known throughout the local countryside to be a mystic, occasionally in the employ of the Clave, yet Alec had observed all day the man deftly deflecting or avoiding any direct discussion of ghosts, witchery or the spirit world. Now, here he was wandering the halls in a state of undress, his thin silk nightshirt practically displaying his lean but well-muscled body to any passerby.
Alec really couldn’t complain too much about that display as he studied Bane’s handsome features from his vantage point under the stairwell. Of course he wasn’t the only one to have noted Bane’s many charms. Nearly every woman present at dinner (and a good portion of the unattached men) had been intrigued by him, including the lecherous Lady Belcourt, with whom it seemed Bane already had some acquaintance. The Countess had attached herself to the poor fellow for the course of the evening; given some of the expressions that had flitted across the man’s face while Lady Belcourt spoke, Alexander had almost felt sorry for him.
Alec’s thoughts were cut short as the door to the billiard room slowly opened. The cascade of light moving toward him froze Bane in his tracks. Panic flitted across his face. Swiftly, Alec considered his options. Allowing Bane to be discovered would be one way to get rid the man effectively. But it was hardly an honorable course of action for a host to stand idly by while one of his invited guests was humiliated. And if Bane left now, his mother would only bring in someone else until she had satisfied her latest whimsy. Bane’s replacement might be even worse, someone without the Clave's tacit endorsement - possibly a true charlatan or a thief. At least if Alec stepped in now, perhaps he would have some leverage to use to find out what Bane was really up to, and what information the man may have gathered so far about Lydia's death.
Before he could talk himself out of it, Alec stepped forward, grasped Bane’s wrist and pulled the startled man close against his chest. He brought his other hand up to quickly cover Bane’s mouth, drawing him into the deeper shadows beneath the stairs. Alec spun them so that Bane’s body, in its light colored clothing, was inward and shielded from the hallway. Alec’s black evening clothes blended with the shadows and rendered them almost invisible.
“It’s a bit late for a stroll, Mr. Bane.” He felt Bane shiver as Alec’s whispered words ghosted across the back of the other man’s neck. Was it fear? Or something else? This close, with his sight limited and his other senses heightened, Alec caught the faint scents of sandalwood and sage. He felt the heat through the thin fabric of Bane’s clothing, unavoidable with the man’s body pressed so intimately against him.
Two conflicting desires warred within Alec, suddenly: to pull back, get away from the unbidden attraction racing through his blood, or to press closer – he shuddered himself, at the improper thought, and moved to put as much physical distance as he could between them. Alec had spent a good portion of his adult life keeping his own desires at bay, for the sake of his duty. His destiny was to marry well, once his name was cleared of Lydia's death and the acceptable mourning period ended. He was charged with the task of producing heirs to carry on the family name, to serve the military and political needs of the Clave like generations of Lightwoods before him had done. His own wishes and desires were irrelevant; he had been born into responsibility, and did not have the privilege of choosing for himself in matters of the heart. He couldn’t afford to be distracted - most definitely not by a man such as Magnus Bane.
Trapped within the circle of Lord Alexander Lightwood’s surprisingly strong arms, Magnus shivered as his unexpected savior’s warm breath fanned over the sensitive skin of his neck, taunting him. He was exceedingly grateful to have been rescued from discovery, but how would Magnus explain to his host what business he had out of bed at such an hour? His mind raced, trying to think of an excuse that would seem plausible. Sleepwalking? That had worked in the past, at times when he wasn't prepared to reveal the whole truth.
Bawdy laughter boomed down the hall as the shadows of two gentlemen passed over their hiding place. Their coarse commentary about several of the female guests of the estate – including, Bane noted with disgust, Lightwood’s kind and intelligent sister, Lady Isabelle - faded as they turned up the staircase toward their sleeping rooms. He felt Lightwood’s body shudder and suddenly tense; not an unexpected reaction, he supposed, to overhearing one’s sister’s virtue so inappropriately disparaged by the uncouth guests. Or … was it something else? Did Magnus imagine it, through the press of the man’s ribcage against his back, or was Lightwood’s heart pounding just as hard as Magnus’s own? Surely the Duke should have no worry about being discovered wandering at night in his own home. So what else could it be?
Against every instinct he possessed that encouraged Magnus to struggle, to try to get away from being held helpless against his will, he stilled, relaxing against the muscular chest that had protected him from discovery. Sensing his acquiescence, Lightwood removed his hand from Magnus's mouth and let go of his wrist, allowing Magnus to step away and turn to face him. Magnus’s back felt suddenly cold; he mourned the loss of the other man’s body heat, but resisted the urge to step closer and close the distance between them again. Instead, he moved away as quickly as possible. Magnus was already at risk of being shunned from society through his foreign ancestry and his unnatural abilities - he didn’t need to add an illicit tryst with a young lord from a high-ranking Clave family to the growing list of things people might try to use against him.
But Lydia Branwell’s family had always had a special place in Magnus’s heart. Her grandfather Henry, Magnus's longtime friend, had insisted that Lydia was a happy, loving young woman who would never have jumped from atop the tower of Lightwood Hall of her own volition as the local constabulary wished everyone to believe. When Lady Maryse had reached out through a mutual acquaintance and asked for Magnus's help solving Lydia's death once and for all, Magnus had sworn to Henry that he would get to the truth. He couldn’t afford to be distracted by the handsome face of the primary suspect – Lydia’s bereaved fiancé.
Magnus’s bravado faltered momentarily as he looked into the shuttered hazel eyes of his host. Lord Lightwood still wore the fine evening clothes he’d looked so impeccable in at dinner, though his neck cloth was now hopelessly rumpled and his curling black hair disheveled, but even that did not detract from the man’s angelic beauty. In the dim light, the dark shadowing of whiskers on his square jaw was visible, silhouetting his full mouth. Lightwood was only a little taller than Magnus himself, but his lifetime of military bearing accented his masculinity, making him seem larger than life. Magnus had never been the easily intimidated type, however; he quickly set aside his thoughts on the young lord’s beauty as Lightwood fixed him with an assessing stare, eyes filled with unasked questions.
As Bane stepped away from him, Alec resisted an unexpected desire to reach out and pull him closer again. He doubted that the gesture would be well received, a belief reinforced when Bane wasted no time in quickly putting at least an arm’s length between them. When Bane turned to face Alec, his chin lifted defiantly, the moonlight playing across his striking features made Alec’s breath catch. Desire, already piqued by their recent physical proximity, spiked within him. It was only years of intense self-discipline at hiding such indecent thoughts that allowed Alec to repress his traitorous body’s response.
He stepped forward out of the shadows to meet Bane’s steady gaze. He saw recognition in the man’s dark eyes, and the spark of uncertainty that followed. Did Bane believe the rumors? Did he think Alec was a murderer? It was also possible that he had not managed to fully disguise his response to their touch. If Bane had recognized his body’s reaction to their physical closeness, then perhaps he was expecting Alec to engage in unwanted pursuit of further affections. It would be difficult for Bane to reject any advances from his host, a man of higher social station, who had just caught him in a compromising situation. Alec held up his hands, a gesture of peace, hoping that it might put Bane at ease.
“A thousand pardons, Your Grace,” Bane said, his tone barely above a whisper. “I was lost, and then it seems that I panicked.”
His voice was warm and silky, shivering over Alec’s skin. Alec pressed his lips together and reminded himself that Bane was out of reach for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was that Alec was destined to be betrothed to his mother’s choice of suitable woman again, someday. While he had little patience for the mysticism that his mother was so very fond of, he had even less patience for the idea of romanticizing something that could never be.
Aware that the silence had stretched uncomfortably long between them, Alec finally spoke. “And you lost your dressing gown as well, I see.”
“Indeed, Your Grace. I am quite chilled and would very much like to return to the warmth of my -” Bed had so clearly been on the tip of his tongue, but quickly rephrasing, he said, “To my room”.
The hesitation had not been subtle. Nevertheless, the unspoken word hung in the air between them. It took all of Alec’s hard-won mastery to hold his face impassive; given Bane’s present state of undress, some would have taken the mention of his bedroom as an invitation. Perhaps Bane believed, and well he might, that any person blessed enough to find him in such a state at this hour of night would already be thinking of taking him to bed, regardless of whether the word was said or not. Alec was certainly struggling not to think of exactly that. He had yet to bed anyone, man or woman; the latter because he had no natural inclination to seek female company of that sort, and the former because the only person he’d ever had feelings for, was the dearest of friends but hadn’t returned his feelings in kind.
Not so Magnus Bane, if rumors were to be believed. The common gossip was that Bane had no lack of lovers. Both men and women seemed to find their way into his bed with alacrity; always the most beautiful, most sought-after members of all social classes and standings. Alec had little desire to become just another name on Bane’s growing list of conquests. Alec’s life was complicated, but his matters of the heart were simple: he loved who he loved – his sister, his brother, his parents, and his best friend - there was little space left over for meaningless dalliance. If his mother would ever allow him the freedom of choice (a long shot, at best) he would take a partner when he was ready to give them his whole heart, and nothing less.
“Can you find your way?” he asked solicitously. Bane seemed hesitant to reply, and Alexander took pity on him. The house was large and complex to navigate even in daylight, and Bane had only just arrived, never having visited them before. It would certainly be a stain on the Lightwood’s honor if one of their guests fell down a flight of stairs or accidentally disappeared into the unused dungeons, never to be heard from again.
“I am not sure, Your Grace,” Bane finally replied. “If you could direct me …”
Alexander considered it carefully. For the most part, his mother’s guests were an honorable sort, but some were questionable. Lady Belcourt, for example, was thoroughly enamored of Bane - she had made that much clear at dinner. Some of Alec’s military school friends who were in attendance were little better. Several had spent their evening consuming copious amounts of brandy while socializing and gaming. In his present state of undress, Bane would be at risk of creating a scene should he stumble across any of the more lecherous sort, who might be too drunk to mind their manners and too stubborn to take no for an answer. Though his own thoughts about Bane at the moment were less than pure, Alec would certainly never act on them. He could not guarantee that would be the case with some of the others. And he did have a duty of care for all of the guests in his household.
And still, considering the distance to the wing where the guests were being housed, it begged the question of how Bane had come to be so far from his chambers in the first place. “If I may ask, Mr. Bane, what are you doing about at this time of night in this … state?” He gestured to Bane’s clothing, or rather, his lack thereof.
“I sleepwalk, Your Grace. Normally my valet will prevent me from wandering too far afield, but he indulged overmuch in the wine during dinner, I’m afraid.” The words rolled smoothly off Bane’s tongue, his dark eyes wide with innocence.
Alec couldn’t have said exactly how he knew it was a lie, but the explanation sounded too rehearsed, too simple. Yet he sensed that he would get nothing further. The other man’s expression was inscrutable; Alec knew in that moment that he would have his work cut out for him, to get to the bottom of the mystery that was Magnus Bane.
Alec decided that the best option would be to appear as Bane’s ally. Perhaps if he could gain the other man’s trust, Alec could get close enough to discover what he knew. And if Bane intended to swindle his mother, or anyone else in their family – Bane would rue the day he chose to cross the Lightwoods.
With that thought in mind, he said, “Then let’s get you back to your chambers. Maybe we can both still salvage a decent night’s sleep.” Bane grinned at that, and Alec felt a surprising rush of warmth at how the other man’s face lit up with the smile. Shaking it off, he continued. “We shall use the secret passageway. It is quicker and there is far less risk of discovery.” As an afterthought, he shrugged out of his coat and passed it over; the silhouette of the man’s naked body beneath his thin nightshirt, backlit by moonlight, was becoming far too distracting. Bane accepted the gesture, wrapping the coat loosely around his shoulders with a nod of thanks.
The Duke had asked him a direct question, and Magnus had lied. But what could he say? That he had been in a trance, transported by an insistent spirit he couldn’t remember upon awakening, to the dungeons for reasons yet unknown? Hardly. The Clave had threatened Magnus with exile in the past, as punishment for far less than admitting the full range of his talents. Yet a flicker of guilt passed through him at the lie; an unexpected emotion to be examined further, later, back in the safety of his own room.
The weight of Lightwood’s coat settled around his shoulders. Magnus was grateful for the warmth, but disturbed by the scent which clung to the fabric. It was citrus and pine, with a hint of smoke and something else unique to Lightwood himself. It left Magnus unsettled. It made him even more painfully aware of how handsome the young Duke was. Its absence from his person also revealed the breadth of Lightwood’s shoulders and the muscular planes of his chest, which owed little to the cut of his clothing. He averted his eyes, but it made little difference - the tantalizing image would be hard to forget.
“The entrance is through here,” Lightwood explained, leading him back into the library and directly to a bookcase beside the fireplace, opposite to the wall where Magnus had come up out of the dungeons. He depressed a small lever beneath one of the shelves and a small section shifted backward, revealing a narrow staircase ascending behind the wall. Lightwood picked up a witchlight from the side table. The flare of light cast ominous shadows over the angular planes of his face. With the light gripped firmly in one hand, he gestured to Magnus to follow.
“The stairs are quite steep and can be treacherous,” he warned. “Tread carefully.”
Lightwood led him up the stairs into another long, narrow corridor. Magnus recognized the guest quarters with a sigh of relief. He had half-wondered if Lightwood was leading him up to the top of the tower to shove him off. But Magnus had met some truly awful people in his lifetime, hardened criminals and men with pure evil in their hearts. Lightwood did not give Magnus that impression at all; rather, quite the opposite: he seemed a man of principle, and kind hearted, even if he was the type to keep his thoughts and feelings close to the vest. Magnus could normally respect that, but since Lightwood was a suspect in Lydia’s death, he was going to have to find a way to pierce through Lightwood’s shields and really get to know the man underneath if he wanted to properly solve the case.
“Secret passageways,” he murmured aloud, trying to ease some of the tension. “It’s all so mysterious and dramatic.” Lightwood snorted, amused, but did not reply further. Magnus took the hint and continued to follow Lightwood silently through a seemingly endless maze of twisting and turning hallways until they finally stopped at the door to his chambers.
Magnus slipped off Lightwood’s coat and held it out. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
“Alexander,” Lightwood said.
Magnus blinked. “Your Grace?”
Lightwood smiled. “I think given the strangely intimate circumstances of this evening, we can now think of ourselves friends, and call each other by our given names. Unless you object?”
Magnus smiled demurely. It had been a risky move, and it had shown him Lightwood’s hand: the man was as curious about Magnus, as Magnus was about him. Perhaps the increase in familiarity was meant to rattle him, to shake his composure or bring his guard down. But this was the kind of game Magnus could play better than most: he wanted Lightwood to be as affected by their new acquaintance as Magnus was himself.
“Of course not, Alexander. Please call me Magnus.” As Alexander shrugged his arms back into the sleeves of his coat, Magnus let his eyes travel suggestively down the man’s body, returning to meet the Duke’s gaze as he straightened the cuffs of his sleeves. Magnus was surprised, and inordinately pleased, to see the flush that crept over Alexander’s cheeks at the overtly appreciative gesture.
“Well then, Magnus,” Alexander said crisply, “I will see you at breakfast.”
Magnus stood in the hallway, the chill creeping back under his skin, and watched until the last traces of witchlight disappeared from view.
His distraction was unfortunate; as he turned to enter his room, he missed seeing the shadowy figure that slipped from behind a nearby column and melted away into the darkness.