The climb up the rope hadn’t been bad. The bit that had been bad had come before that, when he’d almost dropped the pouch when the boat moved, but he’d got it into his pocket before he’d pitched over the edge. His first thought: Thank mecksied Meg it wasn’t Micah. He’d grabbed hold of the rope above where it was tied around his waist and held on tight as he fell the length of it, letting his arms take the strain when he finally hit the end, rather than have his dead weight hit the loop around his middle and probably rip himself in half.
He’d felt the rope moving as he’d climbed, and that had put an extra burst of energy into him. Micah wasn’t weak, but he probably hadn’t ever had to climb a rope. Hauling someone up on one used a lot of the same muscles, he reckoned. Micah had already burned so much energy on magic, and no matter how much rest Jasper tried to give him, it seemed there was always another spell being done.
Now he was just going to keep his head down, literally and metaphorically, and literally hang onto Micah’s leg. He could feel the younger man shaking, and it might have been the boat’s movement, or Micah’s nerves, or the cold, or tiredness. It might even have been his own shaking. But no, he was too tired to shake.
Well, not precisely tired, but resigned. This had all been a tragic mistake. Why had Casper ever let him take Micah out? The man was the Vedouci; surely he had more sense than to let a goatherd with pretensions take the future of Lunule in his hands and fecking juggle it. And juggle badly. Why had Jasper asked him? Casper had been so moody lately—why had he even risked asking? If he’d had any concerns for Micah at all, he should have asked Veronica and Tom. But that, too, would probably have been wrong. Casper would have seen, and been offended, and demanded to know what was going on, and there was every chance that he would have had another fit and sent the entire castle into hiding.
All of this was just more proof: he couldn’t even think of the right thing to do when he’d had a full day to worry about it. The problem, of course, was that he shouldn’t have asked at all. He had no business aspiring to be more to Micah than he was—an interesting research topic for study. Even granting Micah the grandness of the discovery that nulls were possible, and that magic itself had been very poorly defined for a thousand years, none of that was anything to do with Jasper’s own beleaguered brain. He had no idea how to study magic from the outside. His value was in being a laboratory experiment, making himself available and agreeable. If he could do anything to smooth Micah’s path in the meantime, that might repay the man for having to put up with his presence while he made his discoveries.
The boat swooped to the side, rocking Micah against him, and Jasper automatically braced himself and pushed back, holding Micah upright at the controls. When the nose of the boat dipped suddenly, Jasper threw himself against the back of the seat, and he finally glanced up at Micah.
Micah was dividing his attention between their route and Jasper, his head moving in short jerks back and forth until he’d caught Jasper’s eye. “I’m sorry, my fault.”
“’S all right,” Jasper called, shaking his head.
“It’s getting colder, can you feel it?”
Jasper shook his head again. “Nup. I’m pretty much bone-numb, at this point.”
They swerved around another tower of buildings, and the Cupolas appeared before them. At one time the city’s highest dwellings, the Cupolas were now an odd bump in a valley between the docks, the markets, the Pinacles, and a cluster of financial and business towers. Dark wood arched gracefully over white stone walls, looking like a strange hat poking up above the boxy buildings below. The scale of the architecture was throwing Jasper off, however. It kept growing nearer and bigger, and nearer, and bigger. He was braced to run into it before the scale began to make sense. The dome of dark wood was actually densely packed smaller domes in curving stacks above a series of huge arched gates. Most of them were closed, but Micah was lining them up to pass through the one opening Jasper could see.
“Are you all right?”
Jasper startled, staring up at Micah in surprise. “Uh… oh. No, sure. Just… not been here before.”
Micah nodded, his attention returning to the gate ahead of them. “It’s a little strange, I know. Buildings within a building, sort of. I used to want to live here, when I first came to Lunule.”
“What, really? Or—I thought you moved straight into the castle, didn’t you?”
“I did.” Micah paused, slowing them a bit more before they were passing through the gate. “But it’s difficult to really picture the castle. It has no one clear location. It’s bits and pieces, here and there, tied together with portals. Here, though… look at this.”
Jasper needed no encouragement. Once through the gate, the wind and cold decreased dramatically and the snow stopped altogether. They were inside, more or less—sheltered. It was one large space bathed in warm light from dozens of enormous glowspheres and hundreds of smaller ones. Walkways spiralled up the sides and piers extended toward the centre; enormous private ships docked in neat rows with smaller boats around them like ducklings around a hen. On the outside, the smaller domes had all been a uniform dark brown, but inside the dome there was a wide variety of colours and textures: painted wood in every shade of the rainbow, brick, stone, even a few that seemed to be metal. Half of them had chosen to have glass walls facing the protected interior. Micah aimed them higher up on the curve, light with warm gold, pink, orange, and white spheres. As they drew near, suddenly the atmosphere of the Darklight Fest came surging back, lights everywhere, snatches of music and singing echoing across the space, laughter filling in the gaps.
“Where’s this?” Jasper asked, craning to try to identify the berth. The entire face of the residence was glass, and the inside was a glittering, orange-lit sea of people. The boat was slightly higher than the pier, and Jasper could look down and see people packed in almost shoulder to shoulder. Enormous hats, wigs, and crowns stood out like exotic plants on a forest floor.
“The family home of Councillor Hames.”
Jasper whipped his head around and stared at Micah. “Why?”
“No, not what you think,” Micah said. “It’s a courtesy. There is the smallest possibility that she will know something about what’s happening. Her family is rather skilled with manipulating cold, as it happens.”
Jasper had barely opened his mouth, but Micah was already shaking his head. “No, she could not be involved. Look at the size of this gathering.” Micah nodded at the crowded spectacle before them. He was seemingly immune to the people turning to watch their little boat approaching. A line of faces was forming, with a ripple of interest washing back over the room. Micah ignored it all. “Her family is an almost legendary Darklight Fest stop, and always has been. Preparations are essentially year-round, and Hames is very invested in the details. She would never risk letting the standard fall by dividing her attention that way.”
“Sounds like the perfect way to hide,” Jasper said.
Micah shook his head again. “No. She’s far too…well. You’ll see soon enough.”
Jasper looked along the empty pier. “Hang on—with a crowd that size, where are all the carriages and boats?”
“Oh dear me, no—Hames would never allow anything so mundane to interfere with the view—either from the outside or the inside. Not since portals became possible once more.”
He said it so calmly, but Micah was the entire reason portals “became possible once more.” Jasper was struck again by how powerful Micah was, how remarkable, and how young. He was single-handedly responsible for changing the world—portals affected everything from commerce to families, from traditions like the Fest to daily shipping. One person, immensely talented and yet somehow unspoiled by it, oddly content to sweep through the city in search of the solution to the storm with magic-immune Jasper at his side.
“She has a private dock outside the city,” Micah went on, blithely unaware of Jasper’s slightly guilty awe, “linked beneath the house. Staff will be the ones braving the storm, bringing the guests’ boats to the dock and back.”
“How many of them actually travel during the Fest?” Jasper asked, unable to stop himself. “This looks like the kind of group where being seen to be here is more important than honouring the tradition.”
“Very good,” Micah murmured, smiling tightly. “Surprisingly many. It is politics, after all, and the number of allies is regrettably important. It would never do to snub the house of a potential rival.”
“And how many of those does Hames have?”
“Ah, remember that all Council members are equal, Jasper,” Micah protested loftily, then gave in to a grin. “The other Councillors do host, but they’ll travel on one of the days, as well. At least, they will on most years,” he added, glancing back toward the Cupolas’ gate and the storm beyond.
Micah brought them alongside a substantial pier of flagstones, with massive live trees as docking posts. The little shikara bumped to a stop, and Jasper reached out to dust any peeled paint or rust off the side of the stone pier. Micah caught the move as he was turning to cast the ropes. “What? Is it damaged?” Suddenly concerned, he leaned out to check the side, running his mittened hand along the boat’s hull.
“No, no. Just…paranoid, I guess.”
Jasper felt a surge of warmth for the man, stepping out of the way to let him satisfy his own worries. Micah glanced at the pier, but his attention was on the hull of their borrowed boat. Jasper had been afraid of damage to the pier of one of the wealthiest people he’d probably ever know, and Micah was protecting the boat of some children who owned little more than a boat.
Satisfied with his inspection, Micah secured the boat and climbed out onto the pier. He swung the cloak around him, wrapping one side up over his shoulder in a graceful loop as he watched Jasper clamber out after him, swatting snow off his coat. He might not be as graceful and elegant, but he could hide in the coat like it was armour, keep his mouth shut, and try not to embarrass himself. If he’d been here as staff he’d know what to do. He could always find a way to help out, something that wasn’t getting done, something that’d been forgotten. And he knew how to deal with the crustiest of the upper crust—everyone was easy after Śe Penelope. But what was he supposed to be now? He was never going to be Micah’s equal, but what was he?
The walk down the pier wasn’t long enough for him to come up with any solution, so he slowed his pace and fell back behind Micah, who noticed after three steps. Micah glanced aside, then back, and paused. “Something wrong?”
Maybe it was best to tackle this head-on. “I’m just not sure how you want me to…what you want me to…”
“What are you asking?”
“Well, I’m more of a servant, so should I really—”
“Ohhh, no,” Micah said firmly, reaching back and hooking his arm in Jasper’s elbow. “You don’t get out of this that easily. If I have to go in, so do you.”
Jasper was surprised into a laugh. “What? No, I mean, I can’t really—”
“You won’t need to perform any magic. I don’t know how strictly Hames honours the exchange, but you won’t be leaving my side, if I can help it.”
“You better not have to do any magic either,” Jasper said, a bit of a growl entering his tone. He had no right to, but someone had to set some limits.
“Jasper,” Micah said, his expression tight as he glanced across the crowds watching them from the windows, “it is perhaps a bit unlikely that the Vedouci’s heir should be doing the rounds for Darklight Fest, visit one of the Councillors’ homes, and think to not do magic, don’t you think?”
Jasper wanted to argue. First because he was determined to do better than he had been at taking care of Micah; second because it was clear from Micah’s tone that he genuinely thought this was not a thing that could or should be argued, and third because he didn’t want Micah wasting energy on a crowd of people who would probably sniff and turn away, unimpressed by anything Micah came up with to perform with no preparation.
Instead, he just reached under his arm and gave Micah a poke in his side, making him yelp. “You keep it to a minimum, though. Remember which of us is immune to nummium.”
Micah said nothing until they were at the doors. “Remind me never to argue with you.”
Jasper laughed in surprise, and then the doors were swinging open before them.
“Welcome, Śe Micah. How wonderful that you could join us this evening.”
Micah’s shoulders shifted a bit and his posture changed slightly as they entered. He drew himself up and in, adding an inch to his height and slowing his movements, his attention turning to the crowd visible through the archway on their right. “Thank you,” he said absently, pushing back his hood and removing the mittens. “I’m here on business. Where can I find Śe Hames?”
“I will get word to her that you’ve arrived. May I take your—”
Micah pivoted to look back, the cloak swirling gracefully around his feet. “Thank you, no.” He handed his mittens off to Jasper, who tucked them into a pocket of his coat with his own. Micah loosened the knots and loops of the sleek silvery scarf by hooking his fingers inside the folds and running his hand down, the movement looking like he was simply stroking the silk. He pulled his goggles down to hang around his neck, then pressed his fingers over the red marks the goggles had left on his face. When he ran his hands up and into his hair, his complexion was perfectly even again, just a faint rosy blush left on his cheeks from the cold. The entire transformation had taken seconds, but now he was utterly sleek, unruffled, elegant, and ready to intimidate a roomful of people, if necessary.
Micah turned briefly to check on Jasper, and he remembered himself with a start, pushing back his own scarf and hood, doing what he could with his fingers to tame his tangled grey hair. He gave up quickly and went to work on the buckles of his coat while Micah turned back to the doorkeeper. “Could you have her meet us in the third alcove along?”
“I’ll see if she’s available,” the woman repeated, completely off-footed.
“Thank you.” Micah turned and swept toward the ballroom.
Jasper ran a step to catch up. “Any chance she’ll refuse to see you?” he murmured, still undoing the buckles down the front of his coat.
“Oh, always,” Micah said easily, making no effort to lower his voice. “Move and countermove, always.” He scanned the faces turned towards them, smiling briefly at someone but without stopping. “Please, stay with me,” he added, glancing aside at Jasper, his eyes holding a single flash of fragility before he was striding into the crowd.
“Is that actually him?”
“Can’t be. This isn’t a lab.”
“Is the Vedouci here?”
“Just a guy who looks like the heir.”
“Hey, wait. Śe Micah? Good to see you!”
“Is that him?”
“Śe Micah, isn’t it?”
“Good fest, Śe Micah?”
Micah turned in the general direction of the voice without pausing. “A bit chilly, actually,” he said, managing a slight smile.
“Did he say—oh! It’s the heir!”
“It’s your first time outside the castle, isn’t it?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Just his first time here.”
“Who’s following him?”
“Hames has a new doorkeeper?”
People were talking about Micah as if he couldn’t hear them, and mostly pretending Jasper wasn’t even there. Word seemed to run on ahead of them, however, and soon people were turning and focusing on them, and everyone was greeting Micah.
Jasper felt a touch on his waist and turned, seeing a hand around him, and Micah’s voice was suddenly in his ear on the opposite side from his hand. “If you do one thing to act as my servant, Jasper, one single thing, I will smite you.”
Jasper stumbled. Micah’s closeness led his body in one direction, his tone in another. He wanted to pull away and stare, he wanted to laugh, he thought he’d better hide most of this because it would be reacting to a blatant secret told in front of people, excluding them and elevating him to a status he didn’t belong to. The safe way to react would be to nod soberly and fade back like the good servant he was—and he was a brilliant servant—but that thought was immediately slapped aside by Micah’s actual threat. Following hard on that realisation’s heels was the simple fact that gave him a way out.
He leaned in, pressing his shoulder in front of Micah’s and tipping his head back. “Nah, y’won’t. Null, remember?”
Micah pulled away long enough to show him his raised eyebrow, then brought his lips back to Jasper’s ear. “You can still be squashed by a ceiling beam, I believe.”
“Ahh, feck off.”
Jasper was grinning now, and there was no way to hide it, and he didn’t bother. He risked a look at the faces they were passing, and a few of them were focusing on him, now. A year ago, he would have been very interested. Three months ago, he would have. But he was here with Micah, and no one he was seeing here was worth turning his head for. He remembered the redheaded man on the liftchair and Myana on the homeship, and both of them had been far more tempting than the svelte young lady in purple who was winking and blushing just from looking at him. Her gown was sleek and tight, covered with jewels and trimmed with silver, and her hat was a swirl of long, curved, stick-like feathers spinning in constant motion above her glossy hair. She was beautiful and clearly rich, but the most interesting thing about her was her hat.
“Śe Micah, when’s the next portal opening?”
“Do you know where it’s going?”
“What does it link?”
Micah swept past them all, occasionally glancing aside and smiling, murmuring thanks for the Fest wishes, but never slowed. Jasper stayed in step with him all the way, and soon they were nearing the far side of the room. Arches separated the alcoves from the main dance floor, and the half-flight of stairs up to them meant they had a spectacular view across the crowd.
There was a small group of people in the third alcove as they went up, but Jasper didn’t see Hames among them. From the top of the stairs, Jasper recognised Toen-Wae as one of the two men reclining on sofas, but neither the second man nor any of the five young women were at all familiar.
“I beg your pardon, Śeo, but this room is occupied, if you please,” Toen-Wae called, lifting his chin but without getting to his feet.
Micah simply paced slowly closer, tipping his head to one side. Toen-Wae’s nearest female companion gasped suddenly and rose to her feet. “Śe Micah! I didn’t…we didn’t…”
Toen-Wae looked between Micah and the woman a couple of times, then straightened in his seat. “Śe Micah? The heir?”
“The same,” Micah said, spreading his hands to either side and lifting them just slightly.
“Ah, there you are.”
Jasper and Micah both turned at the sound of Hames’s voice behind them, and Jasper clenched his teeth and ordered his legs not to take a step back. From the tips of her spiky white hair to the soles of her black boots, Hames was utterly intimidating, even smiling and holding out her arms in a welcoming gesture. If she had been someone else, Jasper might have thought she was offering an embrace. But the thought of stepping into her clutches was outright frightening. She wasn’t wearing white, for once—but the bright scarlet velvet gown was the same shade as her painted lips, and he couldn’t help thinking of blood. Some probably found her sharp, high cheekbones and bright blue eyes beautiful, and Jasper wished them well. He just wanted to keep his head down and draw as little attention to himself as possible.
“Śe Hames. Good evening, good Fest. I wasn’t aware I was lost,” Micah said, smiling.
“I’d hoped I’d reach you before you got here…” She tipped her head and looked past Jasper and Micah at the group who’d got to their feet and still clustered by the fireplace and chairs. “Śeos, would you mind leaving us, thank you…”
The group murmured their agreement and were filing out before she’d finished thanking them. She raised a hand abruptly. “Oh, Śe Toen-Wae—you stay.” She caught the arm of her rosy-cheeked assistant as he neared, a large wine glass in one pudgy hand, the soft light of glowspheres reflecting off his scalp through his thinning hair. The top of the man’s head was disturbingly pointy, and Jasper had to make himself look away from it.
“Certainly,” Toen-Wae said, frowning seriously as Hames steered them all toward the now-empty chairs.
Hames seated herself on one of the two chairs on either end of the sofa, and Toen-Wae sat on the sofa closest to her. Without so much as a glance at Jasper, Micah crossed to the opposite chair, leaving Jasper to sit next to Toen-Wae. Jasper glanced at him and the man was already watching him. He leaned back and draped his arm across the back of the sofa. Jasper bit the inside of his cheek to keep from grinding his teeth and sat down, pressed against the arm. Toen-Wae’s fingers didn’t quite reach him, but if the man straightened his arm, he could.
“Am I right in thinking you didn’t actually come to visit as part of the Fest?” Hames began with a coy little smile, crossing her wrists in her lap.
Micah settled back in his chair. “Yes, I did ask your staff to tell you it was on business. I’m sorry if that didn’t come through.”
“Oh, it did. You’ll pardon me for being hopeful, though.”
“I’ve come about the storm,” Micah said briskly, not taking her bait. “You are aware of it?”
“Of course I’m aware of it,” she said quickly, her tone entirely serious. “It’s hampered everyone’s travel. This is half the number of guests I usually have—not that you would know that, I realise.” She raised a hand quickly. “That’s not a reproach. After all, I don’t travel for the Fest, either,” she added with a smile.
Micah nodded, accepting the comment this time. “Just so. Druhy Veronica saw the storm’s approach, but clearly hasn’t had any success stopping it or diverting it. I believe I know why. I don’t think it’s natural.”
Hames tilted her head back, studying him in silence. “Well. That’s unexpected.”
Micah’s lips thinned as he nodded once. “Yes. I have three spell bags that suggest there was a defined area—Lunule.”
“The entire city?” Her head tipped forward in her surprise, and she finally blinked and turned away, moving to one of the chairs. “That’s unheard of. That is…inconvenient, at best.”
Micah snorted at the phrasing. “From what I’ve seen, people will have died.”
Hames looked up again sharply. “Oh, I’m certain of that. I did say ‘at best.’ What makes you think it’s the entire—” She broke off, looking down to one side. “But no. That’s silly.” Her eyes flicked around the fire to her left for a moment. “Do you know the boundaries?”
Micah sighed, tipping his head. “Not all of them. Charm pouches—I found one on Digby’s Tower, at some risk. Another was given me, from somewhere on the docks. The third…” He broke off and looked at Jasper suddenly. “I never did learn where that was found.”
Jasper could only blink, shifting uncomfortably. In all the ruckus with the children, somehow that had been left out. How had they not noticed that? How had they left the ship without getting that one vital piece of information?
But Hames was moving on, not pressing the point. “And when you say pouches…” She raised her eyebrows.
“Yeti fur,” Micah said carefully, watching her.
Hames recoiled slightly, her eyes flicking wider. Her gaze drifted, and Jasper reluctantly decided that her reaction was true surprise—she wasn’t involved. Shame—he’d wanted it to be her.
“That is very dark,” she finally said, and then looked up at Micah. “Well. You’ve found three. Surely there can’t be more.”
“I don’t know. I thought I would ask someone who knows far more about cold and magic than I do.”
She smiled, but the tilt of her head kept it from seeming kind. “And that’s very wise of you, not at all a reflection on your inexperience. You did well, Bo. Would you like me to take one of the pouches and see what I can learn for you? Why don’t I do that?”
Micah stirred at the use of the diminutive, his feet gathering under him, starting to lean forward in his chair but immediately restraining himself. His lips parted slightly and he stared hard at Hames before he spoke. “Śe Jasper, would you give me one of the pouches, please?” He held out a hand to Jasper before breaking eye contact with Hames.
Jasper rummaged through his pockets a little more than necessary before withdrawing one of the pouches and placing it on Micah’s palm without a word.
Micah shivered, pressing it between his hands for a moment before sitting forward and holding it out to Hames. “See what you can learn.”
Hames plucked it off his palm with two fingers and rose, beckoning Toen-Wae with a flick of a finger. “If you wouldn’t mind, Śe Toen-Wae, I could use your assistance.”
Micah got to his feet and Jasper hesitated one important second before following. “If you don’t mind, Śe Hames,” Micah announced, “I’ll wait here. It will be more conclusive if you arrive at your conclusions independently.”
His words stopped her momentarily and she turned back, her eyes running the length of him before snapping back up to his face. “Yes. That will do. I’ll see if we can’t entertain you in my absence.” She spun away and strode out of the room.
Jasper watched them go, Toen-Wae hurrying to her side and tipping his head towards her, gesturing as he spoke, but his words were too quiet for Jasper to catch. “I think I don’t like her,” Jasper said, trying to make it sound thoughtful and not as vicious as he felt.
Micah met his eyes, then sat back down, arranging his cloak over the arms of the chair and crossing one knee over the other. “It hardly matters. She’s not a regular visitor at the castle.”
“What do you think she’s actually going to find?” Jasper asked, shifting to the edge of the sofa and leaning forward.
Micah shrugged. “She’ll confirm it’s yeti fur, it’s part of a charm, it’s affecting the weather or the storm is worse because of it. She might be able to tell me something about where else in the city to look. Maybe. But I don’t know if she’ll be able to direct me towards more of the charms, or the actual source. She knows cold and how it functions, how to create it, how to move it…” Micah shrugged again, closing his eyes and turning his face away slightly. “We’ll see.”
“This is just a courtesy call then, is it?”
Micah gave him a thin smile. “Well. A little more. Oh, and be careful,” Micah added, shaking a finger once at him, “because she could be your largest consumer of numium.”
“What if I don’t want to sell to her?” Jasper asked, waggling his head menacingly.
Micah glanced at him coolly, then broke down and giggled.
“Just picturing you as the new outlaw merchant, the head of a criminal sect, manipulating the prices on numium and goats.”
Jasper spluttered at the last. “Oi, don’t you insult my goats. You’ve never met them.”
Micah sucked in a breath and sobered quickly. “Am I likely to? Ah, no—you forget. I know how to control you.”
Jasper’s mind skittered to a halt. Micah, controlling him? That was no kind of challenge at all. He only had to ask and Jasper would throw himself at a passing airship. “How?” he asked, immediately blushing at how small his voice sounded even in his own ears.
“I’ll tell Sally that you’re allergic to broccoli.”
This time Jasper collapsed sideways onto the arm of the chair, spluttering into helpless giggles himself.
“Śe Micah! Are you—may I come in?”
Jasper turned and saw an anxious looking older woman, her toes along the edge of the floor where the marble of the steps joined the wood of the parquet floor in the alcove. She had one hand braced on the stone arch at the entrance as she leaned into the room. Her hair was as grey as Jasper’s, and her aqua-and-pink dress matched the aqua-and-pink tiara of feathers crowning her head. She looked like a friendly soul, and Jasper couldn’t imagine why she was at Hames’s house.
“Of course,” Micah said loudly, seeing a cluster of other faces behind her, peering in at him from the stairs. “Please, join me.” He spread his arms, showing his palms in a lazy, grand gesture of welcome. He kept his legs crossed and rested his forearms on the arms of the chair, his hands hanging limply off the ends. He smiled as the chattering group swarmed in, clearly very excited to speak to him.
“Are you having a good Fest?” the woman asked, tucking herself onto the sofa next to Jasper. He budged over as far as he could to make room for another woman to sit on the end, perching on the very edge so she could still see Micah.
“No, not really,” he said, his voice bright and calm and completely at odds with the words.
A few of them laughed, and a lot of it was nervous laughter. Jasper had to smile. He found it strangely comforting and endearing to see people in awe of Micah. Maybe that was because he was in awe of the man every minute of every hour he spent in the lab watching him work. It meant it wasn’t just him; it wasn’t his nullness that made Micah’s talents so baffling and brilliant. Other people felt like that around him, too. There was a guilty little dash of pride in there as well—he had no right to feel proud of Micah. He could claim not the slightest bit of responsibility for any of Micah’s accomplishments. Micah was in no way his at all. But for tonight, he was. He’s mine for the night…
“Ooo, the storm? Yes, it’s rather chilly out there, isn’t it?” the woman said, cautiously feeling the subject out.
“It’s horrible,” Micah said definitively. “I’m sorry, I’m going to be very rude, I’m afraid, but… Dimelda, yes? Ceramics?”
“Ooo!” She squeaked again, patting her fingers together in frantic, tiny claps. “Yes! Yes! We met at the first firing of the Akkikiktok Kiln last year!”
“I remember,” Micah said, nodding slowly. “Jasper, this is the potter who made the set of graduated bowls in my lab.”
Jasper turned to her with a bright smile now. “Oh! Yeah, those are my favourites! I especially like the tiny dinky little one—dead useful for measuring.”
“Ohh, thank you! I always wonder if they’re going to good homes, or if they’ll be used, or just decorative.”
“No-ho-ho, those jobbies are not decorative,” Jasper assured her quickly. “Use them every day.”
“Now let me…” Micah began, scanning the others faces crowding behind the sofa.
“Oh! Names! Right, well, you won’t remember most of them, so don’t worry, but these are some of my students at Grossman this year—”
“Ah, yeah, we were there earlier—I mean, a couple of…” He turned to Micah. “Last night?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Dimelda repeated, flapping her hand. “No one knows when it’s what day, during the Fest. Does tonight count as yesterday? Does it make any sense to say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow’ when you’re leaving in the morning and coming back at the start of the next night? Having one shift end the same day as the next one starts really does my head in. Oh! Right!” She turned to her students suddenly as though someone had poked her. “Henry, Koona, Yaspyre, Giolla, Malthe, Vedette, Charmaine, and this is my daughter Anka.”
Micah nodded at each in turn, occasionally turning up a remembered tidbit about them. Jasper was impressed, but why? The Vedoucci was a political role as well as magical and educational. He’d have to be able to remember anyone he met in case later on they became a worthy ally or a truculent foe.
“So you work with Micah?” Dimelda asked, turning to Jasper, clearly wanting to include him in the conversation.
“Um, yeah, I help out a bit in the lab,” Jasper said, trying to sound calm about it.
“He’s also the housemaster of the Earl of Ryebury,” Micah cut in, giving Jasper a warm glance and a smile that made him blush. “He’s a good man to know.”
“Stop it or they’ll be asking me to lecture at the University, too,” Jasper said, grinning.
“Actually, I can see that happening in a few years,” Micah said, nodding thoughtfully as Jasper groaned. “Entirely possible.”
“What’s his speciality?” Dimelda asked, then bit her lips as though she could hide her smile.
“I confess, I’m a tease—it’s a new avenue of research and not something we’re able to share just yet,” Micah said as smoothly as if he’d rehearsed it.
“But I could definitely do you a whole year’s worth of lectures on how to clean and organise a lab,” Jasper cut in, trying to reclaim his own pride, giving Micah a hard stare even if he was still grinning.
“So this is where he’s hiding,” came a new voice from back by the stairs.
Jasper turned to look along with everyone else in the room, craning to see around his sofa companions. The woman’s voice was rich and dark, strong, musical, controlled—utterly beautiful. She seemed to know it, too. Her hips swayed smoothly as if she might break into dance at any moment, and it would be an amazing thing if she did. Light layers of caramelly chiffon flowed down from her waist, a wide swath of darker brown taffeta wrapped around her shoulders. Even with long black leather gloves that looked like satin, Jasper was very aware of a large amount of beautiful brown skin on display, black glossy hair wrapped around her head as its own crown, and large, familiar blue eyes danced above sharp cheekbones and dimpled cheeks.
“Oh dear. And I thought my disguise was rather cunning,” Micah said, watching her approach.
“My mother says she will trade favours with me, and therefore you now owe me.” She came to a stop directly in front of Micah, her eyes never leaving him.
Jasper wanted to swallow his tongue. She was stunning, but…was she saying what it sounded like? He wanted to flee but he also wanted to punch her, and possibly kiss her. If he did any of them, he should probably do all of them, and all at once, just to be safe.
He lifted his eyebrows, his lips parted as if to speak, but then simply nodded and rose to his feet. The cloak slid off the chair after him, falling forward off his shoulders and settling into place around him, hiding his hands. “Śi Ouinette.”
“Oh, so you remember me,” she said, openly looking him over.
Jasper watched from two feet away, not sure if he was angry, excited, or possibly envious. Or frightened. She was completely beautiful, curves and strength and aggressive as a landslide, pushed right into Micah’s space and amused. Something about her was maddeningly familiar, and had the flavour of being something unpleasant. He looked to Micah for a hint, but Micah was glacially calm, staring down from a six-inch height advantage. He was surprised to see the woman’s own aggression met in Micah’s posture, his face blank while his posture was formal and restrained, graceful yet strong.
“I missed your gala this year,” Ouinette said, her eyes never leaving Micah’s.
“Yes, I was aware of that.”
“I want a dance.”
Micah’s lips tightened for a fraction of a second. “Do you now.”
“Don’t be rude,” she said, recoiling an inch or two.
“Śi Ouinette, I was having a conversation,” Micah said, his words as gentle as if he were speaking to a child. “You interrupted.”
“Sorry,” she said, her eyes never leaving his.
“I’m not sure I believe you.”
“Because you’re smart.”
Micah studied her for a moment, then smiled faintly. “Śe Jasper, housemaster of the Earl of Ryebury, may I introduce you to Śi Ouinette, daughter of Śe Hames.”
Ouinette pivoted on the balls of her feet, her gaze staying on Micah until she was fully facing Jasper. When she finally turned her bright blue eyes on him, Jasper saw them widen slightly. “My, my, my.” She held out a hand to him.
Jasper pushed himself up onto his feet, finally feeling like smiling again as he took the young woman’s hand. “Śi Ouinette.”
“Śe Jasper. I may have to renegotiate some things.”
He couldn’t keep his face still, and a smile lifted the corners of his lips. “You’ll have to do what you think is best, Śi,” he said, trying to sound neutral. He had no idea what way he wanted to sound, but at this point if he let anything show, all of it would spill out and he’d look insane.
“I’d better interrupt you now, then,” Micah said, lifting her hand free from Jasper’s with one finger and drawing Ouinette’s attention back to him. “One dance?”
“Well, yes, if you insist,” she said, trying to pretend she wasn’t salivating.
Micah tipped his head and raised his eyebrows, casting her hand free and gracefully waving her ahead of him toward the main floor. As she turned away, Micah caught Jasper’s eye and beckoned him to follow.
“’Scuse us,” Jasper said quietly to Śe Dimelda, nodding at her and the others. She looked up at him with wide eyes and her mouth frozen in a small, silent o.
Jasper followed Micah and Ouinette easily, as once again, a path opened around them. Ouinette cut straight through to the musicians, just coming back to their seats after a break. She bent and spoke to one, then came back to Micah, slowing as she saw Jasper behind him. “He’ll play it first,” she said, not excluding Jasper with her words, but her eyes always returning to Micah.
“May I assume…?” Micah said, reaching around his back under his cloak.
“The Calusarotte,” Ouinette said as though it were a dare.
Micah simply nodded and sighed, pulling the ties of his cloak loose and lifting it from his shoulders. He turned to Jasper. “Please?”
Jasper took it, folding it over his arm and definitely not hugging it.
“Oh, I don’t mean to exclude you, Śi Jasper—” Ouinette began, looking genuinely distressed, her eyes darting between him and Micah.
“No, no, it’s fine,” Jasper said, smiling tightly.
“He’s not had time to learn it,” Micah said easily, reaching for Ouinette’s hand and drawing her to his side, turning to the center of the floor.
“But I know the perfect partner, then—Śi Sophia is even a teacher—”
“It’s all right,” Jasper said, and took a deep breath as she turned to argue further. “No, really. It’s not my kind of dance, really.”
“Oh?” She thought for a moment, a smile returning to her face. “And may I ask what is?”
“You may,” Jasper said, but just for the moment he had the upper hand, and he simply grinned at her, enjoying it.
“Ah, now there…” Micah raised a finger, already stepping away, making use of his long legs to cross to the musicians himself and have a quick word. The man seemed startled this time and looked back at Ouinette for guidance.
She gained more approval from Jasper for simply meeting the man’s eyes and shrugging broadly, waving a hand at Micah. The meaning was clear: Nothing to do with me; ask him. Micah asked again, and the man shrugged and nodded, smiling just a bit as he returned his attention to tuning.
Micah hurried back to them, looking much more relaxed. He was even smiling. “What’d you ask for?” Jasper asked.
“No, it’s a surprise,” Micah said. “Just get that coat off,” he added, flicking a finger at the black wool.
“But if it’s supposed to be my kind of dance…” His traitorous hands were already working on the buckles as though attached to Micah and not himself.
Micah shook his head. “Not telling.”
The musicians played a short little tune that seemed the cue for people to prepare, and the crowd began to shift. “Stay here,” Micah added to Jasper, pointing firmly at the floor by their feet. Then he turned away, took Ouinette’s hand again, and stepped forward.
Jasper ground his teeth, watching the dance floor clearing. As people stepped aside, he noticed a pattern on the floor: a circle of dark brown tiles became visible, and couples were taking their places around it. As Jasper stared, dark lines appeared as creamy-pale stone developed unnaturally coherent, tangible patterns of lines running from the feet of each couple into the centre of the circle. Micah noticed the lines as well and glanced back at Jasper over his shoulder, smiling at him and flicking his eyes towards the floor. Jasper stretched his eyes even wider for a moment, and Micah’s smile turned to a grin as he turned back to face the dance.
Ouinette scanned the circle, watching as more couples stepped up to the circumference. Within a minute there seemed little space left to fill, and she tucked her skirt back carefully. Sliding her toe and then heel, mixing in a rhythm of taps, she drew a pattern on the floor between herself and Micah. A faint light glowed from the tile where she touched it, and she paused for a moment. She glanced around the circle again, and Jasper could see everyone watching her. She brought her heel down hard, and the light flashed and zipped back in a bright spark to the musicians. Jasper couldn’t help hopping aside even though the spark was past before he could, and of course whatever it was couldn’t have touched him. She probably wouldn’t have done anything harmful in such a crowded room and with the Vedouci’s heir at her side, but it wasn’t like he’d had time for logic.
He looked back to see what happened, but then the music was starting and he decided it must have been the signal for it. He turned back to the dance.
It hurt to watch. Micah was all smoothness and grace, his long fingers curving neatly around her own. He was stately and elegant, dipping and weaving around Ouinette, then guiding her around him. But the real agony was Ouinette. She was everything Micah was and more, adding flourishes with feet and hands, knowing exactly where Micah was going to be and anticipating every motion. He was leading, but she was far beyond him. The length of his legs should have made him harder for her to keep up with him, but her quickness made her seem to float around while he strode.
The dance progressed, and soon Micah and Ouinette had rotated far enough around the side of the circle that Jasper lost sight of them. Instead, he found himself watching the dark lines on the floor. Slowly, loops and whorls appeared, and Jasper found himself looking up above the dancers, remembering what Casper had told him about the magical aspects of the Calusarotte. He still could see no lines above the dancers, but the floor seemed to be somehow mirroring the parts he couldn’t see. There was no colour to it and it was simple lines on the floor, but he was glad he could see even this. The lines weren’t exactly the same, he noticed, which was further evidence that this must be some of what he had missed at that first gala. Even before he could see Micah and Ouinette again, he recognised their line—the shapes were perfectly symmetrical, no extra squiggles or jumps; just smooth perfection.
The line let him track their progress and soon they were in sight again. Ouinette was positively beaming, managing a bit of conversation somehow as she swooped and spun around Micah. He seemed mostly silent, only giving her a word or two at a time, mostly reacting by facial expression, and Jasper ground his teeth again. Micah was beautiful, he was the best dancer Jasper had ever seen, but Ouinette was very nearly putting him to shame, and he was allowing it. He pressed his palms to hers, letting her bounce out with more energy, letting her take the larger steps and extra spins, giving her room. Jasper hated her.
The dance moved on, Micah and Ouinette weaving through the pattern until they were directly opposite their starting point, and with a last graceful bend of Ouinette’s back over Micah’s arm, they were done. The dancers froze for a long second and Jasper realised this must be the part where their lines of magic fell back down into them. Even from across the dance floor, Jasper could see when the magic passed into Micah and when it finished. Ouinette was shivering happily, but Micah simply blinked once, refocusing, then turning to accept a burst of applause aimed at him by the other dancers. He swept a hand over to Ouinette, bowing his head in thanks to her.
Then his eyes brightened and he was looking directly across at Jasper. He strode through the middle of the pattern of lines which faded under his boots, flicking open the buckles down the front of his coat, peeling it back off his shoulders as he came. Jasper blinked, taking a step back as Micah reached him. He was almost grinning now, and scooped their outerwear out of Jasper’s arms, turning away just long enough to thrust all of it into Ouinette’s arms. She seemed startled to find herself holding it all, but not offended. Before she or Jasper could say a word, Micah had seized Jasper’s hand and yanked him out onto the floor.
“What are we—what?” Jasper spluttered, and Micah bent slightly and pounded the heel of his boot loudly against the floor for a count of four. Then the familiarly odd, booming sounds of konnakox percussion picked up the beat, Micah grabbed Jasper’s other hand, and they were off.
“Candleman?” Jasper gasped, stumbling as Micah tugged him along.
“Keep up,” Micah said shortly, grinning as he passed in front and grabbed Jasper’s waist.
Jasper didn’t need to be told twice. He’d had a taste of dancing with Micah earlier, and had watched with mixed emotions as Micah was drafted in to provide accompaniment. As much fun as the percussion had been, as proud as he’d been of Micah for doing it, he could still feel the disappoint of not getting to dance it with him. Wanika had been good and that had been fun, but she was no Micah.
Once again, Micah had taken the lead. Jasper stumbled a couple of times, off balance with surprise and disbelief before taking a deep breath and catching the rhythm, stomping with both feet to catch the beat and get back in step. Micah wasn’t holding back; he was using every inch of his long legs to produce the loudest stomps, leaping around Jasper, catching his hands and waist and swinging them around. Jasper let himself be pulled, trusting Micah to balance him and jumping hard every time Micah’s leg shot out. He’d danced this with people who didn’t kick properly, just swinging a foot in his direction, and he’d seen someone break her partner’s leg by missing a jump. It had been gruesome, but the pair were back a week later, dancing just as well after Jasper’s mother and the village healer had finished with her.
Micah gave him no such worries. He scooped Jasper along with him with absolute assurance, mouth open to catch his breath but smiling fiercely whenever their eyes met. Jasper stayed right with him, hammering hard on every stomp and jump, racing along beside Micah. Two rings of dancers surged around them, but Micah didn’t give them much of a chance. If the couple ahead of them wasn’t keeping pace, Micah simply flung Jasper out and around, leaping ahead to be there to catch him when he spun back into line. Jasper had never seen anything like it, and was glad he hadn’t or he never would have believed he could keep up.
And then it was ending, far too soon. Jasper didn’t think he would make it back to Micah after the last throw, but Micah was there, perfectly on the beat, catching Jasper around his arms this time and smiling like his face might break in half. Jasper took one look at him and burst out laughing, wheezing and out of breath. Micah’s hand slid down into Jasper’s and he unspooled them, spinning Jasper out till their arms were extended between them, and then he bowed. It took a moment for Jasper to realise, but there was a lot of applause around them and people were clapping him on the back. Micah looked at him sideways and tugged gently and Jasper rolled his eyes but bent forward as well, still gasping. He rested his free hand on his knees and just breathed for a moment before straightening.
Micah let go of his hand and stepped closer, both of them still getting more attention than Jasper really understood. “Come.” Micah took his arm and tipped his head back toward the musicians. He was breathing hard as well, and there was a hint of sweat on his forehead.
“You’re feckin’ dangerous,” Jasper gasped, following him.
Micah grinned, glancing back and ignoring the people who clustered around them, Micah sliding in between them and not stopping. “Only fair, after the other one.”
“Could have warned me.”
“I did,” Micah said, coming to a stop and turning toward him.
“That was vague! Just ‘my type of dance’!” He wasn’t wailing. Shouting, maybe, but not wailing.
Micah snorted at him and turned away.
Ouinette was beside him with his coat and cloak, and a grin of her own. “Thank you, Śe Micah,” she said, and she sounded truly sincere. “I might just owe you now.”
Micah waved a hand dismissively, still catching his breath. He stood looking at his clothes on her arm for a minute, his hand poised to reach for them. “No, fine, I’ll take them.” He threw the cloak over one shoulder and the coats over his arm. “I think sitting with a cold drink would leave accounts balanced, yes?”
“I believe I can arrange that,” she said, displaying the full depth of her dimples. She extended her hand to Jasper, beckoning him when he didn’t immediately take it. “Both of you.”
Jasper let her loop her hand around his arm and guide them back to the alcove they’d left earlier. Dimelda and her students were still there, everyone seated now and having a lively discussion that stopped abruptly when they saw Micah.
“Oh, Śe Micah! What’s happened?”
The two chairs Micah and Hames had used earlier emptied at once, and Micah waved the students back toward them. “No, no. Please.” To make his point, he dumped their coats on the floor before the fire and simply dropped onto the carpet next to them, leaning his back against the leg of the chair he’d sat in earlier. When the chair started to slide away, he waved his hand again. “Please, sit.”
The students stayed clustered behind the sofa, and finally Ouinette took the seat. Jasper crouched and flopped down against the near leg of the sofa. His shoulder bumped Dimelda’s shin and she jerked away. “Oh my goodness, Śi, I’m so sorry.”
Jasper tipped his head back and grinned up at her. “Nah, ’s fine. I may even need you to hold me up after that one.”
“Oh!” She finally seemed to be understanding that maybe Micah hadn’t been attacked by monsters in the middle of a dance floor. A smile began to work its way across her face. “I think I begin to see. Did we have a good partner for the ‘Stiff-Kneed Candleman,’ then?”
“I very much did, thank you,” Jasper said, playing along.
“Coincidentally, I did, as well. And I am now quite exhausted,” Micah announced, letting his head fall back against the seat of the chair. He had one knee up, forearm resting across it, and the other leg bent underneath him on the floor. His eyes were closed, so he missed the indulgent look Ouinette gave him. “Drink, please?”
Ouinette looked up at the archway. “Any moment now. Do you still prefer dry whites?”
“Usually, but right now I’d prefer water, and in large amounts.”
Her face puckered with the first hint of doubt Jasper had seen on her in their entire acquaintance. She brought both hands to her mouth and closed her eyes, and Jasper could hear her muttering something behind her hands. Jasper watched as she went on, taking another breath, and finally her forehead creased as she spoke, almost loud enough for Jasper to hear. Then she opened her eyes with a sigh of something that looked very much like relief. “All right, that’s taken care of.”
A flash of hope caught fire in his chest. That had been her communication spell? He’d seen Micah and Tom do it at Foldings, and even Briggs. It was a casual thing, a loose fist in front of their lips and a barely-there whisper while thinking about something else. The charm was little more than an absent-minded gesture for them, but it looked to him like Śi Ouinette had had to work a great deal harder to get the message through. Jasper had never seen as much casual magic as he had since visiting the castle and it was easy to become blind to it, he supposed, but then again there also existed the possibility that anyone there, whether maid or Vedouci, was there because they were more skilled than the average. After all, what good would it do to hire a new pastry chef who couldn’t work the chill spell in the pantry? The castle was a physical maze, parts of it ancient beyond belief, and had always been the home to the most skilled and talented magicians. Of course over the centuries some other magical shortcuts would be established, and if every new inhabitant had to practice and build up skills for everything from how to work the toilets to how to work a portal, they’d probably die of old age before they could feed themselves.
Yet Ouinette was the daughter of Hames, and of a very old family that seemed to have had money since money had been invented. Surely she would have had access to the best tutors alive. And yet if she couldn’t work a simple communication spell without obvious effort, then maybe Jasper wasn’t quite as out of place in the world as he’d been coming to fear. It was easy enough to pass things off with a cheerful “whoops” and distractions when he was a child, and hard work had filled a lot of gaps when he started work. Even when he’d joined the Earl’s household, he’d found ways to make himself useful enough to ensure his employer’s loyalty should any gaps become too obvious. Thinking about it, that loyalty had been stronger than he’d imagined—he’d always thought he was just a bit slow somehow, but the Earl had seen it as a positive lack, in a very precise sense. He’d seen that it was a complete absence of and immunity to magic, as well as recognising that it was something momentous and useful in itself.
Jasper blinked, finding both Ouinette and Micah staring at him with different degrees of concern. “Hm? Sorry, miles away.”
“Was it nice there?” Micah asked quietly, tipping his head to soften the tease.
“Yeah, it was summer,” Jasper shot back.
He hadn’t meant anything more than a quick defence by it, but the word served to remind both of them why they were here. Jasper saw his own flicker of guilt mirrored in Micah’s face.
“I should have joined you,” Micah sighed, tipping his head back again.
“Oh! I’m so sorry! Śi Jasper, oh dear… I didn’t ask what you’d like to drink!”
Jasper turned his attention up to Ouinette reluctantly, but she seemed genuinely perturbed by the omission. He wanted to continue to hate her, freezing her out, but her contrition was causing a drip or two to form on the surface of that ice.
“Um… Water actually does sound good,” he said. He wished he’d developed some wildly expensive tastes since coming to Lunule, but he hadn’t the money or the time. It would have been satisfying to at least put a dent in her budget if not her confidence.
“She’s right,” Micah sighed. “I give you my sincerest apologies, Jasper. You are far too good to be putting up with me the way you do.”
Jasper could hear the words wash across the room. Everyone heard them. No one gasped, but he didn’t hear anyone breathing, either. He didn’t dare look at Ouinette. Or Micah, for that matter. He squeezed his eyes shut, but then realised that probably was no help. When he opened them, he saw Micah glancing at him with a bit more pink in his cheeks than could be blamed on the dancing. Micah looked down, twisting a button on his waistcoat for a moment, then turning towards the fire.
Jasper might not be able to cope with what he’d just heard for his own sake, but now Micah was feeling awkward as well, and he couldn’t allow that. “No, I’m just too stupid to flee the abuse,” he said, managing to keep his voice calm as though explaining something serious to one of the boys at home.
“Oh, right, that must be it,” Micah said, turning his head back at least far enough that Jasper could see his profile.
Something in the light of the room shifted, and Jasper looked across, startled to see one of the staff approaching them with a tray already. “Just in time,” Ouinette said, waving the girl off and pointing to Jasper. “He needs it the most,” she said, her usual saucy tone back in her voice.
Jasper took two of the tall glasses and passed one to Micah. He saluted the girl with it, then Ouinette. “Thank you.”
Micah drank half of his before stopping for breath and pressing the frosted glass to his forehead, then his cheeks. “Ahh. Much better. Thank you.”
The girl nodded, and Jasper realised she had no idea who she was serving. And he suspected Micah was happy with that. She’d already set the tray on an end table and turned to Ouinette. “Excuse me, Śi. Śe Hames is on her way to speak to Śe Micah and wants you to be there.”
Ouinette glanced down at Micah, who rolled his eyes, not needing to see what was happening behind him to know that brief anonymity had been destroyed. He caught the girl’s eye with a quiet smile, lowering his gaze again immediately, allowing her to pretend he wasn’t aware of her embarrassment. “It’s a good thing I’m already here then,” she said smoothly.
“Right! I guess that’s our cue,” Śe Dimelda said, scooping her skirt together and getting to her feet. “Lovely to see you again, Śe Micah. Drop by any time. And it was a pleasure to meet you, Śi Jasper.”
The whole flock of students murmured reluctant echoes of the same sentiments and followed the girl out.
“Is it me or was that very quick?” Jasper asked quietly. Micah simply shrugged. “Is it a good thing or a bad one?”
“Genuinely no idea,” Micah said, glancing over at him. “Might I ask you to hold this a moment?” He held out his half-empty glass to Jasper.
Jasper took it, frowning for a moment until he saw Micah turn and push himself to his feet. When he was standing again, he bent to catch up the pile of garments near the fire, slinging them onto the back of the sofa, and took the glasses from Jasper. He tipped his head toward the sofa. Jasper didn’t need to be asked twice and scrambled up, falling back to reclaim the seat he’d had earlier. Micah sat beside him and handed his glass back. “Ta.”
“As I’ve no idea what this is about, would anyone care to tell me?” Ouinette asked.
“It’s to do with the storm,” Micah began.
Anything else he meant to say was cut off by Hames sweeping into the room, Toen-Wae strutting behind her, his chest out and head up. Something about the self-important posture told Jasper that this was not going to be happy news even before he looked at Hames’s face.
“Ouinette, thank you.” Hames dropped into the second chair, her eyes on Micah. “This is not good news,” she said bluntly, and thrust the pouch back at him. Micah took it automatically and grimaced, passing it to Jasper instead.
“I didn’t think it would be,” Micah said.
“That…is the most disgusting piece of magic I’ve ever touched,” Hames said, continuing with her blunt explanation. Hearing no attempt made to manipulate the tone was enough to convince Jasper that things had just got worse. “It’s horrible. Yes, it is a spell, and that is yeti fur. I believe the yeti is still alive, as well. There is strong magic going through that as a conduit,” she went on, nodding toward the pouch. “It’s manipulating the cold, manipulating the storm…” She shook her head. “It’s beyond just the yeti, though.”
“I had a feeling it might be,” Micah said quietly, looking down at his hands.
“It’s cold magic. Someone is trying to do something manipulating cold.”
“But why would anyone want to bring this much cold to Lunule, right when the Darklight Fest starts? Who’d do that? Why?” Jasper asked.
Hames glanced at him but kept her attention on Micah, addressing her answer to him. “Who would benefit from this storm?” she asked. “Those who sell spells to protect you from cold, or light spells as it will be darker in the snow—”
“Actually, I’m finding it’s brighter with the snow,” Micah said, raising a finger. “The light reflects off the snowflakes and is somehow magnified.”
Hames waved that aside. “Someone, though, is making a profit off of this in one way or another, and the fact that it’s spread across the city means it must be a very large profit.”
“So it is the entire city?” Micah asked, leaning forward.
“It must be. Digby’s Tower and the Cupolas aren’t so very close. And the city door of the castle is farther in the opposite direction. And then the docks as well? I’ve guests who came from the other side of Anton’s Gowt and it was a bad flight for them, as well.”
“How far down does it go?” Micah asked.
“I can’t tell that,” Hames said, pulling back as if disgusted by the stupidity of the question. “It can’t be very far, though. I can’t imagine the Under could be any part of a profitable scheme.”
Jasper saw a muscle in the side of Micah’s jaw tense and he said nothing for a moment. Hames didn’t seem to care, flicking a hand along the skirt of her gown as if smoothing it. Micah stared silently for another breath, then said, “Noted. Is there anything else?”
“There’s something desperate about this spell, Micah. There’s an urgent note to the magic that suggests there might be a… an end approaching, somehow. There’s a specific goal, or a deadline, or…something of that nature. I suggest you hurry this back to Casper and Druhy Veronica. I’m sorry to have to ruin your Fest, but a Vedouci is never truly off duty.” The corners of her mouth lifted in a grim little smile.
“Thank you for your assessment, Śe Hames,” Micah said firmly, reaching back and gathering his coat and cloak without breaking eye contact with Hames. “Śi Ouinette, are you satisfied that I’ve repaid your favour?” He slid his unblinking gaze over to Hames’s daughter.
“Paid and then some,” she said lightly. The thought struck Jasper that it was maybe just possible that Ouinette and her mother weren’t always on exactly the same team.
Micah rose to his feet, and Jasper grabbed the black wool coat and followed suit. “Good. Thank you for your assistance and your hospitality, Śe Hames. I hope your Fest is…truly memorable.”
Micah’s cool tone had broken slightly on the last two words, a touch of bitterness seeping in. He flung his coat and scarf over his arm and stormed out.
Jasper hurried to follow. He was shrugging his coat on by the time they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Now what?”
Micah glanced back, but didn’t actually meet Jasper’s eyes. He turned a sharp right and followed along the edge of the room toward the front doors. “Have to think,” Micah said.
Jasper quickened his pace, reaching out a hand to catch Micah’s arm. Before he could even touch him, though, he was pulled to a sudden stop by someone doing the same to him.
He swivelled around to see Toen-Wae’s chubby hand falling back to his side. “Yeah?” Jasper asked, trying not to let it sound like the aggressive challenge it was.
“Excuse me, Śi. I didn’t get a chance to speak to you before. My name is—”
“Toen-Wae, yes, I know,” Jasper said quickly, hoping to speed things along.
“Ah, good, you remember!”
Jasper tried very hard not to roll his eyes at the prissy smile the man gave. The way Toen-Wae pressed his lips together hid the disturbing brown stain on the man’s two front teeth—that was very likely why he did it, Jasper realised—but it certainly wasn’t flattering. Jasper was just glad he didn’t have to look at the stains. “What is it?”
“We didn’t get much chance to talk, but I wanted to assure you that you have a friend.”
“I have lots,” Jasper said, his voice neutral.
“My, you’re making me work for it, aren’t you?” the man said with a quick laugh. “I mean that I’m on your side.”
“And who’s on the other one?” Jasper asked.
Jasper looked back and found Micah stepping back toward him and frowning. He turned back to Hames’s assistant. “Ok, right, well, thanks.”
“My pleasure. Any time you need me, just say the word.”
“I’m sorry, did you want something?” Micah asked Toen-Wae sharply.
“Nope, we’re good,” Jasper told him quickly, setting his hand on Micah’s arm and pulling him back toward the front doors.
This time Micah had to catch up to him. “What did he want?”
“No idea at all,” Jasper said, terse. “Where are we going?”
“To the boat,” Micah said, nudging Jasper’s arm.
Jasper looked down at the black wool coat again, and back up at Micah. “So soon?”
Micah nodded. “This needs to be stopped.”
Jasper pulled his coat on awkwardly as he walked. “But…you’re tired, the dancing—”
Micah shook his head. “I’ll need to eat again, but do you want to do that here?”
“I guess not, no.”
They made it back to the front entrance without any further notice, and the doorkeeper moved to greet them, then paused. “Oh, I—your…are you leaving us so soon?”
“Yes,” Micah said, just short of snapping at her.
“I’m sorry, I don’t recall your transport—”
“I remember where I docked,” Micah said, stopping to turn to Jasper. “Would you hold this for a moment?”
Jasper took the cloak and draped it across his shoulder, still fastening his coat as Micah pulled on his blue velvet coat again, Micah’s fingers occupied with the buckles on that. “Where are we going then?” Jasper asked quietly.
“I’ve not decided precisely, but I need to check the Under.” He grabbed the cloak and swung it on, belatedly untangling the ties of it from his scarf.
Jasper nodded silently, looking down at his feet. He’d never been to the Under. His own village wasn’t a wealthy place, but people got by well enough. He doubted the Under of Lunule was really as dire as its reputation suggested.