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Bringing Back the Light

Chapter Text

 

Micah stared out the window at the darkness, listening to the howling wind and the dry hiss of the snow scraping against the stone and window panes. The first day of the Darklight Festival was always uncomfortable, for him. The Fest seemed to spring from nowhere. The days darkened, and everyone seemed to withdraw in the face of the chilling weather. He understood, intellectually, that the quiet in the city was due to the everyone’s festival preparations—everyone building lights, preparing decorations and gifts, hosts preparing food. 

This year, he’d produced his own heaps and heaps of glowspheres. Whenever Jasper left for the evening and he couldn’t sleep (which was most nights), he sat at the workbench and harvested light from candles and the hearth’s fire, shaping it into rough, fist-sized globes with mirrors, dusting them with colour, and dumping them into barrels to be sent down to the infirmary. There the younger trainees wove ropes from the stems of plants left after the leaves were harvested for medicines, using the magics left in the tough fibres to connect the spheres in long, bright garlands. 

The rest of the castle had their own preparations. The kitchens never slept, baking and cooking in shifts to prepare what seemed enough food to feed half the city for three days. Engineers and alchemists ceased all other work and churned out lights and trinkets and toys, games and tricks, noise makers and more musical instruments. Everything was cleaned and scrubbed, every room ready for guests. Clerks and diplomats withdrew into offices and prepared cards and invitations and letters. Everyone had a bag of gifts ready, or a performance, or a service capable of repetition across three days of celebration.

Then, just as the silent nights and quiet days seemed to sap the last of the life from the city, everyone burst out into song and laughter, lighting the night as bright as the days, wandering through homes and shops and businesses as though the entirety of Lunule were one enormous family sitting room. 

All of the castle’s towers had been outlined in ropes of darkened spheres tonight, everything in place by the time the first hour after sunset had ticked away. Then Casper threw the torch out the window of the tallest tower over the city, and the light had leapt from torch to sphere, igniting the wash of colour, sweeping and cascading down and across the city, and everything burst into life and light and song and feasting and merriment.

But Micah wasn’t comfortable, even on the best years. Maybe he wasn’t good at quick transitions. He felt the press of anxiety as everyone rushed to complete their preparations. He felt the energy drained as people pushed their limits to be ready in time for that plummeting torch. It wasn’t the sweep of returning light that he anticipated so much as that unstoppable tumble down to the city’s depths. The pressure of all that anticipation focused on one moment, and everyone switching from tiredness, exhaustion, and expectation into simultaneous happiness and cheer was always jarring to him. It took him a few hours to settle into the gaiety and accept that, whether they were ready or not, the preparations were over and the Darklight Festival had begun, and in spite of his worries, people were having fun.

This year the preparations were fraught with more than the usual stress. Casper’s uncertain health and wild moods had raised the possibility that Micah would have to be the one to drop the torch, and Vronny had reluctantly admitted that the first major storm of the winter was likely to strike just as the fest began. The first of those problems had so far held off, and Casper had been more his jovial self than he had been in weeks, as though the celebrations had reminded him of who he was. The second, however, had absolutely come to pass. Light had spread across the city in a wave, and that wave had receded just as quickly as the snow and storm had arrived. 

With the sound of celebration behind him, Micah stared out at the storm, missing the brightness of previous years, unsettled, and not even Jasper’s choice to stay at the castle during the fest was enough to stave off Micah’s traditional initial mistrust of the mood change. He knew he would get into the rhythm of the fest. He would. He just wasn’t there yet. 

He wrapped an arm around himself and took another sip of wine, staring out and not seeing the bright, bustling city—only his reflection against a background of darkness and swirling grey. He thought he’d dressed brightly, but the vivid blue velvet of his coat seemed to eat the light around him, leaving his pale face floating above a smear of darkness punctuated by a few silver buckles.

“You okay?” Jasper said, his voice immediately behind Micah, making him jump.

“Mm. Don’t mind me. I’m sorry, it always takes me a while to…” He waved a hand vaguely, then flapped his fingers in the direction of the celebrations around them. “But now this storm—it will be ruining the festival.”

Jasper raised an eyebrow, glancing at the noisy room behind them. “This lot seem to be carrying on just fine.”

Micah glanced at him and followed his gaze back to the room. Tom and Marla were dancing, in Tom’s case rather badly. The Vedouci was singing louder than everyone else combined, Aaron was pranging his cup with a fork in time to the music, still trying to learn the words. Everyone seemed to be at least smiling and singing or dancing, or almost-dancing in their seats.

“Oh, yes. We’re in the castle, of course we’re fine. I mean out there.” He nodded at the window. 

“You think a little snow is going to stop anyone?” Jasper asked with a slight laugh.

Micah frowned, staring at the swirling white that faded into grey, blocking any sign of what should have been gaudy, garish lights along all of Lunule’s walkways as well as the bonfires and all the lighted windows in the city. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go out in this,” he said quietly.

Jasper moved to stand next to him, taking in the storm’s strength for a moment as though finally awed into silence. “Naa-ah,” he said finally, grinning at Micah. “Even in my little village, we’d be out in this.”

Micah turned his back to the window and leaned against the cushioned seat. “I don’t understand the appeal,” he admitted, his eyes now on the revelry before him. “People can sing and dance any time they like. Why is it so much more exciting now, when it’s particularly unpleasant to gather?”

“You’ve never been to a townie Fest, have you?” Jasper said thoughtfully, studying him.

“I came to the castle when I was six. I probably went with my parents, but I can’t say I have any memories from it that have stuck with me.”

“So every year, it’s you and the same bunch up here,” Jasper went on, nodding at the room. “No change?”

“Well, obviously you’re new,” Micah said, sighing. “Tom was here before me, and Iveyas not long after. Aaron’s new. And there are always ambassadors or diplomats from places where they don’t keep the Festival, and feel no need to rush back home for it. Students, visitors…” He shrugged. “But if they don’t keep the Fest, they don’t really add anything new.”

“Right. Come on,” Jasper said, hooking his hand around Micah’s elbow and steering him through the crowd toward Casper.

Micah blinked, afraid of what Jasper had in mind. “Oh, no, really, Jasper—”

“Pardon me, Vedouci,” Jasper said, bowing formally and interrupting Casper between verses.

Casper turned and focused on him. “Oh, yes. Hello, Jasper. Are there two of you?” Veronica saw, and got to her feet, gently pushing Casper aside and taking over the singing with her breathy alto.

Jasper grinned and dipped his head briefly. “No, Sé Casper, just one of each.”

“Ah, well. Are you enjoying yourself? Yourselves? Or the Fest? I do hope you’re enjoying all of them.”

“I believe you’re in urgent need of more wine,  Sé Vedouci.”

“I am, I …am I?” Casper looked into his glass and held it up to the light, where the deep purples and swirls of blue sparked brighter. “If I’m out of wine, Sí Jasper, what is all that?” He pointed at it with a surprisingly steady finger.

“You are so completely pished that you’re hallucinating wine,” Jasper said, trying to sound serious. “And to make sure that you don’t run out, I would like to take your heir out into the city to see something of the town’s Fest.”

Casper’s head turned sharply back to Jasper, and Micah’s heart nearly stopped—the Vedouci was nothing like as drunk as he’d seemed. Micah began babbling, unable to stop himself. “I’m sorry, Sé, I apologise. Jasper’s got this—”

“Good lad,” Casper said quietly, reaching out to set his hand on Jasper’s shoulder gently. “Don’t let him stop you. When shall I expect you back?”

Jasper blinked, puffing his cheeks out and considering. “Ohh, I dunno, really.”

Micah set his hands on Jasper’s near arm, drawing his attention back from the Vedouci. “We won’t be long, will we?” he asked, and felt his cheeks colouring at the hint of desperation in his voice.

“Micah, my beloved,” Casper said, lifting both of Micah’s hands free and holding them in his own. “Go with Jasper. He’s right. You should see the Fest—a proper Fest. You are the cleverest magician I have ever known—other than me, of course. But someday the worlds will look back and realise that I was but the road-builder making way for you. You need the world as much as it needs you. You will be safe, as I have said so. You’ve seen our revels every year since you were wee. Time to venture out, with this most excellent guide and companion.” He clapped Jasper on the shoulder, then patted Micah’s hands again gently. “You are my heir and my heart. But you are also your own man.”

Micah nodded, slipping one hand free and squeezing his mentor’s hand. “Sé Casper.” He genuinely didn’t know what to say. Casper was essentially telling him to go on a date that might last three days, or possibly end sooner if they froze to death. And a date with a man Micah was finding very difficult to resist, as well, but who didn’t seem to think of him that way. This could be the very worst idea in the world, or the very best, and there wasn’t much of a chance that it would be anything in between. 

He let out his breath and gave their hands a single shake. “If you can remember this conversation when I come back, I shall be both surprised and disappointed.”

Jasper threw his head back and laughed, and Casper blinked once and narrowed his eyes with a smile. “Perhaps not yet a man. In consideration of your youth, I won’t have the room sing you on your way, but you’d best be on it before I change my mind.”

Micah smiled and allowed Jasper to tug him around and lead him to the door. 

“Do we need to yoik all the way up to the lab for warm clothes?” Jasper asked, sounding remarkably responsible all of a sudden.

“Coats? No, we have a cupboard. Are you quite sure you want to do this?”

“Yeah,” Jasper said easily, staring straight into his eyes. He seemed a little confused by Micah’s reluctance, but comfortable with his own choice. “Don’t you? It really will be fun. Promise.”

Micah nodded without giving himself a chance to think. “Then yes.”

Jasper stepped aside and waved Micah past him and down the sweeping grand staircase to the main doors. “Then let’s find that cupboard.”

Micah glanced at him with a smile and pointed to a plain wood-panelled section of wall beside the doors. “It’s not hard. Just unobtrusive.” Jasper moved closer to watch, and Micah stroked the wood following the pattern of the charm, and then pushed the section of wall aside. “The front door is used more by visitors and for formal occasions, so you won’t have seen much of it. Briggs keeps it organised, really.”

Jasper had stopped listening, and Micah watched his face go vacant as he stared at what Micah had called a cupboard. He still forgot how many things Jasper hadn’t seen. So many casual aspects of life at the castle were completely new to him. Jasper was used to closets and cupboards being the same size inside as they looked from the outside, completely forgetting there were portals he could access. Micah didn’t understand how other households functioned that way; how could they possibly keep all of their coats in one closet? Even if everyone had only one coat. Even if half of them shared. 

Jasper had wandered inside, and Micah followed him, heading for the far corner, where the Vedouci’s and Druhy’s things were kept. He glanced back as Jasper stayed silent. “Find something that will fit you, anything you like. And come further back—most of the things on these back racks are generally nicer.”

“You just…have spare clothes,” Jasper murmured, slowly crossing the room, pausing to turn around and look again.

“Well, yes. The castle is quite old. Where did you think I got the clothes to lend you when I turned you pink?” He folded his arms, watching Jasper’s awe. It was endearing. He wasn’t embarrassed about asking questions, and Micah always admired that. It would be quite difficult to find himself surrounded by all the best at a particular skill when it was something he couldn’t do at all, himself, but Jasper just waded straight through, fascinated and eager to explore. Of course Jasper had spent his entire life that way, but Micah never wanted to lose sight of any of Jasper’s amazing and admirable qualities.

“Never really thought about it, I suppose.” Jasper tore his attention away from the room in general and glanced at Micah before turning to the racks Micah pointed to. “So, just…anything?”

“Really and truly, yes. I think you’d prefer it if you chose something warm—oh, not that!” he added, seeing Jasper reaching for a shapeless black wool poncho.

“Why not?” Jasper asked, blinking.

“It’s hideous.”

Jasper plucked it off the rack and held it up. “Wow. It’s heavy.” He hefted it a few times. “It’ll be really warm—”

“And hideous.”

“Nah, it’s just plain, Micah. That’s not the worst thing in the world, you know…”

Micah turned away and flicked his gaze along a row of coats, seeing a likely candidate within reach. He pushed a few hangers aside and pulled it out. “Here, try this.” 

Jasper draped his poncho over the rack, clearly not willing to give it up. He took the hanger Micah handed him out of instinct, glanced at it, and his hand snapped out as far away from himself as he could get as he stared at the long, heavy black coat with a subtle black-on-black pattern of swirls. Silver buckles ran down the front, and the silver fur lining the hood matched Jasper’s silver hair. “I can’t… this is… is this yours?”

“I’ve never worn it, if that’s what you mean. Try it on,” Micah added encouragingly. “Go on.”

“But this is… people will think I’m putting on airs,” Jasper said uncomfortably. “Isn’t there something more…anonymous?”

Micah turned away with a shrug, his heart sinking, and he didn’t like why. “You will be out with me, Jasper,” he said, trying to focus on the red of a coat in front of him and not on the redness of his face, brought on by the words with me. “And you have every right to some finery. I don’t know why you feel you don’t.”

“Well, because I’m not… I mean, you’re the Heir, Micah—”

“And everyone else isn’t,” Micah said, turning back quickly. “Do you think no one else has any right to matter? No one else should… what, no one else should dress well? No one else should be allowed to…” He waved a hand in frustration. Jasper looked a little stunned, so maybe he’d made his point. “Try it on. Please.”

Jasper nodded silently, and stared down at the coat again.

Micah shoved a few hangers aside randomly, hoping he hadn’t embarrassed Jasper. “It isn’t putting on airs. You’re not my servant. There’s no reason you should look like I’ve just brought you along to bolster my own frail ego.” He was still staring at the same deep red wool coat his eyes had first landed on before, hoping that if Jasper looked to see if he was serious, he would see Micah’s flush as a reflection from the bright wool.

There was a soft swish and slide behind him and he smiled, letting his breath out in relief. “Well,” Jasper said, his voice uncertain. “How does it look?”

Micah turned, and blinked in surprise.

Jasper’s beautiful grey hair stood out against the black, the grey fur of the hood looking like a natural extension. The dark brown of his eyes and his dark lashes seemed like the finishing touches. Jasper held the coat closed, checking the length against his shins, glancing up at Micah in nervous little flicks. 

“Oh, that does suit you.”

“I’ll tell you what, it’s the warmest thing I’ve ever worn. And it doesn’t seem all that heavy.” He reached back and found the collar and pulled it up, then pulled the hood up over his head as well. “Yeah. This is good. You sure the red lining isn’t a bit…desperate?”

If he were being honest, Micah would have to admit he hadn’t noticed it. Nothing could really compete with Jasper’s face. Micah snorted. “On me? Yes. On you? Decidedly not. No.”

Jasper looked up at him again, and finally nodded. “Okay. If you’re fine with it, I’m set.”

Micah turned away, letting Jasper settle in. “And now you can help me.” He sighed. “I fear I’m a little more difficult.”

Jasper moved closer to stand next to him, their elbows brushing. Micah swallowed and kept his eyes on the rack. “What, trying to find something ornate enough for your grace and elegance and majes—ow!”

Micah wasn’t going to regret the punch on Jasper’s arm, not when he was already blushing to the ends of his hair. He could almost see the film of red his blush must be projecting. “I don’t want ornate.” He couldn’t get any other words out of his mouth. 

“You’re actually not difficult at all, you know,” Jasper said quietly, reaching in to push some hangers around. He pushed straight past the red coat, not even hesitating over it. Micah found himself relieved. It was the sort of thing Casper would have worn without hesitation, and on Casper it might have seemed subtle. “It’s just that you keep trying to follow Casper’s style,” Jasper said, making the same connection. “I mean, you’re his heir, so it’s natural. That’s what you’ve seen. He’s been your role model. But you’re not him. You’re nothing like him, really. You want all the…” Jasper trailed off, one hand rotating vaguely in front of his chest as if trying to coax a word up from his heart. “Y’know? But your own.”

Micah gave him a sidelong glance. “I genuinely don’t know, no.”

“Ahh…” Jasper sighed in frustration, and continued flipping through the rack. “Oh, wait.” He paused, then pulled out a cloak. The outside was shining satin, pale blue, nearly white, with silver threads twisting along the edges in elaborate frost patterns, long silver sashes hanging from the neck in front, and the entire cloak as well as the deep hood lined in soft, white fur. “This. It has to be this.” 

Micah tipped his head to the side, considering it. Or rather, considering Jasper considering it. He couldn’t stop stroking it, touching the cool, smooth satin, running the backs of his fingers against the fur lining. “Rabbit fur,” Micah said quietly. “It’s one of the few kinds of fur allowed at Foldings.”

Jasper glanced back at him, his lips parted, his eyebrows raised, a strangely naked look of hope on his face for a moment. “Really?”

Micah nodded silently. “And even then, only if they were raised at the castle or collected on the grounds. We don’t kill them simply for the fur. All of the meat at the castle, all the leather from that meat, every part… none of it goes to waste.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the important things, but as he couldn’t stay silent, there were worse words that could have fallen out of his mouth.

Jasper looked back at the cloak again, and then pressed it against Micah. “This. I need to see this.” He glanced at Micah’s face, then back to the cloak.

Micah took it from him. “All right.” He handed the hanger back to Jasper, and shook out the cloak. It was lighter than he’d expected, and he pursed his lips. It might not be warm enough. He swung it around his shoulders and settled it, and then shifted his shoulders as he felt something strange across them. “Oh. Oh. It’s got a touch of warmth in it.”

Jasper frowned. “It’ll need more than a touch…”

“No—magic. I’m surprised, though. I’ve not seen anyone wear this, so the warmth must be woven in. The spell version doesn’t last long, not if it’s cast on a thing. It only lasts a few hours if you cast it on something actually alive, because life holds the heat better.”

“Can I…?” Jasper asked, lifting his hand near Micah’s shoulder.

“Yes—oh…” Micah blinked in surprise as instead of resting his hand on the silk, Jasper slipped his hand inside the front and around onto Micah’s shoulder underneath it. “Can you feel it?” he asked, curious, as the look on Jasper’s face changed to something he couldn’t read.

Jasper bit his lip, then shook his head. “No. But you said it’s faint.”

“It’s not that faint. But this woven warmth charm—I’m definitely sure it’s magic. I just thought maybe you could, I don’t know… feel it reflected off… but no, of course not.” 

Jasper slid his hand back out. Micah felt an instant of sadness, then temptation, imagining raising his own hand and setting it on top of the cloak, trapping Jasper’s hand inside, keeping Jasper’s fingers against his arm, then stepping closer and finally kissing those lips. He looked away quickly. “I think it should be warm enough, anyway, so long as we’re not outside the entire night. So. Acceptable, d’you think?” He pulled the cloak straighter, reaching up to the long silk ties at the top and pulling them down while Jasper stared at him.

“You’re…more than acceptable. Yeah, you’ll do.” Jasper’s grin returned as he looked up into Micah’s eyes again. “Not a complete embarrassment.”

“Thank you,” Micah said drily, pulling the ties across his chest and reaching back behind himself, under the cloak, to tie them.

“Here, what you doing?” Jasper asked, stepping close again as if to help.

“No, it’s fine, I’ve… yes. There.” He finished tightening the knot and pulled his hands back out. “It ties behind.”

“I…why? How?” 

“This way I won’t be strangled within sight of the door.” When Jasper shook his head, Micah brushed the cloak back further on his shoulder and half-turned, showing the knot he’d tied, settled around the middle of his back, under the cloak. “See? This way if the wind pulls at it, the weight won’t be against my neck.”

“Right. Okay, clever. You sure you’ll be warm enough, though?”

Micah pulled up the hood and wrapped the cloak across him in front, throwing one side up over the opposite shoulder and pushing his hands through the openings left for them. “Gloves and a scarf and I’ll be fine.”

“No, no gloves,” Jasper said firmly, and moved back toward the door. “No. Come here.”

Micah pushed the hood back again, trailing behind. “Jasper, our hands—”

“Will be much warmer in these,” Jasper said, tossing something at him. 

Micah caught it against his chest. Long, grey mittens, a knitted cuff on them that ran halfway up his forearms under the sleeves of his coat. The palms were leather, and the backs and the lining were fur. He flexed his hands speculatively, studying them. “I don’t like having my hands restrained like this. Mittens feel so…clumsy.”

“Ahh, take the evening off, why don’t you. If anyone looks threatening, I’ll pop them before you could get a spell off anyway.”

Micah gave him a lopsided smile. “There’s more than one kind of attack.”

“Yep, and there’s more than one strength of punch, too,” Jasper said easily. “You wanted something around your neck?”

Micah nodded. He very much did. He wanted it to be Jasper’s lips, or his fingers. There were times it was unbearable to have anything touching his neck, but he was finding more and more often that when Jasper was around, he had to cover his neck with something, somehow, to try to distract him from the craving for Jasper’s touch. This was going to be one of those times.

Jasper turned away and began looking around, finding shelves and drawers he hadn’t noticed before. Micah took a few steps, but couldn’t look away from Jasper. The black coat looked good on him. Now that Jasper had stopped worrying about it, it looked natural on him—far more natural than Jasper’s own coat. The lines down the back of it swept in from his broad shoulders to his narrow waist, and reminded Micah once again that Jasper was very nearly as tall as he was. His striking grey hair looked even more distinguished, and the glimpse of the red silk lining was like an illicit glimpse of skin. Micah swallowed again with a dry mouth, and wound up coughing. 

“You okay?” Jasper glanced back over his shoulder.

“Hrm. Ah, yes…”

“’Cause… No, wait, I think I’ve got… yeah. Yeah, this.”

Micah straightened, trying to look as if he’d just turned back and hadn’t been staring at Jasper’s every move like a vine searching for the sun. “Mm?”

Jasper turned around with what was clearly meant to be the matching scarf for the cloak, judging by the embroidery. It was a thick, heavy, draping length of silk, and as Jasper unfolded it, his eyes running the length of it with a slowly growing grin, Micah saw that it was half his height wide, and twice his height long. 

“It’s the same colour as your hair,” Micah said, and hesitated. “Oh, no, really, Jasper, you must wear it—.”

Jasper raised his eyes but not his head. “Nah, this one’s your’s. There’s another one that goes with this coat.” 

There was something decidedly more than fetching about the way Jasper’s eyes shone through the dark lashes, so close to his cheeks. Micah blinked the thought away and started to reach for the scarf, then paused, making a face at the mittens he’d already put on. 

Jasper shook his head. “Leave ’em. I’ve got you.” He stepped forward with the scarf across both his hands and lifted them. Micah bent his head, catching just a wisp of Jasper’s soft, spicy scent as he settled the chill, heavy silk around the back of Micah’s neck, inside the collar of his coat. Micah shivered, but couldn’t stop himself from bending his neck to feel the cool slide of silk against his cheek. When Micah looked up, Jasper had the serious, intent look he always had when he was working in the lab. He wound the scarf several times around Micah’s neck, layering it carefully, close but not tight, and then slipped in a knot at the back and another in the front, leaving two lengths of silk hanging down Micah’s chest before stepping back.

“Yeah, I’ll bet we won’t have any problems being let in anywhere we go,” Jasper said, fighting another grin.

Micah raised an eyebrow, reaching up to smooth the scarf down under the cloak. “There’s never been any question that I would be allowed to enter,” he said, keeping his voice cool. “Let’s see if you can keep from embarrassing us.”

“Ha!” Jasper turned back to the drawer and pulled out a red scarf. 

Micah blinked. He’d been expecting black, but now that he saw it, of course it had to be red. Nothing in the world could ever disguise Jasper’s sheer exuberance for long. He smiled as Jasper flung the length of rippled, fine-knitted wool around his neck carelessly, getting it all twisted in the process and looking absolutely splendid anyway. He tied it and tucked the ends under his coat before snatching a pair of black mittens out of the drawer and pushing it closed again. “After you, Sí Micah.”

Micah turned away, feeling even his ears going red this time. “Hush,” he said, pulling his cloak tighter around himself and waiting at the door for Jasper, who was still pulling his mittens on and tucking them in. When Jasper was out, Micah carefully maneuvered the door closed with his mittened hands, finding it took more concentration than he’d expected. 

“I’ve got this one,” Jasper said behind him. Once the cupboard was shut, Micah turned to see what Jasper meant, and saw both his hands on the door handle of the front door. 

“One moment,” Micah said, suddenly nervous. He hurried over, pulling up the hood on his cloak, his hands thrust through the arm openings and holding it in place. “Ready.”

Jasper pushed the door open. It was clearly a struggle to get it moving, but then it was pulled out of Jasper’s grip and banged back against the outside wall. Jasper was pulled out after it, and Micah heard a shout of laughter before he was close enough to the door for the storm’s wind to catch him, as well. His cloak whipped forward off his shoulders like wings unfurling, and he felt himself being dragged out into the dark.

He stopped almost immediately, catching his balance and digging his feet in, hunching over in shock. He couldn’t breathe. It was as if the air had suddenly become solid, squeezing his chest until it couldn’t move. Icy pellets  stung his face, and there was something wrong with his nose. He flailed an arm out blindly in Jasper’s direction.

“Just wait,” Jasper shouted, and Micah felt hands on his shoulders, pulling him up and turning him so his back was to the wind. “You okay?” Jasper asked, leaning close, their foreheads almost touching.

With an effort, Micah managed to open his eyes. The lids stuck a little, and then he realised even his eyes were cold. Or maybe his eyelids; it was difficult to tell. He shook his head at Jasper, stumbling forward in another gust, and Jasper caught him against his shoulder, wrapping his arms around him. “Here.” Jasper reached down and pulled the scarf up across Micah’s face, covering everything below his eyes. His own red scarf was already across his mouth and nose. “Better?”

Micah shook his head again. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. His throat was tight, his nose was glued shut, and he was beginning to panic.

“You’ve got to breathe,” Jasper told him. “You can do it. It’ll be okay. Your lungs are resisting because it’s cold.”

Micah stared up at Jasper’s face. The snow was blowing into his dark eyes and already sticking to his lashes. Micah leaned his forehead against Jasper’s and finally managed to gasp in a breath. It had only been a few seconds, but he felt as if he had been about to drown. “Sweet Meg, this hurts!”

“Just breathe a bit. It’ll warm your scarf up, which’ll help warm the air before you breathe it in. Your nose is stiff and prickly because the insides are a little bit frozen. Just keep breathing, slow as you can manage.” Jasper let go of him and caught the ends of Micah’s scarf, tying it in back behind the hood of the cloak, helping to keep the hood in place.  Micah nodded his thanks, grabbing the sides of the cloak and dragging them around him again. 

“Come on. If we start walking, we’ll be around the far side soon enough and some of this will be blocked,” Jasper called, moving to stand on Micah’s windward side. The wind caught the ends of his scarf, flapping them into Micah’s face and momentarily blinding him. He tipped his head away, then back into the soft attack, finding it was warmer under the silk. He grabbed blindly for Jasper’s arm and moved closer.

“I’ve got you,” Jasper said, pulling his arm free and wrapping it around Micah’s shoulders. 

“Is this safe?” Micah called. He could feel the cold taking bites out of his lungs with every breath. The stinging on his face wasn’t snow; it was the air itself, so sharp and bitter that his face buzzed with it.

“I’ve been out in worse. We won’t be long. The closest stop is about two minutes, if we hurry.”

Micah let himself be dragged and steered, bumping into Jasper’s side and shoulder every few steps. He wanted desperately to cast a blast of heat, but Jasper would feel none of it, and Jasper thought they could do this. Jasper’s whole point to bringing him out in this was to prove they could not only survive it, but enjoy a Fest that made it worth surviving. Micah had to try. Other people managed it, somehow. The only part that actively hurt now was the exposed top half of his face. If they stayed out long, he knew his toes would go numb, and probably his hands, but for now, he could breathe and keep moving one leg in front of the other. 

As they moved farther from the castle, the wind came straight across them, actively pulling one side of Micah’s cloak out of his hands, but wrapping the other side so tightly around him that it was difficult to push his legs forward against it. Jasper’s scarf whipped about around his head, and Micah bowed his face against it, clutching his hood with one hand and the front of his cloak with the other.

“D’you know any of the songs?” Jasper asked suddenly.

Micah tried to turn and look at him, surprised, but flinched away. Facing into the stinging, biting gale was just too much. “I know some,” he called, his throat tightening and clenching shut, reflexively trying to protect itself from the cold.

“I’ll take care of our introduction. I’ve done loads of them. I heard them doing the welcome at the castle, so I know you’ve got that.”

Micah simply nodded. He’d already forgotten what they’d been saying. How could there be so much cold? There was more cold than his body could hold. It wasn’t a temperature; it was a physical thing, too big for him and trying to scrunch around him to fit, wrapping itself tightly against him, crumpled and spiky, cutting through every possible opening it found. This was impossible. He understood that now. Casper hadn’t realised how cold it was, and when they turned around in a few seconds and went back, no doubt everyone in the castle would be standing in the entrance, and there would be a roar to bring them back in through the doors, with not just warm wine, but hot wine, dark and richly spiced, something with the fire still in it, and possibly a warm bath. Or heat stones. A chair made of them. An entire floor of them. So warm that he would lie down on the floor and peel off every layer of clothing and only get warmer, letting the heat through to his skin that much faster.

“You okay with that?”

Micah startled, bouncing off of Jasper’s shoulder again hard enough to make Jasper look over at him. “Oh you little eege,” Jasper said, laughing and pulling his scarf down out of Micah’s face.

“Didn’t mind,” Micah said, shouting it, turning his face away from the direct bite of the wind.

“Yeah, but you can get hurt that way,” Jasper said, trying to tuck his scarf inside his coat and failing.

“Are we going back?” Micah asked.

“Well, later, yeah. But wait till the storm is over.”

“Good.” Wait till the storm is over. Yes. They were heading back inside and would try later, if Jasper was still in the mood.

“I didn’t realise you were that eager to get out.”

“What?”

“Out of the castle. I wasn’t sure you wanted to do this.”

“Do what?”

“Come out to the fest!”

“Aren’t we going in?” Micah asked, wanting to open his eyes and shake his head, but unable to do either. If Jasper let go of him, he knew he’d be knocked over, off the path, and he didn’t think he’d be able to get up again by himself. Sleeping seemed like a very good idea. 

“You really are broken,” Jasper said, squeezing Micah’s shoulders. “I’ve got you, darlin’. You just stay with me. Nearly to the wall, now. Hang on.”

Micah stumbled as the incline changed, losing his hold on the cloak again. He could hear the satin whistling as it slid against itself, snapping beside him, the hood pressing into his face on one side and straining away on the other. He barely had the strength to pull his arm down, and he couldn’t manage to let go of his hood so he could use both hands.

“It’s going to be icy under this snow,” Jasper told him, hugging him closer. “We’ll just have to try to stay upright as well as we can, okay?”

Another blind nod. Jasper slowed, and Micah opened his eyes again briefly. He could see streams of snow moving like living fog across the path in front of them, curling, flickering, fading, deepening. Jasper inched them ahead, sliding a foot forward and testing the ground with his toe. Micah stumbled in his wake, and then suddenly he was moving, the cloak spreading beside him, sail-like, and he leaned back against it instinctively, sliding across the ice while upright. Then his feet stopped but his momentum continued, and they became a flailing tangle of arms and cloth. 

He bumped a shoulder into a wall and caught his balance, scrambling for a moment as his feet caught up under his body. Jasper bumped to a halt next to him, gasping, breathless with laughter. Micah’s cloak was still flapping and flaring around him, lifting in unpredictable swirls and gusts, the knot of his scarf around his hood having come undone, and the silk snapped and slithered against his face. But at least now the wind was as confused as he felt, and the contrast with the concentrated blasts across the path in front of the castle made this pause seem almost warm.

“Jasper, how are we going to get back?” he asked, hardly knowing what he was saying. 

“You’re going to be okay, Micah,” Jasper told him, cupping one mittened hand around the back of Micah’s neck and giving him an encouraging little shake. “You’re not in any danger so long as you stay with me, you got that?”

Micah closed his eyes briefly and shook his head, swallowing. “The cold…it actually hurts. It’s painful. How do you survive?”

“Aww, it’s not that bad,” Jasper said, pulling Micah’s cloak down around him and gathering it at the front so Micah could hold onto it. “There. Better?”

“Much,” Micah admitted weakly. “Jasper, honestly, tell me—you’ve actually survived worse?”

“Oh, yeah. Loads.” Jasper caught the flapping ends of Micah’s scarf and pulled it back down around his hood again, reknotting it tightly. “Should be easier to hang onto now, yeah?”

Micah peered up at him, watching the red scarf writhing and twisting above his head, the flare and billow of the skirt of his coat behind him. “How do you survive?”

Jasper squinted into Micah’s eyes for a moment. “Come on. The worst is over.”

Micah let himself be pulled away from the wall, Jasper’s arm around his waist. He bit back everything he wanted to say. His arms were trapped inside the cloak. If he tried to reach out and wrap his own arm around Jasper, then he wouldn’t be able to hold his cloak around him, and he desperately needed the warmth. He also desperately needed to press himself close to Jasper and hold him, press their hips together, push his face into that amazing, warm, smooth neck. He stumbled along, much of his attention focused on not leaning his head against Jasper’s shoulder, not reaching down for Jasper’s hand on his side, not stopping abruptly and kissing him. How he wanted that. If he could just stop and turn to Jasper, and bring their faces close, breathing his breath, letting his nose brush the tip of Jasper’s, outlining those quick, expressive lips, brushing them lightly with his own before crushing them, diving into him, tasting his mouth…

He stumbled again, shaking his head sharply, trying to focus. It was going to be a very long Festival.

Chapter Text

Jasper was restless through the late afternoon and into the evening of his first Darklight Festival in Lunule, actually in the Vedouci’s castle of Farek en Innen Ciel—trying to mingle, singing songs, learning new ones, sharing a few that had been popular in his village but that the castle didn’t seem to know. He juggled a few times—nothing spectacular, just a few empty wine bottles. During any pause, any still moment where he wasn’t fully participating, though, his eyes strayed to Micah. He was simply stunning tonight, but unhappy, preoccupied. He’d worn the deep blue velvet coat that Jasper wanted to rub himself over like a cat, over cream-coloured leggings with blue stripes. Instead of a white shirt, he’d gone for grey, the collar open and a mound of thin, crisp cream silk in front of his throat, blue paisleys swirled and scattered across the cravat. Jasper wanted to crush it. He wanted to push his face up under that chin, flattening that perfect puff of silk against the cool skin beneath it, feeling the glossy slide of the grey collar against his cheeks as he burrowed down and let all of that coolness fan him into a flame. He was sure the skin was smooth and white and pale and perfect, sheltered even from harsh looks as it had been. 

He simply didn’t know, Jasper thought. Micah was utterly blind to his own elegance. If he thought anyone was looking at him for any reason beyond his mind or his magic, he started to curl into a miserable tangle inside himself and his movements became awkward and halting, full of over-corrections and stiff restraint. But if Casper asked him to address the Convocation on the use of water magic in desert areas with five examples of spells that could be done by anyone with reasonable skill and few materials, Micah was all focus, his posture effortlessly erect, his movements all languid perfection. 

One night when he hadn’t been able to sleep, Jasper had tried to copy some of the gestures Micah used when casting. There was one in particular that he’d become fond of, the way his fingers spread, open and relaxed yet still alert, then his forefinger and little finger lifting before he he turned his wrist palm up, rippling them into a fist and flexing his wrist as if gathering invisible threads and pulling them closer. Jasper had studied it from every possible angle, the way his fingers bent and straightened and curled, the smoothness of the wrist, the way his fingertips tucked in against his palm, touching lightly. He knew absolutely that he could recognise Micah from just that movement alone. He spent twenty minutes that night just trying to reproduce that single gesture. He’d never been so aware of the thickness of his own fingers, their clumsiness, the wideness of his hands. Sometimes he wondered if that was why he couldn’t do magic: his hands simply weren’t the right shape.

So he’d spent his first Darklight Fest afternoon at Foldings trying not to stare at Micah, trying not to hang on him, trying not to bite the inside of his own cheek open whenever he had to look at the man. He didn’t even want to think of him as a man. It made him seem like he should be accessible, and for all Micah’s friendliness and kindness to him, he never wanted to slip and find himself taking Micah for granted. He wanted to treasure every day he got to spend here, in this city, in this strange dual life, madly scrabbling to hold himself together without clinging to the one thing that he most wanted to be constant and had the least right to hope for.

When he realised that Micah had been staring out the same window for ten minutes, he slipped through the crowd and tried to distract him. Of course Micah would be worrying about the people outside the castle. He had such absolute faith in the castle itself, while everything else seemed to be dangerous and alien to him. Jasper felt a sudden aching need to bring this lovely man out of the castle and into the world, let him see that there was joy all around him, teach him to find it so that when the day came when Jasper was no longer with him, he could remember Micah laughing and dancing and being happy in ways that didn’t rely on him. The Vedouci granted his permission readily, even eagerly, and Jasper left the castle’s Fest behind with his prize.

He knew it was cold out, and he’d spent enough times on farms farther north to know the storm would be intense. He hadn’t expected Micah to have such firm opinions on what Jasper wore, and for a moment, he considered what it would be like if Micah really had cared, really did love him, and wanted to show him off. He imagined being by Micah’s side, what it might be like as his equal, to have every right to be as possessive as he wanted, and to sit back and watch as Micah was passed around the room like an amazing treat, everyone wanting to share him with their friends and bask in his attention for a few moments, while Jasper could simply sit back and watch, ready to step in if needed but knowing that Micah could handle himself, and would be coming home to bed with him. 

It was a brief fantasy, only lasting a few seconds before he’d shaken it off, determined not to let more borrowed finery persuade him that these things were true, or could ever be true. Micah had an honest, real destiny, and he would need someone with him who understood his world and all the magic, all the politics and diplomacy, all the leadership and research that went with being the very best of the very most difficult field. Someday he would be leading not just Foldings, but the magic of an entire world and beyond. Jasper could never contribute there. If there was one thing that dedication and hard work couldn’t do, it was magic. He would just have to do his best and enjoy every moment he had with Micah, and take good care of him for his future partner. 

Micah’s moment of self-doubt, then, nearly broke Jasper. He’d been so long in Casper’s shadow that Jasper had found him considering a red wool coat, tailored for someone a bit more bearlike than his slender self. Jasper had almost snatched it out of his hands, imagining Micah self-consciously trying to brazen the night out as a pale imitation of the Vedouci. Casper could swing a flagon around, kiss dozens of beautiful young women, keep up with the best drinkers, and still get up on a table to lead the singing with a magic orchestra taking over at the end. 

As soon as Jasper considered the options in front of them, he knew immediately that it would be the silk-and-fur cloak. He wasn’t entirely sure that Micah would wear it. Cloaks could be much warmer, but they were also more difficult to control. And if Micah couldn’t hold onto it, it would be far colder than any coat in the room. He looked at a few others, but realised he was only doing it to give himself time to work up the nerve to ask Micah to wear it. He knew he would beg, actually. It might not be pretty and he might regret it in the morning, but he wasn’t going to be able to accept a refusal.

As soon as the cloak settled around him, Jasper knew this had been the most beautiful mistake he’d ever made. Micah looked regal. There was an obvious fragility to the pale blue and the soft fur, but it made Micah look deceptively dangerous. The angles of his face seemed sharper, and the way he bowed his head under the hood and looked up at Jasper made him resolve to take Micah as many places as possible, while he still could, and show him off. Someday, Micah would have to stop being alone, and Jasper wanted to make it clear that he was the most amazing person in the world. He deserved the best, and Jasper wanted to help him find it.

The fact that the cloak had some kind of magic warming ability brought Jasper back to earth with a thump—he didn’t need reminding that he was the least-suitable person to consort with the Vedouci’s heir—but he reminded himself that this wasn’t new. He’d known that the grey silk to wrap around Micah’s neck was yet another nail in his coffin, and while it seemed a criminal waste to hide his lovely hands, it would be far too cold to risk his fingers in gloves. He’d taken as much pleasure as he dared in wrapping him up, and then they were heading out the door.

Jasper knew it would be difficult, and was semi-prepared when the door was yanked open by a gust, and followed it readily, knowing there was no preparing for that first harsh crack of absolute cold and letting the decision be made for him. He’d nearly slammed face-first into the wall, and burst out laughing when he managed to just bump his shoulder. It was an easier way to get his lungs to accept the shocking temperature of the air. The pain of it passed quickly, but then he was seeing Micah swept out by the suction of the gusts across the doorway, the satin gleaming as it spread against the door and flapped around Micah, who stopped himself somehow just outside, completely motionless except for the whipping cloak and the flailing ends of the grey silk scarf. 

Jasper caught him in his arms, trying to shelter him and let his first breath be less of a shock, but there was really no way he was going to manage that. He heard Micah’s throat creaking under the pressure, the need to breathe battling with his lungs’ unwillingness to accept such painful air. He’d wrapped the grey silk across his face, feeling guilty for being relieved when part of Micah’s frightened expression was covered, and did his best to soothe him. 

Eventually, Micah got his first breath, and Jasper realised he had never really experienced this kind of cold. 

Why would he? He could wrap himself in spells to warm him, protect him, make him not feel the cold or block it; he had access to an unlimited amount of fine clothing in any material or style to protect his comfort physically; he could combine magic and clothing in unlimited ways so weather was irrelevant. And that was all besides the basic fact that he’d grown up in a castle where, should he have wished it, he never needed to set foot outside its walls at all. Jasper could feel guilty about this. He was pushing Micah not just beyond what was comfortable in an effort to teach him… something… but pushing him beyond what might be safe, for… fun. Whether his own or Micah’s, in fact, he found both excuses paled compared to what he was risking.

But no. He wasn’t risking. He had survived worse than this, and if he could do it without any magical assistance at all, then he could keep himself and Micah alive in this. After all, Micah had extra magic in his cloak, he had a city built to protect him from falling, he could do every bit of magic Jasper had ever seen and then some. He just had to keep them moving. It wasn’t as if Micah were out in the plains, trudging an hour between villages all by himself in the middle of the night to get medicine to one of Mum’s customers. That story was not one he was going to share with Micah. At least not tonight. 

They were halfway to the first pub before Jasper realised: Micah wasn’t actually doing anything to protect himself. He was hunched up, one hand holding his hood close and the other looped through Jasper’s, his fist clenched around the folds of his cloak. Jasper glanced down at him several times before giving in and shaking his arm a bit to get Micah to look up. There was frost on his eyelashes. “You can cast something to keep yourself warm, can’t you?”

Micah nodded.

When Jasper realised he wasn’t going to say anything more, and didn’t seem to be working any magic, either, he prodded him further. “So why don’t you? Go on, do something.”

Micah shook his head. “No. Wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“No, now, don’t start thinking like that—”

“You said you’ll be fine, so I should be fine, too. Shouldn’t I?”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to put up with it.”

“But you do.”

Jasper sighed. “No, look, Micah, just because… you can’t get stuck trying to do everything without magic just because I’m around.”

“I’m not doing that.” He paused, and Jasper looked down. Micah had turned his head away, and seemed to be catching his breath. “Let’s get inside, first. I can’t…”

“Fine. Just down here, around the corner, and down a level.”

Jasper dragged Micah the last few feet, reaching out to force the door open with one hand, and with the other he pushed Micah inside ahead of him. The warmth hit them hard, and Micah dove inside, the cloak falling gracefully into place around him. Jasper pushed him further inside and pulled the door shut behind him, having to put some muscle into it for the last inches. The final bang of it drew the attention of anyone not already watching them, waiting for their greeting. 

Jasper turned to face the room, feeling the expectant lull. He shoved his hood back and caught a breath, then forced himself into the song.

“A-wassailing we’re going, Even though it’s snowing. I’m Jasper, this is Micah.” He turned to shove Micah’s shoulder. “No flirting with the others,” then turned back to the room, “He’s mine for the night, you ugly sons of mothers.” 

The room gave them a welcome shout and brief applause, a few of those nearest laughing and pushing at their shoulders. Jasper tugged his mittens off and began untangling his scarf as he turned to Micah. 

Micah was blinking at him, standing quite still. “Sorry, forgot to tell you which one I was gonna do. I hope you’re not upset. It’s just the easiest one to fudge into shape,” Jasper said, blushing.

“I’m…no.” Micah shook himself. “I’ve never…I didn’t… No, it’s fine.”

“I’ll get us some warm drinks, eh? You need some warmth in you after all that.” He nodded back toward the door.

“Yes. Yes, thank you.”

Jasper edged his way off into the crowd, leaving Micah on his own. The bartender was already pulling two pints of steaming cider as Jasper got there, pulling one mitten off with his teeth, then freeing his second hand with the first, slapping the mittens against his leg to knock the snow off before he tucked them into a pocket. “Ooo, ta,” Jasper said, scrabbling to reach his purse and pull out a coin. “Here. Nah, nevermind change. Throw it in your Fest fund.”

“Very kind, Śeo. Here, you said ’e was Micah, did you?”

Jasper grinned. “Yep. And yeah—that’s who you think.”

“The heir?”

“Don’t get over-excited,” Jasper began.

“Nah, s’good. We’re getting another go-’round together in a couple of minutes. He okay with being first, y’think? ’Cause we got another big one to go, and nobody else wants to go anywhere near her.”

“Should I ask who?”

“It’s a surprise! I can tell you she won’t have a problem being second, though.”

Jasper thought a moment. Micah wouldn’t want to do anything too elaborate, not when this whole trip had been spontaneous. It wasn’t fair to turn around and expect him to do dustworks or something when he hadn’t planned to be out at all. And anyone willing to follow the heir of the Vedouci probably did have something planned, and it must be something longer, like a song or a dance or something. Therefore the first person’s contribution would work best if it was short, and that would surely be Micah’s preference.

“Sure, why not? If he’s got another idea, I’ll let you know. We have a couple of minutes to get warm, first?”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. Thanks very much, Śeo!”

Jasper raised his mug in salute, then hoisted both above his head and shimmied back through the crowd to Micah, who was still only a step or two away from the door, his back against a wall while a large man with a wispy moustache loomed over him, saying, “On’y you look a bit familiar, so you do.”

“Ahh, look at you, paying attention,” Jasper said, drawing the man’s attention and getting him to turn away from Micah, whose eyes had closed as the man spoke. “’Course he looks familiar. Now mind your manners, you lot. He’s not even got the snow off him, yet. We’ll satisfy your curiosity soon enough. Just let him catch his breath and get some of this down his neck.” He lifted one of the steaming tankards toward Micah, then used the space to wriggle in between Micah and the bigger man, guiding Micah away from the wall and towards an empty stool.

“Here, hold both,” Jasper said quietly, nudging Micah’s shoulder to get him to open his eyes. Once Micah had a tankard in each hand, Jasper began brushing clumps of melting snow off of the hood and shoulders of Micah’s cloak. “There’s a stool behind you.”

Micah looked back, then up at Jasper. “What about you?”

“We’re gonna have to take turns. And I’ll get to sit when you do your turn, anyway. Try some of that cider,” he added, lifting his chin towards the drinks. He still had gobs of snow stuck to his own hood, his sleeves, his scarf, his mittens, his legs… He stamped a bit, trying to shake off what he could before he started batting at it with cold hands.

Micah sank onto the stool, shifting a bit to give himself some slack in the back of his cloak while Jasper unbuttoned his coat. He glanced around carefully and found that yes, people were still looking at them more than he was used to—a little curiosity, and a little ogling. He’d been about to remove his coat, then hesitated. The borrowed coat was certainly the nicest thing he was wearing, nicer than his own jacket and shirt. Once he took it off, he’d look more like the servant Micah didn’t want him to look like. Instead, as a compromise, he pushed it back behind him and re-belted it. It would do for now. 

“Let me get some of this off of you, now,” he mumbled, brushing chunks of wet snow off of Micah. There were already damp patches on his hood and shoulders, and the strands of fur clumped together like Micah’s wet eyelashes; long dark strands against a pale background. “You can open your eyes,” Jasper said quietly. Micah did, and Jasper took his own tankard back, sipping at it for a moment while he let Micah settle himself. “Does no good to be anonymous, times like this,” Jasper went on. “They won’t believe any fake name, not completely. And besides, you’re going to be in charge, some day. You’ll want them to like you, and a little trick or two now will go a long way.”

Micah sighed, his shoulders slumping. “I hate ‘performing.’ I feel like a pet.”

Jasper smiled, his eyes full of mischief. “Oi. You’ve seen me juggle. I’ll tell you what I used to do—decide how you want to feel instead. You’re going to be the best magician they’ll ever see, after all—”

“That isn’t even remotely calming!”

Jasper grabbed his hand and held it down on his lap, then knelt beside him, setting their tankards under the stool. “Listen. This is a thing you can learn. You aren’t arrogant, Micah. You’re powerful. It isn’t a matter of impressing them. It’s a matter of not hurting them, not scaring them, not driving them mad. What would you do, say, if one of them hit Druhy Veronica?”

Micah glared at him, his eyes suddenly hard. “Dissolve him into a mist.”

“Right. Well, don’t do that. You could turn the walls to flame, open a pit under their feet, whatever. But they’ve not done anything.”

Micah blinked at him for a moment. “You do know I have no inclination to do any of those things.”

“Yep. But that’s what people go through after embarrassment wears off. They get angry. It’s better to skip to angry beforehand, I find.”

“I don’t follow.”

“At the gala, Onfroi wanted me to juggle. I’m not his son, I’m not his entertainer—he’s got no right to treat me like that—but he likes showing me off. It’s a novelty. I used to get embarrassed, and flustered, and drop things. Then afterwards I’d be embarrassed and get angry, and blame the audience. I’d imagine all kinds of nasty things to do, and then I’d feel guilty, and just wish I had another chance to get it right and be nice to ’em. So I decided I’d skip ahead on the cycle, next time. Get mad before, then when I felt generous again, do it.”

“I can’t juggle,” Micah blurted.

Jasper grinned and ducked his head. “Yeah, but you can do magic, and you’re pretty good. We’ll come up with something.”

Micah nodded, staring down at his knees and taking a deep breath. “Yes.”

Jasper picked up their drinks again and handed Micah his. “Doesn’t have to be a performance, necessarily,” he went on, and took a drink from his own mug. “D’you know anything they can all take part in?”

Micah sipped his drink carefully, nudging the lid open with a finger and sniffing at the fruity, spicy steam that poured out. “Like dance magic? But that would leave you out. I can’t imagine leading the Calusarotte here while you had to just sit and watch.” 

“Nah, not dancing. Something like… I dunno. Something they can share. Lemme think. Back in my village, my family, we’d always bring cheeses with us. I’d make a whole wagonful of little ones and Mum’d dunk ’em in beeswax, and we’d throw ’em into the crowd at the pub.”

“Cheese?” Micah asked. “Why cheese?”

“It kept well, and food’s always welcome.” Jasper shrugged. “Food and drink were big crowd-pleasers. But then Mayvell did well with her ever-fire sticks.”

“Tell me she didn’t throw those into a crowd,” Micah said quickly, shuddering.

Jasper laughed and shook his head. “Nah, she was one of the hosts, usually. Had one of her kiddies stand by the door and hand them out as people came in. Wouldn’t do to go chucking ’em into the crowd, sparking up whenever they hit something. Well, not in her own shop.”

Micah tipped his head suddenly. “I can do handfire.” He turned to Jasper, who was frowning slightly. “You know—hold this.” Jasper took Micah’s tankard. “These…” He cupped his right hand under his left and flicked his fingers as though shaking off water, and a pale, bushy orange flame fell into the palm of his right hand.

Jasper rocked back, startled, and only Micah’s quick grab at his shoulder kept him from falling into the legs of the people behind him. “What was that?” Jasper demanded.

“Handfire,” Micah repeated, and did it again. Jasper stared at the flame, and Micah’s unmarked palm below it. “No, it’s nothing like wood fire,” Micah assured him, tipping it from one hand to the other, then stirring it with a finger. “See? It’s just…a little flicker of warmth.”

Jasper licked his lips, then very deliberately reached his fingers out toward it. “Yeah, but what burns me might not burn you, remember?” he said quietly. He swept a finger through the flame, then held his palm over it and shook his head. No heat, no prickling or sparking, nothing.

“Hold out your hand,” Micah told him, and Jasper set their drinks down under Micah’s stool again, then cupped his hands. Micah tipped his palm so the flame spilled down to Jasper’s. As soon as it hit Jasper’s palm, however, it winked out. “Oh. Shame.”

“What’s it do?” Jasper asked.

“It’s just a little warm spell, really. But I can spin it out, and they can each take a bit.”

“Oh. Well, actually, that’s lovely.”

Jasper had no idea why he felt sad. It wasn’t that the spell was disappointing. Nothing Micah did was ever disappointing—not really. But then the inn’s owner was banging on the bar, and people began to shift around, pushing back past them, and he had to wrap his arms around Micah to keep them in place.

“Welcome ye newcomers!” 

New welcome all!

Micah shuddered in Jasper’s arms, startled by the roared response, and Jasper threw his head back and laughed. Poor Micah. He’d never been out on a fest trail, he’d never sung with strangers, he’d never thrown himself into the revelry and felt the excitement hold him up.  “You’re fine, Micah. Fine,” he whispered, and pushed himself onto his feet, bringing Micah with him. 

Micah nodded, and gently detached Jasper’s arms from around him. “I am,” he said quietly. “Do they—”

“I hear we have the Vedouci’s heir!” shouted the owner, scanning the crowd, then seeing Jasper’s hand waving. “What? You don’t look nothing like him!” she called.

“I’m wearing a disguise!” Jasper shouted back, getting a laugh. “Nah, not me. Him! Micah?”

Micah glanced at him, then reached behind him and pulled the ties of the cloak loose, letting it fall into Jasper’s hands before he went to stand by the bar, in front of the owner. Jasper took a seat on the stool protecting their drinks, and bundled the cloak onto his lap, hugging it to keep it off the floor.

There was a surge of squirming in the crowd as people jostled for a better view, and Micah paused, running his eye across the excited faces around him, then turned back to the bar. He set one foot on the rung between a stool’s legs, bounced from there onto the seat of another stool and then onto the bar itself, sending the owner springing back out of his way. His sudden appearance in everyone’s view brought a cheer, and he smiled in response, giving them a short bow. He let his gaze rest on Jasper for a moment, then raised his hands, flicking the little orange flame into existence again. He held it up and turned slowly, letting everyone see the watery little flame balanced on his palm. 

There was a smattering of applause, and Jasper joined in, but it died away quickly. Jasper glanced around at the faces in the crowd, wondering what had gone wrong. But Micah wasn’t climbing down. 

He strode along the bar for a few paces, letting everyone see the flame, then he cupped his left hand around in front of it, and blew. An enormous gout of flame shot out between his fingers, billowing into a ball of fire, and Micah pivoted to sling it out back along the length of the bar. People gasped and shouted and ducked aside, but it had already faded. Now there was a rush of applause, but Jasper was paying attention to Micah, this time, and he wasn’t done. He lifted his left hand away, and the fire was brighter now. Micah dipped his fingers into it and dragged it up into the air, and the flame followed, streaking the air behind his hand and hanging where his fingers passed. He drew it around in a great circle, then wiped his hand across the centre, his fingers twitching, and the inn’s name appeared in the air, written in flame: The Fennec and Stoat.

This time there was applause and cheering, and Micah nodded, blowing across the writing to make it flicker and puff away into smoke. Now he stirred the flame left in his palm, the original pale orange puff he had conjured before to show Jasper. He beckoned his audience closer. “Hold out your hands,” he said, and the patrons nearest him stared at the unmarked counter for a moment, then hesitantly held out cupped palms. Beginning at one end of the bar, he bent forward, letting a little dribble of flame spill over his fingers. They caught it, and there were gasps of pleasure finally. “Rub it in,” he told them, and as they wrapped their hands together, the fire squashed down and thinned, fading away into their skin. “Pass it on, this time,” he said, and this time everyone at the bar eagerly held out their cupped hands. Micah walked the length of the bar, pouring fire out into all the hands held out to him. He waited a moment, watching as people turned and passed it to those behind them. The fire didn’t diminish, simply spreading and flickering to life in every hand it touched as it was passed across the room. 

The woman next to Jasper nudged him with her elbow and he turned, seeing her holding out her cupped hands, ready to pour the bright little flame into his hands. “Oh, no, thanks,” Jasper said quickly, smiling. “I, uh… He already gave me some.”

“So pass it on!” she said with a laugh, nodding at the excited faces of two children on Jasper’s other side.

“Here, you two, hold out your hands,” Jasper told them, leaning back so the woman could reach them.

“It doesn’t hurt, you know!” she said, and Jasper wasn’t sure she was talking to him until some of the flames spilled down onto his leg.

He watched it wink out immediately, and stared up at her, startled for a moment. “No, um, it’s… I’m…it doesn’t like me any more tonight.” He turned to the two children, who were swirling their hands in a circle, watching the flames spinning around their hands like water in a stirred pot. “If you tuck it into your mittens, it’ll keep your hands warm all night long.”

The delighted shrieks distracted the woman enough so she forgot about Jasper being left out. Applause was breaking out again, and Jasper turned in time to see Micah press his hands together, putting the fire out. He bowed again and then squatted, putting one hand flat on the bar, and leapt down. Jasper stood to meet him, grinning.

“See? That was brilliant!”

Micah ducked his head, blushing, but smiling all the same. “I had a good teacher. And they’re very kind.”

“Horse apples. It was great.”

“Thank you to Śe Micah!” called the owner. “Next up—are you ready?”

“And I’m all warmed up now, too!”

At the sound of her voice, Jasper’s head snapped around. “I know her!”

The crowd was parting as someone made her way to the bar. Jasper could see the end of a stringed instrument of some kind sticking up behind the woman’s head, and caught his breath.

“Who is it?” Micah asked quietly.

“Good Fest to you all!” The broad-shouldered blond woman pulled her ludolin around from her back and leaned back against the bar, checking her tuning. “I’m Karlie.”

A murmur swept through the crowd, then the applause began. Jasper pounded his hands together, grinning till his face hurt. He stopped long enough to jam two fingers into his mouth and whistle so loudly that Micah and another woman standing in front of him leaned away.

“You seem a friendly lot, not too drunk already, are you?”

Lots of shouting and laughter, which she waved down with a fierce grin. “Either way, you’ve been put in my hands, so get yourselves up and along the walls, and we’ll see what kind of Fest you’re having!”

Jasper spun to face Micah, grabbing their drinks and nodding toward the nearest spot along the wall, not far from the door. “Excellent! I love this one!”

Micah ducked his head, swinging the cloak around his shoulders to free his hands. “I’m sure you do.”

Karlie strummed a few times to set a rhythm, then launched into the introduction while everyone crowded into a rough circle against the walls of the pub.

Jasper had heard Karlie before. A lot. The first time he’d been with his parents, and had refused to go home until she had finished her last song of the night. The woman’s voice had completely fascinated Jasper, whether she was telling a story or singing. She could shout her way through any of the harvest songs, always making herself heard through the choruses no matter how loud the crowd got. But she could also make him cry every time she did the Ballad of Megathy, and once he’d heard her sing a crying baby to sleep with a lullaby in a language he couldn’t understand. He still remembered the melody on nights when sleep didn’t come easily, though he’d only heard it once. 

Then there were her stories. Before he’d ever seen a picture of Lunule, he’d listened to stories of the huge airships, the portals bringing bright sunlight to the parks with solid market squares stacked above them, the grim alleys where the only place to walk was on the roofs of rotted and rusting boats, the strange foods and fantastic smells.  She told stories of new inventions and ship races and sky pirates, society weddings and business ventures, political intrigue and brutal criminals, and all of it was fascinating. He’d very nearly run away from home, wanting to follow the bard from city to town to village and simply listen to everything she said, all day and every day. His mother had only persuaded him to stay by explaining that he would need money to travel that much, and he’d better save up first. 

After that, Jasper rarely had to wait more than a year before Karlie was passing through one of the nearby villages, and if he could get there and back within a day, he never missed his chance. He’d decided he couldn’t afford to run away, and the knowledge that he never had to wait too long for another chance to hear her had kept him content. He’d even wondered for a few years if that was what love was—he’d never spoken to the woman, but just being able to hear her sing and tell a few stories soothed his craving. 

 

In the cold and snowy heart of the dark of the year,

We sing and share our good, bad, and best.

I’ve never had a bad Darklight Festival,

No I’ve never had a bad Darklight Fest.

 

“Me first!” Karlie shouted, then sang her own contribution to start the game-song off. 

 

I’ve never sleep-walked, not once in my life.

No, I’ve never sleep-walked in my life.

And I’ve never had a bad Darklight Festival,

No I’ve never had a bad Darklight Fest.

 

She turned slightly as she ended her verse, aiming the neck of her ludolin at a young man clapping along, about halfway across the circle from Jasper and Micah.

“Never have I ever been held by the law,” he called.

No, he’s never been held by the law,” Karlie sang, and Jasper was relieved to see nearly everyone else clapping along as they sang the refrain, showing they hadn’t been held by the law. The few people who weren’t clapping were looking sheepish and being poked by their mates—they probably did something daft while drunk, Jasper guessed. He might’ve been left out of the clapping himself if he’d run just a bit more slowly a few times when he was younger.

The young man pointed at a girl a few people away from him in the circle, and she stamped her foot and reached over to punch his shoulder lightly. But when the chorus was done, she was ready with her own contribution. “Never in my life have I eaten fish!”

No, she’s never had fish in her life,” Karlie sang, rolling her eyes and shaking her head, and only one or two people clapped for this one. The girl pointed at one, and on went the song.

Not a year went by without this song being performed several times during the Fest, and Jasper had suffered through more than a few bad performances. Most Festival hosts knew if they could manage it or not, and some made sure they had a good leader ready and waiting, if necessary. The leader had to rephrase the singers’ contributions in the second line, and it could be difficult to do it on the fly and keep the rhythm going. Karlie was an expert at this—no doubt she’d done this more often than most—and was ready to draw out the chorus to give someone a chance to get help from friends for their own contribution, or find a humorous way to rephrase things. 

But even Karlie couldn’t completely disguise a slow-witted contributor. He’d never understood how people could be surprised when they were suddenly pointed at and had to come up with a line. It was one of the most popular traditions; everyone knew it was coming. He’d only used two or three lines in his life, having figured out when he was still quite young that he could just reuse the same line over and over. His first had been “never have I ever been swimming alone,” because the nearest lake deep enough to swim was an airboat ride away, and all of the local boats ran on magic. But when he’d got his first job, there’d been a large pond on the estate. He switched to “kissed in the rain” for a while, until a friend had shown him “kissed in the snow” was a better choice: after declaring in public that he hadn’t, Sam soon had a queue of people ready to help him add that to his list of accomplishments. Jasper had come up with “kissed in this pub,” which was very useful for a few years. Since he’d been working for the Earl with his household full of boys, though, he’d decided that might not be the best line to use, and he’d switched again.

Now when one young lady pointed at him with a wink, Jasper didn’t think twice about using it. “Never have I ever kissed my one true love,” he called.

No he’s never kissed his one true love,” Karlie sang, giving him a strange, knowing smile.

Jasper felt himself flush bright red while he scanned the circle of clapping people for someone who hadn’t gone yet. Less than half the people were clapping, which didn’t surprise him, but they were all people who’d already had a turn. He kept looking, and found one set of hands right next to him. 

Micah.

He swung his finger up and pointed without even thinking about it.

Chapter Text

As soon as the words came out of Jasper’s face, Micah knew it was going to be trouble. And it was.

Micah could feel the inevitability settling onto his shoulders. All of the others clapping had had a turn already, and he had tensed every time, but none of them had chosen him. Maybe it was the fact that he was the heir, and that intimidated them. He’d been relieved, but knew he couldn’t expect it to last. The odds were against him, and the longer things went, the better the chance that he would be someone’s only option. And that was fine, because he’d got a list of lines he’d used in the past. The problem was that it seemed to be the same list everyone else had. One by one, someone else used them: never skipped a lesson, never killed an animal, never stolen money, never picked a fight,   never had a baby… Micah was just beginning to wonder if he might make it through without being called on when Jasper opened his mouth. 

No he’s never kissed his one true love,”  the bard sang back, and then Jasper’s finger was pointing at him. 

Casper had always been the quick-witted one. Micah had no doubts about his own intelligence, but he rarely managed to respond to Casper’s teasing with anything other than a blush, a flat denial, or a physical escape. Casper had an answer for everything and everyone. Micah had never seen anyone better at thinking on his feet, improvising, and adapting. After more than a decade of constant exposure, the best Micah had learned was patience, forbearance, and resignation. He knew absolutely, down to his toe bones, that Casper would have come up with a response that would have been witty, clever, triumphant, and face-saving for Jasper as well, somehow. It would have been brilliant, and he would dearly love to have seen it before this happened to him and he had to come up with the response himself. He could have taken notes so he’d be ready, this time.

And then there his line was, whole and complete, sitting in his mind and ready to drip from his tongue as though his whole life had brought him to this moment intentionally. He even had time to wait for Karlie to bring the verse around again, which gave him a chance to take a breath, but not so much time that he might rethink it and collapse under the pressure of Jasper’s frozen stare. 

The chorus ended, Karlie raised her eyebrows at him, and Micah opened his mouth. “Never have I ever kissed his one true love,” Micah called, his voice calmly rising over the clapping without the slightest difficulty.

Was this what Casper felt like? Was it like this all the time, for him? Micah didn’t have to look away from Jasper’s face to be aware of the bard doubling up over her ludolin and only managing to gasp out “…true love!” before the crowd drowned out their own response and fell apart, laughing and cheering.

Jasper’s eyebrows nearly reached his hairline, and in the instant of his gasp of relief before he tipped his head back and simply whooped along with the crowd, Micah saw two bright drops of moisture streak down from his eyes, leaving trails down his face before large hands hid them. Jasper held his hands over his face for a long moment, enduring the crowd’s congratulatory back-slapping and shoulder-punching, jerking and swaying as the circle broke up and people began to spread back across the bar. He shoved his pinkies into his mouth and whistled almost as an afterthought, and Micah knew it had not been his intent when he’d lifted his hands. With the dregs of his flash of genius he realised that commenting on this or the tears would undo everything he’d just accomplished.

“Ahh, Meg’s belly and baps, you’re going to kill me,” Jasper sighed, finally lowering his hand with a last swipe at his eyes.

“Not intentionally,” Micah said, holding his composure.

“That, Micah…” He pointed in the general direction of where Karlie had been standing during the song. “That… that was… I’ve never…” He sighed again and bent forward, leaning his hands on his knees.

“Never been kissed by your love, or so I’m told,” came a familiar voice.

Jasper straightened and whirled so suddenly that Micah took a quick step back before tilting his head to see the bard herself approaching them. 

“I apologise for the disruption,” Micah began, drawing Jasper and Karlie away to a quieter corner of the inn. A pair of girls with immaculate ringlets and rosy cheeks were surprising the crowd with an intricate counterpoint arrangement of “Bright the Candles, Dark the Night.” Another time he would have been fascinated by the four-part harmony sung by two voices, but nothing right now was so interesting as Jasper’s flushed face and wide eyes, his lashes still wet. “I didn’t think I’d get—”

“No, stop yourself there,” she said, raising the flat of her hand to his face and leaning away as if she might get some of his apology on her clothing. “I’ve not updated my own lines in a slew of yonks. It was an honour to be a part of that.”

“Oh…” Micah swept her praise aside with a wave of his hand.

Karlie slapped it down. “Genuine honour, title be fucked,” she said bluntly, shoving her instrument around onto her back and fanning herself with her hands. “I’ve no idea yet how I’m going to spin it, but that is going to be stolen, and the story of it will be getting told.”

“Then I would request you at least withhold it until next year.”

“What if I leave out your names?”

“And simply say ‘the Heir and an earl’s housemaster’? Seems a bit unwieldy.”

“I could go as far as leaving out anything to identify you at all, if I’m feeling kind.”

“Feel kind,” Jasper interjected, having pulled himself together at last.

“And you—I thought it was you,” she said, turning and focusing her attention on Jasper. To Micah’s surprise, Jasper seemed unusually nervous suddenly. The song was over, and what Micah considered the more difficult portion of the interaction—performing in front of strangers—was behind them.

“You two know each other?” Micah asked, moving so he could look back and forth between them. Jasper kept his face down in the shy pose of a child having to confess to breaking an entire dinner setting.

“No,” they both answered, and Karlie got a glance up from Jasper at this. 

“Well, you never actually spoke to me,” she pointed out.

“Jasper?”

“There was always someone else, and I didn’t want to push in,” Jasper said, still without looking up.

“Someone else what?” Micah asked.

“Talking to her. And, well, I didn’t really have anything to say.”

“Beg pardon, Śe Micah. Your companion here was always in the pub when I visited the prairies around Bear Bluff and Redglen. He’d be there before I even started, and was always there when I finally headed for bed every night. But he always managed to squirm away if I looked too likely to try to speak to him or anyone he was with.  Never heard his voice outside of laughter. So when he says he had nothing to say to a bard he never missed, it’s a flat-out lie.” She turned back to Jasper. “You could have told me you enjoyed my performance, and which story or song was your favourite, and if you’d heard any interesting variations, and what made you like things…” Karlie said, raising her eyebrows.

“Probably the same as everyone else.”

“But that’s what makes a song a favourite—more than one person likes it! Do you think the second person’s compliment somehow matters less? And no two people have ever completely agreed, liking and disliking all the same things.” She glanced at Micah, clearly expecting support.

“It’s true,” he admitted. “I’ve been told all sorts of different things would be brilliant for the dustworks, and that everything I’ve ever done with them was extremely disappointing. Casper’s heard the same.”

“And honestly, I’d been wondering what happened to the little grey-haired lad with the whistle that could slice stone.”

Jasper gasped out a laugh and ran a hand through his hair. “Ahh, mecks, this stupid hair—!”

Micah opened his mouth to protest, but Karlie beat him to it. “It’s lovely, that hair of yours. You stand out, lad. And now I’ve got my chance to ask: can you teach me to do that whistle you do? I always wanted to ask you, and you never gave me the chance.”

“Oh! Really? Well, yeah, it’s not that hard…” He glanced around the room and hesitated. “Um, maybe not in here, though,” he added, glancing at the singing girls.

“How long will you two be staying here?” Karlie asked.

“I dunno,” Jasper said, glancing at Micah. “I wanted to get to a few different places tonight. He’s never been out to a townie Fest.”

Karlie’s eyebrows went up and Micah grimaced, already fearing the teasing. But then she hesitated and shrugged. “Fair enough. I’m on to the Potted Pear next, if you like—”

She broke off, taking a quick step back as Jasper’s arm whipped around. He slapped the purse at his waist and brought his hand back up clenched around the slender wrist of a small girl a few years younger than the pair singing. She hung from his grip like a bunch of grapes—grapes that were kicking and squirming furiously. And shouting.

“Let go! You nasty man! Let go of me! Mummy, he’s hurting me!”

“Oh, aye?” Jasper snapped, running his eyes over the girl.

Micah stepped back, and Karlie hopped across to his side to dodge one of the girl’s kicks. She was no more than seven, but everything from the tiny pink cap perched on tufts of lavender, green, and blue hair to the shiny pink boots on her feet was perfectly coordinated to project an aura of such wealth that Micah found himself straightening his shoulders and tucking the ends of his cravat into place. Her screeching had stopped the multi-voiced girls, and there was a widening area around them as people turned and pushed away from this new form of entertainment.

“Mummy! Help!”

“And does your mummy know why your hand was inside my purse?” Jasper demanded, giving the girl a small shake.

The girl hiccupped and glanced aside as a couple of laughs started in the crowd. Jasper’s eyes never left her, even when she started craning her neck and the tears started.

Jasper lifted her to eye level, and Micah heard his slow, heavy exhalation as he glared into the crying little face. “You don’t get caught very often, do you?”

Karlie, keeping an eye on the crowd around them, raised her hands. “Anyone know this little one’s mother?” she called.

People shifted, looking around, and it gradually became apparent that if anyone did, they weren’t going to say. Her mother, if she was present, didn’t make herself known.

“You s-sc-scared… away… my mummy!” the girl gasped out between sobs.

Micah looked down. The girl’s feet still dangled off the floor, but her kicking had weakened to just enough to twist her in Jasper’s grip. He looked up again, and Jasper’s arm was just beginning to tremble. How long had he been holding her up? And he was still holding her… Just how strong is he?

“Your mummy has heard about how dangerous it is to try to pickpocket someone who works for the Vedouci,” Jasper was saying, his voice no longer pitched for the ears of the crowd. “She isn’t even here tonight. Is she.”

“I wasn’t! I wasn’t!”

Micah stayed silent. He had done nothing to protect Jasper’s purse. He hadn’t thought to. Would any purse-protection spells even work, for Jasper? The ones he knew were tied to the caster. They had to be cast by the purse’s owner, because. If the caster wasn’t the owner, the spells would go off whenever anyone but the caster—including the owner—tried to open the purse. That was the whole point. 

“I know when someone is trying to get my money, little lady. And these two Śeos here saw that I wasn’t even looking when I caught your pretty little hand in there.”

“Let me go!”

Jasper’s lips thinned to a hard line, and finally—finally—he lowered his arm, letting her feet touch the floor. But he didn’t let go. Instead, he sat down on a stool, putting his face at eye level with the girl. “Now, look. I’m not going to hurt you. But…” He paused, looking her over. “Your mum’s not here, and if your da is, he’s not saying. Pretty good thief, too—either good enough to keep yourself in finery, or the finery came first and you’re good enough that you haven’t been disowned by your family, maybe because they don’t know, or maybe you don’t get caught. But I caught you, and I’ll tell you this: it’s not an easy life. You’ll get older and easier to see, and you don’t make a lot of friends by thieving. Maybe you’ve got a gang, a good thief like you. If you do, you tell your friends: you don’t want to mess with me. I’ll let you go this once, so you can tell them. Don’t come near me, Don’t come near my friend. You understand?”

Micah bit the inside of his cheek. Why was Jasper doing this? What was he doing? Was he really letting her go?  Why would he let a thief go? Why was he telling her that she was good? How would he know that?

“I ain’t done nothing!”

Jasper’s grin was fierce, feral, and terrifying. “No, you ‘ain’t’.” His voice was a low growl little more than a whisper. “Fancy little Śe like you, saying ‘ain’t’?” He clucked his tongue at her, and to Micah’s astonishment, the girl paled, her eyes wide. “I think we understand each other, yes?”

This time, the girl nodded—fast enough that her hat shifted back and forth on her head.

Jasper relaxed, leaning back and letting go of her hand. She was gone before he could draw breath, and the corners of his lips lifted just a fraction. 

“Jasper? Jasper, what did—why? Why did you…?”

Micah set his hand on Jasper’s shoulder, leaning to study every detail of his face. Tension was ebbing from him, his soft, wide eyebrows lifting, his eyes creasing with laughter, his jaw relaxing into a grin. He got to his feet and patted Micah’s back. “Nah, just what you saw. It’s the tiny ones, every time. Every time…”

“Tiny ones? What?”

“Micah, it’s not a big deal—”

“What isn’t? Why?”

His tone shook a little of the smile from Jasper’s face. “No, really, it’s nothing. I caught her hand in my purse, that’s all. She didn’t get anything from me.”

“And is your purse protected?” Micah demanded, glancing down at the simple leather pouch at Jasper’s waist.

“Well, yeah, by me,” Jasper admitted, glancing at Karlie, who was watching them still.

“So…” Micah cut himself off, realising what the look at Karlie had meant: Did Micah want to mention Jasper’s nullness? There was a witness. 

Micah did not. “And… does this happen often?”

Jasper shrugged and lifted his cider. Micah stared at it. Jasper was so relaxed about his brush with theft—protection charms were yet another magical convenience he survived without, so he navigated the lack in his own way. Of course it would have happened before, and it was common enough that Jasper categorised the experiences (the tiny ones, every time). 

“Really, Micah, it’s not a big problem. Anyone tries to pick my pocket, well, I either catch ’em or I don’t. I don’t usually leave ’em much to steal, anyway.”

“Śi Jasper,” Karlie began, laying a hand on his arm. “Before you teach me your whistle, perhaps I could teach you a charm or—”

“No, no, no,” Jasper said quickly. “Really. I’ve got enough magic on me already. Any more and I’ll crumple under the load.”

“But you said your purse isn’t—”

“And it’s not, and that’s because I’ve got a whole shipload of other protections on me so I can take proper care of him,” Jasper said firmly, nodding at Micah. “My purse doesn’t have that much in it, when I know I’m going to have all this other stuff on me. I don’t see what you two are fussing about. I really don’t.”

Knowing for certain that Jasper was lying and having worked with him for months, Micah thought he could see the signs: a slight hesitation in the way his lip hit the edge of his tankard, the way he looked away from Micah’s eyes just a sliver of a second sooner than Micah expected, an extra blink before he looked back—none of these things would register with anyone else, but Micah was coming to consider himself an expert on this particular face. And this was a lie Jasper was used to telling, after all. This was normal, for him. Micah would have to learn to lie just as well if he didn’t want to raise any suspicions—and they could not afford to raise any.

“Well. Even if you continue to attract the same high-quality thieves in the future, I admit that between the two of us, we should be able to keep you safe,” Micah said, making an effort to relax.

“Yeah, I’m not too worried,” Jasper said, a grin working its way back onto his face.

“I suppose anything I could teach you might be a bit disappointing,” Karlie said, glancing at Micah.

“On the contrary—I’m sure you’ve defended against more theft attempts than I have,” he told her. After all, bards travelled incessantly, and spent far more time in inns and pubs with crowds of drunken revellers than he would ever have time for.

“When you put it like that, Śe Micah, I’ve a mind to challenge your title as heir.”

Micah smiled slowly without blinking or looking away from Karlie, waiting until she was truly disconcerted and Jasper took a breath, ready to leap in to rescue her. He stopped Jasper with a glance and said, “You’ve a mind to? I do hope you keep that mind safely in a jar somewhere, out of harm’s reach,” his tone light enough to drain the tension.

She let her breath out with a quiet gasp, and Jasper turned away for a moment as though preparing to leave. When he turned back, he was smiling, but grudgingly. 

“One absolute requirement,” Micah went on, “is that any Vedouci’s heir needs to recognise limitations. There are so very many types of magic, after all, and an infinite range of tasks for them to accomplish. No one can be an expert in everything. I shall be very lucky if, in my lifetime, I can learn a range of basic spells in each of the different types. It is unrealistic to expect me to be the best at each of the spells I do learn.”

“You should hear him explaining why a certain type of magic is the best tool for any particular task,” Jasper said. “It gets pretty dense. I’m getting better, though—I’ve almost understood him a few times.”

Karlie laughed, then glanced around behind them. “Much as I’m enjoying this, I’d best get moving. I’d never gather much news if I only spoke to the interesting people. Śi Jasper, d’you know where you’ll be going this evening? I was serious about that whistle of yours.”

“Oh! Yeah, um, not really sure. We don’t have a route planned or anything. Tell you what—what’s your night look like? I’m sure you’ve got a serious itinerary, yeah?”

She bit her lip and tipped her head, letting her eyes wander. Micah found himself wondering how old she was. She’d visited Jasper’s town often enough to make an impression yet rarely enough that her visits were an event, which meant she must have had a solid reputation even then. Her blonde hair was thick and wiry, pulled to the back of her head and tied there, leaving her tanned face free. There were lines on her forehead and at the corners of her eyes, but he wasn’t inclined to believe they were from age and not weather. The liberal covering of freckles kept kicking at his mind, insisting she was no more than six. Now he thought about it, her confidence also seemed misleading. It could have been from age and experience, or it could have been the confidence of a child who has yet to discover concepts such as self-consciousness, embarrassment, guilt, or anxiety. But of course no child could pluck a ludolin to life with her skill.

She listed a series of inns, pubs, tea houses, homes, and airships, and Jasper was nodding along, pulling out his watch to check the time, his head waggling side to side, his eyes wandering vacantly as he thought. “Wild Grapes would be a good one,” he said, studying his watch again, then glancing up at Micah. “Sound okay?”

“Hm? Oh, our next stop? You’re the one in charge tonight, remember?”

Jasper grinned and shook his head slightly. “Yeah, fine. Two or three hours? If that doesn’t work out, I was hoping to get us as far as Dusya’s Homeship by morning. Say, eight o’clock.”

“Really? A homeship? In this?” Karlie asked, waving a hand toward the door.

“Sure. The ship’ll still be there, and if the planks are pulled in, they have a portal.”

Do they, now?” Karlie rocked back in surprise, then shook herself with a glance at Micah. “Oh, pardon, Śe Micah—”

“That does happen to be one I created, yes, but not all the portals were made by me.”

“No, but anything less than twenty years old was.”

“Now that’s not true either,” Micah began.  He was blushing, he knew he was blushing, why had he agreed to come out and go Festing in town, in front of Jasper, especially in front of Jasper…

The portals had always made sense to him; it had taken a long time  to understand that they didn’t to anyone else. Something he had understood as a child, something so tied in his memory to his youngest days, and it somehow still seemed mysterious and baffling to the vast majority. It was the reason he held the position of heir, yet he associated it with his childhood. Occasionally he’d explain the theory and a few people understood, but too often he would try to explain to someone who had simply wanted to compliment him. He would have his own embarrassment for misunderstanding them, as well as a portion of vicarious embarrassment for their incomprehension of such a simple thing. 

“Okay, you two, calm down. Take a step back,” Jasper interrupted, inserting the flat of his hand between them and pushing back lightly on Micah’s chest. “Don’t make me send one of you to your room.”

Karlie ducked her head, biting her lips to keep from grinning. “Sorry, Śi. Beg pardon, Śi. Won’t happen again, Śi.”

“See that it doesn’t,” Jasper said, the fair-minded taskmaster who’d been appeased. 

Micah glanced up and Jasper himself was blushing now. This was something Jasper did daily: catching arguments before they escalated, defusing them, rewarding prompt returns to good behaviour by withholding a stern lecture. The blush wasn’t because he was overstepping his role or putting himself forward. This was a natural reflex, for Jasper, nothing special—much as Micah felt about the portals. Jasper’s specialty was people, not magic, and making sure everything always went smoothly, with maximum efficiency. He knew what he was good at, and how good he was, and he was—as far as Jasper was capable, anyway—proud of it. What had changed? Yes, it was teasing, but Jasper was always teasing him. Oh, but rarely in front of anyone else. That was the difference here: Jasper was teasing him in front of other people. Wasn’t that interesting.

Micah lost the next few sentences to the roaring in his ears and the concentration it took to keep his breathing under control. Jasper tipped up his tankard and gulped, lowering the empty vessel and sucking his top lip into his mouth. He looked up at Micah, eyebrows lifted. He glanced at Karlie and smiled, then cocked one eyebrow higher as his attention returned to Micah. 

Mecks! He’d been asked something, he had no idea what it was, and Jasper was waiting for an answer, and he’d taken too long to even realise so he couldn’t pretend he’d been paying attention and simply hadn’t heard. “I put myself entirely in your hands,” he said, pleasantly surprised by how calm his voice sounded in his own ears, and by the happy coincidence that whatever Jasper and Karlie had asked him seemed to match the answer he gave.

“Until later, then, Śeos,” Karlie said, giving them a formal nod and softening it with an impish wink before turning and heading back toward the bar.

“Did you know that little girl?” Micah demanded, taking hold of Jasper’s elbow and pulling him close so no one else would overhear the question.

“What? No, ’course not,” Jasper said, tipping his head back to study Micah’s face. “Why would you think that?”

“Because you sounded impressed, and you let her go. Why did you do that?” He had no right to tell Jasper what to do, he knew that, so it really was a genuine question. In any case, Jasper kept his morals more scrupulously distinct than Micah would ever manage, which was exactly why Micah was so shaken by the girl.

“I let her go because… I’ve known too many kids living like that. Most of Onfroi’s bunch have been through a thieving period, living by their wits one way or another. They do what they have to. Sure, most thieves are a bad lot, but it takes a lot of nerve or desperation to start that young. And it never hurts to have an ally or two with eyes a bit closer to the ground.”

“You sound like you should be working in the clerical and diplomatic wing.”

“You mean with your spies.”

Micah studied him carefully before risking a response. “The burden of your life is that you would be incredibly good at anything you choose to do, I’m afraid.”

“I think I’d be a terrible Vedouci.”

Ducking his head did nothing to hide the surprised giggle Jasper’s words elicited, but he couldn’t help considering the idea. “Do you know… Casper taught me that one of the most important lessons for all Vedoucis is knowing when not to use magic.”

“Yeah?” Jasper’s eyes drifted away for a moment as he considered this. “Okay… okay, yeah, I can see that. I can see how that would work.” And then his eyes snapped back to Micah. “But now, you ready to move on?”

Micah cupped a hand around the base of his tankard, which was cool against his fingers. “Oh. Yes, I suppose.”

Seeing his hesitation, Jasper reached over to feel the metal, his fingers brushing against Micah’s. “You want to finish it?”

“It’s gone cold.”

“You can reheat it,” Jasper said, staring into Micah’s eyes.

Well, of course. But how much alcohol would it be safe for him to consume at the start of a long night in Jasper’s company, during which there would be many more drinks?

“I think,” he said slowly, Jasper’s touch warm against his hand, “I’d better pace myself. If there’s heating to be done, it might be more efficient to apply it directly to whatever will sorely need it.”

Chapter Text

It took effort to pull his hand away from Micah’s, but Jasper was very proud of himself for managing it. Something new was going on in Micah’s head tonight, and he thought it might just be hopeful for one grey-haired boy from Redglen. And that idiotic, rascally lad had already pushed his luck  over the horizon in the last two hours. Fingers were nice, fingers were lovely, as were drinks and making the future Vedouci of Kuzul giggle and blush and get up in front of a bar full of revellers and perform fire tricks and then spout a line of utter nonsense about that idiotic rascal and light the place up as brightly as he had with his fire.

But now they had the other half of the Fest’s heart to contend with once more. They’d had the light, and now they had the dark again. And this was a bitter monster of a Fest’s dark, with no light visible anywhere, and Jasper gave in and pushed Micah into a corner, startling him into looking up again for the first time since they’d left the inn.

“I need you to do some things for me,” Jasper shouted, leaning close to the silver-blue hood. “I need some light, or I’m going to have us over the edge on one of these ramps. Something we know I can definitely see.”

Micah blinked, then the area brightened even before he was nodding. Jasper looked up, getting a glimpse of a soft-white glowsphere floating above them before hard, driving snow stung his eyes, forcing him to duck his head. 

Micah grabbed his shoulders, peering into his face.“Snow in my eyes,” he told Micah, patting the younger man’s arm. “Stupid me, I should’ve brought goggles.”

“I’ll take care of that,” Micah announced.

“What?”

“Nevermind. Not now. What else?”

“I need you to keep yourself warm—take care of yourself,” Jasper said, and again Micah was reacting before Jasper finished speaking; he could feel Micah shaking his head. “Don’t!” Jasper snapped. “I know you can do it, so don’t argue! I’m wearing a coat, and the cold’s only hitting my nose and toes. I was completely selfish making you wear that cloak just because it looks good, but it is not warm enough and you can’t keep it closed!”

Just to make his point for him, a gust swirled into their corner and lifted the satin and fur into the air, sending it bubbling up behind Micah’s head and snapping the hem, waving it above their heads until it whistled across itself. Jasper swore and scrabbled to get hold of it with his thickly mittened hands, but the smooth fabric slipped out of his grip.

Then Micah batted his hands away and stepped aside. “No,” he said firmly, and swung an arm around himself as though twirling a rope. Even without being able to feel it, Jasper could see the warmth settle into Micah. He’d done nothing that restrained the movement of his main visible protection from the cold, but his shoulders relaxed, his neck straightened, his arms fell calmly to his sides. 

Well, now he was just magnificent, Jasper thought. The cloak whipped around above his head another moment, then fell lower behind him, billowing and snapping dramatically, framing Micah’s lean, powerful form. Now he looked like the immortal magical king in some fairy story, staring at Jasper with one eyebrow raised and his arms crossed, ignoring everything but Jasper’s reaction.

“Satisfied?” Micah asked.

He had to clear his throat to get his voice to work. “Dunno. What’d you do?”

“Warmed myself,” Micah said. “It won’t work on you. It is eating up a fair amount of power, though, so I would appreciate getting somewhere with food, and quickly.”

The intrusion of reality into Jasper’s mind startled him, and he laughed. No, Micah, I can’t explain how ridiculous it is for a magical immortal to be whiny about being hungry.  “Okay, we can do that.”

Jasper wasn’t sure he’d made the right choice when he’d told Micah to protect himself. The wind was still strong enough at times to stagger them, funnelled between buildings and bursting out of ramps, gates, and stairwells between levels, but without the cold, Micah strode through the storm like a romantic hero, occasionally raising a hand to hold his hood or his scarf and still clinging to Jasper whenever their balance was threatened. Every protective instinct Jasper had was aroused—and a few other instincts, as well. And now he couldn’t distract himself by worrying about how cold Micah must be. There was no getting away from it: the man was a menace.

 

When they reached their next stop, Micah pushed Jasper to go in first, and Jasper used the same greeting he’d used at the first inn. Micah simply rolled his eyes as the bakery’s patrons responded with a hearty “Drinkhail!” Jasper glanced back, intending to apologise again, but Micah was ready for it and glaring straight back at him. For one terrible second, Jasper’s heart stopped. Then something in Micah’s face shifted a fraction and Jasper spluttered into a laugh. “Okay, sorry! You do the next one!”

“Oh yes? And what will your offering be then? Perhaps you’d like to conjure some heat? Turn their hair pink? A few small dustworks?”

“I can juggle,” Jasper said defensively.

“Did you bring anything to juggle with?”

“Ohh ho ho, you don’t think I can juggle something other than balls?”

Micah opened his mouth, hesitated, and sighed, finally grinning. “Mecks take you. No, thank you, I do not want to sing our wassails. I’ll struggle along on skill alone.”

“You’ve got a good point, though,” Jasper admitted, sidling through the crowd toward the counter. “I could juggle. It’s not like—”

He stopped, frowning. In front of the counter was a young girl in a pink coat, hat, and boots, her pastel-tinted hair sticking up in tufts around the hat. She had a coin in her hand and tears on her face, and the baker was leaning forward over the counter and laughing. 

Micah bumped into his shoulder, and Jasper glanced back, then tipped his head so Micah could see past him. “Ohhhh. Someone else caught your little friend?”

Jasper glared back at him for a moment, then tipped his head, relenting. It wasn’t fair. Micah didn’t know what he was talking about, and for all they knew, he might be right. “Just… Let me do this.”

Micah gave him a puzzled frown, but nodded and hung back, slowly removing his scarf and mittens, untying the cloak’s knot behind his back, perfectly and blatantly preoccupied. 

Jasper sidled up behind the girl, waiting until he was in place to lift his chin and catch the baker’s eye. He put his hand on the girl’s shoulder, startling her. With their attention on him and not each other, Jasper said, “Ahh, sorry, Śeo.” He looked down into the girl’s wide eyes, the colour draining from her face. “Come on, squirt, how many times have I told you not to go up to the counter alone?” 

The trick was not to acknowledge her terror. She was clever enough to have an act going, and she was offering payment. If she was surviving on her wits, as he expected, then she should be able to adapt quickly and follow his lead. He’d given her a thorough fright earlier, so she’d also know not to take anything for granted. 

He looked back at the baker, who was now completely off balance, her eyes bobbing back and forth between the girl and Jasper. “Sorry, she’s always running off. It’s a terrible age.” He pushed his coat back and scooped a few coins out of his purse. “What were you after, squirt?”

“Stonesy’s treat,” the baker said promptly, but still wary.

“What kinds have you got?”

“We got plum, cherry, red apple, and blue apple.”

“You tried any?” he asked the girl.

“Not here.”

“Two breaks of the blue and one red. Let’s see…a panko basket for me, and…sweet mecks, is that your foolscap?” he asked, pointing at the glass case beside him.

“We got shredded duck, cheese and broccoli, and mutton.”

While the man’s attention was diverted, Jasper shifted his weight, sliding one foot over to step lightly on the girl’s toes to keep her from slipping away into the crowd. That freed the hand he’d been keeping on her shoulder, and he flicked his fingers across the bread basket out of sight from the baker, hidden around the side of the glass case. A quick curl and snap, and he flipped two buns into the air toward the girl. He felt her startle but she caught them cleanly, and they disappeared into her pockets. 

“I’ve got to have the broc and cheese. What you think, squirt?” he asked, suddenly turning back to her and dropping his hand onto her shoulder again. “Mutton or duck?”

“Umm…duck?” she said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.

Excellent. He had her so off-footed that she was steerable. “Okay, that, and a basket of rafi.”

“Well, just so you know, we got a Pandora’s bedspread over by the fire, compliments of the house.”

Jasper craned his head around to look, meanwhile flipping another couple of buns at the girl. “Look at that! Nah, I’ll still take the rafi too, please. We’ll have a nibble of that as well, but the fun of the Fest is trying lots of little things, too.” He looked down at the small pile of treats he’d amassed on the counter. “You got this lot counted up?”

“You’re up to one soverit, one deni.”

He looked at the coins in his hand. “Oo, make it soverit threebit for three cups of morning slap, too.” He handed the coins across and began lifting parcels down, handing them to the girl. “These are for Micah. Run those over to him.” He pointed to where Micah just happened to look over at them, then gave her a little push in that direction. Micah blinked slowly at him with the faintest hint of a smile, and Jasper felt something inside him unknot. 

He turned back to the baker, who was returning with three steaming cups to add to their purchases. “And here’s an extra threebit for the rolls.” He pointed out the holes he’d made in the display since the baker had last noticed.

“Ahh, I knew she was trouble!” the woman began.

“Nah, that was me. You know what they’re like, that age. Always trying to get away with things. I’m just keeping her amused, that’s all, and if I do it, she doesn’t. With the added benefit for you that I actually pay.”

“Well, whatever gets her through till she grows up a bit, I suppose. Would you like a tray for the rest, maybe?”

Jasper accepted, and worked his way through the crowd back over to Micah, who had claimed a table for them and was showing the girl handfire, making it dance around her palm. He looked up as Jasper arrived with the tray. “Grab that stool, Micah,” he added, pointing at one of the tall stools meant for the front counter.

Micah handed it over, mildly curious until Jasper plunked it down by the table. “Up you get,” he said, holding out a hand to help the girl climb on.

She hesitated for a long moment before sighing and taking his help. She kept her eyes on the food, but didn’t touch it.

“Nah, dig in, go on. Both of you. Yes, you, Micah.”

The girl’s fingers seemed particularly weak and delicate as she slowly rolled one of the rafi out of the basket and onto the table in front of her, cautiously beginning to tear strips off and set them gently in her mouth. She didn’t speak, she didn’t look up at either of them, but she also didn’t wolf the food down.

“You’re clever. I like that,” Jasper said. “Got a name, squirt?”

“Squirt,” she said quietly.

“He doesn’t mean to insult you,” Micah said gently.

“’Course I don’t,” Jasper agreed, keeping his tone conversational.

“Not insulted,” she said in the same dull voice. “Just that you called me that, so that’s my name.”

Jasper picked up one of the little two-pronged forks and tried a piece of the panko. “Oh, this isn’t bad. What do other people call you?”

“Different things. Alice, sometimes. Dash, sometimes. Or the Eel. Morty. Tufty.”

“I get it.” Jasper nodded, still careful not to look at her much. Micah was watching them both with the same cautious curiosity, saying nothing as he dipped his fork into the mound of shredded duck. “What about the people you spend the most time with?”

“Nobody like that, really.”

“Huh. You like it that way?”

She shrugged.

“How’s the duck?” Jasper asked, seeing both the girl and Micah had tried it already.

“It’s good,” she said, a little more life in her voice. 

“The meat is quite good,” Micah said, “but the mushroom is remarkable. The last time I had this, the mushroom was enormous, the size of your head,” he added, nodding at the girl. “But it was leathery and bland. This one is soft, almost succulent. For a mushroom.”

“This broc and cheese is spec-tac-ular,” Jasper said firmly. 

The girl gave it a very dubious look. Micah smiled and added, “I’m curious to know what their Pandora’s bedspread is like, now.”

“Saw that, did you?” Jasper turned to look at the table in front of a roaring fireplace, where a tall, dark-skinned woman with glowing green hair stood holding the carving utensils, cutting slices off of a mound of meat that covered a table large enough to seat twelve. “Well, it’s not birds, anyway.”

“Traditionally, it’s meant to be camel, sheep, and lamb.”

“I had no idea camels were that huge,” Jasper said, craning his neck. Enough had been carved away that he could see the nested carcasses as the woman pressed her knife through, effortlessly producing slices thin enough to be translucent. “Yeah, I wouldn’t mind getting a piece of that.”

Before the words had finished falling from his lips, the girl was on her feet and disappearing into the crowd. 

“What was that?” Micah asked.

Jasper shook his head and pointed. Another moment, and she reappeared in front of the green-haired woman, pointing back at them. She was given a plate, begged another one and stacked it under the first, and then she began to fill the top one. The first two slices were paper-thin. She said something, and the woman shook her head at first, and then came more pointing. Jasper didn’t look away, and met the chef’s glare with wide-eyed curiosity. Another slice was added, this one about five times as thick as the first. More arguing, and the green-haired chef added another. The little girl ducked her head and gave a quick curtsy, then vanished again.

Jasper turned back to the table. Micah turned his bewildered gaze on Jasper, his lips parted to speak but without managing to form any words. Jasper shrugged and got another forkful of panko into his mouth before an empty plate clattered onto the table beside Micah. Then, carefully holding the plate full of meat with both hands, she reached across her own spot and set the meat down where both Jasper and Micah could get to it.

“Well  that was decisive,” Jasper said, immediately setting the tines of his fork into one of the transparent slices and flicking it into the basket in front of him as the girl climbed back onto her stool.

She didn’t say anything and just shrugged. 

Jasper slid the edge of his fork across the slice, cutting off a piece with all three meats, folding it, and popping it into his mouth. Rich, tender enough to melt in his mouth but firm enough so it held together on the fork, and seasoned with a few simple herbs. “Wow.”

“Are you going to try to have me arrested?” the girl asked.

“Yeah. There you go. That’s my plan out in the open,” Jasper said. “What’s yours?”

“No business of yours.”

“Okay. You done your bit yet, here?”

“What do you mean?” she demanded, finally turning and glaring at him.

“For the Fest. What do you do for that?”

She ground her teeth for a moment, clearly disappointed that he hadn’t given her any reason to vent her anger at him. “No. I don’t do that.”

“What, got nothing you can show off?”

“No, not really,” she snapped.

For all her anger, Jasper noticed she was still eating, slowly and steadily. The first time he tried to talk to them, most kids would wolf down whatever he offered and leg it. Having her stay and brazen it out had him nearly as off-footed as she was. Usually he’d terrify them, let them go, and then the next time they turned up they’d run when he made eye contact. When they realised he still wasn’t chasing, they’d linger just out of reach. He’d slip them a few treats, they’d get up the nerve to ask him questions, tell him a little about themselves, and scamper off if anything spooked them. It was a long, delicate process before they’d spend this much time around him in one sitting.

“I can show you a few tricks, if you’d like.”

Micah’s voice startled him, and Jasper and the girl both turned to stare. He’d almost forgotten Micah was even there. 

Micah ignored their surprise. “Handfire isn’t that difficult, for a start. But I can’t call you ‘squirt.’ Pick something else.” 

The girl sat still for a moment, blinking at Micah. “But aren’t you the Vedouci?” she tried.

“Of course not. That’s Casper. I’m Micah. I’m just the heir—not really anything, yet.”

Jasper felt a lopsided, crazed grin growing on his face. Maybe that was the difference this time: curiosity about Micah.

“What else can you do?” she asked, picking up her fork again and stabbing it into one of the thick slabs of meat.

“Well, let’s see.” Micah slid back on his seat and looked around them. “Ah. Watch the row of candles above the hearth.”

Jasper pivoted to watch. He would never have put candles there, himself. The heat of the fire would soften them up in no time. Of course, that was assuming they were beewax and the kind of fire he could light with a flint. And even then, there was probably some spell keeping them intact. 

Wait. He blinked a few times, thinking he’d seen the white wax move. Was there something running along the mantel, just behind the candles? He couldn’t quite catch up with the movement, and watching the end of the broad stone slab was fruitless. Then the movement went back the other way, and this time he caught on: the wax was changing colours, as though a rainbow were sliding across in front of them, then moving back in the opposite direction. The colours were faint at first, but were becoming richer with every second and every pass.

Jasper looked back at Micah and saw his hand resting on the table, forefinger bent just so, moving back and forth in time with the colours. Micah met his gaze briefly, then his hand relaxed. When Jasper turned back to the fireplace, the colours were fading away again.

What? Did you—how did you…” The girl’s voice was squeaky and excited, and for the first time since Jasper had shocked her out of her tears at the Fennec and Stoat, she sounded like a regular child. Her eyes lit up and she waved her hands around, full of frantic excitement and not knowing what to do with it. 

Micah chuckled softly, but shook his head. “No, no. Name first.”

Her eyebrows knotted in despair for a fraction of a second, then her lips thinned. “Frieda.”

“Ahh. An old one.”

She blinked at him, startled. “How did you know?”

“Oh?” Micah studied her thoughtfully. “It suits you.”

Glaring at Micah didn’t have any effect, and Jasper didn’t know which of them he was more proud of. “What else can you do?”

“I think it’s your turn, isn’t it?”

“But…I don’t know any.”

The crushed, crumpled tone of voice put Jasper on high alert. He leaned forward to catch Micah’s eye, then shook his head and made a slashing motion in front of his neck. This was not an avenue that was safe to pursue right now, as it was a solid risk that she would simply run away. Micah lifted his chin slightly to acknowledge him, but answered her anyway.

“Then isn’t it a good thing that you met me? Now. Go fetch some water from that keg.” He pointed to the barrel next to the door.

She hopped down and scampered away, and Jasper leaned across the table. “Do you realise how close you came to scaring her away?”

“I’m not sure what’s going on here, but little Frieda is going nowhere, not any time soon.”

“What do you mean?”

Micah shrugged, and then she was back, and Jasper put the question aside. “What’s this for?” she asked Micah, standing at his side.

Micah lifted the pottery cup and held it out to her. “First, taste it.”

She took a tiny sip. “Well, it’s cold. But it’s just water.”

“All right. First, let me do…this.”

He interlaced his fingers and held them over the cup, hiding it from view for a moment. When he lowered them, the cup was gone. In its place was a clear glass holding a liquid of such a dark red that it was barely translucent. “And now?” he asked.

“Wine!” She bent to look through it, tipping her head sideways, her tiny nose an inch away.

“Ah, but is it?”

She frowned at him, then straightened up, curious. Micah raised an eyebrow and pointed at the glass. She started to pick it up but pulled her hand back. “It…is it still there? It’s… rough?”

“Is it?”

She picked it up, sniffed it, and tipped it up just enough to wet her top lip, which she then licked off. Now her eyes went back to the glass, and this time she took a proper sip.

“It still tastes like water.”

“So which is it—water, or wine?”

“Water.”

“So what it looks like doesn’t matter? Nor what it feels like?”

“Well, no. Not when it tastes like water. And I know it’s water. I got it out of the water barrel.”

“All right then.” He cupped his hands over the drink again, and this time when he pulled them back, the clay cup was back on the table. “There you go. Good as new.” He waved a hand at it, inviting her to drink again. 

She picked it up and took a mouthful, then stopped. Her face crumpled as though trying to pull itself as far away as it could from the taste. She looked around for somewhere to spit, found nothing, and forced herself to swallow. “Gah! Was that wine?”

“Smell it.”

“Do I have to?”

He laughed. “Then I’ll tell you. Yes, it smells like wine. Jasper?”

Jasper blinked. “Oh. Me? Okay…” He leaned forward and sniffed. “Yeah, that’s a red.”

“So what is it? Water or wine?”

“It’s water!”

Micah switched his gaze to Jasper, who had to shrug. “I dunno. Smells like wine, seems to taste like wine.”

And then Micah simply shook his head. “I have no answer for you. I can tell you that I can change the look of it, or the smell and taste—which seem to be linked, somehow. But making it smell, taste, and look like something else is exponentially more difficult than doing one or the other.”

“So… you can turn one thing into another?” Frieda asked.

“I would say not entirely. But it is comparably easy to change how a thing tastes. And I can teach you that.”

Frieda nodded eagerly. Jasper simply stayed silent and watched, sliding the broccoli-filled mushroom cap over in front of himself to rescue it from the mad experimentation that ensued. Micah had to restart his instruction several times, each time breaking things down to a level more basic than the last until he finally found a set of concepts she understood. He managed to do so without making Frieda feel patronised at any time, for which Jasper was very grateful. It was a little sad, really, seeing Micah leading her through the steps, finding gestures she could manage with small fingers and giving her new mental images to help things along. He was a good teacher. He was a very good teacher. Was teaching a thing that vedoucis were taught, themselves? Was Micah naturally good at it? It didn’t seem like a thing he’d be called upon to do very often, at any rate, and that thought depressed Jasper. The depressing truth was that people who were good at something too often found themselves taken away from it. A great fisherman would find himself captain of a fleet of trawlers. A brilliant embroiderer wound up managing a clothing shop. Someone good at training animals would find herself having to manage the farm instead. The engineer who designed ingenious new airships motor but ran a repair shop.

“No, lemme try again.”

“All right.”

Frieda hummed to herself, staring intently at the water, lowering her cupped hands above it. Where Micah had lifted his hands away, Frieda brought hers down on top of the clay rim, flattened them, then slid them down the sides of the cup.

Micah nodded, then picked the water up and tasted it. He tipped his head appreciatively and took a longer drink. “Not bad. It’s definitely wine, but here, taste.”

She frowned as he held the cup out, but took a sip. “Yeah. That’s what I wanted.”

“You made it sweeter.”

“Well, that stuff you did tasted like juice that’d died about a million years ago.”

“Not a bad description of what wine is,” Micah said, and took another sip from the cup. “Now let’s try something else. Try snow, and green grass, and…something sharp. Broken glass? No—a glass spike.”

As he spoke, she held her hands over the cup again. 

“Do you have that? Green, bright and fresh; the slickness of the glass, smooth, glossy, shining…and ice—cold, stabbing, shocking, pointed, like the spike, smoothness and coldness and the brightness of green…”

She lifted her hands away, and this time Micah simply sat, then waved her on and pointed at the cup. 

“Oh! Ummm…” She sucked up a mouthful and held it, her cheeks rounded out as she tipped her head back and forth. Then she swallowed and announced, “Mint!”

“May I?”

She nodded, and Micah tasted it. “Yes. In fact…that’s sword mint. Very good. Try it again, only with blue glass, not clear, and…perhaps a sharp wooden stick tapping on the thin skin of a drum.”

Another taste for them both. “Peppermint?” she asked.

He grinned. “You are quite good. Did you notice this time? You didn’t need to hum.”

“Well it was already minty, and with the glass…”

Jasper found Micah suddenly looking at him again, and with a different kind of smile. Smaller, careful, a touch of hope to it. “Minty,” Micah repeated.

“Hm?” Jasper leaned forward, feeling he was missing something, then it clicked into place. “Oh!” 

Minty. The first time he’d licked numium off his finger in front of Micah. But was that really what Micah was thinking? Oh. Oh. That rosy blush on his cheeks, such a soft pink against his pale skin, the way his pale lashes looked against his cheeks when he looked down, turning slightly away. They’d both felt it. Jasper would swear they both felt it.

“Micah! Micah, try this one!”

He took the cup from her hands and bent over it for a long moment, then frowned. He sniffed again, more deeply, and glanced up at her before tasting it. He swirled it from cheek to cheek, across his tongue, swallowed, and his eyes lit up. “Oh! You added chocolate?”

The nod took her whole body, her shoulders rocking forward, her fists clenched and resting against the edge of the table. “Do you like it?”

He smiled and took another sip. “Yes. Yes, that is quite good. Would you like to try something larger?”

Her smile faded a bit, but she nodded again.

“We’ll have to ask first. Come with me.” Micah got to his feet, and held his hand out to her. “Would you mind waiting here, Jasper? I don’t expect we’ll be long.”

Something was wrong. The tightness in his belly, a rush of heat inside his chest…Jasper stared at the table for a moment, seeking a cause. His breathing was tense, his whole body was, the shaky feeling in the pit of his stomach, the roaring in his ears; oh yes, he knew this. And yet this was new.

“Jasper?”

He looked up. Micah was still standing there, now with Frieda next to him, her hand in his. 

Yes.

“Hm? No, sure. Fine. Go ahead.”

“What was—” Micah gestured at him vaguely. “Is something wrong?”

“What? No, no. Just trying to remember where else I wanted to go, trying to plan a route.”

Micah’s lips thinned. “We won’t be long,” he promised, and looked back over his shoulder at Jasper for the first few steps.

Micah headed for the baker’s till back by the entrance, where there was a short queue. The moment Micah turned away, Jasper hung his head and thumped his fists on the table. Micah clearly hadn’t entirely believed him. But he hadn’t been ready with a lie, because, well, he hadn’t been ready. 

This was stupid! It was a little girl! How could he envy a little girl? How could he be jealous at the idea of her holding Micah’s hand while he was left behind? But he was. He very much was. The man had no idea how attractive he was. His auburn hair finger-combed and re-combed whenever they came inside, the long lines of his legs inside trousers that just barely skimmed over his skin when Micah stood, and stretched tight and revealing when he bent or sat. And those hands of his, so feckin’ marvellous as they wove spells, dove through fire and air, flicked and flung out gestures of such grace that Jasper wanted to bite them. Of course he needed to put mittens on the man. Those fingers were the real magic, and he wouldn’t risk them for anything. And besides that, he didn’t think he’d stay on his feet in the storm if Micah had gestured while wearing his more usual thin leather gloves. 

Oh yes, he had it bad.

And now, all Micah was asking was that Jasper wait behind while he made a little girl feel pride in herself for the first time in her life. This was no way to behave! And anyway, Micah was his for the night. For the next two days, as well. Frieda—and maybe that was her name—would run away the first chance she got. 

He waited at the table, as asked, and slowly finished off the broccoli foolscap—it was too good and would have been criminal not to. When Micah returned to the table, Frieda was off on a trip around the room with a pitcher, pouring water into cups at tables all across the bar and getting smiles and laughter in return. 

“Well?” Micah said, standing beside the table and looking down at him. 

“Hm?”

“Are you ready to move on?” Micah plucked one of the sweet rafi out of the basket, tearing it delicately into strips.

“Oh, are you sure?” Jasper nodded toward Frieda.

Micah didn’t even turn to look. “Of course. Unless you…?”

“No, nope. I’m good.”

“I thought so. Shall we?”

“If…are you sure?”

Micah smiled, and suddenly Jasper was unable to look away, his chest hot and tight again. “But you’re the one who said it—I’m yours for the night. Not hers.”

And Jasper had to nod for a few seconds before he could speak. “I’m not going to be able to use that one again, am I?”

This grin was pure evil. “No. You’re going to have to juggle.”

Chapter Text

FIVE

 

 

Now that he wasn’t preoccupied with remembering to breathe, Micah was far more aware of how the cold was affecting Jasper. Or at least how he thought it must be—Jasper hid it well. Micah could feel the tension in him whenever he took Jasper’s arm, which he may have been doing a little more often than was strictly necessary, but it may also have been because it felt like Jasper needed it. He’d wound the full length of his red scarf around his hood and tied it off and kept his arms folded across his chest, his shoulders hunched and his head down. The long black coat stayed wrapped around him better than Micah’s cloak stayed around him, but he saw Jasper stealing glances at him when they passed an alley and the cloak whipped out beside him or behind him. He might have minded that Jasper had chosen the cloak more for looks and style than for warmth, but Jasper was right—he could take care of himself, in any number of ways. It would have been hypocritical in any case as Jasper’s black coat was handsome, elegant, striking, gorgeous. 

Gravitas wasn’t a thing Jasper sought out. He would never think to take himself so seriously. If Micah had worn it, he would have faded away like a star in daylight, just another serious official blending into the background. But Jasper’s easy grin and lively manner would never lead anyone to see him as staid, bland, pompous, or pretentious. Occasional glimpses of the fiery-red lining were no more brilliant than his smile.

They were reaching one of the larger airways when Micah felt something odd. “Jasper. Jasper!”

Jasper ducked sideways to face him, his shoulder shielding his face. “What?”

“Wait. Wait here. Stop.”

Micah lowered his head, trying to concentrate. There had been a sound, a feeling, something he couldn’t place. It had been nagging at him, pulling his attention at odd moments all day. A dozen times, he had almost noticed something, almost felt it, and stopped before the thought was completed. In the lab, in the hall at Foldings, at breakfast, eating rafi, listening to Karlie. Something about the way he breathed, his breath, the air in his lungs, how it felt in his nose, his throat, his eyes. Was it a taste? A smell? A touch? An emotion?

“This is wrong.” 

Micah’s eyes popped open in surprise, but it had been his voice. Jasper was studying him carefully, but waiting for an explanation. Micah looked around them again, pulling the cloak tighter. “This snow, this… cold. Something about it, all of it… it’s just…wrong.

“You don’t get snow in Lunule?” Jasper asked doubtfully.

“Of course it snows, yes,” Micah said, still staring up, trying to find what had convinced him. “But… there’s something going on. There’s too much of something, or too little.”

“You’ve got ice in your eyelashes,” Jasper said, his voice flat. “Whatever else, there’s too much cold, and it’s us, and we’re going in and finding us some warm.”

Micah blinked and realised Jasper was right—he could feel his eyelashes pushing against each other and put his head down. “Of course, yes.”

They both heard it at the same time, and Micah grabbed Jasper’s arm and threw him against a shop door. Huge columns stood on either side of the door and Micah flattened himself between them, holding Jasper pressed against the door. The hollow, rushing sound of the wind rose to a howl and a wall of white swept toward them. Micah turned his face away and watched the debris swept up in it pass them: shop signs, barrels, tarps, scrap wood and sheet metal, all swirled around with light pots and glowspheres. Lights , glinted off the cloud of snow around them, magnified. It was an eerie pastel parody of the Festival, followed by shrieks and screams that made Micah’s hair stand on end. People who had been swept off the walkways and caught in the anti-fall spell were helpless, dragged along with no way to stop themselves. They wouldn’t fall, but most couldn’t control where the storm pushed them. Two men managed to spread their arms, using their coats as sails to glide to the opposite walkway. One woman’s elaborate fur hat clung to her head with what looked like arms, but her voluminous skirts whipped up and nearly lifted her off her feet. She grabbed hold of a ladder as she skidded past, and while her layers of petticoat fluttered around her face, a cluster of bonnets, scarves, parasols, shawls, gloves, muffs, hats, and cushions scattered past her like birds, some whirling up across higher levels, some drifting downwards. 

When the air cleared, Micah risked looking past the shelter of the columns. Boats had pulled free of their moorings, but there seemed to be no substantial damage. One had caught against a support beam near them, and with none of the city’s life boats in sight, those stranded in the air had no hope of rescue. Micah turned back to Jasper, stepping back carefully. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to squash you.”

Jasper was too shaken to argue, looking around at the debris. “No, I’m fine. Oh, feck, Micah…”

He was staring at a woman and a little girl who had drifted out to the middle of the airway. The mother was holding one corner of her cloak, the rest of it flapping and billowing loose behind her, blown off as she tried to drag herself toward the girl, who was too frightened to move. The brim of her bonnet had snapped back, leaving her face exposed to the wind, the ribbons fluttering around her cheeks. “Micah, come on! We have to do something!”

“No!” Micah pushed back against Jasper, bracing with his legs, leaving him no room to get any leverage. “They’re frightened, but they’re not hurt. Just wait here.”

Micah side-stepped carefully over to the nearby boat, waiting for a lull between gusts before he risked stepping in. It was one of the Piccolo line of little tugboats, and blessedly free of any type of sail or canopy. Not caring if he damaged the engine, he shot a bolt of power into it right at the starter, and hauled on the wheel to keep it from bucking ahead. The whole thing shook for a moment before Micah looked back and saw why. 

Jasper had leapt aboard and was climbing around the pipes on the far side of the cabin. “Don’t be stupid,” Jasper said, catching his eye. “If I’m in any kind of danger in this, then the safest place is with you, isn’t it?”

Micah sighed, knowing he was right. “Stay down, then. I don’t know if there’s more of that coming.”

Jasper nodded and crouched against the hull, relatively sheltered. Micah popped it into gear and immediately began sliding toward the stranded pair. The woman’s clothing had provided more drag, so she had been pulled further than the child. Now she was trying to wad her cloak up and throw it to her daughter, keeping hold of one end to pull her near. But she was throwing into the wind, and the whole thing was blown back into her face, pulling her slightly further away every time.

“Stop!” Micah shouted, waving an arm to get her attention.

“Help! I can’t reach her!”

Micah didn’t answer, concentrating on bringing the boat close to the girl without actually hitting her. The tug kept trying to turn side-on to the wind, and he couldn’t stop it— it put the girl squarely in its uncontrolled path. Micah slapped at the anchor lever, yanked off the chain brake and let the metal plummet twenty feet before the spell caught it. The boat jerked to a stop within a foot of the girl. Jasper leaned over the hull and grabbed her hand, pulling her closer and lifting her inside. 

“Mama!” She squirmed in his arms, reaching her arms out toward the woman.

Jasper comforted her while Micah retracted the anchor. “It’s all right, chick, she’s fine, she’s safe… oh, shit!”

The anchor came up and the boat drifted faster than Micah had hoped, and the port side was going to hit the mother. He tapped the throttle and they scooted past her, moving diagonally so the stern of the boat passed beside her. Jasper rocked off balance with the sudden move and made a quick grab for the hull as Micah’s hand shot out and grabbed the back of  his coat.

“All right?” 

Jasper nodded, and the little girl buried her face in the black wool of Jasper’s coat.

“Go fetch her before we slip again…” 

Micah slammed the gears into reverse and kept one hand on the throttle, leaning around the cabin to watch as Jasper scrambled aft over the piping again, the girl crouching down where she was. They’d drifted too far already and the woman was already well out of Jasper’s reach. “Hang on!” Another light tap to the throttle and Jasper pivoted as the boat moved past her again, still just out of reach. 

“Stop moving!” Jasper called over his shoulder, mittened hands scrabbling at his scarf. A lifeline—the same thing she’d tried with her cloak and her child, only they had a better angle, this time.

“Holding,” Micah shouted back, dropping the anchor again. He glanced aside at the child cowering by the hull. He tipped his head, beckoning her over without taking his hands from the controls. “Come here, dear. I’m Micah. What’s your name?”

She ducked close to him, hiding inside his cloak. “Tangie.”

“Tangie. It’s good to meet you. Now, hold very still, can you do that?” He couldn’t take his eyes off Jasper, tying a knot in one end of his scarf before throwing it out to the woman. 

She caught it—or rather, it hit her hand. The end fell out of her reach and Jasper pulled it back to try again. “Use both hands this time,” he called, and swung the scarf out to her again. This time she caught it, pressing her hands together oddly. “Right! Now just let me pull you over…”

As Jasper reeled the woman in, Micah relaxed enough to look down at the girl. Woollen dress and coat, but nothing was really warm enough in this storm. A knitted cap was pulled low on her forehead, leaving dark almond eyes visible above her scarf, and a mass of black curly hair sticking out in the back. Her coat and boots weren’t in the best condition, and her fingers poked out of the fingertips of her gloves. Micah pulled her against him, pressing her face against the side of his leg and wrapping the cloak around both of them. 

The boat rocked again as Jasper helped the woman inside, but she wasn’t coming forward. Jasper lowered her gently to the deck, wrapping his scarf around her neck and draping her woollen cloak over her like a blanket, tucking it in around her. She was shivering hard enough to shake the boat. Micah could feel the tremors, and no doubt so could Tangie.

“All right, let’s get you back there…” Micah guided her gently toward the side of the boat, helped her over the pipes and into Jasper’s waiting arms. “How is her mother?” Micah called.

Jasper simply shook his head and carried the girl back, holding the cloak up so she could squirm underneath. Micah watched until another gust swept snow into his face. He raised a hand to shield his eyes but still had to turn away.

“Wait, Micah,” Jasper shouted, and Micah turned back to see him hurrying back to lean over the pipes. “We need to get them somewhere warm. She can’t move her fingers, and mine aren’t so great either.”

Micah nodded, and almost as an afterthought, reached behind himself and tugged loose the ties of his own cloak. “Here, hold this a moment.” He let the wind lift the cloak off his shoulders and pushed it at Jasper.

“Don’t be stupid!”

“Just take it! I’ve got magic, remember?” He shoved the cloak at Jasper again and stripped his mittens off as well, tucked them under his arm, and began conjuring handfire. The first handful he blew into a gout of flame across the length of his body. Jasper began bundling the cloak up, but Micah stopped him. “No, hold it up.” The cloak billowed across the pipes and into his face, but that was fine—he caught it in the hand holding more flames and let the fire soak into the cloak, feeling it spreading, adding more when he felt it slow. When he had the thing so saturated that the flames were almost visible, flickering in his peripheral vision, he let it go, and held the mittens out to Jasper as well. “Wrap it around all three of you, now.”

Jasper’s eyes were wide. “Ahh, feck, I can’t even look at you like this…”

Micah still felt the press of the wind pulling at the scarf still around his neck, flapping the tails of his coat, but the coldness of the storm didn’t reach him. Seeing the clear distress in Jasper’s eyes, though, he whirled out another rope of fire and pulled it tightly into himself, the heat soaking into his clothing and settling there. “There. My hands are safe, I promise you. There’s a hall I can get us to that will have enough warmth for everyone. Just stay with them. I’ll make this fast.”

Micah vaulted back to the front of the boat and shoved it into gear, turning to put the wind behind them and getting them up to a speed that countered it. He’d have to cheat a bit, as one of the portals wasn’t strictly intended for air traffic, but the boat would fit and the owner was up at the castle enjoying Casper’s hospitality. He checked back over his shoulder regularly and could see Jasper and the woman speaking, the little girl almost hidden between them. Jasper caught him looking a couple of times and nodded, but had the sense to not get up. 

The first portal was simple—the controls were within reach of the tug’s helm. He took a deep breath before pushing the boat through, and on the far side they were headed back into the teeth of the gale. Jasper was right—goggles would have been a good idea. He sheltered his eyes with his mittened hand when he could, and cut a corner so closely that he held onto a porch’s railing to help keep them in line. He heard Jasper’s shout as he did, and he half turned his head in acknowledgement without taking his eyes off his route. He was flying like a maniac, he knew that, but few other boats were in the air, not wanting to contend with the wind and snow, so fewer obstacles, at least. The few pilots out in this were in enormous ships moving very slowly if at all, and much higher in the sky. 

The next portal was the tight squeeze. Micah slowed the boat, leaning low above the sides to gauge the clearance. He could make it, that was almost certain, but first he’d have to open the door. Technically it was two doors side by side, and they were locked, and barred on the inside. He wasn’t much good at picking locks, despite Tom’s best efforts, and not even Tom could charm the heavy wood-and-steel beam inside to wriggle out of the way. 

He could think of only one way, and he wasn’t going to waste time hoping to come up with a second. He glanced back at Jasper again, and the conversation back there seemed to have stopped with three pairs of eyes all staring at him. He bent over and set the end of his curled fist against the boat’s deck and drove the heel of his boot against the wooden plank three times. The spell was usually done with a particular person’s ear as the target, but he pushed the sound inside the house ahead of him, broadening it. It was more difficult to reverse things, effectively gathering sound rather than projecting it, but he used both hands to enhance it, pulling at the vibrations, teasing them louder. Regular thumping sounds—footsteps. Then a voice. “…Shouldn’t be anyone…not expecting…

He rapped again with his heel, and immediately followed it up with his voice: “It’s Micah. Open the door and stand aside, please.”

“Micah? From the castle?”

He lowered his hands quickly, grimacing at the volume of the woman’s excessively amplified shout, having forgotten to pull back on the charm. “Yes. Now, please!”

There was a pause, and he cautiously brought the volume back up until he was sure he heard the crossbeam being removed. As soon as the doors were spread wide enough to see inside, he revved the engine and let the boat dive forward. He heard a screech and then the sides of the boat were scraping the doors and he lifted the prow, bouncing off one of the stairs as he pointed them at the portal at the top of the grand staircase. He sent a stab of power at the controls with one hand, then leaned forward, caught the lever just as the nose hit the portal, yanked, and shot through.

He just had time to spin the ship around and slam on the brake, dropping the anchor before they hit the gate outside Grossman Hall. The chain of the anchor caught between two planks of the dock and yanked them to a stop. He fell forward across the controls but stayed in the ship, at least. Pushing himself up, he leapt over the pipes and met Jasper at the back of the little boat. 

Jasper was already staggering upright, leaving the two cloaks for the mother and child to wrap themselves in. “The feck are we?” he muttered at Micah.

“Warmest place I could think of,” Micah said shortly, lifting the girl over the hull and hopping out after her. “Run inside, Tangie. We’ll be right behind.” He gave her a push toward the gate, then turned back to the mother and Jasper. “I’m sorry, I’m Micah—what’s your name?”

“Wanika,” the woman said, her eyes wide as Jasper lifted her right over the hull almost as easily as Micah had lifted Tangie. Tangie now stood inside the railings of the wide brass gate, peering out at the rest of them. Micah caught her hand in passing and hurried up the path to the door. He didn’t bother with the bell and simply drove a hard spike from his palm at the door release, flinging it open before them.

A rush of sound and light and heat swept out at them and Micah paused, standing aside until Jasper and Wanika passed. Then he dragged the door shut and soothed the controls with a touch, and finally sagged against the wall.

He heard Jasper’s voice vaguely, maybe shouting something, and someone walking or running, and he simply closed his eyes. He’d been running on instinct since he’d heard that gust pick up, and had been firing out magic ever since. His limbs felt like wet string and his head was clogged with fog. Breathing was the height of his ambition, for the moment. He dragged air into his lungs, and it pumped straight back out of him. He waited a moment before trying again, this time holding it for part of a second before the pressure was too much again. By his fifth attempt, he was able to hold the air in for a full second. The pressure on his shoulders and chest eased, and gradually he managed to separate the roaring in his head into discrete sounds: a crowded place, a loud, insistent woman’s voice, and Jasper shouting. Shouting his name. He shook his head, then shook it again, and at least Jasper stopped. The woman was still going. He allowed himself another handful of controlled breaths before he opened his eyes and lifted his head.

Everything was dull orange, washed in firelight. One sphere congealed into the face of a woman he didn’t recognise, and a darker one resolved into Jasper, who was…very angry. The noise took a bit longer to separate completely.

“…Should never have let you do that, I shouldn’t have even brought you out…”

Micah raised a hand, pleased to find that he could. “If I’ve just heard you saying you had any say in anything I just did, I will melt your face,” Micah said wearily into the silence that met his movement. “I’ll be fine. I am fine. Just stop shouting.” He closed his eyes again and let his head fall back against the wall.

“Why are you sitting on the floor if you’re fine?” Jasper snapped.

“Because there wasn’t a chair here when I decided to sit,” Micah said. “Now hush.”

He doubted the quiet after his words was anything like obedience, but no one was shouting at him, so he waited until his breathing was normal again before trying to push himself to his feet. He shouldn’t have been surprised that at least three people tried to help. He pushed his back against the wall and froze halfway up, glaring around at the faces crowding him. Only one of them wasn’t cowed and didn’t back off, but it was the one person he was somewhat comfortable to have in that position.

“You clumsy eege, wearing yourself out with a bunch of stupid twirls…”

“Jasper. Stop.”

Jasper did, but continued getting Micah back on his feet again and studying his face. Micah pushed his hands away gently, and looked himself over. The ends of the silver scarf hung down his back in one long knotted mess, and he untangled them before unwinding it and dropping it to the floor. He pulled the standing collar of his coat back into place, gathering the ends of his cravat off his shoulders and retying it, tucking it back inside his waistcoat. He ran his hands through his hair, finding more knots than he thought he had the hair for. 

“Are you all right?”

He looked up at Jasper again, and this time saw the honest fear there. “Yes. Yes, I’m fine. Ohh… I’ll explain.” He looked around them, and people seemed to be pretending to take no notice of them while still lingering awkwardly in the entranceway. “Let’s go inside.”

Jasper gathered up the scarf and cloak, and offered Micah his arm. It was marginally easier to take the arm and suffer the wonder and lust of it than to try to fight off Jasper’s mothering. Micah guided him through the second set of doors and into the Great Room, where the fire pit was.

The Grossman Hall Fire Pit was the one part of Lunule’s Darklight Fest that Micah knew he had seen before. He had actually been brought to it as part of his studies, learning how fire moved, what it liked, and how to shape it. Grossman Hall itself was the main academic centre in the city, outside of the castle. They offered advanced courses on more than just magic, and hosted free lectures and classes on open days. The Great Room was used for large demonstrations, tiered seating completely surrounding the central stage area, a podium to one side of a ring of metal platform. The very centre was a huge grate that could be raised nearly to the glass dome of the ceiling, or lowered several storeys below the main stage level. For the Fest, it was lowered. Entire trees were woven into a carefully-crafted structure that would burn over the three-day Festival, creating a whirling, roaring pillar of fire that whipped straight up through the top of the glass dome, which could be adjusted to keep that fire burning evenly, drawing it up and up into a clear sky above. 

When he was small, the fire had been the biggest thing he’d ever seen. He had watched the flames for what seemed like hours as they rippled and spun and twirled in a massive rope of orange-white light. As he’d grown, he’d assumed the fire was actually smaller than it was in his memory. Now he was almost terrified to see it was even larger. It roared and whipped and tore at itself, a vertical furnace of absolute destruction. Looking up, he could see the top of the flames being lashed to bits by the storm outside, spilling sideways over the dome. 

There was a crowd gathered, but it was separated into two distinct groups: one gathered around the Pit as close as they dared, and another group in the tiered seats. The people in the seats were far more like a normal Fest gathering, pockets of singing and laughter audible as his ears adjusted to the roar. The group around the fire, however, he understood. Hunched shoulders, stiff and hurried movements, urgent discussions in groups that broke and scattered like shrapnel, joining other clusters of tense people and only rarely disgorging someone to run back out of the Pit through one of the doors.

“This is wrong.”

Micah glanced at Jasper, then stopped. He’d said that before, just before the gale. He’d felt…sensed…something. He frowned, trying to recapture the thought. “It’s…I don’t know. Wrong.”

Jasper stared at the fire, and Micah remembered how he had stared out at the storm before they’d left the castle. “I don’t know what it’s meant to be like, but… that amount of… the size of that fire… I don’t mind saying I’m a bit terrified.”

“So am I,” Micah admitted. “It’s always big, I know. I’ve been here once before, during one of my first years at the castle. I remember it being absolutely gigantic. But then everything is, when you’re a child. This, though…” He shook his head, following the pillar up to the dome. “It’s the storm. The wind is pulling it,” he realised. 

“Yeah, worst thing for a wildfire is wind,” Jasper said.

“This isn’t wild, though.” Micah raised a hand, and Jasper seized it.

“No. No magic from you.”

Micah smiled, meeting Jasper’s determined gaze. “Yes. I already owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t have to—”

“Let’s sit.”

Micah led him to the first row of seats, finding an open space where no one would overhear. “I’m fine. I’m just tired. Well, not tired, but… if I use the word ‘exhausted’ in a scientific sense, do you know what I mean?”

“You’re out of fuel,” Jasper said, frowning. “That it?”

“More or less. I’ve just done a lot of magic in a fairly abusive way. I’ve used a lot of raw power without pausing to shape it properly, or channel it the right way. I’ve basically grabbed energy out of…myself, really, and used it to wrench things around.”

“That all makes sense,” Jasper said, his words slow and careful, “but you’re also physically tired. Aren’t you?”

Micah paused, considering how Jasper meant it. “The two aren’t entirely separate questions. If I’d done things properly, I wouldn’t have torn so much energy from myself. That first heating I did after we left the Fennec and Stoat—that was a bit brutal. That’s why I knew I’d need to eat.”

“And you didn’t eat much.”

“I ate enough, really. But then… when that gust… that was more than a gust. That was more like an attack.”

“Oh, shit, is this like at the gala again?” Jasper blurted, his alarm escalating.

“No! Wait. No… I don’t think so. I’m not sure.” The thought hadn’t struck Micah until now. “I don’t know. I’d have to feel it.”

“You’re not going back out until—”

“No, not like that. Feel it magically.” He didn’t want to meet Jasper’s eyes, but it wasn’t fair not to. “I’m sorry. And I can’t do it right away, maybe not even tonight. It won’t be a risk, nothing like that. It won’t be anything like that time.”

“But how can you say that?” Jasper demanded, inching back on the bench and leaning forward over their hands. “You didn’t know what it was then—we still don’t. And you don’t know what this is. How can you be sure—”

“Obviously I can’t, but… no, listen. That time it was just the two of us on that balcony. This is an entire city and everyone in it. The scale is entirely different. Anyone who can do this wouldn’t have had such a hard time on the balcony. They would have been able to kill me a dozen ways and a dozen times over, in an instant. Weather magic on this scale is… it requires training, and power, and tuning, and quite a lot of mechanical preparation. It would be easier done as a group. This kind of storm, even a yeti would have a difficult time creating this.”

“I thought yetis weren’t real.”

Micah smiled. “Says the one and only null who has ever existed?”

Jasper rolled his eyes. “But that’s a good point—I can feel that cold and wind. If it were magic, I wouldn’t be able to, would I?”

Micah looked aside at the fire for a long moment, wondering. Was the cold itself magic, or the effect of magic? Jasper had only felt some of the wind on the balcony at the gala, after all, so some of it had been direct magic and some of it had been its effect. Finally he sighed, lowering his head, his shoulders sagging. “Oh, balls. I don’t know. Don’t ask me.”

There was a pause, and after a moment, Micah looked up again. Jasper was looking down at their hands. He didn’t know when it had happened, but they were tangled together, a casual touching that neither of them had thought about. Micah swallowed and looked up at Jasper’s face. He was still staring at their hands, but somehow not seeing them. He had the tip of the fourth finger of Micah’s left hand between the thumb and middle finger of his right, and was squishing it idly, squeezing from the sides, then pushing at the small, pointed circle in the centre of the pad of it with his forefinger. The fingers of his left hand were loosely interlaced with Micah’s right. 

And then Jasper woke up, blinking and pulling his hands back. “Oh, feck, sorry about that. Miles away, I didn’t mean… sorry.”

Micah had no idea how to handle this, how to react, how to go back to doing it again, how to not die of sheer embarrassment and want, but he found himself smiling easily and setting one hand on Jasper’s knee. “No, we were both gone a bit, there. It’s all right.” He straightened and looked around them, taking stock of the mood of the room. No one was near them, no one really looking at them. The space was too large to allow for any of the usual welcome songs or games, although small groups seemed to form in the seats, and vendors were climbing the stairs with trays and floating carts. “I really should eat again,” he sighed, watching lids being lifted and gouts of steam pouring out. He felt Jasper’s knee lifting and turned back, squeezing hard, pushing down. “No you don’t! You paid last time.”

Jasper yelped and sat down heavily. “Shit, lay off! Ow, you fecker. Those fingers are stronger than they look.” He rubbed his knee and glared at Micah.

Micah just lifted his eyebrows briefly and grinned, getting to his feet. He swayed for a moment and set his hand on Jasper’s shoulder to keep his balance. “No, don’t get up, I’m fine,” he said when Jasper braced his wrist. “I really am. I’ll be back in a moment.”

The nearest vendor was at least twenty rows up, and Micah stepped from bench to bench rather than going all the way to the stairs. He cut across their section and caught the woman before she moved higher, where a couple of boys were beckoning. “Hi, excuse me, Śeo,” he said quickly, reaching for his pocketbook inside his coat. “What do you have that’s warm?”

“Pigs in a row, hot ears, got a few rafi left, festering feck, you’re Micah.”

Micah blinked and looked from the tray up into the woman’s face. Wide green eyes, a thick braid of brown hair, a dense blanket of freckles, and tiny, square teeth. “Ah, yes, I am,” he admitted.

“Sweet shit, sorry, sorry. I saw your lecture on the use of sound in water caves last year. That was amazing! I loved the diagrams, especially the colour-coding of the tones, those got me through my last engineering class, I used that system to mark my notes and crap, I’m babbling, I’m so sorry, I’m almost sure I can stop…”

Micah grinned, ducking his head. “It’s fine. The colouring was actually kind of a mistake. I only did it to keep things straight in my head and I never meant to use it in the lecture. Oh! You were the one who asked about it!” He stared up at her, imagining her hair loose, the green vendor cap and white apron gone. Yes, he recalled her standing in this hall, lower than they were now, shifting her feet anxiously as she raced through her question.

“You remember! Oh, shit, I have no manners, I’m sorry, I’m—my name’s Mersada.” She wiped her hand on her apron, then kept it against her chest. “Augh, I’m all wet from the steam…”

He reached out, peeled her hand off her shoulder, and shook it. “It’s all right. I was so grateful for your question, I spent the whole lecture kicking myself and trying to think of a way to explain why everything was orange and purple and brown. Casper asked me if I’d paid you off, when I got done.”

“Oh, shit, Vedouci Casper was there? Kazak’s balls, I’m going to die…”

“No, it’s fine.” He held her upright when she started to sag at the knees. “He was in the corridor arguing about the rate of bean growth for most of it. You’re fine.”

“Ah, good. Wait, but he saw my question! Shit, back to death by embarrassment!”

“No, no! You saved me, remember?”

“Shit, sorry, yes. Ahhh, crap. Sorry. Okay. Oh! Um, yes, so, pigs in a row, hot ears, a few sweet rafi—I’ve not got much left right now, sorry.” She began opening lids on her tray, peeking inside and waving steam out of the way. “A few old eggs—don’t even ask, no,” she said quickly, holding up a hand. “I know they’re always gross, but these are really salty and slimy and awful. A bunch of the students have a thing about them. I don’t even think they like them, but it’s some kind of hangover cure, they say.”

Micah shuddered at the thought. “No, that’s an old story. Never works. The pickling just sometimes makes them throw up, so some of the alcohol escapes before it’s absorbed.”

“Really?” She stared up at him. “Feck, that is good to know. Do you mind if I tell them that?”

One eyebrow raised, he shrugged weakly. “Go ahead, but it’s never stopped anyone.”

“Those things are disgusting. I’m just going to stop packing them. Blech.” She shuddered, and the open lids on her tray rattled.

“I strongly endorse that plan. Ahh, look—“ He glanced down at Jasper, who had his back to them and was watching the fire. “Do any of the ears have broccoli?”

“Broccoli? Um, wait, yeah, these do. It’s beef and onion, mainly, but there’s some broccoli in those two.”

“Those, and… four others, you pick. And four of the pigs, and I’ll take whatever rafi you have left.”

She began filling a basket, using both hands to pack the food in, stacking the flat, bready parcels of the hot ears and stabbing the skewers of the pigs in a row into them to hold everything together. “I’ll wrap the rafi separately. It’ll come to… no, look, let me just—”

“No, I’m going to pay you,” Micah said firmly, digging coins out and setting them on the tray. “My friend paid at the last place, and I will not give him the satisfaction of paying for everything tonight.”

“Oh. Ah. Um, I guess. But can I at least give you the rafi? I just… I’d really like to.”

He glanced up at her face, seeing she was unable to meet his eyes, and hesitated. “Well, I suppose, if you let me do something for you.”

“No, you’ve already—!”

“Please, let me,” he said, setting his hand on her left wrist and feeling the braided leather under her glove. “Oh. Ah, may I see?”

“What? Oh, I guess…” 

Her hand went limp as he pulled back the cuff of her glove, and he stroked the brown leather strips wound around her wrist. “What happened?” he asked.

“It got stepped on. We were at the market, messing around, I fell backwards right as someone was dropping a box of ore.”

He could imagine the pain, and the nerve damage that made her lose movement in her hand. The leather braid would bridge the gap between her brain and hand, so long as it stayed tightly against her skin. “You’re right-handed?”

“Yes, luckily. I always was.”

He nodded absently, stroking the leather. “You’d do better with a leather glove, actually. But I’m sure you know this.” He turned her palm up and pressed his thumb in the centre. “Hm.” The nerve wasn’t severed, just strangled between two bones, wedged in where it was never meant to fit. “Do you know, this can be fixed.”

“Yeah, I know, but I’m a second-year engineer apprentice,” she said. “I need a few years before ow!

Micah let go of her hand, flexing his fingers to tie off the energy. “That should last maybe a year, unless you overdo it. You’ll still need a permanent fix, but you can start building the strength back up in preparation, anyway.”

She stared at her hand, then pulled the glove off and untied the leather bracelet. “Oh my mecksied aunt, what— did you just…?”

“It isn’t nearly as difficult as people used to believe,” he said quickly, watching her spread her fingers, then make a fist. “You just need to know where the nerve is, and then it’s just a matter of being gentle enough so you don’t snap it.”

She stared up at him. “Can I kiss you?”

“Oh, please, no, it’s nothing—”

But it was something to her, and he was kicking himself mentally even as her lips landed near his, slightly off-centre as she kept the tray upright between them. It was short but emphatic, and not unpleasant, really. “You are a gentleman, and amazing,” she said firmly, and then picked up the basket of food with her renewed left hand, the parcel of rafi in her right, and thrust them at him. “Have a magnificent Darklight Fest, Almost-Vedouci Micah.”

“I…thank you. And you, Mersada. It’s been a genuine pleasure to meet you again. Good luck in your studies.” He turned and carefully made his way back down the seats, aware of the awful possibility that after he’d held himself together so well for so long, it would be dreadful irony for him to trip now in front of everyone and Jasper.

Jasper heard him returning and turned to look up, then bounced to his feet and reached out for Micah’s hand. “Here, let me—”

“No no, I’m fine…” He raised his purchases up over his head and hopped down onto the floor, then handed Jasper the basket. “All right. Sit, please.”

They both settled down on the bench with the food between them. Micah plucked the first skewer out of the stack of hot ears. “My stars, this smells good,” he sighed, grabbing the first sauce-covered lump of bean paste in his fingers and tearing it off the stick, shoving it into his mouth and groaning. “Ohhh, yes.”

“See, now you look worn out,” Jasper said around his own mouthful. Micah opened his eyes again and simply stared at him while chewing the first gooey, rich bite. “You’re too tired to even argue.”

Micah ignored him and lifted the skewer to his mouth. He considered telling Jasper about his conversation, but decided it sounded like bragging. “I’ll eat yours too if you aren’t quick enough.”

Jasper stuck out his tongue—carefully, making sure there was no food on it which meant barely showing the tip—and picked up the top hot ear on the stack. “I’m hungry, but not starving like you are.”

Micah finished the entire skewer before trying to speak again. “I really should find something more than just market food, but I genuinely cannot be bothered right now.”

Jasper nodded. “I’ll get us something to drink in a bit.” Micah shook his head slowly, giving him a warning glare. “No, come on, it’s my turn.”

“You bought at our last…” Jasper’s glare turned mutinous and Micah sighed. “You’re going to argue that I don’t have the energy, and I’m too tired to argue.”

Jasper laughed. “I win!”

Micah nodded, and kept eating. When he’d finished three of the ears, he let himself pause and look around again. Jasper was watching the fire, his second hot ear half-eaten and forgotten in his hand. Micah turned to look, and couldn’t blame him. For all its size and fury, the flame stayed in a tight, twisting spire that spun straight up, in constant motion but still stationary, terrifying and comforting, familiar and shocking. Those closer to it must have been protecting themselves as the heat from it was still tangible where they sat. He turned to look at Jasper, still wrapped in his coat. “Are you not warm?” he asked.

Jasper looked over at him as though he’d forgotten Micah was there, then looked down at himself. “Oh. Yeah, a bit. But I’m fine.”

“I never said you weren’t. Would you like to go closer?”

Jasper was shaking his head before Micah even finished. “Nope, nuh-uh, no. Warm enough where we are.”

“Then…is there a reason you’re keeping your coat on?”

A muscle in Jasper’s jaw tensed, the cords of his neck jumping several times. Then he finally leaned forward, slowly unbuckling the coat. He peeled it back off his shoulders and gathered the sleeves across his waist as though the garment was hugging him from behind. 

The black velvet waistcoat underneath was stark and plain, belted with leather over the same black shirt Jasper had worn at the first gala. Dark grey trousers and solid, shining black boots halfway up his calves meant all attention would remain on Jasper’s face and that amazing grey hair. But Jasper was staring at the floor, now, and not at the fire, and the look on his face wasn’t happy.

“What’s wrong, and don’t say nothing is,” Micah said, turning his own face toward the fire and not meeting Jasper’s guilty look. “Are you feeling… you are. How many times must I tell you that you are not a servant?”

“I know I’m not,” Jasper said quickly. “You never treat me like that, no. It’s fine, Micah.”

“Lie.”

“What?”

“It isn’t fine. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Lie, again.”

“Why do you keep saying that?”

“Because you keep lying.” He sounded like Tom, and wasn’t completely surprised when Jasper landed a hard punch on his shoulder that still made him flinch. “Ow.”

“Bastard.”

“So tell me what’s bothering you. I can’t fix it if I don’t know.”

“You can’t fix it,” Jasper said.

Micah turned and studied him. The reluctance in his voice and the downcast eyes were not good signs. “Jasper, tell me. No, wait,” he said quickly, raising his hand. “It’s the coat. You… Jasper, you foolish, blind imbecile. What is wrong with you?”

“Well apparently I’m foolish, blind, and an imbecile, to start with.”

Music started up somewhere on the other side of the room, and Micah sat up, craning his neck. “Come on,” he said, gathering up the packet of rafi, the cloak, and the silver scarf. “Come with me.”

“Are…where…?”

“Dance with me.”

Micah walked a few paces before realising he was alone. He stopped, letting his head hang. “Please, dance with me,” he repeated, and when he heard nothing but silence, he looked up at Jasper’s face.

He wasn’t frozen in awe, which Micah had feared. He looked a little angry, actually, his lips parted and ready to say whatever was on his mind just as soon as he figured out what it was. “Are you…is this some kind of magic dance?” he demanded.

“No, eege. What would be the point of that?”

“Then… okay. I guess.” 

Why did he look so defiant and still angry? “If you don’t want to, you don’t have to, of course. But I thought you enjoyed dancing.”

“I…do. Actually, I do. I just… I’ve never danced with you.”

“Don’t worry. A lot of people haven’t.”

That finally confused him enough that he laughed, squinting and shaking his head. “What?”

Micah tossed the cloak and scarf over his shoulder and grabbed Jasper’s hand. “Come on.”

He cut across the centre, bringing them nearer to the fire and turning his face away from the heat of it. Air rushed toward it, flapping the edge of the cloak and sweeping the scarf across his neck, lifting it to curl under his chin. He shook his head, but it stayed there, and he glanced back at Jasper, unsurprised to find him staring back. He looked away, pushing between knots of people and hurrying on, moving them away from the heat and toward the music. The scarf fell back down and he found himself relieved as the air cooled around them.

A handful of musicians were sitting a few rows up, playing for each other and paying little attention to the dancers on the level floor of the stage area. Micah set the rafi on a bench and let the cloak and scarf fall off his shoulder before he turned to Jasper, who tried to free his hand before reluctantly dropping the basket with the last of the hot ears next to the rafi, flinging the coat to the floor as Micah pulled him. “Hey!”

Micah leaned forward and dragged, then pulled his arm around and flung Jasper into the dance. He stumbled a bit, but now he was laughing at least, and Micah caught his other hand and swept him off around the edge of the whirling group. Jasper fell into step, bouncing more as he moved than Micah was used to in a partner, but keeping up more easily than Veronica did. He followed neatly, off balance for a step or two but then accepting Micah’s lead. Micah swung him out and back, and then Jasper was almost anticipating his turns, rocking back and swaying perfectly when Micah whirled him out again. Micah added a spin of his own and Jasper met him in the middle, his feet already moving in time to the beat. He didn’t spare much attention for the other dancers beyond keeping out of their way, or rather keeping them out of Jasper’s way. Jasper trusted him, never looking back when Micah flung him out, never ducking around his arm or pulling away. Before long, Micah had stopped cataloguing Jasper’s perfection and simply followed the music, feeling the rhythm of the musician’s breathing, letting the dance move them around the floor and somehow knowing just when the improvised song was going to end, so Jasper landed back in his arms with the final beat.

He hadn’t realised he wasn’t smiling until he suddenly grinned at Jasper’s whoop and bright burst of laughter, turning to applaud with the rest of the dancers, thanking the musicians. Chest heaving, Micah took a step back and managed a few claps before letting his arms hang, tipping his head back to watch the firelight against the glass dome.

“That was amazing! I knew you could dance, but it’s always been magic ones and stately things. I had no idea you could move like that!”

Micah lowered his head, grinning again as he saw Jasper’s bright face, his eyes ready to start fires of their own. “Thank you. I’ve not had the right partners, when you’ve seen me. And you, Śe Jasper, are very good yourself.”

“I usually lead. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep up with you, there.”

“Oh, you can. Feck, you can. All right, now I’m ready for something to drink.”

Jasper turned and scanned the benches, and spotted a cluster of the other dancers gathered around a pair of vendors with pitchers, pouring non-stop as glasses were passed under the steady stream. “Perfect. Cold or hot?”

“Cold, please.” Micah wandered back to their things, picking up the basket and taking a bite of the now luke-warm ear. A nudge on his back made him turn, and he hastily set down the food in favour of the glass Jasper held out, drinpping condensation. He downed half of it in two gulps, then met Jasper’s eye again. “Sit for a bit?”

Jasper glanced across the musicians, who were playing snatches and bits and pieces, seemingly arguing over the next song. “I guess. If they play again, though…”

“If you like.” He smiled, still catching his breath.

“I think I have to say that I do,” Jasper said, holding his gaze as he tipped his own metal tankard up.

Micah waited another moment before reaching for the silver buckles down the front of his coat. Jasper noticed, and his eyes followed Micah’s fingers. He bit his lips, licked them, and glanced at Micah’s face. “Need to rest?”

“Another moment and I’ll be fine,” Micah said easily, and finished undoing the buckles. As he shed the blue velvet coat, Jasper’s eyes flicked from him to the coat and back, then he turned away so quickly that Micah thought someone must have called him. “Do you mind?” Micah asked, folding the coat and wrapping it inside the soft fur of the cloak. 

“Hm-mm, nope,” Jasper said without turning, and then lifted the tankard again.

Micah smiled to himself, and set his hand on Jasper’s sleeve. “Sit down. I don’t want you tired for the next one.”

Stumbling but not arguing, Jasper let himself be pulled down, the tankard at his lips the whole time. When he lowered it, he reached for the basket, then paused. “Oh. Sorry.”

Micah glanced down, seeing the last ear with one bite out of it. “I’ve still got the rafi,” he said, lifting the packet and shaking his head. “Besides, I think it’s one of yours.”

“Mine?”

“You liked the broccoli ones, didn’t you?”

Jasper nodded, then frowned. “Don’t you?”

He shrugged. “It’s food.”

Jasper stared at him silently, and Micah had the creeping feeling he had just made Jasper consider crying. “Really?”

“I’m not saying it’s bad. I’m just… I just think you like it more than I do, therefore I thought I’d save it for you.” He glanced over, and Jasper’s expression hadn’t changed much. “You can tear off the part I bit.”

“No, that doesn’t bother me,” Jasper said, waving it aside. “Is that all?”

“All what?”

“Usually… there’s more.” Jasper took a large bite out of the ear and chewed as though he had a race to win.

“More…? Oh. No, I’ve no objection to it. It’s not like drinking vinegar.”

It took a moment; then, “Thanks.”

“What for?” Micah looked up at him.

“Usually people have a go at me.”

Micah couldn’t even consider that without smiling. “For liking broccoli? That’s rather weak.”

“Still.”

He ducked his head, unable to keep from grinning. “You’re ridiculous for enough other reasons.”

“And there it is.”

Micah turned to face him, and he was licking his fingers. His lips were closed around each finger in turn, but Micah could still see his tongue swiping along the length, swirling around the tip, sucking away the salt and the sweet. It was bordering on obscene, and nothing Micah would dream of objecting to. “I’m about to finish these off,” Micah said calmly. “Shall I get more?”

Jasper looked around, still sucking on his thumb, then releasing it with a pop. “Nah. We’ll catch ’em when they come by. Might need something a little more filling if we’re going to keep dancing.”

“Are you tired?”

“Not tired, no.” 

“Well that begs the question.”

“I might need a visit before my bladder bursts.”

Micah laughed. “Might I suggest you don’t void into the fire.”

“Are you insane?”

I’m not, no, but there are always thrill-seekers as the night wears on. Students, usually.”

“I thought you said you’d only come here for the Fest once.”

“I’ve been out on other nights, and wherever there is a large fire, someone seems to get the idea.”

“Ah. Yeah, I suppose.”

Micah sat up and pointed toward one of the aisles cutting between the sections of seating. “Down there, to the right… oh. Oh, wait, Jasper!”

Jasper turned back, startled. “Yeah?”

Micah beckoned him back, ignoring the annoyed look he got. “One problem, my dear null. When you wish to wash your hands, you’ll find that in honour of the Fest, they’re using fire-basins in the lavs.”

Jasper sank down onto the bench beside him, his eyes wide. “Oh. Mecksied Meg… yeah. Thanks.”

Micah set his hand on Jasper’s arm, suddenly wondering how he managed to get through a day without being discovered. “When you’re done, well… I’ll join you. No, just wait a moment.” He ignored Jasper’s imminent objection and turned to the musicians sitting a few rows behind them. “Excuse me? Would you mind watching our things for a few minutes?”

A couple of them nodded, and Micah got to his feet. “Not everyone is comfortable washing in fire,” Micah said quietly, guiding Jasper along. “There will be water, too, but it will be freezing. Most people conjure their own heat and soap. What do you usually do?”

“Wash in cold water for as long as I can take it,” Jasper said, keeping his voice down. “I’m really used to it, you know.”

“On a night like this, what do you think the water will be like, really?” Micah asked. He didn’t see a line in the hallway, which was a surprise. “There will be actual ice. The entire basin might be frozen solid.”

“But it’s still inside, isn’t it?” Jasper asked, glancing aside at everyone they passed. 

“The lavs are, but the water… Just… follow me. That way I’ll have a chance to warm it before you need it.”

By the time they reached the end of the hallway, there was little light left from the fire behind them, and flickering shadows came from around the corner ahead of them. Micah led the way around a half-wall and felt Jasper come to a stop. A score of privy stalls lined the long wall on the left, and a black stone trough ran the full length of the opposite wall. The only light came from the fire in the trough. It was a darker orange than the fire in the pit, and everyone leaving the stalls dipped their hands into it and rubbed them for a few moments before they left. It was oddly beautiful, soft flames rippling against the dark stone, the light reflected off polished stone and tile and glass.

“Ayup, one’s open,” Jasper said, nudging him.

Micah turned his head slowly and stared at Jasper. “Did you really just—”

“Come on, come on,” Jasper said, elbowing him in the side repeatedly until Micah moved away. 

When Micah left the stall, he didn’t see Jasper. He passed the fire trough and moved to the lowly bucket at the end. He stared down at the icicle hanging from the spout above the bucket, and the frosted surface of the ice below. He tapped it with a finger, then stroked it, and finally rested his hand on the surface. It was solid all the way to the bottom of the bucket. He sighed, glancing around. No one else seemed interested in investigating the water option. He’d lost track of how many times he’d conjured handfire this evening, but flicked another handful into life, then dropped it into the bucket. He had to do it twice more before the ice had melted and the water was beginning to steam. 

“Oh, good. It is balls-breakingly cold in here,” Jasper said as he hurried over.

“Really? You can’t feel the fire?”

Jasper glanced into the trough. “I can. It’s hot, yeah, but it doesn’t get as far as the stalls, I guess.”

“You make no sense. Not even a little,” Micah muttered, churning out a stream of bubbles that Jasper caught up and rubbed vigorously into his hands.

“You’re just envious.”

Catching the last of the bubbles with his right hand, Micah wasn’t entirely surprised when Jasper grabbed his fingers and grinned. “Yeah? If it’s so warm, why are your hands cold, too?”

“Because they’ve just been in a bucket of solid ice.”

“Your bare hands?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to do it with mittens on, was I?” Micah pulled his hands away, dipping them into the fire to dry them and leaving the towel for Jasper.

They were nearing the musicians and their belongings when Micah realised they were being stared at by those same musicians he’d asked to guard those same belongings. “Oh, dear, what’s this…”

“Are you Micah?” 

One of the women was waving the bow of her stick-like stringed instrument at them, and when he focused on her, she pointed the bow at him again. “You. Are you him?”

“I am, yes,” he said slowly, coming to a stop.

“You’re the heir, right?”

He was swept by a sudden bout of nostalgia for the days when he used a distraction spell any time he left the castle. “Yes…?” He folded his arms on his chest, wishing he’d left his coat on.

“Is there any chance you can do the rhythm for ‘Stiff-kneed Candleman’?”

“Oh, come on, Suveig…!” a thin-faced man next to her moaned, sagging away from her.

“What? He can say no!” she protested, staring at her friends.

“It’s like they don’t even know you,” Jasper said quietly, and Micah could hear the grin. His head slowly pivoted to stare at Jasper, and Jasper pointedly kept his eyes on his feet. He set one hand on Micah’s back. “Go on, now, don’t disappoint them,” he murmured.

Micah bit his lip, wanting very much to punch him. It wasn’t fair. Now he wouldn’t be able to dance to it with Jasper, and the combination of ‘the Heir’ doing a children’s and dancers’ favourite like this was bound to draw attention. Few other stops would have such good musicians willing to play so casually that he wouldn’t have a line of people who expected a chance to dance something magical with him to lead them, and now Grossman Hall was out of chances for it, as well. And Jasper would be absolutely magnificent at ‘Candleman,’ which was all stomping and rhythm and leaps and catches, the kind of mad, athletic thing that was utterly made for him.

Micah exhaled slowly through his nose, knowing in his bones that he couldn’t say no. “I do know it, but it isn’t my best,” he said honestly, and stepped up onto the first row of benches. “Do you have a loud box?”

“Of course,” said the thin-faced man. “Mahrus.” He held out his hand.

“Micah.” Micah had to leap up two rows to take it, but then the young man stood and hauled him up the last one. “Thank you.”

The hose connecting the throat piece to the box was shorter than Micah would have liked, but Mahrus lifted the box onto the bench beside him, so it sat between him and Micah. “We usually end up taking it fast, but the good thing about that is the mistakes are over faster,” Mahrus said, glancing around at the group as they grinned.

“I have my limits, just so you know,” Micah said, shifting to straddle the bench. “Give me a bit to remember how this works,” he said, pressing the hollow cup at the end of the hose to his neck and gulping a few times to get used to the feeling. He had to move it a few times before he found the right place, and the box thumped in response. 

It was the wrong pitch, and Mahrus adjusted two of the knobs. “What’s your high end like?” the student asked, winding a crank on the back to lift the lid.

“A bit thin. At least, I’d expect it is—oh, glory, I’ve not done this in years…” 

He hadn’t done it, in fact, since his voice had changed. Not properly, anyway. Not with a loud box. He sighed a few times, trying to relax his throat, adjusting the cup so the hose fit between two fingers, his palm up, his thumb on his larynx. He tried a few more sounds, and Mahrus adjusted to keep up. He’d been good at tonguing, and the double and triple rolls only took a couple of tries to remember. “Shit!” Mahrus blurted, and Micah stopped, staring at him. “No, sorry, just… I still have problems with the triples. Suveig, I hate you,” he said loudly.

“D, K, D,” Micah told him. “Ducketta, ducketta…”

“Yeah, I just can’t keep up. I can do rolls and doubles and nothing in between.”

“Not to the beat, anyway,” Suveig added, dodging when Mahrus jabbed back blindly with his elbow.

“Ah. Well, my rolls are going to be fairly short,” Micah said. “So yes, thank you, I can see the benefits of taking it a bit faster, for that.” He tried a few with his tongue and a few more with his lips, and there were murmurs from the group again. “Just stop it,” he said firmly, and they laughed a bit. He tried a few basic beats without the cup on his throat, and watched their reactions. Generally pleased that he wasn’t a complete embarrassment—a few nods and shared glances, one or two of them testing a phrase or two against his rhythm. More nods, and he stopped.

“Right. Now or never, I suppose. Shall we?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Sweet mecks, he was good.

Jasper was angry. He was also elated, fascinated, charmed, embarrassed, annoyed, bored, and probably rude and cruel, at the moment. But life was… not quite good, but it had been worse.

He hadn’t figured on dancing when he’d brought Micah out. Now that seemed stupid, because few things preoccupied him as much as Micah’s legs, but it would have been too much to hope for and pushing his luck. But knowing Micah enjoyed dancing, why had he assumed Micah wouldn’t dance? Knowing that Micah was comfortable with him, and had seen him dance, and knew he enjoyed it, and had after all agreed to come out in his company, why had he thought Micah wouldn’t dance? 

Dancing with Micah was the most fantastic fun he could even imagine. The man could move, his long legs covering the ground deceptively fast, making Jasper leap to keep up with him. For someone who had seemed so timid earlier in the evening— barely able to think when he’d first experienced the sharp cold, thrown off by the idea of performing in front of a pub, rattled by a child pickpocket—his dancing had all the confidence in the world, and with good reason. His movements were every bit as graceful and energetic as the best of his magic. If ever someone could convince Jasper that all dancing was magic, it would be Micah.

Much as he enjoyed dancing, though, Jasper knew he wasn’t nearly as good. He kept up and he absolutely enjoyed every second, but he wasn’t in Micah’s class. He was decently dressed, but Micah and his blue velvet coat that matched his eyes and swung out around him with every swirl and turn were the reason they were turning heads. 

A quick break between dances turned into a longer, lonelier pause when Micah was once again asked to do something magical because he was the heir. No matter how much he grinned and laughed about it, part of him had really wanted to believe Micah was his for the night. Being forced to sit out the next dance nearly made him rebel. He had nothing to do but watch as Micah began rehearsing the strange noises of konnakox percussion, completely forgetting Jasper’s existence as he once again turned his attention to pleasing people. 

Nothing about that thought was fair or accurate, except it was true. Micah did have to worry about doing his job, and his job consisted of getting people to cooperate both with him and each other, and all of that was easier if people knew him and liked him. And Jasper, as a null, was the one person in existence who could claim that no Vedouci had any power over him. 

While he hadn’t exactly forgot about dancing, he’d never expected Micah to be able to perform konnakox percussion. In his village, the old woman who did it was a child magnet, able to make an endless series of strange noises with her mouth, nose, throat, and hands. Everyone under eight and over twenty adored her, and everyone between eight and twenty only pretended not to. One of the hardest things to accept, as a null child, was that he couldn’t master konnakox. He could do some of the noises, but no matter how perfectly he copied the gestures, the pitches never changed, the sound didn’t bend. He understood as much about it as he could, and that was probably more than some of the children who could manipulate the sounds with their fingers. 

It was one of the reasons he’d never tried to talk to Karlie. He’d wanted so badly to ask her how she could loop her voice, doing so many types of noises, layering them and building it up until he could almost see the story of the words she wasn’t singing. Trying to copy some of the movements on his own, he’d discovered how to whistle in the way she’d admired. He couldn’t tell her that, though, without risking the conversation turning to why he couldn’t do magic. So no, of course he’d never spoken to her. 

Micah wasn’t even as good at it as Karlie was, but the loud box and Mahrus rebalanced the scales in Micah’s favour. It was strange, disorienting, awkward to watch them. Micah’s hands were busy manipulating the hose and the sounds, and Mahrus was working knobs, levers, buttons, and switches that took Micah’s noises and wove the galloping rhythm into a multi-layered featherbed the rest of the musicians rolled onto, the whole thing sending those dancing bouncing across the impromptu dance floor. The stomps didn’t echo quite the way they would have on a proper wooden floor, but Mahrus was making up for it, slapping away at the box. 

And yet, for all of that, Micah was still Micah. He might not be the absolute best in any technical sense, but he was still compelling, carrying the rhythm that was the heart of the dance, driving the musicians and dancers, and…fuck everything, but Micah was good

A cluster of children ran over to watch, forming their own enthusiastic but untrained dance, jumping and stomping. It took a moment to recognise the giggling girl in the yellow dress, but his face split in a grin when Tangie turned. She didn’t even notice him, sitting to the side in the front row, turned to watch Micah.

A light touch on his arm took a moment to register, but he wasn’t surprised to see Wanika standing shyly next to him. “Hey!” Before she could pull her hand back, Jasper captured it under his own, then took it in both of his. “Well, these have warmed up nicely. Enjoying the fire?”

She nodded, glancing at Micah, her eyes flicking away to Tangie before her smile blossomed properly. “I’m sorry about earlier.”

“When?” He let go of her hand and wrapped his around his knee, rocking back to look at her squarely.

“When Śe Micah fell. In the entry.”

“Oh, that.” Jasper waved it off with a laugh. “Nah, he was just tired. He was kind of panicky, too. I think it just all hit him at once. You were fine. He appreciated your concern, he just… wasn’t all there yet, you know?” She nodded again, but he didn’t get any sense that she’d really understood. 

He glanced around them and a small, terrible impulse crept across the back of his head. He froze, wondering if he was really going to do it. Micah was laying it on, pushing the rhythm hard enough that occasionally he missed a sound in the interests of breathing. Jasper watched him and was absolutely sure that given a choice, Micah would much rather be dancing. Jasper couldn’t participate in the magic or the music, but he could dance, at least, and that quiet, slightly desperate thought in the back of his mind, right on the border with hope, said Micah would not just prefer dancing, but prefer dancing specifically with him. But he’d been manoeuvred away from it. 

The words felt as if someone else were saying them. “Look, you can sit, or we can dance, and the way he’s going at it, I’d really like to dance to this. Would you mind?”

“I—with me?”

“If you don’t have another partner in mind, yes.” He stood up and tucked one hand behind him, holding out his right and giving her a little bow. “Please?” She giggled, showing dimples, and he scooped her into the whirl. 

She didn’t have Micah’s long legs, and this time Jasper got to lead, but she was quick, her stomps delicate little hops and her jumps graceful. Now Jasper could appreciate Micah’s efforts. He didn’t vary his speed the tiniest bit, steady as a clock, never racing ahead with the excitement of the dance. Jasper caught his eye a couple of times as they spun past him, and stuck out his tongue once. Micah’s head twitched, and he extended a single finger along the hose, holding it out long enough for Jasper to see before he was too far around the circle again. Jasper laughed, Wanika gave him a puzzled look, and on they went. Jasper got bumped twice by other dancers, and everyone laughed, not having the breath to do more. 

When the end came, the knot of children were the first to applaud, shrieking and laughing, some of them spinning around a few more times, giddy with the same joyful abandon Jasper remembered from years ago and was starting to feel again. Why was dancing so much more fun tonight than it had been at any of the galas he’d been to? It might have been the laughter from the children. No adults ever laughed like that when dancing. The sound brought him right back to that first time as a child, holding someone’s hands and swinging them in a circle, holding on to each other for energy and balance, and finding that it really did work—there was no special magic to hold someone’s hands, nothing needed to stomp or bounce or spin in time with the music; you could just do and feel and enjoy. 

“Thank you, Śi Wanika, that was brilliant.” He gave her a quick kiss on the back of her fingers, which brought out her dimples again.

“Thank you, Śi. It was my genuine pleasure.”

Jasper made a point of keeping Wanika’s hand as he went to meet Micah, and managed to catch Tangie’s eye on the way, holding out a hand to her as well. Micah got to his feet, raising his hand to his chest and bowing his head as the musicians joined in the applause. He set his hand on Mahrus’s shoulder in thanks, then made his way carefully down to the floor, stepping from bench to bench before landing on the floor with a bounce.

“That was pretty good,” Jasper said loudly to Micah, drawing his attention away from the children clustering around him. “You spit pretty well.”

Micah rolled his eyes, but said, “Thank you.” He looked from Wanika to Tangie and back. “And my thanks to the two of you for your concern earlier. I’m sorry if I was rude. I really wasn’t thinking, just…” He gestured vaguely, then held out a hand to each of them. “Anyway. I’m sorry.”

“No, no. I understand,” Wanika said. “And thank you for coming to get us. I don’t know how long we would have had to wait for a lifeboat.”

“I really don’t want to think about that,” Micah said firmly, tugging them gently over to sit down again. “I’m sure they’re still out there, somewhere, but they’ll be having a difficult time finding people. And I can tell you that it really isn’t easy to fly in that.” He pointed at the dome above them, where the fire was still scattering in shreds once it passed the glass. “Oh! Ahh…that boat belongs to someone. I didn’t even think about that, sweet Meg…” 

He leaned forward, preparing to get to his feet, and Jasper stopped him, stepping in front of him and leaving no room. “It’s taken care of. When we came in, one of the hosts went out and tied it up. She knows the owner.” What she’d actually said had been more along the lines of hysterics that it had belonged to one of the lecturers, and he deserved to have his boat stolen, but Jasper had changed her mind pretty quickly. Enough people had seen the state of them when they’d come in, and the boat was safe, and if the lecturer made a fuss, Jasper told her that casually mentioning that the Heir was truly sorry for the inconvenience ought to calm things down fairly sharpish. “She might have already  notified her—if not, it’s fine till morning.”

Micah didn’t seem entirely happy about it, but it was the kind of worry Jasper expected from him and had no problems thwarting.

“Can you teach me to do that?” Tangie asked, suddenly half-throwing herself across Micah’s lap, leaning pointy little elbows on his thigh.

Jasper bit his lips at the wince Micah couldn’t hide quickly enough before he was gently pressing her arms back to horizontal without pushing her away. “Not all of it in one night, but I can teach you some of it…” 

And then Micah was back in his element, drawing in more eager young ears, demonstrating the noises, breaking them down into bits younger throats and fingers could manage. Tangie was particularly good at the gargling-like sounds, but it would be a few years until she got the timing right. Micah still managed to get them doing enough of a range that they could string it together into a single rhythmic phrase. Then Mahrus brought the box down for them to try, and Micah gracefully faded into the background.

Jasper caught his eye and beckoned him to one side with a tip of his head. Jasper excused himself to Wanika, who was watching Tangie making friends by spitting on them, it seemed. A few steps away from the others, he turned back to Micah, who was watching him warily. “How are you feeling?” he asked, keeping his tone casual.

“Fine, why?”

“I was thinking you might like something a little more solid to eat.”

“I will settle for something cold to drink,” Micah said reasonably.

“I can do that,” Jasper said, but Micah shook his head. “Come on, I just bought—”

“You’ll be too busy. Remember you haven’t paid your way here, yet.”

“So let me—” Oh. From that smile, this was going to hurt in a way money couldn’t. “Okay…” He took a breath and folded his arms, bracing himself. “Okay. Tell me.”

“I believe you said juggling?”

That sly little smile, the wide, innocent eyes—Jasper considered trying to punch him just on principle. “You mean my dancing isn’t enough?” He could do big, sad eyes, too.

“If it were just me, I would accept. Gladly. But…” Micah pivoted at the hips, scanning the children now asking to try out some of the other instruments. “I think maybe a distraction before anything gets broken or damaged, perhaps?”

“I really hate it when you use reason and logic against me,” he sighed, shaking his head. “Since this is your idea, then, what’d you have in mind for me to use?”

“Oh, yes, that’s a fair question.” Micah glanced around, then held up a finger and hurried over to their outerwear. Jasper couldn’t see what he was doing, but when he turned back, he had a single coin in each hand, held between thumb and forefinger, by the edges. 

Jasper knew he had more than just two in mind. “All right, gimme…” He held out his hand. 

Micah let a whole handful of coins, which he’d previously concealed in his folded fingers, fall into his palm. “I’m not sure what would be easiest.”

Jasper had to laugh, and poked through to find the biggest. He had three ducks, which startled Jasper somewhat. He glanced up at Micah, an eyebrow raised. Each of them was a solid day’s wage. They were solid, hefty coins, though—half the thickness of his finger and large enough that his thumb and middle finger couldn’t quite touch around the circumference. “Kind of a lot for pocket change, Micah.”

“Oh? It’s a good thing I do have protection spells on my coins, then.”

“Then why’d you ask complete strangers to watch our things?”

“Because it does discourage people. Guilt is an excellent motivator.”

Jasper had to stare up at him, at that. But why should he be surprised? Micah was going to be the Vedouci one day, and he’d need to be able to manipulate people to manage all the politics involved just within the castle’s upper echelon. He should be proud that good, kind Micah would be able to handle himself around people like Hames and Toen-Wae. 

“That’s…a good point.”

Micah peered at him with narrowed eyes. “Not what you were going to say. Well. If it helps, I also did it because you don’t have protections, and in any case, they already knew who I was. I’ve given lectures here, and it was a good way to seem friendly.”

“You knew they’d ask you to perform?”

“No. I hoped they’d ask for something else, but I was going to have to do something. Just like you are about to do now.”

Jasper studied the quiet little smile Micah was giving him, perfectly calculated to make Jasper really, really want to punch him. Which Micah knew, it seemed. He was deliberately provoking Jasper, and enjoying it. And that was another level of comfortability between them that Jasper hadn’t quite wanted to expect. It was one thing to tease in the lab, but teasing around other people like this…

Was Micah flirting?

“Oh, just fuck my life,” Jasper sighed, tipping his head back. He backed away a few steps toward the fire before lowering his head again, and started throwing.

The fire wasn’t going to make it easy, he learned quickly. The light reflected off the coins as they flipped through the air, and he was lucky to keep all three of them going. He settled into the simple rhythm of three, got a bit of confidence, tried a higher toss, and immediately dropped it. The clang turned a few heads, and Micah stamped on the coin as it rolled past his foot. 

“Sorry,” Jasper said, making a face and shaking his head. “It’s hard to see them, ’cause they’re flat.”

“Oh!” Micah scooped it up, then held up his hands in a clamshell in front of his chest, one palm horizontal, one vertical, and Jasper threw the other two back to him. “Okay, let’s try the mittens.”

“No, they’re too big and floppy,” Jasper said, but Micah didn’t stop. He ran a couple of steps to catch up with him. “They’ll get in each other’s way—”

“Wait a moment.” Micah pulled them out of the coat’s pockets, and began rolling them up, starting at the fingers. When he got to the end of the cuff, they were a nice, solid lump, and he pulled one side of the cuff back over the roll, holding it in place.

“Oh. Toss it here?”

Micah glanced over, then flipped the first mitten to him, flicking it into the air off of his fingertips. Jasper snatched it neatly, and the roll hit the centre of his palm perfectly. “Huh.” He launched it into the air with his right hand and caught it in his left, and nodded. “Yeah, this could work.” He tossed it a few more times, then Micah held up the second questioningly. “Sure, toss it here?”

This one was as perfectly balanced as the first, and Jasper backed away, trying them first in a circle before switching into his usual cross-body pattern. Micah folded the last two and got to his feet. “Ready?”

Micah’s voice was that calculated bit too loud, and people glanced over. Jasper bared his teeth in a brief grimace, then shrugged. He’d been lecturing Micah earlier about shyness when performing, so he had no excuse for Micah getting a little of his own back. “Yeah, come on,” he said, backing further away.

The third mitten fell perfectly into his hand and he fed it straight in. The fourth went half a foot wide, but he kept them all in the air. Now he had four going, and he only had four, so all he could do to shape the excitement was vary his throws. He switched between cross-body and circular and back again, then started throwing higher. The problem with higher throws was that it slowed everything down, though, and that always seemed less impressive. Low throws speeded things up, but also seemed less impressive. He tried both, though, just for something to do. He heard murmurs and a few people clapped, and then he could feel the circle forming around him. 

A quick glance down proved that yes, he had an audience. He flipped a few throws up from behind his back, and they clapped. He grinned in response, and had a rush of giddiness. He could complain and moan with the best of them, but there was no denying that this was fun. He couldn’t do magic, but he could do this, and for whatever odd reason, people seemed to think this actually was magic. That was fine with him. His entire life was juggling expectations, distracting people, making them think they’d seen one thing while he’d been doing another. Making Penelope think a task had taken all day so she didn’t notice what time the boys were where, and they could get some lessons with Daisy. Making Veronica think he’d been taking stock in the storeroom and not helping Jackie sort out the wine cellar. Making Micah think he had been grinding numium and not just staring at his arse. 

Plop. “Augh. Shit.” One of the mittens smacked onto the ground. He kept the other three going, but then decided this was an opportunity. Everything was, wasn’t it? He lengthened his throws again, taking the tops of the arches higher, then changed his mind. “Nope, this’ll be easier.” He kept one in his right hand and kept the other two going with his left. Slowly, he squatted down, keeping the two in the air with one hand, and dragged two fingers along the ground until he found the fourth mitten. Then he stood up, and got a pattern of two going with his right hand, as well. Yes! That was proper applause, that was a good response for a good trick.

He fed the two patterns back together, chucked a few throws behind his back again, and bit his lip. Could he stop at that? He glanced down again, and it took a couple of tries before he found Micah, one arm folded across his middle, elbow cupped in his palm, his raised hand folded back under his chin. That smile, lips rolled inside—that was hidden delight. Pride. Joy, even. He saw Jasper looking, and the smile stretched. Jasper couldn’t help laughing. No, he couldn’t really stop, not with that smile on offer. “Micah, got any more?”

He didn’t need to explain. Micah was evil. He knew exactly what Jasper was hoping for. There was a ripple of distraction, but Jasper let that be someone else’s problem, and kept things going while he waited. Soon enough, Micah called, “I’ve got two more, if you’d like them.”

“About the same size?” Jasper asked.

“Mm, a little bit bigger, I think. But lighter.”

“All right. Okay, throw to my right hand, when I say. Yeah? Okay… one, two, now.”

Another perfect throw, and Jasper had five going. Oh, shit, this was harder, now. Higher throws, slow it all down… better. It was better to go slower and get things steady rather than getting too ambitious and dropping everything. “Okay, get ready now… Do this one a bit higher. Now let me count a bit. One, two, three, four, five… yeah, okay… coming up. Counting down, throw on one, yeah? Three, two, one…”

An overhand catch, and throw throw throw, throw throw throw… all six in the air, yes! Proper applause, now, laughing and whistles and that was good, that was solid, best to stop now. Just like he’d done at the gala, he threw things higher, then gathered the catches in a stack between his hands. And this time, he didn’t drop them, because he already knew Micah was watching, and nothing could be more distracting than that. 

He had to bow, not just nod. That was a lot of clapping. He was breathing a little harder, but it all felt good. He looked down at the mittens, scrabbling through with his fingertips and bumping a grey and a black into the air, back to Micah, before he could get the two blue ones in one hand. He looked up and saw an older woman coming forward gingerly. “Ah, here. Thanks for that.”

“You were wonderful! Where did you ever learn that? I didn’t recognise that spellwork at all!”

Jasper had to lower his head, grinning fit to burst. Micah would definitely be laughing, now. “Yeah, you wouldn’t. It’s my mum’s secret. Not mine to tell, sorry.”

“Oh! Is she here?” The woman looked around, turning from the waist as though her neck couldn’t bend.

“Nup, sorry, lives out in Redglen. She’ll be glad someone was interested, though.”

“Oh, well. We can’t all learn everything, I guess.”

“Speak for yourself.”

Jasper started, hearing Micah so close. He laughed, realising what Micah had said. “Yeah, but you cheat. Your brain is bigger.”

“Actually, it’s four sizes smaller. My packing spells are superb.”

Jasper and the woman both laughed at that, and she nodded at them and moved off. “Nice one,” Jasper said.

“I’d forgotten exactly how impressive that is,” Micah said bluntly. “I would have no trouble believing it is some kind of magic.”

“Are you sure it’s not?” 

He was afraid Micah would take him seriously, and was doubly relieved when he didn’t. “Even if it were, you’re not nearly good enough to do it.”

“Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome. You do very well without it, however.”

“I try.”

Micah hesitated, his lips parted to say something else, but he stopped and took a breath, looking down at his hands. “Oh. Here, perhaps you’d like…”

Jasper looked down, and grabbed the black, balled-up mitten from Micah’s hand. “Oh, yeah. And here’s yours.”

Micah took it, and didn’t look up again. “Yes. Thank you.”

A quick swipe of someone’s bow across strings stopped Jasper from trying to answer. He glanced aside, then back to Micah, who half-turned toward the music. Jasper considered asking him to dance again, but when they started playing properly, it was sedate, and Jasper watched as groups of four formed, their hands held in gestures he recognised as magic. “Well, I guess I’m not going to be dancing again just now.”

Micah nodded slowly, then his head snapped around to Jasper, eyes wide. “Oh no—Karlie! What time is it?”

“Oh, fuck!” Jasper slapped at his pocket, tugging out his watch. “No, we’re too late. We are beyond late. We’d better start toward Dusya’s, in fact.”

“Really?” Micah set his hand on Jasper’s wrist and tilted his arm, looking at the watch. “After six? Yes, we really had better.” 

They skirted the dancers, Jasper watching them as long as he could. What would it feel like, doing dance magic with Micah? Was it more like doing magic, or like dancing but on a different level? Did his magic feel different from everyone else’s, and was it because he was better at magic? Or was he better at dancing because he was good at magic? Was it a physical feeling, or something deeper? 

“You’d like to try it, wouldn’t you.”

Jasper turned to see Micah watching him, clearly knowing exactly what he was thinking, if not his own role in that thinking. “Yeah, but I always do,” Jasper admitted, catching up the black coat and turning back to watch the dance, shoving his arms awkwardly into the sleeves. “I just wonder if it feels different, you know?”

Micah’s hand landed on his shoulder and gently turned him around, putting his back to the dancers. “It does,” Micah said quietly. “It’s a slight vibration along your arms, a little warm. It’s strange, like your arms have gone dizzy.” He peeled back the top layer of the pale blue-silver cloak and picked up the vibrant blue velvet coat, unfolding it, sliding his hands into the sleeves, shrugging it on, tugging his cuffs, and tending to all the details of dressing that would keep him from meeting Jasper’s gaze, yet quietly telling him the answer to a question he’d never thought he’d be able to ask. “Your arms feel tired and energised all at once, like you’ll never be able to keep them steady. Once you know the dance, you can sort of feel the shape you’re meant to be forming. Your hands slide around it, across it, like a complex glass vessel that reshapes as you move, yet also guides your movements. There’s a little warmth along your arms and it pools in your chest, but leaves you feeling cooler. Like reliving a memory—the magic guides your movements with the same feeling of inevitability as remembering a thing, but at the same time, you’re creating the memory. In this particular dance, most of the feeling is confined to your hands and arms. In something like the Calusarotte, it pervades your entire body, and at the end when the lines fall, it fills all your senses—feeling, sight, but also a scent and a hint of taste, and a sound right at the edge of your hearing, either too low or too high, or maybe both. For a dance like this, though, it isn’t as intense. The energy build-up isn’t as strong, and the collaboration is nothing like as detailed. It feels more…friendly.”

“Is it different depending on who you’re dancing with?”

Micah froze with the cloak hanging from his hands. “It…does. Up to a point,” he admitted slowly.  “No two people’s magic feels exactly the same, much like no two people have the same voice. Iveyas tells me that she knows when she is fighting someone from the Panzhutai school, and she can feel when two people are related. When she was first learning, she was taught by Śe Kertovina, the daughter of Vinu, who she fought as the Lunule champion, that year. She said they both had the same misty, pale lavender flavour to their trap spells.”

“Huh. She ever fight you?”

“Yes. Before you ask, she won. She always wins.”

“No, I was just wondering… I was gonna ask if she said what it feels like when she’s fighting you.”

“Not to me, no. I don’t usually last very long.”

“Oh, come on, now—”

Micah shook his head firmly. “Battle magic is nothing like the kind I usually do. It’s more like…well, either using an enormous hammer or a knife when I’m used to tweezers.”

Jasper nodded thoughtfully. He knew he couldn’t understand anything Micah was describing, not exactly. But it helped him imagine it, at least. And it helped just knowing Micah was trying. “Okay. Right!” He took the cloak from Micah’s hands and stepped behind him. “The sooner we get moving, the sooner we’ll be out of the cold again for the night.”

Micah settled the cloak and tied the sash behind him again. “Yes. If we’re not too worn out when we get there, I’ll get us something to eat.”

They started across the floor of the Great Room, passing the fire on the way. “You don’t have to pay for me,” Jasper began, but stopped when one of the people clustered around the fire came hurrying over.

“Excuse me, Śe Micah?”

Micah paused, the silver scarf draped once around his neck, the ends still in his hands. He raised his head, lifting his eyebrows but not speaking. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to interrupt your evening, I’m sure you’re tired.”

Jasper was sure, too, and made a point of shifting his feet, drawing attention away from a Vedouci’s heir who had really faced enough demands on him for one night, in Jasper’s opinion. “Problem with the fire?” 

It seemed the obvious subject, but the woman stopped mid-breath and turned to him with her mouth hanging open. Jasper glanced aside and found Micah watching him with only one eyebrow arched now and his lips pressed together. “Am I wrong?” Jasper demanded. 

“No, no. You’re not wrong, I just…hoped I was,” the woman said. Long dark hair braided and coiled on top of her head added eight inches to her height, and she was still looking up at the underside of Micah’s chin. 

“Śe Rinkasa, yes?” Micah asked, taking a step closer to the flames. “What have you noticed?”

She backed around, letting Micah lead the way to the edge of the pit. Jasper could feel the heat more than everyone else, and dragged his feet, reluctant to let Micah get too far away from him but also unable to tolerate the bright, dry, hot air. If he moved closer, it would be transparently obvious that he was feeling more than anyone else, and if they already thought something was wrong, his nullness would just distract them from the real problem. If there was anything he could contribute, Micah would know and find a way to make it happen, so he let the pair of them go. Micah nodded a lot, asking occasional questions, pointing, nodding again before they were joined by two more serious engineering types. Like most of the people around the fire, they had long, slim coats on over sensible trousers and shirts covered in pockets, goggles hanging around their necks or resting on foreheads. Jasper tipped his head back to watch the fire at the top of the pillar, where it streamed out over the dome. Firelight reflected off of the angled glass panels and clouds of snow whipped past outside, and streamers of flame flickered behind the glass. It was easier to forget the scale of the place, forget that the glass panels were larger than he was, forget that the tower of fire was at least fifty storeys tall, and think it was just a strange glass stove. 

A change in the shadows drew his eye to one side of the dome, and he very nearly screamed. The ridge that he’d thought was just a metal fitting joining the glass panels seemed to be a walkway, judging by the tiny figures he saw walking along it. One of them was—of course, of course—Micah. Jasper recognised the cloak, the only thing being worn by anyone that was that much bigger than the person wearing it. He could see it flapping, caught in the updraft, making Micah twice as tall as the little slivers of people with him. He couldn’t see what they were doing, but they didn’t move much along the walkway. Micah was in front, then the three figures with him caught up, and then they were all moving back, and part of the walkway detached and moved downwards, following the curve of the dome, then dropping down the wall.

Jasper hurried to meet them, watching the thin metal platform and the flimsy railing around it stop a dozen yards above the floor where a spiral staircase ended. He could hear the voices, but didn’t care. “What the fuck were you doing up there? Micah, no, don’t even try to justify that! You absolute lunatic! You could have been killed, and you are going to be killed if Casper ever finds out you did that!”

The engineers stopped in their tracks as Jasper stomped toward them, and Micah met him alone, with no hesitation and not the slightest sign of regret. “Stop shouting. It’s not something that will ever happen again, and you’re frightening people.”

Jasper stared at him, noting that Micah didn’t so much as blink when they were nose to nose. The first hints of doubt crept along Jasper’s spine, and he took a step back, looking Micah over. No sign of damage from the heat, nothing missing, no soot stains. “You could have been killed,” Jasper snapped.

“Thank you for your concern. But no, because I would not do such a thing without extensive precautions, those already in use as well as my own.”

“Then why did you do it when my back was turned?”

Micah stared at him for a long moment, then simply smiled. He didn’t say anything for a moment, simply looking into Jasper’s eyes with his smoky dark blue gaze and leaving Jasper feeling like he had missed something. Maybe Micah wasn’t even the same species. Nothing about him made sense at the moment. Then he turned his back and spoke to the engineers. “If anything shifts, send a chuffer through Śe Essanal’s portal to the castle, but I would be astounded if it does.”

“Thank you, Śe Micah.”

He nodded briskly and turned back to Jasper. “There was nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear, I wasn’t in any danger.”

“Why were you even up there, then? You could have fallen—”

“No, because there were safety lines on us, and another level of anti-fall spell, and other spells keeping at least one foot on the walkway at all times. The worst thing that happened was nearly having my scarf blown out the top of the dome.”

Jasper slowed to stare at him and Micah seized his elbow, forcing him to keep moving. “It didn’t happen,” Micah said firmly.

“I saw your cloak up over your head, too.”

Micah let go of his arm and pulled his hood up as they returned to the entryway, stopping well away from the doors to wrap the scarf around the hood and tie it in place. “I didn’t lose either, and no one was hurt. They were worried that the heat of the fire was damaging the glass panels, but it was just the heat melting the snow as it passed. They have some ice problems they have to keep an eye on, but that was the worst of it. Are you ready?”

Jasper looked down, realising his coat was still open, his own scarf just looped around his neck. “Yeah, hang on.” The buckles were slower than buttons would have been, but the coat was simply so impressive, so elegant that he didn’t mind having to take more time. “I just worry, that’s all. I asked Casper if I could bring you out, and if anything happens, it’ll be my fault. I don’t even want to think about what could have happened up there.”

“Nothing happened. If it were risky, truly dangerous, I would not have gone up.”

“I wish you’d warned me first, that’s all.”

Having said it, he could hear the arrogance of it. It was not his place to tell Micah what he could or couldn’t do. Micah was right—he could take care of himself, and was far more able to than Jasper was. In fact, he was being more work for Micah, who was having to worry about risking the only null in the world in a place full of magic and danger that only more magic could protect him from. 

“Thank you.”

Jasper looked up, startled, afraid he’d said something aloud.

“For caring,” Micah added, seeing his look. “You’re right—I could have warned you. I didn’t think about that.”

“Ohh… look, I’m sorry. I’ve got no right—”

“Stop. You do have the right. I appreciate that you care. That matters to me.”

“Oh.”

What had just happened? What did Micah mean? This was dangerously close to turning into yet another of their cycles of apology, apologising for apologising, trying to out-sorry each other. But now he thought about it, what did it mean that this was a regular event for them? Was it time to take a chance, risk a little more honesty, test the waters by showing a little more?

“Okay. Well, I do.”

Micah looked at him and smiled. “And I take your safety just as seriously, my dear null. And on that account…” Micah lifted one side of the cloak, reaching into a pocket Jasper hadn’t even known existed, and pulled out something lumpy. It took him a moment to untangle things, but then he was holding a pair of goggles out to Jasper. “As promised.”

Jasper took them, bemused, trying to remember what they’d been working on that had required specialised eye protection beyond what Micah had in the lab already. When he realised Micah was putting his pair on, Jasper finally remembered. “Oh! For the snow! Yeah, thanks!” He eased the buckled strap over his head, finding it already adjusted nearly perfectly. “Are these a loan, or did you buy them?”

“I bought them with a short consultation on the conditions needed to melt numium-infused glass,” Micah said, lifting the lenses up over his eyes and settling the strap over his ears before pulling his hood up. When Jasper had his settled, Micah looped his hand around Jasper’s upper arm. “Now let’s get this over with. One last battle for the night.”

Jasper nodded, and lead Micah back outside.

It hadn’t got any warmer since the last time they’d been out in the storm. He felt Micah’s throat lock again in his battle to force himself to breathe air so cold that it hurt. Jasper bowed his head, burying his face in his scarf for a few steps as they crossed the courtyard, passed through the gate, and got back onto the walkway. He lifted his head again when the wind was behind them, feeling Micah’s cloak flapping between them. “You warm enough? Do you need to do anything?”

“I’ll be fine,” Micah called. 

Looking aside at him, Jasper was struck once more by the man’s blindness to the impression he made on people. One mittened hand on the side of his hood, the other on his escort’s arm, his cloak billowing ahead of them, he looked like any other rich Śeo out for a night on the town with his trusted bodyguard, intending to remain aloof and untouched, dipping into and out of the revels as his whims took him. Which was, broadly speaking, the truth. 

Then Micah stopped short, tugging on his arm, and Jasper turned around to see why. A child was standing behind Micah, just letting go of a fold of Micah’s cloak. The fingers of the child’s knit gloves were worn through, and one hand was bracing the silk top hat that both Jasper and Micah could still look down on. Jasper took a step back and bent sideways to peer at her. Her ears were the only things keeping the hat from falling down over her face.

“Yes?” Micah said. He’d let go of his arm when Jasper turned, but now Micah was grabbing Jasper’s mittened hand and holding it tightly. Jasper held very still, not knowing what this meant.

“Got some information you want.” A small leather pouch was thrust against Micah’s chest and he caught it with his free hand out of reflex. 

Micah glanced down at the pouch, mostly hidden under his mitten. Jasper could see his fingers shifting, and wondered what Micah was feeling inside it. “Why do I want it?”

“The Eel said you’d know.”

“I—what? Wait!”

But off she went, taking a running leap off the side of the walkway.

“No!” Jasper screamed, but Micah hauled on his arm to keep him back from the edge. 

“No, Jasper! It’s not what you think…”

The edge of a tiny little barge drifted into view, the engine puttering as the wind pushed it off course. The girl was standing on it, looking back and up at them, lifting her hat before hunkering down next to another small figure at the controls.

“How did she—how did you know that ship was there?”

“I’m sure she arranged that. Best to have a quick exit available when you don’t know what kind of reception you’ll get.” Micah looked down at the pouch pressed against his chest and turned to put the wind behind them again, letting go of his hood to use both hands on the pouch. “Let’s see what’s in here…”

“No chance it could be boobytrapped?”

Micah raised an eyebrow—Jasper could only tell by the way the goggles shifted on his face—then shook his head. “You’re right. I’ll look at it when we reach Dusya’s.”

“On we go, then.”

The slog to the ship was one of Jasper’s worst experiences. When they were sheltered from the wind, the cold itself was painful, burning against any exposed skin, completely beyond any coldness Jasper had felt before. It was like needles pressing against his skin. The wind changed it from passive pressure to having those needles shot at him. It drove the cold straight through his trousers. He couldn’t remember ever having had his legs feel cold before, and he was wearing the longest coat he’d ever worn, too. 

The walkway spells were beginning to fail and the snow was building up. Some drifts were already as high as Jasper’s boots. A few shopkeepers were out with brooms, trying to push the snow away but having it blown back in their faces. Parts of the walkway used heat spells to stay clear, melting the snow as soon as it fell—at least, during a normal snowfall. Tonight it just meant a coating of ice hidden under layers of snow as it fell and drifted faster than the spell could melt it. Jasper pushed his way through, plowing a path for Micah to follow. It was worse than wading; water would have been warmer than this.

“I can clear us a path—”

“No,” Jasper snapped, then looked back. “No. You’re already worn out. You’ve done enough for one day. You’ve done enough for two days.”

“Aren’t you tired?”

“I’m fine.”

“Jasper.”

He looked back again reluctantly. “Okay. Yeah, I am a bit, but I reckon I’ve still got more energy in my legs than you do for magic.”

Micah shook his head. “I’m not going to argue with you. Just promise you’ll trade with me before you get too tired to walk.”

Jasper wanted to laugh, but he was beginning to worry that it might be a reasonable possibility.

When they were within sight of the homeship, Jasper slowed. He could see walkways in place, linking the ship to the dock, but they were just boards set across the gap. Two of the links consisted solely of floating platforms, bobbing in place like lily pads in a pond. 

“Micah…”

“Mm?”

He looked aside, and Micah was looking at him. Jasper pointed. “I don’t think I want to climb out there on any of those. Not in this storm.”

Micah looked, and Jasper could just imagine the exasperated sigh. “No. You don’t. There’s a portal… oh.”

Jasper waited, but Micah didn’t go on. “Well? Where—oh. It’s one of the ones I can’t use, isn’t it.”

“Yes.” 

Jasper looked up at the walkways again. There were lights running along the walkway that led to the  main level. “Is there any chance those lights are connected to each other and not just glowspheres floating in space?”

Micah’s shoulders lifted and lowered slowly in a sigh Jasper couldn’t hear. “Possibly. Let’s find out.”

They passed one of the lily-pad paths, as Jasper thought of them, and each platform had a partial wall of white lighted columns around one side. The drifting snow had left a hollow around the base of the columns, but was also sticking to the windward side, darkening the lights. “Maybe I could hold onto those lights, if it comes to it.”

Micah looked at him, then followed his gaze. “But in between you’d be jumping from platform to platform, out of reach of those lights, and that’s when you’d be most vulnerable.”

“Yeah, I guess.” He kicked his way through another drift. “I could try, though.”

“If it comes to that, I will say fuck Karlie thrice over with a thorn-tree rod. I will not risk your life because she wants to learn how to whistle.”

Jasper laughed at the vehemence in Micah’s tone. “You do have a solid point, there.”

“I do. Ahh, look, there is a rope. But…” Micah stopped, staring at the main walkway ahead of them.

“But what’s holding it in place?”

“Magic, of course. Jasper, I don’t know if we should risk it.”

“What’s the next closest shelter for the day?”

Micah turned to look around them. “The Esprit de Ciel isn’t terribly far, but it is almost certainly full—”

“They’d turn you away? I mean, you?”

Micah gave him a small smile. “Yes, they would. It’s Hames’s favourite. She uses it as an extension of her home whenever family come to visit.”

“But she’s…” He trailed off, not sure how to say it. She was on the Lunule Council and therefore no less important than Micah. Actually she outranked him, as Micah was just the Vedouci’s heir. She might be manoeuvring for her role to become more prestigious and trying to groom an heir of her own, but she was nothing special. Terrifying, politically skilled, powerful, but…ordinary. Nothing like Micah or Casper or Veronica, even. 

“Yes?”

Jasper shook his head. This was a track he didn’t want to go down when he was tired. Micah needed to stay as neutral as he could if he wanted to work with the members of the Council and not have them oppose him as a matter of course. For all he knew, maybe the Vedouci was seen as a threat, upsetting the balance of power. “Nevermind. Ah, look, let’s just give this a try, okay?” 

Jasper went over to the start of the walkway. He could see the ship on the other end, and between him was a straight, flat wooden path four feet wide, a six-inch high border on either side. Floating above the edge on each side were solid cubes of black metal with rings welded to them, and a thick rope passing through each ring. The ends of the ropes were tied off on the first cube on either side, but there was nothing attached to the cubes. The simply floated in the air, the rope flexing slightly in the gusts. It looked as though someone had shovelled snow off the walkway, but even as he watched, more drifts were starting to form.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

Jasper turned his head, and Micah’s face was almost resting on his shoulder. All he’d have to do is lean forward a few inches, and their lips would touch. Instead, he raised his hand and pulled the hood of Micah’s cloak forward, sheltering his face. “I gotta try, I think.”

Micah shook his head, but didn’t move to stop him. Jasper took one rope in each mittened hand and stepped out onto the walkway. It felt every bit as solid as the dock, not the slightest flicker of vibration from his step. Slowly, he worked his way forward, sliding one foot ahead, testing for ice, testing for holes, testing for…he didn’t really know what. 

A movement caught his eye and he turned his head, seeing Micah’s cloak billowing so closely at his side that he might have been wearing it himself. “Staying close?”

“No, I just felt lonely. Keep going.”

Jasper smiled, rocking back slightly and feeling Micah set his hands on Jasper’s shoulders and push. “So, very lonely, then.”

“I might start crying.”

Grinning, Jasper moved forward again. They were halfway before he could see anything through the windows ahead. Faces watching them, and then a bright wash of light as a door was opened. “The walk is free of ice, Śeos! Come now, hurry!”

Jasper bit the inside of his cheek. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but this woman wasn’t facing a drop into the cold and dark if the wind caught her wrong.

“Don’t let her rush you. You know I’m fine,” Micah said, his voice nearly in Jasper’s ear.

Jasper nodded and took a deep breath. Micah would never let him fall. Never. And the wind wasn’t that strong, not like the gust they’d had earlier. 

He felt pressure on his hips and looked down. Micah had set his hands on Jasper’s waist. He looked back, and Micah set his chin on Jasper’s shoulder this time. “We could dance, if you think it would help,” he said, as though the thought had just occurred to him. 

“I’ve got no incentive at all, now,” Jasper said, shaking his head and rocking back just a little.

“I’m sure Karlie will understand when I tell her your feet have frozen to the walkway.”

“You’ll have to get past me to do it,” Jasper said.

“Unless she’s not here yet. She could be coming behind us.”

“Is there anyone back there?”

“Oh, probably. I’m sure they’re enjoying the view.”

He had no idea how Micah meant that, but he was giddy just hearing it. He let Micah push his body forward an inch or two without moving his feet, then stumbled forward, the momentum carrying him the rest of the way, giggling as he came, Micah’s hands still on his hips.

“Wertheimer’s figs, you took your time!” said the woman at the door, holding it open with her body as the wind sought to bang it closed again. “Enjoying this lovely snow?”

Micah laughed, taking his hands from Jasper’s hips. “Oh, yes. It’s made such a beautiful festival, hasn’t it?” He was pulling first his goggles then his scarf free with both hands, pushing his hood back and batting snow off his shoulders.

“Good Fest, Śe Micah! I’m Śi Bebina. Welcome, welcome! And a guest?”

“Yes—Śe Jasper. Have you any beds left?”

“Oh, were you hoping to sleep?”

“Ah. That doesn’t sound encouraging.”

She bared her teeth and hissed in a breath, hurrying around her desk and flipping open the register book. “It’s tight, I will say. We have…no, that was taken, it looks like… That’s a family in there now…”

“Did Śe Karlie the bard visit you?”

“That was just on my tongue to tell you—she said you were to meet here, and she went off to sleep. I’m to wake her when you arrive—”

“Please don’t. We’d intended to arrive in better shape, but we’re a bit tired and would like at least a few hours of sleep first.”

“And if she asks?”

“So long as it’s been a few hours—when did she…?”

“She played for an hour and just retired about a half hour ago.”

“Then we could both use the rest.” As he spoke, Micah untied the sash of his cloak and let it fall off his shoulders, shaking it out before folding it over his arm. “When she wakes, then, but at least do fetch us before she leaves, no matter how much she may protest. We were meant to meet earlier tonight and missed her, and this was our fallback plan.”

“Of course, Śe,” Bebina said, flicking over another page. “Taken, taken…all the suites are full. Oh, no, that’s taken…”

“Has anyone been coming in because their own homes were damaged?” Micah asked.

“Mm, a few. There was a couple came because their shop was damaged—awning came off and went through the window. A few kiddies in the airpool, probably here for the day, poor things.”

“Oh?” Micah leaned his hip against the desk, folding his arms. “Street kids?”

“Probably, poor loves.”

Micah glanced aside and caught Jasper’s eye. “Did you give them something to eat?”

“Oh yes. Buffet’s open to all, all night, although I think a few of them stuffed their pockets.”

“So long as you didn’t run out…?”

“No, no. Not us. Addie’s always got something on the go. Oh! She brings fresh every hour, so if you lads need aught, there’ll be something lovely and hot in the gallery.”

“That sounds quite appealing,” Micah said, his eyes on the book. “Have you found any rooms?”

“Well, yes and no. One bed or two?”

Jasper stopped breathing. 

There was no way he was going to look at Micah, there wasn’t enough money in the world. He was not going to respond to this in any way, not to anyone, not ever. It was just…not.

Unless he was being unprofessional by not immediately insisting on two, oh, shit, it was well past too late…

“What do you have?” Micah asked, his voice slow and firm.

Well…I have two hammocks out on the Gazing Deck, and Śe Micah, you know that’s warmer than it sounds…”

“And we all remember how very much I do not enjoy hammocks,” Micah said just as easily.

“Yes. But besides that there’s a day room with a window bed.”

“Ah.”

“I can tune up the softness, and there are piles of pillows, but…yes.”

Micah nodded. Jasper could see that without looking anything like directly at him. He could also see when Micah turned to him, which he was prepared to not see, not ever see…

“Is that all right? I don’t mind,” Micah said. 

Crap. Gentle, reasonable, open, relaxed, nothing Jasper could get a toehold on, nothing to be uncomfortable at. Except, well, everything.

“Uh yes? Yeah, anything’s fine. Maybe the walk’s starting to get to me.”

Of course he was nervous! But he could pull himself together. How had he made it this far in his life if someone just sounding reasonable was enough to rattle him?

“Good. We’ll take the day room. Could you have some food sent? It’s been rather a long night for both of us. Something more than a snack?”

“Been doing a fair bit of magic then, have we?” Bebina asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Have to learn to pace yourself, Śe. Don’t you worry, I’ll get a tray to you before you’ve even sat down. Here’s your keys, you’ll be in number seven—first right, then along on the left. I’ll be right behind you with the food.” 

She bustled off down a corridor behind the desk and Micah turned to Jasper. “I’m sorry, I forgot that the keys would be magic. I’ll wedge the lock so you can come and go.”

Jasper nodded, looking down at the polished squares in Micah’s hands. Strangely iridescent, a short length of chain dangled from each. He tipped one on its side, seeing the chipped edge and a line of something hard in the centre. “Not sure these are going to last the night, anyway.” He plucked one out of Micah’s hand, noting Micah’s raised eyebrow. “Maybe I can’t use it, but it’ll look a bit strange if I don’t at least wear it,” he explained, hooking it around his wrist.

Micah tipped his head in agreement, then turned and headed down the corridor. “You have a point. Oh, we’re right down at the end…”

The ship wasn’t so luxurious that Jasper felt out of place, but it was definitely a treat. The carpet in the corridor was thick and plush like overgrown red velvet, making their footsteps absolutely silent. Every glowsphere on the dark wood-panelled walls had its own set of small pastel satellites orbiting it, and another set of spheres on leather cords dangled from each elaborately sculpted door handle. Micah stopped in front of the last door on the left and passed his hand in front of the spheres before pressing the key against the lock. The door snicked open and Micah looked inside, smiled, and pushed the door wider, beckoning Jasper in.

Dozens of multicoloured spheres clustered in the centre of the ceiling. The centre of an inlaid gateleg table was hidden under a large glass bowl of fruit, the legs of the table carved to look like flames. The heavy wooden chairs matched, arms and legs carved like long, spindly tongues of fire and the backs one wide, flat flame, all reminding Jasper vividly of the fire in Grossman Hall. He ran a finger along the curves and points, fascinated. He could see no seams in the wood, each carved from a single huge log. “Okay, now I’m impressed.”

Micah turned to look, and Jasper looked up, wondering why Micah hadn’t been impressed. Then he saw the window.

The bay window surrounded a seat that was genuinely the size of a bed. It was just over a yard deep, and two yards wide. The seat was covered in a thick cushion, and pillows were scattered across it with more on the floor in front of it. 

“Oh, sweet Meg, yes.” Jasper almost ran over to it, then stopped to stare, not sure he wanted to touch it. Both of them in one bed, and not a particularly wide one…

“If you lift the top, you’ll find all the blankets and sheets you could want,” Bebina said, following them into the room and setting a tray down on the table. No plates, but a dozen bowls of steaming food: bread rolls and rafi, mashed and roasted vegetables, sliced meats, sauces, and something covered in cheese baked to crisp, brown perfection. “Bath and lav through that door there,” she went on, wiping her hands on her apron and nodding at a door Jasper hadn’t noticed, half hidden behind the window curtains and a large potted fern. “There’s a bar just across the hall from you, speaking tube right next to the window there. Did you need any laundry taken care of?”

“No, thank you. We’ll be fine. Anything else you can think of, Jasper?”

“Mm? Oh. Towels?”

“Towels, soap, basins, brushes, everything like that’s in the lav.”

He shrugged, having made his token gesture toward being a sensible housemaster. “Can’t think of a thing. Thank you.”

She nodded briskly and bustled out. 

“Eat at the table or there?” Micah asked, nodding toward the window.

“Let’s see…” He pulled the cord and opened the curtains. “Oh look, it’s snowing.”

Micah laughed, then leaned on the edge of the table with both hands and laughed some more. Jasper smiled, not thinking it had been that funny, but Micah was very tired. “Can we bring the table over here?” Jasper asked, studying it speculatively. The two side leaves would extend it a bit, but not close enough to be convenient for sitting on the window seat. 

“Yes, of course.” Micah straightened and gestured at the table, sending it gliding over to Jasper.

“No, you don’t have to…” 

It was too late, of course. Micah simply shrugged, slinging the cloak and scarf onto the end of the bed-seat and flopping down next to them. “Eat. While we still can.”

Jasper collapsed beside him and picked up a bowl. “Okay, I get all the veg in this bowl. What’ve you got?”

Micah tilted his own bowl to show him. “Meat. Not eating all of it, though.”

“Your loss. You’re not getting my greens.”

Micah simply swiped a fork through Jasper’s bowl, catching a single green floret before Jasper could knock his fork away. “Too late.”

Jasper glared at him, but his best defence was eating it all before it could be stolen. He stuffed as much as he could into his cheeks before Micah looked up again and spluttered, trying not to laugh with his mouth full. 

They’d emptied three bowls and made a dent in the rest before Micah set down his cutlery and leaned back with a sigh. “Time to find out what’s in this pouch.”

Jasper frowned for a moment, watching Micah reach into an inner pocket of his coat and pull out the small leather bag. “Oh! From that girl?”

“Yes.” He laid it flat on one palm and pressed the other hand on top of it, staring intently. “Strange. Nothing to keep it sealed. Nothing of ownership about it.”

“Well she gave it to you of her own free will, so why would it have anything like that?”

“Those are key components when setting a trap,” Micah said, glancing up at him, then pulling the neck of the pouch open and looking inside. “What?” he murmured, staring at it. He tipped the bag to show Jasper a tuft of white fluff. Reaching in with his first two fingers, he pulled out a few fibres, wiry and strong, still attached to the main clump inside. He rubbed it between his fingers, sniffed it, touched it with the tip of his tongue, and finally rubbed it again between his fingers while holding it up to his ear.

“Any idea what it is?”

“No. Well, actually, yes.” He pulled the rest of it out of the pouch and set it on his palm, studying it, frowning. “It’s fur. It’s…some kind of fur.”

Jasper lowered his bowl and peered first at the fur, then at Micah’s face. “What were you going to say?”

Micah tipped it onto his other palm and packed it together, rolling it between palms and fingers. “I think… who was talking about yetis tonight?”

Jasper blinked and opened his mouth to say “No one,” then hesitated. “I…wait. We were talking about the cold and you said not even a yeti, and I said I thought they weren’t real. Are you… is that yeti fur? Is that what you’re saying?”

Micah nodded slowly. “I think it is. It’s cold. I can’t think of another kind of fur that would throw off cold.”

“Why’d she give it to you?”

“Exactly.” Micah glanced at him. “I mean, it’s used in spells, supposedly. I’ve never seen any or felt any, because they’re not exactly good spells.”

“They don’t work?”

“No, more…they cause harm. They require harm. Most spells are simply tools, a way to achieve a thing, and not good or bad. It’s simply a matter of what you use them to do. But there are some that require you to cause harm. You have to harm something while gathering the materials, and generally the more harm you cause, the stronger the spell. Some spells require blood, for example. You can use the blood of an animal you’ve killed for food—chicken, cow, duck, et cetera. But if you used human blood, it magnifies the effect. And for the strongest effect, the blood of a child, or a pregnant woman, or that of her unborn child.”

“I didn’t think that kind of thing was real.”

“Sadly, it is. It isn’t the kind of thing anyone is comfortable with, so it doesn’t get used very often. The books mentioning it are rare, as Vedoucis have tried to destroy as many as they can. Copies are kept, of course, but that part of the library is under so many restrictions that I’ve never even seen it.”

“Do you mean…you’re not allowed to? Or it’s not actually possible?”

“Both.”

They stared at the fur in Micah’s hand for a moment. “She said it was information.”

Micah dropped the fur onto the table and sighed, rubbing his face with both hands. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand…”

“Hey, hey, it’s okay. You’re tired, it’s been a long day.”

“You make a point,” Micah said, lowering his hands and pushing onto his feet. “I assume you will want to take the coat off before you sleep,” he said, peeling back his own.

Jasper looked down and yes, he was still wearing the black overcoat. Again. “I think it’s the buckles,” he said, starting to work on them. “Once I get them done up, it’s easier to leave them closed.”

“Hm.” 

When they were all open, Jasper couldn’t put it off anymore and looked up, getting to his feet. Micah was watching him, arms folded, his weight on his back leg, the other resting on his toe with his knee bent. The full sleeves of his grey shirt were wrinkled from hours of confinement, the collar slightly askew, the crisp puff of his cravat from earlier in the night now a sagging loop, the ends just barely contained in the neck of his shirt. The embroidered waistcoat was comparatively undamaged, and nothing could distract Jasper from his long legs and the way his tall, shining boots hugged his calves. 

“She said there were blankets in the drawer.”

Jasper blinked for a moment, trying to remember what they were talking about and failing. “What drawer?”

Micah nodded, looking at Jasper’s feet. Jasper turned and looked down at where the front of the window seat was hidden behind cushions. He kicked them aside and found the drawer-pull. “Oh, yeah. Right.” He knelt and pulled it open. Soft, smooth sheets folded in perfect, firm squares, and so many blankets. Everything from a fine grey cotton knit that was little more than a thick sheet to a knitted wool that draped like thin silk as he moved it. At the back, he found a white duvet as thick as a mattress, the white cotton crackling like paper as he tugged it out. He got to his feet again and let the duvet unroll, raising his arms over his head to keep it from dragging on the floor. “Is this for under us or over us?”

He blushed like a little child just saying “us,” but the only way Micah would know was if it reflected off the duvet, as Micah stood behind him. But… “us.” A bed for an “us” that included him and Micah. How was this his life?

“Either. You choose.” 

Jasper nodded, then dropped the duvet back in a pile on the open drawer, leaning across to pull the rest of the pillows off the window seat. When it was clear, he spread the duvet across the upholstered seat. 

He looked over as something fell onto the duvet, seeing first the cloak, then the scarf, then Micah’s coat, and finally his waistcoat. Jasper swivelled to look up. It was completely and utterly unfair. Micah looked like a romantic hero no matter what he wore. It wasn’t just the cloak, or his coat, or the waistcoat, or the billowing sleeves of his shirt. He was all long lines and grace, every movement and twitch elegant. 

“I won’t leave them there,” Micah said, happily misunderstanding Jasper’s stare. “Would you like to wash first while I do the rest?”

Jasper straightened and headed to the lav without even thinking. Cold water, that was what he needed. Cold water on his face and hands, the awkwardness of trying to remove his boots while standing, a quick piss and more cold water, soap, and by the time he left his cheeks were red and his hands numb, his plain black velvet waistcoat rolled under his arm.

Micah had sheets tucked around their  bed and was building a nest out of cushions and blankets. He looked up when Jasper stopped next to him, and suddenly straightened. “I’ll get the lights.”

Jasper nodded, and climbed onto the window seat-bed before he lost his nerve. As the glowspheres went out, the view out the window became clearer, and Jasper stared. “Micah? Come look at this.”

“Hm? Oh.”

Jasper felt him crawl over next to him. “Now we’re not out in it, it’s beautiful,” Jasper had to admit.

Snow still swirled, pouring down endlessly from the sky and sweeping across the city, but brighter lights turned the snow into halos of pink, green, blue, yellow, white, and lavender against a vague grey background as the sun began to rise.

He felt Micah shiver, and turned to him quickly. “Oh, are you cold here? Let me…”

Micah pushed his hands away gently, turning on his knees and gathering a mound of pillows nearby. “Just tired. But yes, it is beautiful.”

Jasper watched the snow as Micah moved around, pulling in blankets and even his cloak as he went. The snow was infinite, falling and falling and falling, over such an area he could scarcely imagine it. Why did it not all fall at once? Why did it not get stuck together and fall in chunks, when it stuck together so readily once it hit the ground? How could the city survive this? There would be so much to move, nowhere to put it without having it fall on someone else, another walkway, someone’s ship, someone’s shop. Where would it all end up? The lowest levels would be buried. Half the city might be buried. 

He heard Micah give a little impatient sigh and looked up, startled. “I’m sorry, I… what?”

Micah was curled up on his side, pillows mounded up against the window beside him. “Hm? Oh, I’m sorry. Just… restless.”

Jasper smiled. “Hard to unwind after all of… everything. It’s been a long night.”

“Regret?”

Micah had his neck bent at an uncomfortable angle, knees in front of his chest, one arm under the pillows under his head. Blankets were drawn up to his waist, and Jasper could see his feet wiggling under them. “No. No, of course not. You can’t really be comfortable like that, are you?”

He’d never seen Micah look so vulnerable, his eyes darting away as though he expected some kind of punishment if his excuse wasn’t good enough. “I don’t usually, ummm…”

“Here.” Jasper shook his head, getting to his feet. Micah was uncomfortable, that was all that mattered. He was unbuttoning his shirt before he’d even thought about it, but no point stopping now. He might as well see what else his body had in mind, as his brain was definitely not willing to come anywhere near this. He tossed his shirt at the nearest chair, then tugged Micah’s pillows up against the end of the seat. He picked up the softest blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders, then slid in behind Micah, pulling his legs up onto the seat and curling up. “Come back here, now.” Micah stared at him, his weight propped up on one arm as he watched Jasper. “You’re cold. I could feel you shivering. I’m not.”

Micah’s whole body shook then, and he swallowed, looking like a trapped animal before sagging. He grabbed the edges of the rest of the blankets and pulled them along as he inched up near Jasper. “I didn’t want to…intrude. You seemed peaceful.”

“I am. I will be. It’s fine.”

Micah settled with his head on Jasper’s thigh, turned to face the windows this time, and Jasper curled sideways at the end. “But this can’t be comfortable for you,” Micah said quietly, his eyes on the snow.

Jasper reached over and tugged the blankets up farther, covering his toes. “No, this is perfect. Your head’s nice and warm, and I can still watch the snow.”

They were quiet for a moment, and when Micah sighed, Jasper looked down. 

When had he started stroking Micah’s hair? 

“I’m—”

“Thank you,” Micah murmured.

“…What?”

“This,” Micah said, lifting his hand and tapping Jasper’s with a finger. 

“Oh.”

“I’ve not been out in the city like this,” he went on as though it made sense. “I’m always uncomfortable.”

“But not tonight?”

“I haven’t really thought about it tonight. Maybe that’s the trick.”

Jasper snorted, looking out the window again. Micah’s hair was thin and fine, and the longest strands on his forehead curled when they fell loose. Jasper looped them around his finger, wondering how this could be happening. “There’s no trick. You just… don’t always need to care what anyone else thinks.”

“I don’t know. I don’t care, generally.”

“Then why were you so worried about performing?”

“Because then they’re all looking at me with definite expectations.”

“They do that when you give lectures, too.”

“But those are facts. It doesn’t matter who conveys them. They’re simply true, and there’s no need for opinions about them. Performing is just one long wordless session of ‘please like me.’”

“Or showing off.” That was how it felt when he juggled, at least. 

“Maybe.”

A strong gust sent snow ticking across the outside of the window, and Jasper pulled back for a moment. It didn’t seem to be getting any lighter outside, but it had to be near eight o’clock. He could see no shadows and had no idea what direction they were facing. Maybe the sun wasn’t even up yet. Maybe he’d read the time wrong earlier. Micah had looked, too, of course, but they could both have been wrong. What time had it been when they left the castle? He couldn’t remember. What if it was eight in the evening, then, not eight in the morning? How would he know? How would anyone know, with this much snow? Maybe they’d been wrong when the Fest had started. Maybe the snow had come earlier in the day, making it seem dark much earlier. What if no one had noticed? Everyone had been busy for days. What if everyone had been so tired that they hadn’t realised it had gotten dark early, and Casper had thrown the torch, and everyone had just assumed? How would they know now? The hands of the clocks would all say the same time, after all.

“D’you think clocks can tell if it’s day or night?”

“Mmm?”

“What if we’re all just so tired we don’t know if it’s day or night? And with this storm, how would we tell? There’s so much snow coming down we’ll never see the sky.” 

He glanced down, and Micah’s eyes were half closed. He blinked slowly before he answered. “Vronny was watching the storm. She would have noticed. She’d say something.”

“Yeah. But if she weren’t here.”

“Then I’d ask you.”

“Me?”

“Mm.”

“Why me?” Micah had said it so firmly, as though it were the only, obvious answer.

“Because you always know where you have to be and when. No one else has so many things to pack into a day. No one else would notice if we’d misplaced half a day, but you would.”

“But I’m null. How would I know?”

“I don’t know. How do you ever know things?” Jasper looked down again, and Micah’s eyes were closed. There was a quiet smile around the set of his mouth, but it wasn’t as though he were teasing. 

“Usually, I ask Micah,” Jasper said, watching one side of Micah’s lips twitch higher. “He’s pretty sharp. Catches things like what day it is.”

Micah didn’t respond this time, and after waiting a while, Jasper decided he was asleep, and smiled. He did finally look comfortable, in spite of everything. His cheek was pillowed on Jasper’s inner thigh, and Jasper’s other leg was resting against the back of Micah’s neck. This should be so awkward, but his friend had fallen asleep like this, as though this was exactly what he needed to feel warm and safe. 

The ends of Micah’s cravat had fallen loose, the knot gone and the ends free of his shirt. Jasper thought about trying to pull it off completely, but knowing how sensitive Micah’s neck was, it might actually wake him. Instead, he retied it—only one of his hands could reach it without moving, but very gently, he crossed the ends, brought one up and tucked it inside the other, pulled the end down, and then tightened it until it was touching his neck again all the way around. He slipped the ends back inside the front of Micah’s shirt and tipped the side of his collar against his neck again, making sure his skin was protected from anything he might consider too rough or uncomfortable. At least for now, it was. He didn’t notice when his own eyes finally fell closed while his fingers were still on Micah’s cheek.

 

Chapter Text

SEVEN

 

Micah woke knowing almost exactly where he was: they’d got a room on Dusya’s Homeship. He and Jasper had to share a window seat-bed. And he was warm and comfortable. His pillow wasn’t quite as soft as it had felt last night, and his neck was a little sore, but given their options, he wouldn’t complain.

He opened his eyes and had no idea what had gone wrong. Reality wasn’t like this, but then he hadn’t ever dreamed that he was waking up before. That wasn’t a thing he dreamed about. But now he didn’t see how this could be reality, either. He seemed to be unwaking—trading one reality for another, heading dreamwards somehow. He blinked several times before accepting that yes, that was Jasper’s sleeping face above him, tipped gently against the window, completely dead to the world. And when Micah smiled at the sight, he felt skin against his cheek: fingers. Jasper’s fingers. The sweetness was euphoric, dazzling, dizzying, exciting beyond anything he’d known. Jasper almost certainly hadn’t intended this to happen, but clearly he hadn’t minded last night. 

The question was, though, how to keep this from being awkward. Jasper should not have stayed sitting up, on guard or whatever he’d been thinking. He should have… 

Well, there was the question. What should Jasper have done? They’d been talking, hadn’t they? Something about the weather, what time it was…nonsense, possibly. Had they fallen asleep mid-sentence? Maybe he’d dreamed some of that. Should he shift, try to move so Jasper didn’t wake to find himself being used as a pillow? Micah wouldn’t pretend he could be so stealthy that it wouldn’t wake him. 

So what if he stayed where he was until Jasper woke? Jasper would immediately apologise for his presumption. The more Micah tried to assure him that he was no servant, he was no intellectual inferior, he was no magical half-wit, the more Jasper seemed to doubt. 

Micah had thought it was Jasper politely rebuffing him. After all, it was Jasper: beautiful Jasper with his large eyes like melted chocolate framed by long, thick lashes and soft, wide, smooth brows; his smile that could light up a room and charm wine from a stone or his shy smile that would stop a pillaging army in its tracks; the striking, sterling spikes of his hair that was a richer crown than any monarch in history had ever owned. He was capable, clever, quick, kind, and confident—at least in his work. He turned heads for both his beauty and his skills. Wherever he went, he would be spoiled for choice for friends, lovers, admirers, or employers.

So why had he asked Micah to join him in town for the Fest? After all, being able to celebrate the Darklight Fest in the Vedouci’s castle was an honour. He didn’t need to leave, and especially not during such an unprecedented storm. Jasper had approached him, and had gone to the Vedouci with him to get permission. He had used his chance in the wardrobe to find something that set Micah off from anyone else, and had agreed to wear something that made Jasper himself regal. Why else would he care what Micah wore? Yes, Micah had asked for help, but Jasper did as he always did: more than was expected.

But if he asked… If Micah asked if Jasper was interested in him, what then? Once the subject was raised, there’d be no going back. Things couldn’t be unsaid. If the answer was no, he could not imagine Jasper not feeling guilty about it. Jasper felt bad about wearing a coat that he hadn’t paid for himself. How would he handle being told of love he felt he hadn’t earned? No, that would be cruel. Jasper would berate himself, blame himself; he would be convinced that somehow he had been cruel. Right now, Micah had strong suspicions that Jasper might have some fondness for him, but before he said anything, he would need more reassurance. And it wasn’t as though things were unbearable as they were. Last night had made that utterly undeniable.

He shifted his shoulder, the movement following up his neck to his cheek, his skin pulling away from Jasper’s fingers only reluctantly. Jasper’s fingers shifted, and he sighed, and took a deep breath. Before he opened his eyes, Micah moved again, tipping his head, raising his hand to cover Jasper’s fingers for a moment. “There you are,” he said, watching Jasper’s eyes open. “You needn’t have slept sitting up. There was plenty of space for us both.”

Jasper’s eyes widened and he pulled his hand away without noticing where it had been. “Augh. Um. Good morning. Is it morning?” He turned to look out the window, where vertical drifts of snow were encroaching on the glass. The light outside was vague and grey, directionless, and the snow was still falling.

“No idea,” Micah admitted, and sat up. And now, only now, did he remember Jasper was topless under his blanket. Oh, dear. Well, nothing for it but to keep going and get them through this with sheer force of will. “Let me check.” He scrabbled quickly through his coat pockets and found his watch. “It’s only just past ten. We may as well go back to sleep for a few hours.”

“Um, okay…”

Micah looked up at him, and Jasper wouldn’t meet his eyes. He wasn’t shifting either—no sign of moving to lie down. “Right, well, if you don’t need the lav, I do. And—are you thirsty? I want to get a carafe of water, would you like anything else?”

Jasper shook his head silently, his bottom lip between his teeth, where he tried to keep it when he did speak. “Mnope. Maybe get two glasses?”

“Yes. Back in a moment.”

In the lav, he leaned on the basin, staring at himself in the mirror. He did look rather debauched. His hair tousled, his shirt wrinkled and limp. He still had his boots on—and even the cravat? He’d meant to take it off. He was sure he’d untied it. He had. Jasper must have retied it. That made him smile, running a finger along the crumpled cloth. Well, Jasper did know about his neck, and it was exactly the sort of thing he’d do. He’d watch over Micah, take care of him while he slept, and all just out of kindness. He could imagine Jasper taking care of pretty much anyone.

And for Jasper, Micah could do no less. He dampened his hands again, running them through his hair, untangling it and smoothing it somewhat. No point doing anything about his clothing until morning. He could order the water through the speaking tube, after all. They almost certainly had a float spell available. He tapped the spigot over the basin with one finger, finding the heating spell and giving it a twist so Jasper would be able to use warm water if he needed it, too. Anything else could wait until they were properly done sleeping. Finally, he sat on the edge of the bath and pried off his boots.

Stepping back into the bedroom with his boots in one hand, he glanced around for the speaking tube. “Ah, yes.” Right next to where Jasper was sitting. Still sitting. Sitting still. Unmoved. “Water first.” Jasper squirmed away as Micah neared, confusion crumpling his sleepy face as Micah dropped his boots by the chair holding the rest of their discarded clothing. He picked up the tube and flicked the lever down through the list to Aft Bar. “Could we get a carafe of water and two glasses? Thank you.” He set the endpiece back on the hook and turned to Jasper, who looked up at him with huge eyes. Micah couldn’t shake the image of a frightened animal. “It won’t take them long. Now. You will be lying down this time, won’t you?” He kept smiling slightly, but wasn’t sure if that helped or hindered.

Jasper gulped almost audibly. “Well, see…I’m a hot sleeper. I dunno if that will bother you, but…yeah.”

“No, it won’t. I’m actually feeling the chill a bit and was wondering if you’d mind—”

A tap at the door made him turn, and he beckoned the door open to admit the floating tray holding the water he’d requested. Someone had already worked a chill spell, and the carafe was covered in frost to within an inch of the rim. He caught the tray when it neared and sat on the edge of the seat, turning to Jasper. “This may seem strange, but I really don’t like drinking warm water. Even when I’m cold. I can warm yours a bit, if you’d like.”

Jasper shook his head, clutching his blanket around his shoulders with one hand and picking up the carafe with the other, carefully pouring drinks for both of them. “Nup. Like I said. I throw heat like a furnace. Or so I’ve been told.”

Micah gently took hold of the tray with his own float spell and lowered it to the ground, taking his glass off the tray as it passed. “I apologise in advance for any cold you experience. I do warm up eventually, but in the meantime, best to stay away from my feet.”

Jasper smiled, draining his glass and scooting to the edge of the seat to set it by the tray. “I don’t mind. But are you sure you want to—”

“Yes. We’ll be fine. If we survived that,” Micah said, nodding at the window and the storm outside, “then we can survive having to sleep on half a bed each. Lie down, Jasper.”

Jasper’s eyes widened and he leaned back, a faint smile on his face. “Yes? All this talk of me not being a servant, and now you’re ordering me around when we’re… like this?”

“Yes. Why are you still upright?” If teasing would do the trick, then that’s what Micah would stick to. “Are you not used to such common accommodations?” 

“Yeah? Is this too fancy for you after your mattress in the lab?”

Micah folded his arms and settled in, wondering how this was going to go. “I doubt you have ever slept in a bed a hundred times your age with sleep and protection charms from dozens of Vedoucis, have you?”

“No, but I did sleep in a bed pulled by a team of seventeen goats.”

Micah stared at him while he tried to imagine this, and Jasper started grinning, toeing off his own boots, swinging his legs up onto the bed, and then squirming around, moving his hips further down and looking more ready to sleep. Micah blinked a few more times to see what would happen, and Jasper kept moving, even flashing a wider grin and showing the tip of his tongue. 

“I’m so sorry.”

Jasper laughed and tried to stifle it, a touch of colour flushing his cheeks.

“If it’s any consolation, then, I’ve also slept in a stall in a menagerie barn.”

“An empty one, I bet.”

“The stall was, yes.”

“I meant the barn.” Jasper settled down on his side, his back to the window, his head propped up on his fist, his elbow on the bed.

“Noo-oo, no.” Micah knelt on the edge of the bed, gathering up a fistful of blankets and sliding his legs beneath. “I had a helephant on one side and six mini-drays on the other.”

“Really? I’ve never seen a helephant.”

“Really?” Micah smiled. He hadn’t intended to sound mocking, but he would take Jasper’s rolled eyes as repayment. “They don’t look as impressive as they smell. But they do look impressive.” Micah dragged the blankets over himself, reaching out to try to loop them over Jasper as well.

Jasper caught them against the flat of his hand and shook his head. “No, this is fine.” He was still covered from the waist up by the blanket he’d wrapped around his shoulders earlier.

“Are you sure? The window is behind you, remember. And…” Micah reached past him and held out his hand, feeling for the sealing spell. “Well, the sealing spell is fairly small, so the glass mustz be fitted fairly well.”

Jasper half turned, and the blanket around his shoulders gaped open, leaving Micah with one arm almost around Jasper and a shadowed view of tan skin and dark chest hair that started midway down his sternum and spread wide. He pulled his arm back carefully, grateful he wasn’t shaking. 

“Yeah, I guess. It’s a little cooler back there, maybe, but it feels good.”

Micah didn’t know what to say as Jasper turned back. One part of his brain was trying to understand how Jasper could stand to feel any cold at all ever again after their earlier trials, but most of his brain was caught up in what Jasper’s skin would feel like, the muscles of his chest, the temptation to stroke the hair, wondering if some of that was grey as well, and how uncomfortable Jasper would be if any of this showed on Micah’s face, and how late it probably was to try to hide it. “You don’t have to suffer the cold on my account,” he said quickly. “I can lie on that side. I can put up a barrier—”

“No, hush,” Jasper said, lifting his chin and closing his eyes briefly. The gibbering part of Micah’s mind was grateful for the extra time to rearrange his expression and try to compose himself. “I really do get hot when I sleep. It’ll feel good on me. And you already said you’re cold.”

Micah tugged the blankets up over his shoulder and shivered. He could put up a barrier, but it was likely to dissipate when he fell asleep. “Yes. Are you sure?”

Jasper nodded, folding his arm under his head and laying down properly. “Yeah. I’m fine. And… look, thanks, okay?”

Micah froze, blinking for a moment, scrambling mentally to try to remember what he’d done that Jasper might be thanking him for. “Yes…?”

“For… you know. Trying to… you know. To get me… yeah. This.”

The sheer inability to say anything coherent was enough of a clue and Micah nodded once quickly. “Oh. No. I mean…yes. It’s trust. For both of us.” 

“And you know you’re safe with me, yeah?”

There was no way he could look at Jasper’s solemn, earnest expression and not smile. “Of course. I always have been. Even if it means you have to be incredibly stupid to do it.”

That got him another grin, Jasper’s white teeth flashing, his dark eyes almost glowing. Micah’s heart pounded, safely hidden under layers of blanket and his own clenched fists. He wanted very much to tell Jasper that he simply couldn’t do that. He couldn’t smile like that at people and not expect people to kiss him. But Jasper was always smiling. He smiled easily, frequently, widely, and never showed the slightest sign that he even suspected the effect it had on people—on Micah.

“Oh, stop that and go to sleep,” Micah said finally, needing to say something to make it stop. He would never be able to sleep again if he looked at that for another second. “Please. We’re exhausted, remember?”

He did finally dim a bit, at that. “Sorry. Yeah. You’ve been through a lot.” Squirming down a bit farther, pushing pillows into place under his head, Jasper closed his eyes. “Goodnight, Micah.”

Micah stared at him, watching Jasper’s breath even out, slowing, his face relaxing, and then he was asleep. The most beautiful face Micah had ever seen, and he finally had a chance to simply stare. Strong jaw, wide, graceful brows, a nose that was a fraction away from being snub. His nose didn’t get enough appreciation. A little small but not too small, the slightest tilt at the end, and with the huge brown eyes, Jasper’s hair could have been white and balding and he would still look childlike. Maybe his grey hair was a natural consequence of a face so otherwise-youthful that he might never look like an adult without grey hair. It was still thick and full, higher above his eyes but somehow managing to look like it had chosen to do that. It wasn’t receding; it gave his hairline some shape, some variety. Maybe to draw more attention to his wonderful, warm eyes.

Micah didn’t notice when his eyes slid shut, and he never knew that he fell asleep with a smile on his face.

 

“Micah.”

The voice came from far away and yet so close. It was distracting, but something else was bothering him, too.

“Micah!”

His eyes opened and Jasper’s worried face hovered in front of him, glancing aside as he shook Micah again. “Nng. I’m awake,” Micah mumbled.

“Yeah? Something’s wrong.” And then he was gone, leaving Micah realising he was facing the door of their room. The door was open. Jasper was leaning out of it.

Micah sat up, wiping his eyes and blinking, trying to focus. Something shook him again, and it wasn’t Jasper’s hand on his shoulder, as he’d thought at first. “What is it?”

“Feels like—feel that?”

“Of course.” Micah batted the blankets off himself and shivered, wrapping his arms around his chest. “What’s happened?”

“I think it’s something with the ship.”

Micah looked around and saw the silver-blue cloak hanging down on the edge of the bed, one side pooling on the floor. It would do as a makeshift dressing gown. He scooped it up and wrapped it around his shoulders quickly. “Is it colder?”

Jasper glanced back at him. “I haven’t tried to go out yet. I just woke up.”

“I meant in here. Never mind.” He braced his hand against the wall as the ship shook again. “I’d better go see what’s happening.”

Jasper turned back, his lips parted, his brow wrinkled. Now Micah could see that while Jasper had got his shirt back on, he hadn’t yet buttoned it, and was only now beginning to work on that. There was no hint of self-consciousness, either, which was alarming all by itself. “I’ll catch up,” Jasper said, tipping his head toward the door.

Micah nodded and hurried out into the surprisingly empty and quiet corridor. He wasn’t sure if that was a good sign or a bad one. He kept one hand on the wall in case the ship shook again, and had made it to the welcome desk before he saw anyone. The woman who had met them the night before was crossing the wider corridor beyond the desk. “Śe Bebina? What’s hap—”

Bebina stopped in her tracks at his voice. “Oh, Śe Micah! It’s… I’m so… I don’t mean to—”

“Tell me,” he said firmly, lowering his head and taking a step nearer.

“We’ve broken one of the walkways,” she said breathlessly as he took another step nearer. At her words, he leaned one hand on the desk and simply leapt over it, nearly running past her toward the prow of the ship. “The floating walkways are stretched as far as they can go. Addie’s trying to hold the kitchen together and Śe Dusya is at the helm, and I’m just running about trying to…I don’t know…”

Micah nodded. He’d never flown a ship this large, but now that he knew what was going on, he could feel the strain of the spells around him. “The walkways shouldn’t have been under strain unless—did the dock give way?”

“I think it must have? Through there, that’s the bridge…”

Bebina held back as Micah slapped his palm against the buzzer before opening the door without waiting for a response. There were three other helmers crouched over their control panels, and a grey-haired woman strapped into a seat suspended from the ceiling. The metal bars supporting the chair were attached to a complex collection of hinges and swivels that all seemed to be in constant motion as the woman worked the levers and buttons in the arms of the chair, her feet pumping a series of pedals that extended from below the seat. She glanced back twice, taking the scene in as Micah paused in the doorway. “Beb, not a good time for a tour,” she said, her voice tense but even.

“I’m not touring,” Micah said, finding it was easier to walk if he didn’t watch the woman’s seat gyrating about. “I’m Micah, from the Foldings, Captain. We met several years ago, briefly…?”

She glanced back at him again, looking for a bit longer. “Oh, yes. Better times.” She nodded once at Bebina, and when Micah looked, the host was hurrying back down the hall behind him.

“The shaking—is it the storm?”

“Unless there’s some kind of giant flying monster tearing the city apart, yep, pretty sure it’s the storm. Why’s it happening?”

Micah shook his head, but she wasn’t looking at him any more than he was looking at her. “I don’t know. The Druhy saw it coming, but there was nothing to do to stop it.”

“Are you offering to take the helm, then? Because unless you’ve—”

“Not even close,” Micah said quickly. “Are we still docked?”

“Barely. It’s coming loose.”

“Anchored?”

“Not in the city. Our anchor’s too big. We’d tear straight through buildings.”

“Ah.” Micah stumbled as the ship shook again, and he moved carefully forward to peer out the main window in front of them. Snow was spilling past, momentarily disorienting him. It looked more like the ship was tilted up, and the snow was being dumped down on the window. He leaned against the slanted glass, feeling it shaking as he pushed out beyond it, trying to get his bearings. “The floating walkways will never hold,” he said finally. “Not at this angle. But I can’t remember the layout of this berth—how much space do we have around us?”

“We’ve got a bit of leeway if I can angle us, but I’m afraid that if I lift the nose we’re going to go up and over.”

“What are we facing?”

“There’s Krolky’s Arch ahead of us, and I can usually get us through with no problem. It’s meant to be just a bit of a thrill to be able to wave at the market shoppers when we cut through. But the wind is off-kilter for that, and we could bash into the stone supports.”

Micah nodded, turning back to the bridge and seeing Jasper in the doorway next to Bebina. He’d slid the black overcoat on over his shirt and it hung open, the scarlet lining shocking  amidst all the black. He met Micah’s eyes then turned to the captain. “I’ll take Bebina and check on the passengers.” He beckoned Bebina after him with a tip of his head. Micah could hear his voice from the corridor for a moment, then the ship shook again.

“Who was that?” Dusya asked.

“Jasper. He’s… trustworthy. He’ll help her.” There was every chance Jasper would take over the rest of the ship, actually, knowing him. All he’d have to do is smile.

“I don’t know what you can do to help, Śe, but I could definitely use some.”

Micah looked at the other helmers. The youngest woman had long blonde braids that hung below the edge of her controls, but she seemed to be holding herself together better than the other two. She was perfectly still, her hands cupped on the edge of her control panel without being clenched till her knuckles whitened, like the hands of the woman to her left, who had white-knuckled fists tight around two levers, her short grey-blond hair sticking up all over as though she’d spent the night pulling at it. The other woman was punching buttons frantically, probably trying to calculate a route, muttering to herself and glaring at her results.

“I can free the remaining walkways, and I can give us some lift to help manoeuvre, and…then we’ll see what else I can come up with.”

He left in such a hurry that when he encountered Jasper, who was on his way back to the bridge, he bounced off Jasper’s chest and into the wall, grabbing for the other man’s shoulders to stay on his feet.

“Whoa, whoa there,” Jasper said, crowding close to block Micah’s fall, his arms full. “I brought your things. Didn’t want to leave anything in the room when it’s unlocked.”

“Oh! I’d forgot about that…”

“Yeah, thought you might. I got this, too,” he added, shifting everything to one arm and reaching one hand into his trouser pocket. 

Micah looked down and saw the little leather pouch that held the white fur. “Good. Just throw the rest in the cupboard under the desk for now.”

“I’d rather you put them on,” Jasper said, rolling everything into a bundle on the desk as Micah jumped the desk again. 

Micah shook his head. “No time. I have to cut us loose from the dock, walkways and all.” Micah heard the cupboard door thump, and then the ship shook again. Micah braced his shoulder against the wall until it stopped. “That’s going to keep happening, and if the walks break, it’s going to take a lot of effort to hold things together till the storm’s over.”

“How much longer can it last?” Jasper asked, running a few steps to catch up after scrambling around the side of the desk.

“The storm, or the ship?”

“Don’t say that!”

Micah glanced back and hooked his hand around Jasper’s arm, pulling him forward. “I’ve no idea on the storm. Never seen anything like it, and there’s no way to get in touch with Vronny. She’s the only one with the skill to check and the height to be able to see the edges, now. The ship, though, I think we can save.” He smiled as Jasper studied him, no doubt wondering if he were simply being comforting.

“Okay, what do you need?” he asked after a moment, making up his mind.

“Is everyone still in their rooms?” 

Jasper shook his head. “Karlie’s distracting them. Śe Bebina’s steering everyone to the gallery, Abbie’s loading the tables with food and Bebina’s… keeping things steady.”

The way Jasper said the last phrase seemed to have a different meaning. “Keeping what steady?”

“Not sure, but it was actually physically. Maybe the tables, I think? And something with the floor. I dunno, some kind of spellwork underneath to take the bumps out…?”

“Werener pots, maybe?”

“She said something about pots, but I thought she meant pots in the kitchen.”

“They usually only need them when going full speed out in the open, or very high up, or when braking afterwards…” He trailed off, having reached the end of the solid wooden hull of the ship. The corridor widened here and ahead of them, thick glass windows stretched from floor to ceiling on the outside wall. “I think we’re just… Yes. The walkway.”

Usually the windows gave guests a view of the bustling city markets, or the floating lakes and mountains outside the city, or nothing but clouds and stars. Now it was just a vague greyness as snow blew past. Ten feet along the wall was a glass door with the stub of a walkway outside. He could only make out the first two platforms beyond it, and they were little more than blobs of snow at this point. “I’m going to have to open the door,” he said, not sure if he was talking more to himself or Jasper. “Their snow-clearing spells have failed too, at least on this one, so the connection’s probably nearly pulled free. It shouldn’t take too long to break it.”

“When you say ‘too long,’ what do you mean?” Jasper asked, his words slow and deliberate.

“A minute or two, I hope.”

“Micah…” 

Micah looked back, and Jasper was pointing down. Micah looked. He was still barefoot, having dashed out of the room without thinking beyond grabbing the cloak to stop his shivering.

“Ocray. Wait.” Micah flicked some handfire into his palm and began rolling it around, blowing on it and mounding it up until he had a ball the width of his shoulders. Then he smashed it flat and swung it around his shoulders, pulling it tight into himself. He went from chilled to feverish in an instant. Jasper tried to move past him toward the door. “No, wait,” he said, pushing him back. “I’m not done.” More handfire, more mounding, biting back his own impatience, concentrating on building and feeding the fire before pressing it into himself again. He broke a sweat as the heat settled in, and he pressed his palms against his chest, forcing the warmth deeper inside, pushing it into his bones where it would last longer, anchoring it there, and then doing it all again: drawing out the fire, building it up, flattening it and pushing it into himself. It took more force this time, and he could feel the heat pushing back from inside his skin. There was a sense of imminent overflow, his body struggling to hold on to it. 

He nodded at Jasper, his lips tight as he concentrated on keeping it in. Jasper moved past him, set his hands on the door, and raised his eyebrows. Taking the three steps to reach the door felt odd, like his feet were swollen, like everything was swollen. He took hold of the edge of the door frame, and Jasper pulled the door open. 

The force of the wind finding a new entry knocked Micah back across the corridor. Jasper swung for a moment off the door handle before regaining his balance. Micah set his back against the wooden wall and held one hand out in front of him, and the stinging cold fled. He pushed forward, still feeling the wind but not the cold, and made it through the door. He paused, pressing his feet down on the wood and locking them there. He could already feel the tattered end of the floating walkway’s spell and wrapped his hands around it. It was still as thick as his waist, and he lowered his head, trying to ignore the pull of his cloak as he twisted the spell, flexing it and bending it, tightening again, working it back and forth, feeling it fraying and breaking a bit at a time. Something touched his feet, building up slowly, covering the tops. He ignored it, twisting the spell tighter and tighter, bending it further, tugging, scraping, and tearing at it until the last fibres broke. The ship jerked but his footing was firm and he stayed upright. 

Turning carefully back to the door, his cloak tangling around him, he finally spared his feet a glance. The sight of bare skin made him shudder, but they weren’t cold. In fact, they were wet. There was a mound of water building around his feet. He raised a hand to shield his face and saw droplets glittering around him like rain. He blinked, realising the snow was melting just from being near him. It was the heat spell. He was now throwing off so much heat that the snow blowing near him melted immediately, splashing away and falling around his feet. As he watched, the bubble of water was swelling like a water droplet on the edge of a roof before it fell. In this case, instead of hanging down and falling, however, the water was mounding up.

He shook his head, raising a hand to push at the door and only then realising Jasper had managed to close it behind him. He felt a pang of guilt making him reopen it, but then he was swept inside and pressed against the wall again, his cloak spread around him like wings.

He twisted to see Jasper throwing his shoulder against the door and driving it closed, grunting with the effort but getting it sealed. Micah’s cloak fell back down around him and he caught his breath. 

“Are you all right?”

Micah raised his head, startled to hear his own question in Jasper’s voice, and he smiled. “Of course. We’d better get to that last walkway before I burst into actual flames, though.”

“Yeah, you’re practically glowing.”

Micah paused, one eyebrow raised, and lifted his hand to stare at the back of it. “Unless you mean sweating, I’m not seeing it.”

“Come on. We can make jokes when the ship isn’t about to rip apart.”

The next floating walkway was in better shape, and Micah hesitated, holding the door closed when Jasper started to open it. “Hang on. This one is intact.” He pointed at the next platform, which was relatively free of snow.

“Isn’t that good? Maybe we don’t need to—”

“No. Just this and the docking spells won’t hold the entire ship in place.”

“But this is an airship, right? It’s meant to fly around, not be tied to a dock. So there have to be some proper releases somewhere, don’t there?”

“The walkways aren’t owned by the dock, though—they extend from the ship and fasten on the far end, and unless someone wants to go across and take a whack at it, we have to do it from this end.”

“So why don’t we go out there and detach the walkway from the dock on the proper end?”

Micah stared at him in disbelief for a moment, partly at the imbecilic bravery implied and partly  because he hadn’t even thought to consider the idea until now. “All right, well, to be fair… if I go out there, I will almost definitely end up left behind, with you on the ship and me on the dock. Not exactly untenable, but not my first choice, if it can be avoided. Agreed?”

“What if I went with you?”

“No. I wouldn’t risk you that way last night, and things have not improved.”

“Well… what would it mean? I mean, the ship can pull back and redock, can’t it?”

“Not if all of the docking attachments are broken, which they mostly are and will definitely need to be, if I have to break this one. And I am not entirely certain it would be wise for anyone to try to leave the ship with this storm continuing.”

“I’m not saying I want to, but even I survived it last night, without any magic help like everyone else can have. Unless—is there some magic part to it that I’m not feeling?”

Micah caught his breath, Jasper’s insight once again taking him by surprise. “Do you know… perhaps. I don’t know. That’s…that will have to wait.”

“Right. Okay, what if I go out and…”

Micah waited for a moment as Jasper’s brain caught up to the problem again. “Exactly,” he said, as Jasper sighed in frustration.

“You’d think I’d be able to…I dunno, disrupt it somehow. Jump up and down on it and break it.”

“And again, no, I am not risking you.”

“What’ll happen to us if the ship breaks apart somehow?”

“Well, you won’t die as certainly as you might if you were blown off the walkway.”

“Okay… okay. Right. What’d you do on the last one?”

“I just broke it off. It was already worn and damaged, though.” He explained what he could about how the spell had felt in his hold, and how he’d manipulated it to break it.

“And this one’s more solid? Sounds a bit like when rope wears out.”

“It is. It’s very similar.”

“Can you burn it?”

“It’s not actually tangible enough to burn.”

“Unless we have some fire that burns intangible things,” Jasper said, pressing his back against the wall and sliding his legs out in front of him. “What was that osmirrium stuff? Remember? The black ore we tested on me in your lab, right back at the start? Would that do it?”

“Yes,” Micah had to admit, “but it might also set the entire ship on fire.”

“I know a guy who can shield it,” Jasper said with a flash of his mischievous grin.

“But we don’t have any.” 

“That puts a damper on things,” Jasper said, his grin fading.

“A ha ha ha.”

“What?”

“Damper? Never mind.”

“Oh!” Jasper wrinkled his nose. “Yeah, sorry.”

“This is why I like you, Jasper—you have the sense to apologise for accidental puns.”

“Only if they’re not all that impressive.”

Micah couldn’t help raising an eyebrow. “I’m not sure the words impressive and pun can ever apply to the same thing, but feel free to surprise me. I love learning new things.”

Jasper laughed unexpectedly and covered it with a hand. “I like a challenge. Okay. So how else do we break this thing?”

Nothing new was coming to mind. He could spend a whole night trying to come up with a perfect solution, or he could push ahead with whatever came to mind and try to refine things as he went.

“I keep going back to the osmirrium,” Jasper admitted, his eyes flicking around the floor as though trying to follow a flashbug, rubbing his fingers along his lower lip, pinching it absently. Micah found himself trying to find what Jasper was watching on the floor, leaving a moment of silence between them. “I mean… can you summon some from the lab?”

“Too far away.”

“Thought so. Any shops nearby that we could…I dunno, send someone to? Or summon from there?”

“None that I know well enough to summon from. And again, I am not willing to risk anyone until there is no other choice.”

“Is there any chance that anyone on the ship might have any? What is it used for?”

“In smelting and forging, usually on a grand scale because it is so incredibly powerful.”

“Would they have any on board for…I dunno, repairs?”

Micah stared at him. “You see, this is why I pay you.” He grabbed Jasper’s face in his hands.

And froze.

If it had been Tom, he would have kissed him. On his forehead, maybe on his lips if the moment had been lighter. But this was Jasper, the Freakishly Handsome Man. He simply could not be kissed. It was…wrong. And he wanted to, he wanted to very much, of course he did. And now there was no putting that thought back in its box. It was undeniable now, loose in his skull, galloping around madly and waving its arms, distracting him from essential things like breathing.

Breathing. Yes. Breathing was safe. 

He gasped in a breath, hid hands tensing around Jasper’s head and shaking it. He growled, arguing with his own body to let go of the nice man. It took effort, it took muscle, but he pulled his hands away and turned back toward the bridge. Running. Running was also good. It was stupid, but it gave him enough distance for his blood to cool and let him hear Jasper’s wild, drunk giggling laugh behind him.

He leapt the desk and launched himself through the door to the bridge without even pretending to press the buzzer. “Osmirrium! Have you any?”

Dusya startled, the movement translated through the controls and into the ship, which shuddered on a grander scale. “You what?”

“Do you have osmirrium? In a repair kit? Anything?”

“Why would we have osmirrium? Do you know how dangerous—”

“Obviously!” Micah snapped, glancing back as Jasper tumbled through the door behind him, catching his balance on Micah’s shoulder. “You don’t? Have any?” he added quickly, seeing confusion lowering her brows.

“No! Why? Can’t you break the walks?”

“I’m trying,” Micah said, trying to stifle the urge to turn frustration and disappointment into anger at the wrong person. “How strong is your docking clamp?”

“Excuse me, I have this.”

Micah’s head swivelled to see the youngest helmer pulling a chain off over her head, then sliding it down the length of her knee-length braids. “My grandmere gave it to me when I apprenticed. She said it was osmirrium…?”

Micah hurried over to cup the pendant in his hand. It was large, for a pendant—an oval more than an inch across and two inches long, carved with clouds, half the thickness of a finger. As fuel went, it wasn’t much. He hefted it slightly, considering their chances. “Do you visit her often?”

“Yes…?” the helmer said slowly, turning her face away slightly as though to keep any insanity from splashing on her. “She lives with me on Bowmergaden Walk.”

“Good. May I borrow this?”

“Why does Grandmere matter in all this?”

“I don’t know if I can promise it will be in perfect condition when I return it. I’d rather have her angry with you than risk destroying her last gift to you.”

“Oh. Um, yeah. It’s fine.” She frowned and nodded earnestly, waving her hand.

“My thanks. I’ll do my best.”

He didn’t sprint this time when he left, and his ankle hit the side of the desk when he tried to clear it. He shot a flicker of numbness at it even before he landed, the pendant still in his hand.

“Oi, wait!”

Micah didn’t slow. “My heat spell won’t last forever, and I’m not sure how hard this is going to be.”

Jasper sprinted to catch up. “That’s it, though—this is gonna be hot, yeah? How hot?” He waved his finger at the pendant.

Micah slowed as they neared the last walkway. “With this cold and this wind? I don’t know.”

“Don’t hit me, but would it help if I went out with it and you worked from in here? Remember I can’t feel the heat from it.”

Again, Micah stopped in his tracks. “You… out…wait. Let me think.” He raised a hand to forestall any further input for a moment. “I’ll have to light it, and then shield the ship from it… and you—no, just stop,” he added as Jasper opened his mouth again. “Just let me… “ He hid his face in his hands, trying to think it through without distraction. Ignite, then shield? No, shield then ignite. If he shaped the shield, maybe he could aim the heat directly at the spell, but he’d have to know exactly where that spell was strongest. Or no—where it was weakest. And then shape the shield to focus the heat, speeding the process. It could work. The first spell had felt of fibres, which suggested it would react to fire on the same plane as itself. “Shield this direction, and down, and…” What had he done during the last severing? Find the spell and confirm it was the same type, find a weakness in it, then this time he’d have to shield the ship and himself from the osmirrium’s heat, then ignite it and aim it at the spell. Could he handle it all at once? 

But on the other hand, would Jasper be safe? “No, no, Jasper. No. I rooted myself to the platform on the last one, to keep me in place. You’d have nothing like that, nothing to hold on to. This is one of the floating paths, remember?”

“Ah, mecks. Fine. Okay.” Jasper looked angry for a moment, then swallowed and took a breath. “Okay,” he repeated, his voice calmer.

“All right. I’ll start the same as last time—you get the door open, and I’ll see if it is the same spell, and if it has any weaknesses already.”

Jasper nodded, immediately relaxing as he was given a task and set about it, grabbing hold of the handle and preparing to pull. He glanced back at Micah. “Ready?”

“Go ahead…”

The cold dove through the open door as Jasper cushioned the glass door’s impact with the wall by taking the force of it on his chest, his face turned away. Micah snapped his hand up, leaning back against the pull of the wind, and found the near end of the spell, the same type as the last; first hurdle cleared. There was a slight ripple along it now as the ship was no longer steadied by any other walkways, and he slid his senses along it, greedily hunting for any bend that resisted straightening, any possible dip in the shape. The far end seemed to react badly to the ripple, crumpling oddly: second hurdle cleared.

But now… the osmirrium. 

No. He could not risk Jasper. He couldn’t. Not for this (not for anything). 

Micah let the pull of his cloak inch him forward and he raised the pendant, turning it slightly, angling it until it felt right in his hand, then pushed the rooting spell down through his feet. But now he needed to work the shield and ignition, and he still held the walkway’s spell in his other hand. He couldn’t spare the attention to float the pendant, hold himself on the walkway’s stub, hold the walkway’s spell in one hand, raise a shield and shape it, and then light the osmirrium. That was too much. What to lose? The shield was imperative, as was the ignition. They were the entire point of the exercise. But the pendant needed to be aimed, as well. He would have to leave the state of the spell to be demonstrated by either breaking or not, then. Either it worked or it didn’t. 

That left the pendant. He weighed it in his fingers. He couldn’t throw it and try to hit a moving target with an ignition spell. He bent his knees, trying to lower himself, intending to set the pendant near his feet, but the alignment felt…wrong. Too low. Much too low. 

“Well?”

Micah opened his eyes—when had he closed them?—and turned his head. Jasper was half-hanging out the door, silver hair whipping against his head, eyes squinting, coat still open and flapping around him, the collar smacking  his face.

“Get back!”

“Are you okay?” Jasper demanded, stubbornly shaking his head. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Go back—”

“Why did you bend down?”

“I can’t… The pendant has to face—I can’t… Jasper, no!”

Jasper was at his side, sliding the pendant from Micah’s bare palm to his own, copying the posture and alignment almost perfectly without needing to wait for permission or instruction. Micah could only accept. He nudged Jasper’s hand until he felt the pendant resonating. They were both rocking in the gusts but Micah was shielding Jasper somewhat, the cloak blowing back off his shoulders and wrapping itself more around Jasper than around himself. And they were rocking together, so the alignment stayed constant. Without pausing for any further analysis, Micah threw a shield up with his left hand and punched the osmirrum into life with his right. 

The spell had been stretching in front of him, from his sternum along a line with the top of the shortest lightpost on the next island. He tilted the shield, channelling the heat by cupping the edges, pulling it in, and reached out with his right for the walkway’s spell. There. Adjusting the shield, he felt the jolt as the fire hit the spell and sliced straight through it. The suddenness of it, the absolute perfection of the solution amazed and annoyed him. He dropped the remnants of the disintegrating spell and slapped both of his hands around the pendant on Jasper’s, wrapping the shield around and around and pushing with everything he had, grinding the fire back into nothing. 

He let out his breath and opened his eyes, swaying in a gust. He pulled their hands down, loosened the spell holding his feet in place and let himself be blown back inside, keeping a tight grip on Jasper’s hand.

“Did it work?” Jasper demanded, pulling Micah in turn, getting them out of the direct line of the wind.

“Yes, it did. Now help me shut the door,” Micah said.

When they finally had it sealed again, Jasper sagged with his back against it, tipping his head back and closing his eyes. Then he shivered, a shudder starting with his shoulders and encompassing his whole body. “Haahhh…”

“Oh!” How could hhe have forgotten the cold? He’d heated himself, but Jasper was out with none of that, his coat open and his head bare. At least he was wearing boots. “Jasper, I’m so sorry, we’ve got to get you—”

“I’ll survive,” Jasper said, his tone almost sharp. “First we tell the Captain. We’re still docked, remember?” 

Micah snarled, biting back frustration. “Yes, yes, fine.” But he was not going to run, this time.

Jasper noticed, of course. As Micah swept around the desk, Jasper said, “Finally tiring out?”

“Hm?”

“No, I mean, it’s fine for all you tall bastards, leaping about all over the place…”

Micah smiled and glanced back. “You mean not everyone’s parents can afford a spine-stretcher?” 

Jasper didn’t stumble so much as stutter with his feet as though he couldn’t decide if he should stop and stare—he was giving Micah his full attention, but still aware of their duty to the ship’s captain. He tried not to laugh, but he hadn’t expected Jasper not to have an answer ready. Micah’s laugh came out as a spluttering snort, which was worse. 

“All right, you bastard, yes, I almost asked if that was a real thing. I take it it’s not?”

Micah slowed, not sure he wasn’t now being teased, himself. He thoroughly deserved it, but Jasper truly seemed serious. “No. Not as far as I am aware, at least—you’re about to tell me something I won’t want to hear, aren’t you?”

The flush on Jasper’s cheeks eased Micah’s mind, but only a bit. Jasper pulled his coat closed around him and folded his arms tightly against his chest. He lifted his chin, looking up from the floor to the door to the bridge ahead of them. “After this. Got the dock to survive yet.”

Micah turned away and pressed the buzzer, this time waiting for a shout before opening it. “Walkways are detached,” he announced, “just the dock clamps left. Your pendant, Śe,” he added, crossing to the blond helmer. “It worked beautifully and I don’t think the flames consumed much at all. I’d be grateful if you examined it and let me know what you think, as you know it best.” 

She took it from his hand, her eyes already scouring it as she brought it a few inches from her face, turning it over and over. “I think… the carving seems a little smoother? I think? And…actually, I prefer it. Sometimes it flipped over and the edges could be a bit sharp.”

Micah found his eyes straying back to the pendant as she spoke. He was about to ask to see it again himself when the Captain spoke. He whirled to face her. 

“Thank you very much, Śe Micah, and now we get to see how cold it really is out there. Śe Myana, hands on buttons, Śe Vorvala, ease us off as gently as you can.”

Micah finding Jasper waiting in the doorway and going to join him. “Be ready to grab something,” he murmured. “I’m not sure how this will…oh.” As he spoke, he felt the ship shift gently, rocking softly forward, the nose tipping down what must have been only a few feet. He looked back at the main window, where the snow was still just a grey-white blur. “That was quite—”

The ship shuddered and the nose swung down, gathering speed as it went. Micah instinctively rooted his feet with the same spell he’d used outside and flung out an arm to stop Jasper as he staggered, arms pinwheeling.

Dusya growled and stood on the pedals, pulling back on a pair of levers. The helmers grabbed at their control panels, and Myana braced a knee against the edge of hers and began pumping two levers of her own. She had to throw her weight into the task at first, heaving back on one and then putting her weight behind it to move it forward, twisting to move the other back at the same time. After a couple of passes Micah felt the ship slowly beginning to right itself.

More sure of his balance now, Micah turned to Jasper, who had one arm around Micah’s back and the other palm pressed against the wall, where it was slipping down in small, jerking hops less than an inch, but frightening Micah. “Hold onto me,” Micah said, leaning back farther. 

Jasper glanced down at Micah’s bare feet and back up at his face. “Micah, no, you’re—”

“I’m rooted. Please, trust me.”

Jasper’s face twisted but he took a breath and swung around to grab Micah with his left hand as well, hugging him tightly, face to face. “What’s happening?” he grunted, his breath coming in quick gasps.

“The nose went down and the wind caught it. Give them a minute to rebalance. It’s coming back. It’s coming… Can you feel it yet?”

“I can’t feel anything but falling,” he gasped.

Micah wrapped both his arms firmly around Jasper’s middle. “I’m not sure how any of this will affect you,” he said, keeping his voice low. Dusya was shouting orders back at the other two helmers, who were doing their best to follow them one-handed, needing the other to stay at their posts. “They’re restrengthening the charms that keep things on the ship level in relation to the deck, as well as moving ballast and lift from one end to the other, so it will take time, but of course some of those spells won’t affect you, because you’re null, but the ones that affect the ship mechanically should work as well…” He chattered on, maybe for his own sake as much as for Jasper’s, but if distracting them both would help keep them from adding more emotion to the bridge, he would recite The Endless Battle of Inara and Kazak. 

“I think… I think I’m starting to feel it…” Jasper murmured. He unclenched his fingers, which had been tangled in the back of the cloak, and then his arms relaxed as well. Micah let go with one arm, and Jasper looked back over his shoulder toward the Captain and the main viewing window, and patted Micah’s back before letting go completely. He still kept one leg braced behind the other, his hands spread, ready to catch himself if the ship jerked again. 

“Keep going,” Dusya called over her shoulder toward the helmers. “All right back there?”

Micah glanced at the helmers before realising the Captain was speaking to him. “Aye, Captain.”

“What we just learned there is that it’s cold enough to freeze the vapour hoses.”

“Ahh… oh dear.” Micah’s brain was whirring as he sorted through what that meant. The fuel that kept the ship aloft wasn’t reaching the engines, or at least not all of it was, which meant it would affect water lines as well, and… 

“Wait. Vapour lines. Are you using quicksilver?”

“Is that a joke? What else would we be using?” Dusya snarled, teeth gritted.

“Is that even possible?” Jasper asked quietly.

“Most things freeze if you get them cold enough,” Micah said, staring out the window. “We’re loose now,” he added, louder. “Can you get us through the Arch?”

“Oh, we’re going through, one way or another,” Dusya said grimly. “I dunno what’ll be left after.”

They usually only had a few feet of clearance, the Captain had said earlier. “You need buffers. Something…Jasper, what was Bebina using in the gallery—the pots?”

“Oh! I can find out.”

“Thank you.” Micah moved over to the helmers as Jasper left. “I can warm the vapour hoses, but it will have to be coordinated with your countermeasures…” He was absorbed in a discussion of technical flight spell mechanics when Jasper returned with Bebina, who had a cart full of airpots and the worried expression of someone who was used to having a lot to do but also used to understanding all of it. Her eyes were huge, her lips small, almost pursed. 

“Ahh, Werener pots,” Micah said, going to meet them and bending to examine the pots. The cloak fell forward as he did and he sighed, batting it away. Someone gathered the folds and lifted it aside, then the knot at his back was pulled out and he glanced up, not surprised to see Jasper folding the garment over his arm, his eyes on Bebina, looking for all the world as if he understood what she was saying. 

“…Usually just use them for the beds and hammocks when people get a bit airsick. Sometimes in the gallery, if we’re having a big feast.” She had her hands on the black ceramic base of one of the pots, stroking the shoulders as though it were a child. The silver cone protruding through the neck opening was dialed all the way shut on all of them.

Micah picked one up and twisted the knob, tucking the pot under his arm so he could keep his fingers on the knob and hold his hand in front of the tip of the cone as it spread open. The amorphous, invisible push it projected against his hand was strong, and he raised his eyebrows in a brief shrug. “Are these all you have?”

“No, we’ve lots, but these were the biggest ones we had free. He said you was in a hurry…?”

“Get as many as you can and line them up along the prow just at its widest point. Point them outwards, tops against the wall or window, whatever is furthest out.”

Bebina nodded, looking down at the cart. “Widest point, widest point…” she muttered to herself.

“It’s along the tops of the windows in the main gallery, Bebs,” Dusya called from her perch. 

“How’m I to get them to stay up there?” Bebina asked, startled.

“Best you can do is balance ’em on the top of the curtain rods,” Jasper said. 

Micah blinked, smiling in surprise. “Excellent. Yes. And turn them on all the way, open them all the way up. Remember—just where it’s widest, mind. If you have spares, they can go farther back from the wide point along the sides. But do not put any farther ahead of the wide point, do you understand?”

She nodded, frowning in puzzlement but accepting the one he’d been holding. “Won’t the buffer push them back off the walls?”

“If the top of the cone is touching the wall, no. It will project through that.”

“You sure? I’ve never seen them do that.”

Micah nodded. “Positive. I learned that when a friend used to prop them on a stack of books hidden under a chair. Makes it impossible to sit, as our lecturer found out.”

Bebina blurted out a laugh and covered her face immediately, her eyes darting around the room as though laughing were inappropriate. Micah simply grinned and patted her arm, nodding toward the door. She lowered her hand, desperately trying to swallow her laughter, trying not to even smile and going red with the effort. 

Jasper laughed, and that finally relaxed her. “Oh, dearie me!” She shook her head and turned the cart around, taking it back out toward the gallery.

“Are those things really going to be strong enough to balance the ship through the Arch?” Jasper asked carefully, keeping his voice down.

“I’ll be giving them a bit of help, but yes, they will. It’s a bit like candle flames—if you have a lot of small candles close enough together, the flames will merge and grow to something bigger than the sum of their parts. They become very difficult to put out, that way.”

“Never tried it,” Jasper admitted. “Glad that didn’t happen the day you were testing fire on me.”

“Too many different fires. They wouldn’t all blend, anyway.” Micah turned back to the main window, shifting his weight from foot to foot, testing their balance. “We’re close to level. Jasper, could you help Bebina, and come tell me when the pots are all in place, please?”

A moment of hesitation, Jasper’s eyes flicking to the side, and then he nodded. “Yep. Back in a moment.”

“What were you saying about lift?” Dusya asked, looking back at him over her arm.

“Ah, yes—we can redistribute the quicksilver to the more central lines that are working, and I can augment the lift, balance it a bit more so when we reach the Arch, we’ll be level and not tilted up. That should make clearance easier, and the pots will help keep us centred. After that, well, we’ll have some breathing room.”

“Once we’re in motion in this, we’re going to keep moving. Our momentum shunts run along the outer hull, and if anything is frozen, it’ll be them.”

“Ah. You had them open while docked?” It was an unusual choice. Momentum shunts hadn’t been around when Micah was learning about flight mechanics, but he understood the theory and had been meaning to spend some time tinkering with them in Ellie’s lab. Then he’d gone to the market to research fuels for them and met a null, and the direction of his experiments had changed. “As far as I’m aware, aren’t they more usually kept closed when the ship isn’t moving?”

“We empty them once we’re docked and stationary,” Myana said. “They’re not fully open. Stop valves block the length but then the end valves are open. They won’t recycle the momentum, but they won’t be able to refuse the wind. It won’t be much, but it’ll be easier to keep moving than to try to stop.”

“Oh, we could stop,” Dusya said firmly. “I’d just prefer not to try.”

“Well…” Micah sighed, thinking. “I don’t have Vronny’s skill, but once we’re in the open, would you mind taking us around a bit of Diantha’s Pinnacles?”

“She a good pilot, then, the Druhy?”

“Hm? Oh, no—I meant with the weather. I won’t be able to do much without her tools or skill, but maybe I’ll be able to find the edges.”

“Let’s clear the Arch first. Not sure how much I want to tack in this.”

“Yes, of course. It’s not necessary, just a thought.”

The buzzer sounding behind him startled Micah and he turned as Dusya called “Come!”

Jasper opened the door, poking his head in. “Pots should be set up and open.”

“We should hire you to help us load, Śeo,” Dusya said, turning wide eyes to him. “That is some fiendish spellwork!”

Jasper grinned easily and stepped inside, shutting the door behind him. “Nah, just efficient use of the tools on hand.” Micah raised an eyebrow. “Lot of kids and families out there,” Jasper went on. “Everybody grab a pot, get ’em up on the rail, first ones up win a basket from the kitchen.” He shrugged as Dusya laughed. “Kids’re all climbing the walls and curtains anyway. Get ’em to show off spellwork, give ’em an excuse to sit on Mum’s shoulders, they’ll repaint a ceiling in no time.”

“Even better, fiendishly clever. I like you, lad.”

Micah smiled warmly at Jasper as he crossed to stand beside Micah. Dusya announced, “All right, crew, ready to move…”

Micah startled, having forgotten the next step for the ship. He hurried over to stand behind the helmers, where he could see their meters and dials, making sure he wouldn’t push too far or too little. Once the ship was declared level, he stepped forward next to Myana and took the controls for the vapour lines, sending short pulses of the heat left from his handfire deep into the lines, freeing more of their lift fuel and twitching things into place. It was slow work, coordinating their lift and momentum with Dusya’s fine manoeuvring, and finally a grey oval appeared in the main window, far closer than Micah had expected. They were lined up, however, and he stepped back, gently tapering off as the last of his excess heat left him. The rest was up to the crew.

The ship floated smoothly into the hollow under the Arch, and Micah took a second to worry about the tops of the masts before they were coming out the other side. Jasper let out a sigh of relief and Micah nodded once, waiting until Dusya had curved them around completely and they had free access to open skies. Not that any of this showed, of course; the direction of the grey-white onslaught out the window had changed but it hadn’t faded. 

“Splendid, and let me congratulate you, Captain,” Micah said, stepping forward and extending his hand to the woman still twisting her feet on the pedals, her hands slow to pull away from her controls completely. “That was beautifully done.”

“I will take that praise,” Dusya said, bending to reach his hand. Her palm was warm and moist, and Micah couldn’t blame her. But her grip was firm, and she smiled for the first time since Micah had entered the bridge. “I’m very glad you were with us—both of you.” She turned and held her hand out to Jasper as well.

Jasper jumped a little before hurrying forward to take it. “You’ve spoiled me for life. It’s been an honour to watch.”

“Now go eat yourselves sick,” Dusya added, settling back in her chair. “I’ll give you a shout when we get clear of the rest, Śe Micah. Then we can discuss a destination.”

Micah followed Jasper out the door and back down to the welcome desk, plucking at his shirt as he went. He hadn’t noticed the sweat until now, but his shirt was damp with it. He shivered just in time for Jasper to see as he turned.

“Ah, mecks. Let me grab our things and we can go back to the room. I’ll fetch you something to—”

Micah shook his head, ducking away from Jasper’s eyes. “No, you’ll not. Back to our room, yes, but you’ll not wait on me, Jasper. You’ve been more helpful than… well, than I could get you to admit, and you took quite a chill on that last walkway, too.”

Just saying the words made Jasper shiver and pull his coat around him again. “I’ll admit I’m not mad keen to get back out there. I know I promised you a Fest, but it sounds like we’re here until the storm clears, and I’m less and less disappointed by that.”

“I don’t know,” Micah sighed, pausing as Jasper opened the cupboard with their things. “This storm… What?”

Jasper was peering into the cupboard but not moving. “Umm… You had some protection spells on yourself last night, yeah? Against thieving?”

Micah’s eyebrows lifted and he folded his arms, trying to hold on to what warmth he had left. “Yes. They’re still there. Was something disturbed?”

“Yeah. Someone’s been digging through. Here.” He pulled out Micah’s coat and waistcoat, which had been rolled together when Jasper put them in. Now they were separated. “Check those. I put the cloak in last, and your boots were in front before that…” He handed up the cloak without looking, and Micah set down the rest so he could take it while Jasper leaned down farther. “Okay, they’re still here, at least.” 

Micah swung the cloak onto his shoulders and didn’t bother with the ties. He spread his coat and waistcoat flat on the desk and went through his pockets. “Everything is still here. Wait—Jasper, where’s your waistcoat?”

Jasper was just pulling it out, biting his lip as he dug into the pockets. “Watch, kerchief, coins,” he muttered, and sighed. “Nope, everything’s here. That is really weird.”

“Yes,” Micah said slowly. “Your things…I didn’t think to protect them when you put them away, I’m sorry. I could at least have tied them to me, if not you.” 

“It’s only been us and the crew back behind the desk, though—I’ve been back and forth enough to be pretty sure no one else has had a chance. And there’s just no way Bebina would’ve lifted anything.”

“I’d agree. Technically, whoever did this didn’t lift anything, but this was blatant. Pointed.” His eyes wandered as he tried to imagine an explanation, but found himself meeting Jasper’s eyes without coming up with anything.

“Okay, back to the room,” Jasper said decisively. “It’s…” He checked his watch. “Mecks! It’s only three? How is it only three?”

“We’ve still had barely any sleep, then,” Micah realised, sagging against the desk. “Oh, balls, I’m tired just thinking that.”

Jasper gathered up their clothing and held out his hand to help Micah over the desk one last time. “Come on. You get the lock on the room working again when we get there.”

Micah paused in their doorway, tapping the handle of their door just so and freeing the lock from his previous spell that had kept the lock from engaging when the door was shut. It was still difficult for him to understand that Jasper couldn’t even work something as simple as a keystone. Why should magic know or care whether it was him or Jasper twisting the stone against the handle? “You’ll need to remember that’s there again, now,” Micah added as he followed Jasper over to the bed. “Maybe hide your key, and say you lost it if you need to get in without me.”

“Yeah, that’s fine,” Jasper said, dropping his waistcoat on the nearest chair. Micah let his rolled-up clothing fall on top of Jasper’s. “Can we get a nap, do you think?”

“I’m going to try,” Micah said, stretching and letting the cloak fall to the floor around his still-bare feet. “Dunno, though—food?”

“Oh. Yeah.”

Micah picked up the speaking tube and made the vaguest request he’d ever made in his life, and then he and Jasper settled next to each other on the edge of the window seat-bed, absently wrapping blankets around themselves. Micah stared at the cloak on the floor. “I should pick that up.”

“Nah, I can.”

Neither of them moved. Jasper giggled after a moment, and Micah joined in. If they hadn’t been tired, it would have been much louder and longer—embarrassingly loud, he was sure. But they were tired, and before the hysteria could build up properly, there was a knock at the door. “Yes, come in,” Micah called.

“Coo-ee, Śeos. Bit of a thank-you delivery for you…” Bebina backed into the room, pulling a rattling, over-full cart in with her. “I can’t get you into a bigger room just yet, but not for want of trying. Only I can’t really tell people what you’ve been up to, see? Bound to upset them a bit and we don’t want any panic, now, do we…” She began unloading plates onto the table. There were no big slabs of meat, no enormous desserts; the selections were small, dainty, light things, but there were dozens. Micah watched Jasper’s eyes widen as he realised she was unloading everything from the cart.

“He just asked for some food, not everything you have!” Jasper finally said, raising a hand in protest. “No, stop, this is silly!”

Bebina chortled, shaking a finger at him. “No, now, you trust Abbie. This is all planned. These will stay hot and fresh for hours, so long as you leave them on the plates—or cold, as they need. She’s fed a few magickers in her time and knows about the need to replenish after. Slow and steady, a bit now and a bit later, and you’ll even out again, the pair of you. Now!” She clapped her hands and turned back to the cart, bending to reach the middle shelf.

Jasper caught Micah’s eye while her back was turned, widening his eyes and baring his gritted teeth in a silent eek! Micah smiled, but then Bebina was turning back to them with her arms full. “Fresh pairs of pyjamas for you both,” she said, patting the folded bundles on her arm, each tied with a ribbon to keep them neat. “Śe Micah, these should fit you, and Śi Jasper—no, I’ve got them backwards,” she said, staring between them for a moment before crossing her arms and holding them out again. Jasper took both sets and began stacking things on the second chair in the room as Bebina’s gifts continued. “There. Two robes here for you as well, and slippers.” She pulled larger bundles out from the bottom shelf, and Micah gulped audibly. The slippers were leather and lined with plush, fluffy wool that made size irrelevant. But it was the robes that had parts of him twitching. One was a deep green that he somehow knew was meant for him, stiff with embroidery, the fabric rich but subdued. 

The other was obviously Jasper’s. Glossy black satin, the dramatic quilted lapels wider than the shoulders, the cuffs just as wide. The only decoration was a thin silver line of piping along the edges. Micah wanted to pet it, bite it, spread it on the floor and lay Jasper out on it and absolutely wreck the man. His breath caught in his throat and he knew he was in trouble. From the corner of his eye he saw Jasper’s face turn toward him and couldn’t have moved his neck if he were paid. 

Bebina was setting a tall basket on the table with two bottles of wine, two bottles of beer, and a jug of freshly chilled water in it, six stemmed glasses hanging from clips around the outside. “There! When you’re changed, just pop your laundry out in the hall and I’ll be along for it. I’ll let you two sleep now, you poor loves.”

After the door closed behind her, Micah still stood staring at the robes she’d left on the second chair. He heard Jasper shift a bit and scratch his face, nails rasping against stubble. “So,” Jasper said finally.

Micah didn’t move. This was unfair. This was going to be horrendously difficult. He’d have to bathe in ice water twice an hour. 

“Okay, you just stand there and I’ll feed you till your brain comes back from its adventures…”

Grateful for the teasing tone, Micah turned to glare at him. “No. No, I don’t care. We’re sitting and eating. Like civilised people.” And to underline his commitment, he grabbed the back of the nearest chair and shook it to dump the clothes off onto the floor. He thumped it down again by the table and sat down heavily. Jasper grinned and took hold of the chair that held Bebina’s contributions to their comfort, and Jasper dumped them to the floor with just as much ceremony. 

Micah tsked and shook his head. “Oh, it’s ok for you, though?” Jasper asked, taking his seat and reaching for one of the plates of treats, his hand hovering while he studied his options.

Micah watched, noting the bright green broccoli florets topping the pastries one plate over, and grinning as Jasper’s hand dove into them. “Of course. This was the dirty laundry.”

“Mm. I see.” Jasper nodded wisely, his mouth stuffed with broccoli. He’d actually taken the green piece off of the pastry to enjoy all by itself. 

“Your priorities never cease to amaze.”

“Wha’?”

Micah reached out and deliberately tore the broccoli from another pastry, noting how Jasper’s chewing slowed and the corners of his mouth edged downwards. He held the sprig in front of Jasper’s face and the other man froze, looking from him to the vegetable and back. Micah twisted it, rolling the stem between his fingers, and Jasper chewed once. Unable to continue the cruelty, Micah set it gently on the plate nearest Jasper’s hand. “You genuinely love it above all else. Given any options, it’s that.” Micah pointed at the sprig. 

“Y’know, I should’ve known you weren’t going to leave it alone,” Jasper said, swallowing and wiping his fingers on a napkin.

“Oh, I will,” Micah said simply. “I will leave all of the broccoli alone. Because you love it.”

He didn’t look up, plucking one of the blue-apple tarts off a plate and taking a bite. He’d swallowed before Jasper finally said, “Really?”

Micah smiled without meeting his eyes. He could feel them burning into him, and that was more than enough. “Really.”

They ate little more than a plateful between them before Micah sighed and leaned back in his chair. “I know better than to ask if you realise how much you’ve helped in all of this, because you’ll fall back on your nullness and deny everything. But I genuinely do want to know if you realise the depth and utility of your insights today.”

“Yeah? Well, no, probably not,” Jasper said, wiping his lips and fingers on a napkin before dropping it on the table.

“The Werener pots.”

“Didn’t work ’em.”

“No, but you got them set up faster than anyone else would have.”

“Didn’t. I got everyone else to do that.”

“You’re the one who thought to get everyone else to do that,” Micah corrected. Jasper tipped his head as though trying to dodge the point and Micah accept the concession for what it was. “You’re also the one who suggested osmirrium, and where we might find it.”

“But we didn’t,” Jasper pointed out.

“We did. It was on the bridge, and we were only asking for it there because of your suggestion.”

“Coincidence.”

“No. Did you see that pendant?”

“Yeah…?”

Micah could tell Jasper didn’t realise he’d just conceded another point. “Carved with clouds…?”

“Was it?”

“You didn’t look?”

“Not really.” Jasper shrugged.

“That used to be a common good-luck charm for engineers and pilots—an osmirrium carving of clouds. You can find it on the front of really old toolboxes, set in handles of old tools, or as jewellery.”

“I didn’t know that,” Jasper said, stilling, clearly thinking about this and absorbing the information rather than preparing his next defence.

“For hundreds of years people thought osmirrium was the secret to flight—the only secret. Hot air rises, and nothing is hotter than osmirrium flames, if only they could harness them. Balloons, zeppelins, things like that, small crafts or little more than parachutes were as far as people could imagine. And clouds, because, well, that was where people were hoping to go.”

“Huh.” Jasper was leaning forward, fascinated. “But then why was Dusya so convinced there wasn’t any and it was dangerous?”

“Because it is,” Micah admitted with a shrug. “Once we had airships, having too much osmirrium  on a ship became rather a bad idea rather quickly. But I would bet that Myana’s grandmother was an engineer or a pilot, or she was at least interested in it.”

“Okay. But I didn’t know any of that.”

“I did, but I didn’t think of it until after she volunteered the pendant,” Micah said. “But we wouldn’t have gone to the bridge to ask in the first place if you hadn’t suggested it.”

“Really?” Jasper’s skepticism was tangible. “Not even after I suggested osmirrium and wondered if you could conjure it?”

Micah shrugged, closing his eyes briefly. “Yes. My mind was running in circles. I can’t always think of everything at the exact, right time.”

“Well neither can I,” Jasper said.

“But that’s the point,” Micah said, leaning forward suddenly and stabbing the table with his finger, wanting to pin this moment down so Jasper couldn’t escape it or brush it aside. “It took both of us. I couldn’t do it all alone.”

Jasper didn’t say anything, but he dropped his gaze abruptly, staring at the edge of the table. Micah could almost hear Jasper trying to pretend he wasn’t there and Micah couldn’t see him, and Micah could tell that if he pressed, things wouldn’t go well. He sighed, leaning back in his chair again. “You’re talented at far more than just housemastery, Jasper. You’re far more than a passive test subject.”

“But…” Jasper bit the word off, hesitating, regretting, and resigned. “I don’t know what I’m talking about half the time,” he finally mumbled.

Micah snorted. “That’s not true. You just think it is. The next time I give a lecture at Grossman Hall, you are coming along. You listen to the questions afterwards. I promise you that forty percent of them will be misunderstandings of something I said, and I’ll already have given the answer. Very few of them will be able to take what I’ve said and extrapolate new ideas from it. You do that nearly every time we’re in the lab.”

Jasper glanced up, and Micah met his eyes, trying to hold his gaze through sheer force of will. “You were a great deal of help today,” Micah told him, gently but firmly.

“I’m not an idiot.”

Micah blinked, waiting for Jasper’s point to develop, but he didn’t go on. Micah frowned, and finally shook his head once. “Well, no.”

“I mean, I know I’m not. I never thought I was. But it’s…” He sighed through his nose, lips pressed together in disapproval at his own lack of ability to describe his thought. “It’s like there’s another colour out there in the world, and everyone can see it but you. They point it out, they hold up things that are that colour, and to you, it’s just grey. It’s exactly like every other grey thing you’ve ever seen. But they absolutely insist, and it’s everyone, all the time. And now it’s like you’re telling me I’ve painted the greatest masterpiece in that colour, only I still can’t see it myself.”

Micah wanted to protest, to argue. Jasper was wrong. Jasper could see the effects of magic, that was the whole point. But… He couldn’t directly experience the magic himself. He never had, and he probably never would. “That… that is tremendously sad,” Micah admitted finally. “Probably entirely accurate. And thank you for it. And I’m sorry.”

Jasper nodded slightly, slowly. “Yeah. I mean,” he went on suddenly, sounding more like his normal, jovial self, “it’s hard to miss something you’ve never had. And that’s what you sometimes forget. I don’t know what it’s like, so I can’t really miss it. And apparently I’m still a genius at it anyway.”

And there was the grin—the stupid, glorious grin that excused everything.

“I’m going to run you a bath,” Micah announced. He was nearly as surprised by the words as Jasper, but was more used to recreating his own thought processes from his conclusions than Jasper was, and so managed to hide his surprise as he got to his feet. “To make up for that other thing only you could have done—hold that mecksied pendant for me when I told you not to, and I clearly needed you to do it or I’d never get the job done. I’d still be out on that mecksied platform trying to fire the osmirrium.”

“I’ve warmed up, now,” Jasper protested, and pausing in the doorway to the lav, Micah looked back at him with equal measures of scorn and pity. “That was ages ago.”

“I know you,” Micah told him. “You’ve been given fresh, clean pyjamas, and you’ve been wearing the same clothes—mostly—for at least twenty-four hours. You won’t change into clean clothes without washing, and you won’t put your own back on until they’re clean. You won’t have time to wash and dry them to your standards here, by yourself. You’ll feel bad enough wearing the same clothes two days in a row.”

“Nah, it’s the Fest,” Jasper said, trying to sound brash. “Always do that during the Fest.”

Micah raised an eyebrow, Jasper blinked, and Micah smiled. “I’ll run your bath and make it hot, since you can’t.” He took two steps into the lav before Jasper responded.

“You’re just as bad,” Jasper called after him. 

Micah flipped open the tap and tapped the heat spell to life before returning to stare Jasper down. “Yes—I can clean myself using magic.”

“Shouldn’t,” Jasper said. If he’d used more than one word, Micah could have cut him off. Cunning. “You’re tired.”

“I’ve been tired before.” He raised his hands to his head, hiding his face, willing the spell into place—just a bit of a tingle as he ran his hands up his face, lightly scraping his skin to get rid of stubble, sweat, dust, and oil from the long day, spreading his fingers to span his scalp, his hair feeling lighter as he dragged the spell over and down the back of his head. When he opened his eyes, Jasper was staring at him, trying to hide his envy and resentment, but not trying very hard. Micah grinned. “Which is why I am running your bath.”

Jasper got to his feet and snatched up the pyjamas Bebina had decided would fit him. He stomped past Micah to the lab. “You feckin’ Vedoucis, you’re all alike. A bunch of feckin’ show-offs.” He shut the door with a bang.

Chapter Text

Micah felt a little bit bad about genuinely flaunting magic that Jasper couldn’t do, but Jasper’s response was truly worth the guilt. Jasper was successfully back to himself, recovered from Micah’s enforced self-consciousness. 

He returned to the table and his wooden chair and sat down. He’d meant to turn and put his legs under the table, but suddenly that seemed like too much effort. He bent forward and rested his elbows on his thighs, wincing at the pressure. He ran his fingers down the muscle, feeling the soreness. A little heat and pressure and he could ease that. Or a hot bath, of course, but he’d given that to Jasper, who had no other options. But the idea of doing any more magic just now was exhausting. He’d told Jasper he could clean himself up, and he could. He just didn’t have to this minute, that was all. 

He put his face in his hands again, sighing. He needed to eat more, but he also needed what he’d already eaten to turn itself into energy before he could do that. He raised his face just enough to survey the options. The selection was many and varied, sweet to savoury, fish and nuts and fruit and meat. And enough vegetables that he could leave the broccoli for Jasper and not feel shorted. He would never say it, but that was completely adorable, which wasn’t a word he thought Jasper would accept easily. It would sound like teasing, too, and that wasn’t an option for this.

He picked up one of the meat and fruit puddings and took a bite, pressing the redberry segments against the roof of his mouth with his tongue where they popped, their sweet, spicy warmth melting into the tender beef that barely needed chewing. Maybe he was tired, maybe he was hungry, but the moan was out before he realised. He looked back toward the lav, but he could still hear the water running, so Jasper likely hadn’t heard. He pushed the rest of the pudding into his mouth and closed his eyes, wallowing in the flavour. Was all of the food this good? He felt like he’d done little more than eat and do magic since leaving the castle. He tore off a piece of the miniature loaf of sladpikan bread and dipped it in honey-butter, and yes, yes it was that good.

He didn’t have to wonder why he hadn’t noticed. He’d been distracted. What else had he not noticed? Oh yes—the possible theft. He looked around for their clothing, finding the pile of it that he’d dumped on the floor. He checked the inner pockets of his coat. His notebook and pens were there and he set those on the table. His purse, likewise, was safe, and while he hadn’t known exactly how much he’d had in it, the protection charms on it were all still intact. A handkerchief, a tin of hand oil, a pebble of tanium turning an inconvenient magenta in his fingers. He set that down quickly. Two coils of wire, a spring, the small leather tag with the cleaning charm, and his watch, which belonged in his waistcoat, which he picked up next. These pockets held another handkerchief—this one mostly lace—and another leather cleaning charm, a tiny screwdriver, a magnet, and a burned-out glowsphere the size of the tip of his little finger. 

He frowned at the collection he now had on the table. What had he been thinking? Did he think he would need to fix a clock tonight? They were all pieces he recognised from his lab, and he had to admit in the privacy of his own mind that yes, they were the types of things he picked up, toyed with, absently put in a pocket, couldn’t find, and later turned up in his pockets. He just didn’t think he’d spent enough time in the lab after getting dressed that he’d had time to do any of that. He picked up his notebook and flipped through to the end to see if he’d made any particular notes about what he might have been doing in the lab, and paused.

On the first clean page there was a note not in his handwriting. It wasn’t Jasper’s, either. It was in purple ink, so whoever it was had used Micah’s pen. It read simply “þ”, the thirtieth letter of the alphabet: thorn. And according to the ship’s room naming, that was only two doors down from him. 

The sound of water running in the lav stopped and he half-turned, then remembered Jasper was taking a bath. He thought about showing him the page, but that would mean going into a room where Jasper was naked and only a few inches of water and possibly a film of soap would be protecting him from a sight from which he might never recover. No, the note would wait. And so would whoever had left it. But when Jasper came out, Micah had intended to sleep some more. He wouldn’t be able to, now. Not with this note preying on his mind. 

It wasn’t much of a note, even. It communicated nothing. Yes, someone wanted him to go to that room, and apparently it didn’t matter when. He rubbed a few charms across the page with his finger, looking for any hidden message, and found nothing. There were only so many he would be able to find without very specific materials to trigger the message, however, and he wasn’t inclined to believe his mystery correspondent expected him to spend hours trying to figure out what might be hidden when at least part of the point seemed to be to get him somewhere. Given that the storm couldn’t last forever, the first night of the Fest was over and the second rapidly approaching, they knew he wouldn’t be here for long. Anyone who sent him a cryptic note in his own pocket probably didn’t have access to him when he was in the castle or they wouldn’t have gone to this trouble.

Not that he was assuming this was a harmless situation. He still didn’t know who had attacked him on the balcony at the first gala, after all. And now he was on a ship in a storm and no one at the castle knew where he was…

Wait. That wasn’t true. He looped his finger in the chain around his neck and pulled out the locator crystal he wore. Yes, it was mostly used to make sure Jasper was all right, tied to Jasper’s crystal as it was. But the castle would still know if he were in danger. Even during the Fest, he was sure someone would be checking in and monitoring it—for that matter, he knew it would be Tom. Whether he was assigned the duty or not, Tom would know if anything happened. And so would Jasper. The thought warmed the chill of fear from his heart and he took a deep breath, clenching his fist around the crystal. He felt a surge of warmth in it and looked down, seeing the red tinted with just a bit of blue, and laughed. 

“Whatever it is, stop it!” Jasper shouted, and Micah tipped against the back of the chair, listening to the sounds of water splashing and gurgling as Jasper moved in the tub. “You okay out there?”

“Fine, fine,” Micah called, still smiling. “Just…I have something to show you when you’re done. It will wait. No rush.”

More splashing, but this was less energetic. “Okay, good. ’Cause this was a good idea of yours. This tub is a bit fantastic.”

“Good.” 

Micah ran his fingers over the letter thorn again, and closed the book. If he was to go somewhere when Jasper was back, he should tidy himself up a bit more. He stood with a long, put-upon sigh and rolled his shoulders and neck, stretching out the kinks from his tired slouching. He finished getting the rest of the stubble off of his face. He looked over toward the lav, and he could still hear Jasper moving in the water. Not splashing, but not simply still, either. Micah decided to risk it, and pulled the shirt off over his head, hesitated, and decided he might as well get all of it done. He stripped, tossing his clothes onto the chair and taking a few steps to pick up the second bundle of pyjamas. With the rest of his body nude, he was suddenly more aware of his bare feet. He lifted them and looked at the sole of each in turn, frowning at the sight of the dark, dusty patches where his feet touched the ground. He sat down again and lifted one ankle onto the opposite knee and spent some time carefully working the dirt off with a careful brushing spell, letting it fall onto the napkin he set on the floor below. When the entire underside of both of his feet were all the same colour again, he untied the pyjamas and stood up.

Cool, clean cotton, plain green stripes against cream, both the shirt and trousers were shorter than he would normally prefer, but right now it simply felt good to feel something clean against his skin. He unfolded the dark green velvet dressing gown and held it up, raising his eyebrows. Elaborate embroidery down the lapels seemed to tell some kind of story involving squirrels and birds, yet it was somehow elegant, as well. He couldn’t help smiling as he slipped his arms into the sleeves and knotted the belt. 

He was curled up on the window seat-bed when he heard Jasper draining the water from the tub, and when Jasper stepped out a few moments later, Micah was staring very hard at the notebook in his hand and very much not at the lav’s door.

“Oh, ha ha, very funny.” He looked up, startled. Jasper walked toward him, his cheeks still pink from shaving, his grey hair dark with water and lying against his head, the spikiness flattened, his arm held out in something halfway between reaching to grasp and pointing. “Come on, give it here.”

“Excuse me?” Micah looked down at his notebook again and folded it closed, holding it up so Jasper could see the cover.

Jasper pointed now, staring at Micah’s shoulder. “That. That one’s mine.”

“Oh! This?” Micah lifted one lapel of the robe, smiling. “Oh no. No, no, no. That one is yours.” He pointed at the black robe on the chair.

Jasper glanced at it and sighed, lowering his arm. “Oh, Meg’s sake…” He covered his face with his hands and wandered over to the chair Micah had sat in at the table, all the while rubbing his face hard with his hands. “Okay, so what did you want to show me?” He dropped his hands into his lap.

“I went through my pockets to see if anything had been stolen, and I found this.” He held out his notebook, open again to the page with the thorn on it.

Jasper took it, absently at first, still staring at the robe, then finally looking down when he had the book in his lap. “What? Wait. That’s…you took notes on that oil we tested, that’s all.”

Micah pointed impatiently. “No, the other page. That’s my pen, but I didn’t write that.”

“Somebody… invited you to their room?” Jasper frowned down at the page.

“I’m not sure they meant it that way,” Micah said, surprising himself with the scorn in his voice. “No. Well, if that’s what this is… I am about to disappoint someone tremendously.”

Jasper glanced up, then went back to studying the page for a moment. “I can go see,” he offered without looking up.

“Certainly not. I’m not convinced either of us should go. I’m not—”

He was interrupted by a light tap at the door. He hesitated, staring at it before looking at Jasper, who shrugged and shook his head, which was no kind of help. “A moment,” he called, then walked over and set his palm on the back of the door. Someone was outside, he could feel that, and it was only one person. He pushed the handle and opened it carefully.

Bebina stood in the corridor, wringing her hands. “I’m so sorry, Śe Micah, but Captain Dusya would like to see you. I told her you might be asleep but she said it was important.”

Micah nodded. “Did she say what it was about?”

“Not in so many words, but Miyana was talking about nearby portals, if that helps?”

A portal seemed a reasonable escape from the damaging storm, he had to admit. “I see. I’ll be just a moment.”

He closed the door and looked back at Jasper, who was still holding the notebook. “First the Captain, then that?” he suggested.

Jasper frowned, then tipped his head. “I don’t know. I think this”—he raised the notebook before closing it and dropping it onto the table—“should maybe be skipped altogether.”

“All right. We’d talked about possible routes to take once the ship was clear and steady again. I’d had some ideas about that…” He trailed off with a shrug. “I don’t know, now. You need to see if they took anything of yours, still.”

“I’ll go through my pockets,” Jasper said quickly, picking up his clothes and sitting down. “Go on. When you’re back, we can talk about thorn.”

Micah shook his head, having his own suspicions about Jasper’s plan that just happened to involve him not leaving the room and thereby putting off the question of which was whose dressing gown. He stepped out into the corridor. 

On the bridge, Dusya greeted him with a half smile and a tip of her head to beckon him closer. Bebina had bustled away already, and Micah crossed to the Captain’s side alone. “You asked to see me?”

“Yep. I thought maybe we could find a place to hunker down out of the wind but it’s just too strong. Trying to hold our position isn’t gonna work, and none of the portals nearby are quite our size, so what was your idea?”

“Ah. Yes. I’m not sure it’s possible, but I’d like to check some of Diantha’s Pinnacles. I’d like to… I have a vague idea about the storm that I’d like to test.”

He wasn’t sure yet what his idea was, but the Pinnacles were the tallest residences in the city, looking down on everything except some of the Docks, parts of the Foldings, and a few of the business towers. It was just possible that the storm didn’t reach that high, or that he might be able to see something from there. 

“You think the storm isn’t entirely natural,” Dusya said quietly.

Micah turned away, looking out the main window. The view hadn’t changed; it still looked like the ship had its prow in the air and snow was simply falling straight down at them. “I don’t know. I can’t believe someone could control a spell so large, or why anyone would want to. I can’t see any benefit to it.”

“Well, if you sell warmth charms, or clear walkways, or melt ice…or sell ice, come to that,” she added.

“There are much easier ways to make money. This isn’t subtle. It takes an enormous amount of effort and magic that could be put to much more enjoyable uses.”

“Make up your mind. Either you think it’s natural, or you don’t.”

“I’ve no idea,” Micah said, quickly and easily, turning his palms up in a weak shrug. “None at all. I can argue both sides perfectly well, so I need more information, if I’m to reach any conclusions.”

“And you think we can help you get that information.”

“Possibly. I don’t propose anything that might put the ship at serious risk.”

“‘Serious’?” she repeated, leaning forward and staring down at him.

“I can’t know everything, of course. I could say ‘foreseeable’ with the same lack of conviction.”

She held him in her stern, grey-eyed gaze “You know, I liked you better before,” she finally said. 

He turned to face her directly, putting his back to the window. “Yes? When I was melting your vapour lines?”

“No, when you were trying to hide behind the Vedouci after you’d tried sleeping in one of the hammocks.”

Micah had intended to stare her down, defending his honesty about how little he knew of this storm, and had not been prepared for that reminder. He ducked his chin, knowing his face was already pink. “Ah. I believe I had expressed some…concerns about the arrangements beforehand.”

“You did, I’ll give you that. You didn’t have to wait till it was too late, though. Not everyone enjoys them.”

“I didn’t realise I was actually going to be ill until it was, as you say, too late.”

“I still can’t believe you did that.” She slouched lower in her seat, pulling her hands away from the controls completely and folding her arms as a smile crept over her face. “Everybody loves sleeping in a hammock at that age.”

“Apparently not me.”

“You didn’t even think to work some kind of anti-nausea charm? Or ask for one?”

“You can blame Vedouci Casper, if you like. He’s the one who has always told me I need to experience more of the world and stop sheltering myself from it. He wanted me to experience a night under the stars, as he put it.” Casper had waved off Micah’s hesitant queries about if his stomach was supposed to feel like that, and laughed when Micah had finally rolled and vomited up a lovely dinner right through the gaps in the mesh net of the hammock. The Vedouci had even congratulated him on confining his mess to the deck so there was only one thing to clean. “It wasn’t the only time I’d slept outside. I can only think he was torturing both of us.”

“Aye, well, that’s not even in question. Bastard laughed through the entire return flight.”

“I remember.”

Dusya’s smile widened briefly, then she roused herself, sitting up again. “Right. Well, you’ve not puked on anything so far, and you’ve been rather helpful, so let’s see what flying is like in this mess.”

Micah nodded, not daring to meet her eyes again. “Thank you. Is there anything I can do to assist?”

Dusya looked back at the helmers, who all took a sudden and unconvincing interest in their levers and switches. “Iza, got your maps out? Do we have a clear shot up to the Pinnacles?”

“Yesse,” the third helmer said. Micah hadn’t heard her speak before and the low pitch of her voice seemed at odds with the frantic button-pushing he remembered from his first visit to the bridge earlier. “It’s not straight but we have a route.”

Micah was already walking over to her side when Dusya said, “Śe Micah, if you know an easier route, speak up.”

He took a moment to check Iza’s map. “Wait, which portal is that?” He set his finger against one of the markings, unable to stop himself from looking up at the windows to try to see it.

“Hennings, and not quite. We tried to persuade him to enlarge it a year ago but he said there wasn’t enough traffic for it.”

Micah tipped his head back and forth, trying to remember any recent expansions in the area. “Hm hm hm… How old is this map?”

“Well it was drawn near ten years ago but I’ve kept it up to date.” She pointed out a few new portal markings, and one of them got his hopes up enough to raise his hand, making her pause and blink for a moment. “What, that one? That’s Red Grape’s, isn’t it? The vintner?”

“Don’t they have a Daytorio?”

“Oh, no. Not anymore. Scrapped it and got two Beauforts. Said Daytorios were too big, he couldn’t guarantee he’d fill it every time. So he got the Beauforts, about a third smaller in terms of cargo or passengers, but what he saves on flying a smaller ship with a smaller crew is enough. Can’t blame him, really. These Daytorios ain’t cheap.”

“How many crew do we have right now?” Micah asked.

“We’re under,” Dusya admitted. “Only got sixteen, including us. People off for the Fest, and we were meant to be docked for the duration.”

Micah’s lips thinned as he realised what that meant. “So keeping the lines running, keeping us in lift…not quite simple.”

“We can manage, but we won’t be racing and we won’t be making any tight turns or quick decisions. And I’ll want us sheltered somewhere before we burn down to the dregs, if that can be arranged.”

“Of course.” Micah hesitated, but what were the options? They could try to stay in place, not knowing how long the storm would last and not knowing how the city was faring. It was safe, up to a point, and didn’t require a great deal of effort. Or they could attempt to learn what was going on, possibly find a better place to shelter, possibly find some way Micah could improve the situation. Or possibly just waste a lot of fuel, endanger the ship by risking the unknown, and go down screaming. He sighed, turning away from the helmers and taking a few steps away, trying to think and getting nowhere. Possible death or possible death, possible boredom or possible enlightenment, possible safety or possible despair… Too much was unknown. He didn’t know the risks without taking risks to find out more. Or he could stay where they were and hope for the best.

He’d never really liked that phrase, hope for the best. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. But didn’t everyone always hope for the best? Wasn’t that what hope was?

“I don’t know,” he finally admitted, turning back to Dusya. “It’s not my decision, though. I might learn something if we go higher, or I might not. It might help, it might not. I don’t know.”

Dusya turned to watch him over the arm of her seat, and smiled very faintly. “I’ve got a belly full of visitors, Śe Micah, and I don’t think it’s that hard. We’ll go up and look around. I’ve flown in storms before. Flown blind, too. I’ve got my ways.”

Micah wanted very much to accept the reassurance at face value and return to Jasper in their room, but he simply wasn’t convinced. “And I appreciate that, don’t think I don’t. But…you understand I’m not sure what I’m looking for? I don’t know what might have caused this, or how I’d find out, or where. I’m casting about—”

The door to the bridge opened without warning, and Micah turned and froze. It took a moment to recognise the man standing there, as Jasper had bowed to the inevitable and put on the robe. Micah’s breath caught in his throat. He hadn’t ever seen Jasper look so much himself as he did in that moment. Self-confidence wasn’t a question; everything was secondary to what he was doing, which was important enough to interrupt Micah and the ship’s captain with nothing more than the force of his very serious expression: the small crease between his eyebrows, thinned lips and tense jaw didn’t require any words. 

All of it swept over Micah with a wash of guilt. Something important had happened and all he could focus on was how much he simply wanted. This man was a glimpse of Jasper’s possible future, where he would be as powerful and important as anyone on the Lunule Council. Whatever was on his mind, it was nothing to do with the lust he provoked, which was the source of Micah’s guilt. The robe’s wide lapels no longer seemed quite as wide, because Jasper’s shoulders matched them. He hadn’t belted it, and the sides hung open as he leaned forward, bracing a hand on each side of the door frame. The heavy satin hung from his shoulders and skimmed the floor behind him, glinting in the light, looking stiff enough to stand up all by itself.

Jasper’s eyes darted from Micah to the others on the bridge before returning to Micah. “Beg pardon. Micah?” He jerked his head toward the corridor and stepped to one side, expecting Micah to join him with no further explanation. And while part of Micah was amazed at the effrontery, he was relieved as well. If nearly anyone else had interrupted the discussion like that, Micah would have turned away. Casper and Tom were the only two who had this much of his trust, and it was shocking to realise that Jasper already commanded the same trust. 

Micah swallowed and remembered they were not alone. He turned back to Dusya but couldn’t marshal any words or coherent thoughts. “I…excuse me.” He hurried toward the door.

“Don’t bark at me,” Jasper began the moment the door to the bridge was closed, “but I went to Room Thorn, and… I think it’s important.”

He couldn’t take his eyes off Jasper, and couldn’t imagine anyone else managing it. He was striding down the hall as though he owned the ship, the robe floating open with the speed of his steps, even the grim expression on his face driving Micah’s thoughts further and further afield. There was one particularly bad distraction he couldn’t shake: someone else had already seen Jasper like this, and without Micah’s permission, which was completely intolerable.

Jasper glanced at him and his face flushed. “Stop it,” he said quietly.

“I…What?”

“You’re… just stop it. You’re staring at me.”

Micah forced himself to face the corridor ahead of them. “What happened?”

“You won’t believe me. But wait a second.” Jasper set his hand on Micah’s arm as they neared the room in question, and Micah slowed while Jasper knocked softly on the door with one knuckle. “I’m back,” he said quietly.

The door opened a fraction of an inch, then swung wider. Jasper glanced back at Micah then beckoned him again with a sideways nod, and slipped inside.

Micah hadn’t thought what to expect, but he hadn’t expected to see the girl with the top hat. She sat at a simple table at the foot of the one large bed in the room, the curtains drawn to block out the sight of the snow, and the glowspheres on the ceiling cast a soft, multi-coloured light over the room. He hadn’t had time to notice before, but she was wearing a short jacket of long, shaggy white fur. He didn’t see any other warm clothing in the room, and her brown leather trousers reminded him of his time on the small racing ships around the docks, when he was young. The pair of goggles looped around her hat reinforced the image. 

“Ah. The fur?” he said in place of a greeting.

“You still got it, I know. He showed me.”

Micah came to a stop in front of the table, looking down at her. “You know my name. Might I know yours?”

“Nope.”

“Well, y’don’t know mine,” Jasper said, moving past Micah to stand at the side of the table as though prepared to referee. Micah wanted to turn away, finding him simply too distracting, and realised that yes, it was possible that this was the one person who had seen Jasper in the robe before he had, and that that was probably safe.

“Maybe I don’t care,” the girl said, glancing up at Jasper.

Jasper raised his eyebrows, rolling his eyes briefly when she looked away. 

“Why did you give me the fur? What is it?” Micah asked, staring down at her.

“Because the Eel said I could probably trust you. To figure it out.”

“I’d really like to know who I’m talking to,” Micah said firmly. “I don’t simply take random requests from complete strangers.”

“Yeah? Seems like you’ve done more than a few of those tonight. The lady with the kid, the dome in Grossman Hall, the walkways here…” She raised her eyebrows, which lifted the hat.

“You mean Wanika and Tangie? And Rinkasa? And Dusya has even met me before.”

This time the girl rolled her eyes. “Just ’cause you know their names don’t mean they’re not strangers,” she said firmly. 

Micah pulled out the chair opposite her and sat, his eyes never leaving her face. “What do you want?”

“I want you to figure it out.”

He folded his hands carefully and set them on the table, and simply waited, staring at her. He had had many different people try to manipulate him over the years. Some of them were skilled, some weren’t, and some were arrogant and some were more realistic about their skills. He wasn’t sure yet how good this girl was, but she had a lot of confidence. It might turn out to be arrogance, but at the moment he hadn’t yet decided. He needed to know more—about her, about what she was asking and why, about what was actually going on. Because at this point, clearly, something was. And how lucky for him, the first time he left the castle for any major celebration and it turned out to be a disaster.

That, of course, begged the question: had Jasper known something? Had he had some inkling that there was something wrong? The question was patently ludicrous, of course, but he couldn’t blame himself for having had the thought. If it had been anyone but Jasper, it would have been reasonable. But Jasper lacked the magical ability to cause any major mischief himself, and the malice necessary to birth such a plan. 

And he still didn’t know what any supposed plan actually entailed. Was that what this girl wanted? In that case, she would need to tell him. He didn’t need to have an unknown child trying to test him. He’d passed quite enough tests for more than enough examiners and saw no reason to jump through someone else’s disguised hoop.

“Micah…”

He looked up at Jasper’s voice, surprised that the one person not involved in this particular contest was the first to break. “I have no idea what I’m being asked about,” Micah said, his words aimed at the girl and Jasper, as well, “or who is asking me. I can only work with what I’m given.”

“And I gave you a big piece of it,” the girl said, but when he looked back at her, she was smiling, at least. It seemed to be a good sign. “We found it tucked under a loose board.”

“The pouch?” Micah asked.

“No, the fur.”

“All right. And you think I put it there?”

“No, pretty sure you didn’t,” she said, tipping her chair back onto two legs, holding it balanced by hooking one ankle around the leg of the table. She rocked a bit as she spoke. “It’s not a board we wanted attention drawn to, see. And there’s no way that fur got there accidentally. Only certain people know about that board.”

Micah nodded slowly. From the intensity of her stare, he could guess what she meant by “certain people.” She almost certainly was one of the child pirates of the city, which was probably why she’d come to him—he had certain alliances with them, even allegiances, after a fashion. But if she was, she wasn’t one he knew, and that was a bit tricky. There were rivalries, and he could upset a lot of the Lunule dockyards, repair shops, and shipyards by assisting the wrong person for the wrong reason. Or even for the right reason, come to that. 

“Without knowing some of the people who do know of it, however, I’m unable to even hazard any guesses.”

This didn’t seem to be what she wanted to hear, and from the grimace she gave him, she hadn’t expected to be put off again. Instead, she looked up at Jasper as if this was somehow his fault. Micah followed her gaze, and Jasper was shrugging, eyes wide as he shook his head, baring his teeth and looking back at Micah.

“You are Micah, right?” the girl said, her chair thumping back down to the ground.

He sighed. “Yes, and you are…?”

The girl shook her head. “My name won’t mean nothin’ to you. But the Eel said she met you. Tonight.”

Micah looked at Jasper, and they both shook their heads. He turned back to the girl. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone called that.”

“She—wait. Tufty?”

Micah began to shake his head and froze, grabbing Jasper’s wrist as a memory stirred. “The Eel… Tufty. Wearing pink, with a hat?” Frieda.

The girl snapped her fingers and pointed, suddenly relaxing and kicking her chair back onto two legs again. “Yep. Her. She said you two were weird, but she thought you might be okay.”

“Ohhh,” Jasper said quietly, nodding as he caught on. “Right. Okay, that makes sense.”

“You’re one of her…allies,” Micah guessed.

“Kinda. She’s one of mine.”

Micah raised an eyebrow. “And your ship?”

“No, no, no. We’re not fliers. We’re on the ground.”

“Fliers?” Jasper repeated.

Micah squeezed Jasper’s wrist briefly, then lowered his hand. “I see. All right. And this board… Oh, yes. Your…front door?”

“Yeah, you could say that. Yeah.”

“I see…” He thought for a moment, his gaze drifting away from her as he considered the likely possibilities of who he was dealing with. “There are… forty of you?”

She stopped breathing for a moment, then very slowly, she smiled. He wasn’t sure it was entirely reassuring, but it was a change in attitude, at least. “Yeah. Okay. So she was right.”

He nodded slowly, hoping for more, but wasn’t surprised when he didn’t get any. “You found this fur on your front door, then. When?”

“This morning. We took it down around the time the snow started.”

“Midafternoon.”

“Around there. We weren’t keepin’ track of time so much just then.”

“But…why do you think it’s significant? Why bring it to me? It could have come from anywhere. The wind could have blown it there. Someone’s clothing caught on a loose nail when the board was knocked aside.”

She flapped a hand at him. “Nah. That’s what we thought. But I pulled it off, and had it in my pocket, and…” She tipped her head back to see Jasper again past the brim of her top hat. “Well. You still got it in your pocket? Then you know.”

Jasper tipped his head back, his lips parted, then he shook his head. “Nah, no. Nup. This is your issue, not mine.” He flicked his fingers, curling them from her to Micah. 

Her jaw dropped and she sagged, staring for a moment. “Don’t be stupid, you big eege. Tell him!”

Jasper shook his head again, this time with the beginnings of a smile. “No. Not gonna.”

“Well he won’t believe me!”

“Tough. Shoulda put more effort into being believable, I guess.”

Micah narrowed his eyes at Jasper, who barely even glanced at him, and was openly enjoying himself now. Micah was fairly certain he knew what was happening, or at least part of it. Jasper’s nullness had prevented him from experiencing something that she was relying on as proof of her story, and he was disguising it with the agility from a lifetime of practice. Micah’s rush of terror was almost becoming familiar. How many times did Jasper have to do this every day? And yet he never withdrew. He wasn’t shy. He was completely happy in the thick of things, completely confident that whatever happened, he could handle it. It was as though he simply saw it as one long practical joke he was pulling on the entire world.

Micah should probably be more afraid of letting Tom and Jasper get to know each other. With Tom’s perverse sense of humour and constant pranking, Jasper could turn into a dangerous asset.

“One of you is going to have to tell me, and if I have to force one of you, the choice might not go the way you hope,” Micah said, keeping his eyes on his own hands as he said it.

“Is he threatening me?” the girl asked.

“Honestly, right now, I don’t know,” Jasper said.

Micah sighed. “Or I can get up and leave.”

“Okay! Fine. Okay.” The girl slapped her hands on the table. “It’s cold.”

“Well it would be. It was outside.”

“No! You coopered numpty! It makes cold.”

“Ah. Yes. I felt that.”

She thumped the table with her fists and growled. Micah tried to keep his face solemn and failed. He bit his lip, then simply dissolved into giggles. It didn’t help when Jasper started in, too. “You coulda tole me!”

“I could have. I could.” He caught his breath, the laughter fading. “But you could have told me many things, and you haven’t.” She growled again, and he added, “You’re the one asking me for a favour, remember. And I really don’t know you.”

“This isn’t a favour!” she snapped. “Come on. You’re supposed to be smart!”

“And you’re supposed to be secretive, but you’ve just confirmed to me your existence.” He raised his eyebrow at her glower. “Honestly, you don’t have a lot to bargain with. You could try being polite.”

She hung her head, and her hat began to tip forward. She caught it, shoved it back and pushed it down, using her other hand to tuck her ears into the band. “Yeah, whatever. I think this storm ain’t natural.”

Micah let out his breath, finally relaxing enough to lean back in his chair. “Well. The thought had occurred.”

“What made you wonder?” she asked, with a minimal amount of sulk left in her voice.

“Besides the cold—colder than I’ve ever felt in a storm? And the endless snow, more than the city can handle? And the wind?…” 

He stopped himself. How had he not realised?—he had experienced wind like this before. And with Jasper, too. On the balcony, at the gala, when they’d first met. The dustworks.

But that had been different, hadn’t it? That had been sabotage, and extremely focused. This was an entire city being scoured by the onslaught. That had been the air escaping from the bag, and the magic being sucked out of the air as he and his assailant had fought over control of it. The power involved had created its own air currents, and his attempts to contain the effects had concentrated them. This storm was city-wide, at the very least. He wasn’t trying to contain it, and he couldn’t imagine how many people it would take to try to do so. How many would it take to raise that much force, and how much force to concentrate it to build the pressure to this degree? He couldn’t even conceive of it. 

“Micah…”

He raised his head, tilting his face up to Jasper while his eyes lingered on the surface of the table, distracted by his own thoughts. “Hm?”

“You’re thinking about that night, aren’t you?”

Micah blinked and refocused. “Yes. What do you think?”

Jasper shrugged immediately and shook his head. “No, don’t ask me. I don’t know.”

“You were the only person there,” Micah pointed out.

“Yeah, but…that was so much smaller. Is this the same thing?”

“I wish I knew. We have to consider it.”

Jasper nodded slowly, pursing his lips as he thought. Micah waited for him to say something, and wondered why it was taking so long. He was obviously thinking, rolling his lips between his teeth, biting them, then pursing them again. After trying to imagine what Jasper was thinking, Micah realised that the problem was more likely that he had to couch his thoughts carefully to hide his nullness in front of the girl. “Okay,” Jasper finally said, speaking very slowly. “That time, you could actually feel the magic at work, trying to rip open the bag and disrupt your defences, yeah?”

“Yes. I had a definite impression of the…the shape of the spell, the feel of it, how it was working against me.” 

“Any of that tonight? Because if so, you really haven’t said.”

“No,” Micah had to admit. “I’ve not felt anything quite like that in this storm. No focus.”

“Because it’s spread out more?”

Micah tipped his head, considering the idea. “Perhaps. Perhaps because I’m not the target? Or the target is too large? I’m not sure.”

Jasper nodded to himself, once again pinching and rubbing his lower lip. “Nah, I dunno. That time, something was definitely after you. Here it’s like you’re incidental. Would someone with the power to do all this actually bother to do all this when one person was the target?” He scrunched up his face as though the thought hurt.

“I suppose if they didn’t know who they were trying to hit, or where they were. Or this was the only option they had. Then, maybe.”

“Doesn’t sound like the same thing. Even if they were after you—this is the first Fest where you’ve left the castle. They could’ve even aimed just for the castle, which is huge enough, and that’d still be less effort than attacking a whole city. Someone with the power to snow under a whole city could’ve had us ripped to pieces at the gala.”

Micah opened his mouth to try to argue, but no words came, no new ideas. He shrugged. “No. I don’t think it can be.”

Jasper raised his head and met Micah’s eyes again. “Good. So…how do we find out what it is?”

“You two done?”

Micah looked back at the girl, who had slid her elbow as far forward on the table as she could and planted her cheek on her fist, about an inch away from having her chin on the table as well. “Why?”

“’Cause I got some ideas.”

Micah shifted back instinctively and waved a lazy hand toward her, not sure what to expect. 

“First, there is no way that fur got on our patch by accident. You gotta try to get under there. Second, well, see, I got some ideas.”

“So you said,” Jasper said.

She rolled her eyes at him. “I ain’t tellin’ you where our door is, you clot. But I hear you wanna go look around the Pinnacles.”

“How… how did you… oh. You were listening when I was on the bridge.”

She shrugged. “Sure. I wanted to get up there too, but I was never gonna make it alone.”

“Who’s paying for this room?” Jasper asked suddenly.

“”Never you mind,” she said fiercely. “But when we get there, I bet there’s gonna be another hunk of fur.”

“Why?” Micah asked.

“’Cause if you’re outlining your patch, and you wanna hit all of Lunule, you gotta hit the Pins. You can’t hit the Foldings—well, you two eeges can—but the Pins is the next tallest.”

“Oh,” Micah said softly, realising what she meant.

“What?” Jasper snapped, rounding on him.

“An outline to give the limits of the spell,” Micah said, his eyes on the girl. She nodded slightly, a faint smile finally touching her lips. “Yes. But that’s… horrible.”

“What am I missing?” Jasper demanded.

Micah glanced up at him, then looked to the girl, wanting someone’s permission to even voice the thought. She flicked her fingers at him with equal parts drama and dismissiveness. He leaned back to look at Jasper again. “The suggestion would be that someone has tucked more bundles of fur in certain points around the city, defining an area to be affected by a spell. And…” The idea of any of this happening was utterly repellant. He could barely make himself think it through, and yet part of his brain was leaping ahead to the horrible logic necessary. “And… well, yeti fur could be used, and could potentially command a storm like this.”

“No, you’re leaving something out,” Jasper said. “Come on.”

He looked away again, running a finger along the edge of the table, studying the dark purple lines of the grain in the rich brown wood. “It would take a lot of fur, pulled from a live yeti, and you would have to keep the yeti alive, as the spell draws power from the yeti used. Ohh…”

In order for the spell to work, the yeti must be in Lunule. Yetis were rare, they were isolated, they were never known to seek out humans. To the best of his knowledge, they specifically avoided them, and had for centuries. Humans could survive in regions where yetis thrived, but those places were inhospitable—mountaintops, ice islands, the extremes where it was always cold. It seemed likely they weren’t native to Kuzul, and very little was known of how they lived. 

A few Vedoucis before Casper, there had been a series of rulers who had been firmly against portal exploration and had tried to encourage more brave souls to venture into the uncharted parts of Kuzul. They had done a great deal to discourage the construction of new portals and made sure that the knowledge of how to build them was lost, yet huge swathes of Kuzul remained unmapped. It was a part of Kuzul history Micah had never understood, but now he wondered if he would regret the lack of exploration more, or would he regret bringing humans to new worlds where there might be more species to be exploited. 

“Okay, what are you thinking?” Jasper said, startling Micah out of his thoughts. “That’s not a happy look on your face.”

Micah nodded slowly. “I haven’t been thinking happy thoughts.” He looked up at Jasper, who had gone to stand behind the girl—probably so he could better monitor Micah’s expression. “Is that the only fur you’ve found?” Micah asked, leaning forward and locking eyes with her. 

She  stared back for a moment in silence. “Nope. Not that I know. But then I been on this ship for a few hours now, and now I can’t get off.”

Micah waved that aside. “But is that all? You need to tell me everything you know.””

“I know lots of things. You’re gonna have to ask a better question.”

He sighed and put his face in his hands. “Why did you come to me?”

“The Eel said I should.”

Why?”

“’Cause we think that fur’s a bad thing. If you know of any spells that use a piece of someone in them, do you know any good ones?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Ones that don’t hurt someone?”

He hesitated, then lifted his face and stared at her. “It depends what pieces are used.”

“Yeah. I don’t know, but I figure if you got a chunk of fur like that off a yeti, it prob’ly hurt. It’s not the kinda thing you can pick up in the night markets, either. I dunno who’s got the kind of power it takes to use somethin’ like that,” she pointed at the fur, “but I bet they’re pretty strong. And I still think it’s weird that we found that today, right as this storm starts.”

Micah pushed himself to his feet suddenly. “Do you have any plans to leave the ship?”

“Yeah, sure. I thought I’d jump out the window and wait for the lifeguards to show up. Or maybe you’ll steal another boat.”

He stared at her for a moment. Had Frieda been with them when they’d rescued Wanika? No. They’d left the bakery, and the strong gust had been after that, and he’d got them to Grossman Hall. Frieda had still been passing around her water-wine when they’d left. Of course, a good thief could have followed them. 

“Goodbye.”

He left abruptly. She wouldn’t tell him her name, she would only hint at her alliance, and yet she presumed to command his service? She’d bypassed his shielding spells far enough to write in his notebook! She was a child, a stranger, arrogant and misguided. He owed her nothing. 

But the only reason his protection spell hadn’t affected her was because she hadn’t tried to take the notebook. She’d written in it. And she hadn’t even written much, just a single letter. And she had hinted at her alliance—she must be one of the Forty Helephants, one of the city’s gangs, and one of the best and most secretive, at that. Most of the gangs were adults, and most of the pirates were children, yet she was a child, as was Frieda. The odds of a gang employing two children were low, which made her revelation to him startling, even alarming. He was the Vedouci’s heir, and would be on the Lunule Council! Did he not have a duty to capture her and bring her to one of the thief-takers?

If he did, then why had he never turned over any of the pirates? And there was no question of him ever doing that. He couldn’t even begin to imagine what that would do to the city. The Foldings would lose Ellie, and most of the best shipwrights would leave as well, and most of the docks. Air traffic would possibly cease. Too many of the people involved had either learned from Ellie or one of her students—the best ones had, certainly. He could probably set the world back a few hundred years with one stupid act. 

What was he meant to do, then? What had she actually asked? She wanted him to “figure it out.” Without defining what it was, the instruction was pointless. All he had to work with was a handful of white fur. 

Then he would have to start with that.

He lifted his head, blinking to find Jasper kneeling in front of him, holding Micah’s hands in his own, looking worried. 

“Ahh, feck!” Jasper sighed, falling back and sitting heavily on the floor. “What just happened to you?”

Micah glanced around. He was in their room, sitting on the wooden chair where he’d eaten. “I…nothing. Why?”

“Didn’t you even hear me?”

“Yes…” he said suspiciously. “You asked what happened to me.”

“Before that!”

“Well, no.” 

“I’ve been calling your name for the past couple of minutes! You just sat there, staring at your fingers, and you wouldn’t answer or look up…!”

“I was thinking,” Micah said, aware that it was no kind of defence.

“About what?”

“All of this. I’m sorry.” He rubbed his face hard with his hands. “I’ve no idea what’s going on, or what to do.”

“Are you sure you’re okay, Micah?”

“No,” he admitted. “I know I’m not. I’m tired, I’m bothered, I’m worried, I can’t think straight…”

“Your thinking is fine,” Jasper said firmly, getting back on his knees, sitting on his haunches. “You just don’t have enough pieces of the puzzle. And we’re on the way to one already—when we get to the Pinnacles, we will either find more fur, or we won’t, and that’ll narrow things down.”

“It won’t,” Micah sighed. “If we don’t find it, I will never be convinced we didn’t simply overlook it. There is no way to conclusively prove that it isn’t there, not without dismantling the whole of Digby Tower.”

“We’ll worry about that when we get there. First thing on your list, though, was being tired. You need to sleep, even if it’s just a nap.”

Micah had been dreading this moment. “I know. But I won’t. My mind is too full and running like a spin-wheel in a clockhouse. If I were in the lab, I’d find something to work on, but here…”

Jasper nodded slowly and looked around. He leaned forward and picked something up from the floor. “Look what I’ve found.” He held out Micah’s notebook.

Micah accepted it, staring down at the cover, rubbing it with his thumb. “Yes. I could take notes on something, if I had something to do.”

“Read to me from it. Hey, come here.” He caught Micah’s hands again and climbed to his feet, then drew Micah upright too. “Up you get. Now get over there on the bed.”

“I’m really not—” He stopped himself. He was really not what? What was he objecting to? Was it just the fact that he would be asleep and Jasper would be awake? Jasper was making a fuss over him, and that always made him feel guilty. 

“See? You’re so tired you don’t even know what you are or aren’t. Just… here, let me take your robe.”

Micah had his belt untied before a niggle at the back of his mind made him turn around. Jasper had his hands up at shoulder height, ready to take the robe from his shoulders. “One condition.”

Jasper was biting his lower lip and simply raised his eyebrows enquiringly.

“I will prove this if I need to, but this robe is mine, d’you understand?”

The look of indignation on Jasper’s face was worth the tirade he knew was coming. “Now, look—!”

“No. In fact, I’ll prove it.” Micah shrugged off his robe and held it out. “Give me that one.”

Jasper pushed his back and let it slide down his arms, gathering it neatly before handing it to Micah without a word. Micah was slightly surprised by how light it turned out to be. It was lined, and warm from Jasper’s body as he slipped his hand into the sleeves. It felt glorious, he had to admit, but the green robe was surprisingly soft and supple.

“Right. Now look at me.” Micah waved a hand toward his face.

Jasper opened his mouth, and hesitated.

Micah pointed emphatically at Jasper. “Exactly! I look ill! You can see it, I know you can. And, well, you can wear black.”

“Yeah, but…” Jasper looked down, running his hand along the embroidery of the green robe.

“Then come here.” He grabbed Jasper’s elbow and dragged him into the lav, where they stood in front of the mirror. Micah met his own gaze and wished he hadn’t. The black brought out the dark smears under his eyes, which were almost frightening against the background of his pale, pasty skin. “No. No, I can’t.” The lapels almost looked like he was a child in his father’s clothes.

“But Micah…!”

“No. Meg’s sake, Jasper. I’m not saying that I am unworthy, and I’m not saying you are unworthy, or more worthy, or anything like it. They’re just clothes, Jasper. You know now that yes, I could go outside, even in this, in my bare feet. It takes effort and energy and I’d be very uncomfortable trying to do that for long, but I could do it. Clothes are at least partly about what they look like. You don’t have the same option to use magic, true, but you do have options and you do not need to deliberately avoid anything that—” He paused as a new thought occurred. He met Jasper’s eyes in the mirror. “Wait…” He glanced around the room; there wasn’t a lot of space. “Come back here a moment.” He hooked his hand on Jasper’s arm and drew him back into the room. “Trade back.”

“Micah…”

Micah had already pulled the belt open and let the robe fall back off his shoulders. “Please.”

“None of this is getting you any sleep,” Jasper said, reluctantly peeling the green robe off.

“I will sleep better once I show you. Now put it on, please.”

When they’d traded back, Micah herded Jasper back into the lav. “Look.” He pointed at the mirror, and the way Jasper froze, Micah knew he was right. Jasper had never even looked at himself and had no idea what he was arguing against. “Now. Keeping in mind that I have worn that cloak you chose, and I am happy to keep wearing it, will you be honest with me? You look better in black than I ever will.”

Jasper’s hands were stroking the heavy satin lapels and Micah didn’t think he had any idea he was doing it. “It’s just so striking,” Jasper said quietly.

“It is.”

“Wearing black, I mean. And this robe is gonna look good on anyone.”

“But me.”

Jasper met his eyes and made a face at him, but then returned to the robe. “I dunno. Kind of makes my hair stand out.”

“That is not a bad thing, you ridiculous man.”

“I’m only twenty-four! This is old-man hair!”

“Do you really not see it?”

He had very nearly said “how beautiful it is,” but no, that decision had been made. He would not start them down that path, not when they were both so tired. 

“I mean it gets people’s attention, sure, but then they have to try to figure out—hey, that’s it. It’s like you and Frieda and the ‘water or wine’ question. Do they believe the age my hair looks? Or the age the rest of me looks?”

“Only that question has a definite answer. You are quite clearly a young man, with striking hair.”

Jasper finally met his gaze again in the mirror. “You think so?”

“I know it.”

He went back to studying his reflection, then shifted his gaze to Micah. “Okay, then it’s your turn. You know you look good in green because of your hair.”

Micah raised an eyebrow, raising a hand to push back the single curl of his forelock that always fell forward. “Well thank you, but—”

Jasper raised a hand and cut him off. “The only way you can finish that sentence is if you’re going to say that you need to get some rest. I mean it, Micah. If there’s more magic needed, and you know there will be, you have to get some sleep.”

He let himself be steered back to their shared bed and pushed down onto the edge. “Will you sleep, too?”

“Probably. Now shut up and lie down.”

 

Chapter Text

Micah was finally sleeping. Finally. Jasper let himself doze for an hour, curled protectively between Micah and the window. There was no point even having a window anymore. The glass was half-covered with snow when Jasper roused himself. The room hadn’t been bright before, but now the sun was going down and the little light that made it through the blowing snow wasn’t going to make it through the window anyway. 

He crept away from Micah’s sleeping form, pausing often and checking to make sure he hadn’t roused. Micah probably could have slept through a stampede, at this point. He hadn’t woken before when the ship was shuddering, tearing away from the dock. That had been a terrifying moment, waking up, finding Micah completely still even while the jostling movement had him dangerously close to falling out of the bed and onto the floor. 

Jasper had a vague impression that earlier, when Micah had been the first one to wake, Micah had more or less slept in Jasper’s lap. He couldn’t remember falling asleep, but Micah had moved Jasper’s hand, which had been lying on warm skin that wasn’t his own. He would trade his toes and teeth to know if he had dreamed that, or what he had been doing in his sleep. After that, he didn’t know if he could trust himself sleeping so close to Micah. 

The second time, when the ship woke Jasper, he had been lying down and sweating. It was ridiculous. It was stupid. How could he possibly work up a sweat just lying still and sleeping? Was he dreaming about chopping trees while running in the middle of summer? Did he actually run in his sleep? Surely he would have heard about it by now. People would have told him if he’d spent the whole night kicking them, or they’d at least not sleep with him twice. Maybe sleeping was somehow magic, for most people, and since he couldn’t do magic, it was harder work for him. Whatever it was, he woke up with damp sheets sticking to him too often. When he’d woken Micah up, he had wanted to go with Micah right to the bridge, but he’d had sweat all over him. And to underline their differences, Micah had woken up cold. He’d been shivering until he got himself wrapped in the cloak. Jasper had just chucked his wet blanket when he bolted to the door, but then grabbed up his shirt to hide the sweat, certain the whole time that Micah could probably smell him. The minute he left, Jasper had dashed to the bathroom and wiped himself down. The sad truth was that he had no objection to wearing clothes more than once before getting them cleaned—he’d done enough laundry by hand and watched others do enough using magic that he didn’t want to give someone more work than absolutely necessary. But when he was around Micah, he didn’t dare risk it. 

At least Micah hadn’t pursued the story about seventeen goats. He didn’t actually know how many it had been, but the tumble he and Jemmy had had in the hay wagon was worth waking up in it later to find a solid percentage of the family’s wealth pulling them into the next field. The little feckers didn’t usually cooperate without a lot of convincing, so tying them around the wagon was usually safe. They also didn’t usually eat through wire fences. At least Jemmy had stayed and helped him fix the fences, after they’d laughed themselves sick. She’d always been good with metal magic, and his parents had been mollified by the increased power she’d put into the new fencing—it made up for the amount of wire they’d had to use. 

And now he had a new story he couldn’t tell anyone, not that anyone would believe it. He’d shared a bed with the Vedouci’s heir. Even thinking it had him grinning again. Micah seemed to have changed so much just in the day they’d been out together. He’d been shy, nervous, miserable just at the idea of performing. But he was a fiendishly fast learner, and he’d absorbed every word of advice Jasper’d had to give him, and he got up and did it. It was strange—later he’d mentioned giving lectures at Grossman Hall as though that was a frequent occurrence. Those would be in front of many of the best magickers in the city, some of the best in the world. They taught the best students, and there would have been visitors from far afield, but that didn’t bother him. No—Micah got rattled by a bunch of ordinary people in a pub. And if that ever made sense…well, no point even finishing that bet with himself, because it would never happen anyway.

There was another thing he didn’t expect to ever understand, although this one might have been because he was afraid to think about it too much. Before they’d left, Micah had acted as though he had no idea what would look good on himself, but he’d been very definite about what looked good on Jasper. It was a bit of a mistake, really, because Jasper had fallen in love with that black coat. It was warm, it looked good enough to keep up with Micah without looking like he was trying to put himself on Micah’s level, it was comfortable. A bit formal, maybe, but he could easily imagine Tom in it, and not Casper or Micah. 

But then Micah had been absolutely firm on the subject of the dressing gowns. In the privacy of his own mind, Jasper still believed that the black one had almost been perfect for Micah. He hoped that if he ever got another dig in that massive wardrobe cupboard, he could find something like it but in a colour Micah would accept. Maybe a dark green. He did look good in that. The velvety dressing gown Micah had insisted was meant for him was rather luxurious, but the black one was the kind of thing that turned heads, and Jasper didn’t want to turn any heads. He already knew that if they were stuck on this ship for the rest of the fest, he was going to get into trouble. 

There was trouble, and there was trouble. That latter was the kind that came in the glances he’d got from Myana, the helmer on the bridge with the long golden braids, violet eyes, and osmirrium pendant. Jasper knew exactly what she was thinking, and the best thing he could do was make sure she never got a chance to ask, because if they were still here much longer after that, the next question would be why not, and that had never yet made anyone happy. There was a stunning red-haired man with a beard halfway down his chest and light, golden-brown eyes, a wicked grin, and a sinuous way of moving on his liftchair, who had stared at Jasper every possible second he was in the gallery. When Jasper had handed him one of the Werener pots, he’d been unable to take his eyes away from the man’s arms and shoulders. He’d cranked the lift on his chair and hovered just low enough that he had to stretch one arm up all the way and used the other to push himself up the extra few inches by leaning on his armrest to position the pot. And he’d seen Jasper looking, of course. Staring, really. And staring  like that followed by “sorry, not interested” was another shortcut to misery. He wasn’t sure, but Karlie’s eyes had followed him rather a lot, too. He’d tried to talk to her once, but before he’d gone two steps, she was suddenly in deep conversation with a cluster of young girls, showing them her ludolin. 

All he could do was hope that Bebina was quick with the laundry and Micah was quick with the thinking, and they could dispel the storm and fly straight back to the castle. Or, if the storm was over, continue with the fest. He’d been given the opportunity to escort Micah for an event—a three-day event, even—and he’d be a fool to pretend to want to cut it short. Then again, that might be the best thing, because rather too often he’d caught himself thinking he could get used to this.

He was already losing his ability to regret being “trapped” on the ship. No, he might not get another chance to dance with Micah while they were on board, but he’d had some spectacular views of the man’s arse and legs when he’d leapt over the counter. How had he even done that? Just planted a hand, swung his legs up to the side and over. He’d done it about a dozen times, too. Micah had more muscle than Jasper expected, but Jasper wasn’t going to try the same thing. He knew he’d bang his legs, at best. Then there’d been that bizarre moment when he’d suggested the osmirrium—what had he even said?—and Micah had grabbed his head and stared at him, and for a moment Jasper could see Micah was going to kiss him. Jasper was utterly certain of it, there was no doubt. But then he’d frozen, given Jasper’s head a shake and growled at him, and run off again. It should have been heartbreaking, disappointing, embarrassing, frustrating, frightening…something bad. But instead, Micah had somehow made him laugh. Did he really think so fast that he’d realised what he was doing, stopped himself, then realised again that stopping might have caused offence or hurt, and figured out a way to make Jasper laugh instead? All in half a heartbeat? Impossible. But the memory of that growl was making him smile even now.

It was difficult to believe that this was the same man who’d been afraid to ask Casper’s permission to leave the castle in the first place. So much had happened. At least when Micah was doing magic, Jasper could understand the confidence. He hadn’t wanted Jasper to help him with the pendant, but when he couldn’t stay inside, Micah had adapted immediately and made use of him, getting them back inside in less than a minute. Seeing him out there alone had been wrong. Jasper couldn’t help remembering that night on the balcony, but while he remembered the fear, he also remembered that Micah had won. Whatever had been going on, Micah had survived it and got things back under control. That was both impressive and reassuring. What he didn’t want to remember, however, was holding Micah’s legs, the primal fear, the need to do something, anything, to help, and then the feel of the muscle, the tension in every fibre of Micah’s body as he bulled through it, brutal and determined, just like he’d been today. Terrifying, yes, but also… well, sexy as anything that ever breathed. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to develop some kind of fetish about Micah doing serious, life-or-death magic. No, that was unfair—he already had that one.

That time, out in the snow with the pendant, though, he hadn’t held onto him. That fecking cloak had been clinging to him, which was a different kind of torture, and even that wasn’t as bad as when the ship had nose-dived and he’d had to grab onto Micah. The only difference between that desperate clinging and actual groping was intent. He’d felt just as much of Micah’s body as he would have if he’d gone straight up to him with grabby hands. That fine grey cotton shirt still felt just as thin even when it was wrinkled and twisted around him, the fur and silk of the cloak cool and sleek, and all of it together wasn’t enough to disguise Micah’s shape. Jasper had to keep reminding himself that Micah wasn’t really a man yet; there was a lot of boy there still. He was barely twenty. But he had to keep reminding himself because Micah really was so much more than a youth. He had a list of achievements Jasper could barely understand, and even his body was nothing Jasper had been led to expect by any magician he’d ever known. Micah’s magic was physical and used muscle and power in ways Jasper hadn’t seen before. 

Jasper shook himself and rubbed his face hard with both hands. He was going to stand here and stare at Micah sleeping for hours if he wasn’t careful, so he snatched up the black robe and slid into it, feeling guilty. But Micah had been fervent when he’d explained how absolutely he’d believed it to be Jasper’s. Jasper ran his hands down the front of it, realising he was petting himself and wishing someone else was doing it, but the robe really was a bit of wearable sex. He could come to like it. Grow into it, maybe. Then again, he probably shouldn’t assume that it was a gift to keep and not a loan. 

He hesitated a moment before picking up his keystone for the room and looping it around his wrist. He could pretend he’d lost it, or he could actually lose it, or he could just look really inept with it. The latter had always been a useful technique for him. People always loosened up once they’d helped someone with something; they liked helping someone. Maybe it helped them feel superior, but if they did, that was all right. He wasn’t great at everything, either. He needed help all the time on all sorts of things… but when it came to something that he was superior at—and there was a fair amount—that actually seemed to please people. It made sense: they’d helped someone who had a place in the world, and that made them feel even better about themselves.

He checked Micah again, but he was still asleep. Deeply asleep, too, his lips parted slightly, his head lolling to one side. No drool yet. He smiled at the idea. But something told him Micah wouldn’t be entirely pleased to be found drooling onto his pillow. On impulse, Jasper set one finger lightly under Micah’s chin and nudged, and Micah turned away slightly, closing his mouth and taking a deeper breath, wiping at his chin with a hand still wrapped in blankets, and rolled onto his side, curling up. Jasper grinned at the pose. Micah’s fists were fairly tangled in blankets and tucked under his chin, the blankets half over his head and hiding his ear. His hair was a soft, fine mess with the curl on his forehead free from all attempts to hide it. Jasper took a step back before he gave in to stroking Micah’s pale face, and slipped out the door, closing it as quietly as he could.

No one was in the corridor, but he could hear faint voices ahead of him. He followed the sound, not surprised to find it leading back to the gallery. Most of the guests still seemed to be gathered there, although the mood was much more relaxed. The drapes were closed across the windows and a cheery little fire crackled and danced in a stone-ringed pit in the centre of the room. Dark wood paneling between the windows was carved into swirls and flourishes so airy Jasper could probably punch straight through. But they couldn’t be so fragile or the ship couldn’t hold together, of course, so that was more magic in everyday life that he’d never thought to notice before.

Someone was waving at him and he tensed before recognising Bebina hurrying over. “Oh, Śi Jasper! Oh, dear, is something wrong? You should be asleep!”

He grinned easily and patted her shoulder. “Nah, I’m fine. I don’t usually sleep long anyway. How’s everyone doing?”

She turned and stood beside him, surveying the room. “Well, actually. Abbie’s kept the plates full, and Karlie’s had a bit of a rest now too. I think it helps that they can feel the ship is moving, and that terrible shaking is over.”

“No one’s upset that we’re moving?” He hadn’t expected that. The ship had been docked for the length of the Fest, as he’d understood it.

“No, not that I’ve seen. They’ve been a little excited, actually. I hinted that to make up for the problems earlier, we’re going to a surprise location and they can continue the Fest from there, if they like.”

Jasper nodded encouragingly, seeing her bite her lip. “That’s good! And really, it’s true. I dunno that anyone will want to go back out in that, but maybe we’ll be lucky and find it’s only one side of the city getting buried.”

“Yes. Yes, I hope so.” She scanned the room again before turning back to Jasper. “Well! If you need anything, Śi, just let me know.”

“I did have one question—do you have anyone helping you? Other crew or staff or something?”

“Oh, yes, about a dozen of us. Don’t you worry. Everything that needs to be done is getting done.”

Jasper nodded. “Good. Excellent. Thank you, Śe Bebina.”

She smiled till her eyes crinkled and bustled off.

Jasper glanced around the room and spotted Karlie’s head, the bushy length of her blonde hair spilling over the back of her seat. There was a free space to her left at the table; he made straight for it and sat down without asking. “Fancy meeting you here.”

She looked up, a chicken leg in her fingers, still chewing. “Try the spicy chicken. That’ll be another surprise for you.”

He smiled and glanced up at the Werener pots still balanced on the curtain rods. “Enjoying your Fest, then?”

“I’d say I’ve had worse, but it would be misleading.” She put down the bare bone and picked up a cleansing cloth. Jasper watched the water she squeezed out of it run over her skin before being drawn back into the cloth again. “Where’s your friend?” she asked.

Jasper tipped his head back toward the door. “Getting some rest. He’s completely knackered.”

“Why are you awake, then?”

“Restless, maybe? He’s more tired out, anyway, and I didn’t want to disturb him. That and he’s been pouring out all the magic he can muster.”

“So... the ship’s shaking before…?”

“Yeah, he worked on that. Everything’s sorted, now.” He smiled reassuringly.

She glanced at him and paused, then leaned back, her eyes scouring his face. She’d caught something, but he didn’t know what and wasn’t inclined to help her. He just tipped his head with an inquiring little frown. “You don’t have to tell me,” she said, looking away again. “But just know that your lying face isn’t very good.”

He let out his breath through his nose, pressing his lips together. “No, just not sure how much you wanna know,” he admitted, his voice quiet. “Not sure how much I know.”

“After having everyone here help get those pots up for some reason, then having us leaving the dock and that tilt when we did, you’re not going to be able to hide it. You’ve got a couple more hours before speculation explodes into panic, maybe.”

He scrunched his face at her and gave in. “Yeah, fair enough. The walkways got banged up by the storm and Micah had to detach us with force. Then the wind caught us the wrong way and we tilted.”

“That’s more or less what everyone thought, if it helps.” She patted his arm. “I’ll put the word around, but you’re going to have to do some of it yourself or it’ll seem like you’re hiding more.”

“Why me?”

“Because everyone knows you’re here with the Heir,” she said, shaking her head with wide eyes, staring at him as if he were stupid. “You’ve been running around fixing things, so they all know you’re part of it.”

“Fine,” Jasper growled. He ran his hands through his hair and took a deep breath. Looking around the room, he decided he was well-placed enough and simply stood up. A sudden impulse made him stick his fingers in his mouth and let out the whistle that was the reason they were on the ship in the first place, and Karlie startled, staring up at him. He stuck his tongue out at her as the room quieted. 

“Evening! Look, sorry to interrupt. Just wanted to thank you all for helping out earlier. What happened… well, this storm was knocking things about and the walkways got broken. But Micah—you know, from the castle,” he added, seeing a few people blinking at the name. “The Vedouci’s heir. He had to run around a little but got us detached before anything went too far, and once we were free, the wind caught the nose and down it went. The pots were to make sure nothing else went wrong as we left our dock, and they worked brilliantly, and that’s thank to all of you.”

“How bad is the storm?” someone called.

Jasper turned to spot the speaker, but no one stood to face him. They weren’t even looking at each other. Everyone was staring at him. “Um, I dunno, really. I didn’t enjoy it, I can tell you that.”

A few people laughed. “Where are we going, then?” another voice called, and this time he saw who it was: a father with a little girl on his lap. 

“Well, first we’re going a bit higher to see if we can see how bad the storm is—”

“Why did they let it happen? It should have been put off till after the Fest!” 

Jasper turned again, finding an angry woman with dark red hair staring at him. He hesitated, studying her for a moment. He went with his instincts: “The druhy made that decision, and Druhy Veronica takes Lunule’s weather very seriously and very personally. She’s back at the castle keeping an eye on everything, and she is doing everything necessary to get the city through this as safely as possible.” It was more or less true, broadly speaking. The fact that anything she could do about the weather had to be done days in advance didn’t mean she hadn’t done her best, and wasn’t continuing to make the weather as safe as possible for a few days from now, too. “The entire castle has been working to make the Fest every bit as enjoyable as it can be. If you want to know specifics about why, then I’ll get you in to see her just as soon as we can, and you can ask her yourself.”

Part of him was appalled to find the words coming out of his mouth. He had no such power to speak for the castle, or the druhy, or her schedule, or any of it. He was—as he always was—flying by the seat of his pants, making it up as he went. That was what he’d always done when he found himself thrust in charge of things without any preparation, and right now it seemed like that summed up his entire life. That meant he had something around twenty years of experience at it, though, if he gave himself the first few years to figure out how to dress himself and work a toilet. Twenty years of taking charge and getting people to calm down made him an expert, he figured, and no one else was fighting him to take over so he was probably doing something right.

The woman blinked and gaped for a moment, then shook her head quickly. “No, I just want to know that we’ll all make it back to our homes safely. Can you promise us that?”

No, he absolutely could not, because no one could. “If you promise that I’m not responsible for you getting robbed, slipping on the ice at your front door, or drinking too much to remember where you live, then yeah, I’ll do my best.” 

He smiled, and that seemed to be all it took. The woman sat down again quickly, and Karlie shot to her feet beside him. “Now, you merry bunch of Fest-goers, I’d like to start the evening off with a request of my own. With your permission?” She raised her hands, turning to scan everyone’s faces. Jasper took a step back, reaching for his chair as people nodded and began to applaud. 

Karlie whirled and grabbed his arm suddenly, startling him. “Oh no you don’t, young man. You’re about to teach us how to whistle like that!”

Jasper sighed, then began to laugh. Before he could descend into hysterics, Karlie dragged him by his arm to a spot in front of the gallery’s windows and turned him to face her, one of her eyebrows raised in challenge. 

She left him no choice, but there was really no better option. “Okay! Okay. I use my fingers. You can whistle without ’em, but it won’t be as loud. First finger and thumb, curl them like this. Now, see how I’m curling my tongue?” He tipped his head and opened his mouth wide to demonstrate, and several chairs shifted and a mass of whispering erupted in the audience. He looked over. Many small, squirmy bodies were being held by parents, who were whispering in the ears of the squirmers, who were all staring intently at him. 

He pulled his fingers away and grinned. “Yeah, anybody with a bad view, come up closer here,” he called, pointing to the floor beside him. “I’ll show you.”

Children detached from their parents and worked their way to the front, and a few of the adults moved to seats near the front, too. He caught a few glares and belatedly realised that it was possible parents wouldn’t want their children capable of shrill whistles that carried for a mile. “Before I go on,” he said quickly, “every single one of you has to promise that if you ever do this to annoy your parents, you’ll double whatever punishment they give you, because I won’t be there to tell you off myself.” Eyes widened, but he managed to glare fiercely enough that every one of them nodded. He threw in a couple of emphatic gestures and clicked his tongue a few times. “There. You’re all bound by that, now.” 

He directed the lesson at Karlie but kept his voice loud enough to include the room. He showed how his fingers were just there to hold his tongue in position, crouching to make sure the children could see, and then how to push the air through. Karlie got a sound out almost immediately, which made every last child demand he show them individually. He worked his way down the line, and sometimes two or three caught on at once, but in the end they were all producing the sound. None were quite as loud as he was, but enough of them going at once certainly made him wince. 

“You’ll get louder with practice,” he assured them, shouting to be heard. “And remember, do not do this to annoy people! It stops working, then!”

A little girl wrinkled her nose at him. “Did you curse us or something?”

“No, silly!” He batted her cheek lightly with a finger, and waved the others down to quiet again. “This is one of the loudest sounds you can make, yeah? You save it, then. Someday, you may need it. If you go around doing this all the time, people will get used to it. But then no one will ever notice when you need it. You’ll just be one whistle in a crowd of whistles, and won’t stand out. You save this for when you really, really need it. Got that?” He got nods of varying degrees of reluctance, but from all of them. “Okay. You get a few more minutes to practice, but then Karlie’s going to give us a song.”

The cacophony started again, and Karlie turned to him. “I am?”

“Sure you are,” he said, smiling. “Unless you know another treat you can promise that’ll distract ’em. You started this, after all,” he added when she opened her mouth to argue. “I was going to show you anyway, but I didn’t mean to teach a whole roomful of kids.”

“Fair point.”

“And you pushed me in front of them in the first place.”

She snorted and waved this off. “Oh, stop it. If I hadn’t put you up front, you would’ve put yourself there.”

“I would not!”

She looked at him with something like pity, and reached across the table for her ludolin. “Who else is going to answer their questions? The crew are all busy, and you’re the only one who was with them and Micah when it was all happening.”

He wanted to argue, but all he could think was that Micah could have answered, and he didn’t want that. Micah needed to rest, and nobody should bother him, and it was Jasper’s job to make sure they didn’t. But when had it become his job? No, it was just a role he was fulfilling tonight. Otherwise he sounded like he was setting himself up as Micah’s druhy—a position he had no right to aspire to—and that would just be wrong.

When Karlie had finished tuning and reached the point of strumming a few chords to test the sound, parents were gathering their children back to them and quieting things down, and Jasper slipped back through the chairs to a seat nearer the door. Karlie chose one of the old story-telling ballads that had nothing to do with the Fest: The Three Moons, s tragic love story about Vedouci Idara, who had fallen in love with the magical creature Megathy. Most love songs were romantic and slow, meant to be sung in a dark room to just one person. This one, however, had a driving rhythm that still discouraged dancing. It was a story, and meant to be listened to. It was one of Jasper’s favourites and he had always cried when Karlie sang it, which was another reason he’d never tried to talk to her. He didn’t think he’d be able to get words out. 

His tears had started when he felt a soft touch on his shoulder. His head snapped around, and he belatedly realised how wet his face was even as he breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t Micah. Bebina’s worried face, however, had him scrambling to his feet even before she beckoned for him to follow.

“Is he all right?” Jasper blurted the moment they were in the corridor with the door closed behind them. “Did something happen?”

“It’s—she’s…Oh, hurry!”

Jasper shouldered past her and took off running down the corridor only to skid to a stop as he passed the open door to room Þ. The cold struck him and he flung his arm up, but it was immediately followed by a wave of heat.

“Jasper!”

He lowered his arm just enough to see over it. Micah was down on one knee beside the body of the girl with the top hat. She was flopped on the floor at the foot of the bed, one arm stretched to the side. Micah was pouring fire over her, his shoulders shaking with the effort. He glanced up again at Jasper. “Come… hold her up. She’s—I don’t…” Micah shook his head once, biting the words off.

Jasper dove inside and slid to his knees, gathering her small body onto his lap. She was beyond cold—her body was radiating cold, but she was breathing. He shuddered, bending over her, tucking thick folds of his robe between her and his legs. He could feel the surge of heat Micah was pouring out, but somehow the cold persisted. He pulled the wide collar and lapels of the robe up around his head and neck and hunched his shoulders, trying to hide from the swirling storm of mixed temperatures. He caught his breath and peeked up at Micah over the edge of shining satin. 

He looked so ordinary—a young man just out of bed, in dressing gown and pyjamas, his hair mussed from sleep. But the fierce, angry expression on his face was completely at odds with that, his lips rolled in tight, teeth bared as he panted, conjuring fire even as he tipped it onto the girl, trying to press it into her even as he conjured more. “You need help,” Jasper blurted, and turned to the door. He wasn’t sure Bebina hadn’t left, but she was caught against the door frame, holding on and staring. “Can you do handfire?” Jasper shouted.

She startled and turned her face to stare at him instead, then gulped and nodded quickly.

“Get down here and conjure, then!” 

Micah glanced up at him and nodded once, but didn’t stop his efforts until Bebina had a healthy gathering of flame on her palm. “Keep pulling it, keep it going. Now tilt your palm…” Micah grabbed her wrist and positioned it at an angle, and he left off conjuring and began patting at the flames, then pushing at them, pressing them down over her body. “She’s still cold!”

Jasper shifted her closer, pulling her shoulders up to his waist and tilting her head up against his stomach. He ran his hands down along her sides and felt a lump under the trailing ends of the white fur of her jacket. He lifted the edge and saw a familiar leather pouch. “Micah?”

Micah glanced down at it, then up at Jasper. “What? Did she take it back?”

Jasper reached into his robe’s pocket and pulled out the pouch she’d given to them. “No.”

Micah snatched the pouch off the girl’s body and flung it aside. He glanced back at it, then looked aside at Bebina, and paused. He held his hands up above his head for a moment, and then Bebina looked up, too. Micah caught Jasper’s eye. “I think a bubble will work, now. Step back, you two.”

Jasper shook his head, but Micah waved him off. “Go, Jasper. You’ll disrupt it.”

He lowered the girl gently back to the floor and stood up, reaching down to give Bebina a hand as well. Micah moved more slowly now, pushing the last of the flames into her, then doing something that Jasper couldn’t see, pulling something down, then pushing it lower still. He stopped with his hands a foot or so above the girl, and then they finally fell to his sides. He caught his breath for a moment, then pushed himself back onto his feet and stepped back.

“What in the feck was all that?” Jasper asked quietly.

“I heard a shriek,” Bebina said, twisting her hands together.

“That woke me,” Micah said, his eyes still on the girl. “I opened the door, Bebina saw me, when I got here…” He waved a hand at the girl. 

“What happened?” Jasper asked.

Bebina and Micah looked at each other, and Micah sighed. “I’m going to guess that pouch set something off,” he said, pointing at it. “Jasper, would you…?”

Jasper bent and scooped it up. He glanced at Micah before opening the neck. “Yep, more fur.”

“Fur?” Bebina asked.

“I…don’t want to say more just yet,” Micah said. “Did she have anyone with her?”

“Is she all right?” Bebina countered. Jasper and Micah exchanged a look over her head, turning toward her. She saw, and shook her head firmly. “I need to know if my passenger is safe, or if I need to tell the Captain to get us help.”

Micah tipped his head and shrugged. “I don’t know. I think she was on her way to freezing to death when I found her, but her heart is going again and she’s breathing. I’d like her to warm a bit more under the bubble before we move her back onto the bed.”

“All right then,” Bebina said, nodding. “Yes, there were two or three of them who all seemed to be together.”

“Parents?” Jasper asked.

“No, just friends. Other children, younger than her. Maybe she’s their sister.”

Micah shook his head firmly. “No, not siblings. Were they all in this room?”

“Yes, they were sharing. They were in the airpool together, before.”

“And now?” Micah asked quickly.

“I dunno. They scamper about so—”

“I would deeply appreciate it if you could find them for me,” Micah said. Bebina hesitated, then nodded and left without another word. Micah turned to Jasper. “Help me get her onto the bed.”

“Will the bubble move with her?”

“I tied it to her, so yes.”

Jasper shoved the pouch into his pocket and bent to lift her shoulders and Micah gathered her ankles, and they carried her to the bed. Jasper wriggled her onto one arm so he could throw back the blankets on the bed and lower her onto the sheet. Micah tucked her feet in and Jasper pulled the blankets up the rest of the way, leaving only her face visible. “So what do you think happened?” Jasper asked quietly, wiping a strand of hair off her forehead.

“That’s a second piece of fur. She didn’t have it before or she would have said.”

“You think so?” Jasper asked, reaching back to turn down the collar of his robe.

“Well. Actually, yes, I do,” Micah added, his words slower. “I think that if I had been carrying that fur for much longer, I might have—” He stopped, chewing his lip for a moment. Jasper simply waited, folding his arms across his chest. “How long do you think we were out there with it?” Micah asked finally.

“Dunno. Maybe…half an hour?” 

“But that was out in the storm. Once we were inside…I’ve been cold.”

Jasper waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. “Yeah? Okay, we ate first, then you pulled it out. D’you think it gets on your hands and infects you or something?”

Micah was silent for a moment, then rubbed a hand over his face, sighing. “I don’t know, I don’t know… You have both of them with you now, which…might be unsafe.”

“Then again, null, so…” He raised his eyebrows.

“But if they’re establishing a limit, defining an area, having two pieces so close together might be a problem.”

“Well I’m not going to just chuck ’em out the window.”

Micah looked up at him, thinking seriously about it. “No. True. Probably best not to.”

“So what do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Micah repeated, frustrated. “I don’t know enough about this, I have no way to do any research, I can’t test the fur, I’ve got nothing!” He turned away and stared down at the girl on the bed. 

Jasper waited a long moment before trying again. “How would you test the fur? You’ve got me, anyway, and I can tell you it doesn’t feel cold to me.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” He sighed again, letting his head fall back, stretching his neck. “How would I? I suppose we could try burning it… No.”

“No?”

Micah looked back at him. “If there is a live yeti being used in this spell, it’s very likely to burn it. If the cold reaches out, the heat would reach back.”

“Are you sure that’s a bad thing?”

“Of course it is!”

“If the yeti is causing all of this—” Jasper began, trying to explain.

“You don’t know the yeti is the one casting the spell. It almost certainly isn’t. Tearing out handfuls of its own fur? I don’t think so. And why?”

Jasper shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not sure we can afford to care. If killing the yeti ends the storm, isn’t it worth it?”

Micah stared up at him with wide blue eyes, looking younger than Jasper had ever seen him. “You’re talking about killing someone you don’t know, someone you’ve never met, Jasper.”

“Yeah, talking about it, not doing it!” Jasper leaned forward. “How many people are dying from this cold, though? I don’t know. Or getting stranded in the anti-fall spell after they get blown off the walkways? Because yes, I do regret bringing you out in it,” he went on, hearing his voice beginning to shake. “This is all going horribly wrong, and it’s my fault!”

“Stop,” Micah whispered, then cleared his throat, closing his eyes for a moment and shaking his head. “Stop,” he repeated, his voice firm, the fear gone from his eyes as they opened. “This is not your fault. You didn’t cast this spell, you didn’t even know it was a spell. We still don’t know for certain. But if it is a spell, then it’s very likely we wouldn’t have found that out without leaving the castle—if Vronny had known, she would have done something to stop it, and I would have known about it. If it isn’t a spell, Vronny will be doing her best to counter it, and we would be no more help there anyway. None of this is your fault.”

Jasper looked away, not believing that for a second. No matter the cause, it had been his idea to bring Micah out. It had been a whim, a joke, an impulse with no thought behind it, and no matter what happened to him or Micah in their lives, he should never be so cavalier about Micah’s safety, not ever again. He absolutely trusted Micah to take care of him no matter the situation, but this was proof that Micah could not trust him. He had to do better. He had to. “So tell me again why killing the yeti is wrong.”

“We might have to, I suppose, but we know nothing like enough to make that decision now.”

Jasper bit his lip, seeing an alternate possibility that he did not want to voice, but if he wanted to be worthy of Micah’s trust, then he had to be honest, too. Even if it was ugly. “You know…there is a possibility that we could end all of this right now. We might look back in a week and realise this is where it all went horribly wrong, wronger than it is now. I don’t like it, and I know you won’t either, but… what if that is exactly what is the right thing to do? Be decisive now, while we can, and just kill it. Just reach out, right now, and kill the thing, end all of this, get the lifeboats out there and start cleaning up.”

Micah sighed and hung his head. Jasper fell silent, teeth tight on his lower lip as he waited. “Yes, I have been thinking that, too. But no, I won’t. I would rather regret being too merciful than regret cruelty.”

There was a scuffle of footsteps and whispers outside the door, then Bebina’s voice called, “No!” and three children burst  into the room and ran up to the bed. Micah stepped aside quickly. The oldest, a girl with long, straight black hair down to her hips, leaned on the bed and reached for the top-hat girl’s face. She gasped and pulled her hand back sharply. “Ow! What’re you trying to do, cook her?” She rounded on Micah.

Jasper grabbed the backs of the other children’s shirts and held on as they squirmed. “Whoa, whoa, hold on, stop stop stop!” They leaned forward and he rocked off balance with the effort to stay on his feet.

“She needs warming up!” Micah said, leaning down and putting his face directly in front of the new girl, keeping his hands back. “She was nearly frozen!”

“Is she okay?” This came from the little boy Jasper held on his right.

“She’s alive, and bubbled, and as safe as I can make her,” Micah said, straightening and looking down at the boy. He glanced up at Jasper. “Let them go. What are they going to do, kick me?”

The girl snarled and snapped a hand forward. Micah swung his arm up, and Jasper guessed there were spells going on. He ignored Micah’s order and kept the younger two out of the way. The girl did something complicated with her fingers, and green flames shot at Micah from the palm of her hand. He swiped his hand back down. The flames bounced off the air in front of him, and he took a step back. “Jasper, let go.”

“Fine.” He didn’t want to, but if Micah was insisting, he could probably handle it. 

The two younger ones dove for Micah’s legs and tumbled to a stop a foot away from his feet.

“Come on, now, stop!” Bebina shouted from the doorway, and Jasper looked up at her, surprised. “I’ll toss you off the ship if you don’t stop it! Micah’s helped her!”

Three angry little faces turned to her and Jasper stepped out of the way as they began shouting at her. 

“Shouldn’ta let ’im in here!”

“…just old and mean now!”

“She trusted you and you let them in!”

“Don’t care what you done, she’s gonna die and it’s your fault!”

Shut up!” Jasper bellowed, scaring them all. Even Micah startled beside him. He strode forward and stared the black-haired girl in the eye. “She asked us for help because Tufty told her to. The Eel? Know her?” He could tell they did from the shuffling and unsubtle looks between them. “She told us about the fur the Eel gave us, said she found it behind a board that was your front door. And that the Eel told her she could trust us.”

“Tufty wouldn’t say that,” the little boy said, glowering as fiercely as he could with a pout that wasn’t far above Jasper’s knees.

“Ellie taught me how to fly,” Micah said suddenly, moving a few steps back to sit on the foot of the bed. “Davvyd used to tell me stories. And I’ve just poured a great deal of handfire into your friend here. The bubble is to keep the heat in. Now. What I’d like to know is how the second pouch of fur got here.”

There was a long moment of silence, and no one would even look at Jasper or Micah, not even Bebina. “A friend brought it,” the girl finally muttered, folding her arms across her chest. 

“Did you realise it brought cold with it?” Micah asked.

“Well it was cold,” she said.

Micah nodded, and looked up at Jasper. “And you were cold as well, when you came in. Did you notice that?”

Jasper frowned, then remembered. “Yeah. Yeah, I was. She was freezing,” he added, pointing at the girl on the bed. “How…oh.” He couldn’t ask Micah how he had felt the cold, not in front of so many people. 

“So the fur made her cold?” the boy asked.

“I think so, yes. Did any of you touch it? Touch the fur directly?” 

They all shook their heads. 

“Interesting. You say a friend brought it… when?”

“Just a little while ago,” the boy said. The black-haired girl slapped his shoulder. “Ow!” he whispered, looking up at her and getting glared at.

“Someone just came here? Someone new came onto the ship?” Micah asked, latching onto the information and leaning forward. “How?”

The girl glared at her two younger companions, then sighed and rolled her eyes. “Fine! Yeah, somebody flew here. On a boat.”

Jasper looked over at the doorway, but Bebina was gone. He took a step to follow her just as Micah said, “That was some dangerous flying. I’m not sure she would have wanted you to risk that.”

“She can argue about it when she wakes up, then,” the black-haired girl said, shrugging.

“And of course you nearly killed her,” Micah went on. Jasper stopped to stare at him.

“Did not. I didn’t do it,” the girl said.

“You flew here, got onto the ship, just to bring her more fur?” Jasper asked, going to stand by Micah near the foot of the bed again.

There was just enough hesitation to answer the question, and Micah noticed it, too. “What else? What else did you bring?”

“Nothing for you!”

“What did you bring?” Micah snapped.

“Show him!” the third child blurted, and started crying.

Jasper waded into the bickering knot and knelt down by the little girl with fuzzy black curls, hiding her face behind her fists and shaking with unsteady sobs as the other two berated her. He put his arms around her and pressed her head against his shoulder for a moment, then stood with her in his arms, lifting her out of range. He looked down at Micah. Micah had a better chance to pry the information out of them than he did, and he wasn’t going to let go of his new charge until things settled down. Micah simply nodded at him and tipped his head toward the window side of the bed.

“Shh, shh, you’re okay,” Jasper whispered, sitting down on the far side of the bed and setting the girl on her feet again, keeping his arms around her. “I’ve got you. You’re safe.” 

The sobbing continued for another minute while Micah took on the remaining two, who were not holding back any longer, from the sound of it. Jasper ignored it and kept stroking the tiny back, smoothing the curls, cradling her, sheltering her. When the hiccups started, Jasper laughed and tipped the little head back to look into her eyes. “Hey, there. Want something to drink?” Her entire face was wet, with tears or snot or dribble, but she nodded. Jasper smiled and wiped his thumb across one plump little cheek. “Come on. They can keep arguing without us.” He lifted her up again and left the room without even glancing at Micah. He suspected Micah had kept track of everything Jasper had said, and Jasper had concentrated on ignoring Micah’s half of things, and that felt exactly right. He turned toward their room, but the door was shut—locked, he remembered. Rather than worry about it, he simply turned and headed back toward the gallery with his sniffling little charge.

Karlie was still singing, holding her audience rapt with a song about adventures deep in the floating seas. Jasper carried the girl over to the tables of food and set her down, going down on one knee and keeping an arm around her as he filled a glass with cold water. “Here.”

She drank, her sniffing echoing inside the glass as she gulped. He took it from her when she was done and set it on the floor beside them, replacing it with a napkin for her to wipe her face. While she mopped herself up, Jasper ran his eye around the room. Only a couple of people were glancing at them—a mother and a father, in fact, with a young child on each lap and giving him the commiserative look of parents who’d dealt with more than one drippy face that day themselves. He couldn’t help smiling back, then turned his attention back to the girl.

“Let’s just sit here a minute, all right?” he murmured, settling back on the floor, stretching one leg beside her as she plopped down in front of him. “There you go. Feeling better?” She nodded. “I’m Jasper, by the way. What can I call you?” She shook her head firmly, and he shrugged. “Fine. I’m just going to call you… Yoona. How’s that? Yoona. There. Nobody’s going to worry about who you are, all right?” He stroked her back a few more times. “Okay. Yoona. You like your friends? Back in the room, you like them?” She nodded. “Any chance you’ll tell me any more about your lot?” She gave him a pitying, exasperated look and shook her head, all signs of her upset gone. “That’s going to make it harder to help you, you know.”

“That’s fine,” she said. “We didn’t come to you, and don’t need no help.”

He blinked, recoiling slightly from the complete lack of concern. “Right. Wanna tell me why you were crying a minute ago?”

She made a face, her brow pulling down and her mouth crumpling to one side. “I don’t like it when they fight.”

“Oh.” He hadn’t expected a real answer, but now that he had one he wasn’t sure he could do anything with the little information it gave him. “They do that often?”

She shrugged, looking away again. He watched her twisting the buttons on the front of her jacket, and found himself wondering if she had anything warmer to wear. He could count four layers, and at least two of them went from neck to knees: a pale cotton shift with a light blue knitted dress or long sweater over it, and a short but sturdy tan jacket on top of that. She was wearing wool tights as well as a pair of short pants that matched the serge jacket, and chunky socks that sagged around her ankles seemed mostly there to make her boots fit better. Depending how she’d got onto the homeship, it was possible that she was wearing everything she’d come in. It might be warm enough for a short distance, and none of it looked damp.

“You ready to head back?” he asked finally. The odds of her staying relaxed alone with him for long weren’t good, and then he certainly wouldn’t learn anything else.

She shrugged again, then nodded. Her movements had the slight clumsiness of early childhood, but there was a certainty to her that he couldn’t put his finger on. It was oddly familiar, calling to mind some of the children he’d brought to live with the Earl. There would be a look in their eyes, a cast to their faces, an unconscious way of speaking, maybe, that made he forget for a moment that they were younger than he was. It faded after a while, for some of them. Others never lost the ability to reduce him to the bumbling, ignorant outsider who never quite seemed to understand them.

He let her lead him back to room Thorn, realising as they neared that while the door was open, he could hear no voices. When he looked in, Yoona was standing in front of Micah, who hadn’t moved from the foot of the bed. He’d turned so he was facing the girl with the top hat, his right leg crossed over his left, right elbow resting on his thigh. He held a small pink hat in his hand and was nodding. Then he looked up at Jasper, and Yoona turned and ran past him, back out the door and down the hall.

“Micah?” He watched her disappear around a corner, only then able to tear his gaze away and look back at Micah, who’d said nothing. “What’s that?”

“Recognise it?” Micah took a breath and looked up at him, then slid the hat over his spread fingers, holding it up. “Frieda’s. They found it in a pub where they were supposed to meet her.”

“Yeah?” Jasper waited for the explanation, then realised he didn’t really want it. “Oh, no.”

“Mm.” Micah sighed, and pushed himself to his feet. “Is it personal, now? It feels like it is.”

Jasper took the hat and studied it. It was a simple thing—a band a couple of inches wide, straight up to a flat top with a tiny stub of a tail in the center. It creased in the centre of the front and back, the sides folding in so it lay flat across his hand. There was no dirt on it, no scuffs or tears marks, no blood. He slid it into the pocket of the black robe, with the two pouches of yeti fur. “Yeah, that’s the problem. Everything always is, to someone.”

“It’s a spell. It’s not natural,” Micah announced. Jasper looked over at him, seeing the widened blue eyes, the paleness of his face. He looked like the words had surprised him as though he’d come to that conclusion as he said it. “We’re going to have to find who is doing this and stop them.”

“If that’s what you have to do, we’ll do it. We’ll get it done.”

He had no idea how, and he wasn’t sure he had any right to include himself by saying “we” when no one was less qualified to help thwart magic than he was. But then again, no one outside of the castle was anywhere near as protective of Micah as he was, and no one inside the castle could be reached for help. 

Micah nodded once, turning to stare down at the girl on the bed. “They’re waiting for us below.”

Jasper recoiled slightly, tipping his head.“Who is? Below where?”

Micah glanced at him, then slipped past him toward the door. “Come on.”

Clearly Micah had been on this ship before: he knew his way around any airship better than Jasper ever would, having studied the mechanics, construction, and magics involved, but it was still disconcerting to follow him down the corridor, through a door, and into a maze of catwalks and ladders to the lower belly of the ship, and a new hatch at the bottom that wasn’t sealed properly, and the wind from the storm whistled through the gaps. The three children were crouched next to it, one pink glowsphere on the bare boards beside them. Micah stepped carefully over the ship’s ribs, and Jasper batted aside the trailing skirt of his robe, then scooped it over his arm to keep it from catching on the boards as he followed. 

“How did you attach?” Micah called ahead to the children as he and Jasper worked their way through to them.

“Ropes,” the black-haired girl said, swiping her hair back out of her face. “Hurry up. It’s cold.”

Micah only nodded, keeping an eye on his route. There were both metal and wooden pipes snaking along the bottom of the ship, and most of the metal ones were frosted over. They closer they came to the hatch, the denser the tangle of pipes and ducts became. When they finally reached the children, it was difficult to find somewhere to stand without standing on a pipe, and the white, crunchy frost covering everything had given way to glossy, invisible ice. Jasper had to crouch down and use his hands to steady himself, stumbling next to the children, barely stopping himself from falling on his face. 

“What kind of boat?” Micah asked bluntly, pulling his robe tighter around himself and folding his arms across his chest, staring down at the trio.

“A Segman Shikara,” the black-haired girl said, then went on quickly, “but you can’t just take our boat! It’s all we’ve got!”

Micah snorted, his lips lifting in a hint of a smile. “Of course it isn’t. Even if it were, you’d replace it the minute the storm is over. But I’ve no intention of taking it.” He paused, raising an eyebrow. “Borrowing it, though, yes.”

“You can’t!”

“I can and I will,” Micah said firmly, glaring again now. “Your friend back there went to a great deal of trouble to get that first scrap of fur to me. She did it for a reason. And this storm,” he went on, nodding vaguely toward the side of the ship, “this is not something that will go away on its own. Unless you have a clever plan to somehow stop it, you’re going to have to trust me.” The stubborn pouts showed no sign of giving in. “You’ll be three of the very few people that will at least know someone is trying to put an end to all this. Everyone else in the city…they’re just suffering through it, with no idea if it will end in an hour or a week. And don’t tell me you can’t find a way to turn that to your advantage somehow.”

The girl looked away. “Not without our boat, we can’t.”

Micah thought for a moment, his lips pressing together in an angry line, but then he softened in the space of a blink. “You will get it back. I’ll even look it over before I return it, as I’m sure there are improvements I can offer—”

The oldest girl hid her face but the boy openly laughed, pointing at Micah. “You? You couldn’t burn a flip out of a grease pit!”

Jasper raised an eyebrow and glanced at Micah, who’d ducked his head to hide his own smile at the sniggering. He didn’t know what the boy’d meant, but he remembered going for a ride with Micah in his own boat, and the race Micah had lost, the one he’d won, and the one that had come after, which had been far more terrifying. He remembered the bit of flying they’d done earlier that night—well, the previous night, now—and how Micah had handled that little boat, and the work they’d done to get the ship they were in free from the dock and out into the open where it could manoeuvre again. 

“Yes, well. If nothing else, I can promise you a charm that will keep it from ever being stolen. If you’re into racing, I can even show you a way to tweak the charm so that if you lose the race, the winner won’t be able to start the engine and will have to return it.”

“That’s a fairy story,” the girl snapped, sneering at him. “You seize the engine, they just gotta smack it with a red-steel sledge—”

“No, red steel shatters quite nicely when it hits top-grade numium.”

Jasper was as startled as the children, his breath catching and setting him coughing. Micah barely glanced at him before raising his hand to quiet the new babbling argument coming  at him. “Fine. I’ll just clean your shunts and get you some ring-spinning turnovers, then. Whatever you like.”

“They don’t make those for shikaras,” the boy said, but his eyes were narrowed in suspicion, and he didn’t sound nearly as convinced of Micah’s ignorance.

“They may not, but I can. I’ve got a couple left from when I upgraded my runabout. If your boat can handle 280s, that is.”

Jasper snorted, finally turning away, slipping on the ice, and falling back onto a pipe. Micah whirled to grab his arm, hissing as Jasper’s hip banged a duct hard enough to crack the ice on it. Micah winced and Jasper groaned, and the trio of children scrambled aside, then crept back as Micah lowered him gently onto the floor. “Are you all right?”

Jasper nodded, rubbing his hip. “Sorry. Yeah, I’m fine. Can we get out of here?”

Micah glanced around, saw the children clustered behind him and peering over his shoulder, and said, “Do we have a deal?”

“Is he okay?”

Jasper’s mouth dropped open, ready for a nasty retort, but couldn’t come up with one. “Just tell him yes!” he snapped.

“Fine! But you’re gonna owe us, and we do know where you live. And we got friends. Don’t you forget that.”

“Yes, and if you handle this well, I might be one of them,” Micah said. He pursed his lips, then flicked handfire at the floor around them. The flame splashed on the pipe next to Jasper’s leg and then spread throughout the room as though water were its fuel. Jasper jumped, flinching instinctively. He’d seen the fuzzy orange flames constantly over the last day but it was still disconcerting, somehow, especially knowing he was the cause.

“Just help me up,” Jasper said, bracing a hand behind himself and stopping. He looked back, and the pipe was dry. He looked around, and the fires were dying, leaving a faint mist hovering over the bottom of the ship. “What the…?”

“Come on, before it refreezes.” Micah adjusted his hold on Jasper’s hand and leaned back, pulling him up. 

Jasper looked around, seeing no gleam from ice. The wood was wet in places, but not enough to be slippery. He pulled the black robe tighter around him, turning the collar and lapels up again and tightening his belt. He could feel the breeze from the gaps catching the robe, chilling the glossy silk and pressing it against his legs, which were only protected by the thin cotton pyjamas. He glanced down at Micah’s soft, plush robe and envied him for a moment before getting a grip—Micah deserved the warmer robe. He deserved some comfort in exchange for all the work he was doing.

“I’ll need to check in with the captain and we’ll need to get dressed,” Micah said loudly, leading Jasper back out of the ship’s belly. “No need to wait here for us. Go keep an eye on your friend, and I’ll let you know before we leave.”

Jasper clung to Micah’s shoulder for balance, not trusting his footing until they were back out of the hold and in the lighted public areas once again. “I’m not going back there without proper boots,” he sighed, pausing and leaning against the wall to catch his breath.

Micah leaned a shoulder against the wall beside him. “All right?”

“I will be.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Sorry about that.”

“No reason to be,” Micah said, and Jasper opened his eyes. Micah shrugged. “It was treacherous, and you didn’t have any charms to help you.”

“And you did,” Jasper realised. “Spikes on your slippers?”

Micah simply smiled. “Something like that.”

“You know they’re just going to jump in their boat and take off,” Jasper said slowly.

“Mmm…actually, I’m not sure. That girl on the bed—she’s important to them. I think once they realise I’ve been trying to help her, they’ll make the right choice.”

“Who is she?” Jasper asked, finally having an excuse. “It’s like you already know them somehow.”

“Not precisely. I think she’s here as a representative of one of the city’s biggest gangs, called the Forty Helephants. I thought they were long gone, maybe even just a legend. No one’s ever really stopped them, though, so I suppose there’s no reason they’d be gone. And a lot of the best flyers in the city are children. If you had to get around in this storm and you didn’t have a big Homeship, an alliance with some of those child pilots would be helpful.”

“I thought they knew you, though.”

“Some do,” Micah agreed. “But not all. And I suppose if you’re in the Forty, you wouldn’t want to use pilots who might have loyalties to someone like me.”

“Still. I mean… I saw you fly with them, remember. You seemed pretty well-known.”

“Some of them know my runabout, more like. I’m not sure most would even recognise me without it. I don’t know. Either way, someone wanted to get me involved in this yeti business, for whatever reason, and they’ve succeeded. Now that I’ve seen the fur, I can’t exactly turn my back.”

Jasper nodded and pushed himself back onto his feet. “Why’d they send a kid, though? In a storm like this? They need a solid slap to the head for that.”

Micah tipped his head away, not meeting Jasper’s eyes. “Not necessarily. Who are we least likely to say no to, after all? Who will we definitely give a hearing to? A child looks most harmless. It’s a valid strategy, at least.”

Jasper grit his teeth, trying not to think about what might have been done to ensure the child’s cooperation. “But wait—if she was just a courier, she wouldn’t have pushed so hard. That was a negotiation, not a message delivery.”

“She may have been adopted into the gang precisely because of her usefulness at times like this.” Micah shrugged, slowing as they reached the door to their room. “In any case, I’m committed, now.”

Jasper followed him in, and broke out into a grin at the sight of their clothes folded neatly on the window seat. “Ahh, finally!”

Micah hung back as Jasper hurried over and gathered up his armload. Turning toward the lav to go change, he paused. Micah had sat down at the table and was pulling over a plate full of shredded meat, a thin pancake smeared with sauce waiting on a plate in front of him. Jasper’s mouth watered so quickly that it was almost painful, and his stomach cast a very vocal vote in agreement. He dropped his clothes back on the bed with a little groan, making Micah glance up at him as he trudged over to the other chair. “I keep forgetting I’ve got an actual body to feed,” Jasper muttered, peeling another pancake off the stack and beginning his own roll-up.

Micah didn’t even glance up, snatching bits of green from a third plate and long, red threads of onion from a fourth. “Exactly. I apologise in advance—table manners are quite beyond me at the moment.”

“No, go on then,” Jasper said firmly, watching Micah’s fingers tuck and fold and roll the pancake into a fat bundle that barely fit in his mouth. “I’ll be just as bad. At least we won’t be dribbling on our clean clothes.”

Micah glanced up, already chewing his first mouthful, pausing to fit three more bites into his mouth, making his cheeks bulge. Jasper grinned at the trail of sauce running down Micah’s chin and dripping onto his plate. “Sweet thundering Meg, you’re actually human.”

Micah gulped, freeing his tongue with obvious reluctance. “Occasionally. I’d forgotten how good Abbie’s duck is.”

“Had it before?” Jasper managed to cram half of his own roll-up into his mouth, and his eyes slid closed as he tasted what Micah had meant. “Oh, Meg, that’s good!”

“A few times. Not the first time I was here, luckily.”

“Why?”

Micah frowned at him briefly, but shook his head. “No, Dusya was talking about it earlier. I forgot you weren’t with me. The first time I was here, I was with Casper, and he made me sleep in a hammock, where I threw up rather spectacularly.”

Jasper choked and coughed for a moment, waving off Micah’s alarm. It took a moment and half a glass of water, but when he could speak again, he said, “Sorry. I forgot you said something when we came on board—about the hammock.”

“I did? Oh, yes, I did.” 

Jasper watched him chew slowly for a moment, then shrug and cram the last of his roll-up into his mouth. “What made you so unwell? You can’t pretend you get airsick, not with all the flying you do.”

Micah chewed heroically for a moment, then held up a finger and poured his own glass of water, clearing his mouth before trying to speak. “It was the way the hammock moved when I was trying to sleep. I was still very young,” he admitted, pulling over another plate of some kind of rich, thick stew. “I may never have been on an airship before, not of this size. I’d had a large meal, my first glass of wine with no water in it, and I…” He trailed off, frowning at the stew, silently sorting through it with his fork for a moment. 

Jasper leaned forward to look at the stew, then realised Micah’s attention wasn’t really focused on the food. He sat back slowly and kept eating, waiting for Micah to pull himself together.

“It was my first night away from the castle since I’d arrived, and my first night alone with Casper,” he finally said. “I didn’t want… I was… It was all new.”

Jasper froze, then realised what was happening. “Oh. Well, Casper’s good at being a bastard,” he said, his voice loud enough to startle Micah into looking up. “I don’t suppose you got any in his shoes, did you?”

Micah’s mouth opened silently a couple of times before he looked down and cleared his throat. “No. No, I didn’t.”

Jasper waited until Micah put a forkful of stew in his mouth. “I’ve seen a lot of first nights,” he said, keeping his voice steady. “I’ve had a few, myself. I guess we can’t avoid them, but I make a point of making them easier when I can.”

Micah nodded slowly, glancing up a few times before realising Jasper wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Thank you. That’s… that’s a good thing to do.”

“Yup.” 

They ate in silence for a moment, then Jasper couldn’t take the strain anymore, and set his fork down. “Right. Well, you need more food than I do, so I’m gonna go get dressed. Back in a mo.”

Chapter Text

“You don’t understand, Śe Micah. Circling is not the problem. Where we circle is up to you. I just need a point to lock us onto, and you’ll have to supply that.”

Micah bit his lip, staring out into… nothing, really. There was nothing to see. Everything beyond the bridge’s viewing window was blank whiteness. It answered part of one question: yes, the storm extended to the top of the city, at least. 

“You got distracted by hope, didn’t you?”

Micah looked up at Captain Dusya, his eyes wide. “I beg your pardon?”

“You thought we’d get up here and be able to look down on it and see something helpful, and now that we can’t, you’re caught off guard. Well, this is what we have. Not what you wanted, but now you have it. Move on.”

“Yes, thank you,” Micah snapped, turning back to the window. “I didn’t ask for any of this.”

“Comes with being heir, I’d’ve thought.”

“I didn’t ask for that, either.”

He pressed his palms against the glass, the cold almost painfully sharp against his skin but, as had been pointed out to him, he had no choice. Whispering a few charms, all he could find was more snow, more cold, disturbance, force, wind, pressure. He peeled one hand away and wound his fingers into a spell, pushing harder against the glass with the other, detaching himself from the cold and reaching out, driving into the whiteness until he reached something solid and unmoving. He turned slowly to face the engineer with the long braids. “There. Feel it?”

She moved: something small, but the movement was larger than he wanted—shaking her head, not taking his reading. “Feel what?”

He returned to the spell, recasting, his sense thick and slow, tentative, too far away. “Pole, long,” he said, his mouth distracted as he tried to think one thing and say another. The spell needed his thoughts; he couldn’t release them. This was awkward, all but impossible. “Ahead. Down. Right. Distance. Mid.”

Someone else spoke, not what he wanted to hear. He lowered his head, bumped it against the glass, pressed it there. How was this meant to work? How could he both find and feel, but still communicate? One or the other was possible. The finding was difficult, but he had to. Without that, everything else was pointless.

He drove harder at the spell, forgetting where he was, why he was. He had to reach, to push. He was limited, he was physical, and he needed badly to not be. How could he sense a thing that was beyond him in every way? Energy had ripples, magic had a flare in nothingness, a way of reaching out intangibly. But he needed this intangibility to find something that existed in an entirely different way, a different form. It hurt. He had to pull at himself, pull at everything around him and shape it, reach it, push it. He knew so many ways to manipulate physical things, combine them, and all of them might use something intangible but they were rooted from the first in physicality. Now he needed the intangible, the non-physical, to gather itself and become physical, and it was backwards. It turned his thoughts inside out.

Something changed, something eased, and he didn’t know what. He pressed against his mind, trying to embed something, anything, hoping it lasted when he released the energy. He closed his fist, lowered his hand, breathed, and opened his eyes. Nothing seemed right: his mind was lost still in a different plane, a different existence that was between, among, without, within… other. But things were too…present. Wrongness welled in him and he heaved with it, his body twisting thickly. He needed to be smaller, and that was doing something to something he couldn’t control, and it was all just too much.

He gave up as much as he could, trying to find something small, something manageable, something possible. He repeated it, repeated, repeated. Again. Again and again. Lightness returned, slowly, and that was tolerable. It became simpler, and he tried something else. It hurt, it stung, but he clung to the attempt, and slowly that, too resolved. Words returned. Breathing: breathing came first, then light. Sight. That was sight, seeing. Colors shapes things. 

And then he was back. He moved, lifting his head, blinking, seeing Jasper, getting reassurance from the dark eyes that were still full of light. He turned his head, and saw someone else: Dusya, waiting for information. “There is a point,” he said, surprised by his own voice. “It is…that direction.” He pointed, his finger thudding against the glass. He moved his arm, bending his elbow, getting his finger in line with the point this time. “It feels…black away. No, green, very dark. And it’s oblique.” Dusya looked at him, and that was wrong. He shook his head. “Do.”

“What? You… what do you mean?” The voice was comfort and home, reassurance and concern. It sounded like dark honey with cream, the sugar of it hiding strength and a secret tartness that made Micah want to chew.

He took a breath, filling his lungs, stepping back to what had been working a moment ago. He could breathe, and he could see without pain. What he saw was brown eyes in a light face. Jasper. “That direction. It’s mid-far away. It’s… it’s…” Distance. How did they measure distance? It was a thing, an absolute, it existed, he knew it, but how did he communicate it? He tried again, forcing his thoughts to embrace words, slowing his mouth, making everything deliberate. “It is sixty-three fathoms… it is starboard twenty-six degrees, minus sixty degrees from level, and …thickness. How do we thickness?” This was a feeling, now; an emotion. Confusion, worry, pressure, necessity combined with impossibility and a bit of hope. Complex. How did he function like this? 

Brown eyes moving, then lips, words, aimed at him. Sound that resolved into meaning. “Feet? Can you understand feet? So big?” Movement, now, again aimed at him. He looked at it; two hands not his own giving him a shape. “Meg, how can he count fathoms and degrees, but not… Micah? Micah, can you understand feet?”

He knew that shape, yes. It was called feet. Oh, yes. That helped. Now things were possible. “Forty feet. Height, forty. Wideness, twenty-six. Feet. Forty feet, twenty-six feet. Round. Circle. Almost. Sort of. Yes?”

A positive sign, and a happy one, and success. He felt success. This was good. He was done. He had done a thing, and now another thing was done. Progress.

Now movement, and physical comfort, and a different place. 

“…Don’t know what he did, but he’s not there, he’s not here. I can’t understand…”

“Jasper.”

The words stopped, and he moved his head, then his arms, and his body, and his legs, and closed his eyes. He breathed again for a moment, and made some noises, rediscovered his tongue and nose, found his skin. He opened his eyes again. “Yes. Right. I’m fine. I was just… disconnected.”

Jasper was worried. No, it was more than that. Jasper was frightened. His eyes were wide, and this hadn’t been important a moment ago but now it meant everything. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Micah said quickly, suddenly babbling. “I was gone. I had to reach out in a way that… I had to use magic, and it meant turning myself off. Parts of me, at least. I had to locate something we couldn’t reach, and the spell I used… I’ve only read about it. It’s not a thing I’ve ever done or seen done. I didn’t know what it would be like but we needed to find a thing I couldn’t reach, so I had to… go to it in a different way. Then I had to try to balance it and… give the information, and it was difficult—”

“Okay, okay, breathe, Micah. I get it. Sort of. Just calm down. Breathe, okay?”

He was panting. Jasper was right. Jasper was always right. That was a new thought, a new sensation, a new feeling. He held it in his mind, stroking it, exploring it. But he had to pull himself away from that; that was the other place, the one he’d just left and come back from. Being there meant not being here, and he had to be here.

“I’m sorry. Yes. I’m fine. I will be, anyway.”

Jasper sat back, and Micah realised they were in a large room with other people around him. Everyone was looking at him. This wasn’t new. They’d been there for some time. He felt panic rising and stuffed it back down, cutting it dead, not giving himself to it. Something warm helped. He looked down, and Jasper was holding his hand. Jasper saw his look, and began to pull his hands away. Micah closed his fingers, stopping this. “No, I need this,” he said. “Feeling helps ground me.”

“I don’t understand,” Jasper said quietly.

He remembered how to see other people’s feelings, and he felt Jasper’s unease, an awareness of the combined attention on them and a sense that what they were doing should be private and not observed by so many. “Feeling someone else’s contact is helping to draw my attention back to my body, to an awareness of what is actually happening in a physical sense. I had to reach into… a different awareness. I had to sense things a different way. And then I had the problem of trying to convey that…sense. It took a while to figure out how to do that.”

Jasper nodded slowly, then shook himself and looked up at the faces around them. “Okay, thanks for the concern but he’s fine, so could everyone take a giant step back, please!”

Micah watched Jasper’s face, seeing him relax, grin, flick his fingers at the crowd and nod a few times. It was like watching magic, it really was. People smiled, sighed, backed and turned away, the ring of faces dispersing. Jasper said a few things to a few people, flashed his easy smile, leaned back in his chair and gradually they became alone. Things weren’t quite right again, but Micah felt he could get there, at least. “Um, thanks. Thank you,” he said, clearing his throat and shaking his head. “Crowded.”

“’S fine,” Jasper said quietly, and released Micah’s hand deliberately. “How long till you’re better?”

“I’m… it’s good. I can almost. I mean, my thoughts are still a bit scattered, but the words are the last things coming back. I think.”

“Close enough. Are you tired?”

“No. Tired isn’t part of it. Wasn’t. Isn’t. It didn’t deplete resources. It’s just a matter of…translation.”

“Good. No damage to you, then?”

“No. I’m sorry I frightened everyone.”

“Yeah, I need to work out some kind of warning system with you,” Jasper said, his voice serious but his eyes full of light. “I’m still sort of in charge of you until we get back.”

“I promise not to get you in trouble,” Micah said, his face solemn, hoping he remembered how to joke. It seemed to work, going by the look Jasper gave him. “Now. How much did I get said? Conveyed?” He waved his hand restlessly, aware things weren’t coming out right, still.

“You’re good. She threw down some kind of invisible anchor, I think, and the ship’s been circling it.”

“Good. The next step…I won’t try that spell again just yet, if you don’t mind. We need to borrow that little boat,” he said. “I couldn’t focus so well that I could say if there was anything there—any yeti fur, I mean. I need to check.”

“I figured that,” Jasper admitted. “Will we be coming back to the ship after?”

“Yes.”

Jasper sagged in relief, then grinned. “Not ready to spend the rest of my day outside being beat up and frozen, I’ll admit.”

“I can’t promise,” Micah added. “It really depends what we find…”

 

Twenty minutes later they were in the belly of the ship, Micah wrapped in his cloak and Jasper in his black coat and red scarf. The three children were no more impressed than they’d been when he’d faced them in borrowed pyjamas.

“We need something to hang onto or you’ll just take our boat and disappear,” said the girl who’d become the trio’s spokesperson.

“We will be coming back,” Jasper insisted, his fingers splayed as he held his palms out toward the girl. “We have to. This is just a quick check for fur!”

“Then you won’t have time to miss it.”

“It’s fine, Jasper,” Micah murmured.

“I am not letting them go through your notebook,” Jasper growled, glaring at him. “You’ve got no idea what they could get up to with it while we’re out there!”

“Well they won’t be able to leave the ship, so not a lot,” Micah pointed out, folding his arms across his chest. “And in any case, it’s my notebook.”

“You make some very bad decisions, sometimes,” Jasper muttered, shaking his head again and looking away

“So do you. But this one isn’t a decision as we have no choice.”

“Here, take my purse instead,” Jasper said suddenly, turning to the girl, pulling his coat up with one hand and reaching under it for the leather pouch at his waist.

“No,” Micah said quickly, slapping his notebook into the girl’s hand. “Not your risk to take, Jasper.”

Jasper snarled wordlessly, glowering at Micah in silence as Micah reached down to the hatch in the floor. “Fine. We’re not taking any others, though. Goggles on, mittens, everything.”

Micah pressed his lips together, resisting the urge to shake his head. He let go of the hatch and straightened, knowing Jasper was right. Trying to maintain a bubble, or handfire, or any other protection would be wasting energy he would need to search for the fur. He shouldn’t risk it, and Jasper clearly wouldn’t let him. He pulled the graceless mittens free of his belt and tugged them on.

Jasper watched him, tucking the ends of his coat sleeves inside the cuffs of his own mittens, then lifting into place the goggles that hung around his neck. “Here, let me help,” he said, dropping his own scarf as Micah struggled to get his tied around his hood with his mittens on.

“I will do my best, but the mittens might not stay on.”

“You need to keep your fingers, right? So you’re keeping the mittens.”

“Yes, Father.”

Jasper glared at him, and for a second, Micah worried that he’d misjudged the mood. “I’m not your dad,” Jasper said firmly, “but I’m not gonna pick up a bunch of frozen fingers when they fall off your hands.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Well at least if they freeze inside the mittens, the mittens will catch them when they fall off.”

The children scampered back to the door giggling, leaping over the ship’s ribs as Micah heaved the makeshift hatch open. The force of the wind caught Jasper’s coat and he rocked backwards for a moment, then bent to grab at the red scarf before it blew away. He pulled up his hood, wound the scarf around his head and neck a few times, and tied a quick knot. 

Micah tried to move past him and Jasper stepped into his way. “Nope, me first.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

Micah leaned to try to see Jasper’s expression, but between the hood, scarf, and goggles, there wasn’t much visible. Until, that is, Jasper batted his scarf down with mittened fingers and stuck his tongue out. He was being so protective. It should have felt smothering. The weight of that assumed dependence should have felt stifling, but the rush of blood in Micah’s ears sang a different tune. He was emboldened, empowered, liberated, freed. From what, he didn’t know. He couldn’t think of a time he’d felt like anything controlled by another person was holding him back; he’d never felt particularly exposed or abandoned and in need of protection before, either. Maybe it was Jasper’s null quality and knowing that any magic—any attack on him would be magic—levelled at Micah in anger would leave Jasper untouched, and that Jasper knew this, and Micah would have any assistance another person could provide without having any worry that he might be the cause of any harm befalling that person. Jasper could help without being in harm’s way. That seemed to make sense, didn’t it?

Jasper set his hands on either side of the makeshift hatch and lowered himself through. When he dropped onto the prow of the shikara, he landed lightly, crouching to catch his balance before stepping aside and reaching up to help Micah down. Micah concentrated on holding on as he re-entered the painful cold, wishing he could drive his awareness of it away without losing track of himself in the process. The gale caught his cloak and swirled up under it, ballooning it out around him, dispersing any warmth he’d hoped to keep with him. He pulled his arms in and fell straight into Jasper’s arms. 

“How do we close that up?” Jasper asked, leaning to shout next to his ear..

Micah shook himself, looking back up involuntarily. He hadn’t even thought of that, and leaving a breach in the airship was dreadfully irresponsible. It would cause drag and make steering unpredictable, to say nothing of any poor crew member who came looking for the cause of the drag and didn’t expect a hole.

As he stared, though, the makeshift hatch inched into view, and Micah had a glimpse of long black hair being pulled out of the way before the hole was closed. “Oh. I thought they’d gone,” he said weakly.

“There goes my rant about irresponsible little cloud-farmers,” Jasper said, and tugged at his arm. “Come on, off the hull. I can’t steer this thing.”

Jasper held on as Micah crawled under the boat’s canopy and slid behind the controls. Only when Micah had one hand on the wheel and the other on the railing beside him did Jasper let go. He slid across to the the ropes binding them to the homeship. “How long will this take?” Jasper called over his shoulder as he yanked the knots open.

Micah scanned the controls, finding the ignition spell and giving it the twist it needed to spin the engine to life. “It can’t take long. I don’t want us to freeze up—us or the boat,” he added when Jasper paused to look at him. “The engine is smaller and the ignition should keep the whole thing from icing up too badly, but it’s a very small fuel tank. I won’t risk stranding us or them.”

Jasper nodded slowly, tugged the last of the ropes free, and sat back on the raised decking to begin coiling them. “Ready.”

“Leave those. I won’t move us until you’re safe, too.”

Jasper shook his head briefly, then dragged the ropes back to the boat’s seats. When Micah frowned at them briefly, Jasper simply shrugged and said, “Might need ’em.”  

Micah turned them hard, raising a hand to protect his face as they moved ahead into the wind. His goggles kept the ice out of his eyelashes and his scarf covered the lower part of his face, but the wind drove under his hood, stinging his forehead whenever the edge flapped up. He gave up after a moment, needing both hands to control the boat. The shikara’s canopy above them did nothing to shelter them from snow that moved horizontally, and was simply more surface area for the storm to push against. The little boat needed a firm grip to keep it level. He didn’t dare move them too quickly, blind as they were, his sense of their target barely more than an incoherent memory from the earlier spell. 

“Micah? Why’s it so light?”

Micah looked down at him, then followed his gaze. Jasper was staring around them, leaning to look behind them before looking up at Micah again. “It’s half past eight on the second day of the Fest, but there’s a blizzard. Why does it look almost as bright as it did during the day?”

Micah glanced aside again, reminding himself of the first time he’d answered this question. “It’s the Darklight Festival, Jasper. The city is covered in lights, even if we can’t make out the individual details. The snow is trapping the light, bouncing it about. The light is reflecting off the clouds above and the snow in the air.”

“It…can’t… There’s too much snow. I can’t see anything from the Fest lights.”

“Lunule’s Fest isn’t like what you grew up with. The rest of the year, on a cloudy night, the city’s lights reflect off the clouds and it’s twilight, at best, even in the middle of the night. During a cloudy Fest night, it’s even brighter. I’ve seen it snow during the Fest before. One of my teachers was visiting Lunule for the first time, and was deeply confused to be waking during what she thought was nighttime, and it was bright enough for her to read even with no glowspheres.”

Jasper stared around them, still bewildered by the brightness. “This city…” He shook his head. “Everybody tells all these stories, and I’ve always had to tell myself that it wouldn’t be like that, for me. So much of it was clearly magic. I’d never see half of what made it so special. I figured it’d all be invisible to me. I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to see how tall it is.”

Micah was surprised into laughing. “Really? How would that work? Wood becomes invisible to you above a certain height?”

“I dunno. I think I had some idea that it wasn’t built out of wood, past a certain height. It couldn’t be. I don’t know, all right? Just anything that’s as magical as this city is is something I usually miss out on.”

Micah was quiet for a moment, his amusement dying away as he imagined how disappointing Jasper must find life. “You are a tragedy,” he said softly, reaching to put one hand on Jasper’s shoulder.

 

The column he was aiming for emerged ahead of them as a shadow, colorless and dark, a line reaching from nowhere and into nowhere, fading out of view above and below. Micah slowed them from a walk to a crawl and let the thin tower creep toward them, broadening from a shadow that might have been three feet across and ten feet away to a wooden structure that was comfortably wider than the boat was long. He locked the steering in place and gently lifted his hands away, watching as the column neared, the prow of the shikara thunked against it, and they held steadily in place.

“Now what?” Jasper asked.

Micah didn’t respond immediately, waiting to be sure they wouldn’t drift to the side. He’d left the engine engaged just enough to keep them in place in spite of the wind, or so he hoped. “Now… now I need to look for fur.”

“Yeah, how do we do that?” Jasper asked, leaning close.

Micah pivoted toward him slowly, half his attention still on the point where the shikara touched the column. He pulled the cloak tightly around himself, huddling down on the seat. “I’m going to cast Licari’s Hunt, and hope that the fur still counts as living enough to trigger the spell, which it should, if it’s alive enough for the caster’s spell to be using it to pull in cold.”

“Uh huh,” Jasper said flatly, nodding. “And what does that involve?”

“I… it’s not going to cause any harm. It actually can’t—”

“No, I mean, what do you have to do? Don’t give me the magic, Micah. I can’t help with that. What do you need me to do?”

Micah blinked at him for a moment. “Oh. Well. I need to be touching the column—”

“So why aren’t we side-on to it?”

“The wind. Can’t keep the boat in place if it’s side-on.”

Jasper glanced back toward the engine, tipped his head, and shrugged. “Yyyeah, okay. But you’ve got to have some kind of safety line keeping you connected. If you fall—if you get blown off, well, I can’t steer, I can’t charm the ropes into flying out and grabbing you.”

Micah wanted to protest. He felt he really ought to. But somehow it was easier to let Jasper tie a rope around his waist, then knot the other end to one of the seat supports. If that had been his only anchor, he would never have allowed it—or at least that was what he told himself. Jasper, however, positioned himself in between, the rope behind his back, wrapped around his extended left arm, his right hooked around the rope at his side. 

Micah looked back at him along the smooth prow of the ship. “And you think that’s a solid grip, do you?” he called.

Jasper’s feet shifted a bit and he leaned backward slightly. The skirt of his coat flapped around his legs, revealing flashes of the bright red lining. Micah felt the slack in the rope between them taken up. “I got mittens on, so I can’t rely just on my grip,” Jasper answered, and took a step back. Micah stumbled forward, pushed by the wind on his cloak and pulled by the rope around his waist. “But I think I got you pretty solidly.”

Micah nodded, twisting around carefully, turning sideways to the wind and taking tiny steps. The rope was tied under his cloak, and if he turned to face the wind, the rope would be assisting the wind in keeping his cloak from doing him any good at all; the satin and fur would hang over the line like laundry, half on one side of the rope and half on the other, touching him only around the neck. Sideways, however, he could keep one half of it blowing across in front of him and the other around his back, wrapping the rope around his right arm behind him, extending toward Jasper.

He slid his feet sideways as well, his left hand reaching out in front of him toward the column. When he could finally touch it, lean against it, he paused. The wind here was an uncertain swirl, the tower blocking it from hitting him straight on, but the force of it parted, rushing around the sides and swirling about in the column’s shadow. His cloak was a flapping mess now, billowing up then swirling about, falling back, flaring around him then suddenly pressing around him again. He was shivering hard, unable to hold it when he had magic to do, so he gave in and flicked out more handfire, having to lean awkwardly and catch it on his chest, blowing it the length of his body and patting it in as he could. He did it twice more before he thought he might be able to relax and concentrate on the spell.

“You okay?” Jasper shouted.

“Cold, but well enough,” Micah answered, pressing his hand against the column in front of him. The fur lining of his mitten crunched slightly as the hairs were folded, and the thick leather of the palm dulled his sense of the wood beyond it. He took a deep breath, feeling the sting of the cold air as it froze the moisture of his breath against the scarf and made the sides of his nostrils stick together as it froze them, too. He held the breath, sliding the mental rods and levers of the spell into place, taking care to picture them completely, feeling the energy gather, then breathed out and let his breath throw the last rod forward, driving the magic into the column. It caught on the layers of his mitten, slowing, outer layers of power peeling off and running through the mitten itself rather than the column. That was fair, though. Energy needed a shape and a direction precisely because it had no mind of its own—he could still hear Casper’s voice telling him that so long ago. He breathed in again and reassembled the spell, this time with larger levers, the rods heftier, longer, more massive. He pushed a bit harder, tightening the circumference, making it more dense, and blew out his breath, feeling more of the magic reaching inside the column, spreading out. 

Feathers. Feathers caught on wood. Ice. Snow. Ants. He frowned, trying to dodge the sense of nails and screws and tiles and shingles and other materials that were native to the column; they weren’t invaders, they weren’t harm, they were part of the whole no matter how strange they were to the wood that was the bulk of the thing. He pulled his sense together, tightening it against the pull of the wood, aware of its sponginess, thin hollow strands meant to carry water… life… juice… sap, that was the concept. So empty now, pulling at him. But that was wood, and wood was fine as it was, it held, it was sturdy. He dove past it, gliding, streaking his awareness along, dodging the never-alive and looking for a sense of life. Not the wood, not the wood wood wood, so much wood. Wood was the sea, it wasn’t the fish. Ignore the sea, look for fish. 

Feathers, yes. Ants, frozen specks of halted life. Other small frozen bugs, yes, but not them either. His wave of energy was slowing, but he clung to it, reaching for the feathers as the closest to what he was looking for. More feathers, more and more of them. Close, but not quite. He pushed, but it was like spitting after the water drained from a bucket: trying to force more energy into a spell that had already been cast. 

But wishing didn’t make it so. He scrabbled down to the dregs, and at the last possible moment he pulled back to see what he’d covered. He’d felt things from there to there, a sense of down and up, a sizable area, respectable but not extraordinary. The wave of energy was receding now and he let it contract, drawing him with it, taking the easy route back to himself and awareness and the world.

He opened his eyes and turned his head, the easiest movements to reacquaint himself with the physical world. “Well?” Jasper’s voice came from behind him, at the other end of the rope. “You find anything?”

“Not yet,” Micah sighed, then shook his head, realising he wouldn’t be heard. He turned back and took hold of the rope in both hands, pulling himself carefully back to Jasper, stepping down from the decking onto the seat by the controls. “Need to go higher. If it’s here, it’ll be at the top.”

“Can we do that?” Jasper asked, hunkering down in his seat and watching Micah’s hands.

Micah hauled his cloak close around him and sat down to hold it in place before he reversed them enough to give them room to manoeuvre, then began pumping the port-side throttle, building power. “Of course.” The pressure mounted under his hands until it felt solid as flesh, and he turned to the starboard. “I’d hoped we were closer to the top, but nevermind.”

“Are we going higher than the homeship?” Jasper asked uneasily.

Micah looked up at him, and glanced across to the giant shadow looming beside them. “Yes, I expect so. Why?”

“Just wondering if we’ll be able to get back in,” he said, pulling his scarf tighter around his hood.

“Why would we not?”

“Dunno. How hard is it to line up with that hatch they cut?”

Micah hesitated, considering Jasper’s words. “It can’t be impossible,” he said, wanting to start by ruling out the extremes. “And it won’t be the easiest path I’ve ever flown…”

“Okay, no, fair enough,” Jasper said, nodding pointedly. “I’ve seen you fly.”

Micah glanced aside at him again and paused, turning them so the throttle was enough to counter the wind and keep them from drifting for the moment. “You’re uncomfortable?”

Jasper shook his head, and again there was a sense that the movement was a conscious effort. “No. Nope. ’M fine.”

“You’re not.”

A pause, then a single shake of his head, more natural but immediately stifled. “I am, but… I dunno. So much about this is so wrong.” He tilted his face towards Micah, but only briefly, and went back to staring ahead of them into the snow and the nebulous shadows of the city around them. “We don’t even know what we’re looking for. And if it’s at all serious, we should be heading back to the Foldings to get some help. You could figure it out better from your lab, but it shouldn’t even be you doing it,” he added, hurrying on when Micah tried to protest. “This is more a security thing, isn’t it?”

“No, Jasper, this is exactly what I should be doing, and where. Believe me, the moment I can crawl back somewhere warm, I will—”

“But—!”

“—But it does have to be me. Of course it does. Who else would you expect? Padmache? Her remit is the Foldings. Not as big as Lunule, but more than enough. Casper?” Micah bit his lips for a moment, regretting it as soon as he said it. “He’s…not well. Until we know what’s wrong, we can’t ask for more from him. And we don’t know what we might get, either. Vronny would maybe know if it were natural, but if it isn’t, she’d have no idea what to do. Even if it were natural, at this stage, she can’t steer it away. Tom? He isn’t nearly as proficient as I am—you know that. It really is down to me, I’m afraid.”

Jasper’s gaze had drifted lower as Micah spoke, until his head was hanging and he was staring down at his mittened hands. “I just…I just wish… I don’t know.” He shook his head with a weak shrug. “I dunno. You shouldn’t even be out in this, and that’s my fault.”

Micah waited for Jasper to look up, but he wouldn’t. Why Jasper seemed to think it was somehow his job to protect Micah was beyond him. Maybe he simply felt beholden to Micah after having heard him say so often that it was his job to protect the only null ever known. It made him ache just to think about the risks involved in having him out in the snow and wind and cold, the one man who couldn’t be protected, the one who most needed and deserved protection, and the one cheerful idiot who would blunder blithely through the worst Darklight Fest on record—and it was only halfway through. And the happy idiot was the one who’d coaxed him out in this mess. 

But they didn’t have time now for a protectiveness competition. Micah weighed his options, and finally pulled his left fist back and cuffed Jasper hard in the meat of his upper arm.

“Ow! What the fuck was that for?”

“Making sure I had your attention.”

Jasper scooted to the farthest edge of his seat, and Micah pulled his silver scarf down far enough so Jasper could see part of his face. “I am not helpless. If I really thought it were beyond surviving, I would steal this boat and we’d be on our way back to the castle. Possibly be there already.”

“Not without your notebook.”

Micah pulled his scarf back into place, tightening the knot, pulling his hood close to his cheeks. “In a pinch, I would absolutely leave it behind. It’s just my thoughts, Jasper. I still have the head that had those thoughts.” He turned back to the boat’s controls and began cranking the shunt open to channel their power into lift. The gears stuck in places, and he grit his teeth, leaning into it. He couldn’t keep his eyes on the column. The wind was too fierce, whipping at his hood, pushing it back and freezing his ears. He tipped his head until his hood blew back into place, and stole a few glances at the column by keeping his head craned half over his shoulder. He couldn’t tell if they were moving up or not until he noticed he felt slightly heavier—the boat rising under his feet, pushing up as they lifted. He slowed the crank, holding it in place for a long moment before reversing it and throwing the thrust back into the horizontal controls to shift them back toward the column.

Jasper just nodded silently as Micah stepped onto the seat, mittened hands tight on both ends of the rope. He pushed himself forward, the cloak once again sliding out of his grip and thundering back behind him. He glanced back to make sure it hadn’t caught Jasper in the face, then worked his way up to the prow. 

This time when he threw the spell out, he felt a sharp stab of cold knifing back at him and pulled his hand back quickly. Blue-white fire stabbing through his veins, rough and sharp, crisp and hard. It was the experience of cold aggressively reaching out, ravenous like wildfire, galloping through the height of the column and lashing at him. He felt it in his cheeks and almost reached up to wipe at them, expecting to see blood. He stopped himself, held still, taking a moment to breathe and swallow before curling his fingers against his palm inside the palm of the mitten, reaching out with just his forefinger extended and letting a whispered echo lick out into the structure. He met the cold coming back at him, twining around it, finding a direction for it and pulling back again in a single breath.

He turned away from the column and tugged gently on the rope until Jasper raised his face, peering into the wind through his goggles. “It’s close. It’s…eager. Trade places with me.”

Jasper straightened suddenly, letting the rope fall back off his shoulders behind him. “What? Why?”

Micah shifted his feet, letting the cloak flare around him and push him back under the ship’s canopy. “Because it’s close. Unless you want to fly us,” Micah added, settling once more at the controls. 

“No, I just… but how’m I supposed to find it?” he asked, the rope hanging limply in his hands still. He stood next to Micah, looking down at him as though he’d forgotten how to move.

“It’s close. I mean it. It will be there, physically. It’s…there.” Micah shook his head in frustration, slapping instinctively at the levers and wheels, knowing a solid direction so long as he could concentrate on it, and not lose his orientation in the bewildering blindness of the snow. “Just…go out there.” He flapped his hand toward the prow.

Jasper lifted his hands a few inches then let them fall back to his sides. When they lifted outside of Micah’s peripheral vision without Jasper moving away, Micah finally turned and glanced up at him briefly. Oh, yes—Jasper was tying the rope around himself. “Yes, thank you,” Micah said quickly.

“Yeah. Okay, now…what’m I looking for?” He grasped the edge of the deck and swung his knees forward onto it in between his braced hands.

“White fur. Not too much—probably smaller than the two pieces we’ve seen.”

“And how do I spot white fur through all of this?” Jasper demanded, but crept out toward the nose of the ship as Micah swung them around the column and up.

“It…might be in a pouch,” Micah said, thinking quickly, remembering how it had felt—clumped, tight, tangled, bunched, close, close. “It felt like it was…confined.”

Jasper paused and looked back at him over his shoulder for a moment. “Um, yeah? Right.” 

The wind was shifting, and it felt odd. But no, it wasn’t the wind—the ship was rising and turning, winding them around to the windward side of the column, pushing Jasper first sideways then forward. He crouched lower instinctively, then Micah had the ship stable again and Jasper crawled the last few feet to put the column within reach of his hands. The boat shuddered as it bumped up against the wood, and Jasper let that momentum help carry him. He pressed both hands flat against the column, then straightened his back, kneeling upright for a moment before pushing himself up onto his feet. He put one foot back behind himself cautiously and tipped his head up. 

Micah kept his eyes fixed on Jasper, following the direction of his gaze as well as he could from behind, going on the angle his head tipped, the way his hands moved, the way he shifted his weight on his feet. His hands twitched the controls, going on instinct, letting them respond to move wherever Jasper seemed to want the boat to move. 

“Hey,” Jasper shouted suddenly, turning to look back. “Up a bit…”  Micah nudged them higher, stopping half a second before Jasper called “Stop… See it? Just… okay, few more inches…” His fingers tightened inside his mittens, nudging things the smallest amount he could, holding his breath, staring at Jasper’s hands and head. 

Suddenly Jasper jumped. He lunged upwards, and Micah startled, jerking the controls, bumping them hard against the column and slipping them sideways. Jasper fell back onto the deck and dropped to all fours, rolling as the boat surged. Micah cried out, watching him slide, already compensating and compensating for overcompensating, pressing them firmly back against the column as he grabbed for the rope still tied around his chest and watched Jasper slip over the side.

Micah got one leg up and braced against the control board before Jasper’s dead weight hit the end of the slack, and Micah threw himself backwards, pushing off with his foot, bringing the other up next to it and flattening himself, heaving. He took a moment, felt Jasper’s swing, caught a breath, and pulled. The rope moved, but he had nowhere to go with it. He couldn’t hold his progress with one hand while repositioning the other lower. The mittens weren’t tight enough, weren’t firm. He could feel them twisting on his hands. He tightened his grip, gritting his teeth and panicking as the rope swung again, then kept moving. It almost felt like it was pulling back.

He didn’t have the strength. He just wasn’t strong enough, and for all the magic he could do, it wasn’t enough. Something as basic as brute strength was a thing he’d never trained for, never learned, never mastered. He pushed again with his feet, straining his back and thighs—the biggest muscles he had—but gaining nothing. 

But this was Jasper. Jasper needed more than that. An image of huge, wide-stretched and terrified brown eyes rose in his mind and he snarled, groaning and grunting as he reached for magic, feeling it raw and unformed, clutching and biting with it, digging in and trapping the rope in place, trying to drag it around, feeling the coiled, twisted strands of it turning against the edge of the deck, a fraction tighter, then a fraction relaxed as the lumps of fibres turned under pressure. With his eyes squeezed shut, he wrenched at the magic as he couldn’t wrench with his arms, clawing and screaming and hauling at the weight.

Wilder swinging, and his heart plummeted. A surge, the rope twisting back at him, yanking him heavily. His breath deflating his chest as it fled. Then nothing, no weight, something hitting his back. The last of his air gone, his body clenched, something pounding at him. He opened his eyes and the world rushed back.

“Micah! Micah! I’m here, I’ve got you!”

Words didn’t make sense, nothing made sense, how—how

“Breathe! Come on, breathe! Breathe! 

No, this was backwards, Jasper shouldn’t be shouting at him. How could—

Thwack.  

Micah gasped, and air rushed into him again. Satin pressed cold and wet against his face and he scrabbled with a mittened hand to get it away.

“Oh, fucking Meg and her seven cats…”

“Jasper!”

“Yeah, me. Sorry, I’m so sorry…”

“Where—how—”

“Climbed the rope,” Jasper panted, falling back and sitting on his heels, his head hanging as he sagged, then flopped sideways next to Micah, who realised he was laying on the floor of the boat.

“You… how…”

“I dunno. Terrified. I dunno. Ahh, shit.”

Micah took another breath, then scrambled up onto his knees. Jasper was lying on his side, his back against the bottom of the seats. The wind swept under the canopy above them, sucking the ends of their scarves into the air, more movement than Micah could stand to process at the moment. He slapped them back down, tugging them in and tucking them away. “I couldn’t pull you up. Oh, oh balls, I couldn’t—I couldn’t—”

“Yeah, hush up, there,” Jasper sighed weakly, setting his hand on Micah’s wrist and pulling his hand down, away from Jasper’s face. “You didn’t have to. Weren’t supposed to. I was afraid I was going to yank you out of the boat for a minute.”

“But you—”

“No, Micah,” Jasper said, his voice more firm this time. “I’ve lived without magic for longer than you’ve had to even think about that. I can…look, I’m not… Can we just… have a minute?” he finished, his strength dying away again.

Micah breathed in through his nose, feeling the cold freezing the moisture in his nostrils and concentrating on that for a moment. Jasper’s chest was rising and falling, slowing, calming. Micah patted at his chest gently, finding it impossible to pull away and unable to remain still. Jasper didn’t seem to mind. “I’m sorry about that,” Jasper sighed, closing his eyes for a moment, then opening them and looking up at Micah again. “I shouldn’t’ve jumped. I should have told you, but I could reach it and I just didn’t think.”

Micah shook his head, the skin of his face feeling odd and tight, overheated and cold at the same time. “No, no. My apologies. It was…extremely lax of me. I don’t know why I did that—it was stupid.”

Jasper closed his eyes again, shaking his head and just breathing again for a long moment. Then he opened his eyes, grinned, and slapped his hands against the deck. “Ach. Enough of this competing over worry lines.” 

As Jasper sat up, Micah saw him visibly shake of the mood, shrugging his shoulder and tugging his scarf out from under his leg, tugging it down further from his face to reveal his grin, the brightness of his eyes dimmed but not hidden behind his goggles. Micah felt himself relaxing in turn, smiling even as he asked, “Competing over…what?”

“Something my mum used to say when my father and me would be faffing around apologising. ‘Stop competing over worry lines. You’ll get your share in due time.’ We’d get into these endless loops of apology, taking apart what we did and trying to sort it out well past the time when we should have been getting something done again.”

Micah tried to imagine Jasper’s parents from this, finding it surprisingly easy. A gentle father who thought things through carefully, a mother who herded him and his son along with sensibility and no time for foolishness. “I see. Sharp but warranted.” Jasper bounced to his feet and reached a hand down to help Micah up. “I’ll have to get out there again to see how far we’ve drifted away from the fur, now. I know we’ve gone around the column a bit—”

“Oh, no, I’ve got it,” Jasper said mildly, shaking his head and batting at his coat pocket. 

Micah stepped back in surprise, staring at the small bundle of leather in Jasper’s palm. “Are you sure?”

Even as Jasper answered, he recognised the foolishness of the question. “Well, unless there’s someone else leaving little charm pouches wedged all over the city, yes,” he said, working the strings of the pouch open without needing to remove his mittens. “Yep, see?” He held it out toward Micah.

Micah got a glimpse of the white fluff inside, then his eye was drawn up again to movement behind Jasper. He pulled Jasper away, making him stumble next to him and fall into the pilot’s seat. “Jasper, stay back!” 

He could only move away another step before the rush of bright-magenta feathered bodies swarmed around him. Now he could hear the distressed ululations and agitated whistles of the birds, which had been muted by the thickly falling snow and the rush of wind. He couldn’t help ducking his head, but offered his arms as perches for those willing to settle. His cloak was billowing behind him, his scarf lifting and writhing beside him, but then even they were being restrained by the density of wings.

As some of the whirring bodies settled, he caught sight of Jasper poised to launch himself into the fray as soon as he saw a chance. “No, it’s all right!” Micah called, and his shout startled some of the birds back into the air. “They’re friends!” he added quickly, before his arms were being repopulated. His arms were covered, his shoulders being colonised as those already perched hopped aside to allow more to crowd against them. He could feel them clinging to the front of the cloak, more on the back, even one on his head. 

“What in the name of all that is breathing are these things?”

Micah peered carefully around the bright bodies clustered on him and laughed at the sight of Jasper trying to shoo them away as they began investigating him as well. Only two of them had landed on him, but they were persistent. “Vanvases. They won’t hurt you. Be still.”

Jasper stopped swatting at them, but shied violently as one landed on his forearm, and another grabbed onto his shoulder. He wound up holding his arm straight out, keeping the bird as far from him as he could, and ducking his face as close to his chest as possible.

“They live at the castle,” Micah told him, his eyes mostly on the birds, trying to pitch his voice loud enough to be heard but without annoying his cargo. “Relax.”

Jasper held still, and two more landed on his arm. “Where did they—how did they find us?”

Micah shifted his shoulders gently, but the shrug wasn’t even visible to Jasper, crouched as he was. “Not sure. Give me a few moments.”

Moving slowly, he reached toward the scarf around his face. Some of the birds had to launch themselves as his arm bent, leaving them no room to stand. When his mouth was clear, he began whistling to them, curling his tongue against his teeth to get the slightly-sibilant sound required to comfort them. 

As soon as he started, they all began calling at once. He took the chance to lower his arm and reached around to stroke a few of them, as many as he could reach without disturbing them more. Cooing and peeping, they drowned him out for half a minute, quieting only as they noticed they couldn’t hear him. It became a cycle—they’d cry, he’d try to calm them, his sounds would get them excited to be near him and desperate for comfort, they’d lose the sound of him in their own din and give up for a moment until enough of them had stilled and they could hear him again. Their bright yellow beaks and feet and the large, dark eyes peering at him were already ridiculous, and it took all his concentration to keep his lips relaxed and his tongue in place, and not laughing.

After a few waves of this, however, Jasper was snorting, giggling, then finally laughing helplessly. “Please, stop!” Micah gasped, turning his back and moving away, trying to ignore it. But then the birds were whistling again, and he broke down. They weren’t happy, and a few hopped on his arm, their big webbed feet smacking at him. It didn’t help. Finally he gave up, lowering his arm and reaching around to grab his cloak, shooing them off long enough to sit down on the boat’s deck next to Jasper’s legs. It brought the swarm closer to Jasper again and startled him into silence again, and Micah didn’t raise his arms this time. He simply waited until the flying idiots accepted that he wasn’t going to play tree again, and began landing around him. They crowded his shoulders, then began testing Jasper’s legs. Eventually, both their laps were full, their heads, their feet, more clung to their chests, and the birds began to quiet a bit on their own, again.

“All right, what are they here for besides comedy?” Jasper asked. He pulled off one of his mittens and slipped his fingers between two of the soft, feathery bodies.

“Ohh, they’re upset,” Micah said, letting them rub their heads against him. “They don’t like the storm, they know the cold is all wrong, they want to know why I’m not home…” He tried whistling again, and this time managed to persuade them to stay mostly quiet and let just the few in his lap answer. Their thoughts weren’t complex, so long as they weren’t being fed numbers or messages. 

“I had no idea what they looked like,” Jasper said. “Somehow I always thought they’d be…majestic, dignified things.”

“They certainly behave better, most of the time,” Micah admitted, adding a few gentle clicks and fricative sounds to still his anxious friends. “They can achieve majestic and dignified things, but…when they’re not working, they’re excitable little idiots.”

Jasper snorted, startling one of the birds latched onto his chest. The claws on the ends of its webbed toes flexed and he hurried to stroke its soft back, pressing it back into stillness and persuading it to turn its spoon-shaped beak aside so the tiny hooked point at the end wasn’t pointing at his chin. “So they can actually talk? I thought the message-carrying was more, I don’t know, a note in their beaks or something.”

“It is. It’s not talking, as such, more…they can make their feelings known, and there’s a way to sort of explain things to them.” 

Jasper stayed quiet and stroked the cluster of birds on his lap, watching as Micah whistled some more. Micah tried to encourage the birds to go back to the castle, but there was something still on their minds. He spread his arms and let more of them climb onto him, gathering them close around him. More of them pressed closer to fill the gaps, and from their soft mutterings, he finally found a new bit of information. “Ohh!”

“Yeah? What?”

Micah sighed, bowing his head over the sweet, silly things. “They think I’m cold, and they want to…keep us warm. That’s essentially it, anyway.”

“And what’s that mean?”

“Well…” He clicked and whistled some more, but they were adamant. “They see me as a chick, and they’re upset that it takes so many of them to…nest on me.”

“What?”

Micah turned and tilted his head carefully to look back at Jasper, letting him see his smile. “Like a hen on an egg. They would be happier if we both would lie down on the…” A chorus of hooting drowned him out again for a moment, and he had to pat at them to get them to quiet. “I’m sorry, they want us curled up down here, where they can pile on top of us properly.”

He’d expected Jasper to laugh again, but instead, he made a frustrated sound, and nudged Micah with his knee. “Budge over.”

“Oh, no, don’t give in to them,” Micah pleaded, but Jasper slid down next to him and wiggled close, and the vanvases who had nestled down around Micah scattered, running away, then crowding back as they saw Jasper settle. 

“Aw, give them a moment,” Jasper said, slouching further. The birds happily hopped onto his chest, managing to lower themselves over their feet and cling to his coat despite the relatively steep angle of his torso. “Let them give you this.”

Micah pressed his lips together, letting himself be swarmed. It was significantly warmer under the blanket of feathery bodies, but that just made him worry about how these small bodies would stay warm when flying back into the storm. He whistled the question to them, and the chatter in response was of the opinion that when he finally learned to fly, he’d understand. 

“Just told you off, didn’t they?”

Micah started to turn in surprise but stopped himself. “You can understand them?”

“Nah. But there’s a definite tone to them when they all pile on like that, isn’t there.”

“I’m surprised you picked up on that. Being able to communicate with them is definitely magic. When I was learning animal magic, there were a few students who absolutely could not master it. They could do some of the sounds, for a few species. In fact, Suaveya was much better at whistling in general—she was especially good with music, so it always made sense up to that point, but just couldn’t…coordinate all of it. And Kavlin could imitate any animal so well that the Rennas couldn’t tell him from the actual animals, except for the fact that he didn’t know he was more or less speaking gibberish. Again, the sounds weren’t the problem, but they just couldn’t get that final twist of will.”

“Good at magic, though, were they?”

“Oh yes. Kavlin is one of the best colourists out there. Some of the dustworks colours are down to him, in fact. Particularly good with blacks. It surprised everyone when he didn’t go into some form of vocal magic, as he is still one of the best I’ve heard, in many things, but he’s got a solid colouring practise. And Suaveya did go into music—she’s the music director at the Fineman Theatre.”

“I don’t know I’d be able to…speak to them, like you do. I’m not saying that. But when you’ve got a large number of animals and they’re all trying to convey the same thing, they can be pretty feckin’ clear.”

There was a pleased murmur from the vanvases, and one of them tried briefly to nestle down on Jasper’s face, trying to get its toes around his goggles. Jasper spluttered and turned his head, and the birds around his head cooed and whistled until the bird flapping around his face had flown off, circling to land at the edge of the crowd.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I think they like you,” Micah told him.

“What’d you call them? ‘Excitable little idiots’?”

Hoots and coos surrounded them, and Jasper laughed even before Micah translated. “They know you like them, and they’re a little smug about it. There’s your proof—they don’t understand the words, but they know the tone of voice.”

“They communicate with other animals? Or just humans?”

“Just humans.”

Jasper tried a few of the clicking and fricative sounds Micah had used, and a ripple of disquiet went through the flock. To his credit, Jasper noticed and stopped immediately, switching to murmured words of comfort. “There, there. ’S all right. You’re fine. Micah’s fine. Just quiet down now, come on, dears…”

And to his further credit, it had an effect. The birds shuffled closer again, resettling with as many feathered bodies in as much contact with them as possible.

“What you just said to them made no sense, if you wondered.”

“Yeah? What’d I say?”

“Something like…you wanted them to…attack themselves kindly because it was sunny. As though compliments and gentleness could be used to kill suddenly, like an assassination, and that this was necessary because the light in the sky was too bright.”

Jasper laughed in surprise. “Really?”

“Well… no. It’s about like listening to a stream and thinking the noises it made sounded like words.”

“They think I’m dumb as water?”

He didn’t say the words with any harshness. It was simple curiosity, trying to clarify the concept, but Micah was uncomfortable with even that level of self criticism. “No, nothing like. They know you’re intelligent. They know we’re talking. It’s more like… they’re hearing a noise, and it accidentally sounds like words. The only reason it really conveyed much of anything is because a couple of them—and I do mean two who are very fond of each other—happened to notice the noises sounded a bit like communication. Most of them didn’t notice it. But the two who noticed compared their impressions, the others heard that, and it unsettled them generally.”

“Okay. That’s…a weird feeling, actually. Knowing I could physically make the sounds but they still can’t perceive it as communication.”

Micah made a face, checking to make sure Jasper didn’t look too upset. “It is a particular type of magic, remember.”

Jasper gave him a small, tight smile. “Yeah, I know. It’s okay. It really is. I’m just…I admit it, I’m really curious about this—how you communicate with them, how they understand things, how much they can understand.” He paused; one of the vanvases had begun pushing its head against Jasper’s chin insistently until Jasper was quiet a moment and stroked its back until it was satisfied and settled back down. “All right, darlin’, keep your feet warm,” he murmured, then glanced aside at Micah again. “How long will it take to comfort them?”

Micah whistled for a moment, getting a more cooperative tone from the birds this time. “I think I can persuade them. This has been useful, though. The bit of the Foldings they inhabit is on the other end of the city, and now we know it’s just as bad there.” He whistled again, and the response made him frown. “No, hang on…” 

Yes, the castle was cold and windy, and it was snowing. They hadn’t liked it. But they’d been closer than the castle just now. “All right, that was true,” he told Jasper. “It is bad there, although I’m not sure it’s as bad, as they seem to have had a bit of an argument about whether to keep coming. And they were actually waiting at the top of…ohhh.” 

Now it made sense; he’d sensed so much feather when he’d searched the column. “They were at the top of the column just now. That was how they found me. Less disturbing and more disturbing all at once, that.”

“What? Oh, they didn’t find you from miles away? Why were they here, then?”

“There’s some disagreement there, too. Something was wrong, uncomfortable…something to do with me. They felt my magic…they recognised my magic when I was trying to search the column. They…I’m not sure. Something seems to have been wrong, but I can’t tell if it was me, or something else. Just…something was wrong, and they attach that to me, somehow. Might even be just that they wanted me to fix it.” He asked them again, and got them to focus on the column, why there, how did the column feel. “Oh. I hadn’t…Jasper, it isn’t as cold here.”

Jasper gave a loud, fake laugh, ignoring the way they birds shifted away and then back as he stopped. “Yes it fecking is.”

“No. They say the wind is stronger because we’re so high—they like that bit, they like to play in air currents. It’s why they live at that part of the castle. But here…they say it’s colder as we go lower. Hmm.”

“What part of Foldings did we leave from?” Jasper asked, confused.

“That door is fairly high up. It sounds like…the cold is much, much worse in the Under.”

It made some sense. Cold always sank. And the upper reaches of the city were always windier. Always, that is, unless there was money involved, and at Diantha’s Pinnacles and the Cupolas, there was money. “No, Jasper, this is bad.”

“It’s been bad for a day or so, Micah.”

“Cold sinks anyway, but this cold seems to be being drawn down, as well. The lower parts of the city, Jasper, they have less. Less light, protection, money, food…we need to stop this.” 

Micah cooed a few more times to his friends, stroking backs, touching their heads, one last round of comfort before he began shifting, shooing them away, letting them hop down from his lap, a few of them launching into the air. Jasper glanced at him, then began coaxing his own load of vanvases back onto the boat or into the air. “Are they coming with us?”

“No.” Micah whistled, then he shook his head at the wave of cooing and clucking in response. “No, I can’t have a bunch of feathery, soppy idiots riding me around like a surrogate mother…” 

The debate raged, the bills opening just enough to let out their protestations and pleading. Micah ignored them and pushed onto his feet, and most of the flock launched into the air around him. He clutched at his cloak as the wind attempted to whip it back off his shoulders again, and he turned his back to it. “Jasper, come on. We need to move.” He reached down to help Jasper up, and as Jasper stood, vanvasses poured off him and joined the swarm spinning around the boat.

“Do they think they’re helping?”

“They’re arguing that they should, but they haven’t suggested anything useful so far.” Micah sat behind the controls of the boat, pulling them smoothly away from the column and turning them around before dialling back on the lift drive.

Jasper grabbed at the side of the boat and sat down quickly, feeling them dropping. “Could have warned me,” he muttered.

“We need to get lower in the city, but I want to check the Cupolas on the way. Just a theory.”

Hames lived in the Cupolas, and it had occurred to him that she had a facility with temperature control. She’d always been good at manipulating heat and cold, but it had never been on a scale that made him think of weather magic. Her family’s wealth had been from freezing various substances, making ice, selling it, manipulating it in various forms. Hames’s own contribution had been using the collection and concentration of cold to manipulate and concentrate heat.

He didn’t like Hames, he didn’t trust her, and he knew Casper didn’t either. But she was on the Council, and there was no way she would ever put the entire city through this, through this kind of risk. It was paranoia fuelled by dislike, but he had to check in case it was a gut feeling in disguise. He couldn’t see how she could truly profit from it—the damage to the city would affect her as well. The Lunule Council would be second in line behind the Druhy for blame, or maybe third, behind the Vedouci. She might want to make the Foldings look bad, but there were ways to do it without ruining the entire Darklight Fest and putting so many lives at risk. 

“They’re right across the city from here, though, aren’t they? I don’t think the Homeship is going to want to navigate in this—”

“No, we’ll take this boat.”

“But your notebook!…”

Micah sighed, taking a moment to pull his hood closer, retie his scarf, wrap his cloak around him and pour a bit more handfire into himself before wriggling his hands back through the slits for his arms while Jasper told him exactly how important his notebook was. When Jasper finally paused for breath, Micah interrupted. “Jasper. I told them I’d return their ship. I didn’t specify when. I hadn’t planned not to—I didn’t. But to be honest, I don’t want to try to return to the Homeship in it. I’m not sure I can, really. They just bumped up against the ship and cut a hole where they were. I’m not willing to do that—I won’t cut another hole in that ship. But trying to line up with the one that’s already there, it’s like…trying to throw the end of a piece of thread through the eye of a needle.”

“In a windstorm,” Jasper added, his voice dull.

“Yes.”

Jasper really had no choice but to agree, and while it was Micah’s own notebook at stake, he was the one who felt guilty. “I’m not helpless, you know, Jasper. If—when I return their boat—they no longer have my notebook, then I have ways of tracing it. But I can’t think of anything so very valuable in it, though.”

“Any notes on me? Nullness?”

Micah very carefully didn’t move or respond for a moment as he thought, gliding them slowly over the city. The notebook had no direct references to Jasper’s special quality—those notes never left the lab, and any scrap of paper with simple notes, test results, or otherwise relating to nullness was packed into a drawer in a flatbox, itself concealed under a false bottom of a hidden drawer of a puzzle box in a safe in the wall of one of the testing rooms. He’d developed his own coded notation system for the notes on nullness he now made on every project, examining its interactions and limitations. 

“Nothing clear. Nothing that would be understood by anyone other than the pair of us. That is not one of my journals, Jasper. It had a few scribbled thoughts about this storm, but before that, I hadn’t written in this one for weeks.”

Jasper only nodded, and rather than continuing to irritate him, Micah focused on the flying. He saw no other boats out, no other ships moving. Usually the upper reaches of the city were a convenient waypoint for larger ships waiting for a space in one of the docks to open, and surrounded by an ongoing free-for-all of racing, testing, practicing, thrill-seeking, and experimental crafts of smaller sizes. Tonight it was still, huge open stretches interspersed by swathes of drifted boats that had broken free and bumped up against each other. Micah threw a little more lift into their course and rose above one of the last roofs between them and the Cupolas.

They were met by the unchecked gale. Micah grunted in surprise, then it quickly changed to a cry of distress as he was pushed backwards, clinging to the controls as the wind sought to lay him back onto the stern. The top of his hood inflated and then flapped back, his scarf holding the fur close to his cheeks, but the satin scarf whipped against his face and blinded him. He risked letting go with his right hand and grabbed the emergency brake and squeezed it until it locked. The front gap between the sides of his cloak spread wide, and the cold grabbed at his chest like a fistful of spikes. 

He gathered his strength and rolled to one side, and then was able to focus all his strength on curling back into his seat and huddling down lower. He glanced aside at Jasper, who was crouched with his face close to his knees, letting the wind blow over his back, the shortened ends of his red scarf fluttering madly against his black coat. “Hold on,” Micah shouted, only then realising Jasper had his hand on Micah’s knee, pressing down hard. “I’ve got to get us lower again.”

Jasper didn’t try to speak, but he shifted his hand on Micah’s knee and shoved down harder.

Micah grabbed hold of the lift control and the emergency brake, popping the lift out of line a second before he release the brake. The dead weight of the ship dropped them low enough to block the wind again, and Micah cranked their course around to dive between the buildings rather than go over them. “Sorry, thought it’d be faster to go over the top. Are you all right?”

Jasper sat up slowly, then slouched to one side, trying to stay low. “Yeah. Now maybe I believe those stupid birds, though.”

Micah shook his head, stopping himself from laughing in relief. He feared if he laughed, he might not stop.

 

Chapter Text

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?”

“Was that—”

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. 

“What?”

“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.”

“Lovely!”

“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.”

“Stop it!”

“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.

“Of course.”

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?”

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?”

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.