The thing with Lord Wren is that he would just tell Reese if he wished to stop. He wouldn't wait for Reese to notice, he wouldn't expect him to just know. He would tell him.
"You would tell me if you wished to stop, wouldn’t you, Sir?”
He looks like he's about to fall off his horse, and it isn't just the effect of damp and muddy clothes. It's something about the set of his shoulders. And he isn't looking up at Reese, which is unusual.
The use of his given name surprises both Lord Wren, who had forgotten that Reese knew it, and Reese, who did not mean to use it. It was an accident, though, thankfully, one that got his master’s attention. Before Reese can apologize, however, Lord Wren says:
"What is it, Reese?"
"You would tell me if you were exhausted, wouldn't you, Sir?”
"I don't see how that is relevant at the moment, Reese."
This isn't like him, which is worrying. Lord Wren has always been careful to only tell Reese as much as he needs to know, but he is never obtuse. Or - no. That is not entirely correct. What he is, is never wilfully blind, be it to the difficulties of our mission, to Reese’s flaws as his mercenary, or to his own vulnerabilities as a master. At the moment, however, he appears to be completely disregarding his physical needs. How strange. What should Reese do?
"Sir, if I found that you were completely disregarding your physical requirements, what should I do?"
When he responds, his voice is low, weary. “Reese, I do not have the energy for hypothetical questions as conversational gambits."
Reese nods. “Apologies, Sir."
They make their way for another half league in silence. Reese looks at the horizon, willing the sky to remain cloudless. He drinks the last of his water. He makes a list of possible causes for Lord Wren's fatigue.
POSSIBLE CAUSES FOR LORD WREN'S FATIGUE
- nightmares interrupting his sleep
- unsettling thoughts keeping him awake
- uncomfortable bed keeping him awake
- a secondary mission he did not tell Reese about which he carried out while Reese was sleeping
The likeliness of the last possibility troubles Reese enough that he interrupts the list there. He suddenly very much wants to know why Lord Wren has slept so badly. He must frown, or otherwise broadcast his overthinking, because suddenly he hears:
"Speak, Reese." His voice is somehow both soft and resonant. Reese likes this about him.
"Sir, you are very tired. Why haven't you told me? Why haven't we stopped?"
Lord Wren looks at him then, his gaze penetrating. What a strange expression, that, 'penetrating gaze' and yet it describes so well the way Lord Wren looks at Reese, sometimes. Like he is seeing something no one else sees. Something even Reese wouldn't see, if he looked at himself.
He blinks once, slowly. "You are right. We should stop and rest here. Our mission is urgent, but any delay from rest will be shorter than the delay I would cause by falling off my horse."
Reese has been with Lord Wren since the winter solstice. He was approached by him in the market one day, as he attempted to sell his horse. Reese had already sold his signet ring, his cloak clasp, and his cloak.
“John Reese?” He knew Reese’s name, though he was a stranger.
"I require a skilled mercenary, and you require funds."
He was a head smaller than Reese, his manner of speaking no different, but he expressed himself like a man to whom few people ever said no. He was alone and wore unremarkable clothing. He waited patiently for an answer.
Reese looked at Susanna, at her nut brown coat and familiar, quiet, obedience. He didn't want to sell her. Susanna neighed encouragingly.
Lord Wren spoke again. "My name is Wren. You should come with me."
Reese nodded. Lord Wren nodded back, and, without another word, turned and walked away. Reese followed. He follows him still.
Their mission is difficult. They will work as long and hard as required. Lord Wren is determined and resourceful; Reese is strong and experienced.
When they find shelter from the wind, they tie their horses - Susanna and Marcellina - to an oak, and Reese removes their saddles to rub them both down. When he has completed this task he turns and finds Lord Wren standing behind him, swaying gently. His eyes are closed. He hasn't moved since setting his feet on the ground.
His eyes snap open. They're a grey blue, like the sky. "Reese. I require - I require your assistance."
He begins to collapse. As first it is as though a wind has blown to cause him to bend, but then he does not catch himself. Reese runs towards him.
"Sir!" Reese catches him before he falls. "Sir? Lord Wren?"
"Reese." He slumps against Reese, his skin pale. He is slight and Reese supports his weight easily. "I need - please fetch - there is a bottle of cordial in my saddlebag."
"Sir, are you injured?" Reese asks as he administers the cordial.
"No... yes. I was injured long ago." Reese removes his cloak and, folding it carefully, places it underneath Lord Wren’s head. "Now... I am occasionally revisited by the pain.”
The sun is near the tree line on the horizon, and with the remaining light Reese gathers firewood. It is all kindling, but it will do.
Lord Wren watches. "You know, Reese -"
Everything about the time Lord Wren and Reese have spent together is coloured by urgency. By Lord Wren’s mission, which has become Reese’s mission as well. By a need to complete that mission before thinking of themselves, their future, of their place in the world.
This moment, this short respite, is unusual. A moment to think of things other than the task ahead. Reese focuses on the fallen branch below his feet, but he feels Lord Wren’s eyes on him.
“When you spoke to me, earlier. When you called me by my name. I do believe I'd fallen asleep on my horse."
Reese is still mortified at having called Lord Wren ‘Harold’ but he refrains from calling attention to his feelings on the matter by saying so. “Yes, Sir."
"Thank you for waking me."
Reese builds a small fire. Perhaps, if he busies himself making Lord Wren a posset to steady and strengthen him, he will be steadied and strengthened as well. He is not so young, and he has been in other places and has have worked for other masters, but being in Lord Wren’s employ is regularly disquieting. When Lord Wren thanks him, he feels pleased in a way he cannot recall ever experiencing, and this troubles him. He knows not what to respond.
“We're nearing the sea," he says.
The wind has shifted and there is a very slight hint of salt in the air. The early spring weather means that they are surrounded by yellow grasses and nearly bare trees. Some would call this scenery desolate, but Reese sees in it the dull moment before hope. He sees the moment before the possibility of growth.
"Are you comfortable, Sir?"
Lord Wren has finished his wine and Reese’s cloak still pillows his head. He does not turn, he only nods sleepily. Reese gives him more of his cordial.
Night settles around us. The fire crackles. Owls hoot in the distance. Reese checks his carbine, and two pistols. Local predators would be hungry after a long winter, he thinks. Wolves might be a danger to them here, but also smaller animals. Even a badger is dangerous if it gets its claws near enough. And of course there are the agents chasing them.
After his firearms, Reese inspects the two knives in his coat, and his sabre. On his sabre the word 'courage' is engraved. Reese has never known if the word was meant to describe the bearer, or to encourage him.
"Are you happy, Reese?" Lord Wren's voice breaks the silence.
"Are you happy?" He sounds faint, and Reese realizes that he is speaking in his sleep. Soldiers aren’t required to be happy, Reese thinks. But, looking up at the inky black sky, he supposes isn’t unhappy.
What is important to know, and what isn't? Knowledge about yourself, about others, about the world? If you know more, will you be happier? Will your life be better?
This morning Lord Wren and Reese reached the coast. The sea was grey and stormy, like the sky, and there was a ship waiting for them. It isn't the fastest vessel, but the ship is disguised as a fishing expedition. The crew is well-paid for its discretion and they have an adequate cook - Lord Wren and Reese eaten our first satisfying meal since Reese knows not when.
They had to leave Susanna and Marcellina behind - concealment is easier without them. Their future is uncertain and the horses are surely safer in the stable where they left them, but Reese heard Lord Wren whisper 'goodbye' to Marcellina in a distinctly sad tone.
Reese knows all the details of their travel, the route, the arrangements, the likely danger. Reese knows little of Lord Wren. Would there be an advantage to knowing more? Would there be a reason to know more?
For two mornings after their unplanned stop, Lord Wren asked Reese to help him mount, which he had never done before. But on the last morning he said nothing, and got astride Marcellina without him. Was Reese’s help unpleasant? Did he do something wrong? He does not know.
Lord Wren and Reese are sharing quarters, such as they are. Reese crouches slightly - the ceiling being very low - but there is a bed for both of them. The blankets are woollen and thick; they can sleep without their coats.
His back is to Reese, but their quarters are so small that Reese cannot walk around him. “Turn, Sir.”
Lord Wren turns to face Reese. He does not look at him. Reese put his hand on the fastening at Lord Wren’s throat and he doesn’t move, speak, or breathe. Suddenly what Reese is doing seems intimate. A gesture that is much more than the sum of its parts.
He unfastens Lord Wren’s coat quickly. Loosens his cravat. Slips his hands underneath his coat and feels the warmth of his body underneath it. Reese pushes it off Lord Wren’s shoulders and that is when Lord Wren looks up.
“Thank you, Reese.”
His voice is soft, but, like every time he thanks Reese, the words are more than a gesture of civility. There is something in Lord Wren’s tone.
Reese holds his gaze and nods once, slowly. “Do you require your cordial?”
He climbs onto the bed and, murmuring a soft “good night, Reese,” is asleep before Reese has finished putting away his clothes.
Not everyone would dedicate their lives to the service of others, and yet here are Lord Wren and Reese. On a mission. With only Lord Wren’s wits, and, Reese supposes, Reese’s skills. And detailed maps outlining expected or likely border controls.
They must remain hidden. Lord Wren believes them to be more effective that way. Interacting with as few people as possible, until they feel that there is no one but each other. Two men hurtling themselves across the world, one of them directing their movements and the other battling anyone or anything that gets in their way.
The sea is calm for the first night, and Reese only wakes when Lord Wren places a gentle hand on his arm. “Reese, it’s morning.”
Lord Wren is sleep-rumpled, muzzy and soft. His hair is like the feathers of a baby bird, his eyes deeper blue, drowsy blue. The sheets have printed a fold on his cheek.
“Yes.” They have a full day of tasks ahead of them. Reese pulls on his boots. “I’ll start taking samples.”
“There are twenty sample jars.”
Reese nods. “Did the captain bring the -“
When Reese pulls two sample jars out of their bags - two at a time at most, so they won’t be noticed - his fingers graze clean linen and, spontaneously, he decides to change garments. He shrugs off his coat, tugs his shirt out of his trousers and reaches back for the collar. As he starts pulling off his shirt he catches Lord Wren’s eyes, fixed on the bare skin underneath the linen. His gaze is rapt. Reese finishes removing his shirt and stands before him bare from the waist up.
Reese does not look away, and neither does Lord Wren. For several seconds, they stare, unmoving. Then Reese picks up the clean shirt.
If Reese were telling the story of his life, would it be an optimistic story? Would it be a story that ends well? Standing on deck, staring out at the point on the horizon where sea and sky converge, he asks the water, the air, the solid deck below: would the story of this life be a comfort to the lives of others? Or would it be a story no one would wish to be told?
Lord Wren knows nothing of optimism. He has planned this mission with determination and very careful attention to detail… and with an utter absence of trust in the power of good over evil. Lord Wren trusts only facts, his own calculations, and the laws of the natural world.
“Wind is changing.” The captain of the ship, a man named Muller, has appeared by Reese’s side.
Reese turns toward him. “If we keep our course, will it seem strange?”
“I assure you, no one will notice.” Muller, smiling sympathetically, lifts his chin. “I see, good sea legs on you, Mr Morgan.”
Morgan is the name under which Reese is travelling. Lord Wren is known as Lord Raven.
“Thank you, Captain.”
“Your master - well, this morning?”
Lord Wren is keeping to our quarters. He is doing this deliberately; partly because it allows him to work without interruption, but also because the crew will, this way, believe that he is seasick. Lord Wren often chooses to obfuscate, to make himself mysterious, anonymous. Here, he is choosing to conceal the truth that he is an experienced traveller who has spent years of his life on ships.
“He is a little better, I believe.”
“Good, good. I will tell cook to make something to leave the stomach happy, yes?”
The lines at the corner of his eyes crinkle into an expression so good-natured that Reese is unable to resist smiling in return. “Yes. Thank you, Captain.”
Muller claps a hand on Reese’s shoulder, and leaves him to his contemplations. Reese breathes in deeply, take into his lungs the salt in the air, as well as the oxygen, nitrogen, and other kinds of atoms Lord Wren claims the air contains. The atmospheric constituents, he calls them. Essential to life, though they cannot be seen. Reese breathes out and think of invisible things that surround him.
The deck under his feet is plain and solid, he can see it and touch it, and yet it is no more essential to his life, Lord Wren explains, to the lives of everyone on the ship, than the unobservable elements of the air. Not because the air - that is, the wind - fills the sails of the ship. But because some of the invisible parts of the air are needed by their hearts, their limbs, their minds. When sailors are lost at sea, Lord Wren says, it is not the water that kills them; it is the absence of air.
Lord Wren speaks often of invisible things and of calamities that have not yet passed but certainly will; he conceals everything about himself. Even Reese does not know his name. And he says so little. Every day they have been on the ship, Reese removes his coat, and though he does not remove his shirt like he did on the first night, and Lord Wren still gazes intently. He does not speak. He hardly even breathes. And as Reese stands partially disrobed before him, he should feel exposed. But he does not. He only feels safe.
When they finally see Copenhagen in the distance, sunlight makes the city glitter. It is shiny for their arrival. Activity at the port is frantic.
Lord Wren would have preferred arriving in darkness but Muller promises anonymity no matter the hour. The port is vast and there are ships from every place in the world, he says. No one will notice them unless they want them to. Even if they want them to. Lord Wren pays him generously.
He says goodbye, and soon Reese is carrying their bags through the crowd. Lord Wren walks beside him, consulting a map. He mutters to himself that they must find newspapers.
Reese takes currency from his pocket and tasks a nearby youth, in very approximate Danish, with purchasing newspapers. He resorts to gestures to make himself understood, which must work because the boy runs off and returns with three different broadsheets.
Lord Wren is pleased. Pushing his eyeglasses up with one finger, he looks up at Reese. “Have you been here before?”
“Once, but only to change ships.”
Wren adds nothing. They walk further, according to his directions.
“Have you been here before, Sir?”
Abruptly, though Reese does not see it, Wren turns into an alleyway. For a few seconds, Reese continues walking and when he looks toward where he expects Lord Wren to be, it is as though he’s disappeared. Just vanished, become one of the atoms in the air. Reese briefly panics, then -
And Reese learns that they’ve reached their accommodations. A private door in the alley, leading to the upper floor of boarding house. High ceilings, filled with light. A coat room, and a room lined with books, featuring a large work table in the centre, with chairs and lamps. A table set with tea, cold meats and bread waiting for them. And a room with a bed so large as to leave no space for Reese’s sleeping cot.
“The proprietor believes me to have procured these lodgings for a married couple,” Lord Wren tells him. “So there is very little space, I’m afraid. There has been no sign of the agents chasing us since the second day of our travels but one can never be too cautious. I suppose your cot might be placed underneath the work table in the library, but I would prefer you to be near me in case of emergency, so we shall share the bed.”
This is a very unusual request, and yet Reese finds that he does not feel inconvenienced. “Understood, Sir.”
As far from the windows as he can manage, Reese clears a shelf of books and places two cases, each containing ten sample jars. He confirms that they are well-shielded from the natural light, and then looks for a cupboard to store his weapons. That is to say - some of his weapons.
When he has completed this task he joins Lord Wren at the table. Wren sits, absently eating bread, consulting the newspapers. He is as though in his own home.
“I am relieved to be on land,” he says, and turns to the next newspaper. Takes a bite of bread. Reads, then flips the newspaper over and starts to read the other side. Then he says, “we will need a washerwoman of some sort. For our clothing.”
Nodding, Reese tells him he’ll see to it. And then adds that perhaps they might seek out the public baths? The thought of sleeping in freshly-laundered sheets while feeling, so to speak, freshly laundered himself is very appealing. Lord Wren smiles when Reese tells him this.
They retire early. Lord Wren enters the bedroom first, and when Reese follows, he says, “Reese.”
“Undress me, Reese.”
Always, when he undresses Lord Wren, Reese removes Lord Wren’s eyeglasses at the very end. As long as he is with them he is never truly exposed. He is still in control, he is still the formidable Lord Wren, even as Reese remove his boots, trousers, coat, kerchief. But when he carefully takes his eyeglasses and places them on the mantle, there is a defenseless about him, and Reese imagines covering his body with his own to protect him from the world.
Reese takes Lord Wren’s hand and guides him to the bed. When they are lying side by side, surrounded by darkness and silence, Lord Wren says, “thank you, Reese.”
The following night, after they have been to the washerwoman, the public baths, and also to the draper; when they have enjoyed the luxury of a hot meal and returned to their lodgings; when Lord Wren is wearing only his shirt and trousers and Reese has finished removing his eyeglasses, Reese steps close to him. He steps close enough that Lord Wren’s hair touches his chin. Lord Wren does not move away. Reese wants him to know how dear he is to him. He breathes in once, twice - Lord Wren smells a little bit like tea, or like long grasses when they are cut in the fall - and closes his eyes. He puts his arms around him, and holds him.
Lord Wren does not move.
After a third breath he places both hands on Reese’s chest. “No,” he says, and pushes Reese away.
Reese steps back and looks down. His heart beats fast, and he breathes in harshly. He cannot speak. Perhaps his behaviour can be blamed on the fragrance of clean linen, he thinks, which he associates with with safe shelter. With sincerity. Candor.
He looks at Lord Wren.
“No,” Lord Wren says again.
In the morning, the library is overrun with sample jars. They are delivered early, not long after matins, when the dawn has just begun to fill the rooms with light. Lord Wren directs the placement of cases of the jars, while Reese covers windows with cloth.
“Casualty patterns indicate that waves of the current pandemic may originate from two different sources. There is, of course, the virulent strain, pneumonic in character. The contagion is carried from person to person.”
“Are not all plagues carried from person to person, Sir?”
“No. There is more than one mode of transmission. My belief is that there is a second strain, primarily bubonic, carried around the world by ocean-going trade, through transporting infected persons, rats, and cargoes harboring fleas."
He tells Reese this while, simultaneously, taking notes in a bound volume with his precise, careful hand. The volume is so large that when Lord Wren turns the page, his face is briefly hidden from view.
“Should you open a case to find a broken sample jar, do not be alarmed, only close it and mark it. However, should you see a flying insect of any kind, kill it and evacuate immediately.”
They work until dusk, after which they make their way to a tavern. They ask for a private room, newspapers, something to eat. Reese is required to leave his unconcealed weapons at the door, and the seats are sticky, but they are brought cheese, and bread, and Reese persuades Lord Wren to have some of the local ale by suggesting that it will seem strange, and therefore memorable, if they do not.
“A pertinent observation, Reese,” he sighs, and drains a glass far too quickly.
Reese helps him up the stairs when they return to their accommodations, and though he is so inebriated that Reese suspects he will not remember, he says these words:
“Regarding yesterday, Sir.”
Lord Wren’s hand, which is on the door leading to the bedroom, freezes in place. He does not turn, but Reese knows he listens. Reese takes a deep breath.
“Please accept my apologies. I shouldn't have presumed.”
After a long silence, Lord Wren answers. “No. I suppose you shouldn't have.”
Then, finally opening the door to the bedroom, Wren adds. “See to the hearth, Reese.”
And when Reese has finished building a fire to keep them warm during night, he turns to see that Lord Wren has removed his boots, trousers, coat, kerchief and eyeglasses, and climbed into bed on his own.
WREN - ONE MONTH EARLIER
Many weeks before they reached Copenhagen, before they got on a ship, before they left their horses, Lord Wren and Reese spent the night in the forest. It was the first night of their trip, when they did not yet know they’d been followed, so they’d built a large fire and spent hours in conversation. Hours in which they said nothing of importance. The evening was the most pleasant Lord Wren could remember spending since he knew not when.
They had just started to travel north and had found each other’s enthusiasm for country landscapes to be equally great. They crossed a river bursting at its seams from spring floods, and, spontaneously and without consulting each other, stopped to admire it. The natural world, though bare after the winter, was powerful and beautiful.
Sitting by the fire, Lord Wren had found himself telling Reese something true about himself. “I’ve never slept under an open sky.”
“Indeed. You have, I presume?”
“Is one not fearful of night-time beasts?”
“Well -” Reese had drained his mug of hot wine. “It has been my experience that night-time beasts are more fearful of my blade than I am of their teeth and claws, Sir.”
The words were spoken lightly, almost nonchalantly, and Lord Wren wondered, not for the first time, whether Reese was aware of how formidable he seemed. No - how formidable he was. Lord Wren had had the privilege of seeing Reese take part in a violent struggle, and knew that he was not an opponent to be underestimated. He was, in Lord Wren’s estimation, an opponent to be avoided at all costs.
“If you have never slept under an open sky, Sir…” Reese tilted his head earnestly. “Have you, then, never told stories by the fire?”
“Stories by the fire? Is that what one does?”
Reese’s eyes shined bright in the firelight. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, fingers wrapped loosely around the mug that he had, now, refilled with wine. “Yes, Sir. Tales of heroes’ perilous journeys, their quests, the mythical beasts they encounter and the like.”
Reese’s mouth opened in surprise, and then suddenly, eased. He started to smile; his eyes twinkled. “Oh, Sir! The great legends know neither age nor class. They teach truths to all of us. You know, Sir, long long ago travel was far more difficult. Not only perilous, but often impossible, with impracticable roads and rudimentary vehicles. So we traveled by storytelling.”
Lord Wren blinked in surprise. A year ago, when he had made enquiries about John Reese, near-retired soldier of fortune, this side of the man had not been reported. His strength, skill, experience, his successful expeditions, his lack of family ties, the open warrant on his life in the East - Lord Wren had all been informed of all of these. His endearing qualities however…
“I cede to your authority on the matter,” he said, and lifted his mug in acknowledgment. “Please: regale me.”
Reese smiled, and Lord Wren was momentarily blinded by the sight. Lord Wren felt something, and suddenly, he needed to name it. He required, no, he demanded that his mind supply a term for the emotion he was abruptly experiencing. Surely he would not stand for this involuntary reaction without describing it properly? And in a moment, he found a name for the experience he was having: affinity. Like that peculiar force which causes elementary atoms, or groups of atoms, to unite and form molecules.
Reese leaned forward, and started speaking. “Well, Sir, once upon a time there was a lord at Arberth who was seized by the thought and the desire to go hunting. The part of his country in which he wished to hunt was Glyn Cuch. He set out that evening from Arberth, went as far Pen Llwyn Diarwya, and there he spent the night…”
The first night Lord Wren and Reese spent in the forest, they built a large fire and spent hours in conversation. Hours in which they said nothing that could be described as ‘important’, and yet, everything that was important was communicated. No night-time beasts dared approach them, and when all the tales were told, they slept soundly.
The second night Lord Wren and Reese spent in the forest, there was a storm. They watched it form in the sky, in glimpses between the trees, after midday. Soon it would reach them, or they would reach it.
They had to find shelter. Lord Wren had money, he could have paid for accommodations, but there were none to be found. The road they followed, however, took them past the entrance of a manor house surrounded by a large garden. The gate was in good repair but had the very slight beginnings of rust that signalled that it had not been opened in some months.
“It cannot be empty, surely? There would be a groundsman, a housekeeper…” Lord Wren wondered aloud.
But Reese had already dismounted, and was inspecting the gate’s mechanism. Without a word, he took out an instrument like a hat pin, and crouched down, eyes level with the lock. The rain started to fall in heavy drops, loud and inescapable.
“Rain like this, everything will be green tomorrow,” Reese commented.
Lord Wren felt water trickling down the inside of his shirt. His clothing was twice its normal weight. “Monsieur Pasteur’s work shows that humidity is a very favourable factor for the development of micro-organisms.”
“Monsieur Pasteur says that, does he?”
“Micro-organisms do not discriminate, you know. Favourable organisms like yeast in beer proliferate well in humidity, but so do bacteria causing illness and death.”
He saw Reese again begin to smile, which should have been vexing but wasn’t. “Don’t like the rain, Sir?”
“Well, Reese, notwithstanding my likely lowered defenses against bacterial and viral attack, this rain is growing to Noachian Flood proportions, and I do not know how to swim.”
Rainwater dripped from Reese’s hair. Turning towards Lord Wren, and grinning widely, he gave the gate a slight push.
The gate opened.
Reese’s skills, thought Lord Wren, were so very… varied. And they existed in such very great quantities. Knives, pistols, broadswords, single attacker, multiple attackers. Evasion, misdirection, concealment, inquiries. But also: storytelling. And accessing inaccessible places.
They followed the path up to the manor and found, at the porte-cochère, an honour guard of birds seeking, like them, shelter from the rain. They made their way into the house easily. Inside, the furnishings were covered and there were no signs of anyone.
“So Lludd has inherited the kingship of Britain from his father, and helped his brother Llefelys marry a princess in France to become king of that country?” Asked Lord Wren.
“This story is misinformed about the mechanisms of succession to the French throne,” Lord Wren concluded, gesturing for more wine.
A fire is roaring in the hearth, both Reese and Lord Wren have found dry clothing - though in styles unfamiliar to them - and they have had some cured meats to eat as well as an excellent bottle to drink. Their surroundings are dusty but not uncomfortable.
“Shhhh. Now, Lludd's reign starts off well, but then three plagues disrupt the peace.”
Reese is sprawled on the floor in front of the fire, in the clothes found in the main bedchambers. The coat and breeches obviously belong to someone very tall, but very old-fashioned. His cheeks are flushed, he looks like he is about to go off to fight Napoleon, and his hair is in a state utterly unlike its habitual precise appearance.
Lord Wren coughs. “What are the plagues?”
“The first is the Coraniaid, which some say is another name for the Romans, that is, those who do not belong but cannot be defeated. The second is a scream that occurs once a year and causes every woman with child to miscarry.”
“Extraordinary. And the third?”
“The third is… I cannot remember the third.”
Lord Wren sits in an armchair, a large squashy thing that made him feel drowsy the moment he sat in it. The clothes they found for him are from the servant’s quarters. Far less formal than anything Wren has worn since childhood, they make him feel as though dressed for a pantomime. Or - no. As though dressed to conceal his class.
Being dressed in informal clothes is freeing, Lord Wren thinks, and decides to join Reese on the floor in front of the fire. Reese seems so comfortable there. So Lord Wren stands, but he overbalances.
He begins to tip over, but before he even knows what's happened, Wren finds himself supported in Reese’s arms. He looks up, and sees Reese looking at him, waiting for instruction. Reese's arms are so strong, and feel so capable, that Lord Wren thinks, Reese might lift him and carry him if he asked. It is a pleasant sensation.
“Are you tired, Sir? Shall I prepare the main bedroom for you?”
They don't move. Lord Wren, if anything, can feel Reese holding him tighter. “No, I… you haven't finished the story.”
Reese is so close to Lord Wren that, when he speaks, the rumble of his voice can be felt. “Come, I’ll tell you the rest in your bedroom.”
The bedroom has panelled doors and panelling underneath the windows, damask wallpaper, and striped curtain fabric matching the bed hangings. It is linked with another bedroom to form a suite. It is very grand.
“Dressed the way you are,” Lord Wren gestures at Reese, and at the gold thread on the coat he is wearing. “You should be sleeping in this room, not I.”
“Is that right?”
A hand at his elbow, Reese walks Lord Wren to the absolutely enormous bed. “They're only clothes, Sir.”
He is right, they’re only clothes, however much Lord Wren might enjoy them. Only cloth and thread. Apparel oft proclaims the man, Lord Wren thinks, but it tells you not what is in his heart. What is his character. Or in which bedroom he belongs.
Reese is a man of excellent character. When first he made enquiries about him, Lord Wren was told the following story: as a young man in the military, Reese was told by a superior officer to execute a fellow soldier found guilty of treason. According to the story, Reese went about the duty efficiently and without comment. But having completed the task, he requested (and was granted) leave. He looked for, and found, the family of the soldier, and he visited them to express his regret. He did not ask for pardon, the story goes, because he did not believe he deserved it.
This is what gives Lord Wren pause when he thinks about Reese: he knows that the man has, in the course of his life, done things because he was told to do them. Because the constraints of his position in society were such that he had few choices and even fewer resources; because he was in no position to refuse to follow orders. And, presumably, because he was taught from a young age that nothing is more important than following orders. But he also knows that for Reese, the taking of a life is repugnant. Ipso facto, Reese would do, or say, things he is opposed to - things that are contrary to his character - if he believed those things to be what his superior wanted.
Reese guides Lord Wren to the bed, and moves him to a sitting position. Lord Wren waits to see what will happen next. Will Reese sit with him and finish the tale of Lludd and Llefelys? Will he simply leave?
“Truly, Reese, that coat suits you.” Lord Wren says, and runs his hand over the gold thread on Reese’s collar.
“Does it?” Reese asks, moving Lord Wren’s hand off his collar and placing it on the bed. “Your clothes do not suit you.”
“No, I suppose they don’t.” He looks down at himself. At the fabric, the shape, the very identity of the clothing. “But anyone seeing us wouldn’t be surprised if you started commanding me, and calling me by my Christian name.”
Reese then crouches down, almost kneeling, before Lord Wren, and looks up at him. His eyes are huge, blue, and teasing. “I do not know your Christian name.”
“Harold.” The name spills out, as though he said it regularly. But, he realizes, the truth is that he has not heard that name spoken by anyone since his governess.
“Harold,” Reese enunciates each syllable carefully. “I command you to tell me whether you wish me to tend to the fire.”
“Oh.” The sensations Lord Wren experiences presently - first at Reese's use of his name, and second, at Reese’s insistence on serving him - are difficult. “Oh, Reese, I…. I do. Yes. Please tend to the fire. But only because I would not know how.”
In the night, the rain stops. Everything becomes quiet, and faint blue moonlight peeks in through the curtains. Lord Wren wakes up.
He wakes up happy, half-remembering a dream, and opens his eyes. What was the dream? Something about indices and the catalogue he’s built to keep track of… Oh. Oh that’s it. He knows how to do the cross-indexing. Oh thank god. Yes, this - yes. He needs to take notes immediately.
In this bedroom, there is only the faintest light from the moon and stars, and dying embers in the fireplace. Where is he, where are the horses, where are the exits, where are their bags? Where is Reese? Memories of the night before come back to him gradually - he is in the main bedroom, Susanna and Marcellina are in the stable, clean and fed and watered. There are multiple exits to the bedroom, one door to this room and one door to the other bedroom, and all the windows. The bags are with Reese. Reese is in the neighbouring bedroom.
Lord Wren breathes deeply, feeling, if not safe, at least protected. He very nearly reaches out to ring for staff, before he remembers that of course there is no staff in this house, not currently, and that even if it was, he is not a guest. He blinks. Above him, blurry shadows move across the ceiling.
He tries to remember where he could have put his spectacles. No matter where he put them, he thinks, Reese would have moved them somewhere easy to find. Therefore, in order to find them, he must determine which place Reese would consider easy to find.
Turning his head to the side, he sees the spectacles on a table not three feet away.
He rises. Puts on the spectacles. Now, candles. Ah - here on the mantlepiece. He can light them from the embers. Now: where is the library?
When dawn breaks, the candle has burned down to the stump, and Lord Wren realizes that he has been bent over a desk, taking notes, for several hours. Pushing back the chair, he stands and realizes that he is in agony. His neck, his shoulders are throbbing. Worse, his injury - which he’d thought mended definitively years ago - is causing him terrible discomfort. “Oh, dear.”
He has a cordial for the pain, but it is in the bags with Reese. Normally Lord Wren would not hesitate to wake Reese if he required him, but this night he finds himself reluctant to disrupt Reese’s sleep. Is it really necessary? Surely if he goes back to bed, the comfortable horizontal position will be enough to soothe him.
Shadows move across the ceiling. Like he does every evening, he counts to ten when he breathes in, and counts again to ten when he breathes out, to quiet his mind. He realizes that his hands are forming fists, and he loosens them. He revises, in his mind, the position of each one of his weapons. Sabre under the bed. First pistol under the pillow. Second pistol in the saddlebags. Carbine in the cupboard. Both knives on the mantle. Deep breaths. Quiet mind.
Next to Reese, Lord Wren shifts. Is he comfortable? He does not seem comfortable. Truth be told, he has not seemed comfortable since the morning they left the manor. On that very same day, he nearly fell asleep on the road, and ever since then, with the exception of this night, he has required Reese’s assistance to undress.
Lord Wren is so preoccupied with his work; it’s no wonder he forgets his own comfort. He works unceasingly. Relentlessly. When he hired Reese, Reese believed him to be a most conscientious, painstaking man. But now Reese wonders what truly drives him. Sometimes, when he is so deep in thought that he becomes unaware of his immediate surroundings - and unaware of Reese’s presence - there is a disquiet to him.
He works because he is concerned about an infectious disease. That is - he works for many reasons, but on this mission he is concerning himself with an infectious disease. He hopes it possible to foresee, perhaps to avoid, a new plague epidemic. Or at the very least, the unnecessary spread of a new epidemic.
Maybe he is driven by a wish to change the world. Maybe his disquiet is due to this. But it does not seem like a mere wish. It seems like a compulsion.
Is such a compulsion impious? Reese does not know. Perhaps it is. An intention, a willingness to challenge God’s plan, that must be a sacrilege. Someone with such an intention would have to believe themselves wiser than God. But if Lord Wren was accused of impiousness, Reese believes, he would take note of the accusation and then disregard it entirely. Even if he thought it was correct. His intentions are unrelated to God, whatever they may be.
In the bed, Lord Wren shifts again. Does he always lay unsleeping for so long? Nearly every time he and Reese have slept side by side, Reese found sleep quickly and slept through to the morning. He does not know if it is unusual for Lord Wren to be wakeful for so long.
Perhaps he does not sleep because he is uncomfortable, though Reese hopes that is not the reason. Perhaps he preoccupied by his work - even in the night, when everything is quiet. Or perhaps he is preoccupied by something else. Perhaps, when Lord Wren and Reese have slept side by side, he has always fallen asleep long after Reese, and this night is like every other.
In the morning, the first thing Reese hears is music. There is someone singing in the street below, and at first he thinks it is a dream, with a beautiful melody and words he does not understand, and something else. Something hopeful. Then he opens his eyes and blinks up at the ceiling, where the wooden beams are much higher than he expects, and he realizes the music isn’t a dream. There really are people singing.
He rises and pours out water from the jug on the bedside table, and washes his face. He dresses, pulls on his boots. The song outside has stopped but there are other sounds from the street, audible even through the closed window. They sound like life.
Reese turns to Lord Wren, and realizes that he’d been expecting him to be awake, like himself. He’d been expecting him to be staring up at the ceiling, like he had a moment ago, frowning slightly at the sounds from the street, as though annoyed that they are neither silence nor intelligible dialogue. Reese had expected him to look around, blink, and then turn to him and ask Reese to hand him his eyeglasses.
But he is still asleep. His eyes are closed, his hair is - how to phrase it - in a very informal state, and he clutches a blanket tightly. Reese once again hopes that his injury was not paining him yesterday. He suspects that Lord Wren does not always tell him when he suffers. Perhaps he believed that his lack of skill with pistols or blades makes him defenseless enough as is, and that there is no need to add to his vulnerabilities.
Lord Wren’s breath hitches slightly as he breathes in. Reese imagines taking his hand in his, stroking it softly with his thumb, until its tense grip on the bedcovers becomes slack. He even takes a step forward.
Laughter drifts up from the street and Reese realizes that his mind has drifted. This isn't what he should be doing. Lord Wren wouldn't want to oversleep and Reese shouldn't just be standing here.
Reese speaks loudly. “Good morning, Lord Wren.”
Lord Wren, startled, sits up blearily.
“Reese?” he asks, squinting up at Reese’s undoubtedly blurry form and, presumably, believing that Reese had left the room and then come back. “Don’t you knock?”
Lord Wren does not ask Reese to assist him with his clothes in any way. He does not require Reese to fetch his eyeglasses or his cordial, or help him dismount from his horse when they go out. Such is the avoidance of physical proximity between them that Reese wonders that he does not alter their sleeping arrangements. Reese wonders that Lord Wren makes no remark, no further reproach. Reese wonders, and wonders, at the simultaneous proximity and distance between them; at the requests for further storytelling during their night at the manor, and the comments about their clothing, and the - and Lord Wren’s christian name. All of those things… followed by such an absence of communication regarding Lord Wren’s well-being. Or absence thereof. Reese would think he had displeased his master, but Lord Wren continues to insist that he share his bed.
And he interferes with Reese’s clothing. That is - he insists that clothing be made for Reese, and that Reese wear it. For their identities to be better concealed.
New boots, a coat with gold thread, a cravat and gloves are ordered. Reese knows not how Lord Wren found the tailor - perhaps men of his class are born with the particulars of every tailor in every city, written in their minds - and Reese knows not how the tailor works so quickly. In the cavalry Reese sometimes had to wait a fortnight to receive his uniform after fittings. With this Danish tailor, he has the garments in three days.
And so now Reese is putting them on. Lord Wren watches carefully. Assessing.
Reese will soon be sent on many, many short journeys, to retrieve messages, or other communication. Lord Wren will then collect the various correspondence, make notes about it, and then collect the notes in a great catalogue. He calls this the Index. The Index is what he uses to anticipate, and ideally avoid, misfortune.
The ability to anticipate misfortune is a desirable one, and there are those who would take Lord Wren’s index and use it for their own ends. It is because of them that secrecy is essential. It is because of them that Reese must change into these new garments. These garments which make Reese feel rather like a tropical bird who has been taken north - too colourful and conspicuous for his surroundings, but unable to stop himself wanting to preen when looked at. Wanting to be admired. But Lord Wren believes them essential, and so Reese wears them, feels rather more like an ornament than a soldier, and finds that he does not feel inconvenienced.
He starts to tie the cravat - the material slips from his fingers - and he starts again. He looks at Lord Wren. Lord Wren looks at Reese. Reese waits for him to say something. He buttons the coat. It is stiff, and holds him like he imagines a corset does a lady, but the surface of the coat is soft. He runs his hand over it, and looks again at Lord Wren.
Lord Wren tilts his head. “That will do.”
When Reese was in the cavalry, evening after evening he saw his fellow soldiers write letters, long letters, great lengthy missives describing their daily lives in very great detail - though not too much detail, the letters being controlled by their superiors - and wondered what it would be like, to be like them, have so many loved ones to keep apprised of their well-being.
Reese had a sweetheart once; she was the only one to whom he ever wrote letters. Reese chose military duties over her one time too many and she threw him over for a shopkeeper. She died a short time before he was hired by Lord Wren. He loved her.
The letters he wrote her were long and full of information that seemed important and interesting at the time, but that he cannot recall now. Reese feels sure that he never told her enough how ravishing she was; how much he treasured her. Perhaps she died without knowing how irreplaceable she was.
After her, there was no one with whom to correspond. Reese had given too much of his life to the cavalry, to the detriment of outside acquaintances. For some years, he used no writing paper at all.
Now he fetches veritable mountains of written messages for Lord Wren, and sends out many messages from him. But these are not letters inquiring after the health of his family and the state of his garden - indeed, most of Lord Wren’s correspondents have never met him or even know his name. The messages are carefully codified and catalogued, and added to the Index.
This is a system Lord Wren started long ago. A large number of correspondents, all acting through agents who know Lord Wren by different names, report instances of certain words, phrases, transactions. Each one of these instances is what Lord Wren terms a “statistic” which is then included in mathematical calculations of probability.
Reese does not pretend to understand Lord Wren’s work; he only knows what he’s been told. Lord Wren, Reese believes, recognizes the limits of his abilities. Reese is able to assist him with the collecting of statistics to some degree, but that is not where his true usefulness lies.
With his Index, he sometimes anticipates possible misfortunes, and it is with the prevention of these misfortunes that Reese is to assist him. He also, though he does not tell Lord Wren this, protects Lord Wren. Lord Wren has explained on more than one occasion that malicious individuals could use the Index as a weapon, and so its existence must be kept secret. Privately, Reese believes that there is an additional threat, in that those who would take the Index, would also take Lord Wren himself. Only Lord Wren knows its inner workings, and so he must be protected just as fiercely.
So Lord Wren anticipates possible misfortunes, and Reese prevents them. Sometimes Lord Wren’s predictions do not come to pass, but more often they do. It often seems as though he is omniscient.
This omniscience, real or perceived, gives Reese pause. Does Lord Wren know the thoughts of those around him, Reese wonders? It often seems as though he does. Reese wonders whether they interest him.
They spend weeks collecting samples from ships coming in to the port. The small boxes that contain the samples crowd the library’s shelves, and then the floors, and slowly, inevitably, every available surface. Lord Wren analyzes those samples, and the samples from the ship that carried them here, and concludes that identification of the plague bacillus is not something achievable at the moment. Which is unfortunate, but not of immediate concern, as Lord Wren observes, because it would not necessarily be helpful in identifying plague vectors.
He is devising a different approach with the help of his Index, and spends long hours making dots on special writing paper he had Reese purchase - it is printed with fine lines making up a regular grid - and then drawing shapes over the dots.
He and Reese hardly speak. Lord Wren pays particular attention to the perfecting of his Index, often forgetting all else that surrounds him. Reese, meanwhile, often spends his days far from the library, altering his clothing and weapons frequently, to complete errands and fetch correspondence. He learns Danish. Well - he learns some Danish.
At night, he does not sleep well. He listens to the sounds from the street and imagines the lives of the people whose voices he hears. Are they happy? Are they merely content?
One night, unable to listen to his own train of thought any longer, resolves to use the only method - besides wine or spirits - that has ever put him to sleep without fail.
Reese rises and, very very quietly, steals away from the bedroom. He goes to the far end of the library. He braces himself against a shelf.
John Reese has not pleasured himself in a long time. He feels - he puts his hand in his lap and pushes up into it, but he is distracted. He closes his eyes, opens them, he moves his hand back and forth. Reese cannot -
Through the darkness, Reese see the Index open on the table. The moonlight, filtered through the sheets covering the windows, falls over it. The book is open, and Reese sees the pages and imagines Lord Wren carefully writing things on them. Meticulous. Methodical. Treating the Index with great care.
Reese is overcome with an image, with an idea - what would it be like the Index, to be the object of that meticulous, methodical care? Reese pushes down his trousers and gasps for breath. He is pleasuring himself and he suddenly hopes, oh so very very much hopes, that were Lord Wren to see him now, he would not be opposed. Oh, oh Reese knows that this is wishful thinking but, but Lord Wren might - oh, God - he might even like to see Reese like this. He might like that Reese is here with his hand on his cock, in this place Lord Wren has created, in clothes Lord Wren has bought for him.
Reese’s hand moves faster. He thinks: Lord Wren might even, if he saw, guide Reese in his movements. Oh. What if, Reese wonders, what if Lord Wren looked at him now the way he has occasionally looked at Reese when Reese changed his clothes? What if he told Reese to move his hand faster, slower? What if he told Reese to get down on his knees?
Something about that thought is too much; Reese moves more frantically and spends into his hand suddenly, pitching forward. The movement pushes a box of samples off a shelf. It falls with a crash.
The box of samples lands on the floor, making a thunderous noise. Somehow, Reese recovers from the shock quickly, crouches, picks up the box, rises, and fastens his trousers, all in one movement.
He is wiping himself with a handkerchief when Lord Wren rushes out, limping noticeably. “Reese? Reese!”
“There is no security breach, Sir.”
Lord Wren stops in his tracks. He blinks once, twice. As though he's only just become fully awake. “Are any samples compromised?”
“No.” Reese’s voice is that of a self-assured soldier giving a damage report. “I am the one who made the noise. I was wakeful, came into the library, I knocked over a box of samples.”
“You aren't hurt?” He peers in Reese’s direction, brows furrowed.
It’s only then that Reese notices he isn't wearing his eyeglasses. He ran out without them. His face is bare, unprotected. Unready. And his shirt is open, rumpled, half pulled out of his trousers.
“Are you hurt? Are you -” he trails off.
“Yes. I am safe, the samples are safe, our security status is unchanged. Please accept my apologies for waking you.”
The darkness of night transforms things. The library, which has become familiar, in which Reese and Lord Wren have spent hours together, suddenly seems like a new, private place. A personal place. There is very little light in the room, everything is grey, visible surfaces in the moonlight and half guessed objects in the shadows. There is something about Lord Wren that is so very difficult to decipher.
“Very well.” He turns, walks back through the door to the bedroom. “Come back to bed.”
Reese closes the bedroom door and adds a log to the fire before climbing into the bed beside him. Despite the excitement, Reese thinks, he may sleep before dawn. He is so very tired.
Lord Wren whispers, “are you often sleepless, Reese?”
“Hm.” His voice is so soft. So gently concerned. For the very briefest moment, Reese thinks of asking him why he has not been asked to assist him with his clothing for so long. Why, for weeks now, Reese hasn’t been permitted to serve him that way.
“You slept better under the open sky, did you not?”
“And slept yet better when you and I were not side by side, I suppose.”
In the morning, Reese is sent out to find interpreters and local agents.
Lord Wren has identified a possible plague vector that requires more specific investigation for which agents will soon be required. These agents will secretly collect and report information on the activities, movements, and plans of a handful of individuals. Reese must select these agents.
“My Danish is still… very approximate, Sir.”
Lord Wren does not look up from his Index when he responds. “I have every confidence in your ability to hire dependable local agents, Reese, whatever your language skills.”
“We can discuss sleeping arrangements when you return.”
Carefully not thinking about this last statement, Reese leaves the lodgings midmorning. His clothing is what a valet would wear to carry messages for his master, he has both his knives and his pistol, and large sums of money in three different currencies. He has been instructed to return only at nightfall.
Five hundred years ago, the Black Death spread. It took the souls of young and old, kind and cruel, strong and weak, all over the world. Lord Wren says that it is difficult to estimate the number of deaths - the pandemic might have taken anything from three, to six, out of every ten. Few people kept records of such things, he says, because few had the means or the ability to do it.
The cause or causes of the plague were utterly unknown then, and that as a result everything and everyone was blamed. Foreigners, Jews, Romani, earthquakes, poisoned wells, even the moon and stars. And of course, God’s anger (for what, Reese wonders?)
With adequately documented information, Lord Wren believes, blame might, today, be correctly attributed to improper sanitation practices.
If the whim of God truly is the source of good and bad fortune, what could have provoked Him to bring Reese here? Reese has sinned so many times over. Does he deserve to be here? When he was found by Lord Wren, he had deserted the cavalry, had no family, no money, and was soon to be without possessions. He had decided to never follow cruel orders again, and now he was a deserter. But deserting wasn't just the loss of his livelihood - it meant that he was forfeiting his life. He knew this, and had decided to do it, because he had nothing to live for. He was giving up. Which is also a sin.
And yet here he is.
Reese returns to the lodgings after sunset. He steps across the threshold and sees Lord Wren limping from one end of the library to the other. His facial expression is that of a man with his thoughts elsewhere, in a haze of conflicting data perhaps, far above things perceived by the senses. But his movements are that of a flawed, mortal body. He was moving this way last night.
Last night he asked Reese whether Reese slept better when they were not spending their nights side by side. Reese knew not how to respond and still doesn’t. It is very true that Reese has been sleeping badly, but he finds that he does not want to leave Lord Wren’s bed. He does not. He does not.
WREN - ONE DAY EARLIER
The day Harold Wren had a breakthrough with his mission, he was so overwhelmed with the possible implications that he did not immediately announce it to Reese. He made no mention of the breakthrough that day, even when they retired to the bedroom. And in the night he slept only fitfully, laying next to Reese, half dozing, drifting in and out.
During the night, Reese rose and left the bedroom. He did it very quietly. Only after he had gone did Harold wake. When he did, he looked up at the ceiling. It was hazy and shadowed in the darkness, but something about it made Harold feel safe. Its solidity, perhaps. Reese was going to come back to bed soon, he thought, and they would fall asleep together under that ceiling. They would be close.
He drifted off again, and when he woke, it was to faint memories of inappropriate dreams. He didn’t remember what they were about. He found that his hand had made its way down his trousers while he dreamed. He squeezed himself and pulled up, once, before he even realized what he was doing. The thrill of the intimate movement went down to his toes. His thoughts were blurry, only flashes of things here and there, drifting in and out of consciousness. This was so pleasant, the quiet of the night, the comfort of the bed, the promise of a successful end to the mission. He moved his hand again, turning slightly. This was so pleasant. Harold let his hand slide up and down. The human body offered so many, oh goodness, potent sensations.
But then a mighty crash sounded in the library. Heart pounding, Harold rose to climb out of the bed as quickly as he could before even becoming fully awake. Reese had been gone for an unknown time, doing some unknown thing. Was he safe?
But in his haste he found himself tangled in the sheets, and in an effort to right himself he painfully twisted his back and nearly fell off the side of the bed. He safely climbed out somehow, despite the panic and pain, and limped to the library. “Reese? Reese!”
The darkness of night transforms many things. The library, a place that should be familiar to Lord Wren, even without his glasses, is a murky and alien place when he steps into it. Everything is filtered moonlight and half guessed objects in the shadows. And Reese, looming between two bookshelves, his features hopelessly hazy to Harold’s eyes, but somehow infinitely recognizable. When he speaks, his voice is flat.
He tells Lord Wren that there is no security breach, and it is only then that Lord Wren realizes that he hadn’t yet given a thought to the security of the samples. To the possible threats to their work. He’s heard a crash, and his first concern had not been the mission.
He stops in his tracks. “Are any samples compromised?”
“You aren't hurt?”
“Are you hurt? Are you -” he trails off.
Reese’s response - about safety and security status - sheds no light, so to speak. Something about Reese being in the library, about the tone of Reese’s voice… About the very fact that Reese, a man graceful, efficient, and precise in his movements, knocked over a box of samples, is inconsistent, but Harold accepts that he cannot understand every thing at every moment, and there is no point in dwelling here in the dark.
So he turns to go back through the open doorway. “Very well. Come back to bed.”
The most reasonable course of action is to sleep, and he returns to a horizontal position, and waits to feel Reese climb in next to him. They must rest. Nothing good can come of further sleeplessness and exhaustion. Nothing - oh. Oh.
“Are you often sleepless, Reese?”
In the morning, Lord Wren sends Reese off on a mission to secure local agents. Reese protests - something about languages - but Lord Wren sends him off with a promise to discuss sleeping arrangements when he returns. When Reese says goodbye, Lord Wren is busy with the breakthrough in the mission, and hardly glances in his direction.
When he was young, Harold Wren began attempting to prevent surprises. At a very early age, he’d lost all of the members of his family, as well as his extended family, to cholera. He’d been too young to truly understand what had happened; only that everyone he knew seemed to have suddenly gone away, and hadn’t said goodbye. It took some time before he knew they would not come back.
He inherited all of their wealth. It was a vast amount of money, and had been entrusted to dependable people. Harold was very young, but his intelligence was considerable, so he was soon able to make his own decisions regarding his estate. And, unbeknownst to his guardians, he resolved to use all of his wealth to save others from what his loved ones had experienced.
In short, Lord Wren’s attempts to prevent the misfortunes of others began long before the creation of his Index. He requested tutors in chemistry, biology, natural history and geology, and had a large laboratory built. He went to Edinburgh for medicine. He worked tirelessly. He discussed games of chance and probability theory. He tried to create models to predict and prevent.
But one day he was hit by the realization that his instinct was guiding him to make the natural world fit conceptual models. That it was guiding him to reduce the natural world to data points. Which may ultimately reveal itself to be a good approach, but it was an approach too time-consuming to be feasible in a lifetime. With such conceptual models, he most likely wouldn’t save anyone now - he would save hypothetical persons in the future. If then.
He thought - perhaps if approximations were done. If - instead of discovering the mechanisms of the misfortunes he wanted to prevent, he attempted to discover the likeliness of their occurrence? Approximations went against Lord Wren’s instincts, but offered the possibility of resolving problems within a workable time frame. Perhaps with systematic collection and tabulation of data, and careful analysis thereof, he might achieve his ends.
And so he developed something new: an Index. He formed acquaintances through a multitude of aliases and requested that these acquaintances alert him to the occurrence of certain words and phrases. He then collected and cross referenced the information. He analysed it.
This is his breakthrough: he had been anticipating new outbreaks of the plague to occur because of inadequate sanitation, or because of rats and fleas stowed away on merchant ships, but analysis of his Index did not indicate this at all (indeed - for some times he could make neither heads nor tails of the information he was receiving from his correspondents - a new outbreak was clearly being anticipated, here in Copenhagen, but - how?) and yesterday he thought, what if the new outbreak his Index anticipates is being planned? What if it is being wilfully, knowingly planned? All this time, he had completely disregarded the possibility that the culprit might be a person. A human plague vector. It’s such a wild, improbably hypothesis. And yet. And yet.
Abruptly, it seems, it is night time, and Reese returns. Lord Wren hears him come in, and in his peripheral vision, sees Reese stand in the vestibule, looking into the library, for a long time before coming in. He doesn’t say anything. Lord Wren realizes that his body hurts, but he still has things to discuss with Reese before the day can be over.
Sentiment can intrude on the quality and quantity of one’s work. This is something Lord Wren realized long ago. The first time he experienced this, he attempted to remove all sentiment from his life; to forego emotions entirely. Emotions were unpredictable, he’d thought, they had chaotic results, and there were so many of them. Avoiding them was the only way to properly plan ahead. He’d been naïve; he knows that now. But the habit of avoiding thoughts regarding his own emotions had remained, and to this day, he surprises himself by his own blindness. Harold tends to see his own emotions, and occasionally he acknowledges them, but without knowing how they intersect with the thoughts and emotions of other people; without knowing how much or how little to speak of them. The world is a bewildering array of rational and irrational facts and forces, but to ignore them is foolish, and the only hope he has of mastering them is to accept that it must be done one step at a time.
And so now he looks in Reese’s direction, with every intention of discussing sleeping arrangements, but then he sees Reese’s expression. He sees Reese’s expression and suddenly it hits him. A face so pleading, just so pleading, like Reese doesn’t even know how wretched he appears. Like perhaps he is so wretched that he thinks that the way he feels is his normal state, so he doesn’t even check his expression.
Lord Wren, who has been still and calm until this moment, feels his heart suddenly start beating very fast. He knows something. He can see it, he can see the collection of data points forming to tell him that… “It’s something else, isn’t it?”
“Reese. You’ve been sleepless, and -” He suddenly feels exhilarated. Solving a difficult puzzle has always made him feel this way. “I thought it was because we’d been sleeping side by side. But I was wrong, wasn't I?”
Lord Wren realizes the implications of what he’s just said, and time stops. There are no sounds from the street, no gusts of wind or creaks of the floorboards. The candlelight itself seems to stop flickering. An image of Reese, no, of the look in Reese’s eye, as he undressed Harold, floats to the surface of his mind. The thing that made Harold look forward to being undressed by him, which was the same thing that made Harold put a stop to it - is this what keeps Reese awake at night?
Lord Wren hears his own breath, coming quicker and quicker, and he looks up at Reese.
They look at each other. Reese starts to speak, but then stops.
Lord Wren’s heart throbs. He takes an awkward step forward, his limp more pronounced with emotion. “What is it, Reese?”
“Sir,” Reese says at last. “Please.”
“I wish you would tell me.”
“Harold,” Reese says, stepping forward. “Please let me assist you. Please. You’ve been in pain since the manor, it’s only gotten worse. Last night -” He falters.
And then, to Lord Wren’s shock, Reese drops to his knees.
Kneeling at Lord Wren’s feet, Reese looks up, beseeching. “You were limping, last night, I couldn’t bear it. Please let me.”
Lord Wren thought… He does not know what he thought. But it seems Reese has, all this time, only wanted to be allowed to help with his discomfort. Only wanted to assist him. In fact, he wants to assist Lord Wren so very much that he has gotten down on his knees for it.
Reese on his knees is a staggering sight. Devoted, defenseless, his clothes in disarray, hair wild. His eyes are wide and beautiful. He is beautiful. Lord Wren is stunned, breathless, and he - he is experiencing something else.
The arousal is incongruous. And it is unseemly. And frustrating. It takes him by force; his first instinct is to cover himself to hide it, but he doesn’t. Flushed and warm and aroused, trying to hide his erection would only draw attention to it. Instead he tolerates it, in all its inappropriate glory.
Why would Reese - why - is this his way of teasing Lord Wren? Of mocking him? By lying restless and unsettled and now putting the blame on his discomfort? By making this production of wanting to serve him?
But no, surely not: Reese’s eyes tell a different story. He isn’t mocking, he is diligent and considerate, he would never… and he is distraught. Very distraught.
“Do you truly want to serve me?” Lord Wren asks. His voice is hoarse, barely recognizable.
Something complicated happens to Reese’s expression. And then he looks away, bends his head down. Lord Wren thinks, oddly, of reaching down to pet him.
Reese asks. “Could I not simply serve you, and not tell you why?”
Time starts again. Reese rises with a creak of the floorboards and fetches his cordial. The lamp light turns half of him into shadows when he moves. Wren imagines he can see his muscles contract and release underneath his clothing. The clothing Lord Wren chose for him, bought for him.
Lord Wren swallows a measure of the cordial. He can feel Reese watching. The man is so tall. So thrumming with energy. When he stoppers the vial and turns to hand it back, Lord Wren is unable to stop himself - he says it again.
The words have a nearly palpable effect on Reese. A pink tinge appears just above his cheekbones.
Taking a deep breath, Lord Wren sits at the table. There is a lot to discuss. He reaches for his Index.
They speak of the mission for a long time. Reese gives him an account of his day’s exertions, and Lord Wren explains the possibility of a human plague vector. He then spends a significant amount of time describing his proposal for neutralizing it.
“If this man is where you say he is, Lord Wren, what will we do with him once we have him?”
“He has been breeding rats and intentionally infecting them for some time now. I very much doubt that we will have to worry about what to do with him for very long.” Lord Wren says, deftly avoiding the ethical dilemma by implying that the man will die no matter what they do. He then takes pains to explain how to avoid contagion in the man’s cellar before concluding. “Broadly, that is my proposed plan as it stands. Are there, in your opinion, are any contingencies left unplanned-for?”
“Our disguises won’t - your anonymity…?”
“Let me reassure you, Reese. I have prepared false identities just for such an occasion.”
“And the local population -“
“Yes. Thank you for reminding me -“ He reaches into his coat and extracts a letter. “Here are the instructions for the local agents you hired.”
By the evening’s end, Lord Wren feels his composure return. He and Reese review their procedure one more time, and then Harold begins to breathe again. He begins to feel his sense of control return. He takes one last measure of cordial for the day, rises, and heads into the bedroom. Reese, he reminds himself, will not sleep if he is not allowed to assist him.
“Undress me, Reese.”
Reese unfastens Lord Wren’s coat gently. Loosens his cravat. Slips his hands underneath Lord Wren’s coat to push it off his shoulders. His hands are warm and the feeling of their warmth on his shoulders is such a solace that Lord Wren briefly - briefly - closes his eyes.
Layer after layer, Lord Wren is disrobed, until finally Reese reaches out and removes his eyeglasses.
“Good night, Sir.”
“Good night, Reese.”
The best-known symptom of bubonic plague is one or more infected, enlarged, and painful lymph nodes, known as buboes. The symptoms appear suddenly a few days after exposure. Buboes associated with the bubonic plague are commonly found in the armpits, upper femoral, groin and neck region. Gangrene of the fingers, toes, lips and nose is another common symptom. Other symptoms include:
Vomiting of blood
Black dots on the body
Without treatment, most die.
The first time I saw it, I was on a return trip from the Orient. One of the officers was taken ill, and there was fear among those who had seen those symptoms before. The older crew members, the ones who had lived through more things than they could tell, had seen the plague before. They were terrified.
Within ten days the officer died and his body was returned to the sea. A ceremony was held. Respects were paid. And then: the buboes appeared on others. Half the crew was gone before we made it back to Denmark. It’s the ocean trade, you see. Moneyed men send us poor souls to the end of the earth in cramped quarters, we trade money and goods, and along the way we trade bacteria as well. We take the bacteria back to our birthplaces. Everyone but those moneyed men dies.
This is what I’ve noticed: any serious outbreak of plague in humans is preceded by an outbreak in rats. Rats, and fleas as well. They are connected, and they carry the plague.
On the morning I am discovered by a Lord Wren and his acolyte, I have nearly completed work on my project, which is to send rats to the richest men in Copenhagen. I have infected one hundred rats - I found the first one in the harbour, on a ship I knew had been contaminated - and I meant to carry them to those who benefit from international trade but never set foot on a ship.
They find me in my cellar, early in the morning, surrounded by cages filled with rodents.
I am glad, in truth. I am glad that they are here to put a stop to my scheme. Perhaps God hasn’t forsaken the earth entirely.
After he and Lord Wren put a stop to the villain’s activities, they deliver him to the proper authorities, and that night, Reese dreams of trees. And then the following night, he dreams of trees again. And then again. Rows of trees, their branches arching over him, which he passes by without ever stopping, without ever seeing close. Like wooden columns supporting the sky.
“The trees here are different.” He remarks one day to Lord Wren. They remain in Copenhagen for the time being; there is no other mission at present, and no reason to precipitate their departure. “I do not recall ever taking notice of trees when I was a boy. I only know that these -“ Reese gestures at the oaks lining the street. They have gone to the market and are now walking back. “Are not the same.”
“The latitude, elevation, proximity to water, the surrounding topography, all combine to alter the temperature, rainfall, available nutrients in the soil, and available light any given location.”
“And yet the trees are not entirely different.”
“Some flora can be found throughout the continent while others can be found only here. The kingdom Plantae is extremely varied, Mr Reese, and one of the ways in which it is varied is that some of its members thrive in a multitude of environments, while others only grow in very specific conditions.”
There is a lengthy silence before Reese speaks again, but when he does, it is with a wide smile. “Do you believe, Sir, like William Blake, that science is the tree of death?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death.” Reese quotes.
Lord Wren stops in his tracks. “What utter nonsense.”
Reese saw the quote weeks ago, at the booksellers when he went to pick up correspondence for Lord Wren’s Index, and has been meaning to use it since. Some of Lord Wren’s reactions can be so diverting. “I see.”
“I’ve never liked Blake.” Lord Wren adds. “He fails to understand that science itself is art. That the world is itself a work of art. In order to understand it, one must master tools, and the mastery of science itself is sometimes dull but it is vital if one is to grasp, to fathom, the natural world. Blake may find that contrary to his spiritual vision - which is, I believe, what that quote is about - but that can only be because he does not know how beautiful, no, how magnificent the world is.”
Above them, the sky is a vivid shade of blue, and clouds, like tufts of wool waiting to be spun, float slowly by. The natural world, John thinks. He used to think he understood his place in the world, but now he does not, and that he never did. And that, perhaps, no one does. “Sir -“
“Do you know, Reese, how very complex and extraordinary the world is? The flora and fauna are so diverse, and their differences are so unexpected, that at times one wonders what is flora and what is fauna. My peers argue, Reese, about the kingdoms Animalia and Plantae, and do you know why? It is because they, that is, we, struggle to determine the precise differences that separate them! And with reason!”
His entire life, Reese has frequented people who feared what they did not know. Many things distinguish Lord Wren from all other people Reese has known, but surely one of the most extraordinary aspects of his personality is his apparently infinite capacity for wonder. He does not fear what he does not know - he admires it. He is fascinated by it. He is wonderful.
“Sir? Am I to understand that science fails to tell the difference between animal and vegetable?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes! They cannot simply be classed according to what they eat, for some plants are carnivorous just like animals. They cannot be classed by their appearance, for several plants imitate the shape and colour of insects, just like insects imitate the shape and colour of plants.”
“Do they?” Reese asks, rather struck with admiration himself.
“…And they most certainly cannot be classed by the way in which they reproduce, because no modes of reproduction are exclusive to either plant or animal.”
Reese does not, at first, understand. When he does, he realizes that the word reproduce is meant to refer to breeding, and feels rather embarrassed. He tries makes light of the matter.
“Do some animals, like trees, plant their young in the ground and water them so they will grow like trees, sir?”
Lord Wren very nearly smiles, which pleases Reese. “No. However, some plants simply copy themselves, while others produce spores, and still others reproduce via sexual reproduction, like animals. Or like men, I suppose. And within the category of plants which multiply via sexual reproduction, some have separate male and female plants, while others have both male and female flowers on the same plant. And of course there is homosexual, bisexual and nonreproductive sex to be observed -“
Maybe this is a story about the success of a mission. Or a story about optimism. Or maybe… maybe this is a story about science.
Reese coughs. “If what you say is true, Lord Wren, the plant kingdom is impious indeed.”
Lord Wren seems taken aback by this statement. He opens his mouth as though to speak, closes it, opens it again. He looks to one side and then to the other, and, looking back up at Reese, gestures towards a nearby bench. Once they are sitting down, he takes a deep breath.
“Reese, that’s - I would wish to -“ He moves his hands together, then apart, and then, seeming to come to a decision, places both hands very firmly on his knees. “Reese, plants are very diverse. Their diversity is their strength, which is why I find them so extraordinary. And beautiful. And their behaviour… You see, there is a sufficient amount of data to suggest that it is not an aberration. It is not unlike -“ He stops, and then looks into Reese’s eyes. “It is not unlike the presence of blue eyes. Blue eyes are less common than eyes of other colours, but they are not an aberration.”
Lord Wren’s gaze is penetrating and unrelating as he continues to speak. He gives a clear and intelligible explanation regarding the colour of Reese’s eyes, which Reese understands to mean a great many things unrelated to eyes. He gazes back, riveted. At one point in the explanation, Lord Wren raises one hand as though he would reach out and place his hand near Reese’s eyes, and Reese feels his heart beat as quickly as it would if he were running. When Lord Wren rises and turns away to continue the walk to their lodgings, Reese finds himself experiencing Lord Wren’s presence by his side as a near unbearable pressure; he wishes to embrace Lord Wren so much that he can hardly breathe. They walk in silence; the noises of the market surround them but Lord Wren says nothing, and Reese very much wishes to know what busies his mind. But when he looks at him, he sees that Lord Wren is deep in thought. So he does not ask.
Lord Wren’s gaze is fixed on nothing, Reese observes, his hands hang limply, and his body is very slightly bent down. His appearance, Reese realizes, is that of a unremarkable man. No one who does not know him would notice him. No one who does not know him would know that he is unspeakably precious.
Reese knows that there are many things in the world that cannot be seen, that are too small or too fast or that remain below the surface, and perhaps, he thinks, it is invisible things about Lord Wren that make him precious. Things Reese cannot name; things he cannot know. You cannot know everything. Mysteries about the natural world abound and there are things for which there may never be a conclusive answer. Why may livestock find nourishment in grasses when humans cannot? How do migratory birds know where they are going? How is it that the world has a magnetic field that makes a compass point north? And, oh what, what is the meaning of the sensations Reese experiences when Lord Wren looks at him? Any number of questions may never be answered, and when they return to their lodgings, Reese does not embrace Lord Wren. He cannot endure the thought of Lord Wren pushing him away once more. But -
“Sir?” Reese he tells him.
“We are far from home. But there is no place I would wish to be but here.”
As soon as he says those words to Lord Wren, Reese hears a sharp cry, and turns to see two men take hold of Lord Wren, and two more come towards him.
His mind busies itself with angles of sunlight and the breeze coming in through the open window, but as he reacts to what he sees, Reese’s body is guided only by years of practice and well-developed reflex. He sees the wild panic in Lord Wren’s eyes, but he files that image away for later. For now, he incapacitates both of his attackers with the daggers in his coat, and then trains both pistols at the heads of Lord Wren’s attackers.
“Take your hands off him.” He tells them, taking a wild guess and addressing them in English.
He has either guessed correctly, or they surmise his meaning from his body language, because they step away from Lord Wren. Reese continues to point the pistols at them and, without looking at Lord Wren, asks him -
“Take their weapons.”
“And send them off with these messages.” He adds as he reaches behind the books on one of the library’s shelves to produce a set of envelopes, seemingly prepared for such an eventuality.
Under Lord Wren’s watchful eye, Reese bandages the two men who have knife wounds, and sends all of them out the door with an envelope each. Then he inspects every room.
“I’m going to follow them.” He tells Lord Wren, when he finds no other agent hidden in their lodgings. “I’ll be back by morning at the latest. Lock the door behind me and stay here.”
Reese quickly discovers the names and addresses each one of the men who attacked them, and the names and addresses of their employers, and returns shortly after nightfall. Lord Wren has packed their most important belongings and dressed himself in travelling clothes. Together, they leave Copenhagen.
They find accommodations just outside the city. When Reese begins to set up his cot, Lord Wren instructs him to share his bed. And then he instructs Reese to undress him. And then when Reese is done taking off his eyeglasses, he says -
“Reese, if you wished to put your arms around me, that would be acceptable”
John embraces him, puts both arms around Lord Wren’s shoulders, and after a moment, he bends down his head until his cheek rests on top of Lord Wren’s head. He thinks, he has never wanted to be anywhere so much as he wants to be here, in this moment.
He waits for further instruction.
Lord Wren does not move, but after a moment, he tells Reese. “If you wished to hold my hands in yours, that would be acceptable.”
Reese takes a step back, he looks down at his hands, and then at Lord Wren’s hands. Lord Wren’s hands are ink-stained, pale, with the creases of more than forty summers, and they are precious, so precious. Reese touches the backs of Lord Wren’s hands with the tips of his fingers, strokes them, and then he takes Lord Wren’s hands into his own. When he squeezes them gently, he feels Lord Wren squeeze back. Reese thinks his heart might burst.
“Reese, if you wished to…” Lord Wren falters, seemingly at a loss for words, and Reese is overcome with a desire to rush to his assistance, to reassure him; he brings both hands up to his lips and kisses the tops of Lord Wren’s knuckles.
“John.” Lord Wren reaches out and places one hand on Reese’s cheek, near his eye. “Your eyes are - they are remarkably beautiful.”
Lord Wren runs his fingertips down from Reese’s cheekbone, down to his jaw, and, hypnotically, all the way down to his collar. When he pulls on the cloth of his cravat, slowly, it falls to the floor. And he slips his fingers underneath Reese’s shirt. Reese feels his eyes flutter shut, and he suddenly recalls their first night sitting by a fire, when he told Lord Wren tales heroes and princesses; of magic weapons and terrible curses.
“We’ve completed our quest, Sir.” He says.
Lord Wren goes still, hand frozen over Reese’s heart. “I beg your pardon?”
“We’ve done a heroic deed. Now we may take shelter and - and rest.”
“John,” Lord Wren says, intent. “When I look at you, I am overcome with love, and with - with lust. Please, John, if your feelings are the same -“
“They are.” John says, and kisses him.
Harold’s hand is still over John’s heart. It anchors him. Harold knows so many things about him - does he know this? Does he know what is in John’s heart, what John wants, what images run through his mind when he pleasures himself?
“John,” Harold whimpers, reaching up with his other hand pulling John towards himself.
“What is it?”
“Do you want to serve me, John?”
John nods, and Harold pushes him down to his knees.