Molly said nothing more for the rest of the night. Try as he might Caleb could not get another word out of him. The uncharacteristic silence frightened him almost as much as the rest of the scene: the ominous mountains, the eerie stillness of the stone woman, the tears mingled with rainwater on Molly's cheeks.
Wrestling Molly back down the flooded mountain path and through the lightless caves was a nerve-wracking experience. With one arm over Caleb's shoulders Molly would walk, but offered no direction on the way back. He seemed completely lost in his own thoughts, sunk in his own misery, leaving Caleb almost as alone when he stumbled back into the castle through the black door as when he had stepped out of it.
Once safely back inside there was nothing Caleb would have liked better than to collapse in his chair before the heat of Jester's grill, but Molly was soaked to the bone and wearing only his thin shirt. The tiefling had to be toweled off, stripped of his sodden clothes and tucked into bed with warm water bottles before Caleb could even let himself take off his soaking boots.
At last he lowered himself creaking into the chair before the fire. He hadn't felt so cold and stiff and creaky since the first night he'd come to the castle, and it gave him a dizzying sense of deja vu, as though the last few weeks had been just a daydream in front of the fire.
Just as then a fluid, bluish head poked itself up from the fire, little tendrils of flame rising from Jester's fiery cloud of hair like horns. Or perhaps they really were flames; she was a fire demon, after all. "Caleb?" Jester asked tentatively. "Is everything okay? Is Molly okay?"
"He is fine; I have put him to bed in warm clothes." Caleb rubbed at his own clothes, still damp and drawing a hungry chill, with a grimace. "I followed him through the rain for nearly an hour, to find... I am not sure what I found." He frowned at Jester. If anyone in the house could supply the lacking context for that eerie scene, surely it was Molly's own demon. "Do you know who that woman was, Jester? The, the strange sleeping woman with the pale skin and black hair."
"I'm afraid not," she confessed and Caleb felt his heart sink a little lower. "I mean, I know who you mean, I've seen her before. But I don't know who she is at all, or who she is to Molly."
"That is the very same thing he said," Caleb muttered.
Jester said nothing.
Caleb supposed he should have expected that. He vented a tired sigh and sank a little further into the chair, his head dipping forward towards his knees. He didn't know how to approach this tangle, and after the day he'd had the task seemed daunting, impossible. Right now he didn't feel like much of a detective; he felt like a tired, cold, old man desperately in need of some of the comfort he'd doled out to Molly earlier. Frumpkin, seeing an opportunity now that Caleb was sitting still, levitated up onto his lap and settled down there, purring. At least he had this, Caleb thought as he stroked Frumpkin's soft short fur, losing himself in the soothing repetitive motions.
In the quiet, he found himself thinking of his mother again. Drawing on her memory to comfort Molly earlier today had brought her to the front of his mind and once invoked, her shade lingered. It had seemed to young Caleb that his mother always, always knew. Always knew what to say, what to do, how to fix any problem. There had been many times when young Caleb had been weeping or in a tantrum and had not even known why until his mother stopped and asked him shrewd questions. For all he missed her, for all he mourned her, more than anything he wished that he had inherited just a fraction of her insight.
Or maybe it was time and the ignorance of childhood that blurred his memory, made his mother seem larger than life in his memory. Foolishness, surely, to be a man grown and yet sit here wishing for a parent to swoop in and solve all their problems.
"Caleb, are you okay?" Jester asked timidly. "You've gone all... quiet. Are you coming down with a chill? Humans do that, right?"
"No, I am fine," Caleb sat back up with a little grimace. "I was just thinking of my mother."
"Oh, yes!" Jester flared up in excitement, then banked a little in caution. "Was she... Did she die when your house burned up?"
"No. Thank the gods, no," Caleb said fervently. "She was long gone by then, her and my father too. I shouldn't mope and maunder so, he lived long enough to see his children grown. Well, only me. Astrid and Eodwulf were still children." He brooded a little, on past losses and past failures. "I tried to take over, to be mother and father for them as we had none... but it all went wrong."
"Astrid..." Jester flickered pensively. "She's the one you saw a few days ago, right? The one Molly was courting?"
Caleb grimaced. "More like she was attempting to court Molly, and not even that any more." His and Nott's antics had managed to get Molly banned from the salon, but there was no guarantee -- knowing Astrid -- that her fury would be vented with just that. Astrid had always been exceptionally good at holding a grudge; as the youngest of three, she'd learned to be patient. "I can't help but wonder what Mother would think of the hash I've made of things. But then I think that I do not know, I have no idea, because I was only a child when she died and I'll never know now what she would think of what I have become as a man."
"She'd probably be very proud of you!" Jester said bracingly.
"Proud of what?" Caleb snapped, then gestured down at his shabby state. "A homeless, destitute, accursed drifter, whose only friends are demons and goblins, whose best chance at employment is being a servant to an equally accursed warlock?"
"Well -- well --" Jester hesitated. "At least she'd want you to be okay."
Caleb gave a hollow little laugh. "Then that is another way in which I would have disappointed her."
The words hovered between them, the hissing of the coals barely audible. Jester's flames grew and waned, but she said nothing.
"I don't know why I am telling you about all this," Caleb said bitterly. "It is not as though fire demons have mothers to miss."
The conversation stopped there, cold; cold lay like a smothering blanket over the dark castle room. Caleb pulled his damp coat closer around him, and tried not to think of how much warmer it would be upstairs, tucked into Molly's bed. The only light in the room came from Jester, flickering bravely and tenaciously against the dark, uncommonly quiet now in the face of his bitterness.
At last she said, "Have you ever heard of the Ruby of the Astral Sea?"
Caleb frowned for a minute, trying to think. The name sounded vaguely familiar but it took him several moments to place it. At last he snapped his fingers in epiphany and stood from his chair, disturbing an annoyed Frumpkin in the process. The cat climbed up and settled on his shoulders instead as he crossed to the bookshelf, dancing along the titles until he found the one he was looking for. It was the same one he'd been reading when he'd asked Jester about her summoning and she had been unable to answer him. He'd put the volume away, certain it was going off the wrong track, but it did have many accounts of wizards summoning demons and elementals from the other planes.
" 'At last I beheld her,' " he quoted the unnamed author, " 'A figure of scarlet flame, singing the sweetest melodies of heaven. In all my searches I never found another like her, solitary and perfect, a ruby in the astral sea.' Is that what you meant?"
"Yes, that's her!" Jester crowed, leaping for a moment before she settled down on her grate. "The Ruby of the Astral Sea. That's not her real name of course, but they wouldn't just write down her real name in any old book that any old wizard could read. Even if she is really nice and really, really popular, so famous that people even know her here on the Material Plane."
"And who is she? This Ruby of the Astral Sea?" Caleb asked.
Jeser turned more subdued, flickering to a lower ember. "That's my mom," she said.
Caleb blinked, completely at a loss for how to respond. It had never occurred to him that fire elementals even had parents, or indeed how they reproduced at all. "Your mother," he managed to say.
"Yep," Jester said. "The prettiest, smartest, most powerful fire spirit in the Elemental Plane! The nicest, too. The reason she's so famous even here on the Material Plane is that she's really, really nice, and she always tries to help everyone who asks her.
"When I was growing up my mom was gone a lot. She'd get called away to the Material Plane by some wizard who wanted her to do something or other for them -- enchant this wand, slay this beast, cast a great spell to impress the King, this that or whatever. Someone from the em-pee would call and she'd get up, put on her business face and go, and I'd be all alone for a couple of hours or days before whoever it was would dismiss her and she'd come back. One time she was gone for two weeks and I was so mad, I made her promise she'd never leave for so long again. And she promised she wouldn't!"
"And then?" Caleb murmured.
Jester drooped. "And then... three years ago, she went on a business trip," she said. "And she never came back."
The words hung in the quiet between them, heavy and fraught. "I thought fire spirits could not --" he said, then paused a moment and rephrased. "Your mother must have found something that could sustain her on this plane, then," he said.
"Yes, she did!" Jester said in an adamant tone. "She must have! But she'd never been away for so long before. Week after week after week! She even missed my birthday and my mummy would never let that happen, never! So I knew then that... that something must have happened, and she'd gotten stuck somehow. Either here on the Material Plane or... or somewhere between here and home. So I knew what I had to do."
"You came here to search for your mother?" Caleb said. It all made sense now.
"Yes," Jester said, and drooped some more. "I thought I could get in and get out quickly, just search in little bursts and duck back into the Ethereal every time I got tired and not, you know, get drained of my essence and die. But I never knew how big the Material Plane is. You've got so much nothing here, not like home where every place is something. I... well, I slipped up. And I couldn't get back into the Ethereal Plane. And I fell."
Caleb nodded understanding. "You were in trouble," he said, "and then you met Molly." That seemed to be the common thread of it, the way that they all knew Molly: one of them had been in trouble and Wizard Molly had appeared out of nowhere, loud and obnoxious and colorful and brimming over with astonishing kindness.
"Yes," Jester said.
She said nothing more, instead seeming to be waiting for something. The stipulations of the contract must be coming into effect, Caleb realized; she couldn't tell him anything about it that he didn't already know. But he could make an educated guess -- reason it out -- then she could tell him if he was right. He sat for long minutes, unmoving except for the scratch of his fingers under Frumpkin's chin, feeling the reverberation of his purr.
"You fell," Caleb said slowly, "and you found yourself close to Molly. A lost little fire spirit, far from home, looking for your mother and doomed now to dwindle and die. He felt sorry for you, perhaps."
"Yes," Jester whispered.
"So he offered you the compact," Caleb continued. "In exchange for something he wanted you to do for him, he offered you something in return, something that bound you to this plane. A link that would keep you alive, but trapped until the contract was fulfilled. What did he give you?"
Jester said nothing, flickering in silent flame, and Caleb realized that he would have to figure it out himself. What Jester had given to Molly was clear enough from the magic that burned brightly in his unearthly eyes. What had Molly given to Jester?
Jester, well, I'm not getting back what she has, Molly had said bitterly, the day after his tantrum with the slime. What else had Molly said that day?
He put the pieces together methodically, like untangling a mess of wires, pulling each piece free and following it back to the ends. Who says I could remember my name in the first place? Molly had giggled while blind drunk. His name? Had he given up his name? But, She's lived more of her life than I've lived of mine he'd said of Nott. Given up years of his life? Was that possible?
I don't remember my mother Molly had said once, and Caleb had dismissed it as a too-common plight of orphans. Two years is all I have. How bewildered he'd seemed when Caleb first appeared in his life, how he'd just accepted Caleb's word that they'd never met before. How he never seemed to even know what books were in his own library.
Who is she? Caleb had asked, of the woman whose plight left him grieving in the rain, and Molly had said, I don't know.
"You took his memory," Caleb realized. All at once everything fell into place. "The memories of his past, that's what he gave to you. That is why he cannot remember."
"That's right," Jester said, snapping in satisfaction. At the expression on Caleb's face she hurried to add, "But I didn't take, like, his head- memories. Only the other kind."
"Head memories?" Caleb said, bewildered.
"Like, you know," Jester said, and tossed her fiery hair. "How to speak Common, how to read and write, how to lace up your shoelaces, how to do maths. How to put on clothes and walk and all that stuff that you humans need in your daily lives. I didn't take away any of that. Only the other kind."
The other kind. Body-memories, perhaps, the memories of your own name and self and whatever family you'd once had. Memories of your childhood and family and everyone you'd ever loved, everything you'd ever wanted. Just those.
"That's not all, is it?" Caleb said after a long moment.
Jester said nothing.
Caleb sighed. Of course, it couldn't be that simple. And of course, Jester couldn't tell him anything until he'd worked it out for himself. You look really smart, Jester had told him his first night in the castle, tired and chilled just like he was tonight. I know you can piece together the clues and figure it out!
Maybe if he went to sleep, his subconscious could work on the problem. Perhaps an answer would be delivered in his dreams.
Or even if it wasn't, it didn't feel like he'd have much choice in the matter one way or another. Sodden fatigue weighed him down like a ten-pound blanket draped over every limb. He was still cold, but the warmth of the brightly glowing fire formed a bubble of comfort, beyond which he couldn't even imagine venturing.
Caleb barely managed to manage to mumble a gute nacht to Jester before his chin sank down onto his chest, fingers tangled in Frumpkin's fur, and darkness pulled across his vision like a curtain.
Breakfast the next morning was subdued by the standards of the castle; Molly did not reappear from his bedroom (not that Caleb really expected him to) and Jester flickered at a low ember and said little. Nott managed to keep up most of the volume by herself, though, munching through a plate of bacon at high speed as she demanded from Caleb an account of last night.
Nott did not recognize the description of the pale woman either, much to Caleb's disappointment. She seemed to veer back and forth between opining that mystery woman was Molly's secret wife, and speculating that perhaps she was a warrior vampire ninja princess who was under a curse .
"Well, if she truly is under a curse, then she'll fit right in with this household," Caleb mumbled.
" I'm not cursed!" Jester said brightly. Nott did not immediately pursue the theory, instead changing subjects onto a detailed speculation on Mollymauk and Mystery Woman's hypothetical courtship and wedding.
Personally, Caleb didn't think she could be a wife, although it was hard for him to find evidence to support his certainty. Most of it was that Molly didn't seem to think she was a wife, or girlfriend -- if he believed that, surely he wouldn't go gadding about with so many other girls!
Or would he? The doubts remained. He thought that Molly, the Molly that he'd grown to know rather than the sinister reputation he'd cultivated, would never do such a thing. Would never turn his back on a friend, let alone a lover that had been brought low by uncanny illnesses or curses. But how well did he know Molly, really? And how much of this was just his own projection -- his desperate wish to believe, regardless of the truth of the matter?
Whatever the mystery woman was or was not, he should not entertain such thoughts, Caleb told himself firmly. Molly would never be available to him -- foolish to think of himself as the sort of lovely lady that filled Molly's social calendar. Even if he were, the gulf between them was too great, a gap filled with the clutter and debris of the lies and callous comments he'd dropped between them. Molly was powerful, beautiful, respected; he was a wreck of a man who'd lost everything, including his youth and looks, without a penny to his name.
No, it was better not to entertain such thoughts, no matter how the memory of Molly -- warm and loose-limbed and sleepy in his bed, reaching out towards Caleb with a heated look in his sleep-slitted eyes -- lingered.
His brooding thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door -- a different sound than the usual petitioners seeking magical spells. Soft, almost diffident, it nevertheless managed to sound through the entire room and snare the attention of all three occupants.
Jester flared up, spinning in excitement and alarm. "Zadash door!" she called out.
Caleb and Nott froze and stared at each other, wide-eyed. The last knock they'd gotten at the Zadash door had been the patrol of Crownsguard come to summon Mollymauk for an audience to the King. With a little artful disguise and a lot of nerve, he'd managed to convince them that the household was beset by some horrifying plague that Mollymauk had contracted from the denizens of the Abyss; they couldn't quarantine the house fast enough. Caleb didn't know what news had been taken back to the palace but they'd heard nothing from the Zadash door -- no crownsguard, no customers, no curious onlookers -- since then.
It seemed their grace period was up. "Quick, quick, get the cloak!" Nott hissed at him as she flew into motion, dashing here and there. Alchemical bottles were overturned, bandages wound hastily around her face and hands; seized with a sudden enthusiasm, Nott seized the leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast and began smearing it artistically around.
The visitor at the door, whoever it was, persisted; the soft knocking grew steadily louder as they scrambled to set the scene. By the time Caleb found the disguise cloak and yanked it on, wincing at the tight pulling sensation as the enchantment took effect, it echoed relentlessly through the entire castle. He took his place by the door and tried to compose his thoughts, to assume the demeanor of the haggard and wasted servant.
The best way to sell a lie, he reminded himself, was to bury a seed of truth in every one. He really was exhausted and depleted from last night's adventure in the rain. Nott truly did need to be sheltered from public view, for her own safety. And Molly truly was in no state to see visitors, let alone carry out duties for the King. He just had to lean into the truths, and they would help him see this through.
And if there was a squad of Crownsguard on the other side of the door, he decided, he would slam it in their faces and spin the wheel. Molly could complain all he wanted about the Zadash portal being destroyed; keeping him and Nott and Jester safe mattered more. He squared his shoulders and put his hand on the doorknob, already rehearsing his lines.
When he finally opened the door, he was greeted with a most unusual sight. Instead of a squad of Crownsguard he found himself faced with a single tall -- towering, in fact -- pale, skinny firbolg dressed in dark green. He didn't look like a guard -- or a customer for that matter. In fact, he looked like nothing Caleb had ever seen before, and trying to take in all the details stunned him for a few crucial seconds.
Tall was the overwhelming impression, with the firbolg's height topping out over seven feet. That was quickly followed by the pink?! of the man's hair, falling in gentle waves down one side of his head and shaved on the other. It drew the eye to the man's face, which was dominated by an affable smile that almost distracted from his sharp, penetrating eyes.
Caleb was so wrong-footed by the unexpected appearance of his visitor that he quite forgot that he was supposed to be moaning and groaning and afflicted by a terrible wasting disease. He did little more than gape, in fact, until the apparition spoke. "Oh, hello," it said in a cheerful deep rumble. "I'm the doctor."
"A doctor..." If nothing else, the reminder nudged Caleb's brain back on track. Taking a page from Molly's book, he slumped dramatically against the doorframe, staring up at the visitor with hollow eyes. "I think it is too late for such help. We would need the services of a mortician."
"Oh, I'm that too," the firbolg said. "My name is Caduceus Clay. Can I come in?"
"No..." Caleb's mind raced, trying to think of a valid reason to deny entry. His best deterrent -- virulent, communicable disease -- had already backfired by drawing this alarming official down on them. No, the castle is too dirty for visitors? No, the castle is full of bees? "...you can't," he finished weakly.
Several heartbeats passed as the two of them stared at each other, and then firbolg sighed. "I can see that this is a bad time," he said. "I'm terribly sorry, but the King did send me. I'm afraid I have no choice but to do my duty."
The implication was clear: if Caleb did not stand aside and let him in, he could leave and return with another squad of guardsmen. Surely it would be easier to deal with this Caduceus Clay by himself? "Besides," Caduceus added, unaware of the drift of Caleb's thoughts, "if people are hurt or sick, I really do want to help."
He sounded sincere in his desire to help. Perhaps this Caduceus would be as naive as his kindly manner suggested, and he and Nott could spin him in a yarn and send him away again. "Very well," Caleb gave way reluctantly, and opened the door to let Caduceus inside.
It was odd how having another person inside your space made a familiar space suddenly seem unfamiliar. Caleb had done a lot over the past few weeks to transform the front room of the castle, to organize and tidy and make a place for everyone. Now he wished he hadn't been quite so vigilant; it would be harder to convey an atmosphere of ruin and decay in such a neat and tidy space.
Harder to hide things, too. As he turned back to the castle room his eyes passed over Jester's stove, then widened with horror as he realized she was out in plain view. He locked gazes with Nott, hovering uncertainly, and gave a little jerk of his chin back towards the stove. Nott's lamplike eyes moved from Caleb to Jester to Caduceus before realization widened in her eyes and she scuttled over to close the front vents of the stove and draw the hood. Jester's complaint was quickly muffled by the iron plates.
Without Jester's light it was much darker in here. Good, the less their guest saw the better. Caleb stood aside grudgingly as the firbolg ducked his head under the lintel and stepped inside, blinking as he straightened up and surveyed the room. "Huh," he said, looking thoughtfully around, ears twitching slightly. "That's odd."
At a loss for what else to do, Caleb gestured for their guest to seat himself on the divan and went to prepare a cup of tea. Not that he particularly wanted him to stay around for tea, but if he was sitting then he couldn't be roaming around the place and noticing too much. The faint sounds of Jester's grumbling were still audible from the stove in the corner; Nott suddenly burst out into an extended cough to try to cover the sound.
"Oh, my," their guest said, blinking over at Nott. "Are you quite all right, Miss? Sounds like you could use a glass of tea as well."
"Do not come too close, Nott, my dear," Caleb said, putting on his best rusty and illness-wracked voice. He set the cup of tea down on the table next to the firbolgs knee. "We don't want you to infect the good doctor."
"Oh, it's fine," Caduceus assured them in a friendly voice. "She looks quite healthy for a goblin of her age."
Caleb and Nott both froze in place and exchanged a wide-eyed look of horror. Nott cleared her throat frantically but couldn't seem to find the words. "UM --"
"You must be mistaken!" Caleb threw in hastily. "She is not a goblin, ehm, that would be absurd."
"It's a skin condition! A skin condition!" Nott insisted shrilly.
"Which sadly afflicts us both --" Caleb started trying to follow Nott's line, pushing up his sleeves to display the piebald flecks that the enchanted halfling disguise left him with. He realized his error a moment later, though, when Caduceus reached out and took gentle hold of his arm, turning it over to inspect the discoloration. Caleb froze.
"Well, now," Caduceus said in his slow, comfortable way. "All those magics you are tangled in don't look comfortable at all, but I'm sure you could take them off you if you tried."
He released Caleb's arm and leaned back, smiling up with him in a friendly sort of way, and Caleb realized too late that he had vastly underestimated just how much their unwanted guest would notice.
Caduceus looked around the castle, then frowned up the stairs. "Well, this visit has been very nice, thank you for the tea," he said. "But I really do need to see the Wizard."
That spurred Caleb into action. "No. He is deeply unwell," he said firmly. "He can see no one, he can do no work for the King. What afflicts him, you cannot help."
Caduceus looked back to him with a faint frown. "No offense, but don't you think the doctor would be the better judge of how sick he is?" he said. In an earnest voice he added "I'm very good at healing, you know. I can at least try."
For a moment Caleb was torn, distracted by a sudden unexpected hope. If Caduceus really was an accomplished healer, one who was at least familiar with magical afflictions -- perhaps he would be able to help the mysterious pale woman beyond the black door? Perhaps he would be the answer to the problem Mollymauk had not been able to solve?
But that would mean telling this firbolg, this stranger, details about Molly's private life that he had not even meant for Caleb to see. That would mean letting him into Molly's secret sanctum, without his permission or even notifying him, and that was a breach of trust Caleb could not contemplate. No, the only thing that he could do with Caduceus for Molly's sake was to see him off, and free him from the threat of the King and the war they wanted to drag him into.
"No," Caleb said firmly. "He had a very bad night and he is deep in sleep now. I will not allow him to be disturbed."
Caduceus turned speculative eyes on him, and Caleb braced himself and set his teeth not to squirm under the scrutiny. "It's very considerate of you to guard his slumber," he said. "You care for him a lot, considering all the terrible things he's put you through."
The comment stung more than Caleb had expected, considering that a week ago he might have agreed. Now, though -- " He has not put me through anything!" he said hotly. "He -- he has been nothing but kind and good to me. If annoying sometimes."
" That's the truth," Nott muttered.
"Hmmm," Caduceus said. It occurred to Caleb only belatedly that this was not doing much to bolster Molly's reputation of wickedness. His eyes strayed back towards the stairwell. "I really think that I ought to see Mr. Tealeaf."
"I think not." Caleb firmed his stance and raised his chin, standing between Caduceus and the stairs with his arms crossed and feet planted.
He was just wondering whether Caduceus would be bold enough to try to push past him physically, and what he would do if that were the case, when the creak of an opening doorway sounded from upstairs behind him. Caleb felt the hair raise on the back of his neck as light footsteps rushed towards the landing, but there was no time to call out or go upstairs. Caleb turned around, still blocking Caduceus from the stairs, a warning call on his lips -- which died unspoken when Molly himself burst into view.
Molly seemed fully recovered from his harrowing night. In fact, no one who saw him now would have believed that he'd gone to bed a bedraggled, harrowed, soaking wreck. Sometime during the morning he'd cleaned and brushed his hair, made up his face so that no hint of shadow was visible, and gotten dressed.
Not just put clothes on -- gotten dressed. In a long, sheer, crimson red dress cut low across the collarbones and high up on the hips, showing flashes of sheer lavender skin with every extravagant step.
"Caleb, darling!" the wizard called brightly from the landing. "I'm feeling very femme today and the world deserves to know!"
"Oh no," Caleb dimly heard Nott say, though he had no eyes for anyone but the vision at the top of the stairs.
Caleb recognized, dimly, that specific item of clothing from Molly's closet. He'd held it up when sorting through the man's clothes and then dropped it, leaping at once to the conclusion that it had been left there by one of Molly's lovers. But it seemed his assumption had been vastly misplaced, because the red fabric fitted perfectly to Molly's height and the shape of his body and he moved in it with absolute assurance. Before Caleb's frozen eyes Molly stopped on the landing, leaned theatrically against the railing and set one foot on the banister in an utterly familiar, perfectly practised move.
If Molly noticed Caleb's shocked, poleaxed response to his unexpected appearance, he didn't remark on it. "Let's make tonight a night on the town, a spec tac ular spectacle," Molly burbled on, lips curved and blue eyes shining with amusement. " Fuck Lettie's salon, fuck the King and his summons, fuck all of it. Let's go out and paint the town red! You absolutely must be my escort, of course, and you'll need --"
For the first time Molly looked past Caleb standing at the bottom of the stairs, and his eyes widened as they landed on Caduceus. He stopped dead, one hand still on the railing, and looked between Caleb and Nott.
"Um," he said. "We... have a visitor? Caleb?"
Caleb couldn't respond, aside from an inarticulate little noise that seeped past his lips. He was still trying to process the vision of Molly in the red dress, the perfect self-assurance in the way he moved, and oh god was that glitter in his hair was he wearing bronzer was that a garter --
Fortunately, Nott was there to complete the introductions. "This is Caduceus Clay!" she chirped. "He's a doctor sent by the King to cure you of your horrible wasting disease so you can fight in battles for the king!"
Molly's mouth opened, then closed, and Caleb's eyes were riveted on the smooth sheen of his lips. "Oh," the wizard said finally.
He seemed to consider the situation for a long moment, looking from Caleb to Nott to Caduceus, who gave a friendly little wave. At last he turned around, gathered up the train of his dress in one hand, and marched back into his bedroom, where he closed the door.
An awkward silence settled over the castle. Caduceus finally broke it with a little cough. "Well," the firbolg said. "He certainly seems healthy enough."
Caleb knew he ought to say something, do something to try to convince the doctor otherwise, but his tongue was still a lead block in his mouth and his chest felt like it was being wrapped in bands of elastic. It fell to Nott to leap into the gap, doing her best to continue the pretense. "Ummm, well, sure, he LOOKS fine! On the outside! But all that demonic magic has warped his mind! He's a deviant! A terrible pervert! Y-you've heard the rumors, surely?"
A lopsided smile stole over Caduceus' face, and he shook his head ruefully. "Yeah... no, he seems like a perfectly fine young man to me."
With graceful movements Caduceus collected his staff and his satchel from the kitchen table and stood up straight, shrugging the strap around his chest. "If it makes you feel any better, I won't tell anyone," he said in a kindly tone. "I think it's really nice that you want to help protect your friend. But I have to do my job, so I'm just going to report back to the King that Wizard Molly is on the mend."
Caleb had no choice but to turn the door to Zadash for him, then hold it as the healer saw himself out. Nott sidled up beside Caleb, climbing the banister to be close to his ear. " Should we kill him?" she whispered, in a voice that probably carried all the way back up to Porthaven.
Caleb winced and shook his head. "No," he said, closing the door firmly behind Caduceus and turning it to the green setting. "I think the jig is, uh, how do you say it, the jig is out of the bag."
Nott considered this for a moment, then frowned and shook her head. "No, you say the jig is up."
"Yes, thank you," Caleb said, torn between gratitude and irritation at the correction. "The jig is up the bag."
For a moment the castle room was quiet, a subdued pall cast over the inhabitants. Jester was the first one to speak up. "What are we going to do now?"