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Virgo at Hades' Gate

Chapter Text

Strange. 

Five cycles ago, Edan had been lost in the open countryside – missing the structured walls and streets and towers of Cresley. The way life moved like an enormous ticking clock with a thousand hands and gears. Like the way planets orbited the sun.

Everyone and everything had a place – a role to fill. Cities were the place for people, and the wild land the place for daemons.

But now.

The chaotic streets of Cymaria seemed to hang over his head, threatening to choke out the wind and light. What had seemed like order from the windows of Cresley Cathedral was noise and heat and shoving elbows and stamping feet and screaming vendors.

He tried to take several long breaths – in through the nose, out through the mouth – quiet the mind, and the soul and body will follow. That’s what Father Loic always said.

The famous library of Cymaria appeared around the corner, and he breathed a prayer of thanks to Saint Yulia, and elbowed his way to the wide steps. 

Inside the atrium, with the door shut behind him, he closed his eyes, breathing in the new world he’d walked into. Almost no noise filtered in through heavy stone and thick tinted windows, colored with a thousand sparkling hues. The air smelled of mold, paper, and ink.

He smiled, rolling his shoulders back. He was home. Or, close enough.

The books on natural philosophy and astronomy were in the same room, an attendant informed him down his long nose.

“And,” he added. “You’ll have to leave your satchel with me. No bags in there – with the books.”

Edan stiffened. “Excuse me. Brother Edan Lares. And – I’ve got my credentials right here sir. I assure you – as a priest of Cresley, I’m not a thief.”

The man raised an eyebrow. “No bags in the rooms. Leave it here, or leave.”

Edan could feel his face flushing. “But – I – my paper and pens for notes.”

The man pointed to tables across from his massive desk. Several figures sat there, bent over books, and scribbling in notebooks.

“Bring any books you need for notes to me – you get one book at the table with you at a time. Lead pencils only – I see a drop of ink anywhere near these books an’ you’re out on the street.” He shot Edan’s satchel another pointed glance. Edan weighed it in his hand, hesitating.

His stargazing notes were in here. Observations of nature. His travel log. His own two-volume collection of writings from the church fathers and saints. To leave all these things –

The man sighed impatiently. “No one’s gonna steal your bits and bobs, Brother Lares. I give you my word as warden of this library.” 

His tone brought fresh heat to Edan’s face. No. I am in the wrong – he’s right to treat me as any other . There were some Edan knew who carried their position like a key to every lock – blustering and threatening if any dared to question it.

That’s not the way – it betrayed the very ideals of the church fathers and saints. He must not take their path. 

He nodded, swallowing his temper, and handed over the bag. He forced a smile. “Thank you. I apologize. I was out of line.”

The man harrumphed, and promptly ignored him, shifting his squinted gaze back to the people at the desks. Watching for any soul unfortunate enough to bend a page.

 

Inside the room for natural philosophy stood rows and rows of shelves, stuffed with volume after volume of a wealth of knowledge. What man in his right mind would pursue gold when such an endless supply of books was free at hand?

It felt like an endless moment in there – wandering down the long rows. The click of his shoes on the stone was muffled by the paper all around him. And not just paper – some of the largest books might even be vellum. These were so valuable that they sat in metal cages, chained to the shelves. He ran a finger down the spine of one, feeling it through the small bars holding it safely away. 

So old. 

What secrets were hidden away in these books – lost in plain sight – never read in a hundred years?

Astronomy. Cora had a thousand questions for him to look up. The things she’d thought to ask. He’d been astounded by her quick mind, over and over. Each dark hour – he’d leave in the morning, bursting with new thoughts about the Dusk – the planets. Even daemons and the Gale.

Saint Baldwin – he hadn’t dared write a few of them. They’d verged on heresy. But – somehow, had also made sense –

He moved on, finally stopping to read the titles. He pulled one from the shelf. Then another. And another. And then – another.

At some point, his arms began to ache from the weight of books, precariously balanced in his arms.

He tore himself away, refusing to let his eyes land on another spin. He could spend eternity in here, and still have more books catch his eye. Time to actually read some of these.

He made his way carefully back to the door. 

The man at the massive desk gave his stack a black look, but nodded, slapping the desktop. “Put them here. Choose one .”

Moving with extra care under his caustic gaze, Edan slid the books from his hands onto the solid wood. He stretched his arms, feeling flowing back into his fingers.

He gave the man an apologetic grin. “My – my bag?”

“Take paper and a pencil – if you have one – only. The bag stays with me as long as you’ve got one of our books.”

Edan nodded. “Absolutely.”

The man narrowed his eyes, apparently judging if Edan was mocking him.

Edan tried to look as humble and pleasant as possible. How do you look humble?

Finally, armed with a book from the top of his pile, his notebook with some blank pages and a pencil, he slid onto the bench. 

The older man across from him looked up, smiling a quick welcome. Edan grinned. The man was also dressed in priestly garb. Not – from Cresley. He couldn’t place it, but – somewhere. The man seemed to notice the same, and his polite smile shifted to a wide grin. 

He held out a hand. “Greetings, my son. I’m Father Pierre – Ivan Pierre.”

“Brother Edan Lares – of Cresley.”

Father Pierre nodded. “Welcome – although,” he laughed softly. “I feel a bit forward for welcoming you to a city where I, too, am a guest. I’m from Vespas. Here to meet with the faithful, and learn from my brothers.”

Edan could feel his grin widening. “Oh – I visited your beautiful city – two – no, three, cycles back.”

“Of course – you came over land then. I’m sorry to have missed you.”

Edan could feel his face flushing. “Oh – well – I’m sure –.”

“And,” Father Pierre interrupted his quiet babbling, giving his hand a final squeeze and let go. “And one day, I’ll have the privilege to visit your own esteemed city.” He smiled again. “Cresley is the shining example we encourage our own cities and guilds and monarchs to emulate.”

Edan nodded, ducking his head, trying to hide his exploding embarrassment and joy at the praise.

“Thank you, Father,” he muttered. “Now –.”

“Oh – forgive me. You came here to read, as did I. Maybe – after? Can I buy you supper? I’d love to hear about your studies –” he glanced down at the book. “Astronomy. Truly a study for the high minded.”

 

Time shifted back into that space where it seemed to have no connection to Edan. He turned pages and scribbled notes until his wrist and fingers ached. But still, there were more and more books to be mined.

He had to convince Cora to come with him some day. She’d love it here so much – once he got her to just – come – just try it – she’d see how right he’d been. To not bring her here would be almost cruel for a mind like Cora’s –. Careful . It would be so easy to Obligate her while convincing himself she wanted it. He winced.

No. Either she came truly by her own choice, or she didn’t come at all. His job was to pull every scrap of information out of these books to bring back to her. Hers was to decide if she wanted to come herself.

At some point, Father Pierre placed a written note by his book. “I’m staying at the Crescent Sun inn. Come see me when you’re finished, and I’ll buy you a supper of the best grilled fish you’ll find this side of the Dusk.”

Edan had given him an enthusiastic nod, and gone back to his notes. 

When he noticed the note again an hour later, his stomach twisted painfully. I haven’t eaten in – nine hours?

He grimaced and cast a mournful look at the pile of books still remaining on the warden’s desk. 

Once awakened, his hunger now refused to disappear back into the far corner of his mind.

He sighed, set down his pencil, and shut the book. I’ll be back. 

The warden handed over his bag with a suspicious glance up and down his person – as if checking for any book-shaped bulges in his clothing. “Thank you for coming,” he muttered, turning away. 

Several helpful vendors in the act of packing up their stalls pointed Edan toward the inn, and Father Pierre’s promised fish supper.

 

The older man hadn’t exaggerated, and the food was delicious. Encouraged by a glass of excellent wine and a full belly, Edan had finished the evening by babbling about his passion for the natural philosophies, the mysteries of daemons, and his love for stars.

The man was an engaged, active listener. Asking questions, offering thoughts, and encouraging.

“What the church needs,” he remarked at one point, absently swirling his wine glass. “Is young men and women with fresh passion and joy in learning. Do you know – I’d love to sponsor your study – bring you to Vespas for a year or two. What do you think?”

“Oh – that’s – that’s too kind.”

“Nonsense.” He smiled, thoughtful. “You know my offer is purely selfish. I’m trying to steal a few of Cresley’s brilliant minds – get them to share the wealth. And – that friend of yours – Cora. Is she also a priest?”

He shook his head. “Oh – no. Just a country woman. From Eleosa – but – her mind! You should meet her – you’d forget all about me. If you offer anyone a scholarship – it should be her.”

“From Eleosa, you say?”

“Well – she moved there with her mother, I believe she said. I don’t think she’s got any family there herself.”

“I see.”

Edan nodded. “But she’s working just – writing letters and things for the townspeople. She should be writing books – be a published author.” 

“Yes. I think – I think we might have a place for her.” Father Pierre raised his glass. “I shall look your friend up on my return. But – before you sell yourself short – come see me in Vespas. We’ve got a place for you as well, if you’ll have it.”

Chapter Text

Vespas was as grand as Edan remembered from a full year ago. 

He couldn’t take a year or two here, as Father Pierre had offered, but – but he could take a cycle or two. 

And then on to Eleosa and Cora. He stifled a smile at the thought. It was strange how long it had been since he’d met his new friend, but – he was definitely looking forward to seeing her again. To sharing all the notes he’d taken from the library of Cymaria – from his own Cresley. And soon, from Vespas.

She’d probably load him down with fresh questions based on the notes, and send him back through all the same books again. It would be wonderful.

But first – to see Father Pierre.

The grand church of Vespas was a massive jumble of white stone buildings, courtyards, and covered walkways, flanked by ornate columns.

There was a college here, an orphanage, and living quarters for the priests, as well as the chapel open to all who wished to offer a prayer to the saints and daemons. 

Of course, it was nothing so grand as Cresley. But then, Vespas was ruled by an assembly of guild leaders, wealthy men, and the king who mostly existed to ratify their decisions, and speak for the city daemon.

A young acolyte led him through the maze, pointing out buildings and statues in a breathless excitement. Edan had probably been just like this girl, once. 

Grand buildings just become buildings, eventually.

They met Father Pierre just as he was leaving his office. His eyes lit with recognition almost immediately, and he held out his arms for a hug.

“Welcome, my son!”

Edan stepped into his embrace. “Thank you, Father.”

Father Pierre stepped back, looking him up and down. “I do believe you’ve gotten browner since I saw you. More time out in the wild, then?”

“Serving in the small towns and villages in my route,” Edan said, smiling. “The sun is much less avoidable out there, than inside with books.”

“Of course – of course. But – you’re here now – dare an old man hope that you’ve come to take me on my offer?”

“I –”

Father Pierre held up a hand. “No – no I don’t want to hear that out here – I’m on my way to lunch with the college, and you must join us. I’d love to introduce you to some of our scholars and professors before you decide to stay. Or,” he added with a mischievous smile. “I prefer to hear bad news on a full stomach, if you’ve decided that your calling leads you elsewhere.”

Edan nodded, grinning. 

On the way, Father Pierre plied him with more questions about his research, which Edan was only too eager to answer. 

In the dining hall stood long tables filled with food. Everyone ate together – priests, scholars, professors, and – in one corner at lower tables and supervised by adults, were the children from the orphanage. 

Father Pierre glowed with paternal pride as he explained. “We build unity over the table. We eat as equals – no raised table or dais. Here, we are all equal – guided by the daemons, watched over by the saints.”

Edan grinned, and followed the father to a table filled with young men – and a few women – his age, talking animatedly about the nature of change from a parent daemon to its offspring. They broke off to respectfully greet Father Pierre.

The older priest placed a hand on Edan’s shoulder. “This is my dear friend, Brother Edan Lares of Cresley.” He smiled down at the seated scholars. “I’m going to take myself off to join the dusty old men at that other table, so you young people can go back to your conversation. All I ask is that you make our young brother welcome.”

A young woman giggled at his tone, then slapped a hand over her mouth. Father Pierre laughed and nodded. “I’ll see you all later.” He squeezed Edan’s shoulder and, with a nod, left him alone with this new group.

They scooted apart to make room for him on the bench, insisting he join them. Someone handed him a plate, and others started passing him dishes of rice, vegetables, and fish.

It smelled amazing, and his stomach growled. He dug in, half listening, as they went back to their argument. As his hunger began to abate, he began to join in – offering his own thoughts – agreeing, disagreeing, considering.

It was like talking to Cora. Or, a whole bunch of Coras. He felt himself relax. 

He was probably grinning like an idiot.

Another scholar joined them, and, when there was finally a pause in the conversation, he asked to be introduced to Edan. Then the rest realized, shamefaced, that they’d completely forgotten about introductions themselves.

Edan laughed, assuring them it was completely okay, and he’d have forgotten their names in an instant anyway.

After they’d gone around the table, the new scholar – whatever he’d said his name was – leaned in, eyes bright.

“You’re the one Father Pierre talks about, aren’t you? The one who gave us our new Magician!”

Edan frowned. Something about that statement felt wrong. “Pardon? I – I don’t think so.”

One of the young women leaned forward. “Oh! Yes! How did I not think of that – you know – the Magician from that small town –?” 

“Eleosa,” someone finished for her. “The woman – Cora, I think her name is.”

Edan was suddenly cold. Surely – surely they’d misspoken – gave had been a poor word choice on the scholars’ part. Surely – he meant – introduced? Connected?

He forced out a laugh. It sounded hollow. “Oh – yes. Cora. So – she came? She’s studying here?”

“Well – of course she came,” someone said, a bit awkwardly. “She’s a Magician.”

“Yes – but –.” Edan’s stomach twisted, and he suddenly regretted eating so much. “But surely – she was – invited. Not – not Obligated –?”

The whole circle of faces around him filled with blank confusion.

“Um – she’s a Magician ,” said one. “That’s – that’s what you do. With Magicians.”

“–it’s what they’re for, ” someone added. 

“You – know that – right?” Asked another.

Edan tried to take a breath, but his lungs refused to let the air in.

The circle of faces shifted from confusion to embarrassment. For him. For – not understanding this basic thing? 

“Well,” someone said. “Um. Yeah. Magicians – see – the Gale – it’s assigned them a role to serve mankind. It’s their – their calling. Their holy duty. Just as it’s the duty of Noblemen to command that service. And – and if they –”

“If Magicians shirk their duties,” started another. “If they’re lazy or willful, it’s the responsibility of Noblemen to their calling – to bring the Magician into their right place with society and the Gale.”

The heads nodded, as Edan fought to take another breath. It wasn’t like he’d never heard this before. Gale – he’d read Saint Mallovin’s full work. But – but that had been all – theory. On, the essence of Magicians and their place in the cycle. Not – not – Cora .

A painful knot had formed in his stomach, and he felt strangely cold, even as his heart raced in his chest.

But – what if they were right? It made sense. If the Gale wanted her to serve, and had sent him to find her, and he’d failed to bring her back to her calling –? So, the Gale sent Father Pierre –?

He finally managed to pull in a breath. “I – I need – t-to see her – Cora. The Magician.”

He glanced around the room. He couldn’t see Father Pierre anywhere now. 

The circle of faces all looked uncomfortable, but one spoke. “Um – you’d have to talk to Mother Liliane. She’s the Magician’s primary liege here.”

“As is proper,” added another. “Seeing as she’s, well, female.”

Edan couldn’t get the words out to ask, but someone offered to take him. He silently nodded. This walk was so different from the one to the dinning hall with Father Pierre. The scholar avoided eye contact, and they were both keenly aware of the awkwardness.

 

Mother Liliane Thiel was a small, round woman with fluffy gray hair, red cheeks, and a quick smile. The scholar introduced them, and slipped away, relieved to leave Edan.

The woman wouldn’t hear a word from Edan until she’d bustled around the room, pushing him into a soft chair by her desk, removing a kettle from where it hung in the little hearth in her room, pouring him tea. Offering cream and sugar.

Finally, breathing heavily and smiling brightly, she insisted he tell her why he’d come to her.

Edan hesitated, embarrassment now clawing its way through his insides. Surely – surely this woman had only Cora’s best interest at heart, if she was the one Noblemen had to work through to access Cora’s power.

He was overreacting. Maybe Cora chose this. To fight against the Gale’s will – that must be a miserable way to live, really.

He took a sip of the tea and smiled back.

“I was told – a – I wondered if I might –”

“Yes, dear son?”

“I’d like to – talk to – Cora.”

Her face broke into a grin. “Oh! Of course! You’re Father Pierre’s friend. Yes – you must see how grateful your friend Cora is for your help in bringing her to her correct place and duty. Serving the good of all – it’s such a blessing.” She beamed. “The countless ways she’s moved our learning forward here.” 

Edan nodded, shoving down the queasy feeling the words “place” and “duty” had sparked. Of course Cora was happy here. With books and study and a chance to make the world a better place. She’d be thriving here.

“She’s available now – if you’d like to see her?”

“Oh. Yes.” Of course he wanted to see her – this unease was just, bashfulness from the long cycles they’d spent apart. It was always awkward to see people after a long absence. He had so much to tell her, and she’d have so much to tell him.

She was happy. Mother Liliane had just said so.

The woman pulled a cord in her room, and a few minutes later, the door opened. Edan forced a smile onto his face. He wasn’t afraid to face her. Just – bashful .

Cora was dressed like a novice. She looked thinner than Edan remembered, and her long wavy hair was pulled into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She didn’t look his way as she entered.

“What do you require of me, Mother?” her voice was flat, hollow, dead. All the horror that Edan had carefully packed away tore through the illusion he’d almost convinced himself to believe a minute ago. He held his teacup in frozen hands.

“Smile, dear heart,” Mother Liliane ordered in a sweet voice. “We do our work for humanity and daemons with happiness and gratitude. Now – Brother Edan has come to visit with you.”

Cora did not look his way, but her hand, hanging at her side tightened into a trembling fist.

Mother Liliane went on, speaking with a wide smile. “Now – as always – you must not perform any magic without my spoken permission for that act. Also – you must not follow Brother Edan anywhere without my permission.” She cast Edan a quick, glowing smile. “We have to make sure no Nobleman abuses their ability and takes advantage in any way, of dear Cora. So all commands and such go through me, you understand. I’ll leave you two to talk in just another minute.” She turned back to Cora. “Now – speak truthfully – tell me how you understood my two commands just now, and the Obligations they created.”

Cora seemed to cringe, and Edan’s stomach twisted painfully. His knuckles whitened around the teacup as he watched with wide eyes.

“I cannot perform any magic without you telling me that I may, from now until you rescind this Obligation. I may not leave this room in Edan’s company, from now until you rescind the Obligation.”

Mother Liliane’s smile flattened into a thin line, and then she sighed. “Oh, dear heart. Tell me truthfully what you think I intended with that Obligation.”

Cora’s voice quivered when she answered. “You do not want me to go anywhere he tells me to go, or conspire with him to escape from this place.”

“So what did you do?”

“I twisted a command, Mother”

“And?”

“Defied the Gale.”

The woman nodded, her forehead wrinkled in a look of deep disappointment. She looked back at Edan. “You’ll have to excuse us a moment, dear son. I wish you hadn’t had to see your friend's shameful breach of the Gale’s will just now – but now I have to deal with this. It will be just a minute. Feel free to wait outside if you’re uncomfortable.”

Edan nodded. If he could move, he’d have run from the room. But – his body refused to follow. 

He watched, frozen, as she turned and lifted a pair of tongs from her desk. “And what must we do with this unholy willfulness, dear heart?”

Cora’s voice shook. “Burn it out.”

“Yes, dear.” She held out the tongs. “Roll up your sleeve and fetch a coal from the fire.”

Her hand shaking, Cora pulled back her sleeve, revealing a row of bandages on her forearm.

The handle of Edan’s porcelain teacup snapped. The hot liquid spilling across his knees drove him to his feet.

Both women looked his way. Mother Liliane’s expression was sympathetic. “Oh dear, I think it would be best if you did step out for a minute.”

“W-wait.” The word came out as a croak. “You can’t do this, Mother.”

Mother Liliane sighed, giving him one of her disappointed looks. “Dear son. I’m sure you’ve never considered defying the Gale. You’re young. I’m sure you’d like to think that everyone is as pure of motive and will as you. But there are some – some who’ve been brought up differently. For those, this is a hard kindness. As you grow, you will come to understand. You must trust me and the Fathers. What we do is for the best – for society, and for Cora.”

She glanced back to Cora. “You’re stalling, dear – go now – get a coal. Apply it to your arm.”

Cora turned, moving like a wooden puppet. 

“No – don’t do this!” He’d thrown the words at Mother Liliane, but Cora took it as a command. 

The tongs clattered to the floor, falling from her hand. Her knees hit the floor a second later as her legs buckled. She raised shaking hands to grip her head, and her breath came in gasps. 

“Brother Edan,” Mother Liliane’s voice came crisp and commanding. “Rescind that command immediately.”

He opened his mouth, but no words came. He could barely think over his pounding heart and twisting stomach.

Mother Liliane tisked impatiently and rescinded her own Obligation. Cora relaxed, shifting to sit on her knees. Her shoulders slumped, and her hands dropped to her sides. 

Mother Liliane spoke again, her voice cutting like a whip. “Brother Edan, I’d add this up to youthful ignorance – but you’ve studied the teachings and writings. Your shock is not warranted. Frankly, I’m disappointed in you. I’d have expected better from a favorite of Father Pierre’s.”

He finally found his voice. “You – Cora – she’s my friend. You can't treat her like this.”

“Do you speak against the Gale?”

“N-no.”

“Does the Gale establish this order?”

“Y-yes.”

“So the Gale has willed that she obey.”

“I –” he stared in horror down at the woman’s stern face. “I don’t know – I just know this is wrong. ” He glanced down at Cora. “Cora – I’m sorry – I swear, I’ll make this right to you. Somehow.”

She looked up, meeting his eyes for the first time. Cold hatred glittered there. And despair. “See Father Pierre to get your damn telescope, bastard. It’s finished.”

Mother Liliane struck her with the back of her hand. “Brother Edan might be under my displeasure – but he’s a priest of the church and you will respect that.”

“Forgive me. Brother Edan.” She spat out the words, and in that moment, Edan was sure that no others could have cut into his soul so deeply. 

His stomach clenched, and he turned and fled.

There was nothing he could do for Cora in there. 

He emptied his stomach into the first bush he found. 

Then turned and walked away.

Away from the church of Vespas. Out of the city. 

Toward home.

He’d go the First Father of Cresley. Lay his charge against Vespas before the Assembly. 

They would fix this. 

They’d demand Vespas release Cora.

Chapter Text

Eighteen years ago

 

Edan pressed his hands over his ears and squeezed his eyes shut, but he couldn't block out their taunts and nasty laughter.

“Yeah – you don’t even know if it was your mama or papa who’s the Nobleman.”

“Edan the accident.”

“Maybe – maybe all ‘is siblings will die and they’ll come back for ‘im. Like a spare.”

These larger children hadn’t grown up here – at the church orphanage. They’d come after deaths in their family. They knew their mamas and papas. They’d been given names by their parents – like proper people. Not like Edan. Edan had been named by Sister Annette. Brother Theo had let that slip four cycles ago. And now all the other children knew.

Edan’s parents hadn’t even cared to give him a name.

He shifted his hands to his eyes, pushing back the tears.

“Cryin’ for your mama? Too bad, she doesn’t even know who you are.” In a falsetto, “ Oh, Edan? Who’s that? ” 

They laughed, then abruptly cut off.

Brother Theo’s voice was sharp and angry. “Étienne! Fleur! Lucien! We’ve talked about this before. If you can’t use your words with kindness and respect – you’re not going to use them at all. Go tell Gallen at the library I’ve sent you to help him until supper.”

Edan peaked around his hands. The three larger children glared up at Brother Theo’s stern face, but didn’t dare to protest. 

“Go,” he repeated, pointing. With more dirty looks and dragging feet, the three moved off – to spend the day sweeping floors, sorting through dusty records of wool imports, and checking for books out of place on the shelves.

Dull, monotonous work.

And then Brother Theo looked down at Edan.

Mortified, Edan tried to wipe away the tears streaking his cheeks.

Brother Theo knelt down, to look him in the eye. “No, Edan. Don’t be embarrassed by your tears. They’re not your weakness.” He winced. “If anyone should be ashamed, it’s me – for thoughtlessly revealing a part of you that wasn’t mine to share.”

“They said – they say –”

Brother Theo nodded. “Do you know why they say those things?”

Edan shook his head. 

“They think, by making you less than them, they'll feel better and stronger. Because – you know – they also feel small and scared.”

“They do?”

Brother Theo nodded. “But they don’t understand. When we make everyone around us feel big and strong, then we all feel safer together.”

“How – do you do that?”

Brother Theo smiled. “You do that, by seeing the parts where people feel most small and afraid, and you tell them that you’ll help them guard those places. You –” He winced again. “You don’t do what I did to you. I’m sorry – I’m so sorry. I didn’t protect that place in your heart – where you feel small and scared.”

“That’s okay. I forgive you.” Edan opened his arms for a hug, and Brother Theo gave him a squeeze. “Thank you Edan. But you know – now that I’ve made this mistake, it’s not enough for me to just tell you I’m sorry. I also have to take extra care to protect this place, since I made it worse.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Edan received the first letter from his Nobleman father – Gaston Lares – when he was fourteen. The tone was stiff and cold, as the father he’d never met informed him of his money stipend entrusted with the church, and available to him as long as he kept out of public view, didn’t make problems, and didn’t embarrass the family. 

He’d ranted to Brother Theo for three hours in a voice cracking with adolescent temper, about a man who hadn’t even bothered to give him a name, now expecting his respect. 

Brother Theo had listened through it all, patiently waiting for young Edan to exhaust himself. Then, saying nothing, he’d simply offered a hug. And, forgetting that he was too old for such things, he’d found himself crying on the brother’s shoulder. 

Later, Brother Theo had assured Edan that he’d support him however he chose to respond, or not, to his father’s letter. “And,” he’d added quietly. “Just so you know, Edan, I’m proud of who you’re becoming. Don’t ever let Lares try to change you. You’re twice the man he is already.”

Edan had rolled his eyes and run away, embarrassed. And those words had glowed in his mind for days.

Edan didn’t send a reply for a full year, and then, he’d asked Brother Theo to help him write it. When Edan had decided to fully enter the church and take his vows, Theo – now a Father – had sponsored him.

 

Now, Edan sat in that same office, feeling like no time had passed. He stared down into the cup of tea he held. Little rings formed on the steaming surface from his shaking hands.

Father Theo leaned forward and gripped Edan’s shoulder, looking him in the eye. “Just start from the middle and muddle through,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”

Edan nodded, swallowing. “I — I made a mistake, Father. And a dear friend is hurt because of it. And I need help.”

The story spilled from him in a halting, confused mess. What they were doing to Cora. How they were hurting her.

Father Theo’s eyes narrowed as he spoke, and he winced at several points. When Edan ended, he shook his head. “That’s unacceptable. Utterly unacceptable. You’re right Edan. We must put a stop to this at once. I’ll meet with the First Father this evening, and then officially bring Cora’s case to the Assembly tomorrow. And I’ll make sure they act.” He squeezed Edan’s shoulder again, before pulling away, determination in his eyes. “Don’t worry. We’ll protect your friend.” He grinned awkwardly. “I’ve actually got some influence around here these days. Not sure how that happened.”

Edan let himself laugh as warm relief began to flood through his body. He’d been living in painful horror for days – all through his grueling race home to Cresley. 

“Edan?”

“Yes, Father?”

“Go get some sleep, son. You look awful. I’ll take this from here.”

Edan nodded, and finished his tea.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The Speaker of the Assembly called Father Theo forward. 

He gave Edan a nod, then made his way to the center of the circular room. 

He explained the situation, quickly and carefully, calling for the Assembly to act – to call their brothers in Vespas to end this atrocity immediately. The Speaker thanked him, and Father Theo returned to his seat beside Edan.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “Decisions have already been made. This is just a formality.”

Edan nodded. 

It’s going to be okay. They’ll help.

The First Father rose to speak next. He thanked Father Theo for bringing this issue to their attention. “The Assembly has decided to act on behalf of the Magician Cora. We shall draft a message demanding, on the oaths we all have taken to the church, to cease from their treatment of this woman. We shall remind them that the Gale has given us voices to speak – we are to call Magicians to their duty with words, not by base acts of violence.”

Around Edan, heads nodded and voices murmured in assent.

He stared as the First Father sat again. Searching his words for any hint that they didn’t mean what he’d heard. 

“No.” The word seemed to spring from his lips without his thought.

Father Theo glanced over at him, frowning. “What is wrong?” he asked in a whisper.

Edan shook his head. “You – he said – they’re not going to ask for her release?”

Father Theo grimaced. “Step outside with me, son.” 

The moment the door closed behind him, the words came bubbling out of Edan. “You said – you promised – you’re going to help Cora, you said!”

Father Theo waited, just as he’d done when Edan was fourteen, for Edan to finish. Then he spoke. His voice was gentle and sad. “Edan – son. She’s your friend. I understand. You’re upset and horrified by how they were treating her. That’s good and right. But in your anger, you must not cause more harm. Cora has been rescued from a life cut off from herself – her gifts and the Gale. Through you, the Gale has brought her back into the cycle, where she may serve humanity and find true joy. The error of the Fathers at Vespas was not there – it was in their failure to properly use their voices to command as they should.”

Edan stared. Something both cold and hot seemed to flow over him – like ice and fire, as he struggled to reconcile these words with the man who’d protected, nurtured, and raised him.

Was – was – Edan wrong?

Fear twisted his stomach into a knot. What if – what if he’d let some dangerous attraction blind him to reality?

Because the only other answer, was that Father Theo was wrong.

This church that had become his dear family were wrong. 

Impossible.

Is it?

Father Theo’s face flooded with empathy. “I’m sorry Edan. This is hard for you.” He held out his arms, inviting a hug.

Edan stepped into his embrace, but found none of the warmth he’d known from Father Theo hugs before. Something dark and frightening now seemed to stand between them.

He tried to take a breath, but his lungs fought against him.

“Come back inside,” Father Theo urged. “Don’t be alone right now. Don’t hide. Stay present as your sort through this.”

He nodded, and followed him back in. 

Stay present.

How could he, when he felt a thousand meters away from them all. Like he was watching the discussions from the other end of the Dusk.

Or from deep within the Shadow. Cold. Separated. Far away.

That look in Cora’s eyes.

“They failed to properly use their voices.”

How much more could they command her?

“Defied the Gale.”

He looked down at his hands. What would it be like – to be told to stand, or sit. Or smile? And, to do it. Because he had to, not because he wanted to. Because the wind daemon held power over all it touched, and bound him – body and soul – to obey. 

He’d been raised by kind and generous Sisters and Mothers in the church. Saints – he’d joined this order to learn to become like them. But, not all he served with carried the same care and humility. He’d learned at least that much.

What if –?

Heresy.

What if – what if daemons were like humans – some choose to be good and benevolent, and some choose to be cruel and capricious?

This is heresy.

What if.

What if, the Gale’s power didn’t make it right.

Heresy

What if the right thing to do, is – is to fight against – to resist – this order – this doctrine that places some men as the unopposed arbitrators of the lives – the very minds and wills – of other men?

He was trembling.

What if.

What if, some of the saints were wrong . About the Gale. The Obligation cycle. What if Mallovin was wrong ?

Heresy.

What if our power as Noblemen, given by the Gale, doesn’t make us right, either?

Heresy.

He covered his eyes.

What am I doing?

His heart raced, and his chest felt tight.

This was his home.

He was shaking. 

And cold. 

And he knew with horrible, terrifying clarity what he was going to do. The only thing he could do.

The Speaker opened the floor for any final input on any issue discussed that day.

He pushed to shaking feet. 

What am I doing?

Heresy. He was committing heresy.

Father Theo grabbed his arm, his eyes wide with worry. He shook his head.

Edan pulled away.

His palms were wet.

His blood rushed in his ears.

He stepped to the center of the floor with knees that shook.

He was watched by all the most powerful men – and women – of Cresley.

The First Father raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Brother? You have something else you’d like to say?”

Edan nodded.

“Y-your Excellency. F-fathers and M-mothers. I petition you directly – to demand Vespas release the Magician Cora, free from all Obligations, and allow her to leave.” Whispers spread around the room at that.

But the First Father’s eyes narrowed. “Brother Edan. I’m afraid you don’t seem to understand. Which is deeply disheartening to me. You have a brilliant young mind, you’ve studied the writings – and yet – you refuse to accept that Magicians have a proper place. Controlled and established by the Gale. Your petition is denied. Please return to your seat.”

Edan wiped wet palms on his slacks, and then reached up to undo the clasp on the button bearing the symbol of his order from the collar of his shirt. His hands shook, and suddenly frantic, he tore it off. Holding it in the air, he spoke again.

“Th-then, to stand by my vows t-to serve and protect all souls – those breathing and those of daemons – I-I have one choice. Until th-this order recognizes the equal humanity of Magicians, it can only stand for cruelty and oppression. And I-I renounce my place here.”

He let the button fall from his hand. It seemed to hang in the air for several heartbeats. Then, he shrugged off his clerical chimere.

It was like cutting off his arm, and killing a dream at the same moment. 

The room went utterly silent. He turned on legs that threatened to give way, and walked out. Not looking at any of them. Not looking at Father Theo. 

His breath came in heaving gasps, and despite the sweat, he was cold and shaking. 

He’d just made the biggest mistake of his life. 

And he didn’t care. 

Not this moment, at least. 

 

He did care, three hours later, as he tried to choke down the hardest liquor he’d ever tasted. Which wasn’t all that much. 

This filthy tavern air was filled with acrid tobacco smoke, the fumes of cheap alcohol, and the odors of unwashed laborers.

He’d lost the only allies he’d had to rescue Cora. 

He’d lost his stipend for sure. He’d certainly shamed Lares now. He smiled. 

That’s one way to stick it to that bastard.  

He’d lost access to church libraries and centers of learning. 

He’d just called the only real family he’d known and loved cruel monsters. 

And he was farther away from saving Cora than when he’d started. 

Her eyes. 

She hated him. She had a right to. 

He’d done this to her. 

I gave her to Fa— . He stopped, staring at the glass in his hand. I gave her to Pierre. 

He’d accused the church of cruel indifference. But he’d betrayed his friend through his own.

He could discard their vestments, but not their guilt. 

“It’s not enough for me to apologize,” Fa – Theo said once. “I have to make this right.”

Edan had to make this right. 

He took another sip and choked as the liquid hit his throat like fire. He bent over, coughing and gagging.

“Seems you can’t hold your liquor, ex-Brother Lares.”

A tall man in a brushed leather coat dropped into the seat across from him. “Quite a show you put on.” His mouth twisted in a cynical smile. “Half your city’s talking about it.”

Edan watched, mind blank, as the man leaned back and pulled out a small box filled with hand-rolled cigarettes and a flint. 

He offered one. Finally done coughing, Edan shook his head.

The man lit the cigarette and took a deep breath before speaking again. “Yet despite your little show –” He blew out a stream of tobacco laced smoke. “This Magician you seem so concerned about – is exactly no better off.”

Edan frowned. “What – what is that to you?”

The man’s gaze was calculating as he lifted the cigarette to his lips again. As he did, a golden glow spread across his hand. 

Edan yelped, pulling back. “Who –?” He cut off as Liliane’s horrifying commands echoed in his mind. He swallowed “Um – I – was wondering. W-who are you? Why –?”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “Maybe you’ve heard of me. Some call me the Regicide. I’m here with an offer. To help your Magician friend.”

Edan froze. He’d heard the rumors – a ghost, some said. Others said it was a flesh and blood Magician. Working for who, they didn’t know. But Noblemen were dying at the Regicide’s hand.

He blew out a stream of smoke. “But first, you need to tell me everything.

Edan stared, eyes wide. He swallowed, then coughed. “Y-you’re offering – help?”

“I might be.”

“I – um. I need to know how I can trust that you’re not working for a Nobleman. Who’s – who’s going t-to hurt Cora.”

“Say I was. I’d ask what you think you’d do then.”

Edan flushed and pushed his glass with the burning liquid away. “I –.” Saints – what would he do? He’d just asked a room full of Noblemen for help. Could things get any worse? 

Yes. They probably could.

He met the man’s mocking green gaze. “I-I don’t know. I don’t know if I can trust you, and I don’t know if it could be worse for Cora if I did.”

“Then command me to tell you – whether you endanger this Magician by trusting me.”

Edan hesitated. The last time he’d spoken to her, he’d promised he’d make things right. And the last Obligation he’d given her – intentionally – had been – .

He winced.

“See Father Pierre about your damn telescope, bastard.”

He swallowed, trying not to think about the Obligations Liliane was putting Cora through, to ensure that she did nothing beyond the woman’s intent. “T-tell me if, by trusting you, I endanger Cora – my friend.”

“No. You do not endanger her by trusting me.”

“I – I’d like to know what you gain from helping me.”

The Regicide merely smiled, and drew in another mouthful of smoke. “So – tell me everything.”

Everything .

Painfully, slowly, he did. He spoke candidly about his guilt. As much to himself, as to this Magician.

“Sh-she didn’t tell me to keep her life – herself a secret – but, she shouldn't have to. I’ve heard what Noblemen say. I’ve read what they’ve written. I’ve got no excuse at all. I did this to her. It’s my fault.” He swallowed. “I have to make this right. Please – I need help. I know I don’t deserve it – but I have to save my friend, and I can’t do this alone.” His throat tightened, and his next breath sounded like a sob.

The man studied him, smoking thoughtfully for several long moments. Edan met his gaze, silently pleading, as he fought to hold back tears.

The man knocked ash onto the filthy floor, then leaned forward. “So. You say you’re thinking only of this woman's safety. But I, unlike you, cannot demand assurance of your sincerity. I’d hear how you propose to show your own trustworthiness to me.”

 Edan dropped his eyes to the table top.

“..Your damn telescope, bastard.”

How –? His stomach clenched into a knot, and he went cold. The Regicide

This is crazy.

Would it work?

He raised his eyes, resolute. “This is how.” He fought to keep his voice from quivering. “If I do or say anything that makes you suspect that I mean you, or the Magician Cora, any harm, you must kill me.” 

The man blinked and his hand twitched. Then he raised a dark eyebrow. “That was an Obligation you’ve given me. I wonder if you even understand it.” His green eyes filled with mocking amusement.

Edan nodded. “I leave what – what constitutes harm – to you. And what level of suspicion –” He trailed off, swallowed, and started again. “Does that – suffice?”

He tossed the cigarette butt to the floor, snuffing it out with the toe of his shoe before replying. “ If you agree to do and say exactly as I tell you. Without protest, or question.”

Edan nodded, eyes wide. “Yes. I will. Of course.”

No matter what,” the man added, his tone steely. “No matter how distasteful you may find an Obligation I may require from you.”

Edan’s stomach twisted again. What was this man’s plan? 

The Regicide.

Cora. He’d said he’d do anything. 

“No matter what,” Edan repeated, his voice shaking. “I swear it on my priestly oath.” He winced. “I – I haven’t renounced that – you know. Just – the church. I stand by my oaths.”

The man smiled and lit another cigarette. “Then listen carefully.”

Chapter Text

Edan took a deep breath, whispering a prayer to whatever saint might still be listening to him, and commanded his legs to carry him forward.

His stomach twisted painfully, and his heart raced.

The back of his linen shirt was probably soaked.

His palms certainly were. He wiped them against his slacks.

A brother at the gate looked up, saw him, and scowled. 

Edan flushed, dropping his eyes to the ground. 

He focused on the words in his mind – over and over. Trying to block out the stares, glares, and whispers as he entered the church grounds.

His feet knew the way.

At Father Theo’s office door he stopped, terror joining the twisting shame in his chest. To face – to speak to Father Theo again.

I can’t.

The door opened, and Father Theo stared at him in mute surprise for a heartbeat, then stepped back, waving Edan inside.

His legs didn’t want to move. Run away – he just wanted to run away.

He stepped inside, and Father Theo closed the door, shutting out the stares.

He waited. 

Edan had broken their friendship. Edan had come to him. Edan would have to speak first.

He dropped his eyes to the floor and his twisting hands.

And forced his voice to speak. 

“I-I’ve c-come to beg y-your f-forgiveness, Father. A-and of the First Father, and the church.” He choked out the words as his stomach churned dangerously. “I-I acted with r-rash emotion and spurned the wise teachings of our Fathers. I know I do not deserve to be restored to my place. I’ve come only for absolution from wrong.”

Father Theo was quiet for several heartbeats. Edan didn’t dare look up as he waited for this man who he’d loved like a father to cast him out. To declare him unforgivable – no longer worthy of his care. 

He was somehow cold and hot at the same time.

He was shaking.

Father Theo’s arms gripped his shoulders in a tight embrace. 

He was smiling. “I was sure you’d come back – I just – I was so worried that – your blind fear for your friend – that you’d do something desperately wrong. Something you couldn't undo. And that you’d always regret. Something that would destroy you.” 

He stepped back a pace, hands still gripping Edan’s shoulders. Tears had formed in his eyes. “I told the Fathers you’d be back. That your heart was good and right, and that you’d come to your senses soon. Saints – not even I expected you to return so quickly.” He pulled Edan into another hug, and Edan, slowly recovering from his numb shock, returned the embrace. 

He tried to block out the fresh wave of shame flooding over him. He started to say – something, but couldn't get the words out. 

He felt like when he was a child, and only Father Theo’s hugs could replace a storm of confusing emotions with warm happiness.

Edan closed his eyes, letting himself enjoy the moment. 

The cold distance was gone. He wanted to cry – and hide. And confess. But he didn’t.

He could do this – he could help Cora, and change the church. From within. Slowly challenge accepted thought. Help his friends who’d become family to see the world differently.

Resigning like that – it had been foolish.

Finally Father Theo let him go. “I can’t guarantee the First Father will allow you to return as a Brother. But I’ll speak with him.”

Edan met his eyes. Father Theo was crying. 

“I understand,” he managed. “I will accept whatever they decide. And happily perform any penance they require. I understand the seriousness of my offense.”

Father Theo smiled again. “Good lad.”

Edan willed the pain in his stomach to go away. This was good and right.

This was his place. 

Cora will be okay. The Regicide had promised so.

 

~ ~ ~

 

Father Theo left Edan to pace the short length of his own rooms while he went to exert his influence once more on Edan’s behalf.

The minutes dripped away into hours as Edan fought to focus on the present. This wasn’t a betrayal of his promise to Cora, nor of Father Theo’s trust.

“Go back to the church and beg for their forgiveness,” the Regicide had ordered. “Tell them whatever damned thing you like. Just get them to bring you back into their circle.”

He couldn't, he’d started to argue. It wasn’t right – to claim a change of heart would betray every principle he stood for.

“I remember you just swearing to do as I say, without question or protest.”

But, perjure himself?

The Regicide snorted. “Anyone can see you’re regretting that choice. You’re ashamed of yourself for daring to question the bastards. I’m just giving you what you want – go make nice and convince them to take you in.”

Edan had wanted to argue, but – but was the Magician right? Had he been trying to hide his screaming conscience in alcohol that he was – apparently – incapable of drinking? He’d flushed then, and nodded. “W-what if – if – if th-they don’t take me back?”

“I’ll contact you with further instructions in either case. In the meantime,” he paused to take a pull from his cigarette, then blew the smoke back out in a long stream. He watched it float up and away, the corner of his mouth curling up in a smirk. “In the meantime – I need you to give me one Obligation. Tell me to procure a suitable disguise for rescuing your friend. Cora.”

“And if I do this, Cora will be safe?”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “I believe I said so earlier.”

Edan took a deep breath. “You must procure a suitable disguise for rescuing my friend, Cora.”

His companion lifted his cigarette, smirking. “Just do whatever damn thing your church tells you to do, and I’ll be in touch.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Father Theo was smiling when he returned. They were willing to consider reinstating him in his place. “But, an apology isn’t enough, Edan. You have to make this right – the First Father has established a time of penance.” He grimaced. “Your first task won’t be easy I’m afraid. You’re to be my assistant until you’ve shown yourself fully repentant and ready to be returned to your place.”

Edan laughed with relief, but Father Theo held up a hand, forestalling him. 

“No – but this will be hard for you. You need to prepare yourself.” He sighed. “But maybe this is for the best. We can work through your feelings and thoughts on this on our journey.”

“Journey?”

“I’m being sent with the First Father’s message to Vespas. Concerning your Magician friend.”

Edan’s lungs refused to work. “I-I I –” 

Father Theo gripped his shoulder. “We’ll work through it together – okay? For now – go lie down. I’m going to be with you every step of the way.”

The next day passed in a blur of confused emotion and anxiety. Where was the Regicide? Was this going to ruin his plan? Would he come looking for Edan, and find him gone? Were they going to make him prove his change of heart with Cora?

He moved through the preparations, focusing on doing , not thinking.

Finally, on the second day, they set out. Edan, Father Theo, and Brother Francis.

They didn’t talk much at first, and Edan let himself enjoy the open country as farms gave way to open hills. 

Don’t think about Cora. Don’t think about that letter Father Theo carried.

And don’t think about the Regicide. Don’t think of him looking for Edan and not finding him.

They made camp as Foncé began to edge across the sun. As penance, Edan would have the middle watches. Father Theo took first, he’d wake Edan, and then Edan would wake brother Francis.

Edan curled up on the hard ground between the fire and their covered cart, watching Father Theo tend the fire as the sun shrank into a sliver, and then disappeared. 

Then he closed his eyes, and searched for sleep.

 

It was full light when Edan opened his eyes. Father Theo had moved to the other side of the fire. 

Edan frowned, sitting up. “Y-you didn’t wake me.”

Father Theo turned and –

Edan froze.

It wasn’t Father Theo.

The Regicide grinned. “Good morning.”

Edan choked, tried to ask a question, but his lungs weren’t working.

The Regicide nodded toward the cart. “Get yourself breakfast if you’re hungry. Your priests brought plenty of provisions.”

“W-w-where –?”

“You’re wondering about your companions.” He nodded toward the wagon. “Dropped them back there until I could properly cremate them.”

That – that wasn’t possible. 

He couldn’t have said – 

He didn’t mean –

No.

No.

Not – 

No!

No – he – he –

Edan was finally moving. 

Not thinking. 

Just – running.

No!

He stumbled, dropping to his knees by the two bodies – one, still dressed. And one in his underwear.

Procure a suitable disguise.

Edan’s words.

Father Theo’s lifeless eyes stared at the sky. Empty. Dead.

A vivid red line marked his neck. A garrote.

Brother Francis was the same.

“W-why?” Edan heard himself ask, as if from a long way away. “W-why?”

Why Father Theo?

“We needed an in,” the Regicide said, his voice unconcerned. “Thanks to your friends there – we’ve got it.”

“B-but – b-but – you–” Edan sat back on his heels, trying to see the Magician’s face. “You – didn’t have to –”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh yes, we’ll just ride into Vespas with them tied up in the back.”

“Th-they’re not – they were innocent.” Edan swallowed. “They weren’t even Noblemen!” It came out as a sob, and he sat back, hugging his knees to his chest. 

It felt like he was going to burst from pressure, his lungs refusing to let in air.

The Regicide shrugged and poked at the fire. “Necessary casualties, then. They’re supporting the Noblemen – they’re not innocent.”

“N-no. I-I didn’t want this.”

The Regicide’s voice dropped to a cold quiet. “You said the same thing about Cora. Make up your damn mind whose side you’re on here.”

“I-I’m not on either – I don’t want – y-you can’t –” Edan raised his eyes, and his stomach jolted with fear. 

The Magician’s eyes were glowing with his golden light. As was his hand. He was coiled – like a tiger ready to spring.

Edan froze, his mouth snapping shut.

The man relaxed, and his light faded. He smiled. “Right. So now that we understand each other – let’s make this clear. I help you free Cora, and we do this my way. In return, you help me with my goal in Vespas.”

“W-why d-didn’t you warn me? I’d – I’d h-have – F-father Theo –”

The Regicide laughed and lit a cigarette. “This.” 

Edan hid his face in his knees, trying to shut it out – the horrid smell of the man’s tobacco. Father Theo’s lifeless eyes.

And the knowledge – the horrifying, certain knowledge – that more people would die. 

For Cora?

Or, for the Regicide’s own ends.

But –  damn it – Edan was a Nobleman. He could – he could forbid the Magician from killing. Command him to rescue Cora without bloodshed. Wouldn’t that be the right thing to do? Use his power to stop death?

Was that – right? Was it right to override the will of one man, to save an untold number of lives, or – or was the higher right, to let him make his choices?

His stomach twisted again. 

Isn’t that – isn’t that how they came to justify – how they’re treating – Cora?

He squeezed his eyes shut. Dimly aware that he was swaying, back and forth.

Where was the line between right and wrong? He’d fallen into a groundless abyss, and all the truths he’d ordered his life around seemed grossly inadequate now.

So he did nothing.

He sat there on the ground, his knee pressed to his chest, hiding his face, and trying to breath.

He just wanted a hug from Father Theo. A hug that would set the world right again. 

Something he’d never have again.

 

At some point, the Regicide kicked him in the foot. 

Edan raised a tear-streaked face to see the man standing over him. 

“Help your priests' passing and tell me to burn their bodies.”

He could barely get the words out, but it seemed to work, because the man left him alone again, a satisfied smile on his face.

Edan hid buried his face again, trying to hide from what was happening.

Farewell Father Theo, may you grow in peace and may your soul be embraced by new life.

 

~ ~ ~

 

The Regicide gave him terse instructions from time to time, but mostly, he left Edan to grieve in silence, over the following days of their journey back to Vespas.

He barely noticed as the Magician stepped easily into the role of Father Theo – greeting people they passed on the road. Offering blessings and prayers.

And then, before Edan was ready, they arrived in Vespas an hour before dark.

Tomorrow.

Cora would be safe. He’d promised.

And more would die.

It was his last chance to stop it.

He dropped into the bed, hiding under the blanket.

There was no stopping this.

There was no right left in the Dusk.

Chapter Text

The Magician woke him with breakfast rolls, dressed in Father Theo’s clothing.

Don’t think about that. 

Don’t think at all. 

Just do what he says and pray this turns out somehow.

The Magician explained Edan’s role as, using some makeup and a small mirror, he finished his own transformation into an older man – a Father of the church.

They’d hit the Regicide’s targets first, then rescue Cora as a reward for Edan’s cooperation, he said. “You made up with your church. I need you to do the same thing.”

“Y-you mean with the Vespan church?”

“Oh, no. We’re fine there. You need to mend bridges with Gaston Lares.”

Edan choked, a bite catching in his throat. 

He gulped down a mouthful of water.

“W-what?” 

“I need you to apologize to your father. It shouldn't be so hard. I assume you haven’t even met him.”

Edan shook his head, dumbly.

“Right – we’ll tell him this is part of the penance demanded by your church. That you’re not even sure if he’s heard how you’ve disgraced the family yet, but you have , and now you’re being forced to apologize in person.” 

The Magician turned around, and his transformation into a much older version of himself was shockingly good. He was smiling. “If you act frightened and resentful, you’ll be right in character. You don’t have to pretend to like it. You just have to be there, and let me do most of the talking.”

“Is-is my father on your – your list?”

The Magician turned to pack up his supplies “Just do as I say. And be your innocent, frightened little self.”

Edan glared at his back and tried to finish a final bite. It tasted like dust.

Gaston Lares. The man he’d never met, but who’d had the audacity to demand some form of control over him – some allegiance. 

And Father Theo – 

Edan gripped his water tumbler, trying to not think. To not start crying in the company of his murderer.

His stomach twisted painfully around the meager breakfast.

“Am I helping you murder my father?”

The man didn’t respond as he pinned Father Theo’s button to Father Theo’s collar. 

Finally, he told Edan to give him one specific command, suppressing the lightly glowing eye-rings in his eyes. In the daylight, they were just visible, if you knew what to look for, and then made Edan swear to give him any Obligation he demanded in the moment, if the situation went sideways.

“Sideways?”

The Magician smirked. “You’ll know if it has. Don’t worry.”

 

On their way through the slowly waking city, the Magician stopped at a wine-seller to purchase an extremely expensive bottle of wine in a basket, which he promptly dumped on Edan to carry.

After a half hour of walking, they stopped in front of a huge townhouse in a row of lavish houses. The Magician stepped up to the door and pulled the bell rope. 

A servant opened the door to the Magician's gentle smile. “Good morning, sir. My name is Father Theo, of Cresley. And this is my ward, Edan Lares. We’ve come to see Guildmaster Lares, if we may.”

The servant’s eyes widened, and he insisted they come in at once – that he’d notify his employer immediately.

The hall was equally opulent. A polished wood bench sat along one wall, beside an ornate table. On the table stood a fine porcelain vase with flowers and a silver tray for calling cards. 

Edan dropped his eyes to his toes. They stood on polished marble. 

Such a waste. A man could live comfortably on half this wealth and use the other half to meet the needs of fellow humans.

Of course Gaston Lares would indulge in such a selfish lifestyle.

Does he deserve to die though?

Cora. He was doing this for Cora. Gaston certainly wasn’t any kind of a father to Edan, either. Not like –

Stop. Focus. Just do as he says and get through it. Don’t think about it .

The servant returned. “Please follow me, sirs.”

He lead them up a massive carpeted staircase to a rich door. He gave a soft knock before opening the door and standing back.

Edan’s heart was racing, he noticed. And his palms were wet. If not for the damn basket, he could have wiped them on his slacks.

He looked up.

Gaston Lares looked – like him. A small frown formed in his well manicured brows above a carefully trimmed imperial and narrow beard. Then, a false smile spread across his mouth. “Come in my son – come – meet my guest.”

He wasn’t alone.

Several men sat around him in the massive study.

Edan’s stomach twisted again. One was Father Pierre. 

The Father rose, extending a hand to the Magician. “Father Theo! Welcome to Vespas. I’m Father Pierre.” He shot Edan sharp glance. “And Edan and I are already acquainted.”

Gaston’s eyes narrowed. “You know my son?”

Father Pierre smiled. “I do.”

“You never mentioned that before.” Gaston’s voice had become a bit chilly.

“And you never said you had a second son.”

The Magician glanced around the room, a disarming smile on his face. “How wonderful – Edan has a brother.”

Father Pierre answered for Gaston. “Oh, yes – Flavien.” He shot Gaston another sharp look. “Frankly, I’m disappointed in the boy. You said he’d be joining us this morning –?”

Gaston glared across his desk at the Vespan Father, open hostility in his eyes. Then he glanced back up to Edan and the Magician. 

“Please – sit.” He indicated two more chairs. Then he nodded to the other two men in the room. They sat back in opposite corners, watching the exchange in alert silence. “Edan – this is my Magician, Armand.” He indicated the other, an older man. “And Dougray – a Magician serving the Vespan church.”

The Vespan church.

Cora.

Mother Liliane. His stomach clenched, and Edan nodded, unable to speak.

Fortunately, the Magician – the Regicide, sat beside him smiling and nodding, as if this was perfectly normal. But something about his smile turned Edan’s insides cold.

“How wonderful to meet you both here like this,” he was saying. “What a surprise to find Father Pierre here. You were on our list to visit anyway.”

The man smiled back. “Oh?”

The Magician grimaced. “I’m not sure you’re all totally aware yet of the – indiscretions this young man in my charge has committed. But as part of his penance, he’s been commanded to make a formal apology to yourself, Guildmaster, and to Father Pierre. But first –” he reached for the bottle in the basket Edan held. “The church of Cresley sends their warm regards with this gift.”

Gaston had been glaring at Edan, but then his eyes widened with pleasure as he saw the bottle’s label. He grinned. “Apologies always go down better with such a vintage. Armand – send Molly for some glasses.”

The Magician slipped out, returning a minute later with a tray set with four glasses and a corkscrew. He placed it on the desk and returned to his chair.

The Regicide sat up, uncorked the bottle with a flourish, and poured. After handing out the three glasses, he took one himself, swirled it, smiled, and took an appreciative sip. Father Pierre and Gaston’s eyes seemed to follow his motions, not drinking themselves until he’d swallowed several times.

Edan tested the dark liquid himself. It was a good vintage. A warm, fuzzy feeling seemed to flow from the sharp taste, and he began to relax a fraction.

Then the Magician shot him a pointed glance. “Now, Edan.”

He took a deep breath and set his cup down. “F-father. I-I –” He took another breath. Just apologize. He didn’t have to mean it. His face was hot. He dropped his eyes to the desktop. “I-I made s-some – rash – I-I s-said – things. About – a-about M-Magicians. A-and I-I was w-wrong. T-to question. Ch-church teaching. On this.”

Father Pierre’s expression softened instantly. “Because of Cora?”

He nodded dumbly.

Gaston glared. “You said these things publicly?

He nodded again.

“Before our Assembly, I’m afraid,” the Magician put in, his voice vaguely sad. “The boy was upset. He acted rashly, and said things he quickly came to regret. Returning to the church, he begged for absolution, vowing to do any penance we require. Naturally, Guildmaster Lares – you may choose to forgive and restore, or cut him off. That is out of our hands, but we’d urge you to consider forgiving your son.”

Edan nodded, staring at his hands that had clenched into fists in his lap. “A-and the same to F-Father Pierre.”

The Magician gave him a nod. “Of course,” he grimaced again. “Of course – I must warn you, Father Pierre – that our First Father does have grave concerns about how you’re teaching the Magician Cora. I’ve not come purely on a journey of penance, but also to call your church to change in this.” He pulled the letter from an inner pocket. It carried the seal of the Church of Cresley. “Our First Father signed this himself. I planned to visit your church, but I could entrust this to you here.”

Father Pierre coughed. “I’m sorry – I think – you should come to the church as you planned. And –” He flushed. “Don’t – don’t mention that we met. Here.”

The Magician’s eyebrows came together. “I’m not sure I understand you, Father.”

Gaston snorted. “What my distinguished friend is saying is, he doesn't want his First Father to hear about our private dealings.” He grinned at the Magician he’d introduced as Dougray. “It’s fortunate for him that our First Father isn’t a Nobleman.”

Father Pierre tossed back the rest of his wine, glaring. “And you said your damn son would be here! Where is he, Lares?”

Edan shifted, feeling the tension in the room, but the Magician beside him was politely studying his wine glass.

Pierre turned, the words coming out in a quick rush. “Armand – where is Flavien? Speak honestly.”

Gaston pushed to his feet. “How dare –?”

The Magician’s voice from the corner was cold and flat. “I don’t know. He slipped out sometime last night and hasn’t returned.”

The Regicide coughed. “Your glasses are empty – sir. Father. Allow me.”

Gaston glared, his face as red as Edan’s must be. “Please,” he growled.

“And then – I believe – Edan and I should be going. We still must visit the church.”

Father Pierre shifted uncomfortably. “Yes – right. Just – this is a delicate – situation. You see. You churchmen of Cresley – you just don’t have the – the political intricacies we have here in Vespas. Just – it would be better for everyone if you never mention this.”

The Magician nodded, smiling, and served another round of drinks. “Of course. I swear on my priestly oaths that I won’t mention seeing you here this morning.”

Father Pierre smiled. “Thank you, Father Theo. Edan? I’d love to see you – come by my office, will you son?”

Edan nodded to his toes.

The Magician rose. “Then we will take our leave of you both. Farewell Guildmaster Lares – please consider forgiving your son.”

Gaston glowered up at them, then nodded. “I’ll think on it. Thank you for your visit, Father Theo.”

The Magician gave them a smile. “Saints bless all in this house.” Then, a hand on Edan’s arm, he drew him from the room.

The servant met them on the landing and escorted them to the front door.

Outside on the street, the Magician took off at a rapid walk away from the house. When they were out of sight, then, he ducked into an alley and began to strip off his priestly vestments, muttering in a rush, almost to himself. “ Damn Flavien – he was supposed to be there, too – Armand will still be under liegeoath when the poison takes effect – Dougray will be fine, I think –”

Edan stared. Some part of his mind was telling Edan that the Magician expected him to follow and remove his signs of his priesthood, but –

Poison?

Where? How? Was Gaston – was his father – right now – dying?

He’s not my father. 

His throat tightened anyway.

The Magician continued to talk. “ – damn it – wake up! You can’t walk in there with those on and not draw attention.”

“Huh?”

The Magician hissed with impatience. “I know where Flavien is – he only goes one place when he gives Armand the slip. Damn that man – to choose this morning to go.” 

“B-but – poison? You – m-my father –?”

The Magician wadded his vestments into a bundle and then, with a quick glow of light, they vanished. “Yes – keep up, damn it – he should be well on his way toward dead, and if he’s got a bit of a wit left, he’ll know it’s us and send Armand on our tail.” He grinned nastily. “Or send him straight to attack the church.” 

“How?”

“Do. As. I. Say. Now.”

Edan nodded, and fumbled with his outfit. His hands were shaking. Somehow he got it all off, and the Magician vanished it all as well. Then, hailing a coach, he rattled off an address, and they were off.

Edan stared at the plush seat across from him, careful to not look at the Magician. 

He felt like he was moving through a thick fog. The kind that obscured the senses and left you – especially a Nobleman – lost, disoriented, and afraid.

He’d just met – and then helped murder – his father. With the same man who’d just murdered Father – 

The fog wasn’t thick enough to numb the pain there. Not yet. Maybe not ever.

So this is how it feels to be a murderer .

It didn’t feel like – anything. 

Saints – was this all a horrible illusion? Or a dream? Maybe – maybe he’d wake up and Father Theo – 

No, he couldn't do that to himself. This was real. There was no convincing himself of anything else.

The coach stopped, and the Magician jumped out. Edan followed more carefully into a world of noise and smells and jostling bodies. This was far from the wealth of Gaston’s neighborhood.

The Magician pulled him toward a door. A drunk slumped against the step. “Listen carefully – with luck, he’ll be passed out in some corner. With less luck, he’ll still be awake and playing at cards. If I can use poison, I will. But this could go sideways quickly. I may have to use magic. Tell me to kill Flavien Lares at a time that I choose.”

Edan nearly tripped. “K-kill?”

The Magician spun around, snarling. “Do as I say, damn it!

Edan stuttered out the words, and the Magician lead the way, inside.

The air was thick with tobacco smoke and the fumes of alcohol, as men hunched around card tables, their eyes red with drink and sleeplessness. 

The Magician stopped at the door, scanning the room. He peered into the corners, his eyes jumping from table to table. 

He hissed in frustration. “He’s not here –  Gale bloody damn it –” Grabbing Edan’s arm, he drug him along as he wove his way to the bar at the back of the room.

A red-faced man was pulling a mug of beer when he looked up and saw them. His face split into a wide grin. “And what would you gentlemen be drinking, then?”

The Magician leaned against the bar, and answered in a low tone. “We’re here to meet Flavien Lares – he said to come here – but we don’t see him. I’m afraid we’ve missed him.”

The man laughed. “Oh –  Saints! He won’t be out here   – didn’t he explain –? Oh – never mind –” He waved a pudgy hand at a door. “You can wait in the kitchen an’ I’ll send Kat to let him know you’re here.”

The Magician smiled, thanked the man, and – his grip still on Edan’s arm – pulled him through the doorway.

Compared to the noisy chaos of the public room, the kitchen was peaceful. Currently empty of human inhabitants, a pot of stew bubbled above a low fire, and a row of thick loaves were rising on a sideboard.

Edan let out the breath he’d been holding, and the Magician let him go. 

The Magician glanced around the room. “We’ll be alone – I’ll do this quick and dirty. We don’t have time for a plan.” He glanced back at Edan and grimaced. “I don’t think I’ll need it, but – in case he’s got the chance to speak – I need to make sure he can’t gain control over me. Tell me to defy any Obligation from Flavien Lares that interferes with my ability to kill him.”

Edan gaped. In his mind, he saw Cora drop to the floor, gripping her head. “But –”

“Damn it – I know what I’m doing – just give it to me.”

Edan managed to get that Obligation out as well. 

Then, they stood there, waiting.

Kill Flavien Lares.

Edan would be more than party to murder – he’d be the driving power behind it.

His stomach twisted violently.

This – this Flavien. That man would be his – his brother. Well, half-brother.

Parricide. Fratricide. 

This is who I am now.

A man who looked achingly like Gaston entered the kitchen from another door. “Hello? I’m sorry – do I know you?”

The Magician started forward, smiling. He raised a glowing hand, and the floorboards shifted, sending Flavien sprawling. He fell with a cry and a gasp onto his face.

A knife was in the Magician’s hand as he took two long steps forward at nearly the same moment.

A small voice screamed. “No – stop!”

Edan spun around to see a sticky little face appear at the door. The boy skidded to a halt, wide eyes on the Magician, and a woman – a girl? – caught him. She froze at the sight of the Magician as well.

What –?

The Magician, too, glanced his way, and nearly tripped. He froze, glancing between the man on the floor and the child, now squirming in the woman’s arms. 

A look of horror filled the Magician's eyes, then, it shifted to cold determination. He turned, and started forward again.

But his hesitation had given Flavien the chance he’d needed to shout a command to not move – for an hour.

A shudder seemed to pass through the Magician’s body, and his hand shook, but he started forward again. 

Flavien struggled, trying to push to his feet, eyes now wide with fear. “Stop –  damn you – don’t move!”

The Magician raised a hand, and the floor seemed to grab the Nobleman, dragging Flavien to his knees. Something between a grin and a snarl filled the Magician’s face.

And finally – Edan’s mind caught up to his eyes and ears. His own voice seemed to reach him from far away. “Please – can we talk this out? Please, can we not kill a man in front of his own child?”

His child . The Obligations that controlled Armand. Edan turned cold. The boy would inherit them the moment the Regicide’s knife ended Flavian’s life.

But the Magician stopped. His voice was shaking and strained. “Lares – rescind all Obligations and I’ll talk.”

Flavien choked out the words, and the Magician’s shoulders slumped. He rolled them back, and flexed his hands. “Right – understand this – if you give me any Obligation – I won’t stop again – I will kill you.”

Flavien nodded, shooting a warning glance at the woman. She placed her hand over the child’s mouth, pressing him against herself. Now they stood there together, wide-eyed and silent.

“Okay,” Flavien said, his voice soft and shaking. “Okay – w-what do you want from me?”

The Magician grinned sardonically as several beads of sweat rolled down the side of his face. “I’m the Regicide. Perhaps you’ve heard of me. I just killed your father – and I’m here to kill you too.”

Edan stepped forward, hardly thinking about what he was saying. “N-no – you – Armand. You said – you’re here to free Armand.”

Flavien blanched. “If you want – Armand – I swear – I’ll release my father’s Magician –” He glanced at the frightened woman and child. “Just –” he choked, his face draining of the color left. “My – my son. Are you going to – ?” He swallowed. “What can I do? To convince you – to – to – not –? Please – not my son .

The Magician – the Regicide – clenched his hands into fists. He shot the woman and boy a look. “You kept them secret.”

Flavien nodded. “Yes,” he whispered. “You think my father would approve –?” he laughed bitterly. “So that’s not a concern anymore. You say – he’s – he’s really dead?” There was pain in his voice, and he looked up, into Edan’s eyes. “Why?” 

Edan’s stomach lurched painfully. He was going to throw up.

And he knew one burning truth. This was wrong. 

Cora, Armand, Magicians and Nobles all aside, this was wrong.

The Regicide wasn’t here to rescue Armand. He was here to kill and destroy. 

 “I rescind all Obligations.” Edan blurted out the words as he spun and ran from the kitchen. Out through the public room – dodging tables and confused faces – and out into the street.

The Magician caught up with him in the alley. A hand on his shoulder that slammed him face-first into the brick wall. His words hissed through clenched teeth. “You –!”

Edan didn’t try to fight him. “Did you know – about the child?”

The Magician stepped away, releasing him. “No. But it makes no difference.” His voice sounded hollow now.

“He’s a child!”

“So was Armand when they kidnapped him. The boy’s a casualty of war. A necessary evil.” 

Edan drew himself up. 

It was like that moment in the Assembly when he’d denounced his church. He’d been vibrating with his own sense of rightness. He’d been so sure of himself. Then he’d fallen into the abyss. Without Father Theo.  

There was a strange calmness here. 

“I’m here to kill you.”

The Regicide meant to kill Edan too, once he outlived his usefulness. 

“No.”

The Magician’s eyes narrowed.

“I-I didn’t mean that as an Obligation,” he gasped, the words coming out in a jumble. “I mean – I won’t. I won’t stop you with my words, but also I won’t help you. I don’t know what’s right anymore. But I know this isn’t it. If that means my death right now at your hands, go ahead. All I can do is hope to the Gale or the Saints or daemons or any power in this Dusk – if there be such – that is good and just, that you will have the same compassion for Cora that you have for Armand.”

The Magician’s hand twitched, and he glared. Then, he looked away, shoulders slumping. “To free Cora, I’ll have to kill that bitch holding her.” His voice was cold and bitter.

Edan winced. “I-I know. A-and I’m – I’m prepared to help you. But – just – her. No others.”

“Fine,” the Magician muttered.

“What?”

“Let’s go get your friend.”

Edan gaped after him, then sprinted to catch up.

Cora. They were going to rescue Cora.

And then?

That was up to the Regicide. Until then, he was going to do what was right. 

 

~ ~ ~

 

They stopped at the inn to wash up. The Magician made their vestments reappear, and he applied new makeup. 

Edan sat down at the table. “R-Regicide?”

The Magician turned, an eyebrow raised.

“I-I need to know. Your plan. I-I need to know everything. About rescuing – Cora.”

“I see.”

“I’d like to know – are you – prepared – t-to tell me?”

The Magician slid into the other chair, smirking. “No. I’m not.” He raised a hand, forestalling Edan’s next question. “To be blunt, I don’t know. Lillian wasn’t a part of my plan. I don’t know her habits. Her office. I’m walking into this blind. So –” he grimaced. “I don’t think we need much of a plan, frankly. If you can get her alone with the two of us, I can kill her. It won’t be clean, but it’ll be effective.”

“Must – must we – k-kill her?”

The Magician snorted. “Feel free to share your idea of how you propose to convince her to release your friend from all Obligations.”

Edan looked away, remembering that horrible moment. When she refused to allow Cora her own mind.

“No,” he whispered.

“So death it is.”

He didn’t have to sound so satisfied about it.

Edan nodded miserably. Death it is.

“I’ll need two basic Obligations to pull this off – to protect your friend, and to kill Lillian.”

Edan nodded, thinking. “Will you allow me to place a limit on those, that they can only be followed by not killing anyone other than Mother Liliane?”

The Magician scowled. “If I said no, you’ll pull out.”

Edan nodded again.

Damn it – fine. Give them to me.”

“Protect Cora – and yourself – from all harm. Kill Mother Liliane. But you must not intentionally cause the death of anyone other than Mother Liliane as you follow these Obligations.” He grimaced. “A-and – I personally am excluded from ‘anyone.’”

The Magician raised an eyebrow. “Another death command, if I choose.”

“Y-your original plan. I’m one of your targets, aren't I?”

The Magician laughed humorlessly. “I’d hear how you worked that out.”

Edan took a deep breath, his eyes still on his hands. “The way you appeared so quickly in Cresley. B-but your – m-my family. Is here. In Vespas. Y-you followed me back to Cresley.”

“Indeed,” he muttered.

 

They pushed through the midday crowds together, but neither man spoke. In their priestly vestments, at least people sometimes avoided jostling them.

So there it was – Edan had said it. And the Magician had confirmed it. He should feel more afraid, really. Right now, he just felt – free? 

He felt less guilty. About Father Theo. That hadn’t been his fault. Not really. Saints – the Magician might have just killed them all and taken the letter, if he hadn’t spoken to Edan first.

He watched his long, narrow frame slide through the crowds.

He’d carelessly murdered Father Theo and Brother Francis. And – and Gaston Lares. And Father Pierre. He’d been pushing through a conflict to kill Flavien. Edan had read enough to guess on what that might have felt like. 

But – but he’d hesitated with the boy. 

You’re not the villain you think you are, Regicide.

His heart lurched with an emotion he couldn't quite name. It wasn’t the numb horror that had filled his soul since – since Cora. And Father Theo.

What have Noblemen done to you?

That was a wrong Edan would never be able to right – not alone. But, at least he could help Cora, even – even if that meant another death.

Just before the gate to the church grounds, the Magician pulled him to the side. “Be prepared for anything. I’ll try and find a time to slip poison into her food or drink,” he showed Edan a tiny pouch he hid in the cuff of his sleeve. “But there’s a good chance that will fail.”

Edan winced. This was it. Mother Liliane must die if Cora was to be freed. 

He took a deep breath of the hot air, filled with the scents of the city – and nodded.

 

In the role of Father Theo, the Magician presented the letter to the keeper of the gate. Then, he requested to see Mother Liliane. So his ward could apologize for his behavior when he was here last.

Another acolyte led them to her office. 

It was like nothing had changed. 

Somehow, Edan’s stomach felt normal. His hands weren’t shaking.

He’d made peace with his own heart. With himself. With his own impending death. With the price of Cora’s freedom.

So much of this had always been out of his hands. 

His responsibility was to his friend who he’d wronged. One wrong small enough in this hurting, bleeding Dusk, that he could right.

He glanced up at the white towers of the church buildings overhead. He’d been awed by this, once. 

To stand by his very priestly vows, he had to leave this system. Built by Noblemen, to insulate Noblemen from any objections to their power –  Gale – did they even listen to the daemons they claimed to revere?

It was just the Gale, really. The power behind their power – the one who maintained this inherently unjust system. A system that put them at the top, as they saw it. 

He glanced at his companion.

He’s trying to bring it down – the whole system.  

Take a step out of a cycle, and the cycle breaks. But – such a cost. That wasn’t – that couldn’t be right either. 

There has to be a third way.

Mother Liliane welcomed them into her office, but she frowned when she recognized Edan. The Magician introduced himself as Father Theo, and explained. “While officially we protest your methods, Mother, we also recognize that our brother did not do so in a way that respected your office or church teachings. He is serving penance, and we have insisted that he apologize to each person he’s offended.”

Edan dropped his eyes to her desk top. 

Those tongs sat there – where they had last time.

His hands tightened into fists, and he met her warm gaze. His voice didn’t stutter. “Yes, Mother.”

Sometimes, there is no third way. Sometimes, you have to make a clear-eyed choice and move forward. 

She started to get tea, and the Magician offered to help. 

“Oh no – you sit down Father, and let me serve you. You too, son. We’ll talk once I get tea.”

The Magician’s hands twitched, but he complied, smiling. “Thank you.”

Finally, she sat, tea cup in her hands, and gave Edan a piercing look. “Go ahead, young man. What do you have to say?

Edan spoke his apology.  She nodded, her lips pressed into a thin line. When he ended, she smiled. “I forgive you – and I do not hold a grudge against your church, either.” She shot the Magician a pointed glance. 

The Magician nodded. “As we’d hoped. Now – hopefully it's not an imposition, but we’d like to speak briefly with the Magician Cora.”

She smiled. “Oh – yes. This will be a good chance for both young people to practice how to behave properly. I’ll ask Pat to go fetch her.”

She pulled her rope, a boy appeared, and she told him to bring Cora. 

That done, she turned her attention back to her guests. “So – do tell me all the news from Cresley – how is the First Father there?”

The Magician gave her another one of his saintly smiles. “Oh, the man is very well –” he dropped his voice. “Whatever you’ve heard – he’s actually quite a good man. Desperate to make sure the church is filling its proper role – is serving people. I know some of the Fathers are annoyed by it, but I find it refreshing.” He launched into a story that Edan was pretty sure was made up on the spot. She leaned forward, listening intently, her eyes landing more and more on his face and hands. He finished his cup and reached for the teapot. She moved to protest, but he shook his head. “Oh, no. It’s my turn to serve you, Mother. You sit. It will be my very great pleasure.”

She blushed, and, grinning, handed him her cup. Dimples had formed in her red cheeks.

“I see you take milk and sugar.”

“Oh yes – but just a splash and one lump.”

The Magician prepared her cup, and placed it in front of her.

“Oh – thank you Father.”

The Magician was smiling.

She raised it to her lips, and drank. “Do you know – I think you put an extra sugar in here.”

He flashed her a grin. “Oh dear. I must have been distracted by your sweet smile.”

She blushed furiously. Then shooting Edan a guilty look, she fought to straighten her face.

A knock sounded on the door, and, clearing her throat, she commanded Cora to enter.

Edan’s hands tightened around his own cup, and his stomach lurched.

Through a thin smile that didn’t touch the dark circles under her eyes, Cora asked in a hollow voice what Mother Liliane required of her.

Edan dropped his own eyes to his toes. How could he have been so blind to the danger he and his kind posed to her – all those cycles ago?

“Father Theo and Brother Edan would like to speak with you, dear heart.” She turned to the Regicide. “You are totally welcome to use my office – I’ll just leave you two here. Cora –” she turned back to the woman. “You must not do anything you know is forbidden, or go anywhere that is forbidden to you in their company. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Mother.”

Mother Liliane shot the Regicide another glowing smile, finished her tea, and pushed to her feet. “Then I’ll leave you –” she caught the corner of her desk. “Oh dear. Perhaps I really should lie down for a minute –” The Regicide stepped to her and took her hand. “Allow me, Mother, to assist you.”

A spasm of pain crossed her face, but her eyes glowed. “Oh – oh yes! Father. Do give me a hand.”

He nodded to Edan, opened the door, and half-carried her from the room. Cora’s eyes followed them. Mother Liliane waved to her. “I’m – I’m fine dear. You – you stay there.”

The Regicide pulled the door shut behind them, and the last Edan saw of him was a wolfish grin.

Cora was standing in the center of the room, hugging herself, and staring at the wall behind Mother Liliane desk.

Edan opened his mouth, searching for words to say – watching for some hint that her Obligations had lifted.

“C-Cora – I –” He stared at his hands. “I know – ”

She sucked in a breath, the air whistling through her teeth. 

Edan set his cup down, and pushed to his feet. “Cora –?”

She spun around, her eyes narrow. “What have you done?”

“A-are – are you – the Obligations –?”

“They’re gone.”

He sagged against the edge of the desk that had belonged to Mother Liliane. “A-all of them?”

“What did you do?”

He raised his chin. “I did what I had to. This –” he waved his hand around the office. “I did this to you. It was my responsibility to fix this.”

The door swung open again, and the Magician slipped in. Satisfaction on his face. “Cora, I need to know whether you’ve been freed from all Obligations.”

She nodded, eyes wide. 

“Right – then, we need to get you out of here before someone finds her body.”

She stared at him. “Who are you?”

He grinned and raised a hand glowing with his golden light. “Some Noblemen call me the Regicide.”

A knock sounded on the door, and all three spun around. Cora’s face seemed to lose what little color it had.

Edan moved instinctively between her and the door. She stepped away.

The door opened to reveal little Pat. He frowned at them. “Where’s Mother Liliane?”

“Laying down in her room,” the Regicide said.

Then the child was shoved aside. “Get out of here, kid,” said a young man. “Run.”

Armand.

He was glowing with an orange light. 

The wave of magic slammed into Edan, knocking all the air from his lungs and slamming him against the far wall. His vision flashed, and he felt himself collapsing to the floor in a heap. 

His ears rang.

Somehow, he knew that the Regicide had grabbed Cora and sprinted for the door, glowing with his own golden light.

For a heartbeat, he looked back, and his eyes met Edan’s. A fraction of indecision was there, and Edan managed a crooked smile.

Go, he thought. Take Cora and go before any Noblemen arrive.

Armand raised his hands again.

“No!”

It was Cora’s voice. “Let me go –  damn it !”

Armand hesitated, and Cora appeared between them. 

She – she doesn’t have any Obligations to protect her –

He – he just – he needed to open his mouth – and – and speak –

The Regicide appeared –

Edan had Obligated him to protect Cora. He’d make sure she was safe –

A wave of gold slammed Armand back as the Regicide grabbed Edan’s arm, pulling him upright. Edan screamed from the sudden pain in his ribs. “Edan – damn it – tell him to stay in this room for the count of one hundred –!”

Edan somehow gasped out the words as another wave of the Regicide’s light knocked Armand back.

As the Regicide dragged both Edan and Cora from the room, he shouted over his shoulder. “I’m sorry Armand – tell Flavian if he doesn’t release you, I’ll be back – and I’ll kill both him and his kid.”

There was no quiet escape this time. The sound had attracted eyes, and too many had seen Father Theo’s magic.

Conjuring another wave of light, the Regicide slammed through the gathered crowd, and they sprinted for the door.

Edan managed to get a few more words out, rescinding his prohibition against killing. 

“Thank you,” The Magician muttered, his breath coming in gasps from running and half carrying Edan.

They’d reached the courtyard when Armand caught up. Shouts and screams seemed to fill the air, but none so far had affected the Magicians.

They were too far from the gate –

A Nobleman would catch them –

“Regicide – open a way through that wall!” Edan pointed, the words coming out in a gasp of pain.

The Magician, glowing with light, shot him a grin, and a door appeared. They sprinted for it.

“Close it behind us.”

The Magician complied, and they dashed down an alley. 

Around a corner. Then another corner.

They paused for a minute to strip off their vestments, then stepped out into the mass of people on the street.

Edan’s ribs were fire and agony. His head pounded, and something was wrong with his eyes –

Cora was free.

Just – get – to – somewhere – safe –

He stumbled, and Cora caught his arm. 

“Thank you,” he gasped. She looked away.

 

~ ~ ~

 

In their room at the inn, Edan dropped to the bed and felt his consciousness slide away.

He smiled – or tried to.

Go ahead, he thought at the Regicide. Cora’s safe.

Saints – there were much worse ways to die, than while unconscious –

 

His eyes hurt.

His everything hurt, actually.

I’m not – dead?

The room was dark, lit by a flickering candle. 

Tobacco smoke.

The dark hour.

The Regicide sat at the table with a book, a cigarette in his hand.

Cora slept in the other bed.

Edan tried to sit up, then fell back with a gasp of blazing pain.

The Magician put down his book, and walked over.

Edan looked up into his eyes. “I’m still alive,” he whispered.

The man sat down on the edge of the bed and put the cigarette to his mouth. He drew in a breath, waited, then blew out a trail of smoke.

Finally, he answered the unspoken question. “Cora insisted. I mean – she was trying to defend you from Armand. I believe her words were ‘if anyone kills him, it’s gonna be me.’” He grinned, studying the cigarette in his hand. “So I’m not sure I did you a favor, kid.”

“I –”

“But,” the Magician interrupted him, his voice steely. “If I ever hear you’ve broken your damn vows – specifically about chastity and fathered another one of your bloody kind – I’ll hunt you down and kill you. Likewise, if you ever even think about wanting more than friendship with that woman.”

Edan flushed. “I – I haven’t renounced my vows – and she’s my friend.

“So you said.”

“Sir?”

The Magician raised his cigarette. Edan took that as an opening.

“Please – I hope – that child. Flavian’s child –?” 

The Magician smirked, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes.

“I rescind all Obligations of mine. I ask only as one man to another – I hope, that if you come to it, that you will – at least – spare the child.” Edan grimaced. “I think – I think you’re a better man than you think you are.”

The Magician blew out more smoke. “Prepare to be disappointed. I left you alive for Cora – you ruined her life – so now you’d better make damn sure this never happens to her again.”

“I will. A-and – ” Edan fumbled for the words he was trying to say. “I’ll pray – to Gale knows what or who – that someday – w-what – whatever you’re looking for – that you find it. That you find something to live for b-beyond – death. That you find peace.”

The Magician pushed to his feet, laughing softly, but it rang hollow in Edan’s ears. “Good luck with that, kid.” 

“And – thank you,” Edan whispered. 

The Magician didn’t respond.

Edan let himself slide back to sleep, and when he next awoke, the Regicide was gone.

 

Cora didn’t speak to him as they packed up what they could, and slipped out into the crowds. Right now, she probably needed his silence more than his fumbling apologies. 

This was Edan’s new life. His old one had died.

He’d protect Cora – and maybe, earn her trust again, one day.

And he’d find – somewhere – within or beyond the Dusk – something that was still right and true and good. He was going to use all he had – natural philosophy and books and writings to search that out.

Or die trying. 

Maybe, Cora would be willing to help him, one day, as well.